Deven arrived at the school the following morning to find several of her students aimlessly milling around in the parking lot. Okay, wheres Jay? Her pale eyes swept the lot and found no sign that her head instructor was anywhere in the vicinity. Great! Just great! Damn him! She stepped out of the truck and walked around the vehicle to assist Tiernan, and as she guided her son towards the building, she exchanged a few polite words with the people that had assembled.
Some students had never been to a tournament before and were approaching the new adventure with a mixture of nerves and excitement. Others, who had participated previously, were already feeling a touch of adrenaline from the anticipation. Spirits were generally high and the near festive air of the previous night was heightened now that competing was only hours away.
It wasnt unusual for competitors to gather at a single location and caravan to tournaments. In fact, Deven promoted the idea. It gave a sense of cohesion to the group, and made the competitors feel less solitary and more a part of a team. Their morale and confidence were boosted as they supported each other, and in the end, the united front tended to promote the schools reputation. Deven gave them a word or two of encouragement as she passed by and then escaped to the relative quiet of her office.
Tiernan sat in one of the chairs on the opposite side of his mothers desk and looked around the space. He liked it here. There were lots of kids of all ages, and he sensed that his mother was important somehow. "Mommy? Can I have some paper?"
"I want to draw something."
"Oh. Sure." She reached over and took a few sheets of paper from the printer tray and passed them to him along with the container that held her writing instruments. She watched as he selected several pens and markers before turning his full attention to the paper.
Deven was feeling her own pre-competition excitement. Competing was a natural high for her, and she couldnt wait to test her expertise against whoever believed they were good enough to challenge her. I hope they have some real competition for me this time. The harder the better. The last few tournaments shed attended had been disappointing in that regard, so much so that shed contemplated completely retiring from competition.
Confident expectation increased her heart rate, and she felt the excitement in the pit of her stomach. Ease up, Deven. Taking a deep breath, she expelled it slowly. It was too soon to let the adrenaline rise, and so she purposefully pushed thoughts of the thrill to come from her mind and focused on the problem at hand.
Where the hell is Jay? When shed spoken with him yesterday, hed assured her that he would be at the school by 8:00. It was now 8:25, and his irresponsibility was aggravating. As her head instructor, he should have been there to assist her, and with each minute that passed, her irritation increased.
Shifting her attention to her son, she watched as he continued to draw on the paper shed provided. The tip of his small pink tongue was pressed between his lips and his face possessed a look of utter concentration. Theyd both managed to sleep through the night, their dreams either nonexistent or pleasant. In fact, shed dreamed of a certain blonde landscaper. She couldnt remember the dream per se, but the good feeling that had been created by the illusion still lingered in the back of her mind. The impression left by the dream was pleasing but troublesome.
Her relationship with Rhian was growing more problematic. As her feelings for the young woman continued to emerge and grow in depth, she was at a loss as how to respond to them. Having never had strong feelings for anyone before, she found the whole circumstance confusing. Her usually controlled and indifferent behavior had taken on an irrationality that was totally foreign to her. The more she tried to understand, the more confused she became.
Shaking her head, she shifted her thoughts to her son. Hed been difficult to rouse this morning, but once up, hed been cheerful and good-natured. At least until shed suggested he should take a bath. That idea hadnt settled well with the child, but there was no way she was going to send him off with Rhian without one. Hed stood at the tubs edge with an expression between a scowl and a pout until shed turned the jets on causing a swirl of water in the bathtub. The look of wonder that had crossed his face had been priceless and the memory caused her lips to twitch into smile. "Hey." He lifted his head and looked at her. "Do you dream a lot?"
His brow furrowed in thought. "Sometimes."
"Do you have a lot of nightmares?"
He shook his head. "No. But when I do, Aunt Laura stays with me."
"I dont like them," he said in a soft voice.
"What? The nightmares?"
He nodded his head. "Who stays with you?"
"When I have nightmares?" He nodded again. "No one stays with me. I." What, Deven? Tell him you consider the nightmares justice. Go on. I dare you. "Im grown up. I take care of myself." Looking out the window of her office, she saw Jay drive up and park. She observed him intently, taking note of how slowly he stepped out of the car. Tied one on last night. Asshole! Her mood went from upset at him to seriously pissed-off in a flash.
"Hm?" she replied absently.
"Will Rhian be here soon?"
"I sure hope so," she murmured. Her eyes never left Jay and they bore into his as he stepped into the office. "Have a good time last night?"
He nodded slightly. He was feeling the effects of the previous evening, and was certain Deven wasnt pleased he was late. It wasnt that hed had too much to drink. It was more that hed been up very late. "Nicole and I went clubbing a little in D.C. No big deal."
Leaning back in her chair, she cocked her head slightly as she regarded her longtime friend. "Yeah? Youre a little old to be out partying the night before a tournament. You arent twenty-one anymore. Come to think of it, you werent that good at twenty-one." She allowed the anger to rise and glared at him. "But beyond that, youre my head instructor. You told me you would be here and then failed to meet your obligation. You of all people know how much that pisses me off!"
