By JuneBug <email@example.com>
Please see Page One for Disclaimers.
Adrian sat at his desk, typing with a virtuostic indifference as fingers hit the keys like a midsummer hailstorm. The rapid clatter had a brief chance to echo before being deadened by the plush carpetry and wood inlay of the opulent offices - stifled by the carefully processed air that filtered through the room.
Monday mornings rarely changed in pace or routine in Professor Jamieson's offices. Adrian would invariably arrive at half-past-seven, running through drafts and correspondences that the surgeon had accrued in his inbox over the weekend - a task that took considerably longer this morning than usual. Three faxes to the UK, and couriered reports as well... you've certainly been extra busy this weekend, Doc.
A brief click diverted his attention from his task as the front door opened, heralding Professor Jamieson's presence. She was dressed in a blue-black suit tailored suit that contrasted with her dark complexion, with a crimson v-necked top lending vibrance to the austere ensemble.
"Good morning, Doc."
"Adrian." There was a perfunctory nod as the surgeon closed the door behind her. "Any messages?"
"Just some mail. They're on your desk."
"Thank you." The voice trailed from his right to his left, accompanied by business-like footsteps. Where he expected the sound of a doorlatch, however, there was a pause instead. "Did you want to have lunch today?"
"Lunch?" With me? Adrian's eyes grew wide over the brim of his glasses, which slid an inch down his nose. "With you?"
"Yes. Do you have time?" Kai looked at her watch, adjusting her jacket cuff as she did so.
"Of - of course. Do you?"
"Well, I am asking." There was a subtle curve to her lips, not quite a smile. "You were good enough to keep an eye out for me the other night. I appreciate that."
"Oh - well, it's nothing really... but, um - yeah, I'll be here." Flustered, he re-adjusted his glasses and realised with some embarrassment that there was a ridiculous grin on his face. He calmed his expression, recomposing himself with subtle efficiency just as the phone began to ring. "Good morning, Dr. Jamieson's office."
Do you want to take this here? Adrian exchanged glances with the taller woman, who indicated her room with a nod of the head.
"Yes, please hold." The secretary pushed a button and replaced the handset. Taking a moment to enjoy the radiant smile of thanks, he leaned back, watching the double doors close behind the doctor's tall, retreating figure.
Dumping her bags on the couch, Kai strode to her desk and lowered herself to the seat, flicking through the neat pile of mail that was laid on her desk as she answered the phone.
"Jamieson." Meeting, meeting, referral, conference, conference... She had already begun skimming some of the more urgent memos when a voice stopped her in her tracks.
For a moment, Kai thought her heart would stop entirely - a surreal instant when a buried memory rose from the vaults of her mind. But it resumed its rhythm, if not slightly erratic, the beating almost painfully strong. Her voice came out in a half-whisper, almost afraid to say the word.
The smile could be heard clearly over the handset, and Kai felt it as a warm rush that began in her chest, radiating through her skin like the slow burn of brandy. "One and the same, darling. How are you?"
"I'm fine - " She swallowed, cutting off an impending, uncharacteristic babble. "Where are you? Are - are you in Sydney?"
"Yes - I'm at the Ophthalmology Symposium. Surprised?"
"That's..." Wonderful. Fantastic. A multitude of adjectives, more appropriate to her sentiments, rushed through her mind - though true to her flustered situation, what she blurted out was the least appropriate of them all. "God, your timing is atrocious."
"Well - I would hardly have thought they'd arrange the conference without consulting your events diary first..." The smirk was audible.
"No - I'm about to go to Cambridge for a lecture series. Tomorrow - "
There was a brief pause. "You mean we only have tonight?"
Kai swallowed. "What do you mean?"
"Well, I am assuming that you would want to meet up with me, seeing as I flew half-way around the world to see you."
"Is that right?" Kai countered, a part of her marvelling at how easily the banter came back to her. "And the conference would be...?"
"A very convenient excuse. The company here is shocking, Kai - I'm sitting here in a corner trying to avoid the lunch crowds like some fugitive." Laine laughed, her voice warming into a mellow timbre. "I was hoping to get a bit more time with you after the conference finishes on Wednesday, but... I'm dying to see you, Kai. Please tell me you'll make time."
Well. What can I possibly say to that? The surgeon considered for a moment, reflexively flipping through her diary with a meandering hand. "How about this afternoon? A late lunch?"
"Fantastic - I don't see myself staying for this afternoon's festivities anyway. I'm at the Park Hyatt, down at the Rocks. How about I meet you somewhere nearby?"
"How about the wharves just outside the hotel?"
"I'll be there."
"With bells on?" Kai smiled, lapsing easily into their old joke.
"Only if you're good." She joined in with a chuckle, dying down to a lingering pause. "It's so good to hear your voice again, Kai."
I know. It's been too long. She closed her eyes, savouring the tingle that shivered up her spine. "I'll speak to you soon."
The line went dead, but the sensations remained - so much so that Kai barely registered herself replacing the handset, the smooth plastic slipping from her fingertips to an audible click as indistinct emotions continued to roam her mind.
The strength of it surprised her. She had to admit that Laine had crossed her mind from time to time - acknowledging along the way that her feelings towards the dynamic blonde had evolved to a quiet, lingering fondness. But she had not heard from her since news of her engagement, and her voice... I haven't heard her voice in years.
Well, you're going to get more than just her voice, Kai. Straightening, she was about to jot down the time in her diary when a stray thought reminded her of something.
Oh boy - Adrian.
Sighing, Kai set down her pen and began brainstorming for ways she could make it up to her secretary.
Dr Jamieson had left her office for half an hour when the sound of a door opening and footsteps distracted Adrian from his work. Before he knew it, a paper bag was placed without ceremony on his desk, briefly preceded by a whiff of the warm, sepia aroma of freshly brewed coffee.
He looked up to see the surgeon standing in her full striking height on the other side of his desk, bearing two styrofoam cups and an apologetic set to her eyebrows. "I have to cancel lunch."
Kai felt rather than heard the downturn in his voice - a guilty twinge that told her a cancellation was merely a euphemism for "standing up". Giving her secretary a wry smile, she negotiated with a quick rip of the paper bag, revealing a respectable pile of pastries and baked consumables that effectively stifled any lingering disappointment.
"How about morning tea instead?"
Adrian flashed a grin just before sinking is teeth into a slice of baklava. "Anyway I can get you."
"You should be sick to death of me by now." Kai chuckled softly with some scepticism, and, settling herself on the edge of the table, grabbed a raspberry friand. "Thank you for the prompt work on the Stamford fax."
"It's what I do best."
The surgeon humpfed a soft laugh, her mouth still half full. "I knew there was a reason I hired you. Everything set for the trip?"
"Yes. Dr. Sanders confirmed yesterday about take over for a few days - you'll have a briefing with him the afternoon before you leave. Tickets will be waiting for you at the airport, with a transfer to Cambridge standing by on your arrival at Heathrow." He took a thoughtful chew of his danish, almost in an afterthought. "We'll miss you."
Kai shrugged. "It's only five days."
"A lot can happen in five days." Adrian murmured sagely, mulling over his pastry crust with a distracted shrug.
Damn right. Or five hours, as the case may be. Grinning internally, Kai checked her watch and rose from the desk, lightly dusting off her lap. "Point noted. I'm sorry about lunch - I'll make it up to you. Fancy anything from London?"
Grabbing another friand, Kai smiled her disarming, crooked smile and disappeared into her office.
