Black and ominous, it might as well have been a spider as a telephone, because she couldn't make herself reach out and pick up the receiver.
"What are you looking at, hunh?" Jae glared at the gargoyle, daring it to laugh. Prudently, it did not and she reached out, affectionately scratching the tuft of yellowish fake fur that stuck up from the top of its stone head. The ideal pet for a negligent workaholic. With a wry grin, she lifted the notepad from her desk onto her lap, the pathetically empty page belying the previous thought; she'd gotten absolutely no work done this morning.
And without knowing where she stood with Reed, Jae very much doubted she'd get any more done today either. She'd tried. The larger-than-life-sized images had danced across the screen of the editing bay, mesmerizing her with the power she'd had. A flick of a switch, a cut here, a cut there, change this angle, overlay that shot - it had been intoxicating - she could make Reed do anything she wanted. And in the end, she had been unable to make the actress do anything at all, abandoning the editing bay for notepads and shot reports, afraid that she'd let the line between Reed and Dar blur in a haze of wishful thinking. If it's this hard for me - how are you coping? They'd needed more time, and there just wasn't any. No time to sort out the tangle of feelings or the implications of what they had done.
There was time. How long does it take to say 'I love you'?
She was still sitting there, thinking, when the door opened, the hinge creaking, once again in need of oil.
"You look like shit." Cait set the carryout tray on the desk, then lifted the plastic cover from her own steaming cup, letting it cool.
"I love you, too." The sarcastic words spilled out with a lack of self-consciousness that only served to highlight her cowardice in not saying them to Reed.
Annoyingly cheerful, Cait blew her a kiss Monroe-like. "I know."
Jae picked up her coffee, taking a second to enjoy the mix of eggnog and nutmeg that wrapped around the stronger aroma of the dark roast, complementing it perfectly. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me. Read the card."
Card? There it was, tucked in the center. She'd assumed it was a receipt or charge slip, and hadn't given the folded square a second thought. Keeping her eyes averted, sure she was blushing, Jae opened the small envelope and slid the card out.
Because 'C' comes before 'E',
It was Cait's handwriting, but the sentiment and style were unquestionably Reed's.
"Lewis residence, Rio speaking."
Reed looked up, the pieces of Meccano frozen on their way to being joined to the body of the car they were building. It was about the right time
"We're building a car, and it has a motor and everything, and mum said we could race it in the barn cause it's bigger and there's more room." The words tumbled out in breathless excitement. "I'm going to set the camera up and see if I can make it look real, well except that the pieces are all sorts of colours."
He paused, looking thoughtful, head cocked to one side, listening. It had to be Jae.
"Cool." Rio was grinning from ear to ear, and she wondered what tip the director had given him. "Mum's right here." He giggled. "Yes, she's behaving herself."
Here it was. Reed felt the adrenaline rush through her body and her stomach tensed in response. She'd left the director sleeping when she'd gone to the airport, intending to call as soon as she got home, but it hadn't been that easy.
What had seemed simple and heady in the predawn hours had become unbearably complicated in the morning light. It was easier to do than to think.
"Sorry. Thanks." She took the receiver, holding one hand over the mouthpiece. "Can you do me a favour?"
"Sure." He hopped down from the stool.
"Go make sure that Aunt Heidi doesn't need the barn this afternoon."
Reed waited until he'd headed for the entryway and his boots before speaking. "Hello."
It was only one word, barely breathed, but Reed realized that Jae was as scared as she was. "I don't think Waters is very fond of me."
Jae laughed, and the little ball of tension that had taken over her body relaxed its hold. "Nah. You just mess up her neat little schedules. That and I gather you phoned her at six in the morning."
"Guilty. I didn't think it was fair to unleash you on an unsuspecting editing bay without a shot of caffeine." Now that the film was over, would they have anything to talk about?
"Then I'll have to think of a suitable punishment."
"Should I run?"
"Do you want to?"
Things took an abruptly serious turn, but couched in ambiguous enough language that they could both save face and pretend that nothing had ever happened.
There'd been too much pretense in her life already. "No." Reed paused, digging deep for the words, being as honest as possible. "But I don't know if I'm ready to be caught, either."
"Me either." There were muted voices coming through the line, and Jae asked someone to wait a minute. "I have to go. Talk to you later?"
"And Reed?" Jae hesitated.
"Yeah?" Her stomach fluttered.
"I miss you. A lot."
The flutter increased, spreading warmth in its wake. "I miss you too." Reed hung up and tugged on her boots, oblivious to the fact she was singing to herself.
Slightly off-key words hung over the freshly fallen snow as she made her way to the barn, equally unaware of an amused Heidi watching from the paddock.
"Well? What do you think?"
Reed used her mouse to drag the status bar and reset the clip. "I think you don't like it." She turned the sound down and replayed the footage.
"That bad?" The director sounded defeated.
"No. It's good. But you don't like it. How come?"
"I don't know," Jae snapped back.
Reed took a breath. Talking to Jae when she was frustrated was a lot like helping Rio with his math homework. "Yes, you do. What are you seeing that no one else can?"
There was silence, and she could tell that Jae was replaying the scene again. The silence stretched out, only the intermittent clicks and soft whirring noises indicating that the footage was being replayed over and over again.
