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23.12.2018

There was music when she woke. The same steady drum and plink of rain that had lulled her to sleep greeted her when she stirred. He'd held on to her, she thought-a little dreamily- when she'd asked. Just held on to her while the rain played and sleep took her under.

Though she had a dim memory of just dropping down on top of the bed, she found herself cozily tucked in.

And alone.

The part of her that didn't want to face it, didn't want those memories to clear, urged her to sink down again, to just let the rain and the watery gloom stroke her back to sleep.

Come too far for that, Cilla, she reminded herself. You've come too far for the slide and stroke. Pull it up, face the facts. Decide. Then deal.

As she pushed herself up to sit, she thought that nagging, practical voice in her head a coldhearted bitch.

Then she saw the coffee.

Her insulated travel mug sat on the nightstand. Propped against it, one of her notepads sported a mercilessly accurate and wincingly unflattering sketch depicting exactly how she imagined she looked at that precise moment. Tousled, heavy-eyed, rumpled and scowling. Beneath, in bold block letters, the caption read:

I AM COFFEE!!

DRINK ME!

(THEN TURN THE PAGE)

"Funny guy," she grumbled. She picked up the pad, tossed it on the bed before lifting the mug. The coffee it held was only a few degrees above lukewarm, but it was strong and sweet. And just what the doctor ordered. She indulged, sitting, sipping, letting the coffee give her system that first kick start.

And idly, turned the page in the notebook.

She hadn't expected to laugh, wouldn't have believed anything could cut through the fog of depression to pull a quick, surprised chuckle out of her.

He'd drawn her vivid, wide-eyed, exaggerated breasts and biceps bulging out of her sleep tank, hair streaming in an unseen wind, smile full and fierce. The travel mug, a hint of steam puffing out of the drink hole, gripped in her hand.

"Yeah, you're a funny guy."

Laying the notepad back down, she went to find him.

She heard the clattering sound when she opened the bedroom door. Glass-no, broken tiles, she decided-against plastic. She wended her way to the master bedroom, pushed open that door, then crossed to the doorway of the bath.

He'd dug up work gloves, she noted, and a small spade, several empty drywall compound buckets. Two of them were filled with tile shards. It struck her almost harder than it had the night before, to stand there and see the methodical clearing of destruction.

"You're losing your status as a morning slug."

He dumped another handful of shards, straightened. He scanned her face. "You may have ruined me for life. How's the coffee?"

"Welcome. Thanks. You don't have to do this, Ford."

"I don't know anything about building, but I know a lot about cleaning up."

"We're going to need a lot more than a couple of buckets and a spade."

"Yeah, I figured. But I also figured I might as well get started because lying in bed with you on a rainy Sunday morning had me… energized."

"Is that what you call it?"

His face remained very solemn. "In polite company."

She nodded, stepped over to stare at the cracks and breaks in her glass-block wall. She'd loved the look of that, the patterns in the glass, the way the light stole through. She'd imagined painting the walls a sheer, subtly metallic silver to pick up the glints of chrome. Her classy oasis, and yes, maybe a personal salute to old Hollywood.

The roots of her roots.

"I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I honestly don't know if I want to put this back together. If I've got it in me to fight this war someone's declared on me. I didn't come here to fight wars. I wanted to build something for myself, and for her. Maybe to build something for myself from her. But you know, when the foundation's cracked, things keep falling down."

"It didn't fall down, Cilla, it was knocked down. That's a different thing." He tipped his head to one side, then the other, making a deliberate study of her face. So she saw he understood she meant herself as much as-maybe more than-the room. "I don't see any cracks."

"She was a junkie, a drunk. Maybe she was made into one, exploited, used. Pampered and abused. I know what that's like. Not on her level, but enough to have a glimmer of what it was for her. I could have tried to build anywhere, but I made a deliberate choice to come here. She's part of the reason. This place is part of the reason. My own wounded psyche and need to prove my own worth on my own terms. All part of the reason."

"Those are good reasons." He shrugged in that easy way of his. "So you stay, you clean it up. And you build it. On your terms."

She shook her head. "You have no idea how screwed up I am."

"I've got a few clues. How about you? Any idea how strong you are?"

