Disclaimer One: These guys and gals are my creations, so please don’t use them without permission. That would be entirely too rude.

Disclaimer Two: In this particular installment, there is humor, angst, strong language, and subtext that’s not even the least bit subtle.

Dedications: A fond thank you to both those who helped and hindered, and finally, Thank God for blessing me in more ways than one.

This one picks up the next morning after the events of Looking Within. Cory goes home and faces her own demons. Taylor deals wit her guilt and loss. We learn a lot more about what makes Cory tick and about where she comes from. Okay, that’s all I’m saying. There is also a mention of the movie Desert Hearts. It’s a great lesbian love story made back in the mid-80’s. I highly recommend it. I hope all of that’s cryptic enough? Read on because I know you’re curious.

A LITTLE WARNING: A lot of emotions are going to be thrown at you, so be prepared to go into the jumbled mess of Cory and Taylor’s minds. Also, I throw around the names of some authors who wrote books on ethics, and the names of the restaurants mentioned have been changed because *laughs* this is America, and people get sued for less.

~ Seeing is Everything ~
(9th Installment in Perspectives)



Copyright © Minerva 2000


Chapter XXIII: The Morning After. . .

Taylor switched on the lamp beside her bed, piercing the pre-dawn dimness. She was tired of feigning sleep. Guilt, pain, and loss saw to it that she didn’t reach the world of R.E.M. Scooting up, she leaned back against the headboard and let the blanket pool around her waist. Exasperated and tired azure eyes peered down at her hands, studying them intently. They looked like they belonged to her, but within the time interval of a few minutes, they had disobeyed her head and listened to her heart and body.

She clenched them into fists and allowed short nails to dig into her palms. This pain was diminutive compared to the raging agony and sense of loss boiling inside. Her throat burned from unshed tears, and hours ago, her heart had fallen into her stomach, causing them both to protest with knots. The hole where her heart had been was left gaping, open , and tender, and it throbbed with each thought that strayed to even a wisp of blonde and green. ‘If only these hands had listened.’ But, they had touched while she had tasted. Of their own accord, the appendages balled into fists once more. She squeezed until her knuckles were white. A touch, a kiss, a lie, and an ending to something before it even began. It had happened all in quick succession like it wasn’t meant to be. A lie. How could it be a lie if it was used to protect and contain? Still, jade eyes watered as trembling lips called it by it's name, a lie. That is what it had become.

Taylor compressed her balled hands tighter. A secret. A secret kept as a wall erected between the personal and professional, the platonic and intimate. The wall was no longer there, leaving no defense and a sharp ache to virgin tissue. ‘It hurts. Oh God.’ One hand opened and made its way between her breast to rub the ache where her heart used to be. With each rub, the ache only grew stronger. She wanted to claw at it. Gnashing her teeth, she only rubbed with more vigor. A whimper passed full lips, and the small sound reverberated in her ears. A sob was next as the pain traveled, and the wound spread. Recalcitrant hands began to shake, and for the first time, tears came, and they were not the silent, pretty ones. Pulling the t-shirt away from her aching chest, she cried out. It wasn’t enough. Opening her fisted palm, she wrapped cramped fingers around weightless pillows and watched them fly effortlessly across the room. Fragile glass fell and shattered under the miniscule weight. She cried on, but still, it wasn’t enough.

Tearing the covers away, she jumped out of bed with angry movements and stood tall with an almost unnoticeable sag to broad shoulders. She stared through the dimness and dark bangs at the silent phone. ‘I didn’t even have the courage to call.’ Let her go. She’ll come to you when she’s ready.’ The little voice grated her nerves to fine powder, making her edgy and the tears come with infinite ease. Frantic, red rimmed eyes searched the room, looking for what ever she had lost, but they returned to the phone. When she’s ready. For the first time, she wished that Little Shelley had been louder all those times, so that she would have listened. For now, she wanted her gone. "Shut up!" She took two steps to the phone and wiped at continuously falling tears with the heels of her hands. Another step and it was close enough to touch. So, she did. The coolness burned her hand, prompting them to tremble again. Bile inched its way up her chest, causing a different burn. She pulled the phone toward her ear, but her disobedient appendages would go no further than half way.

"I can’t do it." Fear tangled with the pain: fear of rejection, fear of hatred and fear of ambivalence. It roared through her violently, chilling her blood, doubling her heart rate, and making her sweat. She would never survive it. A sob released some of the pressure, but still, it wasn’t enough. The pressure only built again.

In need of a physical release, shaking hands wrapped around the base of the phone. With one strong yank, the cord was pulled from the wall. With a stronger throw, it soared through the air with a clang and then with a decisive thud against sturdy wood. Her chest heaved, seeking breaths, and blue eyes closed feeling the agony flower and flow. The release was a miniscule reprieve. The ache never left. Unsteady hands made their way through the dark mane. Despite the promise she had made to herself long ago, someone had gotten into her heart, deeply. For this instance, she could empathize with her mother’s pain. She could understand the lost look in eyes like her own as they peered into the murky depths of the Atlantic. She had vowed then to avoid, to deny passion, love, and all intense emotion, thinking it would lead her to drown in depths of her own making. Now, she was treading water because the vow had been ripped to shreds by green eyes and a infectious laugh. It was a different version of the familiar nightmare.

. ‘Make it stop.’ But, she was beginning to think nothing would. The emptiness and the loss were her friends now, and they were prepared to eat her whole, causing Wendy’s words of empathy and understanding to fall on deaf ears. There was nothing else, only Cory, and only she would be enough to make it end, finally. Covering her face with her hands, she sank in an ungraceful heap to the piece of floor beside her bed. The feelings of listlessness were overwhelming, but Little Shelley rose again to be the voice of comfort, if not reason. It hurts. I know, but you have to face this head on. Do what you have to do and deal with it. You have people that need you and count on you. Don’t let them or yourself down. Get up.Taylor brought long, naked legs to her chest. ‘I can’t.’ Yes, you can. You’ve functioned through pain before, and you can do it again. She will be back, and you will get through this. If you don’t believe me, believe in yourself. Believe in Cory.Large hands found a home in bed raggled dark hair. She pushed them through the tangled mass once more, hoping to ease the band that had cinched tight around her brain. Mercifully, it eased by a few degrees, and she could think again. Pale blue looked up and the digital clock on her nightstand stared back. It was time to rise and shine. Wiping her eyes once more, she pulled from a hidden source of reserves to rise, but she knew ,today, there would be no shining.

Opening the door to the old Corsica, Cory threw her overnight bag into the passenger seat before climbing into the car. Just a few short hours ago, she had been in the same seat, running from feelings that were overpowering, enticing, and startlingly new. For once she needed, needed desperately, and that alone scared her. Now, she was running again in attempt to understand the fear and the need with the help of someone who surely knew her the most. It was time to go home.

‘I can’t stay in that apartment. I can almost smell her there.’ Trust was indeed a fickle concept so much so that when bruised or broken it left an empty mess much like she was now. The betrayal was too fresh to deal with head on, and the nagging voice in the back of her head was too loud to ignore. ‘Deep down, you knew everything that you needed to,’ it had whispered. ‘All the lovers and pretend friends that have left me, I hardly batted an eye, but now, I feel as though I’m falling apart.’

Confusion, anger, and fear fought for position in her psyche. More often than not, anger won out with fear coming in a close second. It hummed right under the surface of her skin, making it impossible to think or to sleep. The bed had been off limits because the tall, lanky body had lain there. Therefore, the darkest part of the night was spent on the couch, staring into blank space, contemplating each touch and each word that had fallen from dark lips. ‘Was it all a ploy? The secrets and the pain she shared with me. Were they all a part of some asinine game that I let myself get caught up in?’ Her head had screamed yes, while her heart had just screamed in pain, giving no answers at all. The tears had finally come in a hot angry rush.

In the early part of the morning, she had folded herself into a tiny ball with her own arms wrapped around her torso to keep from flying apart. She wanted to cry out, but simple fear stopped her, the fear of not being able to stop. Dr. Zawid had called the dark haired woman her bright spot, but now, Cory let the darkness free, leaving her a hollow vessel for the pain and a myriad of emotions to blow through.. As the sun rose and signaled the dank city to life, she felt despair nip at her heels. That feeling alone confused her. Why was she feeling it? Taylor was only a friend. A friend that she was attracted to, but still a friend. Pooling the last vestiges of mental strength, she rose with the sun. She had to know why the fear, and why the despair. "I can’t work like this, exist like this," she whispered as she turned the key in the ignition. She had to go where she was known.

After filling her tank and piling up on bottled water and snacks, Cory made her way to the highway. She let the driver’s side window down, letting the dry, hot air blow her hair askew and turned the radio down to a murmur. ‘Mom and Dad will be surprised to see me. I wonder if I should have called first? God, I just needed to get away from here, if only for a few days.’ She paused at a stoplight before officially turning onto the highway that would take her to Evansville. ‘How do I tell her that another woman has turned my life upside down? It took her so long to get used to my lifestyle. How do I tell her that I met somebody who makes me feel things that I’ve never felt before? What do I say? I’m running ma, running from a woman who made me need her.’ She shook her head as she merged into traffic after coming out off the exit. The blonde switched lanes, moving from behind a Maxima that was creeping along at the actual speed limit. Upon changing lanes on the highway, she shifted gears in her mind also, allowing herself to drive down memory lane to the first time her mother had found out about the woman in her life.

