Unconventional

by shukyou  (主教)

 

“Christ on toast,” Racquel swore at her phone screen.

One of the interns on her last project had shown her how to set up Google alerts about three months ago, and from that point since, she’d gotten a little push notification about Leigh March every other week or so. Most carried information that was equal parts incidental and inconsequential, such as Leigh’s name dropped in an article about the anniversary of a show or movie she’d been in some number of years ago. Even so, every time one popped up, it made her smile. People out there were talking about Leigh. That was good; that was what she had seemed to always want, a comfortable, low-intrusion level of fame.

This one, though, made her heart lodge somewhere between her stomach and her tongue. She reached into her purse for her reading glasses, but the little rainbow flag emoji had told her the bulk of the story already. Racquel held her breath for a moment, hoping madly that it was something else — a new project, maybe, or an unrelated item, or maybe not even about Leigh at all.

Then her eyes focused on the headline: At Speculative Smorgasboard panel, Leigh March reveals she’s had romantic relationships with both men and women.

“Christ on toast,” Racquel swore again, fussing with her phone’s finicky fingerprint recognition as she tried to open the news app. Once she got there, though, she realized that this was breaking news with all the depth of a blind item, giving her little more detail than the push notification had. Racquel looked over at the clock: 7:37 PM, which meant 11:37 earlier that same day where the convention was being held. That was a prime scheduling block for a panel about Hulu’s upcoming Sword-Bonded adaptation, which probably meant those words had most likely emerged from Leigh’s mouth no more than ten minutes previous. Racquel considered, emotionally, the best way to deal with this.

She was still considering it five minutes later when her phone rang. She gave serious thought to letting it ring through to voicemail, but grabbed it just in time. It was her agent, Marlon, who surprisingly had nothing to say to her about conventions, high fantasy, television adaptations, or Leigh at all. He was more concerned about double-checking the details with her before he put the proverbial ink to paper committing her to her new project. Racquel wondered what he made of her uncharacteristic enthusiasm, urging him to seal the deal without telling him her worries that if he waited too long, there would be no deal, only regretfully withdrawn offers.

And really, why should it be that surprising that Marlon didn’t have any comment on Leigh’s sudden outing? He was so old-fashioned, Racquel thought he might faint if she ever suggested he start reading her for parts with ray guns or magic wands. No, Racquel hadn’t done anything in decades that hadn’t required at least one corset fitting, and that was just the way Marlon – and, according to him, her fans – liked it. He’d once grudgingly encouraged her to go for the romantic lead in a limited BBC series set during the Blitz, and even then, he’d warned about what the anachronism might do to her brand.

He didn’t call it that, of course. That kind of talk was all Leigh. Almost everything Racquel knew about how Americans talked came from Leigh’s mouth, including the idea of the actor’s image as something so marketable and consumable. Racquel hated thinking of herself like a logo or a line of cars, but Leigh only ever laughed when she mentioned it.

Halfway through the conversation, Racquel realized she wasn’t listening, so she took a deep breath and forced herself to concentrate on the sentences coming out of Marlon’s mouth. It didn’t help that they weren’t even sentences she was being expected to weigh in upon; they were informational sentences, fair warning about decisions he’d made on her behalf. She gleaned from it the important bits: the studio offices on Thursday, Wales the following week, and on location there for the foreseeable future. And yes, corsets would be involved.

When she tapped at her screen to end the call, she saw she had a text: Call you later.

“Bloody right you’d better,” Racquel murmured, though her heart wasn’t in the anger. It wasn’t in much of anything, except the loneliness it’d been rattling around in for weeks, and the fear that had gripped it since around California lunchtime. She sighed as she got to her feet and shuffled off toward the kitchen. Maybe she’d feel better if she ate something. Maybe she’d feel better if she crawled into a hole and pulled the sod back over herself. At this point, either was worth a shot.

~*~

Racquel considered it a great indignity how much she looked like her mother, considering the two hadn’t spoken in almost two decades now. She stared into the mirror and raked her fingers back through her dark hair, seeing the scattered silver roots hiding down beneath. Well, she wouldn’t have to worry about that for a little while, and then she’d let the hair and makeup people dye it all back to a uniform raven black.

If it were up to her, she’d just let it go. She actually liked the way the strands of grey looked. If she’d been a man, people would have said they made her look distinguished. But she was a woman, and she was still earning her paychecks mostly as the love interests in Regency dramas, and love stories were not for old women. At a youthful forty-seven, she was already into the second phase of her career, the one where she played the ‘second chance’ heroines, the widows and jilted brides who found in middle age the happiness denied to them in their youth.

No small part of her was looking forward to stage three, where she could fall into the roles of mother and dowager and occasional mad maiden aunt. Then no one would care if she went silver, and journalists would stop throwing around phrases lke “strange, beaky beauty,” which had featured prominently in the review of her first television series. Racquel had not felt self-conscious about her nose for a moment in her life before that, and now she didn’t know if a moment had passed since where she hadn’t been self-conscious about it. It was frustrating, the way the words of strangers could break someone like that.

