The Inside Out

by LA Tucker © 2002

Part XVIII:  In The Days of Old Angst Time

For disclaimers, see Part I

Chloe pulled the sodden and sweltering USC sweatshirt over her head and flung it over the seat of the nearby John Deere tractor, and ran a hand anxiously through her hair.  The barn interior was lit only by a couple of camping lanterns and five or six citronella candles. The singing had stopped, the accordion whined out. She looked around her, and saw the faces of her friends, family, and most importantly, her lover, all watching her.

No one moved, no one said a word. They all just stared.

Marcy finally broke the silence. "What color is that ... rust?"

Doris was parked in a lawn chair very close to where Chloe was standing and lifted up a nearby lantern to illuminate her. "It's hard to tell. In this light, it looks more like Very Berry Kool-Aid."

Marcy corrected her earlier opinion as she gawked at her best friend. "Maybe that's ... russet? Wait, that's a potato.  No, I know it's a color, I am an art teacher."

Sara was still as a stalagmite, her heart beating very loudly in her chest as she took in ... her lover?

Stan still had his accordion clutched in his hands, his fingers frozen on the keys.  For some bizarre reason, he was fashionably aware of the correct term. "Garnet. I think they call that 'garnet'."

Chloe, with a haze of travel weariness and wariness at her return home keeping her from thinking clearly, finally registered on what they were talking about. "Oh." she said, as she sucked on her lower lip. "My hair."  She looked about in a daze, trying to find a welcoming face, and her gaze returned again to Sara, who had apparently left her tongue in her other pants.

The overhead  fluorescent lights of the barn flickered once, twice, and then came fully on, causing everyone to squint until they adjusted to the renewed amount of light .  Sara's eyes were locked on Chloe, and as her focus cleared, they widened even more. Her mouth went arid as an African desert as she looked at her. It felt so dry, she was sure her gums were shriveling and that her back molars would soon drop out and clatter to the barn's floor.

Chloe, uncomfortably aware that she was clearly the focus of everyone's startled gaping, dipped her nervous hands into her low slung, tight faded jeans pockets, which, unfortunately, pulled her jeans down even lower on her hips, while the short and clingy tank top with the spaghetti straps shimmered under the fluorescent lights of the barn. The waist of the jeans was well below navel level, while the hem of the tank top was just above her bellybutton.  She rocked uncomfortably on the heels of her still stiff new cowboy boots, suddenly regretting that she couldn't find room for them in her overstuffed suitcase and chose to wear them home in an effort to save space.

Dave and Marcy both took a step towards her, both eyeing the, uh, newly dark redheaded woman with the sleek and no longer shaggy haircut, who was standing nearly a good three inches taller than the Chloe they remembered. And whose skin glowed a few burnished shades darker than they recalled. One who appeared sexily sophisticated, trendy and even glamorous in a casually uncalculated Cameron Diaz kind of way.  There was something different, each one noted, about her face, too. Her green eyes seemed much more accessible and alluring.

Doris peered more closely now at Chloe from her lawn chair. "No, I'd call that .... Oceanspray Cranapple Red. What do you think, Sara?"  Doris turned her attention to Sara, who was making like a life size ice sculpture, her expression never changing. Her tongue had already dried up and she felt like she swallowed it whole.  She gulped like a floundering carp as she took in Chloe's intriguing appearance. She blinked and twitched, the muscles around her eyes seemingly the only ones that were capable of movement.

Jeanette was to Chloe's right, and something even more interesting caught her eye. "Is that ... that a TATTOO on your back?"

Chloe's attention was momentarily diverted away from the lawn ornament better known as Sara once Jeanette's query registered in her mind. She turned, hesitantly smiling at her, and then reaching over her shoulder, she twisted her head to try and view the tattoo on her back. "Uh, yeah. Sorta." Her fingers felt for it, although she couldn't see it even by craning her neck. It was high on her left shoulder blade, just to the side of the strap of the tank top. "It's a dragon ... uh, fly.  A dragonfly.  It reminded me of the ones by the pond, you know, by the 9th hole." She saw the delighted look on Jeanette's face, and stood self consciously as the blonde cheerleader slowly moved in tighter, taking in all the changes about Chloe, lightly touching the outlines of the simple and delicate skin art.

Tattoo? Sara internalized that word, and ran it through her mind. Tattoo?  She blinked again, and caught a blurry glimpse of that very tattoo as Chloe turned to smile shyly at Jeanette.

Marcy had made it over to Chloe, and quite absurdly, for a 7 months along pregnant straight woman, let out a long and meaningful wolf whistle at her flummoxed best friend, before she opened her arms to her. Chloe hesitated, and then fell gratefully into Marcy's arms, returning the hug with everything she could without bringing on an early labor in her friend. Marcy murmured in her ear, "Well, welcome home, Chloester.  Aren't you a sight for sore eyes?"  Marcy purposely did a repeat wolf whistle next to Chloe's ear, and then chuckled. "I'm telling you, with the way you look, I'm re-thinking my straight status. God, woman, did you get smacked with the HOT stick in California, or what?"

