By JuneBug <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Please see Page One for Disclaimers.
Thirty-Five - Sonata: Introduction and Exposition
"Hello. Come on in." Piersen opened the door, watching the tall woman nod and smile slightly before entering.
Pausing to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light, Kai surveyed Piersen's home from the short length of hallway, noting the combination of clutter and furnishings that seemed restrained and spartan even in the narrow dimensions of the terrace house. There was a sense of transience in the bare fireplace and empty bookshelf, in the neat stack of boxes on a far wall that patiently awaited unpacking - despite the overstuffed couch and the well-used coffee table that seemed to bear the brunt of living. Past the couch stood a folding wooden screen, an arbitrary division that delineated the living space, and hinted at more beyond at the same time.
The blonde curator folded her arms, a bemused expression on her face. "Welcome to my abode."
The words sank into Kai's mind, reminding her that she was staring. She smiled a little in apology for her lapse. "Nice house."
"Come on - I'll show you the rest of the place." A light touch on Kai's shoulder as she brushed past, urging her to follow.
She stepped around the screen. The kitchen lights were illuminated to full brightness over the counters, accentuating their stark bareness save a meagre collection of utensils, a cutting board and a loaf of bread. A modestly sized dining table sat at the far end of the house in a glassy alcove which jutted out into a garden bounded by sandstone walls, a tiny oasis in the forbidding terrace row. Highlighted by washes of pale light, the garden walls seemed to glow of its own power, revealing a simple, geometric pond bounded by flagstones that slowly merged into a well-raked rock garden.
"Not a greenthumbs?"
Puzzled, Piersen followed Kai's gaze towards the glassy walls and laughed. "No - definitely not. The only thing that really needs to be looked after is the Japanese maple in the far corner, which is great for someone like me." She held up her hands, examining her fingers with a dismaying grimace. "Though I don't hold much hope for that tree either. I can kill grass without really trying."
A silence descended. Kai walked over to the kitchen, her severe heels sounding too savage against the wooden floor, and indicated the items on the bench with a brief nod. "Hope I haven't interrupted your dinner."
"Not really. I was just going to cut up some bread. Would you like some?"
"That's your dinner?" A dark eyebrow raised in a querying look. "Didn't they ever teach you about the five food groups?"
"Well, I've got some camembert in the fridge. That's two food groups."
"Dairy and mold." Kai teased gently, then motioned for the refrigerator. "Come on, let's see what you have in here."
Now it was Piersen's eyebrows that hiked up in surprise. "You're going to cook for me?"
"Do you trust me?" The curator's smiling look was met by an unsettling gaze from veiled eyes.
"Of course, by all means." She gestured expansively. "My kitchen is yours."
Following the generous sweep of her arm, the taller woman scanned the shelves before stopping on a small stash of soy sauce packets. She held one up gingerly. "I take it you like sushi."
"Yeah." Was that embarrassment playing on the edges of that laugh? "My one guilty pleasure."
Kai's voice lowered a fraction. "Only one?"
There was a startled pause, then a laugh. "Why, you intending on corrupting me?"
"We all need our vices." With a brief smile, Kai pulled out a cook's knife from the carving block and laid it on the counter. Measuring her bearings in the modest kitchen, she proceeded to rummage around intently, disappearing behind the doors and panels that masked her consternation. What are you doing, Kai? Cooking her dinner, making casual conversation... dodging what you need to tell her, you bloody coward...
She let out a sigh, obscuring it with the loud clatter of the trays in the refrigerator. Damn. It was never this hard...
Piersen looked on as the doctor moved around efficiently, adding assorted items to a growing pile beside the cutting board. So absorbed did she seem in her task that Piersen felt content to observe her - the subtle tension in the ankle tendons as she knelt, the strong arch of her body as she leaned into the glowing refrigerator. She has that look when she's concentrating really hard - just that little crease between her eyebrows, fighting off a frown; almost glowering with those pale, pale eyes.
She smiled, allowing another thought to take over. I wonder if she would let me draw her. I have all my pencils and books here...
The sound of the a rushing tap woke her from her thoughts, and she found the doctor rinsing out the a handful of carrots. Moving in behind her, Piersen brushed against the jacket-covered back, feeling a slight jump in the muscles as she drew closer. "What are you up to?"
"I raided your vegetable drawer." Kai scrubbed deliberately at a few carrots, trying to ignore the residual tingles that shivered up her spine. "It's a very empty fridge you have, Piersen."
There was a light laugh. "Well, one day, when I can be bothered to cook something I'll be sure to find something to put in it." Green eyes followed the slight trail of water drips to the collection of capsicum, carrot, cauliflower and onions, crowding a pillow of soy sauce packets and a small jar of honey. "What can you possibly do with vegies and a few packets of soy sauce anyway?"
With those words, Kai hefted the heavy blade, twirled it around her fingers and unleashed a flurried staccato rhythm, the bright sheen of the metal blurring into fluid silver over the cutting board. Carrots were neatly peeled and sliced into thick, diagonal sticks, capsicum seeded and trimmed, then whipped into narrow, even strips. Quick fingers with blunt fingernails fed the mushrooms dangerously close to the blade; and above the cacophony of action blue eyes watched with calm detachment as the mound of savaged vegetables steadily grew.
Show-off. Suppressing a smile, Kai reached for the cauliflower. "You have a wok?"
Piersen nodded, but did not otherwise move. She watched the doctor's large hand cradle the vegetable while the other trimmed florettes off with effortless efficiency, the tip of the blade carving through the stalks with economical, almost disdainful flicks of her wrist. Somehow, she found her voice. "Golly. Pick the surgeon."
"I certainly hope you don't think I do this with my patients, Piers." She placed the cauliflower pieces in a neat pile. "Neural matter doesn't lend itself well to slicing and dicing. You'd end up with something more like goulash."
There was a brief pause. "You realise that I'll never touch a bowl of goulash again, right?" Piersen grinned, then suddenly remembered her friend's request. Retrieving a pan from a drawer, she placed it on the stove and heated it up wth a touch of oil. "Where did you learn to do that?"
"My parents bought me a set of knives when I was five, and my life was never the same again." She nodded solemnly, then chuckled at Piersen's expression of astonishment. "Joking. I don't know how I learnt to do this. My parents had me chopping the vegies and carving the roast for as long as I can remember."
Joking. Piersen smiled internally, relishing the word. It wasn't that long ago that you were convinced she didn't have a joking bone in her body. And here she is, in your house, making you dinner... Shaking her head, the curator redirected her attention to the rhythmic massacre on the chopping board. "So that's how they train you to be world-class surgeons."
"That, and lots of cross-stitch -" She gave a wry smile, then rounded up the vegetables and began to place then into the pan. On contact the oil began to sizzle, drowning out her next words.
Piersen looked up, puzzled. "What?"
Making an aborted attempt to shout, Kai stepped back, guiding the petite form to the bench in front of her. She leaned into a shell-like ear, her dark voice tickling sensitive skin. "I'll show you - it's really not that hard. Here, hold on to the knife."
The proffered handle was before her, and Piersen gingerly wrapped her fingers around the hilt, the familiar weight of her own knife feeling suddenly strange as she hefted it. Then the thought was gone as she felt the intense warmth of the tall woman move in against her back - almost enveloping her as she felt long arms around and in front of her, and the firm grip of Kai's large hands engulf her own.
The voice returned to her ear, . "Good. Now relax, and just feel what I'm doing with my hands."
Relax. Piersen knew that the word was meant for her arms, but her whole body seemed to respond as she sank into the intimate circle around her. In an instant, everything became sensation - the warmth that surrounded her, the dark perfume that filled her nostrils; raven hair that caressed her cheek, calloused skin against her own - each seemed to meld and coalesce into a swirling cadence that emptied her of all other awareness. She could feel every quick twitch of muscle in the large, square hands that cradled hers, transferring the rapid motion through her own boneless wrists; their entwined fingers working in a symbiosis so unexpected it defied explanation.
Green eyes flew open, not realising they had fallen shut, and looked down at the counter. The knife moved in blurring silver while Kai's left hand, covering her own, fed in a stick of carrot close to the blade. It was then that Piersen realised that the touch that had guided her hold on the knife was gone - only the warmth remained as the knife continued to tap in a rhythmic sequence, propelled only by the motion of her own wrist.
"Golly, Kai... I can't believe I'm actually - oh!"
Her expression of wonder was quickly replaced by one of horror as she felt the blade fall askew, and the hand over hers tense sharply. Suddenly numb fingers dropped the knife with a dull clatter moments before she registered a sliver of red appear over tanned skin, swelling into a small rivulet of blood. Without thinking, she grabbed the hand and drew the knuckle into her mouth, tasting the bright metallic burst wash over her tongue.
"Piersen - " Kai gasped, reeling as the sharp assault on her skin became something else entirely - the soft wetness of the blonde woman's mouth on hers, the smooth flow of tongue that swept intimately against the break in her skin, the tear in her flesh. She jerked her hand away, feeling a searing bolt of heat that coursed through her arm, far more keenly than the initial touch of the blade.
