The next day Gil and Katalin spent an hour and a half in the morning where he helped her review some of the material in the American history and government textbooks.
In the afternoon before dinner they practiced martial arts for two hours. The time went fast; he’d gotten interested in the subject. By now they were taking turns being the aggressor and the defender in each of the three forms. They’d review a technique, such as low strikes with a stick, then practice a kata or two which exercised the technique. Then they’d do improvised versions mixed in with other stuff.
Afterwards they cooled down and took showers at their homes, re-dressed, and had dinner with the Szarvases.
"How was your date, dear?" her foster mother asked.
Katalin grinned. "Duke took me horseback riding! I’d forgotten how much I missed it."
"I’m sorry we couldn’t manage it these last few years," her foster father said.
"Oh, I understood. And it’s not as if I didn’t have plenty of other matters to spend my time on."
"Where did you do it?" said Gil.
"A friend has a ranch a half-hour further out from his ranch where he raises and trains race horses. It’s pretty big. She keeps them when they get too old to race instead of getting rid of them. I like that about his friend. She’s a fifth-generation Californio in her sixties; they spoke Spanish to each other, a little bit. You could tell they like each other."
"And you, Gil," said her father. "I understand you have a new special friend, too."
Gil wasn’t expecting the mention. He paused to reflect on how to reply. He hoped he wasn’t blushing.
"Stephanie Allison. She wasn’t feeling well after a party, so I drove her home and stayed overnight to make sure she was OK. Then the next day we spent some time at the beach. Her house is right on the ocean a little ways above Santa Monica. I got to meet some of the neighboring families. There’s a little girl from next door who’s a little friend."
Barbara Szarvas said, "It’s funny how we always see glamour photos of them at parties or premieres and you don’t think of them having a normal life."
"With me it’s the opposite. I have a normal life with my Mom and the parties and premieres are the special events."
Katalin had a thoughtful look on her face at that and nodded. He wondered why.
That was the routine for the next few days. Sometimes Katalin ate dinner at Gil’s house, sometimes he at hers, sometimes they parted after martial-arts practice. He and she were on such easy terms with each other, and their two families with each other, that it sometimes seemed as if they were all part of the same extended family.
Thursday he drove to Beverly Hills where he met Stephanie at a French restaurant there. She was already seated and chatting with a waitress. Some of it was in French.
Gil smiled at the waitress and spoke to her in French also. With a French mother and classes in the language in high school it was natural to do that. He took a menu from the woman and sat down. She said she’d be back as soon as he knew what he wanted.
He smiled at Stephanie. "You look nice."
She was dressed in a high-necked dress or gown in discreetly shimmering blue. Her blond hair was gathered into a chignon at the base of her neck. It called attention to the perfection of her face, a perfect oval with strong cheekbones and slightly pouty lips. She deemphasized them with a pale pink lipstick.
Gil appreciated her efforts; with a famous beauty for a mother and an older sister he was a bit of an expert.
"So do you. I see we’re color coordinated."
Gil had worn a long-sleeved sky-blue shirt with the collar open and a grey sports coat over it.
"Great minds think alike. Or so I like to think. What have you been up to?"
"Table reads all week on Hard Actions Part Two. Ironing out dialogue, trimming it, making it more natural, or more dramatic. I imagine you’ve heard some things about table reads from your mother."
"Yeah. She hates it when she’s expected to read the words exactly as they’re written."
"Well, David used to be an actor. So he appreciates that his actors can improve his scripts.
"That’s enough about me. How have you been?"
"Nothing interesting to report. But Katalin told us at dinner that she and Duke went horseback riding."
"Did you ever ride?"
"Dad and I took some lessons with Mom when she had a part where she had to ride. Then when I was twelve, thirteen, Mom spent the summer on location in Egypt or some place like that. Dad sent me to a dude ranch. And came with me.
"He had to work, of course. But theoretical physicists can do that any place it’s quiet. And he must have worked; he published a ground-breaking paper that summer. But while I was awake we were always doing stuff together."
"I learned to ride two movies back. Why don’t we go riding? No need to let Duke and Kat have all that kind of fun."
"I wouldn’t want them to think we were trying to one-up them. But, OK, why not?"
She pulled out a mini slate and consulted it.
"There’s place called the EquestrianCenter in south Burbank. It’s big. They have all sorts of services, including supervised riding. How’s Saturday? In the morning before it gets hot."
"It’s a date."
She made an online appointment for 10:00 that Saturday. Meanwhile he was deciding on what he wanted for dinner. By the time she’d finished he’d ordered and was just sitting looking at her. She was so beautiful that, and perhaps this was strange, he thought, he was not turned on. It was just enough to look at her. As if at a sunset. Or a mountain view.
