(Turning Tides, cont’d.)


"This is the last time, that I'm ever gonna give in tonight;
Are there angels or devils crawling here?
I just wanna know what blurs and what is clear to see;
But I can see the pain in you,
And I can see the love in you,
And fighting all the demons will take time... it will take time.
The angels they burn inside for us,
And are we ever, are we ever gonna learn to fly?
The devils they burn inside of us,
And are we ever gonna come back down, come around?
I'm always gonna worry 'bout the things that could break us." - Dishwalla




Friday morning dawned cold, gray and rainy, Mother Nature appropriately keeping with the unspoken tradition of supplying dreary, miserable weather for a day filled with reflection and rumination about death, dying, and pondering one's own vulnerability and mortality.

M.J. awoke early, her mind filled with thoughts of her father's viewing, which would be held in the evening. Despite her best efforts to sleep late, her restless mind had her rising with the roosters. She seemed to have a constant headache, despite the fact that she still hadn't cried nor lost control. She idly wondered if there was something wrong with her, or was her mind just holding it all in until a later time, when she could be alone with her misery, like always? Shaking the thoughts out of her mind, M.J. slipped her robe on and ventured to the kitchen to make coffee, but when she reached the staircase, the smell of Colombian brew tickled her nose, and she realized that someone had beaten her to it. Apparently she wasn't the only restless soul in this house.

She entered the kitchen to find Virginia sitting at the center table, a coffee cup in one hand and a large manila envelope in front of her. M.J. almost turned around and headed back upstairs, but before her feet could move, Ginny turned her head and saw her.

"Good mornin', dear," she said quietly in her southern lilt.

"'Morning," M.J. managed to mumble in return as she headed toward the cupboard to retrieve a mug. She had the distinct feeling that Ginny was watching her like a hawk as she poured her coffee and added the milk and sugar. Not in the mood for being dissected behind her back, M.J. turned to face her stepmother, leaning back against the countertop while she sipped her brew and eyeballed the older woman carefully.

Ginny cleared her throat, "You know, Morgan...," she started hesitantly, her fingers working nervously as they spun her coffee cup around in circles.

Oh Christ, here we go, M.J. thought with an internal eye-roll.

"I know you and I haven't always... 'gotten along' very well...," She trailed off, shooting M.J. a small, contrite smile. M.J. said nothing and kept her face perfectly blank; wherever this was headed, she was certain she wasn't going to like it. She just kept her eyes trained on Ginny's haggard, drawn face.

"And now that Mar- ...now that your *father* is gone, I suppose we won't have to pretend to put up with each other any longer." She looked at M.J. and gave a slight smirk, hoping for some kind of friendly, or perhaps even truce-like, reaction from Mark's eldest daughter; but instead she found only cool, blue indifference. She supposed she shouldn't be surprised.

"Well, anyway," she reached for the manila envelope, "your father wanted you and Madison to have these." She held the envelope out to M.J., who stepped forward slowly and took the envelope out of her hand. "His attorney has other documents and papers that need your signatures, but he wanted me to give these to the two of you in private." Her words were ominous and cryptic. M.J. frowned at her and reached down into the envelope to pull out two smaller envelopes. They were labeled in her father's scratchy handwriting, one reading 'Morgan Juliette', and the other one 'Madison Elizabeth'.

"Y'all can read them whenever you like, I s'pose." Virginia said as she stood up. M.J.'s eyes met her stepmother's and they looked long and hard at one another for a moment.

Ginny pursed her lips and spoke quietly, "He loved you, you know... and he was proud of you. He wasn't good at showin' it... but he felt it." She gave M.J. a sad half-smile, then turned and walked out of the kitchen, leaving M.J. alone holding, apparently, her father's final thoughts.


Weak sunlight streamed in the window of M.J.'s temporary bedroom as she stood dressing herself in the classic black, pin-striped suit she had decided to wear for her father's funeral. Today was the day they would bury his body and lay his soul to rest. Last night's viewing had gone surprisingly smooth with only a few relatives and friends getting hysterical and blubbering out of control. Virginia cried on and off throughout the evening, but M.J. and Maddy had somehow remained rather composed and in control.

The worst part, in M.J.'s opinion, was talking and 'visiting' with relatives and family friends whom she hadn't seen for years. If she had a dollar for every person who asked her where her husband was, or commented on how surprised they were that she'd grown up to be such a *loovvely* woman, she'd have a nice wad of bills in her pocket. Everyone knew she was a black-sheep - she always had been - and she liked it that way. She intentionally hadn't kept in touch with anyone from her childhood, unlike Madison, and seeing her relatives and enduring their vapid, redundant comments was torturous. The only spark of satisfaction she had all evening was when she got to tell people, with a subtle gleam in her eye, that she had never been married and intended to keep it that way. The puzzled, sometimes horrified looks on their faces was almost worth the price of putting up with their insipid inquiries. People could be so fucking stupid sometimes; she would have laughed if it wouldn't have been viewed as completely inappropriate.

She checked her look in the mirror as she fiddled with the collar of her shirt. They had to be at the funeral home in a few hours to have the final viewing and then start the procession to the church. Unable to sleep again, she arose early to prepare for the events of the day, even though she was absolutely dreading it. She knew she had to hold it together just a little while longer, but it would be a challenge. This entire drama was turning out to be more of a challenge that she ever dreamed. There were so many thoughts and emotions whirling inside her head, she felt like she was on a never-ending roller-coaster ride.

The primary reason for her restlessness last night was, she knew, due to the surprising letter from her father. Shifting her gaze from the mirror, she spied the rumpled papers lying open atop the dresser, where she'd left them late last night.

Never in her wildest dreams did M.J. think that Mark Whitton would write such a candid, heart-wrenching narrative to his daughters, especially her. In fact, she wouldn't be surprised at all to find that someone else wrote the eloquent, touching words for him. However, the entire document was hand-written in her father's distinct scrawl, and he referred to things that M.J. knew no one else was privy to, so she deemed that it had to be his genuine thoughts. She felt a tad guilty for doubting her father, but, she reasoned, something like this was just too astonishing to be taken at simple face value.

The letter didn't cover any one topic specifically; it was mostly just her father telling her all the things he could never say to her. She recalled his words, "...I'm ashamed that I have to write these words down; I'm sorry that I was too cowardly to tell you, to your face, how I felt." Staring at the disturbing document, she reached out to pick it up again, skimming over some of the other words and sentences that she knew would haunt her for many years to come...

"...Once upon a time, you were my precious little girl... I don't know when things changed, only that they did, and I blame myself..."

"...It is far too late for me to go back and try to correct the mistakes and the things that I did, or did not do... things that I said, or did not say... the 101 ways in which I probably hurt you, whether deliberately or through my own selfishness and stupidity..."

"...I believe that it is never too late to admit that you are wrong or say that you are sorry... and I need to say both these things to you, Morgan..."

"...I have always been a proud and cautious man who could not demonstrate my emotions easily... I suppose it is your misfortune, as well as mine, that you took after me in that regard..."

"...Over the years I have watched you grow into a beautiful, strong, intelligent woman... and even though I never told you, I cannot express to you, even through these words, how incredibly proud you have made me..."

"...I see a painful sadness and an emptiness inside you that breaks my heart... you have so much to offer... please don't waste your life caging your heart and withholding your feelings like I did. You will surely regret it one day, as I do now..."

"...I wish that I could take back all the wrong I've done and make it right. But I cannot. It is too late for me now. It is too late for me, but it is not too late for you, Morgan..."

"...You must let your heart be open. Do not be afraid to love and be loved in return. This is my dying wish for you... I do so love you, my precious daughter..."

M.J. placed the letter back on the dresser, her trembling hands unable to hold it any longer. She swiped at the moisture that had gathered in her eyes and rubbed her face, looking at her reflection in the mirror again.

Why now, Dad? Why torture me with this brutal honesty now? She thought to herself.

A knock on the door startled her, and she turned to see Madison peeping her head in, her face looking drawn and pale without her usual make-up.

"Hey," the younger Whitton greeted softly while entering the room. She was still dressed in her robe, obviously not feeling the urge to get ready yet.

"Hey." M.J. answered, taking-in the weary countenance of her younger sister. She briefly wondered if she looked as bad.

"Why are you getting dressed already?" Madison asked, observing M.J.'s state of partial-dress as she sat down on the edge of the bed.

"I dunno... nothing better to do." M.J. answered with an indifferent shrug as she picked up a hairbrush and began to run it through her long, freshly-washed locks.

Madison sat and silently watched M.J. for a moment. She was suddenly overcome with a distinct feeling of deja vu, as though she were transported back in time 15 or 20 years... the scenario in the bedroom was suddenly so familiar and comfortable. She watched M.J. with melancholic fascination, wondering when and how she had lost touch with her beloved big sister. They had been so close to each other when they were young, but as they grew older, M.J. seemed to retreat emotionally, drifting further and further away. It always troubled Madison, and she still struggled to understand why her sibling was so distant.

"Did you read the letter?" She asked suddenly, breaking the silence with a referral to the mysterious documents Ginny had given them the day before. Madison had been deeply moved by the letter, and she wanted to know how it had affected her seemingly-stoic sister.

"Yeah... I read it." M.J. responded succinctly as she continued to brush her hair and gaze into the mirror. She knew that Maddy would want to talk about the letters, but she didn't feel like getting into it now. It had upset her greatly, as her fitful sleep proved, and she was still trying to digest all the information. She felt exposed and angry, and she wasn't sure she was up to discussing her feelings just yet... or ever.

