I’ve never been particularly fond of parties. Wearing restricting clothes made from flimsy fabrics, talking about nothing to endless throngs of people, finger foods … I would have been much more comfortable spending the night in, the Fool and Bee reading on the floor while Nighteyes and I wrestle. The Fool would rebuke me for making noise and crashing into them, but then Bee would rub Nighteyes’ belly and we all would abandon our earlier diversions for popping popcorn and watching a movie.
I smiled—now that was a way to pass a Friday night.
But, instead of hunkering down on the couch in a t-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms, I stood in front of the Fool’s door showered, shaved and dressed in the clothes he picked out for me, ready to escort him to an gala to honor his work. I knocked to alert him to my presence, and waited for him to open the door. The Fool and I might share a bed most nights, but that didn’t mean I would invade his privacy. He was a man who needed space to himself, and I saw no reason not to respect that.
I heard a woman’s cry of One moment, Fitz and then the door opened. I still took a step back in shock—instead of my Fool, Amber had opened the door.
She had chosen a much more masculine, or at least more androgynous look, than her usual fare. I think this was to make me more comfortable, but even in tailored menswear, no one would doubt Amber’s femininity. Her trousers were cut to make her legs look long and straight, while her blazer nipped in at her waist to emphasize the flare of her hips. She wore a simple white button down under the black suit, though too many buttons were open to be decent on anyone but an artist or an actress making a statement. She wore no jewelry, save the earring I’d given her, which left the long column of her neck and smooth golden skin of her chest bared to me. It was intoxicating seeing so much of her on display and I didn’t know if I wanted to hide it from anyone else’s eyes, or remove her back to her room to see the rest of her.
Her hair fell over one shoulder from where it was pulled back into a ponytail high on the crown of her head. It was too straight to be anything but the product of many styling implements and hair products, and I reached out to run my fingers through the silky ends. I hardly recognized the person I’d shared my home, my bed and my family with in the delicately made up face before me. That was, until she smirked and sent me a wink that was all Fool.
“Fool,” I said breathlessly, “You look…”. He reached up a hand to grasp my jaw, his smile slipping away at my expression.
“Is it too much?” he asked and I didn’t know how to reply.
The first time that I saw Amber, it was an accident. I was waiting for Bee at the dentist, and the TV in the waiting room was tuned to one of the morning shows where people squawk at each other about nothing for hours. I recognized the work the hosts were discussing—the unmistakable wooden bust that looked like me—before I recognized their guest. She looked like my Fool, but also like someone entirely different. She wore one of those dresses that fell all the way to the floor and her hair was in delicate waves. She spoke in a measured cadence, so unlike the Fool’s singsong voice. She also held herself like a woman, perched on the edge of her seat, legs delicately crossed at the ankle, nodding along to whatever the host was talking about.
I knew the woman had to be Amber, the Fool’s artist persona, and my chest ached.
I’d been furious—furious that I had been lied to for who knew how long. But I’d also been confused. The Fool lived as a man in every other part of his life, why did he pretend to be a woman in his professional one? And then I felt betrayed. I thought I knew the Fool entirely, but he had kept something from me—something that felt monumental.
I hadn’t wanted to see him when he got home from that trip. I barely spoke to him and turned him away from my rooms. l could see that my behavior pained both him and Bee, but I didn’t know how else to react.
Finally, I went to him and demanded he tell me about Amber. We fought—it was probably the worst fight we’d ever had—but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from yelling at him and he refused to stand there, taking my abuse silently. I said things I still regret, things that weren’t true but stung like barbs. He, in his turn, attacked with nothing but the absolute truth.
At the end of the fight, I felt wretched. I had mistrusted the man I loved most in the world, and I had let that mistrust fester like an untreated wound inside me.
“I can’t always be your Fool, Fitz,” he explained. We both sat on the floor of my bedroom, backs to the wall, dried tear tracks on both our faces. “I can’t do what needs to be done and also be the person you know. Not all the time.”
“How do I know that when I’m with you, it’s the real you?” I asked plaintively.
He reached for my knee, but changed his mind before we touched. He put his hand on his own knee and heaved a great sigh. “I don’t need to be anyone else when I’m with you. You’ve always seen me—seen me through the taunts and names given to me by other children, through the artifices I wore to protect myself, through the changes of years.
