(7th Installment of Perspectives Series)



Disclaimer One: These ladies and gents are my creation. Please don't use them, my plot, or any of my scenes without permission. That would be just downright rude.

Disclaimer Two: There is some use of strong language, some good tension, some subtext, some green-eyed monsters, humor, darkness, angst, and a plethora of other things that I'm sure that, as an avid reader, you will be able to pick out.

Dedications: As always, to my light that keeps the darkness at bay. I would also like to extend a special thanks to Celine for being there and making me realize that there is light even in the middle of darkness. To DS Bauden, Kodi Wolf, Nancy -The Tenth Muse (Gifted bards), and all others who take the time out to come to my little corner of heaven. Thanks, your feedback is greatly appreciated. Most of all thanks to God for giving me this talent to share.

This is the 7th installment of Perspectives, and it is a little darker than the last and more violent. It takes place about two weeks after SIB. Cory has started to see Dr. Zawid for a week now. Both Taylor and Cory have started to work on revamping the groups for the community. Our little blonde hasn't returned to the field yet, and the infamous Wendy makes her first appearance. Usually sunny Barb goes through her own changes. A visitor to the agency changes things for a lot of people. Sound simple and straightforward? Nah, not with me, ever.

Chapter XVIII: Clash of the Titans. . .
Barb drummed her fingers on the desk. The little blonde had disappeared behind the nearby door what seemed like hours ago, and she was just dying to know what was going on. She looked up at Ray and smiled, pretending to listen to him drone on about his favorite subject, coffee. Out of the corner of her eye, she stared at the closed door. It was so quiet in there. She wasn't nosey. No sir. It was her friend in there being all quiet and well, un-Cory like. 'Those two have gotten close. So close that I haven't seen or talked to her in over a week.' She had wanted Cory to see that the admin wasn't all bad; that she wanted to make a change for the better; and that she cared. It looked as though the blonde caseworker had seen that and a lot more. 'She stayed the night with her, slept with her, and blew me off to be with her.' Barb cringed inwardly, knowing she sounded like a jealous lover.

'I'm not jealous. It's just that she was my friend first, and I don't ever remember us being that close. I've known her for three years for pete's sake! A pretty face and nice legs have turned the kidıs head. I know that they have some kind of . . .thing between them. Hell, I can feel it when I'm around them, but she knows better than to fuel it. It's the office for god's sake.' She nodded at Ray, hoping that would keep him appeased. Going back to her thoughts, the older woman could almost feel a pout forming, and sure enough a quick stab of jealousy shot down her spine. The anger was secondary. 'Wait, how old am I? I can't believe I'm acting like this, but I can't help it. I'm the one whoıs been there for her for all these years, and she's brushed me off for someone she barely knows. What kind of friend is that?' 'What kind of friend are you to react like this just because. . .' 'Oh, shut up!'

Anger and jealousy tied her in knots, making her into something she wasn't, mean. Her eyes narrowed as she glanced up at Ray again. Unfortunately, he was still talking.

"I drink about a pot and a half a day, and it does wonders for my success rate. Haven't had too many clients complain. I give them my all night and day."

"Do you sleep Ray?" She asked sarcastically.

Gray eyes widened in surprise and replied in a tentative voice, "A couple hours a night, but. . ."

"That's pathetic. You're a pathetic man, Ray, and you need to get a life."

Not even bothering to hide the expression of hurt, the tall man blinked and was about to bring his customary cup of coffee to his lips. He froze, looked down at her, and blinked again. Jarring her desk slightly but without a word, he turned and walked away.

She watched a pencil as it rolled off the side of her desk. 'I don't feel any better.' The woman jumped, surprised by the sound of raised voices, but the voices were familiar. She turned toward the closed door, feeling a slow smile spread her face as the yelling continued. The smile, just as slowly, lost its upward curve. 'I still don't feel better.' All she felt was bereft, alone, and numb. Leaning in, she pushed her elbows into the hard wood of the desktop and swiped nervous hands through short hair. 'What's happening to me? Oh God, what am I doing.' Hanging her head, she covered her face with her hands. 'Stupid, stupid, stupid,' she chanted silently as a light went on in her head. This wasn't about Cory. Deep down, she knew who it was about.

The blonde caseworker kept her sane. Listening to her, talking to her, Cory kept her grounded. Her husband didn't understand. He couldn't see what they saw day in and day out, the death, the abuse, and the smell of poverty. She closed her eyes, remembering just the other day, the meeting the Hall family. The mother sat there in denial. The father stood there smugly, and the child almost lay there, horribly beaten. She knew that they were just cooperating to avoid the police, knowing that the child would probably end up a runaway, destitute or dead. 'I accepted it as fate. I knew I could have dug deeper, done more, but like some kind of unfeeling computer, I accepted it and did the paper work. Appointments were made that they probably wonıt go to, and I stuck to a script. I didnıt feel a thing.ı

Fear crept its icy fingers up her spine, making her shiver. ŒWithout her, how can I deal with this place?' Uncovering her face, she stared blankly to the front of the building as people walked from cubicle to cubicle. As she got up, her movements were jerky and mechanical, but she made it to where she wanted to go. Opening the file cabinet, she leafed through one folder after another. Finally, she pulled out the one she wanted. It was time to take a vacation. She needed it. The office needed it. 'I've watched Cory go through the same thing, but she's younger and more resilient. I can't put anybody here through what I'm feeling.'

Coryıs eyeıs flashed green fire. "What?! That makes no damn sense whatsoever! If we have a parenting program, then why canıt we have a prevention program for the teens?" The diminutive blonde jumped up from the comfort of the chair and crossed her arms over her chest as she paced.

Taylor rolled her eyes inwardly. Things had been going so well. There had been no arguments, no tension for the past few weeks, they had been calmly discussing the change in programming, and now this. She had wanted the blonde to work with her on revamping the groups and programs dictated by the agency, since she was tied to the office for the moment. In a nutshell, things were not going well. She had given Cory an inch by telling her that they could create new programs, but the blonde was taking a yard and heading in a direction that the Board would not like. "Look, Cory. Canıt we concentrate on the parenting and afterschool programs for now?" The brunette brought her hands together, tapping the fingertips of one hand to those of another. She leaned forward in her chair waiting for a reaction.

The caseworker snorted but continued her pacing. "No, I donıt want to go back to the safe subjects. This community has a real problem with teen pregnancy, and it needs to be addressed. Why canıt it be us that starts prevention groups?" She threw her hands in the air for emphasis.

Calmly, the admin replied, "Because they are not going to go for it. It would be tantamount to the campaign to dispense condoms in school."

"Well, thereıs nothing wrong with that either! How do you know that theyıll reject it if you donıt try?" She asked pleadingly.

"Because, I know them."

Cory blinked. ŒOf all the pig-headed, most stubborn, and most evasive statements that I have ever heard that has got to be the lamest.ı "That is complete and utter bullshit! Youıre not willing to try! Youıre telling me they are willing to pay for parenting for these teens when itıs almost too late but not for prevention that would have stopped them from getting to the point of no return! By then, the children are malnourished or go through psychical abuse because the mothers donıt know how to deal!" The pacing had stopped and green fire glared down at the woman sitting unperturbed in her swiveling chair. ŒLook at her, sheıs not even reacting to a thing Iıve said. Does she even care? Was I wrong about her?ı

"Cory, I know that youıre passionate about the people that make up this community. . ."

