Grace winced as she fumbled through the recesses of her medicine cabinet, searching for anything that might ease the gnawing ache in her battered limbs. Her shoulders were throbbing with the after-effects of supporting her limp frame, her brain seemed to be using a pickaxe to claw its way through the haze of chloroform, and it felt like someone was lighting a match against her shoulder blades every time her nightshirt brushed against her back. Waking up with Ham's leaden arm slung around her midriff hadn't exactly helped, and she was just grateful that her resounding curse hadn't awoken him.
"Know anyone with a tranquilliser dart, Gussy?" she asked her forlorn-looking Bulldog, leaning down to pet him with an agonised groan, "Because there's no way in hell these are gonna cut it."
Grace tossed aside the vial of Paracetamol, and Gus barked his sympathies, looking bewildered when Grace nudged him reprovingly with her foot. "You need to shut up, man. I can't deal with Ham's shit before I'm properly medicated, OK?"
Gus obligingly sank to the floor and, grunting audibly as she was forced to stand on her tiptoes and stretch to her full capacity, Grace finally recovered a loose packet of Tramadol. Squinting at the expiration date on the foil enclosure, she shrugged nonchalantly when her suspicions were confirmed.
"What do you think, Gussy? How many of these would it take to put me out of my misery for good?" she said wryly, searching for something to wash the pills down with.
"Put the whiskey down, Grace."
"Jesus, Rhetta!" Grace exclaimed, visibly jumping when her rumpled-looking friend emerged from the guest bedroom, "My nerves are already shot to pieces, I could do without the ninja routine. What the hell are you doing here, anyway?"
"Back from the brink of death, and that's the first thing you say to me?" Rhetta demanded, regarding her friend with a tearful smile. "I came this close to losing you! I can't just go home to Ronnie and the kids and get a good night's sleep, OK?" She crossed her arms, her expression becoming sullen, "Despite what Ham might think."
"Why? He get a little territorial?" Grace asked, her tone laced with amusement.
"He started a pissing contest over who got to stay with you, and then he practically frogmarched me out of the door! This coming from the guy whose idea of making sure you're OK probably involves screwing you into a stupor."
Rhetta shot her friend a pointed look, and then crossed the room, plucking the Tramadol out of her hands. "They already gave you a shot of morphine at the hospital, Grace. You've been drugged up to the eyeballs enough for one day."
"Come on, man, just give me the freakin' pills." Seeing her friend's uncertain expression, Grace regarded her solemnly, "Rhetta, I feel worse than Snapper after that Land Cruiser pitched him sixty feet across the I-240 - only I lived to tell the tale."
"Which is why I'm not about to let you die of an overdose," Rhetta countered, although one look at her friend's haggard appearance was enough to convince her to begrudgingly hand over the analgesics. "Just take one. And give me that," she admonished, snatching up the half-empty whiskey bottle and hastily replacing it with a glass of water.
"Well shit, Rhetta, you're no fun. Maybe I should go wake up my other babysitter," Grace teased, her eyes regaining a modicum of their usual sparkle.
"You need to rest - and trust me, Ham could use the downtime, too. He's been running around like a headless chicken all day, and we're not talking your standard freaking out here; we're talking lock-him-in-an-Aviary meltdown mode."
Grace snorted, her lips quirking at the visual. "Ham was dead to the world before he even hit the pillow, man. I'm the one who can't sleep."
Grace seemed to visibly slump in the wake of her admission, and Rhetta reached for her hand, gently enveloping it in her own. Offering her a small smile, Grace turned her palm upwards, twining their fingers, and Rhetta followed her anguished gaze, eyeing the conspicuous void on her friend's cluttered desk.
"They took Charlie's chessboard into evidence," she informed her quietly, and Grace ducked her head, nodding sadly.
Fighting for composure, she eventually wrenched her eyes away from the floor and sought out Rhetta's compassionate gaze, wordlessly turning to bury her head in the crook of her friend's shoulder. Rhetta drew her into a feather-light embrace, painfully aware of how fragile her friend was right now, and Grace closed her eyes, clinging to the fleeting sense of contentment that washed over her.
"You should've told me he was back in town," Rhetta said softly, smoothing back her friend's dishevelled hair. Her eyes welled with tears when she saw the vivid bruise forming above Grace's temple, and she delicately traced its outline, skimming the blonde's cheek in a tender caress.
"I figured you would've stayed in touch with him if you wanted to."
"Oh, come on, Grace, Charlie never wanted me around. He didn't like me infringing on his time with you."
