Part 20

After school one afternoon in late February, Noelle and Molly stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few things Molly needed at the house. The dark woman pushed the cart while Noelle tossed the items into the wire basket. They were strolling through the dairy aisle, not having a need to rush, when Noelle made a sudden detour to the meat section.

The English teacher recognized another customer. It was Tom Kline's mother, Patty. As Noelle drew closer to the other woman, she noticed that the older woman's face was covered with yellowing, faded bruises, and a small scar at the corner of her lip was bright white against her pale skin. She sucked in a breath at the sight.

Noelle stopped next to the woman and greeted her softly. "Mrs. Kline. Hi, how are you?"

Startled eyes turned toward her, eyes that were so similar to Tom's. "Oh! Ms. Potter. It's good to see you."

"And it's good to see you, as well," Noelle responded warmly. Although she tried to keep her voice light and unconcerned, she wanted to just take the woman into her arms and tell her it would be okay. Seeing the bruises on the other woman's face brought back memories that she had worked so hard to keep locked away. Instinctively, Noelle knew the bruises were not because of an accident.

She drew in a deep breathe before trying to engage Mrs. Kline in a conversation, but the woman evaded all her questions and finally made a hasty exit. It didn't escape Noelle's notice that the other woman kept looking quickly around, as if watching for someone, never making eye contact with Noelle. And she nervously tugged the limp wrists of her thin sweater down as she spoke. It was a matter of seconds before Mrs. Kline was walking quickly toward the checkout line.

"Who was that?" a curious voice asked behind her.

Jumping slightly, Noelle turned to find Molly right behind her. "Patty Kline, Tom's mother," she answered vaguely.

There was a pause as the blonde fingered a package of chopped meat. Then she shook her head. "Whatever," she mumbled to herself, putting the styrofoam package into the cart.

"Whatever what?" Molly asked.

Noelle shrugged. "Some people are just… stupid, that's what."

"How so?"

The two women headed toward the checkout, and it wasn't until Molly put the items on the counter that Noelle answered. Again she shrugged. "Some people… some women just don't have any sense." Unconsciously, Noelle's small hand crept up to her left ear and covered it.

"Hi, Mrs. Marks," the young woman said nervously, unconsciously trying to cover the angry bruises on her left ear and cheek.

"Wow, Noelle. What happened to you?"

Frightened green eyes darted to one side, then quickly to the other side. "Nothing. I… umm, slipped… on some ice, that's all."

"You might want to get that checked out," the elderly woman advised wisely, waving a dismissive hand at the affected area.

"Come on, sweetheart," a deep, masculine voice spoke behind her. "We'd better get you home and make sure you're okay." Roger grabbed Noelle's upper arm, making the small woman wince when his hard fingers connected with fresh bruises. The handsome man smiled charmingly at the other woman, even as he cruelly pinched Noelle harder.

Even though the words were pleasant and spoken with a smile, the look Roger gave her caused tears to fill Noelle's eyes. She blinked them away and smiled wanly at Mrs. Marks. "Have a nice day," she murmured, following the big man out of the store.

Roger didn't say another word until they got back to his house. Then he turned to his girlfriend. "You didn't say anything to her, did you?" he asked, his tone entirely too pleasant.

"No, Roger. I swear I didn't. Please… I didn't say anything," she pleaded, taking a step back.

The man followed her, slowly looking her up and down. "A girl like you needs a strong hand. I think I haven't taught you the lessons you need to learn yet." Then, in a furious movement, he grabbed her blouse and ripped it open…

Then it hit Molly. The bruises… the actions… she's remembering something. Better get her out of here and get her talking. "She sure had a shiner, didn't she?" she asked conversationally, as if she was asking about the weather. She watched the blonde woman visibly stiffen, then take a deep breath.

"It's her business," she growled, walking out into the parking lot. She didn't notice the frigid air whipping back the lapels of her unzipped parka.

"What's her business? That she gets beat up?" Molly picked up the conversation when she had settled herself into the driver's seat and started the Rover. Probably by her son, she added to herself with a mental curl of her lip.

The other woman didn't answer and a stony silence filled the vehicle until they arrived at Molly's. They carried the grocery bags into the kitchen and put them away before either of them spoke again.

"So you want to talk about it?" Molly finally asked, sitting on a stool at the island.

"There's nothing to talk about." The small woman walked into the living room and flipped on the TV. Noelle saw the tall woman lean against the frame and look at her. "I said there's nothing to talk about," she said belligerently, not taking her eyes from the TV.

"I think you're wrong."

Noelle snorted derisively. "Whatever."

"Want to know what I think?" Molly asked. Not bothering to wait for an answer, she continued. "I think it was Tom. I think he hits his mother… abuses he-"

Before she could even finish, Noelle was up off the couch, throwing the remote onto the cushion. "The hell he is," she snapped. "It's not him."

A dark eyebrow raised. "How do you know? Sure looks like it to me. He hits his girlfriend, so why wouldn't he hit his mother? Makes sense to me."

"That boy does not hit his mother! Tom wouldn't do that. It's got to be her boyfriend." Noelle paced to the window, crossing her arms protectively across her chest.

Blue eyes narrowed. "What boyfriend? Where's the evidence that it's not Tom?"

Noelle whirled to face the other woman, the anger rolling off her in waves. "I don't need evidence. I can see it with my own two eyes! Where's your evidence that it is Tom?"

