© By J. 'Harley' Elmore, 2003 – 2005
See disclaimers in Chapter One
Chapter Twenty-Two, Part 1
Fresh from a hot shower, Rhian toweled off and then slipped on a thick terry cloth robe. It turned out to be a pretty great day, she thought as she combed out her hair. Even Deven seemed to relax and enjoy the company.
At the threshold to the bedroom, she paused to observe her companion who was sitting on the foot of the bed staring down into the open cardboard box on the floor. "Whacha got?" Rhian asked as she crossed the room and plopped down on the bed next to the martial artist.
"I'm not sure. I just opened it. I guess someone must have sent it to my old address in California, and Tito held onto it for some reason."
"Looks like a treasure chest of stuff."
"You are such a goof sometimes," Deven said with an affectionate grin.
"Am not. I just like treasures and surprises. So, what have we got?"
Deven didn't move and the landscaper found her patience waning rapidly. She'd been waiting all day for a chance to unravel the mystery of the box and didn't want to prolong the suspense any longer. "You know? And this is just a thought, but we might actually figure out what's in there if we take something out."
"Be my guest."
Leaning forward, Rhian grabbed the first item she could reach. It was a photo album and the cover was embossed with DEVEN STORM MASTERSON in gold lettering. Running the tip of her finger across the name, Rhian felt her heart skip a beat at the prospect of what lie between the pages and opening the cover, she was greeted with several pictures of Deven as an infant. "Wow. Look at you."
"No thanks," Deven replied even as her eyes scanned the photographs.
"Oh come on, honey. You were gorgeous even then. Okay, I recognize your mother. You know, she was a beautiful woman. She probably still would be if she weren't such a witch. Who are the rest of these people?" Rhian asked as she pointed to various pictures.
Taking a deep breath, Deven slowly identified each person. "That's my father. And those two people are my grandparents. And that guy is Patricia's younger brother, Paul."
Pulling the album a little closer, Rhian studied the images intently. "What was his name?" she asked softly.
"Your father, silly. I know your grandfather's name and obviously this would be your Uncle Paul."
"Uh, Daniel. Well, actually it was James Daniel Masterson the third."
Daniel Masterson had been a strikingly handsome man with blond hair and sage green eyes, and in these photographs of her first few months of life, his love for his daughter had been quite obvious. "He was good looking," Rhian said absently. How could a man who obviously loved his little girl so much, hurt her so badly?
Turning to the next page, Rhian started to laugh. "You were a nature girl, too."
"I was not," Deven responded with mild indignation.
"Oh yeah? I count at least five photographs on this page alone in which you don't have a stitch on. Come to think of it, you still prefer to run around like that."
Deven hadn't believed that there were any familial remnants of her early life still in existence. That Laura had hidden a few of their father's keepsakes pertaining to Deven's childhood away from Patricia had been a surprise in its bold disobedience. But so far, her interest hadn't been piqued enough to go find out what was there. These mementos, however, were right in front of her and came from a much more affecting source. Because of that, she was having a hard time dealing with the poignant reminiscences they were starting to invoke.
Rhian continued to leaf through the album enjoying the journey through her friend's early days. After several pages she stopped as a particular picture caught her eye. In the photograph, a young Deven was sitting on her grandfather's lap on the top step of a porch. He'd had his arms around her and they'd both been laughing when the picture had been taken. "You look so happy here."
Remembering the man who had been her partner in mischief, Deven smiled. "Granddad was a great guy. He was a fighter. Back when he came to America, the Irish weren't very welcome and did what they could to make ends meet. A lot of them turned to hard labor and some took up fighting. Granddad was one of those that did both. Someone found out that Tiernan means Chief so that's how he was promoted for the fights. He used to tell me, 'Lass, who woulda put money on a fighter wit a name like Tiernan? I woulda been laughed right outta dat ring. But I was a fighter and a damned good one. What's da point of getting into da ring if'n you ain't intending to win?' "
Gazing back at the picture, the smile faded and her features hardened. "That was a really rough summer for me. I was seven, I think, and I always seemed to be in trouble for one thing or another. I got into a heap of it one day for fighting with some of the local boys. When Patricia found out, she pitched a fit and went off on my backside. That's the only time I can remember her ever punishing me when my grandparents were near enough to know.
"Afterwards, my grandfather came into the room I shared with Laura, picked me up, and carried me out to his old truck. He drove out to our favorite fishing spot and then he just set me on his lap and held me while I cried." She shook her head sadly.
"After I'd calmed down, he said, 'It's in your blood, me darlin', just as it's in mine. You're a scrapper and you come by it naturally. T'aint no way you can stop it but you can learn ta direct it. You're doing da right ting by takin' all them lessons and stuff. You learn how to control the urge, and you'll do just fine, lass.'"
Once more her eyes stung with tears and Deven wiped them away with annoyance. "I forgot about that. I guess it took me a whole hell of a long time to learn that lesson." Leaving Rhian to the photo album, she reached into the box and lifted out a worn scrapbook. Opening the cover, she found pages filled with pictures and articles that covered her martial arts career. Her grandfather had carefully labeled each photograph and page with the dates and names of tournaments or events. "I've never seen all these," she said in wonder.
"Look at you," Rhian said with a smile. "Honestly, you were the cutest thing."
"I was not. I was all legs and felt so awkward except when I was doing the martial arts. Look at those knobby knees."
