Taught By Love

by Zoe

Disclaimer: Let's see. I'm not exactly sure how to proceed with this part, so I will simply say that Xena and Co. belong to MCA/Universal. But my girls aren't their girls, so I should be okay, right? Anyway, that's that. Oh, yeah, you can't have them.

Violence Warning: There are scenes of violence in this baby. And school violence, to boot. This story deals with violence in American schools (think Littleton, et al, and you got it) and the aftermath of that violence. Rather than present the facts of what has happened in our schools in the last 3 years or so HERE, why not just email me and I'll tell you, okay?

Language Warning: There is some potentially objectionable language, but nothing too darned bad (See? I don't even say anything bad here. Wow.). Well, at least I don't think it's all that bad, but I may be world-weary, or used to it... Nah. But don't say I didn't tell you.

Other Stuff: There isn't any, really. WAIT!! How about my addy so you can tell me if you like it or not? Whaddaya say? Here it is just in case-- zoe_c71@yahoo.com . Oh, okay. I can thank my beta-reader for her help... but she won't let me mention her name so I'm hoping she'll know that this is for her.!

Now, without further ado...

Part 8

It wasn't long before they arrived at Mary's house, and Noelle grabbed her change of clothes, motioning to Molly to do the same. They walked to the front door and Noelle held it open for Molly. "Please... age before beauty," she said with a smirk.

As Molly stepped past the other woman, she stopped briefly and traced Noelle's jaw-line delicately with one finger as she smiled into Noelle's green eyes. Noelle closed her eyes and leaned lightly into the caress. Then Molly continued into the house.

Noelle shook her head slightly and followed Molly through the door. The two women dropped their bags in the entryway and removed their outerwear and boots. Noelle strained an ear to listen for Mary. She sighed in relief when she heard her mother puttering around in the kitchen. She smiled quickly at Molly before striding down the hall, leaving the dark woman to follow if she chose.

Noelle bound into the kitchen and planted a big, noisy kiss on her mother's still-smooth cheek. "Hey, Ma," she greeted the older woman exuberantly. Then she softened her voice. "I missed you out there today," she quietly.

Mary stroked her daughter's cheek tenderly. "And I missed you. Did you have fun?"

Noelle looked deeply into her mother's eyes before nodding slowly. "Mmhm. It was a good day. But we DID almost get caught by the weather. Sorta snuck up on us."

"What's it doing out there?" Mary asked as she turned back to finish setting the table.

"Hailing." Noelle leaned a hip against the table and absently played with the silverware.

Mary reached over to slap her hands lightly. "I'm glad you got in before it hit."

The younger woman tucked her hands under her arms. "Yeah, but it was close, that's for damned sure."

Mary nodded then looked at her daughter suddenly. "What happened to Molly? You lose her?"

Noelle snorted. "Lose HER? Please... like I'd BE that lucky."

"Shut up, Potter," said the woman in question in a low, husky voice as she walked slowly into the kitchen.

Molly stepped over to Mary and bent to kiss her on the cheek. "Hiya, kid. How're you feeling?"

Noelle edged between the two women, pushing Molly back with her butt. "Yeah, good question. Feeling better?"

Molly caught her breath abruptly at the sensations ripping through her body at the feel of Noelle's backside pushing against her center. She mentally pictured her hands on Noelle's hips, pulling her even tighter against her bigger body as they moved together... naked... hot... wet. She could almost feel the smaller woman's heat, smell her arousal. She wanted to touch the woman in front of her, taste her, hear her.

Molly shook her head. Jesus, get a grip, Cartwright, wouldja? It only took a second to get her equilibrium back, then she swung a leg in front of Noelle and used her bigger body to push the blond out of the way. "I asked first, pal."

Noelle pushed Molly with her hip again. "Back off, Cartwright," she snarled playfully.

The two women started pushing each other, tussling with one another, and Mary just stepped back out of the way.

"Something's going to get broken," she stated in a sing-songy voice, moving to the sink. It's good to see Molly playing like this. She's too serious for one so young, Mary thought an instant before she heard the telltale crash of glass shattering on the kitchen floor. Shaking her head, she called, "I told you" in the same voice she had used to predict the accident.

There was a sudden silence, neither woman speaking or moving. They looked at each other guiltily.

"Now what?" Molly whispered to Noelle.

"You clean it up," Mary replied loudly, not taking her eyes off her task.

"Oh. Yeah... heh heh... right." The dark woman scowled at her cohort. "It's YOUR fault," she mouthed silently.

Noelle's own mouth dropped open. "What?! Are you crazy?" she asked, not making a sound.

Molly pointed an accusing finger at Noelle. "You started it."

The blond pointed a finger at herself. "ME!?!? Listen you big fathead, you can jus-"

"Stop arguing and clean it up," Mary said, breaking into their silent argument.

The two women turned their collective attention to the woman at the sink.

"I know you were arguing, but you're both to blame... acting like a couple of kids. Clean it up. NOW."

Noelle dragged Molly toward the closet that held the broom and dustpan. "Come on. You don't NOT want to do what the old bitty says when she uses that tone," Noelle told her in a stage whisper.

