Immediately, Drew and Sean stopped and faced each other.
"Bow to your partner!"
They did so, and as they raised their heads, they were both laughing.
"Good work, Sean," Drew exclaimed, rubbing her ribs.
"Thank you, ma’am."
Master Cho couldn’t decide whether to admonish them for their laughter or to overlook it. They had both fought well, and the genuine pleasure on Drew’s face was perhaps reason enough to allow a little lapse in discipline.
After Master Cho formally dismissed them, she said, "We will go out for dinner now, yes?"
Sean wasn’t sure the invitation included her, so she remained silent. Drew was silent as well.
"All of us, yes?"
They took one car to avoid parking problems and drove to a small women-owned restaurant not far from the dojang.
"You did well tonight," Drew said to Sean as they rode in the back seat.
"Thank you, ma’am."
"Where did you learn that leg sweep?"
"I’ve been watching you."
"Have you now?" Drew said softly.
Sean looked at her and nodded. "Yes."
The meal was pleasantly relaxed. Master Cho spoke of her training as a child, and what it had been like for her as a woman in the martial arts. Sean was captivated, and it was only Drew’s presence across the table from her that distracted her from her teacher’s stories. Whenever she would glance at Drew, her blue eyes were upon her. And she was certain she recognized what she saw in them. She only wished she knew what to do about it. She couldn’t forget the way she had felt with Drew’s arms around her, with her hands upon her, with her mouth claiming her—she had lain down to sleep with her body on fire too many nights to forget any of it.
"What? I’m sorry," she said.
"I said, would you like to walk back? It’s really not that far," Drew said from across the table.
"Yes," Sean said, "yes."
They bid goodnight to Janet and Chris in front of the restaurant and began walking.
"How’s Susan doing?" Drew asked.
"She’s hurting, but she’s better. She’s been sober for six weeks."
Sean sighed. "When she hurts, I hurt. But I think she’ll be okay. I’m not so sure about her and Ellen, though. I think Ellen is still seeing Gail."
"That’s tough. I’m sorry."
Sean smiled. "Thanks. You helped, you know."
Drew looked uncomfortable. "I don’t know what to say about that night—"
"Well, I do," Sean said in frustration. "You held me, you comforted me—and then you kissed me. And I don’t know any other way to say this, but I want to kiss you again."
Drew stopped in her tracks and stared at Sean. She refused to allow her head to rule her now. "What I want to do, I can’t do here," Drew whispered hoarsely. "My apartment—it’s not far. Will you come?"
"Oh yes," Sean said.
Sean ran her fingers over Drew’s chest and rested her hand upon her breast. She turned her cheek where it rested on Drew’s shoulder and pressed her lips to the soft skin.
"I knew you would be like this," Sean murmured.
Drew shifted and slipped one thigh between Sean’s legs.
"How?" she asked as her hands began to stroke Sean’s back and buttocks.
"Fierce," Sean said with a gasp, turning so her breasts were against Drew’s, "gentle—oh god." She lost her voice as Drew pulled her harder against her thigh.
"I want you so much," Drew cried into Sean’s hair, "so much!"
"Oh, Drew—" Sean moaned, pulling Drew over onto her. "Please, please, now."
At first the strokes were so tender it was like a whisper against her. Her hips arched, seeking more, her breath rasped in her chest. When she thought she would scream with need, she felt her inside—strong, demanding, filling her. Her hands clutched the strong shoulders above her, her teeth sank into the tender flesh of Drew’s arm. As the rhythm increased, a cry tore from her.
"Don’t stop, please don’t stop. Oh god, Drew—"
Drew dropped her head to Sean’s neck, whispering, "I’ve got you, Sean—come to me."
Sean sobbed out her pleasure, dimly aware that Drew was groaning as she thrust against her.
Finally, they both lay spent and gasping. Drew moved her fingers gently, starting to withdraw.
"Don’t," Sean gasped, covering Drew’s hand with her own. "If you leave me now, I won’t be able to bear it."
Drew began thrusting slowly. Her voice was close to Sean’s ear, teasing, "Can you bear it if I stay?"
Sean turned her head, capturing Drew’s lips, her tongue seeking. When she pulled her head back, they were both gasping. "Just take me, Drew. Take me!"
"I will," Drew groaned, fighting back her own desire. "I will."
Drew awoke, sweat-covered, crying out in the aftermath of the nightmare.
"Oh god," she gasped, shaking her head frantically to dispel the image.
"What is it?" Sean asked, sitting up amidst the tangled sheets, one hand stroking the wet and trembling back.
"Just a bad dream," Drew muttered through clenched teeth. "I’m sorry."
"Don’t be," came the soothing voice. "Can you tell me?"
Sean kept silent, continuing her gentle strokes until the tight muscles under her fingers began to relax. Finally, Drew lay back down beside her, reaching for her hand.
"It’s almost morning," Drew said.
"I know." Sean laced her fingers through Drew’s and raised the other woman’s hand to her lips. Her skin was soft, slightly salty. Sean loved the taste of her. Following her instincts, she moved to kiss the swell of breast, lingering over the sensitive pinnacle. She was rewarded with a gasp from Drew as she nipped gently, then continued her exploration over the sweep of abdomen to the hollow above her thighs. She kicked the covers away as she settled herself between Drew’s legs, her fingers massaging the firmly muscled thighs. She pressed upward, seeking, searching, unconsciously following the subtle rise of Drew’s hips that led her inward, deeper. Her first taste of another woman was indescribable—intoxicating, addicting—so rich, primordially female. Drew tangled her fingers in Sean’s hair and pulled her closer, guiding her with her hands, urging her to feast. And feast she did—joyously, powerfully, humbly—awed by the ability to give such pleasure. She gripped Drew’s hips, preventing her from pulling away at the crest of her orgasm, wanting the connection to last eternally. When finally Drew forced her mouth away, gasping, "I can’t take anymore," Sean felt bereft—severed too quickly from the heart of ecstasy.
Sean rested her cheek against Drew’s leg. She felt incredible—she had never imagined such beauty, such exquisite, tender power. To give such pleasure at once thrilled and amazed her. She felt utterly satisfied, wordlessly full.
"Come here," Drew whispered, drawing her up beside her. She pressed a kiss to Sean’s forehead, enfolding her in her arms.
Sean settled into the curves and planes of Drew’s body, one hand reaching to stroke her face.
"Are you all right?" Drew asked.
Sean laughed. "All right? I am so completely all right, I may never stop smiling. I have never experienced anything like that in my life."
Drew turned her head in surprise. "Never? I thought—" her voice trailed off.
"It may run in the family, but I’m a slow starter," Sean admitted. "But, now that I know, you’re in trouble."
Drew laughed shakily. "No regrets?"
"Regrets?" Sean said, suddenly serious. She leaned up on one arm to face Drew. "You are beautiful, and making love with you has easily been the most beautiful experience of my life. My only regret is that I didn’t meet you fifteen years ago."
"Fifteen years ago," Drew murmured, her eyes distant. "No, it would have been too soon."
"Probably," Sean answered. "Maybe now is exactly the right time."
"Maybe," Drew said quietly.
"Oh god," Sean uttered, "I never even thought—are you involved? I never asked—"
"No," Drew said abruptly, "that’s not what I meant."
Sean knew there was something, and she had an intuition that that something was the source of Drew’s nightmare, and the pain Drew tried to hide. She didn’t probe, hoping there would be a time when Drew would trust her enough to share that pain with her.
It was five A.M. when Sean entered the still house. Susan was asleep on the library couch. Sean attempted to cross to the stairs without awakening her, but a sleepy voice called to her.
"Can you still walk?"
Sean laughed, flopping into the chair before the fireplace.
"Did you spend the night doing what I think you’ve been doing?"
Sean blushed. "If you mean did I spend the night making mad, passionate love with an incredibly beautiful woman—the answer is ‘Yes.’"
"Wow—holy shit—oh my god—my sister—my sister has come out!"
"Come out is not the word for it—reborn? Yes, that might begin to describe it. How in god’s name has the world managed to keep this a secret? Why isn’t every woman a lesbian?"
Susan’s laughter, her first laughter in weeks, rang through the room.
"Oh Sean—you’ve caught it. Lesbian psychosis—in full bloom already!"
"Oh, shut up! So what if all I can think about is getting her into bed again? God—all I have to do is think of her and I’m—"
"Enough! You’ll embarrass me!"
"Why didn’t you tell me?" Sean shrieked.
"How incredible it is?"
Susan grew suddenly still. "It is, isn’t it?"
Sean rose to sit beside her.
"Hey—I’m sorry. This isn’t a great time for you, and here I am swooning."
Susan hugged her. "That’s okay. One of us should be getting some," she tried to joke. "So tell me really—what’s going on? Besides the great sex, I mean."
Sean grew quiet. "I’m a little afraid to think about it, Suse. This is all new to me. I’ve been really attracted to her for weeks, and when she invited me to her apartment, all I could think was that I wanted her to touch me. I didn’t think about what it meant. And now all I can think about is touching her again. I think I might have skipped a few steps."
