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 9

"What?" Noelle whispered brokenly, leaning back to hold and search the face in front of her. She waited until the anguished blue eyes turned back to look at her.

"What did you just say?" Noelle asked again in a whisper.

"I… nothing. I'm sorry, this isn't about me. I shouldn't have said anything. Never mind, okay?" Molly said, then she gently untangled herself from the woman with her and stood up.

Oh no you don't, Noelle thought as she scrambled to her feet. "No, Molly," she disagreed quietly. "You're wrong… this IS about you. You just made it about you," she said gently.

Molly shook her head and glanced at Noelle. "For that, I'm sorry. I never should have said anything." Try as she might, she was unable to tear her eyes from the dark green looking back at her.

Noelle stepped closer to the dark woman. She laid her hand on the strong shoulder. "Please tell me," she said softly, simply. Then she stood silent, watching the battle wage in those expressive blue eyes.

Molly leaned over to the woman to look deeply into her eyes as she held one of Noelle's hands. She closed her eyes then and straightened up. She drew in a shaky breath. "Baby, I… I can't. I want to let you in, I… want you to know. Please believe me. But I can't. It's… not the time."

"Please," Noelle insisted softly. "I… need… to know. Please."

Molly opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again instead. Noelle nodded in silent encouragement. The blue eyes dropped, unable to withstand the gentle onslaught on her emotions. Molly swallowed convulsively, trying desperately to keep it together. I don't… I don't know if I can do it…

The two women stood silently beside each other, one waging an emotional battle and the other offering emotional support.

Please, Molly… please let me in… Noelle begged silently as she gazed at the tall woman.

"Let's sit down, okay?" Molly finally said. The two women sat on the couch, this time sitting close, their bodies touching along arms and thighs. Noelle shifted slightly toward Molly, just enough to rest her arm on the back of the sofa so she could gently play with the dark hair spread there. She said nothing, sensing that this woman needed to be able to talk on her own terms and in her own time. Noelle offered her gentle support and hoped Molly trusted her enough to share her story with her.

The dark woman began softly, hesitantly, her husky voice devoid of all emotion. "I… when I was a sophomore… in college, I… got pregnant…"

She got pregnant by a boy she barely knew in one night of… stupidity. Yet the result of that stupidity was the greatest gift she could ever have received. The pregnancy was uneventful. Molly delighted in those nights when she laid in bed feeling the baby move and stretch inside of her. She came to love that unborn baby with all of her being… she felt a mother's love from the beginning.

But the delivery, as with most first babies, was difficult and long. Instead of estranging her from her newborn son, however, the delivery made her love the tiny human being even more than she did before. More than she thought was possible. The young mother chose to nurse her son instead of bottle-feed him, and each time she brought her newborn son to her breast, her love for him grew. That baby was not only a part of her body, but a part of her heart… and soul. And he was the most vital part.

Molly spent as much time as possible with her son. She finished school, fortunate to be able to take afternoon classes and work late evenings while Mrs. Johansen, a neighbor who's daughter was the same age as Molly, watched the young boy.

Each day Molly spent with her son, each moment, caused the two to become even closer. And she cherished each of those moments… the wonder on his face when they went to the Pittsburgh Zoo for the first time and he saw an elephant up close… the joy on the toddler's face as she swung him up in her arms when she came home from school… the big gray eyes that were a gift from his father.

He was a good boy, and he was rambunctious like all toddlers. As he got older, though, he settled down into a serious, introspective young boy who had a fondness for dinosaurs and outer-space. He was a boy who studied everything, pondered things, took life slowly… and that made Molly slow down. He made his mother appreciate the little things… ants at work, birds building a nest, ducks swimming at the park… and he didn't have to try. He just… was.

When the little boy with the big gray eyes started school, Molly enrolled her son in the local elementary school where he flourished intellectually and socially. Every day the boy came home with new tales of school and his friends. For Molly, seeing the boy's eyes light up when he talked about school was so very heartwarming. The longer he was in school, the more years he was learning, the greater his love for everything related to school visibly grew. As he got older, he and his mother would have discussions on different topics, sometimes ending up yelling at each other, but more often laughing about it.

All of this came to a screeching halt one afternoon in spring. Molly's son, who was ten years old, was down the street playing in the school playground when Molly heard three shots ring out.