The front foyer of the Museum of Contemporary Art was a simple affair; a six storey atrium soaring into the glass ceiling bordering the blue sky, sheathed by giant slabs of weather-worn marble adorned with tapesteries, commemorative stones and endowment plaques. A peculiar mix of people from contrasting walks of life lingered in the modest floorspace that was rendered larger and airy by the architecture - pensioners by the cloakroom, art and design students funneling in and out of exhibit entrances, tourists milling about the gallery bookshop and store. While the air was prone to resonance, it was a filled instead by the soft echo of whispers that glowed like the dying, sacred ring of a massive cast-iron bell.
Walking briskly across the museum foyer, Piersen emerged from the elevators to address a dark-green suited gentleman idling by the security desk. Dressed in a grey woollen turtle-neck and woolblend skirt, the curator's compact form cut a sharp figure as arrived beside him, hand and smile armed to greet.
"Piersen Evans. Good to have you here."
The suited gentleman beamed at her, shaking her hand firmly. "It's a pleasure to meet with you again."
"I hope you didn't have to wait long." She gestured to the restaurant entrance, ushering the company representative to their lunch table. "My meeting went slightly overtime."
"Not at all. There were lots of distractions on display in the foyer."
The stepped into the Fish Cafe, a cramped entryway opening into an airy, white-veneer space and adjoining sandstone terrace balcony. The restaurant was crowded, filled with patrons and their concomitant buzz of conversation, lending a frenetic energy to an otherwise indolent, minimalist setting. The afternoon sun was shielded by the bulk of the building, sparing the outdoor diners from the harsh light whilst the harbour and its surrounds were illuminated jewel-like on nature's dramatic stage.
The managing waiter was immediately at hand, settling them into their seats and laying down menus and bread rolls. Piersen turned to her guest. "Have you eaten here before?"
"No. Do you have any recommendations?"
"The grilled salmon is particularly good this week, though my personal favourite is the scallops." She smiled into the menu. "A religious experience unto themselves."
Andrew Bryant laughed, appearing even more youthful as his face came alive. "I'd hate to deprive you. I'll try the salmon."
"Good choice." She turned to the waiter. "And if you could choose good wine to go with that...?"
"You have a beautiful museum, Ms Evans."
"Thank you. We're lucky to have the venue." Leaning back in her seat, green eyes rested steadily on the client's face as she crossed her legs with an absent, but graceful motion. "The Board is very excited about the prospect your company's involvement, Mr Bryant. I feel there is great potential for gain in future joint ventures for both our respective interests."
"Yes - I saw the work you did with the St. Vincent's patients. Very tastefully, intelligently put together."
Piersen smiled her thanks. "Are you interested in the visual arts, Mr Bryant?"
"I have to admit I lean more to the classical period. But contemporary art has definitely been growing on me."
"We like to hear that." Reaching into her bag, she extracted a neatly bound folder and placed it on the table. "We have a few initiatives lined up for next years' season that might be of interest to your company. We've received requests from the art community for events and programs that promote innovation in art and design, and these are a more detailed presentation of the proposals that I outlined in the prospectus you received last week."
"This is different from the one you sent. Do you mind if I had a look through it?"
"By all means." She handed him the folio, allowing the businessman time to peruse its contents while she took in the glorious surroundings, taking stock of the meeting so far. So far, so good. I like the feel of this. Taking a mental breath, she allowed her eyes to stray to the harbour, following the ferries as they rumbled into the wharves churning foamy waves and clouds of seagulls that swelled and scattered into the deep blue sky.
Piersen's attention chanced to wander to the quayside, eyeing the tourists ambling along the walkways and the streetside performers - an idle perusal that halted suddenly when her gaze was grabbed a figure whose bearing, whose walk was unmistakeable. The tall figure walked purposefully in a dark suit which clung to her limbs as she moved. Her hair trailed loose behind her, the blackness reflecting blue in the afternoon sun, caught in the slight harbour breeze. It's...
Piersen jumped a little as the name rang from a little aways, and she turned to locate the voice. She saw the doctor stop, the face break into a radiant smile. For whom? Green eyes followed along the walkway and saw a slim but athletic woman with platinum hair hold her arms out, moments before being enveloped in a warm, tight embrace.
The curator's eyes were rivetted. That was Kai...
The stranger wore a beautifully revealing black dress that showed off her legs, the hem of which hiked to a dangerous altitude as she drew her arms around the doctor's neck. Unable to look away, she saw the blonde cup Kai's face, smiling a devastating smile before those same lips moved in closer -
Piersen's mind jolted back to attention, and her wayward gaze along with it. "Yes, Mr Bryant?"
"This design prize that you have outlined - this is very interesting... Could you tell me more about it?"
"Of course - " She let out a deep breath slowly, quietly, feeling a peculiar disequilibration in the wake of her observation. Deciding to keep her eyes on matters at hand, she forced a smile and laid down her knife with some deliberation.
"And please, do call me Piersen."
The doctor turned, eyes instantly searching the scattered crowds along the quay for the source of that voice.
It wasn't difficult. Amongst the meandering groups that strolled along the foreshore was Laine, walking towards her with the same air of style and sophistication that turned men to putty in her hands. A smile came to Kai's face unbidden, taking unexpected joy at the familiar face, the same slender figure that had evened out to more healthy dimensions since they last met.
Pushing the sunglasses up from her eyes, the blonde woman laughed as she approached, throwing her arms around the tall doctor's neck in an exuberant hug. Kai held her close, feeling the gorgeous body press against her entire length without reservation, caught up in the joy of the moment.
Laine drew back, her hand reaching up to briefly caress her friend's angular cheek. "You've grown even more beautiful." Examining her with her steady, grey eyes, the Englishwoman's face seemed to glow with unspoken emotion. Rising on tiptoes, she bestowed a kiss on that cheek before slowly sliding out of the embrace, the radiant smile still remaining on her.
Kai was speechless. "Laine - you look... terrific."
"Thank you. You have no idea how much I am craving this sunshine. I've been waiting to wear this dress for an entire winter."
Kai shook her head, chiding her gently. "I thought I was meeting you at the hotel."
"Yes, but according to the strapping young Concierge there was only one way to get to the Hotel, and that's through here. I thought I'd try picking you up instead." Laine stepped back, appraising the surgeon's figure with an appreciative eye. "And look what I caught."
"I'm hardly catch of the day, Laine. Why don't you give me another chance and throw me back into the harbour?"
"And give you up just like that? You have got to be joking." The white-blonde woman laughed. "How have you been, darling?"
The dark-haired woman gave a non-committal shrug, then a smile. "Not too bad."
"The same reticent self, I see." She humpfed, laying an affectionate hand on Kai's arm. "You look better than well. And this suit is very you."
Kai laughed wryly, briefly. "Yes, believe it or not, I ended up dressing myself fine without you."
"...Armani is foolproof. I remember."
"Good, because I gave away some of the best weekends of my life cultivating the woman of sophistication in you."
Laine gave her friend a grin - a quick flash of perfect teeth that even now provoked a flutter in the surgeon's heartbeat. Their eyes met for a instant that made two years seemed too long and too short; a paradox that was overcome when both women joined each other in laughter. Linking her arm around Kai's elbow, the slim ophthalmologist drew them to a bench, their conversation already flowing as if they had only seen each other yesterday.
Kai watched her friend as she chatter in her usual animated manner, her hair bleached white by the blinding afternoon sun. There had been much to say since the Englishwoman's marriage several months ago - Kai had harboured a slight fear that her absence from the festivities had been misconstrued, but those fears were quickly put to rest with a wry remark and a smile.
"We couldn't possibly have the matron of honour steal the limelight from the bride, darling. I broke every eligible bachelor's heart in my last minutes of single-hood thanks to you."
The voice in her mind seemed to grow stronger, brighter, until she realised it was the same voice speaking beside her. "... I didn't come all the way here to hear myself natter on, Kai. Talk to me."
Kai quirked an enquiring brow. "Where to begin?"
