His info slate chimed the next morning while Gil was eating breakfast. He looked up at his parents as they all ate at the breakfast table. They ignored him, busy with their own food and reading, a journal for his father and an entertainment magazine for his mother. He tapped the Read Mail icon.
My very dear Gil. Thank you for a wonderful time with the kids and later.
A wave of relief swept over him. So she wasn’t unhappy at his forwardness on her couch at the end of their date!
I’m busy with table reads today–on a Sunday! The schedule for HT2 is getting shorter. And tomorrow I’ll be the whole day in my fitting of the body suit. They say they can get putting it on down to three hours this time. But they need the whole day to make sure of it.
Her superhero character The Red Devil wore an all-red all-over body suit. She also had a domino face mask and red skin. It took an entire team to get her into it and out of it. And her work day started at 5:00 am! Gil thought it would kill him to get up early enough to make that.
Though with the money she got paid for it, he supposed he could bear it!
The first day of performing is always super hard for me. Do you suppose you could spend some of it on set? Maybe getting there at 9:00, 10:00? And we might be able to have a lunch together. Though that will probably be a quick sandwich at noon, so that’s not much of a treat!
Hell, seeing Stephanie practically naked in her costume would be treat enough. He quickly answered her email with one of his own: He’d be there at 9:00 Tuesday.
"Mom, Dad. Steph would like me to visit her set Tuesday. See any problems with that?"
"Not me," his father said, not looking up from his journal.
"As long as you remember to stay quiet and out of the way," his mother said. "And, let’s see, that’s the second Hard Times… Hmm, David is directing it. Give him a short message from me…."
She thought a few moments. Gil waited patiently.
"‘Dear David, all my…affection. Wishes for your continued success.’ Think you can remember that?"
Gil had narrowed down his attention while she spoke her message. The words were clear in his memory. To test it, he repeated it aloud for her. His mother smiled brilliantly at him and returned to her magazine.
He mentioned his visit to the Hard Times set visit to Katalin on Monday afternoon before his martial-arts training with her. He collected two bruises that day and wondered if she was mad at him.
He arrived at the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank Tuesday at 9:00 and parked in the garage across the street from it. The lot was huge, maybe a square mile of offices, giant barn-like studios, craft shops, motor pools, and God knew what all. He had to show the printed-out badge Stephanie had emailed him at the lot and at the entrance, where the guard put it into a clip-on clear plastic holder and gave him instructions to the Hard Times set. At the entrance a young man with an info slate examined his badge, checked it with his list, and had a young woman take him in hand.
She spoke very quietly as they entered the cavernous building. "Please keep very quiet and stay out of the way. When David is able to see you I’ll come get you."
He spoke just as quietly. "Don’t worry. This is not my first time on set. I’ll be careful."
She looked at his face more closely. "Oh! You’re Élodie’s kid. And Steph’s boyfriend."
Gil was used to being known by his associations so he accepted the comment as routine. But he wished he wasn’t so easily pegged as a KID and a BOY friend. But he just smiled at her and took up station where she left him.
He stood there for more than an hour, shifting from foot to foot occasionally. Twice when nothing seemed to be happening he sat slumped against a wall on the cool concrete surface of the studio. But when something happened he stood watching.
He had a pretty good view though it was far back from the camera and the director and the action they were shooting. His position was a bit to the side, and people and equipment were in front of him. But his 6′ 2" height stood him in good stead.
The set was two fake walls of a dingy room which supposedly contained some bad guys who’d pissed off The Red Devil, though no actors were there. One of the walls contained a door through which Stephanie would explode. When he first arrived several crew people were fiddling with it, putting it back together from an earlier shoot.
Done, they got out of the way. The director, David Strelkovski, spoke into a black phone. Loudspeakers echoed his words.
"Quiet on the set. Ready everyone. Stepha?"
Presumably Stephanie answered him but Gil couldn’t hear her voice.
The fake door exploded inward, supposedly kicked in by the bionic-powered foot of the Devil. Stephanie came through all in her red outfit and face paint. She dove toward the floor to land on a mattress, presumably out of view of the cameras, of which there were three, a big one almost directly in front of her, and two smaller ones to each side.
