The Golden Tiger

By Radclyffe

The Golden Tiger by Radclyffe

CHAPTER ONE

Sean knelt in the center of the room with her eyes closed, hands resting gently on her thighs, waiting for the test board to convene. The other students knelt along the sides of the polished wood floor, their voices hushed in an effort not to disturb her concentration. It was one of the hottest nights of the already oppressively hot summer, and despite the window fans, the air was still and heavy.

Sean’s dark hair was held back by a white silk head band tied about her forehead, and sweat already dampened the wavy tendrils just above her collar. Her uniform was immaculately pressed, the jacket tied over the white canvas pants with the red belt that denoted her rank. As the senior student in the class, she was about to test for the black stripes which would signify her first step toward the rank of chodan, or first degree black belt. It had taken her four years of mental and physical determination to reach this point. Every student in the room looked to her as an example, knowing that eventually they would reach the same moment of truth.

Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, Sean was aware of their presence. She welcomed their support, but she thought only of her breath flowing in and out, holding only that in her awareness, clearing all other images from her mind. Her face was composed, reflecting physical and mental calm. Clear, emerald eyes were a stark contrast to her dark hair and honey rich complexion. Her features were finely formed, but not fragile. There was strength in her face, and a peacefulness. What would happen here in the next hour was beyond her control; there was no longer time for nerves or self-doubts. What she was called upon to do, she would do.

"Face the door!" a student called as the black belted test board gathered at the door to the dojang.

"Chariot! Attention!" came the command, and each student snapped to attention with their hands at their sides, their feet together.

"Kung Ye! Bow!" As one, the class bowed to their teachers.

The black belts, led by their chief instructor, Master Janet Cho, bowed in return and moved to stand in front of the long table where the test forms were piled. Each woman was dressed in a formal white uniform, the arms and legs of the crisp cotton bearing strips of black to indicate their level of dan, or black belt.

The class faced them, hands clasped behind their backs, their feet shoulder-width apart, their eyes fixed forward. The room was completely silent except for the faint humming of the fans.

"Tonight is a special night for all of you," the small Korean woman in the center of the room began. She was a first generation American-Korean and spoke with the cadence of her ancestors, her tone gentle but commanding. "Tonight Sean begins a year of work and study that will culminate in her testing for black belt. Much will be expected of her this next year, for it will be a year of transition. As she moves forward, she must necessarily move away from all of you. She must learn to teach by her example the responsibility of the rank she seeks, and part of that responsibility will be to guide you on your own path. Sometimes that requires criticism—criticism that comes from a place of caring—but still a difficult gift to give. She can no longer be your friend—she must become your teacher. You will gain much more than you imagine you are losing, because all of you have helped her reach this point. Without you she could not have practiced as hard nor had the support she needed to overcome her own obstacles. Each of you should be proud of yourselves."

The woman met each face in the class as she spoke, and ten strong women gazed back at her.

"Tonight is also a special night for me. Each time one of my students begins this journey, I am reminded of why I do this work. Your gains are a gift to me for which I thank you. I am especially honored tonight to have with me on the test board Master Drew Clark, who was one of my first students. After attaining her black belt, Master Clark left Philadelphia for the armed forces training school in Virginia, where she has taught martial arts for ten years. We are pleased to have her back in Philadelphia, and back in the Golden Tiger Kwan. Please face Master Clark and welcome her to your school."

The students again snapped to attention and faced the tall blond woman who stood on Janet Cho’s left side. Where Master Cho was small and compact, this woman was tall and lean, her features angular and chiseled. Her bearing was intensely serious, military, and she radiated physical power. There was a tension about her that was reminiscent of a great jungle cat, coiled and ready to spring. Her deep blue eyes never wavered as she also smartly brought her hands to her sides. The class bowed and she returned their bow.

"Thank you," she said, her voice deep and firm.

At that, Master Cho, Master Clark and Sabum Roma seated themselves behind the table, and the class returned to kneel along the side of the room. Only Sean remained standing.

"Chun be! Ready position!" Master Cho commanded, and Sean brought her fists and outstretched arms in front of her, into the ready position. The test had begun.

"Step into a straddle stance, left punch out," Master Cho directed. "Hut!"

Sean sank into a low stance, feet widespread, thighs low and parallel to the floor. As she punched her left fist out, her breath exploded from her in an audible kiyap!

"Waist level punches! Hut!"

For ten minutes by the clock, Sean alternately punched her left and right fists forward, holding the deep and perhaps most difficult karate stance without moving. Her quadriceps trembled slightly with the effort, but she ignored the discomfort, concentrating on keeping each punch centered on the solar plexus of her imaginary opponent.

"Koman! Halt!" her teacher instructed, and Sean stepped back into her ready stance, awaiting the next command.

"Right back stance, knife hand block! Hut!"

What followed was twenty minutes of foot and hand techniques; kicks, blocks, strikes and combinations—all designed to test her stamina and form. Sean moved purposefully from one position to the next, back straight, knees bent, in the deep linear stances which typified Tae Kwon Do. Sweat soaked her uniform and ran in rivulets down her cheeks, dripping from the well-formed angles of her jaw.

Next, she moved into self-defense drills with several of the higher ranking students as her opponents, countering punches and kicks with blocks, strikes and kicks of her own.

Forty minutes had elapsed before Master Cho called a halt.

"30 seconds for a water break, then everyone get your sparring gear on."

Sean gulped down half the bottle of sports ade she had packed and quickly strapped on her foot and hand protectors, slipped her mouth guard in, and pulled her head gear on.

"You will spar each student in the class, beginning with the white belts."

Each match lasted two minutes, during which time the two opponents attempted to "score" a hit by kicking or punching her opponent anywhere above the belt. Head contact for the lower ranks was not allowed. Sean was careful with the lower ranking students, especially the white and gold belt women, keeping them at bay with long-legged kicks and then moving in quickly for a light punch to the chest or abdomen. With the blue and green belt intermediate students, she allowed herself more power, forcing them to counter to avoid her lightning fast hands.

When she had sparred with the ninth student, an aggressive young college student who was only a year behind Sean in training, she had had to use all her concentration to avoid the quick kicks of her agile younger opponent. She felt every one of her thirty-five years as her arms and legs began to tremble with the sustained exertion.

When the match finally ended, both students stood at attention, waiting for the command to rest.

Drew Clark leaned over and murmured something to Master Cho, who nodded her head affirmatively after a moment's consideration. "You will finish your test with a match against Master Clark," Master Cho announced. "Black belt rules!"

Several of the students cast sidelong glances at each other in surprise. Black belt rules meant head contact was allowed, and Master Clark was a fourth dan—a very experienced fighter. Anticipation swelled in the ranks, along with apprehension.

For the briefest instant, surprise flickered across Sean’s elegant features. Then she bowed deeply, replying, "Yes, ma’am!"

Drew Clark pulled sparring gloves on her hands after slipping her feet into the foam foot covers that protected her opponent from the full force of the kicks. She slipped a mouth guard in but left her head gear in her gym bag. She walked purposefully to the center of the room and faced Sean. She was a head taller than Sean, who was tall at five-eight.

Sean faced her squarely and looked into a face that stared back at her without a flicker of emotion.

"Bow to your partners," Cho called.

Each woman bent sharply at the waist, returning again to lock eyes. Sean’s green eyes were clear and calm.

"Free-spar ready positions!"

Sean and Drew dropped one leg aback, knees bent, so that only their forward raised fists and their sides were exposed to their opponents.

"Begin!"

Sean moved forward quickly with a front round kick to the head, followed by a hand combination, hoping to take her opponent by surprise. Drew countered quickly with a forearm block then swept Sean’s forward leg with her foot, a move designed to break the opponent’s balance. With someone less physically agile than Sean it could have knocked her to the floor. As it was, Sean had to pivot on one leg to reestablish her footing while avoiding a back fist that came perilously close to her chin. She managed a side kick that forced Drew back in an evasive move, but still Sean had not made contact. As she snapped her kicking leg back to avoid a hand trap that could topple her over, she turned quickly with a back side-kick that nearly caught Drew in the chest as she closed for a strike. Sean followed her kick in, toward her opponent, as she had been taught, attempting a jab hook combination when Drew landed an upset punch to her abdomen. Sean had sensed rather than seen it coming, and she tensed her abdominal muscles to accept the force of the blow. Still, it stung, and she tried not to be distracted by it. Her adrenaline surged in response to the pain, and she swiftly blocked the follow-up punch from Drew with her forearm. She punched a back hand jab immediately and caught Drew squarely on the chin. Drew’s head snapped back from the force of the blow, and for an instant, Sean was paralyzed. She hadn’t intended to hit her so hard—one of the sacred rules of free-sparring was to maintain control at all times, to avoid injuring your sparring partner. That second of uncertainty was her undoing. Drew absorbed the blow without a break in the flow of her movements and dropped to the floor on one bent knee. She chambered a side-kick, the most devastating of karate kicks, as she slid forward, and thrust upward with her foot catching Sean squarely in the center of her unguarded chest. At the last second, Drew tempered some of the power of her kick, but it landed with enough force to send Sean to the floor.

Sean lay stunned, more from the surprise of the attack she hadn’t even seen coming than from the actual force of the kick. Drew knelt quickly beside her. There was a tiny cut on Drew’s lip and a trickle of blood streamed down her chin unnoticed.

"Are you all right?" the deep voice questioned, one had pressing lightly against Sean’s abdomen. "Take a deep breath."

Sean did so and said with a slight quaver in her voice, "I’m okay. Thank you, ma’am."

"When you have the advantage, Ms. Grey, always use it. You should have dropped me with a head kick after you landed that punch. If this were a real fight, you’d be dead now."

Sean stared up into the serious face of the woman above her, mesmerized by the eyes that stared into – no – through her.

"I’ll remember that, ma’am," she answered softly.

Drew reached a hand down to help her up. "Good fight, Ms. Grey."

Sean followed the tall woman’s form with her eyes as she walked to the sink to wash the blood off her face. Her words echoed in Sean’s mind, and the spot where Drew had rested her hand against her stomach seemed to tingle. Her teacher, Master Cho, was a strong and demanding teacher, but never had Sean experienced the sheer force of personality as she had felt with Drew Clark. There was a deadly seriousness about her, the intensity of which took Sean’s breath away. She jumped at the sound of her teacher’s voice.

"Face front!"

Sean stood at attention once more, facing the test board.

Drew had returned, a small Band-Aid on her lip.

Master Cho stepped forward, saying, "Congratulations, Sean, you did well. I am proud to promote you to black stripe."

She attached three black stripes to the tail of Sean’s red belt—the highest level to which she could be promoted before she received her black belt. To receive three stripes after only one test was unusual, and an honor.

Sean bowed deeply and then shook her teacher’s hand.

"Thank you, ma’am."

Master Cho dismissed the class, and the students swarmed Sean to pound her on the back and shake her hand. She barely heard the words of congratulations as she looked past the group to the austere blond woman who stood alone, watching her contemplatively.

CHAPTER TWO

"How is your lip?" Janet Cho asked as she pulled her Jeep Cherokee into the early evening traffic. She glanced over her shoulder at the rangy form of her former student, who was leaning forward in the back seat, her arms folded on the back of the front passenger seat.

Drew grinned slightly, her blue eyes laughing. "It’s nothing. She caught me by surprise. A very nice follow-up to that long kick of hers. I should never underestimate a student of yours, Master Cho."

Cho smiled inwardly, recalling a night many years ago when she had had to use every trick her twenty years in the martial arts had taught her to fend off a young black belt testee in a free-sparring match. That woman sat behind her, her finest student, equaled only by a younger student who sat beside her now—her lover, Chris Roma.

"Perhaps I should have warned you about her legs. She was a professional dancer when she was younger, and she has the best kicks I have ever seen."

"Except for yours, Master Cho," Chris said from her seat beside her.

Janet laughed and reached fondly for the hand of her young lover. "You flatter me, and I love it. I’m too short for really good offensive kicks. I’ve had to learn to use my feet in defense, unlike you tall Americans."

"She is very good," Drew commented, remembering the total concentration on Sean’s face as she met each challenge that evening. She remembered too the firm muscles beneath her hand and the unguarded eyes that had met her own as she knelt above Sean. There had been a trust in the gaze that Drew was used to seeing in the eyes of her students, but, for some reason it had moved her more deeply than it usually did. It reminded her once again of the great responsibility she had in teaching these young women to defend themselves in a world that so often claimed them as victims. She pushed those thoughts away, as she had for the last eight years, refusing to allow the anger to surface and claim her mind once more.

"I kicked her too hard," Drew continued, "I’m sorry."

Janet Cho shook her head. "No. It was not too hard. She must learn to accept the pain—for on the street, she must fight despite the pain if she is to survive."

A quick gasp from Drew silenced Master Cho, who glanced quickly to her old friend.

"Ah—I am so sorry, Drew. I did not think. Please forgive me."

Drew shook her head, fighting off the memories. "No, you are right. Sometimes I forget that they still have much to learn."

"And now I will have you both to help teach them. Yes?"

Janet Cho had offered Drew a position at her school as a teacher as soon as she heard that Drew was leaving the Army and returning to civilian life in Philadelphia. She had not yet heard Drew’s answer. Drew herself had been uncertain. At forty she had retired from the Army, and she wasn’t sure what she wanted from the rest of her life. She loved the martial arts. There had been years when only the demands of her training and teaching had provided any comfort in her life. Teaching women to survive, whether they were soldiers or students, had been her only purpose for many years. The demands and responsibilities of that task were enormous, and she was weary. Weary with caring, weary with the fear that she might not be giving enough. She thought again of the trust in those green eyes and made her decision.

"If you and Sabum Roma will have me."

Chris Roma, fifteen years younger, outgoing and eager, clapped her hands in delight. "All right!"

Drew leaned back in the seat, relieved. She didn’t know Chris Roma very well—she had been a young white belt when Drew left Philadelphia. Chris had started training after meeting Janet Cho at a self-defense course Master Cho had taught for graduate students at the city college. Against Janet’s better judgment she had accepted her lover as a student. They had been involved romantically for a year when Chris enrolled at the school, and Janet hadn’t been sure they could separate their personal issues for the necessary distance between student and teacher. It was only because of Chris’s deep respect for her lover’s skill, dedication, and commitment to teaching that they had been successful. Within the walls of the Golden Tiger Kwan, Janet Cho was her teacher and nothing else.

Drew had been concerned that Chris might not welcome another teacher, especially one who outranked her. She had been wrong to worry—Chris was mature beyond her thirty years and accepted that each person progressed at her own speed, in her own time, each according to her abilities. She welcomed Drew, and the chance to advance her own skills through working with her.

"Here we are!" Janet announced as she pulled in front of a neat stone row house in a quiet section of the city, known as Society Hill. Here were some of the small historic homes for which Philadelphia was known, their carefully preserved facades echoing the gentility of the city’s heritage.

"You know you can stay with us as long as you like, Drew."

"I appreciate it—both of you. I’m anxious to get settled though. I’ll go apartment hunting soon."

The women quickly unloaded their gear and headed for the brownstone, eager to talk and get reacquainted.

~

Ten miles away, Sean pulled into the long drive that led to her family home in Gladwyne—a stately wooded enclave of wealthy old families not so affectionately termed the "Main Line". She shared the house that had been her childhood home with her twin sister, Susan.

"Suse? You home?" she called as she pulled the heavy walnut door closed behind her.

"In my office," came the reply.

Sean moved through to the kitchen and pulled a lager from the refrigerator, snapping the top off as she crossed to the dining room. Her sister’s office was what had formerly been their father’s study.

"Hey," she said, leaning against the door and surveying the disaster that was her sister’s work space. Computer sheets spewed from the printer onto the floor, portfolios lay open on the long oak work-top, and the face that looked up at her was smudged with ink.

"Hey, yourself! How was it—did you do okay?"

Sean thought once again that she would never get used to looking into her own face and finding not a reflection of herself, but nearly her polar opposite. Where she was reserved and introspective, her twin was excitable and extroverted. They were like two halves of the same coin—individual, and yet eternally joined.

"I got my stripes—three of them."

"Oh—Way to go! I knew the old battle-axe would recognize your incredible talent."

"Suse! She’s not an old battle-axe!" Sean responded in mock exasperation. Her sister, who loathed authority in any form, couldn’t understand how her sister could subject herself—willingly—to what she called "abuse".

"Anyone who makes grown women do push-ups because they forget to say ‘Yes Ma’am’ is a sadist," she said half seriously. She held up a hand to stop her sister’s protests. They had had this conversation before. "I know, I know—you love it, you love her, you love Tae Kwon Do. You’re seeking your higher power—heaven forbid I should complain about anyone’s higher power. Still, you’re a masochist. You proved that by marrying Michael Montrose."

Susan had never liked Sean’s husband and had protested vehemently when she had married him at twenty. Not only had it meant that Sean moved to another city, she also gave up dancing, deciding to study psychology. The sisters had remained close, and after Sean left her ten-year marriage, Susan had welcomed her home.

"A momentary lapse in judgment—and I am not a masochist!"

"Oh, I forgot—psychologists can’t have neuroses—you’re all normal and healthy."

"You should know," Sean riposted. "You’re married to one."

"Ellen and I are not married. We’re—we’re seriously involved."

"Is that what you call a six-year monogamous relationship? Seriously, when are you going to give in and live with her?"

For the first time Susan looked uncomfortable. "I don’t know. She keeps asking, but I just can’t do it. Look at Mom and Dad—and you, for crying out loud! Marriage equals death for a relationship. At least we still have good sex."

Sean bit back a retort. Ellen Tyler and she shared an office in the renovated carriage house that adjoined the main house. They were friends, and she knew how much Ellen longed to cement her relationship with Susan by living together. Sean also knew how much Susan’s steadfast refusal hurt Ellen. Still, Susan was her sister, they shared the same history, and she understood Susan’s reluctance. She even shared it herself. After her divorce five years previously, she had had no interest in relationships, casual or otherwise. She didn’t miss the sex—she hadn’t found it all that earth shattering to begin with. She had her friends, her sister, her work to occupy her. If occasionally she longed for someone to share her quiet moments with, it was a feeling she could live with. Life was good—she was content.

"Maybe you and Ellen should see a therapist together?"

Susan shot her a horrified look. "Oh please! Isn’t AA enough? I can’t face anymore processing in my life."

Sean laughed. "Okay—I give. What are you doing, anyhow?"

