First Light

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First Light is being published as a novel by Jane Doe Press. To learn more about First Light and other great titles, please visit www.janedoepress.com.


Part One

What a night...

Nia looked around the small bar, a deep sense of satisfaction tempering the fatigue of the "morning after". Last night's New Year celebrations had gone exceptionally well - customers appreciating the eclectic soundtrack that marked the bar apart from Manchester's other, trendier offerings - and this had meant that the takings were more than enough to placate the ever-looming Powers That Be.

But festivities over, the dirty work was beginning in earnest.

Jesus, it looks like a bomb's hit it...

The manager glanced about once more, wincing as she realised the full extent of the state the place was in. Broken glasses and bottles littered the whole vicinity, along with a liberal scattering of cigarette ends. And to top it all off, the entire area was slick with spilled beer and champagne, sticking feet to the floor with the greatest of ease.

Still, it shouldn't take too long to return to some semblance of normality, she thought, as she breathed in the buzz of activity that permeated the atmosphere. 10 of the bar staff had dragged themselves out of bed before noon on New Year's Day to come and clear up...and, Nia reflected, they were doing a pretty decent job of it despite the seemingly impenetrable mess. These were a good lot. The financial rewards for giving up your New Year's Eve to work were considerable, especially since this was the start of the new millennium - but even so, the staff had worked the shift with patience and good humour, dealing efficiently with the casualties that were a side-effect of cheap champagne and free shots of vodka. Nia grinned to herself as she remembered one of the evening's more amusing incidents.


The place was filling up fast, and although it was only 10 O'clock many of the customers were dancing. Some of them were criminally drunk, Nia reflected, seeing a short, stocky young man almost fall into a table in his efforts to cut a move. She spotted one of her staff elbowing her way in and out of the crowd, collecting glasses cavalier style, and grinned in recognition. Lizzie was a petite, attractive young woman whose appearance belied a feisty little tiger that could definitely take care of herself. The only clue to the fire that lay within was a certain something in the cut of the profile, in the determined nose and angular jaw. Nia had often wondered what it would be like to take the brunette to bed, imagining Liz to be full of delightful surprises...and routinely had to shake herself for thinking about one of her employees in such a manner. Her eyes focused on said figure approaching the bar, with arms full of glasses and a well-concealed look of annoyance on her face.

Liz set the pile down and smiled at her boss.

"Everything OK, Liz?"

"Just hang on a minute."

Liz turned to the man who was rather sheepishly dancing behind her, and pinned him to the nearest wall with an icy glare that carried a notable amount of menace, despite her size.

"Listen, mate. The next time you touch my ass while I'm out there collecting glasses you're gonna get a broken arm, OK? And if you don't believe I can do it I'd be happy to demonstrate."

Stunned, the customer attempted to speak...failed, and sloped off into the crowd, visibly embarrassed by the fact that this diminutive barmaid had thwarted his advances so effectivelyÖand loudly.

Liz turned to Nia, her eyes a mixture of triumph and apology.

"Was it OK to do that? I mean, you always say we're not here to put up with that sort of crap, but..."

Her voice trailed off, betraying a little uncertainty. Nia was a fabulous boss, normally granting her staff a considerable amount of freedom, but everyone knew there was a line that was not to be crossed with the usually gentle blonde or there would be hell to pay. Liz wasn't sure whether she'd just crossed it.

But the golden-haired manager had just laughed and patted her on the arm.

"You're a little warrior at heart, aren't you?" She quipped. "I like it."

"Listen, Liz, I'd have done exactly the same thing in that situation, except I'd probably have kneed him in the groin to hammer home my point." Nia continued briskly, a smirk tugging at the corners of her lips. "Drinks are on me later, OK?"

And the manager had moved off to put change in the tills, leaving an admiring Liz gazing after her. "She's something else, isn't she?" She said to no-one in particular. And then chuckled.

"And who's she calling a warrior?"


"Boss?"

A disgruntled male voice dragged Nia back to the chaos of January 1st.

"Oh, hi there Tom...what's up?"

She studied the stocky figure towering over her. Nia didn't have many men working in the bar, finding it much easier to have an all-female team...but, she had reflected when she'd hired Tom and Pete - you have to keep some boys on the premises to do the crappy jobs. And it sounded like there was one coming up.

Tom wrinkled his nose in disdain.

"Some pisshead puked all over the men's toilets last night...where do we keep the bleach?"

"Um, I think it's in the cupboard next to the cellar, Tom - but you'd best check with Max just in case."

"Here, take my keys." She threw the large bunch to the lad, who caught them deftly and sloped out, scowling and muttering to himself. Nia grimaced and decided to leave Max to deal with the fall-out from that one.

To say that Maxine was Nia's assistant manager would be to grossly understate the case - within the insular community that was the bar, she was more akin to right hand, henchman and familiar. Nia never forgot the times Max had given far more than her job was worth...too many to count...and perhaps her reasons were less than honourable, but it was appreciated all the same.

Maxine was definitely the dykiest girl on the staff at Fire and Ice - a short, stocky character with a neatly shaved head and several well-designed tattoos. She rode to work on her motorbike, which was about the only thing that would ever have convinced Nia to sleep with her, having a well-known fetish for girls in leather. And Max had almost pulled it off through dint of sheer persistence. Fearing the loss of a trusted friend and her most valuable employee, Nia had eventually been forced to tell her to back off. The hurt in those big brown eyes had almost torn her apart. Max looked exactly like a stricken animal - shocked, dismayed and unsure of how to handle the twisting in her guts that was almost tangible, it was so vehement.

But much to Nia's relief, Max had gathered herself up, turned on her heel, and left the office, returning to work the next day with a slightly set look on her face and a pleasant yet distant demeanour that lasted a couple of weeks.

Things seem pretty much back to normal now, Nia mused, or hoped...as she studied the Z-read and allowed a frown to crease her normally placid countenance.

"Hey, you guys," she shouted over the din of the glasswasher.

"Did anyone ring in 40 bottles of champagne by mistake?"

One finely arched eyebrow raised slightly as she waited for a response.

"Oh, yeah...sorry."

One of the newer members of staff leaned on her broom and looked a little embarrassed.

"I couldn't really see what I was doing...I meant to tell you...sorry," she repeated, staring at her feet.

Nia smiled her reassurance, having dealt with this sort of thing with regard to every single staff member at one time or another.

Funny, she thought, they all seem to think they're the only ones who ever make a mistake.

"Sarah, it's no big deal. Everyone does the wrong thing occasionally. But next time, put a note in the till straight away, and then I won't have to ask."

She smiled at the girl again, visibly putting her at ease, and went back to the Z-read.


Tom, mounting the stairs with a bucket full of bleach and water, paused for a second, ruminating on the subject of his boss. I still can't decide whether she's beautiful or not... She wasn't very tall - her chin was about level with his chest - but her lean, elegant build made her appear taller than she actually was. And she moved with the grace of a dancer...it was a standing joke among most of the long-standing members of the staff at Fire and Ice that watching Nia make a cocktail was like being at the theatre. Staff training sessions were fun, he chuckled, remembering the transfixed expressions at the last one, glued to Nia's movements when they were supposed to be learning how to make a Martini.

Tom's focus contemplated Nia's face, framed by a couple of locks of the strawberry blonde hair which had been pulled back into a clip. Not a "pretty" face, in the classical sense of the word, he thought, but...there was something about it that was undeniably bewitching. He had decided it was the eyes...large, oval shaped pools of a colour he had never seen before. A little bit of green, a sprinkling of hazel, murky dishwater, really... but in Nia's face they sparkled, dragging people in, like magnets. He had seen customers mesmerised by those orbs from the other side of the bar, and he didn't blame them. When Nia smiled, which was frequently, her whole face was illuminated and those remarkable eyes seemed to twinkle just for you.

Tom let out a heavy sigh. She was so feminine...he didn't understand it. Max is one thing, but how can Nia be...?

"No point in standing there staring, Tom."

Liz briskly finished his train of thought.

"When will you boys get it through your thick skulls that she bats for the other team?"

She slapped Tom hard on the butt and moved off with a broom to tackle the tables next to the DJ box. Tom pulled a face at her and went off to clean up the vomit in the toilets.


At 12:30 Fire and Ice was finally ready to open. The last of the New Year streamers and champagne corks had been neatly swept away, glasses had been polished, and barrels had been changed. Nia reflected with contentment that her normally pristine bar was almost in its usual state.

"Are we ready, then?" She enquired of her small team, and got a unanimous thumbs up.

"Ok...let's do it!"

Liz threw the doors open, letting in the sound of the daily downpour along with numerous buses crawling their way up and down the Oxford Road, chugging out carbon monoxide as they went. And a healthy number of customers came through the opening, too. All ordering Bloody Mary's, I'll bet, Nia snickered to herself as she descended the stairs into her slightly chaotic yet comfortable office.

"I'll be out here if you need me." she shouted in Liz's direction, waiting for the answering nod before removing herself from the public eye.


Settling in to her swivel chair, Nia surveyed the takings and prepared for some serious number-crunching. This was the only element of the job she really hated - although she wasn't a stupid woman by any means, something about accounting drove her almost to distraction. Nia was a person who survived more than adequately due to her astute powers of empathy and instinct, and the hard logic of mathematics always threatened to send her nuts. She flinched slightly as she remembered a time when there was always someone by her side to ease the struggle.

"Well, sweetie, if you just take the numbers in that column from the other one, then you've got your stocks remaining, and you can check that off against the other sheet."

Nia gazed up at the woman who was leaning over, chin resting on her shoulder, patiently giving her the advice she needed.

"Thanks, baby...you know, I'd be really stuck if you weren't here to help me with all this stuff."

She smiled up at her partner, and felt the warmth spread, as it always did when she regarded the woman she loved. They had been friends for years before deciding that it might be more than agreeable to take their relationship to the next level. And Paula was a charming-looking girl. Small yet perfectly formed, her auburn hair fell just below her shoulders in a cascade of riotous curls. And the face behind the mane was the sweetest thing Nia had ever seen...big brown eyes poking out through a thick fringe of dark lashes, a rosy flush on her cheeks that was echoed by the darker shade highlighting her lips. She bent down to give Nia a quick kiss before returning to the monitor, wrinkling up her pretty nose in what looked like frustration.

"Um...sweetheart...I don't quite know what you've managed to do here...how did you get that figure as a total?"

Nia sighed, ready to throw the spreadsheet in the trash and set fire to the whole damn thing without remorse. "Honey, do you want to give this up for a second and grab some coffee?"


Ignoring the feeling of emptiness which threatened to overwhelm her gut, Nia jerked herself out of reminiscence and turned to the matter at hand...the year end report. Or tried to.

God, Paula, where did it go wrong for us? We were perfect together. The best of friends, we laughed, we cried, we made love... So why did I feel something was missing? Why did I send you out of my life? What was it that you just couldn't give me? She remembered nights spent in Paula's embrace, the tiny redhead giving all that she had and more...but Nia couldn't take it. A shadowy figure lurked just on the edge of her consciousness - dark, powerful and proud, making her heart skip a beat and cruelly stealing her attention from the sweet, loving woman she was with. The domination of her thoughts by this image had grown louder and louder, reaching a crescendo that told Nia it was time to be honest. Paula's parting shot had hurt, born of the redhead's anguish but baleful all the same.

"Whatever it is you're looking for, Nia...I damn well hope you find it, 'cos I don't believe it really exists."

Nia released a long breath, shaking her head vigorously as if trying to dislodge the painful memories, and turned back to the numbers, screwing up her face in concentration.


She was rescued by the sound of her direct line. Sighing once more, Nia wondered whether to answer the ring, knowing full well who would be calling her private line at this time on a Bank Holiday - but also knowing that she really had no choice.

"Hello?"

"Nia." Came the muffled growl.

"Hello." She repeated, wearily.

"We need to make a drop-off, tonight, around 6-ish."

For the last time, she sighed. "Ok."

"Make sure everything's in the right place, will you? Thanks, hon." the line went dead.

Nia rested her head in her hands for a moment, fighting the tears that threatened to get the better of her. Surely this wasn't part of her job description? More than her job was worth, that was for sure. But making a stand just wasn't an option.


All was quiet until 6pm when Nia's phone rang again - but this time it was her line in to the bar. She wondered how on earth something could have gone wrong this early in the evening.

"Yes?" She said heavily.

"Nia..."

Lizzie's voice, sounding unusually flustered, drifted down the line into her ear.

"Um, there's a customer here who was in last night...did we pick up a mobile phone?"

"Yep...it's here in the office, Liz."

"Well, she's just on her way back from the bathroom now - can you pop it up?"

"Hang on just a second - I'll be right out."

Just what I need, Nia reflected bitterly, another problem to deal with.

She climbed the stairs to the bar, and pushed the door open with caution, speculating on what kind of trouble this customer must be causing in order to make Lizzie lose her cool...

And was stopped dead in her tracks, by a face that she recognised as the one haunting her dreams the previous night. Piercing blue eyes shone in the centre of ridiculously chiselled features, framed by a thick crop of raven hair.


"Um..."

Nia wavered on the top step uncertainly, feeling as though she was going to tumble all the way back down, unable to tear herself away from those eyes that seemed to see into the depths of her soul.

Oh, I remember you...she thought.

In fact, this woman had been the only thing to pique her interest on New Year's Eve. If Nia was anything, she was fair, and she always took her turn behind the bar on busy nights so that the staff could rotate their breaks. She didn't mind this kind of work, being a congenial, friendly sort - but talking to most of the customers in Fire and Ice left her cold and more often than not with a distinct taste of sleaze in her mouth. So she tended to do the job on autopilot, not meeting anyone's gaze directly and certainly not bothering to engage any of the punters in conversation.

But during her hour on the bar on New Year's Eve, she had felt those bright blues focusing on her, sending shivers down her spine before she even turned around. And when she did, she found herself staring into a face almost familiar, which was so striking it almost took her breath away. Her heart had threatened to leave her body via her mouth when the tall, dark and handsome stranger eventually approached the bar.

"Um...what can I get you?"

Nia didn't even dare to look up for fear that this fascinating woman would see that she was already blushing.

"Vodka and tonic, thanks" came the deep, husky growl.

Nia managed to prepare the drink without spilling or dropping anything, which was quite a feat considering every limb she owned was shaking. The woman tipped her generously, lightly brushing Nia's fingers with her own as she did so, before disappearing into the crowd just as suddenly as she had come, leaving Nia gasping and searching the room for another glance.

Which was afforded her at the very end of the night. The evening was almost over, the bar was shut, but customers and staff continued to soak up the party spirit, and Nia decided to let her kids have their fun as the reward for a long evening's hard work. She doled out a welcome round of staff drinks, then joined forces with Maxine to accomplish the majority of the cleaning up around various members of staff who were by now dancing on the bar.

Nia had offered to wash the glasses, and engrossed herself in the task of swilling them out under the hot tap and stacking them neatly in the dishwashing tray. She couldn't help dancing as she did it - her lower body swaying gently to a bassy hip hop number that was one of her favourites. Oblivious to the fact that she had an audience. In fact, Nia continued her dance uninterrupted for about ten minutes until she became aware of candid eyes boring into the top of her head. A little embarrassed, she looked up - into the same chips of electric blue that had captivated her earlier.

The woman looked at her for a long time. Nia froze, wondering whether she should just say "hi" and be done with it, desperate to know more about this stranger who made every nerve in her body feel alive. Then she received the ghost of a grin, and what she could have sworn was a wink - and the mysterious beauty did an about-turn and strode off purposefully into the early morning sounds of the city.

Leaving Nia standing there with a pint glass in both hands, heedless of her surroundings, completely mesmerised by those blues.

Which were staring at her now, barely hiding a look of mild amusement as Lizzie noticed her boss's lack of composure and said, "Um, Nia?"

Nia pulled herself together and made a feeble attempt to look like a manager instead of a 15 year old schoolgirl in the throes of her first crush.

"You...you came to collect your phone?"


Part Two

The stranger gave Nia a curt yet not unfriendly nod.

"Yep. Left it here last night."

A woman of few words, I see...Nia thought, as she looked down at the phone in her hand. Nice. It was one of the latest models, a tiny pocket-sized thing, petrol coloured, with a flip-top. Hmm, I wonder what she does for a living? Must be well paid, whatever it is...

"So, can I have it back?"

The deep, husky voice broke through Nia's speculations. The woman's face was deadpan, but there was a twinkle in her eye which caused Nia to flush as she handed the piece of equipment over.

"Thanks."

Nia found herself blushing even harder as their fingers disengaged.

"Um, I actually need you to sign it out for our lost property records. The form's in my office...would you like a coffee while I get someone to dig it out?"

"Sure." Was the answer as the guest settled herself on a stool, one booted foot propped up on the bar, with the other long leg dangling.

"Black one sugar, thanks."


Nia pushed open the swing door to the bar and grabbed a couple of cups.

"Liz, could you do me a favour? The blue box file in the office has the lost property sheets in it. Can you go down and fish one out for me?"

She handed her keys to the small barmaid, who also seemed mesmerised by their mysterious visitor, and turned the espresso machine on.

Nia could feel bright blue eyes riveted on her as she made the coffee. Her hands were shaking. She turned around as boiling water dripped through the steel filters, and met the intense gaze.

"I'm Nia, by the way. And you are?"

"Jake."

The answer was brief but not brusque. And those eyes seemed to be reading her thoughts.

"Jake...that's an interesting name. What's it short for?"

Another twinkle.

"The cups are overflowing, Nia."

Oh, shit. Shit, shit shit. Why does this always happen to me in these situations? Well, at least I didn't *say* anything stupid...yet.

Nia dove for the "off" switch, and watched as coffee dripped from the edge of the bar to slide down the door of the fridge. Mechanically, she refilled the filters with coffee and made two more cups, watching them fill up this time and managing to put Jake's cup in front of her without spilling the dark liquid again.

"So, Jake, did you enjoy yourself in here last night?" The flustered Bar Manager finally sat herself down.

"Yeah, it was OK. There were a couple of interesting moments."

Jake met Nia's gaze directly and smiled, showing dazzling white teeth and leaving her in no doubt as to which moments she was referring. The prolonged period of eye contact that resulted from this bold statement was interrupted by the return of Liz, waving a form and a biro at their guest.

"Here you go." She said, brightly.

Jake's eyes wandered briefly across Lizzie's body before she held her hand out for the paper.

Nia felt an irrational pique, watching this new acquaintance casually appraising a member of her staff.

Why does that bother me? It's not like I know her...she only just told me her name. And Lizzie's an attractive girl - god knows I've looked at her like that more than a few times...and...oh, sod it!

"Liz, have we stock-checked yet this week? Can you take a look in the cellar?"

Trying to curb her satisfaction at having sent the barmaid packing, Nia turned once more to Jake, just catching the remnants of a raised eyebrow that was obviously a reaction to the deed.

Oh, what the hell...she thought, grinning slightly and raising her own in response.

"I just need your address details...here. Phone number is optional, by the way, and I can fill in the rest."


Nia watched as Jake filled the boxes with a bold, angular hand. She was fascinated by the woman's fingers - they were strong and powerful, large as a man's but graceful rather than ungainly. There was a sovereign ring on the fourth finger of her right hand, and a plain gold band on the middle - not the wedding - finger of her left.

Paula's hands were nothing like that...she thought, continuing her appreciation of the long, supple digits. The redhead's were small, and delicate, and so beautiful...milky white skin covering tiny fingers, at the ends of which rested perfectly manicured nails. Paula's touch had been feather light - loving, relaxing and very, very sweet.

Nia looked once more at the hands in front of her, imagining their strength covering her body, taking her firmly by the arms as Jake leaned in for a kiss...

"OK, you've got my address. We all finished here now?"

The hands went back in the pockets of the biker jacket, and Jake got up to leave.

Ooops. Caught me daydreaming again.

"Um...yeah...I suppose so."

Nia fought the urge to ask the woman to stay for another coffee, or maybe a beer, or maybe dinner, or...Jesus Christ, Nia! You just met her! This isn't like you at all!

"Well then...see ya. Thanks for picking up the phone."

And Jake once again strode off into the smog of the Oxford Road.

Nia sighed. I suppose you win some and you lose some... But a feeling of disappointment that she couldn't quite explain hit her right in the gut as she watched the retreating figure.

It was only after a few more cups of coffee, as she tripped back down the stairs to the realm of the dreaded accounting, that Nia looked down at the form in her hand.

And there it was, right beneath the postcode...Jake's phone number. And what's more, scrawled underneath it in tiny lettering were the words, "Call me - if you want..."

Well, well, well.


"So, are you gonna call her?"

Rachel asked her best friend, noting the fear in Nia's eyes with some amusement. She just doesn't realise what a catch she is...

"I dunno, Rach..."

Nia curled her feet underneath her legs and settled back into the armchair.

"I'd be too nervous...I mean, I told you what happened with the coffee, and that wasn't even, like, a date!"

"Nia, you're just a little clumsy...it's not a crime. And anyway, didn't you screw up with the coffee BEFORE she gave you her number?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, then!"

Rachel levered herself off the sofa and ambled into the kitchen, point made.

"You want some more wine?"

Rachel was Nia's closest friend, and had been since both girls were about 7 years old and Nia's parents had moved into Rachel's street. They'd grown up together...albeit in very dissimilar ways...and had come through a few rough patches and periods of no contact relatively unscathed. By now they knew each other inside out - and although Nia had plenty of other friends, Rachel was the only person she felt she could really trust. Mostly because Rachel was able to match her strength.

Many of Nia's friends stuck around because she was counsellor and Mum all rolled into one, carrying them through their worries with her empathy and wisdom and asking little in return - her bond with Rachel was the only one that was truly reciprocal. They were as different as chalk and cheese...Rachel was heterosexual and a computer programmer, for a start...but the connection they shared was deepened by the disparity between their characters. Rachel's strict rationality was the perfect foil during Nia's most emotional moments, and the passionate nature of the bar manager encouraged her friend to enrich her experiences by letting go when it was appropriate.

Nia watched Rachel pour the wine and smiled inwardly as she remembered the day she "came out" to her best friend.

She'd been absolutely terrified about what Rachel would think - her friend was straight and had experienced little or no contact with gay people during her short life. "What if she can't handle it? What will I do then? What if she thinks I have a crush on her?" As was her habit, Nia drove herself mad with the what if's until she decided she just couldn't stand it any more...she was going to tell Rachel the truth and deal with the consequences, no matter how devastating they were. And she recieved the biggest shock of her life. Nia could have sworn that Rachel actually looked AMUSED when she turned around and said,

"Christ, Nia...I thought you were going to tell me something really interesting. I've known you were gay since we were kids...I've probably known longer than you, you idiot!"

Nia felt the warmth of affection spread through her as she remembered the episode and regarded her best friend, now standing in front of her with a glass of red wine.

"Penny for your thoughts, Nia?"

Nia patted Rachel on the arm, and said,

"I think I'm gonna call her."


Part Three

†67, 68, 69...70.

Jake loosened the foot straps and slid off the rower. One foot behind the other, she stretched out her calves, then slid her legs further apart, fingers touching the floor, for a hamstring stretch.

5 days had passed and the manager of Fire and Ice still hadn't called.

Why I am I so het up about this? She reasoned, rocking back on her heels.

It's not as though there's a shortage of pretty little blondes around...

But somehow she felt as though Nia promised more than the average golden-haired bit of fluff she was used to. She seemed intelligent, for a start, but more than that...the woman had an open, artless disposition that threatened to make Jake feel lost without a rudder. She chuckled as she remembered the blonde's nervous blunders during their conversation, her complete lack of guile making the interest immediately obvious. It was a strength differing greatly from Jake's own.

Where Jake had built impenetrable walls from thousands of tiny self-defence mechanisms, Nia projected a gate that could be opened with a gentle push. But it had also been apparent that this quality was not born of naivete, but came from a sweet nature that was unable to construct any kind of barrier. It was fascinating...and it had drawn Jake in, like a moth caught by the quiet light of simplicity.

And the other reason for Jake's chagrin...the bigger reason, if she was honest with herself, was that her pride was a little hurt by this apparent rejection. Jake was not accustomed to giving her home number out to women she'd just clapped eyes on, preferring instead for them to come to her. And come to her they did, with unerring frequency. Pulled by the power of her physique, her piercing blue eyes, and the air of mystery and authority which was the trademark of her potent yet very private personality.

She grinned at her reflection in the mirrored walls of the gym.

Come on, Jake...your ego's working overtime, just admit it.

Sucking at her bottle of Evian, she surveyed the machines. Jake liked this gym, especially during the day when most people were at work - it was quiet, containing only a couple of dykes pumping iron to impress their new girlfriends. She watched these visitors with amusement, recognising the frailty beneath the machismo that fluctuated between being irritating and endearing, depending on who the conduit was.

"Yeah, well, I normally push more weight than this, but I'm having an off day..." She heard a voice behind her and grinned while shaking her head.

Now *she* doesn't have a chance of endearing anyone...

Avril was a dead ringer for the dyke your mother warned you about. She cultivated a public persona that was a caricature of the misogynist masculinity that had been the staple of seventies sitcoms, her standard line being "Come on baby...don't walk away...I know you want me."

Jake chuckled, remembering numerous times Avril had wound up with a hefty measure of Gin and Tonic in her face after pulling that particular trick. And had gone straight back for more.

People like her never learn...

Nia would give her short shrift, she thought. The bar manager was an innocent looking girl, yes, but one glance into those malachite eyes and you knew she didn't suffer fools gladly.

Why can't I get her off my mind?

She moved the pin up to 30 pounds and settled on to her back for the bench press.


Jake took a quick shower in the changing room, chucked her sweats and t-shirt into her bag, and slipped into her jeans. Visions of strawberry blonde hair and green eyes swimming relentlessly through her mind as she vigorously towelled her own dark crop.

Nia serving behind the bar, Nia's hips swaying as she washed glasses in the sink, Nia blushing as she spilled the coffee, a little pout gracing her lips as she dispatched that cute little brunette Jake had been shamelessly checking out...

"Well hi there, big boy." Came a familiar voice.

Jake slipped the towel around her neck, turned around, and gave its owner a genuine smile.

"Hey, Kim!" Just the person to take my mind off this before I go crazy...

Kim and Jake had been friends for a little over three years, after meeting on the internet on a discussion list for butch-femme lesbians. They had begun mailing privately almost straight away, both relieved to find a sensible person in a forum that was mainly devoted to the discussion of makeup and power tools as people tried desperately to appropriate a role. Their conversation had gotten quite flirtatious, and both had held out a degree of hope that the relationship would turn into something passionate...until their first meeting.

It wasn't that Kim was unattractive, on the contrary - she was an extremely pretty girl, perhaps a little too pretty for Jake, who appreciated a little character in a face. Kim's porcelain skin was framed by rich brown hair, perfectly styled, and her small, delicate facial features almost looked like those of a doll's. Jake wasn't surprised when Kim told her that she used to earn her living as a model.

The body wasn't bad, either...Jake had reflected on their first meeting, when they'd finally taken the plunge and decided to move their cyber-friendship into "real time". Kim was slender, perhaps a little on the skinny side, but shapely none the less.

In short, the pair made a stunning-looking couple when they got together for a couple of drinks in a bar near to the house Kim shared. And the initial meeting had gone remarkably well - conversation flowing with very few awkward pauses - however, the sexual chemistry both had secretly been hoping for staunchly refused to put in an appearance. After three or four drinks Jake had made a half-hearted attempt to hold Kim's hand across the table, and both had sat in silence, staring at their linked hands, unsure of what to do next.

Luckily, the irony of the situation won the day, and much laughter ensued.

"It's just not going to happen, is it?"

Kim disengaged her small hands from Jake's and looked at her with amusement.

"Damn!"

Jake began to laugh even harder.

"It's nigh on impossible to meet femme lesbians in this tiny bloody country, let alone in this town...I've been bemoaning it for years. Yet here I am sitting across from one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen, and something just doesn't feel right."

Kim snorted in derision and a little shared exasperation. "Looks as though we're destined to be friends."

And firm friends they had been ever since. Once the speculation regarding the sexual aspects of the relationship was over, both found it much easier to open up, and their friendship had gone from strength to strength. Jake appreciated the gentle interest Kim had shown in her life, and as a result had begun to share some of her concerns with somebody else for the first time - and in return, she had become very protective of the bright, beautiful girl, watching over her in a manner akin to that of an anxious older brother.

Kim appraised the outline of her friend under the harsh light of the locker room.

"So, Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome, where were you on New Year's Eve? Got an hour to spare? Fancy a cup of coffee and a chat with your old friend Kim?"


And love, love, love is a dangerous drug,
You have to receive it
And you still can't get enough of the stuff...

Kim sang with Annie Lennox as she waited for the kettle to boil, smiling as she caught a glimpse of Jake on the sofa with one of her cats.

"Gabriel still loves you, hon." She shouted through the open door.

"I know." Came Jake's reply.

"Don't really understand why, though...normally it's the guys he goes for. Hmm...must be those testosterone pills I've been taking."

She winked at Kim and continued to scratch the ginger tom behind the ears, grinning as he wriggled with pleasure.

"He can sense your masculine energy." Kim stated in a serious tone, handing Jake a mug of steaming camomile tea.

"And anyway, enough about my fat cat. Do you want to stay for dinner?"


"So, picture this...we're in this stately home in the back of beyond, the arse-end of Norfolk, and we can't leave. THEN we're all shepherded into a darkened room, and she puts the stereo on. And it's bloody Tina Turner singing "Steamy Windows"...and then...you're never gonna believe this...she turns around and asks us to dance to it! It was the middle of the day and I was completely sober. I don't think I've ever been so embarrassed."

Kim's housemate Al had returned from a weekend away at a "stress-busting" workshop that sounded so bizarre it was bordering on the insane, and was recounting it nineteen to the dozen. Jake and Kim were sitting at the kitchen table amongst remnants of pasta, greek salad and red wine, listening to her with mouths agape.

"And why were you there again?" Jake asked, staring at the bits of cucumber she'd left on her plate.

"Long story. Condensed down to the absolute basics, pussy."

Peals of laughter ensued as Kim and Jake voiced their disbelief.

"You mean you went through all that just for a crush?"

Kim began clearing the plates away and started filling the sink with hot water and detergent.

"Yep. Although I think after seeing her shake her thing with Tina I've pretty much gotten over it."

"So, did you get any?" Jake suppressed a grin.

"Nope. Big fat waste of time."


As Al dragged herself upstairs to bed, treating them both to a rendition of "Steamy Windows" that was just slightly off-key, Kim turned to Jake, a twinkle creasing the corners of her eyes.

"Sorry about her. She's great, but she tends to forget that those around her generally get bored of being her audience after a while. Only child and all that."

"Anyway, my sweetÖnow that my beloved housemate has retreated to her boudoir, it's time for us to get down to business. There was a reason I asked you to eat with us, you know."

Kim concluded the brisk change of subject with a mock glare that was none the less penetrating. The brunette's perceptive nature was legendary amongst her friends, as well as her ability to keep her finger on the pulse of exactly what was going on in their small community. However, despite her feminine tendency to gossip, those closest to her respected her unusual tact and ability to draw the line between harmful and idle chatter - as a result she never forfeited their trust when it came to more important information.

"Um, what?" Jake idly wondered whether she'd done anything recently that was worthy of note.

"Well, who is she?"

Shit...she's good...

Aware that it was fruitless but feigning ignorance anyway, Jake glowered at her friend.

"What are you talking about? Who is Who? You're hallucinating...have you been smoking those funny cigarettes again, Kimmy?"

"Very funny." Was the retort.

"Denial won't work, Jake...you're too mean and moody to ever make a spectacle of innocence."

Jake looked at her shoes to hide a grin.

She's right...I can't pull this off...she's going to get it out of me, and sooner rather than later...

"Do you remember when we first met and I said you looked as though you were waiting for something? Well now it looks as though the wait is over, but what you want is still out of your reach. Seriously, JakeÖI know Al can be a bit much when she gets going, but you were so far away I couldn't even put it down to boredom! So spill it."

Jake sighed, and did.


Well, that was quite the interrogation...Jake observed as she fiddled with her keys at the front door of her apartment. Glad to see Kim's not lost her touch.

She chuckled as she let herself in.

It's pathetic...a pretty girl bats their eyelashes at me and I turn to jelly. Kim's right - my tough guy persona has no defence against the onslaught of femininity. Heh.

Still musing on that insight, she flicked the switch on the answerphone and began setting her sparse apartment to rights as she listened. The first two messages were work related, and promised no end of hassle. Dammit.

She was pouring herself a cup of coffee when the tape reached the beginning of the third.

"Um, Jake...it's Nia. I'm sorry I didn't call you before...stuff came up at work...but I'd like to go out for a beer or two sometime next week if you're still up for it. I hope you are...my home number's 458 0221...give me a call...OK...bye."

Jake sugared her coffee, set it down on the table, and played the message again before seating her long frame on the leather couch.

Well, she called. So what now?

Jake realised that she'd been so busy speculating about whether Nia was going to ring her that she hadn't even considered what the next move would be if did.

It suddenly hit her that she was more than a little nervous about calling the blonde bar manager who had dominated her thoughts for the past few days. In fact, she felt decidedly vulnerable - and that was a feeling she didn't enjoy one little bit.

Well, playing hard to get never hurt anyone, did it? I don't want her to think I've been waiting by the phone. She kept me cooling my heels for long enough...two can play at that game.


Part Four

Nia almost jumped out of her skin...and her bed...when she heard the phone ring.

It's 7:30 in the fucking morning! *Who* is calling me at this time?

Grumbling and wrapping the duvet around her ears to drown out the sound of the driving rain, she lifted the handset.

Surely it can't be Jake...can it?

"Hello?"

She tried and failed to make her voice sound as bright as possible in case it was the tall, handsome woman who had persisted in appearing at the forefront of her mind for the past week.

"Hi there, Nia!"

Well, it's not Jake, that's for sure. In fact, I'm pretty sure who this is...and if I'm right...I should have let the machine get it.


"Hi...Sam?"

"Ten out of ten, babycakes! How are ya?"

Jesus Christ...she thought.

What did I do in a previous life to deserve this?

Sam was...to put it mildly...a blast from the past. A relic from Nia's college days, when she had experimented with men in an attempt to satiate her desire for masculinity. Before the revelation that was a long time coming...when her sense had finally told her she was attracted to masculinity, alright - but men just didn't cut the mustard. Nia wasn't a man-hater by any means, having had several meaningful friendships and even a couple of very pleasant relationships with the opposite sex - but she had reached the point where she had to accept that she was looking for that special person in the wrong place.

Sam had been 28 and Nia was 18. He was the DJ at the bar she was working in to make ends meet while she finished her education, and was a vivacious sort of chap - the life of every party. Nia's naturally subdued tendencies had been drawn to his charisma, and things had progressed to the point at which their attempts at a sexual relationship had made it apparent that Sam's magnetic energy was all a front. They'd gone their separate ways soon after, Nia moving to Manchester and making sure she didn't leave him a forwarding address.

Nia shuddered at the vision of Sam hovering over her, moaning continuously and never noticing the bored look in her eyes.

How the fuck did he get my number?

"I'm fine, Sam. How are you?"

"Just dandy, sweet thing. And guess what? You're live over London, on the Capital Radio breakfast show!"

"I'm WHAT!?!?!?!"

Please God, tell me I'm dreaming...

"That's right! As we speak, the whole of London is listening! Good morning!"

He's actually crazy. Ok...how do I play this?

She went for the weak yet failsafe option. She hung up, and put the answerphone on.

Sorry Sam...those days are well and truly over. Find some other little blonde to harass.


God, I'm pathetic...

Nia chastised herself as she got out of bed and went to make some tea.

I only answered that because I thought it might be Jake...I left that message over a week ago...why hasn't she called?

Dammit! I wish I'd called her earlier...she probably thought I was playing some stupid game.

The truth of the matter was that Nia hadn't been able to call because events at Fire and Ice had taken a remarkably unpleasant turn since she'd met the fascinating woman.

It had been the day after Jake's visit, and she'd been sitting in her office completing the spirit order. She looked up as two large men barged in without knocking.

"Hi there, sexy."

Fuck. Why can't they just come here, do what they have to do, and leave me alone? I don't need this in my life.

"Is there a problem?" She asked, politely. "Everything's in the usual place. Or has the panel in the Gents come loose again?"

"Oh everything's just fine." The larger of the two sneered.

"We just thought we'd drop in and see our favourite bar manager, that's all."

Fantastic.

"Well, you've seen me now...is there anything else you want?"

Nia desperately tried to talk the aggressors out of her office, wondering if there was anyone upstairs who would hear her if she yelled.

"Well, now you come to mention it..." snarled the smaller, weasel-like companion, "Perhaps there is something you have that we want."

The men advanced on Nia's desk, smirking at the terrified look in her eyes. One of them grabbed her wrist and held on to it tight, leaning so close to her that she could feel his hot breath in her ear and smell the stale sweat and cigarette smoke on his clothes.

"Come on, sweetheart...do yourself...and us...a favour."

Nia really thought it was going to happen this time. This sort of intimidation was a fairly frequent occurrence on the part of the gangsters who were the best kept secret of the bar, but it had never gone so far as to make her believe they would actually do what they promised.

"Take your hands off me, asshole." She plucked up all her courage and looked him directly in the eyes.

"You cheeky bitch!"

The man backhanded her in the face and sent her sprawling from her chair.

"What are you, a dyke or something?"

If only you knew... Nia thought. She looked up from her prone position to see both men bearing down on her, anger and lust in their eyes. The one who had slapped her unzipped his trousers.

"I think it's time to show you who calls the shots around here, sweetheart."

Nia closed her eyes to stop the tears from falling. Oh jesus...I've had nightmares about this. OK Nia, stay calm. It'll be over soon. Retaining her self-possession, she met their eyes without flinching.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

The most welcome voice in the world broke her resolve. She yelped with relief and jumped to her feet, diving straight for her assistant who was standing in the doorway, hands balled into fists, furious.

"I think you'd better leave - NOW!"

Max's face was purple with emotion.

"Before I call the police." Nia added.

Both men straightened up and headed for the door.

"Just a bit of fun." One of them spat, turning around. "No need to make a big drama out of it."

"Fucking dykes, the pair of you." Hissed the other. "And you know you can't call the cops."

Nia waited, face set, until the door was safely shut, then burst into tears and collapsed into Max's waiting arms.


Understandably, these events had inhibited Nia's making that important phone call to Jake. Max had kicked off big time, telling Nia she had to go to the police.

"Nia, if you don't report them, they're going to keep doing it!"

Nia sighed and fingered the rapidly darkening bruise on her cheek.

"Yes, I know...but if I do, then I'll lose my job, and probably more. The only reason they keep up this systematic intimidation is to make sure I *won't* go to the police! Two men, fully prepared to barge into my office and rape me in broad daylight. What else are they capable of?"

"Dammit Max, I can't even resign because that would make things worse. They'd never leave me alone if I did, you know that. They'd have to make certain I wouldn't talk. I'd be on the run."

"Well, why don't you speak to Matt about it?" Max asked reasonably, knowing that Nia was ready to snap and desperate to make some sort of suggestion. "I'm sure he wouldn't be happy about his employees throwing their weight around like that."

Matt was the head of the drug cartel who owned the bar, and Max was right - he had a strict code of honour. In fact, the couple of times Nia had met him, he'd been perfectly pleasant and polite, unlike the thugs he hired to do his dirty work for him.

It was always the way...she reflected. Where there are bars, there are drugs. And where there are drugs, there are always thugs.

"But if I speak to Matt, they're going to know it was me who told him. What's to stop them coming after me and finishing what they started to get their revenge? I can't win, Max." A tear dripped from the end of her nose.

"It frustrates me beyond belief that I can't handle this. I try not to let them get to me, but it's just so hard ... "

Max drew Nia into a hug.

"Shhh...it's over now. Nia, this would test anyone's strength. And for what it's worth, you deal with them great. You never let them see how much they upset you, and I admire you for that."

Nia's assistant paused and looked at her boss. The sheer panic she saw in those usually cheerful features thrust straight at her heart.