The first time Jae had asked her to look at a section of the film, she'd been surprised. It had taken a couple of times before she'd figured out when Jae wanted advice, or simply confirmation of what she already knew. Today was different. Reed sensed that Jae was truly frustrated, unable to put into words what her intuition and instincts were saying.
"The camera," Jae said suddenly. "I can see the camera. It's there in the room." The frustration had become elation.
Reed replayed the scene. Now that Jae had put a name to it, she could see it too.
There were sharp clicks and more whirring noises, then the phone went dead. Jae was back in 'focus' mode. Bemused, Reed let the 'you're welcome' fall into the phone, knowing that even without the live connection Jae heard them.
"A little to the left. Higher. A little higher," Jae directed.
Reed brushed aside a heavily needled branch. "If this gets any higher it won't even be on the tree."
"Ha ha. Left. Lower. Perfect."
"Are you sure?" Her height allowed her easy access to the upper reaches of the pine.
"Yes. Now we need some blue ones - for balance."
Hiding her smile, Reed obligingly dug through the battered wicker chest and retrieved a box of the fragile blue glass bulbs, quickly verifying that they all had metal hooks. For some reason the little silver hooks went missing in numbers that grew exponentially from year to year - no matter how many you bought. The top had broken on one, its jagged edge glinting under the glow of the white Christmas lights already strung on the pine. She gingerly threw it in the trash can, perversely enjoying the tinkling noise.
"Now there's an odd number."
"Actually there was an odd number to start with - they come in boxes of nine. Rio broke one last year trying to get his truck out from under the tree. So we have seven of nine - an odd number." Reed took a sip of her mulled wine, the subtle interplay of the mead with the raspberry wine creating a burst of flavour that made it easy to forget how potent the drink was.
Mischievously, she began to haphazardly scatter them over the face of the tree. One, two...three.
On cue, Jae cut in. "You're putting them too close together."
"Tell me something, Tigger. Are you always this anal, or are you channeling Piglet for a reason?" She lifted her eyebrow and let a small grin show.
"Oh God. I'm channeling my Mother."
Reed nearly burst out laughing at the horror evident on Jae's face. If Saint Nick himself had arrived in a puff of soot, she doubted that the blonde would look any more shocked than she did now.
Jae looked up, subdued. "It was awful. She'd order Dad all over the living room, making him adjust things until they were perfect. She'd even divvy up the bulbs into neat little piles beforehand. We'd put them up and Mother'd come along behind us, moving them around. The tree always looked gorgeous."
It had been the opposite in her house. Gran and Mum had hauled the giant box into the center of the living room and just dove in. She'd watched one night, hiding on the stairs, and listened spellbound as they laughed, joked, drank - and eventually finished trimming the tree. When the brightly wrapped parcels had emerged from Gran's sewing room, she'd crept back to her room to let visions of sugarplums dance in her head, but the next Christmas she'd been invited to join them. Three people could make a much bigger mess than two. Their tree had looked a little like an ornament store had exploded in the vicinity, and it took until well past Easter to rid the room of the last determined icicles, but it had been fun.
"Well then, just think of this as the first Christmas off the rest of your life." Reed reached into the chest and pulled out a finely detailed wooden pony, its green rockers and tiny reins an exact copy of the larger horse in Rio's room.
"Close your eyes." Reed waited until she saw Jae's eyes close. "Now give me directions."
"Left. Up. There."
Reed carefully hung the pony on the branch, cheating a little to make sure it wasn't too close to a neighboring red bulb. "Again."
"Down, down...around the side, there."
Again she hung an ornament, this time placing the porcelain bear in front of a light, making it glow softly. "Again."
Soon she didn't need to say 'again', and Jae would just say 'there' every once in awhile, her eyes still closed, a contented smile complementing the relaxed way she was sprawled on the rug. Reed smiled and turned the light out, letting the soft glow from the tree fill the room.
"You can open them now."
"So are you." The quiet words broadened Jae's smile and Reed let their eyes meet in unstrained awareness, enjoying the simple connection, holding it between them and not quite letting it go, even when the sudden skipping of the Christmas album made them look away.
"Let me guess. A favorite?" Jae asked, smiling.
It was. Heidi had found the compilation in a second hand store down Calias way, and together with Rio they had worn a groove in the vinyl. Normally the only tree they put up was the twelve-footer in the Chappelle farmhouse, and Christmas carols were an important part of the ritual.
Acoustic guitar music filled room, and she looked at Jae, who had retrieved her instrument from a corner and was playing the slightly Latino rhythm flawlessly.
"I don't know the words, so you'll have to sing."
"I can't sing."
Left without a legitimate excuse to demur, Reed shook her head. "Let me get a bucket."
"I've already heard you sing - it won't help. C'mon." She started the song again, playing the chorus first.
"Dear Senor Santa Claus, I think I tell you what....."
Jae joined her for the last line, soft alto tones wrapping around her huskier tenor. "...something for Christmas time."
The cords faded out. "That was my favorite. What's yours?" The were no tears threatening to spill, only a happy, satisfied glow, and one more piece of her past was reclaimed under the sparkling lights.
"The Little Drummer Boy. It's a perfect duet. Sing it with me?"
"Do you see what I see?"
"You're in key - but wrong song," Jae teased good naturedly, and started to play again.
"Come they told me..."
"For rup a pumm pumm..."