She looked back at him, startled, after she put away her slate. Then she looked down as if embarrassed, but back up at him through her eyelashes.
THEN he was turned on.
Thank God the food arrived about then. In the process of accepting it and arranging plates and drinks and beginning to eat his erection went down. Shortly they began to talk about their earliest childhoods.
Two hours later she looked around at the dining room. It was pretty empty. Then she looked at her watch, a tiny thing on a slim black band.
"Damn! I’ve another early day."
He paid and they walked out. A valet delivered her car, he handed her into it, and she smiled at him and drove away. Then he had another valet deliver his pickup and he went home.
He was waiting for her at the entrance to the EquestrianCenter main building Saturday morning. She arrived a few minutes before 10:00, walking in from the parking lot. He was looking her way because he’d recognized her blue sports car turning into the lot.
She was dressed in worn loose blue jeans with scuffed brown cowboy boots and a long-sleeved blue-and-white checked shirt tucked into her pants. A floppy straw hat was on her head and she had sunglasses hanging from a button hole in her shirt.
She came up to him with a smile, stood on tiptoes to kiss him quickly and wetly on his lips, and entered through the door he held open for her. Her bottom looked very good as she preceded him to a reception desk.
They checked in at the desk and were escorted out a side door by Emily, a teenaged girl with red hair and freckles, a bouncy disposition, and an English riding outfit, which involved tight grey pants and shirt, brown form-fitting low-heeled boots up almost to the knee, and an Australian hat with one brim pinned up.
In the stables she made sure they liked the horses picked out for them, slipping the two animals something (maybe brown sugar) which they lipped out of her palm. Then she and they led her horse and the two rented horses to join another party. This one was a family with a young teen girl and a pre-adolescent boy, already waiting beside their horses.
She described the route the tour would follow and spoke to them of a few safety measures. Then she had each person mount in turn while she watched them to make sure they did it properly and double-checked that the saddles were properly positioned and the belly and other straps were all tight enough.
The young boy was excited, half happy and half fearful, and that transmitted itself to his horse, a smaller brown beast who nevertheless only fidgeted a little bit while Emily soothed the boy and helped him adjust. Meanwhile the daughter looked on with a superior air, giving the impression that SHE had been riding from birth.
Gil and Stephanie looked at each other with politely hidden amusement. When it came their time to mountStephanie did it with practiced ease and Gil managed it without disgracing himself.
The horse path was partly shaded by trees for the first two or three hundred yards. Then it turned left, south, into a more bare area. This lead to a horse bridge over a stream of shallow water with high concrete sides. The bridge flooring was of sturdy wood wide enough for two horses abreast. The horse’s hooves made mildly thunderous sounds on the planking. The bridge’s sides were higher than the horse’s heads and made of strong web-like fencing.
They turned left again once they were well beyond the bridge and rode east, paralleling the stream. They were out in the open now and the day was heating up. Gil was glad he had sunglasses and his dad’s old felt cowboy hat.
Still, the company was pleasant, the family maybe forty feet ahead and having a good time. There was a breeze which helped keep them cool. The hillside to their right had bushes and trees and was quite scenic. The trees to their left across the stream were also lovely.
A half mile onto the eastward path he noticed that across the stream among the trees a man was taking pictures. He couldn’t be sure, but thought he was aiming at Stephanie and himself.
He said nothing to her and tried to act natural, chatting, enjoying the scenery, occasionally smiling or laughing at something she said. With Élodie for a mother he’d long ago gotten used to paparazzi and how to act around them.
Another half mile and they turned left again to re-cross the stream over another horse-trail bridge. It wasn’t long before they re-entered trees and made a final left turn to end back at the stables.
They refreshed themselves in the stable bathrooms, which were a bit primitive and smelly. They were also warm since they had no air conditioning, but in all they were not bad.
They met again outside the bathrooms and walked to the parking lot. At her car she turned to him and said, "I could do with a lunch. Have time?"
"I’d planned on it. A favorite of ours is Ca Del Sol over near Universal."
"I’ve been there. Ah, we may have to deal with paparazzi some time soon."
"I’m an old hand. In fact, I can’t remember a time when there were none around trying to get shots of Mom and the rest of us."
She smiled. "In fact, you noticed one out on the trail ride, didn’t you?"
He grinned back. "Yeah."
"I thought so. Your behavior changed about the time I saw him. Across the stream?"
He nodded and said he’d lead the way to the restaurant. He hurried to his pickup truck and drove past her car on the way to the stable gates. She pulled in behind him.
On the way Gil phoned Ca Del Sol. He told them he was with Stephanie Allison and asked if they could have a room to themselves. None was available, but they could be put in a small room with four larger tables. Would that be acceptable?
