© by J. 'Harley' Elmore, 2003 -2004
"Charyot!" The order resonated off the walls, silencing everyone within the school. The group of students snapped to attention despite their exhaustion and stood waiting to see what their instructor would demand of them next.
From her position at the front of the classroom, Deven scrutinized them critically. Regardless of their age, each came with preconceived notions of what their personal limitations were. But the martial artist never accepted anyone's preconceptions. And so she demanded they push themselves, testing those limitations, and moving beyond their comfort zones.
This workout had been no exception. She'd pushed them hard and hadn't been disappointed as they'd all met her challenge and performed to the best of their abilities. That was all she asked of them, to always give the best that they were capable of giving. And this evening, they'd done just that.
"Sha," Deven commanded and as a unit they assumed an at-ease stance. "As you know, next Monday is Labor Day, and the school won't be open," she reminded them. "I have also decided to close the school on Saturday to give the instructors a three day weekend. So please, don't show up on Saturday or Monday, because there won't be anyone here. Does everyone understand?"
"Yes, ma'am," they answered in unison.
"Good. You all did very well today. Thank you." Pivoting, she turned to face the same direction as the class and initiated the bowing out ceremony. As the next group of students moved forward, assuming the positions just vacated by the dismissed class, she glanced into the office with the intention of signaling Jay that his break was over.
As they made eye contact, he held up the phone indicating that she had a call. Shaking her head, she made a writing gesture with her hand, silently telling him to take a message. Instead of doing as she asked though, he smiled and set the phone down on the desk. Son of a.
"Jerk," she mumbled under her breath as she strode passed him in the lobby. Entering her office, she stepped around the desk, grabbing up the receiver as she went. "Deven Masterson," she spoke into the phone professionally despite her irritation.
"Hi," the caller responded and the martial artist's entire demeanor softened. Easing herself down onto the chair, she propped her feet up on the corner of the desk, crossing her legs at the ankles. "Hi, beautiful. What's up?"
There was a significant pause before Rhian answered, and when she finally did, there was a distinct tremor in her voice. "I need you to come home."
Immediately alert, the martial artist lowered her legs and sat upright in the chair. "What happened? Are you okay? Where are the kids?"
"Deven," Rhian interrupted, "I'm okay and the children are fine. But, I need you to come home."
What the hell is going on? If nothings wrong, then why would she want me home early? Wait. Not want. Need. Oh yeah, she needs me. "Baby, I need you, too," she replied, her voice taking on a definite sensual quality. "I'll be home in about an hour and a half, and then we can."
"I'm not talking about that, Deven!"
"Okay!" the woman snapped back. "What are you talking about?"
"Something," Rhian hesitated again. "Please, come home now."
"Fine. I'll go get changed up and be on my way," Deven replied tersely.
"Thank you," came the whispered reply.
Reaching over, the martial artist shut the computer down. As the monitor screen went dark, her anger subsided leaving uncertainty in its place. "What's going on?" she asked.
"I can't explain it, especially not over the phone. I need to show you."
Her friend's evasiveness and obvious distress made Deven uneasy. "I'm on my way."
"Good. See you soon," Rhian said and then hung up.
No goodbye? No I love you? This can't be good, Deven mused. She tidied up the desktop before making her way to the locker room to change out of her uniform. On the way back to the front of the school, she stopped to speak with her head instructor. "I have to go."
"Is everything okay?" Jay asked. "You look stressed out."
"I'm not sure what's going on," she answered truthfully. "I've been summoned home."
"What did you do now?"
"Shut up," she retorted. "Just take care of things here, okay?"
"Sure. Got it covered," he assured her. Standing to the side of the classroom, Jay watched her leave before turning his focus back on the students. Good luck, Deven. I hope everything's okay, because between you, Rhian and Nicole, I've had more than my share of drama lately. And quite frankly, my friend, I'm just not up for another go round.
For most of the ride home Deven tried to figure out what she'd done wrong. Over the past few days, they'd talked a lot about their living arrangement. It hadn't been easy for Deven to admit her weaknesses in any area, but with Rhian's candid assessment of her own strengths and shortcomings, the martial artist had managed to set aside her overactive pride and honestly discuss their situation.
It hadn't taken them long to realize that they complimented each other quite well on many issues and were extreme opposites on others, but they were now closer to a middle ground than previously. Things have been going really well. Everyone seemed happy this afternoon. So what the hell did I do wrong?
Just when I think I'm getting the swing of things, I find out there's something else I don't know. Note to self: write down all the rules, enlarge them, laminate them, and post copies in the kitchen, office, bathroom, and bedroom. That's the only damn way you're ever going to stay ahead. Ahead? She laughed out loud. "I'd be happy to just break even!"
