There it was again. Jae blinked and tried to clear the bright black spot floating on her eyes. Then another. The flashes left her slightly disoriented and she paused on her way down the steps of the house they were filming in, afraid that she would fall.
It was constant, the press and media unrelenting in their pursuit of what they perceived to be some hidden truth or scandal.
"Ms. Cavanaugh, why have you suddenly switched locations?"
Jae drew on one of the stock answers provided by the studio publicist. "Not a big mystery - there's no snow in Michigan yet. Now if you'll excuse me." All things considered, it came out much more cordial than expected, given her current frustration level with being followed around.
Another round of flashes went off, forcing her to blink again to retain her balance and her eyesight. The handrail prevented her fall and guided her down the stairs. Too bad it can't keep them from following. They were merciless and Jae had watched, in morbid fascination, as the smallest details of her life were revealed to America at large. Relevance wasn't...relevant. Everything from fourth grade report cards to the number of guitar strings she broke during her last set had surfaced. I'm learning things about myself that I didn't know. Her sense of humour was all that stood between her and a scream. Edvard Munch style.
Chambers was eating it up, and as a result was no help at all dealing with the rumours, choosing instead to be enigmatic, neither confirming or denying prior knowledge of her sexuality or Reed's peccadilloes. Jae ignored the camera man trailing after her and headed for her car.
She'd missed a query, but it didn't really matter - it would be another question without an answer. It didn't matter how she replied - a yes or no - either way it gave them something. She'd finally learned to just ignore those kinds of questions, though it hadn't stopped reporters from asking them. I guess hope springs eternal. The wry grin was replaced by a genuine smile as she glanced hopefully for a familiar body skulking behind the rental car.
It was another off day for the actress and she didn't really expect to see Reed until later, but she couldn't help but look. Right. Assuming you can sneak into the hospital again. Bonnie and Clyde strike again. Or was that Laurel and Hardy? Thelma and Louise...no, they died. Two more names slipped into her consciousness. Dar and Kerry? Well it's not like you couldn't play the role - you've rehearsed it with Reed enough.
"Is that a yes or a no, Ms. Cavanaugh?"
The good humour of memory vanished with the interruption. "That would be a 'no comment'." The lone ones were the worst. In a group they served to check and balance each other - not from any social restraint, but rather to keep from being scooped. I never thought I'd miss the gaggle that trailed us last week.
"Does Ms. Lewis know about your continued association with Rebecca Devereaux? Your hotel phone records show several calls to a number listed to her along with late night calls to Reed Lewis."
"I said, and I quote, 'no comment'." Jae let the slamming of the car door punctuate the sentiment. My phone records? They're checking my phone records? This time it wasn't flashes from cameras that left her unable to focus. Her eyes stung as she fought angry tears and maneuvered her car out of the parking lot toward the I95 and Bangor.
Jae adjusted the scrubs and tucked the sweat pants and shirt into her backpack, out of sight. The reporters couldn't keep up with her when she ran, and the rough banks of the Penobscot kept them from following any other way. Which hadn't really been all that bad. Indulging in the late afternoon runs had given her a measure of space to think and forced her back into a semi-regular fitness regime that made long filming hours easier on her body.
She took a last look at her reflection in the glass door, pulling her ball cap low over her forehead for good measure. Close enough to shift change...I hope. EMMC didn't seem as welcoming as usual, and for the first time since her arrival, Jae dreaded going into the hospital, afraid that today would be the day they got caught and the secret she'd spent weeks keeping would be out.
A ball of tension settled in her stomach and she could feel more tears beginning to form. Get a grip, Babe. Reed doesn't need to have you crumbling now. I don't need me crumbling now. A deep breath and she was through the doors and into the spacious lobby - into the congestion of patients, staff, and visitors. Baseball cap still pulled low, she crept to the back of the crowd that had spilled from the plush lobby into the front entrance and blocked any possible egress.
The knot in her middle unwound as she passed unnoticed through the throng, skipping her usual foray into the gift shop, heading for the elevator and the eighth floor. Paediatrics was relatively quiet, a lot of the children eating or sleeping, the steady ping of machinery replacing the sometimes surprisingly boisterous laughter that often rang through the halls. At first she'd hated the sounds of respirators and heart machines, but now she found them comforting. Every ping, every beep meant a child was alive.
The beeps from Rio's room were steady and regular, auditory proof that he had come through his second surgery in fine shape. Jae knocked lightly on the door. "Can I come in?"
"Sure." His eyes never left the small TV mounted over his bed but he moved over slightly, making room.
She crawled onto the empty space, indulging with guilty pleasure in some down time, and suddenly the day didn't seem so bad. The production problems faded a little as she watched the mindless antics of Pinky and the Brain. The episodes of Rugrats that followed were almost painful to watch, but she enjoyed Rio's unabashed glee in Tommy's revenge on Angelica.
He squirmed closer and she let him curl up against her, supporting his weight, letting her mind wander. It was an unexpected bonus, being trusted with not only Reed's secrets but with her son. Jae ruffled his hair, the dark curls falling naturally back into place, and gave him a small hug, avoiding any outright mushiness. "I'm going to grab a soda - want a Popsicle?" She was pretty sure he could have one of those.
"You got it." It took a few minutes to find a nurse, and a few more to locate a lime Popsicle.
Voices were emanating from the room, and she speeded up, sensing that something wasn't right.
"She's a friend of my mum's."
"Oh, and who is your mother?"
The question was asked casually and Rio started to answer. "Get out." Jae didn't know or care who the man was. The camera was enough to signal bad news.
Bright light exploded in the room as the flash went off and another picture was taken. She didn't stop to think about it, just reached for the camera. A fist connected with the side of her head and she heard the man wince in pain, his knuckles less solid than her skull.
Jae heard the soft crunch before she felt the nasal bone give under her fist. The reporter crumpled to the floor, one hand over his nose, the other supporting his weight. Still on autopilot, she opened the back of the camera and pulled on the film, throwing it at the reporter.
"You bitch." Blood stained the front of his vest, matting against the yellow fleece.
"We'll see how an assault charge plays." Husky tones purred quietly from just inside the room.
Jae turned to face the newcomer, and the sudden shocking realization of just how serious a mistake she'd made hit her hard. The woman was dangling a camera from a broad black strap, its lens unshuttered, a cocky smile twisting her features in an expression of triumph, a small cell phone held loosely in her other hand.
"Jae?" Rio asked, fear and confusion on his guileless face.
"It's okay, sweetheart. Can you press your buzzer for me?" If the nurse came, then security would follow and she could get the press out of here and buy some time.
"Good idea. After all, can't have a story without plot points. And what a story it is too. Ms. Goody Two Shoes loses it. And I can't wait to make the acquaintance of this young man's mother."
Jae wanted to wipe the smarmy look off the woman's face, close to deciding that if she were going to hang - it might as well be for stealing the whole flock instead of just a lamb.
"Did you beat up on Rebecca Deveraux too? That's quite a temper you have there."
She was being goaded, the sole intent to force her to react. Jae knew it, and it still didn't stop her from responding to the taunts. "No. I never hit her." Only realizing after the words were out, that she had provided the first official confirmation of her relationship with Becky. It was coming unraveled, the long weeks of carefully weaving lies and truth ended with a punch. Of all the times to lose my cool.
Jae put herself between Rio and the unwanted company, willing them not to see the obvious. Reed's gonna freak.
The shift nurse appeared in the doorway. "What can I...oh." She had enough presence of mind to yell for security. "You'll have to leave."
"Sure. We have what we came for." The reporter helped her colleague to his feet. Yellow vest's nose was no longer spilling fresh blood, the crimson stain already coagulating, and a slightly cupric smell hung in the air.
"And what was that?" There was no mistaking the icy anger behind the question.
It was fascinating to watch. Reed seemed to grow even taller and would have dwarfed the reporter with sheer presence alone -even if she hadn't had several inches on the woman. Without bringing their bodies into contact, the actress somehow maneuvered the reporters out of the room.
Vintage Reed, Jae thought, realizing she was being treated to a performance by one of the best actresses in Hollywood. A small thump rattled the small pane of glass in the wooden door, and dark material blotted out the light from the hall. Or maybe it wasn't. One thing was for sure, she was glad she wasn't in the hallway.
"Give me the film." Reed allowed a feral grin to play over her lips, keeping any hint of warmth out of her eyes. Sometimes it was an advantage to have pale eyes.
"Reality check, Babe. This is not a movie. And if you think I'm just handing over a $200,000 chunk of film, you're nuts." Her shock must have registered with the reporter, because the woman leaned forward, moving to the offensive, almost purring. "Translation: don't fuck with my boss."
Reed shoved the woman back against the door, rattling the window. Only the presence of her son on the other side kept her from repeating the move. "Don't fuck with me."
"Ah, ah, ah." The admonishment was accompanied by a cockily wagged index finger. "You don't want to join your girlfriend in jail, now do you? Felonious assault isn't exactly CV material." She paused and smiled. "Though come to think of it, they might let you room together."
"Judging by your buddy's knuckles, I'm guessing the bastard deserved what he got." The cameraman had been taken to a side room by one of the nurses, though there was still no sign of security. She moved inside the other woman's personal space, using her size to her advantage. "And this is private property - with clearly posted signs about unauthorized visitors, so at the very least you'll be joining us." The quick flinch and clouding of the otherwise cocky smile told Reed she'd scored a hit, so she continued to press the advantage. "Translation: your boss won't do your time for you."