Pale eyes looked up to green ones widened in surprise, and Kai forced her voice past the heartbeat that thundered in her throat. "I - It's fine... you - you have to be be careful with -"
The curator shook her head, her features still blank with the shock of the moment. "I know - I lost control of the knife, and I just... I'm so sorry, Kai - "
The taller woman hastened to reassure her. "No, it's not that at all - it's the blood..." She faltered, feeling a weight bear down on her shoulders as she fought the dizzying heights of unexpected arousal. "Maybe I've spent too much time in hospitals, but you need to be careful with blood exposure - you don't know what's in it..."
"Oh, of course..." Piersen nodded, understanding dawning. "That's probably not the protocol for stopping a bleed, huh?"
Kai smiled uneasily, taking in a shaky breath as she held her hand under running water before taking the tissue offered, drying the skin absently. "No, not in your average ambulance course." She felt the smaller woman move in closer, fingertips lightly brush her forearm as she looked intently at the covered wound.
Piersen looked up, speaking softly, almost afraid to ask. "Let me take a look?"
Nodding, Kai gave her her hand, watching as a frown creased the curator's forehead as she examined the wound. "Kai, that's really deep - I nearly filleted your finger."
"Not really - I just need to tape it down. It's alright."
A thought occurred to her, and a grip of fear froze her stomach. "Is that going to affect your work? I'd hate to think I - "
Kai shrugged with a crooked half-smile. "I've done operations with sprained wrists. A cut on a finger won't exactly set me back."
Green eyes peered at her with suspicion. "You're not just being a superhero on me, are you?"
"I didn't think superheroes bled at all."
"Point taken." Piersen chuckled, feeling slightly reassured. "I'll go get you some antiseptic and bandaids. Probably not a good idea for you to be bleeding all over my kitchen - spreading weird hospital microbes over our dinner..." Her voice drifted away as she disappeared down the corridor for the bathroom.
Dinner. Remembering the vegetables with a start, Kai quickly turned down the heat on the stove and grabbed the handle of the wok, lightly flipping the heavy pan. She watched the riot of greens, whites and oranges tumble on the curved surface, feeling herself slowly calm as her thudding heartbeat quietened into the background, and the sound of hot oil filled its place.
Yet a part of her still seemed to be freewheeling in a crazy, wild dance - drawing her into an unheard music score that made her head spin and her body sing. Michelangelo had painted the spark of life in one yearning touch - in the fulfilment of contact Kai felt it flare and burn within her unlike anything else in her realm of experience. It was as if an extra sense had been awakened, showing her a glimpse of a desire so intense that it defied her strongest will to suppress it.
Desire? Kai swallowed, determined to regain some control. No - it was just a physical reaction. A reflex. You just haven't been - touched. Recently. And you're just not used to it. That's all.
Yet those words did very little to silence the voice that seemed to whisper within her nerves, along the planes of her flesh -
Her lips were so soft... She could still feel their subtle pressure imprinted on her skin, the cut tingling more with the memory than the pain -
The sound of footfalls heralded Piersen's approach. Kai shook herself free of the distracting thoughts and focused once again on their dinner, turning the heat down as the honey soy sauce bubbled low to a simmer.
She felt her hand being commandeered by Piersen's subtle touch, and the brief bite of antiseptic cream before the wound was secured over with a steristrip. "Is it too tight?"
"No, it's perfect." Removing the wok from the heat, Kai found two plates and scooped the vegetables out in equal portions. Feeling Piersen's eyes on her, she turned a questioning look in her direction. "Since you've rendered me an invalid, how about pulling your weight in the kitchen?"
"Oh, so now you admit it." Chuckling, Piersen tidied up the counter, placing the utensils into the sink while Kai extracted the cutlery from a drawer. Juggling plates, knives and forks, the dark-haired doctor struck an equilibrium with her arms and waited expectantly for her companion.
Piersen smiled. "So did you come by just to cook me dinner, and show off your prowess with the knife?"
Kai hesitated, knowing the inevitable but deciding to prolong their easy, lighthearted interaction just a while longer. She angled her head briefly, indicated the dining table.
Piped ambient music and shuffling feet against rugged carpet edged along the narrow gangway of British Airways flight 7312 from London. From his business class seat, Chris Evans viewed the final herd of economy passengers disappear out the door before rising to his feet, yawning and stretching out the dull ache from his muscles. There was little point in joining the impatient stampede for the arrivals terminal - after all, he smiled, a few minutes saved makes bugger-all difference after a twenty hour flight, right?
Hefting his carry-on bag, he slid out of the plush seats and ambled down the aisle, his tall hulking figure stooping slightly as he negotiated the cramped spaces. Strolling through the remainder of business class, he stopped when he noticed a slim white-blonde struggling with a case in her overhead compartment.
Clearing his throat slightly, he announced his presence. "Hi - can I help you with that?"
The woman looked over her shoulder, smiling a quick, grateful smile. "That would be wonderful - thank you."
Ah - a compatriot. He reached for the handle of the uncooperative luggage, falling into a familiarity that came with a common accent. "This is heavy stuff. You have weights in there or something?"
"Close enough. Just things for work."
"Work? I'd hate to have to lug this around every day. What are you, a blacksmith?" He grunted as he yanked at the case, leading it through to a controlled stop against the gangway, then handed the straps to the awaiting lady. Not a bad looking one, either.
"Not quite. I'm an ophthalmologist." They began down to the cabin exit, the light rattling of the tiny metal wheels on her luggage keeping them company.
"Really? It's funny you mention that, you know, because I've noticed my left eye going a bit blurry lately..." He trailed off, grinning a touch giddily as they both laughed. Warming to the beautiful stranger, he held out his hand with a sheepish, but thoroughly charming smile. "I'm Chris, from London."
"Laine Cunningham. Good to meet you, Chris from London."
The plates were empty, the candles burned low. They sat forgotten on the dining table, lone testaments to a lively dinner and involved conversation that ranged from a thorough education of the five food groups to an uncovering of a latent pyromania.
"Don't get that too close, or you'll singe your eyebrows."
Kai remarked with a smile, watching the blonde curator cup a glowing wax-filled glass to her face. The light from the hiccuping flame was diffused by Piersen's small hands, casting a warm light that gave her skin a golden luminance.
They sat lounging somewhat lazily on the generous couch with after-dinner cups of coffee and tea at hand. While the doctor chose to stretch out her lanky frame in front of her, Piersen was comfortably ensconced at a corner of the sofa, her legs tucked beneath her as she beheld the candle closer yet.
"It's hypnotic, the way the colours dance and change; almost solid, yet lighter than the air that carries it. I could almost touch it - " Fingers drifted dangerously close to the flame.
"We won't try that." Kai's square hands closed firmly over them, drawing them gently away. "You won't be able to, but it will most definitely burn you."
Piersen laughed, realising where her mind had wandered, and repositioned herself on the couch. Setting down the candle, she took up her coffee and lifted to her mouth for a long, slow sip.
Green eyes rose and met Kai's quiet gaze, showing a gratitude that Piersen herself could barely explain. "I'm really glad you came over tonight. It was turning out to be one cropper of an evening."
A brief smile. "Always glad to help."
"Why did you come over?"
Kai stalled, finding herself near the crossroads of the evening. The answer was on the tip of her tongue, but it would not fall.
"Just wanted to keep me company?"
The dark-haired woman looked up into the playful green gaze, wanting so much to say yes... "No - I'm afraid there was a business-related reason behind this."
Kai saw her friend's features melt from smiling to serious, feeling its weight on her as it silently beckoned her to continue. "A few test results came back today. I think I know what's wrong with your husband."
There was silence. Then a slow, scarce nod.
"We found signs of a species of bacteria from his lumbar puncture fluid and his blood. The bug is known as Treponema pallidum; it needs specific tests to detect it, and in his case it was particularly difficult because the screening tests for it came back negative at first. "
Kai took a breath, feeling a slight tremor in her hand as she went on. "The name of the bacteria may not be familiar to you, but the disease it causes is better known as - syphilis."
Kai nodded. "The results did not indicate recent disease; there would be characteristic ulcers on his genitals, or a rash on the skin of his palms, chest or face if it were the case. All the signs suggest that he could have acquired the disease quite a while ago - any time between three to thirty years ago."
There was an uncomfortable stretch, but Kai forced herself to continue, placing her hand over Piersen's boneless one. "Piersen, it's very important for you to know that syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. And because of your relationship with Richard, I - I have to let you know that you are at risk of at least carrying the infection without symptoms."
Three to thirty years ago...
"I'd like to ask you a few questions, but if you're not comfortable talking to me about this, I can always refer you to a gynaecologist or a sexual health specialist." Without thought, she reached out and brushed a lock of blonde hair from faraway eyes.
She waited through a painful silence, seeing a thousand thoughts within those eyes that looked at anything but her. "Piersen - even if you don't want to talk to me as a doctor, you can always talk to me as a friend."
"I know. Thank you." She drew in a breath, and straightened stiffly in her chair. "You wanted to ask me a few things?"
