(Turning Tides, cont’d.)


"How does it feel, to treat me like you do?
When you've laid your hands upon me,
And told me who you are;
I thought I was mistaken,
I thought I heard your words,
Tell me how, how should I feel?

Tell me now, how do I feel?" - New Order




After the ‘drive-in incident’, things changed between the two women. The once-innocent and mild flirtations became more open and pointed when they were together, and neither woman felt inclined to put a stop to it. There were always coy glances and smarmy smirks, and at least one not-so-subtle innuendo was tossed about carelessly whenever they were being playful with each other. On most occasions, M.J. was the instigator, making an off-hand comment that usually made Alli blush profusely; however, she was always able to counter with something equally saucy. M.J. was slick, usually concealing her little jabs by prefacing them with an innocent remark of some sort, but Alli was quickly catching on to her sly ways.

The new ‘relationship’ was actually quite enjoyable and harmless in Alli’s eyes, and they had as much fun with the flirtatious exchanges and witty bantering as they could without crossing any obvious ‘lines’. Even though it could be confusing at times, Alli was flattered by M.J.’s attentions. She couldn’t help but wonder what M.J. really thought of her. Did she see something in Alli that the young Assistant had yet to discover? Did she somehow see a kindred spirit? Did she feel the same strange, tenuous connection that Alli did? Liz Jacobs had called M.J. ‘fascinating’, but Alli was thinking something else entirely.

On one hand, M.J. was funny and flirtatious; but on the other hand, she could be completely all-business and totally serious, especially whenever anyone was around the two of them. It troubled Alli, because she didn’t think that the working relationship they’d developed was improper, and she didn’t see why M.J. would need to hide anything from anyone. But, it seemed like that was exactly what the President did. She sometimes acted as if she barely knew Alli and would cast her aside without saying a word. She could do that so easily — dismiss someone and throw them away with no more than a mere glance. It hurt Alli’s feelings, and she detested the fact that M.J. had that kind of effect on her. Granted, M.J.’s general disposition was serious and austere, but she was usually different around Alli — the blonde had thought that the gruff President was beginning to loosen-up around her, just a little. Apparently that wasn’t the case, and it frustrated Alli quite a bit.

She had never worked, nor been so friendly, with anyone who had the mood swings that M.J. apparently had. If it wasn’t moodiness, Alli didn’t know what the hell it was; she never quite knew what to expect, and she didn’t know how to interpret the frustratingly complex woman when she was in one of her ‘off’ moods. It made her feel very uneasy and filled her with trepidation every time a meeting with the mercurial brunette was scheduled. When M.J. was in a ‘good’ mood, she was playful and flirtatious; when she was in a ‘bad’ mood, she brooked no arguments and broomed everyone out of her way as quickly and brusquely.

Alli also started to seriously question whether or not M.J. was indeed gay. When the flirtations first began, she automatically assumed that she was; all the ‘signs’ seemed to point to it, but sometimes, she wasn’t so sure. Yes, M.J. flirted openly with Alli, but sometimes the blonde saw the attractive President toying openly with men too - it was usually light and casual, but still, it was there. Alli felt very uncertain where M.J. stood. Did all the flirting and bantering really *mean* anything? Especially since M.J. made it abundantly clear that she could turn it off just as quickly as she turned it on. Maybe she was just a big tease? Maybe it was yet another side to her personality? Maybe she just liked to fuck with people’s heads? Alli really had no idea.

The realization that she should *not* be cavorting with a woman who pretty much mortified her, and who concealed her own self so well occurred to Alli more than once. So how could she find out if M.J. played for the pink team? Who would know such a thing? Alli had a feeling Liz Jacobs would know, but she wouldn’t dare ask her such a thing... would she?

Alli tried to convince herself that she should just continue to play it by ear and be patient. She’d find out eventually what made the captivating, enigmatic brunette tick. After all, the constant flirtation and bantering couldn’t continue forever. Sooner or later, one of them would either end it, or change it.

...And Alli didn’t like either possibility.


Another day and another meeting had come and gone for Alli and M.J. They had been diligently wading through a project all week long, and today’s meeting was the same as the others — lots of work with a little minor flirting thrown in here and there. M.J. seemed to be in a flat mood today — neither good nor bad — and she seemed unfocused and tired. As they wrapped things up and M.J. suggested they meet again tomorrow, Alli couldn’t help but notice the gray shadows under the President’s eyes. The pale blue blouse she wore made her eyes look eerily glacial and translucent, and her face seemed a bit ashen and weary.

"So, why don’t we meet around...," M.J. checked her schedule quickly, "...10:30 or so; we’ll see if we can finish this, and then... I dunno... maybe we can go grab some lunch or something... get out of the office for awhile? ...I need to get out of the office," she said quietly, almost to herself, as she rubbed her temple.

Alli was taken aback by the off-handed invite, but she quickly agreed. She stood to leave, but before she turned away, she reached out and touched M.J.’s forearm very lightly.

"Hey... you okay? You seem... tired?"

M.J. was surprised by the touch but warmed by Alli’s gentle concern. She looked at the small hand touching her and smiled inwardly.

"I’m fine... just too damn much going on lately I guess." She said with a wry smile.

"Yeah." Alli answered with a smile. "Well, go home and get plenty of rest tonight, okay?" Alli added, patting the President’s forearm slightly before heading toward the door.

"Do I need to be well-rested for you tomorrow morning?" M.J. called out playfully, not wanting to appear completely defeated in her friend’s eyes.

Alli turned back with a grin, "You never know," she retorted before slipping out the doorway. M.J. let out a small chuckle after Alli left. She would have been so disappointed if Alli had turned out to be like everyone else. She was really enjoying their work relationship.

Yes, *work* relationship, M.J. - *work*work*work*, she chided to herself as she returned her attention to a stack of never-ending papers. She knew she was constantly waffling between hot and cold with the pretty blonde, but she couldn’t help it. Just when she would let herself relax and ease-up around the Assistant Director, her brain would clang loudly with reminders of her past experiences and her promise to Madison that she would ‘behave’, and then she’d find herself clamming-up tight like an oyster. She also forced herself to be keenly aware of her body language whenever anyone else was around her and Alli; she couldn’t afford for any rumors to be sparked — that would certainly create disaster all over again. M.J. leaned her elbows on her desk and rubbed her forehead.

Why does everything always have to be so damned complicated? She asked herself rhetorically as she expelled a loud sigh.


Ten-thirty arrived and Alli tried very hard to not bound off to M.J.’s office with bells on her toes. She could honestly say that out of everyone at the company, she enjoyed working with M.J. the most. Liz Jacobs probably came next, but M.J. was, by far, the most enjoyable and challenging for her.

Yes, *challenging* for sure, but highly intoxicating too, Alli mused inwardly, God I’m so hopeless!

As she reached the reception area, Alli could immediately hear voices in the President’s office. M.J. was barking out orders to someone, and within seconds, Rachel, M.J.’s young Administrative Assistant, came scurrying out, looking red-faced and flustered. She dashed right past Alli, going to her desk to grab something, then dashed back in to the large office. M.J. continued to rant, and Alli could hear her handing out deadlines and orders.

Uh oooh... looks like a red-letter day, Alli thought, rolling her eyes.

"No, I need you to take care of this NOW!" Chills fairly crept up Alli’s spine as she heard the raised voice of the President. Both Rachel and Helen suddenly exited the office, each of them splitting off in separate directions, their faces carrying looks of either fear or anger, and their legs whisking them away from the office as quickly as possible. Seeing that she was now completely alone in the reception area, Alli wondered if she should perhaps just leave, rather than risk intruding on an obviously pissed-off President. She glanced at her watch, noticing that it was now 10:35. She certainly didn’t want M.J. to think she was late, but then again, she wasn’t sure if she dared to venture into the lion’s den.

She took a deep breath and walked to the open door, peering hesitantly inside. M.J. was standing at her desk, sorting papers hastily, her briefcase lay open and jumbled on her desk, her overcoat was tossed across her chair, and the phone was pinched between her jaw and her shoulder.

"I can’t be ready in an hour - give me until noon... No! ...Look, just pick me up at the house around 12:30... well then we’ll just DRIVE really FAST, okay?! Jesus! ...Okay... bye." M.J. slammed the phone back into the cradle and continued slapping papers into separate piles. She looked, for the first time, Alli thought, flustered. Some pieces of dark hair had come out of the tight bun at the back of her head, and her fingers frantically worked the pencil that she held in her hand, scribbling things down and placing notes on top of piles.