How could she argue against that straight-line, stubborn conviction? "It vacillates. I'm on a low ebb right now."

"Maybe you just need a boost."

"More coffee?"

"A hearty Sunday breakfast." He pulled off the work gloves, tossed them on the lid of the john. "You don't have to decide the rest of your life this minute, or today, or tomorrow. Why don't you give yourself a break? Take a little time. Let's blow off the day. We'll get Spock from outside where he'd be chasing his cats about now. Gorge ourselves at The Pancake House, go… to the zoo."

"It's raining."

"It can't rain forever."

She stared at him a moment, at that relaxed smile, the warm, patient eyes. He'd held on to her, she thought. He'd left her coffee, and made her laugh before she was fully awake. He was cleaning up her mess, and demanding absolutely nothing.

He believed in her, in a way, on a level no one, not even she, had believed in before.

"No, it really can't, can it? It really can't rain forever."

"So, get dressed and we'll go overload on carbs, then go check out the monkeys."

"Actually, the pancakes sound pretty good. After."

"After what?"

She laughed, and this time the sound didn't seem so surprising. She took hold of the front of his shirt, watched the awareness come into his eyes. "Come back to bed, Ford."

"Oh."

She backed up, tugging him with her. "It's just us. Right this minute, I've got nothing else on my mind. And I really could use that boost."

"Okay." He scooped her up, closed his mouth over hers.

When her head stopped spinning, she smiled. "Really nice start."

"I've been planning it out. Change in venue and basic approach," he said as he carried her to the bedroom. "But I'm flexible."

Her smile was slow, like a long, low purr. "So am I."

"Oh, boy."

She was laughing as she hooked her arms around his neck, caught his mouth with hers. Just them, she thought as they tumbled onto the bed. Everything else was later. Just them, and the music of the rain. In the soft and lazy light, on the rumpled bed, she let herself sink into the here and now. She drew his shirt up, away, hooked her legs around him and said, "Mmmm."

He could have lingered on her mouth, the taste, the shape, the movement of it, endlessly. That wonderful deep dip in her top lip held a world of fascination for him. The sexy, seeking slide of her tongue against his could have held him enthralled for hours.

But there was so much more. The graceful stem of her neck allured him, the curve of her cheek, the smooth skin just under her jaw offered him countless pleasures as he roamed, as he sampled before finding her lips again.

The flavors there had become familiar over the weeks since they'd begun this dance, and only the more desirable to him. Now, finally, there would be more.

He could glide his lips down her, learn the tastes and textures, madden himself with the subtle swell above simple cotton. He teased and tormented them both, lingering there even as she arched up in invitation. He found warmth and silk and secrets while her heart beat strong against his lips. And when his tongue slid under the cotton, when she moaned in approval, he found more.

He eased the tank up, inch by torturous inch, fingers gliding light as moth wings as he lifted his head to look into her eyes.

Her heart stuttered. Her body simply sighed.

"You're really good at this."

"If something's worth doing… I've looked at you a lot. In an artistic capacity." His gaze shifted down as his fingers brushed over her breasts. "I've thought about you a lot."

Thumbs, fingertips sent shivers through her.

"I've imagined touching you. Watching you while I did. Feeling you tremble under my hands. You've been worth waiting for."

He lowered his mouth to hers again, taking the kiss deep. Lowered his body to hers. Heat spread where flesh met flesh, sent her pulse to pound. Now her body quivered as he journeyed down it, slow and easy, hands and lips.

She thought she'd let go when they tumbled onto the bed. But she'd been wrong. That had been acquiescence. This, what he seduced from here, was surrender.

He touched with a care, a curiosity, as if she were the first woman he'd touched. And made her feel as if she'd never been touched before. Sensations swam and coiled inside her, shimmered over her skin until pleasure coated her like light. And the light bloomed with such intensity she gripped the tangled sheets to anchor herself in the glow.

He guided her up, up where the light flashed, where in the quick, stunning blindness pleasure turned on its edge and shot through her.

He steeped himself in the shape of her, even as she quaked under him. The slender line of her torso that curved into her waist enchanted him. The feel of her hips, rising up as she peaked, thrilled. Long, lovely thighs led him to gorgeous calves that flexed at the light nip of his teeth.