Unsure as to whether she should be combative or apologetic, she took her time entering the house. It was fairly quiet. The television in the living room was on, and assuming that's where the children were, she headed in that direction. But before she got halfway across the room, Rhian walked in and they both stopped where they were.
"I thought I heard the door," the landscaper said.
The woman's eyes were slightly red, and it occurred to Deven that she might have been crying. What did I do? "Yeah. Just got here," she answered cautiously.
Moving over to the breakfast bar, Rhian stood silently and regarded her obviously uncomfortable companion. Where do I begin? Now that Deven was home, she wasn't certain how to broach the problem. Placing her hands on the edge of the counter for support, she took a deep breath and plunged forward. "I got something in the mail at work today, and I didn't have time to open it until this evening. Which it turns out was just as well. I don't know where it came from, but." Her voice petered out, further provoking Deven's apprehension.
"Okay." The martial artist remained where she was, waiting.
"Have a look," Rhian said while indicating a large envelop on the counter top.
Deven picked it up and pulled out several photographs. Some were black and white and some in color, but the subject was the same in all of them. Looking at each of the pictures, she felt her stomach tighten and a burning sensation rise up in the back of her throat. No!
The first few photos showed Kiki as she had been before Deven had battered her so severely. The rest showed the woman after. Squeezing her eyes shut, Deven tried to eradicate the pictures from her mind. She didn't want to remember the details, and yet, there they were in semi-gloss five by sevens. This can't be happening.
Opening her eyes again, Deven turned each photograph over looking for anything that would indicate where they might have come from. She examined the envelope as well, and aside from a California postmark, it yielded no further clues. It was addressed to Rhian at the garden center, so there was no mistaking that someone had meant for her lover to see what she'd done.
"It's her, isn't it?" Rhian asked. Deven nodded slightly but couldn't bring herself to look up. "Why? Why would someone send these to me?"
"I don't know," Deven responded. "The only thing I can think of is that someone thought you needed to be warned. That you needed to know what I'm capable of."
"Were capable of," Rhian argued.
Everything had happened so fast that night and she'd been fairly inebriated at the time so that most of the details were fuzzy for her at best. Even with the nightmares, she'd been unable to discern which images were based on what had actually occurred and which ones were the actions of her imagination. But now, the results of what she'd done were burned into her brain bringing her memories a new sharpness of detail that she was unable to dismiss.
The constriction in her belly increased, and for a moment, the martial artist thought her stomach was going to rebel. It was only through a concerted effort that she was able to suppress the urge to throw up.
Rhian could see that Deven was in pain, and moving around the breakfast bar, she guided her companion to sit down on one of the stools. Lightly caressing the woman's pale face, Rhian grew concerned at the clamminess of her skin. "Are you going to be sick?"
"I don't know," the martial artist managed to say between clinched teeth.
"Honey, relax. I already knew about this."
Focusing on her friend's face, Deven took several deep breaths and released them slowly until the revulsion eased. "I know. It's just." Tears filled her eyes, and Rhian did the only thing she could think of. She wrapped her arms around her friend.
"It's okay," she said against the dark hair even as she was struck by the strangeness of the situation. I'm comforting her for what she did to that woman. Well, it's not like I didn't already know what happened, but damn, I could never really envision it.
Glancing over Deven's shoulder, she looked at the photographs that proved in vivid detail that this woman had in fact been capable of extreme violence, and she realized she was afraid. Her biggest fear at the moment was how Deven might react to this reminder of the past. That the woman would retreat, negating all the progress they'd made over the past months. But she was also very concerned that someone knew of her, knew where she worked, knew of her relationship with Deven, and had managed to insinuate themselves into their personal lives. That's just plain creepy.
"Where are the kids?" Deven asked.
"In the living room watching a video. It's time I got them ready for bed."
"No," the landscaper assured her. "They didn't see anything. They know that I was upset about something, but they don't know what it was." Stepping back, Rhian considered how pallid Deven still was. "Are you going to be okay?"
Not knowing the answer, Deven shrugged. Does it really matter? This was so unexpected and the implications staggering. She hadn't had a chance to think clearly about any of it yet.
"Want me to get you something?" Rhian offered.
"No. Go on. Get them into bed and give me a holler. I'll come tuck them in." Her throat made a small clicking sound as she swallowed. "Unless."
"Unless you don't want me to. I'll understand."
"Don't do this, Deven. Of course, I want you to. Please don't back away from me. Nothing has changed, okay?"
Her misery threatened to overpower her and so the martial artist remained quiet. You don't understand, my love.