With a mother's inborn sense of her child's welfare, Molly Cartwright knew. She knew, even before she hit the sidewalk running, that her son was hurt. It seemed to take forever to get to the park. When she ran up to the group gathered in the playground, she shoved violently through the crowd to see a couple adults hovered over the still body of a small boy.

"Get an ambulance, damn it!" someone yelled.

Molly grabbed the man closest to the body and tossed him aside with the ease of a child tossing a toy away. She dropped to her knees next to the body of her son. "Oh God… no," she whimpered. Then she gathered her son's still, small body into her arms, oblivious to the blood and other bodily fluids slowly leaking from the boy. She rocked him gently, smoothing his hair back, kissing his face and whispering in his ear. "I love you, Eli… I love you, bud. Hang on for Mommy, okay? Please hang on. We'll get you fixed up real quick, okay? Just hang on for Mommy, bud…" Molly's voice was steady as she encouraged her son to keep breathing.

An eternity later, Molly felt hands on her shoulders and heard a voice speaking in her ear. "Please, ma'am, let us have him. We need to get him to the hospital."

Molly let the paramedics take her son from her arms. "Please don't hurt my baby," she pleaded with them.

She stayed where she was, on her knees in the grass, while the medics started an IV, got an endotracheal tube in, and patched the boy up as best they could at the park.

"Move it, folks! We gotta get him out of here NOW!" They walked rapidly to the waiting ambulance, carefully but quickly pushing the stretcher through the grass. They loaded the stretcher and were just about to close the back doors of the ambulance when Molly stopped them with a snarl.

"I want to go with him."

The medic turned to look at the mother, the look in her eyes stopping him short. They were an eery blue, anquish and pain starkly evident in them.

"Look, ma'am, there's not much room, and we need to work on him…."

"Come on, Molly, we'll follow in my car," Mrs. Johansen offered, putting her arm around Molly's waist.

"NO! What if he wakes up? He'll be scared… what if he looks for me? I have to go with him…"

The driver turned to the calmer woman. "We don't have time. We need to go right now. RIGHT NOW," he insisted.

Mrs. Johansen nodded and started tugging Molly toward her waiting car. "Come on, Mol… we'll be right behind them and the hospital isn't far. Come on."

"If he… if he wakes up, tell him… tell him Mama loves him," the dark woman whispered before turning and walking to her neighbor's car.

At the hospital, the team of emergency room doctors and nurses worked on the small body for some time before finally stopping. They did all that they could for the small boy with the gunshot wound.

"Ms. Cartwright?"

Molly turned from the window where she stared out into the bright sunshine and strode to the doctor. As soon as she got close enough to see the doctor's eyes, she knew. She knew she'd never see those big gray eyes light up with joy again. She knew she'd never again feel those skinny little arms clasp her neck in a tight hug. She knew she'd never hear that sweet voice telling her he loved her.

"Can I…" her voice cracked. "Can I be with him?" she asked the doctor, not needing an explanation.

The doctor nodded in understanding. "Follow me," she whispered gently.

The doctor stopped just outside a closed door and turned to the tall woman. "Ms. Cartwright, we need your permission to turn off the life support."

Oh God, Molly agonized. "Only if I can hold him," she finally responded.

"Of course. He's-"

"My baby. He's my precious baby boy."

The doctor pushed the door open and stepped aside to let this mother in to her baby. She watched as Molly walked to the side that didn't have any machines and crouched next to the high bed.

The doctor shook her head in sympathy and moved to the bleeping respirator. She waited until the dark woman looked at her and nodded. Then she flipped the switch off. Quickly she turned to the small body on the big bed and removed all the hoses and IVs, leaving a boy that looked for all the world like he was just sleeping on the bed, the only evidence of the fatal injury a large bandage in the center of his chest.

"I'll leave you alone," she said, laying a hand on the little boy's shoulder as she slipped out of the room.

Molly waited until she heard the door close before standing up. Her son was still breathing on his own, but even she, in her untrained mind, knew they weren't life-giving breaths. She moved to lie down next to her son, gathering his body in her strong arms. She rolled them over until he was lying on her chest, his limp, cold little body struggling to draw in air, his dark head resting on her chest.

She stroked his hair and rubbed his back. "I used to hold you like this when you were just a tiny baby, Eli. You loved when I rubbed your back and snuggled with you. We'd sit for hours together, and I would watch you sleep." Molly talked quietly to her son, feeling the breaths come farther and farther apart.

