DISCLAIMERS: There is no copyright infringement intended in any way, shape or form. The characters in this story are from my own rather warped imagination and are mine, mine, mine! Not that anyone would ever possibly want to but just to cover all bases, this story cannot be used or sold for profit in any way. Hope you enjoy the ride!
NOTES: Thank you RG, DJ, WD, T and J for their assistance. And Ark, just ‘cause. <g> And a special thank you to Inga for her help, and to the wonderful person who sparked the idea for this story.
Non, Je ne regrette rien by Edith Piaf.
It was one of those days where the colors of life have no meaning, where life's picture is bleak and lacking of even the slightest warmth. Even the fresh snow seemed to be painted in shades of gray, due to the lowering cloud cover and absence of sunlight.
Irregular lumps, mostly covered in snow, rose from the ground in incongruously even rows, and an occasional wing, spire or other unrecognizable form reached up as if to grab some of the life that seemed to be leaching from the very earth.
The flakes of snow that attempted to find the easiest way to join their compatriots in their icy blanket on the ground seemed unable to put on a masquerade of peace and, instead, ended up in a slow dance of death as they descended.
Here and there, disturbed earth and lonely trees broke the cheerless tableau, but only served to remind just how desolate this place was.
In one still figure the desolation was complete. A void had formed in the depths of a soul so wrapped in a mantle of pain that the waves emanating from it were almost palpable.
The figure knelt uncaringly on the frozen ground in front of an open pit. A pit whose dark opening would have been almost shocking to eyes used to unblemished frozen layers, if those eyes hadn't been closed and unseeing for almost as long as the snow had been falling.
A layer of snow had built up on the back of the figure's long coat, and even had dared an attempt to camouflage the dark head of hair that cascaded over the coat's collar and spilled down the sides of the bent head.
Slowly, so much so that very little of the shroud of white was disturbed, one of the figure's hands emerged from the coat and a tiny splash of color finally insinuated itself on the canvas in the form of a full, blood red rose.
Blinking against the pain of even the dull light, bloodshot eyes emerged from behind the layers of protective skin and gazed into the pit before the form. A whisper of a voice, barely heard beneath the weight of the silence, grappled with words many times privately repeated.
"If I whisper in the dark,
will you come to me?
A lonely tear fell to soak into the ground.
"I'm so sorry," the figure finally spoke to the pit and the wooden box that had long since been obscured by snow. "If I'd known, if I'd thought... "
The words went unfinished for some time and the lifeless graveyard seemed to care little for that fact.
"You were always the one, my love. Always. Know that my heart was buried with you."
The rose slipped from the figure's seemingly frozen hands and descended into the pit, only to bounce lightly off the snow covered wood and then lie still. It was an almost garish tribute to life against so much bleakness, but held the weight of two lives in its fragile form.
"No thorns. Just the way I always promised I'd give you roses."
Abused muscles and bones made their presence felt with abandon as the figure finally moved from its set position. A hand splayed white and veined against the frozen loam as it was used as an aid for the person to push powerfully up from the ground.
The broad shoulders hunched over under an unseen weight and the figure appeared to almost collapse into its former position in a trembling supplication until it managed to stand tall once more.
Tortured words spilled out. "I never did give you anything, did I? Well, besides pain." Marbled skin stretched fine over defined facial bones and more words were spoken to the ether. "No roses, no chances, no life. What I would give to have the chance to actually give them to you now."
The other hand joined the first in the frigid air, this one clutching a many times folded piece of paper. Once more it was opened and eyes swept the bold handwriting that they knew so well.
The eyes tracked heavenward and the odd form of litany continued, "I should have come to you, should have sought you, should have heard you and you did nothing to regret. Regret is just one of many sins that I'll carry forever."
With that, the gaze focused back to the grave site and it was quite some time later that the figure finally trudged a path through the snow towards the misery of the life it had left.
The sound of her cell phone ringing was annoyingly shrill to Tori's ears and the fact that she had to reach over an equally unhappy body to silence it didn't help at all.
"What?" she demanded of the phone, realizing that it was still quite dark, and instantly regretted the loudness in her tone as she gasped at the hangover headache that pierced her forehead.
"Tori, it's Angie."
"Angie, it's the middle of the night. What in the hell do you want?"
Closing her eyes, Tori tried to get a hold on her rebelling stomach as the oddness of the hour and Angie's voice began to break through. "What's going on?"
"It's..." There was a sniffle on the other end of the line. "It's Mallorie, Tori."
Blinking, Tori threw back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed, standing and then sitting down again quickly as her head, and stomach, swam. Trying to keep her tone even, she replied, "What about her?"
"Tori... she's gone."
"What do you mean, she's gone? Where did she go?" Belatedly, Tori remembered her attitude and quickly wrestled it on. "And why in the hell do I care?"
"Something's happened, Tor."
Battling with the deliberately buried insight that she did indeed still care very much, Tori asked, "What is it?"
"There's no easy way to say this," Angie intimated. "She's dead."
Silence reigned for at least a minute as Tori absorbed that terrible news. The emotional lance that pierced her chest took all her breath and, strangely, her hangover with it, but left her with a big, black hole the size of Texas in her chest.
"She's dead?" Tori felt as if her voice hadn't been used for a very long time, and that she had to drag up the ability to project air through her vocal chords from some long forgotten memory.
"Yeah. A few hours ago, I guess."
"Are you sure?" Knowing already that Angie wouldn't be calling if she wasn't sure, Tori still had to ask and pray the answer would be different from what she knew it would be.
"Mike was at the scene. He's sure."
"Wha... What happened?" Tori finally asked, not even sure she could stand the details.
"They're not sure yet. I just found out from Mike and figured you'd want to know," Angie replied.
"Yeah," Tori breathed as she removed the phone from her ear and simply stared at it as it rested gently in her hands. It was too unreal. Too impossible.
But, the caller identification showed the call was coming from Angie's and even with the fact that she had been a bitch to Angie more times than she could count over the years, she knew her friend would never do that to her. "Yeah," she whispered as she watched the phone go dark after Angie hung up.
"Jesus," croaked a voice from the bed. "What in the hell?"
Even though she was unable to remember her latest Friday night conquest's name, Tori's voice was deceptively soft. "Get out."
Trying very hard to catch breaths that seemed as elusive as a butterfly, Tori wasted no time in repeating her demands. "I said, get ... out."
The other woman sat up in the bed, her blonde hair falling over her shoulders. Shafts of moonlight kissed the silky skin in silver bands, highlighting the beauty of the body they touched. "What in the ..."
"Now!" The sudden volume of Tori's voice ricocheted off the walls.
"It's the middle of the night, for Christ's sake!"
"Call a cab," Tori replied coldly. "There's money on the dresser, take it and go."
Angrily, the woman started to snatch up her clothes and put them on. "Who in the hell do you think you are?"
"Someone you'll never see again," answered Tori with devastating honesty.
"Victoria?" Upon receiving no answer, an auburn head poked itself around the door jamb and spied the dark figure whose attention was intently focused upon several papers laid out on the desk.
Emma had found her employer quite an interesting study in human nature. Possessing a near legendary temper, an intensely combative nature, scathingly hard to deal with most of the time, willing to do whatever it took to get her way and yet stubbornly loyal to those who did their job in the best way they knew how.
It had been a tough ride but Emma was certain that even if someone wanted to offer her more money, which wasn't likely with the wage she made and exactly one of the reasons Victoria paid it, she doubted she would move. Not anymore.
For reasons Emma didn't understand, since she was sure Victoria hadn't been in contact with Mallorie Moret for a long time, her employer had obviously been affected by her death to an extreme degree, not that her taciturn boss was admitting anything.
Victoria's personal handling of the flowers that would be sent to the funeral was indicative of how she was feeling. Not to mention the fact that a visit to the office kitchen for her own and Victoria's morning coffee was greeted with many rumors about Mallorie and Victoria's friendship.
Not that anyone had provided any real details, just one person remembered that they had been friends for a long time. But, they all seemed to understand that Mallorie and Ken Moret dying in a car accident two days prior had truly affected Victoria Lewis. They were sure that the fact that it had likely been caused by Ken Moret's drinking didn't help.
Knowing how drained the other woman had been since the office had come back from the weekend off that morning, as if all of her emotions had been consumed in a bonfire of soul searing feelings, it made it very obvious to Emma that she was dealing with something very intense.
Sighing to herself, Emma observed the normally super cool woman and wished she could do something to ease the pain that was so obviously carving a hole into the other woman. "Victoria?" the woman asked again, hesitantly.
Rousing herself out of a near constant fog, Victoria Lewis looked over at her long time administrative assistant, one of the few people in the company who was comfortable enough to call her by her first name. "Yes?" she croaked and then cleared her throat before repeating, "Yes, Emma?"
"I wouldn't bother you, but you have a very strange visitor. She insists that she has something to give you that is a matter of life or death and refuses to leave."
"Have security deal with it," instructed a very tired voice. Bloodshot eyes tracked back to the document they'd read at least ten times with hardly a word sinking in.
"I've tried. She refuses to give it to anyone but you and when I told her to make an appointment and had security escort her out, she returns somehow. She's already managed to get back inside twice and nobody has a clue how," Emma replied.
Not even the slightest bit willing to see anyone, Victoria took a deep breath and leaned back in her leather chair. Abused neck and back muscles protested the move after being in one position for so long, and made her wince in pain as she tried to stretch the affected areas out a little.
"The thing is ... well, she said ... " Emma began, unsure of how to continue. She'd hoped the other woman would come and deal with the problem without having to go into what else had been said.
"Just say it, Emma," Victoria insisted quietly as her gaze flitted from one part of her office to another, barely grazing the very expensive and beautiful fitted wooden bookcases that were a fantastic backdrop to the working. She had held many an impromptu meeting in the room, just for the atmosphere she had created in it but it no longer held any interest.
Emma took a deep breath and stepped into the office, unwilling to have anyone else in the office see Victoria's reaction to what she had to say. She waited until the door closed with a soft snick and reluctantly spoke up. "She just told me to tell you that Mallorie Moret asked her to see you."
Victoria felt as if she'd been slapped, and struggled to contain herself from instantly jumping up and running to deal with the person who was obviously playing games. Gripping the edge of the desk almost painfully, her jaw muscles tensed as she collected herself. "Call the police if you have to and then I want the names of the security guards on duty."
Wincing slightly to herself, knowing that it almost certainly meant the guards' termination, Emma knew she had to say the rest. "She also said you wouldn't believe her and hoped she wouldn't have to send you a thornless rose a day until you did."
Emma's breath had barely pushed the last word out of her mouth when she felt herself speared by an intense blue lance composed of her boss' eyes.
Very glad she wasn't on the end of that particular look often, Emma watched most of the color fade from Victoria's face and tried to understand how Victoria had managed to get out of her chair and in front of the desk in what seemed like half a second.