Clenching her fist to her sides, the caseworker interrupted. "And you donıt seem to give a damn! Whereıs your passion Taylor? Huh? Donıt tell me that all those old farts on the Board have sapped it out of you." Cory almost grinned in triumph when she saw the other woman flinch. These were human beings that they were discussing, and they needed help. Cory was going to make sure they got it because the community came first above everything else. Knowing the way her thoughts were going, the caseworker cringed as she remembered the session with Dr. Zawid. ıItıs okay to care Cory, but the trick is not to put all your eggs in one basket. You must take note and care about yourself and those around you that you consider close.ı She tore her eyes away feeling the heavy weight of guilt because of the barb she had fired upon her friend. ŒGod, Taylor, I donıt want to hurt you ever again. I did enough of that already, but I just want you to see.ı Looking back, she saw azure eyes turn cold and harden. ŒI did hurt her.ı

Taylor felt the slow ache burn and inch along her veins with every heartbeat. ŒAfter all that Iıve told and shown her the past few weeks, she questions my capacity for emotion!ı Feelings of disappointment mingled with the flashes of pain. ŒShe still doesnıt see me.ı The need to retaliate was strong. Her voice was dangerous and low. "Oh, I have passion Cory. I have plenty of it, but itıs just tempered with common sense. Something you obviously donıt have. Stop and think about what youıre asking. You want a group of mostly men over the age of fifty to allot money for a pregnancy prevention program. They are so out of touch, and you saw that with the material retained for the programs."

Cory stopped mid-stride. Here they were hurling insults at each other once again. They were better than this now. With the bond that formed between the two women, it should have carried over to the caseworker and the administrator. Taking a few deep breaths, the blonde tried to swallow her anger. ŒIım trying to hurt her to get what I want. I canıt help the community if we canıt work together.ı She glanced into glacial eyes. "God! This isnıt working!"

Chilly eyes defrosted a bit when their owner didnıt receive an insult in return. "If Heıs willing to help, Iıll call on Him too."

Cory resisted the urge to smirk. "We're obviously having problems coming to an agreement. All I want is for you to listen to my side of things and weigh them into your final decision. Is that too much to ask?" She demanded in softer tones. Some of the anger defused as Cory made her way directly in front of the desk. She stared at the seated occupant quietly, waiting for an answer. ŒWeıre so much better than this Taylor. Weıve told and listened to so much about each other lately. I know that we can do this.ı The brunette joined in the gaze then looked away to run a hand through her bangs. It was a gesture that Cory had come to recognize over the weeks as one denoting deep thought.

ŒPassion. I know all about it, my friend, especially concerning you. Youıve made me feel things maybe a little too much.ı Her mind wondered to the embrace shared a couple of weeks ago. She shook herself, coming back to the present and the situation at hand. ŒI hear you and I can understand where youıre coming from, but can you do the same for me?ı Waiting for an answer to her silent question, Taylor looked up to see emerald green still fixed on her in a penetrating stare and felt her throat bob on a swallow. ŒDonıt look at me like that Cory. It makes me feel like youıre seeing too much.ı

Still, strangely she didnıt feel like hiding, but returned the frank gaze in earnest. Persistence and caring shined within the blondeıs eyes. ŒGlad sheıs on my side. I donıt think that Iıve ever met someone that cares so much.ı "Believe it or not, Cory, your opinion means a lot to me. I want this to work, and I asked you aboard because you know this community."

"Yeah, I do. Wouldnıt it be safe to say that they would listen to me, since I know whatıs going on out there?" The blonde clapped inwardly at the softening of her bossı blue eyes.

The admin blinked and processed the question. "Hold on. Let me get this straight. You want to present to the board?" Surprise laced the husky voice.

Cory quirked a grin. "Very good. I knew you were quick. Yes, I want to go. I thought we were in this together? Besides, it should make our case all the more stronger."

The grin was infectious and Taylor could feel a smirk turning up her lips. "So, we face the old farts together? You give them your side of things, and I'll do the same. I have no problem with that. Two heads are better, especially with the experience rattling around in yours."

"Oh my, do I need to come around there and feel your forehead? That sounded so much like a compliment."

A bark of laughter escaped full lips. ŒSheıs always doing that, making me laugh.ı

ıWell, somebody needs to,ı Little Shelley interjected.

"With the insults we were throwing at each other, it was exactly that, a compliment."

With a rustle of her skirt, Cory walked around the desk and sat on the end closest to her friend. Her intention was to apologize, but again, eyes met and held. A jolt of electricity arced between them. Still, they both withstood it and refused to look away. The last two weeks had been so much like this. One minute they were the consummate professionals and the next they were friends and so much more. Intimacy and awareness rolled off their bodies in waves, making it a separate entity that could be felt and almost seen. It was equal parts excitement and danger. The room became smaller, hotter with each passing moment, sucking out the air but heightening the energy between the two occupants.

ıThose eyes,ı she thought, Œthey glow from within.ı The blonde felt pinpricks of warmth spread throughout her body. Outside sounds disappeared, leaving the beating of hearts and intakes of breath as the only intonations. Green eyes took in every feature in the older womanıs face, perhaps looking for acknowledgement of the connection between them. With each glance, came the overwhelming urge to touch-- the curve of a sculpted cheek, the point of a proud chin‹if only for an instant to memorize the texture and play in the warmth emanating from supple skin. The urge made small hands itch and clench in their ownerıs lap. It had never been this strong before, and it grew stronger as eyes refused to stray from their electrically charged home.

Her heart felt as though it was put through the ringer, but it was a pain that was all pleasure. Awareness tied her stomach into knots of the most intimate kind. ŒOh God, help me.ı She tried helplessly to stave off the beginnings of arousal as her mind screamed. ŒSheıs your boss. Your straight boss no matter how she looks at you. Cory resisted the urge to swallow and lubricate her suddenly parched throat. ŒHow is she looking at me?ı A little voice answered, ŒLike she feels it too.ı Confusion made her mind fuzzy, but it brought her out of the charged haze. Blonde brows scrunched and green eyes finally began to blink again. ŒNow, that wouldnıt make sense.ı A pink tongue peered from its home to wet dry lips and the astute emerald gaze studied the woman more discreetly. Her speeding heart shorted to a thump. ŒSheıs watching. . .ı

Taylor couldnıt tear her eyes away from the errant tongue. Involuntarily, she mimicked the gesture as if preparing for a kiss. The admin mentally ducked as the book of ethics sailed over her head. The truth of the matter was that if it hit her, she probably wouldnıt have felt it anyway. Her vision, her senses had tunneled to encompass the petite woman seated precariously at the edge of her desk. The soft floral perfume made her mouth water. In equal turn, the pulse beating at the base of the blondeıs neck made it dry. Feeling those eyes on her made her body hot, making her clothes feel tight and uncomfortable. ŒDoes she feel it?

ıLook at her. This kind of connection can not be one-sided. Her eyes mirror your own.ı

ŒSheıs watching me while I watch her, and her eyes see so much. None of this matters because we canıt cross that line.ı A desolate feeling replaced the sensual one, darkening her eyes and hardening her features.

Cory watched the display of emotions on her friendıs animated face. They went from sensual wonder to shuttered. ŒShe does feel it. I saw the way she looked at me, felt it, but look at her now. I know sheıs disgusted. It's like one minute she wants to push it further, and the next she completely closes herself off. I need to stop this before I lose everything.ı With hands that itched to touch the other woman a second ago, Cory reached out with awkwardness to caress a broad shoulder. Pain sliced through her when the brunette flinched. On its own volition, her hand snaked down the adminıs arm until she felt soft skin. It was only meant as a gesture of comfort, but the blonde almost sighed in disappointment when the lax hand refused to curl around hers. She squeezed it anyway and whispered the womanıs name huskily. "Uh, Taylor---" Green eyes implored baby blues, but when the admin looked up, her eyes were still dark and unreadable. "Taylor, please I‹" ŒWhat do I say in a situation like this? Sorry for being attracted to you. Iıll try to do better?ı

Taylor studied the blonde through brooding eyes. She could see the insecurity and unsureness in her body language, and for some reason it made her feel slightly better. In reaction, she squeezed the smaller hand and was rewarded with the saddest of smiles.

ıYou should be shot,ı Little Shelley admonished. A flash of guilt traveled up and down her spine. Tell her, and then you two can be on even ground.ı ŒNo, on dangerous ground is more like it.ı ıYouıre scared arenıt you?ı ŒNo! I mean, not really. Ah, hell I donıt know.ı ıShe'll feel betrayed when she finds out.ı With that last cryptic statement, LS was strangely quiet.