When the two women scooted past Mary, she reached out and swatted Noelle on the backside. "I heard that."

Noelle leaned over and kissed her mother on the cheek. "You know I was only teasing, Mare. I love you, honey." With that, Noelle and Molly quickly got the mess cleaned up and a new glass set on the table.

"There you go, Ma. We're going to change out of these damp clothes. Be back in a minute."

"Take your time. Dinner will be ready in about 10 minutes or so." She watched as the two women left the kitchen still teasing.

They sure are a pair. Mary began to unconsciously compare the woman that she adored as the child of her heart and the woman that she was coming to love like a daughter. The two women were as opposite physically as they were in temperament. Her daughter was much shorter and a bit stockier than Molly who was tall and lean. Noelle's short strawberry hair and freckled skin contrasted nicely with Molly's darker coloring. The eyes were the only thing that set the equation off. Molly's were the color of a cloudless sky on a midsummer's day. Noelle's were the color of grass on that very same day.

Not only do they LOOK good together, each personality complements the other very well, Mary continued. Noelle was air. And Molly was earth. Noelle helped Molly see the abstract. And Molly helped Noelle find the concrete. Noelle lifted Molly. And Molly grounded Noelle. To Mary, it seemed like the perfect union of earth and sky... one would never be the same without the other.

They'll be okay together... if they let it happen. Please let it happen, she prayed silently for the two women.

"Do you want to use the bathroom or office to change?" Noelle asked her companion as they entered the living room.

Molly took a step closer to Noelle, bringing her body up close to the smaller woman's. She looked down and smiled seductively. "Where are you going to go?" she asked, her voice a husky purr.

Noelle looked up into Molly's eyes, feeling the warmth in them wash over her. She felt the courage rise in her, masking the panic that was always under the surface when the taller woman was around. She let it flow through her, giving her the strength to make an offering to Molly.

"Ummm, I... I think I'll use the... office. Want to come with me?" she asked hesitantly.

Molly smiled gently. "I'd love to... join you." Won't touch that one. Not now. She followed Noelle into the office, shutting the door behind her.

Noelle walked over and switched on the light, bathing the room in its soft yellow glow. Then she turned to look at Molly. She stood where she was, not moving, not speaking, barely breathing. She saw Molly in the shadows... not moving, either.

The sight that greeted Molly almost brought her to her knees with its intensity. It stole her breath, making her heart stop... then start again, beating in triple time. Noelle stood before her, the pale light of the lamp surrounding her, bathing her in its glow, turning her skin golden, her hair a darker, richer blond. Noelle's green eyes sparkled gently, and she had a soft, hesitant smile on her face. The light softened Noelle's edges, creating an almost ethereal aura around the woman. She looked like she'd disappear if Molly ventured a hand out to touch her. Molly was afraid to breathe lest the woman disappear.

Breath, Molly... that's a girl... just breath, Molly whispered to herself. She couldn't tear her eyes from the vision in front of her, she couldn't move. She just stood there drinking in the sight of the woman standing in the circle of light. She watched as Noelle pulled her sweater over her head, letting it fall from her fingertips to the floor. Then Noelle reached up to run a hand through her short golden hair in an attempt to tame it, but it only served to mess it more.

To Molly, though, it was... Noelle. Her hair all over the place was simply an extension of the woman herself, a woman that Molly was coming to appreciate more and more. Noelle was... different. She's different from anyone I've ever met, Molly thought. Used to the sophistication and games of more "experienced" women and city life, Noelle's personality and rural America were both refreshing to the tall woman. Like the fresh air of spring after a winter spent indoors. Molly breathed deeply, almost able to smell the scent of spring in the room.

Noelle looked down shyly then and brought her hands up to unbutton her flannel shirt, turning slightly away from the dark woman who stared intently at her. She took her time, unconsciously moving slowly, her nervous fingers not allowing her to move quickly. She was unaware that Molly had stepped closer until her larger hands came into view.

Molly turned Noelle back to her, then gently pushed her hands aside and finished the job, going slowly so as not to frighten the younger woman. She let Noelle's shirt hang open slightly. Then she traced a single finger down Noelle's skin from the base of her neck to her belly. She traced a circle around Noelle's naval then slowly dragged her finger back up, smiling slightly at the goosebumps she saw rising on the milky white skin.

Opening her hand, she rubbed her palm lightly over Noelle's silk-covered nipple, feeling Noelle's breath catch in her chest. Gently she closed her palm around the firm breast, cupping it in her hand. Her free hand she brought up to lift and cup Noelle's other breast.

Oh, God, Molly groaned silently when she felt Noelle arch into her hands. She feels so... right. She fits my hands... Molly continued to softly stroke the body in front of her. She bent over to take a nipple into her mouth, wetting it through the silk of the lacy white bra.

Noelle whimpered. Ohhh... what is she doing... it feels so... good... Noelle thought almost incoherently. She arched further into Molly, wanting to feel more of her mouth on her body. She brought her hands up to grasp the taller woman's sweater, holding on tightly. "Please, Molly... I don't... I... please," she whispered raggedly.