Internally calming herself and stopping her movement, Victoria tried to understand how someone could know about a discussion she had with Mallorie many years before, unless Mallorie had told them. "Where is she?"
A split second decision was made. Making the woman come to her would not only give Victoria a few minutes to compose herself, she would also be on her own territory and able to stage the meeting exactly how she wanted it. "Have them bring her here and tell them to wait outside."
Watching Emma turn and nod, Victoria's mind was already on the meeting and she calmly positioned herself back behind her desk. Absently rearranging some papers, she took a deep breath, and then another.
When the knock came, she bent her head to the papers, picked up a pen and began to make notes as if she really cared about what she writing. Disregarding the jump of her heart, she said imperiously, "Enter!"
Ignoring the opening door, she continued to make notes that made absolutely no sense and didn't look up for several seconds. With a flourish, she signed her signature on a document that didn't require it and dotted it with a staccato burst before allowing herself to look up.
She took in a middle aged woman with flowing platinum blonde hair which had obviously seen better times, who was wearing a dress that she'd obviously been poured into.
Unimpressed and showing it in her face and demeanor, Victoria sat back in her chair, leaving one hand resting on the desk. She resisted the urge to sneeze as the clouds of perfume the blonde was wearing almost knocked her off her chair.
An eyebrow rose in evident disdain after she nodded to the guards to leave and the door softly closed. "What do you want?"
Unexpectedly, the other woman smiled sadly and simply stated, "Your happiness."
Victoria forced out a snort of derision. "And you think you can provide that?"
"No, only you can," was the answer.
Leaning an elbow against the arm of her leather chair, Victoria dropped the pen in her hand and brought her palm to rest against her other hand. "I'll ask one more time before I have you thrown out, what do you want?"
The woman let out a deep sigh and forged ahead. "Victoria, listen please. I have something to give you, something Mallorie wanted you to have."
"And how exactly would you know Mallorie?" Victoria asked, disbelief lacing her voice.
Again, another sad smile. "I've known her for a very long time; she has always been very special to me."
"I've known... knew her for a long time as well, and she never mentioned you. Don't you think she would've?" An imperious eyebrow questioned as it rose on Victoria's face.
Recognizing that it wouldn't be taken well, the other woman tamped down another annoyed sigh that wanted to expel itself from her lungs and let it trickle out in small increments instead. "Okay, we'll cut to the chase. How about, I know that you gave Mallorie your leather jacket from school."
Victoria simply blinked. She hadn't told anyone that she'd given her jacket to Mallorie, and would've sworn that Mallorie would've kept that secret.
She looked over at the other woman, who stood there with a knowing smile on her face. "Just exactly who are you?" Victoria asked, acknowledging that Mallorie might well have had the President for a friend for all she knew.
A hint of a smile flitted across the woman's face. "My name is... Cypria."
"That's enough," Cypria calmly replied. "What I have for you is more important than my name."
Heart pounding, despite her attempts at keeping calm, Victoria asked, "And what is this thing that you have for me?"
Cypria reached down into a shockingly bright pink bag and drew herself back up again with a rather non-descript, well worn, leather bound book in her hand.
Victoria watched as the other woman ran her hand down the spine of the book and a sad smile touched her lips.
For several long moments, Cypria stared at the book and then opened it to a place she had previously marked, but, in truth, would have known without the bookmark. "I want to read something to you," she remarked, her fingers almost reverently lifting a loose leaf of paper from the book.
Taking in the blue gray eyes that stared at her with a mixture of sadness, hope and something she couldn't quite define, Victoria's shoulders twitched and she muscled out a response. "I'm not into fairytales. Perhaps I can point you to the children's ward in the hospital."
"Victoria," Cypria replied, her voice tinged with a touch of annoyance. She tapped the book. "This was written for you, and you alone. Don't make it harder than it already is."
The imperious eyebrow rose again as Victoria re-crossed her legs. "You're sitting here in my office, after giving my security guards hell all day, wanting to read me stories and I'm making it hard?"
"You're really nothing like the person she thought you were, are you?"
Instantly, Victoria stood, her eyes sparking in anger. "Get out."
Placidly, Cypria turned her attention back to the book in her hands and as Victoria moved to the door she said, "Mallorie wrote this." Noting that Victoria had stopped dead in her tracks, she began,
"If I whisper in the dark, will you come to me?
If I dream of your arms around me, will you seek me?
If I ask to hear the music of your heart, will you hear me?
If I whisper regrets, will you still care enough to save me?"
Unable to speak, Victoria slowly turned around to face the other woman.
"She wrote that for you. The Victoria she always wrote for," Cypria stated. "The one she wrote so many things for in this journal. She saved notes she'd written to you when she didn't have her journal in here too. One was even on a napkin from a restaurant. All for you. The person she thought she knew, the one she never gave up on."
Victoria swallowed a lump the size of Canada and voiced her disbelief, even as she took in Mallorie's very familiar handwriting on the page that Cypria held. "She wrote for me?"
"It was always for you."
"How can you possibly know that," Victoria queried harshly, her mind in a state of total turmoil. Her increased rate of breathing and heart beat only served to heighten the confusion.
"Victoria, if you never listen to anything else I say, listen to this. If you read the words and listen with your heart, you will hear the voice of an angel reaching out to you. But, you're the one that has to open her heart to hear what's being said."
Victoria closed her eyes and then blinked in surprise as the other woman now stood before her and held out the leather book. She hadn't even seen her move.
Instinctively, her hand reached out to take the book, and then she realized what she was doing as her hand hovered barely an inch from the surface. It astonished her to note that her hand was shaking. "Why?"
"Which question do you want me to answer?"
"Why didn't she give this to me herself," Victoria queried, her hand still not quite touching the book.
Cypria sighed deeply. "Why do you always have to ask the wrong question?"
Victoria's head snapped up from looking at the book that she hadn't yet touched. "What are you talking about? What did she tell you?"
"Victoria..." Cypria shook her head in annoyance. "Look, just forget about me. Don't screw this up. Please. Take the journal and read it and you'll never have to see me again."
Making a decision, Victoria took the book from the other woman's hands very gently and a soft smile touched her lips for just a split second as she almost unwillingly ran a hand over the tooled rose on the leather cover. "What if..."
It was hard for Victoria to ask for anything that might even slightly resemble a favor but, with a quick lick of her lips, she forged ahead. "I'm not saying I will read it, but what if I have questions or want to talk about ... what if there are things I want to know?"
A bright and all too perky looking smile blazed across Cypria's face. "Celestial Pleasures!"
"Pardon me?" Victoria's brow furrowed as she took in how the other woman's body now looked. As if the weight of a thousand worlds had been removed from it.
Experiencing a lightness of spirit that she hadn't felt in many years, Cypria had no trouble keeping the smile at maximum wattage. "That's where you can find me, Sweetcakes!" Cypria laughed delightedly at the eyebrow crawling up Victoria's forehead in response to her comment.
Eyebrow still raised, Victoria insisted, "I am not going to ask you where I can find Celestial Pleasures."
"Spoilsport," Cypria replied amiably, with a wink. However, she realized the value of not annoying Victoria any further and continued, "If you want to find me, you can find me on Divinity Drive."
Victoria thought about that for a few moments. "I didn't think anything was there but pawn shops and God boxes that house those otherwise known as ministers of the moment with a sense of humor?"
"Hmph," Cypria objected. "I should take exception. We're not all flash in the pans, you know. Some of us are very good at what we do."
"You're telling me that you're a minister of some church?" Victoria queried.
Pointing at herself proudly, Cypria admitted, "Top Kahuna, that's me."
"You're your own guru?"
"Such a small mind you have. I'm many things," Cypria sniffed.
"Right," Victoria answered slowly, her disdain evident.
Cypria shook her head and understanding that perhaps Victoria was putting off the inevitable, she brought the conversation back to where it needed to be. "It doesn't matter who I am or what I do. What matters is that journal and what you do with it."
She looked directly at Victoria. "Are you going to read it?"
Victoria's heart jumped at the return to the subject of the book and her eyes dropped to take it in. "I... I'm not sure." She looked back up at Cypria. "She really wanted me to read this?"
Struck by the almost childlike look, composed of fear, confusion and so many other emotions, Cypria couldn't help but reply, "You were so important to her, Victoria. You'll see that when you read it."
With one eye, Cypria watched the hesitant Victoria as she leaned over to pick up her still shockingly pink bag and began to move toward the door. "You know where I am, Victoria."
"Cypria?" Victoria waited for the other woman to turn back around. "Thank you."
"You reading the journal will be all the thanks I need." Cypria opened the door and was partially through when she stopped and turned back. "Do you know of Edith Piaf, Victoria?"
"What?" Victoria asked, her thought process completely askew with the change of subject. "The singer?"
"Yes," Cypria replied, a smile on her face. "If you come to see me, make sure you listen to 'Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien' first. There'll be a quiz."
Before Victoria could ask her to explain, Cypria was gone, leaving only a dissipating presence where her body had been, the memory of a wink and the lingering scent of her perfume.
Balefully skirting the journal laying on her desk, as if she were a predator dealing with an equally dangerous foe, Victoria sat down in her chair and regarded the book she had been working around for some time.
It was an exercise in patience, fortitude and will power all wrapped into one. But the fear that Mallorie would have written words that could cut her into little pieces had kept Victoria away.
She had dealt with everything that she could possibly deal with, even as distracted as she was, and now it was as if the journal were a burning red coal that caught her attention every time she turned her head or let her mind wander or ...
Victoria sighed, wondering who she was fooling, because it certainly wasn't herself. The journal had been on her mind for every second since Cypria had left. It had still been on her mind when Emma had left for the day some time before.
However, it was Cypria who had brought the item that had repeatedly dragged her attention back to itself. The strange woman had certainly left an impression, not that Victoria was certain what exactly that was. Crazy, perhaps.
Still, she held something that obviously belonged to Mallorie at some time and the other woman had certainly put effort into making sure that Victoria had the opportunity to read it.
"Quit putting it off, Tori," Victoria admonished herself, and laid her arms along each side of the book.
Curious, but still unwilling to touch the leather, she used her eyes instead and once more smiled at the rose that had been expertly tooled into the cover. It truly appeared to be hand tooled and, once more, Victoria's fingers reached out to touch the large flower on the cover.
Slowly and gently, she traced the outline of the petals and smiled when she noticed the part of the stem that was showing had no thorns.
Her brow creased, and she leaned forward when her fingers noted a difference in the soft, smooth surface. Captivated, she drew the journal closer and examined the area that she had been touching.
Tears immediately stung her eyes as she realized that some of the veins on a leaf were actually Mallorie's initials. She couldn't help but notice they were M and W, which meant it was likely that Mallorie had started the journal prior to being married, since her maiden name had been Wardell.
But, as her fingers continued to feel their way across the leather, it was the realization that the other leaf held both a V and an L and that no other letters were apparent on the flower that released a tide of emotion stronger than Victoria had ever felt.
