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It’s a long way down when you’re jumping off a cliff

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Erica Davidson looked around at the group, her group for the next couple of weeks, and wondered again what she was doing there.  The mix of men and women all seemed to know what they were getting into, unlike her, and were breaking the ice in twos and threes.  The conversations seemed to revolve around where people were from, what they did for a living, and where they had hiked previously.  No one had approached Erica.  She wondered if the slight frown on her face was putting them off.  An older man had glanced at her curiously.   She couldn’t handle small talk at the moment and was happy when he had ultimately sought out a woman with striking red hair.  

 

What was she doing? She asked herself with impatience.  She was a lawyer, a city girl, and certainly not the outdoor type.  She didn’t know how to pitch a tent or tie knots.  She wore make-up and heels.  She was yoga fit but she wondered how far that would get her when faced with mountains and gorges.  God, this was a mistake, she concluded.

 

“Okay everyone, listen up!”

 

One of the guides called for the group’s attention.  He looked to be in his mid twenties with scruffy blonde-brown hair that escaped his broad brimmed hat.  

 

“We are going to be heading off in about five minutes.  We’re just packing the last of the supplies into the trailer then we’ll get you all on the bus.  It is about an hour or so out to the trailhead.  My name is Dan,” he grinned, showing a set of healthy white teeth.  “I am one of your guides for this trek.  The other is Franky, who you’ll meet shortly.  We are responsible for your safety over the next 16 days and ensuring you make it through to the end.  This is a challenging trek, most days we will be going over rough terrain and camping in some very isolated places.  In saying that, you will see some beautiful country and do some amazing stuff,” he qualified.  

 

“Dan forgot to mention we’ll have a shitload of fun as well.” A dark haired woman said with a grin, coming up behind Dan and giving him a friendly nudge as she passed him.  She wore the Ultimate Adventures badge on her long sleeved shirt.  Her long tanned legs were toned and she looked fit and healthy.  Her hat was pushed to the back of her head giving Erica a glimpse of attractive green eyes.

 

“This is Franky, your other guide,” Dan said, nodding in her direction.  

 

Erica felt the energy of the group lift immediately. While Dan was laidback and casual, Franky seemed to exude enthusiasm.  

 

“Any questions so far?”  Dan asked expectantly.  “Nope?” He sounded surprised.

 

The red head spoke up then. “How far are we going today?”

 

“We’ll aim for Wilson’s Creek but we’ll see how everyone’s travelling.”  Erica felt his eyes slide over her and wondered if he could tell she was a novice.  

 

“When’s lunch?” Asked someone and there was a burst of laughter.

 

“Okay, last chance for a loo stop,” Dan told them.

 

Erica decided to take the opportunity.  She suspected it might her last chance to sit on a toilet.  The romantic notion of sleeping out under the stars was jaded somewhat by the practical realities of peeing in the dirt.  The other women seemed to share her sentiment and they followed each other like a trail of ants to the toilet block.  

 

“We’ll kill for some soap in a week,” an older lady said to Erica at the basin, smiling at her in the mirror.  “I’m Liz,” she added.

 

“I hope not,” Erica said, then introduced herself.  

 

“People have murdered for less,” Liz laughed.

 

It was true as Erica knew from her short time as Governor at the Wentworth Correctional Centre.  “I better keep a sharp eye out on my secret stash then,” Erica joked.  She wanted to make a friend and Liz seemed nice in a benign, harmless way.  She was pleased to see Liz laugh in appreciation.  

 

“Chocolate is always coveted as well,” Liz went on conversationally.

 

“You’ve done one of these before?” Erica asked curiously.

 

“Repeat offender,” Liz admitted.  “I did the Larapinta with this mob, and the Western Arthurs.  Just can’t seem to stay away.”

 

“You enjoy it then?” Erica couldn’t help asking.

 

“Sure, you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t, would you?” Liz said matter of factly.  “You know how it is.”

 

Erica didn’t.  “First time,” she admitted.

 

“Oh,” Liz peered at her, slightly curious, “you’re in for a treat then.”

 

Erica wasn’t sure but she remained quiet.  Liz was clearly an enthusiast, always looking on bright side of life probably, and wouldn’t understand Erica’s doubts.  

 

When they were back at the bus, Dan told them to put their packs into the trailer and grab a seat.  Erica took hold of her new Osprey backpack and with some effort attempted to swing it onto her shoulder.  Its weight threw her off balance and she felt the pack careen wildly then hit something in its path.

 

“Whoa! Careful with that thing!  It’s a lethal weapon!” The tone was teasing.  

 

Erica turned to see who she had almost taken out.  Green eyes greeted her, gleaming with humour, then disappeared in shadow as Franky slipped her hat back on her head.  “Sorry,” she said.

 

“No worries,” Franky grinned.  She grabbed one of the straps and helped Erica toss it into the trailer.  In fact Erica suspected it was all Franky’s strength that got the pack all the way to the back of the trailer in one fluid movement.  

 

“Thanks,” Erica smiled.  “You’ve done that before.”

 

Franky laughed easily.  “One or twice,” she agreed.  “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it in no time.”

 

On the bus, they sorted themselves into pairs, Erica hesitated then sat next to Liz.  Dan was driving and Franky sat in the passenger seat.  She turned around once they were on the way and told them about what they could expect over the next 16 days.  She was articulate and engaging.  It was clear she had the spiel down pat but she managed to inject humour and spontaneity into it.  

 

The more Erica heard, the more nervous she became.  It was clear she was in over her head.  She stared out the window.  She knew though, despite her fears, that she wouldn’t back out.  She had to do this.  For herself. For her father.  She remembered the argument she’d had with Mark over setting a date for their wedding.  “You need to sort your shit out Erica,” he’d said angrily, “once and for all so we can get on with our life together.”  It had sounded like an ultimatum.  She knew he was frustrated with her constant stalling.  She didn’t know why she couldn’t commit but Mark had decided it had something to do with her father’s death, that she had issues she hadn’t dealt with.  Maybe he was right.

 

After an hour, they turned off the sealed road and onto a dirt track.  The bus bounced around and she saw Franky grab the Jesus bar and say something to Dan.  She caught the words“...me drive.”  She didn’t hear Dan’s response but she heard Franky’s laughter.  It sounded gleeful.  Erica was suddenly envious of her carefree attitude.  

 

Franky turned around and leant part way into the back of the bus.  “If you look out the left side of the bus, you’ll get a glimpse of one of the peaks we’ll be summiting.”  

 

They all peered left and eventually an intimidating wall of rock appeared in Erica’s vision.  “Is it too late to turn around?” Someone joked.  It got a round of laughs.  Erica didn’t laugh.  She stared at the mountain.  This was a bad idea.  She turned back to the front of the bus and caught Franky watching her.  The green eyes held hers for a moment and Erica wondered if Franky could see through her facade to the fraud she was.

 

 An hour later Erica was pretty sure she could.  They had been hiking up a gorge which lacked water but not giant boulders that needed to be navigated around or over.  The going was slow as they picked their path and the group had spread out over about a kilometre.  Erica found the going tough not being used to the extra weight of her pack or how it changed her balance as she hopped or clambered over rocks.  Her quads and gluts were screaming after twenty minutes.  She was halfway over a boulder bigger than her in height when she realised she couldn’t create enough forward momentum to get herself and her pack up and onto the giant rock.  “Fuck,” she muttered as she jammed her boot into a crevice then realised she needed to be about a foot higher if she had any hope of making it.  She looked for another foothold in vain.  Eventually she realised she’d have to try and throw herself over and hope her hands could get enough purchase to pull herself up.  She leapt and her hands slid across the smooth rock surface for a second before she found a secure handhold.  She was then faced with another problem.  She wasn’t strong enough to pull herself up.  Her boots scrambled hopelessly against the side of the rock.  She could feel her hands slipping and knew it was only a second before she fell.

 

Without warning she felt two hands on her butt, effectively stopping her slide.  “I’m going to push you up on three.  One. Two. Three!”  Erica felt herself move forward and suddenly she was on top of the rock, lying prostrate, her knees burning from where they had scraped against the hard surface.  It wasn’t a dignified ascent and she rolled over quickly and sat up just in time to see Franky make the climb easily.  Sure her muscles flexed under the strain, and there was a thin sheen of sweat which made her skin glow but her foot placements were sure and her breath steady as she looked down at Erica.

 

“Thanks,” Erica said as she took the proffered hand and clambered to her feet.  “But I could have done it.” She felt obliged to claim, a blatant lie, when faced Franky’s smart-arse grin.  

 

“Really?” Franky’s grin grew wider.  “Next time I’ll leave you to it then.”  With that she hopped casually to the next boulder and Erica was left to follow.  She had no hope of catching those tanned, toned legs, one sporting a tattoo on its calf.  At some point Franky had ditched her long sleeved shirt in favour of a sleeveless top, which showed off her defined triceps and shoulders.

 

Erica let out an exasperated breath.  She heard someone approaching and looked back to see Liz looking up at the rock.  She was shorter than Erica and seemed to be baffled by the challenge the rock presented.  “How did you get up?”  She asked. 

 

Erica was reluctant to reveal exactly how she made the ascent.  “I’ll help you.” She said instead, offering a hand.  “Left foot into that crevice,” she instructed.  

 

Liz made it up easily with Erica’s assistance.  “Thanks,” she took the lead.  “Seen any of the others?”

 

“Franky’s just ahead of us,” Erica told her as she followed in Liz’s footsteps.  “But she’s making quick time.”

 

“Probably gone ahead to set up for lunch,” Liz informed her.  “Hope there’s beer on offer.” Erica didn’t think there would be and said so.  “Just wishful thinking.” Liz replied with a quiet laugh. They hopped a few rocks in silence.  “Bet Franky likes a beer though, she strikes me as a regular party girl.” 

 

Erica thought about the attractive woman with her quick smile and energy.  She would be popular in a crowd, she guessed.  Even in the short time she had interacted with her, Erica had felt her charisma.  “Why would she guide as her job then,” she wondered aloud. It seemed an odd choice for a party girl.  “Stuck out here in the middle of nowhere.”

 

“Maybe she’s running from something,” Liz speculated.  “An ex?”

 

“Maybe she’s a fugitive,” Erica couldn’t help but fuel Liz’s imagination.  It took her mind off her aching muscles.

 

“Prison break!” Liz said with glee.  “I can just see her breaking all the rules.”  She was clearly on a roll.

 

“Better watch out Liz, I bet she has already worked out where you stash your chocolate.” Erica said with a smile and heard Liz laugh.

 

“Worse, she might nick my loo paper!”  Liz began cackling, clearly amused by her own joke.  It was contagious and Erica found herself laughing as well despite the ridiculousness of it.  

 

Lunch was sandwiches and fruitcake.  Erica ate perched on a rock admiring the view, slightly detached from the rest of the group.  She accepted a cup of tea from Franky with a grateful smile.  “Thanks!”

 

“How are you doing?” Franky stopped to ask.  She eyed Erica’s grazed knees.  “I’ve got some ointment for that,” she offered.

 

“It’s ok,” Erica said immediately.

 

Franky looked slightly bemused then shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”

 

Erica instantly regretted her dismissive tone.  “I mean, my knees don’t feel nearly as bad as my butt,” she explained lightly.

 

Franky, who had been in the process of moving away, stopped and looked back.  “I dunno,” she said slowly, “your butt felt pretty good to me.” Her green eyes danced and Erica could hardly misinterpret the comment.  She felt herself blushing and saw Franky’s smile grow wider.

 

Franky was a lesbian, she realised, and wondered how she had missed it.  The girl had a tattoo of a naked woman on her upper arm after all.  Aside from being caught red handed in a compromising position with another woman nothing screamed lesbian quite like that.  Not that Erica cared.  She thought of herself as fairly liberal minded.  People were entitled to love who they liked and, as long as it was consensual, do what they liked.  Given that completely logical rationale she wondered why then she felt so unsettled.

 

She realised suddenly that she was still staring at Franky, who had long since moved back to the group and was now talking to Liz.  A lot of laughing ensued and Erica gathered there was some good natured teasing going on.  She gave herself a mental shake.  Franky was just one of those women who flirted with everyone.  Was it inappropriate given her role?  Probably, the lawyer in Erica acknowledged, but she was harmless.

 

Erica was going to find out Franky was about as harmless as a lightning strike.  

Chapter Text

Erica woke suddenly.  She stared at the roof of her tent which was just discernible in the faint light of the early dawn.  Day two and Erica was pretty sure she hadn’t had more than an hour’s sleep.  The ground was hard and the thin layer of mat between her and it seemed inconsequential.  She had managed to twist her sleeping bag around herself like a boa constrictor from constant tossing and turning.  The silence had been unsettling but less so than the strange and disturbing animal cries that had woken her during the night.  It was freezing.  At some point she had struggled into a beanie, her down jacket and had wrapped a scarf around her neck in an attempt to get warm.  

 

She sat up and every muscle she never knew she had complained.  She stumbled out of her tent and looked around.  No one was up despite being sure it had been someone moving about that had woken her.

 

She found a secluded place to relieve herself then drifted towards the clearing where they had eaten the previous night settled around the campfire.  The fire had died out during the night but Erica sank down onto a flattish rock near it anyway.  She watched as the sky took on a slightly pinkish hue and wished for coffee, among other things, like her warm bed, a hot shower and a few more hours sleep.  She had never been a morning person.  Out of habit she took out her phone and checked her messages.  Nothing, which was strange, then she realised there was no signal.

 

“Missing your boyfriend?” A voice asked.

 

Erica smiled involuntarily.  “Not really.”  She turned to see Franky carrying water containers she had filled up at the river.  

 

“These mornings are fucking cold,” Franky said, “a warm, welcoming someone wouldn’t be wasted, just saying.”  She shrugged.  Erica felt her face warm with the suggestion.

 

Franky lit the stove and put some water on to boil.  Erica watched her practiced movements as she went about preparing breakfast.  Her long lean limbs and tattoos were covered this morning by hiking pants and a purple down jacket.  She didn’t seem bothered by Erica’s continued observation.  The small pot boiled and Franky handed her a mug with coffee.  Erica’s cold fingers took it gratefully.  Franky’s hand was warm against her skin and she shivered slightly.  “Thanks,” she said and was rewarded with a smile.

 

“How you’d sleep?” Franky sat down next to her, her own coffee mug clasped between her hands. 

 

“Not great,” Erica replied.

 

“It takes some adjusting,” Franky acknowledged, “by day four you’ll be so exhausted you’ll sleep like the dead.”

 

“Can’t wait,” Erica said dryly, taking a sip of her coffee.  She heard Franky chuckle beside her.  “How long have you been doing this?” She asked curiously.  

 

“Ages,” Franky said in an offhand manner.  Erica didn’t think the guide was much older than mid twenties but these things can be relative. 

 

“How did you get into it?” She remembered the conversation she’d had with Liz yesterday.  “On the run, are you?”

 

Franky’s laugh rang out in genuine amusement.  “Not exactly, I did get into some trouble when I was younger though, ended up on one of those outback retreats for juvenile delinquents.  I realised, once I stopped fighting everyone and everything, that I could test my abilities every day against nature.  It was addictive.”  

 

Erica glanced at the woman’s profile.  She was staring at the mountains, her eyes reflective.  “You love it.”  It was a statement looking for confirmation.  Erica could hear it in Franky’s voice.

 

“It saved me.” Her voice was soft and her tone sincere.  There was none of the usual Franky bravado.  All Erica could hear was honesty.  It wasn’t an exaggeration she suspected. 

 

She wanted to take Franky’s hand in her own and let her know she understood.  Her father had talked that way about abseiling.  “Nature can do that,” she murmured instead.

 

“I was lucky,” Franky threw the dregs of her coffee away.  “Probably would have ended up in prison otherwise.”  She stood up.  “There’s a good watering hole at the river here if you’re willing to brave an icy dip.  Probably have it to yourself for another ten minutes.” She grinned, and the moment of intimacy between them passed.

 

Erica finished her coffee and stood up.  “Thanks for the tip,” she said smiling.

 

The water was inviting and Erica stripped down to her underwear.  The cold air hit her skin and she braced herself as she stepped into the water.  It was freezing and she couldn’t help letting out a small squeak.  She sank to her haunches and breast-stroked out to the middle where she couldn’t touch the bottom.  It wasn’t warm enough to get her hair wet, she decided, and settled for a few energetic freestyle laps with her head above water.  Then she set about washing herself as effectively as possible in cold water without soap.  She managed to strip off her underwear and attempted to wash them as well.  When she felt herself going numb she waded out and towelled herself down.  She pulled on clean underwear then dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and a warm layer which she would discard once the sun was fully out.  Grabbing her towel and wet underwear she walked back to camp, passing Liz and the red haired woman, whose name she had found out was Bea, on the way.  She smiled at them.

 

“How was it?” Bea asked.

 

“Beautiful,” she replied and found she meant it.

 

The camp was well and truly up by the time she arrived back.  Tents were down, breakfast was in full swing and Erica found herself hungry at the first smell of bacon.  She took the egg and bacon roll gratefully when Franky offered it.  Oh god, it was good, she thought with the first mouthful.  Franky had enhanced it with a spicy tomato salsa.

 

“You look better,” Franky told her with a smile.

 

“I’m clean,” Erica said between mouthfuls.  “It has made all the difference to my resilience.”

 

Franky laughed.  “Good, you’re gonna need some of that today.”

 

She was right.  The day started with a steady uphill climb away from the river.  As they went higher, just like the day before, the group spread out according to fitness.  Erica found herself towards the tail.  After an hour or so she could feel a blister forming on her little toe.  It had been sensitive yesterday, she remembered, but she had forgotten about it once they’d got into camp and she had taken her boots off.  She decided to take a break and unclipped her backpack, dumping it on the ground without much care.  She pulled off her long sleeve, stuffing it into the front pocket of her pack, then pulled off her boots and socks to inspect her toe.  There was no blister although the skin was red and sensitive.  She was looking for a bandaid when Franky appeared around the bend with Bea.

 

“Hey, everything okay?” She asked, eyeing Erica’s bare feet.

 

“Just a blister in the making,” Erica told her.  “I’ve no idea where I put my bandaids.”

 

“I’ve probably got something better,” Franky told her, slipping her pack off with ease.  “Why don’t you go on,” she told Bea.  “We’ll catch you up.”

 

She told Erica to sit down and crouched in front of her.  “Give us a look,” she said, and Erica presented her foot, which Franky took hold of with a firm grasp.  “Whereabouts?”

 

Erica leaned forward, pointing to the little toe.  “It’s not much,” she apologised and Franky looked up from her study.  Their faces were at the same height and only centimetres apart.  Their eyes met.  She felt warm from Franky’s hand on her heel and the intensity of her gaze.  Approaching footsteps distracted them and they looked in the direction the sound was coming from.  

 

It was Dan.  “Hey,” he said, coming to a halt and taking in the scene, “everything okay?”  Erica wondered if it was the standard greeting of guides or these two had just worked together for so long they’d adopted each other’s sayings.

 

“Yeah,” Franky said, “just getting some toe gel out.”  She pulled out her first aid kit and dug out a roll of skin coloured tubing.  “You go on, I’ve got this.”

 

“Right, see you at the lunch spot.”  He nodded to them both and walked on.

 

“Do you guide with Dan often?” Erica asked after a moment of silence.

 

”Ah, sometimes, not always, kinda depends on what hikes are being offered and who’s best suited to guiding them.  We usually do this one together because it needs guides with abseiling, canyoning and kayaking certificates.”

 

“That’s a lot of certificates,” Erica said with a smile.

 

“Impressed?” Franky asked with a grin.  “Coz I’ve also got a first aid certificate.”

 

“Then I’m definitely impressed,” Erica said, still smiling.

 

Erica couldn’t be sure because Franky’s head was down but it sounded very much like she’d murmured “Good.” 

 

Franky cut a length of tubing, suitable for Erica’s little toe and slid it on.  Her nails lightly scratching the underside of Erica’s foot as she manoeuvred it into position.  Erica gasped slightly at the sensation.  

 

“Sorry, did that hurt?” Franky asked immediately, pausing in her efforts and looking up.

 

Erica just shook her head.  A moment later she wondered if Franky knew the effect she was having when her nails seemed to accidentally slide along the sensitive part of Erica’s foot causing her to jerk slightly.  Franky’s hold tightened and Erica thought she could see a hint of a smirk in the guide’s concentrated expression.

 

“You’re all good,” Franky said and Erica slid her foot from her grasp.  “Cute toes,” she added as her thumb flicked across a cherry coloured toenail.  Franky’s eyes disappeared into the shadow of her hat so Erica couldn’t tell if she was teasing her.  

 

She pulled on her socks and boots, conscious of Franky watching her.  She stood up and grabbed her pack, bracing herself to swing it onto her back.

 

“I’ll get out of the way,” Franky said and this time Erica knew she was teasing.

 

Erica refused to rise to the bait.  She made a conscious effort to maintain control of the pack but ruined the effect when she couldn’t seem to get her other arm through the strap.  

 

“Here,” Franky grabbed her arm and guided it through the gap.  “You looked like a dog chasing its tail there,” she said, laughing at her expense.  

 

“I had it,”  Erica claimed immediately and saw Franky raise her eyebrows.  

 

“Sure you did,” Franky replied.  They both knew it wasn’t true.

 

Erica didn’t bother waiting for Franky but stalked off in the direction Dan and Bea had gone.  It wasn’t like she cared what the younger woman thought of her but she wasn’t too keen on being humiliated either.  

 

She caught up with Bea after a few kilometres who told her Dan had gone on ahead.  She hadn’t spoken much to the redhead who seemed to have bonded with Liz.  

 

“Franky not with you,” Bea glanced behind Erica expectantly.

 

“No, she,” Erica paused, she didn’t know where Franky was or how to explain why she wasn’t with her.  “Loo stop,” she settled for.

 

Bea nodded.  “She fix you up all right?”

 

“Yes, well it was nothing, just a blister,” Erica explained.

 

“They can be debilitating if you don’t get on to them quickly.  You don’t want to be walking for 16 days with blisters, trust me!”  

 

Erica had suffered blisters with new shoes before and understood their power.  “There speaks the voice of experience.”

 

“My advice, do not skimp on your boots!” Bea told her with a smile.  “You will regret it.”  They both glanced down at Erica’s boots.  “Everyone has an opinion on the best boots but really, it’s what works for you.”  Erica hoped her Scarpa boots worked for her.  They had been the brand her father had worn so had seemed an obvious choice when she had been faced with countless brands and styles in the outdoor store.  “For anything else, ask Franky, she always knows the best gear.”

 

“You’ve hiked with her before then?” Erica asked.

 

“I did some canyoning up in the Blue Mountains with her a couple of years ago.  She’s a good person to have in a tight situation.”

 

”Really?” Erica said sceptically.  The jury was still out on that.  “What happened?” 

 

“Two idiots out on their own, got caught down a hole in deep water.  One was suffering from hyperthermia when we found them.  Franky got them out, probably saved their lives.”  Erica absorbed that. “Canyoning can be risky but that girl knows what she’s doing.” Bea said with confidence.

 

“Quite the hero.” Erica commented.  She knew the risks all too well.  Even experienced people could get into trouble if the weather changed or their equipment failed or they made bad decisions.  Her father had known that and it still hadn’t saved him.

 

They stopped for lunch on a sheltered plateau.  The walk after lunch was more challenging along a narrow rocky ridge line.  Erica wasn’t looking forward to it.  She hoped her backpack wouldn’t throw her balance out too much.  Today’s lunch was wraps and watermelon wedges. 

 

There was a lot of teasing about who had the misfortune of carrying the fruit all this way.  

 

“Don’t suppose you’ve got any beer in there, Danny Boy?” Liz asked with a laugh.

 

Erica was watching Franky who seemed amused but happy just to observe the antics rather than participate.  She couldn’t work her out.  One moment Franky was the supportive professional and the next she was teasing Erica mercilessly.  It was putting the lawyer off her stride.  Then there was that look that happened before Dan had interrupted them.  What was that?  It had made Erica feel like all the oxygen had left the small space between them.  She’d lost track of time, of everything in that moment.  She had noticed the way Franky’s eyes had dropped to her lips for a nanosecond.  She knew that look.  Had Franky been thinking about kissing her? 

 

She felt her face warm at the thought.  Just then Franky looked at her and much as Erica wanted to look away she found she couldn’t.  The slow smile that Franky gave her seemed to suggest Franky at least knew exactly what was going on.

Chapter Text

Erica stood on a rock and waved her phone in the air trying to get a signal but to no avail.  She balanced on her toes for that few extra centimetres which, she decided, might make all the difference.  It made no difference.  She stared at the blank space where the reception normally displayed four bars.  She waved the phone in the air again but without much hope.  

 

“You won’t get a signal here,” Liz said, appearing from the bushes without warning.  Erica assumed she had been taking a toilet break.  

 

“Shit!” Erica muttered, “I needed to make a call or at least send a text.”

 

“Oh love, was it important?” Liz said with sympathy.

 

“Yes, no, not life threatening or anything,” Erica said with a sigh. “It’s just that I promised Mark.  I didn’t realise the mobile phone coverage would be so lousy.”

 

“Non existent more like,” Liz said with a laugh.  She patted Erica on the arm.  

 

Erica had an idea.  “What provider are you with?”

 

“Telstra,” she anticipated Erica’s next question, “no signal.”  

 

Erica sat down on the rock she’d been standing on.  “Great,” she muttered.  It was ridiculous that in the 21st century there were parts of the country that did not have phone coverage.  She told Liz as much.

 

“You know, if you’re desperate, Franky has a sat phone.”  Erica frowned.  “A satellite phone,” Liz explained.  “They work off a satellite,” she offered. 

 

 “Oh,” Erica sat up.  “Would she let me use it?”

 

“I used it one time when my daughter was ill.” Liz smiled.  “She’d deny it but Franky’s a big softie at heart.”

 

Erica raised her eyebrows.  She wasn’t sure she would have used those words to describe the good looking guide.

 

She found Franky stretched out on her sleeping mat, reading, in a rare moment of relaxation.  “Franky,” she said to attract her attention.

 

Franky dropped her book onto her chest and looked up at Erica with a smile.  Her arm was tucked behind her head and one bare foot was resting on her pack.  Franky had nice feet Erica thought randomly.  They were slim and tanned with high arches.  It was late afternoon and the sun filtered through the trees casting the guide in a golden light.  She looked very relaxed. “Erica,” Franky replied after a moment.

 

“I don’t want to disturb you,” Erica said, which was a doubtful claim.  

 

“I don’t mind you disturbing me,” Franky countered with, her head tilted and a shadow of a smile on her face.

 

Erica smiled uncertainly.  “Well, this won’t take long,” she reassured her.  “Then you can get back to,” she looked at the book cover, “Madame Bovary,” she said with some surprise.  It wasn’t a book she would have expected.  “You have a satellite phone, would I be able to borrow it?”

 

“What for?” Franky asked with interest.

 

Erica cleared her throat.  “I need to call my fiancé.” Her eyes shifted away from Franky, unsure why but suddenly feeling awkward at Mark’s very existence.

 

“Well, the phone is for emergencies,” Franky told her with a shrug.  “Is this an emergency?”

 

“Not exactly,” Erica admitted reluctantly.  Under the force of Franky’s stare she added, “No.”

 

“Then sorry, no can,” she said, sounding not at all sorry.

 

“Wait, you let Liz use it,” Erica sounded aggrieved.  “She told me she called her daughter!” 

 

Franky seemed to consider this.  “What’s in it for me?”

 

This gave Erica pause.  She wasn’t sure what Franky might consider worthy as an exchange.  “What do you want?”

 

Franky just smiled.  “I tell you what, you can owe me,” she said suddenly, as though she had just had the idea.  

 

“Okay,” Erica agreed, wondering what exactly she’d signed up to.  She waited but Franky didn’t move.  Erica frowned.  “What else?”

 

“You haven’t said the magic word,” she said, a grin spreading across her face.

 

Erica stared at Franky.  She was playing with her, she realised.  The girl had unbelievable cheek.  “Please,” she said with a sigh.

 

Franky‘s grin grew wider in victory and the tip of her tongue momentarily pressed against her top lip in delight.  Erica caught herself staring at it.

 

“See, that wasn’t so hard.”  Franky chastised her teasingly.

 

Erica just rolled her eyes.

 

A few minutes later, as Mark’s number rang out, she wondered why she had put herself through it.  Now Franky had the upper hand in the unspoken power play that was going on between them.  

 

“Hey you’ve called Mark, please leave a message.”

 

“Mark, where are you?” Erica said with exasperation.  She glanced up to see Franky watching her with blatant curiosity.  She turned around so she had her back to the guide, walking a few steps further away and lowering her voice.  “There is no phone coverage out here so you won’t hear from me until I’m back in civilisation.”  She thought about what else to say.  “I hope the merger went well.  Don’t forget to pay the insurance.”  She had rung off before she thought to add, I love you, in farewell.  “Shit,” she muttered.  

 

She turned around to give the phone back to Franky who had returned to her mat and her book.  “You look incredibly comfortable.” She said as she handed her the phone.

 

Franky’s eyes squinted as she looked up at Erica, who had the late afternoon sun behind her.  “Yeah, I am.”  Then she grinned impishly and patted the small space beside her.  “Wanna join me?”  

 

Erica laughed softly.  She was sure it wasn’t a serious invitation.  “Maybe I should say yes,” she said a little defiantly, “then what would you do?”

 

Franky looked at her as though their game had suddenly shifted to a new level.  “I’d move over,” she told her, her green eyes bold, meeting the challenge without hesitation.

 

Erica suddenly felt out of her depth.  Who was she kidding?  Franky had always had the upper hand in their interactions.  

 

“Hey, you two,” Bea called out, “Dan says there’s a seasonal waterfall not far from here, a few of us are going to check it out, see if there’s enough water for a swim.  You coming?”

 

“Yes!”

“Absolutely!”  They said in unison.  

 

Franky grabbed a towel and began pulling on her boots.  Erica left her to go to her tent and grab her own towel.  The mood of the group lifted as they anticipated a refreshing swim.  It had been two hot days since the water hole at Wilson’s Creek.  They tramped single file along a narrow, overgrown track.  It took them nearly half an hour before they descended sharply down a narrow dirt path to where a gentle creek weaved its way through the trees.  They picked their way over the stepping stones then followed the creek upstream, across green moss that felt like carpet under their feet, to where the stream widened.  They heard the waterfall before they saw it.  They edged along the rock platform, which followed the cliff face, widening then narrowing then disappearing completely before starting again a foot or so later.  They chose their foot placements carefully on the slippery wet rock.  As they rounded the edge of a particularly protruding piece of rock, they were greeted by a swift, tumbling wall of water, its constant roar was deafening.  Erica found herself smiling in awe.  She had expected some pathetic dribble that barely wet the stones below it, not this magnificent force of nature.  “Pretty impressive huh?” Someone said in her ear.  She glanced sideways and saw Franky smiling, first at her then back at the waterfall, with equal delight.  “Come on, I’ll show you the best way in.”

 

They stripped down and dumped their clothes on a dry rock away from the spray.  Franky, wearing only a sports bra and briefs, led them across some stepping stones to the other side of the pool.  The water was quieter there being further away from the drop.  She found an entry point free from jagged rocks and slid into the water.  Erica watched as she drew in her breath and her muscles tightened in reaction to the cold water.  Without warning she plunged in, disappearing completely for a moment before surfacing, laughing.  “Get in here,” she called to the rest of them.  “It’s fucking freezing but it’s fantastic.”

 

Squeals and laughter echoed around the small chamber as one by one they braved the cold water.  The boys took to climbing out then jumping in noisily once they realised it was deep enough to bomb off a nearby ledge.  Franky encouraged them then got talked into trying it.  Erica watched as she pulled herself out of the water, muscles taut and glistening, even more tattoos on display.  She slicked back her wet hair, which was even darker if that were possible, and Erica admired her toned physique.  Really, the guide was a poster girl for the healthy, outdoor lifestyle, she thought.

 

It was only later, as they towelled off, that Erica noticed some of those tattoos seemed to be masking tiny scars.  She stared at them, wondering what had caused them.  She could see they weren’t new but they were hard to see clearly.  She diverted her eyes when Franky caught her staring and concentrated on drying herself.  

 

That night after dinner when they were sitting round the campfire talking and laughing, Erica was quiet.  She barely heard the conversation.  Her eyes would stray to Franky, who seemed in particularly fine form that night, teasing Dan and telling outrageous stories.  She was a performer with an audience who was lapping it up.  Erica now wondered if Franky had learnt to play the comedian for protection rather than pleasure. It was clear from Franky’s comments the other morning that she had had a troubled youth.  From the way Franky had spoken Erica had assumed it had been nothing more than a rebellious phase that had gotten out of hand.  Now she wondered if Franky’s troubles had begun much earlier in life.  

 

Erica’s short career at Wentworth had exposed her to women from abusive relationships and difficult homes. She thought on reflection that she recognised those scars on Franky’s body. She just wasn’t sure if they had been self inflicted or were a result of abuse. Either way they were witness to some dark moments in Franky’s history. She thought she understood a little better just what Franky might have meant by saying she’d been saved.

 

It made the woman before her seem all the more remarkable. That she had somehow steered her life onto a different course was impressive and spoke volumes about her strength and resilience.

 

Franky’s eyes caught Erica’s at one point and she smiled at her, her eyes sparkling in the firelight, her face glowing from the warmth of the flames.  Erica smiled back.  

 

Erica had gone to get another layer as protection from the cold and have a toilet stop.  When she returned, she found most of the group had retired to their tents.  Dan was dealing with the dying fire.  There was no sign of Franky.  “Has everyone gone to bed?” Erica asked.

 

Dan looked up.  “Pretty much.  Big day tomorrow.  Everyone wants a good night’s sleep.”

 

Tomorrow they would climb Dyson’s Bluff.  It was their first peak and everyone was nervous excited.  Erica was just nervous.  It was their first bit of mountaineering and while it was technically not too challenging, it was still daunting to the uninitiated.  Going to bed would only bring tomorrow on sooner and Erica was more than happy to delay it.  

 

“Night then,” Erica said as Dan headed towards his tent.  She stared up at the thousands of stars that littered the night sky.  She tried to pinpoint the familiar constellations that usually provided an assurance of place - the two pointers and the southern cross.  

 

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a soft familiar voice.  “Do you see the Coalsack?”  Franky pointed towards the southern cross.

 

Erica had never heard of it.  “Which star is that?”

 

“It’s not a star,” Franky told her as she stood close behind Erica and pointed over her shoulder.  “See the southern cross, now look to where I’m pointing,” Erica felt Franky’s hand on her other shoulder as she leaned in.  She followed Franky’s arm like the barrel of a gun.  She couldn’t see anything but blackness and said so.  Franky’s low laugh near her ear caused her stomach to tighten.  “That’s it,” she said, “it’s a dark nebulae.  The aborigines call it the Emu in the Sky, that’s its head, do you see?”

 

Erica could see it now Franky had pointed it out. “Wow,” she whispered.  “I’ve never noticed it before.”

 

“You can’t see it normally, not in the city at least, you have to be out here where there is no light pollution.”

 

They looked in silence.  Franky hadn’t shifted away from Erica and their bodies had created a cocoon warmth.  “Emperor penguins,” she said.

 

“What?” Franky asked in an amused tone.  

 

“We’ve adopted the emperor penguin technique,” Erica told her.  “They huddle together for warmth, the penguins on the outer circle keep those in the centre warm.”

 

“So some poor penguins get to freeze their arses off while the others enjoy central heating.”  She shifted even closer.  “Doesn’t sound very fair.” She said softly, her mouth millimetres from Erica’s ear.

 

“They swap,” Erica said, very conscious of Franky’s body pressing gently into hers.  “So they all get a turn but the chicks are always in the centre to protect them.”

 

“You seem to know a lot about it.  Are you a scientist?”  There was a slightly teasing note in Franky’s voice.

 

 Erica smiled.  “A lawyer actually.”  Then after a moment, “you seem to know a lot about stars, are you an astronomer?”

 

Franky laughed softly.  “Nah, just interested, hard not to be when you spend your nights staring up at them.”  Erica wondered.  She suspected many people would stare up at them without ever bothering to study them closely.  “If you could name a star, what would you call it?”

 

Erica thought about it.  “I’d name it after my father,” she said eventually.  Some people thought their departed loved ones became stars, to light their way, guide them, watch over them.  It had always seemed a bit creepy to her.  

 

“Not your fiancé?” Erica could hear the smirk in Franky’s voice.  She didn’t respond.  “Why didn’t he come with you?”

 

“This was something I had to do on my own.”  Erica knew her response would only lead to more questions but to her surprise Franky didn’t pester her for answers.  Maybe she understood.

 

“Probably should turn in,” Franky suggested after a while.

 

Erica nodded and stepped away from the guide.  “Thank you,” she said, “for-“ she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to thank her for, “showing me the emu.”

 

Franky’s smile was full of warmth.  “G’night, Erica.”

 

That night Erica fell asleep not thinking how uncomfortable she was or how daunted she was by the challenges ahead of her.  That night she fell asleep thinking about Franky.

Chapter Text

 

The morning arrived despite Erica’s desire to keep it at bay.  She hadn’t slept well.  She’d had strange dreams where she had been running away from a dark menacing figure.  It left her feeling slightly anxious.  

 

Today her tent wouldn’t fold up neatly and she spent ten minutes trying to stuff her deflated sleeping mat into the dry bag for her ground sheet and wondering why it wouldn’t fit.  After much swearing and complaining, a curious Bea pointed out her mistake. 

 

“Trap for young players,” she said with a sympathetic grin.

 

Erica embarrassingly mumbled her thanks.  Bea was right, it was a rookie mistake.

 

By the time she was ready for breakfast, everyone had finished up and there was no more boiled water so she had to forgo a coffee.  “Early bird catches the worm,” Vera told her crisply.  “I was up at 6.”

 

Of course she was, she was probably packed up and ready to go at first light, Erica thought ungraciously.

 

Vera was Erica’s least favourite person on the trek.  She was disgustingly fit and always finished ahead of everyone, except possibly Dan and Franky if they were leading.  They had started off on the wrong foot when Erica had used her sunscreen without asking, thinking it was one the trekking company had provided.  She had apologised but Vera had insisted on being priggish and giving her a lecture about being respectful of other people’s belongings.  She had steered clear of Vera ever since.

 

Now she rolled her eyes and told Vera their swim yesterday clearly hadn’t managed to flush the stick out of her arse.  Franky gave her a sympathetic smile and offered her the remains of her own coffee.  

 

“Thanks,” Erica took the mug gratefully.  She didn’t think she would survive the day without coffee.

 

“I’ll add it to your favour tab, will I?” Franky said with a grin.

 

“Or maybe, you could just boil a bit more water in the morning.”  Erica said shortly.

 

Franky drew in an exaggerated breath.  “Ouch!  Someone’s grumpy this morning.”  She did a mock salute.  “Yes siree, boss lady!” She did in her best imitation of a southern drawl.

 

Erica took a deep breath.  Fine, she probably deserved that response.  She handed Franky the empty mug with a sigh and an apologetic thank you.

 

They had a relatively flat 3km hike along a narrow gully to begin the day’s trek then began a steady climb along the eastern flank of the mountain.  This brought them to a grassy plateau, which was sheltered and where they planned to camp that night before dropping down the southern slopes in the morning.  After lunch, free of heavy packs, they would summit the bluff via its rocky face. 

 

Erica stared up at it as she ate her hummus, cucumber and salami wrap.  She forced down the sandwich knowing she would need the energy later despite having no appetite.  Her father had died on just such a mountain.  To say she was daunted was under selling things drastically, she was terrified.  She had convinced herself that she should try to embrace what her father had loved, and by experiencing it she would somehow understand him better.  If she could do this, she could move on with her life.  She could give Mark the answer he was looking for.  She could somehow let go of the anger she felt towards her father for dying.  She could forgive herself for never resolving the breach between them which existed after she had left his law firm to pursue a career in the prison system.  

 

“Okay, listen up,” Dan called.  “This is how it’s going to go.  It is a fairly easy climb up, lots of footholds and a fairly direct route to the top.  It is about an 80 metre climb.  Most of you have done some rock climbing so you won’t have any difficulty.  The weather is good, no wind but remember, safety first.  We do this in pairs, one on the ground as the belayer and the other climbing.  Once you’re at the top, you’ll come back down and swap with your partner.  Any questions?”

 

Erica had trained on indoor climbing gyms but the highest she had gone was 20 metres.  She stared up at the wall of rock.  What the fuck was she doing?

 

“How about you and me partner up?” Bea said to her.

 

“You’re not partnering with Liz?” Erica asked, surprised.

 

“Liz has jagged Franky,” Bea told her and Erica glanced over to where the guide was handing out harnesses.

 

“Oh, okay then,” Erica agreed.  She would have liked to have Franky as her partner.  She trusted her more than anyone else in the group.

 

Bea went to get them harnesses and a rope.  As they prepared Erica could feel her anxiety levels rise.  “You can go first,” she told Bea.

 

They checked each other’s equipment and knots carefully.  Then Franky approached and also checked them.  Erica felt Franky’s slim fingers slip between her harness straps to test the tightness.  She expected Franky to use the opportunity to flirt but the guide was all business.  She moved on to Bea and tightened the waist strap on her harness.

 

“Wouldn’t want you to fall, Red,” she said with a quick smile.

 

Bea laughed.  “Didn’t know you cared, Franky.”

 

“Nah, just don’t want to have to carry your sad arse outta here,” she said over her shoulder in farewell.

 

As Bea began to climb, Erica could see she was strong.  Her tall lithe body scaled the rock face quickly.  Liz, who was climbing next to her was slower and more hesitant in her choices.  Although Erica was paying keen attention to her climbing partner’s progress, she was aware of Franky standing nearby, anchoring Liz.

 

Bea was the first of the women to reach the top.  Her descent was rapid as well and all too soon, Erica was placing her hands on the rock face and looking for her first foothold.  She was slow but steady.  She looked for decent footholds to minimise the work her arms had to do as she’d been taught.  Liz descended past her when she was about halfway up.  She was doing okay until her foot lost its grip and slid off the edge of rock it had claimed.  Her knee banged into the rock and her arms took most of her weight.  She didn’t fall but it freaked her out.  She managed to get her foot back on a secure foothold.  It’s okay, she told herself, you’re okay.  Her heart was racing with adrenaline.  She waited for her hammering heart to slow.  Her hands were slick with sweat.  

 

“You okay?” Bea called up when she hadn’t moved for a few minutes.  

 

She wasn’t okay, she was far from okay.  “Yes,” she called.

 

She looked up at the distance she still had to traverse.  It looked impossibly high.  She didn’t think she could make it.  She looked down towards the ground.  It was too far to go back, her panicked mind thought.  She didn’t even know how to begin.  She thought about her father.  She wondered what he had felt in that moment when he fell.  She felt herself freeze with fear and pressed her cheek into the side of the rock. She saw a foothold about 40cm higher.  All she had to do was lift her foot.  She didn’t know how long she had stared at that foothold.  “Erica?” She heard Bea call.

 

She had no idea how long she might have stayed there.  It had already felt like forever.  Then Franky was beside her.  “Hey, everything okay?” She asked.  Erica’s face was turned away from her so she couldn’t see her expression but her tone was neutral. “Waiting for me, are you?” She asked casually when Erica didn’t respond.

 

Erica blew out a breath.  “Hardly,” she replied, an edge of nervousness in her voice.  She heard Franky shift slightly.

 

“I thought we could go up together,” Franky suggested.  “What do you reckon?”

 

“I don’t think I can,” Erica said to the rock.  “You go,” She told Franky.

 

“What are you gonna do?” Franky asked.  She didn’t seem interested in leaving.  “Erica?”

 

“Stay here,” she said.

 

“What?  All night?”  Erica thought that was a definite possibility as long as her body held out.  “Not sure Bea and Liz will be up for that,” Franky pointed out practically.  Erica had forgotten about them.  “And you don’t need to go that far if you want my attention,” she added conversationally.

 

Erica turned her head at that and saw green eyes watching her.  They didn’t seem to be judging her.  “I don’t,” she claimed, slightly indignant.

 

“No?” Franky asked with surprise.

 

“No.” Emphatically.

 

“I’ve seen you checking me out, Erica,” Franky leaned in as though she was sharing a secret, a knowing smile on her lips.  

 

Erica rolled her eyes.

 

“How about we keep going?” Franky suggested.  “I’ll go first, you can check out my arse that way.”

 

Erica shook her head slightly.  The audacity of the girl appeared to be without limits.

 

“Okay then, you go first, and I’ll check out your arse,” she offered with a grin.

 

Erica couldn’t quite believe the conversation had deteriorated to this.  It was ridiculous, and maybe that was the point she suddenly realised.  “I bet you would too,” she said with reluctant amusement.

 

She had worked out what Franky was doing.  She was distracting from her task at hand, from the fear, giving her something else to focus on.  It was working.  

 

“Well, you do have a nice arse,” Franky was saying.  “And you know, you were pressing it against me last night.”

 

“I think you were doing the pressing,” Erica contradicted her.  

 

“Sure, keep telling yourself that,” Franky suggested with a laugh.

 

Erica suddenly moved her foot up to the next foothold and lifted herself up and away from Franky’s laughter.  It was ridiculous.  Franky’s over familiarity with her was making things seem different to how they were.  Her next step put her ahead of Franky.  

 

“Go girl,” she heard Franky encourage from below, then came the inevitable, “Nice arse.”

 

She was curious about Franky.  She liked her.  None of that meant she was interested in her.  For starters she was straight plus she had a fiancé.  Erica ignored the incident at The Velvet Curtain because that had been an anomaly.  She also ignored the small part of her mind that challenged those assumptions.  It was ridiculous.  Yes, she had admired Franky’s physique but anyone would.  It was impressive.  Yes, she found her engaging and funny but everyone did.  The girl had charm to burn.  Just because she was attractive, didn’t mean Erica found her attractive.  It was a subtle but important difference.  

 

She continued climbing up the cliff face as she had these thoughts.  She was slow but she didn’t hesitate again.  When she reached the summit, just ahead of Franky, she was surprised how little time it had seemed to take.  

 

“Worth it?” Franky asked as Erica took in the 360 degree panorama.  

 

Erica nodded, speechless.  It was breathtaking.  All the sleepless nights, instant coffee and dirt suddenly seemed a small price to pay for this vista. 

 

Franky pointed out the landmarks that were visible and Erica had a new appreciation of the vastness of the landscape.  How easy would it be to get lost out here.  She looked back along the route they had taken to reach this place.  Her eyes widened at the distance she had walked.  

 

“It gives you a different perspective, huh?”

 

Erica looked at Franky, who had her eyes focused on the distant mountain range.  Franky hadn’t mentioned her complete freak out on the way up and she was grateful for it.  Erica acknowledged that Franky had talked her up that rock face.  Somehow Franky had known exactly what to say to get her past her fear.  Whatever else she was, and Erica was still working that out, Franky was damn good at her job.

 

“Yes it does.” She agreed.

 

They got down without incident.  Bea asked her what happened.  Erica shrugged.  Liz told her about the first time she had rock climbed and had almost fallen off the mountain because a bee had been buzzing near her face.  She gave Erica a hug.  “It happens to all of us,” she told her, “even Franky.”  Bea called bullshit.  “It’s true,” Liz insisted, “ask Franky about the time she almost came a cropper.”

 

Erica didn’t get a chance to ask Franky anything immediately.  The dinner preparations were underway and Franky was busy preparing a meal for the group.  Most of the fresh food had been eaten and they were left with dehydrated food.  That evening spaghetti bolognese was on the menu and some strange deconstructed apple pie, both were surprisingly good.  Erica thought the food tasting so good was possibly a result of her having tackled a mountain and survived.  The murmurs of appreciation around the campfire though suggested it wasn’t just that.  Erica had never expected gourmet food in the middle of nowhere but this seemed to be decidedly above par.

 

“I can’t believe how good this is, Franks, have you changed the recipe?” Dan asked her through a mouthful of spaghetti.

 

Erica thought Franky looked adorably pleased at the comment.  “Yeah, you like it huh?”  Dan’s reply was incomprehensible but his slightly tomato coloured grin suggested he did.  

 

“You made this?” Erica asked with surprise.

 

“Yeah,” Franky grinned, presumably at Erica’s surprised expression.  “Got sick of commercial dehydrated meals so I started experimenting with dehydrating my own recipes.  I’ve got pretty good at it.”  She said with a cocky smile.

 

Erica stared at her.  Franky just continued to surprise her.  “Yes you have,” she confirmed.  

 

When Erica was preparing to retire for the night and in the process of cleaning her teeth, Franky wandered over.

 

“You wanna talk about what happened?” She asked seriously.

 

Erica shook her head. “I freaked out. I’m okay now, just embarrassed.” She said admitted.

 

Franky studied her for a moment. “Okay,” she said eventually and Erica had the distinct impression she didn’t quite believe her.

 

“Thank you,” Erica said sincerely. “I’d probably still be there if you hadn’t come along.”

 

“Well, I’m not opposed to spending the night with you but preferably not in a harness on the side of a mountain,” Franky said, making light of it.

 

Erica laughed.  “Right,” she acknowledged.  “I mean about the mountain,” she added hastily in case Franky misinterpreted her comment.  She didn’t mean right about spending the night together.

 

Franky tilted her head and gave Erica a curious look.  “Right,” she said.  “You know, I meant what I said up there.”  Erica frowned, she wasn’t sure what Franky was referring to.  “You’ve already got my attention.”  Franky said deliberately.

 

Erica couldn’t look away.  She was caught by those mesmerising and unrelenting green eyes.  She felt a flush of warmth.  When did Franky move closer?  Things suddenly felt like they were moving at lightning pace.  They had gone from some light hearted flirting to something much more real, risky, and Erica could feel it in the air between them.  Something was going to happen, right now, in this very moment.  Erica knew it.

 

Somewhere a scream shattered the stillness and the moment.

 

Chapter Text

Erica’s heart rate gradually returned to normal.  Something had been about to happen between her and Franky, she was certain, and she would have let it.  No, she had been waiting for it, she had wanted it.  Her heart was racing, not because of the startled scream, but because of Franky and her own anticipation.  In that moment she had wanted nothing more than to find out what would happen next.  She had forgotten all rational thought, forgotten Mark and Erica wasn’t like that.  She was considered, strategic, ambitious.  She wasn’t reckless.  

 

Franky was gone.  Her reaction time was blistering.  Almost before the scream had stopped, Franky had been running towards it.  Head torches appeared and voices heard as people emerged from tents asking what had happened.  Erica grabbed her own torch and followed where Franky had gone.  She found Bea standing apart from the crowd.

 

“What happened?” She asked.  They were on the northern side of the plateau.  It fell away steeply in a cascade of rocks then sheer cliffs.  “Has someone fallen?”  She asked.  “Where’s Liz?”

 

“I don’t know,” Bea said, a worried look on her face.  “I haven’t seen her since dinner.”

 

They heard a shout from further along the cliff edge.  It was Dan.  “I see her!”  

 

Liz was about fifteen metres below on a ledge, barely visible in the torchlight.  By the time Bea and Erica arrived, Dan was already putting on a harness.  Franky was hanging over the edge calling instructions down to Liz.  These seemed to consist of staying still and waiting until Dan reached her.  Erica couldn’t hear Liz respond but assumed she was conscious.  She heard Franky ask if she was hurt.  

 

Franky turned to the group who were huddled together waiting nervously to see how the rescue would unfold.  Her eyes found Erica.  “Go get the first aid kit, it is in the top pocket of my pack, and bring it to me,” she told her.  Her voice was calm, her instructions clear, and her eyes steady in the glow from her torch.  “You remember what it looks like, right?” She gave Erica an encouraging nod.  

 

“Yes,” Erica nodded.  

 

She found the pack lying outside Franky’s tent.  She went immediately to the top pocket.  Inside was the red coloured first aid kit, the same kit Franky had got the toe gel from for Erica’s blister.  As she pulled it out, it dislodged a photo which fell on the ground.  Erica picked it up and glanced at it curiously.  The photo was of a man with a young girl outside a brown brick house.  She wondered who they were.  There was no time to do anything but dust it off and slip it back into the pack.  

 

By the time she had returned, Dan was ready to climb down.  She gave him the first aid kit, which he clipped to his harness.  She looked past him, over the ledge and shivered at the empty blackness which filled the space beyond the torchlight.  Liz had been incredibly lucky.

 

Dan made the descent without incident.  He was down there for a while.  Erica wondered what sort of shape Liz was in.  Eventually Dan appeared but without Liz.  

 

“Any injuries?” Erica heard Franky ask.  She saw Dan shake his head then lean in and say something in an undertone. Did that mean no injuries, Erica wondered, because that would be a miracle.  “Can she climb?” She heard Franky ask quite clearly.  Again Dan shook his head.  

 

Franky looked over the side of the cliff and told Liz to sit tight.  Erica wondered what they would do to get Liz to safety.  Dan grabbed a second harness and clipped it to his own harness then took another rope.  Erica guessed they intended to winch her up.

 

It took nearly an hour from the time they heard the scream to bring Liz up.  She seemed dazed and a bit out of it but otherwise unharmed.  Franky took her to her own tent to keep an eye on her through the night.

 

“They must be worried about concussion,” Bea said.

 

Everyone had trouble settling for the night after the tension and drama of the rescue.  Erica lay on her back in her sleeping bag waiting for sleep to claim her.  She couldn’t believe it had only been that morning she had woken with a knot in her stomach wishing she had stayed in Melbourne.  

 

Now she had successfully climbed Dyson’s Bluff.  She had faced some of her fears.  She understood a little better why her father had continually risked his life to climb mountains.  The adrenaline hit alone would be addictive.  She wondered if it was that high which had made her so responsive to Franky’s charms tonight.  If that wasn’t it then she might have to view The Velvet Curtain in an entirely different light.

 

Eventually she fell alseep after she had put aside all those confusing thoughts and let her mind drift idly.  She thought about Franky during the rescue.  Although Dan completed the rescue with some help from Will, the Polynesian New Zealander who was seriously built as Bea put it, Franky had been the brains behind it.  She had masterminded it impressively in Erica’s view.  She was smarter than both Dan and Will and clearly had experience in getting out of difficult situations.  Her last conscious thought was about Franky’s eyes.  She had such expressive eyes.

 

She woke to the soft patter of rain on her tent.  The weather had been so good Erica had forgotten rain could make all things camping and hiking pretty ordinary.  She sighed and dug around for her rain jacket.  When she got outside she realised everyone was still comfortably ensconced in their tents.  She then discovered another joy of camping in the rain, which was squatting in the rain.  She noticed a tarp had been erected and the stove was set up under it but there was no sign of Franky.  