"Oh, you know—dating, discussing things like monogamy, views on world peace—that kind of thing." Nightmares, secrets, barriers she thought to herself.
"There’s still time for all of that, Sean," Susan said.
"I hope so," Sean murmured.
Sean spent the day in a haze. The only time her mind was clear was the fifty minute intervals she spent with her patients. Between sessions she sat at her desk and aimlessly rearranged the pens and pencils. Every few seconds she would be ambushed by a kaleidoscope of images—Drew’s eyes, her hands, the sounds of passion, the taste of her. And Drew leaning over her the night she was hurt—panicked, terrified—and clearly somewhere else. Her professional instincts told her that whatever Drew was fighting, it was serious. Serious enough to keep them apart, and that was something she passionately did not want.
It was more than just Drew's physical appeal, although, god knew, that attraction was powerful. But she had admired physical beauty in other women before and had never been drawn to them the way she was drawn to Drew. It was the woman herself who captivated her—the contrast of fierce discipline, commitment, and self-control combined with caring and compassion. What moved her the most, she was forced to admit, however, were the glimpses of suffering Drew revealed in her unguarded moments. That’s what made Sean ache to hold her, not with desire, but with love.
She chose the work she did because the pain of others compelled her, touched her deeply, made her ache with emotion more intense than any pleasure. She was drawn to pain because, inevitably, it was pain that bound all creatures in their valiant struggle called life. In our pain we are most human, and often, most alive.
She sighed and pushed back from her desk. She needed to get ready for class.
Chris was surprised to find Drew at the door when she answered the bell late in the afternoon.
"Drew!" she cried.
"Hello, Chris. Is Master Cho in?" Drew asked quietly.
"In the garden. Go on back." Chris didn’t attempt to follow. It was clear from the tone of Drew’s voice and the dark look on her face that she was here on a private matter.
Janet looked up from the chair where she sat reading and closed her book gently. She had been expecting Drew’s visit for some time now.
Drew bowed formally. "Forgive me for interrupting—"
"I am glad you came. Sit down, please," she answered, pointing to the chair beside her. She waited patiently while Drew searched for words.
"I’m going away for a while," Drew said at length.
"Ah—where will you go?"
"Virginia, I think. The army has asked me to run an intensive training course for recruits."
Drew shrugged. "Six, eight weeks. Permanently, if I want the job."
Her voice was flat, but the trembling in her hands betrayed her agitation.
"Now tell me why you will go."
Drew thought of the reasons she had been giving herself but could not bring herself to lie to her old friend.
"I’m not ready for a regular life. I thought I was, but since I’ve been back—I’ve—the dreams are back. I thought they were gone—it’s been years. But now it’s worse."
"And you think they will stop if you go away?"
Drew raised her hands in a frustrated gesture. "I don’t know—but I have to do something."
"Perhaps the dreams have come back because this is a safe place to have them—where you have friends, yes?"
Drew forced herself to say the next words. "It’s not just the dreams—" How could she explain that now she dreamed of Sean, terrifying images, all with Sean’s face. "It’s—" she stopped, helpless.
"Ah, yes—I think I see. There is now the situation with Sean."
Drew started, shocked. "You know?"
Janet Cho lifted a shoulder gently. "I know that she looks at you with an open heart, and eyes that hold you. I know that you reach for her and then pull your hand away."
"I slept with her last night," Drew confessed.
"And now, you are afraid?"
"It was the wrong thing to do," Drew said harshly. "I was only thinking of myself. There’s something about her—I felt it right away—when I look at her I feel calm, balanced—safe. And I wanted her. I didn’t know she’d never been with a woman before. It’s not right for her to learn this way—not with me. I should never have involved her."
"There have been others—since Dara?"
"No," Drew said, her voice breaking. "I couldn’t—I didn’t want to."
"Then I think there is something powerful between you and Sean—"
"My need," Drew rasped, "my weakness. I held her and I couldn’t help it." She got up abruptly and began to pace in the small, enclosed space.
"Do you think there is no need in love, Drew? We are human because we need love."
"Not this way," Drew raged. "Not without something to give, strength to answer need."
Janet Cho remained silent. Drew was deaf now, unable to hear beyond her pain, unable to see beyond her self-doubt. Her heart would open, or it would not.
"I will miss you, Drew. Be kind to yourself, forgive yourself."
"Forgive myself? Never."
Janet Cho faced her class. As always, the eager faces before her stirred many emotions—love, pride, concern, duty. From a distance, her hand guided them in the physical quest for spiritual growth. By hardening their bodies, they hardened their spirits. By listening to their bodies, they learned to listen to their hearts. There were many paths to personal growth. This was but one, but it was here, under her eyes, they had chosen to face their weaknesses and learn their strengths. They honored her with their trust. She honored their struggles.
"Master Clark will not be with us for some time," she began.
Sean didn’t hear the words that followed. She hadn’t expected this—she had imagined that Drew might not want to see her again. She was too old to believe that every sexual encounter led to a relationship. She had even imagined that Drew might never even give her a reason for not wanting to see her. But she had never imagined that Drew would simply leave, without a word. She thought she could deal with the disappointment if one night were all she had with Drew, although she didn’t quite know how she would stop the wanting. But this—this was more than she could bear. She needed to hear the words, no matter how hard, that she wasn’t wanted, that she wasn’t needed. Maybe the words would be hard to accept, but the silence would destroy her.
She broke from the line and stepped to the side of the room.
"Sean?" Master Cho questioned.
"I’m sorry, ma’am. I need permission to leave."
Master Cho bowed. "You are dismissed."
Sean bowed. "Thank you, ma’am."
She drove hurriedly to Drew’s apartment, no clear plan in her mind. She drove instinctively, answering only to her need to know what was happening.
She held her breath until she heard the lock click on the door. And then Drew was there.
"Sean," Drew murmured.
"I’m sorry. I had to see you."
Drew looked uncertain for a moment, then stepped back from the door.
"Come in. There’s coffee—"
They faced each other awkwardly, until Drew finally motioned to the small couch pushed beneath the open window.
"Sit down, please."
"Master Cho said you were leaving."
"Is it permanent?"
Drew stared at her hands, which were clenched in her lap.
"I don’t know. Yes—probably."
Sean took a deep breath. She could leave now and imagine her own reasons. Try to forget, try to stop thinking of the way Drew had touched her—on her body, in her heart. Or, she could have the truth. She wasn’t sure which would be the harder.
"You don’t have to tell me—you don’t owe me an explanation, but you mean something to me—no—I’m in love with you. I’m not going to have any place to put those feelings unless I know why you’re leaving. Is it me?"
"No," Drew murmured, "it’s me. I wasn’t thinking very clearly last night. I didn’t think about what it all meant to you—"
Sean interrupted gently, "I’m thirty-five years old, Drew. It took me ten years of a bad marriage and five years of celibacy to realize I wanted to love a woman. It took you to make me realize that. I am responsible for being here last night—because I wanted you. I will not accept, however noble, your bearing all the responsibility for last night. Please!"
Drew smiled, a small bitter smile. "You waited all that time for the wrong woman, Sean. I’m sorry."
Sean expected it to hurt, she just hadn’t expected how much. Not until that moment had she realized just how deeply Drew had affected her. How was she going to get over her? She turned her face away to hide the tears.
"I’ll go," she said softly.
Sean nodded. She did not look back as she headed for the door.
"Be well, Drew," she whispered as she closed the door behind her.
Drew dropped her head back on the couch, willing the sound of Sean’s voice from her mind. She knew it would take much longer to will her from her heart.
"Sean!" Susan called, rapping at her door, "Sean, let me in."
"It’s open," came the muffled reply.
Susan crossed to the bed where Sean lay face down with her arms under her head.
"Are you crying? What’s wrong? You’ve been up here for hours."
"Oh, Suse," Sean cried, "I’ve gotten myself into a mess."
"I’ve fallen in love with someone who doesn’t care about me. If that isn’t bad enough, she’s leaving the city."
"Oh, hell!" Susan picked at the bedspread. "Sean, honey? Are you sure you’re in love? I mean, you know—"
Sean rolled over to stare at her sister. "It hurts, Suse—that I can’t see her, that I can’t touch her. I close my eyes, and I see her everywhere! I’m lying here and my body aches for her."
"Oh," Susan said, "I’m sorry, Sean, really."
Sean grasped her hand. "I know you are."
"What can I do?"
"You’re doing it. You’re here, you’re listening. You’re not telling me to get over it."
"Ha!" Susan said without humor, "I’m the last one to tell you to get over her. We don’t seem to love that way."
"How in hell have you been managing?" Sean asked bitterly. "I don’t think I can stand it."
"Just keep doing what has to be done, Sean. Go to work, go to class—"
"Oh god—I don’t think I can. When I walk in there and she’s not there, I think I’ll fall apart." She began crying again, despite her efforts to stop.
"You have to, Sean," Susan whispered, lying down beside her and pulling her close. "You have to."
One night, ten days after returning to the army base training camp in Virginia, Drew found herself standing outside a bar she hadn’t entered for eight years. Eight years since she stepped out this door into a night that would change the course of her life. Eight empty tormented years.