Taken aback by the sudden, business-like change in her demeanour, Kai took a few moments to order her thoughts which had been tossed into confusion. She had asked these questions thousands of times - standard sexual history; current partners, number of partners, relationship with the patient... yet as the blonde woman sat resolutely poised before her, it felt as if her mouth would not speak, the gnawing sensation of concern and fear eating into her heart. She wrestled between objectivity and empathy, her insides lurching as she struggled to say what had to be asked.
When was the last time you had sexual relations with your husband?
Her mouth opened, but they were not the words that came out. She tried again. "Are you alright?"
A pause. Piersen's face twisted into a wry smile, and she laughed once. "You know, Richard asked me the same thing - at Dad's funeral." She looked away, green eyes lost in the pattern of the tatami that lined the floor. "I don't think I could answer him then either."
There was a veil over the distant bottle-green gaze, disarmingly close yet untouchable like a reflection on water. Kai's hand brushed hers tentatively, then settled over it with a steady warmth. "I'm sorry, Piersen."
Feeling the touch on her skin, Piersen looked up and smiled wearily. The skin beneath the strong, square hands was surprisingly soft, and in a way it seemed to soothe away the dark wave that threatened to seep into her blood. She glanced fleetingly into the striking, planar face, and it held - the quiet, steady azure that didn't force entrance into her soul, or tear into her heart. The beautiful face simply watched her, sat beside her with a reassuring touch.
Her gaze dropped, not knowing how to respond. Piersen remained silent for a moment, struggling with an eerie emptiness that left her cold.
"What can I say?"
Kai shook her head; mute, helpless.
The blonde head bowed, staring into the floor as her lips moved, numb. "Can you cure him?"
The question, again, caught Kai off guard. The thoughts in her mind had centred entirely on the fragile woman beside her, and the query served to turn the focus back to the patient - my patient...
She nodded. "We put him on antibiotics this afternoon to clear the infection. But I think it may have caused some damage to other organ systems; damage that may not be reversible."
"Is that why he's been unconscious for so long?"
"I think so, yes." The surgeon felt a silence threaten, and began to elaborate - grounding herself in the facts that she knew without question, anchoring herself in this uncertain exchange. "Long standing infection with syphilis can affect many parts of the body, including the large blood vessels, the brain, spinal cord and nerves. We haven't found any problems with his blood vessels so far, but the infection also causes neurological degeneration - termed neurosyphilis. I'm concerned that he - your husband may have had some neurological damage that predisposed him to his current condition."
"The coma." Piersen murmured, almost to herself. "Maybe that's why he was in Casualty that night... he knew he was sick all along..."
"Perhaps, perhaps not." Kai brushed her thumb over Piersen's knuckles, maintaining the connection. "We don't know for sure, Piersen - I think he's the only one that really has the answers."
The curator did not appear to respond to Kai's comment, but continued to look ahead of her, as if lost in her thoughts.
"It's not unexpected, really. Out of everything, this should be the least shocking..."
The clear azure gaze registered a subtle show of surprise. "Did you suspect...?"
Piersen's lips crooked into a pale smile - poignantly ironic and maddeningly beautiful; one that both compelled and drove Kai's gaze away. "My husband had liaisons, Kai. I'm sure one of them will have left him something to remember her by."
The fine, melodic voice melted around those words with no bitterness - only the touch of that smile that made them shine despite their implications. It was now the doctor's turn to be silent, feeling everything fall into place in the wake of that simple statement of fact. Her mind felt blank and full all at once - swirling with mixed emotions, yet lacking the means to express them.
She tried her best. "You knew that he..."
"Was unfaithful? Yes, I did." Her voice faltered, the bravado buckling slightly as something seemed to pass over her features. He wanted - he needed others. He couldn't wait any longer...
Kai made a motion to comfort her, but Piersen brushed it away. "It's not what you think, Kai. I've had more than enough time to make sense of it all."
So why is there still such pain in your eyes? The taller woman spoke the question in her lingering gaze. "And does it make sense to you now?"
A frown, then a wan smile. "Not really."
Kai smiled with her, but remained silent.
Piersen continued, almost musing to herself as she spoke in a lilting, passive tone. "I don't think he was ever meant for me. Despite everything."
Piersen nodded. "Our families were close - from the very beginning there was a tacit agreement that our families would be involved somehow - in marriage, if not in business."
The blonde woman swallowed against a sandpaper throat and reached for her mug of coffee, only to realise that it was empty. Wordlessly, Kai handed her her own cup of tea, which was accepted with a subtle nod.
She watched the delicate throat convulse as the teacup was drained, then quietly spoke once more. "What does your family work in?"
Piersen looked up, almost grateful for a subtle deviation from the subject at hand. "Investment banking. Both our families were several generations into it." She smiled to herself as her train of thought progressed. "My parents met through the firm - my father was just a broker for my grandfather, but when he met my mother he worked his way up to Chairman just so he could marry her."
Kai smiled. "Romantic."
Piersen snorted somewhat derisively. "His wedding present from my grandparents was a stake in the company - Holbrooke and Evans. And when I married Richard, it became Holbrooke, Evans and Stamford."
"Holbrooke... that's your - "
"My middle name - I know." She rolled her eyes. "Isn't it terrible? There's nothing in my name that's really mine - Piersen was my father's middle name; then there's Holbrooke, and Evans... It's like I'm not my own person - just a collection of names, labels - living in the footsteps of history and ghosts..."
She trailed off, colouring slightly at her lapse. Her eyes fell to their entwined hands, but didn't move.
She asked in a small voice. "Is Kai short for anything?"
The taller woman hesitated, then smiled softly, a touch abashed. "Kaira."
"Kaira." Piersen tried out the word, tasting it tentatively with her tongue. Her lips curved broadly, "I like it."
"No one calls me that anymore."
"Watch it, I just might." She chuckled lightly, dying to a brief silence. Her free hand continued to fiddle with the teacup in her lap, taking some solace in the lingering warmth that glowed from the comforting weight of it. Kai allowed the silence, knowing her friend needed the distance, yet knowing that much remained to be talked out.
Piersen set the cup quietly on the table, taking a slight breath before speaking again in a light, meandering stream of consciousness.
"My brother and I grew up with him around. He was a lot older than we were... but you know that already, don't you?" She laughed shortly, soundlessly. "He used to come over almost every other day, and he and I would sit outside in the glade, right by the lake. I'd tell him stories. He'd laugh and tell me that I had fairies whispering too much nonsense in my ear. But he never complained - and I was happy with his company..."
Blonde eyebrows frowned slightly, giving Piersen's face a bewildered expression, as if perplexed by her own words.
"When I got tired of talking he'd tell me about the "real" things he'd learnt at university - accounting, finance, microeconomics, that kind of thing. After a while I'd get bored, and run away. He'd try and catch me, of course, but he'd always give me a head start, and when I climbed up a tree to hide he'd pretend he couldn't find me. He was always such a perfect gentleman, even when I was a child."
The narrative played itself out in Kai's mind, and she found herself trying to reconcile two very different images of the same person. "Did you spend a lot of time with him?"
"We'd be together until my father came home from work. We'd have dinner together, then afterwards Richard would go into Dad's study, and talk business. There was no way I was following them in there." Her lips curved into a brief smile.
The smile grew broader. "I like to think so."
A tentative silence settled, drawing out into awkwardness as both realised that their hands were still linked together. Kai withdrew, straightening as both women placed their hands elsewhere - Piersen's in her lap, Kai's linked loosely together around her knee. The reedy sounds of crickets seemed to grow into prominence in the quiet, cool night, filling the void that had threatened to descend between them.
Kai prompted with a soft question, almost afraid to break the silence. "When did it become Holbrooke, Evans and Stamford?"
"Five years ago. He got down on one knee and everything..." She sighed, the puzzled expression returning. "I turned him down."
Kai's brows knitted slightly, a silent question in the action.
"He kept persisting." Piersen's gaze dropped, seeming to drown in the mug of dark liquid in her hand. "I think I was the last person on earth to realise - that he and I had been nudged towards each other from the moment I was born. "
Piersen took a breath, which stretched into a long pause. She did not look up as she asked, quietly. "Do you believe in love at first sight?"
Kai considered her answer. "Never used to."
"I believed in it - fervently. When Richard told me how he felt about me, I thought it was crazy - how could he feel something like that for me, and how could I not know if I loved him or not?"
Piersen's voice became detached, falling in hollow cadences as she continued. "The breath catches, time stops - that person becomes all you know even if it's for a transient moment. That was the way it was meant to feel, when you were in love... Something that took away the ache here, deep in the chest; the slow, insidious vacuum that sucks against your heart reminding you that a part of you is lost."
Kai felt her own heart break for the slim woman before her, wishing she could bear the break for her. Knowing the weight of faded grief shadowing her next words.
"I wanted completion. And Richard offered it - so in the end, I accepted..."
The slight frost of autumn laced the breeze that stirred the evening air, lending life to what was a soundless, motionless night at the Evans estate. Even the surface of the distant lake seemed to be frozen black, reflecting nothing but a faint suffusion of moonlight that came from behind an overcast sky.