Molly straightened up and looked down at the woman. She combed her fingers through the silky blond hair, loving the feel of the strands sliding through her fingers. She moved her hands to cup Noelle's face, then bent to kiss her softly. She looked deeply into the dark green eyes, smiling slowly at the desire and passion she saw in them. Yet, underneath all of that, Molly also saw fear and uncertainty. "Soon... I promise," she whispered. With that spoken promise, Molly reached for the sweatshirt in the bag at Noelle's feet and pulled it over her head. She kissed Noelle on the cheek and said, "I'll use the bathroom."

Noelle closed her eyes when she felt Molly's lips touch hers so softly. Having let the woman slide the sweatshirt over her head, Noelle stayed as she was until she heard the door close behind the dark woman. "Jesus..." she said aloud. "She's so... hot." And she makes me burn just as hot. Noelle drew in a ragged breath, trying desperately to get her senses back on the right tack. She knew that Molly would accept no less than all of her. Something about the woman told her that. Some dark side that Molly Cartwright was so good at hiding.

And that dark side should have frightened Noelle. Yet it intrigued her. It should have made her run screaming from the woman. Yet it attracted her more than anything else could have possibly attracted her. Molly was so good at hiding that dark side. Yet Noelle knew it lurked just under the surface under the strictest of control by the dark woman. Noelle found herself wondering what would happen if Molly ever let the dark side have free rein.

She shook her head. "Wooo. Come on, girl, snap out of it. Hoist the main and get going," the blond coached herself. Hell, forget hoisting it... may be time to reef it some... or a lot. Noelle shook her head again and sighed, reaching for her bag to finish dressing.

After pulling the door shut behind her, Molly stood for a moment gathering her thoughts. Good God, she's going to kill me, she thought, calling up again the image of Noelle bathed in the glow of the lamp. She stood taller, drawing a deep breath in through her nostrils. "Mmm..." Molly said as she went into the bathroom to change her clothes.

A short time later, the two women walked into the kitchen together to find Mary sitting at the table pale and out of breath.

"Shit!" Noelle rushed to her mother and knelt down beside her. Mary sat very still, eyes closed, trying desperately to get enough air into lungs that felt like they were collapsing in on themselves.

"Mom?" she asked in alarm. "Hey, you okay?" She took her mother's shaking hand and rubbed it briskly, her own hand surprisingly rock steady.

Mary's face looked piqued... old. She looked worn out, and her breathing was labored. Molly stood behind her chair, not touching her but ready to assist if needed. She stared at the younger woman, watching for the sign that she needed help.

"Where does it hurt, Mom? Does your chest hurt?"

For the first time since Molly met the irrepressible woman, Mary did not wave off any of the concern. She clutched her daughter's hand tightly, the fear evident in her tired eyes as she gasped for breath.

Molly rubbed the older woman's shoulders gently, soothingly. "Go easy, Mare... go easy, kid," Molly whispered, willing the older woman to breathe better. Come on, babe... you can do it. Go slow... go slow...

Noelle stayed where she was, not moving, not taking her eyes off of her mother. Her face could have been carved from stone... it showed no emotion at all. And her intense green eyes were shuttered.

What the hell? Why isn't sh- She's scared to death... and she's hiding, Molly thought, drawing the only logical conclusion she could from the reaction of the woman who loved her mother more than most people loved another person. Molly kept contact with Mary, vowing right then to keep an eye on Noelle as well as the woman in distress.

"How 'bout we take a quick trip to the ER to get you checked out?" Noelle asked cheerfully, her tone belying the tension emanating from her body. "It won't take long. Whaddaya say, Mare?"

It was a few minutes before Mary answered her daughter, and her answer, while spoken in a still tired and slightly out of breath voice, relieved Noelle.

"Hell no. I'll be okay." Mary squeezed Noelle's hand and reached up to stroke her hair. "I'll be okay," she repeated in a whisper. Mary was breathing easier, her lungs working more efficiently, carrying the life-giving oxygen to her cells as they were supposed to.

Noelle rubbed Mary's thigh soothingly. "What happened?"

Mary smiled. "Must have stood up too quickly when I was picking up a napkin I dropped," she hedged, not looking her daughter in the eye.

Molly quickly looked around, noting that there were no napkins either on the table or the counter. She frowned. What the hell is going on? Come on, Noe, she really needs to be checked out. Come on, tell her you're taking her... come on, damn it...

Noelle smiled at Mary. "Okay, Ma. Don't move so damned fast next time, okay? You'll hurt yourself. Now stay there... we'll finish for you." Noelle stood up, kissed Mary on the cheek, then moved to the counter to finish the dinner preparations.

Goddamn it! Why didn't she insist? She needs to be checked out. Damn! Molly thought angrily. She waited until Noelle's back was turned to move around to the front of Mary's chair and stare hard at the seated woman. "I think you're not being honest," she whispered for Mary's ears only.

Mary looked at her with pleading in her deep brown eyes. Please, Molly, they seemed to beg the dark woman. Not now. Please.

Molly's eyes narrowed as she argued with herself. Damn! She needs to go to the hospital. But do I force the issue? Molly growled low in her throat. It was a sound of pure frustration. Sky blue eyes met chocolate brown. Molly opened her mouth to argue, but weak fingers on her hand stopped her.