"You were beautiful, and your grandfather was very proud of you." Not getting a response, she reached up and tenderly brushed a strand of hair back behind Deven's ear. "You know what? I can see Tiernan in you. I mean look at this picture." She turned back several pages in the album and pointed at a photograph of a very young Deven sleeping with her arms wrapped around a stuffed wolf. The child in the picture looked so much like Tiernan that Rhian would have guessed it was the boy with longer hair if it didn't have Deven's name and age four written along the bottom of it.
Glancing into the box, a small bit of fur caught Rhian's attention and she reached down, grabbed it and tugged gently. Both women stared dumbly at the stuffed toy. "Oh my, it's the same one, isn't it? The one from this picture."
"I'll be damned."
"What's its name?" Rhian asked.
Deven rubbed the back of her neck, a sure sign of embarrassment, but she forged ahead with an answer anyway. "My grandmother gave it to me when I was born. Um, his name is actually Lobo, but when I started to talk, I couldn't say the L. It came out Bobo and that stuck." She reached over and lifted the toy from Rhian's hands.
"That same summer that I got into so much trouble for fighting, my sister decided that she wanted him and I refused."
"Well, that's understandable, Deven. He was a gift from your grandmother."
"Well, Patricia didn't see it that way. Laura pitched such a fit that Patricia decided I'd outgrown him and gave him to her. But you know me. The first chance I got I snatched him right back. So, Patricia decided to teach me a lesson about sharing by throwing him away." Deven's brow furrowed and she shook her head. "I begged her not to do it. I promised I'd be good and all that crap. She told me that I could have him back if I quit the martial arts. What kind of person makes an ultimatum like that to a little kid?"
"I don't know, honey," Rhian answered sympathetically though inside she was raging.
"My grandfather told her that the lessons were good for me and to stop torturing me."
"Did she? Stop, I mean."
"She threw him away and made sure I watched her do it. That was her way of stopping the torture."
"Oh, Deven. I'm so sorry."
The martial artist shrugged. "My grandfather dug him out of the trash and hid him in their room. I could play with him in there and when my mother wasn't around I could sleep with him. But I had to leave him there when I went home."
At a loss, Rhian interlaced her fingers with Deven's. "Well, he's back. And he and my old dog, Riley can hang out on our bed."
"Rhian," Deven's voice came out low.
"What? You afraid your reputation is going to be destroyed if our family finds out that you were once a little kid. I've got news for you. They already know that."
"What's that?" Seana asked from the doorway.
"It's an old friend of Deven's," Rhian told her daughter. "Like Riley's an old friend of mine."
"Can I see?" the little girl asked.
Deven held the wolf out. Watching the child study the toy and then hug it felt somewhat disturbing for the woman. It stirred up memories of emotions long past, including an irrational urge to snatch it back.
"Is it a girl or a boy?"
"I believe it's a boy and his name is Lobo," Rhian replied when Deven remained silent.
"I like him," Seana announced while giving the wolf another hug. "Can I sleep with him?"
"Why not," Deven said. Having the thing around right now was making her uncomfortable and she just wanted it out of her sight.
"Time for bed, baby. Give Deven a kiss good night."
Scrambling up onto the bed, Seana gave the martial artist a wet kiss and a robust hug. "Night, Deven. Love you."
"I love you, too," the woman answered.
"Go on. I'll be right there to tuck you in," the landscaper told her daughter.
Seana slid off the bed and walked out of the room, talking to the stuffed animal the whole time. When she was out of sight, Rhian asked, "Are you okay?"
been an awful lot of stuff thrown at you today," the younger woman said
"This is true," the martial artist agreed.
"I'll be right back. No hiding anything while I'm gone."
Deven tried to look offended but couldn't quite muster it in her current frame of mind. "Oh, all right."
Returning a short while later, Rhian found Deven exactly where she'd left her but there was something indistinctly different about the woman's whole bearing. "What's wrong?" she asked. The martial artist didn't answer but when she lifted her head, Rhian could see the tears that brimmed, waiting to be released. Deven, please just let it go. I promise I won't let anything happen to you. "Honey, what's wrong?" she repeated the question as she drew near enough to run her fingers through her friend's dark hair.
"I was so angry at them for dying," Deven said as she held up a letter. "For leaving me. I know that doesn't make sense because I was the one who left. But somehow, that wasn't the same because I always thought that maybe there was a chance I could try to go back." She inhaled and her breath hitched. "I'm having a little trouble reading it."
"It's okay. Would you like me to read it for you?"
While continuing to stroke Deven's head, Rhian accepted the letter. The salutation caused her heart to beat faster and she turned it over to confirm who had written it. "It's from you grandmother. Are you sure you want me to read this?"
"I don't know," she replied as she wrapped her arms around Rhian's waist and pulled her closer. "I'm, um, I'm kind of worried about what she might have said."
"Would you rather I read it first and then let you know what it says?"
The martial artist's head fell forward until her brow came to rest against Rhian's chest. "Let's just get it over with."
The landscaper began to read out loud while her free hand caressed Deven's shoulders and back.
For many nights now, I have dreamed of you, dear child. The dreams tell me that you are wounded though I don't think the wound that plagues you is physical in nature. Whatever it is, you can heal if you allow it but that will be up to you. To advance the healing you must first accept that you need it. And that, my stubborn one, does not come easily to your nature.
