Until Soon

by indigal

Part V

* please see disclaimers in Part I

Chapter 25

Andi blinked heavy eyelids open as she lay on her back trying to focus on ceiling shadows as the sun began its ascent above the horizon. The left side of her body felt pleasantly warm as she emerged from sleep. As a growing awareness revived her slumbering senses, she turned her head slightly toward the source of that warmth. CJ was curled up on her side facing Andi, her body pressed tightly against the older woman's. Her blonde e companion's head shared part of the ex-ex-swimmer's pillow. Her breathing, soft and rhythmic, felt warm against Andi's nearby ear. The basketball player's left arm was draped gently across the grad assistant's stomach.

CJ's affectionate gesture and her warm body contact made Andi's heart ache with longing. She wanted to take the beautiful woman into her arms and pull CJ's body even closer so that from head to toe they would be pressed together. To hell with waiting, she thought to herself. She wouldn't be snuggling with me if she wasn't interested in me. She looked once more at her peacefully sleeping bedmate nestled against her side. CJ's mouth was slightly parted as she breathed softly. She probably doesn't even know she's hugging me, the older athlete observed, contradicting her first thought. She's so deeply asleep that she's not aware of her arm draped across me. She's hugging me like a kid hugs a stuffed animal - for comfort. In the darkness of the night, after her bad dream, that's probably what she's looking for. Comfort. Security. Don't read anything else into it. It's just wishful thinking. Andi breathed in then slowly and quietly exhaled. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it. Locking the doubts away in the corner of her mind, she focused her senses on the attractive woman cuddled up next to her. She glanced at the wall clock across the room and noted the early hour. The sun's not up yet, so why should I be? There's too much keeping me right here to move. Might as well enjoy it while she's here.

With that thought, Andi blinked several times then closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep, feeling comfortable and safe in the arms of the woman who had captured her heart.

*       *       *       *       *

      In CJ's dream world, somehow it seemed perfectly natural to her that she could be having a dream yet seeing herself as a character in that dream. Nothing about that concept appeared impossible in a somnolent world where illusions seemed real.

She saw the light brown horse walk slowly through the meadow, pausing now and then to dip its head to tear out a clump of clover before moving on. The two riders aboard its broad back swayed gently with its gate, giving the animal enough rein to reach its long neck to the ground. Cottony clouds drifted overhead on the summer's breeze that slightly ruffled the horse's mane. The splashing sound of a nearby creek drew the animal's attention as it continued across the meadow, guided by the skilled hands of its lead rider.

Two pairs of denim clad legs hung down the horse's sides, dangling loosely around its saddleless body. Not even a blanket separated the riders from the animal's course, light brown coat of hair. The taller woman sat in front holding the reins in her left hand. CJ sat behind, pressed up against the woman, chin resting on the broad shoulder as she looked out toward the river. CJ's arms were wrapped securely around her companion's waist, using the woman's sturdiness to help maintain her own balance while enjoying the physical closeness. Breathing in deeply, smelling the spicy aroma of the other woman's skin, CJ smiled and nuzzled nearer, brushing her cheek against her partner's. The front rider turned her head slightly and smiled in return, placing her right hand over CJ's, which remained around her waist.

"How much further?" CJ heard herself ask in the dream.

"No more than an hour," the dark-haired woman replied. "You OK?"

"Fine. Just a bit tired."

"Hold on to me and close your eyes. If you fall asleep, I'll watch out for you."

"OK," CJ heard herself reply. She watched herself yawn and close her eyes, resting her head on her partner's shoulder. A small smile formed on her lips as she drifted off to sleep.

In her dream world, CJ watched the woman yet was that woman, both at the same time. She wrapped her arms tighter around her companion who lay beside her, and pressed her body closer. The horse and riders faded away as she returned to her deep, dreamless sleep.

*       *       *       *       *

      Andi awoke abruptly to the sound of a loudly ringing phone. She tossed off the covers and bolted out of bed, grabbing the receiver before the second ring. Fearing that CJ would be awakened by the noise, she made a hasty retreat into her bedroom and closed the door before speaking.

"Hello?" she answered. Her voice was husky with sleep. Rubbing her hand across her forehead a few times, she tried to focus her attention and appear coherent to the caller.

"Andrea? Is that you?"

"Of course, mother. Who else would it be?"

"You don't sound like yourself. Are you sick?"

"No, I'm fine mom. I was just sleeping in this morning. I was up late last night... ahhh... grading papers. I had a lot of work to do."

"It's not like you to sleep late. You sure you're OK?"

"I'm fine. Really." She paced around the room, peering out her bedroom window. The sun was fully above the horizon and its warm rays reflected patterns of light through the glass. Patches of shadows and brightness created a collage on the hardwood floor.

"I haven't heard from you in a while, Andi. How come you haven't called?"

"I've had a lot of work to do, both grading students' work as well as research for my own work." She hesitated to consider whether to tell her mother more, then decided to include some additional information. "Besides, a friend of mine got hurt last week and I've been helping her out."

"Hurt? A friend? What do you mean?"

Andi proceeded to give a brief report of CJ's eye injury and her subsequent healing process; however, she neglected to reveal to her mother that her blonde friend was convalescing right there in her apartment.

"That's too bad," her mother lamented. "When she's feeling better, bring her with you for dinner sometime."

"Sure, mom," Andi replied. She was touched at her mother's kind offer, almost completely forgiving her for the most unwelcome wake up call.

They continued to talk for several more minutes while Andi's mother filled her in about her job, the house, and the relatives. The grad assistant shuffled around the room restlessly while her mother droned on. Finally, after several minutes of small talk and pacing, Andi politely ended the conversation with the promise that she would call soon.

Emerging from her bedroom, she tiptoed quietly into the bathroom before heading back to check on her companion. With slow and stealthy steps, she padded silently across the floor, hoping to avoid squeaky boards or any other noises that might wake CJ. She rounded the front of the sofa and was just settling down on the cushions when CJ spoke.

"Morning," she grinned, her voice a sing-song greeting.

"Morning to you," Andi replied. She couldn't help but smile at her golden-haired ward, whose cheerfulness touched her heart. "Sorry about the phone. My mother felt like chatting."

"It's OK." She yawned and stretched, cat-like, with arms and legs reaching out as if someone was pulling on them. As she reached out with her arms, her T-shirt inched upward, exposing a smooth, flat stomach to Andi's view. The older woman arched a dark eyebrow in appreciation as a rakish grin crossed her lips. She continued to enjoy the view as her friend talked. "I should be getting up anyway. What time is it?" CJ inquired.

"It's after eleven," Andi replied. She actually did a double take as she noted the time. She never slept in that late, preferring to be up and about by early morning. Usually she felt lazy when she lounged around in bed. You don't usually have a beautiful woman lying by your side, she reminded herself. Her body tingled as she remembered the feel of the younger athlete's body snuggled up against hers as she awakened.

"That's late even for me," noted CJ.

"You don't usually sleep in?"

"It's a luxury I enjoy, but rarely have time to indulge in," CJ lamented. "Between basketball or schoolwork, it seems like I'm always up early."

"You've got a built in excuse for a few days. Doctor's orders, remember. You might as well enjoy it."

"Oh, I enjoyed it plenty," CJ observed. A playful grin curled her lips as she recalled the blissful feeling of drifting off to sleep lying so close to the woman who was the object of her desire. Although she had been upset by the nightmare, the consolation of getting to spend the remainder of the night by her attractive friend's side helped to balance out the effect. "Andi?" she continued. "About last night..."

Andi's mind was jarred to attention at those three words. She stiffened as she sat up on the couch. What about last night? What was CJ going to bring up? Their closeness? The physical contact? Could she sense that I was interested in more? Did I make her feel uncomfortable? Andi's mind raced with questions in the seconds it took for CJ to continue to speak.

"I'm sorry that I woke you up again," the basketball star began. "I didn't "

"CJ, please," responded Andi quickly. She moved off the sofa and onto the edge of the mattress. Sitting facing her fair-haired companion, she reached out and took CJ's hand, her voice soft and serious. "Don't worry about waking me up if you need me. I would hate to think that I was lying there sleeping while you were upset, and that you were afraid or uncomfortable about sharing it with me. That's what friends are for, right?" She squeezed the younger woman's hand gently and was answered by a returned squeeze. "Besides, I fell right back to sleep, thanks in no small part to your wonderful back scratches." She tousled CJ's golden hair with her other hand, her heart feeling warm and fluttering from the remembrance of the previous night's sensual touches.

"Well, I still feel bad about waking you. I mean, first I take your mattress so that you have to sleep on the sofa. Then, I wake you up in the middle of the night with my crazy nightmares. On top of that, you're stuck doing all the cooking and cleaning up afterward. You must be ready to drop kick me out your door by now." The lightheartedness of her last observation did not disguise the hint of worry that her fears might be well grounded and that Andi might indeed be getting tired of having her around. Her older friend picked up on her insecurities but was quick to dispel them.

"I'm the one who should feel bad, CJ."

"What do you mean? Why should you feel bad?"

"Because you're my guest, and if I've given you any reason to feel that you're in my way or not welcome, then I'm to blame."

"But you haven't! You've been wonderful, Andi. You've made me feel completely at home. You've taken such good care of me."

"Then why would you feel like I'd be ready to 'drop kick you out the door'?"

"I guess... I don't know... I think I'm a little afraid that you're doing this because you feel sorry for me, or because you're just too polite to tell me that it's time for me to go." CJ hung her head as she spoke, her voice small and insecure.