Looking into those tired eyes, Molly... knew. In that one moment of silent communication, in that one wrenching moment of crystal clarity, Molly saw the truth.

Oh dear God.

The tall woman closed her eyes and took a shaky breath. No. Oh God, please no. Please, Molly begged to Whomever would listen. Oh, Mary... I'm... sorry. She felt the tears fill her eyes and willed herself not to do that, not to let the tears come. Then she blew out a breath and opened her eyes. She nodded once. "For Noelle," she conceded in a broken whisper.

Mary smiled gently, nodding her head in acknowledgment of the concession, the look of gratitude for the woman in front of her and love for the child of her heart blazing in her deep brown eyes. "Thank you," she whispered for the tall woman's ears only. "For Noelle."

Molly shook her head in defeat at the look in those eyes, then she straightened and went to ask Noelle what needed to be done.

Mary didn't get up from her seat; she just sighed and shook her head, drawing in a deep breath for the first time in 15 minutes. Dear God, please let me stay just until she finds her own way, until she can do it without me. I'm so afraid for her. Don't take me yet, the older woman pleaded silently, her tired eyes never leaving her daughter. She felt the tears coming and tried desperately to stop them. She closed her eyes to rid herself of the picture of her daughter's grief and anguish after her death. Yet, even with her eyes closed, her mind still conjured up the image of Noelle's grief-stricken face.

It wasn't long before the two younger women had dinner on the table. It was mostly a quiet affair... or would have been if not for Noelle. Mary didn't eat much, not feeling hungry, and Molly was occupied keeping her eye on both Potter women. Noelle chatted throughout the meal much more than was normal even for her. The incessant chattering was just about to get on Molly's nerves when Mary pushed her plate back and announced that she was going to lie down.

Before she got up from the table, Mary looked at the two younger women, the two women that, less than an hour ago, had been playing like two children. Now they seem... older... more world-weary. Mary sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the trouble earlier," she said in a tired voice, apologizing not so much for what happened, but for the look on their faces... the look she put there.

Molly reached across the table and clasped Mary's hand in her larger ones. "Don't be, Mary. It happens," she answered quietly.

Noelle laughed obnoxiously and waved off Mary's comment. "Go lie down, Ma. We'll take care of the dishes," she said too loudly. She got up and carried her and Mary's dishes to the counter by the sink. She kept her back to the women and filled the sink with hot, soapy water.

Molly's eyes followed Noelle, worried about her, worried about how she was reacting to the situation. This isn't good. Not good at all. The blue eyes swung back to Mary, looking to reassure the older woman that her daughter would be okay. But will she? Will she really be okay? God help us. The two women looked deep into each other's eyes in silent concern for Noelle.

Then Molly looked at Mary intently, noting the fatigue and stress on the woman's face. "Come on, Mary. Why don't you go lie down and take it easy? Don't worry about the kitchen. We'll take care of it," she coaxed gently.

Mary nodded, then slowly got up from the table and walked out of the room. Molly watched her go, noting how she shuffled more than walked. Then she turned her attention back to the blond woman at the sink. Something's not right. Goddamn it, why didn't Noelle insist she go to the hospital? Molly growled in frustration.

She picked up her dish and glass and put them down roughly on the counter next to Noelle.

Noelle flinched at the sound but didn't say a word. She walked to the table to finish clearing it.

Molly watched her incredulously... and sadly. What is wrong with her? Does she have no clu- Wait... she's in denial. She's denying the whole damned thing. She doesn't want to see that Mary is ill. She can't accept it. But how the HELL will that help Mary? Jesus, this is all screwed up.

When Noelle came back to the sink with her hands full of dishes and things from the table, Molly began to plead with her. "Oh, Noelle. Honey, please, don't you see? Don't you see that she needs to go to the hospital? She needs to be checked out, Noe. It could have been a heart attack. We need to rule all that out," the taller woman said softly, her tone gentle. "She needs to see a doctor," she repeated. With the words and the tone, Molly hoped to force the younger woman to deal with the situation. Or at the very least take her mother to the hospital.

Molly stared at Noelle with shuttered eyes, waiting for a reaction.

"She'll be fine," Noelle answered hollowly, not straying from her chore.

"Please, Noelle," Molly coaxed. "How do you know? She needs to go to the hospital."

"She'll be fine," Noelle repeated, not looking at the other woman.

Molly reached around Noelle to turn the water off, gently turning the woman to face her. "Stop. Just stop," she said in a low voice. "Listen to yourself. You saw the same thing I did. Please reconsid-"

Noelle turned abruptly from the taller woman. "I said she'll be fine," she snapped. Then, in a broken whisper, "She... has to be." Then she turned the water back on to finish the task.

That one statement, those four words finally gave Molly the insight she was looking for. She looked closer at Noelle... and saw just how badly her hands were shaking as she did the dishes. Oh, baby... She reached out a hand and laid it gently on Noelle's shoulder.

Suddenly, Molly was startled by the sound of glass shattering... again.

"Shit," Noelle swore softly, staring into the sink.

Molly squeezed gently. "It's only a glass... we can get another."