I know that I will not live long now and I won't be here to guide you. There is so much I need to tell you, child, and not nearly enough time to express it all.
You were born with a strong nature both in body and in spirit. You have the capability to be a good leader and I know you are brave. But sadly, you never were taught how to balance the forces within you.
Your life has consisted of many intersections that have required that you choose a path. There was no wrong path, Deven. Do you understand that? There could be no wrong course taken because each contains lessons. I know that, in keeping with your nature, you have in most cases chosen the more difficult road to traverse and that has caused much pain in your life. I wish I could be there for you because I know your journey is still difficult. Know that my spirit will always walk with you, child. It always has and always will.
You have made some choices that were perhaps not the healthiest for you. What is important about them now, is what did you learn? You must take those lessons and move on. The essence of life is often the metamorphosis of being, and you my little one, have faced so many changes and challenges in your young life. Use those lessons to teach others.
You are a beautiful spirit, granddaughter. You have a great capacity within you to love and be loved. However, as brave as you are, you are not so brave in love. That is understandable, but Deven, you must move on. Because there is one who may come to you with a spirit that mirrors your own. Be brave, child, and be open to her for she will have the medicine that can heal you in ways no other can.
The deprivation you find within yourself is not real. It is the illusion painted upon your mind by others. You must be willing to see the truth in its entirety. Not the half-truths you have lived. Your self-punishment will destroy your spirit if you don't cease. Mistakes are a part of life. Accept them. Correct them if you can. Do not allow them to stop you from living.
Life is not a road of punishment. Life is a road to enlightenment and self-discovery. Life is to be cherished. You turn your eye inward folding in upon yourself. You need to look outward and open yourself up - like a flower opening to the world. A closed bud will wither and die if it does not open. And yes, my child, a flower also dies in its time, however, it lives a full life first and has the capability to pass on.
Live a full life, Deven. My greatest joy is your grandfather as frustrating as he can be. My second greatest joy is you. I have lived a full life Deven, and when I walk in the spirit world I will do so knowing that I lived and loved. It did not make me a lesser person. It did not make me weaker. It made stronger. It made my life richer and fuller.
The power of the storm is not to be underestimated. Your power lies in the west where the thunder beings live. Like the storm so is your passion, and like the storm, it is unpredictable. You need to channel your passions. Direct them where they are the most beneficial to you and others. I think being a teacher is such a path, as is your love for the one who will come and your children. Yes, granddaughter, I see children. Though I will not live to know them, I am happy for you.
Oh, child, there is so much I want to say to you but my time is running away from me quickly. I know of the one who was harmed. It is a tragic thing that happened. I am concerned that you won't see the lesson for what it was. This again is a situation in which you need to see the whole truth. You must accept responsibility for your actions and use that awareness to the benefit of others. You must also accept that you were not alone in this, and as such, you are not solely to blame. But I know that, given who you are, you've taken the guilt upon yourself. You must learn to put it into perspective and not let it rule you.
Though it should not need to be said, I think you need to hear it. There is nothing for me to forgive you for, Deven. You need to forgive yourself for those things you could have changed and stop blaming yourself for the things you could not.
Rhian had to stop because her throat had grown so taut that she was finding it difficult to get the words past the constriction. Wiping at the tears that were streaming down her face, she took a deep breath and then read the last part.
I love you, my dear child. I am always with you, Deven; no matter what path you walk. You possess a noble spirit and a good heart. Honor them.
Deven's arms tightened and Rhian willingly returned the embrace. "She loved you very much."
"Hmm," was the best response that Deven could manage. Setting the tribulations of the past few months aside, this day alone was enough to leave the woman feeling beleaguered emotionally, and she hadn't had an opportunity to assimilate anything that had happened yet. But of everything she'd faced that day, beginning with Manny's appearance and the revelation that he knew about Tiernan up until this moment, the letter from her grandmother hit particularly hard.
Her thoughts were a jumbled mess that seemed to be tumbling over and over in her mind. Nothing would solidify enough for her to grasp hold of, and so she stopped trying to make any order of them and just clung to the woman who was her anchor. "Please don't leave me."
The plea was said with such anguish that Rhian hurt just to hear it. "I'm not going anywhere," she promised.
There weren't any words at that moment that could possibly convey the tumultuous emotions both women were struggling with. There was so much still left unsaid between them that it seemed impossible to determine where to even start, and so neither tried to speak. Theirs was the tacit communication of basic emotion through contact, and at that moment it conveyed far more than any spoken word could.
Deven narrowed her focus to the woman in her arms. This was real, this was tangible, and she held steadfast, waiting for the tightness in her chest to release its hold. Concentrating on her breathing, she eased away from the internal chaos towards the physical being and for the first time in months, her senses seemed to awaken.
Rhian's steady heartbeat reached out to her own and she felt her pulse slow to match the cadence. With each breath, the smell of the landscaper's freshly scrubbed skin filled her nose and soothed her. Everywhere the woman's hands touched eased the tension, and releasing her grasp slightly, Deven sighed as her chest expanded freely.
The seconds ticked into minutes, and with each, Rhian's concern for her companion grew. Her hands continued to caress everywhere she could reach, prodding the tense muscles to relax. She was trying to decide what to do when Deven stood up suddenly. Startled, the landscaper fell back but strong arms wrapped around her waist. Before she could respond, her lips were covered with an insistent kiss.
