Chapter Twelve

Nia bit her lip and stared fitfully out of the bedroom window in the twilight. The dark woman was gnawing gently on her neck, and she answered with a tiny, appreciative moan - but her body did not respond just yet.

Tonight was going to be the night - she knew it.

It was dark in the small room, and silent - even the most inanimate objects looked strangely unfamiliar, as though they'd been moved just a little out of place. Not enough to make anyone look twice - but as much as was necessary to create a sense of unease. There was anticipation in the air, but not impatience - like the peculiar peace that falls when treasures long sought are within reach. The bar manager felt like a child on Christmas morning - tripping down the stairs at the end of a sleepless night, imagining the gift to come - and finally spotting it, beneath the tree. She felt no urge to move just yet. She just wanted to stay still for a minute, even to hold her breath. She knew that never again would this moment be so completely and utterly hers - that once she'd removed the wrapping the moment of offering would be over, reward granted - she might need to remind herself every once in a while to cherish it.

Then the blinds moved in the breeze and a weak beam from the streetlamp outside stole through, casting odd shadows on the surface of the bed. Nia's nerves responded to the faint wash of light, agitating and threatening to choke her. Her throat felt dry and constricted as the butch grasped her small hand, guiding it lower between the sheets.

"Are you sure you really want this?" She whispered to her partner.

Jake made no answer, but her grip was reassuringly firm as the blonde's fingers, beneath the dark woman's, made first contact with skin. The butch's thighs were surprisingly smooth, and Nia lingered there, and then amongst the damp, downy curls, as if to prolong the moment still further - before reverently parting the folds, nuzzling Jake's neck in an manner that was almost coy. She felt timid in the half-light - afraid to meet those piercing blue eyes, in case the butch saw the chaotic hunger swirling in the depths of her own.

The bar manager moaned in delight when warm wetness engulfed her fingers. The first touch was slow and uncertain, but the movement soon became instinctive as their tongues tangled together in the dark woman's mouth. Using the flat of two digits Nia made minute circles in the centre of the cleft, careful not to penetrate, and gasped involuntarily as flesh yielded under her hand. Feeling the nub of Jake's clitoris harden, she began to concentrate her ministrations there, wanting to feel it quiver as she rolled and tweaked it lightly between her fingers.

A fortnight had passed since their first sexual encounter.

And since then, the butch and the femme had spent at least part of every day together - enjoying conversation, silence, and a great deal of hot, heavy sex. Barrier after barrier had fallen away when confronted with Nia's empathetic presence, Jake fascinated by the woman who was able to diminish her defences so easily without making it a conquest. And Nia was slowly but surely beginning to feel safe.

But like Alice through the rabbit hole, she knew that there were plenty of doors yet unopened - she felt surrounded by them. Turning from one entrance to the next, she was poised at the largest of them all. She knew she could unlock it. She just had to make herself tall enough to reach the key.

The Bar Manager was aware that they'd assumed clearly demarcated roles in the bedroom as much because of her own mental block about giving gratification, as the butch's reluctance to lie on her back. At first, sensitivity and an intuitive respect for possible sexual boundaries had made her reticent - but even after it emerged that her new partner did indeed crave her touch, she felt impeded by her own lack of confidence. So she hesitated. And then she hesitated some more. And then she came close...but hesitated. And the self-doubt that often put shadows in the young Bar Manager's sea-green eyes had eventually made the dark woman forget about her own trepidation and unwillingness to surrender control - anything to chase the darkness away. Because when Nia smiled, it felt to her new lover as though the sun had come out to play.

And with every grunt of enjoyment sounding deep in the back of the dark woman's throat, Nia felt her courage bolstered. She knew the power of assurance as aphrodisiac, which drove her to maintain it - even though her insides were churning with nerves and insecurity. She forced herself to be wilful - to experience nothing but voracious, shameless lust - and image and reality began to blur. She turned into something debauched, immoral and relentless...and it was terribly sexy.

Jake was powerless to do anything but respond.

