Jake was almost ready to tear her own hair out by the clump as she followed Nia's instructions and rapped smartly on the window - not the door - of a small ground floor flat two hours later. She'd already walked around the block twice, puffing and blowing against the cold Manchester air, scuffing her feet amongst the litter and remnants of the previous night's revelries, for fear of turning up early and appearing too keen. The tall, inscrutable butch took great pleasure in the ease with which she merged with the rain and the grey, dreary landscape, finding in its desolation a safe haven that allowed her to wander amongst the jostling crowds unnoticed. Even with her head down the imposing figure of the half-woman, half boy, commanding in her ambiguity, did not fail to attract the attention of some passers-by - but Jake merely slunk back into the shadows, waiting for the strange gazes to fade away. Afraid of being scorched by the light that tantalised her with its brilliance, the proud, sensitive brunette had yet to become acquainted with the rainbow inside her own heart.
There was a battle raging in her head - prompted by the nagging feeling that she was, in fact, nervous.
Come on, Jake...this is absurd. She thought.
You've dated plenty of women before - and some of them were sophisticated on a scale that Nia couldn't even aspire to.
A bold and slightly impudent statement - but it couldn't be dismissed as the product of an over-active ego. Although she was well aware of the extent of her own appeal, and could even be accused at times of believing that her charm was infallible, Jake refused to labour under the delusion that she was always the centre of attention.
However, there had been a stage of her life during which she'd enjoyed such a status.
After Tara, when darkness had wrapped tightly like a mantle around her heart and soul, the tormented butch began a period of almost frenetic promiscuity in a drive to rebuild her shattered sense of self. Contrary to her hopes, the multitude of sexual partners she managed to attract left her feeling more empty than ever - but the experience did a great deal to cement the masculine identity that was becoming as prominent as her dark hair and keen blue eyes. As her limitless supply of cocaine bought her entry into Manchester's burgeoning high society set, the young Jake realised that there existed legions of women who didn't make the usual assumption that she was some sort of oddity, but appeared to adore her traditionally manly qualities. For a long time she was caught up in a barrage of superficial attentions, her trampled self-esteem gobbling up the boost it was granted by each actress, model, city chick and "It" girl thrown at her feet. All making promises they wouldn't be able to keep, some even going so far as to proclaim that they loved her - but luckily the dark heart was too firmly shuttered by this time for Jake to even consider believing them. She simply worked out what she could grasp from her happy situation, attempting to throw some light on herself via the radiance she assumed would go hand in hand with the loveliness on her arm. It worked, when her paramours were truly dazzling - their beauty emanating from the inside as well as out - but others were no more than exquisite, empty shells, hollowed out by years of privilege and adoration. For months the damaged, misguided young butch deceived herself that it would increase her value as a person if she had an attractive woman at her side. What she didn't realise was that she possessed a light of her own - which could only grow brighter when kindled by a flame that was not just skin deep.
Knocking on the window a second time, Jake allowed herself a wry smile, as some of her more satisfying memories began to flood her consciousness.
Remember that politician's wife in Capetown? You took her out to a cocktail party while her husband bought 6 kilos of blow, and he didn't even seem to care that you fucked her in his car...or that you'd done a better job of it than he could. You were completely undaunted then.
And now you're scared of a sweet little Bar Manager who's not going to eat you alive...probably couldn't, even if she tried. She doesn't want to seduce you with her feminine charms because you're the butch fantasy she requires for a night or two, or the bad boy she can play with behind the millionaire's back. She's genuine and you know it. She wants nothing but to know you...for who you are, not who she wants you to be.
Jake leaned her tousled dark head against the windowpane.
Or is that what scares you the most? Not used to spending time with real people, are you, Jake?
Perhaps you might have to grow up.
Perhaps you're already considering a relationship based on friendship and honesty...instead of a quick fuck with the most beautiful woman in the room.