“Amber is part of me, but she is not all of me. When I first took up being Amber, it suited my purposes for her to be a woman, just as it suited my purposes for Mr. Golden to be male.”
He gave me a significant look, but I didn’t know what to make of it. I shook my head—why must he always speak in riddles? “That doesn’t make any sense to me Fool.”
“I suppose it doesn’t have to,” he said, “if you believe me when I say I do not lie to you and I do not keep things from you to hurt you.”
I nodded in understanding and our conversation went off in another direction. I still don’t completely grasp his meaning, but I could accept his choices.
“Fitz?” the Fool asked and I realized I’d let my memories carry me away, “Is is too much?”
I shook my head. “It’s not too much,” I said, and added after a moment of thought, “It would have bothered me at one time, but—” I shook my head, “No matter what, you are you and you are still my Fool.”
His eyes twinkled merrily. “It is hard for me to be anything but a fool when I’m around you, Fitz.”
I groaned at his double meaning and his laughter washed over me. He kissed my stubbled cheek softly, and brought up a hand to wipe off the lip gloss left there.
My heart caught in my throat—the move was so feminine and so familiar. Memories of my late wife popped into my mind unbidden and I tried to shoo them away lest they taint a happy evening out with loss and grief.
Something of my conflicted emotions must have shown on my face. “Fitz, are you alright?” the Fool asked, peering into my eyes, “You seem so far away tonight.” I shook off the last vestiges of a memory—one where Molly and I had prepared for one fancy evening or another, something Dutiful had invited us to—and smiled ruefully.
“I’m fine. I’m here,” I said, though my voice croaked more than I wished it to, “Why don’t you check up on Bee? She loves it when you do her hair…” I trailed off as Bee emerged from behind the Fool. Her hair was still too short to do much with it, but it was so fine that the Fool had been able to braid it into a crown. She beamed up at me and my heart constricted in my chest.
Though Bee was ten—and closing in on eleven—she always looked so much younger. But now, in her burgundy dress and nice shoes, she looked much closer to her age, and nothing was a more painful reminder of aging that one’s children growing up.
She stepped out in front of the Fool and did a twirl, showing off the way her skirt rippled in a wide arc about her. I scooped her up into my arms and kissed her cheek, but she gagged and rolled her eyes and asked to be put down.
“Da, please,” Bee said, “I’m too big for that now.”
I could barely hold back my smile and she glowered at me. I sobered up and put up my hands placatingly. “Okay, okay,” I said, “You’re right.”
The three of us made our way together down the stairs in our very best clothing—mine and Bee’s, of course, chosen by the Fool. In addition to Bee’s little burgundy dress, the skirt satin over crinoline, Bee wore black mary janes and delicate wooden earrings. She also carried a small, silver sequined bag that, from the odd bulges I could see, held at least one book, and probably drawing supplies as well.
The Fool had picked out an outfit for me that he said would show off my ‘rugged good looks.’ I wore steel blue pants and a matching vest over a white shirt with a light blue pinstripe. He had picked out no tie for me, so I left the collar open and hoped it was to his liking. I self consciously touched my hair as we passed the mirror in the foyer, smoothing back the strands that refused to stay in my usual ponytail. The Fool had cut my hair to shoulder-length the week before and the curly locks now were barely long enough to pull back. Despite the Fool’s assurances that it looked good (and my hair was a much more fashionable length), I still didn’t know how I felt about it.
After more worrying about my appearance than I would ever care to admit to, the clack of Amber’s shoes on the stone foyer floor beckoned me to follow. Bee and I both scratched Nighteyes behind the ears on our way out the door, though I lingered with my wolf. If only he could come to this ridiculous party …
Nighteyes gave me a look that said both “galas are no places for wolves” and “hurry along before they leave you behind,” so I left him reluctantly in the foyer.
We stepped outside to a waiting limousine. The organizers of the gala had spared no expense for their guest of honor and her entourage of two. As I locked the front door, the driver bowed and rushed to Amber’s side to escort her down the steps, all while shooting me a nasty look for ignoring her. She took his arm gracefully, but her confident strides proved she needed no assistance getting anywhere in those shoes. She had once described them to me as platform stilettos, but I could only think of them as fashionable and painful-looking stilts. He helped her into the back of the limo, and provided a hand for Bee as well, exuding courteousness to a young girl who only had a vague understanding of social hierarchies. When I got in the car, he just sniffed distastefully at me and nearly slammed the door on my foot. Not long after I was settled, and shared a few grumbled words with Amber, we were off on our little journey.
