The doorbell rang and Fred rushed to open it, knowing it could only be one person- Ginger had phoned about half an hour ago, saying she would stop by his house as she had something important to tell. He hadn't liked the tone of her voice, it told him something was off.
As he unlocked the door and opened it, his smile instantly vanished when he saw the forced one she was presenting him. "Hello, darling." She cupped his cheek and quickly entered the threshold, careful not to show any sings of affection in broad daylight- reporters were everywhere these days. As he was closing the door, he saw a taxi turn the corner. Every time she would go to his house, she'd take a cab- her car would rise suspicion.
He walked to the living room and saw her unbuttoning her coat and finished the job for her, kissing her softly as he slid the material off her.
She was strangely quiet as he took her hand and led her to sit by his side on the couch. They sat sideways, facing each other, but she was looking down, staring at her hands.
Knowing she'd only talk when she felt ready, he tried to coax it out of her. "You've been MIA all week. I missed you, you know." He said, taking her hand in his and caressing it with his thumb.
"I missed you too...It's just I had a lot to think about and I've reached a decision." She swallowed hard, looking at their joined hands. "A decision that was almost impossible to make." She added, her voice weak.
He was starting to have a sense of dread by her behaviour. He cleared his throat. "Does that decision have to do with the fact you won't look me in the eyes?"
She lifted her head and he saw a storm of emotions in her eyes, the usual blue now a dull grey. "I...I don't know how to tell you this." She opened her purse and searching inside, took out a picture, handing it to him. It was a photograph of a big house in what looked like Toscany or Provence. And then she said the words that would make his heart stop. "I just bought it... and I'm leaving for the south of France tomorrow."
He dropped the photo. "Wait, what? For how long?"
He saw her tuck the picture back inside her purse and keep her eyes down again. "I don't know for sure. A year, two maybe."
No, no, no. This couldn't be happening. He stated to feel panicky and took her hand both in his. "Can I ask why?"
She took a shaky breath and as she once again met his eyes, he saw the pain in there, as evident as the love she felt for him. "There are so many reasons... I think I'm loosing my touch as an actress and I need time for myself... I'm tired of sneaking around." She finally confessed, but removed her hand from his and cupped his face with both hands. "I'm not tired of you, of us. I could never get tired of that, you know that, right? But ever since Phyllis died, it seems everything we do has to be more restricted, in constant fear of someone finding out. I still don't know how I'll stay apart from you for so long", she blinked, a lone tear escaping and she swallowed the lump in her throat, "but I have to do this."
The more she talked, the more he felt as if someone were punching his gut, his heart breaking for both of them. He kissed the tear away and covered both her hands on his face with his own. "I won't lie and say I'm happy with this, but what I want more in this world is to see you happy. If getting away from everything is what it takes, then I can't hold you back."
"If they found out about us, about we meeting secretly, they'd publish lies. They'd never understand us. I just couldn't survive if our story were transformed into something sordid. I'd rather live alone the rest of my life than to see this happen." She closed her eyes, willing herself not to cry, not now, not in front of him. She felt his lips on hers, each passing second more urgent and desperate.
"Can you stay one more hour?"he asked against her neck, starting to lift them both up from the sofa.
She pressed her swollen-kissed mouth to his again. "Need you ask?"
With that he led her to his bedroom and they stood there, looking at each for ages before they started removing their clothing, so delicately, so reverently, kissing each part of the other's skin that was revealed- a reminiscent of their first time together.
He lifted her in his arms and placed her on the centre of the bed, his eyes never leaving hers as he lied on top of her.
For the longest time, they just kissed each other, knowing it would be a long time before they could do it again.
When he finally entered her, it was slow, careful, and they moved in equal pace, constantly touching a part of the other's body, trying to memorise and summarise everything they ever knew about the other.
The way he thrusted into her, his agony for her leaving evident, was making it hard for her to keep her emotions at bay. There was no need for words, their eyes communicating everything they felt for each other, but he did it anyway. "I love you more than life itself. Never doubt or forget that."
It was too much for her fragile heart and soul to bear. Her orgasm hit her and she closed her eyes, burying her face on his neck as she tried to hold back the tears, a few escaping her and wetting his skin. She felt him climax within her and held her even closer, trying to comfort both of them with words of love.