 

She wandered over to the guide’s tent.  “Franky?” She said softly.  She heard a groan.  It hadn’t been what she’d been expecting.  “Are you all right?”  She unzipped the fly and peered inside.

 

Liz was lying half in her sleeping bag, a mess of blonde frizzy hair, an arm thrown across her eyes.  “Liz?”  The middle aged woman rolled towards her voice and groaned again.  “Are you all right?”

 

“No love,” she said, her voice scratchy.  “My head is on fire.  My guts feel like I’m sailing on the high seas. Be a saint and get me some water, will you?”  She pleaded.

 

“Of course,” Erica agreed immediately.  She found a water bottle nearby and checked how much fluid was in it.  She handed it to Liz, who drank thirstily then handed it back.  “I need to sleep,” she said, collapsing back onto her mat.  

 

Erica looked around the small space curiously.  Liz took up a lot of it but what was left was tidy and well organised.  Franky’s sleeping bag was packed up in its bag, her mat had been rolled up, and her clothes were folded.  Madame Bovary was sitting on top of the clothes.  She wondered if Franky had slept in there with Liz.  It seemed a very small space for two people.

 

She left Liz to rest and went over to the tarp where she found Franky making porridge, looking as though this morning was no different to any other morning.

 

“Hi,” Erica said with a slight smile.  Franky was wearing a dark jacket with the hood pushed back.  She had clearly been out in the rain.

 

Franky looked up from her task.  “Morning,” she greeted her with a smile.  “Looks like someone is determined to get a coffee today.”

 

“If you can’t beat ‘em,” Erica said airily, “Where is Vera?”

 

“Not up yet,” Franky said with a grin.  “No one is, guess it was a late one last night plus the weather is probably putting them off.”

 

“I just saw Liz,” Erica said tentatively.  “In your tent,” she added.

 

Franky’s eyes returned to the task of making coffee.  “Yeah?”

 

“Will she be okay?”  Erica said with concern.

 

“Yeah, she’ll be fine,” Franky assured her.

 

“She doesn’t look good,” Erica told her.  “Concussion can be risky.”

 

Franky handed a mug of coffee to Erica.  “Liz doesn’t have concussion,” she said with certainty. 

 

“Headache, nausea, classic concussion symptoms,” she argued.  “I shouldn’t think she’ll be able to hike today,” she said definitely.  

 

“She’ll be fine,” Franky repeated.

 

The words seemed dismissive to Erica and she was concerned.  “Franky, you can’t risk it,” she cautioned.

 

Franky frowned.  “Look,” she began but was interrupted by Vera’s cheery greeting.  She turned towards her.  “Morning Miss Bennett,” she said with a smirk.  Vera didn’t seem phased by the weather.  Franky handed her a coffee.  

 

“How is Liz this morning?” Vera asked.

 

Erica sipped her coffee, frowning, when Franky said she was fine and proceeded to tell Vera about the hike that day.  It sounded fairly straightforward.  They would descend Dyson’s Bluff in the morning taking a route through the valley in the afternoon to their campsite.  Even so, some of the descent would be on steep, narrow paths.  She didn’t like the idea of someone with possible concussion undertaking it.  She was surprised Franky and Dan hadn’t elected to have a rest day.  “Maybe we should spend another day here?”  She suggested to Franky when Vera had turned away to greet Will.  “Just in case.”

 

Franky looked at her for a moment.  She glanced at Vera and Will then seemed to decide something.  “Come with me,” she said, taking Erica’s upper arm firmly and guiding her out from under the tarp.  Erica pulled up her hood with her free hand as she felt the rain on her face.  Franky led her to an outcrop of rocks, away from the others, and faced her. “Liz  wasn’t concussed, she was drunk,” the guide said bluntly.

 

“Drunk?” Erica repeated with surprise.

 

“She’s an alcoholic,” Franky told her.  “Last night she got hold of a badder of whiskey one of the guys had brought along.  She got disoriented I guess looking to take a pee, she climbed down those north facing rocks without realising where she was.  Bloody idiot!” 

 

“Jesus!” Erica exclaimed.  “She could have killed herself.” 

 

Franky sighed.  “Keep it to yourself, yeah?  Liz has been struggling with it for a few years now.  These hikes are like self imposed exiles to keep her on the straight and narrow.”

 

“Of course,” Erica said absently.  She was still processing what she’d just heard.  

 

“My job is to keep you all safe,” Franky told her.  “I know what I’m doing.”  She reassured her.  “Trust me, no one is going to fall off a mountain while I’m around.”  She said with certainty.

 

Erica wanted to believe her.  She wanted to believe the compelling green eyes that held hers so sincerely.  

 

“It seems a strange way to manage your issues,” Erica said eventually.

 

Franky cocked her head slightly and looked at her quizzically. “You’d be amazed at the shit people work through when they’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

 

Erica felt a faint flush colour her cheeks. After all, wasn’t that exactly what she was doing?

 

“When there are no distractions and you are at the edge of your reserves, physically and mentally, it brings stuff to the surface that you might have buried a long way down.” Franky said knowingly. “If you’ve got shit you’re avoiding, you’ll probably have to face it out here.”

 

Erica guessed Franky was using the universal you but she couldn’t help feeling the guide knew somehow that was exactly what Erica had been doing on the side of that mountain yesterday.

 

“You wanna help me?” Franky was saying.  “Keep an eye on Liz.  Will you do that?”  Erica nodded.  “We’ll call us even then,” she grinned.  

 

“So I don’t owe you anymore for the sat phone?” Erica clarified.  She couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.

 

“Nah, not unless you wanna call your boyfriend again,” Franky said.

 

“I don’t want to call him,” Erica said.

 

Franky smiled.  “Good,” she said emphatically.  “but just so you know, if you’re going to need another favour, the price has gone up.”

 

Erica swallowed at the look on Franky’s face.  “To what?” She asked with a nervous anticipation.  She wasn’t exactly sure where Franky was headed but there was definitely a part of her that wanted to know.  

 

“I guess you’ll just have to find out,” Franky said with an impish grin.  “Now,” she continued, more businesslike, “much as I might like to, I can’t spend all my time hanging out with you.”  She turned to leave.

 

“Wait!” Erica said quickly.  

 

Franky turned back, eyeing her curiously.  

 

“I just wanted to say,” Erica said in a rush, “you were pretty impressive last night.”  She took a breath.  “I was impressed.”

 

Franky’s smile said it all.  “Were you?” She said, her eyebrows raised.  “Good to know.”  

 

Franky leaned forward and for a moment, an exhilarating breathtaking moment, Erica thought she would kiss her. Instead, she said in an undertone, “but you have no idea.”

 

And Erica knew she was right. Erica had no idea what she was doing, no idea what to make of the woman before her, no idea what was between them. It was throwing her off her game, distracting her from all the reasons she’d signed up for this gig in the first place. She found it disturbingly addictive and liberating to be so far out of control and out of her comfort zone. While she felt alarmingly like she was a meteorite zooming through space, she also felt tethered in a way she had never experienced before. She couldn’t explain it but knew irrevocably that it was related to this singularity attractive and unique woman before her. In that instance she wondered if she could wait for the next game to be played or whether she would just claim the prize, impatiently and without apology. 

 

Only it was too late for anything but to rue the missed opportunity because while her mind was consumed by these thoughts, her body had remained rigidly immobile. Her eyes were now fixed on a retreating charcoal rain jacket.  One that stopped where slim tanned legs took over, giving the impression, to someone whose mind might follow that train, the guide was wearing nothing but a rain jacket. Her mind was still lingering in the memory of that look which Franky had thrown over her shoulder as she’d left. A look that was part flirt, part dare and 100 per cent devastatingly sexy.

 

It was definitely time to rethink her whole take on the tantalising woman at The Velvet Curtain.

 

 

Chapter Text

The rain didn’t stop.  By mid morning the mood of the group was flatlining and not even Franky’s exuberance could raise spirits.  They were all wet to varying degrees and the thought of putting up already wet tents in the rain wasn’t appealing to anyone.

 

Erica had walked down the mountain with a slow, silent Liz.   She remembered the stunning vista she and Franky had witnessed the day before.  Now low cloud obscured the views and Erica could barely see ten metres ahead of her as they descended.  The path clung to the side of the mountain and dropped away sharply in places.  There were narly switchbacks that had to be navigated by scrambling down large rocks and dropping onto a narrow path below.  It took all Erica’s concentration not to slip on the wet rocks in these sections.  At one point Liz seemed to trip over an awkwardly placed rock.  Erica caught her breath, certain the older woman would plunge to her death any moment.  Liz only saved herself by grabbing hold of one of the long, wiry vine-like roots that littered the rock wall on this side of the mountain.

 

“Do you need a rest?” Erica asked.

 

“Maybe just take five,” the older woman said gratefully.  “You don’t have to stay with me,” she added.  “I’ll be fine.”

 

They didn’t sit.  It was too wet and there was no room anyway.    “I promised Franky,” Erica told her.  “She’s worried about you.”  Franky hadn’t said it in so many words but Erica was sure that had been the reason behind her request.

 

“She’s got a good heart,” Liz said kindly as she leaned her pack against the rock wall.  “She looks after us like we’re family.” She drank some water.  “Probably because she doesn’t really have one.”  

 

Erica remembered the people in the photo she found and wondered again who they were.  “What happened to her family?”  Erica knew she was gossiping and if Franky wanted her to know all the sordid details of her upbringing then she would have mentioned it herself.

 

“Her mother was no good from what she’s said and her dad walked out when she was a nipper,” Liz told her.  

 

Erica felt for the young girl.  She knew rough childhoods were common enough.

 

“Still she turned out all right, despite it,” Liz went on.  “Family only influence so much, the rest is down to us.”  Erica wondered if that comment had a certain amount of self-rebuke in it.

 

“What about now?” Erica couldn’t help asking.  “Does she have a girlfriend? A partner?”  She wasn’t even sure she wanted to know if Franky had a life outside of this 16 day hike.

 

Liz laughed.  “Probably, I don’t know, every time it seems to be someone different.  First it was Kim, then Jodie, not sure about now.  Guess it’s hard when she’s away so much.”

 

Erica wished she hadn’t asked.

 

Franky and Dan had found a generous overhang that provided good shelter from the rain to serve as a lunch spot.  Erica dumped her pack gratefully and shook off the rain.  Her long blonde hair had reacted to all the moisture in the air and was curling in mad abandon.  She put it up to contain it somewhat.  

 

There was a flattish shelf cut into the rock wall that was still available when she and Liz arrived.  Much as Erica wanted to sit down she saw Liz was on the edge of her reserves.  “Liz, sit down here,” she gestured to the seat.  The older woman sank gratefully onto the granite shelf.

 

Erica stretched her back out then leant against the rock looking to take some weight off her feet.  She closed her eyes briefly.  She could feel her feet aching.  

 

“Don’t go to sleep on me,” Franky said in teasing tone.

 

Erica opened her eyes to see Franky holding out a wrap.  She took it but had a sudden craving for a salad.  “Only if you have a bed you’re willing to share,” she replied.

 

Franky looked delighted by her response.  “Never thought you’d ask.”  The tongue appeared, the eyebrows rose and Erica knew she had walked into that.

 

“I didn’t,” she replied even as her traitorous mind fed her an image of what sharing a bed with Franky might look like.

 

“Yeah you did,” Franky said smugly.

 

Their flirty stand off was interrupted by Dan.  

 

“This weather looks like it’s closing in,” he told Franky.  “Maybe get on the phone and get a weather report.”

 

Erica hoped Dan was wrong.  She ate her wrap, which had cream cheese, cornichons and, surprisingly, salmon, while she watched Franky balance on her haunches at her pack to retrieve the sat phone.  She wasn’t sure how long her eyes lingered there but when she glanced away she saw Vera watching her intently.  

 

The afternoon was slightly better.  Despite Dan’s concerns the rain actually eased and eventually stopped entirely.  Erica was walking alone, lost in thought, when it happened.  She had picked a route across two logs to avoid a suspicious looking mud patch. As she leapt across them her feet slipped. It happened so suddenly it came as a complete surprise and she had no hope of recovery. Both feet went from under her and she went down fast.

 

“Shit,” she muttered with a laugh. She lay on her back, legs dangling either side of each log, below her a pool of water of mysterious depth. It took her a moment to recover her equilibrium. She had gotten over confident she realised and hadn’t taken sufficient care even though Bea had warned her wet logs were “slippery little suckers”. She tried to get up and found she couldn’t.

 

Her pack had saved her from falling between the logs and receiving a soaking but now it was impeding her. It was wedged tightly between the two pieces of wood.

 

She stared up through the overhanging branches at the grey sky overhead. The leaves rustled in the wind sending a spray of rain drops onto her face. It was strangely relaxing.  Eventually she heard footsteps.

 

“Having fun down there?” Franky’s grin was at her expense.

 

“It’s more comfortable than you’d think actually,” Erica informed her, slightly miffed to be found in this position by the woman who was never far from her thoughts.  She folded her arms across her chest.

 

“Want me to leave you there then?” Franky asked, raising her eyebrows in question.

 

“Are you following me?” Erica asked suspiciously.

 

Franky laughed. “Well technically yes,” she admitted, “I mean we are heading to the same place.” She offered her hand. “Where’s Liz? She left you here, did she?”

 

“No!” Erica huffed, taking Franky’s hand. “Bea is walking with her.”

 

Just then Franky pulled her up. For a moment her backpack resisted then, like a particularly stubborn boot, it suddenly released itself and Erica was pulled up and landed unceremoniously against Franky’s chest. Their hands wedged between them and Franky’s face centimetres from her own.

 

The guide grunted as Erica’s weight hit her squarely but she held her ground. Erica noticed Franky’s eyes were so much more captivating at close quarters. Her lashes were thick and dark framing them dramatically. They were staring into her own eyes without blinking. She could feel Franky’s warmth radiating from her. Her hand, still tightly clasped in hers, pressing against her chest. It felt disturbingly intimate despite there being layers of clothes between them.

 

“Thank you,” she said at last.  

 

“Pleasure,” Franky responded with a twinkle in those eyes.

 

Erica wondered suddenly what it would feel like to have Franky’s arms around her, holding her in an intimate embrace. Her body tingled at the thought.

 

“Are you cold?” Franky asked, not making any move to step away.

 

“No,” Erica said breathlessly.  Part of her felt like she was burning up. “I’m not cold.”

 

“You’re shaking,” Franky told her.

 

Erica didn’t want to admit it was a reaction to the woman in front of her, the chemical, physical, kryptonite. Apparently she now had a ridiculous desire to quote torturous pop songs. She took a step back reluctantly and almost slipped again. Franky’s hand tightened in hers, holding her steady.  Her other hand looped Erica’s waist whose free hand had grasped the guide’s arm so now they were essentially embracing.

 

“Careful,” Franky said, so close her breath lightly caressed Erica’s cheek.  “You’ll bring us both down.”

 

“Then what will happen?” Erica murmured, not moving, taking secret enjoyment in being pressed against the surprisingly soft curves.  She took a breath and smelt spearmint, mixed with rain and damp wood.  ”I think I must have bumped my head,” she excused herself.  

 

“I better check you out,” Franky said seriously but didn’t move.

 

“I thought you already had,” Erica ribbed lightly.

 

Franky chuckled.  “You got me,” she admitted, “but,” she said more seriously, “I think I will anyway.”

 

She stepped back leading Erica to a fallen log nearby.  She kicked it a couple of times then patted it, indicating Erica should sit.  Her fingers slid through Erica’s hair as she felt for bumps or cuts.  Erica’s scalp tingled in response to the firm pressure.  “Why did you kick the log?” She asked to distract herself from the pleasantly disturbing sensations Franky’s fingers were evoking.

 

“Checking for snakes,” Franky told her.  “This log is hollow.”  Erica jumped slightly. “Relax, it would have come out if there’d be one inside.”  She reassured her.  They were silent.  Franky concentrating presumably and Erica giving in to the pleasure of those fine, strong fingers.  

 

“You haven’t done this before, have you?”  Franky said suddenly.  

 

Erica wasn’t sure what she meant.  “What?” she muttered.  Was Franky asking if she had ever been attracted to a woman?  She could feel a blush warming her cheeks.  She was glad Franky couldn’t see her face.

 

“Hiking,” Franky clarified, “you’re a virgin, right?”

 

Oh, right.  “A virgin hiker, yes,” she said with relief.  “Is it obvious?”

 

“Kinda,” Franky said drily.  She patted Erica’s head lightly.  “You’ll live.” She reassured her, offering her hand to Erica.  “You know,” she said as she drew the blonde to her feet, a smile in her voice.  “This whole hiking thing works better if you stay on your feet.”

 

She walked on, leaving an irked Erica in her wake.  

 

“I know that,” Erica felt obliged to call out to the guide, who just waved her hand in acknowledgment.  “You could actually give me some useful tips,” she muttered to herself as she set off after her.

 

Erica’s humiliation wasn’t over for the day though.  She was on her knees at the entrance of her tent rolling out her sleeping mat when Vera called out to her.

 

“Oh Erica, you’ve torn your hiking pants.”

 

Erica stood up and turned around, glancing down to find the tear.  She couldn’t see anything.

 

“You have too,” Bea said, coming over, “on your bum.”

 

Erica’s hand slid over her butt until she felt a small tear that flapped across her thumb.  “Shit,” she muttered.  “How bad is it?” She asked Bea.

 

“It’s only small,” she reassured her, “problem is it will likely get bigger.  Got a needle and thread?”  

 

“No, have you?” 

 

Bea shook her head.  “Franky might,” she offered.  “I’ll ask her.”

 

Great!  “No, it’s okay, I’ll think of something.” She said with a rush.  “Franky’s busy.”

 

“Franky!” Bea was calling out.  “Erica needs your help with something!”

 

The guide appeared, looking curious.  “It’s nothing,” Erica said hastily.  This only seemed to intrigue Franky more.  She wandered over.  “Honestly,” she pleaded.

 

“She’s torn her pants,” Bea told her, “you got a sewing kit?”

 

“Nah,” Franky said dismissively.  “Give us a look,” she told Erica.

 

The blonde turned around reluctantly.  “Oh yeah,” Franky acknowledged.  

 

“What do you reckon?” Bea asked.

 

“Hang on,” Franky said and disappeared.

 

Liz wandered over.  She was looking better, Erica thought.  “What’s happening?”

 

“Erica’s torn her pants,” Bea informed her.

“You don’t have a needle and some thread, do you?” Erica implored at the same time.

 

Liz shook her head.  “Sorry, love.”

 

Franky appeared.  “This’ll fix it,” she said, pulling a strip of duct tape out and cutting it with her Swiss Army knife.  “Turn around,” she instructed Erica.

 

Erica felt Franky’s hand place some tape across her bum then rub it firmly.  “Just a sec,” she said as Erica went to move away, embarrassed by the whole situation.  She cut off another piece of duct tape the same length as the first and again put it in place, diagonally positioned from the first piece so they formed a cross.  

 

“Probably worth taping the other side,” Bea suggested helpfully.

 

Erica wasn’t sure what she meant until she felt Franky pull at the waistband and slide her hand down the inside of her pants.  She gasped.

 

“Sorry,” Franky murmured in her ear, then added, “don’t get any ideas.”

 

Erica was paralysed with embarrassment and arousal.  Franky’s hand, or back of it, was gently rubbing her arse as she pressed the duct tape into place on the inside of her pants.  It was disturbingly erotic despite the practicalities of the task.  Franky was right up against her so her body could create the resistance she needed to secure the tape.  It felt fucking hot.  Erica’s face was warm and flushed.  She wondered if anyone else had noticed how this was playing out.  Surreptitiously she leant back against Franky, removing the tiny gap that separated them.  Franky’s hand was low, just low enough to make Erica wish it would explore a little lower.  She swallowed and wondered if her desires were showing on her face.  She couldn’t wait for it to be over almost as much as she didn’t want it to end.  Franky’s hand was firm and warm and the contact with her body made part of her ache with need.  She wanted to close her eyes and lean back, exposing her neck to Franky’s mouth, giving in to the sensations when Franky’s hand slipped around to the front of her pants.  She realised at some point she wasn’t breathing, couldn’t breathe.  

 

Then just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse than her current predicament, Liz found a way to make it so.

 

”Erica was asking if you have a girlfriend, Franky.”

 

Oh God, she was in so much trouble!

 

Chapter Text

“Was she?” The pure glee in Franky’s voice bubbled effervescently from her like champagne overflowing the confines of its glass.  “When I found you lying on your back on that log I knew you’d fallen for me.”  Franky laughed.  

 

Oh yes, Erica could see how hilarious it was.  For Franky.  Her own humiliation at the situation and conversation was reaching record levels.  “Clearly your charm completely knocked me on my arse!” She muttered.  She felt Franky’s fingers pinch her on the butt in response.  “Anyway I wasn’t asking like that!” She countered with indignation.

 

“Like what?” Franky asked.  Her hands slid up to Erica’s hips, resting there comfortably, as though they belonged there.  As though it was the most natural thing in the world for Franky to be standing behind her, hands possessively holding her, talking to her over her shoulder.

 

Erica knew she’d been caught out by a clever chess move designed to make her actually articulate what was in her head.  “Like what, Erica?” Franky persisted, her voice lower and closer to Erica’s ear. 

 

“I was just curious,” she defended herself.  She made to move away but Franky’s hands held her firmly.

 

“Oh no you don’t,” she breathed in her ear.  “Not til I get an answer.  What are you curious about?” Franky wasn’t letting her off the hook.  

 

Erica swallowed.  Franky’s physical presence was causing a physiological response.  Her heart was hammering in her chest, she could feel the pulse point in her neck fluttering.  She licked her suddenly dry lips, her breath shallow, her hands clammy.  “Don’t you have dinner to prepare or something?”  She pleaded.

 

“It can wait,” Franky told her.  Her hands had moved up slightly so they rested at the top of her hips where her pants stopped, under the edge of her top.  Her fingers splayed against Erica’s burning skin.  

 

“Even if it takes all night?” Erica replied, her voice a little breathless.

 

“All night is my specialty,” Franky was smiling, she could tell.  

 

“Bragging much,” Erica muttered.  She knew by now she was never going to get the better of Franky in their verbal sparring, but that didn’t stop her wanting to.  There was a spice to their interactions that was missing in her relationship with Mark.  She suspected the only way she would get the better of the quick witted Franky was to do something completely unexpected.  How Erica wished, right in this moment, she could somehow turn the tables on the cocky guide. 

 

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Franky fingers suddenly slid upwards, brazenly, until they stopped just below Erica’s bra.

 

Erica’s breath hitched and she lost all track of the conversation.  Then just as suddenly Franky removed her hands. “Gotta go,” she said airily, and walked away.  Erica was left with a body buzzing from Franky’s attentions and her own fertile imagination.  

 

She looked around to see Dan speaking to Franky in a low voice.  They both glanced skyward in the direction of the prevailing weather.  Then Franky glanced towards her and Erica wondered what they were talking about.  

 

There was no fire that night since the wood was wet so they ate dinner early before the last of the light disappeared.  Franky managed to surpass herself with a dehydrated paella followed by tiramisu. Afterwards the conversation turned to food because tomorrow they would get their first food drop and everyone had a wish list.  

 

“Fresh fruit,” Vera said with starry eyes.  

 

“Dan has promised beer tomorrow night and I’m holding him to it,” Will told them.  Erica glanced at Liz, the older woman was smiling indulgently at the Islander.  As Erica glanced away, she caught Franky’s gaze across the circle.  They made an agreement in that silent exchange that between them they would keep an eye on Liz tomorrow night.  

 

“Well, I‘m craving Gingerbread,” Bea told them.  

 

“That’s random,” Dan said with a laugh.  “Will GingerNuts do?” He asked her, much to the hilarity of the entire group.  

 

“Didn’t know you were a natural ginger, Danny Boy!”  Franky threw in.  

 

“I meant the biscuits, Franks, which I think you knew,” Dan replied, unfazed by the ribbing.  

 

Franky’s eyes settled on Erica with intent.  “I wanna know what Erica’s craving?” Her eyes danced with humour and Erica didn’t miss the innuendo.  

 

Before she could embarrass herself, because she felt sure Franky’s was a loaded question, Liz answered for her.  “I bet it’s her fiancé, right Erica?”  The older woman smiled at her.  “It’s a pity he couldn’t come with you.”

 

She hadn’t been thinking of Mark but by the expression on Franky’s face, it was a response she hadn’t expected.  Given the day she’d had, Erica felt a certain satisfaction at Franky’s disappointment so she remained silent refusing to confirm or deny it.  

 

Dan brought the party to an end with news.  “There’s a front heading this way tonight,” he told them.  “Franky got the weather report at lunch.  Strong, gusting winds are forecast and storms over night.  We could be in for a rough night.”

 

“Better not go out for a pee tonight, Vera, you might get blown away,” Will said.

 

“Yes, very funny,” she replied with a tight smile.

 

“Seriously though,” Dan continued, “make sure you’ve put out your guy ropes.  This site has trees which will shelter us a bit but you don’t want to have to go chasing your fly in the middle of the night.”

 

Bea and Liz helped Erica secure her tent, and Erica hoped their precautions would be sufficient to see out the night.  “It’ll feel like it’s about to take off but you should be right,” Liz reassured her.  

 

“Good luck sleeping though,” Bea laughed.  

 

Head torches moved about in the dark as everyone prepared to go to bed early.  Tents were illuminated briefly before one by one people settled down for the night. 

 

Erica was too wired to sleep.  The cloud obscured the stars though and a strong breeze had sprung up bringing a chill to the air.  She saw movement over at Franky’s tent and guessed the guide had been for a toilet break before she went to bed.  

 

On impulse Erica went over to where her tent was set up.  Franky always camped a bit away from the group.  She said it was because she got up early to get breakfast ready and didn’t want to disturb everybody.  

 

“Franky,” she whispered.  

 

She heard rustling then a zipper being pulled.  Franky’s dark head appeared then a torch shone directly in her eyes. Erica looked away quickly, blinded by the light.  Franky directed the light downwards.  “Hey, everything okay?”  She asked softly.

 

“Have you got a moment?”  Erica pulled her hood up on her down jacket to block the breeze.  

 

Franky pulled back the fly.  “Yeah, but come in out of the wind.”

 

Erica only hesitated a moment then crawled in, leaving her boots at the entrance next to Franky’s pair.  Franky made room for her, sitting cross legged up one end of the tent.  Erica took up position at the other end of Franky’s sleeping mat.  The torch sat between them nestled in the folds of the sleeping bag casting a subtle glow over them both.

 

Franky was in her sleeping gear, which consisted of a long sleeved maroon t-shirt and black leggings.  Madame Bovary lay open and upside down next to her.  The guide was eyeing her expectantly and Erica realised she was waiting for her to speak.  

 

She wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to say.  “I can’t sleep,” was what she came out with.

 

Franky smiled.  “Not sure I can help with that,” she said with a shrug.  “Unless you think a bedtime story would help,” she added.

 

They were speaking in low tones so as not to disturb, unsure what could be overheard or who might be in the vicinity.

 

“It’s your fault I can’t sleep,” Erica continued softly but surely. 

 

“Yeah?”  Franky’s eyes held hers.  Her tone was casual but Erica could see in those green eyes some surprise.  It gave her a certain satisfaction and bravado.  Franky wasn’t sure what to expect next.  “How’s that?”

 

“How do you think?” Erica asked.  She didn’t know exactly what Franky was thinking but she guessed from the slight smirk on her face that Franky’s mind had travelled down a certain path.  “I never got an answer to my question.”  

 

Franky frowned.  “What question?”  Erica could see she was racking her brain for the answer.  Suddenly she smiled in understanding.  “You wanna know if I have a girlfriend,”  she said, suddenly enlightened.  She looked pleased.

 

“Well?”  Erica waited.  Suddenly she felt nervous about the answer.

 

Franky’s smile grew wider.  “Well, I dunno,” she said eventually.

 

“You don’t know?” Erica queried.

 

“You see,” Franky leaned forward as though sharing a secret, “it’s complicated,” she whispered, her eyes alight with mischief.  “I mean I like someone, and I think she likes me but,” Erica’s heart was thudding in her chest, “she’s straight, and she’s got this fiancé so I dunno,” she finished with.

 

“You don’t have a girlfriend, do you?” Erica whispered, her eyes never shifting from Franky’s.

 

Franky rolled her eyes.  “No,” she whispered back.  

 

Erica was silent.  Suddenly she realised how intimate the setting was.  They were alone together in what was essentially Franky’s bedroom.  “Now it’s my turn,” Franky said deliberately and Erica frowned in confusion.  “You never answered my question.”

 

Erica tried to recall Franky’s question.  The one she hadn’t answered.  Franky had wanted to know what she was curious about.  She certainly hadn’t answered that.  There was also the question at dinner about what she was craving.  She hadn’t really answered that one either.

 

Erica’s eyes drifted to Franky’s lips, which still held the hint of a smile.  She wanted to kiss those lips more than she had ever wanted anything.  Her gaze returned to the green eyes that were watching her intently.  The mischief had been replaced with something else, something deeper, an intensity that had Erica’s senses singing with anticipation.  It was quiet except for the sound of the wind, pulling at the tent, making the fly flap noisily, and whipping through the trees.  Here in Franky’s tent though, it was like they were the only people in the world.  She leaned forward, drawn to the woman before her, to the moment they would inevitably share, her eyes focused on Franky’s parted lips.  She whispered her answer to both questions.

 

“You.”

 

Franky’s smile grew wide and smug, as though Erica’s answer was just confirmation of what she already knew.  “Well,” she said after a moment.  “I’m all yours.”

 

“Are you?” Erica couldn’t help drawing out the moment, letting them both soar a little longer on the wings of anticipation.  Even though she knew, as surely as she knew anything, they were just delaying the inescapable conclusion to their flirtation.  From the first time Franky had smiled at her, Erica had felt it, the tantalising pull of this woman.

 

Franky, it seemed, had soared long enough.  She closed the gap between them in an instant, her lips pressing against Erica’s, her hands grabbing Erica’s jacket to pull her closer.  Erica sank into the kiss, and the sweet warm pressure of those lips, drowning in the heady sensations that flooded her.  After a few moments Franky pulled away slightly and Erica chased her, seeking those lips for a second time, bold and reckless.  Then Franky’s tongue pushed, seeking or maybe demanding permission to take the kiss further.  Erica gave it readily and felt Franky’s tongue exploring, tasting lightly of spearmint.  She moaned softly.  She was on her knees and the only thing keeping her upright was Franky’s hands clasping her jacket, counteracting the press of the guide’s body against her own.  The kiss was steamy and unrestrained as they gave in to the sexual tension between them.  Erica’s hands wrapped around Franky’s biceps marvelling at the strength encapsulated in such a small muscle.  For all her slimness there was a wiry physical strength to the guide, which Erica found sexy as hell.  Her fingers caressed the muscle through the thin layer of clothing.  Everything was different to Erica, from the way Franky tasted to the way she felt against her.  Her moves were bold, confident and experienced in way that made Erica want her to take complete control.  Franky had barely touched Erica and yet her body was primed and begging to be taken.  At some point the rain started lashing at the side of the tent.  Erica only noticed it because Franky muttered some joke about getting very wet before the night was over.  The woman seemed incapable of being serious.

 

Franky broke away.  “Fuck, Erica,” she gasped, breathing heavily.  Her hands were pushing off Erica’s jacket, then she was slipping her hands under Erica’s top to light a fire against Erica’s skin.  Her mouth was on Erica’s throat, kissing her on her pulse point then moving along her jawline with deliberate intent.  “I wanna fuck you,” she rasped into Erica’s ear, breath ragged, biting down on her lobe for good measure, sounding suddenly very serious.  With those desperate words all Erica’s desire pooled low and hot and aching between her legs.  

 

Suddenly there was an almighty crack and thud, which they couldn’t help but hear even above the din of the storm and the passion roaring in their veins.

 

“What the fuck!” Franky muttered.  She pulled away, frowning.

 

“Was that lightning?” Erica asked, feeling bewildered and put out by the interruption.

 

“Nah,” Franky replied as she looked for her head torch.  This found she scanned the small area for her jacket, pulling it on.  “Sounded like a tree coming down.”  She unzipped the door to the tent and grabbed her boots, pulling them on hastily and tying them loosely.  She looked back to Erica’s concerned face.  “Don’t go anywhere,” she instructed.  “We’re not done yet,” she promised.  

 

Then she vanished into the wind and rain.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“You fell asleep on me.”

 

“I didn’t!”

 

“Ah yeah, you did.”

 

“You were hours!” 

 

“Fifteen minutes.” 

 

“Come on, it was longer than that.”

 

It was still dark in the tent.  Erica couldn’t see Franky’s expression although their heads were close if not touching.  They were whispering.  The wind had died and the storm had passed.  It was incredibly quiet except for gentle snores in the distance.  The dawn wasn’t far away.  Erica had woken suddenly and realised she had fallen asleep in Franky’s tent.  A warm body next to her had told her she wasn’t alone.  When she had tried to move, she had woken Franky.

 

“If you give me your number, I’ll send you the photo I took of you.” Franky’s voice sounded confident.  Her hand slid across Erica’s hip.

 

Erica held her ground. “That only proves I was asleep, which I don’t think is in question anymore.  I’d like some evidence it was fifteen minutes because that is what I’m disputing.” She shifted onto her back and felt Franky’s hand slid across her, coming to rest on her stomach.

 

“Lawyer.” Franky muttered accusingly.  

 

“In other words, you’ve got nothing.” Erica responded, deciding to ignore the insult and claim victory instead.

 

“Fine, you want evidence, I’ll time and date stamp it.” The smugness in Franky’s voice suggested she thought she had her lawyer up against the courthouse railings.

 

“If, and I doubt it, if you have this photo then you don’t have to send it, just show me.” Erica’s eyes narrowed.  “Wait! Did you just ask for my number?” She said, enlightened.

 

“Did I?” Franky smirked.  Her hand moved upwards pausing just under Erica’s breast.

 

“You know you did.” Erica retorted but her mind was distracted by Franky’s hand and where it might wander next.

 

“So?” Franky pursued her goal.

 

“You haven’t earned it yet.” Erica teasingly dismissed her request.

 

“Oh it’s like that, is it?” Erica could hear in Franky’s tone that she saw it as a challenge.  “Okay then.”

 

Erica smiled.   She looked forward to Franky vying to win that challenge.  Franky’s hand moved off her rib cage and the guide sat up.  

 

“Come on, it’s almost light,” Franky whispered.  “I want to show you something.”

 

Erica didn’t really want to move but she knew at first light the rest of the group would start to stir and she wasn’t too keen on being seen emerging from Franky’s tent.

 

Franky was changing into her hiking gear and jacket.  Erica did the same and they stumbled out into the crisp, fresh morning air.  Franky switched on her torch and took Erica’s hand, leading her away from the camp and into the eucalyptus forest that surrounded the camp.  They followed a narrow track for a while until they reached a collection of large granite boulders.  Franky clambered up them.  It was light enough now for Erica to follow her lead without needing a torch to guide her.  She emerged on top of a large, flattish piece of granite, the edge of which dropped away suddenly, exposing a clear view of a silhouetted mountain range in the distance.  They were facing east and Erica could see the first hint of the sun’s rays creeping its way over the highest mountain.  

 

Franky sat down on the rock, her arms wrapped around her knees, to watch the sun rise.  Erica sat down next to her.  They were close enough that their arms brushed against each other and their hips touched.  She saw the soft rose hue of the sunrise, delicate and beautiful, creep over the horizon and flood the sky, the colours swirling and shifting like a painter’s palette.  Erica drew a breath as a flock of galahs rose suddenly in startled symmetry into a sky as pink and grey as they.  As they dispersed their cries broke the morning silence.  Franky sighed softly.  

 

“Sometimes I wonder about all the sunrises I’ve missed, that I never got to see because I was too wrapped up in being busy, chasing down what seemed important,” she said softly.  “It seems crazy when I watch a sunrise.”  Franky turned to face her.  “I found this place quite by chance a couple of years ago.  Worth getting up for, isn’t it?”

 

Erica nodded.  “It’s beautiful,” she murmured.  “Thank you for bringing me here.”  She wondered about the last time she’d seen a sunrise in the city. 

 

They headed back to camp.  Franky had to prepare breakfast and Erica needed to pack up.  It was a ritual that had very quickly become normal.  This was life and it was hard to imagine the Erica that had started her day with a shower, deliberated over what to wear and applied make-up before stepping outside the apartment.  She had discussed, not sunrises, but bills and social engagements with Mark as they drank coffee in the mornings.  It all seemed mundane and safe compared with the daily challenges of scaling mountains and survival.  And Franky.  She watched the guide’s hips as she walked ahead of her, admiring the way her butt looked in her snug black hiking pants.

 

She heard faint voices and knew the campsite was near.  They were still tucked away from prying eyes though, in the denser part of the bush which surrounded the campsite.  “Franky,” she said suddenly.  The guide stopped, turning with a question in her eyes.  Erica moved closer.  “I really wish I hadn’t fallen asleep,” she confessed.  By the gleam in Franky’s eyes, Erica guessed the guide felt the same.

 

Franky’s lips found hers, soft but demanding.  In some crazy way it was even more exhilarating in the daylight, in the open, knowing someone could surprise them at any moment.  It made the kiss more urgent knowing it could be over at any moment.  Franky’s hands were on her hips, holding her steady while manoeuvring her backwards.  Her tongue, which Franky liked to use to express herself in a multitude of ways, flicked along Erica’s lips.  Erica’s back came to rest against the smooth bark of a gum tree.  Her hands slid through Franky’s hair, holding the guide as their kiss deepened.   Franky’s hands were pulling at her top releasing its edge from her pants.  Her fingers fluttered against the sensitive skin of Erica’s stomach.  Erica responded by thrusting her tongue against Franky’s, wanting more, promising more.  The smell of eucalyptus filled the air, so much more fragrant after the rain, and mixed with it Erica smelt a faint familiar perfume.  She realised she recognised it from when she had fallen asleep on Franky’s sleeping bag the previous evening. It was Franky’s own intoxicating scent.

 

“Franky!” Dan’s voice rang out from a distance.

 

Franky’s mouth left hers.  “I hope so,” she murmured, “or I’m  losing my touch.”  She grinned and her hands slid round to squeeze Erica’s butt playfully.  

 

“Hey, crazy night!” Bea said as they approached.  “Where were you, Erica?  You missed all the excitement.”

 

“She was sleeping,” Franky said, surreptitiously poking her tongue at Erica.

 

“You couldn’t possibly have slept through that racket,” Bea said with disbelief.

 

Erica frowned at Franky.  “Ear plugs,” she explained quickly.

 

“Oh shit, they must be good, what brand?” Bea asked curiously.  “I’ll get some.”

 

“I’m not sure, I’ll check,” Erica promised.  “Any damage?”  She asked to change the subject.

 

“Vera’s tent but it’s salvageable,” Bea told her.  “Luckily for Vera, it was only the tip of the branch that hit her tent, just leaves and some of the smaller branches.  Must have scared the crap out of her though!”

 

The rest of the group had survived the storm with only a few complaints of tents leaking.  When Erica went over to her own tent she discovered it seemed to have survived the onslaught unscathed.  Luckily she had left her pack inside her tent so it had remained dry.  

 

That morning she walked with Will and Bea.  She realised at some point she was the third wheel as the Islander and the redhead seemed to have bonded over both having lost someone close to them.  It left Erica free to think and her thoughts were about Franky and sex and snoring in that order.  She didn’t think it was possible for her to have sex without making some noise.  She hadn’t thought much about it the previous evening when her desire was driving her actions and the storm was drowning out everything.  Now though, as it seemed light snoring reverberated through the campsite each night, she couldn’t help wondering if everyone wore earplugs.  As she had no way of knowing other than a pop survey, it seemed risky to assume so.  Erica wasn’t a prude and had enjoyed her fair share of public liaisons.  Still, being caught out by strangers was somewhat different to being busted cheating on your fiancé by a group of people who you were stuck with 24/7 for another week and a bit.  It was clear she and Franky would need to get inventive and take opportunities as they arose.  

 

According to Dan’s briefing the night before, they were headed to Creaghe River which they would cross then head up a valley towards their food drop.  When they reached the river late that morning, they realised there was an unforeseen problem.  A river gum had fallen during the storm and taken out the old wooden suspension bridge.  While Franky and Dan briefly contemplated crossing by foot, the swollen river looked treacherous with debris from the storm potentially creating lethal obstacles in the fast moving water.  

 

“I think we have to head down river,” Franky said at last.  “Try and cross at McGowan’s Hut.”  She pulled out a topographical map and laid it out on a flattish rock.  “We’re here,” she pointed to a spot on the map.  “The hut’s here.  If we take this route,” she ran her finger along the paper, “it will take a bit longer but it looks like an easier track than following the river.  Whatcha think?”  She looked up at Dan, slipping her hat to the back of her head.  Everyone had gathered round, peering at the map, trying to get a sense of the changed route and its implications.

 

“What’s the food situation?” Dan asked.  “It will take us another day to get to the food drop now.”

 

“Well, we’ll have to ration ourselves but I’ve got snacks and shit.   You can always go all Bear Grylls, Dan,and catch us some fish with your bare hands,” she grinned.

 

Dan laughed.  “You think I can’t, Franky?”

 

“Well, luckily, we won’t have to find out.  I reckon the hut is only 10k away.”  Franky pulled some muesli bars from her pack and tossed them around.  “This is lunch, make it last,” she told them.  “Lunch will be dinner.”

 

“What about breakfast and lunch tomorrow?” Liz asked.

 

Franky closed up her pack.  “Like I said, make it last,” she said, swinging her pack onto her back.  “Let’s go.”

 

Erica fell into step with Franky.  “Will we be able to cross at the hut?”  She asked curiously.

 

Franky shrugged.  “Hopefully,” she said.  “How’s your swimming?” She joked.

 

“Marginally better than my hiking,”  Erica said.

 

“Better hope we’re not swimming then,” Franky offered with a grin.  “Although I am passing up the opportunity to see more of you when I say that.”

 

“Are you trying to tell me you didn’t check me out at the waterfall the other day?” Erica asked with an amused look.

 

“Can’t blame a girl,” Franky acknowledged, grinning.  “You’re pretty hot.”

 

“Well you’re in luck because I am having a swim tonight no matter what.”  It had been a few days since she’d had the luxury of being able to wash off some of the dirt.  

 

“We’ll try and get into the hut tonight,” Franky told her.  “Be a bit more civilised.”

 

“A bed?” Erica exclaimed. 

 

“Kinda, but don’t get too excited, it’s not the Hyatt,” Franky laughed at her enthusiasm.

 

They heard footsteps behind them.  “Franky, do you have anything for a bee sting?” Bea asked.  “Vera copped one on her hand.”

 

“I’m come and take a look,” Franky turned back.

 

Erica walked on with Bea.  She hoped Franky would catch them up eventually but she knew the guide may also decide to stay behind.  While the path they were on was narrow and overgrown, it it was clear enough to follow.

 

“How did she get stung?” Erica asked to make conversation.

 

“Put her hand on it getting up,” Bea told her.  “Does Franky think we’ll cross the river today?”

 

“I don’t think so.” Erica repeated her conversation with Franky.

 

“The food situation aside, I’m looking forward to sitting at a table for a change,” Bea said with a laugh.

 

“Will won’t be happy about the delay to his beer,” Erica replied.  “You two seem to be hitting it off,” she prompted.

 

“He’s nice,” Bea said with guarded enthusiasm.  “His wife died.  Pretty tragic really, she was stabbed in some gang related violence, just an innocent bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time apparently.”

 

“How awful!”

 

“Yeah, he’s had a rough time of it.  Used drugs as a coping mechanism for a while but it sounds like he’s through the worst of it.  I know what it’s like, my husband died too, committed suicide.”

 

“Oh Bea, I’m so sorry.” Erica said immediately.

 

“Don’t be,” Bea laughed cynically, “he was a bit of an arsehole actually.  It was still hard though, lots of guilt.”  She shrugged.  “I’ve got my daughter Debbie, and I love her to the moon and back, so I’m lucky.”

 

Erica looked around.  “I’m going to take a toilet break, I’ll catch you up.”

 

Bea nodded.  “Sure, watch out for snakes,” she said with a grin.

 

Erica dropped her pack and bush-bashed off to the left looking for a good, private spot well away from the path.  Each spot she found seemed to have something wrong with it.  She went further into the bush where the scrub was thicker.  At last she found somewhere suitable and she had just squatted down when she heard voices.  She looked around but couldn’t see anyone.  It had sounded like two men talking as they crashed through the scrub behind her.  It is never fun to be caught out with your shorts around your ankles, your butt on display, mid pee.  She finished hastily and took off in the other direction as quietly as possible.  She had walked for a bit before she realised she didn’t recognise any of the landmarks.  Surely she couldn’t have missed the path.  She hesitated, looking around her carefully.  Nothing looked familiar.  Fuck!  She decided to keep going because she wasn’t sure she could retrace her steps with any accuracy.  It appeared to be the right decision when she stumbled onto a narrow, overgrown track.  She felt her anxiety levels recede.  That was a close call!  She needed to pay better attention to her surroundings instead of chatting carelessly.  She couldn’t see her pack so she must have hit the track at a slightly different spot to where she had left.  She wondered if she was ahead or behind her pack.  Her gut told her she was ahead of it so she began retracing her steps along the track.  After about ten minutes she wasn’t so sure.  She felt incredibly light on her feet without her pack but she also had no water and it was beginning to warm up.  Eventually she decided she had missed her pack completely and felt her instincts had let her down.  She was just deciding to turn back the way she had come when she saw a hut through the trees a little way ahead.  At first she thought she must have reached McGowan’s hut but immediately dismissed that idea.  Franky had said it was 10kms to the hut and she had barely been going for twenty minutes.  Even if she was walking at 5km an hour it would still take two hours to get there.  All this went through her mind as she approached the hut.  

 

She heard voices, someone having a conversation, and was relieved.  She was about to call out when she noticed a rifle propped against the side of the hut. She paused, suddenly unsure.  A tall, solidly built man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a three day growth came from around the side of the hut.   He picked up the rifle.

 

“I’ll fucking shoot Jake myself if he puts the rangers on to us.  We’re are sitting ducks here.” He said.

 

An older man, clean shaven and with a shaved head came into view.  “Relax Fletch,” he said with a smile.  “Jake isn’t going to make any mistakes like that.  If he’s not here by nightfall, we’ll go find him.”

 

“He’s not reliable, Channing, and I told you that,” Fletch grumbled.  

 

Erica slowly began to back away.  She didn’t know what she had just walked in on and she wasn’t keen on staying around to find out.  She doubted these men could be persuaded to help her out of her current predicament.  She heard a twig snap under her boot and her heart caught in her mouth.

 

Fletch and Channing both turned towards her, peering into the bush.  She didn’t wait.  She turned on her heel and ran.

Chapter Text

Erica pounded along the narrow track, her boots slipping on the uneven ground and her lungs burning in an absurdly short amount of time.  She thought she heard someone running behind her and tried to pick up her pace.  Suddenly she realised she needed to get off the path.  She careened off to the left, crashing through the scrub, leaping over fallen logs, brushing through thickets of spiky bushes.  She didn’t stop.  Despite thorns tearing at her legs and arms and feeling as though she couldn’t run another centimetre, she ran on.  

 

Then suddenly she tripped over something low to the ground and fell face first onto the ground.  She lay there, trying to control her gasping breaths, wondering if she had broken her leg, because if the pain was any indication she felt sure she had.  It was clear those men would find her and she was going to die.  She lay with her cheek pressed against the hard dirt cursing her ill fortune.  She lay there reflecting on her fate, on her most recent regret, which was not managing to stay awake for fifteen minutes while waiting for Franky to return.  It was as though her body had been conspiring against her.  Fifteen minutes!  Honestly, was that too much to ask?

 

She realised at some point that she couldn’t hear anything or rather anyone.  Cautiously she pulled herself into a sitting position and looked around.  All she could see was bush.  This, she decided, was both good and bad.  Good insofar as she couldn’t see her pursuers and bad because she had no idea where she was.  

 

Her shin was bleeding and hurt like hades but she didn’t appear to have broken any bones.  She looked for the offending rock that had tripped her and found it wasn’t a rock.  It was a tiny gravestone.  She brushed away the dirt and saw a faded inscription carved roughly in the stone.  It was difficult to read but she managed to make out a date, 1861 and a name, Brownie.  She found another gravestone near by, this one was dated 1870 and had another name, Tess.  She wondered what these gravestones were doing in the middle of nowhere.  Who were these people?  Had they lived in the hut?  Who had buried them?  

 

She heard a noise.  

 

Erica dropped behind a bush and peered around looking for a sign of whatever made that noise.  She saw a blur of movement in the scrub to her left.  Her heart rate spiked again.  She shrank down lower until she was sitting scrunched up with her head tucked into her knees trying to make herself as small as possible.  Whatever it was seemed to be heading in her direction with slow, deliberate movements.  She held her breath when it stopped directly behind the bush where she was hiding.  

 

“Erica?” Franky’s voice sounded surprised.  “Are you okay?”

 

Erica looked up with relief.  Franky’s presence was an unexpected joy.  The guide was peering down at her with a perplexed expression mixed with concern.  “Franky!  How did find me?” 

 

Franky shook her head.  “It wasn’t hard,” she said with a laugh.  “What are you doing?  Are you hurt?”  Her eyes flicked quickly and professionally over Erica before stopping on her bloody shin.

 

“Just a scratch,” Erica said, trying to dismiss the throbbing pain.  Then she frowned.  “Have you seen anyone else?”  

 

Franky raised her eyebrows.  “Like who?  We’re in the middle of nowhere.”  She offered Erica a hand and helped her to her feet.  

 

“Two men,” Erica replied.  

 

“Oh them,” Franky said.

 

“You’ve seen them?  Where?”  Erica exclaimed.

 

Franky looked at her, frowning.  “No.  I haven’t seen them.” She said deliberately.  “What is going on?  I find your pack abandoned on the side of the path and no sign of you.  Now I find you hiding in a bush babbling about I don’t know what.  Did you hit your head?” 

 

“No,” Erica said firmly.  “And I’m not babbling,” she corrected her.  “I went off for a pee and got lost if you must know.  I found what I thought was the path but after walking for a bit I found this hut where two men were,” she shook her head, “I don’t know, up to something.  They had a gun and they chased me.  I ran and ended up here.  Are you sure you didn’t see them?”  Franky was silent.  She was studying Erica with an odd expression.  “What?”  Erica asked at last.  

 

“The path is just over there,” Franky pointed through the trees.  “You’re not lost, you’re barely 50 metres from your pack,” the guide said slowly.  “Are you sure you’re all right?”

 

Erica nodded dumbly.  She could tell Franky thought her story was fabricated.  “Yes, I’m fine,” she said, a tinge of annoyance slipping into her tone.

 

Franky looked down at the blood on Erica’s leg.  “I should take a look at that.  Can you walk?”

 

“I think so,” she stepped gingerly in the direction where Franky had indicated the path was, trying not to limp as she felt the guide’s eyes on her.  

 

Once they were back where they had left the packs, in a ridiculously short timeframe in Erica’s opinion, Franky made her sit down while she cleaned up the wound.  It looked and felt worse than it was and once the blood had been cleaned up, it was just a jagged scrape down her shin bone.  Franky worked silently and Erica studied her bent head as the guide’s fingers held her calf steady while she wiped away the dirt and blood.  She seemed distant and nothing like the warm, sexy woman who had kissed her that morning.  “You don’t believe me.”  She said suddenly.

 

“It’s not that,” Franky glanced up then and Erica caught her breath at how beautiful those green eyes were. “But you gotta admit,” Franky began.

 

“It sounds far fetched,” Erica finished for her with a sigh.  And even she had to admit it seemed a little like a dream now she was sitting here, talking casually about it.

 

“Yeah,” Franky nodded.  She looked apologetic.

 

Erica withdrew her leg.  “I accept that,” she said after a moment of consideration.  “As a lawyer, I can see it might seem doubtful.”  She thought Franky looked relieved.  “I forgive you.”

 

Franky looked mildly astonished.  “You forgive me?”  She repeated, puzzled.

 

“For not believing me despite me telling you it happened.”

 

“I suppose I should thank you then,” Franky was clearly amused by the idea.

 

“That would be ni-“ Franky’s mouth on hers stopped her reply.  The kiss surprised Erica but that didn’t stop her from returning it, enjoying the unexpected nature of it, and lamenting how quickly it ended.  “Apology accepted,” she said breathlessly.

 

Franky picked up her pack.  “It wasn’t an apology,” she corrected her.  “I’m glad you’re okay, whatever happened out there.”  She grinned.  “I wouldn’t want to lose you, I’ve got a reputation to maintain.”

 

Erica attempted to pick up her pack but her legs felt like jelly suddenly and she struggled with its weight.  She knew it was the result of the adrenaline rush.  “Fine, you can apologise later,” she said as she heaved her pack with renewed effort.  She walked off, leaving Franky to follow.  

 

The guide told her they were the last of the group, everyone going on ahead while Franky waited for Erica.  After a while, she had started to get concerned and decided to see if she could find her.  At first she had headed in the wrong direction, thinking Erica had gone into the bush on the side of the path where her pack had been sitting, but after failing to find her she had tried the other side.  “So while you were hiding in the bush,” Franky started to say.

 

“I wasn’t hiding,” Erica interrupted her.  “I’d tripped over a gravestone.” She decided not to explain she’d thought Franky was the man with the gun.  She already looked stupid enough in Franky’s eyes.

 

“Right,” Franky acknowledged.  “In the middle of nowhere.”

 

“Strange but true,” Erica insisted.  

 

They continued in this vein until Erica let out an exclamation.  “Ha! I told you there was another track.”  She stopped next to a narrow, overgrown track, which barely deserved its name, cutting off from the main path.  “I bet this leads to the hut where I saw those men.”

 

Franky peered down it.  She made a noncommittal sound.  Erica turned back to look at her.  “What?”  She asked deliberately.

 

“Okay, maybe you weren’t hallucinating,” she agreed grudgingly.  She started to head down the track.

 

“What are you doing?”  Erica grabbed her arm, dragging her backwards. 

 

“Having a look,” Franky told her, shaking off the restraining hand.

 

“Are you mad?  Did I mention these guys had a gun and didn’t seem particularly welcoming?” Erica said quickly.

 

“I’ll be careful,” Franky promised, “stay here.”  She slipped off her pack.

 

“No way,” Erica said immediately.  “I’m coming with you.”  She took off her own pack and leant it against Franky’s.  She had no intention of being left on her own, not knowing what might happen to Franky if she ran into those men.  

 

Franky had already gone and Erica ran a little to catch up.

