(See PART 1 for disclaimer and authors note)
Catherine Phillips was a light sleeper. Always had been, ever since she was a child, when she would awaken to the sounds of fighting. Like clockwork, it was bound to erupt on those late-nights when her Greek father would stumble home drunk from a neighborhood taverna, where hed spent his time since closing up the familys store-front eatery for the evening.
Her brothers slept through it all, but not Katie. On those nights, she would hear the tall, dark father she loved, railing against the injustices that had been done to the immigrant Phillipi family. How a run of the bad luck had plagued them, ever since the day his father Stavros had hit the pebbled shores of Ellis Island and had his surname anglicized.
And it was on those nights, too, that Catherines blue eyed, redheaded mother, Meghan Margaret Doyle Phillips, swore that the only luck she believed in was in her own great misfortune at ever having married the handsome Nicholas Phillips in the first place. At ever having believed she could be happy with the man. Young Katie would press her pillow over her ears, struggling to block out the sounds of their battles, until finally they faded away of their own accord.
With the next days dawn, it would be a toss-up whether there would be sullen, strained silences between her parents, neither willing to catch the others eye; or if she might find her mother floating through the kitchen as she prepared the morning meal. On the good days, her mother would share slight smiles with her father; Meghan Phillips would giggle like a school-girl as Nicholas reached out and grabbed her by the waist, pulling her to him.
The pattern of arguing and peace-making continued incessantly, until one dark night, with sudden and absolute finality, Katie knew there would be no morning after.
As young Kate grew up, staying on her edge served her well. She was able to put in long hours studying in high school, and she never required as much sleep as her fellow cadets did at the Academy. Later, as she drew one plum assignment after the other in the Air Force, sleep seemed more a nuisance to her than anything else.
It wasnt until her little brother Brendan died, in that awful prototype F-16 crash out at Edwards, that sleep became a friend to her. For it was only then that the aching loss of the fair-haired boy whod wanted to be just like his big sister, eased its burden on her heart. And after shed run away, quit the Air Force and allowed Cyrus to talk her into a job with Orbis, shed turned that pain into a living, breathing part of herself. Stoking her fires, fueling her energy. Never letting anyone get close enough to hurt her that way again.
She was always on her guard.
One of the benefits of being a light sleeper.
Catherines eyes flew open. There it was again! A horrific, grinding sound that mustve been what originally loosened Morpheus hold upon her. The pilots senses were on full alert now, and she jolted upright in bed, attempting to ascertain the threat.
Was it the aged elevator finally breathing its last gasp and plummeting to the pensiones lobby? Or was it an intruder, preying on tourists, trying to make his way into the room via the balcony doors?
Fuck! There it was again! Her heart was pounding like a racehorse. It was close too close! It seemed the entire bed was shaking . By God, the thing had to be right next to her! It it was---
Snoring. Laying flat on her back, mouth wide open, sawing away like there was no tomorrow.
Jesus Christ! Kate swore, trying to slow down her breathing to something approaching a normal level. She eased back on her elbows, and released a soft, nervous laugh to herself. The petite blonde hadnt been exaggerating earlier when shed threatened Kate with her snoring. The pilot had never heard anything like it before. It was enough to wake the dead and make them buy real estate in the next town over!
She turned to glance out the window. The sky was still a midnight blue; Kate estimated that dawn was at least another hour or two away. She reached for the wristwatch shed left on the bedside table, and pressed the light.
0400 hrs. Great. If Hanson didnt cut out this snoring . "Becky!" Kate hissed, lightly jiggling her good shoulder.
"Cmon, knock it off!" She tried nudging the woman again.
"Ngggggh!" Becky turned over on her right side, facing Kate, flinging her arm squarely across the taller womans middle.
The snoring stopped.
Now heres a predicament! Kate thought. Once again, the touch, the feel of the young flight attendant on her was so easy, so comfortable to just go with. How much she wanted to, she considered, admiring Beckys golden hair in the moonlight. The pilot fought with her conscience, calling upon her sense of discipline. It wasnt right. Not really.
She gently tried to lift the arm away.
And Rebecca moaned, as though shed hurt her. Uh-oh. And it was that bum shoulder, too. Its for medicinal purposes only, Kate told herself. She let Beckys arm drop back down.
The young girl sighed, contented with this outcome even in her sleep and scooted closer to the tanned, rigid woman lying next to her. With a soft sigh, Rebecca crossed one of her smooth calves over-top Kates leg.
Beckys breathing was now whispery-light, unencumbered, and silence once again reigned throughout room number two of the Pensione Ausonia.
Catherine Phillips simply lay there, gazing at this innocent by her side, unsure whether to pray for dawn to arrive soon or that it never come at all.
Rebecca Hanson was having that dream again. The one shed been having a lot lately, where she was hopelessly lost, and then found. Where she was threatened scared, and then protected, calmed. Moving from the darkness of the abyss into the promised land. How warm and wonderful it felt to be there! The wind blowing through the trees, the songbirds trilling.
Becky didnt open her eyes, not at first. Instead, she simply reveled in her surroundings, drinking in the sensations. Yes, the birds were singing, and she could feel a light breeze from the window caressing her exposed skin; a delicious contrast to the warmth she felt as she snuggled under the fluffy comforter. She felt the slight tug of an ache in her legs not unexpected. Probably due to all that walking yesterday. Nothing a warm soak in the tub wouldnt cure. Her shoulder well, that was still sore, but not nearly as bad as it had been. A rumbling in her stomach told her that it must be time for breakfast.
But her foggy head still felt so comfortable against her pillow, and she was so cozy where she lay, that she thought another forty winks or so werent entirely out of the question.
So warm!! Funny, how even though she knew her arm did not rest against her body, it was not chilled. Indeed, it seemed to be heated as if from below .
With a gasp, Becky snapped open her eyes.
Oh . How embarrassing! Somehow, in the course of the night, shed ended up pressed against the slumbering form of Catherine Phillips. In the early morning light trickling through the window, Becky found herself actually resting in the crook of the older womans shoulder, with one arm thrown across her waist. And with a gradually dawning sense of mortification, she didnt even want to think about where her leg was at the moment.
Becky gulped, hard. She was awake now, all right. But how to extract herself from her current entanglement, without rousing her bed-mate? More to the point, her body was sending her all sorts of pulsing signals that it didnt want her to.
No she groaned to herself. What would the pilot think of her?
Carefully, cautiously, she took a deep breath and began to lift her arm away.
And instantly, a dark head turned and two piercing blue eyes captured her. "Oh, youre awake!"
Busted! "Ah," Rebecca fought against the involuntary flush rushing to her cheeks, and she bolted upright in the bed. She coughed, buying herself some time.
"You okay?" Kate edged herself up on one elbow, concerned. "How are you feeling?"
"Yeah, ah fine ." there was no getting around it, surely Kate had to have noticed. "Look, Im sorry for for getting all tangled up with you like that," she rushed, averting her eyes from the heat of the taller womans gaze. "It had to be uncomfortable. You should have woken me up!" She swung her feet over the side of the bed, putting distance between herself and the pilot.