Chloe was grinning sheepishly with her chin tucked over Marcy's much lower shoulder, but her eyes were helplessly drawn in Sara's direction. Sara was still doing her uncanny impression of a fencepost, and her wide eyed expression never altered.

Chloe pulled away from Marcy, who had started panting lasciviously in Chloe's ear just to tease her.

Chloe found definite admiration glowing in her best friends eyes, and she relaxed just a little.

Nelson, standing near his father, was nearly a carbon copy of his aunt, bird-dog still, stupefied and completely entranced by this local librarian gone West Coast chic vision in front of him.  Dave noticed the mesmerized stare Nelson was unknowingly bestowing on Chloe, and he leaned in and quite sharply gave Nelson a backhanded smack on the stomach. "Snap out of it, buddy boy."  Nelson 'oof'ed, and then shook himself out of his stupor. He and Dave both stepped up to Chloe, and Dave raised his eyebrows at her approvingly, a large grin plastered on his face. "Hot damn, Chloe. You're looking ...GOOD."  He then enveloped her in his own bear hug, and then stepped away, gracefully allowing the dumbstruck Nelson to greet her too.

Chloe peered up at Nelson, before she opened her arms to him. He hugged her quickly, and then stepped away, a bashful grin on his face. "Good to have you back. Hasn't been the same without you."

Chloe gave him an unabashed look of adoration, and she reached up to mess up his hair. "Sorry I'm late, big guy."

"'s okay You didn't miss much. Well, some ... well, a lot, really ..."

The way Nelson was ogling Chloe's new appearance didn't escape Jeanette's attention.  She stepped up and protectively wound a hand around Nelson's bicep, and gave it a squeeze as she pulled him away to a safer distance.

Doris was silently watching all this interaction between the partygoers and Chloe, but her real attention was divided between Sara, who was trying in vain to get her motor functions to work, and Chloe, who was apparently waiting for some kind of greeting or acknowledgment from her lover. Doris finally rapped her umbrella impatiently on the barn's floor, and Chloe turned to her, and smiled apologetically, and then moved to give Doris an enthusiastic hug and soft kiss on her cheek.

"Well, Miss Donahue. Or should I call you 'Miss Firecracker'?" Doris teased. "Look what the storm blew in. About time you got here. I was pretty sure Stan was going to start playing  'Lady of Spain' next on that damned accordion of his, and I was going to have to beat him senseless with my umbrella."  Chloe laughed, and some more of her apprehension and nervousness drained away, after Doris gave her a slight approving nod. "No one's going to mistake you for a librarian again, Chloe, nosirree. Who would have thought our Madam Librarian was such a  ... sexpot?"

Chloe's cheeks blazed an astounding shade of deep crimson red, almost matching the color of her hair. She couldn't remember a time when she'd ever heard anyone, much less her old high school principal, refer to her as a 'sexpot'.

Stan ran his fingers down the keys of the accordion, and it sounded like the mewling of a kitten. Chloe turned to him and caught his eye just as he explained, with a twinkle in his eye, "Sex kitten, Doris. Nobody says sexpot anymore. Sex KITTEN." Again came the mewling sound from the accordion, and then everyone in the barn laughed, except for Sara. Totem Pole Sara.

Jeanette felt the need to get the small crowd into the 21st century. "She's a hottie. C'mon, nobody says sexpot any more, unless you're talking about Pamela Anderson."

Sexpot?  Sex kitten? Garnet? Boots? Tattoo? Bellybutton? Hottie?? These words were reverberating loudly in Sara's head, and amazingly enough, none of them made them to her lips. Instead, her mouth formed around and pronounced a simple two syllable name. "Chloe?" she murmured, almost inaudibly. But Chloe, attuned for any motion, any sound coming from that side of the room, heard her, and looked up. Their eyes met, and even with her less than perfect vision, Sara fell into the familiar lush landscape of Chloe's eyes. She said it again, but louder this time. "Chloe?"  She was relieved to have found her tongue again, but her feet were still cemented uselessly to the barn floor. She saw Chloe look hopefully at her, and Sara found her own lips curving into a soft smile. "Chloe!" She said it definitely, beseechingly, trying to communicate to Chloe with her eyes that she found herself temporarily immobile.

Chloe had no such problem. The third calling of her name magnetically pulled at her, and she crossed the barn floor without her boot heels even touching down.  She was almost to Sara when she saw Sara's arms begin to move, to open, to invite her in, and she threw herself into those arms and felt them close around her, tight, tighter, crushing the air out of her, but replacing those lost breaths with acceptance and warmth.

They melded together, completely luxuriating in each other's embrace, as Dave nodded towards the barn door and everyone silently filed out, all taking a smiling last glance behind them before they trotted through the glorious, drenching rain up to the house.

