By the time they reached Nia's small apartment, Manchester looked like Gotham City. In the pitch black buildings seemed to tower out of all proportion, stark and forbidding, dominating the urban skyline and making even the femme's commanding date feel meek. Uncharacteristically timid, she hung her head against the fine drizzle and followed her diminutive hostess down the short path to the front door.
Exclaimed the blonde, sounding a good deal more confident than she felt - after she'd fiddled with the key in the Yale lock that always stuck, cursing to herself, and managed to prise it open while scraping her knuckles on the frame.
I really wish my fingers weren't shaking. I wonder if she realises? I wonder if she ever gets nervous?
In fact, she's probably been in more women's apartments than I've had hot dinners. This is a normal Friday night event for her, I shouldn't wonder.
Yuck. Better stop that train of thought right now, or I'll be tempted to throw her out right away.
Give her a chance, Nia.
And as she continued to lead the way, trying to ignore the unpleasant taste that leapt into her mouth in response to an indiscriminate promiscuity she could almost visualise, the Bar Manager was shocked and elated to see a tiny tremor in the large, capable hands that pinned the door wide open above her head, preventing it from swinging back and whacking her as she passed through it.
On re-entering the miniature flat, the butch realised she'd been too apprehensive on her earlier visit to take a proper look around, since almost immediately her eye was caught by a small mahogany upright piano, tucked away in the far corner of the living room. While Nia bustled about fluffing cushions and switching on the large, stainless steel lamps, Jake stared at the gold lettering that was gradually illuminated, spelling out "Zender".
"That's a beautiful instrument." She commented.
"Thanks" Smiled the blonde. "It used to belong to my parents. I played it incessantly as a child, so when I bought my own flat they sent it up here for me. It makes me feel at home."
"Do you still play?" Asked the butch, interested.
"I do, but the occasions are getting fewer and fewer." Replied Nia, a little ruefully.
"I don't get the time to practice as much as I used to. But it's a great stress-buster when I have a chance. I can forget about everything else when I'm sitting at the piano, you know?"
Agreed the dark woman, although she didn't really understand what her new friend was talking about. Jake had spent far too much of her adult life on tenterhooks about saving her own skin or someone else's to ever lose herself in an activity, no matter how enjoyable it might be. This dictatorial self-control was one of the reasons that her hobbies thus far had been pitifully few.
But loath to ponder the totalitarian tinge of her history, she instead took a more pleasant route - surrendering to a curious impulse to tease.
In the moment of quiet, Nia had been grinning and squirming at the same time, wondering what was coming next as the vibrant blue eyes that had captured her gaze were taken over by a fiendish glint.
"So?" Asked the butch, leering wickedly and displaying an impishness that was far more out of character than her host realised.
"So...what?" The bar manager demurred. Always prepared for a spot of banter, the response was immediate, automatic - and unmistakably a challenge.
"Are you going to play it for me?" Jake persisted, undeterred.
"It's only fair."
"Oh, only fair, is it?"
The blonde laughed, trying to appear unflappable and not to show that the request actually made her want to dive under the dining table and stay there. In fact, she considered the option for a moment - but looking at the minuscule amount of cover that piece of furniture promised to afford, and considering that the retreat would probably make it worse in the end when she had to come out and face the provocation, she shrugged her shoulders. Sea-green eyes twinkled irrepressibly as she threw caution to the winds and decided to stand and fight.
"That's a little tacky for a sophisticate like you, Jake. This isn't a B-movie, you know."
As she had hoped, the combination of delicate compliment and good-natured but slightly caustic rebuttal did the job - although she was obviously enjoying Nia's consternation, the butch's eyes widened for a second or two in response, and soon after, she dropped her demand with an affable snort.
"OK, OK...I was only joking."
"You're dreadful." Returned the blonde, swatting the rogue lightly in the stomach and making her start back a step at the unexpected touch.
"You haven't even sat down yet, and already you're making me nervous by demanding a performance."
The words sounded harsh, but their sting was assuaged by the merriment that made Nia's lovely features dance, as she neatly dispatched her guest's good-natured aspirations to debase her.
"Go on, bad boy - sit down, be quiet, and I'll open the wine...and I'll give you a show when I'm good and ready."
"I'll hold you to that." Unbeknownst to the dark woman, this audacious response sent a thrill of excitement scuttling down the bar manager's spine.
Nia was still pretending to be affronted and suppressing an inward titter as she shuffled into the small adjacent kitchen to fetch the bottle of Syrah that had been a Christmas present from her father.