Molly pushed off the frame and strode to Noelle, counting the reasons on her fingers. "One, he hits Jilly. Two, he still lives at home. Three, his mother has bruises. And four, he has a serious problem with authority. That's enough evidence for me."

"It is not Tom!" Noelle repeated, her voice raising. "You've never liked him, have you? You wanted him out from the beginning!"

"No, again you're wrong. I want to keep the students safe. He's not safe. He has to go."

"And so do I. I won't stay and talk to you when you won't even listen."

"I'm listening," the dark woman contradicted.

"But you're not hearing. All you see is a kid who gets a kick out of pushing other people around. But what I see is a young boy who's being hurt. Why can't you see that?" Noelle ended, her voice dropping to a whisper.

Big hands cupped the heart-shaped face and blue eyes looked deeply into green. "And why can't you see that he's abusive?" she asked softly.

"He… he's not. He's… it hurts," she whimpered, her eyes closing against the memories.

"Shh," Molly crooned, pulling Noelle close to her. "Shh… we'll look into it, okay? We'll take care of things," she whispered, stroking the golden hair. "It'll be okay."

Slender arms held desperately to the bigger body, not wanting to let go. Noelle buried her face in Molly's chest, looking for, and finding, the solace and comfort she needed.

"Thank you," she whispered.

***** ***** *****

Noelle was greeted by the usual before-school noise as she rushed through the front door of the high school. Noelle pushed her hair off her forehead, I need a haircut, and signed in, smiling at Joan Gooding on her way out the door.

"Hey, Jilly," she said cheerfully as she walked through the hall to her room. "Good game last night."

Jilly's eyes met her own green ones. "Um, thanks, Coach. That play Coach Cartwright showed us worked good."

"It worked well, yes. We've got another big one at Washington tomorrow," Noelle reminded her. Then she watched as the young girl left after saying goodbye. The woman made her way to the room to begin preparing for the day.

Ten minutes later, when her first period class was seated and settled, Noelle handed back quizzes they had taken two days earlier. "These stunk," she admonished, dropping the quizzes on the nearest desk. "I darn well know you can do much better, so we're going to take today to review that last section and have a re-quiz tomorrow. And believe me, you better hope your scores are higher." Having said that, Noelle instructed her class to take out their paperbacks and started reviewing the material.

It was on her prep that she saw Molly for the first time that morning since leaving the dark woman's house to shower and get ready for school at her own house. Although she saw Molly, she didn't get a chance to speak with her because the tall woman burst out of the office at a fast walk, Tony following close behind her, their faces serious and grim.

Wonder what's up? Noelle thought as she stepped into the faculty lounge. She looked at the clock and noticed it was second lunch. Probably an argument that escalated in the cafeteria, that's all.

Much later that afternoon Noelle heard the story of what had occurred earlier. She had been walking past a small gaggle of freshmen girls who were intent on a conversation when one of the girls greeted her.

"Oh, hey, Miss P.," the girl said. In typical young girl fashion, the group immediately pulled her into their conversation without a second thought.

"You hear what happened this morning?" a tall blonde asked in a stage whisper.

"'Fraid not," Noelle commented with a smile, leaning against the locker. "So what happened?" she asked, maintaining a nonchalant attitude even though her stomach took a sudden, inexplicable nosedive. I don't have a good feeling about this…

"There was a big fight in the hall this morning down by Mr. Allin's room," the blonde began. "We were hangin' out talkin' with Jilly, she was tellin' us about the game last night and stuff, when Tom came up and started yellin' at her. It was crazy."

"Yeah," another blonde agreed. "He was gettin all in her face and stuff. Scared the sh- stuff outta her."

"And you shoulda seen him! He looked like he got on the wrong end of a beatin'. His face was all black and blue, his lip was fat… man, he didn't look good."

At the words, Noelle straightened up and stared hard at the girls. Tom was beat up again? Why? What happened? Jesus, I have to talk to him. We have to help him. She wanted to press them for information but didn't think it wise. She listened with half an ear, her thoughts elsewhere. I bet that's where Molly and Tony where going. The girl's next words caught her full attention, though.

"- and when he grabbed her, Ms. Cartwr-"

"Whoa. Who did Tom grab? Jilly?" Noelle interrupted.

"Yeah," the girl hedged cautiously. "But she wasn't hurt or anything. I mean, he only-"

"He just grabbed her, that's all," the tall blonde finished. "Ms. Cartwright stepped in and then Mr. Avedo took him to the office."

Concerned green eyes looked steadily at the girls. "Anything else happen?"

The tall girl shrugged. "We went to class."

"Speaking of, you ladies better get moving. Have a good day," she added as she stepped into her own classroom. Her thoughts remained on Tom, and on his mother. Noelle sighed. She had work to do now and she needed to get it done. "Okay, gang," she directed to the students already seated, "let's get started."

Noelle finished the day, although she was preoccupied and very worried. She headed directly for the SAP meeting, early for once. The blonde greeted the other members of the team as she sat in a chair along the side of the long table. She turned to look at Tony as he walked into the small conference room for the meeting.

"Wow, we must be discussing something important if you're here on time," the big man grinned.

Noelle didn't bother to answer; she waited only long enough for him to seat himself before starting the meeting. "What happened this morning with Tom?" she asked, not bothering to waste time on niceties and polite conversation.