Tiernan sat quietly looking back and forth between Jay and his mother. He could feel her anger and hated it. It made his stomach hurt.
"Funny," Jay said. He was tired and definitely not in the mood to deal with this. He loved Deven, but sometimes she was just too rigid. Yes, I missed my obligation, and thats always been important to her. But sometimes shes just a total pain in the ass. He returned her gaze without backing down. "Not all of us need to win all the time. Life is about a lot more then whether or not there is another plaque on the wall or a trophy in the corner."
She lowered her voice, and it came out in a growl. "Fuck you." The struggle to stay seated and not get in his face was hard. The only thing that stopped her was the knowledge that the students were nearby. "You think thats all this is about? Take a look behind you at those people in the parking lot. Your students."
"Theyre your students too, Deven. It wouldnt kill you to interact with them a little more once in awhile. Might even do you good." They continued to stare at each other for several more seconds before he shifted his attention to the boy and smiled. "Hey, buddy boy. No hug for Uncle Jay?"
Tiernan had been growing more anxious as they squared off. When Jay addressed him, he quickly covered the short distance to the big man, and was scooped up into a hug.
"How have you been, T?" Jay asked.
Though relieved that the tense moment had passed, Tiernan could still feel the anger coming from his mother. He settled into Jays protective embrace and tried not to think about his upset stomach. "Good. I stayed with Mommy last night."
"No kidding." He glanced at Deven. "Whats up?"
The martial artist frowned. "Long story, and my mother is at the center of it."
"Figures." Jay had known Patricia most of his life. The woman had never made it a secret that she didnt care for him much. Hed always been more bothered by how badly she treated Deven at times then what she thought of him. Turning back to the boy in his arms, he asked, "What did you and Mommy do?"
"Ate pizza and watched a movie. I had a nightmare, but Mommy made it better." Tiernan became excited. "Did you know her bathtub makes bubbles? Lots of them."
Jay laughed at his innocent exuberance. "No, I didnt know that. What did this stranger, who looks like your mother, make you for breakfast?"
"Pancakes with chocolate and bananas. They were good," he replied with enthusiasm.
Jay looked skeptically at Deven. Tiernans description was so out of character for this woman, and yet, she didnt refute any of what the child said. This is just bizarre. He wanted to ask her for clarification, but knowing she wasnt all that pleased with him at the moment, this was not the time to start asking her a lot of personal questions.
Deven was looking out the window, and Jay observed a softening of her eyes. He followed her gaze and saw Rhian standing with a group of students. Interesting. Looking back at his friend, he noted a slight smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. Interesting indeed.
Rhian chatted casually with several of the people in the parking lot as she made her way into the school to collect her young charge. Their excitement was obvious, and she felt a pang of disappointment that she was going to miss seeing them compete. As she entered the office, she looked from Jay to the boy in his arms. They could pass for father and son. "Hi guys. I see you both survived last night."
Jay laughed, grateful for the break in tension between himself and Deven. "Hi, Rhian. Nicole tell you about our little adventure?"
She smiled while reaching out and taking Tiernans hand in her own. "Not much. When I spoke with her a little bit ago, she wasnt too coherent." She looked at the boy. "Hi, little man. Did you have fun last night?"
"Good." She gave his hand a little squeeze. "You can tell me all about it after they all leave." She turned to face Deven and grinned. "Hi."
"Hi yourself." Deven felt her mood lift considerably at just the sight of that smile directed at her.
"I need to grab some gear. Tiernan and Ill be right back." Jay left the room with the child still in his arms, and Deven watched through the window as he passed through the classroom to the locker room. She used the time to get herself under control before turning her attention back to the blonde. "By the way, he became king."
"What?" The landscapers forehead creased in confusion.
Dark eyebrows lifted in question. "The movie?"
"Oh, that." Rhian chuckled and her nose crinkled slightly. "I take it Tiernan gave you my message."
"Yep." Deven stood, walked around the desk, and then sat down on the corner.
"And you watched. Im impressed."
Deven gave her a lopsided grin. "Well, his argument was very persuasive. Especially when he started throwing your name into it."
The younger woman tipped her head toward the window. "Good showing."
"We have quite a few competing today. There are more coming from the other schools, too. Well meet up with them at the tournament." She scanned the group. They were waiting for her to give the word it was time to go. "Im proud of them. Theyve worked really hard."
The younger woman sighed, drawing Devens attention away from the window. "Well, I have some bad news," Rhian said. She took a deep breath and exhaled in another sigh. "I cant make it to the tournament this afternoon. One of my designers is sick and has an important site survey today. So, I have to go in his place."
Deven crossed her arms across her chest and gazed down at the floor. Damn it! She struggled to keep her exterior impassive, but on the inside she felt as if someone had just hit her full force in the stomach. "Im sorry to hear that." What surprised her was the amount of truth in the sentiment. "What about Tiernan?"
"No problem there. Im still taking him with me. Ill leave him with my father when I go for the appointment, and Dad will take him home to play with Seana. So, dont worry about that, okay?"