"Hey," said Andi. She lifted CJ's chin with her long fingers so that the younger woman's face was tilted up towards her own. "First off, I don't pity you. Pitying you would be insulting. You're a strong woman and whatever happens, I know you'll be OK. Second, I'm not that polite. Believe me. If you were getting on my nerves, I probably would 'drop kick you out the door' and that's the truth." She paused to look at the fair-skinned woman, whose face was so close to her own. Shifting her fingers from beneath CJ's chin, she placed her hand gently on her companion's cheek. With her thumb, she softly stroked the skin near her friend's cheekbone, right below her eye patch. As she did, she could feel the other woman leaning into her touch. "I love having you here, CJ," she assured. Her voice was soft yet sincere. "Do you believe me?"

"Yes," CJ replied, nodding her head slowly. "I guess I just needed to hear you say it."

"Then I'm sorry I didn't say it sooner," Andi countered. She continued to caress CJ's cheek with her thumb until the emotional moment was interrupted by a very loud growl, emanating from the younger woman's stomach.

"Time for the next feeding," chuckled Andi. She removed her hand from CJ's cheek and rested it on her forearm. "Ready for breakfast?"

"I was born ready!" she teased. "Help me up?"

Andi stood then reached down to clasp CJ's hands. Pulling the woman to her feet, she continued to hold her hands while her friend adjusted to being vertical and maintained her balance.

"You OK now?" Andi inquired. She hoped that her blonde friend realized that she was talking about more than just her balance.

"Yeah, I think I am," CJ replied. She removed her hands from Andi's grasp then encircled the taller woman in a hug. As she stood pressed against her friend's body, CJ could feel the swimmer's arms tighten around her as she returned the embrace. The younger woman inhaled deeply, her senses overwhelmed by the aroma of Andi's hair and skin. She smiled and exhaled slowly. "Thanks for last night, and for talking with me this morning," she offered.

"My pleasure," Andi responded. She made no attempt to disengage herself from the embrace. With her body pressed up against CJ's, she could feel her heart beating rapidly in synchronicity with the younger woman's. For an extended moment they remained that way, then another loud growl erupted from CJ's stomach, causing both women to laugh. Reluctantly, they disentangled their arms from each other. "To the kitchen," directed Andi. "Let's get your stomach happy again." With that, she wrapped her arm around the basketball star's waist and led her friend across the living room to start breakfast.

"Can you read the comics to me while we're eating?" asked CJ. She turned her face toward Andi as they walked slowly.

"I don't know," Andi teased. "What's it worth to you?"

"Hmmmm... How about a foot massage later?"

"I think that can be arranged," Andi replied. She gave CJ's waist as slight squeeze.

*       *       *       *       *

      The two women lingered over a late breakfast. As promised, Andi read CJ the funny papers, gamely describing each box of Sunday's color comic strips. After thirty minutes of giggling more from Andi's presentation than from the comics' contents, the injured athlete reclined on the sofa while her blue-eyed companion lingered over the rest of the local Sunday paper as a Winton Marsalis CD played softly in the background. Occasionally, the older woman read articles aloud when she thought the subject might interest her friend.

The afternoon passed quickly, with Andi reading more lecture notes to her attentive charge, who was determined not to fall behind on her schoolwork during her period of required inactivity. Following the schoolwork, Andi ordered pizza for dinner as a change of pace from her usual cooking routine over the last few days. As she stood in the kitchen, placing the order on the phone, she looked out across her living room at CJ and was reminded of a Friday night, two months prior, when she and the blonde athlete had shared a pizza as they worked on the younger woman's research paper. Two months, she contemplated. How did my life get so wrapped up in this woman in just two months? She shook her head slowly as she considered the answer. You better face it, she admonished herself, you've got it bad.

Once their dinner was finished, both women retired to the sofa again so that Andi could continue reading notes to CJ. The golden-haired woman reclined against the padded arm of the couch with her legs fully extended. The soles of her feet pressed against the ex-swimmer's leg as the tall woman sat at the other end of the cushions. The basketball star rubbed her socked feet back and forth a few times against Andi's leg, enjoying the warmth created by the friction and the physical contact. The ebony-haired woman smiled at CJ's dancing feet, and continued reading the notes despite the subtle distraction. After nearly a half hour of narrating the material, the grad assistant placed the papers on the end table and relieved her parched mouth with a long drink of water.

"So, that catches you up with last week's work," Andi announced. "I'll send out emails to your professors tomorrow morning requesting this week's notes as soon as they can send them." She placed her left hand over CJ's feet and rubbed them gently, enjoying the sensation as the younger woman wiggled her toes when she touched a ticklish spot.

"Thanks so much, Andi," CJ emphasized. "I can't tell you how great it's been to get that work and not fall too far behind. I have so many other things on my mind these days, it's nice to have one less thing to worry about."

"Speaking of things that you might have on your mind... can I ask you a question?" She spoke hesitantly, wondering if she should ask at all, knowing that she wouldn't relax until she at least brought it up. Of course, the answer to the question might indeed produce more anxiety than simply wondering about the answer, but she had to know. "About grad school..." she began.

"Yes?"

"I remember you telling me a couple weeks ago that you had some offers for grad programs, and I was wondering if... you've had any good offers."

CJ sat silently contemplating Andi's question. She had intentionally avoided thinking about grad school over the last few weeks because of her distractions with the tournament as well as over Andi. More recently, her injury and its possible repercussions kept her mind off her impending grad school decisions. Andi's mentioning it, however, brought it to the forefront of her thinking but for the first time the decision seemed more clear to her. She relaxed her shoulders a bit, unaware that she had tightened them upon hearing the inquiry.

Andi construed the silence to mean that CJ didn't want to discuss the topic with her. What if she's going far away? she asked herself silently. What will I do? She cursed herself again for handling things so badly with CJ a few weeks ago. Right around the time when CJ might have been making grad school decisions, she reminded herself. Her heart sunk and her shoulders slumped.

"We don't have to discuss it... if you don't want to," Andi stammered. "I didn't mean to-"

"No, it's OK," CJ reassured. "Actually, I got a really good offer from a school out West."

Andi was crushed at hearing the news. She was glad that CJ couldn't see her face, since she couldn't even pretend to hide he disappointment that she felt. She heard herself sigh deeply, but the sound was already out before she could stop herself.

"But I've decided that I'm going to decline their offer," CJ continued. Having decided at that very moment what to do, she felt surprisingly lighthearted and happy about her decision. Maybe when the financial reality of that decision sinks in, you won't quite feel so chipper, she admonished herself. Despite the self-reprimand, she felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I guess I really didn't want to go out West after all, she realized.

Andi shook her head to clear the fog as CJ's words registered in her brain. She's staying! She released a breath that she didn't even realize she was holding while her heart flooded with relief. She wrapped both her hands around CJ's feet and rubbed them vigorously, giving them the hand-hug she so desperately wanted to bestow on their owner, who was out of arms' reach.

"That's great news, CJ!" she enthused.

"Why's that?" CJ asked. Her golden-blonde head was tilted to the side as she listened for Andi's response.

"Well... ahhhh..." Andi stuttered. Try being a bit more subtle next time, she chastised herself. "I guess I'm just glad that, ahhhh... you won't be moving all the way across the country." She spoke softly and shyly, dipping her head down and contemplating her feet as they tapped nervously on the floor.

"I'm not sure exactly where I'll end up yet. I'm still waiting to hear from the rest of the schools I applied to." She rubbed her feet back and forth against Andi's leg again. "But thanks for reacting that way. It made me feel... nice inside." She smiled self-consciously and turned her face from Andi, uncomfortable about letting the other woman see her when she felt so vulnerable. "Once I hear what the doctor has to say, then I can think more about what I'll do for school next year." Her nervousness reemerged at the thought of the doctor's prognosis. The grad assistant noticed her apprehension.

"Only a few more days now," she encouraged. "Wednesday will be here before you know it." She rubbed CJ's feet affectionately. "Don't forget, I'm sending you lots of good vibes to help you heal," she added in an upbeat tone.

"Thanks," CJ responded. "I could use them." She yawned, covering her mouth with her hand. "Sorry," she apologized. "It's not the company, I assure you."

"No need to apologize," Andi replied. She looked at her watch. "It's after 10:00. Want to call it a night?"

"Soon. But first, your foot massage." She rubbed her hands together vigorously and grinned.

"But you're tired, CJ," Andi protested. "I'll take a rain check."

"Nope. A deal's a deal." She shifted from her reclined position to upright with legs crossed, but still leaned her back against the armrest of the sofa, facing Andi. She placed a pillow in her lap then patted it a few times in invitation. "Come on, lay down and put your feet here."

"You sure?"

"Positive. Unless, of course, you've changed you mind..."

"Not me," Andi quickly replied. She swiveled around on the cushion and leaned back against armrest opposite CJ, then carefully placed her feet on the pillow in CJ's lap. "Is that too heavy there?"

"That's fine. Ticklish?"

"Not a bit."

"Comfortable?"

"So far."

"It's only going to get better," CJ promised. She grinned and began to knead the tops of Andi's feet with sweeping motions from her thumbs while at the same time her finger tips pressed firmly into the soles of the older woman's feet.

"Ohhhh, wow," Andi moaned. "That feel sooooo good."