Together. "The newborn King to see, for rup a pumm pumm."
Reed carefully arranged the gifts under the tree. Santa, as usual, would come to the big house. This pile was from Jae, and there was also one to Rio from Holly and her partner, plus one from Sarah. "Come they told him..."
"For rup a pumm pumm. The newborn King to see, for rup a pumm pumm."
She sat back on her heels, studying the pile of presents.
"I didn't go overboard, did I?" Jae stopped playing, still holding the guitar.
"A little." There had to be twenty different parcels, some of them quite large. A lot. But she didn't fault Jae. She'd gone a little overboard herself as the toboggan load of boxes she'd hauled to the big house earlier would testify. And what the hell - Christmas only came once a year.
"Good." Jae wore an unrepentant grin.
The clock chimed, the heavy brass knockers sounding the hour.
"I have to go." Jae laid the guitar aside.
"I know." Every day they talked, sometimes about the film, but mostly about nothing at all, the conversations lingering far into the night, and more often than not, well into the morning. Not tonight, though. "I wish you were here."
"It's a date. Merry Christmas, Reed."
"Happy Christmas, Jae. Drive carefully." The monitor flickered, and the screen went blank, the direct video feed shut off. After a second of wishful thinking, Reed turned the system off, watching as the green light on the hard drive went out.
Should I? Jae hesitated over the number. On the desk her credit card shone under the lamp, its hologram logo reflecting the light, winking. The clerk had said that she had until four p.m., and it was already a quarter to.
Giving Rio the computers from the film set for Christmas was one thing, but this was more. A lot more.
Since when? Busted by her own conscience, Jae looked at the calendar reflexively. It was the first time she'd remembered Valentine's Day without Cait's help in years - and the only time that marking the occasion carried such a huge risk.
Ten minutes had slipped by, ticked off unnoticed, and she picked up the phone. How Reed felt about her wasn't important, and the words were true, irrespective of context. So she'd say them.
It was a good thing that she'd written Reed's address down, because her brains deserted her at the critical moment. The girl on the other end patiently waited for her to read the information.
"What would you like the card to say?"
Jae hesitated again. She wasn't witty like Reed, the perfect turn of phrase eluded her. Believe. Her granda's voice echoed over her worries and she swallowed. "I love you."
"Signature?" The girl sounded blasé, unaware of the momentous occasion. But that was life, really - a series of events that gripped you in their urgency and which passed unnoticed by others held in the grip of their own lives.
It wouldn't need one.
Times Square was alive in a way that no block in any other city in the world was. It throbbed with a pulse all its own, the neon signs and rotating billboards veins that pulled the parceled lifeblood along the crowded sidewalks, exhorting tourists and locals alike to keep moving.
The energy sang and Reed drank it in, letting the noise cover her in anonymity. Here, no one stared, no one cared. Its mornings were filled with staged spectacles, and the night home to those who owned the city. Taxi cabs jockeyed with cars and pedestrians, every inch a battleground gained by force of will and lack of sanity.
She loved New York.
It didn't care that she existed.
Smiling, she moved past the construction that would bring yet another icon into the fold and climbed the sweeping steps that led to various and sundry network affiliate offices. Once inside she'd be shuffled from interview to interview by people too polite to tell her that she was a sixty second sound bite.
Wonder if I could just line them up and give all the answers at once?
Stark lines and harsh splashes of white curved around minimalist furniture that looked so uncomfortable it might as well have been absent altogether, but appearances were everything, so - voilà - haut décor. In any case the comfort of the furniture was irrelevant because she was whisked inside immediately and steered toward make-up. Her cheekbones would be defined, blemishes hidden and eyes framed, while her hair would be tamed and sprayed into luminous submission.
Three months from now one of the interview clips would run, and the camera would masterfully cut to an interviewer who wasn't even present.
When Reed finally emerged, she felt like the details of the last few months had become a mantra, so often had they been repeated during the afternoon. The publicist had done a wonderful job setting boundaries though, and while there had been lots of questions about her sexuality and relationships with Jae, Sarah and her other co-stars respectively, the questions about Riordan had been non-intrusive.
One thing had become clear; she was about to become the poster child for dykes as normal people.
"Hey." She should have been stunned, but somehow it was the most natural thing in the world to find Jae waiting for her.
And the second most natural thing was to let Jae fold her into a hug.
Neck crooked, Reed let her forehead rest against the director's, soaking up the other woman's presence. Post-production and the need to make up the time lost during filming had kept them apart, and it was hard to believe that Jae was actually here in New York.
Lips covered hers, and Reed responded briefly before pulling back. "No"
"Okay." Jae didn't ask for an explanation, and Reed knew she didn't have to provide one. 'No' was enough.
"Let's get out of here." A media studio wasn't the place to say what she needed to.
They walked along the busy sidewalk, avoiding other pedestrians. Evening had brought a new crowd into the square, savvier, hipper - the spiritually young were claiming Times Square as their own.
Elevator doors opened, and they stepped inside, pressing the button for the floor that would take them to the revolving bar that overlooked the square, its large posters a veritable hall of hallowed Broadway productions.
For the first time, they had privacy again, and the small space filled with the tension that ran between them. Jae stepped forward, drawing her into another hug. This time, she touched Jae's lips with her finger before the director could kiss her again. It was a near thing, her resolve by no means certain. "No."