"It's hard to believe, isn't it?" Madison said, oblivious to her sister's quiet quandary as she turned to look wistfully out the window.

"Which part?" M.J. quipped, her voice tinged with some of the anger that she still harbored.

"I dunno... all of it, I suppose." Maddy shrugged. "I can't believe he even wrote us letters, let alone saying all the things he said about-"

M.J. cut her off, "You should get ready to go. We have to be there in a few hours."

Madison turned back to her sister sharply, "Why do you always do that?" She demanded with a huff.

"Do what?" M.J. answered defensively.

"As soon as something intense or personal is brought up, you cut me off and shut down." Madison said with stormy, accusing gray eyes.

Emotions had been in high-gear for several days, and M.J. knew they were both stressed and feeling extremely volatile. For this very reason, she did *not* want to discuss the letters.

She drew a deep breath, replacing the hairbrush on the dresser. "Look, Maddy...," M.J. began as she turned and walked over to sit next to her sister, "I just don't wanna get into this right now, okay?" M.J. implored, sounding uncharacteristically gentle.

"You *never* want to 'get into' it, Morgan. You never *talk* to me!" Madison insisted, looking deeply into her sister's cryptic light blue orbs. She wasn't fooled by the older woman's falsely pacifying tone; M.J. was a master at manipulation... but she was tired of being held at arm's length.

M.J. sighed and rolled her eyes slightly, "Maddyyy...," she drawled.

"It's true, and you know it! You always use your temper and anger as an excuse to avoid talking about things!" She paused for a moment. "You don't trust me, Morgan. You say you do, but you don't... not really."

Her father's words echoing in her head, M.J. stood up quickly, stepping toward the door, "What do you want me to 'talk' about, Maddy? Huh?" She spun around to face her sister, exasperation clearly written on her tired face. Madison was obviously going to push her about this, so she quickly loaded her guns for battle.

"Anything! ...Everything!" Madison said, motioning with her hands. "I know you're upset! I know you're angry! Talk to me! Tell me how you *feel*, dammit!"

"Fine! You want me to tell you how pissed-off I am that our father had to *write* his feelings down because he was too much of a fucking *coward* to tell us to our faces? Fine - I'll tell you that!" M.J. shouted angrily at Madison, waving her arms. "You want me to tell you how flabbergasted and betrayed I felt to find out that he knew he was ill for almost *ten* years, but never bothered to tell us the truth? How he intentionally *lured* the two of us to come work for him, because he knew he wouldn't be around for long, and he wanted to stick us with his responsibilities?!"

Madison sat very still and let M.J. lash out, but as the older woman vented her fury, her face began to change. The look of intense, fiery anger began to give way to sadness and frustration. M.J.'s arms finally stilled by her sides and she brought a hand up to press at the insistent pounding that had begun to invade her forehead.

She continued in a quieter tone, "Do you want to hear how much it hurt me... to have my father tell me - no, *apologize* to me - for having to write down that he loved me... because he just couldn't bring himself to say it to my face...?" She looked at Madison with a distressed frown, her pale eyes at last revealing the disbelief, hurt and grief that the younger woman knew existed inside somewhere.

"There... are you happy now?" M.J. asked quietly, her eyes full of defeat and sorrow.

"Well... it's a good start, but it's not nearly enough." Madison said gently, giving her older sister a sincere look.

M.J. huffed aloud, "No, *of course* it's not enough for you, but it's all you're getting! Now we have to get ready to *go*." M.J. snapped, turning to fetch her shoes out of the closet while immediately slamming the door to her emotions shut. Madison could almost feel the jar of the inner steel and concrete.

"God you are *exactly* like him... you know that?!" Madison shot back. She was on the verge of something important here; she had tapped into her sister's elusive vault of feelings, and - although she knew she was treading on thin ice - she didn't want to back away just yet.

M.J. stiffened slightly at her sister's harsh words; she knew that Maddy had no idea of the impact they made on her at this particular moment. She clamped down on the sharp retort that danced on her tongue and kept her back to the younger woman while slipping her shoes on.

"You never tell anyone how you feel... what you think... you keep it all inside... always unspoken... always a secret... always caged in and locked up tight." Maddy ventured. "What I don't understand is how you can keep it all bottled up like that. I mean, don't you ever feel like you're going to explode?" She received no reaction from the taller figure. "You don't have a serious lover... you don't have a close friend... you only have me, and you never talk to me, so I can't help but wonder how you keep from wanting to scream and let everything out?" Maddy asked, trying her best to bait and hook her sibling.

M.J. finally turned and regarded her sister with a dark look and a small smirk, "Who says I never scream?" She retorted, then walked back to her dresser to calmly resume brushing her hair.

Madison sat and glared at M.J. for a moment, wanting to scream herself, but holding her tongue. If she was going to turn the tide and break through the tough, final barrier of ice that stubbornly surrounded M.J.'s innermost emotions, she was going to have to hit below the belt and fight dirty.

"Y'know... what I'd *really* like is for you to talk to me about Allison." She dropped her stealth bomb with quiet seriousness.

M.J. turned around slowly to face her sister, fixing her with a cold, glacial glare. "*No*... there is *no* fucking way we're getting into *that*... NO way!" She asserted, holding a hand out and waving a finger to stress her warning.

"Why NOT!?" Madison persisted, deciding to risk it all and go for broke. M.J. turned her back, completely ignoring her again. "I know something is still going on with you two... I can sense it."

M.J. stayed silent, brushing her hair rather harshly now.

"Why won't you *talk* to me about it, Morgan?" Madison implored softly as she got up off the bed and came to stand behind her sister's stiff, unyielding form.

The older woman still did not answer her, but instead of giving up, Maddy chose to push the envelope even further. "Are you just playing around with her, or is it more than that?"

M.J.'s countenance remained quiet and cold.

"Are you... in love with her?" Madison prodded softly with much trepidation.

M.J. completely froze, her body taut and rigid. "Madison... *DON'T*," she warned through clenched teeth, her voice low and threatening.

"Don't what?" Madison insisted.

"Don't *START*... I *DON'T* want to discuss this... not now!"

The anger was coming off M.J.'s body in waves, but still Maddy forged on, "You *have* to discuss it Morgan! You *have* to deal with it! ...Unless you just plan on having illicit little trysts with her forever and ever?!" The younger woman suggested sarcastically, but it got no verbal reaction from her sibling.

She wasn't sure how she knew that M.J. and Allison were screwing around still... again... whatever - she just knew. Between her sister's strange behavior and Alli's perpetual look of embarrassment every time they met, Madison's suspicions had been aroused for some time. And now, M.J.'s tightly clenched fists and lack of denial to the loaded statement she just made provided her with all the confirmation she needed.

"Morgan... do you *want* to be like our father? Unwilling to be honest and forthcoming, even with family and people you love? I mean, you said it yourself - he was a coward. Is that what you want for yourself?"

Still no answer; M.J. merely stood stock-still with her eyes closed, wishing a hole would open up in the floor and swallow her.

Madison, on the other hand, wished she had a hammer, or a sledgehammer; she wanted to wallop her big sister upside the head. "Aren't you tired of being alone all the time?" Madison daringly continued to prod, "Don't you get *tired* of having no one but yourself, day after day, night after *night*?"

M.J.'s back stiffened and she drew a sharp breath through clenched teeth. "You get used to it." She finally answered tersely. "You get used to a lot of things when you know you have to."

Maddy shook her head slowly, staring at her sister in sad amazement. "But that's just my point... you *don't* 'have to'." M.J. again said nothing, and Maddy took a step closer to her sister's tense figure. "What are you so afraid of, Morgan?" She asked softly.

"I'm not afraid!" M.J. shot back, turning to face Madison, her light blue eyes swirling with a mixture of anger and emotional turmoil. She was teetering on the brink.

"Bullshit. You're scared. You're scared shitless. Why?!" M.J. clenched her jaw tight; she refused to get into this, but Maddy continued, "Are you scared because you feel something *real* for Alli?"

M.J. closed her eyes, remaining silent. Shut up Maddy, just shut the fuck UP!

Again Madison persevered, "Do you think you might be in love with her?"

Eyelids squeezed together even tighter as M.J. gritted her teeth almost painfully. ...Shut up shut up shut up shut UP!

..."Morgan?" Maddy persisted.

"*WHAT*!?" M.J. finally exploded, her eyes flying open to pin her tenacious younger sister with blazing fury.

"Are you in LOVE with Allison!?" Maddy demanded, staunchly refusing to give in or be intimidated.

"YES! Okay?! *YES*!" M.J. shouted, throwing her arms out wide, the terror and strain of the conversation finally causing her to erupt with truthfulness. "Are you *SATISFIED* now?! Is THAT what you wanted to HEAR?!"

Maddy took a small step backwards, the force of her sister's words catching her off-balance, literally. She could only stand and stare in open-mouthed shock. Even though she already suspected what M.J.'s feelings were, to hear her actually give them voice was astonishing.

"What ELSE do you want to hear, Maddy? Huh?! How miserable I am?! That I'm in *agony*?! That I can't stop *thinking* about her... that I can't stop the memories of... what she sounds like, and feels like, and smells like...?!" M.J. was nearly shaking from the magnitude of emotions that coursed through her body. Tears threatened and welled painfully in her eyes, and she had to fight hard against their escape.