"I'm glad," CJ replied. "It's supposed to." She continued kneading with her thumbs and fingers, beginning at the junction of Andi's ankle and working slowly towards her toes. During the first pass, her pressure was moderate but during the subsequent passes, it became deeper. "Is that OK?" she asked, not wanting to cause her friend any discomfort.

"It's much better than OK," she purred. "Wow, does that feel good!" Her foot became pleasantly warm from the contact of CJ's hands as well as from the friction created as the younger woman massaged her socked feet. The tingling sensation began in her foot then radiated up her legs and throughout her body. She could feel her muscles relax as she melted into the cushions of the sofa on which she reclined. A contented sigh escaped her lips.

CJ was pleased by Andi's reactions. Although she could not see the contented look on the older woman's face, she could hear her sighing and purring, and recognized them as expressions of blissful enjoyment. She could feel the muscles relaxing beneath her strong, skilled fingers as she continued her ministrations.

After several laps of deep kneading the full length of the swimmer's foot, CJ concentrated on each toe, beginning with the big toe and working her way out. She slowly rolled each digit between her thumb and forefinger while gently pulling to stretch each toe.

"This little piggy went outlet shopping," she narrated in a sing-song voice as she worked on Andi's big toe. "This little piggy stayed home to go to basketball practice. This little piggy ate spicy noodles with shiitake mushroom sauce, and this little piggy had none. And this little piggy laughed and laughed all the way home." She finished her narration as she finished massaging Andi's little toe.

"Is that how your mother recited that nursery rhyme to you?" Andi chuckled. "I've never heard that version before."

"Nah," CJ laughed. "I'm my own storyteller. If I don't like how the story sounds, I make up my own version as I go along."

"Sounds like fun," Andi commented. "I liked the story nearly as much I enjoyed the toe massage." She sighed as CJ repeated the toe kneading one more time. "God, CJ. You're really good! Where did you learn how to do that?"

"During my sophomore year I went over on my ankle and bruised a bone in my foot. It was really sore so the doctor sent me to physical therapy for a few weeks to make sure it healed OK. The therapist who worked on me specialized in foot injuries. She also studied reflexology."

"Reflexology? I've heard of that."

"Know what it is?"

"Not exactly."

"I didn't either, before that. But the therapist explained it to me while she worked on me. I found it so interesting that I did some reading about it online, too. I'm no expert, but I'll give you the Readers' Digest version of what I know." As she spoke, CJ shifted her hands so that she could reach Andi's heel as well as her Achilles tendon. The blonde woman kneaded the tissue deeply as she continued to explain. "Reflexology is a type of bodywork therapy that focuses on pressure and trigger points primarily in the foot but also the hand. The theory is that we all have these energy channels that run throughout our bodies, and that pressing or massaging certain points increases or decreases the flow of energy through those channels.

"You're into energy, aren't you?" Andi observed. "You've made comments in the past about my energy. Do you believe in all that?"

"Most definitely. But not because of any real, concrete proof and quite honestly, my exposure to it is limited but rather because I feel it." As she spoke, she placed her hand over her heart. "I've learned to trust what I feel, you know?, even if I don't quite understand it."

"You have good instincts," Andi observed. "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt."

"It's OK. So anyway, people who practice reflexology believe that a person's organs, nerves, muscles, and metabolic functions are reflected in trigger points in the foot and hand."

"What exactly does that mean?"

"It means, certain spots on your feet correspond to spots throughout your body."

"Like what?"

"Hmmm... It's been a few years since she explained it to me, so I don't remember a lot. Let's see... this area reflects your spine." She ran her fingers up and down the inner area of Andi's foot. "I remember that because, if you look at your foot, that inner edge is actually curved like your spine is curved."

"Interesting," observed Andi. She looked down at her left foot while CJ continued to work on the right one as she spoke.

"And these spots here," she continued, "if you rub them, it help when you have menstrual cramps." She kneaded the area on both sides of Andi's foot between her heel and ankle. "The therapist explained a lot of other spots, but I've forgotten them. I just remember how good it felt when she worked on my feet. Not only did the injury heal fast but I just felt great all over by the time I left the office. I may not understand it completely, but I can't argue with success."

After she worked on Andi's heel, CJ continued to knead both the outer and inner foot before moving on to deeper pressure on the sole. With firm, clamp-like motions, she increased her fingertip pressure to the thick pads of the Andi's foot. While she worked, she could hear the blue-eyed woman purring softly, obviously enjoying the special treatment. She finished up the right foot with some gentler friction strokes, then tapped the top of Andi's foot three times to signal the end of that foot's session.

"Time for the other one," she announced.

"That was soooo wonderful," Andi replied lazily. She raised her arms up and laced her fingers behind her head, fully relaxed and ready to enjoy the attention to her other foot.

CJ worked attentively on her companion's left foot. Following nearly the same pattern that she did on the right foot, she was rewarded by the swimmer's soft moans of delight and repeated reminders of how wonderful the foot massage felt. All too quickly, the second foot was completed and Andi sighed contentedly as her feet and body tingled from CJ's thorough treatment. For moments after, she lay motionless, her body limp and sated, her feet still cushioned in CJ's lap.

"You've spoiled me," Andi purred. "I can't tell you how much I enjoyed that!"

"You already did," CJ replied. "I heard you purring while I was working on you. It's nice to know I have that effect."

"More than you probably know," she said. The words slipped out before she could stop herself. CJ's head lifted up to face her and Andi was glad the golden-haired woman could not see the full red flush that colored her face. She coughed and cleared her throat, not sure what to say to fill in the awkward silence that followed her remark. "So, I bet you're pretty tired now," she ventured. "That seemed like hard work."

"A little. Hopefully, I won't have round three of the nightmare from hell," she groaned.

"If you want, I could..."

"Would you want to?"

"Sure, no sense in you waking up again and-"

"Maybe it won't happen if you're there..."

"I'll be closer so that if you're afraid I could-"

"I would really like that... You sure you don't mind?"

"Not at all. I think... it's a good idea."

"Well, then... I guess I'll go brush my teeth."

"I'll go get changed. Can I help you to the bathroom?"

"Sure. Might as well avoid my pinball imitation since you're offering to guide me."

Andi reluctantly removed her feet from the basketball player's lap and swung them off the sofa. Her body still tingled from the foot massage, causing a slight head rush as she moved to vertical. Once she regained her balance, she reached down and helped her younger friend to her feet. With an arm wrapped securely around her muscular body, the dark haired woman guided her to the bathroom before proceeding on to her bedroom to change.

"Could you bring me a clean T-shirt from my bag when you come back?" CJ requested.

"Sure. Just give me a few minutes."

By the time Andi changed and walked back to the bathroom, CJ had finished washing up. The flaxen-haired woman lingered in the doorway as she waited for Andi to return.

"Hope I rinsed all the toothpaste out of the sink," she apologized. "It hard to tell."

"Don't worry about it," Andi reassured. "Here's your T-shirt." She placed the clean shirt in CJ's hand.

"Thanks," she replied. The younger woman paused, turned around slowly so that her back was toward Andi, then pulled her old T-shirt off over her head. Both of Andi's dark eyebrows shot up nearly to her hairline as she watched the beautiful young woman removing her shirt. She drank in the view of her strong, broad back, noting the goose bumps that emerged when her warm skin was exposed to the cooler air. Dipping her eyes, she noticed the white-blonde downy hairs that covered CJ's lower back, the same ones she tickled her fingers through the night before. Out of the corner of her eye she detected a motion and turned to see the basketball player's profile reflected in the mirror over the sink. Self-conscious about her voyeurism, she was still unable to tear her eyes away from the reflection that revealed even more of the younger woman's beautiful body. The ex-swimmer gazed at the profile of CJ's small, round breasts and hardened nipples, made firm and erect by the same cool air that raised her goose bumps. Swallowing hard, the grad assistant could feel her heartbeat increase, corresponding to the increase in her body temperature, the fire spreading to her heart and between her legs. Then just as quickly as the old shirt was removed, the new one was donned and CJ turned to face Andi once again, completely unaware of the transformation that had taken place in her flushed, attentive guardian.

"Meet you in bed?" CJ offered as she stepped through the door. She felt her way toward the sofa using the backs of the chairs as her guide.

"OK," Andi squeaked. "Be there in a minute." She closed the door partway then stepped to the sink to splash her face with cold water for several minutes before she cooled down enough to brush her teeth. Just keep breathing, she reminded herself. You've been in the women's locker room before. There's no such thing as modesty. She looked at her reflection in the mirror as she vigorously scrubbed her teeth with the toothbrush. Yeah, but you never got wet just looking at your naked teammates, she continued. How the heck are you going to climb into bed next to her now that your body's all hot and turned on? She answered her own question with more cold water splashed on her face. To increase the effect, she removed her shirt and splashed some of the cold water onto her neck and torso. The shocking effect served to cool down the fire of her raging libido. She leaned on the counter and looked once again at her dripping reflection. OK, now keep it under control, she warned herself in the looking glass. Toweling off quickly, she slipped into a clean T-shirt then wiped off the sink before heading into the living room.

She tiptoed across the room, noting the complete silence that filled the darkened space. Wonder if she's sleeping... Gingerly, she sat down on the edge of the mattress and slid under the covers. She rolled onto her side and looked at the profile of the beautiful woman lying beside her. CJ was indeed asleep. As Andi lay beside her, she could hear the slow, steady cadence of her somnolent breathing. The sleeping woman's lips were slightly parted and her face was relaxed and peaceful in the shadows of the darkened room. All that worrying for nothing, she thought. Just roll over and go to sleep. After a long, lingering glance at her attractive bedmate, she turned slowly to recline on her back but scooted her body closer to CJ's so that their shoulders touched under the blanket. She reveled in the warmth of that contact until she too surrendered to the night.