Alli exhaled a deep breath and let her knuckles rap gently on the open door. Darkened, stormy blue eyes flew up to the noise immediately.

"What are you doing here?" M.J. snapped in irritation, surprising Alli.

"Uhh, we had a 10:30 meeting scheduled, but–" Alli stammered wide-eyed, but M.J. cut her off.

"No — I canceled our meeting - I have to go out of town - didn’t Helen call you?" She spat out tersely.

"Uhm, no, I didn’t get–"

"Dammit! HELEN!" M.J. bellowed toward the door, making Alli cringe.

The elderly woman immediately appeared at the President’s door, meekly giving a "Yes ma’am?"

"I asked you to cancel *ALL* my meetings, through next week!" M.J. snapped curtly.

"Yes ma’am, I did that ma’am." The secretary stammered meekly in her soft southern accent.

"Well then *WHY* is Ms. Phillips here for her 10:30 meeting?! ‘All meetings’ includes THIS MORNING’s too, Helen!" M.J. reprimanded the older woman harshly.

"Yes ma’am; I’ll make certain again that everyone’s been notified. My apologies, Ms. Phillips." Helen stammered as she regarded Alli, then turned to escape to her desk again.

"Christ!" M.J. growled, more to herself than to Allison. Alli was somewhat shocked at the foul temper spewing out of M.J., and she was suddenly very glad that their meeting was cancelled — whatever was going on, this M.J. was not the one Alli wished to ‘meet’ with. She wanted to ask what was wrong, and where M.J. was going, but she was too afraid of incurring the angry woman’s wrath and having her head bitten off.

Better just leave with my head intact, she thought as she started to back up and slink out the door.

"What were we supposed to be meeting about anyway? Was it anything urgent?" M.J. called out before Alli could completely escape.

Alli dared to venture back into the office a little further, "Uhm, we were going to make the final cut of the applicants for Ray’s new construction crew... that’s all." Alli knew she sounded timid, but she couldn’t help it. M.J.’s current disposition threw all light-heartedness out the window.

"Right... well, it’ll just have to wait until I get back, that’s all... they’ll just have to *wait*!" She said with irritation, tossing more piles of paper about.

"Uhm, well, I could go ahead and make the cuts... I mean, if you trust my judgment...?" Alli said, wondering where she got the nerve to suggest such a thing at a time like this. M.J. had never given her authority or free-reign to take over any of their ‘projects’, especially something as volatile as Ray’s construction crew hirings.

"Of course I trust your judgment! What kind of question is that?!" M.J. retorted sharply, her eyes narrowing.

Alli felt her neck flush with the sudden prospect of being severed, and she hesitated, momentarily unable to respond to M.J.’s harsh impatience.

"Just do whatever you see fit and we’ll discuss it when I return. Think you can handle that?" She quipped curtly, flashing a cold, wintry glare at the wilting blonde.

"Yes... of course... I’ll take care of it. Anything else you need me to do?" Alli offered, even though she knew she should just put her tail between her legs and run like hell.

"No, nothing... just... go." M.J. said, dismissing her with a hand wave and not even looking up at her.

Okay, I know you’re obviously *stressed* about something, but you don’t need to be *rude*, Alli thought, feeling suddenly indignant. The words danced on the tip of her tongue, but she knew she wouldn’t dare utter them to the agitated woman before her. She only hung there for a second, biting her tongue, before she turned and began to walk toward the door.

M.J. gave a sideways glance over to the retreating form of her colleague and cursed herself for being such a horse’s ass. Alli didn’t deserve her wrath; she was only trying to help. M.J. closed her eyes for a moment and released a frustrated sigh.

"Allison," she called out sharply, just before Alli slipped through the doorway. Alli turned back and looked at M.J., trying hard to conceal the annoyance on her face.

"Look, I’m... I’m sorry." M.J. began as she walked toward Alli. Feeling the stirrings of a tremendous headache, she squeezed her eyes shut momentarily and pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers as she continued, "I have a... family emergency... I have to leave immediately." She offered in explanation, her voice lower and softer as she finally came to stand right in front of Alli. "I didn’t mean to snap at you." M.J. said quietly, looking at Alli briefly, then dropping her eyes, "I just..."

"It’s okay," Alli offered gently, reaching her hand up to squeeze M.J.’s arm in a gesture of understanding and reassurance.

M.J. immediately felt like a real cad for lashing-out at Alli, as well as everyone else. How Alli could even be civil to her right now was beyond her comprehension. She was so accustomed to screaming at everyone and not giving a damn what they thought or felt; she was not prepared to feel guilty about her actions... she was not prepared to *care*. Her relationship with Allison was beginning to complicate things.


Alli gave her a sympathetic smile, wanting to show her that there were no hard feelings, "I’ll take care of this for you," Alli said, indicating the documents in her hand. "Don’t worry about it," she added.

M.J. smiled in appreciation and relief, and she brought her hand up to clasp Alli gently on the shoulder, leaning in a little closer.

"Thank you, I appreciate it... and I owe you." She said quietly, looking Alli right in the eyes and giving her shoulder a squeeze before dropping her hand.

Alli could only give her a nervous smile in return; her mind was too busy reeling from that fact that not only had M.J. apologized to her, but she touched her and was standing *really* close too. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the soft, sexy scent of M.J.’s perfume was wafting upwards, assaulting her senses. Her stomach did a complete somersault.

M.J. moved back away from her then, but before they parted, she added, "When I get back, we’ll go to dinner — my treat... okay?"

"Deal." Alli managed, her voice nearly squeaking. She turned and quickly walked back out the door, forgetting M.J.’s prior anger and vowing to do a most excellent job with the construction crew applications.




"Every day is like Sunday,

Every day is silent and gray;

Trudging back over pebbles and sand,
And a strange dust lands on your hands,
And on your face." — Morrissey




The dull, dying colors of early November were so much more dreary in the northeastern part of the country. Everything was gray-brown, damp, and musty-smelling as the autumnal harvest season abruptly turned colder and began to give way to the frigid desolation of the approaching wintry months. Soon everything would be covered in snow and ice, and the gray-browns would all disintegrate into rotten, slushy nothingness. M.J. hated wintertime in the North.

"I’m almost afraid to see him... y’know?" Madison’s voice broke the silence that had settled over the car, interrupting M.J.’s thoughts as she navigated along the familiar country roads that lead to their father’s home.

"Yeah, I guess," M.J. muttered, her own mind already having raced about what to expect when they walked through the doors of the old farmstead that was her grandparents former residence. Early that morning, Madison had received a tearful call from their stepmother saying that Mark had fallen at home the night before and was now officially bed-ridden. In addition, he had been given bad news by their doctor several days earlier: test results showed that his cancer had spread throughout his body, and they now gave him 6 months or less to live. He was weak, he had difficulty breathing, and he often couldn’t keep food down. There was nothing anyone could do for him anymore. The news shocked and angered the girls. Why hadn’t Virginia called them immediately to tell them all this? They both agreed that it warranted an immediate visit to see their father, and to discover what other vital information they might be missing out on.

They reached the home and promptly went inside, preparing to clash with their wicked stepmother over her lack of disclosure. M.J. opened the front door without knocking and the girls entered.

"Hello-o?" Madison called out as they took their jackets off and walked further into the spacious, old-fashioned kitchen. The house was dark and quiet, save a noise coming from somewhere. M.J. took notice of the large array of medicine bottles and prescription papers and notepads with various information scribbled in their stepmother’s handwriting which lay strewn across the countertop.

The two women walked further into the kitchen and Madison called out again, "Hello-o? Virginia?"

Just then a short woman came padding out of the hallway and into the kitchen, "Oh, girls... I didn’t expect y’all so soon." Virginia Calhoun Whitton looked old... older than her 52 years, anyway. She no longer looked like the haughty southern-belle-prima-donna that she normally pretended to be. Obviously, Mark’s illness had taken its toll on her as well.

"Hello Virginia, how are you?" Madison asked gently as she bent to give the petite figure a slight hug. Madison always tried to make nice with the woman who was their father’s second wife, but M.J. never pretended; there would be no hug from her.

"Oh I’m alright, hon, I’m alright. You girls look well," the woman said in her thick southern drawl as she eyed each stepdaughter carefully. Madison always looked so well-groomed and tastefully attired; the perfect attorney’s wife and successful business-woman in her own right — her father’s pride and joy.