Seeing the other womanıs struggle for words, Taylor decided to try her hand at discussing what just transpired between them. "Listen, Cor---"

They both jumped as the adjoining door opened. Cory dropped the hand she was holding and slid off the desk as quickly as possible, almost landing on the floor. Well placed hands around her waist kept her upright. After a beat, Taylor withdrew and sat back down, feeling the flush make its way up her neck. She began to wring her hands nervously. Cory scratched her chin as warm blood rushed to her face. Like guilty children and even guiltier adults, two sets of eyes set in red faces stared at the older woman from across the room.

Shelley eyed the women curiously. Her eyes widened slightly at the palpable tension in the room. Their energy made her skin sing. With pursed lips, she studied her boss in silence, noticing the fidgeting hands and darting eyes. The blonde did not fair any better. She seemed to find picking at her skirt extremely interesting. Maybe it was because sheıs older or a product of her environment, but either way, Shelley had learned to speak her mind. She knew sexual tension when she saw it, felt it. She wasnıt that old after all, and she was just bold enough to be the one to comment on it. "Maybe we should lock that door more often?"

Jaws dropped and moved squeakily. Still, nothing came out. Shelley hid her amusement as she made her way to the desk. It was time for a strategic escape. Setting the collection of papers on the adminıs desk, she didnıt say a word until she reached the door that led to her office. "Those need your signature." She closed the door with a soft click, and the clanking of the lock reverberated in the quiet room.

Taylor glared at the closed door through narrowed eyes. ŒNo wonder that womanıs voice is in my head,ı she commented to herself. She blew out a breath, finally able to breathe again with the dissipation of the tension. Blue eyes watched as the blonde moved to a safer distance, the abandoned chair. A slight disappointment stabbed her, but concern smacked her. ŒShelly saw it and felt it. That could mean that other people do too. Itıs not good for this office, but itıs not like I can control it. Iım going to be working closely with her for a while.ı Her hands swept through the dark mane. ŒI just need to find a way to diffuse it and deal with this a little better.ı There was a slight bark of laughter. Easier said then done. "Maybe I should have told the both of them to shut up," the admin mumbled incoherently.

Cory gripped the arms of the chair, willing her heart rate to return to normal. ŒWell, that was. . .interesting and confusing. Iım getting all these jumbled vibes from her. On one hand, she participates in our little stare downs, but on the other, she closes up when they start to get anywhere. Strange.ı

Through a look and a errant touch, they had communicated so much to each other. In silent admission, they had acknowledged that there was more than friendship skirting around the edges. The only question that remained was what to do about it. Cory could hear the mantra, ŒShe's straight,ı beginning to unfold in her brain. Instead of all this making the elephant in the room smaller, it sprouted wings and got even larger.

The blonde tapped her chin as she glance upward toward the other woman. Their gazes locked on a flicker of recognition then skittered away to safe areas of the office. The caseworker cleared her throat as a precursor for clearing the air. ŒSomebody has to get us back to safe turf.ı "Um, Taylor?" She waited for azure eyes to meet hers and felt a delicious tingle all the way down to her toes. Her mind went blank for a moment. "Uh." A dark brow raised in her direction. Unable to stop herself, she grinned and raised her own in challenge. The other womanıs full lips pursed in an effort to hide a crooked smirk. It wasnıt successful. ŒThank God. At least weıre still comfortable around each other,ı the caseworker thought to herself.

The admin tapped long fingers on her desk and waited patiently for the broken conversation to continue. She moved her chair up and leaned closer. "Yes, you were saying?"

Cory looked back in confusion. "Oh, yeah. Uh, I think that I need to apologize for the insults I passed onto you earlier. It kind of sounded like old times there, and I think we know each other better than that now." ŒThere is no way I could ever accuse you of not being passionate.ı She quivered internally, remembering those eyes locked with her own. She was abruptly brought back to her senses by the other womanıs reply.

"Itıs okay really. I know how you feel about your work, and I hate getting in your way. Still, it needs to be done even if we differ on some views. Our differences should keep both of us honest."

Cory flinched internally. ŒOkay, was she talking about literally or figuratively?ı "Uh, yeah." She paused, trying to think of something to keep the conversation on track. "Listen, should I get together some numbers, graphics, reports and stuff for this presentation?"

"You should if you want them to take it seriously, and keep it interesting. We donıt want those old farts to fall asleep and drool all over their ties do we?" Blue eyes shined with mirth.

Cory laughed. "I donıt know. A lot can be said for osmosis, and if theyıre sleep, that means their quiet. Tell me what were the pitfalls to that again?" She asked sarcastically.

Taylor laughed longer and louder. "Youıre priceless."

Cory smirked and bit the inside of her jaw in consternation at the same time. ŒSheesh, even her laugh is starting to sound sexy.ı "Mmm, in that case, shouldnıt I get paid what Iım worth?" Green eyes blinked innocently.

The admin gave the other woman a mock glare. "Ah, ah, ah, donıt push it Donovan."

The blonde grinned back evilly.

Taylor shook her head in amusement. ŒShe definitely keeps me alert at all times.ı The banter between them made her giddy. She couldnıt get the smile off her face even when the discussion became more serious. Grabbing a note pad in front of her, she began to doodle but stopped when the realization hit to write down something more substantial than squiggle lines. "So, we have a plan then? We agree that the parenting materials by McCormick are better suited since they have an age range? The afterschool programs still need to be looked over, and a presentation for pregnancy prevention needs to be put together. Have you done one before?" After finishing writing down the important points, she glanced upward to wait for an answer.

ıWhatıs that look all about? Somebody is in a good mood.ı Cory couldnıt help but smile back. "Yes, that sounds about right, but no," she frowned slightly, "Iıve never really had to present before. Not like this."

Taylor spied the look of concern on the blondeıs face. Her voice softened. "Hey, donıt worry about it. Iıll be more than willing to help."

"You sure? I donıt want to pile extra work on you."

"Pile away. Itıs okay because I enjoy that type of thing. Persuasion is my specialty."

Cory snorted. "Yeahhhh, Iım sure the Board felt persuaded last time. It must have been your charm."

The admin smiled cryptically. "Nonsense. A stare-down, a smile, and a little intimidation blended in with knowledge keeps their attention."

The blonde clucked her tongue. "You must show me your method. Iım not sure if just little ole me can keep their heads from hitting the table."

Taylor studied the younger woman. "Mmm, I donıt think youıll have any problems. You have this confidence about you. That along with your ability to be frank as hell should keep them on their toes."

Cory giggled like a school girl as the blush flowered in her face. The compliment was like a warm balm. "You think?"

Taylor smiled inwardly, admiring the attractive flush that covered the younger womanıs face and neck. "Uh-huh." Before she could think and stop herself, the words tumbled out of her mouth in quick succession. "In fact, why donıt we meet at my place about three nights a week so that we can knock this out? We can start tonight if youıre not busy. Iıll even furnish dinner and a movie for break time." Little Shelley all but screamed in delight. Taylor cringed as she ducked that book as it flew past her head again. She couldnıt decide if it was the administrator, the friend, or the person reveled in their attraction who was asking. It was much safer to assume that it was all three.

Cory blinked and closed her mouth with an almost audible snap. Parts of her got up and did the gig, knowing that she would learn a little more about the woman sitting before her. Parts of her sizzled with awareness, knowing that they were going to be alone, and other parts were laden down with apprehension about what she couldnıt hide. That part knew that she should say no. But, somehow her lips moved of their own volition, and she heard herself softly say, Œyes.ı

Little Shelley clapped exuberantly, and the admin felt her cheeks split in a toothy smile. "Good. How about you meet me at my house around 6:30? That will give you time to go home and do whatever you need to do. Just let me know what day your appointment with Dr. Zawid is on, and weıll schedule around that."