"Deven, please don't. Don't leave me."
"Leave you? I live here, remember?"
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Rhian smiled slightly as she pointed at her lover's chest. "I mean don't leave me here."
Tangling her hand in Rhian's hair, Deven pulled her forward and kissed her. "I won't. I promise."
Keeping a shaky grasp on her emotions, the younger woman slowly nodded her head. "We do need to try to figure out where they came from."
Deven wiped at her eyes and focused her thoughts on that aspect of the problem. "I know."
"Let me get the kids to bed, and then we can talk about it. I'll call you when they're ready for you." Rhian hugged her lover again and kissed her lightly before turning to leave the room. "Don't run off," she called over her shoulder.
Deven put the pictures back in the envelope while trying to not actually look at them. What the hell is going on? There were a number of possibilities, any of which were viable. She ran through each scenario in her mind, studying them from different angles until Rhian called her up to say good night to their children.
Tiernan and Seana were delightfully surprised to have her home to tell them goodnight, and she spent time with them both, easing their concerns about Rhian's earlier upset and convincing them that everything was fine between them even though she wasn't so certain.
Having gotten them settled down for the night, Deven returned to the kitchen but didn't see Rhian or the photographs. She checked each room on that level of the house, and then stepping out into the darkened sunroom, her eyes were drawn to the barbeque pit where flames illuminated the younger woman.
Standing silently, she watched as each picture was burned in turn before the envelope was also placed in the fire. The landscaper's eyes lifted and met hers in the dark, and the determination on Rhian's face was unmistakable, causing Deven to wonder which one of them was the more formidable when it came to protecting their own.
With her head cradled on the martial artist's shoulder, Rhian lay quietly, listening to the strong heartbeat beneath her ear. Deven had been even more reticent than was normal, and Rhian had given her some room to retreat. Now it's time to reel her back in before she drowns in the depths of her self-condemnation. "Deven?"
Slipping her hand up under the woman's tee shirt, Rhian gently caressed the skin, spending several seconds tracing the scar. "Talk to me, please."
"Deven, don't do that," Rhian scolded.
"I don't know what to say."
"How about just telling me what's weighing so heavy on your mind?"
"I don't even know where to begin." Deven narrowed her focus to the feel of Rhian's fingers against her flesh and the comforting weight of the woman's body. "A lot of things bother me. I don't like that someone out there has copies of those pictures. If they ever got out, I'd be out of business. I don't like that someone knows enough to send them to you directly at your work address. That means that whoever it was has done some homework on us. Why did they do it? I don't know for sure. I still think they were trying to warn you."
She paused for a moment. "But I especially don't like that you saw what I did. It was hard enough to tell you about it, but I never wanted you to know that much detail. Hell, I didn't want to know that much detail. That night is so blurry for me. As vivid as the nightmares are, I was never sure how much of it was real and how much just my imagination. Now I know the truth."
"I never wanted to know that detail either," Rhian said. "When you told me about it, I tried to imagine the scene, but I just couldn't. Everything I envisioned seemed so implausible."
"I'm so sorry, Rhian."
"For it all. For having done what I did. For being the kind of person that would do such a thing to another human being. For having exposed you to it."
Placing her palm on the woman's chest, Rhian lifted her head and rested her chin on the back of her hand. "Honey, I know you regret what you did. I also know that you're not that kind of person anymore. I'm not convinced that you ever really were that kind of person so much as a very lost soul. There's nothing we can do about the pictures now except try to figure out where they came from."
She shifted her body up until she was almost nose-to-nose with the woman. Silently, she searched Deven's eyes, seeking out the depths. "Do you think we're in any danger?"
The martial artist gave that question careful consideration. She didn't want to lie, but at the same time, she didn't want to cause needless worry. "No. I don't think so," she answered as honestly as possible. "I think it was a case of someone trying to scare you off. I just can't figure out who would have had access to all those pictures."
"Okay, well, if that was their intention, they failed."
"Yeah?" Deven asked somewhat skeptically.
"Yeah," Rhian answered with a grin. "If you couldn't scare me off no matter how hard you tired, what makes you think anyone else can?"
Deven brought her hands up under the back of Rhian's nightshirt and massaged the muscles along her spine. "Are you saying that I'm scarier?"
"Oh yeah," she replied somewhat breathlessly as the massage became caresses that caused her skin to tingle. "It's scary how hedonistic you've made me." Lowering her head, she kissed the waiting lips and pressed her body against the solid one beneath her.
The kiss deepened bringing with it an inundation of desire. Not just the physical yearning that always seemed to be lurking, waiting within each woman, but also an emotional craving to heal the wounds of the past and strengthen the bond between them.