The butch's hips started a slow grind, and her thighs began to jerk in response to the work of the blonde's fingers. Her clitoral erection felt so good it was almost painful. The duvet had already hit the floor - but funnily enough, neither woman was cold.

Their tongues circled again, and then the dark woman began to devour the bar manager's throat - nibbling so doggedly that the blonde was almost distracted from her task.

Almost.

But Nia needed this. She needed it like a drug, the sensation of her own sexual agency. The thought that she, Nia, was capable of acting as provider, giving fulfilment to such a potent partner, already had her wound so tight she felt she might explode. It was intoxicating. She wanted to take the woman into her mouth, to swallow her whole in one compulsive, succulent gulp - and she felt as though she would die, if she made Jake come. She also felt as though she'd sink into a hole in the ground if she didn't.

"I need your tongue, Nia..."

The dark woman breathed, stammering a little, into her lover's ear. Her eyes were closed and she threw her head back against the headboard as she asked for what she wanted, voice cracking at last with the abandonment of desire, limbs cumbersome in her intense arousal. Nia had never seen such a powerful sight.

And she needed no other invitation. Inclining her head in answer, limpid green eyes dark with sensuality, she traced a line down the dark woman's torso with feather-light kisses, striving to remain self-possessed. She loved the firmness that rose to meet her lips - and moaned in greedy satisfaction while she stopped to pay attention to the large, reddened nipples, lavishing a few butterfly flicks until they stood hard against her tongue. It was stunning, the way they crowned breasts as flat as a man's, merging into solid pectoral muscles that were as tense as the veins in the butch's neck, overwrought with stimulation. Sliding downwards, past an intricately toned, washboard abdomen, the blonde lowered her face to the dark triangle between her lover's legs, drinking in the womanly scent with a deep indrawn breath.

She felt quite wanton.

It was incredibly, subversively sexy - the juxtaposition of the masculine torso against something so unmistakeably female. Her mind and body were besotted by it.

First, she used the very tip of her tongue - painting her desire in a fine, delicate line and making the butch hiss with pleasure.

"Deeper." Came the grunt.

The dark woman reached down and parted herself, exposing her clitoris and pulling back the hood, muscles taut as her hips lifted in expectation. But Nia gently moved the butch's hands, replacing them with her own and stilling her movements for a second.

"Relax. Please." She said, softly.

"I can't do this if you don't trust me."

Both looked up, and at last their eyes met.

"Let go." Whispered the blonde. "You won't regret it."

It was a plea, and was recognised as such by femme and butch alike.

Nia had been to bed with women who were so loath to let anyone else influence their bliss that they did little more than thrust their pussies into her face until they were done. And she couldn't deny that she enjoyed it, being used like a vessel - it was hot because it felt so impersonal, pure sex with no trimmings, just two people connecting on a furiously physical plane. But looking at the butch who lay before her, legs spread to give her access, eyes drifting closed as Nia touched her most sensitive spots, the bar manager's past felt dreadfully empty.

She needed them to be inside their bodies - she needed the butch to know that it was Nia who could make her come. She was tired of being used - she wanted to gobble up this woman from within, to crawl inside the fierce, sweet-smelling cavity before her and become one with the blood that raced around the butch's veins.

And the bar manager felt tears well up in her eyes when the dark woman lay back on the pillows and put her hands behind her head, giving her a crooked smile and a barely perceptible nod. It was a momentous event for both - the movement a tacit agreement on the butch's part, to let the blonde do what she would.

Now Nia had to make sure she could perform.

Parting her lover with her own hands, she entered with her tongue, relishing the warmth that surrounded and buffeted the muscle. Slowly, she began to explore - using a subtle twist that forced her to move her neck and felt desperately erotic. Flesh was throbbing all around her mouth, and she paused for a second to run her teeth over the engorged clitoris, chewing gently until the butch gasped and shook.

Then she took a deep breath, and began in earnest. Her tongue soon reached a natural rhythm, the muscle alternating between short, sharp thrusts and more leisurely swirls that took in the whole landscape between the dark woman's legs.