The parts of her that were dancing changed to the hustle. Talk about a strange feeling. She smiled back. "Sounds good. My appointments are on Thursdays in the late afternoons."

"Okay, thatıs doable." She scribbled down a schedule on the note pad. "How is that going anyway. If I may ask?" Blue eyes glanced upward then down at the corner of her desk as the papers Shelley brought in caught her eye. Barbıs name was the first one she saw. Dark brows drew together as they studied the form.

Thinking that the silence was her turn to speak, Cory filled it. "Well, itıs sort of hard, spilling your guts to some stranger, but sheıs a good listener. She looks like my mom a little bit, so that makes it easier. I think that sheıs opened my eyes already. . ." The blonde stopped to study the bent head of her friend. Her eyes were focused on a stack of papers, and she was sure that the admin hadnıt heard a word she said. The caseworker could see the crease on the womanıs forehead from the drawn in brows. Something was wrong. "Taylor?"

The dark head jerked up, and the blonde could see the look of concern written in the womanıs features. "Have you talked to Barb lately, Cory?"

"Um, no not as much as usual in the past couple of weeks. I've been with you. Why?" She asked worriedly.

"I ­" Realizing that she couldn't divulge that kind of information, even to a friend, her mouth clicked shut. She sighed heavily. "I really can't say because it would be a breach of confidentiality."

The blonde chuckled without humor. "You're kidding right? Something's obviously wrong here, and you can't tell me?"

Taylor's eyes shown with sincerity and apology. "No, I can't. It would be unethical."

'Like we aren't already skirting that border, my friend.'

"Um," she said hesitantly as guilt piled on her shoulders. "I didn't mean to take time away from your other friends. I know you and Barb are close."

Green eyes darkened with sudden anger. "What?! Then what does that make us? After all we've been through and all you've told me, you don't consider us good friends?" Cory asked accusingly as she leaned forward in her chair.

Taylor threw her hands up defensively. "Hey, wait a minute. That's not what I meant. She was there before me. . ."

"Yeah, but you needed me," the blonde interrupted softly.

Speech left the brunette as warmth stole over her.

Cory watched the flush wash over the other woman's dark features. With all the anger gone now, she asked, "Did I embarrass you? I'm sorry. I know you're not the type to go asking for help, but I have the knack of sniffing it out when people need it. So, it's okay."

Feeling vulnerable but not wanting to admit it, the admin studied the blonde caseworker for a moment in order to collect herself. 'She sees way too much. I swear those eyes are looking through me sometimes.' Finally, she spoke. "Uh, what type do you think I am?" She didn't expect an answer not right away, but after a few moments, she got one that made her head spin.

"You know me enough by now to know that I don't pull any punches. So, you can pretty much expect honesty from me, always."

Green looked deep into blue, giving her the chance to drop it. The dark head only nodded.

"When you first came, there was a lot of speculation about you in the office, but I suspect you knew that. You counted on that. Rumor was there but it was sketchy. They," she jerked her head to the outside door. "thought you were some sort of snake-haired gorgon with scissors bent on cutting everything until there was only a little bit left. You walked into the building, tall and intimidating, but again, that was what you were trying to project. I didn't buy it, not at all. I think you use that image to keep people at bay and get what you want at the same time. You got exactly that. People went scattering into the four winds and most were scared half to death." Green eyes narrowed. "You threw some changes at us that you knew some of us were going to protest, but that was your plan wasn't it? To weed us out? That's why you fired those people too. I bet you waited in your office to see who was going to come knocking, but I also bet that you didn't expect me to come in here and mouth off like I did."

Cory paused and examined the woman across from her, hoping she was listening and not offended. Blue eyes barely blinked as large, elegant hands arched together and fingertips touched. It was a familiar gesture that the blonde had come to recognize as one of contemplation. She watched on as full lips opened as if to speak. "Go on, Cory. I'm listening." 'I hear you too. Never knew I was that transparent.' Only to her, LS whispered.

The blonde nodded as she went on. "I have to admit that I couldn't see it at first. It took a minute, but I was still wrong about you. In thinking that you were some flat-assed pencil pusher, I treated you like one. It took me a while to see that you really cared. My eyes opened a little bit more as I got to know you. Now, I see a strong woman who keeps people at bay with the same tactics that you use in the office. You like it that way. No muss, no fuss, and no red tape. I see a very complicated woman who probably thinks that strong emotion is a weakness, but I also see someone who is fierce, loyal, and passionate. Sometimes you hide that well, but other times it comes shining through. There's so much to you, and I feel that I haven't even scratched the surface yet. I do have one thing to ask though. Why did you let me in? Tell me all those things? Why?" Cory swallowed. Deep down she knew that wasn't a questioned that should be asked. Simply because, she was afraid of the answer and what lines they would cross if she got an honest one.

Taylor met emerald green for a fleeting second before she found something more interesting across the room. Her heart thudded against her chest in a deep, hard rhythm. She swallowed convulsively. Never had she felt so vulnerable or so open. She had closed herself long ago before a boat ride on the Atlantic, but for some reason with this woman, it came spewing forth in huge portions like some continuous geyser. It scared her. It excited her in equal measure, and right now those feeling were completely jumbled. She glanced back at steady green to see understanding and compassion lighting them from within. For that, she searched inside for the answer, only to come up with a mass of mixed up feelings.

"I-I don't know. All I know is that around you it feels safe, and I haven't felt that way in a long time. You don't ask anything from me, not really, but I offer a lot. You know more about me than most of the people in my life, and there aren't many, except for Wendy. I only met her in college. You were right about that one. You were right about a lot of things. I should be angry at myself or at you for seeing so much, but I can't, the feeling just won't come. I open up to you, and I don't see pity. There's no pre-judgement. There're things about me that you don't know, but I know that I'll tell them to you when the time is right. I don't think I have any choice in the matter. All I know is that I like you Cory. I like you a lot." 'More than I should.'

Bright green searched darkened blue. They were wide and heavy with emotion. In a whispered tone, hoarse and husky with emotion, Cory spoke, "I like you too."

Feeling thoroughly exposed and without fear, Taylor went with her impulses. Reaching out a long arm across the desk, she laid it there palm up and waiting. Not even the least bit hesitant, Cory scooted the chair and stretched her body outward to extend her reach. Their hands met with the larger one swallowing the smaller one, but it was a perfect fit. The connection between them frizzled over nerve endings, but eyes held as did the touch. They reveled in it, silently agreeing to let the connection blossom and the friendship grow maybe into parts unknown by either of them.

Chapter XVIIII: Some Visitors are Good and Some are. . .

Outside the closed door of the admin's office the area was a hot bed of daily hustle and bustle. Work went on despite the emotional situation taking place in the office a few feet away. Barb typed absently, updating old case files in her computer. She glanced at the door, feeling guilty, abandoned and a whole host of other emotions. The yelling had stopped some time ago, and they had been in there for what seemed like hours. She looked around in front of her, spying Ray writing diligently at his desk. 'I really should go apologize to him.' She got up to do just that.

Half way through the front, she heard the jingle of the front bell, signaling a visitor. They weren't uncommon this early in the morning, but still, many curious eyes raised to see who it was. This caseworker was no exception.

Wendy ran her hands through flaming wind blown locks, trying to put them in some semblance of order. Gray eyes studied her surroundings. 'So this is Bumfuck. She's probably gonna be miffed at me for coming to her office.' A crooked smile formed making the striking face beautiful. 'She'll get over it. Nothing like a good surprise between friends.' She pursed full lips and swept a hand over the v-neck t-shirt and faded jeans, getting out wrinkles real and imagined. Eyeing the receptionist, she made a bee line for the desk. "Excuse me?" The voice was deep, melodic. The brown haired woman looked up. Wendy gave her a winning smile. "Hi, I'm guessing that you could help me. I'm looking for Taylor Wilson?"

The redhead smirked inwardly at the wide eyed shocked look in the receptionist's brown eyes. "Um," she said a little flustered, but raised a directional finger anyway, "straight through the cubicles all the way back. It's the door on the right."