"OK, Nia ... we'll put our heads together and work out a way to get you out of this mess...even if it means I have to deal with them myself."

Nia didn't like the sound of that.


Part Five

People are strange ...

From her seat at the back of the bus, Nia idly wondered why the crowd standing up at the front, squashed together like sardines in a tin, didnít do the sensible thing and spread backwards. Especially since there seemed to be nothing for them to hold on to, and the bus was lurching from one side of the road to the other when the driver spotted a puddle in the road close enough to a group of students on the pavement for them to get soaked when he drove straight through it.

Students made up about 50% of Manchesterís population, and the other half, resentful of the fact that their space was being invaded by ever increasing numbers, made their feelings known with a vengeance. Not that Nia blamed them. Sheíd been at Manchester University herself, but even during her own student days had rapidly lost patience with the proliferation of "champagne socialists" who seemed to be the stock-in trade of the institution. The kind whose after-dinner repertoire consisted of bemoaning the lot of the proletariat with quotations lifted directly from the writings of Karl Marx, but who, much like the celebrated German philosopher, had barely done an honest day's work in their lives. The kind who also suffered through red, peeling blisters on their feet as a result of wearing authentic Dutch clogs because they were the height of fashion on the catwalk, and supplemented them with genuine mohair ponchos purchased in their "year out" between Aílevels and University, when they'd gone trekking round India on Daddy's Trust Fund. Incidentally, this acquaintance with the different cultures of the world not only enhanced their wardrobe, but also made them feel sufficiently well-travelled and worldly-wise enough to patronise their peers at every opportunity. Even when you knew that their time abroad had not been spent immersing themselves in history and tradition but smoking weed, having public sex and creating litter.

Absently studing the headline "Albanian Sex Workers Flood the Streets" splashed over the front page of the paper being read by the woman opposite, Nia chuckled at the memory of numerous such characters populating her degree course in Political Science. Most of this politically correct society were now gainfully employed in the City as stockbrokers and advertising agents, spending their Friday nights in theme pubs moaning about how much of their 6-figure salary went to the taxman.

Ironic, isnít it? Oh well ... how does the old saying go? If youíre not a Marxist at 21, youíve got no heart. If youíre still a Marxist at 31, youíve got no money. Ainít that the truth.


Nia had been a very high achiever during her college days. Her position at the top of her class owed more to her pronounced gift for writing than to her ability to retain information, but she had impressed the academics enough to prompt them to ask her to stay on for a Masterís after graduation. Unfortunately money was an issue: government funds were tight that year and Nia was determined not to ask her parents for any more help, so she had been forced to follow her head instead of her heart. She increased her hours at the bar sheíd been working at during the course of her degree, and started saving for the future while she looked for a more permanent position. Her ultimate plan was to make enough money to pay her fees through a Masterís and eventually a doctorate in Political Science, which would in its turn pave the way towards the opportunity for her to write for a living as an academic.

Then the vacancy for Manager had come up at Fire and Ice, and Nia had applied. At that time sheíd had little experience in actually running a bar, and was surprised to say the least when she was hired after the first interview. Of course, with hindsight she realised that sheíd been taken on precisely because of her inexperience ... Fire and Ice was already a buzz word for gang activity on the grapevine of Manchesterís recreation circuit, and the owners needed someone who was naÔve enough to jump in head first with no thought of the risks or consequences because she had no idea what she was getting into. Nia had been that someone. And the gentle, trusting blonde had grown up fast during the first difficult months of her new position.

I learnt the hard way, that was for sure...Nia reflected bitterly as the bus swerved round a corner and passengers were flung against the windows. The next stop was the University, and many of those standing at the front were dispatched, leaving a little old lady to get on.

Nia took a quick look around the bus, and having ascertained that all the seats were taken, got out of hers and motioned for the pensioner to take it.

"Thank you, dear." The old lady warbled, with a weak smile that nevertheless lacked nothing in warmth. "Nobody gets up for us old folks any more...these youngsters today are too busy dealing drugs to respect their elders."

Shooting a glare at the nearest available teenager in order to make her point, she settled herself on the seat with a heavy sigh.

Nia looked blankly at her for a moment. If only she knew...my hands are probably dirtier than those of anyone else on this bus.

"Youíre welcome, my love." She returned, regaining her composure, then had to grab on to the back of a seat to regain her footing as well as the bus started up again. Swaying gently with the vehicleís movements, she continued her reverie.


The biggest disappointment of Niaís short life had occurred when sheíd been ensconced as Manager of Fire and Ice for a couple of years. Although sheíd gotten used to the job and the troublesome connection it afforded her with Manchesterís rotten underbelly, she was feeling pretty bored and disgruntled with a daily routine that didnít even come close to challenging her abilities. And right on cue, as though they knew she was longing to begin studying again, Manchester University wrote to offer her another Masterís degree ... but this time with full government funding.

"We assume that you will want to develop your academic abilities in the future." The letter said. "We would like you to consider a career at this University as opposed to elsewhere."

Nia had been terribly excited. At last, a chance for her to get a foot on the first rung of the academic ladder without crippling herself financially. She decided that it was time her heart won out, and accepted the place.

However, when she handed in her resignation at Fire and Ice she was in for a nasty shock. Matt, owner of the bar and head of the forbidding group who controlled the clandestine business behind it, had paid the golden-haired manager a visit that crushed all her tender hopes. He had been painstakingly polite and respectful, but had left Nia with no illusions about the extent to which her life was ... or wasnít - her own. From this point she had no doubt she was trapped, that she had gotten herself into a situation that nobody ever got out of. It was also at about this time that Nia realised nobody had ever mentioned what happened to the previous manager of the bar. She decided not to ask.

"You see, Nia ... I think youíre great." Matt had given her a pleasant smile that almost succeeded in concealing the threat implicit in his words.

"You and me, we have an understanding. I donít want to have to look for someone else. It could take me ages to find someone I can trust. And anyway, if you leave, then Iím going to have to worry about you ... do you see what Iím saying?"

Nia nodded mutely. She knew Matt was afraid sheíd talk, and she also knew that she'd picked up enough information to put him and not a few of his cohorts behind bars. This would make her extremely dangerous if she managed to escape the range of his purview.

She made a last-ditch attempt to grasp the freedom that was slipping through her fingers. But a sick feeling told her nothing she could say was likely to make any difference. If she stepped out into the light she automatically assumed the status of a liability that might illuminate Fire and Ice in the process.

"Matt, what if I gave you my word that you absolutely will not have to worry about me? I know exactly what youíre saying, but I think *you* know that Iím a person who can be trusted."

Even as Nia said those words she knew they were lies. If she quit her job she would no longer be under surveillance, and her keen moral sense would certainly lead her to risk danger in the cause of the greater good. She wondered if Matt had already worked this out. She was pretty sure that in a roundabout way he was trying to protect her ... Matt was known in gangland as someone who only used violence when it was absolutely necessary, but many of his associates were not so restrained. She had experienced their brutality first hand - and had heard rumours of other, worse crimes that sent chills up and down her spine. If she left Fire and Ice, there would be a price on her head, and they both knew it. She also knew that Matt couldnít keep an eye on all his people all the time ... keeping her in the job was the only way he could personally ensure her safety.

Nia looked up at the imposing man who was perched on the edge of her desk. He smiled, but there was regret shadowing the corners of his eyes as he shook his head.

"It wonít do, Nia. You see, Iím a worrier, always have been. I wouldnít be able to sleep at night without you right here where I can look after you and you can look after my bar. Stay put ... OK, sweetheart?"

Nia understood that this wasnít so much a request as an order. With a weary nod, she said goodbye to her dreams and commended her future to Fire and Ice.


The bus screeched to a halt outside the bar, almost throwing Nia through the front windscreen.

"Iím not a student any more, you know." She joked with the driver. "No need to try and kill me."

Inside Fire and Ice, most of the staff were already busy preparing for the monthly Friday night event. Nia didnít really enjoy the late opening nights, finding that they were a recipe for trouble, but they certainly were a money-spinner. Manchesterís young professional set, their paycheques burning a hole in their pocket, would happily stump up a door fee in order to carry on with their hurray-it's-the-weekend alcohol consumption for another few hours. The trouble was that punch-ups ensued as a matter of course when some amorous lad attempted to chat up someone elseís girlfriend because the booze had convinced him he was Casanova. At that point the bar staff were usually treated to a display of just what a little spitfire Nia could be when she got going. Applause often followed her skill at breaking up a fistfight and throwing the contenders out on to the Oxford Road.

"Hi guys." Nia yelled as she opened the door, and got a grunt from most of her employees. Glad to see theyíre about as enthusiastic as me, she smirked as she made her way down to the office to grab some floats for the tills.

"Nia." Liz shouted after her. "Rickyís waiting for you downstairs."

Hmmm ... that doesnít sound good.

Ricky was one of her regular bouncers and usually manned the door on a Saturday with his brother, Harry. Both were friendly, decent blokes with connections enough to know whose favour Nia needed to cultivate and who she could stand up to with impunity. Their protective advice had considerably eased her dealings with the dark world behind the doors of Fire and Ice. But for one of them to show up early to speak to her before the beginning of the night normally meant trouble.

Nia reached the bottom step and almost bumped into the man who was leaning against the wall, hands stuffed in the pockets of a huge black bomber jacket with his registration number on the sleeve.

"Hi there, Ricky. How are you?"

"Hey Nia." The tall, stocky man grasped her arm affectionately, pushing a couple of stray dredlocks away from his eyes so he could see her better. For God's sake, someone like her shouldn't be anywhere near a situation like this...he thought bitterly.

"Listen, sweeheart, I need to have a word. Weíve got some news about tonight that isnít going to make you very happy."

Nia drew the bouncer into her office and shut the door. What now...what did I do to deserve this shit? She asked whoever might be listening as her heart dropped into her shoes.

"Alright, Ricky ... hit me with it. What have you heard?"

When Ricky started speaking, Nia really wished she hadn't asked. Apparently Fire and Ice was in for some serious gang action tonight. One of the bigger Moss Side collectives, identifiable to those in the know by their distinctive blue baseball caps, were planning on visiting the bar en masse for a show of strength. This was typical gang activity ... if a bar looked to have rich pickings for the dealers, MC's or romancers then the whole group would mark it out as their territory. Of course, everyone in the underworld knew Fire and Ice was already owned and run by a drug cartel, but members of Mattís own entourage were forbidden to visit the bar socially for fear of raising police suspicion. Matt actually encouraged Nia to let members of other gangs have a presence, since this basically functioned as a red herring that took the heat off him and his people. However, he had warned the manager on numerous occasions never to allow the gang presence to loom too large for fear that the cops would start keeping tabs on the place as a matter of course. Most of the Vice Squad could be ... and had been ... bought off, but the last thing Matt wanted was to alert the attention of the bobbies on the beat.

With this in mind, the incumbent mass visit was promising no end of risk. Nia's mind was already whirring nineteen to the dozen as she tried to work out how on earth she was going to protect her staff from having to endure the worst excesses of a gang call, while trying not to draw too much attention to the place. For some reason, Jake popped into her head - the woman hadn't returned her call and Nia had given up all hope of seeing her again - but she felt instinctively that if the brunette had been around, she would know exactly what to do.

But I screwed up there...I left it too long before I called...she probably thought I was playing some dumb game.

"Well, thanks for the warning, Ricky." She said quietly as she followed the bouncer back up the stairs.

"It's no problem. You know Harry and myself will always look out for you, Nia. Try not to worry about it too much."

"Yeah." She made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "Oh, well...perhaps my handsome prince will choose this evening to show up and carry me away on a white horse...or do you think pigs might fly instead?"


Part Six

Nia pulled her chair closer to the small table by the door of the bar and gingerly sat down. Sheíd decided that her presence on the door was probably in order at the beginning of the night, to avoid any of the staff having to deal with the main influx of fat-headed gangsters who were bound to think they owned the place. She was dreading it, knowing that it would require all the strength she could muster to maintain her self control and refrain from telling these arrogant bastards exactly what she thought of them and their attempts to assert territorial privileges over her and her bar.

"Are you OK, Nia?" Rickyís brother Harry placed a huge hand on the small of her back, sympathy and concern showing in his large, kindly features.

Breakbeats began to pump as the DJ cranked up the sound system. She knew this was her cue. Her eyes swept around the bar, taking in each one of the staff who were patiently waiting. Their faces betrayed the apprehension she felt, and she realised theyíd been affected by her mood.

Thatís not good. I donít want them all to be scared shitless, not knowing the reason why ...

The small, golden-haired Manager concocted a big smile and spread it across her face, adding a wink for good measure, and then waited until the group behind the bar had visibly relaxed.

Thatís better. What they donít know will protect them ... poor kids.

She turned back to the burly doorman at her side. "Iím fine, Harry. You can open the doors now."

Here goes, Nia. Itíll be over soon ... just keep calm, keep your chin up, remember youíre the Manager, and keep your staff out of trouble.

"You can handle this, Nia."

Harry gave her a reassuring rub between the shoulder blades, and threw the double doors open. Letting in plenty of Manchester smog, a little acid rain, the rumble of the buses, and the first few customers.


Nia had been stationed on the door for about 45 minutes before the first one arrived. Gangsters were never early, or even on time, for an event like this ... it was far cooler to roll in late and then refuse to pay. Sheíd been desperately scouring the line of incipient customers for a scarred face, big jacket, and bad attitude pushing the others out of the way and striding to the front of the queue ... and all had remained quiet so far.

But not for long. Nia knew when the first had showed up because she received a barely perceptible nod from both brothers standing just in front of her. As if she couldnít tell from the dark blue baseball cap that almost obscured the manís features.

But perhaps thatís a good thing ... she mused. I'll bet he's scary when he takes that off...

Predictably, the scary individual in question jumped the queue and approached the door with an uneven swagger and a half-shadowed sneer.

"Thatís £4.50 please." Nia attempted to maintain the appearance of order, even though she knew that circumstances would go rapidly downhill from this point.

"I donít pay." Came the surly response.

"Of course not." Nia shrugged. "But it was worth a try." The first act of surrender was making her flesh creep, but knew she had no choice.

The gangster kissed his teeth at her and strutted inside, taking a seat at one of the stools at the bar and motioning with an imperious wave of his hand for Liz to serve him.

Despite the churning in her guts, Nia almost chucked at that.

Iíll bet thatíll go down well with our resident gender-terrorist ... she thought wryly. I hope she doesn't do anything stupid...

The remainder of the gang followed in close quarters. Nia was desperately trying to work out which was the alpha male ... she knew if she stayed on the right side of the leader, he would be inclined to keep the others in check. But she had no luck, and Ricky and Harryís connections werenít extensive enough for them to be able to help.

"They all look the bloody same." She complained to Ricky, who laughed and shook his head.

When Ricky and Harry were sure that most of the faceless mob were inside, Nia motioned for Liz to take her position and made her way to the bar. She was determined to put herself in the middle of the front line, so she could take as much of the brunt off her staff as possible.

Well, I wonder how long before they start yelling "jump!" and expecting me to ask "how high?"


"Brandy and coke!"

It began immediately.

8 men lined up on barstools, all with matching dark blue caps, made a pretty imposing group. Nia made the drink mechanically and set it down in front of the one who had shouted.

"Itís not for me, itís for him." The surly piece of work gestured with a thick hand, smirking at Niaís confusion.

"Fine." She transported the drink to the end of the line, and placed it in front of the man in question.

"Thatíll be £2.50, please." She knew she had to at least *appear* to be charging these visitors, or other patrons would start asking questions. And the gang would start to think she was a pushover, which would not bode well for her, her staff or her bar.

"I donít pay."

Of course he doesnít. None of them pay, do they? Despite the fact that they take home my yearly salary every week in drugs and protection money. If they were classy gangsters theyíd hand me a £50 and tell me to keep the change ... but instead they refuse to pay, because the little weasels enjoy seeing me squirm.

"Are you deaf? I said I DONíT PAY!!!!"

Right, that's it.

Nia gathered herself up and looked the Blue Cap straight in the eyes, holding the hooded stare until she was sure she had his full attention.

"I heard you the first time, thanks. You donít pay. I get the picture."

Shock registered in the gangster's features.

"Who the fuck do you think you are, little girl? Do you need me to come over there and show you whoís boss around here? Whereís your boss, anyway?"

The Blue Caps at the bar sneered as one man, looking at Nia with a contempt that made her either want to cry or scratch all their eyes out.

But she just drew herself up to her full five feet and four inches and said quietly, "Actually, I am the boss. I manage this bar."

There was silence as the line of men digested this information and Niaís steely gaze. But she knew this was only a temporary reprieve. In fact, sheíd probably made things a great deal worse for herself ... but her self-respect was refusing to let her sacrifice her dignity by being at the beck and call of these hideous specimens.

They look like chimps lined up in the zoo waiting for someone to throw them a banana ... she thought.

Unfortunately, theyíre chimps with friends in the police and hands big enough to break my neck.


Nia continued to man the bar mechanically, keeping one eye on Liz at the door, but up to the present moment the feisty brunette had managed to keep her temper in check. Probably because nobody had refused to pay so far ... the most sheíd had to deal with was a few pissed-up lads who couldnít afford the door fee but were easily dispatched by a flash of Harryís biceps.

So far, so good ...

She looked at the clock.

11:30.

Well, only a few more hours to go ... keep it together Nia ... youíre doing fine.

And she was ... the buffoons at the bar had been pretty quiet since theyíd realised that she was indeed the Manager and probably had Mattís protection, and the lightened atmosphere that resulted meant that most of the staff were getting on with their work oblivious to the dark undercurrents around them.

Hopefully the rest of the evening will be uneventful ... as long as I manage to keep everyone happy.

However, a sudden commotion by the door burst Niaís bubble.

I obviously spoke too soon.

She sighed, and left the bar to investigate. Ricky and Harry were firmly holding Liz by the elbows, the barmaid looking as though she was about to fly at the Blue Cap in the doorway.

"What does he mean, he doesnít pay? This is a fucking bar, not a soup kitchen, and besides, he doesnít look short of a bob or two!"

"Let it go, Liz." Ricky growled, grabbing her arm tighter.

"No! I wonít let it go! This is ridiculous! Iím getting Nia."

"Iím right here, Liz." Nia said gently. "Just let it go, sweetheart."

Liz, taken aback, started to speak and stopped when she saw her Managerís face. It betrayed little emotion other than sympathy, but there was a familiar "no-nonsense" look in those green eyes that told Liz it was time to shut up.

"Ok, ok." She stood back to let the man pass.

"You'll be sorry you didn't let me in to start with, you stupid little cow." After shooting a menacing glance in her direction, he strode off to join the rest of the conglomerate of primates at the bar.

Oh, great.

For once, Nia was failing to find Liz's high spirits amusing.

God knows what we're in for now...

She motioned to Max to come and take Liz's post. Max was the only one sheíd trusted with any information about their iniquitous visitors, knowing that the less the other staff knew the safer theyíd be. But Max was different ... she was well-acquainted with the situation at Fire and Ice, and Nia also knew that Max would never forgive her if she shouldered the burden alone.

Max took her seat at the door, giving Niaís arm a supportive squeeze. Nia let the anguish show in her eyes for a few seconds as she looked at her friend, then her face returned to neutral and she drew an enraged Liz over to the bar.

"Nia, whatís going on? Why did you let him in without paying?"

"I canít explain it now, Liz. Itís too complicated. Stay here and help me behind the bar, OK?"

"But ... " Liz began.

"No. No buts. Just do it, alright? Iíll give you the reasons later."

Although God knows what Iím going to tell her ...


"Brandy and coke!"

Sighing, Nia poured another one, stopping her hands from shaking with the sheer force of her willpower. The Blue Caps were getting rowdier and even more arrogant as the brandy loosened their tongues and fed their fragile egos, and she was on her own behind the bar, having stationed Liz at the other end to wash glasses because she no longer trusted the belligerent little barmaid to deal with these boorish customers without getting herself - and everyone else ... in even more trouble. And she felt instinctively that worse trouble was brewing.

"Whatís her problem, then?" One of the sources of the aforesaid trouble gestured towards Liz.

"Sheís fine. Sheís just having a bad day, thatís all."

"Oh. Bad day, is it? That *is* a shame. But I donít think Miss Mouthy Half-Pint has the right to take it out on paying customers, do you?"

Ok...here we go. I think someone's spoiling for a fight. I could just sit here and let him tell me how to do my job, or...

"But you donít pay." The retort slipped out before Nia had a chance to stop it.

And the anger that rose in her opponentís countenance made her wish she'd put her brain in gear first.

"Oooo ... you think youíre smart, donít you? Right, little Manager. I think itís time we had a word ... in private."

Shit. That was *really* clever, Nia.

Smiling in an effort to placate the blue cap which was now over 6 feet off the ground after its owner had risen to his full height, Nia tried the talking option.

"Hey, it was a joke. Sit down, have another drink. I was just playing, honestly."

She watched the cap travel to the left until her adversary was blocking the swing doors at the end of the bar.

"Well I'm not playing any more. I've had enough of you lot. I said, I want a word with you."

Nia realised she was close enough to be in grabbing distance, but started back too late. The man had her by the arm, and to her horror, she felt a blade digging into the base of her neck.

"Come on, little lady. Letís have a chat."

She wondered if it would do any good to scream. She reasoned that the man wielding the knife wouldnít be stupid enough to use it in front of a bar full of witnesses, but she also knew that if she made a scene, questions would be asked after the commotion had died down. Not least by the staff, who would then be targets by virtue of the information they possessed. And it would probably make the papers...Matt would be absolutely furious at all the unwanted publicity, and Nia knew instinctively that rousing the ire of her polite, sinister ally would probably be the last thing she ever did.

Feeling sick to her stomach, she nodded and followed the man through the door down to the cellars.

Nobody saw them leave.


Liz, swilling out dregs of brandy and cigar butts from an endless stream of glasses, suddenly became aware of Tomís presence beside her. Heíd been in the cellars bottling up, but had chosen this moment to go and ask Nia if there was anything she needed.

"What the fuck is going on?" He took in the chaotic scene.

Men in dark blue baseball caps occupied the length of the bar, thwarting the attempts of other customers to order drinks and shouting random curses at members of staff and each other. He watched as one took a mirror and a small bag of what looked like cocaine from his pocket, and methodically began cutting a line with a platinum credit card.

"Liz?" Tom began to panic.

"I donít know! All these idiots came in, refused to pay on the door *or* for their drinks, and Nia just let it happen! Thereís something up, Tom, and I donít like it one little bit."

"Drugs are coming out now...this isn't good. Do you think they're gangsters?"

Now it was Liz's turn to be alarmed.

"Gangsters? Are you serious? Fire and Ice isn't that sort of place...is it?"

Tom's face betrayed a trepidation that threatened to turn into hysteria. "Whereís Nia?"

"I donít know." Liz replied, miserably. "Maybe she ran away."

Max, still watching the door, had also noticed Niaís absence. Every nerve in her body was frozen solid and it took her all the strength in her limbs to train them to the seat and not to jump out of it and start searching the bar, knowing sheíd create a potentially disastrous panic if she did. She looked around, her frightened mind hunting for an answer.

To be greeted by a ferocious vision in black motorbike leathers, piercing blue eyes afire as she sped through the door with no heed to the bouncers, pushing a couple of caps aside to hit the bar with a resounding thud.

"Whereís Nia?"

"Um ... I dunno." Liz couldnít even meet the flashing, truculent gaze.

"But Iím sure sheís here somewhere, perhaps she ... "

She hadnít even finished the sentence when Jake dove down the stairs at a run.


Nia pushed open the door of the cellar and wondered if this was it.

He could murder me down here, leave quietly, and nobody would be able to prove a thing ... she thought helplessly.

Jesus Christ, Nia! Youíre so dumb ... why didnít you just move out of his way? Or better yet, keep your mouth shut? Nobody even knows Iím down here.

"I think you know who we are." The Blue Cap was irate.

Nia nodded mutely.

"Well, I donít appreciate the attitude of some of your staff. Or you, for that matter. What we say goes around here, got that? We donít pay, we always get a seat, and we donít get any lip. Or you will live to regret it, my love."

The endearment, spat from thick, snarling lips, made Nia lightheaded with fear.

This is pretty fucking hopeless. Even if someone did notice I was gone and was stupid enough to come down here and try and save me, it would probably make things worse. He could take me and any of my staff ... I hope to God Max doesnít come diving in.

"So, do we understand each other?" The Blue Cap was towering over her now, and she wondered whether there was going to be violence.

Or worse.

Nia shuddered, remembering the scene with Mattís bruisers in her office. She nodded again, biting her lip hard to keep it from trembling.

"Lovely. Letís kiss and make up then, blondie. I'm not going to hurt you."

The man in the blue cap grabbed Niaís face with both hands, and something in the bar manager just snapped.

"No! Not again!" She yelled, kneeing him in the groin as hard as she could, almost knocking him over and leaving him reeling.

"You BITCH!!! I promise Iíll kill you now ... "

"Stay away from her."

The words were calm but the intent behind them was unmistakably deadly. Nia and the Cap both wheeled around to find Jake standing in the doorway, face set but savagery glittering in icy blue eyes. A small, malignant grin began to grace her features as she saw fear rise in the Blue Cap's face.

This time it was the turn of Niaís tormentor to be struck dumb. He gradually moved away from the bar manager, and returned the knife to his pocket. His eyes were riveted on Jake as he cautiously stepped backwards towards the door.

"She yours?" He asked, pausing with his hand on the doorknob.

"None of your goddam business. Now get out, and take the rest of those clowns with you."

Niaís vision was tunnelling, and she felt her legs start to buckle. She collapsed, next to one of the kegs, only to be caught in strong arms before she hit the barrel. At this point she lost her self control and sobbed, half sitting, half standing, into the leather-clad shoulder.


"Nia." Jake whispered, after a few minutes had passed.

"We need to sit you down and get you a glass of water. Did he hurt you?"

"Mmmph ... jusaminute ... " Nia mumbled. Despite the traumatic events of the evening, the smell of leather was permeating her senses in a way that made the dizziness feel quite pleasant.

She shook her golden head vigorously.

"Have to go upstairs ... see if everythingís alright ... and the staff are safe."

"Nia." Jake repeated, taking her by the shoulders and regarding her with warm blue eyes.

"The Blue Caps have gone, and they wonít be bothering you any more. Your staff will be fine, I promise."

Now that she was beginning to come around, the events of the past 10 minutes were whirring round in Niaís head nineteen to the dozen.

"How did you know I was in here?"

"Lucky guess, I suppose. I ... just popped in to see you."

"But that man seemed to know you. How did you get him to leave like that, no questions asked?"

Jake shrugged. "I was just in the right place at the right time, thatís all. I caught him in the act ... he was shocked and confused and decided to run. He was just a coward."

"Yes, he did seem scared." Nia couldnít quite make sense of it all.

"But those bastards arenít scared of anything, and he looked at you with fear in his eyes ... almost as if you were ... mmmmph!"

The words on her lips suffered the same fate as the thoughts germinating in her head as Jake took her by the chin and kissed her long and hard.


Part Seven

Nia released a tiny moan as the tips of Jake's fingers moved lightly across her throat. The dark woman's tongue had already worked its way into her mouth to begin a delicate probing motion, sending shivers up and down her spine and making her body convulse with each advance and retreat. Her own hands were freely tangling in the short, inky crop, and she felt the sharp intake of breath as her right slid around to play with the ends of hair on the back of Jake's neck. The blonde fuzzily wondered whether they ought to check that everyone was OK upstairs, and make sure that all the Blue Caps were really retreating to the hole they'd crawled out of, but this errant thought was dispersed with little resistance when Jake grasped the tops of her arms, drew her up to a standing position, and backed her against the wall in one fluid motion.

So this is how the bad girls do it ... was Nia's last coherent thought, before she resigned herself to complete loss of control as a firm, solid thigh was wedged between her legs and began minute shifts from side to side, applying pressure in all the right places. Unconsciously, she pushed against the limb, eliciting a groan from its owner as the muscles pulled taut and almost lifted the small bar manager off the floor.

"Does that feel good?" Came the husky growl that had been wreaking havoc with her hormones for the past week. As the meaning of the words permeated her brain, she surrendered to the knowledge she was careering straight towards the edge and Jake was driving. The dark woman's lips resumed the assault on her neck, and she let her head fall back, powerless to do anything but give in to the sensation.

"Oh, God ... "

One large hand traced Nia's collarbone and cupped a firm breast, palming it gently until her nipples were aching for attention, standing out visibly even through two layers of clothing. Jake worked them both between her thumb and index finger, providing support with the other arm and continuing to thrust with her tongue as Nia gasped into her mouth. The blonde's hips were undulating of their own accord, grinding on the leather-clad thigh upon which she was perched as both sets of breathing became ragged and two bodies began to throb together.

The responsiveness of the small blonde was a revelation to Jake, and she wondered how long she'd be able to maintain her fabled self-control before throwing her down on the cold cellar floor and ravishing every inch. But experience told her that plenty of stimulation would be required to get Nia screaming her name. Even though they were precariously balanced between crates of Diet Coke in a beer cellar that was not especially clean, and all hell was probably breaking loose upstairs, the brunette had decided that she was not to be rushed.

Not exactly the time or place to blow someone's socks off, Jake ... but you'll have to be inventive.

Consideration for her conquests was not a new phenomenon in the life of this handsome woman, given that her own desire was primarily satiated by the experience of having them helpless to her touch - but Nia was provoking a hunger to please that came from a source usually untapped. Regarding the woman who was clinging to her, stroking her hair, covering her face with soft kisses, and seeming to fit between her long limbs as though she was made for precisely that purpose, Jake felt compelled to put herself at the service of Nia's pleasure - a feeling that was alien to the complicated power games normally characterising her sexual relationships.

She gently flicked at Nia's ear with her tongue, before breathing into it,

"You're driving me wild, Nia. Do you know that?"

Nia was convinced she was going to lose it right then and there. Squirming beneath solid, capable hands, pinned against the wall by a pair of strong arms and shuddering under the assault being made on her body, she discovered soundless promises that almost blew her mind. Jake's tongue entered her ear and the blonde's chest began to heave frantically. The muscle was warm, wet, and soft, filling her and blocking her hearing until she could only make out her own racing heartbeat. Which quickened and began to flutter as the hand kneading her breast undid the buttons on her shirt, and slipped under the fabric of her bra.

"You ... and ... me ... both ... " She mumbled into a muscular chest, as skin connected with skin at last. Nia began to work at Jake's T-shirt, worrying it upwards to reveal a washboard abdomen and beautiful, flat breasts. She experimentally flicked out her tongue, level with a reddened, straining nipple, and was rewarded with a hoarse groan that echoed her own intense pleasure.

Soon Jake's hands began a downward exploration, one grasping Nia's behind and the other hovering for a moment at the top button of her jeans. Nia instinctively felt the fleeting pause and looked up at the beautiful woman wrapped around her, seeing the hint of a question floating amidst the passion that half-lidded those incredible blue eyes.

"Please?" Nia whispered, so quietly that she wondered whether or not Jake had heard.

"****NIIIIIIA!!!!!****"

Came an ear-splitting, exasperated shout that told her she wasn't going to get a chance to find out.

Shit. Max.

Blue eyes met green as Nia and Jake froze against the wall for what felt like half an hour. For a moment Nia was tempted to ignore the imminent interruption and damn the consequences, but her better nature eventually won out, and with a sigh, she raised her own voice to reply. Never once wavering from the gaze that she'd locked with those extraordinary blue eyes.

"I'M IN THE CELLAR, MAX!!"

"ARE YOU OK? WHAT THE FUCK'S BEEN GOING ON?"

Damn. I should have known she'd come looking for me. And if she catches me like this she'll be horrified. And upset.


"I ... I'm fine." Nia choked out, knowing they didn't have much time. Think that's enough to get rid of her? Yeah, right.

Answering the new question in Jake's eyes with a regretful nod, she slipped out of the clinch that five minutes previously she'd been fantasising about staying in forever. Hurriedly buttoning up her shirt and wishing with all her heart that she'd had the presence of mind to lock the door after the Blue Cap had left.

Fuck.

The bar manager just about had time to set her clothing, if not her hormones, to rights when the cellar door burst open and Max crashed in, clutching at her hands and venting all her concerns at once.

"Nia, are you hurt? I was really worried ... you disappeared, we couldn't find you anywhere ... we thought you'd been murdered, and this wild woman bowled right past me on the door, asked for you by name at the bar, dashed down the stairs so fast she almost fell and broke her neck, and then the Blue Caps all left, tails between their legs, for no apparent reason, but you still weren't there, and ... "

Here Max stopped short, noticing that the woman who had almost knocked her over earlier was occupying one of the corners of the room, leaning against a crate and displaying no reaction to her arrival and hasty speech save a slightly amused look in her eyes. The barely discernible twinkle, coupled with a subtle twitch at the corners of Jake's mouth, appeared to nettle the compact little butch, who shot several agitated glances from the "wild woman", to her friend, and back again.

"OK. I can see I've missed out on part of the loop. Would either of you like to fill me in? What's going on?" She demanded, her ire no longer directed towards the Blue Caps but at the suspect character lounging right in front of her, in the recesses of the dank, dusty cellar. Looks as though she thinks she owns the place ... thought the Assistant Manager bitterly. What the fuck were they doing in here, before I walked in?

"I asked you both a question. What's been happening with the two of you in here?"

"Nia?" She looked to her boss for clarification of the strange scene she'd stumbled upon. If Nia was good at anything, it was talking ... and at this moment Max was hoping against hope that her golden-haired friend would be able to say something to reassure her that she'd jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Nia sighed, knowing that by virtue of a painful history Max deserved some attempt at explanation, but reluctant at that moment to oblige. Her assistant's self-righteous indignation at finding her in the cellar with a strange woman was leaving a disagreeable taste in her mouth, although she couldn't quite work out why the irritation was so extreme. She knew her friend had overprotective tendencies, but had always found it flattering in previous situations when the "big brother" streak reared its head. However, this time Max seemed to have moved up in the billing, playing a role that was a little more invasive. Who does she think she is, my girlfriend?

For the umpteenth time Nia wished that she wasn't quite so responsible for her friend's emotional well-being.

"Listen, Max ... it's no big deal. One of the Caps dragged me down here to intimidate me a little, and Jake told him to back off. I was feeling a little shaken up, so she stayed until I'd calmed down. That's all." Fervently hoping this rationale would suffice and not feeling inclined to clutch at straws for Max's benefit if it didn't. She idly wondered whether it was at all likely that her furious assistant would just turn around and leave them to finish what they'd started.

Perhaps not.

Max turned an incredulous look on Jake.

"YOU told him to back off? YOU? Why should he listen to you?"

A shrug was all she got in response, as Jake crossed her ankles and slid further down the cellar wall she was leaning against. This seeming display of arrogance caused Max's face to turn redder and redder, threatening to send her into an apoplectic fit and inspiring a tiny smirk from Nia, who had been watching the interaction between old friend and new and trying to scout a way out. I don't think talking's going to work this time. She thought, wryly. In fact, I'd probably have better luck trying to negotiate with the Cap.

However, the Bar Manager was starting to realise that her taciturn, enigmatic new acquaintance was relying on her to smooth things over. And strange as it seemed, she felt an inexplicable urge to protect the dark woman from Max's irate inquiries. Ok, let's have another shot.

"Listen Max ... " Nia began again. "I don't care WHY he listened, he just did. And they all left. That's good enough as far as I'm concerned."

She thought she saw a flash of gratitude in the blue eyes that were now fastened intently upon her, but it vanished just as soon as it had come, leaving her straining to read the carefully studied expression of neutrality that soon took control of Jake's features. God, she's complicated. I've never seen anyone with so many visible walls. Wonder how many invisible ones she's got? Wonder if I could ever work her out?

Oh well ... this is not an appropriate time or place, Nia.

Putting her burning curiousity aside for the present, Nia turned to Max again. The sooner she forgets about this little incident the better, I think. I'm closing this discussion right now because we could talk this thing to death and it wouldn't get us anywhere. Not until Max calms down.

"Look. We can discuss this later. Right now we need to get back up to the bar. I think this calls for an early closing, a quick cleanup and a round of staff drinks after all that hassle, don't you?"

Max looked as though she was going to continue to argue the toss, but Nia turned an inflexible gaze directly upon her stubborn assistant, and satisfied, watched her decide against it. The defeated butch darted one last hostile, suspicious look at Jake before nodding.

"Whatever." Max did an exaggerated about-turn and started back up the stairs, leaving the cellar door wide open in a clear invitation for Nia and Jake to follow her at close quarters. It was clear that the Assistant Manager was not going to give them any opportunity to spend more time in private.

Nia turned to Jake, regret and apology in her eyes. "I'm sorry about that. Max is a bit of a bull-dog. She can be a little over-protective, you know?"

Surprised when she recognised the gentle understanding that suffused the face in front of her. But too soon a detached, lofty demeanour took its place. "Well ... " Drawled Jake. "I can see why."

The small manager found herself blushing, and as was her wont when she was embarrassed, blurting out the first thought to enter her head.

"Do you want to hang around so we can carry ... I mean ... um ... I can thank you properly for saving my bacon? The cleaning won't take too long, then I'll have a quick drink with the kids to thank them for their hard work, and then we're done."

Her new friend seemed to hesitate for a few seconds. Then a slow grin began to dilute her disinterested expression, making Nia instinctively smile back.

"Oh, what the hell. You're on."


An openly approving expression began to set in to Jake's features as she followed Nia up the stairs back into the bar. The small manager moved with the grace of a dancer, with a quiet, sure gait that made even walking a pleasure to watch.

She looks like someone who's comfortable in her body ... the dark woman mused. And I was getting pretty comfortable with it, earlier ... damn that pesky little butch! Her interest in Nia seems to be a little more intense than her job warrants ... wonder what that's all about?

Jake shook her head as they mounted the last of the four little flights, as much at her own interest in Nia's other admirers as anything else. What is with me? They could be married for all I care. Right?

Upon reaching the top of the stairs, a resounding commotion stopped them in their tracks. The two brawny bouncers were having a heated discussion with a small brunette that Jake recognised as being the one that she'd been checking out on her last visit.

"I want to go and look for Nia!" Liz was yelling. "They could have done anything to her!" She looked around the small bar, desperation and frustration clouding her pretty face. "And who was that woman that came rushing in and demanded to know where she was? She could have been one of them! Nia could be downstairs bleeding for all we know!"

"Liz." Said Harry, patiently. "I'm sure she only wanted to make sure Nia was alright, and I'm sure Nia *is* alright. Just calm down."

"I'm fine, Liz." Said Nia gently as she began to approach, having caught the end of the exchange. "They just shook me up a little bit, that's all." Astonished but quietly touched when the small barmaid flew at her and caught her in a hug. Patting the girl's back, she said, "Hey there. It's over now."

Missing the barely perceptible nod that was exchanged between Harry, Ricky and Jake. A gesture that did not go unnoticed by Max, however. There's something fishy going on here, I know it ... she thought.


Jake idly played with the cuffs of her biker jacket while she consumed the scene displayed in front of her. Respect for her most recent conquest was mounting by the second as she appreciated the slick operation the small woman had constructed. The staff were rapid and efficient, getting their allotted jobs done with the minimum of fuss, but the atmosphere was a congenial one, people stopping occasionally to offer a joke or a helping hand.

She'd realised from the moment they reached the top of the stairs that she was the focus of a good deal of concealed attention, but most of the glances held little more than curiousity, apart from the open hostility directed at her by Max.

Her sensitive ears picked up a conversation that was bouncing back and forth between two girls who were gossiping while they washed trays full of glasses.

"Do you think that's Nia's girlfriend?"

"I dunno. She's gorgeous though, isn't she? And did you see the way she charged in here?"

"I know. I wish someone would play the hero for me."

"Look at those cheekbones! Do you think she's sucking in?"

Jake suppressed a snort and turned back to the action. Sucking in. Kids.