"Cut. Good one, Stepha. Let’s do it again, this time with a little more speed."
Stephanie said something back to him, conversationally, as she rose and the director laughed. She stood a moment, looking around. In his place Gil raised both hands and waved them over his head.
She saw him and smiled and waved back and threw him a hugely theatrical kiss. Then she retired through the open doorway and the technicians began to put the door back in place once again.
A lot of people looked around at Gil and he suddenly felt self-conscious. But not for long, because all they did was glance and go back to work.
The same action was shot three times in the hour Gil watched. Then the loud speakers spoke in the director’s voice.
"Cut. That’s a wrap. Stepha, we go to scene 131. Makeup please."
The director looked around, saw Gil, and waved him over. Gil walked to meet him, a thirty-something man with long grey hair caught up in a pony tail. He wore what most everyone else there wore: tennis shoes, jeans, and a sweater or tee shirt. He also wore over it a tan vest-like garment with lots of pockets.
Close up Gil could see he had a short beard and mustache, grey as was the rest of his hair, but he seemed more youthful than thirty.
"Hello," the director said. He had a slight accent, probably Russian. "You must be Gilbert. Welcome to the set. You know the etiquette of the set, I presume?"
Gil shook his hand, saying, "Stay quiet and out of the way, yes, sir."
"Good. Then you are especially welcome. I know Stepha always doubts herself the first few days, foolish girl. And smart girl. She’s back in the groove already, or she wouldn’t be cursing me."
"Oh, yes. Quite inventive. I welcome it. It’s a good sign. Now I really must get back to it."
"Sir. I have a message from my mother. Ah, let me get this just right… ‘Dear David, all my affection. Wishes for your continued success.’"
"Be sure to return my regards." He turned away.
The rest of the morning was pretty much a repeat of the earlier, though the action this time was of the Devil rising from the floor. Gil guessed this was from a rolling somersault on the floor, which would be shot later with a stunt person. Then they shot a close-up of the Devil’s face as she glared around at the men in the room whom she was about to kill.
At exactly noon the director announced a one-hour lunch time. "And be sure to go to the bathroom near the end, people. Be all emptied out. We’ll have two hours before we can break again."
Stephanie appeared from somewhere and walked toward Gil. He met her halfway.
He just looked, not touched. He knew better than to muss her costume.
She said, "Thank you, honey, for showing up. Everything went much better with you here for me."
"David thinks you were already ‘in the groove’ because, he said, you were cursing him." He put his hands before him, palms up. She carefully put her hands palm down onto his. That was all she could do and not seriously muss the red paint on her hands. Gil understood and kept his palms flat.
"Let’s eat," she said. "Or at least you eat. What I do can’t be dignified with the word."
They dropped hands and walked to the buffet table. It was set along a far wall of the barn and included a lot of finger food and soft drinks and water. She took a paper plate and placed two triangular sandwiches upon it. He saw the bread was very thin, as was the filling, something green like guacamole. For a drink she chose a clear plastic bottle of water. Out of respect for her sensibility he chose only one ham-and-cheese sandwich and a fruit drink.
There was a small office set aside for her in a long hall beyond one side of the barn. She sat on a stool so as (she explained) not to muss up the back of her costume. He settled into a cloth folding chair.
They just looked at each other and slowly ate. She was something to look at, with the body suit showing every detail of her body, including the crease of her crotch. He kept his eyes off that but could not keep them off her breasts.
They hang little impeded by the fabric, delicious round things to his eyes. He could just barely see that she had nipples but he knew they were there. He remembered them all too vividly for his comfort.
She watched him watching her. There was a little smile on her face.
He looked at her face.
"You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?"
Her smile grew wider. "I like you to look at me. I like to think I turn you on."
"Yeah. Me and a million others."
Her smile went out.
"Oh, baby," he said. "I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to bring you down."
She shrugged–carefully because of the tight fabric. "I’m used to it. Sometimes I think about all those men wanking over pictures of me– That’s natural, I suppose, and I don’t mind it. Most of the time. But you thinking of me as a whore–"
Gil quickly sat his paper plate and canned drink on the floor and stood. He came very close to her. He bent and as gently as he could gave her lips a kiss as light as air.