Piersen stood by the balustrade that lined the main balcony looking over the formal grounds, attired in simple, long dress that swept black along her skin; from the fine bands at her shoulders down her back, lying close to the curve of her hips before following the slim line of her thighs and legs to fall to the pockmarked flagstones of marble. Her flesh was slightly goosebumpy, despite the heavy coat that covered her shoulders.
She had company. Standing a little to the side of her was a tall, dark figure clad in a dinner suit and tie, hands resting in pockets to ward off the insipient cold. The two were contrasted from the surrounding darkness by the light from the drawing room, a dim wash that faded into mist as it drifted through the heavy glass panes. A substantial handful of similarly-attired people sat within nursing cigars and brandies, their conversation and laughter unheard by the lone couple outside.
They appeared to be in the midst of conversation, yet they were facing away from each other - Piersen looking over the gardens, and her companion looking at her.
The curator's voice broke the silence, one that seemed to have been in place for a while.
"Richard, I don't want to turn you down again..."
The dark figure nodded, pushing his fingers through his hair as he considered his answer. A rush of air manifested as fine columns of mist that faded in the chill, a prelude to his carefully chosen words.
"You know how I feel, Piers - I think I've made that quite clear in the past -"
"I know. But - I can't. I don't... love you, do you see?" The blonde woman interrupted him, her voice gently urgent at first, then growing lost. "You're my best friend."
"Best friends don't fall in love?"
"Oh Richard..." The slight waver in his voice nearly broke her - that earnest, half-smiling, self-mocking gaze was almost too much. She reached out, tracing the veiled hurt in that weary smile. "It would never be fair. Not for you."
A silence passed as a sheepish grin dawned across her features. "I'd never be a faithful wife. I'll be looking at every second man that walks by, wondering if he's the one - "
Richard laughed - a rich, affectionate timbre. "The 'One'? God, Piers, are those damn fairies still whispering your ear?"
"Don't tease. Fairies or not, a part of me is still going to wait." Piersen had swiped him in the arm, but the laughter faded as quickly as the fleeting touch, growing into a sober calm. "I won't be able to stop waiting. Not for you. I can't."
"How long will you wait for?"
"I don't know. Whenever he comes along, I guess."
"I don't know if your mother will be quite as patient as you are. She's dying for you to settle down."
His words struck a sixth sense within her - a sensation that spoke of more between the lines. "She spoke to you? About wanting me to settle down?"
He flushed, a half-embarassed, half apolgetic smile touching the brief grimace on his face. "She knows I proposed to you before. But she didn't know you turned me down - she thinks you're still thinking about it."
"Golly, Richard - you can't have her thinking that - "
"Wait, Piers - let me finish." Richard swallowed, stepping up beside her against the balustrade. "I know things between you and your mother haven't exactly been crash hot lately."
Piersen snorted briefly, ruefully. "I'm sure you do. I'm sure even the gardener heard that I've become a roaming lower-class bohemian that parasitises on my family's lifeblood."
The taller man winced sympathetically, remembering the uncharacteristic outburst from the normally poised matriarch. "You know she had ambitions for you. For all of us."
The words seemed to sink in, and as the seconds passed the hint of hardness in her eyes seemed to melt away. She shook her head with bewilderment. "I'm her own daughter and I can't think as kindly of her as you do."
"Your mother taught me all I know about this line of work, Piers. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be where I am now."
The was a slight shuffle as Piersen turned to face her childhood friend, green eyes reading him intently for a moment. His hair was slightly loose, the thick strands of dull mahogany falling into his eyes like a dishevelled schoolboy. She reached out, making some attempt to push it out of his eyes.
"And where are you now, Richard? Are you happy working as my father's right hand?"
The gentle question derailed his thoughts, and he stood stunned for a heartbeat; his body catching up with the feelings that the blonde woman's quiet gaze seemed to set free.
"Sometimes, I feel as if..." The tall, greying man sighed, almost reluctant to speak. With Piersen's silent encouragement, he began to pace, struggling internally with his words.
"Your father's great - I've learnt a lot from him, but I can feel him holding back." He drew in a deep breath. "I don't think he thinks I can handle the responsibilities of a higher position."
"I don't believe that for an instant. You're brilliant at what you do."
There was a hopeful gleam, even in that self-deprecating smile. "You really think so?"
Piersen nodded, chuckling. "You live and breathe this job. I'm surprised they haven't promoted you to the Board."
Richard looked away, his hands shifting slightly in his pockets. "You know why they haven't, Piers. It's no secret."
"I know. Poor Chris." She drew in a breath and let it out, forming a vaporous cloud that hovered in the cold air and disappeared. "He's ready to bolt, you know. I met him for dinner last week back in Cambridge - he was considering ploughing his exams just so my mother's yes-men would stop hounding him."
"How is he?"
"Well, I managed to talk him out of that brilliant scheme." She appeared to do some consideration before continuing. "Mum doesn't know this - but he's been looking at property around Covent Garden. It's the only thing that keeps him happy nowadays"
"His restaurant idea?"
"One man's trash..." Richard's features seemed to crumple into a frown, a slow wince that drove pained shadows across his face. "God, Piers..."
The blonde woman laid a hand on his arm, her voice soothing away the hurt. "You're more than qualified to sit on the Board. Mum knows you're one of the most talented people we have - she just has to give the word, and Dad will approve your promotion in a flash. "
"She won't let Chris go that easily, even if he has the ritziest restaurant in town. He's her son. That's all the qualifications that matter to her."
Piersen chuckled softly. "It's not like we haven't grown up with you, Richard. You're practically my brother."
She had hoped that her words would comfort him. Instead, her friend's agitation rose to a point where it was almost palpable. "Practically isn't good enough for her. I have to be -"
"Family..." Piersen's whisper seemed to still the air between them as a realisation dawned. "You - my mother - "
"No, it's not what you think, Piers - " The agitation evolved to an almost eerie calm in his tone, like a dying confession. "The other day, when she spoke to me about wanting you to settle down... it's true; she did want you to settle down with me."
The compact woman shook her head in a resolute motion. "I don't see what that has to do with - "
"It has everything to do with a solution, Piers. For all of us." His hands rose in an aborted attempt to shape his thoughts. "Don't you see? She was baiting me. What she said, in effect, was that she was willing to make a place for me in the family."
"And on the Board." Piersen experienced a skipped heartbeat, feeling something fit together inside. "It all follows..."
"Chris will be off the hook - I'll take up the responsibility your mother wanted him to have. And you will be free to pursue your painting, your art studies - your own life."
The facts seemed to seep into her mind at a maddeningly slow rate, and Piersen found herself taking breaths, struggling to absorb what exactly Richard is proposing. Something for everyone...
"Piersen... I -- I'm fond of you, you know that. And I know you don't feel the same way for me. But this arrangement - I think it can work. You'll be studying in Cambridge, I'll be working in London. We could meet up on weekends, and be together for dinners with the family, but I'll never interfere with what you want..."
Seeing her drawn features, Richard sat quietly beside her - his breath came in warm plumes, his eyes bright with anticipation.
"I can't believe I'm..." What, Piers? You can't believe you're considering this? Every sense reeled against his suggestion, but another part of her was turning his words over in her mind. It was a voice that seemed to rise above the initial revulsion, an insistent whisper that grew clearer and clearer.
You can't fault his logic - it solves all your problems, and Chris will finally get to live his own life. Mum will be pleased, finally, and Dad will get some peace at home at last...
Despite her every good sense telling her to refuse him, there was a part of her that watched, detached from the confusion; like a bystander watching the inexorable drift of a boat towards the waterfall's edge.
Richard watched the emerald eyes turn dark, the slight frame draw herself up imperceptibly, the strong sweep of her chin lift, setting her jaw into a haughty, determined line. When she spoke, there was a steel in her voice that was so foreign, yet familiar.
"There can't be any games - no deceit, no hidden agenda. If this... marriage is going to be it is, I need everything to be completely - open. I can't play those games with Mum, and I won't play them with you."
He smiled, the expression softening his features. "Understood."
"No - I need you to really understand this." She broke away from his efforts to placate her in a movement that was almost violent. "I want my own life, Richard. I want to work, I want to travel, to do the things I want to do... do you understand? This isn't - ownership. You won't own me - my mother won't own me anymore... I just - I need - "
She saw her own face reflected in Richard's eyes, and somehow, the visage disgusted her. A bolt of shame ripped through her, but something within her drove her on, knowing that this may be the only chance...
Richard's voice broke into her thoughts. "What do you need, Piersen? What is it you want?"
What do you want? The question she had asked of herself so many times - and she had known the answer for so long, she spoke without needing to think.
Such a simple word - yet, spoken aloud, it was like a release, unburdening her of years of frustration and anger with a whispered breath. Feeling the dark wave of emotion rear and break over her, she bowed her head, forcing her face into shadow while she swallowed the sensations.