Unlike the last time Deven had tried to claim her thus, Rhian felt no hostility or bullying in the contact and so she yielded willingly. Still, somewhere it occurred to her that if she didn't stop things right now, there might not be any way to do so. But casting that aside in favor of awakening arousal, she answered Deven with a kiss of her own.
Deven's was a hunger born of fear and pain, an insatiable beast and her body trembled from the rush of desire. She pushed the robe off Rhian's shoulders letting it fall to the floor. Her hands moved freely across smooth skin, the texture silky beneath her fingertips and inciting her need to repossess every inch of this woman.
Things were moving rapidly, and Rhian sought to slow them down. Leaning back, she tried to put some distance between their bodies but found her retreat denied as Deven's arms tightened around her waist. The martial artist's teeth closed gently on the flesh below the landscaper's ear, releasing a flood of liquid desire from between Rhian's legs.
A growl rose up from deep within Deven's chest, rumbling against Rhian's own. This was a side of her lover, raw and primal, that Rhian had suspected existed but that had never been shared with her. When they'd made love, Deven had always been passionate but constrained to some degree as if she was holding back the depth of her ardor. This lover, however, was insistent and all consuming, and ignited a basic hunger within the landscaper.
"Oh, yes, " Rhian moaned as she ran her hands up under Deven's sweatshirt and raked her short nails down to the top of the woman's jeans. Grabbing the hem of the sweatshirt she pushed it upwards until Deven lifted her arms, and the material landed on top of the robe on the floor. She loosed Deven's belt and the button on the jeans and lowered the zipper, but with a firm grip on her wrist, the martial artist stopped her from reaching inside.
Rhian hissed in pleasure at the increasing suction on her neck. Somewhere it occurred to her that she was being marked but that was completely forgotten when strong fingers tightened around her right nipple.
There was desperation present in the martial artist's touch and Rhian felt an instant of panic. She had a choice to make and she needed to make it quickly. What was happening between them wasn't an act of making love, at least not in the sense of their past couplings. This was frenzied and seemingly out of control, a manifestation of the need to heal and feel alive again. Understanding that and admitting that she was very aroused, Rhian chose to yield as Deven firmly guided her to lie down on the bed.
As Deven's body covered her own, Rhian tried again to insinuate her fingers inside the denim that still covered the martial artist's lower region but felt her wrist gripped firmly again. "Please, Deven. I want to touch you."
With one hand, Deven pinned both of Rhian's wrists to the pillow above the landscaper's head and began moving her hips, pressing the rough denim against tender flesh. There was something almost zealous about Deven's actions, and Rhian was well aware of how quickly her body was responding.
Deven feasted hungrily on exposed flesh. Her teeth scrapped tender skin. Her free hand never stopped motion, touching everywhere, igniting a fire within both women that threatened to overwhelm them.
Her entire body nearing sensory overload, Rhian had no idea when her wrists were released. The martial artist seemed to be everywhere at once, touching, tasting, filling her, and all Rhian could do was enjoy the passionate ride.
"Rhian," Deven said and their eyes locked. "Give it to me," she demanded.
As if she could do nothing else, Rhian responded immediately. Her entire body grew rigid, and her fingers dug into the flesh on Deven's sweat covered back and then curled in a desperate attempt to hang on. A guttural moan began deep in her lower belly and rose up in conjunction with the intensity of the climax that took hold of her entire being.
Her lower back arched, pressing upwards against Deven's and she hung suspended in that place where ecstasy takes physical form. The exquisite tension gradually eased, leaving pervasive warmth in its place, and Rhian fell limply against the sheets, weeping from the intensity of the experience. Her hands released their purchase on Deven's back and her arms wrapped securely around the martial artist, needing the nearness of her lover to feel grounded.
The pounding in Deven's ears lessened as her heart rate and breathing returned to normal, and it was then that she heard the soft weeping. She tried to pull away, but Rhian held fast. Uncertain what to do, the martial artist held onto the landscaper and waited, terrified of what she'd just done. "I'm so sorry, Rhian. I swear to you, I'm sorry."
"No," Rhian managed to say. "Don't." A quick mental inventory of her body confirmed that she wasn't hurt. There was some tenderness, but she wasn't surprised given that they hadn't been intimate in months. "You didn't hurt me. In fact, that was incredible. It was just so intense, Deven."
"Yeah, it was. I." The uncertainty remained despite Rhian's words to the contrary. "I love you."
"I love you, too. And at the moment my body is singing your praises."
The next kiss they shared was tender and filled with deference. Then laying her head down on Rhian's shoulder, Deven released a sigh as her fingers lovingly traced the swell of a breast. "So beautiful," she murmured.
It was the most peaceful either woman had felt in some time and they both lazed in the tranquility. Rhian's fingers lightly massaged the martial artist's scalp, and she felt Deven respond with a gentle kiss to the center of her chest. Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly and then took the next step. "Deven?"
"Tell me about the gun."
"What gun?" Deven asked abstractedly, her focus on the soft skin beneath her lips.
"The one Manny gave you in the warehouse."
All thoughts of sensual delight fled, and the martial artist's head shot up. "What did he tell you?"
Maintaining contact, the landscaper ran her fingers through the woman's hair. "He told me that he gave you a gun so that you could take your own life."
"Deven, this is important."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"You told me that there were some things about that night that you weren't proud of. Any chance that at least some of those things are related to the gun?" Deven didn't respond verbally but the expression of shame on her face was answer enough. "You could have killed yourself but you didn't. I need to know what happened." Rhian's hands moved along the length of the martial artist's back, caressing and pressing into the tight muscles as she prepared herself to stop any attempt the woman might make to move away.