"At the beginning." Laine replied, almost too solemnly at first, then with the old, familiar humour. "I want to catch up on everything, and I want all the sordid details."
Kai appeared to do some considering. "All of it?"
"You tease." A slim finger tut-tutted a few inches from Kai's nose. "The medical journals have been very good with detailing your exploits, honey, but it was seriously lacking in the wild-sex-in-the-bathroom variety of reporting."
"Wild sex in the bathroom?" The surgeon frowned, witheringly.
Laine scoffed, rolling her eyes. "As if you can't remember."
"You will never let me live it down, will you? I haven't thought about it in... " Too long. Boy. It almost seems like another life... Kai shook her head, her mind flitting to that Christmas party in Cambridge - where too much champagne, mistletoe over the cramped cubicle of the staff toilets and an extraordinarily attractive and flexible RMO with a killer Swedish accent came together in a display that would have been otherwise discreet were it not for Laine who had decided to come in to fix her make-up -
Clear, grey eyes watched her with an astute steadiness. "Oh, so perhaps something else has been occupying your mind of late?"
Jerked away from her meandering thoughts, Kai rcomposed herself and gave an indelicate snort. "Yeah, try departmental restructuring and material shortage at the lab."
"All work and no play, darling?"
"Never said I wasn't a dull girl." Kai grinned, a dark brow arching in playful accent to her remark.
"You are so not dull. In fact, a certain ex-RMO newly promoted to senior registrar would attest to that."
The self-assured expression on the surgeon's angular features turned to flabbergast. "You didn't..."
"Oh, you mean I never mentioned my new employee?" The pointed smile became playfully teasing. "Ingrid is my registrar now. She transferred back to Harefield after a few years in Sweden. We work very closely. In fact, we're very good friends. We talk about -" Laine paused, mostly for dramatic effect. "Many things."
Kai's fingers braced the arch of her brow, as if soothing a sudden throbbing ache in her head. Oh boy...
"She said hello."
Kai cringed at the smirk in that flippant, over-casual voice. "I hope you have more fruitful things to discuss between yourselves than - gossip."
Laine laughed affectionately. "I'm just joshing you, Kai. You colour so beautifully when you're embarrassed. It highlights your cheekbones. Really, darling - anything since that not-so-secret close encounter at the Christmas party?"
"No." The word was spoken with all the consummate determination as Kai Jamieson is capable of - save a tiny flicker of her gaze.
"Liar!" Laine crowed with laughter, then leaned dangerously close, her lips forming words with delicious deliberation. "Spill it, girlfriend."
Feeling somewhat trapped, Kai sighed and fell into a slouch, not quite knowing where to start.
"And you're still looking after her husband?"
Feeling Laine's mildly incredulous gaze, Kai's face scrunched into something between a scowl and a grimace, a restless hand pressing fingertips to an eyebrow.
"Well, it's not like I can pass him off to someone else, Laine. No one wants to take a comatose patient, even if he's the first symptomatic neurosyphilitic case we've had in the past ten years. And I know I can treat him once he wakes up. I can't in good conscience just turf him to one of the others just because I - I'm friends with his wife."
"And you can't in good conscience go off with the wife because you're looking after her husband." Laine sighed, her glacial features honed into a thoughtful expression. "Damn. I should have paid more attention to those ethics classes they made us take in med school."
As an afterthought, the same features broke into an unapologetic grin. "Then again, they never covered anything about going off with the patient's wife, just that you should never sleep with the patient."
Kai moved to protest. "I don't want to sleep with her - "
"Oh, you so want to." The platinum blonde scoffed, her warm regard caressing her friend's closed, angular features. "You're falling for her."
Fallen. The surgeon shook her head, a frown marring the smoothness of her forehead. "She's a very beautiful woman. And I'm attracted to her. That's all."
Laine snickered, an artfully executed turn of the voice intended to subtly provoke the taller woman. "Oh, so it's just physical, then?"
"No!" Cobalt eyes shot up to her in a brief flare of anger, dying to frustration. The frown between her brows lifted, something else replacing the shadow in her gaze. "She has a radiance about her, Laine. It's - "
Kai stumbled into silence, trying to find her words - and paradoxically, her mind at that moment decided to blossom into prose that came free from its stoic confines. It's like the touch of the sun on a Winter morning... everything thaws, everything melts to its purest form; an eternal moment's rapture in her presence alone -
She stared at her hands, not knowing where else to look. "Indescribable."
The ophthalmologist smiled, making her pronouncement with satisfaction. "It sounds like the real thing to me, Kai."
A helpless laugh. "Is that a definitive diagnosis?"
"I'd stake my wardrobe on it."
A dark eyebrow arched. "That's a substantial offer, considering your wardrobe."
Laine smiled, covering her friend's hand with her own. "I am that certain. I can read you too easily, Kai."
"How do I tell her?" Should I tell her?
"You already have, Kai. Now you have to play the waiting game." With a reassuring touch to her friend's knee, Laine allowed a sombre moment before grabbing the surgeon's hands.
"Come on. Let's go get some lunch. Isn't that a restaurant I see over there?"
The two woman rose to their feet, leading and being led to the large golden-sandstone building behind them.
Kai knew she was there even before she saw her.
She had felt a twinge of apprehension as Laine dragged her towards the MCA, but a quick glance at her watch had convinced her that lunch hour must surely be over for office-bound workers. Yet as soon as she stepped across the threshold of the restaurant within the museum foyer, her voice was there - lilting, gorgeously-British timbre rising and falling in elegant cadence, speaking words that were indistinct but rang with a calm, clear confidence.
Rounding the corner, Kai saw the bearer of that voice between glass panes, the thin frame of the doorway and Laine's willowy figure as she stepped out to the terrace: Piersen was rising to her feet from a table that bore the remnants of a generous meal, her chair held solicitously away by a fresh-faced, clean-shaven man in a business suit.
With certain thoughts too close to the skin for comfort, Kai's first impulse was to turn away and suggest another place for lunch. She had allowed a part of her mind to run free with Laine, feeling safe in her friend's isolation from her own world - but now, as she watched the ophthalmologist step across the threshold, the hem of her dress brushing past the curator's - the nearness of her was too strong, too much.
In a moment that seemed to break into a thousand smaller fragments of time, blue eyes saw the slight register of a presence in Piersen's stance; the shifting of her shoulders as she sensed someone ease past behind her. The blonde head turned, eyes looking but not seeing the platinum blonde; smiling a polite smile as she allowed her past - then the quick flicker of white and green as her gaze fell on the stranger once more, pieces already falling in place before her eyes focused further, resolving a tall, dark figure within view.
The establishment of eye contact manifested within Kai as a palpable jolt - those wondrously green eyes showing a thousand indistinct emotions as the curator blurted one word:
"Kai - "
The doctor could only nod, feeling her features set into a neutral stance even as her heart threatened to jump in her throat. "Hello."
Laine stopped in her tracks, turning as she regarded the two women facing each other, a doorway between them.
Piersen smiled with a hint of polite strain. "How are you?"
"Well, thank you." Catching a subtle movement from Laine in the edge of her vision, Kai stepped back, bringing the frail blonde into their circle of conversation. "This is Laine, a good friend of mine."
I'm sure. The curator's glance lingered on the platinum blonde a heartbeat too long - then, noticing the enquiring looks directed somewhere beyond her, remembered her companion. "Good to meet you. Andrew, you may remember Dr Jamieson from the exhibition?"
"Of course." They shook hands, Kai carefully modulating a grip as she trained the steady aloofness of her pale eyes on him.
Laine cleared her throat, not-too-subtly propelling herself into the conversation vacuum. "It's good to finally meet you, Piersen. Kai's told me many good things about you."