"Tokyo is going crazy, and I’m trying to keep all my boats afloat. I’ll be done in a while—I just need to make sure all my clients’ millions don’t turn into confetti. Want to watch a movie in about an hour?"

"Sounds great! I’m exhausted. Let me shower—you pick the film."

When they met later in the library, Susan was prepared with her choice of film. "You’ll like this one—it’s about a lesbian psychiatrist and a bunch of women on this writer’s retreat."

Sean handed her a bowl of popcorn and curled up beside her on the large sofa.

"What’s it called?"

"Claire of the Moon."

"Okay—roll it."

Sean munched popcorn and let her body dissolve into the soft cushions as the story of two women learning to love each other unfolded. She liked the way the two main characters looked—they were attractive in a light butch/femme way. The psychiatrist was pretty uptight—type casting?—but then, she had been hurt by love. The other one was straight except all that meant was that she slept with men. Emotionally they didn’t touch her. The women danced together and apart throughout much of the movie—drawn closer by need and desire—pulled apart by fear.

At one point, Susan exclaimed, "If they don’t get together soon, I’ll die. I can’t stand this foreplay!"

Sean laughed, "Don’t you know that’s most of the fun? Once the tension breaks, it’s only sex."

Susan looked at her aghast. "Excuse me! Only sex? No wonder you can stand being celibate!"

Sean shrugged. "It’s not so bad."

Susan clicked the remote to pause. "Don’t you miss it?" she asked, uncharacteristically serious.

Sean pondered the question. "What I miss is something I never had. I don’t miss the act—it wasn’t all that much fun. And what I wanted from it was closeness—intimacy—and that just wasn’t there."

"Maybe it was Michael?"

"I don’t think so, Suse. He isn’t the only man I ever slept with, and some of them were damn nice guys. It just didn’t happen to me."

"Did you ever think about women—?"

Sean tossed a pillow at her. "With you and these movies around how could I not? These two are beautiful to look at , and beautiful together. So are you and Ellen. You and I share the same genes—I know that. I’m just not ready for anyone, Suse. Maybe I never will be."

Susan nodded and clicked the movie back on. She didn’t believe her sister for a minute.

CHAPTER THREE

"Line up for one-steps," Master Drew Clark called. "Gail—you’re with Sean. The rest of you pair off by rank."

Sean stood facing Gail Driscoll, the blue belt who ranked second in the class. She was a handsome young woman, fit and strong from rugby, which was her passion after Tae Kwon Do. Her shoulder-length hair was slightly shaggy, which lent her a roguish air. She had a natural talent for the art and would have been further along if she had applied herself a little more seriously. As it was, she was young and full of spirit, and all the world seemed to beckon her with some new adventure. Sean liked her in an older sister kind of way and occasionally envied her na‘ve optimism.

"I want ten one-steps, one after the other. I expect to see advanced techniques from the senior students. Face each other. Bow. Begin!" Drew called. She moved up and down the room, correcting stances on the newer students, offering advice to the intermediates. When she reached Sean and Gail, she stood quietly to one side, her arms folded, her legs spread. Gail, she noted, was using fairly routine techniques that they practiced many times, performing adequately but without much initiative. Sean, as she had come to expect over the month she had been teaching, was improvising new combinations that were her own originals. Her technique was crisp and controlled. Drew respected Sean’s quiet determination and tireless effort. She brought an air of calm dedication to each class and set a good example for younger students.

"Let me see something that befits your rank, Gail. Sean, put out a high section punch to the face."

"Yes, ma’am," they replied in unison.

Sean punched forward with her right hand, holding the position so Gail could institute a defensive combination. Gail countered swiftly with a high forearm block and turned to finish with a high hooking kick. She lost her balance slightly as she kicked and caught Sean full in the face with the heel of her foot. Sean dropped instantly, blood streaming from her nose.

"Oh god," Gail cried. "Oh Jeez—I’m sorry."

Drew knelt beside Sean whose eyes were closed. For a brief moment Drew was in a darkened alley with another woman whose face was covered in blood. Fear and anguish threatened to choke her, and she whispered, "Dara?" in a strangled voice.

Sean moaned and opened her eyes. Through a haze she could see Drew’s face, panic-stricken, staring down at her. The blue eyes were glazed, uncharacteristically vulnerable, and a sea of pain washed through them. The hand that reached for her was trembling.

"Oh god, no—" Drew moaned.

Sean heard the agony in Drew’s deep voice and struggled for speech.

"It’s all right, Master Clark. I’m okay—except I think my nose is broken."

Drew shook her head, confused, and then realized where she was and what had happened.

"Lie still, Sean. Don’t try to move yet. Gail, soak a towel with cold water and bring it to me." She glanced up at the young woman beside her, who stood terrified in place.

"Go on, Gail. Do it!" Drew snapped. As Gail rushed off, Drew turned once again to Sean. She slipped her fingers into the palm of Sean’s left hand.

"Squeeze my fingers, Sean—harder. Good—now the other hand. Good. Now move both legs." She nodded in relief as Sean complied. "Now, tell me who you are."

"Sean Grey. I’m at the Golden Tiger Kwan, and Gail just decked me."

Drew laughed a little shakily. "Very good. Now—can you see me clearly?"

"Yes," Sean replied, not adding that Drew looked as pale as she felt.

Drew pressed the iced towel against Sean’s face and slid one arm under her shoulders.

"Sit up very slowly—lean against me."

"I’ll get blood on you," Sean protested.

Drew laughed and pressed Sean closer. "No matter—it’ll wash. Gail—dismiss the class—I’m driving Sean to the hospital."

Despite Sean’s vigorous protests, Drew had insisted, and they soon joined the waiting crowd in the university hospital emergency room.

"How does it feel?" Drew asked.

"Awful—how does it look?"

Drew pulled the towel away a few inches and scrutinized Sean’s face carefully. "It’s swollen, but straight. With any luck, the fractures aren’t displaced and won’t require surgery."

Sean sighed. "I hope not—I don’t want to miss class."

Drew shook her head, marveling at Sean’s composure. She had seen soldiers complain more over sore muscles than this woman did.

"Master Cho is going to flay me alive for letting this happen," Drew said dryly.

Sean started in surprise. "Why? It’s not your fault!"

"Oh, but it is. Everything that happens in that room is my responsibility. I pushed Gail too hard—she tried something she wasn’t ready for."

Sean contemplated the words in silence. She knew very well the code of ethics practiced by her teachers and how seriously they took their responsibilities. This, however, seemed extreme.

"With all due respect, ma’am, accidents happen. I’ve hit a few people harder than I had intended a few times. You included."

Drew nodded, not fully accepting the rationalization, but appreciating Sean’s efforts to assuage her guilt.

"Thanks. They’re calling you—I’ll wait."

"No, that’s okay—I can call my sister."

"I’ll wait, Sean," Drew said with finality.

~

Drew pulled around the circular drive to the front of the house and parked.

Sean hesitated, and then asked tentatively, "Will you come in for a moment? Have something to drink?"

Drew started to refuse and then realized she wanted to be certain that Sean would be all right. The doctors had said her nose was cracked but would heal without surgery. Still, she had sustained a significant blow to her head.

"For a minute." She cut the engine and hurried around the front of her black sports car, reaching the door as Sean pushed it open.

"Can you make it?" she asked, slipping her hand under Sean’s elbow.

"Yes," Sean laughed, "Thanks."

As Sean pushed the front door open, an anxious voice called, "Is that you, Sean?" Susan appeared around the corner and stopped in her tracks.

"Oh my god! What happened? Ellen! Ellen, come here! Sean is hurt!" She rushed up to Sean, clutching her hands. "What happened? Oh god! Sean are you all right?"

Sean pulled Susan into her arms and hugged her tightly. "I’m absolutely fine, Suse honey, relax. I just got hit in the nose."

"Looks like you got hit in the nose with an ax," the rangy red-head who approached behind Susan commented. "You’re a mess. How about a beer?"

Sean laughed at Ellen’s usual aplomb and nodded. "First let me introduce my teacher," she said, turning to Drew who still stood in the doorway. "My sister, Susan—her lover, Ellen—Master Drew Clark."

"Just ‘Drew’," Drew said as she shook each woman’s hand in turn. She noticed that Susan was staring at her with anger.

"Are you the one who did this to her?" Susan demanded.

"Well, it was my fault—"

"Oh, stop—" Sean said in exasperation, "both of you. My face got in the way of someone’s foot and that’s all there is to it!"

Drew was surprised by Sean’s commanding tone and then realized that there were many sides to Sean she wouldn’t see in the dojang. The student-teacher relationship was very one-sided, and she generally made it a point not to socialize with students outside of class. This night had been exceptional in more ways than one.

"Perhaps I better leave—if you’re sure you’re all right."

"Nonsense," Ellen interjected, "stay for a while so Susan will be convinced you’re not a maniac. Will you have a beer or something?"

Drew smiled, enjoying Ellen’s dry humor. It seemed a perfect foil for her lover’s excitability.

"Thanks. A beer will be fine."

"Let me get out of this," Sean said, indicating her bloodied uniform. "I’ll meet you on the terrace."

It was almost midnight, and the hot, heavy air of late August had just begun to cool. The women stretched out on chaise lounges with their drinks. Sean crossed the patio in blue jeans and a sleeveless tee shirt and handed Drew a denim workshirt.

"You might need this. Your tee shirt is still soaked.

Drew was wearing her cotton uniform pants and the sweat-stained shirt she had worked out in. It was still damp and none too comfortable.

"Maybe I’ll change—"

"The bathroom is inside and to your right."

Ellen turned to Sean when Drew stepped inside and commented, "That is one gorgeous woman. She’s got eyes to drown in and a body that doesn’t quit. How come you never mentioned her?"

Sean laughed a little self-consciously. "She’s my teacher, Ellen. She’s only been here a few weeks. I hardly know her."

"Is she gay?" Ellen asked.

Ellen, as Sean very well knew, was relentless about details. She loved therapy because she loved the details of people’s lives, and it was intense interest in all things personal that made her such a good therapist. For in addition to curiosity, she had boundless compassion.

"I don’t know. Does it matter?"

"Ah, no—but such a loss if she isn’t."

"Pig!" Susan exclaimed good-naturedly, slapping Ellen on the arm.

Drew joined them at that moment, the shirt tucked into her uniform pants. It was a little small for her and accentuated the breadth of her well-developed shoulders. She had rolled the sleeves up to reveal muscled forearms. She sank to the chair and reached for her beer.

"What a night," she sighed, losing herself in the stars overhead.

The four women sat in silence for a few moments, enjoying the breeze.

"How do you feel?" Drew asked softly to Sean.

"Not bad—a little headache."

"I’m sorry"

"I know. Let’s forget it, shall we? I’ll be fine."

Drew nodded in agreement.

"Where are you from, Drew?" Ellen asked.

Drew started at the question. It had been a long time since she had been in a new social situation. She had immersed herself in work in Virginia and rarely spoke to anyone outside of her professional circle.

"Not far from here, actually. I grew up in Rosemont. But I’ve been gone a long time," she finished awkwardly.

"What do you do?" Ellen continued unperturbed.

"I teach martial arts. For many years I taught army recruits hand-to-hand combat as well as more formal styles of martial arts, like Tae Kwon Do and Aikido."

"I didn’t know you knew Aikido," Sean exclaimed. "Do you still train?"

"Yes, I do. In fact, the school is quite near here. Fortunately, my old teacher is still active, and I’ve been able to continue with her. You should come watch a class sometime," she added impulsively. As soon as the words were spoken, Drew wished she could have them back. She had no idea why she had said them, and she wasn’t sure it was a good idea to appear too friendly with one of her students.

"I’d really like that," Sean answered. "I love to see different styles, and I’ve always found Aikido beautiful. Will you tell me when it would be a good time to come?"

"I’ll check with my sensei and let you know," Drew responded, hoping her reluctance wasn’t obvious.

"Oh, terrific, Sean," Susan exclaimed. "Now you can find some other way to get yourself hurt!"

"Hey, Suse—I’m okay. Really. And I’m not about to begin another art form—not for a long time. Maybe never. I’ve got too much still to learn." Sean ruffled her sister’s hair. "I promise I won’t let anything happen to me, okay?"

Drew was moved by the obvious affection between the two sisters. She thought regretfully that it took more than a promise to keep someone safe. She felt the despair she lived with every day begin to surface, and she struggled to bury it once again. For some reason, old torments had returned to plague her since her return to Philadelphia—pain she thought she had successfully banished.

"I’ve got to leave," she said abruptly, rising as she spoke.

Sean looked up in surprise and then pulled herself up from the chair.

"I’ll walk you out."

Drew turned to her at the door, scrutinizing her face.

"You’ll have a shiner tomorrow," she noted regretfully.

Sean fingered her swollen nose. "I was afraid of that. I wouldn’t mind so much, but I’ll never be able to hide it from my patients. Some of them are going to be upset."

"Are you a doctor?" Drew asked.

"I’m a clinical psychologist. Ellen is my associate. It takes a lot of work sometimes keeping my personal life private. Patients are always curious about their therapists."

"I know what you mean. Students are often the same way with their teachers," Drew mused.

Sean looked uncomfortable. "Has this created a problem for you?" she asked.

Drew smiled at that. The time she had spent with Sean felt more natural and effortless than anything she had done in a long time. "No. I’ll see you in class, Sean."

"Good night, Master Clark," Sean said, bowing automatically. Drew returned her bow and descended the wide front stairs into the night.

As Sean closed the door, she thought how that one unguarded smile seemed to lift years from Drew’s face. She found herself wondering about the woman behind that impenetrable facade.

"She is fascinating," Ellen commented as Sean rejoined them on the terrace. "How much do you know about her, Sean?"

Sean shrugged, wishing she could divert Ellen’s attention from this subject. She didn’t feel comfortable discussing Drew—it felt like an invasion of the privacy that Drew guarded so carefully. And Sean found her own curiosity unsettling. Drew intrigued her too. She recalled Drew’s panic right after Sean was injured, and the image of Drew’s pale face and haunted eyes lingered.

She did not think the pain she had glimpsed was something Drew would consciously share. Sean was used to hearing the pain of others, allowing it to touch her so that she might help another heal. But this had not been willingly shared, and Sean felt irrationally protective of Drew’s vulnerability. And considering she knew so little of her, the intensity of her own response disturbed her. She couldn’t quite forget the anguish revealed in Drew’s face, and her own heart ached in sympathy.

"I don’t know her, Ellen. I see her four times a week in class—that’s all."

Ellen didn’t comment on the strange hollowness in Sean’s voice, nor the distant look in her eyes as she spoke.

"Well, I’ll let you off the hook for a while. But do try to be a little more curious, won’t you?"

Sean didn’t want to admit just how curious she was. As she trudged tiredly off to bed, she couldn’t get Drew off her mind.

CHAPTER FOUR

Drew was in a long dark alley, and there were menacing shadows on all sides. Fear rose in her throat as she forced herself deeper into the darkness. She knew someone needed her—she had to keep going despite her terror. An arm reached for her, and she thrust the body away with a swift kick. She fought off the hands that clutched her clothes, stumbling as she reeled forward in the near total blackness.

She couldn’t get her breath—her chest was heavy and tight. Finally she reached the end of the alley. It was a dead-end, and a woman lay crumpled at the foot of a brick wall. She reached a trembling hand down and turned the woman face up. Through the blood and the bruises she could make out Sean’s distorted features. As she stared in horror, the face changed and it was Dara staring back at her, terrified eyes beseeching her.

"Oh god, no!" she cried as she came awake in the still room. She looked wildly about, gasping, the terror of the dream still fresh. She groaned and dropped her head down on her knees, struggling to contain her sobs.

A soft knock finally penetrated her consciousness.

"Drew—it is Janet. Can I help?"

Drew rubbed her face and took a deep breath. "No, please—it was just a nightmare. I’m okay."

"If you need me, you will tell me, yes?"

"Yes," Drew called, knowing she couldn’t share the images of her pain. She had never talked about it to anyone—she was silenced by the enormity of her guilt.

She lay back, knowing she would not sleep again that night. Sean’s face rose unbidden, as Drew had first seen her kneeling in the dojang, calm, centered—a sculpted face framed by tousled dark hair. And those eyes—so green when she opened them, so soothing.

Suddenly the image was replaced by the memory of Sean tonight, lying dazed and bleeding—so still she thought for an instant—

Drew groaned in frustration and reached for the light. She had to stop the images—and she especially had to stop thinking about Sean. Sean was more of a threat than the reemergence of her nightmares. At least the nightmares were familiar. She had no reference for the strong reaction she had to Sean—she had felt it that first night during the test. She was captivated by the calm stillness Sean projected—a state that so eluded Drew. Each time she taught, it was the same. Sean seemed to radiate a sense of balance, a self-acceptance that expanded and enfolded those around her. At least, Drew felt that way when she looked at her. Some of Sean’s peace touched her.

Drew squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them to the harsh light, hoping to banish all thought. She reached for a book from the bedside table and forced herself to read. She would think no more tonight.

In the morning, Janet Cho greeted her warmly. "There is coffee, and Chris has made muffins."

Drew poured a cup and sat at the small kitchen table with her old friend.

"We had an injury last night, Master Cho. Sean’s nose is broken."

"Ah, is it bad?" Janet asked.

Drew shook her head. "Not so bad—she’ll be bruised for a while, but no surgery is needed." She went on to relate the details of the accident and then voiced her uncertainty, "Perhaps I don’t know the students well enough to teach them yet."

Janet touched her arm very lightly. "You are an excellent teacher, Drew. Don’t doubt yourself. Gail is a good student—a little lazy sometimes—but she is young. She has done that kick many times before—it is well within her capabilities. She misjudged—not you. I will spend some time with her on control, I think. I would like you to teach Sean her next form—the first black belt form.

Drew hid her reluctance. She wanted to stay away from Sean—the woman had already intruded into her dreams. "Yes, of course. As soon as she comes back."

"Oh, Sean will be there tonight," Janet Cho said with certainty.

~

As Drew and Janet approached the door to the dojang an hour and a half before class, they discovered Sean stretching in the hall outside. Drew couldn’t hide her surprise.

"Shouldn’t you be resting?"

Sean grinned. "I’m fine, ma’am."

Drew shook her head as she stepped aside. "Well, come on in then."

Sean stopped at the doorway to bow before she entered and then bowed in turn to Master Cho and Master Clark. "Good evening," she said formally.