The tears began to roll down her cheeks and the breath she'd been drawing stuck in Victoria's chest, only to be released in gasps.
Crystal drops splashed and fractured against the highly polished desk as Victoria's head bent over and her shoulders hunched in pain. Clenching her fists, she used the pain of nails digging into her palm as a focus to keep herself together on a tenuous thread.
So much had gone by, so much water under that particular bridge, that it seemed an impossible task to put two simple letters into perspective - to somehow reconcile those two letters with the fact that Mallorie almost certainly had bad memories of their past.
However, it was just that task that seemed to settle her emotions down to a stage where she could actually do something about verifying her suspicions that the journal wouldn't contain anything that would cut her heart out and hand it to her on a platter.
It didn't escape Victoria that up until Mallorie's death, she had mistakenly thought her heart had been cut out a very long time before. Now she realized it was simply in tatters, and likely had been since Mallorie left.
"No," Victoria whispered as her head rose once more to regard the journal. "Since I left her."
Sniffling, she grabbed a tissue from the marble box on her desk and wiped at eyes that were still threatening a flood. Then, in a burst of hearty decision, she grasped the sides of the journal and pulled it towards her.
Almost as if it was now resisting her attempts to read the words it held jealously inside, the book scuffed against the polish and forced Victoria to put a bit more effort into bringing it closer.
Before she could think any more about it, her hand reached out to open the cover. The leather binding creaked ever so slightly and then the first pages were laid bare before her.
Oddly, it seemed to settle her down instantly, as if opening Pandora's Box was the switch needed to turn off the fount of emotion that had built inside her.
Victoria read the title page and smiled to herself....
Mallorie had always said she didn't think, she mused. Victoria remembered how Mallorie had always enjoyed the story of Zeus and Mnemosyne's nine daughters, always saying she wished she had one to look out for her.
Letting out a breath, Victoria flipped the title page over and was presented with two pages full of writing. They seemed to be divided up into months and days, but not years. Perhaps indicative of Mallorie's near legendary propensity for remembering the smallest details.
Wow, what a great day! We've only been here a few weeks and I met the neatest girl today at school. She helped me pick up my books when that boy knocked into me and just ran on. Geez! She had the prettiest blue eyes, I'd love to have eyes like that. How cool!
As easily seen as the computer screen on her desk, Victoria remembered that day - the day she'd met Mallorie. Mallorie had been twelve, and she had been thirteen. She'd been walking along the hallway and seen a boy run right into a small red haired girl and sneer as he moved on. "Russ ... what was it? Perkins! Asshole," she commented. "And your eyes are... were prettier."
Extremely pleased with herself for remembering the name, Victoria continued to read about Mallorie's teachers and especially how much the girl had liked her English teacher.
Mrs. Mellor is so pretty. I really like her class. She even likes poetry and let me read something from a lady named Elizabeth today! But, that guy that knocked into me is such a jerk, geez. He sat behind me in class and kept pulling my hair. I'm not going to tell anyone, though. They'll call me a whiner and probably bug me more.
Annoyed, even though it was years in the past, Victoria wished she had known at the time that Russ had been a pain to Mallorie. She would've done something about it sooner for sure. She kept reading to see if Russ had continued to bother Mallorie, but it was mostly ramblings about school and how much better it was than the last one.
Then something caught Victoria's attention.
I wonder if I'll see her again? She seemed sad today, didn't even look up as she was walking down the hallway. Maybe she needs a friend too? I think I'm gonna try to talk to her if I see her at lunch or something. That leather jacket is so neat too.
Puzzled, Victoria wondered who Mallorie was writing about for a minute. There had only been a couple of girls who had worn a leather jacket regularly to school, but why Mallorie would pick her out back then, she had no idea. She found her answer on the opposite page, after a section where Mallorie had waxed sentimental about Mrs. Mellor's teaching ability.
It's been two days since I saw her so sad, and she still looks like she's out to fight the world. But, I got more than a grunt from her today. Too cool! She usually just ignores me or nods or something, but when I offered to share my sandwich, I got a smile and a thank you. She still won't talk to me but I'm gonna work on that!
At the confirmation that Mallorie had been speaking of her, Victoria tried to remember the day that had seemed special, and it saddened her to realize she couldn't. To realize that she'd been so self-absorbed even back then was somewhat of a revelation.
Geez, that Russ guy is doing it again. He followed me part way home tonight and kept trying to knock my books out of my hands and stuff. I tricked him and ran around that dirty truck that Mr. Brown keeps in front of his house. Daddy caught me looking for Russ and when I tried to tell him, he told me boys will be boys. I really wanted to say that I was glad I was a girl then!
A snort erupted from Victoria at the ending statement. Even though Mallorie had rarely backed down from a challenge and didn't mind getting her hands, and other parts, dirty, she had always been all girl.
Still, Victoria realized, she hadn't known that Russ had been a thorn in Mallorie's side outside of school too. That made what happened in the next journal entry even sweeter, even though it had been many years before.
Wow, diary! I have my very own knight, uh can girls be knights? Anyway, Tori, oh yeah, I learned that's what her name was today when she told me I could call her that. She kicked butt for me today!
Russ and that idiot Ted cornered me at lunch and I don't think I'll ever forget how she was just there. It was like she appeared from nowhere but man, did it scare the poop out of them. I'll never ever forget that!
Victoria remembered that moment quite clearly herself. She'd been on her way to get lunch but had forgotten a book in science class. On her way back from getting the book, she'd heard something odd and, for reasons she didn't remember, had gone to check it out. Just a short distance down the corridor, she'd seen Mallorie pushed up against the metal gray lockers and two boys menacing her.
The memories were so fresh that Victoria could still feel an echo of the cold rage that had enveloped her back then, in the form of goose bumps that traveled down her forearms, raising the fine hairs along their path.
I guess Tori is short for Victoria, pretty, huh? I wish I could be like her, she's so awesome and I bet nobody ever tries anything on her. I know they wouldn't dare!
Victoria smiled slightly at Mallorie's comments. Her friend had been right about that. Never sure where to classify her, they had always given Victoria a wide berth.
It wasn't just the leather jacket or the attitude, it wasn't that she got good grades or was occasionally seen with a pack of cigarettes, not that she ever smoked one but her peers never knew that, or anything else in particular. It was the package, at least that's what Mallorie had told her once, several years later.
Almost imperceptibly, Victoria shook her head as her mind easily called up the tone of Mallorie's voice and how the other woman's hands had rested so easily on her hips as she'd told her all about the 'Tori Package.'
It was therefore quite a surprise when she was jarred out of her memories by the door to her office opening as one of the janitors pushed inside, not looking up.
Victoria stood instantly, incensed that anyone would have walked into her office unannounced. "What in the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded.
"Ms. Lewis!" the janitor exclaimed, considerably more surprised than she was and his widening eyes betrayed that fact. It was well known that if this particular woman was working late, she made a point of making people know and you were not to interrupt her.
As one of the stories went, a hapless co-worker once found out the hard way by interrupting a supposed business meeting and getting more than an eyeful of what was going on. He wasn't seen again after that night; therefore, the cleaning crew had a very healthy respect for her privacy.
"Ma'am, I... I didn't se... see a note," he stammered, desperately trying to find the words to save his job.
"A no..." Confused, Victoria glanced over at the beautiful clock she had received when she became a full partner in the firm. A firm that she had eventually taken over. Sucking in a surprised breath, she noted that it was after nine p.m. She'd had no idea.
Interrupting the rapidly retreating janitor, Victoria raised her hand. "Stop!" Noticing, with some satisfaction, that he did indeed immediately stop, she ordered, "Come back in ten minutes."
The janitor looked up, not sure he'd just heard the order. "Ten minutes?" he asked softly.
"Yes, I'll be gone by then," Victoria replied, not bothering to look up as she began to gather up her belongings.
"Gone?" the man repeated.
Looking up, unaware of the fright she was causing the janitor, Victoria met his gaze. She barely stopped the roll of her eyes as he looked away instantly. Aware of the completely false stories circulating about her treatment of co-workers, it once had been entertaining, but now the looks and whispers and fright had become rather frustrating.
Whereas she had fired people instantly before, it had always been for valid reasons. Such as someone throwing a computer monitor through a window or copying a brief and inserting pornographic pictures, however wonderfully focused they'd been.
She'd even ignored the rumors that some of them deliberately started to try and cause her trouble because of the effort to track down their sources and prove it.
Sighing, she reverently placed the journal into her briefcase and leaned over to grab her jacket before turning around again to see him standing at the door still. The janitor's demeanor was almost painful to see and it cut through Victoria's annoyance like a knife through warm butter.
Dredging up the janitor's name from her exhaustive vault, she said, "Gary, just wait. You can clean now."
Feeling as if he'd just had his life saved by some angel that was watching over him and slack jawed at the fact that Victoria Lewis actually knew his name, the janitor nodded hopefully and stepped back as the woman approached.
Victoria eyed Gary as he nodded when she walked out the door, and her warm butter mood continued. "Good night."
"G... Good night, ma'am," Gary replied.
One of the perks of the office she'd chosen was that an executive elevator was close by, and she quickly stepped into it, only to frown as she waited for the doors to close.
It wasn't something she normally paid much attention to, but it occurred to Victoria that she didn't remember hearing words to songs in the elevator and yet, there were words and the music also seemed to be a little loud. She listened carefully, determined to send a note to whoever was in charge and get it changed.
".... Non, Je ne regrette rien."
As the doors closed, Victoria Lewis felt a very solid chill travel up her spine as she belatedly realized that Edith Piaf had managed to invade her world.
Before she had dared open the journal again, Victoria had taken the time to take a shower and get comfortable with a cup of tea. Hours later, having gone on an abbreviated journey through her teenaged years through the eyes of Mallorie, she was still reading the journal.
Inhaling the fragrant steam from the latest cup of the beverage she preferred over coffee in the evenings, she rolled her head slowly around her shoulders and stretched abused muscles.
It had been quite the journey so far. Remembering details that she'd forgotten or perhaps deliberately set aside had been quite interesting.
Dealing with Mallorie's early tormentors had been easy after the incident against the lockers. Mallorie never found out, but Victoria had tracked Russ Perkins down and ... persuaded him to never bother the young girl again. In her own inimitable fashion, of course.
She'd also forgotten how they'd fallen into the habit of finding each other regularly for lunch at school after that. Victoria had frequently sat alone, but, even if she had been with someone else, Mallorie had always come to find her and sit with her.
In fact, it had been Mallorie who dragged Angie over to be with them after Angie had moved into the neighborhood, and they'd formed quite a trio. The rest of the kids had mostly left them alone, but Victoria had heard comments about their relationship and only the knowledge that Mallorie would be upset had kept her from dealing with the snide remarks personally.
Regardless, it had worked out. Mallorie had gotten them involved in various projects; Angie was their social director, managing to get them invited to every party on the planet. Victoria shook her head at some of the memories, such as the school paper in high school. It had been a disaster, her patience so quickly consumed in the idiocy of the restrictions placed on them.
