Love, Honor, Duty



This is the second part of a planned three part trilogy. It's probably a good idea to know what's going on so you should read Part I - Love first.

Part II - Honor

Erika was to be released from the hospital three days after the bandages were removed from her eyes. Although she was healing exceptionally well, there would still be some time until a full recovery.

The remaining days in the hospital passed quickly with Cynthia spending most of her free time visiting. The women took the opportunity of no further outside interference to get to know each other better.

They spent endless hours finding out about each other, at least as much as they could staying on peripheral issues. They both knew each other's favorite colors, songs, and movies after Cynthia brought a survey she had gotten off the internet.

They played endless sessions of "Scrabble" and discovered each was a crossword aficionado. They both loved the new PT Cruiser and given the right circumstances neither was averse to having children. They found that Erika was older by four years and Cynthia's favorite color was blue.

Coincidentally, it was the same shade of blue that colored Erika's eyes. While all this information did help draw them closer together, whenever Cynthia tried to get into Erika's past, tried to get her to talk about it, she wouldn't. She'd find a way to evade conversation when it was apparent it was heading towards that topic.

In Erika's mind, she wasn't avoiding talking about anything with Cynthia. If the other woman had come out and directly asked about things, she would have been straightforward with her responses.

After all the emotional turmoil in the short time she had known Cynthia, she wanted only to protect her from the ugliness that she had lived through in her life. Cynthia didn't need to deal with it, and for herself, she didn't least not now.

Cynthia pulled her car into the hospital parking lot. Her mind lost in thoughts of the woman with the azure eyes she had come to escort home today. Home....I don't suppose I can get away with bringing her home with me. A slow grin crossed her face. Mom always did say I had a habit of bringing home strays. I wonder if I feed her if she'll stay. I know it would work for me! Pleasant thoughts collided with reality when, as she opened the large glass entrance doors to the hospital, Liani was entering as well.

Cynthia continued to walk forward, quickening her steps, pretending she didn't see her, which wasn't easy given the bright neon green, very fitted, very tight top Liani was wearing.

"Cynthia...hey Cynthia wait up."

Great....freakin' great. Cynthia slowed her gait so as to disguise her attempt to avoid Liani, but still rolled her eyes without anyone seeing.

"Hi." I will be civil, I will be civil....

"Look, I want to apologize again. I don't know what got into me. I am a first-class fucked up dork head. Ok? Really, I'm sorry."

No kidding....I couldn't have assessed you better myself. Cynthia paused a second and let Liani continue.

"I've never had friends before....not really...and I just was doing what I thought was the right thing. Everyone is always after something and, well, I figured you were no exception. I really like Erika," Liani put extra emphasis on the next words for Cynthia's benefit, "as a friend. That's all it is."

Cynthia considered the words. Maybe she really doesn't have any social skills...outside of the barfly life anyway. Damn....I hate it when I can't hold a grudge. "Ok," Cynthia said with a heavy sigh.


"Yeah, apology accepted." A small grin started to tug at the corners of her mouth, "Just please....don't try and kiss me again, ok?"

"Deal…and you're sure we are ok? I didn't want to leave tomorrow without trying to settle it." Liani fidgeted nervously.

"As ok as we are going to be."

"I'll take it. Now....let's go get your girl checked out of the hospital."

My girl....I do like the sound of that....

Liani and Cynthia walked together to Erika's room. The physical therapist was just finishing up with Erika.

"Remember, I gave you the blue band, use it 3 times a day with 10 reps. Bring in your elbow up against your body and lie on your side, you shouldn't feel pain. If you do, then quit and call us." The therapist heard the commotion of the women entering behind her.

"I see your friends are here to take you away from all of this. I won't keep you any longer. Just keep in mind, the therapy will only work for you if you keep it up. If you stick to the program we have developed for you, the faster that rotator cuff will heal. A tear isn't something to mess around with. Don't over-do it and everything should be ok."

Erika directed the conversation at the therapist but couldn't keep her eyes off of Cynthia. "Thanks. Don't worry, I want to get better so I'll do whatever it takes. I'll see you in a couple of days." Reluctantly pulling her gaze from the best view in the room, she glanced at the therapist and added sincerely, "Thanks for everything."

The therapist left some written instructions on the bedside table and left the room.

"So…looks like I get to bust outta this joint today." Erika's smile was contagious; the other two joined in her good mood.

"Yeah, and just in time for me to go home. I must say, my life is going to be rather boring without you guys around."

I'll live with boring if you aren't going to be around, Cynthia thought, then scolded herself with the memory of the pact between her and Liani. Cynthia decided to give peace a chance. "Do you need a ride to the airport, Liani?"

Surprise registered on the other woman's face, "Uh, thank you but no. I still have the rental car. In fact, it's all packed and I really need to head out there soon. I don't want to miss my flight in case there is a lot of traffic, so I really should be going. I just wanted to stop by and tell my buddy good-bye," she said, smiling at Erika.

Liani walked over and gave her a playful bear-hug, careful to not make any overtures that could be construed as anything other than friendly. "And you, scarecrow, I'm going to miss you most of all," she kidded and with a quick flick of her finger on Erika's nose, she turned to Cynthia.

"I'm sorry," she mouthed, then aloud, "I am really glad to have met you. Hopefully next time, it will be under better circumstances. You take good care of that big lug over there, will ya?" she said, tossing her head in Erika's direction. "I have to admit, you're a good egg."

Liani reached out as if to hug the other woman, and Cynthia instead thrust her hand out to shake. "It was....interesting......meeting you. Have a good flight back home."

Liani walked out of the room, and their lives, with a brief look back and a wave.

"So, ya 'big lug', you ready to get out of here?" Cynthia teased the soon-to-be-released patient.

"I am sooo ready. Except when you or other people have come to visit, I have been so bored. If I'm going to be bored, I'd rather do it at home," she said with a grin. "So, would you like the honor of wheeling me out?"

"I couldn't think of anything I'd rather be doing," Cynthia said honestly.

With the hospital time coming to an end, Cynthia wanted to make sure the daily contact didn't. "I know you have physical therapy the next few days, and probably you shouldn't push yourself, but what about Friday? That's four days away; do you have any dinner plans?"

She must have been reading my mind. "No, I have no plans. I usually don't go out much, but I'd really like to go out with you. In fact, Mike has been bugging me about going out with him and this new girl he is dating; do you mind if we double?"

"Double, single, it doesn't matter as long as I get to spend time with you." Did I say that out loud? Oh shit...way to go, Cynthia. Scare her away now.

Erika turned in the wheelchair to get a look behind her. "That is absolutely the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me. Thank you."

Whew... Cynthia was so relieved her face clearly showed it.

They reached the front doors of the hospital after signing the release paperwork. With a handful of prescriptions, instructions and trinkets from the hospital, Erika got out of the wheelchair as soon as the nurse stopped looking.

"You wait right here and I'll pull my car around, ok?"

"You're the boss. I'll wait for my chariot to arrive." Along with the best looking driver around, she finished to herself.

Cynthia brought her car around. Erika practically had to tuck her knees under her chin in the small vehicle. They got everything settled and left for home, Erika's home.

During the ride, they agreed that Erika would call Mike and set up the date. They also agreed that Cynthia should be the one to give Erika rides to therapy. Any excuse worked to keep up the constant contact.

The next few days rushed by with both women becoming more comfortable with each other in person. They were extremely comfortable talking on the phone or computer, but this real life stuff was the genuine test.