Both women bowed to her and returned her greeting.

"Sean—stretch now—I want you to work on forms tonight with Master Clark."

"Yes, ma’am."

"And, Master Clark—you and I will do some weapons work before class, yes? I want to see what you taught the army."

Drew bowed formally. "Yes, Master Cho. Knife or jo stick?’

"The jo," Janet replied, referring to the five foot staff. It could be used as a thrusting weapon, like a spear, or swung like a baseball bat. It was excellent practice against the sort of weapon that could be picked up off the street.

"I will attack," Janet stated.

Sean watched from the corner of the room where she was performing her pre-workout stretching routine.

Drew turned into a sideways defensive posture, one leg back, both hands up—the forward hand extended, the rear hand guarding her chest. Her stance, however, was less rigid than the classical karate stance—she looked relaxed but wary. Sean flinched when Master Cho attacked with a flurry of swinging blows directed at Drew’s head and chest. Drew deflected them with her forearm, circling Master Cho, looking for a chance to launch her own attack.

Then, with a feinting movement to the left that distracted her opponent, Drew dropped to the floor and swung her foot behind Master Cho’s knee. The leg sweep brought the woman down, and only Drew’s hold on Janet’s uniform jacket prevented her from landing heavily on her back.

Sean was breathless over the display of skill and power she had witnessed—Drew moved with such speed! There was such intensity in her face as she met each strike with her own force. The blows must have hurt, but there was no sign of it in her reactions—she bided her time and then counterattacked without hesitation. Sean had never seen anything like it. Drew was magnificent!

"Oh, that was a good move—thank you for breaking my fall," Janet Cho said as she rose. "Now the knife."

Drew nodded, once again waiting, her eyes on the steel weapon in Janet’s hand. As the thrust came at her midsection, she side-stepped, blocking the knife arm with her own arm, then trapping it against her side. With the weapon arm immobilized, she was able to raise a vicious snap kick to the midsection followed by an elbow strike to the back of the neck. As Janet anticipated each strike, she allowed her body to absorb the blows until at last she was lying on her back with Drew poised above her, the knife now in Drew’s hand. The face that looked down at her was fierce with concentration, the blue eyes cold. Drew plunged the knife down with a piercing cry. The point hovered millimeters above Janet Cho’s throat.

"I think I see your Aikido in that move, Master Clark," Janet Cho said calmly. Drew leaned back on her heels and smiled.

"Yes, ma’am. But on the street, we must use all our weapons—"

Both women stood and bowed to one another.

"Thank you, Drew."

"Thank you, Master Cho," Drew responded. As she turned away, she caught Sean staring at her. Sean blushed and ducked her head when Drew’s eyes met hers. Drew wondered briefly just what Sean had seen during those moments when Drew was too occupied to keep all her shields in place.

"Are you sure you’re ready to work out tonight?" Drew asked as she approached. Her voice was soft with a concern she couldn’t hide. She remembered Sean’s dazed and bloody face from the previous night.

Sean met Drew’s gaze and noted for the first time how blond her eyelashes were, and how fine the lines at the corner of her eyes. She knew they would deepen when Drew bestowed one of her rare smiles. She had noted that last night when she stood with Drew at the front door of her home. She remembered she had had to tilt her head up just a little to see Drew’s face. That was when Drew had smiled—that smile that was like the sun breaking through the clouds.

"Sean?" Drew queried, concerned by her silence.

"Yes, ma’am. I feel fine."

"I expect you to tell me if you have problems during the workout—understood?"

Sean nodded.

Drew looked at her quizzically, prompting her reply.

"Yes, ma’am!" Sean shouted, blushing faintly at her own consternation.

After the class had assembled, Drew took Sean aside and spent the entire hour and a half teaching Sean new moves and reviewing her previous forms. As always, Sean’s technique was excellent, and she worked hard. Drew attributed her uncharacteristic lapses in concentration to the effects of her injury.

Sean wasn’t sure what was bothering her, she just felt unaccountably agitated. She’d find herself staring at Master Clark’s hands, noting the strength in the broad palms and long tapering fingers. Then she would realize she had missed a command and find herself blushing again. Nevertheless, she was pleased when Master Clark commented that she had done good work. The words felt like a gift.

~

"How’d it go?" Susan asked as she joined Sean on the terrace late that evening.

"Huh? What?" Sean asked. She had been watching a few clouds in the moonlit sky float by, relishing the faint breeze on her skin. For some reason, all her senses seemed heightened, more alive. She was surprised to register a tingle of arousal—it was such a rare occurrence, she barely recognized it at first. But there was no mistaking the faint aching pressure between her legs and the heaviness in her loins.

"Earth to Sean! Come in, please!"

Sean started guiltily. "Oh, class you mean? It was fine."

"Your nose okay?"

"My nose? Oh, my nose! Yes, no problem."

Susan peered at her sister carefully in the half-light shining out from the house. Her normally grounded, matter-of-fact twin had a slightly dreamy, almost vacant, look on her face.

"Sean, you’re not taking drugs, are you?"

Sean turned to look at her sister. "Drugs? Are you crazy? You know I hate drugs!"

"Well, you looked awfully spacey—where is your mind?"

"Oh, nowhere special. I was just relaxing," Sean answered evasively. She didn’t want to admit to her sister that she had been thinking it would be nice to touch herself out here in the still twilight, or that when she looked at her own hand on her thigh, she’d seen the long-fingered hand of another. She didn’t want to admit it to herself, because she had no idea what it meant.

"Ellen and I are fighting again," Susan said in a small voice.

Sean finally gave her sister her full attention. "Oh, Suse—how come?"

Susan shrugged. "The same stuff—she wants us to have a baby."

"A baby! She’s never said that before!"

"Well, she’s saying it now. She’s thirty-two, she wants to have children before she’s too old to be a good parent. You know, the usual biological clock stuff."

"Well—how do you feel about having children?"

"I’m not keen on having one out of my own body, but I think kids are neat, and it would be something to have a child with little parts of Ellen in there. It’s just such a big step—and there are so many ways to fuck up!"

Sean thought she began to understand. "Is that what you’re scared of? That you’ll fuck up and make the kid’s life miserable?"

"Well, why not?" Susan demanded bitterly, "I’m a thirty-five year old alcoholic who’s afraid of intimacy—what kind of parent would I be?"

Sean took her hand and squeezed gently. "You’re a bright, funny, loving woman who would make some child a wonderful parent. But you have to really want it, Suse—Ellen, the commitment, the child—all of it. It’s too important for all of you not to be sure."

Susan sighed. "That’s the problem—my heart says ‘yes’ but my head says ‘no’. Oh, well—she’ll get over it. She always does."

Sean didn’t see any point in stating the obvious. Ellen had been looking pretty unhappy lately.

"Do you think you two will still come to my dojang party for Master Cho’s birthday next weekend?"

"Absolutely," Susan responded. "Ellen wouldn’t miss it, and I want to see what other crazy women are into this medieval torture stuff."

"Oh, do shut up, Suse!"

~

The evening of the party was clear and warm. Sean, Susan and Ellen had set up long tables on the broad stone terrace with sandwiches and an ample bar. The CD player was stacked with dance music, and outside speakers broadcast the sound. It was the first time all of her classmates and teachers had been to her home. Sean was a little nervous. She had been anxious all day wondering if Drew Clark would come, and the fact that she was anxious about it made her even more anxious. By seven o’clock she was a wreck.

"Sean," Ellen said, grasping her arm and pulling her over to the stone banister which flanked the stairs leading into the garden, "What’s up with you? This is not the calm, cool always collected Sean Grey who I know and love."

Sean shrugged. "Just a little anxious about the party."

Ellen shook her arm lightly. "Sean, dear, this is Ellen. I’ve seen you address a room full of stuffed-shirts without blinking an eye and host a dinner party for fifty. This is not about the party."

"I’m a little embarrassed about it," Sean finally confided.

"About what?" Ellen asked.

"I think—oh god, this is hard—I think I have a crush on one of my teachers!" Sean finished hurriedly, blushing furiously.

"That tall, blond hunky one, I hope," Ellen said.

Sean nodded.

"Well!" Ellen pronounced. "And how does the good Doctor Grey feel about this ‘crush’?"

"She feels ridiculous—that’s how she feels! I’m thirty-five years old, a responsible professional—and straight, I might add."

"Are you?"

"What?"

"Straight."

Sean hesitated before she answered. "I never questioned it before, I never had reason to. All I can say is that I’m terribly attracted to this woman, and I’m afraid it shows."

"What attracts you to her?"

"How about everything? She’s fiercely intense, focused, powerful—not to mention kind, and caring—and beautiful." Sean didn’t add what else she sensed—the hidden pain, or rather, the torment, that Sean had glimpsed that night weeks ago.

"Would you sleep with her?"

"In a heartbeat!"

Ellen gazed down the long expanse of lawn to the trees below.

"This is more than a crush, Sean. What are you going to do about it?"

"Hope that it goes away before she notices, or before I make a fool of myself."

"Why?" Ellen asked in surprise.

"Because I have absolutely no indication that she is interested in me, and even if she were, there’s the problem of her being my teacher."

"Oh, Sean—get a grip. You are both adults. We’re not talking about the impropriety of a high school student and a thirty-year old teacher. It might create some problems in the—what do you call it? Dojang?—but, it is not inherently an unethical situation."

"I think she might see it that way."

"Didn’t you tell me that your head teacher and a student were lovers?"

"Yes, but they were lovers before Sabum Roma started training. That’s different than becoming lovers with one of your students."

"It’s a pretty fine distinction!"

"Not necessarily—would you sleep with one of your patients?"

"Of course not!"

"Even after the therapy had ended?"

"No, Sean—you know that."

"Well, how about just being friends with an ex-patient?"

Ellen hesitated. "Almost certainly not. But the patient-therapist relationship is a long way from what you’re talking about."

"There is still a lot of room for abuse. Many female students have been taken advantage of by male instructors. There is a tremendous power imbalance, especially in a formal school like ours."

"Do you feel like your attraction is coming from some unhealthy place?"

"No, but she might. That’s all I’m saying."

Ellen turned around and looked toward the house. "I think you’re way ahead of yourself here, Sean," she said. "First let the woman know you’re interested—then let her decide if that’s a problem or not. You can’t write the whole story by yourself."

Sean didn’t ask the question she really wanted answered. How, exactly, did you go about letting another woman know you were interested in her? With men it was easy—with this she felt completely out of her depth.

"Hey," Susan called from the house, "they’re here."

By eight o’clock the terrace was crowded with women and a few men, partners of the heterosexual women in the class. Master Cho sat quietly, Chris Roma at her side.

"Happy birthday, Janet," Chris said softly.

Janet smiled gently. "Thank you, love. It is a nice birthday—they are a wonderful group, aren’t they?"

"Yes—and they all care about you, and each other."

Janet nodded, a slight frown on her usually smooth face.

"What is it?" Chris asked, ever sensitive to her lover’s quiet moods.

"Drew is not here. I was afraid she would not come."

"Why not?"

"She is not one to make friends—but I think she needs to. She has been too long inside herself, and she suffers."

Chris knew of the nightmares—she couldn’t help but know. Too frequently, she and Janet had been awakened by muffled cries coming from the guest room down the hall during the few weeks that Drew had stayed with them before moving to her own apartment nearby. Chris didn’t know the circumstances and she didn’t ask. Her lover and Drew had been friends for many years before she met Janet Cho, and the confidences they shared would never be revealed except by Drew herself.

"She’s happy at the dojang, don’t you think?"

"Ah, yes—thank goodness for the students. There she has women to care about—but, it is too safe."

"Too safe?"

"She can care about them from a distance, but they do not touch her heart. And, she does not have to accept the responsibility of being cared about in return. That is necessary for her to teach, but it is a hiding place, too."

"Is there anything we can do?"

Janet smiled and stroked Chris’s hand. "No. Someday, I hope, she will let another claim her heart—when the want is greater than the fear."

"Is that how it was with you?"

Again the small smile. "Ah, yes—but, with me the fear was of you not wanting me."

Chris laughed. "Then you will never have anything to fear."

Sean watched the party from the doorway of the dining room. She was touched by the tender scene between her teachers. She could not hear their words, but the gentle touches that passed between them as their heads bent close spoke of love. She looked for her sister and Ellen and found Susan in the midst of a group of laughing women. No doubt she was accosting them with questions about their masochistic tendencies. She couldn’t find Ellen.

Just then, the doorbell rang, and she moved through the quiet house to answer it. As she crossed through the dim living room, she saw Gail Driscoll follow someone through the doorway opposite her and into the library.

She opened the front door to find Drew standing there, Sean’s denim shirt in her hand. Sean liked the way Drew looked in faded jeans and a white oxford shirt.

"Hi," Sean said shyly. "I’m glad you could come."

"Sorry I’m late," Drew said, holding out the shirt. "Thanks for this."

Sean took the shirt and tossed it on the mail table. "We waited to give Master Cho her present until you were here," she said, as they approached the group outside. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"A beer would be good."

Drew crossed to where Janet and Chris were sitting and bowed to Master Cho. "Good evening," she said.

Janet Cho smiled. "It is, yes. Thank you for being here."

Drew looked momentarily uncomfortable, and then made a conscious effort to relax. She watched Sean wend her way through the crowd with two bottles of beer, looking comfortable in a white tank top and black cotton trousers. She seemed to stand out from the other students, not just because she was a good deal older, but because she carried herself with an air of certainty that suggested she was at peace with herself. As always, her presence had a soothing effect on Drew.

"Thank you," Drew said as she accepted the damp bottle. "Your nose looks normal finally."

Sean laughed and touched her face self-consciously. "It actually looked much worse than it felt."

A fleeting shadow flickered across Drew’s face, and she lifted the bottle hastily to her lips. When she spoke again, her voice was steady.

"You handled it well. You would have made an excellent soldier."

Sean laughed out loud, a full, throaty laugh that animated her usually cool features. "Oh, not at all! I’m almost as bad as my sister when it comes to taking orders."

"Not that I’ve noticed," Drew remarked.

"That’s different. In class I understand that the discipline is to make me strong, to keep me focused on the task, to remind me of the seriousness of what we do. It’s a discipline I accept as necessary—it actually makes me feel safe. I wouldn’t welcome that kind of control in every aspect of my life—as I imagine a soldier must do. It may be too safe—I would feel stunted, too infantilized."

Drew nodded. "You’ve got a point. Even though I hope—we all hope—that some of what you gain in class will support you in the rest of your life."

"It does," Sean agreed. "It helps a great deal in my work—I’m more resilient, I can listen to my clients—their fears, their pain—I can hear it and feel for them without being immobilized by it. I feel more balanced." Sean stopped speaking when she realized Drew was staring at her, an intense searing stare.

"What?" Sean asked quietly.

Drew started and looked away uncomfortably. "I’m sorry. I was wondering how you do what you do—listen to all that pain."

"I try to remember that there are all kinds of pain, and that the human spirit is amazingly strong—and that with love and time, there can be healing," Sean answered gently.

"You really believe that?"

"I do. I’ve seen it. Some pain never completely disappears, but we find a place for it—like a distant sound, we can hear it, but the intensity diminishes until it blends with all the other rhythms of our life. One song among many."

"You’re a poet, Sean," Drew remarked.

Sean blushed. "Hardly. It’s just the way I’ve found to make sense of the human condition."

"It’s good there are people like you to do this work," Drew said softly.

"Thank you."

Their eyes met and held for a moment, and both of them knew there were words left unspoken.

Sean looked into Drew’s blue eyes, knowing there was a secret there, wondering if she would ever know it. Drew searched the gentle depths of Sean’s, wondering why she felt so welcome.

They both jumped as a voice at their elbows demanded, "Hey, Sean—when are we going to give Master Cho her present? This party is starting to rock!"

Sean looked about and realized that people were beginning to dance, and that the alcohol was flowing freely. As the senior student, it was Sean’s responsibility to present the gift.

"You’re right. I’d better do it before we completely lose everyone’s attention!" She looked regretfully at Drew, not wishing to end their conversation.

"Excuse me."

Drew nodded. "Of course."

Sean circled through the crowd, informing the students that she was going to get Master Cho’s gift. The ten women gathered in a semi-circle before Master Cho, who was flanked by Drew and Chris.

Sean stepped forward with a large rectangular object. She bowed, as did the other students in the group.

"Happy birthday, Master Cho," she said, a sentiment the others echoed.

The gift was a hand-painted golden tiger, done by one of the students. The frame was also handmade and gilded by another student. The idea had come from all of the students, and they had all helped pay for the supplies.

"Ah, yes—" Janet Cho said as she surveyed her gift. "You have captured the spirit of the tiger well—may you all carry a little of the tiger’s tenacity and power in your hearts. Thank you."

As the students wandered back to their friends and partners, someone, probably Susan, dimmed the terrace lights and turned the music up. People began to dance in earnest.

Sean saw Ellen emerge from the house looking upset.

"You okay?" Sean asked.

"Fine," Ellen replied abruptly. "How’s the party going?"

Sean motioned with her arm toward the laughing, milling crowd. "Great. Suse is having the time of her life. I think she’s insulted every one of my friends."

Ellen remained curiously silent. At length she said, "Is Drew here?"

"Yes," Sean said, "she’s over by the stairs."

Drew was sitting on the broad stone wall that enclosed the terrace, watching the dancers. Even Janet Cho and Chris were dancing in one dim corner.

"Why don’t you ask her to dance?"

"Oh—I couldn’t!"

"Why not?"

"It wouldn’t be appropriate."

"Excuse me?"

"You know—she’s my teacher—"

Ellen cut her off with a rude snort. "Oh, please—she’s what? All of five years older than you? You’re not in the dojang now, Sean. This is just the real, old fucked-up world out here."

Sean was taken aback by Ellen’s rancor. Ellen could always be counted on to see the humor in every situation.

"Are you sure you’re all right? Is it Susan?"

"Must everything be about Susan?" Ellen snapped. "Go ask the woman to dance, for god’s sake!" At that, Ellen pushed her way through the crowd and disappeared.

Sean remained just outside the doorway, paralyzed by uncertainty—and uncharacteristic self-doubt. She had never done this before, never even imagined doing it. But when she asked herself honestly if she wanted to, the answer was yes. Finally, she willed her legs to move.

