By JuneBug <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Please see Page One for Disclaimers.
That Saturday morning, Piersen took no chances. She waited with poised anticipation, seated on her couch with a Piersen-sized backpack sitting beside her, freshly caffeinated and awaiting the now-familiar footsteps that would appear on her doorway almost any minute now.
She frowned at her watch. Five past nine. She's never late.
Her foot itched to tap out an impatient rhythm on the floorboards. The upcoming trip to the countryside was something of a light at the end of the tunnel for her - the past gruelling week without either her brother or her most valued friend by her side was made more difficult with several occurrences at work which had required her complete attention.
Piersen heaved a sigh, glancing at the slightly battered and dried single stem of a rose on the table. Some more complete than others.
It had come as a total surprise. What she had thought was a simple business dinner with Pacific Energy had ended up being a rather intimate dinner for two at one of Sydney's most expensive restaurants, with a charming but rather-too-eager Andrew Bryant apparently at her beck and call. How did I get myself into this?
She twirled the withered flower in her hands, remembering
The Bennelong was at its sophisticated best that night. Muted lights the shape of exuberant waratahs cast evocative shadowing across the concrete vaults of Joern Utzon's almost-living structure, giving a subtle air of theatricality that was appropriate for the restaurant of the Sydney Opera House.
Piersen and Andrew sat at a corner table - that is, the junction of two panes of the enormous windows scanning a magnificent view of the harbour by night - waiting for the waiter to attend them.
Looking about, Piersen felt somewhat underdressed amongst all the theatre-goers who were dressed in full evening attire, all partaking of their pre-concert meal. She regarded her own reflection in the window for a moment; worried that her hair, which had been tamed down with a touch of lacquer, might have gone horribly askew.
I look like I've just come from work. Which would make sense, considering that's exactly what I've done. She adjusted her hem of her conservative wool skirt, which modestly skimmed her knee. The sombre charcoal colour was given an elegant vibrance by her burnt-fuschia top with a wide, shallow neck.
Shaking off an uncomfortable niggle in the back of her mind, she turned to matters at hand. "Where are your colleagues, Mr Bryant?"
"Please, do call me Andrew." He smiled, reminding her of her own invitation not a week ago. "Since we will be working together, shouldn't we do away with such formalities?"
Piersen nodded politely even as her mind hesitated, not quite knowing the best way to reply. She took a mental step back. "My assistant curator - James McLoughlin - sends his apologies. He had another engagement to attend tonight."
"I'm sure we will have another opportunity to work together some other time." And the matter seemed to be dismissed, quickly forgotten as he reached for the menu. "Would you like some wine?"
Piersen hesitated while her mind flitted back to a recent misspent evening with wine and its aftermath. "No, thank you. I'll take orange juice." She glanced at his face, noting that it had fallen slightly. "Please don't let me stop you from enjoying your dinner, Andrew. I'm only trying to keep my mind clear while I answer any of your questions about our arrangements."
"Don't you think " He moved in closer, his face glowing from more than just the candlelight. "We could move away from business negotiations for just one night?"
This was the second time Piersen was at a loss for words. She felt control of the situation escaping her and suddenly realized that she had probably missed the true intent of tonights dinner all along.
"May I interest you in some flowers for the lady, sir?"
The timely interruption caused both dinner partners to look up abruptly, into the smilingly solicitous face of a florist bearing a basket of roses. The brief silence was quickly overcome as Piersen gave a polite shake of her head, but was overridden by her companion's exuberant flourish as he reached for his wallet.
"Why, I think you may."
Piersen shivered, feeling the chill of the moment come and pass her by.
The remainder of the evening was spent attempting to divert his attentions to something other than herself with as much graciousness as she could muster. The pervading thought through the night was the fact that she could not afford to antagonise the representative from this very valuable contract - one she repeated silently over and over as a mantra to keep her from walking out within the next heartbeat.
I feel like such a mercenary. A small voice, however, came up with a more damning assessment. Or a prostitute
In retrospect, the disastrous evening should not have been such a surprise - Piersen knew she was guilty of playing the game, perhaps more overtly than she would like to admit; a compliment here, the slight brush of the hand there such was the way to establish deals and get contracts signed. He wasn't even unattractive - heck, this could have gone any way I wanted it to...
She shook her head, feeling absolutely nothing within her remotely resembling interest in Andrew Bryant. Golly. It seems the only thing that gets my heart rate up nowadays is a jog along the quay.
She sighed, feeling the loneliness of the past week expand within her like a balloon, almost swallowing her up from the inside. What am I looking for anyway? He's good looking, and attentive - it doesn't have to be meaningful, right? Just a quick fling while I wait
She stalled, the rest of her sentence lost. Wait for what?
The knocking on her front door jerked her from her reverie. Finally - Leaping to her feet, Piersen bounded down the hallway and, before the door had time to open fully, had her arms wrapped firmly around her friend's neck in a tight embrace.
She released her, the joy on her face remaining despite her attempt at a stern expression. "You are late."
Kai suppressed a grin as she glanced at her watch, still swimming in the sensations of this sudden, exuberant greeting. "I thought I was early. Nine-thirty, wasn't it?"
Piersen stilled. "You're joking, right? Here I was thinking "
Kai chuckled, smoothing out her friend's consternated features with a brief touch. "Hey... how are you?"
The brief contact dissolved the twinge of annoyance that warped the joy of the moment - and Piersen smiled, the bubbling sensations brimming over once more. "I spent a week missing a very good friend, damn you."
The surgeon laughed, masking a trace of nervousness. "I intend to make it up to you this weekend. Feel up to it?"
"Getting rough and dirty?" Gesturing for her friend to remain, Piersen ran to her living room and re-emerged with a massive backpack strapped to her diminutive frame. She grinned, settling the bulky weight on her shoulders with a quick jog on the hardwood floor.
"You have no idea."
Kai held open the door, refraining from smiling as far as she
The Range Rover ricketed along the dirt track, driving up a trail of dust in a fine red plume behind it in its wake.
Piersen couldn't remember when exactly they had left the asphalt highway behind - it had been two hours of chatting and laughing, retelling the horror stories from her past week and rejoicing that finally, Kai was there to joke with her, laugh with her. The next thing she knew, she was looking out the window and the buildings and houses of the city were gone - receded like a tide to give way to rolling hills covered by fields of tall dusty grasses. The scenery stretched out as far as the eye could see, marked out by old wood-and-wire fences that stood testament to decades of faithful service.
The sun was high in the sky dotted with sparse pillows of cloud that, in some places, seemed to reach down to earth. The colours in this wild, empty country were sun-bleached greens, greys and browns blended with the rich ochre red of the road and stunningly blue sky. It was like a scene straight out of an Arthur Streeton or Frederick McCubbin painting - painters she had studied long ago back home.
Back home. Piersen mused to herself, feeling the words jar a little in her mind. Strange here I am now, in the middle of country Australia. A year ago it could have been whoop-whoop for all I cared and now, this has become home.
Along with the change in scenery, Piersen noticed her friend's demeanor change along with it - her posture relaxed, her laughter more generous, the ever-present tension in her face fading with every passing moment. She's comfortable here. And I'm not surprised to see why... She smiled, shifting in the leather of the seat as she observed the flurry of passing countryside. "Where is this place?"
"We're in the Hunter Valley, northwest of Sydney." Kai's sunglasses reflected the stretch of unsealed road ahead of them, the deepening ruts in the track creating a jumpy ride. "It's quite popular with the tourists - some of the larger towns see busloads of visitors every hour wanting to drop in on the farms and wineries nearby."
"I don't suppose we're going to one of those towns?" Her hands gripped the edge of her seat, holding firmly against the bumpiness of a road which no tourist bus could hope to traverse.
"No." Kai's lips curved into a smile, her hand curling lazily around the steering wheel keeping the land rover on course. "Not unless you want to, that is."
"I'll go wherever you take me."
"You have no choice. You're in the passenger seat. Unless you're willing to get out and walk...?"
To complement her suggestion, Kai pulled the land rover up alongside one of the endless miles of bleached fences and engaged the handbrake in abrupt punctuation.
Piersen gave her friend a look. "I was joking."
The doctor's face remained expressionless for a moment longer, then eased into a full grin. "I know. We need to get past that gate there."
Piersen followed the brief nod of Kai's head as she got out of the car - and sure enough, a battered metal gate broke the monotony of sun-drenched wire and wood. It marked the beginning of yet another dirt road which, flanked by a guard of swaying cypresses, wove slowly up an incline to disappear over the crest of a hill. The sheer scale of the distances was finally put into perspective when she saw Kai run up to the gate to work briefly on the crude latch - a small figure that stood starkly in the foreground of an infinite landscape.
She leaned out of the window, humour colouring her expression. "Do you want me to hold that open?"
"Nope, I'm fine." Kai called as she ran back into the car, leapt behind the wheel and quickly drove past the gate before the weighted hinges pulled it closed. She started along the road, following the dips and peaks of the rolling landscape, regarding the horizon with some expectation.
"You might want to take a look at the view past this hill here - it's not too bad."
Slowing down, they rounded the crest of the hill then watched as the landscape dipped into a vast valley, pocketed by surrounding swells of land that rose in a gentle wave back to the unending blue. Along the skirts of the sloping banks were rows upon rows of grape vines that scored the hillside, the undulating gradients looking as if they were chasing the sun itself, disappearing into a fine haze as the sky met the distant trees.
Not too bad? "Golly, Kai - this is incredible." Piersen breathed with quiet, luminous wonder. The car regained some momentum, following the track as it wound along the ridge of the hill - a journey that exposed to view a large stonework house at the base of the descent, rimmed by shaded wooden decking.
The curator pointed to the homestead. "Is that where we're staying?"
