First Light

by Emily Duncan

Chapter Eleven

It was early.

Too early, in fact.

The sun was just starting to rise, turning the grey sky into candyfloss, clouds pink and pregnant with the weight of the rain that would probably fall by the bucketload later on.

Flicking the CD player on to "random", Nia paused for a second to berate herself for forgetting her umbrella. Not that they were of any use in Manchester - instead of protecting the carrier from the interminable downpour, they generally blew inside out at the first puff. But wrestling with a recalcitrant umbrella was a tradition on wet days in Northwest England.

Hmmm. Maybe I have a spare one in the office. I lose enough of the damn things - odds are one ought to turn up where I left it eventually.

She grumbled to herself as she picked up her clipboard and continued with the stock check, excruciatingly aware of the vision in the corner of her eye - Max, working doggedly, crouched in front of the other fridge with a set look on her face.

The relationship between the two close friends had been strained ever since the night the Blue Caps - and Jake - had paid Fire and Ice a visit. Nia had been furious at Max's overprotective behaviour, and the small butch's fears for her friend's safety had only grown worse with time and the silence that had fallen between them. Max's imagination was lively when it came to those she loved - and Nia's situation was dreaming up all kinds of possibilities for her faithful, fretful assistant. As far as she was concerned Nia's flirtation with fire would only end in a blaze that might consume them both. They were far too fond of each other to be uncivil - but the repartee that had always underpinned their relationship was frozen for a moment, by the tension in the air around them.

I miss her.

Looking directly at the stooped figure of this most dependable of her employees, affection finally got the better of Nia's annoyance. It was like her to concede first - and once roused, goodwill soon grabbed a handhold and shifted her brain up a gear, insisting that enough was enough - it was time for her to make the first move before the pair drifted too far apart.

"Hey, Max, did you see that programme last night? Richard Attenborough got a camera right inside a pride of lions. It was interesting watching - the females hunted for food, raised the young and made the den - in fact, did everything - while the males just slept and tried to mate with them. Isn't that just typical?"

Max chuckled softly, recognising the gentle olive branch her friend was extending and taking a moment to cherish it. It was a small act but at the same time momentous - because it required gumption she rarely felt herself capable of. The prospect that her advances would be rejected invariably cracked her courage, and she preferred to turn her energies towards dealing with the inevitable loss, rather than rebuilding the chasm that gaped in front of her.

But Nia was different.

Behind the blonde's back, the butch allowed herself a doting look.

She's always the first to give in. God, Max - she's so evidently a bigger person than you.

Out loud, she said,

"Yeah. But it wasn't Dickie, it was David - and anyway, David Attenborough didn't even organise the camera. John Downer did - David's just the storyteller."

"Just a storyteller, indeed!" Snorted the femme. "That man is the bard of the natural world."

"Anyway, stories are important, Max - they're one of the basic building blocks of culture."

"Whatever."

Replied her friend, sighing with the studied ennui she normally used to slow Nia's ever-ready lectures. It worked a treat - the Bar Manager subsided with a smirk, secretly delighted that they appeared to be slipping back in to their old routine so fluently.

"I don't think much of him, Nia. I think that girl who watches the monkeys is much better."

"How predictable." In between counting alcopops, the blonde affected a yawn.

"But you watched it, anyway."

"Yeah, I did." The butch admitted, with a grin.

"Watched it with my Mum. That was an experience in itself - she kept complaining about all the gratuitous violence."

"What?" Nia almost dropped the bottle she was holding.

"She thinks even lions should be vegetarians. She's never been the same since the peace camps at Greenham."

"I can believe that." The bar manager stared at her clipboard.

"Actually, you should see it when she gets together with her friends - ageing hippies are pretty entertaining. They're against just about everything - you'd probably get on with them."

"It's a good job you're my friend, Max - or I'd sack you for that piece of outrageous cheek."

The conversation ended in a hearty laugh that washed away much of the previous week's discord, leaving both women in better spirits.

Max stood up and tore the sheet of paper from her own clipboard, handing it to her Manager with a smile and a squeeze on the wrist that made Nia want to cry with relief.

"And did you see the article in the Daily Express about the six-million year old thighbone they found in Kenya? They think it belonged to the Missing Link...you know, between the apes and man."

"Missing Link, eh?" Nia mused, eyes twinkling.

