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Forever, Remember? - Cont'd
Turning, Casey resumed walking. After a couple of minutes, she stopped, unconsciously tightening her arm around Beth's waist. Shaded blue eyes landed on the single headstone. "I can't do this!" The specialist moaned silently, drawing closer to her lover. "There is so much I wanted to tell him." Casey spoke softly, hesitantly. "But standing here, I can't. The words won't come."
"How about telling me his name?" Beth prompted gently, heart pounding rapidly, green eyes riveted to her partner's face. Hoping beyond hope she was doing the right thing and not pushing Casey to far, too fast.
"Oh...right." Casey drew a deep, ragged breath. "William James Bennett." An emotional laugh escaped. "His parents were very patriotic. Mom said once that they thought a strong, traditional name would help enforce a sense of duty and purpose." Falling silent, Casey stared at the headstone.
"What do I do? What do I say?" Beth thought quietly, reacting to Casey's body language by resting her head against her lover's shoulder, granting her lover what privacy she could while still maintaining body contact. "Should I try and help her talk through her feelings? God, I have no idea what to do...what to say." A stray thought, one that had never occurred, unwound from deep inside.
"Wonder what Casey thinks of my relationship with my parents? I know every time I have to deal with them, she offers nothing but support, understanding, love. And she always takes my side; always moves to protect me. Yet she's said countless times that she doesn't understand how my parents could treat me like they do. I've always thought it was just my loved protector leaping to my defense. What if it isn't that? Does it bother her that I do have a father, yet I can't...no, Beth, be honest. I won't try to work it out? I am the true coward...I don't want to deal with the probable rejection and pain either. Casey doesn't have that option with her dad. The look on her face when she unwrapped the picture was priceless. So unguarded, so full of emotions...I have never, never looked at my father that way. What I would give to feel that way about mine...to know I was accepted for who I was...to feel his loving arms wrapped comfortably around me, keeping me safe, keeping me whole. That's the memory of her father she should have, should hold in her heart. Nothing and no one can take that away. Maybe that's what I should say." Not sure if she should voice her thoughts, the author settled for moving even closer, wrapping her other arm around her partner's waist. Closing her eyes, Beth simply hung on, offering support and comfort in the only way she was sure wouldn't upset or push her lover. Wanting to be Casey's rock, like Casey was hers. "Just hang on, love...I won't let go."
Blue eyes drilled relentlessly into the black marble stone. Gratefully aware of the love and support radiating from her lover, Casey unconsciously returned her embrace, opened her mind and concentrated, fragments of her past slowly sliding from their carefully tucked corners. "There's so much I want to tell you, but I don't know where to start. I kept up karate, Dad. You were right. It taught me discipline, how to harness and focus my abilities, taught me not to give up. I shudder to think how wild I would have been without all the training, the constant need to stay focused and in control. By the time I was twelve, I was acutely aware of how much physical damage I could inflict if I lost control. You chose well when you picked Master Hung; he instilled in me a healthy respect for what would happen if I ever lost control... that, to my shame, I've lost three times. Along with that, I got a healthy dose of responsibility and an innate sense of justice...of how the strong had a duty to protect. Didn't matter if the protection was physical or emotional. I thought I had it planned perfectly; I could make a difference with both my mind and body. This sense of responsibility was reinforced in college. At first I wanted to help other awkward kids, help them deal with their uncoordinated body and mind. I convinced myself that I was living proof of a successful union of mind and body. Sarah's death changed how I viewed myself. I learned so much about myself in those three months between my first and second year. I found a new skill...one that I excelled at. Even more than karate, if you can belief that. Sarah died at the hands of a serial killer and this brought me into contact with profiling. So sure how I planed to help people changed, but my goal was still the same."
"After college...actually because of college and Sarah, I joined the FBI and became a profiler. I got into peoples' heads, tried to figure out how and why they committed crimes, tried to stop them. I was exceptionally good at this, in part because of my ability to harness my body, my mind. It came at a price though; I lost myself in the madness. For a long time, I've denied this...and blamed Hamilton for my emotional withdrawal. But that's not the whole truth. All I could think about, from the start of my second year of college, was getting to the point where I had the training and power to stop 'the monsters'...nothing else mattered. For me, duty took precedent over everything. The only person who even started to crack my shell was Mark. He simply refused to let me walk away from him. Mom never supported my decision to join the FBI. She blamed my experience in college and to a certain extent, she was right. I learned about profiling the hard way...by personal experience. College became a way to get where I wanted to be...after experience changed me. Even now, I can close my eyes and see Sarah's bloody, beaten body. Mom never recognized, well, she never acknowledged this fact. Never would admit that I had a duty to stop people like Sarah's killer if I could. And I most definitely could. But she couldn't ignore it any longer after I came home for a brief visit after I finished my first profile, my first case."
"Remember our second tournament? When we graduated to the third level? As much as Master Hung helped me find myself, so did you. You said something to me that day as you wrapped my ankle. Anything worth having was worth working for and that everything had a price. Then you told me to always believe in myself. That if I worked hard and gave it my best shot, nothing would be impossible. Those words helped to carry me through many a dark days...from the pains of stretching my rapidly developing body to its limits to sitting in a dark alley, letting the blood and anguish of a heinous crime seep into my being as I struggled to understand to fighting with myself as I was forced to admit that I was wrong, that I needed my Beth. I know you never intended me to use those words against Mom, but I did. Sitting in that room, feeling my carefully constructed walls come under siege, I reacted. Like I'd been trained to do from the age of five. I used the weapons at hand...my agile mind and self-confidence. To my shame, I went on the offensive."
"I was so full of righteous energy, I said things I shouldn't of. Told her that I wasn't important, that my personal life and obligations took a back seat to my profession. Mom finally confessed she saw something in me that she didn't like, that she couldn't support. For the first time, she told me I had to make a choice. I could either be a whole, healthy person...her daughter...the person I'd led her to believe I was before Sarah. Or I could continue being the driven, emotionless person I had become. And choose I did. I just got up and walked out, so damn sure that I was right. People depended on me and I wasn't going to disappoint them. If I quit, if I failed, I was convinced I'd be turning my back on everything I believed, everything I worked for. My determination and drive sustained me through the darkness I battled every day...the pain, the blood, the senseless violence. Each destroyed life called to me, begged me to make things right. God, Mom was so wrong! I wasn't emotionless. Far from it. I lived...breathed...bled dark, dangerous emotions every day. They nearly consumed me. Then came the day I truly scared myself...I lost control and beat a man nearly senseless. Doesn't matter that I stopped him while he was in the process of committing a heinous crime...he was a violent rapist and murderer. I had used force before, sometimes bordering on excessive, apprehending criminals. But I never lost control, not like I did in that clearing. Never, never had I felt the sickening pride as I kept hitting him. Never, never had it felt so damn good to use my skills. Never, never had I relished another person's pain...pain inflicted by me. That's also the day I became a coward, for the first time in my life. I was so afraid of my reactions, so afraid of my emotions, so afraid of my loss of control, that I ran. From myself and my feelings. Then I turned into the unfeeling bitch Mom called me that night. I simply locked my emotions away so tightly, that I denied their existence. I even forgot I had them, buried so deeply they were. Oh, I had glimpses here and there...Mark and Stephanie, Mrs A, Phil...but I so carefully controlled my responses that they didn't seem real. I think I actually convinced myself that I really wasn't feeling anything...I was merely reacting as programmed by society. It wasn't until I met Beth that I even admitted that I might have been wrong. That cutting off my emotions wasn't healthy. And I fought it, fought her trying to protect myself. Her patience, her love, her understanding, drew me into the light. Because of Beth, I'm willing to try again. And that means telling her everything. Even about Sarah, even though I don't want to expose her to that violence. But Beth deserves to know."
"I've missed talking to you. I miss you. God, how I wish you were still here. There is so much I want to share with you, so much I want to ask your opinion on...like the incredible woman in my arms. What do you think of Beth, Dad? I think...no, I know, you'd love her." Casey fell silent, letting old memories and feelings surface as she made peace with the memories of her father. Knowing she'd have to make an attempt with her mother before she'd finally come to terms with her past.
The crunch of tires on gravel pulled Casey from her thoughts. Alert blue eyes scanned the cemetery, noting the vehicle's occupants. Dismissing them as non-threatening, Casey glanced down at her partner snuggled tightly against her, smiling softly. "Hey." Casey's low voice floated lightly down to her lover's ears, caressing gently.
"You OK, love?" Beth lifted her head to meet her lover's gaze. Worried because Casey's body had reacted strongly, ranging from rigid tension to almost boneless fear, during her silence. It tore the author's heart, knowing her lover was hurting and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.
