Making Strides

by Tonya Muir

General Disclaimer:  This is an uber story, the characters are similar to our bard and warrior and have reflections of them.  Their world is a combination of darkness and light with a good dose of neediness, growth, and some detective work.  There are horses and dogs … kids … things like that. (no big whoop)

As always, Xena, Gabrielle and various other characters are all property of MCA Universal and Renaissance Pictures, and their writers. All rights are reserved to the legal owners, and no infringement is intended.  Please don’t come after me … I still have those hay eatin’ horses and a few dogs … added a cat since the last story, but you really can’t have any of them cuz I love them too much.

Specific Disclaimers:


Though not incredibly violent, there are some references to violence that may be uncomfortable and some generally dark ideas and atmospheres.


Now that I’m thinking about it, I think I escaped hurt/comfort in this story (how did I manage that?).  There’s a little blood, a little violence, some angst and heart ache … but no hurt/comfort.


This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.


Never heard that one before, eh? :-)  I would like to say that stallions are romantic and make great fiction but the reality is they are very hard to handle and are far different from dealing with a mare or gelding.  A stallion like Sunny is a rare find and I probably should have made him a gelding just so non-horse people wouldn’t think that all stallions are as wonderful as he is. (ask me some time about the stallions I’ve known who tried to kill people or who were gelded specifically so they wouldn’t).

Since this is a sequel, it would probably help if you read With Faltering Steps first.  Like its predecessor, this is a story about horses but, again, it is more of a background to the main story which is about family and growing and learning to love.

All comments and suggestions should be sent to  I always do my best to respond to everyone.  I was in a truck accident right after With Faltering Steps was posted (or right before – I don’t remember, though my beta reader who spoke with me on the phone while I was still in a drug induced haze might remember :-) ) so I apologize to anyone I may have missed.  I do appreciate the feedback and all the very kind comments.  Thank you for taking the time to share.

And a story wouldn’t be a story without my Beta Reader and good friend Dawn who responded to Journey with such kind praise and has been my devoted helper since.  These stories wouldn’t be what they are without you, don’t think I don’t realize that!  She is always patient, always gentle, and never lets me down when I need a shoulder to lean on.  Thank you for so much more than your editing skills.

I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t also thank my husband, Clive.  He is a gentle soul with a lot of patience (though I don’t think he’d read one of my stories even on the longest, most boring day :-) ).  He even barely rolled his eyes when I named our new kitten Lacey.  I love you.
Sorry for the long soliloquy, I don’t get a lot of opportunities and I don’t know when to shut up … on with the show …

Making Strides  (part 1 of 5)
by Tonya Muir

The early December wind was frigid and biting as it cut across the small crowd, lifting long coats and dancing with the snow around and between the mourners' feet.  The casket was settled sturdily on a stand next to where the grave would be dug when the ground had thawed enough.

The small group bent their heads in prayer as the graveside service continued.  Muffled sobs could be heard throughout the mourners but one woman stood silently still, right hand stuffed in the pocket of her leather overcoat, the other holding the small hand of the child at her side.  The child was crying, using their joined hands to wipe at the mucous and tears on her face, her other hand also being held firmly by the blonde woman on her left side.

Lacey dropped ice blue eyes to regard her wet cheeked partner and the sniffling child.  She felt again the odd mixture of affection for these two important people in her life and the caged feeling of entrapment.

Molly looked up to her as the service ended, her eyes worried.

"What is it?" Lacey asked, gentling her voice for the young girl and kneeling beside her.

The blonde child glanced from the dark woman's face to the large casket a scant few yards in front of her.  "They can't leave him like that," she whispered.  "He can't stay there.  He needs to go in the ground."  She was starting to tremble, her small frame wracked with sorrow.

Lacey looked over the girl's shoulder to Rachel, who had knelt down as well, meeting the smaller woman's misty green eyes wet with tears.  She looked back to Molly.  "Honey," Lacey wiped at her cheeks, framed the small face in her large tanned hands.  "Remember we talked about this.  The ground is frozen so they need to put him over in that building," Lacey removed a hand to point across the graveyard to the small stone mausoleum, "until they can dig the grave here."

Molly's lower lip trembled and she tried to catch it between even white teeth before continuing.  "When we visit him, will it be here?"

"Yes, baby," the dark woman assured her, smoothing back fine blonde bangs.  "This is where we'll bring him flowers and tell him how we're doing."

"Will he hear us?"

"I think so," Lacey said softly, pulling the small girl into a warm embrace.  She again met her partner's eyes before closing her own and placing her lips on the child's head.  "Come on, let's go say our goodbyes."

Lacey picked up the girl and held her in her arms, even though she really was too big to be carried in this manner.  Together, the three of them walked silently to the grieving widow and two young children.  The families had grown close since the team had left Vinnie and Molly had come to live with the two women permanently.  Lacey, Rachel, and Molly offered hugs and kind words and assistance if needed.  Then they went to the raised casket and told Bernard goodbye before turning and making their way to the parked Grand Cherokee behind the small crowd.


Lacey stepped out onto the balcony through the sliding glass door in the master bedroom.  During the summer she'd spent many long hours here, reading, thinking, watching her young lover ride.  The balcony provided an excellent vantage point across the backyard and over the privacy fence into the small arena beyond.

Today the wind was icy cold as it reached through her sweatshirt and jeans.  The yard beneath her held remnants of last week's snow, well tracked by dog and child prints.  There was a melting snowman in the far corner of the yard.  His listing head wore one of Lacey's baseball caps.  She grinned.

The tall woman wrapped her arms around her torso, breathing in the cold air and pulsing out breaths of vapor.  Even from here she could see that Rachel and the horse did the same with their breaths.

There was a portable CD player set up near the barn and Lacey could hear the deep bass of The Eurythmic's Sweet Dreams echoing across the arena and into the yard.  Rachel always worked to music, and it was almost always a heavy loud beat.  She'd said it helped her concentrate, that if she could match Sunny's strides to the beats in the songs then she'd accomplished something.  George had burned a CD that played her favorite riding songs for her on his computer.  She treasured the gift and used it often.

Though Lacey didn't understand the finer points of what her lover was doing, she admired the artistry of it.  Horse and rider moved smoothly about the ring and the dark woman knew if she were closer she would hear Rachel intermittently making kissing or clicking sounds, often whispering praise, always singing to the music in between.  Her fair face lit up in a grin when the stallion behaved properly though Lacey's untrained eye rarely noticed any difference in his stride or his appearance.

Lost in thought, she watched them.  Her vision tunneling to the woman and the horse.  She recalled easily the many months of love and commitment between them, the raising of Rachel's daughter, the life now in this large house that had once been so empty.  But still she felt herself backing away from it all.  It was too much: this instant family and its demanding needs.  Her young beautiful lover offered her heart so easily but unintentionally managed to take as much as she gave, leaving Lacey bewildered and disconcerted.  She was in uncharted territory.

She had never in her life lived for anyone but herself.  Until she met Rachel: emerald eyes and reeling spirit bundled into a small package of open affection.  Her life had changed with the first touch, the first smile, and led her to this place of uncertainty now.  She balanced precariously on a plank between a life she'd hated but grown accustomed to and a life she loved but feared because of its lack of familiarity.  Had she gone down the wrong path?  Should she have let Rachel be?

Because now they were in danger and she had only herself to blame.

The dark woman ran a trembling hand through her hair and scratched the back of her neck.  I will not go to your funeral, too, Rachel.  I won't do it.

Her watch alarm went off, the beeping reminding her it was time to pick Molly up from school.

Lacey sighed and stepped back inside, sliding the heavy door closed behind her.  Though the barrier sealed the wind outside, it couldn't protect Lacey from the coldness she felt growing inside.

As much as the dark woman tried to deny it, having this child and her mother in her life had definitely been worth the trouble.  She was a better person for it.

Now if she could only keep them alive.


Rachel nudged her heels into Sunny's sides, jiggling the reins gently and relaxing her tailbone back until it looked like she was almost slouching.  This dramatic shift of weight caused Sunny to drop onto his haunches and come off the bit even as he moved forward in a trot and held steady contact with his rider's hands.