She ran a finger down it from bridge to tip, sighing. Ugh, she was getting maudlin. That was what she deserved for having half a bottle of wine for dinner. She grabbed the skin under her eyes with her fingertips and pulled it down until she could see the red under the white, then squished her cheeks and lips forward until she looked like a strange fish. She went back and forth between the two until the transition cracked her up. There, at least she could still laugh at something.

When the Skype chime sounded from her iPad, she went back over to the bed and clicked the button to accept the call. “Hey,” she said to the screen, trying not to sound like she’d been drinking heavily and doing Gumby impressions with her face.

“Hey!” came the voice from the other side of the screen, and no matter the funk Racquel had let herself fall into, that smile drew her right back out of it. “Hello, London,” said Leigh.

“Hello, Sacramento,” Racquel said. She peered as best as she could over Leigh’s shoulder; there were people bustling around in the background, at a distance but still presumably within earshot. “You busy?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.” Leigh laughed, making the screen wobble. She was using her phone to make the call, but hated making actual telephone calls, a weirdness that Racquel was willing to chalk up to the fifteen-year age difference between them. “So, um, hey, don’t know if you heard anything from the panel earlier but–”

“I did,” Racquel said, then cringed at how snippy she’d sounded. “I mean, I saw a bit of something.”

Leigh’s smile remained in place, but Racquel could see her teeth clench behind her lips. “Shit,” she said quietly. “I was kind of hoping I’d get to you first.”

“It’s okay,” Racquel said. “You’re of course free to say what you … I mean, I certainly know what those events can be like.” She did her best to keep her chin up, not wanting to worry Leigh at such a distance.

Leigh scratched at her scalp, sending her short hair spiking in all directions. “It was just that, you know, the question came up, and with the whole blowup yesterday … I felt like I couldn’t not say something.”

For as little attention as Racquel paid to the world of fantasy-novel adaptations, she certainly hadn’t wholly missed the previous day’s to-do, where a big-name panel at the same event had started off talking about recent events in the series, then devolved into some uncomfortably homophobic comments about a few of the lead female characters and their associated actors. Racquel hadn’t done any further investigation into what, precisely, had been said, but it seemed that Leigh had. And, in true Leigh fashion, she hadn’t been able to let it go.

“Anyway,” Leigh continued after a moment, “I’ve already told at least three other reporters to fuck off and mind their own business, that I’m happy telling them I’m bi but they’re not getting any of the details. And anyway, they’ve got a Pratchett tribute set up tonight, and I know somebody’s going to shove their foot in their mouth, and this’ll be a blip on Twitter by this time tomorrow.”

Racquel nodded, then said, “Okay,” just in case their video connection wasn’t great on Leigh’s end. “I trust you.”

“I know you trust me. And you know that trust is important to me. So I’m not going to do anything that would fuck it up.” Leigh’s expression softened a little, and she dropped her voice. “Miss you,” she said, though Racquel saw her lips form the words more than she heard them.

“You too.” Racquel sighed. “Go on, I know you’ve got to be somewhere right now, don’t you?”

“Don’t care.” Leigh shrugged.

“And there’s plenty around who don’t care you don’t care, I’m sure.” Racquel rolled her eyes, but she was smiling now, more than she had even at the mirror. “It’s bedtime here anyway.”

Leigh nodded, then looked around a second before bringing the phone closer to her face. “I’m sorry, sunshine. I really didn’t mean to–”

“It’s okay.” Racquel put up a tough exterior sometimes, but inside she was a complete cream puff, and the pet name jabbed right to her soft, fluffy center. “It really is. And I’m proud of you. For sticking up for yourself and being out there. You’re the sort of role model I wish I’d had when I was young.”

“Oh, stop it.” Leigh stuck out her tongue, but Racquel could see a genuine smile around it. “I’m no hero. I put my bra on one arm at a time, just like everyone else.”

“You know, not everyone wears a–”

“Like. Everyone. Else.” With the hand not holding the phone, Leigh mimed slipping a bra on over each arm, then getting her breasts snug inside the cups. It was a ridiculous pantomime, made doubly so by the way she was only using one of her arms to do it, but the point was clear, and it made Racquel outright laugh. “Bras For All, that’s my new platform. March/WonderBra 2018, a vote for the titties of America.”

Stop,” Racquel pleaded. “I can’t even vote for you. Not a citizen, remember?”

“You’re going to let a little thing like international voter fraud stop you from supporting me? Some … friend you are,” Leigh said, and they both silently agreed not to notice the pause or the word girl missing from it. So much of their lives happened in gaps like those, little omissions invisible to anyone who didn’t know there were lines to read between. Like Racquel’s grey hairs, disguised until they became invisible, until they might as well not have been there at all.

~*~

The whole thing had started as a short-term roommate situation, a connection made by a mutual friend. Racquel had been looking for a place to stay while she shot her part in a movie in upstate New York; Leigh had a family house up there with plenty of extra space. The two ran in close enough circles that they’d met casually before on several occasions, but they hadn’t really gotten to know one another before Racquel showed up on Leigh’s doorstep with two months’ worth of her life’s needs in four heavy suitcases.