This time she provided an explanation, leaving her hand intertwined with Jae's as they left the elevator. "I can't. I don't do things in halves, but I'm not sure I'm ready to handle what that means." And if she kissed Jae, she wasn't sure she'd be able to stop.
"Rio," Jae guessed.
A waitress led them to a table on the far side from the piano bar, though eventually they'd rotate past that point.
"And Heidi, and Geoff." And me. And you. Everyone else could go to hell - not that most of the world didn't think she was gay already, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. But the world was different from her life. Not to mention that the jury was still out on her sexuality, visits to a therapist notwithstanding. "I don't want to lose what we already have."
"Never." The fierceness in Jae's tone turned the word into an oath. "Choice number three has always been more important."
It took her a second to figure out what Jae was talking about. Bodies and talent - then unexpectedly, a third option - friendship. She continued to let their hands tangle, her longer, thicker fingers playing gently with Jae's more delicate ones. The director's hand felt warm in hers, and the tiny calluses that dotted the elegant fingertips brushed over the inside of her palm, not quite tickling the skin.
The contact made her want more. That has to be a good sign. Right? The skin on her arms and chest contracted, goosebumps spreading outward and claiming her entire body.
Jae's face had taken on an uncustomary stillness, her brows locked together.
"Nothing." The denial was unconvincing.
"Talk to me, Jae." The irony wasn't lost on her, but she put it aside for later, not wanting to risk the moment with an irreverent and ill-timed joke.
"I don't know what to say." Her free hand crept upward, finally tangling in shaggy bangs.
The nervous gesture registered, and some of the euphoria bled away. Reed forced a calmness she didn't feel into her voice. "About what?"
Jae didn't respond verbally. Instead she shrugged and waved her hand in the air, breaking the physical contact between them, in a gesture that Reed interpreted as 'this'.
Some of the panic must have shown, because Jae tangled their hands together again. "I love you. No strings. But this is hard. I don't know what to do, or not to do."
It was the first time she'd heard the words aloud. They sent the same warm tingle through her that reading the card the week before had, their impact more powerful for the uncertainty and fear threading Jae's voice.
For the first time, Reed realized that she wasn't the only one taking risks. "I know. And I love you." She paused, wanting to get the words right. "But I need time to be sure that I can make love with you. And I need to figure out what this means for my life." She wouldn't hide what she felt - it wasn't her style. But it also wasn't the sort of thing one could take back - unlike the movies, there was no dress rehearsal. "Can you give me until Miami?" One hundred and thirty one days.
"Yes. And longer still."
The waitress gave them a funny look as she deposited their drinks on the table.
"Do you think she's incredulous or envious?" Jae asked.
Reed met the deep green eyes of her friend. "Both." The bourbon went down smoothly, and she savoured both the taste and aroma, gathering her courage. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"How did you know?" Reed looked down, unable to believe she'd actually gotten the words out. In for a penny.... "I mean was it hard for you the first time, were you scared that you wouldn't be able - that it would be different?"
"That's about five questions and a thesis." Jae finished half her own drink in one gulp and signaled for another.
"Sorry." Maybe Holly would have been a better choice after all.
"No. It's okay, really." Jae finished her drink and twirled the glass around on its base. "I was terrified, and excited, and curious. At one point I thought I was going to throw up, I was so scared." A small smile hung on her lips and she looked like she was seeing it all over again, this time through the nostalgia of adult eyes. "It was clumsy. Neither one of us had a clue." Her face clouded, losing the smile.
When Jae didn't continue, Reed traced the back of the director's hand with a thumb. "What happened?"
"Boys. At least for her. Kenny Holbrook asked her to the junior prom, and I was history. He was on the football team, I was in theatre - no contest." Jae laughed. "But to answer your original question, I pretty much always knew. One big clue was Jaime Sommers instead of Steve Austin running through my dreams, that and an abiding interest in whether or not Blair and Jo were an item. I've never actually...been with a man."
"Even the clumsiest times with Anna were more...well just more, than any of the kisses or stuff with guys."
Reed digested that. Her own sexual history hadn't included anything or anyone she cared about enough to be nervous. Fun, unquestionably, and occasionally a means to an end. But certainly nothing to get bent out of shape about. Until now.
There was more she wanted to ask, but Reed nodded acquiescence.
"Do you trust me?" The solemn, hesitant look was back, blonde lashes half hiding searching eyes.
"Yes." Didn't even have to think about it.
Jae stood and threw a twenty plus some one dollar bills onto the table, paying for the drinks they'd already had, plus the ones just ordered. She held her hand out, and Reed took it, hesitant but not scared. The gentle request was tentative, and for the second time Reed became aware that Jae was as scared as she was. Maybe more.
Not even the realization that they were headed for the hotel was enough to change the curiosity and anticipation into fear.
Jae paused, one hand on the door knob, a strong sense of deja vu holding her in place. This was not going at all as planned; or hoped. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Swoop in and sweep Reed off her feet. Live happily ever after. Like a storybook love.
Sometimes she wondered if she had imagined the cast party and where it had led, where it had almost led. What was easy to do over the phone might prove impossible in reality. Now even the act of checking into Reed's hotel room seemed presumptuous beyond belief.
Then she saw the way Reed was smiling at her, and it didn't seem presumptuous after all.
