Gillian sits in her living room early Christmas morning, nursing a cup of warmed apple cider. The lights of her tree illuminate the red and gold baubles hung on the branches and she breathes in the scent of pine. She loves Christmas, the lights and the spirit and the love she can feel all around her, even when she’s not the recipient. She puts down her mug and smoothes her fingers over the silver snowflake wrapped gift that sits beside her on the couch.
She decides to open this one first because it’s from secret Santa at the Lightman Group, where very few people really know anything real about her. She expects it to be impersonal and detached and to leave her without the warm feeling that the season allows to swell in her chest.
She pulls at the blue satin ribbon, surprised it’s not just cheap and scratchy fabric stretched over aluminum wire. She sticks her finger under the flap on the side of the box, where the paper was folded over and taped, and pulls. She peels back wrapping paper to expose a plain cardboard garment box. Is it a colourful scarf? A pair of mittens?
She bites back a gasp as she lifts the lid, finding all her preconceptions to be false. It’s not a scarf, not mittens, not impersonal and detached. It’s a cardigan, royal blue and lined with pearly buttons. She runs her fingers over the fabric and places a guess of the material at some kind of wool, probably merino. It’s not the lush cashmere of the sweater Ria Torres had tipped cola over, but it’s still nice and definitely over budget (probably a lot nearer to half of Torres’ biweekly paycheque than the twenty dollar limit Emily had tried to enforce).
Gillian can’t help but smile at the kind gesture of replacing the ruined garment. They both knew cashmere wasn’t meant to be spot cleaned and the texture had gone off, though the drink didn’t leave a stain. Gillian had mustered a smile over her upset and told Torres it was okay, but Ria sees everything. Gillian should know that by now. Feeling warm and more than a little touched, Gillian switches the box out for her drink, taking down a swallow. Her Christmas is already turning out better than expected, even though it’s the first she is spending alone.
Merely two days after Christmas, Gillian walks into the Lightman Group, cardboard coffee cup in one hand and laptop bag in the other. She stops in at the reception desk to check for any mail, but finds none, so she continues on her way to her office. The halls are deserted and the Group has that Sunday morning feel, making Gillian feel she should be at home relaxing instead. Only, home is lonely over the Christmas holiday and she has no family members nearby to spend time with if she chooses not to come into work. It’d be better to get a start on the paperwork, right? At least that could serve as a distraction.
Gillian toes open the door to her office, resting her things on her desk. She peels off her coat and scarf, hanging them on the hook just to the side of her desk. She settles in for a long morning, sitting in her desk chair and pulling out a stack of her finished paperwork that still requires signatures. She takes a quick look over the completed budget statements already bearing her signature and sets them aside to take to Cal’s office when she’s finished with her coffee so he can read and sign them, too. She boots up her laptop, sipping at her creamed coffee as the warmth exuding from the cup takes the chill from her hands.
When the coffee is finished along with a few pages of their latest case report, Gillian rises from her seat. She stretches out tired limbs, then sets out on her way to Cal’s office with the documents stacked neatly. She sets all of the papers on the edge of Cal’s desk, stooping to lift one of his pens from the holder. On a sticky note, she writes out a note for him to sign as soon as possible, so they can go off to the bank.
On her way back to her office, she turns to cut through the break room, her heart near to stopping when she realises she’s not alone. She drops the hand that instinctively clutches at her chest as she meets the curious eyes of Ria Torres, who is sitting at the round table holding in her hands a sandwich dripping with mustard.
“I didn’t know anyone else was here,” Gillian explains, fighting the embarrassed flush that creeps up her neck.
“Lightman gave me a key,” Ria replies, gesturing single-handedly.
“That’s an interesting Christmas gift,” Gillian jokes. She doesn’t ask what Ria is doing here, she knows. And she knows that the key is more than just an offer to let Ria into the building at her whim. It means more (it hurts more).
“Yeah,” Ria agrees with a smirk. “More work is exactly what I’d wanted.”
“Right,” Gillian’s reply is quick and lacking in her usual wit and she’s so obviously distracted. Ria watches carefully and is about to speak, about to tell Foster not to worry about her, as it seems like it’s concern etched between her brows, when Gillian speaks up.
“Thank you, Ria, for your gift. It’s gorgeous,” she says, hardly able to hear her own words over the thudding of her heartbeat in her ears.