"Only because you were such a party pooper," Grace remarked wryly, pulling back to poke her friend lightly in the ribs, "He tried to make me choose once, you know? So I smacked him upside the head and told him he didn't have a hope in hell."
Rhetta looked genuinely touched. "Really?"
"He looked crushed, man."
"You were always there for him," Rhetta reassured her, "Always. Even when the others kids ribbed you for it, you never stopped looking out for him."
"Yeah," Grace murmured, her tone hoarse with repressed emotion, "And now he's lying on a slab, peppered with half a dozen bullet holes, because I didn't open my damn mouth when he stopped taking his meds."
Rhetta shook her head sadly. "I know he was sick, and I know he didn't deserve to die, but I just… I can't see him as my friend anymore. Not after what he put you through." Seeing that Grace was about to protest, she gently clasped her arm. "He was going to throw you off the roof, and we're not talking my farm here, we're talking an eight-storey building. And that's if he didn't shoot you first."
"Shit, Rhetta, he didn't know what he was doing!" Grace choked out angrily, "It wasn't his fault, OK? I thought I could talk him out of it, but he was just… he was too far-gone."
Grace's eyes darted back and forth as she agonised over the events of that afternoon, "I should've fought him; laid him out until the rest of the guys showed up. If he hadn't been holding my gun when Ham kicked the door down…"
Rhetta gaped at her friend incredulously, "He hit you over the head, drugged you, strung you up and branded you like cattle, Grace. What more were you supposed to do?"
Grace regarded her friend with a hollow expression, "I could've made it out of there. I mean, he untied me, the opportunity was there, but I just – I couldn't leave him like that, Rhetta. Not when I knew he was gonna hurl his delusional ass off that building."
"Oh, Grace…" Rhetta's eyes were brimming with empathy as she grasped her friend's shoulders, guiding her towards the couch. She sat down, fluffing up the well-worn cushions, and then watched with concern as the blonde gingerly sank down besides her, curling against her side with a barely-concealed grimace.
"You want me to work out some of those kinks before rigor mortis sets in?" Rhetta offered with a sympathetic smile.
"I think it already has."
"I won't touch your back," the brunette hastened to reassure her, tapping Grace's thigh and motioning for her to turn around.
"You make it any worse, and I'll kick your ass," Grace warned, groaning when her friend began softly kneading the nape of her neck, her fingers moving in concentric circles; a rhythmic motion that was surprisingly soothing.
"OK?" Rhetta asked tentatively, and Grace heaved a weary sigh.
"Yeah, it feels great, man. Don't stop." She closed her eyes, allowing her head to loll to the side as Rhetta continued to expertly coax her aching muscles into acquiescence.
"Have you seen Earl, since… you know?" Rhetta ventured after a moment's respite, her heart sinking when Grace's back noticeably stiffened.
"Yeah, he made some lame-ass excuse about not being able to find me," Grace deplored, trying to sound nonchalant and failing miserably, "I guess he takes after his boss. Never there when you need him."
"I wouldn't be so sure. Ham said he wouldn't have found Charlie's car – or you - without a little divine intervention."
"Bullshit. Ham walked around brick town for four hours before he found that damn car."
Grace leant forward, reaching out to retrieve her cigarettes from the coffee table, and Rhetta's brow furrowed with concern when she realised that her friend's hands were trembling violently. She was forced to stop her ministrations shortly thereafter, when Grace turned to face her, regarding her intently.
"You keep telling me that God has big plans for me, Rhetta, but you wanna know what I think? I think the bastard's turning me into a poster child for his 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' campaign," Grace declared, in a tone that was tinged with hysteria. "I mean, maybe he just has this huge fucking vendetta against me, you know?" she added, lighting her cigarette and taking a lengthy drag, "Sister Laura Marie always said he'd 'punish me for my transgressions' and now he's smiting my sorry ass left, right and centre."
"So you're going to lose faith in God - in Earl - just because Charlie didn't take his meds this morning?"
"Jesus Christ, Rhetta, Charlie thought that he had been sent to save me, OK?" Grace yelled, her eyes flitting towards her bedroom door anxiously, "He kept talking about a Guardian Angel. For all I know he had an Earl of his own."
She glanced towards the ceiling, narrowing her eyes resentfully, "I mean, who knows, maybe that's what drove him bat-shit crazy in the first place, because I'm starting to understand the impulse here, you know? And why is everyone so concerned with saving my guts anyway? Am I really that fucked up?"