Sara first became aware of the difference, or maybe Chloe did, perhaps it was simultaneous

Chloe's nose was buried somewhere right below Sara's left earlobe, when normally it was pressed into her shoulder when she was holding her like this. Not loosening her grip on the newly taller woman in her arms, Sara opened an eye, and snuck a peek at the side of Chloe's head. Deep reddish brown tresses greeted her vision, and she took a moment to internalize the color and the look of it, and decided she kind of liked it. She dropped her arms lower around Chloe's waist, and found the bare skin of Chloe's back greeting the palms of her hands. She groaned a little, in pleasure and in surprise.

Chloe pulled away from her just long enough to give her a sweetly relieved smile, and then reburied herself deeply within Sara's embrace again, sighing in response to Sara's soft groan.

Sara tightened her arms around her, trying to adjust to the feeling of having Chloe against her again, breathing in her familiar scent, running a few fingers in a careless rhythm across the downy surface of Chloe's bare lower back. Jeanette's term, 'Hottie', sprang into her mind unannounced, and Sara cringed a little as she tried to connect that term to the woman she had wrapped in her arms. It wasn't a far stretch at all, it seemed to fit perfectly, and Sara found herself not uncomfortable with it in conjunction with Chloe at all. Well, maybe a little.  But that could wait.

She stepped away, loosening her grip around Chloe, and while still grasping her, she held her at arm's length, so she could examine her with a critical eye.

Chloe immediately missed the closeness, and found herself just barely able to meet Sara's eyes. She struggled with her self consciousness for a moment, then steadily met Sara's appraising gaze. "Well," she stammered, not able to read anything in Sara's expression. "Well, uh, I'm home."

Sara's mouth curved into a hesitant smile, as she glanced into Chloe's eyes. "Yes, you are. I'm glad."

"You are?"  All of Chloe's hastily assembled self confidence had vamoosed into an unknown corner of the barn, and the vacuum was replaced with massive helpings of self doubt and hesitation. "I hope so."

"You do?  That's good, 'cause it wouldn't be good if just one of us was happy that you came home," Sara teased, if a little half heartedly.

Chloe squirmed a little. "No, I'm definitely happy to be here."  She knew she had to proceed with caution because there seemed to be an invisible distance between them that desperately needed to be bridged. She smiled at Sara, and studied her a little. She looks so tired. Is it because of me, or is that totally self-centered of me to think that?  Sara was still gracing her with a small smile, so she continued on, rubbing her hands across Sara's shoulders, feeling the tenseness beneath her fingers. "I missed you."

Sara nodded. "I missed you, too. "  Sara saw the doubt on Chloe's face, and wanted to reassure her. "Really. I did."

Chloe was feeling so insecure, even in the intimate proximity of Sara's arms, that her residual guilt came rushing to the forefront, engulfing her, overshadowing any joy she should have still been experiencing in their reunion.  The early departure time, the long and delayed flight, and torturous slow drive home in a driving rainstorm had already caught up with her. And not to mention the fact that she did the driving part in a car that still stunk to high heaven, and never got aired out because she couldn't roll down the window without  donning scuba gear first.  She'd distracted herself all the way with daydreams of a joyous welcome but now was unsure, and the tentative reception she found in Sara's embrace was not the instant cure that she had hoped and desperately prayed for. But she was no quitter, not when it concerned something so vitally important to her. The most crucial thing in the world to her was right within reach again, and she felt bolstered by that thought. She chanced a flirtatious grin at her lover. "I missed you more."

"Impossible," Sara said solemnly. Her insides were churning and roiling with indecision as to what to do next. Her lips fairly itched to kiss Chloe's, but for once in her life, she knew that her mouth needed to be used to talk first, and kiss later, depending on how the conversation went.  For safety's sake, she moved Chloe a bit farther away, in order to examine her lover a little more fully. Using light hands, she slowly turned Chloe around, until the dragonfly art on Chloe's shoulder came into view. She stopped her there, and intently inspected it, the simple spareness of the lines of it viscerally pleasing her. "Nice." It was if it had been quickly sketched in five, perhaps six dashed strokes of some sort of Oriental brush. She lifted a tentative finger to trace it, and felt Chloe shiver beneath her touch. That shiver traveled through the air and into Sara's soul, and her hands returned to Chloe's upper arms, continuing to turn Chloe around until they were face to face again.

Chloe looked to her for some sign of acceptance. The dragonfly on her back still hummed where Sara had touched it, and it felt as though the insect had come to life, and its wings were beating a thrumming soft staccato on her skin. Sara's expression remained maddeningly unreadable, but there had been something tangible communicated in that touch, and it warmed Chloe slightly. "Well," she breathed, finding the blue depths she had missed and plunging soul first into them and swimming, trying to reach the shore of Sara's love. "Do you like?"

Sara's mouth twitched into a smile, this one heartfelt and immediate. "I like.  But I always did."  There was that insistent urge rising again, to kiss Chloe senseless, but somehow, it didn't express itself into actual reality. She needed something else first, some explanations.  She reached out and gently ran her thumb down the bridge of Chloe's nose. "Um ... well,"  she said rather uselessly. As many times as she had rehearsed this in her mind, this intense moment of reality didn't match any scenario she had conjured up.