"Do you want to hear how... every time I close my eyes... all I can picture is her face...?" M.J. finished in a quiet, quavering voice filled with heart-felt agony. She lost the battle of the tears as the salty droplets leaked out from beneath dark lashes to trickle down her cheeks. She quickly brought a hand up to cover her face, ashamed at her outburst and embarrassed at her uncharacteristic loss of composure.

Maddy remained in stunned silence for a few moments, looking at M.J. as she stood with her shoulders slumped, holding her head in tremulous hands. She finally reached out to touch the older woman's shoulder gingerly, "Morgan... all those things should be wonderful things... why won't you let it be wonderful? Why are you so scared of being in love with her?"

"I'm not scared!" M.J. insisted stubbornly.

"Morgan...this is ME you're talking to here," Maddy reminded her, "do you think I don't know you at all? Do you think I can't *see* anything?" She added, bringing herself to stand right in front of M.J. "Why is it so frightening for you to be in love with someone?" Madison asked, her voice soft and placating. "...Why?"

"BECAUSE!" M.J. yelled out, pushing away and out of Maddy's grip. The younger woman stood and waited patiently. "I feel so... out of control when I'm around her, and yet... I can't stay away from her! ...I can't *stop*!" M.J. spoke hesitantly, tears of frustration continuing to fill and burn her murky blue depths. "I think about her *constantly*! ...I feel like I'm losing my fucking mind!" She choked out, her face twisting as she swiped the heels of her hands across her rebellious eyes.

Watching the tears course down M.J.'s face was like watching a block of ice melt. Madison hesitantly stepped forward again and slipped her arms around her big sister's waist, hugging her tight and offering her support. This was the only time she'd ever seen M.J. lose it in such an explosive, emotional way, and it was one of the very few times the older woman had let herself be held close and comforted.

Perhaps a turning tide brings with it a great fear of being pulled under?

They were quiet for awhile until Maddy pulled back and spoke, "You're not losing your mind, Morgan... you're just in *love* with her."

"But I *can't* be in love with her, Maddy! I *CAN'T*! ...Don't you understand?!" Madison looked at her with furrowed brows, not understanding at all. M.J. shook her head, "I didn't want this to just be some stupid, casual fling - I didn't want that for her... not for her. She doesn't deserve that!"

Madison shrugged and turned her hands palm-up, "So, don't let it be *that*...?!" She said - it made perfect sense to her; what was the problem?

"I *can't*!"

"Why NOT?!"

"I don't want to *NEED* her, okay?!" M.J. yelled, motioning forcefully with her hands as Madison looked at her in utter confusion. "I don't want her to need *ME*!" More angry tears streamed from sky-blue pools and M.J. pressed a hand to her forehead. "I don't want to have to live up to anyone's expectations only to fall short - I've had *enough* of that in my lifetime!" Madison silently continued to furrow her brows as comprehension slowly began to dawn.

"I don't want to put all my feelings on the line... I don't want to think about what'll happen when she eventually realizes that what we have between us isn't *good* enough anymore... or that it isn't what she wants... or that *I'M* not what she wants!" M.J. emphasized, touching her hand to her chest.

Ah... now we're getting to the heart of the matter, Madison thought at last.

"I don't want to open myself up for that kind of devastation... not again. I couldn't take that again!" M.J. finished, her voice hitching and her eyes closing as more tears escaped down her cheeks.

Madison stayed silent for a few moments as she contemplated what to say. M.J. had only ever hinted at what had happened to her during those two years, so long ago, when she took off and dropped out of sight. When she finally did return home, she was a completely different person. Maddy knew that she had been involved with a woman, and that something had gone terribly wrong, but M.J. never divulged any details to her. It happened so many years ago, but could that be the problem with her cold, aloof, loveless sister? Could the pain from those two tragic years still resonate within her?

"Morgan...," Madison ventured ever so softly, "what happened between you and that Carly woman all those years ago?" She knew she might lose her head by asking, but she had a feeling that M.J.'s problems had everything to do with the mysterious stranger her sister had lived with.

M.J. looked up, confusion and shock on her face, "What?"

"You heard me." Madison ignored M.J.'s incredulous look, "I know she hurt you - that much is obvious - but what did she do to make you *so* cold-hearted and unwilling to give yourself to anyone ever again?"

M.J. gave a soft snort, wiping her hands across her traitorous eyes, "Yeah, she hurt me - isn't that enough?"

"There's more to it than that. Whatever she did, she did a fabulous job, because you're miserable. You have been ever since that time. I think I only *truly* realized that just now...," Madison added thoughtfully.

"God Maddy! Shut UP, *PLEASE*!?" M.J. interrupted, bringing her hands to her face again, this time to rub her temples in a desperate attempt to escape the headache that was now in full bloom inside her skull.

"No! Tell me what happened! Tell me what she did that was *so* horrible, you can't have a *normal* fucking relationship with *anyone*!" Madison yelled, determined to break through her sister's scar-toughened heart. Even if M.J. decked her, it'd be worth it to solve the mystery.

"She *BROKE* my fucking *HEART*, alright!?" M.J. exclaimed loudly, throwing her hands out. "I thought that I was in love with her, and I gave her *EVERYthing*! Every bit of my money, every bit of myself! Even when she told me that she couldn't return any of it, I fucking kept on giving ANYway!" Her eyes spit blue venom and the veins in her neck stood out starkly as she yelled and took her anger out on her younger sister. "I gave and gave, and she took and took! And then one day, she decided that it wasn't good enough anymore. That *I* wasn't good enough! And she DITCHED me!" M.J.'s strength faded quickly, her waving arms stilling and her shoulders sagging in sudden, rapid defeat. "I trusted her, and she took my heart and my soul, and she tore them to fucking *shreds*." She finished weakly, plopping down on the side of the bed and holding her head in her hands again.

Madison was stunned, despite the fact that she already had an idea of what had happened. To hear M.J. tell the story and obviously be so hurt by it, still, cleared up many things in the younger woman's mind. She wanted to reassure her big sister, but what could she say to soothe such pain? Just as M.J. wasn't very good at bearing her soul, Madison feared she wasn't very good at easing it.

She hesitated for a few moments before she spoke again, "Morgan... I don't think that Alli *expects* anything from you." She continued carefully, "I think she'd accept you just the way you are. Hell, she's proven that she'll take whatever you're willing to give, hasn't she?" She added, then paused when M.J. began to shake her head.

"No, she wants more... she needs more - I know she does." M.J. said, recalling how Alli begged her to come home with her.

"Well she needs more than just *sex*, yes! ...She probably wants to be *closer* to you... that's to be expected." Madison offered gently. She couldn't believe her sister could be so clueless when it came to matters of the heart; but then again, M.J. hadn't allowed herself to feel anything for anyone in such a long time, this was like new territory for her.

"Morgan... there's nothing wrong with someone wanting and needing to be close to you, and there's nothing wrong with you wanting and needing them back. That's part of what being in love is about... reciprocation." Maddy reasoned softly. "You have to open yourself up completely and take the chance again, or else you're never going to find ANYone, *ever*." She walked over and sat down beside her older sibling, resting a hand on her arm. "You have to tell Alli how you feel... You have to *talk* to her."

M.J. sat silently for a long moment as she contemplated her younger sister's gentle, and surprisingly rational words. "I don't know, Maddy." She finally said, sniffling and looking up at her sister with red-rimmed eyes, "I just don't know if I can do that."

Madison squeezed M.J.'s arm, "I think you can. And I think you *should*."

To that, M.J. said nothing; she just paused thoughtfully for a moment, then rose up off the bed, sighing deeply before she opened the bedroom door and walked out, leaving her sister behind in uncertain silence.

Madison understood now what M.J.'s fears really were, but she didn't know if she had comforted her at all. If M.J. harbored such doubt about her own feelings, what could she do to help that? She was amazed at the older woman's hesitation and lack of confidence in herself. It was quite shocking, to say the least, to see her usually arrogant, domineering, self-assured sibling cowering in the face of something as seemingly simple and harmless as mere love.

But then again... sometimes love can cause plenty of harm, even to the most iron-clad hearts.



"Dying is easy,

It's living that scares me to death; I could be so content,

Hearing the sound of your breath; Cold is the color of crystal, The snow-light that falls from the heavenly skies; Catch me and let me dive under,

For I want to swim in the pools of your eyes." - A. Lennox




The extended Whitton and Calhoun clan stood in the somber, heavily-curtained viewing area of the funeral parlor. The classically tacky tones of eerie organ-muzak played quietly in the background while people talked in hushed voices and took turns crying and gazing upon the still form of Mark J. Whitton one last time. Oodles of various flower arrangements were crowded around the casket, many of which were from employees of and/or business associates related to Whitton, Inc. Mark was well-known and respected by many people, and it showed.

M.J. had been leaning against a wall near the back of the room, staring blankly in the direction of her father's casket, her arms crossed, her face stony but pensive. To the casual observer, she looked like a typical griever, lost in deep contemplation over the man everyone was here to mourn. It wasn't that she was lacking deep thoughts about her deceased father - she wasn't - it was just that most of her mind was preoccupied with vivid memories of her earlier argument with her sister. And she wasn't really angry with Maddy either; she was just upset that the 'discussion' had taken place here and now, of all times. Still, she had been avoiding Madison since then, making it obvious that she was unhappy about it.