Grace regarded her friend searchingly, her expression torn between despair and frustration, but when Rhetta moved to bridge the gap between them, she pulled away, reaching for the ashtray on the arm of her couch. Rhetta heard a barely audible sniff, and she gently removed the cigarette from Grace's hand, stubbing it out with a sorrowful expression.
"I know it's hard, Grace. You've been through so much you'd have to be crazy not to question God's role in your life. Murphy gave you enough battle scars to last a lifetime before you even hit puberty, and then you had to deal with Mary Frances' death – and I know you still blame yourself for that, even though it was completely beyond your control."
Grace stared straight ahead, resolutely avoiding her gaze, and Rhetta laid a hand on her bare knee, feeling the tension coursing through her rigid physique.
"You always blame yourself, Grace. I mean, some sick bastard stabs you while you're sleeping and you think it's your fault for taking him home in the first place! You give Geepaw one last taste of freedom, and then beat yourself up for it afterwards – but you didn't know he was going to get hurt; you just wanted to make him happy."
Grace tried to contain the effect that Rhetta's words were having on her, but failed miserably, and when she turned away, curling into the corner of the couch and covering her face with her hands, Rhetta pulled her close, fighting back tears of her own.
"Then there was your Dad, Cathy, Charlie… most people in your position wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning – Ross and Amy, they couldn't handle the pain, it was too much for them to bear, but you…" Rhetta tilted her friend's face upwards, drying her tears with a tremulous smile, "You get up, you kick ass, you have fun, and you light up every room that you walk into, Grace. You got Henry through losing Molly, Ham through losing Rafe, me through losing the farm – you almost died trying to save Charlie's life today. So how can you walk around thinking that you're a bad person?" Rhetta demanded, gently clasping her friend's shoulders.
"I don't know," Grace said self-deprecatingly, her words strangled with tears, "Maybe because I screwed Henry to make him feel better and then felt sick to my stomach afterwards? Or, you know, because I wrecked Ham's marriage before his honeymoon period was even over? Maybe because I hurt you so damn much when you lost out on that two grand because of me?"
"Grace, everyone makes mistakes, OK? Nobody expects you to be perfect."
Grace emitted a keening sound that was half-laugh, half-sob. "So, what are you saying, Rhetta? That I earned these damn wings?" She leapt to her feet, pulling at the fabric of her nightshirt, and for one terrifying moment, looked like she wanted to crawl out of her own skin.
"Grace…" Rhetta hastily stood up, capturing her friend's hands before she could start clawing at her back, "Calm down. It's OK," she reassured her softly.
"It's not OK!" Grace snapped, regarding her friend with tortured eyes, "I mean, shit Rhetta, I'm scarred for life here."
"Let me see?" Rhetta asked, her hands trembling slightly when Grace instinctively cowered away from her touch. "Just relax, I'm not going to hurt you," she murmured, easing up the loose fabric of her friend's nightshirt as far as she could without forcing Grace to raise her arms. She tentatively peeled back the protective gauze, and bit back a gasp when she saw the intricate design encompassing the entire span of Grace's slender back. She imagined what it would feel like to be branded with an eternal reminder of such a horrific ordeal; to have the memory of a friend's betrayal permanently etched onto your skin, and the thought made her stomach churn with nausea. The fact that that the tattoo embodied everything Grace had struggled so hard to accept made it seem all the more cruel, and Rhetta couldn't contain her tears as she gently ran the tips of her fingers over the angry red skin that stood out in stark relief against the bold design.
"Rhetta, come on, don't cry," Grace implored as Rhetta backed away from her, leaning against the kitchen counter and choking on a sob.
"I'm sorry… it's just… shit, Grace, that must've hurt like hell."
Grace regarded her wryly. "Well, yeah."
The "duh" was implicit, and Rhetta laughed through her tears, turning to face her friend with a tender expression. "It's just… when I think about losing you…"
"It's not gonna happen, man," Grace interjected, capturing her friend's hand and planting a kiss on her palm, "God's having way too much fun jerking me around."
She bowed her head, and Rhetta didn't miss the note of bitterness in her otherwise light-hearted tone.
"You should get some sleep," she advised quietly.
Grace heaved a ragged sigh, and then nodded wearily, lightly tugging on Rhetta's hand as she led her towards the guest bedroom. She barely glanced at her own room as they moved stealthily past the closed door but, feeling some resistance from Rhetta, she turned around to regard her friend quizzically. Her lips quirked in a knowing smile when she saw the brunette's conflicted expression, and given that Rhetta's eyes were trained on the room where Ham was sleeping, it wasn't hard to deduce what she was thinking.