The drive to the restaurant was a straight shot west with little traffic, so Gil was able to safely keep track of Stephanie in his rear-view mirror and still stay alert for a tail. He did see two or three cars which might hold paparazzi, for they followed him onto the south fork of the street leading closer to the restaurant. When the turnoff into the Ca Del Sol parking lot came up he lost sight of the trailing cars in the act of getting safely across traffic and parking in the lot.
The maitre’d greeted Stephanie with a smile and called her "Ms. Allison." She immediately ushered her and Gil into a small dining room, seated them, and gave them menus.
They ordered quickly, fish for him and salad for her, a soft drink for him and iced tea for her. Then they sat and just looked at each other.
"You’re a handsome man, Gil," Stephanie said with a mischievous smile. "Are you sure you’re adopted and not your mother’s son?"
He laughed. "Flatterer. Where are you going with this? Trying to get something from me?"
She was serious for a moment. "I already have what I want: someone who likes me, isn’t dazzled by me, and isn’t trying to further their career. And I DO like your looks."
He met serious with serious. "I wondered if you were trying to get to my mother through me. It has happened."
She cocked her head. "Funny. I’ve been so self-absorbed I never thought you might think that."
"I pretty quickly decided you weren’t angling for that."
At that their food arrived. Gil looked down at his hands and said, "I’d better wash up. I didn’t do such a good job at that restroom at the stables. Pardon me?"
"I probably need to do the same!"
She rose and they walked into the short hall outside the room, then turned in opposite directions.
Gil walked past the restroom and into a small dark alcove. Then he changed worlds, moving two world lines to red. It was unpopulated on the west coast, at least in the general area. He fell two feet to the grassy earth on that world line. Expecting the fall, he flexed his legs to easily keep his balance.
He moved through the ghostly image of the restaurant and out to where the parking lot was back in his Home universe. There he walked through the ghostly concrete expanse. The image came to his knees.
As he’d suspected, in one car with a good view of the exit from the restaurant there sat a man who was looking at a professional-looking camera and reviewing images on its screen from its memory card. Standing inside the ghost images looking over his shoulder Gil thought he saw images of him and Stephanie on the screen, but he couldn’t be sure. From red two universes away ghost images did not have as much detail as images of whatever was his present real world.
Time to return. He couldn’t use the restroom excuse too long. He nearly ran back to the restaurant. Seeing the alcove still vacant he jumped high enough to move back to the Home universe, falling a half foot onto the carpet with only a slight thump. In the restroom he quickly but thoroughly washed his hands and hurried back to his table.
He was prepared to apologize for being away so long but he didn’t need to. Sitting in one of the four chairs at his table was a teenaged girl in a light green summer dress talking to Stephanie, leaning forward eagerly to hear her every word.
His date looked up and said, "Hello! Gil, I want you to meet Andrea. Andrea, this is my boyfriend Gilbert."
The girl looked up shyly. "Hello." Her voice was very low.
"Hi, Andrea. You’re a fan of Steph, I’d guess."
She rose and turned back to Stephanie. "Thank you so much for your autograph and for talking to me. I’ll leave just like you said I should when he returned."
She walked quickly back to her family at a table nearby, a couple with two boys younger than Andrea.
"Sorry about that," Stephanie said.
"No need to be," he said, taking a sip of tea and picking up his fork and knife to address himself to his fish. "I’m an old hand at this, I told you."
She smiled. "Yet another thing I like about you. A lot of man don’t understand. Or won’t."
They were silent for a few minutes. Then Gil spoke.
"Speaking as an old hand, there’s a good chance that the papa who shot us on the horse path followed us here and is waiting in the parking lot for more photos."
"The best way to handle this situation sometimes is to give them something they want. Do you object to a little play-acting when we get to my car?"
"No. What did you have in mind?"
"I’ll think of something." She had a little secret smile on her face.
They talked about interests they might have in common. She loved dancing; he was indifferent but didn’t hate it. He loved certain kinds of rock music; she was more interested in French pop music, especially a singer named Alizeé. The food was so good, the company so pleasant, that he forgot all about the probably-waiting paparazzi until they were paying their halves of the bill.
"What did you have in mind?" he said as they walked down the sidewalk to the parking lot beside the building.
"Just wait and see. Follow my lead. Don’t look around for him. Just keep looking at me."
"Not a hardship," he said.
At her blue car she unlocked the car door with her remote and turned to look up at him.
"Thank you ever so much, Gil. Do you think you could bear my company next Saturday afternoon?"
"I just might. Maybe 2:00 at your place? Spend some time on the beach, go to a restaurant later?"
"Sounds good. But Del Monicos has a great take-out menu. We could order it delivered and watch the sunset."
He could say no more. For she stood on tiptoes, put her arms around his neck, and drew his head down for a kiss on his lips.
He was so surprised he nearly didn’t react. Then he drew her into his arms and kissed her back.