Friday came quickly. Arrangements had been made to meet at Erika's apartment and everyone caught a cab over to the place Mike was anxious to show the couple. Tentatively, they walked into the dark, dingy establishment. "What kind of place did you bring us to?" Erika raised her dark eyebrow and turned toward Mike, questioning his choice of restaurants.

"Have a little faith buddy. Live a bit. A little adventure never hurt anyone. After all, it isn't often I've been able to help you impress a woman." He gave her a sly grin.

"It's ok, I've heard this place has awesome food!" Cynthia chimed into the conversation.

"Thanks Cynth....and Bambi here hasn't ever eaten Thai before. At least not the food. Isn't that right, honey?"

The wide-eyed woman gave him a blank stare.

"Just the way you like them huh, Mikey?" Erika remarked, knowing the comment went so far over the bleach-blonde woman's head, they could almost feel the whooshing of the air.

"Funny, Rickie, very funny," he responded sarcastically.

A short, Asian host came up to the group and greeted them. "Hello," he said in a heavy accent. " You here for -" Mike cut him off.

"Yes, we are, can you get us one of your best tables?" he said, putting a five dollar bill in the man's palm with a handshake.

The shorter man nodded his head. "Of course, come with me." He took them into a dimly lit back room. In the middle was an open area with a mirrored ball hanging. It could have been a dance floor, if it had been larger, with a small, raised area at the end of it. There was a television on the stage with a barstool and what appeared to be a place for a DJ.

Cynthia glanced suspiciously at Erika, who shrugged her shoulders. "Dunno," was all she said. Mike's date was at the head of the pack, with her mind still back at the front door trying to figure out what they were talking about.

The two couples were seated in a crescent shaped booth, with Erika and Mike on the ends. The seat was made of dark red vinyl. Since it was summer and rather hot, you could hear Bambi's bare legs stick to the upholstery and then pull away.

Everyone was situated rather quickly and drinks were soon ordered. A waitress came with the beverages. Due to the heat, the cocktails were quickly consumed, except for Bambi's- she was still trying to close the wooden umbrella that came atop hers.

The waitress took the order for their food and another round of booze, except for Bambi's, of course. She was now playing with the cherry that came in her drink and trying to tie the stem with her tongue.

"Someone really needs to tell her she is supposed to try that inside her mouth, " Cynthia cupped her hand, whispering to Erika. Erika narrowly avoiding spraying the table with the mouthful of beer she had been about to swallow.

Cynthia moved closer to Erika. Again using her hand as a barrier, she whispered, "I can see her having a positive pregnancy test and saying, 'OH MY GOD! Who's the mother!' " This time Erika wasn't so lucky. She erupted with laughter, spraying Mike, directly across from her, with the beer.

Mike glowered in her direction, wiping the errant beer off his face. He then gave an equally annoyed glare in Cynthia's direction. "Ok, you guys, that's enough." He looked over at his date wrapping the cherry stem around the tip of her tongue and he, too, began to laugh.

The foursome had an enjoyable dinner once it was served. Well three of them did anyway; Bambi continued to exist on her own plane of the universe, not really contributing. The conversation was easy, light-hearted and very comfortable. It was if the three of them had been friends since grade school.

As the night went on, the restaurant became more and more crowded. "Wonder what's going on here tonight; it's just about nine o'clock and it's packed!" Cynthia observed.

Again, Erika became suspicious of Mike's motives. "Yeah, I wonder...." she said under her breath.

The lights dimmed a bit and a spotlight found its way to the raised area where now sat the host that had greeted the group at the door.

"Hello, and welcome to second annual Mai Tai's karaoke contest." Erika shot a glance at Mike, not knowing if she had heard correctly. "We have contestants entered in the competition from all over city. To make fair, we put four names of people singing tonight in a hat. I pick one, they sing. You clap most for them and they win $500 and 'nother try for money next week."

" didn't, please tell me you didn't," Erika begged. Cynthia looked back and forth at the two friends, perplexed at the conversation.

"Well I can tell you that, buddy, but that doesn't mean I didn't do it." Mike basked in the success of his plan.

"Well, fuck that! Come on, Cynthia, we're leaving." Erika pulled on the hand she was already holding to help her out of the seat.

"Whoa...hang on! Wait a minute! What is all this about? One minute we are having fun and then out of nowhere you guys start talking this cryptic language. "

Before either of them could answer, the emcee said the name on the paper he drew out of the hat first.

"Erika Dillinger in the house? Erika?" he said, shading his eyes from the spotlight to look into the audience. Erika's expression could rival Bambi's blank stares. She froze. Erika did, that is; Bambi was busy looking at her reflection from the back of a spoon.

With no one else moving in the room, the spotlight found its way over to the standing woman. Erika, confident her own element — which this wasn't , was so nervous, she couldn't do anything but follow the spotlight to the front of the room where the host was calling her to come. As she passed by Mike, she lowered her voice to a register only he could hear. "I'm going to freaking kill you when this is over, " she said to his beaming face.

"Come here, pretty lady. Please. You Erika?" Erika just nodded. "Ok, you sing for us and you win 500 dollar. What song you want?"

Erika cleared her throat. "I...ah...I am not prepared tonight. Do you have a book?" The emcee handed her a large, bound book. She sat it down next to the man, opened it somewhere in the middle and began rapidly flipping through the plastic covered pages.

"; New York, New York....definitely not," she mumbled. Turning the pages a few at a time she continued to scan. "Rhinestone Cowboy? That would serve him right, but no. Satisfaction? Nah, I don't have the strut down." With a slap of her hand, several pages moved. She moved her finger down the page and went through the titles as if she had been a student of Evelyn Wood's speed-reading class.

"Y.M.C.A.? Hmmm, it has possibilities; I could make them all come up." All of a sudden her finger stopped. That's it! She mumbled again, expecting a response. "Hey," she looked over at the short man waiting for her decision. "I said this is the one; do you have it?"

He looked at the number written by the title and checked his song index against it. "Yes, pretty lady, I have that one. You sure you want sing that song?"

"Oh yeah, it's perfect, " she declared.

The dated beat of the golden oldie began, as Erika cleared her throat once again and grabbed a glass of water from a passing waiter.

The television monitor came alive with the words to assist the singer. Erika looked over at the table surrounded by her friends and smiled. With one more drink of water, she started singing in a clear, strong, beautiful voice.

You are the woman that I've always dreamed of
I knew it from the start
I saw your face and that's the last I've seen of my heart

Erika took a seat on the stool. She looked right at Cynthia when she sang, but the blinding spotlight in her eyes prohibited her from seeing the reaction.

It's not so much the things you say to me
It's not the things you do
It's how I feel each time you're close to me
That keeps me close to you, woh oh

The nervousness was beginning to subside. She rose from the stool and walked down the stairs to the small dance area, walking over to her table.

You are the woman that I've always dreamed of
I knew it from the start
I saw your face and that's the last I've seen of my heart

Cynthia couldn't believe this was her Erika on stage, singing. It was as if another person was up there, one who could captivate an audience with her voice and movements. Cynthia was the most enthralled of them all.

It's not so much your pretty face I see
It's not the clothes you wear
It's more that special way you look at me
That always keeps me there, woh oh woh

When she reached the table, she looked down and smiled at Cynthia, who was amazed at her friend's incredible singing voice.

"You are wonderful," she mouthed. Erika continued with the song.