College had been a time of discovery for her and probably every other eighteen year old. On the small Indiana State University campus a few hours away from home, she found more than immaculately kept grounds, friendly students, and small classes. There, the blonde could be who she always was. The person a smattering of friends knew to be gay. Just a few hours away, she had found freedom. There were no secrets. She frequented the college town’s one gay bar, R’ Place, and participated in lesbian groups, but there was still something missing, a woman to solidify things. She had told her friends as much, and in determined fashion, they set out to help her. A grin pulled at her mouth as she remembered Shawnda’s brashness, Toni’s sense of humor, and Terri’s, playfulness. They were all scattered now almost completely losing touch, but that was now and she was thinking about then.

They had fixed her up with one disaster after another. Their personal favorite had been the one they had dubbed ‘the Goth chick.’ She was a vocal member of the support group and a strange one also. The formerly somber blonde giggled as she remembered how the young woman had shown up on her doorstep dressed in black and made pale by make-up. It had been Cory’s first instinct to scream and run, but the night spiraled to the Twilight Zone, when the blonde learned that the girl listened to Danzig, Rob Zombie and watched only Pucchini movies. It had taken the younger woman to reveal her belief in being a vampire for Cory to sneak out by pretending to go to the bathroom.

It took several more disasters for her actually to literally bump into and hit it off with someone. Laurie had been that person, and the computer center had been the place. Long after helping the other woman with her books, she had stared at her back and the shock of long, white blonde hair from across the room. Upon seeing the other woman getting up to leave Cory bumped into her again, purposely. The bumping led to coffee, coffee led to dinner, and dinner led to dating. After a while, Cory found that they didn’t have much in common but laughter and an attraction that was heady, reckless and irresistible. It was new, powerful and she reveled in it. Sex had been an epiphany, a good one, but that had been all she felt.

‘I just knew there had to be more.’ She shook her head and let up on the gas as another car cut in front of her. When the other blonde whispered the ‘L’ word, Cory had said it back out of some sense of obligation but found the lure of her friends, clubs, and bars more interesting than calling and spending time with her ‘girlfriend.’ Laurie tolerated the absences and the lack of attention, but Cory remembered the lack of enthusiasm in the other woman's voice when she did call. The platinum blonde’s buoyancy returned with the help a gold bracelet and frequent calls during the Christmas break. Cory had returned to Evansville while Laurie visited her family in Ft. Wayne. Knowing that she couldn’t really have contact with her group of friends, she had settled for phone calls to Ft. Wayne. Her mother had asked who she was calling, and she had cryptically answered a girlfriend from school. Brenda Donovan wasn’t a stupid woman, and Cory knew it. It was only a matter of time before two and two was put together. She remembered the conversation well.

She had been lounging in the basement watching TV with the other woman supposedly puttering about upstairs, but still, Cory hadn’t been surprised when she heard footsteps making their way down. It had been the look of uncertainty on her mother’s face that made her sit up.

"Cory, I need to talk to you."

She remembered taking a deep breath before answering, "Uh, sure Mom just let me turn down the TV." They stared at each other in awkward silence before the older woman finally went on in a strained voice. "Who is this girl you talk to on the phone everyday? I watch you, and it seems so intimate. You talk to her as though you were speaking to a boyfriend. Is that what she is to you? Some kind of lover?!"

Running fingers through her windblown hair, Cory cringed now just as she did then at her mother’s raised voice. Her answer had been simple and direct. She had gotten used to a life without secrets. It was time to come from under the lie of omission. "Yes, she is."

She had never actively lied to her mother, and she wasn’t going to start. She had expected the gasp of surprise and wasn’t disappointed. But, the tears had made her want to take it all back and be what her mother needed. A normal, dutiful daughter, who she had always been. She steeled herself against it, knowing it was a sacrifice she could not make for the sake of her own sanity. So, Cory only listened and waited for her turn to speak. The blonde readied herself for the speech that her friends had told her so much about, and she got it. The elder Donovan had blamed herself, society, and even the college crowd for the change in her daughter, but it took the last statement to make the younger blonde interrupt.

"I always wanted so much for you. I never expected this. A home, husband, kids, and a career, I wanted it all for you, and now. . .I just thought that I knew you."

"Mom, I can have those things. There is nothing stopping me. I’m just going to go about it a little different is all, and as far as knowing me goes, you never asked. I’ve never brought a boy home. I never really went out with one, and you never once asked why. I’ve known this for so long, and I guess part of me thought you knew too. I guess I was just hoping."

Youthful green eyes implored older, wiser ones to understand. After many tears and much yelling, a reluctant peace had been met between them, and her mother had hesitantly asked about her ‘girlfriend.’ Feeling as though the rest of her family should know, Cory told her father. She watched with a sense of foreboding as he hung his head and whispered, "I don’t understand it. I don’t understand this at all." She recalled preparing herself to go on the defensive when all the fight left and surprise set in with her father’s next words. Her raised his head and green eyes met brown. "I will probably never understand your life, but you are my daughter. I won’t lose you or push you away. Just give me some time." Relieved and ecstatic, she hugged the older man.

Cory sighed and twisted the top off a Poland Springs bottle. A reluctant smirk formed as she recalled telling J.R., whose reaction had simply been, "I knew. You’re not telling me anything new." Taking a swig from the bottle, she let the smirk straighten. It had certainly been a Christmas to remember. Her mother had jumped every time the phone rung and had even refused to answer it just in case it was woman on the other end. Christmas had been interesting indeed.

Because of a woman, she had reeked havoc on her family and implemented drastic changes. A few weeks later, back at school, Laurie didn’t want to put up with an absentee girlfriend anymore. Cory sighed remembering the blonde’s exact words. "You don’t need me, and you don’t even pretend to. I need somebody who does." She had been right. Her college life went on whether she saw Laurie or not. She was none the worse for wear, and they parted without a tear shed on Cory’s part. Now, she was going home to tell her reluctantly acceptant mother about another woman who had turned her life upside down, but she needed this one. She needed her something awful, and she was scared shitless because of it. A sudden pang of loss drew light colored brows together over troubled eyes. ‘If none of this had happened, I would probably be talking and laughing with her right now. Touching her and looking at her would not be far off.’

Images and feelings filled her mind. She could feel full, soft lips on her own and see the tan face reddened and flushed with arousal, causing pale blue to glitter like luminescent silver. ‘Beautiful. So damned beautiful.’ She stared out the windshield at the highway but wasn’t seeing it as the sensual images of swaying hips, parted lips and active hands played. ‘I wonder what she’s doing right now.’ As if remembering the betrayal, her heart lurched, reminding her and recalling the anger. ‘God, I shouldn’t give a damn.’ With one hand, she put the cap back on the water bottle and twisted before throwing it unfinished in the passenger seat. Her inner voice whispered, ‘But, you do.’

Taylor left the sweltering heat of the car with great reluctance. She was surprised that she had made it at all, but so used to her morning routine, like a mindless automaton, she performed daily tasks with mechanical efficiency. Pausing at the office door, she lifted the thick dark ponytail off the back of her neck and brushed her hand over the light cotton shirt tucked in dark slacks. She knew that by all means she looked a mess. With an extra coat of make up, the admin hoped she hid the smudged eyes and pale pallor from the knowing eyes of the other early bird. Where the smaller version of Shelley was limited to a voice, the life size version could see and hear. 'That woman has seen right through me from the get go. Maybe that has been my problem all along, letting all these people in.' The admin cringed when Little Shelley added, 'You didn't let us in. We pushed our way through.'

Choosing to remain quiet, she made her way into the building. With a brisk walk, she hoped to resist the allure of the Scooby Doo paraphernalia on the blonde caseworker's desk, but like always, it beckoned. She listened, knowing it was evidence of the blonde's youthful and carefree personality. With a long finger, she traced the mouse pad and let memories of laughter flood her being. One mistake had cost her so much. Already, she missed the joking, the laugh, and the crinkling green eyes, even though it had only been a few short hours. An acute feeling of loss reminded her of the other potentialities that had more than likely gone up in smoke, the sensual ones. Still, there was the most important one of all that gave her pause, the friendship. Searching hands picked up a Shaggy pencil and clutched it in her fist.

Feeling helpless, pessimism arose, and with its help, she came to the conclusion that they were back to square one where nothing existed in terms of a relationship, not even a professional one. For a second, she grasped the essence of all she had lost and realized what true emptiness was. It didn't last for long. Anger took hold, and she felt the wood begin to crack between her fingers. The popping sound was enough to bring her out of the self-imposed reverie, and the pencil fell from her open palm. 'No, I won't hurt her anymore. I can't.' Gently, she put the pencil back with the rest of the gang. Feeling the weight of guilt and the rest of the world on her shoulders, Taylor slowly made her way into her own office.

Cocking her head to the side, Shelley sipped from the green coffee cup as she listened. Early bird number two had arrived. She gathered the admin's messages and took another sip of her coffee. It was one message in particular that had her worried. Cory had called out. It wasn't the message but the voice behind it that caused the older woman to do a mental double take. It was the lack of intonation in the blonde's words that had caused trepidation. Despite the incident with Mr. Smith, the blonde had been well on her way to becoming her usual perky self. She was smiling again, and somehow the assistant knew that Taylor had helped that smile reform. The new closeness between them was something that did not go unnoticed. Because of this, it was almost as easy to deduce that the admin had somehow had a hand in the listlessness that resonated in the blonde's voice. If she could, she had to do something to get that smile back.