He unbent and said, "You are my dearest sweetheart. I DON’T think of you that way."
She looked up at him. The Devil mask did not hide the face he knew from him.
"Oh, Gil. I feel… Kiss me, really kiss me. Fuck the makeup. They’ll fix it."
So he did, a kiss which turned to a deep one.
Finally they broke away, taking deep breaths.
He had an erection. He tried to hide it as he took up his plate and drink again but she noticed. She giggled.
His face was hot as he crossed his legs and took a sip of his drink. Then the humor of the situation got the best of him and he laughed.
"You may not be a whore. But you certainly are a MINX."
"I’m your minx," she said with great satisfaction.
Gil watched for two hours after lunch was over. When the break was called he could only spend a few free minutes with her.
("You can’t believe what it takes for me just to pee. I have to have two women help me with the costume!")
He told her he was going to leave and asked her if she wanted him to take her home later and, maybe, massage any cramping muscles.
"Oh, you’re sweet! But a long hot bath will do the trick. And if you are there I’ll be tempted to stay up too late. I have to got to sleep at 9:00 to make the morning schedule."
"OK. I’ll be back at 9:00 tomorrow."
"You don’t have to. I’m in the groove now."
"I’ll be here," he said very firmly.
She dimpled at him and he walked away.
Gil collected only one bruise that afternoon at practice. But it was his fault, so he supposed Katalin was over whatever mysterious annoyance she’d had with him the day before.
Wednesday there was no afternoon martial practice, so Gil stayed around the Hard Times set all day. After an hour of watching nothing much he helped a grip who was struggling to carry a heavy prop to place it on the set. Then an hour later he held a roll of heavy cable as two other grips unrolled it and plugged it in.
In the afternoon he helped a production intern make and deliver coffee, after assuring the young woman that he was not after her job.
"Oh, that’s right! I know you now. You’re Steph’s boyfriend. OK. You take THIS tray over THERE."
At 7:00 the director announced the day’s end, at the exact hour else they’d have to pay double overtime to everyone.
It took an hour to get Stephanie out of her suit and most of the body paint off. He walked her to the limo the studio provided to get her to and from work. She kissed him lightly on his mouth, squeezed one of his hands with her two hands very strongly, and collapsed into the leather seat of the limo. He watched it all the way to the corner as it pulled away from him.
Thursday at lunch Stephanie told him firmly that he was not to come to the set any more. She was really working well now and she did not want to exhaust his patience with her.
"You’re too important to me. I don’t want to lose you because I’m being selfish."
He agreed with mixed feelings, of relief to be spared so much boredom, and of a feeling of loss at not being needed. He WANTED to be needed.
That day he and Katalin went back to the park where they’d practiced fighting as a team while jumping from world line to world line. This time they practiced with him three world lines away from her. This was her limit to see other lines, and she had to be able to see him to coordinate her actions with his actions when they fought.
Saturday Gil spent the afternoon with Stephanie on the beach behind her house. She’d hired a small crew to cater a barbecue and had Duke and Katalin and about a dozen of their mutual friends join them.
A half-dozen paparazzi showed up for an hour, all invited by Stephanie’s publicist, who believed feeding the carnivores measured doses of meat kept them from food frenzies. Everyone ignored the photographers, or pretended to, and the last of them left after a half hour.
There was dancing for a couple of hours after sunset and Gil noticed Katalin seemed to be having a good time. Then Stephanie shooed everyone away and the two watched the crescent moon go down.
Then as if they shared the same thought they turned to each other and began to kiss and caress each other. One thing led to another and they retired to her bed room, where Gil was very happy that he’d brought a spray-on condom.
They made love twice, the first frantic and quick, the second time an hour later, taking their time. They made mistakes and giggled about them and incorporated them in their love-making.
Deep in the night Gil woke for some reason. Stephanie was cuddled against him and he felt an enormous warmth fill his chest. It followed him back into sleep.
The next morning Gil was preparing to cook breakfast when Stephanie came into the kitchen a bit bleary eyed and plopped down into a kitchen table chair. He, on the other hand, was feeling especially energetic and cheerful. Knowing her preferences from conversation he said nothing, just placed a cup of black coffee before her.
She fumbled with the cup and took a sip.
