Sangria Tangerine (sangriatangerin) wrote in remixwoconsent,
Sangria Tangerine
sangriatangerin
remixwoconsent

And I Will Always Love You, Act 4: Celeste Aida, Forma Divina Part 1

Title: And I Will Always Love You, Act 4: Celeste Aida, Forma Divina Part 1
See this post for complete headers (http://community.livejournal.com/remixwoconsent/759.html)


It was like the ache of the missing limb – when nerve endings with ingrained memories insist on painfully reminding their host that something is missing, and the pain is a kind of residual grief over the loss.

Craig hadn’t been aware of its existence until it had finally stopped. He no longer woke in the mornings with the first instinctive thought being ‘this is just another day I’ll have to get through without him’, accompanied by the dull aching reminder that Orlando wasn’t there and wouldn’t be any time soon. It had taken roughly six months for it to stop, six months before he could climb out of a deep sleep and know that Orlando was there, if not as the soft other flesh against his own, then as the warm body barely a hand-span away across the bed.

Some pessimistic law of averages – he recalled reading an article in a magazine some years ago about the inevitable fading of marital bliss – deemed that after almost a year now of being together constantly, the novelty should have dulled slightly and they should have settled into a comfortable familiarity edged by a very faint hint of boredom.

It hadn’t eventuated so far and showed no sign of doing so. He wondered if he was very lucky or if he’d simply developed a benign obsession. Surely no one else in the history of the world opened their eyes every morning and fell in love – or lust, or a combination of the two – all over again with the person who shared their bed. Did any other couple simply reach out for one another – no invitation needed, no acceptance required, no words necessary, and only the most fleeting foreplay – and come together in lovemaking so perfectly choreographed they might have been learning the steps for decades rather than a couple of interrupted years? And had it ever been heard of that two people might perform that same perfect dance every night as well, when darkness reduces all cues to the mere physical touch, and all movements are purely instinctive?

Craig smiled, relieved that no one else could possibly tune into these odd, disjointed little streams of consciousness he indulged in most mornings as he emerged slowly from sleep and eased himself into a state of wakefulness. The luxurious part was the blissful knowledge that he could reverse the process at any time and just allow sleep to claim him again. Nothing demanding his attention, no place he had to be – he could just lie there and drift and dream for as long as he wanted.

Lately though, he would sometimes find himself wondering when they should call an end to this honeymoon of sorts and attempt to establish a more equitable balance of sloth and work that might pass as a normal life. He thought they’d used the time well so far, getting all the really important things done in the right order, and investing just about the right amount of time and devotion to each issue before moving on to the next.

The first few months had been all about getting to know one another again – odd in a way since they’d already done the pseudo-marriage thing and made the very public declaration of their relationship. Once they were alone, the memories of that heady day had needed to be carefully re-wrapped and temporarily put away, pending an examination of ‘us’. They had talked. They’d talked for those first few months about all the things that had been put on hold either out of fear of reaction to disclosure, or because another separation had been imminent and there simply hadn’t been the time to work their way through to a comfortable resolution. They’d talked about the kind of people they were before the film brought them together – influences, relationships, hopes and ambitions. They’d talked about everything that had gone on during those couple of years of actual filming and roughly the same length of time afterwards. They’d talked about people they’d known and loved, or known and not loved, but who had mattered almost as much, people they’d been with – Mark and Dominic, Maya and Andre – those who’d made an impact, however large or small, that was still felt and therefore would always remain part of the equation they would know as ‘us’.

All that grim introspection might have been depressing had the summer not been every bit as gloriously long and hot as had been forecast. It was hard to feel dispirited when endless days dawned cloudlessly on an azure, shot-silk ocean. And no matter how breathtakingly high the temperature soared, the onshore breeze that picked up at around four o’clock every afternoon was as deliciously refreshing as the first frosted glass of beer.

The unraveling of memories and the disclosure of secrets had been a gradual, non-confrontational process – a slow stroll along the beach in the cool of the evening and ‘Did I ever tell you about…?’ A few hours lazing by the spring with a six-pack and the weekend papers – unfolded and forgotten – and a gentle conversation begun with, ‘I remember I used to watch you and fantasize about making love to you, convinced it would never happen.’ Each little revelation forming another concentric circle of knowing and understanding.

Once they’d aired out the past, they had talked about the future and a few of the things they thought might be nice to do together – creative things such as collaborating on a book about the Rings experience, perhaps acting together in a film or play. They’d agreed that they shouldn’t remain reclusive for too long and that they’d enjoy socializing with the theatre and film crowd again on a regular basis. Shopping, eating out, or attending the odd film or play – these were things they wanted to get around to doing again some time soon, no longer worried about being observed but hopeful about being simply left alone.

After they’d talked themselves out, and a vague atmosphere of ‘What now?’ had settled over them, they’d packed up the Jeep with camping gear, strapped Orlando’s surfboard to the roof-rack and set off to explore the country. They didn’t plan a specific itinerary, but simply headed north to the very tip of the North Island and then proceeded to meander their way South again.

Mindful of the fact that experience is a writer’s number one resource, Craig had conscientiously kept an informal travel journal – daily entries recorded in neat longhand in a number of student exercise books. He tentatively titled the collection “Our Trip – Aotearoa 2005” which Orlando promptly sub-titled “1001 Good Places to Have It Off In New Zealand Without Being Sprung”.

Anyone taking a casual flick through the pages might have brushed it off as some light-hearted bit of fun, but some of the entries were profoundly significant. They hadn’t set out with the intention of re-visiting any of the sites used as filming locations but they had anyway, and they’d talked and reminisced, and both contributed something to the dog-eared pages of the little exercise books.

“I’m glad you started doing these,” Orlando said once as he finished adding his own few words to one of Craig’s lengthy entries. “I remember what it was like being in this place the first time. Some time in the future, I want to remember what it was like being here for the last time. Doing this is like officially signing off so it – it feels weird – but in a good way, you know?”

Craig had nodded and given him a brief smile of understanding, and both of them had retreated into a long introspective silence.

The weather had cooled off considerably by the time they crossed Cook Strait to the South Island. They’d made a lightning trip back to Toujours to swap summer clothes for winter, and the surfboard for skis and a snowboard.

Orlando’s longest and most poignant journal entry had been after visiting the site where Edoras had been constructed – on craggy Mount Sunday near Ashburton. They’d stopped and politely sought permission from the owners of the farm of which Mount Sunday was part, had been invited in for tea and a chat that seemed to drag on endlessly until Craig noticed Orlando’s restlessness and suggested moving on.

“I can’t believe it’s all gone,” Orlando had said, shivering from more than just the chill of a late autumn afternoon. They were standing right on the peak and the cold wind swirling around them had come directly over the snow-capped mountains to the west. “Hard to believe it was ever here in the first place. They left absolutely nothing.”

“Stunning view,” Craig had murmured, “I’d love to have worked here.”

“No you wouldn’t. It was wickedly cold – lots worse than this. You’d have bitched about it louder than the rest of us put together.”

Craig had smiled and drawn him close, enveloping him in his arms to provide just a little extra warmth.

“Probably,” he’d agreed. “What are you thinking about now in this place? What are you going to write in the book tonight?”

Orlando’s reply had been muffled. “Don’t know. Not sure.”

Craig had held him and remained silent, realizing Orlando was mentally wrestling with some recollection that clearly didn’t include him.

“I want to leave something here,” Orlando said eventually, “Just a memory – well it wasn’t really a memory but something I’ll always associate with this place in hindsight and – I want to acknowledge it but I don’t want to put it in our book.”

“Go on,” Craig had prompted gently.

Orlando had nodded, and shrugged himself away so that there were a few inches between them. His eyes had rested on some distant point beyond the mountains and his voice had seemed to come from a place even further away.

“It was brilliant here while it was happening – real magical fantasy stuff and I’d made up my mind that this place is what I’d try hardest to remember in future because it was like the absolute high point of everything. This is what it was all about – this is where I felt the most special, where I really felt part of something so incredibly out of this world. But then we went home again and I found out that while I was here feeling all special and magical, Dommie had already given me the arse and taken up with someone else – and I hadn’t known a fucking thing about it. Finding out just sort of – "

Orlando’s sigh had been carried off in the wind but its timbre of overwhelming sadness had hung in the air between them.

“Tainted the memory,” Craig had finished for him, hoping he’d managed to diffuse the bitterness in his voice before he’d spoken.

Orlando had nodded. “Yeah.”

Craig had waited, knowing instinctively that he had no real right to pass comment or to prompt any kind of resolution.

A couple of minutes had passed in silence before Orlando had sighed again and returned to the present.

“So anyway, I’ll leave all that shit here, love, and take away another nice memory instead. It’s all still gorgeous and magical, except this time I got to share it with you, right?”

He’d smiled then, a surprisingly genuine and happy smile, and the bitterness of the moment had faded away.

That night they had both written about the physical beauty of the location but Orlando had added more about the atmosphere of the place, particularly in its temporary transformation into Edoras. ‘It was really lovely seeing it again, even with Edoras all gone,’ he’d written, ‘But there are ghosts there now so I don’t think I’ll ever want to go back.’

They’d gone further south from there and then doubled back along the west coast, reaching Queenstown halfway through the Winterfest.

“It’ll be nice to have a chance to enjoy it as a visitor rather than a performer,” Craig had said, only to have to eat his words the moment he checked in with some of the regular attendees who had all regarded him with a collective expression of shock and delight.

Just hours previously, Mark Ferguson had been admitted to the hospital with suspected appendicitis and they’d been formatting an announcement that the Great Comedy Debate scheduled for that evening had been cancelled. Unless – could Craig possibly…?

He’d showered, shaved, been given a once-over by a local hairdresser and then spent two hours going through Mark’s notes.

“Just as well I get off on improvisation,” he’d grumbled to anyone who would listen. At 7:30 that evening, a special guest was announced to the audience and he’d been given a standing ovation as he joined the rest of his team on-stage and presented the moot that ‘Inside every good man is a bad woman’.

“Every one of us travels through life assuming multiple roles that are tailored to fit each individual situation,” he’d said in his opening statement, “In my own case, it goes without saying that I'm essentially a man but I'll also admit to being at various times a good friend, a sensational lover, a heartless bitch, an arrogant bastard, a responsible husband, a devoted little wife, and on the odd occasion even a bit of a tart."

Two hours later he walked off to another ovation, and a well-founded suspicion that the quote would be published verbatim in all the major newspapers the next day.