The brunette's uneasiness was intensified by her knowledge that in having the courage to stand up to her earlier that day, regardless of her possible connections, Nia had displayed a will that matched - nay, surpassed - her own. The small Bar Manager had been David to Jake's Goliath - and had played her part with equanimity. For someone who was usually so adept at convincing people to yield by the force of her own personal magnetism, this was a frightening prospect.
I never guessed that such a sweet little girl could be a woman of steel...but she was more than a match for me.
Jake sighed again, and realising that the sweet little Bar Manager in question wasn't rushing to answer her knock, tried once more with a sharp rap at the window.
Squeezing behind a very inconvenient bush, the butch poked her dark head a little closer to the window of what she supposed was the sitting room. Nose pressed up against the glass, she was shocked to see Nia crouching on a low couch, with her head in her hands.
Shit...she looks really upset. She thought.
I hope she hasn't had a visit from Matt.
He promised to leave her to me. What's he playing at?
She was just starting to trust me. She probably won't open the door to me now.
What the hell have they done to her?
She kicked the edge of the nearby front step in reflex, cursing at her own aggravation but unable to control the lurching in her stomach.
"Jake, are you OK?"
Came a gentle voice from the front door, which was now standing wide open, a worried-looking Nia filling its frame.
For once, the haughtiest butch in Manchester forgot to "play it cool", as she grasped the small blonde's arm and looked searchingly into deep green eyes.
"More to the point, are you?" She asked.
The puzzlement that furrowed the pale brow in front of her did nothing to lessen Jake's panic, as she elaborated nineteen to the dozen...without letting go of her companion's arm.
"I guessed someone might have paid you a visit. Are you all right?"
Misunderstanding now turned to shock and surprise, as Nia replied sharply, "What kind of visit?"
Seeing her mistake in opening her mouth to speak before she knew what she was dealing with, the dark woman tried desperately to dissemble.
"Um...I don't know...but I saw you in the front room, shaking, with your head in your hands. I was worried."
Perhaps I jumped to the wrong conclusion.
Better say something, quick...before she gets even more suspicious...
But when she guiltily raised her head to meet the blonde's eyes, she was surprised to see that perhaps she needn't turn on her heel just yet. Nia's face had relaxed into a benevolent smile, and her eyes were twinkling.
Maybe she was touched by Jake's distress - or tired of the intrigue - but luckily for the backtracking butch, Nia had obviously decided to let this one go. A small chuckle bubbled up from her throat in reaction to her visitor's continued discomposure, as she patted her date on the arm.
"I'm fine. It isn't how it looks. Come on in."
She grinned cheerfully at the dark woman, who followed her through the small hall without a word.
Announced the blonde, throwing open the door to her apartment and releasing the aroma of fruit-scented candles into the hall as she did so. Jake stepped inside a little awkwardly, ducking her head to avoid banging it on the doorframe, and took a good look about, with interested eyes.
Nia's apartment was warm, and appeared as comfortable and hospitable as its owner. Freestanding furniture in a wide variety of natural woods was much in evidence, as were framed modern art prints by the usual suspects - Picasso, Klee, and Matisse. The choices were not too imaginative, but pleasant to look at nonetheless. Still more pleasant was the sight of all kinds of plants - hostas, ferns, and even a Scarborough lily. Jake also observed the absence of ornaments and bric-a-brac - it was clear that Nia was not fond of clutter. The décor was not expensive but displayed an irreproachable taste and not a small amount of skill, the butch noted, as she saw that the hardwood floors had obviously been sanded and polished by hand before being softened by a couple of rugs in cheerful colours. A futon took centre stage, littered with throws and large cushions, and a couple of small, beige leather pouffes sat nearby, obviously designed to prop up feet. Stainless steel lamps with large, cream shades threw soft lights on the scene, and standing in a corner was a small TV set, housing an image Jake swore would give her nightmares for weeks afterwards.
She balked unconsciously and heard Nia snort in amusement.
"I know - awful, isn't it? When you spotted me I'd just about lost control of myself. I was laughing so much it was starting to hurt. I had to put my head between my knees to calm down." She grinned.