The door swung open and Reed followed her through. Jae had grown accustomed to feeling a certain kind of tension in a relationship on the cusp of becoming something more when a bed was the dominant furnishing in a room. This room was dominated by not one, but by two beds, yet the tension was missing here. Reed seemed at ease in her presence, having casually tossed her coat over a chair and flipped her shoes into one corner of the room.
"Come here." Jae whispered. Sometimes being short was good. She folded herself around Reed in a full body hug, connecting in a way that neither words or sex would allow. This was what she'd been missing. We have to start somewhere. "Hold me."
"Always." As she spoke, Reed guided them backwards onto one of the beds.
Somehow they'd ended up with her cuddling Reed. "Can I ask you a question?"
"It's not your turn. It's mine."
Her laughter sparked Reed's, and she drank it in, delighted by the sound. It was a long minute before they settled down again.
"That's your question?"
"Yes." Reed saved Jae the trouble of replying and kissed the director. After a minute she pulled back. "What's yours?"
"Nevermind. I like yours better." They still needed to talk about things like safe sex, and the fact they lived on opposite coasts - but that - that they could do over the phone.
Jae leaned down and felt Reed give in to the gentle exploration, then snuggled in, burrowing closer to the scent of skin and sandalwood as the kiss ended. She wouldn't push for any more than Reed was willing to give. May would come soon enough.
It was raining - not unusual for Maine in the spring. Splashes lovingly cleaned the last evidence of winter from the landscape, and the unique aroma of trees in bloom crept through the spaces between the timbers of the cabin. Reed listened to the steady throb as the water beat against the roof and windows, waking slowly to the same rhythm that had lulled her to sleep where she sat, curled in a chair. Opening her eyes fully, she traced the spidery veins splayed across the glass, obscuring the world beyond
She tucked the blanket around her hips, more for comfort than warmth, the small fire in the wood stove more than enough to ward off the chill. It had been a settled few months, her time divided unequally between Rio and the odd public appearance in support of 'Tropical Storm's' pending release. They'd had to adapt and it had taken some getting used to, but in the end things continued much as they had before.
Soft chimes rang the hour. It was time to decide, and she was no closer now then she had been in New York. The invitation had come in its finely engraved envelope, bearing the director's distinctive signature and words that if they had come from anyone else would have seemed trite - '121 down, 10 to go'. That had been nine and a half days ago.
The envelope now rested on top of the airplane ticket, which was in turn tucked under the small wooden box that contained a gift from Josiah and the card from a dozen roses. Nestled in the box, carefully encircling each of the two kings, were two rings, inscribed with five simple words.
'Where you go, I go'.
The box that she'd forgotten when she left his house had arrived three days after she returned from California, and when she'd finally been able to make herself open it, she'd found the simple red-gold bands, worn more on one side than the other. They weren't ornamental pieces brought out for show on special occasions - they were tangible symbols of something she had thought couldn't exist.
Something she thought she'd found.
The last words he'd spoken to her had echoed on that long flight to Los Angeles, but it had taken her a week to take the risk, and play. They drifted through her head again, and she could almost picture him sitting on his couch as he called out, after barely catching her before the door had swung shut. Could see him pointing at the board, where she'd lost another game. 'Never be afraid to lose...but be terrified of never trying.' So she'd tried.
And won, defeating the legacy of a lifetime of fear. That had turned out to be the easy part. More complicated was the realization that pursuing a relationship with Jae would mean accepting the label the media had already given her. Even more complicated was figuring out whether or not to bring a child into the mix.
She still had no answers for that one.
Reed poured another mug of coffee from the carafe idly resting on the raised hearth, the heavy clay enough to keep the contents piping hot. Light rapping on the window warned her that she had company. "In here."
"You haven't left yet?"
"Can't put much by you."
Heidi stuck her hands over top of the cast iron stove and briskly rubbed them together, using a combination of warmed air and friction to ease the chill. "Can't decide what to wear?"
"Can't decide whether or not to even go." She left it at that, having never spoken to Heidi of the change in her relationship with Jae, or the things she had begun to learn about herself. The vet knew she was seeing a counselor, but Reed had kept the details private.
The brunette crossed to the table, one finger sliding over the top of the box, before she pulled the tickets and invitation out. "I think you have. I think you made the decision months ago."
Startled, Reed just stood there.
"Geoff and Rio are bringing the car around. Let's get you packed."
Packed. To go. Then she knew. She had to go. It had to be her this time. It had always been Jae. Jae who climbed balconies, Jae who flew across the country. This time...this time it had to come from her, freely and without suasion.
She had the answer to Jae's question.
Jae slid the straps onto her shoulders and took a last glance in the mirror. I look like a candy cane. Long hours in an editing bay over the winter had somewhat diminished her perennial tan, and the red dress clung to her frame, its brilliant hue a sharp contrast to her paler hair and eyes. She sighed. Too late now to do anything about it.
Tonight was the night. Opening night.
She ruffled her hair one last time, grateful at least that she'd remembered to get it cut, and left the room, heading for the lobby and the waiting limousine. The foyer was crowded, but Caitlynn and Sarah were easy to spot, sitting as they were in a group that included Maribel, Holly and Samantha - the woman she presumed to be the writer's escort.
"Daddy!" Jae threw her arms around her father, and let him wrap her in a bear hug.