It took a single hour of living with her for Racquel to develop an enormous crush on Leigh March. In front of cameras and even in small groups, Leigh came off as somewhat reserved, even downright quiet. Sharing a house with her made it clear, however, that she wasn’t reserved so much as intense, and she’d learned to keep that intensity under wraps in public. She preferred not to be disturbed when she had her attention set on something, whether it was filling in the crossword puzzle or doing sit-ups on the back deck or watching old episodes of Unsolved Mysteries.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous. Standing nearly six feet tall in bare feet, with a frosted pixie cut and fierce blue eyes, Leigh commanded the full attention of whatever room she was in. At least, Racquel assumed everyone else in the room was paying attention to Leigh; she found herself paying so much attention to Leigh that she didn’t bother double-checking on everyone else.

And for nearly the entirety of those two months, nothing happened. Racquel threw herself into long hours and early calls, trying to turn her attention to something, anything that wasn’t how she was living with a younger woman who made her heart do funny teenage things. Thus, she managed to ignore her immense crush for almost the full duration of her stay, until the day the storm rolled in.

“In a way, it’s kind of nice,” said Leigh as they sat together that late afternoon, watching the rain-soaked landscape out of the house’s back bay of windows. They were poised at opposite ends of a soft, deep couch, sipping wine as they talked. The shooting schedule had kept their interactions brief to that point, but the foul weather had stopped production for the day, sending Racquel back to Leigh’s place to dry off and rest up.

“What do you mean?” asked Racquel. She stared into her wine glass so she didn’t stare at how Leigh’s feet were so close to her, she could move her leg and make contact.

“Being ugly,” Leigh said with a laugh.

Racquel wasn’t even drinking and nearly spit out an entire mouthful of the wine. “What?” she managed. “You’re not — I mean — I’m not just saying this, you’re not!”

That just made Leigh laugh again. “It’s okay,” she said. “Not ugly, as good as ugly. As Hollywood ugly as they let us girls get.”

Racquel wanted to contradict Leigh, and not just for politeness’ sake, but she knew that Leigh wasn’t wrong. There was a kind of acceptable pretty for actresses, and everything outside of that might as well have been hideous. Tall and handsome, Leigh didn’t come anywhere near the leading lady ideal, and certainly wasn’t cast like it. But before Racquel could think of anything else to add to the discussion, Leigh said, “You get it too, yeah?”

That did make Racquel choke on her wine, just a little. She couldn’t have heard that right. “Pardon?”

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry, I–” Leigh pointed to her own near-empty glass, then laughed. “I get a little to drink in me, and my polite bullshit filter disappears. It’s just, I’ve seen what gets written about you. Those fuckers can’t let a paragraph pass without calling you ‘unconventional’ or ‘unique’, can they?”

Racquel’s cheeks were turning the color of the merlot in her glass. “Um,” she said, because it was true.

“Because it’s such shit,” Leigh continued. She put her glass down on the coffee table in front of them and scooted closer. “I mean, look at you. It’s like they’re apologizing for being attracted to you. Why would anyone do that?” Leigh reached out a long finger and ran it down the length of Racquel’s nose, bridge to tip. “Why would they make you feel bad about having a face you could never mistake for anybody else’s?”

Her heart was pounding so loud, Racquel was sure Leigh could hear it too. She took a deep breath and opened her mouth to say something — something wise and self-deprecating, probably, or more lies about how she didn’t care what other people thought, or maybe even a proud declaration of self-love and body positivity.

Instead, she burst into tears.

“Oh, shit,” Leigh said again, those blue eyes going wide. She took the glass from Racquel’s hand and curled up next to her on the couch, putting her arms around Racquel’s shoulders. Racquel rested her head on Leigh’s shoulder, bawling her eyes out for reasons she couldn’t understand. She felt stupid and embarrassed, but instead of making her pull herself together, that just made her cry harder. Here she was, in the house of a beautiful woman who had been polite enough to rent out her spare bedroom, getting complimented and responding with tears. What a mess she was.

Leigh didn’t seem bothered, though. Of course, her embrace radiated concern, but not discomfort. She pressed a kiss into the top of Racquel’s head as she stroked her long hair, and Racquel felt like the younger one here. Leigh’s arms were strong and she smelled like pine, and Racquel couldn’t recall ever having felt as safe as she did right then.

As her bout of crying finally seemed to be drying up, Racquel moaned, “Tissue?” Leigh plucked two from the box on the coffee table and handed them to Racquel, who blew her nose gratefully. “Thanks.”

“Sorry,” Leigh said again. She backed off a little, giving Racquel a bit of space, but she kept her arm around Racquel’s shoulders. “Land mine, huh?”

“Land mine?” asked Racquel.

“Yeah. You’re walking along, minding your own business, having a conversation about something you think is fine, and then all of a sudden, something blows up in your face.” Leigh mimed an explosion with her free hand. “I … I hope it’s not just about your nose, though.”