"No harm done," Kate replied, grinning. "Call it self-preservation. It was the only position that kept you from snoring."
"What?" Becky swiveled around to look at Kate over her shoulder. The woman was not joking.
"Oh, no," she said, bringing a hand to her forehead.
Kate pushed herself out of the bed. "Oh yes!" She padded towards the bathroom. "Cant say you didnt warn me!"
"Well, if its any consolation, I didnt hear a thing from you," Becky joked, trying to lighten the moment. She couldnt keep her eyes from following the pilot as she gracefully moved across the room. So tall, so sophisticated, and doing more for that Bugs Bunny t-shirt than she ever had.
"I never snore," Kate laughed. She pressed her hand against the bathroom door and stopped, swinging round to face Becky. "So are you ready? For more of Rome, I mean." Her blue eyes twinkled.
Becky felt a broad smile pushing its way across her face, in spite of herself. Green eyes sparkling back. Whatever ailment this Catherine Phillips had, it was catching. "Im ready."
Under the watchful gaze of Signora Canova, the two women gobbled down a quick breakfast of some pastries, fresh fruit, rolls, and espresso. Their hostess today was featuring the same severe bun and pince-nez as she had the day before, but she had traded her floral patterned ensemble for another garish dress. This one featured a riotous swarm of day-glo butterflies, but the same jangling gold and amethyst earrings remained.
She shuttled back and forth between an alcove kitchen and the dining area, clearing the tables that must have been occupied before Kate and Beckys arrival. Periodically, she would poke her head out of the alcove, a thin sigaretta in hand, but she never walked through the dining room with it.
"I wonder if theres a Signor Canova?" Becky asked in a hushed voice.
"Maybe she smoked him out," Kate chuckled, daubing at her lips with a napkin. "Why dont you ask her?"
"No way!" Beckys eyes grew round. "She scares me a little!"
"Aw," Kate watched the older woman burst from the alcove and make a bee-line for their table, "I think she likes ya!"
"Eeze a bello day to see Roma!" the proprietress said, clearing away their empty plates. "What you sit here for? Vanno! Go!" Her words were harsh, but there was a hint of a smile on the womans wrinkled face, as she shooed Kate and Becky towards the door.
"Okay okay!" Kate grinned, catching Beckys eye when she hoisted their backpack. "A più tardi!"
"Yes see you later!" the older woman said in her low, accented voice. "You need something, you let me know, okay?" She turned to Rebecca. "Car. Picnic. Guide. Si?"
"Ah si! Grazie!" Becky said, nodding her thanks and backing into the street.
The flight attendant turned to Kate. "Wow, where did that come from?"
"The ice queen melt-eth!" the pilot smirked, shaking her head and striking out towards the Via Condotti. "You seem to have that effect on people."
Becky answered her with a raise of an eyebrow and an impish grin. "Yeah, well, big of you to admit that, Captain!" and she followed after her companion.
Sigorna Canova was correct; the day had dawned bright and clear and temperate, unusual for Rome in early spring. Kate and Becky strolled down the cobbled walkways, soaking in the sights, breezing past the shops and cafes. The mixture of scents was intoxicating; the roasting of the beans for espresso, the mouth-watering smells from the bakeries, the trattorias readying themselves for the traditional main Roman meal at lunch.
Unbeknownst to the small blonde, the pilot kept a watchful eye on her, gauging her color, observing her range of motion. Rebecca did look wonderful today, well-rested and healthy, wearing one of the outfits shed purchased the day before: a white silky sleeveless blouse, and knee-length matching skirt delicately trimmed with light beading. Kate had promised the younger woman that theyd travel farther afield today, but at the slightest sign that her companion was flagging, Kate was determined to rein in their itinerary.
As it was, Becky seemed to possess a boundless supply of energy, and it was Kate who trailed behind. No doubt due to those early morning hours shed spent wide-awake, clock-watching, while entwined in the snore-less clutches of Rebecca Hanson. The ordeal was tiring, yes, the pilot admitted to herself. But unpleasant no. If only the young girl knew.
"This way!" Kate watched Becky happily wave her towards a street-side flea market, and she obligingly followed. Something told her they wouldnt be leaving here without a slightly heavier backpack.
The market was an explosion of colors, of angry shouts and vigorous haggling, of merchants guaranteeing that their wares were the best deal in town. Or, if not, certainly better than the kiosk next door! Shoes, bags, clothing, produce, and flowers; artists and their works, soccer balls and fresh eel all could be found within the crammed confines of the market.
Rebecca Hanson was in her element.
One grizzled flower merchant virtually accosted Becky, leaping in front of her with a bouquet of flowers.
"No no grazie!" she laughed, pushing the flowers back to him.
But he insisted, removing buds from the bouquet one at a time, reducing his price as he did so. Soon, there were half the number of flowers, and the vendor was dying a thousand deaths at the thought that this beautiful woman should spend the rest of the day without the benefit of his roses, carnations, and daises.
"Speciale! Per una bella donna! 10,000 lire!"
"Really, no thanks I dont need them!" Becky protested, having exhausted her meager supply of Italian. She looked up at Kate, smiling helplessly.
The tall pilot stepped forward. Time to make a deal, she thought. Kate flipped the merchant a couple of 500 lire coins, and plucked a single rose from the bouquet. "Affare?" Deal? Twin blue laser-beams drilled into him.
The merchant bit his lip, considering the offer. He turned his gaze from Kate to the coins in his hand; from the flower to the glowing face of Rebecca Hanson. Deciding, he dropped the lire into the front pocket of his leather apron.
"Okay!" he said, bowing gallantly at Becky and bidding her farewell with a flourish of petals and greens.
"Grazie!" she blushed as she passed him by. She held the bud to her nose and inhaled deeply of the aromatic scent, closing her eyes. "Mnnn thanks, Kate!"
"I didnt think we were going to get of the hook, otherwise," Kate grumbled, but secretly she was pleased at the light just that one, single flower had brought to Hansons face. For Rebecca, life appeared to be so simple. So uncomplicated. The girl, by her sweet and gentle nature, dwelled in a place Catherine Phillips could only dream of.
"Hey, look! T-shirts!" Becky pulled up short in front of a table loaded down with caps and ts. "I want to get a couple for Cally and Becca," she said, referring to her two little nieces her sisters children whom she adored.
"Arent these a little big?" Kate unfolded one and held it up. It dropped down to her kneecaps, and she recalled from a conversation theyd had on the plane that Beckys nieces were only five or six. "Theyd be swimming in these things!"
"Yeah," Becky said, sighing. "Maybe someplace else ." Her eyes suddenly took notice of the turquoise t-shirt the pilot had grabbed. "Thatd look nice on you!"
"Really?" Kate thought about that. "Not that I have a death wish for Bugs Bunny or anything," she grinned.
"I wonder how much they want for it?"