When she had calmed herself enough, she lifted her head and smiled faintly at him, tracing every feature of his face with her fingers. She couldn't dare to make any attempt to lighten the mood- she was afraid if she so much tried to laugh, she would break down the very moment.
The stayed in that position the longest they could and when left the bed, they dressed with the same attentiveness they used to undress.
He called for a taxi and while they waited, Ginger pressed him into the hallway wall, kissing him for one last time, trying to say everything she couldn't with her lips. I'm sorry I'm not stronger. I'm sorry for running away. Make me stay somehow.
They heard a car honk outside- no doubt the a cab- and she pulled away, the desperation of departing from him creating something akin to someone tearing out her heart. She turned from him to open the door and he caught her wrist. "Don't I get a goodbye?"
"No. I said goodbye to everyone else I know, but I won't say it to you. Because it hurts too much. Because you mean more to me than anyone else ever did. Because you're the only man I ever loved and ever will love." She kissed his palm and opened the door, not trusting herself to look at his face one more time and putting on her sunglasses, entered the cab- the love of her life becoming farther and father away from her.
During the ride back to her house, she kept thinking about what she didn't tell him. She didn't lie about not wanting to sneak around anymore. She was tired and she was hurt. Every time a story came out about him, she was only his dancing partner, his colleague, his friend. But she didn't have it in her to demand more, she just couldn't. It wouldn't be fair to him. But it wasn't fair to her either. Countless times they were out together and had to unhold hands, pull apart from each other when they saw someone they knew, each time breaking a little piece of her heart. So close, yet so apart.
She was in a stage of her life that she wanted- no, needed it all. She wanted to hold hands whenever they felt like it, to slow dance in parties, to exchange love declarations in public and be proud of it. She wanted to show the world how much she loved him and how much he loved her, too. She wanted to flirt shamelessly with another man just to see his jealous and possessive side coming alive.
God, she'd give up her entire career and Academy Award if she could be by his side for the rest of their lives.
That's why she had to leave now. They could never have that, so she'd have to just stay away for a while, let her heart get stronger.
Just thinking about not seeing him again for so long made her want to turn the taxi back to his place and take back all she said.
The car stopped and she realised she was in front of her house. She paid the driver and walked the distance to her door, biting her lower lip, but her face otherwise void of expression.
The moment she locked the door, she couldn't hold in any longer. Deep, heart wrenching sobs started escaping her and she slid against the hallway wall, sitting on the floor and cried in desperation, in pain, in love. Everything, every feeling she had for him, for them finally breaking free from her.
Every time she thought the tears would stop, another memory of them would flash into her mind- the way he'd wake her in the morning, how they'd fight and make up in the same day, the way he would look at her when they made love- and she would cry again, loudly, uncontrollably.
There, sitting in her hallway with her back against the wall, letting all her emotions out, she stayed for hours- only leaving the spot to fall exhausted into bed, knowing tomorrow it would only be worse.
Fred kept staring as she got out of his house and into the taxi, not once looking back. He closed the door and walked into his den, pouring himself a glass of scotch and sitting in a chair, stared at the space, feeling lost.
She was leaving, she was actually leaving the country, the continent. He put down the glass in his hand- whiskey nor anything appealed to him at the moment.
She could actually find happiness- he reasoned with himself- do everything she always wanted to, could find someone who could give her everything he didn't.
As much as she tried to hide, he could always see right through her, her actions might fool others, but her eyes always told him everything and he knew as much as she never complained about their situation, she felt a longing- the same as his- to be by his side, freely together.
He wanted to give her that, but how could he? There was his family and Phyllis' family- the latter meddling even more in his life now that she died-, everyone to judge and most likely oppose him, oppose them.
He couldn't forget her face when she was leaving- so much sorrow. She had had enough already and he wouldn't be in her way.
The rest of the day he spent like a robot, doing the things he had to automatically, trying to distract himself but knowing it to be useless- his heart and mind were completely focused on her.
Later on he changed and got into bed, but sleep wasn't coming. He had tossed and turned so much for hours now that the sheets were a mess. He inhaled deeply- somehow everything he owned smelled of her. The scent of her so intense in his pillow he could almost feel her presence, how when he'd wrap his arms around her, her back to his chest, she'd cover them with her own arms, pulling him even closer to her, their heads resting on his pillow as he would be lulled to sleep by the sound and feel of her breathing.