Madison rarely forced issues with her older, head-strong sibling - especially ones of such epic proportions, as this one had turned out to be - but this morning she had dared to wage a battle, and she had won... in a way. She had gotten M.J. to admit, aloud, to things she had successfully concealed and denied for a very long time. M.J. couldn't help but be distressed by it. Perhaps the death of her father and his disturbing letter had made her especially vulnerable to attack and breakdown... she didn't know. All she knew was that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, and now Madison knew everything. She felt strangely exposed and denuded, as though her protective armor had been stripped away, leaving her open and susceptible to further attacks. It was a most unsettling feeling for the former Queen of Denial and Master Manipulator.

"Hey." The sudden voice so close to her made M.J. flinch visibly. She turned to see Madison's soft gray eyes looking at her with concern. "You okay?"

"Yeah... fine." M.J. murmured dismissively with a slight nod.

"It's time to get going. They want us up front to close the casket."

"Right." M.J. drew a deep breath and released it uneasily as she and Madison walked to the front of the room, where they would say their final goodbyes to their father.


For some reason, the funeral procession and graveside service always seemed to be the blackest, most depressing moment of a burial. M.J. and Madison, along with Maddy's husband, Doug, were placed in a car behind Virginia and Raiford, who followed the long, old-fashioned hearse to the grave site. They rode in their big black Cadillac in silence, feeling like some kind of warped royal family traveling in a ghoulish, circus side-show parade.

Madison and Doug had decided to leave Lizzie at home with Doug's parents, and Doug had arrived late in the morning to be with Madison. Virginia's sister, Rose, was there of course, and even Ray's current girlfriend-slash-tramp had shown up. M.J. seemed to be the only one without an escort, and, surprisingly, it bothered her a little. Who would have ever thought she'd be wishing for a 'funeral date'?

The graveside service itself was monotone and morose, and the sniffles and sobs of numerous people could be heard above the reverend's prayers and attempted words of comfort. It was becoming a vicious cycle; bouts of turmoil and tears punctuated with periods of silence and remembrance.

M.J. sat between Madison and Virginia in one of the stiff folding chairs which flanked the casket, feeling very much like they were all on display. It was awkward and uncomfortable, and the elderly, austere reverend kept looking at her, as though he couldn't understand why she wasn't crying like everyone else.

Virginia had decided to have the Army Reserve servicemen perform their little military ceremony as well, and even though they all knew the gun salute was coming, the sharp crack of the rifle shots still made everyone jump. When the lone trumpeter began playing 'Taps', Madison finally lost it. She wasn't sure what set her off; it wasn't anything specific, really... just the culmination of everything hitting her at that particular moment, perhaps. Maybe 'Taps' was just symbolically sad.

M.J. ventured a glance over to her younger sister, hating the sound of her piteous sobs. She reached a hand over and it was immediately grasped and squeezed tight. She would have remained just fine and perfectly in control had Maddy not then brought the hand up to her mouth and pressed it to her trembling lips. For some reason, that did it for M.J. Something let loose inside her chest, and the tears burst forth like a ruptured dam. Madison dropped her hand and both sisters simultaneously moved together, sliding their arms around each other, holding one another in a comforting embrace of support and consolation.


After the service was over and everyone began to scatter, M.J. walked away from the burial, needing to be alone with her thoughts and regain her composure. Even though it was edging toward the summer season, the temperature outdoors was surprisingly cold, and M.J. tugged her trench coat tightly around her tall frame to ward off the chill.

The blustery, insistent wind kept whipping her long hair to and fro as she walked down narrow stone pathways, observing how serene and tranquil the cemetery was. She wasn't afraid of graveyards, but she certainly didn't like them either. All the carefully-spaced rows of old, chunky stones protruding bluntly up out of the grass, announcing to visitors that someone's corpse was decaying in a ridiculously expensive box deep below... all the bizarre statues and rough-hewn monoliths with their dates and corny sentiments and sad messages of lament etched into the smooth surfaces. It all seemed so pointless and ironic. How could such a place be seen as 'peaceful' when it served as nothing but a painful, visible reminder that these people were truly dead and gone forever?

Madison's voice in the distance as it called to her shook M.J. from her morbid ruminations. She turned to see her younger sister waving to her, beckoning her back to the land of the living. It was time to go... and she was so very relieved.


The Whitton daughters stayed in Pennsylvania for another week after their father's funeral. They attended meetings with their father's lawyers to clear up and finalize numerous legal issues... there were meetings with investment and financial advisors and insurance paperwork that had to be dealt with... there were real estate transactions that needed to be taken care of... all of it boggled the girls' minds - even Madison, who figured she'd have a good handle on it. By the time they left to return to their normal homes and lives, they felt utterly brain-dead.

As they cruised high above the earth in the big silver bird that carried them homeward, Madison glanced over to sneak a peek at her older sibling. The strong, silent face was slightly pensive as it rested on a fisted hand, and the pale blue eyes were tired and glassy as they gazed out at the thin, cottony threads of passing clouds.

Since the day of the funeral, they'd spoken very little about the big 'discussion' they had regarding the revelation of M.J.'s feelings; however, Madison had the distinct impression that the big explosion had altered something inside her frozen sibling. M.J. wasn't hiding the fact that she was upset, like she used to. She was obviously melancholic and sad, and she openly told Madison how she felt when asked. She was also more forthright with her displays of affection and support. Perhaps it was just due to the emotional stresses and strains, but ever since the 'discussion', Madison was certain that M.J. was different. She talked to her more, she touched her more... she seemed more 'open'. M.J. was never an affectionate or demonstrative type, even with her, and Maddy couldn't help but think that, no matter what it was that caused the change, it was a good thing.

Looking down at their hands linked together and lying in her lap, Madison smiled, Yes... a good thing indeed.



"Daylight licked me into shape, I must have been asleep for days,

And moving lips to breathe her name, I opened up my eyes;

And found myself alone, alone... alone above a raging sea,

That stole the only girl I loved, and drowned her deep inside of me;

You... soft and only, You... lost and lonely, You... just like Heaven." - The Cure




It was around 5:00 p.m., and M.J. was going bonkers. She had arrived home two days ago, spending nearly all her time since then wading through telephone messages and flowers and letters and cards of condolence from people she didn't know and never even heard of. She appreciated the sentiments and thoughts, she really did, but right now all she wanted to do was get back to her usual routine and return things to the way they used to be. She didn't want to write back to anyone, she didn't want to return phone calls or talk to anybody. She didn't want pity, or sympathy, or people's stupid sentiments popping up all the time, constantly reminding her that her father was gone. It was painful enough as it was. She just wanted some semblance of normalcy... she just wanted her life back.

Dealing with the mess at home made her think of the mess that awaited her at the office. She wasn't really looking forward to work, and she'd put off her 'official' return until Monday morning. But now she was having second thoughts. She was bored, and, she reluctantly admitted, she was lonely too. Madison had mentioned that she would probably stop by her own office today, and M.J. suddenly felt a small pang in her heart.

It had only been two days, but she missed the comfort of her sister's presence. If she hurried, she might be able to catch Maddy at the office and see how she was coping. Even though it's Friday, I could check out my office tonight and get a head start on things before people start hounding me first thing Monday morning. She reasoned, trying to justify it as much as possible. But she knew she was just kidding herself.

Looo-ser. She thought with a shake of her head and a roll of her eyes.

Sighing and running a hand through her hair, she debated with herself for only a few seconds before giving up the fight and heading toward her garage.


Allison breathed out a deep sigh of relief when she reached the elevator and the doors whooshed shut quietly behind her. She leaned back, tilting her head up and resting back against the wall as the car began its downward journey. It had been a long, tedious day, but she'd gotten a lot accomplished.

She officially had five days left at Whitton, Inc., and although she knew she could easily kick back and not expend any additional energy whatsoever, she wanted to leave graciously and on good terms, with all her assignments completed and everything in neat order. She was conscientious, perhaps to a fault, but it was just her way. Besides, her leaving was surrounded by some suspicion and whispered rumors; she figured she should avoid the risk of burning any bridges.

Alli shook her head, telling herself that she should be looking forward to her new position, rather than worrying about this one. After answering only one ad and interviewing only one time, she had successfully snagged a job as a full-fledged Director of Human Resources at another construction and property-development firm in the city. The company was smaller than Whitton, but she didn't mind; she was the Director, and she would have full command over the entire HR Department. It was exciting, but she had to acknowledge that she was going to miss Whitton, Inc. She had truly enjoyed her job and had made many friends, and she would miss them all.

The decision to leave Whitton was an agonizing one, but it was something she knew she *had* to do. The turmoil between her and M.J. would only get worse, and sooner or later, it was bound to consume and destroy her completely. It had interfered with her job and undermined her reputation and integrity, and she could not work under such circumstances any longer. Besides all that, she knew she was nothing more to M.J. than a play-toy. The frustrating beauty was using her, and Alli refused to let herself be a whore. If she was to resurrect her dignity and self-respect, a clean break was absolutely necessary. She had to distance herself from all of it and start anew. She had made a mistake, but now she was moving on. Once again, she had learned a painful, albeit valuable, life lesson.

And hindsight is always 20-20, right Daddy? Alli thought to herself with a small, wistful smile as the elevator came to a stop at the garage level and the doors opened with a merry chime.

As soon as she exited the elevator and started walking, she caught the unmistakable sight of M.J.'s black Jaguar convertible.