There was some fire left in the reporter, because she moved forward, and Reed took a step back, retreating slightly in response.
"You can't hide the truth forever, Ms. Lewis. And I intend to get what my boss paid for." The smile that accompanied the words was without any humour, more warning than anything.
It clicked into place. These people were from 'Up Close'. Apparently the tabloid had been less than pleased about the maneuvering they had done, and they were determined to get the full details.
"So who's the kid? He's cute."
Security chose that instant to arrive, forestalling what would likely have been a very loud and very physical response on her part. As it was, it was still a near thing, and Reed let her hand drop to her side, harmlessly, clenching and unclenching the fist in order to bleed off some of her anger.
She didn't even have to deal with it. The nurse who had intervened originally materialized and quietly directed the security staff. It made her wonder where the staff had been in the first place, something she would pursue later - with the hospital administrator if necessary. Right now she just wanted to see her son.
The reporter didn't speak as she and her co-worker were escorted out of the hospital. Instead she met Reed's eyes as the elevator doors slid open and tapped her watch, message clear.
It was only a matter of time.
Reed took a deep breath and opened the door, feeling its weight as she pushed it aside. Jae had curled up on the bed and was holding Rio, smoothing his hair as she rocked him gently. She took a minute to study the two of them. In a way she found it almost unbelievable that the director continued to generate such interest from the tabloids. But then it had been a relatively slow news year in Hollywood. Jae had tried to laugh it off, but Reed could tell that it had been getting to her friend lately, the constant scrutiny wearing on a woman who never looked for hidden agendas in other people and so couldn't quite fathom others looking for them in her. If what the reporter in the hall had said was true, it was the first time she could remember Jae having lost control of what sometimes seemed like a supernatural calm.
Watching, unnoticed, she could see that Jae was anything but calm now. Tears were visible on the blonde's face and it was obvious that she was only keeping herself together for the sake of the sleeping child in her arms. I can't protect either of them.
And I can't chose.
Can't you? Act. Don't react. The beginnings of a headache accompanied the harsh words of her inner voice.
Remnants of the anger from the hallway coloured her internal reply with a sarcasm she rarely turned inward. Right...and the truth shall set you free?
If he had to find out at all about his father, this was most definitely not the way she wanted it to happen. And it would come out, Reed realized. They wouldn't let it go until they knew everything. And what they couldn't find out they would make up. It was only sheer luck that had kept them from figuring out that she was at the hospital to do more than film scenes.
Tear-stained cheeks swung in her direction, and she read the apology without Jae needing to speak. There was fear written there too, and instinctively she crossed the small room to wrap her arms around the director, wanting to soothe the hurt. "It's okay."
"You're not mad?" The words were hesitant, barely spoken.
Her stomach clenched as Reed realized she was responsible for the fear clouding the normally confident and bright eyes. "Not at you." What hurt more was the awareness that Jae's fear wasn't misplaced; past behaviour more than justified her reaction. She traced the soft hair under her hand, pausing as she encountered slight swelling just behind a delicate ear. "So it was self-defense."
"Not exactly. But I did get the film." The bit of plastic in question still lay crumpled on the floor where it had been dropped. "I'm sorry."
Reed swung around to look directly at her friend. "No. I'm the one who's sorry. You don't deserve this."
"Neither do you."
But that wasn't really true. They were her mistakes and maybe if she had taken more responsibility for them sooner, Jae wouldn't be sporting a lump on the side of her head, or facing a possible assault charge. I guess we'll see if the truth is enough to at least set you free, cause it sure as hell ain't going to do me much good. She wrapped her hand around one of Jae's smaller ones. "Call your friend Thom. Tell him everything."
She laid a finger across Jae's lips, gently but firmly cutting off the protest. "It's time." As she said it, Reed realized it was true. Roan was dead, no longer any threat, and by barricading herself behind a wall of silence she was giving him even more power than he deserved. And maybe, just maybe, it would buy them more peace than hiding had.
"Because I need to tell Riordan."
The assent was given by a thoughtful nod as Rio began to stir, the movement and conversation drawing him out of the light slumber.
"Hey kiddo. Hungry?"
Dark curls bounced from side to side as he shook his head. "I had a Popsicle."
Reed raised a brow, pinning Jae with a mock serious glare. "And your mother accused me of not knowing what to feed kids."
Jae laughed, shaking off the somber air that had invaded the room. "Don't blame me - the nurse okayed it."
She laughed along for a minute, then sobered, the enormity of the task ahead slamming the humour out of the situation, replacing it with solid fear. Her hand was squeezed in silent support, and she mustered a wan smile as Jae disentangled herself and stood.
"I'll be at my hotel."
"Thank you." The words came out much more formally than intended, but still not adequate to express what she meant.
The warm look and smile she received in reply calmed some of the trepidation, and the whispered word that followed made what remained bearable. "Always"
Reed fiddled with the blanket, then leaned down to place a featherlight kiss on the sleeping child's forehead. He'd been tired and she wasn't sure that he fully understood what she had been trying to tell him. And any clarification had been forestalled by Heidi's unexpected arrival and abrupt departure, Rio having fallen asleep during her futile effort to catch her friend.
"Hey yourself." She turned to face Geoff, who was leaning against the doorframe, carryout tray, complete with steaming coffee, in hand. "I see you came armed. She still mad?" Heidi had left the room without speaking a single word.
"I'm not going to take him away from you."
"I know. I think she knows that. But it's hard for her."
She thought about that. All of the childcare decisions had been made jointly, the three of them sharing the parenting. For all intents and purposes he had been their son too, the community at large accepting him as such, and treating him accordingly. That had just been pre-empted.
Reed took a cautious sip of the hot coffee, the sweet caramel flavour a pleasant surprise, and mulled over the situation.
"It was time, Geoff. I couldn't hide him forever."
"Ayup. Long past time, I'm thinking. But you should have given her some time to adjust to things."
"Where is she?"
"She went for a run."
Oh-oh. This is serious, not just a mad-on over an interview. Heidi never exercised, at least voluntarily. Reed leaned down and gave Rio a final goodnight kiss, then hugged Geoff quickly and left in search of his wife, whom she speedily found sucking air on the hotel steps.
Heidi took another gulp of the night air, desperate to get some oxygen into her starved lungs. Her legs burned and she was pretty sure that any second now she was going to pass out. Running hadn't done anything to ease the anger - if anything she was even angrier with Reed.
The door behind her swung open, and she moved to let whomever it was past. Instead, it was Reed, who joined her on the concrete steps of the hotel, having most likely come through the hospital.
"Geoff send you?"
Reed hunched forward and tucked her hands together, right thumb rubbing at the webbing of her other hand. "No. Look, I'm sorry."
"I don't even know why you're bothering to talk to me about it at all - you just went ahead and did what you wanted." Heidi spat the words.
"It just happened."
"Protecting your new little friend was more important than respecting the ones you already have."
"What in the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"You figure it out." She let the words trail off, the hurt in Reed's eyes giving her pause.
"I'm not taking him away from you. It wouldn't be fair to any of us, least of all Riordan."
Heidi wondered if Reed had sidestepped her meaning on purpose - or if the actress really didn't see what everyone else was beginning to. "I still don't understand why you had to tell them" In a strange way though, she did understand. It was Reed through and through. Impetuous to a fault, her friend did nothing half way.
Reed met her eyes, voice low and earnest. "Because my secrets were hurting someone who didn't deserve it. But it doesn't change anything."
She looked down, breaking eye contact with the actress. "Things are changing, Reed. You're changing." Her whole world was changing. She knew it was petty, but she wanted things to stay the way they were. Her and Geoff, Reed and Rio, a family, finally able to live without fear.
It was terribly ironic, even she could see that. Heidi knew Reed had been afraid that she would be cast aside if Rio were no longer part of the picture, valueless without her son. Now she was the one afraid - a healthy Rio meant change would come anyway. Reed would no longer need to work so hard, or so far away from home, and she and Geoff would no longer have a place in their lives.
They hadn't been able to have children. Procrastination and tiny cysts had robbed her of a dream she hadn't realized she wanted until it was no longer possible. Then one day Reed had knocked on the door of the cozy farmhouse, and in the months that followed the four of them had forged a family.
Heidi looked over, wondering what was going on behind the deceptively stoic façade.
Reed was still, her eyes fixed on the darkened waters of the river that bounded the hospital and hotel. Slowly the actress turned so they were facing, then spoke. "You too?" She sounded hurt. "Go ahead - get it over with - ask, everyone else has."
She didn't want to ask. The military had a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. If it was good enough for Uncle Sam, then it was good enough for a simple country vet. "I don't need to." Why ask a question you already knew the answer to? She'd seen them, that first morning. Arriving early after receiving Reed's message that Rio had woken briefly, she'd rushed into the hospital room. No, the sight of Reed curled up in the petite blonde's lap, one hand encircling her waist, while one of the director's hands stroked the longer hair of the actress, had been all the answer she needed, even if the two of them were unaware of what they projected. And maybe it was about the family growing - not shrinking - because it was clear to Heidi that Reed considered Jae family.
"C'mon, I'll buy you some orange juice." The abrupt change of subject signaled the closing of the brief window into deeper emotional territory.
"Orange juice? After that torture session, I was hoping for a milkshake. Of the chocolate variety." Heidi stood up, her back screaming in agony, a pointed reminder of why running was her least favorite recreational activity imaginable.