"Please don't ask that," Deven implored.
It was difficult to not give into the request but Rhian knew that to further the healing for both of them, she had to get Deven to talk about what had happened. Guilt cuffed Rhian's consciousness for taking advantage of her friend's vulnerability. I've waited for this opportunity for weeks and I'm not going to turn away from it no matter how painful it's going to be for us. I'm sorry, baby. "You were beaten beyond recognition. I know because I saw you," she said, her voice catching as the horror of seeing her lover in that condition revisited.
"You were dying, and I know the suffering must have been excruciating. Even for you, my love," she continued and a slow steady stream of tears began to trickle down her cheeks. "I now know that you could have easily stopped the suffering. I have to know why you didn't because in the same situation, I think I would have."
"No, you wouldn't have. You wouldn't have even considered it," Deven replied with conviction.
"I just don't know," Rhian countered. "If I'd had to endure what you did, I don't think I could have made it. I'm afraid I would have given up and taken the opportunity to end it."
Snippets of her grandmother's letter floated into Deven's mind. Her whole life seemed to be measured in one of two ways – victory or encumbrance. All of those burdens, whether real or imagined, and the crushing weight of them became more than she could find the strength to carry anymore.
"Rhian, the idea of my death was nothing new for me. Every time I got into a fight, I knew the possibility existed that I would die. Every time I opened up the throttle on my motorcycle, I knew it would be devastating if I lost control. And I knew the day that I was escorted out of California that someone was going to come after me.
"But the only time I ever even vaguely considered the concept of wanting to die was when they had me strapped down at the clinic. But even then I still believed I'd find a way to either get free or die on my own terms. Other then that, every time I considered my death, I always believed it would be against someone and when the time came, whoever it was, would have to take it away from me because there was no way in hell that I wasn't going without a fight."
"But it didn't happen that way," Rhian said in comprehension.
"No," Deven agreed. "You have to accept that there was no other choice for me. I had to do whatever I could to ensure your safety."
"You knew what they were going to do, didn't you?"
"I had a pretty good idea. I still tried to come up with ideas on how I could fight back. I thought that if I could make enough trouble, Manny would have to just shoot me. He knows me too well in that regard, I guess, because he took every precaution he could to ensure I couldn't fight. And he figured out real quick that I wouldn't do anything that would risk you or the kids. Looking back now, I see how unnecessary it was. He would never hurt Tiernan. And I don't believe he would harm you or Seana."
"He said he doesn't make idle threats," Rhian pointed out.
"No he doesn't. But he never actually said anything that was a threat to your wellbeing. He counted on me reading the danger into the situation. And it worked."
"I have to tell you, Deven, I'm still having a real hard time reconciling what he did with the man who was here today." The martial artist didn't say anything, and Rhian prodded her to continue. "What are you thinking about?"
"While they were driving me to that warehouse, all I could think about was what I'd done to you and the kids."
"You didn't do anything to us, honey."
"I was the reason you were in that situation in the first place! I deserve everything that happens to me. But you don't. Tiernan and Seana don't. And I couldn't protect you from any of it."
"No! Because of me, you all could have been hurt or worse. And for what? I'm not even sure at this point. If it hadn't been Manny, I'd be dead and so would you. And maybe even the kids. But I knew that no matter what, he would keep his word and you all would be safe." Her eyes lowered as she struggled with one particular memory. "The worst thing about saying good bye to you was the look on your face. I could see that you believed I'd let you down. And even though I didn't really expect to survive, I didn't know if you'd still be here if I somehow managed to make it through."
That disclosure nearly knocked the breath out of the landscaper. "Oh, God." She hid her face with her hands and sobbed.
"It's okay," Deven assured her.
"No, it's not," she cried. "Not if that's what you truly believe. Do you really have so little faith in me? In my love for you?"
Reaching up, Deven moved Rhian's hands out of the way so she could look into her companion's grief filled eyes. "I wanted to believe but I couldn't see where I was worth it." She brushed away a few of the landscaper's tears with her fingertips.
"Once I knew you were free, I accepted that my life was forfeit and mentally I was ready. I just never expected it to last so long." How do I explain this? "I don't know if I can even find the words for this, Rhian."
The pain that was etched on the martial artist's face was heartbreaking, but Rhian refused to back down. "Baby, please try. You need to talk about it. And I need to know. No matter what you tell me, I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying right here with you. For you."
"To say that it was painful is a gross understatement. They just kept hitting me. Methodically. Mace started saying shit about how he was going to come after you to finish." She stopped, leaving the implication dangling there. The memories hurt. The guilt that was constricting her chest and throat hurt. But the deep sorrow in her lover's eyes hurt most of all. "No matter how much damage they did, I refused to give them the satisfaction of knowing how excruciating it was. I fought the pain for as long as I could. Then things started to. To break, I guess, and that."
Deven shivered at the memories and the landscaper's arms wrapped around her in reassurance. "I don't know how long we were there, but I thought I was going to lose my mind. All that training was a huge mistake."
"No it wasn't," Rhian argued. "According to Dr. Iverson, the damage wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. He said that was because you were in such good shape."
"If I hadn't been in that condition I would have just fucking died! Don't you understand? My body wouldn't give up and release me. I wanted them, wanted him, to just kill me and stop the torture!"