When they quit, Angie had found them a party to celebrate. In fact, Angie could find a party to celebrate the finding of an ant hill; it was quite an amazing talent. She had found a party when they'd quit the debating team too. Why on earth Mallorie thought she would have any interest in being on a debating team had escaped her then, but she found it amusing now that she'd ended up a lawyer.
Slowly reaching over, a slight smile played about her lips as she picked up the journal again and began once more, this time in high school.
Whoo! I had so much fun today. Those twerps in the chess club were making faces behind Tori's back and I got so mad! Tori kept telling me it was all right but when I caught Erin and Frank doing it, that was it. I told them off right then and there and then I was so afraid Tori would be mad at me, but she had this huge smile on her face. That was so cool, I love it when she smiles like that. I don't think she knows how pretty she is.
But, the best thing, diary, was that I told them she'd kick their butts and they laughed. They weren't laughing when I made her... can you believe that I actually 'made' her do something? Anyway, I made Tori sit down and she did it. I'm sure she wouldn't have if she didn't want to but oh boy, it was soooo cool when she whipped all of them, without a sweat. Talk about eating words. They had no idea that she'd been playing for years, you should've seen their faces! That was the best thing ever. Then, she quit. Ha!
They were so excited about her being on the team and she just looked at them and quit. Of course, I went with her, I only joined because it was something I thought she'd enjoy doing anyway. I keep hoping I'll find something she really likes, gonna keep trying until I do! Well, no more paper routes, she broke too many windows with that arm of hers.
I think she only said yes because it let her wake me up really early, she knows I hate that. I told her that I wanted the money I earned to buy some stuff for school, but really I wanted that really gorgeous brown leather jacket we saw in the store. She would've looked SO cool in it. I have to find a way to earn money to get that for her.
We gotta keep that secret, diary; she'd never join anything if she thought I was doing it for her or if she thought I was going to buy her something. You know, though, if only people would see the Tori I know, there'd be no talking behind her back or nasty stuff. They'd see how incredible she is, just like I do.
"Wow," Victoria breathed and her whole body sagged a little, amazed at this new insight into her old friend. She had no idea that Mallorie had actually joined so many of the clubs and meetings in order to try and find Victoria a home at school.
Mallorie had indeed earned the money by babysitting and doing other chores to buy the jacket for Victoria. It had been a beautiful coat and one of the very few things that Victoria hadn't thrown on the blazing pyre of her former life before she'd moved on. In fact, she was very well aware that it was still in the dark recesses of her closet.
She read on. Many segments waxed about the wonder of Tori and repeatedly brought a blush to Victoria's cheeks. It was like a reading a roster of her own good works, including softball and basketball wins, A's and just about everything else you could name.
However, Mallorie's recollection of one particular field trip from when they'd been about fifteen stood out in her mind.
Oh my god, what a day! Tori was awesome! Just awesome!
The whole science class went on a field trip to the hospital. They split us up to go in different sections, of course I went with Tori. It was actually kinda interesting to start with. Then, when we were in there, some drugged out creep came into the ER with a gun.
I was so scared, I just held onto Tori's hand and she kept squeezing mine a bit to reassure me and kept me tucked behind her body. I don't know what I'd do without her. I really don't.
I guess that's why I did what I did. I didn't mean to but when Jan knocked over that IV and the guy pointed the gun at Tori… what was I supposed to do? I thought he was going to shoot her!
I tried to push her out of the way and step in front, but she was like a rock. And then she was totally in his face. She slapped the gun out of his hand like it was a feather. He was so scared that he backed right into the security guard.
I couldn't stop shaking and Tori just held me against her chest.
It was the safest feeling in the world being there. I knew everything would be all right if I stayed there. But, as good as Tori's glare is, it wasn't going to keep me there all day. Wish I could've stayed, though.
Victoria mulled the incident over, wondering if something had changed at that point, for them both at that stage. A recognition of some type? A turning point, perhaps? Victoria wasn't sure but Mallorie trying to put herself in danger had kicked her adrenaline into high gear and her only thought had been to keep the other woman safe.
But holding her afterwards had almost been her undoing. She'd wanted to scold her and yell at her for doing something so stupid but she couldn't. All she could do was hold her and make sure she was okay.
Unfortunately, after that point, what struck Victoria were the far too few times that Mallorie had noted instances when she'd felt so good because Tori had done something nice for her. It saddened her to no end to see that she could have done so much for her friend with so little effort and rarely ever did.
Her gaze fell on one of the times she had.
That's so hard to read. He's been with us for twelve years and daddy wouldn't even dig a hole for him in the back yard. It's a huge yard and I wanted the Peekster close by, so that I could talk to him.
So, I called Tori in tears and she's so cute when she's panicked, you know that? I could tell she thought that I'd been hurt or something by the way I was crying.
You know what, though? She just was so very good about it all. Never made me feel like a bother and she found the greatest place to bury him. He would've loved it. High on a hill, under a tree and by lots of bushes.
She carried him out to the tree in a box she'd brought with her and made a cross out of two bits of wood she found in the garage. I got a little worried when she pulled out her Swiss Army Knife, but she carved "Peek-a-Boo" into the cross with it and then carefully put it away.
Then I cried forever. I think her jacket will never get dry from all the tears. She never told me to grow up or suck it in or … She just held me and let me cry.
Bless you, Tori. I never, ever want to be without you. Never leave me, Tori, please.
"I'm sorry," Victoria whispered and then thought about that for a few minutes before she moved on. It still bothered her greatly that she could have and should have done more for a person who had meant so much to her. It wasn't too much later before she found another section she wasn't very proud of.
Our football team won tonight, that was really cool. We got to go to the rally and act silly, it's really fun to be a part of something. I saw Ken before the game, he was trying to talk to me about biology class but Tori was leaving for the game. Geez, I tried to tell him but he wouldn't listen, so I promised to sit with him at lunch and that he could come over and we'd go over it if we had to.
I don't know what was up with her, but Tori was being such a pain until she saw me shivering when we were walking to the bleachers. That jacket of hers was SO warm! I had no idea. And, it smelled so neat, all leather and Tori. I told her that I didn't want her to get cold but she said she was fine.
Resting her head on the back of the chair, Victoria thought back to that night. She'd been so ... jealous. She sighed inwardly as she put a name to the emotion she hadn't even wanted to name back then.
But, as always, Mallorie had the right words and when she'd noticed the younger woman shivering, Victoria had instantly slipped off her jacket and put it over Mallorie's shoulders. The look and hug she'd gotten would have been enough thanks but the blinding smile would have been worth so very much more.
Mallorie had tried to give her the jacket back a few times that night but, eventually, she'd just told her to keep it because she was growing out of it anyway. Which was actually true, she'd gone through a few jackets in the few years prior to that, but it could have lasted for a while more, if she'd wanted.
Later, it had become such a prize possession for Mallorie that Victoria had actually regretted the gift a few times. Especially the next day when Mallorie had gone to sit with Ken Moret.
"Oh yeah, talk about jealous, Tori," Victoria mused. She had been so upset with Mallorie for what she thought was desertion. Angie had tried to explain what Mallorie was doing, but Victoria hadn't listened. She'd completely ignored Mallorie for the rest of the day in a juvenile attempt at "getting back." All it had done, she acknowledged, was make herself more miserable.
Victoria let out a deep breath. Now she thought about it, she'd been so very obvious and it wouldn't have surprised her if her skin had been green. Why nobody said anything amazed her, especially Angie, who must have had some clue. Although Angie was distracted by any good looking boy over the age of fourteen at that stage, so perhaps she hadn't seen the obvious signs.
Her eyes traveled to the next line and her breath stopped in her chest for a few moments.
I hurt, diary.
Three words and they sliced deeply into Victoria's heart like nothing else she'd read so far. Especially because she was quite sure why Mallorie had written them. The next words confirmed that and she felt the sting of tears in her eyes as she read them.
Tori is so mad at me and I don't know what I did. She didn't talk to me at all yesterday afternoon, and when I tried to call her last night after Ken left, she didn't answer. At lunch today, she walked right by me and sat with some guys at lunch, there was nowhere for me to sit.
But, the worst was that she completely ignored me. Ken sat next to me and tried to talk to me about something, but he didn't see that I was upset. Tori would've known. I couldn't even talk to Angie, she was sick today. Why is she so mad at me?
Why are you so mad at me, Tori? Don't you know how much this hurts?
Victoria re-read the last few sentences and simply closed her eyes, one finger lightly tracing a suspicious slight stain on the paper. Just about the right size for a tear drop.
And it had been the hint of tears in Mallorie's green eyes that brought some sense to the younger Victoria. The next morning, Mallorie had asked if Victoria wanted her jacket back, and with the separation killing Victoria as well, it had just been too much to take. She had easily relented under those verdant pools.
That time, at least, her juvenile insecurities had been bowled over by her blonde friend.
What a great day! I was so scared that Tori would take her jacket back and I didn't even know why she was so upset! I still don't know what was wrong. She said she thought I was ignoring her and got ticked off. I've never had such a long couple of days and I don't care, I'm just glad we're talking!
Can you believe that she apologized for being a jerk? It was so cute, she blushed, actually blushed!
But, the best thing... the very best thing ever in my life, was when she walked me home and we walked past that crane machine at McMartin's. I've tried so many times to win something. They had this really cute bear in there this time. It was tan colored and looked so soft, with a heart in its hands.
I told her how cute it was and she just gave me one of those looks. The one that she always gives me when she does things, like when she gave me her jacket or when she brought me my homework that week I was sick with the flu.
You know, she never even complained when she got sick and I helped take care of her. She loves chicken noodle soup, who knew? I'm glad it's so easy from a can, though!
Victoria laughed. She remembered just how pleased Mallorie had been when she'd been allowed to visit her bed prone friend. And how carefully Mallorie had carried the tray in each time.
The amusing and somewhat telling fact that Mallorie hadn't known, though, was that Victoria actually detested chicken noodle soup. But telling Mallorie that would never have happened. Not when the other woman had been so pleased at helping.
Anyway, that machine! Tori got this look on her face, put a quarter in the machine and I'll be danged if I didn't see her maneuver the crane to pick up that bear.
I don't know how she did it, but that look on her face was so sweet, so soft.
Leaning forward, Victoria tried to make out what had been crossed out after that sentence. She held the page up to the light and was able to decipher the writing under the lines covering the words
"I wish she knew... "
"You wish I knew what, Mallorie?" Victoria asked her friend.
I'm sitting here looking at the bear, Tori. Did you know that the pillow read, "Be Mine?" Bet you didn't know that, did you? Would you have given me the bear if you had?
"Yes," Victoria answered without hesitation. She hadn't actually known the pillow had writing, but Mallorie had wanted the bear and that was all there was to it.
