Once More Around the Dance Floor
By Kay Bowring
Acknowledgements & Copyright: When I was asked to write a story for the Valentine's Day Invitational, I was sure there had been some mistake. I wrote two emails to check up on this. I guess this is just one measure of how flattered and pleased I was to be asked to do this. Writing this story has proven to be more difficult than I initially planned. I ended up being moved up on a waiting list, and therefore had major spinal surgery last week. This has made doing this a struggle. More pages ended up on the cutting room floor than usual. I owe a great deal, therefore, to my wife, Michele, who encouraged me to finish this story although I wasn't feeling my best. She's a fantastic wife and a fabulous beta. Every Valentine's Day is for you, sweetie!
All of the characters in this story are mine. Do not borrow them or take them out for long bike rides without my permission. Hints of two very dear friends of mine went into the creation of the characters, Lucius and Dreamer. I could not begin to duplicate the actual sweetness of these two very real men, their kindness, their curiosity and their generosity. You know who you are, boys.
Happy Valentine's Day to all!!!
Cougar Fine glanced out the window of her fifth floor flat, which was located across the road from Edgeware Road tube station. It was really tipping now. Directly below her, pedestrians huddled together on street corners like unhappy crows. Every now and then a gust of wind inverted someone's umbrella. With a scream of dismay, the luckless person would strike out – either to get a new umbrella at Marks and Spencer's on the corner or they would brave the weather and head directly into Edgeware Station.
So, today was Valentine's Day. Cougar had never been a big fan of Valentine's Day. When she was fourteen, she'd had a mega-crush on a girl called Meegan Berry. They shared a one-hour violin lesson at the Music Conservatory. Both of them had been rubbish at the violin, but Cougar thought they had a rather special friendship going. On Valentine's Day, Cougar had given Meegan a silver friendship ring with an amethyst. She'd bought the ring in Canada when she was visiting her grandmother in Thunder Bay.
Meegan had given it back. “It's not you, I'm just not into girls, you know. And the next years are going to be very important for me if I'm ever going to make a good marriage and have a family.”
Cougar hadn't thought much about having a family but even at fourteen she knew a stupid story when she heard one. “Keep it,” she'd said to Meegan casually. “Every gift shop in Northern Ontario has dozens of rings just like it.” She held her head high when she turned away from Meegan, but cried into her pillow later that night.
Sighing inwardly, Cougar remembered the panoply of Valentine's Day dates that had gone wrong after the Meegan fiasco. Women not turning up for their date. Women turning up with their old girlfriends for the date. Women turning up with their husbands for the date. Emergency phone calls during the date. And, of course, the ubiquitous dead silence during a date. Not all of the dates had been unqualified horror stories, stories that she repeated to friends later when it didn't hurt her pride so much. Most of them had just been boring. The minute a woman said, “You're so smart. Wow- I don't know how you can make sense of these books that are hundreds of pages long,” she knew the date was over. If she was lucky, they did get what she was talking about but they were simply not interested in going out with her.
This year, Cougar had decided to ignore Valentine's Day. Instead, she was going to spend the evening in an online multi-player RP game called Over the Rainbow . Two months ago she had wandered into the game after reading about it on the Internet and had decided to stick around. The game offered her an opportunity to interact with many different kinds of people in a variety of settings, some of which were really interesting like a medieval castle or a Roman town. Sometimes she would drop into a nightclub or bar in one of the many sims, chatting with people and dancing but not getting involved with anyone she met. That wasn't the point. It was just that here she could listen to some good music, have a few dances, chat for a while and not worry about any of the dating stuff. After all, it was her avatar meeting someone else's avatar – who knew what the real people were like – and frankly, no one really cared about that. It was fun just to play a role and lose herself in a new environment for a while. She was also intrigued by a number of role-playing warrior sims that gave her an opportunity to fight villains and save damsels when she was bored with television.