Now Morgan... she was a different story. Although Virginia thought M.J. was attractive enough, something lurking in the girl’s eyes always bothered her. In her opinion, she was a wild hyena who just barely kept poor Mark’s company going. That company was his whole life, and he had handed it over to this loose cannon. She had heard the tales of M.J.’s former wild ways and exceedingly inappropriate lifestyle. Virginia knew M.J. didn’t like her nor trust her, and the feelings were mutual; there was no love lost between the two.

M.J. scowled at her stepmother as she stood behind Madison. She could almost hear the snide thoughts echoing underneath the fake red hair of the woman before her. How her father could go from the beautiful, proper, elegant Elizabeth Grayson to this southern-fried red-neck was beyond M.J.’s comprehension.

Maybe she’s a wild-cat in bed? M.J. thought crudely, arching her brow sharply and looking at her stepmother’s short, frumpy figure and sour face ...Orrrr, maybe *not*.

"How is Mark?" M.J. asked, wanting to get right to the heart of the matter. They weren’t here to talk to this twit, after all.

Virginia cringed at M.J.’s use of her father’s name. She never understood why her husband’s own child wouldn’t refer to him as ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’, like she did with her own father. She knew there was a history of animosity between the two, but still, why did she seem to take such measures to stay distant? It was just another thing that annoyed her about the tall girl.

"Oh well, you know... he’s doin’ as well as can be expected, considerin’," Virginia drawled, pushing an imaginary strand of hair off her brow. M.J. intimidated her, and she hated it. The girl had no respect for her, and it drove her crazy that she had no control over the situation. She liked to have control... and this strong-willed young woman definitely needed to be controlled.

"I finally convinced him to let me call Hospice... he didn’t want me to - y’all know how stubborn he can be — but I think they’ll be helpful." She moved to the stove and poured some warmed water into a teacup. "My good friend, Anna Mae, had them come in and take care of her husband when he was ill... she said they were just wonnn-derful," she sing-songed in forced casualty while steeping a tea bag.

"Yes, I hear Hospice is extraordinary. When are they coming?" Madison asked.

"Tomorrow, ‘round noon they said," Virginia said as she sipped from her cup slowly. M.J. had no interest in chatting with her stepmother about Hospice. She turned away from Madison and Virginia and headed back the hallway to the room she knew housed her dying father.

She reached her father’s room, quietly entering and looking upon him. He had changed quite a bit from the last time she’d seen him, and it definitely wasn’t for the better. He was lying in his bed, the television on and the window shades drawn. It looked like he was sleeping, his chest moved in a shallow, steady rhythm and he breathed with a raspy wheeze. His normally tall, robust frame was thin and bony, and his hair seemed to be completely white now, instead of his usual salt-and-pepper coloration. His handsome face had a sunken appearance, and he was sallow and gray in color. It was painfully evident, M.J. thought, that he didn’t have much time left.

Once her initial shock wore off, M.J. approached his bed, leaning down toward him.

"Mark?" She said, probably too softly. "Mark? You awake?" She called again, eliciting a slight movement from him. Feeling her usual detachment and resentment dissipate a little, she leaned closer to him and reached out to touch his arm.

"Dad? ...it’s M.J., Dad."

Weary, cloudy-gray eyes fluttered open as Mark took in the apparition of his eldest daughter.

"Morgan J., is that you?" his deep voice rumbled.

"Yeah... Hi." M.J. answered, the corner of her mouth twitching in a near-smile.

"When did you get here?" He asked, blinking his eyes and adjusting them.

"Just now; Maddy’s here too, she’s talking to Ginny."

"Oh, well... let me sit up here so I can have a proper conversation with you." He said, struggling to prop himself up on the bed.

"No, you don’t have to do that — just lie back... relax." M.J. said, placing a gentle hand on his chest. She didn’t want him to strain himself and overdo it.

He looked up at his daughter, surprised at the softness in her normally curt, cold voice. She could be a sweet girl when she let herself be; it was a shame that it took something like this to bring it out in her. Father and daughter just stared at each other for a moment, feeling awkward and unsure what to say to one another. They had been close when M.J. was younger, but after the family suffered the loss of Mark Jr., everything changed, and the two drifted far apart.

"You look good... how are things going back in Jax? Everything alright?" Mark asked, not really knowing what to say to his eldest child.

"Oh yeah, everything’s fine... same old, same old." M.J. said with a shrug. She really didn’t want to talk about work; it seemed like that was the only thing she ever discussed with her father when they spoke. Then again... they didn’t have too much in common any more. She always felt like she was 20 years old again whenever they were alone; Mark just had a way of doing that to her.

"Mmm-hmm. Raiford was here a few weeks ago. He said things are pretty slow and nothing important was happening."

"Yeah well, to Ray, nothing ‘important’ is *ever* happening." M.J. said in a disgusted tone.

Mark gave a small snort, "You two are still getting along splendidly, I see."

"Like I said, same old, same old." M.J. retorted, turning from the bed and walking over to the window to peer outside.

Mark watched his daughter as she stood pensively at the window. She was always such a solitary person, determined to not need anything, and never allowing anyone inside.

So much like her mother, he thought. Aloof, unemotional, seemingly destined to go through life unhappy, angry, and alone. It was such a waste. She was such a pretty girl... he couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t want to find someone and settle down. Surely some nice young attorney or doctor would find her and want to make an honest woman out of her? He wondered if she still thought that she fancied women. He knew all about her wild college days and her former dalliances, but he’d always thought that she was just going through the normal experimental stages that most young people go through, and that she’d grow out of it eventually. He knew she was angry and mixed-up after her brother’s death, and he figured then that she just needed time to sort things out.

He remembered when it appeared she was *not* sorting things out, how he flat-out told her that he didn’t approve of her ways. She fought him, but eventually she came ‘round. Looking again at the expressionless face staring outside, Mark wondered if he’d been too hard on his eldest daughter. He knew that he demanded a lot from his children, but that was how he’d been raised; it was the only way he knew how to be. He just wanted what was best for them; he just wanted them to grow up to be decent, hard-working human beings. And they were. M.J. excelled at anything she did, and Madison was bright and sharp as a tack. He was proud of them both... he was proud of them, but he never told them. Suddenly he felt very remorseful.

Yes, he had been hard on M.J.; he remembered it too well. When he offered her a job working as an architect at his company, he demanded she clean up her act and straighten herself out first. She of course balked, and it took all of his patience to keep after her. But he did, swaying her and tempting her with offer after offer, explaining to her that it was her family duty to help out and put in her time. He knew she needed the job, almost as much as he needed her. She finally did come work for him, straightening herself out admirably in the process... or at least she appeared to. From time to time, Mark was told about rumors circulating in the company which involved M.J., but he never believed them. He was certain that she’d put her reckless ways behind her - she was a little head-strong and had a temper, but he knew she was a good girl deep down inside.

And she still is, he thought to himself now.

It all seemed so long ago; M.J. was, what? 32? 33 now? ...Surely she had to be thinking about settling down, getting married and having children, like Madison, before it was too late. Didn’t she want to find someone special to share herself with? She couldn’t continue to be a ‘free spirit’ all her life... could she? Mark really didn’t know, because he didn’t know his daughter, he admitted.

No, I don’t know her at all, he thought sadly to himself. ...Just like her mother.


After the girls visited with their father for several hours, they decided to let him rest for the evening while they went out to get some dinner and then retire to their hotel rooms. Despite their father’s insistence that they stay there at the house, the girls politely declined. Madison would have stayed, but M.J. insisted they find their own place, telling her sister there was no way she’d stay under the same roof with ‘that woman’.

The girls found a restaurant that was fairly close to the hotel, and they tried to have a nice relaxing meal while discussing their father and anything else that came up. It was nice to have some time alone with each other; they’d always been pretty close, but with the demands of their busy jobs and Madison’s family life, they rarely got to kick back and talk to each other casually any more.

"Ugh, this steak is *not* rare!" Madison sniffed, poking at the meat on her plate. Of the two women, Madison was definitely the more fussy eater, and she preferred exotic, expensive cuisine. M.J. wasn’t so particular; she was content with almost anything, so long as it wasn’t too spicy or bizarre.

"You should have known better to order a steak at a place like this; we’re lucky to get something even half-decent at this hour." M.J. shot back as she ate her club sandwich without complaint.

"Tch! ...I don’t know that this even qualifies as *half*-decent!" Madison groused. "We should have just gotten room service." She grumbled.

M.J. just looked at her and shook her head, smiling, "You’d never make it here, y’know. One week without lobster or filet mignon, and you’d lapse into catatonic schizophrenia." M.J. said derisively. Madison shot her an evil glare, knowing that her older sister was right, but not liking the fact that she was so transparent.