If he closed his eyes, he could pretend for the tiniest moment it was all not true, that she was right there by his side.
God, how he missed her already. He wished there was something-
As if a lightning struck him, he sat on the bed, eyes wide. Oh my God, how stupid could he be? What kind of man was he? He was actually going to let the love of his life leave and possibly meet another man? He should have stopped her from walking out of that door.
The solution was right there, in front of him for a while now, and he hadn't seen it. Or rather, he had chosen not to see it. Sometimes the road to happiness was filled several bumps on the road. Now he was ready for them all.
He picked up the phone by his nightstand and dialed her number. It rang, rand, rang, rang- nothing. He tried two, three more times and still no answer. He looked at the clock. 8:30 AM already. Why hadn't he asked what time her flight was leaving? Maybe if he called the airport, they'd inform him. He had seen Lela once- Lela, that's it! He quickly dialed her number and let out the breath he was holding when she picked up after two rings.
"Lela! It's Fred. Listen, is Ginger with you?"
"No, she isn't. She asked me not to accompany her to the airport. You know how she hates tearful goodbyes."
"When is her flight leaving?"
"In 40 minutes, but Fred, having you see her board will only make it sadder for the both of-"
"Lela, I can't explain now, but trust me when I say that's not my plan at all." He said as he hung up.
He didn't have much time, so after the quickest shower and shave of his life, he got dressed in a hurry, his hair still wet and dripping into the collar of his shirt. Before leaving the room, he went to his wardrobe, opened and picked an object, putting into his suit pocket and dashed out of the room.
His best solution was taking a cab- he couldn't afford time for parking his car and he was sure if he tried, he'd probably ending up leaving it in the middle of the street.
Thankfully he didn't have to wait much- in less than two minutes the cab was in front of his house. With his wallet in hand, he ran to the taxi and got in, slamming the door shut with more force than necessary."Los Angeles International Airport and hurry, please." His anxiety was so he could not care to be his usual polite self.
"Anything you say, mister. Hey, aren't you Fred Astaire?" Asked the driver.
Fred closed his eyes in frustration. "Yes, that's me. Can't you go any faster?"
"I can, but the car can't." He told the old joke. "You know, my wife Gladys adore your movies, specially the ones with Ginger Rogers in 'em. She always said she thought you two were secretly married, because you dance so well together and look real in love in those pictures." He chuckled. "Women."
"Yeah." Fred agreed humourlessly. Were they that obvious on screen, too?
He looked at the street- the traffic wasn't flowing. His foot started to tap nervously on the floor. He checked his watch- 8:50 and he wasn't even halfway there. "Look, isn't there any alternate route you can take? I need to be at the airport in less than 15 minutes."
The driver looked at him hesitantly. "Mr Astaire, two buses collided just half an hour ago, it's impossible to go any faster."
Fred looked around, desperate for a solution. "There!" He pointed to the shoulder of the road. "Drive through there!"
"It's illegal! If a cop saw us-"
"I don't care! Look, it's a life and death situation. I'll pay anything you want, even if you get a hundred fines, but just turn right and go through that shoulder!" He breathed a sigh of relief when the driver did so.
Fred saw all the cars being left behind as taxi passed then. They were more than halfway through Sepulveda blvd, just crossing Lincoln blvd when he heard the sounds of a siren alarm approaching. He looked behind and saw a police car coming closer and closer to them. "Shite." That was all he could say.
Ginger looked up from her cup of tea as she heard the announcer. "Flight 220 to Marseilles now boarding at Gate 40."
Sighing, she got up from the cafe table she was sitting, put a 10 dollar bill on it and picking up her suitcase, headed to boarding.
She wasn't in the mood to be easily recognised, so instead of a glamorous chic attire for her plane ride, she chose a simple white button-down shirt, black slacks and black shoes with less than two inch heels. Aside from bobby pins pushing the sides of her hair up and away from her face, her hair was down and fell freely down her shoulders. She didn't even realise how similar it looked to her attire during the "Bouncing The Blues" scene on Barkleys Of Broadway.
Her legs didn't seem to be wanting to cooperate and she was starting to lose her courage. Taking a deep breath, she adjusted the big sunglasses over her eyes and showed her boarding ticket to the stewardess. She chose to bring only the essentials with her- anything she needed she could buy in France- so the suitcase was of a small to medium size.