Oh God... she's *back*, Alli thought in a sudden panic, her legs and feet ceasing their movement.

She had been wondering if M.J. would return before she left. Even though she tried to convince herself that it would be best to just disappear without a confrontation, she knew that she would probably feel guilty if she just vanished. It would be so cowardly, sneaking away under cover of darkness while M.J. was preoccupied with all her family issues... wouldn't it?

But why should I feel guilty? Why should I care if she thinks I'm a coward? She doesn't care about me. If she 'cared' at all, she'd come to me. If she had one ounce of compassion or humanity in her cold heart, she'd come and *apologize* to me and say goodbye. The resolute words sounded good to Alli's determined mind, but they couldn't quite be swallowed by her indecisive heart. Blue-green eyes rolled at the never-ending discrepancies that raged inside her, and she forced her feet to move again.

I wonder what she's doing here at this hour? I wonder if she knows I'm leaving? I wonder if John told her yet? Alli pondered, her mind refusing to quit. Goddd! Why do I give a shit!? She shook her head and continued the short walk to her car, telling herself to stop being so ridiculous. She knew M.J. was going to find out sooner or later, and now that the President was home, there would be a risk of an uncomfortable face-to-face. Alli had already gone over the potential conversation and meeting a thousand times in her mind, but she still dreaded the thought.

Alli felt bad that she was dumping her resignation on M.J. so soon after her father's death. The company had issued a formal notice to everyone when Mark Whitton passed away, and Alli felt very badly for M.J. and Madison, unable to imagine what they must be going through. Wishing she could do something but knowing she couldn't, she ended up just sending flowers and cards to both their houses. Even though such formalities never seemed adequate enough when it came to losing a loved one, especially one's parent, she figured it was better than nothing. Alli also found herself constantly thinking what a shame it was that M.J. had to go through all of this alone. Well, she wasn't completely alone - she did have her sister. But Madison, in turn, had her husband, Doug, and M.J. had no one. It was stupid and completely pointless at this juncture, she knew, but Alli still wished that she could have done something for M.J., some way... somehow.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she finally reached her car, but before she could open the door, she stopped and turned back, casting a sad, longing glance in the direction of the black Jaguar parked near the elevator.

If only you had let me in, M.J. ...I could have been the one to be there for you now, Alli thought with remorse.

Aside from all the bullshit, the two of them had been friends once... highly compatible co-workers and teammates. Alli had truly enjoyed M.J.'s wicked wit and sharp intellect, and she was constantly awed by the way the woman's talented mind worked. She now understood why Liz Jacobs called M.J. 'fascinating', and she was in absolute agreement.

Alli wondered, again, what M.J. was feeling right now... right at this moment. Was she sad? Angry? Indifferent? Was she sitting in her office, diligently working away, like nothing had changed at all? Or was she standing in the dark and staring mournfully out her window, contemplating life and all its mysteries? It was so hard to say with M.J. Whitton.

As Alli looked at the Jaguar again, she realized that it was parked very close to her Beetle. Surely M.J. took notice to this... surely she knew that Alli was here.

I wonder if she knows I'm leaving? Alli thought again. I wonder if she'll be furious or relieved? She pondered, feeling her insides twist and waffle yet again.

She was still angry and upset with M.J., even though she didn't want to be. She always tried to part company on good terms, whenever possible, but the tensions between her and M.J. seemed to drastically lessen the chances for an amicable parting. Even though she felt she had every right to just disappear without a word to M.J., Alli knew she would regret doing anything in angry haste. She repeatedly wondered what would happen when and if she and M.J. met up before she left. The suspense was nearly driving her insane. She had to find a compromise somewhere.

Maybe I should go see her right now... get it over with? She considered, twisting her lips in thought as she continued to linger at her car. Or maybe not... maybe I should just wait and see what happens Monday morning? But no... then I'll go nuts thinking about it all weekend. She sighed and rolled her eyes again, hating her nervous indecisiveness.

Her father just *died*, for chrissake... I doubt she gives as much of a shit about my leaving as I do. Alli considered. I should at least have the decency to give her my condolences in person... a confrontation about my leaving can wait for another time.

Closing her eyes and shaking her head, Alli drew a deep breath before turning to head back toward the elevators. "I must be stupid, or crazy... or both," she mumbled to herself as she pressed the elevator button and waited with her heart in her throat.


Alli stood outside M.J.'s office for a full minute, her mind waffling back and forth, her hands fidgety and sweating, and her heart pounding. The President was in there; even though the office appeared dark, Alli could see a tiny sliver of light through the partially-open door, and she could hear the slight noise of paper shuffling.

Why am I here? Why am I doing this?! She asked herself, wondering what in the hell had possessed her to come up here. I'll just give my condolences, and then scram... just a quick, 'sorry', and then I'm outta here, she thought, nodding to herself in silent agreement.

She stepped forward, peeking through the open door with much trepidation. M.J. stood at her desk, casually flipping through a huge pile of mail and papers. Her posture was slumped, suggesting weariness; her hair was loose, tumbling carelessly down and around her shoulders; and the casual jeans-and-shirt ensemble that she wore looked atypically rumpled. She looked completely washed-out.

Sensing a presence, M.J. looked up, catching light jade eyes in an immediate, intense gaze. Time seemed to slow for a few moments as the two women locked onto one another.

M.J. was genuinely shocked to see Allison. Shocked, but... relieved too. She didn't want to see anyone, except for Madison, and she especially didn't want to see Alli. She didn't want to see her, because she knew now how she *felt* about her. Since she had admitted her feelings, the damned things consumed her every waking moment.

When she went to bed at night and stared up at the ceiling, it was Alli's face that she saw lingering in the shadows... when she awoke in the morning and turned her cheek to look at the window, it was Alli's light shining through... when she dressed herself and checked her look in the mirror, it was Alli's approval she was seeking. Thoughts of the beautiful little blonde occupied every free moment and filled every nook and cranny inside her head. Not a day went by that she didn't remember how soft Alli's skin was, how warm her body felt, how delicious her essence tasted. M.J. was, to her absolute chagrin, bordering on mad obsession.

Now, seeing this vision before her, she was overwhelmed with a desire to reach out and touch Alli, to grab hold of her and not let go. She needed so badly to feel her heartbeat... to feel her life force... to pull herself away from the stench of death and convince herself that she was alive and not alone in this world. She wouldn't be alone... not anymore. There would be no more denial... no more games; she didn't want that any longer. She wanted Allison, and now, she was here... right in front of her, full of beauty, and life, and... love. Maddy's words echoed in her head, '...she probably wants to be closer to you.' Dear God, she wanted to be closer to her too - so close that she could crawl inside her skin and find shelter for her injured heart.

She was absolutely in love with Allison.

Oh my God... M.J.'s throat suddenly closed up and she could barely breathe.

Oblivious to M.J.'s tumult, Alli stepped haltingly into the office, walking closer to look further into the eyes of the woman who had hurt her and scared her and infuriated her and drove her insane with lust. But the pale-blue orbs she looked into now were not arrogant, nor threatening, nor taunting; these eyes were completely different. They were unsure and unfocused, and they spoke of exhaustion and remorse... of terrible misery and deep pain. The tall goddess was no longer a siren... she was a tortured soul, and Alli wished that she could save her from the rack that she lay upon.

But it was too late for that. Allison had made her decision. The change was already in motion.

Alli was so busy thinking all these things, she didn't realize that she was now standing directly in front of M.J., looking upon the features of her perfectly-sculpted face and gazing into the unfathomable cerulean pools.

God, I've missed her, she thought, how can that be?! She felt the beginnings of a deep stirring within her heart, and a mixture of longing and incredulity washed over her.

They stood there saying nothing as Alli's gaze quickly wandered around M.J.'s face and down her neck. The taller woman wore a shirt with a wide open collar and Alli could just see the edge of a reddish-brown blemish that marred the texture of M.J.'s perfect skin, close to her neck and shoulder.

My mark... the one that I imprinted on her during our 'elevator encounter'... she still carries it. Alli thought in amazement. In some demented little way, that thrilled her, and she felt a hot shiver involuntarily race through her body.

No *NO!* I won't give in again! I *WON'T*!i screamed to herself internally. Her heart hammered violently as she contemplated what to say to the enigmatic figure before her. They were still staring at each other when she finally managed to speak up, the need to break the silence and say something becoming urgent.

"I'm so sorry about your father." Alli whispered, almost shyly.

M.J. blinked long and deliberate, and when she opened her eyes again, she regarded Alli very somberly, emptiness and anguish plainly evident in the normally well-guarded depths of wintry blue. "Thank you." She whispered back, her voice cracking slightly.

"If there's anything I can do--," Alli started, then stopped abruptly, realizing how that might sound. "I mean, if you need to talk... or...," she finished uncertainly, letting the words trail off.

M.J. stared at her again, her eyes searching the gentle, sympathetic, aqua pools that bored into her. Alli's voice washed over her so soft and warm, she felt a sudden urge to burst into tears and break down in the blonde's arms, right then and there.

Instead, she cleared her throat and nodded slightly, "Thanks... I'll be fine."

Alli only pursed her lips in return, and they stood there again, staring at each other so deeply in a silence that was both deafening and maddening. Both of them could feel the pull between them; their bodies and spirits yearning so much for one another, despite it all. M.J. had a magnetic seductiveness that relentlessly beckoned Alli still, despite her pledge of 'never again', and Alli possessed a tenderness and warmth that drew M.J. in and lulled her subconscious with the promise of acceptance and trust.