She moaned, and the sound of it seeped into him when he roamed up again to explore that warm, wet, welcoming center. She said his name when she came, a quick, breathless gasp. Her fingers raked through his hair, then down his back on the coil and release. Damp flesh slid over damp flesh until he looked back down into her eyes.

She touched his face, held the look, trembling, trembling as he slipped into her. And as those icy blue eyes glazed, he took her with long, slow thrusts.

She ached, every part of her. She rose to him, helplessly caught. Swamped in needs he met, stirred and met once more. When they built again, impossibly, she held on.

And she let go.

Limp, loose, languid, she lay under him. The world eked back so she heard the drumming rain again, felt the hot twisted sheet under her back. When the mists cleared from her brain enough to allow random thoughts to wind through, she wondered if the fact that she'd just had the best sex of her life meant it was all downhill from here.

Then he turned his head, rubbed his lips against her shoulder, and she swore she felt her skin glow.

He lifted his head, brushed her hair away from her cheek as he smiled sleepily down at her. "Okay?"

"Okay?" She let out a mystified laugh. "Ford, you seriously deserve a medal, or at least a certificate of excellence. I feel like every inch of me has been… tended," she decided.

"I'd say my job is done, but I really like the work." He dipped his head, and the kiss sent sparkles dancing in her brain to go with the glow. "Probably need, ah, a coffee break though."

Deciding she'd never been more relaxed or content in her life, she hooked her arms around his neck. "Understandable. When my bones resolidify, I could use a shower. And it just occurs to me we can't shower here."

He saw the worry come back into her eyes and, rolling away, pulled her up to sitting. "We'll go over to my place." Where what had happened wouldn't keep slapping her in the face, he thought. "Toss something on, grab what you want. It turns out I've also imagined you wet and slippery. Now I'll find out how close I was to right."

"All right. There was a mention of pancakes, too, as I recall."

"Stacks of them. We're going to need fuel to get through the rest of the day."

THEY DIDN'T MAKE it to The Pancake House. After a long, steamy, energetic shower, the idea struck to stay in and make pancakes. The result was messy but reasonably edible.

"They just need a lot of syrup." Sitting at the kitchen counter in Ford's T-shirt, Cilla drowned the oddly shaped stack on her plate.

If the sounds from the mudroom were an indication, Spock had no trouble with his share.

"They're not so bad." Ford forked a dripping pile. "And more fun than Eggos. I had this other idea. Instead of going out to see monkeys, we stay in and have monkey sex."

"So far your ideas are working out pretty well. Who am I to argue? What do you usually do on rainy Sundays?"

"You mean when I'm not eating pancakes with gorgeous blondes?" He shrugged. "I might work some, depending on how that's going, or fat-ass around and read. Maybe hang out with Brian or Matt, or both. If I had absolutely no choice, I'd do laundry. How about you?"

"Back in L.A.? If I had a project going, I'd tackle some interior work, or paperwork, or research. If I didn't have a project, I'd scour the Internet and real estate ads looking for one. That'd pretty much sum up my life for the past few years. That's pitiful."

"It's not. It's what you wanted. A lot of people thought it was pitiful I'd rather hole up scribbling and sketching than, say, play basketball. Being tall, you know. I sucked at basketball. Never got it. On the other hand, I was good, and got better, at the scribbling and sketching."

"You're frighteningly well adjusted. Or maybe just compared to me."

"You seem pretty steady from where I sit."

"I have abandonment issues." She gestured with a dripping forkful of pancakes. "I have a drug phobia due to a family history of drug abuse that has me sweating taking an aspirin. I suffer from acute stage fright that escalated in my teens to the point that I could barely cope with being in the same room with three people at a time. The only way I can cope with my mother, sanely, is to stay away from her, and I spent the majority of my life alternately blaming myself or my father for the fact that we didn't-don't, really-know each other."

He made a pfft sound. "Is that all?"