"But you wouldn't be here now. We wouldn't be here now. Is that what you really wanted?" Rhian asked.
"No!" The ensuing silence hung in the room making Deven's breathing sound unusually loud. "It was just so hard. Look, you asked. If you want me to stop, I'll stop right now."
"Deven, I love you. I don't want to contemplate what my life would be like if you'd died. I'm sorry if that's selfish but that's the truth. And I did ask and I do want to hear it all. Please."
They stared at each other for several long seconds, Deven searching for any indication of uncertainty and Rhian meeting the challenge with an open resolve. "All right," the martial artist replied without emotion. "I finally did pass out because I woke up lying on the floor. It was freezing. I couldn't keep from shivering and that just rattled every broken bone. Every breath burned. My head was pounding so hard I couldn't stay awake. I couldn't see. And the bastard puts a gun in my hand."
Lowering her head, Deven rested it on her lover's chest. "I was so pissed off at Manny. After all of that, he said he wouldn't take my life. But, being the generous guy that he is, he gave me the means to do it but left the choice up to me," she continued flatly. "I wanted to die. For the first time, I wanted to take my own life. I kept thinking that it would only take one bullet to the head and it would all be over. That everything would be better for all of you if I just weren't around anymore. You'd go on with your life. Tiernan would get settled. And I wouldn't be around to influence Seana anymore."
Despite the lack of emotion in Deven's voice, Rhian could feel the moisture of the woman's tears where they dripped down onto her chest.
"Everyone keeps saying I'm so brave because I went with them to save you. Bullshit! I'm a coward, Rhian."
"No, Deven. You're not."
"I am! You have no idea what it's like to have to face the truth about yourself. That in that moment of my life, knowing I could set you all free, I failed to do the right thing."
"Deven," Rhian started but was cut off immediately.
"I couldn't think of one reason not to take my life. I lie there, knowing that I was dying anyway and could come up with dozens of reasons why I should pull the trigger." The painful memories were tugging harder at her weakened defenses, and she wiped at the tears, hoping the gesture would push everything to recede. "But in the end, I couldn't do it. I accepted his offer to live. You have to admit, I'm pretty gutless."
"It wasn't gutless. And taking your life wasn't the right thing for anyone," Rhian disagreed. "It's so contrary to who you are, love, and that's why you couldn't do it. It was the easy way out, and you've never been one to take the easy way. Even your grandmother said so. And your grandfather obviously appreciated your fighting spirit. Shooting yourself would have been a true act of cowardice. Not making the choice to live."
"You don't understand!"
"You're right. But I think I'm beginning to get a clue. You could accept losing if you lost fighting. You could have accepted losing this particular situation without a fight because you believed that what you were doing was the right thing. What you can't accept is the very human concept that you faced a moment in which you wanted to quit."
"Quit? I." The martial artist stopped and licked her lips. "I've never quit anything."
"No, you haven't. Deven. And that's is just one of the many things about you that makes you so brave. It also causes you to have incredibly poor judgment at times. Especially when it comes to yourself." This emotional rollercoaster was tying Rhian's stomach into knots. "Don't you get it? You should have died from the injuries inflicted upon you. It was torturous and there is nothing weak or pathetic about wanting to escape that pain. There is nothing pitiable about wanting to not hurt anymore. You've never in your life had an easy time of it."
"It isn't like me to wallow in self pity but that's all I've been doing. From the moment he put that fucking gun in my hand until now."
"Deven, you're dwelling on the wrong thing. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be better than everyone else. You just have to be you. And because you had the courage to not quit and chose to live, we have a second chance," Rhian answered. "And I am grateful for that even if it comes at the expense of your ego."
"A second chance at what? Me making your life miserable?"
Rhian was growing frustrated and it was taking a lot of energy to keep from becoming argumentative. "Why do you resent me so much?"
"I don't," Deven answered hoarsely.
"Then what is it? And for once, just give me a straight answer," Rhian insisted.
"When I saw what they'd done to me, I couldn't. I couldn't accept that you weren't repulsed. And I didn't want you to think you were obligated to take care of me or be with me."
"I've never felt any of those things. Ever," the landscaper answered adamantly.
Deven was starting to pull away despite Rhian's gentle efforts to keep her close, and when she spoke again, the strain was more evident in her voice. "Let me go."
Rhian responded by tightening her hold. "I'm never letting you go."
"Why can't you trust me?"
"How can you want that of me, Rhian? The more I needed you near the harder I pushed you away, convincing myself that it was best for you. But even though I believed that, it was mostly because I knew you couldn't possibly love me anymore. And every time I hurt you, it was so that I could punish myself. It got to the point that I didn't know how to make it stop. I'm so sorry, Rhian."
A tremor ran through Deven's body and the younger woman hugged her harder. "I know, honey."
"I just couldn't make it stop," she cried against Rhian's.
"Deven, please listen to me. Really listen. I have never stopped loving you and I have never felt you were a burden. I began to believe that you actually hated me at times, and I couldn't understand why. But my love for you has never wavered. I am so grateful to you for not giving into the desire to take you life, because I need and want you here with me. I won't apologize for that. I won't apologize for my selfishness. I'm not ready or willing to let you go. Not having you with me is not now, nor will it ever be, for the best. Not for me. Not for our children. And not for you."