Kai glanced at her with some surprise. "No were roughing it out, remember? We'll just be leaving the car and our bags there." There was a significant pause. "Considering someone may have slightly overpacked."
"Hey! You'll be sorry when you find yourself up a creek without a paddle, Professor."
"Oh, so that's what you have in there." Kai muttered, her words lost in a chuckle - though it was not lost on the curator's keen ears. The remark earned Kai a strong swat on the arm from her companion as the car continued along the remainder of the track to end in front of the house.
The doctor sounded the horn in greeting and the front door opened promptly in response, ushering in a short, fine-figured woman of about sixty years with ash-buttery hair. She stepped out onto the wooden decking, waving as Kai helped her companion from the car. She was dressed in well-worn jeans and a loose cotton white shirt; her hands, weathered by work and sun, were being dried on a wrinkled kitchen cloth.
Meeting them halfway, the older woman extended a hand to grasp Kai's arm in a warm hold. "Hello dear."
"Hi." Kai nodded, a bashful tug in her crooked smile as she clasped the hand with her own, leaning down to chastely kiss the woman on the cheek.
Piersen looked away as the two intently regarded each other, feeling decidedly like an intruder in this exchange. The silence remained that way for a long time; the spell broken only when the older womans attention turned to her.
"This is Piersen, a very good friend of mine." Kai responded to the unspoken question, drawing the curator closer into their circle. "Piersen, this is my mother."
Surprised into silence, Piersen could only stare as the older woman conducted what seemed to be an equally thorough examination of her. She could feel the weight of those dark eyes - the colour of the rich Hunter soil - resting on her face, reading the contours and lines of her features like a palmister at her craft.
And then the scrutiny was over; forgotten as Piersen found herself enfolded in a warm hug. "Lovely meeting you, dear. It's a pleasure to have you."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Jamieson," She stammered, feeling as if her voice had not been used in days. Her mother...
"So formal. You must be from out of town." She laughed then - sounding so much like that same rich, generous laugh that Piersen knew so well that it set her immediately at ease. The older woman wrapped her arm about the curator's slim shoulders and drew her into a slow walk towards the house. "Call me Micheline, dear."
Kai's voice drifted from behind them, accompanied by the soft crunch of footfalls on gravel. "Piersen's from London. They do tend to be a bit formal over there."
"Ah..." Micheline's voice trailed off, a conspiratorial gleam in her eyes. "Don't worry, we'll look after you. Come in, and I'll show you around."
They stopped in the welcoming shade of the verandah with Kai following close by, setting a few bags down on the worn wooden decking.
"He's got a group together preparing for the harvest tomorrow. He wont be around for lunch, but he promised to be back before dinner. Micheline eyed the luggage. "Is there more?"
Kai shrugged. "Just a little."
Why don't you go unload the rest of your things and move it into your room? I'll help get Piersen settled."
Kai nodded, reassured by Piersen's smile just as Micheline led her new charge into the comfortingly dark interior of the house.
"So, dear, tell me how you know Kai..."
The stubbly grass crackled under her feet as Kai walked the trail towards the stables, feeling the setting sun at her back. The air was already beginning to cool - the only sign of deepening autumn in this perpetually sunburnt landscape. Her eyes scanned the area for the workmen she knew to be working for her father, but there was only the light breeze stirring the bushland around her.
I'll have to bring Piersen here for a walk sometime. Kai noted, seeing the beginnings of a walking track which she remembered to be particularly scenic. The thoughts of Piersen unwittingly brought a smile to Kai's face, who breathed a sigh of relief - not her first since arriving home. At least she didn't run away screaming at the thought of spending an afternoon with Mum. In fact, they seemed to be hitting it off over lunch.
At my expense, of course. Her mind ruefully annotated that last thought, wincing internally at the childhood stories her mother had dredged up.
Her footsteps slowed as she approached the stable doors, noting that they were left slightly ajar. Dad must be bringing the horses in. She listened intently for signs of other people about, then pushed firmly at the door.
The barn door opened with a feeble protest from ancient hinges, and Kai stepped within the relative darkness.
Sunlight bled between the cracks of timber like water streaming from cupped hands, casting broadening wands of light across the hay-strewn dirt floor. The air was heavy with the scent of manure and grass - stirred by the quiet snort of horses as they stood calmly chewing their feed. The horse in the first stall - a deep chestnut mare - eyed Kai steadily as she approached, remaining still when the doctor opened the gate to stand by her side.
"Hey, girl." Her fingertips roamed the curve of the
horse's jaw, the touch triggering memories from a time where that same hand was infinitely
smaller; belonging to a girl who stared into large, liquid eyes with wonder for the first
time, held securely aloft by her father's strong arms.
"Hold it like this - that's right. Now give her a good brush."
Gripping the brush tightly, the dark-haired child made a concerted effort to emulate the strong, broad sweeps demonstrated by her father, but the instrument slipped from her grasp and dropped to the ground. Despondent, the girl stared at the fallen brush even as her father hefted her weight to one arm, then knelt to retrieve it.
Her solemn gaze remained on the brush now replaced in her hand, then turned to her stubby fingers. Tiny smudges of eyebrows knitted together into a grumbling frown.
"My hands aren't as big as yours."
"They will be one day." Sensing the dissatisfaction, he reached for the offending object - but Kai held on to it fast.
Tom Jamieson's face softened, and fitted the worn leather strap once more around his daughter's palm. "Again."
Feeling the memory wash over her, Kai found herself smoothing her thumb over the worn wooden handle in her grasp, acutely aware of the snugness of the strap gripping the back of her hand.
She smiled. And again.
The years seemed to melt as she began work, combing the sleek coat of the animal with steady, almost hypnotic movements. It's been too long. Kai smiled, feeling her body finally settle into the rhythm of her strokes. Such was the sensation of home - the gentleness with which time passes, the way the pace of life revolved under a different gravity. And to think I've been spinning out of orbit all this time...
The horse snorted, as if chiding her for her absence.
"I know, I know." She let out a breath, trying to release the stubborn splinter of guilt nestled under her sternum. She had been afraid at first, wondering how her parents would receive her having been away for so long - would they be happy? Ambivalent? Tearfully emotional? The fear was further exacerbated when Kai realised that there was only one excuse for her absence.
Work. Kai rolled her eyes. Bloody hell, it sounds lame just thinking it, let alone saying it out loud. Can you imagine? "Mum, Dad - sorry you've lost a daughter for nearly two years, but I've just had so much work to do..."
She shook her head, resting her forehead on the horse's corded neck in defeat. She knew she could take the easy option - her mother's warm reception gave her an out; this could be like any other visit...
Yeah, you would think that, you coward.
Strange while growing up it always seemed that parents held a certain agelessness. Even when Kai returned home during term breaks at university she still took for granted that her parents would appear after those months relatively unscathed. Yet seeing her mother today - Kai felt the jolt of time shifting as her mind's eye synchronised with reality, hammering home that actually she hadn't seen her parents since that one night after returning from Cambridge.
Sure, there were cards, photographs, the occasional telephone call. But they all seemed hollow in this reality - the gritty earth beneath her boots, the smell of horses and hay, the golden beam of sunlight falling obliquely against her back. She heard an echo of her mother's voice blending with Piersen's laughter... The stimuli came in waves, leaving her with the distinct sensation of having resurfaced - finding herself surrounded by loved ones, and the sense that too much time had already passed.
She steadied herself with a deep breath. Well, that's not going to happen anymore. Not if I can help it.
She had resumed grooming the horse for a few minutes when the barn door opened, revealing a silhouette of a tall lanky figure grasping the reins of another horse. The lean, weathered man stilled for a perceptable moment, then removed his slouch-hat, revealing a thick mop of sooty-white hair and startlingly blue eyes.
There was a gruff nod. "Kai."
Kai reciprocated, her hands continuing to work brisk strokes over the animal.
From behind her, she heard her father resume his course, guiding the animal into its stall. Then there he was - settling on the other side of the horse she was grooming, his practiced hands brushing the animal in perfect cadence to her own strokes. Their eyes met over the horse's broad back; his leathery face softened, not quite smiling - but the warmth in his gaze was smile enough.
With a purposeful grin, Kai refocused her attention to her task.
To Piersen's immense relief, the ability to wield a knife with dangerous flourish was not an inherited trait.
The curator stood with Kai's mother in a well-stocked kitchen, preparing the peaches for a clafoutie that was announced by Micheline to be Kai's favourite dessert. In contrast to her own cramped quarters back home, this spacious provençal kitchen held pride of place within the hand-built stone house - large iron and copper pots hung from racks spanning the ceiling, and well-worn oak benches lined the sandstone walls. Light poured in from the large windows that opened to the magnificent view of the valley, with the neat rows of vine scoring the lush hillside.
Laying aside the bowl of freshly-beaten eggs, Piersen watched Micheline carefully peel the peaches, allowing a generous rim of fruit to remain on the skins. "Do you have any other children?"
"No - Kai is our only child." She popped a sliver of the discarded portion in her mouth, and offered the curator a piece. "Yourself?"
Piersen accepted the fruit, then realised. "Me? Children? No - " Children - golly. She blushed, not quite knowing why she felt embarrassed. "No."
A soft laugh. "Don't like children?"
"Oh no - I love children. I just don't think I can..." A thousand images and sounds crossed her mind, and she nearly shuddered from the empathic pain. "...have one."
Micheline smiled. "You'll change your mind, someday."
"Is that from experience?"
"Oh yes. I balked at the thought of having children. But Tom was very persuasive." A suggestive hook of Micheline's eyebrow spoke volumes, causing Piersen to laugh, loudly.
"You'll meet Tom at dinner - he's been busy lately, trying to prepare for the late harvest."