"Yeah, I'm fine." Casey freed a hand, raising it to lightly caress a smooth cheek. "Come sit with me?" Turning, she nodded at a tree near the back of her family's plots, well away from the prying eyes.
"Of course." Beth leaned against Casey, allowing her to lead them to the tree.
"You asked me once how I got interesting in profiling but I brushed you off. I'm sorry." Casey pulled Beth tighter against her, moving slowly towards the tree. "I just couldn't tell you then. I want you, need you to know now." Stopping, the specialist glanced around the cemetery, pleased no one was paying attention to them now. "The summer between my first and second year of college changed my life." Casey spoke softly, leaning against the rough bark, hanging on to Beth's hands. Staring into understanding, loving green eyes, the specialist drew a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "I decided to stay at school because I had responsibilities; all my months of hard work paid off and I had a decent following at the local dojo. Anyway," unconsciously she scooted a fraction closer, knees now firmly in contact with Beth's. "A couple of weeks after the end of classes, I was supposed to meet my roommate Sarah for supper at Felice's, her favorite restaurant for her birthday. A couple of my students' parents were late picking them up and I wasn't comfortable with leaving them alone. I called Felice's and left a message telling Sarah to wait, I'd be there as soon as possible. Damn!" Inhaling noisily, Casey concentrated on the warmth radiating from her connection with Beth, eyes frozen on their linked hands. "My fault...if I'd just been there..."
Beth's concerned questions finally registered. Looking up, Casey found the strength to continue. "I'm OK. When I got to the restaurant, Sarah was already gone. The manager said she'd left about fifteen minutes earlier. A young man, he assumed it was another student because of the books, had spoken to her briefly, then they left. Two days later Sarah's body was found in a ditch along a back country road. I'll never forget my first trip to the morgue...her parents lived in California and the police didn't want to make them fly in if I could identify her. I was devastated.. Here I had all this training, all this experience in a deadly art, yet no experience with violent death. No amount of doctoring could hide the fact that Sarah had been brutalized, almost beyond recognition. It was the first and last time I ever lost control, ever cried in front of local authorities."
"There, in the cold, the stillness, I forced myself to look...forced myself to see my friend in the bruised, torn flesh. Standing there, all I could think of was that it was my fault...all my fault. If only I had been on time I could have prevented her death. The thought kept repeating, relentlessly, tormenting me over the next few days. Finally I couldn't take it any more and called one of my students, a local police officer. He let me look at the case file, thinking it would help ease my feelings of guilt. But it didn't. All it did was infuriate me. The callous, rude comments of the first officers on the scene lit a fire in me...I was convinced that I could do better than those bumbling, insensitive idiots."
"Numerous times over the next week I went and walked where Sarah was found, listening to each hard fought for piece of evidence time and time again. To my horror, I found myself wondering why he chose to use an awkward cut at an impossible angle, why Sarah's limbs were posed, why he cut letters from a glossy magazine and not a newspaper. Then the unthinkable happened...another girl was found. I bullied my way onto the crime scene and instantly I knew it was the same killer. No one would listen to me; I was just another 'know-it-all' college kid who happened to have the strength and training to force her way in the crime scene. The killer struck a third time, this time choosing a girl who's parents were rich and affluent. They insisted the police call in the FBI. It was no secret that I spent every available hour investigating the crimes. Either I was out talking to people or looking stuff up in the library. I found out years later that one of the local detectives jokingly told Johnson that they should interview me because I thought I had it figured out."
"After Johnson took control of the case, he called me in. As luck would have it, I'd just had a fight with my mother over my failure to leave because it was too dangerous and I was in rare form. He asked me what I thought, what I'd learned. Johnson seemed so interested, so willing to hear my thoughts, I told him, point blank. Not giving him a chance to stop me, I started asking questions about his motives, about why he did things a certain way, what the significance was of specific actions. When I was done, he just picked up the phone and called a meeting. I'll never forget how he stared at me...like I was a prime cut of beef at the steak house. Then he did the damnedest thing: he systematically analyzed my profile, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. Thanking me, he sent me home."
"Five days later, a call in the middle of the night had me racing to the next crime scene. Full of questions, I could barely contain myself. Upon reaching Johnson, he simply stepped aside, pointing at the body and said. 'Tell me what you see...tell me what happened.' From that moment on, I was hooked. Every minute I wasn't at the dojo, I was working with Johnson. I'd kept a low profile since the FBI took over the case. After the sixth victim was found, I suggested we set me up as the next victim since I was only one of two possible females on the team. The murderer was so messy we had trouble getting usable physical evidence. All of the victims were picked up in or at restaurants. That was our best lead. I had to convince them of my physical abilities before they'd agree. It only took five different scenarios in as many minutes. Luck was with us; after three nights of setting me up as a decoy, I was approached. I followed him willingly into the parking lot as planned. He must have felt I wasn't nervous enough because when a young woman passed us, he grabbed her. Knowing I couldn't let him leave with her, I followed him into the alley and took the first opening I had." Swallowing emotionally, Casey closed her eyes, remembering everything about that night...the sparkling stars, the biting cold, the rotting garbage, the force of her kick, the sickening sound of flesh meeting metal. "The woman stumbled and his grip slipped, leaving his head and neck open. One round house kick was all it took. As he spun from the force of my kick, his head hit the dumpster, killing him." Blue eyes opened, staring unfocused over Beth's shoulder. "I killed a man and all I could think about was how I wanted to make sure it, the senseless murders by a madman, didn't happen again. I had the raw, untrained talent. The FBI agent said so. Told me it was my responsibility to develop my talent...for the good of society...told me I could make a real difference. I had the discipline. I had the desire. All I needed was the training...I believed him. I wanted to stop the monsters." Casey finished hoarsely and shook herself, coming back to the present. Silent green eyes looked at her. Feeling self conscious, the specialist cleared her throat loudly. "Beth?"
"I don't know what to say." The words popped out before the author could stop them.
"Say you still love me." Casey answered softly, nervously. Of all Beth's possible responses, she hadn't planned on that one..silence. Wondering what her gentle lover was thinking, the former agent held her breath, apprehensively.
"I love you." Beth blinked, focusing on the pale, worried face before her. "I love you." She repeated, putting strength behind her words. "I'm sorry about Sarah. Tell me about her?" Green eyes conveyed her sympathy, hiding her need for a distraction. What can I say? What words will make it all better? There are none. No one should have that much pressure dumped on them at nineteen. The author thought quickly, aching for her partner.
Rising, Casey pulled Beth with her. Wrapping her arms around her lover's waist, the specialist kissed her gently. "Sarah was my first and only college roommate. Her parents were teachers...that's what she wanted to do. She loved to go out, loved to hang out with her friends. Sarah was," Casey thought a moment. "Kind, caring, protective of her friends. Kind of like you, love." Pausing, she stole another kiss. "She was the first person outside of Danny who accepted me for who I was. She didn't push me to be anything that I wasn't." Casey frowned, thinking how Beth might take the comment. "But she didn't love me and I certainly wasn't in love with her. I was still very much in my 'I don't need a relationship' phase."
"Sounds like she was a good friend." Beth concentrated on keeping her body relaxed, on not letting her jealousy, her insecurities escape. "Does Casey think I push her? Is she only telling me now because I've pushed her to?" That thought produced a shiver she couldn't hide.
"The only thing you push me to do is to think up new ways to surprise you, beloved." Casey heard Beth's thought loud and clear. "But she wasn't like you." Lips nipped Beth's nose. "She never ignited by blood." Husked hotly into one sensitive ear. "She never made me see stars." The other ear was treated to a hot breath bath. "She never made me feel complete." Lips paid homage to Beth's. "And she never," lips grazed one cheek. "Ever," Casey pulled back so she could lose herself in green. "Ever," whispered a moment later. "Had possession of my heart, my soul."
"How do you do that?" Beth gazed dazedly at Casey, her lover's words chasing her jealousy away. "You should be ashamed of yourself...you should be comforting her! Get a grip, Beth!"
"Ready to go?" The increased activity in the cemetery reminded the specialist they weren't alone and it was starting to bother her. Private, intimate discussions with her lover were exactly that...private. "There's something I want to show you." Blue eyes promised they'd continue the conversation later.
"Sure. Where are we going now?" The author willingly allowed her partner to set them in motion away from the disturbing memories and emotions.
"You'll see." A loud rumble reminded her of the time. "After I feed you that is."
"Casey!" A light blush spread over the author's face, earning a real laugh from her lover.
"What? Why are you looking at me that way?" Casey looked curiously at Beth, wondering what she'd done to earn that loving look. Especially in light of her revelations. "God, Dad, see how she looks at me? I never thought anyone would feel that way about me. But she does, against all reason, she does." The specialist's heart sang, firmly protected from bitter, painful memories.