Actually, she realized, it wouldn't have mattered what it said or if it had taken all the money she had, the bear was going to end up in Mallorie's hands.
Sparing a thought for the coat still in her own closet, Victoria wondered if Mallorie had kept the bear.
Slowly turning the page, her eyes drifted to a rather non-descript small napkin that had been carefully tucked between two pages. On its surface were neatly written words, some bleeding into the soft paper, but easily distinguishable.
'tis a day when the beauty
of a smile is an exultation,
"And your smile was the most beautiful I've ever seen," Victoria told her friend. Reverently, she replaced the napkin and began to read the regular pages again. The next page appeared to hold memories that she wasn't at all sure she wanted to read, but she forged ahead.
It's Valentine's Day tomorrow and I wrote you a poem, Tori. It was when you were playing pinball, keeping the game going forever as always. I looked over and you were smiling at me, and I had to write something. Something for you. All I had was a silly napkin but it worked, so I can't complain.
"Oh Mallorie," Victoria whispered. "You wrote that poem for me?" She turned the page back to the napkin and read the poem again, amazed that her presence could engender something so precious.
I got you something for Valentine's Day, Tori, but I don't know if you'll want it. I don't know if you'll want me to give it to you.
"You got me something? Why didn't you tell me?"
It's from my heart to yours.
Will you want it, Tori?
You always told me that I had a heart of gold. So, I'm giving it to you... a gold heart. My heart.
I'm so scared you won't want it. I have to find a good way to make sure it's okay.
Please want it.
"No?" Sure she was misunderstanding what was being said, the word came out as more of a moan. "I... I don't understand? You didn't tell me! No, no, no. Please."
Instantly, she moved down to the next entry in the diary. This time there was considerable evidence of tear stains on the paper.
I was wrong, diary. So very wrong. I thought she knew, I thought she understood but she told me I was a child for believing in such nonsense as Valentine's and love.
That love only hurt and she'd never let herself be fooled by it. That nobody would ever own her.
How could I have been such a fool? How could I have even thought there was a chance that she felt the same way? She's right, I am stupid. I don't even know what I was thinking.
So, why does it hurt so much to know that I was so wrong?
Ken showed up just before Tori did. He said he wanted to ask me something, so I took him aside, thinking it was about class or something and... well, he was very sweet about it, but he handed me six pink roses out of the blue. It wasn't his fault that I pricked my thumb on one of the thorns.
He kissed me on the cheek when I took the flowers and asked me to the dance the next week. Nobody's ever asked me to a dance. Usually, Tori and I just hang out or I try to keep her out of trouble.
Ken's nice enough, but why didn't she understand I was waiting for her and I didn't want to talk to him? Why didn't she understand? Why did she have to be so mean?
Suddenly, memories assailed Victoria as she realized what had gone so very wrong that Valentine's night. Every memory was like a hard slap against her face, and every mistake was a knife in her heart. It was as clear in her mind as if it had happened the night before.
She couldn't believe that she'd read things that wrong and let something so precious begin an inexorable slide through her fingers. After that night, she'd pushed Mallorie away repeatedly, sometimes with vicious words, and she'd never get over that regret.
Victoria let the journal rest in her lap as her hands flew to her face. Nausea hit her and it was only by supreme force of will that she managed to keep her stomach contents right where they were.
"You idiot, Tori," Victoria admonished her younger self. "Oh my god, you idiot."
That Valentine's night so many years ago, when Mallorie had come to her, leaving Ken Moret standing there, his offer of a ride fresh off his lips.
Victoria had indeed told Mallorie all of those things from the journal, as she looked on the roses still in Mallorie's hands. How stupid Valentine's Day was. How only losers celebrated it. How there was no such thing as love.
How Tori would have taken the thorns off the roses before she gave them to Mallorie. Boy, had she been glad that nobody else had heard that remark.
Then she'd lied and told Mallorie that something had come up and she was just too busy to take Mallorie home. How she was sure that Ken would give the other woman a ride. Of course, he'd quickly agreed.
The realization that she had been so unbearably wrong was like an elephant sized weight on her chest. Wiping errant tears from her face, she tried to continue but had to stop.
The pain was a burning hole in her chest. She'd had everything she wanted in her hands and she'd rejected it. Not only had she rejected it, but she'd sent it careening into Ken Moret's arms.
She fell back against the chair, ran her fingers through her hair and cried. Cried for the years of pain she'd given to Mallorie, for the loneliness she'd given herself. For the lives that were lost, for every single thing she'd never cried for.
It was quite some time later that she tried to focus on something other than her pain or the journal. When she did, she realized that the darkness outside had receded and the sun was obviously trying to wake from its slumber.
A quick glance at the clock confirmed that it was past her normal time to get up. Absently, she reached over and picked up the phone, then dialed the office from memory. Leaving a message on Emma's voice mail, she informed her assistant that she likely wouldn't be in and to cancel all of her appointments for the day.
Victoria knew she sounded ragged and that there would be few questions as to her absence, but, frankly, she couldn't give a damn. Not now.
Closing the journal, she grasped it to her breast and closed her eyes to the world.
Several hours later, she woke in the same position. The journal had slipped slightly, but it was still resting peacefully against her body.
It appeared to be so benign and yet had contained so much pain, given so much pain.
"The truth tends to do that, Tori," she rasped and cleared her throat.
She knew she had lots of things she could be doing but she owed Mallorie something, and that was to read the entire journal.
It was easier than she thought it would be because the entries began to trail off quickly. There seemed to be little joy in what Mallorie wrote after that.
It was as if something had died between them, all because she had let her jealousy get so far out of hand and hadn't loved Mallorie enough to do the right thing.
To trust. To believe.
The journal still mentioned Tori, but things were never the same again. And, Victoria had to acknowledge that was the case. They hadn't spent as much time together after that and she'd started on a wild ride down party lane. Her last year in high school had been a very interesting ride, one that she didn't actually remember that much.
Of course, Victoria now realized that the partying was all a part of the running away process. Leaving something behind that she was frightened of. Denial, as they say, isn't just a river in Egypt. In fact, she had done a wonderful job of playing Cleopatra.
Mallorie mentioned Ken's continuing attempts at a romance and some parts about school. Angie was mentioned but even that friendship appeared to have suffered as well.
And then... school was over, Ken's proposal loomed in Mallorie's life and Victoria's eyes narrowed as she paid great attention to what her friend wrote.
I wanted to go to college, but it looks like that's out now. Because of my father's illness, there's no money left and it's too late for scholarships. I tried to talk to Tori today, I wanted her to tell me that I'm being a fool for thinking about marrying Ken... I miss her so much.
It hurts so much.
There's the thing, isn't it? I still hurt.
But, it's done. Tori's moved on and so have I. Right?
Ken told me that she's got a boyfriend on every corner and the rumor is that she's pregnant. I prayed for her when he told me that. I want her to be happy, whatever... whoever that takes.
"Even after I was a total bitch to you and broke your heart, Mallorie? Even then?" Victoria snarled, wondering if Moret had told her the pregnancy nonsense just to keep Mallorie that much closer.
So, diary, I guess I'll accept Ken's offer.
My parents tell me that he's a great catch and how wonderful it'll be to have grandkids.
"No love, Mallorie? You deserved so much love."
Victoria turned the page and continued to read. There were entries about getting ready for the wedding but not much at all about it and, thankfully, nothing about the wedding night or even the first few months of the relationship.
She kept looking for any sign that Mallorie had fallen in love with Ken but then an entry from about six months after the wedding caught her eye.
I'm still not pregnant and Ken's losing patience with me. He ... got a bit angry last night. It didn't hurt much but I'll probably have some very colorful bruises. He apologized right away, and I know it's probably something in me anyway.
The rush of blood through Victoria's veins was eye opening. "He hurt you?" she growled. "He hurt you?" she repeated and kept reading.
What happened to the Ken that brought me flowers, even if they did have thorns, diary?
It hadn't escaped Victoria's attention that Mallorie had stopped talking to her in the journal when they'd had their disagreement.
What happened to making me happy?
Now it's just, do the laundry, make sure dinner's on the table, pick this up, pick that up. Smile, look pretty, plan the trips, visit the in-laws, clean house, be good in bed.
And, so much more.
Victoria looked away and whispered, "I'm sorry, Mallorie." And she was indeed sorry. More sorry than she could ever express.
The journal fitfully recorded Mallorie's married life, with the spaces between entries getting even further apart than they had been thus far. There was no further notation of injury and Victoria started to relax when she read...
I told him I thought it would be good if he didn't drink as much tonight since we were expecting company. I won't make that mistake again, I had to tell them that the bruise on my face came from walking into the fridge. I'm not sure they believed me. It's the drink, that's why he gets so mean.
Victoria didn't even notice the rest of the text. Her fists balled up and her jaw clenched in anger. It was rather distressing to realize that if Ken Moret hadn't been dead already, she wouldn't give odds on his survival if they met again.
"You son of a bitch. You absolute son of a bitch. How could you betray what she gave you?"
A mirthless laugh erupted. "Well, Tori, didn't you do exactly the same thing? Just because you didn't use fists doesn't change the fact that you pushed her so far away that she could never find her way back."
As always, Mallorie brought her back from the brink of madness with just a few words. The entry was dated the week prior to her death.
I saw Tori today.
She's still gorgeous. She didn't see me, I hid around the corner of the grocery aisle. She probably wouldn't remember who I was anyway.
"As if," Victoria insisted.
She's still there. I can't get her out and I'm not sure I want to.
I know we're not friends anymore, but she's still my knight in shining armor. I wonder if she remembers.
I wrote a poem. I haven't done that in so very, very long. She always did make me want to say things. Things that I wanted only her to hear. One last one for you, Tori.
If I whisper in the dark, will you come to me?
If I dream of your arms around me, will you seek me?
If I ask to hear the music of your heart, will you hear me?
If I whisper regrets, will you still care enough to save me?
Victoria had to know more. For instance, she had to know why Mallorie had entrusted something that private to Cypria and it was with that thought in mind she found herself on Divinity Drive. And what in the hell did Edith Piaf have to do with anything?
With some distaste and more than a little concern for the safety of her car, she eyed the various items in a pawn shop window as she walked by. She almost stumbled when she realized the sparsely placed, and rather dingy, hearts and cupids in the window meant that Valentine's Day was close. Tomorrow, in fact, her tired mind reminded her.
All around, thick bars seemed to be the order of the day, even in the windows of the bail bondsman across the street. Several less than pristine members of the public walked out of the bail bondsman's office and Victoria couldn't help but mutter to herself, "Great, Tori. You end up getting killed on Divinity Drive because some crazy woman brings you a dead woman's journal."
It took another block that contained a homeless shelter, a corner store that looked considerably the worse for wear and two different religious entities before she came upon the neon sign that proclaimed the location of "Celestial Pleasures."
Blowing out a nervous breath, she reached toward the door handle and then quickly stepped back as the door was opened from within.