"The late harvest?"
"Grapes. You're lucky. you've missed the madness of the main harvest; tomorrow's batch is for the sweet wines." Reaching for the beaten eggs, Micheline poured the mixture into the shallow dish containing the peaches. "Kai usually makes it back every year to help out."
So that's how she knows so much about wine. Piersen nodded, yet another piece fitting into place. "Does Kai want to have children someday?"
"Kai?" There was a moment's consideration, as if finding the best way to answer the question. "I've never seen her with children, to tell you the truth. But I'm sure she's got it in her. She keeps telling me she doesn't have time to keep a relationship, let alone a family..."
Micheline trailed off, the thought blending into several others as her mind returned to the task at hand. "Pass me the rum? It's over there, in that cabinet."
Piersen dutifully fetched, somewhat taken aback by the massive bottle of Bundaberg stored in the liquor cabinet. "A relationship? When I met her, my impression was that she was married to her job."
"That would be just like her. Takes after that father of hers, she does - work themselves to the ground. She'll settle down, once she's met the right person." Raisins followed the rum, just a handful - then the shallow dish was placed into the oven. "Are you married?"
Piersen looked up, startled. "Yes ... no, uh -"
She ordered her thoughts with a breath, and replied properly, more deliberately. "No, but I was."
Seeing the confusion on the young woman's face, Micheline laid hand over Piersen's in a calming motion. "I'm sorry - I ask too many questions sometimes."
"Its alright. Id prefer too many questions to none at all." Piersen smiled, releasing her surprise with a slightly nervous laugh. "I remember trying to get Kai to have a conversation with me..."
"Like pulling teeth, isnt it? She was like that from the beginning ... practically silent until she was three or so. We were worried, thinking that she didnt know how to speak." There was a hint of ruefulness in Micheline's smile as she poured out two shot glasses of rum, handing one to Piersen. "For a job well done. It's not every day I get someone to help me out in the kitchen."
Envisaging herself bawling Broadway musicals in front of Kai's parents, Piersen tried to politely decline but accepted after some friendly insistence. "Well, I suppose it's not everyday I have an occasion to help out in the kitchen. Last time it happened, I nearly chopped Kai's finger off."
"Ah - having Kai help out in the kitchen is not a good idea. Too many cooks - she has a tendency to want to take the wheel, and I run the kitchen in this household."
The two women offered each other a brief toast, leaning back against the comforting sturdiness of the kitchen counter as they gazed out the windows into the deepening light of early evening, quietly sipping from their glasses.
A silence settled easily between them - who would have thought? Here I thought Kai's mother would have been... something else. Not like this. She was grateful to find that Micheline had a unique brand of straightforwardness that was warm at it's heart. She also came to appreciate that from Micheline, she learnt much about Micheline's daughter.
"So... Kai was a bookish child?"
"When she wasn't outside, she practically grew up in the library." The older woman laughed, straightening from her slouch and gathered an arm around Piersen's shoulders. "And I never stopped thanking Tom for that library, because there's a creek just down over that next hill, and ever since Kai was two..."
They walked to the back verandah together, laughter drifting from the doorway luminous with the setting sun.
Four figures sat by a rough-hewn wooden table worn by use, their shadows falling onto the floorboards flickering by firelight. Kai watched the activity at the table with interest as she tucked into the remnants of dessert - Piersen and Micheline were conversing animatedly, while Tom sat slightly apart in easy silence, bifocals perched on the end of his nose as he read over a folded newspaper.
She started as her mother Micheline turned to her, noting a conspicuous silence from that end of the table. "How's the clafoutie, dear?"
"Beautiful. You'll have to give me the recipe before I go." The doctor dutifully took another bite, savouring the tangy burst of peach in the dessert.
"Not a chance. What else would I have to lure you back home?"
Tom's voice rumbled from behind the newspaper. "We'll ransom Piersen for the recipe."
Laughing, Piersen raised a questioning eyebrow at Kai. "Seems like you're stuck in a quandry, Kai. The clafoutie or our friendship?"
"I have very little choice." Kai heaved a sigh, lifting another forkfull to her lips. "I'll miss you, Piers."
The blonde woman burst out in indignant laughter and threw a rolled-up napkin across the table, hitting the doctor squarely in the face. Kai's features twinged briefly with a wince, as the unseen napkin ring followed the napkin and the fork to the ground.
Piersen was by her side in an instant. "Oh golly - are you alright?"
"I'm fine. Just lamenting that last bite." Kai picked up her napkin and wiped the smear of dessert from her nose. "You are getting too good at inflicting bodily harm, Piersen."
Fine-boned fingers traced the red mark on the side of the aquiline nose. Piersen relaxed a little. "Not that you didn't deserve it or anything."
The doctor's features remained artfully neutral. "I guess I have to settle for you by default now, don't I?"
Piersen chuckled softly - a brief shake of her head - before something caught her eye. "Wait - you got some on your chin."
Her hands found Kai's face and turned the blue gaze towards her. The intimate moment came and went, too quick for Kai to feel any acute embarrassment as Piersen's fingers brushed at her cheek, her lip, the promontory of her jaw.
"Are you sure youre not hurt?"
"Shattered." There was withering humour in her eyes.
"Goodness me, aren't we precious? All that from having a napkin thrown in your face?"
"A napkin ring, thank you very much." The doctor grinned, then tossed the offending object to her mother in an enthusiastic demonstration..
"Now now, dears. No more projectiles in the house, please. I already have enough trouble organising the stationary clutter we have lying around." Micheline caught the ring easily amidst Piersens helpless laughter, something in her gaze as she regarded her daughter who sat chuckling as Piersen gradually recovered.
Kais gaze flickered up and met hers ... and some silent communication seemed to passed between them, causing the doctor to straighten uncomfortably. It also drew Kais attention to the fact that she had Piersens hands clasped between hers ... with a subtle movement, Kai settled them firmly onto the table.
There was a subtle clearing of her throat. "We were thinking of heading out tomorrow. Can we take the horses?"
Micheline looked over to her husband who sat apparently oblivious, still reading his newspaper. She smiled. "Go ahead."
Kai directed a worried look at her friend. "You can ride horses, can't you?"
Piersen laughed, indignant. "I got a good English public school education I'll have you know. I can even rip up a steeplechase course side-saddle."
"You mean you had the time between practising your curtseying and going to tapestry class?"
"Hey - needlework kicks ass."
Micheline raised her glass to that one. "I agree."
Kai held up her hands in mock surrender. "Okay, you win - I'm not going to take the two of you on at once."
Tom Jamieson's quiet voice broke through the friendly commotion. "Want to try your hand at the harvest before you set off, Piersen?"
"The harvest?" Piersen smiled, looking to Kai for affirmation. "Sure, I'd love to."
"See you at six, then." Tom nodded, then rose to his feet, tucking his glasses away in his breast pocket. "I bid you a good night, ladies."
The three women watched him go, the silent observation broken by Piersen's wry comment. "Six, huh?"
Kai quirked a smile. "It's usually five."
"Well, we know where you got that gene from, then." Piersen laughed, absent-mindedly tracing her finger along the lines of the wooden table.
Micheline's expression remained enigmatic as she wordlessly gathered the plates together.
Kai stood on the verandah overlooking the generous valley basin, the surrounding hills bathed in moonlight that reduced everything to light and shadow. Micheline appeared by the doorway and hesitated, preferring to stand a moment and observe her daughter; the long body held a subtle tension even as ice-cubes tinkled idly within a loosely-gripped glass.
The older woman laughed softly, joining Kai by the wooden railing. "Now when did you grow eyes on the back of your head?"
"There's a third arm here as well. Must be the city air." She flashed a grin, then returned her gaze to the darkened valley.
Side by side, their contrast in height was starkly in view. There was a silence - uncomfortable on Kai's part, who shifted slightly while she wrestled with her conscience.
"Something on your mind?"
The timing of her mother's question was almost magical - or conspiratorial. Kai took a breath, not knowing where to begin. "Almost everything, I think."
Micheline laid a hand against her daughter's long, loosened hair; an affectionate touch. The weight of small hand made Kai's heart ache.
"We've missed you."
Kai closed her eyes, feeling them burn with emotion. "You'll have to teach me how to do that. Reading my mind like braille -"
"It's handy. Lucky for me, dear, you happen to have a very transparent back." There was a soft laugh, and Kai joined in with a slight grin. The hand on her hair shifted to her forehead; as if her mother was divining thoughts through some innate maternal instinct.
"You're looking tired."
"I had a few lectures in Cambridge a few days ago. The body clock isn't adjusting as well as I thought it would."
"How did they go?"
"Fine." Kai regarded her mother, fully looking at her for the first time since their conversation began; her skin was slightly darker than she remembered, her once-blonde hair shot with white, subtle lines accentuated her expressions. "You're spending too much time in the sun."
"I hope you're talking about my tan."
Kais concern faded into a laugh, liberating her troubled thoughts along with it. She regarded the horizon once more. "I've been away too long. I'm sorry."
"We've never been anything but proud of you, Kai. Wherever you happen to be."
"Well, now that I've finally got a few things settled at work, I'll try to be around more often."
"Oh dear. There goes the peace and quiet."
"Well, you know - I desperately need somewhere to drop the laundry. It's been two years..."
"Yes ... Laundry and clafoutie. Two things Ill always have to hold over you." Micheline laughed, drawing her daughter down to place a kiss on her forehead. "Shouldn't you be keeping Piersen company?"
"Ah." There was a meaningful pause. "She seems very fond of you."
"I'm very fond of her, Mum."
"You are." A question or an affirmation? Kai held that gaze that looked straight into her heart, trying to hear what her mother saying beyond her words.
"Does she make you happy?"