"This is going to set us all free, Piersen. You, and me, and Chris - all of us. Things will be right - things will be real. You just need... " He faltered, but recovered his momentum with a hesitating glance. "You just need to say 'yes'."
He extended his hand.
Piersen sat watching the expectant half of their contract for a long moment. Contract. That's what it's all about, Piers. Business, nothing more. Taking a breath, she reached out.
But instead of the handclasp she was expecting, her hand was instead taken in a soft hold. Green eyes jumped to his face in surprise, before returning to their joined hands just as she felt the cool smoothness of a ring being slipped on her finger.
Piersen stopped, caught by a shadow of the nausea that still touched her after all these years. Richard's words hovered in her mind like a curse, even as the truth began to play itself out in her mind.
"We could meet up on weekends, and be together for dinners with the family, but I'll never interfere with what you want..."
What did you want, Piers? What is it that sickens you so much?
Winding through the narrow Docklands streets, the black cab turned a final corner before stopping outside one of a dozen waterfront townhouses hugging the Thames.
Piersen yawned, stretching out the remnants of jetlag from her 3 hour flight from Paris to London. It was good to be back home after two satisfyingly exhausting months at the Centre de Georges Pompidou, working steadily through weekdays and weekends without breaks - Richard's probably given up hope that I'll ever return home.
Despite her weariness, she was nonetheless in a buoyant mood - a letter had come in just before she left for the airport from the new Guggenheim in Bilbao, offering her a senior curatorship and research position in their recent acquisitions department. Wow. The Guggenheim! The very thought alone was enough to make her insides twist with anticipation - though not enough to forget that the workload would be tremendous, even in comparison to what she was doing now. I've been away from home for two months and thought it was bad - at this rate I'd only be able to make it home every six months or so.
The cab driver made a motion for the door. "I'll help you with your bags, miss."
She smiled, stepping out of the car. I'll have to make it up to him - he wasn't too pleased that I missed the company charity dinner, and I really haven't touched base with him in a while...
Piersen coloured, knowing that a part of her wished for more than simply touching bases. She didn't know whether to be ashamed or blasť about it; surely there was no evil in satisfying a basic, human need... and she had been living with Richard for nearly four years...
It had been so easy. They were friends; he was comfortable to be around with, she could laugh and joke and rant and fight with him, knowing that he would think nothing of it. He never advertised his desire for her, and it was easy to find Richard attractive. It was nothing to move from a friendly hug to a kiss - falling asleep in his bed after a long night's conversation over a decanter of madeira...
There were moments when she thought that it might work out after all. She wasn't in love with him, but she did love him in her own way. Perhaps that was the way it was meant to be, when the passion burns out and all that remains is... a comfortable friendship. Yes. That's it.
Strange that she has to remind herself of that.
She shook her head, clearing herself from the haze of moroseness that threatened to suffocate her. I'll surprise him. We can have a quiet night in - maybe order in some food from Chris', and just spend some time catching up. I'd like that.
She dug into her purse and extracted a few banknotes, handing them to the driver.
"Thanks. Keep the change." She gave him a bright smile, hefting her luggage before turning towards her home.
I got what I wanted - everything; everything he said...
She wheeled her bags across the footpath towards her driveway, lost in her thoughts. It wasn't until she stepped onto the decking that she noticed three cars parked in the carport - Richard's wine-red Mercedes, her own Volkswagen Golf Polo and a Ford she didn't recognise.
Strange - I thought he'd be at work. Maybe he's scheduled a meeting at home...
Reaching the front porch, she cast a final glance at the cars before unlocking the door and stepping inside.
Richard gave me my life; he made it all possible for me -
The house was quiet.
Piersen rested her bags against the wall, putting off unpacking for the moment. She inhaled the familiar scent of her home and took in the surroundings - tidy, for once. Richard must have relished not having to clean up after me for once.
She walked to the kitchen, watching the small barges float down the river from the large windows that let in the gloomy, grey light. She poured herself a drink, taking long draughts as she finally allowed herself to relax. The subtle hum of the refrigerator kept her company as she leaned against the granite counter, drifting slowly in the relative silence of her home.
Except for a shifting, a murmur that infiltrated the edge of her hearing. Cocking her head to resolve the sound, Piersen listened intently before setting down her glass, moving quietly to localise the source of the noise.
No response. Making her way to his study, she found the desk cluttered, the chair empty. Frowning, she turned back into the main living area.
A groan - as if in pain. Piersen's heart picked up to a heavy pounding, and she moved through the house with greater purpose, even as her hands began to tremble. Oh no - Richard...
The sound was coming from their room upstairs. Grabbing one of the golf clubs leaning by the cupboard, she silently climbed the stairs, cursing the fear that flowed in her veins.
She stalked down the short corridor to her bedroom, hefting the comforting weight of the club in her hand. The door was slightly ajar, and she opened it slowly, peering inside.
Oh god -
The image came back all too clearly for her; the sight, the sounds, the smell - and Piersen found herself fighting back a retch that threatened in her throat. He bargained for my life, and I just - gave it to him, just like that...
"Get out of my house."
The voice was level, harsh - as if Piersen was speaking out of her own body. She did not look at the woman, who had struggled to gather the sheets to herself, but directed her dire, green gaze to her husband.
The woman moved quickly, slipping out of the bed to gather her clothes strewn across the floor. Piersen did not move from the doorway, and there was no other exit to the room - she simply watched Richard, who remained pinned motionless with her eyes.
There was an awkward moment as the naked woman attempted to slip past discreetly, with no success. Finally, Piersen stepped aside, still refusing to look at her as she walked past, her footsteps disappearing downstairs.
The sound of the front door opening and closing followed.
"I've seen her before. Who was she?"
The same tone of voice, the same, unwavering stare. Richard returned her scrutiny, making no attempt to disguise his nakedness.
"Her name's Susannah."
"How long have you been with her?"
Silence. Richard shifted as he got out of bed, walking to the large chair that stood in the corner of the room; Piersen's reading chair. For the first time, Piersen looked away - his body, sculpted as it was, was obscene to her.
"Did you pick her up from work, or a bar somewhere?" She took in a breath, feeling the rush of air stoke the banked fires into a barely-suppressed rage. Her husband said nothing, only reaching for the robe that was slung over the back of the chair, pulling it on slowly.
She spat out, her lip curling in a half-sneer even as it trembled. "Are you paying her on company time?"
He tied the robe around his waist tightly, with an angry motion. His words were short, controlled. "You have no right, Piersen."
"No right? You bring a stranger into my home, do her on our bed, and you tell me I have no right to ask?"
She finally heard her rising voice, and she reviled it - her lack of control, her anger, her impotent accusations. It left her hollow, empty - helpless except to hear and feel every word that Richard spoke next, his voice tight with emotion.
"You are more of a stranger in this home than she is. She's not some kind of whore like you made her out to be."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"She stays here because I ask her to. Because I want her to."
"You - " You're...
"We're involved. I - " He stopped, turning away from the blonde woman for the first time. "I love her."
For a moment, the three words struck Piersen as being ridiculously funny - there was the sensation of laughter rising in her stomach, the giddy spin in her head... until she realised that the convulsions she fought were those of tears, not laughter; the giddiness from shock rather than euphoria. The irony seeped through her in a wave - casting a film over her mind, her eyes, so that when she finally gathered herself to look up at Richard's face, everything was cast in a different, mocking light.
"A long time."
"How many did you..."
The anger left her voice, leaving only sadness instead - one that echoed within Richard as he watched her, helpless to feel anything but her pain. "I couldn't wait for you anymore, Piersen. I needed others. I needed her."
Every word sounded lame, coming from his mouth. He faltered, seeing the blonde head bow, obscuring the beautiful features.
"Are you happy? With her?"
"I am, Piersen. I am."
They remained silent, unable to break the heaviness that descended.
"I suppose you would prefer me to move out. This is your house, after all."
"No, Richard. I'm taking up a new position. I'll be moving to Spain."
"I won't be able to get away often. I'll try and make the major company functions, but you'll have to send me the dates in advance."
"You don't have to... I don't want you to be -"
"What are you going to do? Bring Susannah? My mother would cut you to pieces." She laughed; the sarcastic turn of her voice stinging her far deeper than she cared to admit at the moment. "No. We had a contract, and I'm seeing it through to the end." Something for everyone.
"I didn't want to make you unhappy, Piersen."
When Piersen finally spoke, there was no malice - only a gentle, bewildered sadness. "Surprisingly enough, Richard, I was happy. Perhaps it was naive of me, but I was actually happy being with you."
There was nothing more to be said. Piersen turned and left the room.
The green eyes fluttered closed for only an instant, but Kai saw it in an eternal second - the way her lashes came down to touch her cheek and came away wet, the slightest of creases appearing between her eyebrows, the slow, heavy fall and rise of flesh obscuring the dark green of her eyes.
I betrayed everything I wanted for myself... everything for a life that was a lie...
Those words seemed to echo in Piersen's mind, a surreal conclusion to a narrative that seemed not to be her own. Yet it was her voice - her life, all laid out in the undeniable light of truth. She felt poised on the brink of impoding and shattering, every cell within her close to breaking.