"Have I ever told you how much I love your laugh?" Beth smiled softly, reveling in the intense feelings racing through her body. "No?" She answered herself, delighting in the soft glow reflected at her. "I do. It...you do something to me, for me, that is indescribable. Makes me all warm and fuzzy inside."
"Beth!" Unable to resist, Casey laughed again, just to see green sparkle, feeling at home in her lover's gaze. "No trying to distract me...it won't work!" "Sarah couldn't ever make me feel this way...so don't worry, love."
"Who said I was trying?" Beth shot back, being totally honest. "I want you to know how I feel." She promised to examine her self perceived selfish reactions later, when Casey didn't need her.
"You're serious, aren't you?" Casey marveled, dropping Beth's hand to wrap her arm around her shoulders, steering her towards the car. "I love your laugh too." Without warning, Casey tickled Beth indiscriminately, earning her the laugh she wanted to hear for the rest of her life. "I want to hear that forever."
"Casey!" Beth laughed, trying to squirm out of her lover's reach. "No fair, you've got longer arms!" The author teasingly complained, unsuccessful in her half-hearted escape attempt. "Stop that!"
"Nope." Casey trapped Beth between her and the car. "Now," long arms planted themselves on either side of the author. "I believe," growling softly, the specialist playfully nipped her author's cheek. "That I win." Quickly Casey stole a kiss, changing her looming stance into a loving hug. "Thanks for coming here with me today." Whispered into Beth's ear. "Thanks for still wanting to be with me after all of this."
"You're welcome, love." Beth bit back her natural inclination to say it wasn't necessary, that it was a duty she wanted for the rest of her life. Then hugged Casey hard and released her, very conscious of the fact that they weren't alone. The disapproving stares sent their way bothered the author. Ever since they'd emerged from the back of the cemetery, the author was amazingly conscious of the critical looks. "Guess I am just used to being around people who know and accept us." Their light-hearted teasing hadn't erased the tension radiating from her partner nor calmed her own insecurities.
"So what are you feeding me and when?" She granted her emotionally shy partner a way out of the emotional turmoil of the last hour. Not to mention herself, who was growing more uncomfortable every moment under those stares.
"About a half hour." Casey opened Beth's door, stealing one last kiss before she hurried around to her side of the car. "It will take us about that long to get into town. How does Chinese sound? There's a good place right around the corner from Master Hung's dojo. I thought we could eat there then visit Master Hung."
"Sounds good and I'd love to see where you spent so much of your time growing up." Beth was elated that Casey was sharing her past with her, even if it did raise her own self doubts. "How do you know they both are still there?"
"I have many skills." The specialist dead panned, cocking an eyebrow at her partner.
"Casey!" Beth swatted her partner's arm. "You've just been waiting to say that, haven't you?" The author grinned, shaking her head. "I can't believe I set you up like that!" Both laughed at the specialist's use of one of the warrior princess's favorite sayings.
"What are you working on now?" Casey returned Beth's grin, changing the subject without answering her author's question.
"I'm working on the confrontation scene between Jill and..." Casey listened to Beth's explanation, willingly losing herself in her author's words, giving herself an emotional break. Of course it was just a coincidence that Beth was working on one of her favorite characters.
Out of the corner of her eye, Beth watched her lover sink back, relaxing with each word. "My poor baby. I never had any idea that you were forced to kill so young. You've lived and breathed the darkness for so long. Not any more. I refuse to let you sink back into the nightmares, the shadows. Don't go there, Beth! Casey needs me now, in the present. Not stuck bemoaning the horrors she was forced to endure. Look at how she soaks up each word..." That thought brought her mental ramblings to an end; Casey deserved her full attention. With relish, the author threw herself totally into the conversation.
"There's the Imperial Dragon." Casey interrupted Beth's ramblings with a soft smile, knowing her author wouldn't care, especially since she was just as stumped as when she started talking. Pointing out the window she continued. "The area hasn't changed much. Master Hung's is right down the street." Driving slowly past the normal assortment of small businesses, the specialist pointed out two kids hurrying to the dojo, remembering the countless times she ran from the bus stop so she wouldn't be late.
"Think we're too late for lunch?" Beth cast a curious eye around the mostly deserted parking lot.
"Not for us." Casey leaned over and kissed Beth, running a hand through her soft hair. "Would I let you starve?" Jumping out, she ran around and took Beth's hand, leading her into the restaurant.
"I'm sorry, we've stopped serving lunch..." The small, old man behind the counter began talking before turning around. "Casey Bennett!" Surprise and delight warred for control of his face. "Come in! Come in! It's never too late for you." Moving from behind the counter, he bowed slightly, calling for his wife.
"Wei Mao, what's so important that you're yelling...oh!" His wife rounded the corner, chattering at him. "Casey!" Moving quickly, she hugged the tall specialist and waited. "Well? Did you forget all your manners?" A light swat was her punishment. "I thought you knew better than that! If not, it's a good thing you decided to visit!"
"Sorry, Yueue." Casey flushed slightly under the parental scolding, amusing her partner. "This is my wife, Beth Jamieson. Beth, these are my friends, Yang Yueue and her husband, Mao Wei." The specialist performed the introductions, remembering just in time to introduce Yueue first. She'd learned the hard way what was proper, unconsciously she rubbed her behind in memory.
"Pleased to meet you." Beth extended her hand, trying not to let her surprise show. Based on what Casey had told her about growing up, she expected her partner to introduce her as a friend. "She must feel comfortable here. I'm glad." The author was surprised at how much her partner's words touched her. No matter how many times Casey assured her wife that she wasn't ashamed of their relationship, the author still harbored secret doubts. Every time Casey introduced her as her 'friend', Beth couldn't help wondering.
"You have my sympathies!" The old woman laughed quietly, taking the younger woman's hand. "She can be quite a handful! I've a spoon in the kitchen with her name on it if you need to borrow it. I remember the last time I..."
"Yueue!" Both her husband and Casey groaned at the same time, interrupting her.
"Don't you feed this woman? Come back into the kitchen!" The old woman pulled the blushing author and her complaining stomach with her into the kitchen, sitting her down at the family's table. "Tell me what you've been doing." Said over her shoulder, reaching for a large pan.
The quietly spoken words were a command that the specialist found she couldn't resist. Much to her surprise, Casey found herself briefly speaking of the FBI and why she left, what she'd been doing since then. Eating what was put in front of her, Casey jumped with chopsticks connected with the back of her hand. "What?" Startled, blue eyes quickly scanned the room, finding nothing amiss.
"Stop talking with your mouth full." Yueue ignored the looks sent her way.
"This is the best Chinese food I've ever eaten, Yueue." Beth sat back, directing the conversation away from her blushing partner. Shortly upon entering the kitchen, Beth had been given permission to use the woman's first name after calling up a long forgotten memory from college about Chinese names. "Oh love, this is a side I've never seen of you before!"
"Thank you, Beth. Where have I heard your name before?" The old woman passed the chicken and vegetable dish to the author, silently approving of her support and protection of Casey.
"She's an author. Maybe you've read one of her books." Casey jumped back into the conversation, snatching a won ton from Beth's plate. And grinned widely when Yueue's chopsticks connected with her flesh again. "I'm glad some things never change." Thought wistfully, remembering countless times in the past being scolded for doing the same thing.
"What do you write?" Wei asked quietly, having learned a long time ago that his wife liked to direct the conversation. But if he failed to participate he'd also be in trouble.
"Beth writes mysteries and science fiction mostly." Casey absently answered for her lover, reaching for the soup again. "Not what you normally read, I'm afraid Wei." Ignoring the exasperated sigh from Yueue, the specialist filled Beth's bowl without asking, then her own. She also missed the knowing, pleased look exchanged by her old friends.
"I know I've heard your name before." Yueue insisted to Beth, rising to refill the empty bowls. Turning to Wei, she asked him something in Mandarin.
As they chattered back and forth, apparently trying to figure out where they'd heard Beth's name before, the author relaxed against her partner. "You've got nice friends, love."
"I spent a lot of time here when I was growing up. My Dad was friends with their oldest son, so he spent a lot of time over here when he wasn't working in high school. Naturally Dad brought us all over here a lot once we were old enough. Wei and Yueue were like adopted parents. It became a safe place for me when I had to wait for rides after practice or if I was early. When I left Mom's house that last time, I spent a few days here." Casey cleared her throat, pushing the conflicting emotions firmly away. "Anyway, I've kind of stayed in contact with them. They came to visit me about three months after that last fight with Mom. They're one of the few that I kept in touch with...mostly cards at holidays or birthdays. Once in awhile, the occasional phone call. Plus they see Mark and Stephanie whenever they're in town and we exchange news that way." Grinning wryly, Casey hastily rose and took the offered bowls, not wanting to chance another scolding.