“You like it? I thought maybe... Well, it’s not cashmere,” Ria shrugs, suddenly a bit self-conscious.
“Wool, though. Merino?”
Ria nods, turning away.
“It’s great, Ria, really. Thank you again.”
Ria nods again in response, watching the genuineness of Gillian’s gratitude. Gillian offers a bright smile, wide enough to show the pink of her gums. Gillian has to forcibly stop her hand from reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear as the butterflies that had settled in her stomach rouse at Ria’s insistent gaze.
“Well, I’ll be in my office if you need me,” she says, tucking the folder she’d been holding under her arm.
“Aright,” Ria replies. “If I need you.”
Gillian startles at the knock on her office door, having forgotten that she wasn’t alone in the building. She lifts her gaze to find Ria leaned up against the doorframe, matching hat and scarf already on and her dark winter coat draped over her arm.
“I’m heading out now. Just thought I’d come in and say goodbye,” Ria says, poking her head further into the room.
“Oh,” Gillian says, taking a glance at her watch.
The winter sun had already set, but with the sun setting around four in the afternoon, Gillian hadn’t thought it was much past five. But, her wristwatch read seven thirty and Gillian realised she had had lunch ages ago and was particularly starving.
“Goodnight,” Gillian offers as she drops her glance to her computer screen and clicks a few keys to shut it down for the night.
Ria walks further into the room, her brow furrowing as she studies Gillian so intently, it’s like she is in her head. She sits heavily in the chair across from Gillian’s desk, her lip tugging up at one corner.
“You’re afraid.” Ria points out the set of Gillian’s mouth.
“I’m not,” she insists, her lips turning into a small pout to cover the mouth shrug she knows her muscles will make against her will.
Ria just watches, arms crossed over her chest. She makes a breathy noise of acknowledgement and uncrosses her legs to straighten to standing.
“Well, you shouldn’t be,” Ria says with an amused smile, much nearer a smirk.
She turns and begins to go out the way she’d come, but stops in the doorway and looks back at Gillian. Ria’s face cycles through emotions quickly, Gillian picking out a transition from gratitude to happiness to shame. She can’t imagine what the woman was happy about or even grateful for, yet she hopes. She hopes it’s for her. Only it twists something inside her to realize that the reason for this hope is that, despite the friend Ria is to her, she still wishes for more.
“Goodnight, Foster,” Ria says, a smile curling up on her mouth despite the lingering shame and edges of sadness. What is that?
“Drive safe,” Gillian replies.
It takes her everything not to smile back. Or worse yet, get up and follow the younger woman out of the building. Gillian lets loose a sigh when Ria gets out of earshot, realising at once just how much trouble she’s in.
Gillian Foster sinks further into her couch, the night slowly coming over her and darkening the room. The blue light of her television casts a soft circle on her carpet, but she can't focus on the movie playing in front of her. She can only think of Ria. It’s like being told not to think about penguins. No matter how hard she tries to cast away the thoughts, she still sees freaking Happy Feet. But instead of penguins, it’s Ria's voice telling her over and over not to be afraid. It's the sound of the half-smirk that had graced Ria's mouth. It's Ria's easy grace as she unfolds her legs and stands, smug in her knowledge that she'd gleaned something from Gillian. It’s Ria’s complex emotions.But Gillian is better than Ria had assumed. Gillian had seen that Ria was afraid too.
It should be a good thing, that they're both afraid. It should suggest that they care, that there's something to lose and thus everything to gain. Ria had wanted to touch her, just after she had tipped soda over Gillian's sweater. She had hovered, her hands close enough that Gillian could almost feel the soft apology of palms pressed against shoulders, arms. Gillian knew that Ria wanted to take her by the elbow and make her walk through the door. But, she didn't. She kept her hands to herself and blubbered her apology with words instead. Only, maybe the regret in them wasn't entirely for her action. Maybe it was also for her inaction. Ria could want her, too. Gillian’s throat feels tight.
Gillian stands up, throwing the blanket she had been cuddled under over the arm of the couch. She doesn't want to linger any longer in her thoughts. Instead, she pulls the converter from between couch cushions and clicks off the TV. The hall light is pale and weak as Gillian moves towards the staircase. She enters her bedroom and finds pyjamas mindlessly. She changes her clothes quickly and brushes her teeth before peeling back her duvet and climbing into bed. And then she has it, the perfect idea for how to feel out this thing with Ria without getting either of them hurt. Everyone loves a party, right?