Of course, none of the old faces remained. Life on and around an army base was transient—so many people just passing through. Drew had actually been one of the more permanent residents of the town that existed only because of the nearby base. The bar had been a gathering place for women who couldn’t be too careful about exposing their sexual preferences within the claustrophobic living quarters of Fort McGee.
She didn’t recognize the bartender, or the woman seated by the door checking I.D.’s. The decor wasn’t much different—the place still looked a little dingy. Still, it was filled with laughing women, relaxing after a week of work. In the case of the army recruits, it might have been their first time off base in weeks.
After ten days of staring at the walls of the small room that the army had provided for her, she had to get out. She didn’t know where else to go. This bar was the only haven she knew.
She took a seat at the long, well-worn bar and ordered a beer. She raised the mug slowly, glancing sideways up and down the bar. It was strange being here—she had expected more of a reaction. She had replayed the events of that night so many times—from here in this bar to the street where it had ended—that she expected the room to be filled with ghosts. But, it seemed that her memories held those events with perfect clarity, while the years had tarnished the reality. There were no condemning voices, no demands for retribution, no restless souls here—other than her own.
Sighing, she drained the glass and signaled for another. Her heart jumped when her eyes met a pair of deep green ones staring at her in the mirror over the bar. The dark, ruffled hair and willowy figure reminded her of Sean, but it was the eyes that always captured her. She lowered her gaze, feeling the disappointment like a knife in her depths. It wasn’t Sean, it wasn’t going to be Sean—not now, not ever. She had given in, just that once, to her need to touch those black curls, to hold the slender figure, to kiss the full generous mouth. And she had wanted her from that moment—seeing her night after night at the dojang, watching her move in that fluid, graceful cadence of the dancers, accepting the soothing comfort of her smile, her presence. She refused to listen to the warning sounds in her head, surrendering, irrevocably, to her desires. And now she was haunted—haunted by the vision of Sean, head tipped back, eyes half-closed, accepting her kiss, accepting her hands, rising to her touch as she entered her. The image of Sean as they had loved haunted her days, but it was the image of Sean lying bruised and bloodied that tormented her nights.
The nightmares continued, unabated. The pleasures Sean had brought her would have been worth the price of the night terrors if she hadn’t believed that Sean deserved better than her. She had failed, once before, with a woman she had loved—at a price too high to bear. She would not fail another.
"That glass has been empty quite a while—can I buy you another?"
The green-eyed soldier slipped onto the stool beside her, signaling the bartender for another round.
"Thanks," Drew said. Her voice was harder than Sean’s, without the mellow timbre that Drew found so soothing.
"I saw one of your training sessions out at the base. The hand-to-hand knife defense. It was impressive," her companion continued. "I’m a drill instructor—Mary Burger."
Drew shook the extended hand, liking the firmness of her grasp. "Drew Clark," she added.
"I heard you had left last spring. I was surprised to see you back this fall. Couldn’t stand civilian life?"
Drew fingered the handle of her mug, tracing the contour with one long finger. "Guess not—here I am."
Mary stood, placing a hand on Drew’s arm. "Come on, let’s dance."
Drew felt too weary to protest and allowed herself to be led to the floor.
The night she had spent with Sean had thrown the world into turmoil. She had kept her feelings carefully contained, in some manageable corner of her mind, so that she might continue to function—and suddenly there had been Sean. She ripped the barriers from her heart, and the restraints from her body, leaving her a victim of her own needs, desires and fears. She had run, only to find herself face to face with her demons, back in full force. Not only didn’t she have the comfort and tender joy of Sean’s presence, the wounds of her past now were bleeding as well.
Mary stepped into her arms, fitting herself with practiced ease against Drew’s tall form, and wrapped her arms around Drew’s waist. The heat of her hand barely registered in Drew’s consciousness. She was remembering another woman in her arms, the pressure of her breasts and thighs stirring a fire she had long thought extinguished. She danced with the memory, Sean’s face fluttering in her mind.
When they moved into another song, Mary tilted her head back and studied the handsome face before her. "How come I get the feeling it’s not me you’re dancing with?" she asked quietly.
Drew blushed and unconsciously stepped back an inch, putting distance between their bodies. "I’m sorry," she murmured, "I’m a little tired I guess."
Mary nodded sagely. "Uh-huh—and I’m a major general. It’s okay—I admit I was hoping for more than a dance, but—"
Drew shook her head, smiling sadly.
"Does she know how lucky she is?" Mary asked.
"Not so lucky," Drew said softly.
Ellen unlocked the door to the office she shared with Sean and was startled to find Sean seated at the desk in the small room they used for the business aspects of their practice. She had not seen Sean for several days, and she was taken aback by the fatigue etched in her face.
"What are you doing here so late?" Ellen asked, dumping the files she was carrying onto the end table.
"Catching up," Sean replied tiredly.
"Me, too. I’m weeks behind in my insurance forms."
Sean nodded, pulling another file toward her.
Ellen stretched out in the one overstuffed chair in the room and propped her feet on the waste basket.
"What’s wrong, Sean?" she asked at length.
Sean glanced up, her eyes brimming with tears. "It shows, huh?"
Ellen nodded. She never quite got used to looking at the woman who was the reflection of her lover—ex-lover she reminded herself. The same fine features, the same ocean deep eyes. But, where Sean was cool and calm like the desert at night, Susan was fire and wind, burning up the landscape with her energy. Ellen loved them both for their generous and loving natures, but it was Susan who had stirred her passions. She had often wondered if anyone could stir Sean’s passions. Not that she doubted Sean cared deeply for people, but the core of her remained aloof, observing the passions of others, but never giving freedom to her own. She imagined it would have been terribly lonely had Sean been aware of her isolation; but, until now, there had never been any sign that she was unhappy.
"You look really sad."
"Sad?" Sean echoed. Was that what this was—this empty, aching desolation? This feeling of being severed from all the joy and laughter in the world?
From the peace of her own heart?
"I’m not sad, Ellen—I’m completely lost."
The flat acceptance in her voice unnerved Ellen. She had heard the tone before, and knew it went hand in hand with deep pain.
"What’s happened?" she asked gently.
Sean stared at her wondering where to begin. She pushed her chair away from the desk and stared down at her lap. The tears that fell felt like old friends.
"I met a woman, Ellen. I fell in love with her. Then she left."
Sean nodded, raising one trembling hand to wipe the moisture from her face.
Sighing, she tried a tremulous smile. "I never would have believed this could happen to me. I was so sure that that kind of passion just wasn’t for me. Love, I thought, would be a quiet friendship, a comforting companionship. I never dreamed it would consume me the way this has—devouring me from the inside out. I can’t believe she’s gone—and that she’s taken every shred of my composed, orderly life with her. Every cell in my body misses her."
"Why did she leave?"
"I wish I knew—god, how I wish I knew. There’s something—something that she’s hiding, something that keeps her away from everyone, even when she’s sleeping. We made love—we were closer than I imagined possible, and then, within hours, she was gone."
Ellen wasn’t that surprised. She’d noticed how Drew seemed always at the edges of the life around her—holding herself apart. She was amazed that she had allowed Sean to penetrate those defenses even for one night.
"She might come back?"
"I don’t know. And, if she does? What then?" Sean said despondently. "She made it pretty clear that she doesn’t want me in her life."
Ellen chose her words carefully, not wishing any further pain for her friend. "Do you want to be in her life?"
Sean looked surprised, and alive for the first time that evening. "Yes," she said emphatically. "Yes, I want us in each other’s lives. She awakened something in me that no one, no one, has ever even come close to. She did it with her spirit, with the strength of her wanting, and caring, and with her need. I’m thirty-five years old and I felt like I took my first full breath the night she touched me."
Ellen believed her. She knew it would take a powerful combination of strength and vulnerability to reach into Sean’s heart, and Drew Clark seemed nothing if not those things.
"I hope she comes back, Sean. I really do."
"God, so do I," Sean whispered.
It took five weeks for Sean to return to the dojang. It was more than just the knowledge that she would miss Drew so much more there. She couldn’t find her own inner balance, the composure she needed to focus. Her heart was too weary to face the challenges. She just couldn’t.
Finally, she had cried herself out. She began to reassemble the order of her days, and, although her soul ached, her strong will reasserted itself.
When she stood at the door and bowed to Master Cho and Sabum Roma, some part of her came home.
"Good evening, Master Cho, Sabum Roma," she said softly.
Janet Cho smiled. "Ah, Sean is back, yes?"
Sean smiled too. "Yes, ma’am."
Her teacher watched her carefully that night, looking for the signs of Sean’s heart. What she saw was a new depth of communion between body and spirit—Sean had looked inside herself and found greater self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
Janet thought of another woman who fought fiercely. A skillful fighter, selfless and brave. Her friend had a warrior’s soul, and Master Cho would trust her with her life, but her friend lacked the inner harmony that might save her own life if tested. Because Drew Clark did not recognize that her greatest enemy lay within her own heart. It had been said that the greatest warriors did not fear death, and thus never hesitated in battle. Master Cho feared that for Drew, death might be all too welcome a foe.