Deven lifted her head, but avoided looking at Rhian. Instead she looked out the window to the treetops across the road. "Youre sure your parents dont mind?"
"Absolutely not." Rhians lips twitched into a mischievous grin. "I do have some good news, if you care to hear it."
Deven stood up and pushed her hands into the pockets of her warm-ups. I cant believe this is happening. Sure you can. What made you think shed want to spend time with you? Youve been a complete jerk to her, and after that fiasco at your mothers Im surprised she agreed in the first place. Thats what you get, Masterson, for allowing yourself to want something like this. It isnt yours to want.
Rhian looked beyond the indifferent guise and concentrated on Devens eyes. She was beginning to understand that there was a great deal of depth in those baby blues. "Nicole and I will be coming to the finals tonight. That is, if you still want us to?"
The martial artist expelled a deep breath. One she hadnt even realized she was holding. "That would be great," she answered with little emotion.
"Good. What time should we meet you and where?"
Deven was having a hard time remaining poised. She felt like shed just dodged another emotional pendulum, barely avoiding the swinging blade. "What?"
Rhian studied her friend more closely. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. My mind just wandered for a moment. What did you ask? Meeting right. Why dont you plan to be outside the main entrance at six? Either Jay or I will meet you there. Dont buy a ticket. That will be covered."
The womans behavior was feeding Rhians doubts, and she wondered if perhaps Deven had changed her mind. Maybe she doesnt really want you there. "Are you sure you want us to come? Its okay if you changed your mind." No it isnt. Not really. Please dont tell me you would rather I not come.
"No. I havent changed my mind. Why?"
Rhian shrugged slightly. "You just seem. I dont know. Distant."
"Sorry. Just pre-tournament stuff." Liar! You could just tell her the truth. Yeah right. Not only are you now an emotional idiot, Masterson, but youre getting stuck on stupid as well. "Yes, I want you to come."
"Im really looking forward to this."
Deven relaxed some, and gave the younger woman a smile that bordered on being shy. "Me, too."
Relief flowed through Rhian, and she stepped forward and hugged the martial artist. Shed intended to give her a small hug for luck, but once she felt Devens arms return the embrace, any inclination to break the hold was gone. "Good luck."
Deven snorted. "Luck has little to do with me."
"Well, then, do whatever it takes to win, because I want to watch you compete tonight." Standing there in the womans arms, Rhian felt her heart rate rise. What would it be like to kiss you? Would it be like my dreams?
"Ill see what I can do," Deven whispered. Rhian managed, apparently without thought or intent, to disarm the martial artists defenses as if they didnt exist. How is that possible? When the young woman had stepped forward into the hug, Deven had felt herself hesitate. She was in the school. There were students and parents to consider. But the voice in her head had just said fuck it and shed felt her arms encircling the landscaper. The school had receded from her consciousness as had everyone gathered nearby until her world narrowed to the woman in her arms and to the notion that a part of her didnt want to let go. Ever.
Tiernan strolled into the office followed closely by Jay, and with one final squeeze, Rhian reluctantly released her hold on Deven. Turning, she gave Jay a brief hug. "Good luck to you, too."
"Thank you. Ready, Boss?" he asked.
"Just about." Deven reached into the pocket of her warm ups and removed some money. She attempted to give it to Rhian, but the woman wouldnt accept it. Kneeling down, she faced her son. "Here. Put this in your pocket for later, okay? Thats for food and if you go somewhere. All right?"
"You be good. You do what Rhian tells you. Understand?"
"Yes." He wrapped his arms around her neck.
Tentatively she gave him a gentle hug, and then pushed him back slightly. Standing, she reached out and lightly squeezed his shoulder. "Good boy." She grabbed up her keys from the desktop, and started for the door. "Lets get the show on the road."
"Wait. I need to get my picture." Tiernan gathered up the paper with the drawing hed started and folded it carefully in half.
"Okay. Lets go." Deven locked up the school and waited on the sidewalk while everyone went to their respective cars. Jay put his gear in the back of the Pathfinder and settled himself in the passenger seat, waiting for his friend. Rhian and Tiernan walked with the martial artist as she circled the truck to the drivers door. She turned to face Rhian and realized she didnt know what to say.
She was finding that there were moments when she looked at this woman that she suddenly found there were a lot of things she wanted to say. She knew that she had neither the words to express herself in those moments nor the right, and so she remained silent until the feelings passed. "Have fun. If he gives you any trouble, call me on the cell."
"Dont worry, Deven." Rhian patted the martial artists side. "Well be just fine."
"Okay. Ill see you tonight." It came out more of a question then a statement, and Deven cursed her uncertainty.
"Im looking forward to it." Rhian took the boy by the hand and walked to her own truck. They waited side by side while the competitors drove out of the parking lot, and waved as Deven and Jay drove past. She felt disappointment wash over her that shed be missing most of the tournament. Dont dwell on that. Think about tonight. Her mood lifted and she smiled down at Tiernan. "Ready?"