Chapter 26

      Andi was awakened by the sun streaming through the living room window, arcing a path of brightness directly onto her face. Even with her eyelids closed she could feel the warming glow of the newly dawning day. She sighed deeply and opened her eyes, turning her head to avoid the direct glare of the sunlight.

There, as she turned to her left, was CJ. The younger woman was lying curled up on her side, facing away from her; however, her shoulders, back, and butt were pressed up fully against Andi's left side. Her physical nearness and bodily contact was pleasantly warm, and the ex-ex-swimmer was unwilling to move from the comfortable cocoon of her shared bed. No nightmares this time, she noted to herself. She smiled at her young friend, languishing in her closeness for a few precious minutes before reluctantly leaving her sleep haven to begin her day.

Padding quietly into the kitchen, she flicked on the coffee then shuffled to the bathroom. After turning on the hot water for her shower, she quickly disrobed and stepped under the pulsing spray, allowing it to awaken her completely. A few minutes later she stepped out of the shower, fully revived, and toweled off quickly. Donning her bathrobe, she headed toward her bedroom to get dressed for work.

She emerged from her room fully dressed, toweling her damp hair as she moved toward the bathroom. With her head covered by the terry cloth, she didn't see nor hear CJ, who was just stepping out of the bathroom. The taller woman bumped into her, nearly knocking the undergraduate to the floor.

"Oh my God! CJ, I didn't see you." She reached out her hands to grab the other woman, steadying her after the collision.

"I didn't see you either," CJ said dryly. "Sorry, bad joke." She offered a lopsided grin to lighten the moment.

"I'm so sorry, CJ. I though you were still sleeping. I was drying my hair with the towel while I was walking and not paying attention to where I was going. Did I hurt you?"

"I'm not that delicate, Andi. Don't worry. Really. I could hear you coming, but I didn't realize you didn't see me."

"It's my fault. I should have been looking where I was going." Andi wrapped her arm around the younger athlete's shoulders. "You sure you're OK?"

"I'm fine, Andi. Honest."

"How come you're up? Did I wake you?" She kept her arm around CJ as she guided her toward the counter stool. Pulling it out, she helped the younger woman get settled on it before moving around the counter and pouring orange juice. She returned to her companion's side and offered her the glass.

"Thanks," CJ said, smiling as she took the juice. "And no, you didn't wake me. I just woke up. I had a good, uninterrupted night's sleep and I feel great." She turned toward where she knew Andi was standing and offered her a glowing smile. "You are clearly the secret to scaring my bad dreams away." She reached out and clasped Andi's hand, squeezing it gently.

"I've been told I can be a little scary sometimes," she admitted. "I'm glad you slept well."

"Thanks for sleeping with me, Andi. I really mean that. Just having you there made me feel... I don't know... safe, I guess. It's like you are my eyes, temporarily, so it's good to have you close by." She let go of the taller woman's hand and wrapped her arm casually around her waist, leaning her head against Andi's shoulder.

"My pleasure," she responded. She rubbed up and down CJ's back several times before tousling her hair. "Anytime you need me, just ask."

"How about tonight, then?"

"Hmmm, let me check my planner," she teased. "Let's see... it's Monday night, huh? Well, you're in luck. I'm completely unbooked. Count me in."

"Great!" She gave Andi's waist a gentle squeeze before releasing her. "So, do I smell breakfast?"

"I've always heard that when one of the five senses is limited, the others become more acute. I guess your extra perception has gone right to your nose," Andi teased.

"It's true!" CJ agreed. "Not just about my sense of smell, though. All my other senses seem to be heightened. My hearing, my taste, my sense of touch... definitely that one." She could feel her face becoming warm and flushed, so she dipped her head to sip some of her juice. Her blush was not lost on her taller companion, who smiled at her young friend.

"What you smell is coffee, but I know you don't drink that. As for breakfast, your choices are Karen's banana nut bread, cereal, eggs, or last night's left over pizza. Any of that sound appealing?"

"I'll pass on the pizza and go with... hmmm... I think I have the nut bread. That's my favorite."

"Nut bread it is." Andi sliced some of the bread, placed it on a plate, then set it in front of CJ. "Milk?"

"Please," the younger woman replied. "So, what are your plans for today?"

"A little triage during my office hours, I suspect. The freshmen got some of their projects back and will be scrambling to figure out how they can improve their writing and research skills in enough time to pass their classes." She snickered as she set the milk glass down right beside CJ's hand. "I also have to assist with an 11:00 class, then I'll be home for lunch. Any requests?"

"Nope. Just your company." She took a bite of the bread then washed it down with a swallow of milk.

"After lunch I need to spend some time in the library going through journal articles." Andi sipped her coffee as she paused to think. "Oh yeah, and hopefully I'll have some notes from your professors by this afternoon. I'll stop by my office at the end of the day to print them out." She took another drink, then broke off a piece of the nut bread and popped it into her mouth.

"Are you stealing my nut bread?" CJ asked, feigning insult.

"Not stealing, merely sharing." She grinned and broke off another piece. "How about you? What will you do today?"

"Let's see, I usually like to start my day with a run, just to wake up my muscles. Then, I'll grab a quick shower before I head across campus just in time for my 10:00 class. After that "

"Ahemmmmm..."

"Oh right... that was my life eight days ago. I forgot. In that case, I guess I'll just remain horizontal most of the day. I'll make my daily phone call to my mother, to assure her that she doesn't need to drive all the way out here to bring me back home 'where I belong,' then I'll wait eagerly for lunch-time to arrive. After lunch I'll probably take a bath, then spend the afternoon lounging around some more, hoping one of my friends stops by to visit. You know... same shit, different day."

"I'm sorry you're getting a little stir crazy, CJ," Andi replied sympathetically, "but you're in the home stretch."

"I know, Andi. I didn't mean to sound like I was complaining. You've been terrific, really. In case I didn't mention it, I had a really great weekend. Thanks for hanging around with me and making everything... special."

"No need to thank me, CJ. I had a great time too." She reached out and placed her hand gently over her blonde companion's, giving it a squeeze as she lingered there. "Speaking of time, I better start heading out." She finished the last sip of her coffee then piled the plates in the sink. "Will you excuse me a minute while I finish getting ready?" She patted CJ's hand before moving away from the counter.

"Go. I'll be hanging out on the sofa." She moved off the stool and used the furniture as guides to return to the living room. Shortly after she had settled down on the sofa, she heard Andi's steps as the grad assistant walked across the room.

"OK, I'm back," Andi announced. She sat on the edge of the cushions where CJ reclined. The injured woman shifted over a bit to make room for her friend. Andi stroked the blonde woman's forearm a few times before resting her hand there as she spoke. "The phone and the clickers are right next to you on the coffee table. If you decide you want something special for lunch, call my office before 10:45. Anything I can do for you before I go?"

"Just one thing..."

"What's that?"

"How about a hug goodbye?"

"I think that can be arranged."

CJ sat up from her reclined position. Although she couldn't see Andi, over the last few days she had grown aware of the older woman's presence when she was near, as if she could sense her pulsing energy. Reaching out her arms toward where she knew the ex-swimmer was sitting, she enveloped the blue-eyed woman in a warm, affectionate hug. Andi's hands stroked up and down her back as their bodies remained pressed together in their embrace.

"Mmmmmm," hummed CJ. "You always smell really nice." She nuzzled her face between Andi's neck and her soft, dark hair.

"It's CK One. Do you like it?"

"Very much so. I've noticed you wearing it before."      
"Yeah, I usually put some on unless I'm just hanging around the house. It's my one real concession to girlie behavior." She chuckled softly to herself. CJ could feel her chest vibrate from the sound.
"Whenever I smell it, it reminds me of you." She inhaled deeply once more then reluctantly pulled back from the embrace and returned to her reclined position. "I don't want to make you late," she said ruefully. "So, until soon?"

"Yes, until soon, CJ." She smiled. "Until lunch."

Andi gave CJ's hand a final squeeze before she stood up from the sofa and headed out the apartment.

*       *       *       *       *

      Andi's day passed quickly, filled with questioning students, teaching, and researching. Her trip home for lunch was a welcomed break during the day and before she knew it, she was walking across the green at the end of her day, looking forward to relaxing and spending the evening with CJ. She glanced at her watch. Hmmm, 4:30. Not too bad. What should I cook for dinner? She ran through the menus of the previous nights and realized she had exhausted her very limited cooking repertoire. Might be time to raid the freezer and take out one of mom's meals. She nodded her head at the idea then searched her brain to remember what was buried in the recesses of her freezer that would make a decent meal for them. Did I eat that chicken casserole? she wondered to herself as she mounted the steps to the porch leading to her apartment. She frowned, deep in thought, as she tried to remember. Pulling open the door leading to her upstairs home, she nearly slammed into Jen, who was just leaving.

"What the "

"It's you," said Jen snidely.

"Who'd you expect. I live here."

"Yes, you and your new friend."

"It's temporary. I'm just helping her out."

"Ha! Like I can't see through your Florence Nightingale routine. You got exactly what you wanted."

"What are you talking about?"

"Her. You've got her not only here, in your apartment, but right in your bed."

"Oh please. Don't be ridiculous."