"Sean, you will spar with Gail."
Sean nodded, pulling on her head gear. She tapped her leather gloves gently to settle them and faced her partner.
"Black belt rules—Bow. Begin!"
Sean fought with control and precision, using her long legs and quick hands to advantage. Again and again she slipped a hand past Gail’s guard to make light contact with Gail's chest or ribs. Sean took care with her punches, keeping the contact tolerable; but she took each opportunity to score.
Gail responded by raising her own level of fighting, extending herself with double kicks powered by her strong legs, blocking crisply and following with combination punches that scored on Sean's torso and head.
When Master Cho called time, both women were exhausted.
"Now," Master Cho stated triumphantly, "you fight as you would need to fight on the streets—with your mind and your body as one. Remember this fight—remember the stillness of your thoughts, the calmness of your body. This is what you must have to win."
Sean and Gail bowed to one another, knowing they had fought each other as well as their own demons, and each had emerged a victor.
"Thank you, Sean," Gail said.
"Thank you, Gail", Sean answered quietly.
The lights in the office were burning when Sean pulled into the carport. Ellen was working late again. She had been there well into the evening every night for weeks. On impulse, Sean took the stone path down to the office.
"Hey," she said as she let herself into the small room. It was stuffy despite the cool autumn nights.
Ellen looked up from her reading. "Hi, Sean. So you made it back to class."
Sean nodded, settling one hip on the corner of the crowded desk. "It was time to go back. It helped a lot."
"I’m glad," Ellen said sincerely. She started to say more, then stopped herself. She and Sean, by unspoken agreement, had not discussed Ellen’s personal life after that one morning three months ago.
"What?" Sean probed.
"I was wondering how Susan’s doing," Ellen said softly.
Sean blew out a long breath. "She’s in therapy—"
"Susan’s in therapy?" Ellen asked in surprise.
"Twice a week for the last two months."
"My god, I can’t believe it!"
"Losing you really shook her, Ellen. This may be the only good thing to come out of the whole mess." Sean spoke more harshly than she had intended, but she felt every ounce of her sister’s pain.
"Maybe," Ellen said. She continued softly, "I’m not seeing Gail any longer."
Sean’s surprise was evident. "What happened?"
Ellen laughed without smiling. "I discovered that lust wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s hard to live on sex alone. I was lonely."
"Susan is lonely too," Sean said gently.
"It sounds like she’ll be fine," Ellen said sadly.
"Oh, come off it, Ellen!" Sean exploded, shocking Ellen with her intensity. "Susan is miserable! She loves you—she’s never stopped loving you! She’s in therapy, and I’m damn glad she is, because she’s trying to understand how she lost you. But you have some part in this, too. Susan is an open book, for god’s sake. You know how hard it was for her when our parents split up. She was terrified that would happen to you two, so she kept one foot in the only safe place she had."
"Right!" Ellen said heatedly. "Right here with you!"
Sean looked shocked. She bit back a retort, trying to calm down. She forced herself to look at the life she and her twin had made for themselves. From their first breaths they had been together. Even the distance in miles during Sean’s marriage had not severed their deep emotional connection. They could finish each other’s sentences from across the room. And for the last five years, they had built a safe haven for each other—more than a home, an emotional sanctuary as well. Ellen and Susan had only been together a year before Sean had moved home to live with Susan. She wondered now if her returning had made it too easy for Susan to keep Ellen at a distance.
"I never realized—" Sean began.
"I know," Ellen interrupted, "and I was too insecure to make an issue of it. I took the easy way out, too, Sean. I didn’t want to bring up the hard stuff. I just kept hoping it would all work out. So, I settled for less and less until I turned to someone who obviously wanted me." She snorted in self-deprecation. "At least, she wanted my body!"
"Oh, Ellen—you’d think we would have done better, all of us."
"Why?" Ellen said, a touch of her old humor returning. "Because we can help others step back from their lives and find new solutions? You think that makes us experts on our own lives? We all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves."
"You, Susan and I are a family, Ellen," Sean said vehemently. "We need to work this out." She stopped and studied Ellen. "That is, if you still love her."
"I do, Sean. With all of me. But how can I expect her to forgive me for what I’ve put her through—and what about trust? I’ve ruined it all, haven’t I?" she said despairingly.
"You can’t ruin love, Ellen. You can test it and try it, and you can hurt those who love you—just as they can hurt you. But you can’t ruin it. Stop tormenting yourself."
"What do you think I should do?"
Sean laughed. "There’s this antiquated thing we therapists call ‘talking!’ Maybe you and Susan should try it."
"What a novel idea," Ellen rejoined, feeling hopeful for the first time in months.
Sean was later than usual getting to class because she had spent an hour on the phone with a patient in crisis. By the time she was satisfied that the woman could wait until the morning to see her, she had barely enough time to gather her gear and navigate the rush hour traffic into the city.
As she tied her uniform and dug in her bag for her belt, Master Cho approached saying, "You will teach class tonight, Sean."
Sean knew that Master Cho expected her to teach as a requirement for her black belt, but she had hoped for more time to prepare! She looked up, startled, then answered smartly, "Yes, ma’am!"
"Good, good. Ah, I see we are all here. You can bow the class in whenever you are ready."
Sean followed her teacher’s gaze, and the breath stopped in her chest. Drew Clark stood at the door. Sean could only stare, unwilling to believe her eyes.
"There is a black belt waiting, Sean," Master Cho chided gently.
Somehow, Sean found her voice. "Face the door!"
Immediately, the entire class turned as one to face Drew.
"Chariot!" The snap of hands to sides was like thunder in her ears.
She bowed as did everyone in the class, but her eyes never left Drew’s face. Drew returned the bow, her eyes on Sean.
On wooden legs Sean moved to the front of the room. Master Cho stood to her left, Master Clark stood to her right, with Sabum Roma on her far side. Sean was acutely aware of the tall, militarily erect form beside her. The air seemed charged, electrified.
"Line up," she called, and the class fell in to formation behind them. The black belts and Sean turned to face the golden tiger emblem on the front wall.
The senior students began the litany Sean had repeated countless times.
"Tenets of Tae Kwon Do—"
Sean knew she was repeating each word, but she couldn’t hear her own voice over the blood rushing in her head. When at last the bowing-in ceremony was over, Master Cho took her seat at the front corner of the room, her favorite spot to watch each student.
Chris Roma and Drew Clark joined the class at the head of the first row of students.
Sean’s mind was completely blank. She put her hands behind her back to hide the trembling. She called the class to attention and twelve bodies moved, fists outstretched, legs spread, eyes on her. All she could see was Drew, as she had remembered her as she lay struggling for sleep, so many lonely nights. Blond hair silvered with grey, piercing blue eyes, tense, waiting, controlled body. Exquisite in her power.
The passing seconds seemed to Sean like hours, and then Drew nodded imperceptibly, her face softening for a brief instant. Sean found her voice.
"Left front stance," she called.
As the class stepped sharply, breath exploding from them, Sean caught the spirit of the women before her. Women willing to do more than they ever dreamed physically possible, willing to return night after night, bruised, aching, tired, to begin again, pushing themselves a little further along their own paths, for their own private reasons. They were united in their willingness to pay with their sweat and their humility for the chance to do battle with life on their own terms.
Sean asked them to display their skills to their teacher, unconsciously guiding them from one technique to the next in a choreographed pattern of flashing hands and arching legs.
Thirty minutes later, when she called a halt, their bodies were soaked with sweat, their chests heaving. But they looked at her with faces filled with pride. They knew they had done well. She bowed to them, a symbol of her deep respect for their effort. Then she turned to Master Cho and bowed to her. Janet Cho stood and returned her bow.
"Well done, Sean," she said simply.
"Line up for forms," their teacher said. "Master Clark, you have Sean, please."
Drew bowed. "Yes, Master Cho."
She and Sean moved to the front corner of the room.
"Your highest form, please, Sean," came the rich voice Sean remembered.
"Yes, ma’am," she replied with effort.
Sean faced Drew, searching desperately for composure. She steepled her hands in front of her face and took a deep breath. She willed herself to listen to her breath flowing easily, unbroken, from deep in her body, and slowly, her mind and body fused.
Drew watched the transformation with the same amazement she had felt the first night she saw Sean, six months before. The subtle melding of mind, body and spirit produced a nearly visible aura of calm focus. She had never seen anyone except Janet Cho do that, and Janet Cho was a master. This was a strength, an inner harmony that Sean brought with her to this dojang. She had honed it here perhaps, but it sprang from the essence of her. This was the power that had drawn Drew to her, and the beauty she had missed each day she had been gone.
When she finished, Sean closed her eyes for a moment, then bowed to Drew.
Drew approached slowly, choosing her words carefully. "The spirit of the form is flawless, Sean, and something some of us never master. The timing of your back sidekick, however, needs work. Watch me—You have just blocked a face punch from your first attacker, Sean—here—" she punctuated her words with a knife hand block that could easily break an arm. "But—you hear a sound behind you. There is another man—he has a knife. Now—you pivot, your leg up, your knee high, and as you come around, he is there, but your leg extends fully at the moment you complete your turn. Not after your turn, because by then, he is upon you."