Racquel shook her head — then realized that after having become a blubbering mess on Leigh’s couch, she might as well forget worries about embarrassment. “It’s not just my nose,” she sighed. “Not just anything. No one thing. A billion little ones. …I think I’m set to quit acting.”

“What?” Leigh’s spine shot straight. “Why?”

“It’s what you said. The unconventional beauty. The constant reminders that I wasn’t even in my prime when I was in my prime, and now I’m past it.” Racquel exhaled. “I simply don’t … don’t know if I can take it anymore.”

Leigh reached for Racquel’s hand, the one not holding the tissue, and took it in her own. “Look, I’m the last person who should get to tell anyone to do anything,” she said, fixing her gaze on Racquel. She was bursting with energy at all times, but she made no useless movements. Everything was deliberate, intense, including the way she twined their fingers together. “But you’re amazing on screen. You just … you’ve got so much presence. I remember seeing you in Agnes Grey and thinking, damn, here’s this woman in a scene with five Royal Shakespeare Company people, and I can’t take my eyes off her.”

Racquel gave a snotty snort-laugh, then buried her face in her tissues. “Sorry, I–” Agnes Grey had been her first major production, and her role as Rosalie had secured her the attention of several future producers. But it had also been a low-budget BBC series, where she swore most of the money had gone to the wardrobe budget for her petticoats. “You … really?”

“What did I say? All wine, no bullshit.” Leigh squeezed her hand, then stood, tugging Racquel to her feet. “You know what? I’ve got a huge tub in my bathroom. I think you need bubble therapy.”

“Bubble therapy?” asked Racquel as she wobbled upright, feeling not unlike a newborn foal. There was a large mirror against the wall, and she tried her best not to look at it; she knew from years of television how to pretty-cry, and this most assuredly had not been that.

Leigh nodded and led Racquel forth, into the bedroom Racquel hadn’t seen before, then beyond to a large bathroom. In one corner there was a jacuzzi tub, not long but deep. Leigh turned on both the faucets and let it start filling up, then handed Racquel a lavender sphere. “Here you go. Let it fill up, toss this in, and then get in right behind it. I’ll be back in five with more wine, okay?”

Racquel nodded and watched as Leigh left, shutting the door behind her. Acting made the idea of privacy strange; Racquel had never so much as shown a nipple on camera, yet with fittings and costume changes and shared trailers, she’d long ago abandoned modesty about nudity in front of others. Still, she found she was grateful for the discretion, as she stripped down. Unsurprisingly, Leigh’s bathroom counter didn’t contain much in the way of accoutrements for long hair, but she found a card of bobby pins and did the best she could. With her locks tucked up above her neck, she sank down into the water and plopped the sphere into the water as directed.

It began hissing and foaming, and Racquel might have levitated right out of the tub had Leigh not chosen that moment to come back, laughing to see Racquel’s expression. “Is it meant to do that?” asked Racquel, as serpentine coils of color spread out across the water’s surface.

“You’re using it as directed.” Leigh sat on the side of the tub and handed Racquel a glass of sparkling wine, keeping the other for herself. She held her glass down and clinked their rims together. “Bubbles within, bubbles without.”

Ah, now Racquel understood bubble therapy, and she supposed she could see the appeal. “You do this often?” she asked.

Leigh nodded. “When I can. It’s a good way to bliss out. Not have to worry about anything else for a while. Meditate, even, if you want to do that sort of thing. If you want, I’ll leave you alone for a bit, come back to make sure you didn’t turn into a prune.”

On the one hand, some solitude sounded nice, and perhaps a nap with it. On the other … well, alone was looking less and less appealing. Alone was what Racquel had been almost constantly since her last semi-serious relationship nearly eight years previous. She put her glass to her lips and tipped it back, taking down the full flute of champagne in a few large gulps, then looked at Leigh. “Can I ask a question?”

“Sure,” Leigh said.

Racquel peered sharply at her. “Were you flirting with me earlier?”

Leigh chuckled even as she raked fingers sheepishly through her hair. “I’m that bad at it, huh?”

“Oh, no, that … that was some rather good flirting,” Racquel said, sinking down into the foam a bit more. There were little pieces of glitter in there too, giving the surface of the water a pleasant shimmer. What fairy kingdom had that thing come from anyway? “I think it’s more I’m rather bad at being flirted at.”

“Well, okay, I have to admit that when somebody bursts into tears, I kind of get the feeling I should be backing off,” Leigh said, still smiling. “Which is fine, trust me. Not everything’s for everybody.”

“So, ah.” Racquel lifted her toes from the water; they sparkled. “Why’d you … with me?”

“Because you’re hot,” Leigh said, casual as stating the fact of Racquel’s dark hair. “And you’re here, and there was wine on both sides, and I thought, Leigh Ann, you’ll kick yourself forever if you don’t take this chance.”

“No, I–” Racquel hadn’t expected such an answer, and she felt the blush coming back to her cheeks. “Do I come off a lesbian?”