The caseworkers weren't the only ones to care. In return, someone had to care for them, and for twenty years Shelley had been that someone. She had seen them burn out, dry up, or just plain leave, and she had tried to help them all. They had come to her for advice, to learn, and to talk. In twenty years, that had not changed, and it wasn't about to now. Finishing her coffee, she headed for the adjoining office.

Hearing the bustling and the approaching footsteps, Taylor grabbed a pen and pretended to write in an attempt to hide eyes she felt were troubled. For once, the admin hoped the assistant would drop the messages on her desk and go. Taylor stiffened her shoulders when the door opened and refused to look up as the other woman made her way toward the big oak desk.

"You have a few messages, but there is nothing urgent." Shelley paused and was met with dead silence. Something was definitely wrong, so she played her one and only card. "Cory isn't coming in today." Brown eyes narrowed as she watched the dark head jerk up.

Taylor's heart thudded against her ribcage at the mention of the blonde's name. If she could have, she would have done the same thing, but disappointment flowed at the loss of a chance to apologize, to see the customary smirk, and to hear the clear voice. With a voice that sounded strained even to her own ears, she asked a question that she knew was rhetorical, "Did she say why?"

"Uh, sick. I'm guessing." For long seconds, Shelly studied the younger woman, seeing the pasty pallor that make-up could not hide. "You don't look so good. Are you alright?"

Derisive laughter was the immediate answer to the older woman's question. "Alright? Now, that is a relative term if I ever heard one, but I'm fine."

Not phased one bit, Shelley reached out to dig deeper. "I know that the intimidating and aloof aura gets to a lot of people, but I know there is more to you than that. You can talk to me." There was more laughter and the bitter empty sound made the older woman cringe.

Throwing the pen down in disgust, Taylor met the older woman’s eyes for the first time and swallowed upon seeing the genuine affection shining back at her. She whispered, "That's the thing Shelley. I can't tell a soul. The consequences would be too dire."

The older woman stepped closer to the desk. "Listen, I have a feeling that this involves Cory somehow. I want you to know that what 's said behind this door goes no further." Brown bore into blue, and Shelley watched astounded as a myriad of emotions chased themselves across the admin's face. The race ended, and pain won. It was etched in every feature, making her want to look away.

Unable to deny the need to unburden, even just a fraction , the words feel from her lips unfettered. "It's simple. I fucked up. I lied by omission to keep from crossing a line that would have meant career suicide. Then, I crossed that line anyway. Instead of trying to make it wider and longer, I walked over it as if it wasn't there." The anger flared again, making her jump up from the chair. Placing her hands on the desk for support, she leaned in toward the other woman. "Now, whatever was on either side, I killed it." She raised shaking fingers to point toward her chest. "I destroyed it." Unable to look the other woman in the face any longer, Taylor turned toward the window and pushed trembling hands through her bangs.

'What has happened between those two for her to turn out like this?' Despite the obviously desolate look on the admin's face, Shelley held on to the belief that things could be made right. "If you just talk to her and let her know why. . ."

The anger turned to irritation, making her cranky, and her head throb. "No!" Realizing she was shouting, she lowered her voice as compensation. Pale eyes watched through the glass as the salt-and-pepper head drooped slightly, but she didn't have it in her to turn around. In a husky whisper that broached no argument, she answered, "I don't want to talk about this anymore. I don't have the energy. Just leave the messages on the desk and go." Because of the distress in the other woman’s voice, Shelley acquiesced. She pursed her lips in determination as she dropped the messages on the admin’s desk. After all, the day had just started and there was always Monday when she could talk to them both.

Some of the day was spent trying to contract out a counselor for the agency to deal with the Mr. Smith fiasco, but even longer was spent staring into space. Her pupils finally moved and she stared at the four walls that consisted of her office. They were closing in on her, and she had the impulsive urge to get out. Jumping up from her chair, she headed toward the door leading out to the cubicles. The first thing that struck her were the two empty ones closer to her in proximity. Cursing, she slammed the door shut again. After all the months she had been here, there were only three people in an office of more that twenty that she actually talked too. Two of them she had antagonized recently and the other had become almost a total wreck. She had to admit that she missed the chatty Mrs. Fenton, even more so now.

The woman had opened her eyes in many ways, and she knew more about Cory than probably anyone in the office. There was that name again. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get it out of her head, even though she had shaken off this morning’s sluggishness involving the blonde. It was like she was mentally playing some twisted game of guilt by association. Everything equaled to guilty thoughts about Cory. Sitting on the edge of her desk, she brought a hand up to rub the bridge of her nose. Worry made her brow crinkle. She hoped the blonde caseworker was okay. The idea that she could be anywhere doing anything brought a frown to her lips. 'Is she at home? Or did she just go off somewhere and not tell anybody? It's dangerous to leave town and not tell anybody where she was going.' A line of reasoning snapped itself into place. 'I should at least call to make sure she's okay.'

Having talked herself into it, she turned to the phone and dialed a now well-known number. Her heart bounced around in her chest a few times when it started to ring and ring and ring. Only slightly put off, she searched around her desk for a list of numbers. Finding the one she needed, she almost smiled when a man answered. "Hi, this is Taylor Wilson. Can I please speak to Barb?" The phone was muffled then she heard a surprised 'what' before the brunette answered. "Ms. Wilson?" Her tone was full of question.

Taylor opened her mouth to speak then shut it when she realized that she didn't know the first thing to say. She could just see Little Shelley's mental eyes roll before she heard the exasperated sigh. Try. How are you?!

"Uh, uhm, how are you feeling?"

"I feel a little more rested. Sometimes that office goes at a frenetic pace, and it's good to get away." Barb answered hesitantly. Still, unsure why the younger woman was calling her.

'Should I ask about Cory now?' She asked LS hopefully.

Don't be a ninny! At least pretend you care about the woman's welfare!

'Dammit! Why do you think I called in the first place?!'

Uh-huh, you keep telling yourself that. Maybe even I'll start to believe it.

Unable to help herself, Taylor growled in irritation. On the other end, Barb pulled the phone away from her ear and peered at it. 'The woman called me and now she's growling at me!' Barb quirked her lips. Something was up, and she bet it involved the little blonde dynamo that sat next to her. She missed the younger woman, even after just a few days. Her jealousy had run its course. Either that or a good night's sleep had put her back in her right mind. She knew now that it was up to her to find the outlets she needed to stay sane in a sometimes insane profession. Not place the burden on Cory. Now, if only she could keep the monsters in her dreams at bay.

"Uhm, Taylor? Are you okay?"

Taylor pursed her lips and held her breath to stop the rumbling. "Huh? Oh, yeah I'm fine. I just wanted to see how you are. How are you?"

Ugh, you already asked that!

"I mean. I just wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help. You seemed so down, and I know Cory has been trying to call you. . ."

Way to slide it in there!

'Ah, something is going on.' "I did try to call her back this morning before she went into the office, but I got no answer. So, I figured I would call around lunch time once things had slowed down."

"Um, she called out sick today, and I figured that you. . ."

"What?! Is she okay? If she's sick, why wouldn't she be answering the phone?"

"I tried calling too, but I figured you would know where she would go if she left."

"What?! You mean you don't know where she is? I figured you would be the first person. . .wait a minute. What the hell did you do to her!? If you hurt her. . ."

Feeling the old weight of guilt coming back, she blurted, "Oh God, I didn't mean to. I just want to make sure that she's okay and make things right as soon as possible."

Barb sat down in a nearby chair. "So there was something between you two?"

"I didn't say that. It would be unethical to get involved---

Angry now, the other brunette cut in. "Oh, cut the bullshit! It was so obvious, and I know her. I'm not blind!"

Taylor felt unexpected tears prickle the back of her eyes. She had done the wrong thing by calling, but now, she knew she had to gain some sort of control over the situation. Sucking in a deep breath, she answered to the accusations. "Look, hurting her is the last thing I wanted to do. I just wanted to protect her, and things just backfired. I just want to make it right."

Unable to swallow down her own anger and protective streak, Barb pushed on. "If you knew her at all, you’d know that she's not as tough as she pretends to be. Look at what happened to her. Her hide is as soft as a baby's bare ass and just as easy to bruise. You're lucky to even get a chance with her, and I hope to God that you don't get a second one. When I get back, I'll do whatever I can to make sure you don't!" The older brunette tore the phone away from her ear and looked at it in abject disgust. Without another thought, she slammed it down on the receiver.

Taylor cringed at the jarring sound and looked into her own phone feeling sadness cover up what had been hope minutes before. She had just antagonized the third one. There was nobody else to go to. There had been a time that she would have welcomed the loneliness, but now, it all just seemed so hollow.

Chapter XXIV: Home Again. . . Home Again

By mid-day, Cory came to the exit that would take her to Second Street, leading her into the rural community where her parent’s house stood. Now, she sat in the quiet car at the end of that street gathering strength and praying that someone new the answers to questions that she did not. She watched car after car go by and returned the curious and sometimes acknowledging stares of the drivers and their passengers. She had seen some people that she knew, knowing they were still in the neighborhood while others had moved away long ago. ‘Oh mom, I hope you can look past how I live my life and help me. If there was a time that I ever needed you, it's now. I've found myself needing a lot lately.’ Taking a deep breath of the now air conditioned air, she started the car and headed toward the mid-sized brick house on the corner with the azaleas out front and big back yard. She peered at the houses as the rolled slowly by. It seemed like it had been so long, but it all looked the same, much of Indiana did. The slow pace offended most, but she loved the dragging pace that bred familiarity between large number of people. It was just the same here. In that way, it was good to be home again.