"Well, just because I’m not as *comfortable* as you are with being a *hick*." She shot back, motioning to M.J.’s laid-back appearance. Her snide remark was met only with a smarmy smile from her sister. M.J.’s hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, and she wore her most comfortable pair of boots, in addition to a pair of well-worn blue jeans, an old college-logo sweatshirt, and her old, battered leather jacket. M.J. had always loved the peaceful, calm, farm country much more than Madison. She was more like her father than Maddy in that regard; Madison preferred the fast-paced glitz and hub-bub of city life, like their mother.

"So did you call anyone back at the office?" Madison asked, knowing that M.J. couldn’t be gone for even a day without ‘checking in’.

"Just Helen and Rachel." M.J. answered absently.

"Did you talk to Allison?" Madison said, seeing her opening to broach the subject about the blonde Assistant HR Director.

"Allison? Why would I talk to Allison?" M.J. asked, genuinely confused.

"Well, I dunno... you two seem to be working rather... *closely* lately; I just thought maybe you’d call her too." Madison said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

M.J. pointedly put her fork down and folded her arms on the table, fixing Madison with an icy stare, "What are you trying to get at, Maddy?"

Madison sighed, knowing that, as usual, M.J. would cut right to the chase. "You know what I’m getting at. It’s very obvious that you have a *thing* for her, and--"

M.J. cut her off, "A ‘thing’ ?! I do not have a *thing* for her!" She said incredulously.

"Oh come *on* Morgan, Jesus! I *know* you! I *see* you! Do you think I haven’t noticed the way you two flirt and make eyes at each other!" Madison insisted.

"What?! We do NOT--" M.J. started again, but Maddy held a hand up,

"Morgan, please. Don’t insult me... I’m not stupid, and I’m not blind, okay?" Madison said calmly as she looked her sister squarely in the eyes. M.J. wanted to argue, but she refrained. She didn’t want to get into this now, and she didn’t want to discuss it with the one person who’d see right through her denials.

Madison continued, "I’m not condemning your attraction — I’m not. In fact, I can’t really blame you - Allison is quite lovely and smart; she’s probably just your type--"

M.J. cut her off again, "Maddy, please... don’t." She mumbled as she brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose between her eyes. The headache that had pursued her doggedly all day was now pounding insistently.

Madison sighed aloud, "Okay... I’ll just say this, Morgan... I don’t think it’s *wise* to get involved with someone at the company, or even someone who has *ties* to the company... y’know?" She said as gently as possible. "I mean look at the bullshit you went through with Kate Reed — she jerked you around and you guys fought constantly. It affected your work... it affected our relationship with the entire law firm!"

M.J. flipped her eyes up to give her sister a slight glare.

Madison continued, not wanting to upset M.J., but feeling the need to say these things out loud before it was too late.

"You were smart to break it off with her when you did. That woman is baaad news." She added, taking a sip of her drink and staring at her older sister, who suddenly gave her a sheepish look and darted her eyes down to her plate. Madison instantly froze and her face dropped, "Oh Morgan... tell me that you *did* break things off with that woman, *please*!"

M.J. sighed and closed her eyes, "We aren’t ‘officially’ together anymore." She said, holding a hand up in defense.

"What?! What does *that* mean? You just meet up with each other for a quick wank once in awhile?!" Madison said, a little too loudly.

"Shhh! For godssake!" M.J. scolded, glancing furtively around the restaurant.

"Well?!" Madison demanded, unaffected by M.J.’s reprimand.

M.J. sighed again, feeling defeated, "We... *get together*, sometimes, but–"

"Oh *GOD*, Morgannnn!" Madison interrupted with a groan as she brought a hand up to hold her head.

"Oh shut *UP* Maddy! Christ! You have a lot of nerve, you know — you’re married to *Doug Cohen*, don’t forget!" M.J. said angrily, "Talk about a ‘conflict of interest’!"

"That’s different! You started your *thing* with Kate well after we’d hired them — I married Doug before his firm ever began representing us!" Madison fought back, her gray eyes cold and steely.

M.J. stared back at her in challenge, "Yes, how *convenient* for Doug and his firm." She said sarcastically. Madison opened her mouth in shock at the low blow from her sister. M.J. slid her wintry eyes away for a moment. This was disintegrating into a battle of hash-slinging, and she didn’t want to deal with it.

"Look, I don’t need your ‘advice’, Maddy — I know what I’m doing." M.J. said calmly, wanting to end the battle.

"Do you? Do you really, Morgan? Because I don’t think you do!" Maddy snapped back.

"Well I don’t really *care* what you think, okay?" M.J. retorted. She didn’t need a lecture from anyone, least of all her prudish, heterosexual younger sister. "We serve each other’s ‘needs’, and that’s all. It suits me quite well, actually." M.J. quipped in defiance as she leaned back away from the table.

"Oh that’s nice... very romantic... you must be sooo happy." Madison said with as much acidic sarcasm as she could muster. She hated the fact that M.J. would be so reckless and, in her opinion, stupid. Kate Reed was, by far, the most treacherous person M.J. had ever been ‘involved’ with — and she had been ‘involved’ with many such people. If things went awry or turned sour, Kate had the means — and the temperament — to make life very miserable for M.J., as well as the entire company.

M.J. glared at Madison long and hard, trying to burn her sister’s retinas with the harsh blue lasers that emanated from the pits of her eyes. The sisters’ silent little stand-off lasted only for a few seconds, until M.J. finally spoke.

"Look... I’m not going to do this. Not here... not now. You want to be angry with me — fine — be angry. But don’t waste my time with your sanctimonious bullshit." She spat the words in a venomous tone then stood abruptly, tossing some bills on the table and leaving Madison to sit in the restaurant and contemplate their argument alone.




"To my mother, to my father

It’s your son, or it’s your daughter
Are my screams loud enough for you to hear me?
Should I turn this up for you?
The silence is what kills me
I need someone here to help me
But you don’t know how to listen
And let me make my decisions...
I sit here locked inside my head

Remembering everything you said
The silence gets us nowhere

Gets us nowhere way too fast." - Staind




M.J. sat on one of the plastic deck chairs of the covered-up, abandoned hotel pool. It had been easy to jump over the iron fence and get in. She was pissed off at Maddy’s life-lecture, even though it wasn’t unusual for the younger woman to launch into one from time to time. She meant well, but M.J. knew that Madison would never understand where she was coming from or headed to.

Hell, even *I* don’t know, how could she possibly have any clue? She thought to herself. She didn’t know what had bothered her most about Madison’s attack — the fact that she knew something was brewing between her and Allison, the scolding on mixing work life with love life, or the disgust at her continued ‘relationship’ with Kate.

‘Love Life’... what fucking ‘love life’? M.J. thought, I’ve never had a *love life*, and I never will. Why can’t she just let me do what I want with whomever I want and stay the fuck out of it? ...She doesn’t understand. She already felt melancholy and depressed; seeing her father and arguing with Madison was only making her feel worse.

The only one who ever understood me was Jake, M.J. thought sadly. Unable to stop it, she closed her eyes and allowed all the memories flood her mind... it had been a long time since she’d thought about the cruel twist of fate inflicted on her family so long ago...

‘Jake’ was Mark Jacob Whitton, Jr., and, more importantly, he was M.J.’s twin brother. They had the kind of relationship most twins had; they were extremely close and could pretty much read each other’s minds. They looked alike, thought alike, and acted alike. Jake was his father’s golden-boy and had been groomed to take over Whitton, Inc. from the time he was a teenager. They were a happy, loving family, and M.J. and Jake were the apples of their father’s eye. He doted on them and spent lots of time with them, and they, in turn, did everything in their power to please him and make him happy. And they were happy.

In the late 70’s, Mark had moved the family from the rural farmlands of Pennsylvania to the burgeoning city of Jacksonville, Florida. His new construction company had an inauspicious start, but within a few years, and after a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, Mark had become very successful and extremely wealthy, making quite a name for himself in the business-world of northern Florida. He envisioned Jake taking over the company eventually and hoped that M.J., and even the then-little Madison, might work there as well. It would be a family dynasty that would endure for many years to come. It was his ultimate dream.

Things almost went as planned.