"Having trouble seeing?" he said.
She opened one eye to look at him, closed it, took another sip. "My eyes are still glued shut."
"I have a cure for that. Get up."
"I don’t wanna." Nevertheless she stood, clutching her cup.
He gently pried it from her hand and set it down on the table. She feebly protested.
"Don’t worry. I’ll bring it to you. Now put your arms around my neck."
She obeyed and he lifted her into his arms. She was a good solid–deliciously fragrant!–weight but he carried her easily into the living room and sat her carefully down on the couch.
"I warn you," she said. "I’m not feeling at all amorous."
"Don’t worry. I’m about to work a miracle cure on you. Let me just get your coffee cup."
He went into the kitchen, quickly freshened her cup from the pot, and returned to wrap her hands around the cup.
"I’ll be back in a minute with your miracle cure."
In the kitchen he hastily sliced a cucumber from her fridge onto a plate and took it into the living room.
Stephanie was still sitting with her cup in her hands, her eyes closed. As he neared her she took another sip.
"Now, put your cup on the side table– Here, I’ll do that for you." He put the cup on the table.
"Now, let’s get you lying on your back. Here, I’ll help."
He placed one of the decorative cushions on one end of the couch and got her lying down with her head on it, her eyes still closed.
"Now, I’m going to put a cucumber slice on each eyelid. Here comes the first."
In moments he had both eyes covered. Then he sat on the floor beside her, ready to catch a slice if she moved her head and it slipped off. None did.
After a few minutes, while he sat admiring her body, nicely shaped despite the bulky robe, she said. "That does feel good. What’s the magic?"
"Coolness. And water. It has nothing to do with being organic or containing some mysterious natural chemical. At least that’s what my father says."
"He’s a wise man."
"I was a little surprised to find your fridge so well stocked."
"I have a service, Oscar’s Everything, which takes care of that and cleaning the house and keeping up the yards."
"Let me change the slices."
Moments later he said, "OK. I’m going to fix breakfast now. What do you want? Eggs? Bacon? Orange juice?"
"Nothing. Just the coffee. Let me take a sip."
He removed the cucumber slices long enough for her to sit and drink, then replaced them with fresh slices when she lay back.
In the kitchen he’d earlier laid out bacon, lettuce, two sliced tomatoes, sliced sourdough bread, and a guacamole fruit. He put the bacon slices in a skillet, sat it on a burner, and covered it. He covered a couple of slices of bread with fresh lettuce and tomato slices, and turned his attention to the guacamole. This he mashed and mixed with a few seasonings, including dashes of salt and pepper and brief squeezes of lemon.
He turned off the flame and ladled the bacon onto a plate covered with a doubly-folded paper towel. When the bacon had cooled enough he pressed down on it with another doubly-folded paper towel to get more grease out.
All this he made into a sandwich which he sliced into two triangles. Then he returned to the living room, taking the coffee pot with him.
Stephanie was sitting up with her eyes open, looking a bit perkier. He freshened her coffee, sat on the carpet in front of her, and handed her a wetted paper towel to wash away the cucumber juice.
"What’s that great smell?"
"A BLT made my Dad’s way."
"Maybe I could eat a few bites of it."
"Let me get you a plate."
She ate half a triangle and he ate the other half and the other triangle. It was enough for both of them.
"I need to take a shower. You exhausted me too much last night for me to get out of bed."
He grinned. "I did OK, then?"
"Oh, honey, yes, you did."
"I tried to hold back and make it last. But I think I need more practice." He kissed her very lightly on her lips. They responded to him, then stiffened. She jumped up.
"Shower!" And she was gone.
After her he took a shower. Then they took a walk on the beach. Mid-morning Sunday it was cool and there were only a few people out on the beach and the water. They held hands for most of the way to the seafood place, had a long lunch, and took their time walking back to her home.
The afternoon was spent with her studying her script and trying out lines on him, varying them slightly each time. It could have been boring but was not. He was proud of her dedication and fascinated by her skill. He also got most of the way through re-reading a favorite sea-war novel.
Near dinner they made love again, taking their time and experimenting with different ways to please each other.