Both women and men had propositioned her during her time in the game online. As intrigued as she was by meeting women in this new forum, she was dubious that her luck would be better than it had been in real life so far and so she had gently but firmly refused any involvement.
That is, until her new friends Lucius and Dreamer offered to set her up with an old friend of theirs. She had met the two men shortly after joining OTR and the three had formed a fast friendship. Lucius and Dreamer had been playing Over the Rainbow long before the new enhancements had been put onboard that brought the game one step closer to the holodecks that she had seen on Star Trek . In fact, they had apparently met at a meditation group several years earlier and had become friends and eventually partners – in OTR and in real life. Cougar had agreed to meet this woman, but she had been clear – this wasn't a date, just a chance to meet a friend of friends.
Cougar picked up the dark blue visioning helmet and balanced it in her hand. If she left now, she would be 5 minutes early OTR time. It would give her a chance to get her bearings and relax before the boys arrived.
She closed the curtains and windows of her flat. Now, the sound of rain splashing down couldn't distract her. Then she took the helmet in hand, and pulled out the leads that were attached to the back. The long leads were attached to the inside of each of her legs, just below the knee and the shorter ones were stuck to the inside her elbows. Then, she put a soft shiny black mask over her eyes. The hard-sided navy helmet slid down over her head after that.
Feeling with her fingers, she found three small buttons on the right hand side of the helmet. As soon as she pushed the top button, she blinked and saw a colour wheel light up in the upper right hand quadrant of her vision. She then pressed the button below it and the word ‘stand by' blinked in orange. The helmet emitted a high-pitched hum. Finally, she pressed a third button, counted to five and opened her eyes.
She found herself, as usual, in front of her own house. She was still amazed at the detail and reality of the environment that was the OTR world. It was a duplicate of a tiny stone fishing cottage in St. Ives, with two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs. The living room could be wired for sound and could also hold a workable sound system and television. The best part, as far as Cougar was concerned, was that she could sit upstairs and open the casement, listening to and watching an utterly unspoiled harbour view. Although no one had ever shared her bed, she sometimes fell asleep there and woke up long after the system had logged her off. It was like a little piece of heaven.
Her home, which was located in the St. Ives sim, was on Greenwich Mean Time or London time. She went inside and ventured upstairs in the twilight to find her wardrobe, which was stored in a memory buffer that she could access through her bedroom. This made it easier find the space for more clothes that she could carry in her avatar's file. In the corner of her bedroom at the top of the stair, she located the switch for a gas lamp. Looking through her wardrobe files, she found a dark blue tankini with orange trim in her wardrobe and tossed it on. She went into the back room. This was her office; it overlooked the garden. She opened the window and the smell of nightstock and roses drifted filled the room. She relaxed, waiting for a message.
A chime and blue flash in her left field of vision alerted her to an incoming communication from Lucius.
“Are you ready?” She knew Lucius would be standing in front of a mirror. Dreamer would be batting at his hands, so that he couldn't interfere with the production of making the perfect knot in his tie. “Ow, that hurt,” Lucius complained.
“You couldn't possibly be hurt,” Dreamer said calmly.
“Well, I am. You don't know how traumatized I was as a child, having to sing in the choir. Mom used to scrub my face with her spit.”
“I'm sure you were very cute, Lou.”
“I told you I was traumatized. We'll be held up a little,” Lucius said, “But we'll be at the beach as soon as Dreamer has finished pinching and pulling me.”
“He's just being a baby,” Dreamer said calmly, “He hasn't told you how nice he's going to look.”
“I do?” There was the sound of smacking, “I really look nice.” Lucius sounded wistful.
“You do, but we'll be even later if you do this right now.”
“Okay, right.” Lucius was silent for a moment. “You're not worried are you, she's very nice. It's just a party.”
“Exactly,” Dreamer agreed.
In a slightly anxious voice, Lucius asked, “Do you want a lift?” She hesitated. She was comfortable here. It sounded as though the boys were going to be late. She sniffed the night air and realized she could always come back here if she wasn't happy.