It was fully dark now, and Drew was only a silhouette against the sky as Sean approached. Drew sat with her arms out to either side on the wall, her legs lost in shadow. The dancing bodies seemed to fade into the background as Sean moved closer, until all she could see was the woman before her. When she finally faced her, she was at a loss for words.

"Would you like to dance?" she asked at last.

It was the last thing Drew expected, and she was momentarily stunned. Before she could think, she answered, "Yes," and pushed herself off the wall. Her hand moved automatically to Sean’s back as they moved to a space near the edge of the crowd.

As Sean turned to face her, the music slowed, and before she knew it, she was in Drew’s arms. She slid one hand to Drew’s shoulder and rested the other on her waist. Drew covered the hand on her shoulder with her own and encircled Sean’s waist with her other arm. They moved naturally together, and Sean felt the light pressure of Drew’s body against her own. She trembled, and hoped that Drew didn’t feel it. The places where their bodies touched felt electrified. Without thinking, she leaned her cheek against Drew’s shoulder, and the arm about her tightened. She felt Drew’s heart pounding against her breast. Drew’s body felt at once strong and soft. The muscles under her hand rippled as they moved, but it was the softness of another woman’s breasts against her that stunned her. She wouldn’t have believed how exciting it felt to be this close to a woman. They danced in silence, each listening to the sounds of the other’s body. When the music ended, they stood with their arms still enfolding each other, each reluctant to break the hold.

Finally, Drew stepped away. "Thank you," she said huskily.

Sean nodded, unable to speak.

Drew took another step back, putting distance between them.

"I must go."

"Yes," Sean said numbly. "I understand."

Drew shook her head. "No, Sean, you don’t."

And then she was gone.

CHAPTER FIVE

When Janet Cho opened the dojang two hours before class, she was not surprised to find Drew there before her, working out. Her uniform was soaked, and Janet knew she had been there for hours. She returned Drew’s bow and moved in silence to one end of the room. She watched Drew practicing a weapons form, noting that Drew, if possible, appeared more intense than usual.

"You have something on your mind, yes?" Janet asked when Drew stopped for water.

Drew looked at her old friend in surprise. "No—why do you ask?"

Janet shrugged, "You have that look that says you want your head to be quiet."

"There is nothing," Drew said firmly.

Janet did not press. Instead, she joined Drew, and they practiced black belt forms together. As the students began to arrive, Drew turned to Janet saying, "I cannot stay for class tonight."

"We will be here when you are ready."

Drew bowed. "Thank you."

She stayed away two weeks, and during that time, class continued as normal—except for Sean. She had lost her focus. She forgot forms she knew by heart, her balance was bad; she was frustrated and self-critical. Finally, after class one night, Master Cho called her aside.

"What is troubling you, Sean?"

Sean was acutely embarrassed. She knew she wasn’t doing well in class, and the added pressure of her approaching black belt test weighed on her mind.

"I’m sorry, Master Cho. I’m trying but I can’t seem to concentrate."

"That is because your mind is elsewhere. You must learn to use your training to center your mind—feel only your body, listen only to your body. Let your mind surrender to your body. Trust yourself—the calm is there within you. Let it out."

Sean nodded. "I will try."

"Good. You will succeed. Be patient with yourself."

"Master Cho," Sean asked before she could stop herself, "is Master Clark coming back?"

"She will be back," her teacher said.

When Drew returned, Sean settled down. Just seeing her helped. When Drew hadn’t returned to class after the night of the party, Sean had been afraid she would never see her again. Even though there was no way to bridge the distance between them, it was wonderful just to see her. Drew behaved toward her as she always had, although every now and then, Sean could feel Drew’s eyes on her from across the room. When she looked over, there was that same searching stare she had first seen the night of her test. In an instant it would be gone. By the same token, Sean took every opportunity she could to watch Drew. When Drew would demonstrate a technique for the class, Sean watched the way her body moved, the crispness and efficiency of her techniques, the focus in her eyes. When she imagined the woman within the warrior, she remembered how Drew’s body felt against her, and her cheeks would flush unbidden.

What neither of them realized was that their secret glances did not go unnoticed. While they both sought to keep their interest from the other, Janet Cho watched in silence.

~

Sean pulled up to the dark house, surprised that Susan had gone out. Usually she worked week nights at home, preferring to sleep at Ellen’s on the weekends. She frowned as she parked beside Susan’s car in the car port. If she was home, why was the house dark?

"Suse?" she called into the eerily empty house. "You home?"

She flicked on the kitchen light and caught her breath. There was an open bottle of vodka on the table, and it was nearly empty.

"Susan," she cried, running for the stairs to Susan’s room. "Are you here?" She pushed Susan’s doors open but the bedroom was empty. Sean began to panic. Something was not right—really not right.

She searched Susan’s wing of the house, then her office and the library. Finally she headed for the terrace. She found her on the wall overlooking the garden. She had a glass in her hand.

"Susan," Sean said calmly, "what are you doing, Hon?"

Susan looked over her shoulder and took a swallow from her glass.

"Hi, Sis. Care to join me in a drink?"

Sean’s heart plummeted. "What happened, Suse? What’s wrong?"

"Ellen left me," Susan said.

Sean’s jaw dropped. "No! You mean you had a fight, right?"

"No, Sean," Susan said, enunciating each word carefully. "I mean, Ellen left me—for someone else."

"Ellen? Ellen is having an affair?" Sean couldn’t get her mind around it. Ellen, her friend and partner, the woman she saw every day of her life—was having an affair?

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yes! I’m sure. She told me. Somebody named Gail."

Sean had a sick feeling in her stomach. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t have been Gail Driscoll and Ellen in the library the night of the party. It couldn’t be.

"Where are you going," she cried, as Susan moved unsteadily toward the house.

"To get another drink."

Sean grabbed her arm. "Oh, no you’re not. Not after six years of sobriety, you’re not!"

Susan shook her arm off roughly. "Leave me alone, Sean."

"Not on your life. You’ll kill yourself with this much alcohol!"

"I’m fine."

"You’re not fine! You’re coming inside with me. I mean it!" She spun Susan around and barely ducked her head in time to avoid the glass Susan flung at her. They both stood in stunned silence.

At last the tears came, and Sean gathered her twin into her arms, holding her tightly.

"It’ll be okay, baby. I’ll talk to her. We’ll sort this out."

Suddenly Susan pulled away.

"I think I’m going to be sick."

Sean got her inside and held her head while she vomited until her stomach was empty, and then some. She crooned soothing words to her, brushing the tangled hair from her eyes, fighting the desire to kill both Gail and Ellen for hurting her sister like this—and for putting a drink in her hand after six years.

~

Sean was waiting in the office the next day when Ellen arrived. She was happy to see that Ellen’s face was pale and drawn.

"We need to talk, Ellen."

"So you know?" Ellen said tiredly.

"I don’t know your side of it. And I want to. Susan was drunk last night, Ellen. I want you to explain to me why."

Ellen closed her eyes. "Oh god! Is she all right?"

"Of course she’s not all right!"

"I didn’t think she would drink—believe me, I didn’t. I would have stayed with her until you got home if I had." Ellen sank onto the office couch, tears streaming from her swollen eyes.

"Tell me what’s happening."

Ellen shrugged helplessly. "I didn’t mean for it to happen. It just did. Isn’t that how these things always happen?"

"Is it Gail Driscoll?"

"Yes."

"My god, Ellen!" Sean snapped, "Are you crazy? She’s twenty years old! What could possibly have possessed you?"

"She’s not twenty! She’s twenty-two. And, she’s crazy about me and I needed that. I needed to feel like I was really wanted."

"And you think Susan doesn’t want you? Do you think she drank herself into oblivion because she doesn’t want you?"

Finally, Ellen got angry. "Six years, Sean. We’ve been together six years, and I get to sleep with her two nights a week. I get to wake up with her—if I’m lucky—two mornings a week. She’s kept me at arms length all these years, and I’ve finally had enough! I want a full-time lover, a full-time life!"

"And you think you’ll have that with a woman ten years younger than you? Ten big years younger?"

"It happens," Ellen said defensively.

Sean stared at Ellen, her emotions in turmoil. She knew how much pain Ellen had been in, and how Susan’s resistance to living with her had continued to distance them. But all she could see at that moment was the naked anguish in her sister’s face.

"What about Susan? Have you stopped loving her?"

Ellen began to cry again, racking sobs that shook her slender frame.

"Oh god—I don’t want to love her! I keep praying I’ll wake up and I won’t anymore."

Finally Ellen’s pain reached Sean. She moved to the couch and gathered her into her arms. She pressed Ellen’s face to her shoulder and rocked her.

"What a mess!" Sean muttered. She forced Ellen to look at her. "Are you in love with Gail Driscoll?"

Ellen lowered her eyes. "More like seriously in lust."

"Terrific. And how do you think you’ll feel in six months when you’ve finally stopped fucking each other’s brains out?"

"I hope we’ll still have a relationship," Ellen said hollowly.

"Will you stop seeing her long enough to talk this all out with Susan in therapy?"

Ellen laughed bitterly. "You know as well as I do Susan won’t go to therapy."

Sean raised her hand to stop her. "If she would, can you put a halt to this affair and try to sort out the issues?"

"I don’t know if I can."

"Ellen, please! Susan loves you, she needs you. Please!" Sean cried desperately.

Ellen rose despondently. "I have to think about it, Sean. I feel like I’m at the end of the road with Susan."

"Just think about it, please. For all of us."

CHAPTER SIX

Drew knew there was a problem as soon as Sean entered the dojang. She went directly to the rear of the room, stored her gear, donned her uniform and began to warm up. She hadn’t greeted anyone or even looked at anyone—not even Drew. Drew considered speaking to her and then thought better of it. Whatever it was, it was none of her concern. Drew was running class that night while Master Cho and Sabum Roma were at a seminar. After calling the class to order, she spent a half hour going over sparring drills. Sean seemed fine, although withdrawn.

"Get your sparring gear on," Drew called.

The class hurried to comply, and they lined up for further instructions.

"I want you to concentrate on techniques—hand combinations, double kicks, moving out of your opponent’s kicking range and into your own. Use this opportunity to practice the things we’ve been doing in class."

Everything went well with the lower ranks. Drew watched them carefully, urging the more reticent under belts to make body contact and to accept being hit.

"The point of practice is to learn to accept pain in a controlled situation. You cannot afford to be overcome by pain during a real attack. You have to absorb the pain—let it flow through you and be gone. When you let it in, it loses its power. Try again!"

"Gail, Sean. You’re up. Black belt rules—remember to guard your faces."

Drew was surprised by the reluctance that showed in the two students as they bowed to one another. Neither of them attempted eye contact.

"Free spar positions. Begin!"

Sean looked unusually tight—moving stiffly, without her usual graceful transitions. Gail, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically timid. When she had the opportunity to make contact, she didn’t. Finally, Drew stopped the fight.

"You’re fighting like beginners, both of you. You wouldn’t last two minutes in a real fight. Now I want you to fight the way I know you can—I want body contact, I want head strikes, I want crisp, focused attacks. Face each other!"

Sean faced Gail for an instant and then stepped away. Facing Drew she bowed and said, "I’d like to be excused, ma’am."

"Sit down, Sean," Drew said quietly. "Anne, you’re up with Gail."

Drew waited until the last student had left before speaking to Sean, who still sat at the rear of the room. She sat down across from Sean, her legs folded beneath her.

"What’s up?" she asked quietly.

Sean looked up, her eyes betraying her misery. "I couldn’t fight her," was all she could manage. She didn’t want to say more, she was too close to tears.

"Why not?"

Sean passed her hand across her face and swallowed hard. "I was afraid I would hurt her. I was afraid—of my anger."

"What’s going on between the two of you?"

Sean looked away. "It’s private."

"Not anymore. You brought it to the floor of this dojang. Now it concerns me."

Sean stood up suddenly. "No, it doesn’t," she said tightly, turning away.

Drew rose swiftly, reaching instinctively for Sean’s shoulders. She had heard the tears. She turned Sean to face her and suddenly Sean was in her arms. When she felt the sobs, she pulled her closer. Drew held her silently, stroking her hair gently, cradling her against her body.

"I’m sorry," Sean managed at last, her head tucked beneath Drew’s chin. The solidity of Drew’s body felt like a haven.

"Tell me," Drew said, not releasing her hold on the woman in her arms.

"Gail and Ellen are having an affair," Sean said at last. "Susan is heart-broken, and she’s drinking again. I know it’s not really Gail’s fault—or anyone’s fault—but I’m so worried about Susan—she was all I could think about when I looked at Gail. I wanted to kill her."

Drew massaged the tight muscles in Sean’s neck as she spoke. "You did the right thing in recognizing your anger, in refusing to fight. I’m sorry about Susan. I’m sorry for Ellen."

Sean began to relax as Drew’s words reached her. She was so frightened for Susan, and so exhausted. Without thinking, she tightened her arms around Drew’s waist, drawing solace from her nearness. Slowly she became aware of Drew’s fingers in her hair, of Drew’s chest and thighs pressed against her own. She slid her hands higher on Drew’s back, following the urgent demands of her body. She felt the heat of Drew’s body against her face and the slight tremor in the arm that encircled her.

Instinctively she tilted her head up, eyes searching for Drew’s. The blue eyes that met hers were unguarded, and what she saw in them brought a soft moan to her lips. There was wanting there—and need.

Their eyes locked and held as Drew lowered her head slowly. Sean moaned again as their lips touched.

And then there was only sensation—heat, liquid softness, muscles straining to fuse, hands grasping. Two forms melding, legs opening, intertwining. When Drew’s hand dropped to her buttocks and pulled Sean roughly against her thigh, Sean stumbled on weak knees.

She clutched at the strong shoulders and pulled her mouth away from the fierce kiss. "I’ll fall," she gasped.

Drew groaned deep in her chest, burying her face in Sean’s neck. She held Sean, her breath torn from her, shaking. Sean clung to her, every cell on fire.

"I’m sorry," Drew mumbled, her face still hidden, "I’m sorry."

"Don’t you dare be sorry," Sean warned, gasping, "don’t you dare!"

Finally Drew stepped away, her hands at her sides.

"Sean, I—"

Sean stilled her words with gentle fingers to her lips.

"Please, please don’t apologize," Sean said softly. "It was too wonderful to spoil."

Drew stared at her, a million conflicting emotions boiling within her. She wanted to run, she wanted to take Sean in her arms, she wanted time to stop so she would never see another thing except the flush on Sean’s face and the desire in her eyes. All she could do was stand mute as Sean gathered her things and quietly left the room.

CHAPTER SEVEN

It was midnight and Sean was frantic. Susan’s car was gone, and Sean was terrified she had gone out drinking. She had been drinking steadily for three weeks, despite Sean’s efforts to keep alcohol out of the house. At least until now she hadn’t drunk while driving. At the sound of the front door closing she leapt to her feet.

"Susan?"

"Yeah, it’s me." Susan made her way tiredly into the library and slumped onto the couch. Sean reached for her hand.

"Where have you been?"

"I went to a meeting."

"Thank god," Sean sighed in relief. "How was it?"

"Pretty awful. I just loved standing up and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Susan; I’m an alcoholic and I’ve been sober six hours.’"

"Six hours, six minutes—you’re sober! Oh, Susan, I’m so glad."

Susan turned to her, tears in her eyes.

"What am I going to do, Sean? I miss her so damn much. I don’t think I can stand the pain sober!"

Sean pulled her close. "Talk about it, Suse—talk about it. Let me carry some of the pain for you. I love you, Susan—let me help you."

Susan cried and Sean cried with her.

"What should I do, Sean," Susan asked at last. "How can I get her back?"

"Do you want her back?"

"God, yes. I can’t imagine my life without her. I miss her laughter, I miss her crazy humor, I miss how safe she made me feel—everything aches for her! Can you understand wanting someone that much?"

"Yes," said Sean softly, "I can."

"I don’t know where to start."

"You’ll have to start with yourself, Susan. You need to ask yourself how much you’re willing to give—not give up—but give, for what you want. When you know, tell her. If it’s what she needs too, you’ll have a place to start."

Susan looked down at her hands. "What if she doesn’t want me anymore?" she asked in a small voice.

"She does, Susan. She does."

~

"Good evening, Master Cho, good evening Master Clark, Sabum Roma," Sean said as she entered the dojang. As usual, she was the first student there. Each of the black belts returned her bow, but Drew’s eyes lingered on her as the others turned away. Sean met her gaze and held it, searching for a flicker of welcome. As was happening more often in the last few weeks, it was there. A softening of her features, the hint of a smile, a heaviness to her hooded stare—Drew might seek to hide it, but Sean felt it like a caress. And she knew that Drew remembered.

"Class will be only one hour tonight," Master Cho announced. "We will have a black belt workout for an hour after the regular class. Sean, you will join us, yes?"

"Yes, thank you, ma’am," Sean replied eagerly.

After the other students were dismissed, Sean, Drew and Chris lined up for forms. These were a series of choreographed movements designed to simulate defensive and offensive movements against imaginary attackers. As one progressed in rank, the forms became more complex. When Sean completed all the forms she had been taught, she stood at attention while Sabum Roma and Master Clark completed theirs. Sean watched Drew avidly, taking pleasure not only in the beauty of the forms, but in the beauty of the performer.

Janet Cho watched Sean watching Drew, as she had done for many weeks, seeing the attraction grow. She was surprised by Sean’s patience—it was an unusual trait in Americans. There were instances of unmistakable desire that she was sure would have embarrassed Sean had she known they were visible to others, but just as often the look was one of simple, pure pleasure, as if Drew’s presence alone were enough to satisfy her. Such unselfish appreciation was a rare form of love. She hoped that Drew would find her way to accepting it.

Sean stood to one side of the room as Sabum Roma and Master Clark prepared to spar. Drew was the more experienced sparrer, but Chris Roma was agile and spirited. She managed several hits before Drew backed her into a corner and proceeded to pummel her with rapid hand flurries. At last, Drew spun three hundred and sixty degrees and launched a spinning back-kick at Chris’s head. Chris missed the block. At barely an inch from Chris’s temple, Drew stopped the kick that could easily have killed her.

"You can’t stop that kick with an arm block, Sabum Roma. Not without a broken arm and a good deal of damage to your head. If you’re trapped in close like that, the best you can do is drop to the ground and attempt a knee or groin strike."

Chris Roma bowed deeply. "Thank you, Master Clark."

"Sean," Master Cho called, "now you will spar Master Clark."

"Yes, ma’am."

"And, Sean—"

"Yes, ma’am?"