"Good boy," she murmured, releasing the reins slightly as his reward.  She trotted him in a large figure eight, sitting the rough beat with practiced skill.  "Sweet dreams are made of this ... who am I to disagree," she sang under her breath, oblivious to the cold or the blue eyes watching her from the bedroom balcony.

"Gimme," she whispered, jiggling the inside rein and rattling the snaffle gently until Sunny acquiesced and curved his neck inside.  The motion caused his whole body to bend into a supple turn and Rachel grinned.  "Good for you."

She was proud of him.  The young stallion had shown an aptitude that far surpassed the racetrack he'd grown up on.  He was proving to be a calm hunter mount with ground eating strides and silk smooth gaits.  Though still green, he responded well to gentle persuasion and rarely blew up out of frustration.

She halted him squarely in the middle of the arena, applying calf pressure and bit pressure to keep him contained and equally balanced on all four legs.  They stood silently this way for several long seconds before Rachel released him.  The young stallion heaved a sigh of relief and relaxed.

"Everybody's lookin' for somethin'," Rachel murmured, patting the broad bay shoulder firmly.  "Some of them want to use you," she dropped her stirrups and slid down from his back, flipping the reins over his ears.  "Some of them want to get used by you," she continued to sing as she led him back to the barn.  "Some of them want to abuse you, some of them want to be abused."

Sunny pushed into her small body, dropping his head to wipe his sweaty poll on her shoulder.

"Unh unh, ya big lug," she corrected him gently.  "Back off, bucko," the blonde shoved at the large head and Sunny resigned himself to plodding calmly beside his rider.

Having untacked horses countless times, and this one more than any other, it was a rote task and her mind wandered while accomplishing it.  Rachel thought of the funeral and Bernard.  She considered her lover's attitude of late which was even more stoic than her normal somber persona.  She didn't understand the change in demeanor but also didn't want to dwell on it, so her mind quickly traveled on to the upcoming holidays.


Rachel pushed a blonde tendril behind her ear with the thick glove she wore before hefting the rake again and starting back in on the stall.  Sunny stomped at the closed door from the outside where she'd put him after brushing him down and she yelled at him to be patient.

"Good advice," she heard the dark voice behind her and nearly jumped out of her skin before turning to look at her partner leaning over the inside half door.

"What's up?" Rachel asked, setting the rake against the wall and stepping closer to the dark woman.

"Just got Molly from school.  We're going to do some Christmas shopping.  You need anything?"

"Today right now?  Or for Christmas?" Rachel grinned easily, loving the holiday and the spirit surrounding it.

Lacey returned the smile, an expression that had become incredibly rare in these last few weeks, especially since Bernard's accident.  "Let's stick to today for now.  You have class tonight?"

"Yeah, I need to start getting ready for it," the blonde nodded, pushing another troublesome tendril back.  "Prep for next week's final.  I'm not sure how late we'll be."

Lacey nodded, watching her partner with those unsettling ice blue eyes.

"Molly have homework?" Rachel asked.

"She has a spelling test tomorrow and some reading vocabulary."

"That's right.  I forgot about the test.  I promised her I'd help her study," the small rider cringed, knowing she couldn't miss her own class tonight.

"I can do that," The dark woman nodded again.  She'd taken her role in Molly's life quite seriously and easily picked up the slack when Rachel was in class or unable to help with homework. "Anything from the store?"

"Nah.  I'll pick up some milk on the way home from class."

"Great.  See you tonight," Lacey turned and started to walk down the wide aisle and out of the barn.

"Lace?" Rachel called after quite a bit of hesitation.

The dark woman turned back, raised an eyebrow.

"Are you okay?  Really?"

Lacey wrinkled her brow in thought, as if considering a more complex answer, before she simply nodded.  "Yeah.  Great."

Something was very wrong with the ex-mafia crony.  Things had been going extremely well since they'd moved in together, bringing Molly home permanently towards the end of the summer and enrolling her in the fourth grade.  Rachel had started taking college courses towards her bachelor's degree.  Lacey had opened up a network security contracting firm with Rico, George, and Bernard.  Although George had ventured out on his own a month or more previous, it had been a mutual parting to the best of Rachel's knowledge.  Then Bernard had died a week ago in a car accident.  Since that final incdident, the dark woman had been withdrawn and angry.  Her moods were unpredictable and she usually worked late and left early, seemingly avoiding the rest of the household.

"Are you sure?" Rachel asked, pushing more than she should but uncertain where she stood right now with her tall partner.  They'd not been very close since the accident.

"Yeah," she flashed a smile, shrugged her shoulders.  She knew she was pushing them away.  She also knew she was being very difficult to live with these past few days.

"I love you," Rachel said softly, reaching out to pick her rake up again and get back to work.

The smile on Lacey's face seemed to fade before being replaced by a more plastic one.  "Love you, too, Raich."  Then she disappeared, leaving Rachel to fight off her tears as she finished mucking the stall.


Lacey was in the office, typing away on the computer when Rachel got home.  She said hello to Karma and peeked in on her sleeping daughter before venturing into the large office.

"Hey," she said softly, smiling into the blue eyes that greeted her.

"Hey yourself."

"How was shopping?"

The dark woman shrugged, leaned back in her swivel chair to stretch out long arms above her head.  "S'okay.  Not too crowded yet.  I think we're done yours," she grinned.

"Did you tell my little snitch what you want for when I take her shopping?" Rachel teased gently.

Lacey laughed out loud.  "She was working me pretty good.  I gave her some ideas."

They watched each other silently for several long moments and then each spoke at the same time.

"How was class?"

"Is she ready for her spelling test?"

Rachel smiled, the awkwardness almost painful.  "Class was fine.  I feel ready for next week."

"Good.  Spelling went well.  She's a smart little girl."

Rachel nodded agreement.  "She feed the horses?"

"Yeah.  And Karma."

"Okay."  More silence.  "I'm gonna head to bed and do some reading.  You coming soon?"

Lacey gestured to the computer.  "I have a while yet.  Don't wait up for me."

Rachel nodded and silently made her retreat.  She'd been asleep for hours when Lacey finally crawled under the covers next to her.


The blowup was inevitable so Rachel shouldn't have been as surprised as she was when it actually happened.  It was two weeks after Bernard's funeral and a week and a half before Christmas when she was standing in the kitchen preparing dinner.

The latest phase in Lacey's distance had been running herself ragged at night.  After one such expedition, she entered the kitchen preceded by Karma who trotted right by Rachel, tongue dragging on the ground, to go find her water bowl.  Lacey liberated a bottled water from the refrigerator.

"Dinner will be ready in about an hour," Rachel said without turning around.

"Not hungry," Lacey responded.  Another new habit had been skipping meals with Molly and Rachel and working in the office instead.

"Sit with us?  Have something to drink anyway?" Rachel prompted, too afraid to look at her partner's face so concentrating instead on chopping the vegetables and not her fingers.


If Rachel had learned anything from nearly a year with the tall dark woman, it was to face things head on and not skirt the issues.  Why her partner was doing it now was beyond her.  So she took it upon herself to force the confrontation and she turned around, facing the sweat covered woman.  "What's wrong lately?  And don't you dare say nothing."

Blue eyes widened in mild shock as she took another swig of water, seemingly savoring the cool liquid.  She shrugged broad shoulders.  "Don't know.  Out of sorts."

"Is it Bernie?"


Silence as they watched each other.  "Is it me or Molly?"

Lacey shook her head wordlessly, looking very much like a trapped animal hoping for an escape route to open up.

"Is it the funeral?  Did that worry you?  Maybe if you just talked about it, worked it out with us."  Rachel ventured slowly and knew immediately by the fire in her lover's eyes that she'd gone too far.

"Dammit, Rachel," she growled.  "Everything is not solved by a good cry and a carton of chocolate ice cream."

"I know that, Lace," Rachel said softly.  "I just want to help you.  I don't like how we've been lately."