Alli finally broke the gaze, looking down slightly and squeezing her eyes shut, momentarily seeking solid ground inside her flustered head. She'd never experienced anything like these feelings before, ever; if the pull between the two of them was strong before, this was absolutely overpowering. She didn't know what to make of her thoughts and emotions; she only knew that by standing here like this, her body's desire was climbing higher and higher while her resolve melted further and further. She knew that she had to turn and leave - that it was necessary if she were to make a clean break.

Do it now, do it NOW! Her mind chanted.

When Alli ventured a glance up again, she fell into a murky chasm of azure that swirled in a strangely intense mixture of pain, desire, and something else she couldn't quite decipher. It was nothing she'd ever seen before in those light-colored depths, and it made the hair on the back of her neck rise up.

Godd... What are you doing to me, M.J. Whitton? Alli searched for the answer beneath the shrouded veil of blue, but failed. She knew that she still cared for M.J., very deeply... it was undeniable. She still wanted her with a desperateness that threatened to consume her, and her body could easily succumb to the powerful attraction. But the self-destructive cycle had to end. It had to be halted. The pull between them was strong, but she had to be stronger. She *had* to walk away... and she knew it was now or never.

Walk away, you fool... walk AWAY!

Suddenly, unable to keep any more distance between them, M.J. took a tentative step closer to Alli. Their eyes never left each other, and somehow, in some way, their bodies began to converge ever-so-slightly. Somehow, M.J.'s hand came to rest gently on Alli's waist... somehow Alli's hand wandered out to touch M.J.'s arm... somehow they began to lean in toward each other, drawing closer... closer. They were still staring, and when M.J.'s hand reached up to touch Alli's face, the blonde nearly passed out.

More of Madison's words echoed in M.J.'s head, '...you have to tell Alli how you feel.' She gazed into swirling oceanic depths and clenched her jaw tight, garnering her strength.

"Allison," M.J. whispered softly, her voice aching and strained with painful need, her soulful eyes bleeding blue passion. She so needed this connection... she needed to be with someone... she needed her body and soul to be grounded... she needed the comfort of intimacy... and she wanted it from Alli.

Alli swallowed dumbly, unable to speak and virtually paralyzed. She could feel herself faltering as she began to drown helplessly in the engulfing, desperate gaze of intense, burning cerulean. Her own eyes fluttered shut as her heart began to twist and succumb to the heat of the body that almost adjoined hers. She could feel M.J.'s hands touching her, burning her flesh and scorching her soul...

OhmyGod... NO! *STOP*! Jade orbs snapped open abruptly and Alli flinched and pushed away from the near-embrace of the taller body, forcibly jerking herself back into reality.

"M.J., I-I..." Alli stuttered, shaking her head in an attempt to clear the jumbled thoughts and feelings that muddied her brain.

"Morgan?" The sound of another voice interrupted the tense atmosphere, but it took a moment for the realization of the presence to sink in. Madison entered the office and both Alli and M.J. quickly stepped away from each other, looking wide-eyed and terribly guilty.

"Oh - I'm sorry... I didn't realize...," Madison muttered, looking from M.J. to Allison and back again, wondering what in the hell she'd just interrupted. "Hello Allison." The younger Whitton said, nodding somewhat stiffly to the blonde.

Alli flushed deeply, feeling like she'd been caught doing something dreadfully inappropriate. "Hello, Madison," Alli managed to eek out. "I was, uh, just giving M.J. my condolences for your father's passing... I'm very sorry." Alli stammered, feeling flustered.

Maddy quirked a small, tight smile and nodded, "Thank you." All three stood in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments, not quite knowing what to do or say, but for very different reasons. M.J. felt like something vital had been interrupted; Maddy was dying to ask M.J. if she'd heard the news yet; and Allison just wanted to get the hell out of there with the contents of her bladder intact.

"Well, I didn't mean to interrupt...," Madison started hesitantly, shooting uncertain glances at both M.J. and Alli again, but, seeing her chance to escape, Alli interrupted with a wave of her hand.

"No, no... I was just leaving. I just... wanted to...uhm," she paused, casting an apologetic look at M.J., "...I just wanted to tell you that I'm... that I'm sorry." She spoke with quiet sincerity, wondering if M.J. would read anything into her implied meaning.

Not knowing anything yet, M.J. didn't read into it, but Madison certainly did. She shifted her eyes sideways to watch her older sister's face for signs of her freaking out, but none came. If M.J. had heard the news that Allison was leaving the company, she certainly wasn't acting like it. The tall brunette merely stared and nodded at Alli in silent gratitude and watched as Alli turned and began to walk out of the office.

Just before she slipped through the door, however, Alli looked back at M.J. one last time, their eyes again locking. Misery, regret, longing, apology... a dozen different thoughts and emotions poured out of both of them... a dozen things that should have been said... a dozen things that could have been explained. But it was too late now. The opportunity was gone. They would have to reconcile their miseries with themselves now.

Hot tears began to well and burn painfully in Alli's eyes, and she quickly turned and escaped out the door just before a tear spilled down her cheek.

M.J. could only stare after her mournfully as she disappeared.


Madison watched her older sister carefully, trying to read her thoughts. M.J. stared at the door for a few seconds before she closed her eyes and turned back to her desk.

"I'm sorry, Morgan... I hope I didn't interrupt anything important...?" Madison asked carefully, wondering if M.J. would tell her what, if anything, had been going on.

M.J. shrugged her shoulders and acted nonchalant as she shifted her attention back to the piles of paper that still littered her desk, "You didn't; she was just passing along her sympathies." She didn't want to get into anything with Maddy right now; she wasn't really in the mood for it.

Madison twisted her lips, "Is that all?" She queried carefully.

"What do you mean?" M.J. asked, bringing her gaze back to meet her sister's steely gray.

"Is that all you were talking about?" Maddy asked evenly.

"Yes! Geez, Maddy! Do you expect me to ask her out on a date right away!?" M.J. said exasperatedly.

Madison knew what M.J. was referring to... on the way home she had managed to get M.J. to open up a little about what she planned to do about Allison. Maddy had convinced her to pursue the blonde, but in a somewhat more 'traditional' fashion, like asking her out and 'dating' her before hopping into the sack.

Based on M.J.'s reaction and comment, however, Madison realized that M.J. must not be aware of Alli's impending departure. What to do, what to do, she pondered.

"No... that's not what I meant." Madison said, shaking her head and touching her fingers to her temple as she gave her sister a worrisome look. She was bound to have a massive headache from this. "Have you read any of your emails yet?" She had received the news of Alli's resignation earlier today, via a smart-assed email from Ray, which she quickly verified by calling John Stevenson directly.

"No." M.J. answered her with a quizzical look.

"Have you spoken with John at all?"

"No... I've only been here for half an hour." M.J. said, confusion and irritation flashing across her features as she read the fretful look on her sister's face. Something was up. "What's going on?"

Madison could only stare at M.J. open-mouthed. How do you tell someone that the love of their life is about to walk away from them and disappear?

"Maddy... *what*?" M.J. frowned and pressed more insistently.

"Morgan...," Madison paused and closed her eyes, hating herself for what she was about to say. "Allison resigned... she gave John her two-week notice last Friday."

The world seemed to stop... time halted... the air ceased its movement. Her heart had been ripped from her chest and it was hanging outside, naked and flapping in the wind. The organ thudded loudly as her head began to spin and darkness suddenly enveloped everything.

The bottom of M.J.'s world had suddenly and inexplicably fallen away, and she had nothing to hold on to.



"Did you know, when you go, it's the perfect ending, To the bad day I'd gotten used to spending; When you go, all I know is,

You're my favorite mistake... you're my favorite mistake;

Well maybe nothing lasts forever, even when you stay together,

I don't need forever after, but it's your laughter that won't let me go,

So I'm holding on this way;

Did you know, could you tell, you were the only one that I ever loved?

Now everything's so wrong;

Did you see me walking by? Did it ever make you cry?

Now you're my favorite mistake;

Yeah you're my favorite mistake." - S. Crow




M.J. was devastated. There was no denying it, so she didn't even try. She was shocked, sad, angry, and - to her chagrin - she felt incredibly stupid. Even though she had acknowledged being in love with Alli, she never stopped to consider the fact that, perhaps, Alli wasn't in love with *her*. She could scarcely believe it. This wasn't what she wanted at all... this wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. But it did happen... it was done. And it was all her fault... she had no one to blame but herself.

Through her own stupid selfishness and arrogance, she had completely and totally blown it. She toyed with Alli's feelings... she bullied her and treated her like she was nothing... and now it had come back to slap her in the face. More than that - it stabbed her in the heart, and she was bleeding-out.

It was so bittersweet. She had finally come to realize that she was in love with Alli and wanted her more than anything, more than anyone... but the beautiful little blonde wouldn't have her now... she didn't want her. M.J. had foolishly insisted on playing the game, and she lost.

Alli was leaving. It was over.

Her emotions ranged from painful sorrow to furious rage. She went from bemoaning how much she'd miss the sweet, angelic face to cursing herself for falling in love with the blonde beauty. Madison tried to put a positive spin on the whole thing, insisting time and time again that it was actually a good thing for Alli to leave the company, because now M.J. could pursue her with no worries about work-related entanglements. M.J. understood what Madison was saying, but it didn't really matter to her. In her mind, Alli was leaving because of her, to get the hell *away* from her, and so she didn't see a point in trying to pursue anything.