She picked her head up and kissed the top of the silky dark hair. "It's okay, bud. Mommy's right here… you can stop fighting now, baby. It's okay… you did good, you hung on like Mommy asked. It's okay to stop fighting now, baby," she whispered, her voice breaking. She shut her eyes tightly and drew in a shuddering breath. "Go on, go home to God now, Eli. He's waiting for you to come home. Go on… go wait for Mommy. It won't hurt anymore in heaven," she said softly, rubbing her baby's back.

And on that beautiful spring morning, Elijah James Cartwright took his last breath in his mother's arms.

Molly Cartwright considered herself the luckiest woman on the earth. She was there at the exact moment that her son took his very first breath… and she was there at the exact moment her son took his very last breath. She helped her son into the world, and she held him as he left it.

When Molly finally stopped talking, Noelle had tears in her eyes, tears of sorrow… and tears of amazement at the woman who lost the most precious thing a person could ever possibly lose… yet she still went on every day.

"Dear God," Noelle whispered raggedly, blinking the tears back. "How did you survive that? How do you get up every morning and go on? I could never imagine…"

Suddenly Molly turned to the woman beside her, needing to touch her, needing physical contact with her. She cupped smooth cheeks and studied the face as if committing it forever to memory. Her hands roamed over the face much the same as a blind person "saw" another. The blue of Molly's eyes was deep, intense, and the movements almost frantic.

Noelle closed her eyes and let the woman do what she seemed to so desperately need to do. Then she reached up and returned the touch, clasping the beloved face in her hands, holding it as she would hold the world's greatest treasure. The two women stayed that way for sometime, each studying the other face, finding what she needed in the eyes and face and touch of the other. Neither woman moved until Molly grabbed Noelle in a fierce hug, holding her tightly against her chest.

Molly needed this woman. For some inexplicable reason, Molly Cartwright needed this woman to touch her, hold her, ease the pain of a death long past. She needed the small woman's touch on her body… and soul. She needed the hurt soothed by this woman's hands and heart.

Noelle sighed and wrapped her arms around the taller woman. She somehow sensed that Molly needed to touch her, needed to "feel" her with more than her hands. She offered Molly the only thing she had to offer… herself. She prayed that it would be enough for now.

Noelle pulled back slightly from the trembling woman and studied her face for a long moment. The blue eyes were hidden behind almost-translucent lids and dark lashes. The full lips trembled, the movement barely detectable.

The blond woman kissed Molly then, putting all that she had… putting herself… into the kiss. There was no passion in the kiss, no hidden sexual desire. It was simply a kiss of giving and of comfort. An uncomplicated kiss of friendship and shared sorrow.

Molly accepted the kiss with gratitude and a love so brand-new that it was barely noticeable… like a tiny bud peeking up through the hard, cold earth. She didn't recognize the emotion for what it was… she wasn't able to at that moment. Yet it was there.

When the kiss was broken, Noelle spoke softly. "Let me hold you. Come to bed with me and let me soothe you," she offered gently. She got up and held her hand out to the woman.

Molly looked at the offered hand then at the woman who held it out to her. She grasped the small hand tightly and stood up.

"We'll hold each other." And the two women walked silently into the bedroom.

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

The first thing Molly noticed when she woke up was that she wasn't in her own bed. She rolled to her back and stretched her legs to their full length. When her feet poked out from the bottom of the covers, she chuckled to herself. Now I KNOW I'm not in my own bed, the dark woman thought with another quiet laugh. Then she swung her legs out from under the quilts. As she stood up, Molly swept the hair back from her face. "I need a haircut," she said to no one in particular, not liking the wildness her hair seemed to take on every morning.

"No way," a soft, familiar voice said from the doorway.

Molly grinned to herself, and, before turning around, made a show out of stretching to her full height, raising her arms over her head and moaning slightly. Then she turned to the door, finding a blond head and luminous green eyes sparkling gently at her from around the doorframe. Molly smiled and watched the sleep-soft face blush a light pink.

"Morning, Noelle," Molly said in a low, husky voice.

Noelle smiled back. "Good morning," she replied softly, only her head visible around the doorframe.

Molly raised an eyebrow. "Ummm, Noe? Why are you standing there like that?"