The small bar manager was mucking in with the rest, she noticed with approval, watching Nia sweeping up bits of broken glass, cigar butts and beer mats with quick flicks of her wrist. She became aware of the fact that the blonde was also keeping half an eye on everyone else in the little team, making sure jobs were being done properly and that no-one was struggling unduly with their task. She observed the manager cheerfully helping a young girl to drag a table over to the wall, and marvelled at the ability this woman had to keep a handle on her employees without going on a power trip. Jake reflected with regret that fear was usually the means of administering any projects she'd been involved with. But Nia managed to remain on friendly terms with her staff without putting any unseen boundaries at risk. That the staff liked her was obvious, some even treating her with affection, but more importantly - she appeared to command a great deal of respect because the camaraderie forfeited not one iota of her serene authority. They get a kick out of helping her. And I don't blame them. A smile and a little praise from her would be a pretty powerful motivation.

Nia had dealt with queries about what had gone on in the cellar by playing her report down, telling the staff enough to let them know they could be trusted, but leaving out the details that might cause them to panic.

Hmmm. Those kids obviously don't know much about what really goes on here. Not that it's a bad thing. The less people carrying information the better, I think. But Nia must bear the brunt of it alone.

"Jake, are you OK? Would you like another drink while we get the last of this sorted?" The brave, gentle blonde came sharply into focus, as Nia leaned her broom against the bar and patted Jake on the arm.

"I'm fine, thanks. I was just wondering whether I could be of any help?" Devouring the delighted gratitude in Nia's eyes as she voiced her offer.

"I think you've done enough, thanks." Piped up Max, coming up behind her boss.

Oh, God. Doesn't she ever give over? This is getting a little tiresome.

Nia turned around and faced her assistant, eyes flashing. "Max, just let it go. Don't create a scene. Jake has kindly offered to help us out, and it's up to me to decide whether that's necessary or not. I don't really need your input, thanks." Oops. That was a little harsh, Nia. But if you don't stand up for yourself this situation is only going to get worse.

She'd been planning to tell the dark woman to sit down and relax, but Max's attitude had aroused a tendency to petulance that the blonde normally kept well hidden. She forced herself to refrain from darting a victorious look at her over-zealous friend before making her point clear. "That would be great, Jake, thanks. Do you think you could stack some chairs up by the wall for me?"

"Sure." Jake rose from the bar stool, and met Max's glare with another characteristic shrug as she began hefting wooden chairs into neat piles.

"Nia, what do you think you're doing?" Hissed the Assistant Manager. "You know nothing about this woman. I know she helped you out earlier, but why is she still here? Can't you just say thanks and send her home?"

The ordeal in the cellar, coupled with Max's grasping behaviour, was starting to make Nia feel like a deer caught in a trap. The sensation of being physically and metaphorically pawed at by so many people was distasteful beyond belief to the blonde's keen sense of pride and dignity.

"Listen, Max, if you make a scene in front of the staff I'll be furious. Remember who you are. You're management, and management don't bicker in front of their employees." She watched as her friend forced a slow nod. And although she knew she was tiptoeing on the line that separated assertiveness from cruelty, her turbulent emotions were rapidly causing her to overbalance. Impetuously, she continued,

"And for your information, Jake will stay here as long as I want her to. You have nothing to do with it. Those gangsters don't own me. You don't own me. And you can't tell me who I should and shouldn't consort with. Alright?"

Anticipating the hurt expression on her assistant's face, Nia sighed and tempered her statement by patting Max on the arm and saying a little more gently, "I appreciate your concern, I really do. But I can look after myself. I don't need anyone to take care of me."

Oh yes you do. Thought the Assistant Manager. But I can see I've been pipped at the post for *that* job.


"So you're a friend of Nia's then?"

Jake turned back from the pile of chairs to see a pleasant looking young man regarding her quietly but with undisguised interest.

Eeek. This could be messy.

Her interactions with men normally followed one of two routes - they either viewed her as a threat, or identified with the masculinity she expressed, affording her a grudging acceptance that rapidly turned to respect. She sent a silent prayer up to whoever might be listening that the latter would be the case in this instance. Come on, cut me some slack, please. Haven't I dealt with enough animosity for one evening?

"Yes." She replied, briefly. "I am, sort of."

"Listen." Tom said, turning his back on his colleagues and dropping his voice. "I don't really know what went on tonight, and I'm not about to ask Nia any difficult questions. But I saw what happened out here. She was nowhere to be seen, then you stormed in, shoving people out of the way, rushed down the steps, and soon after that all the Blue Caps left. I don't know what you did - I don't really care, but thanks for taking care of Nia. And all of us." He gave her a sober nod of recognition that Jake recognised with relief as part of an attempt at male bonding.

Suppressing a jubilant grin, the tall, dusky woman took Tom's arm and clasped it. "No problem. Just glad I was here to help."

They regarded each other politely until the silence became uncomfortable, and clearing her throat, Jake enquired, "So, you like working here, then?"

Tom's face visibly lightened and he relaxed into a shy smile. "Oh, yeah." He nodded enthusiastically. "I've been here a year and it's the best job I've ever had. Not because of the work, but because of the people. Nia's really nice, but she's also a great boss, you know? She never makes you feel as though you're just a lowly employee." He bashfully glanced over to where his manager was standing, deep in conversation with Max. "She's lovely."

Jake nodded her acknowledgement, but was surprised to see a wicked glint beginning to appear in the timid young man's eyes as his voice faded out to a conspiratorial whisper.

"But for all her sweet, harmless appearance, she's got one hell of a temper when she thinks someone's trying to pull a fast one ... doesn't take any shit, you know? That tongue makes words as sweet as honey most of the time, but bees can sting as well. I wouldn't mess with that little spitfire ... anyone who thinks they can control her has another think coming, let me tell you."

He winked at Jake and moved off to finish the clearing up.

Jake chuckled to herself and stacked the remaining few chairs. Interesting thing to say.


"Are we done?"

Nia surveyed the bar with a rapid, practised eye and noted that everything appeared roughly in order.

Hmmm ... twenty minutes ... must be the quickest cleanup ever. Not that it had anything to do with a certain tall, dark handsome rescuer of maidens ... she grinned.

Jake had made herself more than useful, helping out with much of the heavy work that normally took some time. Heh. Looks as though we're both being motivated by the promise of things to come.

Something about her new friend clearly told Nia that she didn't usually spend her time offering to help clean up in dirty bars, and the small woman was touched by the obvious show of interest that Jake's efforts had constituted.

She's fascinating. I hope I get to know her better. She's just about the sexiest woman I've ever met in my life, and I've only seen the tip of the iceberg. I know she's probably dangerous, but that seems to make her more attractive, somehow. Heh. Get over yourself, Nia. Thought you'd left that bad boy fetish behind.

Funny, you'd think I'd be sick of tough guys, working here. And I am. But her untouchable front seems to be protecting something inside of her that I believe I could connect with. Max thinks she's suspicious ... I suppose she is, really ... I can't explain what happened earlier and how she managed to get the Caps on the run, and I don't know whether I want to even try. But my instincts are telling me I have nothing to fear from her. And I can't wait to pick up where we left off down in that cellar. Phew.

"Ok, people!" She shouted. "I think we've done enough! Come sit down and I'll get you all a drink."

She watched as the staff gratefully finished their chores, and hauled stools up to the bar. Jake made short work of stacking the remaining few chairs, and took a seat a little away from the others. She favoured Nia with an enigmatic smile as she sat down, almost turning the Bar Manager into a quivering heap on the floor and inspiring her to a determination that this round of drinks would be a *very* quick one.

Handing over a large vodka and tonic, Nia leaned towards the dark woman, whispering, "We're nearly done, I promise. I'm really sorry you've been hanging around."

Why am I hanging around, anyway? Jake mused. It's not as though I'm desperate to get laid ... I'm not short of offers. I can't believe I've just been helping to close up a bar for the sake of a one-night stand. Maybe I should have left while I had the chance.

However, she found herself responding, "No problem, Nia. You take all the time you need."

Nia could have sworn Jake's lips brushed lightly against her cheek before she moved away.


Finally drinks and conversations were finished, and both women were thankful that the socialising had included few questions about what had prompted the Blue Caps to their mysterious evacuation. Liz was the last member of staff to leave, having unsuccessfully tried to the bitter end to make conversation with her boss' swarthy visitor about the events of the evening. The one-word answers she'd received had finally convinced her to abort her mission, and as Max locked the door behind the petite brunette, Nia turned to Jake in relief.

"Sorry about Liz. She's a lovely girl, but can be a little nosey. Not spiteful, just excitable."

Jake nodded in recognition and raised an eyebrow. It was getting late, and as well as being painfully conscious of Max's constant, hovering presence, she found herself impatient to get Nia alone. She could still feel the blonde's soft skin beneath her fingertips.

"Are you done now?"

"Max and I will just sort the tills out. Five minutes at the most, I promise."

Nia entered a "no sale" in the till, and removed the tray, which was stuffed with a considerable amount of money. "Hmmm ... we didn't do too badly, did we?" Thankful that at least a good night's takings would stop Matt thinking the evening had been a disaster. "Perhaps the Blue Caps didn't scare away all the paying customers, after all!"

"I'll take that." Said Max, briskly, striding through the swing doors to the bar. "We shouldn't leave money out in front of people we don't really know." This with a pointed look at Jake.

Jake had attempted to deploy herself with tact during the course of the evening, an undertaking that had mainly consisted of attempts to avoid Nia's glowering assistant and her constant barbs, but it was 2 O'clock in the morning, she was frustrated, and her good humour was almost spent.

"Listen." She said, shortly. "If I was into stealing money from bars, which I'm not, don't you think I would have done it already? While the coast was clear and you were all cleaning up? Don't insult my intelligence."

The two faced each other off for a long moment. Then Max returned the till to the top of the bar, saying shortly. "Fine. You do whatever you like. Nia, are you sure you need me here at all?" Sarcasm dripped from each word as the little butch jutted out her chin and turned to face her boss. Seeing too late the fury that was beginning to distort the sweet face she knew she still loved.

"Max, I've pretty much had enough of you." Nia spat. "Now, we're going to get through these tills quickly, then you're going to go home, do you hear? And I'd appreciate it if you could learn to act your age."

Oooo ... she does have a temper ... thought Jake. Looks as though that lad was right. Ouch.

The tension was broken by a loud banging on the door.

"Shit!" Max exploded. "You stay there ... I'm going to check who that is."

Jake turned to Nia. "You want me to go?" But Max was already nearing the door and trying to peer around the frame without being seen.

"No." Said Nia abruptly, her anger still riding high. "Don't make it any worse than it is. I don't need both of you engaging in heroics at the same time. In fact, I'd have been perfectly capable of doing it myself."

A bit nettled, Jake resumed her seat and began to turn her back on the fuming blonde, to be stopped by a hand on her arm. She looked up into translucent green eyes that had taken on a milder hue.

"I'm sorry." Said Nia softly. "I didn't mean that. I'm pretty much at the end of my tether, and I speak before I think, sometimes. I don't think I'd have gotten through tonight without your help, and I'm very grateful for it, honestly."

Jake's shuttered expression melted under the gentle treatment that caressed her small insecurity and carefully laid it aside. So much for mean and moody, huh? God, I'm pathetic.

"It's OK." She said quietly, with a small, but genuine, smile. "Let's just hope it's something that will go away quickly, shall we? I'm looking forward to taking up where we left off before."

Nia's blush was the most charming thing that Jake had ever seen. And her thumb was unconsciously making circles on Jake's arm, a sensation that the dark woman was finding strangely comforting. She wished that Max would get rid of the mystery visitor and then hurry up and make herself scarce.

"Nia!" Hissed the Assistant Manager from the door. "It's Matt!"

Nia's heart sank, and to her surprise, she felt the arm under her fingers tense for a few seconds. Fuck. I should have known this would happen. If something dodgy goes down, Matt knows about it pretty sharpish.

"You'll have to let him in, Max." She sighed.


Max unbolted the front door and let the gangster in. The huge blonde man was sopping wet from the pouring rain, but otherwise looked unperturbed. Well, that's a relief ... thought the Assistant Manager, hoping the visit would be short-lived.

However, unlike Max, Nia knew the underworld well enough to know that judging a situation, and more specifically, a person, according to appearances was a mistake. She'd seen Matt with exactly the same expression on his face before calmly breaking someone's arm with his bare hands. Which was not an experience she'd care to repeat. Acutely attuned to Jake's presence beside her, she was also miserably aware of the fact that Matt did not tolerate customers staying behind after the bar had closed. It was far too risky, from his point of view, for the public to be exposed to even a hint of the private face of Fire and Ice.

Shit. Stay calm, Nia, speak when you're spoken to, and *don't* do anything stupid.

The imposing Chief began to make his way over to the bar, at the same time asking a barrage of questions in a tone that betrayed little hint of feeling. Nia couldn't decide whether this should cause relief or fear.

"Nia, what's going on? Heard from a contact that the Caps were in here. What happened? Did they hurt you? Those guys are pretty ... "

The interrogation stopped, mid-flow, as Matt's eyes fell upon Jake. His progress towards the bar ground swiftly to a halt as he became rooted to the spot, staring at Nia's visitor. In fact, Nia was convinced that if he'd had a little less self-control his jaw would be hanging open by now. She froze, unused to seeing her intimidating boss so speechless and unsure of how to handle it. I knew he'd be annoyed at me for keeping a punter behind, but I didn't expect him to lose his cool like this. He's really disturbed. This does not look good. I know I ought to say something, but what?

Luckily, Jake was not struck dumb. She swivelled her chair away from the bar and stood up at a leisurely pace, saying evenly, "I don't think we've met. I'm Jake." Extending her hand to the gang chief in a gesture intended to placate.

Matt considered the extended hand dumbly for a long moment, before shaking it and seemingly regaining his composure. Seeing three pairs of shoulders relax as he did so.

"Sorry about that." Matt said gradually, speaking to Jake but looking at Nia. "You just reminded me of someone I used to know, that's all."

Nia's wits were slowly returning to their rightful place. "Would you like to come through to my office, Matt? I'm about to take the tills down, so I can fill you in on what's been happening on the way."

Jake and Max watched in silence and not a little apprehension as the tiny blonde woman preceded the enormous blonde man down the stairs.

"Is she going to be OK?" Jake whispered, the earlier friction momentarily forgotten in the service of Nia's welfare.

"She'll be fine." Returned Max, caustically. "Nia can handle herself, you know."

Funny ... thought the dark woman, biting off the cutting remark. You didn't seem to think so when you were implying that *I* ought to stay away from her.


"Matt, this isn't the way it looks." Nia began, as she unlocked the door to the office.

"I don't normally let customers stay late, whether there's trouble or not, but the woman upstairs s ... um ... stumbled upon me in the cellar when one of the Caps was giving me a hard time, and I think she surprised him into leaving." Feeling it was wise to make light of Jake's involvement in the proceedings, knowing there were factors at play that she didn't understand, and not wanting to make the situation more complicated than it was already.

Matt's face betrayed nothing to tell her whether or not she'd chosen the right approach. "Did she tell you who she was?" He asked carefully, perching on the edge of the desk.

"No." Said Nia, unlocking the safe and depositing the entire till tray inside. I'll deal with the money later. Questions first, cash afterwards. "It didn't matter. She's a customer who just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

"Has she been in before?" Asked Matt, raising an eyebrow.

"No." Nia lied. It was an irrational move, she knew, but Jake's actions during the course of the evening had inspired a loyalty in the small manager that made her want to protect her new friend, even if it was dangerous, and most probably stupid. And she knew that if she told Matt they'd met on a separate occasion, he'd probably consider the acquaintance something of a risk. Although if he found out that she'd lie to him she had no doubt she'd be history.

The Chief eventually terminated his penetrating stare with a shrug. "Ok. We can deal with that later." Phew.

"What happened with the Caps?" Stay calm, Nia. Almost there. At least you can tell him the truth about his part. Don't care what happens to them.

"Well, I tried to keep them happy, as usual. But they were getting pretty boisterous and the customers were starting to smell a rat, so in the end I had to put my foot down. One of the Caps dragged me down to the cellar and started telling me who was boss." She recognised a familiar set, sinister look working its way on to Matt's face as she relayed the information.

"Did he hurt you?" Was the tight reply.

"No. But he might have done, if Jake hadn't been in the right place at the right time."

The Chief gave her a slow, deliberate nod. "Right. That's all I need to know. I'll take care of it." Noticing the troubled expression creeping on to Nia's face, his demeanour softened slightly. "Don't worry about it, Nia. The Blue Caps won't be bothering you any more."

Funny ... she thought. That's exactly what Jake said.

"I'll be in touch." Said Matt, rising to leave. "And someone will be making a drop-off tomorrow afternoon. Ok, hon?"

"Right." Nia agreed, glad the interview had been brief. "I'll see you soon."

She watched the door close behind the commanding figure, and for a fleeting second considered staying to deal with the tills. But the promise of her dark, handsome friend who'd been waiting so patiently all evening made her throw the thought out pretty quick. Sod it. I'll deal with it tomorrow. How often do I come across a possibility like this? She's been making me squirm all evening.

Regaining some of her bounce, she tripped back up the stairs to the bar. Relieved that the ordeal was over, and keen to forget her worries and enjoy the imminent tryst that she knew would be explosive.

Returning to the bar, she was surprised to encounter only Max. Perhaps Jake's in the bathroom ... she thought. Perhaps I should go and give her a hand. Heh.

"Where's Jake?" She asked her assistant.

"She split." Came a reply that crushed all her tender hopes.

"She WHAT??"

"Cut and ran." Repeated Max. "Matt came through and walked straight out of the door, and five minutes later your marvellous new friend just up and left without a word."

"I don't believe it."

"Told you she was dodgy." Max was feeling pretty complacent. But the imminent smirk had barely a chance to form before she saw confusion and anger mounting to a crescendo in Nia's eyes.


Part Eight

 

"I couldnít fucking believe it." Nia was pacing about the sitting room in Rachelís flat, recounting the events of the previous night to her friend in tones that were heated to say the least. And despite her intimate knowledge of the usually gentle blonde, Rachel found herself flinching at the scorching anger that was rolling off her small friend.

This womanís really got to her ... She thought. Havenít seen Nia like this in ... well, not ever!

"One minute sheís rushing through the door like a conquering hero, swaggering about and intervening in what could have been a hairy encounter with a customer, and the next sheís helping me clean up ... actually helping me clean up! She turned from lion to lamb in a matter of minutes. And then she left. Just like that, without a word. Isn't that dreadful?"

"Well", said Rachel with a half-hearted attempt at reason, although she knew it generally only served to fan the flames when Nia was this wound up. "Did she have any good reason to leave? Did Max say something to put her off? Sounds pretty suspicious to me. What do you know about this woman? What happened that night, anyway? Sounds like there was trouble."

"Um ... "

Nia stopped her nervous circuit of the room at that, thrown by this tirade of queries from her companion, but realising that they were nevertheless sensible ones.

Ooops. How am I going to answer those? I knew I should have kept this quiet, but I just couldnít, as usual. You shouldnít have made such a big deal of it, Nia!

Sensing her discomfiture, Rachel merely raised one eyebrow and folded her arms, making it obvious that she was anticipating a fuller explanation than the one she'd been given. But Nia, feeling more than a little tense, didn't see the twinkle in her friend's eyes as she turned away to think.

Damn! Rachelís so logical ... I should have learned by now that sympathy with no questions asked isn't her thing. She knows me too well. Thereís always something complicated going on behind the situations I get myself into, and sheís well aware of it.

"Yes, there was trouble, and no, Max didnít say anything." She muttered, hoping that this would suffice and stem the inquisition that sheíd invited upon herself.

Nia had been tempted too many times to tell Rachel about the hideous machinations that went on behind the scenes at Fire and Ice, but the small manager loved her old friend far too much to get her involved. Even if it did almost drive her crazy that she had nobody, except Max, to turn to for support. And it was really niggling at her now ... she was certain that Mattís sudden appearance had something to do with Jakeís hasty departure, but she needed to talk her hunch through with a disinterested observer, or she knew she'd just end up jumping to conclusions that were sensational in the extreme. Nia had trouble thinking clearly when her passionate spirit was in control of her agile mind, and Rachelís detached, unsentimental way of handling things ... a way that less understanding friends had called heartless on occasion - would have come in very useful right about now.

I really wish I could tell her ... shit. I know sheíd be able to make better sense of this than I can. Rachelís so good for me ... and I hate that I canít let her help.

"Well, do you know who this woman is? Did you ask her anything about herself before she kissed you?" Rachel was determined to ferret some sense out Nia, even if it killed her. How Nia expected her to give useful advice when she hadn't heard any of the particulars, she just didnít know. Rachel loved the blonde bar manager like a sister, but found her infuriating beyond belief when she was letting her emotions blur her vision. It was a weakness that Rachel couldnít understand, no matter how hard she tried.

"Not really." Nia owned, frantically trying to quench the tinge of embarrassment that crossed her pretty features as she watched Rachel process this information and wondered how sheíd react. Rachel had told her to call the woman, sure, but Nia was certain that she hadnít been expecting her to get in so deep in such a short time. Her friend was pretty conservative, and some of Niaís wilder impulses often left her a little shocked and more than a little frightened. But to the small blondeís surprise, the computer programmer simply rolled her eyes and persisted with the questioning.

"What was all the trouble about? You donít think Jake had anything to do with it, do you? Do you think thatís why she cut and ran?"

Nia knew that the ice she was walking was getting thinner by the minute. In fact, if she looked down, she could just about see a couple of cracks beginning to sprout underneath her shoes.

Oh God. My dear, smart friend is going to put two and two together one of these days. And sheíll come up with sixty-eight. And whatís worse, sheíll probably be right.

The bar manager miserably wondered what Rachel would do when she finally found out that she, Nia, who'd been top of her class all through school and of whom everyone had harboured such high hopes, was now beholden to Manchesterís Mafia.

But surely Jake couldnít be mixed up with them as well? If the dark woman was one of Mattís inner circle Nia was certain sheíd know it ... he always made sure she was kept informed of the identity of local personalities, so that she knew who she had to be polite to and who she could stand up to with impunity.

Max and Rachel are right about one thing, though. She is suspicious. And I almost gave it up in that cellar without knowing the first thing about her. That was real smart, Nia. What were you thinking?

Nia squirmed, again, at her own question this time. Because she knew she hadnít been thinking at all ... that sheíd been a more than willing participant in the dark, dusty cellar - in fact, she'd not been in control of any of her own reactions. Maxís appearance had been the only thing in the way of her shedding her clothes and allowing the dark woman to take her in every way that was humanly possible. And now that Jake was nowhere to be seen, Niaís dignity was suffering some extremely harsh blows.

I canít believe I did that. Maybe thatís why she left ... I was too easy and she just got bored. I donít blame her. But this is so unlike me! God, when I was dating men I used to make them wait at least 2 months before I even let them see me in my underwear. It took this woman about 10 minutes to reduce me to a quivering heap! What on earth is wrong with me?

"What on earth is wrong with you?" Asked Rachel. "You seem so injured by all this."

Nia turned to the friend whoíd been part of her life for so long now that they could communicate without words. Rachel had begun to regard her with genuine concern, instead of the long-suffering, patient expression she often wore when she was waiting for Nia to calm down. This in itself was enough to start the tears forming behind the bar manager's beautiful green eyes.

"Itís not really the end of the world, is it? Talk to me, Nia. Whatís going through your head?"

A long silence followed as Nia avoided eye contact and furiously fought down the urge to tell her friend everything. Absolutely everything, with no holds barred.

"I donít know." She eventually replied, in a small voice.

"I realise that Iíd only ever clapped eyes on this woman twice before, called her once, and let her kiss me in a cellar before she disappeared."

Sighing, and knowing full well that what had gone on in that cellar was much more than a kiss. So much more. In fact, Nia doubted whether sheíd ever meet another woman who could so effortlessly light her fuse.

Rachel put a hand on her friendís arm, encouraging her to carry on.

"But somehow, I canít seem to forget about this one and chalk it up to experience. And I donít know why. I feel a little silly, yes ... but itís more than that. I feel hurt. And Iíve really no reason to be. I barely know her ... I certainly hadnít had enough time to make an emotional connection. But I just canít stop thinking about it."

Nia paused for breath, feeling a little drained with the effort of digging around for what was really bothering her.

It's amazing ... Rachel always manages to get at the heart of the matter. I come to her with a situation that I think is outside my head - and by the time she's finished, I'm delving into my own mental state and admitting that the problem's not exterior to me at all. I had no idea that I felt so strongly about this. I guess I was too angry to even realise.

Nia searched Rachelís face with her beautiful green eyes, pleading for an answer from her ever-practical friend.

And she got one.

"Well, it seems to me as though you need an explanation before youíre going to let this go, hon."

Nia nodded slowly. Yes, an explanation would be a start. I have a feeling Iím not going to like it ... but itís a hell of a lot better than not knowing.

Rachel took Niaís hand and squeezed it.

"I said this the first time, Nia, and Iíll say it again ... call the woman. Itís the only way."

"But Rachel, I called her before and she didnít even bother to call me back. Iím starting to feel like a stalker. Surely itís right to wait for her to make the first move now?"

Rachel sighed. Nia saw the politics in everything. Nothing was ever simple with her sweet, sensitive friend. Sheíd make a good diplomat ... the computer programmer thought, wryly. Maybe she should just leave that damn bar and go work for the U.N, or something. Itíd be a better use of her brain, at any rate.

"Yes, Nia. Normally a self-respecting woman would not dream of picking up the phone in this situation. Not in a month of Sundays. But you want to know what her game is, and I really donít think your mind will be at rest until you do. So put your pride in your pocket for the time being, and give the woman a call. Just do it, all right? You can worry about making a fool of yourself later."


"Iím sorry, Matt." Repeated Jake for the third or fourth time.

"I left my phone in Fire and Ice on New Yearís Eve, and met Nia when I went back to pick it up the next day. It was by no means an intentional acquaintance, I can assure you."

She was leaning against one wall of her sparse apartment with a cup of coffee rapidly going cold on the small table in front of her, listening with a growing sense of apprehension to the gang chiefís complaints. She knew that she wasnít at risk ... and anyway, sheíd probably rise to the challenge of getting on with her life with a price on her head - but the gruff voice on the other end of the line carried a familiar sinister note that made her fearful for Nia.

Shit. I shouldnít have even gone there in the first place. I should have ignored my impulses when I found out that the Caps were planning a visit. I only wanted to do something good, to make things right - and Iíve probably made the situation even worse for that poor girl. Face it, Jake ... your help is the last thing in the world she needs right now.

"Listen."

The growl was becoming deeper and more ominous by the minute, and although Matt always kept his voice scrupulously quiet, it was nevertheless starting to make the dark woman flinch.

"I donít care who you are or who you think you are, but Nia ought to be off limits, OK? Not only because she already knows far too much, but also because I donít want her put at risk. And she will be at risk if sheís exposed to any more information. Sheís a damn good manager, and I donít want to lose her. Do you get me?"

"Yes, I do." Replied Jake. I wonder how he keeps her there? Simple threats or something a little more sophisticated? I hope to God heís learned from the mistake they made with the last guy.

"However", continued Matt, "Now youíve begun this little friendship with my little blonde, I think the best thing for you to do is to maintain it ... otherwise sheís going to start to smell a rat. And loath as I am to have you connected in any way with the operation at Fire and Ice, I also need to keep Niaís mouth shut."

Jake blinked a couple of times as she considered this line of reasoning.

Well, I suppose that's logical enough. Because Nia will have already assumed that if I'm connected with Matt, I wonít be coming back. If I show up, then I'm in the clear. It's the classic double-bluff.

And now heís going to tell me that if she blabs I have to "take care of it". Heís so predictable.

"What I'm trying to say is that I'd be grateful if you'd retain close contact with Nia, so that if sheís tempted to blab, at least I know that you can take care of it. It would be a shame if you had to, donít get me wrong - but it would help me out to know that youíre there if I need you."

Jake suppressed a snort of laughter as the head of Manchester's gangsters played his part to perfection. He ought to be careful. He's in danger of becoming a parody of himself ... she smirked.

"Think of it as a personal favour to me. Iíve got no choice but to have her watched by someone, after what happened on Friday."

And for his final trick, he pulls out the loyalty card.

"So, what do you say?" the Chief finished.

The question hung in the air, delicately, for a moment. But Jake had already recognised it as a rhetorical one, despite any appearances to the contrary. She was also uncomfortably aware that Nia's future rested in her large, powerful hands. The head of Manchester's gang scene was playing on her protective instincts to get what he wanted, and she knew it.

Iíd much rather saddle myself with this job than give it to someone else who might actually be compelled to follow orders, and I think he knows that. But I hope she keeps her mouth shut, for my sake as well as hers.

"No problem, Matt. I can do that for you."

Shaking her head a little as she deliberately put herself in a predicament that was going to be potentially explosive.

"So, have you seen Nia since Friday night?" The gangster asked, on a lighter note.

"No." Replied Jake, shortly. Deciding at great speed that she wasnít going to tell him about the irate message Nia had left on her machine demanding to know what she was playing at.

No point in asking for trouble ... and if he finds out I made the first move and gave her my number, Iím dead. And so is she.

"Well," Matt continued, "I suggest you see her again soon. Sheíll be suspicious as hell if you're nowhere to be seen after what happened on Friday. And thatís the last thing I want. OK?"

The conversation was already over for the tall, dark woman. She knew what she had to do. However, she still had to figure out how she was going to manage it.

He doesnít know that Iíve done the disappearing act already. How am I going to talk my way out of that one? I get the feeling that Niaís not going to be fobbed off too easily.

"OK." She acquiesced, automatically.

"All right, Jake. Iíll see you around."

"See ya." Jake leaned her head against the wall as she replaced the handset. The chilly, unyielding feel of the paint against her skin did little to assuage the feeling of guilt that was on the verge of becoming overwhelming.

Youíve really done it this time. Not only have you gotten yourself in trouble, but that beautiful, innocent girl is mixed up in it as well. Sheís at risk because you couldnít say no. Nice one, Jake. I thought you said "never again"? When are you going to get out of all this shit for good?

She gulped down the remnants of her cup of coffee, stone cold now, and stood with her back to the wall, staring out at the pounding rain, for a very long time.


"The Albanian trade in illegal drugs has been stepping up recently, taking advantage of the chaotic border situation resulting from the Kosovo conflict. This development has been combined with a large rise in the movement of immigrants and asylum-seekers to countries across Western Europe and threatens to cause trouble all over the continent."

"A little bit higher, Tom!"

Nia yelled over the news broadcast, holding a bar stool steady as it shook precariously with the young manís weight. Theyíd recently revised the menu at Fire and Ice, and Liz, being the resident artist, had written up the new selection on a blackboard that normally sat on a high shelf behind the bar. Now it was the task of Tom and his long arms to set the board back in its place.

"Drugs became an integral part of the Albanian blackmarket economy under the communists, and during the disorder and violence following the stockmarket crash of 1997 the forces of the underworld began to cement their influence. By 1998 the country was home to more than 10,000 drug addicts."

"Left a bit! Donít fall now!" Shouted Liz from the other side of the room, where she was unstacking tables and chairs ready for the bar to open. These smart remarks earned her nothing but a scowl from the long-suffering young man, who almost lost his balance as he poked his tongue out at the audacious brunette.

"Ha ha ha...very amusing, Lizzie!" Came the retort. "You're just jealous 'cos your short ass is getting nowhere near that shelf, admit it!"

"Farmers who used to provide groceries are now finding it more profitable to grow marijuana. Cocaine refining laboratories are thriving in the South of the country, and some of these drugs leave the country via the border with Greece. The rest is transported via Macedonia, an easy gateway towards the West due to the unstable state of this particular region. European integration has meant that border checks in most of the states throughout the European Union are very limited."

Is this OK, Nia?" Tom swivelled the upper part of his body so he could see his boss, an awkward position that nearly threatened to send him tumbling down on top of her.

"Thatís perfect! Ok Tom, you can get down now."

After helping her employee to dismount the stool, Nia surveyed their handiwork. The blackboard looked pretty good. Now she only had to check that the food would be up to standard. But if they haven't perfected that tomato and honey sauce by now, they never will ... she sighed.

The bar was due to open in about a half-hour, but having surveyed the situation with a practised eye, Nia realised that there was very little left to do that the staff couldn't handle. So she decided that the most useful thing would be to get herself down to the kitchen to see if any help was required.

Flipping off the radio, the small manager turned to Liz, who was coming up behind her with a "can I help you?" look on her pert, pretty face.

"Weíll open at about midday, OK? I think weíre close to being ready, but can you get some beermats out and check the glasses? Send someone down to me in about 10 minutes and I'll bag you up some change, too."

The small barmaid nodded at her boss, and Nia gave her a grateful smile before making her way downstairs to check up on the chef.

She was just about to call up from the bottom step to get someone to put some music on when the ambient sounds of a staff favourite, the French band that called themselves "Air", drifted down into her ears.

Well that's a bit of a contrast to the hubbub that seems to be going on down here ... she grinned, as she prepared to advance into the disorder of the kitchen.


An unusual lurch in the deepest recesses of her gut almost caused Jake to sway against the door of Fire and Ice as she pushed it open and stepped inside, out of the rain.

Not nervous, are you, Jake?

Whatís she gonna do, beat you up? She chided herself as she braced her broad shoulders and prepared to approach the nearest member of staff with her customary self-confidence.

Nope. And thatís exactly what Iím afraid of.

As she navigated her way through tables and chairs peopled with the first few customers of the day, the woman who could cut off someoneís breathing with one powerful hand finally admitted to herself that this situation was making her a great deal more apprehensive than sheíd ever imagined. Under circumstances such as the Capsí raid of Friday night, Jake could deploy herself with self-possession and an intimidating presence that meant nobody could get under her skin. But she knew that when it came to communication with someone she actually gave a shit about the shield she habitually erected would wind up as little more than dust on her steel-toed boots. Jake didn't care too much for too many people - but somehow, Nia had managed to join the ranks of the privileged already.

Sucker for a damsel in distress ... that's my trouble.

And a few harsh words from this particular damsel would probably smart a whole lot more than somebodyís fist in Jake's face right about now.

What a mess ...

She sighed inwardly as she also realised that the member of staff who was immediately in her path, manning the bar, was the feisty, petite brunette whoíd been mouthing off on Friday. Great. Letís hope sheís less outspoken during the day, shall we?

Jake approached the bar and cleared her throat in order to get Lizzie to turn around, wondering if she'd be met with open hostility or something a little more subtle, but not doubting that she was about to be given her marching orders.

Oh, well, at least if I get it in the neck from her first itíll cushion the blow ... she thought, wryly. And at least that stroppy little butch Max wasnít the first person I bumped into. It could be worse.

She was convinced that Nia's suspicions after Friday night and her subsequent failure to return the manager's call would mean that the staff would be instructed to throw her out on sight - to play it safe with reference to Matt, as much as anything else. Jake realised that she probably had "great big risk" painted all over her now, as far as Nia was concerned.

Shit. She must have been going through hell trying to work out what to do. I'm such a rat.

But to Jake's surprise, when the small brunette at the bar turned around, her eyes lit up as she greeted the visitor, betraying barely veiled interest rather than righteous indignation.

"Hi there! Good to see you again! How are you?"

Hmmm ... interesting. Thought Jake.

Looks as though Nia's been keeping it all in. Wonder if any of them have any idea about what went on in here on Friday? And do they even know that Fire and Ice is run by a gang? Nia's been hiding a great deal to protect these kids, I think. But just because they know nothing won't make her any less furious. In fact, it probably made things worse - I bet she has nobody to talk to around here.

"Hi there, Liz, is it?" She replied, combining a non-committal tone with a subtle perusal of the barmaidís trim body.

"It is." Liz dropped her eyes slightly, and Jake saw the hint of a blush starting just below the lashes. Yep ... Iíve still got the knack ... she thought as she suppressed a chuckle.

"Are you here to see Nia?" Liz asked, regaining her composure and picking up the handset for the phone that was nailed to the wall of the bar.

The smirk faded on Jakeís lips, as though she'd forgotten why she was really there. And remembered that this encounter was highly unlikely to be as pleasant as the last. This time her heart really did take a leap into her mouth.

She's going to pretend to be out. I know it.

"Yes. But ... um ... "

Liz, finger on the button, looked on with amazement as this enigmatic visitor went from playing smooth operator to gawky teenager in a matter of seconds. Feeling a little tongue-tied herself, she stopped dialing and waited for Jake to speak.

It seemed like an age to both of them, but it was probably only ten seconds or so before Jake blurted out,

"Could you not tell her itís me?"

Gritting her teeth and hoping fervently that the little brunette wouldnít demand an explanation. All the carefully erected barriers had come down momentarily as the dark woman tried desperately to find a way to bring Nia upstairs to speak with her.

Liz seemed almost as surprised by Jakeís sudden loss of control as Jake was herself. Looking slightly askance, she hit the speed dial on the phone without another word.

"Hi, is that the kitchen? Thereís someone here to see Nia. I donít know who it is, just tell her she has a visitor. And tell her to come straight up."


Part Nine

... Jake was leaning against the bar, the serene set of her long limbs belying the trepidation she felt, when Nia appeared five minutes later. However, the nervous twitch of the fingers wrapped around a triple espresso that would make an Albanian coffee drinker proud might have given the game away, if the Bar Manager had bothered to look. ...

...

"Hello, Jake."

Came a tight, cold voice, which told Jake before she even turned around that this was not going to be a pleasant encounter. She nervously reflected that when someone is usually as warm and open as Nia, it becomes pretty easy to tell when they're feeling the chill.

Shit. She's mad, all right. She has every right to be. After running out on her with no explanation in response to the appearance of an underground drug lord, I was expecting this treatment. I just didn't expect it to make me feel so...small. I hate the fact that I've upset her. I wonder if I can even fix it?

"Hey."

She said, softly, swiveling slowly to face her Waterloo and swallowing her nerves along with the dregs of her hot drink.

Jake had been rehearsing several explanations at breakneck speed for the short time she'd been waiting, stopping only when the reactions she was attributing to Nia became so ridiculously cruel and dismissive she knew she was assuming the worst. But these torrid altercations that were seething in her handsome dark head were promptly squashed by the vision that was her nemesis. And for the second time that day, Manchester's Charmer of Maidens found herself lost for words.

God, she's adorable...she thought.

Nia was wearing a pair of faded workman's jeans that threatened to swallow her whole from the waist down, juxtaposed against the most petite red T-shirt Jake had ever been lucky enough to clap eyes on. Over this ensemble was thrown a huge black apron that appeared to be splattered from top to bottom with some kind of tomato sauce. The fine, strawberry blonde hair had been twisted into an absent-minded knot at the back of her head and held in place with a ballpoint pen, and an intrepid blob of flour had taken up residence on her right cheek, just below the freckles that were darkening angrily with her blush. Jake's self-control reached phenomenal proportions as she valiantly fought the desire to reach over, tilt Nia's chin, and dust away the flour with her fingertips.

Sadly, the big, beautiful green eyes that were the crowning glory of the whole image were not such an agreeable sight. Jake balked as she saw a storm brewing in their depths, coupled with a genuine surprise that made Nia's countenance reminiscent of a gazelle caught in the headlights of a car. However, the obstinate set of the pretty lips and determined jaw hinted that this young doe was not to be placated easily by her assailant.

Don't you dare bolt, Jake. Disappearing is what got you into trouble in the first place, remember? You're better off staying put and trying to explain Friday's hasty exit. Don't be so feeble about it.

Unaware of the internal battle that preoccupied the dark, mysterious woman facing her, Nia decided to break the silence.

"I really didn't expect *you* to be the visitor who was waiting up here."

Her voice, pitched a little higher than usual, was betraying the remnants of the shock she'd received at seeing Jake perched against the bar when she mounted the stairs - the last person in the world she'd expected to ever darken the doors of Fire and Ice again. But there was something else fighting its way through the cadences of the Bar Manager's voice, something that allowed Jake the smallest hope that this situation might not end with a door closed in her face and a barring order.

It was pleasure, mingled with relief - as much as she wanted to play the injured maiden, Nia couldn't deceive herself about the fact that she was glad to see the tall brunette. That she was hoping against all hope that the explanation offered would be acceptable, wouldn't connect Jake to Matt and his gang - because she desperately wanted to see the dark woman again. And again. And finish what they'd started. And then maybe start something else.