It may not have been the right thing to say - but at that point, several things happened simultaneously: Piersen laughed, surprised, and some of the tension in her stance seemed to ebb away. The ophthalmologist smiled, though with too much sass to be entirely innocent, which earned a quick laser-blue glare from her surgeon friend.
"Why, I like you already." Piersen remarked with a grin, recovering some of her poise. She turned her attention to her taller friend, who still bore faint remnants of a scowl in her urbane exterior. "Kai, we'll have to arrange a time where we can all meet to discuss this further."
Kai stalled, badly. "Uh - I might be held up for the next couple of days..."
"Oh come on, Kai. How often do I get to meet your friends anyway?" Laine interjected, giving the surgeon's shoulder a brief nudge. She doesn't know you're leaving tomorrow, does she? "How about tonight? Dinner and drinks?"
After a brief hesitation, Kai acquiesced. "I'll get in touch with you, Piersen." She stepped aside, a visual cue that reminded Piersen of the gentleman standing a little behind her.
"Wonderful. Hope to see you again soon, Laine." Shaking the blonde's hand, Piersen gave Kai a departing smile before ushering her companion past the doorway, the curve of her arm brushing Kai's as she went.
Blue eyes followed her away, watching the steps that were graceful and self-assured, the calm lift of her chin, the strong set of her shoulders. God - how does she do that? Turns me into a tongue-tied idiot with one look...
Laine's voice broke into Kai's thoughts. "She's a pretty one."
No response. Instead, Kai chose an empty table out of many on the terrace, and held a chair out for the ophthalmologist.
"He's just a boy, Kai. Don't worry your gorgeous head over it."
"I'm not worried." Kai sat in a svelte, effortless motion; speaking with a taunting lilt in that smooth, confident rumble.
"Right." Leaning forward, Laine rubbed the pad of her thumb along the now-disappeared furrow between the surgeon's dark brows. "And this frown never existed."
They held each other's gaze, challenging each other with suppressed good-humour. A blonde brow arched, caricaturing her friend's oft-wielded non-verbal assault.
"You and your big mouth." Kai surrendered, finally, her smile white in the afternoon sun. "Let's talk about this another time, alright?"
Forty-One - Lessons in Inebriation, Part I: The Catalyst
The dark ambience of the Red Room shrouded the tables with a certain mystery, highlighting the relative sobriety of a late Monday evening as clusters of patrons lingered over drinks and remnants of dinners long begun. Beyond the smattering of conversation interwoven with Miles Davis a subtle rhythm from the neighbouring room could be heard, the ever-busy dance floor churning out a driving beat muffled by thick walls and an ornate, heavy door.
In a corner booth, James sat lounging with Kai and Piersen, regarding the same door with a wry smile. "You know, I never thought I would see the day someone can out-dance me."
"She practically had a queue at the bar of people asking her to dance. She's probably giving them all a whirl." There was a shrug of Kai's shoulder, one that spoke of familiarity and resignation to this situation.
"Just so that everyone knows what they're missing? I love the way that mind of hers works."
"You would." Piersen quipped, her eyes smiling over the rim of her glass. "Goodness knows how Adam puts up with you."
"Hey! Adam knew I was a flirt when I met him." James watched her with an inquisitive glint in his eye. "How did you find someone like her, Kai? Did she pick you up from some bar as well?"
Kai laughed, her rich laughter filling their intimate circle of conversation. "Not the most outrageous suggestion, James, but no."
"And all this time I thought she was an old girlfriend or something. You are not permitted to hold out on gossip on me like that, Doctor Jamieson. I find that kind of thing most upsetting." His face broke into a rakish grin. Fishing again, James - naughty, naughty...
"I wouldn't dream of it." Kai looked over to Piersen, whose attention appeared to be suddenly captured by something at the far end of the room. Following her gaze, Kai spotted the object of their conversation as she returned from the dance room, sweeping back into her seat with a dramatic, elegant flourish.
Kai smiled. "How was it?"
"Quite delightful." Laine wiped off non-existent sweat from her pristine brow. "The first one was the most impressive of the lot, I think."
James suddenly gripped the seat, jolting upright with an artful look of shock. "God, did you feel that? I think that was the sound of a hundred hearts breaking in the next room."
"Or maybe a brawl." Kai offered, hearing a quiet chuckle from Piersen. "Don't put it past her so soon. When I was still in Cambridge we stopped at a small village during a driving holiday..."
"Oh Kai - not that story..."
The dark-haired woman laughed mercilessly. "... We had only meant to pop in for a quick dinner, and maybe look for a place to stay the night. Somehow, within the space of an hour, and she managed to set four men against each other without so much as laying a hand on them." The surgeon shot an accusatory look at her friend. "We had to stay the night in the car, parked out on some paddock."
James guffawed with absolute delight. "The face that launched a thousand punches!"
"We were blacklisted from that pub for eternity." Kai shook her head, still amazedat the situation even now. "The publican didn't know what hit him. Not that I'm likely to pass through that village ever again."
Piersen raised an enquiring eyebrow. "Is this a glimpse of the misspent youth you told me about, Kai?"
Kai nodded sagely. "Laine was a great corrupting force in my life."
"Oh please. You managed very well on your own."
Piersen watched as the two women laughed, feeling something that left her hollow in the wake of her own chuckles. Seems like she's a great force in your life, Kai, corrupting or not. Finding the current lull in conversation the perfect opportunity, she gathered her items from the table and addressed her companions. "You know, I might leave you all to it. I'm about to fall over."
James quipped with some disbelief. "On orange juice?"
"Today was a big day, with Pacific Energy and all..." She allowed her words to taper off, using a weary pass of her hand over her brow to do the telling. "The bus is due in a few minutes, so I should get going."
"Can I drive you?" Kai offered, her voice betraying none of her disappointment.
There was a brief hesitation. "No, I'll be fine." The curator rose to her feet; a smooth, controlled motion, as if trying not to look hurried. "Lovely meeting you, Laine. I'll see you all soon."
Did she say goodbye, or did her lips move without a sound? Kai watched the slim figure leave, not quite knowing why she felt a sinking weight in the pit of her stomach...
"... , Kai?"
Peripherally aware that she was being spoken to, Kai directed her face absently to whoever was addressing her while her eyes remained on the darkening shadow being swallowed up by the crowd.
Laine spoke a little louder. "I guess Piersen does something for you, Kai?"
That comment earned the ophthalmologist Kai's full attention. "Excuse me?"
"James mentioned that the two of you met on a joint venture of some sort. Does she still do things for you from time to time?" While spoken with all innocence, the look in Laine's eyes made it clear she knew exactly how Kai interpreted her question.
"She works for herself, Laine. I only benefitted from her time on an appointment basis." Kai clarified, with a subtly interwoven chastisement that manifested as a slightly deeper register of her voice. "In fact, I believe most of the logistics were hammered out between my public relations office and a most excellent member of the MCA's senior staff." She turned her attention to the sandy-haired man lounging lazily in his chair, a smile inviting him to recount the details of the exhibition preparations.
His narrative had reached the events of opening night when a sharp beep from Kai's pager interrupted the quiet exchange, prompting her to extract her phone and punch in a quick series of numbers, listening intently to a speaker on the other end of the line.
She hung up, an grimly apologetic set to her features. "I have to go. A patient of mine has just pulled all her tubes out demanding to be let out of hospital."
Laine's pale eyebrow arched, casting an amused smile at her friend. "Shouldn't you let the night duty RMO look after that kind of thing, Kai?"
"This patient listens to me a bit better." The surgeon gathered her belongings in a neat pile, placing them into her attache case with an absent movement. "She's very, very difficult. Presented with increasing confusion and schizoaffective personality changes - the MRI showed a localised lesion in her right frontal lobe that we thought was a primary brain cancer."