Kate turned to a dark-haired young man who stood expectantly behind the table. He sensed a sale in the air. "Buon giorno!" he winked at the dark-haired pilot.
"Quantè?" she held out the t-shirt.
"35,000 lire," he said, folding his arms across his middle.
Oh well. Kate began reaching in her wallet for the appropriate bills. Next to her, Rebeccas brow furrowed as she did some quick math in her head.
"Hold it!" she grabbed Kates forearm just as the taller woman was handing over the lire.
"Kate," she lowered her voice, "that is such a rip-off!"
"So?" She swiveled back to the vendor.
Becky stepped in front of her, blocking the transaction. "10,000!"
"Hanson " a throaty rumble from the pilot. What was the girl up to?
"Che cosa? Impossibile!" The young vendor rocked back on his heels under the steely, green-eyed glare of this unexpected threat. He saw his sale going up in smoke. "30,000!" he said, thrusting out his chin.
"Cmon, Kate." Becky yanked the t-shirt from her surprised companions grasp, and threw it back down on the pile. "Lets go. This stuff is worthless."
"No no no! Per favore, signorinas!" the Italian cried out. He held his hands open wide. "25,000 lire!"
Becky stopped, and turned a cold eye back to him. "12,000."
"Siete insani!" The vendor was clearly desperate. "18,000!"
Becky picked up the turquoise t-shirt, and her face screwed up as though the material had a foul odor to it. At this point, Kate had stepped back and was simply watching the show.
"17,000!" The young man looked ill.
Beckys eyes narrowed. "16,500. Just because you called me crazy."
"Si! Si 16,500!" the vendor was gasping now. How was he to know the girl understood a bit of Italian?
"Buono!" Becky smiled happily. She handed Kate the shirt, and swiped a 20,000 lire note from the pilots hand. She proffered it to the exhausted merchant, and patiently waited while he counted out her change.
"Grazie!" the young man said, not really meaning it, dismissing them with a wave of his hand.
"Phew!" Kate shook her head, amazed, as they left the flea market. "They should have you negotiating that American Airlines strike!"
Becky laughed. "Hey, when the call comes, Im ready!"
The two women spent the remainder of the morning exploring the great art and architecture of the Vatican; they marveled at the size and scope of the Piazza di San Pietro, another Bernini masterpiece. Mounting the great portico, they passed into the basilica of St. Peters itself, where once again they were overwhelmed by the colossal dimensions of the place. Becky found herself deeply affected by Michelangelos Pietà, the artists breathtaking sculpture of the Madonna holding her crucified son, Jesus. The tragic beauty of the life-sized statute was displayed under bullet-proof glass, a consequence of a serious vandalism attack several years before. The young blonde mourned both for the pain of a mothers loss, and for the fact that so lovely a work of art had fallen prey to the hand of violence.
Lunch-time found the women seated in a sidewalk café along the Vittorio Emanuele, munching on pizza and sipping Coca-Colas. Traffic swept by, buzzing across the Tiber and back again; Fiats, Opels, Mercedes. Buses too, together with quite a number of small, motorized scooters. The scooters were the transportation of choice for many of Romes young people, providing the perfect solution to pressing schedules and the citys legendary traffic jams.
"That looks like fun!" Becky said, pointing to a young, helmeted couple riding by on a Vespa.
"Do you ride?" Kate could not help but notice the younger womans wistful gaze, following the bike.
"No, but I always wanted to learn," she sighed.
Well they still had a lot of touring to do, and Kate was no great fan of buses or cabs. If they rode they could see more of the sights, not to mention it would be easier on Hanson, too. Shed been holding up fine so far, walking, but best not to push it.
Kate swallowed her last bite of pizza, and grabbed the backpack. "Lets go!"
Becky noisily drained her glass, and stood. "Where to?"
Kate grinned. "Were going to rent ourselves a scooter!"
The flight attendants mouth fell open in a silent Oh. "Wow," she said at last, breathless. Becky could feel her heart pumping faster with the anticipation of it all. "Do you know how to ride?"
"Well," Kate scratched her head, and cast her blue eyes upon the speeding traffic furiously rushing along the Corso. "Ive got a 91 1200 Sportster stored in the basement of my building." She slipped on her sunglasses.
"Nope," her voice was detached. Understated. "A Harley."
Catherine Phillips was having more fun than anybody had a right to. With the wind in her face, Rebecca Hanson at her back, and 125ccs of classic Vespa motor-scooter beneath her, the pilot was in paradise. Sprinting in and out of the Roman traffic jams on the distinctive little Vespa, Kate knew the machine was a far cry from the 1200cc Harley she had mothballed back in Manhattan, but it would do.
She was back on a bike again. That was all that mattered.
Kate loved to ride, almost as much as she loved to fly, and she knew it didnt take a shrink to figure out the reasons why. Speed. Power. Control. Freedom.
And isolation. There was that, too. In her days at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, and later, at Nellis, how she had loved to take her bike out at night and race it along the flat ribbons of darkened road, smoking any other man or machine that dared oppose her! It was then, like when she was flying, that she could clear her head. See the big picture. Challenge her demons or run from them, if she chose.
She was proud of her bike, delighted in her own ability to dominate it. With a twist of her right hand-grip, the machine would growl to life, surging with a low-end torque that packed an instant wallop. Unlike the boxy Vespa, her Harley-Davidson featured an agile, lean, street-fighting design that, when combined with an open throttle on the powerful motor, made it her weapon of choice.
Hugging a curve as she gunned the engine of the scooter, Kate considered that it had been some time since shed last had her Harley out. Allowed herself to feel that thrill. The pilot resolved that once she got home, things would change.
Maybe, even, Hanson would like to go for a ride sometime. She certainly seemed to be enjoying herself now! Already, theyd buzzed the Circus Maximus, ancient Romes version of a horse racing track. Afterwards, Kate had motored over to the leading edge of the Via Appia, or the Appian Way.
Shed cut the Vespas engine there, and she and Becky had poked around for a bit.
In the warm afternoon sunshine, the sagging cypresses and umbrella pines stood guard over ruined sepulchers dating back to before the time of Caesar. The shadows of that distant past had sent an involuntary shiver through Catherine. People who once were as living and breathing as she, had dwelt on that same spot of Vecchia Roma Old Rome. Theyd reached out across the years to her, and shed answered their call. Kate had actually stooped down and let her fingers trace a path along a small tract of the ancient paving.
Looking off down the Via, towards the east, the stretch had been lined as far as she could see with tombs and fragments of statuary. Shed closed her eyes in the whispering quiet, absorbing the coolness of the stone in the sultry air. She had fancied then that she could hear the tread of triumphant Roman legions, pounding along the road. The image was so real, so vivid, that shed found it a bit unsettling.
Shed popped open her eyes, to see Becky looking at her strangely.
"Fine," Kate said, forcing a smile to her face. She brushed off the knees of her new blue capri pants. "Lets go."