Breaking the kiss, Deven stared into eyes darkened to a deep emerald and cocking her head slightly she smiled at the aroused woman. "You are amazing."
"So are you," Rhian responded with an affectionate smile.
"Thanks." With little effort Deven rolled them over and slowly settled her weight along the smaller woman's side. "Let's just see how amazing we can be, shall we?" she said while nuzzling the tender skin beneath her lover's ear.
A shudder coursed through Rhian as strong fingers traced a line down her throat to the center of her chest. "I love you, Deven."
Lifting her head, Deven made eye contact with the woman who held her heart, body and soul. "I love you," she whispered, her voice taut with emotion. Those three little words were meant to somehow convey the depth of her heart but didn't even seem to brush the surface. And so when the words failed, she sought to manifest what she felt in physical form.
Their love making that night was unhurried and tender. It was as if Deven needed to prove to Rhian, or more precisely to herself, that she was capable of such tenderness. That the violence that had been such an indomitable part of her nature for so long didn't rule the present and that she was no longer a slave to its intoxicating allure.
With a nearly unquenchable thirst, they touched and savored each other, tracing familiar contours and reveling in the tactile expression of their love. Theirs was a slow and steady build of sexual tension, rising over and over again to a near crescendo only to ebb enough to delay the moment of total release. And when that release finally came, it was shared together, a long joyful moment in which they both hung suspended on the pinnacle of their climaxes before spiraling downward into near exhaustion.
They lay with limbs tangled, holding tight to each other until Deven rolled onto her back taking her lover with her. Finally easing her grasp, Rhian settled peacefully half on and half off the long body. With her head resting on the strong shoulder, she lifted her hand and caressed her companion's cheek before settling the hand between the woman's breasts. The strong heart beneath her fingertips lulled her, and her eyes fluttered closed.
Deven lay staring up at the ceiling, watching the shadows shift as the trees outside the windows danced in the night wind. She sought out patterns in the shadows, a remnant of a childhood game but her tired mind refused to see more than random shapes.
Grandmother? I think the time is nearing. Her throat strained against the sudden constriction that made it a struggle just to breathe. I don't know what I was thinking. Oh hell, the truth is I wasn't thinking at all. Was it so bad for me to want to have all this? I know that I should be grateful for whatever the spirits blessed me with, and I am. It was more than I ever thought possible. I just· I started to believe.
Pale eyes brimmed with unshed tears, and with a blink, they streamed down the smooth cheekbones into dark hair. No matter what you may think of me, please look after Rhian and the children. I'll do whatever I can to protect them and I'll face whatever challenge there is, but please help me to keep them safe. Not for me, but for them. Reaching up with her free hand she wiped away the dampness from her face. You would have loved her, Grandmother. She's the most beautiful person I've ever met. And·and she loved me.
She struggled for several seconds to not succumb to the tears and finally with the release of a heavy sigh, she pushed her body to relax. Rhian shifted slightly in her sleep, holding tighter to her human pillow and Deven smiled sorrowfully. Placing a kiss on the woman's forehead, the martial artist spoke softly, "I love you, little bird. I will always love you." And with that her eyes drifted shut as she waited for sleep to claim her.
Subconsciously, Deven propelled her body to move at the same time her mind was thrust into awareness. Rising rapidly from the bed, she lifted Rhian up as well, nearly tossing the sleeping woman onto the floor. A flash of lightening illuminated the room, temporarily blinding both women and the thunder that followed cracked loudly and then reverberated for several seconds, rattling the windows.
Rhian scrambled to her feet and reached for the bedside lamp. The soft light chased the shadows away, leaving the two women squared off across the bed.
"Did I hurt you?" Deven asked shakily.
The landscaper's heart was pounding so hard, it was almost deafening to her. "You scared the crap out of me!"
"Did I hurt you?" the martial artist asked again but with much more potency.
"No." As unnerved as Rhian was from having been awakened so roughly, the abject horror on Deven's face was far more frightening to her. The pulse in her lover's neck beat visibly beneath the skin and the younger woman managed to get a partial grasp on her annoyance. "What the hell is going on?"
The dark haired woman blinked several times, trying to erase the images from her mind. It had been the same nightmare but different somehow. As a result of the photographs, it had contained more detail than the dreams of the past. But the biggest difference was that the victim had remained Kiki the entire time, unlike before where it had ultimately ended with Tiernan or Rhian lying bloody on the floor.
Deven's eyes quickly scanned her lover's nude body, looking for any indications that she might have struck Rhian while in the depths of the nightmare. She studied her own hands, assuring herself that there was no blood present. Seeing none she sat down on the edge of the mattress, her back to the other woman.