"But it wasn't?" James' head cocked to the side, the steadiness of his gaze showing how intently he was thinking.
Kai shook her head. "We had the craniotomy scheduled, thinking that it looked easy to excise and that it might help reverse or alleviate the psychological decline - except on the morning of surgery we spotted a lesion on her chest X-Ray."
Laine tsked quietly, her features falling into a frown of dismay. "It was a lung primary..."
The dark woman nodded. "Bronchogenic non-small cell carcinoma, growing from the hilum in her right lung."
"Thirty a day for twenty years." Kai smiled sadly at Laine's disdainful toss of her head, knowing her friend's intense anti-tobacco stance. Still so angry. Then again, she has lost so much...
She raised her voice, speaking with more assurance to move past the moment. "We never saw it on previous X-Rays because it was lost in a sea of consolidation from a concurrent pneumonia - the lung fields were whited out. We gave her antibiotics, cleared the chest infection - and the primary showed up on film clear as day."
James drew in a breath, gesticulating with a shrug. "Why couldn't you just cut out the thing in the brain anyway?"
"The lesion in her brain is a metastatic deposit - it changed her prognosis entirely. Even if we removed it, the primary will still be a source of tumour cells that can spread around the body. She'll just develop another deposit, in the brain or elsewhere." The man moved to protest, but Kai interrupted him. "We can't chase mets around the body, James. She'd be full of holes before it's all over - we'd make her even more miserable than she is now."
She rose to her feet, pulling on her jacket as she did so.
"What are you going to do?" James asked, still caught in the solemn turn of mood.
"Right now, I'm going to go to hospital and talk her into staying. We won't get anywhere otherwise." She directed her attention to her seated friend. "This might take a while - I can't expect you to wait for me to finish..."
James' voice was subdued, a part of his mind still digesting the information. "It's okay, Kai - I'll take her back to her hotel."
"Why, you gentleman, James." Laine lifted the mood with a winning smile, raising a teasing brow at her surgeon-friend. "I'm quite sure he won't take advantage of me, darling."
Kai mirrored the smile. "I have every confidence in him. You, on the other hand..."
"You tease. I'm a happily-married woman, darling." The laughter died down as she remembered something. "You'll drop by the hotel before you go, won't you? You must stay at my flat when you're in Cambridge, Kai, especially while Christian is away on army exercises. I can give you the keys so you can settle in before I get home on Friday."
"Sure." Kai nodded briefly in thanks as she hefted her bag, preparing to leave when she heard a soft thud. She bent over, picking up her mobile phone from the floor where it had fallen. She glanced at it, then examined it more carefully.
"This isn't my phone."
James leaned over to peer at it. "That's Piersen's. She must have confused it with yours when she left."
She turned it over in her hands once more with a quiet chuckle, murmuring almost to herself. "I didn't think she deigned to use one of these..."
"She doesn't - she only carries that around when she's expecting to be called. She's probably waiting to hear from the contracts she was negotiating today."
"You should probably drop it off on your way home, if she's expecting calls." Laine suggested, her grey gaze flickering over the rim of her glass.
"I'll do that." She nodded in a silent goodbye and walked away, leaving her two remaining drinks companions to stare after her as she disappeared into the dark. James shook his head, letting out a breath as Laine picked up her drink, sipping it with quiet contemplation.
"How..." The ophthalmologist considered, quite deliberately. "Inconvenient."
"How inconvenient indeed." James pursed his lips, mentally chewing over the brief conundrum. "I guess it is easy to misplace things on such a tiny table."
"Yes. 'Misplace' is a good word."
James turned a suspicious gaze to the cool blonde sitting beside him, understanding dawning into a wickedly delighted grin as their eyes met.
Lessons in Inebriation, Part II: Thought Derailment and Social Dis-Inhibition
Piersen's living room light was on, lending some assurance to Kai's quiet step as she approached the terrace. The efficient gait masked the heaviness she felt in her legs; a sign of her weariness after an exhausting hour spent reasoning to her distressed, anxious patient.
At least I have a twenty hour flight to sleep through. Just me, thirty thousand feet of air, a good strong drink and a laptop full of work I have to prepare for the lectures...
Her mental narrative withered in dismay. Bloody hell.
The front door loomed in front of her, beckoning action on her part to announce her presence. Surprisingly, though physically tired she felt strangely alert, as if her body had provided an extra shot of adrenaline to keep her mind from grating to a complete stop. She knocked, the rap of her knuckles deemed less obtrusive than the thump of the heavy brass knocker.
For too long, there was nothing. Then footsteps approached.
The door swung open, accompanied by a somewhat bleary-eyed Piersen whose slight frame seemed to be swept along by its momentum. Her eyes widened. "Kai?"
"I know it's late - "
"No, it's alright. Come in." She stepped into the hall and pottered into the darkened home, looking over her shoulder when she sensed that she was not being followed. "Come on."
Kai obeyed, stopping at the interface where the light from the porch bled into the dim recesses of the living room. Don't hang around, Kai - she's tired, you're tired, and you have a plane to catch early tomorrow morning... As if to reinforce her statement, she reached into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the cell phone.
"I think we may have taken each other's phones by mistake." She offered, the object in question hovering between them as Piersen finally turned, realising that the length of the living rooom seperated her from her guest.
"Oh. Thank you." Kai noticed a slight blurring of her speech, the awkward shuffle in her step as she took the phone. "I must have yours, then. Come help me look for it."
The taller woman was about to oblige when something about the curator's curious gait caught her attention. Blue eyes followed the smaller woman intently as she wove on tenuous feet to the living room like a recalcitrant hiccup; eyes that grew increasingly amused as the possible diagnoses arose in her mind.
"Are you alright, Piersen?"
"Me? Fine." Apparently oblivious to the inherent smirk in her friend's statement, Piersen padded into the lounge, perfunctorily scanning the items scattered on the low table before dumping herself unceremonious into the soft, yielding couch. A slight wince registered on her face.
The blonde woman reached under herself and retrieved an identical cell phone, placing it on the table with a sigh.
Kai approached with quiet amusement. "Was there something in that orange juice of your that I didn't know about?"
"Hm?" Piersen's eyes remained on the phone; or rather, the table just past it, with a meditative bleariness. Kai smiled, trying to remain quiet in her friend's intense, though thoroughly drunken silence.
She failed. "You're drunk, Piersen."
"Oh." The blonde head nodded, then turned towards her - a sudden shifting in her demeanor signalling a sombre turn - the green gaze a gentle, unwavering possession that seemed strikingly out of place amidst the curator's obvious inebriation. "You're heading to Cambridge tomorrow. You weren't going to leave without saying goodbye, were you?"
Kai suddenly noticed a crease in her shoes that she had never seen before I guess, if it weren't for tonight...
"Will you be gone long?"
The surgeon shrugged, feigning ambivalence. "Not quite long enough to warrant a proper goodbye. Maybe a 'see you later'." She grinned.
"Well!" Piersen breathed, mock indignation mingling with a subtle curve of her lips. "I'll 'see you later', then."
"You'll be too busy to notice I'm even gone."
Piersen shook her head. "I'll know, Kai."
Kai had no words for reply.
"Besides, you're not meant to be busy. That was meant to be your vacation, remember? Take time out, see the East Anglian countryside..."
"I was hoping I'd save it up for that tour around Derbyshire you promised me."
Piersen beamed, pleased that she remembered their conversation. "I'd like that. A lot."
The radiant smile seemed to call to Kai like a beacon, drawing her to the couch before she had the chance to think. Shrugging off the contrary advice her mind was giving her, she settled herself beside the museum director with a small sigh, noting as she did so the two wine glasses and a half-empty bottle sitting on the coffee table. Ah ha. Drunk as a skunk on a seventy dollar bottle of wine...