"Guard your face."

Sean almost smiled. "Yes, ma’am."

When she faced Drew, Sean’s eyes were shining with anticipation. When she raised her eyes after their bow, the calm focus was once again apparent. Drew’s face, as always, was expressionless.

"Begin!"

Immediately Sean dropped to the floor, swinging one leg around to catch Drew behind the knee. Drew went down, tucking one leg under her into a back roll and came up again smoothly. As Sean followed her, preparing to jab, Drew snapped a front kick that Sean only partially blocked. It landed with enough force to rock her backwards, and that was the opening Drew needed. Again came the rapid hand flurry, the overpowering forward momentum of a ferocious fighter, and Sean did the only thing she could do. She retreated until her back was to the wall. And then she blocked one blow after another until she realized she couldn’t win. She would block until she couldn’t raise her arms again, and then she would lose. On the street, she would die. With a tremendous effort, Sean began to punch back until she cleared enough space to get a leg up. And then she kicked at the only target she could reach—she lashed out with an angle kick that skirted under Drew’s guard hand and caught her just under the ribs. She knew better than to kick full power while sparring, but it landed with enough force to cause Drew to grunt and back up another step. Sean slipped out of the corner and back to the center of the room where she could maneuver.

"Halt!" Master Cho called.

Immediately, Drew and Sean stopped and faced each other.

"Bow to your partner!"

They did so, and as they raised their heads, they were both laughing.

"Good work, Sean," Drew exclaimed, rubbing her ribs.

"Thank you, ma’am."

Master Cho couldn’t decide whether to admonish them for their laughter or to overlook it. They had both fought well, and the genuine pleasure on Drew’s face was perhaps reason enough to allow a little lapse in discipline.

After Master Cho formally dismissed them, she said, "We will go out for dinner now, yes?"

Sean wasn’t sure the invitation included her, so she remained silent. Drew was silent as well.

"All of us, yes?"

They took one car to avoid parking problems and drove to a small women-owned restaurant not far from the dojang.

"You did well tonight," Drew said to Sean as they rode in the back seat.

"Thank you, ma’am."

"Where did you learn that leg sweep?"

"I’ve been watching you."

"Have you now?" Drew said softly.

Sean looked at her and nodded. "Yes."

The meal was pleasantly relaxed. Master Cho spoke of her training as a child, and what it had been like for her as a woman in the martial arts. Sean was captivated, and it was only Drew’s presence across the table from her that distracted her from her teacher’s stories. Whenever she would glance at Drew, her blue eyes were upon her. And she was certain she recognized what she saw in them. She only wished she knew what to do about it. She couldn’t forget the way she had felt with Drew’s arms around her, with her hands upon her, with her mouth claiming her—she had lain down to sleep with her body on fire too many nights to forget any of it.

"What? I’m sorry," she said.

"I said, would you like to walk back? It’s really not that far," Drew said from across the table.

"Yes," Sean said, "yes."

They bid goodnight to Janet and Chris in front of the restaurant and began walking.

"How’s Susan doing?" Drew asked.

"She’s hurting, but she’s better. She’s been sober for six weeks."

"You okay?"

Sean sighed. "When she hurts, I hurt. But I think she’ll be okay. I’m not so sure about her and Ellen, though. I think Ellen is still seeing Gail."

"That’s tough. I’m sorry."

Sean smiled. "Thanks. You helped, you know."

Drew looked uncomfortable. "I don’t know what to say about that night—"

"Well, I do," Sean said in frustration. "You held me, you comforted me—and then you kissed me. And I don’t know any other way to say this, but I want to kiss you again."

Drew stopped in her tracks and stared at Sean. She refused to allow her head to rule her now. "What I want to do, I can’t do here," Drew whispered hoarsely. "My apartment—it’s not far. Will you come?"

"Oh yes," Sean said.

~

Sean ran her fingers over Drew’s chest and rested her hand upon her breast. She turned her cheek where it rested on Drew’s shoulder and pressed her lips to the soft skin.

"I knew you would be like this," Sean murmured.

Drew shifted and slipped one thigh between Sean’s legs.

"How?" she asked as her hands began to stroke Sean’s back and buttocks.

"Fierce," Sean said with a gasp, turning so her breasts were against Drew’s, "gentle—oh god." She lost her voice as Drew pulled her harder against her thigh.

"I want you so much," Drew cried into Sean’s hair, "so much!"

"Oh, Drew—" Sean moaned, pulling Drew over onto her. "Please, please, now."

At first the strokes were so tender it was like a whisper against her. Her hips arched, seeking more, her breath rasped in her chest. When she thought she would scream with need, she felt her inside—strong, demanding, filling her. Her hands clutched the strong shoulders above her, her teeth sank into the tender flesh of Drew’s arm. As the rhythm increased, a cry tore from her.

"Don’t stop, please don’t stop. Oh god, Drew—"

Drew dropped her head to Sean’s neck, whispering, "I’ve got you, Sean—come to me."

Sean sobbed out her pleasure, dimly aware that Drew was groaning as she thrust against her.

Finally, they both lay spent and gasping. Drew moved her fingers gently, starting to withdraw.

"Don’t," Sean gasped, covering Drew’s hand with her own. "If you leave me now, I won’t be able to bear it."

Drew began thrusting slowly. Her voice was close to Sean’s ear, teasing, "Can you bear it if I stay?"

Sean turned her head, capturing Drew’s lips, her tongue seeking. When she pulled her head back, they were both gasping. "Just take me, Drew. Take me!"

"I will," Drew groaned, fighting back her own desire. "I will."

~

Drew awoke, sweat-covered, crying out in the aftermath of the nightmare.

"Oh god," she gasped, shaking her head frantically to dispel the image.

"What is it?" Sean asked, sitting up amidst the tangled sheets, one hand stroking the wet and trembling back.

"Just a bad dream," Drew muttered through clenched teeth. "I’m sorry."

"Don’t be," came the soothing voice. "Can you tell me?"

"No."

Sean kept silent, continuing her gentle strokes until the tight muscles under her fingers began to relax. Finally, Drew lay back down beside her, reaching for her hand.

"It’s almost morning," Drew said.

"I know." Sean laced her fingers through Drew’s and raised the other woman’s hand to her lips. Her skin was soft, slightly salty. Sean loved the taste of her. Following her instincts, she moved to kiss the swell of breast, lingering over the sensitive pinnacle. She was rewarded with a gasp from Drew as she nipped gently, then continued her exploration over the sweep of abdomen to the hollow above her thighs. She kicked the covers away as she settled herself between Drew’s legs, her fingers massaging the firmly muscled thighs. She pressed upward, seeking, searching, unconsciously following the subtle rise of Drew’s hips that led her inward, deeper. Her first taste of another woman was indescribable—intoxicating, addicting—so rich, primordially female. Drew tangled her fingers in Sean’s hair and pulled her closer, guiding her with her hands, urging her to feast. And feast she did—joyously, powerfully, humbly—awed by the ability to give such pleasure. She gripped Drew’s hips, preventing her from pulling away at the crest of her orgasm, wanting the connection to last eternally. When finally Drew forced her mouth away, gasping, "I can’t take anymore," Sean felt bereft—severed too quickly from the heart of ecstasy.

Sean rested her cheek against Drew’s leg. She felt incredible—she had never imagined such beauty, such exquisite, tender power. To give such pleasure at once thrilled and amazed her. She felt utterly satisfied, wordlessly full.

"Come here," Drew whispered, drawing her up beside her. She pressed a kiss to Sean’s forehead, enfolding her in her arms.

Sean settled into the curves and planes of Drew’s body, one hand reaching to stroke her face.

"Are you all right?" Drew asked.

Sean laughed. "All right? I am so completely all right, I may never stop smiling. I have never experienced anything like that in my life."

Drew turned her head in surprise. "Never? I thought—" her voice trailed off.

"It may run in the family, but I’m a slow starter," Sean admitted. "But, now that I know, you’re in trouble."

Drew laughed shakily. "No regrets?"

"Regrets?" Sean said, suddenly serious. She leaned up on one arm to face Drew. "You are beautiful, and making love with you has easily been the most beautiful experience of my life. My only regret is that I didn’t meet you fifteen years ago."

"Fifteen years ago," Drew murmured, her eyes distant. "No, it would have been too soon."

"Probably," Sean answered. "Maybe now is exactly the right time."

"Maybe," Drew said quietly.

"Oh god," Sean uttered, "I never even thought—are you involved? I never asked—"

"No," Drew said abruptly, "that’s not what I meant."

"Then what?"

"Nothing."

Sean knew there was something, and she had an intuition that that something was the source of Drew’s nightmare, and the pain Drew tried to hide. She didn’t probe, hoping there would be a time when Drew would trust her enough to share that pain with her.

~

It was five A.M. when Sean entered the still house. Susan was asleep on the library couch. Sean attempted to cross to the stairs without awakening her, but a sleepy voice called to her.

"Can you still walk?"

Sean laughed, flopping into the chair before the fireplace.

"Barely."

"Did you spend the night doing what I think you’ve been doing?"

Sean blushed. "If you mean did I spend the night making mad, passionate love with an incredibly beautiful woman—the answer is ‘Yes.’"

"Drew?"

"Uh-huh."

"Wow—holy shit—oh my god—my sister—my sister has come out!"

"Come out is not the word for it—reborn? Yes, that might begin to describe it. How in god’s name has the world managed to keep this a secret? Why isn’t every woman a lesbian?"

Susan’s laughter, her first laughter in weeks, rang through the room.

"Oh Sean—you’ve caught it. Lesbian psychosis—in full bloom already!"

"Oh, shut up! So what if all I can think about is getting her into bed again? God—all I have to do is think of her and I’m—"

"Enough! You’ll embarrass me!"

"Why didn’t you tell me?" Sean shrieked.

"What?"

"How incredible it is?"

Susan grew suddenly still. "It is, isn’t it?"

Sean rose to sit beside her.

"Hey—I’m sorry. This isn’t a great time for you, and here I am swooning."

Susan hugged her. "That’s okay. One of us should be getting some," she tried to joke. "So tell me really—what’s going on? Besides the great sex, I mean."

Sean grew quiet. "I’m a little afraid to think about it, Suse. This is all new to me. I’ve been really attracted to her for weeks, and when she invited me to her apartment, all I could think was that I wanted her to touch me. I didn’t think about what it meant. And now all I can think about is touching her again. I think I might have skipped a few steps."

"Like what?"

"Oh, you know—dating, discussing things like monogamy, views on world peace—that kind of thing." Nightmares, secrets, barriers she thought to herself.

"There’s still time for all of that, Sean," Susan said.

"I hope so," Sean murmured.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Sean spent the day in a haze. The only time her mind was clear was the fifty minute intervals she spent with her patients. Between sessions she sat at her desk and aimlessly rearranged the pens and pencils. Every few seconds she would be ambushed by a kaleidoscope of images—Drew’s eyes, her hands, the sounds of passion, the taste of her. And Drew leaning over her the night she was hurt—panicked, terrified—and clearly somewhere else. Her professional instincts told her that whatever Drew was fighting, it was serious. Serious enough to keep them apart, and that was something she passionately did not want.

It was more than just Drew's physical appeal, although, god knew, that attraction was powerful. But she had admired physical beauty in other women before and had never been drawn to them the way she was drawn to Drew. It was the woman herself who captivated her—the contrast of fierce discipline, commitment, and self-control combined with caring and compassion. What moved her the most, she was forced to admit, however, were the glimpses of suffering Drew revealed in her unguarded moments. That’s what made Sean ache to hold her, not with desire, but with love.

She chose the work she did because the pain of others compelled her, touched her deeply, made her ache with emotion more intense than any pleasure. She was drawn to pain because, inevitably, it was pain that bound all creatures in their valiant struggle called life. In our pain we are most human, and often, most alive.

She sighed and pushed back from her desk. She needed to get ready for class.

~

Chris was surprised to find Drew at the door when she answered the bell late in the afternoon.

"Drew!" she cried.

"Hello, Chris. Is Master Cho in?" Drew asked quietly.

"In the garden. Go on back." Chris didn’t attempt to follow. It was clear from the tone of Drew’s voice and the dark look on her face that she was here on a private matter.

Janet looked up from the chair where she sat reading and closed her book gently. She had been expecting Drew’s visit for some time now.

Drew bowed formally. "Forgive me for interrupting—"

"I am glad you came. Sit down, please," she answered, pointing to the chair beside her. She waited patiently while Drew searched for words.

"I’m going away for a while," Drew said at length.

"Ah—where will you go?"

"Virginia, I think. The army has asked me to run an intensive training course for recruits."

"How long?"

Drew shrugged. "Six, eight weeks. Permanently, if I want the job."

Her voice was flat, but the trembling in her hands betrayed her agitation.

"Now tell me why you will go."

Drew thought of the reasons she had been giving herself but could not bring herself to lie to her old friend.

"I’m not ready for a regular life. I thought I was, but since I’ve been back—I’ve—the dreams are back. I thought they were gone—it’s been years. But now it’s worse."

"And you think they will stop if you go away?"

Drew raised her hands in a frustrated gesture. "I don’t know—but I have to do something."

"Perhaps the dreams have come back because this is a safe place to have them—where you have friends, yes?"

Drew forced herself to say the next words. "It’s not just the dreams—" How could she explain that now she dreamed of Sean, terrifying images, all with Sean’s face. "It’s—" she stopped, helpless.

"Ah, yes—I think I see. There is now the situation with Sean."

Drew started, shocked. "You know?"

Janet Cho lifted a shoulder gently. "I know that she looks at you with an open heart, and eyes that hold you. I know that you reach for her and then pull your hand away."

"I slept with her last night," Drew confessed.

"And now, you are afraid?"

"It was the wrong thing to do," Drew said harshly. "I was only thinking of myself. There’s something about her—I felt it right away—when I look at her I feel calm, balanced—safe. And I wanted her. I didn’t know she’d never been with a woman before. It’s not right for her to learn this way—not with me. I should never have involved her."

"There have been others—since Dara?"

"No," Drew said, her voice breaking. "I couldn’t—I didn’t want to."

"Then I think there is something powerful between you and Sean—"

"My need," Drew rasped, "my weakness. I held her and I couldn’t help it." She got up abruptly and began to pace in the small, enclosed space.

"Do you think there is no need in love, Drew? We are human because we need love."

"Not this way," Drew raged. "Not without something to give, strength to answer need."

Janet Cho remained silent. Drew was deaf now, unable to hear beyond her pain, unable to see beyond her self-doubt. Her heart would open, or it would not.

"I will miss you, Drew. Be kind to yourself, forgive yourself."

"Forgive myself? Never."

~

Janet Cho faced her class. As always, the eager faces before her stirred many emotions—love, pride, concern, duty. From a distance, her hand guided them in the physical quest for spiritual growth. By hardening their bodies, they hardened their spirits. By listening to their bodies, they learned to listen to their hearts. There were many paths to personal growth. This was but one, but it was here, under her eyes, they had chosen to face their weaknesses and learn their strengths. They honored her with their trust. She honored their struggles.

"Master Clark will not be with us for some time," she began.

Sean didn’t hear the words that followed. She hadn’t expected this—she had imagined that Drew might not want to see her again. She was too old to believe that every sexual encounter led to a relationship. She had even imagined that Drew might never even give her a reason for not wanting to see her. But she had never imagined that Drew would simply leave, without a word. She thought she could deal with the disappointment if one night were all she had with Drew, although she didn’t quite know how she would stop the wanting. But this—this was more than she could bear. She needed to hear the words, no matter how hard, that she wasn’t wanted, that she wasn’t needed. Maybe the words would be hard to accept, but the silence would destroy her.

She broke from the line and stepped to the side of the room.

"Sean?" Master Cho questioned.

"I’m sorry, ma’am. I need permission to leave."

Master Cho bowed. "You are dismissed."

Sean bowed. "Thank you, ma’am."

She drove hurriedly to Drew’s apartment, no clear plan in her mind. She drove instinctively, answering only to her need to know what was happening.

She held her breath until she heard the lock click on the door. And then Drew was there.

"Sean," Drew murmured.

"I’m sorry. I had to see you."

Drew looked uncertain for a moment, then stepped back from the door.

"Come in. There’s coffee—"

"No, thanks."

They faced each other awkwardly, until Drew finally motioned to the small couch pushed beneath the open window.

"Sit down, please."

"Master Cho said you were leaving."

"Yes."

"Is it permanent?"

Drew stared at her hands, which were clenched in her lap.

"I don’t know. Yes—probably."

Sean took a deep breath. She could leave now and imagine her own reasons. Try to forget, try to stop thinking of the way Drew had touched her—on her body, in her heart. Or, she could have the truth. She wasn’t sure which would be the harder.

"You don’t have to tell me—you don’t owe me an explanation, but you mean something to me—no—I’m in love with you. I’m not going to have any place to put those feelings unless I know why you’re leaving. Is it me?"

"No," Drew murmured, "it’s me. I wasn’t thinking very clearly last night. I didn’t think about what it all meant to you—"

Sean interrupted gently, "I’m thirty-five years old, Drew. It took me ten years of a bad marriage and five years of celibacy to realize I wanted to love a woman. It took you to make me realize that. I am responsible for being here last night—because I wanted you. I will not accept, however noble, your bearing all the responsibility for last night. Please!"

Drew smiled, a small bitter smile. "You waited all that time for the wrong woman, Sean. I’m sorry."

Sean expected it to hurt, she just hadn’t expected how much. Not until that moment had she realized just how deeply Drew had affected her. How was she going to get over her? She turned her face away to hide the tears.

"I’ll go," she said softly.

"Sean—I’m sorry."

Sean nodded. She did not look back as she headed for the door.

"Be well, Drew," she whispered as she closed the door behind her.

Drew dropped her head back on the couch, willing the sound of Sean’s voice from her mind. She knew it would take much longer to will her from her heart.

~

"Sean!" Susan called, rapping at her door, "Sean, let me in."

"It’s open," came the muffled reply.

Susan crossed to the bed where Sean lay face down with her arms under her head.

"Are you crying? What’s wrong? You’ve been up here for hours."

"Oh, Suse," Sean cried, "I’ve gotten myself into a mess."

"What? What?"

"I’ve fallen in love with someone who doesn’t care about me. If that isn’t bad enough, she’s leaving the city."