"Mmm," came the absent reply.

When Noelle didn't move, Molly peered over the shorter woman's shoulder to see what it was that she was staring at so intently.

"Whoa," she said when she saw the blood coming from somewhere on Noelle's hand. She tried for casual, not wanting to alarm Noelle. Molly turned off the water, grabbed the dishtowel on the counter, and wrapped it tightly around Noelle's bleeding hand. "Let's get you to the table so I can take a look."

When Noelle was seated at the table, silent and stony, Molly gently removed the towel, noting with relief that it was a long, but shallow cut between Noelle's thumb and forefinger.

"It's not too bad. Nothing a bandaid won't take care of. And they are...?"

"On top of the refrigerator," Noelle supplied hollowly, not taking her eyes from her bleeding hand.

Molly got one and put it over the cut. Then she noticed how much worse the small hands were shaking. She clasped the trembling hands tightly, silently offering her support, her strength.

Noelle closed her eyes. "I can't... lose her," she finally whispered in a voice so soft Molly had to strain to hear it. "I can't..."

Molly wanted to take the small woman into her arms, wanted to take away the fear and anguish she knew would be in those big green eyes. Yet she knew that she had to let Noelle come to her. She could only offer her support; she couldn't force the woman to take the offering, so she held the smaller hands in her own and watched Noelle closely.

Noelle didn't open her eyes, wanting to block out the world and all of its misery and fear and pain. She bowed her head under the weight of that pain and fear. I can't lose her. God, no... please. She felt the fear begin to take over, felt the wave building.

Just when she thought the wave would crash over her, drowning her in its intensity, she felt a hand under her chin, lifting her head. Noelle opened her eyes and found herself looking into blue eyes so full of understanding and compassion that her heart contracted painfully and her breath caught in her chest.

"Please don't," she whispered brokenly, closing her eyes once again.

Molly heard the tears. She let go of Noelle's hands and cupped smooth, soft cheeks in her hands. "I... I have to," she whispered back. "I won't leave you alone."

Molly felt the younger woman start to tremble. She stood up and opened her arms to the woman, praying that she'd take the offering.

Noelle looked up slowly until she met those eyes again. Seeing the open arms and the compassion on that beautiful face was the catalyst Noelle needed. With a whimper, she launched herself into the solace that was Molly's embrace. She felt the arms go around her, holding her tightly. She leaned into the embrace, taking what the other woman was giving. She threw her arms around Molly's waist, grabbing tightly onto her sweater.

Molly wrapped her arms around the trembling body. She brought the woman as close to her body as possible, willing her warmth to flow to Noelle. Molly smiled slightly when Noelle burrowed into her neck. She rested her cheek against the golden blond hair, not easing the firmness of the embrace.

They stayed that way for long minutes, neither moving to end the contact. When Molly felt the shaking subside enough, she pulled back a bit. When Noelle looked up at her, Molly smiled gently.

"Go sit with Mary. I'll finish up here. Then we'll go home."

Noelle drew in a deep breath, the scent of the strong woman who held her filling her lungs, her whole being. Without a word, Noelle slipped from the arms and left the kitchen, feeling the cold that Molly's arms had kept at bay return to permeate her soul.

Molly stayed where she was, allowing her own fear to finally show. I'm going to lose another, she thought in despair, feeling the long-forgotten helplessness come racing back. I'm going to lose another. The sentence repeated over and over in her head until Molly physically pulled herself away from the feelings and moved to the sink to finish the dishes. After picking the largest pieces broken glass out of the now tepid water, she refilled the sink with hot water and began to wash the dishes.

As she completed the task, Molly deliberately kept her mind clear of any of the thoughts that raged through her head just a few minutes ago. After wiping the table, she rinsed and folded the washcloth and slung it over the edge of the sink, tossing the dirty dishtowel into the small laundry basket in the corner. The tall woman took one last look around, and, satisfied with the order and cleanliness of the small kitchen, she snapped off the light and left the room.

Molly found Noelle curled up on the couch. The green eyes were closed, Noelle's knees were drawn up to her chest, and the blond head rested on the back of the long couch. The only light came from a small table lamp at the other end of the sofa. Noelle sat mostly in shadow, and Molly suspected she preferred it that way. She leaned a shoulder against the doorframe, content to watch Noelle for a few minutes.

Not asleep, Noelle felt the eyes on her. She knew that if she opened her eyes, she'd find Molly looking at her. Not wanting to deal with what she'd see in those eyes, she kept hers closed. She felt Molly draw closer, but she still didn't look at her.

The green eyes finally opened when she felt Molly sit on the couch next to her. The blonde head turned to look at the woman next to her.

"I thought you were going to sit with Mary?" came the husky question.

Noelle shook her head slightly. "She's sleeping." The silence reigned after that short comment, neither woman having a desire for aimless chatter.

"You okay?" Noelle finally asked softly into the silence. She waited for Molly to respond, but all she got was a shrug of the broad shoulders and a muffled "Fine."

Noelle picked her head up and frowned at the woman at the other end of the couch. The tall woman didn't meet the question in Noelle's green eyes.