 

“If you’re going to make that kind of racket, we may as well send up a flare,” Franky told her in low tones.

 

“Sorry,” Erica whispered.

 

They walked in silence until the hut came into view.  Franky stopped and slowly backed up until she felt they were out of view of the dwelling.

 

Erica gave her a look.  Franky had the decency to look mildly apologetic in between her obvious amusement that Erica was busting to say “I told you so!” but was constrained by circumstance.  She poked her tongue at Erica, her eyes alight with amusement.  

 

The hut turned out to be empty.  Against Erica’s better judgement, she let Franky do a reconnaissance after they had spent ten minutes watching the building from afar.  

 

“They were there,” Erica insisted.

 

“Well, they’re not any more but it wouldn’t surprise me if they come back.  There was a pile of supplies,” Franky told her.

 

Franky seemed reluctant to hang around.  She had set a quick pace back to their packs and didn’t waste anytime chatting on the way to McGowan’s Hut.  

 

Erica was glad to be reunited with the group.  Bea and Liz asked her what had happened when they saw the gash on her leg.  Erica dismissed it by saying she hadn’t been looking where she was going.  The hut wasn’t huge but it had a common room where there was a table with benches and a slow combustion stove.  There were two rooms with long, communal bunks and everyone had claimed a spot.  The room Liz and Bea were in was full but Liz told Erica there was still space in the other room.  Erica went along to it and was about to enter when she heard Vera talking to someone.  She hesitated, wishing Vera had been sleeping in the first room with Bea and Liz.  Then she heard something that made the hairs on the back of her neck rise.

 

“I’m Jake,” the man was saying to Vera with a smooth smile.  “Where are you guys headed?”

 

Erica listened in horror as Vera told Jake everything.  All their plans bubbled out of Vera without pause and even with a flirty giggle at one point.

 

Erica backed away from the doorway and bumped into someone.  She turned to apologise but the words died on her lips.  She was face to face with Fletch.  

 

He studied her and Erica felt her blood go cold under his stare.  After a moment he looked past her into the room.  “Any spots left in there?” He asked her.

 

She nodded dumbly.  “Lots,” she managed to say with some semblance of normality which was in complete contradiction to the meltdown occurring inside her head.

 

“Good, my mate’s in there,” Fletch told her.  “You going in?”  He waited for her to move.

 

She squashed herself against the wall to let him past.  “No,” Erica said immediately.  She didn’t care if she had to camp in the river, there was no way she was sleeping in that room that night.

 

She found Franky unpacking her gear in a tiny third room she was sharing with Dan.  “They’re here!” She hissed as she came into the room.

 

“Who?” Franky looked up from rolling out her sleeping bag.

 

“Those men from the hut, and their mate,” Erica told her.  “I can’t sleep in that room with them.”  She knew she was sounding slightly hysterical.  “What if they recognise me?  I saw their hideout or whatever it was, and they know it.  They could murder me in my sleep. Jesus Christ!”

 

“Okay, okay,” Franky tried to soothe her, taking hold of her upper arms and looking intently into her eyes.  It calmed Erica somewhat.  “You can bunk in here with me and Dan, okay?”

 

Erica was nodding with relief when Dan came in.  “What’s going on?” He asked, looking between Erica and Franky.

 

“Erica’s going to bunk in with us tonight,” Franky told him.  

 

Erica saw a look pass between the guides.  “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Franky.”  Dan said slowly.  

 

“Relax, Danny boy,” Franky said airily, “I’ll sleep in the middle, if you’re worried about your virtue.”

 

Erica wasn’t entirely sure of the subtext going on between them.  After a moment of silent tension, Dan seemed to back down.  “Whatever,” he said with a shrug.  

 

With the addition of their group, the hut was full.  During the dinner hour, when hikers set up their portable stoves to prepare dinner there was general discussion and laughter as people exchanged stories.  Erica was quiet, watching Fletch, Channing and now Jake for clues about what they were up to.  Jake, as far as she could tell, was intent on chatting up Vera.  His good looks and attentive behaviour seemed to have single-handedly pulled the stick from Vera’s arse.  She was giggling and gagging for it, as Franky so aptly described her behaviour in a low tone close to Erica’s ear when they were together at the water tank, cleaning the mugs.  

 

“She has no idea what she’s getting in to,” Erica said, worriedly.  

 

“G’day stranger!  Long time no see!”

 

They both turned to see a newcomer.  Erica watched Franky fall into the arms of a buxom indigenous woman, with a generous smile and infectious laugh.  “Dor!  Didn’t realise this was your patch,” Franky was grinning with delight.  

 

“Bloody lettin’ the tone of the place slip, lettin’ you stay, Franky Doyle!” Dor laughed.

 

Franky’s hands patted the ranger’s ample rear.  “You love me,” she said with a laugh.  

 

“God knows why,” the ranger said to Erica.  “G’day, I’m Doreen,” she introduced herself.  “Whatcha doin’ down this way, Franky?”

 

Franky explained about the footbridge.  “Any chance we can cross here?”

 

Doreen nodded.  “There’s a suspension bridge now.  Got some funding during the last state election.  Your group’s the only one using that old footbridge these days.”

 

“Listen,” Franky said in a lower tone.  “What do you know about possible smuggling in the area?”

 

Doreen nodded.  “There’s some active cells but we haven’t had much luck catching them at it.  Why?”  Franky told the ranger what she had seen up at the hut.  “Empty cages huh?  Yeah that sounds like smugglers.  I know that hut but there’s never been any activity up that way.”

 

“There are three guys here tonight you might want to keep an eye on,” Franky said.  “Erica saw two of them up at the hut today and we think another one, Jake, is part of their group.”

 

Doreen looked serious.  “Thanks for the tip.  I’ll radio it in and check them out.”

 

Franky nodded.  The light was going.  “Me and Erica are going to call it a night.  Catch ya in the morning if you’re around.”

 

Dan had already crashed when Erica and Franky prepared for bed.  They tried not to disturb him, smothering their head torches to give themselves just enough light to find their tooth brushes and change into their sleeping gear.  It was only when Erica had settled into her sleeping bag that she remembered she had intended to have a swim.  All the excitement had distracted her.  She decided to get up early and swim before breakfast.  

 

She heard Franky rustling in her own sleeping bag next to her and felt a level of comfort to have her so close.  “Night,” she whispered.

 

There was more rustling and suddenly she felt Franky’s body up against hers.  “I guess I still owe you that apology,” she whispered near her ear.

 

“Yes,” Erica agreed just as quietly.  “You do.”  She turned her head in the direction of Franky’s voice.  She couldn’t make her out in the dark.  Then some insecure part of her brain blurted out, “you and Doreen seem close.”

 

She felt rather than saw Franky’s smile.  “Jealous, are you?”  She sounded delighted.  

 

Erica made an exaggerated attempt to deny it.  “What? No! Of course not!”

 

“Yeah, you are,” Franky retorted softly.  Her lips found Erica’s in the dark.  This kiss was different again.  The one in the tent was a beginning, exploratory and promising something more.  Their kiss against the tree was unexpected and exhilarating, a stolen moment.  Now Erica felt she had been thoroughly kissed, it left her dazed and breathless.  “You don’t need to be,” Franky murmured.  She put her mouth against Erica’s ear.  “I am so wet for you.  I dunno how I’m going to sleep, knowing you’re next to me, millimetres away.”

 

Erica was pretty sure she wouldn’t get a wink of sleep after that confession.  She turned her head and lifted her mouth to Franky’s ear.  “Now I’m going to be lying here thinking about that.”

 

“I’m going to be thinking about what I want to do with you,” Franky breathed into her ear.  “I wanna taste you.”  Erica gasped. 

 

There was an exaggerated sigh and sudden movement from the other side of Franky.  “I’m going to sleep in the kitchen.” Dan said with exasperation.  There was rustling as the guide and his sleeping bag left the room.  

 

The pair of them were still until Franky laughed against Erica’s ear.  “Shit, I think he heard us,” she whispered.  

 

“I don’t care,” Erica whispered back.  “Now we’re alone you better make good on some of that talk, Franky Doyle.”

 

“Unzip your bag,” Franky commanded softly.  Erica heard Franky unzipping her own.  Then the guide was kissing her again, pushing her tongue into Erica’s mouth.  Her hand was pulling at Erica’s top until she felt Franky’s warm hand on her abdomen.  She shivered with anticipation.  She wanted Franky’s hand lower where she could feel her arousal throbbing with need.  “Are you wet?” Franky asked as her mouth moved to her neck.  She was so wet, she didn’t think it was possible to be this wet.  She felt Franky’s bare thigh nudge between her legs.  When had Franky lost her leggings?    

 

“Clothes,” she murmured.  That was all it took for Franky to pull away suddenly and with both hands she pulled Erica’s hips up and her thermals off in one rough movement.  Then she did the same to Erica’s top, leaving her naked in her sleeping bag.  “Your top,” she said breathlessly and on command Franky pulled it off.  “I can’t see you,” Erica told her, “so I need to feel you against me.”  She already knew Franky kissed differently to anything she had experienced previously and she wanted more of that soft strength.  Franky was assertive but it was different to the way a man liked to dominate.  Franky’s hands were sure and skilful when they touched Erica.  She didn’t want to rush it, drawing out Erica’s pleasure sinfully.  

 

The first time Erica moaned, Franky’s mouth pressed against her ear.  “You’re not going to get loud on me, are you?”  Erica wasn’t sure she could promise not to but she managed to stifle her next moan by biting down on her hand.  When Franky first put her mouth against her though, she couldn’t stifle her gasp.  When she licked the length of her, through her wetness, sucking gently, Erica shoved the heel of her hand into her mouth and bit down hard.  When Franky flicked her clit, then slipped inside her, all Erica’s body tensed.  She couldn’t stop from thrusting upwards, looking for more, and Franky went deeper, fucking her soundly until Erica came like a flood into her mouth.  A loud moan escaping her mouth as she did.  Franky covered her mouth with a hand, cutting off the worse of it.  “You’re gonna get us caught,” Franky told her when she had collapsed next her.  Erica could hear the smile in her voice and suspected Franky didn’t really care.  “So I reckon I’ve earned that phone number.”  She said after a moment.

 

Erica laughed softly.  “Maybe.”  She stopped Franky’s reply with a kiss.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Erica woke late.  She knew it was late because it was quite light in the room, she was alone and she could hear distant voices indicating people were up.

 

She stretched.  She had slept remarkably well.  She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept so well.  But then, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had that much good sex, and it had been good.  In fact it had been great, she acknowledged.  Even though they had been constrained by the limited privacy, she and Franky had made the most of the opportunity.

 

Which is why she had slept late.  Which is why she didn’t feel much like getting up.  Franky, for all her playful behaviour and flirty banter, was very serious about sex.  Erica found herself smiling at the thought.  She had reaped the benefits of Franky’s obvious experience and enjoyment.  Somehow, the audacious, funny, sexy guide had managed to not only tempt Erica into cheating on Mark, she had also enticed her into switching sides.  

 

Although if she was honest with herself, maybe both those things weren’t as difficult as a casual observer might have expected.  There had to be a reason why Erica wouldn’t commit to her fiancé and maybe it had nothing to do with her father.

 

She knew at some point she would have to unpack that but not now.  Now she just wanted to revel in the memory of Franky’s attentions and her touch.  Every moment of pleasure needed to be reloaded and relived, once, twice, a thousand times.  Which was stupid because it was just sex.  

 

Eventually Erica sat up.  She wanted her swim and if she didn’t get moving she would miss the opportunity.  Fortunately no one seemed keen to get started today and  everyone was in the common area having breakfast, or whatever would pass for breakfast that morning given their food supplies were low.  

 

Erica slipped out the door and headed down to the river.  She saw the ranger stacking wood under a little alcove built for the purpose of keeping the fuel dry.  

 

“Morning,” Erica greeted her as she passed, feeling especially good humoured.  She had even forgiven Doreen her slightly overfamiliar interactions with Franky the previous evening.  If little birds had suddenly started circling her head, singing and chirping idyllically she wouldn’t have been surprised the mood she was in.  Which of course was ridiculous, she acknowledged, because this wasn’t a fairy tale and she was no Snow White.

 

“Mornin’” Doreen gave her a wide smile.  “Heading for a swim, are ya?”  She asked, noting Erica’s towel.  “Best spot is to the left of the bridge, there’s a little sandy beach, and it’s not as rocky underneath.”

 

“Thanks,” Erica smiled in return.

 

“Oh hey,” Doreen called after her, “You seen Franky this mornin’?”

 

Erica felt herself blushing.  “No,” she said hastily.  Strictly speaking, not true, because they had fallen asleep in the early hours.

 

The ranger nodded.  “No worries then,” she said.  “Got a message for her.  Came though last night after youse had gone to bed.”

 

“I’ll tell her,” Erica promised.

 

Erica felt like a new woman after her swim.  She felt clean.  It felt ridiculously good given she hadn’t used soap and the water had been bracing at best.  Her skin tingled with a newfound sensitivity.

 

Once she had packed up she went in search of some coffee.  The common area was empty.  She was wondering where everyone had disappeared to when she heard Dan and Franky talking outside.  The window was open and Erica could hear the conversation quite clearly so heard when her name was mentioned.

 

“What do you think you’re doing with Erica?” Dan’s voice was low.  “She’s a client.”

 

“I told you to relax, Dan,” Franky’s voice for all its casualness had an edge to it which Erica hadn’t heard before.  

 

Erica moved slightly until she could see Franky.  She was in profile, sitting on the edge of the narrow verandah as she pulled on her socks and boots, lacing and double knotting them up.  Dan was standing over her, hands in pockets, scuffing the edge of the verandah with his boot.

 

“Remember what happened last time,” Dan continued regardless.  There was silence.  “You almost got sacked.”  Erica saw Franky shrug.  “Well don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  He added with a resigned sigh.

 

“Gee thanks,” Franky said sarcastically.  “Good to know you’ve got my back.”

 

“I do have your back,” Dan assured her, “I just don’t think it will help if you get another complaint against you.  Jesus Franky, you are one of the best in the business!  Do you really want to chuck it all away just to get into some woman’s pants?”

 

“Fuck off Dan!” Franky muttered as she stood up and walked away.

 

Erica felt uncomfortable about overhearing a private conversation, particularly  one in which she featured as the main topic.  She wished she hadn’t heard it.  Franky’s interest in her was now put into perspective.  This was a pattern of behaviour for the outgoing guide, and Erica couldn’t help wondering if she was just one of a trail of hiking flirtations for Franky.  Maybe she tried this with every promising woman who signed up for her flirting, and at least one time it had backfired on her.  Someone had complained about Franky’s attentions and she had almost lost her job over it.  That was the essence of it.  She felt a little foolish for having fallen for it so easily.

 

“Hey Erica , we’re heading off,” Bea appeared in the doorway.  “You good to go?”

 

“Yes,” Erica confirmed, pulling herself out of her reverie.

 

By the time she had collected her pack and pulled on her boots, most of the group had already crossed the bridge and were heading up river back the way they had come.  Erica followed them.  She caught up with Liz first.

 

“Hello love,” Liz greeted her.  “You all right?”  She asked, looking closely at her.

 

“Yes, fine,” Erica replied.  “Why?”

 

“Just didn’t see you at breakfast,” Liz clarified.  

 

“I went for a swim,” Erica explained briefly.

 

Liz smiled in understanding.  “Lovely, wasn’t it?  Most of us had a swim when we got in yesterday before you and Franky turned up.”  She added as an afterthought, “she was worried about you yesterday when you seemed to have vanished into thin air.”

 

“Probably worried about her perfect record,” Erica said dismissively.

 

“Oh no love, I don’t think it was that.  She was quite concerned about you.  Tried to hide it of course, but I could tell.”

 

Erica remembered Liz had hiked with Franky before and would be able to shed some light on her behaviour.  “Does Franky always flirt with the women she’s guiding?”

 

“Oh don’t let that bother you,” Liz said immediately, “it’s harmless.  Just Franky being friendly.  She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

 

That seemed to confirm Erica’s suspicions.  She fell silent, lost in her own thoughts, which mainly consisted of chastising herself for falling so easily for Franky’s charms.  

 

Liz began telling a story about a possum that had gotten into someone’s pack, which had been left on the verandah overnight, and found a jar of peanut butter.  

 

Erica listened with half an ear.  As she walked her feelings moved from embarrassment to anger.  She had been an idiot for reading more into Franky’s behaviour than she clearly meant.  Franky, however, had been wilful in misleading her.  She had deliberately gone out of her way to get a reaction from Erica.  How could anyone resist that kind of intensity?  It wasn’t fair.

 

“...somehow managed to get the jar open!” Liz finished with a laugh.  

 

“Where’s Franky?” Erica asked suddenly.  “Ahead?”

 

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Liz frowned as though trying to remember.

 

“You go on,” Erica suggested, “I need a word with Franky.”

 

She waited impatiently until she heard footsteps and caught sight of Dan.  “Franky not with you?”  She asked when the guide was within earshot.

 

Dan stopped and eyed her reluctantly.  For a brief moment she thought he was going to ignore her question.  “Still back at the hut,” he told her eventually.  “There was a message for her.  She’s using the radio.”  Erica remembered Doreen saying as much.  

 

Dan started walking again at his steady, methodical pace.  Erica wondered suddenly exactly how much weight Dan was carrying in his pack.

 

“I left my towel back there,” she said quickly, “I’ll just duck back and get it.”  The look Dan gave her told her he knew a flimsy excuse when he saw one.  She turned back without waiting for his reply.

 

The hut was quiet when she arrived.  She checked all the rooms then went up to the toilet but didn’t see anyone.  Just as she decided to walk down the track to the ranger’s quarters, she heard voices.  

 

“You want me to come up with you?”  Franky was saying.

 

“Nah, you gotta get going, Franky.  I’ll do a watch and wait til the cops get here.  Those guys ain’t goin’ anywhere.”  Doreen looked up and saw Erica.  “Oh g’day again,” she said.  “You wanting Franky?”

 

Franky looked up when the ranger greeted Erica.  Her eyes locked with Erica’s and her smile was immediate and appreciative.  “Hey,” she said after a moment of staring.  “Sorry,” she added.  

 

Erica stood waiting while Franky turned back to Doreen to finish their conversation.  After a farewell hug, Franky watched the ranger head up the same track Franky and Erica had taken yesterday.  “Dor tracked your three mates up to the hut before first light,” Franky told her.  “She’s heading up there again now.”  With everything that had happened between her and Franky, Erica had forgotten about Jake the Snake and his mates.

 

Franky turned back to her with a smile on her face.  “So,” she said expectantly.  “Last night was, hot, and sexy, and you were,” Franky seemed at a loss for words.  She pulled Erica into a hug, “fucking amazing,” she breathed into her ear.  She pulled back, searching Erica’s face for a signal.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“I don’t know Franky,” Erica said with a huff, “maybe I don’t enjoy being one in your long line of conquests.”  She looked skyward.  “Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s it.”

 

“What?” Franky’s eyebrows pulled together into a frown.  

 

“Isn’t that what this is?” Erica asked pointedly.  

 

“No!” Erica’s stare made Franky hesitate.  “It’s not,” she said more calmly, taking a breath.  “Look, I’m not gonna deny I’ve done this before,” she admitted, “but it wasn’t, and isn’t now, about conquests or any shit like that, Erica.  I met two of my ex-girlfriends on hikes.”  She was looking closely at Erica.  “Why would you even think that?  Did Bea say something?”

 

“Bea?” Erica looked surprised.  “Have you and Bea?” She couldn’t finish the sentence before Franky interrupted her.

 

“Shit no!”  Franky laughed.  “Nah, I mean I’ve flirted with her but she’s never shown any interest.  Erica,” Franky held her upper arms.  “I am really into you.  You‘re smart, sexy, kinda cute when you are trying to be cool and collected and not succeeding at either,” Franky grinned.  “You wanna tell me what this is about?”

 

“I overheard you and Dan talking this morning,” Erica confessed.  She saw confusion then enlightenment flash across the guide’s face.

 

“Fuck,” she muttered, “yeah, okay, I get it,” she admitted.  She let go of Erica and crossed her arms against her chest.  “Look, it’s not how it sounds.  Jacs had it in for me from day one of that hike.  She was an older woman, and she had control issues, didn’t like it that I was calling the shots.  It all came to a head when I pulled the pin on an ascent because of the weather.  She ignored me, went anyway,” Franky shook her head as though even now she couldn’t believe it.

 

“What happened?”

 

“She fell, broke her ankle and had to be choppered out.  She reported me to my boss for sexual harassment.  It was a complete fabrication but, well you know me, it wasn’t a stretch for anyone to believe it.  She had influential friends and threatened to close down the business.  It was only because Dan backed my side of the story that I kept my job.”

 

“That’s awful,” Erica said with sympathy.

 

Franky shrugged.  “Yeah, well, she was a bitch.  I’m just sorry you thought I was messing about with you,” her green eyes bore into Erica’s soul, “coz I promise you, I’m not.”

 

Erica caught her breath at the intensity of that look.  “Okay,” she said with relief.  She had been feeling vulnerable and had reacted as such.  This whole experience was new and confusing and she had read the worst into what she had heard.  It seemed silly now Franky had explained things.  

 

“Come here,” Franky commanded softly.  She kissed her, holding her jaw firmly and Erica gripped her biceps returning the kiss with equal fervour.  “We better get going,” she murmured eventually.  “You smell good,” she added as she nuzzled Erica’s neck, kissing the soft exposed skin.

 

“I had a swim,” Erica said with a smile, her eyes closing with Franky’s attentions.

 

“You always smell good,” Franky told her, running her fingers through Erica’s hair and pressing herself against her.  “Dan will have my arse,” she muttered.

 

“What?” Erica asked with confusion.

 

Franky looked at her.  There was a impish gleam in those green eyes.  “We’ve got the hut to ourselves,” Franky told her.  “It’d be a shame to waste the opportunity.”  Erica felt a rush of anticipation.

 

Her back crashed against the timbered wall of the common area.  It was more desperate and frantic and louder than last time.  Franky’s hands on her were rougher than the last time.  There was more pinching and scratching and biting as though she knew that Erica needed light and shade.  Mouths and tongues caressed and teased relentlessly until their ragged breaths and moans dominated the silence.  The rough timber dug into her soft, sensitive skin when Franky pulled off her shirt and pressed her against it.  The pain shifted in intensity and eventually flowed into pleasure as Franky’s fingers pulled on the zip of her shorts and slid her fingers into Erica’s hot wetness.  She felt her legs buckling and her back slipping against the wall.  Franky pulled her legs up around her waist and somehow managed to manoeuvre them towards the table.  It was better there.  Franky’s fingers penetrated more deeply.  She fucked with five times the intensity of any man.  Erica watched with fascination until her mind could no longer separate itself from the sensations overwhelming her body.  “Oh fuck,” she gasped as she came, grasping at the table edge, closing her eyes.

 

“I can’t walk,” she said eventually, “let alone hike.”

 

She heard Franky chuckle.  “Well, I’m not carrying you,” she told her.  

 

“We better stay here then,” Erica suggested, “until I can.”

 

“If we stay here, I can guarantee you won’t be walking,” Franky said with a grin, leaning over her then kissing her.

 

Erica didn’t see a problem with that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Franky was washing dirt off her leg.  Erica was mesmerised.  Her bare foot was perched on a rock and her calf muscle flexed as she balanced there.  She knew now how that firm muscle felt under her fingers, how it contrasted with the soft skin.  Franky’s slim tanned hand slid over her shin as she brushed the water away.  Erica admired the way her skin glistened now it was clean.  She could admire Franky all day.  There was a small scar on her knee, barely visible unless you knew where to look.  Erica had found it accidentally during their night together.  Franky had told her it was the result of falling off her bike as a kid.

 

Erica wanted to ask about the other scars, the ones the tattoos were masking.  She didn’t though.  Despite Franky’s openness about the Jacs incident, Erica wasn’t sure Franky would welcome her curiosity about her childhood.  For all their intimacy they weren’t emotionally close.  In fact sometimes she wondered if anything had changed between them.

 

Case in point.

 

Erica had been bending over to pick up her pack when she felt a hard slap on her arse.  “Hey!” She muttered, aggrieved.  She had stood up to find Franky grinning at her.

 

“I saw that big cross on your butt and couldn’t help myself,” the guide told her, “it’s like this target just waiting to be hit.”  She laughed.  

 

Erica had forgotten about the duct tape accessory.  “Well just because you put it there,” she reminded her, slightly annoyed.  “Doesn’t mean you can do what you want with it.”

 

Franky just looked at her and Erica swallowed.  Yeah, her look said, it does actually.  But Erica was pretty sure Franky didn’t just mean the repair.  The idea of Franky doing what she wanted with her disturbed her equilibrium and she couldn’t deny the shiver that went through her.  

 

“Maybe you should give Franky some of her own medicine,” Bea suggested.  

 

“Don’t tempt me,” Erica muttered.

 

Franky laughed.  “Yeah, right,” she said dismissively, wandering away with a saucy smile on her face.

 

That incident had started an unspoken but seriously competitive game between them.  Although, Erica suspected it had started well before their first kiss.

 

“Popquiz.”  Franky announced around the campfire that afternoon.  “Has anyone fallen asleep during sex?” She asked.

 

The question caused a round of laughter followed by vehement denials.

 

“I had a girl once who fell asleep on me in fifteen minutes,” Franky declared, casting a sly glance at Erica.

 

“I -,” she exclaimed before realising rebutting Franky’s claim would expose their liaison.  She stopped suddenly.

 

“Yes?” Franky prompted, with an air of curiosity.  “What was that?” She turned a serious face to Erica and waited.

 

“I don’t believe it,” Erica finished with.

 

“I know, right?” Franky feigned surprise.  “Who in their right mind would fall asleep on me?” She declared, poking her tongue out.

 

Erica surreptitiously pinched Franky on her thigh causing her to spill some of her beer.  They were sitting next to each other.  On previous occasions they had sat across from each other because Erica had liked to watch Franky.  Now they enjoyed the casual contact that occurred when their thighs touched or their arms brushed against each other.  It would cause Erica’s body to tingle.  Occasionally she caught herself leaning against Franky.  It was subtle and she doubted anyone else had noticed except possibly Dan.  Now, as she watched Franky’s secret smile, she wanted nothing more than to tackle her to the ground and kiss her.  She really was incredibly sexy with her cockiness in full feather display.  

 

Just then Franky leaned over.  “I think you need a drink,” she said, waving her beer in Erica’s direction.

 

“Do you?” Erica asked with a smile.  

 

“Otherwise I’ll think you can’t keep up,” Franky told her grinning.

 

“With you?” Erica asked amused.  

 

Franky’s green eyes studied her, a ghost of a smile lingering on her lips.  It seemed like there was no one else in her universe when Franky looked at her like that.  They were dangerous those eyes.  She would lose herself in them if she wasn’t careful.

 

“Watch out Erica,” Bea called out, “Franky is renowned for winning drinking games.  We’ve all come off worse for wear by accepting her challenge.  Don’t get sucked in by her charm.”

 

Too late for that, Erica thought wryly.  “Well, I’m not really a beer drinker so I think I’ll pass.”  She gave Franky a sorry not sorry smile.  

 

To her surprise Franky perked up.  “No beer then.”  She drank the remains of hers in one mouthful.  “But I bet I can guess your poison,” she said confidently.

 

“Go for it,” Erica offered casually.  

 

“And if I do, I get a prize,” Franky went on.  Erica raised her eyebrows.  It sounded like a statement of fact and she suspected even if she disagreed Franky would take her prize anyway.

 

“And if you’re wrong, I get a prize,” Erica countered with.  

 

Franky shrugged with air of reluctant acceptance.  “Sure,” it sounded ever so slightly dismissive.  Franky didn’t think she would lose, Erica took from that.

 

“Okay then, what do I like to drink?” Erica asked.

 

Franky studied her.  “Scotch,” she guessed.

 

Erica smiled.  “Why do you think that?”

 

“You’re a lawyer, so you probably mix with a lot of men, and you’d want to square up to them so you’d drink what they drank,” Franky concluded.

 

It was uncanny how Franky had summed up her life.  “So you think I just want to fit in?” She felt slightly disappointed by the assessment.

 

Franky leaned in, eyes serious.  “I think you’re competitive, and determined, and as hot as fuck,” she said in a low voice.

 

With that Franky stood up.  Erica secretly admired how she managed to shift from a sitting position to her feet in one fluid movement.  Strong quads, she thought to herself, as she watched Franky wander off.  She had felt them flex under her touch, smooth, subtly strong, and sexy as hell she had to admit.  

 

There were bottles of wine produced for general consumption and more beer.  Erica sat down next to Liz while Franky was preparing dinner.  The older woman was drinking some fruit drink concoction.  “It’s a mocktail,” Liz told her, “Franky’s secret recipe,” she smiled.

 

Erica smiled in return.  “She looks after you,” she said lightly.  It touched her that Franky knew the night would be difficult for Liz and made an effort to create something special that meant Liz could join in and enjoy the festivities.  It showed her protective instincts.

 

“She’s a good kid,” Liz acknowledged.  “Smart, funny, good heart.”  Liz’s eyes were watching Franky with Will and Dan as she spoke.  

 

Erica followed her gaze.  Franky was drinking beer, laughing at Dan’s attempt to strong arm Will, and cutting up salad vegetables.  They were having a barbecue for dinner.  Franky had stuffed baby potatoes in foil into the coals of the fire earlier and the smell of onions frying had everyone’s appetites primed.  

 

Erica was amazed at the set-up.  The food drop had tubs with clean clothes and other personal items each of the group had decided to pack.  It also had a solar powered camp fridge.  The beer, meat for the barbecue and other items that needed to be refrigerated had been stored in that.  The empty tubs would be filled with rubbish and any gear the group wanted to ditch and picked up a day or so later.  

 

“Liz,” she had a sudden thought.  “Did you happen to mention to Franky that I liked scotch?”  She remembered having a conversation with Liz on the first or second day about favourite ways to unwind.  Erica had mentioned scotch being something that her father had introduced her to and now it was something that calmed her at the end of a long day.  

 

“Not sure, love, why?” Liz frowned as she cast her mind back.

 

Erica’s eyes narrowed as she watched Franky.  She was pretty sure the guide had set her up with her question earlier.  Well, two could play that game, she decided.  “It doesn’t matter,” she replied casually.  “So tell me more about Franky.”

 

The food and wine flowed freely that night.  The prospect of a rest day the following day meant nobody had to worry if they would be hungover in the morning.  Everyone was tipsy except Liz who didn’t seem at all tempted by the alcohol on offer.

 

“She feels pretty bad about falling off the wagon the other night,” Franky explained to Erica when she commented on Liz’s self control.  

 

“Why did she fall off the wagon?” Erica asked curiously.

 

“Anniversary of when she almost ran over her mother-in-law.  Drunk in charge of a tractor,” Franky told her.  “Lost her marriage and her kids that day but shit, could have been a lot worse.”

 

Erica remembered something Liz had said.  “She must still have contact with her daughter though,” she said.  “She told me she rang her once on your sat phone when she was sick.”

 

“She rang her ex-husband but he never let her talk to Sophie,” Franky clarified.  “She was a mess afterwards.”

 

Erica looked across at Liz who was doing a remarkably good imitation of Vera with a pole up her arse.  She had the group in  stitches.  Erica wondered briefly where Vera was but Franky whispering in her ear distracted her.

 

“So what’s my prize?” she asked, leaning against Erica to steady herself.  One hand was clasping a beer while the other was resting on Erica’s shoulder.

 

“Cheats don’t get prizes,” Erica told her.  She felt Franky’s hand snake down to cup her butt.

 

“I didn’t cheat,” Franky murmured against her neck, her warm breath sending dangerous messages to Erica’s brain.  “I know you,” she boasted softly.  Her lips kissed Erica’s neck while her hand tightened on her arse.

 

“Liz told you I liked scotch,” Erica had to concentrate to keep her voice steady as Franky’s mouth moved closer to her pulse point.  No one was paying any attention to them.  The fire wasn’t casting much light their way.  It would be very easy to steal a kiss.  It was very tempting just to move her head slightly and capture those soft lips that were making her forget everything she ever knew.

 

Franky suddenly grabbed her hand and pulled her away from the camp fire.  “Come on,” she said, “I wanna show you something.”

 

Erica didn’t have much choice given Franky was stronger than her, quite determined and had Erica’s hand in a tight hold.

 

She stumbled after her then banged into her back when she stopped abruptly.  “Franky!” She began to complain when Franky turned and put her hand against Erica’s mouth.  She put her other hand up to her mouth, finger and beer can against her lips, telling Erica to be quiet.  

 

She slowly pulled her hand away from Erica’s mouth and pointed.  Erica saw what had stopped her.  There was an enormous owl sitting on the branch of a eucalyptus tree.  It was sitting perfectly still, watching them with unblinking eyes.  It was magnificent.  Then suddenly with a whoosh of wings it flew off into the night.

 

“What kind of owl was that?” Erica asked in awe.

 

“It’s a powerful owl,” Franky told her, “you don’t see them very often so it’s pretty amazing.” Her eyes were gleaming.  

 

“You’re amazing,” Erica said, “how did you know?”

 

“I heard his call and knew he must be nearby,” she said, grinning.  She pulled Erica close.  “I’ve never seen one before,” she told her.  “We were pretty lucky.”  For all her seeming coolness, Franky seemed incredibly excited about a bird.  Erica thought it was very cute.

 

“I know,” she murmured.  “Very lucky!”  She felt light-headed from all the wine.  “I’m drunk,” she confessed, putting her head on Franky’s shoulder.

 

“You’re a disgrace,” Franky told her.  She kissed her and they stumbled sideways.  

 

“Franky!” Erica warned but it was too late.  

 

They tripped over a log and fell into the bracken.  “Fuck!” Franky laughed, “you okay?”  She looked down at Erica who she had landed on.

 

“No!” Erica exclaimed, aggrieved.  “You’re squashing my boob,” she complained.  She failed to mention Franky’s leg that was resting comfortably between hers.

 

“Sorry,” Franky said immediately and shifting slightly but not getting up.  Erica could hear the grin in her voice.  

 

The moon, almost full, was casting a silver shimmer over everything.  She saw the elfin sparkle in Franky’s eyes and caught her breath.

 

Franky leaned in a bit closer.  “Hello,” she murmured.  Erica could feel the weight of her pressing in all the right places.  “I’m not letting you go.”

 

Erica felt her body respond to those words.  “Ever?” She asked, a little breathlessly. 

 

Franky’s eyes were pools of desire.  “If I had my way,” she admitted as she kissed along Erica’s jaw.  “I’d never let you go.”

 

Erica tilted her head back and let Franky kiss her neck.  She loved it when Franky took control like this.  She ran her fingers through Franky’s hair as they kissed.  She felt Franky’s thigh pressing against her centre creating a burning pressure.  She let herself enjoy the kiss, not caring if all she got out of this encounter was a make out session.  Franky was pretty good at it.

 

Franky, however, had a very different idea.  She slipped her hand down between them and undid Erica’s pants.  Her fingers found Erica’s wet arousal and she played with her leisurely, experimenting.  Erica’s soft gasp triggered a more purposeful response and Franky’s fingers worked hard and fast against her until Erica couldn’t help but thrust against those sinfully talented fingers.  She bit down on Franky’s shoulder when she came to try and muffle her cry.  “Fuck,” she gasped as she rode out the last shudder, her hands clasping the guide’s back.  

 

She didn’t hear anyone approach until she heard Vera speak.

 

“Franky? Is that you?”

 

Chapter Text

Erica had an overwhelming and untimely desire to giggle like a teenager.  She wasn’t sure if it was alcohol, the timing (moments sooner would have been awkward) or that it was Vera who had sprung them, which made the situation seem so hilarious.  Fortunately she managed to hold on to it, at least  that was until Vera followed up her initial query with a slightly higher pitched question.

 

“Erica?”  Then as the penny dropped.  “Good God!”  She drew a breath.  “Are you two...” 

 

Erica’s stifled giggle must have been heard clearly by all involved.  “It’s-“ she began but Franky’s hand pressed against her mouth stopping her from offering her views on the subject.

 

“Kinda busy here,” Franky drawled.  “So unless it’s an emergency, or you wanna join us.” She didn’t need to spell it out.

 

Vera gasped at the suggestion.  “Certainly not!”  She managed to bleat.

 

“Didn’t think so,” Franky replied.  She turned back to Erica and kissed her.

 

Vera scuttled, and in Erica’s mind there was no other way to describe her hurried retreat from the scene.  Erica’s giggles became uncontrollable and Franky gave up on the kiss.

 

“Sorry,” Erica said eventually when her laughter finally petered out.  She saw Franky was watching her with a lazy grin.  

 

“Hey, you’re having a good time,” she said, smiling at her, “nothin’ wrong with that.”

 

“I think it’s the drink,” Erica confessed.

 

“And here I was thinking it was me.”

 

“Oh,” Erica paused, thinking hard, “no, I’m pretty sure it’s the drink.” She smiled apologetically.  

 

“Okay then,” Franky said, acknowledging the hit.  She sounded half amused, half disappointed.  

 

Erica couldn’t help smiling at her.  “You probably shouldn’t have said that to Vera,” she said after a moment.

 

“What?”

 

“About the threesome,” Erica said with a slight frown.

 

“Why’s that?” Franky sounded genuinely interested as her fingers interlocked with Erica’s.  

 

“Because I’m not sharing,” Erica said immediately.  She surprised herself with how intensely she felt about that.  Given the lurking presence of Mark, she didn’t really have the right to have those kinds of expectations.

 

“Is that right?” Franky’s eyebrows went up.  Erica wondered what she was thinking beyond that slightly curious expression.

 

She didn’t feel the need to respond beyond kissing Franky again.  She was feeling very good.  She didn’t really care that Vera had sprung them.  “I’m glad I came on this trek,” she said suddenly.  

 

“Why did you?” Franky asked, and there was definitely curiosity in her tone.

 

“It was this or therapy,” Erica replied.

 

“Therapy?”

 

“It’s a long story,” Erica deflected.

 

“I’ve got time,” Franky offered.

 

“It’s getting cold,” Erica diverted.  “Let’s go back.”

 

Franky helped her up and they walked back to camp in silence.  Just before they reached the light of the camp fire, Erica slipped her hand into Franky’s.  She felt her companion’s eyes on her but continued to look towards the fire, her hand holding on firmly.  

 

“What happened to you two?” Liz asked with a laugh.  “You’re covered in leaves.”

 

Erica looked down and saw her jacket was hoarding leaves like a terrarium gone wrong.  “I fell,” she said immediately.

 

Liz gave her a knowing look. “That right?”  She glanced at their entwined fingers.  “Looks like someone was there to catch you.”

 

Dan called Franky over to where the guys had surrounded the beer fridge as though they were mounting a siege.  He tossed her a beer and she clinked bottles with him. 

 

Liz hugged Erica.  “Don’t let her swim out too far if you’re just in for a paddle,” she said softly before she pulled away.  Liz’s soft brown eyes held her own, her forehead crinkled with care and concern, looking for understanding and confirmation.

 

Erica nodded.

 

Liz smiled at her.  She looked across to where Franky was telling Dan about the powerful owl.  “That lot won’t be budging ‘til the beers are gone,” she predicted.  “I think I’ll put my earplugs in and hit the sack.” Liz wandered off towards her tent.

 

Erica found herself alone.  She could follow Liz’s lead and go to bed.  She felt the buzz of alcohol in her system.  It was too early to go to bed.  She looked over at Franky.  The guide looked like she had settled in.  She seemed to have forgotten Erica a little too fast and too easily.  Then the lawyer’s alcohol affected brain had an idea.  She wandered over to where Bea and Linda were playing cards.  “Want me to deal you in?” Bea asked as she put down an ace.

 

“I’m going for a skinny dip,” Erica announced.  She registered immediately Franky’s sudden interest in their conversation.  “Anyone else up for it?”  

 

Franky had mentioned there was a spring nearby.  It was one of the reasons they had selected this spot for their rest day.  Erica had spied it through the trees when she had gone exploring that afternoon while the guides had collected the food drop.  

 

“Now?” Linda asked with surprise as she trumped Bea’s ace.

 

“Why not?  It’s a super moon tonight.  It will be beautiful swimming in the moonlight.”  

 

“I’m winning,” Linda told her, “and I bet Dan $20 I would beat Bea.”

 

“It’ll be freezing,” Bea said practically.  Even though the weather had turned warm again during the day, the nights were still fresh.  She collected the cards for another round.  

 

“Will? Dan?” Erica called across to the others.  She purposely ignored Franky. 

 

As Liz had predicted the guys were too interested drinking the rest of the beer.  They shook their heads and mumbled excuses.

 

“I’ll go with you,” Franky offered quickly, putting down her beer and standing up.

 

Erica looked at her thoughtfully.  “I don’t know,” she mused, “I wouldn’t want to drag you away from your duties.”

 

“Well, you are my duty,” Franky told her.  “I mean I’d be an irresponsible guide if I let you go alone.  What if you drowned?” 

 

“Mm,” Erica seemed to consider her point, smiling at Franky’s eagerness and excuses.  “I’m a pretty good swimmer.”

 

“Not what you told me yesterday,” Franky reminded her, “plus these springs can be dangerous.”

 

Erica looked at her.  “I think I’ll be okay.”  She reassured her, smiling a little triumphantly.  Really, Franky was trying her best not to sound too eager.  “I‘ll see you later maybe.”  She left it up in the air.

 

She walked off without a backward glance.  Her torch shone bright on the ground and cast a glow against the ghostly gums which lined the path.  Beyond the torchlight there was an impenetrable blackness and Erica steeled her nerves as she walked further and further away from the safety of company and the campfire.  She listened hard for Franky’s footsteps, expecting the guide to catch her up at any moment, but she couldn’t hear anything over the tramp of her own steps.  She couldn’t turn back, tail between her legs, to have them all doubt her courage, so when Franky didn’t appear she carried on, daunted but determined.

 

The springs were an expanse of silky blackness which looked dark and foreboding.  Now she wished she hadn’t played it so casual. Franky had clearly taken her at her word.  Instead she wished Franky was here with her, making a joke, making Erica feel amused instead of apprehensive.

 

Suddenly the moon crept out from behind the clouds and the luminous orb, hanging low in the sky, was so bright it cast a silver shimmering light across the water.  A strange ethereal mist rose off the water.  It was so beautiful, all Erica could do was stare, completely captivated.  

 

She heard a noise behind her.  She thought it must be Franky and turned with relief, a clever quip on her lips, only to find no one was there.  She peered across expanse of moonlit ground to where the night consumed its protective glow.  Her eyes swept the perimeter but only saw strange shadows contorted by the moon’s brightness.  “Franky?”  She called softly.  There was no response.

 

She told herself there was nothing there or it was nothing other than an animal.  Quickly, before losing what little courage she had left, she pulled off her clothes, leaving them in a pile on a rock near the water’s edge.  Gingerly she stepped into the cold water.  Only it wasn’t cold.  It was warm, deliciously warm.  

 

She laughed with delight.  Franky hadn’t told her it was a thermal spring.  She floated on her back, kicking lazily, staring up at the enormous moon that seemed close enough to touch.  The water held her afloat more easily than usual and she felt her skin tingle from the high mineral content.  It felt calming and therapeutic.

 

She watched the moon, enthralled, lost in the moment when she heard a sudden splash.  She switched positions until she was trending water and looked around.  She couldn’t see anything in the water or on the bank.  She wondered whether a branch had fallen into the water.

 

Suddenly something grabbed at her legs and pulled her down.  She squealed.  Then just as suddenly she was released and Franky appeared next to her in the water, a grin of mammoth proportions spread across her face.

 

“Franky!” Erica exclaimed.  “You scared the shit out of me!” She flicked water into Franky’s face.

 

“Hey, it was a joke,” Franky defended herself by grabbing Erica’s hands to stop the onslaught.  “Is this not amazing?”  

 

Erica couldn’t disagree.  “You didn’t tell me it was a thermal spring,” she chastised her.

 

“Didn’t I?” Franky asked innocently.

 

“The others are going to be really annoyed they missed this,” Erica warned her.

 

Franky shrugged, still smiling.  “I told Dan he could tell them in the morning.  Tonight I wanted some privacy.”

 

“You planned this,” Erica’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

 

“Well, I thought maybe you’d had too much to drink, and you might need a nap first,” Franky teased her.

 

“Well according to you I drink scotch with lawyers,” she reminded her, “so I think I can handle a few wines.”

 

“You told me you were drunk,” Franky pointed out.  

 

“You think you’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?” Franky’s grin gave her the answer.  “I’ll race you to that rock ledge.” She could already feel the adrenalin coursing through her system. She was confident with her swimming and determined to get the upper hand. 

 

Franky didn’t get a chance to respond.  She was still peering across the water looking for the ledge in question when Erica took off without warning, swimming quickly away.  She had a good two metres on the guide, who seemed just as capable in the water as on land.  Erica put on a spurt.  She noticed at some point that Franky had drawn level but was drifting to the left of the ledge while Erica remained on target.  Franky pulled ahead but didn’t adjust her line.  She reached the edge first but about three metres from the ledge.  Erica glided in and pulled herself up so she was sitting on the rocky shelf with her legs dangling in the water.  The contrast of the cool air was invigorating.  “I win!” She declared.

 

“I got here first,” Franky argued as she caught her breath.  

 

“I was straight,” Erica countered.

 

“Was straight?” Franky queried with raised eyebrows. “Aren’t you anymore?”

 

“I meant,” Erica corrected herself, ignoring Franky’s question.  “I was on target.”

 

“You won on a technicality.” Franky grumbled.

 

“Still won though,” Erica insisted.  She laughed at the look on Franky’s face.  “You’re looking a bit sulky.” She told her.  

 

Franky shook her head slightly.  “I don’t sulk.” She claimed.

 

Erica was secretly delighted.  “Come here and I’ll make it better,” she offered.

 

Franky didn’t move.  “You look pretty good up there,” she said.  “Maybe I’ll just stay here and admire you.”

 

Erica had forgotten she was naked and the moon made it light enough for Franky to see her.  “You’ll end up par boiled,” she told her.  Franky shrugged.  “You are sulking,” Erica decided.  “If you come up here I’ll make it worth your while.” She said after a moment.

 

“That’s tempting,” Franky admitted.  Erica leaned back exposing more of her midriff and breasts.  Her eyes were locked firmly on Franky.

 

The guide pulled herself out of the water.  Erica swallowed as those muscles flexed.  She admired Franky’s cherry blossom tattoo which decorated her side, weaving up from her hip and stopping just beside her left breast.  Those breasts fascinated Erica.  So similar to her own in substance but so different in detail.  Franky’s breasts were slightly fuller and her nipples darker than Erica’s.  Erica liked it when they pressed against her own, soft and sensual.  Sapphic.  Franky’s shoulders were strong and defined yet still feminine.  Erica wanted to run her hands over them, feel their strength under her fingers.  Those shoulders should carry a rating but then if she started applying ratings to Franky, her smile and her eyes would also have to carry warnings.  Erica watched as Franky slid her feet along a narrow ledge, her eyes down and focused, her arms stretched for balance, her muscles taut.  Erica caught her breath.  She was truly beautiful.  

 

Then she had crossed safely and leapt up easily to the rock ledge Erica occupied.  “Let’s play a game,” Franky suggested as she sat down next to Erica, her feet dangling next to her own.

 

“What sort of game?” Erica asked suspiciously.

 

“Truth or dare,” Franky said immediately.

 

“Okay,” she agreed, “since I won, I get to go first.”

 

“Fine, go for it,” Franky conceded.  “I pick dare.”

 

“Okay, I dare you to dive off this ledge into the water,” Erica said immediately.

 

“That’s not a dare,” Franky said dismissively.  

 

“Okay, jump off backwards,” Erica improvised.

 

“Still too easy,” Franky argued.

 

Erica couldn’t remember the last time she played truth or dare but she did recall dares tended to escalate in craziness.  She wondered if Franky also knew this and was setting her up so truth became her only option.  

 

She sighed, looking around quickly.  “Climb out on that branch which is overhanging the water and jump in from there.”  That had to be difficult enough surely, the branch didn’t look that sturdy by the time it was overhanging the water.  “Actually don’t,” she said hastily when she realised it could be dangerous if the branch broke.

 

It was too late.  Franky was on her feet, climbing the rock face to where the tree had found a secure place to grow.  Erica could do nothing but watch those muscled shoulder blades and toned arse scale the wall of rock.  Erica knew Franky’s skills were impressive when she realised she was doing it barefoot and without rope.  She reached the tree easily and slid along the branch until it started to bend under her weight.  “Ouch!” She muttered as she swung herself down until she was hanging by her hands and swinging further along hand over hand monkey style.  She grinned at Erica then dropped like a pencil into the water.  She disappeared and Erica waited nervously for her to emerge.  It was a stupid dare in hindsight.  Erica had no idea if the water was deep there or whether a rock platform jutted out, hidden from view.  She counted to ten before she slipped into the water and swam over to where she had last seen Franky.  She dived under but couldn’t see or feel anything.  She called out Franky’s name.  Just when panic had started to set in, Franky emerged quite close to the edge. 

 

“Fuck Franky, I thought you’d hurt yourself,” Erica swam over to her.  “Are you all right?”

 

Franky nodded.  “There’s a cave under the water here.  I went in as far as I could but I ran out of breath.”

 

“Jesus!” Erica couldn’t believe it.  “Please don’t do that again,” she begged, holding Franky’s wet face and brushing her hair back.  

 

Franky kissed her.  “Sorry, I didn’t think,” she murmured.  She kissed her again, deeper, her tongue slipping in briefly before she pulled back.  “You okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Erica said breathlessly.  She kissed her then put her mouth on Franky’s erect nipple and swirled her tongue over and around it before taking it between her teeth and pulling slightly.  She heard Franky gasp.  She kissed her way down that cherry blossom tattoo until she reached Franky’s hip which now lay on top of the water.  Franky was floating in her back and Erica manoeuvred herself so she could slip between Franky’s legs.  She kissed her way along those toned inner thighs, shifting Franky’s legs so they rested on her shoulders.  She was experimenting with the buoyancy of the water and how well she could maintain her position in the water.  She found a rocky shelf under her feet which gave her some purchase. Her hands held Franky’s arse, keeping her close, as her tongue tasted Franky for the first time.  She had thought about it a lot since they had first had sex and she decided she wasn’t waiting another moment.  Franky’s moan as her mouth latched onto her, made Erica throb with want.  As her tongue swirled and flicked, Franky’s hips rocked against her mouth and her breaths came in gasps.  She was so wet against Erica’s mouth.  She pressed her fingers firmly against her massaging the sensitive puffy lips,  “oh fuck yeah,” Franky cried out.  “That feels so good,” she encouraged her.  Erica’s hand caressed her abdomen then moved up to stimulate her hard nipples.  Her other hand squeezed Franky’s tight butt while her tongue pushed past her entrance.  She heard Franky growl softly.  It was an incredible turn on.  She was lost between Franky’s strong thighs, working her tongue in Franky’s soft, moist centre and flicking her clit with her finger, listening to Franky’s ragged breaths which told her what she liked.  Her free arm stretched along Franky’s back keeping her body at just the right height.  She felt Franky’s hand on her head at one point urging her deeper, grinding against her until she came with a sharp cry, clenching her muscles, flooding Erica’s mouth with her juices.  Erica had never been so turned on by anything.

 

They floated together languidly.  Franky pulled Erica into her arms and held her close.  She could feel the guide’s heart beating against her chest as it slowed.  “That was incredible,” Franky breathed in her ear.  “You’re incredible.”

 

Erica watched the moon over Franky’s shoulder as the water lapped gently against their skin.  She wrapped her legs loosely around Franky’s waist.  She didn’t think she would ever forget this moment.

 

“What are you thinking?” Franky asked softly into the silence.

 

Erica sighed.  “I think you might have converted me,” she admitted, much to Franky’s delight.

 

She was leaning in for a kiss when they heard voices on the far shore.  The conversation carried quite clearly across the water.  Erica recognised Vera’s familiar voice and cursed her for interrupting their idyll.  She struggled to identify the deeper masculine voice until Erica caught the man’s name on Vera’s lips.  She looked at Franky with surprise.  

 

What the hell was Jake the Snake doing here? 

 

 

Chapter Text

Erica was watching Jake and Vera through slightly anxious eyes.  Vera was smiling at him as he told her a story, her hands playing idly with a pebble, hangover free unlike the rest of them.  Apart from Liz, Vera and Jake, it was a very subdued group shuffling around camp that morning.  Dan and Will hadn’t even emerged from their respective tents.  

 

“You can’t kill someone with a look, y’know,” Franky said, dropping down beside her.

 

They were down at the thermal spring enjoying an early morning soak in the warm waters.  Erica had stayed in until she felt herself overheating and was now cooling down in the crisp morning air.  Franky had been up at camp clearing up after breakfast.  

 

“What is he doing here?” Erica asked, without taking her eyes off the pair.  “Didn’t your friend Doreen have them under surveillance?  How did he get here?  What is he up to?  He should be under arrest.  I knew Vera was saying too much at the hut, telling him where we were going and our plans.  Can’t you do something?”  She finished with.

 

“If you’d shut up for two seconds I’ll tell you what I know,” Franky said patiently.  She was wearing a different pair of shorts that day and an unbuttoned shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, her bikini top visible through the gap.  The exposed curve of her breast was an appealing distraction.

 

“You know something?” Erica asked surprised, her gaze lifting to Franky’s eyes.  “How?”

 

Franky gave her a look.  Erica could see the guide was disappointed she had underestimated her.  “I called Dor on the sat phone,” she explained.  “Turns out only two of them were up at the hut where you first saw them.  Jake seems to have given his mates the slip.”

 

“Why?”  Erica stared at Jake.

 

Franky shrugged.  “Dunno.”

 

“What are we going to do?” Erica’s worried expression turned back to Franky only to find the guide’s face lit up with a pleased smile.  It was an expression which seemed at odds with the seriousness of the situation.  “What?”

 

“You’re kinda cute when you’re worried,” Franky told her.  

 

Erica ignored the compliment.  “Aren’t you worried?”  She asked instead.  “We don’t know what this guy is capable of, why he is here, I mean what’s his intent?”

 

“Maybe he likes Vera,” Franky offered light-heartedly.

 

“How can you be so laid back about it?” She said with frustration.

 

Franky shrugged.  “Not much I can do about it.”

 

“You could find out what he’s up to,” Erica said pointedly.

 

“Pretty sure I know what he’s up to,” she said with a knowing laugh.  

 

“If you’re not going to take this seriously,” Erica stood up suddenly, “I’ll ask him myself.”  She felt Franky’s hand grab her own, stopping her from leaving.