However, the ever-vigilant sense of honour and justice that informed the small blonde's understanding of the world, as well as the sleepless nights which had been caused by her worries over Jake's sudden departure, were not going to let her push the events of Friday night to one side just yet. With a resolute inward breath, the diminutive Bar Manager decided that she was going to assert herself. Or at least to start with, until her burning desire to know this mysterious stranger liquefied her resolve.

Green eyes met blue as the air began to sharpen around them. They made quite a tableau in the small bar - to outsiders looking in, the tiny blonde bravely facing off against the dangerously magnificent figure of the brunette must have looked like a madwoman. Whispers were coming from customers ensconced in all quarters, but Nia was too consumed by the interaction between herself and the woman who occupied the bar stool next to her to care.

I must be mad...was her first coherent thought.

What if she *is* one of Matt's gang? Or worse? From the sheer size of her, she'd be able to kill me pretty easily with her bare hands if she wanted to. You'd think I was crazy to even try and stand up to her. She's unreliable, volatile and probably an extremely hazardous proposition.

But somehow, with an instinct that lay just below her consciousness, Nia knew that her new acquaintance was not going to hurt her. Probably could not - with a certainty that was bone deep and felt as old as the hills.

And, being an infinitely sensible girl, she also knew that if her relationship with Jake was going to progress, she was going to have to kick off on the right foot with the intimidating brunette. Nia already had a definite impression that the tall, dark and handsome object of her desire was used to having her own way, and was convinced that most of her sexual conquests had let her get away with it.

Well, not me. Not on her nelly.

So getting some kind of explanation was the first, crucial step.

Silence continued to hang in the air, as both women deliberated over what to say next. The inner conversations both were having grew even more heated as they refused to break eye contact even for a second. After a minute or so, some of the customers who were in close proximity began to look as though they might comment on the restless atmospheric fizz emanating from the bubble that seemed to envelop the two.

And still, the small blonde and the large brunette stared at each other in silence, straddling the fault line between emotional combat and something infinitely sweeter.

It was Jake who broke the deadlock.

"Um...can we talk?" She asked.

Great opener, Jake. That's original. And it's also her cue for "I have nothing to say to you." Just wait for it. After what you did on Friday I wouldn't blame her.

However, Nia's reply was not so dismissive as the miscreant had suspected.

"Sure." She said, to Jake's surprise.

"I would like to hear what you have to say. However, this is my only chance at a lunch break today and I'm hungry. Would you like to eat with me while we chat?"

Jake nodded mutely.

"Fine." Said Nia.

"Take a seat, and I'll grab us something. I won't be a minute."


Left to her own devices, Jake scanned the bar for appropriate seating. Fire and Ice did not have an atmosphere conducive to peace and privacy by any means, she realised ruefully.

I don't want her to feel too isolated...she thought, remembering the stricken look in Nia's eyes when she'd first come in.

But somewhere relatively secluded would be nice in case she decides to bite my head off...

Attracting all eyes and not a few murmurs as she stalked the territory, the tall, dark visitor had eventually settled on a corner table that wasn't too solitary by the time Nia returned, hair brushed, apron removed, face clean - carrying two plates.

The Bar Manager gave Jake the ghost of a smile, setting half her burden down in front of the other woman and taking her own seat. Crossing her legs under the table, she motioned with a flick of the wrist that was both imperious and endearing, for her guest to begin her lunch.

Looks as though it's food first, argument after. Well, I suppose I can live with that...

Shrugging and unfurling the large, red napkin that housed her knife and fork, Jake looked down at the concoction in front of her.

"Blimey!"

"Excuse me?"

"I said, blimey!"

"Yes, I heard you...but why that reaction?"

"Oh. I didn't realise you cooked Middle Eastern here. It's my favourite."

A shy smile and a grateful flush began to jostle each other for purchase on Nia's face. And for the second time since she'd entered the bar bent on her explanation, Jake became sharply cognisant of the fact that the small bar manager was wreaking even more havoc on her senses with every second. That her need to be exonerated and to compensate for the events of Friday night was really tied to her own awakening feelings, rather than any outmoded loyalties she may have owed to the head of Manchester's most formidable gang.

"It's quite a new thing, actually. We're trying a new Fire and Ice menu for the first time today. Let me know what you think."

The plates were piled high with large chicken pieces, tender and slipping off the bone, drizzled over with a simple tomato, onion and honey sauce. Fragrant, wild risotto rice framed the dish, which was sprinkled liberally with toasted almonds, raisins and chopped coriander.

"Oh, yes."

Jake intoned, as the first forkful melted in her mouth.

"This is one of the most wonderful things I've ever tasted. I'm not just trying to butter you up - I mean it!" She continued in response to Nia's raised eyebrow. "I had a girlfriend a long time ago who was a marvellous cook, but even her inventions had nothing on this."

To Jake's surprise Nia failed to respond to the compliment, merely conferring another little smile as she continued with her lunch. Alone in the silence, the raven-haired caller wondered if she'd said the wrong thing.

Careful, Jake ... flattery probably won't get you anywhere, and you'll only end up looking insincere. And talking about your personal history may be a little inappropriate, considering you almost bedded her and she's mad at you.

Curbing the unusual impulse for chatter that was inspired by the delicious food and the even more delectable blonde sitting opposite her, Jake concentrated on clearing her plate before she cleared her throat and resumed the conversation, asking a little more calmly,

"So what's this creation called? Chicken, honey and almonds is such an original combination! Does it have an exotic name?"

"Yeah." Replied Nia, dryly. "Chicken with honey and almonds."

The chuckles that erupted from the two women at this gentle irony were a tonic for two wary souls. Nia's anger seemed momentarily forgotten, as she favoured Jake with a beaming smile that started at the corners of her eyes and didn't stop until she'd revealed two rows of small, perfect white teeth.

"I'm glad you like it, anyway."

Nia's radiant countenance was infectious, and Jake found herself grinning in reply, reasoning with a premature amount of satisfaction that perhaps the confrontation she'd been dreading was not going to occur.

"I do indeed. Very much. Please pass my compliments to the chef."

"Um...that's me."

"No shit! You?"

"Yep. I made this."

Wow - this tastes like it was made by an expert! How did you learn to do this?"

"Necessity, really." Replied the blonde.

"When I was growing up my parents were very busy people, and I was the eldest child - I used to cook dinner for the family every night."

Filing away this microscopic insight into the curious blend of innocence and responsibility that Nia seemed to embody, Jake nodded as she polished off the last piece of chicken on her plate.

"Dishes like this one were easy because they're so quick - you can prepare the sauce in advance, even overnight - and just sear the meat or fish as it's needed. I became pretty adept at quick but tasty cookery when I was a teenager."

"I'll say you did if this is anything to go by." Came the enthusiastic agreement from the recipient of her latest culinary labour.

Nia favoured her guinea-pig with another wide smile, before continuing, "Now I invent the menu at Fire and Ice, and hire a couple of young chefs who learn my recipes."

"Well, I see that you have many skills." The brunette began to banter.

"More than you think." Was the Manager's good-natured response.

"I'd love to attend one of your cookery classes. What's the reward for good behaviour, teacher?" Countered Jake, with a wink.

No reply.

"Or...do I get the feeling that you like the bad boys best? I think I'd have a good chance of attaining teacher's pet status, in that case."

However, as the last, teasing words dropped from her full lips the brunette realised that she'd made a mistake. Her outrageous attempt at flirting seemed to rekindle the tension that the meal had dispersed. The shuttered look returned to green eyes that had previously been dancing with light.

"Now that lunch is over, I believe you had something you wanted to say to me." Nia stated, quietly.

Ok...the banter's gone and put a spanner in the works, although I canít think why. Itís always worked before, hasnít it? *Now* how am I going to handle this?

Jake had never been one to apologise, especially not in the context of a relationship that promised to be more than just a friendly one - it tore at the gossamer strands of the power balance that always had to be tilted in her favour. Not unevenly enough for her partners to notice - Jake was not a cruel woman, so she liked to grant her conquests a certain degree of independence - but the subtle disparity of power still had to exist, if only in the shadows. If she was honest with herself, this was motivated solely and simply by fear. Fear that if her intimates were not bound and beholden more to her than she was to them, they would leave her, betray her, and break her heart as it had been broken many years before.

Tara...

Even after devouring the healing gifts of time, a few stubborn, battered remnants of the dark woman's heart continued to call out to the architect of her destruction.

In the bleak aftermath of the devastation that Tara had wrought, an apology had become something that was highly unlikely to cross Jake's mind, let alone transmute itself into the form of a proclamation. Even if she'd done something terrible, she learned to be extremely clever about admitting responsibility - "I'm sorry you're hurting", rather than "I'm sorry I hurt you" was her stock-in-trade. And as a result the women she picked up and discarded were left frustrated, denied any valid reason for their distress.

Jake had seriously wounded some of her paramours - she wasn't a philanderer by any means, but she habitually managed to convey the impression that she was looking for something...and that this prize had so far managed to elude her. Her attention was as fleeting as it was intense, and when the honeymoon was over and she'd reached the threshold of boredom, she invariably managed to find someone else, usually an even more beautiful blonde, to gift with her legendary charm. And she never, never let anyone close.

She winced as she remembered one particularly well-aimed parting shot.

"If you'd only pluck up the courage to let me in, to help me understand why you behave as you do, we might have a chance! But that would perforate the armour, wouldn't it?"

Momentarily unconscious of her surroundings, Jake let out a sigh.

Too right, it would. I let Tara in, and gave her everything I had - and she busted my heart into smithereens and left me with nothing. I just can't do it again.

"Well?" The voice of the Bar Manager, clear as a bell, pierced through the Babel of bewildered, abandoned sweethearts that were grasping desperately at her visitor's heart and mind and almost winning the struggle for suffocation.

With one foot still in the desolate battlegrounds of the past, Nia's dark guest stepped once more into the immediacy of a charged situation...and not without an inward moan at her own weakness, decided to try again with the charm.

After all, it normally worked a treat in the first stages of an acquaintance.

"Listen, babe...I just had to take off on Friday night - something came up - you know how it is. I hope it didn't screw up your evening too much. Maybe we could do it again some time - I've been thinking of your pretty face ever since, you know. Is that OK, hon?"

Watching carefully for a sign of relaxation on the blonde's face, but finding none. In fact, the charm seemed to be having exactly the opposite effect to the one Jake had intended. Nia's mouth was hardening into a thin line, and suppressed anger was causing her eyes to sparkle like emerald chips.

Fuck...I'm really not going to be able to sweet-talk my way out of it. And I can't use Max as an excuse, either. Although she irritated me almost to distraction that night, she wasn't the reason I left. And I can't lie about it. She and Nia are obviously great friends, and it would cause trouble. God knows I've caused enough trouble already. What am I going to do? Why am I making things worse?

And then the young man who was Nia's employee popped into Jake's head.

"for all her sweet, harmless appearance, she's got one hell of a temper when she thinks someone's trying to pull a fast one, you know? Anyone who thinks they can control her has another think coming, let me tell you."

So that's it. I'm treating her like a fool...and she knows it. Well Jake...someone has your number at long last. But the question is...do you think you can bring yourself to cut the crap and be straight with her?

She really didn't know.

But looking at the beautiful blonde who sat across the table waiting for an explanation, a hint of trust and acceptance still visible in the eyes that were by now brittle with anger, Jake felt that perhaps an attempt to be honest might not diminish her after all. Contemplating the words "I'm sorry", she realised that they seemed to lose their power to humiliate when confronted with Nia's sensitivity and lack of guile, and became a way of reaching out, rather than a source of defeat.

So Jake took her courage in both hands and decided to try a brand new endeavour - speaking from the heart.

"Nia, I'm going to be honest with you now."

To her relief, a slight warming in the depths of the resentful green eyes facing her told her that she might even be on the right track, emboldening her to continue.

"I'm really sorry I had to leave on Friday night. I was having a wonderful time."

A faint nod from the blonde head told her that she hadn't said anything completely unacceptable yet.

"I have an inkling of your situation here at Fire and Ice, so I'm also sorry that you must have been worried sick for the past few days over why I did it."

The words were beginning to come naturally now, as she who was normally berated for being as cold as ice confessed to a complete stranger,

"I like you. I think you're beautiful, and warm, and interesting, and I think we could have a fantastic time together."

Oh, yes...this is the way to do it. Why didn't you do this before, Jake? It's really not that scary. Not with her, anyway.

"There are parts of my life that I just can't talk about. I wish I could - at the moment I feel like I could tell you everything."

A statement which she realised with some shock was true.

"But at the moment it's just not possible. And it's not only in my interests, it's in your interests, too. I think you're smart enough to have worked that out already."

Nia was by now both judge and jury, so earnest was Jake's intent - and the explicant saw a warmth start to spread, suffusing the beautiful eyes she was by now ready to drown in, as flecks of gold punctuated the green.

"However, I can assure you that I will never cause you to be hurt or get you into trouble. I think you already know that, too."

Relaxation was dawning on the Bar Manager's face, as a hint of a smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth and softened the lines of her jaw. Jake took a deep breath and voiced the question she'd been longing to ask.

"Do you think you can live with that long enough to risk going out for a couple of drinks with me tomorrow night?"

The manager of Fire and Ice was universally known for her ability to listen with generosity and grace. However, during the past few minutes she'd been uncharacteristically inanimate, digesting Jake's offering with a far-away look muting her pretty features. Now the smile finally broke through in all its glory.

"It's a date."


Part Ten

 

...

OK ... itís a date. So far, so good. But what on earth am I going to wear?

...

A few hours after the conversation during which the most baffling woman she'd ever met had almost knocked her socks off with completely unforeseen honesty and candour, Nia was sitting cross-legged on her bed, chin resting on her hands, contemplating her wardrobe.

I donít think anything in here is at all suitable ... considering the fact that I'm always at work, and all I ever go to work in are baggy combats and T-shirts.

Not particularly appropriate for a first date, Nia. That'll teach me to have a more glamorous life!

Padding over to the small closet, she leafed carefully through the collection of hangers, perusing each item and mentally wearing it for Jakeís intent gaze. Her eye was swiftly drawn to the little black dress she'd worn for her graduation ceremony - but this idea was thwarted by a well-practised sense of occasion and the beginnings of a shrewd understanding of the dark womanís wild spirit.

Nah ... the black dress is out. That would be too much. Something tells me that if I look as though Iíve made an undue amount of effort in a bid to "catch" her, sheís going to head for the door.

A shake of the pretty golden head punctuated this thought.

Butches are so predictable. I swear some of them think itís romantic to be a ladykiller who runs scared at any sniff of commitment. I suppose weíve got old movies and Mills & Boon to blame for that, though. Heathcliff ... Rhett Butler ... youíve a lot to answer for!

Nia chuckled and chided herself as she admitted how many times sheíd sat through those black and white films, lapping up the drama and loving every moment.

But this is real life. I mean ... everyone likes the bad boys, but thereís a difference between being sexy and a little dangerous, and completely inconsiderate! They didnít tell you that in Gone With the Wind, did they? The bounders and cads may be able to get the girls but theyíre highly unlikely to be able to keep them.

However, as she continued to examine her limited wardrobe, the feisty Bar Manager had to climb down from her favourite soapbox and allow that her new acquaintance might just be able to break the usual cycle.

I have to say that she did a pretty good job today of dropping the tough guy routine when it really mattered. She was far more open than Iíd ever have expected. And when she apologised I thought I must have been dreaming.

That must have been terribly difficult for her, too.

She didn't look as though she was used to letting the barriers down ... that's for sure.

Feeling encouraged by the memory, Nia continued to flip through the contents of her wardrobe, until her gaze alighted on a long khaki skirt with deep pockets, that she pictured clinging to her small waist and slender, shapely legs.

Bingo! Thatís it!

Following this breakthrough, it didn't take the small bar manager long to team this very serviceable item with a fitted vest in fawn-coloured cotton, and her favourite piece of clothing, an indigo denim jacket.

The garment that goes with everything ... she thought triumphantly, as she slipped it over the back of a chair so she could grab it with ease when it was time to depart.

A chunky silver necklace fastened around the slender throat completed Nia's look. This had been a gift during a relationship that was one of the briefest, sweetest and also one of the most hurtful of her short life. After Paula, sheíd realised that it was time to acquaint herself with the desires that sheíd spent most of her adulthood trying to understand, and this journey of self-discovery paved the way for her first, and so far only, experience of the butch-femme dynamic. The dance had been beautiful but the ending had been explosive and it had taken her a long time to recover. However, these days, her dogged determination to forgive and forget meant that the trinket evoked pleasant if bittersweet memories - of strong arms always waiting to catch her, ready laughter and a passionate if slightly translucent love.

She then slid in front of her full-length mirror to survey the total effect.

Hmmm ... not bad, Nia. Not bad at all.

Niaís "everyday drag" could best be described as sexy but tomboyish. Although the small blonde had proven on more than one occasion that she could be a knockout in standard formal gear, she preferred to garb herself primarily with comfort in mind, usually opting for the latest casual trends decorated with her own unique feminine touch. Bell-bottomed combats teamed with a spaghetti strap vest that revealed her supple back and shoulders and just a whisper of cleavage, for instance. Although she most definitely defined herself as a "femme dyke" and for a couple of years now had been happy to embrace this identity, she had quickly tired of the short skirts and spike heels that seemed to be its standard uniform. Not only were they uncomfortable, but she knew, mainly through observation, that they often tended to attract the wrong sort of butch. Generally what she termed superficial "jock" butches, who proclaimed the desire to be with a femme, but who actually meant "wife" which loosely translated as someone who would accompany them to sporting events and bars as a trophy who was seen and not heard.

And the prospect of being a silent ornament was not especially palatable to Nia. Though she normally played the part of a gracious and dignified contributor rather than the life of the party, she was nevertheless someone who seemed to command attention when she did open her mouth to speak. Because what came out of that pretty mouth was the product of an insightful, sensitive intellect and was generally worth listening to.

And above all, while she might be lacking in confidence on occasion, Nia possessed a healthy amount of self-respect that would never allow her to be someoneís appendage. Being dominant was not her scene, either - having realised thanks to several adoring men during her period of "playing it straight" that an inordinate amount of power made her uncomfortable - but she passionately believed in equality. Which was a commitment that encompassed more than the boundaries of her own life, and one her friends admired, even if sometimes they didnít understand the fervour with which she pursued it.

Having provisionally approved her own reflection, the prettiest Bar Manager in Manchester then ran her fingers through her hair and fought the urge to cover her face in makeup.

The awareness of this urge was a development sheíd forever be thankful to Paula for. She smiled gratefully as she remembered the day the redhead had exclaimed,

"Why do you wear so much makeup, Nia? Youíre perfect without it. In fact, you probably donít need to wear any."

To start with Nia had been shocked and a little offended by the blunt statement, her sensitive power boundaries screaming at what she thought was an attempt to tell her what to do and how to appear. And sheíd spent years hiding behind her painted face. Nia was someone who was only just beginning to grow into her looks, having spent years at school being bullied for being a "Plain Jane". This had been compounded by the fact that she was a rather anti-social child, preferring to spend her free time living in her head, making up stories about a life which was far removed from her own, alone. Nia was an escapist by nature, always had been and perhaps would always remain so - even as an adult her stark reality often paled in comparison to the fantasy life she sustained in her head. She spent a great deal of her free time devouring books, films and the theatre, living vicariously through characters that she was convinced were more beautiful, more exciting ... and happier ... than her.

Although she had to admit that the prospect of tonightís date with a tall, dark, mysterious stranger came close to rivalling even her most exciting daydreams.

Nia had known throughout school that the other kids thought she was strange. And when sheíd discovered makeup it was welcomed as a mask, a fake smile behind which she could hide the hurt and insecurity caused by the teenage boys whose favourite amusement was to rag her for being "ugly", "skinny", or "boring".

So when Paula suggested she reveal the reality under the disguise, sheíd been terribly afraid. In truth, she didnít even know if she *could* wean herself off her favourite security blanket.

But the trust and genuine love she'd felt for the redhead had at last lead her to take the well-meant advice, and she had felt the benefits immediately. Oh, she knew the "natural look" was an image like any other, and was probably no more "genuine" in terms of trying to project a representation to the outside world, but she had to concede when she adopted it that Paula was right, and sheíd been wearing piles of makeup for the wrong reasons ... not to enhance but to hide her face. And not only did it take her at least half an hour less than usual to get ready to face the day, but people even began to comment on how "healthy" she was looking. It was bizarre. Now she was just beginning to realise that she was an attractive woman - that indeed, some people even thought she was beautiful.

Thanks, sweetheart ... she thought, mentally giving Paula a hug as she applied a little blusher and a slick of mascara to her otherwise bare face. A squirt of perfume on her wrists and behind her knees - and she was ready.

But it's only 5:30.

And she's not picking me up until half past seven - what am I going to do until then?


A few miles away, Jake was undergoing a slightly less than pleasant preparation for the eveningís entertainment ... a tongue-lashing from Kim. Her slender friend could be as trenchant as she was beautiful, and although she was more than aware that the rebukes sprang only from affection and genuine investment in her happiness, Jake was beginning to buckle a little under the verbal assault of "home truths".

The quarrel had resulted from the dark womanís painful realisation that as well as being the setting for her first date with Nia, tonight was to witness the staging of a mammoth birthday party for Kimís housemate Al. Jake knew that the event would be packed to the rafters with Alís colleagues - loud, obnoxious television wannabes ... but she also knew, with sinking heart, that there was absolutely nothing that could get her out of attending.

So, rumpling her thick raven crop and bemoaning the fact that of all the nights for a media "happening", this would have to be the one, Niaís incumbent escort turned to Kimís famed negotiating skills to salvage the situation.

"So you have a date with the blonde girl you met on New Yearís Day?" Kim twisted a long strand of chestnut hair around her index finger as she and Jake sipped herbal tea in her cosy kitchen. "The one who manages that bar on Oxford Road? Thatís great! I know you really liked her."

Jake, shrugged her broad shoulders, a little abashed by Kimís effusion.

"Yeah ... sheís OK. Itís just a bit of fun, though."

The knowing look that came from her old friend caused both her hubris and her hackles to rise.

"And anyway, why do you sound so surprised that Iím dating her? She didnít last long when I hit her with the charm ... letís face it ... who does?"

Ignoring Kimís playful swat and the flagrancy of her own untruth, Jake continued, with growing irritation and unusual petulance, "But seriously, donít make a big deal out of it, Kimmy. Weíre only going for drinks."

Honestly! Why is it that every time I show an interest in a woman she - and everyone else ... thinks itís something serious? Why canít women understand that a little flirtation doesnít necessarily lead to a big commitment? Especially not with someone like me. I donít ... I canít - do the domestic thing. I thought Kim would understand that by now.

The tall, dark butch looked accusingly at her friend ... but the only satisfaction she got was a dramatic roll of large grey eyes. Kim was well acquainted with Jakeís predilection for either sulking or posturing when she felt ill at ease, and normally chose to ignore it, knowing that this was the best way to make her incorrigible friend "get real" and cut the crap. This was a lesson that few of the people who managed to get close to Jake ever learned, and the tall, dark butch had more than once cursed Kim for doing her homework, following her perceptions, and working out how to handle her.

"Well, you know Alís going to be really upset if you donít show, so whether sheís the love of your life or not, youíre going to have to bring ... Nia, is it?

An injured nod.

" ... down to the bar for an hour or so at least."

Jake sighed, her fretful mood worsening as she anticipated the difficulties of the situation she faced.

"Yeah, youíre right. It has to be done or Iíll never hear the end of it. And I ought to go and buy Al a pint, I suppose ... it *is* her birthday, after all. But when she gets together with her friends they can be so embarrassing, you know?"

"I know. I think they all have ADHD, poor things."

"Theyíve got what?"

"ADHD. Attention Deficiency Hyperactive Disorder. Donít you read the papers? Itís what some kids get ... makes them misbehave - it used to be called bad parenting."

"Oh."

"Perhaps we ought to spike their champagne with Ritalin to keep them happy for a few hours ... then the ready-made audience could get on with having some proper fun instead of watching them perform."

Jake snorted in agreement. "Theyíre pretty awful ... thatís for sure."

"But thatís the media for you. No matter what they say ... and they will deny it, mark my words ... every single one of those researchers and techies working behind the camera secretly longs to be in front of it."

Although sheíd been chuckling at Kimís shrewd wit, Jake continued to look downcast, and was actually starting to dread the moment when sheíd have to introduce Nia to Al and her gang. For some reason, what the small blonde thought of her, her friends and their social activity was beginning to become disproportionately significant.

Staring at her boots, the dark woman failed to detect that Kimís face was beginning to show signs of comprehension.

"Hang on a minute though, Jake. If youíre not really bothered about this Nia, then why are you so worried that Al might embarrass you?"

The astute brunette received no reply but a glare, and what she could have sworn was the beginning of a pout gracing Jakeís full lips.

Kim let out a hearty laugh. "Youíre impossible. If you werenít so damn sweet underneath it all I swear Iíd give up on you."

Jake still made no answer, but the corners of her mouth couldnít resist a twitch in response to the backhanded compliment.

Not noticing, her friend continued, "OK tough stuff. Hereís what youíre going to do tonight. But make sure you follow my instructions to the letter or youíre going to upset her without realising it, understand? Remember ... I know how women think ... I am one."

"And Iím ... what?"

"A clueless but absolutely darling boy. Now listen to me, dear heart. Bring her down to the bar for a little while. Make it early ... because then Iíll be there to greet you. I plan to get going in search of some proper fun before 10 Oíclock, so come down as soon as you pick her up, OK? Then I can be available to make sure she avoids Alís clutches."

"Thanks, Kim. Youíre a lifesaver."

"I know. But this is the most important part ... make sure you tell Nia that this partyís a commitment you canít break. Donít make her feel as though youíre using an excuse to get out of being alone with her."

"Kim." Said Jake, her exasperation returning.

"Itís only a flippiní date. Itís not as though weíre married ... Iím sure she wonít be mortally wounded by the fact that we have to pop in to a bar to see a friend of mine."

"You really donít have a clue, do you?"

"What?"

"Of course sheíll be upset."

"God, why are women so difficult? Why do they read so bloody much into everything?"

"What is wrong with you, Jake? Why are you being so heartless about this?" Thereís nothing wrong with exercising a bit of sensitivity, you know."

"But women expect so much."

"Honey, itís relatively easy to please a woman when you know how."

Kim appraised her friend with eyes that betrayed a wisdom belying her 26 years, before letting out a sigh.

"You know what? I think youíve got butch block."

"Butch what? Sounds like some kind of American apartment building for lesbians! What *are* you talking about, Kim?"

"Iím telling you that your reluctance to show any enthusiasm for this date, even though I *know* you really like this woman and youíre probably very excited deep inside that handsome head of yours, has a logical, and psychological, explanation."

"Alright, smart alec." Jake was feeling more than a little vulnerable now, but damned if she was going to show it. "Hit me with it. Tell me all about the insecurities lurking in my unconscious. I've probably got *thousands* of them. Should I get horizontal on the couch, Dr. Freud?"

"Very funny. But I donít think you realise that having those elaborately built defences doesnít turn you into you a mysterious, romantic hero ... it makes you downright frustrating. So whatever you do, please donít try and cultivate them. You can stride about with your elbows out and your nose in the air and say youíre independent. I donít agree."

Kim paused for breath, and added, a little more mildly, "Now let me finish what I was about to say. Someone hurt you terribly, didnít they?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Iíve never seen anyone so gun-shy in my life. And as a femme lesbian whoís been dating butches for many years, thatís quite worthy of note. Iím serious! Someone broke your heart so completely youíre afraid to try again, Iím sure of it."

"Kim ... you know Iím not scared of anything."

"Oh, I beg to differ." Kim was by now looking as stern as her exquisite features would let her, in her eagerness to make her point.

"I know youíre tough physically, Jake, and your job requires a great deal of emotional detachment and resilience that I canít help but admire in you. But put your heart at the mercy of a beautiful woman and youíre absolutely petrified."

"I am not."

"Oh, spare me the argument and just admit it. You like this woman ... youíve told me as much, and even if you hadnít Iíd be able to tell ... itís obvious."

A scowl.

"But youíre scared, because you know that you might not be able to leave and shut the door after the one night stand like you usually do. Youíll probably want to see her again. And maybe again after that. And after that, who knows what might happen?"

"Kim, youíre hallucinating."

"I donít think so. And what happens when youíve known each other for a few months, a year, even? This woman may well acquire the power to affect you, to get past the shields you habitually have on alert. And the thought of letting those barriers down is frightening, isnít it? That, my friend, is what they call butch block. Itís not that youíre a cold, heartless womaniser - in fact, itís the opposite ... you treat women badly because youíre scared to unlock your feelings in case you turn into a great big ball of mush. And then the control that you cherish, sometimes over other people but mostly over yourself, might be threatened. And then when your girl leaves you, as you believe she always will, sheíll take far too much of you along with her. You know Iím right."

There was a long pause, as an ethereal force in Kimís delicate grey eyes challenged her friend to defy her.


Shit ... she *is* right. Jake thought.

Iím so scared to let anyone in that I canít even admit an interest half the time. Which is why all my relationships since Tara have been dead in the water before they even started. Damnit! Why canít I let go of the past? I was such an idiot then ...

"Then" was while the dark woman was at college in London. Sheíd been studying for a qualification in Social Work, while at the same time getting heavily involved in all the social activities ... and trouble ... that university had to offer. Eventually sheíd become entangled with a local drug gang ... small timers, really ... who would visit her small apartment most evenings and spend their time inhaling marijuana by heating a small lump clasped between a couple of knives on the stove. This procedure was imaginatively termed "hot knives", and they swore it got them stoned much quicker than usual ... so by the time Jake left her student accommodation all the knives in her cutlery drawer were ruined. After enough of the substance had been consumed, the lads would retire to the sitting room to chat with Jake and her long-suffering flatmate, perhaps winding up a couple of deals on their mobile phones at the same time. Jake would never allow them to deal from her own terrestrial line ... she knew the risks well enough, having seen plenty of university dealers carted off to prison for Possession with Intent to Supply.

She didnít really experiment with the stuff herself ... not after the first year, when she tried just about anything she could get her hands on that wasnít administered via a needle. Looking back now, she couldnít really explain why sheíd done it ... but at any rate, it was true that a social worker who was going to be dealing with kids who were using would be better able to empathise if she had a little understanding of what they did and the culture they were engrossed in. Sheíd hated it when people made proclamations about how drugs ruined lives, repeating what theyíd heard in the right-wing press, without really knowing what they were talking about. It wasnít that she thought all illegal substances should be legalised ... she knew both sides of *this* argument and honestly didnít have strong leanings one way or the other, mostly because she didnít really think the law could make much difference. But she hated self-righteous opposition that was only based in ignorance. Like the old argument that smoking pot automatically lead to injecting heroin.

Jakeís friends were thankfully not involved in heroin ... dope being their main business, with a bit of ecstasy, cocaine and speed on the side. They were criminals, yes, and could also be idiots occasionally, but all in all she had a little fun with them.

Not too much fun, though. The leader of the pack, Greg, was a rough but perceptive man whoíd soon cottoned on to the fact that Jake was completely immune to any kind of masculine charm. Probably because she had plenty enough of her own. After confronting her about her proclivities, he made it his task to see that none of his cohorts overstepped the mark. More for their own safety than Jakeís, he would readily admit ... even at 19, the young butch was showing signs of the physical power that would for a brief period make her notorious across Northwest England, and would even earn her the nickname of "The Crow", because she regularly brought decimation in her wake. But whatever the reason, Gregís mantra became "nobody touches Jake, OK?"

That is, until Tara came on the scene. She was employed as a podium dancer at one of Manchesterís premier nightspots, and would often visit Greg or one of his cronies for a little cocaine to keep her energy ... and her confidence ... going. This should have been a warning signal to anyone on the alert: however, once the two women met all rational thought was burned out of their heads by a chemistry that was incendiary.

And unusually, this initial intense physical attraction was to lead to an equally ardent love. Unfortunately however, Tara was a native South African whose residence in the UK was subject to the operation of her short-term VISA, nearing the end of its duration by the time she met the young Jake. In fact, the toast of Capetownís socialites winded up overstaying her welcome, loath to leave her new-found love and return to a home life and a country that continued to be beset with complications, even after Mandela had claimed both his freedom and the government. However, the Immigration and Nationalities Directorate caught up with the now illegal immigrant eventually, and the love of Jakeís life was unceremoniously given a week to pack her bags and leave. It was too bad that marriage between two women remained illegal, and that Tara was too proud and Jake too possessive for her ever to marry a man.

A devastated young Jake then decided to quit university and follow her fugitive African consort. However, the funds and travel documents required took some time to amass, so during the year-long wait the two women kept up a lively correspondence via post and E-mail. Their love remained strong ... or so Jake thought. But when she reached Capetownís International Airport, she was shocked to see that Tara had turned up to meet her ... with a new partner. A husband, no less. One of South Africaís new generation of entrepreneurs, he was successful, moneyed, and male. Three things that Jake mistakenly thought she couldnít compete with. Not realising that although such a man was the easy option in terms of the wishes of Taraís family and the traditions of her ancestry, sheíd never forget Jake ... or the feeling of being in a womanís arms. The cruel, exquisite African woman never told her that. She couldnít. She did what she thought was her duty while laughing at Jake for her "outmoded" loyalties and reminding her that open relationships were actually coming back into fashion. In short, she ripped out the vulnerable heart of the young butch and ground it up beneath her spike heeled shoes.

Her hopes and plans shattered, Jake continued in South Africa, wandering the cities and old Bantu homelands with a heart cleft in two, and jobbing as a driver for tourist trucks full of camera-flashers. While on a restless drift through Johannesburg, she had a chance encounter with a couple of men who were associates of her old ally Greg. By this time too well-known to the police in London, theyíd made the trip over to the ĎBurg in search of cheap LSD, which apparently was coming back into fashion among Britainís student populations. So Jake took the plunge back into the shadows, and when her new cohorts decided that the North Country was the safest setting for their return, she accompanied them to their next base ... Manchester.

On her return to England, the bleeding heart of the wounded warrior breathed a sigh of relief, and she made a vow to never again to let Taraís name cross her lips. Sheíd never broken it. To start with the silence helped keep her together, and eventually the episode merged with the armoury of defences that made up the dark womanís personality ... the most prominent hurt but by no means the sole source of pain.

"Jake." Kimís voice, a little gentled, dispersed the dark womanís melancholic recollections.

"You look so far away. Come back, please."

Blinking away the past and willing, as she always did, the remaining bruises to fade, Jake turned to her now repentant friend.

"Look, Jake ... Iím sorry." Said Kim.

"I didnít mean to be quite so belligerent about it. Youíre entitled to be cautious. I just want you to be happy, thatís all."

Jake took her friendís small hand in her own large one, feeling duly chastised but a little mollified by the apology.

"I know you do, Kim. And donít apologise ... you were right in your analysis, which is why I didnít take it too well. I do block people out, I always have ... and youíre right that itís because Iím afraid. And I have a hunch that the problem will be especially acute with Nia, because I havenít been this instantly attracted to anyone since ... since ... I was hurt. The once-bitten-twice-shy defence is definitely on the alert with this acquaintance. Do you know what I mean?"

A sympathetic glistening in soft slate-grey eyes showed that Kim did.

"I know, hon. I wish that youíd talk to me about whoever did this to you, but I know it canít be forced. But I also know that you realise you canít wallow in old resentments forever ... one day itíll become an effort to keep them alive, and it really wonít be worth it. So answer me one question ... do you think Nia is different to the woman you were involved with before?"

"Yes, I do." Replied Jake without hesitation. "I donít know why, but I feel safe with her. I never felt that with ... with ... the other person."

"Well, thereís your answer." Replied Kim. "Let yourself go, big brother. Donít hold back ... or I guarantee youíll regret it later."

"Iíll try." Said Jake quietly as she headed for the door.

Kim didnít hear her whisper, "I just hope it isnít too late."


Part Eleven

Jake was almost ready to tear out her own hair by the clump as she followed Nia's instructions and rapped smartly on the window - not the door - of a small ground floor flat two hours later. She'd already walked around the block twice, puffing and blowing against the cold Manchester air, scuffing her feet amongst the litter and remnants of the previous night's revelries, for fear of turning up early and appearing too keen. The tall, inscrutable butch took great pleasure in the ease with which she merged with the rain and the grey, dreary landscape, finding in its desolation a safe haven that allowed her to wander amongst the jostling crowds unnoticed. Even with her head down the imposing figure of the half-woman, half boy, commanding in her ambiguity, did not fail to attract the attention of some passers-by - but Jake merely slunk back into the shadows, waiting for the strange gazes to fade away. Afraid of being scorched by the light that tantalised her with its brilliance, the proud, sensitive brunette had yet to become acquainted with the rainbow inside her own heart.

The battle that was raging in her head at the present time was over the nagging feeling that she was, in fact, nervous.

Come on, Jake...this is absurd. You've dated plenty of women before - and some of them were sophisticated on a scale that Nia couldn't even aspire to.

A bold and slightly impudent statement - but it could not easily be dismissed as a figment of an over-active imagination. Although she was by now well aware of the extent of her own appeal, and could even be accused at times of believing that her charm was infallible, Jake refused to labour under the delusion that she was always the centre of attention.

However, there had been a stage of her life during which she'd enjoyed such a status.

After Tara, when darkness had wrapped tightly like a mantle around her heart and soul, the tormented butch began a period of almost frenetic promiscuity in a drive to rebuild her shattered sense of self. Contrary to her hopes, the multitude of sexual partners she managed to attract left her feeling more empty than ever - but the experience did a great deal to cement the masculine identity that was now becoming as prominent as her dark hair and keen blue eyes. As her limitless supply of cocaine bought her entry into Manchester's burgeoning high society, the young Jake realised that there existed legions of women who did not make the usual assumption that she was some sort of oddity, but appeared to adore her traditionally manly qualities. Her battered, bruised ego was overwhelmed by this discovery, and for a long time she was caught up in a barrage of superficial attentions, her trampled self-esteem gobbling up the boost it was granted by each actress, model, city chick and "It" girl thrown at her feet. All making promises they wouldn't be able to keep, some even going so far as to proclaim that they loved her - but luckily the dark heart was too firmly shuttered by this time for Jake to even consider believing them. She simply worked out what she could grasp from her happy situation, attempting to throw some light on herself via the radiance she assumed would go hand in hand with the loveliness on her arm. It worked, when her paramours were truly dazzling - their beauty emanating from the inside as well as out - but others were no more than exquisite, empty shells, hollowed out by years of privilege and adoration. For months the damaged, misguided young butch deceived herself that it would increase her value as a person if she had an attractive woman at her side. What she didn't realise was that she possessed a light of her own - which could only grow brighter when kindled by a flame that was not just skin deep.

Knocking on the window a second time, Jake allowed herself a wry smile, as some of her more satisfying memories began to flood her consciousness.

Remember that politician's wife in Capetown? You took her out to a cocktail party as a distraction while her husband bought 6 kilos of blow, and he didn't even seem to care that you'd fucked her in his car...or that you'd done a better job of it than he could. You were completely undaunted then.

And now you're scared of a sweet little Bar Manager who's not going to eat you alive...probably couldn't, even if she tried. She doesn't want to seduce you with her feminine charms because you're the little butch fantasy she requires for a night or two, or the bad boy she can play with behind the millionaire's back. She's genuine and you know it. She wants nothing but to know you...for who you are, not who she wants you to be.

A soft sigh was released as Jake leaned her tousled dark head against the windowpane.

Or is that what scares you the most? Not used to spending time with real people, are you, Jake?

Perhaps you might have to grow up. Perhaps...you're already considering a relationship based on friendship and honesty...instead of a quick fuck with the most beautiful woman in the room.

The feeling of uneasiness was intensified by the brunette's knowledge that in having the courage to stand up to her earlier that day, regardless of her possible connections, Nia had displayed a will that matched - nay, surpassed - her own. The small Bar Manager had been David to Jake's Goliath - and had played the part with equanimity. For someone who was usually so adept at convincing people to yield by the force of her own personal magnetism, this was a frightening prospect.