Parking her car on the side of the street and grabbing her bag, she jogged lightly across the road after letting a car pass. As she walked up the sidewalk, her spirits bolstered somewhat. They would be surprised but welcoming. ‘It will be nice to let lose without a worry for once. Her brow creased upon seeing the door opened, leaving only the metal screen door as a barrier. The closer she got the more she could hear the whine of music wafting from inside the house to the outside. The soulful, sexy voice of Etta James went through the air in waves. Peering into the open door, the first full smile of the day formed on her face. Growing up, she had seen this often, the touching, kissing and little smiles they had for each other. They had always been inseparable, unless need be, from each other but still loving toward their children.

The smile got bigger as she watched on. They danced so closely together and seemed to be the perfect fit. The older diminutive blonde barely came to the taller sandy haired man’s chest, but they seemed enveloped in each other. She watched her father mouth the words as a silly smile warbled on her mother’s face. She could see that her father was obviously enjoying his retirement from the construction business as well as her mom was basking in the summer off from teaching school.

With eyes closed, nothing else seemed to exist, save their own little heaven. ‘This is what I’ve always wanted, but I want her to be independent and capable of giving me my own space.’ Continuing to look at them, she knew her mother was completely devoted and would jump through hoops to make her father happy. ‘Still, I don’t think I ever want to be dependent on another person for happiness.’ Considering the joy induced by the raven-haired admin the past few weeks and the misery of the last couple of days, the blonde missed the irony of her statement.

She pulled the screen door and wasn’t surprised to see that it was unlocked. Walking in as quietly as possible, her lips quirked once again as she figured out how to announce her presence. As loudly and as off key as possible, she sang with the music. "At last. My love has come along!" A set of green eyes as well as a set of brown turned her way startled. Her mother was the first to speak. "Cory! Honey, what are you doing here?" Going from her husband’s arms to her daughters, she enveloped her in a hard hug. Releasing her, Brenda Donovan took a step back to study her daughter. She was as beautiful as ever. Mischievous green eyes shined back at her as did a wide smile. She looked deeper, finally seeing the tale-tale sign of tiredness in her face. While the eyes held their sparkle, there was a little something extra, the baggage under them. Concern made her take the woman’s hand in her own. ‘What has she gotten into?’ A single thought began to form. "Cory Donovan! Did you get fired?!" She asked, raising her voice over the music. Michael Donovan rolled his eyes toward the ceiling at his wife’s nosiness. The girl was after all a grown woman. She didn’t have to answer to them anymore. Well, not really. "For goodness sakes Bren, don’t be so nosy."

Brenda turned to her husband and swatted him on the forearm. "You hush. Will you look at her? Something is obviously wrong."

Cory took in the exchange with amusement. She really had missed them. Waving her hand in both their faces, she added her two cents. "Hellooo! I’m over here."

They glared at each other once more before turning back to their daughter. Some secret communication must have passed between them during that time because both their mouths opened to utter the same thing. "So, did you get fired?"

Cory groaned. ‘Maybe I should have left when she fired me weeks ago. So much would have been avoided.’ Her inner voice reminded her, ‘And so much would have been missed.’ She looked at her parents and noticed that they were waiting for her to answer. "You guys are a mess. I only took the day off. I told you that we were friends now. She hasn’t fired me since a month and a half ago."

"Oooh," they both commented.

Her father, a tall strapping man with more gray hair than its original sandy brown, stepped forward and bent at the waist to place a kiss on her forehead. "Glad to have you here Bunch. How long are you staying?"

Feeling ten again and overwhelmingly safe, she looked down to hide the blush. "Um, just for a night or two. I’m not sure. I just needed to get away."

Michael Donovan furrowed his brow. They had never been super close, but he knew his child. Something was wrong for her to even admit that she needed anything. Growing up, she had always been the one willing to take on everyone’s pain and make it better. She had even taken care of her mom and brother a time or two when she was needed. She had hardly asked for a thing in return. Truth be told, he had always been in awe and more than a little proud of her ability to do that and still be herself. He glanced from his daughter to his wife to see a look of ‘I told you so’ written all over her face.

Right then, he wished that he was the one for sensitive chats so that she could come to him for once. Still, he knew his wife or Cory herself would clue him in one way or another, but worry still weighed heavy on his brow. Bringing a large hand to his daughter’s shoulder, he squeezed it affectionately before letting it trail to her upper arm in a caress of comfort. He didn’t bother trying to hide the worry in brown eyes but smiled anyway. "You stay as long as you want, Bunch. It’s good to have you home if only for a little while."

Cory gave her father the best smile that she could muster, but the looks communicated between her parents did not go unnoticed. They had read her like a book and knew something was wrong. She couldn’t decide whether that was good or bad, but either way, she had to find some answers.

Her father knew that she needed to talk about something heavy. She could see it in his face. He had always been good for improving her mood, making her laugh, and making her feel loved, but it was her mother who listened and dispensed advice, while he waited in the wings like a hovering presence there to draw strength from. She knew him too and wasn’t disappointed when he leaned in for a hug before turning and heading for the record player. The music stopped and there was silence again.

Brenda studied her daughter once more. 'It must be something big for her to come all the way here rather than calling me on the phone.' Even though she was an adult, she worried about her daughter. The lifestyle that she led and the prejudice out there sometimes kept her up nights. She didn't want her to have to face that. In fact, she didn't want her to have the face the terrors of her job either, but all of it was her choice. She had to respect and eventually accept that. Still, deep down, she held onto hope that the 'gay thing' was just a phase. After all it had been a while sense she brought a woman home or even mentioned anyone.

Mother and daughter eyed each other, and Cory momentarily tensed, knowing she was being examined. She ran a hand through windblown blonde locks and reached out to take the other woman's hand. Now somber, she simply said, "I'm okay mother. I will be anyway. Some things just happened, and I had to get away from them for a while."

Brenda squeezed her daughter's hand. "You look so tired. It scared me at first. Let's get you situated, and we'll talk when you're ready." She wrapped an arm around her daughter's shoulders and headed down the hallway.

Now sitting in a leather bound chair with the morning paper planted in front of his face, Michael Donovan perked his ears and sighed in exasperation. He shook his head and whispered internally. 'You were so wrong Dad. A man is supposed to feel, be sensitive, and help more than being a breadwinner. I'm paying for it now. Good thing they love me even though I'm set in my ways.' He sighed again and flipped to the regional section of the paper.

Cory opened the door to her old bedroom with her mother following close behind. She looked around and smiled. Since she went off to college, they had refused to change a thing, and familiarity washed over her. She sat on the full-size bed with a bounce and the fresh smell of detergent wafted up to her nose. She rubbed a hand over the jade green comforter, remembering that she had bought it home from the department store she was working at because it matched her eyes. Her eyes scanned the off white walls seeing posters still sturdy but slightly faded looking back at her. Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Luscious Jackson, and a couple others stared back forever frozen in what was thought an attractive pose. Her chest of drawers and a small bookcase stood in the corner, now empty, and the desk housing her old computer perched in another corner.

Flicking her shoes off, even the shag carpet offered her a sense of comfort. The younger blonde beamed up at her mother as she scooted back into the bed. She turned, feeling something plush hit her in the back. Searching fingers picked up the old almost ratty looking Papa Smurf and Scooby-Doo stuffed toys. The smile seemed only to get wider. All of this, she could trust. They kept it constant and safe. Just like their love for her, she knew it would never change. Trust. She closed her eyes. That word seemed like a curse now. Must she always be so trusting? Look where it had landed her.

The blonde could feel the smile tugging downward in the shape of a frown. A new surge of pain made her face flush red. So much could have happened between them. It had been so long since she had met someone that made her open so freely and effortlessly. She had started to feel the deep vein of friendship branch and grow, but it was only because she trusted and couldn't turn away. Now . . . She squeezed closed eyelids and took a shaky breath. 'Not now. I don't want to think about her right now. I don't want to do this.' She willed her thoughts clean and calm.

Brenda watched the change of emotions with intense concern. One minute she looked almost childlike in exuberance and the next minute her features grayed, making her look older than her twenty five years. She could never recall a look of such sadness cross her daughter's features. It looked like it hurt. A sliver of impatience stabbed her, and she wanted to ask and order Cory to talk to her. It would be a futile effort she knew that she would talk when ready.

Feeling a little helpless, she sat on the bed beside her daughter and was rewarded with the opening of jade orbs. They were clear but just a bit haunted. Their gazed met and Cory was hit with an acute need for physical closeness. Not knowing how to say it, she implored with her eyes. This was something she could do, and Brenda read the message loud and clear. Reaching over, she took the younger woman in her arms. Cory leaned into the hug and clung to anybody part she could get her hands on. 'How do mother's always know when you need a hug?' The question went unanswered as the caseworker buried her face in her mother's neck. Brenda roped an arm around the muscular back, and with the free hand brushed and petted blonde locks. "Whatever it is Bunch, we'll make it right together." Refusing to cry, she sucked in another shaky breath and nodded instead.