The bright green eyes dropped guiltily to the floor and the soft pink turned to bright red. "Ummm… I… well…" Noelle stuttered in embarrassment.

Even her ears blush, Molly thought with delight. "Yes?" she prompted, dropping to sit on the bed. Molly crossed her arms over her chest. She cocked her head to the side and waited for the explanation.

"I, well… you see, I sorta… got up to, ummm, make a pot of… coffee. I…" Noelle sighed then suddenly rushed forward with the explanation in one long breath. "I got up to make the coffee and I thought I would get back here before you woke up so I could change so you wouldn't see but I guess it didn't work like I… thought," Noelle finished lamely, her face blushing even more, if that was possible.

"So whatcha wearing?"


Molly raised her eyebrow again. "Oh?"

Green eyes snapped to blue ones in alarm. "I didn't mean… I mean I… you don't… Nuts." Noelle took an exasperated breath. "That's not what I meant."

Molly let her arms drop and she smiled. "I know. I was just teasing you," Molly said gently. Then she held a hand out to the woman at the door. "Come 'ere."

Noelle looked down again. "I'd rather… don't you need to use the bathroom?"

"Mmmm, no. Please?"

Noelle sighed again. Then, not looking at the woman on her bed, she stepped into the bedroom.

"Oh wow," Molly said softly, amazement evident in her voice. She stood up and walked to the blond woman, transfixed by the sight of her.

Noelle was covered from neck to ankle in flannel. She wore a long flannel nightgown that looked soft and cozy. It was light blue with tiny pink and dark blue flowers sprinkled all over it.

"Wow," Molly repeated. She took Noelle's smaller hand in hers and stepped back to the bed. "I want to lie with you."

Noelle looked at her questioningly but nodded in acquiescence.

Molly sat on the bed then tugged Noelle down next to her and waited until they were both lying on the bed before taking the small woman in her arms. She wrapped her arms around the body next to her, pulling the woman in close.

"Thank you for last night," she breathed into the blond hair. "I… I appreciate it," Molly said sincerely.

Noelle pressed closer, feeling the large hands caressing her back through the flannel. She rested her hands on Molly's lean waist. "No, Molly, thank YOU. Thank you for sharing that with me. I know… I know it must have been… hard."

Molly shrugged. "It was, yeah, but… well, anyway, thank you."

The two women stayed like that until the scent of brewing coffee streamed into the bedroom. Molly stirred. "Mmmm, smells good."

Noelle sat up and ran her hand through her hair. "Let me change and I'll scramble some eggs and stuff." She started to get up but was stopped by a hand holding hers. She turned back to Molly.


"Don't what? Make breakfast?" she asked in confusion.

The dark head shook, hair spilling around broad shoulders. "No. Don't change. I like you like this," Molly said softly.

Noelle looked at her companion, feeling the blush build again. "Okay." Then she got up and padded out of the room.

Molly watched her go, the tantalizing sway of flannel-covered hips almost her undoing. The tall woman fell back onto the bed and groaned in agony. "Oh man, this isn't good… not good at all," she commented, trying to calm her hormones.

Molly stayed in the bedroom until she heard Noelle call her. She followed her nose to the kitchen, smelling the aroma of eggs, toast, bacon, and coffee. As they ate the breakfast, Molly asked about Mary.

"Have you spoken to Mare yet today?"

"Mmhm. I called her first thing this morning. She sounds… tired, but like herself," Noelle related. "Will you spend the day with me today?" she asked in an attempt to change the subject.

Molly allowed the subject change. She smiled. "Only if I can make lunch," Molly agreed.

Noelle looked startled again. "Ummm, I didn't know… you… could cook," she hedged.

Molly grinned broadly. "I can… at least this dish. It's the only thing I can make, and it's my specialty, but I know you'll just love it," she teased gently.

Noelle gulped. "I… okay."

After cleaning up the breakfast dishes, the two women moved to the living room where they spent the morning in companionable silence. Neither woman found it necessary to talk very much at all. They sat together on the couch and unconsciously exchanged touches and looks instead of words. Molly read the Pittsburgh newspaper that Noelle had delivered and worked the crossword puzzles while Noelle worked on lesson plans for Macbeth.

Early in the afternoon, Noelle looked up from her work to find brilliant blue eyes focused intently on her. She dropped her eyes shyly. "Stop that," she admonished softly.