I never guessed that such a sweet little girl could be a woman of steel...but she truly showed herself to be more than a match for me.


Jake sighed again, and realising that the sweet little Bar Manager in question wasn't rushing to answer her knock, tried once more with a sharp rap at the window.

Strange...

Squeezing behind a very inconvenient bush, the butch poked her dark head a little closer to the window of what she supposed was the sitting room. Nose pressed up against the glass, she was shocked to see Nia crouching on a low couch, with her head in her hands, shaking with sobs.

Shit...she looks really upset.

Again.

I hope she hasn't had a visit from Matt.

Damnit! He promised to leave her to me. She was just starting to trust me...though I don't know why...and now he's ruined it. She probably won't even open the door to me now.

What the hell have they done to her?

She kicked the edge of the nearby front step in reflex, cursing at her own aggravation but unable to control the lurching sensations in her stomach.

"Jake, are you OK?"

Came a gentle voice from the front door, which was now standing wide open with a worried-looking Nia in the centre of its frame.

"Nia!"

For once, the haughtiest butch in Manchester forgot to "play it cool", as she grasped the small blonde's arm and looked searchingly into deep green eyes.

"More to the point, are you?"

The puzzlement that furrowed the pale brow in front of her did nothing to lessen Jake's panic, as she elaborated nineteen to the dozen...without letting go of her companion's arm.

"I guessed someone might have paid you a visit. Are you all right?"

Misunderstanding now turned to shock and surprise, as Nia replied sharply, "What kind of a visit?"

Uh oh...

Seeing her mistake in opening her mouth to speak before she knew anything about what she was dealing with, the dark woman tried desperately to dissemble.

"Um...I don't know...but I saw you in the front room, shaking, with your head in your hands. I was worried."

Perhaps I jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Oops.

And *now* she's going to want an explanation for this excessive concern. What am I going to say?

Better say something, quick...before she gets even more suspicious...

But when she guiltily raised her head to meet the blonde's eyes, she was surprised to see that perhaps she needn't turn on her heel just yet. Nia's face had relaxed into a benevolent smile, and her eyes were twinkling.

Maybe she was touched by Jake's distress - or tired of the intrigue - but luckily for the backtracking butch, Nia had obviously decided to let this one go. A small chuckle bubbled up from her throat in reaction to her visitor's continued discomposure, as she patted Jake on the arm.

"I'm fine. It isn't how it looks. Come on in and I'll show you exactly what was upsetting me."

She grinned cheerfully at the dark butch, who followed her through the small hall without a word.


"Welcome!"

Announced the blonde, throwing open the door to her apartment and releasing the aroma of fruit-scented candles into the hall as she did so. Jake stepped inside a little awkwardly, ducking her head to avoid banging it on the doorframe, and took a good look about, with interested eyes.

Nia's apartment was warm, and appeared as comfortable and hospitable as its owner. Free-standing furniture in a wide variety of natural woods was much in evidence, as were framed modern art prints and all kinds of plants - hostas, ferns, and even a Scarborough lily. Jake also observed the absence of ornaments and bric-a-brac - it was clear that Nia was not fond of *that* sort of clutter. The dťcor was not expensive but displayed an irreproachable taste and not a small amount of skill, the butch noted, as she saw that the hardwood floors had obviously been sanded and polished by hand before being softened by a couple of rugs in cheerful colours. A futon took centre stage, littered with throws and large cushions, and a couple of small, beige leather pouffes sat nearby, obviously designed to prop up feet. Stainless steel lamps with large, cream shades were throwing a soft light on the scene, and standing in a corner was a small TV set, housing an image Jake swore would give her nightmares for weeks afterwards.

She balked unconsciously and heard Nia snort in amusement.

"I know - awful, isn't it? When you spotted me I'd just about lost control of myself. I was laughing so much it was starting to hurt. That's probably why you thought I was upset."

The vision in question consisted of pop star Robbie Williams, strutting around on the raised set of a music show performing what was possibly the worst song ever written. His trousers were hanging around his ankles, revealing a pair of snug black briefs that left little to the imagination...and to add insult to injury, sported a pink Playboy insignia.

Jake, wisely deciding that it was probably not appropriate to relate her various liaisons with legitimate Playboy centrefolds, just rolled her eyes in reply.

"Some people should be shot at birth."

Nia snorted again. "Well, if there's ever an argument for the fact that some people should certainly not be inflicted on an audience, Robbie could be wheeled out to justify it. Look at the state of him!"

"I don't wanna rock, DJ - but you're makin' me feel so nice!" Hollered Robbie in answer.

"I suppose it's a little hardline, but in this case I'd have to agree." Grinned Jake, adding silently, and she's going to be exposed to a few more of those types tonight, if she agrees to come with me...

"He would be exhibit A - followed by those bloody Vengaboys." She continued, motioning to the television, where the aforementioned motley crew had taken over from Robbie and started their latest number.

"Take one inane lyric, 4 complete morons wearing clothes even stupider than themselves, a badly operated drum machine, and you've got yourself a hit dance band these days."

"Brazil...na na na na na na na na..." Warbled the band tunelessly, effectively reinforcing Jake's point.

Nia nodded enthusiastically.

"I know. They're certainly an insult to the public's intelligence." The blonde's unusually wry comment was shared while directing a baleful stare towards the television that almost convulsed Jake on the spot.

"But apart from the crime of making terrible music, I can't believe Robbie Williams was prancing around in his underpants at 7:45 - I'd be willing to bet that they haven't brought the watershed forward in his honour. Children watch this programme, for goodness' sake!"

"Well, if I'd seen anything like *that* when I was a kid at least there'd be a tangible reason for my lesbian tendencies." Retorted Jake, sending Nia off into a fit of the giggles.

The blonde's laughter was infectious, and her dark companion found herself chuckling in reply. They laughed, holding on to each other for support, until tears ran down their cheeks and the Vengaboys' set was long finished.

"Wow...that felt good. I haven't had this much fun watching Top of the Pops in ages." Sighed Jake, clearing her throat and wiping her eyes.

"And if this ain't love -

why does it feel so good?"

Suggested Spiller over a gentle melody, as blue eyes smiled into mist green and there was another explosion of laughter.

Now don't jump the gun...came the dry thought of both, as a companionable calm descended.

"Oh! I'm sorry."

After the hilarity, Nia's manners suddenly returned to their rightful place. "Won't you sit down? Or do you want to get going straight away? Can I get you a drink or something? Please, make yourself at home."

"Um..."

As she debated what to say to such a cordially given invitation and how to explain the evening's predicament, Kim's advice came rushing back into Jake's head.

"I don't think you realise that having those elaborately built defences doesn't turn you into you a mysterious, romantic hero - it makes you downright frustrating. So whatever you do, please don't try and cultivate them. You can stride about with your elbows out and your nose in the air and say you're independent. I don't agree."

And along with this timely prompt came the realisation that although the sun had gone down on her heart all those years ago, a gentle but persistent warmth was now poking its way through the cracks, making her hungry for more, and desperate to do the right thing lest the benignant presence vanish.

"Um...well, I think we'd better get going right now. In fact, there's something I have to do tonight, I'm afraid, and I'm going to have to beg you to accompany me. But please don't think that means I wouldn't rather be alone with you..."


Amazing...

Was Nia's sole thought as Jake helped her on with her jacket, waited for her to lock the door to the tiny apartment, and gave her a hand into the taxi that was waiting for them outside.

She's being so considerate. Fancy making sure that I was OK about going to her friend's party! She spoke as though she actually cared what I might think - I got the feeling she wasn't just being polite.

I really wasn't expecting someone who's obviously led such a dissolute existence, pleasing only herself for the most part, I shouldn't wonder, to be such a...gentleman.

The blonde smiled at the object of her musings, pulling her seatbelt taut and clipping it into place.

"You know, I'm surprised to be sitting in a cab," she began impishly, earning herself nothing but a raised eyebrow for her trouble.

"Somehow I imagined that you'd probably ride a great big Harley with mud and blood splattered up the sides." The dig was roguish but good-natured - a growing fascination concerning her evening's date producing the mischievous desire for a bit of play.

Now we'll find out just how seriously this big bad butch is going to take herself! Oooo...you're being very naughty, Nia.

And the Bar Manager was astounded again, when instead of a bunch of bravado her companion merely gave her an amiable grin.

"I do own a motorbike, yes." Was the genial rejoinder. "But I think it's irresponsible to drink and drive, so I thought a taxi would probably be better for tonight's festivities. Champagne tends to flow at Al's parties, and it's impolite to refuse it, you know." This last said with a wink telling that champagne was *not* Jake's beverage of choice, a disclosure which didn't startle Nia in the slightest.

Well, I could hardly see her housing a dainty champagne flute in those magnificent paws. But a wild thing with a sensible streak *and* a sense of humour about it! Oh, I think the evening is going to go very well indeed.

Young though she might be, the manager of Fire and Ice was not stupid. She'd been aware almost from the first second they met that she was in grave danger of being bowled over by her new acquaintance, but she was not in ignorance...or denial...about the woman's connections. Anyone who'd lived the life the small blonde had been thrust into, winding up in the position in which she was currently trapped, quickly learned that they could not afford to be naÔve. One look at Jake had told her that the butch had enough skeletons in her closet to staff the bar at Fire and Ice for a few nights running.

And she'd known very well from Jake's behaviour at the front door that something very untoward was still going on with her new friend.

It was also no secret that Nia had been left smarting one too many times in her brief experience by the bad boy with the chiselled cheekbones and winning smile.

However, she'd decided, for the purposes of the evening's excursion at least, to try and forget her fears, to stamp down her tendency to suspicion - in order to get to know her new suitor better. She realised that the episode promised to be reminiscent of past mistakes - but her nature was not to be coarsened by cynicism, and she was determined that old hurts should make her savvy and prudent rather than feeding her qualms. Because much as her good sense told her she might be asking for trouble, Nia desperately wanted to know this baffling butch who seemed to embody such a spellbinding combination of raw power and vulnerability.

If she was honest with herself, it was the vulnerability that drew her, despite her penchant for intense and vigorous boys. She'd quickly intuited that Jake's appearance of total self-sufficiency was a cleverly drawn veneer, and had been studying the shuttered features ever since, trying to delve beneath their surface opacity. And a couple of times her own keen gaze had noticed that when observed in close quarters, the piercing midnight blues were almost striving to hide an unadulterated truth. In unguarded moments, Jake wore the hungry look of one whose emotional solitude had been imposed by a pain almost too great to bear.

Nia did not know very much in the grand scheme of things - but she had an instinctive ability to read the human heart, and had already sensed Jake's tender sorrow as though it were her own. Wisely, though, she opted to remain silent until closer contact and the development of trust prompted her mysterious new friend to speak. She just hoped it would not be too long in coming - as she was aware that there would need to be openness on both sides, if the budding relationship between the two women was going to stand a chance.

So even in the first blush of friendship, she found herself hoping against hope that the brunette would eventually display what Nia regarded as real strength - an ability to connect with the remnants of those intense emotions and passions that had not quite successfully been retracted under a chilly heart. She didn't romanticise the hurt - having learned early that this might cause it to linger well beyond its lifespan - but nevertheless, she was astute enough to be willing to wait, and to hope that natural human empathy would win the day before long.

And after all, Nia had a talent for uncovering the troubles of others. Without even trying, the gentle little blonde normally found hearts opening to her as naturally as flowers open to receive the sun. It was a rare person who could remain strong and silent when confronted with those sympathetic green eyes, the soft touch of her hand and the encouraging murmur of her soothing voice.

She smiled shyly at the tall, dark butch occupying the seat next to her, but felt no urge to break the convivial silence as her reflections turned away from her new friend, and towards the drawbacks that were often part and parcel of her compassionate gifts.

Hmmm. If she doesn't want to share what seems so plain to me, then we might as well forget it. But if I do get her to open up, who's to say that she's not going to turn out like every one else? Perhaps that's my problem...I make it far too easy.

She sighed quietly, turning her golden head to stare through the window at grey skies and driving rain.

Nia had spent her life being a giver. Not living for others, exactly - she cherished plenty of hopes and ambitions of her own - but notwithstanding those, one of the greatest pleasures in her life was to help another human being. This propensity to nurture and aid was one of her most appealing qualities, but also one of the most hapless - leaving the door wide open to those who wished to take advantage of it, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes with forethought. In her darker moments Nia reflected that she couldn't remember a being blest with a rapport, romantic or otherwise, that wasn't dependent on her taking responsibility for phone calls, arranging time together and time apart...and providing a sounding-board for gripes, expectations and fears. Which inequality of effort often left her with a sour taste in her mouth, and an underlying unhappiness that marred even the sweetest moments. It was ironic, really, because Nia was ludicrously easy to please - if you were to ask the thoughtful, sensitive girl for her heart's desire, she would not have answered honours, riches or adoration - all she wished for was the simplest gift that was a few minutes of a person's time and a listening ear. Unfortunately, Nia had discovered that she possessed these valuable commodities to a greater degree than anyone else she knew.

But maybe I should give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she's the one who's going to have what I need. I can almost see it in her...if I look carefully.

It was certainly true to say that during the few moments they'd snatched in each other's company, Jake had shown her a quiet consideration unlike anything that had touched Nia's previous experience. And then there was the spontaneous burst of honesty in the bar, which had obviously cost the dark woman some emotional labour, and after which Nia had imagined that Jake's heart had briefly been allowed to rule her head. With Nia, heart always won the battle - and she knew that her destiny would be someone who possessed enough rational self-control to temper these impetuous tendencies - but she also knew that her heart would be very lonely if attached to a lover who kept her feelings completely under lock and key.

Opposites attract, I know that...but I just hope she's not all that different from me inside. It's not too much to ask...is it?

"Just here, please." Drawled her companion, tapping on the grille with a keyring and rousing Nia from her contemplation.

The taxi turned the corner and drew up at a small bar, half-hidden in a cubby-hole behind Manchester's gay village. From the outside, Nia noticed that the light twinkling through the narrow windows had a decidedly red tint, and absent-mindedly wondered where on earth this bad boy intended to take her for their first date.

Looks like a brothel. Ah well...in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose. I get the feeling it's going to be a night to remember. So...enough! No more introspection. I'm determined to enjoy this...and give her a chance.

"Here it is!" Jake cheerfully announced, unfolding her long legs as she alighted on the kerb and went to open Nia's door.


Jake turned to her date as they entered the tiny establishment, directing her towards the bar over the din of the music with a slight indication of her raven head. The place was tatty but warm and full of life, and seemed to have created the light-hearted atmosphere that Nia had vainly tried to infuse into Fire and Ice.

Well, they probably don't have gangsters poking their heads around every corner, do they? I expect it's pretty easy to have fun in a place that's not constantly scared of its overlord.

However, on closer inspection she noticed that the selection of spirits left a lot to be desired, consisting mainly of cheap rip-offs of the name brands, which made her feel superior in the style of a true Bar Manager.

At least they can't compete with us for quality products. Eeeww...Beefeater Gin! I don't know whether I can cope with drinking that shit. Although they obviously make up for it in volume...check out that price list! I've *never* seen doubles and mixers sold at that price before. I suppose that makes up for the fact that most of the drinks probably taste like meths.

Jake slipped a hand under her elbow to nudge her forward, and she clamped down on her senses, catching her breath at the contact.

Oooo...looks as though I'm going to be exercising some self-control of my own tonight, if she's not to think I'm a complete walkover. You can't take her to bed straightaway after that little episode in the cellar, Nia...so behave yourself. You're going home alone, girl!

"OK, Nia, I promise we won't stay long. And I also promise that if they start any karaoke tomfoolery, we're leaving quick smart. They're really dreadful at it, and nobody needs to be subjected to that!"

Nia answered with a grin, as she yelled over the growing hubbub on the dancefloor,

"Well, the music's not bad so far! Let's hope it stays that way."

The DJ had started spinning one of her favourites, a chirpy, boppy house number that made her feet tap and her body want to move.

Lady! Hear me to-night,

'cause my feelin' is just so right,

as we dance, by the moonlight,

can't you see? You're my daylight!

Involuntarily, she bestowed a sunny smile on the short, curt barman who appeared to take their order, simultaneously taking note of the thick, angry scar that bisected his face.

Hmmmm. He looks like he's been done for a few. But I wonder if he can mix a drink?

"What would you like?" Asked Jake gently, turning to Nia and noticing with a stifled chuckle that she was practically dancing up to the collection of stools that were strewn around by the bar.

"I'd like a gin and tonic, please." Came the courageous reply, as Nia determined not to treat her friend's choice of bar with distaste.

And she was flabbergasted when the wizened old bartender actually produced a bottle of Bombay Sapphire from underneath the till, free-pouring a generous measure over plenty of ice, and rimming the glass with lime before topping it up with tonic water and sliding it across the surface towards her. She looked up at Jake, but her incredulous question was crushed by the merriment dancing in her companion's eyes, betokening that the butch had been expecting *her* date to receive such treatment.

Again, Nia bit her tongue and smiled.

Some things it's better not to know, I suppose...she thought, amused in spite of herself, as she watched Jake order a Budweiser...with a wink to the server.

Well, bottled beer's a safe bet, that's for sure. I'm not sure what'd come out of the pumps if she asked for draught.

"Come with me." Burred her escort, having procured her beer and taken a long swig. "I'll introduce you to my friends."


"Who is THAT!?" Were the first words to escape Nia's lips as they approached the large table around which Jake's friends had ensconced themselves upon camp, gilt-edged, emerald green velvet chairs.

Kim was standing near the edge of the group, which was peopled with guests who seemed pretty obnoxious to Nia's fresh eyes, while Jake recognised them as being the usual suspects - rowdy colleagues of Al's. The chestnut-haired femme wore a floor-length black dress that clung to her willowy form and was embroidered with bold flowers close to the hem, tapering upwards to form a striking but modest halter around her neck. The whole look was finished with outsize gold hoops sported by delicate ears, giving Jake's friend an exotic, very exciting aspect. Nia felt at once that her own pale hair and eyes were unforgivably bland in comparison. Unaware of their presence, Kim was smiling and laughing with as much enthusiasm as she could muster at several absurd conversations, some obviously designed to impress her - and presented a vision that epitomised polished, exquisite elegance.

"That's my best friend Kim." Said Jake, displaying her customary pride at being associated with such a gorgeous creature.

"Wow!" Nia exclaimed.

"She's beautiful."

"She is, isn't she?" Agreed the dark butch, a little too enthusiastically, she realised, upon seeing Nia's face fall. Wanting to make amends, she hastily added, "But beauty comes with a price, you know. It can often be a curse as much as it's a blessing."

Nia regarded her quizzically, as well she might, before responding, "What do you mean, comes with a price?"

"For a start, she never knows whether people genuinely like her or just want to get in her knickers."

The blonde nodded. "Ok, I can see that. And?"

"Well, she's also caused trouble for more than one couple and wound up feeling dreadful about it."

Nia's breath caught again, not so pleasantly this time, as Jake continued,

"It used to happen a great deal - she'd take a fancy to someone strictly on a casual basis, seeing them as a good proposition in terms of a bit of fun, and they'd fall for her immediately, regardless of whether they were already attached or not. Then by the time she lost interest, a relationship she probably didn't even know about in the first place would be in the dustbin because of her desire for a little diversion. So everybody would end up alone."

"But surely the person who is already committed is culpable, not Kim - she can't help it if people fall in love with her, and it's up to them to tell her they're taken." Replied Nia, Jake's last statement stirring her instinct to defend any woman - even a criminally pretty one - from injustice.

Her new friend turned to regard her with a warm smile.

"You're right." Was the reply.

"And Kim would be touched to hear you say that. But I'm not talking about blame - I'm talking about heartache. Kim's a tender-hearted girl who hates to cause pain to anyone, and she feels a lot of guilt when her arrival causes someone's cherished partner to become second best, especially when there was never any serious interest on her part."

"I see."

Jake continued, "What Kimmy's only just beginning to realise is that her beauty confers an awful lot of power and responsibility, and she needs to be careful how she uses it, to avoid pain for other people and for herself. You're right that she shouldn't be taking the blame for the weaknesses of others - but it's a rare person who has the strength to say no when confronted with a face like that."

"A rare person...or someone who's genuinely in love." Finished Nia, quietly.

"Yes, exactly."

"But what can she do about it?" The blonde remained puzzled.

"Well, she's learned that if she wants someone she'd better be really certain about them, because they're likely to offer themselves on a plate if she as much as clicks her fingers. She's very careful now about who she flirts with. And she's unusual in that."

"Wow." Said Nia. "I never really thought of it that way before. I suppose I can see your point."

The Bar Manager looked at Jake's beautiful young friend through new eyes for a brief moment, envy warring with sympathy - until, with a whimper, sympathy lost the battle.

"But isn't that just the way of the world?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, aren't some people naturally shallow? I've seen it happen - boy meets girl, they fall in love, but one or the other gets dropped when someone "better" comes along - someone who's richer, more intelligent, more beautiful - and must be recognised by society as a whole as being so. For instance, someone like Kim."

"That's a pretty shocking way to treat someone."

"Well, *I* think it's callous and foolhardy, but some folks seem to like to keep their options open because of it."

"Not everyone, Nia." Whispered Jake, softly. And as their eyes met this half-promise was filed away by both.

In an attempt to break the tension, the dark woman continued a little more light-heartedly, "*I* was never attracted to Kim, for example. You can ask her yourself - she'll back me up on that one without hesitation."

"Why weren't you?" Was the obvious question.

"Her beauty is a little too symmetrical for me, you know? I find it...boring, to be blunt. The faces I find most attractive are challenging in their beauty - they make me sit up and take notice, and use my imagination - like yours."

It was an innocent statement, not made in order to give a compliment - in fact, there was no thought of its probable impact. But it was the most wonderful thing the dark butch could have said, in Nia's opinion.

She made no response, but resolved to put her bitter feelings aside, and contented herself with a squeeze on her date's arm, as both women noticed that the subject of their discussion had spotted them, and was making her way over.

Nia's jealous streak was a well-known fact amongst her close friends, but a well-hidden aspect of her public demeanour. She despised the quality in herself, considering it to be pusillanimous and even vulgar, but her efforts to conquer it had so far borne little fruit. More than one instance in which she'd lost the game to someone she considered to be a superior player had caused the weakness to grow strong - and by her 26th year, envy was probably the single negative emotion that Nia had really allowed to colour her life. And she'd found few who were responsive enough to anticipate her occasional feelings of comparative worthlessness with a couple of well-chosen words.

But she did it. Totally unconsciously, and without guile. Amazing.


"You must be Nia."

The blonde turned in the direction of a lively, musical greeting, and found herself face to face with what she had to admit was one of the loveliest visions she'd ever seen.

If it weren't for Jake, I'd have been wishing I was her by now...was Nia's grateful thought as the beautiful brunette kissed her on both cheeks.

"It's so great to meet you." Said Kim, warmly. "I hope you didn't mind coming down here too much. The onus should fall on my housemate, really - it's her birthday. Jake had no choice about whether or not she turned up."

Nia smiled at the friendly overture, and was about to reply with equal kindliness when another voice broke into the conversation, this time with a greeting that was closer to being cantankerous than cordial.

"Hey! 'Bout time you turned up!"

"Ok." Whispered Jake. "This is Al - it's her birthday. She's a great girl, but she can be a little much sometimes. Don't say I didn't warn you."

Not bad...thought Nia. Al was a heavyset, soft butch with dark hair flopping over her eyes and a nice line in loose linen shirts and trousers.

"Happy birthday." She said, extending her hand to the newcomer.

"Thanks! Are you having a good time?"

"Great, thanks. This is an interesting place."

Nia was already getting the distinct impression that Al was leering at her slightly, and trying not to let it make her feel uncomfortable, she decided to do what she did best - to get the butch to talk, instead of staring.

"So, Al...what do you do for a living?"

This was the prompt that Al, completely unashamed, had been waiting for. Within 5 minutes Nia was wishing she'd asked about the weather, as her new acquaintance proceeded to chew her ear off with royal enthusiasm while she strained her patience trying to listen, and her ears attempting to eavesdrop on Kim's conversation with Jake.


"Listen, Jake - I'm sorry for what I said earlier. I had no right to interfere and tell you how to run your life. But it's only because I care."

"Oh Kimmy, I told you before that you don't need to say sorry. I needed to hear it. In fact, I should be thanking you."

"Ahhh! So it's going well so far, is it?"

"It's going great. Kim, she's so sweet - I can't even begin to tell you."

"I can see it for myself." Whispered her friend. "I like her very much."

The blue eyes sparkled with pride, before clouding over momentarily.

"I seem to be doing everything right so far. I just hope I can keep it up." Jake confided, haltingly.

Kim's sweet face took on a hint of seriousness as she regarded the couple standing before her. Although engaged in separate conversations, the two women were already clearly together - each body angled towards the other, and Nia's fingers lightly entwined in the leather of Jake's jacket. They looked wonderful. And right - in a way that she and Jake, despite their combination of stunning good looks, never had.

"Oh, you will keep it up." She murmured in response. "It looks as though it's coming pretty naturally to me."

Her reward was a look of gratitude and affection that warmed her heart and made her glad to have spoken up about her earlier misgivings.

But before their confab could go any further the friends were interrupted, as Al dug Jake in the ribs and began to issue instructions in none too dulcet tones.

"C'mon, everybody! Drink up your drinks, 'cos nobody wants to be sober when we start the karaoke! Jake - you'd better get up and sing with me, boy. I've already put our names down for Bat Out of Hell."

"Not on your nelly." Retorted Jake, softening the verbal blow with a punch to Al's arm.

Undeterred, the small butch leaned forward and enunciated, in a stage whisper, "See that woman over there?"

Jake, Nia and Kim all whirled around to see a mini-skirted redhead staring over at the group.

"She's been giving me the eye for a while." Al continued. "I think she's gonna make a play. And that other one next to her - she tried it on last week, but I wasn't interested. She's developing a bit of an obsession, now - she won't leave me alone, even for five minutes. These women are so persistent! I might have to draft you in to fend them off, man."

And with that last threat directed at Jake, off she went.

"Sorry about her." Said Jake, with a sigh. "As you can probably see, modesty isn't one of her virtues. I'm surprised she even manages to have fun when she goes out - she's so preoccupied with who's looking at her."

Nia snorted in reply, as Kim rolled her eyes and took up the report.

"And then, when she gets home, she analyses every little flirtation to death. It drives me crazy. I think she likes to cultivate the image of being a stud who's surrounded by women unable keep from falling at her feet. I swear she thinks she's a character in a book. You know, the tall, dark handsome one, that everyone's in love with."

Nia raised one eyebrow, biting down with great tact on the riposte that rose to her lips, a struggle which was not lost on the other two, judging from their grins of delight.

"She has a good imagination, at least." Jake supplied, as all three shook with suppressed laughter, and the music began to slow. Pretty soon the change in tempo appeared to remind Kim that three was a crowd, and she looked about the bar, obviously in search of an excuse to extricate herself.

"I should go and speak to my beloved housemate, really - before she embarrasses herself and me into the bargain." She said, abruptly. "I'll see you in a minute or two."

She glided off without another word, but not without sacrificing a few moments to telegraph to Jake, behind Nia's back, what would be an appropriate course of action to take next. And after a short fight with her unease, Jake mustered all her courage and tried very hard not to feel awkward, as she followed her friend's excellent advice.

"Nia, would you like to dance?"

Upon receipt of a surprised nod and a shy smile, she took her date lightly by the hand and led her to the dancefloor.


Mine, immaculate dream, made breath and skin
I've been waiting for you.
Signed, with a home tattoo,
"Happy Birthday To You" was created for you.

It seemed dreadfully quiet as the blonde and the brunette began to reacquaint themselves with one another's bodies - touching in a tentative manner not at all reminiscent of the hurried fumbling that had gone on in the cellar at Fire and Ice.

Can't ever keep from falling apart...at the seams,
can't I believe you're taking my heart...to pieces.

Jake held Nia very close, one arm tight around the blonde's back. And with the other large hand she held Nia's small one to her chest - over her heart.

Ahh, it'll take a little time, might take a little crime, to come undone -
Now we'll try, to stay blind, to the hope and fear outside,
hey child, stay wilder than the wind - and blow me in to cry.

Who do you need? Who do you love? When you come undone.

From her perch at the other end of the bar, Kim watched the two with an indescribable expression.

"Slow dancing to Duran Duran. They *have* got it bad." She said, congratulating herself on her success.

The blonde was a petite woman, but not short - about 5 feet and 5 inches in her trainers - and Jake's magnificent six feet allowed her to rest her head comfortably on a broad shoulder as they moved slowly against one another, oblivious to the curious stares of the other patrons. There were no grand gestures or dramatic dance moves, and no conversation - just two people almost clinging to each other in the darkness of a small bar, in the middle of a very rowdy party.

And as she closed her eyes, Nia couldn't help feeling that unlikely as it might seem, perhaps here was a place she could finally come to rest. They might well belong to a gangster, a drug lord, or an extortionist - but these arms felt tranquil and safe, as far as she was concerned.


Part Twelve

Partygoers prowling the streets of Manchesterís gay village that night, looking for some cheap amusement, might have found it in the snippet of by-play that took place in a dimly lit side street nearby. But the only audience available in those shadowy reaches was a scruffy urban cat, watching with curiosity and disdain as a tall, striking woman with a raven crop emerged in rather a hurry from around the corner, a petite, prettyish blonde following closely on her heels. After a few harried looks behind them, seemingly to check for pursuers, both sidled up to the main road to join the chattering flow of after-dark pedestrians.

"Wow ... thatís one way to get out of a party!" Hissed the smaller woman breathlessly, as they slowed to a more unobtrusive pace.

Her companion gave her a sheepish nod.

"I know. I hope you didnít mind leaving ... but I hate it when Al and her friends start getting inebriated. Itís never pretty. And once Kim went off to another function, I didnít really see any point in us staying."

"Well, I can understand that ... but why the Bond-esque exit?"

Jake laughed easily, shifting her gaze over the top of Niaís head to settle on the steady stream of passers-by. "I didnít really want to deal with Al begging me to stay ... this way, Iím pretty sure she was too far gone to notice us leave, and tomorrow I can tell her we were there Ďtill the end."

"You naughty boy. I admire your cunning, although Iíll warn you that trying to deceive your friends might land you in hot water." Responded Nia, with a wink.

In fact, the blonde had secretly been relieved when Jake had grabbed her by the hand with the terse statement, "Weíre leaving." Although she was a little puzzled by the abruptness of the cut-and-run, she found it far preferable to the outcome she was fearing ... that Jake would get into her stride, and become inclined to socialise. Sheíd been pleasantly impressed by Kim, finding her infinitely more sincere than others with her natural advantages, but had quickly decided that Al and her friends were ... well, frankly ... quite obnoxious. As the champagne ... and cocaine - began to flow freely, the short spells of time sheíd spent away from Jake had turned into a quest to find anyone who was capable of stringing two sensible words together.

Fighting through the crowds who were queuing to get in to one of Manchesterís seedier queer nightspots, the pair stepped out to cross a road still teaming with traffic, although rush hour had long passed. As they did so, Nia found her hand being gently taken and wound around a strong, leather clad arm ... a tender, protective gesture that she found as startling as it was charming.

"Thanks for coming with me." Said Jake softly, as they reached the other side.

"Youíre welcome." Replied the blonde. "Thanks for taking me."

"Did you enjoy yourself?"

Nia stifled a sigh. Sheíd been half-dreading this question.

"I had a great time." She said, mustering up a deal more enthusiasm than she actually felt and hoping desperately that it was convincing, for it suddenly struck her that her new friend was looking surprisingly earnest.

Well ... itís not a total lie. I wanted to spend some time with her, and I did. To give her due credit, she didnít leave my side all night. And despite her scandalous good looks, I enjoyed meeting Kim, too.

As for the slow dance ... *that* was wonderful. I certainly didnít expect her to ask me ... let alone hold me so close in front of all those people. In fact, I was half anticipating sheíd be dancing with other women all night, to make sure I knew my place in the pecking order. Women like her usually like you to be aware of the fact that theyíve bedded every girl in the room.

A frown graced the pale brow, as Nia brought to mind the partner who *had* played such vicious games. And as the recollection eliminated her cosier sentiments, her thoughts of the woman who was walking the kerb, putting herself between Nia and the traffic, began to cool.

Well, if sheís planning to take me to many of those gatherings, I canít see this little relationship lasting too long. Honestly ... Iíd rather spend the evening on the edge of Moss-Side with the B-Boy crew, than with the lot I was subjected to tonight.

I dunno.

Drink, drugs and superficial people ... itís probably been the story of her life. Why would she give it up now?

And why would she even stop to consider that it might not be my scene, when it *is* so obviously hers ... ?

Had she known that her character was being sketched so unceremoniously without any request for clarification or input from her, Jake would probably have clammed up tight without further ado. Judgement without discussion was particularly abhorrent to someone who tended to keep her more endearing qualities ... or as she would call them, weaknesses ... far too close to her chest.

As it was, in blissful ignorance of Niaís pronouncements on her ability to wean herself from a lifestyle of delinquency, she failed to prickle. Instead, she paused under a bright street lamp to give her date a grateful look.

"Listen, Nia ... youíre being very polite, but I know this probably wouldnít have been your evening of choice. I was glad you got a chance to say hi to Kim, but the rest of those guys are a waste of space on a good day, and plain embarrassing on nights like tonight."

Noticing that the blonde was looking at her a little strangely, she went on, "I just want to say thanks for being such a good sport. I wonít ever put you through that again, if I can help it."

Still unaware that her statements were causing her small friend to shamefacedly revise a rather too hasty verdict, she finished,

"And thanks for sticking up for me in the Ladiesí Room, too. You really didnít have to do that, you know."

At this, Niaís face assumed a look of quiet compassion that the self-sufficient butch would normally have found patronising in the extreme. But, bewildered, she instead found herself wrestling with a delicate warmth that began to spread in response to the empathy that, unusually, seemed too frank to give offence.

"I know." Replied the blonde, giving Jakeís arm an almost imperceptible, feather-light squeeze.

"And I probably shouldnít have got myself involved. But I couldnít just stand there while she abused you like that."

"She was pretty poisonous, I suppose. Iíve seen worse, though."

Jake attempted to shrug off the daintily offered affection and appear blasť about the episode. But her efforts did not entirely manage to mask the starved look that crept upon her shuttered features and spoke to Niaís heart ... and her sense of apt and inappropriate moments ... in a way that thousands of words could not.

The blondeís beautiful, candid green eyes glistened as she hesitated for a second or two ... before making the effort to grin and crack one of the jokes that Jake was beginning to realise were as functional as they were amusing.

"To say the least! If youíd found a Hairy Scorpion behind the cistern I dare say weíd have encountered less venom."

Laughter ensued to disperse the rising discomfort, causing more than one person to turn and stare at the two figures, day and night in harmonious disparity, as they covered the pavement with the same confident stride and remembered standing side by side to face this first minor battle.

Briefly separated from her date, Nia had decided to visit the bathroom ... mainly to check if the warm, smoky atmosphere was making her look as hot and sweaty as she felt. The WCís had obviously been furnished by the same hand as the barís camp interior ... with velvet-covered walls and a leopard-print chair strategically placed for the first in the queue.

Luckily, there was no queue in evidence ... most of the punters being well-oiled by that point, enough to make a stab at trying their luck on the dancefloor ... so Nia took a quick look in the mirror and prepared to head back out.

Until she was pulled up short by a shrill, censorious voice.

"Excuse me, young man ... I believe youíll find these facilities are for Ladies."

Nia whirled around just in time to see Jake emerge from one of the cubicles, right into the warpath of the middle-aged woman whoíd been the only other occupant of the bathroom when she came in. Lost for words, the butch teetered at the door, and Nia was astonished to see that a person she'd assumed would be afraid of nothing was on the verge of diving down the toilet in a bid to escape.

Automatically, the blonde spoke up.

"Yes, it is the Ladiesí. At least, I donít see any men in here ... do you, Jake?"

At Niaís reference to the brunette, their antagonist shot several rapid glances from one woman to the other ... but made no reply. Jake remained where she stood, stoically silent and obviously still shocked ... but the slight lift of her powerful chin showed that her courage was fast returning, fortified by Niaís intervention.

"Perhaps you ought to look a little more closely before making pronouncements about whether a person belongs here or not." Suggested the blonde, gently but firmly, unaware of the amazement and increasing respect that she was inspiring in her dark friend.

Their adversary said no more, but departed in rather a hurry, her high dudgeon resumed to hide her embarrassment - leaving Nia feeling relieved that the fight had been brief, but wondering whether sheíd done the right thing.

Shit. Anyone can tell that sheís terribly proud ... sheís probably furious that I tried to speak up on her behalf.

I think you might have stepped on some toes here, Nia.

God ... you can be such an idiot.

But Jake, still quiet, had taken her hand and kissed it, astounding her with the small gallantry before leading the way back to the bar and fetching her a drink. The scene was not mentioned, but Nia was satisfied that her interference had been forgiven.

In fact, the blondeís impetuosity had for once been well-placed. Caught out on her own, Jake probably wouldnít have even bothered to argue, knowing that it was more likely to lead to her own untimely eviction from the bar, than to any intellectual victory. But Nia, with her appearance approximating that of a "normal" girl - and a nice, innocent one at that ... was much more likely to be able to stage an effective face-off against the voices of intolerance and prejudice.

And the butch had been touched beyond words that Nia had used ... even risked ... this greater acceptability in *her* defence. Sheíd known women to be explicitly attracted to her masculinity before, and even some who were prepared to own it in public ... but none whoíd stuck their neck out to protect it, allying themselves with her regardless of the consequences for themselves. Even the strongest advocates had so far had proven to be fair-weather friends.

But it seemed that Nia was different ... more loyal, or perhaps just gutsier than other women sheíd come across. Her attraction to masculinity seemed to be a commitment that spurred her to action, rather than a flattering but temporary fascination that would abate as soon as there was a sniff of danger or disapproval.

The episode had put the butch in a good mood for the rest of the evening. It wasnít as though sheíd been in mortal danger ... but that wasnít the point. The support itself was wonderful ... and extraordinary ... and the feeling of being precious enough to warrant such a rescue was brand new to her experience.

However, while pacing Manchesterís bustling streets Jake had been forgetting her gratitude, as the bright night-lights animated a feeling of humiliation at being so efficiently "looked after". Fragments of vanity also arose, arrogant but ignominious, to swell her bravado.

"Anyway, Iím used to being thrown out of public loos, to be honest. Once an old woman even started beating me around the head and shoulders with her handbag whilst yelling for the police ... it wasnít pretty."

But the combination of amusement and distress that crossed Niaís face at this comment made the butch feel cruel, and unable to stay miffed, and she added, more gently,

"It didnít hurt, donít worry. The only thing that suffered was my pride. Thanks for sticking up for me, really. Nobodyís ever done that before."

"It was nothing."

"No, it wasnít." Jake managed, in response to the blondeís uncharacteristic shrug.

"As you can probably tell, Iím viewed as a bit of an oddity by many people - you disagree with that assessment, and you were perfectly willing to say so and damn the consequences. Thatís pretty unusual." Finished the butch, a little shyly.

And as they walked the rest of the way to the taxi rank, both mulling over the little exchange, Nia made up her mind that if this woman ever needed a champion, she was going to be it.


A pensive silence fell as the two women waited for a cab, sheltering from the rain in a litter-strewn recess just behind the main road. Millions of stars were pricking holes in the night sky, and both lost themselves in its vastness ... and in their own thoughts.

Partly to lighten the mood, and partly to take her mind off the miasma of cheap whisky and vomit that permeated their surroundings, Nia cleared her throat and spoke.

"Well, Iíve never been beaten with a handbag in a public toilet, but I *have* been thrown out of a gay bar, if itís any consolation to you." She said, trying to seem offhand.

"Why on earth ... ?" Her companion sounded suitably shocked.

"Because of the way I look."