She vaguely heard Jake whisper her name as she speeded up her assault, and it was as though she was supping at the wetness running down her own thighs as she buried her face between the dark woman's, sucking and fucking amongst the butch's moans and her own. Her own nipples were as hard as pebbles, and as she pushed her face further inside and arched her back they brushed against the sheets of the double bed, puckering and sending a rush of arousal that shot straight to her centre. Blood hammered at the hub between her legs until she felt ready to scream.

Nia knew Jake could overpower her physically - in fact, that was a turn-on in itself for the demure bar manager who normally kept her bit of kink well hidden. It also made her lover's consent even more precious. It made her feel almost faint, the fact that the same woman that could take her with such feral passion could surrender control and accept this gift, hips bucking, face contorted in rapture.

It didn't take long for the dark woman to come. She shuddered with a sensation so raw it was almost frightening. She was less vocal than the blonde - Nia often listened to her own arousal as a means to heighten it. But the femme could tell that the butch was at the point of no return when her limbs went rigid and began to spasm - and her release was marked by a delicious bolt of musky warmth that Nia just had time to drink, avidly licking the butch's skin, before her lover sat up. She was shaking, but her movements were brisk, almost panicked, as she snatched the femme up her body. Then she finally relaxed, spent and boneless, wrapping herself around the blonde with a pronounced sigh.

"I can't get close enough..." She whispered, wrapping her legs around Nia's waist and tucking the blonde's head under her chin.

Nia didn't know how long they lay there. Long enough for the dark woman's breathing to grow less uneven, and for the blonde to wonder whether her new partner had fallen asleep.

Apparently not.

The dark woman shifted beside her, releasing a growl that spoke of a fire simmering deep in her belly. And as the butch began to touch her, Nia imagined herself writhing in ecstasy underneath those firm, practised hands. She whimpered with excitement when her lover crawled on top of her like a predatory animal, pinning her wrists behind her head and sinking her teeth into her neck.

"I'm going to fuck you now, Nia." It wasn't a question, it was a statement.

So the blonde made no reply, but reached into the bedside drawer and pulled out a harness.

"Use this. Please."

Jake groaned in gratitude as the blonde pushed her on to her back again, taking the dildo in her mouth and swallowing her erection with the same ardour as she'd bestowed on what was beneath it.

***

"I bought you something."

Drawled the butch lazily, a few hours later.

It was hot and sweaty beneath the covers of Nia's double bed - but neither woman had yet suggested an evening shower. Content to lie there in the evidence of their recent physical union, ensconced in a sanctuary they were loath to leave. Nothing was said about the massive seismic shift that had occurred between them, but another, unspoken agreement to prolong the new familiarity had quickly grown up in its place.

The dark woman reached down by the side of the bed, and pulled a carrier bag from one of the pockets of her jacket.

"Look inside." She urged gently, handing it to her bed-partner with an endearing, lopsided grin.

Nia returned her lover's bashful smile, and drew out a scarf - exactly like the one she'd impulsively given Pete a few weeks ago.

"Oh, Jake..." She breathed.

It was a small token, really - but the gift touched her to the core. The bar manager wasn't normally impressed by presents, infinitely preferring to be granted time and consideration, rather than any material possession. She'd also learned from experience that habitual extravagance of any manner normally had an ulterior motive - namely, to compensate for perceived inadequacies in other areas. Flowers, chocolates, soft toys and jewellery had all been thrown at her - and generally left her cold.

But the enormity of this tiny gesture made her gasp. It spoke to the deep-seated need of a soul that was so weary it belied her youth - that her new friend had noticed her bequest to another person, and had not only appreciated, but also sought to replenish it. It was quite extraordinary.

"This is wonderful. I'm overwhelmed. Thank you."

The femme followed up her thanks with a kiss - and her heart was on her lips.

"Aw...hey now, It's only a scarf."

Stammered the dark woman, obviously a little uncomfortable in the face of her own thoughtful deed, and such effusive gratitude on the part of its recipient.

"It's only fair, since you gave yours to Pete."

"But you're not responsible for Pete, Jake. You really didn't have to do this."

A short silence fell, during which the dark woman stared at the duvet and her new friend handled her present with the delighted wonder of a child.