"Want more?" She ate pancakes, stabbed more. "I got more. I have dreams where I engage in detailed conversations with my dead grandmother, whom I never met, and to whom I feel closer than I do to any living member of my family. My best friend is my ex-husband. I've had four stepfathers, and countless 'uncles,' and being not stupid, understandthat is part of the reason that I've never had a long-term, healthy relationship with a man other than Steve. I expect to be exploited and used, or I expect the attempt, and, as a result, have successfully sabotaged any potentially long-term, healthy relationship I might have had. Fair warning."

He forked more pancakes, ate them. "Is that the best you can do?"

With a laugh, she shoved her plate away, picked up her coffee. "That's probably enough over breakfast." She rose, held out a hand. "Let's take a walk in the rain. Then we can come back and dive in your Jacuzzi."

They left the mess, took a long walk with the dog. Was there anything more romantic than being kissed in the rain? Cilla wondered. Anything more lovely than the mountains, shrouded in clouds and mist? Anything more liberating than strolling hand in hand through the summer rain while all the world huddled inside, behind closed doors and windows?

Drenched, they raced back to the house to strip off dripping clothes. In the hot, bubbling water, they took each other slowly.

Drained, they went upstairs to curl together like puppies to sleep on Ford's bed.

She woke him with love, the sleepy joy of it, the warm tangle of limbs and soft press of lips. When they dozed again, the rain slowed to a quiet patter.

Later, Cilla slipped out of bed. Tiptoeing to Ford's closet, she found a shirt. Pulling it on, she eased out of the room. She intended to go down to search out a bottle of water-preferably ice cold-but detoured to his studio. Thirst could wait for curiosity.

When she switched on the light, the drawings pinned to his display board pulled her forward. So odd to see her face, she thought, on the warrior's body. Well, her body, she admitted.

He'd added her tattoo, but as she'd once suggested, it rode on Brid's biceps.

Wandering over to his workstation, she frowned at the papers on his drawing board. Small sketches covered them-sparse sketches, she mused, all in separate boxes, and each with a dotted vertical line running top to bottom. Some of them had what she thought she recognized as speech balloons, with numbers inside. She spread them out for a better look.

It was like a storyboard, she realized. The characters, the action, some staging. Blocking. And if she wasn't mistaken, the sizes and shapes of the boxes had been calculated mathematically as well as artistically. Balance, she mused, and impact.

Who knew so much went into a comic?

On the other side of the board, a larger sheet lay on the counter. More squares and rectangles, she noted, holding detailed drawings, shaded and… inked. Yes, that was the word. Though no dialogue had been added, the setup, the art, drew the eye across, just as words in a book would do.

In the center, Dr. Cass Murphy stood in what Cilla thought of as her professor suit. Conservative, acceptable. Bland. The clothes, the dark-framed glasses and the posture defined personality in one shot. That was a kind of brilliance, wasn't it? she thought. To capture and depict in one single image the character. The person.

Without thinking, she picked up the panel, took it to the display board to hold it against the sketch of Brid.

The same woman, yes, of course the same woman. And yet the change was both remarkable and complete. Repression to liberation, hesitation to purpose. Shadow to light.

When she started to walk back to replace the panel, she saw another stack of pages. Typewritten pages. She scanned the first few lines.

FORD WOKE HUNGRY, and deeply disappointed Cilla wasn't beside him to slake one area of appetite. Apparently, he decided, he couldn't get enough of her.

She was all beautiful and sexy and wounded and smart. She knew how to use power tools, and had a laugh that made his mouth water. He'd watched her hang tough, and fall to pieces. He'd witnessed her absolute devotion to a friend, watched her handle acute embarrassment and lash out with temper.

She knew how to work, and oh boy, she knew how to play.

She might be, he mused, pretty damn close to perfect.

So where the hell was she?

He rolled out of bed, snagged a pair of pants and stepped into them on his way to hunt her down.

He was just about to call her name when he spotted her. She sat at his work counter, legs tucked up and crossed, shoulders hunched, one elbow propped. He had the quick and fleeting thought that if he sat like that for more than ten minutes, his neck and shoulders would lock up for days.

Walking over, he set his hands on her shoulders to rub what he imagined would be knotted muscles. And she jumped as if he'd swung an ax at her head.

She pitched forward, caught herself, reared back as her legs scissored out. Then, spinning around in his chair, she clutched her hands at her chest as her laughter bubbled out.

"God! You scared me!"