"I'm glad you stayed," she said softly, and Rhetta's eyes widened slightly when Grace closed the distance between them to fleetingly brush her lips with her own, "I love you, man."
Rhetta felt her cheeks warming under Grace's attentive appraisal and, spurred on by a profound surge of affection and the crippling fear of imagining life without the woman who often made her feel like they were two halves of a whole, hesitantly returned the gesture. The contact was supposed to be ephemeral, a simple act of friendship, and Rhetta gasped against her friend's mouth when Grace pulled her close, turning the kiss into a tentative exploration. Her eyelids fluttered shut as she absorbed the heat of Grace's soft, but assertive lips pressing lightly against her own, and she was powerless to stop her from deepening the kiss. Her knees nearly buckled when Grace wound her fingers through her hair, softly caressing the nape of her neck, and Rhetta reached for her friend's slender hips, desperately trying to find an anchor as Grace captured her lips for a second time.
Rhetta's heart was pounding erratically, but even when the realisation of what she was doing finally hit home, it wasn't enough to obliterate the heady sensation of Grace's mouth moving deftly against hers. The intimacy should have seemed alien to her, but there was a sense of inviting familiarity amidst the thrill of discovery. She couldn't withhold a whimper when her friend's fingers grazed her pulse point and then lightly skimmed the length of her arm, but when Grace's tongue traversed her parted lips, the debilitating - and unprecedented - jolt of arousal finally caused her to balk.
She pulled away with a strangled gasp, and Grace froze, mortified when she saw the shell-shocked expression on her friend's face. "Shit, Rhetta, I'm sorry. I don't know what the hell I'm doing," she blurted out, her eyes roving over her friend's features with something akin to desperation.
Rhetta buried her face in her hands, trying to regain some semblance of composure and, drawing in a measured breath, she eventually mustered the courage to look her friend in the eye. Her heart broke when she saw Grace's agitated expression, and she mentally shook herself, folding her arms and willing her hands to stop shaking.
"It's OK," she reassured her, torn between reaching out to her friend and running in the opposite direction.
"It's not OK! I fucked up, man. I shouldn't have – "
"Grace, it's OK," Rhetta reiterated, heaving a ragged sigh, "Let's just go to bed."
When Grace didn't respond, Rhetta shot a surreptitious glance in her friend's direction. The uncharacteristic vulnerability she saw lurking in the blonde's troubled brown eyes was like punch to the stomach, and she instinctively laid a hand on her shoulder. "Do you want me to leave?" she asked softly.
Grace shook her head vehemently, biting her lip. "No," she whispered, her expression becoming twisted with self-loathing, "But if you wanna get the hell away from me, then I'll understand."
"That depends," Rhetta said wryly, desperately trying to make light of the situation, "Do you think you're gonna be able to control yourself?"
She regarded Grace intently, and their burgeoning grins gradually evolved into laughter.
"Well, I don't know, Rhetta. Now I know you've been holding out on me all these years…" Grace teased in a flirtatious tone, poking her friend lightly in the ribs as they made their way towards the guest bedroom, "I mean, for someone who's only kissed three guys in their entire lifetime – "
"What, as opposed to three thousand?" Rhetta interjected, eyeing her friend with feigned contempt.
"I'm just saying, you're… you know… pretty good for an amateur," Grace concluded, her eyes sparkling mischievously.
"Just because you're an injured woman doesn't mean to say I won't hit you," Rhetta warned, closing the door behind them. She pulled back the duvet and clambered under the covers, watching anxiously as Grace lowered herself onto the bed, barely concealing a wince.
"Lie on your side," Rhetta suggested, and Grace turned to face her, shifting until she found a position that was halfway comfortable.
Rhetta tried desperately hard to ignore her friend's proximity, and the jolt of awareness that raced through her spine when Grace captured her hands, playing with her fingers absent-mindedly. The blonde's ministrations became increasingly languorous, and Rhetta watched as her eyelids began to droop, relieved to see Grace finding some manner of peace in her repose. She waited until the cadence of her friend's breathing evened out before she gingerly shuffled closer, sending up a prayer for forgiveness as she tenderly brushed her lips against Grace's mouth and closed her eyes to savour the sensation. Swiping away her tears before they could cascade down her cheeks, she swallowed a sob and softly relayed her earlier message,
"Grace… I love you."
She just hadn't realised how much.