Molly threaded her hand through the silky blond locks and gently massaged the scalp. She shook her head. "No. I won't."

The flanneled woman shrugged.

"You're beautiful."

Noelle looked up quickly, confusion clouding her eyes. "No, I'm not. YOU are. I'd never get tired of looking at you." Green eyes dropped again. "I'm… not."

"Noelle," Molly said, waiting patiently for Noelle to again look at her. "You are," she stated softly, firmly.

"Lunch… how about lunch," Noelle said abruptly.

Molly leaned in to kiss the blond woman softly on the lips. Then she got up from the couch. "One Cartwright Special, coming right up," she called as she strode into the kitchen.

Noelle stayed on the couch. "Am I going to like this… special?" she called into the kitchen.

"Oh yeah you will," came the answer amid bangs and clangs of pots and pans.

"Wanna tell me what it is?" Noelle cringed at a particularly loud noise and muffled "Whoops."

"You'll see. It's a… rare delicacy." The refrigerator door opened. "Ah, there it is." Then it closed a moment later.


"Mmmm, nope. You'll see, Potter, you'll see. But I guarantee you'll ask for more."

Noelle shook her head. "Will you at least tell me where it falls on the Food Pyramid?"

"Uh… not sure about that… meat, I think."

"Oh boy," Noelle groaned. "I better find the Rolaids."

"I heard that!" Molly yelled from the kitchen. She stuck her head around the corner of the door and grinned wickedly. "I'm telling you you're gonna love it," she insisted as she brandished a wooden spoon.

"Okay. Fine. Whatever you say, Molly."

"Good girl. Now, it'll be a few minutes." Then the dark head disappeared back into the kitchen.

Noelle sighed and picked up her copy of Shakespeare's Scottish play. "Like it, my foot," she muttered.

A half an hour later, Molly finally called Noelle into the kitchen. Noelle strolled into the kitchen to the sight of a set table, and a cheerfully bubbling pot on the stove. She stopped to lift the lid of the pot.

"No no," Molly cautioned. "You have to wait. Now sit down so I can serve it up to you."

When Noelle was seated with her napkin in her lap, Molly grabbed the pot from the stove and set it on the table. She winked then grinned at her lunch companion before taking the lid off with a flourish.

Noelle stood up enough to peek into the pot. Then she looked at Molly. Then she looked back into the pot. Then back to Molly.

"It's freaking beans-n-weenies!" she squawcked. "Beans and freaking WEENIES, for God's sake! Weenies! You made me WEENIES! I swear to God, I hate the blasted things! Jesus, why didn't you tell me?!" Noelle plopped back into her chair with a smack to her forehead. She shook her head. "I can't believe it. It took you THAT damned long to make beans-n-weenies?!? Holy SMOKES! I don't get you, Cartwright. I just don't get you." She looked through narrowed eyes at the woman across the table from her… the woman who was right then wearing the most endearing, sweet smile she'd ever seen her wear.

She sighed. And offered up her plate much as Abraham offered up Isaac. "Come on, give it to me." Then more to herself, "I hate these damned things…"

Molly's smile grew into a big grin and she ladled a portion of the contents of the pot onto the proffered plate.

Noelle sniffed it before setting it down. She looked at the chef suspiciously. She dipped her spoon into the… stuff… and took a tentative taste.

Then she took another taste.

Then one more, this one bigger than the first two.

Noelle put her spoon down and looked hard at the woman across from her.

"I want the damned recipe."

Molly jumped up onto her chair and crowed, "She likes it! Woooo!" After she hopped down she leaned over to the blond and kissed her nose. "I told ya you'd like it."

When the two women had eaten their fill, Noelle leaned back in her chair. "Mmm, that was really delicious, Molly. I'm impressed."

Molly grinned at her. "Thank you. You get enough?"

Noelle nodded. "Oh yeah. I couldn't eat another bite if I HAD to." She sighed. "Thank you for making me lunch. Now why don't you-"

Molly shook her head. "No," she interrupted. "I'll clean up. You go sit yourself down in the other room." Molly got up to clear the table, but she stopped and looked at Noelle again. "Coffee?"

"Sure, I'd love a cup."

The rest of the afternoon the women watched "The Quiet Man" with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. They again shared the couch, sitting close, no thoughts of distance between them. As she watched, Molly absently played with Noelle's short hair. And Noelle, for her part, laid her hand on Molly's powerful thigh and kept it there, unconsciously massaging the leg lightly.