"CJ couldn't stop gushing about what good care you're taking of her. I'm sure you've been very attentive to all her needs..."

"Shut up, Jen. You can just take your assumptions and get the hell out of my sight."

"Gladly. At least I won't be putting up with you much longer."

"And what the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"You'll find out soon enough."

With that remark, Jen snarled at Andi and marched down the porch steps, walking quickly across campus. The ebony-haired woman watched her go, still seething from her cutting remarks as well as wondering about her final comment. She breathed through clenched teeth, consciously relaxing her jaw to release a breath she was unaware she had been holding. Her hands were balled into fists. Slowly she unpeeled them and relaxed her hunched-up shoulders. Her face was hot from rage that threatened to boil over had Jen remained within striking distance of her fists. Won't be putting up with me much longer, she mused, angry at Jen's enigmatic remark. Speaking of putting up, I'd like to put my foot up her ass, that's what I'd like to do!

For a long moment she stood in the entranceway, door open, while she tried to regain her composure. She doesn't matter, she tried to convince herself. She's an idiot. Ignore her. Don't let her rile you up. Repeating these phrases to herself silently, she managed to unwind enough to consider heading upstairs. She tilted her head, looking up the flight of steps that led up to her second floor apartment and noticed the door was left open. "Shit," she muttered.

She mounted the steps slowly, trying to regain the lightheartedness and anticipation she had been feeling the few minutes prior to her confrontation with Jen. Stepping through the open door then closing it behind her, she put down her bag and walked into the living room.

"Andi?" called CJ.

"It's just me," the older woman responded. She tried to remove the anger and bitterness from her voice. Moving toward the sofa, she sat on the cushioned arm opposite of where CJ was reclining. She touched the basketball star's feet in greeting to let her friend know where she was.

"What was that about?" CJ asked. Her voice reflected a note of concern.

"What?" replied Andi, stalling for time to think.

"Sounded like arguing."

"Oh... that... Jen and I don't see eye to eye on some things."

"What things?"

"Just things."

CJ sat silently, as if waiting for an elaboration. Her hands rested on her stomach, loosely linked together. Her dimple was hidden and her face held none of the cheery playfulness that she exuded when Andi left her after their lunch together. The grad assistant remained silent as well. Her head was swimming with unthought-through emotions and feeling. She feared that if she attempted to speak, she would say the wrong thing; it was safer to say nothing. An awkward silence hung between the two women. Andi had the advantage of reading CJ's body language and she could tell the younger woman was disquieted. The injured athlete sat in darkness, wondering what was going on with her taciturn friend. Finally, after painful moments of emptiness, Andi broke the silence.

"I'm sorry, CJ. I just "

"No. It's OK Andi. You don't owe me any explanations. You and Jen seem to have some kind of history. You don't have to tell me about it. You're entitled to your own affairs."

"But that's exactly what I don't want you to think it is. We have a history of arguing and disagreements, but that's where it ends. It's never been anything more than that, despite what she wanted -"

"What did she want?"

"More than I was willing to give... Can we leave it at that, for now? There's nothing between Jen and me except bitter feelings."
"I'm sorry," CJ' said softly. "It's really none of my business." Her voice was serious and sad, holding a hint of disappointment. Andi picked up on her tone and tried to ease her anxiety.

"I don't want you to feel that way, CJ. It makes me feel good knowing that you care enough to ask me those questions. I certainly don't want you to think the feeling's not mutual."

"That's OK, Andi. I'm too nosy for my own good."

"You're not nosy, CJ. You're caring." She moved from the arm of the sofa to a spot on the cushion near the basketball player's hip. The blonde woman shifted over on the couch when she felt Andi sit down near her. CJ could feel the warmth and pressure of the swimmer's body as she leaned slightly against her, eager to reestablish a physical connection to repair the emotional distance that seemed to separate them. The older woman rested her hand on CJ's forearm, gently stoking the soft skin with her thumb. "I love that about you, and I wish I could express that as easily as you do. I'm trying, even though it might not be so obvious." She paused. "You're a good teacher. I'm trying to learn from you."

"I'm sorry, Andi." She placed her hand over her friend's. "I guess I was just feeling a little out of sorts after Jen's visit. I didn't mean to "

"What did she say? Did she upset you?" Andi's ire was raised again at the thought of Jen bothering CJ.

"No, she didn't say anything, really. It's just that I associate her with basketball, so she was a reminder of the season and our tournament loss. You know, it's that whole 'unfinished chapter' stuff we talked about." A hint of sadness and regret colored her tone.

"I'm sorry, too, CJ," replied Andi. "I didn't mean to make you more upset by claming up when you asked me questions. I promise, we'll finish this conversation soon. I owe you some explanations for a lot of things, just give me a little more time, OK?" A small measure of pleading in her voice penetrated CJ's heart. The blonde woman sensed Andi's sincerity so she allowed herself to be satisfied with the grad student's promise.

"OK," CJ responded. "I'll hold you to it."

"Speaking of holding me," Andi began, "can we end this with a hug and start the evening over again?"

"Sounds good to me," CJ replied.

Andi stayed seated but leaned over to hug CJ as she remained reclined. Reaching her hands down into the soft cushions, she managed to wrap her arms around the sturdy, strong body of the young athlete. CJ buried her face in the space between Andi's neck and shoulder. The dark-haired woman could feel her warm breath as she sighed deeply.

"You OK?" Andi asked.

"Better now," CJ replied. "You still smell good." She breathed in deeply and remained locked in the embrace, the firm pressure of Andi's body pressed against her as she lay stretched out on the couch. After an extended moment, they untangled their arms and separated.

"So, let me get my sweats on then I'll start dinner," stated Andi. She rose from her seat and headed toward her room. "I think I have some of my mother's chicken casserole in the freezer. Does that sound OK?" she called from her bedroom.

"Fine," replied CJ. She remained on the sofa, contemplating their discussion of the last few minutes. There's definitely more to things between her and Jen than what she revealed, but it doesn't sound like anything good, she mused. She felt a wave of relief wash over her. Jealous? she asked herself. You thought the two of them had been together and that bugged you, didn't it? She laughed at herself silently. Well, she confirmed that definitely wasn't the case. You'll just have to wait to hear the rest of the story.

*       *       *       *       *

      Andi packed the last of her students' papers into her school bag, glad to be finished with her grading. The work took longer than she had expected, occupying nearly ninety minutes of her time after dinner, time that she would have preferred to spend with her beautiful companion. She sighed and looked over at her injured friend who was stretched out on the sofa with the TV on softly in the background. Zipping up her bag, Andi picked it up off the table and walked across the room, placing it near the door. She then padded softly back into the living room to relax for the remainder of the evening.

"What are you watching?" Andi asked. She paused to consider her statement, annoyed at herself for the thoughtless remark. "Sorry... poor choice of words. What's on TV?"

"The food channel," CJ replied. "I'm listening to Alton Brown talk about cheese. Ever watch 'Good Eats'?"

"I don't think so... Is that a hint that I should? Is my cooking that bad?" She feigned insult.

"No! That's not what I was implying. It's a fun show, with lots of food facts, history of different foods, and the chemistry of foods. He gives some cooking tips, but it's not like Emeril."

"Sounds interesting."

"Yeah, it is." CJ shifted on the sofa, moving slightly to find a comfortable reclined position. "Could you do me a favor?" she asked.

"Name it."

"Is there an extra pillow around that I could put behind me?"

"Sure. Just sit up for a minute," Andi directed. The blonde woman sat up slowly, her legs still stretched out nearly over the length of the couch. As soon as the younger woman moved, Andi slowly seated herself on the cushions where CJ's head had been. She placed the extra pillow that she had retrieved on her lap. "OK, you can lay back down now," she stated. CJ lowered her body until her head rested comfortably on the older woman's lap.

"That's wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I requested a pillow, but I'm not complaining," the basketball star remarked. A contented grin lit up her face. "You sure I'm not squishing you? I didn't mean to hog the whole sofa."

"You're fine," Andi assured. "Is it comfortable for you though?"

"Perfect," CJ replied. The smile remained on her lips.

Andi watched and CJ listened as Alton Brown explained the steps required to age sheep milk into the perfect cheese. The grad assistant's feet, crossed at the ankles, were propped up on the coffee table in front of her. The darkened living room glowed from the TV's glare, casting shadows across the room as well as on the younger woman's face. Andi turned away from the show to look at the beautiful woman whose head was nested in her lap. The eye patch marred the landscape of her friend's perfect features. Looking at the patch, Andi sighed silently.

She wondered how CJ coped so well handling the darkness that had become her life for the last eight days. Trying to imagine her loss, if only for a few moments, Andi closed her eyes and allowed the darkness of her eyelids to cut off her sight. She sat there, listening, feeling, smelling her senses immediately on high alert to make up for the one sense that had been temporary disallowed. As the moments passed, every noise became louder and more distinct as she focused on the source. Every nerve ending in her body tingled from the touch of fabric, cushions, or her young friend's body as it leaned against her. The aroma of the evening's dinner hung in the air, mixed with the earthy scent of CJ's skin. She felt as if a magnifying glass was held in front of her senses to compensate for her eyelids remaining closed.

