Forever, Remember?
by Watcher

Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and Agent 99 are all owned by others. I only borrowed them for a little while. No copyright infringement was intended. Casey and Beth (and their ever growing list of friends and enemies) sprang from my wicked mind.

Sex/Violence Disclaimer: This story depicts a loving relationship between two women. Also there is a little violence (c'mon, Xena and her future personality are here! Of course there's violence), but no where near the level of an average episode of Xena: Warrior Princess.

"Don't move, Scumbag!" Casey heard the low, gravelly tone of her author and took off running. "Hang on Beth, I'm coming!" The specialist growled under her breath, reaching for her 9mm.

"One more step and you're toast!" Casey spun into the room silently, weapon drawn, heart hammering. Blue eyes darted frantically then fastened on her partner, taking in the clip on the desk. "What the hell? Hope she remembered to clear the chamber." Added a second later.

"Stop or I'll shoot." Beth's tone changed, sounding even more menacing. Wide eyed, Casey silently slipped into the shadows, clamping a hand over her mouth.

"No, no, Beth. That's not right. THINK!" The author re-holstered her partner's weapon, stomping back to the center of the room. "Ok, let's try this." Spinning towards the window, Beth pulled the gun smartly. "Freeze, Dirtball!"

"No, no. That's still not right." Complaining loudly, Beth slammed the weapon into its holster. "Think! What would Casey say?"

From the shadows blue eyes tracked her loudly stomping partner, wincing at the treatment of her weapon. "Not that!" The specialist chuckled silently. "I'm glad I skipped out of work early today. Thank you, little brother, I really need this. I definitely wouldn't want to miss this! Just what is Beth practicing?" She was pulled from her thoughts by Beth suddenly crouching behind the sofa. "What the???"

"Do you feel lucky, punk?" Beth growled, popping up from behind the sofa, gun pointed dangerously at her invisible invader. A second later, she stood, stretching stiff muscles. "Well, that was better, but not quite what I want." Beth missed the muffled snort from behind her. "At least it feels," the author paused, waving the gun haphazardly in front of her. "More authentic."

Pacing sedately, Beth froze, whipping the weapon from its holster. Her voice at its deepest, most intimidating level she tried again. "Go ahead, make my day!"

That did it for the specialist: she burst out laughing.

"What?" Beth spun around, eyes blazing. "Casey!" The author dropped the gun on the sofa, raising a slightly shaking hand to her chest. "You trying to scare me to death?" Green eyes narrowed dangerously at her laughing partner. "Just what is so funny?" The author asked indignantly, eyebrow raised haughtily, hands now on her hips.

"Well," Casey snorted, moving towards her partner. "Honestly?" Blue flickered to green, gauging her lover's mood. "Here goes nothing. Hope it's the right thing to do."

"No self respecting law enforcement officer or PI would ever say any of those things." Casey finally answered truthfully, carefully watching her lover. She knew better than to say Beth looked ridiculous. The idea of her gentle lover pointing a gun seriously at someone was ludicrous. A staff on the other hand was a totally different matter. "Hmm," the specialist nervously continued, not detecting any change in her author's stance or facial expressions. "What are you looking for? Maybe I can help."

"Don't I even get a 'Hi Beth, how was your day?'" The author shot Casey a menacing look, resuming her pacing. "After all, you scared ME half to death." The author spun, stomping to the window. "You know, that would have really been nice."

"Mmmhmm." Blue eyes lazily tracked Beth's movements. At one time, Beth's comments would have scared the specialist, made her think the author was really mad at her. Now they only caused a brief flicker of concern which was quickly overridden by the gold band on her finger. And more importantly, the one on her lover's finger. "I should be giving you a hard time!"

Casey hopped over the sofa's arm, landing gracefully. Settling back on the cushions, she propped her feet on the conveniently placed table. "After all," blue eyes darkened seriously for a moment. "Didn't happen, get past it. She's safe." Clearing her throat, Casey continued. "I'm the one who came home to hear 'Don't move, Scumbag!'." "Do you have any idea what went through my head? Have any idea how scared I was?" The specialist forced her face to remain teasingly neutral, not conveying her thoughts.

"You were scared, huh?" Beth asked, having covertly observed her lover during their playful exchange. "Damn. Didn't expect that. Of course I didn't expect her home in the middle of the afternoon either." "Sorry, love." The author quirked a questioning eyebrow. "Is that seat taken?" She pointed at the spot next to Casey.

"That spot's always reserved." Casey teased gently, eyes sparkling, emotions no longer masked. "For my boss." Patting the spot invitingly, the specialist turned serious. "For my love. Get over here." The last was more of a plea than command. "Come touch me. I need to feel that you're one piece, no matter what my eyes tell me."

"Hiya, Casey." Beth's gentle voice washed over Casey, driving away the last remains of her lingering tension. "Have a good day love?" Leaning down, Beth brushed her lips lightly against Casey's before sitting beside her.

"Yeah, I did." Casey wrapped an arm around Beth, holding her close. "What about you?"

"For the most part. As you could tell, I was having a little problem." Beth snuggled closer, resting her head against Casey's shoulder. Closing her eyes, the author visualized her problem and casually shut the door on it. "I'll deal with it tomorrow." She promised herself, wanting nothing more than to sink into Casey. "Damn. I didn't mean to make you worry, love." Beth thought quietly, snuggling against her lover, willing her lover's tense muscles to relax.

Casey waited to see if Beth would elaborate on her problem. The specialist could guess, given what she walked in on, but Casey didn't want to offer any advice unless Beth asked. She'd already offered once; she didn't want her author thinking she was trying to muscle in on her territory. "Time for drastic measures, Casey." The specialist told herself, feeling her lover's tense body against her own ever so slowly relax. Sneakily she released Beth's hand and pretended to turn, supposedly to scratch her nose. Blue eyes tracked Beth's interest level and then attacked. Laughing softly, long fingers proceeded to tickle indiscriminately.

"Casey!" Beth giggled, finally managing to capture those wicked hands. "If you wanted me to sit on your lap, " green eyes narrowed playfully, not surprised at all that she'd ended up on her lover's lap. It was almost a given: either Beth would end up flat on her back or on Casey's lap. "All you had to do was ask! No need to torture me."

"My method accomplished more than one task though." Casey pointed out smugly and hurried on, not giving Beth the chance to interrupt. "What, you ask? Good question." Blue twinkled merrily, not able to maintain her smugness, not when Beth was so close. "Knew I loved you for more than just your incredible looks."

"Casey!" Beth snorted in warning, moving suggestively against her now squirming lover. "I could," Beth possessively ran a finger over her lover's chest. "Remind you," she changed Casey's focus point from her teasing finger to her lips, nuzzling the soft skin under Casey's ear. "Of why," gently she sucked on Casey's earlobe, delighting in the softly exhaled breath that teased her own skin. "I let you," her hand cupped her lover's breast, caressing the cloth covered flesh possessively, while her lips barely brushed her lover's neck. "Win."

"Did I tell you today that I love you?" Casey sighed contentedly, pressing herself against her lover.

"Nope." Beth replied gravely, teeth lightly nipping Casey's neck in punishment for neglecting such an important action. "So you do, huh?"

"Very much so." The specialist shivered, but whether it was from her lover's actions or words or the feelings behind the actions, she didn't know. "It's probably all three." The specialist told herself happily.

"Good." As a reward, Beth kissed Casey lightly, then mumbled against her lips. "Cause I love you too." Putting her feelings into actions, Beth lightly sucked on Casey's bottom lip. Taking the quickly parted lips as an invitation, Beth deepened the kiss, propelling them both into a sensual haze.

"Very much so?" Casey asked breathlessly when they separated.

"Of course, silly." Beth lightly tugged on Casey's hair, not surprised to find her hand in one of its favorite places. "Was there any doubt?" Covertly she studied Casey out of the corner of her eye. "How can she still doubt how much I love her?" The author thought quickly, mentally frowning as she watched the play of emotions fly across her lover's eyes. "Guess I should be glad she knows I love her." Unthinkingly the author glanced down, the flash of gold against her lover's tanned skin reassuring. "I had hoped that would have convinced her."

Meeting Beth's eyes questioningly when she stiffened, Casey realized her silence had been taken for doubt. "Damn! I did it again. It's not what you're thinking, I promise." Taking a deep breath, Casey forced her thoughts back to her lover. "Of course not!" Casey replied to Beth's question heatedly. "The one constant in my life is you." The specialist consciously softened her voice. "Sometimes I do wonder why, but I do know you love me, that you'll always be here for me." Blue twinkled happily. "Go figure that, huh? I think you might have finally beaten it into me." "Gotcha love! I don't think you were expecting me to say that! And I actually think I'm really starting to believe that." Grinning, Casey patted her very surprised lover innocently, masking her own surprise as she realized the truth of her thoughts.

"What? Did I just hear what I think I did?" Beth poked her lover suspiciously, eyes narrowing in not-so-mock disbelief. "What did you do with my lover?" Spoken half teasingly, the author tried to adjust the surprising revelation, to figure out what was going on in her wife's lovely head. "What's wrong?"

"I thought you'd be happy, not suspicious!" Casey pouted, stopping Beth from poking her again. "Ok...ok!" Casey gave in, turning serious, not liking the amount of confusion on her lover's face. "How could I not know? You tell me with every look, every touch." The specialist spoke softly, stroking Beth's back reassuringly. Seeing the joyous surprise in Beth's eyes, Casey cursed herself, wrapping Beth in a protective, loving hug. "Stupid Casey! Just how many times have you hurt her? Run out when things get tough for you, leaving her all alone and hurting...yet she's always here, always waiting, willing to forgive, willing to help, willing to love..."

"I do, huh?" Beth pulled Casey out of her brooding with three simple words.

"Yeah, you do." Casey confirmed, kissing the side of Beth's head. "You know it's mutual, right?" Feeling Beth nod, the specialist breathed a sigh of relief. "Good because I will always be here for you too."

"Getting lazy, Casey?" Beth changed the subject, knowing they both needed to calm down a little.

"What?" Blue glared at green in mock shock and anger. "Me??"

"Yeah, you." Undaunted, Beth grinned innocently. Unable to resist, the author slipped a hand under Casey's shirt, fingers wiggling suggestively.

"Oh no you don't." Deftly the specialist pinned the invading hand. Sighing, she answered the unasked question in her lover's eyes. "And no, I'm just not playing hookie. Well," Casey smiled rakishly. "At least not totally. Shoot me for wanting to spend time with my wife." Casey picked up the discarded weapon, handing it to Beth with an innocent grin.

Beth opened her mouth but closed it again promptly when no sound came out. Closing her eyes, she burrowed against Casey, molding as much of herself against her lover as possible. "God I love it when she calls me that!"

"You falling asleep on me?"

Beth chuckled at Casey's indignant tone. "Of course not!" Beth huffed, sitting up straight, swallowing her groan of disappointment as her body left its safe haven. "Would I do something like that?"

"Yes!" Casey arched an eyebrow pointedly, not fooled by Beth's innocent look or sweet tone. "If you weren't sleeping, what were you thinking about?"

Smiling, Beth thought quickly "BUSTED" but was saved by the timely intervention of the telephone. "I'll get that!" Getting up, she answered the phone, mentally grinning as the perfect answer came to mind. And totally ignored the knowing smirk on Casey's face.

"So, lover," Beth purred, sliding gracefully across the room. "That's it lover, don't look away." The look on Casey's face set her heart racing. "I love it when you look at me." Purposely dropping her voice lower, green eyes devoured her lover. "You wanted to know what I was thinking, right?" Beth's low tone floated over Casey, winding around her soul. The author joyfully noted the immediate relaxing in her lover's posture.

"Tell me." Casey grinned sexily at Beth, pushing her reasons for coming home early far away. "Nothing is more important that this...than us. Later is soon enough."

Straddling Casey's thighs, Beth took one large hand and placed it on her waist. The other she brought to her lips, kissing each finger slowly and released her hand gently. Leaning forward, the author captured Casey's earlobe, sucking lightly. "Let me tell you," teeth nipped the sensitive flesh, causing the specialist to groan softly.

"Just what would you do, my big strong lover?" Beth worked her way around to Casey's other ear, tongue lightly tracing the gentle curves of her neck. "What would you say?" A small hand cupped Casey's cloth covered breast, grinning sexily as her lover gasped. "I love how you sound...God, what it does to me." "How would you stop," squeezing gently, lips settled over Casey's rapidly beating pulse point. "Me?"

Blue eyes widened slightly at Beth's heated whispers. Growling, Casey rose swiftly to her feet with Beth firmly attached, trying to ignore her rapidly beating heart. Heading downstairs, Casey showed Beth her answers.


"Casey?" Beth asked contentedly, much later.


"Whatcha doing home?" Beth patted Casey's stomach, snuggling closer. "I'm not complaining, but is everything ok?"

"Want to help me go through the junk my Mom brought?" Casey spoke softly, running a hand lazily over Beth's back. "I need to get it out of the garage." "And I need to let it go."

"Only if you want me too." Beth propped herself up on her hand, green meeting blue supportively. "No pressure, love. I told you that before."

"I want you to." The specialist hid her concern, wanting Beth to know more about her, yet fearing the results if she did. "Damn, Casey! She loves you; she'll still be here at the end...this won't drive her away. Nothing from the past will do that!" The specialist knew this was true; it was the present, the here and now that mattered. And that scared her.

"Ok then, if you're sure." Compassionate eyes read her lover's tension, her heart starting hurting at the vulnerability radiating from her lover. "I'll make you a deal, 99." Beth consciously lightened her expression and tone, wanting to ease her lover's obvious distress.

"What's that, Slick?" Blue fastened innocently on green. "What?" Asked as the picture of innocence.

"What did you call me?" Beth laughed, sitting up and stared hard at Casey. "Slick??"

"Yeah, got a problem with that?" Eyes twinkling, Casey thought the nickname fit. "You're always getting me to do whatever you want, although I'll never admit that. Not in a million years. Seems to fit you."

"Hmm...well...I..." Beth stumbled, not sure what to make of the name. Shrugging her shoulders, she pushed it aside for another time.

"Good." The specialist couldn't believe her luck; it was rare she won a verbal sparring match with her partner. Not wanting to explain, she quickly changed the subject. "What deal?"

Green eyes focused intently on her lounging lover, turning serious. "You want to stop or want me to leave, tell me and I will." Swallowing her moan as Casey's lips kissed the finger shushing her, Beth smiled softly. "And next time we're up at the lake, you can help me clean out my old college stuff."

"Sounds like a plan, Slick." Jumping up, Casey avoided Beth's swat. "Getting slow there, Beth. Gotta be faster than that to catch me."

"Oh, I don't know." Beth reclined and leered at her lover, eyes sweeping over her naked body. "I've got a decent view."

"Beth!" Casey blushed, rapidly dressing.

"Ok...OK! I'll behave!" Beth promised, sitting up with a sigh. "You want a snack before starting?"

"Nope." Casey smiled at Beth, recognizing a delaying tactic when she heard it. "Come up when you're ready." The specialist finished tying her shoes and stood, stretching sensually.

"I guess you're not planning on keeping much." Beth observed a few minutes later. Casey had pulled both cars out of the garage and brought in the trash cans. Green eyes flickered over the boxes now spread out across the garage floor.

"Let's get started." Casey avoided the question. Tugging Beth gently to her side, she sank to the floor by the closest box. "This one must be books or papers, it's the heaviest."

Beth sat back, letting Casey open the box. Biting her lip, the author tried to suppress her curiosity.

"Oh God, I can't believe I saved these!" Casey moaned a few seconds later, staring at neatly stacked and separated papers.

"This has to be every paper you ever wrote!" Beth exclaimed excitedly, peering into the full box. "Can I see?"

"Sure." Chuckling, Casey removed the first stack, looking at the first paper. "These ones on top I wrote my senior year."

"I guess you had to write lots for psychology, huh?" Beth flipped through the first stack, grinning at the ever practical, unimaginative titles. "The Psychological Consequences of Rape, Murderous Impulses, What Drives a Serial Killer, The Poems of...WAIT!" Stopping at the unusual title, Beth sat the papers to the side.

"You took a lit class your senior year?" Beth interrupted Casey, who was busy with another box, flipping through old text books once thought important before tossing them into the trash. "I'm surprised, considering your double major."

"Yeah, I needed it to graduate." Casey grumbled, still somewhat sore about the matter. "I fought with my adviser about the relevance of Emily Dickinson to my chosen profession. It was the only class available in the time I had open."