"Sorry.  Didn't want to mess up your perfect little world by being a bitch," Lacey barked, slamming the water bottle on the counter.  She realized her anger was completely disproportionate to the discussion at hand but she found herself unable to control it.

"Lace, c'mon," Rachel cajoled gently, putting down the vegetables and knife, taking a step closer.

"Fuck you!" the ex-mafia crony growled, appearing every bit the frightening woman of years past.

Rachel blinked at her in momentary shock.  Though she'd seen Lacey angry on many occasions, she'd never had the privilege of being the target of it.

"Maybe I just need to be alone.  Didja think of that?  Maybe I don't need you pestering me or a little girl following me around.  Maybe I need-"

"Do you want us to go?" Rachel interrupted, her own anger rising even as some part of her mind wandered back to what kind of jobs she could apply for to support her and her daughter.  One thing was certain, she wasn't giving up Molly again.  Another part of her was breaking at the thought that Lacey didn't want her anymore.

"Something needs to change.  I'm not a damn babysitter.  That wasn't part of the deal-" her tirade stopped mid sentence and the sapphire eyes that had been blazing with fury a moment before dulled to ashamed guilt.

Rachel's own eyes widened with realization as she spun around to look behind her at the doorway leading into the dining room.  Molly stood uncertainly with one hand on the doorjamb and her weight shifting from foot to foot.

Rachel stepped back so she might better be able to look at both of them.  She knew it was up to her to diffuse this situation.  Her dark lover was on the brink of something that Rachel couldn't understand or fathom and her own daughter was very close to tears if her trembling lower lip was any indication.

She extended a hand to each of them.  "Okay, we need to talk."

But Molly turned and ran through the dining room and up the spiral stairs, her sobs audible as she fled.

"Shit," muttered Rachel as she turned back to her lover who, for the first time in months, looked like she was going to cry.  "I gotta go to her."

Lacey nodded dumbly.  "Raich, I didn't ... I said ...  I love her so much.  And you."

"Oh, baby," Rachel murmured.  "I know.  It's okay."  She really did understand that Lacey was on a short fuse and though she'd said some pretty hurtful things, there was a good chance she hadn't meant them.  It was, after all, Rachel who had pushed even after seeing the dark woman's anger.

She didn't have a lot of time to consider all these thoughts as she left the kitchen to follow her daughter up the stairs and to her room.

Rachel entered slowly, surrounded by moonlit darkness but so used to the bright cheery bedroom that she could picture it even now in its shadows and shrouds.  On the walls there were horse and dog posters.  There was even a picture of Rachel and Molly in the winner's circle with one of Vinnie's colts.  That photograph was the child's pride and joy and Lacey'd had it mounted and framed beautifully.  Shelves lined the walls about a foot down from the ceiling and held prancing model horses, each one with a specific place and name.  Lacey had helped her build stables and pens for them that were stored under the bed.  Rachel had stayed up late sewing blankets, halters, coolers, and leg wraps.  It was a room that shouted little girl all the way from the horse bedside lamp to the dolls on the frilly pink pillow sham.

But now the dolls were strewn on the floor and Molly had wrapped herself around her favorite teddy bear where she cried into his worn brown fur with heaving sobs.  Rachel crawled onto the soft queen bed beside her and covered the shuddering body with her own.

"Easy," she murmured.  "Slow down or you're going to be sick, baby."

"Sorry," she heaved, nearly hyperventilating.  "Lace ... I ... must be bad for her not to love me."  Each syllable was strangled out between sobs and Rachel felt her heart tear at the words.  "I ruined it Mama.  Without me she would love you."

"Oh, baby," Rachel whispered, rocking the slight form and stroking the little girl's trembling back.  "Lacey loves us just like she always has.  You're just like her own daughter.  If anything happened to Lacey and me, you would still get to visit her."

"She said ... babysitting.  Said I followed her ..."  The heaves were getting worse and Rachel knew she'd have to take the girl to the toilet pretty soon if she didn't calm down.

"Molly, honey, Lacey is really hurting inside.  Bernard was one of her best friends.  She doesn't know how to say goodbye to him.  Sometimes when you hurt so much inside, you say things you don't mean just to try and get rid of the pain.  You say hurtful things because you want someone else to feel as bad as you do.  Lacey was trying to hurt me, not you.  She wanted me to share her sadness but she didn't know how to do that."


"No buts, baby.  She loves you very much.  I know you heard her say some bad things but she didn't mean them, believe me.  Lacey loves you."

The words seemed to work eventually and the sobs calmed but remained.  Then Molly turned over and captured her mother in a fierce hug, holding her tightly, burying her wet face in Rachel's neck.

"I love her, too, Mama.  I never want to say goodbye to her like we had to to Bernard."

Rachel stroked her child's back and smiled that they should share that same emotion.  "Not for a long time, Molly."

They stayed that way in silence for several more beats.  "What say we lay here and calm down for awhile, then we get cleaned up and go downstairs and have dinner with Lacey.  Are you up to that?"

"I think so.  Hold me awhile longer, Mama?"

"I'll hold you forever, sweetheart."


Lacey stood stunned for several long moments after her lover's departure.  Oh my God, what have I done?  She'd been battling with herself for weeks because half of her wanted to push Rachel and Molly away to safety while the other half wanted to hold them near and protect them.  She'd been hiding the threats from her younger partner for the better part of a month but she had to admit she'd all but lost it when Bernard had been killed.  She'd known from the moment she'd found out that it was no accident.  And George hadn't left to start his own company, he'd run away to protect himself and his family.

The team should have known it wouldn't be so easy to walk away from organized crime.  Maybe they had suspected it but had decided it was worth the risk.  Lacey'd dragged the fair-haired woman and her beautiful daughter along with her on her journey of leaving behind the only life she'd known.  Now the people Lacey loved most in the world were in danger as well.
Gathering her senses and trying hard not to wallow in guilt, the dark woman fought both the urge to run out the door and disappear and the urge to climb the steps to hold the little girl.  She knew Rachel was better at these kinds of things and would smooth it over as best she could.  It was in Lacey's best interest not to go up there and insert her foot into her mouth ... again.

So she finished chopping the vegetables Rachel had left and bagged and refrigerated them all, plus the other fixings that had been on the counter.  Then she cleaned up the remaining dishes and called for a pizza before finally going upstairs to take a long awaited shower.

Lacey was barely under the hot stream long enough to soap up and rinse off the dried sticky sweat before she was winding long dark hair into a wet braid and pulling on flannel pants and a T-shirt.  Then she was walking down the plush carpet of the hallway to Molly's room.

She stood just inside the door, watching the profile of her lover and the little girl, wrapped tightly around each other.  At first she thought they'd fallen asleep until she caught a glint of green eyes reflecting the gentle moonlight coming through the window.

"Molly," Rachel whispered, nudging at her daughter's still form.  She'd known the little girl was still awake but in that hazy exhausted state that always follows a hard cry.  "Lacey's here."

Molly moved from her mother and turned to look at the dark woman standing in the doorway.  She wiped at her tears with the back of her hand before crawling across the bed and landing lightly on the floor.  Then she took a few tentative steps towards the woman.

Unable to handle the little girl's uncertainty, Lacey stepped forward and swooped her into the air, crushing her in an embrace.  She felt the thin bare legs wrap around her midriff and the little girl's hot breath on the side of her neck.

"I love you, Molly.  I said horrible horrible things and I didn't mean them.  I was scared and sad and worried."

Molly clung to this woman as if a remora feeding on the skin of a shark.  Her whole being was concentrating on the effort it took to absorb the warm body she'd latched on to.  She couldn't speak in response but Lacey knew from the deathgrip that she was being forgiven.  It was something she hadn't deserved and certainly wouldn't have expected.  She'd said plenty of hateful things in her life, meant less than half of them probably.  Had Rachel been the only one to hear the words they would have sparred for a few more minutes and then backed to neutral corners with minor wounds.

The walls had ears.  They were raising a small child together and it had been completely irresponsible of her to revert to the darkness she'd hidden so well.

The upstairs speakers announced the chiming of the doorbell and Rachel rose from her position on the bed to glance quizzically at her lover.