"Have you ever written a children's book, Beth?" Yueue sat back down, finally placing the author's name. At least she thought she did. "I sent him to look for something." Answering Casey's raised eyebrow.
"Yes, I've written two children's books." Beth carefully avoided looking at her surprised partner, taking the offered bowl of vegetables without realizing it. "Good gods, I never expected her to ask that!" The author's heart picked up the pace, not wanting to tell Casey like this.
"Really? I didn't know that." Casey bumped Beth's arm questioningly, a slightly hurt look on her face. The specialist couldn't believe she'd missed that fact in her background search when she searched for Beth's stalker...the reason for their meeting. "I can't believe how much that hurts...that she didn't tell me." Thought quickly as she watched her wife unsuccessfully fight to keep her face neutral. Numerous memories of long conversations rose, haunting the specialist. "Why didn't she tell me? Doesn't she trust me?"
"Yeah, it was right after I finished college. I wrote them for a friend." Beth admitted reluctantly, once again reminding herself that being open went both ways. Turning to face Yueue, she continued. "Bumps In The Night and Charlie's Doll. I'm surprised you remembered them. They were published, oh, about ten years ago." "Please don't ask me who I wrote them for or why."
"I remember Charlie's Doll vividly. It's very emotional." Yueue picked up on Beth's nervousness, mistaking it for embarrassment. "Why are you embarrassed? It was and is an exceptional book with a powerful message. I routinely read it during my turn at the children's library. But you're listed as E. A. Jamieson. Confused me for awhile."
Beth was saved from answering immediately by Wei coming back into the room, waving his findings. Not knowing what else to say, Beth intercepted the book, dragging a smile out of her aching heart. "Want it autographed?"
"Yes!" Yueue nodded emphatically, watching as Beth wrote quickly on the title page and handed it back. Reading the personal dedication and the request to borrow the spoon, she snorted loudly. "Oh Casey, I think you've met your match!"
"May I?" Although she spoke to Yueue, blue eyes looked to Beth for approval before her large hand closed on the book. "At least you're letting me see it now."
Knowing Casey would scan the book, Beth sighed mentally, anticipating the questions her curious partner would ask. A smack on the table jerked her attention to the grinning oriental woman. Picking up the requested dreaded spoon, Beth allowed herself to be drawn into the conversation, learning more about her partner and her occasionally strange habits. Like why, for instance, she mainly ate lightly seasoned garlic vegetables at Chinese restaurants (because of a dare a young Casey couldn't refuse) and why she disliked dunking crab rangoon (she had become thoroughly disgusted watching Mark play with his one evening).
"Good Lord, who is Anne and why did Beth write this for her?" Casey thought dejectedly, fighting her own bout of growing jealousy, lightly fingering the cover of the book. "Why has she never mentioned writing children's books? Yueue is right; it's utterly moving. Why doesn't she write them any more? And why didn't she tell me? Just who the hell is Anne and what does she mean to my Beth?" Catching the tail end of Wei's story, Casey interrupted them before Beth could be exposed to any more of her wild childhood stunts.
"What did I do now?" Casey joked, reaching for the spoon resting on the table. A quick glance at the clock startled her; they'd been eating and talking for more than two hours. "I didn't realize how late it was!" Casey rose crossing to hug her old friends, politely declining their request to stay for dinner. "We need to get going. I want to stop in and see Master Hung for a moment before we leave town."
"It's too bad your Mother is out of town." Yueue looked meaningfully at Casey, yet refrained from comment. Sighing loudly when Casey ignored her, Yueue hugged Beth and said their goodbyes.
"Did I ever tell you I had two college roommates?" Beth began softly as soon as they exited the restaurant, gathering her resolve in both hands, knowing the answer was no. The author was afraid she would lose her courage if she waited any longer. "Cathy, Lisa and I were fairly close. We roomed together all through college and after graduation we went our separate ways." The author swallowed emotionally, squeezing Casey's hand to show her she was alright.
"You've talked about Lisa before; she's the one that would visit you at Grandma's, right?" The specialist walked slowly towards the dojo, trying to calm her racing heart and blooming jealously. Just the thought of her Beth being at Grandma's house with another woman set her blood pounding. She thought she was doing a good job until Beth dropped her hand and wrapped her arm around her waist.
"Lisa's married with two kids, love. We're only friends. No reason to be jealous." Beth tried to reassure her lover, having a new understanding for her lover's reaction. "I've never mentioned Cathy before because she died in a car accident a few months after graduation. Anne was her baby sister."
"I'm sorry, love." Casey guided Beth to a conveniently placed bench, enfolding her shaking author in a tight hug. "Did you...were you...I mean..." The specialist stumbled, hating herself for asking, but not able to hold back. The green-eyed monster refused to be quiet. "Were you in love with her?"
"I loved her, but I wasn't in love with her." Beth cried softly, leaning gratefully against her best friend. "For about two weeks, when we first met, I was attracted to her, but it wasn't love." The author confessed, not wanting to lie or mask any part of the relationship. "Fair is fair, Beth." She reminded herself, stroking her partner's tense, rigid form soothingly. "I quickly realized that Cathy wasn't interested and that even if she was, she wasn't my type. I'm not the 'love 'em and leave 'em' type." Sitting up, Beth laced her fingers with Casey's. "Anyway, to make a long story short, Anne was having a hard time accepting her sister's death and her parents asked if there was anything I could do. Anne always loved the time she spent with the three of us at school and considered us adopted sisters. Talking wasn't helping; the only thing I could think to try was writing."
"Did it help?" Casey asked a moment later, when Beth didn't continue. "Sweetheart?" Casey reacted to Beth's anguish without thought, switching hands and wrapping her arm around her lover. Concentrating solely on Beth, Casey ignored the curious stares sent their way.
"Some. At least at the time we all thought it did. After Charlie's Doll was published, Anne slowly reverted back to her playful, energetic self." Beth fell silent, staring at their laced fingers.
"What happened?" Casey prompted, tightening her hold on Beth.
"Anne committed suicide when she turned thirteen, a couple of summers after the book was published. She had...she ha...she..." Beth cleared her throat, willing the painful images back into the dark. "When her parents found her, she had both books with her, but she wrote her goodbye note on the inside cover of Charlie's Doll."
"God, beloved, I'm so sorry." Casey pulled Beth securely against her. Holding her now openly sobbing lover, the specialist whispered words of comfort in her ear, rocking them slowly. "So much pain...so much hurt. God, how did you ever let yourself be close to anyone again? How did you keep your heart in one piece? Where did you find the strength to love again? Especially me?" Casey knew she was tough to live with, tough to love. "I don't think you had anyone, outside of your grandparents who loved and supported you. How did you survive?"
"I thought you wanted to visit Master Hung?" Beth mumbled from the safety of Casey's arms, using her lover's strength to push her demons away. "I'll deal with this another time." Sitting up straight, the author surprised her lover by reaching for her purse and a tissue.
"In a minute. Are you going to be OK?" Casey berated herself for placing her lover in a painful situation.
"Yeah, I am. It happened a long time ago. Just caught me by surprise, that's all. I haven't thought about Anne in years." Beth's voice was husky from her tears. "Sorry you had to find out this way." Beth groaned silently, mad at herself for not practicing what she preached.
"Don't apologize. We both have several things we haven't shared with each other." Seeing Beth still frowning, Casey tried again. "I know you didn't intentionally mean to keep it from me. If I would have asked, would you have denied writing children's books?"
"No." Beth sheepishly agreed, wiping away a stray tear. "No, I wouldn't. C'mon." The author rose, tugging gently on their entwined hands to get Casey to rise also. "I'll make you a deal. I'll tell you about the other book tonight if you stop worrying about me and go visit Master Hung."
"Deal." Casey agreed, knowing she'd never stop worrying about Beth. Resuming their trek to the dojo, the specialist draped an arm over Beth's shoulders, telling herself it was for Beth's benefit and comfort. "Right...tell me another one." Her mind sarcastically replied.
Opening the red wooden door, Casey inhaled the familiar herb scented air. Blue eyes traced the picture lined walls and trophy filled cases. Aware of her partner patiently, respectfully waiting, the former student took her time, studying the pictures.
"May I help you?"
"Yes," Casey answered, turning to see the person who's voice sounded so very young. Not surprisingly, she didn't recognize the student. But it was clear the student recognized her.
"I'll get Master Hung right away."
"Wait." Casey stopped the young girl from leaving. "Class is still going on and he won't appreciate being interrupted. We'll wait out here until he's finished."
"You're right." The girl was impressed and embarrassed at the same time.