Much later that evening, Molly prepared to go home. She stood in the foyer with her coat in one hand and the other on the door. Noelle leaned against the wall, her hands behind her back.

"Thank you for today… and last night," Molly began. But she was silenced by small, soft fingers pressing gently against her lips. Instinctively, she kissed the fingers.

"No thanks, okay? We did it… for each other. There's no need to thank me for that," she whispered. Then she grabbed a handful of Molly's shirt and stood on tiptoe to place a kiss on the mouth she was just touching.

Molly dropped her coat and crushed the smaller woman to her as she fervently returned the kiss. She groaned when she felt a soft tongue come out to hesitantly taste her mouth. She opened to the questing tongue, allowing the gentle intrusion into her body… and soul.

Noelle would have keeled over if it wasn't for Molly's strong arms around her waist. She kissed the tall woman with all she had. Then she broke the kiss and stepped back. She could feel the blush creeping up from her neck to cover her face.

Molly smiled and chucked her under the chin. "I love when you blush." Then she shrugged into her coat and slipped out the door.

Noelle shook her head in wonder and walked back into the living room.

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

Noelle sprinted across the parking lot to the building Monday morning, the long skirt of her dress billowing out behind her strong legs like a parachute.

Damned thing, she growled impatiently, trying futilely to keep the skirt from tripping her. And why are there never any damned parking spots left? she lamented as she ran.

Noelle burst through the door of the building just as the late bell rang. She waved at the people in the office as she ran past, not stopping as she usually did. She knew someone would check her in so she didn't bother stopping, she just sprinted down the now-empty halls and hit the stairs running, taking them two at a time.

She blew into her classroom to find her first period students seated, but talking, and the TV on for morning announcements.

"Hey, look! It's Hurricane Potter," one of her students called out.

"Har har," Noelle answered, somewhat out of breath, as she strode back to her desk. "Settle down and listen for the announcements, gang. I need to take attendance." Noelle fished around in her desk drawer, searching for her white attendance cards. She flipped through them quickly, taking out the cards of those students who were absent.

Ron, Keith, and… Jilly. Where the hell is she? Noelle looked up and asked "Anyone know where Jilly is?"

"Sorry, Ms. P., haven't seen her all weekend," Jenn Rhone answered.

Noelle was worried. Jilly and Jenn were bestfriends, and for Jenn to say that she hadn't heard from Jilly all weekend was a bit worrisome. Not one to jump immediately to alarm, however, Noelle decided to let it rest for the time, promising herself to check at the office at her earliest convenience.

"Okay, let's get the TV off and get Macbeth out, please," Noelle instructed as she walked her envelope to the folder outside of her door. She closed the door. Time to get the show on the road… or rug, as the case may be. She turned to the students with a leering grin on her pretty face.

"Which of thou scurrilous knaves dare take on the mantle of Macbeth? Who shall play him to his death? Who shall be the lovely yet evil Lady Macbeth whose villainy will too lead to untimely death? Also the terrible Hecate; we must fill her role at this present date. And it must needs be that we fill the roles of the vile and treacherous witches three!" Noelle chanted with a cackle thrown in at the end for good effect.

Noelle quickly filled the roles of Macbeth, his wife, and Hecate. Then she gleefully rubbed her hands together. "Now for the witches three… which of thou fair maidens will turn thyself into the hideous and frightful creature that telleth the coming events and dispenseth the dark knowledge of which she possesseth? Who shall be courageous enough to undertake such a perilous journey into evil and darkness and other horrible stuff?"

Noelle chose two girls who always relished reading Shakespeare aloud.

Noelle cackled loudly again. "Let us now resume telling the story of Macbeth and his wicked ways until such time as we reach his death…"

"Wait, Ms. P."

Noelle turned hard green eyes to the speaker. She crept stealthily to the boy who had dared to speak to her. "Joseph, thou horrible and hideous beast, thou darest to talk to this woman without her permission at the least? Thou shalt perish in the bowels of hell! All for you is not well!"

The boy looked at his literature teacher with some alarm.

Noelle winked at him and grinned a bit.

Joe visibly relaxed and let out the breath he had been holding. "You…" he cleared his throat before continuing. "You… didn't pick… the last witch," he said, his voice still laced with trepidation.