She wondered what was going on around her even as she sat on her own sofa, resisting the urge to open her eyes and simply look around to satisfy her curiosity. Did I lock the door? she wondered to herself. Anyone could walk up quietly and I wouldn't even know. She fought the desire to look over at her entranceway to allay her fears. That's what CJ must feel every day, all day, when I'm not here and she's left alone with the door unlocked. How must she feel during the first few seconds when a visitor opens the door but doesn't immediately identify herself? The discomfort registered in her heart and she unconsciously reached out and placed her hand protectively on CJ's shoulder. She opened her eyes as her hand made contact with the younger woman's body, and her magnified senses returned to normal.

"You've been quiet," CJ observed. "What are you thinking?"

"Nothing... " she replied. "Just winding down at the end of a long day."

"Yeah, it feels good just to hang out here, doesn't it?"

As the credits scrolled on the screen, indicating the end of the show, Andi turned off the TV using the remote then remained comfortably relaxed on the couch. Her hand remained protectively on CJ's shoulder as the two women sat in silence. The light from the kitchen provided minimum brightness to the room. CJ stifled a yawn, covering her mouth with her hand.

"Tired?" Andi asked. As if moving of their own accord, the ex-swimmer's fingers traveled from CJ's shoulder to her hair. The older woman laced her long fingers through the short, golden hair that spilled onto the pillow in her lap. The texture was silky as she wrapped the flaxen strands around her index finger, twirling her finger around then unwinding the silky filaments once again. The soft, blonde hair tickled as she swam her fingers through its slight waves.

"Mmmmmmm," purred CJ. "That will put me right out," she murmured. "It's so wonderfully relaxing." A contented smile played across her lips. She remained still, enjoying Andi's soft touch as the older woman gently played with her hair. As stimulating and enjoyable as the sensation was, the basketball star found herself fighting the urge to drift off into a sensual, sybaritic sleep.

"Ready to call it a night?" Andi asked. She continued to rake her fingers gently through the soft, golden tresses.

"Yes, though I hate to move," she confessed. "Why don't you take the bathroom first tonight? I had it first last night."

"It really doesn't matter to me," Andi replied.

"Go ahead then. I'll go in when you're done." She sat up reluctantly so that her living pillow could move. When she felt Andi vacate the couch, she reclined once again. "Would you do me a favor and put one of my T-shirts on the sink?"

"Sure," replied Andi as she headed toward the bedroom.

A few minutes later the ex-swimmer stepped back into the living room wearing sweat pants and a baggy T-shirt, untucked. Her socked feet made very little noise so she announced her presence by tapping CJ's toes as she approached.

"My turn?" the younger woman asked. She shifted to a sitting position then stood slowly as she controlled her balance.

"Yup. Need a hand?"

"Nah, I'm getting good with the furniture guides. Go ahead and get in bed. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Although she was tired, Andi was not anxious for the night to end. She felt cheated of precious time that she could have been spending with CJ because she had schoolwork to do earlier. She searched her mind trying to think of a way to extend the evening a little while longer before her younger friend fell asleep. Hmmmm, she mused. How about a little music? Something quiet in the background, that way she can still fall asleep if she's really tired. She moved to her stereo and squatted down in front of her CD collection, looking for something instrumental that would be good background music without lulling either of them to immediate sleep. She chose one, put it in the tray, and set it to play, adjusting the volume before taking the remote control and retiring to bed.

CJ continued to scrub her teeth as she leaned over the sink, brushing well beyond the few minutes it should have taken to do the job well. Don't want dragon breath, she chided herself. She won't want to lie next to me, let alone talk to me, if my breath curls her eyebrows. With a few final sweeps, she finished brushing and rinsed her mouth. After a few more minutes with soap and a washcloth, she donned her clean T-shirt and headed back into the living room. She smiled upon hearing the soft music emanating from the speakers across the room.

"I'm back," CJ announced as she sat on the bed then crawled under the blanket.

"I was just relaxing with some music. Is that OK with you?"

"Fine. What are we listening to?"

"Pat Metheny's 'Still Life Talking'. I guess it's a contemporary jazz kind of sound. It's hard to categorize, really. Do you like it?"

"I do. It's different."

"I like to listen to instrumental music when I have to read or grade papers. It's less of a distraction."

"I know what you mean. Whenever one of my roommates has the radio on in the dorm, I find myself singing along and not doing my work." She settled herself under the covers, her right shoulder pressed up lightly against her dark-haired friend. The soft music was upbeat yet relaxing, and she could picture Andi sitting at the table, doing schoolwork, with this music filling the room. "What's the name of this piece?" she asked, noting the haunting melody of the quiet instrumental.

"That's one of my favorite cuts on the disk. It's called 'So Let it Secretly Begin'," Andi replied. She smiled to herself at the title's irony. "So, tomorrow's your last full day before you go back to the doctor, your last full day... here." She ended the sentence with a hint of sadness in her voice as the realization of her words sunk in. While she was anxious for CJ to get a good report from the doctor, she knew that would mean CJ would leave to go back to her dorm. In the last eight days her life had become so intertwined with the cheerful woman's life that her heart felt a great sadness and loss at the prospect of her not living there any more.

The injured athlete noticed the uncertainty in Andi's voice, the sadness in her tone, and wondered about its cause. Bending her right knee slightly and turning her leg outward, she hesitantly leaned her leg against her bedmate's hoping to add to their contact. She sighed inwardly and relaxed when the older woman did not pull away from her touch.

"I guess you'll be happy...?" she remarked, her tone colored by a questioning inflection.

"Yes, I mean no, I mean... of course I'll be happy when the doctor tells you your eye is OK and you can go back to your regular routine. But no, I won't be happy to see you go... It's not like I'm anxious to get rid of you. You're low maintenance... very easy to be around."

"Low maintenance, huh? I feel like a Honda." Her voice was serious yet playful.

"You know what I mean, don't you?" She rolled onto her left side and propped her head up on her elbow, facing CJ's beautiful profile. "I can just be myself around you. I can talk when I feel like it, and spend long stretches just sitting near you saying nothing and that's OK, too. We seem to like and dislike similar things, yet your perspective is different enough from mine that it's not boring, like when someone just parrots another person's life. You're a complete person by yourself and... you add something special to my life." Her last words spilled out without conscious thought, before she had time to self-edit. As the words crossed her lips, she felt her face blaze with heat, lit by the fire of embarrassment and vulnerability. She swallowed hard, fighting the urge to flee from the bed to avoid facing CJ's reaction. She held her breath as she tried to regain her composure and think of something else to say that would distract her attractive blonde friend from her last few words. Her tongue betrayed her a second time, however, this time by remaining silent.

"Wow," CJ whispered. "That's such a nice thing to say." Despite the fact that she couldn't see Andi, she turned to face the blue-eyed woman, hoping that her body language would convey what her eye contact could not. She reached out her hand and clasped Andi's. "The feeling's very mutual, I hope you know that." She squeezed her hand and was answered by a long, lingering squeeze. "Things don't have to change that much... I mean... we can still hang out together, right?" In a moment of panic, she wondered if perhaps things would change, and their lives would become two completely separate entities whose paths seldom crossed. At that thought, a great sadness filled her heart.

"I'd love that, CJ," Andi replied. The injured athlete felt her heart soar at hearing those words. "I think these past days are only the beginning of something very special."

"You do, huh?!" CJ smiled.

"Yeah, I do," Andi replied.

They remained facing one another for several moments, basking in the emotional connection that had been established through speaking from their hearts. As the final track on the CD faded, the only remaining sound was their soft, steady breathing. Finally, CJ broke the spell.

"We should get some sleep," CJ stated, reluctantly. "You've got an early class tomorrow."

"You've got my schedule down already?" Andi chuckled.

"Hey, you've been watching out for me, it's only fair that I return the favor." She smiled broadly, showing a pearly set of perfectly straight teeth.

"I guess you're right," Andi sighed reluctantly. Using the remote, she turned off the stereo then stretched out on her back, lying close enough to CJ so that their bodies touched. Her blonde companion remained on her side, her head mere inches from Andi's.

"Night, Andi," whispered CJ.

"Night, CJ," the dark haired woman replied. "Happy dreams."

"I'm sure they will be," the injured athlete smiled.

Chapter 27

      As day dawned, Andi found herself once again nestled up against her blonde bedmate. She felt almost disappointed that she slept soundly enough not to have remembered what was probably a night filled with somnolent cuddling near the younger woman. She wished that she had been in a half-sleep so that she could have stored up seven hours of pleasant sensations similar to what she was currently feeling. Enjoying a few lingering moments in CJ's company, she sighed and finally slipped out from beneath the covers.

Moving quietly around her apartment, she was determined not to wake CJ as she had on previous mornings. Her Tuesday class began at 8:30 a.m., but there was no sense in the injured athlete waking early, too. She moved from kitchen, to bathroom, to bedroom with the stealth of a skilled tracker, this time keeping more alert for her wandering ward whom she thought might just emerge from the bathroom and surprise her, as CJ did the previous morning.

She managed to get ready in enough time to allow for a pit stop at the campus coffee shop, fearing that her usual morning coffee brewing would awaken her younger friend. Pausing at the door before heading out, she reconsidered her earlier decision simply to leave without waking CJ then phone home after her class finished. Replacing her book bag on the floor near the door, she tiptoed silently back to the bed where the beautiful basketball star slept. She lowered herself slowly to the mattress then spent an extended moment basking in the view before her.