She hadn't had the dream in some time and had never had it when Rhian was present. With everything that had happened over the past months, she'd foolishly convinced herself that she'd managed to put it all away in the past. Damn it! I could have hurt her.
Rhian's heart rate slowed while she observed the martial artist's slumped shoulders. Even from this distance she could see the slight trembling of the woman's body and crawled across the mattress until she was near enough to touch the smooth warm flesh. "Deven?" Slowly, she reached out and placed a hand on the woman's shoulder, feeling the flinch of muscles beneath the surface. "Honey? What happened?"
Deven didn't respond, and Rhian moved forward until she was pressed up against the martial artist's back and then wrapped her arms securely around her lover's waist. Shudders coursed through the sturdy body in her arms. "It's okay, sweetheart. I'm here. You didn't hurt me at all. Just took me by surprise."
"I need to check on the children," Deven said in a husky voice.
"In a minute. Just relax, okay?" Rhian stroked the firm abdomen with her fingertips and lightly kissed each shoulder. "Was it the nightmare?"
"Yes," Deven replied flatly.
"Do you want to talk about it?" It had been obvious to Rhian since the beginning of their friendship that the nightmare had a profound impact on this woman. Profound enough to have made her give up her son and to have tried to send me away.
"I." Deven stopped and released a ragged breath. Rain pounded against the windows, and the rivulets became backlit by another flash of lightening. The thunder sounded sharply causing Rhian to jerk and tighten her grip on the distraught woman. "I have to make sure the kids are okay," Deven said.
"We'll both go." Rhian released her hold and stood up. She picked up their clothing from the floor and handed Deven the boxers and tee shirt the woman had been wearing when they'd climbed into bed. After slipping her own nightshirt on, she took hold of her friend's hand and stopped abruptly as her fingers curled around Deven's. "Your hand is freezing. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah. I'm fine."
Rhian led the way out of the room and down the hallway to where their children slumbered oblivious to the instant of terror that had gripped their parents and the raging storm just outside their home. The first door they came to was to Seana's room, and Deven followed Rhian into the little girl's space. She stood silently while Rhian straightened the child's limp body in the bed and covered her back up with the sheet. The motion caused the girl to stir and murmur something incoherent before drifting back into a peaceful slumber. "She's fine," Rhian assured the woman.
Deven stepped forward and leaning down, placed a kiss on the child's forehead. Sleep well, Princess. Only happy, magical dreams, okay? Stepping around Rhian, she walked out of the room and across the hall to where Tiernan slept. She reached the threshold but couldn't seem to move forward. The memories of dreams in which she'd hurt him filled her head, and she stood almost frozen in place.
Rhian stepped up behind her and placed a hand firmly but gently on her lower back. "Deven?"
"I just." She cleared her throat. "Memories of nightmares."
"I understand. Honey, he's fine. You didn't touch him." Increasing the pressure with her hand, she gently pushed Deven forward. "See?"
Sitting down on the child's bed, Deven stared at her son. He was in a deep sleep, his eyes moving below the lids in time to whatever he saw in his dreams. She reached out and lightly brushed his hair off his forehead and watched as a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. With a sigh of relief, she leaned forward and kissed his smooth brow before standing again.
Rhian kissed him as well and whispered, "Sleep tight, little man," before grasping the older woman's hand and leading the way back into the hall. "Everything is okay, sweetheart." She couldn't read Deven and it was disturbing to her. "Shall we?" she asked as she moved towards their bedroom, pulling the reluctant woman along with her. As they reached the top of the stairs, Deven halted suddenly and Rhian turned to face her. "What's wrong?"
"I can't sleep. Whenever I have the dreams, I can't get back to sleep."
"What do you do?"
"I go make a pot of coffee and watch movies or something until dawn."
"You're kidding?" Rhian thought back to the evening that Deven had first told her about the past. The woman had looked like she hadn't slept in days and now the landscaper understood why. She hadn't.
"Believe me, I'm not kidding. I just can't get past the images. Sometimes if I'm really geared up, I'll go work out."
"I'd go downstairs with you, but with this storm I don't want to risk the children waking up and not being able to find at least one of us. I was wondering if you'd mind." Rhian hesitated and bit her lower lip.
"Would you just hold me until I fall asleep? I know it isn't fair to ask you, but I've never been particularly fond of these big thunderstorms. They make me nervous."
Deven considered the simple request. What could it hurt? Just hold her until she falls asleep and then slip out of bed. It's not like the movies are going anywhere. "Come on," she replied.