“Thank you Lucius. Yes please, send me a lift.” She replied.
“I'll send you to the beach,” he said. “We'll be right behind you.”
She saw the blinking light indicating that she was being offered a lift. She nodded. In a second, the view screen in front of her eyes turned black, then she found herself touching down gently on a pink sand beach cove with rolling waves. She could feel the warmth of the sand straight up through the soles of her feet. It may be a virtual world but it always seemed as real as a beach on St. Kitt's or in Martinique. And it was peaceful - aside from the calls of the gulls and kestrels, there was no one there on this ideal afternoon.
A table in the middle of the beach was set for two - and two only. An ice bucket glistening with sweat, a bottle, champagne flutes and tiny pieces of delicately dressed puff pastry sat on the table. All of this was meant to open up the appetite and stimulate conversation. But all Cougar felt was her heart thudding in her chest. She'd thought this would be no pressure. Who was she kidding?
She turned and saw the familiar figures of Lucius and Dreamer fly towards her. At the rate at which they were coming, they wouldn't outpace the woman who was striding out of the foaming surf.
With her golden, perfectly shaped body, the woman was reminiscent of Ursula Andress rising from the waves in Dr. No or Botticelli's Venus arriving on an immense shell. You could take your pick. Small and sensuous, her medium length silver blond hair was threaded with thousands of crystalline red and gold beads to keep the sun off her face. Her body was well-muscled and strong. Her nose was slightly snubbed and her lips were full and pale pink. Her bikini was in shades of gold and red, and the beads that were attached to the bottom of the top perfectly matched those in her blond hair. Just looking at her made Cougar want to touch her. So she tried not to look.
Venus rising went directly over to the table and poured two flutes of champagne. “Hmm, Veuve Cliquot,” she nodded approvingly as she handed the other flute to Cougar. “Hello, I'm Annie.”
Cougar tried not to stare at the cleavage on display in front of her. “Hello Goddess, I'm Cougar. And I don't do dates.”
“Well, let's not call this a date then.” Then Annie smiled and all the stars seemed to explode. Cougar almost choked on her champagne and grabbed a canapé. Then she began to cough. Oh my God, she'd forgotten that minor problem she had with dill.
“Are you okay?” Annie patted her back.
“I'm fine, dill disagrees with me. Never mind,” Cougar choked again. “It will pass. I see you're American.”
“No, I'm Canadian.”
Oh God, she was batting zero for zero now! Canadians hated to be called Americans, especially by Brits.
“Go on dates very often?” Good one, Cougar hint that she's promiscuous.
“Not really.” Annie wiped her lips delicately. “Actually, not ever.”
“I don't see why,” Cougar smiled, “I mean, you look really great.”
“I think that dating should be about more than just looks,” Annie said. By now, Cougar realized this date would be going down in the annals with the rest of her ‘worst dates I ever had'.
By the time Lucius and Dreamer arrived, Cougar was staring at her feet and Annie was looking at the distant surf.
Dreamer grinned, “So what are you girls going to do tonight?”
“Tonight?” Cougar inquired.
“Yes,” Annie looked at Cougar as though she'd grown two heads. “Tonight is Jazz Night for Ladies. I thought we'd go there. For Valentine's Day. Unless you prefer to go to the Lesbian Beach Bonanza, they're having naked volleyball.” Annie smiled slightly.
Cougar had never seen naked volleyball, either in real life or Over the Rainbow , but it didn't look as though that would be a popular choice with Annie. Cougar didn't understand this. If she looked like Annie in a red and gold bathing suit, she'd wear one to the office every day. If it got cold, Annie could always cover up temporarily with a borg coat. Clearly, it had been awhile since Cougar had had a physical relationship. Every time she looked at Annie she kept getting an instant replay of the scene on the beach in From Here to Eternity with Annie playing the role of Deborah Kerr.