"You think Jae would like to join us?" It would take some getting used to, but she was willing to try. Especially since the mere mention of the director's name had caused Reed to light up like a Christmas tree. And that, in spite of everything else, was too rare a thing not to be encouraged.
"I think if you mention the words chocolate and ice cream in the same sentence you'd have to hold her back." Reed shook her head in mock distaste as she carefully enunciated every syllable of the word chocolate.
Heidi grinned back unable to think of a suitably snappy comeback. Maybe it will be easier than I thought. After all, how horrible could someone who liked chocolate be?
Reed leaned close to Jae. "Remind me again why I'm here." She honestly couldn't remember how she'd gotten roped into attending a wedding for someone she barely knew.
"You? That should be my line. I have no idea who these people are," Jae whispered back.
"Point." She agreed, amiably.
A woman in front of them turned and glared. Heidi poked her in the ribs, so Reed stopped speaking, rubbing the spot with exaggerated indignation.
Jae grinned, scrunching her nose, and it was all Reed could do not to laugh out loud. They exchanged conspiratorial winks, then she returned her attention to the ceremony. Occasionally, she turned her eyes on the other guests, surreptitiously watching them watch her.
The publicity storm during the past couple of weeks had stolen her last vestiges of anonymity, one result of which was the curious stares she and Jae were now receiving. Initially the constant scrutiny had been hard on the director, but worry about Rio's surgery and recovery, coupled with the need to sort out production problems with the movie, had left the media in the dust. They had faded into the background, the innuendo and rumours paling next to real life issues.
Not that it wasn't awkward to have photographers jumping out at them now and again, hoping for some evidence to answer the most asked question in Hollywood these days: 'Were they or weren't they?'. But that's what publicists were for, and Cait had hired a good one.
Reed smiled to herself. At some point they had begun to tease the press, first by accident, then more deliberately. It was, she reflected, interesting to have a relationship with the media that wasn't antagonistic. Interesting? It's fun to tease them - admit it.
It was fun. The LA Times article had changed her relationship to with the press, and even the assault charge had worked in their favour. The court of public opinion had little sympathy for the fourth estate when it came to ambushing children.
Work was fun again, the way it had been when she'd first started, back before it had become a means to an end. Riordan was over the worst, his three week hospital convalescence nearing its end, his release expected Monday.
Life was good. Not perfect, but good. To be perfect, she'd have to be sitting somewhere other than Heidi's cousin's wedding. Or at least that's whose wedding she thought it was.
"Hey...Dreamer." Jae prodded her ribs.
"You're holding up the line."
Reed looked around, discovering the ceremony had ended. Chagrined, she stood and sidled out of the wooden pew, then waited for the others to join her. Together they made their way outside the church to await the emergence of the newlyweds, and the progression to the reception hall.
First they had to survive the receiving line.
It progressed with an interminable slowness that was surpassed only by the supreme awkwardness of listening to the various members of the wedding party stumble around how to greet them. Those that weren't starstruck were rendered mute trying to find a suitable way to refer to the director.
"That was beyond painful." Reed shook her head. They were waiting their turn to enter the hall.
"It could have been worse."
"They could have referred to me as your 'Lesbian Life Partner'."
Confused, she looked down at Jae. "That's a joke, right? I missed the punch line." Jae's openness was something she was still getting used to, but a part of her enjoyed the banter, realizing that she was privy to a side of the director not many saw.
"It's from a TV show."
Space opened up in front of them, and they entered the large stone church hall. Long tables lined the back wall, proudly displaying the myriad packages, boxes, bags and bright bows of the gifts deposited there before the ceremony.
Jae nudged her gently and pointed at the bounty. "Awkward if someone had objected, or the bride decided to do a Julia Roberts."
The blonde chuckled, drawing an odd look from Heidi, who with Geoff, was looking for their seats.
Circular tables filled the majority of the hall, balloons, streamers and a dance floor taking up the remainder. Ornate, hand-lettered name cards rested on the fine china plates, the flowing calligraphy an elegant complement to the place settings.
"Here's ours." Geoff pointed at a spot on the neatly lettered seating diagram, then indicated a table on the far side of the room.
"Aren't you the perfect gentleman?" Heidi remarked.
It took Reed a second to figure out what Heidi was talking about, and she looked down to where her hand still rested on the back of Jae's chair. The ringing of cutlery against crystal saved her from needing to reply, and she quickly seated herself.
Dinner followed the preliminary speeches, and the traditional roasting of the groom followed the prime rib. Music followed the last of the speeches, and the room became even more festive as the children disappeared and the alcohol began to flow more freely.
Well lubricated herself, she watched Geoff drag Heidi onto the dance floor, laughing as he spun his wife around with flare. Other couples and groups filled the floor, old and young alike.
Off to one side, a group of young men were casting intermittent looks in their direction. Even augmented by occasional physical pokes and prodding encouragement, they hadn't had quite enough alcohol to give them sufficient courage to make an approach.
"I'd love to hear that conversation." Jae snagged her glass from the table, rotating it slowly in her hands.
"No. That's the one I'd pay to have heard." She indicated the corner where the bride and groom had been talking, and the fact that Heidi's cousin was now making his way slowly toward them.
"As long as he doesn't ask me where my husband is or when I'm getting married, I'll be happy."
Reed laughed. Poor Jae's dinner conversation had consisted largely of fending off questions from the only two people in the room who didn't know she was gay.
"I, ah, that is we, umm wanted to.... We wanted to thank you for coming. To the wedding." He looked back over his shoulder, and Reed was amused to see the look of adoring encouragement his wife bestowed on him. "We...well there's dancing you see, and well, you're not, and umm we wanted to say you could. Dance, I mean. Here. Together. Thanksagainforcoming Thankyouforthegift. Bye." He turned and fled.
Stunned, Reed looked over at an equally stunned director and they both started laughing at the same time. Every time they looked at each other the paroxysms started again, and in order to stop they had to avoid each other's eyes.
"People are staring."
The stage whisper carried across the table and Reed smirked. "And that would be new, how exactly?" Which started Jae laughing all over again.
"I needed that. But I think we hurt their feelings."
"In that case, maybe we had better dance." Something fast and boppy was playing; the artist she recognized, but the title escaped her.
"Then shall we?" Jae bowed and held out a hand.
They made their way to the floor and joined the throng, who paused briefly to watch before once more picking up the rhythm. Heidi and Geoff moved to join them before being shanghaied by another group of relatives. The newlyweds took to the floor and Reed unexpectedly found herself dancing with the groom while Jae laughed.
There was another shift in tempo and partners, the director whisked away in a flurry of dance steps. As the pattern shifted, she caught a glimpse of red topped by a broad smile before someone claimed her as a partner and she lost track of Jae.
Once again the music changed, the seagoing history of the state, and the ancestry of its people, filling the room. Lines formed and she instinctively took her place in the reel. She stepped forward, timing her pace to bring her level with her partner in the center of the floor as they took the first turn before switching off and re-partnering.
Faster and faster the dancers whirled in response to the music, then suddenly it was over and slow piano notes replaced the frantic fiddle.
"I love this song. Dance with me?"
Reed turned to find Jae standing in a pool of light, the sheer fabric of her red dress shining under the soft glow. Before she could decide, a man stepped between them and answered, "It would be my pleasure."
"I've never seen you shine so bright. Mmmm, I've never seen so many men ask you if you wanted to dance. They're looking for a little romance, given half a chance."
Over his shoulder Jae's eyes were locked on hers and the director gave her an apologetic grin. Suddenly feeling conspicuous, Reed left the floor and headed for the bathroom, craving privacy.
"I have never seen that dress you're wearing, or the highlights in your hair that catch your eyes. I have --"The door shut on the ballad, muffling lyrics no longer just words.
She was facing the mirror, but not looking in it, eyes focused instead on her hands, which rested on the counter.
But the same eyes looked back at her when she finally did raise her head.
"And when you turned to me and smiled, it took my breath away --"
Now she was looking at Jae, their eyes meeting in the imaginary plane of the mirror. Reed turned and leaned against the counter, its marble surface cold through the fabric of her dress.
"You okay?" Concern clouded Jae's face and she had moved to stand close, one hand on the counter while the other brushed a wisp of hair away from Reed's cheek.
It crystalized in that instant. She'd felt it form in a split second on the dance floor, but it had escaped unnamed. I'm going to kiss her. If she doesn't move, I'm going to kiss her.
Jae didn't move and neither did she. I'm going to kiss her. The door could open at any second and she didn't give a damn. I'm going to kiss her.
Still there was no movement, and Reed tried to figure out what had just been said. But her focus had been on the motion of her friend's lips, not on the words, and she had no idea what the topic was. Her heart was pounding so hard it would have drowned out any sounds, had she been paying attention.
Jae stepped back and the opportunity passed.
A multi-purpose answer came to her lips. "Okay." Her voice cracked before the word was complete.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. Never better." She'd guessed right.
"Any room left on your dance card?"
"Yes." Normal banter was beyond her limits just now, but it seemed to pass unnoticed.
The smile she received seemed brighter than before, the eyes warmer, and Reed followed Jae out onto the floor. She couldn't hear the music, everything distant and unreal in the wake of what had almost happened.
If they were being watched, she wasn't cognizant of it. She was aware of the scent of vanilla and the smooth texture of Jae's dress. Reed let her hand rest in the hollow at the small of her partner's back. It felt different. The heat was different, the familiar curves of Jae's body alien and new. It had all changed.