You are the woman that I've always dreamed of
I knew it from the start
I saw your face and that's the last I've seen of my heart

During the short instrumental section, she reached out for Cynthia's hand. Cynthia willingly gave her the requested hand and used it to pull Erika close and whisper in her ear, "You've watched 'Top Gun' too many times!" Erika pulled away, smiling. Knowing the words that were coming up, she got a serious look on her face and gripped Cynthia's hand tightly. As if she were taking a vow, she sang the next chorus with her eyes fixed on her friend.

It's hard to tell you all the love I'm feeling
That's just not my style
You've got a way to send my senses reeling
Every time you smile, woh oh

You are the woman that I've always dreamed of
I knew it from the start
I saw your face and that's the last I've seen of my heart
I saw your face and that's the last I've seen of my heart
Of my heart
Oh oh of my heart

Erika continued to hold Cynthia's hand as the room erupted in applause. Not one person appeared to be bothered by the exchange between the two women. In fact, there were many who cheered merely because of the openness. Erika broke away hesitantly to take the microphone back to the emcee.

"You good, pretty lady, you very good," the host was clapping so fast, the movement was similar to a hummingbird's wings when it is trying to get nectar.

"Thank you," she said shyly, then she reached into her pocket for something. She leaned over and whispered into the man's ear and handed it to him. He nodded his head as fast as he had clapped his hands.

"Oh yes, pretty lady, I do for you...oh yes."

Renewed applause was directed at Erika when she walked back toward her table. "That was wonderful, Erika. I think we need to have a talk though don't you?" Cynthia smiled, still trying to digest what had just happened.

Erika smiled meekly back at her and then, before she could answer, Mike spoke.

"See, Rickie, that wasn't so bad was it? You've always said some day you were going to compete. So I figured why keep putting it off."

"Yeah, Mike, you're right, it wasn't too bad."

Mike stopped what he was doing. Something was always wrong when Erika agreed with him. The spotlight started to swirl again.

"Lady and gentleman, our next singer is going be Mike Jones singing 'Superfreak'," the emcee boomed over the microphone.

When the spotlight settled on Mike, he had visibly paled and sweat was already beading his forehead. The emcee walked down and over to the table, handing Mike the microphone. "You turn sing good like pretty lady."

"Who's laughing now, funny man?" Erika said, right before Mike passed out.

After the singing debut was finished, the double-daters snuck out of the side door. Mike and Bambi wanted to go out dancing, but the other half of the foursome opted to walk the just over a mile back to Cynthia's apartment, and Cynthia would give Erika a ride home.

The night air was beginning to get touches of crispness. Summer was ebbing as the days became shorter and shorter. The soft breeze blew a few leaves in their path errantly, swirling in the air before they touched the ground.

"Nice night," Cynthia said, wrapping her arms around herself to keep the cool air from permeating through her clothing.

"Yeah, it is…I 'm thinking it's mainly because of the company though." The statement brought a smile to Cynthia's face. She wrapped her arms tighter about herself as another breeze made her shiver.

As Erika noticed the involuntary shudder and, without asking, took her jacket off and draped it around Cynthia's shoulders.

"Thank you, but aren't you cold?" The jacket enveloped her with warmness and the scent of the taller woman. It also made Cynthia look like a kid playing dress up in adult clothing.

"Not really. I am pretty warm usually. I wear the coat just for looks more than necessity. Plus…I really like the way it looks on you," Erika said with a grin.

Cynthia turned red slowly, with her ears taking the brunt of the crimson.

"Oh…look at that. You blush."

This comment made the glow redden even more.

"Well, not usually. I guess you bring it out in me." Cynthia fanned her heated skin.

"Ohhhh, I do, do I? Tell me," Erika put her arm around Cynthia's and got close to speak in her ear, "what else do I bring out in you?" she whispered in a sultry voice.

Cynthia felt as if her stomach had dropped to the floor. That, along with the shivers that crept up and down her spine, nearly made her knees give out.

She said the very first thing, well the first decent thing, that came to mind. "Wouldn't you like to know?" she teased.

Erika stopped walking. Because they were strolling arm in arm, Cynthia was halted as well. She turned, facing Erika the best she could while not losing physical contact.

Erika looked deeply into Cynthia's eyes, "Yes, I would like to know," she said with absolute sincerity.

Wow, this got serious fast, Cynthia thought. "Uh…look…we are already in front of my apartment. Why don't we go inside and talk?"

"I think I'd like that." The words came out of Erika's mouth before she could stop them. Erika wasn't usually this forthcoming with her closest friends, much less with someone she had only known for months. Must be the alcohol. Wrong! she chided herself silently. You aren't fooling anyone, Dillinger, you actually have found someone you want to share things with, good and bad. Let her get to know you. She's already proven you can talk to her and she won't run away.

The friends walked into the tidy two-bedroom apartment. Cynthia had taken a course on interior design. The living space was utilized well and looked like something out of a magazine, with well tended houseplants and knick-knacks in strategic places making the apartment appear very warm and cozy.

"Wow, you have a nice place here." Erika looked around, very impressed at the handiwork. "Maybe you can help me with my apartment, I really like your attention to detail."

Cynthia blushed again at the compliment. "You are going to spoil me with all the flattery. As for the detail…that's what my job is all about, so it kind of spills over into other parts of my life."

Erika again pondered just how all encompassing that attention would be. A slight blush crept up her face, barely noticeable but Cynthia picked up on it. She tilted her head just a bit, "What are you thinking about?"

As Cynthia had before her, the glow deepened. "Uh…nothing, " then quickly changing the subject, a skill that was second nature to her, "Do you have something to drink?"

"Sure, name your poison."

"How about just some coffee. I think I've had enough liquor to drink."

"Sure, I have all kinds of coffee: sumatra, mocha java, flavored coffee. I even have an expresso machine and a French press. What would you like?"

Erika looked up sheepishly, "Do you just have some instant regular coffee or something? I like a good cup of coffee, but I don't need all the fancy stuff. Hot water and crystals are just fine with me."

Cynthia chuckled as she started walking to the kitchen. "Yeah, I can handle that, be right back. Why don't you go sit down in the living room. Turn on the TV if you want, or the stereo. I'll be back in a flash."

Erika meandered into the comfortable looking room. She spied some pictures of a younger Cynthia on the entertainment center. The first was a photo of a tow headed little girl with two adults. The older female looked tired, but happy. Her arm was around a tall blond man in a blue jeans and a tight fitting t-shirt. Well, it's obvious where she gets her athleticism. Look at the body on that guy; it's gotta be her dad, she's the spitting image of him.

She picked another picture up, of Cynthia at about age 8, dressed in a gi with a yellow belt tied around her waist. The ferocious expression on the girl's face caused Erika to laugh. Oh, she was a tough one! Seeing a little of Cynthia's past brought a smile to the police officer's face.

Hmmm, what do we have here? Erika thought as she picked up yet another picture of Cynthia. This one was one of Cynthia in her late teens, all dressed up, probably a prom picture, with a handsome, dark headed boy, about the same age as Cynthia. His clean-cut, chiseled face was accentuated with a dimple on his cheek and pearly white teeth. They made quite the couple. Erika was still holding the picture as Cynthia walked back into the room.

"That is Ross. He took me to the prom our senior year," Cynthia answered before Erika asked.

She sighed deeply then continued, "He was my boyfriend all through high school. Our parents expected us to get married after we finished college. Then there was an accident…" Cynthia's voice caught in her throat; even after all the time that had passed, she was obviously still upset by the incident.