As she spoke, she moved, agile and fluid, coiled like an animal, and then her leg drove outward and upward, easily high enough to crush a man’s skull.
"Do you understand? It is not enough to be able to perform each movement in the form. There must be purpose to the movements—sometimes a deadly purpose. Because the stakes might be your life."
Each word seared Sean’s brain with the passion behind it. She understood in that instant that Drew was completely and totally committed to preventing whatever had happened to her from happening to another woman. And Sean had no doubt that Drew spoke from experience. She had just relived part of it before Sean’s eyes, whether she was aware of it or not.
"I understand, ma’am."
"Do you?" Drew asked quietly.
"Yes," Sean answered firmly.
Sean gathered her gear hesitantly, not sure what to do. She wanted to speak to Drew, but decorum, as well as personal uncertainty, held her back. Was Drew back to stay? Did she even want to tell Sean?
Finally, yielding to her need, ignoring her qualms, she approached Drew, who had removed her jacket and was folding it neatly in preparation for stowing it away.
"Are you back to stay?" she asked quietly.
Drew did not look up. "Yes."
"I’m glad," she replied. She began to turn away.
Drew straightened suddenly. "Sean—I—" When she met Sean’s eyes, she hesitated. Struggling, she finally said less than she wanted to. "There’s an Aikido demonstration in Bryn Mawr Saturday morning. Would you like to go?"
"Yes," Sean answered immediately.
"I’ll pick you up? It will be easier, driving—?"
"Yes," Sean responded, refusing to think about anything except what her heart demanded.
Sean found Susan in the TV room, engrossed in a Batman rerun. She sagged into a chair and opened a coke. By unspoken agreement, they had kept no alcohol in the house for the last three months.
"Good class?" Susan asked, her eyes riveted to the screen.
"Uh-huh," Sean said, curiously unanimated. "Drew’s back."
Susan sat up suddenly. "Did you talk to her?"
"Not much. She asked me to go to a martial arts exhibition this weekend."
"Like a date?" Susan exclaimed.
Sean shrugged. "I have no idea. I’m completely in the dark."
"How do you feel?"
"Numb. I can’t believe she’s here—I’m afraid there won’t be anything between us."
"Are you still in love with her?"
"My heart nearly stopped beating when she walked in the room. I wanted to throw myself at her. Yes, I’m still in love with her."
"Are you sure you should see her? You’ve been hurting so much, Sean."
"I have to know where we stand, Suse. I just can’t go on without knowing."
"I wish I could make everything all right for you, Sean. I can’t stand seeing you so sad."
Sean smiled. "Right back at you, sister."
Susan smiled a small tremulous smile. "Ellen called."
"How was that?" Sean asked carefully.
"I cried when I heard her voice."
"Oh, Suse," Sean cried.
"She wants to talk. I said yes."
"Good," Sean said in relief. "I know she loves you, Suse. Give each other a chance."
"I’m so scared."
Sean hugged her close. "I know, Sweetie, I know," she murmured, thinking they both had good reason to be frightened.
Susan pulled the door open and came face to face with Drew, who was just reaching for the bell. Susan jumped in surprise, giving a little yelp.
"Sorry," Drew said, feeling awkward. She wondered how much Sean had shared with her sister about their brief encounter, and then realized probably all of it. That might account for the hard stare Susan was directing at her now.
Despite their exact physical resemblance, Drew had no difficulty telling Susan and Sean apart, even at a distance. Where Sean radiated stillness and deep quietude, the air around Susan was charged. Right now she looked like a thundercloud.
"I’ve come to pick Sean up. Could you tell her?"
"Why don’t you come in?" Susan said, trying to be gracious.
"Thanks," Drew said. Susan continued to stare at her. Drew accepted the searching gaze, waiting.
"Damn you, Drew," Susan finally whispered. "You hurt her so much."
Drew paled and looked down briefly. When she raised her eyes, Susan saw the pain that was a reflection of the hurt in her sister’s eyes. She was shocked by it. She accepted that whatever had forced Drew away, it hadn’t been a lack of feeling for her sister.
Susan shook her head. "Women are such fools," she muttered, including herself in the statement. She touched Drew’s arm lightly. "She’s in the kitchen. Why don’t you go on back."
Aware of the gesture of truce in Susan’s touch,
Drew sighed, "Thanks, Susan."
Sean heard footsteps approaching and assumed Susan had forgotten something again. She finished pouring her coffee, calling, "What did you lose this time?"
She turned to find Drew leaning against the doorway, watching her. Sean just stared helplessly. Drew looked lean and taut in her tight black jeans and denim shirt. The sight of her alone was enough to bring heat to Sean’s depths, but it was the look of undisguised desire in Drew’s face that threatened to overpower her. She leaned back on trembling knees against the counter.
"I’m not going to be able to stand up if you keep looking at me like that," Sean whispered.
With a groan almost a growl, Drew moved, and Sean was in her arms. Drew’s mouth was on hers, possessing her; Drew’s hands roamed her body, claiming her. Sean cleaved to her, pulling her closer. When Drew at last released her, Sean was gasping. She dropped her head against Drew’s shoulder.
"I couldn’t stay away," Drew rasped, kissing the wisps of dark curls on Sean’s brow. "You were all I could think about—I had to see you again."
Sean heard the desperation in Drew’s voice, and she knew that Drew had not returned without reservations. There was resistance, too, in the arms that held her, and for now, Sean accepted it. Drew was here, it was a start.
Sean tightened her hold, relishing the tight fit of Drew’s thigh between hers, the curve of Drew’s breasts against her, the answering surge of hips. Drew rewarded her with another deep groan, bringing her hands to Sean’s face. Tenderly she cupped Sean’s jaw, turning her face for her kiss.
"How important is this Aikido thing?" Sean murmured, running her hands over Drew’s shoulders toward her breasts.
"Pretty important," Drew muttered, her lips moving downward to claim a nipple through the fabric of Sean’s T-shirt. She bit gently before attempting to continue. "I’m one of the guest demonstrators." She insinuated one hand between their bodies, pressing Sean’s abdomen, moving lower.
Sean grasped the hand that explored her, nearly sobbing. "Stop! Anymore and I won’t be able to stop—please Drew—"
Drew moaned, her face buried in Sean’s hair. "I want you so much," she whispered.
Sean took a deep breath, struggling to clear her head and control her raging senses. "Damn you, Drew! Your timing is terrible!" she laughed shakily.
"I know. I’ll make it up to you," Drew said, meaning more than just this interruption.
Sean shook her head. "Nothing to make up for, Drew. Some things just can’t be helped—so we learn to live with them. We have time."
Drew searched the face softened by passion and felt welcomed. There were promises there, promises she was afraid to hear—or to make. She had been managing moment to moment for so long that the concept of a future was foreign to her. But when she looked at Sean a tiny flicker of hope stirred. With reluctant effort she pulled back from Sean, saying, "We’d better go—I’m not sure how long I can keep from touching you."
Sean took her hand and led them resolutely through the house. She knew if she looked back at Drew they would not leave that day.
Sean sat mesmerized on the benches facing the exhibition area, marveling at the fluid grace of the Aikidoka. The circular flowing defensive blocks and large forceful throws reminded her of dance. And watching Drew after the long weeks of absence was intoxicating. She had forgotten how imposing she was, tiger-like in her fierceness and strength, agile and quick in her movements. Sean was a little disappointed when the program ended. She so infrequently had the chance to really watch Drew, and she had been enjoying herself.
Drew folded her hakama, the long black over-trousers that symbolized a high-ranking Aikidoist, and left the mat area to join Sean.
"It was beautiful," Sean pronounced as Drew sat down. "I really enjoyed it."
Drew smiled, "I’m glad." She gazed away for a moment, then questioned hesitantly, "It’s six o’clock. Would you like to have dinner somewhere?"
Sean pressed a little closer to Drew. "I’m not too good at hiding my feelings, Drew. What I want is to be in bed with you. Is that a possibility?"
"Are you sure?"
"It’s the only thing I’m absolutely sure of right now. I’m dying from wanting you."
"Let’s go," Drew growled, grabbing her bag and keys.
Neither said a word on the ride to Sean’s house, but the pounding of their hearts seemed audible.
Drew lay still, staring at the shadows flickering on the ceiling. Sean was lying against her, one leg thrown up to cover Drew’s own. A long graceful arm lay curled across Drew’s chest, holding her possessively. Drew tried not to think about what she was doing. When she thought about the rightness of her actions, she feared she was cheating Sean. Her immediate reaction was to flee. When she allowed herself to feel her need for the woman who lay beside her, she panicked. Never had she wanted this to happen—never, never again. And, yet, here she was, because she had let her senses rule her—she ached, and she sought comfort; she desired, and she sought release; she cared, and she sought expression. Was it fair? No. Selfish? Yes. Madness? Most definitely. And yet here she was, and for now, at least, she could not bring herself to leave.