In its wake everything around her seemed to bear down on her, surround her - even that blue gaze that was comforting to her before now saw too much, too deeply. She felt the steady pressure of long fingers wrapped around her own, yet even this unbearably compassionate touch became something she wanted to reject as much as hold against her heart.
Her voice cracked, exhausted. "Kai, please don't look at me like that."
Piersen turned and pulled her hand away, silently cursing the tear that escaped her tight grip on control. Ignoring her request, Kai rose and took two steps closer the curled up form. Kneeling at her feet, blue eyes never left the shadowed profile as she reached for the slim shoulders and enveloped Piersen in a warm embrace - closely, suddenly, completely.
That was all it took. The slight woman in her embrace convulsed once, then trembled as she let out her long-sequestered grief. Kai tightened her hold, ignoring the dark swirl of anger and empathic pain as she bore the too-delicate body in the circle of her arms.
Thirty-Six - Sonata: Development
Kai didn't know how long she held Piersen for - there was nothing else keeping time save the harsh, staggering breath that gradually smoothed over to calmer, even whispers against the base of her neck. It was not difficult to remain, to pretend that time had indeed stopped for her.
She is so fragile. The body in her arms was almost weightless, unmoving save the subtle rising and falling of her chest. The fine, cropped blonde hair tickled her nose as she herself took careful breaths in and out, mindful of disturbing the bundle so close to her.
A muffled voice emerged from close to her chest - almost near her heart. "I'm sorry."
Kai smiled. "I'm not."
"I got you all wet." She traced a finger against the clear sheen of tears against Kai's skin, then tried to wipe it off with her hand. The doctor grasped it with her own, stilling he nervous movement.
"It's okay. I won't melt."
Piersen laughed softly, the tension in her features dissipating in a smile. "Thank you."
"Anytime. Besides, it's time I returned the favour."
The blonde woman shook her head with mild disbelief, remembering the night at Kai's house. "Golly, it's been one heck of a month, hasn't it?"
Kai nodded, but found no response. Instead, they settled into the most comfortable silence of the evening, content to find and offer solace in presence alone.
A thought came to the surgeon, and she commented quietly, with subtle pride. "I found the word."
"The word? Oh - the word." There was a short giggle. "I never doubted you. I just like playing with your mind."
Kai lips parted with mild indignation, softened with a smile. "You are unscrupulous."
"And you're not? If there's any profession that plays around with people's minds - "
"At least I take a scalpel to them. And it's all informed consent, you know."
An impish, green gaze. "Am I taking you against your will?"
Kai replied with some playful bravado of her own. "I don't know. There's a definite element of coercion involved - let me check with my lawyer."
Piersen chuckled, shaking her head with defeat. "So what does it mean, superhero?"
"Life, strength... that kind of thing. It all sounded a bit vague - at least, that's what internet search came up with."
"'That kind of thing'," Piersen scoffed laughingly, with affection. "Glad to see the poet come out in you, Kai."
A dark eyebrow rose in query.
"Sanskrit is a very intricate language - manifold meanings, an inherent beauty in every word." She smiled, holding her friend's gaze. "Sattva is the concept of inner strength and courage. The first and last breath of life; of purity and goodness; true wisdom and magnanimity of nature."
"Yeah. That kind of thing." Kai smiled, teasing her friend a little more.
"Well, I had meant that for you. But now I think I'm changing my mind." Piersen prodded a firm abdomen sharply, playfully. "You know, the word has allusions to the demonic and the evil as well. Which certainly comes to mind 'round about now." She levelled a mockingly accusing glare.
Kai raised her eyebrows, glancing at the back of her hand which was now clean. "So... you wanted me to promote my demonic and evil side?"
"Oh, I know you'd like that," Piersen laughed, but sobering slightly as she felt a shadow come and pass her by.
Kai felt the moment of discomfort. As if in reflex, she glanced at her watch, studying the time intently.
"It's just gone midnight. I should get going."
"Is it? Oh Kai, I'm sorry I kept - " Piersen's features froze. "Oh god. Oh god. Did you say midnight?"
Puzzled, Kai nodded.
"Midnight! I was meant to go pick up Chris at nine! I have to go - I don't believe this, how can I have forgotten?" Piersen leapt from the couch and wiped at her face, inhaling deeply before half-jogging for the hallway.
"Chris?" Kai felt something lurch inside, even as her body paradoxically froze.
"My brother. He's coming to visit for the weekend, and he was meant to come and stay with me... For goodness sakes, why didn't he call me or something?"
Kai watched her friend rummage through coat pockets hanging by the door, finally producing a jingling set of car keys. She let out a breath - what breath? - feeling the tightness in her stomach disappear. Rising to her feet, she made her way towards the agitated curator.
"Calm down. You're too worked up to drive - how about I get you there?"
"No, I gotta leave now - " She broke off, stumbling to regain her balance as she struggled with her shoes. "I'm sorry, Kai - it sounds like I'm throwing you out of the house or something..." Muttering to herself, she ran up to the tall figure and gave her a brief, but strong hug.
The action seemed to quieten Piersen somewhat, more than the captive within her embrace, and she tightened her hold. "Thank you. So much."
Kai could only stand and feel the sensations roiling through her body - from Piersen's touch, from her words. A whisper came from her lips, from deeper within - "Piersen..."
The smaller woman's lips brushed the skin of her collarbone. "I just - I've never - " She was about to continue when a door bell rang, causing her to jump in Kai's arms.
The doctor smiled. "It's probably him."
The tiny frame was halfway across the room in an instant, and fumbling with door and key. A large, hulking shadow stood expectantly at the doorway with a small suitcase, where it was promptly engulfed by Piersen's enthusiastic greeting.
"Crispy, I am so sorry. I can't believe I forgot... I am so sorry... Why didn't you call?"
"Hey, it's alright. I shared a cab with someone." Returning her hug, he stepped back to appraise his sister, lifting her chin in a smiling regard. "It is so good to see you..."
"It's so good to see you." Piersen drew in a breath, her hand brushing her brother's stubbled cheek. "It's been much too long."
Chris' eyes had remained on her face, and finally noticed traces of red around her eyes, her nose. "Hey, are you alright there?"
"I'm fine - I've just got the sniffles. Come on in - you're probably about to topple over." She guided her brother into the dimly illuminated lounge, smiling into Kai's faintly curious look. "Chris, this is Kai, a very good friend of mine."
"Kai?" Dropping his bag, Chris reached over to shake her hand. "Good to meet you."
"Likewise." Kai smiled, braving an awkward pause before making a show of inspecting her watch. "I should really get going. I'll see myself out."
Piersen fought an impulse to ask her to stay, and moved to fall in step beside her. "No, I'll walk you."
Entering the quiet kiss of night, they stood on the darkened porch bathed in the pale wash of light from inside the house. With so much to be said, neither spoke for several heartbeats as they simply regarded each other.
Piersen began. "Kai, I'm so sorry about all this -"
Kai shook her head, gently. "There's no reason to be." She looked at the pale, beautiful face, reminded of her original question. "Are you going to be alright?"
The curator nodded. "I have some company now - it should be fine."
"Piersen, if you want to talk about this again, I'm a late sleeper..."
"I know." She smiled, then enveloped her friend in a tight hold, breathing close to Kai's neck. "I know. Thank you." She made no move to release her, and Kai was happy to remain, winding her arms around the delicate waist, the smooth scoop of her lower back.
Piersen spoke again, softer, almost a whisper against Kai's skin. "About rowing tomorrow..."
"I understand. Another week, perhaps."
"I might take Chris to the hospital in the morning - he is here to check up on Richard for my mother..."
"I'll be at the office, if you need me."
"I know... I just don't want him to know about -- this. Not until..."
Kai nodded. "If we have a moment tomorrow I can take some blood from you for tests..."
Piersen breathed a quiet sigh, a slow rush of air that stirred the tips of the surgeon's dark hair. "That would be - wise. Thank you."
Kai relaxed her hold. "I don't want to keep you brother waiting."
"Okay." Piersen finally released her, surprised at the suddenness with which the night air chilled her skin. "Well... good night."
A soft smile. "Good night."
Piersen remained on the verandah, solemn green eyes following the lithe shadow until it disappeared in the Land Rover and drove away from sight.
Thirty-Seven - Sonata: Recapitulation
It was Saturday afternoon when Piersen and her brother arrived at St. Vincent's hospital, a result of the potent combination of a long night's conversation, jet lag and a natural tendency to sleep in. There was still a residual grogginess in Piersen's eyes as she navigated the network of warrens connecting carparks, lifts and buildings, finally reaching the familiar sterile surrounds of Cahill 18.
Chris looked about him, the forbidding stretch of corridor dwarfing his large frame. "I think we're lost."
"Lost?" Piersen smiled, its warmth working its way past her weary features. "This is the ward."
"Oh." He blinked, looking about him in a slightly dazed fashion. "Well. Here we are, then."
The blonde woman laughed, grabbing her brother's hand. She did her best to inject some energy into her stride. "Come on, Crispy. Wake up."