She looked down the road once more in the direction Deven had gone. "Okay. Last one in the truck is a rotten egg." She stood still and watched him rush into the truck, a big smile on her face.
Tiernans company proved to be a pleasant diversion on a morning that otherwise dragged unbearably for the landscaper. He was bright and inquisitive, a fast learner, and remarkably well mannered. She supposed that Patricia Masterson was partly responsible for that last characteristic though she couldnt bring herself to dwell on how the woman went about instructing the boy.
It hadnt taken long for Mac to be completely won over by the child, and Tiernan spent much of the afternoon following Rhians father from place to place like a cheerful puppy. The electric carts they used to transport materials around the garden center fascinated the boy, and he was delighted when Mac allowed him to steer the cart on one of their trips to the back of the nursery. By the time Rhian left for her afternoon appointment, she could tell the two had bonded and were well on their way to becoming friends.
She arrived home in the late afternoon, her spirits much higher then theyd been in the morning. The survey had gone well and she felt confident theyd get the job. But what really lifted her mood was the knowledge that in a few hours shed be at the tournament. A small smile played on her lips at the anticipation of watching Deven compete. Who are you kidding? Of watching Deven do anything.
Entering the kitchen, she found Seana and Tiernan seated at the table playing a card game. Kate was leaning against a nearby counter, watching the children with an expression of amusement. "Hi gang," Rhian greeted them blithely.
"Hi, Mama. Were playing."
"I see that." She placed a kiss on her daughters head and then turned to the boy. "Did you have fun today?"
"Yes." His eyes grew wide. "Those carts go fast."
She chuckled and then kissed his dark head. "Yes they do." She knew that the speed of the carts was mostly an illusion. The spaces within the garden center were narrow and the distances rather short, so that any speed would appear to be faster then it actually was. But she didnt see any reason to burst his bubble.
She spoke with Kate for a few minutes and learned that the older woman was completely enamored of the boy as well, and it seemed that Tiernan had been added to the list of honorary fledglings adopted into the Mackenzie household. The two women quietly discussed the evening to come and Kate agreed with Rhian that Tiernan should bed down there for the night. They saw no reason to wake him and drive him to Devens just to put him back to bed.
"Hey, Tiernan?" The child looked up at her expectantly. "Nicole and I are going to meet Mommy and Jay at the tournament tonight. We wont be back until late, so youre going to sleep here. Okay?"
"Yay! I want him to stay, Mama," Seana said.
Rhian grinned at her daughter. "I know you do."
The small boy looked down at the table, and said nothing. "Tiernan?" When he didnt respond, she placed a finger under his chin and gently lifted his head.
His eyes were watery, and Rhians heart lurched. "What is it?" she asked gently.
He swallowed, and she could see he was struggling not to cry. "What did I do wrong?"
Rhian looked at his trembling lip. His reaction was totally unexpected, and she wasnt certain what had made him so upset. "Honey, you didnt do anything wrong. Why would you think that?"
He blinked and a large tear escaped from each pale eye. "Is Mommy mad at me?"
Uh oh. Okay, Rhian, you better fix this real quick. She pulled a chair up next to him and sat as close as she physically could. "Mommy is not mad at you. No one is mad at you. Its just that you will be asleep when the tournament ends, and we dont want to wake you up. Youll be with Mommy tomorrow. In the meantime, everyone here is very happy youre staying."
"Really?" he asked as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hands.
Kate stepped up behind her daughter. "Most definitely, Tiernan."
"But will Mommy be mad that I
dont go home tonight?"
Rhian reached out a hand and gentle ran her fingers through his dark hair. "No, honey. She wont be mad, I promise. And when I see Mommy tonight, Ill tell her what a good boy youve been. Okay?" He smiled shyly, almost that same lopsided grin his mother possessed. I could easily fall in love with you, Tiernan Masterson. There is so much of your mother in you, but you are wonderful all by yourself. "Now, I need to go shower and get dressed." Rhian stood, kissed each child again and moved towards the stairs.
Kate intercepted her at the doorway, and spoke softly. "What was that all about?"
Rhian looked past her mother to the children playing at the table. "Its a long story, Mom, but basically, Tiernan doesnt live with Deven. He lives with his Aunt and Grandmother. The nasty ones I told you about. Hes a bit unsure of his relationship with his mother, and its easy to understand why. I cant tell you much more then that. Except that I strongly believe that Deven loves him, and her reasons for not having him with her are perhaps misguided but born of good intention."
"They say that the path to hell is paved with good intentions," Kate said softy.
Rhian rolled her eyes and released an exaggerated sigh. "I know, Mom. If he gets insecure, just talk to him." She smiled at the older woman. "Better yet, Im sure one of your hugs would most certainly be the best medicine. Now Ive got to get cleaned up."
Once in the confines of her quiet room, Rhian stripped out of her work clothes and made her way to the shower. Standing under the warm water, she tried to visualize what the finals would be like, and found she had no idea. Having never been to a tournament, she didnt know how anything was done. Her only point of reference was what shed seen in the school and that, she was certain, was nowhere near what the final would be like.