"Why didn't you get it out of the way earlier? From these papers, it seems you had quite a load your senior...wait, I get it!" The author sat back, reading something other than dislike for a course in Casey's posture. "You thought you could talk your way out of it, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Casey grinned at Beth, wrapping a hand in her long hair and tugged gently. "Guess you know me pretty well." Her grin softened as Beth patted her leg reassuringly. "I'm actually surprised Dr. Rowe didn't tell me some criminals found motivation in literature. I would've been chomping at the bit to take the class then." "God, I was so young, so impatient...I had no idea what I was getting into. If I had known, I might have done things differently...not true, Casey! Nothing short of the actual experience would have changed your mind. Or Beth." The specialist admitted to herself, instinctively knowing that her feelings for her lover would have calmed her raging blood.

"What is it love?" Beth carefully set the papers to the side, reaching for her silent, frowning, lover's hand. "You ok?"

"Hmm?" Blue eyes focused on her author's concerned face. "I'm fine. I was just thinking about how young and brash I used to be. How eager I was to get out into the world, determined to prove myself. I was so sure I could really change things, make a difference in people's lives."

"You did make a difference, Casey." Beth replied hotly, turning to face her partner. "You made a difference in a LOT of people's lives! How many 'monsters' did you stop? How many people were not killed or drug through Hell because of you?"

Blue eyes widened slightly, listening to her protector defend her. "Do you know how much it means to me when you do that? Leap to my defense instantly?" Then a depressing thought hit her hard. "Does Beth think less of me because I quit? Because I walked away? I don't know if I could stand that. Her acceptance, her support, her love means everything." The ex-FBI agent decided she needed answers and lifted her free hand, noting abstractly that it was shaking...rather badly. "Do you," she cleared her throat and tried again. "Do you think I shouldn't have quit? That maybe it's my fault...I could still be stopping them...I..."

"Casey!" Beth rose to her knees, hugging her lover fiercely. "What kind of question is that?" She exhaled softly when Casey shakily returned the embrace. Whispering "I love you," the author thought furiously, searching for the right answer.

"Help me Beth...pull me from this darkness...I need you..." Casey closed her eyes, burying her face in Beth's soft, fragrant strawberry blond hair. Images assaulted the ex-agent, pulling her farther into the darkness. Erupting from the depths of her mind, bloody, battered, sometimes hardly recognized bodies called...weeping victims pulled at her, asking why...leering, jeering, laughing monsters tormented, taking with pleasure, leaving destruction in their wake.

"Love," Beth spoke calmly, evenly, hand rubbing her partner's back soothingly, not letting on how much Casey's loss of control scared her. "From what you've told me, you had to walk away. If you stayed, you would have lost yourself." The author hurt for Casey; the rigid tension in her body spoke eloquently of her pain. "You did what you had to, to survive."

"But was it fair?" Casey whispered, arms tightening around her anchor. Without a hint of self importance or ego, the specialist admitted one of her deepest fears. "I was good...hell, I was the best. Given enough time, I worked my way through every sick problem thrown at me. But I was afraid...sitting in the hospital, looking, thinking, dreaming of Hamilton, I was afraid of my reaction to him. I was afraid if I stayed, I'd become like him."

"You listen to me, Casey Michelle Bennett!" Beth pulled back, forcing herself to meet Casey's anguished gaze. "You weren't ANYTHING like him! Not then, not now!!"

"How can you be so sure?" Gulping nervously, the ex-agent concentrated on the love in Beth's eyes. "Oh god...that horrid, terrifying feeling...almost one of liberation as I kicked Hamilton across his campsite. It still scares me that I could feel such pleasure from his pain. I wanted him to hurt, to feel the terror, the mental anguish his victims felt. I. Wanted. That."

"I told you what I did...what I felt like." Casey pushed the issue. "Please convince me I'm wrong...that you're right...please! Make me see what you see when you look at me."

"Because I know you. Know your heart. You aren't capable of that, love." Beth spoke strongly, firmly, totally convinced in her position. "You were...are a good person. Believe me Casey." She repeated the words aloud, staring intently into anguished blue.

"You really believe that, don't you?" Casey asked wondrously, willingly following her lover back into the light. Pulling Beth's hand to rest over her heart, the specialist slammed the door on her fears. "Disappear! As long as Beth's my light, you don't stand a chance. Leave me alone!" Thought forcefully, even while a smile started to spread across her face.

"I really believe that, with all my heart." Breathing a sigh of relief at Casey's smile, Beth leaned forward, brushing her lips against her lover's. "Believe in yourself, I do."

"Lets get this finished, then I want to take you out for dinner." Casey stole a brief kiss before sitting back. "You want to keep that?" She indicated the paper that started the conversation.

"Nah, I don't like Emily Dickinson anyway." Beth tossed the paper decisively into the trash, not wanting to keep something that caused Casey painful memories. "So what other 'unnecessary' classes did you suffer through?" Changing the subject, Beth sat back and watched, listening to Casey expound upon the horrors she suffered to get her degree.

Four boxes later, they reached the end of the papers and textbooks. "I can't believe I saved all this crap." Casey rose, stretching her back, wincing as it popped back into place. "All the other boxes are lighter, hopefully that's the end of the books and papers."

"Four boxes is nothing compared to what I saved." Beth shot back, loving the mock look of horror that crossed Casey's face. "Be very glad we're not going through them now!"

"I am, trust me." Folding the last of the book boxes, Casey reached for the next one. "Wonder what 'treasure' I thought was so important I had to save it in here." Grinning wryly at Beth, the specialist slit open the top of the box, then groaned, loudly.

"What?" Beth hobbled over to the box, peering at the contents with interest.

"Looks like nothing but clothes." Pulling out several musty smelling, faded shirts, she started tossing them immediately into the trash. Feeling eyes boring into her back, Casey turned around, raising an eyebrow questioningly. "What?"

"You had an Air Supply sweatshirt?" Beth couldn't help herself, she started laughing. Somehow Casey and Air Supply didn't go together. Now Aerosmith or Pink Floyd was another matter.

"What's wrong with them? They had some GREAT hits!" Casey huffed, snagging the shirt from Beth. "I have no intention of telling her I wore this because Mark wanted me to...just keep your mouth shut, Casey! Ignore those puppy dog eyes softly pleading...ahh, hell."

"All right! Stop looking at me like that!" Casey caved in. "I took Mark to a concert and we got matching shirts. Whenever he came to visit we HAD to wear them. Just drop it, please?" The specialist blushed, thinking quietly. "I still have no control over my mouth, not with Beth! Thank god it wasn't more embarrassing."

"I think that's sweet, Casey." Beth stepped close and hugged her briefly. "You're a good big sister." "I wish I had one...wish I had been a better big sister...just stop Beth, the past is just that...the past." Grinning, Beth released Casey and took the sweatshirt, throwing it into the trash can. The contents of two more boxes were thrown in the trash. Casey slit open the last box, groaning at the top layer of clothes until she picked up something familiar.

"Danny Miller...I haven't thought of him in years!" Casey exhaled loudly, smiling softly. She shook out a letterman's sweater and held it up, turning to face her partner. "Something wrong?" Beth had the strangest look on her face.

"Hmm, no. Who's Danny Miller?" Beth asked in what she hoped was a calm, even voice. "I've never seen that look on her face before, except when she was looking at me...I can't believe I'm jealous over someone long forgotten." Beth frowned mentally, not liking how much the sweater seemed to delight Casey OR how quickly her heart was pounding. "Get a grip, Beth! It was a long time ago."

"Actually, love," Casey dropped the sweater and moved to take Beth's hand, irrationally tickled that she was jealous. "It's not what you're thinking." "And I'm eternally grateful that there's nothing of her in these boxes. I'm not ready to deal with that yet." Looking deeply into green, Casey leaned down and kissed Beth thoroughly. "I love YOU...totally, without reservation...that's all that's important. Let it go, Casey. Let it go..." "Danny transferred in at the start of second semester my junior year of high school. We had third period English together." Casey squeezed Beth's hand reassuringly, breathing easier when Beth returned her smile. "Danny was a good friend, nothing more." Now for the hard part. "We pretended to be going steady. It kept the others off our backs."

"You didn't want anyone questioning your lack of interest in guys." Beth reasoned logically, green eyes softening in understanding. "God Beth, control yourself!" The author berated herself, wincing at her rapidly beating heart.

"And Danny didn't want anyone questioning his interest in guys." Casey reached for Beth's other hand, lacing their fingers together. "She's really jealous!" Casey thought quickly, immediately noticing her slowing heartbeat. "There's no reason for you to be jealous of anyone from my past. Even her. I've never opened myself up so fully before; never loved anyone like I love you. C'mon, Casey, tell her why."

"Anyway, Mom was ecstatic. I was finally doing something 'normal', like the other girls my age. I'll never forget the day Mom came home to find me wearing Danny's sweater." Casey frowned at the past, glancing down at their linked hands. With a deep breath, she willed herself to calm down. "I remember it so clearly, standing there in the kitchen, her arms around me, telling me she was happy for me, that she was proud of me for finally lowering my guard to trust someone enough to let them get close. I felt like such a hypocrite...because it was all based on a lie. Sure, I trusted Danny, but not for the reasons she thought. He accepted me for who I was, didn't pressure me to change. If only Mom had done that." Casey sighed softly, telling herself that it was all in the past.

"I'm sorry, love." Beth gently squeezed Casey's hand in support and sympathy. The author was well acquainted with having non-supportive, non-accepting parents. Her partner was so deceptively sensitive, fragile almost, that the author could easily imagine how hurt and betrayed Casey felt by her Mom's actions.

"It's ok, it doesn't matter now." The specialist shifted, leaning against her author, drinking in the unquestioning acceptance and love. Beth's earlier words struck a cord deep inside; she wanted...needed Beth to understand. "I wasn't interested in anybody that way, male or female."

"Really? You weren't attracted to anyone during high school?" Beth found that idea quite appealing, not wanting to picture Casey with anyone other than herself. Even though the author knew it wasn't realistic, both she and Casey had previous lovers, she couldn't deny the idea's appeal. "Why not? Guess you just didn't meet the right person yet." The author couldn't stop herself from exploring this surprising side of her lover. She knew someone had hurt Casey deeply, but she admitted silently to herself she wasn't sure if she could deal with a friendly lover right now, let alone that. "I just want to think of us," Beth thought wistfully. "We've been through enough this year."

"C'mere." Casey wrapped her arms around Beth, sighing contentedly. "I didn't take the time to be interested in anyone. I thought it was a waste of valuable time. What was important was practicing and studying. I knew exactly where I wanted to go to college and it was expensive. Mom was quite clear on the point of only paying for normal university tuition. If I wanted to go to a private school, that was fine, but I had to make up the difference in cost myself. At least for the first year, until I proved myself. All modesty aside, I knew I could make enough money teaching karate and kung fu, but only if I stayed in top form. Anyway," the specialist kissed the top of Beth's head lovingly. "Pretending to go steady with Danny kept Mom off my back for a long time. She was so worried that I wasn't 'normal' that she had tried to restrict my practice time before I started going out with Danny, saying I also needed more friends to be well rounded. Luckily for me, Master Hung convinced her I was needed at the dojo since he wasn't feeling well. Then I met Danny. Having Danny hang around proved to her at least, that I was 'normal'. We'd say we were going to the movies or the library to study and then we'd go to the dojo instead. Or I'd practice in the school gym while he drew."

"To make a long story short, we used each other so we could both do what we wanted." Casey tried to make short work of the long complicated relationship. Closing her eyes, bittersweet images flashed through the specialist's mind. She and Danny at the senior prom they'd been pushed into attending, them at a nearby lake doing what they loved to do, chasing down the punks that had humiliated their friend, lying to both their parents when they were late coming home, their silly graduation pictures, climbing chain fences in the middle of the night, long intense conversations over coffee during one of their visits during college, their last meeting, when Danny said he couldn't continue living the lie anymore. "I think that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. You forced me to admit to myself who I was, to admit to myself that if I wanted my Mother to accept me for who I incredibly driven kid who was determined to make a difference, one who had no need for lasting relationships outside of friendship...I had to be honest with her. But that didn't stop myself from using you old friend to explain my lack of interest. Wherever you are, I hope you're happy." Casey grinned mentally, picturing her smiling friend as he waved goodbye for the last time.

"What happened to Danny?" Beth asked softly a short time later when it became apparent Casey wasn't going to say anything else. "I'd like to meet him someday. Bet he'd have some good stories." "Yeah, I want to meet the guy who still rates 'my look'." The author guiltily thought, unable to stop herself.

"Sorry, love, I don't know where he is. My junior year of college we parted, much to the surprise of both our parents. Mom was heartbroken. I think she was already planning our wedding for after college." Casey chuckled softly, thoughts of her mother pushed to the background, remembering Danny fondly. "I think I'm glad you're not around. Some of the stunts we pulled would scare Beth something fierce. Like that time we decided to stop the local gang from picking on the younger kids..."

"That's an evil smile, Casey. Just what did you two do that you don't want me to know about?" Beth's voice interrupted the specialist's thoughts.

"Hmm, wonder what else is in that box?" Turning away so she wouldn't see the eyes that always loosened her lips, Casey reached in the box. And sat down abruptly, holding a black wrapped object in one hand. "Oh God..."

"Are you alright?" Beth knelt in front of her pale lover, laying a supportive hand on her arm. "Casey?" Nothing. "C'mon, you're scaring me." Lightly caressing Casey's cheek, Beth breathed a sigh of relief when her lover noticed her.

"Hmm?" Blue eyes slowly focused on the concerned face in front of her. "Yeah, I'm ok. I didn't expect to find this in there, that's all." She raised the object in question. "Thought I'd lost it. Sit down." Casey patted the cold concrete beside her. "You've never asked me why or how I got into kung fu and karate. Why's that?" Turning a curious eye on her partner, Casey concentrated on breathing evenly, not the object in her hand.

"I don't know." Beth thought a moment, remembering all the conversations about her staff training, about how she wanted to ask, but something held her back. "I guess I just thought if you wanted me to know, you'd say something." The author shrugged, wondering if her not asking had been perceived as a lack of interest. "You're so closed about some things, especially your past. I didn't want to push. You've had a hard enough time without me adding to it."

"You didn't want to pry, did you?" Casey snorted softly, easily reading her partner's expressive face. "Next time you want to know something, ask me Sweetheart."

"Ok, Love. Why did you start your martial arts training and how's it related to that?" Beth carefully watched Casey's face, intending to withdraw the question if it caused her lover any pain.

Unwrapping the package, Casey gingerly unwound a white belt from around a wooden picture frame and held the picture out for Beth to see. "It's me and my Dad our first day of practice." Casey spoke softly, blue eyes glued to the smiling man standing proudly beside his daughter. "For my fifth birthday, Dad gave me karate lessons. Said it was something he and I could do was our thing." Tears ran unnoticed down her tanned cheeks. "Every Monday and Thursday, for the next three and a half years we went to the dojo for karate practice. The first Monday after he, after he...died..." Breaking down, Casey sobbed quietly. She was vaguely aware of Beth taking her in her arms, whispering words of comfort, of the soothing hand stroking her hair, of being gently rocked.

"God, Dad, why did you have to die? Why did you leave me all alone?" The childish thoughts demanded to be heard for the first time in almost twenty-eight years. "You knew how Mom would react...why else would you of mentioned in your will specifically that if I wanted to continue with our karate, Mom had to let me. Just like David and Stephanie could their activities. You knew I would force the point, didn't you? I enjoyed karate even more than you did, but the time we spent together was priceless. It still is. And looking back now, I realize that you never were far from my thoughts. Every day for the next twelve years, I started with thoughts of you as I tied that belt around my head. I converted my corner of the basement into a mini dojo...I practiced every morning before school. Mom didn't say anything because each of us had our own corner to do with as we saw fit. Our picture was the only one on my walls. And you'd be proud of me...the practice mats, the weight bag, the towels, I paid for them myself with Christmas and birthday money and finally with the money I made at the dojo. God, I wish you could have seen it. Do you know how much I miss you, even now?" The softly spoken words in her ear slowly filtered through the specialist's mental anguish, giving much needed support. It had been so long since she'd given in to her feelings, that she was loath to stop. Another lesson learned from Beth.