Beth watched her surprisingly talkative partner draw the teen into a conversation about her training. When Casey stepped aside to show the girl a kick, the author wandered over to the area of wall that held her lover's pictures. Losing track of the time, green eyes studied Casey's progress. It was remarkable: from a awkward child who clearly wasn't comfortable with her body to a very confident, very physical, very comfortable, very formidable young woman. In the early pictures, Casey was with her classmates. By the time Casey was about fourteen, she was alone. "My God Casey. In every picture without your Dad, you're not smiling. In fact, your normally sparkling blue eyes look cold, unfamiliar." Involuntarily she shuddered, closing her eyes briefly. "I hope you never look at me that way."
"Good grief!" Casey chuckled, coming to stand behind her lover. Sliding her arms around Beth's waist, she leaned down, resting her chin on her shoulder. "I can't believe Master Hung kept these pictures." When Beth didn't ask any questions, Casey frowned thoughtfully, figuring Beth was still upset about Anne. "How can I make you feel better? I hate seeing you hurting." Titling her head, blue eyes searched her author's face, not liking what she saw. "What are you thinking?"
"Did you even enjoy karate, Casey? It doesn't look like you had much fun." Beth spoke quietly, pushing back into her lover's embrace.
"I was good at it." An eyebrow rose in surprise at the unexpected question.
"That's not what I asked." Beth dropped her hands to cover Casey's, squeezing gently.
"Karate taught me..." Casey interrupted herself, sighing when Beth cleared her throat in warning. "It goes so much deeper than a simple matter of like or dislike. See that picture right there?" One long finger pointed to the last picture with her Dad.
"By the time that was taken, I had already decided karate was 'the' thing for me. Didn't matter why we'd started; I wasn't going to give karate up. Dad realized this and supported me whole heartedly in my decision, even though it caused fights between him and Mom. I was always big for my age and uncoordinated. At seven years of age, I was thoroughly acquainted with how cruel kids could be. I hated being the butt of all the jokes and I knew I'd do anything I had to to make them stop." Casey noticed Beth's hand soothingly stroking her own. "My protector. God, I love you." Smiling softly, Casey nuzzled the soft strawberry blond hair. "Karate helped me to begin gaining control of my body. Every lesson brought me one step away from the ridicule. Every time I completed a formerly hard task with ease my confidence soared."
"Look at this one." Casey indicated another photo. "This was taken five months after my Dad's funeral. Do I look like a kid who's just gone through hell? Who still spent several nights a week waking up with horrifying nightmares? Even though I was hurt, confused, lost... it didn't show. I found a surprising comfort in the form, the fluidity of the moves. They helped me to concentrate, to center. Sounds kind of funny now that a nine year old was interested in control, but I was. The more control I learned, the easier it was to push the nightmares, the hurt, the pain away. Karate helped me to realize the benefits of emotional control too. Dad was right. It only mattered what I thought of myself...and I liked how karate helped me to change. By this time, the other kids had stopped picking on me. I think," blue eyes twinkled merrily as lips brushed Beth's cheek. "That had more to do with the fact that I stopped some punk kid trying to take an older lady's purse than anything else. It wasn't smart to pick on someone almost twice your size when that person could knock out a full sized teenager with two well placed kicks." Blue eyes darkened, considering the images with interest, calling up long forgotten memories.
"This one," Casey moved a few pictures down the wall. "Was taken the day I helped with my first beginning class...the day I started working for Master Hung. I was so proud that day. I remember thinking that Dad would have been proud of me because I was earning my kung fu lessons. I was working and getting what I wanted. Whenever things got rough, whether it was a fight with my Mom or a sore, aching body, I remembered that day and the feeling of satisfaction I had knowing I made it happen."
"These here were taken during high school." Casey squinted, laughing softly. "I look so serious. I was trying to look tough, in control." The almost arrogant look on her face caused the much older Casey to giggle. "God, I look like I swallowed a fish or something!" As soon as they quieted down, Casey turned serious again.
"I have ever worked as physically hard as I did those four years. I don't think a day went by that I didn't have sore or bruised muscles. Some days it was all I could do to walk without showing any pain." Casey admitted, hugging Beth tighter. "But every day was a victory...of my mind, of my control. Each level successfully past brought me one step closer to my goal."
"What goal was that love?" Beth spoke gently, asking a question for the first time, twisting slightly to see Casey's face. "Did you know when you started high school what you wanted to do?"
"It sounds stupid and petty now, but I wanted to prove to everyone...to Mom, that I could do this. I wasn't gonna quit. Wasn't gonna give up. Told myself I'd be damned if I let a simple thing like pain or disapproval stop me from showing everyone I was right. I was determined to prove that I could accomplish anything I wanted...whether it was 'proper' or not." Casey's voice dropped in tone, lightly mocking herself. "Plus I knew that if I wanted to go to a private school, I'd have to come up with the extra money myself. Being the intelligent, stubborn kid I was," Casey prudently ignored her partner's muffled giggle. "I decided that I would pay my own way, as I went. I did it before, I could do it again."
"That's not the whole story though." A large sigh escaped. "Only when I practiced, when I competed, did I feel alive. Blood tingling, heart pounding, body and mind stretched to the limit, I felt at peace. For once in my life, I felt I belonged. I was alive. Like I feel now every day I'm with you." Knowing she hadn't answered Beth's question, Casey found that she couldn't, to her great surprise. The answering glow in her lover's eyes convinced her to try.
"Did I like karate? I liked what it taught me, what it allowed me to do." Casey tried to express her thoughts. "But did I actually enjoy it? No, not like I do now." Blue eyes narrowed in concentration. "There's nothing quite like the feeling of moving through my routines, hitting each thrust, each kick. Sometimes I feel as if I'm water, moving with the currents of the ocean. Simply floating, twisting and turning to a natural rhythm I can't see, but can hear with each beat of my heart. But," Casey shook her head at her romantic idealization of a very physical activity. "I think that has more to do with the fact that my body's fully developed, that I'm comfortable with my routines and myself. What about you?" Casey changed the subject, turning Beth away from the pictures and towards her. "Did you enjoy your staff?"
Beth recognized her partner's growing discomfort and need for a break. "Yes I did enjoy learning the staff. I..." The author broke off as the outer door opened to admit a couple of parents. "Where are we going?" Beth whispered, allowing Casey to guide her down the hall.
"Why are you whispering?" Casey teased, bumping Beth's shoulder as she opened a door. "We can wait back here out of the way."
"You sure Master Hung won't mind?" Green eyes turned to question her partner. The author wanted to make sure her partner's assumption wouldn't be viewed as an intrusion since she had a guest.
"Yup, I'm sure." Casey steered Beth to the sofa, sitting down with a sigh. "I've stayed in touch with Master Hung more than anyone." The specialist started talking as soon as Beth sat beside her. "Whenever I felt like the world was closing in, that my emotions were threatening to break free...that I was losing control, I came to see Master Hung."
"Why didn't you know your pictures were still in the front office?" Beth was curious and she'd decided to take Casey up on her offer.
"I never came back to the dojo." Casey forced herself to breathe slowly, evenly. "Master Hung has a house in the country, about thirty minutes north of here. It's more of a retreat actually, with a beautiful garden. There's...it's....I mean...damn!" "Why can't I just come out and say it was my sanctuary? It was my safe haven...a place of serenity that allowed me to regain my control? Helped me to focus? Without it, I never would've survived the FBI, let alone the dark years before Beth. Why can't I just say that? Why can't I put my feelings into words?? Why can't I just say I came back here about once every year and a half to regroup? That was about as long as I could go without retreating, without renewing my inner balance. In fact, it had been seventeen months and two days since my last visit when you walked in my office. Wonder if that's why I didn't fight my emotional and physical attraction to you? That's probably why I went so far off the deep end too. Why I hurt you so deeply. God, I can be such an ass sometimes! Why haven't I ever thought of that before? Especially when I didn't feel the need to return...not even once, given all of my moody, emotional behavior...huh..."
"What?" Her lover's worried, questioning gaze and constant, soothing touch finally sank in. Belatedly Casey realized how silent she'd become as Beth's soothing presence washed over her.
"I love you, Casey." Of all the things Casey expected Beth to say, all the questions she knew her lover was burning to ask, the familiar response touched the specialist. Touched her deeply, permanently. And triggered an emotional response the specialist was unwilling and unable to resist.
"I love you too, Beth." Blindly, the specialist pulled her author against her. "How do you do that? Know instinctively what I need to hear? Usually before I realize it myself?"
"I could ask you the same thing." Beth mumbled against Casey's neck. "Thank you."
"For what?" Casey pulled back, needing to see Beth's eyes.
"For trusting me enough to share your past with me." Beth peered seriously into blue, letting her emotions shine through with all the intensity she felt.