Sara's hesitant mannerisms weren't lost on Chloe. She understood it and had even predicted it, so she decided to give the both of them some needed space.  She reluctantly took a half step back from Sara, trying to make it the smoothest and least abrupt parting as possible. She intended to lighten the mood, and to start a difficult dialogue that she was unsure would turn out to have a happy ending.

The air of the barn was saturated with the humidity of the storm, and  the thick apprehension at what was going to happen next. Neither one knew where to start, and as Sara kept staring blankly at her, Chloe glanced around the interior barn, searching for but finding nothing new or interesting to comment about.  Chloe scuffed her boot toe on the barn floor.

"Nice boots," Sara commented, glad for a conversational entrance.

"Uh, yeah. They're 'Justins'," Chloe said, lifting up a foot so they both could examine them.

"Why do you have Justin's boots?" Sara asked, a little confused.

Chloe dropped her foot and looked up and saw the puzzled expression on Sara's face. "No, not Justin's. Justins."

Sara shook her head. "Doesn't he have bigger feet than you?  Which Justin are we talking about, a Justin from the play, or the one at Quickie Mart, wait, who was that other Justin? I can't seem to keep them all straight in my mind."

Chloe tried again. "No, the BRAND name is Justin.  Not one of the Justins around here."  She looked at Sara expectantly, hoping that Sara had caught on.

Sara frowned, and then looked at Chloe, her face impassive but still not comprehending. She furrowed her brow, and asked quite seriously, "Who's on first?"

Chloe did a double take, then she realized she'd been had. Her heart started beating again, this time with a snappier rhythm. "Shithead!"

"Shithead's on first?"  Sara deadpanned. "Then What's on second?"

Chloe felt a giggle springing forth. She snorted, and smacked Sara on the arm. Sara grinned back at her slyly, the rise of her eyebrow speaking volumes to the only woman whose smile could chase away the storm clouds hovering over her heart. "So, Chloe, if that really IS you, well, uh, you want to talk?"  Sara inquired carefully, her smile deepening the highlighting of her cheekbones. "Or do you want to wait until tomorrow ... uh, later today?  It's nearly 1 AM now .."

Chloe naturally wanted to talk now, all night if need be. But she saw the dark circles arcing under Sara's eyes, and remembered the tenseness in her shoulders, the overall weariness that seemed to envelop her. She felt awkward and shy in her answer, and in her following question. "Tomorrow, after some major sleep would be good for me, if you don't mind?"

Sara nodded her head wordlessly. If Chloe had good news, it could keep. If Chloe had bad news, she wasn't sure she would ever be emotionally ready to hear it.  She had a long full day of nervous apprehension behind her, great news about the mortgage, terrific news about Nelson and the Comet, and Chloe was at least back in the same state again, and that gave her a small measure of comfort. "We could talk tomorrow, after we get some rest. I know I could use it, and as much as you truly resemble a hottie,"  Sara winked, "you look like you could use some shut eye, too."

Chloe smiled an embarrassed smile of agreement, and sighed. All of this waiting, and now ... nothing was going to happen, at least for tonight. She couldn't help but feel disappointed. "Yeah, well, OK then. I suppose I should try and get home, see if the place is still standing."  Her gaze traveled beyond the open barn door, and watched the rain coming down with a punishing force.  She gave Sara a tired smile, and walked over to pick up her damp USC sweatshirt again, to put it on to protect her from the downpour.

Sara took the longest deep breath of her life. "You're going home then?"

Chloe turned to her, the sweatshirt clutched tightly in her hands. She searched Sara's eyes. "Well, yeah."

Sara let out the breath, and along with it, she asked a very difficult question. "You want to come up to my place?  The rain, well ... it ..."

Chloe twisted the sweatshirt even tighter. "You inviting me?"  she said softly, not taking her eyes away from Sara's.

"Well, yeah, if you want to ..."

Chloe's face eased into a very relieved and wistful  expression. She crossed the barn floor, and took Sara's hand into her own. She met the blazing blue of Sara's gaze with a meaningful look of her own. "I want to."  She saw Sara's features soften, and some of the tension between them dissipated with the interlocking of their fingers. They walked, hand in hand, out into the storm, then picked up speed, dashing down the flooded path to Sara's bungalow, not really minding the driving rain that was coming down upon them.

Sara woke the next morning with Chloe wrapped around her, and for a brief fleeting moment or two, the week before was forgotten, and everything felt exactly as it had. Comfortable, warm and lovingly right. But a jolting bolt of lightning brought Sara back into the here and now much faster than she would have liked.  By silent mutual consent the evening before, very little was said as they prepared for bed.  As Sara pulled off her clothes, she could hear Chloe softly grunting while pulling off each boot, then the drop of the faded tight jeans on the floor .Without turning on any lights that might illuminate the questions so obviously showing in their eyes, they'd climbed carefully into bed. They'd slowly moved towards each other, each tentative inch feeling like a mile was being traversed, both savoring and fearing the small touches that reintroduced their skin to the other again. When Chloe finally settled onto her shoulder with a soft sigh in the darkness, Sara's fingers splayed over the new markings on Chloe's back.  They fell asleep, too tired to talk about all that had occurred during their time apart. Their present relief was great, but their fear of the future kept them from expressing any other emotions.