All eyes turned to Molly, who was sitting silently at the opposite end of the table.

She looked pointedly at each person seated around the table. "There was an incident with Tom and Jilly, but Tony and I took care of it."

"Yes, we've all heard that much by now, but what kind of incident?" Noelle asked. "And why was he bruised?" At the flippant words, she could feel the concern that had been simmering all day turning to anger.

Cool blue eyes looked at her. "It was an incident that was taken care of. I don't think we need to bleed the facts all over the school," Molly replied calmly. "As for the bruises, he didn't say, although I suspect that he got into some trouble and got what he deserved."

"Excuse me? What did you just say? Are you saying that that boy deserved to be beat up like that?" Noelle returned, her tone deceivingly soft. But she said… she said she'd take care of it. What's going on? The bewildering thoughts raced around her head as she tried to figure out what was happening.

The dark head shook slightly. "He behaves as if he'll always be the strongest, the fastest, the best. Well, apparently he's finally learned a valuable lesson. It's about time the shoe was on the other foot. It might do him some good."

"You can't mean that."

Steady blue eyes never blinked. "Yes I do. And he's been taken care of."

"What happened?" Noelle asked again, wishing that she could speak with Molly out from under prying eyes. What is she doing?

The dean repeated her comment from earlier. "There was a discipline incident with a student that Mr. Avedo and I took care of."

Suddenly the anger surged through every fiber of Noelle's being. Not taking her eyes off of Molly, she posed the next question to Tony. "Are we a team?"

The principal remained silent for a moment, knowing full well where his team leader was going, before answering slowly. "Yes. We are a team. However I think that Molly has a valid point."

Finally Noelle turned to him, nodding her head as if agreeing with the man. "So we're only a team when you and Molly say we are, is that right?" Her amiable words completely contradicted her body language, which screamed rage and confusion.

Tony's dark eyes narrowed. "You're stepping over the line, Noelle," he warned quietly.

Noelle stood up in a quick movement, furious green eyes now fixed on her principal. "You say that because it's true. We're only a "team" when it's convenient for you and Molly. But when something happens, something that not only the "team" but the entire faculty should know about, it's us and you, administration against faculty, no team at all," Noelle finished, her tone angry and the words clipped.

"You're out of line, Ms. Potter," Tony reprimanded.

"No, Mr. Avedo. You," she pointed at him, "are out of line. You claim to care about these students, but instead of helping, you take the easy way out."

"That's enough, Noelle!" Tony thundered as he stood up. "We do what we are able to do. This situation is beyond our capacity now. We can do nothing more than what we've already done."

"That's a cop out and you know it," Noelle countered angrily. "You've washed your hands of this… of Tom, and now you're looking for the easy way." Noelle paused to gather her things. "Well you know what? I won't be a part of it. I'm done. I won't be on a "team" that only works together when it suits the administration." Noelle tossed her SAP folder to Tony then walked out of the meeting without another word.

The small woman stormed to the gym, ignoring the yelled remarks for her to come back. She unlocked the office in the locker room and grabbed her blue duffel bag, moving into the small bathroom to get ready for practice. She was so angry that her hands shook as she pulled off her denim jumper and white dress shirt. She slipped into her shorts and t-shirt just as the first girls started filing into the locker room to dress for practice.

Noelle was sitting in a desk chair tying her hi-tops when Molly stepped into the office and shut the door. The noise from the locker room was immediately silenced, and the only sound in the small room was the soft zzzttt sound her laces made as they rubbed against each other.

"Just what the hell was that all about?" Molly finally asked, breaking the interminable silence.

Snapping green eyes looked up at the tall woman. "It was an incident that I handled and I don’t see the need to bleed the details all over the gym," she said too sweetly. You promised.

"The hell it was!" Molly exploded. "You bitched at Tony just because you didn't get the dirt on the whole thing, right?" The astonishment Molly had first felt at the meeting quickly turned to anger. "You're just pissed off because you weren't in the middle of everything!"

Noelle stood up slowly, shock coursing through her. "What?" Noelle asked in disbelief. "No way, Molly. You are totally wrong on this one. You dropped the ball here. You went to your old "discipline" standby instead of going to the team and seeing if anyone had a better idea."

"Oh come off it, Noelle," Molly said sarcastically. "I did what the situation called for. Admit it; you're pissed because you heard it through the grapevine instead of being there yourself."

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Noelle asked. "How is the school supposed to help him when we don't know what in hell is going on?" She felt the adrenaline rushing through her veins, her body readying for battle. "You don't care about this kid. From the very beginning, you only wanted to get rid of Tom! You never wanted to help him! And that stupid comment about him deserving it was way over the top, Molly." She paused, staring hard at Molly. "No kid deserves that. You promis- forget it."

Rage-filled blue eyes glared at Noelle, but she saw something else behind the rage. She saw pain. Anguish. Fear.

And suddenly the anger left her like air out of a popped balloon. She stepped closer to Molly. "Tell me," she whispered. "What's going on in your head?"

Noelle watched as, for the first time since she met the tall woman, Molly fought for control.

Blue eyes closed. "You have a team to coach. Go."

A small hand crept up to touch Molly, but was stopped sharply by a bigger hand. "Don't. Don't touch me right now," Molly whispered raggedly, her body rigid, her eyes still filled with that same rage and pain. "Just go."