The rest of the evening passed in a pleasant haze, reality only setting in with the bracingly cold fall air she had to walk through as they arrived back at the Riverside Hotel after dropping Jae at her hotel.
Mind in hyperdrive, she flopped onto the bed, dress discarded in a heap on the floor. Overhead, the ceiling fan turned with precision, navigating a predictable orbit about the central axis. She knew that, yet from where she lay watching the slow revolutions, it appeared off kilter, the path elliptical and uneven.
The moment from the bathroom played itself over and over again. She didn't need to close her eyes to be able to feel the sudden certainty. The shock still reverberated through her mind and body. Nervous tension left her unable to sleep, and she sat up in the bed.
It was the role. Had to be. Had to be the long nights of filming combined with prolonged rehearsing with Jae during the day at the hospital. Had to be the constant proximity to the director. Had to be.
Yeah that was it all right. Proximity.
But there had been no confusion, no alcoholic haze. She'd known who she was seeing, known who she was.
She hated the empty hotel room like she hadn't in the two and a half weeks that she'd been in it alone. The publicist had put them in separate hotels, which really hadn't been a problem until now. Oh right. Like this is something I can talk to Jae about.
Heidi was out too. Big time. The vet had been even more uncomfortable with people thinking Reed was gay than Reed herself had been. At first, she just hadn't had time to worry about it. There was Rio's second surgery, then a return to limited shooting before resuming a nearly full work schedule. By then it had become apparent that no one really cared about the truth and that when it came down to it, the world at large didn't care either. What drove publicity was the speculation. They didn't want to know - most of them had made their minds up anyway - they wanted to gossip.
It was one thing when the gossip was groundless, but now...
Now it's still groundless.
I have choices. I don't have to do anything.
Except, I'm in love with my best friend.
Put that way, she could deal with it. But the second she allowed free range to the implications, it became too much. Because it wasn't simply her best friend she was in love with. It was Jae. Even thinking in those terms as a simple name devoid of gender, it still made sense. But taken one step further, then...then it became impossible.
Across the room a small cardboard box rested on the desk. It seemed she once more had fans. A lot of the fan mail came via the internet, but there was still a sizable stack of more traditional handwritten letters - most of which she hadn't opened yet, preferring the sterile ease of electronic mail to handwriting. Not Jae. The director had reveled in the unexpected letters, some bizarre sense of history satisfied by scratching words on paper.
So what are you going to do about this?
Reed picked a random letter out of the box and unfolded it, curious to see how Jae had responded on her behalf. Bold, distinctive strokes splashed across stationary that was just as distinctive. The director was unlike anyone she had ever known, male or female. Jae had stood by her in ways that she still had trouble understanding. And tonight it had all changed.
No. That wasn't quite right. The changes had been gradual. She'd felt them before, odd twinges she'd shoved away under a burden of guilt and fear. It was the realization that had been sudden, almost paralysing, leaving her unable to lie to herself anymore, no matter how badly she wanted to.
Reed turned her attention from the box to the bottle resting next to it on the table and wrenched the top from the brandy, splashing a healthy dollop into one of the glass tumblers flanking the spirit. The warm alcohol burned her mouth slightly as it washed over her tongue.
Wryly she looked at the glass, recognizing the coping mechanism. But in this case the cure was worse than the disease - though not by much. The amber liquid reflected the light from the corner lamp. The beveled pattern on the tumbler served to disperse the glow and she swirled the brandy around watching it move. It occurred to her that the treatment for both was the same and she deliberately put the brandy down, aware that she could stop drinking far easier than she could stop what was happening between her and Jae.
The strings were stretched beyond the point they would hold a tuning, but Jae continued to play, the confusion of her thoughts finding order in the progression of chords that her fingers were drawing from the guitar.
Every time she thought she'd won the battle between her body's desires and those of her heart, something else happened to throw things back into chaos. Like tonight. Absently she fiddled with the tuning pegs, tightening the D-string before resignedly laying it aside.
Maybe the key wasn't to not be attracted to Reed - like I have any choice there - but rather it was about accepting that as a facet of the friendship - not as barrier to it. It had been refreshingly nice to have physical intimacy with someone that wasn't predicated on having sex, and if occasionally her body reminded her of other needs then she would just have to deal and move on.
She traced the outline of one of her breasts through the cotton nightshirt she'd changed into, aware of how sensitive it was, partially a physical reaction to Reed, and the remembered physical contact, and partially a natural reaction to where her body was in its cycle.
It wouldn't take much, and maybe it would help her sleep - or at least ensure her dreams were pleasant ones. The monthly changes in her body fascinated her, the almost imperceptible swelling and weight increase that meant a larger cup size - at least for a few days. Shirt unbuttoned, she traced the swells, enjoying the resulting shivers.
The caresses were less about achieving orgasm than about comfort and fascinated exploration, and she continued to let her hands play over her body, even as she let her mind wander over the evening's events.
I wouldn't trade it.
She dipped into the growing wetness, drawing idle circles along the outer edges, turning the unexpected thought over, surprised by the certainty washing through her.
It was true.
What she had with Reed was something she wouldn't trade - the emotional intimacy they had achieved infinitely more satisfying than any other relationship had ever been.
Friendship, it seemed, was worth more than sex after all.
Her body agreed with the assessment, a slight spasm sending tendrils of lazy warmth over her, speeding the descent into sleep. Who'd have thought it?
The clock above the nurse's station told Reed that it was even later than she'd thought. Her interview had run overtime, some of the questions had been thought provoking, and for the most part she'd enjoyed the experience. New England, in its typical fashion had forgotten the parts of the story that ran counter to their puritan sensibilities and instead seized on the Disney aspects of the situation.
She'd barely made it to the restaurant in time to pick up the cake they'd ordered to celebrate Rio's impending discharge. "Have ice cream cake - will travel." One nice thing about Maine in October - it was cold enough to keep frozen food frozen.
"Sorry I'm late." Absently, Reed dumped her jacket over the chair by the door.
An unfamiliar man was sitting in a chair, his back toward the door. Rio was playing with a video camera while Heidi and Geoff hammed it up and Jae supervised.
"Mum!" The camera was forgotten as the cake was spotted.
Reed straightened and turned at the salutation, freezing as she recognized the speaker.
"Look what Mr. Josiah brought. Meccano!" Rio held up a bright green plastic box, the contents rattling together as he displayed his prize proudly.
Somehow she mustered a smile for her son. "Did you remember to say thank-you?" Completely of their own accord, her eyes fixed on the slightly threadbare form of Josiah Bennett. The world could have exploded in that instant and she wouldn't have noticed, every fibre and shred of control she had was so focused on trying to remain in the here and now.
Her heart was pounding against her ribcage, and Reed didn't feel like she could breathe. Something was being held out in her direction - a small packet covered with subdued paper, bound with a ribbon - mechanically she accepted it, still fighting the rising feeling of panic. "Thank-you."
It was dark and light all at once, and every breath had to be fought for. Echoes long subdued ran free around her head and an eerie silence seemed to pad her from the sounds in the room. Reality was no longer what she could see and hear - it had become a mix of the moment and memory.
"I just wanted to say thank-you." Pale eyes peeked from bruised lids, evidence of the beating he had received still present. His skin was pale, the blanching due more to age and weariness than lack of sunlight.
"You're welcome." The words were coming out stilted, her thoughts refusing to order themselves.
Bennett looked between them and smiled weakly, before beginning to rise from the chair. "You take care of your mother, young man. Glad to see you're well." As he leaned forward to stand, his body hung briefly over the rumpled bed, dwarfing Rio.
Without warning the world rushed away, the people in the room becoming small and distant. Outside, in the twilight, an ambulance siren grew louder, completing the ancient image that had replaced reality.
Her face felt wet, but she didn't think she was crying. It couldn't be. Not here, not now. This is Bangor, not Wood's Hole. And this is not him. Is it?
Eyes unfocused, she turned in the direction Jae's voice had come from. An arm was draped across her shoulder and she flinched from the unexpected contact, before recognizing the director.
A cold cloth was pressed against her face and Reed realized her nose was bleeding. Slowly, things normalized and she was able to breathe again. Steadier, she forced polite words to come, desperate to cover her lapse. "Stay. There's plenty of cake."
She had no idea what flavour the cake was, every cell in her brain split between trying to figure out what was going on, and the need to keep anyone else from figuring it out first. People were laughing, and there was a parade of doctors and nurses out of the small room, each saying their good-byes before Rio was discharged in the morning to finish his long convalescence at home.
It could have been a Bergman film, missing only a dove perched in a corner. It had the same surreal quality, and Reed was sure that she was on the verge of some shattering epiphany, if only things would slow down enough to let her catch up. It was there - a palpable lump in her chest, tangible in the nervous fluttering of her stomach and the bright red blood that intermittently trickled from her nose.
All she had to do was hang on long enough to get to her hotel room. Rio laughed and she turned to see him triumphantly adjust a final bolt on what looked to be a damned good replica of a pod racer from the new Star Wars movie.
The chime that marked the end of official visiting hours beeped and the party broke up, Josiah once more rising to leave. Nervously she accompanied him to the door, not quite able to bring herself to meet his eyes. The old man turned awkwardly, stumbling as the motion brought them face to face in the hall and out of earshot of the others. "You didn't know before, did you?"