Washing up quickly, she stepped out of the shower, dried off, and regarded her reflection in the mirror. "Okay, Rhian, you listen to me. You need to relax, and you need to get a grip on your emotions. Youre not in Devens league. And even if you were, you know youd screw it up." A touch of melancholy descended on her. "Oh, knock it off. Have fun. Just dont you dare do anything stupid."
When Nicole picked her up later that evening, both children were eating their dinner and engaged in a lively conversation with Kate and Mac. Tiernans concerns seemed to have vanished, and Rhian was confident he was in the best possible hands.
Jay, dressed in slacks, shirt and tie, was waiting for them at the entrance to the arena. Hed lost his last sparring match and wasnt competing in the finals, which was fine with him though Deven hadnt been happy about it. She wasnt angry hed lost, but that hed fought poorly in the last round of the fight. Shed taken him aside and quite adamantly blamed his poor performance on his date the night before. He knew he could have done better and there was some truth to what she said, but he didnt particularly care. The winning had never meant as much to him as it had her. Besides, hed enjoyed the evening with Nicole.
"Good evening, ladies. You both look nice." He presented them with VIP passes and then escorted them into the venue. Their seats were ringside directly behind the judges a perk of being the guests of Deven Masterson.
Scanning the auditorium, Rhian was immediately enthralled with a spectacle of sights, sounds, and sensations. The room seemed to crackle with unseen energy. The air was heavy with expectation, and she found herself drawn into the growing excitement. This wasnt at all what shed thought. It was bigger and louder and flashier, and far more impressive. There was so much to absorb, and she tried to take it all in.
She was surprised by the size of the crowd, and was grateful they were sitting so close to the stage. Several of Devens students stopped by, and chatted about the days events, and from what they told her, the schools had been well represented. In fact, several students had taken top honors in their divisions, and a couple of them were competing in the finals. Their enthusiasm was contagious and further fueled her desire for the spectacle to begin.
Both Rhian and Nicole listened attentively as Jay provided them with an overview of what they would be seeing. The junior black belts would compete first in weapons and forms. Once the junior divisions were finished the team finals would be held followed immediately by the adult black belt divisions.
Rhian looked around the expansive room before directing her attention to the raised stage in front of them. It was large and reminded her of a boxing ring without the ropes. Bright lights shown directly down from above, and spectators were seated on three sides. The back of the platform was where the martial artists warmed up and waited until it was time for them to compete.
The tension in the room was rising noticeably as the time for the show to begin drew nearer, and Rhian found her stomach fluttering with nerves. What are you nervous about? You dont have to do anything but sit here.
She still hadnt seen Deven. Jay had told them that she was off getting changed and warmed up, and he didnt know whether or not she planned to stop by before the finals started. Rhian was a little disappointed at the prospect she might not even get to say hello before the show started. She surveyed the venue again and was so intent on her task of searching for the martial artist she didnt see the woman approach.
Deven caught a glimpse of the look of wonder on Rhians face and smiled. Stepping up behind the younger woman, she spoke softly. "Glad you made it."
Rhian jumped visibly and turned. "You scared me!"
"Sorry. I didnt mean to." Deven took a step back, increasing the space between them.
God, she looks like I just slapped her. Rhian reached out and gently grasped Devens forearm. "No. Im sorry. I was looking for you, but obviously I was looking in the wrong place. I was just startled. It wasnt your fault." Her eyes scanned the martial artist. The blue and black v-neck uniform was attractive on the tall frame and the color accentuated Devens eyes. "Nice uniform."
"You like? Theyre custom made." She shrugged. "Theyre sort of flashy, which looks good up there under those blasted lights. The thing I like is that its easier to hide dirt on them than on the white." Deven allowed her eyes to take in the blonde, and she liked what she saw. Rhian was dressed in tailored black slacks and a pale green summer sweater. She liked the color a lot, and her gaze was drawn back to the sweater. Rhian, you have got some nice curves. "You look very nice."
Rhian felt a wave of warmth flow through her at the intense look on Devens features, and she was suddenly dazed by the thrill that traveled down her spine. Shed read about people undressing other people with their eyes, and until that moment shed no real conception of what the meant. She looked at the floor and clasped her trembling hands together. It had felt as if Devens eyes had been looking beyond her clothes to the flesh beneath, and while it was pleasing to illicit such a response from the woman, it was alarming at how strongly her body reacted. "Thank thank you."
The martial artist looked up on the stage as she forced the image of Rhians feminine form from her head, and put her focus on the task at hand. Later, Masterson. You still have to compete, so get your hormones under control. She cleared her throat and changed the subject. "Is Jay taking good care of you?"
Rhian glanced back up. "Yes. Hes being a perfect gentleman. Especially to Nicole."
"I think he has a thing for her, " Deven whispered.
"Well, I think she has a thing for him, too."
They both smiled. "How was my boy?"