"Yeah, I picked that up when you nearly bashed your head on my drawing board. What're you up to?"

"I was… Oh God. Oh shit!" She shoved the chair back, dropped her hands into her lap. "I'm sorry. I completely breached your privacy. I was looking at the sketches you had sitting out, and I saw the book. I just meant to skim the first page. I got caught up. I shouldn't have-"

"Whoa, whoa, save the self-flagellation. I told you before you could read it sometime. I just hadn't written it yet. If you got caught up, that's a plus."

"I moved things around." She picked up the panel, held it out. "I hate when people move my things around."

"I know where it goes. Obviously, you're lucky I'm not as temperamental and touchy as you are." He lay the panel back in its place. "So, what do you think?"

"I think the story is fun, exciting and entertaining, with a sharp thread of humor, and with strong underpinnings of feminism."

He lifted his brows. "All that?"

"You know damn well. The character of Cass behaves in certain ways, and expects certain behavior and attitudes toward her because she was raised by a domineering, unsympathetic father. She's sexually repressed and emotionally clogged, has been reared to accept the superiority of men and accept a certain lack of respect in her male-dominated field. You see a great deal of that in the single portrait. The one you just put back.

"She's betrayed, and left for dead, because she's so indoctrinated to taking orders from male authority figures. To subverting her own intellect and desires. And by facing death, by fighting against it, she becomes a leader. Everything that's been trapped inside her, and more, is released in the form of Brid. A warrior. Empowerment, through power."

Fascinating, he thought, and flattering, to listen to her synopsize his story, and his character. "I'm going to interpret that as you like it."

"I really do, and not just due to the recent sexual haze. It's like a screenplay, a very strong screenplay. You even have camera angles and direction."

"It helps remind me how I saw it when I wrote it, even if that changes."

"And you add in these little boxes like the ones on the art."

"Helps with the layout. That may change, too. Just like the story line took some turns on me."

"You added Steve. You added the Immortal. He's going to be so… well, insane over that."

"She needed the bridge, the link between Cass and Brid. A character who can straddle her worlds, and help the two sides of our heroine understand each other."

Not unlike, Ford thought now, how Steve helped Cilla. "Adding him changed a lot of the angles, added a lot of work, but it's stronger for it. And something I should've thought of in the first place. Anyway, it's still evolving. The story's down, and now I have to tell it with art. Sometimes, for me anyway, the art can shift the story. We'll have to see."

"I especially like the one up there, of Brid in what's almost a fouette turn, as I assume she's about to kick out her leg against a foe."

"Fouette turn?"

"A ballet move." Cilla crossed over to tap the sketch she spoke of. "This is very close, even the arms are in position. To be precise, the supporting foot should be turned out slightly more, but-"

"You know ballet? Can you do that?"

"A fouette? Please. Eight years of ballet." She executed a quick turn. "Of tap." And a fast-time step. "Jazz."

"Cool. Hold on." He opened a drawer, pulled out a camera. "Do the ballet thing again."

"I'm mostly naked."

"Yeah, which is why I'll be posting these on the Internet shortly. I just want the feet business you were talking about."

He had no idea what an enormous leap of faith it took for her to do the turn as he snapped the camera.

"One more, okay? Good. Great. Thanks. A fouette turn. Ballet." He set the camera back down. "I must've seen it somewhere, sometime or other. Eight years? I guess that explains how you did those high leaps in Wasteland Three, when you were running through the woods, trying to escape the reanimated psycho killer."

"Grand jetes." She laughed. "So to speak."

"I thought you were going to make it, the way you were flying. I mean you got all the way back to the cabin, avoiding the death trap and the flying hatchet, only to pull open the door-"

"To find the reanimated psycho killer had taken a convenient shortcut to beat me there. Sobbing relief," she said, miming the action, "shock, scream. Slice."

"It was a hell of a scream. They use voice doubles for that stuff, right? And enhance."

"Sometimes. However…" She sucked in her breath and let out a bloodcurdling, glass-shattering scream that had Ford staggering back two full steps. "I did my own work," she finished.

"Wow. You've got some lungs there. How about we go down, have some wine, while we see if my eardrums regenerate."

"Love to."