She hadn't - not until after she'd helped him. Not until the angry words and blows had filled the hall. "No." Reed examined that, realizing that she would have helped him anyway, that more than the need for a diversion had sparked her into action.
"And now that's all you see. You don't even know me, and you hate me."
"I don't hate you." Reed was sure of that much. She knew what hate felt like and this wasn't it. "I hate me." There it was, profound in its simple truth.
"Hate is the one emotion that is truly wasted, Ms. Lewis."
By the time she figured out what to say next, he was gone, presumably swallowed by the elevator.
"Hey." Jae's soft voice broke the solitude.
Reed blinked, gathering her wits. "Hey."
"Heidi and Geoff are going to tuck him in and stay for a bit. You look like you could use some fresh air."
The offer was clear, but Reed shook her head no. Whatever was going on, Jae was a huge part of it, and she needed to think without the younger woman's distracting presence. "Rain check?"
Jae looked like she wanted to say something, but instead dug into one of the huge pockets on her tan cargo pants, pulling out a small pad of paper. A pen was whipped from its resting-place on the V-neck of the director's blue sweater. With precise strokes, words were placed on the sheet, which was then ripped from the pad. "One rain check. No expiration date."
Carefully Reed tucked the folded note into her front pocket. "Thanks." Jae seemed to know when to push and when to back off, though she had to admit, she didn't always initially agree with the director in the heat of the moment. She waved, then set off for the stairs, and one of the back exits that would dump her outside next to the river.
Hands shoved deep in her pockets, she played with the edges of the note and finally pulled it out, curiousity over coming her.
P.S. Check your fridge.
Smiling, she tucked it safely away for later.
Hours later she was no closer to sorting out the mess. Half a life spent burying her feelings had left her ill-prepared for the kind of introspection she was being forced into now. It used to be easy. She'd decided on a cold November morning who and what she hated and simply gone on from there. But her safe haven of hatred had collapsed, real people making it impossible to maintain the broad anger. Jae, Holly and now Josiah had stepped out of the convenient mold, turning her worldview on its ear.
The time for hiding from the truth was over, and what had happened - or almost happened, at the wedding - made continued inaction impossible. Question is - are you big enough to do something about it?
"Alright. Let's think this through." Absently she swallowed another mouthful of ice cream, unconscious of the smile that flitted over her features as the vanilla flavour of Jae's gift exploded over her taste buds despite of her philosophical preoccupation.
Chasing the first spoonful with still another, she continued to talk to herself, meeting her reflection's eyes steadily. "Is Jae a pervert? A little weird about some stuff - but no - put her down in the non-whack job category. Holly? Dangerous, but not a pervert." The screenwriter projected a benign image to the world at large. But she had a dangerous sense of humour along with razor sharp intelligence - questionable taste in breakfast foods, but definitely someone she had time for.
Would she have time for me? That was an unexplored option. For the first time she had choices - more than one friend. At least she thought they were friends. Well, the damn woman had her phone number and address plastered across the web, so a phone call might not be totally out of line.
Right and what the hell are you going to say? "Yo, Holly. I think I might have more than platonic feelings for my boss." Not the sort of thing she could say out loud, that was for sure.
And that begged the obvious question.
The reflection continued to stare back, familiar features taking on an almost alien cast as she studied the angular planes and high cheekbones, trying to fathom her doppelganger's thoughts, even as she tried to reconcile the woman she saw with the woman she was.
And who is that?
I don't know anymore.
Somewhere Reed summoned up the courage to meet her own eyes and asked the only question that really mattered. Answering it proved a great deal more difficult.
One question, so many confusing possibilities. It didn't matter if Jae or Holly or if Santa Claus himself was a pervert. It only matters if I am. But that wasn't really the crux of the issue. Her growing feelings for Jae and what they portended were. And even then, the feelings weren't the whole issue either. What she felt for Heidi was love, so the emotional aspect wasn't entirely foreign, and while the hugs, and occasional physical contact, were comforting, she didn't crave the vet's touch the way she did Jae's. Hadn't craved anyone's touch that way.
No longer focused on her own image, she instead focused on the real question, her eyes locking on some invisible point that intersected nothingness and her own internal struggle.
Reed stared into nothingness for a long time, weighing what she wanted against the probable consequences. But then everything had consequences - action and inaction alike That was a lesson she'd learned the hard way. It was late, but Reed knew what she had to do, knew that maybe there was someone she could talk to afterall.
The house wasn't hard to find, though it was virtually identical to the ones on either side, and she walked up the cedar chip path. Lobster traps leaned decorously against one another, the mesh supporting a tangle of plant growth. Faded orange buoys completed the stereotypical postcard Maine house landscaping, and she couldn't help but chuckle at the irony.
A soft glow came from the bay window and Reed peered inside, last minute hesitation stopping her hand before she could knock. Her eyes registered the scene as her body carried her forward through the door. It banged off the interior wall, causing the room's occupant to jump.
Josiah sat neatly dressed in an overstuffed chair, a clean suit laid out on the chair to the left of the long couch that bordered the window, a revolver on the table in front of him, inches from his left hand.
"It's time, Reed." But his hand moved away from the dull black Browning.
It was then that she noticed the gilt frame off to the right of the gun. The picture wasn't visible from where she stood, but instinct told her that it was the Crosby half of the 'Bennett and Crosby' painted on the mailbox. She didn't know what to do or say. "You play?"
"Chess was Holden's passion. He brought a set back from every place he'd ever been. I carved this one for his birthday. Do you play?"
"A little." Reed reached out a hand and moved a knight.
Josiah looked at her a minute and moved his own knight in response. "You'd best have a seat. These things tend to take a while."
Moves were exchanged, and somehow in between planning her strategy and trying to decipher his, she spilled the whole story. Spoke for the first time of seeing Will's sheet-shrouded body wheeled out of the dormitory. She wasn't entirely sure why, but she told him about Jae too.
"Check." Josiah moved his queen, cutting off the right-hand side of the board. "So are you afraid of being gay, or of what you think being gay means?"
"Were you?" She retreated and moved her king diagonally one space, realizing that at best she was prolonging the game.
"Terrified. Of both. I wasn't even sure what being gay meant." A rook joined the queen, blocking access to the other three quadrants. Pale eyes were turned upward to meet hers. "In the end I gave up trying to figure it out. It didn't matter."
"What did?" Desperate, she moved her remaining pawn, using it offensively in a last ditch effort to stave off the inevitable.
"Holden." A knight swooped across from where it had been benignly hiding, removing her pawn from play.
Reed reached across and with one tapered finger knocked over her king, conceding.
"In thirty years, that's the only game I ever won."
It was nothing like she had imagined, sitting here among the memories and artifacts of two lives. "I'm sorry. " Reed let a tiny snort escape. "I've been doing that a lot lately."
"Losing at chess?" Grey eyes twinkled with humour and Josiah reset the board, fussing with the pieces until they were perfectly aligned.
"That too." This time she moved a pawn forward two spaces.
"Don't know when to quit, do you?"
She slid the bishop out next. "I pick my battles."
"Good idea, that." He blocked her bishop with a pawn, which he promptly lost.
The queen floated nicely into place. "Checkmate."
"So it is." Once more the board was reset. "Keep playing? Or are you going to quit while you're ahead?"
It would be the safe thing. "You go first this time."
The couch beckoned and Jae stared at it reluctantly, only dropping onto its unwelcoming cushions because falling to the floor seemed like a much less pleasant option. Though, she allowed, not by much. The tan blanket was still bunched up where she'd left it the night before...or was it the night before that?
She didn't want to think about it, which, of course, meant that that was exactly what she was thinking about. Peering at the clock over her desk, Jae was able to read the small letters, eyes widening. Tuesday? What happened to Monday? Well, she certainly wouldn't get away with another all-nighter - Caitlynn would see to that. Oh well, what Cait doesn't know can't get me lectured.
Most likely the only thing that had kept the assistant director from swooping in and reading her the riot act already was the fact that she hadn't been due back until Tuesday. Today, she mentally corrected. Reed was due in tomorrow, and filming would pick up the following afternoon.
Tired past the point of being able to sleep, she toyed with the idea of driving home, while pulling the blanket firmly under her chin and wiggling to find the slight depression carved from a succession of late nights. A bright spot of light burned through her closed eyelids, the lamp positioned perfectly to make ignoring its glow impossible.
"I don't suppose you'd get that for me, would you?" Stone wings remained furled, the gargoyle dead to the world. There was a remote somewhere in the room that operated the lights, TV, VCR, CD player and coffeemaker, but it would take longer to move the piles of paper to look for it, than it would to get up and switch it off manually. Jae made sure the path back to the couch was relatively clear, rearranging a couple of the piles but not disturbing their overall order. One pile for each shooting day, thirty-seven in all, with four more yet to come. They were, ironically, under the number of shooting days originally scheduled, though two weeks behind in terms of the calendar, and were it not for the sudden change of locations and associated plane fares, they'd be under budget too. Hopefully, Chambers would decide that all things considered it was as good as on time and under budget.
With a start, Jae realized that she had settled into her desk chair, and was sketching the blocking for a scene she wanted to rework. Reed's distinct profile looked up at her and she resisted the impulse to pick up the phone. The actress hadn't called, and Jae had respected the unspoken covenant, not pushing, though it hadn't stopped her from worrying.
But either she trusted Reed or she didn't, and trust meant waiting. Even if it hurt.