"I'd had that scarf for years...where did you find this?" Nia asked, eventually looking up.

"Well, it was a bit of a mission." Admitted the butch.

In fact, it had been more difficult than that - she'd spent a whole weekend trawling Manchester's vintage shops looking for an exact replica of Nia's lost accessory. Normally, she would have found such a task irritating in the extreme, but she amazed herself with her own tenacity, the thought of the Bar Manager's sweet, delighted face spurring her on in her quest.

And she had to admit it was worth it. Beaming, Nia stared at the scarf for a few more moments, before folding and returning it to the bag.

"You're a sweetheart." She said.

"In fact, you're almost too good to be true." She continued, playfully.

"I am?" Laughed the butch. "It's the first I've heard."

"It's true! You're an absolute darling." The bar manager insisted.

"I can't even believe you're single - I keep expecting a jealous girlfriend to burst in here and scratch my eyes out at any moment. You're not keeping anything quiet, are you?

The question was half-joking, but it had serious undertones, and both knew it. The femme had already glimpsed parts of the enigma that was her new companion - she realised that some of the secrets would take a while to emerge, and that she would probably need to be patient, if the relationship was to progress any further. But she was eager to get closer - and although she knew better than to push for information, she couldn't resist a light-hearted probe.

The teasing backfired in a dramatically unpleasant manner.

Jake took one look into her lover's earnest green eyes, and the glib response that was about to roll off her tongue stopped dead in its tracks. She took Nia's hand, almost as though she feared that the blonde might drift away, if she decided to reply.

And the shift in her body language, the guilt in her motion, the blink that lasted just a second too long, ignited all the blonde's defences at once. She disengaged her hand from her companion's grasp.

"There is, isn't there?" She asked, tightly.

"Someone else, I mean."

After the intimacy they'd shared, this accusation felt like a bucket of cold water dashed in the dark woman's face. She recoiled from it, automatically hanging her head.

The confirmation the bar manager was looking for.

"Oh, God."

Nia jumped out of bed and began to dress rapidly, tension etched into the lines of her face.

"I can't believe this."

"Nia, wait." Jake managed.

"I haven't even answered you yet."

Nia stopped and regarded her a little sadly.

"You don't need to." She said.

"I can tell by your eyes. You're in love with someone else. I can practically see her."

"Nia, That's ridiculous. Yes, I was in love once - but that was years ago."

The dark woman protested.

But she knew the blonde's assumption, although hasty, was at least partly justified. She'd never really gotten over the beautiful African woman who'd broken her heart, whose name was now never spoken - the feelings had been bottled up, not mentioned, not laid to rest. She couldn't believe Nia had intuited this, but she couldn't completely naysay the hunch that was rapidly growing into a catastrophe in her lover's head.

Nia was fully dressed now, and looked wild-eyed and distraught. Like a woman who was struggling to maintain control - who would come undone as soon as she was left alone.

"I can't believe this is happening to me again." She whispered numbly.

"Nia, let's talk about this. Please."

Jake tried again, helpless in her nakedness and in the face of the blonde's obvious distress.

"There's nothing to talk about. I don't want to know. I think you should leave."

"Nia..."

The butch's last attempt was summarily and decisively silenced when her new lover collected her clothes into a ball and threw them across the bed towards her.

"I mean it! I'm sick and tired of being second best, Jake. Why is it that I'm always the bloody booby prize?"

Realising that discussion was futile, Jake blindly began to don her clothes. The over-reaction was becoming hurtful in the extreme. And deciding that the best course of action would be to get out as soon as possible, to save either of them any further humiliation, she resolved to let her new friend endure her pain in peace. Not stopping to think that perhaps walking out at that very moment would bear out all the blonde's worst fears, that what Nia really needed to know was that the dark woman had staying power, that she was prepared to fight for the budding relationship they shared. Which meant insisting that they talk things out - instead of vanishing at the first sign of trouble.

But she knew no better than to disappear - and in a few moments she was at the door.

"Just let me say one thing before I leave." She murmured heavily, before she opened it.