"HOW DARE THEE QUESTION MY CHOICE, FIEND!!" Noelle whirled back around to the class and crept feebly yet sneakily back to the front of the room. Then suddenly she gathered herself up to her considerable height of just over 5 feet and said in a cackly voice, "I shall undertake the role of the second of the witches three, thereby completing the terrible trio of doom-bearers I will be."

The class chuckled, knowing they should have expected no less from their teacher. They picked up where they left off Friday, act four, scene one. It was Noelle's favorite part, and she played the part of the second witch with great drama.

"Come, my sisters, come with me, stirrers of the pot we shall be," she chanted, calling the other two "witches" to the front of the classroom with her. Noelle pulled out a desk and the three stood around it stirring the "cauldron" with imaginary spoons. The two girls playing the other witches were only able to use one hand to pantomime the stirring because they needed to hold their books in the other hand. Yet they all stirred dramatically. Noelle had the day's act and scene memorized, Macbeth being her favorite Shakespeare tragedy. She was glad she didn't need a book because she knew it would detract from her "performance."

Noelle listened to the girls play their parts, the excitement of performing coursing through her body, making her almost wiggle like a puppy with the anticipation. When it came time for her to join the other witches in their first chant together, she threw herself into the line.

"Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and caldron bubble."

>From that line on, Noelle was no longer an English teacher in a rural Pennsylvania high school; she was a bearded, evil witch in old Scotland stirring a cauldron of brew.

She waited for, and listened to Hecate's line, the anticipation growing as her favorite line came up.

"… and now about the caldron sing

Like elves and fairies in a ring,

Enchanting all that you put in."

The girl playing Hecate said the line with proper evilness and mirthlessness.

Noelle looked suddenly toward the door, then she turned back to the cauldron and mimed pricking both of her thumbs.

In an old, feeble, voice that dripped with evil, she spoke her line.

"By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes.

Open locks, whoever knocks!"

And Macbeth came in from the hall.

Noelle was so totally captivated by playing the part of the second witch that she was surprised by the bell.

"Oh shoot!" she exclaimed. "Nuts, I guess we'll have to pick up there tomorrow. Finish the scene tonight, gang. Now get out of here," Noelle told them as she pushed the desk back into its place.

The blond teacher strode back to her desk, still feeling the effects of playing so intently the part of a Shakespearean witch. What fun, she thought with a smile. Maybe tomorrow I'll dress up… I have that old costume at home. I think it'll be a hoot, and the kids'll get a kick out of it.

The day went on quite uneventfully, with the exception of Macbeth twice more, until just after lunch. Noelle caught sight of Jilly Michaels in the hallway at the change of class, so she changed course and stopped next to the girl.

She laid a hand on the slight shoulder. "Hey, Jilly." Noelle almost gasped aloud when the young girl turned to face her. The girl's left eye was bruised a dark, angry purple-blue and her bottom lip was split.

"Oh, hey, Coach," Jilly smiled slightly.

Noelle battled for nonchalance. "Woo, that's a beaut," she commented off-handedly. "How'd you do it?"

"I, uh…" the girl fumbled. "I ran into an open cabinet door… kind of stupid of me… caught me right in the eye," Jilly explained lamely.

"Yeah? Wow, looks like it hurts," Noelle said, still casual. "But how'd you bust your lip?"

Jilly's eyes dropped and her hand unconsciously came up to finger her lip. "Chapped… it's chapped," she said softly.

"Jilly, sweetie, please…" Noelle began before she was interrupted by the teen.

"Sorry, Ms. P… I gotta go… don't want to be late to Mr. Wallace. You know how he is," the girl said quickly. She fidgeted nervously, playing with her earrings, shuffling her feet, looking anywhere but at her teacher.

Noelle narrowed her eyes. "Okay," she allowed. "Go on." But I'm not letting this go for long. She watched the girl trot off to her next class.

Because it was her prep, Noelle decided to go see Sandra right then. She turned on her heel and walked back to the main office. Tony was behind the counter talking with Joan Gooding, but they both stopped and smiled at her when she pushed the door open.

"Oh sure. Talking about me again, I see," she snapped playfully.

Tony looked confused for a second. "Huh? Oh. Oh, I get it." He shook his head and, with a long-suffering sigh, replied, "No, were weren't talking about you, Ms. Potter, were we, Joan?"