"I think I've dated that guy."

"Very funny. The sad thing is, you probably have." Max shook her head.

The blonde added Max's totals to the boxes she'd already counted down in the cellar, and wrinkled her nose as she did the mental arithmetic.

"Listen, Nia." Said Max, in a small voice.

"I'm sorry about the other night. With your friend."

The blonde had never been too adept at bearing a grudge. Some even thought she was too forbearing - since the words "I'm sorry" were always sufficient to bring her umbrage to an end, no matter how vile the misdemeanour. So as soon as they were out of Max's mouth she was at her friend's side, tenderly taking the butch's face in her hands and nodding her understanding.

"Don't mention it. You had my best interests at heart."

"I'm glad you realise that. I'd never intentionally hurt you, you know." Max stared at her feet.

"I know." Both paused to acknowledge a declaration that had always been taken as given between them.

"I think you're being a little too vigilant, though." The bar manager's tone was earnest. "If Jake was connected with Matt she'd hardly have shown her face in here again after the other night. I don't expect gangsters to be breaking down my door or anything."

The dialogue broke for a second, as the assistant manager wondered whether she could summon up enough pluck to share the real disquiet that had kept her awake at night, ever since the raven-haired woman strode into Nia's life.

"That's not what I'm worried about." She finally owned.

Another pause descended as Nia digested this statement with a frown. The blonde was intuitive enough to discern that the conversation was about to turn a corner - and she wasn't sure she was going to like what was around it.

"I don't understand. Then what's the matter?"


The manager drew her assistant over to the nearest table, and as they both sat down, apprehension and distress began to stain her pretty features.

I can't remember the last time I saw Max this upset. Something must be bothering her an awful lot.

"Come on, Max - tell me what's on your mind."

Their gazes locked - the ingenuous green of Nia's drenched with trouble, and mutely imploring her friend to express herself. So Max took a deep breath, and decided to speak.

"I'm scared that you might get hurt." The small butch admitted quietly.

"But I'm talking about your feelings, not your physical safety, Nia."

"What do you mean?" The blonde asked.

"You really like this woman. I can tell." Max told her.

Nia's eyes lowered to the table between them, and a ready blush took possession of her cheeks. Sighing as the blonde's mounting colour confirmed her fears, Max carried on.

"And she's a complete mystery to you. Alarm bells are going off in my head - I can hardly hear myself think sometimes."

Although the bar manager's head was still bowed, Max saw her friend flinch - and almost fell silent. But conscience and concern forced her to continue, no matter how much her words might wither the rose.

"Remember what happened the last time you went for one of those dangerous types? By the time you found out what was behind her tough exterior, it was too late. You were so in love with her, and she turned out to be such an ogre. You were crushed. It broke my heart. I can't help thinking you should look before you leap this time." She said.

Max tried not to stop breathing as she waited for her friend's reaction. Her nature rarely inclined her to be bold - but once she decided upon a particular path she was certainly tenacious. She minced none of her words, and they slammed straight into Nia's heart - the verbal offensive would have sent the Bar Manager lurching had she not been sitting down.

She's right.

I was devastated.

I never knew a human being could hurt so much. What if I'm setting myself up again?

Nia approached all things with the same unadulterated zeal - and this was especially true of her relationships. She was among those rare beings who are usually mocked and envied alike - because she lived for love. Most of those she came across viewed affairs of the heart as pretty diversions or necessary hassles - but for her, romance had to be all-consuming. She didn't want to be swept off her feet - her healthy suspicion of melodrama telling her that passions declared in hushed tones often proved more robust - but she was desperate to meet the one who would really know her, who could be trusted implicitly with her heart, and even her life. Looking back, she realised that her impatience at the lack of this elusive figure had probably turned her into a fool.

Immediately following the breakup with Paula, she'd been as good as slapped across the face by the charms of an incredibly charismatic butch - a regular in the old-school gay bars she was frequenting as part of her search for that which she could not yet define. She'd fallen hard and fast. To start with, the liaison had been a fairytale - fodder for romance novelists in its tempestuous zeal - and as a result the young femme was deeply attached by the time she realised she'd made a very bad call. Her adoration for KJ was unrequited - her butch was in love with someone else. Not a real person, either - she was impossibly involved with the memory of an ex-girlfriend she'd never been able to forget. KJ's only desire was to relive her past - insensible of the fact that she would never find the magic she sought, unless she let the ideal go free. And just a few short months into the relationship, it became apparent to the butch that Nia was never going to match up to the woman whose appeal was unparalleled, after years spent sitting in state upon an imaginary pedestal.