"Oh, hell!" Susan picked at the bedspread. "Sean, honey? Are you sure you’re in love? I mean, you know—"

Sean rolled over to stare at her sister. "It hurts, Suse—that I can’t see her, that I can’t touch her. I close my eyes, and I see her everywhere! I’m lying here and my body aches for her."

"Oh," Susan said, "I’m sorry, Sean, really."

Sean grasped her hand. "I know you are."

"What can I do?"

"You’re doing it. You’re here, you’re listening. You’re not telling me to get over it."

"Ha!" Susan said without humor, "I’m the last one to tell you to get over her. We don’t seem to love that way."

"How in hell have you been managing?" Sean asked bitterly. "I don’t think I can stand it."

"Just keep doing what has to be done, Sean. Go to work, go to class—"

"Oh god—I don’t think I can. When I walk in there and she’s not there, I think I’ll fall apart." She began crying again, despite her efforts to stop.

"You have to, Sean," Susan whispered, lying down beside her and pulling her close. "You have to."

CHAPTER NINE

One night, ten days after returning to the army base training camp in Virginia, Drew found herself standing outside a bar she hadn’t entered for eight years. Eight years since she stepped out this door into a night that would change the course of her life. Eight empty tormented years.

Of course, none of the old faces remained. Life on and around an army base was transient—so many people just passing through. Drew had actually been one of the more permanent residents of the town that existed only because of the nearby base. The bar had been a gathering place for women who couldn’t be too careful about exposing their sexual preferences within the claustrophobic living quarters of Fort McGee.

She didn’t recognize the bartender, or the woman seated by the door checking I.D.’s. The decor wasn’t much different—the place still looked a little dingy. Still, it was filled with laughing women, relaxing after a week of work. In the case of the army recruits, it might have been their first time off base in weeks.

After ten days of staring at the walls of the small room that the army had provided for her, she had to get out. She didn’t know where else to go. This bar was the only haven she knew.

She took a seat at the long, well-worn bar and ordered a beer. She raised the mug slowly, glancing sideways up and down the bar. It was strange being here—she had expected more of a reaction. She had replayed the events of that night so many times—from here in this bar to the street where it had ended—that she expected the room to be filled with ghosts. But, it seemed that her memories held those events with perfect clarity, while the years had tarnished the reality. There were no condemning voices, no demands for retribution, no restless souls here—other than her own.

Sighing, she drained the glass and signaled for another. Her heart jumped when her eyes met a pair of deep green ones staring at her in the mirror over the bar. The dark, ruffled hair and willowy figure reminded her of Sean, but it was the eyes that always captured her. She lowered her gaze, feeling the disappointment like a knife in her depths. It wasn’t Sean, it wasn’t going to be Sean—not now, not ever. She had given in, just that once, to her need to touch those black curls, to hold the slender figure, to kiss the full generous mouth. And she had wanted her from that moment—seeing her night after night at the dojang, watching her move in that fluid, graceful cadence of the dancers, accepting the soothing comfort of her smile, her presence. She refused to listen to the warning sounds in her head, surrendering, irrevocably, to her desires. And now she was haunted—haunted by the vision of Sean, head tipped back, eyes half-closed, accepting her kiss, accepting her hands, rising to her touch as she entered her. The image of Sean as they had loved haunted her days, but it was the image of Sean lying bruised and bloodied that tormented her nights.

The nightmares continued, unabated. The pleasures Sean had brought her would have been worth the price of the night terrors if she hadn’t believed that Sean deserved better than her. She had failed, once before, with a woman she had loved—at a price too high to bear. She would not fail another.

"That glass has been empty quite a while—can I buy you another?"

The green-eyed soldier slipped onto the stool beside her, signaling the bartender for another round.

"Thanks," Drew said. Her voice was harder than Sean’s, without the mellow timbre that Drew found so soothing.

"I saw one of your training sessions out at the base. The hand-to-hand knife defense. It was impressive," her companion continued. "I’m a drill instructor—Mary Burger."

Drew shook the extended hand, liking the firmness of her grasp. "Drew Clark," she added.

"I heard you had left last spring. I was surprised to see you back this fall. Couldn’t stand civilian life?"

Drew fingered the handle of her mug, tracing the contour with one long finger. "Guess not—here I am."

Mary stood, placing a hand on Drew’s arm. "Come on, let’s dance."

Drew felt too weary to protest and allowed herself to be led to the floor.

The night she had spent with Sean had thrown the world into turmoil. She had kept her feelings carefully contained, in some manageable corner of her mind, so that she might continue to function—and suddenly there had been Sean. She ripped the barriers from her heart, and the restraints from her body, leaving her a victim of her own needs, desires and fears. She had run, only to find herself face to face with her demons, back in full force. Not only didn’t she have the comfort and tender joy of Sean’s presence, the wounds of her past now were bleeding as well.

Mary stepped into her arms, fitting herself with practiced ease against Drew’s tall form, and wrapped her arms around Drew’s waist. The heat of her hand barely registered in Drew’s consciousness. She was remembering another woman in her arms, the pressure of her breasts and thighs stirring a fire she had long thought extinguished. She danced with the memory, Sean’s face fluttering in her mind.

When they moved into another song, Mary tilted her head back and studied the handsome face before her. "How come I get the feeling it’s not me you’re dancing with?" she asked quietly.

Drew blushed and unconsciously stepped back an inch, putting distance between their bodies. "I’m sorry," she murmured, "I’m a little tired I guess."

Mary nodded sagely. "Uh-huh—and I’m a major general. It’s okay—I admit I was hoping for more than a dance, but—"

Drew shook her head, smiling sadly.

"Does she know how lucky she is?" Mary asked.

"Not so lucky," Drew said softly.

Ellen unlocked the door to the office she shared with Sean and was startled to find Sean seated at the desk in the small room they used for the business aspects of their practice. She had not seen Sean for several days, and she was taken aback by the fatigue etched in her face.

"What are you doing here so late?" Ellen asked, dumping the files she was carrying onto the end table.

"Catching up," Sean replied tiredly.

"Me, too. I’m weeks behind in my insurance forms."

Sean nodded, pulling another file toward her.

Ellen stretched out in the one overstuffed chair in the room and propped her feet on the waste basket.

"What’s wrong, Sean?" she asked at length.

Sean glanced up, her eyes brimming with tears. "It shows, huh?"

Ellen nodded. She never quite got used to looking at the woman who was the reflection of her lover—ex-lover she reminded herself. The same fine features, the same ocean deep eyes. But, where Sean was cool and calm like the desert at night, Susan was fire and wind, burning up the landscape with her energy. Ellen loved them both for their generous and loving natures, but it was Susan who had stirred her passions. She had often wondered if anyone could stir Sean’s passions. Not that she doubted Sean cared deeply for people, but the core of her remained aloof, observing the passions of others, but never giving freedom to her own. She imagined it would have been terribly lonely had Sean been aware of her isolation; but, until now, there had never been any sign that she was unhappy.

"You look really sad."

"Sad?" Sean echoed. Was that what this was—this empty, aching desolation? This feeling of being severed from all the joy and laughter in the world?

From the peace of her own heart?

"I’m not sad, Ellen—I’m completely lost."

The flat acceptance in her voice unnerved Ellen. She had heard the tone before, and knew it went hand in hand with deep pain.

"What’s happened?" she asked gently.

Sean stared at her wondering where to begin. She pushed her chair away from the desk and stared down at her lap. The tears that fell felt like old friends.

"I met a woman, Ellen. I fell in love with her. Then she left."

"Drew?"

Sean nodded, raising one trembling hand to wipe the moisture from her face.

Sighing, she tried a tremulous smile. "I never would have believed this could happen to me. I was so sure that that kind of passion just wasn’t for me. Love, I thought, would be a quiet friendship, a comforting companionship. I never dreamed it would consume me the way this has—devouring me from the inside out. I can’t believe she’s gone—and that she’s taken every shred of my composed, orderly life with her. Every cell in my body misses her."

"Why did she leave?"

"I wish I knew—god, how I wish I knew. There’s something—something that she’s hiding, something that keeps her away from everyone, even when she’s sleeping. We made love—we were closer than I imagined possible, and then, within hours, she was gone."

Ellen wasn’t that surprised. She’d noticed how Drew seemed always at the edges of the life around her—holding herself apart. She was amazed that she had allowed Sean to penetrate those defenses even for one night.

"She might come back?"

"I don’t know. And, if she does? What then?" Sean said despondently. "She made it pretty clear that she doesn’t want me in her life."

Ellen chose her words carefully, not wishing any further pain for her friend. "Do you want to be in her life?"

Sean looked surprised, and alive for the first time that evening. "Yes," she said emphatically. "Yes, I want us in each other’s lives. She awakened something in me that no one, no one, has ever even come close to. She did it with her spirit, with the strength of her wanting, and caring, and with her need. I’m thirty-five years old and I felt like I took my first full breath the night she touched me."

Ellen believed her. She knew it would take a powerful combination of strength and vulnerability to reach into Sean’s heart, and Drew Clark seemed nothing if not those things.

"I hope she comes back, Sean. I really do."

"God, so do I," Sean whispered.

CHAPTER TEN

It took five weeks for Sean to return to the dojang. It was more than just the knowledge that she would miss Drew so much more there. She couldn’t find her own inner balance, the composure she needed to focus. Her heart was too weary to face the challenges. She just couldn’t.

Finally, she had cried herself out. She began to reassemble the order of her days, and, although her soul ached, her strong will reasserted itself.

When she stood at the door and bowed to Master Cho and Sabum Roma, some part of her came home.

"Good evening, Master Cho, Sabum Roma," she said softly.

Janet Cho smiled. "Ah, Sean is back, yes?"

Sean smiled too. "Yes, ma’am."

Her teacher watched her carefully that night, looking for the signs of Sean’s heart. What she saw was a new depth of communion between body and spirit—Sean had looked inside herself and found greater self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

Janet thought of another woman who fought fiercely. A skillful fighter, selfless and brave. Her friend had a warrior’s soul, and Master Cho would trust her with her life, but her friend lacked the inner harmony that might save her own life if tested. Because Drew Clark did not recognize that her greatest enemy lay within her own heart. It had been said that the greatest warriors did not fear death, and thus never hesitated in battle. Master Cho feared that for Drew, death might be all too welcome a foe.

"Sean, you will spar with Gail."

Sean nodded, pulling on her head gear. She tapped her leather gloves gently to settle them and faced her partner.

"Black belt rules—Bow. Begin!"

Sean fought with control and precision, using her long legs and quick hands to advantage. Again and again she slipped a hand past Gail’s guard to make light contact with Gail's chest or ribs. Sean took care with her punches, keeping the contact tolerable; but she took each opportunity to score.

Gail responded by raising her own level of fighting, extending herself with double kicks powered by her strong legs, blocking crisply and following with combination punches that scored on Sean's torso and head.

When Master Cho called time, both women were exhausted.

"Now," Master Cho stated triumphantly, "you fight as you would need to fight on the streets—with your mind and your body as one. Remember this fight—remember the stillness of your thoughts, the calmness of your body. This is what you must have to win."

Sean and Gail bowed to one another, knowing they had fought each other as well as their own demons, and each had emerged a victor.

"Thank you, Sean," Gail said.

"Thank you, Gail", Sean answered quietly.

~

The lights in the office were burning when Sean pulled into the carport. Ellen was working late again. She had been there well into the evening every night for weeks. On impulse, Sean took the stone path down to the office.

"Hey," she said as she let herself into the small room. It was stuffy despite the cool autumn nights.

Ellen looked up from her reading. "Hi, Sean. So you made it back to class."

Sean nodded, settling one hip on the corner of the crowded desk. "It was time to go back. It helped a lot."

"I’m glad," Ellen said sincerely. She started to say more, then stopped herself. She and Sean, by unspoken agreement, had not discussed Ellen’s personal life after that one morning three months ago.

"What?" Sean probed.

"I was wondering how Susan’s doing," Ellen said softly.

Sean blew out a long breath. "She’s in therapy—"

"Susan’s in therapy?" Ellen asked in surprise.

"Twice a week for the last two months."

"My god, I can’t believe it!"

"Losing you really shook her, Ellen. This may be the only good thing to come out of the whole mess." Sean spoke more harshly than she had intended, but she felt every ounce of her sister’s pain.

"Maybe," Ellen said. She continued softly, "I’m not seeing Gail any longer."

Sean’s surprise was evident. "What happened?"

Ellen laughed without smiling. "I discovered that lust wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s hard to live on sex alone. I was lonely."

"Susan is lonely too," Sean said gently.

"It sounds like she’ll be fine," Ellen said sadly.

"Oh, come off it, Ellen!" Sean exploded, shocking Ellen with her intensity. "Susan is miserable! She loves you—she’s never stopped loving you! She’s in therapy, and I’m damn glad she is, because she’s trying to understand how she lost you. But you have some part in this, too. Susan is an open book, for god’s sake. You know how hard it was for her when our parents split up. She was terrified that would happen to you two, so she kept one foot in the only safe place she had."

"Right!" Ellen said heatedly. "Right here with you!"

Sean looked shocked. She bit back a retort, trying to calm down. She forced herself to look at the life she and her twin had made for themselves. From their first breaths they had been together. Even the distance in miles during Sean’s marriage had not severed their deep emotional connection. They could finish each other’s sentences from across the room. And for the last five years, they had built a safe haven for each other—more than a home, an emotional sanctuary as well. Ellen and Susan had only been together a year before Sean had moved home to live with Susan. She wondered now if her returning had made it too easy for Susan to keep Ellen at a distance.

"I never realized—" Sean began.

"I know," Ellen interrupted, "and I was too insecure to make an issue of it. I took the easy way out, too, Sean. I didn’t want to bring up the hard stuff. I just kept hoping it would all work out. So, I settled for less and less until I turned to someone who obviously wanted me." She snorted in self-deprecation. "At least, she wanted my body!"

"Oh, Ellen—you’d think we would have done better, all of us."

"Why?" Ellen said, a touch of her old humor returning. "Because we can help others step back from their lives and find new solutions? You think that makes us experts on our own lives? We all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves."

"You, Susan and I are a family, Ellen," Sean said vehemently. "We need to work this out." She stopped and studied Ellen. "That is, if you still love her."

"I do, Sean. With all of me. But how can I expect her to forgive me for what I’ve put her through—and what about trust? I’ve ruined it all, haven’t I?" she said despairingly.

"You can’t ruin love, Ellen. You can test it and try it, and you can hurt those who love you—just as they can hurt you. But you can’t ruin it. Stop tormenting yourself."

"What do you think I should do?"

Sean laughed. "There’s this antiquated thing we therapists call ‘talking!’ Maybe you and Susan should try it."

"What a novel idea," Ellen rejoined, feeling hopeful for the first time in months.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Sean was later than usual getting to class because she had spent an hour on the phone with a patient in crisis. By the time she was satisfied that the woman could wait until the morning to see her, she had barely enough time to gather her gear and navigate the rush hour traffic into the city.

As she tied her uniform and dug in her bag for her belt, Master Cho approached saying, "You will teach class tonight, Sean."

Sean knew that Master Cho expected her to teach as a requirement for her black belt, but she had hoped for more time to prepare! She looked up, startled, then answered smartly, "Yes, ma’am!"

"Good, good. Ah, I see we are all here. You can bow the class in whenever you are ready."

Sean followed her teacher’s gaze, and the breath stopped in her chest. Drew Clark stood at the door. Sean could only stare, unwilling to believe her eyes.

"There is a black belt waiting, Sean," Master Cho chided gently.

Somehow, Sean found her voice. "Face the door!"

Immediately, the entire class turned as one to face Drew.

"Chariot!" The snap of hands to sides was like thunder in her ears.

"Kung ye!"

She bowed as did everyone in the class, but her eyes never left Drew’s face. Drew returned the bow, her eyes on Sean.

On wooden legs Sean moved to the front of the room. Master Cho stood to her left, Master Clark stood to her right, with Sabum Roma on her far side. Sean was acutely aware of the tall, militarily erect form beside her. The air seemed charged, electrified.

"Line up," she called, and the class fell in to formation behind them. The black belts and Sean turned to face the golden tiger emblem on the front wall.

The senior students began the litany Sean had repeated countless times.

"Tenets of Tae Kwon Do—"

"Integrity."

"Perseverance."

Sean knew she was repeating each word, but she couldn’t hear her own voice over the blood rushing in her head. When at last the bowing-in ceremony was over, Master Cho took her seat at the front corner of the room, her favorite spot to watch each student.

Chris Roma and Drew Clark joined the class at the head of the first row of students.

Sean’s mind was completely blank. She put her hands behind her back to hide the trembling. She called the class to attention and twelve bodies moved, fists outstretched, legs spread, eyes on her. All she could see was Drew, as she had remembered her as she lay struggling for sleep, so many lonely nights. Blond hair silvered with grey, piercing blue eyes, tense, waiting, controlled body. Exquisite in her power.

The passing seconds seemed to Sean like hours, and then Drew nodded imperceptibly, her face softening for a brief instant. Sean found her voice.

"Left front stance," she called.

As the class stepped sharply, breath exploding from them, Sean caught the spirit of the women before her. Women willing to do more than they ever dreamed physically possible, willing to return night after night, bruised, aching, tired, to begin again, pushing themselves a little further along their own paths, for their own private reasons. They were united in their willingness to pay with their sweat and their humility for the chance to do battle with life on their own terms.

Sean asked them to display their skills to their teacher, unconsciously guiding them from one technique to the next in a choreographed pattern of flashing hands and arching legs.

Thirty minutes later, when she called a halt, their bodies were soaked with sweat, their chests heaving. But they looked at her with faces filled with pride. They knew they had done well. She bowed to them, a symbol of her deep respect for their effort. Then she turned to Master Cho and bowed to her. Janet Cho stood and returned her bow.

"Well done, Sean," she said simply.

"Line up for forms," their teacher said. "Master Clark, you have Sean, please."

Drew bowed. "Yes, Master Cho."

She and Sean moved to the front corner of the room.

"Your highest form, please, Sean," came the rich voice Sean remembered.

"Yes, ma’am," she replied with effort.

Sean faced Drew, searching desperately for composure. She steepled her hands in front of her face and took a deep breath. She willed herself to listen to her breath flowing easily, unbroken, from deep in her body, and slowly, her mind and body fused.