Erika walked over to her and wrapped her arms about Cynthia. "It's ok, honey, it's alright." Erika's soft words tried to comfort.

Cynthia's head was a perfect fit in the crook of Erika's neck. The tears came harder. "It's all my fault. I think it doesn't bother me anymore, and out of nowhere it hits me again." Cynthia tried to hold back, but it wasn't working.

"Come on, let's sit down." Erika pulled her toward the overstuffed leather couch. "Do you want to talk about it?" Cynthiajust shook her head and began to sob until the crying slowed and all that was left were small whimpers and a series of rapid inhales that would catch in the back of her throat. Finally, it ebbed, allowing her to speak.

"Look at your shirt, I got it all wet. I'm sorry," she said after grabbing a tissue and blowing her nose.

"It's alright." Erika regretted causing this reaction. "I'm the one who should be sorry; I shouldn't have been messing with your things. It's what I do for a living, snoop, and I shouldn't have been doing that here." Erika grabbed another tissue from the coffee table and dried the rest of Cynthia's tears. "There, all better now. Would it help to talk?"

"Maybe…It happened a long time ago. Like I said, Ross was my boyfriend. I had an inkling I liked girls, but I thought it was wrong."

Erika raised her eyebrows in surprise.

"Don't worry, I'm so long over that by now, it's a moot point. It wasn't back then. I tried to fit in. I talked myself into dating him, telling myself it was the right…the normal thing to do." Cynthia took a drink of her now tepid coffee. "I've always known I was different, but I didn't want to disappoint anyone." Wiping a slow tear from her cheek, she continued, "My parents wanted me to get married and have children. I guess in some way I wanted that too. I still might want children." She glanced at Erika to see her reaction to that confession. As usual, the poker face was intact.

"Anyway, I struggled over this for a long time. Ross was so kind and so patient. He wanted to do things at my pace. The problem was that my pace never headed in his direction. I would lay awake at night, after he would bring me home, and would think about how married life with him would be. I always would see myself as unhappy."

She paused for another drink of coffee. "Then, I would think about what I wanted out of life. I wanted to be a writer. A photo-journalist really. I would see myself going out on location then coming home to someone who was tall, dark and attractive like Ross. The thing my mind couldn't reconcile at that time was that the person I saw looked like....well it was a female." And she could have easily been you....

"I would see the two of us in a house, with a family. We'd be playing in the yard with the kids, three of them, and arguing about who to vote for in the next presidential election. You see," Cynthia grinned, "she was a Republican and I am a Democrat. She'd would never agree with me, or let me win, but she would see my view of things. When the discussion was over, she'd wrap her arms around me and kiss the top of my head and make me feel safe, loved and wanted."

Erika's husky voice interrupted the visual flashback to the dream not visited in years.

"That sounds like a wonderful dream." One in which I'd love to play a starring role. "So, what happened?"

"Well, I didn't do anything. I just took it day by day. Not really unhappy with Ross, but I still felt like I was searching for something, or someone. What I needed was so elusive, I don't think I even knew then what it was I wanted. Days turned to weeks, and weeks into years, and, before I knew it, we had been dating for four years."

"I know you haven't mentioned him in all the months I have known you; is he still in the picture?"

Cynthia closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose with her hand. "No. He isn't," she whispered, releasing the pressure.

"One night, we went to a party. It was the summer after we graduated. Lots of people were drinking; hell we were all drinking. It was probably going to be the last time all of us would be together before we went our separate ways to college. It was the typical party, with the girls on one side of the room and the guys all drinking shots and making bets on who could belch the loudest."

"I hadn't really had a lot to drink and was kind of sitting back watching everything. I was sitting alone on a couch when this person I hadn't seen before approached me. We started talking and to this day, I don't know how it happened but we ended up in a bedroom and we definitely weren't talking."

"So you and this guy went and were doing it, with Ross in the other room?"

Cynthia looked up, meeting Erika's questioning eyes. "Yes, she and I were, and that is when Ross came looking for me. He caught us." She diverted her eyes again, away from the depths of blue she could lose herself in.

"You see, up until then, was...ah...I was a virgin." Cynthia paused, embarrassed at the revelation. "I always told Ross I wasn't ready to sleep with him, and here I go jumping into bed with the first pretty woman who asks me, a stranger too. I'll never forget the pain in his eyes. I could practically hear his heart breaking. I pulled the sheet around me when he ran from the room, and followed him. I called after him but he wouldn't stop. He just ran."

Cynthia went back in time in her mind. She once again was running after Ross, clad only in a sheet, down the middle of a busy street. She could smell the burning rubber, and hear the sickening thud of the car with its screeching tires when it hit Ross. The shattered glass didn't stop her from going to him, cradling his bleeding head in her lap, her own feet and legs bleeding from the small cuts caused by the broken windshield.

She could see the pleading eyes once again, looking deep into her soul, beseeching her to answer his question. "Why, Cindy, why? I've always loved you. Why?" She closed her eyes as she recounted the tragic night.

Erika embraced Cynthia's head as the tears started to flow once again. "Oh, honey, it isn't your fault. You didn't know that he would run into the street like that. No one could have known that a car would come," she tried to comfort the distraught woman. Stroking the short blonde hair, she continued, "Everything happens for a reason, even the bad things. Trust me, I have seen and done enough bad things in my life to know."

"But you didn't see all the blood. It was all over my hands. I tried and tried and couldn't wash it off. Even when it wasn't physically there, I could still see it." The sobbing began anew. "If I had just told him how I felt, instead of being afraid, he'd still be alive. He would have gotten over me and he would be alive."

"You can't believe that. If not for the accident then it would have been something else. He would have slipped in the shower, or fallen off a ladder, something, anything. I believe that when it's your time, it's your time. Nothing you could have done would have changed it. Nothing, " Erika pushed Cynthia back from her shoulder and looked her in the eye. "Look at me. You couldn't have changed it. If you want to blame someone, blame the Fates, but not yourself. You are a good person; you would never hurt anyone."

Mournful eyes returned the gaze. Erika could barely make out the nearly incoherent words, "Do you really think so?"

"I know so. All the good you do for people every day. That should prove it. You are sweet, and honest and noble. You are so wonderful."

"How can you still want to be near me after what I told you?"

"Because I lo…" Erika caught her tongue before it slipped. Now wasn't the time. "I mean, I've done bad things in my life, really bad things. What happened to you was an accident. There wasn't any cruel intention. I am glad I was here for you this time. Do you want to finish the story? I don't need to be anywhere. I certainly can stay here and listen to my friend if she needs to talk."

"There really isn't much else to tell." The emotion was less apparent in her voice. "After the accident, I decided not to go to college. I didn't think I deserved to. I used the money I had saved for school to go to Europe. I hitch-hiked from country to country, almost hoping something bad would happen to me, so I wouldn't have to live with the pain. I met people, but mostly it was just empty experiences. Finally, after four months, I came back home. I decided to try and get myself together. I went into therapy, even though it might not seem like it tonight. I got my job working in emergency communications because I wanted to help people."

"You do help people, you make a difference. You have to believe that."

"I guess I do. Since I have been dealing with some stuff from the past recently, it must have caused all this to re-surface."

"What have you been dealing with? Anything I can do to help?" Erika offered.

"Oh, it's not's good really. I applied about a year ago to a school in the mid-west. They have a really good photo-journalism department. I wanted to see if it was still what I wanted to do. Don't get me wrong, I love my job now, but it was kind of a way I thought I could resolve these feelings I've had. And....well they accepted me. I was going to tell you about this anyway tonight, but my plans were not for this to be so dramatic."