They walked back to the bedroom in silence and climbed into the bed. Without hesitation, Rhian moved to her companion and quickly snuggled against the woman's body. Reaching down she shifted her hand up under her lover's shirt and gently stroked the soft flesh, instinctively avoiding the scar for the time being. Something told her that if she touched it right now, Deven would bolt. So, she caressed the skin around it instead.
Despite her reluctance, Deven settled and calmed, denying to herself that she was growing sleepy once again. "I've been thinking. Perhaps you and Seana should go stay with your folks. Just until we figure out what's going on."
The blonde head lifted. "No way."
"Come on, Rhian. At least think about it."
"Do you know who was behind those pictures?"
"No," Deven answered. "I can come up with a few possibilities. Hell, even my mother is a possibility."
"What about Kiki?" Rhian asked.
"I don't know. I was never able to find out what happened to her. I just don't know for certain who it was and that's why I think you'd be better off at your parents' house for now. Tiernan will be starting school next week and I'll be taking him back to Laura's anyway."
Rhian waited until she had eye contact with the martial artist. "Forget it. I'm not going anywhere."
"But why? You're being unreasonable," Deven countered.
"Because then whoever sent those damn pictures wins. They'll have succeeded in getting me to leave you. I won't, especially if it was your mother. I will not give that bitch the satisfaction."
The younger woman's adamancy amazed the martial artist, and she endeavored to keep her tone even and her argument rational. "We'd know that it's only temporary. Whoever it was would probably back off then."
"Until I come back home. And then what? More pictures? No, Deven. We're in this together. You're mine and no one is going to make me leave you. Not your mother. Not anyone from your past. No one."
Deven inhaled deeply and then slowly released the breath. "What are the odds of my winning this?"
"I'd say a big fat zero," Rhian answered with a satisfied grin.
Resigned for the time being, Deven sighed. "I had a feeling you'd say something like that, but I had to try."
Purposefully seeking out the scar, Rhian covered it with the palm of her hand. "Thank you for caring about us so much. But honey? I'm not leaving you." Her lips found Deven's as she attempted to convey the depth of her conviction in the simplicity of a kiss. The martial artist responded with a deep-seated hunger, and it wasn't long before Rhian found herself naked once again and an eager participant in the reaffirmation of their love for one another.
Tilting her head back, Rhian regarded the Labor Day sky. The local weather people had been predicting rain all week, but to her delight the day was warm and clear. The Garden Center teemed with guests comprised mostly of employees and their families as well as various invited clients, and the annual company picnic was turning out to be successful again this year.
"What's with Stretch?" Nicole asked, as she and Jay approached the landscaper.
"What?" Rhian's gaze dropped, and she watched the couple draw near.
With a slight inclination of her head, Nicole indicated where Deven was standing. "She looks like she lost her best friend."
Looking in the direction Nicole indicated, Rhian observed her lover. Deven stood by herself, staring off into the distance, an expression of sadness veiling her features. Ever since the photographs had appeared, the martial artist had been affected by melancholy, though she'd made a concerted effort to be upbeat whenever Rhian or the children were nearby. "She's been like that off and on for a few days now. Sort of introspective, but it's nothing to worry about."
"I don't know," Jay said. "She's acting kind of strange lately."
"Don't you mean stranger?" Nicole quipped.
Ignoring her friend, the landscaper addressed the man, "How so?"
"It's like training has become an obsession with her. Everyday she stands in front of the mirrors at the school and performs every martial arts technique she's ever learned over and over. Then she spars. Everyday she wants to spar."
"Me mostly, but yesterday she invited a bunch of instructors from other schools to practice with her. She fought nonstop for almost three hours. And I don't mean easy little practice matches either. Some of those bouts were tough, but she never slowed down." He glanced over at his friend and then turned back to the younger woman. "Rhian, I don't want to concern you, but I've never seen her like this. Even when she was competing full time, she didn't train this hard."
Rhian wasn't sure what to tell the man to ease his concerns, because in a way, they mirrored her own. She couldn't repudiate that Deven was working herself very hard. But for what? "I know," she finally concurred. "She gets up each morning well before the rest of us and runs. Then she comes home and lifts weights or works out on the heavy weight bag or both. Before she even wakes me up, she's been exercising for a couple of hours."
"Well, that would explain why she moves like she's in pain," he said. "She's probably overdoing it."
"Yeah," Rhian agreed. She'd happily provided massages to ease the strained muscles though the underlying cause of the various aches was making her somewhat uneasy. "You want to know what's even scarier?" she asked conspiratorially. They both nodded, and she lowered her voice. "After she works out, she gets cleaned up, preps breakfast and then wakes me up with a steaming cup of coffee. Once we're up, she makes breakfast for me and the kids."