Breaking apart after long moments but still holding onto each other he said, "That was the ‘something’ you’d think of, was it?"
Smiling up at him she said, "Do you mind being spread all across the magazines and blogazines as my boyfriend?"
"Nope." He kissed her again and let her go. She got into her car, adjusted her seat belts, turned it on, and left. He looked after her for a while, long enough to be sure she was not being followed, then headed for home.
On Sunday as usual he spent at least an hour in the morning helping Katalin with her American studies, then the afternoon at martial-arts practice.
She’d asked him to come over at 2:00 instead the usual 3:00, saying she wanted to do something a little different. When he arrived she met him at the door still in casual clothes except for low-top boots. She looked at his tennis shoes but said nothing.
She had a picnic basket with her and instead of letting him in walked out and shut the door behind her. Then she began walking across the lawn which was a shortcut to his house. Meanwhile she talked to him.
"I thought we’d do some training up in that park where we world-walked the first time. We need to be able to world-walk and fight as a team."
"Sounds good to me."
In his truck they drove north to the park, chatting about their respective dates. Duke had taken her to dinner and dancing at some nightclub. She enjoyed the dancing but not a lot.
"It’s mostly just jumping around and acting silly. No patterns to it."
"You’d prefer ballroom dancing?"
"Something like that. But not the English style. There the men stand as if they have a poker up their ass, and the women lean way back like he has super bad breath."
Gil laughed. The description was so right on, and she’d said a mild curse word: ass. He’d never heard such a word from her before.
The lot was a bit full but he was still able to find a spot where his truck would soon be out of the sun. The grassy field behind the modest park office and the restrooms was almost full, however. Under the tree-shaded part lots of families were picnicking and kids playing. In the unshaded part there was a scratch baseball game going on.
"Good," Katalin said. "If they’re all here we’ll have the paths all to ourselves."
She took her picnic basket out of his truck and he took it from her. He noticed she had her fighting stick slung.
A half-mile into the forest and up the hillsides a bit she cut off across the underbrush, still going up. There was no path but she seemed to know where to go. They ended up on a flat grassy spot with no trees or higher brush, just a few short widely scattered weeds. She turned to him.
"I found this spot by looking at satellite maps on my slate. I don’t think anyone will disturb us, and there’s no one who can look down on us."
"Except through the satellites."
She frowned and thought a few seconds. Her frown eased.
"I don’t think that’s likely. But this might be better anyway."
She walked toward an area under some low trees, oaks he thought. It was clear of underbrush except for a few low weeds here and there.
She stopped him at one point well inside the shaded area and faced him.
"Now, place your hand on my stick’s hilt. Close your eyes, focus your thoughts on the stick, and silently say tanaus three times. That’s like ‘tahn house’ but without the ‘h’ and all one word. Then pull up on the hilt."
He did so. Nothing happened when he pulled up.
"Try it again. Try to really focus on the hilt, how it feels, how it looks when your eyes are open."
He did so, noticing how the hilt felt smooth except for some modest incising circling it to give it a better grip.
As he said the last of the three words the hilt suddenly felt much warmer. And it came loose from her back.
He opened his eyes. He held the stick in his hand. And yet it was still on her back, projecting up beside her head to where she could easily put a hand back and pull it loose.
He looked down at his stick and then back at hers, then at her face.
"My stick is called a jeggyver, or ‘weapon’ in Hungarian. It’s magical. It can be in two places at once. Or maybe be two pieces of the same–device. Anyway, you can now wield one of its pieces."
Gil swished it through the air. The hilt felt very easy in his hand, the blade of the weapon a bit heavy but still fairly light. Solid, was his thought.
"You’ve already had basic instruction in stick fighting. It’s like a sword without an edge or point. You use it that way." He nodded at her repetition of instructions he already received when the two had practiced with a copy of her fighting stick, left at her house today. The stick could punch as if to stick someone, or chop as if trying to cut into something.
She had him go through a few katas to get the feel of how it handled.
It handled just fine, somehow more alive and easy than the practice stick.
"Now throw it back to me so that it turns hilt over tip a half turn so I can grasp its hilt."
Gil did so, trying for an exact half turn. He succeeded. Or the jeggyver did. It made an exact half turn and smacked into Katalin’s waiting hand. She made as if to sheathe it even though there was already a sword-stick on her back. Somehow she succeeded. It was if the two sticks magically merged once more.
"Now hold up your hand, open, and call ‘tanaus’–SILENTLY. Be ready. It will come to you."
He did so. At the silent word he felt the hilt of the jeggyver twin smack solidly into his hand. He grasped it and looked at Katalin.
She said, pleased, "Very good, Shield. I thought you could do it."