"Then don't forget to make her happy as well."
Her room. Kai smiled, fingers already finding the buttons on her shirt as she took in the warm wood-tones unchanged from her childhood. It was as comfortable as she remembered, and just as large - as if the room had grown with her even in her absence. The balcony doors were open, sharing the night air with the interior space and filling it with the light scent of the eucalyptus tree standing outside. There was the bookshelf - still filled with the books she used to read, standing beside the desk that she had helped her father build...
She moved through the room in darkness, feeling her way through with instinct alone as she changed down to her basic pyjamas and settled on top of the duvet.
The cotton sighed against her skin. Ooh. I really need to come home more often...
...Especially now that, well, Mum and I had a "talk". Kai raked her hands through her hair, gratitude suffusing her like a sigh. Just like that - absolved from her absence and forgiven just as quickly, though no doubt her own mind would bear the burden of guilt for a while longer. It was uncanny how her mother could just lift thoughts from her mind like that - sure, anyone could have guessed that I feel pretty awful for not being home more often, but the whole thing about Piersen...
"Don't forget to make her happy as well." Could I make her happy by loving her? The question loomed large in Kai's mind, jostled about by her conscience and her id by turns. Funny, isn't it? Towards the beginning - it seemed like there were so many barriers against pursuing her.
And now... what? Sometimes it felt like Piersen was so close all she had to do was reach out and draw her in - with a touch that was more than a touch, speaking more than her paltry words ever could. What do I say? What can I say?
I love you? Three words - a package deal, like chocolates and roses and Valentine's day. Cliched. She tried out the words in her mind again. I ... love you. I love - you.
Beyond the shadows looming over the doctor's semi-prone body a figure appeared, silhouetted against the illuminated night.
"It's a beautiful night."
It was Piersen. Her voice filtered through the night, its touch as soft as the light that cast a rush along the wooden flooring. Kai's face paled several shades, thankfully concealed in the darkness.
"Piersen ... what are you...? "
Feeling like she could jump out her skin, the tall woman was about to make her way to her feet when she was stopped by Piersen's hand on her arm.
"I was just doing some thinking outside, thats all. It was so lovely outside I decided to borrow your balcony." She sat on the edge of the bed, then faltered. "Do you mind?"
The moment's hesitation came and went. "Not at all." Kai obliged by shifting across the bed, allowing Piersen room to settle.
They lay there, side by side, in silence. A mellow breeze escaped the night and drifted into the room through the open window, stirring Kai's loose hair that partly obscured her nearly-bare shoulders. Piersen was propped up a little higher on the headboard, her hair still damp from the shower dripping onto the breast of her pyjamas. With her hands clasped together on her stomach, the blonde woman appeared a pensive angel, her hair a shock-blonde halo illuminated by a bolt of moonlight.
"Your mother's wonderful."
The tall figure gave up on her attempts to cover herself and turned to face her companion, watching her watch her hands. "She likes you. I'm glad you get along."
Piersen smiled and nodded, falling back into their silence. The errant call of crickets was hypnotic, magnifying the presence of one woman to the other.
The curator remarked quietly, almost to herself. "Micheline isn't a very Australian-sounding name."
"My maternal great-grandparents came here from France last century and bought this property - they built this house and started this vineyard along with several others in the region."
An incredulous look. "You're part French, and you never told me?"
Kai shrugged. "I guess it never came up. Is it important?"
"Not really..." Piersen paused, mulling over this new tidbit a little, then decided to tease. "It's just that, you know - French people have always had that certain allure."
The doctor met her friend's playful smile. "I am several generations diluted, Piers."
"No... it's just that every time I thought I had you figured out, you come up with something new." She chuckled a little to herself, a touch of bewilderment in her voice as she continued. "I never picked you to be the country girl, you know. You seemed to me the very creature of urban civilisation."
"Surprise." Blue eyes betrayed the humour in the deadpan expression.
"Did I ever tell you I like surprises? Good ones, that is."
Kai's eyebrow hiked up in inquiry. "Oh? And am I a good one, or a bad one?"
"I'll reserve judgement for now. You're a bit of a mixed bag, Kai. I've yet to figure you out properly."
Kai's response was light-hearted, but her intent was sober. "There's not much to figure out, Piersen. What you see is what you get."
"But that's what I see." She reached out, tracing the smooth line of the tanned forehead. "A crystalline enigma. Transparent, yet never quite so - "
"In the right light even plain old glass can look more than it's worth."
"Plain old glass? Never. Old, perhaps, but never plain." Piersen tweaked gently, withdrawing her touch with an impish grin, which faded with a little denouement. "You've always been beautiful, Kai. You could move an artist to despair, trying to find the right light for you."
"No light, maybe." The doctor joked, feeling her friend's words touch her too deeply.
"No - you are better in light and shadow, a half-light... like during a - "
" - Sunrise?" Kai joined Piersen at her conclusion, both laughing as they said the word. Piersen allowed her head to rest on the headboard, her smile easy as her thoughts wandered. "If it weren't for you, Kai, I wouldn't ever have known what a sunrise could be."
"We all need our corrupting influences."
"Yes - now you are mine, just like Laine is yours."
The mention of the platinum blonde's name seemed to sap away the momentum of the conversation - leaving a vacuum of silent thoughts that crowded Piersen's mind.
"I enjoyed meeting your family, Kai. It helped dispel the enigma a little." For someone so private, I really appreciate that. "I'd often wondered, you know."
"About my family?"
"About you. Where you came from, your parents, your childhood..." She ran her hands against the wood of the bedside table, a sensate affirmation to where she was. "Now I can see how you grew up. What made you the way you are."
"Not as warped as you thought?"
"No... I see a wonderful family." Piersen paused, wondering whether or not to continue. "Parents who miss their daughter very much."
Kai felt an internal twinge - just as I deserve, I suppose. To hear something in your heart is very different from having the same thing said aloud by someone else - and a pang of guilt struck her once more. "When I was at university, I tried to make it back at least once every year, for the harvest. It became a bit harder when I went to Cambridge."
"What about when you came back?"
"I came back one night for Christmas. The whole mess with my appointment was about to blow up then, so it was all the time I could comfortably afford." She took in a breath, then let it out in a slow rush. "I've called since then, but... it's been about two years since I was last here."
"They don't visit?"
"My father hates the city. It sets him on edge."
Blonde brows knitted slightly together. "And yet you ended up there."
"He knew I needed the city to... I don't know. Grow." Kai reflected briefly on her choice of words, wondering how much she had in fact changed, if at all. "He wanted me to follow my own course, but it was hard for him. He knew he would lose me once he sent me away."
"He hasn't lost you - you're still his daughter. And he's very proud of you."
"Yes, but I think somewhere, he hoped that I would come back to the country. Set up a quiet practice in town and marry a local boy who can take over the vineyard after he's gone."
A local boy? The question bounced around in Piersen's mind for an eternal second. "What are they like? The local boys?"
"I wouldn't know. I haven't dated one since I was seven, and that lasted all of half an hour before he got thrown from my horse..." Kai smiled to herself at the memory, which abruptly faded with another realisation. "Why, are you looking?"
"Not really." Not for a country boy, anyway. "But it never hurts to keep your eyes open."
"No, I guess it doesn't."
The curator's eyes looked at the ceiling - at the bed, anywhere but at Kai. "What about in the city?"
"In the city?" The doctor chuckled softly. "You'd know better than I do, Piersen. I haven't taken a lover in years. "
"Not since Cambridge. Not before, even."
Kai's words hung between them heavily, like a fog that refused to break until Piersen looked up, something unspeakable in her eyes. "Do you ever feel lonely?"
"I asked you first." There was almost a challenge there, daring her to back down from answering.
She gave it a moment's consideration. "Not so much now."
The answer was so ready to be spoken, Kai didn't have time to miss a beat. "Now that you're here."
Their eyes met over those words ... and betrayed emotions that now lay too close to the surface, too close to be voiced. Piersen looked at her hands, unable to bear the promise in that glance.
The taller woman sighed, knowing she had overplayed her hand. "I'm sorry. That was too - forward. Of me."
The words trailed off into silence but it was interrupted by a quiet movement. It was but a second - swifter than the closing of eyes, softer than the weightless fall of a feather to ground - so it was to Kai's surprise that Piersen had reached for her and kissed her, lightly on the mouth.
"I'm sorry - " Piersen swallowed, her face flushed even in the shadows as she withdrew. "That was too forward of me."
That was...The tingle on Kai's lips remained like a blessing while her heart waited for its next beat to begin. But her body couldn't wait - despite the shock still evident in the numbness of her fingers, Kai touched that blushing cheek and brought Piersen's unresisting body towards her.
Her lips were still parted ... as if the next breath had been frozen, snatched from the current of time. Kai touched them to hers gently once again - but more lingeringly, wanting to imprint the sensations of her kiss beyond any denial. And for a heartbeat Piersen seemed to melt into her - but the moment passed and the contact fell away along with it.
Kai found her voice, hoarse with roused desire despite herself. "Don't apologise - I don't regret it... at all." Darkened blue eyes caressed Piersen's face, wishing that she could meet that beautiful gaze, turned away from her. "Do you?"
"I don't think so - I dont know..."
Kai felt a sharp pang at the confusion on Piersen's face; at a loss, her hands found the concerned lines and worried over them gently. "Shh. Dont think about it. Dont think about anything..."
"It's not... it's just, its - " Green eyes squeezed shut, as if trying to block out thoughts that suddenly became too loud in her mind. Curling around the surgeon's hand that was still on her cheek, Piersen turned to her side and bundled up against Kai, suddenly feeling so cold ...
"Hey..." Sensing the internal conflict, Kai took the edge of the doona and wrapped them both up in a snug cocoon, feeling the slight body close to her gradually give up its tension.