Kai picked it up with a smile. "Penfolds 407, Piersen?"
"You converted me, that night at dinner." Piersen examined one of the glasses before filled it, handing it to her friend. "Here. Do you mind using my glass? I don't think I can make it to the kitchen."
"Not at all." Her attention strayed to the remaining glass as she sipped quietly, a question in her gaze. She probed gently, "I thought you would be in bed asleep by now, not swilling away fine wines in the safety of your own home."
"Well, that was the idea, but Chris woke up as I was coming home and he wanted some company." Kai nodded in double understanding, and Piersen continued. "He wanted to try some good Australian wine, and I told him I had it on good authority that this was one of the best."
"Muscular mint and rich blackcurrant, Professor Jamieson. Indeed I do." Piersen felt her sentence taper off, feeling a strange melancholy speak to her clearly amidst the unexpected haze of pleasure in her friend's visit. I wanted more of you at the Red Room, Kai. I'm not used to sharing you - to think I could have let you leave without saying goodbye...
She took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh, more as punctuation than expression of weariness. "I'm glad you dropped by."
Kai shrugged. "I had a few other things to do before getting home anyway."
"I went back to the ward, just to check up on my patients before I took off."
So... am I the last in your ward round, Kai? When Richard recovers, will I be discharged from your life, like everyone else? The words came unbeckoned to her mind, alcohol having rendered it into a free-roaming park. Piersen spent a long moment trying to formulate a statement to express the strange emotions within her, then gave up entirely - instead, her slightly unsteady hands somehow found Kai's face and, leaning closer, placed a soft kiss on the doctor's cheek.
"You work too hard." The words were murmured into the darker woman's skin, the silken caress of breath and flesh touching her like gossamer before fading into air.
Azure irises were somewhat dilated as Kai regarded her friend with some wonderment, feeling the tingling after-image of that touch on her cheek. "Was that a chastisement?"
"No." Piersen shook her head, her cryptic gaze lingering. Then, in a movement that was almost a sulk, the curator turned her attention to her hands that cupped the half-full wineglass in her lap. "I don't want you to go."
"I know I'm being selfish." Propriety surrendered to train of thought. "I know there are probably hundreds of up-and-coming medical geniuses waiting for inspiration from you. But I really don't care." Emerald eyes glittered, turning to look full into Kai's astonished face. Mine.
"I can hardly go back on my word, Piers. I promised them I'd do this a year ago."
Seeing the hint of confusion in her friend's eyes, Piersen struggled to give her thoughts some direction. "Do you ever wonder, Kai? What it'd be like to shed your ties, your promises... and just be your own self?"
"I didn't think they were mutually exclusive."
"No - what I mean is... really be yourself. No commitments, no contracts, no promises - no one to tell you what to do, or answer to..." A frustrated frown. "I'm not making any sense."
You're drunk. Kai smiled. "It's late."
"Late..." With an accusing glare at her glass, Piersen took a quick gulp and put it on the table out of reach. "Things have been - strange, lately. I have been strange. I don't know what it is...'
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Another pause ensued as Piersen struggled to put words to the jumble of thoughts in her mind. "Funny - now that I have you here to talk to, I can't find a word to say."
"You should try bourbon." Kai laughed briefly, sardonically. "Fortifies the mind, loosens the tongue."
A brief snort. "Wouldn't it be the other way around? Loosens the mind, fortifies the tongue?"
"Is there a difference?"
There was glittering humour in those green, green eyes. "Depends on whether you like your tongues loose or not, Kai."
A dark eyebrow arched high. "Isn't it all in the mind?"
"Imagination can only go so far. An artist can only invent so much before she has to turn her hands to her paints - or moulding of the clay."
"And how far does your imagination go, Piersen?"
"Too far." She nodded sagely, staring at her hands with a faraway look. "I haven't touched my paints in years, and the pottery wheel even less."
"That's a long time." Where was her mind going? Where is my mind going? "I seldom have the chance to engage in pottery..."
"I'm sure you have it in you, Kai." She reached out, picked up one of the surgeon's unresisting hands and held it up to her face, examine the wiry contours with the absent, lingering caress of an artist. "I'm sure these fingers are capable of a gentle, deep touch..."
Their eyes met over their raised, entwined hands, and Piersen continued to speak, as if the words came from somewhere deep within her psyche without volition. "That's the key to handling fine clay. Slow, gentle, deep touches - pressing and smoothing out the object of your imagination until the texture turns to silk beneath your fingers..."
Kai watched in wonderment as Piersen's touched roamed over her skin; the soft, coaxing pressure of fingertips as they ran along the lengths of her fingers, the yielding of her own flesh as the curator smoothed her thumb along the hollows of her palm. Her wrist was cradled in Piersen's left hand, and Kai could feel her pulse beat frantically against it like a careening metronome. God - if I can feel it, she can probably feel it too...
Kai was saved from her moment of panic as Piersen's hands enveloped hers completely then pulled it close to her, her body seeming to involute around it as she curled up and over until her head came to rest somewhere near Kai's shoulder.
"I'll have to teach you sometime. Have to go dig out the wheel..." Her voice was muffled by Kai's breast, drifting from words to mumbles to a low, off-key hum vaguely resembling something from "West Side Story".
Touched by a protective spell that seemed to glow from somewhere within her, Kai smoothed out the cropped, flaxen hair. "Do you want me to move?"
Piersen burrowed further into the surgeon's body, already on the threshold of sleep. "No. Just stay. Please."
Lessons in Inebriation - Part III: Lethargy and Stupor
Kai woke up with a start, hearing a soft sound infiltrate the light blanket of sleep.
She was still on Piersen's couch, the smaller woman calmly ensconced in her arms. Strange - I seem to be making a habit of this. Though I'm certainly not complaining. The curator's body was deliciously warm against hers, having somehow wound itself up in Kai's embrace in sleep to lean fully into the surgeon's torso. The jacket she had laid over them perched precariously on Piersen's hip and was close to falling - with a lazy motion, Kai lifted it higher to enclose the blonde woman's shoulders once more.
Kai inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of her hair that caused her heart to skip a beat, achingly. Were you actually flirting tonight, Piersen? Or were you too drunk to realise the things you were saying? Kai wondered, her own fuzzy mind meandering as she exhaled quietly, sending a wisp of Piersen's hair dancing like a giggling flame. God, Sigmund, I hope to hell there's some truth about this whole Freudian slip thing.
Blue eyes followed the fine down along Piersen's skin, stopping when her own hands obscured the perusal. Her wristwatch glared accusingly at her. Twelve thirty, Kai. You have a plane to catch in the morning, in case you've forgotten.
Not that I'm getting anywhere soon, with her all over me like this... Gathering the soundly-sleeping bundle into her arms, Kai filled her lungs with a determined breath and slowly, carefully rose to her feet.
Dead to the world. Amazing. The tall woman chuckled to herself, hefting the surprisingly light weight as she took her bearings. If I'm not mistaken, her bedroom would be upstairs...
The upper level was dark, though it wasn't hard to find what Kai assumed was the curator's bedroom. In the winsome light of the moon the surgeon maneouvred past the narrow doorway, her hair shot by silver strands as she laid Piersen gently on the generous, unmade bed.
The moonlight bled the colours from vision, rendering Piersen's sleeping figure in highlights and shadows like finest marble. Smoothing out the fringes of brilliant white from her face, Kai watched for several slow breaths with her Pygmalion gaze, her heart caught in her throat.
You are so incredibly beautiful, do you know that?
With those words came a deprecating smile. Hell, you can't even hear me - but this could be the closest we'll ever.get...