Chris obligingly followed, led by his diminuitive sister down the corridor to a closed door at the far end where the brief buoyant moment abruptly halted. He eyed it with some speculation.
"This is it?"
"This is it."
He took a breath, not knowing why he felt such foreboding. He grasped the handle and opened the door to Richard's room, surveying what he saw with a face that was blank with surprise.
"He's looking a bit worse for wear."
"I guess he does." Piersen smiled deprecatingly. "Though not entirely unexpected, judging by the circumstances."
Her brother chuckled, his eyes remaining on Richard's prone form. "You know, I don't think I've ever seen him asleep. He looks - likeable."
There was a dismaying tone to her voice. "That's a bit harsh, Crispy."
The restauranteur's broad shoulders shrugged - not quite an apology. "You know, even way before you two got married... I used to wonder what you saw in him."
"You were friends with him too."
"Yeah, but he was always so intense... I don't know. It didn't matter - he always liked you better anyway."
Piersen smiled - a sad smile. She joked solemnly. "Jealous?"
Chris rumbled a droll reply. "Oh yeah."
They stood stumbling in their own silences, both watching the prone body that dominated the small room.
"It's strange, Piers. I mean, seeing him like this... I've forgotten. There was so much chaos at home for the past few weeks, all revolving around him, and you, and dad..." He trailed off, his voice faltering as meandering thoughts moved to converge on a pseudo-confession.
"I've forgotten that he's actually here."
Piersen heard the tone in her brother's voice - a strange mixture of surprise and defeat that manifested as a knot in her stomach, a cramping pressure in her heart. She did not see the expression on his face; her eyes were fixed on Richard's arm, following the intravenous line as it ran along to dive into the back of his hand. His left hand. With the ring on.
She reached out, her fingertips tracing the cool, smooth surface of the plain gold band. So have I, Crispy. So have I.
The rugged blond man watched the slow, hypnotic motion, the faraway look that seemed to bore into the prone man's flesh. The flesh he ached to tear apart in that very instant, feeling a flash of empathic pain that was too much for him to bear.
His gravelly voice was deadened by the spartan walls of the room. "I hated what he did to you."
She looked up at him, seeing the repressed anger in his features. "He did nothing, Chris. He didn't do anything to me." She felt an ache in her chest, knowing how true her words were.
"Still defending him." He shook his head with a humourless laugh. "I don't think I'll ever understand why, Piers. I'm certainly not going to argue with you..."
His eyes met hers in a moment of complete clarity; an earnest gaze that allowed for nothing but the truth.
"I just need to know if you... if you still - "
The blonde head shook once, resolutely. "No."
The word sounded horribly violent, horribly final - especially in this room, in Richard's presence. Piersen went on, needing to soften the impact; though for whom, she could not tell. "I think... I just want him to wake up. There is a lot I need to talk out with him, things we need to sort out." She shook her head, a look of consternation taking over her features. "Your gamble with mum, Chris... I can't - you can't win."
"It's not that. I never expected you to take him back." He reached out over the bed, looking intently into her face. "I'm just worried about you."
"Don't." Piersen smiled, the first in what seemed like too long. "Kai takes care of me."
There was something in Chris' look that made Piersen feel the need to elaborate.
"She's been wonderful. We go out to dinner, she shows me around..." She gestured vaguely, hinting at a litany of other occasions. "We made a plan to go rowing on Saturdays - "
"Piers..." He hesitated, not knowing how to frame his words. "Don't you think... don't you think that it's a bit dodgy, for her to be such good friends with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"She is Richard's doctor, Piers. I mean, it's not very professional of her to be involved in such a personal level with you, is it?"
"She has been very good with looking after him."
"I don't doubt it. I just think its dangerous - "
There was a thread of steel in her voice. "For what?"
"I don't know. Just - publicity." Piersen moved to retort, but Chris interjected. "I know how that sounded, and it was a bastardly thing for me to say. But you know I have a feeling for these things - and my gut tells me that this can get really messy."
Piersen held his gaze steadily. Explain.
"We've sent an internal memo around saying that Richard's taken extended leave - that's all the press have so far. Only the inner circle know that he never made it to the Sydney meeting, and it's just us, Mum and Matherson that know he's comatose. We've done a good job keeping Richard's condition quiet for the moment - but it's been hell trying to tighten the media inquiries back home. We've got people watching the stock prices like hawks."
The emerald in Piersen's eyes turned hard; a hint of acid in the darkening stare.
"You haven't served divorce papers yet - you're still technically married. And for you to look like you're having a jolly old time, while Richard is half dead in hospital - with his doctor, no less..." He trailed off, awkward words stumbling into silence.
He concluded, wearily. "I mean, you don't even know who she is."
"Correction, Chris - you don't know who she is." Piersen's bearing seemed to change - radiating an aura of menace despite the neutral set of her face. "I do. She is my friend, and I intend for her to stay my friend. I won't be dictated by the firm anymore, Crispy. My life is here; the company and the media can go to hell for all I care."
The tall, stocky man watched helplessly as his sister walked from the room, feeling the tight burn of disappointment and frustration work its way through his stomach. Stupid! You stupid, stupid dumbass, Chris. Now look what you've done. The back of his head connected sharply with the wall, the heavy concrete withholding the satisfaction of his actually breaking anything.
Sighing, Chris made for the door, calling after his sister as he went.
The sharp rap of knuckles on the hardwood of her office door brought Kai out from the cloud of thought that had surrouded her reading. Looking up from the sheaf of correspondences, she removed the glasses that had slipped negligently to the tip of her nose and shifted in her chair, re-crossing her legs.
The door opened, ushering in the slim figure of Piersen Evans and her brother, who followed closely behind - though looking somewhat out of breath.
Kai laid her file on the table, smiling slightly in welcome. "Good afternoon."
Chris smiled. "Hi. Did we keep you?"
"No, I had work to review." She directed her gaze to the solidly build man. "Have you been up to the ward?"
"Yes, we've just come down." Kai saw the look he gave his sister; a flicker that came and went in an instant. She cut in smoothly.
"I'm sure Piersen has told you the circumstances surrounding his hospitalisation. Do you have any questions you would like answered?"
"I wouldn't know where to start, Dr. Jamieson." He rubbed at the back of his neck, apparently in thought. "But it's not me you should be telling these things to. If you could, I don't know - write a progress report or something to his doctor in the UK, I'd be really grateful."
"Of course. Do you have a name and address I can send the letter to?"
Chris nodded, reaching into his pocket for his wallet. When that produced nothing he began patting himself out, to no avail. "Damn. I must have left my wallet in the car."
"That's alright. If you could send the details to my office some other time, or give Adrian a call..."
Piersen handed her brother a set of keys, speaking for the first time. "It's just in the car. How about you go and have a look."
Two pairs of eyes followed him from the room, lingering on the receding figure until the door eventually clicked itself shut.
Kai rose to her feet, adjusting her large chair as she directed her attention to the
blonde woman standing on the other side of the desk. The sound seemed too loud in the air
a fine thread that was strung precariously between them.
"Do you want me to take some blood?"
Piersen swallowed. "Yes. Please."
Sitting in the chair offered to her, she rolled up her sleeve and laid her arm on the table, feeling her body sink slowly into the plush leather. She watched the tall surgeon move to the wall of cabinets on the side of the room, retrieving a selection of tubes and needles into a pastel-green kidney dish with familiar efficiency.
The rattle of plastic on plastic filled the room as Kai returned to the desk, settling herself kneeling in front of the seated curator. Piersen watched as long fingers fastened the tourniquet to her exposed arm, tightening it with a quick motion.
She could feel the blue gaze on her skin, tracing the grey lines of blood that crossed her pale skin. A snap of latex gloves followed, and Piersen felt its touch in the prone side of her elbow, gentle fingers probing lightly on the vulnerable skin.
Then the touch was gone. Piersen looked up to her friend's face - her eyes lingering on the strong line of her nose, the hollow planes of her cheek cast into shadow. The doctor's hands worked briskly over her equipment, apparently lost in concentration.
"We're friends, right?"
Blue eyes looked up and into her, completely.
They remained that way for a long moment, holding eye contact as each tried to read the other's thoughts. Then it broke, leaving a tremulous silence in its wake.
Kai tore an alco-wipe and ran it firmly across the skin, feeling the cold of the alcohol seep past the gloves into her fingertips. She spoke first, her voice steady, her eyes intent on her hands. "Am I wrong in thinking that?"
"No!" Piersen caught herself, hearing her own too-vehement response. "No. "
Beneath the bowed head Piersen saw those eyes fall shut with a breath in, then out. Did I scare her?
"Whatever happens, Kai - I want you to know that. That you are very important to me." Her gaze dropped, searching for the right word.
Kai muttered softly, almost unheard. "This will hurt. Just a sting."
Piersen gasped, feeling the cool point of the needle moments before a flash of pain. She closed her eyes, concentrating her senses on the transient violence that numbed into a deep, languid heaviness in her arm, on the subtle pressure of Kai's fingers on her skin holding the needle that drank the seductive dark flow of blood from her veins.