She shifted slowly, not wanting to awaken Sean. Her movement brought a slight protest from Sean, and the arm around her tightened.
"You’re not leaving are you?" came the sleepy voice.
"It’s late," Drew murmured, pressing her lips to Sean’s forehead.
"So? Do you have an appointment?"
"I—" Drew hesitated, reluctant.
"Drew," Sean said quietly, fully awake now. "I want you to stay—I want you to be here in the morning. If you need to leave, it’s okay. I’ll just miss you."
Drew turned so that the length of their bodies touched. "You make things so easy—and so difficult."
Sean insinuated her leg between Drew’s, thrilling to the warmth of her touch. "How so?" Sean asked languidly. She began rocking her hips against Drew’s, sliding her leg back and forth with each stroke.
"Oh," Drew gasped, pulling Sean’s hips more firmly against her. "Because you—" Her voice trailed off as Sean slid a hand between them, reaching for the moisture between Drew’s legs.
"Because what?" Sean murmured, fingers lightly teasing.
"I what? Tell me!" Sean insisted, her strokes escalating.
"Can’t—" Drew gasped, "I’m gonna—"
"Oh, are you?" Sean breathed against her lips, her fingers dancing rapidly, "Are you now?"
"Yes!" Drew cried, arching her back, groaning with each pulsation.
Sean held the gasping woman in her arms, smiling with satisfaction.
It was just light when Drew slipped out of bed, pulled her clothes on, and made her way down to the kitchen. She found a pot of coffee on the burner and helped herself. She wandered out to the terrace, halting in the open doorway when she saw the figure seated on the low stone wall.
Ellen looked over her shoulder and beckoned to Drew.
"Come on out. I could use some company with my guilt. How about you?"
Drew grimaced. "How did you know?" she asked, joining her atop the wall.
Ellen shrugged. "It’s my job to know these things, remember? We shrinks are, oh, so perceptive."
Drew thought she understood the bitter undertones in Ellen’s voice. She sipped the strong coffee, welcoming the warmth in the chill November air.
"We’ve given them hell, haven’t we?" Ellen remarked.
"Yes," Drew conceded. "How’s Susan?"
Ellen picked at the seam of her jeans aimlessly. "She’s deeply hurt, and frightened, and struggling to make sense of something I should have known better than to do. She’s picking up the pieces after a three-week binge that I’m the cause of. The hardest part of it all is that she’s forgiven me."
"Yes," Drew acknowledged. "That makes you loathe yourself, doesn’t it?"
Ellen nodded. "This is where I’m supposed to say we should forgive ourselves, or love ourselves, or some such palaver. But, frankly, I can’t do it. I’d rather someone take me out and beat me."
Drew laughed. "Maybe we can just sit here and beat each other."
"Okay," Ellen said. "You go first."
Drew was silent for a long moment, and then she asked quietly, "Why’d you do it, Ellen? Susan so obviously worships you."
"Ouch," Ellen said. "You’re good at this." She took a deep breath, searching for honesty. "I was angry with her because she wouldn’t live with me and start a family—and leave Sean. I was jealous, and I felt unappreciated; and I didn’t have the guts to say so. I did it because I’m a coward—I didn’t put up a fight, I just ran to a convenient pair of arms."
Ellen tossed the dregs of her coffee onto the ground. She looked at Drew and began, "Okay—my turn.
"Sean is the kind of woman who holds the deepest part of herself back from everyone—except Susan," Ellen continued. "For her to open herself to you is something close to a miracle. How could you abandon her, leaving her to believe you didn’t care for her? She could bleed to death from a wound like that."
Drew stared at Ellen, absorbing her words the way she would absorb a blow, letting the pain of the truth pierce her. "Point and match to you."
Ellen clearly saw the grief in Drew’s face, heard the sorrow in her voice. She had no doubt that Drew was an expert at swallowing her pain while it destroyed her inside.
"Not good enough, Drew. You have to say why."
"Try—if not for yourself, then for Sean."
Drew closed her eyes, her hands clenched at her sides. "I need her," she whispered harshly, "and I don’t want to." That was all she could manage.
"There is always need in love, Drew. It’s human to need," Ellen said gently.
"Not like I need her," Drew said. "It feels like she’s my sanity. The world makes sense when I’m with her."
"Ah," Ellen said, "and Susan make me feel more alive than I’ve ever felt without her. So, we need them to make life worth living—so, we’re closet weaklings. Let me share a secret with you, Drew. Loving women like us, with our flaws and our broken places, is what they need. We’re all here to help each other heal."
Tears shimmered on Drew’s golden lashes and finally fell, years in the waiting. Ellen reached for her instinctively, cradling her in the shelter of her arms.
"Oh, Drew," she murmured, "it’s not as selfish as you think. You’ve unlocked Sean’s heart—something no one has ever been able to do. That’s a tremendous gift."
Drew heard the words, not quite ready to believe them. Nevertheless, for the first time in eight years, she allowed someone to comfort her.
Sean stood at the kitchen window, watching Ellen hold the woman she loved as she cried. She couldn’t think of anyone she trusted more to take care of her lover’s tender heart.
Sean was finishing client notes when Ellen ended with her last patient of the day.
"There’s beer in the office fridge," Sean called when she heard Ellen in the small kitchenette that adjoined their offices.
"Thank god," Ellen muttered as she entered carrying two bottles.
"Thanks," Sean said gratefully. She studied Ellen, who sagged into the chair facing the small desk. "How are you doing?"
"Better now that Susan and I are back together. We’ve still got a long way to go, but at least we’re talking about things we should have talked about years ago."
"I’m glad. I’ve missed Susan’s smile. It’s back."
"How about you?"
Sean sighed and ran a hand absently through her hair. "I fluctuate between ecstasy and terror. Drew is here, but not totally. We’ve been spending a lot of time together, and I love it. She’s so strong and serious, and tender, and—"
"Wonderful?" Ellen laughed.
"Something is keeping her from really being with me—except when we make love. That’s the only time she really gives herself to me. She lets me touch more than her body, then she lets me touch all of her. Then she’s beautiful, open and accepting of me, and so fragile. Any other time, there’s a wall up—I can’t quite reach her."
Ellen was not surprised. She had seen how deeply Drew buried her pain.
"It’s going to take time, Sean. If anyone has the patience to stick with her, you do."
Sean nodded. "I’m trying. But she’s in so much pain, I can hardly bear it. Every night she sleeps with me she has horrible dreams. She wakes up screaming, soaked with sweat, disoriented for minutes. It tears my heart out."
"Sounds like post-traumatic stress," Ellen thought out loud.
Sean stared at her. "Oh god, you’re right. I’m so frightened by it, I couldn’t even see it."
"Whatever it is, being with you will bring it to the surface. She’s probably going to get worse before she can tell you."
"Oh, Ellen, I hope I’m strong enough to help."
Ellen smiled. "I can’t think of anyone better."
"You will stay after class to talk, Drew, yes?" Janet Cho said as she passed Drew, who was jamming her sparring gear into her bag. It was not a question that left room for negotiation.
"Yes, ma’am," Drew said through clenched teeth. She didn’t look at Sean, whom she knew was watching her.
Sean, in turn, carefully folded her belt and uniform, feeling hurt and bewildered. Drew was so clearly angry with her, and she didn’t understand why. In fact, there had been an undercurrent of anger present for weeks. Drew had become short-tempered in class, with everyone, but especially her. She didn’t feel as if she could do anything right.
Tonight it had culminated in Drew stopping a sparring match between Chris and Sean after only a few minutes. Chris was compact and quick, and she had managed to hit Sean twice in the face within the matter of a minute.
Still, Sean had felt she was holding her own when Drew stopped them, criticizing just about everything Sean had done. Sean was unprepared for the intensity of Drew’s anger—it hurt.
She followed the rest of the students to the door, bowed, and left quietly, not caring that she had not said good-bye to Drew. It was the first time in weeks that they hadn’t stopped after class to have a bite to eat, often spending the night together. She didn’t want to see Drew right now, not until her feelings had settled a little.
"Sean has six months before her black belt test, Drew," Janet said as she sat down near Drew.
"This isn’t about a belt," Drew said darkly.
"Then what? You are pushing her very hard. Why? She is a good student, she works hard."
"You saw her with Chris tonight! She’s already had her nose broken, and Chris scores two hits right to her chin!"
"Yes, I saw. So she has more to learn. She will learn it."
"She needs to learn to protect herself!" Drew exclaimed. "Discipline, self-control, self-knowledge, personal growth—that’s all very well, and I support it. But she must learn to protect herself!"
"Why now, must she learn in a few weeks what you know it takes years to learn? What is the sudden hurry?"
Drew looked exasperated. "You don’t have the luxury of spending a lifetime learning self-defense any longer. Anything could happen—any time!"
Janet Cho nodded. "So now you make Sean miserable because tomorrow someone may hurt her?"
"Yes, if I have to," Drew stated vehemently.
"Maybe if you weren’t in love with her, you would not make her so unhappy."
Drew stepped back as if struck. "What did you say?"