Drew watched the transformation with the same amazement she had felt the first night she saw Sean, six months before. The subtle melding of mind, body and spirit produced a nearly visible aura of calm focus. She had never seen anyone except Janet Cho do that, and Janet Cho was a master. This was a strength, an inner harmony that Sean brought with her to this dojang. She had honed it here perhaps, but it sprang from the essence of her. This was the power that had drawn Drew to her, and the beauty she had missed each day she had been gone.

When she finished, Sean closed her eyes for a moment, then bowed to Drew.

Drew approached slowly, choosing her words carefully. "The spirit of the form is flawless, Sean, and something some of us never master. The timing of your back sidekick, however, needs work. Watch me—You have just blocked a face punch from your first attacker, Sean—here—" she punctuated her words with a knife hand block that could easily break an arm. "But—you hear a sound behind you. There is another man—he has a knife. Now—you pivot, your leg up, your knee high, and as you come around, he is there, but your leg extends fully at the moment you complete your turn. Not after your turn, because by then, he is upon you."

As she spoke, she moved, agile and fluid, coiled like an animal, and then her leg drove outward and upward, easily high enough to crush a man’s skull.

"Do you understand? It is not enough to be able to perform each movement in the form. There must be purpose to the movements—sometimes a deadly purpose. Because the stakes might be your life."

Each word seared Sean’s brain with the passion behind it. She understood in that instant that Drew was completely and totally committed to preventing whatever had happened to her from happening to another woman. And Sean had no doubt that Drew spoke from experience. She had just relived part of it before Sean’s eyes, whether she was aware of it or not.

"I understand, ma’am."

"Do you?" Drew asked quietly.

"Yes," Sean answered firmly.
 
 

Sean gathered her gear hesitantly, not sure what to do. She wanted to speak to Drew, but decorum, as well as personal uncertainty, held her back. Was Drew back to stay? Did she even want to tell Sean?

Finally, yielding to her need, ignoring her qualms, she approached Drew, who had removed her jacket and was folding it neatly in preparation for stowing it away.

"Are you back to stay?" she asked quietly.

Drew did not look up. "Yes."

"I’m glad," she replied. She began to turn away.

Drew straightened suddenly. "Sean—I—" When she met Sean’s eyes, she hesitated. Struggling, she finally said less than she wanted to. "There’s an Aikido demonstration in Bryn Mawr Saturday morning. Would you like to go?"

"Yes," Sean answered immediately.

"I’ll pick you up? It will be easier, driving—?"

"Yes," Sean responded, refusing to think about anything except what her heart demanded.

~

Sean found Susan in the TV room, engrossed in a Batman rerun. She sagged into a chair and opened a coke. By unspoken agreement, they had kept no alcohol in the house for the last three months.

"Good class?" Susan asked, her eyes riveted to the screen.

"Uh-huh," Sean said, curiously unanimated. "Drew’s back."

Susan sat up suddenly. "Did you talk to her?"

"Not much. She asked me to go to a martial arts exhibition this weekend."

"Like a date?" Susan exclaimed.

Sean shrugged. "I have no idea. I’m completely in the dark."

"How do you feel?"

"Numb. I can’t believe she’s here—I’m afraid there won’t be anything between us."

"Are you still in love with her?"

"My heart nearly stopped beating when she walked in the room. I wanted to throw myself at her. Yes, I’m still in love with her."

"Are you sure you should see her? You’ve been hurting so much, Sean."

"I have to know where we stand, Suse. I just can’t go on without knowing."

"I wish I could make everything all right for you, Sean. I can’t stand seeing you so sad."

Sean smiled. "Right back at you, sister."

Susan smiled a small tremulous smile. "Ellen called."

"How was that?" Sean asked carefully.

"I cried when I heard her voice."

"Oh, Suse," Sean cried.

"She wants to talk. I said yes."

"Good," Sean said in relief. "I know she loves you, Suse. Give each other a chance."

"I’m so scared."

Sean hugged her close. "I know, Sweetie, I know," she murmured, thinking they both had good reason to be frightened.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Susan pulled the door open and came face to face with Drew, who was just reaching for the bell. Susan jumped in surprise, giving a little yelp.

"Sorry," Drew said, feeling awkward. She wondered how much Sean had shared with her sister about their brief encounter, and then realized probably all of it. That might account for the hard stare Susan was directing at her now.

Despite their exact physical resemblance, Drew had no difficulty telling Susan and Sean apart, even at a distance. Where Sean radiated stillness and deep quietude, the air around Susan was charged. Right now she looked like a thundercloud.

"I’ve come to pick Sean up. Could you tell her?"

"Why don’t you come in?" Susan said, trying to be gracious.

"Thanks," Drew said. Susan continued to stare at her. Drew accepted the searching gaze, waiting.

"Damn you, Drew," Susan finally whispered. "You hurt her so much."

Drew paled and looked down briefly. When she raised her eyes, Susan saw the pain that was a reflection of the hurt in her sister’s eyes. She was shocked by it. She accepted that whatever had forced Drew away, it hadn’t been a lack of feeling for her sister.

Susan shook her head. "Women are such fools," she muttered, including herself in the statement. She touched Drew’s arm lightly. "She’s in the kitchen. Why don’t you go on back."

Aware of the gesture of truce in Susan’s touch, Drew sighed, "Thanks, Susan."
 
 

Sean heard footsteps approaching and assumed Susan had forgotten something again. She finished pouring her coffee, calling, "What did you lose this time?"

She turned to find Drew leaning against the doorway, watching her. Sean just stared helplessly. Drew looked lean and taut in her tight black jeans and denim shirt. The sight of her alone was enough to bring heat to Sean’s depths, but it was the look of undisguised desire in Drew’s face that threatened to overpower her. She leaned back on trembling knees against the counter.

"I’m not going to be able to stand up if you keep looking at me like that," Sean whispered.

With a groan almost a growl, Drew moved, and Sean was in her arms. Drew’s mouth was on hers, possessing her; Drew’s hands roamed her body, claiming her. Sean cleaved to her, pulling her closer. When Drew at last released her, Sean was gasping. She dropped her head against Drew’s shoulder.

"I couldn’t stay away," Drew rasped, kissing the wisps of dark curls on Sean’s brow. "You were all I could think about—I had to see you again."

Sean heard the desperation in Drew’s voice, and she knew that Drew had not returned without reservations. There was resistance, too, in the arms that held her, and for now, Sean accepted it. Drew was here, it was a start.

Sean tightened her hold, relishing the tight fit of Drew’s thigh between hers, the curve of Drew’s breasts against her, the answering surge of hips. Drew rewarded her with another deep groan, bringing her hands to Sean’s face. Tenderly she cupped Sean’s jaw, turning her face for her kiss.

"How important is this Aikido thing?" Sean murmured, running her hands over Drew’s shoulders toward her breasts.

"Pretty important," Drew muttered, her lips moving downward to claim a nipple through the fabric of Sean’s T-shirt. She bit gently before attempting to continue. "I’m one of the guest demonstrators." She insinuated one hand between their bodies, pressing Sean’s abdomen, moving lower.

Sean grasped the hand that explored her, nearly sobbing. "Stop! Anymore and I won’t be able to stop—please Drew—"

Drew moaned, her face buried in Sean’s hair. "I want you so much," she whispered.

Sean took a deep breath, struggling to clear her head and control her raging senses. "Damn you, Drew! Your timing is terrible!" she laughed shakily.

"I know. I’ll make it up to you," Drew said, meaning more than just this interruption.

Sean shook her head. "Nothing to make up for, Drew. Some things just can’t be helped—so we learn to live with them. We have time."

Drew searched the face softened by passion and felt welcomed. There were promises there, promises she was afraid to hear—or to make. She had been managing moment to moment for so long that the concept of a future was foreign to her. But when she looked at Sean a tiny flicker of hope stirred. With reluctant effort she pulled back from Sean, saying, "We’d better go—I’m not sure how long I can keep from touching you."

Sean took her hand and led them resolutely through the house. She knew if she looked back at Drew they would not leave that day.

~

Sean sat mesmerized on the benches facing the exhibition area, marveling at the fluid grace of the Aikidoka. The circular flowing defensive blocks and large forceful throws reminded her of dance. And watching Drew after the long weeks of absence was intoxicating. She had forgotten how imposing she was, tiger-like in her fierceness and strength, agile and quick in her movements. Sean was a little disappointed when the program ended. She so infrequently had the chance to really watch Drew, and she had been enjoying herself.

Drew folded her hakama, the long black over-trousers that symbolized a high-ranking Aikidoist, and left the mat area to join Sean.

"It was beautiful," Sean pronounced as Drew sat down. "I really enjoyed it."

Drew smiled, "I’m glad." She gazed away for a moment, then questioned hesitantly, "It’s six o’clock. Would you like to have dinner somewhere?"

Sean pressed a little closer to Drew. "I’m not too good at hiding my feelings, Drew. What I want is to be in bed with you. Is that a possibility?"

"Are you sure?"

"It’s the only thing I’m absolutely sure of right now. I’m dying from wanting you."

"Let’s go," Drew growled, grabbing her bag and keys.

Neither said a word on the ride to Sean’s house, but the pounding of their hearts seemed audible.

~

Drew lay still, staring at the shadows flickering on the ceiling. Sean was lying against her, one leg thrown up to cover Drew’s own. A long graceful arm lay curled across Drew’s chest, holding her possessively. Drew tried not to think about what she was doing. When she thought about the rightness of her actions, she feared she was cheating Sean. Her immediate reaction was to flee. When she allowed herself to feel her need for the woman who lay beside her, she panicked. Never had she wanted this to happen—never, never again. And, yet, here she was, because she had let her senses rule her—she ached, and she sought comfort; she desired, and she sought release; she cared, and she sought expression. Was it fair? No. Selfish? Yes. Madness? Most definitely. And yet here she was, and for now, at least, she could not bring herself to leave.

She shifted slowly, not wanting to awaken Sean. Her movement brought a slight protest from Sean, and the arm around her tightened.

"You’re not leaving are you?" came the sleepy voice.

"It’s late," Drew murmured, pressing her lips to Sean’s forehead.

"So? Do you have an appointment?"

"I—" Drew hesitated, reluctant.

"Drew," Sean said quietly, fully awake now. "I want you to stay—I want you to be here in the morning. If you need to leave, it’s okay. I’ll just miss you."

Drew turned so that the length of their bodies touched. "You make things so easy—and so difficult."

Sean insinuated her leg between Drew’s, thrilling to the warmth of her touch. "How so?" Sean asked languidly. She began rocking her hips against Drew’s, sliding her leg back and forth with each stroke.

"Oh," Drew gasped, pulling Sean’s hips more firmly against her. "Because you—" Her voice trailed off as Sean slid a hand between them, reaching for the moisture between Drew’s legs.

"Because what?" Sean murmured, fingers lightly teasing.

"You—oh—"

"What?"

"I—ah, yes—there—"

"I what? Tell me!" Sean insisted, her strokes escalating.

"Can’t—" Drew gasped, "I’m gonna—"

"Oh, are you?" Sean breathed against her lips, her fingers dancing rapidly, "Are you now?"

"Yes!" Drew cried, arching her back, groaning with each pulsation.

Sean held the gasping woman in her arms, smiling with satisfaction.

~

It was just light when Drew slipped out of bed, pulled her clothes on, and made her way down to the kitchen. She found a pot of coffee on the burner and helped herself. She wandered out to the terrace, halting in the open doorway when she saw the figure seated on the low stone wall.

Ellen looked over her shoulder and beckoned to Drew.

"Come on out. I could use some company with my guilt. How about you?"

Drew grimaced. "How did you know?" she asked, joining her atop the wall.

Ellen shrugged. "It’s my job to know these things, remember? We shrinks are, oh, so perceptive."

Drew thought she understood the bitter undertones in Ellen’s voice. She sipped the strong coffee, welcoming the warmth in the chill November air.

"We’ve given them hell, haven’t we?" Ellen remarked.

"Yes," Drew conceded. "How’s Susan?"

Ellen picked at the seam of her jeans aimlessly. "She’s deeply hurt, and frightened, and struggling to make sense of something I should have known better than to do. She’s picking up the pieces after a three-week binge that I’m the cause of. The hardest part of it all is that she’s forgiven me."

"Yes," Drew acknowledged. "That makes you loathe yourself, doesn’t it?"

Ellen nodded. "This is where I’m supposed to say we should forgive ourselves, or love ourselves, or some such palaver. But, frankly, I can’t do it. I’d rather someone take me out and beat me."

Drew laughed. "Maybe we can just sit here and beat each other."

"Okay," Ellen said. "You go first."

Drew was silent for a long moment, and then she asked quietly, "Why’d you do it, Ellen? Susan so obviously worships you."

"Ouch," Ellen said. "You’re good at this." She took a deep breath, searching for honesty. "I was angry with her because she wouldn’t live with me and start a family—and leave Sean. I was jealous, and I felt unappreciated; and I didn’t have the guts to say so. I did it because I’m a coward—I didn’t put up a fight, I just ran to a convenient pair of arms."

Ellen tossed the dregs of her coffee onto the ground. She looked at Drew and began, "Okay—my turn.

"Sean is the kind of woman who holds the deepest part of herself back from everyone—except Susan," Ellen continued. "For her to open herself to you is something close to a miracle. How could you abandon her, leaving her to believe you didn’t care for her? She could bleed to death from a wound like that."

Drew stared at Ellen, absorbing her words the way she would absorb a blow, letting the pain of the truth pierce her. "Point and match to you."

Ellen clearly saw the grief in Drew’s face, heard the sorrow in her voice. She had no doubt that Drew was an expert at swallowing her pain while it destroyed her inside.

"Not good enough, Drew. You have to say why."

"I can’t."

"Try—if not for yourself, then for Sean."

Drew closed her eyes, her hands clenched at her sides. "I need her," she whispered harshly, "and I don’t want to." That was all she could manage.

"There is always need in love, Drew. It’s human to need," Ellen said gently.

"Not like I need her," Drew said. "It feels like she’s my sanity. The world makes sense when I’m with her."

"Ah," Ellen said, "and Susan make me feel more alive than I’ve ever felt without her. So, we need them to make life worth living—so, we’re closet weaklings. Let me share a secret with you, Drew. Loving women like us, with our flaws and our broken places, is what they need. We’re all here to help each other heal."

Tears shimmered on Drew’s golden lashes and finally fell, years in the waiting. Ellen reached for her instinctively, cradling her in the shelter of her arms.

"Oh, Drew," she murmured, "it’s not as selfish as you think. You’ve unlocked Sean’s heart—something no one has ever been able to do. That’s a tremendous gift."

Drew heard the words, not quite ready to believe them. Nevertheless, for the first time in eight years, she allowed someone to comfort her.

Sean stood at the kitchen window, watching Ellen hold the woman she loved as she cried. She couldn’t think of anyone she trusted more to take care of her lover’s tender heart.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Sean was finishing client notes when Ellen ended with her last patient of the day.

"There’s beer in the office fridge," Sean called when she heard Ellen in the small kitchenette that adjoined their offices.

"Thank god," Ellen muttered as she entered carrying two bottles.

"Thanks," Sean said gratefully. She studied Ellen, who sagged into the chair facing the small desk. "How are you doing?"

"Better now that Susan and I are back together. We’ve still got a long way to go, but at least we’re talking about things we should have talked about years ago."

"I’m glad. I’ve missed Susan’s smile. It’s back."

"How about you?"

Sean sighed and ran a hand absently through her hair. "I fluctuate between ecstasy and terror. Drew is here, but not totally. We’ve been spending a lot of time together, and I love it. She’s so strong and serious, and tender, and—"

"Wonderful?" Ellen laughed.

"Yes, wonderful—"

"But?"

"Something is keeping her from really being with me—except when we make love. That’s the only time she really gives herself to me. She lets me touch more than her body, then she lets me touch all of her. Then she’s beautiful, open and accepting of me, and so fragile. Any other time, there’s a wall up—I can’t quite reach her."

Ellen was not surprised. She had seen how deeply Drew buried her pain.

"It’s going to take time, Sean. If anyone has the patience to stick with her, you do."

Sean nodded. "I’m trying. But she’s in so much pain, I can hardly bear it. Every night she sleeps with me she has horrible dreams. She wakes up screaming, soaked with sweat, disoriented for minutes. It tears my heart out."

"Sounds like post-traumatic stress," Ellen thought out loud.

Sean stared at her. "Oh god, you’re right. I’m so frightened by it, I couldn’t even see it."

"Whatever it is, being with you will bring it to the surface. She’s probably going to get worse before she can tell you."

"Oh, Ellen, I hope I’m strong enough to help."

Ellen smiled. "I can’t think of anyone better."

~

"You will stay after class to talk, Drew, yes?" Janet Cho said as she passed Drew, who was jamming her sparring gear into her bag. It was not a question that left room for negotiation.

"Yes, ma’am," Drew said through clenched teeth. She didn’t look at Sean, whom she knew was watching her.

Sean, in turn, carefully folded her belt and uniform, feeling hurt and bewildered. Drew was so clearly angry with her, and she didn’t understand why. In fact, there had been an undercurrent of anger present for weeks. Drew had become short-tempered in class, with everyone, but especially her. She didn’t feel as if she could do anything right.

Tonight it had culminated in Drew stopping a sparring match between Chris and Sean after only a few minutes. Chris was compact and quick, and she had managed to hit Sean twice in the face within the matter of a minute.

Still, Sean had felt she was holding her own when Drew stopped them, criticizing just about everything Sean had done. Sean was unprepared for the intensity of Drew’s anger—it hurt.

She followed the rest of the students to the door, bowed, and left quietly, not caring that she had not said good-bye to Drew. It was the first time in weeks that they hadn’t stopped after class to have a bite to eat, often spending the night together. She didn’t want to see Drew right now, not until her feelings had settled a little.

"Sean has six months before her black belt test, Drew," Janet said as she sat down near Drew.

"This isn’t about a belt," Drew said darkly.

"Then what? You are pushing her very hard. Why? She is a good student, she works hard."

"You saw her with Chris tonight! She’s already had her nose broken, and Chris scores two hits right to her chin!"

"Yes, I saw. So she has more to learn. She will learn it."

"She needs to learn to protect herself!" Drew exclaimed. "Discipline, self-control, self-knowledge, personal growth—that’s all very well, and I support it. But she must learn to protect herself!"

"Why now?"

"What!?"

"Why now, must she learn in a few weeks what you know it takes years to learn? What is the sudden hurry?"

Drew looked exasperated. "You don’t have the luxury of spending a lifetime learning self-defense any longer. Anything could happen—any time!"