The vision in question consisted of one of the UK's best known - and most obnoxious - pop exports, strutting around on the raised set of a music show. His trousers were hanging around his ankles, revealing a pair of snug black briefs that left little to the imagination...and to add insult to injury, sported a pink Playboy insignia.
Jake, wisely deciding that it was not appropriate to relate her various liaisons with legitimate Playboy centrefolds, rolled her eyes in reply.
"Some people should be shot at birth."
Nia snorted again. "Well, if there's ever an argument for the fact that some people should certainly not be inflicted on an audience, he could be wheeled out to justify it. Look at the state of him!"
"I agree." Smirked the butch.
"He would be exhibit A - followed by that lot." She motioned to the television, where an extremely motley crew had taken over and started their latest number.
"Take one inane lyric, four complete morons wearing clothes even stupider than themselves, a badly operated drum machine, and you've got yourself a hit dance band these days."
"Na na na na na na na na..." Warbled the band tunelessly, helpfully reinforcing Jake's point.
Nia nodded enthusiastically.
"I know. They're certainly an insult to the public's intelligence." She directed a baleful stare towards the television, almost convulsing Jake on the spot.
"I can't believe that guy was prancing around in his underpants." Nia said. "I'd be willing to bet that they haven't brought the watershed forward in his honour. Children watch this programme - it's not right."
"Well, look at it this way. At least all those little girls will now grow up to be lesbians." Retorted Jake, sending Nia into a fit of the giggles.
The blonde's laughter was infectious, and her dark companion found herself chuckling in reply. They ended up laughing until tears ran down their cheeks, and the performance was long finished.
"Wow...that felt good. I haven't had this much fun watching television in ages." Sighed Jake, clearing her throat and wiping her eyes, as a companionable calm descended.
"Oh! I'm sorry."
After the hilarity, Nia's manners suddenly returned to their rightful place. "Won't you sit down? Or do you want to get going straight away? Can I get you a drink or something? Please, make yourself at home."
As she debated what to say to such a cordially given invitation and how to explain the evening's predicament, Kim's advice came rushing back into Jake's head.
"I don't think you realise that having those elaborately built defences doesn't turn you into you a mysterious, romantic hero - it makes you downright frustrating. So whatever you do, please don't try and cultivate them. You can stride about with your elbows out and your nose in the air and say you're independent. I don't agree."
And along with this timely prompt came the realisation that although the sun had gone down on her heart all those years ago, a gentle but persistent warmth was poking its way through the cracks, making her hungry for more, and desperate to do the right thing lest the benignant presence vanish.
"I think we'd better get going. In fact, there's something I have to do tonight, I'm afraid, and I was going to ask you to do me a favour and come along. But please don't think that means I wouldn't rather be alone with you."
Was Nia's sole thought as Jake helped her on with her jacket, waited for her to lock the door to her tiny home, and gave her a hand into the taxi that had pulled up outside.
She's being so considerate. Fancy making sure that I was OK about going to her friend's party! She spoke as though she actually cared what I might think - I got the feeling she wasn't just being polite.
I really wasn't expecting someone who's obviously led such a dissolute existence, pleasing only herself for the most part, I shouldn't wonder, to be such a...gentleman.
The blonde smiled at the object of her musings, pulling her seatbelt taut and clipping it into place.
"You know, I'm surprised to be sitting in a cab," she began impishly, earning herself nothing but a raised eyebrow for her trouble.
"Somehow I imagined that you'd probably ride a great big Harley with mud and blood splattered up the sides."
The dig was roguish but good-natured - a growing fascination concerning her evening's date producing the mischievous desire for a bit of play.
Now we'll find out just how seriously this big bad butch is going to take herself.
The bar manager was astounded again, when instead of a bunch of bravado her companion merely gave her an amiable grin.
"I do own a motorbike, yes." Was the genial rejoinder.
"But I think it's irresponsible to drink and drive, so I thought a taxi would probably be better for tonight's festivities. Champagne tends to flow at Al's parties, and it's impolite to refuse it, you know."
This last said with a wink telling that champagne was not Jake's beverage of choice, a disclosure that didn't startle Nia in the slightest.