“I think I’m losing my nerve for this sort of stuff,” he’d muttered to Orlando who had watched it all from behind the scenes. “Bed,” he’d added, “I’m more than ready for it.”

They’d returned to Toujours in late August – just on three months ago – the travel bug having well and truly died.

Now, just days short of their first year entirely together, Craig knew – and he suspected Orlando’s increasing restlessness since their return hinted at the same – that it was time to stop pretending the rest of the world didn’t exist or matter, and to begin the process of reintegration.

~ * ~

He moved and felt the slight dampness of sweat on his body. The nights were becoming mild again and the mornings were definitely losing their chill. Later, he’d air out the feather comforter, pack it away until next winter and replace it with some lighter blankets.

Orlando himself was an accurate seasonal indicator. When it was coldest, he would bury himself deeply under the bedclothes and sleep all night with part or all of his body pressed close to Craig’s for warmth. As the seasons changed and the nights grew warmer, he’d move a little further away and wear a little less covering. At the moment, he lay facedown and close to the far edge of the bed, and the covers reached only as far as his waist.

Craig turned on his side and eased closer, careful not to wake him. That was another of the little luxuries he’d grown to appreciate – being able to simply lie there and watch Orlando sleeping and then gradually waking.

Mine

He’d never been aware of a potential for jealous possessiveness until now. He could never recall having looked at another man and thinking ‘mine’ and experiencing a mental baring of teeth at the thought of anyone attempting to take that man from him. It was something he’d have to guard against. The clinginess they’d laughed about was one thing, but an emotional shackle – he knew instinctively that Orlando would fight such a restraint. ‘You give me freedom and space, you let me be me,’ Orlando had once said. Freedom and space. They allowed no room for such notions as a possessive ‘mine’.

He’d already seen for himself how a year of freedom and space and a lack of restraint had been positive for Orlando. Not a single episode of panic or depression, none of the sudden explosions of rage and frustration. For almost a year the nervy, hyperkinetic Orlando had been absent, in his place a calm, peaceful Orlando with an unwavering little smile of happiness playing around his eyes and mouth. For almost a year, he hadn’t needed clubs or loud music, overseas travel or people – there had been no desperate need to prove himself nor engage in that constant quest for validation and approval.

Here at Toujours, he’d been content to curl up on the couch with a good book or spend hours alone wandering the beach or exploring rock pools. Happiness was snoozing out on the deck in the sun or pottering about in the garden humming tunelessly to himself. Challenging himself was to merely attempt a new dish for dinner or to fix something around the house. Occasionally he’d take the Jeep for a drive up to Hamilton and return with an armload of magazines, books, CDs, DVDs and something unexpected to indulge the senses – perhaps a wickedly rich mud cake from a bakery, or from a florist, a bouquet of the deep black-red roses, the scent of which always reminded them of their walk.

The boredom Craig had anticipated just hadn’t eventuated. The fear that he might have had to work constantly at keeping Orlando entertained had been groundless. Even during the months of traveling, there had never been that feeling of being joined at the hip and tied to the company of the other. Somehow they had managed to comfortably adapt to and accommodate their own individual need for space and separation, whilst still retaining the closeness and togetherness of ‘us’.

But it was never intended to last forever.

As Craig’s thought processes meandered lazily, his gaze had come to rest on the curved plane of Orlando’s lower back where he’d often lay his face against smooth, silken flesh, his fingers automatically seeking out the perfectly centered line of pale, slightly puckered skin. He’d learned to love that scar, once he’d managed to divest his imagination of the negative implications of it – of Orlando in pain, of Orlando afraid, of Orlando suffering – and concentrated instead on the positives. In his mind it was evidence of how they’d worked to heal and restore him after that fall, had mended him well enough to walk, to continue with acting school, to be chosen for Lord of the Rings, to come to New Zealand, and to finally become the undoubted centre of his own life.

“What are you thinking about, love?”

Orlando’s voice was barely more than a whisper. He was watching Craig now through heavy-lidded eyes, still suspended in that dreamy state of half-awake and half-asleep, and with the perpetual little smile back in its usual place. His eyelids flickered and the smile widened momentarily as Craig moved against him and deposited a feather-light kiss against his mouth.

“I’m in bed with Orlando Bloom,” Craig murmured, “What do you think I’d be thinking about? Gardening?”

Orlando gave a soft laugh that ended in a yawn. “Hah-hah, isn’t he funny?”

“Going to sleep a bit longer?”

“Nah,” He moved from lying on his stomach to his side and allowed himself to be gathered close to Craig. “This is heaps better.”

Craig touched his lips against his ear and whispered, “What are you, Bloom?”

“Mmm, a cuddle-whore, worst kind.”

“And?”

“Yeah, yeah, and a hug-harlot.”

“And?”

“And an insatiable fuck-tart.”

Craig clicked his tongue in disapproval. “And?”

Orlando snickered, “Oh, a feel-floozy and a kiss-bint. Forgotten anything?”

“That about covers it.” Craig kissed his mouth again, finding lips still soft and yielding from sleep. “I adore you.”

“Only adore?”

“You’re adorable right now. Scrumptious.”

Orlando feigned offence. “But I thought you worshipped me.”

“Only on Wednesday afternoons, between one and three. Wednesdays are definitely for worshipping.”

Orlando prompted with exaggerated coyness, “How do I get you just to love me then?”

“Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Mmm, what am I doing?”

“Shamelessly seducing me.”

Orlando burrowed closer, flushed and content, and almost purring with pleasure, “I love this – snogging and making out. Will it always be this fantastic?”

“I hope so.” Craig touched his hand lightly to Orlando’s face, tilting his head until they were facing one another directly. “We’ll have to go back soon though, love. We can’t stay here fooling around forever, as lovely as it’s been.”

“I know. When?”

“Very soon. We should start looking at how we’re going to go about getting back into some kind of – “

“No,” Orlando cut him off, “Not right now. Not even today. Can we leave it until next week when the year’s up? Please?”

“Okay,” Craig relented, “Your call as always, love, you know that don’t you?”

“My call?” Orlando’s lips curved into a slow smile and he regarded Craig through half-lidded eyes, “Mine?”

“Always.”

“Then do your duty, wife, and gimme breakfast in bed!”

“Sorry, sweetheart,” Craig taunted, grinning, “I’m liberated. Get it yourself!”

“Such attitude! Right, getting it myself.”

All trace of sleepiness was shrugged off instantly as Orlando erupted in a whirlwind of energy, wrestling Craig onto his back, wrenching his legs apart and kneeling between them, sending the clock-radio and a pile of books flying off the nightstand as he scrabbled around for the lube, biting off the cap and squeezing too much out at once, getting most of it on the sheets as he took a scant two seconds to slick himself with one hand and Craig with the other, telling him to “Shut uuup!” as Craig roared with laughter and put up a token struggle as Orlando impaled himself to the hilt in one glorious thrust and a mutual, “Ohhhh…” of pleasure.

“Not so liberated now, are we?” Orlando purred, watching Craig’s face with a certain smug satisfaction as he began to spear him with a series of slow, lazy thrusts, each zenith eliciting a groan of unmistakable rapture. “Lying back there, smirking your head off like some fat, over-fucked tart.”

“Love it when you talk dirty.”

“Know you do.”

Orlando leaned forward and braced himself on hands either side of Craig’s shoulders. He ducked down and kissed him, whispering against his mouth, “Get yourself off – I want to watch, I love watching you do it.”

“Know you do,” Craig countered, already reaching for himself. He began to work his own erection with particular attention to Orlando’s response, watching dark eyes glazing over with hunger and the tip of his tongue swiping intermittently over lust-dry lips, hearing the soft, hoarse murmur of, “God, yes, that’s such an incredible turn-on…”

An exquisitely drawn-out few minutes of perfectly synchronized movements, no need to ask softly ‘When?’ as their eyes locked and knowing grins were exchanged, indicating very soon, very close, a slight arching of an eyebrow and an involuntary flickering of languidly heavy eyelids, the barely perceptible nod and the molten rush of mutual release, breathtaking in its intensity.

They lay together in a comfortable half-tangle of limbs, and drowsed for another half hour, physical activity little more than the occasional sleepy kiss and light caress of fingers.

“It won’t change much will it?” Orlando eventually asked, “After next week.”

“No, not much,” Craig murmured, “We’ll close up here and head back to town for a while. Check out our options.”

“It’s going to be weird living back there again. The longest times we’ve spent together have always been here. This is home. The other place – “

“Hey, cliché alert, love. Home is where the heart is. We’ll still be together, remember?”

“I know, I – but I always associate the other place with leaving.”

“You own the apartment now. You don’t leave until you choose to.”

“Yeah, s’pose so. It’ll just take some getting used to.” Orlando shifted restlessly, was suddenly unable to find a comfortable position and abruptly sat up.

Craig caught his hand and held it tightly, recognizing on Orlando’s face an expression he hadn’t seen in a long time. “What’s the matter?”

Orlando gave a forced smile. “Nothing, love, jitters again. It’s cool though. We’ll have to shag up some brilliant memories here to take back with us.”

“Sure?” Craig watched him intently, “You’d tell me if things started deteriorating again wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, no more bullshit, I promised you that.” Orlando leaned down and gave him a quick, reassuring kiss, and the smile widened to a wicked grin, “Thanks love, for the brilliant breakfast, but you forgot the coffee.”

Despite Orlando’s reassurance and the swift disappearance of that little shadow of doubt, Craig watched him over the next couple of days, remaining vigilant for any return of anxiety. If merely talking about going back to town and attempting to resurrect their careers was going to bother him, perhaps they’d have to reconsider their plans, even linger another few months at Toujours. After all, summer was just about upon them again.

He mentioned it casually and was surprised to have the suggestion instantly rejected.

“No, love,” Orlando said without hesitation, “You said yourself that summer is when everyone does their networking and setting up jobs for next year. If we’re out of circulation then we may as well write off another year and stay down here – and I know you don’t want to do that.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad would it?”

“No, actually it’d be bloody wonderful but just a bit too long I think. Anyway, you might not have anything pending, but Marton and I had sort of an agreement. I’d probably really stuff up his plans if I said I wanted another year so – no, we’ll go back whenever you’re ready.”

Craig shrugged offhandedly. “Will we set a date then?”

“If you like. Whatever you decide is fine by me.”