Sara slipped out from under the covers, and pulled on her shorts and a clean T-shirt.  It was after 9 AM, and the storm outside was still rumbling.  She breathed a small sigh of relief, glad for a Sunday off from the golf course duties that usually kept her so busy. She turned in the doorway to take a look back at Chloe, and was overwhelmed by the sight of her gently snoring lover who had reached out for Sara's pillow to cuddle. The sight warmed her, and rattled her, too. She almost went back just to touch her, to feel that connection again. She sighed, then laughed softly at the vision of mussed dark red hair that was so different yet still so enticing. She was just padding out into the hallway when she heard Chloe's sleepy voice calling to her.

"Where ya goin'?  Still rainin'."  Chloe spoke in the direction of Sara's still warm spot on the bed.

Sara had to smile. She turned and stood in the doorway, and folded her arms. "Potty stop. Then coffee. Go ahead, go back to sleep."

Chloe hadn't moved, just her mouth was in working order. "Not tired anymore. I'll get up."  She hugged Sara's pillow again, showing that her heart was telling her one thing, but her body was telling her that it felt too good to get out of bed just yet.

Sara snorted. "Oh yeah, I can tell you're just dying to get out of that bed. Go back to sleep. Nothing's happening."

Chloe opened her eyes, and squinted at Sara. "Then why are you up, huh?"

Sara tried to act nonchalant. She shrugged her shoulders. "Not tired anymore. Thought I'd head up to the barn, do some cleaning up.  I doubt anyone's made the effort."

She tried to make that her exiting line, but Chloe seemed determined to keep her engaged in conversation. "It'll keep. How about you do that potty stop, put on the coffee, and come back to bed?"

"Well, uh, I was getting stiff there, must be that old mattress." Sara replied lamely.

Chloe rolled over onto her back, and for a moment, she studied Sara, watching her body language, which was plainly showing her that she was telling a lie. "We need to talk, huh?"

Sara looked at the lightning flash outside the window, suddenly wishing for another blazingly hot sunny day. "I suppose so. Yeah."  She scratched at her elbow, and wouldn't meet Chloe's eyes.

"You mad, glad ... or both?" Chloe asked a little haltingly.

Sara picked at her other elbow before she answered. "Both."

"I love you, Sara."  Chloe slowly sat up, and was staring intently at her lover.  She wanted to get up and comfort and just hold her, but was afraid that she'd be rebuffed if she made that move. She nervously waited for Sara to reply to her statement.

Sara cleared her throat. "Really gotta pee. Get up when you want. No hurry." With that, Sara was gone up the hall, and Chloe was left looking at an empty doorway.  The thunder boomed a mocking laugh at her, enhancing her already disconcerted expression.

Chloe had thrown on a clean tank top of Sara's and a pair of cut off shorts she kept in Sara's dresser drawer. She smoothed her new 'do in front of the bathroom mirror, and swished her mouth out with another capful of mouthwash. Wishful thinking.  She didn't kiss me last night, and if she's pissed, I may have to wait for mistletoe to get kissed by her again. She frowned into the mirror, rolled her shoulders back as if settling armor, and headed out into the kitchen.

Sara was sipping on a cup of coffee, and flipping through the Sunday paper.  Chloe walked up behind her, placed a soft kiss on the top of her head, and then went to pour herself a mug. She settled into the chair across from Sara, and pulled the pint of half and half over to her and poured some in. Sara never looked up from the paper, even though she was paging through it, seemingly not stopping to read anything.

Chloe took a few sips of her coffee, and tucked a bare foot underneath her butt, watching Sara.  Sara closed the section she'd been looking at, and reached for another.

"Sara?"  Chloe said softly, gripping her mug in her hands.

"Hmm?"  Sara was now intently perusing a Wal-Mart ad.

"If you don't want to talk now, I can leave ... until you're ready."  Chloe didn't want to leave, but she didn't want to be ignored either.

Sara seemed to be fascinated with the Labor Day specials. "No, that's OK. We can talk, I guess."  She flipped the page in the circular, on to the children's clothing sales.

"Would you at least look at me?"

Sara raised her head, and locked her gaze onto Chloe eyes. "Hey." She reached for her own cup.

Chloe sighed, pleased to see the familiar blue that rivaled the beauty of any ocean. The lack of a smile in them kept her own smile down to a minimum. "Hey yourself."

They sat there silently regarding each other for a while, until Chloe broke the standoff. "Did I tell you I missed you?"

Sara finished off the rest of her coffee, and stood up from the table. "Yeah, last night.  I told you I missed you too."  Her back was to Chloe as she poured herself a half cup of coffee at the counter when she continued, "Would have been nice to hear you say that earlier in the week."