"You're here!" Cypria declared. "Come in, come in," she continued, waving Victoria inside with expansive gestures.
This time Tori was prepared for the knock you off your socks perfume clouds, and just a slight grimace and flaring of her nostrils betrayed her discomfort. However, Cypria's first question derailed her thoughts about the perfume.
"You have questions. Ask them."
"Did you read the journal?" The question brought a pang to Victoria's heart. It was as if the very idea of someone else reading the words meant for her was very wrong.
"No, I didn't have to," Cypria replied.
"She told you?" queried a very surprised Victoria.
Gently, Cypria inquired, "Victoria, is this really what you wanted to ask about?"
"Ye... I don't know," came the confused reply.
"What does your heart want to know?"
Victoria stood quietly as she thought seriously about that question and searched her heart for an answer. Finally, she looked over at the older woman and asked, "Did she love me?"
Appearing to be somewhat disappointed, Cypria answered the question with another question, "You read the journal. What do you think?"
Irritated, Victoria replied, "Why can't you just answer my questions?"
"Because you're not asking the right ones. You already know the answer to what you just asked."
Victoria began to move restlessly about the cluttered room, stiff arm gestures betraying her unease. "I don't know the answers. I don't have some mystical guide book here!"
"You don't need one. You just need to listen to your heart," Cypria intoned and then moved to stand in front of a large oval mirror against the wall before continuing, "Victoria, you know what Mallorie felt for you. You know that answer. What is it?"
Stilling her movement, Victoria turned her gaze inward. She already knew the answer but saying it out loud was akin to pulling teeth. However, with great effort, she managed. "Yes."
Smiling now, Cypria's gaze concentrated on the other woman. "And, did you love her?"
A resounding affirmative answer had tried to find its way out of Victoria's mouth but it was derailed somewhere and she stuttered slightly, "I... I don't ..."
"Stop!" Cypria commanded. "Answer with your heart, Victoria."
Victoria looked up at the older woman and tried again, but it was as if the words were being swept off her tongue at the last minute and she couldn't seem to find them again.
And then her attention was diverted by the distracting distortion effect going on in the mirror behind Cypria. The reflection appeared to be completely different. The body, the hair ... it was all different and Victoria could only guess that the mirror must have come from a carnival somewhere that had staged a hall of mirrors.
Slightly annoyed, Cypria turned to see what Victoria was staring at and uttered a rather girlish "Oops!" before moving away from the mirror and trying again to get through to the other woman. "Victoria, if there's nothing else you ever answer honestly, you must answer this question."
Frustrated, Cypria countered, "Stop being afraid. I can't help you if you don't let me."
Victoria turned away, tears in her eyes. "She's dead, why the hell does it matter now?"
Observing the pained figure, Cypria relented slightly. "All right, answer me this. If you had the chance to do it all over again, what would you do first?"
"Apologize," was the instant reply.
"Good answer." Cypria didn't stop there. "If you had one chance to make it right, what would you do? Where would you choose to do that?"
Close to bawling her eyes out, Victoria asked quietly, "I ... I don't understand what you want from me. Why ask me things that can never be?"
Cypria moved quietly to stand before Victoria and reached out a hand to touch her arm. "Please, Victoria. You have no idea how important this is."
Victoria thought about the question for a minute, her mind spinning in turmoil as it sifted through memories so recently excavated. "That one Valentine's Day, when I sent her home … when I left her with Ken Moret."
"And… and, I'd take her a blood red rose with no thorns."
"Yesss," hissed Cypria, relieved beyond measure at the answer. "How much do you want to believe, Victoria?"
"Believe what? That I could go back in time?" queried an incredulous Victoria.
Cypria pressed forward. "Answer me. Would you give it all up if you could do that? Everything? Would you go back and risk your life, your heart, your very soul to save her?"
Biting back an obnoxious reply, Victoria simply stared at Cypria. There was something in the other woman's gaze that was so focused, so urgent that she couldn't seem to look away. Finally, an answer slipped past her defenses. "Anything. I'd do anything."
"Victoria, the power of love can accomplish things beyond our comprehension. But tomorrow is Valentine's Day. You're running out of time."
"What do you mean?" Victoria asked.
Knowing how very careful she had to be, Cypria's response was guarded. "Love is the binding force to so many things. It's the glue that holds us together in the good and bad times, it's the bright colors that fill the painting of your life... it's everything."
Letting the words fade into the room, Cypria turned to pick something up off a table and then turned back around to face Victoria. She held a beautifully carved wooden box in her hand. The design on the top was very similar to the rose that had been tooled into Mallorie's journal. Reverently, Cypria opened the lid and music began to play.
Victoria listened to the music. She'd never heard such a full sound from a music box before. But this one seemed to hold a whole orchestra in its depths and it held her entranced.
"Do you know this music?"
Blinking, as if trying to raise herself from a stupor, Victoria simply nodded.
"Do you know the words, Victoria? What they mean?"
Shaking her head slightly, Victoria answered, "Something about having no regrets."
"Yes, obviously. Why no regrets?"
Feeling as if she were trying to pull herself up out of some murky depths, Victoria found herself oddly compelled to answer. "Because... because their life, their joy started today with them or ... I'm not sure?"
Holding out the music box, Cypria spoke the lines in perfectly accented French. "Car ma vie, car me joies aujourd'hui ca commence avec toi."
Pausing to see if the words had affected Victoria, Cypria then continued, "That is your answer, Tori. That is what you have to believe in."
"In a music box?" Victoria questioned, ignoring the fact that Cypria had used the name Tori for the first time and wanting to turn around and run from this crazy woman, but finding her feet firmly planted.
Placing the music box in Victoria's cold hands, Cypria wrapped long fingers around the box. "Take this, it's yours."
Softly, Cypria uttered, "For once in your life, Victoria, just believe. In yourself, in Mallorie, in love. Only you have that power."
"I can't ..."
"Yes, you can. If only you believe. Believe, Tori. You have to believe. Please, for all of us."
In somewhat of a dazed fog, Victoria found herself back at her car. Absently noting that it was still in one piece, she looked down at the music box in her hands and wondered what in the hell had just happened.
Tori blinked the sleep from her eyes and exhaled a deep breath slowly, extending her cheeks, before finally focusing on the ceiling of the room.
She blinked again, this time in incomprehension as she glanced around the room. Her voice, husky from sleep, queried, "What the hell?"
Sitting up quickly, she looked around, into a past long forgotten. A past full of dreams and mistakes, and truly awful posters on the walls.
She shook her head, determined to wake up from the weird dream and, when that didn't seem to work, she pinched herself. Unfortunately, she'd chosen to prove her point with quite a bit of power and all it served to do was make her inhale a breath at the pain she'd caused herself.
Her confusion was interrupted by a sound she quickly identified as a telephone and she reached over automatically for her cell phone, only to hit her hand on the hard plastic of a rectangular shaped phone.
She brought the heavy receiver to her ear, even as she realized it was the powder blue phone that Mallorie had bought her for her sixteenth birthday. It brought a lump to her throat, remembering the blonde standing there proudly stating that it was the exact color of Tori's eyes.
"Wakey Wakey!" crooned the honey sweet voice from the other end of the telephone.
"Who is this?" Tori demanded.
"Do you remember, Victoria?"
"What? Remember what?" Tori answered.
"Do you remember your promise?"
"Wh... what?" Tori stammered as she remembered falling asleep the night before in a completely different place, with a music box in her hands and belief on her mind.
Notes began to flow from the telephone and Tori's stomach dropped about twenty floors, even as her heart began to pound so loud it almost drowned out Edith's first word. "Non..."
The receiver fell from Tori's hand and slid with a soft thump onto the bed as she jumped out of the bed and ran to the window. The view of car models she hadn't seen in many years and her long dead ex-neighbor tottering out to pick up his morning paper confirmed her suspicions.
"Dear Lord, this can't be," she whispered as she watched Mr. Johnson almost topple over as he bent to pick up the paper. Just as she had watched him do for the three plus years she had lived in that apartment. This apartment, she realized.
Her eyes took in the decor that had been out of her life for more than fifteen years and finally rested upon the beaten up Jeans purse sitting on the small table. The sight of it brought a disbelieving breath and twitch of her lips and the reality of where she was ... when she was started to really set in.
That purse and most of its contents had been burned to a crisp by her own hand many years ago. As her trembling hand reached out to verify that it really was there, it tipped over and spilled out so many of the things that she'd burned that day.
She rifled quickly through the pile of items, discarding various things until she found her driver's license with the same horrible picture that she felt made her look like Swamp Thing. But Mallorie had said the pout was cute, hadn't she?
Mallorie's comments had made everything all right back then and they still did now as she carefully placed the license down and turned her attention to the small series of pictures that had also gone up in flames when she'd burned her past.
They were pictures of Mallorie and herself crunched together in a small booth, laughing and holding each other like there was no tomorrow. It brought tears to her eyes to see the pictures again. It was as if she were caught in a dream she didn't want to get out of. Carefully reaching out a hand to touch the pictures, she assured herself that they too were real and then smiled.
And that's when it truly hit her with the force of a ton of bricks. She couldn't possibly understand why this was happening, couldn't understand what had blessed her with a second chance that the old lady in the antique store had told her she should grab with both hands, but if it were true, there were tomorrows now.
Tomorrows meant that there should be time for her to make things right. Time.
Tori grabbed the chair, mentally blessing it for being real, and held on for several long moments.
"Time," she breathed as she hugged herself tightly. "Please. Please let me have time," she prayed, not caring that either option would likely mean that she was crazy.
Everything was exactly as she remembered. Exactly. The dripping faucet in the bathroom, the smell of garlic being used in almost every dish at Risotti's across the street wafting through the window, the kids playing fake hockey in the street between cars... everything.
It was a sensory explosion of the most bizarre type that didn't get any better as she opened the closet and found clothes she also hadn't seen in a very long time. Clothes that certainly wouldn't fit the toned body that she had honed so carefully as another tool in her arsenal on her way to the top.
But, that was different too, she realized, as she looked down at herself and cupped a breast through the material of her black Harley t-shirt that she used to sleep in sometimes. She could feel the difference in the tension, in the weight. Lifting up the t-shirt, she examined herself closely in the mirror.
No, this wasn't the same thirty something body she knew she should be looking at, it was the sleek body of a long time athlete who hadn't yet parlayed untold hours of weight machines and work outs into just another piece of equipment that she could use.
Stripping off the t-shirt, she quickly donned some of her favorite clothes and stood once more before the mirror that was nailed to the wall, watching the reflection of her hand as it rifled through her dark locks, noting the lack of the strands of white she'd found a few days before. Then she brought the hand in front of her face to look at it carefully.
Gone was the scar she had earned on the inside of her thumb when she fell on a ski trip in Aspen more than ten years ago. Remembering another scar, she twisted her forearm around rapidly and surveyed the clear skin. The six inch long scar she never really did remember how she got the night Mallorie got married was gone as well.