After long minutes, Brenda spoke again. "Why don't you get some rest? I bet all you ate was junk food on the way here. I'll fix you something since I was about to fix a late lunch anyway."

Cory slowly pulled away. "I'm not that tired right now, but a little food would hit the spot. I'll just go hang out with Dad."

A few minutes later she curled up on the arm of her father’s leather chair and read the paper over his shoulder in silent comfort. Leaning her head on that same shoulder, she soaked up the accustomed sights of her mother’s bric-a brac, quilted furniture covers, and plants both fake and real and the usual smells of leather and potpourri. She sat unmoving until, her mother called them both into the dining room. Lunch was another affair that put her further at ease and away from her thoughts. Conversation was filled with news about JR, her latest hazard on the job, the neighborhood, and even Barb. Now, more than sure at this particular moment, home is where she wanted to be.

Chapter XXV: Meanwhile . . . Back at the Ranch

Wendy turned toward the car and hit a button on her key chain to activate the rental car alarm. Allowing who she assumed was an employee to pass, she pushed her way into the office building and sighed as a cold blast of artificial air hit her in the face. Taking off the designer shades and sweeping her hands through windblown hair, she looked around the office only to see a dwindling number of caseworkers still pecking keys on their computers. ‘Closing time.’ She had wanted to come earlier, maybe even talk Taylor into some lunch, but figuring her to be busy with work and taking into account what happened a few days ago during that time, she stayed away. She did try to call only to get the secretary telling her the other woman was in the middle of an important phone call. Dinner and a long talk seemed to be a better option. The redhead had a feeling her friend would need it. She had wanted to stay with her last night upon seeing the devastation locked into the features of the brunettes dripping wet face, but the offer was rescinded with a cold no.

She pursed her lips as she began to make her way towards the back. Last night had been a pleasure and a pain for the raven haired administrator. Wendy had witnessed the passionate intensity of both. Knowing the brunette probably more than anybody, she knew the woman was either hiding or denying deeper feelings for the petite blonde. Otherwise she would not have been so hurt. ‘I think Tay is finally finding out what falling in love is like. She doesn’t know it yet, but it’s there.’ As she neared the back, she noticed that the blonde caseworker’s desk was empty. ‘Looks like she had some things to deal with too.’ Her thoughts strayed back to Taylor. With other women, a few words and some advice had been enough to bring her out of a funk, but not with this one. She had brought the older woman a towel and whispered words of understanding to the rigidly sitting woman and got the feeling they fell on deaf ears. It was something completely different about this one that made the pain stab deeper than normal, and as her best friend she was here to listen if need be, provide some laughs, and even a distraction for a few hours.

Feeling as though she didn’t have a friend in the world, Taylor stared out the window. The day was winding down, and people were leaving. She had heard the adjoining door close for the final time some time ago, but Shelley hadn’t even thrown a goodbye before she left. ‘I wouldn’t blame her. Regardless of what happened last night, I didn’t have to treat her like that. It’s just that sometimes I don’t know how to let people in.’ A certain petite blonde had no trouble getting in. ‘Yeah, but I didn’t let her in all the way. Look where I am now.’ She sighed as she let worries from the morning crash in. ‘Where is she? I hope to God that she’s alright, but what if she doesn’t come back?’ Sudden panic made her palms sweat, and she rubbed them together in an attempt to alleviate moisture. Taylor smirked in self-loathing. ‘It would serve me right. She had the right to know about me and make her own decisions. I just wish that I had to chance to tell her how much I care.’ Thoroughly exasperated, she swirled her chair around and pushed the heels of her hands into her eyes. "What a mess." So caught up in her own misery, the admin didn’t hear the door open and jumped in surprise at the sound of a friendly voice. "Yeah, but that’s why I’m here, to help clean it up."

Still unsure if the voice was real, Taylor took her hands away from her eyes to be rewarded with a view of the tall redhead smiling at her. Not waiting to be invited, Wendy walked in anyway and had a seat in the closest chair. "I figured you could use a friend right about now." She peered into pale blue. The pain was still fresh and thriving behind beautiful eyes.

Engulfed in warmth and relief, Taylor smiled for what seemed like the first time in ages. Throughout the crappy day, she had forgotten about Wendy, but she was very happy to know the other woman didn’t forget about her. She laughed a little without humor. "Yeah, my friendship account is seriously depleted."

"Nuh-uh, it’s always full with me in it. I tried to call you earlier but you were on the phone for a while. I know this is a terrible question to ask, given the circumstances, but blame the English language not me okay? How are you?"

Taylor laughed genuinely this time at her friend’s quirkiness. "Well, to sum it up, I feel miserable, stupid, angry, hurt, and did I mention stupid?" She saw the redhead nod.

"Whoa, you feel all that? It must be getting ready to explode up there." She glanced upward toward the vicinity of Taylor's head in mock horror. "If you’re finished for the day, let’s get out of here and let you explode somewhere else. It would be a shame to mess up such a nice desk."

Smirking and a little bit and in awe of her friend, she had to wonder at her infinite ability to put a smile on her face ‘No one else has ever been able to do that. Except Cory.’ She groaned inwardly as the name turned over in her brain once more. "I don’t think that I’ll make good company right now, so---"

"Hey, hey, let me worry about that. I’m supposed to be here for you. So, grab your purse or whatever. I found this Chinese restaurant today that sells the perfect Mongolian Beef. They sell alcohol too, which is also a good thing. We could probably both use a couple of beers. C’mon, it will give us a good chance to talk." ' 'I have something to tell you that you may not like my friend.'

"Yeah, I do need to get away for a little bit."

Taking separate cars, they ended up in Miller, a smaller division of Gary, at the Wang Wu restaurant. Upon entering, Taylor noticed that there was nothing Chinese about the restaurant as a whole. In fact, it looked like the inside of a diner with booths and other tables covered in cheap table cloths. The only thing ethnic was the menus and workers. She raised a dark brow at her friend who smiled back. "Trust me. I don't steer you wrong often. Plus, they have your fav, St. Pauly's Girl."

Now, the admin really was suspicious at a Chinese eatery that sold beer, especially that one. They chose a table to accommodate the length of their legs. Once seated and the waitress that appeared out of nowhere brought a pitcher of water, Wendy leaned forward with her elbows on the table. Batting her eyebrows, she asked with a straight face. "So tell me. Fire anyone today? Take out any hearts with your bare hands? Freeze anyone with that icy glare of yours? C'mon, c'mon fess up! The peanut gallery wants to know!" She waved her hands impatiently.

Before she could respond with words, a burst of laughter gurgled up to block. After all these years, Taylor came to the same conclusion. The woman really was strange. Sipping from the water glass, she let the laughter die down. "Well, that would be no, no, and no. If I had, it would probably make me feel better. I did lose two people who could have been friends, and it was my own fault. I'm just so upset about last night, and now, no one knows where she is. It's worrying me sick." She took a big gulp of the water. 'It seems like everything I put my hands on here turns to shit! I might need to get out of here while the agency still has four walls. This is pathetic. I'm pathetic.'

’Ah, so she didn’t come in today.’ Wendy watched as self-disgust ravage the older woman's features. Reaching across the table, she took a warm hand in her own, and smiled when her fingers were squeezed. "Listen to me. If they knew you, if you let them know you, don't you think they would be able to see that you're in pain right now? We both know that causes people to say a lot of things that don't amount to horse shit later on. If they were the kind of friends you need, they'll be back." 'Lord knows that I've stuck with you through a lot of crap.'

'Why did we break up again? I can't believe I let somebody this wonderful slip through my fingers. None of this shit would be happening now.' Little Shelley, who had been strangely quite for a while, chose this moment to speak up. Because, you weren't ready then. Taylor wanted to snort. 'Oh, and I'm ready now?' Look at what you're feeling, and the fact that you are feeling at all. You're ready, but you just have to accept that you are.

Taylor refocused her eyes on the woman across the table, who just happened to be looking at her strangely. "Where the hell did you go?"

"Uhm, sometimes I hear this voice---" The eyes across from hers got bigger. "Uh, nevermind. Let's get back on the subject." The brunette back tracked a little. "Tell me, what kind of friend do you think I need?"

Wendy eyed her friend curiously for a second longer before going on. "I think that you need somebody with their eyes open wide enough to see everything. They need to see you for who you are, a complex, caring, intelligent woman with baggage and hang ups that have effected her more than she cares to admit. They need to see that once inside your heart they will never get out, and they need to know that to get in there it takes a lot of work and patience to gain trust that isn't dispensed easily."

Their eyes met, and Taylor's depth of caring for this woman went deeper. She had seen her through so much, and she was still here, seeing her through even more. Right now, she only hoped that her eyes would relay what her lips could not. "They have to see all that, huh?"

"Yeah, it's what I see."

They were interrupted a heartbeat later by the waiter, who waited patiently to take their orders without even acknowledging the hand holding between the two women. Alone again, Taylor continued with the conversation. "You know. I don't think I'll find anybody that sees what you do."

Wendy recalled the flash of blonde and the sparkle shining in green. "I think you already have it's just a matter of her eyes being opened a little more, and that is totally up to her." 'Only talked to her for a little while, but I could tell she was an amazing woman to get into a heart it took even me a while to crack.'