The blonde head nodded, Noelle deciding that right then, right there, wasn't the time to have that conversation. "All right. But we'll finish this at home tonight."


The one word stopped Noelle cold. "But… I…"

"No. Go home. I don't want to see you tonight. I… can't. I'm sorry. For everything." With those words, Molly turned on her heel and left the office and locker room.

  ***** ***** *****

After practice that evening, in which she had to explain that Coach Cartwright had a meeting and couldn't be there, Noelle climbed into the bright blue Jimmy and turned the engine, giving it a moment to warm up before heading for home.

I can't believe… she doesn't want to see me. She… she told me to go… home. Why? Is she that angry that I left the meeting? What happened? Why didn't she do what she promised? The thoughts scrambled around in Noelle's mind as she drove home.

She doesn't want to se- Oh hell. I'm going there anyway. She never leaves me alone when I tell her to. Bewilderment turned grim. Time to poke the beast…

Noelle pulled into the driveway and looked up at the dark house. Sighing, she locked the SUV and strode up to the front door, letting herself in. She kicked off her sneakers and hung up her parka before walking silently to the dark living room.

She stood in the doorway, giving her eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness.

"I told you to stay away," a voice growled from behind her.

Noelle gasped and whirled around, fear momentarily stealing her breath. "Oh! You scared me," she breathed, a tentative smile touching her lips.

Haunted blue eyes stared at her. "Go home. I don't want you here."

Gathering her strength around her like a cloak, Noelle put her hands on her hips. "But I want to be here and I'm staying."

The tall, now aggressive woman took a step closer. "I said go. Now." Then she turned to walk into the kitchen.

Poke the beast… Noelle reminded herself, her mental voice almost singsong in her fear. She stepped in front of the retreating woman and folded her arms. "I won't. I'm not leaving you so get used to it."

"Damn it, Noelle! You need to go right now," the angry woman warned.

The small woman stood her ground and shook her head. "No."

"It's not a good idea to be here… it's not… safe."

"You don't scare me, Molly, and I'm not leaving." Noelle was more adamant about staying than she had been about anything in a long time. Which was good because had she had any sense at all, she would have run like hell out of that kitchen and not looked back. "I'm not leaving," she whispered, her eyes fixed on Molly watching the struggle that went on behind those expressive eyes.

Hands curled into fists and nostrils flared as Molly battled the rage. "It's not safe," she repeated. "Noelle, please," her voice dropped to a whispered plea. "You have to go now. I can't… you can't be around me when I… right now. You can't."

Noelle dropped her arms and held her open hands up to Molly. "I’m not going," she whispered intently. "I’m staying right here."

Molly turned then, stalking into the living room and to the window. From where she stood, Noelle could see how rigidly the tall woman stood, how tensely she held her body. So intense was the war for control that Noelle wasn't even able to detect any shaking in the dark woman.

It frightened her. It scared her almost witless, yet she wanted to see Molly through this and be waiting for her at the other end. So she moved to stand behind the tall woman, not touching her, but letting her presence be felt.

"Talk to me, Molly."

There was a long silence as the two women stood in the dark. Then Molly spoke, her voice shaking with anger.

"You have to leave now. Right now," she commanded again, trying to get Noelle to understand.

"No." That one word was spoken softly, yet firmly.

Suddenly, in less time than it took to blink, Noelle found herself pinned facing the wall, her breath rushing out in a gasp as she felt herself pushed harder into the barrier. She felt rough hands on her body and hips grinding against her backside.

"Is this what you wanted?" Molly's voice hissed low in her ear. "Is this what you were hoping for when you came here?" When the only answer she got was heavy breathing from Noelle, she growled, "Answer me. Is this what you want?"

Noelle drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. "You… you don't scare… me."

"No?" the woman behind her asked in dark amusement. "Then how about this?"

With that, Molly buried a hand in the blonde hair and pulled her head back, exposing the smaller woman’s neck. She brought her mouth to the smooth white skin there and bit down hard, her teeth sinking into Noelle’s flesh.

"Molly!" Noelle cried, her eyes snapping open.

Just as suddenly as it happened, it ended. Molly stepped back and turned from Noelle.

"I told you to go away. You don't want to be here."

The small woman took a deep breath and turned to Molly. "I'm not leaving you when you're like this." She paused, looking hard at the woman, seeing the demons she fought even in the dark. "You need me."

Noelle so desperately wanted to take the pain and anger from Molly, wanted to protect the other woman from all the difficult things the world threw at her. But she knew Molly, she knew the woman would never ask that of her, never weigh her down with that responsibility. And that made her want to shield her even more.

"I'm not going," she repeated, softer this time. "We'll work through this together. Now, please, Molly, tell me what's got you upset like this."

Noelle watched as Molly's nostrils flared and her fists clenched. "That… bastard," she spit, her voice no more than a savage growl, "the one you insist on defending over and over, is a sadistic, violent criminal who should be thrown in jail. Permanently," Molly finished.

"You don't really think that, Mol-"

"Do not tell me what I think, Noelle. I've seen his kind before, I know what they’re capable of, I know how they pretend to be sorry, say the right words, just to get out of what’s coming to them!"

Noelle almost cowered from the wild look in the ice cold blue eyes, but more prevalent than the fear was the need to soothe Molly as the tall woman had done for her on so many occasions. Instead of stepping back like she wanted to, she stepped closer to the woman, reaching out a hand to touch her, wanting some kind of contact with her.