Meanwhile, Jake eyed the sofa.
Looks a little cosy.
I reckon if I sat on that there'd be no room for anyone else. And then where would she sit?
I always have this problem in apartments that belong to petite women - I feel as though I'm taking up the whole room. I wish she'd come back and tell me where to put myself.
The strong jaw displaced slightly, as the remembrance that Nia was just one in a long line of many struck the butch as being particularly repugnant. Although she couldn't quite work out why, she closed her beautiful sapphire eyes for a moment, as if to banish the errant thought from her mind.
"You could put on some music before you make yourself at home, if you like."
The shout gave the butch a temporary reprieve, as corkscrew in hand, Nia popped her head through the brightly beaded grocer's curtain that separated the sitting area from the kitchen and gave her visitor an engaging grin.
Relieved, Jake began to negotiate the undersized room. While doing so she glued her long arms tight in to her sides, afraid that one careless swing might bring one of the lamps, plants or even the bookshelf down.
Oops. This apartment definitely wasn't built for an oaf like me.
Eventually the butch came to a squat by the appropriately tiny stereo microsystem, and grabbed a handful of CD's. It was a random bunch, but she soon found something soothing and appropriate among the collection of teenage heartthrobs and angry femmes. Then she could put it off no longer. Nia still busy in the kitchen with the wine, and she had to park herself. Seating her large frame on the small sofa, the guest looked about as uncomfortable as she felt.
But she'd chosen this album because it was an old favourite, and it made her feel a little more at home, if not at ease. And judging from the moan of delight that proceeded from the kitchen, Nia shared her appreciation for the track she'd selected as an opener.
The melancholy refrain was just about to begin as Jake's host re-appeared with two large glasses of satisfyingly heavy red wine. Now side by side on the small couch and more than a little squashed, they sipped in silence for a moment, enjoying the assault on their senses that was created by the combination of heady beverage and passionate lyrics.
"You've got a pretty eclectic music collection there, Nia." Commented the butch a little awkwardly, as the first chorus came to an end.
"Yeah, I know."
"This one's a classic, though."
Jake tried desperately to sound relaxed, while sitting on a sofa so snug that it threw the bodies of the two women into intimate contact from their feet right up to their shoulders. Feeling as though she was manhandling the blonde without an invitation was making her perturbed to say the least.
"Yeah. I find Joni Mitchell a bit of a tearjerker when I'm all alone, but listening to her with you in the room is rather different."
This was muttered wryly, the blonde seeming to speak more to herself than for her companion's benefit.
"I'm sorry - shall I put something else on?"
Nia gave her guest a shy smile.
"You make...I mean, you made...a good choice."
The bashful grin that was shared at this comment injected a welcome dose of brightness into the tepid, tricky atmosphere. Suddenly the couch didn't seem like such a tight fit, after all.
Still, Jake's host soon extracted herself from her seat, and looked a little shaky as she retrieved the open bottle of wine from the kitchen. While she did so, the dark woman made use of the opportunity to look around again.
On the small coffee table next to her sat a silver frame, displaying a picture of Nia with a tall, Hispanic, and feminine-looking man. They had their arms around each other, and were both laughing - they obviously were, or had been, very close. Underneath the photograph, across the bottom of the maroon-coloured mounting card, was a message written in a bold, curly hand, and adorned with numerous kisses and flourishes.
"Nia, thank you for being here, there and everywhere.
By far the strongest person I have ever known.
Love always, Theo."
Jake sighed, as the saccharine familiarity of the picture and the loving tone of the words began to arouse the wistful feelings she normally so effectively kept at bay.
Wow...they look so...normal.
When she could have this, why on earth would she want someone like me?
And then she remembered the Bar Manager's words at the taxi rank.
Because she doesn't have a choice. That's why.
She sighed again.
That ought to make me feel better.
For the third time, she sighed.
Admit it, Jake. You want to know that even if she did have a choice, she'd still choose you.
Engrossed in Joni's lament and her own doleful reflections, the dark woman didn't raise her head for the next few moments. When she finally looked up and opened her keen blue eyes, it was to see Nia hovering by the couch, obviously working up the courage to sit down again.
"Who's Theo?" the butch asked casually, moving over as best she could and patting the space - or lack of it - beside her.
"He's an old friend."
Replied the blonde, eyeing the gap Jake had cleared, mentally trying to squeeze herself into it again, and deciding that as a home for the duration of the evening it was probably a no-go even for her petite derrière. Lost in these logistics, she was no doubt too tense to be conscious of it - but her closed statement sounded very much like mimicry to her visitor, exactly echoing Jake's earlier duplicity with regard to Pete.