CJ had rolled onto her back with her left arm resting casually on the pillow over her head. Her right arm lay across her stomach, loosely clutching the crumpled T-shirt she was sleeping in. The blanket was kicked down around her thighs. Her soft features were relaxed in sleep, making her look younger than her twenty-two years. A contented smile played upon her lips, and Andi wondered what she was dreaming. Seeing her companion smile caused the grad assistant to smile, too. Andi hesitated about waking her out of what appeared to be a pleasant dream; however, she placed her hand on CJ's shoulder, shaking her ever so gently while whispering her name.

"CJ... CJ are you awake?"

"Huhmmm?" the younger woman responded sleepily. Her head moved slightly and her body stirred, but she did not appear to be awake.

"I need to leave for class now, CJ." She leaned down so that her face was mere inches away from CJ's. Whispering, she continued to speak. "I just wanted to say goodbye."

Coherence slowly seeped into CJ's brain as some words began to register. Awake... leave... class now... goodbye... She struggled to swim through the fog in her head, to break through the surface of her dream-state to respond to a familiar, wonderful voice. Andi's voice, she processed. Andi's leaving. The heaviness of sleep still weighed upon her brain as she struggled with conscious thoughts. I don't want Andi to leave, her mind responded sleepily.

CJ's arms reached up and wrapped around Andi as she leaned down, enveloping her in a sleepy embrace. The blonde woman's arms felt heavy around her, and Andi could tell that her companion had not quite broken the surface of lucid awareness. She smiled as her sleepy friend seemed to fall back asleep with her arms wrapped around her neck and shoulders.

Moving gently, Andi grasped each of CJ's hands and slowly unwrapped the younger woman's arms from her body. As she began to move them, however, CJ surfaced briefly, yet not completely, from her somnolent state.

"Stay..." she pleaded. "I like when you're here." She rolled on her side, facing Andi, then grasped the dark haired woman's pillow, pulling it close to her and nuzzling her face in it. "I love sleeping with you near me."

Andi's eyebrows arched high on her forehead at hearing CJ's admissions. She was taken aback at the direct confession yet quickly chalked it up to slumbering chatter when her flaxen-haired friend swiftly drifted back to sleep.

"I'll be home for lunch, CJ," she continued softly. She hesitantly reached out with her hand and stroked the golden hair, pausing to rub her thumb gently across the high cheekbone. A smile appeared on CJ's lips and she purred softly at the touch.

"OK," CJ mumbled. "Lunch."

Andi smiled warmly at her, caressing her softly as she slipped back into a deeper sleep. She felt emboldened by the younger woman's contented reaction to her touch, continuing to stroke her gently. Reveling in the silkiness of her hair, she fingered the tussled tresses, raking her fingers gently to push back some unruly strands, exposing the athlete's striking face. Moving her hand from hair to cheek, she held her palm against the soft, warm skin for a moment before traveling back to stroke the flaxen strands once again.
After several minutes, she reluctantly removed her hand from CJ's hair. Sighing, she stood then headed out the door with one lingering glance over her shoulder at the sleepy woman who had captured her heart.

*       *       *       *       *

      Andi heard the stereo as she mounted the stairs to her apartment and she smiled, recognizing the Pat Metheny CD that she had played the previous night. She stepped through the door and quickly announced her presence.

"Hey," she called and announced happily, "lunch has arrived."

She moved toward the sofa where the golden-haired woman was reclining. As she sat down on the edge of the cushion near CJ's hip, the injured athlete shifted her body to allow enough room for her tall friend. Andi reached over for the remote and lowered the volume slightly.

"Do you like this disk, or are you listening to it simply because I forgot to take it out?"

"Both," she replied, smiling brightly up at Andi.

"I picked up subs today."

"Great. I'm hungry." Almost on cue, her stomach growled loudly. She rubbed it with circular motions using the palm of her hand as if to quiet the demanding beast within.

"Gosh, CJ," Andi exclaimed. "You didn't have breakfast. You must be starving!" She mentally slapped herself in the head for not remembering that her temporarily blinded friend would not be able to rummage through her frig to get her own breakfast. "I wanted you to be able to sleep in and rest this morning, but I didn't think about your breakfast. I'm so sorry!"

"That's OK, Andi," she replied good-naturedly. "I actually managed to feel my way around enough to snag an apple and pour a glass of juice. You might want to check the counter... I think I spilled some."

"Don't worry about that. I'm such a dope," she added, chastising herself.

"Really, it's OK about breakfast." She paused then spoke more softly as she continued. "I was kind of hoping to see you before you left though," she added hesitantly. "How come you didn't wake me?"

"But I did... I mean, I tried." Andi looked quizzically at the blonde woman. "Don't you remember? I came over and sat on the edge of the mattress. You even gave me a hug and... told me not to go." Her voice softened as she remembered CJ's somnolent confession of loving to sleep near her; however, she omitted that from her recap.

"Sometimes I'm a very deep sleeper," CJ admitted. "My roommates always tease me about it. The last two nights I've slept so well with... I guess I was just very relaxed." She could feel her face redden so she looked away.

"Come on, then. Let's feed you," Andi encouraged. She clasped CJ's hands and helped her to sit and then stand, continuing to hold her hands while she gained her balance. The grad assistant placed her hand on the small of CJ's back, guiding her to the counter stool where they would eat lunch.

"So how was your morning?" CJ inquired.

"Uneventful, which is good. The class went well and I managed to get some work done in my office before heading back here." She pulled out the stool and helped CJ settle on it before walking around the counter into the kitchen to get their subs. "How about you?"

"Same old," she replied. "I have no idea what time it was when I got up." She sniffed the air as Andi unwrapped the subs and the aroma of eggplant parmesan filled the air. "God, that smells good."

"Here," stated Andi, placing the food in front of the hungry woman. "Eat up while it's still warm." She watched as CJ dug into the sandwich hungrily, feeling guilty all over again about her breakfast error. After she unwrapped her own sandwich, she joined her friend at the counter to eat.

"Coach stopped by about an hour before you got back," CJ said between bites.

"That was nice of her," replied Andi. She mumbled a bit as she spoke with half a mouthful of food. Swallowing, she continued. "What'd she have to say?"

"She talked a bit about some interesting recruiting prospects she was working on. Asked me if I heard of any of them, and I actually did recognize one of the names. A senior from a high school not far from my old school." She stopped talking to take another bite, chewing quickly then swallowing so she could continue. "We also talked a bit of strategy, you know, like 'what if' stuff. What would I have done differently if it was me calling the plays in the tournament." She chuckled then bit into her sub. She smiled as she chewed, clearly amused by whatever she was thinking. Andi found her smile contagious and she waited eagerly to hear its cause.

"What did you tell her?" the ex-swimmer inquired.

"I answered her question, that's for sure," she chuckled again, "but perhaps more directly than she was anticipating. I mean, I didn't say anything disrespectful, because you know that I really like Coach and think she's good at what she does, but I think that my perspective as a player was perhaps a bit eye-opening for her." She took another bite before continuing. "Initially, I thought I pissed her off because she didn't say anything at first. I wish to hell that I could have seen her face. Sometimes, when she got mad a practice, this little vein in her forehead would start to pulse and I knew enough to get out of her way. But today I couldn't see her anger meter, so I didn't know what to do."

"So what did you do?"

"I just shut up and waited for her to say something. After what seemed like fifteen minutes, but was probably fifteen seconds, she spoke."

"And?"

"She said she agreed." She bit into the sub and smiled, remembering the feeling of satisfaction upon hearing her coach's acknowledgement. "She quickly followed it up by adding that hindsight was always 20/20, but I think that was because I bumped her off balance a bit." She took a long swallow of water, having gobbled the first half of her sandwich quickly to assuage her hunger. "She also asked about you."

"Me? What about me?" inquired Andi. She felt herself feeling defensive, but didn't know why. Probably lingering annoyance at Jen, she replied to her internal question. I wonder if that bitch said anything, she thought. Was it just coincidence that Coach stopped by the day after Jen did? Andi was uncomfortable with the coincidence and tried to put it out of her mind.

"Just asking about you. Said she heard you've been taking real good care of me. Of course I confirmed that." The blonde woman grinned widely at Andi, not realizing that the intended compliment made her caretaker a bit uncomfortable.

"Oh?" Andi replied weakly.

"Yeah, I told her that you were the best. Oh, and she wants me to go see her after I get checked out by the doctor, assuming everything's OK. Said there's something she wanted to discuss with me, but wouldn't tell me what."

"No ideas?"

"None. I tried to get it out of her, but she said that she had a meeting in fifteen minutes and would rather talk to me about it another time. I told her I'd stop by on Thursday, the day after I see the doctor." She tore into her lunch once again with her usual food enthusiasm, seeming more unfazed by the coach's request than her blue-eyed companion was.

"I'll be curious to hear what she has to say," Andi noted, frowning. She looked at her watch. "Speaking of meetings, I have to meet with my department chair in twenty minutes." She looked up and saw disappointment paint CJ's face. A note of sadness filled her own heart as she considered that this was the last lunch that she and her injured ward would share. She wished she could extend it, to prolong any time in the younger woman's company, but she was compelled to leave much sooner than she had hoped. Eager to erase CJ's disappointed look, she came up with a compromise that might make up for her early exit from lunch. "I don't have office hours this afternoon, though. I could be home by 4:00. How's that sound?"

"Great!" CJ responded, her beautiful smile lighting up her fair complexion.

"It's a date," she replied, cringing at her choice of words. CJ continued to smile.