When Piersen felt Kai wrap an arm around her, it felt like it was the most natural thing in the world - the enveloping warmth of her presence melted her close to her, until she was lost in that sensation against her ribs, against her arm, her thigh - the slight breath tickling her hair as Kai pressed her lips to the crown of her head. It was almost dizzying - so much so that she had to close her eyes to centre herself, lest she became lost in it.
Piersen slowly gained control over her breathing and her heart, quietly inhaling the scent of the taller woman imbued within the cotton sheets. Laying her head on the broad curve of Kai's shoulder, her arm somehow found her friend's waist and slipped around it, feeling the firmness of abdominal muscles beneath the clinging singlet. Gradually she allowed herself the awareness that she was being held by Kai - my friend. My friend, whom I just kissed. Who just kissed me...
She took in a steadying breath, eyes still closed. "We'll need to sleep if we're going to wake up in time for tomorrow."
Kai nodded. Slowly, slowly, she allowed postural muscles to uncoil, giving way to Piersen's weight which moulded further into hers.
Forty-Five - The Education of Piersen Evans
Piersen stirred, turning into the sheets with a faint frown already bemoaning the unwelcome morning.
The presence of a solid, warm body beside her, however, caused green eyes to flash open with rude suddenness. Black pupils zeroed into points as the light streamed into her retina, bringing with it the image of Kai Jamieson beside her, asleep.
Wow. Her eyes roamed the lazy stretch of body that laid beside her in repose, following the smooth contours of arms and legs obscured by a rumpled doona. The looseness of that arm, its warm fleshy underside lying prone against that striking face; the soft line of her lips... everything resonated such an indolent sensuality - one that moved Piersen far more than she could ever have expected.
Is this what your lovers got to see? Just how incredible you are... A sharp pang shot through her chest then - a sweet pain that was both stirring and troubling. The full realisation of last night's kiss came to her in a ball of emotion that was impossible to untangle; even after the restful night's sleep her heartstrings were wound tight within the memory.
Green eyes fell on those lips once more, a touchstone for her thoughts. I felt them, last night. Their weight, their softness - for a moment life was breathed through that kiss; and it stirred sensations that she could not have conceived the significance of before...
The half-whisper shocked Piersen, who flinched almost guiltily as Kai's eyes fluttered open. The gaze, however, was warm and alert - there was no chastisement for her quiet observation.
The blonde woman took a breath, and her face melted into a tired smile. "Very well. And you?"
Piersen gave second thought to the brightness in those blue eyes. "How long have you been awake for?"
"A little while. I've been dozing off in fits and starts for the last hour." But boy did I sleep well. It felt like the first in a thousand years. Kai squinted beyond Piersen's body to the beckoning light outside the window. "I think we may have missed the beginning of the harvest."
"Oh. Your father will be disappointed."
"There's still time to catch up, if we're quick. Did you repack your things into the riding bags for camping?"
"Yes." Piersen rolled her eyes, hearing all too well the subtle prod in the doctor's question.
"Okay - we can take our things with us to the harvest, then." There was a small huff of breath, and then Kai was up and standing, smiling down at her friend. "I'll meet you outside in twenty minutes?"
"Come on, lazy bones. Out you come." With a mighty pull, Kai hauled Piersen out of bed and onto her feet.
Kai and Piersen strolled from the house, backpacks hanging heavily over their shoulders. Their feet scuffed along a rough trail cut into the grass that led a clearing by the grapevines. There was a utility parked nearby, and a table was set up where Tom Jamieson and several other men sat, eating their morning tea quietly - the steaming cups of warm caffeinated beverage spiralling delicate tendrils of steam into the morning air.
"Break time already?" Kai prodded good-naturedly, a crooked grin firmly in place. Her voice brought a dozen pairs of eyes towards them, a few grunts of recognition.
"We got a bit done." One of the burly-looking labourers replied, his smile brilliant against his grizzly tanned skin. "Hello Kai. Good to see you."
"Malcolm. How have things been?"
"You know - the same. Who's your friend?"
"This is Piersen." Touching the curator on the shoulder, Kai introduced her to the men gathered around the table, who duly dusted off their hands before giving hers a firm shake. With a slight nod of his head, Tom motioned for the men to scoot further over onto the bench, allowing room for the two women to join them. Mugs of tea and coffee were passed down, along with muffins and biscuits.
"This is delicious."
"Oh yes. Mrs Jamieson makes sure we live it up."
"I hope she gets help baking for everyone during the main harvest."
Malcolm managed a response between generous bites from his biscuit. "No, not really - there's only thirty of us at most. Not like the way it used to be."
Kai moved to explain. "Dad used to own a few of the other vineyards in this area. He cut back his involvement in the other ones when he retired and downsized this one to something more manageable as a hobby."
"Every year we get out about - what, a thousand litres of the good stuff?" The large man supplied. "The botrytis we manage about two hundred. We're booked out for the next six years on pre-orders alone."
"Sounds like you have an enviable reputation amongst your clients."
"The soil and grape here were considered to be some of the the finest in the region. The market went into a frenzy when Tom announced the permanent cut in production."
Kai winked at her father. "Keep it up, Mal. I don't think Dad's head is big enough yet."
The friendly banter continued sporadically amongst the people gathered around the table until Tom Jamieson's voice finally cut into the conversation.
"Ready to start up?"
Kai nodded. "Whenever you are."
"Alright. Malcolm, you and your team work on lot five. Gavin, Sam - take your lot to six and seven." Tom turned to his daughter. "The first two sets over there are half done, Kai - how about you and Piersen finish them off."
"We can do a bit more than that."
"You might want to set out earlier- you don't want to ride when the sun's up too high."
"Thanks." With a nod, Kai grabbed one of the bags lying on the table and, with Piersen's answering smile, headed for the far end of the vineyard. A heightening sensation on the back of her neck told her that their retreat was being observed by a dozen pairs of eyes - some curious, others more appreciative. Their uncomfortable scrutiny kept the two women in silence as they passed between the rows of greenery.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.
The curator's footsteps beside her were conspicuously loud, preluding a rising curiosity. Finally, she spoke. "Was he...?"
"He seemed very nice."
"He is." The taller woman stopped at the beginning of a row and laid down the workbag. "His wife and eight children think so, too."
Piersen blinked, then laughed. "No regrets?"
"Not yet, no." Kai hid a grin as she rummaged through the worn bag, producing a tiny sickle, the wooden handle worn smooth by years of use. The edges of the blade, however, converged on a wicked point that remained convincingly sharp. "You know how to use this?"
Piersen eyed it with suspicion. "No. Are you sure you didn't steal it from one of your operating theatres?"
Kai laughed. "Okay, so they're a bit outdated. How about you try the clippers instead?"
"Now these are a little more civilised. I no longer have to fear for my fingers." The curator groused, turning the tool in her hands before directing an arch look at her tutor. "Do you just get a thrill out of having a naked blade under your fingers?"
"I was taught with these. Some things just stick with you, I guess." She shifted Piersen in front of her, and brought her down so that they were both kneeling in front of the grapevine. "Here, let me show you how it's done."
Any intent to concentrate on Kai's tuition quickly left Piersen's mind as she felt the doctor's arms encircle her. The weight of the taller woman's elbows touched the intimate curve of her waist, guiding her arms towards the vine. A voice in the back of her mind told her that the doctor could easily have done this squatting beside her, but she was hardly complaining, enveloped in the taller woman's scent and presence. Those large hands covered her own, and her breath was on her neck - a bright plume of translucent white in the still-chilly morning.
Golly - it's not like she's never touched you before. Why choose a moment when she has a practical weapon in her hands to swoon?
"...Good, Piers. Now see this part of the stem - aim for this part when you're cutting..."
Piersen attempted to rein in her over-enthusiastic internal voice. I'm not swooning. I'm just... affected.
Yeah, like you were affected when you decided to kiss her last night, silly girl. Her thoughts dissolved as the memory came to her in full force, so much so she had to close her eyes to steady herself.
Something in Kai's voice effected a prod to her wandering thoughts. "Are you paying attention?"
Not really. Shaking the daydreams from her head, Piersen gathered herself. "Of course."
What followed was two hours of rigorous, back-breaking work. Kai's gentle, instructive pace gradually evolved into a fiercer, more competitive rhythm as Piersen gained proficiency; eventually leading them to work furiously in parallel across between two rows of vine. Arms darted about in a flurry of movement gilded by the occasional metallic sheen of a moving blade, backs were hunched over the low-hanging fruit, and feet kicked impatiently at the large crates that moved as they moved, collecting the harvest.
Now, however, the frenetic activity had faded over the greenery. Plastic crates heavy with fruit lay dotted along the path of the vines awaiting collection, trailing up along the slope of a hillside to the end of the vinerows. To where Kai and Piersen were - hot, sweaty and panting from exertion.
"Ohhh... Kai - "
Kai smiled and redoubled her efforts, her own heated breath rasping between her teeth as she did so. "Better?"
"No - " Piersen groaned as Kai's fingers dug into her deeper. "I don't think I can move ever again."
The doctor looked speculatively at the stretch of back that she had been working on, realising nothing she did could soften those paraspinal muscles. "How about you lie down for a while?"
"Uh, no, Kai - you don't understand. I don't think I can move."
"Ah." Clear blue eyes regarded the blonde woman, who remained doubled over in an uncomfortably crooked stance. Testing out her own worn muscles, Kai took two steps up to Piersen and proceeded to scoop her up into her arms.
The curator whooped with surprise and delight, dropping her mantle of exhaustion for a few bright moments. "Kai! What are you doing?"