Orlando was sitting at the kitchen counter doing a crossword puzzle in an old newspaper. As he returned his attention to it, Craig watched him from the computer where he’d been composing an enquiring e-mail to Oliver. Perhaps, he decided, he’d fallen too quickly into that familiar worrisome state over ‘sending Orlando back’ when in fact the situation was never going to be as it had been in the past. Instead of an uncertain future in a hostile environment, waiting for Orlando now was a huge new project about which he was undoubtedly excited – or had been the few times he’d mentioned it – and the opportunity to spend some more quality time with Marton, which could only be a positive thing.

“How about we return to the scene of the crime for our anniversary?” he asked suddenly.

Orlando glanced up again and smiled and Craig experienced one of those unexpected heart-stopping moments of ‘God, you’re so beautiful, I can never quite believe you’re mine’.

Orlando gave him an odd look. “What’s up?”

A slow smile curved Craig’s lips. “Nothing – just an obsession in progress.”

“God!” Orlando shook his head, and grimaced slightly. “You’re such a perve. Am I still wearing anything or have you stripped me naked already?”

Grinning, Craig rose from the desk and went to him. He folded his arms around Orlando from behind and buried his face against the slender column of his neck, kissing the tender flesh.

“Sometimes just looking at you completely destroys me. I wondered if you’d like to chalk up the year by returning to the scene of the crime – dinner at the restaurant where it all started. Would you like that? Our first fully official public appearance?”

To his surprise, yet another well-intended suggestion was rejected. “Would you mind if we spent it here, just the two of us?”

“Well no, of course not. I just thought you’d prefer to go out and be seen.”

“We can another time. It’s just that if we’re going to be leaving Toujours for a while, I’d rather we had one last special little thing here. Anyway,” Orlando added impishly in an attempt to take the edge off any disappointment Craig might have harbored, “It’s not like we haven’t committed the odd crime here too. Just this morning you’d have been a cinch for indecent exposure.”

“True, and I’d have pointed the finger at you for incitement to commit indecent exposure.”

“Let’s commit another one,” Orlando snickered, pushing away the newspaper and leaning back against Craig, allowing him full access to map out an explorative trail of light kisses against his throat and neck.

Craig lifted a hand and swept Orlando’s hair aside, and he pressed another series of kisses against the smooth temple and jaw-line. Orlando turned to face him and his hands began to move in their own exploratory fashion, plucking at the buttons of Craig’s shirt and pushing it open, touching and stroking, little rubbings and squeezes and a softly murmured, “You can turn me on totally in about ten seconds flat, you’ll have to go all the way now, you know that, don’t you?” punctuated by an almost shy little laugh. He reached down, unfastening yet another button and a zipper, hands diving gently down and enclosing hard, heated flesh and provoking a groan of delight.

Craig whispered, “Come to bed.”

“No, let’s do it here.”

“The door and windows – they’re wide open. Someone might come.”

“No one ever comes here.”

“I can think of two people who do on occasion.”

“Here,” Orlando insisted, laughing coquettishly now. On the counter top was a small flask of the extra virgin olive oil they’d used in last night’s salad dressing. He reached for it and held it up, still grinning wickedly. “Got everything here. Do me, come on, you owe me for this morning.”

He unstoppered the flask and Craig held out his hand, allowed Orlando to drizzle some of the oil into his palm. Flask back on the counter top, Orlando rose from his chair and dispensed with his cargos in a matter of seconds. He turned his back to Craig, and braced himself, gripping the edge of the counter with his hands.

“What are you waiting for, Christmas? God, you’re so – oh yesss, that’s better, that’s it, mmm…”

He leaned forward and lower, resting on his arms now and pushing back against the slickened fingers working their way into him, laughter now fused with moans and increasingly ragged breathing.

“You’re such a noisy little tart, Bloom,” Craig removed his fingers, aligned himself and thrust in deeply, eliciting a yelp of surprise and another eruption of laughter, “They can probably hear you in Sydney.”

“Who the fuck cares as long as I’m the one getting it? Come on, put some attitude into it! Harder! You’re such a girl!”

“Oh shut up, always complaining, never good enough.”

“Always good just – God, that feels lovely – just never enough – of you. I could do this non-stop – I – oh God – “

Craig was pushing into him harder and faster, the fingers of one hand enclosed around his erection, the other hand gently kneading his testicles, three concentrated zones of pleasure and “Tell me when, love,” murmured against his shoulder, a response of, “Right now, now, now…” and his own don’t-give-a-flying-fuck-if-they-can-hear-me-in-Sydney cry of release.

Had either of them glanced to the side at that precise moment, they might have seen the shadow and the quick movement in the open window, a flash of color and a swift retreat. Had their coupling not been so vocal, they’d have heard the muffled footsteps heading up the side of the house toward the front again.

~ * ~

Rebecca cringed as she heard it, that wail of exquisite pleasure.

She should have called first – she would normally have done so but inexplicably hadn’t this time. By the time she reached the car, she was feeling faintly nauseated from the shock. She quietly re-started the car and inched it up the driveway again, drove several miles down the main road and parked on the verge to wait for half an hour or so.

Only then did she allow the scene to re-emerge in her mind, and to wonder at the intensity of her own reaction.

It wasn’t that she’d never seen two men having sex – classy porn, especially of the gay and bi variety, was practically de rigueur at the kind of parties she attended, and some of the more tipsy guests inevitably got a bit carried away by it all.

It wasn’t even the fact that it was Craig – her Craig – who was servicing Orlando over the kitchen bench – they’d been lovers for years, hadn’t they, and the depth of their hunger for one another had always been apparent. She didn’t doubt they had a wildly active sex-life.

There’d been nothing ugly or disgusting about the scene – if anything, she’d found it to be intensely erotic and, had it been anyone other than Craig, she probably wouldn’t have hesitated to linger and watch. Ten or fifteen years ago, she thought ruefully, she might even have been tempted to join in.

Instead, she’d turned away almost guiltily and fled rather than be discovered, and only now, sitting here, still shaken and un-nerved, did she acknowledge the pain of separation, exclusion -- and loss.

She looked down at the package on the seat beside her, the one that had arrived in the office mail a week ago in an anonymous post-pack. She’d opened it to find a second parcel on which had been written in black marker-pen in aggressive capitals, ‘SEE THAT THIS GETS TO ORLANDO – CSOKAS’. She’d put it aside, and deliberately and maliciously ignored it until her conscience had kicked in and she’d finally relented enough to deliver it.

Now it was there on the seat – fucking Marton Csokas a very real presence in the car with her – and it became the focal point of the rage and disappointment. For a few heated seconds, she considered taking it back to Auckland and destroying it. No-one other than herself and Marton even knew of its existence and things were always going missing in the postal system. A lack of response from Orlando would keep the bastard at bay and out of their lives for a while longer.

Marton – quiet and determined, a silent and subtle bulldozer through people’s lives. Sometimes he made her think of that fine line between madness and genius, especially when she watched him watching others with that dark, intense scrutiny and she could almost see his busy mind at work, analyzing, calculating and scheming. People were all simply parts of an equation to Marton, she’d decided. He wasn’t a number cruncher but a people cruncher, and he moved them around and manipulated them until he was satisfied with the answer that suited him best. And then he simply ran them into the ground. Not her own exclusive opinion by a long shot. Plenty of others had drawn the same conclusion. Now he’d set his sights on Craig and Orlando, and she’d be shut out in his favor, frustrated and powerless to do anything but watch from a deliberately engineered exclusion zone. He’d see to it she was kept out, she was sure of it.

She remained there for an hour until she’d reached a state of relative calm. She called Toujours on her mobile phone, keeping her tone light and chatty as she told Craig she was about ten minutes or so away and apologizing for the short notice. She lingered another few minutes before starting the car, turning around and heading slowly back toward the house. Fifteen minutes later, she announced her arrival with a few toots on the car horn – just to be safe.

Craig met her at the side gate with an effusive hug and a kiss on both cheeks.

“You should’ve come and seen us a lot sooner than this,” he chided as they wandered around the back. No one ever used the front entrance. “I was beginning to think you’d gone off on another adventure, especially since you’d mentioned last year an itching to do a summer in Tuscany. Still contemplating it?”

“Mmm, yes, still hoping to get there one day. How are you Orlando? You’re looking marvelous!”

As they entered through the vast glass doors, she’d spotted him at the kitchen counter, pen in hand and hunched over a newspaper. The air in the living room, despite the wide-open doors, was heavy with the tangy smell of olive oil combined with the unmistakable sweet musky odor of sex.

He looked up and smiled, his face still slightly flushed. “So are you. Long time no see.”

“Well, you know what they say about three being a crowd,” she replied averting her eyes and looking anywhere but at him. That scene was still too recent, the vision of his stunning dark features contorting in ecstasy as his orgasm approached.

“Coffee, darling?” Craig called, already heading for the kitchen. “You’re staying for lunch or dinner or whatever comes next, aren’t you? God, what time is it anyway? And how have you been?”

“Coffee, yes, lovely but I can’t stay too long so that’s a no for dinner. I have to get back to town. A parcel arrived at the office for Orlando so I thought I’d have a bit of a break and deliver it. Gorgeous day for a drive.”

Orlando eyed the parcel she was holding. “Something for me? What is it?”

“I suspect it’s a Marton Csokas care-package,” she said, handing it to him. She made no attempt to keep the suggestion of thinly veiled hostility from her voice. “Not wasting any time is he? When’s your anniversary?”

“November the twenty-first,” Craig replied as he set out some mugs. “Next Monday. Thanks for the birthday card, by the way.”

“As if I’d forget. How’d you spend the day?”

“I lit thirty-five candles and shagged him silly while he blew them out,” Orlando said in a dead-pan voice as he began tearing off strips of sticky tape.

Craig snickered, “That’ll serve you right for asking, Beccs. And mind your manners, Bloom. You’re so crude at times.”

“Yeah, yeah...” Orlando muttered. He managed to prise open the post-bag and pulled out a thick pile of papers. From a cursory shuffle through them, he identified a couple of manuscripts, copious sheets of typed notes and a handwritten letter which he opened.

‘Orlando, just something for you to get started with. I’ll be tied up in Melbourne until the end of January…’

He refolded the letter and replaced everything back in the postage pack. He’d have plenty of time to go through it later.

“Marton’s raring to go is he?” Craig asked as he brought out three mugs of coffee. “Let’s have it out on the deck. It’s too nice a day to be indoors.”

“End of January,” Orlando replied as he followed them out, took one of the cups and settled down on the step. “I think he’s still working on something else ‘til then.”