 

Franky looked up at her, squinting slightly from the bright sunlight.  For a brief moment Erica thought Franky would stop her.  They eyed each other, taking each other’s measure, testing whether the other would concede.  Franky smiled lazily.  “Okay,” she said, letting go of Erica’s hand, leaning back on her elbows, looking nonchalant. Despite the seeming victory, Erica felt somehow she had just lost.  

 

Jake was showing Vera some gadget  She seemed fascinated by it.  

 

“Weren’t you at McGowan’s Hut the other night?” Erica asked directly.

 

Jake looked up and gave a charming smile that was wasted on Erica.  “Yeah, that’s right.”  He sounded open and forthright as though he had nothing to hide.  Erica knew better.  “Where are your mates?  The two guys you were with?”

 

“Subtle,” Franky murmured behind her.  It was in that moment Erica realised Franky, for all her nonchalance, had followed her.

 

“What guys?” 

 

“Jake is solo hiking, Erica,” Vera chipped in with a smile.  “Quite an achievement in this terrain,” she looked impressed.

 

Erica crossed her arms.  “Where are you headed then?” Even to her ears it sounded less than welcoming.

 

“That’s the thing,” Vera said excitedly, “he’s heading the same way as us.  Franky, do you think he can tag on to our group?”

 

“Of course he can’t,” Erica answered before Franky had a hope of responding.  

 

Vera ignored her.  “You said the next section is really challenging.  It would be better if Jake didn’t do it alone, right?”  She was looking at the guide, imploring her to agree.  

 

It was a pretty pathetic attempt to coerce Franky and didn’t take into account some pretty important considerations in Erica’s view.  She decided to help Franky by pointing some of these out.  

 

“What about food, Vera?  I’m sure the food is carefully calculated on these treks.  And disclaimers,” the lawyer in her remembered, “we all had to sign one absolving Ultimate Adventures of any liability.  Not to mention,” she didn’t get a chance to mention the rest of her concerns because Franky interrupted her.

 

“Sure, he can tag along,” she told Vera.  “I’m Franky,” she said to Jake, offering her hand.  “The other guide is Dan, he’s sleeping off a hangover at the moment but you’ll meet him later.”  She smiled at him.

 

Erica watched dumbfounded.  

 

Jake the Snake returned her smile and struck up a conversation with the guide.  He flattered her until Erica felt she couldn’t stand it anymore.

 

“Franky,” she interrupted without apology.

 

Franky looked across to her a little reluctantly.  “Yeah?”

 

“Can I speak to you, in private,” she added.  She noticed Vera’s victory smile and felt her annoyance grow.  

 

Franky shrugged at Jake and Vera giving a farewell smile before walking back up the path towards camp.  Erica followed her.  “What are you doing?” She asked impatiently once they were out of earshot.  “He could murder us in our beds!”

 

“I doubt it,” Franky replied, “he doesn’t look capable of it.”

 

“Looks can be deceiving, trust me.”  Erica said emphatically as she recalled some of the women imprisoned for murder while she had been at Wentworth.

 

“Maybe you better sleep in my tent then, just in case,” Franky suggested with hopeful smile.

 

“Can you take this seriously?” Erica pleaded.  She stopped walking and waited.

 

Franky also stopped and turned around.  “I am,” she said, suddenly sincere, and Erica saw how devastating Franky was when she was being genuine.  She felt her heart stutter in nervous panic and her stomach flutter in anticipation of something far deeper than sexual attraction.  Franky closed the gap between them.  “Do you really think I want him with us?” 

 

“Then why?”

 

Franky sighed.  “Dor asked me to keep an eye on him,” she told her.

 

“Keep an eye on him?” Erica repeated, trying understand what that might mean. “To what end?”

 

Franky shrugged but answered readily enough. “I guess she wants to know what he’s up to.”

 

Erica frowned. “But why?” She asked perplexed.  Then just as quickly she realised why and her face cleared and her intelligent eyes found Franky’s. “The police want to pick him up,” she declared. “Of course, it’s obvious.”

 

“Not that obvious hopefully,” Franky said with a grin. “Let’s hope Jake isn’t as smart as you.”

 

Erica warmed under the compliment. “You want him to hang around until the police get here.” She smiled triumphantly. “You want him to be completely unsuspecting.”

 

Franky grabbed her and pulled her close. “All right Sherlock, you’ve worked it out.” She grinned, stealing a kiss.  “Smart is sexy,” she murmured.

 

They heard voices coming along the path towards them.  Franky stepped away as Dan and Will appeared.  The big islander was shirtless and Erica, who had never cared much for muscled men preferring instead slim and smart, had a sudden epiphany.  It wasn’t the muscles so much as the men that was the problem.  She loved Franky’s subtler strength and the way her muscles hid beneath soft curves.  She was totally into muscles she realised in a duh moment and the revelation made her smile.  In that moment she suddenly understood herself a little better.  

 

“Hey,” they all said in unison.  It seemed to be the hiker’s greeting.

 

“You look like shit,” Franky told them without sympathy.

 

“Had to drink your beers Franky, since you pissed off somewhere and never came back,” Dan told her. Erica could tell by his tone and his sideways glance at her, that Dan knew exactly where Franky had been. She liked him even more for not giving the game away.

 

“Don’t blame me, Danny Boy, ever heard of moderation?” Franky laughed, not giving him an inch of slack for keeping her secret.

 

“We’re going for a swim,” Will said. “Dan says it’s a warm spring or something?” He looked to Erica for confirmation.

 

“It’s beautiful,” she told him.

 

“You two coming?” Will asked.

 

“Nah,” Franky said immediately, not giving Erica a chance to respond despite the question being directed at her. “Gotta get something from camp.”

 

Erica saw Dan’s eyes roll slightly at Franky, who just grinned back at him then stuck her tongue out when Will wasn’t looking.

 

“What do we need at camp?” Erica asked when they were alone again.

 

“Nothing,” Franky admitted, “but I just realised everyone is down at the waterhole.”

 

“So?”

 

“So no one is up at camp,” Franky pushed her along the path.

 

“Oh!” Erica said with sudden understanding.

 

“For a smart chick, it takes you a while to catch on sometimes.” Franky teased her.

 

“Wait, what about Jake?”

 

“He’s not going anywhere,” Franky said with certainty then she slapped Erica’s arse without provocation.

 

Erica stopped and turned to face Franky. Her expression must have been fierce because the guide immediately raised her hands in surrender. Erica took a step towards her and slid her hand around the back of Franky’s neck, holding her firmly. “Don’t,” she said and Franky had the grace to look a little sheepish. Erica’s fingers dug firmly into the guide’s slender neck. “Unless you’re prepared to follow through on it.” She challenged.

 

“Ow!” Franky squirmed to get away. “Okay, okay!”

 

“Okay, what?” Erica didn’t let go, in fact she dug a little deeper.

 

“I’ll follow through!” 

 

Erica let go and Franky rubbed the back of her neck.  

 

“Good,” she said lightly then she kissed her before turning around and walking briskly up to camp.  This time leaving Franky to follow in her wake, a satisfied smile on her face.

 

The campsite was indeed deserted and Erica went straight to Franky’s tent.  It was bigger than Erica’s single person tent.  Franky had told her she liked having a little extra room so was prepared to carry the extra weight.  

 

Once inside they wasted no time.  They both knew someone could turn up at any moment.  Erica secretly loved the risk of exposure.  It added spice to an already spicy encounter.  It turned up the heat on an already sizzling liaison.  Clothes came off quickly.  Mouths connected roughly.  Hands sought out pleasure points.  Their heavy breathing was all they could hear.  Franky had rolled Erica and was focussed on kissing her hip and waist while her fingers ventured lower.  “You’re so wet,” she murmured.  

 

It was too passive.  She wanted to see Franky.  She wanted them both to come at the same time.  She didn’t even know if it was possible.  Unexpectedly she shifted, moving her weight until Franky was off balance and she flipped them both, reversing their positions so she was on top.  The sudden surge of power it gave her was intoxicating.  She knew she had only managed it because she had caught Franky off guard.  The look of surprise on the guide’s face was priceless.  Erica sat up.  She was naked, straddling Franky, her eyes locked on those entrancing green ones.  She shifted experimentally, pushing herself against Franky’s pelvis.  She shifted her leg slightly to get a better position and felt Franky’s hands on her hips to steady her as she rode her.  Grinding then pulling away slightly, creating delightful friction, teasing herself and Franky.  She got into a rhythm, thrusting, arching her back provocatively, revelling in the lust in Franky’s eyes as she watched the show.  Fuck it was hot, riding Franky like this.  She wished she could watch it and just that thought had her even more aroused, even more wet, even more wanting.  She wanted to draw it out, make it last, this feeling of being on the edge of a climax.  She wanted Franky to beg, just once.  Her breathing was fast and shallow, and sounded more like little cries.  She put her hand on Franky’s chest, holding her down as she tried to shift positions and reclaim control.  “Erica,” she gasped.  

 

“Wait,” she commanded and her mound slipped across Franky’s wet pussy, grinding, stimulating their already sensitive, aroused clits.  It was warm in the tent and their skin had a sheen of sweat and the small space smelt of sex.  She came in a flood and moments later Franky followed, her fingers digging painfully into her butt.  

 

Erica collapsed on top of her, their legs still tangled, her pussy throbbing and sensitive.  “Oh God,” she muttered, out of breath, feeling like she’d run a hundred metre race, endorphins swirling through her.  “I could fuck you forever.” 

 

The implications of her words settled into the silence, which was broken only by the gradual slowing of their breaths.  She felt Franky’s hand gently brush her hair off her face.  She forced herself to look into those penetrating green eyes, afraid suddenly of what she might see there, afraid she may not be able to look away.  She knew she was doomed.  The moment she looked she was lost in those beautiful eyes, falling into their depths, seeing Franky’s soul reflected in their light.  She forgot to breathe as they lay there, the moment stretching into infinity.  Then Franky smiled.  “I’d like that.”

 

And Erica breathed again, smiling stupidly and wishing she had something smart to say in reply.  Instead she caressed Franky’s cheek and kissed her.

 

She must have dozed, lying there, wrapped in Franky’s warm embrace, listening to her heartbeat, feeling sated and happy.  She woke suddenly as someone walked past the tent, their footsteps loud and invasive.  She wondered who it was and whether they knew what was on the other side of the thin material that masked their presence.

 

Tomorrow they would begin the most difficult and dangerous section of the hike.  It would require Erica to face everything she had been avoiding.  It would push her to her mental, physical and emotional limits.  But tomorrow was another day.    They still had this day.  She looked at Franky’s sleeping face, feeling a stir of emotions as she watched the dark lashes flutter slightly like butterflies before settling again.  She was so tough, this guide, and yet Erica had seen her gently rescue a baby kookaburra that had fallen from its nest, braving the ire of the mother to put it back in the nest.  She wondered if Franky’s own childhood made her akin to the small, helpless bird.  Her fingers caressed the small scars on Franky’s hip.

 

“Tell me about these,” she said softly when she noticed Franky watching her.  She wondered for a moment if she had stepped into forbidden territory.

 

Franky looked down at the mark and took hold of Erica’s slim fingers.  “Not much to tell,” she said.  “After my dad left, my mum used to blame me, said it was my fault that he left.  She’d burn me with cigarettes to punish me.  I was nine when he left.”  She said it without emotion as though the words themselves could wound if she gave them life.  

 

“Oh Franky,” Erica’s heart went out to that vulnerable child.

 

“It’s okay,” Franky shrugged.

 

“No,” Erica replied with emotion.  “That kind of abuse, it’s never okay.”  Her fingers clutched Franky’s tightly.  “You deserved better.”  

 

Franky laughed a little cynically.  “Yeah.”  She was silent and Erica waited.  “I used to sit at the window waiting for my dad to come home, to come back for me but he never did.  Eventually social services came and took me away from her.”

 

“Where did you go?”

 

“Foster homes, one after another, until I got into trouble with the cops.  It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.  Saved my life.”  It was the second time Erica had heard Franky say something like that.  

 

“What happened to your mum?”

 

“Dunno,” Franky said dismissively.  “She’s dead in my mind.”

 

“And your dad?  What about him?”  Erica knew she was prodding at wounds.

 

“Dunno,” Franky said again but this time there was a wistfulness in her tone.

 

“You could try and find him,” she suggested tentatively, “if you wanted to.  I could help,” she offered impulsively.  

 

Franky studied her.  She thought she knew why.  She making the suggestion their relationship, whatever it was, could extend beyond these sixteen days into something more, something as yet undefined.  

 

She held her breath as she waited for Franky to respond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Franky shifted on to her side, resting on her elbow, her head resting in her hand.  Her probing eyes locked on Erica’s, her expression unreadable.  Erica wished she would say something to break the silence, which was now filled with expectation.  She realised those expectations were her own.

 

“You wanna help me, do ya?” Franky said eventually.  Her free hand was lightly following the curve of Erica’s waist, rhythmically, but her eyes remained on her face.

 

“If I can,” Erica replied.  She liked the way Franky was caressing her.  It felt sensual and reverent at the same time.  

 

“Mm,” Franky hummed, as though she wasn’t sure, either of Erica’s offer or her own desire to pursue it.  While her eyes narrowed thoughtfully, her fingers continued to glide across Erica’s skin causing it to tingle in a delightful way.

 

“I have a social welfare degree as well,” she explained.  “I have contacts that might be able to help.” 

 

Franky smiled slightly. “What would your fiancé think?”  She asked pointedly.

 

“Mark knows all that.”  She said dismissively.

 

“Not what I was asking,” Franky said, and of course Erica had known that but it hadn’t stopped her trying to side step the elephant in the room.

 

“No,” Erica agreed.  Her eyes dropped momentarily.  “Mark wants me to set a date for our wedding.”

 

“What’s stopping you?”

 

“Do you have an easier question I could answer?” Erica responded with a light laugh.

 

“Okay,” Franky acknowledged with a smile, “why did you come on this hike?”

 

“Haven’t I answered that already?” Erica squirmed.  She’d been hoping for something simple.  “My favourite colour is blue and my food weakness is pancakes, for the record.”

 

Franky chuckled, her amusement reflected in her eyes.  “Good to know,” she murmured, “but, for the record, you fobbed me off last time I asked you that question.”

 

“Did I?  I don’t remember,” she said vaguely.

 

“Wow, you are a master at avoidance,” Franky acknowledged.  “How about I guess?” She offered, which had Erica immediately intrigued.

 

“All right,” she agreed.  Franky studied her until Erica smiled self consciously.  “You’ve got no idea, do you,” she challenged at last.

 

“It’s about your dad, isn’t it?” Franky countered immediately.  The look on Erica’s face must have given her away because Franky raised her eyebrows in victory.

 

“How could you possibly know that?” Erica asked with surprise.  Unlike the scotch conversation, she hadn’t said anything to anyone about her motives for being here.

 

“Maybe I’m psychic,” Franky said with a laugh.  Erica was pretty sure it wasn’t that and the guide’s next words proved it.  “Or you gave yourself away.”

 

“How?” Erica asked, mystified, she was pretty sure she hadn’t.

 

“When I asked who you’d name a star after, you said your father, remember?”  Erica nodded.  “I figured he must have been featuring quite a bit in your thoughts to come so readily to mind.  The next day you froze on a fairly straight forward climb and I remembered something,” she paused and Erica waited.  “About eighteen months ago, an Australian climber named Charles Davidson died on Mount Aspiring in New Zealand,” Franky’s expression softened, “that was your dad, wasn’t it?”

 

“Yes,” Erica confessed.  Even now, after all this time, she hadn’t reconciled herself to the fact.  She never talked about it and no one had pushed her on it, not her mother, not Mark.  She knew it wasn’t healthy.  She knew it was cowardly not to face her guilt head on.  Her eyes became a little blurry with unshed tears.  

 

“Wanna tell me about it?” Franky asked for the second time since they had met.

 

It was easier somehow, to tell Franky, to unburden all those feelings.  Franky hadn’t known her father, didn’t need to correct Erica’s warped perspective, didn’t judge her.  The tent felt like a confessional where all could be forgiven if only she could be honest with herself.

 

Was it her father’s death when her life began to go off the rails, or was it before that when she had made the decision to quit her father’s law firm?  It hadn’t been a roaring success, her short stint at Wentworth, where helping those women came at a price.  She had wanted so badly to succeed, to prove to her father it had been the right decision for her.  He had been so dismissive of it, a waste of time, he’d called it.  He had never given her an inch.  Worse, he’d been right.  She had struggled to get the momentum she needed with her policies, and the staff and management had fought her all the way.  She wondered if she had really achieved anything there and now it just seemed like a mistaken entry on her CV.  

 

Franky listened to her without comment, letting Erica exhaust her words, her hand a constant soothing presence against her skin.  There was no judgement in her eyes and why would there be?  She didn’t know how far short Erica had fallen of her father’s expectations.  

 

“Sorry,” she mumbled when she realised she had gone silent, lost in her reverie.  She blinked away the tears.  

 

“No one names a star after someone who’s alive,”  Franky said quietly, “or someone they hate.”

 

“You’re right I don’t hate him,” Erica replied, “I just hate that he died before I got to say how I felt, and now I’ll never get that chance.”

 

Franky nodded as though she understood, and perhaps she did, because she had also lost her father.

 

“Mark thinks if I can resolve things about my father then I’ll be able to set a date for our wedding,” Erica added.

 

“Do you?”

 

Erica sighed.  “No, not anymore.”  She saw the question in Franky’s eyes.  “Not since I met you.”

 

There, she’d confessed it, not just to Franky but to herself.  She was no longer sure the life she had chosen was the life she wanted.  She wasn’t expecting the reaction she got from Franky.  Suddenly she was rolled onto her back and pinned onto the mat, Franky above her with a smile so wide, so genuinely delighted that it took her breath away.  Franky stayed like that until Erica found her voice.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Nothing, just, I’m glad you came on this trek instead of therapy,” Franky confessed.  Erica smiled at her.  “And I’m sorry about your dad,” she said more seriously.

 

“And you’ll let me help,” Erica added, “if you want to look for your dad?”

 

“Maybe,” Franky responded with a smile and Erica had to be satisfied with that.

 

She reached up, pressing those irresistible lips against her own, pulling lightly on Franky’s bottom lip with her teeth as she broke away.  She pulled Franky closer and revelled in the connection of their bodies.  Her hands slid down over Franky’s toned butt and she clasped it firmly.  She felt Franky’s lips along her jaw then lower against her throat.  Franky’s thigh slipped between hers as her mouth moved back to Erica’s lips.  She grabbed Erica’s hands and raised them over her head, holding them there, taking control.

 

“What do you want to do today?” Franky asked against her mouth before kissing her.

 

“This is good,” Erica replied, pressing herself against Franky’s thigh and feeling a pleasurable throb begin to build.  She wondered if she could flip Franky again.  Last time it had given her such a heady rush of power and arousal.  Franky’s hands held her though.  She attempted to pull free but Franky’s hold just tightened.  Now she realised she was pinned.  

 

She saw Franky watching her from above, trying to gauge Erica’s reaction to the bondage.  “This okay?” She asked.

 

Erica nodded, licking her suddenly dry lips, it was more than okay.  Franky shifted and her thigh eased its friction on her centre.  Her mouth slid over Erica’s erect nipple, kissing and sucking on it, pulling lightly with her teeth until she gasped in pleasure.  “You like that,” she commented, turning her attention to her other nipple.

 

Erica couldn’t respond with anything articulate.  She pushed upwards and thrust against any part of Franky she could find purchase with.  She opened her legs wider, and pushed her knees up, hoping to encourage Franky’s attentions lower.  

 

Franky pulled away.  “Turn over,” she instructed, letting go of Erica’s wrists in the process.  Erica felt Franky nudge her legs apart then slip her fingers between her thighs and into her hot wetness.  Erica pushed back against those fingers, lifting herself until she could feel Franky against her arse, her hand on Erica’s back.  “I’d like to fuck you like this with a strap on,” Franky told her.  She thrust back on Franky’s fingers, imagining how that might look, and what it would feel like to be thoroughly fucked by Franky.  She could see the leather straps encasing Franky’s butt and the dildo between her legs and her hand on it, guiding it in to Erica’s wet opening, so wet they wouldn’t need lube, so wet she’d hear it make a suction sound as it slid out of her cunt.  Franky holding onto her hips as she slammed into her, deep, hard, fast.  She moaned as she felt Franky’s thumb flicking her clit.  Her imagination fuelled the physical sensations she was experiencing until she came with a sharp cry, collapsing onto the mat, gasping with pleasure.  Franky dropped next to her, and was kissing her when they heard voices.  “Crap,” she heard Franky mutter.  “I think everyone is coming back for lunch.”  

 

Erica had no idea what time it was but she wished fervently that they had more time, more privacy.  “Mood killers,” she murmured.

 

Franky sat up and began dressing.  “I’ve gotta go feed the masses,” Erica watched her find her clothes and pull them on.

 

She reached up and pulled Franky down on top of her, enjoying the roughness of her clothes against her sensitive skin as she kissed her.  She felt a little drunk, and dangerous.  She thought about not letting go and seeing if she could make Franky come silently while everyone outside waited for their lunch.  Before she could act on it, Franky broke away, extracting herself from Erica’s embrace.

 

“I’ve gotta go,” she apologised.  Erica sighed dramatically and Franky kissed her.  “Later,” she promised.

 

Erica didn’t move immediately.  She stared at the roof of the tent with a little smile on her face.  Her head cautioned her heart not to get carried away but she could already feel her heart galloping in a spirited break away.  Franky’s care contrasted sharply with Mark’s frustrated impatience with her.  Her enthusiasm for Erica was both touching and addictive.  Franky was smart, talented, respected in her field, understood and cared about people, engaging, funny, sexy.  She was a woman.  She had a job which took her into the bush and out of contact for weeks at a time.  Neither of those considerations were problems necessarily but maybe they had been for Franky previously.  She remembered Liz’s cautionary comment about leading Franky on.  She wondered if the guide had been hurt before.

 

Once she was dressed and had managed, she hoped, to sneak out of Franky’s tent unnoticed, she wandered over to where Bea and Liz were eating rolls with ham and lettuce.  Linda was chatting to Vera and Jake.  Will and Dan were nowhere to be seen.  “Still down at the thermal spring,” Bea told her.  “Bread rolls are divine,” she murmured through a mouthful.  “I never thought I’d say this but simple, fresh food is underrated.  You not hungry?”  She asked Erica.

 

Actually, Erica realised she was starving.  Breakfast seemed like a lifetime ago.    She looked around and found Franky, who was busily making up more rolls and cutting up fruit while chatting to John, the older Scottish man whom Erica had avoided on the first morning.  She had discovered since that he was a man with an acerbic wit and a fondness for scotch whiskey.  Franky found him hilarious even though he had a tendency to rub many people up the wrong way.  She went over and John drifted away.

 

“You scare him,” Franky told her.

 

“He terrifies me,” Erica responded.

 

“He’s a lamb,” Franky claimed.

 

“He’s something,” agreed Erica.  She wasn’t going to argue about it.  “I hear the rolls are good.”

 

“They’re better than good,” Franky said confidently, handing Erica one and waiting for her judgement.

 

It was partly the fresh, multigrain roll but there was a tomato relish that just made it, complementing the smokiness of the ham.  Then the crunch of the crisp lettuce rounding out the taste sensation.  Erica moaned.  “Better than good,” she agreed.

 

“Orgasmic, if the look on your face is anything to go by,” Franky grinned, “and I’d know, right?”

 

Erica choked.  “Franky!” She exclaimed, coughing, then looking about to see if anyone overheard their conversation.  

 

Franky patted her on the back and handed her some water.  “You’re cute when you’re embarrassed,” she told her.  

 

“You’re incorrigible,” Erica muttered.

 

“But charming,” Franky countered with a very charming smile.  Erica didn’t really have a response to that because, to be honest, Franky was incredibly charming.

 

Before their banter could continue Dan and Will arrived back and distracted Franky.  Erica drifted back to Bea and Liz carrying some wedges of cantaloupe which she shared around.  The two women were discussing the options for the afternoon.  Erica half listened as she watched Franky.  The guide was boiling the billy for tea, and eating fruit while she waited.  She saw Jake wander over to her and begin a conversation.  Erica wondered what they were talking about.  She glanced across to Vera and discovered she was watching Jake as well, an idiotic smile on her face.  Really, the woman was completely smitten.  

 

“How about it, Erica?” Bea interrupted her surveillance.

 

“Sorry, what?”  She asked, dragging her eyes back to her companions.

 

“We were saying we were going to walk down to those caves Dan mentioned and explore them, if you’re interested,” Bea said.

 

Erica was hoping to spend the afternoon with Franky.  “Oh,” she hesitated.

 

“Of course she might prefer to just laze about camp,” Liz offered her an alternative, “rather than do anything so energetic.  Isn’t that right, love?”  Liz’s smile was sympathetic.

 

Erica returned the smile thankfully.  “Yes, I was thinking I’d just read or sleep.”

 

After lunch everyone scattered to pursue their own activities.  Erica went over to help Franky clear up.  “What are you doing this afternoon?” She asked.

 

“I’ve got some stuff I have to sort out,” Franky said without looking up from her task.

 

“Oh,” Erica tried to hide her disappointment. 

 

Franky must have heard something in her tone though.  She looked up.  “You okay?”

 

“Yes, of course, can I help with anything?” She offered hopefully.  She didn’t really mind what they did together.

 

“Not really,” Franky killed that idea swiftly.  “What will you do?”

 

“Liz and Bea were going up to some caves, maybe I’ll go with them,” Erica told her without much enthusiasm.

 

“I think they’ve already left,” Franky said.

 

“Oh okay, I’ll probably just relax then.” Erica said, disappointed.

 

“Good idea,” Franky replied, “the next few days will be challenging.”  She smiled briefly then went back to clearing up. 

 

Erica felt a bit like she’d been dismissed.  She went over to her tent and dug out the book she was reading.  It couldn’t hold her interest though and her mind drifted to Franky.  She chastised herself for having expectations.  Franky  had a job to do and she had no right to expect the guide to be able to devote her time to Erica.  Surely Franky should get some free time too though, she reasoned.  She hadn’t seen Dan picking up much of the slack.  It didn’t seem too fair that Franky’s workload was greater than his.  Eventually the sun and the sound of cicadas lulled her asleep.  

 

She woke with a start when a shadow fell across her eyes.  She wasn’t sure how long she had been asleep.  She squinted into the sun and put her hand up to shade her eyes.  “Franky,” she breathed, unsure if what she was seeing was just an apparition summoned from her dreams.

 

The guide knelt down and took her hand.  “Come on,” she said eagerly, “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Chapter Text

 

“So what’s my surprise?” Erica asked expectantly.

 

“What do you think it is?” Franky asked in response.  

 

Erica could sense a restless energy radiating off Franky.  She was either nervous or excited.  Erica didn’t know her well enough to know which it was.  They had been walking for a little while, maybe half an hour, away from the camp.  They hadn’t talked much but it hadn’t felt uncomfortable.  It had been a companionable silence between two people intent on the same outcome.  Erica had broken it because she was desperately curious about where Franky was taking her and to what end.  It seemed Franky was going to be a hard nut to crack.  

 

Erica didn’t know exactly what Franky’s surprise was going to be.  At her most optimistic it had involved some comfort from civilisation but more realistically she thought Franky would take her to see some wonder from nature. 

 

When she explained as much to Franky, the guide smiled.  “Well maybe this is both,” she said mysteriously.

 

“Okay, don’t tell me,” Erica conceded.  “How much further is it?”

 

Franky laughed softly.  “Has anyone told you patience isn’t your strong point?”

 

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Erica countered.  “Impatience, ambition, they seem to be dirty words but there’s nothing wrong with wanting something and going for it.”

 

Franky chuckled.  “True,” she acknowledged.

 

“So what’s your ambition?” Erica asked because she was pretty sure from her response that Franky had one.

 

“You mean apart from the one where I get the girl?” Franky’s tone was teasing.  

 

Erica blushed.  “Apart from that one.”

 

She saw Franky’s shoulders shrug.  “Maybe start up my own adventure business, be my own boss, I’d like that.”  Suddenly she stopped and turned to face Erica.  “Wait here until I come back.”  She instructed.

 

“Where are you going?” Erica asked.

 

“I’ll be back in a sec,” was all she said.  

 

Erica settled on a rock.  The second turned into about five minutes.  She waited impatiently until she heard Franky’s footsteps returning from the direction she’d gone.  Her face lit up into a smile when she saw her reappear.

 

“What are you up to?” She asked curiously.

 

Franky approached her, taking Erica’s hands in her own.  “Close your eyes.”

 

“Why?” Erica was immediately suspicious.

 

“Do you trust me?” Franky asked, her eyes serious as she waited.

 

Erica thought about it.  She didn’t trust Franky when it came to her teasing and games.  The guide had too much fun at her expense.  She did trust her as a guide though.  She trusted her knowledge and skills implicitly to get them out of tight situations.  She thought about Franky’s care of Liz, of Bea’s regard for her, of how Dan had supported her when she’d had that complaint hanging over her head.  All these spoke to Franky’s character and her as a person.

 

“Yes,” she said simply.  She felt Franky squeeze her hands gently.  She closed her eyes.

 

“No peeking,” Franky commanded, “or I’ll have to blindfold you.”  Erica thought that could lead to interesting extracurricular activities but didn’t say anything.  She let Franky lead her, listening to her voice as she guided her safely past obstacles.  It took almost no time before they stopped.  “Don’t open your eyes yet,” Franky told her.  

 

The guide let go of Erica’s hands and she could hear her moving about.  “Okay,” Franky said after a moment.

 

Erica opened her eyes.  They were in a cave.  Franky had scattered various torches so it was softly illuminated.  It looked amazing.  In the centre were mats piled on top of each other and draped in a fluffy navy blue towel.  Somewhere towards the back of the cave soft music played.  She wasn’t sure what she was looking at but it was obvious Franky had gone to some effort.

 

She turned away from the scene to give Franky a questioning look.  She received a smile in return.  “You have the cutest frown you know,” Franky told her. 

 

Erica felt her face relax into a smile under Franky’s admiring gaze.  “Well no one’s ever told me that before,” she admitted, “so,” she tailed off uncertainly, feeling slightly off balance by Franky’s open admiration.  She wasn’t sure anyone had ever seen her quite the way Franky did.  

 

“So now you know,” Franky finished for her.  “How’s your shoulder?” She asked conversationally.

 

”Still sore,” Erica admitted.  It had started hurting days ago and despite adjusting her pack numerous times, it hadn’t eased.  

 

“I think I can help,” Franky offered.

 

“You’re going to carry my pack?” Erica asked hopefully.

 

“You wish,” she replied with a laugh.

 

Erica suddenly realised what Franky’s surprise was.  “Wait, you’re going to give me a massage!”

 

“Yeah, well, if you want me to,” Franky said with grin, laughing as Erica almost knocked her over with the force of her embrace.

 

“God yes!”

 

 

On the first day Erica had caught Franky giving Bea a shoulder massage.  By the dreamy look on the red head’s face, Erica guessed the guide had a talent for it.  “Could I get one of those?” Erica had asked light-heartedly.

 

Franky had studied her thoughtfully.  “Maybe,” she had answered, “if I decide I like you.”  She had grinned mischievously.

 

“Hey!  Get in the queue,” Liz had said at the same time.

 

“There’s a queue?” Erica had asked, “you must be good,” she had said to Franky with a smile.

 

“Magic fingers,” Liz had said, “right, Franky?”

 

Franky had laughed.  “Only one way to find out,” and she had raised her eyebrows and poked out her tongue at Liz provocatively. 

 

Erica had picked up on the innuendo and had smiled uncertainly.

 

“I don’t put out for just anyone though,” Franky had continued.

 

“Could have fooled me,” Dan had said as he came up behind Franky and everyone had laughed.

 

 

“I like you too,” Erica murmured now as she kissed Franky. 

 

“Well, good,” Franky replied laughing.  She directed Erica over to the mats and handed her a towel, a proper fluffy towel, which Erica was pretty sure Franky hadn’t had stashed in her pack.  

 

“You planned this,” Erica said shrewdly as she took the towel. 

 

“Gotta do it right,” Franky told her, “so remove all your clothes except your underwear and lie down on the mat on your stomach with your towel draped over you,” she instructed.

 

“You’re being serious,” Erica stated after a moment.

 

“Yeah, come on, think of it as role play,” she said cheekily.  “I’m the masseuse and your the client.”

 

Erica laughed.  “Oh God, all right,” she agreed.  She couldn’t imagine Franky taking a subservient role but the idea of bossing her around was appealing she had to admit.

 

“Good, I’ll leave you to prepare,” Franky said in a good imitation of one of the women at Erica’s Thai massage place in town.

 

Alone, Erica wasted no time stripping off her clothes, putting up her hair, and lying down on the makeshift massage table.  She closed her eyes and waited with slight anticipation.  She didn’t really mind if Franky wasn’t much good, there was no such thing as a bad massage in her opinion and all her muscles were sore from the constant demands she was putting on them.  It was quiet in the cave except for the soft music.  Her breathing slowed and deepened.  She didn’t know how long it took, just that it happened, again.  She had fallen asleep.

 

One moment she’d been thinking and the next Franky’s strong fingers were working along her spine, rhythmically and soothing.  She must have made a sound or a slight jerk as she woke because Franky spoke.

 

“This is gonna be a thing, is it?  You falling asleep on me?”  She said.  Erica could hear the smile in her voice.

 

“Looks like it,” Erica mumbled into the towel she was lying on, feeling slightly embarrassed and apologetic.  “Oh,” she gasped as Franky found a knot and began working it out.

 

“Tell me if I go too hard,” Franky directed.

 

“I will,” but she doubted Franky had the strength to go beyond Erica’s pain tolerance.  She felt herself relax.  It felt fantastic.  

 

Franky didn’t talk as she worked her way down Erica’s back then her legs and Erica was in danger of falling asleep again.

 

“How did you arrange all this?” She asked in an effort to stay awake.

 

“Oh, you’re still with me, are you?” Franky laughed softly.  “Well, I had the idea and called base on the sat phone to ask for the towels and massage oil to be brought out with the supplies.  I borrowed the mats and torches from some of the others.  The music is from my phone.  Pretty simple really,” Franky explained.  “I was a bit worried when you said you were going down to the caves with Liz and Red, that would have ruined things,” she admitted.

 

“I didn’t really want to,” Erica confessed to her.  “Don’t tell them that!” She added hastily.  “I thought you’d ditched me,” she chastised lightly.

 

Franky chuckled.  “I just needed some time to get ready.”  She explained.  

 

“I know that now,” Erica acknowledged, “and it’s a lovely surprise.”

 

“So I did good, huh?” Franky’s voice held a hint of uncertainty, which Erica hadn’t heard before.

 

“You did,” she confirmed softly.

 

“Okay, if you want to turn over I’ll do your front as well,” Franky offered, sounding like her usual self again.

 

Erica giggled as she tried to roll herself over.  She was so relaxed nothing seemed to want to work.  “No peeking,” she said.

 

“No promises,” Franky responded but she draped the towel chastely over Erica’s body and only moved it aside in sections. 

 

She was careful around the gash on Erica’s shin.  “This looks like it’s on the mend,” she commented.

 

“We can do a doctor patient role play if you want,” Erica tone was flirtatious.

 

“I was thinking more doctor nurse actually,” Franky smirked, “you’d be fucking hot in a nurse’s outfit.”

 

“I played Florence Nightingale in a re-enactment at school,” Erica remembered, “I don’t think any of the other girls thought I was remotely hot in that uniform.  What is that!” Erica exclaimed suddenly, her eyes focused on the ceiling behind Franky’s head.

 

“What?” Franky looked behind her.

 

“Something small and dark, over there,” she pointed.

 

Franky shrugged.  “Probably just a bat,” she returned to her task, uninterested.

 

“I hate bats,” Erica said with a shudder.

 

“Do you like tequila?” Franky asked randomly, her fingers returning to their task.

 

“Not particularly,” Erica replied.

 

“What about mangoes, or bananas?”  she continued just as randomly.

 

“Yes,” Erica answered, slightly confused.

 

“Then you like bats,” Franky told her with a grin.  Erica frowned.  “They pollinate those plants.  No bats, no mangoes.”

 

“Did anyone tell you being a smartarse doesn’t win any favours,” Erica told her grumpily.  

 

Franky laughed.  “So you think I’m smart, do ya?”

 

“Shut up,” Erica muttered then promptly groaned as Franky eased a particularly tight section of her quad.  

 

She felt light and her skin felt supple and vibrant again after days of sun exposure.  Her favourite part of the massage was when Franky worked on her tired feet, easing the hundreds of tiny aching muscles.  She would get a pedicure as soon as she finished this hike, she decided.

 

“What is the first thing you do when you get off trail?”  She asked Franky curiously.

 

“After a long hot shower, I get a proper expresso coffee,” Franky told her.  “Wanna join me?”

 

Suddenly Erica wanted nothing more than that. If only her life was that simple.  If only she could accept Franky’s easy, lighthearted offer.  If only she didn’t have that other life, the one with expectations and obligations.  For a brief moment she imagined never going back to that life.  She felt a certain tightness in her chest.  “I wish,” she murmured fervently.   

 

Their conversation stalled after that.  Franky seemed focussed on the task and Erica became lost in her own fantasy where she and Franky had a life together beyond these 16 days.  She wondered how it would look.  Franky experimenting in the kitchen, Erica experimenting in the bedroom, fighting over who would take the rubbish out or empty the dishwasher.

 

“What are you smiling about?” She heard Franky ask and opened her eyes.  Franky was standing behind her head, her hands resting on Erica’s shoulders, watching her curiously.

 

“Nothing,” Erica said immediately, embarrassed to be caught out in her daydream.  

 

Franky’s eyes held hers.  Her hands slid firmly over her collarbone, easing the tension in her chest.  

 

They continued, rubbing her breasts before sliding back up and repeating the motion.  She could feel her nipples reacting, waking suddenly, and responding to Franky’s attentions.  

 

She closed her eyes.  In her imagination Franky’s next pass had her palms sliding over her nipples, almost incidentally.  Erica resisted the urge to arch her back, pushing against those imaginary hands.  With each pass though, that resistance weakened as her nipples seemed to grow impossibly hard.  She wondered if Franky had noticed anything or if the towel was hiding her physical reaction to her thoughts.  She imagined them in their role play.  Franky would not escalate matters, she would wait for Erica to give permission from her client.

 

“What are you doing?” She would question sharply as those hands slid firmly across her nipples again, the calluses rough against her sensitive skin.  Franky would have stopped using the oil by now.

 

“I’m sorry, should I stop?” Franky would sound demure, pausing in her attentions, awaiting instruction.

 

“No,” Erica would concede, her tone still holding authority.  The hands would once more slide over her tight buds, massaging them.  “Pinch them,” she would instruct eventually, needing more.

 

Franky’s thumb and forefinger would pinch and pull slightly on her engorged nipples, making them ache and stand even taller.  Her fingers would circle her nipples softly, expertly, her hands would cup each breast, massaging them gently before returning again to the nipples, pulling and pinching.  

 

Erica grasped the towel under her fingers and clenched tightly lost in her fantasy.  “Lower,” she would demand at some point and Franky’s hands would comply, sliding over her stomach, stopping at her pelvic bone, massaging gently before returning to her nipples.  “Lower,” she would demand again and Franky’s hand would slide between her legs over her mound, massaging her opening through her underwear.  She would be so wet, Franky would feel it through her underwear.

 

She wouldn’t be able to stop herself from thrusting against those fingers, rubbing herself against the heel of Franky’s palm as she came.  She would sink back onto the mat, lost in the exquisite sensation, but Franky wouldn’t let her rest.  She would only give her a moment before she continued her attentions and Erica knew she would climax again and again.  It would be embarrassing just how quickly she came.  Her legs fell apart as her imagination gave herself to Franky. 

 

“So good,” she murmured.

 

Franky straightened the towel that had been pushed aside as she had worked.  “How are you feeling?” She asked with a grin, as though she knew exactly what had been going on in Erica’s raunchy mind just now.

 

“Sensational,” Erica murmured truthfully, her eyes warm as she regarded Franky.

 

“Well that was what I was aiming for,” she said, pleased.  “I’ll be back in a bit.”

 

By the time Franky returned with some water, Erica had dressed and packed up the towels and mats.  “I’ve got one more surprise for you,” the guide told her.

 

“Okay,” Erica smiled at her.  Franky was certainly going all out to impress and she couldn’t help but feel flattered by the effort.

 

Franky took her hand and led her towards the back of the cave, away from the light of the torches.  Erica realised this was just the first in a series of caves.  Franky climbed up to where there was a narrow opening.  She turned sideways and squeezed through the gap.  Erica followed suit.  This cave was smaller and pitch black except for the red glow from Franky’s torch.  She switched it off as soon as Erica was safely through.  Erica shivered slightly in the colder air.  

 

“What is it?” Erica asked.  She felt Franky cup her face and kiss her softly.

 

“Look up,” Franky whispered as she pulled away.

 

She did.  “Wow,” she breathed out.

 

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Franky whispered.  

 

Erica just stared up at the spectacle awe struck.  The roof of the cave was covered with lights, glowing in the dark, some had threads hanging down which glowed intermittently.  She had never seen anything so beautiful in her life.  

 

Franky took her hand.  “Here,” she said.  She sat down, stretching out her legs wide so Erica could sit between them and lean against Franky’s chest.

 

“Sleep in my tent tonight,” Franky murmured in her ear.  

 

After the afternoon Franky had given her, Erica would have given Franky anything she asked for.  With difficulty she turned and kissed her.  “Okay,” she agreed, “but I'm sneaking in,” she added, a smile in her voice.

 

Gently, the guide sank backwards until they were lying down staring up at their own natural version of Van Gogh’s starry night.

Chapter Text

In the end Erica wasn’t required to do any sneaking because the cat was let well and truly out of the bag.

 

“Glow worms, hey?” 

 

Liz was looking at her with a disbelieving, almost indulgent smile on her face.  They were sitting around the fire pit towards dinner time.  Liz and Bea had been describing the caves they had visited when Erica told them about the glow worms she and Franky had seen.

 

She blushed slightly.  “Yes,” she reiterated.  “They were beautiful,” she said softly, lost in the memory for a moment.  It was special, staring up at the those quite remarkable insects as she rested against Franky’s front, the guide’s arms resting around her comfortably while she was uncharacteristically quiet.

 

“You’re looking a bit glow wormy yourself lately, Erica,” Bea told her. “Isn’t she, Liz?”

 

Liz studied Erica inquisitively.  “She is glowing,” she agreed eventually and Erica felt slightly self-conscious under their regard.

 

“Rubbish,” she refuted.  She picked up a stick and began to pull it apart with fierce concentration.  It didn’t stop her companions though.

 

“She certainly doesn’t look like she is day,” Bea paused, “what day is it? Day five?”

 

“Six,” Vera supplied helpfully.

 

“Right, you don’t look like you’re day six into a hike,” Bea told her.  

 

“What should I look like then?” Erica asked defensively.

 

“Not glowing!” They all exclaimed together, much to their own amusement.

 

She knew they were teasing her.  She knew better than to glance at Franky who was busy preparing their dinner.  She knew it was best to keep silent.  

 

“There must be a reason for it,” Bea continued, seemingly intent on getting to the bottom of it.

 

“Of course there is,” Linda entered into the fray.  “It has to do with a certain guide.”

 

“What?” Erica blustered, immediately forgetting her own wisdom.  “That’s ridiculous!”  She denied it vehemently but could feel the telltale warm flush of embarrassment flooding her face.  She looked around at the amused expressions.  “Really!”  Her eyes eventually reached Liz.

 

“They all know, love,” she said gently.

 

She looked at Bea for confirmation.  “Saw you coming out of Franky’s tent the morning after the storm,” she told her with a smile.

 

She looked at Linda.  “Franky can’t keep her hands off you,” she shrugged. “I bet Will ten bucks you were on together.”

 

She looked at Jake.  “Vera told me,” he at least looked sheepish.

 

She looked at Vera.  “You were practically having sex in the bushes the other night,” she said with an embarrassed laugh.

 

Well, that was true, she acknowledged.  Still, the rest was completely deniable.  People were just making assumptions.

 

“And Franky told me,” Dan finished with a laugh.

 

Just then Franky arrived. “What did I tell ya?” She asked before dropping down on her haunches beside Erica.  “Found this in one of the containers and thought you’d like some,” she said with a grin, handing her a wedge of mango.

 

Erica stared at her.  “You told him?  About us?”

 

“Huh?”  Franky only took a moment to catch up.  “Danny?  He already knew, Erica.  I just confirmed it.”  She took Erica’s hand and put the mango in her palm.

 

“Well, apparently everyone knows!”  She said, exasperated.  She was annoyed and she wasn’t entirely sure whether she was most annoyed with Dan, Franky, or herself.  

 

“Really?” Franky looked around at the group.  “I don’t think John knows,” she whispered with a grin.

 

”It’s not funny,” Erica replied in a hiss.  

 

Franky looked at her.  “Seriously?” She asked, looking unconvinced.  “You thought it was pretty funny when Vera busted us,” she pointed out.  She stood up.  “I gotta get on with stuff.”

 

Erica watched her walked away and sighed.  She was overreacting to this.  Franky was right.  It hadn’t bothered her the night before when she was flushed with booze and post coitus haze.  Now Franky was annoyed with her, or at least her reaction to them being outed.  Maybe she thought Erica was embarrassed to be with her.  She hadn’t thanked her for the mango, she realised.  She fiddled with it, her appetite gone.

 

“You all right, love?” Liz sat down next to her.  “Don’t mind that lot,” she said, nodding her head in the direction of the group.  “They’re just teasing you.  Franky’s used to it but she should realise you might feel uncomfortable.”

 

“It’s not her fault,” Erica defended the guide.  “I’m just,”

 

“You’re just worried about your fiancé,” Liz finished for her.  She patted her thigh.  “It’ll be all right,” she reassured her.

 

“Will it?”  Erica asked sceptically.  She had doubts about all of it now the word was out.  Suddenly she remembered she had a very real fiancé who had very real expectations of her.  It wasn’t that she had forgotten Mark, because she hadn’t, but she had reduced him to a concept in her mind rather than someone with feelings who was entitled to respect.

 

She looked across to the dark haired guide.  It all suddenly seemed complicated and messy.  Didn’t Franky deserve the same amount of respect?  How could she possibly achieve both those outcomes while continuing her liaison?  If Erica was honest with herself though she didn’t think she could stop.  She didn’t want to stop.  Franky had surprised Erica that afternoon, and not just with the massage.  She hadn’t expected the cocky guide to have such a romantic side.  She had been tender and sweet while showing her the glow worms and asking Erica to spend the night with her.  It gave Erica the sense that Franky wanted more.

 

She looked at the piece of mango in her hand.  Another example of Franky’s attempt to woo her by reminding her of their shared moment over her dislike of bats.  She smiled.  

 

“Are you going to eat that?” Bea asked, “or just swoon over it?”  Her smile was good natured.

 

“Either way, you’re not going to get your hands on it,” Erica told her heartlessly and began to eat the fruit.

 

“You must have done something special to score that,” Bea teased.

 

“Oh go easy on her,” Liz chastised mildly.

 

As Dan began to talk through the next day’s hike and the group gathered round him to hear better, Erica got up and went over to where Franky was grilling zucchini and eggplant and something that looked like halloumi cheese.

 

“Thank you, for the mango, it was delicious,” she opened with.

 

Franky nodded.  “Sure,” she acknowledged as she concentrated on the task at hand.  Erica wondered if Franky was annoyed with her.

 

Erica hovered then decided to tackle things head on.  “I overreacted before, it was stupid.”

 

“Yeah, you did,” Franky looked up then, pausing in her attempts to flip the vegetables.  “Why did you?”

 

“It’s not what you think,” Erica said hastily.  

 

“What do I think?” Franky asked curiously.

 

“That I’m embarrassed to be with you maybe,” Erica suggested tentatively.  

 

Franky laughed a little cynically.  “I hadn’t thought that actually.”  She went back to flipping her vegetables.

 

Erica mentally kicked herself for her mistake.  “Good,” she said emphatically, “because it’s got nothing to do with you.  I’m just worried, about Mark, I mean I’d rather he didn’t find out,” she saw Franky’s eyebrows go up in surprise.  “Third hand, I’d rather tell him myself, wouldn’t you?”

 

“Dunno,” Franky shrugged, “I’ve never cheated on someone.”  

 

Erica felt the weight of judgement in those words even though Franky had spoken them without any tone or particular emphasis.  She was a cheater.

 

“Neither have I,” she defended herself, “not in all the years I’ve been with Mark, until now,” she conceded, “but this is different.”

 

“Why?  Coz I’m a girl?”  The way she said it, so whip fast, made Erica suspect Franky had heard all this before.  “That’s bullshit, Erica.”  She tossed down her tongs and squared off, facing her, suddenly fierce and intimidating, her green eyes fiery, her hackles up in warning.  Erica held her breath.  She was magnificent.

 

“No,” she whispered when she had found her voice, “because it’s you.”  

 

Franky was surprised by her response, Erica could see, unsure of it.  She pressed her advantage.  

 

“Do you have any idea just how intoxicating you are?  Just how dazzling?  You make everyone else seem like blancmange, and safe,” she added.  “I can’t see or hear anyone without thinking of you, and how they pale in comparison next to you.”

 

Franky was silent, studying her closely, looking for something.  Maybe she was trying to work out whether the words were sincere or just a lie cloaked in sincerity.  Then she smiled, her demeanour changing instantly, and Erica relaxed.

 

“You sound a bit smitten,” she teased, immediately lightening the atmosphere as only Franky could.

 

Erica laughed self consciously because that was exactly what she was.  “Are we still on for that sleepover?” She asked lightly.  “I mean we won’t have do any sneaking around now, which does disappoint me somewhat,” she smiled.

 

“On one condition,” Franky said seriously.

 

Erica waited.  

 

“No funny business.”

 

“What!”  Erica’s exclamation caused conversations to halt.

 

Franky gave a shout of laughter.  “Your face!”  She managed to splutter.  “Fuck, you really looked worried!”

 

Erica grabbed Franky’s flannel shirt and pulled her close.  “You really can be a -“  she never got to finish her sentence because Franky kissed her soundly.

 

The halloumi was chewy because Franky had over cooked it because Erica had distracted her, or so she claimed.  Erica didn’t care.  The upside of everyone knowing about her and Franky was that she got to sit with her, leaning against her after dinner in the glow of the firelight, relaxed and happy, Franky’s arms were around her, as she watched the flames and listened to the banter.  She didn’t want tomorrow to come.  She wanted this night to last forever.

 

“Come on,” Franky murmured eventually, “let’s go to bed.”

 

They stood up together and went hand in hand to Franky’s tent, cat calls and wolf whistles following them, and jokes about ear plugs.  Erica heard John ask what all the fuss was about.  She smiled, Franky had been right about John.

 

She stopped at her tent.  “I need to clean my teeth,” she said.

 

“Give me your mat and sleeping bag,” Franky instructed.

 

By the time Erica had arrived, Franky’s had laid out her mat and bag next to her own along with her tiny pillow.  The tent no longer looked spacious instead it looked cosy.  Erica took off her boots, leaving them outside under the fly.  Franky arrived back from cleaning her teeth as Erica was delayering.  It was cold away from the fire and without her down jacket and merino layers.

 

Franky slid past her and knelt on her own mat, pulling off her layers and folding them neatly and placing them carefully.  Erica made a comment about how fastidious she was about it.

 

“Yeah, well, I like to know exactly where everything is so I can put my hands on it quickly in the dark if I need to,” Franky explained.

 

“Does that include me?” Erica asked.

 

Franky laughed, “Maybe,” she acknowledged, “if you’re lucky.”

 

Erica reached across the small space between them and kissed her.  “I am lucky,” she told her.

 

“Turn your torch onto the red setting,” Franky instructed, “we’re lit up like a Christmas tree from the outside.”

 

“What red setting?”  Franky showed her.  “It didn’t even know it had that feature,” Erica grumbled.  “My tent’s been lit up like a Christmas tree for days.”

 

Franky’s grin was shadowed in the the dim light.  “I know,” she admitted.

 

“You could have told me,” Erica chastised her.

 

“And ruin the show?  No way!” Franky pulled off her top, giving Erica a show of her own.

 

“That’s pervy,” Erica told her, doing her own perving as Franky sat in her bra and underwear, folding the last of her clothes.

 

“I’d go to sleep thinking about your naked silhouette,” Franky confessed.  “Thinkin’ how hot you are, fantasising about you.  The first moment I saw you, I wanted you.”

 

“I thought you could see right through me,” Erica admitted with a smile, “with those entrancing eyes of yours.”

 

Franky pulled off her bra, letting her breasts spring free of their confines.  Erica had never really considered other women’s breasts before.  If she was being honest she might have noticed the odd show of cleavage and been distracted by it momentarily.  She would avert her eyes in those instances and let the conversation carry on.  Now her words died on her lips and her eyes drank in the sight.  She remembered how they felt under her hands, how those buds tightened as her tongue lashed them.  Franky had perfect breasts in Erica’s view.  They disappeared when Franky pulled on her sleeping top and Erica sighed with disappointment.

 

Franky slid into her sleeping bag and propped herself on one elbow facing Erica.  She patted the space next to her, eyes lit up like an excited five year old.  Erica lay down next to her, looking up at Franky, smiling.  It felt ridiculous and touching at the same time.  

 

Franky leant down and kissed her.  “I’m glad you’re here,” she murmured.  “Here properly I mean and not because you fell asleep here accidentally.”

 

“So am I,” Erica replied, kissing her back.  Franky tasted of spearmint.  Franky slid a hand under Erica’s top, letting it rest lightly on her stomach, as they kissed.  It was leisurely as lips then tongues explored mouths knowing time was limitless for a change. Erica fought the need to rush things as her body responded to Franky’s touch.  She sensed Franky’s own restraint as Erica’s hands ventured lower over the guide’s tight arse pulling her close.  She moaned softly against Erica’s mouth.  Erica slipped her thigh between Franky’s legs and Franky grinded against her.  They were trying to be quiet but Franky’s breathing was becoming increasingly ragged.

 

Her mouth had worked its way to Erica’s throat then her collarbone.  The fabric stopped her venturing any further.  So instead Franky pushed up her shirt and began kissing the soft skin of her belly while working the top higher until Erica had to lift her arms so the clothing could be removed by an insistent Franky.  “I’m getting you ready for bed,” she murmured against her ear.  Then she began a slow journey south using her mouth and tongue and occasionally her teeth to navigate her way.  Franky’s hands were unbuttoning Erica’s hiking pants then fiddling with her zip until she worked it open.  Her warm hand found Erica’s hot, wet centre, fingering her through her underwear until Erica felt she would explode with want.  “Franky,” she murmured, “wait.”  She couldn’t quite believe she had said it.