"Pizza," Lacey explained concisely and Rachel nodded, moving past the two headed, four legged creature in the doorway.

She stopped before leaving to place a kiss on each head.  "We're okay," she promised them.  "We just need to talk through some things and understand each other."

The other two nodded mutely and Rachel left them to their few moments of silence as she went downstairs to find the checkbook and relieve the delivery guy of their dinner.

Rachel could tell that Lacey wasn't going to reveal anything over dinner.  The dark woman's mood was somber and resolute, her sapphire eyes reflected guilt when she glanced at either of them.

Molly, showing the natural mood swings she'd always been prone to, bounced back rather quickly.  She chatted animatedly about a kid at school and how he'd talked back to the teacher.  She was prompted through the story by Rachel's inquiries while Lacey watched the two silently.

It was hours later before Rachel had a chance to get Lacey alone.  They'd put Molly to bed with Karma tucked neatly over her feet and said their goodnights.

"Come to the barn with me?" Rachel asked her lover gently, casting eyes her direction and trying to gauge the dark woman's present mood.

"Sounds good," Lacey gave in easily.  She knew they needed to discuss things and the barn was a good place to do it in case the conversation became heated again.

The night air was brisk and cold as they walked through the backyard and opened the gate out the back, allowing them access to the barn beyond.  The horses whinnied when they heard the yard gate open and close.

"You already ate," Rachel called back to them, stepping into the structure behind her partner.  The barn had four box stalls on one side, the other being taken up by a tack room and hay storage.  Though not heated, the several tons of hay and three warm horse bodies lent to keeping the building bearable.  Rachel shrugged out of her winter jacket and took a seat on a convenient hay bale.  Lacey did the same.

Both women silently watched the horses watching them.  There were three right now.  Sunny had moved in to stay but occasionally had visiting mares from the main barn at Briargate as was the case now.  The third horse was Molly's Morgan gelding, bought several months ago from a training barn near Rochester.  Molly had wanted a mare but Rachel decided the logistics of keeping a stallion and a mare in the same barn year round just weren't worth the trouble.  The little girl had been happy regardless and Jester had come home to stay as an early Christmas present of sorts.

Rachel smiled at the Morgan's inquisitive gaze and bright eyes.  He was typical to the breed in his continuous desire for handouts.

"So," Lacey said at last, heaving a sigh and smiling slightly.  Sensitive chats had never been her strong suit though she was getting better since Rachel had become such an important part of her life.

"Yup," Rachel responded.  She watched her partner quietly for several more moments, noticing her lips were drawn thin and her jaw clenched and unclenched rhythmically.  "If I asked you some questions, would you answer them?"

"Calmly?" Lacey inserted wryly, turning to the younger woman and raising a dark eyebrow clear into her bangs.

Rachel smiled gently, shrugged one shoulder.  "Or not, I can take it."  She left the rest unspoken, knowing it wasn't necessary to discuss the argument that had happened earlier and the danger of saying hurtful things when a third party might be around.

Lacey nodded slowly, grateful for what had gone unsaid.  She was still kicking herself for losing control of her emotions.  "Shoot."

"Is Bernard's death bothering you?"

"Yes," Lacey nodded honestly, turning her attention away from seeking green eyes towards the towering hay behind them.  She remembered the hot day in August when they'd filled this barn.  George, Bernard, two workers from the farm where they'd bought it, Rachel, and Lacey had slaved the afternoon away taking the tons of hay from the flatbed and stacking it in here.  The horses had drooled with hope and Molly had hopped from bale to bale and climbed the mountain with abandon until they yelled at her to get down and clean the stalls.  Lacey smiled fondly at the memory.

"Are you feeling mortal at having lost such a close friend or is there more to it?"

"More," Lacey met the woman's eyes.

A year ago the monosyllabic answers would have bothered the younger woman but she took it in stride now.  She nodded, pursing her lips in thought as she considered her next questions.  "Do you feel trapped here with us?  With a regular job?"

Lacey rubbed the back of her neck and stood up to begin pacing.  "No.  Well ... that's not it, though."

"Go on."

"I do feel a little trapped, you know?  I'm not used to being responsible for a family and worrying about things like who'll be home when and dinner and homework.  Grocery shopping."

Rachel swallowed back her fear.  She needed to know these answers, even though she didn't want to hear them.  "You've been alone a long time," she allowed softly.  "It's a big adjustment."

Lacey shrugged, stopped to play with a bridle hanging on the tack room door.  "You were alone, too."

Rachel smiled.  "Yeah, but I didn't want to be.  You were by choice."

"This is everything you've always wanted?" Lacey moved one hand to take in their surroundings.

The blonde considered the question for several long moments.  She knew what the answer was: she'd never been happier until Bernie's death.  It was the family she'd always wanted, horses in her backyard, classes that challenged yet rewarded her, a lover who was attentive and brilliant and warm, and her little girl living with them full time.  But Lacey had to make decisions based on of her own wants and needs, not the people around her.

"I'm really happy, Lace," she answered at last, realizing it didn't answer the question directly but hoping it was enough at the moment.

Lacey nodded, took up pacing again.

Rachel watched for several more silent moments before she took a deep breath and cleared her throat.  "Lace, I know you love Molly as if she were your own," she waited just the split second it took for the dark-haired woman to nod her agreement.  "I want you to know that ... regardless of what may happen to us ... you're a big part of Molly's life.  And I'd want you to be able to still see her if you wanted.  I'd like you to, in fact.  You two are good for each other."

The other woman turned and gaped with wide eyes and dropped chin.  It suddenly dawned on her where this conversation was headed and she didn't like the route or the destination much at all.  She recalled quickly her words in the kitchen: Rachel's questions and her own heated responses.  "I didn't-"

The blonde interrupted her with a raised hand.  "If you want us to leave for awhile, if you need some space, I can do that.  Molly and I can find some place to live ... I think the horses would have to stay or go back to Briargate.  But I think-"

"Stop."  Lacey finally shook herself out of her stupor and interrupted the younger woman.  Jade eyes looked up at her from the hands they'd been studying.  "That's not what I want."  Then fear gripped her.  "Is that what you want?"

"No," Rachel shook her head adamantly.  "But I want you to be happy, Lace.  I know you never thought in a million years you'd have a family and a dog and be worried about spelling tests or math homework.  You never thought you'd be taking a nine year old to dental appointments or arranging your schedule around her needs.  It was too much to ask of you.  And I can tell that you're not happy."

Lacey wrinkled her brow, confused again.  "I want this, Raich.  I love you and that little girl.  Sometimes it's overwhelming and sometimes I get pretty scared or I worry too much.  I'm so busy trying to figure out how to protect both of you and I think that if it weren't for me, you wouldn't need protection."

"Protection?  From what, Lace?"  Rachel had the eerie feeling they were finally getting close to the heart of the matter.

Lacey took a deep breath, met her lover's gentle gaze, and exhaled slowly.  "Bernard wasn't an accident."

Rachel chuckled with relief.  She was thinking Lacey was going to drop a bomb on her.  "Of course it was, sweetheart.  Freak accident.  Hit and run outside of the hardware store.  Police thought the driver may have been drunk.  Is that what you're worried about?"

The dark woman moved like lightening across the hay littered floor to kneel in front of her smaller companion and grasp her hands in an almost painful grip.  "No, Raich.  No.  They killed him."

Her reassuring smile faded.  This wasn't Lacey being paranoid.  There was more going on here.  "Who," she choked slightly, had to clear her throat.  "Who killed him?"

"The same person who was sending threats to George.  Who forced him to leave."

"George?  Threats?"

"Yeah," the dark head bobbed in a solemn nod.

"Now's not a good time to ask why you were keeping secrets, huh?" the blonde asked slowly, knowing she should be angry that she was hearing this belatedly.  But she was really too confused to pursue the other emotions right now.

"No.  But I'm sure it'll come up later," Lacey said softly, finding she still had her dry sense of humor.