He sipped his coffee and left Craig and Rebecca to their conversation, his own thoughts drifting off on their own little tangent. He’d told Craig everything there was to tell about his time in England with Marton, the discovery of the play and the securing of the copyright.

Now that Marton – having kept his word and allowed them that one uninterrupted year together – had issued his first subtle reminder of their agreement, it was rather exciting thinking about it, the prospect of working with Marton again on this project that was exclusively theirs. The time at Toujours had been wonderful and special but he was starting to feel the first real pangs of restlessness, and wanted to get on with other things, other challenges.

He drained his mug, rose from the step and went inside again. He took a quick glance at Rebecca as he passed her and it occurred to him that she seemed to be slightly uncomfortable with Craig and was having a hard time just making eye-contact with himself.

The moment he was back in the living room again, his nostrils told him why.

“I think she guessed what we’d been doing before she arrived,” he told Craig a little while later as they watched her car heading back up the driveway toward the main road, “I got the feeling she was really embarrassed.”

“It’s hardly likely to come as a shock to her that we actually do it, sweetheart,” Craig grinned, not in the least bothered.

“Yeah, I s’pose not. But if she’d been any earlier, she’d have sprung us going hard at it with the windows and everything wide open.”

“I did warn you.”

“How was I supposed to know she’d show up?” Orlando muttered, “We never have visitors.”

They began walking back toward the house in silence.

He next spoke again as he sat at the kitchen counter, spread the contents of the parcel in front of him and began to sort through them.

“She doesn’t like Marton much, does she?”

Craig was standing in front of the open fridge and doing a quick inventory of the contents with a view to starting dinner. “She despises Marton, actually.”

“Yeah? Why?”

“She disapproves of the way he operates – she thinks he’s arrogant, deceitful and manipulative.”

Orlando gave a low whistle. “How’d she come to that conclusion?”

Craig shrugged and considered his reply.

“By being excluded from his circle probably,” he said eventually, “He’s always been pretty selective about whom he lets in. He’s also never made any secret of the fact that most women simply bore the hell out of him.”

“Are we in his circle?”

Craig began taking things from the fridge and placing them on the counter well away from Orlando’s notes and things. “Yes, we are.”

“Why?”

“Because he wants something from both of us.”

Orlando’s brow furrowed. He knew the situation – that he and Marton were openly involved in a quid pro quo arrangement – but it sounded strange hearing it verbalized so bluntly. “Doesn’t it bother you at all? Don’t you feel like you’re being used?”

“No, because he’s always been up front about it. Marton sees people as means to an end. He’s only interested in people who’ll help him to get things or to get places. But it’s not all one-sided. He always repays in kind. Most of his relationships start out as an exercise in back-scratching but with the added bonus that if you survive the business end of things, you retain a marvelous friend – which he is. I’ve never doubted that.”

Orlando sighed but didn’t reply, remaining instead silent and contemplative.

~ * ~

They’d taken a couple of days to settle back into the apartment, making off-handed jokes about time-zones, jet-lag and the need to acclimatize to a new environment. The light was different – there were no great expanses of glass letting in the sun, and the background noise was the low hum of city traffic rather than the constant, soothing swell of the ocean. They hadn’t expected to find themselves short-tempered and snappish with one another on the first day, awkward and remorseful on the second.

“We’ll go back and spend Christmas and New Year there,” Craig promised, as apologies were exchanged and the air cleared, “We need to get working again. I think we’ve become too lazy. It’s like going back to school after the summer holidays. I remember everyone was a bit snotty for the first week.”

On the third day, Craig went to see Rebecca with the intention of getting her to re-open his career for business. Finding himself alone in the apartment, Orlando settled himself at the dining table with Marton’s letter and a blank notepad.

'Make yourself a shopping list first,' Marton had written, 'and as soon as you can, go and get these things together. First get yourself a copy of the opera "Aida", preferably one with a written synopsis, scene-by-scene guide and some English translations. You’ll need to really familiarize yourself with it so we can work some of it into the play. There has to be more indication where the name "Aida" fits into things.'

Orlando wrote, ‘A copy of the opera “Aida” – Verdi?’ on the notepad.

'Buy yourself a good quality digital camera and bully Craig into learning how to use it. He’ll be taking lots of pictures of you. The good thing about digital cameras is that you can set up the pictures before you take them, you can delete the bad ones, you don’t have to wait for the bloody pictures to develop, you don’t have to scan them to get them onto a PC and you can send them instantly as e-mail attachments. I’ll be expecting to see every one of them. And buy yourself a digital scanner as well for other pictures.'

Orlando added
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<i.‘digital>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

Title: And I Will Always Love You, Act 4: Celeste Aida, Forma Divina Part 1
See this post for complete headers (http://community.livejournal.com/remixwoconsent/759.html)


<lj-cut>It was like the ache of the missing limb – when nerve endings with ingrained memories insist on painfully reminding their host that something is missing, and the pain is a kind of residual grief over the loss.

Craig hadn’t been aware of its existence until it had finally stopped. He no longer woke in the mornings with the first instinctive thought being <i>‘this is just another day I’ll have to get through without him’,</i> accompanied by the dull aching reminder that Orlando wasn’t there and wouldn’t be any time soon. It had taken roughly six months for it to stop, six months before he could climb out of a deep sleep and know that Orlando was there, if not as the soft other flesh against his own, then as the warm body barely a hand-span away across the bed.

Some pessimistic law of averages – he recalled reading an article in a magazine some years ago about the inevitable fading of marital bliss – deemed that after almost a year now of being together constantly, the novelty should have dulled slightly and they should have settled into a comfortable familiarity edged by a very faint hint of boredom.

It hadn’t eventuated so far and showed no sign of doing so. He wondered if he was very lucky or if he’d simply developed a benign obsession. Surely no one else in the history of the world opened their eyes every morning and fell in love – or lust, or a combination of the two – all over again with the person who shared their bed. Did any other couple simply reach out for one another – no invitation needed, no acceptance required, no words necessary, and only the most fleeting foreplay – and come together in lovemaking so perfectly choreographed they might have been learning the steps for decades rather than a couple of interrupted years? And had it ever been heard of that two people might perform that same perfect dance every night as well, when darkness reduces all cues to the mere physical touch, and all movements are purely instinctive?

Craig smiled, relieved that no one else could possibly tune into these odd, disjointed little streams of consciousness he indulged in most mornings as he emerged slowly from sleep and eased himself into a state of wakefulness. The luxurious part was the blissful knowledge that he could reverse the process at any time and just allow sleep to claim him again. Nothing demanding his attention, no place he had to be – he could just lie there and drift and dream for as long as he wanted.

Lately though, he would sometimes find himself wondering when they should call an end to this honeymoon of sorts and attempt to establish a more equitable balance of sloth and work that might pass as a normal life. He thought they’d used the time well so far, getting all the really important things done in the right order, and investing just about the right amount of time and devotion to each issue before moving on to the next.

The first few months had been all about getting to know one another again – odd in a way since they’d already done the pseudo-marriage thing and made the very public declaration of their relationship. Once they were alone, the memories of that heady day had needed to be carefully re-wrapped and temporarily put away, pending an examination of ‘us’. They had talked. They’d talked for those first few months about all the things that had been put on hold either out of fear of reaction to disclosure, or because another separation had been imminent and there simply hadn’t been the time to work their way through to a comfortable resolution. They’d talked about the kind of people they were before the film brought them together – influences, relationships, hopes and ambitions. They’d talked about everything that had gone on during those couple of years of actual filming and roughly the same length of time afterwards. They’d talked about people they’d known and loved, or known and not loved, but who had mattered almost as much, people they’d been with – Mark and Dominic, Maya and Andre – those who’d made an impact, however large or small, that was still felt and therefore would always remain part of the equation they would know as ‘us’.

All that grim introspection might have been depressing had the summer not been every bit as gloriously long and hot as had been forecast. It was hard to feel dispirited when endless days dawned cloudlessly on an azure, shot-silk ocean. And no matter how breathtakingly high the temperature soared, the onshore breeze that picked up at around four o’clock every afternoon was as deliciously refreshing as the first frosted glass of beer.

The unraveling of memories and the disclosure of secrets had been a gradual, non-confrontational process – a slow stroll along the beach in the cool of the evening and <i>‘Did I ever tell you about…?’</i> A few hours lazing by the spring with a six-pack and the weekend papers – unfolded and forgotten – and a gentle conversation begun with, <i>‘I remember I used to watch you and fantasize about making love to you, convinced it would never happen.’</i> Each little revelation forming another concentric circle of knowing and understanding.

Once they’d aired out the past, they had talked about the future and a few of the things they thought might be nice to do together – creative things such as collaborating on a book about the Rings experience, perhaps acting together in a film or play. They’d agreed that they shouldn’t remain reclusive for too long and that they’d enjoy socializing with the theatre and film crowd again on a regular basis. Shopping, eating out, or attending the odd film or play – these were things they wanted to get around to doing again some time soon, no longer worried about being observed but hopeful about being simply left alone.

After they’d talked themselves out, and a vague atmosphere of ‘What now?’ had settled over them, they’d packed up the Jeep with camping gear, strapped Orlando’s surfboard to the roof-rack and set off to explore the country. They didn’t plan a specific itinerary, but simply headed north to the very tip of the North Island and then proceeded to meander their way South again.

Mindful of the fact that experience is a writer’s number one resource, Craig had conscientiously kept an informal travel journal – daily entries recorded in neat longhand in a number of student exercise books. He tentatively titled the collection “Our Trip – Aotearoa 2005” which Orlando promptly sub-titled “1001 Good Places to Have It Off In New Zealand Without Being Sprung”.

Anyone taking a casual flick through the pages might have brushed it off as some light-hearted bit of fun, but some of the entries were profoundly significant. They hadn’t set out with the intention of re-visiting any of the sites used as filming locations but they had anyway, and they’d talked and reminisced, and both contributed something to the dog-eared pages of the little exercise books.

“I’m glad you started doing these,” Orlando said once as he finished adding his own few words to one of Craig’s lengthy entries. “I remember what it was like being in this place the first time. Some time in the future, I want to remember what it was like being here for the last time. Doing this is like officially signing off so it – it feels weird – but in a good way, you know?”

Craig had nodded and given him a brief smile of understanding, and both of them had retreated into a long introspective silence.

The weather had cooled off considerably by the time they crossed Cook Strait to the South Island. They’d made a lightning trip back to Toujours to swap summer clothes for winter, and the surfboard for skis and a snowboard.