The next afternoon, Gillian sits in her kitchen and fiddles with her phone. No one expects her in the office until after the new year, so she fills her time with books and movies and this endless anxiety. She wants to call, she does. So before she loses clarity, Gillian connects the call, her grip on her cellphone iron. She listens to her own breathing as it rings.
“Torres,” Ria says.
“Hey, Ria. It's Gillian,” she replies. “Do you happen to have new years plans?”
Gillian closes her eyes at the beat of awkward silence.
“Actually, no. I was just gonna get a pizza and watch the ball drop on TV.”
Gillian smiles. “How would you feel about a new year's party? My friend is hosting, said I could invite whoever.”
“Who else are you inviting?” A smirk in Ria's voice.
“Just you,” Gillian says, hoping Ria catches the significance. “But don't feel obligated at all. I'll know plenty of people there. Just let me know if you want to come and I'll send you the address.”
Ria breathes over the line, the pattern calming Gillian.
“Yeah, I'll let you know. Thanks for the invite.”
Gillian wonders how Ria got so good at concealing the emotions in her voice. She doesn't pick up anything conclusive.
“Yeah,” she says. “Hope to see you there.”
The women exchange goodbyes and hang up.
Gillian sighs as she puts the phone down, hoping her gesture is enough. She thinks it just may be. It only makes sense. Why else would Ria feel the need to flatten her voice, hide from her?
A text comes through. ‘I cleared my schedule.’
Gillian smoothes her hands over her hips, watching the fabric settle against her body. The dress she'd chosen for tonight was a muted gold that cradled her curves and shimmered slightly as she moved. She'd paired it with black heels and straightened her hair silky. Blinking at herself in the mirror, she feels festive enough for tonight's celebration. Gillian grabs her long trench coat, her phone, and the few bottles of champagne she would contribute. She dials the number of a local taxi company and waits for its arrival outside.
As she waits, she imagines the rest of the night. She’d be there first, before Ria, but she wouldn’t see the other woman come in. At least, not right away. Then, they would catch eyes across the room, smile as they approach a centre point they unconsciously agree upon. And they’d dance, slow despite the pace of the music, whispering to each other as they sway in perfect sync. Yes, it’d be perfect.
Gillian gets up when she sees the cab turn the corner and pull up to a park just in front of her. With no more time for fantasy, everything was about to begin. The drive is quick, leading her to her friend’s house in just a few minutes. Gillian pays the driver and finds her way into the building. The door is open and she goes inside, spotting her friend right away. Quin was in red, her blonde hair a beacon. Gillian picked her way over with a smile, coming up behind the woman and placing her hands on her shoulders.
“You’re here,” Quin exclaims as she turns around, drawing Gillian into a tight hug.
“Hey Quin,” Gillian sats. “I brought some bubbly.”
Gillian holds up the bottles and Quin grins, grasping her wrist and leading her into the kitchen. The kitchen island is full of bottles of all shapes and sizes. Soda and liquor. And a stack of plastic cups glints in the light. There are even plastic flutes, presumably for the toasting. Gillian deposits the bottles and turns to Quin.
“Okay, so I did end up inviting someone,” Gillian says. “A friend from work.”
Quin raises an eyebrow. “Okay.”
“Oh stop it,” Gillian says, swatting at her. “Just a friend.”
She can't contain her grin, though. Quin just laughs, dragging her out into the beginnings of a good party. Gillian and Quin take a quick tour around the room, saying their hellos and holiday greetings. Gillian focuses on staying present, not thinking about Ria. But she doesn’t have to.
“Wow,” Quin says, looking somewhere behind Gillian. “Is that your friend?”
Gillian turns around. It is Ria, in a black wrap dress cut above the knee and a necklace glittering in the notch of her throat. Gillian’s heartbeat quickens as Ria scans the crowd and their eyes finally meet across the room. They both walk forward, drawn to some invisible point between them. When they get near enough, Gillian smiles.
“You came,” she says. She hadn’t realised her expectations were that Ria would not show up.
Ria grins. “Yeah, I did.”
And somehow Gillian knows that from here, no more worrying is necessary.