"Great. Hes having a blast at my parents house. Theyre treating him like hes just part of the family. I hope you dont mind, but I arranged for him to stay the night. It just didnt make sense to wake him up to move him from one bed to another."
"Very sensible, Ms. McKenna. Thank you."
"He was a bit concerned that you might be mad at him, if he stayed without your permission. I assured him you would be okay with it."
Deven frowned. "Its fine. Listen, I need to go get warmed up and stretch out. If you need anything, have Jay take care of it."
"All right." Rhian regarded the other woman and she smiled. "I dont suppose it would do any good to wish you luck."
"No. But Ill take another of your hugs just in case." Rhian didnt need any further prompting. She wrapped her arms around the martial artists waist, and Deven returned the embrace without hesitation. She took a deep breath, inhaling Rhians perfume, and everything else was forgotten. Where she was and why she was there disappeared in the sweet warmth of the woman in her arms. She heard her name and reality seeped back into her brain. Placing a small kiss on the side of the blonde head, she whispered. "Thank you."
Did she just kiss me? No way. Damn it, now Im imagining things. Reluctantly, Rhian stepped back. "Youre welcome."
"Ill see you later. Have fun." Deven winked at her and then walked away.
Wow. Rhian watched Deven until she turned the corner towards the back of the stage. The martial artist had a way of walking that was confident and strong, and so very sexy. She sat down quietly, confused by her feelings. When Deven held her, it was the best feeling she could remember safe and warm. At the same time, the close proximity of the woman threw her hormones into chaos. Shed thought she could overcome her feelings. Just will them away. Now she wondered if that was possible. Devens effect on her was growing too strong.
Rhian viewed the show with the eye of a novice. The performances and pageantry captivated her, and she leaned past Nicole several times to ask Jay questions. She wanted to understand as much as she possibly could about how the process worked and what the judges based their scores on.
The youth divisions were first and completely fascinated her. That children were so skilled at such a young age amazed her, and she wondered if Tiernan would show signs of his mothers ability. She envisioned him standing on that stage, a smaller version of Deven. She also imagined Seana doing the same, and a small smile touched her lips as she realized she was allowing the mother in her forth to paint a picture of who her daughter might be one day.
The winner of the youth forms division was a young female from the school, and Jay did nothing to contain his pride. Rhian had seen the young girl practice for some time under Devens careful tutelage and figured that the martial artist was probably very pleased with the childs accomplishment.
The Womens Forms finals were announced, and Rhian felt butterflies settle in her stomach. Why am I nervous? Im not the one who has to get up there in front of all these people. How does she do it? Id pass out, and theyd have to stop the fanfare to sweep me off the stage. "Jay?"
"How does this part work? They didnt separate the kids by gender. But the adults are?"
He turned his head to look at her. "Yeah. There isnt a lot of difference in ability with regard to forms when the competitors are young. Plus, they dont divide the youth divisions by the style of martial art."
Rhian nodded her head. "Deven won the Womens Open Division, right?"
"Right," he concurred. "There are four other women competing against her tonight." He raised his hand and counted off the challengers. "That includes todays winners of the Japanese, Chinese and Korean Divisions plus the winner of the Womens Senior Division."
"Okay." She knew nothing about the other styles, and was looking forward to seeing them. "So, who goes first?"
"The order in which they compete is determined at random. Its considered unlucky to be the first in a division, because the judges tend to score the first few participants low to ensure that they have room to give higher scores if a better challenger performs later. The scores tend to steadily rise as each competitor performs. Its more an issue for the earlier meets in the day where there are often a large number of people competing in each division. If a martial artist is seeded, they automatically go to the end of the line with the top seed always going last. But seeds dont count in the finals."
He paused as the first competitor took the stage. "Generally at this level in the tournament, the judges are familiar with who the finalists are, and they have a feel for where the contenders will finish in the judging."
Rhians eyes widened. "Are you saying theyve already made up their minds?"
He shook his head. "No. But they expect a certain level of performance. They know Deven and are expecting she will perform at her usual level or better. Dont get me wrong. She could still lose if she fails to meet their expectations or someone else performs better. The only challenger I see being a real threat to Deven tonight is the winner of the Chinese Division."
The first three women competitors performed, leaving the Chinese Division winner and Deven yet to face the judges. Rhian watched each challenger intently, trying to grasp the scoring. She finally conceded that she didnt understand and switched her focus to just enjoying the spectacle. From her perspective, they were all good, though she didnt believe they measured up to what shed seen Deven do in practice. Of course, Ive never seen her compete.
Rhian couldnt see Deven, but she could feel the womans magnetic presence. The crowd sensed it too, and the overall level of excitement in the venue increased noticeably. The butterflies in Rhians stomach turned into full-fledged birds beating their wings in time with her rising heart rate. Realizing her hands were balled into fists, she extended her fingers and wiped her palms on the front of her slacks.
The MC stepped up to the microphone and in a clear voice announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen. Our next competitors credentials are much too long to list here. She began competing at six years of age, and won her first championship crown at this very tournament two years later. Since then she has gone on to win every major title at least once. Shes an inductee to all the martial arts halls of fame, I believe. If not, she most likely will be."