Taylor's brows scrunched. 'Wha, I can't be that blind.' Who are you talking about?"

Wendy paused and gave the hand in hers a tight squeeze. "Cory."

Before Taylor could stop it, a laugh burbled forth. "Well, that's a hopeless cause. I already know that I'm back at square zero now." 'God, I miss her. Just laughing with her talking with her, and it's only been one day. One lousy day.'

Wendy shook her head. "No, I don't think it is. Give her some time to see, and I got this weird feeling that it maybe sooner than you think. You lied to her, but I think she knew more than she was willing to face, just like you."

Taylor tried to tug her hand away, but it was only gripped tighter. She gave up. "What are you talking about? I had to keep that secret. If anything happened between us it would mean the ending of---"

"Your careers? That didn't stop you in the kitchen did it? " She eyed her friend speculatively, who at least had the audacity to blush. "On the surface, you might have lied to protect her, but you're scared too Taylor. I watched you two when I first got here, and I have never seen you like that with another human being. You can't tell me feeling all of that doesn't scare you? It probably scares her too, and it even sent her running."

Taylor shook her head vehemently, but they were again interrupted by the waiter bringing food this time. After it was set on the table, it was ignored.

"Before you say anything, I want you to listen to me. You were and are scared Taylor, and that little secret you kept gave you just the right out if things got too intense." Wendy held up a finger when the admin attempted to speak. "Now, granted, she did find out by accident, but my theory still holds."

Grabbing the beer bottle, Taylor took a long swig before looking away from eyes that bore into hers and stared at the cheap flowery wall paper. 'She couldn't be right. Why would I want to push her away when it would undoubtedly lead me to feeling like I am now.' Isn't the pain you're feeling now less confusing than your feelings for Cory? 'Oh, God!' She turned frantic eyes back to her friend. "I didn't know. I didn't—"

"Shh, I know. What your parents did to you Tay, effected you more than just giving you nightmares. You have Fort Knox like defense mechanisms up. It's not your fault."

Taylor held her friend's hand in a vice like grip. "I would never intentionally hurt her. It's just so much to deal with. Being friends with her is so different from what we have. There is more, and I don't know how to explain it. But, I feel it here." She laid her free hand over her heart. "I don't want to lose her or the friendship. I want all of her, but she's gone. I don't know where, and I don't even know when she's coming back." Her voice was strained and high with emotion, matching her haunted eyes. As if sensing blasphemy, ethics book by Rothman, Lowenburg, and the NASW materialized around her head to snap at her temples. Mentally, she brushed them away. Sometimes there wasn't an ethical position that accurately dealt with the heart.

The sound and sight of her friend promoted sadness that she couldn't keep out of her voice. "The only thing I know to tell you is to give it time. I know she cares for you that much was painfully obvious when I talked to her. She'll be back with her eyes opened a little wider and ready to talk."

'I want to believe her.' "You think so?" She wiped at eyes that felt like they were about to water.

Wendy gave the other woman a small smile. "I know so. Remember, I see everything. Now, eat. Maybe it will help you develop some patience."

Taylor let out a sound that was somewhere in between a laugh and a sob before she speared a piece of marinated beef. It really was the best Mongolian Beef she had ever tasted.

Chapter XXVI: When I Think of Home. . .

As the day went on, the Donovan's found themselves in the living room. Cory was tucked in a corner, on the more up to date computer, going through some e-mail she was guilty of not checking in ages, while her mother and father sat snuggled up on the couch watching very old re-runs of the Cosby Show.

The younger blonde ran a free hand through her hair as she clicked to delete with the mouse button. 'All this idle time is making my head a jumbled mess. What the hell did my little Jiminey Cricket mean about, 'You know all you need to?' 'That woman is—is amazing, but I already know that part. Why would she do the things she did for me then turn around a lie for no reason? Or was there a reason? I remember her saying something about wanting to protect me, but I was so messed up that I didn't hear it all. Protect me from what? I know there are ethical considerations for us if we get involved, but that's my choice to deal with. I've read the same ethics books that she has. Still, she knew how I felt about her, and if she didn't want it why lie? She should have just told me the truth and told me she wasn't interested. Oh-ho, but she is interested in me. I can see it almost every time our eyes meet, and that little show in the kitchen, I thought the top of my head was going to explode. Were those the signs I got mixed up as straight curiosity because of that one asinine experience with a straight girl last year?' Cory gave her head a mental shake.

'Well, duh! It would make sense.' The blonde replayed in her mind the looks, the touches, the hugs, the secrets, and the older woman's reluctant vulnerability that sometimes shined through. 'There wasn't a word out of her mouth or a gesture from her body that wasn't sincere. Things were too awkward at times to be faked. Yeah, the lie had hurt, but is the trust factor that sent me running here? Or was it the needy way I felt when she touched me? It was so encompassing and overwhelming. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't think. All I did was feel.' As if on cue, fear crept over her, making her spine tingle. She let it come and laughed inwardly. 'I can't be healthy enough to have hit the nail right on the head. What was that people said about self-diagnosis?' She snorted quietly. 'God, what a mess.' She swiveled the chair around and watched her parents discreetly. 'Ugh, mom, I wish I could spill it already, but part of me is scared about that too. I've never come to you for advice about a woman. I know you're a little more accepting now, but how will you take it?'

Brenda Donovan watched her daughter from the corner of her eye, a little happier now that she could actually see her face. The happiness was short lived as she identified confusion chasing itself in green eyes so like her own. 'What's going on with you Cory? Is the job starting to really get to you? You're too young, sweetie, to be seeing a psychiatrist. You're too young to see the things that you have. What is it that makes you do what you do? You've always been the little helper, but I hope our fostering that didn't make you choose a profession that you can't handle.' Finally turning away, she sighed and leaned in to kiss her husband's chin. Michael Donovan smiled down at his wife reading the impatience, curiosity and potential pain in her eyes. Green eyes scanned his features. He had so many smiles, and it was just a matter of interpreting. When brown eyes glanced upward toward the figure in the chair, she finally figured out what smile it was. 'It's going to be alright,' the facial gesture seemed to whisper, and it was punctuated by a kiss.

Cory watched the exchange in fascination. All these years they had been together. She had seen them argue and even seen him storm out, leaving her mother in tears that she felt she had to dry up. The caseworker could never figure out how loving someone could cause so much pain. Still, he always came back and the older blonde was made the better for it. 'How could one human being have so much invested in another and not loose themselves?' She didn't know, but somehow her mother had done it.

"Mom? Dad? Can I ask you guys some questions?"

Two faces turned toward her, eager to listen.

" I know I haven't asked before, but I was just curious. How did you two know that you were so right for each other? Didn't it scare you to feel that way about somebody?"

Brenda mentally slapped herself. 'It isn't the job at all. She's met somebody. She's met somebody that sent her running. Oh God.' She whispered to herself knowing what that meant. She looked up at her husband with scared eyes. With a squeeze of his hand and a nod toward their daughter, he beckoned her to speak and understand. Brenda nodded, knowing what she had to do. Clearing her throat, she started to answer. "I was scared and miserable. I didn't want to see him because when I was with him, I couldn't think, but I had to see him because when he wasn't there, all I could do was think about him. Everything else just fell to the waist side. Finally, it was too much and I felt that I had to clear my head." She looked up at her husband, seeing the old pain and understanding in his eyes. "To do that, I started seeing somebody else." Brenda held up a hand to forestall any comment when she heard her daughter gasp. "Now, wait a minute and hear me out. It was my way of pushing him away in multiple forms. It made it hard to think about him when another man was fawning all over me trying to make me forget, and it made it hard for him to come around because he was hurt. After a while, he came back here. . ." She pointed to her head. "And physically. I think he pretty much figured out what I was trying to do. Your dad is a sensitive man." She felt him start at the statement and patted him on the knee. "It took awhile because it takes a lot of courage for two people to give themselves completely to each other. We were both scared, but working together, we did it." She got a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead in return.

Cory stared at her parents as if seeing them for the first time. She knew that she shouldn't be that surprised. They were after all people who went through their own trials, not just her mother and father. She shook her head as if to clear it. 'No, it couldn't be that simple. Is that what's been going on? She's been playing some type of out sight, out of mind game with me? Maybe we both have been playing it. It really can't be that simple, but it would explain so much. God, I need to think.'

Mother and father watched the perplexing looks pass across Cory's face. Then, they glanced at each other, and Brenda got in an extra squeeze that she needed as the next question traveled through her mind. "Uh, Cory? Have you met somebody? I mean, really met somebody?" 'Please, let her be nice and strong enough to handle her.'

Cory snapped out of her reverie and looked from one parent to another. Their faces were alive with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation. Her mouth opened and closed a few times. Here was her chance to talk about it, but for some reason, the time didn't seem right. She had thinking to do, but she wanted to tell them this much. "Uhm, my boss and I sort of hit it off really well once things settled down between us, and now, we---ugh, I don't know what we're doing."

Brenda gave her daughter her own version of the perplexed look. "Is that the one you called flat ass?"

Cory smirked despite herself. "Yeahhh, that would be the one."

Brenda nodded and turned to her husband before commenting further. "So, all that arguing before. That would be---"

"Foreplay." Michael Donovan finished for his wife. They stared at their daughter almost innocently waiting for an answer. Brenda almost smiled inwardly upon seeing her daughter's totally flummoxed expression. 'I don't even know this woman, but I think you may have met your match, dear.'