Chloe bit her lip, and wiggled in her chair. "I did call.  A few times. You were never here." Lousy excuse, Donahue.

Sara turned around, and leaned up against the counter, sipping her coffee. "I called you, too. A few times. You were never there. Busy girl, were ya?" she said coolly.

"You did?  Why didn't you leave a message?"

"I could ask the same thing from you."

It was Chloe's turn to look away. "Well, it just didn't seem right to talk about it over the phone, when I wasn't sure about what I wanted to say ... I didn't want to leave you hanging, you know, in the middle of my ... musings, I guess."

Sara cocked her head to one side. "So, you just leave me hanging ... without a net.  Any call would have been better than none, Chloe."  She blew on her coffee and pursed her lips, watching how Chloe was squirming in her seat.

Chloe twisted her mug back and forth in little arcs on the table surface. "I just wasn't ready, that's all. I don't know how to explain it.  I almost was, I wanted to hear your voice, I wanted to ... I just didn't. I'm sorry."  Chloe had finally looked up at Sara when she got to the part where she apologized. She saw Sara wince, and her heart felt like a cement block just laying there heavy in her chest. "After you hung up on me,  I wasn't sure you even wanted to talk to me ..."

"I'm not the one who left town, Chloe. I'm not," she paused meaningfully, "the one who said she needed to go across the country to talk to her old lover. About God knows what." Sara's own heart rolled and rumbled in her chest with those words.

Chloe sighed and shook her head. "Honey,"  she sighed, "I didn't go to California to talk to Sandy. That was an afterthought."  When she saw Sara's doubtful expression, and how her lips were turned down in a half frown, she softened her voice even more. "I had to get away. I had a lot of things to think about, I just couldn't do them here. It was impulsive, I know.  It was unexpected, not only for you, but me, too. It just felt ... like I instinctively knew what I needed to do. Like it just came to me, that Saturday morning. It wasn't like I had it all plotted out before."  The frown on Sara's face deepened into a scowl.  "I've never just gone with my instincts, you know?  I always have to connect all the dots, weigh the pros and cons ..."

"Well, how nice for you. Hey, good for you. No weighing the pros and cons. What a relief that must have been."  Sara's voice was low, heavily laden with sarcasm, and there was unmistakable anger laced in her words. "Glad you eased your mind.  Instincts. I should try that one sometime. Perfect excuse."

Chloe nearly growled in frustration.  She wasn't explaining herself very well, but Sara's tone and attitude wasn't helping. "You going to have a smart remark to everything I say, or are we going to talk?"

Sara had to think about that one, her temper was already flaring, and all the doubts and resentments she'd been burying the past week were bubbling up. She decided to just go for broke, right off the bat. "Tell me about Sandy."

Chloe finished off her coffee, and then took a deep cleansing breath. "I spent one day with Sandy.  It consisted of meeting her for breakfast, me going with her to her hair appointment, me getting roped into this new color and style, and a lot of shopping. And a henna tattoo."

"There's more to it than that, Chloe. Doris told me."  Sara's cup was empty now, but she would save the refilling of her cup until she got the pertinent answers from Chloe. She steeled herself, and looked into Chloe's eyes, watching for deceit or hesitancy.

Chloe looked confused. "Doris told you what?"  Sara just shook her head, and waited for Chloe's reply. Chloe threw her hands up in the air. "What?  I honestly don't have a clue."  Sara's eyes narrowed a little, and Chloe got even more flustered.  "I didn't go to California to see her. I went to get away and think. To see USC. To walk on the beach. To clear my head. To tell Sandy ... Wait!  That's what you never got to hear that night you hung up on me!"  Things were slowly starting to click into place for Chloe.

Not so for Sara. "Hear what?"

"I was going to tell you that I'd decided to tell her she flat out, no way Jose, not a snowball's chance in hell could move to Stonecreek, that's what!"  She could see that Sara's expression was doubtful, so she kept on, "No, really!  I knew that before I left Stonecreek. Sandy was part of the reason I went to California, but not THE reason I went.  And as it turned out, I finally got to see her on Thursday, and, well, that whole part was already fixed for me, but not before I told her she couldn't move here."

Sara was torn between wanting to believe her, and still dealing with what Doris had said the night before. "So she decided to stay there, why?  Because you TOLD her to?  Or," Sara took this opportunity to refill her cup, so she wouldn't have to look at Chloe, "because you gave her a good reason to stay there?  Who convinced who?"  Sara's hand was shaking as she pulled out the coffee pot.