"Fine? You don't sound fine," she commented gently. "Tell me what's going on in that head of yours, Molly. What are you thinking?"

Molly stayed as she was, letting the question run through her mind. What am I thinking? I'm thinking I don't want to do this right now. I don't have any desire to... shit. Forget it.

Molly shook her head. "It's nothing. Really. I'm just tired, that's all."

"Got it." With that, Noelle stood up abruptly and headed for the foyer. "Let's go. I'm tired, too."

Molly looked up, startled at Noelle's sudden change of attitude. Now what? What the hell did I do NOW? Like I need this... like I want this right now. She got up and silently followed Noelle into the foyer and slipped into her boots, not bothering to tie them. She picked up her stuff and brushed past Noelle and out the door.

Noelle gritted her teeth and finished tying her boots. She stepped outside, making sure the door was closed and locked behind her.

The short drive to Noelle's house was made in stony silence, neither woman giving any quarter. Noelle kept her eyes firmly on the road while Molly stared out her window. When they reached their destination, Noelle quickly and efficiently backed the trailer into the driveway. Without a word to her passenger, she shut off the engine and got out of the vehicle. Despite the late hour and the bad weather, and although she was tired and in a terrible mood, Noelle automatically went through the routine of covering the boat against the weather.

Molly had closed her eyes at the sound of Noelle's door closing. She felt the irrational anger surging and hastily decided to get home before it took over. She didn't want to add to the younger woman's burden, and Molly knew herself well enough after 34 years to know that if she spoke to Noelle right then, she'd say something she'd regret later.

Molly grabbed her bag and got out. She couldn't keep the anger out of her voice long enough to even thank her companion for the sail and dinner. Then she strode across the dark street to her vehicle. After she climbed into the Rover, Molly just... sat there. Both hands had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. Thoughts were jumbling around in her head, and Molly tried desperately to make some order out of them.

Why am I so angry? Why at her? Why is SHE so angry? What the hell is going on? The thoughts tumbled around like BINGO numbers in the roller.

A movement across the street alerted the dark woman to the fact that Noelle had finished covering the boat and had gone into the house. Molly scowled and reached to put the keys in the ignition but stopped just before turning them.

Damn. I can't leave... not like this. But I know what'll happen if I go back in there. We'll get into it and it won't be a good scene, not at all. I should go home. Go home, Cartwright. Don't even go there... don't.

Even as she demanded herself not to go to Noelle, Molly was yanking the keys out of the ignition, some part of her heeding the call that the young woman's soul was making on her own. It was a call that Molly was unable to resist. "Damn," she growled. Then she got out of the Rover and walked quickly to the house.

The woman didn't bother knocking on the door. She simple entered the house. She paused in the foyer, peeling off her parka and listening for Noelle. When Molly heard her in the kitchen, she followed the sound. She found Noelle leaning against the counter with her arms crossed over her chest. Next to her on the counter sat an open box of "Cookie Crisp" cereal and a glass of milk. The blond was chewing the cereal absently.

Molly stopped short, the normalcy of the scene in the kitchen disarming her and dissipating some of the anger. She sighed heavily and made the last few steps it took to stand next to the shorter woman. Molly leaned on the counter next to her, their arms and shoulders touching casually.

Silently and without looking at the taller woman, Noelle offered the box to Molly who dug out a handful of the tiny cookies. She shoved the entire handful into her mouth. Not realizing there were so many, it took Molly a minute to shift the cookies around so she could chew them properly. She heard Noelle chuckle.

What a hog, Noelle thought. Serves her right if they're stuck in her big mouth until they dissolve. Then she laughed lightly.

"Mots o buny?" Molly asked around a mouthful of cookies.

Noelle looked at Molly, making a face. "That's gross. Didn't your mother ever tell you not to talk with your mouth full?"

Molly shook her head, chewing furiously, blue eyes sparkling gently.

Noelle snorted. "She damned well should have. If Mary didn't tell me a zillion times when I was a kid, she didn't tell me once."

Molly didn't reply. She just reached around the blond to retrieve the glass of milk. It was almost full, but Molly drank it in two huge gulps. Then she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand as she put the now-empty glass in the sink and regarded Noelle intently.

"That's sick. Really sick, Cartwright," Noelle commented, shaking her head in disgust.

Then suddenly the environment in the kitchen changed. It grew more serious, and the two women could feel the change, they could sense the shift in the tone as they looked into each other's eyes.

"Hey," Molly finally said softly, turning slightly toward Noelle. "Think we can talk for a minute?"

"There's nothing to talk about. I'm sorry for acting like a jerk. I shouldn't have snapped like I did," Noelle replied abruptly, moving to pass Molly.

Noelle stopped when she felt the strong, steady hand on her arm. She didn't look at Molly.

"It won't happen again," she said softly, not looking directly at the woman holding her arm.

"That's not what I'm talking about and you know it," Molly replied in a whisper.

Noelle turned on her suddenly, wrenching her arm from the dark woman's grasp. "Then what the hell ARE you talking about? You don't know a damned thing! You don't know anything about my mother, so keep your damned advice to yourself, do you understand?" Noelle hissed, her eyes blazing green flames.