The blonde gave her a tight-lipped nod. Anguish was stamped on her features, and the butch had to force herself to remain calm, gulping back the lump that rose in her own throat at the sight.

"You're not second-best as far as I'm concerned. You're the most amazing woman I've ever met."

She really meant it, she realised, even as the words escaped her.

The femme had stopped her manic movements, and the dark woman paused again, her hand resting reluctantly on the doorknob. Realising that when the door slammed shut in her face she might never walk through it again, and hoping against hope that the agitated blonde might relent and give her a last minute reprieve.

But the green eyes grew shuttered, and when Nia spoke again her voice was detached, as though she was speaking about some other person, living some other life.

"Listen, Jake. The last butch I fell in love with was unable to love me back, because she'd already given her heart to someone else. She ended up hating me for it. And I stayed because I didn't think I deserved any better. I thought it was right for me to be an unpaid slave who cooked and cleaned and made myself available for her to grope when there was no sport on telly. I thought it was normal for me to spend my evenings sitting in bars, nodding and smiling while she played pool and danced with other women."

Her voice broke as she continued.

"And later on, I thought it was acceptable for her to yell at me, push me around and call me worthless. So you see, even the slightest possibility that there's someone you haven't quite gotten over, is too much of a risk."

The butch made no answer. Refusing to take responsibility for another woman's obvious mistakes, she could nevertheless understand the agony that motivated the bar manager's excessive response. She'd felt it herself, when her heart had been broken - although somehow, being the spectator as Nia relived the disaster seemed even more harrowing than her own had been.

"Look." The femme muttered, a little more calmly.

"I think you're a wonderful person. I'm terribly, desperately attracted to you. But I need more than you telling me it's really me you want, before I can feel safe."

"I don't understand."

"You can tell me over and over again, Jake, but I've heard it all before, and it turned out to be lies. Words are easy. I need to be shown."

The butch turned to leave. But before she did, the blonde bar manager grabbed her coat sleeve in a last fraught, penitent plea.

"I can't be a victim of your past. And if you really wanted to put it behind you, you could."

The words were harsh, and after she finally left the small flat, they rang in the dark woman's ears for days.

***

"I don't think I can see her again, Rach."

Nia spoke sadly into the phone, a few hours later. It was almost midnight - and she'd been pacing her tiny apartment. Remembering Jake's kind, sensitive face, and the way the dark woman had felt beneath her hands, and berating herself for letting the butch under her skin too soon.

"I like her - I really do. But she's starting to look like a bad risk."

The sound of Rachel's heavy sigh made her friend flinch.

"Do you really want my opinion, Nia?"

"Yes."

The blonde spoke a little tentatively, knowing she was probably in for a few home truths. After the fiasco with KJ, Rachel had spent the best part of three months telling her friend how stupid she'd been, how she really ought to be a better judge of character, and sharing various gems of wisdom concerning her terrible choice that had made Nia reluctant to even start a conversation.

Wincing, she held the phone away from her ear, expecting more of the same to come careering down the line.

But Rachel's answer was totally unexpected.

"I think you're being terribly hasty and a little unfair."

The bar manager felt almost physically winded.

"Wh...what?" She stammered.

"I know you've been hurt before, Nia," said her friend, "but you really can't tar everyone with the same brush. And I think you'll regret it if you don't see Jake again."

Wow...thought the blonde, managing to regain her composure. I definitely didn't see that coming.

"Care to explain?" She asked.

Rachel took an unusually melodramatic breath that resonated painfully in her friend's ear. Nia was rapidly starting to wish she'd sat on her impulses and not picked up the phone.

"First of all, you didn't even wait for her to explain before you told her to get out. You're making some pretty big assumptions based on very little evidence, Nia."

Unseen by the computer programmer, the blonde hung her head.

"I suppose so."

She owned, in a small voice. Deep down she knew it - she'd over-reacted dreadfully, letting her own scars dictate her behaviour toward someone who had nothing to do with them.

"And I think you need to learn to trust again, Nia - or soon it'll be too late." Unaware of the turmoil her words were causing, Rachel carried on like a bull in a china shop. Nia could almost hear the sound of objects smashing, as her friend ransacked her emotions with the usual lack of tact and diplomacy.