Heading back into the city, taking a course along the Tiber, Catherine was forced to slow their speed down somewhat as theyd motored through the narrow streets of one of Romes oldest neighborhoods: the Trastevere. There, theyd jounced along cobbled stones; past grocery stores, dusty artisan workshops, and residences crazily stacked in tottering buildings, festooned with washing hung out to dry.
Afterwards, theyd flown by the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, sitting squatly along the Piazza Venezia, looking for all the world like a gigantic wedding cake. The marble structure housed Italys tomb of the unknown soldier and eternal flame.
Now, they were heading to Romes ancient marketplace: the Forum.
Traffic was heavy as she climbed the scooter uphill towards the Monte Palatino, or the Palatine hill, yet Kate hated to throttle back. Dammit, they were so close; to slow down now didnt make any sense!
"Kate, I really dont think you should go around that bus ." The voice of Rebecca Hanson was half carried away on the wind, yet Kate could feel the heated tickle of it in her ear as she maneuvered the Vespa past the rear edge of the Piazza.
"No problem," the pilot tossed back over her shoulder. Traffic was going entirely too slow for her tastes, but that was part of the fun, the challenge of not having to cut her speed while at the same time threading her way through the cars, buses, and opposing scooters.
Not to mention those pedestrians foolish enough to venture into her path!
A black Renault shot out from the Via del Corso, hurtling towards the square, collapsing Kates intended route past the lumbering tour bus. "Kate!" Beckys voice was a giddy shriek. Shed seen the Renault too. Kate felt a squeeze as Becky tightened her hands about her waist; felt a shifting of the younger womans skirted thighs as they tensed behind her.
To the casual eye, it appeared as though they would never make it.
To Catherine Phillips, there was never a doubt they wouldnt.
The pilot cut the Vespa loose, gunning the motor for all it was worth. The bike hiccuped for a moment, and then leapt forward, its engine buzzing like an angry honeybee. The speed was there.
The only problem was, as Becky saw it, that they were hurtling directly towards the on-rushing Renault.
"Aaaah!" Becky ducked her head into Kates shoulder. She was going to die, she just knew it! So why did it seem to her, from the rumbling vibration she felt throughout the pilots torso, that the woman was actually laughing?
The Renaults driver sounded his horn in a furious staccato burst.
"Hey you jerk!" In the midst of her maneuvering, Kate took the time to hit the little hooo-gah! horn of the Vespa. Not quite the intimidating blast shed been counting on, but it would do.
Kate never wavered in her course, mentally plotting a line that would take them just between the car and the bus. "Hang on!" she cried to Becky.
No problem. Becky gripped the pilot tightly.
The car was speeding closer.
The creeping tour bus, exhaust pluming from a rear tail-pipe, suddenly started to accelerate.
And the driver of the Renault finally blanched. With a screeeeech! he at last swerved to his right, angrily giving way.
"Ha!" Kate laughed, satisfied. Without having to check her speed in the least, she nimbly zipped between the two moving vehicles.
The cars driver was screaming at them through his open window, and Becky swore she could smell the smoke from the cigarette that dangled from his lips.
A quick right-hand turn, and then a left, cutting across traffic, and the pilot drew the Vespa to a stop in an area outside the Forum already congested with parked scooters.
"Ohhh ." Becky leaped off the back of the bike, her knees knocking, whipping her helmet off. "KATE!"
"Hey we had the right-of-way!" The taller woman eased herself from the seat, unbuckling her helmet and swinging her long, ebony hair free. "Besides, he wasnt gonna hit anybody!"
"How do you know?"
The pilot took off her sunglasses, folding them into the pocket of her white, sleeveless blouse. "I know!" Kate said, merriment dancing in her eyes. "You were scared, werent ya?"
"No, I wasnt," Becky said primly, settling her helmet on the bike and grabbing her backpack.
"Were too!" Kate easily stripped the pack from her, swinging it on her shoulder.
"Was not!" Becky insisted, and then, catching the grin on the Kates face, she began to chuckle sheepishly. "All right," she struck out towards the Forum entrance, "I was scared shitless, okay? Feel better?"
"Well, you neednt have been," Kate fell in next to her. A moments hesitation, and then, "You know Id never do anything to hurt you, Hanson." The pilot tried to keep her voice light, unconcerned, but Becky caught the hint of seriousness in her tone.
They had reached the stone and brick entrance of Romes ancient marketplace. Becky stopped, and looked up into two sky-blue eyes that were watching her carefully, appraisingly.
Surrounded by the buildings and highways of modern Rome, the Forum was an anachronism of starkly impressive proportions. The white light of direct sunshine reflected off of the marbled columns and statues, and they throbbed with life in the long-ago dead square. Some of the ruins were still standing, more were lying askew as though tossed about by a titans child.
Kate looked out over the Forum, and it was easy to imagine it filled with immense, brightly painted temples and stately, extravagant shops, lorded over by emperors living in their palaces on the Palatine.
"Rome was built on seven hills, you know," Becky said, as they walked among the tumbled-down stones.
"Yeah," the young blonde chose to ignore the pilots apparent disinterest. "Legend has it that the twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned as infants, suckled by a she-wolf on the banks of the Tiber, and then finally adopted by a shepherd."
"A shepherd." Kates voice was flat.
"Well, after they were encouraged by the gods to build a city, the twins chose this site, fortifying it with a wall you can still see on the Palatine," Becky shielded her eyes against the bright sun, and gazed up at the hill. "During the building of the city, the brothers quarreled, and in a fit of anger Romulus killed Remus!"
"You dont say."
"Hey!" Becky poked Kate in the ribs.
"Sorry!" Kate said, laughing.
Becky dramatically cleared her throat, and continued. "Even to this day, it is said that the twin brothers look down upon the fortunes of their eternal city."
"Well!" Kate clapped her on the back, letting her hand linger for a moment. "Didnt realize you were such a storyteller!"
"Actually," Becky blushed, "I am. In college I was part of a group called The Story Painters. Just a bunch of me and my friends." She scuffled at a loose stone as they walked. "Wed dress up as house painters and go around to visit kids. You know, at schools and hospitals and stuff, telling childrens stories. Putting on little plays."
"Wow," Kate said, impressed. "Sounds like it was fun. Bet the kids loved it!"
"Oh, they did!" Becky turned to her, green eyes bright and shining. "But I did too. Just as much."
"Well," Kate turned away from the young womans gaze, but her voice was soft, hopeful. "Youll have to tell me one of those stories, sometime."
"Ah its just kids stuff."
"No," Kate said earnestly, spinning back to Becky. "Really. I mean it. Id like to hear one!"
"Well," her face lit up, "There was this one story about a rabbit and a hedgehog ."
Rebecca Hanson was off and running, spinning her fable about the rabbit with prickly fur and the hedgehog whod lost its quills. Catherine enjoyed the sound of her companions voice, rising and falling, assuming the different tones of the characters; one voice deep and husky, another, high and querulous.
The two women left the Forum and crossed the street into the Colosseum; the circular edifice looked to the pilot for all the world like an ancient Yankee Stadium.