When the bar manager realised that KJ's heart wasn't accessible to her touch, she was devastated. The discovery smashed her self-esteem into smithereens and the fragments were left to rot, untouched inside her emotional isolation. Having to compete with a Goddess-like ghost of relationships past was soul destroying for such a sensitive young girl, especially one who was desperate to find some security in what seemed to her a horribly hostile world.

The relationship had gone rapidly downhill from that point on.

Nia couldn't remember exactly when the condemnation had started. All she knew was that KJ was brandishing the spectre of her ex-lover like a weapon, goring her through and spitting her on its perfection, over and over again.

It was like tiptoeing across a minefield, or playing a game of cat and mouse with a panther - as long as Nia made all the right moves she was sure of survival, but one false step and she awakened a white-hot snarl that left her afraid and reeling - and she knew it would eventually harden into resentment. So, understandably, she alternated between silence and saying only what KJ wanted to hear - afraid to speak her mind, in case she ignited the ferocious blast. Nia had sense enough to know that the anger she shrank from was not explicitly directed at her - it was years of hurt and disappointment never entirely expressed - but that didn't make it any easier to deal with.

The epiphany was a while in coming, but the young Bar Manager eventually realised she had to leave - before she became inextricably embroiled in a relationship with a person who was utterly, unbearably unlike the glorious butch she'd fallen in love with, all those months ago.

She remembered it so clearly. It was as though she'd stepped out of herself, to hear KJ make some disparaging comment about her dress, her walk, or the way she wore her hair, seeing the contempt that crept on to her features as she did so - only this time Nia was playing the role of impartial observer, the unbearable emotional strain propelling her detachment - and she idly wondered why she stayed put to listen to the insults that rolled off her lover's tongue. She had started to scream inside after the first few months, and now the cries reached a pitch that was almost deafening - the incumbent explosion needed little more to ignite it.

Nia wasn't stupid. She knew relationships took work, and she even half-believed the old romantic adage that love was supposed to hurt - the curse of feminists the world over. But she also knew love wasn't designed to reduce a girl to a constant state of depression.

Which is where she found she'd ended up. The quiet, thoughtful girl had grown used to standing up to bullies when she was a child, but it never crossed her mind that she might be subjected to similar debilitating emotional brutality again, especially not in the context of what was supposed to be a loving relationship. When combined with the weight of Matt's thugs bearing down on her constantly, the gentle Bar Manager felt as though she was beset from all sides.

So she'd taken a deep breath, and ended the relationship. After this, she congratulated herself on having handled the whole affair with grace and dignity and decided to move on.

However, the cruelty had already taken its toll, and Nia's body eventually collapsed under the strain. A few weeks later, a small ovarian cyst she didn't even know she had grew and ruptured inside her - landing her in a hospital bed in Manchester's Royal Infirmary. And during the month following her collapse, she lost her voice to laryngitis as she struggled to regain her health - and her self-respect.

The recovery was arduous. But through the ailments that troubled her body, Nia's spirit gained in strength, and with the natural buoyancy of youth, she learned to forgive, if not to forget. Not a day went by without KJ crossing her mind - that was part of her nature. When confronted with evidence of her own failure, she couldn't rest until she'd formulated an explanation. But she'd gradually come to understand that she had no control over the inadequacies KJ had perceived,, because they were directly connected to who she was. Or rather, who she wasn't.

And Nia was less fragile than she looked. Otherwise, she might not have been able to avoid the bitterness and animosity that normally emerge close on the heels of heartache, malevolent siblings that irritate and enrage. She turned her back with an emotional austerity and self-discipline she would never have expected from anyone else, forcing herself to shun them, erasing the bad and remembering only the good.

Max did not find it quite so easy.

Shocked to see such unnecessary pain inflicted on one she'd grown to love more than herself, Nia's assistant internalised a barrage of resentments that the blonde had managed to keep at bay. Despising KJ for being able to pull the wool over her eyes, and at the same time blaming herself for failing to see the ghouls that had been lurking behind the walls of the butch's emotional fortress. It was this - and her own tacit devotion to her friend - that motivated Max's suspicion, her jealous protection of Nia's interests, and the loathing that she could not help whenever she thought about Jake. As far as she was concerned, the dark woman was a wildcard who would probably turn out to be the Ace of Spades rather than the King of Hearts - Nia might win a few tricks along the way, but she was doomed to lose the game.