"You love her—you are afraid something will happen to her—you ask more of her than she is capable of right now—you make her unhappy."
Drew’s jaw clenched and she averted her gaze. At length she said, "I only want her to be safe."
"Of course. So do I—Sean and all of them. But now it is so much more important, yes. Because you think you could lose her."
Drew stifled a moan, turning her back to her old friend. The images were there, flicking through her mind—bloody, empty pleading eyes.
"I can’t stand it," she whispered, her voice cracking. "If something happens to her, I just won’t be able to live, Janet. Not again."
The small woman took the trembling hand of her friend and pulled her down to the chair beside her.
"Drew, my friend," Janet said softly, "we cannot live in fear that something tomorrow may hurt us, or someone we love. You will not have time to love her if you worry always that she may go. Love her that much more because she is here today."
Drew bent her head, willing her tears to stop. "I’m trying, Janet. But I am so afraid," she said brokenly.
"It is much that you have let love come to you again. Now be patient with yourself."
Sean heard Susan answer the door, and she didn’t look up when she heard footsteps in the hallway outside the library where she sat in semi-darkness. The logs burned low in the fireplace, but she didn’t feel the chill. She stared unblinking at the small flames.
"It could use some more wood," the deep voice that never failed to stir her heart remarked.
She turned, surprised. "Drew!"
Drew shed her jacket and bent to feed the fire several more logs. She turned to kneel by Sean’s chair, taking both Sean’s hands in hers.
"I’m sorry, Sean," she said softly, searching the drawn and unhappy face before her. "I’ve been worried, and I’ve made you pay for it. It was selfish of me and I’m sorry."
"Worried? Worried about what?" Sean asked, always alert to the subtle meanings behind the phrases.
Drew shrugged and looked away. "Since we’ve been seeing each other, I’ve gotten anxious—you know—I don’t want you to get hurt. I’ve been pushing you too hard—really, you’re doing fine."
"Drew," Sean said carefully, "why are you worried that I might get hurt?"
Drew looked away, a muscle in her face twitching. "People do get hurt, Sean," she said in a low voice.
Sean slid her hands around Drew’s shoulders, holding her.
"Does this have something to do with your dreams?" She tightened her hold as she spoke, and, as she expected, Drew flinched and tried to draw away.
"Drew, look at me!" She waited until the troubled blue eyes met hers. "I love you, Drew. Absolutely—no reservations. Whatever you think you can’t tell me is keeping us apart more certainly than anything you could ever say. Don’t do this to us, Drew. Please!"
Drew dropped her gaze. "There is nothing I can say, Sean."
Sean sighed and pulled her close. She couldn’t stop loving her no matter how deep her secrets lay buried, no matter how much they both must suffer.
The Christmas holidays came and went, and Sean was as happy as she had ever been. Susan and Ellen were firmly together again, and it felt like she had her family back. And Drew was there—strong, tender passionate Drew. Still, part of Sean mourned for the silence that remained between them. There were times, more frequently in recent weeks, when Drew seemed to shed the shroud of pain that surrounded her; and Sean caught glimpses of a younger, happier woman, quick to laugh, engaging and enthusiastic. Then a word, or more often the nightmares, would extinguish the light in her eyes, robbing her of her joy. Even in her despair, her love for Sean was obvious—in the way her eyes followed her as she moved about a room, in the way she tilted her head to catch each word from Sean’s lips, in the way she possessed her in the night and gave her body to Sean without reservation. Sean did not press her. She knew it would do no good. But still, her heart ached even in the midst of fulfillment.
That night was the culmination of one of those January days that were common to Philadelphia—the temperature soared to near seventy degrees, and the evening remained mild. With the desire to absorb the last of the premature weather, Sean suggested they walk the few blocks to their favorite restaurant after class. She and Drew both wore only light jackets and jeans as they left the dojang.
"You’ll be ready to test soon, Sean," Drew remarked, taking a deep breath of the barely cool night air.
"I know. I’m nervous."
Drew looked surprised. "Why? You’re doing great."
Sean laughed. "I feel good about my progress—but, it’s such a big step—and you’ll be there when I test."
Drew frowned. "Do I make you nervous?"
"You make me a lot of things, Drew Clark—and nervous is not one of them," she said suggestively. "But I want you to be proud of me."
She looked over at Drew when Drew failed to answer. She found her staring past her, across the nearly empty street. It was an area of storefront businesses interspersed with residential enclaves, and the street was nearly deserted. Three young men were crossing the street towards them.
Swiftly, Drew stepped between Sean and the rapidly approaching youths, pushing Sean roughly behind her. Sean was so startled she didn’t protest.
The group closed about them, and Sean saw for the first time that two of the boys carried baseball bats. The largest of the group swung the bat casually back and forth very close to Drew’s knees. Drew stood silently, but Sean could sense her coiled tension.
"Let’s move into that alley behind you," he said as his two companions stepped closer on each side. "Hurry up, before somebody gets hurt," he snarled.
Drew backed up a step toward the mouth of the narrow dark alley that ran between two brick buildings.
"Stay behind me," she ordered Sean as she took another step back.
One of the boys laughed. "I’ll take the pretty one in the back there. You two can have the bitch in front."
Drew waited for the first one to move, imprinting the positions of the three of them in her mind. When the one in the middle swung the bat at her head, she stepped toward him, chopping at his forearm with the knife edge of her hand. The blow from the bat grazed her shoulder but did no real damage. He dropped it with a howl as the nerve in his arm went dead where she had struck him. She kicked back and to the side as the one on her left rushed her, catching him in the groin. He went down gagging, but the third man managed to crack his bat down on her thigh, pitching her to the ground.
She rolled back into her fall and got to her feet in time to see Sean step forward with a side kick that hit her assailant in the chest. By then, all three of them were on their feet again and slowly circling.
"Damn it, Sean," Drew shouted, "get back!" She was slowed by the hematoma forming in her thigh muscle, but she ignored the pain. She knew, however, she couldn’t continue to fight them one at a time. With superhuman effort, she jumped forward on her injured leg and kicked once, twice—taking two of them down. She swung toward the third and punched, doubling him over. She raised her uninjured knee into his face. He fell heavily to the ground. The other two had dropped away into the shadows. Drew was blind to everything except the rage that poured through her, wrenching an eerie howl from her depths. She knelt beside the coughing figure and pulled his head back by his hair. She raised her hand to deliver the blow she hadn’t been able to deliver eight years ago, the blow that would finally set her free. She gathered her breath to strike.
"Drew!" Sean screamed, grabbing the raised arm with both hands. "Drew, no! You’ll kill him!"
Sean’s voice dimly penetrated her awareness, and she loosened her hold on his hair. He rolled to one side, and suddenly one of the others grabbed him and pulled him away. The three of them stumbled away into the shadows.
Drew’s breath tore from her with a soul-wrenching scream, and she doubled over, her clenched hands to her face. Her body shook uncontrollably as she rocked forward.
"No, no, no—no!" she uttered brokenly.
Sean went to her knees, pulling Drew against her. "Drew, it’s Sean. It’s Sean—we’re all right. It’s over. Drew—Drew!"
Drew collapsed against her, sobbing. Somehow, Sean managed to get her to her feet and out of the alley to the street. There was no sign of their attackers. Mercifully, her car was not far, and she half carried, half dragged Drew to it. She put her in the back seat and covered her as best she could with her jacket.
She thanked god when she slammed to a halt before her home that Susan’s car was in the car port. Leaving the motor running, she raced to the front door, ringing the bell frantically. She was on her way back to the car when the door opened, revealing Susan’s figure outlined in the archway.
"Susan—help me! It’s Drew," she shouted.
For the only time in her life, Susan remained calm in a crisis—probably because it was clear that her sister was nearly hysterical. Together they got Drew inside onto the couch in the library. She was still shaking and her eyes were frighteningly unfocused.
"Help me get her clothes off—her leg is hurt," Sean said, already pulling at her jeans.
"Let me," Susan said, "you’re trembling. Are you hurt?"
"Go the hall closet—top shelf. There’s a bottle of brandy there," Susan said as she gently tugged Drew’s pant legs down.
"Secret stash from my last fall from grace. Go on, Sean!"
Drew protested feebly as Susan lifted her legs to the couch. Her left thigh was swollen to twice its size and beginning to bruise.
"Now get some ice," Susan instructed as Sean handed her a glass of brandy. She looked up at Sean’s pale face and said firmly, "Go on, Sean—I’ll take care of her."
She slipped an arm behind Drew’s shoulder and raised her up. "Drink this, Drew. That’s it—good, a little more now—good."
They wrapped an ice pack around her leg and covered her with several blankets. Sean eased onto the couch and gently settled Drew’s head onto her lap. She tenderly brushed the blond locks back from her forehead.
"Honey?" she asked quietly, "Are you okay?"
Drew turned her face into Sean’s body, murmuring, "I’m so cold, Sean."
Sean rubbed her back through the blankets. She looked to her sister.
"I’m okay, Susan. Go to bed."
"Are you sure?"
"I’ll call you if we need you."