 

Franky did pause, pulling her head up to look at Erica.  Her eyes were glazed with desire and her gaze startling in its intensity.  Erica wondered if she looked as sex drunk as Franky did just then.  She pulled herself up and kissed Erica on the mouth, rubbing her thumb across her bottom lip.  “You okay?” She asked with a frown.

 

Erica was touched by Franky’s concern.  “Yes, it’s just, I want to,” she pushed her thigh against Franky’s centre, “I want you to come first.”  

 

Franky grinned.  “In case you didn’t realise, me getting you off, gets me so fucking turned on, it’s only gonna take the slightest pressure and I’m gonna come, listening to you and watching you is fucking hot.  In fact just talking about it is getting me wet.  Wanna feel?”  

 

Franky guided Erica’s hand between her legs and Erica could feel the wet patch on Franky’s underwear.  “Take them off,” Erica demanded.  

 

Franky wriggled out of them then roughly pulled off Erica’s own pants and underwear and resumed her attentions, kissing her way along Erica’s inner thighs.  Erica let her legs fall open giving Franky full access.  The guide’s hands held her hips as she licked along the full length of her.  Erica shoved the heel of her hand into her mouth to muffle her gasp.  Oh God, she didn’t think she would be able to keep quiet.  Franky was lapping up her juices before slipping her tongue inside Erica’s opening.  She thrust her hips up seeking deeper penetration and Franky replaced her tongue with her fingers.  Franky was breathing heavily against her as she flicked Erica’s clit with her tongue.  A small squeal escaped her clenched mouth.   “Oh, oh!” “Oh fuck!” Her thrusts began to get wilder and she could feel her clit pulsing against Franky’s mouth as she clenched around Franky’s fingers.  She reached out blindly, and her hands found Franky’s head.  She held her there, letting Franky coax her to another orgasm before pulling her up and slotting her thigh back between Franky’s thighs, feeling how wet she was.  “Franky,” she gasped.

 

Franky sat up and straddled her waist.  Erica slipped her finger inside Franky’s wetness and felt Franky move against her.  She was breathing hard, her eyes never straying from Erica’s.  She gasped as Erica’s thumb flicked her clit and moved harder until she gasped and then relaxed, collapsing next to Erica.  It took barely a moment.

 

They heard distance laughter from the group by the fireside as their breathing regulated.  Erica wondered if they had been heard.  Right at that moment she didn’t really care, she would face the embarrassing comments in the morning knowing it had been worth it.

 

“How do you feel about PDA?”  Franky asked randomly.

 

“What?” Erica asked with a laugh.

 

“Personally I kinda like it but I know not everyone’s into it,” she explained.  

 

“I don’t know,” she admitted, “I like having sex with the curtains open.”

 

“Well, I think that’s something different,” Franky said with a smile in her voice, “but good to know.”

 

Erica rolled onto her side and looked at Franky.  “You wouldn’t mind I think, not like Mark.”

 

Erica wondered what she had given away in that statement to make Franky study her so thoughtfully.

 

“Why have you stayed with Mark for so long if you don’t suit?”

 

Erica thought about the convenience, the expectation and her own ambition to have a successful life.  Franky wouldn’t understand the constricting nature of those things.  Franky would laugh at it.  It was easy, when you had no family and nothing to lose, to make bold choices.  Erica had always felt like she had something to lose so she had followed the path expected of her, from her parents and her upbringing.  The only time she had veered away had been her decision to take up a position at Wentworth and that had cost her both her father and her career.  After losing her father she couldn’t face losing anyone else.  Her mother loved Mark like the son she’d never had.  It was a safe option.

 

“Cowardice,” she said eventually.  “I’m a coward.”

 

“Maybe you’ve just never had anything worth being brave for,” Franky told her.

 

Erica hoped she was right.  

 

Chapter Text

Erica woke in the dark. And in silence. It was an odd silence, as though the night had been smothered in its sleep. When she opened her eyes she felt something light fall away from her lashes onto her cheeks. She lifted her arm to brush away whatever it was and that was when she realised her arm was pinned by something heavy. She tasted dirt on her lips.

She must have fallen. She couldn’t remember. She wondered how long she had been unconscious. She tentatively tested her limbs. Everything seemed to be working albeit with some complaint, except her right arm which was wedged uncomfortably. She tried to push away the obstacle with her free hand. It was a someone, not a something, she realised.

She nudged them, feeling panic rising when there was no response. “Hey!” She said urgently. She shook them slightly then more roughly. “Wake up,” she pleaded.

She tried to roll them away to free her arm but she couldn’t get the angle right to get enough purchase. Eventually she gave up. She wondered where she had put her head torch that morning. Had she put it in the front pockets of her pack where she might have some hope of getting to it? She wished she was as organised as Franky. She fumbled with the zipper, struggling with it in a silent battle until at last it surrendered and she was able to slip her hand inside the pocket. She fumbled around, searching through the collection of items she had stuffed in there. A Whitman’s chocolate peanut bar, hand sanitiser, a pack of tissues, a hairband, she listed them off mentally as her fingers found them. No torch. She grappled with her other front pocket, wrestling again with the zip, swearing internally as it resisted her efforts. She took a breath, paused, and tried again. This time she went more slowly, encouraging the zip to let go and eventually it did. This time her fingers found what she was looking for. She switched on her torch and saw what she knew and feared she would see. Franky’s lifeless body.

They were on a ledge, and they were flirting. And if Erica had thought flirting with Franky in usual circumstances was fun then flirting on a ledge no wider than the length of her foot at roughly thirty metres from the ground was exhilarating. All her senses were buzzing as adrenaline coursed through her veins. She should be concentrating on where to put her hands, on her balance but instead she was listening to the sound of Franky’s laugh. Franky’s laugh in this particular moment was delightfully sinful, which Erica knew she was solely responsible for. Erica had suggested they use the climbing ropes to practise tying knots, she had suggested that Franky show her how it was done by tying her up. She was pretty sure Franky was up for it from her response.

“Are you trying to distract me?” Franky asked her as she navigated around a section of wall which jutted out awkwardly.

“No,” Erica refuted. If she was being honest she would have admitted to distracting herself. The climb up to the ledge and traversing the difficult path reminded her too much of her father’s fatal fall. If she wasn’t making daring sexual suggestions to Franky she would likely be glued to the rock wall incapable of moving. “I’m motivating you. I want to give you something to look forward to. I want you to make it safely across.”

Franky laughed again. “Like that’s not gonna happen,” she said cockily.

“Well I hope so,” Erica huffed out as she manoeuvred past the awkward section. “But what if you didn’t?” She added in after thought. She wondered if Franky had considered what she would do if she injured herself and could no longer guide.

“Huh?” Franky looked back at her, watching and waiting until Erica had passed the difficult bit. She gave her an encouraging smile. “That’s the worst of it for now,” she told her. “Just gotta scale this section and we’re over this pass.”

Erica nodded, feeling relieved. One down, another two to go, each one more difficult than the last. She had been glad Franky had stuck with her that morning because talking with her had made it all seem a little easier. She hadn’t slept much the night before and while she had adopted a no regrets policy, she also knew her concentration was suffering as a result. She had post rest day blues as well which wasn’t helping. Her body was rebelling against having to carry her pack, which seemed heavier for some reason. Franky had told her clean clothes weigh more, and she knew she was teasing because that wasn’t logical but even so, something was different. Her mind yearned for a late start where she could lie cocooned in Franky’s tent enjoying the warmth and personal attention of the guide. Instead she had been woken by Franky’s movements as she got ready to leave the tent to start breakfast. Part of her mind also knew that each kilometre they walked was a kilometre closer to reality.

She climbed the last section just behind Franky and focused on her smooth tanned legs. She watched the muscles shift as she climbed, subtly changing the shape of the stylised tattoo on her calf. It was less intricate than her other tattoos and Erica wondered idly if it had been her first.

She remembered Franky commenting after their first swim on her own lack of tattoos. Erica had been dismissive in her response saying she wasn’t interested in pain without pleasure. Franky’s eyes had lit up at the time. “Is that right,” she’d murmured with an enlightened smile and Erica could tell she had tucked that snippet of information away in some back corner of her mind for later reference.

Now she was experiencing the pain of climbing vertically up the side of a ravine while having the pleasure of perving on Franky’s butt. And for a change it wasn’t a guilty pleasure.

She remembered a colleague once saying that it was easy to know which way you leant by who you checked out in a bar. Everyone had laughed. Erica had also laughed but she remembered thinking at the time that it wasn’t true because she always checked out everyone. The whole conversation should have told her something, probably had told her something if she had wanted to listen but she had clearly been in deep denial. Now she wondered if maybe she only looked at the men in bars because she thought it was expected. She laughed at herself with sudden self-awareness.

Erica realised they had reached the top of the climb while she had been thinking about other things. “Oh,” she gasped in awe as she looked back to where they had come from. A ripple of mountain ranges stretched out before her, receding into the distant haze hued with a deep almost violet blue.

She turned back to Franky, smiling, and found the guide armed with her phone taking a photo of her. “Gotta capture the moment,” she said with a grin. She swung around and stuck her face close to Erica’s, snapping a selfie of them before Erica knew what had happened. “I’ll send it to you,” Franky promised, sliding the phone into a side pocket on her shorts.

That had been earlier. Now they were underground in some kind of shaft. The rocky walls were smooth and seemed to stretch up beyond the beam of the torch. The ground beneath them was also rocky but Erica’s pack had cushioned her fall sparing her a broken back and a cracked skull. She could see now her arm was caught between Franky’s pack and the ground. There was blood coming from Franky’s head and a panicked thought careened to the front of her mind. What if Franky was dead? It was an idea too frightening to contemplate. Erica dropped the torch onto her chest and reached out to the guide, willing her to be alive, to respond to her touch. “Franky!” Her voice was strangled with fear. “Franky!”

She felt a wave of claustrophobia wash over her. They were trapped down here, she realised, and it didn’t sound like anyone was looking for them. “Hey!” She shouted, “we’re down here! Hey! Help! Can anyone hear me?”

There was a faint groan and Franky stirred. Erica felt a change in pressure on her pinned arm at the same time as relief washed over her. She shone the torch on Franky and saw her eyes close suddenly against the blinding light. “Jesus Franky, are you okay?”

“I’ll be better when you point that thing somewhere else,” she grumbled.

Erica did as she asked, muttering an apology and asking Franky if she was able to move.

“I think so,” Franky said without much conviction. “Fuck, what the fuck was that?” She muttered, attempting to sit up. It was no easy feat with the weight of her backpack keeping her on her back like a turtle. Erica had to laugh at her attempts. “Not helping,” Franky said, aggrieved.

“I can’t help, you’re on top of my arm,” Erica told her, equally aggrieved. At last Franky shifted sufficiently for Erica to free herself. She tested her arm and found it to be functional. “You’re bleeding,” she told Franky, “above your eye.”

“It’s a scratch,” Franky said dismissively as she felt for the source. She unclipped her pack and slipped out of it.

“What happened?” They both asked simultaneously.

The second pass had required ropes and an abseil descent. They had been rappelling down, Erica, Franky, Jake and Vera. Erica had been slower than the others. She saw the rock fly past her and managed to yell a warning to the three climbers below. She looked down to see it narrowly miss Jake and bounce off the side of the cliff below him once, twice, three times before dropping to the distant ground below. She looked up nervously. She thought she saw someone peering over the edge but whatever it was vanished. They were the last to descend of their group. There was no one left at the top of the pass. It must have been a bird or a trick of the light, she decided.

When she reached the ground they were talking about it. It had been a close call. Jake said he had felt the air movement as it whizzed past his ear. They speculated about how it had been dislodged. Vera suggested an animal. Erica wondered if that flash she’d seen could have been an animal.

“What is it?” Franky asked her. “Come on, I know something’s up, I can see that cute frown of yours,” she added with a grin when Erica shook her head.

So Erica told her. “It was probably nothing,” she finished with.

“How sure are you?” Franky asked.

“Not very,” Erica admitted. Franky was studying her with her own frown. “What is it?”

“Dunno, something,” Franky was looking back up towards the top of the cliff.

There was no movement and nothing out of the ordinary. Eventually Franky shrugged and walked over to where their packs were waiting for them. Franky had lowered the packs separately to Dan who had gone down first. Erica had been grateful because initially she had thought naively that she would have to carry it down herself.

The four of them headed off together. They were behind the rest of the group by at least twenty minutes. They split into natural pairings with Jake and Vera ahead and Erica and Franky bringing up the rear, both lost in their own thoughts.

Erica broke the silence. “I’ve got an idea,” she began with.

“Walking can do that,” Franky replied, looking across at her with a grin.

“No seriously,” Erica went on, “have you ever thought about getting into the dehydrated food business?”

“Nope,” she replied immediately.

“Your recipes are fantastic, it’s not just me everyone says so,” she added when Franky gave her a dubious look. “You could really compete in that market.”

“And give up guiding?” Franky didn’t seem keen.

Erica didn’t push it other than to say, “you should think about it, one day it might suit you better than the outdoor life.”

Franky laughed. “Nah,” she took Erica’s hand in her own. “Not likely.” She scoffed.

Erica felt disappointed and she knew why. It wasn’t because Franky had dismissed her idea. It was because recently she had been imagining a different life to the one she currently had, one where Franky figured more prominently, maybe one where they shared a life. She couldn’t see how that could work if Franky spent most of her time in the wilderness.

They reached a river and followed a track along its bank for a while before climbing up and away from it up rocky steps that were tortuous in their steepness and number. Erica stopped abruptly, needing a breather, and looked up hoping for a sign they were near the top. It was magnificent the way the cliffs dropped away dramatically to the gorge below. She lost her balance momentarily and swayed. Franky was behind her and grabbed her arm to steady her. “I gotch ya,” she said, pulling Erica against her and holding her away from the edge.

Erica felt her heart pounding as she looked over the drop. She could have fallen so easily. “Thank you,” she murmured unsteadily.

“Can’t have you ruining my stats,” Franky said lightly, “if you go I go.” She didn’t release her immediately though, instead holding her close, as close as their packs would allow.

Erica tried to concentrate on the remaining part of the climb, being careful in her foot placements and only looking at the two steps ahead of her. It was making her nervous, how high they were and how little room there was for error. Eventually they crested the highest point and she discovered going down was worse. The steps seemed impossibly small and harder to navigate when there was no way of avoiding the view down to the valley below. She saw Jake and Vera almost half way down. They looked like toy miniatures. She took a breath and continued.

Franky remembered first what had happened. Despite her head injury, her memory was intact. They had traversed the last pass of the day and were walking through fairly flat country only about three kilometres from their planned camp. It wasn’t anything sinister that made them leave the track. Erica had needed to pee. Franky had been reluctant to walk on without her.

“Nah,” the guide said firmly when Erica said she’d be okay and would catch her up.

“I’ll be fine,” she insisted. She wondered if Franky’s reluctance related to Erica’s strange adventure at the hut the other day. “I promise I won’t go far.”

“Good,” Franky replied, “but I’ll wait anyway.”

Erica gave up and walked off into the bush. It was scrubby and there weren’t many good places to pee. She spotted a grassy clearing, which looked perfect, and took a path through the bracken towards it. She saw it just before she stepped into the clearing and froze, because curled up in sun was a large black snake. She slowly backed away, hoping she was quiet enough not to disturb the sleeping reptile.

“You know I don’t need to pee,” she told Franky a minute later when she had returned to the path. Franky looked quizzical so she told her about the snake.

Franky wasn’t very sympathetic. “What are you gonna do? Hang on til we get back to civilisation?” She asked with a grin.

She had a point and Erica knew it. “Fine, I’ll pee but if I get bitten on the bum by a snake, you can suck out the poison.”

Franky laughed. “Yeah, no worries, I can think of worse ways to die.” Erica heard the guide say as she stomped off through the scrub on the other side of the path from the snake. She thought if she made enough noise she would scare away any snakes. That decision meant when her foot hit the edge of the shaft, she had too much forward momentum to pull herself back and fell.

Franky had heard her cry out. “I fucking thought you had been bitten by a snake,” Franky recounted. She had raced in the direction Erica had gone, concentrating on finding her and not where she was putting her feet. She hadn’t seen the shaft and had no hope of saving herself. She had fallen as well, banging her head on something sharp on the way down and losing consciousness.

“What now?” Erica asked.

“Now we’ve gotta get ourselves out,” Franky told her. “It’s not like anyone knows where we are and as neither of us left our packs on the path, it’s not likely they’ll ever work it out.” Franky said ominously.

“Great,” Erica muttered drily.

“Good news is,” Franky sounded bizarrely optimistic given the circumstances.

“We’ll die together?” Erica offered.

“We’ve got our packs.” Franky finished.

“And that helps us how?” Erica asked, thinking even if she could somehow manage to climb out, there was no way she could manage it with her pack.

“You’ll see,” Franky said smugly.

And momentarily Erica bought into Franky’s optimism until something crawled across her leg. “Fuck! Snake!” She said in a startled cry.

Chapter Text

They both scrambled to their feet quickly stepping backwards until they hit the rock wall.  The torch danced crazily around the shaft as Erica tried to identify where the snake had gone.

 

“Did you see it?” Erica asked after a moment.

 

“Nope,” Franky replied, who Erica thought sounded quite calm for someone trapped down a shaft with a snake.  

 

Franky put her hand over Erica’s to slow down the rapid movement of the torch.  Slowly she guided Erica’s torch hand in a methodical search of the area.  There was no snake.  The torch stopped on Erica’s pack, on the slight gap where it rested against the wall.  Erica stared into the blackness of that gap desperate for her eyes to confirm what her mind already knew.

 

“Do you see it?” She asked eventually.

 

“I don’t think it was a snake,” Franky said.

 

“I think I know what a snake feels like,” Erica stated with absolute certainty.  

 

Franky ignored the slightly peevish tone.   “Maybe because you recently saw a snake your mind is messing with you.”

 

“Then what was it?” Erica challenged.  If Franky was so certain it wasn’t a snake then she could bloody well explain what it was.  

 

“I dunno, a mouse maybe,” Franky offered.

 

“A mouse?” Erica sounded incredulous.  “You think a mouse has packed up its belongings and headed into the bush for a holiday?”

 

A small sound escaped Franky.  It sounded suspiciously like a snort.  “There are quite a few indigenous rodents,” she told her.

 

“Rodents?” Erica sounded suspicious.  “As in rats?”

 

“Yep,” Franky replied.  Erica couldn’t be sure but she suspected Franky was trying not to laugh, which, given the circumstances and Erica’s agitation, seemed somewhat insensitive.

 

“Oh just great,” she muttered.

 

“Better than a snake though, right?” Franky asked brightly.

 

“This sucks,” she replied with a sigh, deflating suddenly.  She definitely heard Franky laugh in response.  Her torch took one more careful reconnaissance of the area.  She still needed to pee.  “Fuck this!”  She exclaimed suddenly.  “Fucking shitty shaft!  Fucking shitty snake! Fuuuuuck!”  She threw the torch down on to her pack where it bounced on to the ground.  She could feel tears welling up in her eyes.  It was her fault they were in this situation.

 

“Hey,” Franky said, “it’s gonna be okay.” She put her arms around her, hugging her.  “You trust me, right?  I’m gonna get us out of here.”  She sounded sure and her arms were warm and firm, holding her together.  

 

“How?” Erica couldn’t see how that could possibly happen.  “Can we ring someone on the satellite phone?” 

 

“It won’t work down here,” Franky told her, pulling away.  “It needs a line of sight to the satellite.  We are going to do this,” she said with certainty, gesturing between them, “you and me.”

 

She would have sounded more convincing if she didn’t  look so bloody and battered.  “Maybe we should patch you up first.” Erica said.  At least this was something she could help with.

 

Franky just grunted, flinching slightly as the torchlight caught her eye.  She moved to her pack and began to open and dig through it.  Erica found Franky’s first aid kit in the top pocket and pulled it out.  She took out antiseptic wipes, gauze and some tape.  

 

“Can you sit still for a minute, so I can do this,” she asked when Franky didn’t stop what she was doing. 

 

“I’m okay,” Franky said a little dismissively.

 

“Actually you’re not,” she refuted, “and you’re not going to be much use if you can’t see from the blood in your eye,” Erica pointed out rationally.  “It is bleeding profusely, Franky.”

 

“Yeah, head injuries do that,” Franky said, as though she knew, as though she’d had previous experience with them, which she probably had, Erica realised, given her occupation.  She stopped what she was doing though and shifted so she was kneeling directly in front of Erica, closing her eyes as the torch shone again directly into them.

 

“Sorry,” Erica muttered, “I need the light to see what I’m doing.”

 

“It’s okay,” Franky replied, sitting with unusual stillness as Erica tended her wound.

 

She did her best to stem the bleeding then put some gauze across the injury and taped it firmly in place.  It wasn’t perfect but it would do until they got out, if they got out, her traitorous mind added.

 

“Thanks,” Franky said, pausing to smile at her, then she returned to her task.

 

She pulled out a torch, some rope and her climbing harness.  She put on her harness and tied off one end of the rope to it.  Erica watched as a pair of climbing shoes appeared from  pack,  “It’s like Hermione’s bag, isn’t it?”  She said as she watched, holding the torch steady.

 

“Are you going to try and climb out without a rope?” She asked nervously as a sudden understanding of what Franky was about to attempt dawned on her.  “What if you fall?”

 

“Get out of the way,” Franky replied flippantly, then she looked at Erica, “relax, I’ve done this kind of thing before,” she said reassuringly.

 

She swapped her walking boots for her climbing shoes.  She slowly walked the circumference of the small shaft checking the walls on each side looking for the best ascent.  The torch only showed her ten metres in height before the darkness swallowed the light. 

 

Even Erica could see the problems.  The wall was vertical and appeared to have no hand holds at all.  Franky may have free climbed before but not in the dark, not without any planning, not with so much at stake.  

 

“Jesus Franky,” she muttered anxiously.  “It’s not possible.”

 

“Yeah it is,” the guide refuted.  

 

“We don’t even know how far up it is.  There has to be another way.”

 

“I can’t think of any, can you?” Franky asked.  Erica was silent.  The guide took her silence to be acceptance. “Now, when I get to the top, I want you to attach this end of the rope to the backpacks, one at a time, and I’ll bring them up.  Then put on your harness and attach yourself to the rope, and I’ll winch you up, okay?”  Franky looked for confirmation.  Erica nodded.  “Watch out for anything falling down as I climb.  I might dislodge some rocks.”

 

“Franky, wait,” Erica said suddenly as the guide was about to turn away.  She wanted to say so much but couldn’t think how to articulate any of it.  “I just, I want to say something,” she took a breath.

 

Franky stepped forward.  “Tell me when we’re up top,” she said, “it’ll keep me motivated,” she said with a grin.

 

Erica gave her a shadowy smile, reminded of her own words earlier in the day.  “All right,” she agreed.  She swallowed her words of caution and felt the tightness in her jaw as she clenched her teeth.  “Better get going then,” she added when she saw Franky seemed to be waiting for permission.

 

She didn’t know what was worse, watching as Franky climbed higher clinging to rock that appeared, to her amateur eyes, to have no purchase, expecting at any moment for her to fall; or being unable to see her progress once she had climbed beyond the light.  She stood to the side on the opposite side to the wall Franky was attempting to climb.  She stared up into the darkness, her neck hurting from being held at such an acute angle for so long, waiting.  Occasionally she would hear Franky swear or let out a groan of effort and after what seemed like an eternity she heard a whoop.  The rope that had been crawling up the wall of the shaft behind Franky stopped moving.  “Are you up?”  She called out. 

 

“Yeah,” then after a pause, “it’s only about thirty metres to the top,” Franky called down to her.  Her voice echoing slightly as it drifted down.  “Attach one of the packs and I’ll pull it up.”  Erica breathed a sigh of relief.

 

She glanced at Franky’s pack.  It was still open and the first aid kit was sitting next to it.  Franky’s hiking boots lay next to it.  Her own pack was ready to go so she went across to where it was lying against the wall where she had dropped it.  She hesitated as she wondered again about the snake.  What if it was hiding in the little gap between the wall and the pack?  Mentally she shook herself, took a breath and grabbed the shoulder strap.  Her torchlight bounced off bare rock and she breathed a sigh of relief.  She pulled out her harness then looped the rope around the shoulder straps and tied what she hoped was a good knot.  She tugged on the rope to let Franky know the pack was ready.  She guided it up as far as her arms would reach then stepped away to prepare Franky’s pack.  She closed it up and put the first aid kit back in the top pocket then she used the laces to tie the boots to the outside of the pack.  While she was waiting for the rope to be dropped she pulled on her harness ready for her own departure.  The rope appeared shortly afterwards and she repeated the procedure with Franky’s pack.  It weighed considerably more than Erica’s pack and she doubted she would have the strength to carry it.

 

She looked around the empty space.  It was bare.  There was certainly no snake.  Then she noticed something on the ground where Franky’s pack had been.  She picked it up.  It was the photograph she had seen previously, which had fallen out when she had pulled out the first aid kit.  She stared at the man and girl, her curiosity roused once more.  She wondered again who they were.  Not family obviously.  She remembered Liz saying Franky didn’t have any family.  Clearly they were important to her though for her to carry the photo with her.  Erica didn’t have any photos with her, none of Mark or her mother, not even one of her father.  There were probably some on her phone but she hadn’t taken that out in days.  She wondered idly where she had put it, although by now it had probably dropped to the bottom of her pack.  Franky’s photo had been kept somewhere within easy reach and with Franky’s obsessive organisational habits, Erica would bet Franky knew exactly where it was.

 

“Erica!”  She heard Franky call out.  “Let me know when you’re good to go.”

 

The rope had appeared again and she slid the photo into the back pocket of her shorts.  This adventure would be over soon, she thought with relief.

 

She tried to help Franky by climbing where she could,  taking her own weight, but she wasn’t nearly as skilled as her guide and once she slipped, dropping about a metre before Franky took her weight.  Even then though she hadn’t thought she would fall.  Franky’s words from earlier in the day came back to her.  “I’ve got you,” she’d said and Erica believed her.  Franky would keep her safe.

 

About ten metres from the top, the shaft bent and the incline was no longer vertical.  It made it much easier to climb and explained why they hadn’t been able to see the top when they had been at the bottom.  Franky’s hands grabbed her and dragged her away from the edge.  Her eyes blinked against the brightness of the sunlight after the darkness of the shaft.  She never thought she’d ever be so happy to be lying on the ground amidst the dirt, leaves and ants.  There was a tiny stick poking into her cheek and she didn’t even care.  She kissed the ground with relief.

 

“What about me?” Franky asked, “don’t I deserve one of those?”  Erica could hear the laughter in her voice.

 

Franky looked even worse in the daylight.  There were streaks of blood running down the side of her face mixed with dirt and even some of her hair was stuck there.  

 

“Jesus, you look terrible,” Erica told her from her position on the ground.  

 

She took Franky’s proffered hand and got up.  Without speaking she took Franky’s face in her hands and kissed her.  “Thank you,” she murmured fervently.  

 

Franky slipped her arms around her.  “You okay?” She asked.

 

“Yes,” Erica brushed the hair away from Franky’s face and kissed her again, “thanks to you.”

 

“Not just me,” Franky murmured against her cheek.  “You did great.”

 

“Even when I had a minor meltdown over the snake?”

 

Franky’s breath felt warm against her skin as she laughed.  “Not your finest moment,” she acknowledged.  “I still like you though.”

 

“I like you too,” she whispered into the safety of Franky’s neck and she felt Franky’s arms tighten against her, holding her securely.  

 

“Enough to finally give me your phone number?” She replied with mock seriousness.

 

“Yes,” she agreed definitively, “although I confess I may have lost my phone somewhere in my pack.”  She kissed her again.

 

Then, because Franky was bold, or reckless, or both, she asked for more.  “Enough to dump that fiancé of yours?”

 

Erica pulled away so she could see Franky’s eyes, her hands holding Franky’s forearms so she couldn’t retreat.  She saw a flash of uncertainty in them.

 

“Is that what you want?” She asked after a moment, completely serious.

 

“Yeah,” Franky said simply.  

 

Liz’s words came back to Erica.  It sounded like Franky had already swum out further than was safe and she deserved an honest answer.  “I don’t know what I want,” she said in a rush.  “I’m trying to work it out, and the more time I spend with you, the more I think I might have got everything arse about, and maybe this was never about my dad, or Mark, maybe it was about me.  My life with Mark is nice, and predicable, and safe but I feel like I’m shackled to it.  When I’m with you I can see the shadow of another life, and it’s dangerous and thrilling and more honest than the one I have now.  You’re my fork in the road, Franky.  I need to decide which life I want.”

 

“Seems like a no brainer to me,” Franky said lightly.  “Look, I know you’re working through some stuff,” she went on more seriously, “I just wanted you to know that I can see that other life too, and I like the look of it.”  Erica nodded, looking at Franky now with her eyes lit up in anticipation, it did seem like a no brainer.  If she was brave enough...

 

“We should get going,” Franky said after a moment, “the others will be wondering what’s happened.”  

 

“Yes,” Erica wondered if Franky had changed the subject deliberately to save her from needing to reply.  “First though, I really need to pee,” she said apologetically.

 

“Watch out for any other holes in the ground,” Franky called after her, “and snakes.”

 

“Haha,” Erica muttered as she disappeared behind a tree.  She had no intention of going far.  In fact she doubted she would ever go far from the track again.

 

Only it turned out it was Franky who needed to be wary.  When Erica reappeared she expected the guide to be ready and keen to leave.  Instead, she was surveying her pack thoughtfully, with an alert stillness that reminded Erica of a hunter.  She had removed her harness and her pack was open but that was as far as it went.

 

“What is it?” Erica asked.

 

“You’re not going to believe this,” Franky said slowly, eyes still on the pack, “but I think I’ve found your snake.”

 

“What!” Erica’s eyes darted around expecting to see a snake nearby but there wasn’t one.  “Where?”

 

“It’s in my pack,” Franky said calmly.

 

“What!” Erica repeated in what could almost be described as a shriek.  The pack looked innocuous lying there in the sun.  “How do you know?”

 

“How do you reckon?” Franky asked, “I opened up the main section to put away my harness and climbing shoes and there it was, curled up asleep.”

 

“Jesus!”  Erica couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing.  “How did it get there?”  Even as she asked, the implications hit her.  There had been a snake.  She had been right all along.  Somehow it had managed to hide itself until it had slithered into the open pack, probably when Erica’s focus had been on Franky’s attempt to scale the shaft wall.  The bloody snake had hitched a free ride out of the shaft courtesy of Franky’s backpack.  It sent a shiver through her when she recalled how casually she had handled that pack, closing the top and attaching it to the rope.  At any moment she could have disturbed the snake, she realised, and now Franky had almost shoved her hand into its mouth.  “Jesus!”  

 

“Yeah,” Franky agreed, as though she had spoken her thoughts aloud.  

 

“I knew it was a snake!”  She hadn’t meant to say it out loud.

 

“Is that really what you’re going to focus on right now?” Franky asked dryly.

 

“It’s that or hysteria,“  Erica replied, and that wasn’t too far from the truth.

 

Franky picked up one of Erica’s hiking poles and gently pushed her pack on its side, the opening facing away from them both.  They both waited but nothing happened.  Franky signalled for Erica to stand well back.  She was standing behind it, only as far back as the length of the pole, when she gave the pack a couple of sharp whacks with the stick on either side.  Erica had seen her do a similar move when she would tap a hollow log before sitting on it.

 

Now she knew why.  After a moment a small black snake slithered away into the undergrowth.  It wasn’t even a metre in length and thinner than Erica’s forearm.  It looked harmless.  Erica knew it wasn’t.  Out here, in the middle of nowhere, it almost certainly meant death.  “Jesus,” she muttered.

 

‘It’s a juvie,” Franky said, “tiger snake.”  She sounded interested.

 

Erica didn’t really need to know.  Despite their well reported presence in Australia, Erica, like many in her country, had never actually seen a snake in the wild.   And like crocodiles, she had no desire to meet one face to face.

 

“They’re better than some people,” Franky said when Erica had articulated this thought.  “At least with a snake you know where you stand, can’t always say that about people.”  Erica couldn’t really argue with that.  “And like people, snakes are everywhere.”

 

“Now I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight,” Erica told her.

 

“Don’t worry, I know exactly how to distract you,” Franky said confidently, slapping Erica lightly on the arse to ensure her intentions were clear.

 

Erica couldn’t argue with that either.

 

Chapter Text

“I feel I owe you,” Erica said, looking as serious as someone could with feet encased in socks with toes and wearing a pair of thongs.  

 

“Why?” Franky looked up from her book.

 

“Well, it was kind of my fault we ended up in the shaft,” she admitted sheepishly, “and you did kind of get us out.”

 

“Babe, that’s my job,” Franky said dismissively.  She went back to reading.

 

Erica looked at her with surprise.  She had not missed the term of endearment.  She wondered if she should say nothing, just let it go through to the keeper.  “Babe?”  She couldn’t help herself.

 

“Yeah?” Franky muttered.

 

“No not yeah,” Erica said firmly, grabbing Franky’s shin and squeezing her calf muscle until she had Franky’s attention.  “You called me babe,” she said pointedly.

 

“You are a babe,” Franky said with a grin.  “I should know, I’m always checking you out.”  She grabbed Erica’s hand and twisted it so she had to let go or break her wrist.

 

Erica tried to free herself but the struggle against the other woman’s strength was futile.  She tried another tact.  “Don’t start something you can’t finish,” she gasped.

 

“You think I can’t finish this?” Franky asked as she twisted a little harder until Erica had no option but to submit.  

 

Franky laughed as she easily pushed Erica onto the ground and lay down on top of her pinning her arms.  Her green eyes and smirk challenged Erica to resist.  Erica stared back defiantly.  She could feel the weight of Franky against her sternum pressing the breath out of her.  The bandage across her eyebrow gave her a rakish appearance.

 

“You’re filthy,” she commented.  She could see dirt still hiding in the creases around her eyes.

 

“Well,” Franky looked her over, “you could use a shower yourself.”

 

“Fat chance,” Erica replied, “you’ll have to put up with my questionable hygiene habits.”

 

“I like you a little dirty,” Franky told her with a lewd smile.  “It turns me on.”

 

Erica laughed.  “All right, you win!”  She conceded, rubbing her wrists when Franky released them.  “Jesus, you’re strong.”

 

“Here,” Franky pulled Erica’s wrist towards her and turning it so the soft inside flesh was exposed, she kissed it gently on the slightly red mark.  She then leaned in and kissed her lips.  “Better?” She asked but before Erica could reply they were interrupted.

 

“Franky.”  It was Vera.  “Bea wants you.”  The message was delivered in Vera’s irritating, stern tone.  The one that said “I do not approve” because clearly she didn’t.  

 

“Everyone wants me,” Franky replied, rolling onto her side.  “It’s coz I’m a hero,” she said as a cheeky aside to Erica.  “Even Vera wants me deep down, don’t you?”  She turned back to the smaller woman.

 

“Hardly,” Vera replied.

 

Franky looked disbelieving.  “Don’t fight it, Vera,” she lectured her.  Erica tried not to laugh.  “But you’re out of luck,” she added, “Erica won’t share, will you, babe?”  She put a deliberate emphasis on the last word.

 

Erica didn’t rise to the bait.  “You better not keep Queen Bea waiting,” she smiled sweetly.  “She’s bound to have a temper with that red hair.”

 

Franky laughed.  “Queen Bea, I like it,” she lifted herself up.  “Why don’t you come up with a nickname for Vera?” She suggested as she wandered off.

 

Erica expected Vera to follow Franky and when she didn’t Erica sighed inwardly.  Vera looked like she wanted to say something, not something pleasant either, something officious, something critical, something Vera clearly wanted to get off her chest.  “Yes Vera?  Did you want something?”

 

“It’s none of my business what you and Franky get up to,” she began with.

 

Erica could hear a big but coming, “you’ve got that right,” she said in a warning tone.  She sat up, ready to do battle if necessary.

 

“But you’re distracting Franky.  She has a job to do and she can’t do it properly when you’re,” she paused, looking for the right word.

 

“Distracting her,” Erica supplied helpfully.

 

“Exactly,” she said with relief, “I’m glad you are going to be reasonable.  What happened yesterday happened because Franky wasn’t on her game.”

 

“I fell down the shaft and so did Franky, not for any reason other than the entrance was hidden from view.  What do you think we were doing, Vera?  Looking for a bit of privacy?”  Erica made it sound like a ludicrous suggestion.  

 

The look on Vera’s face made it clear she thought that was entirely possible.  “Next time someone may get hurt, do you want that on your conscience?”  Then she went in for the kill, “what if Franky got hurt?”

 

She turned on her heel and left, knowing it was the last word, knowing Erica had no comeback.  Vinegar Tits, Erica thought, as she watched the retreating figure.  She was so sour, so priggish, so boring, such a humour vacuum.  Erica could have gone on except Franky reappeared smiling.

 

“You seem happy,” Erica said.  She elected not to mention her little chat with Vera aka Vinegar Tits.  

 

“Bea needed a favour,” Franky told her, “she wants to use the sat phone,” Franky pulled it out from its usual home in one of the side pockets of her pack.  “In return, she’ll help out with dinner prep and that means,” Franky paused dramatically, “we’ve got time to visit the secret waterfall.”

 

Erica sat up.  “Why is it secret?”

 

“You’ll see, if you’re coming,”  Franky had pulled out her towel then dropped it.  “We don’t want the others to know where we’re going, so stealth mode, it’ll just look like we are going for a walk.”

 

“Why don’t you want the others to know where we’re going?” 

 

Franky looked at her as if to say, “are you really asking that question?”

 

”Won’t they want a swim too?” Erica pointed out.

 

“Listen, this is one of the perks of my job.”  Franky said.  “They can have one tomorrow, we pass by the falls on our way out,” she  conceded, and this decided Erica. 

 

“Okay, you’ve won me over,” she said with a smile.

 

They dropped the satellite phone at Bea’s tent then headed off.  Bea promised to have everything ready for Franky’s return.  “Take your time,” she said with a knowing smile.  “Will is going to help me so no need to rush back.”

 

“Dan said he feels like he’s watching a season of The Batchelor in Paradise,” Franky said with a grin.  Erica looked blank.  “You and me, Vera and Jake, Bea and Will.”

 

Erica looked stunned.  “Bea and Will?  No!  Really?”

 

“Smiles is offering odds,” Franky said, using Linda’s nickname.  “So it must be a thing.”

 

“That’s sweet,” Erica said, thinking how they’d both lost someone and deserved a second chance.

 

They approached the waterfall from above where a small stream tumbled over rocks and moss of earthy colours of striking greens, yellow and browns then vanished into thin air.  Franky led Erica down a barely discernible path that followed the drop of water to where it was caught in a shallow bowl shaped rock roughly five metres across before dropping another fifteen metres into the river below. 

 

Franky let out a delighted whoop.  “I always wondered about this platform.  I used to see it from the pool below and wondered if you could get to it.”

 

They stripped and left their clothes on a dry ledge then gingerly picked their way across rocks to the waterfall.  It wasn’t the safest manoeuvre Erica had done but it wasn’t the most dangerous either.  Following in Franky’s footsteps gave her some reassurance and not looking down made it easier.  Franky was slightly ahead of her when she stepped into the spray and Erica paused to admire the spectacle.  She was mid calf deep in water and the spray looked to be shower strength.  Franky turned her face to the spray then raised her arms to pull her wet hair away from her face.  Her muscles and curves gleamed as the water cascaded over her.  Erica wasn’t sure she had truly appreciated the female form before this trip.  Franky had exposed her neck to the spray and was scrubbing away at the built up dirt.  It was a practical action and not really sexy but Erica was torn between wanting to watch her and wanting to join her.

 

“Hey, what are you waiting for?”  Franky called over to her.

 

Erica made it across the last few steps and then the cold spray hit her body.  It was refreshing, and all her senses went into overdrive.  She turned away from the rock face to look outwards down the gorge.  She felt Franky lift her hair and gently scratch the back of her neck with her blunt nails.  Her fingers slid behind her ears then over her lobes, her thumb rubbing them gently.  “You had dirt in your ears from the fall,” Franky told her with a laugh.  She continued to focus on the crevices, getting dirt out from hidden places, her long fingers working their way down Erica’s body.  They had no soap and only cold water but they used their hands to good effect.  Erica peeled away Franky’s bandage to give the wound a thorough clean.  It wasn’t infected she was relieved to see.  “All better?”  Franky asked.

 

“Not quite,” Erica told her, “but I’m happy,” she added, sounding like a nurse.

 

“I’m glad you’re happy,” Franky said, kissing her wet lips through the spray, letting her hands wander until she gave Erica’s butt a squeeze, pulling her closer.  

 

Erica kissed her,  “I’ve never been happier actually,” she admitted.  

 

“I think I can make you even happier,” Franky murmured against her mouth.  Her fingers digging into the soft flesh.  Her mouth moving to Erica’s throat, making her go weak at the knees.  “With two fingers and a thumb.” 

 

Erica felt her body respond to Franky’s suggestion.  She had other ideas though about how best to spend the short private time they had together.  She took Franky hands and lifted them above her head.  Her breasts lifted and Erica’s mouth captured a wet nipple, she sucked the water off it repeatedly and felt it grow harder and more engorged.  She turned her attention to the other nipple.  She traced her fingers down Franky’s back, massaging lightly when she reached her butt she dug her knuckles in and Franky moaned.  “God, that feels good,” she muttered.  “My butt is so sore from that fall or the climb out.”

 

Erica found all Franky’s sore spots then she eased the pressure slightly so it became more erotic.  Franky preferred to inflict pain than receive it, Erica had discovered, so Erica made sure her caresses were gentle and any biting was playful.  Franky had decided Erica having control had gone on long enough.  “I want your mouth on me,” she rasped, “while I’m eating you out.”

 

They were in a foot of water, Erica wasn’t sure it was even possible to do as Franky suggested without one or both of them drowning.  She might have voiced her concerns aloud.  

 

Franky kissed her quiet.  “You might be right,” she admitted, “but I wouldn’t mind dying that way.”

 

“I’d rather neither of us died,” Erica murmured.  She walked them backwards through the waterfall to a ledge tucked into the rock.  The spray reached them but they were no longer directly under the waterfall.  She pushed Franky back onto the ledge and manoeuvred herself between her legs then sank down onto the hard stone.  Franky grinned.  “Got you on your knees, baby,” she sang softly.  Erica’s tongue licked the length of her and it made her gasp, the singing stopping abruptly to Erica’s satisfaction.  She pulled back and kissed Franky’s inner thighs, slowing down the pace.  She teased her with her mouth, licking and sucking, putting her tongue at her entrance but not penetrating.  She wondered how long Franky would let it continue.  It wasn’t long before she slid off the ledge to get closer to Erica’s mouth then she put her leg over Erica’s shoulder.  When her tongue next danced at her entrance Franky lifted her hips forcing the contact.  Her other leg came up and now both were resting against Erica’s back.  Franky’s hand went to Erica’s blonde head, holding her tongue inside her.  Erica flicked her tongue upwards and Franky bucked against it.  Erica had a sudden vision of Franky naked riding a wild bull and for some reason the image turned her on incredibly.  She felt a burning want pool between her legs.  Her finger batted Franky’s clit and she heard her moan.  She sped it up flicking it until Franky’s juices flowed into her mouth.  She felt Franky clench, spasm then relax against her.  “Oh fuck,” she heard her say.

 

Her knees began to complain and she didn’t think she could stay down there for much longer.  She began to get up and Franky pulled her against her.  “Fuck you’re hot,” she said with a lazy smile, “do you even know how hot that was?”  She kissed her.  “You taste of me that’s fucking hot too.”  Franky’s tongue slid against her own, her mouth was open and demanding and Erica felt the effects course through her body.  She wanted nothing more than Franky’s fingers to fill the aching need that was building inside her.

 

“Fuck me then,” she murmured against her mouth.  

 

Franky sat up and flipped Erica so she was facing away from her, looking down the gorge.  “Imagine there is someone watching,” Franky whispered in her ear.  Erica’s eyes widened and in the same moment Franky entered her, sliding easily into her wet pussy.  She could feel Franky’s breasts pushing into her back and her fingers stretching her.  “Give them a show,” Franky murmured.  Her fingers pumped into her, slowly at first and Erica reached out to grab the rock wall so she didn’t slip.  She found some purchase with her feet allowing her to ride Franky’s fingers.  She imagined what it must look like and she became even more aroused.  She wanted to watch Franky fuck her.  She looked down and saw her hard nipples but the action below was, for the most part, hidden from view.  “Come for me babe,” Franky encouraged her, her fingers pumping furiously.

 

She was going to come.  She could feel herself about to explode.  “Yes!” She cried out.  She collapsed back onto Franky, legs spreadeagled, gasping for breath.  “Jesus fuck,” she muttered.  She wondered how Franky knew she liked exhibitionist sex, had she mentioned it?  It was as though Franky was in tune with her in a way Mark never had been.  He hated it that she liked to leave the curtains open.  Erica loved Franky’s willingness to try anything and encourage Erica to fulfil her fantasies.

 

The next day when the group stopped at the pool below to swim under the waterfall, Erica couldn’t help looking up to the secret spot overhead that no one, not even Dan, knew existed.  It was their place, hers and Franky’s.  

 

It put her in a reflective mood.  Franky attempted to engage her in conversation without success.  Eventually she gave up and dropped back to walk with Liz.  Erica was thinking back to a conversation she and Franky had had a while back.  They had been talking about books.  Erica had recounted a story from when she had been a young associate and she had been talking about poetry with her boss.

 

“She told me she didn’t read poetry but there was one poem she liked.  She couldn’t remember the name of it or who wrote it just that it was about two tracks in a wood.  So I said, ‘you mean the one that starts, ‘two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and being one traveller long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth...The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.  Now she thinks I’m some kind of poetry guru because I just happened to know that poem, even though she could have picked a thousand other poems and I wouldn’t have known any of them.”

 

“The gay poem,” Franky had said.

 

“What?  No it isn’t,” Erica had refuted, “it’s a poem about choices certainly but not about being gay.”

 

“Yeah it is,” Franky had sounded sure, “Robert Frost was gay.  The poem is about whether or not to live his life true to himself.”

 

Erica hadn’t argued the point although she had thought Franky was putting some gay interpretation onto the poem.  You hear what you want to hear, she had thought to herself.  

 

Now she wondered if Franky was right about the poem.  Why had it resonated with her so much that she had memorised the poem and could quote it verbatim years later?  Maybe it was because subconsciously, all those years ago, she had chosen a path.  She had chosen the first path when perhaps the second less travelled path was really the one for her.  Robert Frost had said in the poem he would save the other path for another day but knowing how way leads on to way he doubted he would ever come back.  Erica felt a tightening in her chest.  What if it was too late to choose the other path?

 

“I’m glad to see you’re taking notice of what I said yesterday,” Vera fell into step beside her.

 

“Goodness VT, you’re like one of those Dementors in Harry Potter, as soon as you appear it is as though all the good humour is sucked out of us,” Erica said sweetly.

 

“Why do you call her VT?” Linda asked when Vera had gone ahead in annoyance.  “Her initials are VB, like the beer.”

 

“An abbreviation for vinegar tits,” Erica said and Linda burst out laughing.  

 

“That’s hilarious,” she muttered to herself.  Erica thought it was too.

 

Vera’s lecture and her own doubts put her in a rebellious mindset.  She had decided she wanted to surprise Franky given how successful the guide had been with the massage and glow worm experience, but she was struggling to find something that would compete.  In the city, with all manner of ideas at her disposal, she felt sure she could surprise (read impress) the pants off Franky, out here though she was at a distinct disadvantage.  Until now.  Until a little piece of trivial information gave Erica the very thing she was looking for, an opportunity, if only she could pull it off.  It was ambitious but she was ambitious by nature, and determined.

 

Chapter Text

It all came about when, late in the afternoon, they had to cross the river they had been following for most of the day.  Erica had been looking for the bridge, she was desperate for it truth be told.  She was tired, her back ached, her feet ached and she wanted nothing more than to get into camp and collapse.  Instead Franky stopped where two wires were strung across the water.  Erica hoped they didn’t have to swing across the water monkey style because she thought that could only end in disaster for her.  While she had these thoughts Franky pulled on one of the wires and this released a previously unnoticed pontoon that was resting on the other bank.  “This is novel,” Erica commented as the first of the group pulled themselves across to the other side.

 

“Yeah, the resort put it in a few years ago, luckily,” Franky added, “it cuts off about five kilometres for us,” she told her.

 

Erica only registered one of Franky’s words.  “What resort?”

 

“There’s one of those eco-resorts here,” Franky said as she began to pull the pontoon back.

 

“As in a place where you can stay, in a bed?” Erica clarified.

 

“Yeah,” Franky  replied.  

 

“How far away is it?” Erica asked curiously.

 

“Ah, dunno, about a k or so I think,” Franky was concentrating on holding the pontoon steady while everyone clamoured on board.

 

“That’s not far,” Erica murmured.  All the weariness she had been carrying fell away as a plan began to form in her head.

 

Once she was at camp she went and spoke to Dan.  She would need his help if she was going to pull this off.  “Where exactly is this resort?” She opened with.

 

It turned out it was less than a kilometre away, back up the river, hidden amongst the trees.  Instead of putting up her tent, she went and spoke to Liz and then Bea.  They also had a part to play.  

 

Next she went for a walk up the river.  She found the resort, walked in the entry and up to the reception desk.  “I need a room,” she told the young receptionist, “one night.” She slapped down her credit card.

 

“Do you have a reservation?”  The woman asked immediately.

 

“No,” Erica hoped this wasn’t going to be a problem.

 

“We only have the luxury suite left,” she said after a moment.  “It has a king size bed, a spa and a kitchenette.  It is $545 a night.” 

 

Erica almost balked at the price.  “Does that include breakfast?”

 

The receptionist looked at her screen.  “Yes,” she said after a moment.

 

“I’ll take it.”

 

She would never had paid such an exorbitant price if she had been choosing a getaway for her and Mark.  But fuck it, it was her hard earned cash and Franky was worth it, she decided.  She took the key.  “Just a couple of other things,” she said to the receptionist.

 

She headed back to the camp with a feeling of anticipation.  Her plans were falling into place.  She just needed Franky.

 

Franky was helping Will patch a tear in his tent.  She waited impatiently for her to finish and stepped into her path the moment she walked away.

 

“Hi,” she said, a little breathless with excitement, “do you have a minute?”

 

Franky cocked her head to one side and crossed her arms against her chest.  “So now you wanna talk to me?”  She said.

 

“Actually I have a surprise for you,” Erica offered, “interested?”

 

Franky laughed.  “Ah yeah, course.”

 

“Then come with me,” Erica held out her hand.

 

Franky hesitated.  “Is this going to take long?” She asked, “only I’ve gotta start dinner soon.” She sounded apologetic.

 

“No you don’t,” Erica said airily.  “Dan is on dinner duty tonight.”

 

“Dan can’t cook,” Franky said.  It seemed to Erica that Franky had some trouble giving up control.  

 

“Franky,” Erica began gently, “all he has to do is rehydrate some stuff and put it on a plate.  It will be fine.”

 

“Trust me, Dan could even bugger that up,” Franky grumbled, “you’ll see what I mean when the shepherds pie turns into a soup.”

 

“We’re not eating here,” was all Erica said in response.

 

“Huh?  Where are we eating then?”  Franky’s curiosity took over.

 

“You’ll see,” Erica said with a smile, thoroughly enjoying herself.  “Right now we are going for a pleasant stroll along the river.  Is that okay with you?”

 

Franky shrugged, “I’m in your hands,” she said, holding up their entwined fingers to prove it.

 

It was a pleasant walk in the late afternoon under the shade of the trees without the weight of her backpack and with Franky by her side.  “Are you going to tell me what’s going on in that head of yours?”  Franky asked, breaking the silence, her tone inviting.

 

“I -“ she paused, unwilling to deny there was anything at all going on up there.  “Vera thinks I’m distracting you,” she offered, it was probably the easier conversation.

 

“Well you are,” Franky agreed immediately.

 

“Really?”  Erica hadn’t realised Franky was quite so distracted by her.

 

“I’m never sure whether you’re going to fall off the side of a cliff,” the guide said lightly.

 

“Oh,” Erica felt disappointed, “well I don’t want you to fall off a cliff because of me,” she said a little tartly.

 

“I keep telling you that’s not going to happen,” Franky grinned, pulling Erica in for a kiss.  

 

“You fell down a shaft,” Erica pointed out.

 

Franky laughed.  “You got me,” she raised her hands in defeat.  “So what’s this surprise?  I hope it involves getting our clothes off, or real coffee,” she added as an after thought.

 

Erica laughed at the unexpectedness of Franky’s second desire.  “One definitely and possibly both.”

 

“Good,” Franky said in response and she tucked Erica into her side, flinging her arm possessively over her shoulder, holding her close.

 

“You know since this thing between us began, my one regret has been,” she felt rather than saw Franky’s concern at her words, “that there is never enough time.  I want us to spend some time together without distractions.”  She looked at Franky.  “Call me selfish but I don’t want you at everyone’s beck and call.  I want your undivided attention, and I want hot, loud, unfettered sex.”  Franky’s grin grew wider with each of Erica’s demands.  “When I heard there was a resort nearby, I thought we could have all those things.”

 

“You’ve booked a room at the resort?” Franky asked with a surprised smile.  “I heard it costs a bomb.” 

 

Erica could see the building through the trees.  “I think it will be worth it.”

 

The resort was actually a collection of seperate buildings nestled into the bush.  Their luxury suite was about a five minute walk from the main building.  An enormous bed dominated the space but there was also a small kitchen space with a table and a couple of chairs.  Behind a wall was the bathroom which, as promised, contained a spa bath that looked out onto nature.  

 

While Franky explored Erica went into the bathroom and began to fill the spa.  She found bath crystals and tossed them in for good measure.  She went back into the main room to find Franky examining the contents of the kitchen.  “No scotch,” she told her but I did find this in the fridge.”  She waved a bottle of champagne.

 

It seemed strange to see Franky indoors, dressed in her customary guiding outfit.  For some reason she thought Franky might look out of place and uncomfortable.  It was a relief to Erica that she seemed as at home here as the outdoors.  Mentally she shook herself.  It wasn’t as though Franky didn’t have a life outside of her guiding, she reminded herself, it was just that Erica had purposely chosen not to think about it.  Well, except for the fantasy life she had been weaving in her mind.

 

“What do you think?” Erica asked. 