"Taking us for a rest. There's a nice place just past this hill." Kai's breath chuffed lightly against Piersen's hair as the doctor began trudging purposefully against the gentle gradient. The smaller woman was thrilled and embarrassed at the same time - the latter came without reason, she knew, but it was enough to make her feel self-conscious, even as she revelled in the strength of Kai's arms around her.
"I'm too heavy for you. Let me down."
"No, you're just right. Besides, something tells me it will take much longer if we waited for you to get moving."
She laughed. "Now I sound like a beached whale."
"Never." Kai tightened her hold as an emphasis. "In fact, I'm thinking I feel a little too much bone under this lovely skin of yours."
"You should be grateful then. I'm making this climb far easier for you." Piersen laughed, then sighed as she settled into Kai's shoulder. "So, do you charge time, or mileage?"
"Neither for now. I'm not quite ready to quit my day job to become a pack animal." The tall woman flashed a brief grin, breathing up a little between her teeth. She rounded the remaining distance of the hill and paused at the crest, stopping when she heard the slight wow from beside her ear as Piersen regarded yet a new valley; this time bisected by a distant bending river. A lone oak tree heavy with age stood sentry on the slope overlooking the scene, its leaves almost translucent against the late-morning sun - brilliant greens touched with the beginnings of gold.
"This is beautiful, Kai."
"I think so too. On foggy Winter mornings the entire valley can be filled by white mist - those hills there become islands in a sea of cloud." She shifted her hold slightly, feeling her grip slip a little. "Think you can make the downhill?"
"Yeah." Helped gently back on her feet, the blonde woman cast a look back over her shoulders towards the vines, mindful of their morning's work. "What will we do about the grapes?"
"Don't worry about that." Standing at the crest of the hill, Kai turned towards the vines and wolf-whistled a peculiar rhythm, the shrill blast echoing across the valley. Piersen watched the tall figure gesture for a few moments, then return to her.
"Useful way to communicate."
"Indeed. The other thing is, the truck can give us a lift back to the stables after they pick up the grapes." Kai's smile was white in the late-morning sun. She laid a light touch to Piersen's elbow, leading her towards the solitary oak. "You're pinking up a bit. Let's get you into the shade."
They sat beneath the tree, the streaming late-autumn sun scattered by the leaves to fall dappling golden on their skin. The breeze stirred Kai's loose hair, the dark tendrils reaching past the distance between them, tickling Piersen's shoulder. In the slight valley below a brisk river flowed, the clean rush of water against smooth-worn rocks providing a gentle accompaniment to their quiet communion with the countryside.
Piersen's had been following the deep grooves on the tree bark, her fine hands tracing the trunk to gnarled roots that peeked between the even carpet of grass. "What's an oak doing in the land of eucalyptuses?"
"My great-grandfather took a cutting from his home in the Loire and planted it when he first settled out here." Kai's sky-blue eyes crinkled at the corners as she surveyed the overhanging branches, betraying the slight curve of her lips as a smile. "It was home to him, and kind of like home to me. This was my favourite place when I was growing up."
The tousled blonde head turned to face her friend, half a smile hidden by the round of her shoulder. "Tell me more about your childhood."
"Aside from that one disastrous date of mine?"
"My childhood..." Kai took in a breath, slightly perturbed by the request though trying valiantly to find a place to start. "I don't know - I guess I was like any other kid growing up here."
"You're the only one I know from around here, Kai. I'm afraid you'll have to be the one that does the telling."
Kai chuckled briefly - an aural caress from deep in the throat - and leaned back on her elbows, sifting through the sands of memory. "When I was little, I thought this hill was a magical place. Because of the tree, I guess - oaks tend to stand out around here."
Kai paused, swallowing past the inherent discomfort of talking about herself - but continued on.
"I had friends at school - but I never really gave them much thought. I usually went home and read my dad's books... I'd pack them in my bag and ride out here, just sitting in that niche there, between those two tree roots." She pointed at the shallow dip, the bark slightly thinner there than elsewhere.
Piersen turned, running the palm of her hand against the smooth wooden hollow. "It's so small..."
Kai chuckled. "I was only about eight or so."
"I couldn't imagine you as a child, you know." Actually - I can. Just a smaller version of you - just as serious, and probably just as surprising... "Your mother said you hadn't changed one bit."
"My mother talks about me too much." The dark-haired woman smiled ruefully, picking at a blade of grass
"Hey, I'm not complaining. You're turning into one of my favourite subject materials."
The doctor raised an arch eyebrow, her voice artfully contrived with withering humour. "You and my mother... What was I thinking, bringing you here?"
Piersen's expression reflected her friend's a moment, then grew serious, her voice softening perceptably. "What were you thinking?"
"That I wanted to spend time with you. It didn't really matter where." The gentleness in her voice shaped her lips into a smile. "But I'm glad you got along with my mother."
A silence fell, heavy with unspoken intentions. Piersen felt an increasing weight on her chest, as if the air itself had become thick, collecting into a ball in her throat.
Piersen took in an awkward breath. "So... do you often bring your friends here?"
"Oh, I haven't for a long time." A smile touched Kai's planar face in spite of herself. "Maybe a few boys earlier in my time."
"'Boys'?" The arch tone was matched by a gleam of curiosity in Piersen's eye.
"My last victim was Malcolm, and he was nine at the time. That would make him a boy."
Exasperated, Piersen could only shake her head, her attempt at nosing into her friend's past love life being temporarily thwarted. "What about older boys?"
"Older boys? I work with a department full of them." Kai allowed a short, rueful laugh. "Sixty year-old terrors, bickering in the conference room like it was the old school yard. Sometimes I wonder whether I should bring a riding crop in to whip them all into line."
The image flashed before the curator's eyes in a provocative instant. "Kai!"
The doctor frowned, puzzled by Piersen's vehement reaction. "It's merely speculation. Besides, I'm sure it was the very same corporal punishment in their formative years that's responsible for their elephant hides and thick skulls."
"I would think they used canes."
"Oh." Finally realising her error, Kai had the good grace to blush, only lightly - but enough for Piersen to delight in her small victory. Shaking off her embarrassment, Kai finally gave in to Piersen's not-so-subtle probes into her romantic past.
"There were older boys, but I would have never brought them here. Most of the ones in high school were afraid of me - and there were plenty of other girls who were far more receptive than I was, so I never had any trouble with unwelcome attentions." She paused, appearing to dredge deeply into her memories, and a new expression came to her face - one of a knowing bemusement. "It was different when I started med school. Most of them knew I was young for my cohort. A lot of the boys thought I'd be a bit naive when it came to their attentions."
"Naive isn't something a word I would apply to you."
"They didn't know me like you do." Kai shrugged, her fingers running absently scythe-like against the waving grass. "Unfortunately, they mistook naivete for easy, and I'm definitely not that."
The hook in Kai's eyebrow told Piersen just how thoroughly she re-indoctrinated her suitors.
"They learned to leave me alone after a while. I preferred it that way, but they managed stir enough curiosity to the point where I'd actually take one of them up on a date."
"I imagine they were overwhelmed?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure. I just know that without their bands of friends around them, the bluster and bravado fell away pretty quickly. They became nervous little boys again - shifting in their seats and bumbling with their conversation."
Oh Kai. I'm sure they were overwhelmed - Piersen smiled, easily picturing the scene, but kept her thoughts to herself.
Kai pursed her lips, reflecting on her own narrative a little. "They still are like that, sometimes. Once in a while a visiting fellow would try to initiate dates on the pretext of some academic meeting or another. Like what your Andrew Bryant did with you."
"So you did understand. I thought there was something wrong with me."
"There's nothing wrong with you - a bit clueless, maybe." The warmth in Kai's smile was reflected in the touch of her hand. "You're a beautiful woman, Piersen. You just don't seem to realise the effect you have on people. I remember James pointing out the legions of admirers you had pining after you on the opening night of that exhibition."
Piersen coloured deliciously. She thinks I'm beautiful? "I did?"
Kai nodded. "Yep."
"And... all night, you decided not to enlighten me?"
"About your admirers?" To be honest... "I didn't really notice - I was distracted myself."
"You, Doctor Jamieson, distracted? Isn't that an occupational hazard?"
"Lucky for the patients, Piers, beautiful women in stunning evening gowns don't tend to frequent operating theatres."
The appreciative intent in her gaze spoke volumes, and Piersen's lips pursed in a silent oh. She licked her suddenly dry lips, feeling a slight flush creeping to her cheeks. "Have you always found women... beautiful?"
"Well, I know you are."
The blush deepened. "I mean, have you found them... attractive?"
"Yes, I have before." Kai considered her answer further, and added, "That said, If I ever met a man of quality, I might probably be just as interested."
"Surely you have met some men of quality in your distinguished career?"
"Yes, but women have always been so much more... interesting."
Piersen noted the deliberate vagueness, playing along quite readily. "Interesting?"
"Interesting. Attractive -"
"Beautiful." They spoke together, each following the circuit of their conversation back to its origin, laughing as they met at the word. Piersen broke off with a small deprecating smile, a temporary separation from her own awkwardness. "I... I'm just - I've never thought about it very much before."
Kai leaned back further into the trunk of the tree, considering Piersen's words. "Most people don't. I practically ran a randomised controlled trial, just to find out where I stand."
The hint of ruefulness in Kai's answering gaze settled Piersen somewhat and she laughed a little more freely. "Well, you're certainly not like most other people."
The doctor's lips teased a grin. "Is that a good thing?"
"You're far more of a nerd than anyone I've ever met." The gentle tone of her voice smooth out any harshness that may have been misconstrued. Piersen's hands reached out and found the lock of Kai's hair that obscured the doctor's face, and brushed it back with affection. "What happened to your trial?"
