Surfacing - Part Five
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
See Disclaimers in Part
Sometime just after dawn, Charlotte Browning's rumbling stomach scored a 4.1 on the richter scale, confusing seismologists as far north as Fullerton, and causing Diana Starrett to laugh out loud.
"Don't laugh at me. This is your fault," Charlotte accused, poking the chest of the amused woman lying beneath her.
"I didn't tell you not to eat. On the contrary..." Diana got no further before the lawyer's small hand covered her mouth, smothering that line of thought.
"Hush. If you get me started again, we'll both starve," she warned. "They'll find two naked, smiling, desiccated corpses laid out on this sofa."
Diana sighed and stretched, cat-like and purring with hedonism. "Ahh, but what a way to go."
Chuckling her agreement, Charlotte slid down to nestle in what was quickly becoming a favorite rest stop, lying with her cheek against the concave plane of muscle between ribs and hip. She traced the borders of sinew and bone, planting kisses like flags, staking claim to a choice part of her new world. *Mine,* she thought. *Mine mine mine mine mine! Every inch, every pore, every hair, every scar. I'm keeping this. And I'm not giving it back.*
"I wonder if I could have this declared a protected area, maybe a wildlife refuge for the endangered Charliebird. Wouldn't be contested by the county, I bet - and I could count it as pro bono work," the attorney proposed, causing the coveted landscape beneath her to shake with laughter. "I'm serious! My species will die out without some kind of intervention. We're too busy mating to forage for sustenance."
Pressing her ear down again, she listened closely for a similar complaint of emptiness to issue from Diana's stomach. All she heard was a faint gurgling which sounded more like digestion than starvation. "You have food in there. Did you grab something when you went out on that call?"
"Naah, just grabbed a couple of apples on the way out," Diana answered, recalling her cover story of being on call and responding to assist with a domestic violence situation. "I rushed right back here once things were in order."
"I'm glad it turned out alright. I know most cops say domestic calls are the worst, that they can go bad really fast," Charlotte said softly, "I think I'm worrying about your job already."
"Don't. I'm quitting."
*What?* Charlotte raised her head and edged up a little. "What?"
"I said I'm quitting my job," came the reply. "I'm ready to get into another line of work. Something a bit less stressful, maybe." *Like gator wrestling.*
The blue eyes held steady, glinting with humor and sincerity. Charlotte followed up for confirmation partly out of habit, partly out of hope. "You're serious about this?" Diana nodded. "Since when?"
"The idea came to me recently, but I wasn't really certain until last night. I still have a few things to clear up," Diana understated. "If all goes well, I should be unemployed in short order."
Growing more accustomed to life-changing decisions being made overnight, Charlotte took only a moment to adjust to the impulsive nature of the idea. "Wow. You... ahh, you move pretty fast once you make up your mind."
"I guess. It's really the only choice for me, though." Diana moved her hands across Charlie's back, dancing along her spine with gently thrumming fingertips. "My priorities have undergone a major shift this weekend. Suddenly, making sure that I live a long, long time has become very important."
A wide, easy smile broke across the young attorney's face, her chin settling between Diana's breasts. "It wouldn't be too presumptuous to assume that I played a role in this 'priority shift,' would it?"
"The only role. It's a one-woman show."
"Oh, goody," Charlotte sang, "I don't play well with others." She lit a feathery kiss on a convenient span of shoulder. "Wellll, since you'll be on the market..." Another kiss fell like a stray raindrop on Diana's throat. "I happen to need an assistant of sorts..." A third brought warm lips and tongue sweeping beneath her chin. "and I think you would fit the bill nicely, Miss Starrett. Would you be interested in applying for the position?" Charlie hovered over Diana's mouth, looking every bit like a cross between a corporate headhunter and a temptress of Biblical prowess.
"Hmmm..." Diana turned her head, feigning disinterest. "I was thinking more along the lines of private investigations, security consulting, that sort of thing." She cut her eyes toward Charlie, finding the young woman's gaze burning green in the watery gray light. "What kind of perquisites would this position offer?"
"Name it, and it's yours."
"Two weeks paid vacation?"
"Make it three," Charlotte offered.
"Ooh! I like your style. How 'bout a Swedish masseuse?"
"Don't push it, stretch."
Diana chuckled dryly. "Well then, would I at least get personal attention from my employer?"
An awful, devouring smile in response. "More than you could
A sharp inhale as the tall woman took that in and felt her heart list hard to port, perilously close to capsizing with its massive cargo of gratitude. *More than I deserve, or could ever hope to.* "This offer just gets better and better. Anything else on the table?"
Charlotte closed her eyes and considered for a moment. *Don't chicken out now. If you don't play, you can't win.* Her eyes flashed open in the drowning light, bright with determination.