"And so the rabbit saved the poor hedgehog from the evil fox "
The tall, dark pilot found herself mesmerized with the familiar, comforting hum of Beckys voice. The timbre of it was like a sweet nectar, drawing her in.
Fuck! Kate thought, still in denial. It cant be the damned rabbit story! By now, they stood on a platform on upper level of the Colosseum, overlooking the arena. Becky had finished her tale, and was now going on telling Kate about the history of the monument; how it once seated over 50,000 spectators, and featured shaded awnings made from the sails of ships.
Kate was listening with half an ear; casting her eyes distractedly around the aged walls. Something about the place was making her uneasy. Perhaps it was the crumbly condition of the stones, or else the knowledge of the horrific suffering and death that had taken place there, all in the name of sport. Additionally, a tourist bus mustve arrived, for now a crowd was closing in behind them, pressing her closer to Becky.
Still, the flight attendant kept chattering away, snapping pictures.
The pilot stood directly behind Becky now, crunched into place by the tourists, while the smaller woman leaned on the railing in front of her, happily taking in the sights. Kate looked down upon the golden head, breathed in deeply of the calming, soothing spring-rain scent of the girl, and she knew she either had to get the hell out of there now, or else reach down and pull her close and .
"Why dont I wait for you outside?!" Kate started to push her way out of the crowd.
"Huh?" Becky spun around, mystified.
"Too crowded for me up here," Kate said, and that much was true. "Theres a stand on the corner where you can get your nieces those t-shirts and miniatures Ill wait for you near there, okay?" she offered her companion a thin smile.
"Well if youre sure I want to take just a few more pictures."
"Great," Kate gulped. "See you there," and she bolted.
Phew! she thought, sucking wind as she ducked into the cool, enclosed concourses of the arena. She wound her way down to street level and burst out into the bright sunshine, not quite free of the smothering trepidation that dogged her.
She eased herself down onto a cement coping that ran along the exterior of the Colosseum, about halfway between the arena and the street. The souvenir stand was about 30 yards away. Kate fought to clear her mind, struggled to settle the pounding of her heart but, try as she might to summon that serenity, it would not come.
What the hell was she thinking of? Looking at Rebecca Hanson that way.
Over the years, shed taken her share of men to her bed, and women, too, when the opportunity presented itself. Shed never bothered to form relationships, never wanted to. She could admit to herself that shed used her partners simply to get what she wanted, in a purely physical, needful way. Nothing more.
Never anything more.
The back lot of a darkened bar. A tumbled apartment whose address she had no reason to recall. Napkins with phone numbers scrawled on them shed balled up and thrown away. Nameless. Faceless. Empty. Oh, she knew about sex all right. More than most. But love what a pipe dream. She had no time for it.
A blonde, emerald eyed, smiling face popped in to her minds sight.
She had to get her act together. For the young womans sake, as well as her own, Rebecca Hanson was a complication she simply couldnt afford.
Catherine Phillips nearly leapt out of her skin.
"Sorry! Didnt mean to scare you!"
"I wasnt scared," the pilot said gruffly. "Ah did you get your pictures?"
"Yeah," Becky reached for the backpack containing her wallet. "Let me go get those souvenirs for Cally and Becca."
"Okay," Kate said, unmoving.
"Uh youll wait here?"
"Sure," the pilot replied, and she watched Becky wade off towards the stand. The sidewalks in front of the Colosseum were packed; full of tourists, business people, and a group of rag-tag youths who Kate fancied ought to be in school, but werent. She couldnt blame them, really, not on such a gorgeous day. There was a crowd by the souvenir stand too, and so Kate was happy to put some space between her and Becky for the moment. She sighed heavily.
Becky idly picked up and put down t-shirt after t-shirt, much to the consternation of the merchant behind the stand. He trailed in her wake, re-folding each one back to his original specifications. He wouldve chased her off by now, if she hadnt already selected two metallic miniatures of the Colosseum for purchase. She was a buyer, not a window-shopper. That, and the fact that she was the most beautiful girl hed seen all day, gave him patience.
The flight attendant could not decide. The prices were right, it wasnt that. It was just her mind kept skipping back to that moment upstairs, in the arena. She could feel Kate behind her, the heat of her, so near, and suddenly the woman had closed off, withdrawn. Becky knew that distancing look well, by now.
The pilot had literally run away, and even now preferred to lounge on the concrete rail rather than join her for some shopping. Had she done something to offend her? Rebecca wracked her mind, but she couldnt come up with a thing.
On the contrary, their afternoon together had been thrilling. Flying all over Rome on the back of Kates scooter, the exciting whip of the wind against her exposed skin, her arms around the pilots solidly muscled waist Becky blushed at the thought of how she had enjoyed every stolen moment of it.
O God What if her feelings were too obvious? What if Kate had noticed? Even now, she missed having the tall, silent woman near. Dammit, how could she ever hope the pilot would understand, when she couldnt even explain it to herself? At times she felt so confused, so mixed up over what she was feeling, and then Kate would turn those blue eyes to her, smiling, and for the briefest of instants, Becky would experience an agonizing flash of clarity. Of understanding. Of what was right.
And then it would slip away, just beyond her reach.
Rebecca Hanson did not take relationships lightly, she never had. Oh, shed dated plenty throughout high school, college, and beyond, gotten serious with a few of her boyfriends; even thinking she was in love once or twice. But, looking back on it now, she knew it wasnt true. Theyd been wonderfully nice, and shed certainly cared for them, but the affairs had always sputtered out, after a time.
She wasnt disappointed, not really, chalking it up to life experience. Although the physical aspects of those relationships - it was the sex, Becky! she thought - left her vaguely dis-satisfied. Wistfully yearning for something more.
"Signorina!" The souvenir vendors plaintive plea roused Rebecca from her daydreams. "Which you like, eh?"
The white ones in front of her, sporting the Italian flag on the front, would be fine for the girls. "Two of these," Becky said, unzipping the backpack for her wallet.
Skyrockets and pinwheels. It was out there, waiting for her someday, she was sure of it. When the right person came along .
A shout, while at the same time, the backpack was wrenched from her hands. She felt a sharp shove to the middle of her back, and then Rebecca Hansons world was spinning, and she was falling
Two strong arms, plucking her out of mid-air. Propping her up on her feet. Blue eyes raking over her, full of concern. Skyrockets and pinwheels. Catherine Phillips had saved her again.
"Yeah," Becky said breathlessly, bending over with her hands on her knees. What the heck had happened? Quickly, she got her answer.
Two young men, little more than boys, really, were trying to get away through the crowds; one tightly gripping her backpack. They were dark-skinned with jet-black hair, and wore washed-out gray t-shirts, dark pants, and over-sized basketball shoes.
Kate Phillips was a blur of motion. In three quick steps, she caught up to the youth with the backpack. She grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, and he dropped the bag, thinking it would distract her. Frantically, he tried to break away. His compatriot, seeing hed been snared, hit the afterburners and disappeared. No matter. The pilot had who she wanted.