"I've always trusted you. It's me I didn't trust. It's always been me. Please believe me. I..." Casey rose silently to her feet, turning to face the door, ashamed at how relieved she felt for avoiding the issue. "Here comes Master Hung." A strong hand helped Beth to her feet. As the door opened, the former student straightened imperceptibly, blue eyes twinkling with yet another emotion. As soon as Casey caught Master Hung's eye, she bowed lowly, speaking the formal words of greeting, from student to teacher.
"Casey, what a pleasant surprise." The soft yet decidedly manly voice urged his former student to rise after the ritual greeting. "It's been a long time since you've graced my humble dojo with your presence. Welcome home." Old, wrinkled hands reached out for Casey.
"Oh no, the honor is all mine." Casey moved to embrace her old teacher. "That I'm still welcome here, even after..." The specialist stopped, feeling both Master Hung and Beth prepare to defend her actions. "There's no way I could stand up to both of them." Casey chuckled mentally.
"It has been a long time, Casey." Master Hung released his student, standing back, running a critical eye over her. A grin broke out across his ancient, yet strong features. Apparently he liked what he saw.
"Too long." Casey confirmed, grinning in response. Meeting Beth and acknowledging their growing relationship had negated her burning need for returning. "Beth's my safe haven now." "Phone calls and letters aren't the same thing."
"No, but in this case they're significant." Leaving that hanging, Master Hung nodded once in approval. "This must be Beth." The old man turned to the woman standing silently, patiently, out of the way. A quick glance at his former student had her moving to her lover's side.
"Master Hung, this is my wife, Beth Jamieson." Once again, Casey belatedly introduced her reason for existence. Smiling softly, the former student watched her teacher bow to her lover then take her hand.
"It's an honor to meet you, Master Hung." Beth had watched the interaction between Casey and her teacher with interest.
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you." Dark brown eyes shot meaningfully to his student then returned to Beth. "I've heard so much about you. Please sit." Sitting as his guests did, the old man looked up as the door opened almost silently. Watching in approval, he waited until his young student set the tea down before thanking her and excusing her to return to her duties of cleaning the locker rooms before the next class arrived. Nodding at Casey and then the tea, he turned his full attention back to Beth. "Casey told me you defeated her with the staff a couple of months ago. That's quite an accomplishment; I'm very impressed. How long have you studied?"
The specialist bit back her grin as Beth answered, blue eyes watching her partner unobtrusively as she prepared the tea. She fondly remembered the day Beth beat her and her excited call from work to her former teacher. It was such a rare occurrence for someone to actually best her, that she felt she just had to share the information with someone who would understand and recognize what an accomplishment it was. "We've had several draws and matches where I've conceded rather than let Beth be hurt because she's too stubborn to stop. But only once has she actually beaten me, with both of us going full out. Wonder if she knows how proud I am of her? Wonder if she knows how much I respect her for just seriously sparring against me? Not many people would repeatedly get back in the ring with me. You've got a lot of guts, my love."
Not interrupting, Casey served the tea and sat back, deriving an emotional high watching her lover and teacher get to know each other. To her great surprise, she found that she didn't even mind when Master Hung told a few tales. The soft knock at the door had the specialist glancing at the clock, startled that more than an hour had past.
"Beth, would you to me the great honor of sparring with me?" He ignored the astonished blue eyes that quickly turned to him. "This lazy one can teach the next class."
"I'd be delighted." The author grinned, looking forward to an exchange of wood with the man who'd taught her lover. Plus she'd never seen Casey teach a class before.
"Casey will find you something to wear. I'll see you in a few minutes." Standing, he showed them out of the room.
"He'll never stop surprising me!" Casey grumbled, lacing her fingers through Beth's, leading her back towards the locker room.
"Guess that means you didn't expect to be teaching a class, huh?" The author smiled at her complaining partner. "He's a very nice man, Casey. I can see where you got your sense of honor from."
"Yeah, he is." Casey pushed open a side door, shaking her head wryly as two gi's were already laid out. "Figures." Pointing at the two gi's, Casey glanced at Beth, checking to see that she really wanted to do this.
"What?" Beth paused from her hurried stripping, staring at her still clothed partner.
"Nothing. Just making sure you want to do this." Shrugging her shoulders, Casey started to undress.
"Casey?" Beth asked a moment later, fingering the black belt given to her. Although she had earned her own a long time ago, the author needed a little reassurance. "Should I take it easy on Master Hung?" Beth didn't want to embarrass or hurt him in front of his students.
"Don't worry about hurting him." Casey understood what her polite, caring lover was really asking. She jumped up and down, settling her borrowed gi. "Last time I was up here, that 'old man' had me on the ground in under a minute." Pausing to look at her giggling lover, grinned back, unable to hold her joy in. "What's so funny?"
"You." Beth wrapped both arms around her lover and squeezed tightly. "The utter look of disgust on your face was sooo funny!"
"HA HA." Casey mock laughed, glaring at Beth. "Let's see if you're laughing when you end up on the floor."
"How do I look?" Beth spun slowly, letting her lover take a look. Biting back a nervous giggle, the author waited, growing more nervous with each passing second. "What's wrong? Don't I look OK? Hope she's not worried that I'll embarrass her. I never want to do that. Usually she run circles around me; I can tell I stretch her, but how much does she hold back? Maybe I should decline..."
"You look fantastic." Unknowingly, Casey disrupted Beth's negative thoughts. "C'mere." Pulling Beth tightly against her, warm lips nuzzled strawberry blond hair. "I love you, wife." Relieved as Beth relaxed against her, Casey realized just how tense Beth was. Slapping herself mentally, the specialist groaned, reminding herself just how much Beth had been through the last two days. "Stupid! She's better at covering her feelings than I am at times...especially when she doesn't want to disappoint me. I've thrown so much of my past at her so quickly, it's no wonder she's upset! Then add in her own revelations, it's a wonder she's still standing her with me. I'm still reeling from what she said."
"Hmm?" Beth mumbled, content in Casey's arms, unaware of her lover's jumbled thoughts.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Perceiving Beth's silence as a negative reaction, Casey continued, worried. "You don't have to do this love...no pressure."
"What?" Casey's words finally sunk through Beth's sensual haze. Raising her head, green met blue squarely, unwaveringly. "Of course I want to do this!" Green darkened in thought, Casey's words eventually registered. "Unless you don't want me to...I don't want to embarrass you."
"Huh? Embarrass me?" Casey stared sincerely at Beth. "You never embarrass me! I was just worried that you might not want to do this. I've sprung so much on you these last two days, I don't want to push you into doing something you don't want to. Don't you know," Casey reached out, caressing Beth's cheek. "How much I respect you? You never give up, even when I'm a poor winner and gloat. Don't deny it." She laid a finger on Beth's lips, silencing her. And promptly swallowed a groan when those soft lips caressed her finger. "The very next day, you're ready to go at it again with me." Casey realized how limited her words sounded. "I didn't mean that how it sounded."
"Thank you. That means a lot to me." Beth smiled softly. Her heart wanted to leap to her lover's defense immediately, but her head prevailed. Her lover's visible struggle tugged fiercely at her heart, but Beth knew Casey needed to finish her thoughts. If only for her own peace of mind.
"There is not one single thing about you that I don't admire or respect. You are incredibly driven in whatever you do, whether it's writing, sparring or putting up with me." Casey frowned, mad at herself for not being able to express her thoughts eloquently. "I love you. You," Casey smiled softly, tracing the smooth curve of Beth's cheek. "You could never embarrass me. In fact, I'm honored that such a caring, warm and wonderful woman consents to be seen with me."
"Watch it, woman!" Beth growled playfully, bumping against her lover. "That works both ways you know." Changing tactics, the author leaned contentedly against her wife. "I love you. More than anything or anyone." A second later she drew back. "We'd better go warm up."
"I know. Wait a second. Let me show you something." Strong hands untied strawberry blond hair and quickly wound a spare white belt around her lover's head, tying her hair back in the process. "There."
"Thanks." Beth watched as Casey repeated the same moves on herself. "This is how you used to wear your hair?"
"Yup." Casey nudged Beth towards the door. "We've still got about fifteen minutes before Master Hung joins us."
Opening the door, Casey sucked in a deep breath and pushed it away forcefully. "I've lost count of how many times I've opened this door." She commented quietly, stepping to her lover's side. "Stretch with me first?"
About ten minutes later, Casey bounced over to a sealed wooden cabinet, urging Beth to join her. Quickly pressing the wood in three places, she stepped back as the doors slowly opened. "Old trick.." She answered Beth's question before she could voice it. "Doesn't look right to have the weapons locked up, but it's not safe to leave them unattended."