Kai shrugged, practically mumbling her reply into the golden canopy above. "It was far easier for me to find women desirable. It was an inherent error I couldn't correct for."
The words were clinical, but her tone was not - there was a note of wistful rememberance in Kai's voice that spoke to Piersen of years of pain and joy and everything in between.
Piersen leaned back into the rough trunk of the tree, shoulders touching shoulders. "I have to be honest, Kai - I'm not sure I want to run a study."
You don't? Kai swallowed against the sinking feeling in her stomach, torn between the million-and-one uncertain thoughts that statement implied and Piersen's tantalising closeness.
She carefully modulated her response. "Oh?"
"I - I don't know if it would be a very good study."
"Well, I'm no scientist... but they do say that to increase the statistical power of your study, you need to have a significant sample population."
She paused, turning her head so that their eyes met in a brief contact. "You know, just so you know for sure."
"I know a study like that could be long and gruelling - so many samples to take, such intense analyses... though I'm sure I could at least handle that part of it." There was a subtle lilt in Piersen's voice now - musical, playful. Kai felt the cold grip on her stomach slowly release itself, but kept her gaze on Piersen, trying to decipher exactly what her friend is trying to say.
"My problem is," A fine fingertip began to run idly on Kai's knee, drawing delicate, aimless patterns against the soft moleskin fabric. "I'm already far too distracted..."
A smile dawned on Kai's face, meeting the shy, green gaze that peeked from beneath a stray blonde fringe. The moment robbed the taller woman of a suitably witty reply and for want of better words, Kai reached out, her surgeon's hands enveloping and blending with Piersen's meandering touch.
There was a kiss - though this time, it was the slight brush of lips against Piersen's knuckles. No more words were required then - their hands entwined, the two women were happy to bask in the quiet, threaded through by the distant sound of a truck's approach.
Forty-Six - An hour in the mind of Piersen Evans
The sound of a stream rushing against rocks could be heard nearby as Piersen worked quietly around campsite, setting out the implements for the evening's meal. A half-day's worth of riding had brought them to the banks of this distant river, well into the belly of the valley, surrounded by sparsely-wooded bushland.
The clearing had obviously been used as a campsite before - a low ring of rocks blackened by previous fires marked out the centre of this roughly semi-circular space, carpeted by dirt, grass and fallen leaves. Their horses chewed diligently at the fine grass on the riverbank just beyond a palisade of paperbark trees, the chalky-white trunks forming a rough curtain filtering the colours of the setting sun.
Kai had once again surprised her with her casual yet intimate knowledge of the natural beauty they passed as they rode. The steady roll of the horses' gait allowed them the leisure to stop and investigate curiosities even as they made good ground - peering into wombat burrows, sneaking up to rock wallabies before they detected their scent. It became apparent that the Jamiesons owned vast tracts of the surrounding land - collectively referred to as "the property", a convenient diminution that was yet another example of that very Australian tendency to minimalise - moving from relative flat paddocks to rolling landscapes plunging into rocky cairns and that same, meandering river.
"The Wonnarua people are the traditional owners of this land, even though my great-grandfather bought the deed about a hundred and fifty years ago. We're lucky enough to have a good arrangement with the Wonnarua; but others have had a lot of difficulty coming to terms with the issue of land rights."
"Colonialism from an English perspective is very different to the indigenous peoples' view. They saw the colonisation of Australia as an invasion of the land, which they revered as the mother of all things. Their deep, spiritual connection with the land was beyond the comprehension of a lot of Europeans when they first arrived."
Kai paused, her eyes focusing on a distant point. "Misunderstanding bred a lot of distrust - and a lot still persists today. It was fortunate that my grandfather was a forward-thinking man: whereas many others in his time saw indigenous people as being classless and primitive, he realised that the Wonnarua knew more about the ways of nature than he could ever learn in a lifetime. He formed a partnership with them in developing this vineyard."
"Where are they now?"
"My grandfather's partner died in 1930, and his children used his earnings to start up an art and cultural studio. It used to be here, but they moved to Sydney about twenty years ago - it was very successful. Still is, in fact."
Their trail was barely skirting the top of a ridge when Kai reined in her horse, her distant gaze intensifying. Testing the air with her finger, she smiled faintly and dismounted, motioning for Piersen to do the same. "Here - let the horses rest a moment."
Puzzled, Piersen complied with a nod and followed Kai as she lead her horse back down the hill, leaving them to graze a while. "Won't they run away?"
"No, dad trained them well enough. Come back up the hill - I want to show you something."
Together they made their way up to the ridge again, their steps unwittingly cautious and silent - and there they were: just a few metres away and seemingly oblivious to their presence, five rock wallabies stood grazing, their awkward, sinewy bodies coiled for flight even as they lazily groomed themselves.
"We're lucky - the wind is coming towards us, so they haven't picked up our scent yet." Kai's voice was hushed, and she slowly lowered herself to the ground so that she lay on her stomach, elbows propping up her torso.
Piersen stared, her body frozen with rapt fascination - she had certainly seen pictures before but, like mythical creatures, never imagined she would see them as living, breathing beings. "Can we go closer?"
"They'll probably run away - but try approaching them slowly. And when they spot you, just stay put and let them watch you for a while."
With some anticipation, Piersen made tentative steps towards the animals, aware that her friend's gaze followed her as she went - laughing at me, probably. She was about twenty metres away when one of the lazier wallabies, previously lounging supine in the grass, swivelled its head towards her with a look of sudden wariness.
Remembering Kai's words, the blonde woman slowly sat on the grass cross-legged, maintaining eye contact with the animal. To her surprise, it rolled upright and came closer with a questing, curious nose, almost limping on ungainly-large hind legs towards her. It came as close as five metres, the black nose sampling the air as it went - then with a suddenness that shocked Piersen, it bounded away - and all the others with it.
Disappointed, the blonde woman remained in the grass, her eyes tracking the leaping group until they disappeared over a hill.
"I think that one liked you."
Feeling her friend's presence, Piersen framed a quick pout over her shoulder. "They ran away."
"These wallabies are very shy and skittish - it was surprising they stayed so long, or came so close." Kai smiled, then extended a hand. "Come on. If we keep riding, we might run into them again."
Laying out the last of their belongings, Piersen gingerly tested out her stiff joints and made her way to the river, finding purchase in a large slab of rock jutting slightly over and above the busy waters.
There was little direct sun left in the lowlands, though the afternoon warmth lingered a little in the air as Piersen reclined on her elbows, her eyes easily finding the lanky figure of her friend anchored securely in the middle of the river. Kai stood just beside a line of fishtraps, her moleskins rolled up exposing a significant length of her tanned legs. Her body was poised for action, eyes intently studying the directed currents for the silvery sheen of fish. Her hair, loose before, was tied into a hasty knot away from her face, revealing the chiselled profile hardened with concentration.
Green eyes shone with anticipation, remembering the doctor's earnest explanation of this most peculiar pastime.
"It's actually quite easy, Piers. The fish naturally migrate upstream - the fish traps work as a dam across the water to slow their progress, and guides them into certain passages along the span of the river."
Piersen eyed the clustered arrangement of rocks with some skepticism. "Where, hopefully, you'll be waiting for them. With your bare hands at the ready."
"Well, it'd be much easier if you could stand by at another fishtrap, in case they figure that there are many ways out and only one of me."
Piersen tried on her most winning smile, succeeding devastatingly. "I have every confidence in you, Kai. Besides, what fun is catching fish for dinner when there isn't a camp set up to cook and eat it in?"
Kai's angular features took on a wounded, defensive stance. "They're just fish, Piers. They don't bite."
"I know. They're just so..." A strained grimace. "Slimy."
"This from a girl who can order Japanese food like a native? I don't suppose we'll be having sashimi for dinner tonight."
"Not if I can help it, we won't." Piersen smiled that smile again, effecting far more than the weak threat in her words ever could.
A sigh came unbidden to the curator's lips, savouring the remembered moments. Indeed, it was easy to savour almost everything within her recent memory. This weekend had certainly shaped up to be a most unexpected experience - Piersen felt gratified and strangely privileged to be shown this most private aspect of Kai's life.
It was something she was surprised to be a part of at times, considering the strange contrasts of their relationship. There was still a novel rawness to their friendship that defied the inexplicable closeness she had always felt with Kai - yet it seemed that this dichotomy would dictate what was last night's most unpredictable behaviour...
What is in a kiss? Is it only in the touch of lips that a way can be found to voice deeper, wordless emotions?No - it could have meant anything; it could have been affection, friendship...
Another voice rationalised that rash statement. Yes, but if it were only affection and friendship you wouldn't be sitting here sweating over just how soft her lips were.
Piersen huffed in silent frustration. Her recalcitrant mind seemed to return to that particular thought like a compass to magnetic north. You've always known she was a desirable woman, Piersen. You just...
Never thought you could desire her.
A loud splash turned her attention outward, over to Kai who flashed her a sheepish, yet paradoxically lolling wolfish grin. Her forearms glistened with riverwater, now dripping from her fingers like silver.
Piersen couldn't help it but laugh; loving the childish affect in the woman. "Did I hear something about it being 'actually quite easy, Piersen'?"
"Give me five minutes, and you'll be having those words with your dinner tonight." With a smile that hovered between a threat and a promise, Kai reapplied herself to her task.
Promises, promises... The verdant gaze lingered a while longer on the bent figure, with Kai's teeth burning white in a superimposed afterimage. The smile seemed to make its way directly to her chest - so deeply it was almost painful.
How did it begin? In her youth Piersen had attended multitudes of masterclasses with exquisitely beautiful female models; perfect, limber nudes with flawless skin and Titian hair... she had sketched, painted and sculpted hundreds, lovingly recreating and enhancing each curve and swell in her chosen medium.