She scooped up the pack one-handed, never letting go of the boy. Angrily, she swung him around, seizing the front of his t-shirt, slamming him with stunning force against the end of the souvenir stand.
The kiosk rattled as though it had been hit by an earthquake.
"Voi poca parte di shit!" You little piece of shit! Kate snarled, "Provare ancora quello e li ucciderò con le mie mani nude!" She tightened her hold around his collar, and her voice was low and threatening. "Capisce?"
"Si! Si!" Wild eyes bobbed yes in understanding.
"Vanno!" Kate released the youth with a shove. He nearly lost his footing before he was able to scramble off, casting a furtive look back over his shoulder.
Her face dark with anger, Kate wordlessly handed the backpack over to Becky, oblivious to the astonished buzz of the surrounding crowd.
"Thanks," Becky said at last, with a hollow laugh, reaching once more for her wallet to complete her purchases. She hesitated, her eye catching a splatter of red at her feet.
It must have fallen from her backpack during the assault, and been crushed underfoot on the hot concrete. Beckys stomach did a flip-flop. She looked up, following the pilots gaze across the Via Imperiali; her companion was still attempting to track the would-be thieves. "What did you tell him, anyway?"
Pale eyes turned a cloudy gray. "I told him if he ever tried that again, Id kill him with my bare hands."
"Oh," Becky said finally, choking. She slowly turned back to the slack-jawed vendor, picking up her miniatures and t-shirts. The pilot would kill for her. A chill ran through Rebecca, and a sadness, too. Catherine Phillips did not make idle threats.
Of that, she had no doubt.
The two women walked quietly back to the parked Vespa. Becky could see the tight lines marring Kates features, the tense set to her broad shoulders. Any good humor the pilot mightve embraced during the afternoon had evaporated.
"Are you mad?"
"No." Kate reached for her helmet.
"Are you sure? Because"
"Hanson, I am not angry." The frustration in the taller womans voice was plain. "Lets just forget about it, okay?"
"Okay," Becky said, chastened. She dipped her head morosely as she put on her helmet.
Kate noticed the look, and sighed. "Its not you," she said, coming around to the rear of the Vespa, tying on the backpack. "Those guys back there just pissed me off, thats all."
That was an understatement, Becky thought, considering how her companion at reacted instinctively, violently, in order to protect her.
"Look," Kate turned an eye towards the western sky. "If theres nothing else youd like to see today, why dont we think about dropping some stuff off at the pensione and grabbing some dinner?"
Nothing else shed like to see? Ha! Rebecca Hanson was just getting started. "Well," she began, "there is one more thing thats so close itd be a shame not to swing by!"
"What?" Kate folded her arms across her chest. She could see that Hanson was gingerly trying to snap her out of her mood, and dammit, if it wasnt working! God, shed been so scared when she saw those young gypsies reaching for the smaller woman, shoving her - shed nearly gone blind with rage. Fortunately, no harm had been done after all. Rebecca was fine, and shed recovered the backpack.
"I saw it in an old movie once." She lifted her eyes to the pilot and grinned. "Its called the Mouth of Truth."
Kate groaned. "I know the place. Its in a church"
"Yeah!" Becky said happily, climbing on the back of the Vespa. She opened the palms of her hands expectantly. "What are we waiting for?"
Becky was right, the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin was not far away. And, truth be known, Catherine didnt mind extending their sight-seeing just a bit longer. It gave her another excuse to feel the slim arms of Rebecca Hanson gathered about her waist, hanging on for dear life.
Santa Maria was a newer church by Roman standards, dating back to medieval times. While the interior was well preserved and impressive to look at, the main draw at the site was an ancient marble mask called La Bocca della Verità the Mouth of Truth.
The two womens footsteps scuffled along the lower cement portico, deserted at this late afternoon hour. The air was cool and damp, smelling of ancient forgotten secrets, and the streets of Rome seemed far away indeed, from within the recessed, shaded columns of the walkway.
"Wow," Becky said, as they approached the age-old Tritone mask. From the great, rounded disk, a wizened face sprang forth, eyes opened wide and missing nothing; the florid image pitted and grooved by time. The mouth of the face was frozen in an open O, inviting the adventurous to subject themselves to its judgment.
They stopped in front of the mask, and Kate lightly placed a hand on its cheek. She turned to Becky. "In medieval days, a person put their hand in the mouth, while taking an oath. If they were a liar swore falsely, legend has it that their hand was bitten off."
"Oooh!" Becky turned up her nose distastefully.
"Care to try it?" Kate arched an eyebrow in challenge to the younger woman.
"Sure," Becky said simply, feigning a lack of concern. The sun was beginning to set, and the shadows in the cool portico were deepening. She began to lift her hand closer to the mouth.
"Careful!" Kate chuckled. "You dont know what could be hiding in there!"
Becky inhaled sharply, turning fearfully to Kate. Her hand froze in mid-air, just outside the toothless, blackened mouth. Heck, she didnt believe in those crazy superstitions! And she was basically an honest person anyway. She had nothing to fear.
Stiffening her backbone, she started to edge closer to the mouth. Okay, so maybe she wasnt being entirely truthful where her feelings for Catherine Phillips were concerned, but that didnt mean shed lose her hand over it, right?
Beckys fingers started to tremble.
"No!" Becky gasped, whipping her hand away as though shed been burned. "You first!" She laughed nervously, hoping the pilot couldnt see how unhinged shed become. Darn it, it was just an old mask!
"Okay " Kate said, in a voice low and ominous, as though she actually feared the mouth herself, "here goes."
Slowly, the tall woman slipped a tanned hand into the darkened orifice.
The sounds of water trickling down the aged walls mingled with the tempo of the womens breathing. In the near-quiet, the present slipped into the past, leaving nothing in its wake but this stony, impartial arbiter of truth.
"Aaaaah!" Catherines face contorted in pain.
"What is it?" Becky screamed.
"I-- I dont know!" Desperately, Kate tried to remove her hand, but she was held fast by some unseen force within the mask. "Oh God!" she cried, pulling on her arm with her free hand.
"Kate!" Becky jumped in to help, tugging on the taller woman, trying to wrest her loose. Wasnt there anybody else around who could help? Her eyes desperately swung across the empty courtyard. "Pull, Kate!" she shouted frantically.
In one smooth motion, the pilots hand popped out. She thrust it in Beckys face. "Boo!"
"Ahhhh!" Becky leaped back as though shed been stung. "Why you--!" She gritted her teeth.
Kate roared with laughter. "Cmon!" she directed a shaken Becky back down the portico towards the street. "Youre just mad because I gotcha again, didnt I?"
"You you scared me, you big jerk!" Becky struggled to calm her breath, to settle her fluttering heart.
"Success!" Kate smirked, enjoying her companions flushed discomfiture.
"Obviously," Becky said archly, "one of us is keeping score!"