"Your mother thought it would be a nice surprise. It's not everyday one of your kids releases a big Hollywood picture."
She swallowed. "It's a surprise, Da. Definitely a surprise." Jae just hoped the content wouldn't prove to be an equally huge surprise to her parents.
Bryan Cavanaugh laughed before leaning down to kiss the top of her head. "We'll see you at the party later, if you can spare some time for yawr pawr kin." The twinkle in his eyes and the outrageous Appalachian accent let the director know she was being teased.
"I dunno, Paw, you'd better book a dance or two through Cait. She handles my scheduling." They had gotten to the table where the others were seated, and she squeezed into a seat that afforded her a clear view of everyone coming and going from the spacious lobby down below. Introducing her father, she giggled when Maribel gave him an appreciative once-over. "Where's Mother?"
"She needed a few extra minutes to finish dressing."
They both rolled their eyes, knowing that a few extra minutes could mean anywhere from five to ninety and beyond.
"Hey. Hollywood. What's with having a movie premiere in Miami?" Mare and Alix were making their way up across the lounge stairs.
Jae whistled appreciatively, "Whoo hoo. My, you two clean up well." The duo was decked out in complementary gowns, the cartoonist's a deep green, while Alix's was a midnight shade of black trimmed with the same deep green as Mare's dress. "If I had known this was a big enough deal to get you two into dresses, I'd have had it in LA - a month ago."
"Only for you, Babe." Alix kissed her cheek. "Jules is writing finals, or she'd be here too."
Jae looked around. Thom and her Mother had arrived, joining those already gathered in the lounge. Everyone's here. Almost everyone. The strangest part was that no one had asked where Reed was - or at least no one had asked her. Maybe she's just running late. Still, she couldn't help but scan the crowd just in case.
Jae put her disappointment aside and trailed Sarah and Holly out to the car. In a show of unity, director, lead actresses and author-screenwriter would arrive together. The others would arrive first in separate cars.
The ride itself passed quickly, her nerves blurring the sights and sounds, and suddenly they were there. The bright spotlights that swept the sky illuminated the theatre as they raked the edifice. Velveteen ropes cordoned off a pathway that led inside, and acted as a soft rampart, holding back the throng of people who had come to catch a glimpse of Hollywood's bright lights.
Halfway down the carpeted pathway, she froze.
At the end of the journey, Reed stood waiting, sheen of cobalt blue satin accentuating the darkness of her hair and the pale luminousity of her eyes.
Then everything stopped. There was no noise, no flashing bulbs of light, and the feel of the carpet beneath her feet faded away. She came.
Reed's smile was so small that anyone else would have missed it - but then again - it wasn't aimed at anyone else. That smile was for her, and her alone.
Someone nudged her, and it was only then that she realized she had stopped. Putting one foot carefully in front of the other, she moved forward again, not daring to break eye contact, lest the other woman disappear, having not really been there at all, made real solely by a wish.
Standing and waiting for Jae to finish the long walk from the curb to the cinema was one of the hardest things Reed had ever had to do. Not because she wanted to bolt, but because she wanted to meet Jae halfway.
Reed stood her ground, and just watched as the group made their way inside. Peripherally, she was aware that Holly and Sarah were flanking Jae, but she paid them no mind, mesmerized by the bright smile she received as Jae recognized she was there.
Lovely. She was sure there were other words, heaps of them, that could be combined better, but at that instant that was the one that fit. The red dress was a perfect contrast to the lighter features and paler skin of the blonde, the sheath clinging and moving in perfect time as well-muscled legs brought Jae closer.
Then she was there and Reed stepped forward. She didn't think about it. If she had, the moment would have passed, another one lost, and she was determined not to lose anymore. It was the barest brush of her lips to Jae's, then she shifted her path, letting her lips hover above a delicate ear. "Yes?"
There was a hitch in Jae's breathing. "Yes."
Their mouths came together, and if it wasn't perfect, it was right.
"Hey. You okay?" Tears were running down Jae's cheeks and Reed was worried. It hadn't been a sad movie. The first chance she'd gotten, she had slipped away from the press and well-wishers, acutely aware that Jae had disappeared.
She hesitated, unsure and unable to figure out what was wrong. The film had turned out beautifully and Reed had been amazed at the view of herself she'd seen splashed across the screen. It had been her and yet wasn't her - and unlike other movies, by the fourth or fifth scene she'd even been able to forget she was watching herself - watching scenes she already knew the endings to. Jae had done a masterful job. Suddenly, it clicked. Had done. Past tense. For Reed the role had ended months ago, she'd already completed the process of picking Dar out of her psyche - not so Jae.
The director's end had come when the screen went dark and the house lights came up.
"Let it out." Reed pulled them into a dark corner of the restaurant.
And Jae did, the sobs wracking the director's body until Reed was sure that they'd tear her friend apart. When the director finally looked up, black lines streaked her face where mascara had run, obviously not quite waterproof enough.
"Don't be." Jae had held her enough times while she cried; in a strange way it felt good to be able to reciprocate.
Jae leaned against her again. "I can't believe it's over. Nine months. Gone."
"Not gone. Shared." She kissed Jae's forehead.
"It's going to be weird."
Reed smiled. "Weirder than us?"