“Do you — oh,” said Leigh, clearly taking a moment to parse the grammar of the question. “No. I mean, you don’t not seem like a lesbian. You seem like a woman who might or might not be a lesbian. Believable either way. Why, are you?”

Racquel nodded. “Which I’d thank you not to tell anyone.”

“Mum’s the word.” Leigh pulled an invisible zipper across her lips.

“I’m not ashamed of it,” Racquel said, which was only partly a lie. “I’m just … not in a position where a great coming-out would do anything good for my career.”

“Hey, you don’t have to explain it to me,” Leigh said, and Racquel knew she didn’t. They’d both seen others’ careers destroyed by revelations about their sexuality — not blown up or blackballed, of course, not in the modern age of diversity and sensitivity and discrimination lawsuits. It was a slow death instead, the gentle drying up of opportunities, so that no one could say that sexuality had been the cause, even if everyone knew it had. If Racquel thought the press couldn’t shut up about her unique features, she shuddered to think of how they’d judge the believably of every role on whether or not she’d acted past her known Sapphic desires. What production company wanted to hire someone whose reviews would be half musings on her sexuality? Few Racquel could name.

With a sigh, Racquel sank into the water up to her chin, so that her breath made the colored surface ripple. “It’s rubbish, all of it. Look at me. I’m so knotted up about it that when a beautiful woman hits on me, my first instinct is to turn into some blubbering mess.”

“You do seem pretty tense.” Leigh stood from where she’d been leaning against the cabinet and began to unbutton her jeans. “Want me to rub your shoulders?”

Never in her life had Racquel heard a more transparent approach, and she loved it. “It is a big tub,” she said, scooting to the side. “Certainly room for two.”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Leigh said as she peeled her shirt over her head, revealing a light tank underneath. That went off next, and then her panties were kicked to the floor, and presently, Leigh was stepping into the tub naked and Racquel’s heartbeat was on high tempo again. She stretched her body out alongside Racquel’s, pressing their naked skin together at an angle that was not appropriate for a shoulder rub. Somehow, Racquel couldn’t bring herself to care.

One of Leigh’s hands found itself on Racquel’s leg, and Racquel sighed as Leigh’s fingers parted her knees, revealing the smooth flesh between her thighs. “That’s not my shoulder,” Racquel said with a smile.

“Oops,” Leigh said, sounding intensely unapologetic. She moved her fingers a few inches up the inside of Racquel’s thigh. “How about now?”

Racquel giggled. “Closer, but still not actually a shoulder. Or anything immediately connected to a shoulder.”

“This is why I failed tenth grade health class.” Leigh’s breasts pressed against Racquel’s forearm as she let her fingers track higher and higher, until they were stopped just outside the soft flesh of her lower lips. “Am I getting warmer?”

“Warmer,” Racquel echoed dreamily. “Very warm.”

Settling in so her mouth was just against the curve of Racquel’s ear, Leigh smiled as her fingers moved up to rest on either side of Racquel’s clit. The touch made Racquel jerk with a jolt of pleasure, but Leigh kept her in place. Gently, she rolled the nub of Racquel’s clit between her fingers, as the slippery mineral oils of the bath bomb took away any unpleasant friction. Racquel let her head fall back against the edge of the tub, gasping as Leigh’s fingers worked their magic.

“You’re so lovely,” Leigh murmured as she kissed at the curve of Racquel’s jaw. “You deserve better than all the bullshit.”

Racquel wasn’t sure what she deserved, necessarily, but she know that was she was getting at the moment was just heavenly. Forget shoulder massages; she’d found something far superior. She sighed as she reached for Leigh’s body, finding one of Leigh’s nipples in the warm water. She gave it a little tweak and felt Leigh grin even wider, so she tugged again. That time she was gifted with a moan, which made Racquel grin too. Receiving pleasure was wonderful, but giving it was just as good.

Shifting in the tub, Leigh moved so their bodies were pressed together, front to front. Each of them had a thigh between the other’s legs, and Leigh’s hand remained snug around Racquel’s clit, rubbing it with no particular speed or urgency. “Can I kiss you?” asked Leigh.

Racquel snorted a laugh. “You’ve a hand on my fanny and you ask me now?”

“I’m being polite!” Leigh said, or at least tried to say, because before she could finish the sentence, Racquel had grabbed both sides of her face and brought her in for a deep kiss — one that wasn’t spoiled at all by how both participants were still laughing around it. Leigh was nonetheless a fantastic kisser, parting Racquel’s lips with her tongue at the same time her fingers teased down between Racquel’s lower lips. She didn’t penetrate Racquel, though, just teased her before returning to the swollen bud of her clit, which made Racquel moan against Leigh’s mouth.

It had been far, far too long since someone had touched Racquel like this, and she couldn’t ever remember being quite this giddy and comfortable at the same time. She let Leigh kiss her all over, trailing little nips and pecks from her mouth to her ear to her throat and back again. She wasn’t ordinarily so passive in bed, but Leigh had worked her way into being in charge for the moment, and who was Racquel to deny a demonstration of power like that from someone who clearly wanted her so much?