Rachel considered this new information very sluggishly, running it through the cogwheels of her mind until the obvious clicked into place.  "You've had threats, too."  It wasn't a question but Lacey nodded anyway.  "What?!" Rachel leapt to her feet, pulling her hands away from Lacey's and taking several steps away.  "Who?  What kind of threats?"

"I don't know who.  It's an enemy of Vinnie's I think.  We've been going through old records trying to narrow it down.  But there are so many.  Maybe it's someone who is feuding with Vinnie now and they're just cleaning up loose ends."

"Have you talked to Vinnie?" Rachel calmed slightly and stepped back to Lacey to capture her large hands again.

"Not yet," Still holding hands, Lacey smoothed the back of her fingers along the fair woman's cheek.  "I didn't want to.  I didn't want to have to go back there."

"But?" Rachel prompted, feeling the other woman was leaving some words unsaid.

"It's time to do that."

"They killed him?"

She nodded slowly, watching the green eyes fill with tears.

"What did the threats say, Lace?"

The dark woman quirked her lips into a fair representation of a smirk.  "You don't want to know, really."

"About me and Molly?"


Thank goodness realization doesn't carry a lot of physical weight behind it because it would have knocked Rachel over when it hit her.  "You wanted us to be with you but were afraid that being with you was endangering our lives.  You were trying to push us away..." she trailed off, watching the confirmation of her words in the sapphire eyes opposite her.

"But I couldn't in the end.  Even if it was better for you.  I didn't want to be alone again ... I didn't want to be without you," the words were nearly forced from the dark woman's mouth.  Admitting needs had never been a strong point for her but she knew, without a doubt, all of that had changed when this young woman had bounced into her life.  They'd shared such intense emotions that first month, shared thoughts and feelings Lacey had never let herself voice before.  In the months since then, the darker woman had been more verbally withdrawn but every kind action and every smoldering look let Rachel know that she was wanted.

It was nice to hear it sometimes, too.  The young blonde stepped forward to wrap her companion in strong arms.  "We're right here."

"I thought maybe I could do it.  After Bernie's funeral when I knew they were serious," the words were in monotone as they tumbled forth, the dam having shattered beneath the force of her need to finally get it out.

"I'm glad you didn't," Rachel whispered, knowing her words weren't nearly as important as her touch and her love.

"And tonight I thought ... I was so scared and worried.  It's been building up.  I just snapped.  I lost control and yelled at you."

"It doesn't matter."

"I thought that if I hurt you enough you would leave.  And it would be easier for you to hate me.  For you to leave me."

Though stunned by the admissions flowing into her ear, Rachel continued her gentle murmuring.  "I could never hate you."

"I shouldn't have said those things.  As hard as the instant family has been at times, I don't regret it.  The rewards outweigh any trouble."

"I know you didn't mean them."

"Does Molly know?" silent tears tracked their way down Lacey's olive-toned skin as she asked the question.

"She does.  It hurt her a lot, but I think she understands.  Just make an extra effort to tell her how much she means to you.  She's pretty forgiving."

Lacey nodded, crushed the smaller body to her. "If you weren't in my heart, it would collapse from being empty."

Rachel smiled, squeezed her lover back.  "We won't let that happen.  You ready to go inside?"

"Yeah," she wiped at her tears and moved out of the embrace where she'd regained some strength.  "I love you," she whispered sincerely, her ice blue eyes reflecting some of her shock at being so easily forgiven.

"I love you, too, Lace.  C'mon."  They shrugged their jackets back on and walked to the house hand in hand.


It was the Thursday before Molly's Christmas break and it had taken nearly all of Lacey's patience and control to get the small girl ready for school and in the Grand Cherokee.  Lacey had been taking Molly to school and picking her up since well before Bernie's death.  And though her lover had noticed and questioned her, she'd just shrugged and said she didn't like the idea of Molly standing at a cold bus stop.  Rachel had accepted the answer readily enough and thought it touching that her partner and daughter spent that time together.  This morning, Molly's reluctance was borne of her readiness for the two weeks without homework or tests.  She'd dragged her feet until Lacey'd nearly picked her up and tossed her in the running vehicle, driving the few short blocks to the private school she and Rachel had picked out.

That had been another debate between the two women in the summer.  Lacey wanted Molly to have the best opportunities and when she'd researched the public school district their zoning fell into, she was disappointed with the results.  That's when she'd started looking into private schools.  The one she'd liked best was close and academically sound.  Rachel, though very much interested in the idea of a school that would better attend to her daughter's needs, was loathe to spend the kind of money the private tuition demanded.  It took a lot of fast talking on Lacey's part to get Rachel to submit the application and then attend the ensuing interviews until the girl was accepted.   After that, Lacey was sure to intercept and pay the bills before Rachel had a chance to look at them.

Now, nearing lunchtime, Lacey was cooking something for Rachel.  Her own business had been slow during this holiday month and she'd had time to be home a lot though she'd not taken advantage of it up until these last few days after their talk in the barn.  She enjoyed getting Molly ready for school, most mornings having been easier than this one, and letting her lover study.  Rachel had been upstairs preparing for a final since late last night.

"Raich, honey?" Lacey called up the spiral stairs.  "Lunch is almost ready.  Come down and eat something before you go."

When Rachel entered the kitchen several minutes later, she looked weary and exhausted.

"You should have slept some," Lacey reprimanded gently, steering the blonde to a chair at the kitchen table then presenting her with soup and a sandwich.

"Too much to study."

"You'll be tired for your exam," Lacey said reasonably, filling a large mug with coffee and fixing it to her lover's preference of sugar and cream.  When she sat the mug down it barely hit the wood of the table before it was in Rachel's hands.  The smaller woman chugged the coffee like it was necessary to sustain life.  Lacey smirked.  "Would you like your caffeine intravenously, love?"

"Smart ass," Rachel murmured before beginning her meal.

Lacey sat opposite her, taking a bite out of her own sandwich.  "You'll be fine.  You know this stuff a lot better than you give yourself credit for."

"I wish I didn't have to take the sciences, too, to get a literature degree," the blonde mumbled around a mouthful of ham and cheese.

"They want you to be well rounded.  You'll be fine."

"The professor is letting us use an index card with formulas on it.  I didn't think I could write so small."

The dark-haired woman grinned.  "But will you be able to read it as bleary eyed as you are?"

Rachel nodded, spared her partner a smile.  "Yeah.  How was Molly this morning?  Sounded like she was giving you a hard time."

Lacey shrugged, sipped at her coffee with much less gusto than her blonde companion.  "She was okay.  I had to light a fire under her though to get her going.  She's all starry eyed for the holidays, doesn't want to be in school."

"I still need to get that game for her we'd talked about.  Maybe I can find it today after the exam."

Lacey nodded.  "Raich, do you think she's happy at school?"

The blonde stopped with the spoon halfway to her mouth and cocked her head, wondering what may have brought on such a question.  "I think so, why?"

"Does she ever talk to you about friends or doing things after school?  She never has anyone over."

Rachel thought about that for a moment before shaking her head.  She hadn't really realized that a child her age should be doing those things.  This was her first stab at full time parenting, after all.  "Her grades are good."

The darker woman shrugged broad shoulders, "So.  That's not everything and you know it.  She should have friends."

"Maybe she does and just doesn't talk about them."

Lacey snorted her laughter.  "Are you kidding, Raich?  That little girl doesn't shut up.  Why would we not hear about friends."

Rachel acceded the point with a grin.  "Well, what about that boy she was talking about the other night?  The one who talked back to the teacher and got in trouble?"

"I think that was a factual reporting, love."

"Okay.  Then how do we help her?"  Rachel scraped the rest of the soup off the bottom of her bowl before returning to her coffee mug and emptying the contents.

"I don't know.  Is there a pony club or something she could do?  Youth riding groups?  She's really good at that and she has her own horse, maybe that would help?"

Rachel nodded in thought, searching her mind for anything she'd heard along those lines.  "I'll work on that."  She got up and rinsed out her bowl in the sink before placing it in the dishwasher.  Her plate followed and then she retrieved Lacey's dishes to do the same.  "After this test."


"Thanks for lunch, I feel better now."