"What on earth do you mean?" Asked the blonde.

"Just listen to me for a moment." Her friend told her. "You've had a tough ride with relationships, I know."

"That's certainly true." Nia agreed wryly, eyes flicking round the room at the evidence of this statement - pictures of ex-lovers, memories of failed pairings - smiling sadly back at her. Some who'd hurt her feelings, some whose feelings she'd hurt, some who'd just drifted away - every time leaving her a little more alone than before.

"And it seems to me that most people are attracted to you because of what you give them, rather than because of who you are." The computer programmer began her analysis.

"Yes, I generally do give more than I get back. But I'm cool with that, Rachel."

Nia could almost see her friend shaking her head in exasperation at what was obviously a blatant lie.

"Are you really? I don't believe you're cool with the fact that nobody seems to give a damn about what's inside you. Don't you want them to care about what makes you tick? You're all things to all people, Nia - and you always lose yourself in the process. Are you really cool with that?"

"No." The bar manager fought back the urge to cry, as her friend became increasingly irate.

"It's as though you have this instinctive connection with anyone in pain. Even if the magnitude of their pain is outside the realms of your experience. I've never seen anything like it."

"I can't help caring, Rach."

"I know. But it drains you. You bleed a little, whenever you see someone suffering. You feel for them, you wind up taking their troubles on if you possibly can. You want to heal the world. And you can't do it alone."

Finally there was quiet, as a fundamental truth was spoken. It rested between them for a moment - Nia completely overwhelmed, and Rachel wondering whether she'd finally overstepped the mark.

"But I've always been on my own." The bar manager replied eventually, sadness tinging her voice.

"Right." Came the quiet reply.

"I can sense that sometimes. It's in your eyes - because nobody seems interested, you've decided to keep yourself to yourself, to avoid being disappointed when they turn out just like everyone else. You don't really trust a soul, because you feel as though you can't count on anybody to be there in your time of need."

Tears streaming down her face, Nia nodded into the phone.

"Unless you find someone to lean on when you're tired, you're always going to feel this way." Said Rachel, a little more kindly. "You need someone who knows that sometimes you need a little looking after, that you need a safe, quiet space where you can regain your strength."

"Yes, I do." Nia replied, heavily.

"But I've come to the conclusion that such a person doesn't exist."

Rachel took the phone away from her ear for a moment, to brush her own tears away from her cheeks.

Nia was the most sensitive, empathetic person the computer programmer had ever met and probably would ever come across - and she knew that for someone like her beloved friend, the world could seem very cruel. Perhaps Nia was right - perhaps what she was looking for didn't even exist. But until she was shown conclusive proof of this, Rachel would refuse to believe it.

She felt helpless, and she hated the sensation. So she did what came naturally to her - she tried to provide a solution to the situation at hand, instead of speculating about problems she couldn't control.

"Well, I don't know Jake at all, but from what you've said, it seems to me as though she warrants a second chance."

"Rachel..." Nia began.

"Just think about it - think about how close you've gotten in such a short time. Look at how she behaved with that homeless guy. And you've already told me that she's a gentleman - which is a big improvement on that reptile you dated before. Give her another chance, Nia - it's worth a shot." Rachel said.

"But it's not that easy, is it?" Nia continued to protest. "Yes, she's all those things you just said...and more."

"So what's the problem?" Unseen by her friend, Rachel threw up her hands in disbelief, while Nia emitted a tragic, high-pitched laugh.

"She just walked away." The bar manager said, quietly.

"Nia, you threw her out!"

The blonde sighed, knowing she was beaten this time.

"Give her time, Nia." Rachel said. "She's probably licking her wounds."

"Maybe." Was the glum reply.

Rachel smiled into the phone.

"She'll be back. And if an ex-girlfriend is all she's hiding, you're lucky."

***

For the second time that month, Jake pushed open the doors of Fire and Ice with her heart in her mouth. She could hear soft music coming from inside, and the gentle melody seemed to fuel her agitation, rather than soothing it.

She was terrified.