 

Franky was eyeing the bed.  “It looks too clean for us,” she said with a laugh.

 

“You’re right,” Erica agreed, “which is why,” she pushed Franky’s long sleeve shirt off her shoulders and let it fall to the ground.  “We need to get you out of these clothes.”

 

“That’s a bit forward,” Franky teased but she obligingly raised her arms so Erica could remove her sleeveless top.  Her arm brushed against Franky’s breast now only encased in a sports bra and she felt the thrill of anticipation.

 

She slid her fingers down Franky’s stomach and locked them into the waist of her shorts.  “And these,” she directed, undoing the button and unzipping the fly.  She slid her hands around Franky’s hips to her butt and slid the shorts down to her ankles.

 

“I like you pushy,” Franky said with a smile in her voice.  “Maybe you could handle something else while you’re down there.”  Erica’s face was at the height of Franky’s underwear.

 

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Erica replied, “boots.”

 

She unlaced them and Franky swapped legs, placing her fingers on Erica’s shoulder for balance as she lifted first one leg then the another so Erica could remove her boots and socks.  Now she stood in front of Erica in just her underwear.

 

Erica took a moment to admire her.  It wasn’t sexy lingerie but on Franky, her black boy shorts and colourful sports bra, did things to Erica.  It was the suggestion of strength in her toned figure, the practicality of the clothing combined with her feminine curves.  She wondered if Franky could be anymore appealing wearing heels and a sexy dress.

 

She hooked a finger under the waist of Franky’s underwear.  “These too I’m afraid,” she instructed.  She was actually thoroughly enjoying herself.  Franky’s bemused look was priceless.  “I need your clothes,” she couldn’t help adding.

 

“I was kinda hoping you needed -“ 

 

Erica cut her off.  “Clothes, then I want you in the spa,” she said.

 

“Finally,” Franky smirked as she wriggled out of her last few items of clothing.  “You can have me anywhere, you know that right?”

 

Erica scooped up Franky’s clothes and put them in a bag.  “Don’t forget the champagne,” she added as an after thought.  Franky was ahead of her though, finding glasses in the cupboard and tucking the champagne bottle under her arm.

 

Erica heard Franky turn on the spa jets.  She stripped quickly, putting her clothes in the bag as well.  She was eager to finish so she could join Franky.  She almost ignored the voice in her head telling her to check the pockets but old habits die hard.  She turned back and checked the pockets of Franky’s shorts but there was nothing hiding in them.  She almost didn’t check her own clothes.  She rarely put things in her pockets.  She had forgotten about the photo she had picked up on the floor of the shaft.  She pulled it out of the back pocket and looked at it, curious again for a moment, then tossed it on the table, her interest overridden by her desire to join Franky.

 

She walked into the bathroom to find Franky vanishing beneath a mountain of bubbles.  “Shit!  Are you alive in there?” She asked with a gurgle of laughter.

 

“Barely, I’ve kayaked grade 5 rapids but I’m drowning here,” Franky confessed.  She waved the champagne bottle above the bubbles.  “I’ve saved the champers though.”

 

Erica felt a moment of unadulterated joy.  The situation was ridiculous and Franky’s carefree amusement at her own predicament was pleasurable to witness.  “Thank goodness,” she replied.  

 

She slipped into the warm aerated water, letting it gather and hold her, its touch sensual.  Carving a clear passage through the suds with her hands, she found Franky lounging comfortably across from her, elbows resting on the edge of the bath, fingers trailing through the suds, hair wearing suds like an adornment, eyes sparkling.  “Hello,” she said as she slid into Franky’s personal space.  She kissed her leisurely, manoeuvring herself so she was sitting in Franky’s lap, her arms draped lightly around her shoulders.

 

“I think I’m going to enjoy this surprise,” Franky said when they finally broke apart.

 

“Let’s have some champagne,” Erica suggested.  She reached past Franky to grab the bottle and gasped as she felt a warm tongue lick her nipple.

 

“Champagne can’t taste better than that,” Franky said with a satisfied grin.

 

“What if you were licking the champagne off my nipples?” Erica asked.

 

Franky’s expression told her it was something the guide hadn’t thought of but was definitely up for.  She popped the cork old school style.  It hit the ceiling and landed somewhere in the foam.  She poured a glass and handed it to Franky then poured one for herself.   They touched glasses.  “To a night full of surprises,” Erica toasted.  She took a sip.  It was good champagne, dry and light on the tongue.  She had chosen well.

 

“To us,” Franky raised her glass then tipped her head back finishing her glass in three mouthfuls.  “Have some more,” she encouraged Erica, kissing her quickly before she could swallow so their tongues tingled with bubbles as they made out.  Somehow champagne did end up on her breasts and Franky spent time ensuring she licked it all off.  Erica was thoroughly turned on by the end of it.  She slipped her fingers between them as her other hand held Franky’s jaw as she kissed her.  The water pulsed around her, arousing her.  Her fingers continued down between Franky’s thighs until they grazed her clit.  

She heard Franky groan into her mouth and kiss her more urgently.  She found Franky’s opening was moist and slid first one then two fingers in.  Her palm pressed against her clit and continued to rub it.  She saw the cork float by out of the corner of her eye and it gave her an idea. Her ring finger pressed gently into Franky’s other opening.  She felt Franky’s thighs lift slightly to push against her fingers.  She increased the pressure until Franky grabbed her hips and began thrusting until water splashed over the side and Erica had to grab the edge of the bath to keep herself from loosing her balance.  Franky was gasping and rolling her hips so Erica went deeper, furiously rubbing her clit until Franky cried out and pulled Erica closer while she rode out the powerful orgasm.  She had climaxed much more quickly than Erica had expected.  She wasn’t even sure she had found Franky’s g spot.  It told Erica something.  Sometimes Erica learnt something about fucking a woman but sometimes what she learnt was pure Franky.  “You liked that,” she whispered in her ear then kissed her.  

 

“Yeah,” Franky muttered against her mouth, “again,” she demanded as her tongue sought Erica’s, “but harder.”  Erica was only too happy to oblige.  

 

When the water had cooled someone knocked at the door of the suite.  “Hungry?” Erica asked her.

 

“Starving,” Franky admitted.

 

“Then let’s eat,” she suggested.  

 

They helped to dry each other then Erica handed Franky a white fluffy bath robe and slipped one around herself.  When they entered the main part of the suite, the small table was set and beautifully presented dishes sat at each place.  The lights had been lowered and a candle flickered on the table catching the liquid in the two wine glasses.  There were warm bread rolls on side plates with little pots of whipped butter beside them.  Franky raised her eyebrows and Erica had a moment of doubt.  “Is this all right?”  She asked.

 

“It’s almost perfect,” Franky said then as Erica’s brow creased into a slight frown, she smiled reassuringly.  “Much as I like seeing you dressed only in a bathrobe that slips alluringly at times,” Franky murmured as she slid her hands around Erica’s waist.  “I think you would look pretty amazing in a little black dress with your hair up just now.” Her breath warmed Erica’s neck and she kissed her lightly.  

 

Erica shivered although the night was warm and Franky’s embrace welcoming.  “As would you,” she replied and heard Franky chuckle. “You would,” she insisted.  

 

“Well, if you go out to dinner with me back in the city, I might give you a treat and wear a dress,” Franky challenged with a grin.

 

“I might take you up on that,” Erica replied with a smile of her own.

 

And with that possibility floating enticingly in their future, they sat down to an intimate candle-lit dinner.

Chapter Text

“So,” Franky leant forward, elbows resting on the small table.  The remains of their meal had been relocated to the small bench.  Her green eyes were mesmerising the way they glowed in the candlelight and were focussed completely on Erica.  “You have my undivided attention,” she said. 

 

Erica could feel it all the way down to her toes.  Franky’s interest, her attention, sent excited quivers through her nervous system.  No one had ever had this effect on her.  She wanted to bask in Franky’s warm regard.  The rational part of her mind knew it was ridiculous that one person could affect her like this.  She felt like she was falling and weightless at the same time.  Her body craved Franky’s touch like someone starved of physical intimacy.  The feeling was so intense she moved her hand to rest on Franky’s and this steadied her.

 

“Yes,” she breathed softly and she saw Franky smile in response.  It was such a wide, engaging, attractive smile with those dimples and that sparkle in her eyes.  Erica wondered just how far she’d be willing to go to win that smile.

 

“So, what now?”  Franky prompted.

 

The truth was Erica didn’t really have any plans beyond sex and sleeping.

 

“Ice cream,” she suggested, then she remembered Franky’s earlier wish, “or coffee,” she offered.

 

Was it possible for Franky’s smile to get any wider?

 

“I’m voting coffee,” she said immediately, “wouldn’t want you falling asleep on me,” she teased.

 

The little kitchenette had a mini espresso machine.  Franky insisted on making the coffees despite Erica’s protests that it was her surprise.  Her cappuccino was surprisingly good.  Franky had found some complimentary dark chocolates and grated one with a fruit knife, adding it to the top of the foam.  It looked professional.  Erica made a comment to that effect.

 

“Did a stint in a cafe once,” Franky told her with a dismissive shrug as she sipped her own expresso.

 

Erica nodded.  “Is that how you got into cooking?”

 

“I guess,” Franky contemplated, “the menu sucked, and they were losing business.  I really needed the job so I told the manager I could create a better menu.  I had loads of ideas and he let me experiment.”

 

Erica could imagine Franky, with her creativity and enthusiasm, thriving in an environment where she was given the autonomy to show what she could do.

 

“What about you?” Franky asked, “you said you got into law because of your father but why the prison gig?”

 

Erica thought about her reasons.  “I wanted to help those women.  I thought I could make a difference to their lives.”

 

“And did you?”

 

Erica sighed.  It wasn’t a question that was easy to answer.  “I discovered it wasn’t as straightforward as that.”  She gave Franky a resigned smile.

 

The younger woman leant forward, her smile in comparison was mischievous.  “If I’d ended up in prison we might have met anyway,” she speculated, “I would have been this hot prisoner with smarts and you wouldn’t have been able to resist me.” 

 

As Erica watched Franky’s genuine amusement she couldn’t help but agree.  If she had met Franky in prison, she suspected her career would have been short lived. “Somehow I don’t think you would have been too good at following orders,” she reflected drily.

 

Franky laughed.  “With my wit and charm, I’d have been running the show,” she scoffed.  “We would have made out in my cell,” her eyes danced, “and I would have handcuffed you to my bed and fucked you until you were begging.”

 

Erica squirmed at the image of Franky dominating her like that. “I didn’t have handcuffs,” was all she said but she bit her bottom lip giving herself away.  

 

“Pity,” Franky replied, her eyes suddenly intent upon Erica’s lips.  The atmosphere shifted and Erica was no longer interested in finishing her coffee.  “Come here,” Franky commanded softly.

 

Erica groaned with pleasure as she sank into the soft mattress, Franky’s weight pushing her into its plush covers.  Maybe a week without a bed had influenced her response, she admitted to herself, maybe having Franky in the bed with her skewed her perspective as well but this had to be the most comfortable bed she had ever been in.

 

Franky’s hands were undoing the strap of her bath robe then sliding up and over her breasts while her mouth was hot against her stomach.  Erica relaxed into the sensations as her body responded to her attentions.  Franky was murmuring something and Erica had to concentrate to hear her words.

 

“...what did you wear when you were Governor?  A uniform?” She pushed the robe off Erica’s shoulders, helping her divest herself of the restrictive garment.  “Fuck, you’re beautiful,” she stated with awe.

 

“No,” Erica somehow managed to reply, “just regular clothes.”

 

“Heels?  A skirt?” Franky sounded like she was painting a picture in her mind.  “I bet your arse looks amazing in a tight skirt,” she muttered as her mouth found Erica’s and she kissed her deeply.  “I would have watched you inspect us prisoners in your tight skirt and fancy heels with your hair up teasing us with this neck,” she continued, kissing the slender neck in question, “and I’d be thinking about pushing up that skirt so I could slip my fingers into your silk undies.”

 

Franky paused to shrug off her own robe then naked continued her attentions.  By the time she resumed her commentary Erica was almost delirious with desire.  “Or maybe I’d surprise you, and shove you against a wall, take you from behind, in your office while your secretary worked outside.  Yeah, that’s hot,” she decided.

 

Erica loved how Franky used talking as a kind of foreplay.  She would plant images in Erica’s mind and have her thoroughly soaked with want.  Now she was getting desperate for Franky to touch her in the one place where she hadn’t yet ventured.  “Franky,” she pleaded.

 

Franky, it seemed, was lost in her own little fantasy.  “Maybe you’d want me to do you on your chair with a strap on.” 

 

Erica shivered with the thought and wondered if she would climax without Franky even touching her clitoris.  

 

Franky’s hands hitched up Erica’s legs so she could kiss the soft flesh of her inside thighs, her fingers digging into her flesh, creating the contrast between pleasure and pain which Erica enjoyed so much.  

 

“Or maybe I’d push you against your desk, rip off your underwear and do this.”  Franky’s tongue ran down the length of her.  Erica gasped at the sudden contact.  She didn’t even know it was possible to be this turned on.  Franky had stopped talking, now intent on driving Erica crazy with her tongue as it lapped up her juices and teased her clit.  She melted into the mattress, all coherent thought dissipating as Franky’s tongue worked her into a frenzy.  Her hands found the headboard and she grasped it as her hips lifted off the mattress to give Franky better access.  Franky’s tongue was inside her and immediately found her g spot.  Erica cried out and thrust wantonly against Franky’s tongue.  God, she needed more.  She wanted Franky’s fist inside her if that was possible.  “I need you to...”

 

But Franky seemed to know exactly what she needed.  She replaced her tongue with her fingers and began pumping them furiously, then began massaging her clit with each pass, until Erica couldn’t hold off any longer.  She felt her climax building and then explode, flowing through her, longer and more intense because for once they weren’t constrained by circumstance.  Franky took her through one then another and a third orgasm before Erica finally was spent.  

 

“Oh God you are so good at that,” Erica told Franky when she was capable of speaking.  

 

“Glad you think so,” Franky replied with a cocky grin.  She had crawled up the bed and was lying next to Erica.  “You were my muse though so you should take some of the credit.”  She rolled over onto her stomach, leaning on her elbows, so she could see Erica.  “I don’t reckon I’d have done as well if I wasn’t so shamelessly gone on you.”

 

“Oh really?” Erica said, sounding pleased at the confession.

 

“Yeah,” Franky confirmed, planting a kiss on her bare shoulder.  Her legs swung in the air behind her and one banged against Erica’s propped knee.  She smiled at her.  “Totally gone,” she added.  She stared at Erica, green eyes pensive.

 

“What is it?”

 

“I don’t really want this hike to end,” she confessed.  “I’ve only known you for eight days but,” she paused.

 

“But what?” Erica asked softly.

 

“I don’t want you to go back to your fiancé.” Franky’s eyes darkened.  “Crazy huh,” she smiled wryly.

 

Erica wondered if this was what being brave was.  Speaking your hopes out loud, risking them being laughed at, denied or just unfulfilled.  She wasn’t laughing though and she didn’t want to deny Franky her wish but neither could she give her what she clearly wanted to hear.  “Well maybe I won’t, now I’ve seen how you clean up,” she said lightly.  It was the best she could offer.  

 

Maybe it had been enough as Franky’s eyes lightened with her answer.  She leaned forward slightly.  “I had sex with guys for ages coz that’s what I thought I had to do,” she admitted, sounding devastatingly sincere, “it was okay, but something was missing, then I fucked a woman,” she smiled wryly.  “I’d been getting it wrong for years.”  She was focussed intently on Erica communicating something with those compelling eyes.  Erica thought she knew why Franky had decided to share that information with her.  It was okay to get it wrong and then change track when you realised.  It was okay to take the other road.  The way Franky was looking at her was making her feel more exposed than her nakedness ever would, as though Franky knew her soul.  It was disturbing as much as it was powerful.

 

Erica rolled onto her side towards Franky.  “So if you have it in you,” she began, looking to distract, “I have one more surprise, well more of a request really,” she clarified.

 

Franky raised her eyebrows and gave an exaggerated look of askance.  “And what might that be, Miss Davidson?”

 

Erica couldn’t help smiling.  “Top drawer, your side,” was all she said.

 

Franky rolled onto her back then her side so she faced away from Erica who admired the well defined shoulder blades and toned butt on display.  She ran her hand lightly along Franky’s side to her hip and back again, indulging herself.  Meanwhile Franky had pulled out the contents of the drawer and was looking at it curiously.  “I don’t get it,” she said at last, tossing the small bible over her shoulder.

 

“What?” Erica exclaimed, “not that!  Isn’t there anything else in there?”  She leaned over Franky, reaching into the drawer itself and pulling out some silk scarves.  “These,” she said.

 

“What are those for?” Franky asked with a cheeky grin, as though she knew exactly what they were for.  She rolled over and grabbed one, draping it quickly around her neck and across one boob.  “Dress ups?”

 

“Tie ups actually,” Erica corrected her.

 

“Ooh,  now you’re just teasing,” Franky said with delight, she studied Erica, “you seriously want me to tie you up?” She sought to confirm with a more considered expression.

 

“Yes,” Erica said breathlessly.  “Is that okay with you?”

 

Franky smiled and kissed her.  “Totally,” she murmured.  

 

Erica looked to the headboard and saw three small convenient wooden railings at the centre of the bed.  She smiled.

 

Franky sat up and took the scarf from around her neck and trailed it down Erica’s body.  The material felt light and sensual against her skin.  Franky took one ankle, caressed it softly, then looped the scarf around it and tied it off.  She quickly did the same with her other leg, nudging Erica’s legs apart leaving her exposed and vulnerable.  Erica tested the bonds and found them secure but with enough give that she could lift her knees somewhat.  Franky crawled up the bed and took both Erica’s arms above her head and secured those to the headboard.  Erica was now naked and bound.  Her breathing had become ragged and she saw her chest heaving as she took in air.  She had given up complete control to Franky, put all her trust in her, she could do anything to her. It excited Erica beyond anything she had ever experienced.

 

She watched Franky watching her and licked her lips in anticipation.  

 

Then Franky got up and moved away from the bed and Erica felt a moment of panic.  “Where are you going?” She asked breathlessly.  She lost sight of her but heard her moving about in the kitchenette.  For a split second she thought Franky had left her to do the dishes.  “Franky?”

 

A moment later Franky returned with a tub of ice cream in her hand and a spoon.  “Ice cream, ice cream, we all love ice cream,” she sang under her breath.  She dug out a spoonful and made a show of eating it off the spoon.  Erica watched mesmerised.  “Mm chocolate, good choice,” she told Erica.  “Want some?” She offered a spoonful to Erica who just nodded, unsure what would happen next.

 

Franky climbed onto the bed and straddled her.  She leant down and kissed Erica, tasting of chocolate ice cream.  Erica sucked some of it off Franky’s tongue. “Say please,” Franky instructed.

 

“Please,” Erica replied obediently.  The ice cream was cold and smooth and delicious on her tongue.  She closed her eyes and let it melt in her mouth, savouring it.  A small amount escaped and she licked her lip to catch it.  Franky kissed her again, their lips and tongues coated in the sweet creamy substance.

 

Franky moved lower so she was straddling her thighs.  “You’re so hot,” Franky said, “I reckon you’d melt this ice cream in an instant.”

 

“You wouldn’t,” Erica declared as she suddenly had an insight to what Franky had planned for her.  She watched Franky dig out another spoonful and saw the glee in Franky’s eyes.

 

“Wouldn’t I?” She asked with raised eyebrows and an impish smile.  

 

Franky dropped it on Erica’s stomach, who immediately squealed and bucked against the icy cold sensation.  Franky watched her writhing, and her nipples hardened in response.  She leant down and smeared the melting blob up and over Erica’s nipples.  

 

“Oh Jesus!” Erica pulled at her restraints but to no avail.  It was so fucking cold against her sensitive, aroused nipples she couldn’t stand it.  She closed her eyes. “Franky,” she pleaded.  Then she felt a tongue slide over her nipple and Franky licked and sucked until she had captured all the melting ice cream. And as she did Erica melted into her touch.  She had never experienced anything like the intensity of Franky’s warm mouth contrasting with the icy effect of the ice cream.

 

She felt sticky and it wasn’t just from the ice cream.  Franky was lying between her thighs happily lapping up the residue on her stomach.  She must have discarded the tub and spoon because her fingers were fondling her breasts.

 

Erica pulled down tentatively on her bonds and felt them tighten further cutting her circulation.  Handcuffs would hurt more, she thought, but these would suffice.  She was completely at Franky’s whim, bound as she was, and it excited her.  The thought that Franky could do anything to her, would do anything, had her squirming against Franky’s abdomen in an effort to get some friction and take the edge of her excitement.

 

Franky must have noticed her less than covert attempts because she looked up and grinned lazily.  “Gettin’ a bit impatient?”  She reached for Erica’s hip and slowly pushed her thumb into the bone until Erica’s breath hitched.  “Wanna be punished, do ya?” she grinned, deceptively relaxed.

 

Erica’s breathing became ragged at the suggestion.  She wished she’d had more time to organise some toys but her options had been limited given the last minute arrangements.  Her eyes moved away from Franky to the candle still flickering  on the table.  It was something she’d had a curiosity about ever since her visit to The Velvet Curtain.  She’d never bothered suggesting it to Mark after he had baulked at pulling her hair.

 

“The candle,” she rasped, her voice thick with desire.  Franky’s own eyes lit up with anticipation.  She pulled herself up and walked over to the table.  Erica felt her absence immediately.  The cool air which filled the void where Franky had been told her just how wet she was.  She felt more vulnerable lying tied to the bed without Franky’s assured presence.  She realised just how comfortable she felt with the younger woman being in control in the bedroom.  She watched Franky’s lithe form as she prowled like a panther, smooth and sleek and surprisingly graceful.  Her form so slender and feminine with its curves.  She would never tire of admiring it.  When she returned carrying the candle, Erica felt excitement gather and pool low.  She wanted this.  She wanted Franky to torture her with the heat of that candle wax and then pleasure her.

 

The first drop had her arching off the bed as it burned the sensitive skin above her belly button.  The pain filled her mind until another sensation pushed through as Franky’s warm, soft tongue soothed her.  She gasped at contrast, revelling in it, feeling its effects much lower.  Closing her eyes seemed to magnify the effect as she had no idea when the silent searing drop would fall.  After a while she did force her eyes open so she could watch the candle to anticipate the next drop.  Franky was watching with fascination as she straddled her hips.  Erica could feel Franky’s own excitement wet against her pelvis.  They were both getting off on this she realised.  She raised her head slightly and could see a riddle of wax across her stomach and chest.

 

Franky felt the movement and looked up from her study.  Her eyes met Erica’s and in that moment they were completely in sync then Franky leant forward and grabbed her jaw kissing her urgently.  Erica could feel the pent up excitement, the contained power simmering beneath the surface of that kiss.  She felt the thrill of it like a lightning bolt pulsing through her throbbing clit.  Franky’s hands slid down her torso, scraping at the tender flesh until they found her soft folds where they slid into dripping mess Erica had become.  She was so close to coming and knew the slightest pressure would push her over.  Franky moved so she was on top of her, her legs between Erica’s legs, her mouth on Erica’s, her fingers buried inside Erica’s pussy, fucking her.  Erica realised she was trembling and clenching on Franky’s fingers and then exploding like a supernova.

 

She woke at some point during the night, sticky and caked with dried wax.  It was dark even though she didn’t remember turning off the lights.  She wondered how late it was.  The last thing she remembered was she had insisted on making Franky feel as good as she was feeling.  She had still been bound with Franky kneeling above her as she ate her out. She smiled at the memory of Franky losing control, of her declaration.

 

Despite the size of the bed, Franky was tucked into her side with an arm draped across her.  The sheet was tangled hopelessly between them and the doona had been discarded at some point.  Franky’s presence was welcome and Erica nestled her rear and back into her warmth.  Franky murmured something in her sleep which Erica couldn’t make out.  She smiled feeling dangerously content.  The only good thing about tomorrow, she decided sleepily, was that Franky would feature in it.  It was her last thought before falling into a deep and dreamless sleep. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Erica woke and stretched.  It was then that she realised she wasn’t on the hard ground, snug in a sleeping bag, protected from the elements by only a flimsy piece of nylon.  She was in a bed.

 

Her sigh of pleasure evaporated when she realised that meant she was back in Melbourne.  Just then Mark’s knee jammed into her lower back and she grunted in pain.  The hike had been just a dream, some fanciful escape from her existing reality.  Which meant the good looking guide, who lingered clearly in her mind, was also just some subconscious invention.  Of course she was just a figment of her imagination, no one like that could actually exist.  Erica kept her eyes closed, hoping to return to sleep and her dreams.  She always woke up during the good bits, she complained to herself, and this time the last thing she remembered was being tied to the bed with her imaginary female lover fucking her.  Just thinking about it was creating an unfulfilled yearning and she rolled onto her stomach and pressed herself into the mattress in the hope she could get some relief.  It wasn’t enough.  She shifted her legs slightly apart and, lost in the memory of her vivid dream, thought about slipping her hand between her legs to take the edge off.  She wondered if she could do it without waking Mark.  She didn’t want him, she realised, she wanted her dream lover.  She had even given her a name.  Franky.  She whispered it softly.

 

She must have dozed off again but this time her sleep was dreamless.  She woke a little disappointed.  She heard Mark moving around and had an irrational desire to yell at him.  If he hadn’t woken her she might have been able to reclaim her dream.  Instead she put her pillow over her head in protest and muttered something uncomplimentary.

 

She felt the mattress move as Mark slid into bed.  He kissed her shoulder and Erica decided he must have shaved because she couldn’t feel his stubble scratching her skin.

 

“Morning grumpy,” said a light, laughing, very Franky-like voice.

 

She pulled her head out from under the pillow and opened her eyes to see Franky propped on her elbow, looking down at her indulgently.  “It’s you,” she said a little breathlessly.

 

“Who else were you expecting?” Franky asked.

 

“No one, I had a dream, only it wasn’t a dream,” Erica said, feeling decidedly thankful.  She knew she wasn’t making any sense from the look on Franky’s face.  “I thought you weren’t you but you are,” she smiled with relief and rolled on to her back.

 

“Shit, glad we cleared that up,” Franky replied, smiling in return.  Her green eyes twinkling with amusement.

 

“Me too,” Erica said softly, she reached out and stroked Franky’s very smooth jawline.

 

“I hate to break it to you,” Franky continued, “but we have to move our sorry arses if we are going to catch up with the group.  Reality bites.”

 

“All right,” Erica agreed, thinking this reality was so much better than the one she thought she had woken up to a few minutes ago.

 

“Only prob is,” Franky looked bemused, “we haven’t got any clothes.”

 

It took Erica a moment to catch on.  “Oh, I asked them to clean them overnight. They’ll probably turn up with breakfast.”

 

“So, what should we do in the meantime?” Franky asked suggestively, her fingers curled around Erica’s waist under the covers.  “You’re sticky,” she told her.

 

“I need a shower,” Erica replied, trying not to react to the light swirls Franky was drawing with her fingertips on her stomach.

 

“Dirty, dirty, dirty,” Franky murmured as she pushed the covers aside to expose Erica’s breasts and midriff.  She trailed a finger down between her breasts then bent her head down to kiss what might have been a freckle or equally a forgotten drop of chocolate ice cream.

 

Erica put her hand on Franky’s hair.  “Want to join me in the shower?” She invited and Franky looked up eagerly.

 

She slid out from under Franky and stood up, stretching her fingertips to the ceiling, feeling everything realign.  She looked over her shoulder to see Franky ogling her naked rear unashamedly.  “Only in the interests of saving time,” she added with an innocent smile.

 

“Yeah, that,” she heard Franky agree as she scrambled off the bed with ridiculous haste.

 

The shower had no door.  Erica turned on the water and a cold, hard spray assaulted her skin.  She quickly took hold of the shower head and directed it at Franky, who swore and tried to avoid the icy needles that were stabbing unrelentingly.  “This is for all the times you had a laugh at my expense,” Erica called over the noise of the spray.  She backed Franky into the corner and deliberately soaked her.  “Remember those?”  She asked.

 

“Fuck!” Franky gasped, and she tried to grab the shower head to redirect it in Erica’s direction.  Water was now hitting both of them equally and as Erica attempted to retreat, Franky found the temperature control and adjusted it.  Immediately there was warm water cascading over them.  “I would have thought you’d have had enough of cold water dips.” Franky said, keeping her hand on the temperature control to stop Erica mounting another attack.

 

“Maybe I like it,” Erica said and she could see Franky hadn’t considered that.  She reattached the shower head to its adjustable mount.

 

“Well I like it hot,” Franky told her as the steam rose between them.  Her wet hair was plastered to her face and she pushed it away.

 

Erica suddenly cupped her face and kissed her hungrily.  The idea Franky might just be a figment of her imagination still resonated.  She felt Franky’s tight buds slide against her own.  It felt real and good and right.  She knew in that moment, whatever happened with Franky, her relationship with Mark was over.

 

“I will,” she murmured against Franky’s lips, “I will leave Mark.”

 

They were incredibly late getting away.  They dallied in the shower, over the breakfast of ricotta pancakes with caramelised banana and fresh berries, and finally over coffee.

 

Erica was smiling at Franky as she sipped her cappuccino.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Franky asked curiously.

 

“I think I’ve worked you out, Franky Doyle,” she said a little smugly.

 

“Yeah?  What’s my favourite thing then?” Franky challenged her.

 

“Plunging necklines and push up bras?” Erica suggested with a smile.

 

Franky grinned.  “Actually hot girls in hot cars, although those are good too,” she replied, “so what else?”

 

“Lying down and watching the stars,” Erica said confidently.

 

“Okay,” she acknowledged, “and?”

 

Liz’s comment on the first day came back to her.  “Drinking in bars!”

 

Franky laughed, “You got me,” she conceded, leaning across the small table and kissing her.

 

Once they had pulled on their fresh smelling, incredibly clean hiking gear, they were at last ready to go.  Erica paused.  “I’ll just do a last look around in case we’ve forgotten anything.”

 

“We only brought the clothes we were wearing,” Franky pointed out, “how could we possibly have forgotten anything?”

 

So Erica skipped the final check and they closed the door on their little escape.  It was something she would later regret.  There was no one at the campsite when they returned.  Their packs were propped against a tree waiting for them.

 

“We’ll catch them up,” Franky said as she swung her pack onto her shoulders and secured the straps.

 

Erica didn’t care particularly if that took all day.  She was content to have Franky to herself for a bit longer.  She picked up her own pack efficiently and realised how proficient she had become.  The fifteen kilo pack now felt normal as though it belonged on her back.  They filled up their water bottles at the river, sterilising it with a Steripen, then followed the way their group had gone a few hours before.

 

The day passed uneventfully.  A cool change had come through dropping the temperature and hiding the sun behind cloud for most of the day.  A wind had sprung up so Erica put up her hair to stop it flying loose and into her face.  Franky set a good pace, keen to rejoin the group, and Erica found she had to concentrate to keep up.  She was so focussed on where she was putting her feet, she almost ran into Franky who had stopped suddenly.  She had turned around so she facing Erica.

 

“What?” Erica looked past Franky, and if she was being honest, she thought there must have been a snake ahead given the expression on Franky’s face.

 

“So for this dinner,” she began with.

 

“The hypothetical one where you might wear a dress, you mean?” Erica asked.

 

“Yeah, that one,” Franky grinned at her as though fully appreciative of Erica’s teasing.  “Hypothetically,” she continued with a slight emphasis making Erica smile.  “What‘s your favourite food?”

 

“My favourite food,” Erica made a point of careful contemplation, “you know,” she said after a long pause, “I think it’s dehydrated.” She answered with a smile.

 

Franky laughed.  “Come on, I’m trying to pick just the right restaurant for our hypothetical dinner,” she complained.

 

Erica knew just the right restaurant.  She had spent the last hour working out all the details of their dinner date.  The only problem was this was Franky’s date, her invitation, her idea, her choice.  It wasn’t for Erica to dictate the location, the food, the atmosphere.

 

“You’ll pick right,” she answered instead and in that instant she knew Franky would.  It wouldn’t be anything she was expecting or anything she would have chosen but it would be perfect.  She smiled.  “And I’ll love it.”

 

Franky was obviously delighted by her response, and it was in moments like these that Erica caught a glimpse of a young Franky, eager to please and desperate for appreciation in return.

 

In that moment it was as though a light bulb switched on and she realised who the girl was in the photo.  The girl with the long dark hair and the wide innocent smile, looking straight into the camera with hope and happiness, clasping the hand of the father she adored, was Franky.  She let out a soft exclamation and reached into the back pocket of her shorts only to realise the photo wasn’t there.  She’d taken it out and put it on the table and then had lost track of it.  Room service had cleared the table to set it for dinner and Erica couldn’t recall seeing the photo again.  “Oh no.”  The words slipped out unnoticed.

 

Erica looked at the back of Franky’s head as she walked ahead of her with a sinking heart.  How could she have been so careless?  But she knew how.  She had been distracted by the thought of Franky naked in the spa, and in her eagerness to enjoy their time together she had been careless.  Then this morning she had been distracted again so instead of checking for forgotten items she had let Franky rush her out the door.  Mentally she kicked herself, wishing she had remembered about the photo just once.  Then she had an idea.  If she could ring the resort then they could look for the photo and post it to Franky.

 

She stopped walking, dropped her pack and dug around inside looking for her phone.  Eventually her fingers wrapped around it but when she drew it out and switched it on, there was no signal.  She waved it in the air but to no avail.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

She saw Franky had paused and was looking at her curiously.  “I need to make a call,” she said, tossing the phone back into her pack.  “Can I use the sat phone?”

 

Franky was looking at her strangely.  “To Mark?”

 

Erica looked at her blankly.  Mark was the last person on her mind.  “No, not to Mark,” she said, then added, “Why would I be making a call to Mark?”

 

Franky shrugged.  “Dunno,” was all she said but Erica could feel the tension in the air.

 

She sighed.  “Can I use the phone?”

 

“No,” Franky said after a moment, “I don’t have it. Bea never gave it back.”  She turned back to the path and headed off again.  Conversation over.

 

Erica swore under her breath.  She picked up her pack and followed Franky.  “I need to ring the resort,” she explained with a sigh.  She was hoping to fix this before she had to confess to Franky she had lost her photo.

 

“Why?”

 

Erica found herself struggling to explain the chronology of events, unusually awkward in her explanation and thankful that Franky continued to walk ahead of her so she didn’t have to see her reaction when she finally confessed to losing the photo.  She waited in silence for Franky’s response.

 

“That’s the only photo I have of my dad,” Franky said eventually.  “That bitch burnt them all in one of her drug induced rages.”

 

“I’m so sorry, Franky,” Erica felt devastated.  “I’ll get it back,” she promised although in that moment she wasn’t sure she could deliver on that.

 

She saw Franky’s shoulders give a slight shrug and she put her hand out to stop her progress, easing her around so they were face to face.  “I can see how important the photo is to you, Franky, and I promise you I will do everything in my power to get it back.”

 

Franky shook her head slightly.  “It’s not like he ever came looking for me, is it?  It’s pretty stupid to be waiting for him to show up, hanging on to that photo just so I’ll recognise his face in a crowd.”

 

Erica’s heart melted at Franky’s words and the look of self reproach on her face.  “It’s not stupid,” she said quietly.  “It’s not stupid to want your dad.”  If anyone understood that it was Erica who had wished for just one more chance to talk to her dad.

 

“It is when he doesn’t want you,” Franky said bitterly.

 

The hike had been forgotten and their idyll as Erica watched Franky truly open up for the first time.  She realised that Franky, for all her openness, did not reveal much of herself.  She laughed, she teased, she was hopeful and honest in that hope but the dark side, the places with wounds that still hurt and refused to heal, that side of herself Franky kept well hidden.

 

“You don’t know that,” Erica said, refusing to acknowledge the truth of what Franky believed.

 

“Who leaves a nine year old girl in the hands of abusive drug addict, huh?”  Erica was silent.  She knew the answer as well as Franky.  “No one who gives a fuck!”

 

Erica wished she could say something to ease the pain of those words, that knowledge.  Instead she cupped Franky’s face in her hands, looked into those unnaturally bright green eyes that were full of loss and resignation, then pulled her into a tight hug.  She wondered how many times Franky had said that to herself.  “Well, it’s his loss,” she murmured, “because you are an amazing woman.”

 

“You reckon?” Franky mumbled into her shoulder.

 

“I do,” Erica confirmed emphatically.  “And I’ll tell him exactly that if I ever meet him.” She added indignantly.  She heard an almost laugh from Franky and was relieved.

 

Eventually she felt Franky relax against her and loosen her hold.  “Where do you think the rest of our motley crew have got to?”  She asked as they separated, bringing the conversation around to lighter matters.

 

By the time they stopped for lunch they still hadn’t caught up with the others.  Franky didn’t indicate she was concerned but Erica thought it was strange.

 

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?”  She joked when she had finished her wrap and cheese and crackers.

 

Franky smiled as she offered Erica a piece of dried mango.  Then as if on cue, before Franky could answer, they heard hurrying footsteps on the path ahead and Liz appeared, breathless and agitated.  “Oh Franky!  Thank God!  Something’s happened!”

 

Chapter Text

Liz had told her story.  It hadn’t been exactly what Erica had expected but it hadn’t been far off either.  She automatically looked to Franky for her instructions.  She was a natural leader and extremely capable.  If anyone could rescue the situation it was Franky.

 

The guide was calmly reassuring Liz that everything would be okay.  Then she proceeded to give them jobs.

 

“Erica, get Liz something to eat while I clean this up.”  Franky was inspecting a gash on the older woman’s arm.  “Liz, I need you to head back to the eco-resort and raise the alarm,” she instructed.

 

“Where is it?” Liz asked anxiously.

 

“Maybe I should go,” Erica suggested, “I’ll be quicker than Liz and I know the way.”

 

“I need you with me,” Franky said immediately, killing the idea swiftly.  She patiently explained which direction the older woman would need to take once she reached their previous night’s camp spot.  “You should be there in another three hours.”

 

“All right,” Liz said, nodding.  She gratefully took the muesli bar Erica offered.

 

Franky cleaned and patched the wound with minimum fuss.  Erica passed Liz her spare water bottle because Liz hadn’t brought anything with her when she had snuck away.  She drank some of the water immediately.  “What are you going to do?”  She asked as she prepared to leave.

 

“Dunno yet,” Franky admitted, “but I’m not waiting around until help arrives, someone could be dead by then.”

 

“Be careful, love,” Liz cautioned.  She looked at Erica.  “Don’t let her do anything reckless.”

 

Franky scoffed at that and Erica wondered if anything she said would make any difference.  Franky would do what she thought was best, knowing her own capabilities and relying on them whatever choice she made.  She nodded though and Liz hugged them both.  “Good luck,” they all murmured in turn then parted ways.

 

Franky strode off in the direction Liz had appeared from.  Before following Erica caught Liz and hurriedly asked her to enquire about Franky’s photo while she was at the resort.

 

They knew from Liz that the group was two hours ahead of them.  They knew two men had ambushed them and held them at gunpoint.  They seemed to know Jake, and from their descriptions sounded a lot like the two men Erica had seen at the hut five days ago.  They knew Will had been shot and Dan had been knocked unconscious.  It wasn’t much to go on.

 

“I thought your friend Doreen had them under surveillance  until the police arrived,” Erica sounded mildly annoyed with the ranger.  “Did they give her the slip?”

 

“Musta or the cops couldn’t hold them on any charge,” Franky speculated.

 

“I knew keeping Jake with us was a mistake,” Erica murmured under her breath.  “Doreen should never have asked you to keep an eye on him.  She was putting everyone at risk.”

 

“I’m pretty sure she didn’t realise his mates would come after him,” Franky replied, defending the ranger.  “Shit,” she muttered, not for the first time.

 

Erica was pretty sure Franky was beating herself up for leaving the group.  She decided to change the topic, “Why didn’t you want me go to the resort?”

 

“I want you with me,” Franky said.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because you’re smart, and we make a good team,” she said practically.  “I don’t know what we’re walking into but I trust that you won’t lose your head, which might mean everything.  Plus you’ve worked with criminals and you’re a lawyer so you’re probably a pretty good negotiator, which might come in handy.”

 

“I am,” was all she said but Erica was impressed with the guide’s assessment of her.  She’d been thinking Franky had kept her close for sentimental reasons, but her words had completely disabused her of that idea.  Franky thought they would get a better outcome if Erica was with her.  Franky didn’t want to protect her like the men she had been with.  Erica remembered Mark putting his hand on her arm pulling her back from crossing the road when he had spotted a car approaching.  It had irritated her immensely.  She had seen the car, she had assessed the situation and had decided she could make it across in time.  She remembered complaining about it to a female colleague afterwards.

 

“I’m perfectly capable of crossing roads on my own,” she’d said.

 

Sarah had laughed at her.  ”Erica, Mark just wanted to protect you, that’s what men do.”

 

Franky considered them equals, each bringing their own unique set of skills to the problem.  They would complement each other and together they would have a better chance of success.  The realisation left Erica with a warm, satisfying feeling inside.

 

They covered the two hour trek in an hour and a half.  Erica collapsed onto a flattish rock when Franky finally paused in her relentless march.  She watched as the guide did a reconnaissance of the area, disappearing for a few minutes then reappearing suddenly from another direction.  Erica was about to speak when Franky put a finger to her lips in warning.

 

Erica paused and waited until Franky had leant in to whisper in her ear.  “They’re in the next clearing,” she told her.

 

“What’s the problem?” Erica whispered back.

 

“I can’t see everyone,” she replied, “I’m not sure where Jake or his buddies are.”

 

“What should we do?” She leant away from Franky, watching her face as she decided on a strategy.  She could see the guide consider and then discard a number of options just from watching her expressive face.  Eventually she seemed to make up her mind.

 

“We’ll create a distraction and flush them out,” she murmured.

 

“How?” was all Erica asked.  She wouldn’t judge too quickly, she decided, even if she didn’t like where this was going.

 

“One of these,” Franky said, and she drew a flare from her backpack.

 

They found a hiding spot, far enough away but still with a good view. Erica took cover and watched as Franky set the flare and let it off.  The guide joined her to await developments.  Instead of Jake or Fletch or Channing coming to investigate, Bea appeared, taking cautious steps towards the offending flare, studying it for a moment then glancing around curiously.  “Franky?” She called out softly, with uncertainty, “is that you?”

 

“Jesus Red, what happened?” Franky asked as she stepped out from her hiding place.

 

The red head looked relieved to see the guide.  “Am I glad to see you!  We’ve got trouble.”

 

“We heard, Liz met us on the track,” Franky told her.

 

“These guys are dangerous,” Bea told her.  She paused momentarily when Erica appeared behind Franky then continued with her news.  “They’ve taken Jake.  We couldn’t stop them.  Will tried and was shot at and Dan got a rifle butt to the head.  We decided to sit tight.  It was all a bit chaotic.  We didn’t know what had happened to Liz and Vera.  I’m glad they’re safe.”

 

“We only saw Liz,” Franky corrected her assumption.  “Vera wasn’t with her.”

 

“Then Vera is missing,” Bea concluded.

 

Erica listened to Bea’s version of events.  They had set up camp and gone off to check out the caves they planned to explore the next day.  The gear they would need had been dropped in the previous day along with some food.  They had intended to spend two nights at the camp then kayak down river.  When they returned to camp they had found it trashed.  They were still discovering the extent of the damage when two men appeared.  They were carrying weapons, a shotgun and a rifle, and they rounded up the group and pulled Jake out.  It was clear they knew him and they weren’t happy.  They had him on his knees, threatening to blow his brains out, talking about betrayal.  Vera had tried to interfere, asking them to be reasonable, that was when the taller one grabbed her and shoved her down next to Jake.  “It all unravelled from there.  Will tried to grab the shotgun off him and the older guy shot at him.”

 

“Is he dead?”

 

Erica feared the worst but Bea shook her head.  “It grazed his arm.  That’s when Dan lunged at the big guy and copped a nasty crack to the head.  We thought he was dead at first.”

 

That ended any resistance by the group and they had watched as Jake was marched off into the bush.  “We kept expecting to hear a gunshot, or for them to come back.”  They had patched up Will as best they could to stop the bleeding and tried to salvage what they could from the supplies.  By the time they had finished they realised Liz and Vera were missing.

 

“I’m glad Liz is okay, where is she?” Bea craned her neck to look past them as though expecting to see her friend emerge.

 

“She’s raising the alarm,” Franky explained, “she never mentioned Vera.”

 

“She wouldn’t have gone after Jake, would she?” Erica ventured in the pause that followed.

 

“She wouldn’t be that stupid, surely,” Bea said immediately but looked to Franky for confirmation.

 

The guide shrugged.  “Fucked if I know.”  She collected her pack and swung it onto her shoulder, carrying it easily although it must have hurt to have her shoulder take all the weight like that.  She moved off towards the camp site.  Bea followed with Erica bringing up the rear.

 

The sight that met their eyes was one of destruction.  The tents had all been slashed with something sharp making them useless.   Packs had been rifled through with gear spread across the ground, pissed on or cut with the same implement that had been used on the tents. The food had been left out to spoil or for the birds and insects to feast on.

 

The group were sitting around looking desolate.  Will’s arm was bandaged with a piece of clothing.  Dan was lying in the shade on an air mattress seemingly asleep.  Everyone looked up expectantly when the trio arrived.

 

“Jeez, you lot look like you’re at a funeral,” Franky joked but it fell flat with her audience.

 

“Where the fuck have you been?” Linda challenged, “we could’ve all been killed!”

 

“Yeah, well, you weren’t, were you?” Franky said dismissively but Erica heard the defensiveness in her retort.

 

“It would have made no difference if we had been here,” Erica pointed out reasonably.

 

“You don’t know that,” Linda argued.  “Dan’s as good as dead.  Will could have been, Vera’s gone off on some vigilante mission and Liz is M.I.A.”

 

“Liz has gone for help,” Bea told her.

 

“What do you mean Vera’s on a vigilante mission?” Franky asked, her tone was neutral but Erica thought she was worried by the confirmation of that theory.  “How do you know?”

 

“She had some dumb idea about me going with her, that’s how!  Like I was going to sign up for a suicide mission!”

 

Smiles was not smiling.  Her face was hard almost bolshie, Erica thought, like some of her prison officers when she had suggested reforms.  The fun-loving gambler was not prepared to take the same risks with her own life, Erica realised.

 

Franky was looking at the blonde in disbelief.  “Jesus fuck!”  She muttered at last.

 

“Look,” Erica launched into the fray when she noticed the frightened expressions on the faces of her fellow hikers.  Silently she cursed Linda for stirring up panic.  “Liz will raise the alarm and help will be here soon.  Those men wanted Jake, not any of us, so they won’t be coming back.  We’ll salvage what we can of our gear and wait until the cavalry arrives.”

 

“With no tents and no food,” Linda pointed out.

 

“We can patch some of the tents and Erica’s and mine are still useable,” Franky added her weight behind Erica, “I have a load of food, which I’ll leave with you.”  This seemed to take the wind from Linda’s sails and she slumped back onto the rock where she’d been sitting.

 

Erica gave Franky a questioning look.  “I’ve gotta find Vera,” she said, looking determined as though she knew Erica wouldn’t like it.  “It’s my job,” she added before Erica could argue with her.

 

“Fine, then I’m coming with you,” Erica told her.  She could see Franky was about to argue with her.  “Nothing’s changed,” she reminded her, “you’ll still need a practiced negotiator and we still make a good team, right?”  She watched as Franky considered her words.  “Plus if you think I’m letting you walk into anything without me there to have your back, you can forget it,” she added in a breathless rush.  She pulled Franky in and kissed her urgently.  “Okay?” she murmured against her lips.  She could feel Franky’s smile and smiled herself.  “God, I sound like a Neanderthal,” she buried her face into Franky’s shoulder with embarrassment.

 

Franky laughed softly.  “Well I was gonna say protective, but whatever,” she teased.

 

“Even worse,” Erica groaned.

 

“I think it’s kinda cute,” Franky told her, lifting her face to look at her, grinning, then brushing away her hair.  She kissed her.  “Adorable really.”

 

“Shut up,” Erica muttered with a reluctant smile.

 

Franky checked Will’s wound while Erica pulled their tents out and set them up.  She worked efficiently and smiled, despite the circumstances, at her proficiency.  Bea took charge of the food.

 

“You’ve given us too much,” Erica said as she leaned over Bea and studied the pile the red head had set aside.

 

Bea shook her head.  “Worst case we’ll have to wait 24 hours before the rescuers get to us.  You and Franky could be out there for days, and there’s Vera and possibly Jake, neither of them have any food.”

 

Erica hadn’t thought about it like that.  She thought Franky would be able to find Vera quite quickly and she didn’t think Franky would waste time on Jake.  He wasn’t her responsibility like Vera was.  She didn’t say any of this.  Instead she just nodded and collected the supplies.  They intended to travel light, taking only a tarp, rope and sleeping bags in case they had to sleep out, food and a first aid kit.  Erica wondered what else they would need.  She dumped everything out of her pack, which was the lighter of the two back packs, and refilled it with what she had decided to take.  She waited while Franky also checked on Dan.

 

“Will he be okay?” Erica asked as they got away, taking the direction Linda had seen Vera go.

 

“Dunno,” Franky replied.

 

She had taken the pack from Erica and was setting a good pace.  They were bush bashing off trail cutting up a narrow creek bed where the foliage was less thick.  They continued in silence, the creek bed leading them up an ever narrowing gorge.  Erica kept glancing up but couldn’t see anything or anyone on either ridge line.  She had a sneaking suspicion their path would finish in a dead end and sure enough it did.

 

Erica stared up then around.  There didn’t seem to be an obvious way up but as they were alone clearly up was the way they had to go.

 

They climbed.  Franky took the lead and Erica followed mimicking the same foot and hand holds.  She found the going easier without a back pack weighing her down and upsetting her balance.   As long as she didn’t look down during those moments when Franky paused to consider her best route, she was okay.  They reached the top and found a rocky path leading them along the ridge line.  There was no sign of Vera or anyone else.

 

They paused briefly to rehydrate after their efforts and Erica gave thanks to the weather gods for the cooler day.  They trudged on hoping they were gaining on their quarry but with no real certainty they were even going the right way.  Erica knew Vera was quick and Jake‘s cronies were also fairly fast to have caught up with them.  It meant she and Franky couldn’t afford to waste time making wrong choices or resting.  Down below she could hear the river tumbling over itself in haste and knew they had reached the rapids.  It was the section they were meant to kayak down but Erica wondered whether she would ever do that now.  Franky wouldn’t be able to continue the hike without Dan so unless they brought in another guide to assist, regardless of what happened next, the hike was over.  The thought of her imminent return to Melbourne brought back her declaration to leave Mark.  She imagined how that might play out, what she would say, to Mark, to her mother.  She was so engrossed she didn’t notice the scenery change as the path led them through the edge of some bushland.  Below them to the left the river continued to snake its way through the gorge but on the right the land flattened out and old growth eucalyptus trees grew in close proximity to the path.  She felt the uneven path begin to drop downwards and realised they were gradually losing height.

 

Suddenly Franky pulled up short, putting her arm out behind her to warn Erica.  Ahead of them on the path near a small clearing they saw Jake and Fletch.  The men were talking in undertones but as they watched it seemed to escalate into an argument.  Erica heard Vera’s name mentioned.

 

“This has got nothing to do with Vera!” Jake insisted through clenched teeth.

 

“Think of your girlfriend as collateral damage then,” Fletch replied.

 

Jake changed tack.  “Waste her then, but don’t expect any cooperation from me.”

 

“I don’t,” Fletch said, “I don’t fucking trust you.  I told Channing you were the weak link in this whole operation.”

 

“I never signed up for this,” Jake hissed.  “It was a one off, that’s it, to pay off a debt.”

 

“That debt’s not paid,” Fletch said emphatically.  “And it won’t be until you -“

 

Erica heard a sound behind her.  She turned in time to see the butt of a rifle swing towards her.  She ducked instinctively but the edge of it clipped the side of her head and she crumpled onto the rocky path.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

When Erica came round it was late in the day.  She realised the soft pillow under her head was Franky’s lap.  Her head was pounding and there was an incessant buzzing.  She tried to lift her head but immediately there was pressure on her shoulder easing her down again.

 

“Easy,” Franky breathed in her ear.  “Just lie back down and rest.”

 

“What happened?” Erica mumbled but she didn’t resist Franky’s gentle urging.  She let her head drop back down and closed her eyes.

 

“Would you believe you fainted dead away like a princess in a fairytale?”

 

“No,” Erica murmured indignantly.

 

“Okay,” Franky conceded, “Channing hit you with the butt of his shotgun,” she explained.  “How are you feeling?”

 

“Awful,” Erica admitted then she added,  “I can remember it coming at me but I couldn’t duck in time,” she murmured apologetically.  “Will it scar, do you think?”

 

Franky snorted.  “Really?  That’s your first concern here?”

 

“The first one I’m willing to contemplate at the moment,” Erica retorted immediately.

 

“Well, your banter seems fine,” Franky laughed but went on to reassure her. “Even if it does, your hair will cover it.”

 

Erica was silent as a wave of nausea hit her.  “I’m not going to be much use though, not for a bit.”  She said eventually.

 

“It’s not like we’re going anywhere in a hurry.” Franky shifted her legs slightly.

 

“What do you mean?” Erica tried to sit up again.

 

“Your mate Channing has trussed us up like a couple of chickens waiting for a Sunday roast,” Franky told her.

 

That’s when Erica noticed Franky’s ankles were tied together.  She really tried to move then, despite the throbbing pain in her head, and found her hands were bound.  Her own ankles, she then discovered, were also tied together.  She tugged at her restraints but to no avail.  She slumped back down.  It took too much effort in her current condition.  “Where are they?”

 

“Goneski,” Franky said with a sigh.  “At least an hour ago.”

 

“Good, put your hand down my top,” Erica instructed.

 

Franky gave a short laugh.  “You reckon this is the moment for that?” She asked, a little incredulously.

 

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Erica said with an impatient sigh.  “Trust me, you’ll approve.”

 

“Oh I definitely approve, don’t get me wrong, it’s just your timing I’m questioning.”

 

“Franky,” came the exasperated response.

 

“Okay” Franky conceded, “but I’ve gotta move to do that.”

 

Erica sat up gingerly and watched as Franky manoeuvred herself so her hands, which were tied behind her, were in front of Erica.  “Okay, guide me in,” she said, sounding to Erica like she was having way too much fun for the circumstances.

 

Franky’s hand lacked its usual flair as she slid down Erica’s chest between her breasts.  “Have you got it?”