Jakeís eyebrows almost disappeared under her thick dark hair, as Nia explained,

"Your appearance wins you few friends in the straight world, but mine earns me a lot of distrust outside it, believe it or not. Apparently Iím not a Ďrealí lesbian in the eyes of some members of the community."

The blonde forced a valiant grin as she finished, trying not to hold her breath as she waited for Jakeís reaction.

If she pats me on the head, and smiles, and tells me sheís sure people donít mean anything by it, I think I might cry. Or scream.

Too many of the dykes Nia met refused to take her seriously. Some viewed her with patronising indulgence, convinced she was just "going through a phase", but charmed enough to tolerate it. Others despised her femininity while it appealed to them, treating her as an insignificant or even reviled species, resentful of the power she wielded over their physical desires and unwilling to admit that someone like her could light the fire in their loins. Her resemblance to "normal" heterosexual womanhood was too threatening to their sense of self - it made them feel as though they were endorsing a world that they normally related to with mutual abhorrence. Most of the gay community walked by the frustrated blonde without a second glance, not realising she was family ... and the other tiny percentage recognised but refused to acknowledge her presence. Yet in the straight world the attractive, personable woman found it easy to make friends ... which had the effect of making her feel as though she was telling a lie she could not control.

The femme and the butch shifted their gazes from the heavens to their feet, Jake for the first and Nia for the umpteenth time contemplating and despairing of the small-mindedness that often pervades communities who themselves ask for acceptance, the exclusion that accompanies definition, and the denunciations that are necessary to facilitate solidarity.

""Not a Ďrealí lesbian ... " Jake thoughtfully repeated.

"Yep. Thatís what people tell me."

Sapphire eyes flashed.

"Shower of idiots." Muttered the butch, under her breath. But Nia heard, and laughed in delight at her companion's righteous anger on her behalf.

Encouraged, she continued,

"Yeah. It drives me crazy. I mean, of course I understand that to some extent every community has a 'dress code'. Otherwise, how would we recognise each other?"

"Yes, youíve got a point there." Agreed Jake, thinking about just how blatantly her own attire tended to announce her sexual preferences. Nobody confronted with the black-cropped, leather-clad figure could think her anything other than a lesbian ... a dyke ... or if they were clued up, a butch. The presentation came naturally to her ... but she realised now that the totality of her appearance made a carefully constructed statement, none the less. A proclamation that she was proud to make ... but one she had hitherto been barely conscious of making.

"And I also realise that the majority of lesbians are more comfortable with butch or androgynous than with overt femininity."

Nia went on, unconscious of the fact that by allowing her dark friend a brief view of the world through her own eyes she was broadening the butchís perceptions. Jake usually took little notice of the reactions provoked by her presence on the street, knowing that they were generally extreme, and negative, more often than not. The blondeís quiet analysis caused the other woman to examine her own exterior for the first time, and prompted her to consider how others might construe it, and identify her as either friend or foe.

Nia chuckled and shivered at the same time.

"Hell, I can even understand it ... I have the odd reservation myself about an image thatís normally associated with trying to Ďcatch a maní. But this is the way I am ... the way I'm supposed to look. I've tried to do the butch thing, but I just can't pull it off."

"I can imagine!" Came the laughing reply. "I can't see you looking at home in steel-toed boots and leather."

The blonde giggled again.

"It was pretty funny, I will admit. And although the look was a definite banner for my sexuality, it didn't say anything about the person I am. For me, adopting the butch persona was a shocking lie - at least the untruths that I tell with my appearance right now are based on other people's interpretation of it."

Jake nodded in agreement, at the same time noticing that the blonde was pulling her coat tighter to ward off the pervading cold. Without a word, she removed her own leather jacket and slung it around Niaís shoulders. The Bar Manager opened her mouth to protest ... but clearly thought better of it, contenting herself with a grateful look that, for the butch, would probably have made a far bigger sacrifice worthwhile.

"Thanks."

"Youíre welcome. You were saying ... "

"Um ... yeah. I don't want to have to change my appearance in order to 'belong', and I canít understand the mentality that rules me out as an exception. I've noticed that most people tend to run scared when someoneís identity doesnít conform to a community-defined norm, without bothering to check whether they're reading it right."

Jake nodded.

"Iíve been denied entry to more gay bars than I can count ... when a few simple questions would have made it obvious that I had a perfect right to be there. And that quickness to judge comes from prejudice, pure and simple."

"It's not always as simple as that, though."

Nia's incipient tirade was pulled up short by the unexpectedness of the butch's dissent. Taken aback, she blinked a couple of times, inviting the brunette to explain.

"I sometimes make those snap judgements myself, Nia. I admit it. Itís almost like a mental shortcut ... we read people according to their visual markers, and sometimes those symbols can be misleading. But we all do it, nonetheless."

Blue eyes met green, and a spark of challenge passed between them.

If there was one thing Nia hated, it was losing an argument. She'd been known to take her views to ridiculous lengths, tying herself up in knots and outrageous statements because of her reluctance to back down - winding up with egg on her face, more often than not. And it looked as though this was going to be another one of those occasions, but for the genuine interest and respect she saw reflected in the face of her new friend - which made her pause for a moment, seeing the conversation, rather than the competition, with a gracious smile and a soft indrawn breath.

"Yes, you're right."

She smiled more widely, inspiring an answering grin from her new friend as the friction began to clear.

"When we define our own identities, we also ascribe them to everyone else, working out what we're not as well as what we are. And for most queers, I fall outside the boundary. Hell, I probably even demarcate it. You're absolutely right, Jake."

She repeated, with a sigh.

"But that's no excuse for the way I'm treated."

"No, it's not."

The conversation had gotten pretty heavy again, both realised, as they consciously tried to relax their postures. But the femme and butch were actually tempted to rejoice in what appeared to be a connection on a deeper level than the standard for chitchat and small-talk, even though they knew that self-protection demanded they slow the pace. Nia, especially, was revelling in the discovery that her date so obviously knew how to listen. The small blonde tended to find that most interactions wound up with the other participant switching over into "transmit" mode, reciprocity forgotten ... which was highly irritating, even though she knew that her willingness to ask questions and her talent for empathising with the answers made it inevitable. In fact, more than one budding relationship had suffered an untimely death, as the Bar Manager ceased to feel able to speak for - or about - herself. However, Jake appeared to be able to resist the temptation to take advantage of the blondeís generous conversational habits and talk her ear off, a skill that Nia knew was as uncommon as it was enchanting.

"So what exactly is the problem with the way you look?" Asked the brunette, lightly. "You look pretty good to me."

Nia secretly thrilled at the comment as she carefully replied, "I suppose ... itís the confusion between gender and sexuality that some people canít deal with ... they think that femmes are somehow 'less gay' than other lesbians, because their appearance carries few traces of masculinity."

"So other lesbians donít trust you because they think you have a choice about your sexuality?"

"Yes. A biologically determined sexual preference has to go hand in hand with gender dysphoria, in some peopleís minds."

"And why does that matter?"

"Well ... I think thereís a belief that when the going gets tough, someone who looks like me is going to take the easier road and go back to being with men."

"Why?"

"Because I can."

Jake didn't have a reply to that. Shaking her dark head, she could only slide an arm around Niaís shoulders.

"You know what I think?"

"Go on." Whispered Nia, resisting the urge to bury her face in the folds of Jakeís shirt and relax against the sturdy chest.

"I think itís terribly sad, that as a culture, we donít love ourselves enough to love each other."

Well, I really hope you donít include yourself in that judgement ... thought Nia, as their cab drew up.


"Get wiv da Manchester Massive ... reeeeeeewind da selector! Make sum noise ... all ladies go 'BO'. Beeeatch!!!!"

Boomed the sub-woofer in the boot of the taxi, as the driver wound down the window.

"Aiiiie." Grunted the cabbie, by way of a greeting.

The women grinned at each other. Manchester's cab drivers were notorious for having interests that extended beyond the boundaries of their routes - and the law - and the ear-shattering music that normally accompanied any journey was a critical component of the lifestyle and an aural pennant for the image.

"Yeh?" He asked Jake, obviously pegging her as the decision-maker of the couple.

The butch turned to her date, eyebrows raised in question.

"Do you want to try Vanilla?" Suggested the blonde.

Jakeís lips quivered in amusement at the comment. Well, thatíll be a new experience.

"May as well." She managed to reply nonchalantly. "Vanilla, please." She added to the driver.

"Safe." Came a gruff mumble, as the door-locks were released.

As Nia seated herself in the back and watched Jake shut the door behind her, she inwardly debated whether to continue the conversation on the serious turn it had taken. Deciding against it, she had her next comment all rehearsed and ready by the time Jake was seated and belted up next to her.

"Iím glad to be rescued from the karaoke, at any rate. When Al tried her hand at Mustang Sally I thought my eardrums were going to burst."

"Yeah." admitted the butch, with a shrug.

"That kind of thing is like torture for me. I just donít have the urge to expose myself like that, or watch other people do it, you know? Especially Al and her crowd ... theyíre all frustrated divas minus the voices."

Nia snorted in reply, and after a whispered confab with the clipboarded Rasta outside the office of the taxi company, the driver shoved the vehicle into first gear, and rather jerkily, they were off. Hardstep blared from all four windows, which were open wide, despite the bitter cold. Jake tried and failed to shut the one nearest the blonde, shrugging with resignation and a little amusement when she found that the switch had been disconnected.

"Cos from da hood I came and to the hood I musí return!!!"

"I mean", the brunette decided to continue the conversation to take her mind off the freezing wind and thumping tunes,

"If itís rehearsed, then I love watching a performance. I might even be prevailed upon to take part. But these impromptu affairs, especially when mixed with alcohol and charlie, attract the wrong crowd, in my opinion. I wouldnít want to get involved in that kind of show. If it hadnít been Alís birthday today, I would have stayed well away."

The femme nodded her agreement while vainly trying to stop her teeth from chattering. Noticing her date's discomfiture, Jake started to ponder the risk of unclipping the seatbelts and putting her arms about the blonde, to keep her warm. But before she could manage it Nia spoke again, in a tone mingling mirth and ill-concealed disapproval,

"Well, the birthday girl certainly seemed to be enjoying herself. Does she always 'hold court' like that?"

"She does." Assented the dark woman, raising her voice slightly in competition with the breakbeats and rising bass.

"All that effort must be tiring, though. Doesn't she ever feel the pressure of being the centre of attention all the time?" Asked Nia, amazed.

"Nope."

"Wow. She must *really* care what people think of her."

Jake sighed a little, shifting lower in the back seat in an attempt to accommodate her long legs, which felt as though they were wrapped around her shoulders. But the exercise only caused her to get one foot jammed underneath the seat in front. Tutting under her breath and violently trying to extricate herself, she replied,

"Al lives in a small world, Nia. She circulates socially amongst a tight group of friends, most of whom she also sees at work. She isnít interested in current affairs or the lives of others, except as a source of gossip, so she quickly gets bored of anything that isnít directly connected with her and her own limited concerns. As a result, little things ...

"Such as whoís attracted to her, or her status within her own sphere ... "

" ... exactly! ... Become inordinately important."

"Thatís SO sad."

Groaned the Bar Manager, while reaching over with nimble fingers to gently disengage Jake's right trouser leg from the back of the passenger seat. Foot freed, the butch sat back with a more comfortable expression.

"It is. And especially so, because deep down, Alís a decent person with a good heart ... she just lets it become sullied by trivial obsessions. Emotions that arenít as shallow exist inside her somewhere - but they tend to die eventually from lack of exposure."

"Sounds like sheís got her priorities all wrong."

"She has. And itís a real shame ... she comes across as being a bit of a plonker, but thereís more to her than the ego on legs she seems to be."

"Well, there's more to everyone than meets the eye." Nia offered.

"Yes, there is."

There was a short lull in the conversation at this, as both women stared out of their respective windows, contemplating the familiar maxim and wondering just how much it rang true in their present circumstance.


"However", added the butch after a moment, with a wicked grin, "Al's ego was certainly in evidence tonight."

"I'll say! It was like watching a tacky variety show. Talk about loving the stage."

"Well, I was actually talking about her cracking on to you while I was talking to Kim, but you're right - they do make a brouhaha about these things. Al and her colleagues are like the kids from Fame at the best of times ... theyíre even worse on special occasions."

"Aren't they all in the media, though?" Nia enquired, trying to detract her companion's attention from her blush. "If that's the case, their exhibitionism isn't really that surprising, I suppose."

Jake gave vent to a hearty guffaw. "You donít miss a thing, do you? Yep ... they're entertainment journalists, most of them. So I guess they're used to performing to strangers. It's too bad that most of them are less entertaining than a bunch of performing seals." She finished, with a wink.

"I take it you donít, then." Murmured Nia, half to herself. "Perform to strangers, I mean."

Catching the faint whisper, the butch shook her head emphatically.

"Certainly not."

"But can you sing?" The Bar Manager dared to venture, remembering her date's earlier comments.

She just managed to make out a tiny, self-effacing nod.

"Would you sing for me?"

Was her next question, put softly and almost with reverence, as she instinctively knew that if the answer was 'yes', this would constitute another small capitulation. Not a surrender that diminished the butch who was now viewing her with embarrassment and a little suspicion, but one that would bolster her new friend in her opinion, and provide sustenance for the trust that both were already starting to feel in one another.

It was a big 'ask', a request that would normally leave Jake squirming with unease, no matter how well-liked and respected its source. She hated to boast, feeling that showing off her accomplishments to excess was no less conceited than wearing all her designer clothes at once. But a peculiar desire to grant Niaís wish, coupled with the Bar Manager's own reassuring presence, pushed her to share a talent and a passion that she normally kept well-hidden. She felt strangely convinced that if she gave away a little of herself she might even glimpse it again, not lost but reflected in the acceptance and admiration that were already filling Nia's beautiful jade-green eyes.

Placing her full lips close to the blonde's ear, out of the range of the driver and his blaring speakers, she began, faltering at first,

Here comes the rain again,
raining in my head like a tragedy,
teariní me apart, like a new emotion.

Her confidence boosted by Nia's look of surprise, pleasure and respect, the butch continued, a little more loudly,

I want to breeze in the open wind,
I want to kiss like lovers do,
want to dive into your ocean,
is it raining with you?

Jake's voice was rich and sweet, a deep contralto with husky edges that was nevertheless as clear as a bell. Nia lost herself in its timbre, and in the melody and the lyrics that seemed in that moment to have been written for her alone.

But too soon the dark woman's bottle disappeared, and she finished the song abruptly, mid-verse, with a self-deprecating shrug. "Thought that singing about the rain would be pretty appropriate, considering the weather around here."

The exposed feeling began to set in, and the butch turned her head away from her companion, determined to stare out of the window in stony silence for the rest of the journey, or until she could retain the dignified untouchability that usually kept her safe. But she was shaken, as Nia's immediate and effusive praise began to thaw the chill before it had time to set in - before the wind slipped through the cracks and closed icy fingers around her heart, the blonde's kind hands seemed to slip in to the space.

"Wow." She said, breathlessly. "I had no idea you could sing like that! Annie Lennox is one of my favourites ... your voice actually sounds a little like hers."

Despite Herculean efforts to retain a frosty reserve, Jake's spirits were warmed by this enthusiasm, as well as by the encouraging sensation of Nia's fingers lightly caressing her forearm, bare to her touch without the leather jacket.

"Thanks."

"Have you ever sung professionally?"

The butch gave a half-pleased, self-conscious nod.

"I did a couple of bands while I was at college, yeah." She sniggered involuntarily at the memory.

"But they were pretty appalling, really. I was such a bizarre kid ... all punked out, with purple hair and a bull-ring through my nose ... that I tended to attract the wrong crowd."

"I can imagine." Nia replied, wryly. "So, did any of these bands get off the ground?"

"Not really." Came the honest reply.

The Bar Manager reflected immediately that it would have been easy, at this point, for her companion to exaggerate in order to impress. That was clearly not Jake's style, and the blonde was grateful for it. She took care to avoid close proximity to people for whom such innocuous story-telling was stock-in trade, but had already been treated to similar mental gymnastics during her brief meeting with Al, a display that might have invited doubts on her date's own agenda, had her integrity not been unmistakable.

"I did a session in the recording studio with one group ... a demo for a record company ... but the band split too soon for it to be taken up properly."

"What happened?"

"They all fell out ... fighting over a pretty little thing weíd drafted in as a backing singer. Overgrown adolescents with too many hormones, I think."

Nia's peal of laughter caused even the taciturn driver to smile into his wing-mirror. "What a bunch of idiots! So they threw away their opportunities to fight over a girl?"

"Yeah." Replied Jake, a rueful tone colouring her rich, throaty voice.

"Pity they didnít know she was a dyke. I'd been dating her on and off for months - that's how she got the audition."

Still giggling at the imagined folly, Nia gasped at this irony. "No way!"

"Way." Her companion retorted amicably, the imminent sulk of a few moments beforehand apparently forgotten.

If Nia had known her date better, she would have marvelled at her achievement in diffusing it with so little effort. Jake herself knew that if Kim had been present, *her* jaw would have dropped to the floor. But as it was, the blonde merely felt cheerful that her friend's high spirits had returned, and the butch felt too well-disposed towards her companion to try and snap out of the unusual jollity for the sake of misplaced pride.

"That's funny. I wish I could sing, you know. I was only allowed to mime, when I was in the school choir."

Jake's smile grew warmer in response to the blonde's charming, confiding manner. "Iím sure you have many other talents, Nia. Well, I already know you can dance."

Her reference to their first meeting in Fire and Ice, when the butch had appreciated the unconscious visual spectacle of the Manager washing glasses, hips swaying as she did, brought another flush to Nia's cheeks. Jake was delighted with the affect she was having upon her captivating new acquaintance, and reflected that her date was particularly devastating when she was caught in the middle of a blush.

"In fact, youíre practically dancing now." This made the blonde blush even harder, as she awkwardly tried to halt the movement of her head and shoulders, in time to the music.

"So you like jungle tunes, then?" Persisted the dark woman. "I wouldnít have put you down for a rude girl."

"Yeah. Well, I like any kind of music, really ... apart from that nosebleed techno the students love to pop pills to ... but I used to date a DJ who played a lot of drum Ďn bass and jungle, so I developed a taste for it."

"Why, are you a fan?" Nia continued, still a little embarrassed.

"Not especially." Admitted her companion. "Iíd make an exception for DJ Rap ... but not for the quality of her music, mind."

"You dirty dog." Grinned the blonde, glad of the change of subject. "But I agree, sheís pretty cool. And itís always nice to see a girl at the decks for a change."

"Yeah." Came the easy reply. "Her scratching sucks, though."


A short silence fell as the cab rounded a corner beside Manchester's Palace Theatre. The hush was relaxed after a dialogue that had been more intimate than previous exchanges, and both women stared at the posters for the interminable - and abominable - seasonal pantomime. And when they turned into the small back street leading to the bar that was their next stop, Nia was shocked to find that her cold little hand had neatly been taken possession of, and was being rubbed between Jake's two large ones.

"What does Kim do for a living?" She asked, carefully, to hide her surprise.

"Kim works in fashion. She used to be a model ... "

"Figures."

" ... but she got a little bit tired of just being a clothes-horse. She wanted to use her brain ... sheís a bright girl, and she was tired of people assuming that she was thick because she was beautiful."

"That mustíve been pretty annoying." Said the Bar Manager, thoughtfully.

"Yeah. But at least she wasn't the butt of any blonde jokes ... hey!" The dark woman laughed as Nia cuffed her on the shoulder.

"Only joking. Anyone can see that *youíve* got a brain in your head ... itís obvious from the moment you open your mouth. Kim's not quite as intelligent as you - but she's definitely quick."

A small part of Nia was still walking on air after their talk at Al's party, during which they'd discussed Jake's beautiful friend and she'd made the incredulous discovery, still a novelty for her, that in the butch's eyes, *she* was more attractive. The blonde had been gratified beyond measure to find that her new friend was a person who could use her imagination to define this phenomenon rather than feebly following the catwalk parades and absorbing the images in glossy magazines. But at this second comment, her face glowed even more brightly. The Bar Manager enjoyed receiving compliments as much as any other young girl - but she had sense enough to realise that those attached to her appearance, while the most pleasant, were the least durable of any. She knew only too well that physical beauty was a temporary phenomenon, and that the sort that was not strictly in the eye of the beholder said as little about the intrinsic value of its possessor as the colour of their shoes. Jake's obvious respect for her intellect, she knew, would serve both of them well if the relationship were to progress.

But while appreciating the butch's stark honesty, the blonde also found herself wondering if it could be tempered by tact and sensitivity when the statements were not so flattering. Nia was a kind sort, who would rather say nothing at all if she could muster no positive comment, and she expected the same courtesy from all her close associates - unless criticism was absolutely necessary, in which case she tried to accept it with grace. Being the target of more than one judiciously truthful acquaintance had made her suspicious of those who were habitually negative about others' traits and abilities, no matter how helpfully their comments were meant. "Brutal honesty" was not a good quality, in her opinion - since, contrary to the protestations of those who bandied it about, it was not normally without motive. She doubted whether someone who could so easily compare their best friend in an unfavourable light with a new acquaintance could be relied upon to show any discretion when it came to pronouncements on anyone else.

I wonder what sheíd say about me behind my back, or even to my face, if she found a fault ... she thought, not bothering to consider that the comments had perhaps not sprung from a lack of delicacy but from its exact opposite, and that her dwindling jealously of Jake's dazzling friend might be a direct and premeditated result of the statements she was now chewing over with distrust.

"Thanks", she replied, a little absently.

"Anyway, so now Kim is a 'dresser' to the stars. Thatís how she met Al ... she was wardrobe-mistress for the presenter of an entertainment show that Al was working on."

"That must be an interesting job! She's obviously suited to it, too, judging from her exquisite taste."

"She is indeed. Here's Vanilla, Nia."

As the taxi pulled up outside the small lesbian bar that was their next port of call, Nia could see that it was already heaving. In fact, patrons were beginning to spill out on to the streetside patio, despite the biting cold. While she alighted on the pavement a reckless combination of the gin and tonics sheíd consumed and the butch's own intriguing, intoxicating personality was starting to make her feel bold, killing her earlier resolution to play hard to get.

"Um ... it looks pretty busy in there ... do you want to come back to my apartment instead? I don't have any beer, but I have a good bottle of red wine thatís waiting to be opened."

Having paid the driver, the butch didn't hesitate.

"Sure."

"Great. Itís not too far to walk from here."

"Ten nine eight seven six five four

three two murder one lyric at your door."

Blared the speakers as the cab sped shakily away.


Nia took Jake's hand again as she led the way to her small flat, winding through the backstreets with the silent step of a wood-nymph and the sure sense of direction that only belongs to those who enjoy the intimacy of a city-dweller's blueprint. The butch followed as best she could, taking in nothing but the blonde's easy, graceful gait as she turned left, then right, then left again with alarming rapidity.

Passing a small row of newsagents and cafes, shutters closed against the night's embrace, the pair came across a tramp wrapped in a sparse, moth-eaten blanket - just one of Manchester's abundant community of homeless. The melancholic sight of the man slumped over in a doorway, either inebriated or asleep, should have been no less affecting because it was so commonplace in the grey, gloomy atmosphere of the city. But absorbed in one another, their burgeoning understanding and the promise of Nia's warm, waiting apartment, the women might have marched straight past had he not roused himself.

"Spare a little change, please?"

Releasing Jake's hand, Nia immediately began to fish in her purse. Unlike most of Manchester's citizens, the Bar Manager had not experienced a hardening of her attitudes as her residence lengthened in the North's haven for the dispossessed. She'd long ago ceased to care what family and friends said about charity money being good for nothing but funding the drug habits that had probably got these people in trouble in the first place. And her conviction that everybody deserved the benefit of the doubt had grown in response to the hard-hitting lessons that city life dealt her. Streetwise she certainly was not - but she knew a great deal more about the struggle for survival than would ever be revealed by her innocent green eyes. And if she could do her bit to ease some of the shocking social discrepancies that paraded before her and made her wonder just how the powerful nations managed to proclaim themselves "civilised" in front of all and sundry, then so much the better.

She wondered whether Jake would think she was impossibly idealistic and susceptible, as other friends and lovers, who lacked her social conscience and hopeful spirit, had done in the past. Sticking out her small chin as far as she could, she regarded her date with a little enmity, determined to start off on the right foot this time and defend her action if necessary. But the proposed barricade was pulled up short by signs of recognition in the dark woman's eyes.

"Hey Pete, howíre you doing?" Jake asked with apprehension, partly due to Nia's quickly masked, incredulous stare.

The manís eyes, heavily bagged and just discernible beneath a thick woolly hat, began to gain some lustre and spread a gentle brightness across the unhealthy, dirty grey of his skin.

"Alright, mate! Wikkid, wikkid ... " He replied in a gravelly voice, pausing for a racking cough that made his whole body shake. "Can't complain."

"Sick to death of this cold, though." He coughed and spluttered again, so violently that Nia started back a step, for fear that he would knock himself unconscious.

Since her earliest years, the Bar Manager had always laboured under a strong impulse to heal, to improve the lot of her fellow man. It was what had drawn her to academic politics in the first place - the belief that perhaps the world could be changed, if only the people in power cared enough to do it. This initial optimism had rapidly been squashed by to the carnival of bigots that staffed most public arenas, but her altruistic instincts were still alive and kicking - and needed no more summons to awaken them than the spectacle of this cold, hungry chap. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she blinked them angrily away, determined not to lose her self-control as she removed the Burberry scarf from around her neck and wrapped it about his, saying compassionately,

"This might keep some of the cold out."

Although ailing and exhausted, the man's manners were obviously still intact, as he struggled with his thanks while regarding the blonde with gratitude and disbelief.

"Very kind of you. Very kind of you." He repeated, half to himself, overwhelmed and clearly bewildered by this unexpected kindness.

"Much appreciated. Much appreciated. Much warmer now ... most people don't take any notice of old Pete any more ... he don't matter to them ... you're a sweet girl. I wish you all the best, me luv."

His own eyes began to fill now, as he turned the ends of the scarf over a few times between knarled fingers, stroking them as if to make a closer acquaintance with the garment, lest Nia ask for it back again.

"Hey, I thought it was a bit unfair, since I'm wearing *two* coats, for me not to share my warmth."

The femme quipped, her diplomatic instincts deployed just in time to save the tramp's self-respect from the imminent and potentially embarrassing breakdown.

"And you did share it, indeed you did. Very, very warm. You're very warm indeed." He whispered, smiling now into the sympathetic face so near his own.

"You've got a precious little friend there." After a moment, this comment was addressed to Jake, who had been silent throughout the brief exchange. "Make sure you look after her."

"I'll try my best to keep her safe." The dark woman spoke softly, almost as if loath to break a spell. "I promise."

And again Jake's down-and-out acquaintance was ignored, as two pairs of eyes met, green melting into blue, and the wall between them began to develop another infinitesimal crack. It was just a minuscule fracture, and went quite unnoticed by either woman. But splinters such as this, given time to knit together, occasionally convert into a force that creates while it tears down, replacing barriers not with an empty, frightening void but a bond of trust and affection that forms a safe path across the dreaded abyss.

Eventually the butch began the conversation again, with a whisper that sounded as choked as Nia herself was feeling.

"Have you eaten today, Pete?"

Still staring at the Bar Manager's scarf, the man did not look up. But a tiny furrow appeared between his eyebrows as he shook his head slightly in dissent.

"Say no more. Iím going to go buy you dinner." Jake put her hand across Niaís shoulders, an intimate gesture that was noted by the blonde and the vagrant alike.

"Do you want to come with me?"

Reluctant as she was to be parted from her escort at this point, Nia's empathy had always been her strongest motivating force ... and by now it was really beginning to kick in. This, as well as a strange attraction to Jake's friend, a desire to hear his story if she possibly could, prompted a steady refusal.

"Thanks, but I think Iíll stay put."

"OK. I wonít be a second."


As Jake crossed the busy road, covering the distance with a few lopes of her long, leather-clad legs, Pete turned to the blonde, who was regarding him with renewed shyness. Nia wasn't regretting her resolution to stay and keep the beggar company - but deprived of the relative security of her dark friend, she was wondering how on earth she was going to get him to talk. Luckily, Pete did not feel quite so intimidated.

"So how do you earn a crust, me dear?"

"Um ... I manage a bar in town ... Fire and Ice."

At this the Bar Manager wondered if she'd said the wrong thing, as the expression on Pete's face underwent a transition from genuine interest to absolute shock. Struck dumb, she waited for a moment while he regained his composure, and leaned forward again to catch his next question, as he stammered,

"You mean ... the one on Oxford Road ... red doors?"

"Yes."

Clueless as to where these enquiries were headed, Nia decided it was best to answer them as briefly as possible and then attempt to change the subject, as Jake's friend was obviously disturbed by something. She idly wondered whether he knew the place ... perhaps he'd been a regular customer before he started living on the streets, perhaps when the previous manager had been in charge.

Looking as though he'd seen a ghost, Pete expelled a heavy sigh, but seemed to have lost the desire to delve. Instead, he pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, and Nia flinched as he lit it and the end began to crackle.

"Well ... tell that Jake to look out for you, please ... darlin'. Running those places can be a dangerous business ... but she'll have your back ... I'm sure of it. Sheís a good person to know in your position ... you hang on to her, luv." He whispered.

He patted Nia's hand, slurring slightly as his pupils started to dilate.

"I use'n manage one o' those places, y'know ... 'fore I got 'n this mess."

Nia felt a chill go down her spine at Pete's words. She wondered whether his establishment had gone bankrupt and left him destitute. She was also starting to doubt whether she was doing him a favour by trying to engage him in conversation, after all.

Perhaps I should have gone to the take-away with Jake. What am I going to say now?

But luckily for her, the misgivings were dissipated before they began to take hold by the reappearance of the dark woman, with hands full of paper bags and a broad, cheerful smile on her face. Nia heaved an inward sigh of relief while the butch spoke to her friend.

"Itís pancakes tonight, Pete ... from the Dutch Pancake House. That OK?"

"Yeh ... t'anks, maaan."

Although the blonde was glad that the bad memories she'd awakened for him had clearly been forgotten, the man was now quite out of it, and he slid down even further against the shop door as he reached for the bundle Jake held out to him.

The dark butch turned to the blonde with a wry smile.

"I like to vary his menu, you know ... so he doesn't get bored. And a diet of hamburgers and those horrible thin chips is no good for anyone."

Pete was already busy eating, and seemed quite unaware of their presence as he devoured his pancakes with the frantic hunger that is only known by those who have also known starvation. Nia shied away mechanically much as an intruder would, wishing to preserve the trampís dignity ... and half turned her back as the butch stepped forward.

"Got this for you, too." She muttered.

Crouching down, Jake slipped into Pete's pocket a small piece of card that Nia recognised as being a weekly pass for Manchesterís buses. Although a pretty overpriced invention, most commuters used these to get around the city, as they were valid on any service, at any time.

"Come on, Nia, let's get you home." The brunette said, taking Nia's hand. "Pete, take care of yourself - please."

Although still engrossed in his food, Jake's vagrant friend looked up to wave at the two women as they walked away.

As soon as they were out of earshot behind a nearby skip, Nia asked the question that was burning on her lips.

"Not that it wasnít a sweet gesture, Jake, but why did you give Pete a bus pass? He didnít really look as though he was planning to take a trip anywhere."

Jake answered her a little shortly. "He likes to ride the buses in the winter. Theyíre warmer than the streets."

Nia could have kicked herself for her own stupidity.

Of course he does. Of course they are. What a question.

"Oh." She said.

"I book him into a hostel for a night or two every couple of weeks, as well. Then he can get some decent sleep, and get himself cleaned up. That way, people don't complain about him using the bus service. And I figure that with a pass, he can hop on and off as much as he wants. Breaks up the day a bit, too. He gets terribly bored, and thatís when he starts looking for smack, and people to shoot up with."

"Thatís a good scheme."

Was the only reply Nia could come up with, as she regarded her companion with renewed respect. Almost immediately upon meeting the dark woman she'd had the feeling that Jake didn't expose the tender side of her character too often, and resolving to make the most of this disclosure, she motioned with her eyebrows for the butch to carry on.

"I bought him a train ticket to Penzance once. He was so chuffed ... he just went down the line and came straight back, but I think it was one of the cosiest days heís ever had."

"And how did he end up on the streets?" Asked Nia, a little fearfully.

"He got involved with the gangs." Was the grim answer.

"They turned him into a junkie, made him completely dependent on them for his supplies, and used him like a puppet."

Shit. Apart from the drugs, that sounds awfully familiar. No wonder he was concerned when I said I managed a bar. He must think I'm in danger. What a sweet guy.

I dread to think of the gangsters that must have terrorised his bar. I don't think even Matt and his cronies would stoop *that* low, to get someone hooked on heroin and crack, just to control them.

Would they ... ?

"And how do you know him?" She asked her companion.

"Heís an old friend." Replied the dark woman.

She was smiling, but her inflexible tone of voice definitely told the femme that the conversation was over. Nia wasnít satisfied with the answer by a long stretch, but knew better than to push. And in accordance with her earlier resolution to let no unfounded suspicions spoil their first evening together, she decided to leave the next question unasked.


Below is a selection of Internet resources on drug abuse and homelessness, in the UK and overseas. I would encourage readers to take a look. I hope some of you find them of interest, and maybe even of help. The social problems that the novel touches on are real ones - and raising awareness, in my opinion, is more than half the battle.

CASCADE - Drug information service for, and by, young people (winner of a British Crime Prevention and Community Safety Award, 1999) - http://www.cascade.u-net.com/home2.htm

Drug Abuse USA - Information and help for substance abusers - http://www.drug-abuse.com/

HIT - Drug training and information centre - http://www.hit.org.uk/home/home.htm

UK Department of Health - http://www.doh.gov.uk/

UK Report to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction - http://www.isdd.co.uk/trends/contents.html

Big Issue Magazine - Campaigns on behalf of the community of homeless - http://www.bigissue.com/home.htm

Crisis - Organisation for single homeless people - http://www.crisis.org.uk

Homeless Pages - Information site - http://www.homelesspages.org.uk

Shelter - UK National campaign for homeless people - http://www.shelter.org.uk


Part Thirteen

By the time they reached Niaís 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.

"Welcome back!"

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?

Probably not.

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, answering 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 that 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 and finally spelled out ĎZenderí.

"That's a beautiful instrument." She commented.

"Thanks - it used to belong to my parents. I played it incessantly as a child, so when I finally bought my own property they sent it up here for me. It makes the flat feel like home."

"Do you still play?"

"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?"

"Yeah."

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 Ė 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 Ė 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 guestís 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."

"Iíll 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?

Shit.

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.

"Can do."

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.

Ooops. 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. As she expected, the random bunch yielded hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, R&B and some dubious swing - although she was surprised at the amount of indie that was stashed in the rack.

God, some of this borders on grunge ... she thought, picking up a Stone Temple Pilots LP and tossing it back on the low shelf as though it burned.

And there's angry femmes galore in here, too...Fiona Apple, Courtney Love...yuck! Didn't think she'd be an Elastica fan.

Smirking, she fingered the next offering - which was battered and obviously well-played, and a little more familiar.

Well, Iíd have been surprised not to find Morrissey in here. I think everyone who went to University in the early 90ís is obsessed.

Miserable and warped was definitely in fashion during my own student days.

Heh.

About the only time in my life I've ever managed to fit in.

"What are you laughing at?" Came another, amused shout.

"Nothing." The dark woman replied with unnecessary evasiveness, and continued to search the stack.


Once she'd found something soothing and appropriate as a musical background, the butch knew 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.

Just before our love got lost you said,
'I am as constant as a northern star.'
and I said,
'Constant in the darkness? Where's that at? If you want me, I'll be in the bar.'

On the back of a cartoon coaster,
in the blue TV, screen light
I drew a map of Canada -
oh Canada ...
with your face sketched on it twice.

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.

Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine,
you taste so bitter and so sweet -
oh I could drink a case of you, darling ...
and I would still be on my feet,
oh I would still be on ... my ... feet.

"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 in particular is a real classic."

Jake continued, trying 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 man-handling the blonde without an invitation was making her perturbed to say the least.

"Yeah. I find Joni 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.

"Iím sorry Ė shall I put something else on?"

"No! ... No ... "

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.

Oh I am a lonely painter,
I live in a box of paints,
I'm frightened by the devil, and I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid ...

I remember that time you told me, you said,
'Love is touching souls.' Surely you touched mine,
'Cause part of you pours out of me
in these lines from time to time.

Still, Jake's host soon extracted herself from her seat, and looked a little shaky as she retrieved a small tin from the top of the bookshelf, taking some cigarette papers out. 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, 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.

I dunno.

When she could have this, why on earth would she want someone like me?

And then she remembered the Bar Managerís 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.


Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine,
you taste so bitter and so sweet -
oh I could drink a case of you, darling ...
still, I'd be on my feet,
I would still be on ... my ... feet.

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 Ė or lack of it - beside her.

"Heís 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 derriŤre. 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 Jakeís earlier duplicity with regard to Pete.

Well, I suppose I deserved that ... thought the butch. If *Iím* 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 apparently 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, who were prominent in the British mafia. I hated them."

Jake continued to stare at the rug.

"Oh."

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..."

"How awful."

Managed the butch this time, still unable to meet Niaís 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 couldnít - 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, and next time he might not be 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 Ė 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 and that most people considered to be delightfully endearing, if they'd been lucky enough to notice it. 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.'

She chuckled.

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 couldnít keep food or water down for more than five minutes. The mood swings were dreadful, too. I couldnít 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 Iíve ever met. And he never hurt me - he was always able to control himself, despite what he was going through."

"Good."

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.


I met a woman,
she had a mouth like yours
she knew your life
she knew your devils and your deeds ...
and she said,
'Go to him, stay with him if you can, but be prepared to bleed.'

Oh but you are in my blood, you're my holy wine,
you're so bitter, bitter and so sweet -
oh, I could drink a case of you, darling...
still I'd be on my feet,
I would still be on ... my ... feet.

In the ensuing silence Nia resumed her seat, but this time she sat on the small pouffe instead of cramming herself onto the couch. Feeling a little rejected, Jake wondered whether she'd already said the wrong thing - or even worse, had failed to say anything of consequence at all. But her trepidation was soon forgotten in her curiosity, as she watched her host tear a strip from the cardboard Rizla packet in her hand, and after making it into a cylinder, begin to roll it between her thumb and forefinger.

The dark woman blinked a couple of times as she registered the shock.

My God ... perhaps *thatís* how they keep her there. Although they must be providing her with something stronger than cannabis to make her put up with all that shit.

Should I ask her?

Is it any of my business?

Her posture hardened, and she shook her handsome raven head as duty staged a battle with discretion inside it.

Yes, it is. I canít sit back and watch them ruin somebody elseís life.

"Thatís not what I think, is it?" She eventually posed the question, trying to sound indifferent and not entirely succeeding.

Nia let rip a hearty peal of laughter as she pulled one of the cigarette papers out and filled it with a fine line of tobacco Ė and nothing else - from the tin on her lap.

"What - a joint?"

The butch nodded tightly, torn between feeling relief at Niaís reaction and mortification over her own well-meaning interference.

"Ironically not. Iím not going to say that I didnít inhale in college, as seems to be the fashion these days amongst political science alumni ... "

Stopping to share the dark woman's appreciative snort, Nia ran her small pink tongue along the edge of the rolled-up skin, and after slipping the roach into place, deftly finished the job.

" ... but my days of smoking reefer are over. I grew out of it. I rarely smoke at all now, to be honest."

As her host continued to explain, Jake admired the slender, elegant cigarette that seemed to be the perfect product of Nia's dainty, graceful fingers. Nia's hands were actually much like the rest of her - small but perfectly formed, immaculately kept but slightly blemished Ė however, to the butchís eyes their appearance was only enhanced by the few insignificant scars and burn-marks that marked her out as both a hard worker and a hospitality professional.

"Most of the time I think itís a disgusting habit Ė probably because it cost me so much effort to give it up." The Bar Manager sniffed, contemplating the cigarette between her fingers with a mixture of desire and disgust.

"So when did you give up?"