*       *       *       *       *

      The two women lay shoulder to shoulder on Andi's mattress, CJ's thigh turned out to the side in order to make additional contact with her bedmate. Rain pummeled the roof outside, beating a steady rhythm over their heads. Thunder rumbled occasionally and lightening pierced the sky, illuminating the early spring evening. In sharp contrast to the noises of nature outside, the apartment was dark and quiet inside. Even through closed eyes, Andi could see the brightness of the lightening as it split the sky and lit up the living room. She felt CJ twitch after especially loud cracks of thunder.

"So, what time is your appointment tomorrow morning?" Andi inquired.

"I have to meet the doctor in her office at 10:00," CJ replied. "At least I don't have to go back on a stretcher in the ambulance." She smirked with relief, recalling how the doctor refused her insistent protests about simply walking over to Andi's apartment on her own two feet. Her smirk quickly turned into a frown, however, when she remembered that a simple walk across campus to the infirmary was not quite so simple for her these days. "Actually... I don't know how I'll be getting there, though."

"I'll take you, CJ," Andi volunteered. "I cleared my schedule tomorrow morning because I thought you might need some help and, well... I'd really like to go with you, if you want some company. If I had to sit in my office with students, I wouldn't really be concentrating anyway."

"That would be great, Andi. I'd like you to come with me. I could use the company."

"Nervous?"

"Yeah, I am," she admitted. The basketball star sighed deeply then paused before continuing to speak. "I've really been trying to stay positive about everything, you know? Because when you start to think you're defeated, it always ends up happening. And most of the time I think to myself that everything's going to be OK, that I'm going to look back on this whole experience and know that the only thing I lost was my chance at the big tournament, not my eyesight. During those times I remind myself how much I've gained from this whole thing, too." She reached out and clasped Andi's hand.

"But then there are some times when this nagging voice of doubt creeps in and I worry that when the doctor takes off my eye patch, that I'll still be... in darkness. I try to push those thoughts out of my head, but sometimes, when I'm alone, by myself in darkness, it's hard. It's kind of like how a scary movie is so much scarier when you watch it at night, then the next day, when the sun comes up and you wonder what scared you so much the night before. Only with me, the sun hasn't come up for the past nine days so my fear remains. Does that make any sense?"

"Yeah," replied Andi. She squeezed the blonde woman's hand gently. "I can totally understand your fear, and I think you're very brave." CJ let out a little snort-giggle, indicating that she didn't agree. "No really," insisted Andi. "You've been wonderful. You're never moping or moody, you don't sit around with a 'poor me' attitude. Geez, you're ten times better at dealing with your injury than I was at dealing with mine. I was like a bear with a sore ass for weeks on end." She snickered as she recalled her impatience and grumpiness. "Martha and Karen would have never been able to live with me in close quarters the way I'm able to live with you." And to enjoy it so much, she thought to herself.

"Well, you're too kind. And I really don't feel that brave. In fact, nearly every day, when you were at school, I came this close to taking off this patch and opening my eyes, just because I couldn't wait another minute. I just had to know. But I couldn't. I chickened out every time." Her voice turned sad, with a note of self-disappointment.

"That doesn't make you less brave, CJ. It just proves that you're smart by doing exactly what the doctor told you to do in order to heal."

"Yeah, well... I'm still afraid."

"Of what?"

"The pictures in my head fading," she replied sadly. Turning on her right side, she bent her elbow and propped up her head on her hand, facing Andi. She reached out and placed her hand on the older woman's arm, resting it there while she continued to speak. "The first few days after the accident, while I was laying here by myself, I had a lot of time to think and remember. Whenever my mom called, or a friend visited, or every time I thought of someone who is important in my life, I got this picture in my mind of that person. Initially, the picture was practically three dimensional, sharp and clear, with deep, rich colors. Then, after a few days, it started to look more like a photograph, kind of flat. After a few more days it would take me a few minutes to get the picture fully in my mind, and the colors in the picture started to fade. When that happens, especially during one of my scared times when the doubts creep in, I worry that... if I lose my sight... that I'll eventually lose the pictures in my head, too." Her voice became soft and infused with sadness. Andi felt her tremble at her side.

"Those pictures won't ever go away, CJ," she reassured. She reached across and touched the younger woman's hand as it rested on her arm. Stroking it reassuringly, she continued talking. "Even if you... lose your sight and I'm optimistic that you won't you won't lose your memories of people. Your mind's eye will always be able to see them."

"Sometimes, when I'm on the phone with my mother, I try to picture her her wavy hair, her rosy cheeks, the way she squints her eyes when she's concentrating and it just seems that, I don't know, like I can't fully recreate her picture in my head anymore."

"You've been away from home for four years now, CJ. Perhaps some of what you're feeling comes from simply not seeing your mom every day, like you did when you were growing up." CJ was silent for a moment as she considered Andi's explanation.

"I suppose you're right," she admitted. "I hadn't thought of it that way." She paused to think more about Andi's theory and to apply it to the faces of others who appeared in her mind. The hypothesis fit each case, except for one. "There's only one person that doesn't fit with," CJ sighed.

"Who's that?"

"You."

"Me?"

"Yeah, you. One of my favorite images of you is when we returned from sledding that day, and we were standing on your porch downstairs. The sun was setting and the sky was red, orange, and purple simply beautiful. I was looking over your shoulder at the sunset, and then I looked at you. Your dark hair fell softly, nearly touching your shoulders. The wind and cold had turned your cheeks to pink, which only made the blueness of your eyes stand out even more. I had always noticed them how could I not but I had never seen them look so crystal blue. You were smiling, not just a little grin, but a full, toothy smile, like you were really happy..."

"I was..."

"Well, that's the picture of you I keep thinking of, to remember, but some days... that too seems faded." Sadness tinged her voice. "I don't want to lose your picture. I don't want to forget your beautiful face."

"Oh CJ," whispered Andi. Her heart ached at her friend's sadness yet raced from the flattering compliments. She turned toward her friend and touched her hand, which was still resting on her arm. "Let me help you to remember," she said.

Taking CJ's hand in her own, Andi moved it off its warm resting spot on her arm and placed it on her cheek. She held it there for a moment, inviting the younger woman to stay, then Andi slowly removed her hand. CJ's hand remained where Andi had placed it, temporarily immobile, trembling lightly on the grad assistant's warm skin.

Slowly, CJ moved her hand and placed it on Andi's head. Beginning at the crown of dark hair, she slid her palm down the silky strands of ebony as is cascaded over her ear and fell nearly to her shoulder. As she moved to the ends, she rubbed the locks between her fingers, luxuriating in the soft texture. She moved her hand upward once more, this time raking her fingers into the dark tresses, gently rubbing her scalp as she traveled north to the top of Andi's head.

From there, she moved down onto Andi's forehead. Using only the tips of her fingers, she dragged them down slowly until she reached her eyebrows. Her motion then shifted left to right as she skated her fingertips side to side across Andi's forehead, pausing at her temples, then returning to the center again. Her exploration continued at the ex-swimmer's dark eyebrows, tracing their arching shape from center outwards, stroking lightly over the soft, ebony hairs.

Andi could feel CJ's tentative touch become more relaxed as the younger woman slowly explored her face. She never had been touched in such a way before, and although her invitation to CJ was meant to relieve the injured woman's anxiety, Andi could feel her own mounting. She forced herself to stay relaxed although her body was feeling anything but calm.

CJ's fingertips drifted very lightly to Andi's eyelids, which twitched slightly at the touch. She dragged her fingertip slowly down the crest of the older woman's nose before gliding back up again to run her thumb and forefinger gently down the slope of each side. As her fingers spread out onto Andi's left cheek, CJ rested her palm gently against the warm skin, pausing for a moment before sliding her palm lightly down until Andi's chin rested in her hand. Once at her chin, CJ reversed the position then dragged the back of her hand gently up Andi's left cheek. Enjoying the feel of the woman's soft skin against her knuckles, she caressed her cheek slowly several times before gliding back down to her chin.

Using her thumb, she traced small arches back and forth across Andi's chin. On one of the passes, she grazed her friend's lip and heard a sharp intake of air by her companion. She hesitated for a moment then continued her exploration. Alternating between her thumb and forefinger, she traced her fingers across Andi's soft, full lips. She felt them part slightly as she moved across their silky surface. The warmth of Andi's breath further tingled her fingers.

Andi felt her body heat rising at the touch. Her heart thumped loudly and rapidly in her chest, while her breathing accelerated to keep pace with her growing excitement. What have I invited? she asked herself. Her willpower and self-control teetered on the brink as the younger woman's intimate touch continued. Just when Andi thought she would go out of her mind with desire, it stopped. CJ touched Andi's cheek one last time then moved her hand away, replacing it once again on the blue eyed woman's arm.

"Thank you," CJ whispered. "You're in my mind's eye again, just like you were that afternoon." She sighed contentedly and pressed her hand around Andi's arm.

"My pleasure," Andi replied. Her heart continued to thump loudly for several minutes as the fire in her body slowly subsided.

"Night, Andi," CJ whispered. She snuggled closer to her caretaker, still holding her arm.

"Sleep well," Andi replied. She reached over and stroked her friend's hand for several minutes until she recognized CJ's sleep breathing begin. Sighing silently, she closed her eyes, enjoying the closeness and warmth her sleeping companion.

As she lay with her lids closed, her own mind's eye envisioned a picture of a certain blonde haired, emerald-eyed basketball star. She smiled at the image of her beautiful friend, content in the knowledge that CJ's face would be the first thing she would see upon waking the next morning. With that thought, she slipped into a contented sleep.


Continued in Part VI

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