The smirk made itself known outwardly. "Thanks." She made her way through the path that parted an ocean of cubicles. Slowing her stride midway, she stopped and counted to five before glancing around and seeing the receptionist reach frantically for the phone. The redhead chuckled. 'Still the same old Taylor. Striking fear and curiosity in the hearts of men and women.' She turned away and resumed the journey to the back.

The receptionist, Maggie, dialed the extension quickly. "Annette? You wouldn't believe who has a visitor!" So the buzz began.

Wendy scanned curious faces and finally made solid eye contact with an older woman with short dark hair. The woman smiled as it reached her eyes, and Wendy smiled back. 'Well, at least there are some genuine people here.'

Barb brushed by the strange woman and made her way to Ray's desk. She laid a hand on his shoulder, and he turned to look at her expectantly. Spying an empty chair, she pulled it over to sit by him. Their heads leaned close to each other as they whispered through the initial buzzing.

They smiled at each other, and Taylor chuckled when the blonde's stomach announced its presence. "What time is it?" The caseworker asked sheepishly.

The admin peeped at the gold watch around her wrist. "It's almost lunch time. So, the monster is right on time."

Cory looked back a little surprised. "Jeez, we've been in here talking that long?"

"Yeah, looks like. Goes to show you what good company can do." Her smile widened at the blonde woman's blush. "Uh, so you wanna do lunch?"

"Sure, if you're buying. I know this little place not far that serves the best Chicago-style pizza. They even have toppings for the health nut."

The brunette snorted. "Well, I'm not a health nut. Why do you think I bought the bench? By the way, you should come by and try it since you help me put it together finally."

"Deal. On‹"

They were both interrupted by a knock on the door. Taylor raised an ebony brow before saying, "Come in."

A red head peeked through the door, and blue eyes widened. "Wendy?! What the hell?"

The rest of the body attached to the head sauntered in. A huge smile was planted on the tanned face. "So, Tay, this is Bum---"

"Ahem," the admin looked at her friend with a warning glare.

Wendy bit her lip to keep the smile from getting bigger. She glanced around the large office and ended up meeting an unflinching, curious, green stare. "Oh, you have company. Then I should probably watch my mouth." Gray eyes returned the green stare.

The blue glare went up a notch.

Cory studied the two woman. 'Tay? Well, this is Wendy. Let's see what you're about.' The blonde took in the tall, lean frame and the graceful way the woman held herself. The expressive face made of smooth lines and determined chin topped it off. The woman was beautiful. That kind of perfect model beautiful, and Cory hoped that she didn't have that perfect, plastic model personality. 'Nah, she couldn't have it and be a friend of Taylor's.' The gray eyes studied her right back, and the caseworker smiled inwardly. 'Good points for keeping honest eye contact.' The blonde smiled and decided to throw her hat in the ring. "It's okay. She's heard me say a few choice words from the beginning."

Wendy grinned. "Ah, I bet that was a shock coming from someone that looked like you."

Cory bit the inside of her cheek. 'Blunt. I like that.' "Don't let the appearance fool you. I pack more than a little punch."

"I bet you do. You have to in order to work with that one."

Two pairs of eyes turned toward the admin. Taylor rubbed the crease in her forehead as she returned the glance, helplessly. 'Oh God, there's two of them.' She tried very hard not to roll her eyes.

Cory observed her friend with a delighted smirk but decided to stop with the subterfuge. She glanced back toward the other woman. "Uh, so you're Wendy? Taylor was just telling me about you."

A russet eyebrow lifted in mimic to her long time friend as she did a mental double take. Taylor was talking about her personal life to another woman, to another person. Gray eyes met uncomfortable blue. Wendy watched silently as her friend fidgeted in her chair and tried to look everywhere but at her. That's when realization dawned. 'This is the woman that was the feather up her ass. The one I had to pull teeth to get her to tell me about.' The redhead smiled at her friend and looked at the blonde with a newfound respect. Interesting. On long legs, the woman walked over to offer the petite blonde her hand. "Yes, it's me. The one and only, but I don't. . ." The smaller hand took hers in a firm hold.

"Cory Donovan."

"Ah, nice to meet you Cory. Any friend of Taylor's. . ." She made hand gestures in the air instead of finishing the cliché. Whispering in conspiratory fashion, "Lord, knows that she doesn't have many."

Cory answered and nodded. "I know."

They both ignored the groan coming from the woman sitting behind the desk.

Taylor felt trapped, but it was a sweet one set by two great women. She smiled to herself. 'I'll take that kind of trap any day.' Clapping her hands together and clearing her throat, the admin disturbed the quiet. "Ladies, I'm hungry. You two can talk about me at the restaurant."

Gray eyes glanced her way, and Taylor was awarded a crooked grin. The admin peeked over at the blonde to find an infectious smirk in place and warmth shining in green eyes. She winked back, trying to hold off the sudden heat suffusing her face.

Wendy watched with interest. 'Intriguing, very intriguing.'

People looked up again as the front bell jingled. A haggard man entered. A light dusting of beard covered his craggy face, and dark smudges adorned dull, sunken eyes. An overcoat open in the front exposed paint splattered khakis and a dirty t-shirt. Maggie cocked her head to the side, confused. One of the man's arm was through the coat sleeve the other seemed to be inside. Pins prickled the back of her neck as she tried to figure out why the man was in a coat as hot as it was. She turned to look at her co-workers lining the front cubicles, who appraised the man also. More than one shrugged and returned to their computers. The receptionist again glanced at the strange man, noticing for the first time the sweat dripping from his face onto the collar of the coat. The strong smell of liquor rolled off him making her want to pinch her nose. She had seen all type of people come through those doors, but she had never been scared like she was now. The pin prickles sashayed down her spine and fluttered into her stomach. She licked her upper lip nervously and put her hands under the desk to hide the shaking. Pasting a hesitant smile on her face, she asked the man faintly. "S-sir, can I help you?"

A chuckle was his only answer. Maggie tried to swallow the lump in her throat. Her breathing hitched, and she longed to grab her chest to stop the hurting. Icy tendrils of fear made tears spring to her eyes. Something wasn't right here. "Sir, I'm going to h-have to. . ."

The chuckle got louder, but it was without humor. In a thick, slurred voice, he added, "You people have helped me enough." He inched closer to her desk. Maggie pushed her seat away caught in the throes of real fear. His wide, wild eyes narrowed and a smile slowly crept up his features as he soaked in her fear. Shifting suddenly he moved to the side of her desk, facing the cubicles. Curious eyes looked up again from their computer consoles.

Standing with his feet shoulder width apart and his face contorted in drunken pain, the man addressed the onlookers. His voice bellowed, carrying to almost the last cubicle. "You people sit here all self-righteous and think you're helping people! All you're doin is destroying people's lives and families! It's my right how I raise my kids. How I treat them!" He paused sucking in air.

"Hey, buddy why don't you get out of here before we call the police," a caseworker in the front cubicle on the right side added.

Fury changed the features of the bearded man. Wild eyes darkened and became wilder. His body shook, and an ungodly sob escaped his throat, much like the keening of a dying animal. The buzz around the office started again, but for a different reason. The sob turned into a raging scream. The man pulled out his other arm at the zenith of heightened voices. A large gun shook in his quivering hand. "YOU WILL LISTEN TO ME!!"

Raising the hand that brandished the weapon, he pointed it toward the ceiling. A loud pop silenced the room as the acrid smell of gun smoke filled frightened nostrils. A woman's scream rang out, reverberating much like the gunshot. Pencils and books fell from nerveless hands, sounding loud to the most sensitive ears. Then there was nothing but quite, the metallic smell of gunsmoke and the tangy one of fear. Barb scooted closer to Ray, knowing that she had an extra reason to be afraid. She knew the face, and she knew why he was here.


