In the camera's eye, Caitriona can see a long black tunnel, a flicker of movement, like bloodshot starfall. Its lens clicks and whirs, measuring her and following each light change, the girl checking the white balance using thick strips of cardboard. She fancies that it is beckoning her to open her mouth.
Tell us, Caitriona. Tell us your truth.
But what can say? The script is written, isn't it?
Over on the wall, beyond the interviewer's chair, there is a mirror. Perhaps it opens to another world, another earth. Perhaps she could fall down the rabbit hole, an unlikely Alice, the air tasting of dirt and forgotten sunshine. Perhaps she'd look up, gaze at the glittering cosmos. If she stepped through, would there be storms, or would the lightning split the sky to reveal a warm morning, a cup of tea on the porch (steam rising from it gently, slowly, like smoke), the skin of her shoulders bare and polished. The smell of water, and reeds and the caws of birds dipping, swooping, ospreys and cranes and the loons with their blood-red throats.
The truth is that she feels ill. Hot, like she's coming down with a fever. The truth is that she's remembering a teacher reading her to once, when she was just a girl, sitting on a ratty carpet with the rest of the class. Crossed legs and a wool skirt. She can remember that she'd felt sick then too, like she was getting a blocked nose. And her teacher kept reading, her voice like a scythe through the room, cutting across the bubbles of their daydreams.
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice.
'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here.'
The words had felt like fingers on her spine. She knew there was something dark in them, like the ghosts that haunted her Granny's attic.
We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.
Caitriona looks up at the woman holding the sound mic, and nods. Just once.
1 year earlier.
Her mouth tastes awfully of salt, and she licks her lips with one swipe of her tongue, trying to avoid smearing the pink gloss, the armour. Earlier, she'd stealthily followed a server passing around food. He'd given her a sliver of sourdough toast, layered with honeyed goat cheese and roasted, bursting grapes. They'd looked like amethysts, like bruises. It was so good that she'd almost moaned while chewing.
Normally she wouldn't have eaten at a 'do like this. After all, she's teetering on the kind of heels that make her feel as if she's on a skyscraper, and her dress is a loaner. Do not fucking stain it, Meghan had said firmly. She worked for Burberry and looked perpetually harassed. It was then that she'd pleaded. Seriously though, you won't?
She heads for a corner, far from the roving photographers. Ducking behind a plant pot that is the size of a small country, she slicks a wet wipe over her mouth and surreptitiously crunches on a mint. She slips the wipe into her clutch and reapplies her lipstick. All in under thirty seconds. You're getting quite good at this, Balfe. Her hair she brushes just once (it's no longer a riot of springy curls after all) and re-fastens the clips holding it in place. It's ridiculous to be this nervous, of course it is.
But there's a hot stone where her stomach used to be, and she keeps scanning the crowd. Over and over again. Like a metronome, as consistent and infuriating as the pulse of her heart.
"See anyone ye like back there?"
Of course he would sneak up on her. She arranges her expression carefully. Something else she's gotten quite good at over hiatus. Tries to pretend it wasn't just yesterday that she'd seen all the Internet postings. The video of him tossing that girl into a lake of aqua. The Instagram snaps on beaches and beside cars. For some reason, she hasn't been able to picture him in anything but a trucker hat and sleeveless vest since, so it's almost a surprise that he looks so well turned out. So... clean?
"Not yet," she says blithely and accepts his kiss on her cheek. His lips feel like nothing. "When did you arrive?"
"Only a moment ago," he says and smiles. "It's good to see ye, Balfe."
"Mmm, I should hope so."
"You've changed. Yer hair--"
"Like the audition, actually," he says, and if there's any weight to his words - any allusion to their last conversation about Akasha in Culver City - he doesn't show it. His tone is light, breezy. He sounds like a Californian, born with an avocado in his mouth. "I'm not sure which I prefer more though. The Claire curls grew on me."