She had him throw his stick back at her as before but this time she did not hold up her hand to receive it. This time the stick vanished as soon as it left his hand and ended up merged with her copy of the stick without passing through the space between them.
For the next twenty minutes or so they traded the second stick back and forth between them in various ways, including him facing away from her. When Katalin called a halt he noticed a change in himself and commented on it: he seemed to know where she was even if he could not see her. It was as if he had a compass inside him which pointed at her.
"I’ve heard about this," she said. "I didn’t expect it, but I’m not surprised. This is something Shield’s supposedly can do. And Swords. I’ve been able to do it for a while now, but these last few minutes– My feeling has grown stronger."
They stared at each other. He didn’t know what she was thinking, but he was thinking all this was very strange. He hadn’t done super-good at the basic science courses he’d taken in high school. But he’d done OK. And he’d never heard about any phenomenon such as he’d seen here today. Two objects, for instance, could NOT occupy the same space at the same time the way the jeggyver sticks did.
He believed everything had a natural explanation; having the Dad he did this belief had soaked into him long ago. He could only guess that some super-science was at work, but that brought up a puzzle. What Katalin had told about her native world suggested it was maybe fifty to a hundred years less advanced than his own world. Where would they have gotten super-scientific stuff?
He shrugged it off, for Katalin had begun talking about fighting enemies using their world-walking abilities. They practiced some katas while jumping to red or blue one or two world lines, coordinating their efforts. By, for instance, never occupying the same space at the same time in two different lines in case they wanted to jump back to the same world line.
It was fun. They soon got OK at it though Gil felt he’d need more practice before they’d be really good.
Katalin called a halt. She looked up and off to one side.
"The satellite image showed… There it is. Let’s see if we can climb up to the top."
Absent-mindedly Gil sent his stick back home to merge with her stick as he followed her gaze. It was toward the top of a low hill, maybe a hundred feet higher than their elevation.
He took up the picnic basket and they walked toward the upslope leading to the top of the hill. They had to zigzag, and once to retrace their steps, but finally ended up on the summit.
The breeze up there was welcome. It took away their heat and was mildly cool, or so it felt in comparison to the temperature lower down the hill. Gil pulled his shirt away from his sweating chest and flapped the loose cloth. That helped cool him too.
The top was clear of bushes but had low grass. It was fairly flat. They picked the flattest spot, which also had a nice view down the city side of the hillsides they were on, which kept on going upward behind them maybe another thousand feet. They spread a blanket which had been tucked into the top of the basket and sat cross-legged on it. Katalin emptied the basket.
Inside the foam ice chest there was a small plastic container of ice cubes, water, soft drinks, and sandwiches. Two were ham-and-cheese for him, the other two some kind of veggie sandwich for her.
Katalin doused her hands with a little water and rubbed them dry against other, then placed ice cubes into two foam glasses and filled one with a soft drink from one pop-top can. Gil took the other can, opened it, and filled his glass.
The sweet bubbly drink made his jaw lock up for a second, then he was able to drink. It tasted wonderful.
"Good job with this basket," Gil said. He took out a sandwich, peeled open the zip-lock end, and took a bite.
"Thanks," Katalin said, and imitated him.
For a time they ate and drank, looking down the slope. The rolling forest below was lovely under the blue sky. The air was fairly clear and they could make out much of the city below them. They took turns pointing out landmarks.
It felt very good, as if they were family, brother and sister. But he couldn’t help notice her long strong legs, stretched out before them, tanned and rounded and tapering gracefully up toward her hips. They woke less-brotherly feelings in him.
He squelched those feelings, but they wouldn’t go totally away.
To distract himself he said jokingly, "We’re almost like an old married couple."
She looked at him. Not joking she said, "What we’re like is Sword and Shield. That’s closer, in a way, than family."
A sudden rush of warmth filled his chest. He reached out a hand and placed it on her nearest hand.
"I AM your Shield. I will be till death."
She turned her hand, grasped his in a warm, strong grasp, and looked down the slope in front of him. Her voice broke as if she were on the point of tears.
"And I am your Sword, O Gil. Till death and beyond."
Next Saturday Gil arrived at Stephanie’s beach home a few minutes before 2:00 dressed casually in jeans and tennies and a tee shirt. He carried a light long-sleeved shirt he could slip over the tee if their date lasted into the cooler evening time.
He also came prepared another way: a small one-time can of a spray-on condom. He knew that was being optimistic but he’d look like a fool if he got a chance for sex and didn’t have it!
She opened her door moments after he pressed the door-chime button, dressed in a similar outfit except that the jeans were cutoffs which showed her long strong lovely legs. She stood on tiptoe and gave him a quick kiss on his lips.