"Do you have any idea how much I don't believe I deserve this?" Deven whispered.
"Why? Why wouldn't you deserve this? You've been through hell in body, mind, and spirit. I can't think of anyone who deserves to be loved more than you."
"After everything that has happened, everything I put you through, you can't honestly believe that I've earned your love."
"Love isn't something you earn, Deven. It's something that's given freely. Whether or not I choose to give you my love is up to me. Not you. And nothing that has happened between us has changed that."
"You can't mean that."
"I do. I love you, Deven."
The last of her restraints shattered and the martial artist broke down. Shifting her weight, she tried to move away but Rhian held firmly. "No, baby. Let me hold you," she said. "It's time to let it go. I won't let anything happen to you. I promise. Hold onto me."
The torment that Deven had carried demanded to be freed. Deep wracking sobs lifted up from a battered spirit and the worst of her injuries finally began to mend. Rhian held fast and spoke loving thoughts softly, trying to ease her lover's tortured soul.
Two women nearly decimated by circumstances beyond their control, and desperate to heal themselves and each other, clung together in the love that had been wounded but had refused to acquiesce to the nightmare that had been visited upon them.
How much time passed was irrelevant. The lovers remained unconcerned about its passage because in the safety of their love and friendship, they found a basic consolation against their individual and shared pain. Deven's tears fell unhindered and eventually her crying eased into shuddering breaths and a deep fatigue. Rolling onto her back, she sighed deeply. "Damn."
"You okay?" the landscaper asked.
"I guess. I feel like I've been."
"Do not say beat up. It isn't a good metaphor anymore," Rhian interjected and sat up.
"I suppose not," Deven replied. "I don't feel so good."
"Are you going to be sick?"
Deven answered with a small shake of her head. Rhian leaned closer and wrapped her fingers around the waistband of the martial artist's jeans.
"What are you doing?" she asked with a start.
"Taking off your pants. Lift your hips."
"Rhian, I don't know if."
"Deven, you can't sleep comfortably in them. Now lift your hips."
With reservation the martial artist did as requested, and Rhian slid the denim, along with her underwear, off. She lay on her back, trying to ignore how vulnerable she felt at that moment and jerked slightly as Rhian's hands lightly touched her abdomen.
"Does it still hurt?" the landscaper asked while touching the new flesh along the incision.
"Not too much. If I stretch too quickly or lift something the wrong way, it pulls. If something presses right on it or my ribs, I definitely feel it."
Rhian traced the new scars with compassion and then pressed her lips to each. "I'm so sorry that happened to you."
"Is it? Will it ever be completely over? I know the most dangerous part is behind us but the ramifications are still here. Look at us. We're still trying to find a way to just talk about it."
"I guess the positive is that we are trying. You haven't given up on me yet."
Rhian looked down at the sheet. "I don't want you to give up on us."
"Come here," Deven replied and opened her arms in invitation.
Without hesitation, the younger woman stretched out and placed her head on the martial artist's shoulder. "I hate your mother," she suddenly blurted out.
"I think that makes two of us. But are you referring to anything in particular?"
"For starters, everything she ever did to you. And I feel awful about Tiernan. I know you blame me for his not being here."
"I don't blame you. I blame myself."
"She wouldn't let him stay. I needed him to stay. He needed to stay and she," Rhian's voice broke. "I wanted to knock the bitch on her ass, but my father stopped me."
"I would have paid to see that," Deven said in amusement. "So, why didn't you?"
"My father talked me out of it. He pointed out that it would have probably been worse for Tiernan."
Rhian's fingers brushed across Deven's collarbone. "I feel awful about not knowing what to do to help you."
"You shouldn't. It isn't like I was giving you much incentive."
"I should have known what to do for you," the landscaper replied miserably.
"Why? Why should you have all the answers all the time?"
"I'm supposed to know you."
"And you do. You know me better than anyone. But baby, it wasn't your fault. Look, I feel like we're going around in circles. Rhian, everyone keeps telling me that I can't dwell on what I should or could have done. I'd like to think that if I could go back and do everything over again, that I'd do it differently. I can look back and wish I'd done everything differently. But the truth is, I don't see how I would have under the circumstances."
Lifting her head, Rhian allowed the pain show. "I couldn't understand why you were so mad at me. At first I thought it was everything you were going through, not me specifically. But then when I watched you interact with Mom and Seana, I saw that it was me." Her eyes filling with tears again, she lowered her gaze. "I started to resent how you were treating me. You were so mean sometimes. I felt like I was an intrusion in your life and that you hated me."
"No," Deven said. "Never. I can't tell you how sorry I am, Rhian. I hated not having any control over what was happening to me. I hated having to depend on you and your mother. But especially you."
"Why? I just wanted to help you."
"Because I convinced myself that you couldn't possible love me. That you were there because you felt you had to be, not because you wanted to be. And it broke my heart. And I knew that I was not the person you thought I was. I was nothing more than a liar and a failure."
"You didn't fail me, Deven. You've never failed me."
"I did. And then you'd do something that was so kind, I couldn't stand it. I saw myself in that damn mirror and I couldn't stand knowing that was how you saw me."
"Deven, I understand that so much of your self-image is a product of spending your life performing and being at the top of your game. The champion. I also understand that it's skewed because of what your parents did to you and with the way you view your actions. But what I see when I look at you has nothing to do with your image or your physical being." She tenderly traced the scar along the woman's jaw. "You are a beautiful woman, but I fell in love with the person you are inside. And nothing has changed that."