Bee watched the sun go down through the tinted windows of the limousine while we wended our way through the hilly terrain around the vineyard. It was a long trip into town and to the modern art museum that now housed a whole collection of Amber’s work.
We lived near enough to a part of the country that had fine museums and a thriving artist community, but most of Amber’s work was housed out of state. This was the first time a museum in our general vicinity had selected Amber’s art to exhibit, and therefore, the first time Bee and I had been invited to join her at one of these functions.
Amber placed a manicured hand on my knee, stilling the anxious movement I hadn’t realized I was making.
“Don’t worry, Fitz,” the Fool said through Amber’s mouth, “This is hardly the first party you’ve attended with me.”
I shook my head. “On those occasions,” I pointed out, “I had a part to play, and, if you recall, I wasn’t very good at it.”
The Fool laughed at me. “We all play our parts, but yes Fitz, you have always been terrible at playing the parts others decided for you.” I scowled at his words and he ran a thumb over my bottom lip as I blushed. “Just be yourself—dutiful partner and devoted father—and leave the rest to me.”
I tried to leave the rest to him, but it was hard to defer to him when he had been spirited away by curators and museum personnel the instant we walked in, while my daughter and I were cornered by wealthy patrons of the arts.
"Oh that bracelet!" one woman exclaimed after Amber left us with an apologetic glance over her shoulder and a mouthed promise to return. "Is that one of Amber's?" she asked.
I gritted my teeth. It took all of my self control not to bark at the woman this was a gift from my Fool and not a trinket I had bought from the artist. If the woman was put off by my behavior she didn't show it. She actually seemed completely oblivious to my body language; my whole body was strung as tight as a drum as she grabbed my wrist and fingered the beads before moving on to inspect Bee’s earrings.
I felt Bee slip her hand into mine, and let her calm wash over me. The wolf in me lowered his hackles, and I nodded politely at the woman as she walked away.
Others came and went, and I felt like my daughter and I were part of the exhibit, human models for Amber’s work. Once a group of art students left us, with their shaved heads and piercings in places I’d never think to pierce, I took off my bracelet and Bee handed me her earrings before I’d even asked her.
“It was a good idea to wear them, Da,” Bee said, “but they just don’t understand the significance of the jewelry to us and to our family.”
I think I gaped a little at my child; she had cut straight to the heart of the issue before I had even realized what it was. She closed my fingers over her earrings and I wrapped them in a handkerchief before storing them in one of my pants pockets.
Putting away our jewelry didn’t stop the parade of fabulous wealthy people looking to one-up each other from finding us and introducing themselves. The only time we had been with Amber was entering the room, but her quick squeeze of my hand and Bee’s before she was taken away was all anyone needed to see to know that we knew Amber.
I watched at least half a dozen pairs of eyes glaze over in boredom when they inquired about my career. Overseeing operations of a vineyard was mildly interesting to most of them, since talk about wine was fashionable, but no one wanted to hear about my writing or translating. I watched one man’s eyes glaze over as I explained that I wrote most things long-hand, and which inks and papers were best for long term storage.
After I discussed the pros and cons of hunting on my back acreage with my wolf, another man tried to change the subject by asking Bee about what she liked to do.
“And what about you, little girl? What do you do in your free time?” he asked. He was older that me, and on the portly side, but made up for any physical deficiencies with an ostentatious show of wealth in the form of a diamond encrusted watch and several large gold rings.
“I look after my hives,” she said bluntly, unimpressed by both the man’s jewelry and his question.
“Hives?” He asked, taken aback, “Like bee hives?”
She nodded curtly and his mouth turned in a look of absolute horror. He quickly made his excuses to find someone else to talk to, and promptly left us in the corner where he found us.
I grabbed a champagne flute when a server came by, as well as some finger food to share with Bee. We both had a mouthful of whatever it was I grabbed—some meat and vegetables on a cracker—when Amber stepped out into the crowd across the room.
She sidled up to a group of donors who all raised a glass to her when she joined them. She said something too soft for me to hear that had the whole group of them laughing uproariously. She put a hand on one man’s arm—a much younger and more attractive man than I thought came to these sorts of things—and he flashed her a dazzling smile.
He started telling her some story, and she cocked her head in interest, nodding along and laughing at appropriate times. Encouraged, he moved closer to her, whispering conspiratorially in her ear. My childhood gift dangled from that ear and something in me snapped.