"Max, I'm over it. I wasn't the one for KJ, that's all."

"Come on, Nia." Said Max, exasperated.

"You were the best thing to happen to that woman - she was just too stupid to realise it."

Nia couldn't resist a smile, appreciating her assistant's blind loyalty, but knowing it was probably misplaced. Max saw her friend's lips quiver - which provoked her ire.

"It's true! Why is it that in relationships where one partner's so blatantly unworthy of the other, the worthless party can't show any respect?"

"Max...you're biased. Let's not go into it. It's water under the bridge. Don't get upset." Nia tried to placate her friend.

"I'm not upset!" Max's tone belied her words.

"And I don't care if you're over it or not. I'd still like to rip out that woman's throat."

Although her own vitriol over this particular episode was long spent and faded, Nia had retained a lively sense of humour when it came to scenes of imaginary revenge - and she allowed herself a wry chuckle at the image of Max going after her ex-partner like a vicious pit-bull terrier.

"Well, I should have wrung her neck myself. I still can't believe I let anyone treat me that way."

She looked sheepishly at her friend, for all the world expecting to be rebuked for her own part in an unpleasant drama she would much rather have avoided.

"Don't do that." Max stated, quietly.

"What?"

"Take responsibility for her behaviour. You're a good person, Nia - but that doesn't give people the right to walk all over you."

The bar manager sighed. "Yeah, I know."

"So stop making excuses for that woman's shortcomings."

"But..."

"I mean it, Nia!" Max slammed her fist down on the table in frustration, making her friend jump. "She was an asshole, through and through."

"But..." The bar manager half rose, frightened by Max's outburst.

"No more buts." Said her friend, a little more calmly. "You're too lenient with people who treat you like shit. You deserve better - until you realise that, you'll always be paired with bastards." Shaking her head, she followed the manager to the bar.

"Max, she wasn't a bastard." Nia switched on the coffee machine. "She just didn't know how to handle her own pain."

"Well, perhaps not. But she should have tried to treat you right. She shouldn't call herself a butch if she doesn't know the rules." Max replied, as Nia handed her a cup.

The blonde squeezed her friend's hand with a lump in her throat. If there was one thing she loved about Max it was her unwavering respect for women. Her gentlemanly qualities were the strongest defining elements of the assistant manager's identity, and friends and lovers alike treasured her it.

If only there were more people like her in the world...I might have a chance at finding one for me.

However, the strange impulse to defend the new friend against the old was growing stronger, and as peace fell between the two, Nia began again.

"Max, listen to me for a second."

"I can see how you might feel inclined to compare KJ to Jake. She's powerful and very enigmatic, and it's a fair assumption that she might have something to hide."

Nia's eyes were wide and earnest, willing her friend to believe what she was saying. It was completely irrational, even considering the snippets of information she'd managed to collect during her date with a woman who was impenetrable more often than she was frank, but she was telling the truth.

"But KJ was proud of her scars. She cultivated the fact that nobody could get close."

The bar manager took her friend's hand between both her own as she uttered her final petition.

"Yes, Jake's got similar defences - and if she proves to be as attached to them as KJ was to hers, I'll run a mile. But I feel as though I can trust her - and that's a brand new experience for me." She confessed.

Max looked at her friend for a long moment.

"This isn't a romance novel, Nia." She muttered, as she picked up her clipboard.

And as her assistant shuffled off to count kegs in the cellar, Nia sighed inwardly.

I hope I'm not wrong this time. She thought.

I was wrong about KJ and I suffered for it.

But I always expected her to hurt me - and people generally get what they expect.

Oh well...she comforted herself, as she started on the spirit stocks.

At least I haven't slept with her yet.


The sun almost seemed to be smirking as it rose to encounter two prone figures, the smaller one pale and slender as the sickle moon, enveloped by the other like the night sky that had already been fractured and dispersed by the morning's rays. The femme stirred and whimpered a little, causing the butch at her side to draw her tighter in a motion that appeared oddly instinctive. Her cheek pressed to Nia's golden hair, Jake slept on unawares.