Cheers began to rise up throughout the crowd as Devens fans realized she was to compete next, and Rhian leaned forward in her seat with expectancy.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this years winner of the Womans Open Form Division, Deven Masterson." A roar rose up from the audience, and Rhian glanced at Nicole. She saw her own surprise mirrored in her friends expression. She also realized she was holding her breath, and made a conscious effort to exhale.
The auditorium filled with the sound of music and Deven climbed the stairs to the stage. Even from this distance Rhian could feel the profound energy radiating from the tall form. The confidence Deven had displayed the first time theyd met was apparent again, and it spread outward seemingly to hang over the audience. The air of assurance that had so intimidated Rhian that night at the Pit now filled her with a sense of awe, and she felt goose bumps rise on her arms.
The martial artist came to attention and bowed soundly to the panel of judges, but unlike the other competitors, she didnt verbally address them as was customary. Instead, she stepped to her starting spot on the stage and paused as the first piece of music stopped and the next one began.
With a fierce yell, Deven began to work her magic. She performed with aplomb and focus, precision and power. Every technique was delivered with textbook precision. Each kick was thrust out and locked in place for everyone to see the flawless positioning, or snapped so quickly, her leg was nothing more than a blur. Her jumps were high. Her punches and chops rapid and sure. To the young blonde, as well as most of the crowd watching, it was artistry.
Rhian was spellbound. Not a sound was heard anywhere in the room except for the music, Devens yells, and for those close enough to the stage, the snap of her uniform. The performance was fluid and powerful, and before Rhian knew it, Deven delivered the final technique to her form in time with the last beat of the music. The silence that filled the air was astonishing, and then, as if of one voice, the room erupted into a thunder of applause and cheers.
The tall martial artist stood stock still on the stage waiting for the judges to display their scores. The only motion visible was the steady rise and fall of her chest. A minute or more passed and still the MC could not announce the scores over the sound of the crowd. Deven remained patiently waiting, her expression unreadable. Waving his arms at the audience, the MC finally managed to calm the din so that the process could proceed.
Each of the six judges held up their score card in turn for the scorekeeper to record and the MC to announce. Five consecutive scores of a perfect ten were read in succession each one raising the level of enthusiasm in the venue. People began to stand, and Rhian could hear the group of Devens students chanting her name.
Jay, Nicole and Rhian rose to their feet, caught up in the accolade. The last score, a nine point nine five was read followed immediately by the audiences undisguised verbal displeasure. A slight smirk played on Devens lips as she regarded the judge. She bowed to the panel, glanced down at Rhian, and then strolled off the stage with the ovation still sounding throughout the arena.
Rhian sat quietly trying to calm her fluttery stomach. Drawn up into the beauty of the moment and oblivious to all else, she hadnt realized just how nervous she was while Deven was performing. She knew Deven was in the lead, but there was still one more competitor to challenge her.
The last contender was good. She was talented and knew how to play to the crowd, and her followers made themselves known among the audience. Rhian didnt believe that the performance was quite as good as Devens. But then I know nothing about the Chinese martial art style. Now it was up to the judges to determine who would leave tonight as the Womens Forms Champion. The scores were read and were quite good, and Rhian was astounded that the one judge that had marked Deven down gave this competitor a ten.
The five women returned to the stage for the crowning of the champion, and Deven was formally announced the winner much to the crowds approval. The martial artist remained poised as she shook each judges hand in turn and stood patiently for the obligatory photographs with the tournament promoters. Shed done this so many times it was boring after the thrill of performing. Holding the Championship plaque over her head with one hand, she waved to the crowd with the other and strode off the stage.
Rhian released a sigh of relief and picked up her program. She read that the Womens Light and Middleweight Division fighters would be sparring next. The Mens Light and Middleweight Division contenders would follow them. The winners of those rounds would advance to the face the winners of the Middle Heavy and Heavy Weight matches later in the program.
The young woman observed the first sparring match with quiet scrutiny. Deven was scheduled to fight later, and Rhian wanted to gain a better understanding of the sparring process. I wish Id paid more attention at the school. She felt a firm but familiar hand on her shoulder and looked up as Deven sat down beside her. "Hi, Rhian."
Rhian couldnt contain the smile, and beamed at the martial artist. "Hi. Congratulations! That was incredible!"
Deven looked at that smile directed at her and thought her heart would burst. "Thanks." She held the Championship plaque out to the younger woman. "Would you keep an eye on that for me, please?" Rhian took the plaque gingerly, and Deven laughed. "You wont break it."
"But what if I drop it?"
"Then it will make one hell of a lot of noise." Rhian blinked and then chuckled as she realized Deven was teasing her. "Have you seen my gear bag?" Deven asked.
Reaching past Nicole, Rhian touched Jays arm. "Deven needs her stuff."
Jay looked over and smiled at his friend. "Hey there. Good job." Reaching under his seat, Jay pulled out her bag and passed it over to her.