Well, I could hardly see her housing a dainty champagne flute in those magnificent paws. But a wild thing with a sensible streak who's able to take a joke! Oh, I think the evening is going to go very well indeed.
Young though she might be, the manager of Fire and Ice was not stupid. She'd been aware almost from the first second they met that she was in grave danger of being bowled over by her new acquaintance, but she was not in ignorance...or denial...about the woman's connections. Anyone who'd lived the life the small blonde had been thrust into, winding up in the position in which she was currently trapped, quickly learned that they could not afford to be naïve. One look at Jake had told her the butch had enough skeletons in her closet to staff the bar at Fire and Ice for a few nights running.
She'd known very well from Jake's behaviour at the front door that something very untoward was going on with her new friend.
And Nia had been left smarting one too many times in her brief experience by the bad boy with the chiselled cheekbones and winning smile.
But she'd decided, for the purposes of the evening's excursion at least, to try and forget her fears, to stamp down her tendency to suspicion, in order to get to know her new suitor better. She realised that the episode promised to be reminiscent of past mistakes - but her nature was not to be coarsened by cynicism, and she was determined that old hurts should make her savvy and prudent rather than feeding her qualms. Because much as her good sense told her she might be asking for trouble, Nia desperately wanted to know this baffling butch who seemed to embody such a spellbinding combination of raw power and vulnerability.
If she was honest with herself, it was the vulnerability that drew her, despite her penchant for intense and vigorous boys. She'd quickly intuited that Jake's appearance of total self-sufficiency was a cleverly drawn veneer, and had been studying the shuttered features ever since, trying to delve beneath their opacity. A couple of times her keen gaze had shown her that the dark woman's piercing midnight blue eyes were striving to hide an unadulterated truth. In unguarded moments, Jake wore the hungry look of one whose emotional solitude had been imposed by a pain almost too great to bear.
Nia did not know very much in the grand scheme of things - but she had an instinctive ability to read the human heart, and had already sensed Jake's tender sorrow as though it were her own. Wisely, though, she opted to remain silent until closer contact and trust prompted her mysterious new friend to speak. She just hoped it would not be too long in coming - as she was aware that there would need to be openness on both sides, if the budding relationship between the two women was going to stand a chance.
So even in the first blush of friendship, she found herself hoping against hope that the brunette would eventually muster some strength - an ability to connect with the remnants of those intense emotions and passions that had not quite successfully been retracted under a chilly heart. She didn't romanticise the hurt - having learned early that this would cause it to linger well beyond its lifespan - but nevertheless, she was astute enough to be willing to wait, and to hope that natural human empathy would win the day before long.
And after all, Nia had a talent for uncovering the troubles of others. Without even trying, the gentle little blonde normally found hearts opening to her as naturally as flowers open to receive the sun. It was a rare person who could remain silent when confronted with those sympathetic green eyes, the soft touch of her hand and the encouraging murmur of her soothing voice.
She smiled shyly at the tall, dark butch occupying the seat next to her, but felt no urge to break the convivial silence as her reflections turned away from her new friend, and towards the drawbacks that were often part and parcel of her compassionate gifts.
Hmmm. If she doesn't want to share, then we might as well forget it. But if I do get her to open up, who's to say that she's not going to turn out like every one else? Perhaps that's my problem...I make it far too easy.
She sighed quietly, turning her golden head to stare through the window at grey skies and driving rain.
Nia had spent her life being a giver. Not living for others, exactly - she cherished plenty of hopes and ambitions of her own - but notwithstanding those, one of the greatest pleasures in her life was to help another human being. This propensity to nurture and aid was one of her most appealing qualities, but also one of the most hapless - leaving the door wide open to those who wished to take advantage of it, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes with forethought. In her darker moments Nia reflected that she couldn't remember being blest with a rapport, romantic or otherwise, that wasn't dependent on her taking responsibility for phone calls, arranging time together and time apart...and providing a sounding-board for gripes, expectations and fears. Which inequality of effort often left her with a sour taste in her mouth, and an underlying unhappiness that marred even the sweetest moments. It was ironic, really, because Nia was ludicrously easy to please - if you were to ask the thoughtful, sensitive girl for her heart's desire, she would not have said fame, love or money - all she wished for was the simplest gift of a few minutes of time and a listening ear. Unfortunately, Nia had discovered that she could give these valuable commodities to a greater degree than anyone else she knew.