A luminescent finger poked through the vertical blinds and wagged at the blonde, whose resolve to delay the moment had proven to be as brittle as the glass vase by the bed. The ornament had gone flying and smashed into a thousand pieces during the course of the previous evening's acrobatics.

It had been quite a night.

Having exercised an admirable degree of self-restraint on her first date with the dark, mysterious butch, Nia soon discovered that she was unable to follow through. In the face of an almost primordial desire that grew in intensity until she felt ready to faint, she gave in to her baser urges no later than their second formal meeting. And not only that, it was her idea to do so - since the butch's ego was still a little frost-bitten and sore, the femme found herself making the first move.

Although it hadn't taken Jake long to reciprocate.

Not one to revel in being chased, the dark woman had rapidly taken on the role of stage-manager and had ravished her new lover for all she was worth, while Nia bit down on the pillows to keep from screaming Jake's name and waking all the residents in the neighbouring block of flats.

And the dark woman had taken Nia beyond the brink, over and over - until her thighs were aching and the sheets were sticky, and both were sleepy and satiated.

So they slept on.

But the sun was beaming now, throwing shafts of light over the snoozing couple and prodding the femme out of her restful state.

Still not fully conscious, Nia's first reaction was to chastise herself for giving in too soon. But the physical compulsions of the previous night had been too strong for her to withstand. And although she was barely awake, the fact that Jake had stayed in her bed to greet the morning light was reassuring. She guiltily allowed that perhaps she'd misjudged the butch who remained in her arms until the sun came up, and made assumptions about the persona she'd read as a ruthlessly independent sexual virtuoso.

She was fantastic...she thought drowsily.

I don't think I've ever let my body take charge before.

God, the first guy I slept with had to ask me 27 times first.

She giggled softly to herself, eyes half-lidded with sleep, drinking in the satisfying scent of sex, aftershave and sleeping butch next to her.

Poor Theo.

Sighing with contentment, the bar manager snuggled tight into the warmth of Jake's embrace, before dropping back to sleep with a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth.

By ten in the morning neither woman had yet risen, and the cold February day was growing bizarrely bright in its impatience. But both were exhausted, drained after the antics that had kept them going for most of the night. Like most "first time" experiences, the encounter had been onerous and a little fumbling, and Jake in particular had been surprised by Nia's seeming lack of sexual confidence. But she touched the young blonde slowly at first, waiting for consent to be followed by desire as Nia's green eyes grew sultry, not stopping to question her own unusual patience while she focused her attentions solely on the beautiful face and body beneath her.

Partly thanks to her recent heart-to-heart with Max, Nia's thoughts had stubbornly turned to KJ, even as she strained to watch the dark head that bent between her thighs, tasting her core and making her grind her teeth in pleasure. But the blonde's ecstasy partly derived from comparing the honesty of this experience with the sexual machinations of her past. Towards the end of her last relationship sex had become a battleground. Mostly the butch would roll over and sleep without a word - which was preferable to the other times, when she would take what the young femme offered in an advance that was rough with unnatural desire. Love and loathing reached a terrifying climax as KJ tried to exorcise her ghosts by forcibly ingesting her present. And the blonde was expected to lie inert, mistrusted and disempowered by KJ's sexual caprices. KJ wasn't strictly sexually stone - it was more that she used her body as a means to dominate Nia's mind, sometimes placing it in the blonde's hands under her governance and sometimes withholding it, taking her pleasure alone while Nia looked on, helpless and rejected.

This merciless veneration felt like another universe away when her new paramour took the bar manager close in her arms, the blonde moaning her release into her lover's ear.


Jake was the first to wake properly, about 15 minutes later. She felt surprisingly comfortable, even with two hands full of dozing blonde sprawled across her midriff - it was the strangeness of the bed and not the invasion of her personal space that eventually woke her up. Shading her eyes from the curious spring sunlight, she watched, as her bed-partner began to stir.

"Morning." Nia murmured, sleepily.

"Morning." Replied the butch.