"I could offer you room and board at a very reasonable rate."
It was Diana's turn to adjust to an impulsive decision, and she blinked slowly, letting it sink in. *More than I could earn in ten lifetimes of sainthood...please give me the chance to try.* "Now's the part where I ask if you're serious. Living together... that's a pretty big step, Charlie."
The blonde shook her head in earnest. "Not in comparison to the one we've already taken. I feel like I've stepped off the edge of the Grand Canyon, here. I have been falling since I first looked into these eyes." She traced an oval from the brow above to the tender skin below, following with a kiss to the eyelid. "Falling literally and otherwise."
Diana smiled, remembering the swoon at the courthouse, viewing it with new perspective. "The feeling is mutual. But it's not the falling that worries me, it's the sudden stop."
"Pththbbt," Charlotte responded, blowing that sentiment away with a dismissive raspberry. "I can't see this stopping anytime short of my hundredth birthday - and you had better be there. I'll want a chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. And those little candy letters..."
"Charlie. I'm serious." Diana's words caused the young woman to draw back a little, and she raised herself on her arms and looked down with a solemn smile.
"So am I - please don't take this as a joke just because I'm happy," Charlotte said, suddenly very serious. "I want you here - with me - as much as possible. If that means camping out on the weekends, I'll take it, but you should know that I want more. I want eight days a week until the twelfth of never. I want you in my life as much as you're in my heart, and that means all the time. If you're not ready for that, just say no and I'll back off until you are ready. Just be warned - I am notoriously stubborn, and insidiously patient," she declared, waggling her pale brows."And nobody works harder than me. Nobody."
"Is that so?" Diana reclined happily, ready to let herself be talked into something she already wanted.
"That is so. When I was a kid, I once sold five-hundred magazine subscriptions to attain that most coveted of prizes - an authentic imitation Wonder Woman costume," she revealed, lowering her eyes in reverence. "I spent five days of one summer vacation sifting through tons of sand, until I discovered a shark's tooth bigger than the one my older sister found. I roamed the streets after school every day through my entire third grade year, collecting bottles and cans, saving up for the bike my dad wouldn't buy me. So you see, I'm used to getting my own way - by hook or crook or hard work. And those are only the G-rated stories. I'd need to see some I.D. before telling you about puberty."
Caught between being amused at the hard-headed child, and terribly impressed with her indomitable work ethic, Diana sucked a breath through her teeth and whistled. "Sounds to me like you were a dangerous woman even then, Charlotte Browning."
Grinning with trouble in mind, the attorney responded, "Not really. Just willing to go the distance for something I wanted. When I was a child, I had an invincible confidence in my own opinion, and a willingness to wait and suffer and work until I got my way. I thought I'd lost the instinct, but you seem to bring it out in me." She leaned in and pressed her lips against Diana's mouth in a quick, hard kiss, then pulled up and hovered less than an inch away. The tall woman tried to raise up in pursuit of more contact, but Charlie eluded her, keeping just out of range until Diana gave up and lay back again.
"Must be because I haven't really wanted anything for a long, long time. I was afraid to love, afraid to get hurt. So I started settling, playing safe." Again she dove down and landed hard, a touch-and-go kiss. "I didn't want to go into law, but I'm good at it and it was safe, so I settled. I didn't want to marry Richard, but I was lonely and he was safe, so I settled again."
The third descent was slow, painfully slow for Diana, whose heart had climbed up into her throat to find out what the hell was going on. Finally, Charlotte touched down, brushing her lips over Diana's as she delivered her closing argument into her lover's mouth. "I'm through settling. I'm through playing it safe. I want you with me as much as possible for as long as possible, and I will do whatever it takes for us to be together." She paused and licked her lips, wetting Diana's in the process.
"If that means kidnapping you and tying you to my bed, I'll do it. If
that means splitting the atom with a cuisinart, I'll find a way. If that means
doing the Macarena on the PCH wearing nothing but a Sumo diaper, I'll do it. I'm
willing to fight again, so welcome to my second childhood. I love you. I want
you. You're mine now, Diana Starrett. Mine."
The words were still echoing in Diana's mouth when the tongue which formed them followed its spawn inside, thrusting hard and filling her in a kiss of possession. She had been claimed. She understood now that whatever she could give, this woman would take - and that made Diana want to give her everything. *Everything I am, everything I will be... maybe even everything I used to be.*
Charlotte continued asserting her rights of ownership, raking her hands over expanses of flesh, kneading and twisting, stroking and caressing every accessible surface, acutely aware that her touches went much deeper. She understood that this woman would give her everything she had to give - and Charlotte knew without question that she would risk anything to keep it safe. This realization calmed her brazen hands, slowing their roaming to a gentler pace as she moved her fingers down to wind in dark curls.