In that moment, the right word came; a whisper. "Precious."
There was a click as Kai released the tourniquet. Green eyes fluttered open, then focused on the needle which was being pulled out. Kai's large hand moved in to pressed a ball of cotton wool to the puncture wound firmly while the other busied with disposing needles and labelling the vials of blood.
For a moment, Piersen thought her friend did not hear her at all, that the word never escaped her lips. Then she saw the surgeon's profile soften into a smile.
Kai's fingers returned - this time, the touch of her skin was warm on Piersen's flesh, even in its fleeting brush against her arm as she rolled down the sleeve for her. Piersen could only watch her friend administer the action - one that was so innocuous, yet curiously intimate - lost in a peculiar resonance that drew her with its quiet magnetism.
It was a moment that was broken abruptly as the door opened, ushering in Chris' burly figure. "Nope, I couldn't find it. I must have left it at home. Can I call you on Monday?"
Piersen suppressed a gasp - but as her eyes shot to the evidence on the desk, she found that it was gone; and the tall doctor was by the window, leaning comfortably against the window.
"Sure. Whenever you have time."
"It's very inconvenient for you, I know. I'm really sorry about that." Chris raked his hand through his hair, a sheepish smile working its way across his face. "How about we all go out for lunch? Just so we haven't completely wasted this morning."
Piersen smiled, though her eyes watched her friend carefully.
Kai hesitated, then adjusted her watch. "No, perhaps another time. I have quite a bit to catch up on."
Piersen looked away, her features an enigma as her brother's affable laugh intruded into the moment's silence.
"Yeah, I know what that's like. We won't keep you." He held the door open, watching his sister expectantly as she rose from the doctor's chair.
Kai nodded. "Goodbye."
Blue eyes watched the blonde woman as she brushed past, the faint hue of perfume stirring an intangible tension in the air. Try as she might, she could not trace the moment the anxiety fell - only that it gripped her stomach, and that she needed to maintain a distant composure.
Piersen was by the door. Her farewell was quiet, almost tentative. "Goodbye, Kai."
Kai managed a weak smile, wishing she could say more. "I'll see you soon."
Thirty-Eight - Sonata: Coda
"You're still angry with me."
Chris' voice sounded flat in the enclosed, carpeted hallway that lead to the lifts. He watched his sister from the periphery of his vision, noting the tiny nuances in her bearing that betrayed her mood - the tight, purposeful steps, the rod-like line of her back, the passive set to her normally expressive features.
His heart sank, knowing that she could very likely ignore his statement. He had hurt her, and he knew why - yet there was another layer to this tense silence that suggested more brewing beneath his sister's calm exterior.
Piersen spoke, her voice surprising him out of his thoughts. "I'm not angry with you, Chris. You... you just reminded me of things I didn't want to think about."
They stopped before a small bank of lifts, pausing briefly as Chris reached and punched sharply on the call button.
"Piers..." He looked at her this time, and saw a pair of veiled green eyes watching him in return. "Is there... something wrong? Something I tripped that I didn't know about?"
Piersen blinked, the slow rise-fall of flesh seeming to last a full heartbeart. Just when he thought she was going to speak, the elevator doors opened in a metallic hiss that broke the moment, and the blonde woman's earnest gaze.
"You didn't do anything, Chris." He felt her arm wind around his elbow, guiding him through the doors. "Come on, let's go."
The door closed finally with a click, and Kai's troubled gaze followed it through its course, still tracing the lingering silhouette of the blonde woman in her mind as she walked from the office.
Damn. With a deep sigh, she stalked to her chair and sank into it, the leather giving way with a long breath of its own. Oh Kai... what are you doing?
Her eyes fell to her hands, lying limply in her lap, and caught the hint of colour beyond them on the floor below. Leaning over, she picked up the kidney dish that she had hurriedly stowed away, and placed it on the desk.
The three vials of blood were there, lying amongst a battlefield of tourniquet and needles and vacutainers. Kai picked one up and held it in her palm, feeling the slight warmth that still persisted, like a faint glow.
Precious. She said I was precious. Try as she might, she could not even begin to find the words to describe what Piersen was to her.
A part of her wanted to go out, find her husband and battle thirteen rounds for the blond woman - her bicep twitched, an errant message from a mind that was already five rounds down, five rounds ahead. But it inevitably came back to reality, the reality where the husband was her patient, one she had a duty of care for, lying in her ward with her departmental funds pouring into his arm, keeping him alive and clearing an infection that spoke more to her than Piersen's tears did last night.
Professor Jamieson had fallen in love, and there was precious little she could do about it.
Whatever happens, she said. Whatever happens. There was a strange foreboding in those words that she could not quite place - one that settled into a knot in the pit of her stomach as the curator walked away. What is going to happen?
Finding no answer, Kai let out a frustrated growl and gathered the rest of the blood samples, placing them in a request bag. She laid it beside her briefcase, a reminder to drop it in to pathology before she left.
Kai sat at her desk alone as the sun began to stretch longer shadows across the room. With a squaring of her shoulders, she opened her drawer and extracted a dictaphone. She held it close to her lips, her thumb resting onthe record button as she gathered her thoughts.
"Dear Sir," She began, the quiet, distinct mutter filling the silent room.
Thank you for referring Mr Stamford.
Mr Stamford is a forty-two year old gentleman with a recent history of epidural haemorrhage secondary to trauma and penetrating gunshot wounds to his epigastrium. Both were treated satisfactorily. However, as a result of the primary trauma he has been comatose but stable since admission five weeks ago, with a GCS of six showing little or no improvement. Pupillary reflexes were sluggish to light bilaterally. Both were normal to accommodation. There was slight hyperreflexia in all four limbs, more pronounced in the lower limbs. Sensorium could not be tested. Cardiovascular and other systems were unremarkable.
Investigations conducted to isolate precipitating conditions have yielded positive VDRL and TPHA tests. HIV, Hepatitis B and C status have been confirmed negative. He has been diagnosed with symptomatic neurosyphilis. It is suspected that this has contributed to his current comatose state.
He has been commenced the appropriate antibiotic therapy. Further investigations regarding suspected neurological deficits are pending his recovery.
Australian and British public health departments have been contacted as required by law. We shall notify you of any changes should they come to pass.
Yours Sincerely -
"'...Professor K Jamieson, Chairman, Neurology and Neurosurgery. St. Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, Australia.'"
Her voice blending into the quiet tinker of fine china and subtle conversation, Katherine Evans folded up the letter and directed a solicitous smile at a dignified wizened gentleman, who sat perusing a series of papers. Despite the generous proportions of the opulently upholstered chair, she was seated on the edge with her stockinged legs immaculately crossed, her back forming a primly elegant curve that bore her weight in a perfect, unwavering vertical axis.
"What are your thoughts thus far, Sir Leighton?"
The man looked up over his bifocals after a prolonged pause, his gaze clear despite his advanced age. Like the other men in the Bainbridge Club, he was dressed neatly in a tweed jacket and pressed pants, with a shirt and tie executed in a neat windsor knot.
"I think it's pretty straight-forward, Mrs Evans. Your son-in-law is in a coma complicated by tertiary syphilis."
The matter-of-factness in his tone escaped Katherine Evans as the words sank in to her consciousness. For a long moment, she did not move, did not speak. As testament to her upbringing there was no betrayal of her thoughts in her perfectly made-up face, only a brief flicker of her gaze to the other patrons that gathered in assorted clusters, grouped at such a distance as to be politely anti-social.
"Can there be any mistake? I don't believe - "
The aged surgeon appeared unperturbed by the uncomfortable silence that had passed. "Sure, there can always be mistakes. I don't know how they work out there in Australia, but I'm sure their microbiology departments are competent enough to detect these things."
"Perhaps he should be transferred back home..."
"Not until he's awake, he won't." For the first time, he sensed the woman's deeply hidden agitation. Or perhaps he sensed that his authority in medical knowledge was being challenged by her reluctance to accept his opinion - his tone changed, becoming more brusque even as he seemed to lounge further into his chair. "It's an open and shut case, Mrs Evans. They're going to investigate him. Check him for neurodegeneration, for syphilitic aortitis, for benign gumma. Those are all the things that happen in untreated tertiary syphilis. God knows it's frightfully rare nowadays - usually people are treated way before it hits this stage. He must have left it for years."
Katherine Evans sat with her tea, unable to respond. They sat in silence, drowning in the subdued haze of a society high tea.
"Though the name is quite familiar... Jamieson at St. Vincent's..." The distinguished surgeon tapped at his armrest in a distracted manner, his moustache twitching with his pursed lips. "Does that rings any bells with you at all, boy?"
He turned his gaze to the third member at the table that completed their company; a younger, perhaps middle-aged man with a vague resemblance to Sir Leighton, who at that moment was taking a short draught of darjeeling.
The teacup was set down. Nodding his head in a subtle hypnotic arc, Euan Fraser smiled.
"Yes. Indeed it does."
To Be Continued...
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