"I don't believe he still has it!" Chuckling, Casey removed her old, scarred practice staff. "Go ahead, pick one." Standing back, she ran loving hands over the scarred wood. When Beth had one she was happy with, Casey removed Master Hung's staff and closed the cabinet. "What's wrong?" Beth had a strange look on her face.
"Nothing." Beth grinned, spinning the borrowed staff in a complicated pattern, learning the feel of the different staff. "Just preparing myself."
"You sure?" Casey had never seen that look before and it worried her.
"Yeah." Suddenly it dawned on the author. Casey had never seen her spar with anyone in a more or less formal match. "I always look that way when I'm concentrating. Don't worry, 99. I've got it covered."
"Don't get cocky, Slick!" Casey stepped forward, then sighed as the door opened to admit two talking teenagers. "You sure you don't mind sparring in front of the class?" On the rare occasion Master Hung demonstrated his skills outside of teaching, it was always in front of an advanced class.
"I'm sure." Beth glanced up as several more people entered the room. "Guess you better get busy." The wince didn't escape her knowing eyes. "Now I know the real reason you don't often go to the dojo!" Leaning forward, Beth whispered. "You're too old to put up with the kids!"
"Smart aleck!" Blue twinkled in confirmation. Barking a command over her shoulder, Casey smiled once more at Beth before back flipping to the center of the room. Another set of commands had the students stretching.
"Show off!" Beth mumbled under her breath, watching her lover start putting the kids through a more vigorous series of exercises. Keeping one eye glued to her intimidating lover, the author acquainted herself more intimately with her staff.
"Ready?" Master Hung appeared silently at the author's side, nodding to Casey to clear the floor.
"Yes, if you are." Beth swallowed her nervousness, following her lover's teacher to the center of the room. Bowing formally, the author narrowed her eyes, concentrating on her opponent. Mirroring the complicated spins, Beth waited for Master Hung to make the first move. The crack of wood against wood reverberated though the silence.
"Wow!" Casey thought from her kneeling position, completely absorbed in the scene unfolding before her eyes. "Damn, Beth is even better than I thought. She's more than holding her own with Master Hung. Huh, look at that! He stepped up the pace now that he's confident of Beth's abilities." Several minutes later, after a powerful exchange of blows, Casey noticed how beautiful her wife was when she was sparring. "I never realized how graceful Beth looks. She's incredible. I can't believe she wants me, loves me." Silently thanking whomever was listening for giving her a second chance at happiness, proud eyes watched the final fury of movements. "I'll be damned! Beth made it through without losing her staff or ending up on the floor. You are good, love." Wanting nothing more than to wrap her arms around her wife and tell her this, Casey caught Beth's eye, sending the thoughts her way. "When this is over, I promise." Exhaling slowly, Casey rose, immediately launching the class into the next set of forms.
Standing next to the lightly breathing teacher, Beth fought to keep her own breathing even. Looking over at her companion, the author was surprised to find tears in his eyes. Turning back to watch Casey, she stood silently beside her lover's teacher, leaving him with his memories.
"That's almost the same look." Beth chuckled mentally, green eyes following her lover's movements. "Doesn't look so intimidating in person. Maybe because I understand the emotions behind the look. Gotta be the big, bad warrior as Gabrielle would say." Smothering the snort that threatened to break the silence, Beth settled for a proud grin. After a series of extremely intricate kicks and thrusts, the author stopped thinking and just enjoyed the show.
When the class neared its conclusion, the old master finally addressed his sparring partner. "You honor me and my dojo with your presence. Casey spoke the truth; you are a skilled, honorable artist. You are a credit to your teacher. She's something, isn't she?" The old man was unable to keep his pride out of his voice, turning again to observe Casey.
"She's incredible." Beth smiled softly, not bothered that the conversation returned to her lover. "I've never seen her teach a class before. It's been an interesting, enlightening experience." Both paused, watching Casey demonstrate a difficult kick then give additional advice as the student practiced it. "She doesn't have much time for it now; Casey's very busy with work. That's too bad because she's an excellent teacher." Beth answered Master Hung's question, eyes following her lover working with another student. She was totally surprised when Master Hung urged her to follow him, his words preventing anyone from leaving. Before she knew it, she found herself gazing into deep blue over crossed wood.
"OK to go again?" Blue eyes swept over her partner, taking in her comfortable stance and even breathing, starting the complicated spins they'd worked out together, slipping into their practice routines.
"I'm fine." Stepping into her partner's space, she spun her staff opposite of Casey, blurring wood mere inches from flesh. After a flashy, powerful exchange of blows, Beth swallowed reflexively at the glint in Casey's eyes. "Oh no. I think I'm in trouble." The author was fully aware of the fact that Casey could normally sweep through her defenses as easily as she had her temporary students'. Feeling every eye in the room on them, Beth decided to try something different, trusting her partner's skill to keep either of them from getting hurt. Abruptly rolling over the low thrust instead of blocking it, Beth threw a high, hard to block blow.
"Changing things, huh?" Casey grinned her delight, rapidly escalating the level of contact until they were both moving at full speed. Casey lost herself in the fluidity of motion, enjoying the feel of wood against wood, the calming peace that slowly took over her whole being.
Beth's ragged breathing slowly worked its way into her consciousness. Unsure of how much time had past, blue eyes noted her partner's growing fatigue. Knowing Beth wouldn't stop until she dropped, Casey slowed her movements, moving them towards a fiery, yet very controlled conclusion. Ending as they started, with staffs crossed, Casey smiled softly at her wife, mouthing 'I love you'. Stepping back, Casey bowed to Beth, intending to concede, but Beth beat her to it. The wild applause drew them apart, halting their unconscious move to be closer, to taste each other's lips. Stepping to the side, Casey grinned as her temporary students pulled her lover into a question and answer session.
Face no longer impassive, Casey settled against the pole and watched Beth demonstrate a few moves to the curious students, recognizing the difference in how they handled the same situation. "She's pretty amazing, isn't she?" Casey spoke softly to her mentor.
"Beth is very good." Master Hung cleared his throat emotionally. "I've never seen you derive such pleasure from sparring before."
"That obvious, huh? I never thought it was possible." Casey confessed, eyes carefully following her lover, noticing the slight tension in her movements. "I now understand what you tried to teach me. The peace, the overwhelming sense of contentment...I didn't think I'd ever feel those things." Meaning more than just a sparring.
"I told you it would happen." Sensing her growing impatience, he didn't even bother hiding his grin. "You love her very much."
"She's everything to me." Casey frowned, worriedly noting Beth's slight slip. "What is she doing now?" Alert, Casey tightened her grip on her staff, watching three students engage her lover. "Damn!" Remembering where she was, Casey quickly apologized for her slip of tongue. Forcing herself to listen and then answer her mentor's many questions, Casey kept a careful watch on her rapidly tiring wife, not wanting to embarrass Beth by commanding her to stop.
"Sometimes Beth doesn't know when to quit." Casey growled lowly, not believing her former teacher hadn't moved to stop the sparring. Beth had almost dropped her staff on the last spin, but recovered almost instantly.
"You worry too much." Master Hung admonished, laying a restraining hand on Casey's arm. "She's fine."
"No, she's not." Casey insisted, pointing out the slight hesitations in her lover's actions. "I'm going to go stop her." As if sensing Casey's concern, Beth looked up, catching her eye reassuringly. "OK...She's almost finished."
"Really? How do you know that?" Master Hung smirked, needling his former student, not missing the look that passed between them. "Where are you staying this evening? You are welcome to stay with me."
"Thanks for the offer, but we have reservations at the lake." Blowing out a sigh of relief, Casey wrapped an arm around Beth as soon as she rejoined them.
"Am I interrupting?" Beth cast a questioning glance at her lover, not wanting to interrupt. Master Hung had the most unreadable look on his face.
"Never, you know that. Besides," Casey bumped Beth teasingly. "You're saving me from being teased." Hiding her concern, Casey ran worried, inspecting eyes over her lover. Mentally she frowned, observing her hidden fatigue. "When am I gonna learn? Beth went a good fifteen minutes with Master Hung and then more than a half hour with me. Then there was the students' questions. Damn, Casey," start thinking!! She's exhausted...and why shouldn't she be, huh? I'm bigger, stronger and hit much harder than she does. Not to mention the emotional upheaval of the last two days." Promising herself to get Beth to rest as soon as possible, Casey started paying attention to the conversation again.
Casey," Beth admonished her wife when the locker room door closed. "There is no reason why we can't have dinner with Master Hung tonight." Interpreting Casey's silence and slightly guilty look as concern for her, the author sighed loudly. "My protector, what am I going to do with you?" Deciding to change tactics, Beth wrapped both arms around her lover's waist, hugging her fiercely. "Beloved, I am fine. Please, don't worry so much."