"I know assholes like him. I know how they work…"

And suddenly, Noelle understood. It came into focus so very clearly then.

"It's about Eli, isn't it?" she asked quietly.

The dark head whipped around, blue eyes pinning the small woman with an icy stare. "You don't know what you're talking about," she hissed, taking a menacing step towards Noelle.

Noelle, for her part, stood taller, heartened by the fact that she finally knew the reason behind Molly's reaction. "You lost your baby to a… boy a lot like Tom," she stated gently.

"Don't say my son's name in the same sentence as that bastard's," Molly spit, her voice raising on the last word.

"It's okay, Molly," Noelle soothed. "It's okay."

There was a long pause, neither woman speaking, neither looking away, until finally Noelle walked to the nightstand and picked up the picture of the little boy wearing his red jacket. She turned to the woman who was watching her intently, the small photo still in her hand. Knowing that words would never be enough, Noelle simply held out her arms to Molly, silently inviting the other woman to take refuge in her.

It seemed like forever before Molly stepped to Noelle with hesitant movements. Then suddenly she was in Noelle's arms, and the small woman was rocking her and making soft, soothing noises.

Much later that night, Molly rolled over in bed to be greeted only by a small ball of fur, and no Noelle. She sleepily petted the kitten. "Hiya, Roocifee. How's my boy? You're not so active tonight, buddy. You okay?" She scooched closer to the orange kitten, smiling when he moved just enough to curl up under her chin, his big fluffy coon tail wrapping snuggly around his little fat body. "You're just a sleepy baby, huh?" she crooned to the ball of fur.

She closed her eyes, listening for Noelle. The dark woman heard soft music, and it only took her a moment to recognize the familiar strains of "Cool Change" by the Little River Band. And then she knew exactly what Noelle was doing out of bed.

The tall woman got out of bed, threw on a big t-shirt that conveniently fell mid-thigh, and padded out into the dark living room. There she found Noelle in front of the large computer screen, looking hard at the monitor, sailing a virtual boat on a stormy sea. Molly leaned against the doorjamb, content to simply watch the other woman for a moment. She smiled when she saw Bingo curled up contentedly on the slim shoulder, his tiny little body perched close to her neck. His eyes were closed in pure kitten-bliss.

"Ow!" Noelle yelped suddenly. She had moved too quickly, startling the baby feline into digging his wee claws into her shoulder.

Molly watched as the blonde reached a hand up to gently extract the black and white fuzzball from her shoulder, cradling him on her lap. "Now, Bingo," she murmured softly, never taking her eyes off the simulation game. "You better- Jeez! Where the hell'd that wave come from?" Quickly, green eyes looked down at the kitten and Noelle smiled. "Not you, B. They think they're gonna capsize me again, the blasted things. Well, shiver me timbers, hain't gonna happen, matey," she finished in her best sea captain's voice, her eyes back on the game.

Finally Molly couldn't stand being so far away from the other woman. So she went to kneel next to her chair, petting Bingo and caressing Noelle's thigh. "You winnin'?" she asked.

"Ha," Noelle grumbled. "Not hardly."

Blue eyes looked at the blonde's profile in surprise. "You're not? How come?"

A blush crept up Noelle's neck and splashed onto her cheeks. "I, uh, set it too high."

"You set what too high?"

"The skill level. I don't know how… I mean, I've never sailed on the ocean, but I'm trying to sail not only on the ocean, but in a hurricane," Noelle supplied with a sheepish grin.

"Hmm. Sorry to hear that. But wh- Never mind. It's some kind of Potter logic, right? Figured so," Molly answered herself when she saw the blonde head nod. She stayed kneeling and watched Noelle exit the program and shut down the computer. Then she smiled when green eyes turned to look at her.

"You okay?" Noelle asked hesitantly, not sure of the reaction she would get. The calm, gentle look that was once again in the beautiful blue eyes almost reassured her, but there was still that trace of uncertainty.

The tall woman didn't answer right away. She took the few minutes' pause to search inside of herself for an honest answer. Finally she spoke. "I don't know. Can we talk? On the couch, maybe?"

In reply, Noelle took the older woman's hand and led her to the couch. Quietly she sat down, tugging Molly down next to her. She settled herself as close to the other woman as she could, draping her legs over Molly's longer ones. "Okay," she finally started. "Want to tell me what’s going through your mind right now?"

Molly looked at their joined hands, absently rubbing her thumb in small circles on the back of Noelle’s smaller hand. She attempted to gather her thoughts into some coherent pattern, but when that proved fruitless, she simply started talking.

"I don’t know if I can distance myself from this, Noe. I don’t know if I can maintain a professional attitude with Tom. He…he reminds me too much of… the other kid."

There was a long pause, but instead of trying to fill it like she normally would, Noelle just waited for Molly to continue. The tall woman didn’t disappoint her.