"Come in," she said and turned to lead him further into the house, her bottom making a charmingly sexy side-to-side motion. She led him through the house and onto her porch overlooking the beach. At a round table with two lounge chairs on each side sat a frosted pitcher of iced tea, two glasses, hers already half-empty, and a bowl of artificial sweetener.
She settled onto one chair, leaning back onto the slanted back rest and putting her feet up onto the foot of her chair. He imitated her and looked out at the sights.
The Pacific was dark blue under the cloudless light blue sky. The surf which lapped the shore was so gentle it only created a mild foam instead of a more dramatic display. A few sail boats and one power boat rode the sea further out. On the beach were several families and couples.
"Great view," Gil said, sitting up a bit so he could fill a second glass with iced tea and sweeten it.
"I watch it often, especially when the day has been hard."
"How has it been this week?"
"Not bad. We’re still on table reads. It’s when we start shooting on the sound stages in a couple of weeks that I’ll be coming home exhausted and cranky."
"The first few days I always doubt myself and think everything I do is shit."
"It goes away?"
"Yeah. David makes it easy for us to feel good about performing. He doesn’t praise often, but he does do it and you know you’ve earned it when he does."
"You’ve been nominated twice for an Oscar and won once. And you still doubt yourself?"
"Always. At least a little bit. If I ever get to feeling perfectly confident I’ll probably turn into one of those jackasses you sometimes see who believe their own publicity."
"Mom says they just cover up their doubts better."
"Maybe most do. But some of them are idiots who really do have no doubts. I hate the arrogant pricks."
"Wow. Strong emotions."
She looked at him. "I hate to sound pretentious, and I know I have a reputation of being a bubbly intellectual light weight, but I really believe acting is an art and a craft and worth being serious about. If I have a religion, that’s it."
He grinned. "I don’t think intellectual light weights are know for saying ‘intellectual light weight.’"
She laughed, said, "You’re good for my ego.
"To change subject from me, how was your week?"
He took another sip of his drink. "OK. Pretty much like always. I help Katalin in the mornings studying American politics and history, and in the afternoon she teaches me martial arts. I’ve really gotten into it. She’s a good teacher."
"You two are close."
"Like brother and sister close. But, yeah, close." He wondered if he was hurting his chances for sex by admitting that, but he was not about to lie to Stephanie.
He continued, "You studied martial arts for your superhero movie."
"Months of it before each of them. I’ve gotten good at looking like I can beat up bad guys, but I have a stunt double, Cherie, who really can, who does the hardest parts. And the dangerous parts. The studio is not about to chance me getting hurt so bad the movie has delays."
"But you do get hurt," Gil said, remembering his own mother’s experience.
"Sure. Little hurts, strains, no sprains, bruises, cuts. I often spend an hour in a hot tub at the end of the day.
"To change the subject, would you mind if we play baby sitter for two kids for the afternoon? To give my neighbors the Allens some alone time?"
What could he say but Yes?
A little while later they retired to her kitchen where she filled two back packs with supplies such as plastic bottles of water. His pack was pink. She looked mischievous as she handed it to him. He took it, smug in his certainty that he showed not the slightest dismay at the color.
Done with packing, Stephanie phoned her neighbors to say she was coming over. They left her house by the front door and walking to the house south of hers and one door down. The Allens were a young couple, maybe early thirties, and very grateful for Allison’s baby sitting. They were even happier when she introduced her boyfriend as Élodie’s son and were assured that he was a responsible person.
Gil tried to act like "a responsible person" but all he could think of was to call the Allens "ma’am" and "sir" and assume a solemn demeanor.
The two children were waiting in the kitchen with two junior-sized backpacks on a table. They ran to Stephanie and hugged her, one to each side. She hugged them back and laughed. Then she turned them to face Gil.
"I want you to meet my boyfriend, Gil. He’s going to help us have a fun time today. Dear, this is Margaret and Timothy."
The girl was maybe ten, very skinny and with the darker skin of her father, who was partly East Indian, Gil judged. The sturdy boy, maybe eight, took after his red-haired freckle-faced mother.
Little Margaret stepped forward and held out a hand to shake.
"I’m very pleased to meet you, Sir."
Gil put a confused look on his face and looked behind him to one side and then the other.
"Sir? Sir? Where?"
The two kids giggled and Timothy said, "She mean YOU!"
Gil put a hand to his chest and frowned.
"Me? Do I look like some old man? You MUST call me Gil."
The kids giggled and spoke loudly, almost in unison: "We’re pleased to meet you, GIL."
"That’s more like it," he said, and shook their hands in turn.
They turned to Stephanie, "Come look at our packs. We did it right this time."
She went to the table with them, the kids and then Gil following her. She looked inside the packs and agreed, then told them to bring them to the back porch. They did. There all four took sun block from their packs and applied it to themselves and each other, criticizing and helping each other to get the applications right.