"It's not just that." Casey returned the embrace, resting her head against Beth's. The specialist vividly remembered the first time she'd admitted to canceling plans because she thought Beth was too tired. "I definitely do not want a repeat of that." Pushing the remembered panic and fear away, Casey grounded herself by kissing Beth. "If you're up for it, there is still a couple of places I'd like to go tonight." Blue searched green, trying to gauge her lover's fatigue.
"Silly question." Beth smiled softly, nipping the closest piece of open flesh. Biting back her curiosity, the author gently untangled herself from her lover. "Tell me," green eyes twinkled as she started to strip quickly. "Does dinner figure anywhere into this plan of yours?"
"Yup, but not until later. We can stop and grab something on the way if you're really hungry." Casey groaned softly, making herself turn away from her beautiful lover. "Would you stop that?"
"Stop what?" Beth paused, the steaming towel hot against her flesh. She'd been delighted to find the warm towels waiting since shower facilities were not available. "I didn't think I was doing anything." Confused green eyes drifted down her body then met frustrated blue.
"You are just trying to distract me, aren't you?" Casey grumbled, grinning wryly. "Is everything you do so sexy?"
"Casey!" Beth blushed, giggling softly. "You're one to talk anyway! Standing there just tormenting me." Green swept suggestively down her lover's impressive form.
"Truce." Casey motioned to the towels. "Let's hurry and get out of here before I give into temptation." Seeing Beth nod, they quickly finished sponging off and dressed.
"Casey," Master Hung nodded in approval when Beth left his office, giving him a moment's privacy with his former student. He'd already told her how happy he was for her and that her radical change was a most welcome one. "Would you do me the honor of returning to teach and oversee the final stage competition?"
"I don't know what to say." Casey was floored, to her knowledge Master Hung had never asked anyone what he just asked her. A suspicious thought occurred. "Are you feeling alright? You're not sick, are you?"
"No, Casey, I am not ill." Master Hung paused, waiting for his answer.
"I would be honored." Casey replied after much thought. "There really isn't anything else I can say, is there? You've given me so much, this is the least I can do."
"Excellent!" Smiling, Master Hung rattled off the dates then handed her a schedule of events. "You'll stay with me, of course."
"Thanks." Casey found herself in a new, uncomfortable situation, unsure if the offer included Beth. There was no way she was going to go some where for a week without her wife.
"I'm sure Beth will find the gardens inspirational, not to mention liking the opportunity to explore your past with Wei and Yueue." Master Hung smiled serenely, ignoring Casey's relieved, yet exasperated look.
"I'd better get going. We'll see you in a month." Bowing lowly, Casey repeated the ritual greeting. For once, the greeting left her feeling elated, not relieved. "Guess I am changing." Surprising herself, Casey hugged her mentor briefly then left the room, not wanting to embarrass him any more.
"All ready to go?" Casey took Beth's hand. "C'mon," Casey hurried her to the door. "You can look at those pictures next month."
"I can huh?" Beth hurried to keep up with Casey's long strides. "Hey! Where's the fire? And what's this about next month?"
"Sorry." Immediately Casey slowed down. "Guess I'm just in a hurry." Apologizing with her eyes, Casey fell silent, thinking.
"What's going on in that beautiful head of yours? What happened? I don't think anything bad happened at the dojo. Wonder what's...duh, Beth. I bet she wants to drive by her old house. Remember author, no questions! Casey needs my support." Avowing to be what her wife needed, Beth silently walked beside Casey.
Aware of Beth's motives, Casey's heart lightened. This was going to be OK. Filling the silence with small talk, Casey pointed out several places on the long trip across town. "Danny used to live there." She pulled over, pointing to a two story brick home. "We didn't spend much time there. His parents were," blue eyes found green. "Extremely traditional. I wasn't the person they'd chose for their son, but they were happy he finally was dating." Long fingers rested on shorter ones. "I hope he found what he was looking for. He deserves to be happy. Anyway," Casey felt the slight tension in Beth and mentally sighed. "His parents moved shortly after Danny finished college." Kissing Beth's fingers, Casey stared sincerely at her wife. "Danny deserves to be as happy as I am with you."
"I hope he is too." Beth smiled, concentrating on Casey and her words, not the green eyed monster that was still grumbling.
"There's just one more place I'd like you to see before we leave town." Placing Beth's hand on her thigh, Casey pulled back on the road. "It's right around the corner." A few minutes later, she stopped in front of a large two story home. "This is it." Falling silent, Casey's eyes were riveted to the house.
"Damn...place brings back a lot of memories." Not looking at Beth, Casey got out and leaned against the car. "Nothing's changed in the last fifteen years. It could be fifteen years ago and I'd never notice, not looking at the house. Hey Dad, remember us helping to paint the shutters? Whoa, I thought Mom was gonna have a cow...there was more paint on us than the shutters. And what about when we carved our initials in the fence post? Wonder if they're still there. I can't believe Mom hasn't taken that swing down. She hated you putting it in the front yard. But you insisted every kid needed a tree swing. Since we had a tree house in the tree in back, you just had to put it here. What fun we used to have, all three of us piling in the seat and you pushing us higher and higher." Lost in thought, Casey was vaguely aware of Beth's comforting presence. "I'm glad you weren't hear the last time I was...it would have killed you seeing me talk to Mom that way. I would have lost you both then. I think I'm just starting to realize how much I've missed Mom. I know we didn't agree on a lot of issues and we fought more than most, but I never truly felt I wasn't loved...just misunderstood. At times I swore Mom didn't love me, didn't care about me but looking back, I guess she just did what she thought was best for me. Even if it wasn't. I would have given anything to feel that she approved of me for being me..."
"You OK?" Beth asked, leaning against Casey.
"Yeah. I'm fine." Grinning, Casey took Beth's hand and pulled her towards the tree swing. "Want a ride?"
"Casey!" Beth laughed, letting Casey seat her. Hanging on as she was told to, Beth giggled as Casey pushed her higher and higher. "What are your mother's neighbors going to think?"
"Old Mr Renschler already has seen us. He's been watching ever since I sat on the car. And Mrs Janes has been peeking out the window." Casey slowed Beth down, not wanting to push her lover too high. Beth didn't do well with heights. "They're probably talking on the phone to each other, trying to decide if they should come out and tell me to behave." Chuckling, Casey waved at both windows. "It's getting late. We need to get going and I need to feed you."
"Casey!" Beth blushed, her stomach complaining noisily.
"C'mon." Not caring what the neighbors thought, Casey wrapped an arm around Beth's shoulders, guiding her back to the car. "You're awfully quiet, love." The specialist shot a concerned glance at her wife, heading towards the interstate. "Beth?"
"Hmm?" Beth groaned mentally, hearing the worry in Casey's voice. "Sorry, was just picturing you as a young child. Bet you were wild, running amuck, making lots of noise." Grinning fully, green eyes fastened on Casey. "Much like you are now."
"I'm gonna get you for that." Shooting Beth her most menacing look backfired; Beth fell against the door giggling. "How hungry are you?"
"I'm hungry but not starving." Beth managed to talk between her giggling.
"It's a couple of hours to the lake."
"I can wait." A yawn caught her by surprise.
"Hey." Seeing the hints of fatigue around Beth's eyes, Casey swore to herself. Belatedly she remembered keeping Beth up extremely late last night and then waking her before the dawn. "Why don't you take a nap, Sweetheart. You looked pooped."
"What about you?" Beth scrutinized Casey carefully. "It's been a long day for you. I know you're tired too." Her wife reacted to emotional days by craving sleep. It was the only time, unless she was injured, that the specialist could sleep as long as her partner.
"I'm OK. Too wound up to sleep right now." The specialist admitted, her lover's gaze demanding an answer.
"So," Beth narrowed her eyes, easily reading the tension and strain in Casey's face. "If I wanted to debate Jill's merits as an investigator, you'd be opposed?" "You don't need to be alone with your thoughts right now. Who knows what you'll convince yourself of." Thinking of the time on their first trip to Grandma's house, Beth firmly pushed her sleepiness away.
"Nope." Casey answered quickly, welcoming the conversation. "You know I like to discuss your work." "Thank you beloved. I don't know how you do it, but you always know what I need. We still need to talk, but I don't think I can handle that right now...I don't know what to think about it myself, let alone trying to explain it. You'll help me with that too, I imagine." A poke interrupted her. "What?"
"Casey, pay attention." A gentle smile took the sting out of the author's words. "What do you think about ..."
Falling into the conversation, Casey concentrated on her wife, the miles flying by. One last thought worked its way to the light. "God, how I love you. Don't ever let go."
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