“Lucius is so kind,” Annie told her, “I have a little house over the ridge there that he helped me build. It's a little old of course…”
“It was just a matter of getting the right kind of things together,” Lucius was saying. “The bed was one of the most difficult things I had to do.”
Cougar shook her head, “I don't understand.”
“Oh,” Annie said, “Most of the beds are so expensive. And full of sex toys.” Cougar tried to imagine why that would be a problem.
“So what do you do here?” Cougar asked.
“Annie reads cards,” Dreamer smiled, “And of course she often goes to the Wild West sim.”
“I've never been there,” Cougar said flatly. “I heard there was a whorehouse there. At least, someone at the lesbian beach sim told me that.” A sudden silence and a slight nervous titter from Lucius told her this was the wrong thing to say.
“Right.” Annie grinned widely. “Did you know that some of the women at the lesbian beach sim, aren't women at all? A lot of straight men like to hang out there.”
No, Cougar had not known that and now she felt slightly sick because she had played topless volleyball in that sim. More than once.
Cougar had thought perhaps the date might be cancelled due to unforeseen losses on both sides, but apparently Annie was determined to soldier on. They went to Annie's small house to get dressed. When Annie came out from her bedroom she wore a cerulean blue gauzy dress that seemed to float gracefully over the ground. Clearly, it was worth every penny she'd paid for it and Cougar had a pretty good idea just how many pennies were involved. The beads were out of her hair now, and her unfettered blond tresses flowed artlessly down her shoulders. Diamonds sparkled in her ears but her hands were ringless.
Annie noticed Cougar looking at her hands, “I've never been married,” she said softly. “So I don't wear any rings.”
“Me neither,” Cougar stammered, “I work really hard.”
“All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl,” Then Annie gave her that smile again. Cougar wondered if it was possible to die from unfettered lust on a first date.
“Your hair colour is really – um – nice.” Cougar ventured.
“My mother was Danish,” Annie said shyly. “It's my real haircolour.”
“Wow,” said Cougar. At this point, she was starting to wish she could do what she usually did, that is talk too much. Something about Annie was overwhelming her, making her weak in the knees in a way she'd never felt before.
On the other hand, the clothing Cougar had brought for going out were nothing but trouble. Her tux shirt gaped seriously. The ties were too short. The pants pinched so severely, she was sure she was going to have a spasm and were too long. One of the spats was missing and the shoes looked like they belonged on a circus clown. Annie walked around her critically.
“Hmm, did you buy it at a men's store?” Annie's blue eyes scrutinized her carefully.
“Um, yes. I thought it would be easy; one size fits all. Doesn't it?”
“I don't know if you'd noticed but men are very tall in here. Additionally, most of the men unless they're body builders, have no hips and ass either. The clothes look terrible on female avie bodies. And women's feet are size 0. That's why those,” she poked the offending shoes with her silk high-heel, “Look so terrible. Just throw it all into the ‘garbage out' slot.”
Annie laughed, “Standard programming for straight chicks, I guess. I could gift you a dress.” Cougar really didn't like the idea of Annie lending her a dress and said so.
“It wouldn't be a loan.” Annie batted her wonderful eyelashes, “It would be a gift. You can't give it back once I've put it in your wardrobe. It will be in your wardrobe file. That's the way Lever Crystal designed Over the Rainbow . It's nothing. I've given lots of dresses away.”
“I don't feel comfortable about this,” Cougar muttered. She'd never worn an evening dress like the ones in OTR . Heck, she'd never worn any kind of dress that looked like these marvels of couture.
Annie shrugged, “Look, I get the price of one evening dress from just one reading when I'm in the Wild West sim.”
“I forgot, you read tarot cards.” Cougar mused.
“Come on, you can do this. I have the perfect dress in mind for you with matching shoes.”
“Try it, you'll like it.” Annie wheedled and batted her eyes again. It just wasn't fair, Cougar concluded. If Annie could read tarot cards, why hadn't she stopped this date from happening? Could it be Annie was having a good time?