"So, is this like a correspondence class or something?"

"No, I'll have to go there. I would have to leave in a few weeks and stay for six months. I'll be able to take a leave of absence from work."

"Oh," Erika responded quietly. "When did you find out?"

"Only today. I'll have to do a lot of things between now and then, but I think I can do it."

"Yeah, it sounds like something you need to do." Erika's stomach felt like it was going to sink. She hid her now sullen mood though and tried to do what was right. Just support her, that is what you are supposed to do, don't be selfish.

"Well, now you know just about everything about me. You sure you still want to stick around?"

"Oh, I don't know," a smile tugged at the corners of Erika's mouth. "What's left for me to learn about you?"

Cynthia swatted her friend's arm. "You'll just have to wait around and see about that." Their mood was lifted by the short exchange. "Speaking about learning about each other sure surprised me tonight with your voice. Did you ever sing professionally?"

"No, not even a lesson. My whole family does a pretty good job carrying a tune. I think it's in my genes."

Wonder what else is in her genes....or jeans for that matter. Cynthia mentally admonished herself for the thought. Calm down, girl. You are too emotional to be thinking about anything other than just talking. "Well I would say that your genes have served you well; you have a beautiful voice. Thank you so much for the song. I guess I should ask you what I have wanted to since you sang it," her voice was suddenly laced with a hint of timidness. "Did you mean it?"

Erika took Cynthia's hand in her own. "I absolutely meant every word I sang to you." Raising the hand, she gently kissed it, "You make me feel things I never have before. When I saw you for the first time in the hospital, you know how I said I had dreamt about you? It was true. It is true."

Just when Cynthia thought she had no more tears to shed, new ones appeared, but these were tears of joy. She brought Erika's hand to her lips and kissed it in return. "I guess you won't think I'm nuts when I tell you that I feel like I have known you forever. I can't tell you how grateful I am to that squirrel who brought us together." Cynthia broke into a playful grin.

"Oh yeah, good old Sparky," Erika's expression mirrored that of her companion. "He gave his life for us."

A moment of quiet passed, neither woman confident of voicing the emotions racing through them at the moment. Cynthia broke the silence. "I just want to thank you for listening to me. I guess I needed to get through some of the feelings I had been having. I'm going to miss you, a lot. You'll be able to come for a weekend here and there won't you?"

I'm going to miss you more than you know. "Nothing could stop me," Erika responded, "nothing at all."

The malachite eyes brightened with the statement. "Do you want to watch TV or a video or something?"

"Sure, whatever you want." Erika was glad of the invitation; she was hesitant to leave her friend. Cynthia rose from the couch. Picking the first movie in her collection, she popped it into the VCR. Erika, in the meantime, had stretched out on the long leather sofa, making herself comfortable.

Cynthia turned around, contemplating the inviting figure of her friend or the empty chair next to her. The decision was made quickly. Without asking, she settled herself between the taller woman's legs, resting with her back against Erika's torso as if it were a cushion.

Welcoming arms reached around, holding Cynthia close. A contented sigh escaped the rose-colored lips of the shorter woman. After a few moments, the drone of the television was barely heard over the heavy breathing of the two sleeping women.

The sound of a barking dog woke Erika in the dead of the night. The surroundings were unfamiliar to her. Startled, she tried to sit up, but was held down by an unseen force.

Resting her chin on her chest, she looked down and saw blonde hair sprawled across her torso. A wandering hand had found its way under her shirt, touching her abdomen.

I sure could get used to this, Erika thought to herself, before returning to her slumber.

Daybreak came and again Erika was awoken. Her internal clock reminded her this was the usual time to rise, but feeling the dead weight of the body draped over her, she knew it would be an exercise in futility to try and untangle herself from the still sound asleep form.

Cynthia moved, resting her head on an area that put unbearable pressure on Erika's bladder. "That's it, " she said before tenderly shaking Cynthia by the shoulder. "Cynthia, get up; I need to go to the bathroom."

"No, don't wanna," she mumbled. "Feels good."

"It feels good, yes, honey, but I have to go....please?" She then appealed to the one thing she knew Cynthia appreciated the most. "If you let me get up, I'll fix breakfast."

With a quick roll, Cynthia was off the couch, and curled onto the floor. "breakfast....yum," she muttered.

Erika quickly took advantage of her freedom and ran to the bathroom. When she'd finished, she went to the kitchen to take a quick survey of what ingredients she could use to throw something together.

"Wow," she said to herself. "I didn't know anyone kept this many groceries on hand. Let's see; what can I make and not burn?" Erika quickly decided on making omelets. After gathering the items to make the ultimate egg dish and setting them on the kitchen counter, Erika started rummaging around for coffee.

With the coffee now brewing, Erika grabbed a pan from the cabinet. A loud clang was heard when she pulled out more than she needed. "Shit," she mumbled. She went into the living room to see if she had disturbed Cynthia.

Cynthia was still in the same curled position as when Erika had left. When the sleeping woman smiled, apparently in the middle of a dream, Erika was nearly overcome with emotion. God, look how beautiful she is.

Erika walked to the supine figure. Just looking at you makes me feel things I never thought I would feel in my entire life. I don't know if I can fight these feelings. I for the first time in my life. I wasn't looking for anyone, didn't need anyone, and you just crashed through all my defenses and made me realize: I do need someone. I need you.

Erika bent down and kissed Cynthia's forehead. Why am I so afraid to tell you that? Ever since I came back from the seminar, life's been a whirlwind, yet when I'm with you, it's calm. I can weather anything with you to back me up. And now, I find you and you are going to leave. I know it isn't permanent, but one minute away from you feels like forever. She rose only to finish her internal conversation.

I know you need this to get over Ross, even after all these years. I could help you too, if you'd give me the chance. But you'll never know that unless I tell ya, huh? A sardonic grin emerged. And if I tell you, then I wouldn't be letting you make the best decision for yourself.

Unguarded and vulnerable, Erika made a decision. I can't say anything. If you decide anything different it has to come from you, not my influence. I care too much to do that to you. I've got to back off....

Satisfied at the resolution, she returned to the kitchen to fulfill her promise of breakfast.

Erika did the best she could considering she wasn't a very good cook. At the very least the food looked good. She gathered everything, found a serving tray and placed the food and coffee upon it.

I'm going to act like nothing is different. I have to. This will be the best thing for her in the long run. It's not like it's forever.

Erika lifted the tray and brought it into the living room. She sat it down on the coffee table removing the empty coffee cups from the night before. She tried to make a little noise to awaken the heavy sleeper. Nothing she did worked, so Erika picked up a cup of coffee, held it under Cynthia's nose and gently shook her.

"Hey sleepyhead, wake up."

It took one whiff of the coffee to have Cynthia sit up, grasp the cup in both hands and inhale deeply.

"Now this is the way to wake up!" she said sounding groggy but enthusiastic.

"I see…the trick is to have coffee for you when I want to get you up in the morning huh?"

"Oh, so…" Cynthia purred, "you plan on being around in the morning?" Cynthia in between her sips of coffee. That coupled with the fact that after each sip, Cynthia would close her eyes savoring each taste; it caused Erika to stop what she was doing and just watch the way Cynthia licked her lips after every drink.

