White pillows. White curtains. White walls. Even the sleek, modern condo that Maia shared with Amy, what feels like a lifetime ago, seemed cluttered and lively compared to the suite Maia is currently residing in. She has not been in D.C. long, but she has been here long enough that the fact that she still lives out of a suitcase speaks volumes.
If one were an investigator, one might suspect Maia still has not really made up her mind about whether to stay or go. Whether to close the book once and for all on a life she left behind several states away. On people she left behind.
Some are harder to let go of than others. And oh no, Amy is not one of them. She is not the one responsible for the knot in Maia’s stomach. Maia knows this, but she does not want to follow the obvious leads. She has travelled too far. Been hurt and broken other people’s trust. She is beyond second chances, she thinks, even if it is Christmas. In another year, in that other life she vaguely remembers, she would have spent tonight getting drunk on mulled wine at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart. Instead she is now alone in an overpriced top-floor hotel suite, and the minibar can only supply half of the ingredients for an old fashioned. She decides to go downstairs, to the actual hotel bar, so she can at least drown her sorrows in style.
* * * * *
Two old fashioneds in, she notices she is being ogled from a few seats down the counter.
The woman, clad in a black pencil skirt and a tight-fitting red leather jacket, is shameless enough to not lower her gaze when Maia stares back. Instead, the woman lifts her shot glass and tips it in greeting, before downing it in one go. Judging from the wedge of lemon she bites into afterwards, it must have been tequila.
Maia averts her eyes, not really curious enough to follow up on the interest, but within minutes the back of a tan hand, covered in salt and a light sheen of what is likely spit, enters her field of vision.
“Lick me?” offers the woman from earlier, and her extreme nerve makes Maia curious after all.
Because Maia mostly passes for straight, even in her own leather jacket. She always passes for vanilla; even Amy never saw past Maia’s deceptively delicate appearance in that respect. Yet this stranger has metaphorically undressed her in minutes from afar – and, judging from the smoldering gaze that meets Maia’s when she looks up, this woman is currently considering undressing Maia in more literal ways as well.
And why the hell not? Maia is in a strange city, in a strange period of her life, in a strange era, even. So she takes the woman up on her offer, and feels a pang of excitement when the woman’s right eyelid twitches a little at the contact. Other than that, the woman keeps a straight face, but Maia thinks she can probably get the other eyelid to twitch as well. In any case, she offers the woman the empty stool next to her.
Two more old fashioneds and several tequila shots later, Maia is pushing the woman whom she now knows as “Kalinda” up against the inside of an elevator door. Somehow, she manages to mess with a sensor so the elevator draws to a halt between two floors.
Maia does not care. Her fingers are busy trying to rip the stockings from Kalinda’s hip without actually ripping them. She can feel the heat from Kalinda’s groin against her palm, as she searches for the waistband hidden somewhere under that rather challengingly tight skirt. Kalinda is not helping her, but not exactly protesting either. On the contrary, her head falls back against the metal door with an alarmingly loud thud when Maia’s trail of kisses moves from neck to earlobe. Maia’s face is hidden under Kalinda’s black hair, which has come loose from its updo, but she is pretty sure both of Kalinda’s eyelids are twitching by now. Therefore it takes her very much by surprise when Kalinda suddenly pushes her away.
Not entirely away – she leaves her hands on Maia’s shoulders – but there is definitely stalling going on, and Maia does not particularly like the implications. She does not want the room for thought that comes with the few inches of space between them.
“What are we doing?” Kalinda asks. She is heaving, clearly turned on, so it is not much of a surprise that she buckles against Maia’s thumb when Maia strokes the inside of a thigh. Why on earth is she stalling?
“Going with the flow,” Maia suggests, and when that does not convince Kalinda, she starts to think maybe she read this woman wrong. Maybe she is not as carefree after all, maybe she is a straight girl on the lookout for an experiment and getting in over her head, maybe she is from a conservative background. She does have a hint of a British accent. “You’re not going to say you grew up in Croydon or some other traditional London neighborhood, are you?” Maia says, and Kalinda bursts out laughing.
It is a surprisingly deep laugh considering her small frame. “Oh no, don’t worry. But I used to be an investigator, and my spidey senses tell me you are actually yearning for a different investigator. If I’m mistaken, I’ll gladly follow you to your suite and discover what your diligent fingers feel like without nylons in the way. But if I’m not, then I know enough about regrets over mishandled friendships to let you think this over for a minute.”
* * * * *
They do end up in Maia’s suite after all, but the stockings stay on.
The minibar at least has tequila, and it is late enough that they forgo lemon and salt. Everything is still colorless in here, but at least Maia has someone to help her sort through her thoughts now. It is not what she was looking for; she was looking to drown out all thoughts via alcohol and possibly sex. But maybe it is what she needed.