He cooked for her, more of the recipes he’d learned from his father, and they had dinner, watching the waning crescent moon sink into the water. Then he left, as she had to go to bed very early.
By now their affair was well known. Occasionally paparazzi took photos of them at various places. They were not too annoying, because California had several times set ever-harsher penalties for papas. Katalin and Duke got their share of attention.
One evening the Szarvases and Duke ate at Gil’s house, a catered dinner since Brandon was deep in lesson plans for the upcoming school year and didn’t have time to cook. But he and Élodie had made time to make up a video slide show of almost an hour’s silliest stories and shots of the two couples published in print and online and everyone several times collapsed, or in Duke’s case actually collapsed, with laughter.
Gil and Stephanie appeared at a premiere for a friend’s movie and he had the dubious experience at being a companion to her on a red carpet blazing with hot lights.
The two couples double-dated a couple of times. The two women developed an easy way with each other. As they left for the restroom once Duke spoke to Gil about it.
"That is one mysterious ritual women have. I always wonder what the Hell they talk about in there. Us? Them? Something alien to male experience?"
"Mom says they mostly gossip about other women. Viciously."
"I sometimes worry that they’re criticizing our performance in bed."
Gil had had the same disturbing thought. But another thought came to him.
"If Kat has any complaints–about anything–she will tell you. She’s as honest and straightforward as they come. Never doubt her thoughts and feelings. She will make them known to you in no uncertain terms."
"Yeah," Duke said with a rueful expression. Gil guessed he’d experienced that honesty several times already.
Then a month before school started the two double-dated again by going to Mexico on a long weekend. And their relationships changed again.
They flew to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California, a popular vacation spot for southern Californians because it was a two-hour straight shot south by air. They got adjoining suites in a luxury hotel paid for by Duke and by Stephanie.
From there they went horse-back riding, experienced enough to go accompanied only by a guide and horse wrangler who took care of the horses. His job was made easier because Duke insisted that everyone take care of their own horse: feeding and saddling and unsaddling them and currying them and so on. The wrangler mostly made sure the norteamericanos did matters the right way. Only a few times did he have to correct them, and Gil felt he did so more because he did not want to seem unneeded.
They had great brunches, lunches, and dinners and went to nightclubs which catered to the rich and famous, all their bills paid for by Duke and Stephanie.
They parasailed off a beach and camped out that evening on the beach in an open-air cabana, one of a long line which stretched north and south for at least a mile but had easy access a hundred yards back to convenience stores which catered to tourists.
All in all they had a wonderful time. Gil felt very close to Stephanie. He wondered if this meant he loved her, or was IN love with her, but he didn’t waste much time pondering yes or no and what the differences were.
Katalin saw the threat first the next morning. She stood up, looked down the beach toward the next of the open-air cabanas lining the beach every fifty feet or so.
Gil looked up at her and saw that her fighting stick was visible on her back. He glanced the direction she was looking. A shock of fear like cold water thrown over him drove him to his feet. Perhaps forty feet away coming toward them were five men. They looked predatory to his eyes.
Training took over. He stood and faced the direction opposite, then turned to face the same direction she was.
"We’re OK behind."
Katalin said nothing. Her stick was suddenly in her hand. Gil thought tanaus and his stick was in his hand.
The five twenty-something men were closer now. Some had weapons in their hands: a short length of chain, a long knife, and a club made of a section of pipe. One weaponless men was big and burly and was slowly pounding one fist into his open hand. The fifth man walked a bit ahead of the others. He was smiling.
Duke stood up to Katalin’s side, the one opposite Gil.
"Let me do the talking," he said to her.
"Get away from me," she said, her eyes still on the advancing me.
"I can pay–"
She raised her voice. "Talking will do no good. I said get away from me!"
"We can’t fight them."
She looked at him then. "I’m trained for this. Stay back. Protect my back. Protect Stephanie."
Gil had not taken his gaze from the advancing men. His initial fear was easing. In its place an eagerness was rising. He felt his mouth form into an open-mouthed smile, the smile of an animal about to bite.
He felt more than saw Duke step back. He heard Stephanie say something to Duke in a low voice. It had fear in it, but not as much as Gil might have expected.