It was just too much to take in: knowing that she had to be crazy and yet realizing that being crazy was a hell of a lot better than the reality she'd been facing for a very long time; knowing, without a doubt, that if this were a dream, she never wanted to wake up.
The idea of having the weight of almost twenty years of mostly wrong decisions rest on such a fragile precipice was incredibly scary and so incredibly wonderful that she dared not think about it too much or risk overload.
"Breathe," she told herself as she let her head drop forward to rest on the cool surface of the mirror.
Her eyes closed and she just rested for a minute, letting the whirling confusion settle for a minute as her generally orderly mind put things in their places. She prayed that this was all real, there were things she had to do, places... Mallorie.
The thought that she might be in time to stop the largest mistake of her life spurred her into action. She pushed away from the wall and opened her eyes again and spun around to look for anything that might give her an indication of the date.
Not surprisingly, there was no paper. She hadn't started that particular habit for another few years. The cheap plastic clock on wall told her it was eight thirty, and the day light told her it was the morning but beyond that, she was at a complete loss.
"All right, Tori. We need a plan. First, what's the date? Next, buy stocks of Microsoft or IBM or something and then, Mallorie." The name rolled off her tongue like a lover's caress and suddenly the other things on her list faded away with the knowledge that there was only one place she really needed to be, and that was with the woman she had buried just a short time before.
The bed and its waiting blue snake that moonlighted as a telephone caught her attention. She knew that she could probably find out the date by calling around but the idea of even getting close enough to hang up the line was scary enough. Interestingly, she wasn't sure if it scared her more to think that Edith would still be singing away or that she might not be.
Her eyes stayed on the telephone as she wondered what to do first, and beyond perhaps finding someone on the street who looked friendly enough to ask, she figured she'd play it by ear and see what happened. "Sound like a plan, Edith?" she said to the phone and then shook her head and grimaced. "Jesus, maybe I am crazy." Luckily, Edith didn't answer.
The thought of being in time kept her going until she was outside and trying to figure out where her piece of crap car was. Chances were it was at a friend's or dead somewhere, as it had been many times when she'd been this age, but as that didn't help her to get anywhere she began to walk down the pavement, involuntarily smiling as memories from the past filled themselves in like an automatic paint by number book.
Tori continued to look around her as she walked away from her building, completely unaware that she was being hailed.
It wasn't until one of her arms was pulled back that she reacted. Her body might not have been the same, but her reactions and actions were. In a second, she had her attacker on the ground and was immediately mortified to discover that a much younger Angie was looking up at her in shocked outrage.
"Angie! Christ! You shouldn't have just ... I'm sorry," Tori said with true regret as she extended a hand to her.
"Holy shit, Tor, what in the hell is wrong with you?" Angie helped herself sit up with the aid of Tori's hand. "Ow," she complained as she rubbed her shoulder.
"I'm... I'm sorry, I'm just ... kinda on edge. Can't figure out where I ..." Tori paused and realized one answer could be had here. "Hey, Angie, what's the date?"
"I thought you didn't do drugs?" Angie replied testily.
"For God's sake, you know better. I don't even do boo..." Tori stopped midstream and realized that Angie's incredulous look was warranted, since it was quite likely that her friend had seen her get drunk and pass out quite recently. 'Thank god for some changes,' Tori thought. "Look, just tell me the date, okay?"
"Okay, okay, it's the fourteenth," answered Angie, who was busily checking out her various body parts for damage.
"Of what?" Tori asked impatiently.
Allowing Tori to pull her to her feet with a surprisingly negligent ease, Angie's hand fell on her own hip and she asked, sarcastically, "Okay, if it wasn't drugs, what in the hell else did you drink after we dropped you off last night?"
"Please?" pleaded Tori.
A frown creasing her forehead from the sudden worry, Angie replied, "February. You sure you're all right?"
"Valentine's Day," Tori breathed in wonder, almost lightheaded with relief that she was in time and might just be able to do the right thing this time.
"Yeah, otherwise known as VD Day," Angie commented, referring to a long standing joke between them. "Listen," she continued, moving her hand to Tori's arm, "I know you've been hitting it hard lately but you're acting really weird here. What's going on? You know you can trust me, right?"
And there was a statement that Tori knew was bone deep true. Angie had proven her loyalty so many times already and, even in the future, hadn't been repaid for that loyalty nearly enough until very little remained of what the relationship had been.
This was a moment, Tori realized, where she could also change something hugely important to her life or let one more person drift away into the sea of regret.
Looking her best friend deep in her beautiful brown eyes, Tori said, "I know, boy do I know. I didn't and don't deserve your friendship, Ange, but I'm going to do my best to make sure I do a better job from now on."
Angie's jaw dropped so far that her chewing gum almost found a home on the pavement before she collected herself and asked, "Okay, I saw 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' and it scared the crap outta me. When did they get you?"
"Ange, you're not gonna believe what's happened. I went to thi..." Tori found herself wanting to tell her friend everything but the words seemed to fade, even as she tried to speak them. However, she tried again, "There was ..." It was incredibly disconcerting to feel as if an eraser was going through your mind and erasing the words just before you spoke them, but that was exactly how Tori felt.
"I me..." At the look of wide eyed alarm on her friend's face, Tori gave up. "Look, I gotta go... Trust me, please? I need to find Mallorie and my car and ... fix things." Tori mentally congratulated herself for what seemed the simplest and safest answer even as she fought the urge to bolt.
"Uh, yeah," agreed a very dubious Angie. "Look, your car's down by Jake's. You were too out of it last night, so Mall, Mike and I gave you a ride home."
"Damn!" Tori muttered the expletive in regard to the location of her car, but, she temporized, at least she knew where it was. "Well, I'll just walk."
"Walk to your car?" Angie queried disbelievingly. "It's twenty miles!"
"No, to the mall."
"Look, Tori," Angie began gently, as if approaching a frightened animal, "why don't we go back..."
Shaking her head, Tori interrupted her friend with a smile, "I can't, Ange, I have to go. I have to go now before it's too late."
"Too late for what?"
"Everything," Tori replied succinctly. "Look, I'm fine. I'll see you later, okay?" She began to move away, finally giving in to an urge to get started again.
"Wait!" Angie insisted.
"Ange, I gotta go. I'll call you later, okay?"
Tori quickly moved away and then glanced back as she started to round the corner to the next street in time to see Angie throw up her hands and shake her head. Suddenly, a memory literally made her stop as if she'd hit a brick wall. She faced her friend and said, "Ange?"
Angie lifted her hands to her hips and looked somewhat aggrieved. "Yeah?"
Tori paused, suddenly doubting her idea and then pushed ahead, wanting to save her friend pain. "Don't go to that party tomorrow night."
"What? It's the biggest one in ages!" Angie replied, not believing her friend was asking that of her.
"I ... I just have a feeling, okay? If you do go, please go home with Mike, no matter what." Tori realized she couldn't tell Angie that at the party, she'd gotten into a fight with Mike and ended up getting a ride with one of the jocks. Unfortunately, he'd been quite drunk and Angie had ended up seriously hurt. Of course, the jock had walked away with barely a scratch.
Angie's frustration was evident. "What are you talking about? A feeling? What in the hell is going on with you!"
"Angie, for once don't ask and just promise me that you'll go home with Mike?"
Angie fairly oozed exasperation and it manifested in her response. "Fine!"
Wanting to be very sure, Tori asked, "Swear?"
"God! I swear already!"
"Thanks." Tori grinned, pleased with her success and knowing that Angie would almost certainly keep her promise. It was something Tori had depended on and, a pang hit her in the chest, something that she had occasionally taken advantage of throughout their friendship.
However, now she had a chance to fix that too. "See you later!" she called out and then turned her attention back to the street, stopping dead in her tracks as she rounded the corner.
Where a series of empty lots had been in her memory stood a place she knew shouldn't be there but was. A familiar soft pink neon sign glowed with the words, "Celestial Pleasures."
A dread began to eat its way from her stomach, quickly growing in increasing waves until she was almost shaking with the tension. The fear that her chance would be taken away or that now she would prove to herself that she really was crazy was starting to run rampant.
Yet, she found herself compelled to step forward and open the door that suddenly seemed so close. It barely registered to her that the noise level had dropped to basically nothing as she began to push the door open, and that her peripheral vision wasn't even picking up moving traffic in the distance.
The interior of the shop was exactly the same as it had been the last time she'd seen it. Even the pleasant odor that seemed to pervade the inside of the building was the same.
Therefore, it wasn't with too much surprise that Tori rounded the corner to find Cypria standing behind the counter. The same hairstyle, the same ... Tori blinked at the realization that the woman looked exactly the same as the last time she'd seen her. Which, if she wasn't completely crazy, was about seventeen years in the future.
She hadn't time to think much about the impossibility of that statement before the other woman winked saucily.
"Wha... what?" Tori stammered?
"I was supposed to tell you some things but you know, got sidetracked. These anti-love people are soooo much worse than temple desecrators, I gotta tell you."
"Anti-love? Someone desecrated a temple? What do..." Tori felt completely out her depth. What with everything that had happened and now with this woman was standing here, the same as she was the last time she saw her, in a shop that shouldn't exist where it was, the entire morning seemed to finally catch up with her in one large overwhelming wave.
"Whoa, sweet cakes!" Cypria held up her hand as soon as she saw Tori begin to waver. "I don't do fainting!" Moving very quickly, she slid a chair behind Tori and bumped the back of her legs, not hard enough to hurt but enough to get her to sit down in her current state.
"Better?" Cypria queried. "Need some water or golden apple cider or something?"
"What?" Tori just shook her head in bewilderment.
Cypria leaned close and spoke very slowly, "Are ... you ... feeling ... better?"
Tori closed her eyes and sighed, not entirely sure if she wanted to risk opening them again or not. Finally, she opened them only to flinch back at the face very close to hers.
"Whew, thought you were a goner there," commented Cypria as she pulled back and stood straight, hands on her hips.
"Please, just tell me what's going on?"
"Oh sure! Well, I got stuck trying to right all the wrongs that Flapit... Flickit... whatever his name is has done, um, will do. Anyway, that guy is just the worst, you know?" Reaching out a hand to pick up a drink of something that looked suspiciously bubbly, Cypria continued, "I thought it'd be way cool if all his groupies fell in love with the people they're giving a hard time, don't you think so too?" The blonde's entire body shook with contained glee at the idea.
Tori simply shook her head, not having a clue what was being discussed and having quite a difficult time reconciling this sparkling specimen of middle aged cuteness with the woman she had seen in her office.
In fact, with some alarm, she realized that things she remembered seemed to be getting a bit hazier every time she thought about it. She started to speak the thought aloud but was interrupted.
"I know, I know. You have questions."
"That's an understatement," Tori replied.
The other woman leaned forward, the formerly bubbly blonde cloak slipping further away the closer she got. Suddenly, she was very serious and intent on Tori. "I can't give you all the answers, Victoria. They're within you and you alone."