Temptation whispered insistently to every fibre of her being and Kai gave in willingly to its seductive call; bending over, she brushed her lips across the sleeping woman's forehead in a lingering touch.
Pulling on her jacket, Kai let herself out of the house, never seeing Chris' shocked expression in the shadows of a darkened doorway.
Lesson in Inebriation - Part IV: The Hangover
Indulging in a yawn that sent his heavily muscular frame to almost bursting, Chris sauntered into the living room after a fitful night's sleep and was confronted by a peculiar scene.
He rubbed his eyes. "Piersen?"
"I feel terrible..."
The slight figure sat on the couch with her head in her hands, groaning in a low, feeble growl reminiscent of an injured cat. A perplexed frown remaining on his face, Chris approached his sister and sat heavily beside her, taking in the details of this most miserable morning tableaux.
He picked up the empty wine bottle, mute testimony to the cause of his sister's discomfort. "Piers, did you finish that all by yourself?"
"Uh - " There was silence as she struggled for words. "No. I couldn't have. Kai dropped by last night, I think. She helped me a bit."
Yes. Evidently. A brief moment passed when conscience and propriety struggled with curiosity - and curiosity won. "So... how long did she stay for?"
"I don't know." With a laboured sigh, Piersen collapsed back into the couch, eyes closed against the feeble light of the morning. "She came to say goodbye before leaving for Cambridge. She musn't have stayed long - she had a plane to catch this morning."
"Just a goodbye, huh?"
There was no artfulness in Piersen's blank look. "What?"
He gave an exasperated sigh. "Come on, Piers - don't make me drag this out of you word by agonising word."
Piersen's slim fingers pinched the bridge of her nose, her brother's voice settling as a throbbing ache in her head. "Chris, I have no idea what you are talking about. Please don't bombard me with ridiculous questions, not now..."
Chris frowned, watching his sister wrestle with what seemed a gargantuan headache. There was no way he had dreamt what he saw last night - there she was in Piersen's bedroom; bedsheets rumpled, the doctor bending over his sister with a kiss as she dressed...
God, Chris - how in the hell are you going ask her about it??
He shook his head, defeated. It certainly explained why Piersen was so defensive about their relationship that day at the hospital. You could have told me, Piers - you know I've always been on your side.
Another voice in his mind snorted. Yeah, I'm sure she'd trust you here, acting as Mum's emissary.
Damn it, I should have known. At least I could have tried to get to know the doctor better.
Chris never thought his sister would be... well, like that - seeing as he was always the one at university fending off aspiring bluebloods who wanted a date with her. Those flaming society papers, painting her like she was a cow to be bred off. At least they left her alone after she got married.
Another thought occured to him. Maybe that's why. Maybe she just wants nothing to do with men anymore, after being with that piece of low-life...
At least there was a reliable professionalism about the doctor. Well, we might have to rethink the professional bit, considering she's bonking my sister... But there was a sense of ramrod straightness about her nonetheless - he considered himself a good judge of character, and even if this new revelation would never make the report to his mother, he still would not change his positive assessment of her. Still - I didn't Piers would go for someone so... cold.
Not to mention - well, good god, a woman??
I guess it's another reason why she doesn't want to go home. And all the more reason his plan absolutely had to work...
Realising he was staring, he settled beside Piersen and tried to regain some levity to the situation - reaching out, he ruffled her hair with a sigh. "Ah, Piers. My little pisspot."
"Don't be mean. I'm never drunk." Another groan. The hands returned, this time kneading her forehead. "I'm not surprised, considering this awful headache..."
"Welcome to the rest of the world." With a brief grunt, he pushed himself off the couch, making his way to the kitchen for a glass of water.
Piersen remained on the couched, her head cradled in the crook of an elbow. "Ick."
"Here. Drink lots of water." He was unable to stop a soft laugh from the pathetic groan that issued from Piersen's huddled figure.
"You're laughing? I'm sure that if you came along for drinks last night, I'd be the one standing here trying to haul your sorry ass into the shower."
"Well, I guess it's a pity I had work to wrap up then, isn't it?" There was no remorse in his grin whatsoever.
Piersen reached out feebly, laying a harmless slap against her brother's stomach. "Speaking of which... I have to get you to the airport..."
"Not until tonight. But you do have to get to work, Piers."
"We're having dinner before you go, right?"
"Yeah." He rose to his feet, making room for his sister to wallow a little longer in the privacy of silence.
"Thanks for hauling me back to bed last night."
There was a brief hesitation in his step before he continued to the bathroom, not quite knowing what to think.
Forty-Two - Epiphany
Cambridge was mizzling.
From Laine's extravagantly furnished apartment, Kai stood with a resolute frown marring her forehead, watching the narrow streets surrender into a sea of rainwater mottled by the constant, gentle fall of rain. The stretch of terraces and roads receded into an enigmatic white haze, an ethereal mist that hung in a light pall over the sleepy university town.
She was dressed in her regulation pyjamas - tight singlet top and briefs, despite the sorry state of the weather. The skies were barely coloured by the rising sun, casting a sickly wan light over the tall doctor's dark skin. Her bed stood behind her unmade, the sheets giving silent testament to a restless night of tossing and turning, with precious little slumber.
Three days had barely passed and already Kai was feeling restless, though certainly not for want of something to occupy her time. Lectures and talks filled her daytime hours, which were quickly followed by discussion soirees and gala dinners which stretched interminably into the night. Were it not for this small re-negotiation of her accommodation arrangements, Kai was sure she would have gone insane.
Funny. Not too long ago I would have loved every minute of this. Her pale eyes reflected a kaleidoscope of rain as she continued to gaze outside the window in thoughtful contemplation, feeling decidedly out of sorts as she silently fumed.
I hate mizzle, she snapped, allowing herself a measure of childishness that only served to worsen her mood.
"So morose, Kai?"
Laine's husky bedroom voice floated across the muggy silence. It came from her doorway, and from the reflection in the glass pane Kai could see her friend leaning against the frame, an ice-blue satin robe wrapped tightly around her slender body. The solemn grey eyes were on her, unwavering, a stark contrast to the lighthearted, teasing tone of her voice.
Kai laughed a short, humourless laugh. "Who's morose?"
"You are. You've been sitting there with a long face for the past 5 minutes."
Blue eyes followed a small Vauxhall as it appeared and disappeared down the sopping road. "I didn't realise I had an audience."
"You're standing by the window half-naked, darling. Surely you expect people to at least stop and stare." Kai could hear the soft smile that touched those words. She sensed Laine move closer, her bare feet falling quietly on the plush carpet towards her. "What's wrong?"
Kai scowled. "Nothing's wrong."
"Don't be so fearsome. That expression becomes you too well." Laine walked up behind her, her small hands finding the pressure release points on her shoulders with old familiarity. She pressed deeply, knowing that the tense shoulders required much more than gentle prodding, and heard the hiss of an indrawn breath.
As if by magic, the tall, tanned body seemed to give way momentarily, the long legs buckling as the powerful massage kneaded deeper and deeper into her shoulders. The dark head slumped, exposing the vulnerable nape of her neck as Laine continued, taking full advantage of her friend's Achilles heel.
"You can call her, you know."
A muffled groan, followed by a word grated from between clenched teeth. "Laine..."
"Don't Laine me." She chided brusquely, affectionately, fingers working the tight ridge of muscle from neck to shoulder tip. "I've seen you eyeing the public phones... really, I don't mind getting the bill. Go ahead."
Kai chuckled briefly. "You're not meant to be indulging me, Laine."
"Who said anything about indulgence? That's up to you - I'm just telling you to talk to her." There was a smile. "Where is that mind of yours going?"
"The way you're keeping up with that massage, it's probably puddled around my feet by now."