" I so wish you were here. You would love Beth. Not because she's a fantastic, gentle, caring person...Not because she's completely in love with me...Not because she'd do anything for me...Not because she's the light of my life...But because I love her, completely, without reservation. That would have been enough for you. I don't know why I never mentioned you to her before, but I will now. I guess I didn't want to think about it, want to deal with these emotions. I turned into an emotional coward for awhile, Dad. Sometimes I used to wonder what you'd think of my actions. Of my intended career. Of my quitting. It took Beth to make me see that life was worth the effort, worth all the pain. Because if I don't feel the pain, then I can't feel Beth. The day she walked into my life I started to feel again. One look and I was hooked. One word and my priorities changed. When she told me she loved me, my entire world was transformed. It hasn't always been easy, nothing ever is with me Dad, as you well know. No matter what I've done, how I've hurt her with my insecurities and bullish behavior, Beth has been here, stuck by me no matter what. Without her, I wouldn't even be having this conversation. Beth's taught me not to be afraid of my feelings. Taught me not to bury them. Taught me to let them out, even if I am the only one who knows. Because of that, I feel Beth, her compassion, her desire, her love. And that is something I've found I can't live without." With a mental start, Casey realized how long she'd been silent. "I'm sorry Dad, I've got to go; I'm worrying Beth. I promise to tell her about you."

"I love you." Casey whispered, leaning against Beth for a moment longer before sitting up straight. "I didn't think I'd lose it like that. I'm sorry." Not surprising herself, the specialist remained in one place. Her normal desire to flee from painful emotional scenes was strongly tempered by her promise. That along with the ring on her finger froze her in place. "Leaving would hurt Beth and I'll be damned if I do that now." This was one time the specialist's heart and head were in agreement.

"I love you too, Casey." Reluctantly Beth sat back, worried green eyes flinching in sympathy at her lover's pain. She had no idea how long she held Casey, but from the looks on her lover's face, she was ready to least a little bit.

"This is my first belt." Casey fingered the smooth, faded white cloth lovingly, laying it over both of their thighs. "After successfully passing to the next level, Dad suggested we wear these to keep the hair out of our eyes. Said it would not only remind us of our progress, but also of our painful beginnings." Looking up from the belt, Casey smiled tentatively at Beth, grateful for her silent, yet ever present support. A gentle nudge brought Beth's hand to the belt too.

Beth remained silent, reading much in her lover's posture and tone. It was clear to Beth that Casey needed to, wanted to talk. So the author did the only things she could do: smile lovingly, hold her hand with the belt between their fingers and be there for Casey.

"Dad died in a plane accident when I was eight and a half years old." Casey closed her eyes, saying the words aloud for the first time in longer than she could remember. "God, it still much!" The constant, never wavering gentle pressure of her lover's hand on her's caused her to genuinely smile despite the pain.

"I'm so sorry, beloved." Beth swallowed silently, heart breaking for the pain her lover suffered. "That explains so much...why she's afraid I'll leave, why my words of reassurance aren't enough...god, I never even guessed."

"Beloved?" Blue eyes popped open, focusing on the feelings coursing through her body. "One word and my world changes." Casey thought gratefully, sinking into the support radiating from Beth.

"Why karate?" Beth changed the focus of the conversation, trying to ease the pain in her lover's heart and eyes. "Maybe a direct question will help."

"It was something different, something Dad had always wanted to do. Neither David nor Stephanie were interested in it, but when he showed me the cool uniforms, told me that it could be something we did together, I jumped at the chance. David and Stephanie each had their own things they did with Dad and I wanted that too." Casey chuckled, leaning against Beth, feeling warm and safe. What she'd told her father was true, Beth was her safety net.

"I never once wanted to quit. The look on his face during our first practice when I took my first hit and didn't cry," Casey swallowed emotionally. "I'll never forget it. He was so proud of me, I knew I never wanted to look at his face and not see it. Whenever it hurt, god did it ever those last years when I reached the final level, I'd close my eyes and picture his face. Sprained ankle, pulled muscle, it didn't matter. The pain was inconsequential compared to the look on his face during our first practice."

"Mom and I had many fights about karate and kung fu over the years. Mom never actually went so far as to try and forbid me from pursuing them, but she made it damn hard at times. She felt I was hiding it in, using it to mask my pain." Casey groaned softly, past fights filling her mind with loud yelling, hurtful phrases and finally the painfully silent looks.

"Why didn't your Mom want you to continue?" Beth asked softly, hoping that talking about the painful memories would help purge them from her partner.

"She didn't like the time and energy I put into practicing. I think a large part of it was that she never really approved of Dad encouraging me to continue, to compete. Karate was good for self defense, but she never could understand my desire to compete, to be the best. It helped me build more than just my body. I also learned to focus, to control myself and my impulses, to work for what I wanted. That with enough hard work and effort, I could accomplish anything I wanted. It taught me to never give up on myself, to not accept failure. But those aren't what she objected to; I don't think she thought it was appropriate for a female to be so physical, to want to compete physically with males. And that's funny, since she always fought against that very thing when she took over the running of their stores. But in her eyes, fighting with your mind was one thing, but with physical strength and skills another." Casey shifted, pulling Beth a little closer, returning to the subject foremost in her mind.

"Shortly after Dad's funeral, I started getting up an hour early to practice in the basement. The difficult moves required me to concentrate, to remain focused and in control. I never could make Mom understand that when I practiced my forms, I felt closer to Dad...I wasn't avoiding dealing with anything. Just the opposite in fact. A couple of years later, I had advanced to the point where Master Hung let me help teach the beginning classes in exchange for kung fu lessons."

"By the time I was twelve, I was spending every afternoon after school at the dojo in addition to my morning workouts. Mom made it crystal clear that if my grades dropped below a B or I didn't do my chores, I was grounded from the dojo and from practicing. I knew not to push her on this point. How could I argue with her reasoning? I knew Dad himself would have put his foot down if my grades suffered. I just had to make sure that didn't happen."

"And it never did, did it?" Beth asked needlessly; once Casey set her mind on something, its completion was a forgone conclusion. "Do you know just how much I admire that trait in you love? How you never give up...unlike me, who'd give in just to avoid an argument."

"No, it never did." Casey grinned wryly. "Although I pushed Mom to her limits on more times than I could count. Danny talked her out of grounding me on more than one occasion." Laughing softly, the specialist didn't see the momentarily flicker of jealousy on Beth's face. Nor did she know it was only through the author's own remarkable willpower that kept her perfectly still, showing no other outward sign of her emotions. "Never on grades though. There never was a need. All my studying paid off and I skipped from the seventh grade to high school."

"I looked and acted like I belonged." The author interestingly noted that Casey didn't say emotionally she belonged. "I already knew that I wanted to go to college and study psychology. By the end of my second year, I knew where I wanted to go and after listening to Stephanie and David's encounters with Mom, I knew I'd need to come up with part if not all of the money myself. And because of karate, I had a way to insure that I could go wherever I wanted."

"Hey." Casey rose to her feet, extending a hand to her author. "It's getting kind of late and I'm getting hungry."

"I thought you wanted to finish this tonight?" Beth questioned, grinning as Casey pulled her smoothly to her feet. "We're almost finished."

"You're hungry." Casey accused gently, wrapping an arm around Beth's smaller, yet muscular shoulders. "Your stomach's been growling."

"So, I can wait." Beth resisted the impulse to give in totally, aided by a mental picture of a young Casey and Danny. The author wanted this behind them; she didn't like feeling jealous. Didn't like the unfamiliar feelings coursing through her blood or the desire to pummel Danny senseless. Telling herself to lighten the mood, she continued. "It won't kill me." The teasing backfired and the author found herself swept up in a tight embrace. "Hey," the author spoke gently, returning the emotional embrace. "It's ok. I was only teasing. I'm right here."

"Sorry." Casey hiccuped, embarrassed by her emotional lack of control, head still buried in Beth's hair. "I remember now what's in the rest of the box. Am I strong enough to tell Beth?" That thought stopped the specialist, her mind suddenly filled with light. "I said am I strong enough, not is Beth strong enough to hear it...YES! I am starting to really believe!" The loud rumbling of Beth's stomach was music to her ears and cause for a much needed break. Casey needed time to pull her thoughts together; dinner would be the perfect distraction.

"Where do you want to eat?" Casey straightened up, but carefully kept as much of their bodies in contact as possible. "Don't let go of me...I need to feel you, feel us. Keep me grounded."

"C'mon." Beth headed purposefully towards the kitchen, ignoring Casey's half-hearted complaint. The author had no intentions of letting Casey out of arms reach. Not in the mood to cook yet not wanting fast food, Beth made an executive decision. Snagging the phone off the wall in the kitchen, Beth punched in the number of their favorite pizza place and ordered their usual large pizza with the works with a large side of cheese sticks. "Maria said it would be about forty-five minutes." Beth informed Casey as she hung up the phone. Still holding hands, Beth tugged Casey towards the upstairs living room.

Pausing to click on the stereo, Beth gently pushed Casey into the corner of the large sofa, settling comfortably in her arms. "Comfortable?"

"Yeah," Casey spoke softly, willing the soreness from sitting on cold, hard concrete out of her muscles. Relaxing against her lover, the specialist felt her mind relax along with her body.

"Casey?" Beth asked quietly, not wanting to disturb her partner is she was sleeping.


Since Casey's voice sounded alert, Beth continued, paying close attention to the relaxed arms around her. At the first sign of tension, the author was planning on backing off. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure, I didn't think I had to say it, but you can ask me anything." Casey squeezed reassuringly, wondering what Beth would ask. "Trust me enough to ask." The surprising thought shocked Casey, causing her to lean forward and kiss Beth's head. "I think I actually want you to know."

Of the many questions Beth had, the author asked what she thought was one of the easiest. "Why did your Mom want you to go to a state university? Was it the expense of private schools?" Before today, Beth hadn't known much about Casey's parents. She was well acquainted with her siblings, especially Mark. The author was aware that Casey and her Mom weren't on speaking terms and that whatever caused the rift still hurt her lover. She was slowly starting to see the pieces of the puzzle, but only a small part of the picture was visible.

"It wasn't the money; Dad's family built a very successful, but small chain of grocery stores. When his parents died, he and Mom inherited them. Under their management and later Mom's, they continued to grow. When Mark decided he also wasn't interested in running the stores, Mom sold them." Casey snuggled closer, pulling Beth back at the same time. "What's funny?"

"I keep picturing you in one of those white aprons." Beth chuckled, bumping Casey's shoulder with her head. "Did you like working in the stores?" The author couldn't see her impatient lover putting up with screaming kids at the checkout line.

"Never did. I think Mom thought what you're thinking and didn't want any dead customers on her hands." Casey joked, easily reading her partner's thoughts. "Seriously though, Dad's experiences while growing up convinced him that his children wouldn't be forced to work at the stores. Hmm, that's funny." Casey broke off, suddenly seeing her parents in a new light.

"What's funny?" Beth prompted when Casey didn't continue.

"Dad was very modern about some things, like letting Steph and I get involved in 'non-traditional' activities and insisting that Mom be shown the same respect at the store as he was since they were doing the same job, but when it came to the house, he was a strict traditionalist. It caused a lot of fights and hurt feelings."

"Mom cooked, cleaned and took care of the house and Dad did the outside stuff." Beth rephrased, wondering if that was why Casey was so adamant at times about pulling her share of the housework and cooking, even if all she did was chop vegetables, open boxes and do the dishes.

"Yeah." Casey confirmed, kissing Beth's ear gently. "C'mon, we need to go get the pizza."

"Already?" Beth squinted at the VCR, trying to see the time. "There's no way it has been thirty minutes yet!"

"Yup." Casey nudged Beth to her feet, taking her hand upon standing. "I think we both dozed for a bit."

"Anyway," Casey buckled her seatbelt, glancing at Beth wryly. "You asked about college and I went off on a tangent."

"That's ok. Whatever you want to tell me, I'm here for you." Beth turned, watching Casey seriously. The understanding, acknowledging twinkle caused Beth to smile gently.

"Mom said state universities were the best choice for continuing our education. She felt there were just so many more opportunities at a big school. Of course it had nothing to do with the fact that she met Dad there. In some ways, Mom was very old fashioned; she was convinced that we'd find our future spouses there if things didn't work out with our high school sweethearts." Casey flashed a grin at her lover. "I would have changed my mind if I'd known you were gonna be there. You wouldn't have heard any complaints from me about poetry either if you'd been in my class." Stopping at a light, Casey grinned sexily at Beth, loving the deepening blush that spread across her face and down her neck. "Seriously though, I think she was afraid of us becoming snobs or something. Like that was going to happen as soon as we were out from under her direct influence. Growing up, she stressed the point that hard work and intelligence mattered. So when David announced that he wanted to go to a private college, Mom rebelled. Oh she was fair about it, but she wanted us to understand the costs of our actions. She never once made David or I feel like we couldn't come home." Casey shifted, feeling the unusual wisps of guilt settle around her. "Even when I did the unthinkable and disappointed you so deeply, you always were there at every break. I still don't understand why the FBI was so different, but it was. Then I wasn't there for you."

"How did your parents meet?" Beth didn't like the guilty look on Casey's face, so she gently changed the subject. "We can talk about that later, when I can hold you." She promised herself.

"They met during Dad's junior and Mom's freshman's year in a one hundred level business class. Over the course of the semester, they got to know each other through their study group. Mom was a business major and Dad majored archeology of all things. He made a deal with his parents; he could major in whatever he wanted and they would pay for it, with the stipulation he come back and work at the stores for two years. I guess they thought that would give them the time to change his mind. Anyway, after Dad met Mom, he informed his parents he wanted to get a minor in business. They didn't care that the reason for his change of heart was Mom. In fact, she got along well with his parents. Better than he did at times." Casey pulled into the parking lot, opening her door. "Want anything else?" At Beth's shake of the head, she leaned over and kissed her. "I'll be right back."

"This has certainly been an enlightening day." Beth exhaled noisily, leaning back in her seat, green eyes following her graceful partner as she entered the building. "I've never heard Casey talk so much in one afternoon, especially not when she's the subject being discussed. I wonder if she knows how much this means to me, that she finally trusts me enough to open up. Before today, I didn't know much about what happened to Casey before she joined the FBI. The one and only time I asked her about her parents, I got the distinct impression I was being told, ever so politely, to back off. It's like she was holding part of herself back, afraid to let me in all the way." The author cracked an eye, checking to make sure Casey wasn't sneaking up on her. Something the specialist had done on numerous occasions.

"It's funny how our early lives were so different, yet we fit together perfectly. You had to fight to go to a private school; my fight was to attend a university. Your Mom let you continue with your karate even when she didn't really approve or understand; the only reason I was allowed to practice my staff was because my grandparents held the majority of the financial strings. You had a close relationship with your Dad; I barely saw my father when I was a child, unless it was politically expedient or proper."

"Yet I think inside, we really weren't that different. Neither of us felt accepted for who we were...we both hid our true selves from the world...friends were a scare, rare commodity...we both rebelled against the constraints placed on us..." Green eyes opened, studying the still empty parking lot. Groaning, Beth stretched sore muscles, not used to sitting for hours on the ground. Lightly slapping her traitorous legs, Beth sighed and got out to stretch properly after visually searching the parking lot for possible trouble. Mumbling under her breath, she cursed her wayward limbs as they slowly responded.

Climbing back in, Beth frowned, once again thinking of Danny. "God, Beth, grow up!" The author spoke aloud, thinking maybe hearing the words might make them sink in. "What is it that you don't like about him? The fact that he was there for Casey when you weren't?" Beth's frown deepened, growing angrier with herself each second. "Is it the fact that he knew her for longer? That he knew her Mom and siblings much better? You should be grateful," the author slapped her thigh hard. "Grateful that she had one person she could trust enough to be herself. You better than anyone knows how that feels. But no," Beth's voice dropped dangerously low, unconsciously hitting her thigh again. "You sit here jealous! Just who doesn't believe in us, huh ,Beth? God, you're such a hypocrite. Deal with it! Someone else helped Casey when she needed it. Just because she looked like..." She broke off when a car door slammed, startling her. "Good timing." Beth closed her eyes briefly, forcing her own insecurities down, for once not watching her partner approach. "Casey doesn't need this, especially right now! Deal with it." Muttered quietly as Casey opened the door, praying silently for a calm, expressionless face. "So much for that idea."

"What's wrong?" Casey set the pizza down, turning back around so she could clearly see her partner. Concerned eyes swept over her lover's tense form, unable to forget the haunted look she'd seen in Beth's eyes moments before.

"Nothing." Beth lied, summoning up a smile she didn't feel. "How's Maria and her family?" "That's it Beth. Change the subject."