By the time Jake and M.J. reached their teenage years, they had begun to realize that they were a little different. Jake seemed to notice before M.J. did. He was the first one to begin dating, and he was the first to acknowledge that he didn’t like girls the way his other friends liked girls. M.J. remembered well the first time Jake told her that he thought he was gay. She wasn’t very shocked — she knew him almost as well as he knew himself, after all. They talked to each other about their feelings, and although M.J. didn’t date at all, she knew that she was different too. She didn’t use the word ‘gay’ until much later, however.

They never breathed a word to anyone about how they felt — only each other. They especially hid it from their parents, because they knew how upset they’d be. The family had become very accepted and well-known in social circles, and Mark Whitton — who had once been a laid-back country boy, content with the simple things in life — was now a self-made millionaire who relished in the status and power that his success afforded him. Although Mark came from a family of middle-class Yankee farmers, his wife’s family history was wonderfully British, proper, and wealthy, and Mark intended to keep his hard-won aristocratic bloodlines flowing. He made it very clear what he expected from children. They would be highly educated; they would marry well; and they would breed well and carry on the family business and the good Whitton name. And so, being the dutiful children they were, they all strived to please their demanding father. They didn’t want to disappoint him, and they constantly sought his approval.

There wasn’t too much pressure put on Jake until he turned 18 and decided on college and his educational path. Their parents sent both Jake and M.J. to the best ivy-league schools, and they made it clear that they expected them to find ivy-league mates as well. That’s where the trouble began.

Being away at college afforded both Jake and M.J. the freedom to experiment with their uncertain feelings and sexuality. And experiment they did. M.J. wasn’t as reckless as Jake — she kept to herself most of the time and only dated a few people — men and women — lightly. Jake, on the other hand, seemed to take out all his frustrations through sex. M.J. sympathized with him; he had a lot riding on his shoulders, and their father expected the most from him. But he wasn’t able to balance the demands of his family with his own needs. He couldn’t handle the fact that he was gay and had to hide it. He simply couldn’t take all the demands and high expectations that were placed on him.

With each visit home, more inquiries and more pressure was put on him to find a girl and think about ‘settling down’. It drove him insane. He turned self-destructive and began to depend more and more heavily on drugs and random sexual encounters to ease his suffering. M.J. saw what he was doing and tried repeatedly to intervene and stop the vicious cycle, but she couldn’t reach him... he was too far gone. She hated seeing what he was doing to himself, but she knew she couldn’t turn to her parents - they would only make things ten times worse. She feared the whole thing would end badly... she just had no idea how bad.

It was Christmas Eve, 1988. The whole family was home for the holiday, and everyone had gathered for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner at the Whitton home. As the family sat and ate their meal, Jake calmly told them that he had contracted AIDS. He was dead less than six months later.

M.J. was devastated by the loss of her twin brother, but even worse than his death was the way her family handled it. They totally denied everything, and in doing so, M.J. felt that they denied Jake as well. The cause of Jake’s death was ‘cancer’, according to them, and he most definitely was *not* gay. M.J. remembered quite well the night that her father sat stone-faced in his study and told M.J. and Madison that they would never speak of their brother’s death or his ‘unnatural ways’ to anyone. He told them that no one outside their family could ever know what happened, or else their name and reputation would be tarnished, and he would be ruined. M.J. couldn’t believe that the man who had spent so much time doting on her and Jake as children was the same man who now instructed her to never speak about her brother.

She hated her father from that point on.

Their mother, Elizabeth, wasn’t much better. She had always been quiet, reserved and aloof, and although she was very intelligent and highly capable, she was never very involved with her children. The one she seemed closest to was, ironically, Jake. After his death, she withdrew even more, turning to alcohol and prescription drugs to soothe her suffering. Mark stayed away from home more and more, openly having affairs and ignoring his family. M.J. and Madison were virtually on their own. Madison was only 14 years old.

M.J. returned to school but grew increasingly angry and wild. She skipped class after class, partied all night, dabbled in drugs, alcohol and sex, and her grades plummeted. Whenever a school break came up, she didn’t go home; she stayed with friends someplace or got a hotel. She wanted nothing to do with her family. Her father intervened several times, forcing her to move and enroll in different colleges, but M.J. just continued to rebel. Whatever her father said, she disagreed; whatever he offered, she refused; whenever he tried to enforce something, she retaliated with anger and malice. She had changed from a bright, happy, promising young woman, into an unemotional, bitter, solitary person who seemed bent on self-destruction. She had locked away her heart and soul, intentionally alienating herself from the outside world and retreating into darkness. Mark eventually gave up on her and told her that she was, and would always be, nothing but a disgrace to her family and a failure to him. "You disappoint me even more than Jake," he had said to her.

She thought she hated him even more.

Eventually, she dropped out of college and drifted from town to town, and situation to situation, in search of god-knew-what. She finally disappeared completely, making no contact with anyone for two years, not even Madison, who had tried to stay in touch with her older sister as much as she could. M.J. knew that Madison was at home, essentially all alone, but she couldn’t bear to talk to her too much — anything that reminded M.J. of home was too painful to deal with.

M.J.’s life didn’t change again until Madison tracked her down in a small town out West, where she was living with a woman in a shit-hole apartment above a rowdy, run-down bar, and working in a crap-job as a laborer for a construction company. Madison had come home one day to find her mother in her bedroom, unconscious. Elizabeth Whitton had tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills, and she was rushed to the hospital. She survived, but did even more damage to her family, and her daughters.

M.J. decided then that it was time to come home. The madness that had become her family’s daily life had to end. She returned home and somehow, some way, in a relatively short amount of time, she began to take control of things. She begrudgingly helped her mother recover as she took control of the household, handling the home finances and keeping tabs on her father, who had moved out of the house just a few months before. She took care of Madison too, helping her to learn to drive and get her license. M.J. quickly became a very strong, very capable adult, setting the stage for the rest of her life to come.

Mark and Elizabeth divorced about a year later, and Elizabeth seemed to retreat further inside herself, despite Madison and M.J.’s attempts to get close to her. M.J. had hoped that after her father left and things were brought under control again, the girls could salvage their relationship with their mother and return the family to some sort of normalcy. It wasn’t meant to be, however. Their mother was damaged beyond repair, and when Madison moved out of the house to attend college, Elizabeth left too, returning to her family’s ancestral home in southeastern England.

The girls rarely saw her after that, although in recent years, after the birth of Madison’s daughter, Elizabeth had started making an effort to stay in contact with Maddy and her only grandchild. M.J. still didn’t want anything to do with her, however, which was a shame; they really were very similar to one another in many ways. Sometimes, on the rare occasion when she would allow herself to reminisce, M.J. would recall her mother’s gently lilting accent; her old-fashioned insistence of having daily afternoon teas; the long, dark brown hair that she rarely wore down and almost always wore neatly pinned up behind her head; and the haunting, pale blue eyes that could look right into your heart and soul if they wanted to. Unfortunately, Elizabeth rarely wanted to.

M.J. eventually made a sort of tenuous peace with her father — mostly through Madison’s insistence — but she never forgot what he had done and the things he said, and she knew she would always feel some anger toward him. Even though he had continually discounted her and her abilities, she somehow, still, always felt the urge to prove him wrong. She still felt the need to prove to him that she was not a failure; that she could do all the things he thought she couldn’t; that she was bright enough, and strong enough, and good enough. She hated the fact that she still sought his approval and acceptance, even after everything that had happened, but she couldn’t help herself. He had always been a very prominent figure in her life, and she had been very close to him once upon a time. And... he was her father.

When he first offered her a position at Whitton, Inc., M.J. laughed in his face. There was no way in hell she would ever work for the man, she thought. But Mark was crafty. He laid a subtle guilt-trip on his daughter and changed his ‘proposal’ from a simple job offer into a challenge of her abilities. M.J. fell for it, helplessly becoming hooked and wanting to prove her worth to her father. The job would mean good money — very good money — and plenty of hard work, but that didn’t bother M.J. A chance to prove her father wrong and make some big bucks for a few years was very tempting to her. She made a deal with her father that she only had to stay and give him 5 years at the company, then she could leave and do as she pleased. Mark agreed, but on two conditions: 1) She had to finish college and get her AIA designation; and 2) she had to ‘clean up her act’. M.J. didn’t give two shits about finishing school and getting her certification - that would be easy; it was the second item that would be harder. She knew what her father *really* meant by it: no partying, and - more importantly - no women. Mark would grant her some leniency and help her learn the ropes at work, but he would never, ever, allow her to be openly gay. It would be a difficult challenge for her, but it was one she decided she was willing to take.