“How did you know I was thinking about another investigator,” she says, and her own coherence impresses her - clearly a testament to the fact that she has become too good at holding her liquor lately.
“Well, it’s not surprising your short-term memory is a little shaken after that many shots. You mentioned her approximately every five minutes,” Kalinda says drily.
Maia covers her face with her free hand for a moment. She is equal parts ashamed and relieved that she is apparently not yet as much of a hardcore drinker as she thought. “Sorry, I can see why that would be a bit of a turn-off,” she mumbles.
Kalinda shrugs, clearly not easily offended. “No worries. I can also just be your listening ear.”
Maia eyes Kalinda and feels one side of her mouth curl into a half-smile. She can definitely see Kalinda as more of a listener than a sharer. There is an aura of mystery about this person, and not just because she turned up out of nowhere. She seems secretive – not in a deceptive way, more like she is protective of herself.
Maia can relate to that. She has learned not to trust too easily the hard way. First her parents, especially her dad. She thought she was the apple of his eye, but he was willing to send her to jail to save his own ass. Then Amy. Oh, Amy. Maia had proposed to her, and this ultimate gesture of trust had been interpreted as an attempt at manipulation. Amy had almost said this straight-out in court.
With Marissa, on the other hand, things had been easy. Marissa was the opposite of convoluted. She was direct. It was never hard for Maia to gauge whether Marissa enjoyed her company or not. She asked her out, on double-dates or alone. She told Maia when she was interested in a guy who had mistaken Maia for straight. She helped Maia talk to Carine when Maia herself was too shy to act. Marissa always spoke her mind. Even when Maia had broken Marissa’s trust, Marissa was honest enough to call her up and call her out on it. It had been an easy friendship, and Maia was not used to easy. She wonders if perhaps this was part of the reason she had ruined their friendship, if she had failed to fully grasp its meaning until it was too late.
“You could see yourself as more culpable than you are,” Kalinda suggests after having heard the highlights of Maia’s tale, and the echo of words spoken when Maia was a different person, a more innocent person, makes her laugh.
It is not a hearty laugh. It sounds mostly like a sigh. “You mean it’s my Catholic guilt?” she suggests.
“Not necessarily. It could also just be your excuse for not making amends,” Kalinda says. Her gaze turns inwards for a second, as if she is remembering something from her own past. “You tell yourself you cannot possibly make up for what you did, and so you do nothing. Until your belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Maia can sense there is more to Kalinda’s analysis - something personal. But she can also sense that prying is unwanted, so instead she does what occasionally works in court: she changes the subject. “We’re out of ice. I’ll go down and get some from the lobby.”
* * * * *
The elevator ride feels longer going down, possibly because Maia’s hands are not up somebody else’s skirt, possibly because she has given up on not trying to think. The last meaningful conversation she ever had with Marissa is replaying itself in her mind.
“You sound like you’re coming out.” She had meant it in jest, and Marissa had instantly picked up on the light tone, yet her words were contradicted by a serious gleam in her eye. And the way she wound her scarf around Maia’s neck felt intimate. Careful.
“I could really try to be gay, but I think I would just laugh too much,” Marissa had said.
“No, I think you’d be great, I could see that.” Maia had kept up the light tone, but her eyes had probed, and Marissa had held her gaze for a moment that went on much longer than it should. Then Marissa had shaken her head, and the connection went away.
“No, no,” she had uncharacteristically stuttered. “I… I like fucking, but I don’t like fucking up friendships.”
“Same here,” Maia had said, and yet gone on to do exactly that – fuck up a friendship that perhaps was on the verge of becoming so much more. Even if it wasn’t, it had already been everything.
Maia shakes her head, almost copying Marissa’s movement that morning in the deserted bar. She cannot know for sure what sort of promise Marissa’s gaze had held. She does not know what the stutter meant. She is no investigator, and all her important relationships, especially romantic ones, have been complicated and painful. Her teenage crush ended up sleeping with her own dad. Her first serious boyfriend posted nude photos of her online. Amy testified against her in court.
There is no way, no way according to everything Maia knows about love, that something as easy as what she had with Marissa could ever become a romantic relationship.
At one point she would also have dismissed it on account of Marissa being straight, but she is no longer sure about that assessment. Not just because of their conversation in that bar. There had been other indications, much earlier ones.
“I’m not gay, but I could be… Yes, my girlfriend is awesome,” Marissa had said in front of Maia’s ex.
“You’re not cheating, you're dancing… or do you mean with me, because I’m up for anything,” Marissa had said, nearly in front of Carine.