It had taken her days to decide to come - and she didn't really know how she'd reached the conclusion. It wasn't even rational - she felt driven, compelled to make the Bar Manager listen to what she had to say. She'd been miserable ever since she left the blonde's apartment, unhappier than she'd been in years. Nobody in her recent past had managed to have such an impact on her state of mind. Normally, she would have resented it - but instead, she felt as though she was just waking up, roused by the power of these unusual emotions. She felt wretched, but at the same time more alive than she could ever recall.

As was her habit, she hadn't spoken to a soul. She'd considered going to Kim for a few words of advice but had shied away, feeling that a talking-to from even her gentle friend would probably be too much to bear. So she'd gone it alone - but this time, instead of brushing the confusion aside, she'd taken the plunge and examined it.

It was the first time in years - and she was a little out of practice. In fact, the dark woman was so unused to self-analysis that it had taken a manic workout and a few bottles of beer before she could even bring herself to sit still and think about what had passed between her and the sensitive, anguished femme. So it was a miracle in itself, that she'd turned up at the door of the bar so soon.

Jake wasn't emotionally stunted, but she often did a good imitation of it. She'd spent years "playing it tough," bottling up her feelings, ignoring her emotions, and compartmentalising her experiences. She just didn't want to deal with them. At the time, she'd told herself she just didn't have the energy for all the negativity, but in reality, it was more that she was afraid.

As afraid as she was now. Except this time, something was different.

Nia's tear-streaked face, her quiet plea to be shown proof of their burgeoning bond, had made the dark woman realise just how effectively she'd shut any genuine communication out of her life. She'd hurt women who had loved her, and had thought it was acceptable to do it, because someone had hurt her before. Then, she'd wanted a woman who looked nice and didn't talk back. Now, she told herself it was time she grew up, and made herself available for someone who could really be her equal.

And in addition to all this, the thought of wounding the small bar manager seemed totally unconscionable.

She shook her head at her own timidity, and stepped through the door. Heading straight for the bar, navigating a few tables and chairs placed in her way, she took a deep breath and prepared to ask for an audience.

The petite brunette she normally made a habit of checking out was manning the pumps. But unusually, the butch barely noticed her. She certainly didn't bother with the customary flirtation, and her lack of interest caused Lizzie to look a little miffed. But the dark woman didn't seem to notice this either. For once in her life, she was focused on one woman, and one woman alone. The instincts that had dictated her social behaviour and fed her ego in times past were well and truly curbed. She had one object, and what she would previously have defined as harmless fun now seemed like a gratuitous distraction. Kim would have jumped for joy to see it.

"Is Nia in?"

Was her immediate, purposeful question. And after answering Liz's nod with one of her own, she turned towards the stairs.

She paused outside Nia's office. She'd reached her destination, and the sight of the closed door threw her for a blank. All the soul-searching of the past few days seemed suddenly futile, when confronted with the thought of Nia's reproachful face. Her courage began to falter, and she almost turned on her heel.

In other relationships, Jake had invariably indulged her instinct to walk...no, to run...away at the first sign of failure, telling herself this was the only route that would afford her any dignity. Mistakenly interpreting what was actually an overweening pride and defining it as self-respect, she'd lost friends and lovers as a result. They'd all been relegated to the bottom of the litter-heap that was forming in her heart, while she moved on without looking back.

But for some reason she felt unable to take flight this time. The urge to break away was tempered by something infinitely stronger. She was unable to define it, but it was beyond her control - she felt an irresistible pull towards this dirty Manchester bar, and its charming young manager. It came surging up from her gut, and it felt inexorable as the tides. There was something she wanted, and she was prepared to fight for it.

So she swallowed her pride, her qualms and her past, and pushed at the door. She didn't even think to knock.

And when it swung open, there was no need for words. The femme had risen from her desk, but when she saw the dark woman standing there, contrite and anxious, she froze. For a moment she looked as shocked as someone who'd been shot.

"Nia, please..."

The butch choked out, before her arms were full of shaking, stammering blonde.

"I'm sorry..." Nia whispered.


Up to this story's index