Orlando’s longest and most poignant journal entry had been after visiting the site where Edoras had been constructed – on craggy Mount Sunday near Ashburton. They’d stopped and politely sought permission from the owners of the farm of which Mount Sunday was part, had been invited in for tea and a chat that seemed to drag on endlessly until Craig noticed Orlando’s restlessness and suggested moving on.

“I can’t believe it’s all gone,” Orlando had said, shivering from more than just the chill of a late autumn afternoon. They were standing right on the peak and the cold wind swirling around them had come directly over the snow-capped mountains to the west. “Hard to believe it was ever here in the first place. They left absolutely nothing.”

“Stunning view,” Craig had murmured, “I’d love to have worked here.”

“No you wouldn’t. It was wickedly cold – lots worse than this. You’d have bitched about it louder than the rest of us put together.”

Craig had smiled and drawn him close, enveloping him in his arms to provide just a little extra warmth.

“Probably,” he’d agreed. “What are you thinking about now in this place? What are you going to write in the book tonight?”

Orlando’s reply had been muffled. “Don’t know. Not sure.”

Craig had held him and remained silent, realizing Orlando was mentally wrestling with some recollection that clearly didn’t include him.

“I want to leave something here,” Orlando said eventually, “Just a memory – well it wasn’t really a memory but something I’ll always associate with this place in hindsight and – I want to acknowledge it but I don’t want to put it in our book.”

“Go on,” Craig had prompted gently.

Orlando had nodded, and shrugged himself away so that there were a few inches between them. His eyes had rested on some distant point beyond the mountains and his voice had seemed to come from a place even further away.

“It was brilliant here while it was happening – real magical fantasy stuff and I’d made up my mind that this place is what I’d try hardest to remember in future because it was like the absolute high point of everything. This is what it was all about – this is where I felt the most special, where I really felt part of something so incredibly out of this world. But then we went home again and I found out that while I was here feeling all special and magical, Dommie had already given me the arse and taken up with someone else – and I hadn’t known a fucking thing about it. Finding out just sort of – "

Orlando’s sigh had been carried off in the wind but its timbre of overwhelming sadness had hung in the air between them.

“Tainted the memory,” Craig had finished for him, hoping he’d managed to diffuse the bitterness in his voice before he’d spoken.

Orlando had nodded. “Yeah.”

Craig had waited, knowing instinctively that he had no real right to pass comment or to prompt any kind of resolution.

A couple of minutes had passed in silence before Orlando had sighed again and returned to the present.

“So anyway, I’ll leave all that shit here, love, and take away another nice memory instead. It’s all still gorgeous and magical, except this time I got to share it with you, right?”

He’d smiled then, a surprisingly genuine and happy smile, and the bitterness of the moment had faded away.

That night they had both written about the physical beauty of the location but Orlando had added more about the atmosphere of the place, particularly in its temporary transformation into Edoras. <i>‘It was really lovely seeing it again, even with Edoras all gone,’ he’d written, ‘But there are ghosts there now so I don’t think I’ll ever want to go back.’</i>

They’d gone further south from there and then doubled back along the west coast, reaching Queenstown halfway through the Winterfest.

“It’ll be nice to have a chance to enjoy it as a visitor rather than a performer,” Craig had said, only to have to eat his words the moment he checked in with some of the regular attendees who had all regarded him with a collective expression of shock and delight.

Just hours previously, Mark Ferguson had been admitted to the hospital with suspected appendicitis and they’d been formatting an announcement that the Great Comedy Debate scheduled for that evening had been cancelled. Unless – could Craig possibly…?

He’d showered, shaved, been given a once-over by a local hairdresser and then spent two hours going through Mark’s notes.

“Just as well I get off on improvisation,” he’d grumbled to anyone who would listen. At 7:30 that evening, a special guest was announced to the audience and he’d been given a standing ovation as he joined the rest of his team on-stage and presented the moot that ‘Inside every good man is a bad woman’.

“Every one of us travels through life assuming multiple roles that are tailored to fit each individual situation,” he’d said in his opening statement, “In my own case, it goes without saying that I'm essentially a man but I'll also admit to being at various times a good friend, a sensational lover, a heartless bitch, an arrogant bastard, a responsible husband, a devoted little wife, and on the odd occasion even a bit of a tart."

Two hours later he walked off to another ovation, and a well-founded suspicion that the quote would be published verbatim in all the major newspapers the next day.

“I think I’m losing my nerve for this sort of stuff,” he’d muttered to Orlando who had watched it all from behind the scenes. “Bed,” he’d added, “I’m more than ready for it.”

They’d returned to Toujours in late August – just on three months ago – the travel bug having well and truly died.

Now, just days short of their first year entirely together, Craig knew – and he suspected Orlando’s increasing restlessness since their return hinted at the same – that it was time to stop pretending the rest of the world didn’t exist or matter, and to begin the process of reintegration.

~ * ~

He moved and felt the slight dampness of sweat on his body. The nights were becoming mild again and the mornings were definitely losing their chill. Later, he’d air out the feather comforter, pack it away until next winter and replace it with some lighter blankets.

Orlando himself was an accurate seasonal indicator. When it was coldest, he would bury himself deeply under the bedclothes and sleep all night with part or all of his body pressed close to Craig’s for warmth. As the seasons changed and the nights grew warmer, he’d move a little further away and wear a little less covering. At the moment, he lay facedown and close to the far edge of the bed, and the covers reached only as far as his waist.

Craig turned on his side and eased closer, careful not to wake him. That was another of the little luxuries he’d grown to appreciate – being able to simply lie there and watch Orlando sleeping and then gradually waking.

<i>Mine</i>

He’d never been aware of a potential for jealous possessiveness until now. He could never recall having looked at another man and thinking <i>‘mine’</i> and experiencing a mental baring of teeth at the thought of anyone attempting to take that man from him. It was something he’d have to guard against. The clinginess they’d laughed about was one thing, but an emotional shackle – he knew instinctively that Orlando would fight such a restraint. <i>‘You give me freedom and space, you let me be me,’</i> Orlando had once said. Freedom and space. They allowed no room for such notions as a possessive ‘mine’.

He’d already seen for himself how a year of freedom and space and a lack of restraint had been positive for Orlando. Not a single episode of panic or depression, none of the sudden explosions of rage and frustration. For almost a year the nervy, hyperkinetic Orlando had been absent, in his place a calm, peaceful Orlando with an unwavering little smile of happiness playing around his eyes and mouth. For almost a year, he hadn’t needed clubs or loud music, overseas travel or people – there had been no desperate need to prove himself nor engage in that constant quest for validation and approval.

Here at Toujours, he’d been content to curl up on the couch with a good book or spend hours alone wandering the beach or exploring rock pools. Happiness was snoozing out on the deck in the sun or pottering about in the garden humming tunelessly to himself. Challenging himself was to merely attempt a new dish for dinner or to fix something around the house. Occasionally he’d take the Jeep for a drive up to Hamilton and return with an armload of magazines, books, CDs, DVDs and something unexpected to indulge the senses – perhaps a wickedly rich mud cake from a bakery, or from a florist, a bouquet of the deep black-red roses, the scent of which always reminded them of their walk.

The boredom Craig had anticipated just hadn’t eventuated. The fear that he might have had to work constantly at keeping Orlando entertained had been groundless. Even during the months of traveling, there had never been that feeling of being joined at the hip and tied to the company of the other. Somehow they had managed to comfortably adapt to and accommodate their own individual need for space and separation, whilst still retaining the closeness and togetherness of ‘us’.

But it was never intended to last forever.

As Craig’s thought processes meandered lazily, his gaze had come to rest on the curved plane of Orlando’s lower back where he’d often lay his face against smooth, silken flesh, his fingers automatically seeking out the perfectly centered line of pale, slightly puckered skin. He’d learned to love that scar, once he’d managed to divest his imagination of the negative implications of it – of Orlando in pain, of Orlando afraid, of Orlando suffering – and concentrated instead on the positives. In his mind it was evidence of how they’d worked to heal and restore him after that fall, had mended him well enough to walk, to continue with acting school, to be chosen for Lord of the Rings, to come to New Zealand, and to finally become the undoubted centre of his own life.

“What are you thinking about, love?”

Orlando’s voice was barely more than a whisper. He was watching Craig now through heavy-lidded eyes, still suspended in that dreamy state of half-awake and half-asleep, and with the perpetual little smile back in its usual place. His eyelids flickered and the smile widened momentarily as Craig moved against him and deposited a feather-light kiss against his mouth.

“I’m in bed with Orlando Bloom,” Craig murmured, “What do you think I’d be thinking about? Gardening?”

Orlando gave a soft laugh that ended in a yawn. “Hah-hah, isn’t he funny?”

“Going to sleep a bit longer?”

“Nah,” He moved from lying on his stomach to his side and allowed himself to be gathered close to Craig. “This is heaps better.”

Craig touched his lips against his ear and whispered, “What are you, Bloom?”

“Mmm, a cuddle-whore, worst kind.”

“And?”

“Yeah, yeah, and a hug-harlot.”

“And?”

“And an insatiable fuck-tart.”

Craig clicked his tongue in disapproval. “And?”

Orlando snickered, “Oh, a feel-floozy and a kiss-bint. Forgotten anything?”

“That about covers it.” Craig kissed his mouth again, finding lips still soft and yielding from sleep. “I adore you.”

“Only adore?”

“You’re adorable right now. Scrumptious.”

Orlando feigned offence. “But I thought you worshipped me.”

“Only on Wednesday afternoons, between one and three. Wednesdays are definitely for worshipping.”

Orlando prompted with exaggerated coyness, “How do I get you just to love me then?”

“Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Mmm, what am I doing?”

“Shamelessly seducing me.”

Orlando burrowed closer, flushed and content, and almost purring with pleasure, “I love this – snogging and making out. Will it always be this fantastic?”

“I hope so.” Craig touched his hand lightly to Orlando’s face, tilting his head until they were facing one another directly. “We’ll have to go back soon though, love. We can’t stay here fooling around forever, as lovely as it’s been.”

“I know. When?”

“Very soon. We should start looking at how we’re going to go about getting back into some kind of – “

“No,” Orlando cut him off, “Not right now. Not even today. Can we leave it until next week when the year’s up? Please?”

“Okay,” Craig relented, “Your call as always, love, you know that don’t you?”

“My call?” Orlando’s lips curved into a slow smile and he regarded Craig through half-lidded eyes, “Mine?”

“Always.”

“Then do your duty, wife, and gimme breakfast in bed!”