The stewardess bid her welcome and another led her through the jet bridge to her plane seat. She sat and removed her sunglasses, looking at the window, feeling more desolated and depressed than ever.
Fred stared in horror just as the taxi driver was about to turn right towards the airport entrance, he instead slowed down and stopped the car. 9:00 AM. He had to hurry!
The driver was mumbling something, probably annoyed by the situation, but Fred wasn't listening.
The police officer stopped his car and walked towards them. "Good morning." He said to the driver. "Are you aware that driving on the shoulder is illegal?"
Fred didn't have time for this. "Officer, please, it was all my fault. I asked for him to do it. You see, there's someone I have to meet in the airport, but if I don't hurry it'll be too late. Here." He opened his walked and tossed four 100 dollar bills to the driver. "That should cover any expenses."
He opened the door and started running as fast as he could. "Was that Fred Astaire?" He heard the police officer ask as he distanced from them.
His heart felt as if it would burst- his anxiousness in getting there in time making his strides become even faster.
Is less than five minutes he entered the airport, only slowing down a bit to see which direction he had to take. He could only hear the sounds of his footsteps, echoing across the hard floor and his heavy breathing. People all around turned their heads up look at him, but he didn't care. The Queen herself could be there and it wouldn't stop him.
He saw a sign indicating Gate 40 and turned on his left. His eyes entirely focused on the stewardess near the jet bridge, he didn't even notice the practically empty lounging room.
"The flight to Marseilles." He said between pants as he stopped in front of the attendant.
"I'm sorry, sir. The plane left 2 minutes ago. It had an early clearance from the control tower."
"That can't be! Make it turn back, do something."
"I'm afraid that's impossible, sir. Unless there's an emergency-"
"But this is an emergency!" Would he be arrested if he shook the woman? "I'll talk to the control tower myself, I-"
"Fred?" He heard a familiar voice say and as he turned around, there she was, sunglasses in one hand, a suitcase in the other- the sight of her like a vision to him.
He slowly approached where she stood, next to one of the couches of the waiting area. Maybe he fell and hit his head running like crazy and this was his hallucination. He stood a foot from her and didn't touch her just yet, afraid that might be true. "How?", was all he could ask.
"I couldn't go just yet. I think I need a few more days with you before going away." She confessed. "Maybe I need to actually say goodbye to you.", she said forlornly.
"There will be no more more goodbyes", he says as he stepped even closer to her, "and there will be no more running away."
Her heart starting to beat like mad, she started. "I wasn't ru-"
"Yes you were running away", he added, "but I don't blame you." He was now inches apart from her. "There will also be no more hiding, no more secrets. We sacrificed so much already. For years we thought about everyone else but us. There will be no more of that either. Screw what they think."
Her lower lip trembling, she bit it, her eyes filling with tears. "If you're doing this because you're afraid I might not return-"
"I'm not", he interrupted her again. "I...there's so much I should have fought for and faced. I have on me something I bought when you left New York for California, but back then I was too wuss, too hesitant to give it you."
Ginger saw him reach inside his pocket and hold a little box in his hand. The world stopped around her. She forgot to breathe. "What are you doing?" She asked in a tearful whisper.
"Something I should've done 19 years ago." He opened the square velvet box, but she didn't even look at it, she couldn't keep her eyes off him. "I've been in love with you for ever. You're my best friend, my soul mate, the love of my life. I don't know who I an without you. Will you marry me?"
Any intent she had on not crying was destroyed.
"Yes, of course yes", she nodded. That's all she managed to say before his lips crashed over hers, so loving yet so intense, somehow managing to summarise what they felt in the action. The objects she had in her hands dropped on the ground.
The clung to each other, hugging so tight they were almost one body with two hearts.
Some time later, he remembered the object still in his right hand and took her left one that was wrapped around his neck and slid the round cut diamond ring on her third finger, kissing it before giving into temptation and started kissing her over and over again.
They were both so wrapped up into each other they didn't notice the few people watching them from afar- some curious, some touched by scene before them- nor did they notice as a young reporter wrote furiously fast on his notepad before snapping a picture of the couple still embracing and kissing in the almost empty Gate 40.
John Mackenzie opened the newspaper the next morning and his eyes widened. "Gladys, come here!", the taxi driver called his wife.