Thank God I am not a man because I know where all the blood in my body is right now… at least it isn't obvious to her. Erika tried to recover her wits. She shook her head to clear the less than pure thoughts out of her head.

"Ahem, that's a way to wake me up in the morning" she said, clearing her throat, and evading the question asked. Cynthia smirked at the playful come-on.

The breakfast cook handed Cynthia her plate and sat next to her. "Here—eat this before it gets cold."

"This looks really good, thank you." The hungry woman quickly devoured the omelet, toast and went for a second cup of coffee. When she came back to the living room, she stopped in front of Erika. Kneeling down, she sat the coffee cup onto the nearby table and grasped the larger hands in her own.

"About last night," she forced her gaze to meet Erika's, "thank you. I know I said it last night but I just wanted you to know that I hadn't talked about that in a while and you don't know how much better I feel today. Thanks for being there." A swift upturn of her lips showed her straight, bright smile. "You tend to be there a lot when I need you these days. All I can say is thanks. I hope if there is a time you need me, I'll be able to reciprocate."

I already need you. "No thanks necessary. A very smart woman once told me 'that's what friends do — they stand by each other when there is trouble' if I remember correctly."

Cynthia grinned at the memory. "Yeah, she is a pretty smart friend isn't she. Anyway, " she said while rising, "thanks."

"Sure," was the only thing Erika trusted to come out of her mouth.

The women sat in relative silence as Erika finished her breakfast.

"Since you cooked, I’ll clean up…I’ll take care of the mess then I can take you home if you want. What’s your schedule like?"

"You know what? I don’t have anything at all planned. It’s the weekend so no more physical therapy, not at the office anyway. I was going to go to the gym and do a little workout, then I am free. How about you?"

"Well, I was going to hit one of the classes at my gym and maybe do a nautilus circuit. Wanna try my gym out? We could go there first then I could take you home."

"That sounds like fun," Erika agreed. "In fact, maybe we could do that, you could take a change of clothes with us and we could maybe go to a movie or something?" She’d actually felt a little shy suggesting it.

"You mean, like a date?" Cynthia questioned, making sure she was clear on what was being asked.

"Yeah, a date," she said, mimicking the smile now on Cynthia’s face.

"Great, let me get some stuff done around here and we’ll go."

The dishes were washed and things put away and they left to carry out their plans.

The afternoon raced by. After the work-out, Cynthia took Erika home to shower and change clothes since she had already done so at the gym. When the raven-haired beauty had finished scrubbing herself clean, she found herself standing in her small closet unsure of what to wear. I never have to think about clothes…man Erika, you have it bad.

She picked out a light-weight silk blouse the color of lapis lazuli to wear, along with crisp khaki pants. To finish her ensemble, she chose dark brown suede loafers that complemented the trousers and put a thin silver chain around her neck.

Not quite satisfied by her reflection in the mirror, she added a few touches of make-up and a dab of a seldom used perfume behind her ears.

There…best I’m gonna look. Everything else is work-out clothes or court clothes.

Erika took a final glance in the mirror smoothing out the few wrinkles and went out in the living room with Cynthia.

"Wow," followed by a low whistle was her response to seeing Erika. "You sure clean up great. I look like a bum now compared to you."

"No you don’t. You look very cute, " Erika commented, referring to the dark tan polo shirt and very fitted jeans Cynthia was wearing.

"Well…what if I don’t want cute right now?" Cynthia walked over to the taller woman and ran her finger over the delicately over the sterling chain. "What if I want sexy," she said in a smoky voice.

Erika was stunned. She was not prepared for any kind of aggressiveness from Cynthia, certainly nothing this blatant. Erika tried to remain composed, but the visible motion of her throat from the gulp of air she took made it obvious, she had been affected by the remark. Cynthia would soon learn that Erika swallowed audibly anytime she was nervous.

"Um…well, please …um…certainly don’t let me stop you, but you look just fine with what you are wearing." Oh my God she is going to kill me before she goes to school. There is no way I can not react to this. "Anyway," Erika said regaining her composure and ignoring the not-so-subtle hints, "I don’t thing you need to be dressed up for the movies. I just threw this on because all my other things were dirty. I haven’t been home much lately remember?" Erika threw her arm playfully around Cynthia’s shoulders, guiding her out the door.

Cynthia allowed Erika to steer her out of the apartment, slightly confused with her overtures being ignored. Hmmm, you wouldn’t think I would have to work so hard for a kiss. Hell she is going to think I am a slut, I practically threw myself at her. Wonder what’s up?

After dinner and a movie, Cynthia didn’t want to take Erika back to her apartment. Since she was the one who was driving, Cynthia decided to take an alternate route back to Erika’s apartment.

"Where are we going," Erika queried when she noticed Cynthia wasn’t taking the familiar route to her home.

"Just wait and see. I have a plan."

"You do huh? And just what does this plan involve?"

"Well how does this sound, you and me and some water and the moon."

She’s trying to kill me, my hormones can’t handle this…. "Oh. Ok. That sounds…um…good."

Cynthia pulled the vehicle over to a secluded area that had access to a large swimming hole, it was private property but belonged to a friend of hers. Even though the pool was just on the outskirts of town, it seemed isolated from the rest of the world. The only sounds heard after Cynthia turned the car engine off were those of crickets and frogs. Loud crickets and loud frogs.

"Wow, this place is beautiful. How’d you find it?" Erika was awed by the magnificence of the open sky filled with stars.

"It belongs to an old friend of mine," Cynthia was enjoying the profiled view of her friend as much as the panorama of nature. "Why don't we get out and look around? I have a blanket in the trunk, we can sit in front of the pond and talk."

Talk? Uh oh! "Uh....ok." Why do I keep agreeing to things with her? I should say no no no! Against her better judgement, Erika reached for the door handle and released it opening the door.

The women got out of the car. Cynthia opened the trunk and not only did she have a blanket, she also had an unopened bottle of Merlot wine, a bottle opener and plastic wine goblets.

Erika raised her eyebrows in surprise. "What are you a boy scout?" she smiled. "I've never known anyone to be prepared in such a spontaneous excursion."

"Well, actually, this was left from the picnic we were supposed to have when you came back from the conference. I just never took the stuff out." Cynthia looked around for a good spot to put her hoard.

When she spotted just the right place, she threw the blanket down then smoothed it out. She sat down and opened the wine. "I don't know much about wine, so I hope this is ok? I've always heard you are supposed to let it breathe, so I guess we can do that. Why don't you come over here and sit down?" she patted the spot next to where she was seated to show Erika where she should sit.

Erika cautiously walked to the blanket and sat almost as if she were hypnotized. She straightened her legs in front of her and with bent elbows, held herself in a reclined position. She closed her eyes allowing the wonders of creation to wash over her.

"Beautiful," Cynthia said looking at her companion.

"Yes it sure is," was the response.

"I mean you. You're beautiful." Erika could feel a slight blush heating her face.

"Thank you."

Cynthia reached for one of the goblets and poured some of the strong smelling, deep-red liquid into it. Handing it to Erika she spoke again, "I think we need to talk."

Erika took a deep swallow of the wine making her throat burn. "'bout what?" she asked, afraid of what was coming next.

"Well, I told you a lot of stuff about myself last night and you seemed ok with it then but today, you've been acting weird. I just wanted to be sure that we are ok. I didn't do anything to piss you or offend you, did I?"

The response was immediate, "Absolutely not, no you haven't done anything wrong at all. I am sorry if you took it that way." Idiot. Now look at what you did, she thinks *she* did something wrong.