“Sorry, sweetheart,” Craig taunted, grinning, “I’m liberated. Get it yourself!”

“Such attitude! Right, getting it myself.”

All trace of sleepiness was shrugged off instantly as Orlando erupted in a whirlwind of energy, wrestling Craig onto his back, wrenching his legs apart and kneeling between them, sending the clock-radio and a pile of books flying off the nightstand as he scrabbled around for the lube, biting off the cap and squeezing too much out at once, getting most of it on the sheets as he took a scant two seconds to slick himself with one hand and Craig with the other, telling him to “Shut uuup!” as Craig roared with laughter and put up a token struggle as Orlando impaled himself to the hilt in one glorious thrust and a mutual, “Ohhhh…” of pleasure.

“Not so liberated now, are we?” Orlando purred, watching Craig’s face with a certain smug satisfaction as he began to spear him with a series of slow, lazy thrusts, each zenith eliciting a groan of unmistakable rapture. “Lying back there, smirking your head off like some fat, over-fucked tart.”

“Love it when you talk dirty.”

“Know you do.”

Orlando leaned forward and braced himself on hands either side of Craig’s shoulders. He ducked down and kissed him, whispering against his mouth, “Get yourself off – I want to watch, I love watching you do it.”

“Know you do,” Craig countered, already reaching for himself. He began to work his own erection with particular attention to Orlando’s response, watching dark eyes glazing over with hunger and the tip of his tongue swiping intermittently over lust-dry lips, hearing the soft, hoarse murmur of, “God, yes, that’s such an incredible turn-on…”

An exquisitely drawn-out few minutes of perfectly synchronized movements, no need to ask softly ‘When?’ as their eyes locked and knowing grins were exchanged, indicating very soon, very close, a slight arching of an eyebrow and an involuntary flickering of languidly heavy eyelids, the barely perceptible nod and the molten rush of mutual release, breathtaking in its intensity.

They lay together in a comfortable half-tangle of limbs, and drowsed for another half hour, physical activity little more than the occasional sleepy kiss and light caress of fingers.

“It won’t change much will it?” Orlando eventually asked, “After next week.”

“No, not much,” Craig murmured, “We’ll close up here and head back to town for a while. Check out our options.”

“It’s going to be weird living back there again. The longest times we’ve spent together have always been here. This is home. The other place – “

“Hey, cliché alert, love. Home is where the heart is. We’ll still be together, remember?”

“I know, I – but I always associate the other place with leaving.”

“You own the apartment now. You don’t leave until you choose to.”

“Yeah, s’pose so. It’ll just take some getting used to.” Orlando shifted restlessly, was suddenly unable to find a comfortable position and abruptly sat up.

Craig caught his hand and held it tightly, recognizing on Orlando’s face an expression he hadn’t seen in a long time. “What’s the matter?”

Orlando gave a forced smile. “Nothing, love, jitters again. It’s cool though. We’ll have to shag up some brilliant memories here to take back with us.”

“Sure?” Craig watched him intently, “You’d tell me if things started deteriorating again wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, no more bullshit, I promised you that.” Orlando leaned down and gave him a quick, reassuring kiss, and the smile widened to a wicked grin, “Thanks love, for the brilliant breakfast, but you forgot the coffee.”

Despite Orlando’s reassurance and the swift disappearance of that little shadow of doubt, Craig watched him over the next couple of days, remaining vigilant for any return of anxiety. If merely talking about going back to town and attempting to resurrect their careers was going to bother him, perhaps they’d have to reconsider their plans, even linger another few months at Toujours. After all, summer was just about upon them again.

He mentioned it casually and was surprised to have the suggestion instantly rejected.

“No, love,” Orlando said without hesitation, “You said yourself that summer is when everyone does their networking and setting up jobs for next year. If we’re out of circulation then we may as well write off another year and stay down here – and I know you don’t want to do that.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad would it?”

“No, actually it’d be bloody wonderful but just a bit too long I think. Anyway, you might not have anything pending, but Marton and I had sort of an agreement. I’d probably really stuff up his plans if I said I wanted another year so – no, we’ll go back whenever you’re ready.”

Craig shrugged offhandedly. “Will we set a date then?”

“If you like. Whatever you decide is fine by me.”

Orlando was sitting at the kitchen counter doing a crossword puzzle in an old newspaper. As he returned his attention to it, Craig watched him from the computer where he’d been composing an enquiring e-mail to Oliver. Perhaps, he decided, he’d fallen too quickly into that familiar worrisome state over ‘sending Orlando back’ when in fact the situation was never going to be as it had been in the past. Instead of an uncertain future in a hostile environment, waiting for Orlando now was a huge new project about which he was undoubtedly excited – or had been the few times he’d mentioned it – and the opportunity to spend some more quality time with Marton, which could only be a positive thing.

“How about we return to the scene of the crime for our anniversary?” he asked suddenly.

Orlando glanced up again and smiled and Craig experienced one of those unexpected heart-stopping moments of <i>‘God, you’re so beautiful, I can never quite believe you’re mine’.</i>

Orlando gave him an odd look. “What’s up?”

A slow smile curved Craig’s lips. “Nothing – just an obsession in progress.”

“God!” Orlando shook his head, and grimaced slightly. “You’re such a perve. Am I still wearing anything or have you stripped me naked already?”

Grinning, Craig rose from the desk and went to him. He folded his arms around Orlando from behind and buried his face against the slender column of his neck, kissing the tender flesh.

“Sometimes just looking at you completely destroys me. I wondered if you’d like to chalk up the year by returning to the scene of the crime – dinner at the restaurant where it all started. Would you like that? Our first fully official public appearance?”

To his surprise, yet another well-intended suggestion was rejected. “Would you mind if we spent it here, just the two of us?”

“Well no, of course not. I just thought you’d prefer to go out and be seen.”

“We can another time. It’s just that if we’re going to be leaving Toujours for a while, I’d rather we had one last special little thing here. Anyway,” Orlando added impishly in an attempt to take the edge off any disappointment Craig might have harbored, “It’s not like we haven’t committed the odd crime here too. Just this morning you’d have been a cinch for indecent exposure.”

“True, and I’d have pointed the finger at you for incitement to commit indecent exposure.”

“Let’s commit another one,” Orlando snickered, pushing away the newspaper and leaning back against Craig, allowing him full access to map out an explorative trail of light kisses against his throat and neck.

Craig lifted a hand and swept Orlando’s hair aside, and he pressed another series of kisses against the smooth temple and jaw-line. Orlando turned to face him and his hands began to move in their own exploratory fashion, plucking at the buttons of Craig’s shirt and pushing it open, touching and stroking, little rubbings and squeezes and a softly murmured, “You can turn me on totally in about ten seconds flat, you’ll have to go all the way now, you know that, don’t you?” punctuated by an almost shy little laugh. He reached down, unfastening yet another button and a zipper, hands diving gently down and enclosing hard, heated flesh and provoking a groan of delight.

Craig whispered, “Come to bed.”

“No, let’s do it here.”

“The door and windows – they’re wide open. Someone might come.”

“No one ever comes here.”

“I can think of two people who do on occasion.”

“Here,” Orlando insisted, laughing coquettishly now. On the counter top was a small flask of the extra virgin olive oil they’d used in last night’s salad dressing. He reached for it and held it up, still grinning wickedly. “Got everything here. Do me, come on, you owe me for this morning.”

He unstoppered the flask and Craig held out his hand, allowed Orlando to drizzle some of the oil into his palm. Flask back on the counter top, Orlando rose from his chair and dispensed with his cargos in a matter of seconds. He turned his back to Craig, and braced himself, gripping the edge of the counter with his hands.

“What are you waiting for, Christmas? God, you’re so – oh yesss, that’s better, that’s it, mmm…”

He leaned forward and lower, resting on his arms now and pushing back against the slickened fingers working their way into him, laughter now fused with moans and increasingly ragged breathing.

“You’re such a noisy little tart, Bloom,” Craig removed his fingers, aligned himself and thrust in deeply, eliciting a yelp of surprise and another eruption of laughter, “They can probably hear you in Sydney.”

“Who the fuck cares as long as I’m the one getting it? Come on, put some attitude into it! Harder! You’re such a girl!”

“Oh shut up, always complaining, never good enough.”

“Always good just – God, that feels lovely – just never enough – of you. I could do this non-stop – I – oh God – “

Craig was pushing into him harder and faster, the fingers of one hand enclosed around his erection, the other hand gently kneading his testicles, three concentrated zones of pleasure and “Tell me when, love,” murmured against his shoulder, a response of, “Right now, now, now…” and his own don’t-give-a-flying-fuck-if-they-can-hear-me-in-Sydney cry of release.

Had either of them glanced to the side at that precise moment, they might have seen the shadow and the quick movement in the open window, a flash of color and a swift retreat. Had their coupling not been so vocal, they’d have heard the muffled footsteps heading up the side of the house toward the front again.

~ * ~

Rebecca cringed as she heard it, that wail of exquisite pleasure.

She should have called first – she would normally have done so but inexplicably hadn’t this time. By the time she reached the car, she was feeling faintly nauseated from the shock. She quietly re-started the car and inched it up the driveway again, drove several miles down the main road and parked on the verge to wait for half an hour or so.

Only then did she allow the scene to re-emerge in her mind, and to wonder at the intensity of her own reaction.

It wasn’t that she’d never seen two men having sex – classy porn, especially of the gay and bi variety, was practically de rigueur at the kind of parties she attended, and some of the more tipsy guests inevitably got a bit carried away by it all.

It wasn’t even the fact that it was Craig – her Craig – who was servicing Orlando over the kitchen bench – they’d been lovers for years, hadn’t they, and the depth of their hunger for one another had always been apparent. She didn’t doubt they had a wildly active sex-life.

There’d been nothing ugly or disgusting about the scene – if anything, she’d found it to be intensely erotic and, had it been anyone other than Craig, she probably wouldn’t have hesitated to linger and watch. Ten or fifteen years ago, she thought ruefully, she might even have been tempted to join in.

Instead, she’d turned away almost guiltily and fled rather than be discovered, and only now, sitting here, still shaken and un-nerved, did she acknowledge the pain of separation, exclusion -- and loss.

She looked down at the package on the seat beside her, the one that had arrived in the office mail a week ago in an anonymous post-pack. She’d opened it to find a second parcel on which had been written in black marker-pen in aggressive capitals, ‘SEE THAT THIS GETS TO ORLANDO – CSOKAS’. She’d put it aside, and deliberately and maliciously ignored it until her conscience had kicked in and she’d finally relented enough to deliver it.