Behind closed doors, the three women were laughing while the blue eyed one searched through her desk drawer for her purse. The laughter stopped abruptly as a sickening pop followed by a scream reached their ears. Startled, Taylor straightened from her bent position behind the desk, and her heart jumped in her throat. "What the hell?" Shocked azure eyes met equally wide green.

Cory's knuckles whitened on the chair's arms. "Oh God, that sounded like a gun shot."

Wendy froze. "You're kidding right?" She got no answers but grim faces. "Right?" She asked again hysterically.

Taylor could taste bile rushing up her throat, frowning she swallowed it down along with the fear creeping up her back. Someone needed to see what was going on. Those were her people outside. 'That elects me as that someone.' Swallowing and clearing her throat, she hoped to clear any sign of a quiver out of it before she spoke. "Wendy, you'll have to keep it down. Whoever's out there might not know that someone is in here yet."

It had the opposite effect. The redhead got louder. "Yet! What do you mean, yet! Some guy is out there probably popping. . ."

"Wendy!" Her voice was a harsh whisper. "Shut up!"

The redhead's mouth snapped shut, but her eyes glared accusingly.

Pale eyes glance at the blonde. Green eyes met hers, full of fear but laced with concern and determination. In whispered tones, she addressed her other friend, "We need to find out what's going on."

When the caseworker didn't acknowledge her, the fear crept back and clawed at the admin's throat. Frantically, she whispered, " Cory, honey?" Green eyes blinked. "Come on. I need you."

A scratchy voice answered her. "I'm here."

Taylor sighed in relief. "Good girl. Now, here's what we're going to do. Quietly, I want you to go through the adjoining door to Shelley's office and bring her in here. There maybe safety in numbers. I'm going to call the police. This maybe our only chance."

Nodding her head, the blonde got up stiffly. She slowly made her way across the room. Getting to the door, she looked back into blue eyes that had followed her. 'We'll get through this,' they said. Cory closed her eyes and whispered back, 'I hope so.' She opened the door as quietly as possible and walked in, hoping the older woman was there and that she was alright. Looking in, the room was empty. 'Oh God, let her be gone to an early lunch.' She sucked in a shaky breath as her mind screamed. 'Why this and why now? I've been working here for three years, and this year alone I have seen things that keep me up nights. I try so hard and they still seem to be winning. All the shit I've seen, all the people that I've tried to help, and the evil ones, the sick ones out there are still winning. Why?' Anger tinged with sorrow welled up quick and messy, making her head throb and chest ache. Balling her hands into fists, she barely resisted the urge to scream and throw a nearby potted plant across the room in rage. The whispered voice on the other side helped.

"Cory? Hurry, the police are on their way." Taylor peeked around the half open door in concern. "She's not here is she? I hope she's out of the building."

The blonde only nodded and tried to mask the despair that she was sure was showing in her face, but Taylor saw it anyway. The admin grasped her friend's arm as she tried to brush past. "Hey, you okay?"

The blonde head refused to turn her way, but she answered nonetheless. "Yeah."

With her free hand, Taylor grasped the woman's chin and made green eyes meet hers. The pain etched in the young face made her breath hitch. 'Oh, Cory.' "Don't lie to me and don't close yourself off from me. I can read you like a book. Please," she pleaded in a choked whisper, "stay here. I need you to. . .stay. . .here."

Cory blinked and an anguish sob passed her lips. Not knowing what else to do, Taylor pulled the smaller woman closer and engulfed her in a hug. Small arms hung limply at her side, but Taylor just squeezed harder until the touch was returned. Cory soaked up the warmth, but pulled back after a minute, feeling acutely vulnerable. She looked into pale eyes and saw only understanding there.

"Stay with me. Promise me."

Cory stared into the luminous blue. She could almost believe that everything was okay. Almost. Nodding slightly, she whispered. "I promise that I'll try."

Taylor raised an awkward hand to caress a soft cheek. "That'll have to do for now."

Pulling her hand away from supple skin, the admin took the smaller hand in her own and ushered them both back into her office. A nervous Wendy watched the display in silence. 'I was wrong. It's not the same old Taylor.' She blinked, knowing that even as a past lover, she had never seen such a fiercely tender side of her friend. The little blonde had become a giant in her eyes.

Incoming sirens wailed from outside, and inside the petrified caseworkers sighed silently in relief. The strange man with the gun wailed. "WHO THE FUCK CALLED THE COPS!" He waved the gun around putting everyone in its sights, but they were all silent. He moved a shaking hand through his hair. "It doesn't matter anyway. I'll just have to hurry up," he said not as loudly. "I want all of you to see me and listen to me!" His voice rose again. "I'm only gonna ask this once. Are you all here?"

There was a quite murmur but no answer to his question. He walked slowly but purposely to the middle of the room. Turning to the left side, he held the gun in Annette's face. More tears sprang to her already red eyes, and she threw her hands up as she backed away in fear. With his thumb, he pulled back the hammer. The click made a cacophony of sound to the scared ears in the large room. Annette whimpered, "P-please don't kill me." She didn't dare take her hands from her face. "T-they're in the back office behind the last row of cubicles."

Without saying a word, he headed in that direction. Annette peered between the arms that covered her head to see biting glares from the people around her. She sobbed and covered her face again.

The three figures stood rock still in the silent office, having heard the plea from the obviously armed man. Cory squeezed Taylor's hand in fear as she watched the knob turn. The admin squeezed right back. The door opened with a whoosh. Wendy screamed helplessly when she saw the gun pointed in their direction.

"SHUT UP, AND GET OUT HERE!" The man snarled, but he stared at the blonde with wide eyes.

Cory blinked as recognition dawned on her like a two by four. 'Oh my God. Mr. Smith!' The caseworker's heart sunk as guilt spilled into her chest, causing her to shiver.

Taylor felt the movement and rubbed the blonde's back in an attempt to comfort. Slowly, she walked forward dragging Cory behind by means of their linked hands. Wendy followed close by. Both the tall women kept wary eyes on the gunman, but Cory's eyes were pasted to the floor, unable to meet the eyes of another family that she had failed.

They made it outside, pooling around Cory's desk. Taylor pulled a nearby chair toward them and pushed Wendy into it. Pale blue looked up and was met by the horrified stares of her employees. She swept the room, looking for signs of injury, but thankfully, there didn't seem to be any. Bile rose in her throat again, thicker and more bitter. 'All those eyes watching me and counting on me, and I can't do a damn thing save wait.' The gun man breezed past them, leaving the scent of cheap booze behind. Again, he made his way to the middle of the room. Everyone jumped, including the admin, at the shrill ring of the front desk phone. Taylor said a silent prayer as a booming voice penetrated the agency walls.

"This is the police. Please pick up the phone to negotiate your demands and the release of the hostages."

Cold fear lanced through the admin's body as the man began to laugh. She swallowed convulsively and jumped again at the hand that pulled on hers. Taylor looked down into haunted green eyes. "I know him," the blonde whispered raggedly. "The Smith children, the girl who committed suicide, that's their father."

Looking back up toward the scruffy man, Taylor husked out the same thing the caseworker was thinking, "Oh, God." Glancing back down she met troubled green that looked back at her pleadingly. "I have to do something," the blonde whispered. "It's my fault. I have to do something."

The admin shook her head vehemently and muttered fiercely. "No, Cory." She squeezed the small hand in her grip. "I promise you that if you say a word or move a muscle I'll knock you unconscious before you know what hit you."

Startled green widened incredulously. "But, can't you see? It's my fault. I need to fix this. Help him somehow."

The admin squeezed the hand harder, and her voice became gravely. "You made a promise to me in there, and I will not let you put yourself and the others in jeopardy."

Cory felt a cramp of pain slice through her arm. She closed her eyes welcoming the pain, wallowing in it. She didn't know helpless until this moment, and she wanted to feel anything but. Not bothering to answer, she turned her gaze away back toward the gun toting man. Taylor looked down at the blonde head. 'So much pain in that beautiful head of yours. How do you live with it all?' She glanced at their linked hands. 'I'm not letting you go Cory. We'll deal with this but not this way. Not in a way that could get you killed.' With her free hand, she grasped the redhead's shoulder, giving it a squeeze. A hand almost the size of her own covered the appendage. Wendy knew that she didn't even have to look at her friend. She already knew what was shining in those eyes, confidence that things were going to be alright.