"Ow." Diana didn't mean to say it out loud, but the sudden contact on her swollen, tender center caused a slip. The instant look of concern on Charlotte's face made her curse the untimely lapse in stoicism. "It's okay. We've just been really... active. I guess being a little sore is the price you pay."
Blushing guiltily, Charlotte did not remove her hand, but merely cupped the sensitive area gingerly, protecting her lover's vulnerability. "My fault, I know. I think you were right about me being physically aggressive, but only under the right circumstances. Sorry if I overdid it."
Hugging the smaller woman close, Diana sighed and shook her head. "Don't you dare apologize. I've never been so happy to hurt. But I think it wouldn't kill us to take a break." She kissed Charlotte's ear, her hair, her temple. "Let me cook for you. We'll have a huge breakfast, take a bath, do the Sunday crossword..."
Charlotte smiled against Diana's cheek. "Ink or pencil?"
"Ink. Pencils are for wusses."
"Where did you learn to cook like that?" asked the blissfully sated attorney, swishing her hand around to test the bathwater. Charlotte recalled a blur of chopping knives, sizzling pans, and savory smells preceding the birth of two heavenly Southwestern omelets.
*I never really thought about it. Who did teach me to cook?* "Home Economics, ninth grade," Diana improvised. She sat on the edge of the enormous, claw-footed tub, pondering this question as steam rose and tickled along her back. *Another of the mysteries which may or may not be solved by surfacing. Maybe my mother taught me...*
"Hey! Earth to Diana!" Charlotte called, seeing that the woman was lost in thought and had not heard her last question.
"Hmm? Sorry, what did you say?"
"Bubbles, yes or no?" She held up an unopened bottle full of plum-colored liquid.
"Oh, yeah. Bubble me," Diana answered. "Doesn't look like you take many bubble baths."
Charlotte poured a bit of the fragrant liquid under the faucet, and the smell of dewberries filled the warm air. "I never took the time, never saw the point." She shut off the water and stepped into the tub. "Come here."
Without so much as a raised eyebrow or a smirk, Diana obeyed, moving behind Charlotte and easing them both down into the steaming water. Gladdened to find that the massive tub accommodated her long legs, she stretched out fully, letting Charlotte relax back into her arms.
A deep, unanimous sigh of contentment from both women spurred a new fit of laughter, amused at how quickly and easily they had found a rhythm together. Diana rested her head against the cool porcelain lip, and tightened her arms to pull Charlie closer. *An unearned state of grace... that's what this is. I swear, if I get the chance, I'll spend the rest of my days trying to be worthy of this.*
Charlotte concentrated hard, blocking first the outdoor sounds of birds and lawn sprinklers, then the soft pop and crinkle of soap bubbles completing their life cycle, until the only sound in the world was the twin of her own heartbeat thumping against her back. "I bet if somebody cut you, I'd bleed," she murmured quietly.
"Nothing. Just saying how I understand the concept of bubble baths much better now," the blonde demurred. "I wish I could figure out that blasted dream as easily."
A groan from the tall woman. "You still stuck on that?"
"Yesss. I think dreams are important, and I don't know nearly enough about them to figure out what mine meant." *But I know somebody who would.* "Partial non-sequitur, here. How would you feel about going to a party tonight?"
*Thank you, God. Saves me from asking.* "Party? Sure. Where?" Diana queried, all innocence.
"Marco Falcon's. I don't really want to go, but he called Friday before I went out, insisting that I come by. He made it pretty clear that Quentin expected me to show."
"You don't sound too enthused."
Charlotte sighed and rubbed her fingers absently along Diana's forearm. "Marco gives me the creeps, to be perfectly honest. He's not a good guy."
*Understatement of the century.* "So why go?"
"His mother is part Yaqui. She's totally into spiritualism, does astrological charts, numerology, past-life readings, among many other things."
Diana started to catch on. "Lemme guess. She does dream interpretation, too."
"Ooh. Busted," Charlotte giggled. "I want us both to talk to her. Maybe she can shed some light on why we're dreaming about people we don't know."
"You lost me. What 'people we don't know'?"
"Well, in my dream, she - I - kept calling you Zima... Zela... Xuxa?" Charlotte shook her head, wishing she had her legal pad to consult. "NO! Xena! That was it. And you were dreaming about somebody named Gabrielle, remember?"
"Not a glimmer. Sorry."
"Right. You don't remember your dreams," Charlie said, looking thoughtful. "Hey! Maybe Maribel could help with that. She does this spirit guide thing using peyote cactus juice. Tried to get me to do it once, said I was an 'old soul' with a destiny to fulfill. She could probably help you with your dream problem."