That all seems like ages and ages ago, M.J. thought as a chilly night breeze danced across her face, blowing her loose bangs to the side. Her legs were cramping from sitting cross-legged in the plastic chair, so she unfolded them and decided it was time to head up to her hotel room. Hopefully Madison would be asleep and she wouldn’t see her until tomorrow morning. This whole trip had been stressful, and her harsh words with Madison were making things worse. She hated to fight with Madison — her baby sister was the only thing she had left; the only person who knew her, and the only one she could turn to.

Madison knew that M.J. was unhappy, but in her mind, her big sister just needed to find someone and settle down. Madison didn’t care that M.J. was gay, she just hated to see her miserable and alone. M.J. appreciated her sentiment, but it really was so much more complicated than that. She avoided discussing her life, in general, with Madison, because she knew that the younger woman could never fully understand any of it.

As she hopped back over the fence and headed toward her room, M.J. decided that she’d swallow her pride for a change and apologize to Maddy first thing in the morning. After all, Madison was the only real friend she had in this world.





"I should be sayin’ goodnight,

I really shouldn’t stay anymore;

Been so long since I held it,

I’ve forgotten what love is for;

I should run from you,

On the double;

...I think I’m in trouble." — L. Buckingham




The girls stayed in Pennsylvania until the week’s end. They met with the Hospice representative and watched as the nurses came to visit and care for their father every day. Virginia stood around and acted pathetic and helpless, and M.J. was reminded to hold her tongue numerous times with either an elbow jab or a harsh glare from Madison. Mark didn’t have much time left, it was easy to see. The Hospice people talked to both girls frankly, and they explained, step by step, what to expect over the next few weeks and months. It was a sobering picture. They fully expected to be making more trips over the next few months.

M.J. felt very strange over the realization that her father could, very possibly, be dead by the end of the year. As much as she hated him in the past, and as much as he had complicated her life, he was still her father. And she would always be his daughter. She had put him high upon a pedestal, once upon a time, and she realized now that the good memories should be as strong as the bad ones. She pushed her jumbled feelings aside as much as possible, but she knew that there would be a time that she would have to come to some sort of reconciliation with her inner turmoil.

Although they wished that they could stay longer, both women knew they had to return to their lives in Florida. They left on a Friday, wanting to get back home and get reorganized before Monday morning at Whitton, Inc. rolled around bright and early.


M.J. was glad to be back in the safety and serenity of her own home. She hated hotels. When she arrived late Friday afternoon, Ruth was just finishing her cleaning. The older southern woman was a god-send when it came to keeping her house clean and orderly, and M.J. continually rewarded her with generous pay raises and bonuses. They had a good relationship, and although Ruth knew full well of M.J.’s moodiness and scathing temper, she had come to treat the brunette as though she were one of her children, which M.J. found amusing and endearing, rather than insulting. Ruth could see that M.J. was tired and stressed when she arrived home, and she knew that the illness of Mark Sr. was wreaking inner havoc on the usually stoic woman.

"It’s good for you to be home, Miss Morgan," Ruth said in her thick southern accent as she entered the kitchen where M.J. stood sorting through piles of mail. M.J. smiled at the name Ruth had christened her with so long ago — it was a ‘southern way’ thing to be called ‘Miss’ plus your first name. It annoyed M.J. at first, but to make up for it, she started calling the older woman ‘Ruthie’, just to agitate her and even up the odds.

"Yeah, that it is, Ruthie... that it is." M.J. murmured absently as she continued to flip through the piles.

"How is your daddy doin’, honey?" Ruthie asked gently while sitting her cleaning supplies on the counter.

"Not so good, Ruthie... not so good." The older woman gave the tall brunette a small annoyed look, noticing that she was repeating herself and not really paying attention to anything she was saying. Dark circles underscored the brilliant eyes, and the normally severe face was lenient, with lines clearly etched in her forehead.

"You’re tired, Miss Morgan. Why don’t you go sit and let me fix y’all somethin’ to eat, okay?" Ruthie offered, touching M.J.’s arm to get her attention.

M.J. heard the offer, and thought it very sweet, "Oh no - thanks, Ruthie, but you don’t have to do that." She said, putting her mail down and looking at the housekeeper. "I have to run into the office, and then I’ll get something to eat later."

The older woman gave her a disapproving look.

"I promise." M.J. added, giving a half-hearted smile before turning and walking out of the kitchen.

Ruth shook her head and sighed, "Girl spends too much time in that damn office." She muttered, shaking her head as she watched the taller woman disappear.


It was around 7:00 p.m. when M.J. finally decided to go into her office and see what awaited her there. When she pulled into the empty parking garage and drove around to her normal spot, she couldn’t help but notice a blue VW beetle parked nearby. Alli’s car. What was she doing here so late on a Friday night?

Well, I suppose it’s a small comfort to know that I’m not the only one with no social life, M.J. thought to herself with a wry smile.

M.J. sorted through her email and other annoyances for about an hour before she decided to just give it up and go home. She was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to go home, take a nice hot shower, and collapse in her own bed. As she flipped her lights out and strode out toward the elevator, she thought about Alli again. She hated to admit it, but the blonde had been on her mind a lot during the week, and now that she knew she was here, in the building, she found herself wanting to go downstairs and talk to her.

She’s probably gone by now anyway, M.J. thought, trying to convince herself not to go and see. Giving in with a loud sigh, she climbed into the elevator and pressed button #13.

M.J. could hear the murmuring of a soft, melodious voice as she entered the Human Resources work area. A single light was on, and she walked quietly toward it.

"I know, I just don’t really feel like putting up with her shit for a whole weekend, y’know? I mean, she makes me suicidal!" Alli said as she talked to her sister. She was reclining back in her chair - eyes closed, one arm thrown up, casually resting on top of her head, the other holding the phone to her ear - totally unaware that she was being watched.

"It’ll be bad enough having to deal with all the questions when everyone’s there, y’know? ...Yeah, I know, but I’d just rather stay with you and Josh, okay?" Kaitlyn was trying to convince her to have pity on their mother and stay with her over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, when Alli was planning to visit.

M.J. enjoyed watching the younger woman from her hidden vantage point. Alli looked tired, but wonderful, as she rubbed her closed eyes with her fingers. Papers were strewn about her desk, the sleeves of her blouse were pushed up past her elbows, and M.J. could see a pair of shoes sitting beside her desk. M.J. smiled just as Alli opened her eyes and saw the dark shadow approaching her door. The blonde nearly jumped out of her skin as her eyes flew completely open and she jerked forward in her chair.

"SHIT!" She exclaimed, the phone falling from her hand. "You *scared* me!" She scolded, placing a hand on her chest and staring wide-eyed at the tall, dark woman now visible in her doorway.

"Sorry," M.J. said with a grin, feeling only slightly bad for shocking the poor woman. She was cute when she was flustered.

Oh don’t start, M.J. thought to herself.

A squawking noise coming from the forgotten phone brought Alli back to her senses as she picked it up and apologized to her sister.

"Uh, sorry... no, someone’s here to... see me... I was just, uh, startled." She explained while motioning for M.J. to come in and sit down.

M.J. smiled wider and walked into Alli’s office; she’d never seen the inside before, so she casually helped herself and looked around, taking everything in.

Alli only half paid attention to what her sister was saying on the other end of the phone; she was too transfixed by the lovely vision that was wandering around her office.

M.J. looked fabulous — more than fabulous — she was her same attractive self, but what really got Alli was the fact that her normally tight-bun hairdo was missing; in its place was a long mass of glossy, dark hair that was pulled into a loose ponytail and hung down her back, stopping midway. It was positively gorgeous... *she* was gorgeous. In addition to the freed hair, M.J. was also dressed very casually, wearing a deep-cut dark-gray v-neck sweater, faded blue jeans, a well-worn three-quarter-length black leather jacket, and a pair of black boots. Alli knew she was staring at M.J., but she truly couldn’t help herself... she was stunned. Who would have ever thought that this incredibly sexy creature lived behind the severe business suits, the stern face, and that tightly-coiffed hairdo. Alli unconsciously licked her lips as Kaitlyn babbled on.

M.J. liked Alli’s office. It was decorated with a combination of styles but mostly focused on an ocean theme. There were pictures of women that M.J. assumed to be Alli’s sisters, because they all looked very much alike, but there were no pictures of parents or anyone else. After perusing and mentally cataloging everything in the room, M.J.’s eyes came to rest on two college diplomas that hung on the wall. The name on the B.S. in Psychology read ‘Allison Riley’; the one on the Masters in Human Resources Management read ‘Allison Phillips’. M.J. frowned at the disparity between the names.