After turning it over inside her head and dissecting it for an entire weekend, M.J. told herself that she would simply have to *deal* with Allison's departure. She was leaving, and there was nothing M.J. could do about it, aside from groveling, that is, and she sure as hell wouldn't be doing *that*. She saw only one way to get around the gaping hole that had been blasted in the landscape that lay ahead of her... she knew of only one method to dodge the hurt and bury the pain. She would call upon her old friend... her only true and trusted companion... her soul-mate... her second-skin... DENIAL.

She would deny it all. The feelings, the thoughts, the emotions, the admittances. None of it had actually happened. None of it was real. It was all pure imagination. If Alli cared so little for her that she could just up and leave, then M.J. would care even less. She would fight fire with fire. She would banish the thoughts and push the entire matter far, far away. The blonde would be gone by the end of the week, and M.J. could once again get on with her life. It would work.

She would *make* it work.


It only took three days for M.J. to realize that she no longer played the denial card like she used to. Frankly, she sucked at it.

As much as she wanted to deny everything and shove it all into a musty old closet someplace, she couldn't. She was constantly reminded of Allison. Every phone call she received, every letter she read, every email she transacted... every little thing seemed to remind her of something Alli did, or said, or handled, or talked about once upon a time. Hell, if she picked up a piece of paper with greenish-blue ink on it, she immediately studied it, thinking that it looked like the color of Alli's eyes. It was ridiculous.

It was Wednesday; in two more days, Alli would disappear. M.J. felt the urge to seek her out and talk to her, but she wasn't able to muster the courage to actually transport her carcass down to the 13th floor. She was actually somewhat perplexed that she hadn't run into the blonde anyplace... they *did* work in the same building, after all. She told herself that Alli was surely busy finalizing her work and cleaning out her office, and all that garbage. Surely the blonde didn't have the time, nor the inclination, to come and say goodbye to the President of the company. Surely M.J. was just an afterthought to her at this point.

And a nasty afterthought at that, M.J. groused to herself as she sat in her chair and stared aimlessly out her window for the umpteenth time that day.

She thought back to this morning's conversation with Madison as her fingers played with a rubberband that had been wrapped around yet another bunch of condolence cards she received in the morning mail. Unable to stifle her curiosity, M.J. had called her sister and asked her if she knew where Alli was going. Of course, Maddy had the low-down, as always. ...Sometimes it was highly beneficial to have a sister with 'connections'.

Allison had landed a job at a local Mom-and-Pop construction and development firm. It was a fledgling company that specialized in mostly residential endeavors, but from what M.J. knew of them, they had a solid reputation and a promising future. It wasn't that she didn't wish Alli well - she did - it was just that she hoped she wasn't taking a step backward instead of forward. She might have landed the job of Director of HR at this company, but with it being so small, M.J. wondered how much of a 'step-up' it would be for the intelligent, talented blonde.

She twiddled the rubberband in her fingers, working the springy strand furiously back and forth as she stared and considered, again, if she should go and confront Alli.

What would she say to me? What would I say to her? 'Oh gee Alli, I'm sorry I fucked with you - literally; would you consider staying if I promise to wear a straitjacket whenever I'm around you?' She mocked herself internally. God I'm such a fucking idiot, she thought again, pulling on the rubberband until it finally snapped, stinging her fingers intensely.


Friday finally arrived. D-Day. End game. Alli was anxious. M.J. was depressed.

They still had not seen nor spoken to each other all week, and Alli was both amazed and perplexed at that. It seemed obvious that M.J. was making a point *not* to see nor speak with her, and Alli supposed she shouldn't be surprised. After all, she wasn't going out of her way to see M.J. either, was she? But still she wondered, was M.J. saddened? Relieved? Angry? Apathetic? ...Who the hell knew?

Alli couldn't help but think that M.J. probably felt a little betrayed, as most employers do when someone leaves their enfold. Even though the exasperating brunette was the primary reason for the departure, Alli knew that M.J. respected her work and had always praised her accomplishments. But none of that evoked any kind of pity from Alli. She was beyond pity. She was beyond feeling badly about jumping ship; she was looking out for number one now. She was taking the plunge, and she wasn't looking back.

Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, baby, Alli thought as she stuffed the last of her personal belongings into the cardboard box that sat atop her desk.

"Almost ready, huh?" A deep voice rumbled as John Stevenson stuck his head inside her door.

She looked up, smiling at him, "Yeah, I think so. Just gathering up the last of my stuff, then I'm outta here." She grinned again, hoping to offset any negative feelings that might be lingering.

John smiled back at her and stepped into her office further, "Listen, I uhm...," he hesitated, "I just wanted to tell you, privately, that there are no hard feelings about anything... okay?" He addressed her softly, his eyes serious but gentle.

Alli knew what he was saying. He wasn't angry that she was leaving; on the contrary, he was surprisingly sympathetic. When she had first given him her resignation, they'd had a long discussion about the controversy surrounding Alli and the President, and John begrudgingly agreed that it was probably in Alli's best interest to leave. "Okay." Alli acknowledged with a nod and a small smile.

"I understand why you're going - I still wish you weren't, but I do understand." He said. Alli gave him an acknowledging look. "And I know you'll do just fine running your own show, but... if you ever need anything, you just give me a jingle... okay?" He added, grinning crookedly.

Alli smiled again and nodded, "Thank you, John... I appreciate it." The man might be a first-class putz, but he had always been good to her. She felt her eyes well with tears for the second time that day, and about the fiftieth time that week. Her office had thrown her a 'bon voyage' party a few days ago that left her teary-eyed and melancholy, and she'd cried outright earlier today when Liz Jacobs stopped by to say her final goodbyes. She didn't think she had any tears left.

Her box was now full and her office was empty. It was after five o'clock, and she was finally ready to go.

"Well, uh... I'm not really very good at farewells, so...," John stammered nervously.

Alli laughed slightly, "It's okay, I don't like farewells either." Alli conceded. "I enjoyed working with you, John. You taught me a lot, and despite everything else that happened, I did like it here." Alli said seriously, again holding back the urge to cry. "I'll miss you guys."

John touched his hand to her shoulder, "We'll miss you too, Alli."


After several lingering goodbyes and wishes of good cheer here and there, Alli finally managed to hop an elevator and arrive at the garage. It was now after six o'clock, and she desperately wanted to just go the hell home. Lugging the cardboard box that contained the last remnants of her work life, she tottered off unsteadily toward her car. She had just fished her car keys out of her purse when she heard the clicking of heels on the concrete and the chatter of a familiar voice. She turned her head to see who it was, and her heart stopped.

Madison's talking trailed off when she realized that M.J. was no longer walking beside her, and she stopped to see where her audience had disappeared to.

Oh shit, the younger sister thought to herself as she spied the distraction.

The President stood a good distance away, but Alli could still see the bright, laser-sharpness of her light blue eyes. She looked like an angel in her crisp white blouse and light tan slacks... and she looked like a devil with her dark hair and hard, chiseled facial features. She saw Madison shooting one of her famous sideways glances at the taller woman and Alli suddenly felt her stomach constrict into multiple, painful knots.

Jesus H. Christ... doesn't this just fucking figure, Alli cursed inwardly as she closed her eyes and briefly considered what to do. She hadn't seen M.J. all damn week, and now, at the very end, she runs into her just in time for a big, uncomfortable confrontation. How typical, Alli thought. Resolving to act like an adult and be professional, Alli straightened herself up and turned around fully.

"Hello, Alli." M.J.'s voice was so familiar, even though she hadn't heard it in over a week. It still sent chills down her spine and made her heart skip a beat, despite all that had occurred over the past year. "Or rather, I suppose I should say, 'goodbye'." The tall brunette added, but with no sarcasm.

Alli wanted to spit something smart back at her, but she couldn't think of anything to say. Madison merely stood still, flicking her gray eyes back and forth to gauge reactions, and, Alli figured, trying to calculate explosion impacts.

M.J. disregarded her sister and walked a few steps closer to Alli, which made the blonde's heart jump. "I uh... I wanted to say goodbye earlier, but I didn't want to... embarrass you in front of anyone... or anything."

M.J. spoke hesitantly, which surprised Alli. Whether she was surprised that M.J. was hesitating, or whether it was because she cared enough not to embarrass her, she didn't know.

"That's alright." Alli said with a slight shake of her head, not knowing how else to react.

M.J. paused again, darting her tongue over her dry lips. "I guess I should apologize," she began, "you probably wouldn't be leaving if it weren't for me." She said, her voice rasping low and quiet, as though she didn't want Madison to hear her admission of guilt.

Alli said nothing. Even though she was thoroughly amazed that M.J. was actually offering an apology, and doing it so calmly, she managed to keep a slight scowl on her face and pinned M.J. with a determined look.

"...And thank you for *disagreeing* with that." M.J. added, her voice lilting slightly as she quirked one corner of her mouth in a tiny teasing grin.

Alli wished she could return the grin, but she could not. She didn't trust her voice, so she just stood there, still saying nothing.

Madison shifted her feet nervously, unable to determine what was developing without being afforded a view of her sister's face. She could only see Alli standing there, staring wide-eyed and looking very much like she was either ready to bolt or ready to deck M.J. at any given moment.