Intrigued by the notion of reclaiming some of her past without going through Dr. Mangano, Diana pressed for details. "Did she say how this 'spirit guide' thing worked? What was involved?"
"I didn't ask. The prospect of drinking that nasty-looking slime put me off the idea real quick," Charlotte said, wincing at the memory. "I'd do it with you, though. Might be interesting to see what you look like with eight heads."
"Eight times as gorgeous?" Diana teased, self-deprecation evident in her tone.
"Works for me. I think it would be worth a shot." The blond twisted a bit to face her companion, trying to look serious for at least five seconds. "I wish you would take this dream seriously. I still think it means something, maybe something important."
Still doubtful, the dark woman gave her an impish smile. "Maybe it doesn't mean anything, Charlie. Or maybe it was a premonition..."
"Yeah. The whole washing thing was a flash-forward to this momentous occasion, when you at last get to help wash my steenky feeet." Diana raised said feet from the water, wiggling her toes in the suds. She managed to close one eye as the splash of water Charlotte threw hit her flush in the face. "That was uncalled for, counselor."
"So stop making fun of my dream. And your feet do not stink," Charlie asserted. "In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if you have sweat glands at all. You always smell so good."
Wiping and sputtering the suds away, Diana couldn't help smiling at the complement. "So do you."
"No, I smell clean, and I sometimes wear expensive perfume. You just naturally smell like... like the way a green aspen leaf smells when you crush it in your palm. That smell just comes off of you in waves." Charlotte gave a little shrug at her own explanation. "Maybe it's pheromones."
"Gee." Diana raised one hand to her nose and sniffed. "I never noticed."
"Of course not. You can't smell it, but everybody else can. Pheromones usually make guys love you and women hate you, from what I've heard. Yours must be universally appealing."
Blue eyes narrowed in an arrogant smile. "Coooll," she drawled. This earned her another splash.
"Don't start getting cocky, Starrett. You should warn anyone who looks twice at you that they'll have to deal with me if they get fresh."
Sputtering soap again, Diana raised a hand to protect her face before speaking. "Oh, yeah. That should really scare them off." The expected attack came, was blocked, and returned with a vengeance. Soon, water and suds were flying several feet in the air as the two women moved to opposite sides of the tub and splashed and screamed for all they were worth. Half the water was relocated to the floor and walls, and both fighters were stooped with laughter and covered in bubbles, hanging on to each other for dear life. Charlotte barely registered the sound of the doorbell ringing.
Diana sobered instantly, alert and aware. "You expecting company?"
Charlotte paused, trying to remember if she had a life before Friday. "Not that I know of."
The bell rang again, and was quickly followed by the sound of a key in the lock, and the opening of the front door. Dead silence in the bathroom, except for tiny, residual drips and pops.
"CHARLIE?" A woman's voice. Loud.
The blonde's face collapsed in fear and recognition. "Oh, shit. It's my sister. I gave her a key."
"CHARLIE! YOU HOME?" The voice moved into the hall.
"You gonna answer her?" Diana asked, clearly amused beneath her bubble mask.
Scowling, Charlotte leaped from the tub and donned her bathrobe. "Guess I should head her off before she barges in here and has a heart attack." Darting back to the edge of the bath, she cleared a patch of suds away from Diana's mouth and kissed her soundly. "This is not over. Stay put."
Charlotte slammed the door behind her, and Diana was left alone with her thoughts - which centered on Mars' warning about Riggins. *Watch your back. If he suspects you're active, he'll say you're a rogue and send hitters after you... and they won't care who gets in the way. You have to stay low until this is over, until Mars has control and can cover you. The first thing they would check would be the locator on the Jeep - Harry fixed that. The second would be your apartment - can't go back there.*
With a start, Diana realized she didn't want to go back there. Ever. She liked Charlotte's house. It felt more like home than any place she could recall, though she doubted that feeling had anything to do with the house itself. Sparsely furnished ("Most of the junk went with Richard," Charlie had explained) and mercifully free of pastels, the house reflected the persona of its owner in deep, rich jewel-tones and solid, earthy textures. Blues, greens, grays, and dark wood inside, bright and cheerful outside. *If she still wants me when this is over, I would stay here. For just as long as she'd have me. Please let this work out. I believe she does deserve happiness more than I don't.*
Sinking back into the tub, Diana washed her hair while listening to the odd music of Charlotte's mellifluous voice dueting with her sister's loud, ragged husk. *Must be the older sister, Emily.* The voices rose and fell in a cadence of conflict, and Diana wished guiltily that she could be a fly on the wall, listening to the words instead of the noises.
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