"Liar." Casey shot back, refusing to listen to her hurt feelings. "You were doing some heavy duty thinking, weren't you." It wasn't a question. "What about?"

"You know how much I love you, right?" Beth sighed mentally, unable to not respond to her lover's quiet, burning look. "Sometimes I just have to remind myself that you love me." The author appeared absorbed in her loosely clenched hands.

"What the hell?" Casey thought quickly, reaching over to lace her fingers with Beth's. "Of course I love you. Very much so." "Where is this coming from? Beth knows I love her, doesn't she?" Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, she continued. "Tell me what's wrong."

"It's stupid." Beth replied, feeling her depressing thoughts flee in her wife's presence. "Lets go home and eat." The loud growl earned a big smile from her lover. "That pizza smells great!"

"Ok, but only if you tell me on the way home." Casey waited for Beth's nod before she released her hand and started the car. "Beth?" The specialist waited until she was out of the parking lot to press the issue.

"I was just being stupid." Beth repeated, not sure how to tell Casey she was jealous. "It's stupid really."

"It's not gonna work." Casey shot back, growing more worried with every evasion. "What can't or won't you tell me?"

"What?" Sidetracked, Beth stared curiously at Casey. "I wasn't aware I was doing anything. Do tell, this is definitely more interesting."

"Just tell me, please?"

The soft, hesitant tone intensified Beth's guilt. Now if she avoided replying, the author knew she'd purposefully hurt Casey. "Damn. I can't do that."

"You really are gonna think it's stupid." Beth hurried on, not wanting to hurt Casey. "I was just thinking about how different yet similar we were when we were kids, then wham, out of left field it hit me." Green eyes ashamedly noticed her partner's twitching cheek muscle, a sure sign Casey was wound tightly, holding onto her control by a thin thread. "I can't believe I'm jealous of a boy you knew twenty years ago." Beth blew out a disgusted breath, mortified at her self-perceived lack of trust and faith in their love. "Yeah, but she used 'my' look when she saw his sweater." Her heart wouldn't let the matter drop.

"Want to know something?" That was not the response the author expected. "I kinda like it." The shy words were a total surprise. "For a long time I never thought anyone would love me enough to be jealous. Want to know something else?" The author nodded, for once speechless. "You're doing much better than I would be if the situation was reversed." "Just the mention of it and I'm ready to go knock heads. Don't even mention the thought of someone else touching you...don't go there, Casey!"

"You must have gone out with stupid people, Casey!" Beth finally found her voice, not quite believing what she was saying. "How could anyone not be jealous if you looked at someone else? You're gorgeous! Not to mention incredibly intelligent. Then throw in your caring, supportive nature...what's not to be jealous of?"

Casey's agile brain froze on "if you looked at someone else". "If I look at someone else...oh, duh, Casey! What did my face look like when I pulled out that sweater?" Belatedly she realized that Beth finished speaking, hearing the words filter rapidly through her mind. "Well," Casey grinned wryly. "I happen to think you're a little biased, love." Casey turned from the busy road, heading into the residential area, watching Beth out of the corner of her eye. "You have no reason to be jealous. Not now, not ever; certainly not of someone from my past. Forever, remember?"

"I remember." Beth reached over and squeezed Casey's thigh, fingers moving sensually. "Sometimes I just get stupid, I guess." "I really do wonder what someone like you sees in me."

"Hey!" Casey covered Beth's hand with her own. "Are you getting fresh with me?" The twinkle in her eye contradicted her gruff tone. Not to mention her thumb which was gently stroking the back of Beth's hand encouragingly.

"What if I was?" Beth sassed, gratefully leaving the painful subject of her jealously.

"Just checking." Casey chuckled, turning onto their street. "Hey!" Louder this time as she remembered something. "Guess what's on tv tonight?"

"I have no idea." Beth cocked an eyebrow curiously. They didn't watch much tv; both preferred movies or reading.

"T-2 and it's just about time to start!" Casey grinned, thinking there was nothing quite like holding Beth while she watched her favorite movie. She ignored Beth's groan, secretly tickled that her wife would watch a movie she disliked, just because Casey asked her to. A quick glance at the clock confirmed that there was enough time to eat before the movie started. The specialist didn't want anything to interrupt her evening. "Guess that means I better ask her about tomorrow."

"Are you at the point where you can take a break and go somewhere with me tomorrow? It might take a couple of days. I mean, if you're busy...and you sounded busy earlier before I interrupted you...we can always go another's not really important..." Casey uncharacteristically stuttered and rambled at the same time.

"Yup, I'm all yours." When that didn't elicit a response, Beth tried again. "As long as that cute butt's in front of me, I'll follow." Swallowing her worry, the author stopped teasing. "Of course, I'll come with you. Where are we going?" Beth punched in the security codes to open the house, giving her lover the time to compose her thoughts and face.

"Hmm, ask me tomorrow, please?" Casey sighed at her lack of courage. "Just how hard is it to ask?"

"Sure. C'mon, the pizza's gonna get cold." Smiling, Beth jumped out of the car before Casey could open her door.

"I'm coming!" Casey laughed, heart feeling lighter than it had for most of the afternoon. "The movie's gonna start soon; lets eat!" Heading towards the living room, Casey forced all thoughts of her past from her mind, intending to concentrate solely on her lover. And oh yeah, the movie.


Glancing over, Casey smiled softly, blue eyes lovingly caressed her dozing partner before returning to the highway with a sigh. "You've been so patient with me. You even got up before dawn without a complaint. Wonder if my face was as expressive as I think it was. All you did was tell me that you loved me, would be there for me...God! Listen to me. 'All you did'...that was and is everything I could ever hope for from's all I'll ever need."

Casey fell silent, watching the miles disappear. Then her brain kicked in again as the landmarks became to familiar to ignore. "I felt your curiosity and concern all morning, yet you didn't say a word. Didn't push for any explanations. Guess it's time to stop avoiding it and tell you."

"Beth? Sweetheart?" Casey flipped on the turning signal, heading for her past; towards somewhere she had consciously avoided for more than fifteen years. "Time to wake up, love." Touched beyond words, Casey had watched Beth struggle to stay awake after they'd been on the road for several hours. Feeling very loved by her lover's gesture of support, she softly sang her to sleep.

"I'm awake." Beth mumbled sleepily, using the confined space to her advantage, stretching lazily. "Where are we?" Blinking rapidly, Beth gazed out the windows, not recognizing where they were before her eyes landed on her partner curiously.

"Come with me while I visit my Dad?" Casey winced as her voice wavered. "Please?" "I don't think I can do this without you."

"Of course. I'll go anywhere with you, anytime, wife." Green eyes watched delighted as the scared, hurt look faded. "Did your Dad have a favorite flower?" Beth spoke gently, touching Casey's arm lightly. "Help me God," The author silently prayed, remembering visiting a different cemetery with her own grandparents, never empty handed. "I have no idea what I'm doing here. Don't let me hurt her."

"I don't know. He always got Mom roses." The specialist frowned, realizing that was another thing she didn't know about her dad. "Guess we should get something to take."

"Love." The constant, gentle stroking soothed Casey, helping ground her raging emotions. "You don't need to take anything; it will be alright, I promise. Your dad would be proud of you. That I guarantee." "You're the only gift he would want, love. Trust me."

"Dad was buried near his family about a half hour from town." Casey changed the subject, telling herself if Beth still loved her after this trip, it would be a miracle. "I once asked Mom why," Casey cleared her throat, battling down the rising panic with a hard fought for ease. "It was important to Dad that we all be buried together. He bought as many lots as he could the day before Mom and he got married. Said he wanted his family together no matter what. He wanted his kids and their own families to come back and be together in the end. The small town cemetery was the only one that would sell a large block of lots at one time." The specialist glanced at her silent partner, not sure of the reaction she'd get. She wasn't prepared for tears. "Beth?" The thumping of her heart sounded loud in Casey's ears, a common occurrence when her lover cried.

"I think that's," Beth paused wiping away her tears and gathered her scattered wits. She hadn't expected that explanation. "I think your Dad really cared a great deal about your Mom and their future children. What a loving gesture." Swallowing emotionally, Beth found she had trouble speaking. "So are you going to do it?" At Casey's questioning look, Beth elaborated. "Do you want to be buried in your family's plot?" This was one subject they'd never talked about, although it had been on her mind recently. When Beth ordered their rings, she'd also called her attorney and changed her will, planning to tell Casey when the time was right. But it never came up. "I think it's time to tell you. After this, I will." The author promised herself.

"I guess it depends on your wishes." Casey headed back from the two lane highway, understanding her Dad's reasoning for the first time. "I mean, it never really mattered to me before, but I want to be with you." Not giving Beth time to respond, Casey hurried on, almost as if she expected her lover to decline. "Would that be OK with you?" The silence in the car was deafening.

"It's OK if you don't want that. I know your family wouldn't like it. You probably want to join them." Casey felt her heart fall, landing painfully at her feet. "Do I ask if I can join her? I really do what to be with her. Oh God, I never expected her to say...why's she looking at me that way?" Before her brain could follow, her heart leapt joyously.

"Of course it's OK with me!" The pleasantly shocked author finally found her voice, even if it was husky and full of emotion. "Was that an invitation?" Beth told herself firmly to calm down; she'd never expected to hear those words come out of her practical lover.

"Yeah." Casey uncharacteristically shy, answered softly. "When I said 'forever', I meant it. Does that mean yes?"

"Yes!" Beth closed her eyes briefly. "Tell her now! It's the right time." Green eyes opened, focusing on her lover's incredibly beautiful face. "I meant forever too. When I got these," the author extended an astonishingly steady left hand, clasping Casey's muscular arm, wanting...needing the physical contact. "I changed my will too." Seeing Casey's intense reaction, Beth decided it was time to lighten the emotionally charged conversation. "Don't go getting any bright ideas, 99. Wait a bit to plan the parties."

"I love you, you know that?" Casey managed to drag a smile out for her lover, hiding the storms raging inside. Or so she thought.

"I love you too." Knowing eyes narrowed, searching her partner's face with a much used practiced skill. "What are you thinking? Does that really surprise you that I changed my will?"

"No, it doesn't." Sighing, Casey tried to make sense out of her thoughts. Finally she settled on her most prevalent thought. "I guess I can't believe how much you're willing to give up to be with me. I know your family doesn't approve of me." Out of the corner of her eye, the specialist watched her protector coil and prepare to deliver a stinging reply in her defense. Casey couldn't help it; she laughed softly. "Some things never change!" Thought happily as green eyes bored into her.

"My family doesn't approve of you." Beth confirmed, green eyes sparking a resulting blaze in her lover. "I wouldn't let it worry you, love. They don't approve of me either. And I'll have you know," fingers dropped to pinch Casey in mock punishment. "That I'd give up anything to be with you and consider myself lucky."

"I assume I was written out of my Mom's will when I joined the FBI. Shortly after I joined, Mark called and asked me a couple of questions about what Mom wanted us to sign. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I hadn't heard from her. I don't have much, but what I do have is yours." Casey grabbed Beth's hand, preventing her from speaking. "I'd give up anything to be with you too." Drawing in a shaky breath, the specialist pointed out the window. "Almost there."

"All I want is you." The answering growl of agreement caused Beth's heart to pound, forcing her to ignore her suddenly rising desire. As soon as they stopped, Beth jumped out and flew around to get Casey's door, wanting and needing to hold Casey before they went any farther. "What?" Green twinkled innocently at sparkling blue; the author was well aware how her actions would affect her lover.

"That's my job." Casey grumbled, taking her author's offered hand. A gentle tug had Beth in her arms, head nestled against her shoulder. A soft, loving kiss later, Casey reluctantly stepped back, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "C'mon. It's this way."

"Casey?" Beth questioned softly. "Can I ask you something? No pressure, love."

"Anything." Casey answered distractedly, picking her way back to her father's grave.

"Why now? I mean," Beth managed to snuggle a little closer. "If your Mom hadn't brought your old stuff to the house, uh...would you have...uh, I mean, would you have told me?" The author stumbled along, ashamed of herself for asking such a question of her lover, for giving into her insecurities and fears. Irrationally hurt at how long her lover, her wife, avoided such a personal issue. Slapping herself mentally, Beth berated herself when Casey didn't answer. "Way to go, Beth! Pick on her while she's at her most vulnerable. Why don't you just run over her? That would hurt less. After what happened to her dad, can you blame her? You know how hard this is for her. You should be proud of her for facing her feelings and emotions, not questioning her motives! Just who is the insecure one? Sometimes I even amaze myself with my stupidity!"

"Hey!" Belatedly Beth realized she'd missed what Casey said, finding herself facing a very concerned lover. "Where did you go? You OK?" Blue searched green intently, not at all liking the self loathing in her lover's eyes. "You didn't hear what I said, did you?"

"Sorry." Beth groaned mentally, not believing Casey was worried about her...not now. "Which way?" The author smiled gamely, trying to change the subject, not realizing how easily Casey read her emotions.

"Not so fast." Watching the emotions flow across her beloved's face, Casey realized how her silence had been perceived. "How can I tell her? How can I make her understand it's not that I didn't want her to know. It was just easier to not deal with it. Yet she's blaming herself for hurting me...God, Casey, just grow up!" "Sometimes I'm stupid. I don't think." A finger prevented Beth from leaping to her defense. "I never meant to hurt you. Part of me," Casey sighed emotionally, drawing comfort from Beth's embrace. "Part of me wanted to tell you about all of this. Let you help me deal with it. Every time your parents came up, I could see the unspoken questions in your eyes. But I just couldn't make myself tell you. I was a coward. I convinced myself that not dealing with it was better. Why put myself through all that pain? I had you and my brothers and sister are my family. What I forgot, what I refused to see, was my silence was hurting the one I swore I'd never hurt. I'm sorry. Forgive me?" Blue eyes begged forgiveness.

"Of course I do." The words of denial died on Beth's lips. It wouldn't do either of them any good to deny their feelings. "You in the mood for silly questions today?" Beth teased, bumping against her partner, changing the subject.

Turning, Casey resumed walking. After a couple of minutes, she stopped, unconsciously tightening her arm around Beth's waist. Shaded blue eyes landed on the single headstone. "I can't do this!" The specialist moaned silently, drawing closer to her lover. "There is so much I wanted to tell him." Casey spoke softly, hesitantly. "But standing here, I can't. The words won't come."

"How about telling me his name?" Beth prompted gently, heart pounding rapidly, green eyes riveted to her partner's face. Hoping beyond hope she was doing the right thing and not pushing Casey to far, too fast.

"Oh...right." Casey drew a deep, ragged breath. "William James Bennett." An emotional laugh escaped. "His parents were very patriotic. Mom said once that they thought a strong, traditional name would help enforce a sense of duty and purpose." Falling silent, Casey stared at the headstone.

"What do I do? What do I say?" Beth thought quietly, reacting to Casey's body language by resting her head against her lover's shoulder, granting her lover what privacy she could while still maintaining body contact. "Should I try and help her talk through her feelings? God, I have no idea what to do...what to say." A stray thought, one that had never occurred, unwound from deep inside.

"Wonder what Casey thinks of my relationship with my parents? I know every time I have to deal with them, she offers nothing but support, understanding, love. And she always takes my side; always moves to protect me. Yet she's said countless times that she doesn't understand how my parents could treat me like they do. I've always thought it was just my loved protector leaping to my defense. What if it isn't that? Does it bother her that I do have a father, yet I can', Beth, be honest. I won't try to work it out? I am the true coward...I don't want to deal with the probable rejection and pain either. Casey doesn't have that option with her dad. The look on her face when she unwrapped the picture was priceless. So unguarded, so full of emotions...I have never, never looked at my father that way. What I would give to feel that way about know I was accepted for who I feel his loving arms wrapped comfortably around me, keeping me safe, keeping me whole. That's the memory of her father she should have, should hold in her heart. Nothing and no one can take that away. Maybe that's what I should say." Not sure if she should voice her thoughts, the author settled for moving even closer, wrapping her other arm around her partner's waist. Closing her eyes, Beth simply hung on, offering support and comfort in the only way she was sure wouldn't upset or push her lover. Wanting to be Casey's rock, like Casey was hers. "Just hang on, love...I won't let go."