It felt very peculiar to have two kids acting as if he were a combination big brother and father, with Timothy going so far as to smooth more sun block on Gil’s upper cheek bones because, the boy said, there wasn’t enough there to protect him from the sun. The family feeling also felt good.
A final Goodbye to and from the parents and the four voyagers walked down the stair to the beach and set off to the south, toward Santa Monica.
Their progress was sometimes rapid as the kids ran ahead, and slow as the same kids stopped to inspect some trash or treasure washed up onto the beach. Stephanie and soon Gil joined in the inspection of the found objects. Some of them were proclaimed treasure, such as smoothed broken bits of colored glass, and deposited into packs. Some of them, such as brown tangles of seaweed, were judged trash and dropped back onto the beach.
At the seafood place where Gil and Stephanie had eaten on the day after she’d drunken too much the foursome stopped for iced tea. They drank it in the same small dining room and Gil questioned the two about themselves. They’d already grown accustomed to him and chattered away, often interrupting each other to tell a personal anecdote, or to correct each other.
Rested, refreshed, they continued down the beach. By the time they reached Santa Monica it was dinner time. It was a bit early for that, but a vote decided it four-to-none just the right time for dinner.
They ate at an upscale Mexican restaurant at the end of the long pier which reached into the Pacific. The restaurant had a very gentle sway back and forth from the waves of the sea which washed the bottom of the pier. Gil noticed it but the kids did not, nor apparently Stephanie. He fixed his gaze on the horizon as he’d been taught long ago when on a boat ride. The slight queasiness quickly went away.
Afterward they wandered the amusement park part of the pier. They played various games, such as the ring toss, water pistol target shoot, and ballon bust with darts. Then the kids both did the Beach Bounce, a combination trampoline and bungee jump.
They also rode the dragon ship, which had green-scaled sides and a dragon figurehead at each end of the ship. Everyone had to strap in with seat and shoulder belts because the ship rode up and down, tilted forward and back, and rolled side to side as if in high seas.
The evening would not have been complete without a ride on the Ferris wheel. It was just after sunset, and the many-colored neon-lit sides shone very bright. As they rose high in the air Margaret clung tightly to Gil’s side and Timothy to Stephanie’s, but by the time they peaked and got a look out over the pier and the ocean the kids had gotten over their fear and relaxed.
The sights were lovely, but Gil’s was even more spectacular. For he could see into several worlds to red and blue.
To red there were fewer people, trailing off to none six world lines away. To blue-2 he saw a port with sailing ships leaving and (mostly) entering a harbor. To blue the worlds were more modern; five lines away and very dim in his phantom sight he saw a great blimp-like ship lowering to an air port behind him and to one side.
Except instead of a small gondola below the ship it had three long rows of windows on its sides like those on passenger planes. He guessed it flew using some gravity-controlled lift engine. And wondered if Katalin’s home line world-walkers were spying on that world line to steal the technology.
Deposited back onto the floor of the pier they made one last stop: Pier Gear, the miniature shopping mall decorated with fish netting and surf boards. Each kid was allowed one souvenir gift. Margaret chose an open-top billed cap like those worn by tennis players. Timothy chose a green sweater with Santa Monica Pier in gold letters on the front. It was too large for him, as Margaret pointed out, but he swore he would grow into it.
As they walked toward the landward end of the pier Stephanie called the Allens and told them they were done and would need a ride home. Fifteen minutes later a shiny grey van appeared and everyone happily climbed in, the kids vying with each other to tell their parents about the wonderful evening they’d had.
Dropped off at Stephanie’s house, with effusive thanks from all the Allens, Gil and Stephanie limped tiredly into her home, separated to freshen up, get soft drinks from the kitchen, and flop onto the sofa in her living room.
"Wow," he said to her, putting his legs up on the kick-table before the couch. "I have a much greater appreciation of what my folks did raising me and my sister."
She sipped her drink, said, "I can’t imagine how parents manage it. And have a job. And a social life."
"Mmm," he said and sipped at his drink.
There were several minutes of silence as they lolled, feet up, and slowly finished their drinks. Then there was a rising feeling of tension.
Gil was acutely aware of her long bare legs. He’d always been a leg man, and hers were phenomenal to his eyes. Strong, sleek, lightly tanned. He wanted to run a hand over them, and trail it upward to where the legs met. He was also hyper aware of her body beside him, warm against his side. He turned toward her.
Stephanie was looking back at him. Her eyes seemed larger than ever somehow. Her lips drew his gaze, plump and partly opened.
He leaned over and kissed her, gently at first, then after taking a much-needed breath, more fiercely.
For a time they kissed, their positions slowly adjusting and changing, until she lay on her back on the couch and he lay on his side but also almost atop her.