Then Annie put her hand on Cougar's arm and looked straight into her eyes, “It would be my pleasure, please let me pick a dress for you.”
Ten minutes and a black Paris couture dress later, Cougar looked like she'd never looked in her whole life. The dress was all sleek warm leather, fairy like gauzy material and spangles. The thing that really made the outfit however was the shoes. Cougar had thought she could never be coerced by a pair of high-heeled shoes but she was wrong. Soft black high-heeled strappy Jimmy Choo's that displayed the foot to full advantage, Cougar knew they cost almost as much for an avatar as they did for a human. It would have felt wrong wearing them if she didn't know how incredible she looked when she saw herself in the mirror.
And she was starting to think maybe Annie wasn't as much of a fem as Cougar had first thought. When they walked into the Jazz Bar for Ladies Night, every head in the room had turned and Cougar was well aware many of those eyes were looking at them as a couple, her and Annie. And a few were looking at her; she looked beautiful too!
Annie smiled at the Hostess at the door and placed her hand softly in the crook of Cougar's arm. She tilted her head upward to look at Cougar, and Cougar looked back. For an evening that had started out so wrong, this had never felt so right. She didn't know what Annie looked like in real life but now she realized it didn't really matter. It felt right just in this moment.
While they were working on the entrees, Annie motioned to a violinist to come over to their table and play. That had been really sweet too, and it made Cougar feel slightly weak in the knees. Then there had been the roses that came with the meal and dancing afterward. Most of the conversation just drifted over her. She remembered hearing that Lucius had a number of dogs and that Annie had one. She had become comfortable enough to talk some more and found they had a lot in common with regard to politics and art, two of Cougar's favourite topics. They even both lived in London although Annie, apparently never took the underground, which was odd.
During the dancing, one of the roses had come loose from Cougar's hair and Annie's gentle fingers had repinned it. “You see,” Annie whispered as they turned slowly around the floor, “how beautiful you look now.” Her smile was tinged with some sadness again.
Cougar turned and looked at Annie, and caught a smile. “First, I thought tonight was going badly. But then I thought things were going so well, why are you sad now?”
Annie shook her head. “It only went badly at the beginning because you were nervous. I knew if Dreamer and Lucius had vetted you, it would be okay for the small stuff.”
Cougar was startled, “You did?”
Annie smiled shyly, “You look terrific in that dress. But at this point I need to know if the big stuff will be a problem.”
Cougar cleared her throat, “Generally, Valentine's Day is a disaster for me. This has been so great. What kind of big stuff do you mean? Why would the big stuff be a problem?”
“I mean, does this bother you?” a flick of a switch changed Annie's arm to what it was in real life. Two fingers were missing.
Cougar held her hand tighter, “What happened to you?”
“A bomb. In real life I look pretty much like my avie except I lost two of the fingers on that hand, that's what it looks like. I have scars on the right side of my torso. They're not that bad but they're a problem for some people. And I can't use my right leg very well. I use a wheelchair.”
Cougar looked at Annie disbelievingly, “You're beautiful, inside and out. Why would anyone care about those things?”
Annie shook her head. “Lots of people care. The scars scare them. Here, no one sees them. But if we go out together and we meet in person, you'll see them. So, you see, I have to know now if we can go any further. I won't hold it against you if you decide we can't.”
“It's funny,” Cougar mused, “I was wondering what you really looked like. You can never guess how similar – or different – people and their avatars are. I guess I didn't expect that you would look the same, but with some scars and that you get around in a wheelchair. In any case, I don't care.”
Annie relaxed, “Here, people see me as I am, not as a woman with a disability who's too pushy for her own good. That's why I come here sometimes.”
Cougar grinned, “Then it's settled – shall we see where this takes us?”
“Once more around the dance floor to start? And then home, James.” Annie drew Cougar's head down and kissed her tenderly, “Do you want to see my bed?”