Blue eyes drilled relentlessly into the black marble stone. Gratefully aware of the love and support radiating from her lover, Casey unconsciously returned her embrace, opened her mind and concentrated, fragments of her past slowly sliding from their carefully tucked corners. "There's so much I want to tell you, but I don't know where to start. I kept up karate, Dad. You were right. It taught me discipline, how to harness and focus my abilities, taught me not to give up. I shudder to think how wild I would have been without all the training, the constant need to stay focused and in control. By the time I was twelve, I was acutely aware of how much physical damage I could inflict if I lost control. You chose well when you picked Master Hung; he instilled in me a healthy respect for what would happen if I ever lost control... that, to my shame, I've lost three times. Along with that, I got a healthy dose of responsibility and an innate sense of justice...of how the strong had a duty to protect. Didn't matter if the protection was physical or emotional. I thought I had it planned perfectly; I could make a difference with both my mind and body. This sense of responsibility was reinforced in college. At first I wanted to help other awkward kids, help them deal with their uncoordinated body and mind. I convinced myself that I was living proof of a successful union of mind and body. Sarah's death changed how I viewed myself. I learned so much about myself in those three months between my first and second year. I found a new that I excelled at. Even more than karate, if you can belief that. Sarah died at the hands of a serial killer and this brought me into contact with profiling. So sure how I planed to help people changed, but my goal was still the same."

"After college...actually because of college and Sarah, I joined the FBI and became a profiler. I got into peoples' heads, tried to figure out how and why they committed crimes, tried to stop them. I was exceptionally good at this, in part because of my ability to harness my body, my mind. It came at a price though; I lost myself in the madness. For a long time, I've denied this...and blamed Hamilton for my emotional withdrawal. But that's not the whole truth. All I could think about, from the start of my second year of college, was getting to the point where I had the training and power to stop 'the monsters'...nothing else mattered. For me, duty took precedent over everything. The only person who even started to crack my shell was Mark. He simply refused to let me walk away from him. Mom never supported my decision to join the FBI. She blamed my experience in college and to a certain extent, she was right. I learned about profiling the hard personal experience. College became a way to get where I wanted to be...after experience changed me. Even now, I can close my eyes and see Sarah's bloody, beaten body. Mom never recognized, well, she never acknowledged this fact. Never would admit that I had a duty to stop people like Sarah's killer if I could. And I most definitely could. But she couldn't ignore it any longer after I came home for a brief visit after I finished my first profile, my first case."

"Remember our second tournament? When we graduated to the third level? As much as Master Hung helped me find myself, so did you. You said something to me that day as you wrapped my ankle. Anything worth having was worth working for and that everything had a price. Then you told me to always believe in myself. That if I worked hard and gave it my best shot, nothing would be impossible. Those words helped to carry me through many a dark days...from the pains of stretching my rapidly developing body to its limits to sitting in a dark alley, letting the blood and anguish of a heinous crime seep into my being as I struggled to understand to fighting with myself as I was forced to admit that I was wrong, that I needed my Beth. I know you never intended me to use those words against Mom, but I did. Sitting in that room, feeling my carefully constructed walls come under siege, I reacted. Like I'd been trained to do from the age of five. I used the weapons at agile mind and self-confidence. To my shame, I went on the offensive."

"I was so full of righteous energy, I said things I shouldn't of. Told her that I wasn't important, that my personal life and obligations took a back seat to my profession. Mom finally confessed she saw something in me that she didn't like, that she couldn't support. For the first time, she told me I had to make a choice. I could either be a whole, healthy person...her daughter...the person I'd led her to believe I was before Sarah. Or I could continue being the driven, emotionless person I had become. And choose I did. I just got up and walked out, so damn sure that I was right. People depended on me and I wasn't going to disappoint them. If I quit, if I failed, I was convinced I'd be turning my back on everything I believed, everything I worked for. My determination and drive sustained me through the darkness I battled every day...the pain, the blood, the senseless violence. Each destroyed life called to me, begged me to make things right. God, Mom was so wrong! I wasn't emotionless. Far from it. I lived...breathed...bled dark, dangerous emotions every day. They nearly consumed me. Then came the day I truly scared myself...I lost control and beat a man nearly senseless. Doesn't matter that I stopped him while he was in the process of committing a heinous crime...he was a violent rapist and murderer. I had used force before, sometimes bordering on excessive, apprehending criminals. But I never lost control, not like I did in that clearing. Never, never had I felt the sickening pride as I kept hitting him. Never, never had it felt so damn good to use my skills. Never, never had I relished another person's pain...pain inflicted by me. That's also the day I became a coward, for the first time in my life. I was so afraid of my reactions, so afraid of my emotions, so afraid of my loss of control, that I ran. From myself and my feelings. Then I turned into the unfeeling bitch Mom called me that night. I simply locked my emotions away so tightly, that I denied their existence. I even forgot I had them, buried so deeply they were. Oh, I had glimpses here and there...Mark and Stephanie, Mrs A, Phil...but I so carefully controlled my responses that they didn't seem real. I think I actually convinced myself that I really wasn't feeling anything...I was merely reacting as programmed by society. It wasn't until I met Beth that I even admitted that I might have been wrong. That cutting off my emotions wasn't healthy. And I fought it, fought her trying to protect myself. Her patience, her love, her understanding, drew me into the light. Because of Beth, I'm willing to try again. And that means telling her everything. Even about Sarah, even though I don't want to expose her to that violence. But Beth deserves to know."

"I've missed talking to you. I miss you. God, how I wish you were still here. There is so much I want to share with you, so much I want to ask your opinion the incredible woman in my arms. What do you think of Beth, Dad? I, I know, you'd love her." Casey fell silent, letting old memories and feelings surface as she made peace with the memories of her father. Knowing she'd have to make an attempt with her mother before she'd finally come to terms with her past.

The crunch of tires on gravel pulled Casey from her thoughts. Alert blue eyes scanned the cemetery, noting the vehicle's occupants. Dismissing them as non-threatening, Casey glanced down at her partner snuggled tightly against her, smiling softly. "Hey." Casey's low voice floated lightly down to her lover's ears, caressing gently.

"You OK, love?" Beth lifted her head to meet her lover's gaze. Worried because Casey's body had reacted strongly, ranging from rigid tension to almost boneless fear, during her silence. It tore the author's heart, knowing her lover was hurting and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.

"Yeah, I'm fine." Casey freed a hand, raising it to lightly caress a smooth cheek. "Come sit with me?" Turning, she nodded at a tree near the back of her family's plots, well away from the prying eyes.

"Of course." Beth leaned against Casey, allowing her to lead them to the tree.

"You asked me once how I got interesting in profiling but I brushed you off. I'm sorry." Casey pulled Beth tighter against her, moving slowly towards the tree. "I just couldn't tell you then. I want you, need you to know now." Stopping, the specialist glanced around the cemetery, pleased no one was paying attention to them now. "The summer between my first and second year of college changed my life." Casey spoke softly, leaning against the rough bark, hanging on to Beth's hands. Staring into understanding, loving green eyes, the specialist drew a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "I decided to stay at school because I had responsibilities; all my months of hard work paid off and I had a decent following at the local dojo. Anyway," unconsciously she scooted a fraction closer, knees now firmly in contact with Beth's. "A couple of weeks after the end of classes, I was supposed to meet my roommate Sarah for supper at Felice's, her favorite restaurant for her birthday. A couple of my students' parents were late picking them up and I wasn't comfortable with leaving them alone. I called Felice's and left a message telling Sarah to wait, I'd be there as soon as possible. Damn!" Inhaling noisily, Casey concentrated on the warmth radiating from her connection with Beth, eyes frozen on their linked hands. "My fault...if I'd just been there..."

Beth's concerned questions finally registered. Looking up, Casey found the strength to continue. "I'm OK. When I got to the restaurant, Sarah was already gone. The manager said she'd left about fifteen minutes earlier. A young man, he assumed it was another student because of the books, had spoken to her briefly, then they left. Two days later Sarah's body was found in a ditch along a back country road. I'll never forget my first trip to the morgue...her parents lived in California and the police didn't want to make them fly in if I could identify her. I was devastated.. Here I had all this training, all this experience in a deadly art, yet no experience with violent death. No amount of doctoring could hide the fact that Sarah had been brutalized, almost beyond recognition. It was the first and last time I ever lost control, ever cried in front of local authorities."

"There, in the cold, the stillness, I forced myself to look...forced myself to see my friend in the bruised, torn flesh. Standing there, all I could think of was that it was my fault...all my fault. If only I had been on time I could have prevented her death. The thought kept repeating, relentlessly, tormenting me over the next few days. Finally I couldn't take it any more and called one of my students, a local police officer. He let me look at the case file, thinking it would help ease my feelings of guilt. But it didn't. All it did was infuriate me. The callous, rude comments of the first officers on the scene lit a fire in me...I was convinced that I could do better than those bumbling, insensitive idiots."

"Numerous times over the next week I went and walked where Sarah was found, listening to each hard fought for piece of evidence time and time again. To my horror, I found myself wondering why he chose to use an awkward cut at an impossible angle, why Sarah's limbs were posed, why he cut letters from a glossy magazine and not a newspaper. Then the unthinkable happened...another girl was found. I bullied my way onto the crime scene and instantly I knew it was the same killer. No one would listen to me; I was just another 'know-it-all' college kid who happened to have the strength and training to force her way in the crime scene. The killer struck a third time, this time choosing a girl who's parents were rich and affluent. They insisted the police call in the FBI. It was no secret that I spent every available hour investigating the crimes. Either I was out talking to people or looking stuff up in the library. I found out years later that one of the local detectives jokingly told Johnson that they should interview me because I thought I had it figured out."

"After Johnson took control of the case, he called me in. As luck would have it, I'd just had a fight with my mother over my failure to leave because it was too dangerous and I was in rare form. He asked me what I thought, what I'd learned. Johnson seemed so interested, so willing to hear my thoughts, I told him, point blank. Not giving him a chance to stop me, I started asking questions about his motives, about why he did things a certain way, what the significance was of specific actions. When I was done, he just picked up the phone and called a meeting. I'll never forget how he stared at I was a prime cut of beef at the steak house. Then he did the damnedest thing: he systematically analyzed my profile, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. Thanking me, he sent me home."

"Five days later, a call in the middle of the night had me racing to the next crime scene. Full of questions, I could barely contain myself. Upon reaching Johnson, he simply stepped aside, pointing at the body and said. 'Tell me what you see...tell me what happened.' From that moment on, I was hooked. Every minute I wasn't at the dojo, I was working with Johnson. I'd kept a low profile since the FBI took over the case. After the sixth victim was found, I suggested we set me up as the next victim since I was only one of two possible females on the team. The murderer was so messy we had trouble getting usable physical evidence. All of the victims were picked up in or at restaurants. That was our best lead. I had to convince them of my physical abilities before they'd agree. It only took five different scenarios in as many minutes. Luck was with us; after three nights of setting me up as a decoy, I was approached. I followed him willingly into the parking lot as planned. He must have felt I wasn't nervous enough because when a young woman passed us, he grabbed her. Knowing I couldn't let him leave with her, I followed him into the alley and took the first opening I had." Swallowing emotionally, Casey closed her eyes, remembering everything about that night...the sparkling stars, the biting cold, the rotting garbage, the force of her kick, the sickening sound of flesh meeting metal. "The woman stumbled and his grip slipped, leaving his head and neck open. One round house kick was all it took. As he spun from the force of my kick, his head hit the dumpster, killing him." Blue eyes opened, staring unfocused over Beth's shoulder. "I killed a man and all I could think about was how I wanted to make sure it, the senseless murders by a madman, didn't happen again. I had the raw, untrained talent. The FBI agent said so. Told me it was my responsibility to develop my talent...for the good of society...told me I could make a real difference. I had the discipline. I had the desire. All I needed was the training...I believed him. I wanted to stop the monsters." Casey finished hoarsely and shook herself, coming back to the present. Silent green eyes looked at her. Feeling self conscious, the specialist cleared her throat loudly. "Beth?"

"I don't know what to say." The words popped out before the author could stop them.

"Say you still love me." Casey answered softly, nervously. Of all Beth's possible responses, she hadn't planned on that one..silence. Wondering what her gentle lover was thinking, the former agent held her breath, apprehensively.

"I love you." Beth blinked, focusing on the pale, worried face before her. "I love you." She repeated, putting strength behind her words. "I'm sorry about Sarah. Tell me about her?" Green eyes conveyed her sympathy, hiding her need for a distraction. What can I say? What words will make it all better? There are none. No one should have that much pressure dumped on them at nineteen. The author thought quickly, aching for her partner.

Rising, Casey pulled Beth with her. Wrapping her arms around her lover's waist, the specialist kissed her gently. "Sarah was my first and only college roommate. Her parents were teachers...that's what she wanted to do. She loved to go out, loved to hang out with her friends. Sarah was," Casey thought a moment. "Kind, caring, protective of her friends. Kind of like you, love." Pausing, she stole another kiss. "She was the first person outside of Danny who accepted me for who I was. She didn't push me to be anything that I wasn't." Casey frowned, thinking how Beth might take the comment. "But she didn't love me and I certainly wasn't in love with her. I was still very much in my 'I don't need a relationship' phase."

"Sounds like she was a good friend." Beth concentrated on keeping her body relaxed, on not letting her jealousy, her insecurities escape. "Does Casey think I push her? Is she only telling me now because I've pushed her to?" That thought produced a shiver she couldn't hide.

"The only thing you push me to do is to think up new ways to surprise you, beloved." Casey heard Beth's thought loud and clear. "But she wasn't like you." Lips nipped Beth's nose. "She never ignited by blood." Husked hotly into one sensitive ear. "She never made me see stars." The other ear was treated to a hot breath bath. "She never made me feel complete." Lips paid homage to Beth's. "And she never," lips grazed one cheek. "Ever," Casey pulled back so she could lose herself in green. "Ever," whispered a moment later. "Had possession of my heart, my soul."

"How do you do that?" Beth gazed dazedly at Casey, her lover's words chasing her jealousy away. "You should be ashamed of should be comforting her! Get a grip, Beth!"

"Ready to go?" The increased activity in the cemetery reminded the specialist they weren't alone and it was starting to bother her. Private, intimate discussions with her lover were exactly that...private. "There's something I want to show you." Blue eyes promised they'd continue the conversation later.

"Sure. Where are we going now?" The author willingly allowed her partner to set them in motion away from the disturbing memories and emotions.

"You'll see." A loud rumble reminded her of the time. "After I feed you that is."

"Casey!" A light blush spread over the author's face, earning a real laugh from her lover.

"What? Why are you looking at me that way?" Casey looked curiously at Beth, wondering what she'd done to earn that loving look. Especially in light of her revelations. "God, Dad, see how she looks at me? I never thought anyone would feel that way about me. But she does, against all reason, she does." The specialist's heart sang, firmly protected from bitter, painful memories.

"Have I ever told you how much I love your laugh?" Beth smiled softly, reveling in the intense feelings racing through her body. "No?" She answered herself, delighting in the soft glow reflected at her. "I do. do something to me, for me, that is indescribable. Makes me all warm and fuzzy inside."

"Beth!" Unable to resist, Casey laughed again, just to see green sparkle, feeling at home in her lover's gaze. "No trying to distract won't work!" "Sarah couldn't ever make me feel this don't worry, love."

"Who said I was trying?" Beth shot back, being totally honest. "I want you to know how I feel." She promised to examine her self perceived selfish reactions later, when Casey didn't need her.

"You're serious, aren't you?" Casey marveled, dropping Beth's hand to wrap her arm around her shoulders, steering her towards the car. "I love your laugh too." Without warning, Casey tickled Beth indiscriminately, earning her the laugh she wanted to hear for the rest of her life. "I want to hear that forever."

"Casey!" Beth laughed, trying to squirm out of her lover's reach. "No fair, you've got longer arms!" The author teasingly complained, unsuccessful in her half-hearted escape attempt. "Stop that!"

"Nope." Casey trapped Beth between her and the car. "Now," long arms planted themselves on either side of the author. "I believe," growling softly, the specialist playfully nipped her author's cheek. "That I win." Quickly Casey stole a kiss, changing her looming stance into a loving hug. "Thanks for coming here with me today." Whispered into Beth's ear. "Thanks for still wanting to be with me after all of this."

"You're welcome, love." Beth bit back her natural inclination to say it wasn't necessary, that it was a duty she wanted for the rest of her life. Then hugged Casey hard and released her, very conscious of the fact that they weren't alone. The disapproving stares sent their way bothered the author. Ever since they'd emerged from the back of the cemetery, the author was amazingly conscious of the critical looks. "Guess I am just used to being around people who know and accept us." Their light-hearted teasing hadn't erased the tension radiating from her partner nor calmed her own insecurities.