"Sounds like heaven," Nicole admitted grudgingly.
"It is. I'm getting really spoiled." Rhian grinned. "And believe me, I'm not complaining." She looked towards the main building and caught sight of Deven's son walking by with his friend, Freddie. "Tiernan, come here please." She waited until he was close and asked, "Would you do me a really big favor?"
"Sure," he answered eagerly.
"I want you to go give your mom a message for me. It's real important."
"You promise to deliver it just like I say?" He nodded enthusiastically and she smiled. "I want you to say that Rhian loves you. And then I want you to give her this." She placed a small peck on his cheek.
"Yuck!" he exclaimed while making a show of wiping off the kiss.
"Oh, give it up," Rhian said. She knew the display was to save face in front of his friend because the child had no problem giving and accepting affection at home. "You act like you don't like all the kissy stuff but you love it."
"No way," he groused.
"Right. I know you better than that, Tiernan Masterson."
"Can I kiss him, too?" Nicole teased the boy.
"No!" he said, turning a bright shade of red at the attention.
Rhian ran her fingers through his thick dark hair, a gesture she'd seen Deven do on several occasions. "You promised you'd give her my message."
"Do I have to?" he whined.
He sighed. "Okay."
They watched him slowly walk towards his mother as if the weight of the world was on his small shoulders. "Watch this," Rhian said, waiting for the response she knew was to come.
Tiernan stepped up to the tall woman and lightly patted her on the forearm. He said something to her and she bent down. A smile creased the woman's face as he delivered the message including the kiss, and she looked up to where her lover stood. Smiling broadly, she winked at the blonde and slowly sauntered over. "Thank you. I love you, too." Deven disregarded Rhian's friend completely and nodded her head slightly in greeting to Jay. "Hey, Bro."
"Bitch," Nicole mumbled.
her head. "You two are a royal pain."
"What did I do?" Deven asked innocently. "I didn't even talk to the witch."
"Screw you, Masterson."
"All right. That's enough! Neither one of you say a word!" Rhian held up her hand to stop any protests. "Not one word. I've had it. I'm not going to be in the middle of your petty, childish behavior anymore. You two are worse than Tiernan and Seana on a bad day! Now knock it off! Bottom line, ladies, is you'd better figure out a way to get along and stop this crap!"
Both women had the good grace to appear chastised. "Rhian," Deven began but was cut off.
"I said be quiet! Nicole's been in my life for nearly as long as Jay's been in yours. She's a part of my family, Deven, and she's a big part of Seana's life." She turned her attention to the other woman, who had a smirk on her face that quickly dissolved as Rhian spoke to her. "Deven is important to me, Nic. She is my friend and lover. I live with her for crying out loud! You need to accept that if not for my sake, than for the children."
She paused and eyed each woman in turn. "You two don't seem to realize what this fighting is doing to the kids. It confuses and upsets them because they don't want to form allegiances, but you two are causing them to take sides. That's not fair. So, knock it off. You both have a lot to offer them, and you're hurting them every time you make them feel they have to pick one of you over the other."
The four stood in awkward silence. Deven looked at Rhian and then at Nicole who was staring down at the ground. "You're right," she said. Carpe diem, Masterson. "I'm sure if we try, we can find a way to get along."
"Yeah," the other woman muttered.
"So, Nicole, you want to make out or something?" Deven asked with an earnest expression.
Rhian stared at her companion in astonishment before bursting out in laughter. Nicole's head snapped up, and she gazed into blue eyes filled with mirth. And for the first time she caught a glimpse of the person her friend was so enamored of. "Sure. Why not?" she responded. "Make love not war, right?"
"Exactly," Deven purred as she started to sidle up to the woman.
"All right. Down, Champ," Rhian said while grabbing the waistband of Deven's shorts and stopping her forward progress.
Jay cleared his throat. "Come on, Nic."
"We were headed over to the sodas," Nicole explained. "Can we grab you anything?"
Deven lifted an eyebrow as her eyes settled on Rhian's best friend. "You aren't going to spit in it or lace it with something, are you?"
The woman playfully batted her eyelashes at the martial artist. "Well, as tempting as that is, no. What can I get you?"
Deven considered her options for several seconds. "I'll have." Her sentence was interrupted by the sound of a wailing child. Turning, she saw Seana running towards them with blood dripping from her mouth and chin, and rushing to intercept the child, she beat Rhian by several steps. "What happened?" The little girl continued to scream and Deven scooped her up, trying to quickly assess the situation. She felt Rhian and Nicole at her side but stayed focused on the tot. "Seana, what happened?"