"Thankfully no one gives a toss what you think," she says, not bothering to temper the words with a grin. "They were a pain in the arse. I've asked them to consider wigs next 'round."
"Well, ye clean up quite well."
"Mmm," she says again. "How've you been?"
For the first time, he looks faintly uncomfortable. "Look - about not texting, I'm sorry. I was just a wee bit busy and trying to--"
"No apologies necessary, Heughan," she says. "It's not as if we're joined at the hip?"
"We used to be, aye?"
The quiet words go right through her, like a hook in a fish's neck. "We worked together, not the same thing."
His jaw tightens and a muscle jerks in his cheek. "Ah, like that, is it?"
"I'm not angry," she lies. "In fact, I saw some photos and you looked like you were having a grand time. A bit Bieber adjacent with the hats, but--"
He smiles, but it's a twist of movement, nothing more. The flash of his white teeth reminds her of a tiger sizing up his prey. "Sounds quite like judging actually, Balfe. Ye might want to work on that."
"You might want to work on your taste in clothes. And women." She immediately hates herself for the comment. So raw and ridiculous. "Look--"
Sam cuts her off by lifting his hand. "How was New York?"
She shrugs her shoulders slightly. "Busy. Busy and not at all what I expected. I suppose I thought I'd just slip back into things like an old dress or something. But it didn't fit-- I mean, my life there just didn't fit? I had a nice time but everything's changed."
"For me it has," she says, looking away. Her throat aches. "I knew the show would require a lot from me -- a lot of adjustments, but--"
"Only positive changes on this end," Sam says, and his voice has cooled. "It's odd to be suddenly welcomed into places that turned ye away before, but I can't say I mind."
"That's not... that's not real, Sam."
"And what is?" he asks harshly. "Loch Rannoch? Pretending to be a warrior? Give me a break, Cait. This is what's real. This chance and what we make of it."
To hear him say Loch Rannoch in that dismissive way, it undoes her. She feels like he's drawn a zipper down her front, spilled her insides. To think of that silly email she almost sent. Mooning around Manhattan, carrying the cufflinks she'd never given him in her bag. Sometimes, she had brought them out and held them against her breasts, over the throb of her heart.
"You're right of course," she says brightly. "Which is why we should be mingling. With other people."
She doesn't wait for a response, though she hears the intake of his breath. The way he swallows and moves aside as she stalks toward the balcony doors. The sleeve of his blazer had brushed her arm. She'd smelled him on the air, and there had still been something that punctured her memories, something that the wild, secret part of her recognized. The smell of wind, and heather, sandalwood and salt.
Outside, there's a long, wide swathe of balcony overlooking the city. Palm trees and white-topped buildings. HVAC units and puffing breaths of smog. In the distance, the glimmer of the Pacific, so blue and fathoms deep. She walks over to the railing, and runs her hand down it as she makes her way to the corner, away from the clusters of people. Away from the mingling. She can't stand to face anyone else just yet. Not with her blood hammering in her body and the knowledge that--
"That everything has changed," she whispers out loud. Only if she says it will it be true. How melodramatic, but if there ever was a time to be maudlin and sore and salt-eyed, it's now. God that email. She grabs her phone from her bag. She'd better delete it now, lest she decide to send it in a fit of wine and gin and Donal egging her on (the man liked nothing more than regrettable actions). It's still in her Drafts, sitting forlornly next to a half-written grocery list and a missive to her grandmother she'd forgotten to send, and then couldn't bear to delete after she died.
This feels a bit daft, writing you an email like we’re in sixth form, but we’re not texting (? I don’t really know why but we’re not) so I wasn’t really sure what else to do. I thought about calling but that seemed odd too. It’s like being at uni, and you’re on summer break and you’re not sure how to contact the person you used to chat with all the time at the uni bar or pub in town.
I’m rambling, aren’t I? I just wanted to say I’m sorry.