"So what are you feeding me and when?" She granted her emotionally shy partner a way out of the emotional turmoil of the last hour. Not to mention herself, who was growing more uncomfortable every moment under those stares.

"About a half hour." Casey opened Beth's door, stealing one last kiss before she hurried around to her side of the car. "It will take us about that long to get into town. How does Chinese sound? There's a good place right around the corner from Master Hung's dojo. I thought we could eat there then visit Master Hung."

"Sounds good and I'd love to see where you spent so much of your time growing up." Beth was elated that Casey was sharing her past with her, even if it did raise her own self doubts. "How do you know they both are still there?"

"I have many skills." The specialist dead panned, cocking an eyebrow at her partner.

"Casey!" Beth swatted her partner's arm. "You've just been waiting to say that, haven't you?" The author grinned, shaking her head. "I can't believe I set you up like that!" Both laughed at the specialist's use of one of the warrior princess's favorite sayings.

"What are you working on now?" Casey returned Beth's grin, changing the subject without answering her author's question.

"I'm working on the confrontation scene between Jill and..." Casey listened to Beth's explanation, willingly losing herself in her author's words, giving herself an emotional break. Of course it was just a coincidence that Beth was working on one of her favorite characters.

Out of the corner of her eye, Beth watched her lover sink back, relaxing with each word. "My poor baby. I never had any idea that you were forced to kill so young. You've lived and breathed the darkness for so long. Not any more. I refuse to let you sink back into the nightmares, the shadows. Don't go there, Beth! Casey needs me now, in the present. Not stuck bemoaning the horrors she was forced to endure. Look at how she soaks up each word..." That thought brought her mental ramblings to an end; Casey deserved her full attention. With relish, the author threw herself totally into the conversation.


"There's the Imperial Dragon." Casey interrupted Beth's ramblings with a soft smile, knowing her author wouldn't care, especially since she was just as stumped as when she started talking. Pointing out the window she continued. "The area hasn't changed much. Master Hung's is right down the street." Driving slowly past the normal assortment of small businesses, the specialist pointed out two kids hurrying to the dojo, remembering the countless times she ran from the bus stop so she wouldn't be late.

"Think we're too late for lunch?" Beth cast a curious eye around the mostly deserted parking lot.

"Not for us." Casey leaned over and kissed Beth, running a hand through her soft hair. "Would I let you starve?" Jumping out, she ran around and took Beth's hand, leading her into the restaurant.

"I'm sorry, we've stopped serving lunch..." The small, old man behind the counter began talking before turning around. "Casey Bennett!" Surprise and delight warred for control of his face. "Come in! Come in! It's never too late for you." Moving from behind the counter, he bowed slightly, calling for his wife.

"Wei Mao, what's so important that you're yelling...oh!" His wife rounded the corner, chattering at him. "Casey!" Moving quickly, she hugged the tall specialist and waited. "Well? Did you forget all your manners?" A light swat was her punishment. "I thought you knew better than that! If not, it's a good thing you decided to visit!"

"Sorry, Yueue." Casey flushed slightly under the parental scolding, amusing her partner. "This is my wife, Beth Jamieson. Beth, these are my friends, Yang Yueue and her husband, Mao Wei." The specialist performed the introductions, remembering just in time to introduce Yueue first. She'd learned the hard way what was proper, unconsciously she rubbed her behind in memory.

"Pleased to meet you." Beth extended her hand, trying not to let her surprise show. Based on what Casey had told her about growing up, she expected her partner to introduce her as a friend. "She must feel comfortable here. I'm glad." The author was surprised at how much her partner's words touched her. No matter how many times Casey assured her wife that she wasn't ashamed of their relationship, the author still harbored secret doubts. Every time Casey introduced her as her 'friend', Beth couldn't help wondering.

"You have my sympathies!" The old woman laughed quietly, taking the younger woman's hand. "She can be quite a handful! I've a spoon in the kitchen with her name on it if you need to borrow it. I remember the last time I..."

"Yueue!" Both her husband and Casey groaned at the same time, interrupting her.

"Don't you feed this woman? Come back into the kitchen!" The old woman pulled the blushing author and her complaining stomach with her into the kitchen, sitting her down at the family's table. "Tell me what you've been doing." Said over her shoulder, reaching for a large pan.

The quietly spoken words were a command that the specialist found she couldn't resist. Much to her surprise, Casey found herself briefly speaking of the FBI and why she left, what she'd been doing since then. Eating what was put in front of her, Casey jumped with chopsticks connected with the back of her hand. "What?" Startled, blue eyes quickly scanned the room, finding nothing amiss.

"Stop talking with your mouth full." Yueue ignored the looks sent her way.

"This is the best Chinese food I've ever eaten, Yueue." Beth sat back, directing the conversation away from her blushing partner. Shortly upon entering the kitchen, Beth had been given permission to use the woman's first name after calling up a long forgotten memory from college about Chinese names. "Oh love, this is a side I've never seen of you before!"

"Thank you, Beth. Where have I heard your name before?" The old woman passed the chicken and vegetable dish to the author, silently approving of her support and protection of Casey.

"She's an author. Maybe you've read one of her books." Casey jumped back into the conversation, snatching a won ton from Beth's plate. And grinned widely when Yueue's chopsticks connected with her flesh again. "I'm glad some things never change." Thought wistfully, remembering countless times in the past being scolded for doing the same thing.

"What do you write?" Wei asked quietly, having learned a long time ago that his wife liked to direct the conversation. But if he failed to participate he'd also be in trouble.

"Beth writes mysteries and science fiction mostly." Casey absently answered for her lover, reaching for the soup again. "Not what you normally read, I'm afraid Wei." Ignoring the exasperated sigh from Yueue, the specialist filled Beth's bowl without asking, then her own. She also missed the knowing, pleased look exchanged by her old friends.

"I know I've heard your name before." Yueue insisted to Beth, rising to refill the empty bowls. Turning to Wei, she asked him something in Mandarin.

As they chattered back and forth, apparently trying to figure out where they'd heard Beth's name before, the author relaxed against her partner. "You've got nice friends, love."

"I spent a lot of time here when I was growing up. My Dad was friends with their oldest son, so he spent a lot of time over here when he wasn't working in high school. Naturally Dad brought us all over here a lot once we were old enough. Wei and Yueue were like adopted parents. It became a safe place for me when I had to wait for rides after practice or if I was early. When I left Mom's house that last time, I spent a few days here." Casey cleared her throat, pushing the conflicting emotions firmly away. "Anyway, I've kind of stayed in contact with them. They came to visit me about three months after that last fight with Mom. They're one of the few that I kept in touch with...mostly cards at holidays or birthdays. Once in awhile, the occasional phone call. Plus they see Mark and Stephanie whenever they're in town and we exchange news that way." Grinning wryly, Casey hastily rose and took the offered bowls, not wanting to chance another scolding.

"Have you ever written a children's book, Beth?" Yueue sat back down, finally placing the author's name. At least she thought she did. "I sent him to look for something." Answering Casey's raised eyebrow.

"Yes, I've written two children's books." Beth carefully avoided looking at her surprised partner, taking the offered bowl of vegetables without realizing it. "Good gods, I never expected her to ask that!" The author's heart picked up the pace, not wanting to tell Casey like this.

"Really? I didn't know that." Casey bumped Beth's arm questioningly, a slightly hurt look on her face. The specialist couldn't believe she'd missed that fact in her background search when she searched for Beth's stalker...the reason for their meeting. "I can't believe how much that hurts...that she didn't tell me." Thought quickly as she watched her wife unsuccessfully fight to keep her face neutral. Numerous memories of long conversations rose, haunting the specialist. "Why didn't she tell me? Doesn't she trust me?"

"Yeah, it was right after I finished college. I wrote them for a friend." Beth admitted reluctantly, once again reminding herself that being open went both ways. Turning to face Yueue, she continued. "Bumps In The Night and Charlie's Doll. I'm surprised you remembered them. They were published, oh, about ten years ago." "Please don't ask me who I wrote them for or why."

"I remember Charlie's Doll vividly. It's very emotional." Yueue picked up on Beth's nervousness, mistaking it for embarrassment. "Why are you embarrassed? It was and is an exceptional book with a powerful message. I routinely read it during my turn at the children's library. But you're listed as E. A. Jamieson. Confused me for awhile."

Beth was saved from answering immediately by Wei coming back into the room, waving his findings. Not knowing what else to say, Beth intercepted the book, dragging a smile out of her aching heart. "Want it autographed?"

"Yes!" Yueue nodded emphatically, watching as Beth wrote quickly on the title page and handed it back. Reading the personal dedication and the request to borrow the spoon, she snorted loudly. "Oh Casey, I think you've met your match!"

"May I?" Although she spoke to Yueue, blue eyes looked to Beth for approval before her large hand closed on the book. "At least you're letting me see it now."

Knowing Casey would scan the book, Beth sighed mentally, anticipating the questions her curious partner would ask. A smack on the table jerked her attention to the grinning oriental woman. Picking up the requested dreaded spoon, Beth allowed herself to be drawn into the conversation, learning more about her partner and her occasionally strange habits. Like why, for instance, she mainly ate lightly seasoned garlic vegetables at Chinese restaurants (because of a dare a young Casey couldn't refuse) and why she disliked dunking crab rangoon (she had become thoroughly disgusted watching Mark play with his one evening).

"Good Lord, who is Anne and why did Beth write this for her?" Casey thought dejectedly, fighting her own bout of growing jealousy, lightly fingering the cover of the book. "Why has she never mentioned writing children's books? Yueue is right; it's utterly moving. Why doesn't she write them any more? And why didn't she tell me? Just who the hell is Anne and what does she mean to my Beth?" Catching the tail end of Wei's story, Casey interrupted them before Beth could be exposed to any more of her wild childhood stunts.

"What did I do now?" Casey joked, reaching for the spoon resting on the table. A quick glance at the clock startled her; they'd been eating and talking for more than two hours. "I didn't realize how late it was!" Casey rose crossing to hug her old friends, politely declining their request to stay for dinner. "We need to get going. I want to stop in and see Master Hung for a moment before we leave town."

"It's too bad your Mother is out of town." Yueue looked meaningfully at Casey, yet refrained from comment. Sighing loudly when Casey ignored her, Yueue hugged Beth and said their goodbyes.

"Did I ever tell you I had two college roommates?" Beth began softly as soon as they exited the restaurant, gathering her resolve in both hands, knowing the answer was no. The author was afraid she would lose her courage if she waited any longer. "Cathy, Lisa and I were fairly close. We roomed together all through college and after graduation we went our separate ways." The author swallowed emotionally, squeezing Casey's hand to show her she was alright.

"You've talked about Lisa before; she's the one that would visit you at Grandma's, right?" The specialist walked slowly towards the dojo, trying to calm her racing heart and blooming jealously. Just the thought of her Beth being at Grandma's house with another woman set her blood pounding. She thought she was doing a good job until Beth dropped her hand and wrapped her arm around her waist.

"Lisa's married with two kids, love. We're only friends. No reason to be jealous." Beth tried to reassure her lover, having a new understanding for her lover's reaction. "I've never mentioned Cathy before because she died in a car accident a few months after graduation. Anne was her baby sister."

"I'm sorry, love." Casey guided Beth to a conveniently placed bench, enfolding her shaking author in a tight hug. "Did you...were you...I mean..." The specialist stumbled, hating herself for asking, but not able to hold back. The green-eyed monster refused to be quiet. "Were you in love with her?"

"I loved her, but I wasn't in love with her." Beth cried softly, leaning gratefully against her best friend. "For about two weeks, when we first met, I was attracted to her, but it wasn't love." The author confessed, not wanting to lie or mask any part of the relationship. "Fair is fair, Beth." She reminded herself, stroking her partner's tense, rigid form soothingly. "I quickly realized that Cathy wasn't interested and that even if she was, she wasn't my type. I'm not the 'love 'em and leave 'em' type." Sitting up, Beth laced her fingers with Casey's. "Anyway, to make a long story short, Anne was having a hard time accepting her sister's death and her parents asked if there was anything I could do. Anne always loved the time she spent with the three of us at school and considered us adopted sisters. Talking wasn't helping; the only thing I could think to try was writing."

"Did it help?" Casey asked a moment later, when Beth didn't continue. "Sweetheart?" Casey reacted to Beth's anguish without thought, switching hands and wrapping her arm around her lover. Concentrating solely on Beth, Casey ignored the curious stares sent their way.

"Some. At least at the time we all thought it did. After Charlie's Doll was published, Anne slowly reverted back to her playful, energetic self." Beth fell silent, staring at their laced fingers.

"What happened?" Casey prompted, tightening her hold on Beth.

"Anne committed suicide when she turned thirteen, a couple of summers after the book was published. She had...she ha...she..." Beth cleared her throat, willing the painful images back into the dark. "When her parents found her, she had both books with her, but she wrote her goodbye note on the inside cover of Charlie's Doll."

"God, beloved, I'm so sorry." Casey pulled Beth securely against her. Holding her now openly sobbing lover, the specialist whispered words of comfort in her ear, rocking them slowly. "So much much hurt. God, how did you ever let yourself be close to anyone again? How did you keep your heart in one piece? Where did you find the strength to love again? Especially me?" Casey knew she was tough to live with, tough to love. "I don't think you had anyone, outside of your grandparents who loved and supported you. How did you survive?"

"I thought you wanted to visit Master Hung?" Beth mumbled from the safety of Casey's arms, using her lover's strength to push her demons away. "I'll deal with this another time." Sitting up straight, the author surprised her lover by reaching for her purse and a tissue.

"In a minute. Are you going to be OK?" Casey berated herself for placing her lover in a painful situation.

"Yeah, I am. It happened a long time ago. Just caught me by surprise, that's all. I haven't thought about Anne in years." Beth's voice was husky from her tears. "Sorry you had to find out this way." Beth groaned silently, mad at herself for not practicing what she preached.

"Don't apologize. We both have several things we haven't shared with each other." Seeing Beth still frowning, Casey tried again. "I know you didn't intentionally mean to keep it from me. If I would have asked, would you have denied writing children's books?"

"No." Beth sheepishly agreed, wiping away a stray tear. "No, I wouldn't. C'mon." The author rose, tugging gently on their entwined hands to get Casey to rise also. "I'll make you a deal. I'll tell you about the other book tonight if you stop worrying about me and go visit Master Hung."

"Deal." Casey agreed, knowing she'd never stop worrying about Beth. Resuming their trek to the dojo, the specialist draped an arm over Beth's shoulders, telling herself it was for Beth's benefit and comfort. "Right...tell me another one." Her mind sarcastically replied.

Opening the red wooden door, Casey inhaled the familiar herb scented air. Blue eyes traced the picture lined walls and trophy filled cases. Aware of her partner patiently, respectfully waiting, the former student took her time, studying the pictures.

"May I help you?"

"Yes," Casey answered, turning to see the person who's voice sounded so very young. Not surprisingly, she didn't recognize the student. But it was clear the student recognized her.

"I'll get Master Hung right away."

"Wait." Casey stopped the young girl from leaving. "Class is still going on and he won't appreciate being interrupted. We'll wait out here until he's finished."

"You're right." The girl was impressed and embarrassed at the same time.

Beth watched her surprisingly talkative partner draw the teen into a conversation about her training. When Casey stepped aside to show the girl a kick, the author wandered over to the area of wall that held her lover's pictures. Losing track of the time, green eyes studied Casey's progress. It was remarkable: from a awkward child who clearly wasn't comfortable with her body to a very confident, very physical, very comfortable, very formidable young woman. In the early pictures, Casey was with her classmates. By the time Casey was about fourteen, she was alone. "My God Casey. In every picture without your Dad, you're not smiling. In fact, your normally sparkling blue eyes look cold, unfamiliar." Involuntarily she shuddered, closing her eyes briefly. "I hope you never look at me that way."

"Good grief!" Casey chuckled, coming to stand behind her lover. Sliding her arms around Beth's waist, she leaned down, resting her chin on her shoulder. "I can't believe Master Hung kept these pictures." When Beth didn't ask any questions, Casey frowned thoughtfully, figuring Beth was still upset about Anne. "How can I make you feel better? I hate seeing you hurting." Titling her head, blue eyes searched her author's face, not liking what she saw. "What are you thinking?"

"Did you even enjoy karate, Casey? It doesn't look like you had much fun." Beth spoke quietly, pushing back into her lover's embrace.

"I was good at it." An eyebrow rose in surprise at the unexpected question.

"That's not what I asked." Beth dropped her hands to cover Casey's, squeezing gently.