Chloe stared at Sara's back, and realized what Sara was implying. She didn't know whether to feel angry about the accusation, relieved because it was so wrong, or ...  She couldn't pick between any emotion, so she just started a low laugh instead. Which expanded into a big laugh and a smile.  Sara whipped her head around, boring her eyes into her. Chloe was now laughing so hard, she was holding onto her stomach. She saw the anger really coming to a head in Sara's expression. She put up a hand, and wiped at her eyes. "No, wait, I'm so sorry I'm laughing, really, but it's just so ridiculous ..."  She coughed, and tried to compose herself. She saw Sara's glare, and knew she'd better straighten up fast, otherwise she'd be looking at Sara's backside hightailing it out the kitchen door. "No, Sara, she stayed there because she's in love." That wasn't changing the expression on Sara's face. "Wait, not with ME, her girlfriend. Rose. Who's moving to Hawaii in a few months. Sandy didn't think Rose wanted her to go with her, so she came here looking for a friend and a job. She certainly wasn't looking to pick up where we left off. Not after she saw how much ..." Her voice faltered, and she swallowed hard. "Not after she saw how much I'm in love with you."

Sara's heart lightened almost perceptively, where there were rocks and debris before, it was now being replaced by clouds and a few bits of sunshine. "Rose?"  She shook her head, as if to clear it.

"Rose."  Chloe said softly.  She gave a half grin at Sara. "All the time she was just heartbroken about Rose. They finally talked, and Sandy's going to be moving there with her. To live happily ever after. I hope. All I know is that I had to take a stand ... on behalf of our relationship. It's not like there's not enough going on, internally, that we needed to deal with Sandy coming around and screwing us up.  I wasn't about to let that happen."

"Oh."  Sara's brain began to feel like a thousand tiny spiders were all making webs inside it, all at the same time.  She didn't know what to think, what to say.

Chloe's face brightened. "Oh, is right. Doris must have told you, what?  That Sandy wasn't coming?"

Sara frowned into her coffee cup. "Her 'love life' had picked up, and she was going to stay."

Chloe desperately wanted to go kiss that frown off of Sara's face. But the timing just wasn't right yet, there were other issues to tackle first. But a big hurdle had just been leaped, although rather awkwardly, and it gave Chloe hope. "Well, I can guarantee you that I didn't pick up her love life, nor did I pick up anyone else's love life while I was out there. And just so ya know, the Kissing Bandit is dead and happily buried somewhere along a first base line softball field at USC."

"Really?"  Sara was having a little trouble keeping up, but that was nothing new with Chloe, who had a disconcerting habit of jumping from subject to subject like a frog on a pond jammed with lily pads.

Chloe didn't know if she should feel proud of herself, but in truth, she was, so she just said it. "Yup. I was minding my own business, asked a softball player directions, and she promptly propositioned me. You weren't kidding about it being a little different out there."


"And, well, she couldn't even get to first base with me. I told her, essentially, that Chloe don't play that game no more."  Chloe flashed a pleased smirk.

Sara's harsh words immediately erased the proud grin on Chloe's face.  "And you want what? Me to give you a medal for acting like a grown up?"

Chloe's heart clenched, as did her jaw. "I guess I deserve that. I guess I was bragging about something that I felt good about."  She could barely look Sara in the eye, but she had to say it. "I wasn't bragging because a woman hit on me, I was just ... so happy that I knew I didn't want to play anymore. That I knew ... absolutely ... what ... and who ... I wanted." She looked away, sighing, then slowly turned her head back to see Sara's reaction.

A spark snuck into Sara's eyes, Chloe was sure of it. She might have imagined it, but she thought she saw a hint of a grin appear, then disappear from Sara's face. Sara's face blanked, and then Chloe cringed. A dark thought had popped into Sara's head. There were too many of them still rambling around to just have an easy fix.  "I can't say that those things, about Sandy and the Kissing Bandit ... those things help, Chloe. But there's so much more you need to explain."  She picked up the coffee pot and silently refilled Chloe's cup, then sat down across from her again. She watched as Chloe added cream, and then as Chloe settled more comfortably into her chair. Then she spoke again. "So, explain."  Her voice reflected more of a demand than a request.

"Well," Chloe said, trying to gather her thoughts. "I may end up sounding a bit like Doris here, but feel free to interrupt me. Unlike Doris." She was pleased to see Sara's face crack into a small smile.  "So, here goes nothing."

Sara nodded.

"Sometimes I feel like everything that's ever happened to me is just ... well, stuck to me like a second skin. Like I carry it around with me, and it influences everything I do, all the decisions I make. That everything that comes up, I have to carefully consider, and then I base my decisions, my dreams ... on what went on before. It ends up keeping me from ... the possibilities of life. Like, well, take my job, as a librarian. It's safe, it's easy, I like it very much, but it's not what's going to make me happy. But it's safe, you know? Very predictable. I'm tired of predictable. At this point in time, I'm even thinking that a dog or two might be a good change for me."  She giggled a little at that, and Sara's one brow went up, and her expression was decidedly unamused. "Or not. But I think I've been seeing life with one eye tied behind my back. Wait, that's not good. Life with blinders on to what could be. What could truly make me happy. Instead of being scared of it, I should embrace it, I've never done that.  What I need to do is face my fears. I thought by ignoring the problems, they would just go away. Does that part make sense?"

Sara thought about it a second, and then said, "Sure, everyone does that. Ignores the problems, hopes they'll just disappear ..."