"Just over a year ago. I was going through some pretty tough stuff emotionally at the time, and instead of using the white stick as a crutch I thought Iíd try and quit."

"Sounds like an inverse philosophy, I know."

She owned, in response to her companion's look of amusement and doubt.

"But it gave me something else to focus on, at least."

Jake's host paused, as though she realised that she was on the verge of sounding bitter, and began to manufacture a sardonic smile.

"Or perhaps I was feeling so shitty that I decided I might as well go the whole hog and quit smoking too, because things couldn't get much worse." She finished, with a mirthless laugh.

The butch inclined her dark head in sympathy.

"Now I only smoke when Iím really anxious. I seem to feel more comfortable when my hands have something to do Ė the activity takes away from the strain." The blonde observed, finally lighting up and taking a puff.

Well, Iím glad itís not what I thought. Although it certainly looks as though she isnít as naÔve as she appears.

The smoke billowing beneath Jake's nostrils smelled unusually pleasant in her current state of tension and irregular exuberance. She wondered why on earth she was feeling so edgy.

"Um...Nia?"

The blonde put down her wine glass and waited for her visitor to carry on.

"Would you roll me one of those?"

"Here, have this."

Nia took the lit cigarette from between her lips and handed it to the butch before beginning to make another, with a quizzical look colouring her pretty features.

"You know, I didn't think you'd be afraid of anything. But it almost seems as though you're nervous - and I never anticipated that."

"Well, you were wrong."

Although the statement surprised her, Nia didn't quite comprehend the exertion it demanded from the visitor who was now watching her with shuttered sapphire eyes.

Jake rarely Ė if ever - admitted to what she considered to be weaknesses. 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 reserves of untapped strength.

"So, do I make you nervous?" Her host persevered.

Staring deep into earnest green eyes, Jake felt perilously close to drowning - but the candour she found there obliged her to be frank.

"You do."

Now it was as though, once given a chink through which to escape, the words slammed against the barriers that Jake had spent years erecting with such care, and drove themselves 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.

"Why?"

"Because youíre 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, Nia."

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? Tastes a bit like berries and cream."

"Mmm."

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 spoke a little hurriedly, having noticed Jake's suspicious expression.

"He gets bottles and bottles of the stuff every Christmas from his clients."

"What does he do?"

"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."

"Oh."

In keeping with the theme of the evening so far, Jake once more 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 for a moment. Valid though these doubts might have been, something in the dark woman's gut was telling her that the answer was 'yes'.

And 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 control 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, and willed her chest to stop heaving.

"It's not that I don't want to, really." Nia's voice was full of remorse.

"Then what is it?" Asked the butch a little more gently.

"Look."

The Bar Manager said flatly, with 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 youíll 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."

Jake's hubris had been stirred by what she perceived to be a brush-off, and by now it was on full alert - and it stopped 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. So instead, she clamped her mouth tight shut and listened to the rest of her date's rather garbled defence.

"It's not as callous as that, Jake. 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 donít take this the wrong way - but I donít want to be another notch on your bedpost tonight."

"Itís *your* bedpost." The butch pointed out, still sounding a little nettled. But her eyes were shining.

I suppose I donít blame her. A few years ago she would have had my number, for sure. I can give her some time.

She doesn't want me to give her a good seeing-to and then leave before anyone finds out. She wants to get to know me.

I think that's worth the wait. At least, it will be if I can let her inside and she doesn't run screaming.


Part Fourteen

"We could live for a thousand years,
and if I hurt you...
I'd make wine
from your tears..."

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.

"I told you
that we could fly...
'cause we all have wings,
but some of us don't know why..."

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.

"I was standing,
you were there...
two worlds collided - and they could never tear us apart."

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 talking to her...

Now 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 handlhold 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 altogether 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 replied,

"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."

"Yeah, 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." Nia affected a yawn.

"But you *did* watch it, Max."

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

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

"What?"

"She thinks even lions should be vegetarians. She's never been the same since she went to the peace camp at Greenham."

"I can believe that." The Bar Manager sniggered.

"Actually, you should see it when she gets together with her friends - ageing hippies are pretty entertaining. They're 'anti' just about everything - in fact, 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. Now they suffered only from the fidgets that went hand-in-hand with their appeasement - which would soon be chased away by the genuine bond they shared.

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, with eyes twinkling.

"I think I've dated that guy."

"Very funny. The sad thing is, you probably have."

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 sum in her head.

"Listen, Nia." Came a small voice.

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

Nia 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."

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

"But I think you were being a little too vigilant the other night, Max. If Jake was connected with Matt she'd hardly have shown her face in here again. I don't expect gangsters to be breaking down my door or anything."

The dialogue broke for a second, as the Assistant Manager stared at the floor and wondered whether she could summon up enough pluck to share the real disquiet that had kept her up 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.

"C'mon, 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 am worried about you getting hurt, yes." The small butch admitted quietly.

"But my misgivings are more for your feelings than your person, Nia."

"What do you mean?"

"You really like this woman. I can tell."

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 worst fears, Max carried on.

"And she's a complete mystery to you. I can't help it, but so many alarm bells are going off in my head I can hardly hear myself think sometimes."

Although the blonde'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 the words might wither the Rose sitting opposite.

"Remember what happened the last time you went for one of those dangerous, emotionally inaccessible types? By the time you found out what was behind that 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 that you should look before you leap this time."

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.

In fact, I never knew it was possible for a human being to hurt so much. What if I'm setting myself up again?

And can I even help it?

Nia approached all things with the same unadulterated zeal - and this was especially true of her relationships with others. 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 had 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. Impossibly involved with the memory of the 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 eventually saw what was in KJ's heart, and realised that it was not accessible to her touch, she was devastated. The discovery smashed her self-esteem into smithereens and left the fragments 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.

And the relationship had gone rapidly downhill from that point on.

Nia couldn't remember exactly at which point 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 that she had to leave - before she became inextricably embroiled in a relationship with the 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 begun 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 knew that relationships took work - she wasn't stupid - 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 that it 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 at school - but it had 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 are normally born as malevolent siblings, following close on the heels of heartache, to 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 herself 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."

Max said, 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, knowing her Assistant's blind loyalty was probably misplaced, but appreciating it all the same. Max saw her friend's lips quiver - which only encouraged her ire.

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

"Max...you're biased. And anyway, let's not go into it. It's water under the bridge for me now. Really. Don't get upset."

"I'm not upset!" Max's voice rose, belying her words.

"And I don't care if you've got 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." Stated Max, quietly.

"What?"

"Take responsibility for her behaviour. Just because you're kind, and sweet, and giving, 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! She was an asshole, through and through."

"But..." Nia tried again.

"No more buts. You're too lenient with people who treat you like shit. You deserve better - and until you realise that, you'll always be paired with bastards."

"Max, she wasn't a bastard. She just didn't know how to handle her own pain."

"Well, perhaps not. But shouldn't have taken it out on you - she should have tried to treat you right. She shouldn't call herself a butch if she doesn't know the rules."

The blonde squeezed her friend's hand with a lump in her throat, unable to speak after that last remark. If there was one thing she loved about Max it was her unwavering respect for women and her conviction that they always ought to have the very best. It was one of 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 had only grown stronger in the course of the discussion, 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. But despite that, I feel as though I can trust her."

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.

"Max, 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 personality seems to incorporate similar defences - and if she proves to be as attached to them as KJ was to hers, I'll run a mile. But somehow - I don't know why - I feel convinced that she's not going to turn out to be a monster underneath it all."

Inwardly, she sighed.

I hope I'm not wrong this time.

I was wrong about KJ and I suffered for it. But if I'm honest with myself, I knew even at the beginning that I was going to wind up hurt.

I should have also figured out that people generally get what they expect.

And God knows Jake ought to give me the same feeling of foreboding, but she doesn't.

Max continued to look sceptical, even as Nia drew her in for a hug.

"I understand your concerns. I really do. But haven't you ever heard the saying 'it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all'?"

"This isn't a romance novel, Nia."

"I know. But I have to take the risk."


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, though...she thought drowsily.

I don't think I've ever let my physicality take charge like that.

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 underneath 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. Her new paramour made love to her body in a different way, and 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 Jake 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, her gaze fell first upon the huge pile of books stacked on the bedside table.

At least we didn't knock those over as well...she thought dryly.

The butch shifted her weight on to her elbow as one of the bottom titles caught her eye. Trying to manoeuvre her arm from beneath her bed-partner with only the modicum of disturbance, she reached out and grabbed for it. It slid neatly between two heavier volumes, intriguingly titled 'Macho Sluts', and 'Sexual Personae', which met with a resounding thud as the book Jake sought slipped on to the pillow.

Success.

The butch's joints were stiff after the longest night's sleep she'd had in ages - and her shoulder groaned and cracked as she reached behind her head. The twinge prompted a sharp intake of breath, and she picked up the slim paperback and brought it to her face.

A chill prickle ran down her spine when she saw what was written on the front. It was a name that carried unpleasant and often downright painful associations for her, but nevertheless the dark woman was determined to be brutal - and tight-lipped, she forced herself to look at it. The book fell open, and she numbly studied the poem that almost leapt off the page with desperate menace.

Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
All this messy blood? Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.
This wicked little tongue? Death.
This occasional wakefulness? Death.

Given, stolen or held pending trial?
Held.

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death.
Who owns all of space? Death.

Who is stronger than hope? Death.
Who is stronger than the will? Death.
Stronger than love? Death.
Stronger than life? Death.
But who is stronger than death?
Me, evidently.

Pass, crow.

The words made Jake shudder, her nakedness fuelling the susceptibility of her emotions to the stark, macabre language. She absorbed what was written on the clean, white page - wearing the verse like a hair shirt - letting the lines permeate her mind and add to the melting pot of penance that usually stirred only when she was alone. But balking at the prospect of reading further in the haven of Nia's bed, she would have surreptitiously returned the book to the bottom of the pile, had the blonde not stirred.

"Morning."

"Hey, you."

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 laying claim to the pint-sized body, exploring every nook and cranny with practised hands, the butch had soon found out that 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.

The book had been forgotten - but inside the embrace its cold surface grazed the small of the femme's back and she yelped and pulled away, taking it from the butch's hand with a puzzled look.

"Were you reading Crow?"

Jake's eyes dropped to the duvet, her amorous mood arrested.

"Yeah." She muttered, feeling irrationally shifty.

"I just saw it lying there on the table so I picked it up."

The dark woman was unique in her ability to assume a defensive posture even while lying down. And she couldn't help it - once the retreat began she was powerless to halt its progress. She recoiled from herself, running shamefaced like a thief caught in the act, driven by the fear of being detained by forces beyond her control.

Nia was talking - and her soft, melodic voice reverberated like a siren song in the small room. Aware of the stiffening of her limbs, Jake tried to listen and relax before the prison doors slammed shut.

"Well, it's not my usual taste, but I can't seem to put that one down. Hughes' lyrics are so powerful."

The blonde smiled quietly.

"Although I do think the 'heart of darkness' stuff he does is a little over the top. No wonder Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven."

To the butch's relief, her lover returned the paperback to the top of the pile as she spoke, seemingly willing to let the subject drop.

She favoured Jake with another wide smile - and the bandit crept closer.

But only for a second as the book came back into view. Now the pinnacle of the stack, it loomed in a manner less fitting to its size than to the significance it bore.

Jake averted her eyes from the title that seemed to stick a rapier blade into her memories.

It burned a haunting trail - she felt as though it was carving the hated name into the back of her head, branding her with a past designation she knew she could never escape. The search for fresh conversation proved fruitless - her social skills crude in her moment of need - and Nia seemed loath to assist, merely staring at her with a mildly inquisitive look that made her feel as though the tainted epithet was painted all over her.

Eventually, the butch succumbed to the inanimate enemy - turning away from her new lover, she shifted the book to the bottom of the heap.

And Nia didn't seem to notice.

Or did she?

The dark woman settled back again, wriggling down between the covers to drowse. But the blonde's next words soon jolted her upright.

"Isn't there a gangland legend about someone called the Crow?"

It could have been an innocent enquiry. But Jake felt it like an indictment - hanging accusingly in the air for a moment too long.

"Ummm...I don't think so, Nia." She stuttered.

"No, really - I'm sure I've heard people talk about him. Most feared criminal in Manchester, they say. I think the reputation holds down South as well - even 'Dodgy' Dave Courtney's purportedly scared of him."

The butch was considering getting up, getting dressed and walking out without looking back - anything to avoid having to formulate an answer.

But she wanted to stay.

She wanted to feel Nia's flesh yield under her hands, to sample the rosebud lips and the soft pink tongue, to nibble between her knees, tracing a line up those taut thighs to the opium within, teasing it from inside with her fingers, catching it in her mouth - all the time hearing the sweet voice that cried out in passion for her alone.

Desperately, she searched the room for a distraction, piercing blue eyes narrowed, until a particularly bright flash of sunlight through the blinds illuminated her lover's body again and provided her with a brainwave.

"Yeah. Anyway..."

She said triumphantly.

"I have a bone to pick with you, young lady."


It worked like a charm. Subject changed - worry quickly infected the femme's features, stopped in its tracks only by the twinkle in Jake's eyes.

"I thought you were a natural blonde."

It was impertinent, she knew - but a relieved laugh rippled up from the bottom of the femme's chest as she sat back on the pillows.

"Sorry to crush your illusions." She snorted.

"I wasn't born blonde, no."

"Although I've been this colour for years. Since college. I dyed my hair to look like an actress my ex had a crush on. He thought I'd be the spit of her if I had blonde hair, because of my green eyes - and I believed him." She chuckled.

"Aaah. That old story."

Nodded the dark woman, mortified by her impolite statement, but intensely thankful for the turn of the conversation.

"Yep. But he left me in the end, for another student whose blonde tresses were all her own. 'Natural' was quite the status symbol, apparently - so she was a step up from me. I got over it...I was young...but I saw her face in my nightmares for months."

Nia seemed to have forgotten the previous discussion as she emitted another hearty laugh.

"Men! It's amazing the superficial crap they can get obsessed with. Taught me one thing, though - the charmers can never be trusted. They'll tell you they love you forever while they're scanning the personals for someone better."

She's doing it again...thought the butch.

Telling me stuff.

Laying her life open without a second thought.

She sighed.

It sounds as though she's been through a fair amount of hurt and betrayal for someone so young.

The thought made her feel guilty, and she turned her face away.

And she trusts me.

She really shouldn't.

I'm such a pig.

"What'cha lookin' so deep about, Mister?"

The bottle blonde began playfully, tracing lines across Jake's back with soft fingertips. It tickled - and almost felt as though she was writing her name on the butch's dusky skin.

"You complex, mysterious ones are pretty trying too, you know - you spend so much time being complex and mysterious, it's difficult to get a conversation going. So cut it out, and talk to me."

The butch turned back to her small lover's demands with a hangdog smile.

"That's better. I have a built-in bullshit detector, you know." Nia stated sternly.

"I believe you." Replied the dark woman.

But I certainly seem to have snuck under it.


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, she sensed something more.

The comment about her blonde hair had been strange. In fact, it would normally have warranted a slap, or at least a huff - but at the time it felt remarkably welcome, providing respite from the brooding set of her companion's shoulders and the blockade that was beginning to form in her eyes.

Well, it was partly relief and partly the fact that Nia was still so high on her own pheromones that Jake could have gotten away with anything.

God, Nia...you're such a pushover when you're horny...she reprimanded herself.

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 nonetheless decided to answer.

"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 visit to watch me recite nursery rhymes. It was only a matter of time before I learned to accompany myself."

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

"I'm 26 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.

And as if designed to teach her a lesson, the reply almost knocked her for six.

"I never knew them."

It was said 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 it a good tug.

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

"It's OK." The dark woman's voice was surprisingly warm.

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

"So...how come you don't know who they are?" Nia ventured timorously.

"Because I grew up in care."

"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. It was OK - the 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 the answer what you'd expected?"

"Not at all."

Jake gave her lover a reticent and almost apologetic smile before giving the answer.

"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 fled during the Holocaust. But they never quite got the hang of living in England. They wound up poor as church mice."

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

"But Romanies live in pretty tight communities, don't they? Did their clan group help them out?"

"No." The reply was terse.

"Relations within the Diaspora were pretty strained at that time - everything went to pot while the war was on. So they decided to go it alone. Which was a mistake, because when they died years later, my parents had nobody to rely on. They had to turn me over to Social Services."

"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."

"I suppose not."

"I don't even have a birth certificate to tell me where I was born, or how old I am. Social Services weren't too good on the small print."

Jake chuckled sadly, before stopping for a moment to gaze at the femme whose emerald eyes were still full of sympathy.

"You know, Nia - I've never told anyone the story of my parents before."

"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.

"Let's see...OK, I've got one."

"I had six toes on my right foot when I was born." She whispered, deadpan.

"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.

She's absolutely gorgeous, though. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it.

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.


More information on the Gypsy community

The Marginalisation of Gypsies - article by Helen O'Nions

The Patrin Web Journal - Romani culture and history

Romany & Traveller Family History Society (U.K based)

The Lawyers' Committee for Roma Rights and Recognition (U.S based)


Part Fifteen

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, beside herself with excitement, 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, holding her breath " making the moment last. She knew that never again would it be so completely and utterly hers " that once sheíd 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. Niaís 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 blondeís fingers, beneath the dark woman's, made first contact with skin. The butchís 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 womanís 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 Jakeís 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 Niaís 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 theyíd assumed clearly demarcated roles in the bedroom as much because of her own mental block about giving gratification, as the butchís 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 not identify as stone, 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 Managerís 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 womanís 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 butchís 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 was devouring the Bar Manager's neck - nibbling so doggedly that the blonde was almost distracted from her task.

Almost.

But Nia needed this. She needed it like a drug, this 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 manís, merging into solid pectoral muscles that were as tense as the veins in the butchís neck, overwrought with stimulation. Sliding downwards, past an intricately toned, washboard abdomen, the blonde lowered her face to the dark triangle between her loverís 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 her body were equally besotted.

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 butchís hands, replacing them with her own and stilling her movements for a second.

"Relax. Please. , She said, softly.

"I canít do this if you donít trust me. ,

Both looked up, and at last their eyes met.

"Let go. , Whispered the blonde. "You wonít 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 couldnít 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 in 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 butchís 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, "No one in years..." 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 " and it also made her loverís 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 didnít 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 the point of 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 canít get close enough" , She whispered, wrapping her legs around Niaís waist and tucking the blondeís head under her chin.

Nia didnít know how long they lay there. Long enough for the dark womanís 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 touched 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 sheíd 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 Niaís 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 loverís bashful smile, and drew out a scarf - exactly like the one she'd impulsively given to 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 wasnít normally impressed by presents, infinitely preferring to be granted time and consideration, rather than any material possession. Sheíd 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. Iím overwhelmed. Thank you."

The femme followed up her thanks with a kiss " feeling as though her heart was on her lips.

"Aw"hey now, itís 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.

"Itís only fair, since you gave yours to Pete. ,

"But youíre not responsible for Pete, Jake. You really didnít 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...I didn't think they made them any more"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 " sheíd spent a whole weekend trawling Manchesterís vintage shops looking for an exact replica of Niaís lost accessory. Normally, she would have found such a task irritating in the extreme " but she amazed herself with her own tenacity, continuing to search until sheíd found it - the thought of the Bar Managerís 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.

"Youíre a sweetheart. , She said.

"In fact, youíre almost too good to be true. , She continued, playfully.

"I am? , Laughed the butch. "Itís the first Iíve heard of it. ,

"Itís true! Youíre an absolute darling. , The Bar Manager insisted.

"I canít even believe youíre single - I keep expecting a jealous girlfriend to burst in here and scratch my eyes out at any moment. Youíre 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 make an effort to accept them, if the relationship was to progress any further. But she was impatient to get closer " and although she knew better than to push for information, she couldnít resist a light-hearted probe.

The teasing backfired in a dramatically unpleasant manner.

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

And this act, the shift in body language, the guilt in her motion, the blink that lasted just a second too long - ignited all the blondeís defences at once. She disengaged her hand from her companionís grasp.

"There is, isnít there? , She asked, tightly.

"Someone else, I mean. ,

After the intimacy theyíd shared, this accusation felt like a bucket of cold water dashed in the dark womanís face. She recoiled from it, automatically hanging her head.

Which was the confirmation the Bar Manager was looking for.

"Oh my God. ,

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

"I canít believe this. ,

"Nia, wait. , Jake managed.

"I havenít even answered you yet. ,

Nia stopped and regarded her a little sadly.

"You donít need to. , She said.

"I can tell by your eyes. Youíre in love with someone else. Thereís another girl on your mind " I can practically see her. ,

"Nia, thatís ridiculous. Yes, I was in love once " but that was years ago. ,

The dark woman protested.

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

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

"I canít believe this is happening to me again. , She whispered numbly.

"Nia, letís talk about this. Please. ,

Jake tried again, feeling helpless in her nakedness and in the face of the blondeís obvious distress.

"Thereís nothing to talk about. I donít want to know. I think you should leave. ,

"Nia" ,

The butchís 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 Iím 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 blondeís 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. There was anguish stamped all over her features, and the butch had to force herself to remain calm, gulping back the lump in her own throat that rose at the sight.

"Youíre not second-best as far as Iím concerned. Youíre the most amazing woman Iíve 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, some other life.

"Listen, Jake. The last butch I fell in love with was unable to love me back, because sheíd already given her heart to someone else. She ended up hating me for it. And I stayed because I didnít 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 thereís someone you havenít quite gotten over, is too much of a risk. ,

The butch made no answer. Refusing to take responsibility for another womanís obvious mistakes, she could nevertheless understand the agony that motivated the Bar Managerís excessive response. Sheíd felt it herself, when her heart had been broken " although somehow, being the spectator as Nia relived her disaster seemed even more harrowing than her own had been.

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

"I think youíre a wonderful person. Iím terribly, desperately attracted to you. But I need more than your assurance itís really me you want, before I can feel safe. ,

"I don't understand."

"You can tell me over and over again, Jake - but Iíve heard these declarations before, and they turned out to be lies. Words are ephemeral, and easy to use. I need more than that " 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 canít be a victim of your past. Either get over it, or leave me alone. Please. If you really wanted to put it behind you, you could. I canít deal with the hurt again."

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


"I donít think I can see her again, Rach. ,

Nia spoke sadly into the phone, a few hours later. It was almost midnight " and sheíd spent the time in between pacing her tiny apartment, remembering Jakeís kind, sensitive face, and the way the dark woman had felt beneath her hands, while berating herself for letting the butch under her skin too soon.

"I feel such a connection to her " it seems ridiculous after just a few weeks. I can't explain it. 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 that 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 sheíd been, how she really ought to be a better judge of character - 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 Rachelís answer was totally unexpected.

"I think youíre being terribly hasty and a little unfair. ,

The words hit the Bar Manager straight in the gut. She felt shocked - almost physically winded, by them.

"Wh"what? , She stammered.

"I'm sorry - I know you've been hurt before " but you really canít tar everyone with the same brush. And I think youíll regret it if you donít see Jake again. ,

Wow"thought the blonde, managing to regain her composure. I definitely did not see that one coming.

"Um...okay...care to explain? ,

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

"Well, for a start, you didnít even wait for her to explain before you told her to get out. Youíre making some pretty big assumptions based on very little evidence, Nia. ,

Oh, God.

I hate it when she gets all logical on me.

It's not as though I made a list of the pros and cons, for pity's sake. Doesn't she know that emotions, by their very definition, aren't rational? Sometimes I think hers probably are.

They must be - because she's always bloody well right.

Unseen by the Computer Programmer, the blonde hung her head.

"I suppose so. ,

She owned, in a small voice. Deep down she knew it " sheíd 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 itíll be too late. ,

Unaware of the turmoil her words were causing, Rachel was carrying 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.

But this was Rachel's way - and the Bar Manager loved her for it. She would be livid at this kind of criticism from anyone else - but she was so secure in the affectioon the Computer Programmer held for her, that she was able to take the advice as well as it was meant - if not as graciously as she would have liked to.

"What on earth do you mean? ,

"Just listen to me for a moment. Youíve had a tough ride with relationships, I know. ,

"Well, thatís 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, instead of because who you are."

"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 whatís inside you. Don't you want them to care about what makes you tick? You're all things to all people, Nia - you 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. Iíve never seen anything like it. ,

"I can't help caring, Rach. ,

"I know. But you must admit that 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 canít 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 Iíve always been on my own. , The Bar Manager replied eventually, sadness tinging her voice.

"Even when I'm in a relationship I feel lonely. ,

"Right. , Came the quiet reply.

"I can sense that sometimes. It's in your eyes - because nobody seems interested in looking inside, youíve decided to keep it all to yourself, to avoid the disappointment when they turn out just like everyone else. It's been building up for years, I've seen it - and now you don't really trust a soul. 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.

"Unless you find someone to hold you when youíre weary, hon, you're pretty much doomed to always feel this way. 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 was just beginning to realise 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 always refuse to believe in such a fate for such a beautiful, vibrant, vulnerable human being.

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 youíve said, it seems to me as though she warrants a second chance."

"Rachel..."

"Just think about it - think about the consideration she's shown you so far. Look at how she behaved with that homeless guy. And look at what youíve already told her " she seems to have found out more about you, as a person, than most of your exes put together. Sheís strong enough to listen - she might even be strong enough to handle being with you, without you needing to pretend to be less than you are. Wouldn't it be great if she could let you into her heart, and at the same time remember to ask if you'll let her into yours? Give her another chance, Nia - it's gotta be worth a shot."

"But itís not that easy, is it? Yes, sheís all those things you just said. ,

"So whatís the problem? ,

Nia emitted a tragic, high-pitched laugh.

"She just walked away. ,

"Nia, you threw her out!"

The blonde sighed, knowing she was beaten this time.

"Yeah, I know. But she didn't even call me afterwards. If it had been me, I'd have been straight on that phone when I got home. What does that say about her, when she heads for the hills at the first sign of trouble?"

"Well, she's not you, Nia. Give her time. She's probably licking her wounds - she might come back."

"I seriously doubt it." Was the glum reply.

"Look at it like this. If she does want to try again, if she wants to really communicate with you, then you'll know it's really special. If not, then I was clearly mistaken and sheís not worth the effort. If that happens, Iíll eat my hat " I promise. But if she comes to you to ask for another chance, then you must make an effort to trust her. Give her the benefit of the doubt - don't jump to conclusions every time you come up against something you don't understand."

"Yeah, I guess."

Rachel smiled.

"Come on hon - if an ex-girlfriend is all she's hiding, you're lucky."


ĎYou swim...
swim through my veins,
drown me
in your rain.

My desire
carries no shame -
my will
will harbour no pain...'

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

Wash...
wash me clean,
mend my wounded seams,
cleanse my tarnished dreams...'

She was terrified.

It had taken her days to decide to come - and she didn't really know how she'd reached the conclusion to do so. It wasnít even rational " she felt driven, compelled to make the Bar Manager listen to what she had to say. Sheíd been miserable ever since she left the blondeís apartment " more so than sheíd been in years. Nobody in her recent past had managed to have such an impact on her state of mind. She normally 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 sheíd turned up at the door of the bar so soon.

Jake wasn't emotionally stunted, but she often did a good imitation of being so. She'd spent years 'playing it tough' - bottling up her feelings, ignoring her emotions, and compartmentalising her experiences. She just didnít want to deal with them. At the time, sheíd told herself she just didnít 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. Sheíd hurt women who had loved her, and had thought it was O.K. to do so " because someone had hurt her before. Then, sheíd wanted a woman who looked nice and didnít talk back. Now, she finally 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.

'Drink...
drink from my spell,
quench
love's drying well.

Wash...
wash me clean,
mend my wounded seams,
cleanse my tarnished dreams...'

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

She paused outside Niaís office. Sheíd 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 Niaís reproachful face. Her courage began to falter " 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, sheíd 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 definitely 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 didnít 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 whoíd been shot.

"Nia, please", the butch choked out, before her arms were full of shaking, stammering blonde.

"Iím sorry" , Nia whispered.


Part Sixteen

Nia leaned back in her swivel chair, pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and smiled quietly to herself.

What she really felt like doing was purring like a cat.

Or standing on top of her desk and giving three cheers.

If the staff hadn't all been downstairs setting up for the lunchtime rush, she might have done just that.

She sighed contentedly.

The past few weeks had been some of the happiest of her life. For once, everything was right with the small woman's world. On the surface, nothing appeared to have changed - but underneath, a strange sense of clarity was edging its way into the midst of the usual confusion. And the strangest thing about it was that the reason for this new peace was the dark, mysterious stranger who’d walked into her life less than three months ago and who had, paradoxically, brought her a flash of light. And even more marvellous, after the first flash the brightness had decided to remain, transmuting itself into a warm glow that filled them both with joy.

The two women had since laughed - albeit a little nervously - about the blonde’s initial conviction that Jake spelled trouble. Because it had turned out that since their first confrontation and the butch's mad dash into the bar to try and patch things up, their relationship had gone from strength to strength.

That afternoon had been one neither would ever forget. After the worst of the emotional storm abated, they sat in Nia's small office for hours, the dark butch holding her lover tight against her chest as the first waves of discord broke over them...and passed. They talked a little, trading stumbling, incoherent declarations and confessions - and had eventually realised there was no more need for words. Their understanding was already becoming deep and instinctive, and was born from a few core similarities that transcended their dramatic differences. They were as unlike as night and day ... but seemed to come together in the half-light that united the two.

The bar manager smiled to herself again.

She was starting to feel very, very lucky. For the first time in her life, she felt as though everything was going her way.

If she'd wanted proof of the butch's burgeoning attachment, she had certainly been given it with the appearance of the dark woman at her door that day - eyes full of regret and trouble, voice breaking with the fear that she'd really screwed up this time. The blonde's resolve to stand firm against any efforts to charm her chagrin had not been able to withstand the image that confronted her - the butch was genuinely distraught that conflict had broken out so soon between them and was clearly desperate to put it right ... something that the femme could sense was not usually the case with her proud companion. So Nia had taken a deep breath ... and decided to trust. And she was starting to realise that this was the best decision she'd ever made. Just a month later, the feelings of security and safety she experienced were new ... and also staggering. The sense could actually be described as tangible, she reflected ... she could actually put her finger on it ... in short, it was real.

For a start, the two women were becoming friends. Not just acquaintances who enjoyed each other’s company in the bedroom as well as outside it ... her usual, empty experience ... but real, firm friends. It was far and away the closest and most fulfilling friendship to have touched her short life ... and her new friend also happened to make her weak at the knees. This was a phenomenon as far as the bar manager was concerned. Or perhaps, she could more accurately term it a miracle. Sex and communication had been sadly disparate entities in her life thus far, since once one began, the other tended to disappear. In her shakier moments, she feared that the novelty would wear off with this newest and most precious acquaintance, the little voice of doubt whispering that Jake was bound to get bored and stop making the effort eventually. But deep in her heart Nia was sure that these new feelings were too solid to be frightened away. They filled her mind, and were beginning to gain purchase on her heart.

Sometimes, the blonde felt almost pitiful in her gratitude, ashamed to admit that nobody had been interested in her before. But nobody really had. She hadn’t been beneath notice ... scores of people had sought her out, all wanting something they knew she could offer ... but this attention had waned once the desired prize had been granted, leaving Nia with a full and hopeful heart that was destined to be disappointed. The loneliness had eventually become too much, and in reaction, she locked the most precious parts of herself away, no longer able to risk the rejection that threatened to crush her with each new neglect. But with every day spent in the dark woman’s presence she increasingly felt as though she was the subject of a true and genuine attention. And as this impression was cemented over the course of picnics, dinners, coffees and plenty of whispered bedside confidences, the two women related many of their experiences and aired feelings that had barely before seen the light of day. The mutual risk-taking this involved was slowly but surely forcing Nia's fears to dissipate. When first confronted with the strength and power of her new companion she found it hard to divorce her feelings from the self-absorbed brutality that had come at her from her previous lover and the thugs who dominated her life. The pain she'd endured had taken its toll, and the resulting scars were deeply etched ... not manifesting themselves in bitterness and resentment, but in skittishness and an inability to meet the butch's eye. But these misgivings were gradually beginning to slip away. Nia knew her new lover was dangerous. Probably deadly, in fact. Nobody admitted to the privilege of her company could come to any other conclusion. But somehow, in the presence of the small blonde the dark woman became milder, her impulses for competition and aggression unable to withstand the bar manager's sweet, empathetic face. She found herself wanting to be unusually gentle ... because before she even knew it, her heart was sweetly and gently possessed. It was an inadvertent surrender by the primeval force that had terrorised Manchester’s underworld for so many years. And as Jake put her heart on the line and took Nia's small hand in her own, it became almost impossible for the blonde to hold back.

Nia remembered waking up in the middle of the night not long ago, to find the butch resting on one elbow, watching her, with a smile on her face and a strange light in her eyes.

"What are you doing, Jake?" She murmured, sleepily.

The butch smiled sheepishly ... and Nia caught her breath at the look her companion bestowed upon her. There was admiration there, and tenderness ... and something else that she could not define.

"Just looking." The dark woman replied, searching the blonde’s eyes with her own, before reaching out with a gentle hand to smooth a strand of fair hair away from her face.

Nia smiled and heaved a drowsy sigh, and as her head began to nod she felt herself being pulled close by strong, steady arms. She fell asleep on the butch’s chest, to the sensation of her back being gently scratched and her lover breathing in her ear.


Jolted from her thoughts, Nia looked up rather apprehensively as Max entered the room. The two exchanged a nod that was polite, but sadly lacking their usual camaraderie.

Things had been ... difficult ... of late.

As her relationship with the dark woman had grown more serious, Nia had become increasingly concerned about her assistant’s feelings. At first she’d tried ... albeit unsuccessfully ... to curb the joy of her new romance in her friend’s presence. She hung her head to hide her flushed cheeks and shining eyes, made feeble excuses for rolling in late to work, and became unusually withdrawn as she attempted to restrain the desire to share her bliss with all and sundry. But instinct and good sense both told her that this solution would be transient at best. That apart from the fact that she was a lousy liar, feelings would be hurt, sooner or later, if she continued to dissemble. Respect for new lover and old friend had eventually driven her to come clean ... she knew the budding relationship that occupied her waking hours, and most of those during which she should have been asleep, was not going to prove to be a flash in the pan. And as well as being anxious to grant this fact due recognition, she also felt the futility of any effort to spare her assistant immediate pain, when this was bound to lead to greater upset in the long run. Nia preferred to take action and make herself responsible for the earlier hurt, rather than let inaction invite a later one. And although she cherished her friendship with the small butch, she was reluctant to pander to the fear and guilt that weighed on her mind, because she knew that the omissions that made her blameless would also break Max's heart eventually.

So, she had resolved to lay bare her connection with the dark stranger who had filled her assistant with such dismay on their first meeting. She was heartened by the possibility that if she did so, her friend would eventually decide to find some other object for her attentions. Frankly, Nia felt that it was a terrible waste ... Max had a capacity for love the like of which she’d never seen. To squander that on someone whose feelings would never be mutual seemed senseless, as far as the bar manager was concerned. She had told her assistant the whole truth - she'd spoken quietly and clearly and tried with all her might to break the news as gently as possible - but she had also been candid and direct, refusing to mince any words. And the selflessness of the butch’s devotion had been revealed in her response ... cognisant of the fact that her misgivings had already been voiced, she had kept her mouth tightly closed and offered nothing but her support. Nia had come away from the conversation with an unshakeable conviction that no matter what happened, Max would be behind her all the way. It was a gift for which she could find no words of adequate thanks.

However, adjusting to the new situation in practice rather than in theory was another matter. Previously, Nia’s status as a singleton had put her fairly constantly at her friend’s disposal, and Max was not accustomed to being anything but first on the bar manager’s social list. So she veered between being sulky and melancholy, or angry and critical, depending on her mood - and despite all their best efforts, relations between the two friends had become extremely strained. Max was dealing with her tumultuous emotions as best she could, and Nia was feeling ready to plummet, as her friend finally began to chip away at the pedestal on which she’d sat for as long as they’d known each other.

Shuffling past her manager’s desk, Max sat down at her desk without a word.

Nia sighed, and turned back to her work. Fire and Ice felt alien and strange without their usual banter. The easy rapport she'd developed with her assistant had brought them through periods of stress and boredom alike - and its absence had been noted by both. It was upsetting. They'd reached a point where they’d begun to work in miserable silence - and neither was able to get anything done because of it. It was pretty intolerable, Nia reflected, as she looked down at the order summary she'd been filling in for the past hour and shook her head.

Gotta get over it, Nia - or this place is going to go to pot. You've got a job to do.

And as the femme turned back to her task with renewed concentration, the butch looked up from hers. Her assistant had been thinking, Nia could tell - there was a familiar furrow creasing the broad brow that signified something was about to happen. And a moment later, with a brief, decisive nod of her head, Max held out the paper she’d been reading.

"Hey, have you seen this?" She asked, a little awkwardly.

Nia quirked a tentative eyebrow ... having caught a glimpse of the headline, 'SWAGGERING INTO SOFT-TOUCH UK' ... and held out her hand.

She knew she was accepting more than the paper, as her assistant passed it across the desk towards her ... it was a conciliatory gesture, made in the only way Max knew how. It looked as though they were going to have their first argument in weeks.

"What is it?" The blonde asked, hiding a grin.

"Oh, the Mail are being xenophobic again. Apparently, we’re letting in millions of asylum-seekers through an 'open door' in the Balkans."

Max informed her, with a familiar look in her eye. She was being provoked, Nia knew it - and inwardly rejoicing, she decided to take the bait. Smiling to herself, she gave the article a quick skim.

"God, I wish they'd give those people a break!" She said, with genuine anger colouring her voice.

"Isn't that part of being a developed country? Don’t we have a duty to provide refuge to citizens who aren't so lucky?"

"I don't know, Nia..."

Max began, automatically ... words that were bound to goad her friend into a full-blown rant. It was a pattern as old as their friendship ... they’d been interacting this way ever since they first met ... and after the enmity of the past weeks, the bickering was inordinately comforting to both.

"No, really...I'm serious."

The bar manager sat bolt upright in her chair as she began to get into her stride, and her assistant unsuccessfully tried to conceal her glee. Max was fond of playing ‘devil’s advocate’ where her small friend was concerned, willing to make statements that were outrageous and basically untenable, in order to see Nia get on a roll. It was pretty spectacular, as most of their staff would agree. A keen intellect, plus a passionate belief in justice and an often-ridiculed belief that wrongs could be righted, made the bar manager a formidable opponent in any discussion.

"We should take a leaf out of Sweden's book, Max - the first thing they do with newcomers is explain their rights. The first thing WE do is try and work out how soon we can send them home! And anyway, I'd rather make room for two billion asylum-seekers than all the drugs that seem to be slipping to us through the Balkans these days."

"I don’t know, Nia..." Max demurred again, in a tone she calculated would be non-committal enough to stir a further burst of indignation.

"Who let the Daily Mail into this bar, anyway?" Nia scowled, playing ... as both knew she would - straight into her assistant’s hands.

"Bloody Nazis, all of them. Honestly, Max - all the journalists probably have copies of Mein Kampf and The Fountainhead jostling the pens for space in their desk drawers. It's disgusting."

She let out a disdainful snort.

"And the people who read it are almost as bigoted - the sort who start every sentence with, ‘I'm not racist, but ... ’ You know that’s bad news."

"Please don't buy it, Max - it upsets me." She finished, a little more mildly.

"But the sports pages are good."

The butch eventually managed to object, elated with the knowledge that resistance was futile.

Looks like I'll have to start reading another paper. She grinned wryly to herself. Trying to change Nia’s mind once she’d made it up was about as easy as trying to stop a steamroller.

The two exchanged a genuine smile, before Max went upstairs to put change in the tills, giving Nia's shoulder a friendly rub before she went.


The daily downpour had started, and the sound of the rain against the small windows of the office was strangely comforting to the blonde woman. Manchester felt eerily silent without the rain ... not quiet, but somehow empty. The rumble of the buses and the screeching of the trams carried on regardless, but the buildings and streets looked perversely greyer in the sunlight ... the sheeting water that usually covered the city softened the concrete tones and dulled the sharp silhouettes.