"Karate taught me..." Casey interrupted herself, sighing when Beth cleared her throat in warning. "It goes so much deeper than a simple matter of like or dislike. See that picture right there?" One long finger pointed to the last picture with her Dad.

"By the time that was taken, I had already decided karate was 'the' thing for me. Didn't matter why we'd started; I wasn't going to give karate up. Dad realized this and supported me whole heartedly in my decision, even though it caused fights between him and Mom. I was always big for my age and uncoordinated. At seven years of age, I was thoroughly acquainted with how cruel kids could be. I hated being the butt of all the jokes and I knew I'd do anything I had to to make them stop." Casey noticed Beth's hand soothingly stroking her own. "My protector. God, I love you." Smiling softly, Casey nuzzled the soft strawberry blond hair. "Karate helped me to begin gaining control of my body. Every lesson brought me one step away from the ridicule. Every time I completed a formerly hard task with ease my confidence soared."

"Look at this one." Casey indicated another photo. "This was taken five months after my Dad's funeral. Do I look like a kid who's just gone through hell? Who still spent several nights a week waking up with horrifying nightmares? Even though I was hurt, confused, lost... it didn't show. I found a surprising comfort in the form, the fluidity of the moves. They helped me to concentrate, to center. Sounds kind of funny now that a nine year old was interested in control, but I was. The more control I learned, the easier it was to push the nightmares, the hurt, the pain away. Karate helped me to realize the benefits of emotional control too. Dad was right. It only mattered what I thought of myself...and I liked how karate helped me to change. By this time, the other kids had stopped picking on me. I think," blue eyes twinkled merrily as lips brushed Beth's cheek. "That had more to do with the fact that I stopped some punk kid trying to take an older lady's purse than anything else. It wasn't smart to pick on someone almost twice your size when that person could knock out a full sized teenager with two well placed kicks." Blue eyes darkened, considering the images with interest, calling up long forgotten memories.

"This one," Casey moved a few pictures down the wall. "Was taken the day I helped with my first beginning class...the day I started working for Master Hung. I was so proud that day. I remember thinking that Dad would have been proud of me because I was earning my kung fu lessons. I was working and getting what I wanted. Whenever things got rough, whether it was a fight with my Mom or a sore, aching body, I remembered that day and the feeling of satisfaction I had knowing I made it happen."

"These here were taken during high school." Casey squinted, laughing softly. "I look so serious. I was trying to look tough, in control." The almost arrogant look on her face caused the much older Casey to giggle. "God, I look like I swallowed a fish or something!" As soon as they quieted down, Casey turned serious again.

"I have ever worked as physically hard as I did those four years. I don't think a day went by that I didn't have sore or bruised muscles. Some days it was all I could do to walk without showing any pain." Casey admitted, hugging Beth tighter. "But every day was a victory...of my mind, of my control. Each level successfully past brought me one step closer to my goal."

"What goal was that love?" Beth spoke gently, asking a question for the first time, twisting slightly to see Casey's face. "Did you know when you started high school what you wanted to do?"

"It sounds stupid and petty now, but I wanted to prove to Mom, that I could do this. I wasn't gonna quit. Wasn't gonna give up. Told myself I'd be damned if I let a simple thing like pain or disapproval stop me from showing everyone I was right. I was determined to prove that I could accomplish anything I wanted...whether it was 'proper' or not." Casey's voice dropped in tone, lightly mocking herself. "Plus I knew that if I wanted to go to a private school, I'd have to come up with the extra money myself. Being the intelligent, stubborn kid I was," Casey prudently ignored her partner's muffled giggle. "I decided that I would pay my own way, as I went. I did it before, I could do it again."

"That's not the whole story though." A large sigh escaped. "Only when I practiced, when I competed, did I feel alive. Blood tingling, heart pounding, body and mind stretched to the limit, I felt at peace. For once in my life, I felt I belonged. I was alive. Like I feel now every day I'm with you." Knowing she hadn't answered Beth's question, Casey found that she couldn't, to her great surprise. The answering glow in her lover's eyes convinced her to try.

"Did I like karate? I liked what it taught me, what it allowed me to do." Casey tried to express her thoughts. "But did I actually enjoy it? No, not like I do now." Blue eyes narrowed in concentration. "There's nothing quite like the feeling of moving through my routines, hitting each thrust, each kick. Sometimes I feel as if I'm water, moving with the currents of the ocean. Simply floating, twisting and turning to a natural rhythm I can't see, but can hear with each beat of my heart. But," Casey shook her head at her romantic idealization of a very physical activity. "I think that has more to do with the fact that my body's fully developed, that I'm comfortable with my routines and myself. What about you?" Casey changed the subject, turning Beth away from the pictures and towards her. "Did you enjoy your staff?"

Beth recognized her partner's growing discomfort and need for a break. "Yes I did enjoy learning the staff. I..." The author broke off as the outer door opened to admit a couple of parents. "Where are we going?" Beth whispered, allowing Casey to guide her down the hall.

"Why are you whispering?" Casey teased, bumping Beth's shoulder as she opened a door. "We can wait back here out of the way."

"You sure Master Hung won't mind?" Green eyes turned to question her partner. The author wanted to make sure her partner's assumption wouldn't be viewed as an intrusion since she had a guest.

"Yup, I'm sure." Casey steered Beth to the sofa, sitting down with a sigh. "I've stayed in touch with Master Hung more than anyone." The specialist started talking as soon as Beth sat beside her. "Whenever I felt like the world was closing in, that my emotions were threatening to break free...that I was losing control, I came to see Master Hung."

"Why didn't you know your pictures were still in the front office?" Beth was curious and she'd decided to take Casey up on her offer.

"I never came back to the dojo." Casey forced herself to breathe slowly, evenly. "Master Hung has a house in the country, about thirty minutes north of here. It's more of a retreat actually, with a beautiful garden. There''s....I mean...damn!" "Why can't I just come out and say it was my sanctuary? It was my safe haven...a place of serenity that allowed me to regain my control? Helped me to focus? Without it, I never would've survived the FBI, let alone the dark years before Beth. Why can't I just say that? Why can't I put my feelings into words?? Why can't I just say I came back here about once every year and a half to regroup? That was about as long as I could go without retreating, without renewing my inner balance. In fact, it had been seventeen months and two days since my last visit when you walked in my office. Wonder if that's why I didn't fight my emotional and physical attraction to you? That's probably why I went so far off the deep end too. Why I hurt you so deeply. God, I can be such an ass sometimes! Why haven't I ever thought of that before? Especially when I didn't feel the need to return...not even once, given all of my moody, emotional behavior...huh..."

"What?" Her lover's worried, questioning gaze and constant, soothing touch finally sank in. Belatedly Casey realized how silent she'd become as Beth's soothing presence washed over her.

"I love you, Casey." Of all the things Casey expected Beth to say, all the questions she knew her lover was burning to ask, the familiar response touched the specialist. Touched her deeply, permanently. And triggered an emotional response the specialist was unwilling and unable to resist.

"I love you too, Beth." Blindly, the specialist pulled her author against her. "How do you do that? Know instinctively what I need to hear? Usually before I realize it myself?"

"I could ask you the same thing." Beth mumbled against Casey's neck. "Thank you."

"For what?" Casey pulled back, needing to see Beth's eyes.

"For trusting me enough to share your past with me." Beth peered seriously into blue, letting her emotions shine through with all the intensity she felt.

"I've always trusted you. It's me I didn't trust. It's always been me. Please believe me. I..." Casey rose silently to her feet, turning to face the door, ashamed at how relieved she felt for avoiding the issue. "Here comes Master Hung." A strong hand helped Beth to her feet. As the door opened, the former student straightened imperceptibly, blue eyes twinkling with yet another emotion. As soon as Casey caught Master Hung's eye, she bowed lowly, speaking the formal words of greeting, from student to teacher.

"Casey, what a pleasant surprise." The soft yet decidedly manly voice urged his former student to rise after the ritual greeting. "It's been a long time since you've graced my humble dojo with your presence. Welcome home." Old, wrinkled hands reached out for Casey.

"Oh no, the honor is all mine." Casey moved to embrace her old teacher. "That I'm still welcome here, even after..." The specialist stopped, feeling both Master Hung and Beth prepare to defend her actions. "There's no way I could stand up to both of them." Casey chuckled mentally.

"It has been a long time, Casey." Master Hung released his student, standing back, running a critical eye over her. A grin broke out across his ancient, yet strong features. Apparently he liked what he saw.

"Too long." Casey confirmed, grinning in response. Meeting Beth and acknowledging their growing relationship had negated her burning need for returning. "Beth's my safe haven now." "Phone calls and letters aren't the same thing."

"No, but in this case they're significant." Leaving that hanging, Master Hung nodded once in approval. "This must be Beth." The old man turned to the woman standing silently, patiently, out of the way. A quick glance at his former student had her moving to her lover's side.

"Master Hung, this is my wife, Beth Jamieson." Once again, Casey belatedly introduced her reason for existence. Smiling softly, the former student watched her teacher bow to her lover then take her hand.

"It's an honor to meet you, Master Hung." Beth had watched the interaction between Casey and her teacher with interest.

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you." Dark brown eyes shot meaningfully to his student then returned to Beth. "I've heard so much about you. Please sit." Sitting as his guests did, the old man looked up as the door opened almost silently. Watching in approval, he waited until his young student set the tea down before thanking her and excusing her to return to her duties of cleaning the locker rooms before the next class arrived. Nodding at Casey and then the tea, he turned his full attention back to Beth. "Casey told me you defeated her with the staff a couple of months ago. That's quite an accomplishment; I'm very impressed. How long have you studied?"

The specialist bit back her grin as Beth answered, blue eyes watching her partner unobtrusively as she prepared the tea. She fondly remembered the day Beth beat her and her excited call from work to her former teacher. It was such a rare occurrence for someone to actually best her, that she felt she just had to share the information with someone who would understand and recognize what an accomplishment it was. "We've had several draws and matches where I've conceded rather than let Beth be hurt because she's too stubborn to stop. But only once has she actually beaten me, with both of us going full out. Wonder if she knows how proud I am of her? Wonder if she knows how much I respect her for just seriously sparring against me? Not many people would repeatedly get back in the ring with me. You've got a lot of guts, my love."

Not interrupting, Casey served the tea and sat back, deriving an emotional high watching her lover and teacher get to know each other. To her great surprise, she found that she didn't even mind when Master Hung told a few tales. The soft knock at the door had the specialist glancing at the clock, startled that more than an hour had past.

"Beth, would you to me the great honor of sparring with me?" He ignored the astonished blue eyes that quickly turned to him. "This lazy one can teach the next class."

"I'd be delighted." The author grinned, looking forward to an exchange of wood with the man who'd taught her lover. Plus she'd never seen Casey teach a class before.

"Casey will find you something to wear. I'll see you in a few minutes." Standing, he showed them out of the room.

"He'll never stop surprising me!" Casey grumbled, lacing her fingers through Beth's, leading her back towards the locker room.

"Guess that means you didn't expect to be teaching a class, huh?" The author smiled at her complaining partner. "He's a very nice man, Casey. I can see where you got your sense of honor from."

"Yeah, he is." Casey pushed open a side door, shaking her head wryly as two gi's were already laid out. "Figures." Pointing at the two gi's, Casey glanced at Beth, checking to see that she really wanted to do this.

"What?" Beth paused from her hurried stripping, staring at her still clothed partner.

"Nothing. Just making sure you want to do this." Shrugging her shoulders, Casey started to undress.

"Casey?" Beth asked a moment later, fingering the black belt given to her. Although she had earned her own a long time ago, the author needed a little reassurance. "Should I take it easy on Master Hung?" Beth didn't want to embarrass or hurt him in front of his students.

"Don't worry about hurting him." Casey understood what her polite, caring lover was really asking. She jumped up and down, settling her borrowed gi. "Last time I was up here, that 'old man' had me on the ground in under a minute." Pausing to look at her giggling lover, grinned back, unable to hold her joy in. "What's so funny?"

"You." Beth wrapped both arms around her lover and squeezed tightly. "The utter look of disgust on your face was sooo funny!"

"HA HA." Casey mock laughed, glaring at Beth. "Let's see if you're laughing when you end up on the floor."

"How do I look?" Beth spun slowly, letting her lover take a look. Biting back a nervous giggle, the author waited, growing more nervous with each passing second. "What's wrong? Don't I look OK? Hope she's not worried that I'll embarrass her. I never want to do that. Usually she run circles around me; I can tell I stretch her, but how much does she hold back? Maybe I should decline..."

"You look fantastic." Unknowingly, Casey disrupted Beth's negative thoughts. "C'mere." Pulling Beth tightly against her, warm lips nuzzled strawberry blond hair. "I love you, wife." Relieved as Beth relaxed against her, Casey realized just how tense Beth was. Slapping herself mentally, the specialist groaned, reminding herself just how much Beth had been through the last two days. "Stupid! She's better at covering her feelings than I am at times...especially when she doesn't want to disappoint me. I've thrown so much of my past at her so quickly, it's no wonder she's upset! Then add in her own revelations, it's a wonder she's still standing her with me. I'm still reeling from what she said."


"Hmm?" Beth mumbled, content in Casey's arms, unaware of her lover's jumbled thoughts.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Perceiving Beth's silence as a negative reaction, Casey continued, worried. "You don't have to do this pressure."

"What?" Casey's words finally sunk through Beth's sensual haze. Raising her head, green met blue squarely, unwaveringly. "Of course I want to do this!" Green darkened in thought, Casey's words eventually registered. "Unless you don't want me to...I don't want to embarrass you."

"Huh? Embarrass me?" Casey stared sincerely at Beth. "You never embarrass me! I was just worried that you might not want to do this. I've sprung so much on you these last two days, I don't want to push you into doing something you don't want to. Don't you know," Casey reached out, caressing Beth's cheek. "How much I respect you? You never give up, even when I'm a poor winner and gloat. Don't deny it." She laid a finger on Beth's lips, silencing her. And promptly swallowed a groan when those soft lips caressed her finger. "The very next day, you're ready to go at it again with me." Casey realized how limited her words sounded. "I didn't mean that how it sounded."

"Thank you. That means a lot to me." Beth smiled softly. Her heart wanted to leap to her lover's defense immediately, but her head prevailed. Her lover's visible struggle tugged fiercely at her heart, but Beth knew Casey needed to finish her thoughts. If only for her own peace of mind.

"There is not one single thing about you that I don't admire or respect. You are incredibly driven in whatever you do, whether it's writing, sparring or putting up with me." Casey frowned, mad at herself for not being able to express her thoughts eloquently. "I love you. You," Casey smiled softly, tracing the smooth curve of Beth's cheek. "You could never embarrass me. In fact, I'm honored that such a caring, warm and wonderful woman consents to be seen with me."

"Watch it, woman!" Beth growled playfully, bumping against her lover. "That works both ways you know." Changing tactics, the author leaned contentedly against her wife. "I love you. More than anything or anyone." A second later she drew back. "We'd better go warm up."

"I know. Wait a second. Let me show you something." Strong hands untied strawberry blond hair and quickly wound a spare white belt around her lover's head, tying her hair back in the process. "There."

"Thanks." Beth watched as Casey repeated the same moves on herself. "This is how you used to wear your hair?"

"Yup." Casey nudged Beth towards the door. "We've still got about fifteen minutes before Master Hung joins us."

Opening the door, Casey sucked in a deep breath and pushed it away forcefully. "I've lost count of how many times I've opened this door." She commented quietly, stepping to her lover's side. "Stretch with me first?"

About ten minutes later, Casey bounced over to a sealed wooden cabinet, urging Beth to join her. Quickly pressing the wood in three places, she stepped back as the doors slowly opened. "Old trick.." She answered Beth's question before she could voice it. "Doesn't look right to have the weapons locked up, but it's not safe to leave them unattended."

"I don't believe he still has it!" Chuckling, Casey removed her old, scarred practice staff. "Go ahead, pick one." Standing back, she ran loving hands over the scarred wood. When Beth had one she was happy with, Casey removed Master Hung's staff and closed the cabinet. "What's wrong?" Beth had a strange look on her face.

"Nothing." Beth grinned, spinning the borrowed staff in a complicated pattern, learning the feel of the different staff. "Just preparing myself."

"You sure?" Casey had never seen that look before and it worried her.

"Yeah." Suddenly it dawned on the author. Casey had never seen her spar with anyone in a more or less formal match. "I always look that way when I'm concentrating. Don't worry, 99. I've got it covered."