Chloe interrupted, "Which is why I think I had that panic attack.  I ignored my problems, my doubts, or I let them get so big, I couldn't beat them down again. I made the huge mistake of ignoring them AND not talking to you about it.  I know it wasn't the most considerate thing I've ever done, Sara, taking off like I did.  But I hope you'll see that in the long run, it was best for me ... and ultimately, us.  I had to steer clear of all my emotions to get a clear picture of what was going on in my life.  Have a clear head, try and understand and shed some of my emotional baggage so I ... can go forward.  Not be so passive about my life.  Take an active stance."

"Quit letting life just happen to you."

"Right!" Chloe looked at her carefully. "So you do understand?"

"Some of it. It depends on what you've ... decided, I guess."

Chloe blew out a breath, and gave Sara a decidedly loving long, expressive look. "I wish I could take back some of the things I said to you. Especially anything that may have hurt you, or caused you to doubt my love for you.  Seriously, it was NEVER you.  You're a handful sometimes, but I love that about you.  I just hope ..."

Sara chewed her lip a little, and pushed her dark bangs away from her eyes. "You just hope what, Chloe?"

"I just hope you don't think I'm too much of a handful. I came back here, scared to death that I'd killed whatever we'd had. But I couldn't possibly do that in just a week, could I, Sara?"  When Sara didn't immediately answer, she looked at her pleadingly. "Please tell me that we can work to fix this.  I've never wanted anything more in my whole life, Sara.  I want you. You. You, the house, the til death do us part part. The dogs, the jacuzzi.  I want whatever we decide we want.  I know we can do anything, together.  And I know that I'm going to try to be more open to life, and quit worrying about the 'what ifs'."  She looked at Sara hopefully, and said it one more time, just so there was no doubt about it. "I love you. I want a life with you. Wherever it takes us. Whatever it takes. No more leaving you out of my crazy loop. From now on, what happens in our lives together, we tackle together."  She saw that Sara pondering all of her words, and the blue eyes that she adored had softened quite a bit.  But Sara was still not saying anything.

Chloe nervously got up from the table, allowing Sara the time to think and formulate an answer. She knew that Sara was not nearly as verbose as she was. Chloe moved to the kitchen window, and looked out. Her eyes widened when she saw what was parked out there.

Sara glanced up at her, and Chloe pointed out the window, and mouthed two words. "A van?"

Sara nodded, and gave her a rueful grin and a woeful nod of her head. She then contemplated the coffee in her cup again, trying to come up with a reply. She just couldn't get a fix on what she was feeling. When she looked again in Chloe's direction, Chloe was still shaking her head at the vehicle parked outside, glad of the distraction of the monstrous vehicle there because she was too anxious at what Sara might say to turn around again.

Sara's eyes took the opportunity to make a careful inspection of Chloe's back, lingering on the tattoo. Actually, it did remind her of the dragonflies that flitted about the pond at the 9th hole, and that image warmed her.  What the hell. There's no denying I love that woman. She silently got up from her chair, and closed the distance between them, and gently put her arms around Chloe's waist. Chloe audibly sighed, and pushed back into her body, wrapping her arms across the ones that were holding her so tightly. She closed her eyes, and made Sara a promise. "I promise, from now on, you'll be the first to know what I'm thinking about. We'll do it together, Sara, all of it. I don't care how hard I have to work, it will all work out because we want it to.  First thing tomorrow morning, I'll call the realtor, and then we'll march right down to that bank and force them to give us a mortgage." Chloe stared hard at the maroon van with the hideous logo on the side of it. "You've got a job now, right?  We can swing this home loan, no problem."  She felt a small tear of happiness course down her cheek. "Bearskin rug and fireplace, here we come."  She squeezed Sara's arms tighter around her. "Together."

Sara held her breath for a moment, and then kissed the top of Chloe's head. "No worries there, honey. I got the loan already. I've got the mortgage all sewn up," she stated proudly.

Chloe stiffened, and her breath caught. She struggled to turn in Sara's arms. Once she turned around, she pushed herself away a little to look Sara in the eyes. "What? You got the mortgage?  Without me?"

Sara grinned. "Yup. One less thing for you to worry about. I can take care of it myself."

Just as Sara was leaning in to seal that with a kiss, Chloe's mouth dropped open, and then she burst into tears.

Sara pulled her close, not knowing what was wrong, mistakenly thinking that something was finally going right. Every time she thought Chloe was easing up on her sobbing, she would look up at her with red rimmed eyes, and Sara would smile encouragingly at her. Somehow, that wasn't easing Chloe's sobbing, so she stroked her head and repeated her soothing words again. "Shhh. Nothing for you to worry about, I can take care of everything."

The storm that was happening outside the bungalow couldn't even begin to compare to the one raging in Chloe's heart. She finally pulled away from Sara, and there was a profound sadness buried in her eyes. "Great," she managed to blurt out between sobs.  Great. Great. Great.

Sara pulled her back in and rubbed her cheek across Chloe's deep red locks. "You know it.  Not a damned thing to worry about."  

Continued in Chapter 19

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