Janet Cho nodded. "So now you make Sean miserable because tomorrow someone may hurt her?"

"Yes, if I have to," Drew stated vehemently.

"Maybe if you weren’t in love with her, you would not make her so unhappy."

Drew stepped back as if struck. "What did you say?"

"You love her—you are afraid something will happen to her—you ask more of her than she is capable of right now—you make her unhappy."

Drew’s jaw clenched and she averted her gaze. At length she said, "I only want her to be safe."

"Of course. So do I—Sean and all of them. But now it is so much more important, yes. Because you think you could lose her."

Drew stifled a moan, turning her back to her old friend. The images were there, flicking through her mind—bloody, empty pleading eyes.

"I can’t stand it," she whispered, her voice cracking. "If something happens to her, I just won’t be able to live, Janet. Not again."

The small woman took the trembling hand of her friend and pulled her down to the chair beside her.

"Drew, my friend," Janet said softly, "we cannot live in fear that something tomorrow may hurt us, or someone we love. You will not have time to love her if you worry always that she may go. Love her that much more because she is here today."

Drew bent her head, willing her tears to stop. "I’m trying, Janet. But I am so afraid," she said brokenly.

"It is much that you have let love come to you again. Now be patient with yourself."

~

Sean heard Susan answer the door, and she didn’t look up when she heard footsteps in the hallway outside the library where she sat in semi-darkness. The logs burned low in the fireplace, but she didn’t feel the chill. She stared unblinking at the small flames.

"It could use some more wood," the deep voice that never failed to stir her heart remarked.

She turned, surprised. "Drew!"

Drew shed her jacket and bent to feed the fire several more logs. She turned to kneel by Sean’s chair, taking both Sean’s hands in hers.

"I’m sorry, Sean," she said softly, searching the drawn and unhappy face before her. "I’ve been worried, and I’ve made you pay for it. It was selfish of me and I’m sorry."

"Worried? Worried about what?" Sean asked, always alert to the subtle meanings behind the phrases.

Drew shrugged and looked away. "Since we’ve been seeing each other, I’ve gotten anxious—you know—I don’t want you to get hurt. I’ve been pushing you too hard—really, you’re doing fine."

"Drew," Sean said carefully, "why are you worried that I might get hurt?"

Drew looked away, a muscle in her face twitching. "People do get hurt, Sean," she said in a low voice.

Sean slid her hands around Drew’s shoulders, holding her.

"Does this have something to do with your dreams?" She tightened her hold as she spoke, and, as she expected, Drew flinched and tried to draw away.

"No."

"Drew, look at me!" She waited until the troubled blue eyes met hers. "I love you, Drew. Absolutely—no reservations. Whatever you think you can’t tell me is keeping us apart more certainly than anything you could ever say. Don’t do this to us, Drew. Please!"

Drew dropped her gaze. "There is nothing I can say, Sean."

Sean sighed and pulled her close. She couldn’t stop loving her no matter how deep her secrets lay buried, no matter how much they both must suffer.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Christmas holidays came and went, and Sean was as happy as she had ever been. Susan and Ellen were firmly together again, and it felt like she had her family back. And Drew was there—strong, tender passionate Drew. Still, part of Sean mourned for the silence that remained between them. There were times, more frequently in recent weeks, when Drew seemed to shed the shroud of pain that surrounded her; and Sean caught glimpses of a younger, happier woman, quick to laugh, engaging and enthusiastic. Then a word, or more often the nightmares, would extinguish the light in her eyes, robbing her of her joy. Even in her despair, her love for Sean was obvious—in the way her eyes followed her as she moved about a room, in the way she tilted her head to catch each word from Sean’s lips, in the way she possessed her in the night and gave her body to Sean without reservation. Sean did not press her. She knew it would do no good. But still, her heart ached even in the midst of fulfillment.

That night was the culmination of one of those January days that were common to Philadelphia—the temperature soared to near seventy degrees, and the evening remained mild. With the desire to absorb the last of the premature weather, Sean suggested they walk the few blocks to their favorite restaurant after class. She and Drew both wore only light jackets and jeans as they left the dojang.

"You’ll be ready to test soon, Sean," Drew remarked, taking a deep breath of the barely cool night air.

"I know. I’m nervous."

Drew looked surprised. "Why? You’re doing great."

Sean laughed. "I feel good about my progress—but, it’s such a big step—and you’ll be there when I test."

Drew frowned. "Do I make you nervous?"

"You make me a lot of things, Drew Clark—and nervous is not one of them," she said suggestively. "But I want you to be proud of me."

She looked over at Drew when Drew failed to answer. She found her staring past her, across the nearly empty street. It was an area of storefront businesses interspersed with residential enclaves, and the street was nearly deserted. Three young men were crossing the street towards them.

Swiftly, Drew stepped between Sean and the rapidly approaching youths, pushing Sean roughly behind her. Sean was so startled she didn’t protest.

The group closed about them, and Sean saw for the first time that two of the boys carried baseball bats. The largest of the group swung the bat casually back and forth very close to Drew’s knees. Drew stood silently, but Sean could sense her coiled tension.

"Let’s move into that alley behind you," he said as his two companions stepped closer on each side. "Hurry up, before somebody gets hurt," he snarled.

Drew backed up a step toward the mouth of the narrow dark alley that ran between two brick buildings.

"Stay behind me," she ordered Sean as she took another step back.

One of the boys laughed. "I’ll take the pretty one in the back there. You two can have the bitch in front."

Drew waited for the first one to move, imprinting the positions of the three of them in her mind. When the one in the middle swung the bat at her head, she stepped toward him, chopping at his forearm with the knife edge of her hand. The blow from the bat grazed her shoulder but did no real damage. He dropped it with a howl as the nerve in his arm went dead where she had struck him. She kicked back and to the side as the one on her left rushed her, catching him in the groin. He went down gagging, but the third man managed to crack his bat down on her thigh, pitching her to the ground.

She rolled back into her fall and got to her feet in time to see Sean step forward with a side kick that hit her assailant in the chest. By then, all three of them were on their feet again and slowly circling.

"Damn it, Sean," Drew shouted, "get back!" She was slowed by the hematoma forming in her thigh muscle, but she ignored the pain. She knew, however, she couldn’t continue to fight them one at a time. With superhuman effort, she jumped forward on her injured leg and kicked once, twice—taking two of them down. She swung toward the third and punched, doubling him over. She raised her uninjured knee into his face. He fell heavily to the ground. The other two had dropped away into the shadows. Drew was blind to everything except the rage that poured through her, wrenching an eerie howl from her depths. She knelt beside the coughing figure and pulled his head back by his hair. She raised her hand to deliver the blow she hadn’t been able to deliver eight years ago, the blow that would finally set her free. She gathered her breath to strike.

"Drew!" Sean screamed, grabbing the raised arm with both hands. "Drew, no! You’ll kill him!"

Sean’s voice dimly penetrated her awareness, and she loosened her hold on his hair. He rolled to one side, and suddenly one of the others grabbed him and pulled him away. The three of them stumbled away into the shadows.

Drew’s breath tore from her with a soul-wrenching scream, and she doubled over, her clenched hands to her face. Her body shook uncontrollably as she rocked forward.

"No, no, no—no!" she uttered brokenly.

Sean went to her knees, pulling Drew against her. "Drew, it’s Sean. It’s Sean—we’re all right. It’s over. Drew—Drew!"

Drew collapsed against her, sobbing. Somehow, Sean managed to get her to her feet and out of the alley to the street. There was no sign of their attackers. Mercifully, her car was not far, and she half carried, half dragged Drew to it. She put her in the back seat and covered her as best she could with her jacket.

She thanked god when she slammed to a halt before her home that Susan’s car was in the car port. Leaving the motor running, she raced to the front door, ringing the bell frantically. She was on her way back to the car when the door opened, revealing Susan’s figure outlined in the archway.

"Susan—help me! It’s Drew," she shouted.

For the only time in her life, Susan remained calm in a crisis—probably because it was clear that her sister was nearly hysterical. Together they got Drew inside onto the couch in the library. She was still shaking and her eyes were frighteningly unfocused.

"Help me get her clothes off—her leg is hurt," Sean said, already pulling at her jeans.

"Let me," Susan said, "you’re trembling. Are you hurt?"

"No."

"Go the hall closet—top shelf. There’s a bottle of brandy there," Susan said as she gently tugged Drew’s pant legs down.

"What—how come—"

"Secret stash from my last fall from grace. Go on, Sean!"

Drew protested feebly as Susan lifted her legs to the couch. Her left thigh was swollen to twice its size and beginning to bruise.

"Now get some ice," Susan instructed as Sean handed her a glass of brandy. She looked up at Sean’s pale face and said firmly, "Go on, Sean—I’ll take care of her."

She slipped an arm behind Drew’s shoulder and raised her up. "Drink this, Drew. That’s it—good, a little more now—good."

They wrapped an ice pack around her leg and covered her with several blankets. Sean eased onto the couch and gently settled Drew’s head onto her lap. She tenderly brushed the blond locks back from her forehead.

"Honey?" she asked quietly, "Are you okay?"

Drew turned her face into Sean’s body, murmuring, "I’m so cold, Sean."

Sean rubbed her back through the blankets. She looked to her sister.

"I’m okay, Susan. Go to bed."

"Are you sure?"

"I’ll call you if we need you."

Susan leaned to kiss Sean on the forehead. "I love you, Sean."

Sean gave her a tremulous smile. "Thanks," she whispered. She cradled her lover against her, closing her eyes. Drew’s agonized scream echoed in her mind, and she vowed in the still room that Drew would carry this torment alone no more.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

It was nearly light when Sean stumbled into the kitchen, exhaustion stamped on her features. Ellen and Susan were there, hunched over the worn oak table, a pot of coffee growing cold beside them.

Sean slumped into a chair and accepted the cup Susan placed in her hands.

"When did you get here?" she asked hoarsely of Ellen.

"About two. Susan called. You were both out when I looked in. What in god’s name happened?" Ellen asked worriedly.

"We were attacked. God, it all happened so fast. We were just a few blocks from the school. Suddenly three men—" Sean halted and passed a trembling hand before her eyes. "If I had been alone—"

Susan gripped her hand. "It’s okay, Hon, you’re safe."

"Yes," Sean repeated, "I’m safe." She took a deep breath and continued. "I was so startled, I wasn’t sure what was happening. Drew—I don’t know how to tell you—she was possessed—they kept coming at her and she kept fighting back, even when they—"

She closed her eyes. After a moment, her voice low, she murmured, "Even when they hurt her. She never stopped."

"Thank god she was there," Ellen said. She looked at Sean, who sat dazed and staring.

"What else happened, Sean?" Ellen asked. Susan looked at her, confused.

"Drew was going to kill one of them—I could see it in her face, in the way her body tensed. If I hadn’t stopped her, she would have killed him."

"Did she frighten you?"

"No!" Sean exclaimed, remembering her terror and the seemingly overpowering presence of the men. "But I’m frightened for her. When they finally ran away, she seemed to crumble. She was nearly incoherent when I brought her home. It was more than the attack."

"Who’s Dara?" Susan asked quietly.

"Dara?" Sean echoed.

"Yes—she kept mumbling something about Dara while I was getting her undressed. She didn’t seem to know where she was—"

Sean’s face set with determination. "I don’t know—but it’s time I found out."

"Now may not be the best time," Ellen began.

"It’s way past time," Sean said flatly.

~

Drew groaned and tried to sit up. Sean was at her side instantly.

"Take it easy, Drew," she said gently, supporting her shoulder so she could sit up. She pulled a hassock over and rested Drew’s leg on it. "You’ve taken quite a beating."

"Are you all right? They didn’t hurt you, did they, Sean?" Drew demanded anxiously.

"No. They hurt you!"

"Thank god," Drew whispered, closing her eyes. "I was so afraid—"

"I’m fine, love."

Drew smiled wanly. "That was quite a side-kick you landed. Very good."

Sean was relieved that Drew remembered, and that she seemed like her old self. She took a deep breath.

"Drew, who is Dara?"

Drew jumped at the name and looked away.

"It’s time to talk, Drew," Sean said, unwilling to accept the silence.

"Dara," Drew said finally, "is the woman I thought I would spend the rest of my life with."

Once the words were out, there was no turning back. "We met in our senior year of high school—Dara had transferred from another school. She was everything I wasn’t—popular, outgoing, creative—she was an artist. She had been painting since she was nine—a child prodigy. I was a rebel, an out lesbian with a chip on my shoulder—rough, uncultured, angry.

"Every boy in the entire school wanted to go out with her—and she chose me. She followed me everywhere—turning up at karate tournaments—I was a black belt by the time I was fifteen—bugging me with her friendly chatter, refusing to let me shut her out.

"Finally, I gave in—and then we were inseparable. We always said we were each other's first and last lovers. We got an apartment together—her parents disowned her when they found out about us." She paused for a moment, her face lost in memory.

"The first few years were tough—she was in art school, I was working whatever jobs I could find. That’s when I began training with Janet Cho. She befriended us—paid me a little to teach a few of her classes. It was Janet who pushed me to go to college—I never wanted to. I wanted to support Dara and myself. While I was in college, I joined the army reserves—it paid some, and they wanted women combat instructors. That’s how I was finally offered the job in Virginia—it was the first job I ever wanted. I could teach what I knew best—martial arts—to women. And I got paid for it.

"We were thirty when we moved to Virginia. Dara hated it there. There was nothing but the base and the little town that grew up around it. She missed the city, and her friends, and the intellectual world she loved. We were only supposed to stay a year, then I could transfer somewhere else."

"Somehow, I kept putting it off. I was happy there, and I tried not to see how unhappy Dara was." She stopped and stared at her clenched fists. "God, how I wish I could take it all back."

Sean was so relieved to finally know the mystery of Drew, she found she wasn’t jealous. This was Drew’s past, what made her all she was today. To know a little of where she had been allowed Sean to love her more fully. Her heart filled with compassion.

"What happened? " she asked gently.

Drew’s eyes filled with tears, but she continued, determined to finish.

"We had been there nearly two years, and Dara had reached her limit. We were fighting constantly about it—if I stayed one more year I could name my next location. I wanted to come home to Philadelphia—a year didn’t seem so long to me. But, for her, it was like a life sentence.

"One night it really blew up between us. We had gone to the bar in town—it was the only place lesbians could relax. It was late, and we started fighting. I got angry, and so did she. Finally, she stormed out and I was so pissed off I let her go. I sat finishing my beer, fuming. Finally, I realized it was one o’clock in the morning, and Dara was walking alone. I was frantic—I rushed out, but I didn’t see her. The streets were empty, so I headed for home—"

She stopped and turned anguished eyes to Sean. Then she continued, "I heard a noise—from an alley. It was dark, but the shadows were moving. I started down the passageway—I don’t know why. I just had this empty, horrible knowledge that she was there.

"There were five of them—they must have followed her from the bar. I didn't have much of a chance, but I did some damage—I don’t remember much. I got kicked in the head, and my wrist was broken. The noise of the fight finally scared them off. I guess I crawled down the alley—my hands and knees got pretty torn up. That’s when I found her. They beat her before they raped her. She was already dead when I got to her."

Sean covered her mouth to suppress her cry. Her mind tried to hold the pain Drew must have felt, but it was too much.

"Oh god, Drew, I’m so sorry!"

"I never told her I was sorry, Sean. I never got to tell her that she was my whole life, the best part of me—oh god, I never even said good-bye."

Finally, finally, Drew cried. Deep, soul-wrenching sobs that doubled her over. Sean rushed to her, pulling Drew’s head onto her shoulder, sheltering her heaving body. She murmured softly, useless words that couldn’t begin to make up for the horror of that night, or all the lonely years that followed, but she gave what comfort she could. Drew clung to her, broken, bereft.

After what seemed like hours, Drew quieted, exhausted. Sean continued to hold her.

"Do you hate me?" Drew asked, her face still buried against Sean’s breast.

Sean gripped her even more tightly. "Hate you? No, Drew, I don’t hate you—I love you. I wish it had never happened—I wish you had never suffered such a terrible loss—I wish I could take all your pain away. I wish I could do something—anything—to make it all right, but I can only love you."

"Last night," Drew began haltingly, "last night was like that night. Only this time it was you—and I was there. I wanted to kill them, Sean—for threatening you, for trying to take it all away from me again. I couldn’t stand to lose you."

"You won’t lose me, Drew. I promise, we will have a future together. I promise."

"I love you so much," Drew whispered, at last able to say the words. "I love you."

Sean cupped Drew’s face and kissed her. "I know."

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Sean laid her starched, crisp uniform over the chair and methodically arranged her gear in her bag. She didn’t look up as Susan entered and sprawled out on Sean’s bed.

"Are you ready?" Susan asked.

"Yes," Sean said.

"I wish I could come watch you test," Susan pouted.

"The black belt tests are private, Suse—no one will be there except the black belt test board."

"Will Drew be there?"

"Of course," Sean replied, smiling at the thought.

"Is her leg okay?"

Sean glanced at her sister. "Her leg is fine. And so is the rest of her. Not one single nightmare in three months. And she finally showed me pictures of her and Dara."

"Were you jealous?"

"No—" Sean said thoughtfully. "It was like looking at family pictures. Drew was so young, and they were so innocent. It made me sad. But, it’s what she’s needed to do all these years—she needs Dara in her life; she needs the memories. And, I need them too—because now Drew is whole. And that’s what I need."

Susan fussed with the pillows, not looking at Sean. Sean knew her sister well.

"What is it, Suse?"

"Um—this might not be a good time to tell you this—" her voice trailed off weakly.

"What?" Sean asked exasperated.

"Ellen and I are buying a house."

"Susan! That’s wonderful!"

Susan’s face lit up. "You don’t mind?"

"Are you kidding? I’m so happy for you—both of you. I’ll miss you like crazy, but it’s great!"

"Will you keep the house?"

"Yes, I think so—if Drew wants to live here."

"You and Drew? Living together?"

Sean suddenly looked shy. "We’ve talked about it some."

"Now I can really stop worrying—you’ll have a black belt in the house to protect you!"

Sean drew herself up and said archly, "No, my dear sister—two black belts, and we’ll protect each other!"

The End

Comments please to radclyffe@radfic.com

This story is a work of fiction and is not intended to represent any particular individual, alive or dead. This work may not be printed or distributed for profit without the express written permission of the author.
 

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