She was so keyed up that her first orgasm came quickly, teased out of her by Leigh’s nimble fingers. “Oh, oh fuck,” Racquel gasped as she felt the familiar sensation building deep inside her. “I’m going to–”

“Come on, I’ve got you,” Leigh murmured against her ear, and that was all it took. Racquel jerked and thrashed in the water, spilling a little over the sides as she came. It was as though there had been some great ball of tension knotted up inside her, and Leigh knew just where the release valve was. Racquel cried out wordlessly as her climax washed through her, thankful that there was no one about to hear them. No, this wasn’t about anyone else at the moment; this was about the two of them.

At last, she slumped back against the edge of the tub, panting, while Leigh settled herself against Racquel’s body. Racquel was sure that they looked ridiculous like that, two bodies clinging artlessly together, but she didn’t care; it felt like heaven, and that meant it didn’t matter how it looked to anyone else.

“How do you feel?” asked Leigh at last.

Racquel smiled. “Liquid.”

Leigh laughed and kissed the side of her neck. “Good, because I’ve got a plan for the rest of the day.”

“Does it involve more champagne and lots of sex?”

And a frozen pizza,” Leigh added, again tracing the downward line of the bridge of Racquel’s nose. “What do you think?”

Racquel lifted a hand and gave a wet thumbs-up, which made Leigh laugh, and then they were kissing again as they held one another in the bathtub, like there was nothing else that mattered in the world.

~*~

All things considered, Racquel hadn’t thought much of the relationship at the time. She hadn’t thought little of it, of course — especially not after twice having to beg Leigh to stop, dammit, or Racquel was going to die of the amount of oral sex she was receiving — but it had seemed less romantic and more companionable. Racquel was familiar enough with romance to know that it involved putting one’s best face forward and timing certain revelations, not eating pizza naked in bed while watching reruns of Law and Order. They’d only had four more days together, after all, and even when Leigh kissed Racquel hard before she stepped out the front door to meet her car on that last morning, Racquel really did think that might all but be the end of it.

Thus, when she saw Leigh’s number pop up on her phone the next day, she figured it might be about some article of clothing or book she’d forgotten to take with her. She pressed the button to accept the call, then held the phone up to her ear. “Hello?”

There was a laugh from the other side of the line. “Video call!” said Leigh.

Racquel frowned and brought the phone away from her face, and sure enough, there was Leigh’s smile waiting to greet her. She felt a nervous flurry flutter through her stomach, then chided herself for being so ridiculous. “Hi,” she said, raking her fingers back through her hair. She was wearing a ratty t-shirt and not a stitch of makeup, and the tiny preview of her screen self told her just how much the phone’s camera amplified all her wrinkles and frizzes.

Leigh, on the other hand, seemed not to notice a single flaw. “Hi!” she said right back. “I got the time difference okay, right? It’s not too late there?”

“No, it’s only eight,” Racquel said, not that she would’ve hung up on Leigh even if she’d called in the middle of the night. “Are you calling because I managed to leave something behind?”

“No! Well–” Leigh chuckled. “I mean, some of your panties wound up in my dirty clothes pile. I figured I’d mail them back to you after they went through the wash. But I was just calling to say … well, hi.”

Despite her efforts to keep the stiffest upper lip ever, Racquel couldn’t help beaming at that. “Hi,” she said again.

“See, there it is,” Leigh said, pointing to the camera screen. “It started pouring again an hour after you left, and I’m missing my sunshine already.”

They didn’t talk every day, not with mismatched work schedules and time zones, but they managed to connect often, and texted when they couldn’t speak. Thus, over the next several weeks, Racquel slowly came to realize that she didn’t just have a new friend, she had a new girlfriend. They never said it in so many words, though, but it was clear enough they both felt that way, and for Racquel, that was more than enough.

Any worries that it might have been a crazy one-time thing were put to rest when Leigh hopped a plane to London for a weekend. The second she was behind the closed door of Racquel’s apartment, they were in each other’s arms. Leigh revealed later that she’d only brought two sets of clothes: the ones she wore over, and the ones she was planning to wear home. Racquel made sure she didn’t require any further wardrobe.

As relationships went, it was stranger than simple long-distance — if for no other reason than how the distance kept changing. Racquel at least stayed more or less anchored to Greenwich Mean Time, but Leigh was all over the place, from Tokyo to Sydney to Los Angeles and back again. There were entire months where they missed one another’s calls more than they actually connected. It was a romance conducted asynchronously, catching one another as they could, while pretending to everyone else that wasn’t what they were doing at all.

What Racquel couldn’t ever fully erase was the niggling worry in the back of her mind that crept in during the silences, the fear that Leigh had found someone else — someone prettier, someone more American, or at least someone more willing to be open about their relationship status. Leigh made it clear on more than one occasion that while she didn’t altogether mind keeping what they had a secret, she would have preferred it be a little more of an open secret. She respected Racquel’s desire to keep everything under wraps, even from their close friends in the industry, but Racquel could see the disappointment on her face every time Leigh instinctively reached for Racquel’s hand in public, only to have Racquel pull away. Racquel swore behind closed doors that she was sorry, and Leigh swore in return that she understood, but sometimes Racquel wondered just how far that understanding went. When it finally ran out, she knew she’d have no one to blame but herself.