Now it was there on the seat – fucking Marton Csokas a very real presence in the car with her – and it became the focal point of the rage and disappointment. For a few heated seconds, she considered taking it back to Auckland and destroying it. No-one other than herself and Marton even knew of its existence and things were always going missing in the postal system. A lack of response from Orlando would keep the bastard at bay and out of their lives for a while longer.

Marton – quiet and determined, a silent and subtle bulldozer through people’s lives. Sometimes he made her think of that fine line between madness and genius, especially when she watched him watching others with that dark, intense scrutiny and she could almost see his busy mind at work, analyzing, calculating and scheming. People were all simply parts of an equation to Marton, she’d decided. He wasn’t a number cruncher but a people cruncher, and he moved them around and manipulated them until he was satisfied with the answer that suited him best. And then he simply ran them into the ground. Not her own exclusive opinion by a long shot. Plenty of others had drawn the same conclusion. Now he’d set his sights on Craig and Orlando, and she’d be shut out in his favor, frustrated and powerless to do anything but watch from a deliberately engineered exclusion zone. He’d see to it she was kept out, she was sure of it.

She remained there for an hour until she’d reached a state of relative calm. She called Toujours on her mobile phone, keeping her tone light and chatty as she told Craig she was about ten minutes or so away and apologizing for the short notice. She lingered another few minutes before starting the car, turning around and heading slowly back toward the house. Fifteen minutes later, she announced her arrival with a few toots on the car horn – just to be safe.

Craig met her at the side gate with an effusive hug and a kiss on both cheeks.

“You should’ve come and seen us a lot sooner than this,” he chided as they wandered around the back. No one ever used the front entrance. “I was beginning to think you’d gone off on another adventure, especially since you’d mentioned last year an itching to do a summer in Tuscany. Still contemplating it?”

“Mmm, yes, still hoping to get there one day. How are you Orlando? You’re looking marvelous!”

As they entered through the vast glass doors, she’d spotted him at the kitchen counter, pen in hand and hunched over a newspaper. The air in the living room, despite the wide-open doors, was heavy with the tangy smell of olive oil combined with the unmistakable sweet musky odor of sex.

He looked up and smiled, his face still slightly flushed. “So are you. Long time no see.”

“Well, you know what they say about three being a crowd,” she replied averting her eyes and looking anywhere but at him. That scene was still too recent, the vision of his stunning dark features contorting in ecstasy as his orgasm approached.

“Coffee, darling?” Craig called, already heading for the kitchen. “You’re staying for lunch or dinner or whatever comes next, aren’t you? God, what time is it anyway? And how have you been?”

“Coffee, yes, lovely but I can’t stay too long so that’s a no for dinner. I have to get back to town. A parcel arrived at the office for Orlando so I thought I’d have a bit of a break and deliver it. Gorgeous day for a drive.”

Orlando eyed the parcel she was holding. “Something for me? What is it?”

“I suspect it’s a Marton Csokas care-package,” she said, handing it to him. She made no attempt to keep the suggestion of thinly veiled hostility from her voice. “Not wasting any time is he? When’s your anniversary?”

“November the twenty-first,” Craig replied as he set out some mugs. “Next Monday. Thanks for the birthday card, by the way.”

“As if I’d forget. How’d you spend the day?”

“I lit thirty-five candles and shagged him silly while he blew them out,” Orlando said in a dead-pan voice as he began tearing off strips of sticky tape.

Craig snickered, “That’ll serve you right for asking, Beccs. And mind your manners, Bloom. You’re so crude at times.”

“Yeah, yeah...” Orlando muttered. He managed to prise open the post-bag and pulled out a thick pile of papers. From a cursory shuffle through them, he identified a couple of manuscripts, copious sheets of typed notes and a handwritten letter which he opened.

<i>‘Orlando, just something for you to get started with. I’ll be tied up in Melbourne until the end of January…’</i>

He refolded the letter and replaced everything back in the postage pack. He’d have plenty of time to go through it later.

“Marton’s raring to go is he?” Craig asked as he brought out three mugs of coffee. “Let’s have it out on the deck. It’s too nice a day to be indoors.”

“End of January,” Orlando replied as he followed them out, took one of the cups and settled down on the step. “I think he’s still working on something else ‘til then.”

He sipped his coffee and left Craig and Rebecca to their conversation, his own thoughts drifting off on their own little tangent. He’d told Craig everything there was to tell about his time in England with Marton, the discovery of the play and the securing of the copyright.

Now that Marton – having kept his word and allowed them that one uninterrupted year together – had issued his first subtle reminder of their agreement, it was rather exciting thinking about it, the prospect of working with Marton again on this project that was exclusively theirs. The time at Toujours had been wonderful and special but he was starting to feel the first real pangs of restlessness, and wanted to get on with other things, other challenges.

He drained his mug, rose from the step and went inside again. He took a quick glance at Rebecca as he passed her and it occurred to him that she seemed to be slightly uncomfortable with Craig and was having a hard time just making eye-contact with himself.

The moment he was back in the living room again, his nostrils told him why.

“I think she guessed what we’d been doing before she arrived,” he told Craig a little while later as they watched her car heading back up the driveway toward the main road, “I got the feeling she was really embarrassed.”

“It’s hardly likely to come as a shock to her that we actually do it, sweetheart,” Craig grinned, not in the least bothered.

“Yeah, I s’pose not. But if she’d been any earlier, she’d have sprung us going hard at it with the windows and everything wide open.”

“I did warn you.”

“How was I supposed to know she’d show up?” Orlando muttered, “We never have visitors.”

They began walking back toward the house in silence.

He next spoke again as he sat at the kitchen counter, spread the contents of the parcel in front of him and began to sort through them.

“She doesn’t like Marton much, does she?”

Craig was standing in front of the open fridge and doing a quick inventory of the contents with a view to starting dinner. “She despises Marton, actually.”

“Yeah? Why?”

“She disapproves of the way he operates – she thinks he’s arrogant, deceitful and manipulative.”

Orlando gave a low whistle. “How’d she come to that conclusion?”

Craig shrugged and considered his reply.

“By being excluded from his circle probably,” he said eventually, “He’s always been pretty selective about whom he lets in. He’s also never made any secret of the fact that most women simply bore the hell out of him.”

“Are we in his circle?”

Craig began taking things from the fridge and placing them on the counter well away from Orlando’s notes and things. “Yes, we are.”

“Why?”

“Because he wants something from both of us.”

Orlando’s brow furrowed. He knew the situation – that he and Marton were openly involved in a quid pro quo arrangement – but it sounded strange hearing it verbalized so bluntly. “Doesn’t it bother you at all? Don’t you feel like you’re being used?”

“No, because he’s always been up front about it. Marton sees people as means to an end. He’s only interested in people who’ll help him to get things or to get places. But it’s not all one-sided. He always repays in kind. Most of his relationships start out as an exercise in back-scratching but with the added bonus that if you survive the business end of things, you retain a marvelous friend – which he is. I’ve never doubted that.”

Orlando sighed but didn’t reply, remaining instead silent and contemplative.

~ * ~

They’d taken a couple of days to settle back into the apartment, making off-handed jokes about time-zones, jet-lag and the need to acclimatize to a new environment. The light was different – there were no great expanses of glass letting in the sun, and the background noise was the low hum of city traffic rather than the constant, soothing swell of the ocean. They hadn’t expected to find themselves short-tempered and snappish with one another on the first day, awkward and remorseful on the second.

“We’ll go back and spend Christmas and New Year there,” Craig promised, as apologies were exchanged and the air cleared, “We need to get working again. I think we’ve become too lazy. It’s like going back to school after the summer holidays. I remember everyone was a bit snotty for the first week.”

On the third day, Craig went to see Rebecca with the intention of getting her to re-open his career for business. Finding himself alone in the apartment, Orlando settled himself at the dining table with Marton’s letter and a blank notepad.

<i>'Make yourself a shopping list first,' Marton had written, 'and as soon as you can, go and get these things together. First get yourself a copy of the opera "Aida", preferably one with a written synopsis, scene-by-scene guide and some English translations. You’ll need to really familiarize yourself with it so we can work some of it into the play. There has to be more indication where the name "Aida" fits into things.'</i>

Orlando wrote, <i>‘A copy of the opera “Aida” – Verdi?’</i> on the notepad.

<i>'Buy yourself a good quality digital camera and bully Craig into learning how to use it. He’ll be taking lots of pictures of you. The good thing about digital cameras is that you can set up the pictures before you take them, you can delete the bad ones, you don’t have to wait for the bloody pictures to develop, you don’t have to scan them to get them onto a PC and you can send them instantly as e-mail attachments. I’ll be expecting to see every one of them. And buy yourself a digital scanner as well for other pictures.'</i>

Orlando added <i.‘Digital Camera’ and ‘Scanner’</i> to the list.

<i>'You’re going to need access to multiple mirrors. The ideal set-up would be a dance studio but that won’t be possible. I recall there being a full-length mirror in the main bedroom of the apartment. That’s a good start. See if you can get hold of a large portable mirror, the bigger the better, so you can move it around for optimal light and space requirements. Think costume and movement. Also get a smaller version – like a dressing-table mirror – that you can set up on a desk or table near a window for natural light. You’ll need it for make-up.'</i>

<i>‘Mirrors’,</i> Orlando wrote, <i>‘Full length + Makeup’
'Buy yourself a couple of big cheap scrap-books. Visit some bookshops and newsstands and spend a few hours browsing through magazines and books. You’re looking for ‘looks’ – faces, hairstyles, costumes, makeup – that will add to the final composition of your "Aida". Relevant pictures can be scanned onto the PC and cut (from magazines not books!) and pasted into your scrap-books. The more visual reference material you have at hand, the better. Having it all on PC will also make it easily available for editing and we can send the results back and forth via e-mail. How in God’s name did we ever survive without all this technology?'</i>

Orlando grinned as he added <i>‘Scrapbooks, Magazines, and Books’</i> to the list. Maybe being such a complete technophobe for so long hadn’t been so clever after all.