"Good," Lacey came up to the smaller woman and wrapped her in long arms.  "You'll do fine.  Go kick some butt."

The blonde grinned and squeezed the hard body tightly against her.  "Thanks.  See you guys just before dinner, probably.  I'll call otherwise."

Rachel's departure left Lacey to wander around the house listlessly.  She didn't like having so much time on her hands, never having to deal with that in her previous job.  She decided to surprise her lover and cleaned the horse stalls, dumping the manure in the pit well away from the house and laying fresh shavings.  She was filling the water buckets when the phone rang on the barn wall.  She turned off the water and jogged over before the answering machine in the house picked up.


"Hello, is Mrs. Wilson there?" the tinny voice asked.

Lacey decided not to correct her on the title she'd bestowed Rachel and instead answered negatively.  "No, she's not.  Is there something I could help you with?"

"Umm ... this is Creekside Elementary calling-"

"Is Molly okay?" Lacey interrupted, fear gripping at her.  She'd been worried enough about the threats to be delivering Molly to and from school, and having someone follow Rachel while she was on campus, but maybe these actions hadn't been enough.  Her heart leapt into her throat.

"No, no, no," the woman said hastily.  "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you.  Molly's fine.  We've had a little disciplinary incident and, well, we need someone to come pick her up.  She's been suspended."

"Suspended?" Lacey repeated, shocked.

"Yes.  Could you get a hold of her mother?"

Lacey considered paging Rachel and pulling her away from the exam but realized immediately that this was part of taking responsibility for her lover and the child.  "I'm a legal guardian," Lacey responded.  "I'll come get her."

"Uhh," the woman seemed at a loss.  "We'll need the paperwork to prove that to release her to you.  And a picture identification."

"No problem," the dark woman responded.  "I'm on my way, we live about ten minutes out."

"Great.  Thank you."

She made sure the stall doors were secured into the barn and open into the paddocks beyond before going to the house and washing up quickly.  "What did you do, Molly-girl," she muttered to herself while searching for her keys.

Surely her own elementary school hadn't been this small, thought the dark-haired woman as she parked the Grand Cherokee and made her way past the flagpole and to the sign for the main office.  Though she'd been to the school countless times to pick Molly up and drop her off, she'd never been inside the small building.  It had been Rachel who'd attended back to school nights and parent teacher conferences.
She'd barely opened the door to let herself inside the large glass room when Molly propelled her little body across the carpeted floor and into the tall woman's body.

"Hey, hey," she soothed gently, picking the girl up and holding her close.  Pretty soon Molly would be way too big to hold like this and Lacey found herself dreading that day.  "What happened?"

Apparently Molly was beyond tears, whether she'd already shed them or didn't have them to spare, Lacey didn't know.  Regardless, the little girl just held her silently, resting her head on a strong shoulder.

"Do you think you could tell me what's going on, baby?"

The secretary watched the two silently.  Lacey guessed this woman had made the call and nodded to her, taking a step closer.  She extended a hand.  "Lacey Montgomery."

"Abby Pritchard, Administrative Assistant.  Principal Walters has a few moments if you'd like to discuss the issue."

"Sure.  In fact, I'd love to know what the issue is," Lacey responded, retrieving her hand to better distribute the child's weight.

"Called Mama and you dykes," Molly murmured.

Lacey's blue eyes widened in surprise.  "Ah.  Who did, baby?"

"Stupid sixth graders.  Onna playground."

Lacey nodded, pursing her lips in thought.  She met Abby's curious gaze with a smirk and a shrug.  "Can I get the whole story or am I gonna have to pry it out of you?"

Molly sighed heavily, never moving from her position.  "Talking about Christmas and what we got our parents.  I told them what I got Mama and what I got you.  They asked who you were.  And I told them."

"What did you say?"

"That you and Mama were my parents.  That you were like my dad but not my dad, more like another mom.  Then they asked me some questions about if you guys did things like hold hands and kiss like their parents did and I said yes.  Was that wrong?" the little girl finally pushed away to meet Lacey's blue eyes, so much like her own.

"No, honey.  But I have the feeling we're coming up to the wrong part.  Keep going."

"He said you were dykes."

"We covered that.  And?"

She sighed, laid her head back on the woman's shoulder.  "And I punched him in the nose as hard as I could."

Ah ha.  Lacey nodded, trying not to smirk, knowing this was serious.  She set Molly on the counter that divided them from the attentive administrative assistant and cupped her cheeks.  "Molly-girl, we are dykes, honey.  Not a great word choice for grade schoolers, but true.  You hitting him for saying that was like if he were to hit you for telling him that we're your parents."

"But he was mean," now the tears did come.  "He was mean about it.  He said it like a curse word."

"Sweetie, I'm sorry it hurts so bad.  But you're going to have to learn that you'll face this over and over again.  We talked about this a little before school started."

She nodded numbly, pale eyelashes wet and clinging together, making them seem darker than their normal light blonde.  "But they don't know you, how could they hate you?"

"Because they don't know us.  Because it's different and people are afraid of different things.  You have to make decisions on how you're going to handle it, baby.  If you want to just not talk about it or tell the truth.  But either way, hitting someone is wrong.  You shouldn't have punched him."

"I know," she murmured eyes studying the floor between her swinging feet.

"What should you have done?" Lacey pressed the issue, her face inches from the child's, the weight of her upper body resting on hands planted on the counter at either side of the girl's slim hips.

"Shoulda walked away.  Doesn't matter what he thinks of you cuz I love you."

Lacey smiled and tugged the girl into an embrace.  "Good.  Remember that next time.  No matter what they say or do, you come home to us and we love you."

Principal Walters stepped out of his office to see the two women and the child.  He looked to his assistant who smiled warmly at him, touched by the affection displayed between woman and child.

"Uh, Ms. Montgomery, Principal Walters is available now."

Lacey looked up at Abby's voice and met the man's eyes.  He was younger than she expected though she suspected her preconceived idea was because her own principal had looked so old when she was nine.  She set Molly on the floor and squatted in front of her.  "You stay with Mrs. Pritchard, I'll just be a few minutes, okay?"

The child nodded glumly.

"Then we'll go home.  Maybe we need to talk about some things you can say or do to help people understand?"

She nodded again.

"I love you, baby.  Go siddown."

Principal Walters was struck immediately by the beauty of this woman.  She was easily six feet tall with long raven black hair pulled into a thick braid.  Her eyes were the iciest blue he'd ever seen and she carried herself with a quiet confidence he envied.  She was tender with the child, her love obvious to anyone who cared to see it, but turned into a businesswoman when she faced him.  She was obviously a woman of great bearing, maybe having schooled her expressions for boardrooms.  Though this day's outfit of jeans and button flannel shirt over a turtleneck spoke of a softer soul who'd never been on the inside track of the corporate world.

"Please, sit down," he motioned to a chair by his desk before moving to claim his own seat.  "Do you know why we're here?"

"Yes," she responded politely.  "Molly explained the situation to me.  Do you understand it fully?"

He was surprised by her question and tilted his head, clearing his throat awkwardly.  "Umm ... Gary Nelson called her mother a ... uh ... dyke.  She punched him."

"Well, that would be the short version, yes," Lacey smiled softly.  "But the longer version would be that we are, indeed, same sex partners and Molly's learning to deal with the prejudices behind that."

He was startled by her honesty and nodded.  "She punched him."

"Yes, she did.  And I'm glad you called me and I'm glad she's being reprimanded for it.  I just want you to understand her a little bit.  Maybe schools need to work on some tolerance issues as part of the educational curriculum."

He nodded.  "Ms. Montgomery-"

"Lacey, please."  No one had ever called her by her last name.  Her previous position as Vinnie's right hand had warranted her first name notoriety.

He smiled politely, inclined his head.  "Lacey, we do have programs that deal with tolerance of sexual preferences and racial differences.  Try as we might, however, we can't always convince everyone especially if their home teachings are different."

She nodded at the validity of the statement.