Many pairs of wary eyes watched the nervous man as he stumbled, chuckled, and murmured. As if gaining some kind of equilibrium, he righted himself. The wild look was back but there was also a gritty determination. The gun, still deadly, hung loosely in his hand pointing toward the floor. "YOU PEOPLE MAKE ME SICK!" With a drunk swagger, he made his way toward the back, toward the little blonde that looked so familiar. He stopped a mere foot away from the three women and waved the gun haphazardly. "You send her," he pointed the gun toward Cory, "into my home and take away my kids!"

Cory's breath hitched, and the wound in her chest got deeper, wider. She didn't care that the gun waved precariously in her face. She didn't care that he could easily pull the trigger. She did care that she couldn't make his pain stop. She stared into the man's stormy eyes with her own bleeding emotion that she hoped he could see. He stared at her with his own pain, confusion, and rage seeping through and blinding him. One person did care. Taylor moved as discreetly as possible in front of Cory. Thankfully, the drunk man didn't notice as he turned away and raved on.

"Now, they're dead. She's dead and you people killed her! Jr. is as good as dead, and my wife," his voice broke on a sob, "She left me! We were happy. My kids never complained. Now, its all ruined because you poked your noses in where they didn't belong!"

He was interrupted by the constantly ringing phone and another plea from the police.

"And now I have nothing! Nothing do you hear me!" He screamed.

Cory's body shook as the man screamed.

Murmurs went all around as the man raised the gun to his head. "I want you to see what you did to me. What you did to us! I want you to remember that the self-righteous bullshit you people spew tear people apart! You killed me!" On his last words, Mr. Smith let the emptiness engulf him. It was a quiet place, and for once he felt nothing. Closing his eyes, he pulled the trigger.

Cory pushed Taylor out of the way. She tried futilely to wrench her hand away. The admin held on with a vice like grip. The blonde turned to plead with her, and she watched full lips move. Still, the words came out distorted and jumbled. Instead, the caseworker stood up and reached toward the man with her free hand. The silence was deafening. Caseworkers watched with wide frightened eyes. In simultaneous fashion, the gun exploded as did Mr. Smiths head with a resounding thud.

With burning eyes, Cory screamed piercing the sudden quiet, and forestalling the smell of death and fresh blood. "Noo!"

She watched helplessly as the almost headless form fell lifelessly to the floor. Thick, rich blood oozed along with the chunks of gray matter onto the thin carpet. Cory continued to scream incoherently. Taylor swallowed painfully as she looked at the sight through shocked eyes. She glanced down at the screaming woman. Jerking her arm, she pulled the smaller woman to her engulfing her in an embrace. "Cory, baby, shhh. Don't look." She rocked the shaking form back in forth, hoping to calm her. The blonde pushed her face into a fragrant neck and sunk blunt fingernails into her companions back. She cried for all the children, the parents, and the drug addicts that she couldn't help. Soulful sobs racked her body, making her chest and throat hurt.

Many eyes turned toward the door in surprise as policeman after policeman filed in. Maggie had gathered enough wits to answer the phone and tell them it was over. Too little, too late. Their harsh voices held little sympathy for what the people had just witnessed. With booming voices, they ordered everyone out.

Wendy looked at her long time friend as she handled the still crying woman. In her thirty years, she had never witnessed what she did today. She was so wrong about this place. It wasn't Bumfuck. It was just Hell.

Taylor squeezed her friend's hand gently this time. Watery green eyes looked up at her. With gentle fingers, the brunette traced the tracks of tears and let her own come. So much pain, and she didn't know what to say. The only thing she could do was be there. Wiping at her own eyes, she reached over on the desk and grabbed the caseworker's purse. With care, she deposited on the blonde's shoulder. She squeezed the hand one more time, and they made they're way out into the scorching sun.

Long minutes later, the tears had dried. Cory was left in Wendy's care as Taylor revealed that she was the one to phone the police. They carted her off toward a row of police cars. The redhead clamped her hand on the shorter woman's shoulder. She didn't know this woman, but she would like to. Anyone with eyes could see that she was special. The blonde turned puffy eyes toward the redhead. "Regardless of all that happened, I watched you and Taylor today. She really cares about you. I have never ever seen her act this way. Whatever you did to open her heart, keep doing it because it's good for you both."

The blonde sniffed. Through all the crap that had been happening lately, she knew that Taylor was the one bright spot. Smiling weakly and a little confused by the hidden implication, she simply replied in a hoarse whisper, "Yeah."

The object of their conversation came rambling forward. She immediately caught the blonde's hand and folded it into her own. Looking deep into green eyes, she willed strength into the younger woman. Cory squeezed her hand in response. They didn't say a word. After a minute, Taylor turned pale eyes toward her friend. "You gave them your statement right?" The redhead nodded. "How long are you staying?"

"For a week. I conned my boss out of a vacation. Told him that I would be the first accountant to go postal. Anyway, I'm holding up at a rather nice Holiday Inn in Merrilville."

Taylor blew out an exasperated breath and scratched the back of her head. "Well, lunch is obviously out. I'm gonna take her home with me. I don't think she should be alone." She looked down for confirmation and got an almost imperceptible nod in return. "Iıll call you tomorrow. I'm sorry about this."

Wendy shook her head. "Not your fault my friend. Handle your business. I'll be here if you need me." She gave her friend winning smile and passed it on to Cory. "What a day." She shook her head again and started off toward the parking lot.

Two pairs of eyes watched her go. The same two eyes peered down trying to find the origin of an irritating . . .brrrrring, brrrring. There it was again. Cory lifted her purse and listened. The sound came again. "It's my phone," she quipped more than slightly irritated. After unbuttoning and unzipping, she pulled out the offensive equipment and croaked, "Hello?"

"Ms. Donovan?"


"I'm sorry to bother you, but I needed to talk to you. You may not remember me, but I'll never forget you. The name's Mae Brown."

Cory gave an expressive shrug when the admin mouthed 'who is it?'

Ms. Donovan? You still there?"

"Yes, Ms. Brown, I'm here. What can I do for you?"

"See that's what I called to tell you. I need to explain how much you've done for me and my family. Thanks to you it's still Mrs. Brown." The woman's breath hitched, and she resumed with her voice a little higher. "I have my kids, and they're healthy and happy. My husband has been clean for a year. He hasn't hit me and my kids in this past year. I have you to thank for that. You were so patient, understanding, and so caring." The woman paused again, and her voice changed. She was obviously crying.

Cory peered into pale eyes with her own brimming with tears once again. Her heart thudded against her chest, but this time it was a pleasurable ache. For the first time in a long while, she felt something that had been denied her. Hope. Despite what happened inside, she felt it. What she did meant something. She could make a difference. Maybe it wasn't so much the quantity that mattered, but the quality.

Taylor looked into emerald eyes that seemed to glow from within. She saw the sparkle that she had remembered seeing the first time she met the blonde. Unable to control herself, she smiled.

"Mrs. Brown, yes, I remember you. I'm so glad that you and your family and doing well. You don't know how much that means to me to hear that." On the last word the tears began to fall. She covered the sob by pressing the back of her hand to her mouth. After a moment, the hand disappeared and the most beatific smile that Taylor had ever seen lit the blonde's face. "Thank you, Mrs. Brown."

"No, thank you Ms. Donovan for giving us our life back. My husband is at work right now, but I know if he was here, he'd want to thank you too."

"Well, you make sure that you relay how happy I am for you both."

"I sure will." She paused. "Well, it's time to go pick my kids up from school. You are God's gift, Ms. Donovan. Keep up the good work."

"I will. Good-bye, Mrs. Brown."