But maybe I should give her the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps she's the one who's going to have what I need. I can almost see it in her...if I look carefully.
It was certainly true to say that during the few moments they'd snatched in each other's company, Jake had shown her a quiet consideration unlike anything that had touched Nia's previous experience. And then there was the spontaneous burst of honesty in the bar, which had obviously cost the dark woman some emotional labour, and after which Nia imagined that Jake's heart had briefly been allowed to rule her head. With Nia, heart always won the battle - and she knew that her destiny would be someone who possessed enough self-control to temper these impetuous tendencies - but she also knew that her heart would be very lonely if attached to a lover who kept her feelings completely under lock and key.
Opposites attract, I know that...but I just hope she's not all that different from me inside. It's not too much to ask...is it?
"Just here, please." Drawled her companion, tapping on the grille with a keyring and rousing Nia from her contemplation.
The taxi turned the corner and drew up at a small bar, half-hidden in a cubbyhole behind Manchester's gay village. From the outside, Nia noticed that the light twinkling through the narrow windows had a decidedly red tint, and absent-mindedly wondered where on earth this bad boy intended to take her for their first date.
Looks like a brothel. Ah well...in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose. I get the feeling it's going to be a night to remember.
So...enough! No more introspection. I'm determined to enjoy this...and give her a chance.
"Here it is!" Jake cheerfully announced, unfolding her long legs before alighting on the kerb and opening Nia's door.
Jake turned to her date as they entered the tiny establishment, directing her towards the bar over the din of the music with a slight indication of her raven head. The place was tatty but warm and full of life, and seemed to have created the light-hearted atmosphere that Nia had vainly tried to infuse into Fire and Ice.
Well, they probably don't have gangsters poking their heads around every corner, do they? I expect It's pretty easy to have fun in a place that's not constantly scared of its overlord.
However, on closer inspection she noticed that the selection of spirits left a lot to be desired, consisting mainly of cheap rip-offs of the name brands, which made her feel superior in the style of a true Bar Manager.
At least they can't compete with us for quality products. I don't know whether I can cope with drinking that shit. Although they obviously make up for it in volume, by the looks of the price list. I've never seen doubles and mixers sold at that price before. I suppose that makes up for the fact that most of the drinks probably taste like meths.
Jake slipped a hand under her elbow to nudge her forward, and she clamped down on her senses, catching her breath at the contact.
Looks as though I'm going to be exercising some self-control tonight, if she's not to think I'm a complete walkover. You can't take her to bed straight away after that little episode in the cellar, Nia...so behave yourself. You're going home alone.
"I promise we won't stay long." Said Jake.
"And if they start singing karaoke, we're leaving quick smart. Nobody needs to be subjected to that."
Nia answered with a grin, as she yelled over the growing hubbub on the dancefloor,
"Well, the music's not bad so far! Let's hope it stays that way."
The DJ had started spinning one of her favourites, a chirpy, boppy house number that made her feet tap and her body want to move.
Involuntarily, she bestowed a sunny smile on the short, curt barman who appeared to take their order, simultaneously taking note of the thick, angry scar that bisected his face.
Hmmmm. He looks like he's been done for a few. But I wonder if he can mix a drink?
"What would you like?" Asked Jake gently, turning to Nia and noticing with a stifled chuckle that she was practically dancing up to the collection of stools strewn around by the bar.
"I'd like a gin and tonic, please." Came the courageous reply, as Nia determined not to treat her friend's choice of bar with distaste.
And she was flabbergasted when the wizened old bartender actually produced a premium bottle from underneath the till, free-pouring a generous measure over plenty of ice, and rimming the glass with lime before topping it up with tonic water and sliding it across the surface towards her. She looked up at Jake, but her incredulous question was crushed by the merriment dancing in her companion's eyes, betokening that the butch had been expecting her date to receive such treatment.