Well, I suppose I deserved that...thought the butch. If I'm not prepared to disclose, I can hardly expect her to be.
"Share and share alike"...and all that.
However, Manchester's most hardheaded, cynical butch, the toughest customer most of her intimates had ever met, soon began to realise that Nia was not interested in keeping score. Cheerfully, she perched on the arm of the sofa - and as Jake averted her gaze to hide the guilt of her hostile assumption, the blonde began to elucidate.
"I met him working in a nightclub. He used to run coke for the owners - shady mafia types. I hated them."
Jake continued to stare at the rug.
Was the only reply she could muster to this rather unforeseen statement.
Well, that certainly came fast around a blind corner. Bit too close to home. But it looks as though she's always been mixed up with the Mob, in one way or another.
"The last straw finally broke the camel's back when he came back from a run covered in blood and slashmarks..."
Managed the butch this time, still unable to meet Nia's eyes. If she had done so at that point, she might have seen regret and faded anguish enough to arouse all her protective instincts at once.
But she couldn't - she was aware of how disingenuous she might sound if she said anything else. Such dramas were probably the least violent of the episodes that plotted the action-film inspired reality that had once been her life. She curled her lip grimly, wondering whether Nia realised that her friend had probably had a narrow escape, as her host carried on with her recollections.
"...and after that, I encouraged him to move away from their influence. I knew that he'd probably got off lightly that time - next time he might not have been lucky enough to come out alive."
"You were right." The dark woman concurred, finally lifting her chin to encounter the disconsolate green gaze. Nia seemed to be miles away by now, almost remembering to herself as she relived the old heartache.
"I helped him get through his cold turkey after he quit - which was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I was 19 at the time, and he was 27."
"That must have been a real struggle."
"Yeah, it was."
Despite the fact that her respect for the blonde was increasing with every second, Jake also found it difficult not to feel awkward as her new friend divulged minutiae of such a private nature on their very first date. To be frank, she thought it was odd - it was about as foreign to her disposition as any form of emotional or personal camouflage would be to the woman facing her, sharing with unguarded sea green eyes and so little apparent effort. She was yet to realise that openness went hand in hand with sincerity and informed everything Nia did - a trait that was testament to her strength. If Kim had been present, she'd no doubt have pointed out that there was a lesson for the butch in the Bar Manager's ability to reveal her heart to anyone who bothered to ask. Jake could almost hear the beautiful brunette's voice ringing in her ears with triumph as she listened to the blonde's story.
"See Jake? See how easy it is! The world doesn't end when you make the effort to express yourself, you know. It doesn't have to be such a big deal."
God, Kim...you're certainly acting as my conscience these days. Even when you're not around you manage to give me a lecture.
"Anyway, I don't want to bore you with the details, but he couldn't keep food or water down for more than five minutes.
The mood swings were dreadful, too. I couldn't do anything right - I thought he was going to kill me more than once."
"But you loved him." Jake supplied, still pensive.
"Yes, I did. He was one of the best men I've ever met. And he never hurt me - he always controlled himself, despite what he was going through."
Responded the butch, more abruptly this time. The thought of anyone daring to lay a finger on Nia made her feel unreasonably incensed - she could feel a familiar prickling sensation that told her the hairs on the back of her neck were probably standing straight up on end.
The brusqueness of her tone clearly bothered her host. "Are you all right?" Asked the blonde.
"I'm fine." Jake replied.
"You seem a little...nervous." Nia persisted. "Are you?"
Jake rarely - if ever - admitted to what she considered to be a weakness. Her life so far had been concerned with self-protection, not the self-awareness that would have told her to confess her demons and ask for understanding in order to communicate with her strength. But staring deep into earnest green eyes, she felt perilously close to drowning - and the candour she found there obliged her to be frank.
It was as though, once given a chink through which to escape, the word slammed against the barriers that Jake had spent years erecting with such care, and drove itself through her rancour, out towards the light. Tightening her grip on the arm of the sofa, she reeled slightly from the force of the compulsion, and wondered about its origin.
"Because you're a real person."
This admission was carried out on an inaudible moan of defeat, emerging from outside the dark woman's control and with complete disregard for her consent.
And it didn't seem to startle Nia in the slightest.
"This wine is great."
Jake began a little gawkily, desperate to change the subject after her unprecedented disclosure. Luckily, her companion appeared to have no objections, and gave her a friendly grin.
"It is, isn't it? I always think it tastes like berries and cream."