"Every time I see him, every time I think about him or hear what he’s done, I can’t help but think of… Eli," Molly whispered haltingly. "I just don’t know if I can do this. I thought I could. I thought I put it all behind me. But it feels like it’s getting harder to bear when it should be getting easier. And I know I promised you, but I don't know…"

A slim arm slipped around broad shoulders, and Noelle pulled Molly closer, gently coaxing the dark head onto her shoulder. "I think about Mary a lot, you know? And I imagine I always will. It hurt so badly to lose her; I didn’t think I’d ever be happy again. I mean, losing your mom is a pretty tough thing, right?" Noelle waited for Molly to nod before going on. "But, see, kids are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around. A mama isn’t supposed to bury her baby. It’s not supposed to work that way. God didn’t intend it that way." Green eyes turned to connect with open, hurting blue. "I don’t think you ever will get over losing Eli, Molly. He was your baby, he was supposed to grow up and find the cure for cancer or AIDS. He was supposed to be the greatest president the US ever had. He was supposed to make a difference in the world. But maybe none of that matters. Maybe it doesn’t matter because he did make a difference in this world… he made a difference in your world. And that’s what counts the most, Molly. If you weren’t affected by this whole Tom thing, I’d think something was wrong with you. I’ve not ever lost a baby, but I’d say that it’s okay what you’re feeling."

Again silence prevailed until Molly spoke. "I'm sorry about this afternoon at the SAP meeting," she began quietly. "I wanted to tell you, I wanted to tell the entire faculty, but Tony and Jim thought it better to not fuel the fire. We're just trying to get Tom out quietly. And I know you think we should be doing more," Molly added hastily. "But we've honestly exhausted all of our resources. He's just not safe anymore. Sandra tried getting him to talk, she even tried calling Family Services. But he's almost 18; there's nothing they can do without solid proof."

Noelle sighed. "I guess I should apologize, too. I was a bitch, and I know it. Even before you came into the locker room, I had planned on apologizing to Tony. I was over the line in the meeting, and I should've just kept my mouth closed. I just wish… well, it doesn’t much matter."

The dark woman turned to more fully face Noelle, slipping her arms around the other woman and pulling her close. She rested her chin on the fair head and stroked the fine strands. "I know inside of you is a heart that is so full of caring and love for those kids. I know it must hurt you, Noe, to see one of your students… falling apart like Tom is. But think about it for just one second from the standpoint of all the other parents in the school," Molly whispered earnestly, taking the beloved, familiar face in her hands. "Think of how frightened they must be. They know, the whole community knows about Tom. Think of how scared those parents must be to know that a man like Tom is in the same building as their child."

"But he's someone's child, too," Noelle said brokenly. "He belongs to someone, and maybe that someone is… hurting him. No kid deserves that."

"No one at all deserves that," Molly added gently.

"Maybe there's something… something else we can do," the small woman finished, wheels turning in her head.

Neither woman found it necessary to say anything for some time. Then Molly spoke softly. "You’re pretty amazing, you know that, Noelle Potter?"

The blonde head shook in denial. "No way, Molly Cartwright. You’re the amazing one."

Molly chuckled. "How ‘bout we’re both amazing?" she asked with a grin.

"’Kay," Noelle agreed. "Now, whaddaya say we hit the pillows? I hear Dreamland's not too crowded this time of year."

They got off the couch and headed to the bedroom, walking down the short hall hand in hand.

"Whoa!" Noelle squeaked in fright, nearly jumping into Molly’s arms. "What the hell was that?" She looked back toward the living room where a streak of fur just shot.

The tall woman chuckled softly. "Your cat."

"Hmmphf," Noelle grumped indignantly. "C’mere, Bingo-boy," she called, walking back into the dark room. She was bent over slightly, her fingers wiggling near the floor. "Pss, pss, pss… c’mere, kitty," she called softly.

Suddenly, out of the dark void that was the space behind the couch, the little fat cat jumped and attached itself to Noelle's bare ankle. "Auuuugghhh!" she screamed. "Get it off! Get it off!"

Watching Noelle dancing around trying to escape the mad kitten had Molly in hysterics. She leaned against the wall, guffawing for all she was worth. It became even funnier when Roocifee snuck out from under the couch and grabbed Bingo's tail.

Despite the fact that the bigger kitten was chewing on his tail, the little dynamo didn't let go of Noelle's skin. His tiny sharp teeth and claws clamped on to her foot, and no amount of shaking or hopping was able to dislodge him.

"Shake your foot harder," Molly snickered.

"I don't want to hurt him!" Noelle wailed. She leaned over and tried to pick the baby up. He let go, but only to latch onto her hand. When she picked her hand up, it looked for all the world like she was wearing a black and white mitten. "Molly, help me!" she yelled, trying desperately to get her hand loose. "He's scratching me!"

The woman in question shook her head. "No way," Molly snorted. "This is too much fun to watch."

"Fathead," Noelle growled at her. "You just wait."

"Damned cat," she muttered, but it was a good natured, soft mumble, the words filled with gentle love for the small animal. She extracted her hand finally, setting the kitten on the floor and tickling the wee soft belly for a moment before he rolled over and grabbed hold of the bigger orange kitten.

It was a very good thing their coloring was so dissimilar because it was difficult enough to tell where one kitten left off and the other began without them being the same color. Tiny growls and hisses came from the pile of fur, and the two cats rolled around on the floor, all tangled up together. Bingo's front paws were hooked around Roos' neck and his teeth grabbed hold of a tufted ear; his back paws kicked at the fuzzy belly, making him look like he was trying to disembowel the other cat.

Roos, for his part, used his longer front legs and greater weight to try to push Bingo away, but it didn't seem to be working at the moment.