Cory glared at them both incredulously, and she could do nothing to hide the thick, red blush covering her face. All of a sudden, she didn't want to think of her parents as normal people. She had no idea what to say, so she just let it fly. "Uhm, yah. When's dinner?"

Now home, Taylor felt like she was sporting a permanent smile. They had stayed at the restaurant for hours talking and laughing until darkness crept in to meet them. This morning she swore that she would never feel a sense of normalcy again, but leave it to Wendy to restore it. On her way to the bedroom, she stopped in front of the entertainment center and slipped in Anita Baker. Her deep, smoky voice followed her. Flipping on the light, she cringed when she saw the mess that her bedroom was in. Pillows were thrown across the room as was the phone, and shattered glass crunched under her feet. ‘Damn, I did all this? I must have really been out of my head, and it looks like I’ll need to get a new phone cord.’ Bending down, she picked up the larger shards and the pillows before running the vacuum cleaner.

Finally finished, she sat on the edge of the bed, and it hit her. She had no idea what to do with her self now. If it had been any other night, she would have picked up the phone and called Cory, but it wasn’t. It was the night after all hell had broken loose, and the blonde was gone. Wendy told her to wait. Little Shelley and the big one told her the same thing, but the Chinese food did nothing for her patience. She still didn’t have any, especially concerning this. She blew out an irritated breath that disturbed her bangs. Reaching back, she pulled the band off her hair and let it free to spill over her shoulders. "Let’s see," she said to the empty room. "I could take a long, hot bath, watch some TV, work out, or play on the computer." She tapped her chin in contemplation. "TV, bath and then play on the computer if I still have the energy."

Making her way into the living room, she shut off Anita and looked in her DVD collection. There was nothing appealing, so she went down further. ‘Might as well watch one of the movies that got me into trouble.’ She skirted over the selection with deft fingers and pulled out Desert Hearts. While the previews were rolling, she ambled into the kitchen grabbing the peanut butter, a spoon, and another beer. She stopped and glanced down at the counter top. ‘If Wendy hadn’t come in, I wonder how far it would have went? I can’t see myself stopping. It felt too damn good.’ She closed her eyes recalling ragged breathing, soft skin, and the arch of the blonde’s responsive body. ‘God, I need to get a hold of myself. If Wendy was right, I will hopefully get a chance to see where that would have led us. Hopefully.’ A little fear touched her on the shoulder, but it had considerable lessened in degrees to almost manageable. ‘If I want this to work, I need to see past this, and I hope she’s able to help me.’ She sighed, feeling another stab of impatience but clamped down on it. Not wanting to miss the beginning of the movie, she made her way back out again.

Taylor pulled the blanket up to her chin. She had decided to forego the computer, but stuck with the hot bath. Feeling relaxed, she closed her eyes to see if sleep would come, but for some reason a line from the movie stuck in her head. She reached in and tied a string of lights around my heart. It was cheesy and somewhat mushy, but it fit the current situation rather well. ‘But in my case, it feels like she tied a whole gross.’ She opened her eyes and squinted up at the ceiling, seeing the pale glow reflected from the moonlight. Smiling, she closed them again and allowed her mind to drift, hoping it would bring sleep with it.

Chapter XXVII: Running to Where the Heart is. . .
Cory sat crossed leg on her bed and smirked for the upteenth time since dinner. She had seen a whole different side of her parents tonight. One she had no idea existed, and it was down right refreshing and scary. They had asked questions, actual ones about Taylor, and smiled goofily when she began waxing poetic about her. She had almost wanted to scream, "Who are you people, and what have you done with my parents?" To say that she was surprised at their acceptance would be the understatement of the year.

During this whole day, Cory had discovered that some things were not as they seemed. She flopped down on the pillows and pulled the Scooby-Doo doll into her arms. She had found out vital information about her parent’s past that functioned as insight into her own situation. Taylor hadn’t meant to lie all along. ‘She’s just as scared as I am.’

She hugged Scooby to her chest. ‘And God, am I ever. Laurie was so right. I’ve never really needed anyone and have prided myself on being self-reliant. In the past few weeks, I've come to need her and my mom more than I ever have as far as I could remember, and here I am, laying here at home in my teenage bed looking for solace.’ She blew out a pained breath. ‘I don’t want to need her, to care about her like that because with it comes responsibility and pain if anything goes wrong. Look at me now, this morning, and last night. Am I already passed that point? I couldn’t have felt like that unless I already care, deeply. Ugh, why does this have to be so complicated!?’

’Okay, okay. Let’s look at what my parents have. There has been over twenty years of devotion regardless of arguments and close calls, and my mom is still the same person I remember seeing growing up. She’s still Brenda, and they are just as much in love maybe more than they have always been. I have seen and heard my father say and do the sweetest and most gentle things to and for her. I want what they have, and neither one of them has gotten lost in it. Can I take that chance?' Mentally, she began to tick off pros and cons. 'With her, I have never felt so safe, so open, so everything, and there could be more if I just reach out for it. I sense that she wants it too. Sometimes, the way she looks at me makes me feel like the only woman in the world, beyond special. She’s turning into my best friend. Well, with potential. The woman can make my toes curl just by saying my name. Hell, she could make them curl just by smiling. She’s beautiful, funny, intelligent, and she wants me. To top it all off, she’s been there for me when I thought that I was going to fall apart. She was the one who held me up.’

‘Why wouldn’t I want this? Why deny it and make myself and her miserable? She’s a great woman, and somehow I know that she would never hurt me intentionally.’ Cory sighed and looked the one-eyed doll in the face. ‘Okay, what’s the bad side of this? She’s my boss. We could both get fired and end up with a big blemish to our reputations.’ She peered into the dog’s face again. "What do you think? Is it worth it?" She paused for a few minutes and pursed her lips. "Yeah, I was thinking the same thing." Cory turned to look at the clock on the night stand. It was 2:17 am. "I’ve been talking to myself for that long? Jesus."

She sat up in the bed, feeling her heart beat furiously against her ribcage and her breathing hitch. The blonde rubbed sweaty palms against her shorts and licked dry lips. The compulsion and the ache were too overwhelming. She had to see her, talk to her. Without a second thought, she grabbed her bag from under the bed and started re-stuffing it. Cory mumbled to herself as she grabbed Scooby and the smurf at the last minute and tried to stuff them in there too. Zipping the bag up in quick jerky motions, she threw it over her shoulder and looked at the clock again. "I can make it in three hours. Two if I speed." Holding her hand over her heart, she paused to try and catch her breath, but instead of catching it, she lost again with a sudden happy laugh. "I can’t believe that I’m doing this. I must be nuts." With that said, she jerked the bedroom door open and ran down the hall toward her parent’s room.

Brenda was the first to pop up at the insistent banging. "Hold on. I’m coming!"

"Mom? I need to talk to you."

The older woman pulled on a robe and frowned in confusion upon hearing the breathlessness in her daughter’s voice. She opened the door to see a flush, smiling Cory. Now, she was really confused.

"Ma, I’ve been thinking. With you and Dad, and all that’s happened. I have to go---and work. I just need—ugh!" Cory took a breath to try to get her brain and mouth moving at the same time.

Brenda blinked and simply said, "Huh?"

Having no idea how to explain everything that had happened in the past few hours, Cory uttered one word, "Taylor."

Enlightenment shined in her mother’s face. "Oh." She paused. "Now?"

Cory nodded.

She pulled her eagerly, quaking daughter in for a hug. "Well be careful, and don’t----" She watched smiling as the small form disappeared down the hall. "Speed." Brenda chuckled. ‘I really need to meet this woman soon, especially if she makes my daughter this happy.’ She climbed back into bed to hear her husband grumbling. "What’s going on?"

"Cory’s running."

"Huh, where to?"

"To where her heart takes her."

Michael Donovan scrunched his brow in confusion before it dawned on him. "Oh, the flat ass?"

Brenda did nothing to hide the laugh. "Uh-huh, that would be the one. Now, go back to sleep. I’m sure she’ll call and tell us what happened."

Cory sat parked just outside the complex. Fat rain drops pattered against her windshield. It was raining hard enough to quench the usual heat. She looked at her watch. ‘Perfect time. Plus, the time change helped.’ Taking her eyes away, she peered at the security booth. ‘How the hell do I do this? I don’t want her to know that I’m coming.’ She scratched the back of her head. ‘Damn, I should have made a plan on the way here. I guess that I’ll have to play it by ear now.’ The blonde started the car and made her way around to the security booth.

"Hi, may I help you ma’am?"

Cory’s smile was a big one. She wasn’t used to lying, but she was about to tell a whopper. "I hope you can. My sister, Taylor Wilson, lives here. I haven’t seen her in over three years, and I was hoping that you would let me through to surprise her with today being her birthday and all, I figured it would make a fine reunion. . ."

Cory pulled up into a parking spot in front of the apartment building. The security guard had believed her story with the help of batting eyelashes and a twenty. ‘They really should get rid of that guy. He probably lets anyone in.’ Turning off the car, she had to figure out the second phase of her plan, getting through the doors.