Vaguely, Tori remember the woman saying something very similar before. "Just tell me one thing; is this is real?" she finally asked.
"What do you think?"
"Please," beseeched Tori.
There seemed almost a shattering of time as Cypria looked deeply into Tori's eyes, as if the far distant past and the future expanded and collapsed in those moments.
Tori could almost see a different woman in front of her, someone much younger and ... so close to a memory that she felt as if she could reach out and grab it if she tried just that little bit harder.
"Consider it payment of a long term debt, Victoria."
Recognizing the answer for the affirmative response it was, Tori marshaled her inner strength and stood in one smooth movement, then stepped closer once more. "I would remember if I'd seen you before, known you before. That doesn't make sense."
"There's no time limit on this type of obligation." Cypria turned slightly and placed the glass on the counter.
Tori wondered at the sadness she was seeing in the other woman's eyes. "Why me?"
"Look beyond yourself," was the simple reply that held more meaning than perhaps evident.
"Why are you always this damned frustrating?" demanded Tori.
"Because, only you have the answer to this, Victoria. Not Mallorie, not me. You," was Cypria's response.
"What type of obligation changes time?" Tori asked in an effort to change directions but she had to wait long moments for the reply.
Cypria looked away for a few seconds and then returned her gaze to the other woman. "Kindness. Friendship. Loyalty. Despair that I could've... should've done something about."
Tori shook her head. "I don't understand."
"It doesn't matter."
"How can it not matter?" Tori was incredulous. "Assuming I'm not completely crazy, I've just been given a chance that probably everyone in their life wants one time or another. How can that not need an explanation?"
Cypria met the incredulity with a strange sense of calm. "Do you love her?"
When she received no answer, Cypria asked again, "Do you love her?"
Unconsciously, Tori's shoulders straightened and her chin lifted. "Yes. Absolutely, yes."
A wide smile graced the blonde's features and took over her entire face. "That's exactly how it's supposed to be. How it was always supposed to be."
"Do you mean that we were meant to be together?"
The weight of untold ages lay in Cypria's eyes. "Always."
"Then why? What happened?"
"You, Victoria." Cypria circled the back of an antique rocking chair and sat down, primly crossing her legs and then lightly rocking herself with one foot. "And, before you ask me to explain, all I'll say is that you can be your own worst enemy sometimes, and that includes being one to the people who love you."
"And don't bother asking me to explain that either," Cypria stalled Tori in mid breath. "That was something I meant to tell you before I got sidetracked earlier, I mean before." She frowned and tried to figure out how best to explain what she meant. "This is more difficult than I thought it was going to be."
Platinum curls bounced as Cypria shook her head. "When we talked the other day, I probably should have mentioned some things." She leaned back comfortably again and again waved Tori back to her chair.
Realizing she had very little choice, Tori began to get settled back down into the chair. She paused and looked up when she heard Cypria snap her fingers.
After the snap, Cypria felt a sense of right that her heart hadn't felt in more years than anyone could possibly understand. A sparkle began to once more light up her eyes, which turned into a full out grin when Tori's eyes widened to resemble huge, blue, cat's eye marbles. "That's better."
Tori was unable to speak. In the blink of an eye, the older woman was gone and she was now facing an unbelievably stunning young woman. With a loud thump, she fell the rest of the way to the seat.
The distant memory she had been thinking about just minutes before had materialized in front of her, along with what very much appeared to be sparkles floating down to disappear before they touched the ground.
Wiggling her shoulders, Cypria had the look of someone who had just taken off a very restrictive jacket and was now enjoying the freedom with abandon. "I know, I know. I could've waited until you left but you won't remember it anyway, so it doesn't matter."
"What?" Tori asked, suddenly alert and willing to completely ignore what had just happened along with the very real possibility that she was truly going insane. "I won't remember?"
"Not these things, no.
That's what I should've mentioned but you probably wouldn't have believed
me anyway." Cypria waved off her words into the ether.
"What did you tell me would be the first thing you'd do if you got another chance to see Mallorie again?" interrupted Cypria.
Oddly, Tori realized, that recollection was as clear as a bell and she immediately answered, "Give her a blood red rose with no thorns. But... "
"Victoria," began Cypria gently, deciding there was little to be lost in this story. "A very long time ago, two people very dear to me had something happen that fractured souls almost beyond repair. One of them made what they thought was an honorable decision, but it was based on the lies and deception of another. And they made that very poor decision without contemplating what would happen to the person they loved."
"What has that to do with me?"
"Everything and nothing," replied Cypria, as if expecting the question. "The thing is, I should have done something as soon as I had the chance back then but I didn't and someone I ... cared very much about suffered greatly until things ... well..."
Oddly, Cypria's face tensed into just the tiniest hint of a smile before she became serious again. "Let's just say, until that person once more proved her incredible heart and love. But, I have regretted the decision that caused so much pain ever since and made it a point to watch over the... anyone who needed my help. I couldn't possibly not fix what happened here."
"But... if you could fix this, why not before she died, why..."
"I had one chance to make this right, Victoria. I hoped that you two would deal with things and make it better." Cypria sighed. "Obviously that didn't happen."
"And now you're going to tell me that just anyone can do these things? Change time and change their appearance with a snap of their fingers?" Tori inserted a snap for emphasis.
Cypria shook her head. "Always the practical one."
"You keep saying things like that. Like we know each other," Tori complained. "Who are you and don't just say 'A friend'?"
Cypria stayed silent for a short time, wondering exactly what the other woman would remember from this conversation, but she realized that most of what she was about to say was available, if someone searched hard enough. "That's not easy to answer."
"Why doesn't that surprise me," muttered Tori.
Surprisingly, Cypria laughed. "You know, you were never easy and you haven't mellowed much."
At Tori's silence, Cypria continued, "All right then, you asked. I have been called many names." She stood with a touch of restlessness and moved back to the counter, running a small hand along a length of the highly polished teak.
"Some knew me as Ishtar, some called me Arinna or Venus, still others worshipped at Aphrodite's temples. There are more, but they're all part of me and yet none are the whole."
"You're a goddess," Tori confirmed, quite sure she just hit the crazy barrier as hard as a bug hitting the windshield.
Cypria smiled. "Well, I'm many things, one of which is a goddess. Yes. Basically, I have had to adapt through the ages. Once, I was a goddess of war, believe it or not. That was never my favorite, though the um... parties after victories were quite something."
Disbelievingly, Tori said, "Parties?"
"All right, all right. You never did let me get away with anything. Orgies. Happy now?"
"This is too much, I'm talking to a goddess," Tori muttered. "All right, who was your favorite?"
"Goddess?" Cypria's head tilted slightly to one side as Tori nodded to indicate that was the right answer. A charming smile lit the blonde's face, and there was a definite twinkle in her eye as she answered, "Aphrodite."
"Why?" Tori found herself asking, interested despite everything else.
"Ahhh," Cypria breathed, the smile still quite evident. "So much fun for a long time. Adoring, and simply gorgeous Greeks, wonderful temples, surfing along the coast and the ... parties. Yes, that was a time."
"More orgies, figures." Tori watched as the other woman's gaze turned inward and she seemed to lose some of the sparkle in her eyes and regretted her flippant response instantly. "What happened?"
"One thing I'll tell you, Victoria; gods are probably even more fallible than humans. So much pride and power breeds stupidity at times. Most of the other gods brought about their own deaths."
"There were others, but yes, I survived. However, things changed, forever, and I too changed after that. Perhaps I started to grow up." Cypria thought about that for a few moments. "No, I definitely began to grow up."
"Anyway," she spoke again, mentally shrugging off too many years and regrets to count, "that's not why we're here, is it? I need to tell you that your heart won't forget anything, but your memory won't be quite so infallible."
"How will I ..."
"Victoria, no more questions. It's time to go, but I'll remind you what I said before you took the steps to get here. When your heart listens, everything is possible. Just listen and let your heart lead you. Consider this a Valentine's Day gift."
Tori loitered around the front of the book store, sure that the gnawing in her stomach had probably worn a hole in the lining.
Apart from one aging security guard, who kept eyeing her, she had been left alone with her thoughts and with the single blood red rose she held in her hands. It was a beautiful specimen, the finest they had in the store and Tori had taken great pains to remove every single thorn from the stem.
Now it was time to take the steps she should've taken years before. She only prayed that she would do it right this time.
Tori's breath caught as she heard the voice she never thought she would hear again. Almost scared out of her wits, she slowly brought her gaze up and tears instantly filled her eyes, one slipping down her cheek in a river of relief.
"Are you all right?" Mallorie asked, her expressive face betraying her worry as she moved closer.
Ignoring the shaking in the hand she brought to Mallorie's face, she ever so gently touched the other woman's cheek with cold fingers, delighting in the soft, warm skin she felt.
Mallorie brought her hand up to grasp Victoria's and rubbed the cold fingers against her cheek. "You look like you've seen a ghost. What's wrong?"
"Noth... nothing," Tori replied, as another tear spilled over.
"Tori, you're crying. Please tell me what's wrong?" Mallorie pleaded.
Victoria struggled with the next words. "I... have to tell you something."
Mallorie looked alarmed. "What?"
Memories were fading quicker than Tori could keep up, as if the sand in an hourglass had come to the bottom and was pouring out completely unhindered. But, the one thing that didn't slip, that didn't fade was the love she felt inside.
It was almost painful, and completely beautiful. Just like the rose. Just like Mallorie.
She brought the rose up slowly until it was directly in front of Mallorie. And she smiled when she heard her friend's breath catch.
"Happy Valentine's Day," she said with more strength than she thought she had left.
"Oh, Tori," Mallorie whispered. "I never thought... I just didn't ..."
Tori lifted one finger to rest lightly on the softest lips in the world. "I love you, Mallorie Wardell."
Mallorie's jaw fell open and she just stared as her own river began to flow from green depths.
"You don't have to say anything," Victoria said, swallowing a huge lump of fear.
"Oh yes I do, Victoria Lewis,"
sniffled Mallorie as she grabbed Victoria's hand and pulled her into one
of the side aisles that dotted the mall in places.
Wiping tears from her face, Mallorie said earnestly, "I never thought I'd hear you say that. Never."
"I..." Victoria began and was immediately silenced by Mallorie. Which was a good thing since she caught Ken's arrival at the store out of the corner of her eye and let out a breath as he walked by, not realizing they were there.
"No, it's my turn. I had something I bought for you, and I'll give it to you later but I think I can .. There's something I've wanted to do for so long."
Blue gray eyes watched as the pair of young women moved together and their lips met in a triumph of love. "Yes!" the goddess softly uttered, not loud enough for anyone to hear.
It seemed tears were the item of the moment as she caught herself wiping a few errant drops from her eyes. "Now this is a wonderful Valentine's Day," she declared. Her smile could not be contained as its brightness seemed to light the surroundings for a few moments before only sparkles remained.