Michael jogged up to them. "She fell. She was running down one of the aisles and tripped."
"Jesus! Why didn't you stop her?" Deven shouted at the young man.
Nonplussed, he stammered, "How·how was I supposed to know she'd fall?"
Rhian placed on hand on Deven's back and felt the tension. "Hey, relax. It was just an accident."
As if not hearing her, Deven carried the child over to a spigot and squatted down placing the little girl on her thigh. So much for keeping a protective eye on them, Masterson! Anything could have happened to her, and where the hell were you? Carefully she rinsed off some of the blood from Seana's face and examined the cut on her chin. There was a rising lump on her forehead as well. "Hey, rugrat. You got yourself a nice bump there. What happened?"
"I fall," she whimpered.
"You fell down," Rhian corrected.
"That's what I said, Mama."
Rhian rolled her eyes, half expecting her daughter to swoon at any moment. "I'll be right back," the younger woman said as she jogged off towards the main building.
"So, why were you running?"
"I saw a chipmunk and wanted to play."
"Ah. I take it the chipmunk didn't feel up to playing with you." Seana shook her head sadly. "Well, they can be like that. Besides, I think it was probably afraid."
She looked at Deven with tear filled eyes. "I wasn't going to hurt it."
"I know, but Brother Chipmunk didn't know that. He probably thought you were going to eat him."
The girl's eyes grew round. "Ew."
Deven chuckled. "Yeah, ew. Listen, little one, I need to get you cleaned up so I can tell how bad this is. It might hurt a little, but I'll try to be very careful. Will you be brave for me?"
The youngster nodded and Deven set about rinsing off the remaining dirt and blood as best she could.
Stepping up beside her lover and child, Rhian handed Deven a towel and opened a first aid kit. "Hey, sweetie, is Deven taking good care of you?"
"Yes," Seana replied. Then looking up at her mother, she said as solemnly as she could, "I love her."
Rhian laughed at her offspring's gravity. "Me, too," she replied while lightly bumping her hip against Deven's shoulder. "So, Dr. Masterson, what's the prognosis?"
"There isn't any permanent damage. She's got a nasty scrap on her chin and a bump on her head. She bit her lip, too."
Rhian knelt down beside the woman and examined the various injuries. "Very good, doctor." She smeared some antibiotic cream on the child's chin and then placed a band-aid over the cut. "Not much we can do about that lip except put some ice on it. Better yet, I'll get her a Popsicle. Same affect with a lot less hassles." Looking at her daughters clothing and then Deven's shirt she sighed. "Well, looks like the two of you need a change of clothes. I don't have anything here that will fit her, but I can probably dig up a company polo shirt for you."
"I have some stuff over at the school," Deven said absently.
"I'll go get them," Jay offered.
"Good. See if there are any of the matching short and shirt sets that will fit her. If not, just a tee shirt for both of us."
"I want to go, too," Tiernan said. "Please, Mommy?"
She looked at Jay to see if he wanted to take the boys. "Sure. They can come," he said. "It'll only take a couple of minutes."
"Okay. You and Freddie go with Jay." Standing up, she lifted Seana with her and then faced her friend. She kept her voice low, but the man didn't miss the forcefulness behind her words. "Do not let him out of your sight for any reason. I mean it, Jay. At all."
He studied her in silence for several seconds. Her behavior just kept getting weirder, and it was starting to truly concern him. "Okay. And then later you and I are going to have a talk."
She gave him a faint inclination of her head and then addressed the boys. "You do what Uncle Jay says, and you stay with him. No running off. Understand?"
"Yes," they answered in unison before Tiernan turned and ran off across the parking lot towards the street.
"Tiernan!" Everyone within earshot paused at the sound of Deven's booming voice. The boy stopped running too quickly and almost took a tumble as his feet tried to keep purchase on the gravel. Regaining his balance, he turned to face his mother. "Come back here," she growled at him.
He didn't want to get close to her, but the look on her face pushed him forward. "Yes, Mommy?" he asked in a tremulous voice.
"I told you not to run off," she snapped at him in exasperation. Taking several deep breaths, she unconsciously sought out Rhian, and as their eyes met, she felt herself still. Calmer, she looked back down at her son. "If you don't do what I say and stay with Uncle Jay, you can't go. And you'll spend the rest of the day, right here by my side. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he answered in a whisper.
She exchanged one more look with Jay before turning her attention back to the child in her arms. "Let's you and me go see if we can find something cold to drink."
Seana rested her head on the woman's shoulder. "Okay."
"Okay," Deven replied as she turned and walked towards the building.