They broke apart a little and looked into each others eyes for long seconds. Then his gaze was drawn downward to where her breasts strained against her short-sleeved tee shirt.
Gil kissed her along one jaw line, then worked his way down her neck, then down to the slight vee in her sweater. She tasted of salt and smelled of some faint perfume, perhaps her natural scent.
He put a hand over the nearest breast and squeezed the soft mound ever so slightly.
She put a hand over his and said, "Working a little fast, aren’t you?"
Gil stilled but did not take his hand from her breast. He grinned down at her.
"Maybe. You don’t like this?" He emphasized this with a slight squeeze.
"That’s the problem. I like it too much."
"You want me to stop?"
Gil squeezed her whole breast, then used a forefinger to trace the hidden areola under her sweater and bra. Round and round his finger went, then he gently pinched the nipple in its center. It responded by hardening.
He put his hand to her waist and pushed it up under her sweater toward her breasts.
"Wait," she said, and sat up. She put both hands crossed in front of her on the hem of the sweater and pulled it upward and over her head, shrugging her head to gently work her long blond hair out of the neck. Then she lay back down.
Now the swell of her breasts were visible out of the tops of her bra. He put a hand over her nearest breast and gently squeezed. She took a deep breath.
Sitting up a bit he puzzled at the connection of the cups, guessed it snapped open, and fumbled one-handed at the snap. Then he sat up more and used two hands. The connection snapped open and spread. Reverently he lifted the two cups away to expose her breasts.
"Wow," he said, more breathing the words than forming them. "So beautiful."
He put a hand on the nearest. It was warm and soft and the nipple made a gentle dent in his palm. He took his hand away then put it back, fingers playing with her nipples, first one then the other.
Her breath sped up. His did too. His erection pushed painfully at his jeans. He shifted his weight, which loosened his pants. That helped.
He put his head down and kissed the nearer areola and nipple. Then he sucked on her breast.
She gasped and moaned, her body straightening then her legs opened and she pushed up at his body.
Gil ran his hand down her belly toward the join of her legs.
Stephanie froze. Then she put a gentle but firm hand on his roving hand.
"Wait," she said. "It’s too early."
For a moment Gil felt hot anger rise up in him at being balked. He squelched it. If Katalin ever learned that he’d forced a woman, in any way, she would be angered and hurt and disappointed. And she might never speak to him again.
He relaxed and let his hand rest on her bare belly.
"OK," he said. "I know. I know. God damn it."
She put both her hands on his. They felt hot.
"Thank you. You are my dearest Gilbert. I…like you so much. It scares me."
He turned his hand and squeezed hers. He sat up, put his face in his hands, and took a deep breath.
Beside him he heard Stephanie doing something, putting her clothing to rights he guessed. Then she sat up and leaned on his side and back, putting her arms around him. They sat that way for a time, her body warm against his.
Finally he got the will to stand up. She stood too. He turned, looked down at her.
"Sorry I was in such a hurry," he said.
"Oh, honey, I’m so sorry I’m not ready. I do care for you. Maybe too much."
He leaned down, keeping his arms at his sides, and kissed her forehead.
"I’d better go."
"Yes. I hate it. But yes."
She trailed him to the door. At it he turned and drew her to him. He kissed her lightly on her lips.
"You have a good week, dear Stephanie. I’ll call you. Soon."
Then he was gone. Backing up, carefully to avoid the traffic on the highway, busy even this late on a Sunday night, he gauged the flow and entered the traffic. In his rear-view mirror he saw her door still open and her figure silhouetted in the yellow glow behind her.
At home he noticed as he passed the living room entrance that his parents were sitting on the couch entwined together watching something on the big screen on the far wall, an old black-and-white movie he saw.
He stuck his head in and his father paused the movie with a remote.
"Hi. Home safe and sound. Steph and I babysat a couple of kids on the beach and then the pier. They wore me down and I’m hitting the hay early. Tell you more tomorrow."
They both said Goodnight nothings and he escaped to his bedroom.
He made a brief toilette and turned out the lights and got under the light cool sheet on his bed. But his mind was still back on Stephanie’s couch, reliving the events in vivid detail. He got a monstrous painful erection and finally gave in to necessity and took care of it.
It took a minute or less and left him utterly exhausted, lying on his back in his bed. Every muscle in his body seemed relaxed.
Finally as sleep began to claim him he forced himself to stand and go to the bathroom to clean himself up. Then he returned to bed.
He drifted inexorably toward sleep, remembering the time he’d slept with Stephanie after warming her up when she was recovering from her sickness. He’d awakened in the middle of the night with her in his arms in the darkness. He’d felt no sexual attraction as he dozed. But he did feel something: a great warmth in his heart and a need to protect the precious armful beside him.
A feeling that came to him now and stayed with him as slumber claimed him.