There was a tiny hint of a smile around Jae's eyes. "I don't think that's possible."
"C'mon. We have two choices. I can lick a napkin and wipe the smudges off your face, or we can go back to your hotel and clean you up properly." There was a third choice. The restaurant they were holding the post screening party in had restrooms, but she'd had enough of people and Reed sensed that Jae had too.
"Ewww. You don't do that to Rio, do you?"
She didn't. But it had gotten Jae to smile, so it was worth it. "Yep. Big wads of spit-soaked napkins - even works on spaghetti."
"That is so gross." Jae gave her a sideways look, then started to laugh. "You are such a liar."
"You're welcome." She leaned in slightly and let Jae kiss her again. Every nerve in her body was aware of the gentle pressure. Only the wall kept them from falling over, her body pinning Jae's smaller one to the wooden panneling.
"Hotel," Jae breathed out, the word ragged, partially swallowed by the kiss.
"Definitely." Reed could feel her breathing and heartbeat increase, refusing to stop the kiss, months of anticipation stoked past the boiling point.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." She had never been more sure of anything in her life.
The morning after the night before.
The morning after.
Reed worked her way into a lazy wakefulness, absorbing the last few hours, and tucking bits away for safekeeping. Jae's smile as the curtain fell and the crowd rose, applauding; the sound of her name whispered in the night; the utter sense of safety and simple joy that came from just thinking about moments to think about.
Every cliché about love and passion was threatening to float through her mind, and she still couldn't find a way to express how she felt. It had been a hell of night. A wonderful night. One worth waiting for. Definitely worth repeating. Hopefully every night for the rest of her life.
It felt like her whole life had been leading to this one moment of perfection. One neverending moment. Giddy, she fought down the giggle that threatened escape. Mushball. Total mushball. For once she didn't argue with the inner voice, agreeing completely.
Under her ear, she could hear the steady rhythm kept by Jae's heart. Slow and even, it bespoke the same peaceful lassitude that held her firmly in its grip. She never wanted to move. Her bladder had other ideas, body torn between its needs, and its desires. Desire was winning.
She snuggled deeper, ignoring the start of the day for as long as possible. It was nice to be held. One hand tentatively rested above Jae's navel, fingers playing with the edge of the depression. She wondered what would happen if she were to kiss the same spot that her thumb was lazily exploring. Or maybe, if she moved her neck a fraction and took one of the crinkled brown areola's into her mouth, nipping gently with her teeth. Jae, it turned out liked to be bitten lightly. Nervous, she'd accidentally nipped the sensitive flesh with her teeth and had nearly panicked when Jae suddenly arched in response.
She smiled at the memory, her own body not nearly as reactive as her partner's. It was though, fairly demanding, and she gave in, carefully untangling from her willing human mattress in order to pad off to the bathroom. After all there are no rules about how many times you can get up.
Jae's perfume cling to her skin, the scent triggering another image from the night before. Radiant. That was the word she'd been looking for as she watched Jae make her way up the red carpet. Radiant.
She still looks radiant. For a minute she did nothing but watch Jae sleep, soaking in every detail. It had always been the other way around with Jae watching over her troubled slumber. A muted thud outside the hotel room door distracted her, and she listened for a moment. Morning paper.
Reed opened the door, not giving a damn about who might walk by, and scooped up the newspaper. With the heel of her left foot she shut the door, and unfolded the paper. Front page. Slow news day in Miami. Ah. Local angle.
"Is it bad?" Jae had woken, and was half sitting up, half reclining on her elbows.
If she hadn't heard the nervous fear in Jae's voice, she would have teased the director and maybe later she would. But not now. "It's a pretty good picture of Holly actually." Reed read the headline aloud. "Local Writer's Movie Takes City by Storm." Now that's original. I could have predicted something like that. "See story page A5." She passed the paper over, settling back on the bed next to Jae, who passed it back.
"I can't. Read it for me? Please."
She nodded, her voice unconsciously taking on a fuller quality, the timbre approximating a professional anchor. "I learned last night that there are two kinds of mush-filled movies and that I like mush - served correctly. There is the kind which dishes up a shameless sentimentality that masquerades as epic romance - the story and the director beating the hapless audience over the head with the message 'Love Conquers All' - a la 'Sleepless In Seattle'. Then there are the movies that show us. Adapted from the novel of the same name by local writer Holly Wulfenden, 'Tropical Storm' is a shining example of the latter. Acclaimed independent film director Jae Cavanaugh brings the same understated elegance to this film that garnered her Sundance's top prize last year, wringing subtle and powerful performances from her leads." She scanned the rest, glossing over comments about her own performance, grinning as she read the final line. "Oh yeah, and I forgot, Dar and Kerry both happen to be women."
Jae just sat, eyes shut, unmoving, looking a little shell shocked.
"You did it."
"We did it." There was a light in the green eyes that almost danced.
Leaning forward she kissed away the tears dotting Jae's cheeks, suspecting they were tears of joy. They tasted faintly of salt, tinged with something undefinable but that was all Jae. She never quite let her lips touch Jae's, teasing them both.
A sharp knock interrupted the moment.
"Who the hell?"
"Ignore it." Jae moved a fraction and their lips met hungrily.
The pounding increased. Reed tugged on a white shirt that had been hanging over a chairback and opened the door. "When's your birthday?"