And then came the panel, and Leigh’s March — as the headlines enjoyed punning — out of the closet.

Racquel sat around the house in a funk the next day. She tried to distract herself by doing something, anything to keep her mind off what a mess she’d made of things, but mostly she left a trail of half-finished projects in her wake. She even managed to paint exactly six of her toes before she got too depressed to hold the brush anymore. It was all her fault, and she couldn’t leave that behind.

The sad part was, she really did love acting. Even as she’d threatened to quit, in Leigh’s house all those years ago, she’d known she hadn’t meant it. It was the only thing she’d ever felt comfortable doing, and once she’d found it, she’d never given anything else a serious thought. She loved stepping into those stories and becoming other people, even if only for a short while. She loved playing powerful women, vulnerable women, imperfect women, the kinds of stories that had always meant so much to her.

She hadn’t lied, either; she really did wish she’d had an out queer role model like Leigh when she was growing up. Maybe that would have changed everything, giving her the chance to move confidently out earlier. Maybe that wouldn’t have let her mother’s vicious disapproval crush her so thoroughly. Or maybe it would have destroyed her acting career before she’d even taken her first leading lady part. There was a lot of maybe out there in the world, after all, and some roads were better off not having been gone down.

Leigh didn’t call or text that day, but Racquel supposed she couldn’t hold that against her. Gatherings like Speculative Smorgasboard (and what a horrid name for a convention, really, almost as bad as its ‘SpecSmo’ truncation) were not known for allowing participants an overabundance of free time. The realist part of her brain told her that Leigh was fulfilling her fan obligations and probably meeting with some production company or another. The optimist part of her brain liked to think that Leigh was busy concocting some kind of pleasant apology surprise. The pessimist, however, was certain that Leigh was going to break up with her, and was just waiting for the right time.

Racquel deserved being broken up with, she supposed glumly as she tried to read her new script for the fifth time. She was considering a nap just to pass the time when her phone rang. “How soon can you be in Paris?” asked Marlon.

“How soon do I need to be in Paris?” asked Racquel, regarding her four unpainted toes with suspicion.

“You’ve got 8PM reservations at a bistro. À la Biche au Bois. A couple of StudioCanal executives want to meet with you about an upcoming adaptation of … honestly, something French I’ve never heard of before. I wrote it down when they said it, but I lost the paper. Anyway, can you?”

Racquel had been considering getting out of the house to clear her head, and she supposed leaving the country counted. Her French was rusty but passable, and she could always use an excuse to brush up. “All right,” she said. “Send me the details?”

As she sat in the train car, she pulled out her phone and began composing a text message to Leigh: Headed to Paris for the evening. A production meeting. No idea when I’ll be done, but I’lll call later.

She stared at the phone until the screen went dim, but there was no change — not even a notification that the message had been read. Of course, Racquel chided herself, Leigh was busy. Too busy to call, too busy to check her phone. It wasn’t like she had it beside her at every second, waiting to jump at a message from Racquel. She had other things. She had her whole life. She had … well, just about everything, now that she also had no more secrets about her sexuality.

Racquel woke up the phone again and penned a second message: I really am okay with yesterday. You can do whatever you want to. You SHOULD do whatever you want to. You deserve that freedom.

Did that sound like Racquel was starting a breakup message? Maybe it was. Maybe she was trying to break up with Leigh so she didn’t have to experience the pain of having Leigh break up with her. It was stupid, shitty logic, and Racquel wouldn’t put it past her subconscious as a coping mechanism. She hated her stupid brain and all the stupid fears it made her have. It felt juvenile calling everything ‘stupid’, but that was about where Racquel was right now, so she might as well revel in it.

She opened the messaging app again and wrote: I’m sorry. For everything. Then she closed her phone and resolved not to look at it again until the meeting was done. Maybe that was all the peace she could buy herself, but it was enough.

~*~

The dinner was nice, the producers were lovely, and Racquel found herself unsurprised that Marlon hadn’t been able to recall the title Les Égarements du cœur et de l’esprit off the top of his head. Their English was at least as good as her French, and so they switched back and forth throughout the meal as the producers detailed their vision. No wonder Marlon had agreed to the meeting; she could only imagine what his face would look like once he actually bothered to go to Wikipedia and learn more about the classic eighteenth-century tale of a young French man’s sexual awakening.

But all in all, the project sounded interesting — perhaps a bit risque, but then again, why not? She wasn’t getting any younger, after all, and roles like the seductive, handsome older woman were nothing to sneeze at. As they ordered dessert, she told them she’d strongly consider it, then excused them as they both received the same urgent phone call and left the table.

Sitting alone and waiting for their return, Racquel didn’t think much of it when a hand placed a chocolate mousse in front of her. But she did turn and take notice as someone who clearly wasn’t either suited male executive — though someone just as tall — took one of their vacated chairs. “Hi.”