"Yeah, youll have to let me know about that sometime," Kate blithely said, picking up her helmet and swinging astride the Vespa. She turned smiling blue eyes to the frustrated blonde. "Lets eat, shall we?"
It had been some time since the sun had set over the seven hills, but Rebecca Hanson was still at it.
Catherine warily regarded the younger woman across the table, and was forced to throw in the towel. "Thats enough," she said, pushing away her plate. Kate had already enjoyed a sizable antipasto, as well as a delicious pasta with a homemade tomato, bacon, and pecorino cheese sauce. Those indulgences, together with her share of bread and a bottle of Bardolino, left her feeling comfortably full.
Becky paused in her feeding, a chunk of bread already half-way to her mouth. She considered her companions words. "Me too," she said self-consciously, putting the bread down.
Kate laughed. "Cmon, Champ. Youre just getting started!"
"Well," Becky eyed a tray of passing deserts. "That ricotta cake looks awfully good. "
"Go for it!" Kate flagged down the waiter, and in short order Becky was happily munching on her creamy cake, while both women sipped on cappuccinos.
The restaurant Passetto hugged the edge of the Tiber, not far past the lighted Castel SantAngelo, and it was an easy walk from the Pensione Ausonia. Theyd left the scooter behind since the restaurant was so close, with Kate making sure that Becky was not overly tired from their busy day. They had dropped off the backpack in their room and freshened up, prior to heading out for dinner. Sitting guard behind the oaken desk in the lobby of the pensione, Signora Canova had greeted them with a smoky, wordless wave.
"I wonder if she ever sleeps?!" Rebecca had whispered as theyd strolled out into the warm evening.
"I wonder if shes even human!" Kate had chuckled softly. "Shes a virtual smoke-stack!"
Quickly, the women had found Passetto, and tucked in for a traditional Italian dinner among a native crowd.
"How about a little walk before we head back?" Becky asked, draining her cappuccino.
"You sure youre up for it?" Kate wanted to be sure.
Becky grimaced. "Dont go there," she warned. God, why was Kate still babying her?
"Okay!" Kate held up her arms in surrender. "Why dont we walk along the river for a bit?"
"Oh, great!" Becky replied, her frown easing into a smile. "Ive always wanted to do that!" With someone I care about she bit her tongue before adding that last. For the young blonde it was enough that she was in the company of the tall, mystifying airline pilot.
They left the restaurant and began moving naturally towards the lights of the Castel, picking their way along a cobbled path following the Tiber.
"Nice night," Becky said, enjoying the temperate air. "Pretty wild for early April, eh?"
"Mnnn," Kate grunted.
Past the Castel, in the distance, the glow of Vatican City and the dome of St. Peters stood out against the Roman skyline. Becky paused, leaning against a guardrail, and gazed out over the scene. She could feel the pilot standing behind her. Her eyes swept over the city, and she thrilled at the excitement, at the promise of it all. It seemed to pulsate with life.
"Hey, whats that?" Becky stood on her toes and pointed to the river below. Docked at the waters edge, was a flat-barge, strung along its length with Chinese lanterns. The faint tones of music carried up from beneath a canopy in the center of it, and a number of people milled about, laughing, drinking, dancing.
"Dunno." Kate was plainly not interested.
"Oh come on, you!" Becky grabbed her by the wrist. "Theres only one way to find out!" And she led the way to a gate on the path, opening to a staircase cut into the side of the river, heading for the barge. Another laughing couple got to the gate ahead of them, and proceeded down.
"What if its private?" Kate protested.
"Well, then well just have to get ourselves an invitation now, wont we?" Becky disappeared over the edge.
God ! With a heavy sigh, the pilot trailed after her.
As it turned out, the barge Ciriola was open to the public, featuring evening entertainment on Tiber, just below the Ponte SantAngelo. A sound system pumped Italian tunes over the water, and a bar and tables were set up around a small dance floor. Some couples swayed slowly to the music, while most of the other patrons preferred to listen, drink, smoke, and talk.
Rebecca Hanson soon found herself swept up in the exuberance of it all, chattering away in a language she didnt need to understand; sipping on a glass of wine, and enjoying the attentions of three or four young men who suddenly found her infinitely fascinating.
Catherine Phillips stood off to one side, at the opposite end of the bar, darkly nursing a whiskey and water. Becky seemed to be having a good time, anyway, and the pilot supposed that was what mattered most.
"Kate!" Beckys voice exploded in laughter, "Get over here! Listen to this story of Eduardos!"
But the pilot simply smiled faintly, and waved. Becky locked questioning eyes on her for a few seconds, but then, as Eduardo draped his arm about her shoulders, she giggled and returned her attention to her admirers.
Kate steamed. They were boys. What did they know? She swished a gulp of the cheap whiskey around in her mouth, relishing the bitter taste, before swallowing hard. Why if she had half a mind, shed .
A sudden commotion at the far end of the bar caught her attention.
What the hell A fight had broken out, between Eduardo and the rest of Hansons fan club. The young man lunged after a taller, more muscled youth, and shoved him over the side of the barge with a splash!
Kate could see the fear skip across Beckys face, as she shrank back from the fighting. In seconds, the whole rear portion of the barge was enveloped in the wave of an all-out brawl. Becky was trapped.
"Hanson!" Kate started pushing her way madly through the crowd, dodging wild swings, fighting to get to Rebeccas side. "Over here!" she gestured towards a path of least resistance between the back of the bar and a lowered rail behind it. The area was obviously not meant for patrons, normally, but it would provide Kate with a means of getting Hanson the hell out of there.
"Okay ." She could hear Beckys frightened voice over the shouts and cursing; the young woman kept her green eyes focused on the pilot, as she tentatively worked her way towards her.
"Thats it!" Kate encouraged her, shoving a drunken Italian aside. She was almost to her. In the distance, she could hear the whining of the Polizia sirens. No way. Shed had enough of those people, recently.
"Kate, Im-- Aaaah!"
Oh shit. One of the brawlers had tumbled back towards the rear rail, desperately flailing his arms to maintain his balance. He did, but not before shoving an unsuspecting Rebecca Hanson headlong over the railing, splashing her into the Tiber.
"Hanson!" Kate cried out, her heart leaping into her throat.
Dumbly, the Italian turned around. He realized hed hit something, but seeing no-one there but a livid, dark-haired woman, he mumbled an apology and pushed off back into the brawl. He figured he had better odds there, rather than taking his chances against Kate.
"Rebecca," Kates voice was hoarse as she leaned over the low railing. Her eyes desperately skimmed the inky blackness of the waters for a blonde head.
Without a moments hesitation, the Catherine swung over the rail, and dove cleanly into the river near where she guessed Rebecca might be.
Though the evening Roman air had been warm, the waters of the Tiber were like an ice-bath, cinching its cold fingers around her chest, squeezing; numbing the life from her, dulling her senses. Frantically, she swept her hands around in zero visibility, clawing for something, anything, that might lead her to the young flight attendant. After long moments, the pilot finally made contact with the silted river bottom, empty handed. Dammit! Where was Hanson?