As she walked into the kitchen, her husband said. "Darn, you were right all along. They are in love with each other."
His wife looked amusedly at him, before taking the newspaper from his hands, smiling broadly at the photograph of one Fred Astaire and one Ginger Rogers kissing passionately in an airport gate.
10 Weeks Later...
Hermes Pan scanned the people around, looking for one particular couple. Parties at Frank Sinatra's house were always crowded, but this particular one took the cake.
Last time he saw them was one hour and a half ago- Gene Kelly had pulled him into an endless conversation about ideas for choreographies and he could only nod and pretend to listen, before Judy Garland stopped to say hello and he escaped as fast as he could.
He went outside, where a swing band was playing and several couples were dancing.
"I can't believe you two still haven't moved from the dancing floor." He said as he approached the couple- from the looks they were giving to each other, he figured they weren't willing to share. "You know no one could be more thrilled about you two tying the knot than me, but this is getting ridiculous. You do realise that's the third party you've been and not once danced with anyone else?"
Fred smirked. "Now that we don't have to hide anything, I don't think I want to share anymore. Besides, my baby here decided to use a dress that has a history of being dangerous. I saw the way Gable and Grant were eyeing her when we got here." He said, wrapping his arms more tightly around her.
"It's not dangerous", Ginger swatted him playfully in the chest, "and you love when I wear this dress, until another man decides to look at it too, that is."
"Dangerous? And wait, isn't this a new dress?" Pan asked, looking at her. She looked really gorgeous in a sleekly red satin gown. The front cut was modest, the straps going up and around her neck. Fred twirled her and Pan saw the reason for his "concern"- a thin strip of the same fabric, covered in fake diamonds connected from the back of the strap to the end of the small of her back was the only thing covering her back, leaving it bare for everyone to appreciate.
Ginger shook her head. "No, I first used it on Valentine's Day 1938. Just thought it would be nice to use it again after so long. Thank heavens I still fit in it."
"She forgot to mention the part where I had to cut our dinner short because some guy was starting to get fresh with her. It was either leaving or punching him."
"I still say he was only being nice, saying I was a good actress and all." She smirked, loving seeing him get riled up.
"Yeah, sure. And I loved dancing with Harriet Hoctor", the trio laughed.
"But darling, you can't complain how that night ended." She smiled at him and bit her lip, her eyes twinkling.
They completely forgot Pan's presence and he kissed her-something they now did frequently in public, the fact they could making them become even more affectionate with each other each passing day.
His open palms caressing the skin of her back, he said, "I can't complain indeed. My love for blackouts, elevators and Lupercalia began that day." They shared a heated look, neither explaining to their friend the truth of those words- how they got stuck in a lift and made love right there.
"Blackouts? Elevators? Has marriage made you both nuts? If that's what happens to nice couples when they get hitched, then I'm glad I'm single. You guys aren't even listening to me anymore, are you?" He had to smile and shake his head at his friends, he was honestly happy that they were still as in love as they were almost two decades ago.
Smirking, he added as he was leaving the place. "Well, I'm off. You see, I discovered I have a third eye behind my ear and tomorrow is my surgery to remove it."
"That's great." Said Ginger, completely focused on her husband, not paying any attention to anything anymore but him.
Fred was in an equal situation, wanting to get out of this place and her out of that dress as quickly as possible. "Say, Mrs Astaire, you do look absolutely ravishing tonight."
Her heart skipped a beat when he called her by her new name. She still couldn't believe they were together like this.
Wrapping her arms more tightly around him, she played with the short hair at the nape of his neck. "Why, thank you, Mr Astaire, but it's Mrs Rogers-Astaire to you." She said, her eyes dancing merrily. "Don't you have a meeting early tomorrow?, she asked coyly, knowing very well where that meeting would take place- their bed. "Maybe we should leave now. Wouldn't want you tired in the morning."
His hands slid over to her hips, squeezing her, and he whispered hotly in her ear. "I predict you'll be the one tired for our meeting."
He kissed her neck and took her hand in his, both rushing out of the house towards the car, not resisting stopping and kissing passionately, her pressed against the car's door, before entering the vehicle, speeding like mad to continue what they had started.
In no time they'd become known as the couple who always disappeared in the middle of parties, their friends laughing and shaking their heads amusedly at the carefree way they loved each other.