The martial artist wanted to believe that, a part of her needed to believe that Rhian's love went far deeper than the physical. And on some level she did believe, but there remained a wounded part of her soul that just couldn't completely accept that she was loved just for who she was. "When you went out that night, I was certain that you'd slept with someone. I knew it was my fault and that gave me something to really focus my anger on."
"I know, Rhian. But at that point in time, I knew that I was pushing you away. Believing that I'd pushed you into someone else's bed gave me something to really be pissed off about. I could beat myself up for not being what you needed at the same time I could be furious at you."
"How do we stop this?" the landscaper asked in exasperation.
"I don't know," Deven answered sadly. "There are times when you look at me that I feel like I can do anything."
"And when I look at you I see all the possibilities."
"It's not just that, Rhian. It's that I see all the things I want to be and I see all the things that I'm not. I never cared before but with you I care. I care that I hurt you. I care that I don't give you what you deserve. I want to."
"Honey, stop and please listen to me. I don't want you to be anything other than who you are. Do I believe that you can be happier? Yes. Do I believe you can be more comfortable with yourself? Yes. But in order to achieve those, you need to change some things. Do I want you to change for me? Absolutely not. If you decide to change at all, you do it for yourself."
"I love you, you know?" Deven asked.
"I had my doubts there some days."
"I don't want you to doubt that. Even when I'm a complete and total ass."
"I'll try to keep that in mind," Rhian said with a smile.
No other words passed between them. None were necessary as lips came together in a sweet kiss. Deven shifted her body to roll over them, but the landscaper stopped her. "Lie still."
"I want to love you."
"You will, but it's my turn. I need this, Deven. Please."
"I don't know if I can, Rhian."
"Why? Is it me? You don't want me to touch you?"
I'm." Deven's brow furrowed. "I'm kind of nervous
"I don't know if I can because I don't know how my body will react. I don't even know if my body will react. I don't know if it will hurt. You know? If I'll get a headache or something."
"Okay," Rhian replied. "I can understand that. Earlier, were you aroused?"
"Are you kidding me?"
"Well, I know you were incredibly arousing. I'd say your body can and will react. Did you get a headache?"
"Did anything hurt?"
"My hand some but that was just stiffness."
"Then why don't we see what happens," Rhian said, kissing Deven before she could protest. "Relax, honey. No expectations. I promise."
In contrast to Deven's earlier passion, Rhian's touch was gentle and unhurried but insistent nonetheless. Each time the martial artist tried to assert control and dictate the pace, Rhian stubbornly refused to allow it. She knew her friend was struggling, and with tenderness, she slowly enveloped Deven in a sensual love, reconnecting on a level beyond just the physical.
The ardor built slowly, reaching deep within each woman and Deven's touch began to mirror the landscaper's. Rhian's body responded rapidly, too rapidly, and she purposefully shifted away. "Ah, ah, ah. Not so fast, sneaky," she whispered huskily.
"You can't blame me for trying," Deven answered in a sultry tone.
"You're incorrigible and I sure do love you," Rhian replied. With increased earnestness, she devoted herself to loving this woman. But her pace obviously wasn't quick enough. Her hand was grasped and guided to between the martial artist's legs in silent entreaty. "Are you sure?" she asked.
"Yes." Deven swallowed. "Love me. Please."
"Forever." Accepting the invitation, Rhian tempered her ardor and they moved together in a rhythm that was their own; a natural rhythm that brought their hearts and bodies together in an inexplicable synchronization.
Their touches grew more insistent as they explored each other, but Rhian could feel that her lover was holding back and reached out to her. "Deven, open your eyes and look at me. Don't take your eyes off me." Slowly the martial artist complied, and her pace increased though she still denied the release. "Don't take your eyes off me and let it go."
"Yes, my love," she said and then kissed that martial artist passionately.
Deven rode on the crest of an orgasm that seemed to flow in waves without beginning or end. The force of her climax grew rapidly once it had begun and reached out to all of her. Breaking the kiss, she cried out as her body went taut with pleasure.
Unable to hold back any longer, Rhian pressed her swollen flesh hard against her lover's hand and rode on the edge of her own release for a blissful moment. "Are you okay?" she asked with concern. The martial artist didn't reply but lay there with her eyes closed, breathing hard. "Deven, please answer me."
"Come here," she requested.
Rhian complied, lying down against her lover and settling into an embrace. Placing a hand on Deven's chest, she felt the erratic heartbeat slow to a steady rhythm. "Are you okay?"
"Not really. That was, um," she sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "It was just more than I expected."
Lifting her head from where it rested on Deven's shoulder, Rhian studied her companion closely. The woman's eyes were clear and there were none of the lines on her face that indicated she was in pain. "I hope that's a good thing."
Deven chuckled softly. "It's a very good thing."
Rhian sighed happily and lay her head back down. With her fingers moving in a lazy pattern across her companion's abdomen, she could feel the woman's body relax and breathing slow.
"I love you," Deven mumbled sleepily and then entered the first truly healing sleep she'd had since the whole ordeal had begun.
Rhian fought to stay awake to savor the contact and what had happened between them. They were far from where they needed to be yet. They might never get there or it might take a lifetime, but that was what she wanted - a lifetime with this woman. Closing her eyes, her lips moved upward into a small contented smile and she let sleep take her.