Lack of sleep, plus the emotional low on top of what was shaping up to be a wicked case of PMS, caught her with a vengeance and her eyes blurred with unshed tears. Tired, Jae turned out the light and curled up on the couch in a ball, tightly cocooned within the ancient tan Scooby blanket, her entire body hidden in its fluffy, comforting depths. One last thought flitted through her consciousness before she drifted off. Sometimes being a woman sucked.
A voice joined the aroma of coffee, both contributing to arouse Jae from a sleep that hadn't been nearly deep or long enough, marred as it had been by odd dreams. "Mmmrmph."
"If you'd rather, I could just inject the caffeine directly into your bloodstream. I used to be quite skilled with a needle."
Funny how, even in her dreams Reed retained the laconic wit that bordered on the edge of eviscerating. Of course the fact that Jae could actually smell coffee lent some credence to the idea she wasn't really dreaming, and was in fact, very nearly awake. And if she was awake and the coffee was real, then the actress really was there - behaving exactly as she should. "Ever wonder if caffeine is like alcohol?"
"Other than the fact they're both drugs, and come in more concoctions than Methuselah had birthdays?" Reed sounded amused and Jae didn't need to open her eyes to see the smirk or tilted eyebrow.
She opened her eyes anyway, wanting to see if she was really awake. "Right. Besides that." You could get drunk just by holding alcohol in your mouth, and coffee seemed to imbue alertness without actual ingestion. Now if coke could catch on to that....
"Nope." A grin came with the denial.
It was too early for this - the playful verbal jousting was just out of reach this morning. Cranky, Jae served up an uncharacteristically generous helping of blunt. "What are you doing here?"
The grin vanished. "You aren't being metaphorical are you?"
"No. I'm being 'you are here a day early in my office at an ungodly hour of the morning' literal."
"I...uhhh, here." Reed seated herself on the end of the couch closest to the door, holding out the crumpled rain check. "And by my watch it's five a.m. - hardly ungodly."
"Oh." That took the wind right out of the sails of the S.S. Indignant and ran it aground. It was definitely too early to get into this, though. "Later, okay? I have a rule about coherent conversations and coffee - they must occur in alphabetical order."
Reed nodded and passed over a cup of the steaming coffee. "Later then." The tone didn't hide the hurt that had flashed across her face.
Jae winced internally, aware that she was being unnecessarily short tempered. "Can we get a rewind? I'm sorry."
There was a small 'zzuuttt' noise and Jae stifled a laugh as Reed painstakingly repeated her previous movements - only this time in reverse - before pausing mime-like at the threshold and re-entering the room. "Here."
Laughing, Jae once again accepted the proffered coffee and patted the edge of the couch as she moved over slightly, making room for her friend. "Good morning."
Reed instead motioned for her to lift her legs and slid in under them, back resting against the couch, feet stretched out in front. One hand patted the top of Jae's thigh before coming to rest on her knee. "I bet you say that to all the ladies."
"Only the ones smart enough to bribe me with coffee." The hot drink settled nicely into her stomach and she settled back into the couch, which seemed a lot more comfortable than it had last night.
Except for the occasional soft whistling of air as Reed blew on her coffee, they were silent, at ease with each other despite the initial rough start to the day. Or maybe, she reflected, they had just reached a point where conflict didn't equal being unfriends. Unfriends? With a vocabulary like that, I need to stick to directing.
A loud yawn broke the silence and Jae lifted her head to see Reed stifle another one. She must have come directly from the airport. That thought warmed her more than the coffee had. The only reason for Reed to come to the studio at five a.m. with two cups of coffee on a day they weren't filming was to see her. Which meant that the actress wasn't avoiding or shutting her out after all.
"I have to assess the production cost report and adjust the script breakdown sheets to accommodate some extra shots I want to lay down - both before lunch so why don't you go grab some sleep, and we can talk later?"
Surprisingly, a brow was lifted in curiosity as Reed perked up, interest replacing fatigue. "Alternate angles of stuff we already shot - or new stuff?"
"Old stuff. I didn't handle the comedic aspects as well I wanted to and I want to revisit part of it - just to be sure that I have enough to work with when we edit." That was the fine line she had to walk, the balance between shooting too much and too little - each was costly in its own way.
"I don't think it was just you." The wry admission was accompanied by an apologetic grin.
"Thanks, I think." Jae smiled to reinforce that she was teasing, feeling better now that she'd finished the coffee.
"Seriously, part of it might have been unfamiliarity with the territory, but we were stiff too - we shot those pretty early on and were still awkward with each other, and it threw the timing off - forced it a bit. Actually, I was stiff. I bet the one we shoot to end filming goes better."
Jae listened, glad to be able to discuss it with someone. Michael was out because he tended to fawn a tad too much to provide useful insight, and Cait didn't understand the process. Reed understood the nuances and wasn't afraid to take responsibility for mistakes or to give praise when it was due.
"There is one scene I think we do need to reshoot, part of." Reed looked down and her brow crinkled.
Intrigued, Jae swung her legs to the floor and sat up. The actress' insights and instincts had often proved right on target. In a way it had been uncanny, so deep was Reed into the role that it was like having Dar actually able to comment on how she'd behave. It also made it difficult to trust the mixed signals the actress gave off. "Which one?"
"It needs to end on a high note."
Was Reed blushing? Now she was definitely curious. Jae didn't think it was possible to make Reed blush. Bleed maybe - but not blush. "I'm listening."
"You need to end on them together - a quiet moment, a little humour - some indication that they've survived, and fade out on them making love. Leave the audience with proof that it's solid."
The top popped off the cardboard cup, as she squeezed the sides, caught by surprise. Carefully Jae pushed the plastic lid back on. It was something she'd thought about, but had discarded, having already exhausted the amount of nude screen time that the nudity clause in Reed's contract allowed. "You'd be okay with that? I haven't got any room left in the budget for a body double - for either of you."
"I'd be less okay if you didn't make the kind of movie you want because I stood in your way. Let me talk to Sarah."
Reed sauntered from the room as if she hadn't just dropped the cinematic equivalent of an ACME boulder, and all Jae could do was grin. She picked up the notes to the last scene left to shoot and reviewed the blocking and angles she wanted. Strike that - second to last scene.
And what a doozy it would be too, if the mental images running through her brain were any indication.
Jae nodded to herself, watching through the camera monitor as Reed smiled slightly. Perfect - so far, so good.
"Mm... yes, I was glad to see it. I also ran an analysis for hormones and other anomalies, and I think I may have figured out what your little forgetfulness problem is."
Reed sat up, and cocked her head. "Yes?"
"Yes."The actor playing Dr. Steve paused, then nodded solemnly. "I'm afraid you have elevated levels of endorphins in your bloodstream, my friend. Especially Oxytocin." It had been hard to find a character actor who could convey fatherly concern and teasing camaraderie at the same time, and who was willing to work for peanuts. Damon Wiggins had read for the part - the aging action star willing to take a risk along with a pay cut to revamp his career - and so she'd added him to her little crew of misfits.
This is where the scene usually began to fall apart, and Jae held the fingers of one hand crossed tightly as she listened to Reed deliver the next lines. "Oh. What is that... what causes it?"
"Well, it's a naturally occurring hormone...it basically is one of the things responsible for feeling good. Your body releases it under certain circumstances, and it's known to produce the symptoms you're describing. "
Reed pretended to consider the information. There was nothing wrong with the actress' delivery or mannerisms; she was delivering exactly what she'd been asked for. "What circumstances?" In a perfect blend, alarm was mixed with curiosity
"Mmm, in some cases, exercise - especially long distance running. Do you do that?"Even Damon was doing a creditable job as the doctor. Jae just wished she could shake the feeling that they were losing something in the translation from paper to celluloid.
Reed shrugged. "Six, eight miles in a morning."
"Did you do that this morning?"
There was a subtle shake of the actress' head and Jae grinned to herself, as the characteristic furrow that decorated Reed's brow when she was thinking appeared - entirely appropriate for the character. "I. No. " More hesitation. "Not this morning."
"Not that, then... "Damon steepled his fingers. "You take any opiates?"
"What?"Reed's brow contracted sharply, anger superseding the thoughtful crease. "Steve, you goddamn well know better."
This was where they'd lost it before, the delicate balance of absurdity and humour that was supposed to be mixed with serious anticipation somehow never really came through. It was supposed to be a comedic scene, right?
Damon raised both hands, changing the script slightly - but that was the least of her problems. "Okay, okay - just asking." A tiny grin chased itself around his lips. "That eliminates two of the three most common causes."
"What's the third?"Reed chuckled, setting up for the punchline. "Eating chocolate?"
"Falling in love,"Damon quietly replied. "Oxytocin is the hormone that stimulates the need for touching."
Reed simply stared at him, her jaw sagging slightly, and blinked her eyes, understating the magnitude of the announcement perfectly. "That's... ah... no, Steve, I don't... " Reed ran a hand through her hair, this time adding one of Jae's own mannerisms to Dar's character. "That's not...."
"Dar... relax."Damon leaned forward. "Breathe, okay? I don't want you keeling over in my office, it looks bad for the nurses. My god, you'd think I just said you were pregnant or something... there's nothing wrong with being in love - it's good for you." The words were capped by a fond smile.
"But I'm...Are you? Is that all, Dr. Steve?"Jae wondered what well Reed was drawing on for the stumbling confusion.