Cynthia scooted closer. "Good, I was worried. I just didn't understand why you have been kind of stand-offish today."

Erika drained the rest of her drink. "I'm sorry. It wasn't anything you did. I think I just don't know how I am supposed to act." Especially with you leaving, she finished to herself.

"I guess I can understand that. It's been a long time since I have been interested in anyone really. I guess I don't know how to act either." Cynthia reached for Erika's hand and interlaced their fingers, "but I'd like to learn…with you."

Erika took one look at the verdurous eyes and lost herself. With the single glance, she felt each of her defenses fall, one by one. The magnetic pull of one heart reaching out to another was too much for either woman to resist. Erika was the first to succumb to the draw.

Moving her face closer to Cynthia's, she tried to talk. "I…I…" love you. I love YOU. Say it dammit, say it! Shit…I can't, she's going to leave, I can't let her know. It's not the right time. But I do Cynthia, I do love you.

Unable to get the words to leave her mouth, she did the next best thing she could, closed her eyes and kissed Cynthia. And then, she kissed her again. For all she knew at that point in time, the world could have stopped spinning and the moon could have fallen from the sky. There was nothing but the two of them.

Erika put her arms around Cynthia's neck and pulled her closer. As their kiss deepened, a fleeting thought crossed Erika's mind before it was lost to desire,this is what it feels like not to be lonely.

Cynthia senses were reeling. In the brief seconds she was able to form a coherent thought, the only thing that came to mind was how in all her life there has been no one who made her feel the way Erika did...ever.

Cynthia, without breaking contact, moved to straddle Erika's legs. This allowed for her hands to be free to roam as they pleased, and please they did. The feel of her hands running up and down the silk fabric of Erika's blouse made the desire, the need, for her to touch skin greater than it had been. Carefully freeing the garment from its confines, the blonde beauty began to unbutton the shirt from the bottom.

As the first clasp came undone, Cynthia's hips began a journey of their own. As the simmering passion came to a boil, they began to push against the object of their desire creating a friction so intense both women were afraid that alone would drive them over the edge.

Cynthia reached to the next button when Erika suddenly grasped her by the wrists.

"Stop. We need to stop," she said gasping for air.

"Why? There is no one around for miles, it's just you and me."

Scrambling to her feet, practically tossing Cynthia off of her legs, "it's not that." Brushing the grass off her pants she stood. "You have to forgive me. It isn't that and it isn't you, I want you to know that. I just want to go slow."

Erika reached down to Cynthia to give her a hand up. "From the first time I talked to you, everytime I've thought of you, it's brought a smile to my face. Even before I met you, I knew that we could have something special. That's what I think of you and I, that we have something special. I hope you do too."

Erika tilted her head to look directly into Cynthia's eyes. "I've always rushed into things. Molded stuff to fit my needs and wants of the moment." Erika chuckled, "the phrase 'fools rush in' that's always been me."

"I want us to take the time to know each other," especially since you are leaving, "because what we have is so intense and coming on so fast, I'm afraid..." Erika covered her mouth with her hand. She had not intended to make that confession, her downcast eyes indicated the truthfulness of her statement.

Cynthia closed the few feet that were between them. "You don't have anything to be afraid of. Especially not me. If you need time, you can have time." She paused, "As long as it isn't too long," she replied with a grin.

"Trust me," Erika returned the smirk, "I really don't want to wait. I mean I really don't want to. Right now," she said deliberately, fanning herself with her hand, "I feel like I'm about to spontaneously combust. You have no idea what you do to me."

The tenderness evident in Erika's indigo eyes touched Cynthia. "You have no idea what you do to me!" came the immediate response.

"Well, then— we're even. I just don't want to be one of those stereotypical lesbian couples. You know, the ones they joke about on the second date bringing a u-haul? Lord knows my u-haul is filled with baggage. But...if you are willing to take it on...take me on and wait for me...just a little while, I'd like to have the chance to have something with you."

Cynthia sidled next to Erika, "you know what they say 'good things come to those who wait'." And I'd wait for you forever...I know it will be worth the wait. "I think you might be right about waiting. It won't kill us...well not literally anyway, and it would be better not to do something to mess up our friendship if we aren't sure about things because no matter what happens, I still want your friendship."

"And I want yours," she concurred. "Maybe the school you are going to will be a good thing." Not! Damn why does my stomach get tied in knots when I think about that? I need to stop thinking about it.

"Yeah," Cynthia said, distracted by her own thoughts of leaving.

"Well... we've had a pretty heavy-duty chat tonight. Why don't we sit down and just relax for a while. This really is a beautiful place. I can't say I would mind just doing some star-gazing with you."

"That's a lovely thought."

The women sat again on the blanket. Before long, Erika found herself lying on her back with Cynthia snuggled against her. They made a game of trying to find the different constellations and naming the ones they knew.

About an hour passed and the air began to get very chilled. Although neither wanted to move, it was decided to head back to Erika's apartment.

Cynthia pulled into the parking lot. "Do you need any help?" she asked.

"No, but would you like to come up? I happen to like your company very much."

"I'd love to but I shouldn't. I return to work tomorrow and since I am taking all that time off, I probably should be there in the morning. It's pretty late now already."

"Oh, " Erika sounded a bit disappointed, "well then, it'll be a few days until I see you again?"

"I can stop by after work if you'd like. I don't want you to get tired of seeing me around."

"As if that would happen. I'd love it if you stopped over. Maybe we could go out to dinner or something?"

"I'd like that very much, say about five'ish?"

"Perfect." Erika leaned over to kiss Cynthia good-bye. As soon as their lips touched, the passion was re-ignited.

"You know," Cynthia commented while pulling back from Erika, " I really love the way you kiss. And if you don't get out of this car right this instant, I am not going to guarantee what I'll do next."

"Ok, ok," the taller woman held her hands up as a sign of surrender. As she rose out of the car she added, "for the record, I really love the way you kiss too," then disappeared into the night leaving a smiling, but frustrated woman behind.

As time usually does when you want it to go slow, it doesn't. The few weeks before Cynthia was going to leave for school raced by. The women spent as much time together as possible, even shorting themselves on sleep in order to have just a few more minutes together.

The Friday before Cynthia was to leave, Erika invited her to go back to the karaoke bar. Erika had been going each Friday and had continued to win. She would slip in to do her song and then leave, not telling Cynthia or Mike that she had been prevailing week after week in the contest.

Since it was the night before the blonde was going to travel to the Midwest, Erika decided to make a night of it. She invited Mike and his newest conquest, Tiffany, and Tracy and his wife, Nancy to come and listen to her compete.

Due to Erika's newfound celebrity within the dingy walls of the restaurant, she was offered the best table for herself and her friends. Cynthia and Erika were both extremely impressed with the new woman in Mike's life, she too tried to tie a cherry stem, but at least she knew how to do it....and in under five seconds!

The dinner was pleasant and filling. As the spotlight started to shine, the emcee announced the winner of the last four weeks, and the light was directed to Erika. She acknowledged with a polite nod of her head.

Tracy took this opportunity to run to the restroom with his bag he had carried in when they arrived. Everyone looked at each other with questioning eyes, but it was soon forgotten when the first singer was announced.

A stereotypical looking computer nerd complete with red clip-on tie, short sleeve white shirt and pocket protector arrived center stage. He carefully folded his black heavy rimmed glasses and handed them to the announcer. Stiffly, he stood waiting for the music to begin.