Joan shook her head. "Oh no, of course we weren't," she agreed.


"Kind of late this morning, eh, Potter?" Tony asked, leaning against the counter.

"Mmhm. And I even got up BEFORE the alarm," Noelle said with a shake of her blond head.

Tony chuckled. "What can we do for you this fine November morning, Ms. Potter?"

Noelle looked around. "I need to speak with Sandra. Is she in?"

"She's in with Molly right now, but they must be finished by now," Joan supplied.

"We're done," a voice called from behind Molly's partially closed office door.

Sandra opened the door and poked her head out. "You need me, Ms. Potter?"

"Actually, I should probably talk to both of you if you've got a minute," Noelle said as she stepped to the door.

"I'm free," she heard Molly's husky voice say.

A warm feeling swept through Noelle at the sound of the voice. I really like her, she thought happily. Noelle stepped into Molly's office and closed the door.

Molly looked at the blond woman warmly. "Take a seat," she offered.

Sandra watched the small exchange between the two women, noting that Molly's eyes never left the small woman as she sat down and started to speak. Now this is interesting, she thought speculatively. Have they gotten past their initial… dislike, I wonder? I'll have to ask Noelle about it. Jesus, I hope Noelle is careful. The counselor's thoughts were interrupted as she tuned into what Noelle was saying; suddenly, Sandra was all business. "Wait a minute. Say that again? I zoned out for a second," she admitted without embarrassment.

"I had just asked if either one of you had seen Jilly Michaels today," Noelle repeated. "She's in my first period class and she was out this morning, but I saw her in the hall just a few minutes ago."

"I haven't seen her, no," Sandra said.

Molly nodded in agreement. "I haven't, either."

Noelle dropped her eyes to her hands. "She's bruised up pretty badly," she explained softly. "She has a black eye and her bottom lip is split. I asked her about it, but she said she ran into a cabinet to explain her eye and that her lip is just chapped." Noelle paused. "I think someone hit her."

Molly's jaw clenched and she was just about to answer when Sandra spoke. At the words, Molly looked at the counselor in disbelief.

"Maybe she DID run into a cabinet. It sounds perfectly reasonable to me," Sandra stated, playing devil's advocate for the moment. "And this weather has a tendency to chap skin and lips."

Noelle turned incredulous eyes to the counselor. "Are you kidding me?" she asked in a soft, dangerous voice. "Are you kidding me?" she repeated.

Molly's eyes snapped to Noelle, not liking the tone of her voice. She's gonna blow. "Hang on a second, Noe," she soothed as she leaned forward in her chair, her bright blue eyes glued to the smaller woman. "Let's listen to what Sandra has to say, okay?" she coaxed. And it damned well better be good.

Sandra watched as Noelle visibly relaxed and then smiled at the dean.

"Mmm," she agreed. Then she turned to the school counselor. "Care to explain that incredibly stupid statement, Sandra?" she asked, the edge back in her voice.

Sandra sighed. "Okay, truthfully, I think you're right. And I bet we all have the same suspicion about the identity of her abuser. However, when I call her into my office, and you better believe I will, I need something more to go on. If I ask her about her eye, she's going to give me the same damned excuse she gave you, Noelle, and you know it. You know how these kids work. I need more than that. What else? What else do you see? You're her coach, what's she like at practice?" Sandra prodded, flipping open her small binder.

Noelle glanced quickly at Molly then turned slightly agitated eyes back to Sandra. "The other day at practice, despite the heat in the gym, Jilly wore a sweatshirt the entire time. I saw her sweating profusely and told her she should put a t-shirt on. She refused, said it wasn't bothering her. I let it go. She flinches when someone moves too quickly too close to her. She rarely looks anyone in the eye, particularly an adult. She's much more withdrawn than she was last year." Noelle's short speech was not done in the voice of a teacher who was worried and cared about her students. Rather, it was done in an unemotional, clinical monotone.

Sandra quickly scribbled some notes on her paper then got up to leave. "I'm going to call her down this afternoon to see what I can find out," she said to Molly. Then she turned to Noelle. "Thank you for caring enough to bring this to our attention. Talk to you both later."

Noelle waited until Sandra left then she stood up and walked to the door.

"Somedays, I hate my job." With that, she walked out of the office.

Continued in Part 10.

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