The rain refused to let up, and after what seemed like forever, a gray Mercedes pulled up two cars down from her. Waiting for the driver to get out, she did too, bringing her purse, and cursing the fact that she didn’t have an umbrella. The tumbling rain saturated her in seconds. Plastering her hair to her head and clothes to her body. Unfortunately, the man used his briefcase as a make shift umbrella. Otherwise, she would have found a way to weasel under there too. Walking closely behind him, she opened the almost empty bag and pretended to look for keys, if the man assumed correctly. Once they got up the stairs, and after he put his own key in the door, she cursed and unzipped hidden pockets, while whispering hotly, "I don’t know where I put those things. Should keep them on the same ring."

The young man turned and smiled. "It’s okay Miss. My wife does it all the time. I’ll be more than happy to let you in."

Cory looked up and gave him a toothy grin. "Thank you so much. I would have hated to wake my roommate up at this hour." ‘Whoo-hooo, you go girl!’

Sitting in the swiveling chair, she contracted her bicep, pulling the ten pound dumbell toward her. With the other hand, she pointed and clicked with the help of the mouse. Unable to sleep, Taylor decided to combine both the activities that she had neglected earlier. ‘I’m going to really need to work on this patience thing. Cory’s been tap-dancing in my head for the past five hours.’ She yawned as a reflex, knowing her body wasn’t really listening even after the previous sleepless night. Slightly exasperated, she let the free weight drop to the carpeted floor with a thump. Groaning, she closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. Sudden memories of the two of them together danced in her head. The groan turned into a chuckle as she remembered catching the blonde going through her refrigerator. ‘She really can be cute at times, but the rest of the time, she’s downright beautiful.’

Cory squished her way down the hall. When she got to Taylor’s door, the blonde was attacked by a sudden case of nerves. Breathe. ‘You can do this. Your eyes are wide open, and you know exactly what you’re getting into. Just reach out and take the chance.’ Taking one last breath, she hit the doorbell.

Taylor jumped in surprise. ‘Who the hell is that? It’s five o’clock in the morning, and why didn’t security buzz me?’ A little irritated that her thoughts were interrupted, the brunette stormed to the door and yanked it open. The angry wind went out of her sails immediately as she looked down at her soaked visitor. Pale blue eyes blinked and blinked again. ‘This has got to be some kind of weird dream. She can’t be really here.’ Her heart sputtered rapidly then died in her chest. She looked down at the petite blonde with relieved eyes that quickly turned to shocked ones. ‘She really is here. Oh, God!’

Cory glanced up toward the most wonderful sight she had ever seen, six feet of black haired, blue-eyed confusion. She sucked in her bottom lip and worried it with her teeth before saying, "Hi, can we talk?" ‘Please say something, anything.’

Taylor studied the wet form from head to toe. She never knew that somebody that dripping wet could be so sexy. Her stomach knotted pleasurably. ‘She came back to me.’ Realizing she was being talked to, she tried to snap back to attention. "Huh? Oh yeah, come in." The brunette turned sideways to let the other woman through. Hearing a wet slushy sound, she looked down at the blonde’s soaked sneakers. "Um, we need to get you out of those clothes and into some dry ones."

Cory turned, letting jade green meet pale blue for the first time in over twenty four hours. Just as it had for the past few weeks, a fine sliver of awareness arced between them along with awkwardness and hesitation. ‘She’s so beautiful and just as nervous as I am. It seems like ages since I’ve seen her, and I don’t want to lose sight of her now even if my teeth start to chatter.’ The word fell from her mouth before she could think to say it. "No."

Taylor blinked once more while licking dry lips. Holding her arms rigidly to her side, she barely resisted the urge to pull the other woman into her arms. ‘Did I just hear her say no? She isn’t here for me. She came to quit and to end this before it even has a chance to get off the ground.’ Panic set in. Her heart slammed against her chest, making breathing a chore. She opened and closed sweaty palms. Unable to control it, Taylor knew her eyes were showing the panic flaring through her body.

Cory watched the expressive face in confusion. ‘She looks so. . . Oh, she thinks—‘ Somehow she had to reassure the older woman. Not knowing what else to do, she stepped forward bringing her clammy hand to a hot cheek. Whispering, "I’m here for you, Taylor to talk to you about us."

The brunette almost whimpered in relief. "You mean, you’re not---"

"No, I’m not." Cory let the hand trail to the admin’s neck then fall away, but she stayed standing close, enjoying the heat. "In the past twenty four hours, a lot has been made clear to me. I know why you didn’t tell me. I don’t like the way that I found out, but I understand why you didn’t say anything. It’s the same reason why I didn’t pay attention to the signals you were sending me. I should have know, but fear stopped us both."

Unable to tear her eyes away, Taylor looked down to see the truth shining in green. ‘She is seeing everything.’ The brunette opened her mouth to speak but was silenced by a finger against her lips. Feeling some of the trepidation leave, she smiled and kissed the appendage against her mouth.

The blonde’s stomach fluttered, but she went on. "When I met Wendy, she told me something. She said that she had never seen you act like this with another person that you didn’t let people in. All I know is that I got through. I don’t know if you let me, or I pushed my way in. I felt us getting closer everyday and that scared you. It scared me too because like you I have never felt anything like this before." She stopped to read what was in pale blue. They only implored her to continue. "What scared me the most was that I was starting to need you. You see, I’ve never really felt that before. I was so used to other people needing me. I was afraid to count on somebody to make me happy, afraid that I would get lost. With you, it’s so hard for me to think, and the things I feel overwhelm me. I didn’t want to get lost in that, but I went home. There I learned something that made me come back here tonight. That doesn’t have to happen. It’s okay to care, to feel, and to need without losing yourself." Cory took larger hands into her own smaller ones. "I want that with you. I want to see where this goes." She looked down at their joined hands then back up again. Pale blue had darkened to the color of a cloudless sky.

Here is your chance. You’re ready and all you have to do now is go for it. Taylor felt as though fireworks were exploding inside. She wanted to skip with glee like a five year old but settled for a toothy smile. ‘I’m going to take it.’ Tapering down on the smile, she added, "I want you to know that I had no intention of ever hurting you. I don’t think that I could ever do that because seeing you hurt felt like it was killing me." She squeezed the hands holding hers. "I need to ask you. Are you sure?"

Cory stepped closer, leaning her head on the other woman’s chest. She took a breath before glancing up again and answering breathlessly, "I’m still scared, but yes."

That single word was like a benediction allowing her heart to sprout wings and soar. In a hoarse whisper, she added, "We have to be very careful."

"Yes." With each word from her friend, the blonde gained more confidence.

Taylor leaned forward, letting their foreheads touch. She untangled their hands and wrapped her arms around the blonde’s torso with her hands resting at the small of her back, not caring that she was all wet. "I want to take this slow. I want this to last. Do it right."

"Yes." ‘Oh God, I feel like this enormous weight has been lifted. It leaves a lot of space empty that she can fill. Is this what happiness is?’ Everything inside her felt renewed and whole again.

Large hands traveled upward until they cupped her face, tilting it upward. ‘I have to touch her, kiss her to make this real.’ Leaning forward, she looked into green eyes for approval and saw only anticipation. Taylor brushed the other woman’s lips with her own. Feeling them soften under hers, she went back for more. A gently probing tongue teased the younger woman’s bottom lip without remorse. ‘Open up for me.’

Cory wrapped her arms around the admin’s back, closed her eyes and leaned into the kiss. She felt it coming, the intensity that had spooked her, but she let it reign free. The delicious brush of the other woman’s tongue tied her stomach in pleasurable knots and made her knees weak. Unable to resist it anymore, she allowed entry. A hoarse groan from the brunette made her toes curl. She balled the material of the woman’s shirt in her fist, needing an anchor. Twin whimpers of surrender filled the room when wet tongues slid and touched moistly. Cory whimpered again feeling normal breath stop and the ragged ones begin.

'She tastes. . .more.' Twisting her head to the side to get a better angle, Taylor deepened the kiss and speared her tongue further into the wet warmth. She growled low and long, feeling arousal pool into her belly. It was getting too hot and a little out of hand. Pulling will power from places she didn't know existed, she deliberately softened the kiss and almost smiled upon hearing the moan of protest. The admin pulled away completely, ending the exchange with smaller, gentler kisses. 'This woman could become addictive.'

Cory came back down to earth with a soft thump and opened her eyes slowly. 'Oh, Lordy. What's my name again?' She glanced upward into bright blue. Getting lost in them, the name recognition still didn't come, so she settled for reaction. The blonde licked her lips tasting the remains of the other woman. "Mmm, uhm, that was oooo." She mentally shook her head. Her brain had shorted out, making it feel like cotton wool inside. It was the most disconcerting feeling, and she loved every minute of it.

Taylor smiled back totally charmed. "Yeah, me too."

"Um, Taylor? Can I tell you something?"

"Anything you want."

"I'm all wet."

The brunette raised an infamous eyebrow and quirked her lips. "Oh, really?" Seeing the rapidly climbing blush, she let her smile come.

"Uh, I mean. My clothes are wet."

Tongue planted firmly in her cheek, she added, "Well let's go get you naked and dry."

The blonde nodded. "One more thing? My mom probably wants to meet you."

Taylor threw her head back and laughed. It was cute trying to follow the blonde's broken conversation. She had never kissed anybody silly before. "I think that can be arranged. C'mon, I have the shirt you wore last time waiting for you." Grabbing the younger woman's hand, she led her into the bedroom.

Whoo hoo, that was something. If you think so too give me a jingle at Minerva.

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