What the hell? She thought. It suddenly occurred to her that she never considered the fact that Alli might be married — or at least may have been married at one time. The way the blonde always looked at her and willingly flirted with her made M.J. assume that she was single and a member of the pink triangle club.

Well shit, wouldn’t that just be my typical fucking luck? M.J. thought dejectedly. She turned back to Alli, who was watching her with a strange look on her face.

"Uhm, listen, Kait, I’ll have to call you back later... yeah, I know... I *know*." She said with some annoyance, looking at M.J. and rolling her eyes, "I have to go... okay... I’ll call you later... bye." She hung up the phone and released a sigh, "She means well," Alli said with a grin.

"Your sister?" M.J. asked as she looked at Alli with a smirk on her lips.

"Yeah; she wants me to come visit for the holidays, but... I dunno." Alli said, shrugging her shoulders and wrinkling her nose. "So what brings you here at this hour? Just get back?" She queried; she was dying to know why M.J. had stopped by her office.

"Mmm, we got back this afternoon. I just thought I’d come in and get a feel for what I might be faced with Monday morning." M.J. said as she finally sat down in one of the chairs, "and I saw your car in the garage." She added, fixing Alli with another smirk.

Alli felt the beginnings of a blush, "Yeah, well... I just wanted to finish-up some stuff... nothing major." She mumbled, finding it difficult to express herself while trapped beneath M.J.’s consuming blue gaze. The two were silent for a second until M.J. mustered the nerve to ask something she’d been thinking about for the past few days,

"Have you eaten dinner?" the question came out calmly, despite the fact that the President was somewhat nervous about it. She didn’t know why; it shouldn’t be a big deal.

"Uhmm... no, actually." Alli said, a little surprised.

"Wanna go grab a bite? I did promise you, after all." M.J. explained with a grin.

"Ahh yes, you did, didn’t you?" Alli said, feeling the flirtatious mood fill the room, "However, you did it assuming that I would successfully complete the task that we had discussed," she added, giving M.J. a coy look.

M.J.’s grin widened into a full-blown smile, "Are you saying that you *didn’t* complete the task?" The flirting and bantering was picking up right where it had left off.

"No-o, I’m just saying that you’re making *assumptions* about what I’m able to accomplish." Alli said, blinking her eyes long and smiling playfully.

"I do make assumptions, that’s true," M.J. replied, quirking her eyebrows high, "but when it comes to your abilities and what you can accomplish... I have complete faith in you." She finished, regarding Alli seriously.

Alli was totally taken aback by the blunt statement of trust. It was probably the biggest compliment anyone had ever paid her, and she was shocked to hear it fall from M.J. Whitton’s lips.

M.J. read the look of amazement on the blonde’s open face, and she suddenly felt embarrassed for saying it; it was so unlike her to do such a thing. She stood abruptly, hoping to break the awkward moment.

"Well come on then... let’s go."



"My world was on fire,
No one could save me but you;
Strange what desire can make foolish people do;

I never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you,

I never dreamed that I’d love somebody like you." — C. Isaak




M.J. drove them to an elegant little restaurant that was quietly hidden amongst the more extroverted bars and hang-outs that made up most of the busy ports and pier areas along the St. Johns River. They chatted lightly and superficially in the car; M.J. was trying to keep things light and not-so-serious, and Alli was still trying to recover from the devastating compliment that M.J. had given her.

It seemed to Alli that M.J. was acting differently, somehow. She seemed to be more subdued... more laid-back, or something. Although the President had never told Alli where she and Madison had gone, Alli assumed it was to see their father. Obviously things were not well, and that was probably why M.J.’s mood was different. She wanted to ask M.J. about her father, but she didn’t know if she dared; even though their friendship had come a long way, they still weren’t at the point where they spoke about personal things. M.J. had definite boundaries, and Alli sensed that her family was off-limits.

Too bad, Alli thought, I’d like to know so much more about her.

They sat at a private table at the back of the restaurant, which afforded them a quiet place to talk. Dinner progressed much the same way as the car ride had — light and superficial. Alli did most of the talking, and most of the conversation centered around work issues. They were finished with their meal when Alli decided to take the plunge,

"So, uhm... I assumed you left to go see your father... is everything alright?" She said as gently as possible.

M.J. looked up at Alli, her blue eyes suddenly turning deep and dark with unspoken, carefully-guarded emotions. "He’s, uh... he’s hanging in there," she said, shrugging her shoulders and returning her gaze to her plate.

Alli wanted to comfort her friend and colleague, but she didn’t quite know how or where to start. She bit her lip nervously and reached her hand out to touch M.J.’s hand on the table.

"I’m so sorry, M.J.," she said quietly, "if there’s anything I can do, or... any way I can help...," Alli said, trailing off as M.J. brought her pale eyes up to her again.

M.J. was keenly aware of the delicate hand touching her own. Her eyes burned and her mind raced with sudden thoughts of the numerous carnal ways in which the little blonde could indeed *help* her.

Stop it! She scolded herself inwardly and a nervous grin twitched her lips unchecked.

"Thank you... I appreciate that," M.J. managed to say as she fought the urge to chuckle at her ridiculous, insidious thoughts. She thought she must look maniacal to Alli. She flipped her hand over and squeezed Alli’s palm into her own, smiling at her as she tried to convey her thanks a little better.

Alli tried to suppress the shudder that raced up her spine as she looked at the woman before her. The exquisite face was full of sadness, and yet M.J. tried to smile it away. The blue eyes were dark and they sparkled, perhaps with unshed tears, as they regarded Alli carefully. The intense feelings that swept through Alli’s body as M.J. held her hand and looked at her were beyond anything that had ever transpired before. Was the sudden uneasiness because of what Alli had asked her, or was it due to something else entirely? Alli wanted to reach out further and touch M.J. more; she wanted to touch that face and graze her fingers across those lips; she wanted to--

Oh god, stop it! The blonde screamed to herself. Suddenly fearful that her feelings were being blatantly displayed in her eyes, Alli pulled her hand away and slid her eyes from M.J.’s.

When M.J. spoke, her voice was thick and low, "Uhm... why don’t we go outside... it’s nice tonight, we could walk a little?"

Alli could only lick her lips nervously and nod. What was happening here?

M.J. rose and pulled Alli’s chair out for her. As they began to move through the restaurant, towards the doors, Alli felt M.J. place her hand against the small of her back. She involuntarily shivered and a deep, scorching heat raced through her entire body. M.J. continued her chivalrous manner as she opened the door and motioned Alli through, her hand again coming to rest lightly on Alli’s lower back as she followed after.

Alli was grateful to be outside in the cool air; her flushed face and racing pulse would be safe under the protection of the darkness. M.J. withdrew her hand and stuffed both of them into her pants pockets as they began to walk along the riverfront, and Alli missed the contact instantly. M.J. knew she was dancing treacherously close to a line she dare not cross, but her hands seemed to have a mind of their own whenever the blonde was near. Alli was sweet, and kind, and attractive... it was so hard not to touch her or be close to her. M.J. knew better than to let her basal desires guide her; besides, there were things she still needed to know about Allison Phillips before she could decide whether or not she wanted to press further. Things like... what was with that diploma that read ‘Riley’?

They came to stand at a particularly scenic spot; several of Jacksonville’s huge bridges spanned the St. John’s River majestically, the full moon casting a luminous glow on them and the dark water flowing beneath them. Alli leaned against the metal railing and peered out at the water, releasing a sigh aloud.

M.J. looked at her companion for a moment; the blonde hair ruffled softly in the light breeze... the unusual greenish eyes stared dreamily out at the black water... the rosebud lips wore a gentle grin. Allison was a beautiful woman... but was she gay, or what?

"So...," M.J. began as she also leaned against the railing, studying Alli’s face carefully, "why does the diploma in your office say ‘Allison Riley’?"

Alli let out a laugh, genuinely amused at M.J.’s forthrightness. She knew that M.J. had noticed it, but she didn’t think that the woman would come right out and ask her about it. She should have known better. She turned and regarded M.J. with a grin and an arched brow, "You sure don’t like to beat around the bush, do you?"

M.J. just smirked and shrugged, making no apologies. Alli bit her lower lip and looked back out at the water, "Riley is my maiden name," she said simply.

M.J. smiled, realizing that she would have to pull the information out of the blonde, "So... you were married? Or... you’re married now?"

"I was married," Alli said, still not looking at M.J., "a few years ago. It didn’t work out." She finished abruptly.