Somewhat mollified by her conversation with Max, Nia turned back to her work with renewed vigour. The silence that had fallen between herself and her assistant had been a source of great distress over the past weeks, and after the friendly interaction her heart felt considerably lighter.

I really thought I was going to lose a friend over this ... she thought. Looks as though I underestimated her. That was pretty unfair, Nia.

Feeling a little guilty, she opened the drawer at her feet and began to rifle through the hanging files. An old member of staff had written to complain about a missing paycheque, and Nia had promised to sift through her records in order to get to the bottom of the problem. It was going to be no small task. Pulling out a wad of papers and setting them down in her lap, she began to thumb through, skimming the names and photographs with a practised eye.

While she did so, she resumed her contemplations. Her relationship with the dark woman was in its infancy, it was true ... but there was already an understanding between them, a genuine bond, that was as rare as it was precious. Beyond their initial, physical attraction, the two women had discovered that they just plain liked each other ... a luxury Nia had never experienced as part of her relationships in the past. She reflected wryly that had she met many of her previous lovers in different situations, they probably would not have even warranted her interest as friends.

A couple of weeks ago, Nia had decided that she wanted to do something to show her appreciation for this new friendship ... so she invited the dark butch over to her flat for dinner. She was determined the meal was going to be a masterpiece ... and had slaved in her tiny kitchen all day long, in order to create a dish worthy of a true culinary virtuoso. The desire to impress her new lover had also driven her to shop for the occasion, and before Jake arrived, the small blonde slipped into her latest secret weapon ... a dark blue cocktail dress cut so low in the back that she blushed at herself in the mirror. But her fight with her inhibitions proved more than worthwhile, when she saw the look of stunned appreciation on her guest’s face.

"You look ... beautiful." Managed the butch, stooping down to confer a kiss that almost left the bar manager breathless.

The Thai curry Nia had lovingly created was almost left to blacken in the pan after this ... and it was only the memory of the day’s efforts that motivated the blonde to stay her partner’s wandering hands long enough to serve up her creation with a couple of large glasses of wine.

Excitement had put a damper on the bar manager’s hunger; and she did little more than chase her portion around her plate, watching lustfully as her guest devoured the meal and bestowed praise that made her verdant eyes sparkle in the candlelight.

"This is wonderful, Nia." Jake said, and the blonde beamed with delight.

After a few mouthfuls, the butch sat back in her chair, taking a long swig of wine. Rather too long, Nia thought ... noticing a suspicious pucker at the corners of Jake’s mouth.

Her own plate remained untouched ... and tentatively, she put the first forkful in her mouth. It took all her self-control not to spit it straight back into her napkin. The curry was unbearably hot ... leaving an unpleasant aftertaste that Nia found somewhat reminiscent of sour milk.

"My God!" She exploded. "This is disgusting!"

She met the butch’s eyes, and saw relief mingle with embarrassment between the shades of blue.

"It’s kinda ... spicy." Jake admitted.

"But I’m enjoying it." She said earnestly, trying to placate the mortified chef.

"Nobody could enjoy eating that, Jake." The blonde snapped back, overcome with discomfiture at her failure. "It’s horrible. I must have got the proportions wrong, or something."

Looking down at her feet, Nia fought the urge to cry. Her plans for the perfect evening of seduction had gone sadly awry ... and she found herself uncharitably wishing that her guest would just take her leave, and leave her alone with her misery.

However, Jake had no intention of doing anything of the sort. Nia suddenly found herself looking into a kind, sympathetic face, as the butch got down on her knees before her.

"Nia, the meal was perfect. It really was." She said, softly. "Because you made it ... for me."

Despite a strong compulsion to sulk, to show the butch the door and to berate herself after it closed in her face, a smile tugged at the bar manager’s lips.

"I never thought a tough guy like you would be such a sweetheart." She confessed. "Thanks."

"You’re welcome." Returned the dark woman. "Now can I please have a glass of water?"

The meal was finished with a hearty laugh and some grilled cheese sandwiches ... and for Nia, a feeling of real intimacy that she’d long been deprived of. With KJ, any small mistake had been treated as a crime ... and had usually been accompanied by a torrent of abuse. The small blonde had laboured under the image her partner had projected upon her since the day they first met ... and it turned out to be an impossible set of instructions, designed to make her feel as though any minor imperfection was a disaster of heinous proportions. Being allowed space to screw up was certainly new to her experience.

Jake would have eaten that whole plateful of curry, rather than hurt my feelings ... she thought, amazed. I can’t believe anyone would do that for me.

Her thoughts snapped back to the missing paycheque, as she caught sight of a familiar face on one of the staff files. Examining it more closely, she noticed the job title ‘Manager’, and realised that she must be looking at a picture of her predecessor. A clean-shaven man with deep-set, merry eyes ... Nia idly wondered where she’d seen the face before. And as she stared at the small passport photo paperclipped to the foolscap wallet, a beard began to grow in her mind ... getting longer, coarser, and more bushy ... until the face confronting her was that of Pete, Jake’s homeless friend.

She blinked a couple of times in disbelief.

It can’t be. Pete used to manage this place?

I wonder what happened to him?

She unclipped the picture and held it up to the light to study it more closely.

Jake said he got addicted to crack. No ... she said that someone ‘got him’ addicted. That means Matt and his gang were probably responsible.

And with a sinking feeling, Nia knew she couldn’t put this kind of cruelty past her aloof, inscrutable boss. She’d long known that Matt’s distant manner and cool detachment were merely a veneer assumed to hide an implacable, noxious ferocity. To assume that the man adhered to any kind of moral code would have been foolhardy to say the least.

She stared at the picture again. It was unmistakably Pete ... the face was clean of muck and streetwise stubble, but the eyes ... kindly, almost ingenuous ... were the same eyes that had filled with tears when she wrapped her scarf around his neck on that cold night, almost a month ago.

So how does Jake know him? Her mind turned rapidly from one possibility to another. And it was testament to the bar manager’s growing bond of trust with the dark woman, that the obvious answer was not uppermost in her thoughts.

But suddenly ... the penny dropped.


"Oh God, no!"

Nia felt sick to her stomach. The photograph slipped from her limp fingers, and disappeared under the desk as she collapsed against it. She retched, holding on to the back of her chair for support, as the betrayal hit her with full force.

Jake’s involved with Matt, after all.

The blonde closed her eyes, unable to keep her balance as her brain turned in circles around her, accelerating from zero to five hundred miles an hour, in about a millisecond. What little she already knew of the dark woman told her with certainty that if Jake was caught up in gangland activities, she wouldn’t just be a small-time thug. She wouldn’t be one of Matt's satellites, she’d be his right-hand man ... the jewel in his crown, glittering black and fierce beside him.

I don’t believe it. She's the Crow.

Grisly details began to flood her senses, threatening to overwhelm Nia’s troubled mind as she called up snapshots of the gangland legend she'd heard people whisper about ... a vengeful fiend who was at once boy and girl but also neither ... and who invariably disappeared into the night leaving death in her wake.

She fell to her knees beside her chair.

Remembering Jake’s appearance in Fire and Ice on New Year’s Eve, and on the dot of six O’clock on New Year’s Day ... and realising with a sick feeling that these had both been scheduled times for drug pick-ups. Recalling the terror on the Blue Cap’s face when the dark woman surprised him in the cellar, Matt’s shocked expression when he first clapped eyes on her, and her subsequent hasty exit from the bar. Recollecting her equally hurried and inexplicable departure from Al’s party ... which had occurred at about the same time as the clientele began to look shady, and the cocaine began to flow.

And also thinking back to the incident in the Ladies’ bathroom ... when Jake’s masculine appearance had thrown suspicion upon her right to be there. And as the pieces clicked into place, the odd moments of disquiet the blonde had been suppressing over the past few weeks suddenly gained significance.

Of course ... she thought.

The drugs are always left behind a panel in the Gents’. Matt uses that system in all the bars he owns.

Jake’s looks are a perfect cover ... she’s probably been one of Matt’s pick-ups for years.

She can slip into the Gents’ unnoticed, but if the police call in, the fact that she’s a woman is the ideal alibi. They always search the men first.

Why didn’t I think of that before?

Nia could have kicked herself.

Blinded by my emotions and my libido, that’s why. I should have listened to Max.

I’m such a fucking idiot.

And now, not only am I involved with a gangster ... I’m sleeping with one of the most dangerous people in this city.

As comprehension dawned, Nia also realised that if Jake was associated with Matt, then any relationship that developed between the two women after the night in the bar would have to be under his orders.

He probably told her to watch me in case I ‘talked’ ... she thought, miserably.

And she decided to bed me into the bargain. What better way to gain my trust?

Nia’s burgeoning bond with the dark woman dissipated in the bitterness of her reflections, as she looked back upon the development of their friendship with new-found cynicism, and found in her anger a respite from the pain.

This whole thing has just been one big charade. I’ve been so stupid. I was taken in again.

I almost ... fell in love ... with her.

This last revelation was almost too painful to bear.

Need to find Max ... was Nia’s only coherent thought, as she rushed towards the door.

But before she could even grab hold of the handle, the reality of Jake’s treachery hit her once more, and with full force. She slid down against the doorframe, tears pouring down her cheeks, unable to move.

It was here that Max found her, over an hour later.


Shock registered on Max’s face as she stumbled across the wreck of her friend, sobbing uncontrollably, her breathing coming in fits and gasps. Saying nothing, she crouched down and opened her arms ... and Nia fell straight into them. The blonde was shaking with grief, and Max found herself immediately assuming who was to blame.

I bet Jake’s done something to upset her. She thought. I knew she was no good. I warned Nia, too ... but God forbid she should ever listen to me.

A little embarrassed by the bitterness of her reflections, she pushed a strand of hair away from the bar manager’s face, and shifted her focus to her friend’s obvious pain. Nia was calmer now, and looked up at the butch with red-rimmed, watery green eyes as Max asked the obvious question.

"What’s going on, Nia?"

A stifled sob escaped the back of the blonde woman’s throat.

"Jake’s involved with Matt." She delivered the bombshell.

Max found it extremely difficult to be surprised at this news, given her lively suspicions during the past month. However, she managed to manufacture a look of shocked sympathy, and gave her friend’s back a supportive rub. Nia leaned her head against her assistant’s shoulder, drawing comfort from the strong, solid muscles, as she sat amongst the debris of the little world that for the previous weeks had made her so happy. Now, she knew it had all been based on lies ... and it made her sick to think of how easily she had been taken in, and how willingly she had given herself to the dark woman, without once suspecting the truth.

"How did you find out?" Asked Max, gently.

"Well, I met this guy when I was out with Jake, and he was homeless ... and he said he used to manage a bar ... and then Jake told me the reason he was on the streets was because someone got him addicted to drugs ... and then I was looking through the files for Tony’s missing cheque, and I saw his picture."

The blonde paused for breath, and looked at her friend for signs of comprehension.

"I’m confused." Max was having trouble keeping up. "Whose picture did you see?"

"Pete’s!"

The butch continued to look puzzled.

"The homeless man ... his name’s Pete. He used to be the manager here." Nia elaborated.

My God. The pieces finally began to click into place for Nia’s assistant. So that’s what happened to the last guy.

"And then I thought, so how does Jake know him? And how does she know how he ended up on the streets? She must have been involved, Max." Finished Nia, a little breathless.

"It does look that way, yes." The butch said, thoughtfully.

"And then I got to thinking about how we met, and I realised that it’s all been a big lie. It’s got to be, Max. If she’s connected with Matt, she wouldn’t come near me unless he told her to."

"So after things kicked off with the Blue Caps, he asked her to watch you ... "

"In case I talk." Whispered the small bar manager. The tears welled up again, and she voiced her hurt to the only person in the world she felt she could trust.

"I thought she was interested in me ... because of me."

As she wrapped her arms more tightly around her injured friend, Max fought to gain control of her anger. She knew that a ranting, raving butch was not what Nia needed ... she needed comfort, not another dose of angst. But inside, the assistant manager was furious.

What a thing to do.

I knew Matt must’ve had some way of keeping his managers in post ... he couldn’t get Nia addicted to drugs, so he intimidated her instead. And then when he got scared that wasn’t going to be enough, he decided to get one of his lowlife thugs to bed her.

She’s in love with that woman. I can tell.

The small butch’s jealousy of Jake turned rapidly into outright hatred, fuelled by the suffering that was written all over her friend’s face, and her own concerns for Nia’s safety. If Jake was capable of using someone in cold blood, it was certainly a possibility that she’d come after the bar manager, when she found out Nia knew the truth. So hours later, when Nia had gone home to rest her weary head ... Max picked up the phone.

"I’d like to speak to the Sergeant in charge, please. I need to file a formal complaint."

It was only after she’d confessed everything to the police that Max realised she’d probably just opened Pandora’s Box.


Nia woke the next morning with a raging headache. She groaned, and squinted in the spring morning sunlight ... the brightness felt unbearably at odds with her disconsolate mood. For a moment, she considered the idea of turning over and going back to sleep. But then anger began to seep into the edges of her depression, tensing her muscles and making her feel more than ready to jump out of bed.

She didn’t even remember how she’d gotten home the previous night. After her conversation with Max, she’d wandered the hostile streets for a while, blindly getting on a bus when the cold became excruciating. Her movements after that had been automatic, she was sure ... and she had finally fallen into bed, exhausted by her tears and emotional distress. After KJ, the young bar manager had resolved to never again let her heart be so easily touched ... to hold back and hide the most precious parts of herself, until the next suitor proved worthy of the gift. But her feelings for the dark woman had tolerated no restraint, and now here she was, alone and picking through the ruins of a broken heart ... again.

I can’t believe I was so damn stupid ... she thought, for the umpteenth time.

I probably fell for every line in the book.

Shuffling into the bathroom, she inspected her face in the small mirror hanging on the wall. Her eyes were red and puffy from the previous day’s crying, and behind them swelled an emptiness she knew all too well. During the past few weeks, the void had begun to retreat ... now, it gaped and sent shooting pains into her heart, as she stared into her own vacuity.

She practically ran into the small kitchen, unable to bear the sight of her own reflection. Fresh tears fell into her morning cup of tea, as she remembered how she and Jake had gazed into that mirror together ... fair and dark, day and night, blending in satiated contentment. They’d spent many lazy mornings in Nia’s flat, leading to plenty of raised eyebrows amongst her staff, as she left Max to open the bar and turned up in time for the lunchtime rush, looking flushed and dishevelled. Insulated by the passion of her new romance, she’d ignored the whispers ... now, she doubted whether she could ever face her employees again. She knew that word of Jake’s betrayal would spread rapidly, and she’d already contemplated taking an extended holiday while the gossip died down. But this would have to be authorised by Matt ... and she had an uncomfortable feeling that once he found out she knew the truth, he’d want to keep her in a place where she could be watched.

There’s nowhere for me to run ... she thought, miserably. And nobody I can really trust.

The realisation was stark, and she collapsed on to the sofa, hiding her head in her hands to shield herself from the pain. She’d long ago learned to live with her loneliness. But knowing that someone could use her so unfeelingly was something quite different. It felt as though one of Jake’s large, powerful hands had wrapped itself tight around her heart, squeezing relentlessly until Nia’s lifeblood ran dry through her strong fingers.

She didn’t know how long she sat there. It could have been as much as an hour or as little as a minute. But she was stirred by the sound of the telephone.

The blonde woman looked at the machine as though it was a bomb. She knew who would be on the other end of the line. For a moment, she contemplated letting the caller ring off ... but her hands seemed to have a life of their own, as she picked up the receiver and held it to her ear.

"Jake?"

"Hi, darlin’." Came the familiar, husky voice. Nia choked back a sob, resolving to harden her heart.

"You’ve got a nerve, calling here." She said, quietly.

There was stunned silence on the other end of the line at this ... during which Nia fought the urge to scream.

"What’s going on?" Jake’s voice sounded wary.

"I should probably ask you the same thing." Was the blonde’s chilly reply.

"Nia, what are you talking about?"

"I know the truth, Jake." Said the bar manager, dully. "About Pete. You’ve been working for Matt all along."

The butch said nothing for a very long time ... her silence confirming Nia’s suspicions, provoking her ire and dissolving her decision to remain calm and aloof.

"Don’t you have anything to say?" She asked, sharply.

Jake sighed, and the soft sound launched spears through the blonde woman’s soul. "Not really, no." She said.

Nia took a deep breath, and held her courage in both hands.

"Well, I suggest you leave me alone from now on. I don’t want to see you again. Not ever. Do you understand?"

The line went dead.


Kim regarded her sullen friend with sad grey eyes.

"Aren’t you going to go and explain?"

"What’s the point, Kim?"

Jake sighed heavily.

"She hates my guts. I’ll only embarrass myself if I go crawling back. She’s already made up her mind that I’m a good-for-nothing. I’m not going to beg her to change it."

The butch folded her arms and slouched in the armchair, daring her friend to defy her. Kim almost let loose a yell of frustration.

"Jake, you can be so irritating! She doesn’t expect you to beg, you idiot. She just wants a reason to believe in you again."

"Why should I give her a reason? She should believe in me anyway. She should have trusted me, instead of jumping to conclusions." Came the glowering response.

Wow ... thought the femme. Jake’s really offended. I haven’t seen anyone get to her like this before.

"Do you care about Nia?" She asked, quietly.

"Yes." The butch grudgingly admitted. She started intently at the cuffs of her leather jacket, turning them between her fingers, as she contemplated her feelings.

I really do care about her. When she told me she didn’t want to see me again, it felt as though the sun went out.

"Well, are you going to let her go without a fight?" Asked Kim, in a reasonable tone.

"You can’t just sit back and let life happen to you like this, Jake. Go and see her, and try to explain. Isn’t the possibility that she might understand worth the risk of putting your pride in your pocket?"

"I suppose." The dark woman allowed.

"But she didn’t seem willing to show me any understanding on the phone, Kim. She just assumed the worst and told me to leave her alone."

"So you’re going to?" Kim took one of the butch’s hands in both her own.

"That’s what she wants." Said Jake, managing to meet her friend’s eyes. The hurt and rejection Kim saw written all over her friend’s features slammed straight into her heart.

Sometimes she looks like a bewildered child ... she thought. Like an orphan who knows she’s not wanted, but doesn’t understand why.

"Jake, that’s not what Nia wants at all." The femme said, gently. "She’s hurt and confused, and doesn’t know who she can trust. How can you expect understanding from her if you haven’t even deigned to try and explain?"

"But ... "

"This isn’t a novel, sweetheart." Kim gave Jake’s hand a comforting squeeze. "Life isn’t that simple. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong ... as long as somebody makes the first move. You have to go and say sorry, or risk losing her."

A wave of pain crossed the butch’s face.

"I don’t want to lose her." She whispered. "I don’t ... I don’t think I could handle that."

For a split second she looked inside her own heart, and was overwhelmed by what she saw there.

"I ... need ... her."

For the most fiercely independent inhabitant of the North’s most inhospitable city, this was an admission of gargantuan proportions.

"So go get her." Said Kim, gesturing towards the door.

There was a moment of silence, as pride warred with emotion inside the dark woman’s head. But she rose suddenly, looking fierce and resolute.

"You’re right." She said.

"It was silly of you not to tell the truth from the start." The femme said softly, as the butch made a move to leave. "But being too proud to tell her what’s going on now would be an even bigger mistake."

Jake gave her friend a single, grateful look before she closed the door.

The dark woman contemplated Kim’s words as she trudged through mud and rain towards the bar. She’d thought about telling Nia the truth hundreds of times ... but the truth always seemed too complicated for her to communicate.

How would she have reacted if I’d told her how vicious I used to be? She thought, bitterly.

That I used to break arms, legs ... and necks ... for a living?

Would she really have been interested in the fact that I’ve changed?

The butch had been afraid the game was up when the two women had stumbled upon Pete. The homeless man had been nothing but a puppet while Fire and Ice was being bought and set up, and Jake had watched as her remorseless colleagues got the poor chap addicted to every narcotic under the sun. But she’d done nothing about it. She’d felt too secure and important in her position at Matt’s right hand, indispensable as his mainstay and troubleshooter, to want to jeopardise that with something so feeble as sentiment. She waited until the bar manager broke down and ended up on the streets ... and that had been her catalyst for change. Something shifted inside the proud, dark butch when she saw what Pete had been reduced to ... wrapped in a blanket, grubby and starving, out of his head. A little intimidation on behalf of a powerful drug dealer was one thing ... playing God with the lives of innocent people was quite another.

So she decided she needed to get out. And Matt knew better than to argue ... he’d seen enough of Jake’s strength and ferocity to know he couldn’t hold her against her will. But the gang chief had one last card to play ... the dark woman was well aware that her boss had enough information to put her in jail for a very long time, so he let her go on one condition ... that she would help him out if he needed a favour.

Jake had been paying off a dual debt ever since, beholden to the Mob but also putting her heart and soul into her new field of work, as an outreach worker for the homeless, drug-dependent and disenfranchised. She paid her dues and alleviated her guilt in her own way, working day and night in the service of the people whose lives she felt she’d helped to ruin ... and tried to forget her old habits as she left them behind. But when Matt and his cronies wanted something from her, she had no choice but to acquiesce.

The last phone call she’d received had been on New Year’s Eve. A massive shipment of heroin and cocaine had been successfully smuggled in from the Balkans, but after the drugs were past Customs and safely stashed on British soil, the police had been unusually quick on the draw. Matt needed to shift his portion fast ... and Jake was the only person he felt he could trust.He needed someone who could sneak in to Fire and Ice on its busiest night, and pull off a pickup. He told the dark woman that nobody else would do.

Jake realised ruefully that had probably sealed Nia’s fate.

I should have stayed away from her ... she thought. The last thing she needs in her life is someone like me.

But she kept on walking.


As Jake strode purposefully towards Fire and Ice, Nia wandered aimlessly around the town. Eventually, her troubled meanderings brought her close to one of her favourite places to walk and think - St Peter’s Field, the site of a famous massacre of working-class radicals over a hundred years ago, and now home to the Free Trade Hall. The grey city contained few oases of green, and St Peter’s was one of the prettiest ... poignant in its loveliness, because it reminded all who visited it of both the beauty and the frailty of life. For the bar manager, it was a gentle reminder that no matter how hard she struggled, she always had something to be grateful for.

After her disastrous telephone conversation with Jake, she’d decided to let Max open the bar alone, feeling too distressed and vulnerable to face the outside world just yet. But after an hour spent moping around her tiny flat, she realised that idle solitude was doing nothing to ameliorate her gloom. So she got dressed and braved the cold ... hoping to make it to Fire and Ice before midday, so she could make herself scarce in time for the arrival of most of her staff.

Rarely in her short life had Nia felt quite so alone. With her quiet, cheerful disposition and air of confidence and capability, the small blonde was never short of friends or people to spend time with ... but strangely, this jovial network seemed to disappear whenever trouble was afoot, leaving her with the distinct feeling that there was nobody left to turn to. Rachel was normally her prop and mainstay during testing times ... but the shady dealings that went on behind the scenes at Fire and Ice were not something Nia wanted to share with her best friend. Not as long as she valued both their lives, she thought, as she traipsed through the mud covering the well-worn path to the park.

The small blonde paced the grass restlessly, followed by a significant number of admiring glances. Although she was well bundled up in scarf, gloves and winter coat, the gloss on her golden hair and the soft shine in her eyes couldn’t fail to attract attention. She epitomised the effortlessly stylish city girl that was Manchester’s most famous export ... but inside, she felt like an open wound. Tripping over carelessly strewn litter as she walked, she wished she could double up inside to relieve her pain. So she groped her way to a park bench and sat down, feeling helpless in the midst of an unhappiness that seemed insurmountable.

The hardest thing to bear, she reflected, was that she was beginning to blame herself.

Immediately after telling the butch to leave her alone, Nia had started to regret her words. Because with the click of the receiver as Jake hung up, the bar manager realised she’d said goodbye to any hope of an explanation.

I’ll never find out the truth, now ... she thought, desperately.

I know I told her to get lost. But I didn't really expect her to take me at my word!

And I can't be very important to her, if she's prepared to just walk away.

The blonde woman stared blankly into space, contemplating the futility of her situation. She’d told Jake to leave her alone ... so she couldn’t really blame the woman for doing what she asked. And she was already painfully well-acquainted with the dark woman’s pride ... she knew the butch would never return after being told she wasn’t wanted.

Shit. She shook her golden head at her own stupidity.

I’ve really messed this up. I should have given her the benefit of the doubt and let her explain, before I went off the deep end.

Her eyes dropped to the grass at her feet as she spotted a tiny form moving close to her shoes. It was a wagtail ... a cheeky, black and white bird ... and it cocked its head at her as it hopped close, seemingly unafraid. Nia was fixed for a second by its beady stare, before the bird spied a crumb, snatched it up in its beak, and flew away. And as it alighted on the monument that commemorated the Peterloo massacre, Nia’s world began to seem brighter.

Life goes on, Nia ... she chided herself.

This isn't a novel, and you’re not a tragic heroine.

You got over a broken heart once before. That means you can do it again. Now get to work, and get on with it.


The bar could have been a beacon, even in the stark grey light of midday - glowing with flames and billowing smoke into the cold air. The smell of the fire mingled with the smog of the city, sending a horrendous, warning stench into the atmosphere.

Both women rounded opposite corners at the same time. Unable to see each other through the dense curtain of smoke that surrounded the building, they stared at the wreck of Fire and Ice in stunned and separate disbelief.

Nia ... thought Jake, breaking into a run.

"MAX!!!" Screamed Nia, as she dashed towards the blaze.


Part Seventeen

 

Jake reached the burning building first, and unaware that the bar manager was following close on her heels, dove straight in with no thought for her own safety. She felt too sick to think - with images of the death and carnage of her past flashing before her eyes - except this time, the bleeding and tortured victims she pictured all had blonde hair and Nia's face.

On rounding the corner, the totality of the blaze had told her this wasn't a mere accident. It had the look and feel of arson about it - and in her gut, she knew Matt and his gang were tying up loose ends. She wondered if Nia had finally cracked and gone to the police. That could be the only explanation for a total destruction like this - the operation was imploding, and Matt needed to dispose of the evidence. And that included his bar manager. She knew there would be a gruesome price to pay for the blonde woman and anyone else who happened to be in the way, when the gangsters came to finish the job. She also knew she had probably arrived too late.

Pulling her handkerchief over her mouth to keep out the dense black smoke, she picked through piles of chairs and tables and made her way towards the bar. So far, the blonde woman was nowhere to be seen.

Jake looked fearfully towards the office. If the bar manager was down there, the chances of getting her out alive were going to be slim - judging by the crashes coming from the direction of the stairs, timbers were already beginning to fall in the basement.

Stifling the urge to cough, the butch headed for the staircase. From the amount of smoke puffing out of the stairwell, she'd rapidly worked out that the fire had started downstairs - and gritting her teeth, she strode purposefully towards it. Perilous and foolhardy it might be - but she had to try and find Nia if she possibly could. Even if just to reassure herself that the bar manager had perished in the inferno, and hadn't been dragged away by Matt's thugs, to be used and abused for their express amusement.

She felt queasy at the thought - and pushing her dour speculations aside, she concentrated on navigating the stairs.

I hope to God the cellar hasn't caught yet ...the dark woman thought grimly, as she gingerly stepped upon creaking wood. Once the barrels caught alight, she knew it was only a matter of time before they blew, causing an explosion that would destroy everything in its wake.

She also knew that if she didn't get out soon, she'd be blown to bits.

Bent over from the effort of trying to breathe, Jake cautiously pushed open the door to the office, and winced as a cloud of smoke hit her squarely in the face. It was almost impossible to see through the angry black haze, but it didn't take a genius to work out that the construction was already starting to buckle.

She took a frenzied look around - and gasped with shock as she saw a body in the corner of the office, trapped under a timber.

Oh, please. It can't be her. She thought, desperately.

Jake practically dove across the piles of mess and rubble until she could squat down beside the prone figure.

And the face that confronted her - bloody, bruised and covered in soot - was not that of the bar manager.

It was Max.


Even as she lifted the timber that was wedged across the butch's chest, Jake knew Max was dying. Blood trickled slowly from one corner of her mouth - a sure sign that ribs had been broken, and had probably punctured the assistant manager's lungs. Judging from the harsh rasping sounds the barely conscious woman was making, the smoke was fast taking over her breath.

Jake winced in sympathy as she took the butch in her arms - careful not to cause any more damage, even though there was probably no chance of saving her.

Max's head lolled on the dark woman's shoulder, and Jake feared that she was already dead. But two tiny words escaped the small butch's lips as they mounted the stairs.

"Where's...Nia...?"

"Try not to talk." Jake replied, grimly. She didn't want to think about where the bar manager could be. Matt and his associates never left a job half-finished - if Nia had been on the premises when they arrived to start the fire, she was likely to be found in an even worse state than her assistant.

Once I've gotten Max out, I'll go back in ...the dark woman told herself. But the reassurance was empty - on her way out she'd seen flames licking at the door of the cellar, and she knew it wouldn't be long before the building blew. Going back would be certain suicide - with no guarantee she was going to find the blonde bar manager in one piece.

As they left the burning building, the street was already being evacuated. Jake heard the sirens of the approaching fire engines, and desperately hoping that an ambulance was also on the way, she continued to walk with the dying butch in her arms, carrying her beyond the police barricades and past the gathering crowds.

The dark woman stripped off her jacket, and slipped it under Max's head as she set her on the ground. The smaller woman was already beginning to turn blue - and her voice was almost a whisper, as once again, her friend's name crossed her lips.

"Nia..." She coughed weakly, spattering blood over Jake's shirt.

The tall butch took the assistant manager's hand in her own, and met her eyes for a brief moment. For the first time, an understanding passed between them.

"I'm going back in to get her." She said, quietly.

Max heaved a shallow sigh, and her eyes began to close.


Leaving the fading butch lying on the street, Jake covered the distance back to the bar in a few short strides. Amidst the commotion of firefighters, police and bystanders, she was able to slip through the front door unnoticed.

She knew she probably wouldn't be coming back out.

Taking one last look at the scene outside, she shoved her face back into her handkerchief and began to clear a way through the gathering rubble. She was dreading what she knew she would find - a charred body, visible only by a shock of strawberry blonde hair.

In fact, she could almost see it - and she dashed the tears away from her eyes with an impatient hand. She had no time for anguished hallucinations - she had to find the bar manager's body, no matter what state it was in. But when the mist cleared, the image was still there - and she blinked a couple of times as she registered the figure, leaning over the bar, perfectly still.

It's her.

Jake numbly wondered how she could have missed Nia's body the first time...when the blonde head moved.

She's alive.

Without a word and with a few swipes of her powerful arms, the dark butch forced a way through to the blonde bar manager's side.

Nia was doubled over from a violent fit of coughing - but apart from the smoke inhalation, she looked relatively unscathed. Supporting the fainting woman with an arm around her waist, Jake drew her towards the door.


Nia's head began to clear in the fresh air, and as her wits revived, she struggled against Jake's bracing arms.

"No..." She murmured, fretfully.

"I have to go back..."

She freed herself from the dark woman's embrace - although she was still on the verge of collapse, she was determined to start back towards the burning bar.

"I can't leave her in there." She said, resolute.

"Nia." The urgency in Jake's voice halted the blonde in her tracks.

"The building is going to blow. We need to get away."

Nia looked at the dark woman, tears welling up in her eyes. "Max is in there." She sighed.


The bar manager's face crumpled in distress when Jake showed her the bloody figure of her assistant.

"Oh my God...Max."

Tumbling down on to the kerb, Nia eased her friend's head into her lap.

"Someone call an ambulance!" Her voice cracked as she feverishly looked around her.

"No...no." Max rasped, weakly. Her breath was coming in uneven gasps, but she managed a small smile as she looked at her friend. "Glad...you're...here."

Nia's eyes swam with verdant grief as she looked up at Jake. And in answer to the bar manager's unspoken question, the dark butch forced a slow nod. Max's chest was filling - she was going to be unconscious in a matter of minutes, suffocated by her own blood. The only thing they could do was leave her be - any attempt to resuscitate her would crush her chest completely, and the cavity would certainly give way under their helping hands. Either way, she was sure to die.

Blue eyes held green for a long moment, and Nia drew strength from the dark woman's sympathetic face before she turned back to her friend. She knew that Max needed her at this moment more than ever - and her slumped shoulders straightened, as she put her own pain aside to do what little she could.

"What happened, Max?" She asked, gently. "The fire alarm went off - why didn't you get out?"

"Looking...for...you." Coughed the butch. "Then...I don't...remember."

She coughed again, spraying Nia's face with the blood that bubbled up from her throat. There were just minutes left - and the blonde squeezed Max's hand with her heart in her mouth.

"I'm...scared..." Max whispered.

"I know." Nia replied, softly.

"I'm here. I won't let you go."

Max's eyes closed, and a tear stole its way down her face.

"I...thought," she gurgled, "when...someone...dies..." she paused for another cough that made her whole body shake. "their angel...comes to get...them."

She opened her eyes again for a last look at her friend.

"I'm...leaving...mine...behind." She choked, through the bar manager's stifled sobs.

Jake turned her face away, ashamed of the hot tears that poured down her cheeks.

It took ten more minutes for Max to die. There were no more words after this - she slipped in and out of consciousness as Nia held her close, whispering tender incoherences that she hoped would ease Max's passage. The bar manager wasn't really sure when the small butch drew her last breath. She felt as though she was waking from a dream, when the paramedics arrived and she watched them take Max's body from her and load it into the van.

Only then did she allow herself to cry. Standing alone on the pavement, she let out a wail - groping blindly around her for something to hold on to.

And for the first time in her life, she found it. As Nia sobbed on Jake's shoulder, Fire and Ice exploded, sending tremors down the length of the Oxford Road.


Part Eighteen - Epilogue

 

It was six weeks since the bar manager had laid her assistant in the ground, and the spring sun was just beginning to hit the North's grey city, gently warming the new shoots that would soon turn into primroses and bluebells, as the grass grew green over Max's grave. The change in the weather had not, however, taken the chill out of Nia's heart - although for the first time since the fatal fire, she was beginning to feel a sense of acceptance, if not peace.

She'd taken her friend's death hard, almost getting herself killed by lashing out and screaming blame at everyone she came across. All thoughts of imminent danger were quickly dashed by her implacable grief - and if it had not been for Jake's constant, hovering presence, the remnants of Fire and Ice's controlling gang might quickly have lost patience with their most recent manager. The dark woman became increasingly concerned, seeing the bar manager's accusations for what they were - a fragile veneer for the fact that she really saw her friend's untimely demise as her own responsibility. The memory that Max had sacrificed her life by remaining in the burning building to look for her kept the small blonde awake at nights as it tortured her soul.

The bar had been totally swept away by the force of the explosion - nothing had been salvaged from the rubble. With no job to go to, there was nothing for Nia to do to take her mind off the pain.

The blonde spent weeks locked in her apartment, imagining what could have happened if she'd arrived at the bar a few moments earlier, remembering Max's bloodied body lying in the street, reliving their last moments together. She saw only Jake - the dark woman was her lifeline in the chaos that grew out of the destruction of Fire and Ice, bringing her news of the tug of war between the remaining leaders of Manchester's underworld, and the slow, painful progress of the police investigation. But Nia had no hope that the forces of law and order would manage to turn up a culprit. Even without their extensive contacts within the metropolitan forces, Matt and his colleagues were notorious for their rapid disappearing acts. So the bar manager sat in her flat, refusing to expect good news - and even Rachel found it difficult to gain entrance, inexperienced as she was with grief of this magnitude.

This was Nia's way - despite her easy openness and cheerful disposition, the strongest emotions struck her very core. She reeled from them - and when this occurred, she preferred to deal with the tidal wave alone, knowing it could easily submerge anyone else who came near. Beaten and suffocated by a current of conflicting feelings, she could do nothing but wait for the storm to pass. She emerged eventually, a little more rested and slightly less wan and drawn, and seemed to have found a grudging recognition of her loss - but the tide had gone out in her eyes, leaving a numb emptiness behind. With the confusion on the streets, she was able to slink quietly away from her old life, secure in the knowledge that everyone would be too busy fighting to try and follow her or even notice she was gone. But she still wanted answers - and there was nobody left who could satisfy her demand.

Matt was nowhere to be found. He'd apparently also gone into the bar, in search of Nia - it seemed that he'd known about Max's call to the police, but knew nothing of the radical plan to dispose of the evidence. The fire had been started without his authorisation, by various renegade elements within his team. Or so said the heavies who paid Jake a visit, a few days later. Apparently, he'd last been seen dashing into the burning building - but a body was never found.

With the head gangster's disappearance, Manchester descended into anarchy. The power vacuum that sprung up gave birth to a number of pretenders with lofty ambitions, and in the weeks after the fire, there was constant war between rival factions. Drive-by shootings, bar-room brawls and street-stabbings grew increasingly common, and although more than one civilian got caught in the crossfire, the police refused to intervene.

A few years earlier, Jake might have been tempted to step into the breach and return order to Manchester's disintegrating underworld. But somehow, the prospect of forging her own empire amidst the ruins seemed strangely unattractive - now she had someone else to consider, and a new focus in her life. The small bar manager had assumed an importance she'd never expected, and these days, her first thought was always of Nia.

Surprisingly, it felt right that this was the case.


"Well, the University kept my place open." Said Nia, slowly.

She leaned back in her chair, and looked questioningly at Jake, silhouetted against the background of the lunchtime traffic. The warm weather had convinced many of Manchester's bar owners to put their tables and chairs out on the street - and the two women were sharing a cup of coffee on the veranda of one of Manchester's quieter gay bars.

"I can go and start doctoral research whenever I like. They're even going to pay my fees." She finished.

The dark woman gave her a serious, intent look. "Are you ready for that?" She asked.

"I think so." Nia replied.

Her eyes welled with tears, as they always did when she thought of Max.

"I miss her so much, you know." She whispered.

"But going back to school will do me good. She'd want me to."

"Yes, she would." Replied the butch, with a smile.

A ray of spring sunlight glinted off her shades, illuminating the face the bar manager had come to love. She smiled back - reflecting that Jake had been a pillar of strength over the past weeks. After the blaze had died down, explanations had been given, and apologies exchanged, although much still remained unsaid. But Nia was beginning to realise that it didn't really matter - what was important was the fact that her trust in the dark woman had been restored. Jake's heroism in pulling Max out of the burning bar, and going back in to look for her, was something she'd never forget.

For the first time in a long while, the blonde woman felt content. The insecure, wide-eyed girl had disappeared for good since she lost her friend - but in her place had grown a woman who knew pain and suffering, and had triumphed over it, as she realised every time she looked in the mirror at the brand new crow's feet and grey hairs that signified the new maturity.

"Who knows what could happen in the future." She speculated, aloud.

Her companion looked down, surprised. "I certainly don't." She muttered, half to herself.

Nia reached for the butch's hand. "Do you want to stick around and find out?"

And as the afternoon wore on, more than one passer-by stopped to stare up at the veranda, captivated by the tableau of the small blonde in the dark woman's arms, both oblivious to the world around them.




Well, it's finished. Thanks to everyone who stuck with me, and thanks for your patience when updates were not forthcoming. It's been fun - I'll miss Nia and Jake - I've enjoyed being a part of their adventures. First Light is being published as a novel by Jane Doe Press - so to find out about its publication status and to learn more about other titles, please visit www.janedoepress.com.

Copyright © Emily Duncan 2001. All rights reserved. The original fiction works contained herein are the property of the author and are subject to copyright laws, as well as other laws, including, but not limited to, other applicable state, federal, territorial and international laws and treaties. You are granted permission to print these pages or save to a file on your computer for personal use only. No other use is permissible, except where otherwise specified in writing or where the author's prior express written consent has been obtained. Any other use of the materials, including, but not limited to, distribution, modification, reproduction, publication, transmission, participation in the transfer of or sale of, performance, creation of derivative works, or in any other way, the use of which results in the exploitation of any of the materials, in whole or in part, for uses other than those expressly permitted herein, is strictly forbidden.