She was panicking now; the burning pressure in her lungs told her she needed to take a breath, and soon. Mentally cursing, she pushed off awkwardly from the muddy bottom, propelling herself back to the surface, letting the dim outline of the barge overhead serve as her guide. As she swam through the swirling water, she never stopped looking for even a trace of Hansons blonde hair. Fuck this water is cold! Her kicks towards surface grew sluggish it seemed so very far away! But Kate weakly persisted, knowing that if she could just steal another few breaths of air, shed give herself a second shot at finding Rebecca.
Just when she thought her body would over-rule her mind and tease her into thinking she could draw in life from water, her dark head broke the surface. Kate took in great, heaving gulps of air, sputtering plumes of water from her mouth. The roar of the blood in her head nearly deafened her, and she tilted backwards towards the night-sky, blinking her eyes against the sting of the dirty water. Concentrated on getting her breath. On re-grouping for another effort. Where she would either retrieve Hanson, or die trying.
It was time. With numb limbs she steadied herself in the water, and began sucking in a last, deep breath, preparing to dive.
Above the throbbing crescendo in her head and the riotous noise from the barge, she heard it.
"Hanson?" she croaked.
"Kate, over here!"
Blearily, the pilot spun around in the water, towards the sound of the voice.
Thank God! There was Rebecca Hanson, hanging onto the side of a low dock at the rivers edge.
"Rebecca!" Kates voice was a whisper as relief flooded through her, and she began paddling towards the dock.
Drawing closer, she could see how round Hansons eyes were in the moonlight.
"Good God Kate," Beckys voice betrayed a mixture of anger and fear, "What the hell did you think you were doing?" she reached a hand out to the pilot, pulling her to the side.
With her last bit of strength, Kate boosted Becky out of the water, minding her shoulder, and then heaved herself onto the wooden dock.
There was silence, for a moment, as the two women simply lay there in the darkness, dripping; catching their wind, slowing their hearts.
"II saw you go in," Kate rasped at last. "I couldnt find you. Couldnt hear you."
Becky levered onto her elbows. "Thats because I landed closer to this dock, and I happened to be busy spitting out water when I saw you go flying off the back of the barge like a madwoman!"
"Its called a rescue," Kate said sharply, edging herself up on one arm, shivering. "Youre welcome."
"When you were gone for so long " Becky lowered her eyes, "I got worried!"
"What can I tell you?" The pilot sat up the rest of the way, her breathing still ragged. Surely, she should have gotten her wind back by now! "I thought you were still down there."
"I was up here, waiting for you!"
Kate coughed, and thought about that for a moment. She snuffled at her nose before continuing. "Well. Considering the alternatives Im glad." She turned to face the smaller woman and held out her hand, pulling her up to a full sitting position.
"Thanks," Becky smiled at last, faintly, and she blushed. "I mean that."
"My pleasure," Kate said dryly, taking in the flight attendants bedraggled appearance. Her brand new blouse and skirt were soaked through, leaving very little to the imagination under the suffused glow of la luna the moon. Beckys short blonde hair was plastered against her head, and water dripped down from her nose and chin, giving off the overall impression of a half-drowned kitten.
Catherine Phillips started to laugh. A low, rumbling laugh, starting from deep within her belly, rising, gaining momentum, until it burst out over the dock.
"Whats so funny?"
"You. You ought to see yourself!"
"Oh," Beckys voice was indignant, "Like youd win any fashion awards right now, Miss Ninja Mutant Lifesaver." She reached out and plucked a sodden piece of yesterdays newspaper from the pilots shoulder.
"Its a look," Kate gamely replied. "Maybe we should go tell Maria all about this!"
"Right," Becky began chuckling in spite of herself. "A new look for fall: Tiber!"
Kate was laughing uproariously now, gasping for breath. "Well, it looks mahvelous on you, darrrrling!"
"You too, bella!" Becky said haughtily, before breaking up again.
Eventually their laughter died down, and they turned their attention back to the barge. The Polizia had restored order and were moping up, taking a few people away in handcuffs. The two American women were by now long forgotten, and on the darkened dock along the riverbank, they would have been invisible to anyone aboard.
"Oh well," Kate sighed, and she began to shiver, "Guess wed better slink away."
"Hey," she felt a warm hand on her back. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," the pilot said through gritted teeth. "Just a little nippy after that dip." She turned slowly towards her companion, afraid of what she might see, and was shocked at the intensity of the green fire she saw in the young girls eyes.
Kate briefly fought a battle with herself, and lost. Hell, it was one shed never wanted to win, anyway. She reached out a hand and traced a path along Beckys arm. "Youre cold, too."
"Not really," full lips opened to hers, "not now."
Thinking back on it later, Catherine couldnt be sure who had made the first move. Perhaps it was because theyd met each other halfway, or perhaps it was because it was something theyd both wanted so much, for so long, that there was no discernible beginning or end. Just the now of it.
Hanson was right, she wasnt cold, Kate considered, feeling the heat of the womans kiss, the steam rising from her flesh. That warmth flowed into the pilot, melting the chill away, fueling her strength. She deepened the kiss, her tongue finding Rebeccas own and playing with it; she deftly twisting her body over-top the smaller woman, running her hands up and down her dewy-moist skin. Her senses were screaming at her, telling her that this was everything shed ever wanted, right here. Right now.
On a gently swaying, broken-down dock in the Tiber.
"Rebecca," Kate groaned, pulling her lips away, pausing to drink in the desire she found on Beckys face. No! It was all too much. Too fast. "I-- I"
"Yes?" Beckys breath came in short gasps, and she closed her eyes, placing her hands lightly behind Kates neck. "What is it?"
"IIm sorry!" Using every ounce of discipline she had, the pilot wrenched herself away. "I cant."
The flight attendants green eyes snapped open. "What?"
"Weve got to get out of here." Kate shakily got to her feet, firming her resolve, and hating herself for it.
"Youre joking, right?"
"You shouldnt be out here like this, soaking wet," Kate turned away.
"I wasnt aware I was uncomfortable," Becky said angrily, a flush creeping across her face. She felt like a half-drowned fool. How could she have thought that this stone-faced woman before her actually gave a damn?
"Lets go." Kates voice was flat. Dead. The pilot held out a hand to help Rebecca up, but the smaller woman ignored it.
The hurt, the rejection that Becky feared so much, had found her at last. It welled up in her chest like bitter, choking pill.
Swallow. Theres a good girl!
"Fuck you, Captain Frosty," Rebecca said savagely, hauling off and slapping Kate soundly across the cheek. Squaring her shoulders, shivering, she turned her back on the pilot and walked away without another word.
Small. Vulnerable. Alone.
Catherine Phillips stood stock-still, a reddened hand-print blooming on the side of her face, numbly watching her leave. She welcomed into her heart the pain that assaulted her, embracing it like an old friend.
The only friend shed ever known.
Continued in Part 3
Comments welcomed at: Belwah82@aol.com
Return to The Bard's Corner