Molly tried to remain rational, knowing that once she stepped over that line there would be no turning back. "I only wanted-"

"No," Noelle interrupted her. "You just wanted to tell me what to do about my mother. SHE WILL BE FINE," Noelle growled. "Now back off."

Molly stood to her full height, feeling the anger surging again... and this time she let it. "Are you really that hard-headed and blind that you won't see it? You asked her yourself to go to the hospital, for God's sake! Then you just ignore it? What the hell is wrong with you? Even I can see she's sick and needs to see a doctor. And I'M not even family! Open your eyes, Noelle!"

Noelle had taken a step back from the woman during the tirade. She had intended on simply ending the conversation, but Molly's last remark threw her right back into the argument.

"What?!" Noelle asked, the anger evident in her voice and posture. "That is the stupidest, most idiotic thing anyone could have EVER said! You're absolutely right, Molly Cartwright, you are NOT family, so you'd be wise to keep your comments to yourself! You have no idea what you're talking abo-"

Noelle was interrupted by hands suddenly on her arms and an angry Molly Cartwright in her face. "NO! YOU are the one who doesn't know what you're talking about!" Molly yelled. "She's sick, Noelle! Grow up and get with it! She's dyi-"

Molly felt the sting of the slap as her head was jerked to the side an instant before she heard the noise. She brought her eyes to Noelle's face, vaguely registering the pain and rage in the green eyes through her own grief and anger.

Noelle stepped away from the dark woman, horror evident on her face as realization dawned. "I... Oh God... I'm..." Noelle kept backing away as she looked at the red handprint on Molly's left cheek.

"Molly... I'm... I'm sorry. Please..."

Molly didn't answer. She just shook her head in anger and frustration and left the kitchen, her posture tense and unbending. She paused in the foyer only long enough to shrug into her coat. She swung the door open, the blast of icy air from outside matching the icy feeling in her heart and soul. A small voice and a soft hand stopped her from going, though.

"Molly, wait," Noelle's soft voice whispered. "Please."

When she saw Molly hesitate, Noelle stepped closer to the tall woman, not breaking the physical contact she had with her.

"I... I'm sorry," she said hesitantly. "Please forgive me."

Noelle said no more, and she let her hand slip slowly from Molly's forearm. She dropped her eyes to the floor and... waited.

Molly felt the anger drain away, leaving in its wake a hollowness, a void that only the small woman could fill. She turned to face the other woman, the sight making her breath catch in her throat.

Noelle stood before her, her blond head bowed and her shoulders slumped in defeat. She looked as if she carried Atlas' burden on her own shoulders. And maybe she did. Molly knew that it was more than most people could handle.

She reached a hand out to tilt Noelle's chin up, wanting to see those expressive green eyes. She waited as they slowly lifted to connect with her own.

What Molly saw in the depths of those eyes told her everything she needed to know. She saw the grief and pain, the anger and fear and helplessness and the... Hope. She doesn't want to believe it. Noelle is hoping that it's not true. Oh, honey, it would be so much easier if you would just accept it. Mary is dying. Let these last days with her be more than just denial and false hope. Please. For Mary... and for you.

These thoughts were on the tip of Molly's tongue to say to Noelle as she searched her eyes, but for some unexplainable reason she kept them to herself. Maybe it was because she desperately wanted Mary to be okay for Noelle. Molly knew the toll Mary's death would take on the small woman's emotions. She knew it would devastate Noelle, knew it would shatter her heart into countless tiny pieces. She only hoped she'd be able to pick up those pieces and help mend her heart.

I WILL be there for you, Noelle Potter. I swear it, Molly vowed silently, remembering her own pain and devastation... and loneliness. I won't let you go through this alone. I promise.

Noelle remained silent, not moving, not saying a word. She felt as if Molly was searching for something... asking for something.

"Stay," Noelle heard herself asking quietly. "Please stay... don't go yet."

Molly sighed deeply, feeling as if her emotions were in tatters. But she smiled gently at the woman and nodded. "Okay," she agreed softly.

Saying nothing more, Noelle walked slowly into the living room and sat on the couch. She curled herself into the far corner of it, leaving ample space for Molly to sit if she chose to.

Molly had taken off her heavy parka once again, hanging it back no the coat-tree in the corner of the foyer. Then she followed Noelle into the other room.

She watched Noelle for a few moments. The blond was staring into space, absently playing with the sailboat chain on her necklace.

Please let me say the right thing, Molly prayed.

The tall woman walked over to the empty end of the couch and just stood there. When Noelle looked at her, she raised and eyebrow and waited for permission.

"Mmm... please," Noelle offered, watching as Molly dropped gracefully onto the couch. She half-turned her body to face Noelle.

Molly looked down at her hands resting on her lap. "Can we talk now?" she asked in a low murmur.

Noelle swallowed nervously. "I..." She shrugged. "There's... nothing, really, to talk about," she finally said softly.

"Will you..." Molly sighed. Okay, how to do this... Again deciding that head-on was best with this small woman, Molly looked right at Noelle.

"She's dying."

At the words, Noelle flinched and curled into herself, bringing her knees up and clasping her arms around her legs. "No," she whispered, the word barely audible.