"Sure."Damon gazed at the actress, projecting quiet compassion. "Go take a walk, Dar... get some air. You're white as a sheet."
Reed nodded absently, and walked through the doorway.
"Pan right, follow her...and cut." It was still off, and she was about ready to scream in frustration. The problem was she didn't get the scene as written - it didn't make sense to her, so how could she capture it? I can't. "I don't get it," she muttered to no one in particular. Was it supposed to be comedy or not?
"Get what?" Cait asked, handing over the shooting notes.
"This scene. It doesn't make any sense."
Holly leaned across from her place next to Cait. "What doesn't make sense?"
"This. How can Dar not know? I mean - a doctor? She needs a doctor to tell her she's in love?" It had made her laugh aloud when she'd read the novel itself, but for reasons completely inimical to what she needed to film.
"You mean how can anyone not notice when someone makes them smile just by entering a room, inspires them to out of character behavior or when two people seem totally inseparable?"
"Exactly. No one is that blind."
Holly looked at Cait before replying. "It wasn't blindness so much as a bone deep belief that love wasn't for her. That it was something she wasn't entitled to or capable of. She'd never felt it before - and so could not recognize it. Not much she could do to rationalize away scientific evidence."
"Sorry, what was that again?" Jae turned her body to face the writer and away from Reed's distracting presence.
"She said that Dar wasn't blind - just a little battered and disbelieving," the AD supplied, dark eyes lingering on Jae's.
The air was pregnant and Jae was uncomfortably aware that they were staring at her expectantly. "What?"
"Nothing." Came the simultaneous response as Cait and Holly walked away, heads shaking.
"That was weird." Jae shrugged it off and turned back to see if the set had been readied for the next take yet. She signaled an assistant and raised her chair, ready to begin as soon as everything was in place again.
"Cut and print." Everyone froze and looked up at her. Jae held the moment slightly, drawing out the words they waited to hear. "We nailed it guys - that's a wrap."
It's over - the long weeks of filming - the tightrope dance with budgets and schedules is over.
Before she could catch her mental breath, she heard the unmistakable sound of a cork popping. "Cait! No!" She ducked, knowing it was futile. Champagne sprayed over her, dousing her shirt, running down the valley between her breasts, and into her shorts. Another blast hit from behind and she looked over to see Reed shaking a bottle, as the actress readied a second blast. Movement from the left drew her attention to Sarah, who, it seemed, was also part of what had to be a preplanned plot, though the blonde actress was still struggling with the wire cage trapping the cork.
Jae gave up as Michael, along with various other members of the crew, produced bottles of their own from various hiding places, and held her arms out to the side, presenting a smiling target. Thoroughly soaked in the most expensive ammunition she'd ever played with, Jae caught a smiling Reed's gaze. Blue pools flickered slightly to her left, a wicked grin tipping the director that the actress was up to something.
Jae followed the actress' line of sight and spotted Reed's target.
Laughing, she liberated a champagne bottle from Cait, and in silent collusion moved around to create crossfire for Reed. The actress winked, and they slipped silently into place - or at least as stealthily as a half-naked actress and the primary target of the liquid firing squad could go.
They were lucky, and by the time Holly realized what was about to happen, Reed had nailed the brunette with an extended spray of champagne.
Reed leaned the bottle jauntily against one hip, looking extremely self-satisfied. "Yo, Holly!"
The actress never saw it coming. The scriptwriter arced a return volley of her own, thumb expertly tucked across the top of the bottle, increasing the pressure, and soaked the actress.
The war was on.
Jae lost track of whom she was aiming at and who - as well as how many - were firing at her.
Cait had champagne dripping from her nose, and Michael had shed his shirt. Waterguns had materialized from somewhere, and soon they were ducking in and out of the sets, hiding behind fake walls and scaled down furniture.
Teams began to form, coalescing along familiar lines, and Jae found herself back to back with Reed as they fended off Erich and Michael to one side, Holly and Sam on the other, while Cait, Thom, and Sarah advanced from the front.
"We're doomed." Jae shook her bottle again trying to generate pressure, but she was nearly out of ammo.
Reed looked at her thoughtfully, and Jae swore she could see the wheels turning. "Not necessarily."
"You have a plan? Because now would be a good time for a plan." Jae ducked a blast from Thom's water cannon, flinching as the cold water splashed off the wall and onto the back of her neck.
The actress feinted to the left, then swung her bottle around, nailing her co-star squarely in the chest. "When I say 'run' - duck between Michael and Erich."
"That's your plan? Run?"
"Rule number one - if you're outnumbered, run."
"What's rule two?"
"If you're almost out of ammunition, run. And since both apply, run. Now!"
Jae did as she was told, more than a little surprised at how easily she was able to get by their adversaries. Breathless, she ducked around the corner of what had been Kerry's living room and flopped onto the couch.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God." The exclamation flew from her mouth, and she thought her eyes were going to follow suit and land on the floor.
Reed had sauntered cockily, the fitted half-sheet she had been wearing while filming the final love scene in one hand and a champagne bottle in the other. "What? It's not like you haven't seen me without my clothes on before."
Jae took the bottle from Reed and watched while the actress replaced the sheet around her torso and fastened the snaps that kept the sheet fastened during filming.
"Now I know how you avoided panty lines." Oh - good one. This year's award for stupid comments goes to - Jae Cavanaugh. Jae took a swallow from the bottle, swirling the slightly flat, warm champagne around her suddenly parched mouth before finally swallowing it. "That's not helping much." She pointed at the sheet, which a thorough soaking had rendered nearly transparent.
Reed moved forward, merely inches from straddling Jae's outstretched legs, and took back the bottle, drinking. "You object?"
Danger, Will Robinson. Danger. Her mental alarm bell rang - giving ample warning - which she promptly ignored. "No objection." Deliberately, she let her eyes roam slowly over Reed's body, careful not to linger over any one spot too long. "Not at all."
The bottle was passed back and Jae drank, though how she avoided choking she wasn't sure. Is she flirting with me? Reed still hadn't moved, so she passed the remaining alcohol back, and watched as the actress drained the bottle. "Where's everyone else?" She'd half expected the others to thunder in after them.
"Holly, Sam, Waters, and Sarah took advantage in the momentary lapse of attention in the men to gang up on them. I don't think Waters appreciated her fiancé's wandering eye. Come to think of it, about the only one who wasn't shocked to immobility was Holly."
The image of a stunned Erich, Michael and Thom ogling the actress left her laughing so hard she started to snort, which set Reed off.
This was probably the most relaxed she'd ever been at the close of filming - usually she was exhausted. But then lots had changed during filming. She'd changed. For once in her life she'd put something ahead of making movies, put someone ahead of her job. It had been touch and go, but they'd made it.
Not even Cait could make her laugh like that. It was one of the things she loved about Reed, the quirky humour that was usually carefully hidden, often delivered with a deadpan expression that only the slight curve to her lips betrayed.
Her eyes widened and Jae thought her heart had stopped. If someone had tied a clue to a brick and chucked it at her, it couldn't have hit any harder.
"You okay, Tigger?"
I love you "I'm fine, Roo." For a split second, she wasn't sure which one she'd said out loud.
"Good. I'd hate to lose you this early in the evening. C'mon, your crowning awaits."
"Do I have to?"
"Let's see...." Reed held her fingers to her forehead, like she was trying to predict the future. "Lead Actress, Director Skip Cast Party. Yeah, I think they'd notice."
Jae looked over at the actress. "Y'think?"
"As little as possible," Reed deadpanned, getting up from her spot on the couch where she'd collapsed laughing earlier.
"All right. I surrender."
They made their way back to the main catering area where a water balloon fight had erupted. It was total chaos and by tradition decorum had been completely chucked out along with most of clothing of the participants, as latex splattered against people and props, drenching everything.
A bright yellow projectile flew through the air, followed speedily by three more. Jae caught the first one, and Reed managed to deflect the two blue ones, but the other two landed right on target, exploding with a muted sploosh as they hit the ground at their feet.
"Lookout!" Too late. A large red balloon hit the top of Reed's head, showering them both with cold water. There was no doubt that the actress had borne the brunt of the overhead attack from the unseen assailant.
Jae muffled a giggle, aware of how much Reed hated to appear undignified. She looked like a drowned puppy, all forlorn and bedraggled. Water dripped from her dark hair, onto her face and nose, before running down to the already soaked toga. The muscles below Reed's jaw were flexing, and for a second she was afraid that the actress was about to explode.
And she did. With laughter. "C'mon. Let's get wet." Reed scooped up a balloon that had skittered harmlessly along the floor, and gave it a few twists, stretching the latex until it looked ready to explode in her hand.
Jae scampered away from a balloon wobbling its way through the air, and dashed after the actress, wondering what she had gotten herself into this time. One of the sound crew members leaped from behind a set wall, nearly nailing her in the head with a liquid missile, but revealing far more of himself than she had ever wanted to see in the process.
"No way. No how, am I taking my clothes off." She shuddered at the thought.
The freezing water hit at about the same time as she registered the direction Reed's voice was coming from, too late to do anything about either. Oh well. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. "You are so dead."
"You have to catch me first." The actress disappeared from view.
She discarded the now transparent shirt and armed herself with two of the balloons that some of the prop crew were stockpiling. "Oh, I'll catch you Roo."