"Molly is a very special little girl.  She's smart as a whip, does all her work, works hard to please everyone.  The other kids don't know how to deal with her anyway and she doesn't appear to be interested in any of them.  She keeps to herself.  Frankly, I'm surprised this situation even arose because I've never seen her speak with other children on the playground.  Usually she sits under a tree and reads a book all recess."

The dark woman knew Molly was a voracious reader but it hadn't dawned on her to question how the little girl finished her books so quickly.  "Do you think they came to her to provoke her?"

"No, I don't think so.  Unfortunately, I think she's pretty excited about the holiday and actually ventured out on her own to be a part of the conversation.  The sixth graders were sitting at a table not far from her tree."

Lacey sighed, rubbed her temples.  Poor Molly.  "So she finally decides to get herself involved and this is what happens.  They ridicule the people she loves most in the world."

He nodded.  "I understand why she did what she did, Lacey.  But I am forced to respond appropriately.  I'm sorry."  His dark eyes appeared to show genuine compassion for Molly and her plight.

The tall woman shrugged, blinked impossibly blue eyes at him.  "How long is she suspended?"

"Today and tomorrow.  Hopefully after the long holiday break things will have simmered down.  Gary's parents were in earlier and picked him up.  He's bruised and a little bloody, but nothing serious.  They, however, weren't as understanding as I would have liked."

Lacey sat up straight, suddenly concerned.  "Did they speak with her?  The parents?"  Molly had a lot of respect for adults and they could have wounded her badly with harmful words.

"No," he assured her immediately, raising placating hands to the woman before him.  "Molly was with the nurse's assistant in the first aid office when they came.  We didn't want them to meet her, didn't think it was in her best interests."

Lacey relaxed back into the chair, shifted her weight and crossed her legs.  "Why did you wait to call us?"

He smiled gently.  "We weren't sure it was in the parents' best interests to meet at this stage either.  Gary needed to be attended to first since he was bleeding."

She nodded silently, accepting that reasoning.  "Were you ever worried about her not being involved with her peers?"  Lacey realized it was ironic that she and Rachel had discussed this exact thing over lunch.

"Not really.  We worry if they seem withdrawn or anti-social.  But she's a well adjusted little girl.  She's remarkably well behaved and appears quite normal in the way she deals with children and adults.  She just prefers to be alone."  He shrugged.  "We can't begrudge her that."

"Do you think she's lonely?" Lacey asked softly, hesitantly.  She'd always been a loner as a child and often wished for more: friends to confide in, other girls to laugh with.  She remembered many lonely days on the playground.  She imagined that Molly's own mother had been a social butterfly.  Rachel was gregarious and outgoing, quick witted and charming.

The man raised dark bushy eyebrows in thought.  "I don't get that impression, no.  We do try to keep up with the children and give them the best environment we can."

Lacey nodded, believing his words and appreciating his understanding attitude.  "Did anyone know before today about her mother and me?"

"Before today?  I doubt it.  We didn't know, her teacher didn't know.  But I really think it's because she's never said, not because she's hiding it.  She just didn't think it was an important detail.  Usually we learn about families in kindergarten and first grade when they're drawing and coloring pictures.  We know what to expect and maybe can help head off problems.  We never had reason to know with Molly, her age group doesn't draw family portraits."

"Am I on her paperwork as a contact?"

"I don't know, let's go see."

Molly still sat in the outer office, seemingly swallowed by the large chair she'd chosen.  Her thin jean clad legs swung back and forth, unable to reach the ground.  The small girl had inherited Rachel's height and was shorter than most of her age group.  Lacey only remembered that when seeing her around other children, or when she seemed to disappear in furniture.  Molly looked up hopefully and the dark woman recognized the pained expression she wore.  She was so nervous she was borderline being sick.  Like mother like daughter.

"One more minute, baby," Lacey assured her from across the room.  "If you need to go to the bathroom, you can and I'll meet you there."  She glanced to the other adults quickly, pleading with her eyes that they allow the child this small dignity.  Throwing up in the main office in front of the principal with the glass walls displaying her crime would be hard on her.

They nodded their approval though they appeared confused.  Molly was on her feet and flying down the hallway before anything else was said.

"Uhh," Principal Walters started stupidly.

Lacey half smiled at him.  "She throws up when she's nervous or worked up.  Her mother's the same way."

"That's another good thing to know," Abby murmured, pulling out the small girl's file and annotating it.

Principal Walters took it from her when she was finished and flipped through the paperwork in it.  "We do have you here as a legal guardian."

Lacey nodded.  It had been a big step but a necessary one.  Rachel'd wanted Lacey to have some control in case something happened to her.  Being a legal guardian made adoption procedures easier.  Neither had doubted that if Rachel were to die, Lacey would raise Molly on her own.

"We still do require a picture ID, though," he stated softly.  "For the safety of the children.  I don't mean to offend you."

She shrugged; she wasn't offended.  It was a relief really that anyone couldn't walk in and claim her child.  She stopped mid thought.  She'd never actually allowed herself to call Molly hers.  A few more words were exchanged as she showed her driver's license and then repocketed it.  Principal Walter suggested that both Rachel and Lacey meet with Molly's teacher after the holidays, to which Lacey easily agreed.

Then she got directions to the restroom and went to retrieve the little girl.

"Molly-girl," she called gently into the echoing tiled room.

"I'm here," she emerged from the handicapped stall, her eyes red rimmed both from the exertion of being sick and from crying.

"C'mere, let's get you cleaned up and then we'll go home."  The tall woman moistened a paper towel and wiped at the little girl's face.  She was ready to leave when a bell rang and they heard voices in the hall.

Molly looked up at her.  "Afternoon recess."

"Do you want to stay here until they're gone?" Lacey offered gently.

Molly shook her head, smiled shyly.  "Will you hold my hand?"

They walked down the hallway through the swarm of children, Molly's small hand securely gripped in Lacey's larger one.  Children stopped to stare as any strange adult in the halls was new and different, especially since they recognized Molly as the girl who'd bloodied a sixth grader's nose.  Most of them also knew why.

One little girl stepped up beside them and stopped.  "Hi Molly," she said softly.  She had carrot red hair and bright blue eyes.  Her fair skin was freckled.

"Hi Lauren," Molly responded, gripping tightly to Lacey's hand.  They stopped their progression as well and Lacey knelt down on one knee to be on the same level as the girls.

The two children stared awkwardly at each other and Lacey wondered what she should say to ease the obvious tension when Lauren spoke first.

"Is this your other Mom?"

Molly merely nodded, looking to Lacey to find strength and acceptance of that title in her sapphire gaze.  It was there and she drew on it.

"I'm Lacey," the dark woman offered her hand after prying it from Molly's grip.  Lauren shook it in a grown up way.

Then she leaned forward and touched a small hand to Molly's arm.  "No one knows," she whispered.  "But I had two Dads.  My other Dad got really sick and died last year.  We miss him."

Lacey's heart reached out to this little girl, laying it all on the line to offer Molly some support.  She'd kept her secret pretty well apparently.  Either that or Molly wasn't the prying conspirator her mother was.

"The other kids might make fun of you.  But I never will."

Molly met her classmate's eyes.  "I'm sorry about your other dad."

"Me too," she nodded.  "Thank you."

"Can we ... maybe play after Christmas?"

Lauren smiled.  "I'd like that."

A slow grin crossed Molly's face.  "Have a Merry Christmas, Lauren."

The halls had all but emptied and Lauren backed away towards the door leading to the playground.  "You too.  Bye Molly, bye Miss Lacey."

When Lacey looked to the little girl's face, she thought Molly's smile might take sail and lift her away it was so huge.  She grinned back.  "Let's go, Squirt."


It was just after six when Karma heard the Wrangler before the garage door opener even sounded.  Though Rachel didn't park in the garage, she always came through that way.  The little Siberian Husky stood at the kitchen door, wagging her bushy tail and whining her greeting, warming up for the chorus of woos and howls that was sure to follow.  Molly was sitting at the table reading a book while Lacey was working on dinner.

Rachel burst in and dropped her book bag to hug the overzealous dog who vocalized her satisfaction with life.  Then she looked up to the rest of the kitchen's inhabitants as she closed the door behind her.