“Da,” Bee said carefully, resting a hand on my forearm, “you’re growling.”
I started to protest, but then I heard it—I was growling. I stopped as soon as I realized what I was doing, but when I took in a few shocked faces around us, I knew Bee wasn’t the only one who had heard me.
I quickly looked back to where Amber was to see her staring at me with the Fool’s glint in her eye. The man was still talking to her, but she was only half paying attention to him, her gaze fixed on mine. After a long moment of staring, she called to me and Bee, beckoning us over.
“... and have you met my partner and his daughter?” she asked the man she had been talking to. He scowled, but quickly tried to hide it, schooling his features into a look of mild interest.
“Your partner?” he asked. “No, we haven’t met. Last time I saw you, you were single.”
Bee and I joined the group and the man sized me up. I was shorter than him—though in her heels, I was also shorter than Amber—and likely close to twice his age, and I don’t doubt he saw little threat in me.
“Yes,” Amber said as I came up to put a hand on her lower back. She leaned into my touch, and I felt most of the tension I’d been carrying leave me.
“We've only been together a few months,” she explained, the Fool’s voice creeping into hers, and then turned to look at me dreamily, “but my heart has belonged to Fitz since my teenage years—maybe even before.”
I blushed at her proclamation. I tried not to think too hard at her words, since she was likely just saying that to make the man uncomfortable, and probably me too.
“Wow you've known each other for quite some time then,” he said politely, but I could see he wanted out of this conversation.
I tightened my arm around her waist and he noticed it. I chimed in to the conversation. “We’ve been friends since we were children. I couldn't have been any more than—” I turned to look at her, giving her an appraising look while I drew out the word, “5 or 6 when we met."
She beamed up at me—all Fool—though if it was because I was playing along or because of what I said, I didn’t know. He scoffed before taking his leave of us.
After that conversation, Amber didn’t leave my side, and usually had a hand on my back or an arm twined with mine. Or an occasional touch to my behind that most would see as accidental, but I knew was entirely intentional.
I tried not to blush, but I might as well have been trying to will it not to rain.
Soon Amber had to leave again so people I’ve never seen before could drag her to one side of the room and talk about awards and accolades I didn’t know she had. It was hard to concentrate on the formal part of the evening, though, since Bee was doing her best to pretend like she wasn’t falling asleep.
She gripped my pant leg tight in her small fist and laid her head on my hip near my waist, stifling a yawn.
“Bee,” I said quietly to get her attention, “do you want to go home?”
She shook her head sharply, a determined look in her eyes. “I’m not tired,” she said, “And we’re here for Amber.”
She blinked her eyes a few times and her head lolled forward as she dozed off. I scooped her up into my arms—for once she didn’t protest—and she laid her head on my shoulder.
Amber caught my eyes in the crowd and her face softened from cool professionalism to a warm smile. She kept her remarks brief, thanking the museum and the organizing staff and all the donors, and then she was free again.
“Should we go?” Amber asked quietly in my ear from behind me. She’d surprised me, and if it weren’t for Bee in my arms, I would have jumped.
I shuffled Bee so that I supported her with just my right arm and looked down at my watch. It was past Bee’s bedtime, but the gala was scheduled to last another hour. “You stay. We can take a cab home,” I whispered, worried that our conversation would wake Bee.
She shook her head and the long tail of her hair swished side to side. “Let’s go home and get Bee to bed. I just need to tell them I’m going.”
She left and came back in moments and placed her hand on the small of my back. We got not six feet from the door when we were stopped by a familiar face.
“Amber!” a man—the one who had no interest in my talk about inks—called and I winced. Bee stirred, but didn’t wake. He strode up to us determinedly and asked Amber for a private word, but she didn’t budge.
He cleared his throat and looked at me pointedly, but her expression remained politely interested, but still cool and distant.
“Anyway,” he said, “I am … somewhat aware of your living and working situation from what your partner tells me. You know, our offer still stands—we would just love to have you as our artist in residence.”
She gave him a small smile but shook her head. “It’s a generous offer, but I think I must again decline.”
“But, surely you don’t have the kind of supplies we can offer you,” he countered, “And we give you the kind of support that you need to flourish as an artist.”
Something dangerous flashed in her eyes, but he continued anyway, lowering his voice thinking that I wouldn’t be able to hear him, “Are you really getting what you need—artistically, that is—with … this rough trade?”