Molly scooted closer to Noelle, bringing a knee up to rest on the couch. She reached a hand out to rest on Noelle's arm, sensing the blond woman would want the contact although she'd never ask for it.

"Oh, Noe, please... baby, don't do this. Don't do it to Mary... and don't do it to yourself," Molly whispered intently. "Please."

Noelle just shook her head. "You don't... no. No, she's fine. She's just tired, she needs to rest more, that's all..."

Molly brought a hand to Noelle's chin and turned the heart-shaped face to her. She ducked her head a bit to look into the deep green eyes. What she saw there, the intensity of the grief and pain, almost melted her resolve to do this with Noelle. Instead of answering, she simply looked into Noelle's eyes and nodded.

Noelle could no more stop the tears than a piece of paper could hold back the raging force of a wild river. She rested her forehead on her knees and fought valiantly to keep them at bay. But it was fruitless. After a short while, the effort became almost too much. Then she felt a hand on her head, long fingers combing gently through her hair.

And that one touch was the final assault against the walls that held her together.

Noelle began to tremble, the tears starting to leak from her eyes. She buried her head deeper into her knees, not making a sound.

Molly felt the small shoulders begin to shake. Is she crying? the dark woman wondered, not hearing anything from Noelle.

"Noe," she whispered, urging Noelle to look at her. "Oh, baby," she said softly when Noelle looked at her. She saw the clenched jaw and felt the tension in the body next to her as Noelle tried to hold it back. Molly cupped her cheeks. "Don't fight it... let it go, babe," she coaxed. "Just let it go..."

The green eyes closed and the chin trembled. Noelle moved to curl tighter into herself and away from Molly, but the dark woman stopped her. Noelle felt Molly's strong arms go around her shoulders, tugging her closer.

Suddenly she pushed herself away from Molly. "No." Then she stood up quickly. "NO! Get out of my house," she snarled.

Maybe THIS needs taken care of first... Molly slowly stood up, as well. "Pisses you off that Mary's dying, doesn't it?" she asked abruptly.

"Shut up."

Molly took a step closer. "Makes you want to hurt someone, hit something until it stops hurting, doesn't it?"

"Shut the hell up!" Noelle growled dangerously.

"No. Let's get this bullshit out of the way now so the time you have left with your mother is spent in love, not anger. Come on, Noelle," Molly taunted. "I know you're madder than hell at the injustice. She's your mother... and she'd dying. I know you're pissed off."

"Don't do this, Molly. Please don't do this," Noelle pleaded.

Molly continued as if Noelle hadn't spoken. "God is going to take your mother from you," she commented in a hard, cold voice, "and you're going to be left here without her. You're not going to be able to see your mother anytime you want. You won't be able to tal-"

Molly caught the hand an instant before it struck her cheek. She let the force of the swing spin Noelle around, then she yanked the angry woman against her bigger body. Molly wrapped strong arms around the shaking woman, holding her tightly.

"She's dying, Noelle," she breathed in her ear. "She's dying."

"Shut the fuck up!" Noelle hissed, struggling against Molly's arms.

"She's dying," Molly repeated, tightening her hold on the woman. "Let it go..."

Noelle continued to struggle. "Stop it!" she sobbed. "You... don't know... stop... don't say that!"

The change was sudden in the body Molly held. If she hadn't had such a firm grasp on Noelle, the young woman would have collapsed to the floor. Molly brought them both gently to the carpet, not relinquishing her hold.

"Oh God... why? Why? Why my mother?" Noelle railed against God. "Why are You going to take her?! She never did anything! She is a good person! WHY?!"

Molly held the sobbing woman to her chest, murmuring soothing sounds into her ear.

"It's not FAIR! Why Mary?! Why her? It's not... fair..."

There was silence after that, the only sound the soft sobs coming from Noelle. It wasn't long, however, before Noelle was whispering to no one in particular, "I can't do it without her... I won't..."

"Wait a minute," Molly said firmly as she turned the woman to face her. She cupped the tear-stained face and stared hard into the grief-filled green eyes.

"Don't even talk like that."

"How do I go on without her? How do I live without my mother?" she cried. "I CAN'T!"

"Yes you can," Molly said in a shaking voice, the thought of losing Noelle almost her undoing. "You can, and you will. It'll be hard, but you'll do it. You will. You'll get through this." Molly paused. "I know you don't want to hear this, but this isn't the worst thing you will ever live through. It only feels like it right now."

Noelle searched the blue eyes, and when she saw the sadness there, she realized it was from something other than Mary dying. Her own sadness was forgotten for the moment. Molly turned her eyes from Noelle, looking just past her shoulder into the darkness of the room's corners.

"What could be worse than losing a parent, Molly? What could possibly hurt more than that?" she asked softly, bringing her hands up to thread in Molly's hair, needing the connection with the other woman.

"Tell me. Please tell me. What could be worse than losing my mother?" Noelle waited in silence, her hands still in the dark hair, still holding on tightly to the woman in front of her.

Anguished blue eyes finally came back around to look at Noelle.

"Losing a child" was the hollow answer.

Continued in Part 9.

Back To Main Page