"Don't get cocky, Slick!" Casey stepped forward, then sighed as the door opened to admit two talking teenagers. "You sure you don't mind sparring in front of the class?" On the rare occasion Master Hung demonstrated his skills outside of teaching, it was always in front of an advanced class.

"I'm sure." Beth glanced up as several more people entered the room. "Guess you better get busy." The wince didn't escape her knowing eyes. "Now I know the real reason you don't often go to the dojo!" Leaning forward, Beth whispered. "You're too old to put up with the kids!"

"Smart aleck!" Blue twinkled in confirmation. Barking a command over her shoulder, Casey smiled once more at Beth before back flipping to the center of the room. Another set of commands had the students stretching.

"Show off!" Beth mumbled under her breath, watching her lover start putting the kids through a more vigorous series of exercises. Keeping one eye glued to her intimidating lover, the author acquainted herself more intimately with her staff.

"Ready?" Master Hung appeared silently at the author's side, nodding to Casey to clear the floor.

"Yes, if you are." Beth swallowed her nervousness, following her lover's teacher to the center of the room. Bowing formally, the author narrowed her eyes, concentrating on her opponent. Mirroring the complicated spins, Beth waited for Master Hung to make the first move. The crack of wood against wood reverberated though the silence.

"Wow!" Casey thought from her kneeling position, completely absorbed in the scene unfolding before her eyes. "Damn, Beth is even better than I thought. She's more than holding her own with Master Hung. Huh, look at that! He stepped up the pace now that he's confident of Beth's abilities." Several minutes later, after a powerful exchange of blows, Casey noticed how beautiful her wife was when she was sparring. "I never realized how graceful Beth looks. She's incredible. I can't believe she wants me, loves me." Silently thanking whomever was listening for giving her a second chance at happiness, proud eyes watched the final fury of movements. "I'll be damned! Beth made it through without losing her staff or ending up on the floor. You are good, love." Wanting nothing more than to wrap her arms around her wife and tell her this, Casey caught Beth's eye, sending the thoughts her way. "When this is over, I promise." Exhaling slowly, Casey rose, immediately launching the class into the next set of forms.

Standing next to the lightly breathing teacher, Beth fought to keep her own breathing even. Looking over at her companion, the author was surprised to find tears in his eyes. Turning back to watch Casey, she stood silently beside her lover's teacher, leaving him with his memories.

"That's almost the same look." Beth chuckled mentally, green eyes following her lover's movements. "Doesn't look so intimidating in person. Maybe because I understand the emotions behind the look. Gotta be the big, bad warrior as Gabrielle would say." Smothering the snort that threatened to break the silence, Beth settled for a proud grin. After a series of extremely intricate kicks and thrusts, the author stopped thinking and just enjoyed the show.

When the class neared its conclusion, the old master finally addressed his sparring partner. "You honor me and my dojo with your presence. Casey spoke the truth; you are a skilled, honorable artist. You are a credit to your teacher. She's something, isn't she?" The old man was unable to keep his pride out of his voice, turning again to observe Casey.

"She's incredible." Beth smiled softly, not bothered that the conversation returned to her lover. "I've never seen her teach a class before. It's been an interesting, enlightening experience." Both paused, watching Casey demonstrate a difficult kick then give additional advice as the student practiced it. "She doesn't have much time for it now; Casey's very busy with work. That's too bad because she's an excellent teacher." Beth answered Master Hung's question, eyes following her lover working with another student. She was totally surprised when Master Hung urged her to follow him, his words preventing anyone from leaving. Before she knew it, she found herself gazing into deep blue over crossed wood.

"OK to go again?" Blue eyes swept over her partner, taking in her comfortable stance and even breathing, starting the complicated spins they'd worked out together, slipping into their practice routines.

"I'm fine." Stepping into her partner's space, she spun her staff opposite of Casey, blurring wood mere inches from flesh. After a flashy, powerful exchange of blows, Beth swallowed reflexively at the glint in Casey's eyes. "Oh no. I think I'm in trouble." The author was fully aware of the fact that Casey could normally sweep through her defenses as easily as she had her temporary students'. Feeling every eye in the room on them, Beth decided to try something different, trusting her partner's skill to keep either of them from getting hurt. Abruptly rolling over the low thrust instead of blocking it, Beth threw a high, hard to block blow.

"Changing things, huh?" Casey grinned her delight, rapidly escalating the level of contact until they were both moving at full speed. Casey lost herself in the fluidity of motion, enjoying the feel of wood against wood, the calming peace that slowly took over her whole being.

Beth's ragged breathing slowly worked its way into her consciousness. Unsure of how much time had past, blue eyes noted her partner's growing fatigue. Knowing Beth wouldn't stop until she dropped, Casey slowed her movements, moving them towards a fiery, yet very controlled conclusion. Ending as they started, with staffs crossed, Casey smiled softly at her wife, mouthing 'I love you'. Stepping back, Casey bowed to Beth, intending to concede, but Beth beat her to it. The wild applause drew them apart, halting their unconscious move to be closer, to taste each other's lips. Stepping to the side, Casey grinned as her temporary students pulled her lover into a question and answer session.

Face no longer impassive, Casey settled against the pole and watched Beth demonstrate a few moves to the curious students, recognizing the difference in how they handled the same situation. "She's pretty amazing, isn't she?" Casey spoke softly to her mentor.

"Beth is very good." Master Hung cleared his throat emotionally. "I've never seen you derive such pleasure from sparring before."

"That obvious, huh? I never thought it was possible." Casey confessed, eyes carefully following her lover, noticing the slight tension in her movements. "I now understand what you tried to teach me. The peace, the overwhelming sense of contentment...I didn't think I'd ever feel those things." Meaning more than just a sparring.

"I told you it would happen." Sensing her growing impatience, he didn't even bother hiding his grin. "You love her very much."

"She's everything to me." Casey frowned, worriedly noting Beth's slight slip. "What is she doing now?" Alert, Casey tightened her grip on her staff, watching three students engage her lover. "Damn!" Remembering where she was, Casey quickly apologized for her slip of tongue. Forcing herself to listen and then answer her mentor's many questions, Casey kept a careful watch on her rapidly tiring wife, not wanting to embarrass Beth by commanding her to stop.

"Sometimes Beth doesn't know when to quit." Casey growled lowly, not believing her former teacher hadn't moved to stop the sparring. Beth had almost dropped her staff on the last spin, but recovered almost instantly.

"You worry too much." Master Hung admonished, laying a restraining hand on Casey's arm. "She's fine."

"No, she's not." Casey insisted, pointing out the slight hesitations in her lover's actions. "I'm going to go stop her." As if sensing Casey's concern, Beth looked up, catching her eye reassuringly. "OK...She's almost finished."

"Really? How do you know that?" Master Hung smirked, needling his former student, not missing the look that passed between them. "Where are you staying this evening? You are welcome to stay with me."

"Thanks for the offer, but we have reservations at the lake." Blowing out a sigh of relief, Casey wrapped an arm around Beth as soon as she rejoined them.

"Am I interrupting?" Beth cast a questioning glance at her lover, not wanting to interrupt. Master Hung had the most unreadable look on his face.

"Never, you know that. Besides," Casey bumped Beth teasingly. "You're saving me from being teased." Hiding her concern, Casey ran worried, inspecting eyes over her lover. Mentally she frowned, observing her hidden fatigue. "When am I gonna learn? Beth went a good fifteen minutes with Master Hung and then more than a half hour with me. Then there was the students' questions. Damn, Casey," start thinking!! She's exhausted...and why shouldn't she be, huh? I'm bigger, stronger and hit much harder than she does. Not to mention the emotional upheaval of the last two days." Promising herself to get Beth to rest as soon as possible, Casey started paying attention to the conversation again.

Casey," Beth admonished her wife when the locker room door closed. "There is no reason why we can't have dinner with Master Hung tonight." Interpreting Casey's silence and slightly guilty look as concern for her, the author sighed loudly. "My protector, what am I going to do with you?" Deciding to change tactics, Beth wrapped both arms around her lover's waist, hugging her fiercely. "Beloved, I am fine. Please, don't worry so much."

"It's not just that." Casey returned the embrace, resting her head against Beth's. The specialist vividly remembered the first time she'd admitted to canceling plans because she thought Beth was too tired. "I definitely do not want a repeat of that." Pushing the remembered panic and fear away, Casey grounded herself by kissing Beth. "If you're up for it, there is still a couple of places I'd like to go tonight." Blue searched green, trying to gauge her lover's fatigue.

"Silly question." Beth smiled softly, nipping the closest piece of open flesh. Biting back her curiosity, the author gently untangled herself from her lover. "Tell me," green eyes twinkled as she started to strip quickly. "Does dinner figure anywhere into this plan of yours?"

"Yup, but not until later. We can stop and grab something on the way if you're really hungry." Casey groaned softly, making herself turn away from her beautiful lover. "Would you stop that?"

"Stop what?" Beth paused, the steaming towel hot against her flesh. She'd been delighted to find the warm towels waiting since shower facilities were not available. "I didn't think I was doing anything." Confused green eyes drifted down her body then met frustrated blue.

"You are just trying to distract me, aren't you?" Casey grumbled, grinning wryly. "Is everything you do so sexy?"

"Casey!" Beth blushed, giggling softly. "You're one to talk anyway! Standing there just tormenting me." Green swept suggestively down her lover's impressive form.

"Truce." Casey motioned to the towels. "Let's hurry and get out of here before I give into temptation." Seeing Beth nod, they quickly finished sponging off and dressed.

"Casey," Master Hung nodded in approval when Beth left his office, giving him a moment's privacy with his former student. He'd already told her how happy he was for her and that her radical change was a most welcome one. "Would you do me the honor of returning to teach and oversee the final stage competition?"

"I don't know what to say." Casey was floored, to her knowledge Master Hung had never asked anyone what he just asked her. A suspicious thought occurred. "Are you feeling alright? You're not sick, are you?"

"No, Casey, I am not ill." Master Hung paused, waiting for his answer.

"I would be honored." Casey replied after much thought. "There really isn't anything else I can say, is there? You've given me so much, this is the least I can do."

"Excellent!" Smiling, Master Hung rattled off the dates then handed her a schedule of events. "You'll stay with me, of course."

"Thanks." Casey found herself in a new, uncomfortable situation, unsure if the offer included Beth. There was no way she was going to go some where for a week without her wife.

"I'm sure Beth will find the gardens inspirational, not to mention liking the opportunity to explore your past with Wei and Yueue." Master Hung smiled serenely, ignoring Casey's relieved, yet exasperated look.

"I'd better get going. We'll see you in a month." Bowing lowly, Casey repeated the ritual greeting. For once, the greeting left her feeling elated, not relieved. "Guess I am changing." Surprising herself, Casey hugged her mentor briefly then left the room, not wanting to embarrass him any more.

"All ready to go?" Casey took Beth's hand. "C'mon," Casey hurried her to the door. "You can look at those pictures next month."

"I can huh?" Beth hurried to keep up with Casey's long strides. "Hey! Where's the fire? And what's this about next month?"

"Sorry." Immediately Casey slowed down. "Guess I'm just in a hurry." Apologizing with her eyes, Casey fell silent, thinking.

"What's going on in that beautiful head of yours? What happened? I don't think anything bad happened at the dojo. Wonder what's...duh, Beth. I bet she wants to drive by her old house. Remember author, no questions! Casey needs my support." Avowing to be what her wife needed, Beth silently walked beside Casey.

Aware of Beth's motives, Casey's heart lightened. This was going to be OK. Filling the silence with small talk, Casey pointed out several places on the long trip across town. "Danny used to live there." She pulled over, pointing to a two story brick home. "We didn't spend much time there. His parents were," blue eyes found green. "Extremely traditional. I wasn't the person they'd chose for their son, but they were happy he finally was dating." Long fingers rested on shorter ones. "I hope he found what he was looking for. He deserves to be happy. Anyway," Casey felt the slight tension in Beth and mentally sighed. "His parents moved shortly after Danny finished college." Kissing Beth's fingers, Casey stared sincerely at her wife. "Danny deserves to be as happy as I am with you."

"I hope he is too." Beth smiled, concentrating on Casey and her words, not the green eyed monster that was still grumbling.

"There's just one more place I'd like you to see before we leave town." Placing Beth's hand on her thigh, Casey pulled back on the road. "It's right around the corner." A few minutes later, she stopped in front of a large two story home. "This is it." Falling silent, Casey's eyes were riveted to the house.

" brings back a lot of memories." Not looking at Beth, Casey got out and leaned against the car. "Nothing's changed in the last fifteen years. It could be fifteen years ago and I'd never notice, not looking at the house. Hey Dad, remember us helping to paint the shutters? Whoa, I thought Mom was gonna have a cow...there was more paint on us than the shutters. And what about when we carved our initials in the fence post? Wonder if they're still there. I can't believe Mom hasn't taken that swing down. She hated you putting it in the front yard. But you insisted every kid needed a tree swing. Since we had a tree house in the tree in back, you just had to put it here. What fun we used to have, all three of us piling in the seat and you pushing us higher and higher." Lost in thought, Casey was vaguely aware of Beth's comforting presence. "I'm glad you weren't hear the last time I would have killed you seeing me talk to Mom that way. I would have lost you both then. I think I'm just starting to realize how much I've missed Mom. I know we didn't agree on a lot of issues and we fought more than most, but I never truly felt I wasn't loved...just misunderstood. At times I swore Mom didn't love me, didn't care about me but looking back, I guess she just did what she thought was best for me. Even if it wasn't. I would have given anything to feel that she approved of me for being me..."

"You OK?" Beth asked, leaning against Casey.

"Yeah. I'm fine." Grinning, Casey took Beth's hand and pulled her towards the tree swing. "Want a ride?"

"Casey!" Beth laughed, letting Casey seat her. Hanging on as she was told to, Beth giggled as Casey pushed her higher and higher. "What are your mother's neighbors going to think?"

"Old Mr Renschler already has seen us. He's been watching ever since I sat on the car. And Mrs Janes has been peeking out the window." Casey slowed Beth down, not wanting to push her lover too high. Beth didn't do well with heights. "They're probably talking on the phone to each other, trying to decide if they should come out and tell me to behave." Chuckling, Casey waved at both windows. "It's getting late. We need to get going and I need to feed you."

"Casey!" Beth blushed, her stomach complaining noisily.

"C'mon." Not caring what the neighbors thought, Casey wrapped an arm around Beth's shoulders, guiding her back to the car. "You're awfully quiet, love." The specialist shot a concerned glance at her wife, heading towards the interstate. "Beth?"

"Hmm?" Beth groaned mentally, hearing the worry in Casey's voice. "Sorry, was just picturing you as a young child. Bet you were wild, running amuck, making lots of noise." Grinning fully, green eyes fastened on Casey. "Much like you are now."

"I'm gonna get you for that." Shooting Beth her most menacing look backfired; Beth fell against the door giggling. "How hungry are you?"

"I'm hungry but not starving." Beth managed to talk between her giggling.

"It's a couple of hours to the lake."

"I can wait." A yawn caught her by surprise.

"Hey." Seeing the hints of fatigue around Beth's eyes, Casey swore to herself. Belatedly she remembered keeping Beth up extremely late last night and then waking her before the dawn. "Why don't you take a nap, Sweetheart. You looked pooped."

"What about you?" Beth scrutinized Casey carefully. "It's been a long day for you. I know you're tired too." Her wife reacted to emotional days by craving sleep. It was the only time, unless she was injured, that the specialist could sleep as long as her partner.

"I'm OK. Too wound up to sleep right now." The specialist admitted, her lover's gaze demanding an answer.

"So," Beth narrowed her eyes, easily reading the tension and strain in Casey's face. "If I wanted to debate Jill's merits as an investigator, you'd be opposed?" "You don't need to be alone with your thoughts right now. Who knows what you'll convince yourself of." Thinking of the time on their first trip to Grandma's house, Beth firmly pushed her sleepiness away.

"Nope." Casey answered quickly, welcoming the conversation. "You know I like to discuss your work." "Thank you beloved. I don't know how you do it, but you always know what I need. We still need to talk, but I don't think I can handle that right now...I don't know what to think about it myself, let alone trying to explain it. You'll help me with that too, I imagine." A poke interrupted her. "What?"

"Casey, pay attention." A gentle smile took the sting out of the author's words. "What do you think about ..."

Falling into the conversation, Casey concentrated on her wife, the miles flying by. One last thought worked its way to the light. "God, how I love you. Don't ever let go."

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