Noelle stepped back into Molly's arms and together the two women took in the antics of the cats. They watched as Roocifee's bigger body seemed to swallow up Bingo's black and white fur when he rolled over onto him. Noelle could barely make out Bingo's black-tipped tail as it swished back and forth fiestily. But when the swishings seemed to become more panicked, Noelle became concerned.

"Get your stupid bully cat off him! He's going to kill him!" She moved to separate the cats, but was stopped by a hand on hers.

"Watch," was Molly's whispered instructions.

Noelle spared a quick glance at Molly, only to find her bright blue eyes glued to the mound of fur on the floor. She turned her own eyes there, and, sure enough, it didn't take Bingo long to wiggle his way out from under the much bigger kitten.

"Attaboy," she called softly. Shining green eyes turned to the taller woman. "He did it."

The dark head nodded. "Just like I knew he would. And look at him now," she nodded toward the animal. "He's gonna have Roos on the run any second no- Yup, just like that," she finished wryly as the two cats tore out of the room. She chuckled and shook her head, taking hold of Noelle's hand again.

"Come on, let's go to bed and let the kids play in peace."

***** ***** *****

"Jesus, Don!! My girls are getting hammered under there!" Noelle yelled at the referee as she paced the sideline. She threw up her hands when the ball was stolen right from her point's hands. The coach called for a timeout, and then threw her clipboard onto the bench, the noise swallowed by the din of the crowd.

"What in the hell are you doing out there?" she started as soon as her hot, sweaty players made their way to her. " I don't know what you're doing, but I don't like it. I hope one of you can tell me because it makes no ever-loving sense to me!" The volume of her words gradually built until she was yelling at the girls. "I am the coach, not any of you. You do what I tell you or I'll yank your butt right back to this bench. Do you understand?"

"Just follow the play," came a low voice. All eyes turned to Molly. "Just run what we showed you and I promise you'll be fine."

"Coach," Angie, a junior forward, asked timidly, not wanting to get yelled at by the head coach, "what if we run this variation?" Quickly the young girl drew the play on Molly's clipboard, looking up at the woman for confirmation.

The tall woman studied the play for a moment then nodded her head. "I bet it works like a charm." She slapped the girl on the shoulder and smiled briefly at her. "Good thinking. I'll let Coach Potter know. Now get out there and do it."

As the two women sat on the bench, Molly said softly, "Angie just had a workable idea, so I gave her the go ahead." Molly watched as the blonde stiffened and turned slowly toward her. Oh boy, here it comes...

"Say that again? Who's the coach, Molly? Are we or are they?" she questioned in a deceptively calm voice.

There's that tone… "We are, of course."

"Remember that, then." Then the green eyes turned back to the action on the court.

Later that night, on the bus home, Noelle congratulated the girls on winning the game. "You played well. Next stop regionals. I'm proud of you. But we can't let up on the intensity, not yet. We have to keep the momentum going. Angie," she added, turning to look at the girl, "that was some fast thinking you did. May have helped us win the game. Coach Cartwright and I would like you to take the game ball. Good going." She tossed the orange ball to the beaming girl then sat down in her seat. "Now the ride home is long, so settle in and be quiet, would you?" she teased.

The driver turned the interior lights off in the bus and the girls and their coaches settled back into the comfortable seats.

Noelle tentatively reached over a hand, rubbing Molly's strong thigh under cover of darkness. The girls were strung out farther behind them, not occupying all the seats. There was some murmured conversation scattered throughout the darkness, but, for the most part, the bus was quiet. Noelle knew, without having to look, that most of her players had headphones stuck in their ears, so they wouldn't hear anything.

"I'm sorry about snapping at you earlier. Sorta," she began softly.

"Sorta?" Molly repeated. She covered the smaller hand with her own, lacing her fingers with Noelle's.

"Yeah. I shouldn't have said it how I said, but, listen, okay?" she continued earnestly. "If we let one player run whatever she wants, before long, it'll be total chaos out on the court. And if any of them play ball in college, they'll never get away with doing their own thing. That's why they have to listen now."

The dark head nodded. "I understand. I should have run the play by you first. But there didn't seem to be a whole lot of time, it looked like it would work, so I gave the go-head. But why apologize about it?"

"I should have explained it to you then."

Molly snorted. "We were in the middle of a first round playoff game, Noe. It wasn't the time."

Noelle grinned suddenly. "You're just damned lucky that play worked, Cartwright."

Molly laughed softly. "I know."

The two women got more comfortable in their seats, the hum of the bus wheels and the sound of the engine soon lulling Noelle into a light sleep. Molly turned to look at the small woman when she noticed her head bobbing sleepily on her neck. Afraid that she'd bang her head against the window, Molly gently pushed Noelle's head back to rest on the seat. She smiled when she heard the sleeping woman mumble something incoherent. Then she sighed and rested her head against the seat back.

The following week was a hectic one. Noelle and Molly didn't have much of a chance to spend time with each other outside of school. Grades were due, the team was practicing longer and harder because of regionals, and discipline referrals seemed to be mounting.

It was one of those crazy days when Noelle heard something she knew she had to tell Tony and Molly. The English teacher walked into the main office on her prep and asked Tony for a minute of his time.

The big man beckoned her into his office and closed the door. "What's up?" he asked immediately, noting the worry and concern on his teacher's face.

"It's about Tom," Noelle began. But Tony's next words stopped her.