<i>'The next lot of props are all to do with creating your ‘look’. Luckily we’ve had the same idea all along so we’re not going to be trying to work out what the other is trying to get across. I saw the film "Bus Stop" the other night and I couldn’t help but see "Aida" in Monroe’s "Cherie". Verdi’s "Aida" is an Ethiopian Princess forced into servitude. "Cherie" is a gorgeous woman performing in a seedy working-class nightclub. Our "Aida" – equally exquisite – is a dancer in a sleazy strip-club. She’s also caught in a gender/identity crisis, just to complicate things. But evident in all three ‘women’ is a certain ‘quality’ – let’s call it ‘royalty’ or ‘class’. They’re all a class above their actual situation. They’re all in reduced circumstances but they never surrender that ‘royalty’. It’s strange that the original production of this particular play never quite managed to get that across but we’re going to highlight it.'

'In regard to working costumes, I don’t want to see any satin, sequins or glitter on our "Aida". I want you to buy some five-yard lengths of good quality velvet in different colors. Nothing too garish. Black and deep jewel colors – dark emerald green, dark sapphire, dark ruby or garnet, something in very dark brown. While you’re in the store buying it, look at how they drape lengths of fabric around the display mannequins and pin it to simulate an actual gown. That’s what I want you to do with the velvet – and take pictures of the results. You’d better stock up on safety pins while you’re buying the velvet.'</i>

Orlando noted the fabric and the requisite lengths and colors and added <i>‘Safety Pins – lots.’

'There’s a little bit of irony here, Orlando – "Bus Stop" was dubbed the film that showed Marilyn really could act. Have we a parallel here? There’s this recurring theme of unfulfilled potential which I think most people can identify with to an extent. Even yourself. There’s a lot of personal experience you can draw on for this role. Make sure you always have a notebook at hand and write down anything that comes to mind that seems significant – anything that might add to the big picture. We’re not going to make this an exercise in heavy ‘Method’ technique. Whatever works best for you is the way it’s going to be, agreed? I promised you complete control wherever possible but to a large extent, I’m still going to have to ‘direct’ you. I think we’re both reasonably open-minded and flexible, so if we keep the lines of communication open and humming constantly, we shouldn’t have any problems.'

'The next major acquisition is a decent sized collection of make-up and application tools. You know how to do makeup so there aren’t any set instructions here. Don’t worry about getting too ‘theatrical’. Study some of those magazines and books, play with the makeup, photograph the results, upload and e-mail them to me. Anything you can do with normal make-up we can adapt for stage. Again, think classy rather than sleazy. We know she’s a drag queen but there are other issues at work here that I want you to explore and then incorporate into her overall character – both internal and external. It’s going to take quite a while to create our "Aida". That’s why I’ve given you a two-month head start.'

'I’ve just remembered shoes. You’ll need to get used to wearing heels. For God’s sake don’t race out and buy a pair of stilettos. I guarantee you’ll have sprained or broken something within five minutes. Go to a good quality shoe store and be strictly honest with them – tell them that you’ll eventually be doing a role that requires you to wear high heels but that you’re working up to them gradually. Get something made of leather for flexibility, good quality, medium heel, and with as wide a base as possible. You’re not after glamour here. It’s just to help you gradually get used to a shifted centre of gravity. Practice walking in them as much as possible but don’t wear them for more than about half an hour at a time, two or three times a day. When you can wake up in the morning without aching legs or back, you can take it up to an hour at a time.'

'Last of all, get a diary/organizer thing and record everything you’ve bought – the date, the shop, the price, the item, the reason for buying it – and attach the receipts. Everything I’ve requested you go out and get is a legitimate expense and therefore a potential tax deduction. If you spend an afternoon experimenting in front of a mirror, record the date and times in a separate section of your organizer. You might eventually be paid for it.

'Hopefully you’ll have a shopping list written by now and be ready to get started. You have all my contact numbers and addresses so stay in touch. Craig should be able to help you with the PC technicals – up/down loading, saving, editing, etc. All that remains is to wish you luck and to remind you to enjoy yourself. We’ll talk soon…'</i>

Orlando tore the sheet of paper from the notepad, folded it and shoved it in the back pocket of his jeans. He gathered together his mobile phone, wallet, and keys, locked up the apartment and took the lift down to the parking lot. Craig had taken the Mercedes and left the Jeep for him, knowing how much Orlando disliked the convertible, finding it too powerful and skittish, and unnervingly light under steering.

<i>“Might get rid of it,” Craig had said just the other day as they’d parked the Jeep next to the sleek, white sports car, “Trade it in on something a bit more practical and a lot less wanky. I bought it purely for its show-off value – I don’t need it now I have you,” he’d added with a grin and a quick swiped kiss.</i>

Orlando was still smiling to himself as he turned left out of the parking lot and headed down K Road, turned left again down Queen Street and merged into the heavy city traffic.

Little things like that, verbal oases of affectionate nonsense – amazing how they managed to filter through the rest of the stuff that was suddenly cramming his head now they’d returned to town. It had been so hard leaving Toujours and coming back to this – the noise, the sense of being crowded in by people and infrastructure. On top of that was the heady feeling of excitement and expectation about finally getting on with the Aida project – he smiled again. The Aida Project. It sounded like the name of a movie about some top-secret mission to build a nuclear bomb.

Funny but that’s how big it felt, really big, something that was going to consume his life for the next couple of years and could end up changing things even more than Rings had because it was all going to centre around himself. So much work ahead – starting with a simple shopping trip.

Good thing he liked shopping.

~ * ~

At the precise moment he’d finished feeding a parking meter in lower Albert Street, Craig made his first attempt to reactivate his own career.

Rebecca stared across the desk at him in disbelief. “You what?”

“I’m back in town and I’m open for offers.” Craig said, wondering what had been lost in the translation. “So if you could just let the usual culprits know my diary’s empty…?”

Her brow furrowed slightly. “Darling, I know you said you were coming back but you weren’t seriously thinking you could simply pick up where you left off – as though everything’s as it always was.”

“Why not? It’s been a year. Surely they’ve all gotten over it by now.”

“Well no they haven’t.”

He gave a snort of irritation. “Oh come onnn! What’s to get over anyway? What great crime did I commit that’s gotten me this prolonged sentence in Siberia?”

“Well let’s see,” she responded with exaggerated patience, “In case you hadn’t heard, Mercy Peak’s just been axed because the ratings nose-dived after your final appearance. If you recall, the same thing happened after you left Shorters, except that they were lucky enough to have a number of other stars on the rise and able to take up the slack – though it was touch and go for a while there. Not this time. The blame for the show’s demise has been directly linked to you. What else? Ah yes, the Auckland Theatre Company posted a financial loss last year and this summer season is already looking a little flat – usually an indication that the rest of the year isn’t going to be particularly brilliant either. This is the second year in a row you haven’t performed. They have other top-line stars but for some reason your non-appearance is always mentioned in conversations concerning lousy box-office receipts.”

“Oh for crying out loud!” Craig protested, “I’ll accept the Shorters glitch but Mercy Peak was already starting to get flabby. Its days were already numbered. And as for the Company, no one in their right mind could ever say I was so important I was actually propping it up. I’m a featured artist – a supporting actor – nothing more. I’m not wearing any of that shit. It’s been nothing but bad timing. So – what else do they want to hang on me?”

“You thumbed your nose at them and did the walk,” Rebecca continued, “After all those years of being a good boy and keeping everything terribly discreet, you went off the rails in the noisiest way possible and paraded through town with the divine Orlando Bloom in tow. That generated quite a bit of shock and – what with the amount of success you’ve both had from the trilogy – a hell of a lot of jealousy. Quite a few people think you have it all now so why should you be entitled to any more?”

“I’m entitled to bloody work!”

“But you don’t need to, darling. You can afford to retire perm – ”

“Of course I need to,” he cut in sharply, “Otherwise I’m going to go stark bloody raving mad! I’m only thirty-five – am I supposed to sit around twiddling my thumbs for the next forty-odd years?”

“Hadn’t you always planned to retire to Toujours to write? What’s stopping you?”

“Orlando has work lined up here in town. He’s kept it on hold for a year and I’ve no intention of asking him to stall any longer. I’m not going back there without him, Beccs. We didn’t survive all this shit just so we’d end up a two-hour drive away from one another.”

“But there’s nothing stopping you from writing here, is there? You need to keep yourself busy and for God’s sake don’t give out desperation vibes or they’ll make it even harder for you to get back in favor.” She paused before adding cautiously, “And be prepared to have to wait it out for at least another year or two.”

He groaned. “Oh Christ, that long?”

“Why are you suddenly having an attack of naiveté? You said you’d thought all this out and were prepared for the consequences. You knew it wasn’t going to be easy – being forgiven.”

“But I’ve always worked!” He hoped the frustration and a tiny measure of panic wasn’t apparent in his voice. “I’ve never in my entire career not had anything lined up ready to start.”

“Then there’s a first time for everything and I’m sorry, darling, but it’s the way it is. There’s nothing either of us can do about it. It’s entirely up to them,” She waved a hand in the general direction of the window. “You’re going to have to meekly wait for them to invite you back.”

He sighed and glared through the window overlooking the city at the unseen and hugely resented ‘them’.

“It’s a really horrible feeling, Beccs,” he said after a long silence, “Having nothing there. I’m going to be in limbo for the next couple of years – no, not limbo, purgatory. It feels like a kind of purgatory, a mandatory period of suffering because I dared to choose my own happiness over polite fucking convention.”

“You knew it was going to be like this,” she reminded him gently.

“Yeah, I suppose so,” he conceded miserably, “I just hoped it wouldn’t. Any more advice then, other than to just go home and hibernate?”

“Yes,” she replied, her tone cautious again, “And you probably won’t like it but at least hear me out before you start flailing your fists around again. You don’t have to hide Orlando any more – a bit pointless really, since the entire world knows. But it’d be best if you didn’t flaunt it in any way. You might like to give discretion another try – you know – don’t go out of your way to rub their noses in it? Once they’re feeling reassured that you’ve settled down and returned to the nice, predictable Craig Parker they feel safe with, they might be inclined to give you another chance sooner rather than later.”

“Hypocritical pricks,” he muttered.

“Absolutely,” she agreed, “But you’ve always known that and they’re not going to change just because you want them to.”

He shook his head but remained silent.

“This isn’t the end of the world, sweetie. It’s a temporary setback and it’s probably the one thing in your entire life you didn’t fully plan for.”

He shook his head again.

“Right,” she said abruptly, “Since you’re entering the realms of long-term unemployment, I’m going to waive my consultancy fee and you’re going to take me to lunch instead.” She punched a code into her desk-phone to redirect her calls, seized her purse and rose from her chair. “We’ll spend the next couple of hours working out how you’re going to get through this truly awful situation of having a couple of years off in which you can do absolutely anything you want.”
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