Jake watched with fascination as her new lover sat up and stretched, the delicate muscles in her back and shoulders rippling as she did so. Nia was a slim woman, but through exploring every nook and cranny of the pint-sized body, the butch had soon found out she wasn't just skin and bone. Her limbs were beautifully toned - and although she was velvety soft, she was also as firm as the waxy, dwarfish crab-apples that appeared in the Autumn and replaced the blossoms in the postage-stamp garden outside. Her skin even had a similar subtle, spicy scent - Jake sensed rather than felt her mouth going dry, and she had to swallow several times, observing the sunlight dancing on the bar manager's silhouette, highlighting the soft down of cobweb-fine hairs that covered it. She remembered those places her tongue had tasted and touched, Nia's fingernails raking down her back, teeth tugging at her earlobe in a passion that was almost crazed in its intensity.

And now Nia's lips were on her again, but in the morning the kiss was tranquil - quiet but not chaste, the butch's arms tightened around their prize.


Amidst the exhilarating confusion of the "morning after", Nia had a nagging feeling that she would need to play this one very carefully. Her lover was easy and discomfited by turns - and although the newness of the experience, the traversing of boundaries and the ambiguity that followed were adequate explanations for this behaviour, she sensed something more.

The femme stole a glance at her new bed-partner, noticing that even though it was approaching 10 o'clock, the butch was struggling to keep her eyes open. She briefly considered letting her sleep in, but the turbulence of her emotions, and an almost painful fascination with the woman who'd brought her screaming into rapture for most of the night, pushed her to make the most of this chance to be alone.

She prodded her lover in the ribs.

"Ow!" Sapphire eyes opened wide, regarding her with an injured stare.

"Sorry."

The blonde suppressed a giggle at her friend's indignation.

"I don't want to sleep any more, Jake. I want to be awake with you, and talk to you a little bit."

This seemed to do the trick. The cerulean gaze mellowed, and a half-smile started to curve the butch's full lips.

"Ok...let's talk." She said amiably.

"Where did you learn to play the piano?"

She asked, winking and harking back to the skirmish they'd had on their first date. Nia feigned a glare, but answered nonetheless.

"Well, I did most of my training when I was a kid."

"So you were a child prodigy, then?" The butch sat up and regarded her intently, chitchat giving way to legitimate interest.

"You were...weren't you?" Persisted the dark woman, in response to Nia's blush.

"Yeah." The bar manager admitted, with some reluctance.

"I was...a little bit."

"Oh, hell." She laughed, as Jake's eyebrows shot up.

"I was downright precocious - I was talking by the time I was 7 months old. People used to flock to the house to watch me perform - isn't that awful?"

Nia's expression grew serious for a moment, and she gave vent to a shrug that was almost forlorn.

"I'm in my late twenties, and my Mum still brings it up. I think she likes to remember me as the perfect child - because I turned out so contrary to her expectations."

She shifted slightly between the sheets, managing to pull most of the covers off her companion - who smiled indulgently, half to herself, and said nothing.

"Do your parents know you're gay?"

Nia was hesitant as she asked this of her new friend. It was important for her to know at least the rudimentary details of her acquaintances' lives, not least those she had a habit of sleeping with. But it hadn't taken her long to glean that the dark woman would be loath to unveil even the most superficial of layers, if the bar manager's efforts to unwrap her emotional bundle were clumsy or crude.

The reply was candid, all right - and it almost knocked her for six.

"I never knew them." Jake said.

She spoke with no bitterness, but with a resignation that if not deadened, was at least anaesthetised in tone.

The blonde could have kicked herself for the tactlessness of her question. However, as was her wont, she refused to ignore the disclosure. Instead, she seized the revelation with both hands, and gave a good tug.

"I'm sorry. If I'd known I'd never have asked..."

"It's okay, really." The dark woman's voice was surprisingly warm.

"It's not as if they died or anything."

"So...how come you don't know them?" Nia ventured timorously.

"Because they put me in care when I was just a baby."

"Oh."

The blonde said no more, but her look spoke volumes as she trailed a small hand down the side of Jake's cheek. This quiet compassion was typical of a person whose solace was like a magnet for the troubled and heavy-hearted, and it seemed to urge the butch to carry on.

"I lived in a residential home." Jake said.

"It wasn't bad - the social workers were nice, but they were too busy dealing with the violent ones to parent us properly. And we didn't expect them to. After all, they had their own families at home, at the end of the day."

The dark woman's tone was low, sounding repressed and stilted to her listener, who wondered whether she might be pushing too hard.