No, sexuality was not the issue. The unlikely easiness of their relationship was; relationships like that did not exist outside of corny Hollywood movies. Except, of course, their relationship was no longer an easy one. Maia had seen to that before leaving D.C.
* * * * *
“Well, if I called her and asked for the room number, then it wouldn’t be a surprise proposal, now would it? Look, here’s the ring!”
Maia stops in her tracks halfway between the elevator and the ice machine. She would recognize that voice anywhere, so she does not actually have to turn around for confirmation. Yet she does. And the immediate rush of lightheadedness that follows what she sees is undeniable: there is Marissa, somehow having materialized from at least five states away, and of course it should not surprise Maia that Marissa has the detective skills to figure out her address. It should not surprise her that Marissa is clearly posing as Maia’s faux girlfriend either; she has done that before when fishing for information.
And yet Maia is surprised. She is surprised, because relationships are not supposed to be easy. Or rather, relationships, once they have become strained, are not supposed to be salvageable.
The front Marissa is currently putting on does seem to need saving, however; that much is apparent. The snotty-looking woman at the counter is eyeing Marissa suspiciously, one finger ready on a button that probably calls security. Maia decides that even if she cannot rescue their friendship she can at least spare Marissa the humiliation of getting kicked out on the street.
“There you are, darling,” she says as she walks over, and in one fluent motion places a hand on Marissa’s shoulder, the other on her cheek, and pulls her in for a kiss that is meant for show but lasts a little longer than is strictly necessary.
Maia tells herself this is just to get the woman at the desk off their backs. She has no idea what Marissa tells herself when Maia pulls back and Marissa follows so their lips remain connected for yet another second.
“I didn’t know you were here, but what a lovely surprise,” Maia says, keeping up with what she thinks Marissa’s cover story was. “I’ll show you our room.”
* * * * *
It is Maia’s third ride on the elevator in less than an hour. This time, the quiet feels suffocating because she is not alone and does not have Kalinda’s stockings for distraction. She is almost relieved when Marissa breaks the silence, even if her words are harsh.
“I haven’t forgiven you,” Marissa, ever the direct one, says.
“Then why are you here?” Maia wonders.
Marissa shrugs. “It’s Christmas?”
Maia cannot help but laugh at that. “You’re Jewish! But I’ll take it. I’ll take anything I can get,” she admits, before she adds in a near-whisper, “I miss you so much.”
“Yeah,” Marissa says, “me too.”
And now Maia knows why Marissa is here. She does not really understand it; relationships are not supposed to be straightforward, especially not the important ones. They are not supposed to weather the storms of betrayal. Yet here they are. And when their eyes meet, Maia feels it – the easy connection they always had, still there, solid and unbroken in spite of the mess Maia has made. She feels the connection physically as she holds Marissa’s gaze; it is like a warm pull in her chest, a string of light tying them together.
When that string pulls Marissa closer and into their second kiss that evening, the warmth transforms into a blazing fire.
This time, there is no jesting or ambiguity in Marissa’s eyes or searching hands, when Maia pulls back just enough to take her expression in. Marissa might stumble at being gay, but she is clearly not one bit straight either.
“I thought you didn’t like fucking up friendships,” Maia says, almost directly into Marissa’s mouth.
“I don’t. But right now we don’t really have a friendship to fuck up, do we?”
The words sting, and Maia wonders if this will turn into hatesex. Into some elaborate form of revenge. But then she feels the warmth of Marissa’s palms against her sides. How carefully molded they are against her. And even if she cannot fathom why or how, she knows that this, what she and Marissa have, is still the opposite of convoluted.
It is easy.
And possibly, in spite of everything Maia has learned the hard way, it is worth trying to save and put trust in.
So Maia admits, “Not right now, no, but I’d like to try and change that. Though perhaps,” she adds as she feels one of Marissa’s hands squeezing her of its own accord, “perhaps it doesn’t have to be friendship, strictly speaking.”
“No?” Marissa arches an eyebrow, and Maia is happy to see the familiar hint of humor return. “I still worry I’d laugh too much.”
“After the year we’ve had, I doubt there is such a thing as laughing too much,” Maia points out, just as the elevator dings and they reach the top floor where Maia’s suite is located.
* * * * *
Maia is not exactly unhappy to find that Kalinda has left without a trace.
It is a bit odd, really. Even their shot glasses have vanished. Maia wonders for a moment if she has in fact spent the past hour with some ghost of Christmas past.
Then she feels the touch of Marissa’s fingers against the back of her hand, and is pulled back to Christmas present. And when she allows Marissa to intertwine their fingers, she feels decidedly more hopeful than she ever thought possible about Christmases yet to come.