The party was in full swing, the bulk of the sets dismantled, and almost all of the water from the earlier contest had been sopped up. Music rumbled from the large speakers that the sound crew had wired onto a makeshift stage, and various members of the special effects crew had jury-rigged a light show of sorts.
From her vantage point behind a pillar, Reed could see Jae laughing, delicate fingers fiddling with the tuning pegs as she tamed the guitar before beginning to play. Her glass was empty and she ventured forth in search of a refill. On the stage, Sarah and Cait were hamming it up as Jae and the impromptu band played.
It wasn't quite karoke, but close.
Jae finished with a flourish and they collapsed laughing, as the crowd applauded and stomped. Several songs and beers later they stumbled down, putting the instruments to rest.
Reed accepted a drink thrust at her and drained it, her throat parched from laughing. "That was awful."
"Yes. But fun."
"Definitely." Reed snaked an arm out and caught the director as Jae stumbled, then left her hand in place, guiding them toward an empty couch. Alcohol had fuzzed her brain more than she would have liked, and she was hyperaware of the body next to hers.
Jae's nose crinkled in thought, and Reed tried not to grin.
"You are such a dweeb." Reed let the smile show and affectionately ruffled the director's hair.
"Dweeb? You come into my house, and insult me?" Jae did an uncanny impersonation of DeNiro.
"If it helps, you are my dweeb."
"Am I?" The question was spoken softly.
The tension they had been playing with jokingly for weeks suddenly boiled over, propelled by the heat added during the champagne fight. Reed swallowed, then swallowed again. "Yes."
Around them the party ebbed and flowed, guests and crew drifting in and out of the sunken living room, in some pattern that only Nostradamas could have interpreted. It was quiet around them though, noise and laughter not penetrating the insulated little world they'd just created. Neither of them broke the spell, and they just sat, aware of the significance of what had just happened, equally unsure of what was next.
Casting another sidelong glance at Jae, Reed tried to figure out what the director was thinking. Foam from the draft beer rested on the fine hairs above Jae's top lip, and without thought Reed gently wiped it away with her thumb, letting her hand linger.
Jae turned her head inward slightly. Warm breath kissed her palm and ran through Reed's body like an electric shock. Before her mind could thwart her body's intent, she leaned forward and replaced the touch of her thumb with a kiss.
It was a jumble of sensations and feelings - fear, excitement, curiosity, desire - soft lips gave under hers, tentative and daring all at once. A muffled sigh reached her ears, waking her from the sensuality of the experience to the reality of what she had done.
The emotions tying her in knots were far more complex than the simple kiss that changed her whole world. It wasn't the first time they'd kissed - or even the second - but it was a completely new experience, and the hedonist in her reveled in the gentle give and take as they explored each other.
She had no idea who pulled back first, aware only that they were staring at each other and that she couldn't tear her eyes away from Jae's. Hardly daring to breathe, she waited to see if she had gone too far, let her impulsiveness ruin a friendship.
"C'mon." Jae stood and held out her hand. "We need to get that taken care of."
It was only then that Reed realized her nose was bleeding.
"Hey...it's okay. It's sort of cute."
Numbly she followed Jae out of the cavernous soundstage and into the cold desert air. The chilly blast served only to highlight the lingering heat where their bodies had come together. As they walked she had time to second-guess what she had done, though she still had no clue what had possessed her to actually do it. There was no clue in Jae's movements as to how the director felt about what had transpired.
Somehow they were at her trailer and then inside. Confused and feeling lost, she grabbed a towel from the rack separating the bedroom from the bathroom and viciously wiped at her nose. "I'm sorry."
The cloth was taken away. "Shhh. Let me," Jae whispered, then reinforced the words with gentle motions of her hands as the last trickle of blood was dabbed away.
Butterfly kisses to the tip of her nose replaced the cloth and Reed tilted her head, allowing another kiss.
What do I do now? The mechanics she understood, having read too much not to be aware of how things were supposed to work. Reed just wasn't sure what she was allowed to do. She knew what she wanted to do.
She wanted to kiss Jae again. The desire must have telegraphed itself to her partner, and they kissed again, less tentative this time, and when Reed felt the gentle pressure of a tongue against her lips she opened in response. Suddenly it seemed she was having difficulty breathing, and she pulled back slightly.
The motion didn't deter Jae, lips tracing a path to the soft skin of her neck, and Reed wondered if the other woman could feel how hard her heart was beating. A thumb brushed over the material of her shirt, the thin cloth transmitting the touch directly to the skin below.
If she needed any concrete proof that she was aroused, Reed had it, as her nipples rubbed painfully against the rough cotton. With Jae's head bent, there wasn't much of the woman she could reach, so Reed lifted one hand to play with the hair on the back of Jae's neck. She needs a haircut.
Bolder, she let her hands play over the finely muscled shoulders, then further along to the slight dip of the small of Jae's back. She wanted to go further, but wasn't entirely sure she hadn't gone too far already. Funny how you could be scared shitless and feel perfectly safe.
A deft touch to the skin of her tummy as Jae explored the area below her breasts, never quite touching them, caused her to arch slightly in response. Her skin tingled in places Jae hadn't even touched yet, anticipation doing as much to kindle a response as the caresses. She was trembling, unable to tell how much of it was fear, and how much desire, or outright panic. What if I can't do this? They'd pretty much covered everything she had any experience doing, and she was fast being pulled light-years from her comfort zone. Surreptitiously, she lifted a finger to her nose, afraid that she might be bleeding again, and was relieved to find it dry.
Under her fingers Jae could feel the quiver of the tight muscles that framed Reed's abdomen. Every pass of her nails generated a response. She just wished she knew if it was desire or stark terror causing it.
"Look at me." She propped herself against the cushions on one elbow. "I want to hear you say something."
Confusion was plain on Reed's face, but there was an affirmative nod.
"I want to hear you say no." With her free hand, she nudged a lock of dark hair back into place, letting her fingers linger on the strong jaw of her friend.
"I don't understand."
"I know you don't - and that's why." How could she explain without hurting Reed? "I need to know that you know that you can say no." The furrowed brow she received in response helped her clarify the rest of what niggled at the edge of her awareness. Reed was drunk. "And I think I need to know that you're sober enough to know what's happening."
"You don't wa-"
"No, I want you." To prove it she leaned forward and nibbled lightly on Reed's lips until they parted in response, then deepened the kiss, before reluctantly pulling away. "More than you know. But what I want more is your friendship."
"So you aren't going to sleep with me because you like me?"
That was one way of looking at it. "Yes. And to be perfectly honest, I'd like to be more than a drunken experiment." And I want to know that I'm sleeping with Reed - not Dar. But she didn't say that.
"So you're after repeatable results?"
The quirky humour she loved had surfaced again, along with the low throaty drawl that almost made her forget why she was saying no. "Something like that." She could see Reed mustering her courage, determination settling over chiseled features. It was like a decision had been made, a goal set, and it made her uncomfortable. "What do you want from me?"
"I don't know." The admission was subdued.
Treading carefully, Jae reached a hand out and softly stroked a cheek before taking one of Reed's hands in her own. "When you can answer that, then we can try this again."
The hand was pulled away and Reed sat up, arms tucked protectively across her chest. It didn't take a rocket scientist to see that she was upset. "Are you always so fucking noble?"
"No." And she wasn't, either. She'd had her share of flings, comfortable with her sexuality and physical desires. Lesbianism was after all about sexuality - not a political platform - despite some views to the contrary.
"Then let me worry about me."
Obviously, in trying to explain on rational grounds, she'd missed something.
"Is this honestly how you want it to happen? A drunken quickie in a movie trailer? Cause this isn't how I'd pictured it." No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she realized what she'd just confessed to.
Instead of the anticipated accusations of planned seductions, a shy smile appeared. "You thought about it." Wonder filled the statement and some of the edgy tension that Reed had been radiating disappeared.
Jae realized the inadvertent admission had been a type of reassurance that her earlier words had failed to provide. By having fantasized about the circumstances, she was confirming in a very real way her desires. "A lot. You haven't been helping lately, either." That was an understatement.
"Fireplace? Shower? Beach? Hot tub? Cave?" Reed was smiling, ticking off clichés.
Jae wondered if the other woman realized that she was revealing a few things about herself with the list. "I don't know exactly." There was no way she was going to admit to the unfettered physicality of some of her fantasies. "I was hoping for more than two or three hours. And I could do without the PMS." Romantic it wasn't. But it was the truth. As much as she wanted to make love, Jae wasn't sure she was up to it - even if Reed didn't have to leave for the airport at five in the morning.
"Guess that explains why you've been such a cranky bear all week." One finger poked at Jae's stomach, a light tickle that bordered on a tentative caress. "You want it to be perfect."
"I don't want it to be perfect. I just want it to be right." She knew she'd finally found the right words to explain what she was feeling, as she was rewarded with a genuine smile.
Reed leaned back against the cushions. The last vestiges of the tension that had been plainly visible on the lanky frame had vanished. A hopeful glance was cast in her direction. "Can I kiss you again?" A flush crept upward from the open neckline of the sleeveless shirt. "I liked that part."
It was charming, and Jae felt an indulgent smile forming. Boldness and a surprising naiveté mixed with jaded cynicism, all tempered by an adventurousness of spirit - it was a magnetic mix and she leaned forward, complying. "I liked that part too."
And this time it was just a kiss. Freed from performance anxiety, she gave herself up to the sensations, amazed to discover that in spite of her experience, some things were still brand new.
Concluded in Part 11
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