"To red-1," Katalin said. This was the empty alternate world next to them. This was usually her alternate of choice in their fight training. And he had his usual choice. "To red-2," he said.
The men now were about ten feet away and still advancing at a leisurely pace. The leader reached under his jacket and pulled out a gun. He took his time, letting his victims get the full benefit from seeing the deadly black weapon.
Suddenly the two facing the men disappeared. In the alternate universes they stepped quickly forward, separating a bit. Katalin’s stick sliced down in an arc toward the wrist of the ghostly leader’s gun hand. An instant before it passed through the empty space she shifted back to the Home universe. The stick made a loud crack as it struck. At the same time she used her other hand to take the gun from his paralyzed hand as it opened in shock.
Gil had stepped by the ghost of the man and punched the bat man’s gut with his stick as he shifted into Home then back into red-2. He stepped through the ghost image of the man as he began to bend over his middle and spun his stick to crack down on the back of the knife man’s skull, appearing in Home for only an instant.
He looked at the chain man but he was running away. He looked toward Katalin but she was standing back in Home watching as Duke on her other side fought the big man.
There was not much of a fight. The attacker had metal knuckles on both fists but he was slow. Duke was not. He swept the man’s arms aside and delivered a one-two blow to his midriff so hard it sounded like a watermelon being dropped.
Gil shifted back to Home just in time to see Stephanie dash past him toward the running man. He was fast but she was a gazelle. Nearing him she leaped as she’d done a hundred times as The Red Devil, one leg stretched ahead of her, and struck him an enormous blow in his back which sent him sprawling forward onto his face. Alighting she closed on him and, as he rolled over onto his back, stepped down hard on his crotch.
"Think to rape me, did you, Shithead."
Gil turned toward Katalin. She was looking at him and holding up her empty sword hand out to the side to show that her stick was upon her back again. He nodded and thought tanaus again. His stick disappeared into her stick.
Duke was looking down at the prone figure of the big attacker. He looked away, saw Katalin and Gil, then looked to see Stephanie a dozen yards ahead.
"Steph," he called. "It’s all over. Come back."
She ignored him for seconds more as she glared down at the now chainless man, on his side now, his legs drawn up, clutching his crotch. She turned and walked back to stand near her companions.
Katalin spoke to Duke and Stephanie.
"I can’t be seen to be involved in violence. I might get deported. So please, Duke, let this be your story. When the lead man pulled his gun your training took over. You defended yourself. You remember going for the other men but don’t remember the details in the blur of action.
"Stephanie, you did something similar with the same result, maybe going for the knife man. All you’re sure of is catching the man with the chain and making sure he didn’t escape."
Duke was looking searchingly into Katalin’s eyes from a few feet away. Stephanie was standing behind him, her head cocked to one side, looking at Katalin and Gil. Her gaze was turning calculating, while Duke was still wondering.
"Come on, Duke," Stephanie said. "You don’t want Kat to be deported. Besides, think of what the publicity will do for you."
Gil stepped up to her side and put an arm around her. She melted into his embrace but kept a draconian eye on her long-time friend.
He drew a deep breath, looked around him at the five prone bodies. He began nodding slightly. Absent mindedly he took the pistol Katalin handed him.
He pulled out his cell phone and punched in the Mexican emergency number. Moments late he was calling the American Embassy and, shortly, his manager back in the States.
There followed the usual antics. They were questioned by the police, separately, several times, each time with an attorney present. The American Embassy got involved. The stories in the newspapers and newszines and magazines and blogazines were numerous and often ill-informed or completely fictional. The two movie stars both had managers to try to spin publicity the direction they wanted, with only moderate success. It took two weeks before other scandals and stories pre-empted this latest event.
Meanwhile Gil and Katalin were making preparations for his trip to her home line so that he could register as an alien world walker. They supported Duke and Stephanie as much as they could, but the two movie stars had not forgotten how their lovers had disappeared and reappeared as if teleporting from place to place. Wielding their fists or invisible weapons so expertly they could have butchered the attackers.
They said nothing, but it had affected them a lot. They withdrew emotionally from the two world walkers.
Gil hid his hurt feelings and made excuses not to spend much time with Stephanie. He guessed Katalin did the same but that woman was expert in hiding her feelings. Even from her Shield.