Come on, Nia...perhaps you should give her a break. Not everyone can reveal this stuff so glibly as you.

But privately, the butch was amazed at herself. It felt to her as though the words were tumbling down a waterfall. And she was damned if she knew why, but she felt intrepid enough to navigate the rapids that surfaced ahead of her.

"While I was at college I managed to find out where I'd come from." She confessed.

"And was it what you'd expected?" The blonde asked.

"Not at all." Jake gave her lover a reticent and almost apologetic smile.

"My grandparents were gypsies who came over from Eastern Europe, I'm not sure where, exactly."

If Nia was taken aback, she certainly didn't show it. And the soundless absorption of Jake's little speech felt unbearably pleasant to one who'd spent the best part of her life being judged. It made her ravenous - she could glimpse cornucopia within the verdant mists of the bar manager's eyes, and she was impatient to find it. She took it like the Blessed Sacrament - a last cleansing, lingering peep - and elaborated.

"They came over during the Holocaust. But when they got here, they found it really hard to scrape a living." She sighed, quietly. "They escaped the gas chambers, but they almost starved instead."

Nia frowned, shaking her head in sympathy as she spread the duvet back over her friend, tucking it in and patting Jake's leg.

"My parents were even poorer than their parents were. So when I was born, they turned me over to Social Services." The butch finished, matter-of-factly.

"And they didn't keep in touch?"

The bar manager's question was mournful, because she already knew what the answer would be. The grief washed over her like a tidal wave, and she felt overwhelmed by it - not on behalf of the woman lying beside her in the morning sunlight, but for the abandoned child she could almost catch sight of, if she closed her eyes.

"No." The child sobbed, as the woman shook her raven head.

"While I was at college I tried to find them - but with no joy. They could be anywhere - It's not as though the Rom are asked to complete the Census." Jake said.

"I suppose not." Replied the blonde.

"I don't even have a birth certificate." Jake chuckled sadly, before stopping for a moment to gaze at the femme whose emerald eyes were still full of sympathy.

"I've never told anyone about my parents before." She confessed, in a whisper.

"Not even Kim?" Came the tremulous question.

"Not even Kim."

Lowering her eyes, Nia tried unsuccessfully not to gloat.

"So, why did you tell me?"

"I don't know." Was the honest answer.

"Well, I appreciate it." Whispered the bar manager, leaning forward to brush her new lover's lips with her own.

The kiss was gentle, and although it lacked the fervour of the previous night's exchanges, it contained something more significant and even more intimate - they were building a raft, a basis of trust and understanding. Jake felt her heart grow weightless within it - and playfully, she turned over, flipping the blonde on to her back.

"Now", She said, resting on her forearms and giving her companion a rakish grin.

"Play fair. Tell me something nobody else knows about you."

Delighted, Nia screwed up her face in concentration.

"I had six toes on my right foot when I was born." She deadpanned.

"You didn't!" Laughed the dark woman.

"I did."

"And you call that a confession?"

"Hey! Nobody else but my Mum knows that! It was really hard for me to share it with you."

"Yeah, right." Replied the butch, with an affable tickle between Nia's toes, where she was inspecting the scar.

"Right."

The dark woman gasped as Nia's body stretched out languorously before her - lithe and slender, built like a gazelle - or perhaps even a cheetah.

Yes, That's it...she thought.

A green eyed, golden-haired cheetah, with all its beauty and lacking none of its power, staring up at her with a look of total trust that she knew she didn't deserve.

God, I'm waxing poetic...I must have it bad.

She pressed a kiss to Nia's collarbone and heard the blonde sigh in response.

Last night, in the dark, she had strained to see her new lover with such spectacular clarity. Then, her sense of touch rather than her vision had been aroused, as she devoured Nia's soft skin and silken folds with her fingertips and tongue. This morning, her eyes were partaking of the feast.

"You are so beautiful, Nia." She breathed.

The Bar Manager shivered a little.

"I'm not going to hurt you." Whispered the butch tenderly.

"Not ever." This so faint, remote, under her breath - that it was barely audible.

Then the blonde spoke.

"Don't make promises you might not be able to keep." The growl startled her companion.

"Kiss me instead."

"Not there." Nia grunted, as the butch went for her mouth.

She raised her knee, propping her foot on the bed.

Was it an invitation or a command? Jake didn't care.

She just complied.