She smiled at him, but it wasn’t Amber’s smile. It was the Fool’s and I’d seen it plenty of times—right before he brandished his wit like a saber.
“Oh, to be sure, Fitz is a little rough around the edges,” she said, the Fool’s cadence in her voice as she spoke loud enough that anyone within ten feet or so could hear her, “When he’s in his garden, he is not shy about handling his hose, and I’ve never seen another man better at plowing a field.”
I could feel my face turn scarlet, but I wasn’t the only one. The man had been the one to first insinuate that she kept me just for sex, but he hadn’t been expecting that response.
She towered over him in her heels, so she had to lean down to look him in the eyes. She spoke more quietly this time, “I think you should worry about your own family before you try to take me from mine.”
The color that had just rushed to his face disappeared and his eyes darted from side to side. I had no idea what Amber had on him, but from his expression, and his hasty retreat, it must’ve been pretty salacious.
“Oops,” she said turning to me and placing her hand on my back, “that was a little out of character.” We walked out the door and to the waiting limo without any further interruptions.
“Was that really necessary?” I asked through gritted teeth as the chauffeur opened the door for us.
“Yes,” she said as she stepped into the car, “You’re so beautiful when you blush.”
She smiled a fool’s smile at me and I blushed again.
A knock on the door of my den nearly made me overturn the bottle of ink at my elbow. It was well past midnight—a time when Bee and the Fool were usually fast asleep, and the best time to get any work done that required all of my concentration.
Nighteyes was also asleep, curled around my feet half-under my desk, but he opened one eye at the sound of the knock. The Fool let himself in and Nighteyes huffed before closing his eyes and going back to sleep.
The Fool wore just a pair of boxer briefs and one of my flannel shirts, but it hung loosely on his slender frame. His hair was down, but still as straight as it had been in Amber’s ponytail. Aside from the artificially straight hair, and the dark purple nail polish still on his fingers, all traces of Amber had vanished in the night. Somehow, even his jawline looked more masculine.
“Going to bed?” I asked, taking in his makeshift pajamas, “It’s late for you.”
The Fool chuckled, his laugh airy and light. “I just woke up, Beloved. It’s after five.”
I squinted at the clock on the mantle and saw that it was almost half past. My den didn’t have any windows, but now that I was aware of the time, I could see the first light of dawn creeping in through the crack in the door. I ran a finger through my hair, wild and disheveled from a night’s work, and looked over at my large pile of paper containing another chunk of my childhood I felt necessary to record for posterity.
“I guess I lost track of time,” I said with a shrug, and the Fool laughed again. He drew me up out of my desk chair and into a quick kiss. I pushed aside a section of his hair, letting my fingers trail lightly across his neck, and he shivered.
He shook his head with a small smile and pushed me away. “I have work to do, and I suspect you need to sleep.”
“I’m not ti—” A yawn interrupted me and the Fool’s eyes twinkled, brimming with an unsaid I told you so. He pushed me out of my den and I let him lead me down the hall toward my bedroom. We got to Bee’s door and I stopped.
“What about Bee?” I asked. Someone needed to make sure she got up and had breakfast and got to the tutor on time—
“I will make sure Bee is dressed and fed in time for her lessons,” he said, cutting off my unspoken worries, “Now, take a few hours and sleep.”
He pushed me into my room and leaned against the doorframe as I shucked off my jeans and socks.
“Thank you,” the Fool said, “For coming to the party with me. It meant a lot that you and Bee were there.”
I felt the tips of my ears heating up. “It’s nothing, Fool. You know—”
He shook his head. “There was a time when I thought I had to be alone. I thought it was selfish of me to want you in my life—” he sniffled and looked down at his stocking feet. I went to him and put a hand on his face, wiping away an errant tear that slipped down his cheek.
“Oh, Beloved,” I said with a sigh, “You’re such a fool sometimes.”
He laughed and wrapped me up in a tight hug.
“Stay with me until the sun comes up?” I asked and he nodded eagerly. I led him to my bed and we faced the large French doors on one side. I curled myself around his back and nestled my nose against the nape of his neck. He didn’t smell like anything, which wasn’t surprising, but he was solid and warm and real under my hands.
He drew abstract patterns on my arms with soft, delicate touches until I fell asleep, the sun still just barely peeking above the horizon.