"God, you're so easy." She shook her head, smirking with wicked humour. Her hands continued to work at her friend's back, admiring the muscles that were almost a work of art beneath the clinging cotton singlet. She quipped, offhand, in her best talking-about-the-weather tone. "When was the last time you had a good bonk anyway?"
That woke Kai up almost immediately. She turned abruptly; the beautiful, planar face caught in an expression somewhere between shock and mirth. "Laine!"
"No, I'm serious. You're hardly a nun, and with all this angst you have about Piersen..."
Kai gave a resolute shake of her head. "That has got nothing to do with her."
"What, nuns, or a good bonk?"
Kai levelled her a sullen glare, but her lips were twisted with barely-suppressed amusement.
"Okay - that was bad. But I'm saying it might help you a bit. These points are good to release pressure, but they do absolutely nothing for the libido."
"Don't mind me, Laine. I can look after myself."
Blonde eyebrows shot up. "Oh dear. Has it come to that?"
Kai was unable to restrain a laugh, but quickly composed herself as she rolled her shoulders, feeling the lightness of the muscle with distinct gratitude. "Thank you for the massage - but if you will excuse me, I have a phone call to make."
"Okay, but keep you hands where I can see them, Kai."
The glacial blue look was devastating. Almost. "You are disgusting."
"Thank you." Her throaty laugh tickled Kai's skin as she leaned over, placing a light kiss on her cheek. "Ciao, darling. Oh, and breakfast is in the kitchen."
And she left, leaving Kai alone in the room.
Cicadas sang in reedy chirps, an unseasonally balmy night casting a humid veil over the darkening Sydney skies. Piersen sat at her modest dining table with a salad roll, a mug of coffee and the evening paper for company, picking at her dinner with dejected disinterest. The crumpled newspaper was testament to a distracted communion with the news of the world, leaving the blonde woman wondering why an ex-British colony should have so little news of its continental home.
She twirled a sprig of julienned carrot in her fingers before guillotining half its length with a vicious chomp by neat teeth. Seems like everyone's gone back to England, except me.
With the departure of both her closest friend and her brother, James had been most solicitous - too solicitous - in keeping her company, though it seemed the more he offered, the more determined she was to turn him down. I am capable of being left alone for a few days.
Besides, Kai is due back soon. Three more days now...
It had struck Piersen several times over the past few days how incredibly fluid the perception of time could be. It feels like an age since I saw her last - and this is just me. Can you imagine what her family would think, having to deal with this several times every year...?
Her family. Surprisingly, thoughts of the doctor's family had seldom crossed her mind since their initial acquaintance - yet even now, despite all the unknowns it was somehow accepted without question that Kai surely had a family somewhere; perhaps a sibling living nearby, or at least, a lover or boyfriend...
That house she lives in is surely large enough for a whole family, let alone two people. And I would hardly think she has trouble getting attention; I mean, look at her - an image of her friend flashed before her eyes, her smile blinding the glare of the morning sun against the Parrramatta River - she's stunning.
Piersen's brows knitted further, taken in by the train of thought. I had thought she was attached to Doctor Foster... but I guess I was wrong on that count. In truth, she had thought Kai and the older man to be terribly ill-matched; they would never have anything to talk about, for a start - they're both so quiet...
No, the imposing surgeon would not do well with someone so much older than she was. She is old-fashioned in some ways, true - if her taste in music was of any indication. Yet within the forbidding sophistication lay so much playfulness; it was obvious that Kai had a very active mind - and an active body too, Piersen remembered, the vision of the statuesque silhouette executing gravity-defying movements running clear in her mind's eye.
Well, not that an older person would be incapable of those things as well. Her mind added hastily, not wishing to offend even in her internal monologue.
It's just that she knew that... well, she just knew.
Piersen was not well aware of any of Kai's acquaintances that were - younger. Except... what's her name? Giselle. Even then, she is clearly involved with Dr Foster. All the other doctors at St. Vincent's seem so crusty and old, so there aren't any other people she knows that are her age, really - at least, none that I know of, except...
The single name came to her in a deafening epiphany, the synthesis of a new connection in her synapses almost blinding her in its obviousness.
By golly. Could Kai have been involved with Laine?
The meeting at the harbour; the casual touches in the Red Room; Kai's easy, relaxed manner around her; such obvious evidence of a complex history between the two - it all seems so clear! How could she have not realised...?
Her mind stubbornly raised a few caveats to this leap in logic, yet everything else seemed to ring jarringly with this new concept. James' voice came back to her, speaking words the significance of which eluded her until now. Maybe she is an old girlfriend...
Why was it so surprising? Laine is slim, beautiful, with a dynamic personality she could only hope to emulate... of course Kai could love someone like her. She won me over within the space of minutes that afternoon, at the Fish Cafe - and she has known Kai for years. Her attentions must be devastating...
Heck - if I were gay, I could probably go for her. No less someone with impeccable taste like Kai...
That is, assuming that Kai is that way inclined...
She didn't know how to react to that conclusion. Instead, Piersen sat in silence in her chair, her salad forgotten, her eyes faraway as a multitude of thoughts crammed the bellowing quiet in her mind.
The sound nearly made her leap out of skin, making her aware suddenly of her momentary absence. Flustered, she grabbed the phone and mustered control over her voice.
Piersen melted into her chair, losing the tension that had unknowingly taken over her body. "Hi you."
"Is this a bad time?"
"You know, you always ask that. It's never a bad time with you, Kai. Never. No. Not at all. I was just - " Thinking of you, trying to translocate you back here through sheer will. She smiled, marvelling at the timing. " - about to tuck into dinner."
"Oh. Well, go ahead and eat."
"Kai, I don't think you are paying international rates just to hear me chomping down the phone line."
Would it be so peculiar if I did? "Well, I was hoping you'd put up with me having my breakfast."
"Sure. Probably the closest thing I can get to sharing a meal with you at this rate." Piersen chuckled. "What's for breakfast?"
"Scrambled eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. Rich, satisfying and thoroughly unhealthy fare."
"I'm impressed, Kai. Room service?"
"Uh, no." A brief pause. "Laine cooked. I'm staying with her for a little while."
"Oh." Having breakfast at her house...? Maybe relegating her as an old girlfriend is far too presumptuous... A thousand questions, statements, jokingly meaningless but probing remarks flashed past her mind but she was unable to articulate a single one of them, caught in the purgatory of curiosity and embarrassment.
Kai smiled, misinterpreting the silence. "What was that a mouthful of?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Piersen teased, for no particular reason, only so she could hear the doctor's reply.
"It's that exciting, is it?" And indeed, the smile was audible - warm, rich, like the touch of the afternoon sun inside her.
"Piquing your interest?"
"Perhaps. You going to make it worth my while?"
"Worth your while? What are you willing to give me for that information?"
"How about a weekend trip in the country?"
"I was wondering when that would come up." Piersen smiled, pleased. "This weekend? You'll be back?"
"How about it? It's a public holiday long weekend, so we have a bit more time. I can come pick you up on Saturday morning."
"What shall I pack?"
"You're the one that brought up the challenge. I'm sure you are more than resourceful to figure it out."
A soft voice called in the background - one that was indistinct, but the timbre had identified the quite speaker clearly. The chain of conversatio thus broken, Piersen stalled, not knowing how to proceed.
There may have been some slight discomfort in Kai's voice. "I have to go."
Piersen swallowed; feeling suddenly, irrationally close to tears. "Come back soon, Kai."
"Soon as I can. Be well."
Had she been more in control of the situation, Piersen would have heard Kai's voice drop to a whisper, an aural caress that touched her as surely as that brief pang that threatened to overwhelm her. But it had been enough for Piersen just to hear the words - a glow sparked within her, spreading along with the power of her pulse even as she smiled.
To Be Continued...
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