"Hang on. Let me get Molly." He opened the door and asked Joan Gooding to find Molly and have her come to his office.

Noelle sighed. She's going to be pissed I didn't tell her about the earlier incident. Damn. "Tony, do we really need Molly?"

Her answer was a sharp rap at the door. She waited to continue until Molly was seated next to her at the round table. Tony sat across from her and folded his hands on the table. "Okay, what did you hear?" he asked, guessing correctly that Noelle had heard something through the grapevine.

"One of my players, Jilly Michaels, said that Tom told her that if people don't start leaving him alone, the entire school is going to be sorry," Noelle said quietly.

"Jilly… would she just be saying this?" Tony asked carefully, needing to be absolutely certain before taking action.

The blonde head shook. "No. I have never known her to fabricate things."

"When did she tell you this?" Molly asked, staring intently at Noelle.

"It was yesterday after practice. I was gathering the balls and you were in the locker room." Noelle paused and looked down at her hands. "Jilly said she's really afraid. But I don't think he'll do an-"

"We've already seen that he will do something, whatever that may be. He has before, and he will again," Molly answered severely.

"But what if we just talk to him?" she asked earnestly.

Tony stepped into the conversation. "We'll talk to him. He's got study hall next, I think, so we'll call him down and see what we can find out." He got up and opened the door again. "Joan, pull Tom Kline's schedule, please."

When he returned to his seat, Noelle spoke. "Tony, please. I don't want to step on toes, but he said if people don't leave him alone, they'll be sorry."

"Which is a terroristic threat. If he did say that, that's grounds for expulsion."

"No! He won't do anything. I know he won't. Please, just don't push him, okay?"

"I appreciate your concern for this student, Noelle, but we'll do what needs to be done. I'll make sure we look at all the possibilities and facts before making a decision."

Noelle nodded her agreement, but instead of getting up, she stayed where she was.

Tony watched her for a minute, hoping she would proceed on her own. Finally he spoke, "Is there something else?"

"Yes. I should have told you this when it happened, but I thought I could take care of it. Before Christmas, I spoke with Tom after a game. He… he said something about being careful because something was going to happen. He said he would… show everyone that they couldn't push him around."

Tony stared at her angrily. "This happened before Christmas and you're just telling me now?"

Green eyes looked into hard brown. "Yes, bu-"

"Just what were you thinking? What if something would have happened?" Tony railed.

This was the angriest Noelle could ever remember seeing Tony. She could almost feel the anger pulsating from him. Just as she could feel it coming from the tall woman next to her. Noelle would rather face a hundred angry Tonys than one angry Molly.

"I cannot cover our asses, Noelle, if I don't know what the hell is going on. Why didn't you tell us sooner?" he yelled, standing up and pacing.

"I just thought-"

"No," Molly cut her off, her voice dangerously, deceptively soft. "You weren't thinking, that's the problem."

"That's a bunch of crap, and you know it!" Noelle snapped. "I was thinking, just not how you two do! I think we can help Tom, but you keep insisting that we send him away."

Tony sighed, suddenly looking weary and old. "We've been through this before. We've done all we can. We've exhausted all of our options. For the good of the rest of the student body, Tom Kline has to be removed. And he will be. That's all there is to that. Thank you, Noelle."

Knowing that she was dismissed, Noelle stood up and opened the door. But instead of leaving, she turned to speak once more. "Be careful," she whispered. Then she left and pulled the door shut behind her.

There was an emergency faculty meeting after school that day, and Tony hustled in and closed the door to the library.

"Okay, we've got a potential situation on our hands," he began, jumping right into the meeting. "As most of you probably know, Tom Kline has been having some problems in and out of school. It appears he made some threats against the school as a whole, which, in the light of the last couple of years, we took seriously. So the student has been removed from the school. Permanently."

The dean of students stepped in and picked up where the principal stopped. "Before Detective Jameson escorted him out, he told us that he'd be back. That's all he told us, but we've decided to treat it as a threat. So here's what's going to happen from now until we tell you otherwise."

"First, in the event of a fire alarm, do not, and I mean do not, leave the building unless you hear me come over the intercom and tell you to leave," Tony instructed.

"During change of class," Molly added, "every teacher, with no exception, is to be out in the halls. Tony and I will be monitoring the halls, but we need more adult visibility. And we'll be asking everyone to take turns with additional coverage in the cafeteria during lunch."

"If you hear the alert, I want everyone of you to close and lock your classroom doors and move all students away from the door. Stay that way until you get the all-clear from Molly or me. Make absolutely certain that every door except the front ones are closed and locked. If you see a door open, close it and alert the office immediately."

Molly looked intently around the faculty. "If you see, hear, or read anything questionable, absolutely anything," she stressed, "notify one of us immediately. Don't send a note. Come to the office personally. We can't afford to chance misplacing a piece of paper. We will be taking every single bit of information seriously, and treating every offender as such. This isn't a game."

There was a pause, then Tony continued. "Let's keep this to ourselves. We don't need the panic that would ensue should this get out. Yes, we are keeping the police and central admin apprised of what's going on, but we don't need 7,000 calls a day from John Q. Student's mommy asking us what's going on. Just be careful, people. Keep your eyes and ears open and let's pray that nothing happens." With that Tony finished the meeting and the staff slowly trickled out.

He turned grimly to Molly. "It's starting."

Continued part 21

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