 

“What is it?” Franky asked then immediately,  “It’s not a vibrator is it?”

 

“Of course not, why would I have a vibrator tucked into my bra?”

 

“You’re the adventurous type,” Franky offered with a chuckle.  Erica watched as she drew out the item she had tucked into her bra earlier.  It didn’t take Franky long to work out what it was.  “Why do you have a Swiss Army knife down your top?”  She asked with surprise.

 

Erica remembered impulsively shoving it down there instead of putting it in her pack.  “I thought it might come in handy,” she replied.  “In prison the women hide things in all sorts of weird places.  You’re lucky I didn’t bank it.”

 

“Bank it?” Franky managed to get the knife open and began hacking away at her restraints.

 

“They stick things up their vaginas,” she explained conversationally.

 

“What the fuck!” Franky exclaimed.  “Who’d stick a knife up their vajayjay?”

 

“You’d be surprised,” Erica replied in all seriousness.

 

“Fuck that,” Franky muttered.  It took her several minutes before she was able to exclaim, “Got it!” as the thin rope was cut through.

 

Franky proceeded to free her ankles then helped Erica with her restraints.  This done she stood up and stretched out her cramping muscles.  Erica stood up more cautiously.  Franky noticed and helped her then gave her a quick kiss.  “I love it that you thought to shove a knife down your top,” she said in explanation. “We would have been fucked without it.”

 

“You would have thought of something,” Erica replied.  She couldn’t decide whether she felt light headed because of her head injury or the look on Franky’s face.

 

She tentatively investigated the extent of her head injury with her fingers.  She noticed Franky watching and saw concern in those green eyes and something Erica hadn’t seen before, indecision.  Franky, for the first time since Erica had met her, didn’t know what to do and Erica thought she knew why.

 

“Where’s Vera?” She asked.

 

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Franky said, looking around for their pack.  She found it abandoned nearby.

 

It had clearly been rifled through by Jake’s cronies.  Erica watched as the guide dug through its contents until she pulled out the familiar red pouch.  “Franky?” She prompted.

 

“I dunno, I think they must have taken her with them.”

 

Erica sighed with relief.  For a moment she thought Franky was going to say something else, something more final. “So we go after them.” she said, wanting to make the decision a little easier for Franky, certain she knew what had caused the look in Franky’s eyes.

 

“You could have concussion, probably do,” Franky told her.

 

“I’ll be okay.” She drew in her breath as Franky attempted to clean the wound.

 

“We could go back to the others,” Franky suggested, sounding uncharacteristically tentative.

 

“And desert Vera.” Erica stated the obvious and she watched Franky wince slightly as though her words hurt.

 

“We raise the alarm with the rescuers, we leave it to the police,” Franky explained but she didn’t look at Erica, all her attention fixed tightly on the injury.

 

Erica put her hand on Franky’s arm to capture her attention.  “You don’t want to do that.” She guessed and Franky’s silence told her she was right.  “Neither do I.” She said firmly.  “If they are only an hour ahead of us and it’s getting dark then surely we can catch them.  They won’t be expecting us and they will most likely stop and camp for the night.  We can catch them.”  She repeated firmly.

 

“What about your head?  Concussion can be serious,” Franky cautioned her.  “If we chase them we are getting further away from help, what if you collapse?”

 

“What if we turn around and something happens to Vera?  Would you be able to live with yourself because I wouldn’t.”  Erica countered.

 

“There’s another option,” Franky said slowly, “we split up.”  They stared at each other.  Even though she had made the suggestion Erica could tell Franky didn’t like it.  “You go back and I go after Vera.”

 

Erica considered it.  Was that the best option even though she didn’t like it anymore than Franky?  She still thought they were safer together.  “I don’t think I could climb down that rock face on my own when it’s getting dark,” she said eventually.

 

Franky nodded and Erica could see the relief in her eyes.  “We go on then,” she decided, “but you’ll tell me the moment you begin feeling strange,” she insisted.

 

“I promise,” Erica assured her.

 

Franky checked her thoroughly and taped up her head before they headed off.  Erica knew she was travelling more slowly than before but Franky was patient, letting her set the pace, staying behind her.  “So I can check out your butt,” she’d said with a laugh but Erica knew better.  She wished she had a hiking pole with her for extra support.  The path continued to descend and when they reached the river they went more slowly still conscious that the party ahead would most likely camp somewhere near water.  They hadn’t stopped though and soon the path twisted away from the river and began climbing again.  Franky had consulted her map and knew they were climbing Mount Morgan.  Their path led up the eastern flank then along a ridge line.  It was fairly open and Erica could see down to the river and up to the first of what they realised was a series of false summits.

 

It was well on dark by the time the ground flattened out at the summit.  There was no sign of their quarry.  Franky called a reluctant halt.  “It’s too dark,” she said to Erica, “we need to use our torches and that will give us away.”  She glanced up.  “The cloud doesn’t help,” she added.

 

They found a sheltered spot from the wind on the lee side of the mountain behind a small copse of bushes.  They put down the tarp and their sleeping bags and crawled into them for warmth.  They couldn’t risk lighting a fire so they ate wraps with peanut butter, and chocolate.  Erica stared up at the expansive sky, her aching body finding relief in being horizontal.  She could feel Franky’s impatience radiating off her.  This forced stop was frustrating her and Erica wondered if Franky had been alone whether she would have continued, risking the bad light to get the jump on her prey.

 

“Are you okay?” She asked quietly.

 

At first she thought Franky was asleep but eventually she spoke.  “What if they didn’t take the path but continued cross country along the river?”

 

“Why would they do that?”

 

“The kayaks are kept further up river.  I told Jake that was what we intended to do.  The first set of rapids are too difficult so we walk past them and pick up the kayaks just before the next set.”  She sighed.  “If he’s cooperating with them then he would have told them that.  It would only take two days to kayak out whereas it’s another five days hiking.  Fucking hell, I shoulda thought of that!”

 

Erica felt and heard Franky’s frustration.  “None of this is your fault,” she said gently.

 

“Then whose fault is it exactly?”  Franky asked.

 

“It’s no one’s fault,” Erica said.  She wondered what else the guide blamed herself for.  Her mother’s abuse, her father’s departure.  She turned to look at Franky’s profile.  “Franky, listen to me, Vera put herself in this situation and you’re the one who will get her out of it.”

 

“If I don’t I’ll probably being looking for another job,” she muttered.

 

“They couldn’t fire you,” Erica was confident, “it would be a case of unfair dismissal.”

 

Franky laughed unexpectedly.  “Well if they do, maybe you could be my lawyer,”  She suggested.  “Pro bono.”

 

“It’s the only way you could afford me,” Erica apologised, “God, my head hurts.”

 

She heard Franky shuffle closer.  “Here, put your head on my chest,” she suggested.  “You’ll feel better with a pillow.”

 

“Any opportunity huh,” Erica said with a smile but she placed her head gingerly against her.

 

Erica felt Franky’s chest move as she laughed then it settled to a gentle rise and fall which lulled her to sleep.

 

When she woke much later Franky’s sleeping bag was empty beside her and she was alone.  It was much colder and as she stared up at the clear sky she knew why.  The breeze had blown the clouds away and the thermal layer they had provided had disappeared.  She glanced around but there was no sign of Franky.  Her head felt better she noticed, which was a promising sign.  She snuggled a little deeper into her sleeping bag and wished she had Franky’s warm body to use as a hot water bottle.  She might have dozed again because it seemed that quite suddenly Franky was crouched beside her coaxing her awake.

 

“Where have you been?”

 

“The moon’s up,” she replied, “so visibility is better.  I went back down to the river to check they hadn’t gone that way.  How are you feeling?”

 

“Better I think,” Erica told her.  “Did you see anything?”

 

“No, I went as far as the kayaks, which are still there, and there was no sign of them.”  She said, sounding relieved.

 

“So they’re ahead of us,” Erica concluded.

 

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.  Listen,” she continued, “if you’re feeling better, I think we should make a move while the moon is still up, hopefully we’ll be able make up some ground on them.”

 

Erica sat up.  “Okay,” she agreed.

 

They packed up quickly and in no time Erica was following Franky’s footsteps.    They continued along the ridge line and then began descending.  It was only a few hours before dawn and cold.  Erica was glad to be moving and had shoved her beanie on, stuffed her hands in her pockets and made it her mission to keep pace with Franky.

 

They almost missed them. They had set up camp away from the path, in a protected burrow, sheltered from the breeze. Erica heard a familiar sound that she couldn’t quite place just before Franky halted and waited, peering into the darkness. She signalled for Erica to wait while she investigated.

 

That was the worst, Erica decided, waiting in the darkness for Franky to return, expecting at any moment for there to be a shout, a gun shot.  She would hear a noise and glance quickly behind her expecting to see a shotgun trained at her head.  Guns made her nervous, and not just because she’d recently had one slammed into her skull.  She was a city girl, born and bred.  Guns hadn’t been a part of her childhood.  She hadn’t grown up shooting kangaroos and rabbits, or watching stock being put down with a bullet to the head like most farming kids.  Even as an adult, working in a prison, she didn’t have the same access or familiarity with guns that farmers did.  She watched news reports of shootings and listened to heated debates over the gun culture in the US without ever believing it was something she would experience.  Australia was a safe country where random acts of gun violence just didn’t occur.  Of course there had been the Port Arthur massacre but that had been years ago and after it guns laws had been tightened so it couldn’t happen again.  The idea she might be shot at was a foreign concept to her.  Like snakes, and sharks, and crocodiles, she knew guns existed but she hoped never to meet one face to face.

 

She saw something moving towards her and as the dark shape became clearer she realised it was Franky returning.  She felt herself relax slightly.

 

“It’s them,” she whispered.  “Two tents, I dunno where Vera is, but I guess she’s in one of them.  No sign of the guns either.”

 

“What do we do?”

 

“Wait, see if we can get Vera separated from them, if not we track them.” Franky replied.  “How much food do we have?”

 

Erica silently thanked Bea for her foresight.  “We’ll have enough for four days, five if we’re careful.  What about water though?”  It was lack of water that would kill them, even Erica knew that.

 

“They’ll have to stop for water too,” Franky reminded her.  “We should be okay.”

 

They found a good hiding spot and settled down to wait.  It was the darkest hour just before the dawn, and the coldest.  They sat together, Erica resting against Franky, cocooned in her arms, sharing each other’s warmth, Franky’s chin resting on her shoulder.  They stared towards the campsite waiting for signs of movement.

 

“How’s your head?” Franky asked.

 

“Fine,” Erica replied, ignoring the headache that had persisted since they had begun moving again.

 

“Liar,” Franky murmured with a smile in her voice.  “Head injuries are the worst.”

 

“When have you had a head injury?” Erica asked curiously.

 

“When I fell slid off the side of a mountain,” Franky told her.

 

“What!”

 

Franky shushed her quietly.  “Do you want your mate Channing to know we’re here?”

 

“If you want me to be quiet then don’t make announcements like that without some warning,” Erica retorted but more quietly than her last exclamation.  “What happened?”

 

“The path I’d been hiking had been taken out by a landslide.  I thought I could get across but the surface wasn’t stable.  I started to slip and there was nothing to hold onto to save myself.  I slid about 20 metres then hit a boulder.  It didn’t stop me but skewed my body so instead of sliding down on my back I was tumbling sideways.  Eventually I hit another large rock which stopped me but also dislocated my shoulder and cracked open my skull.”

 

“Jesus,” Erica muttered, “you were lucky.”

 

“Yeah, got a free helicopter ride out of it,” Franky laughed softly.

 

Erica didn’t mean it like that though.  She wondered how many other times the guide had pushed her luck to the limits.  She wrapped her own arms around Franky’s and wished they were curled up in their bed at the eco-resort.

 

The camp began stirring at first light, first Fletch then Channing followed by Jake.  They couldn’t see Vera.  The men went about their tasks without talking.  Erica scanned the area for Vera as the light got better but she was nowhere to be seen.  All three men left the campsite at various times but never all together.  When Jake was left there alone, looking after the stove, Franky got up.  “Stay here,” she instructed, “I’m just going to find out where Vera is.”

 

She was gone before Erica could reply.  She watched nervously as Franky snuck into the camp behind Jake’s back and checked one tent then the other.  At the second one she paused and looked across to where Jake was occupied making coffees.  She slipped inside the tent and a minute later poked her head out to see Jake was still over by the stove sipping coffee.

 

Erica let out a soft gasp when Franky emerged with Vera in tow.  She saw, as they disappeared into the scrub, Jake turn towards them as though he had heard something.  Erica watched with her heart in her mouth but although Jake must have seen them, he didn’t move, didn’t raise the alarm, and eventually turned back to the stove and continued to drink his coffee.  Erica felt grateful for a brief moment.

 

Soon after Franky and Vera arrived back safely.  Vera smiled nervously at her and Erica gave her an impromptu hug.  Her relief at seeing her alive overcame her dislike momentarily.  “Let’s get out of here,” Franky said, “back the way we came.”

 

As they stood they heard a commotion at the campsite.  Erica looked back to see Fletch berating Jake.  Channing appeared and asked why they hadn’t packed up yet.  It was then that Erica realised they needed to get moving.  When Channing discovered Vera was missing all hell would break loose.  She followed Franky and had started to say something when her words were drowned out by a gunshot.

 

Even then they might have got away except Vera screamed.

 

“Run!” Franky called out to them.  “Run!”

 

Erica took off back up the path they had come, heading towards the ridge line so they could descend to the river.  She looked back and saw Franky wrestling with Vera, pulling her towards safety but clearly Vera had other ideas.  “Come on!” Franky was urging her.

 

“What about Jake?” Vera was saying, “we can’t leave him.”

 

Erica turned back to help.  Franky was having trouble trying to contain the distressed Vera.  “He’s dead Vera, he let you escape and they shot him,” Franky said harshly.

 

“We don’t know that,” Vera cried.

 

“I know we‘re fucking next if we don’t get out of here,” Franky retorted.

 

“Franky!” Erica called, “behind you.”  She saw Fletch break from the cover of the trees and head towards them.  He was charging at Franky who turned in time and braced herself.  He cannoned into her and they both went over, struggling to get the upper hand.  Fletch was clearly stronger but just when it seemed he had subdued Franky, he slumped sideways clutching his leg.  Franky scrambled out from under him breathing heavily.  She was holding Erica’s Swiss Army knife at her side.  “Fucking arsehole,” she gasped.

 

For a moment Erica indulged feelings of relief and satisfaction.

 

“Where’s the other one?” Vera asked anxiously.

 

Erica may have been unfamiliar with guns but she’d watched enough films to know the sound of a shotgun being reloaded.  She turned slowly and saw the slightly sardonic smile on Channing’s face above the intimidating barrel of his gun.

 

“Gotcha,” he said.

Chapter Text

Channing prodded her chest with the tip of the shotgun.  “Move,” he demanded.

 

Erica backed up slowly, unsure of the ground behind her but unwilling to take her eyes from those cold blue ones.

 

“I remember you,” Channing said almost conversationally, “I saw you at the hut.”  For a moment Erica thought he meant when she had made an undignified retreat from the hut they were using for their smuggling activities.  “You slept in another room though.  Pity.”  The smile he gave was deliberate and unsavoury.  Even as her stomach turned at the thought of him touching her, she filed that information away in her mind.  She was Channing’s type and that could prove useful.

 

“She wouldn’t touch you with a cattle prod,” Franky fired at him, sounding certain and superior in that knowledge.  It was hot-headed and impulsive and designed to aggravate.  Erica saw Franky still held the knife and was gripping it tightly.

 

Channing switched his attention to Franky.  “Drop the knife or she gets a bullet.”  It was an ultimatum and after a moment she reluctantly gave up the knife, tossing it away and scowling in the process.  “If you behave no one will get hurt,” he promised.

 

Erica didn’t believe him for a moment.  “What are you going to do with us?”

 

“Well, tying you up didn’t work, did it?”  Channing said, “so I guess I’ll have to think of something else.”  He leered at her.

 

Erica could sense Franky’s anger even from the two metres that now separated them.  She hoped desperately Franky wouldn’t do anything reckless.  Channing didn’t strike her as a man that did violence for violence sake.  He would need to be provoked as Jake had provoked him, as Franky might provoke him.  Fletch on the other hand seemed like someone who might see red.  Erica wouldn’t forget the way he charged at Franky like an angry bull.

 

She thought of a way to distract Franky.  “Your friend needs medical assistance,” she said to Channing.  “We have a first aid kit and Franky is qualified, why don’t you let her help him.”  She phrased it deliberately, leaving the decision and therefore the control with him.

 

Channing studied her suspiciously then looked over to where Fletch was on the ground trying to stem the flow of blood from his thigh.  He nodded briefly.

 

Franky took off her pack and pulled out the first aid kit.  She approached Fletch as she might a wounded animal, warily, as though she wasn’t entirely sure of his response.  “I need to get to the wound,” she said, “so I’m gonna cut your shorts, okay?”  She waited until he nodded his agreement before she pulled out a small pair of scissors and surgical gloves.  She cut up the leg of his shorts and exposed the injury.

 

“I’ll have those,” Channing told her, “can’t trust you with sharp implements.”  When Franky handed over the scissors with little fuss, he turned his attention back to Erica. “Now what to do with you,” he pondered with a suggestive tone.

 

“You could let us go,” Erica suggested, “it’s not like we can pull out our mobiles and call anyone,” she pointed out.  “And it’s a four day hike out.”  She hoped Channing didn’t know about the kayaks or the eco-resort.  “And we need to get back to the group before we do anything.”  He seemed to consider this and for a moment Erica thought she might convince him.  “You’ll be long gone by then.”

 

“He killed Jake,” Vera spat out, full of accusation. ”We can’t let him get away with that. We won’t!”

 

Erica might have actually admired Vera and her defiant words in other circumstances.  Just now though Erica could have killed Vera herself.  It was clear there were no blurred lines between wrong and right in Vera mind.

 

Channing suddenly noticed her.  He turned his attention away from Erica and towards the petite woman with the big claim.  It was Fletch who spoke though.

 

“Jake was fucking using you, you stupid bitch.  I saw you sniffing around him at the hut like some bitch on heat.  You think he didn’t see your desperation.”

 

“I didn’t kill him,” Channing told her.  “I had a go granted but he’d run off into the bush and I didn’t get a clear shot at him.”

 

“Then where is he?” Vera asked.

 

Channing laughed.  “How should I know?  Running back to the city with his tail between his legs probably.”

 

Erica realised that Franky had been very quiet throughout this exchange.  She looked across at her and noticed the guide was surreptitiously searching for something in the pack.  She wondered what she was doing.

 

“I will kill him if I see him again,” Channing said coldly, “and you might want to remember that with Jake gone you’re no longer useful to me,” he added as an afterthought.

 

Erica intervened.  “I’m sure we can resolve this civilly,” she insisted in her best lawyer voice, still unsure what Franky was up to but wanting to keep Channing distracted.

 

“Do you?  I’m not sure you’re in a position to do any bargaining?” Channing said, but his voice, his smile, his everything told Erica she had one thing he was interested in.  The gun had dropped slightly so the barrel was directed at her feet.

 

She smiled at him and risked moving slightly to her left, away from Franky and slightly closer to Channing.  “We don’t know what your business is with Jake and frankly we don’t care.  You can have Jake, we won’t stop you.”  Erica heard Vera’s gasp.  “All we want is to get back to our group.”

 

“What about her?” Channing asked, waving the gun in Vera’s direction.

 

“Much as I’d love to leave her with you, she comes with us,” Erica gave a wry smile.

 

Channing laughed.  “You’ve got sass, I’ll give you that.”

 

Erica smiled at him.  “It’s not all I’ve got,” she replied, and her stomach turned at his blatantly lecherous stare.  She reminded herself it was no worse than what she’d seen in offices and meeting rooms all her adult life except this time she was inviting it.

 

He leant into her then, still smiling, grabbed her butt and gave it a good squeeze.  “You smell good too,” he breathed heavily into her hair.

 

“Hey Channing,” Erica heard Franky say casually.

 

It happened so quickly.  Franky had lit the spray a nanosecond after Erica had realised what was happening.  She leapt away from Channing as Franky ignited the slim deodorant can with a lighter and directed the flame at Channing’s face.  His guttural cries were immediately followed by the smell of burning flesh.

 

“Go!” Franky yelled as she dropped the empty can and grabbed the backpack.

 

Erica ran.  Across the ridge.  Down the narrow path they had climbed the night before.  She chest constricted and her legs screamed at her to stop but still she ran.  She could hear Vera or Franky behind her, their boots thudding over the hard ground.  The path seemed to split and she slowed unsure which way to go.  She didn’t remember there being two paths the previous evening.   

 

“Which way?” She huffed out.

 

“The left one,” Franky called from behind.

 

It didn’t look right but as she couldn’t recognise any landmarks she realised she couldn’t rely on her memory after the blow to her head.  “Where’s Vera?”  She asked as she slowed to a stop and looked over Franky’s shoulder.

 

“Isn’t she behind?” Franky asked as she too stopped, leaning over to catch her breath.

 

“No,” Erica said, and felt a rush of anxiety.  They were so close to getting away but without Vera, the very person they came to get.

 

They waited, expecting to see her come crashing around the last bend, but no one appeared.  Finally Erica accepted she wasn’t coming.  “Did she make it across the ridge?”  She asked.

 

“Dunno,” Franky answered unhelpfully.  “Maybe she went to find Jake.”

 

“She wouldn’t have done that,” Erica replied worriedly.  Channing had been in no fit state to pursue them surely but what about Fletch?  Could he have grabbed the gun and fired off a shot?  Was Vera lying somewhere injured or dead?  She hadn’t heard a shot, had she?

 

“She‘s convinced they‘re going to kill him.”  Franky pointed out and Erica had to acknowledge the truth of that statement.

 

“Jesus Vera!” Erica cursed the missing woman.  “We only got into this situation because of Jake and then Vera racing off after him has just made it worse.”  She complained with frustration.  “Jake isn’t our responsibility.”  She said firmly because she was worried Franky would decide she needed to save Jake as well Vera.  She had no intention of them risking their lives for that man.  “We are going back, we are going to find Vera, and then we are going home.”

 

And the home she imagined as she said this was not her apartment that she shared with Mark.  It was somewhere smaller, cosier, with only one bedroom but was full of laughter and teasing, and it had a cafe just down the road that did great coffee and pancakes.

 

She caught the look on Franky’s face as she said it and wondered what she was thinking.  She couldn’t help wondering if Franky’s version of home was the same as hers.

 

They retraced their steps.  At each bend she hoped to see Vera walking towards her.  Each time though, the path was empty.  Her thoughts roller coasted as she walked, peaking with the knowledge that Franky was invincible and had an answer for every scenario they had encountered so far, plummeting at each bend when Vera was once again absent.

 

“Fucking Vera!”  She muttered to herself.  All the woman had to do was follow and she couldn’t even manage that.  She knew, even as she thought this, that she was being unreasonable.  If the shoe had been on the other foot, she liked to think she would do whatever needed to be done to protect Franky.

 

“So next Friday,” Franky said randomly, because apparently she hadn’t spent the last ten minutes obsessed with the particularly shitty situation Vera had left them in.  “I was thinking we should have that dinner.”

 

“Sure,” Erica agreed casually, “if we’ve found Vera by then.”

 

Franky laughed.  “We’ll find her,” she said with certainty.

 

They didn’t though.  She wasn’t on the path they took.  She wasn’t back at the camp either.  It was becoming clear that when she and Franky had run one way, Vera had run the other, after Jake.

 

They went carefully past the camp where Fletch and Channing were nursing their wounds and continued the descent off the mountain.

 

“This is madness,” Erica said when they had stopped to eat something.  “We don’t even know if she went this way.  I mean Jake wouldn’t stay on the path, would he,” she pointed out.  “Vera must have worked that out.”

 

“Well,” Franky said as she finished her mouthful, “he might have gone bush but there isn’t another way off this mountain.  The northern side is a granite rock face and the southern is steep and ends up dropping twenty metres into the river.”  She took another bite of her wrap.

 

“Where the kayaks are?” Erica asked.  “The kayaks that Jake knows about,” she pointed out.  She saw Franky had stopped chewing and was watching her intently.  “The ones that will take him out in two days instead of four,” she continued.  She raised an eyebrow at Franky.  “You’re right I guess, he wouldn’t try the southern side.”  She took out a piece of chocolate and popped it in her mouth even though it was only about 9am.  She couldn’t help smiling at the look of consternation on Franky’s face.

 

After a moment the guide nodded with an impressed smile.  She leant forward, her knee nudging Erica’s, her eyes full of respect.  “You’re turning me on right now,” she said, and Erica laughed with delighted surprise.  “That knock to your head didn’t affect that sexy smart thing you’ve got going on.”

 

“You should see me after a coffee,” Erica replied, enjoying the look on Franky’s face.

 

“I look forward to seeing that,” Franky flirted with her.  Erica watched those expressive eyebrows and eyes and wondered how she had denied her attraction to women for so long when Franky could reduce her to such a hot mess with a few words and a look.

 

“Well maybe you will if you’re lucky,” Erica said lightly and she was impressed by her ability to respond at all.

 

Franky laughed softly.  “Let’s go find Vera, and get the hell outta here,” she suggested.

 

“I like your thinking,” Erica said as she stood up.

 

The southern side of the mountain was certainly steep.  It wasn’t a cliff face but the ground dropped away sharply and no one would choose to descend that way.  “We’re going down there?”  She asked as she peered down.  Franky surveyed the terrain and then left Erica at the top with the pack while she did a quick reconnaissance.  “I guess that’s a yes,” she muttered as she watched her disappear.

 

She decided her time would be best spent taking a strategic toilet break.  And because she didn’t want to be sprung with her pants down by Jake or Vera and definitely not by Channing and Fletch.  And because she didn’t want to meet another snake, she searched carefully for somewhere that felt secluded and safe.  What she didn’t realise was that taking her time would mean Franky would return before she was back.

 

She wandered out of the bushes to find Franky looking a little frantic.  “What is it?” She asked immediately.

 

Franky swung around at the sound of her voice.  “Shit, where have you been?”  She asked abruptly.

 

“I had to pee,” she said, a little confused until it dawned on her that Franky was frantic because she hadn’t known where Erica had gone.  “I thought I’d be back first,” she said apologetically.

 

“I thought -,” but Franky didn’t say what she thought, and she didn’t have to because it was obvious to Erica.  Franky had thought she’d been taken, hurt, or worse.  “I think I found us a route down.”  She said instead.

 

Erica had a sudden vision of Franky returning and finding no sign of her. She imagined how she might feel if it had been Franky that had gone AWOL given their circumstances and the last 24 hours.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t think,” she apologised.

 

“Yeah, well,” Franky said as she let Erica pull her into a hug.  “There are some mad bastards out here,” she added in an attempt to downplay her anxiety and infuse some humour.

 

“You should see what they can do with a can of deodorant,” Erica answered in kind.  It was the first time either of them had referred to Franky’s unconventional tactics. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and Franky pulled her closer and held her tight.  They stayed like that for a long moment before Franky released her.  She smiled at her.  “Ready?”

 

“As I’ll ever be,” Erica said with resignation.

 

“This isn’t going to be pretty,” Franky cautioned, “you gonna be okay?”

 

“You’re not leaving me here,” Erica said immediately, interpreting Franky’s words.

 

Franky laughed.  “I wasn’t gonna leave you.”

 

It was more scrambling than walking and Erica had to be careful not to look down.  She concentrated on following Franky’s chosen path.  Her hands steadied her and sometimes she resorted to sliding down on her bum when it was just too steep to consider remaining upright.  Franky resembled a mountain goat, leaping and balancing in seemingly impossible places.  It gave Erica vertigo just watching her.  She thought she was going to fall countless times, she almost fell twice but managed to catch herself.  By the time they reached a little platform that allowed them to take a breather and regroup she had offered to give up many of her least appealing characteristics just to make it down alive.

 

They were more than halfway down she decided.  The river spread out below them.  Franky pulled out a packet of jelly snakes from the backpack.  “Sugar hit?”  She offered.  Erica took one gratefully, sugar and adrenalin would get her off this mountain.

 

“No sign of Vera,” Erica observed as she chewed on a purple snake.

 

Franky leant over the side of their platform, yellow snake dangling from her lips.  She pulled back suddenly.  “I think I saw someone.”  She pulled on her snake until it broke off in her mouth.

 

“Vera?”

 

“Or Jake,” Franky put the rest of her snake in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.  She lay down on her stomach.  “Hold my legs,” she instructed and slid over the edge so she could get a better look.

 

Erica hastily grabbed her ankles and leant back.  “What can you see?”

 

Franks wriggled back onto the platform before she spoke.  “It’s Jake,” she said.  “It looks like he’s stuck.”

 

“Stuck how?”  Erica asked as she grabbed another snake and handed it to Franky.

 

“Can I have one of those?”

 

Both Erica and Franky looked up to see Vera about two metres above them.  “Jesus fuck Vera!  Where the fuck have you been?”  Franky stood up.

 

“I don’t think you’re supposed to talk to your clients like that,” Vera pointed out.

 

“I think you lost your client privileges when you didn’t follow instructions,” Franky retorted.

 

Vera scrambled down to their platform.  “What are you doing down here?”

 

“Looking for you,” Erica snapped.

 

“Oh,” Vera looked apologetic.  “You didn’t have to.  Jake and I had a plan,” she told them.  “He was going to help me escape then give his mates the slip.  We were meeting up at the kayaks.”

 

Erica looked at Franky who shrugged.  “Can we go home now?”

 

“Yeah,” she said, “but the only way is down.”

 

All three looked down to the river.  “Great,” Erica muttered and took another snake.  “Jake is below us,” she told Vera.

 

Vera peered over the edge.

 

Erica wasn’t exactly sure what happened next.  Whether Vera leant out too far and lost her balance or maybe the edge of the platform crumbled away.  Regardless, one moment Vera was with them and the next she was falling.  Before Erica could even react, Franky had flung out an arm and caught her.  They hung precariously together for one frozen moment seeming to defy gravity before they dropped, sliding and tumbling, out of control.

 

Erica watched in horror as they reached the end of the descent without being able to stop their momentum and crashed over the edge, dropping the last twenty metres into the river below.

 

 

Chapter Text

Erica couldn’t believe what she’d just witnessed.  It couldn’t have happened.  Even as her mind replayed in slow motion every excruciating detail, she just couldn’t reconcile it with what her mind believed, that Franky would somehow always get the better of the situation.  This was Franky’s world and her respect and understanding of it would mean she would come out on top of any adverse situation.  Only this time, Erica thought dumbly, she hadn’t.

 

She had heard the splash as they hit the water but her view was obscured so she didn’t know if the two had surfaced.  Then she heard someone shouting below.

 

“Hey!  Hey!!”

 

She nervously leant over the edge, no longer trusting its stability, expecting it would give way at any moment and hurtle her towards the river.  She saw Jake, at least she guessed it was Jake from Franky’s previous comment, waving his arms in the air.  She felt hopeful momentarily because his calling out meant Jake must be able to see Franky and Vera.

 

She began scrambling down towards him, slipping dangerously at times while at others she would take a risky leap to a protruding rock, almost falling down the mountain herself when she barely stopped her forward momentum.  Her heart was in her mouth and she felt the adrenaline coursing through her veins.  She didn’t stop though because she knew if she did she would freeze on the side of that mountain unable to go up or down.  She wouldn’t reach Jake or be able to help Franky.  She would be useless and helpless.

 

The small rocks that skidded down the mountain ahead of her alerted Jake to her presence.  He looked up, watching her progress then when she was within reach, he took her hand and steadied her for the last leap across to him.

 

“Where are they?” She asked, peering anxiously down to the river.  “Can you see them?”  She couldn’t see them.

 

The river looked deeper in this section.  A series of rapids upstream dropped into a pool like a small waterfall.  This is where, Erica guessed, Franky and Vera had entered the water.  It was a long way down and Erica wondered how they’d been positioned when they entered.  She understood enough about the density of water to know that hitting the water from that height was potentially fatal.  She asked another question.

 

“Did they surface?”

 

“Yeah, I think so,” Jake confirmed.  He was frowning.  “Dunno where they ended up though,” he added.

 

They both looked down scanning the bank on the other side but nothing stirred.

 

Erica could feel her legs going to jelly and shaking uncontrollably.  She forced the muscles to hold steady.  “So how do we get down?” She asked practically.  They couldn’t do anything from where they were.

 

“I don’t know,” Jake said.  He scratched his stubble absently as he stared down at the water.  “I think we might have to jump.”

 

“Right,” Erica muttered dismissively because she thought Jake was joking.  She scanned the rock face below to see if there was a path or something that suggested a route down.  She could see immediately why Jake had got stuck.  The rock they were on cut away sharply underneath.

 

“I’ll go first if you like,” Jake offered.

 

Erica looked at him then.  “You’re serious,” she stated but with a slight question in her tone.  He couldn’t be serious.

 

“I can’t see another way, can you?”

 

Erica couldn’t but that didn’t mean her resistance to the idea was over.  “That’s a crazy idea.  We’re at least 20 metres from the water.”  They’d die.  She didn’t say that though because if she said it she would be acknowledging to herself what she didn’t want to believe, that Franky was dead.

 

“Those cliff divers in Acapulco do it ,” Jake argued.

 

She had a vague recollection of tanned men in budgie smugglers plunging into the ocean from cliffs they had climbed bare footed moments before.  “That’s completely different,” she exclaimed, “they are professional divers who know exactly how deep the water is and what’s under the surface.”

 

Jake shrugged, as though the details didn’t matter.  “It’s the quickest way down,” he pointed out.  “They could be unconscious in the water.”  He looked at her intently, as though suggesting that by refusing Erica was placing her life above Franky’s.  But what help would she be if she was dead?  She said as much to Jake.

 

“I’m going,” he said definitively.  He looked down and gave himself a moment to prepare mentally.

 

Erica remembered the backpack which she’d grabbed from where Franky had abandoned it.  “Wait!”

 

But Jake didn’t wait.  He jumped.  She gasped and then watched his rapid descent until he plunged into the water below.  She waited nervously for any sign of him.  After what seemed like the longest time, he reappeared further downstream.  She let out the breath she’d been holding as she watched Jake pull himself out of the water.

 

When your number’s up it’s up and when it’s not it’s not, she thought.  The lucky bastard had already been shot at that day and survived.

 

She took off the backpack and opened it.  There was a coil of rope, which Franky had thought to put in.  There wasn’t twenty metres of it but there was enough.  She found a rock that seemed to be firmly attached to the mountainside to use as an anchor.  She tested it carefully.  She tied a stopper knot at the end of the rope.  All these activities distracted her mind from the fear that was looming large inside her.  This was just as insane as jumping into the water below.  So many things could go wrong.  She found gloves tucked into Franky’s down jacket and silently thanked her guide for her forethought.  Now she could slide down the rope if necessary and not get rope burn.

 

“Please be alive,” she muttered as she dropped the rope over the side and watched it stop halfway down the rock face.  “Please don’t let this be for nothing.”

 

The only thing that got Erica onto that rope and over the side of the rock platform was a vision of Franky, unconscious and bleeding, lying in a pool of water. It didn’t matter how terrified she was, she told herself, because Franky’s situation was worse.  “You can do this.”  She muttered over and over.  A mantra that kept her going when all her senses told her to stop.  She hated Jake for already being down and safe and she didn’t trust him to help Vera or Franky.  He would save his own skin.  He didn’t know Channing and Fletch were injured and unable to follow him.  He wouldn’t wait for her or any of them.

 

She began sliding down the rope because she no longer had the strength to hold her own weight.  Her pace picked up more quickly than she liked and she was worried that when she hit the end of the rope she wouldn’t be able to stop and would slide right past the knot.  If that happened she may as well have jumped because she would be travelling just as fast when she hit the water.  Her idea had been to get as close to the water as possible then stop completely before jumping the last ten metres.  This would mean she wouldn’t hit the water with the same force or go as deep.  Her memory of her physics classes was dim but she seemed to remember something to that effect.

 

Even through the gloves, which weren’t climbing gloves, she could feel the heat of the rope.  Suddenly she jerked to a halt.  Her arms almost came out of their sockets.  She dangled there for a moment like a worm on the end of a fishing line.  Then she dropped like a pencil, feet pointed, into the water below.  The cold hit her first then the drag of her clothes and the backpack.  She panicked as she remembered the weight of the backpack would take her deeper.  She should have thrown it first, she realised, in the hope she could have recovered it.  She kept expecting to hit something but eventually her momentum slowed and she was able to struggle towards the light.  She’d gone much deeper than she’d expected and she struggled to hold her breath.  Her lungs were on fire and the surface seemed impossibly far.  She felt the panic take over.

 

Then suddenly she was there.  She gasped in air as soon as her head broke the surface.  She looked around to get her bearings then used a breast stroke to swim towards the opposite bank.  She pulled herself out of the water and glanced at her Fitbit.  She couldn’t believe the whole thing had taken less than two minutes.

 

“Franky!”  She called out then repeated it.  She waited but heard nothing.  “Vera!”  Still nothing.  “Jake!”

 

There was the faintest reply.  “Here!”

 

She headed down stream, running until she slipped on a wet rock and fell.  Her hand collided with the hard surface, bearing her full weight, and she felt a jarring pain in her thumb.  She got up gingerly and swore.  Her knees were scraped and her hiking pants were torn but that seemed to be the worst of it.  She looked at her thumb.  It seemed to be okay.  It looked normal.  It hurt like hell.  She moved it and cried out.  The pain was excruciating.  “Jesus fuck!”

 

She continued on, more carefully though.  “Where are you, Franky?”  She murmured.  She called out again but got no response.

 

She stopped suddenly.  There was something in the water on the opposite side of the river against the rock wall.  Erica stared at it.  She couldn’t tell what it was but it alerted her sixth sense.  She pulled off the backpack and her boots.  Her clothes were thoroughly wet so she left them on.  She swam across to the strange object and her heart contracted when she saw it was a body.  It was Franky or Vera but she couldn’t tell which one.  She switched to freestyle and swam faster.  It was Franky’s Ultimate Adventures shirt she realised as she got closer.  It had snagged on a submerged tree.

 

That was the first moment of doubt.  For the first time Erica wondered if this amazing, beautiful, talented woman who had begun to open and fill her world from the first moment she’d laid eyes on her, might not have survived that fall.

 

She pulled the shirt free and looked around for any sign of the owner.  She also looked at the way the water was running.  If the shirt had got there on its own then where had it come from?  There was no sign of Franky and there was a slight cross current.  She looked up river, back the way she’d come and noticed something that she had missed as she’d walked down the bank.  There was a section where the river was divided by a small rocky outcrop.  Although Erica had seen it from the bank there had seemed to be nothing unusual about it.  From this angle though, Erica could see the other side of it and she could see something wedged against the rocks.

 

Her heart caught in her mouth.  She was pretty sure it was a person.  She swam upstream across the current towards the rocks.  Her thumb didn’t like the resistance of the water and she had to adjust her stroke to make the pain tolerable.  It made her less efficient and it seemed to take forever to swim those fifty metres.  But it was worth it.

 

She could see a dark head propped against a rock.  It was Franky.  There was no sign of Vera.  Erica swam up to her, scrabbling over the rocks that were hidden under the water, not caring anymore that her thumb and knees complained each time they hit a rock.

 

“Franky, Franky,” she gasped as she reached her.  Her hands went out to her, checking her for any response, checking for signs of life.  “Oh Jesus.  Franky?  Talk to me.”  She urged.  She reached for her throat and checked for a pulse.  She choked back a relieved sob when she felt a rapid throb against her fingers.  “Thank God!”  She muttered even though she and her catholic upbringing had parted ways years ago.  She was so thankful to have found Franky and that she had survived.  “Thank you!”  She breathed reverently.

 

Most of Franky was under water so she couldn’t see the extent of her injuries.  She didn’t know whether she should attempt to move her or leave her.  She stood up and called out to Jake.  “I’ve found Franky!”  She didn’t get a response.

 

She looked down and sank back into the water, shifting Franky slightly so she could rest her head against Franky’s Ultimate Adventures shirt rather than the rock.  She pushed back her wet hair and took stock of her external injuries.  Her head looked unharmed.  Erica carefully checked her skull for signs of swelling or gashes but she found nothing untoward.  When she ran her hands along her body, feeling for anomalies, she noticed Franky’s right leg though appeared to be in an awkward position.  Erica didn’t like the feel of it.  She thought it might be broken.

 

She assessed their situation.  Franky wouldn’t be able to hike out, she guessed, or even reach the kayaks.  They had a flare but that would only be useful if people knew to look for them.  At what point would Bea and the others be rescued?  And when after that would they realise she and Franky were overdue?  They had left their mobiles back at the camp with the rest of their gear.  Bea had given them the satellite phone, she remembered, and that might just save them.  She wished desperately that Franky would regain consciousness.  She knew eventually they would have to get out of the water when they lost the sun and it got too cold.

 

“You better not pike on our dinner, Franky Doyle,” she said, sounding absurdly angry, as though this was Franky’s fault somehow.

 

She stared at Franky’s still face, soft and young, without the guide’s expressive features and magnetic eyes in play.  She felt overwhelmed by how much she cared about this young woman.  Franky had given her the space to breathe and fill out as a person without judgement or expectation.  She had teased her mercilessly at times and laughed at her but Erica had loved it.  Everything in her life was so serious but Franky thought life could be fun as well.  She had come on this hike to understand her father better and face how he had died and why but what she had learnt most about was herself.  She felt lighter and freer than she ever had.  Franky had given her that gift and she loved her for it.  It made her want Franky to be a constant in her life.  She felt a tear escape and run down her cheek.

 

And this was fucked up because she somehow had to fix this impossible situation.  Franky would have managed it.  She would have had answers and Erica would have been able to rely on her judgement and talents.  But Erica had no talents in this environment and her judgement was becoming less rational with every passing minute. She stood up suddenly and shouted with frustration for Vera or Jake or anyone who might help them out of their predicament.  The response she got was not what she’d expected.

 

“I was wondering when you’d show up.”

 

Erica looked down to see Franky was conscious and looking up at her with a face etched in pain.

 

“Franky,” she gasped, “oh thank god!”  She sank to her knees, ignoring the pain and took Franky’s face in her hands.  “You’re hurt,” she said with a worried expression.

 

“My leg, I think it’s busted,” Franky told her.

 

“Well you’re alive at least,” she replied with relief.

 

“Where’s Vera?” Franky asked.

 

“I don’t know,” Erica said, “she and Jake have vanished.  You didn’t see where she went?”

 

“I never saw her surface,” Franky shook her head, “so I dunno.  Maybe she’s downstream from here, maybe she’s okay.”  Franky finished hopefully.

 

Erica couldn’t offer much reassurance.  “We need to get you out of the water,” she said instead.

 

“You gonna carry me?” Franky asked with a weak laugh, “coz I don’t reckon I can swim.”

 

Erica smiled.  Here was something she could do.  “Luckily for you, I’m certified to perform advanced water rescues.”

 

“You’re a lifeguard?” Franky asked incredulously.  “You told me you couldn’t swim.”

 

“I never said that,” Erica refuted.  “Anyway I’m not one anymore, I gave it up when uni got too busy.”  She couldn’t help grinning at Franky’s expression.  “I’m not just a pretty face,” she couldn’t resist adding.

 

“Hell no!” Franky murmured vehemently and when Erica seemed distracted by Franky’s compliment and appreciative glance, she added with a smirk, “Well I guess you better rescue me then.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Strike it towards the tinder,” Franky instructed.

 

“Why don’t you do it if it’s so easy?” Erica asked impatiently as she attempted for the umpteenth time to light the fire.  It wasn’t easy with her thumb hurting the way it did.

 

“I’m not the one who got the matches wet,” Franky pointed out.

 

“I got the matches wet in an attempt to save you,” Erica felt it necessary to remind her.

 

Franky just laughed.  “Well, how will you ever learn if I do it for you?” She asked changing tact. 

 

“Never, which is fine by me,” Erica responded with.  She dragged the steel sharply against the flint and to her surprise and relief, a small spark caught against the small pile of fuel.  “It worked!” She exclaimed excitedly.

 

“Now blow softly,” Franky advised.

 

Erica did and watched as her efforts produced a small flame.  She added the burning pile to the small collection of leaves and bark in the centre of a teepee of small sticks.  The flame leapt higher and the sticks caught alight.  

 

“It really worked!”  She couldn’t help feeling incredibly satisfied as she watched the results of her labour.

 

“Now feed it but don’t smother it,” Franky continued her tutoring.

 

Erica carefully placed more sticks around the burning teepee and watched as the fire grew.  There was a slight breeze which helped but also blew the smoke into her eyes.  She looked away, closing her eyes briefly, until the worse of it had passed.  She concentrated on building the fire until she was able to drop a few larger logs into the heart of it.

 

“You did good,” her instructor said as Erica stepped away and left the fire to consume the fuel she’d provided.  Franky smiled at her and Erica felt her heart swell with pride in her achievement and Franky’s acknowledgement of it.  God, she could bask in that attention forever, she decided.

 

“How are you feeling?” she asked with concern.  She looked at Franky’s leg, now splinted and immobile.  

 

“Better,” Franky reassured her.  Erica suspected Franky wouldn’t divulge her true pain levels no matter how often she asked.  She would pass out before admitting it.

 

The rescue had been more difficult and taken longer than Erica had hoped.  She had struggled to help Franky off the rocks and into deeper water.  She knew her attempts caused Franky extreme pain although she didn’t complain once during the whole process.  Her thumb had made it difficult for her to execute the rescue and she’d had to adjust her technique which had slowed her down.  

 

It was mid afternoon by the time they were back on land and Erica had, under Franky’s guidance, managed to perform first aid on her leg.  They had attempted to use the satellite phone but the dry bag it had been in, along with the matches, had leaked and the phone no longer worked.  They elected to stay put that night and Erica had collected wood for a fire so she could dry out and salvage what she could from the backpack.

 

She spread out the wet items on rocks near the fire or hung them off the branches of bushes that served as a boundary to the little sandy strip they had found.  The sleeping bags were mercifully still dry although their down jackets were not.  

 

“I’ll make some dinner,” she suggested.  They hadn’t eaten since that morning and it was getting late in the day.  The dehydrated meals had survived the swim intact.  

 

“What have we got?”

 

Franky was resting with her back against a rock near the fire, out of the breeze, with her leg stretched out before her.  Erica had got her out of her wet clothes and she was wrapped in her sleeping bag.  The breeze would dry her hiking pants and top quickly but the socks and jackets would take longer.  

 

“I think it’s pumpkin ravioli,” Erica said, looking dubiously at the foil lined bag.  She got out the pot and filled it with water from the river then lit the stove.

 

“My favourite,” Franky told her as Erica sat down next to her to wait while the water boiled.  She lifted up the edge of her sleeping bag.  “You should get in here with me, it’s warmer.”

 

Erica did, careful to choose the side away from Franky’s injured leg.  She nursed her throbbing thumb against her thighs.  She hadn’t taken any painkillers because they only had a finite number and she knew Franky would need them.  She dropped her head onto Franky’s shoulder and closed her eyes.  She felt exhausted.  The day had been, she searched for the right word, fantastical.  They’d been tied up, escaped, rescued Vera, been held at gunpoint, escaped, lost Vera, found Vera only to lose her again, fallen or jumped off a cliff, nearly drowned, injured themselves, Franky seriously, all in less than twelve hours.  No wonder she was exhausted.

 

“Your hair smells smoky,” Franky told her.  

 

Erica hummed not having the energy to form words.  Under the sleeping bag Franky’s hand found hers.  She flinched in pain and Franky noticed when she moved her hand away.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing,” But Franky wasn’t buying it she could tell, “my thumb, I hurt it,” she explained.

 

“Give us a look,” Franky replied practically.

 

Erica drew out the injured hand.  It looked swollen now and bruising was beginning to show.  Franky took it and studied it before carefully moving the thumb one way then the other.  Erica gasped.

 

“This hurt?”  Franky asked as she manipulated the thumb again.

 

“Yes,” Erica gasped.  

 

“I think you dislocated it,” Franky told her, “want to good news?”

 

“If there is any,” Erica said skeptically as she returned her hand to her lap, feeling it throb from Franky’s ministrations.

 

“Well there is actually,” Franky said lightly, “it looks like it’s popped back in by itself.  You think it hurts now, trust me it would hurt ten times worse if it was still dislocated.”

 

“Lucky me,” Erica said drily.

 

“Want me to kiss it better?” Franky offered, a smile on her face and in her voice.  Given her current circumstances Franky’s ability to maintain her good humour was impressive.

 

“I’m not sure even your kisses have magical qualities,” Erica told her.

 

“Maybe we should test that theory,” Franky suggested in a murmur as she leant closer, her eyes dancing.

 

Erica felt Franky’s slightly chapped lips press against hers.  The kiss was warm and gentle and safe.  Neither of them had any energy for anything else.  For a moment Erica didn’t feel the painful throb of her injury as the pleasant sensation of the kiss overwhelmed anything else.  They broke apart when the lid of the boiling pot threatened to lift off of its own accord.  As she made to move, Franky took her good hand and held it.

 

“Thank you,” she said.  “What you did, it meant something.”

 

Erica wanted to dismiss her efforts as nothing special but the look in Franky’s eyes stopped her.  She squeezed her hand.  “You mean something, especially to me.”

 

Franky tilted her head, studying her.  “Yeah?”

 

Erica felt a lump rise up into her throat.  “Yeah.”  It had sounded breathy as though she almost hadn’t been able to get it out without losing her composure.  She took a breath and turned away quickly.  She didn’t want to think about how easily things might have turned out differently.

 

She added boiling water to the dehydrated meal pack and left it for the required 10 minutes.  In the meantime she made tea with teabags that had survived better than the matches.  She added sugar to both cups and handed one to Franky who grimaced at the sweetness.  They both needed the energy though and Franky knew that as well as Erica so didn’t complain.  

 

Erica slipped back under the sleeping bag.  “I wonder if the others have been rescued.  I hope Dan is okay, and Will.”  

 

She didn’t mention Vera and Jake.  They hadn’t seen either of them.  Erica thought Jake had probably found the kayaks further down the river and was already well downstream.  She hoped Vera was with him because the alternative didn’t bear thinking about.  Now she wondered if she had imagined someone call out earlier.  

 

“I reckon it would have only taken a day from when Liz raised the alarm,” Franky speculated.  

 

“And for us?” Franky was silent.  “When will they come looking for us?”  Erica asked.

 

Franky was noncommittal.  “Dunno, maybe a few days, maybe longer.”

 

“Bea will raise the alarm,” Erica said then when Franky didn’t say anything immediately she added with less certainty, “won’t she?”

 

Franky shrugged.  “Even if she does, there’s no guarantee they’ll reach us anytime soon.”

 

Erica had a sinking feeling.  “Well we can’t kayak out now,” she said with a frown, “not with your leg injured.”

 

“Yeah we can,” Franky said with certainty.

 

All her arguments seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Franky didn’t seem to think her mobility issues and Erica’s dislocated thumb posed any difficulties.  She gave up when Franky suggested the ravioli was probably ready to eat.  She realised at some point that Franky was as determined as she was and no amount of words would convince her.  Fine then, she decided, let Franky win the words because physically she wouldn’t last more than one hundred metres.

 

As she ate she wondered if Franky was suffering from a nasty reality check after her very close call.  If Erica thought she was invincible why wouldn’t Franky also have thought that?  But that fall had been a near thing and maybe Franky needed to prove something to herself.  She had broken her leg but they both knew she had got off lightly.  Erica wondered if Franky had at one point thought her number was up.  She wondered what had gone through her mind.  She wondered if it was the same thing that had gone through her father’s mind.  She didn’t ask though, not immediately.

 

After they had eaten they settled down near the fire.  Erica helped Franky as much as Franky would let her.  When Franky managed the impressive feat of squatting on one leg while she crouched and peed, Erica admired all over again just how strong she was.  

 

“Shoulda brought a shewee,” the guide said with a wry smile.  

 

“A what?”

 

“A portable penis,” Franky said.  Erica looked a her.  She knew what a strap-on was and did, she wasn’t naive, but she couldn’t see how it would help in this situation.  She said this to Franky who laughed so hard she almost fell over.  “There are these urinal devices that allow women to pee standing up.”  She explained when she could speak.

 

“Oh!” Erica hadn’t come across them.  “How liberating,” she said with enlightenment.  She thought about how much easier hiking would be if she didn’t have to drop her pants every time she had to pee.

 

“Yeah,” Franky agreed.

 

“Why doesn’t everyone use one?”  She asked as she helped Franky settle into her sleeping bag.

 

“Dunno,” Franky replied.  

 

“It would mean never having to sit on a public toilet, well almost never,” she acknowledged after a thought.  “There has to be a drawback.”  She concluded.

 

“Well I guess it’d be a bit tricky in a skirt,” Franky acknowledged, “and if you get the placement wrong you’re likely to pee all over yourself.”

 

At that point Erica decided she would continue to pee sitting down.  She built up the fire until she thought it would burn unaided for a while then crawled into her own bag next to Franky, not too close in case she bumped her in the night.

 

 

“So what happened?”  She asked eventually, knowing she would be consumed by her own curiosity if she didn’t.

 

Franky shrugged.  “We had too much momentum, it happened too fast, I couldn’t stop us.”  The way she spoke, quick and deliberate, gave Erica a sense Franky had been mulling it over.  “There wasn’t any time to think.”  She shook her head.  “I tried to grab something but I was holding onto Vera with one hand and there was nothing to grab except rocks.”  There was a pause and Erica thought she had finished.  “Vera was knocked unconscious.  I think her head hit one of the rocks, I dunno, but she suddenly went limp, like a dead weight.  I knew if I let go of her I’d never find her in the water so I held on.  We hit the water together and our combined weight meant we dropped like an anchor.”

 

“Your leg?”

 

“I think it happened when we hit a rock under the water on the way down, it was quite close to the surface, for a moment I thought I was a goner.”  Franky admitted.

 

There was a pregnant pause.

 

“What did you think about?  In that moment?” Erica knew she could have, should have phrased it better.  Could have been more empathetic in that moment and a part of herself felt bad but the other part, the stronger part, really wanted to know.

 

Franky didn’t respond.

 

“Sorry, it’s just,”

 

“Your dad,” Franky finished for her.

 

Erica loved Franky in that moment for her understanding.  “Yeah,” she breathed out softly.

 

“I thought about what I’d miss out on, I thought about you,” Franky told her.  “Probably what your dad thought about too.”

 

“Do you think so?”  Erica had to ask.

 

“Yeah, I do,” Franky gifted her.  

 

“I guess I’ll never really know,” Erica acknowledged, “and I suppose not knowing has been bothering me.  Although possibly not the reason I haven’t married Mark, I realise now,” she said with a smile.