Susan leaned to kiss Sean on the forehead. "I love you, Sean."
Sean gave her a tremulous smile. "Thanks," she whispered. She cradled her lover against her, closing her eyes. Drew’s agonized scream echoed in her mind, and she vowed in the still room that Drew would carry this torment alone no more.
It was nearly light when Sean stumbled into the kitchen, exhaustion stamped on her features. Ellen and Susan were there, hunched over the worn oak table, a pot of coffee growing cold beside them.
Sean slumped into a chair and accepted the cup Susan placed in her hands.
"When did you get here?" she asked hoarsely of Ellen.
"About two. Susan called. You were both out when I looked in. What in god’s name happened?" Ellen asked worriedly.
"We were attacked. God, it all happened so fast. We were just a few blocks from the school. Suddenly three men—" Sean halted and passed a trembling hand before her eyes. "If I had been alone—"
Susan gripped her hand. "It’s okay, Hon, you’re safe."
"Yes," Sean repeated, "I’m safe." She took a deep breath and continued. "I was so startled, I wasn’t sure what was happening. Drew—I don’t know how to tell you—she was possessed—they kept coming at her and she kept fighting back, even when they—"
She closed her eyes. After a moment, her voice low, she murmured, "Even when they hurt her. She never stopped."
"Thank god she was there," Ellen said. She looked at Sean, who sat dazed and staring.
"What else happened, Sean?" Ellen asked. Susan looked at her, confused.
"Drew was going to kill one of them—I could see it in her face, in the way her body tensed. If I hadn’t stopped her, she would have killed him."
"Did she frighten you?"
"No!" Sean exclaimed, remembering her terror and the seemingly overpowering presence of the men. "But I’m frightened for her. When they finally ran away, she seemed to crumble. She was nearly incoherent when I brought her home. It was more than the attack."
"Who’s Dara?" Susan asked quietly.
"Dara?" Sean echoed.
"Yes—she kept mumbling something about Dara while I was getting her undressed. She didn’t seem to know where she was—"
Sean’s face set with determination. "I don’t know—but it’s time I found out."
"Now may not be the best time," Ellen began.
"It’s way past time," Sean said flatly.
Drew groaned and tried to sit up. Sean was at her side instantly.
"Take it easy, Drew," she said gently, supporting her shoulder so she could sit up. She pulled a hassock over and rested Drew’s leg on it. "You’ve taken quite a beating."
"Are you all right? They didn’t hurt you, did they, Sean?" Drew demanded anxiously.
"No. They hurt you!"
"Thank god," Drew whispered, closing her eyes. "I was so afraid—"
"I’m fine, love."
Drew smiled wanly. "That was quite a side-kick you landed. Very good."
Sean was relieved that Drew remembered, and that she seemed like her old self. She took a deep breath.
"Drew, who is Dara?"
Drew jumped at the name and looked away.
"It’s time to talk, Drew," Sean said, unwilling to accept the silence.
"Dara," Drew said finally, "is the woman I thought I would spend the rest of my life with."
Once the words were out, there was no turning back. "We met in our senior year of high school—Dara had transferred from another school. She was everything I wasn’t—popular, outgoing, creative—she was an artist. She had been painting since she was nine—a child prodigy. I was a rebel, an out lesbian with a chip on my shoulder—rough, uncultured, angry.
"Every boy in the entire school wanted to go out with her—and she chose me. She followed me everywhere—turning up at karate tournaments—I was a black belt by the time I was fifteen—bugging me with her friendly chatter, refusing to let me shut her out.
"Finally, I gave in—and then we were inseparable. We always said we were each other's first and last lovers. We got an apartment together—her parents disowned her when they found out about us." She paused for a moment, her face lost in memory.
"The first few years were tough—she was in art school, I was working whatever jobs I could find. That’s when I began training with Janet Cho. She befriended us—paid me a little to teach a few of her classes. It was Janet who pushed me to go to college—I never wanted to. I wanted to support Dara and myself. While I was in college, I joined the army reserves—it paid some, and they wanted women combat instructors. That’s how I was finally offered the job in Virginia—it was the first job I ever wanted. I could teach what I knew best—martial arts—to women. And I got paid for it.
"We were thirty when we moved to Virginia. Dara hated it there. There was nothing but the base and the little town that grew up around it. She missed the city, and her friends, and the intellectual world she loved. We were only supposed to stay a year, then I could transfer somewhere else."
"Somehow, I kept putting it off. I was happy there, and I tried not to see how unhappy Dara was." She stopped and stared at her clenched fists. "God, how I wish I could take it all back."
Sean was so relieved to finally know the mystery of Drew, she found she wasn’t jealous. This was Drew’s past, what made her all she was today. To know a little of where she had been allowed Sean to love her more fully. Her heart filled with compassion.
"What happened? " she asked gently.
Drew’s eyes filled with tears, but she continued, determined to finish.
"We had been there nearly two years, and Dara had reached her limit. We were fighting constantly about it—if I stayed one more year I could name my next location. I wanted to come home to Philadelphia—a year didn’t seem so long to me. But, for her, it was like a life sentence.
"One night it really blew up between us. We had gone to the bar in town—it was the only place lesbians could relax. It was late, and we started fighting. I got angry, and so did she. Finally, she stormed out and I was so pissed off I let her go. I sat finishing my beer, fuming. Finally, I realized it was one o’clock in the morning, and Dara was walking alone. I was frantic—I rushed out, but I didn’t see her. The streets were empty, so I headed for home—"
She stopped and turned anguished eyes to Sean. Then she continued, "I heard a noise—from an alley. It was dark, but the shadows were moving. I started down the passageway—I don’t know why. I just had this empty, horrible knowledge that she was there.
"There were five of them—they must have followed her from the bar. I didn't have much of a chance, but I did some damage—I don’t remember much. I got kicked in the head, and my wrist was broken. The noise of the fight finally scared them off. I guess I crawled down the alley—my hands and knees got pretty torn up. That’s when I found her. They beat her before they raped her. She was already dead when I got to her."
Sean covered her mouth to suppress her cry. Her mind tried to hold the pain Drew must have felt, but it was too much.
"Oh god, Drew, I’m so sorry!"
"I never told her I was sorry, Sean. I never got to tell her that she was my whole life, the best part of me—oh god, I never even said good-bye."
Finally, finally, Drew cried. Deep, soul-wrenching sobs that doubled her over. Sean rushed to her, pulling Drew’s head onto her shoulder, sheltering her heaving body. She murmured softly, useless words that couldn’t begin to make up for the horror of that night, or all the lonely years that followed, but she gave what comfort she could. Drew clung to her, broken, bereft.
After what seemed like hours, Drew quieted, exhausted. Sean continued to hold her.
"Do you hate me?" Drew asked, her face still buried against Sean’s breast.
Sean gripped her even more tightly. "Hate you? No, Drew, I don’t hate you—I love you. I wish it had never happened—I wish you had never suffered such a terrible loss—I wish I could take all your pain away. I wish I could do something—anything—to make it all right, but I can only love you."
"Last night," Drew began haltingly, "last night was like that night. Only this time it was you—and I was there. I wanted to kill them, Sean—for threatening you, for trying to take it all away from me again. I couldn’t stand to lose you."
"You won’t lose me, Drew. I promise, we will have a future together. I promise."
"I love you so much," Drew whispered, at last able to say the words. "I love you."
Sean cupped Drew’s face and kissed her. "I know."
Sean laid her starched, crisp uniform over the chair and methodically arranged her gear in her bag. She didn’t look up as Susan entered and sprawled out on Sean’s bed.
"Are you ready?" Susan asked.
"Yes," Sean said.
"I wish I could come watch you test," Susan pouted.
"The black belt tests are private, Suse—no one will be there except the black belt test board."
"Will Drew be there?"
"Of course," Sean replied, smiling at the thought.
"Is her leg okay?"
Sean glanced at her sister. "Her leg is fine. And so is the rest of her. Not one single nightmare in three months. And she finally showed me pictures of her and Dara."
"Were you jealous?"
"No—" Sean said thoughtfully. "It was like looking at family pictures. Drew was so young, and they were so innocent. It made me sad. But, it’s what she’s needed to do all these years—she needs Dara in her life; she needs the memories. And, I need them too—because now Drew is whole. And that’s what I need."
Susan fussed with the pillows, not looking at Sean. Sean knew her sister well.
"What is it, Suse?"
"Um—this might not be a good time to tell you this—" her voice trailed off weakly.
"What?" Sean asked exasperated.
"Ellen and I are buying a house."
"Susan! That’s wonderful!"
Susan’s face lit up. "You don’t mind?"
"Are you kidding? I’m so happy for you—both of you. I’ll miss you like crazy, but it’s great!"
"Will you keep the house?"
"Yes, I think so—if Drew wants to live here."
"You and Drew? Living together?"
Sean suddenly looked shy. "We’ve talked about it some."
"Now I can really stop worrying—you’ll have a black belt in the house to protect you!"
Sean drew herself up and said archly, "No, my dear sister—two black belts, and we’ll protect each other!"
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