Agreed the butch, picking up the bottle to examine it more closely. It was a 1994 Syrah from the Australian Rosemount Estate, altogether too expensive to have been bought on a Bar Manager's meagre salary.
Wonder what that's all about. Perhaps it was a present from Matt. He's not the sort of guy who really needs to buy anyone's loyalty, but you never know.
"It was a gift from my Dad." Nia said.
"He gets bottles and bottles of the stuff every Christmas from his clients."
"What does he do?" Asked the dark woman, reflecting that here was another layer of her companion she'd been hitherto unaware of.
"He's Director of Estates at a big university. He deals with building contractors a lot, and they like to buy flashy presents to keep on his good side - the contracts he deals with are worth millions."
In keeping with the theme of the evening so far, Jake found it difficult to dream up a response.
My God...she's about as different from me as a person could get. Am I just fooling myself that we could even be friends?
What would we talk about?
I know she's not as much of an innocent as she appears, but still -
Some of the things I've done she probably couldn't even imagine. And if she finds out I'm connected to Matt she'll never forgive me.
Should I even bother to give this a chance?
She stared at her boots.
But thankfully, her rather sober train of thought was halted by something altogether more urgent, as her fingers brushed against the bar manager's hand in passing the bottle back to her host. Rather hesitantly, their eyes also met - and what passed between them was unspoken but perfectly understood.
The wine almost spilled as the bottle slipped back on to the coffee table, forgotten in the sparks of electricity that had been lurking beneath the surface ever since the two women first met. Lying in wait for what had seemed a protracted evening's activities, they were ready to flare up now - asserting their supremacy over the minds and bodies of the women sitting together in the small, dimly lit room.
"Can I kiss you?"
It was a question Jake had asked thousands of times, often when she shouldn't - but somehow on this occasion it didn't feel so rhetorical as usual. Perhaps that's why the words seemed clumsy as they escaped her - the smooth operator wasn't feeling so sure of herself this time.
"No." The femme smiled as her guest was thrown even further off course.
"Because I think I'll get there first - I'm not asking for permission."
As Nia leaned forward, capturing her date's full lips in a soft, sweet kiss, Jake could taste the wine on the blonde's tongue. She willingly granted it entry, and moaned in silence as it explored gently at first, growing firmer and more insistent as the sensation took hold of them both.
Initially the encounter was almost delicate - for moments, nothing touched except two pairs of lips. But soon Jake's hands were in the Bar Manager's hair, caressing the soft, silky strands as the blonde leaned closer and her ardour began to rise.
However, as the dark woman started to draw the femme into her lap, Nia pulled away. She was panting slightly as she shifted back in her seat and regretfully shook her head.
"I'm sorry. I can't do this yet." It was almost a whisper.
The words crashed over Jake like a bucket of ice-cold water.
"Care to tell me why?"
Feeling a little peeved, she slid backwards on the sofa, turning slightly away from her host, willing her chest to stop heaving.
"It's not that I don't want to." Nia's voice was full of remorse.
"Then what is it?" Asked the butch, a little more gently.
"Look." The bar manager gave her a straightforward, direct stare.
"I'm not stupid. I get the feeling you've had a lot of experience with women, most of it sexual."
Jake inclined her head slightly in assent, trying not to be offended as the blonde summed up her romantic history with a few blunt words.
"And I think if we sleep together now you'll probably have no reason to stick around afterwards."
There was a long, painful pause, during which Nia mournfully acknowledged that she'd probably hit the nail on the head. And her hunch was not refuted when Jake eventually spoke.
"Well, I suppose I can't fault your logic."
The dark woman's hubris had been stirred by what she perceived to be a brush-off, and was on full alert - preventing her from telling the blonde exactly what she wanted to hear. That she was different - and that her refusal to jump in to bed on the first date only reinforced that, elevating her even further in the butch's estimation. But this would have been too humiliating to bear for Nia's proud, sultry companion. Instead, she clamped her mouth tight shut and listened to the rest of her date's rather garbled defence.
"Please don't think I'm being callous. I just want to get to know you a little better. I like you - and I don't want you to lose interest too soon. So don't take this the wrong way, but I don't want to be another notch on your bedpost tonight."
"It's your bedpost." The butch pointed out, still a little nettled. But her eyes were shining.
I suppose I don't blame her. A few years ago she would have been right. I can give her some time.
She wants to get to know me. The butch was astonished at the thought.
I think that's worth the wait. Or it will be, if I can let her inside and she doesn't run screaming.
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