 

Franky grinned at her.  “Better not be,” she said with a laugh.  

 

“Well it’s not,” Erica confirmed, her smile spreading when she saw Franky’s pleased expression.

 

“Better be me,” Franky told her in no uncertain terms.

 

Erica laughed.  “God, all right!”  She kissed Franky.  “After the day you’ve had, you deserve that.”

 

Franky held on.  Erica thought it was the pain that caused her to grip so tightly.  Then she spoke and it came out like a confession.  “I lost her.” 

 

Those three words were like a millstone, dragging them both down.  Vera was lost.  Dead.  Then she remembered.  “No, Jake saw you, you both surfaced,” she offered Franky the only reassurance she had.

 

“Then where is she?”  

 

Erica didn’t have an answer.

 

They were silent for awhile.  Erica watched the light shift and change as the day drew slowly to a close.  Franky dozed but never for long.  Her leg was clearly bothering her.  “Is there anything I can do?” She asked, wishing she could ease the pain somehow.

 

“Tell me a story,” Franky demanded.

 

Erica racked her brain.  She wasn’t a storyteller like Franky.  Her parents hadn’t read to her much as a child and while she had read at school by the time she’d reached university, her reading consisted mostly of text books.  Then she had an idea.

 

“There was a young woman from Ballarat,”

 

“Who lived with a family of cats, I trust them said she, and I just let them be, to manage the family of rats.” Franky interrupted immediately.

 

Erica laughed.  “Not exactly what I was going to say.”

 

“No?” Franky queried, “well your opening was a classic start to a limerick.”

 

“Should I continue?” Erica asked patiently.  

 

Franky didn’t respond immediately.

 

“Are you really going to leave your fiancé?” She asked suddenly, changing the direction of the conversation completely.

 

“Oh okay, that’s what you want to talk about.” Erica hadn’t expected Franky to be so direct.  Although, thinking about it, Franky was good at asking for what she wanted.

 

“Are you?”  She pushed.  “I mean you said it but people say shit all the time they don’t mean.”

 

That was true.  Erica had spent her entire career telling people what they wanted to hear to ensure her survival and success.  Wentworth had been particularly bad for that.  She was a good looking educated woman who had come in selling the importance of ‘soft skills’ to a bunch of misogynistic men who had years of experience in the prison system under their belts.  She had had to use all her wiles to make any headway.

 

“I did mean it, I do,” she quickly corrected herself.  “Mark isn’t what I want.”

 

“Does that mean you’ve worked out what you want?” Franky asked, forcing her to articulate what was in her head.  She sounded hopeful, more hopeful than their current circumstances warranted.

 

“Yes,” she answered deliberately.  “I think I have.  I mean you might be a terrible girlfriend but I think I’d like to find out for myself.”  She said it lightly but she meant it sincerely.  Others might think this was a terrible idea, her mother and Mark came immediately to mind, but she didn’t.  Franky, with all her charm and cheek, might just be the best thing that had ever happened to Erica and she knew she couldn’t deny just how attracted she was to this woman and her lifestyle.

 

“What if I told you I was a better girlfriend than I am a guide,” Franky asked with a grin.  

 

“I’d say that was quite a claim, Franky Doyle,” Erica said with laugh.

 

“Well I guess you’re just gonna have to wait and see.” Franky laughed with her.  

 

She sounded happy and Erica realised they both sounded happy.  She felt as though an enormous burden had been lifted from her shoulders.  She realised all those detours and painful misdirections were meant to lead her here.  She reached out and took Franky’s hand in hers.  

Chapter Text

The rapids spilled over each other in hasty abandon.  The water moved too fast and too furiously for Erica to tell what might lie beneath it.

 

“This is madness,” she said as she looked at the flimsy piece of fibreglass resting on the bank and the tumbling fury of the water.  “I can’t,” she stated emphatically.

 

“You can,” Franky contradicted her, equally emphatic.

 

“I’m not a kayaker, Franky, I can’t read the water, you can’t expect me to do this.”  She could feel her anxiety levels climbing.  It was unfair to expect this of her.  “I’m a lawyer,” she said as though that explained everything and to her mind it did.  She defined herself by her career and all it encapsulated.  “I’m just a city girl who wears heels and makeup.”  She felt apologetic even as she said it.  She was letting Franky down.  The injured guide was relying on her and Erica couldn’t do it.  She let herself look at Franky and expected to see reproach or disappointment in those disturbingly honest eyes.  She didn’t see either.  

 

The guide was watching her certainly but there was sympathy and understanding in her expression.  “I don’t see that,” she said.  “You’re not just anything,” she added with surprising earnestness.  It was all she said.  She didn’t expand.  She left the statement hanging there.

 

Erica sighed.  “Franky,” she pleaded.

 

“No Erica,” Franky shook her head. “You wanna know what I see?” She offered.  

 

Well of course she did, Erica couldn’t deny it, not to herself at any rate.  She knew Franky found her physically attractive, that much was obvious, and smart and possibly a good negotiator but she didn’t know what else the guide saw in her.  They weren’t exactly in an environment where she impressed.  In a conference room, holding her own against lawyers with twice her experience and years, there she could shine.  Or at drinks and dinners with clients where she could engage their interest and speak knowledgeably or curiously on matters that interested them.  Here though, to put it mildly, those skills and strengths were under utilised.  

 

“I see someone who spends a lot of time out of her comfort zone, and who likes to be challenged.  Someone who will assess the risks before taking the leap and then knowing those risks and what’s at stake will do it anyway.  What’s more brave?  Going in clueless with reckless abandon?  Or going in knowing just what you’re up against?  Gotta say I reckon it’s the second one.”  She smiled.  “We’re a lot alike you and me.”

 

And while Erica knew any true comparison between her and this woman before her would find her running a very sorry second, she couldn’t help feeling pleased by Franky’s assessment.  How could she not be when she admired Franky so much.  “Shut up,” she murmured with a small embarrassed smile.  She looked back towards the kayaks then skyward.  “Shit,” she muttered shaking her head.  How could she say no again after those words?  She‘d do it.  For Franky.  To try and somehow live up to Franky’s belief in her.  She’d kill herself in the process maybe but she’d try.

 

What choice did they have anyway?  The morning had brought a new set of circumstances that meant any possibility of waiting it out until someone found them had disappeared entirely.

 

It was dark when she had first woken and at first she hadn’t been sure what had disturbed her.  She checked on Franky and found she was still asleep, lying on her back with her head covered with her hood.  The breeze had dropped and the fire had died out.  All she could hear was the sound of distant rapids.  She resettled into her sleeping bag, pulling the hood over her head like Franky had to protect herself from the chill in the night air.  Whatever it was, she decided, it was gone.

 

Even when she woke in the morning she didn’t immediately notice anything amiss.  Franky was still sleeping when she got up.  She relieved herself then washed her hands and face in the river.  She went to find the pot in order to boil some water for coffee and that’s when she realised everything was gone.  The pack with all their supplies, the stove, the matches and flint, the food, the water bottles, the satellite phone (even if it was useless), the painkillers, everything.

 

Jake, she guessed.  He must have come back in the middle of the night.  It must have been what had woken her.  How had she not noticed then that everything had gone?  

 

She checked again because she couldn’t quite believe it.  She didn’t want to believe they were stuck in the middle of nowhere without supplies and injured.  People didn’t survive these types of scenarios.  People didn’t survive when they had better odds.  Her father for example.

 

Franky had been more philosophical and practical about the loss.  “Shit happens,” she said with a shrug.  “I thought he might pull a stunt like this.”

 

“You never said anything,” Erica retorted.

 

“Nah, you’d have insisted on staying awake all night to watch over our stuff.”  Franky replied.

 

That was probably true.  “Well then at least we would have still had our stuff,” she pointed out.

 

“You needed your sleep,” Franky said, “it’s not going to be easy kayaking out of here.”

 

“Well it’s not now we have no food,” Erica muttered under her breath.

 

Franky heard her.  “We can survive two days without food, trust me,” she said with certainty.  “We have our sleeping bags for warmth and our clothes and we’re not lost.  As scenarios go, this is a pretty good one.”

 

“Just the scenario I’d have selected for myself,” Erica retorted.  “There is the minor problem of your leg and my thumb,” she went on.  “How are we going to get down to the kayaks?”

 

“You’re going to carry me.”

 

Franky may as well have said they’d take the tram for all the sense her suggestion made to Erica.  The look on her face though told Erica she was being serious.  “I cannot possibly carry you, Franky.”  She said it as an apology and gave a rueful smile.  “I wish I could.”

 

“Not on land,” Franky clarified with a grin.  Erica knew her confusion must have shown on her face.  “We’re going to float down to the kayaks.  There aren’t any rapids in this next section, just easy water with a gentle current that will take us downstream.  I can’t swim with this leg but now it’s splinted and with your help, I should be able to float there easily enough.”

 

Erica thought that as ideas went, it wasn’t the worst one she’d ever heard.  However, she very much doubted Franky’s confident assertion that it would be in any way easy. 

 

To her surprise it had worked and had been more simple than Erica had expected.  Under Franky’s instruction she had found some sturdier logs about the same size.  They would use them as flotation devices, strapped together using the cord from their sleeping bag covers.  This meant Franky could float under her own steam with Erica guiding her.  It  would also mean Erica also had support and wouldn’t have to swim the entire way.  

 

They had made the trip without further injury.  Franky had mentioned an old access road that Ultimate Adventures used to drop the kayaks but the slim hope they would be met by rescuers was dashed on arrival.  They turned their attention to the kayaks.  To Erica’s relief they were double kayaks.  She had been worried about navigating through the more difficult rapids.  In a double kayak she guessed Franky would take on that burden for her.  It was the obvious choice but Franky had shaken her head.  Instead she indicated Erica should take first position in the boat. 

 

And she had tried to cry off because of her thumb and her fear.  But Franky had managed to make her want to live up to her crazy expectations. Plus Franky had a broken leg and Erica was pretty sure broken legs beat dislocated thumbs in any Rock Paper Scissors competition. 

 

So here she was tackling stoppers and trying desperately to avoid sieves and strainers under Franky’s calm guidance.  Although she couldn’t see her, she knew Franky was using her paddle to help get them out of tricky situations.  The spray and froth of the white water and the lightness and dexterity of the kayak made each successful manoeuvre exhilarating.  Erica found she was thrilled rather than daunted by the danger.  After a particularly hair-raising moment she turned back to share her enjoyment and saw the same emotion reflected in Franky’s eyes and laugh.  Maybe they were alike, she decided in that moment, adrenaline junkies who were prepared to take risks.  

 

There were quiet moments when the water was calm and they rested, letting the kayak drift with the current.  

 

“What are you thinking about?” Franky asked in one of these when Erica had fallen into quiet reflection.

 

“Shamelessly wishing this didn’t have to end because I’m having too much fun,” she admitted with a laugh.

 

“I knew you’d like it,” Franky said smugly.

 

“I love it,” Erica confirmed.

 

“Maybe we could do it again,” Franky suggested, she sounded hopeful.

 

“I’d like that,” Erica agreed with a smile in her voice.  The way Franky’s eyes lit up at her quick, certain response made Erica wonder if Franky had been testing her.  Maybe she hadn’t been certain Erica would be willing to share her obvious passion for the outdoors.  “I’d like that a lot.”  She reaffirmed.

 

“You’re a natural,” Franky praised her and Erica glowed and prepared herself for the next set of rapids.  

 

It was mid afternoon when they heard it.  A distinctive call echoed across the water.  They had been drifting again.  Erica’s arms ached from her efforts and she knew if she kept going much longer she would struggle to keep the boat upright in white water and they would be at risk of capsizing.  She sat up straighter and studied the shoreline.  Someone must be on the bank.  Her first thought was Jake.

 

“Coo...ee!”

 

Franky spotted them first.  “Right bank, two o’clock,” she said quickly.

 

Erica looked and her heart leapt as she spotted a few kayaks pulled up on a sandy bank and three people watching their progress.  It was over.  Help was at hand.  “Thank God!”

 

A tall large woman with long brown hair and warm brown eyes helped pull their kayak onto land.  She clearly had strength beneath her round features.  She worked with the efficiency of someone used to the task.  Her eyes were down but when she raised them to get a good look at the newcomers she stopped short.  Erica got out of the boat then turned to assist her injured companion. 

 

“Franky, what the hell, it’s been a while hey.”

 

Erica watched curiously.  Franky looked uncharacteristically stunned.  “Boomer.  I thought you were overseas,” she said eventually. 

 

Boomer was staring at Franky.  “I came back.”

 

Erica felt a slight tension or awkwardness in the exchange.  She wondered how these two knew each other but had a sneaking suspicion.  She cleared her throat.  “Franky needs some help to get out,” she said.

 

Between them they carefully eased Franky out of the small gap.  Boomer was staring at the makeshift splint.  “What happened to you?”  She asked Franky who just shrugged in response.  She turned to Erica.  “I’m Sue,” she introduced herself.  She waved across to her two companions.  “These are the Nakamuras, Julie and Johnny.”  The Japanese couple bowed their heads.

 

“I’m Erica,” she said with a polite smile.  “We’re very happy to see you,” she added.

 

“Doing private guiding these days, are ya?” Franky asked abruptly.

 

Boomer turned back to her.  “Yeah,” she replied, not responding to Franky’s curt almost accusing tone.  “You?”  Her eyes flicked to Erica briefly.

 

“I’m still with Ultimate Adventures,” Franky told her.

 

Boomer nodded.  “How’s Danny?”

 

The haze was clearing a little for Erica.  These two had worked together at some point she guessed, and maybe things hadn’t ended too well.

 

“We’re not sure,” Erica said at the same moment Franky replied, “He’s good.”

 

Boomer looked between them in slight confusion.  “You’re travelling pretty light for an Ultimate Adventures trek,” she commented.  “What happened to your leg?”

 

“She broke it,” Erica said when it seemed Franky wasn’t intending to respond.  “How it happened is quite a story.”

 

Boomer nodded.  “I better put on the stove for some coffee then,” she said with a warm smile.  “Johnny, how about you get a fire started.”

 

Erica settled Franky against a rock and squeezed her hand.  She didn’t know what was going on with her but she wanted to demonstrate her support in some small way.  She watched Boomer curiously.  She didn’t know the cause of the tension between the two but she couldn’t help liking the large guide who helped Johnny get the fire started once she had put the water on to boil.  

 

They made small talk and Erica learnt that Boomer and her clients had begun their three day kayaking tour that morning from the same point that the Ultimate Adventures kayaks had been left.  Erica realised she and Franky had probably missed their transport by no more than an hour.  Julie and Johnny were visiting from Japan and this tour was a small part in their month long holiday.  Erica did a rough calculation in her head and realised she had been hiking for longer than they had been in the country.

 

She asked Boomer for her first aid kit and provided Franky with some pain killers.  Franky took them with water then drank thirstily.  They had been out on the water for most of the day and were both dehydrated.  Boomer gave them cheese and a trail mix made up of a variety of seeds and nuts and dried fruit with smarties thrown in for a chocolate hit.  It was the first food they’d had all day except for a muesli bar Franky had found in her jacket pocket.

 

Once the coffee was made Erica recounted their tale.  She thought Franky probably would have given their audience a better telling but the guide had elected to remain silent.  Even so, the exclamations were frequent and when Erica got to the point of Vera and Franky sliding off the side of the mountain Julie had a hand over her mouth in horror.  

 

“Is that how you injured your leg?”  Boomer asked Franky directly.  

 

“Yeah,” Franky confirmed briefly.

 

“How bad is it?” Boomer asked with an air of someone who understood the consequences for someone in their profession.

 

“Dunno,” Franky replied.

 

”That sucks,” she offered with sympathy.  Franky didn’t respond.  

 

Boomer had a working satellite phone and she called in their location.  There was nowhere for a helicopter to land and would take 3 days for rescuers to hike in.  They elected to kayak out as planned and be met by an ambulance in the small settlement of Rawton, located another 20kms downstream.

 

“You didn’t see anyone else today, did you?” Erica asked curiously.

 

“Your mates, you mean?”  Boomer clarified.  Franky snorted but didn’t correct the other woman’s phrasing.  “We haven’t seen anyone since picking up the kayaks, sorry.”

 

Boomer’s party shared their food with Erica and Franky.  It was the commercial dehydrated food sachets and Erica compared it unfavourably to Franky’s recipes.  She was grateful to be eating though and was loud in her thanks.  They chatted about their route the next day then moved on to explaining Australian cultural idiosyncrasies to Julie and Johnny.  Erica asked Boomer how she got her nickname.  “It was cos I kept coming back to do stints guiding with Ultimate Adventures.  Danny said I was like a boomerang,” she grinned.  “Guess I was really.” 

 

When they settled for the night the others disappeared into their tents and Erica and Franky lay down by the fire.  Their sleeping bag covers were waterproof and had kept their bags pretty dry.  Erica had noticed that Franky hadn’t been her usual self since they had come off the water.

 

 “We’ll be out tomorrow,” she said, mainly as a distraction.  

 

“Yeah,” Franky didn’t sound as happy as she should have.

 

“We can get your leg checked out.”  

 

“We?  You coming with me?”  Franky sounded unsure.

 

“Of course,” Erica said immediately.  “I’m not deserting you.”

 

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Franky said.

 

“Franky,” Erica took hold of the guide’s jaw and gently turned her face towards her.  “Where’s this coming from?”

 

“Nowhere,” Franky denied immediately.

 

Erica studied her.  “Mm, I don’t believe you.”  She kissed her to soften her words.  She took a stab at where she thought Franky’s issues had suddenly appeared from.  “What’s between you and Boomer?” She whispered into Franky’s ear.

 

“Nothing,” Franky replied a little too quickly.  She pulled away.

 

“It’s obvious you two have a history,” Erica stated.  “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it,” she added when Franky didn’t offer any explanation.  “I’ll just assume the worst though,” she said after a moment.

 

Franky chuckled quietly.  “What’s that then?” Obviously intrigued.

 

“Bad break up, you cheated on her and took her favourite leather jacket when you moved out,” Erica speculated.

 

Franky laughed out loud.  “Me and Boomer?  Nah, she’s got a thing for Brendan Fevola,” she said lightly.  “The leather jacket bit is entirely possible.”

 

“I knew it!” Erica said triumphantly.

 

“It was nothing like that,” Franky said more seriously.  “We were friends once.  Boomer, me and Dan all worked at Ultimate Adventures.  We had a lot of laughs together,” Franky sounded nostalgic for good times past.

 

“What happened?”

 

“She fucked me over.“  

 

It was all Franky was prepared say despite Erica’s cajoling.  Erica let it be.  Whatever had happened Franky clearly still hadn’t forgiven her friend.  “I’m sorry,” she said softly.  She suspected Franky was feeling particularly vulnerable at the moment, incapacitated as she was and having to rely first on Erica and now Boomer.

 

The next day went smoothly.  Erica found she held her own in the rapids and in fact did better than the Japanese couple.  They landed at Rawton mid afternoon.  An ambulance was waiting for them.  “I’m coming with you,” Erica said, turning around to look at Franky half expecting her to say it wasn’t necessary.  “If they’ll let me.”

 

“I was hoping you would,” Franky smiled at her.  

 

When she turned back to shore though she saw another figure standing near the ambulance.  It looked familiar and her heart sank.

 

Mark was standing awkwardly, waiting, his eyes never leaving her.  He looked relieved and she wondered what he’d been told, what he knew.  As the kayak beached itself on the small sandy landing area he came forward.  “Erica!  Are you all right?  They said someone was injured.”  His eyes flicked over her, looking for a sign.

 

Erica pulled herself out of the kayak and stalled Mark by turning to the two ambulance officers.  “Franky’s broken her leg,” she told them.

 

They stepped forward and Franky was swamped with efficient hands to help her.  Erica was redundant.  She was reluctant to move away.  “I need to come with her,” she told one of the ambulance officers.

 

“Erica,” Mark took her injured hand and she winced in pain.  “What happened?  I was worried.”

 

“I’m fine, Mark,” Erica said abruptly.  “What are you doing here?”  She knew she sounded ungracious and she was.  Mark was the last person she expected to see, or wanted to see if she was honest.  

 

“They contacted me.  I’m your emergency contact and you’ve been missing for days.”  He sounded understandably annoyed at the question.  

 

Erica took a breath.  “Of course, I’m sorry, it’s just,” she bit off her words.

 

“It’s okay,” he said in a conciliatory tone, “you’ve been through a lot.”  Erica didn’t respond.  She watched as the ambulance officers moved Franky to a stretcher.  “Come on, let’s get you home.”

 

“I’m going with Franky,” she said without looking at him.

 

“What?”  He sounded uncertain and although she wasn’t looking she knew he was frowning at her.  “Your friend is in good hands.”

 

She wanted to say that Franky wasn’t her friend, that she was more than that but it wasn’t the moment.  “She’s my guide,” she said instead and she hated herself when she saw the look on Franky’s face, who had obviously overheard the exchange.  

 

She stepped towards Franky.  “I’m coming with you,” she said to her.

 

Franky looked at her and then Mark.  Erica wanted to kiss her, right there in front of that eclectic audience.  She stepped closer.  Franky put a hand on her arm.  “It’s okay,” she said with understanding, “I’ll be okay.”

 

“Franky,” she said and could feel tears filling her eyes and blurring Franky’s perfect face.  “I’m sorry,” she blurted out.  

 

Franky took hold of her hand and slipped a folded piece of paper into it.  “Your fiancé looks like a boring tosser, I’m not surprised you don’t want to marry him.”  She whispered not so subtly.

 

Erica laughed at the unexpected comment.  The officers moved Franky into the back of the ambulance and further discussion wasn’t possible.  She looked down at the note Franky had given her and saw it was a mobile phone number.

 

She glanced up and saw Franky grinning at her.  “Call me,” she mouthed as the doors closed.  

 

A stupid smile slid across Erica’s face.

 

Chapter Text

It was six weeks since Erica had seen Franky disappear in the back of an ambulance and she had climbed reluctantly into the passenger side of Mark’s car with Franky’s number clasped tightly in her hand.

 

Franky had put the next move literally into her hands.  The guide had declared her intentions and hopes clearly from the first day.  Erica knew how Franky wanted things to progress from here.  It was now for Erica to decide if that was what she wanted as well, once the sparkle had worn off and reality had returned.  Erica understood why Franky had pressed the pause button.  Erica had to sort out her life and that could take time.

 

The separation had been difficult though.  She realised how easily and with complete unawareness she had fallen into Franky’s world.  In her first week back she resented having to style her hair each morning and spend time applying makeup and choosing what to wear.  She missed seeing Franky smiling at her over her morning coffee cup, teasing her or espousing the wonders of the day’s hike.  People rushing past her and the general pace of life irritated her.  She wished for time to contemplate the world and its wonders away from the noise and bustle of city life.

 

Most of these things passed however, and she slipped back into her routine.  Except the bit about missing Franky.  She found herself comparing every comment and reaction from Mark with how Franky would have responded.  While she found Franky’s attention addictive, she found Mark’s smothering.  She got frustrated with Mark’s questions as he tried to understand what had happened out in the bush.  His repeated question of why Erica felt it was necessary to go with Franky when she went to look for Vera, received short unenlightening responses.

 

She didn’t have a phone to call Franky until she returned to work.  The call went immediately through to voicemail.  She left a message saying to hoped she was okay, that she missed her.  She didn’t get a call in return.  She went through a plethora of reasons in her head explaining Franky’s silence.  They began with Franky giving her the wrong number and ended with Franky lying unconscious or worse in a hospital bed.

 

It took almost a week before she had her answer.  The gear she had left at the camping spot, including her phone, was finally returned to her.  As she unpacked her stuff she found that Franky’s phone had inadvertently ended up with her own belongings.  She contacted Ultimate Adventures asking for Franky’s address.  They were reluctant to pass on personal details of their employees they said, and Erica pushed down her frustration.  Fine, she replied, but could they pass on Franky’s phone to her?

 

She dropped off the phone and waited impatiently.

 

Her relationship with Mark crumbled to its inevitable end.  The defining moment occurred during a football match on the first Saturday after her return.

 

“Where was Franky’s emergency contact?”

 

“What?” Mark had sounded irritated.  He’d been watching the football.  Erica had been drinking wine thinking that it was coming up to hiker’s midnight and on the trek they’d be contemplating bed instead of another wine.  It made her think of Franky, although she acknowledged pretty much anything made her think of Franky.  It either reminded her of Franky in some way or it didn’t, which made her wonder what Franky might think of it.

 

“Well the emergency services contacted you so you could turn up at Rawton,” Erica had pointed out, “so where was Franky’s emergency contact?”

 

“Maybe she didn’t have one,” Mark said, turning his attention back to the game.  It only lasted a moment.  “You know Erica, I didn’t just turn up at Rawton,” he had said with exasperation.

 

She‘d still been thinking about Franky.  It was awful to think there was no one Franky would list to contact should any harm come to her.  How could such a charismatic woman lack such a person she wondered.  Suddenly she’d realised what must have happened.  She’d expelled a breath, “of course!”

 

“Erica!”

 

She’d looked across to Mark and found him staring at her.  “What?” She asked blankly, had he asked her something she’d wondered.

 

“I didn’t just turn up at Rawton,” he had sounded petulant.  “You say it like I was an uninvited guest at a wedding.  I’m your fiancé.  I was worried sick about you!”

 

With sudden insight Erica had guessed Franky had listed her dad with probably the last contact number she ever had for him.  She’d remembered the photo of Franky and her father and had felt a rush of emotion for the little girl inside of Franky that was still waiting for her dad.

 

“Jesus Christ Erica!  Are you even listening to me?”

 

“How could I not be?” She’d asked, “when you’re shouting at me.”

 

“Well it seems to be the only way I can get your attention these days!”  He’d said with frustration.  “Ever since you’ve got back you haven’t been present.  I know I encouraged you to go but I’m beginning to think it was a bad idea.”

 

“It wasn’t,” Erica had refuted immediately.

 

“Well did it help you sort through whatever’s stopping you from committing to this relationship?”  He asked, “because that was the point of it.”

 

“Yes,” she’d said simply.

 

It had stopped him in his tracks.  She’d effectively pulled the rug out from under his argument, undermined his right to be so upset.

 

“So you’re ready to set a date then?” He had sounded so quietly hopeful.

 

She couldn’t let him think there was any hope, that would be cruel, and she wasn’t cruel.  She was just a woman trying to work out what she wanted, had been struggling to know.  Well now she knew, and it wasn’t Mark.

 

“No,” she’d told him.  “I’m sorry Mark.”

 

And she was, sorry it had taken her so long to understand herself.  Sorry she had strung nice, patient Mark along for so long that he’d lost his patience.  But that was all she was sorry for.  Meeting Franky, being with Franky, falling for Franky, she regretted none of it.

 

“I’ve met someone.”

 

Of course that hadn’t been the end of it.  It had just been the start.  Mark had gone through all the stages of mourning on his journey to acceptance.  It had taken Erica longer than she’d hoped to extract herself from the relationship.  Some days she felt she was fighting a battle on two fronts when Mark had brought her mother in as reinforcements.  It was worth it, no matter what the casualties, for the lightness that filled her when the shackles which had held her down were finally broken.

 

A week after that her phone vibrated.

 

“Hello, miss me, did ya?” She asked in that teasing tone that was quintessential Franky.

 

“God yes,” Erica said, a little too fervently.

 

“Good,” Franky sounded pleased.

 

“Where are you?” Erica asked immediately.

 

“Home,” Franky told her, “more importantly, where are you?”

 

“At my mother’s,” Erica stopped at Franky’s laughter.  “What’s funny?”

 

“Nothing,” Franky replied with a smile in her voice, “how’s that going?”

 

“It’s not ideal,” Erica murmured as her mother passed through the room.  “How’s your leg?”

 

“Broken fibula,” she said matter-of-factly.  “They pinned it.”

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry Franky,” Erica sympathised.  “You’ll fully recover though?”

 

“If I’m a good girl and follow doctor’s orders,” Franky laughed.

 

“So no then,” Erica said, smiling.

 

“Excuse me, I can be a good girl,” she said with mock offence, “with the right incentives,” she added.

 

“Really?” Erica asked playfully, “what would they be?”

 

Franky laughed again.  “Listen, I’m gonna be out of action for a bit.  I really wanted to take you out for that dinner but,”

 

“But we’ll take a rain check,” she interrupted.  “It’s okay Franky, I understand,” she reassured her.

 

“I’ll make it up to you,” she promised.

 

Erica knew she would and that made up somewhat for having to wait.  “Are you okay? I mean do you need any help?”  She thought Franky would be appalled to think she couldn’t handle things on her own.

 

“Actually,” Franky sounded a little sheepish, “I’m staying at someone’s place.”

 

Erica was immediately suspicious.  “Whose place?”  In her mind she imagined some clingy ex-girlfriend falling over herself to look after the good-looking guide.  “You said you were at home.”

 

The answer wasn’t at all what she’d expected. “I meant home from the hospital.  I’m at Boomer’s,” Franky told her with a grin in her voice as if she knew perfectly well how Erica would respond.

 

“What?!  Okay, you’re going to have to explain that!” Erica demanded with a laugh.

 

“My place has stairs,” Franky replied.

 

Erica saw her mother trying to attract her attention.  She turned away from her and lowered her voice.  “That’s not exactly what I meant.”

 

“Boomer turned up at the hospital.”

 

Erica had tried to find where Franky was taken without any success.  “How did she get details out of those nazi nurses?”

 

“Dunno, probably threatened to punch them knowing Booms,” Franky laughed affectionately.

 

“Oh,” she hadn’t thought to try that approach herself.  Her mother called out to her.

 

“Is that your mum?”  Franky asked.  “Put her on,” she suggested with a dangerous enthusiasm that worried Erica.  “l’ll say hello.”

 

“I have to go,” Erica said hastily and rang off.  She did not trust Franky with her mother.

 

Later after Erica had gone to bed, her phone vibrated again.  It was a text from Franky.

 

F: You awake?

E: yes

F: I’m so fucking horny for you

Erica wished Franky hadn’t told her that.  It wasn’t something she could do anything about and she could feel her own body responding.

E: .....

She tried to distract them both.

E: are you going to tell me what happened with Boomer?

F: we sorted some stuff out

Erica sighed.

E: what stuff?! You still haven’t explained what happened between you two

F: I will just not now

E: why not now?

F: cos I had other ideas for now;)

E: oh

F: are you in bed?

E: yes

She slid further down under the covers and stared intently at her screen.

F: lights on?

E: lamp

F: what are you wearing?

Erica looked down at her outfit and wondered how to describe it.

E: a silk cami with blue forget me not flowers

F: Mm fancy. I’m picturing you in bed in your silk cami. What’s it feel like against your skin?

Erica stretched until her cami shifted against her abdomen.  The silky material caressed her skin.

E: soft and sexy

F: run your hand over your breast

Erica let her palm slide over her breast then ringed her nipple lightly over and over with her finger.  The feel of the material against her sensitive bud made her feel pleasantly fluid.  She played with the other breast cupping it through the material.  She imagined they were Franky’s fingers caressing her.

F: take off your cami

Erica slipped the light fabric over her head.  The sheets felt rough against her skin.

F: So you’re topless in your bed with only sexy silk underwear on

E: yes

F:That’s how I’m picturing you

F: you’re so fucking beautiful

Erica could hear a yearning in Franky’s words and could feel a similar yearning starting to build in her own body.  She continued to tease herself with light fingers and small pinches.

F: are you touching yourself?

E: yes

She felt sensual and aroused.  There was a pause before Franky responded.

F: fuck that’s hot

F: I wanna put my mouth on you

F: I wanna be inside you

Erica slid her hand down, imagining Franky’s tongue on her as her own fingers slid between the soft material of her underwear and over her mound to the slick lips below.  She gasped softly.

F: can you feel me fucking you?

Erica rode her own fingers at Franky’s words, gasping softly as she got closer, wishing Franky really was there fucking her.  In her mind Franky’s dark head was between in her legs thrusting her tongue then her fingers inside her, filling her until she came.  She cried out softly, the heel of her palm pressing against her clitoris as she dragged out her orgasm for as long as possible.  She threw her arm above her head and opened her eyes.  As she stared blankly at the ceiling she heard her phone vibrate again.  She rolled over onto her side and picked up her phone.

F: Erica?

Erica smiled languidly.

E: hello

E: I was just thinking about you

E: I just had an orgasm thinking about you

F: 🙈

Erica laughed softly.

F: sleep well sexy

E: I‘m pretty sure I will

E: Sweet dreams 😘

 

Erica was interviewed by the police in the days and weeks after the incident.  She wasn’t able to shed any light on the events at the campsite.  She told police about how she and Franky were held at gunpoint, how they escaped and the events which followed.  She was quick to emphasise Franky’s actions had been motivated by self defence and protection.   She was relieved when the police did not seem particularly interested in pursuing any charges against her while the perpetrators remained at large.  Fletch, Channing and Jake’s whereabouts were unknown despite a manhunt being mounted.  Her fellow hikers had all dispersed back to their homes.  Franky told her that Dan had suffered severe concussion as a result of the blow to his head but was recovering slowly.  Will’s injury, a bullet wound to his shoulder, had complications and required surgery.  She was thankful they were both alive.

 

“What about Vera?” She asked the police officer who interviewed her.

 

“Miss Bennett is still missing,” he answered.

 

Erica knew that.  The media had continued to report on the search until other news events took the headlines.  “People need closure,” she said, “her family and others,” she was thinking of Franky.

 

“We’re doing everything we can, Miss Davidson,” he told her.

 

“Really?” Erica asked sceptically.  “You don’t know the whereabouts of these men who attacked a group of hikers, completely unprovoked.  Their collaborator, who infiltrated the group days earlier, stole equipment and possibly kidnapped one of them is also at large.  You don’t think you could be doing more to bring these people to justice and find Vera?”

 

“I understand your frustration,” he said to pacify her, “we’ll be in touch if we need anything more.”

 

That afternoon Erica debriefed with Franky over the phone.  “I can’t tell if they know something which they’re not saying or they’re just clueless.”

 

“Dor told me Fletch and Channing are wanted in WA for smuggling wildlife out of the Kimberley’s.” Franky told her.

 

“So where does Jake fit in?” Erica wondered aloud.

 

“Maybe he just got caught up in something that he lost control of,” Franky speculated.  “Or maybe he really did fall for Vera.”

 

“Or maybe he was in it up to his neck until he realised the smart thing to do would be to rat out his mates to the police, which is far more likely if you ask me,” Erica countered with.

 

“Maybe it was all of the above,” Franky concluded.  “Maybe Vera didn’t survive that fall,” she added after a moment, putting into words what they both feared.  Vera was dead.  There was a disturbing silence and Erica cursed their physical separation.

 

“I miss you,” she said suddenly.

 

“Yeah?” Franky replied.  “Why don’t you come over then?” she suggested.

 

“Where’s Boomer?”  Erica asked.

 

“Asleep,” Franky replied, “we could get it on,” she said with sudden enthusiasm.

 

“You’re not exactly in a position to do that,” Erica pointed out.

 

“If you sit on my face I’ll be in a position to eat you out,” Franky offered.

 

“When you put it like that,” Erica said with a smile.  “How lightly does Boomer sleep?”  She was only half joking.

 

“Don’t reckon you worried too much about thin walls when I was fucking you in a tent,” Franky pointed out with a grin.

 

Erica acknowledged that she had a point.  “Regardless, I can’t,” she sighed.  “I have to go to Sydney.”

 

“Sydney?  Why?”

 

“Work.”

 

About the same time Franky started rehabilitation, Erica was sent to Sydney to take on some specialist work for a big client.  She wasn’t happy about having to travel.  She was conscious that once Franky had fully recuperated, she would be back to work and away for weeks at a time.

 

To distract herself she spent the lonely hours in her hotel room looking at apartments to rent or trying to track down Liz.  They hadn’t exchanged phone numbers or addresses and all she knew was that Liz lived rurally somewhere just outside Melbourne.

 

Erica started sending Franky links to apartments that she was considering renting.  None of them had so far met her requirements but she was interested to hear Franky’s views.  After all she hoped her girlfriend would spend a good chunk of her spare time there.

 

“Do you have income protection insurance?”  Erica asked her one day when Franky had casually mentioned she was sub-letting her flat and suggested laughingly that Erica consider it.  She was worried how Franky was managing to support herself.

 

“Nup,” Franky replied dismissively.  They were Skyping and Erica could see Franky was on her couch.  Her leg in its moon boot, Franky showed her, was propped on the soft arm of the couch.  In the background she could hear the television playing some wildlife documentary.

 

“How are you coping?  Financially?” Erica questioned tentatively.

 

“Okay,” she said with a shrug.  She caught Erica’s eye.  “You worried about me?”  She asked with grin.

 

“A little bit,” Erica admitted.

 

“Well, I don’t have time to spend much of my pay usually,” she reassured her, “so I’ve got a bit in reserve.”

 

“Well, if you find you need some,” Erica didn’t get to finish the offer.

 

“I’m good,” Franky said immediately and it was clear she had no intention of borrowing money from Erica.

 

“Okay,” Erica nodded.  She understood and respected the desire to be independent.  “It’s just you mentioned having an appointment with the bank the other day.”

 

Franky’s eyes lightened with understanding.  “That was something else,” she said.  She didn’t expand and Erica didn’t push her.

 

“So I picked a place for our date,” Franky said, changing the subject.

 

“Does that mean what I think it means?” Erica asked.

 

“Boot comes off tomorrow!”  Franky called out gleefully.  “So get your arse back here so I can ravish you til dawn!”

 

“Friday,” Erica promised, “I’ll be back on Friday.”

 

The end of the week couldn’t come fast enough for either of them.

Chapter Text

Erica was feeling frustrated, anxious, and impatient.  It wasn’t how she wanted her evening with Franky to start.  The 90 minute flight back to Melbourne seemed to take forever.  Boarding had been delayed, something odd in the pre-flight check the pilot had said.  Then they missed their departure spot and seemed to sit on the tarmac forever waiting in the queue for takeoff.  

 

“Oh for God’s sake,” she muttered when the pilot announced they were in a holding pattern 40 kilometres from Melbourne while they waited for an opportunity to land.

 

“Nervous flyer?” Her neighbour asked sympathetically.  

 

He was a fifty something business man.  His hair was streaked with silver giving him a debonair look.  Despite his suave looks, he had kind eyes.  “No,” she corrected his assumption, “just running late.  I have a dinner date,” she added impulsively, sharing more than she needed to.  She felt herself smiling.

 

“Well I’m sure he’ll be willing to wait,” he said, smiling in return.

 

Her smile continued automatically.  It was the type of exchange she’d had countless times in her adult life.  Men acknowledging her looks and their appreciation was just a part of the decor.

 

Only it wasn’t a man who would be waiting for her.  It was Franky.  A woman.  Suddenly she felt like a fraud, like she was somehow betraying Franky by not acknowledging this.  She had recognised on a conceptual level the difficulties of living a life that was outside the norm but this seemed to be the first moment she’d experienced it in a practical sense.  People made assumptions all the time, and those assumptions were that everyone was normal, and wanted what they wanted.  They assumed this despite the obvious and continuous contradictory examples presented to them in the news and in their workplaces.  

 

“I hope she will,” she answered, refusing to emphasise the pronoun or acknowledge the assumption.

 

To be fair, he didn’t bat an eyelid.  “She’s a lucky girl,” he said.

 

“I don’t know,” Erica refuted his statement.  “She’s so brave, and funny, and charming.  She has a beautiful smile and eyes that are so mesmerising.”  Erica smiled.  “When she’s being sincere she has this vulnerability that is just so raw and honest.  She didn’t have the best childhood and yet despite that she is optimistic and hopeful.  I actually think I’m the lucky one.”  

 

“She sounds special,” he replied.

 

“She is,” Erica said with certainty.

 

The plane straightened up and the flight attendant announced that they had commenced their descent.  Erica felt all the excitement and anticipation that had been building since Franky had confirmed their date pool in the pit of her stomach.  It was silly to feel such nervous excitement given she and Franky had already progressed well beyond the first date stage.  But she would see Franky tonight after weeks of separation and she had sorted out her life since then.  She was now available and the future looked bright and for the first time she felt ready to commit to it.  For her at least she felt as though it was the beginning of something.

 

She was waiting at the baggage carousels wondering if she’d get a taxi straight away or would have to wait.  If she got one straight away she thought she’d have time for a bath before needing to get ready for her date.

 

Suddenly she was grabbed from behind, hands sliding around her waist and pulling her back against soft curves.  Warm lips kissed her exposed neck and she heard a familiar laugh.  “Hello!  You’re looking fucking gorgeous!”

 

“Franky!” She exclaimed as she turned in the embrace to find Franky’s dancing green eyes admiring her.  She kissed her, then brought her hands up to hold her close.  “What are you doing here?”  She asked eventually.

 

“I couldn’t wait,” Franky confessed.  

 

“But how did you know I’d be on this flight?” Erica asked, perplexed.

 

“You texted me complaining your flight had been delayed by twenty minutes and you were only just boarding, remember?” Erica nodded.  “Well, I just got on line and found a flight from Sydney that was due to depart twenty minutes before you sent that message.  Wasn’t hard,” she said nonchalantly.

 

Erica caressed her cheek and kissed her again.  “Well it’s a very nice surprise,” she murmured.  She glanced down at her leg.  Franky was wearing denim cutoff shorts and the leg that had been injured was bare.  “How’s your fibula?”

 

Franky laughed and showed her the scar from the surgery.  “Pretty good, still got some more sessions with the physio before I get the all clear to go back to work though.”

 

Erica was happy that Franky would be in town for a little longer at least.  She knew it was selfish of her and Franky was probably dying to get back to the bush.

 

A man edged passed them to get his bag.  He collected his suitcase almost taking them out as he pulled it off the carousel.  “I’m sorry,” he said quickly as he brought the offending suitcase under control.  He glanced up at them with a rueful smile.  It was the same man who had been sitting next to Erica on the plane.  “Oh hello,” he said with a smile.  His eyes flicked to Franky and back to Erica.  “Enjoy your evening.” He smiled in farewell.  

 

“Thank you,” Erica said, smiling in return.  

 

“Do you know him?” Franky asked, as she watched the man walk away.

 

“Not really, I met him on the plane, we were chatting, about you actually,” Erica confessed.  

 

“Yeah? What did you tell him?” Franky asked with a grin.  “How hot I am?”

 

Erica rolled her eyes.  “Something like that,” she agreed.

 

They shared a taxi into town.  “I wanted a bath but I’ll be pushing it now,” Erica lamented.

 

“We can have a bath if you want,” Franky suggested, “it’ll have to be at your mum’s place though cos Boomer doesn’t have one.”  

 

Erica had a mental image of being sprung in the bath with Franky by her mother.  She shuddered.  “Well that’s not going to happen,” she replied.  She could see Franky was grinning.  “You were joking,” she acknowledged.  

 

“Not about having a bath with you,” she poked her tongue out and grinned wickedly.  

 

Erica couldn’t help but smile back at her.  God, she had missed this woman and her irreverent attitude.

 

“But first,” Franky went on more seriously.

 

“Dinner,” Erica nodded.

 

“But first,” Franky repeated deliberately, “I’m gonna wrap your legs around my waist and drive you through a wall.”  Erica swallowed.  “Think about that while you’re having your bath,” Franky murmured in her ear as she leant into Erica putting her hand on Erica’s leg and pressing her thumb into her inner thigh.

 

“I’ll be late if I have a bath,” Erica said a little breathlessly.

 

Franky returned her side of the back seat of the taxi.  “Nah, you won’t, I pushed back the booking when I heard your flight was delayed,” she said with satisfaction, as though she knew Erica would need time to wash away the travel, and the week.

 

Erica leant across and kissed her impulsively on the cheek.  “God I love,” she saw Franky’s eyebrows go up at her words, “the way you think.”  She finished with, her own teasing smile curling the corners of her mouth.

 

“I reckon that’s not all you love about me,” Franky replied confidently.  She turned her head and kissed Erica soundly, thereby claiming the last word.

 

Two hours later Erica was clean, relaxed, and dressed to kill.  She had thought a lot about the dress she wanted to wear.  She wasn’t entirely sure where Franky would take her but when they had initially talked about a date the conversation had been around how each of them would scrub up.  She wanted something sexy in a classy, elegant way.  She wanted to take Franky’s breath away.  She wanted her undivided attention.  She chose a floating black chiffon dress that flounced lightly just above her knees.  It had a halter neck which showed off the clean lines of her collar bone and shoulders.  It pulled in at the waist emphasising her slim figure before dropping lightly over her hips.  The lightness of the material giving a suggestion of legs beneath.   She chose a simple silver bangle and delicate chain to wear on her respective wrists.  She finished the outfit with a pair of stiletto high heels which left her foot bare but for a leather band around her ankle and another across her foot just above her toes.  She chose these because they were the antithesis of her hiking boots and emphasised her calves.  She deliberated over her hair but ultimately chose to wear it down, dropping in soft ringlets which caressed her bare shoulders.

 

Now she was waiting for Franky.  They had agreed to make their own way to dinner as they were located on opposite sides of the city.  Erica’s mother had dropped her on the way to the theatre.  A situation that had reminded Erica awkwardly of first dates as a teenager.  She vowed to pick an apartment without further delay.  She needed her own space and her own life back.  The address Franky had given was in a part of Melbourne Erica didn’t know.  The entrance had looked less than salubrious and her mother had frowned.

 

“How will you get home?” she had asked as Erica stepped out of the car.

 

“I’ll be fine.  Don’t wait up,” Erica had replied as she had closed the door.  It had sounded dismissive and rude.  “Have a nice night with your friends,” she had added to soften her words.

 

She entered the slightly battered metal door somewhat apprehensive herself of what might be behind it.  She relaxed when she found herself in a dimly lit narrow room panelled with dark wood.  A long bar dominated the space, its surface a polished piece of warm, rich timber.  A hipster in black pants, shirt and tie with a waiter’s vest manned the space behind the bar.  And behind him row on row of whiskey bottles stretching the length of the bar.  Her eyes searched for Franky amongst the mainly male clientele.  When she decided she wasn’t there she took up residence at one of the small tables lining the wall opposite the bar.  She could tell this was a top notch whiskey bar from her quick review of the bottles lining the shelves.  She wondered how Franky had discovered it given she had never mentioned being a scotch drinker and it didn’t seem into self-promotion.  She wasn’t even sure what it was called.  She was looking around curiously when the door opened.

 

Franky was standing in its frame, softly lit and looking incredible.  Having only really seen Franky in her work clothes Erica somehow imagined she would still look like an outdoors type even in her evening wear.  She didn’t.  She was transformed into this stunning woman light years from the casual sexy guide.  She was in a tight red dress that stopped mid thigh showing off her long slim tanned legs and black high heels that Erica felt sure Franky’s doctor wouldn’t approve of.  Her hair was down and artistically messy giving her a slightly playful look.  The dress was sleeveless and the neckline was a flattering v shape showing a glimpse of Franky’s tattoo at the top of her left breast.  The look was simple, stylish, and undeniably sexy.  All this Erica absorbed in the few seconds it took for Franky to find her in the crowd.  Then Franky was smiling, raising her eyebrows, stepping forward to greet her, her eyes never leaving her, her admiration apparent.

 

“Hi,” Erica said as Franky took her hand and drew her in, kissing her lightly.

 

“Hi,” Franky replied, “welcome to our date.”  She grinned then leant in.  “Is it wrong that I want to start by fucking you against this bar?”  She murmured.  

 

An image of Franky’s skilful fingers driving her wild immediately came into Erica’s head.  “What do you think?”  Franky asked, but she wasn’t asking for approval of her scheme, she was talking about their surroundings,

 

Erica drew her mind back to reality.  “It’s very masculine,” she replied, “how did you find it?” 

 

They approached the bar.

 

Franky laughed “Yeah, well John told me about it,” she replied, “he’s into whiskey.”

 

“John?”  Erica frowned, “John from the hike?” She exclaimed.  “When did you talk to him?”

 

“When I started planning our first date,” Franky said with a grin.

 

“And when was that?” Erica asked curiously.  She thought it must have been the night at the thermal spring when Franky had correctly guessed her favourite drink was scotch.

 

“The day I met you,” she said as she turned to the bartender, engaging him in conversation.

 

Erica smiled.  “That is just like you,” she replied when the bartender had gone away to fill their orders.  “You’re so cocky you’d plan a date before you even knew if I was interested.”

 

Franky turned to face her.  “Oh I knew,” she said.  “You look beautiful by the way.”

 

“Thank you,” Erica acknowledged the compliment, “but don’t change the subject, how did you know?”

 

“You were flirting with me,” she said nonchalantly.

 

“I was not!  You!”  Erica put a finger on Franky’s chest.  “You were flirting with me.  Talking about how good my butt felt in your hands.”

 

Franky laughed.  “Yeah, and you remember it, admit it you were hooked from day one.”  

 

Erica wasn’t going to deny it.  “Well, so were you.”

 

Franky handed her a glass of arctic single malt scotch.  Her green eyes held Erica’s.  “Yes, I was,” she said sincerely.

 

Erica found herself staring into those mesmerising eyes.  Everything and everyone faded into the background with the intensity of that moment.  Her mind was racing with thoughts too fast to hold on to any single one.  She didn’t want to rush the night though, they had waited too long for this moment, been through too much.  She reigned in her galloping senses and forced herself to concentrate on what Franky was saying.

 

“Dan is back to his best,” she told Erica.  “He led a trek out to the Western Arthurs on Monday.”

 

“I’m glad he has fully recovered,” Erica paused.  “I suppose you’re wishing you were out there with him,” she suggested gently.

 

Franky shrugged.  “Nah, no point rushing it, besides I get to hang out with you’.  She smiled and leant closer to Erica.  “I’ve been thinking about you a lot,” she confessed.  “I’ve missed hanging out with you.”

 

“I’ve missed you too,” Erica admitted.  

 

“It’s made me realise this isn’t going to work.”  Franky was frowning and Erica could feel her own frown forming.  “It’s just gonna be too hard with me being away for two or three weeks at a time.”

 

“Franky, we haven’t even tried yet,” Erica could feel everything she wanted slipping through her fingers.  This wasn’t how the evening was supposed to go.

 

“I have Erica, loads of times, and it never works,” she sounded resigned.

 

“Okay,” Erica conceded, “but are you just going to quit?”  She felt slightly hysterical.

 

“Yeah,” Franky replied, “I think I am.”  She kept talking but all Erica could hear was white noise.  Franky wasn’t prepared to take a risk on her.  The risk taking guide didn’t think their odds were worth a bet.

 

She interrupted her.  “Well I’m not willing to give up on us,” she said firmly.  “Not until we’ve given it a chance anyway.  I’ll come out on treks with you,” she offered impulsively.  She didn’t have the first clue about how she would manage to do that and hold down a full time job but just then she didn’t care.

 

“You’d do that?”  Franky asked with surprise.

 

“Yes,” Erica said emphatically.

 

“That’s crazy,” she said with a smile.

 

And of course it was crazy but Franky didn’t seem to be giving her a sane option to choose.  “No crazier than not giving us a chance at all, which seems to be your idea,” Erica huffed.

 

“I want us to have a chance, Erica.”  Franky said seriously, “which is why I’m doing this.  Listen if the bank comes through with the loan then I’ll be able to quit guiding while I do the start up,” Franky explained.  “I’ll be here, in Melbourne.”

 

“What do you mean?  What start up?” Erica was still confused but she heard some hope in Franky’s words.  It was clear she had missed something vital.  “You’re going to quit guiding?  But you love it.”

 

“Yeah, well, I’ve had a lot of time to think recently.  I also love cooking and I thought about your idea of having my own dehydrated meal business.  I reckon it could work, if the bank is willing to put up the capital.  So I wrote up a business plan while I was laid up and went and talked to some banks.”

 

Erica stared at the woman before her.  She had so much she wanted to say to her.  “Franky, I thought you were breaking up with me,” was what came out.

 

Franky’s surprised expression spoke volumes.  “Why would I wanna do that?”  She leant forward and took Erica’s hands in hers.  “I’m completely smitten with you. You are the sexiest, smartest woman I have ever met.”  Her eyes were dark and serious.  “Don’t ever think I would throw this away, or give it up without a fight.”

 

Erica felt her emotions swirl dangerously close to the surface.  Franky’s declaration of her intentions took away much of Erica’s angst.  Until now she hadn’t realised how much she needed that reassurance.  Franky was in this as deep as she was.  “I want to kiss you right now,” she said.

 

Franky’s eyebrows shot up in mock surprise.  “You are so forward,” she replied.

 

Erica laughed lightly.  “Shut up,” she murmured as she leant forward and kissed Franky softly.

 

They finished their drinks while Franky told Erica about her plans for her start up company.  The woman thought big, Erica acknowledged, and it was clear she had plans beyond a one woman show operating out of her kitchen.  Erica made some suggestions around the legalities of starting a business and Franky listened carefully, asking insightful questions.  “You could have been a lawyer,” Erica said laughingly at one point.  

 

“Then we could have met in a court room and had sex on the judge’s bench,” Franky suggested.  She must have noticed Erica’s slightly shocked expression.  “What?  Don’t tell me that’s not on your bucket list.”  Her mobile pinged and she glanced down.  “Time for our next stop,” she said. 

 

The stop turned out to be one of the fanciest hotels in Melbourne.  Erica was intrigued.  Franky led her up to the 35th floor.  “What are we doing here?” She asked when it was clear this was another bar and not their dinner booking.

 

“Loo stop,” Franky said and led her not to the bar but through to the ladies room.

 

“Oh my god, this is amazing!” Erica gasped.  She was staring not at the lavish fixtures and fittings but the view.  Melbourne was spread out before them and the horizon was blurred with vibrant red and orange as the sun sank lower in the sky.  “Franky!  This is beautiful.”

 

“Yeah, I wanted to share it with you.” Franky told her and despite the sunset, she seemed to only have eyes for Erica.  “We could pay 20 bucks for a cocktail for it but I reckon sunsets should be free.”  She grinned.  

 

“Just like public toilets,” Erica agreed.  “Not that these look like public toilets.”

 

Franky put her hands on Erica’s hips and pulled her gently towards her.  They watched the sun set over Melbourne and the city lights turn the centre into a fairyland.  Erica was occasionally aware of women passing through, possibly some gave the couple a second glance but no one disturbed them.  The room darkened eventually and Franky took the opportunity to kiss Erica.  “Fuck, I’ve missed this,” she muttered against Erica’s mouth.  Her warm lips tasted of scotch and Erica kissed her deeply savouring the moment and the pleasure this woman brought her.

 

But although Erica invited her to take things further Franky pulled back.  “Time for our next stop,” she murmured.