Again, Nia bit her tongue and smiled.
Some things it's better not to know, I suppose...she thought, amused in spite of herself, as she watched Jake order a beer...with a wink to the server.
Well, bottled beer's a safe bet, that's for sure. I'm not sure what'd come out of the pumps if she asked for draught.
"Come with me." Burred her escort, having procured her beer and taken a long swig.
"I'll introduce you to my friends."
"Who is THAT!?"
Were the first words to escape Nia's lips as they approached the large table around which Jake's friends had ensconced themselves, upon camp, gilt-edged, emerald green velvet chairs.
Kim was standing near the edge of the group, which was peopled with guests who seemed pretty obnoxious to Nia's fresh eyes - Jake recognised them as being the usual suspects, rowdy colleagues of Al's. The chestnut-haired femme wore a floor-length black dress embroidered with bold flowers close to the hem, that clung to her willowy form and tapered upwards to form a striking halter around her neck. With outsize gold hoops in her ears, she looked exotic and exciting - Nia felt at once that her own pale hair and eyes were unforgivably bland and insipid in comparison. Unaware of their presence, Kim was smiling and laughing with as much enthusiasm as she could muster at several absurd conversations, some obviously designed to impress her - and presented a vision that epitomised polished, exquisite elegance.
"That's my best friend, Kim." Said Jake, displaying her customary pride at being associated with such a gorgeous creature.
"Wow!" Nia exclaimed.
"She is, isn't she?" Agreed the dark butch - a little too enthusiastically, she realised, seeing Nia's face fall. To make amends, she hastily added,
"Beauty comes with a price, you know. It can be a curse as much as it's a blessing."
Nia regarded her quizzically, as well she might, before responding, "What do you mean, comes with a price?"
"For a start, Kim never knows whether people genuinely like her or just want to get in her knickers." Jake said.
The blonde looked sceptical. "Well, I can see that would be a problem, but I wouldn't call it a curse. Is that as bad as it gets?"
"Well, she's also caused trouble for more than one couple and wound up feeling dreadful about it." Responded her date.
Nia's breath caught.
"It used to happen a great deal." Jake continued. "She'd take a casual fancy to someone, and they'd fall for her immediately, regardless of whether they were already attached or not. Then by the time she lost interest, a relationship she probably didn't even know about in the first place would be in the dustbin. So everybody ended up alone"
"But surely the person who is already committed is culpable, not Kim - she can't help it if people fall in love with her, and it's up to them to tell her they're taken."
Replied Nia, Jake's last statement stirring her instinct to defend any woman - even a criminally pretty one - from injustice.
Her new friend turned to regard her with a warm smile.
"You're right." Was the reply.
"Kim would be touched to hear you say that. But she's such a tender-hearted girl and she hates hurting people. She feels a lot of guilt when her arrival causes someone's cherished partner to become second best, especially when there was never any serious interest on her part."
"What Kimmy's only just beginning to realise is that her beauty confers an awful lot of power and responsibility, and she needs to be careful how she uses it, to avoid pain for other people and for herself. You're right that she shouldn't be taking the blame for the weaknesses of others - but it's a rare person who has the strength to say no when confronted with a face like that."
"A rare person...or someone who's genuinely in love." Finished Nia, quietly.
"But what can she do about it?" The blonde remained puzzled.
"Well, she's learned that if she wants someone she'd better be really certain about them, because they're likely to offer themselves on a plate if she as much as clicks her fingers. She's very careful now about who she flirts with. And she's unusual in that."
"Wow." Said Nia. "I never really thought of it that way before. I suppose I can see your point."
The Bar Manager looked at Jake's beautiful young friend through new eyes for a brief moment, envy warring with sympathy - until, with a whimper, sympathy lost the battle.