"February second. Why?"
"There's a pile of presents out here." She moved a large gift basket into the room, then stepped into the hallway to slide the other packages into the room with her feet, while snagging the champagne and ice bucket with her free hand.
The largest one was passed onto Jae, while she busied herself pulling the cellophane from the basket. Cheese, some fruit: strawberries and grapes mostly, along with an impressive array of chocolates. A little more poking revealed a few other small brightly wrapped packages, one of which bore the distinctive aroma of truffles. Promising. Definitely promising.
"I'm going to kill her."
Reed looked up, fumbling with a box. "Who?"
"Caitlynn. She and Thom are sooo dead." A white cardboard box proudly advertised that Jae was now the proud owner of a deluxe toaster oven.
"How sweet. Our first appliance."
"Laugh it up. But knowing Holly's sense of humour I'd be careful how you open your packages."
Reed shook her head, "Scott-free," showing as she spoke, the chocolate covered strawberries nestled in the box, then blushed as she read the card. Try dipping them. H.
"Scott-free, hunh?" Jae had stood and was running a finger down the side of her jaw, following the blush downward.
Dragging one of the coated berries across lips nearly the same shade, Reed was acutely conscious of how rapidly her heart had begun to beat. A simple touch, a little proximity, and those beautiful eyes smiling into hers was all it took. "Look on the bright side - we won't have to leave the room anytime soon."
"Umm. Maybe I ought to promote her again then."
That was the last coherent thing either of them said for a long time.
Jae lazily ran her fingers through Reed's hair, occasionally holding it up and studying the way the light played on the chestnut strands. It had taken some getting used to; she'd grown accustomed to seeing Reed with almost inky black hair. Smiling, she decided she liked it. The subtle play of red and brown was fascinating, almost as fascinating as the woman herself.
That wasn't the only thing that was going to take some getting used to.
Reed was lying, half on her, half on the bed, the taller woman a surprisingly good fit against her chest. The height difference kept the less fleshy parts of their anatomy from bruising each other and allowed them to fit snugly together. It was one more thing she found she liked. A lot.
More than a lot.
She traced the edge of Reed's nightshirt, content to watch the rise and fall of the material as the actress slumbered on. It wasn't the first time they'd slept together, but it was the first time she'd felt that she could watch Reed guilt free. So she did. Taking the time to absorb the contours and lines, the grin that teased at the full lips, and the little things, like where Reed tucked her hands or the tiny noises she made as she dreamed, or the mix of sandalwood and vanilla that lingered over them.
It had been a night of discovery - for both of them, and Jae wasn't sure who had learned more.
She changed the pattern her fingers had been making, moving to trace the faint spread of scars that splayed out from around Reed's navel. They were beautiful, each one part of the woman she held.
"Mmm. Good morning." Reed's voice was husky with sleep.
"Good morning." She stilled the motion of her fingers.
"Don't stop." The plea was accompanied by a kiss.
"Never." Encouraged, Jae played over a larger area, still fascinated by the faint white lines. Studying the slight dips and pale skin, she realized they were stretch marks, left behind after Rio was born. She let her hand rest on the slightly rounded flesh, the extra weight Reed had gained making her look in life as healthy as she did on film.
She shivered as her own skin was languidly explored. No more words were spoken; none were needed. A mole peeking past the edge of the cotton covering Reed's right shoulder caught her attention, and she moved her mouth to kiss it.
Scars, moles, the edges of muscles, skin, flats of bones, wisps of hair - each sensitive spot burned itself into her memory, even as they all ran together, subsumed by the growing urgency to their explorations.
Taste joined touch, melded by soft whimpers and exhalations into a completely new sense.
Rio ran into the kitchen, nearly tripping over Jae, who made a startled squawk as she leaped away from his mother.
They were worse than Uncle Geoff and Aunt Heidi.
What'd they think he was? A baby? He knew what kissing was. Oh well, if it would make them feel better he'd pretend he hadn't seen anything.
Besides if they really wanted to keep stuff a secret, they should probably shut the windows.
He grabbed a cookie from the jar and thundered back outside, he had a couple of more scenes he wanted to shoot. "Bye mum."
Thanks to those of you who patiently stuck it out, enduring numerous rewrites and the occasional diversion. Your notes and encouragement meant a lot, and I'm sorry that I haven't yet been able to respond to all of you. For those who were expecting a bodice ripper, I think I'm as surprised as you are that one didn't develop. But you know what? It wouldn't have improved the story - and in the end I think that's all that matters.
I know there are many unanswered questions about their future, but without writing an 800 page novel, I can't answer them all. What I hope I have done, is leave you with the sense that after all they've been through and learned, that they will find a way. That love truly does conquer all.
I guess I never saw the physical relationship as being the most important one for either of them. Reed lived in a world where her body was a commodity - like her talent, and Jae came from a place where good sex did not mean a good relationship.
I didn't really write a romance novel. I wrote one about the lives of people I see every day. I tried to capture their daily struggles - and do it in a way that was real. What that means is that there are no sweeping heroics - true bravery to me is facing the little things and hanging in with each other - and no 'dyke drama'. The crux is that in spite of the issues that could have torn them apart a thousand times - they persevered and in the process created a friendship that will carry them through anything.
Victoria, BC, Canada
December 3, 1999
Return to The Bard's Corner