"Why not?" M.J. prodded. Why am I pushing this? She thought quickly. ...Because you want to know how she feels about *IT*, she answered herself begrudgingly.

Alli laughed again, only mildly shocked at M.J.’s bold questions. "Lots of reasons," she answered cryptically, "None of which I really feel like discussing right now... if you don’t mind," she added, finally turning to look somewhat pleadingly into M.J.’s eyes. She wasn’t angry, she just wasn’t about to go into detail about something as intensely personal as her failed marriage.

"I’m sorry — I didn’t mean to pry and be rude--"

M.J. began, but Alli cut her off and reached out to grasp M.J.’s arm, "It’s okay; I just don’t feel like getting into all that... not right now." Alli smiled gently at the taller woman, and M.J. felt some relief.

She turned to face the river, leaning her forearms against the railing and standing close enough to Alli so that their upper arms touched. Alli felt a jolt of electricity pass through her as M.J. stood close and the gentle night breeze lifted the scent of the dark beauty’s soft perfume across her face again and again.

"So what do you think of Jax, now that you’ve been here a few months? You like it here?" M.J. asked, wanting to change the subject to something lighter.

"Yeah, I like it. I think the beach is my favorite... I’ve always loved the ocean."

"Mmm, I know what you mean," M.J. agreed. "What do you do with yourself when you’re not at work?" She added, her curiosity stubbornly — or foolishly — refusing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Alli turned to look at her quizzically; M.J.’s persistence was amusing, and flattering in an odd sort of way, but she wondered what M.J. was really trying to get at.

"Have you made any friends or anything?" M.J. added since Alli hadn’t answered her.

Alli shrugged nonchalantly and turned away, "Not really. I really haven’t been here long enough yet." She tried to sound indifferent.

"Don’t you get lonely?" M.J. asked, "Or... do you not live alone?" She added craftily.

Alli grinned again and turned to her companion. She wondered why M.J. was suddenly being so personal; they had never delved into such territory before, and Alli wondered why the sudden change.

"M.J., what are you trying to get at?" Her amusement was clear on her face.

M.J. had to smile too; of course Alli would know what she was up to.

...Bugger! Stee-rike one, she mused inwardly. "I was just wondering if you lived with anyone... or anything," M.J. said with a shrug, trying to appear casual.

"Why do you want to know?" Alli said, refusing to let M.J. slip away.

"Just curious," M.J. smirked. "Just making conversation." She tried to sound extremely nonchalant... it was absolutely necessary to keep control of the situation.

"Really?" Alli smirked back.

"Yeah, really." M.J. lazily slid her eyes away from the inquisitive green ones, forcing the appearance of casual indifference.

"Curiosity killed the cat, you know." Alli quirked a light brown eyebrow at the taller woman, pleased that the serene plumage of the normally intimidating woman was ruffled, even if just slightly.

"Well the cat should have been more prudent." M.J. retorted, smirking and delivering a sharply arched brow of her own as she returned her gaze to regard Alli steadily.

"Are you always *prudent*, M.J.?" Alli persisted, enjoying the turn the conversation had taken and still refusing to let M.J. weasel her way out of the corner that Alli had somehow begun to back her into.

"I try to be." M.J. answered with a sly grin.

"Are *you* involved with anyone?" Alli fired back immediately, knocking M.J. off-guard and taking the lead.

Shit! Steee-rike two! M.J. hoped that Alli didn’t notice her slight hesitation, "N-No."

"Hmm — you don’t look too certain... are you sure?" Alli said playfully. She hadn’t missed the slight flinch before M.J. answered her. So she isn’t made of concrete after all, Alli mused with pride.

M.J. grinned again, silently acknowledging her own demise.

Steeee-rike three — you’re out! She reloaded quickly, regarding her foe with as much confidence as she could muster under the circumstances.

"I’m quite sure."

Oh thank god, Alli thought selfishly. "Well this is a shame... two single women, alone in a big, beautiful city." Alli sighed with feigned drama as she turned to look out at the dark water again. She decided to let M.J. off the hook — she didn’t think she had the courage to seriously tangle with her at the moment.

"I’m not alone." M.J. said, her smoky blue eyes coming to rest on the jade ones that slowly turned to regard her with a dark look that was a mixture of amusement and ...something else she didn’t care to ponder right then.

They stood and watched the water for a few more minutes, each of them deep in thought as to what was happening between them. The prospect of their relationship escalating frightened Alli beyond belief, but there was a niggling feeling of excitement as well. She yearned to learn more about M.J. almost as much as she yearned to jump her bones outright.

Goddd... stop it! Alli didn’t deny that she was indeed attracted to M.J. — very attracted — but what, if anything, would she do about it?

She’s my BOSS, Alli’s mind screamed to her, I can’t carry-on with my BOSS! God, if I were to come-on to her and she didn’t welcome it, she could fire my ass! Alli hated the thought, but she knew that if anyone made a move, it was going to have to be M.J. - Alli would never make the overture. It sounded pathetic, and it made her feel hideously passive and subservient, but of the two of them, M.J. was clearly the dominant one. And Alli didn’t like that. She didn’t see herself as someone who would be ‘dominated’ — not again. She remembered her vow to never be put in a corner by anyone ever again. But M.J.’s position and personality would not be changing anytime soon, so she knew that she either accepted those facts, or she walked away now.

She didn’t want to walk away.

The thing was, Alli got the feeling that even though M.J. came off as harsh and dominating, she wasn’t really like that underneath it all. She remembered back to all the intense looks and the occasional unspoken emotion that flashed across those brilliant, crystalline eyes. The woman was really quite masterful at hiding her feelings and staying detached from everyone and everything, but Alli knew that there was so much more to the tall beauty than that.

Like tonight, when Alli inquired about her father — the sadness was evident in her eyes, but M.J. covered it up skillfully and somehow managed not to go into detail about anything. She was a pro at skirting issues, and she had a definite knack for manipulating conversations and turning tables to her advantage. Her intellect was keen and her wit sharp — and all of it was designed to keep the outside world at bay. And she did it successfully. But all that was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to M.J. Whitton. Alli didn’t know how she knew all this; she just knew that she *knew*. The fact that M.J. hid herself so well didn’t really bother Alli, because she was beginning to suspect that it was merely a survival tactic for M.J.

M.J. was a diverse combination of so many things. She was aggressive and bold, and she was introverted and quiet; she was witty and intelligent, and she was sad and vulnerable. All these traits manifested themselves into a complex, complicated person that hid from everyone beneath a nearly impenetrable armor of the thickest steel. M.J. hid herself because she had to in order to survive - not because she wanted to toy with Alli. This, Alli surmised, was why she wasn’t *really* afraid of M.J.’s ‘dominance’ — she knew it wasn’t what was at the core of M.J. Whitton. She knew there was something tender and gentle lying beneath the course exterior. Again, she didn’t know how she knew this, but she would bet her life on it.

"Ready to head back?" M.J. finally said, breaking the silence and pulling Alli from her deep thoughts. Alli simply nodded and they began walking back toward the car.

They strolled casually and close together, their arms brushing and touching often. The contact was maddening to both of them, yet they seemed to unconsciously insist on staying close to one another.

M.J.’s mind raced in a myriad of thoughts and questions. She’d gotten some of her questions answered, but the answers she received only served to deepen her curiosity more. She wanted to know everything about Allison, inside and out. Why she suddenly felt this way, she didn’t know. Well... she might know, but she wasn’t about to delve into that minefield. As they continued to walk, M.J. acknowledged that the petite little thing beside her had undeniably begun to worm her way into her heart.

She never, in her wildest dreams, thought that someone would really ‘get’ to her, and she never thought that she would actually allow it to happen. Now she found herself not only allowing it, but welcoming it. The realization that Alli was indeed breaking down the outer walls of her barriers caused a slight swell of panic to arise in the back of M.J.’s mind. The only thing that kept her calm was the fact that they had not done anything that couldn’t be undone. They hadn’t acted improperly, and they hadn’t crossed any forbidden boundaries; they were still treading on ‘safe’ territory.

...But for how long? M.J.’s mind queried.

The urge to touch Alli and be more demonstrative was strong, and M.J. knew that she had unconsciously faltered a few times already. It was disquieting to M.J., to say the least, to know that her subconscious was making decisions without first consulting her brain. She resolutely vowed to keep herself more in check in the future... but it would be difficult. The boundary lines still existed, but they were beginning to blur more and more.


end ch.’s 14 - 18

Return to the Academy