But it never ached like this - seeing the way the sun filtered through her hair, touching gold into black; the dense, velvety weave of the moleskins clinging to the perfect, immutable round of her glutei; the ache that came from thinking about Kai Jamieson in such a physical manner...
It wasn't the physicality. It was the medium. A part of her mind chafed at the reins under her new-found sensitivity to her desires, wanting to touch Kai in a fashion that was far from platonic - and just as vehemently another part of her mind recoiled from the thoughts, feeling uncertainty and self-consciousness befall her like a cold shower.
Cripes. Maybe I've forgotten what it's like to be with someone. It's been so long I may have gone frigid...
Someone, Piersen snorted somewhat ungracefully. Try a very female someone. When you moved to Sydney for a change, it wasn't exactly a change in sexual orientation you had in mind, was it?.
Another splash interrupted her thoughts - this time, it was a vigorous rush of water and Piersen's eyes shot up towards the riverbank. Still knee-high in water, Kai was caught in an arc of motion, her back bent backwards as she struggled with a writhing bolt of silvery sheen in her hands. The line of her body was taut with energy; one exuberant movement broken up instant by instant, each imbued with an incredible momentum, a powerful sense of life - she had mistaken it for the brilliant light from the sunset; but there it was...
The breath catches, time stops - that was the way it was meant to feel, when...
Piersen took in a shuddering breath, not realising she had been holding it, then broke into a self-deprecating grin. Golly, Piers. What is happening to you?
Who knew? All that was there was an exhilaration that coursed through her blood then - pulsing within her like a rediscovered heartbeat. It was a feeling beautiful and strange - and suddenly, it did not matter whether it was attraction, lust or being in love. Just giving in to it was, on its own, a revelation...
The sound of footfalls against grass ventured into her consciousness, and Piersen half-turned to see Kai hold up a pair of fish, each as long as the length of her forearm.
The doctor grinned. "How are these?"
The curator stopped in her thoughts, regarding the fish with some surprise. "They're huge, Kai."
"Huge fish for a huge appetite."
"Okay - then don't forget to catch some for me as well?" Piersen met Kai's playful gaze, adding a smirk for good measure.
"You're in fine humour this evening," The doctor knowledged with some amusement. Setting down the fish on a nearby rock, Kai picked up a filleting knife and twirled it in her fingers. "Come on. While you're living it up the country way, let's learn you some fish-gutting."
"What is it with you and sharp objects, Kai?"
"I can't be too forthcoming with my vices. I'll tell you on the third date."
"Third date, huh?" The suggestion in the blonde eyebrow framed her mirthful features. "You bring the wine, I'll bring the ute."
For Piersen, the stunned-mullet expression on Kai's face before she collapsed into laughter was a rarity to savour.
Forty-Seven - ZipLock, Stock and Barrel
The fish, gently seasoned and panfried, was long ago consumed with parboiled asparagus and a river-cooled chardonnay. What remained of it was now being washed away in frothy bucket of biodegradable soap - the plates gleaming like ghostly moons in the looming darkness of near-midnight.
Piersen squatted beside the river, dragging the cloth absently across the implements as she listened to the sounds of the evening. A few crickets chirped insistently over the rushing stream, dreaming of summer in the midst of autumn - she could feel a slight chill against her face, unprotected by her trusty polartec sweater. The campfire crackled a few paces away beyond the paperbarks - the very same fire that was mostly responsible for this surprisingly civilised dinner.
Green eyes turned to the flickering orange, which was now burning lower and more for light than warmth in this deepening night. They had spoken so much during the day that, by the time they settled in their campsite with dinner, Kai's voice had become hoarse and the curator's was close to it. Yet the silence was as comfortable as their conversation - looks and smiles became their new language that flowed with greater fluency.
Packing up the plates and cutlery into a cloth bundle, Piersen emerged from the darkness back to the campsite now cleared for sleep. Her attention quickly focused on Kai's figure, dressed in her pyjamas - though they were slightly different from what she had seen last night, the briefs having been substituted for long, loose pants. The doctor knelt beside the fire, tugging the sleeping bags from their sleeves.
Kai glanced up at her, not quite smiling. "Here I was worried that you fell in."
"No, I just wanted to make sure the detergent didn't get into the river. It took a little while longer." Placing the plates in their riding bags, Piersen pulled out her own change of clothes. "Do you need help setting those up? Otherwise I'll go get changed."
"No, I should be fine. You go ahead." Kai replied, her attention focused on the loose, padded material with some annoyance. Who ever used these last certainly forgot to zip them back up afterwards. After fumbling with the fasteners a moment, however, the problem made itself evident.
"That's why they weren't done up. The zip is broken." Kai muttered to herself, struggling with the small metal parts.
From just beyond the radius of firelight, Piersen slipped off her clothes and folded them in a neat pile, feeling the sharp bite of cold against her skin. Her gaze fixed on her friend with amusement and some appreciation, watching her wrestle with the first, then the second sleeping bag with complete concentration.
The firelight suits her, Piersen mused, her eyes roaming the expanse of skin that was revealed, then found her thoughts correcting her even as they began. No, firelight becomes her - the bronze of her skin may well have been wrought by the hands of Vulcan, harnessing the brilliant energy into flesh and blood.
Flesh and blood... with the flesh came longing, and with blood, desire. The shifting planes of muscle in Kai's arms and the intensity of her expression resonated deeply within Piersen's veins; and this same vibrancy stirred her newly re-discovered hunger. It roiled within her like a caged creature, bounded by a fear of impropriety and the need to maintain control, but it was the sudden ferocity of it stunned her - just as much as the realisation that she was standing almost-nude, metres away from her Galatea.
Embarrassed, Piersen quickly donned the remainder of her pyjamas and returned to the campsite, shaking herself free of the immediate effects of her thoughts. But her heart continued to thump painfully against her chest - reminding her of the desire that now lay closer beneath her skin, too close for denial. Too close for fear.
She approached Kai's cross-legged figure, feeling preternaturally aware of every move she made, and of the intense calm that came with the steadying weight of self-knowledge. "Are you sure you don't want any help there?"
"No - I've almost..." The taller woman shook her head, the furrow between her brows deepening - and just as suddenly, they resolved into a smile with a slight click of metal. "I've -"
"Kai - " Piersen knelt beside her friend, her warm touch placing aside Kai's hands even as she tried to re-engage the stubborn zipper. "Let me do this, okay?"
"But Piersen - I've just managed to..." Kai blinked, her words dying as she helplessly watched her friend undo all her previous efforts.
Piersen was acutely aware of the glacial eyes watching her work. Even as her heart leapt higher with the significance of it, her face remained impassive as she dislodged the metal tongue from the zipper, replacing it with the one from her own. She did not look up - the only sound between them was the crackle of the fire and the slow grind of the two sleeping bags being fastened effortlessly together.
Kai remained numbly on her feet, staring at the smaller woman. It took a pointed look before she jolted out from her haze, kneeling at the other end of the padded material to help straighten it out.
"You see?" Piersen's face was serious, and her eyes were steady with intent. "It works better this way."
The double-entendre was not lost on Kai; the earnestness of Piersen's expression gave little room for a quick, verbal escape. "I can be a restless sleeper."
"You weren't last night. And I know I slept better with your arms around me." No nightmares.
Kai felt her pulse rise, yet realised the ridiculousness of it. Who are we fooling? I want to hold her - and she is saying she wants me to hold her too...
Her own truth came unbidden to her tongue, "So did I."
Piersen smiled, her eyes bright with the pleasure that admission brought. Taking a step forward, the small, lithe figure wrapped her arms around Kai's neck and pulled them close, the lines of their bodies melding together. There was no real reason - yes, she wanted to breach that thin membrane of hesitation that hung between them - but it was simply for the sensation of the other woman's closeness that Piersen held her now.
"You make me feel wonderful." Her breath against Kai's neck, the brush of eyelashes against skin as green eyes fluttered shut, feeling the caged desire within her rise...
"You are wonderful." Long fingers found Piersen's jaw, turning her face towards her. It was different this time - given the tacit permission to openly explore what could only be surreptitiously admired before. Kai felt that jolt again - the shock of the other woman's perfection, the sheer clarity of that gaze that saw right through her, into her own stirring need to be close to someone - to be close to her.
Kai kissed her - tentatively, lightly - as if wanting to infinitely draw out that moment of anticipation. And Piersen returned it with equal tenderness, fingers finding the hollow in the nape of the doctor's neck, losing herself in the swirl of sensations holding her willing prisoner.
The flow of the kiss ended but Piersen was unwilling to part, pressing her lips to the taller woman's carotid pulse, feeling it bound and flutter between her touch.
A smile came unbidden as a thought rose in her mind, giddy from the contact. "I've been waiting for you to do that all day."
"You have?" Kai's hoarse voice, to her disgust, came out like a croak.
There was a playful arch of a blonde eyebrow. "Well, last night was my first kiss in about three years."
Three years... Kai tightened her hold around Piersen's waist, a gentle smile easing across her face. "That's quite a while."
"I'll catch up to speed soon enough." She brushed her lips once - twice - more against Kai's mouth, lingering as she whispered, "Hold me tonight. Please."
Yes. Tonight, tomorrow - every time you ask, it will be yes.
Postscript: This will be my last update for at least four months, I'm afraid. ("So what's new?", I hear you ask) I will be overseas until March 2002 and my access to the internet will be unpredictable (but anticipated to be very limited) - I can still be contacted with the email address above but I hope you will bear with me if I am unable to reply for a while.
I hope I am not abusing the updates list if I drop a note there once in a while to catch you up on my travels. In case I don't get another chance, keep yourselves safe and well, and see you all in March (hopefully with page sixteen!).
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