For screwing things up with that bloody awful day at Loch Rannoch. Not that it was AWFUL but telling you how I felt— I mean, admitting things properly was so terrible of me. I’m not sure what I thought I was doing. I just wanted you to know, I suppose. That I did see you that day at Akasha (I know I haven’t said anything about that and I don’t think you want me to?) and I was as flattened by it as anyone could be. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but that felt like something close to it - it felt like seeing someone who you just realize very quickly is a person who could fit into a place you didn’t know was empty.
YES I KNOW THAT SOUNDS DIRTY, HEUGHAN.
But do you also know what I mean?
You became so much more than a mate to me. You became my best mate, but even that seems so *small* for what it was. All those times you looked at me and just KNEW I needed a coffee. You would come up to me and work out that knot I always get at the back of my neck from the corsets holding me up right. You bought me that book of old postcards. You asked about Eddie every day, without fail. It felt like you truly cared what I had to say about a cat you’ve never even met. You made me laugh so hard I cried and actually snorted a few times too, not my finest hour, but you made my stomach hurt from it. You brought me gin and tried to make me dinner and you made me WANT to make you dinner.
You made me want so many things, Sam.
I never thought, —
well, I just never thought. I thought I knew, you see. I thought I was smart. I thought I had things together.
And then I moved to Glasgow and I met you and everything seems spinning on a precipice and I’m afraid to fall, I’m afraid.
But I want to tell you that if you’d catch me, I’d fall.
For you. I think I’d do anything.
As sappy as that sounds, it’s true.
It’s so true.
Her thumb hovers over the trash button, and then.
“I’m an arse, y’know.”
She jumps and shoves her phone back in her clutch. “You’re an arse for sneaking up on people, yes.”
“Aye, I ken that.” He pauses and leans next to her, looking out over the city. “I didn’t mean to be such a shite though. Earlier. Ye didn’t deserve it and I suppose it just threw me for a loop, seeing you again.”
He shrugs, laughs. “Well for one thing, ye look very, very different in those glad rags.”
“You mean as opposed to wooly, stinky skirts and Canada Goose?”
Sam looks down at her, his eyes crinkling. “Exactly. I wasn’t expecting the supermodel to show up.”
“I’ve always been a supermodel, Heughan,” she says loftily.
He chucks her chin. “That ye have. But it was— it was more of a surprise seeing you after so long. Like a shock to the system.”
She feels that. Like electricity, sparkling as true as gemstones between them, between their bodies and minds. “So why didn’t you call me then? Text, even? Christ Sam, we were mates."
Sam looks down at her, those blue eyes blazing. “I just don’t know what ye want from me, Caitriona.”
“What do you mean?”
He leans back against the rail, crossing his arms. His hair is burnished fire in the dying sunlight. “I wanted to give ye space but I feel like that wasn’t the right choice? Ye seem furious with me and I dinna know what I did, but I get that it’s something and —“
“Who are those girls?”
“You have a husband.”
His voice is rough. She feels it snatch her breath and turns away, gripping the balcony rail. There’s a sharp bit and she can’t help but let out a sigh, a little mewl of pain. He instantly straightens, reaches out. It’s instinctive, as age-old as fire and water and mud huts by the river. As ancient as his scent on the wind and her nose lifting to breathe it in, feel it fill her belly. His fingers grasp her hand and he turns it over, examines the long, thin cut on her palm.
“You’re hurt,” he says low. His thumb slowly strokes the blood, smears it.
“It’s nothing,” she says, can barely get the words out. “It’s nothing.”
He lifts her hand to his mouth. She feels the slow drag of his tongue and closes her eyes, closes them against the salt-wet lick of his mouth, the pull of his lips against her skin, as he sucks away the blood.
“It could never be nothing, Caitriona,” Sam says hoarsely, and he walks away, the memory of his mouth against her palm as sure and as blinding and as painful as if he’d fucked her against the rail, against the sky with its falling sun.