Racquel’s jaw all but dropped to the floor. “What are you doing here?”

Leigh laughed merrily and cupped her chin in one hand, bracing her elbow on the table. “Surprise.”

Racquel looked off in the direction the two producers had disappeared. “Do you mean — wait, was that — were they real?”

“That? Yes. Cross my heart.” Leigh even traced a little X over her left breast. “It’s a real thing, and it’s a real offer, and I heard about it the other day, and I think you’d be perfect for it, and I kind of nudged them to set this up sooner rather than later, and I’ve been on a plane basically all day, and for God’s sake, will you look at your dessert already?”

It then registered with Racquel that she hadn’t ordered a mousse; she’d ordered a shortcake. She looked down at the perfect little parfait dish, where atop a creamy brown pillow sat a diamond ring. It wasn’t large and it wasn’t ostentatious, but it was clearly a high-quality single gem set deep into a platinum band. She looked at it hard, then looked back at Leigh. “Is that real?” she hissed.

“Yeah,” said Leigh, wiggling a butter knife nervously through her fingers. “So, here’s the deal: I’m not going to get down on one knee, because I know you’d hate that. And I don’t want you to get the idea that this is some kind of ultimatum, marry me now or lose me forever. This is me, making an open invitation: I want to be married to you. And I’m pretty sure you want to be married to me too, or I wouldn’t be asking. But if you don’t want to get married to me right now, for whatever reason, that’s okay. The offer stands.”

Racquel reached into the parfait dish and plucked the ring from the mousse, then licked the chocolate off the band. “It’s good,” she said, utterly at a loss for another response.

“So I hear.” Leigh kept smiling, but Racquel could see a little bit of that nervous energy begin to tug at the corners of her mouth. Her natural intensity could be terrifying when it was focused, but when it was scattered, it made Racquel worry for everything in the vicinity. “Anyway, I also don’t want you to think this is some kind of weird knee-jerk apology. I’ve been holding onto that for … eight months now? Yeah, about that long.”

“And–” Racquel turned the ring, watching the way the light bounced and sparkled off it even in the dim bistro. “So you’re not breaking up with me?”

“God, no!” said Leigh, bark-laughing in a way that bordered on hysteria. “Oh … oh, shit, are you breaking up with me?”

“What? No!” Racquel cried, louder than she’d meant.

Leigh took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay, so we’re not breaking up with each other. That’s … I mean, that’s a pretty good baseline for a marriage, don’t you think?”

“Oh, a ground-floor minimum, to be sure.” Racquel continued to turn the cold, heavy ring in her fingers. It was obviously an engagement ring if the person looking knew it was an engagement ring, but if they didn’t, it wasn’t. Put it on her third finger, left hand, its meaning was clear; put anywhere else, it wasn’t so. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s–”

Leigh cut her off with a raised hand. “I know,” she said. “If there’s anyone in the world who understands, I do. And like I said, it’s an open offer. I’ve loved you for seven years now; I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Racquel swallowed hard. “I know it won’t change for me.”

“Good.” Leigh folded her hands on the table, business-like. “So here’s another surprise: I made an appointment tomorrow afternoon with a … what do you guys call them, estate agents?” She looked at Racquel, who nodded. “I’m sick of our lives being either my place or your place. I don’t want to be a guest in your apartment, and I don’t want you to be a guest in my house. Thus, tomorrow we’re going to go and find a place in London for us. And the next time we’re back in the US, we’ll do the same over there. And if that’s all that being married changes, then I think that’s enough. Deal?”

“Deal.” Racquel choked back a lump in her throat, then held the ring out across the table, encouraging Leigh to take it. She then extended her right hand, motioning to her ring finger on that side. Leigh grinned and slipped it on. For being all wrong, it fit just right. “This isn’t … this will never be a normal marriage, you know?”

Leigh shook her head. “Forget normal,” she said, squeezing Racquel’s hand in her own. “Let’s be unique.”

“Unconventional?” asked Racquel with a chuckle.

“Even downright ugly,” said Leigh with a wink, and Racquel, who had just agreed in the silences they both understood to be the wife of the most beautiful woman in the world, could do nothing but laugh with pure, freeing delight.

 

Read this piece’s entry in the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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8 thoughts on “Unconventional

  1. That was absolutely lovely – I loved the way you handled beauty here. It made me want to tear up in the best sort of way.

  2. So sweet! These characters have wonderful, distinct voices and fit so nicely together, AND I love how attractiveness is discussed here. “A face you could never mistake for anybody else’s” is such a great way to put it.

  3. I absolutely adore this – the way you tackle beauty and age and the demands of the outside world and balance it with Raquel’s voice and her relationship with Leigh was utterly believable and really heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

  4. Oh, my heart. I wanted to hug the stuffing out of both of them through about 90% of the story. Even the happy ending is so bittersweet — I guess I wish they had a happier world to live in? But all the same, I loved it.

  5. This was so lovely! I want them to get to be open and happy together but I am also thrilled that they are committing to each other regardless.

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