The two ill-fated, almost-lovers stared at each other for a few awkward, painful moments, neither one knowing quite what to say to the other. Alli bit the inside of her cheek; actually she had plenty to say, but she wouldn't. It was, she reminded herself, pointless and too late for that now.

M.J. knew that she was dangerously close to making a fool of herself, so she quickly ended the stare-down, "Well... I should let you go." She stared deeply into Alli's eyes, intent on delivering that message to the fullest extent.

And Alli received it. Her aquamarine eyes burned with the immediate arrival of more tears, and she blinked and blinked, working furiously to keep them at bay.

M.J. saw this, and she knew the message had indeed been heard and understood. She knew that, despite it all, Alli felt some kind of remorse, just like she did. She felt regret, and she felt sorrow. Because it all could have been so different... it could have gone in a completely different direction. But it wasn't, and it didn't.

M.J. drew a breath and pursed her lips together tightly; she wished that Alli would say *some*thing. Hesitating one last time, M.J. at last spoke her final words to Alli, "Goodbye, Allison." She said calmly, evenly, "...Good luck with your life."

The sincere, softly-spoken words cut into Alli's trembling heart, and M.J. gave her one last long look before she turned away.


Long after Madison and M.J. left the parking garage, Allison sat in the darkness of the blue Beetle with her arms wrapped around her body, rocking herself back and forth as piteous sobs wracked her small frame, and her heart broke all over again.



"She cuts my skin and bruise my lips She's everything to me; She tears my clothes and burns my eyes She's all I wanna see; She brings the cold and scars my soul She's heaven sent to me; Now she's gone, and love burns inside me... Never thought I'd leave you like the way I do, well, Kiss my love and I wish you're gone, You can kiss my love and I wish you're gone... Now she's gone, and love burns inside me." - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club




She's gone.

Three full weeks had passed since Allison's departure, and M.J. still found herself repeating those words nearly every day.

At first she felt shock and disbelief. This eventually gave way to sadness and depression. Then came the anger and resentment. M.J. wished that all of it could have been directed toward Alli, but she knew damn well that she was to blame. Actually, she had to applaud the little blonde's bravery and strength; not many people would have the courage and intestinal fortitude to actually leave. It was just another reason why she was crazy about her... or rather, *used to be* crazy about her.

M.J. berated herself constantly, telling her stubborn mind that it should have known better, that it should have kept a closer watch on her foolish heart.

If it's too good to be true, then it probably is... isn't that how the saying goes? She knew the perils of getting in too deep and getting attached... it never lasts, and you *always* get burned in the end. It was one of the cardinal rules in her own personal little book of life, and she'd stupidly broken it. Would she never learn?

Sometimes the anger would well up inside so painfully, the only way she could get it out was through physical release. At first, she tried to accomplish this by returning to her 'old ways'. She stalked the clubs and bars, looking for willing women to take to bed and violate, wanting to prove to herself, perhaps, that there was still some remnant of the 'old' M.J. left. But it was no good. It just wasn't the same, and she no longer got anything out of it. She even briefly considered hooking up with Kate Reed, but thankfully, the sane half of her mind kicked in and squashed that idea.

She usually ended up releasing her frustration and anger at home, on her unsuspecting punching bag. Over and over, she would beat and pummel the canvas sack, letting her rage and fury pour out while hot tears filled her eyes and stabbing pain needled her heart. On and on she would push herself, until her fists felt numb inside her gloves and her forearms ached from the force of her hammering. She would often collapse to the floor in a heap, her spent body lying prostrate on the floor, her clothes saturated in sweat, her throat dry and raw, her head throbbing, and her eyes burning. It was a strange and vicious cycle, but she didn't know how to break it.


It had been a month since Allison's departure, and M.J. was meeting with John and Madison to go over the list of interview candidates for her replacement. Raiford was also supposed to be involved, but his secretary had called earlier to say that he'd be late.

They were just finishing-up when Ray came waltzing into M.J.'s office unannounced, as usual.

"Sorry I'm late... you know how lunch meetings can sometimes... 'run over'." He said with a lecherous smile as he plopped himself down on a chair.

Madison and M.J. only glared at him. Everyone knew what a sleaze Ray was, and everyone knew that his 'lunch meetings' usually consisted of him meeting his flavor-of-the-week girlfriend someplace for a quick tryst. He bragged about it often. The man was a pig.

"Actually, we're finished, Ray; you shouldn't have even bothered." Madison snapped.

"Ah, you people are *so* efficient. Well then, who are we interviewing, and when?" He asked, turning his gaze to John.

John opened his mouth to answer, but was cut-off by M.J., "*We* aren't interviewing anyone. No one from this pool satisfies the criteria, so John's going to re-advertise." She said sharply, grabbing the stack of resumes and tossing them to the edge of her desk.

Ray let out a snort, "No one 'satisfies' the criteria? Or do you mean, no one 'satisfies' *your* criteria?" He asked, his tone smarmy and smug as he pinned M.J. with a challenging look.

M.J. immediately felt her hackles rise and her anger spark, but she forced herself to stay calm. "None of them possess the *required* qualifications in conjunction with the *preferred* ones." She spoke the words carefully, enunciating each word to get her point across.

"Yeah, right... whatever. So, is this meeting over? I got things to do." Ray said dismissively as he stood up."

"Yes, by all means, go Ray... wouldn't want to keep you from your *work*." M.J. sniped back as everyone else stood and she followed them to the door. "Madison, I'll catch up with you later; John, let me know when you get the new ad in the paper." M.J. said as they all reached the doorway.

Just before they exited, Ray turned to John, "Y'know... maybe you just need to re-word the ad, John... maybe you should just be more *honest*." Everyone stopped and John gave him a quizzical look. Ray then turned to look at M.J., a devious smile on his lips. "I bet you could snag what M.J. wants if you said, 'hot little blonde bimbo needed to serve as 'bottom' for 'top' construction company President.' "

Ray never saw it coming; he only heard the crunch and felt his head snap backwards as M.J.'s fist crashed squarely into his nose. The pain and the blood immediately followed.

"Morgan!!" Madison screeched.

"M.J.! For chrissake!" John yelled.

"*FUCK*!! You BITCH!! You BROKE my fucking NOSE!!" Ray howled and cursed, his hands flying up to cover his face as the blood began to stream out.

The tall President could only stand and stare, her heart hammering, her eyes clouded in red fire, her mind consumed with murderous intent. Madison actually had to reach out and shake her sister back into reality. Genuinely shocked by her violent reaction, M.J. could only look dumbly at her bleeding, wailing stepbrother. She gave Madison an apologetic look and opened her mouth to utter something, but realized she had nothing reasonable to say.

Snapping her mouth shut, she quickly pushed past the others and fled her office, speeding down the hallway toward the elevators as fast as she could, all the while rubbing her throbbing right hand.


More days turned into more weeks, and the weeks eventually turned into months. Stormy summertime skies gave way to cooler, clearer autumnal breeziness, and the dreary spectre of Winter lingered just around the corner.

The fiasco with Raiford died down relatively quickly. Madison managed to wrangle an apology out of her older sister in exchange for an apology from Ray, plus an additional promise that he wouldn't sue M.J. for bodily injury, like he threatened. The company's rumor mill had plenty of fodder for weeks.

M.J.'s moods continued to flip-flop, and she worked hard to purge herself of her ever-present demons. She continued with her brutal workouts, swimming, jogging, and pounding away at her punching bag until she was too exhausted to even think. But that didn't always work. Her final thoughts before she fell asleep and her first thoughts when morning broke continued to be about Allison.

She considered looking Alli up and trying to make contact. Maybe, she thought, if she waited long enough and then apologized to Alli, they could make a fresh start? But no... she couldn't do that. She couldn't risk the injury of a flat-out rejection. She really didn't have the courage, when it came right down to it.

Eventually, M.J. decided to just resign the whole thing to being 'fate', and she finally managed to let go of the anger and the frustration. She told herself that she had to accept her tragic destiny and just learn to live with it... but it wasn't easy. Even though she felt certain that she was over Alli, she still wasn't sure who she was, where she was going, or what she was doing with her life.

She seriously considered leaving the company herself. It wasn't the first time the thought had crossed her mind; in fact, she had considered it numerous times over the past several years. But she never did anything about it. Her father had always been there to give her the subtle familial obligation/plea for assistance thing, and then when he told her that he was ill, she didn't dare leave. But now that her father was gone, there would be no more 'I need you to carry on for me' guilt-trip speeches and expectations.

She was really free to go then, wasn't she? Did she 'owe' anyone anything anymore? Did she have to worry about Madison anymore? No... of course not. Madison was a grown adult and successful executive, and she was probably smarter than M.J. ever hoped to be. So... why was she still here?

M.J. knew that her lack of desire to leave wasn't really about guilt or worry; it was really just because she didn't want to leave her sister. Now that their father was gone, Madison and Lizzy were the only ones M.J. had. They were her only 'connection' and the only things that gave her life meaning. And she didn't want to walk away from that. As frustrated and discontent as she'd get, she knew that she needed her family in her life.

So, ever determined, M.J. kept plodding along at the company, day in and day out... but her mind just wasn't in it one hundred percent. Her heart and soul weren't in it either, but then again, they hadn't been in it for a long time. She seemed to be in a perpetually confused state, always distracted and unfocused. She couldn't help but wonder when things would change... *if* things would change.

Where would destiny lead her next?


On to Chapter 45

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