"But isn't that just the way of the world?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, aren't some people naturally shallow? I've seen it happen - boy meets girl, they fall in love, but one or the other gets dropped when someone "better" comes along - someone who's richer, more intelligent, more beautiful - and must be recognised by society as a whole as being so. For instance, someone like Kim."
"That's a pretty shocking way to treat someone."
"Well, I think it's callous and foolhardy, but some folks seem to like to keep their options open."
"Not everyone, Nia." Whispered Jake, softly. And as their eyes met this half-promise was filed away by both.
In an attempt to break the tension, the dark woman continued a little more light-heartedly, "I was never attracted to Kim. You can ask her yourself - she'll back me up on that one without hesitation."
"Why weren't you?" Was the obvious question.
"Her beauty is a little too symmetrical for me, you know? I find it...boring, to be blunt. The faces I find most attractive are challenging in their beauty - they make me sit up and take notice, and use my imagination - like yours."
It was an innocent statement, not made in order to give a compliment - in fact, there was no thought of its probable impact. But it was the most wonderful thing the dark butch could have said, in Nia's opinion.
She made no response, but resolved to put her resentful feelings aside, and contented herself with a squeeze on her date's arm, as both women noticed that the subject of their discussion had spotted them, and was making her way over.
Nia's jealous streak was a well-known fact amongst her close friends, but a well-hidden aspect of her public demeanour. She despised the quality in herself, considering it to be pusillanimous and even vulgar, but her efforts to conquer it had so far borne little fruit. More than one instance in which she'd lost the game to someone she considered to be a superior player had caused the weakness to grow strong - and by her twenty-sixth year, envy was probably the single negative emotion that Nia had really allowed to colour her life. And she'd found few who were responsive enough to anticipate her occasional feelings of comparative worthlessness with a couple of well-chosen words.
But she did it. Totally unconsciously, and without guile.
"You must be Nia."
The blonde turned in the direction of a lively, musical greeting, and found herself face to face with what she had to admit was one of the loveliest visions she'd ever seen.
Normally I'd have been wishing I was her by now...was her grateful thought, as the beautiful brunette kissed her on both cheeks.
"It's so great to meet you." Said Kim, warmly. "I hope you didn't mind coming. The onus should fall on my housemate, really - it's her birthday. Jake had no say in the matter."
Nia smiled at the friendly overture, and was about to reply with equal cordiality when another voice broke into the conversation.
" 'Bout time you turned up!"
"Here we go." Whispered Jake conspiratorially. "This is Al - it's her birthday. She's a great girl, but she can be a little much. Don't say I didn't warn you."
Not bad...thought the bar manager. Al was a heavyset butch with a soft appearance - dark hair flopping over her eyes, and a tasteful outfit consisting of a loose-fitting linen shirt and trousers.
"Happy birthday." The blonde offered, extending her hand as the newcomer approached.
"Thanks!" Al replied, cheerfully bowling up beside her. "Are you having a good time?" She asked, looking Nia up and down.
"Great. This is an interesting place."
Nia had the distinct impression that Al was leering at her, and trying not to let it make her feel uncomfortable, she decided to do what she did best - to get the butch to talk, instead of staring.
"So, Al...why don't you tell me about yourself?"
This was the prompt that Al, completely unashamed, had been waiting for. Within five minutes Nia was wishing she'd asked about the weather, as her new acquaintance proceeded to chew her ear off with royal enthusiasm, while the hapless bar manager strained her patience trying to listen, and her ears attempting to eavesdrop on Kim's conversation with Jake.
"I'm sorry for what I said earlier, Jake. I had no right to interfere and tell you how to run your life. But it's only because I care."
"Oh Kim." Jake slung her free arm around her friend's shoulders. "I told you before you don't need to say sorry. I needed to hear those things you said. In fact, I should be thanking you." She admitted.
Kim's face lit up. "It's going well so far?" She asked, excitedly.
"Wonderful." Confessed the butch. "Kim, she's so sweet - I can't even begin to tell you."
"I can see it for myself." Whispered her friend. "I like her very much."
The blue eyes sparkled with pride, before clouding over momentarily.