Cory took the phone away from her ear and stared at it. Not saying a word, she pushed the off button and threw herself into the admin's arms. Blue eyes widened then smiled when she heard the laughter. She wrapped her arms around the narrow back and just held on. Taylor didn't know what had just happened, but if it put that kind of smile on the caseworker's face, she welcomed it.

Barb made her way through the rows of police cars. She spied them from afar. A stab of jealousy shot through her, but she continued to approach. Cory was her friend, and she needed to make sure the young woman was alright. The older woman walked up behind them as Taylor finally sat the smaller woman back on her own two feet. With a slight, 'ahem,' the two women turned to face her. Cory's hand flew to her mouth. "Barb!" She had forgotten about the cryptic discussion in the office in the wake of all the excitement. For the first time in over a week, she really looked at her friend. She looked so tired. Lines were carved deep into her cheeks and around her eyes. The mischief and good humor that usually sparkled in the older woman's eyes wasn't there. Shaken, Cory reached out a hand caressing the other woman's arm. "Barb, are you okay?"

Discreetly, Taylor moved away, but not before the other woman chuckled.

"Still, the same old Kid, taking on everybody else's worries and pain. I should be asking how you're doing."

Cory looked deep into her friends eyes before she answered. "I think. . . I'm gonna be alright." Her hand moved down to capture the older woman's hand. "Are you okay?"

Barb looked away for a moment. Then, she glanced back. She was always honest with Cory, and she didn't want to break that habit now. "No, Kid, I'm not. I'm taking some time off. I need it. Those boogie men were fighting don't scare me anymore. Not much does. Not much makes me feel right now."

Concern darkened green eyes. "Oh, Barb. I didn't know."

The woman jerked her head away again as anger and jealousy filled her. She didn't turn back. "It's okay. I just need some time to kick this. I'll be back." She squeezed the hand holding hers then pulled away. Cory watched her go through shocked eyes. A hand on her shoulder brought her out of her reverie. "She knows that she needs help. She'll be okay. It's a step in the right direction."

Knowing that it was, Cory only nodded.

"C'mon. I sent everybody home before the Press could get their claws in them. Let's go, and I'll fix you something to eat when we get to my apartment. Leave your car, and we'll get it later."

"Kay." She followed the taller woman into the parking lot.

Chapter XX: Afterward. . .

During the twenty minute ride, Cory filled the admin in on the phone call, and listened to the blonde's excited voice as she realized that there were people out there that she had helped. When she could, Taylor turned and smiled at the blonde, happy to hear life back in her voice. Just happy period.

As they made their way through the security booth, Taylor glanced over to see the other woman stretch and yawn.


"Yeah, it's been a hell of a day. I feel like some weight has been lifted off my shoulders, you know?"

"Yeah, I know. Well, come into the apartment and catch a nap."

Cory looked at her friend questioningly, "You sure? Me sleeping on the couch won't get in your way or anything?"

"No, you won't because I'm going to join you. Besides, the bed is more than big enough for the both of us."

Cory swallowed and looked away, trying to hide her red face and the sliver of awareness that made its way up her spine. "Oh."

The admin turned off the car and bent over, hoping to catch a glimpse of the blonde's face. "Uh, Cory? If that makes you uncomfortable, I can sleep on the couch. I just figured that you didn't want to be alone right now."

Gathering herself, she turned around. 'You're right. I don't. I'm glad you're here." Their smiles mirrored each other.

Cory looked around the dim room, seeing familiar things. She saw Taylor's tall, lanky but shadowed form enter. One long arm reached for the light switch.

"No, don't turn it on. I'm okay. The dark is good sometimes."

"Okay, if you're sure. Have a seat on the bed and I'll fish out something for you to wear."

She did just that and smothered the giggle when she realized that her feet didn't touch the floor. Taylor turned around and handed her a bundle. "Here, these shrunk in the wash. I knew they would come in handy someday. You can change in the bathroom."

Taylor watched her go as she sank down on the side of the bed herself. Her lips parted on a sigh, and for the first time today, she allowed herself to feel and see everything that had happened. The desolate look in Cory's eyes had scared her. She shivered in reaction. 'I thought that I'd lost her. So glad she came back to me.' She closed her eyes, seeing again the death of a man she didn't know. The brunette could feel the blood draining from her face. It looked like Cory wasn't the only one that needed comfort. Lastly, she allowed the situation with Wendy to swirl around in her mind. The admin groaned silently. How on earth was she going to keep that woman from revealing to much? She got the sneaking suspicion that those two were going to get rather close. Her groan was louder. She pulled herself up and headed for the dresser of drawers, stripping as she went. 'Might as well get comfortable.' Tossing her clothes over a chair she pulled on brief shorts and a t-shirt. Tiredly, she made her way back over to the bed and flipped the dark covers back. With a sigh, she climbed in.

Opening the medicine cabinet as quietly as possible, Cory peered in. 'Aspirin, multi-vitamins, Vagasil.' She giggled quietly. 'I already know that she's human.' She picked up a round container. 'Contacts?' She opened the container. 'Ah, but she doesn't wear them. Hm, she's a Colgate and Scope girl too. Interesting.' Finished with her nosey inspection, Cory closed the medicine cabinet and looked into the mirror. Leaning over the sink, she moved herself closer. Sparkling green eyes glimmered back at her. She smiled easily, genuinely. Her capacity to still do that amazed even herself. So much had happened today. She had lost and discovered herself in a matter of hours, and she had found a little slice of heaven in the arms of a woman, a friend, and so much more. She couldn't wait to tell Dr. Zawid.

Taking off her clothes, she tried on the shorts first, and watched them as they fell uselessly to the floor. She smirked and pulled the t-shirt over her head. It stopped just above the knee. 'That'll have to do.' She folded up her clothes and left them on top of the hamper. Studying herself in the mirror, she closed her eyes, and sent up a silent prayer for Barb. With a flip of her wrist, the light went out, and she made her way into the bedroom. The blonde could see the still form through the dimness, and she tiptoed toward the bed. A chuckle stopped her. "It's okay. I'm not sleeping." Taylor sat up in the bed and pulled back the covers on the other side. Her movement stopped abruptly when a beam of light from the covered window illuminated the blonde's body. Taylor swallowed audibly. "Um, you couldn't wear the shorts?" Her voice sounded high and strained even to her own ears.

Cory cocked her head to the side and bit her bottom lip to keep from smirking. 'She's nervous. That's sweet.' "Uh, no. They fell right off me. If me being like this bothers you, I can go sleep on the couch."

The dark head shook almost violently. "No, it's okay. C'mere." She patted the empty side of the bed, and resisted the urge to rub the back of her head. That book of ethics hit her hard.

The blonde quickly made her way to the bed and almost dived in. She pulled the covers over her and scooted inward. Her body stiffened when it came into contact with hot flesh. The backs and fronts of thighs and calves ran sensuously over each other. A spark of arousal almost made her moan out loud. 'Whoa, down girlie. Down. This isn't the time or the place.'

Taylor went back in her mind, trying to remember when she had felt skin so soft. She hadn't. She wanted to envelope herself in the warmth. The floral scent of the other woman's skin made her head spin. The book clocked her on the side of her head, and she cringed before relaxing. Slightly leaning over the blonde, she asked hesitantly, "Uh, you okay."

The hot breath on the back of the blonde's neck made her want to shiver. She hoped she hid it well. "Uh-huh," she answered softly.

Strong arms embraced her. "Is this alright?"

'Oh, God yes.' "Yeah, feels fine."

After a few moments of silence in which Cory willed her body to relax, the brunette spoke again. "Cory promise me something? Promise me that you won't stop fighting?"

The blonde turned over on her back, instantly missing the arms, as they gave her room to maneuver. She looked up into soft blue and smiled. "I promise."

The grin was returned. With soft fingertips, Taylor moved away a stray lock. "Good." She stared for a moment longer, "Let's try to get some sleep."

Cory nodded and turned on her side again. She sighed blissfully as the warmth spread from her back to her heart.

Copyright İ Minerva 2000

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