"Hey!  How are you guys?  You look great, Lacey," she kissed her lover on the cheek, not wanting to interrupt her food preparations.  "Molly, honey, how was school?"

The whole room seemed to get silent and Karma slinked away.  Molly looked at Lacey with slightly liquid eyes.

"I missed something?" Rachel guessed, not having to use any intuitive skills to reach that conclusion.

Lacey smiled.  "Yeah, we'll fill you in.  Tell us about the test."

Rachel looked from her daughter to her companion and knew something had happened.  But her partner's raised eyebrow asked her to step away from it for now so she gave in.  "It went great.  I stayed a little later so I could wait for the results.  End of the alphabet ... you know.  Anyway, I got an A."  She tried to say it offhandedly but her big grin and sparkling eyes gave her away.

Lacey put down the wooden spatula she's been using to sauté and captured the smaller woman in a hug.  "Good for you, love.  I knew you could do it."

Molly skipped over to get a hug as well.  Her head reached just below Rachel's breasts as she embraced her fiercely, nearly crushing her mother's ribs.  The little girl preferred the whole body elevated hugs that Lacey gave but Rachel couldn't carry the growing girl around like the taller woman could.

"You did good, Mama," she said softly, her warm breath seeping through Rachel's sweatshirt.

"Thank you, baby," she kissed her head.  "One more paper to turn in and I've finished my first semester."

"We're proud of you, Raich," Lacey smiled, rubbing her partner's back affectionately before turning to stir the sautéing vegetables again.

"It takes a good support team, huh?" the blonde tousled her child's hair and led her to the kitchen table where she claimed a chair and pulled Molly into her lap to hug her closer.  "I missed you today."

Molly nodded, wrapped small arms around her mother's neck.  "Missed you, too, Mama."

Rachel was dying to know what was going on.  She glanced back to her partner who shook her head and offered a grin.  It's not so bad, her expression seemed to say.  "During dinner," she mouthed silently.  Rachel nodded.

Molly was grateful that it was Lacey who told of the crime that had been committed.  She was nearly in tears already just from the guilt at disappointing them both.  When the story was finished, Rachel looked quietly at her daughter who refused to meet her gaze.

"Molly, honey?"

"I'll be good next time, Mama," she whispered.

"Oh, sweetie," Rachel said softly, reaching over the table to draw the little girl's chin up.  "It's not a question about being good.  I know you're good.  You couldn't be better.  Lacey and I are blessed by having such a wonderful child with us."

Teary blue eyes looked from her mother to Lacey, finding conviction in both gazes.

"It's a matter of learning to control your temper.  And knowing how to handle things peacefully even when it really hurts inside.  You get that from me, baby.  I have trouble controlling my anger, too."

Lacey snorted, remembering for the first time in months when she'd had to pry a flailing Rachel off of Oz nearly a year ago.  The little blonde had had the scrawny man down and was beating him senseless.

"Hush, crony," Rachel glanced sideways at her smirking partner.  "I'm sorry that it came to that and I'm sorry the boy hurt your feelings.  But I'm not disappointed in you."

"You're not?" Molly asked, almost hopeful.  That had been her biggest fear.  At nine, she did her best to be mature and grown up, to not give Lacey a reason to dislike her or her mother a reason to send her away again.  And then she goes and bloodies up a little boy.  No matter how much he may have deserved it, she would have taken it back in a heartbeat to not have that blemish on her desperately good record.

"No, honey.  How can Lacey and I help you?"

They talked over stir-fry beef and rice about the possibility of a pony club or youth group.  Lacey told Rachel about Lauren and the prospect of the new friend seemed to cheer Molly up greatly.  Then they discussed the more intimate issues of how Molly chose to deal with their sexuality.

"Lauren said no one knew," Molly said softly as they were clearing away the dishes and storing leftovers.

"Well, that was Lauren's choice to make.  You don't have to tell everyone you meet about us, honey.  Maybe just tell close friends or don't tell anyone.  We'll respect whatever you decide."

"You said when I was living with Aunt Helen that it was something to accept, not to shy away from.  Remember?" the little girl looked from her mother to Lacey.  "Remember in the hospital, Lacey?"

"I remember, kiddo.  Do you remember what I told you then?"

"That it didn't matter what they thought you were as long as we know how much you love each other."

"That's right," Lacey praised the youngster's good memory as she rinsed off their dinner dishes and placed them in the dishwasher.  Rachel stood at her side, putting leftovers in small Tupperware containers.

"You said that sometimes it's easier not to say anything.  But they asked me.  And I couldn't lie.  I'm not supposed to lie."

"Ooo boy," Lacey muttered, elbowing Rachel.  "Ball's in your court."  The dark-haired woman took the Tupperware and placed them in the fridge.

"Chicken," the smaller woman murmured back.  "Molly, it wouldn't be lying to say that Lacey was a friend that you cared about very much.  Or to say that she's someone we lived with.  They probably would have let that slide.  You know the truth in your heart."

She seemed to consider this for a very long time, running a damp rag over the kitchen table.  "But I want everyone to know that I have someone who loves me as much as my Mama does.  That's pretty cool, isn't it?" she raised an eyebrow in question and could have been Lacey's daughter by blood with that expression.

"It's really cool, honey.  But if that's what you're going to say to people then you just need to have tougher skin.  Because I think you'll find that most of your classmates aren't going to be thrilled for you."

The child hummed softly in response then went to the sink to rinse out her rag and drape it over the faucet.  "I'm going to go up to my room and read."

"Horses' cleaned yet?" Rachel called to her daughter as the little girl trotted out of the room.

"Yup.  Barn fairy did 'em."  Then she was gone.

"Barn fairy?" Rachel quizzed her companion who shrugged a shoulder.

"Had some time to kill today ... before I got called to the principal's office.  Not my first time in a principal's office, mind you," she grinned rakishly, tugging fondly on Rachel's hair on the way by.

"You know," Rachel said softly, taking a deep breath.  "You could have called me out of class.  I would have come, you didn't need to deal with it."  She flashed back to their conversation a couple of nights ago and Lacey's resentment on some levels of the family role she'd been forced to play.

Lacey knew what she was getting at.  "I didn't mind, gorgeous.  Not at all.  Please believe me when I tell you that the love you guys give me far outweighs the hassles.  I was just frustrated before.  I feel better now."

"Did you talk to Vinnie?" though not completely convinced, the pleading in her lover's eyes convinced Rachel to start a subject change.

"No," she chuckled dryly, holding out a hand to her partner and then leading her into the living room where they snuggled on the white leather sofa.  "Would you believe his right hand is giving me the runaround?"

Rachel laughed, tugging herself securely into the large woman's arms.  These were the best moments of the day.  "His job, right?"

"Yeah ... but this is me.  Robbie knows me.  I'm not sure what's up.  I didn't really get around to pursuing it today."

"Any more threats?"

"No," Lacey murmured, brushing aside her lover's golden mane to nuzzle at her neck.  "Not since before the funeral."

"Any word from George?" Rachel asked softly though her attention was being divided rather quickly.  With her back against Lacey's chest she could feel the dark woman's nipples tighten.  She recalled easily the taste and texture of them beneath her exploring tongue and lips.

"Unh unh."  Lacey's hands wandered under the blonde's sweatshirt, journeying upwards to rub large palms against bra-encased breasts.  She bit an earlobe, causing her lover to gasp and arch her back.

"No more talk," Rachel growled, flipping around to straddle the older woman and capture her mouth with seeking lips.

Lacey chuckled.  "S'okay.  I wasn't all that interested in talking anyway," she muttered between kisses.

More minutes of heated kissing and fondling followed until Rachel was panting, rubbing her body against Lacey's, wanting to be rid of the clothes and feel that silky skin she knew so well.  "Upstairs.  Room.  Locked door," she breathed out, nibbling on Lacey's neck.

"Great idea," her dark lover responded.  Her heavy breathing indicated she was in the same state of no-return arousal.  She stood up, taking the smaller woman with her, and they retreated to the bedroom where they could lock the door and continue their exploration in private.


Continued in Part 2


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