"I seem to be doing everything right so far. I just hope I can keep it up." Jake confided, haltingly.
Kim's sweet face took on a hint of seriousness as she regarded the couple standing before her. Although engaged in separate conversations, the two women were already clearly together - each body angled towards the other, and Nia's fingers lightly entwined in the leather of Jake's jacket. They looked wonderful. And right - in a way that she and Jake, despite their combination of stunning good looks, never had.
"Oh, you will keep it up." She murmured, in response. "It looks as though it's coming naturally."
Her reward was a look of gratitude and affection that warmed her heart and made her glad to have spoken up about her earlier misgivings. But before their confab could go any further, Al dug Jake in the ribs and began to issue instructions in none too dulcet tones.
"Drink up. Nobody wants to be sober when we start the karaoke. Jake - you'd better get up and sing with me. I've already put our names down for Bat Out of Hell."
"Not on your nelly." Retorted Nia's date, softening the verbal blow with a punch to Al's arm.
Undeterred, the small butch leaned forward and began to enunciate in a dramatic stage whisper.
"See that woman over there?"
Nia, Jake and Kim all whirled around to see a mini-skirted redhead staring over at the group.
"She's been giving me the eye for a while." Al continued. "I think she's gonna make a play. And that other one next to her - she tried it on last week, but I wasn't interested. She's developing a bit of an obsession, now - she won't leave me alone, even for five minutes. These women are so persistent! I might have to draft you in to fend them off."
And with this last threat directed at Jake, off she went - in a waft of cigarette smoke and Calvin Klein.
"Sorry about her." Said Jake, with a sigh. "As you can probably see, modesty isn't one of her virtues. I'm surprised she even manages to have fun when she goes out - she's so preoccupied with who's looking at her."
Nia snorted in reply, as Kim rolled her eyes and took up the report.
"And then, when she gets home, she analyses every little flirtation to death. It drives me crazy. She likes to think of herself as a bit of a stud, surrounded by women who can't help falling at her feet. I swear she thinks she's a character in a book. You know, the tall, dark handsome one, that everyone's in love with."
Nia raised one eyebrow, biting down with great tact on the riposte that rose to her lips, a struggle that was not lost on the other two, judging from their grins of delight.
"She has a good imagination, at least." Jake supplied, as all three shook with suppressed laughter, and the music began to slow. Pretty soon the change in tempo appeared to remind Kim that three was a crowd, and she looked about the bar, obviously in search of an excuse to extricate herself.
"I should go and speak to my beloved housemate, really - before she embarrasses herself." She said, abruptly. "I'll see you in a minute or two."
She glided off without another word, but not without sacrificing a few moments to telegraph to Jake, behind Nia's back, what would be an appropriate course of action. And after a short fight with her unease, the butch mustered all her courage and very hard not to feel awkward, as she followed her friend's excellent advice.
"Nia, would you like to dance?"
Upon receipt of a surprised nod and a shy smile, she took her date lightly by the hand and led her to the dancefloor.
It seemed dreadfully quiet as the blonde and the brunette began to reacquaint themselves with one another's bodies - touching in a tentative manner not at all reminiscent of the hurried fumbling that had gone on in the cellar at Fire and Ice.
Jake held Nia very close, one arm tight around the blonde's back. And with the other large hand she held Nia's small one to her chest - over her heart.
From her perch at the other end of the bar, Kim watched the two with an indescribable expression.
"They've got it bad." She said to no one in particular, congratulating herself on her success.
The blonde was a petite woman, but not short - about five feet and six inches - and Jake's magnificent six feet allowed her to rest her head comfortably on a broad shoulder as they moved slowly against one another, oblivious to the curious stares of the other patrons. There were no grand gestures or dramatic dance moves, and no conversation - just two people clinging to each other in the darkness of a small bar, in the middle of a very rowdy party.
And as she closed her eyes, Nia couldn't help feeling that unlikely as it might seem, perhaps here was a place she could finally come to rest. They might well belong to a gangster, a drug lord, or an extortionist - but these arms felt tranquil and safe, as far as she was concerned.
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