Taking care to not bend any joint any more than he had to, he started bouncing when the intro music began for the hip-hop classic, "Word Up"

The audience was dismayed at how much he sounded like the original singer, if you closed your eyes. It was just impossible once they were opened to reconcile the singer with the song.

The audience gave the participant enthusiastic applause when the song was done.

Erika still had two more vocalists to go before it was her turn. She rose when the speaker was trying to get the music set for the next person. She, along with the rest of the table, had looks of dismay as Tracy rushed out of the restroom when his name was called.

He had changed into a very tight pair of black leather pants, an open white loose-fitting shirt; the outfit complete with heavy gold chains around his neck.

His music of choice was, "I'm Too Sexy." By the way he gyrated his hips during the number, he was fully convinced the song was written for him. He danced, strutted, and swirled his hips as if he were Tom Jones and women were throwing their underwear and room keys at him.

His wife was probably the most flabbergasted at this exhibition. The only time she had ever heard Tracy was in the shower singing, and not very good at that. This...well this was very good.

Tracy knew he had given the show of his life. He started to practice in private as soon as Mike had told him about these weekly competitions. When Erika had invited him, he knew it was fate. He was walking on cloud nine when he handed the microphone back to the emcee. Swaggering back to the table, he slid into the spot he had vacated.

"Well? How'd I do?" he asked proudly.

The five friends at the table began snickering, before long the giggles turned into hysterical guffaws, each being egged on by the other's laughter.

"What? I didn't think I was that funny." He was starting to become irritated.

Erika was the first to try and speak. It was impossible to do so, as she would try and form a word, more laughter spewed from her mouth.

Holding her side, Cynthia spoke in between gasps. "Your pants," was all she could manage before the laughter broke free again.

"Aw come on I am wearing leather pants. I figured it fit the song. Give me a break will ya?"

Cynthia took another gasp of air, "not pants, zipper."

Tracy looked down at his zipper and saw his boxers showing through the opened fastener. The table again was overcome with a bout of uncontrolled laughter as Tracy's head dropped to the table in embarrassment.

After another challenger, it was Erika's turn to sing. She had obtained quite a following, at least half the customers in the restaurant had made a special trip to see her performance, most of them women.

In the weeks she had been singing, her self-consciousness had diminished. The confidence exuded from the tall, dark haired women this night was new. Maybe it was from the other performances, maybe it was from the exuberant responses she received from the crowd, or maybe it was just knowing that after Tracy's performance, she couldn't mess up too bad in comparison.

When she walked onto the stage, Erika took an obvious, and exaggerated, look to verify her pants were fastened properly, trying for and receiving a laugh from the audience. Tracy's face turned colors of red that aren't even in the 144 count box of crayons.

Turning her head towards the deejay, she nodded at him prompting him to start the song. She pursed her lips, bouncing her head with the rhythm of the music. Standing with a broad stance, she started to sway her hips looking much better than Tracy did.

In an intentionally raspy voice, Erika did her best imitation of Melissa Etheridge singing, "I'm the Only One."

Men and women alike were swooning. Trying to provide an air of danger she felt went with the song, she leapt from the stage, landing on her feet. Singing to the people she now recognized, she would look at each person as if this song were especially for them, making each of them feel just a bit special. Little did they know, there was but one person of interest to her. When she had made her way to the blonde, she saved the best, biggest, brightest smile for the person who had stolen her heart.

She put her hands on the stage and lifted herself back up avoiding the stairs. As the song came to an end, she ended in the same position she began and then dropped her head to her chest.

The crowd rose to their feet, cheering wildly. Without contention, Erika was once again declared the winner of yet another week.

The party soon broke up since Tracy, in his earlier haste to zip his pants, got his shirt stuck in it, making his predicament much more evident . Carrying the bag he had put his clothes in over the front of him, he ran for the door with his wife following closely behind.

Mike and Tiffany wanted to go to his house and watch one of the newly released movies on video together. Cynthia and Erika were content to let them go alone in order to spend the last night they had together.

The drive back to Cynthia's apartment was a quick one with laughter interspersed in the conversation over Tracy's little exhibition. As the car got closer to the apartment, a nagging feeling started to come over Erika; reality finally had sunk in.

What can I do, what can I say to make her stay. Am I just being selfish for wanting her to stay, to find out what it is between us? On the outside she displayed her usual cool exterior; no one, including Cynthia, would be able to tell that her entire world felt as if it were collapsing.

When they arrived, Erika walked Cynthia from the car to her apartment door. It would be selfish. She has to make the decision for herself. I can't influence her, that isn't fair. Just keep telling yourself that, Rickie. You can't influence the decision.

The steps they took up the moss covered stone walkway were quiet, the silence hung in the air like the fog that was settling in.

"Well," Erika had a forced grin on her face. "Here we are."

"Yes, here we are." Cynthia was unable to hide her emotions as well as Erika could. She was having a hard time looking at Erika, afraid of giving away her feelings. Can't she just ask me to stay....I know I have wanted this for a long time, but one word from her and I'd stick around. I don't want to force myself on her; maybe she needs the time or the space. She said she would wait for me, I'll just have to trust that.

Erika knew she couldn't put off the inevitable. I just have to see those amazing eyes one more time. Erika moved her hand to Cynthia's cheek; with light touches she ran her finger up and down. "Hey," she moved her fingers under Cynthia's chin and raised her face up so she could see into her eyes. "This isn't the end of the world. You'll be gone six months and then you'll be back." Then why do I feel like my heart is breaking in half?

Misty verdant eyes looked into ocean blue. "I know," Cynthia smiled, "I'm going to miss you....a lot." Cynthia's voice caught and she left it at that.

Erika smiled at the comment. "I'm going to miss you too." She reached out and grabbed both hands with her own. "You've become a big part of my life." She pulled Cynthia's hands to her mouth and tenderly kissed each of them. "I don't like saying good-bye."

"This isn't good-bye." Come on Cynthia, be brave. "It's only au revoir, till we meet again." The tears slowly streamed down her face.

Erika reached down and kissed each one of the tears away. If you'd let me, the only tears you would cry would be tears of joy. "I guess we can't put this off any longer, huh? You need to go and finish packing."

With a courageous front, Cynthia smiled and clasped her hands around Erika's neck, pulled her down and kissed her. "I'm going to miss this," Cynthia said softly, "so very much."

"Oh God," came the reply. "Me too."

"Do you want to come inside?" Cynthia said, in between lip locks, knowing what she was offering.

Oh yes, and never ever leave. Erika hesitantly pulled slowly way, so badly not wanting to part. "I so very much want to come inside," Erika paused, seeing the deep breath Cynthia took, "but, I don't think it would be a good idea. " Cynthia's face fell.

Control, Erika, control; for once do what is best for someone else. "I want you in every way possible, but I still think that the best thing is for us to have some time to make sure that we are both in the same place, that we both want the same thing." She leaned down to place one more kiss on the lips that offered her a sweetness she had never known before. "Good-bye."

Erika didn't trust herself to look into the eyes of green one last time; she quickly turned her head and walked away. Slowly at first, until she was out of sight, then she ran. When she got to her car, she hit it with both fists. "Fuck! Why didn't I tell her how I felt." Unable to stop the tears from falling, she slowed them by wiping the salty drops away with the back of her hand. I didn't tell her because it would be selfish.

With a determined look, Erika got into her car and drove away. The night was quiet and the streets deserted. Erika drove aimlessly just trying to figure out what the hell she was going to do.

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