"Thanks. You up to coming over and helping me warm up for my fight?"
He started to rise but Deven signaled for him to stay seated. "Not yet. I would like to just sit for a moment or two."
Jay grinned at her. "No problem old lady."
She returned the easy banter. "Who you calling old? Youre older than I am grandpa." Deven sat back in her chair and sipped from her water bottle. She felt great. She was sorry the team competition hadnt gone a little better, but she was proud of her students - all of them. Theyd done very well today. The school had been well represented, and she needed to remember to acknowledge the competitors in the schools next week. But beyond all that, she had Rhian sitting next to her and that put her on top of the world.
Rhian alternated between watching the fights and observing the woman by her side. Deven was definitely in her element and it showed. Several people around them congratulated her, and the martial artist took it all in stride. She wasnt arrogant so much as self-assured. Her cerulean eyes were exceptionally bright, and a faint sheen of perspiration coated her face causing her complexion to glow under the light spilling from the stage.
Deven still exuded a wave of intense energy, and Rhian allowed it to flow over and around her. It no longer intimidated her. She had come to understand it was just another facet of the woman shed fallen in love with, and when directed as it was tonight, it served a purpose. The sudden thought of that energy focused on the act of making love caused her skin to flush and certain areas of her body to tighten with unexpected arousal.
Rhian knew she was dangerously close to losing control of her feelings for this woman. I have got to make a decision on what Im going to do about this. She sighed again. But for tonight, I just want to bask in all these feelings.
She decided that tomorrow would be soon enough to start seriously putting some emotional distance between herself and Deven. Just be careful you dont let something slip, Rhian. Memories of Deven laughing at her at the Pit filled her mind and she mentally shuddered. She will laugh her butt off at you if she figures out what you feel. Do not make a fool of yourself again!
Deven turned her attention from the sparring match to the younger blonde. She couldnt make out Rhians expression. It had a dreamy quality to it, and she wondered what the woman was thinking. Before she could ask, someone called over that she had about twenty minutes before her first sparring match. Nodding in response she addressed Rhian. "Ill be back." She stood and signaled Jay it was time to go.
Waiting for Jay to return, Rhian and Nicole kept each other company while watching the Mens Forms Finals. Though they found the forms impressive, their limited knowledge of the martial arts diminished their interest somewhat. If Jay had been competing, it would have been a different story.
Nicole leaned towards her friend. "What do you think?"
"The whole thing. Pretty impressive, wouldnt you say?"
Rhian grinned. "You could say that." She looked back up at the stage. "Deven sure is good, and has quite a following."
Nicole snorted. "And she knows it."
Rhian felt a twinge of anger. Why am I angry? Nicole is entitled to her own opinion. Oh get off it, Rhian. Youre angry because you love the woman and your best friend doesnt like her. Well, it wont matter after tonight anyway. She tentatively broached the subject of Nicoles feelings about Deven. "Why dont you like her?"
"She has an ego the size of Montana. Shes made you cry. She treats Jay like dirt. And, she scares me."
Rhian nodded her head slightly. "Well, thats all true. She does have a big ego, but I think in most things she can back it up. She did make me cry, but that was a misunderstanding. And, I might add, it happened some time ago. And, she apologized. As for Jay, I think they act a lot like brother and sister. You know, lots of people think I treat Michael badly. And, if you got to know her, she isnt as scary as you may think."
Nicole turned slightly towards her friend. "You dont beat up on Michael, at least not anymore. Why are you defending her?"
"Im not defending her, Nic." Oh, yes I am. Why? "Im just saying that you arent seeing the big picture. This is also the same woman that saved me, remember?"
Nicole shook her head in exasperation. "Please, tell me you dont think you actually owe her something for that. If she hadnt upset you in the first place."
Rhian cut her off. "Dont go there. I was responsible for leaving and putting myself in danger - not Deven." She looked closely at her friend. "Ive gotten to know her a bit, and I think shes had a very hard time of it. Her mother is the bitch from hell. I guess I cut her a little slack."
"Whatever." Nicole turned her attention to Jay as he rejoined them. "Everything okay?"
"Yep. Shes ready."
Deven climbed the steps to the stage for her fight. Her opponent stood slightly shorter and was heavier, but if those characteristics were of concern, it didnt show in Devens expression or demeanor. Standing to one side of the stage, she conversed casually with the center judge and appeared to be completely at ease.
Rhian watched as four other judges appeared onstage and sat in chairs, one in each of the rings four corners. She questioned Jay as to why there were so many people present. He provided her with a somewhat cloudy explanation of the judging, and laughed at her expression of confusion. She understood the fundamentals, or at least thought she did. She supposed it would make more sense once she saw it in action.
She watched Deven walk casually to the center of the stage. The tall woman observed the four judges, and paused. She said something to the center judge, and from her sudden change in attitude she didnt appear to like his response. The judge talked to her calmly for several seconds, but whatever the problem was, Deven was obviously unhappy and started to remove her sparring gear.
Nicole and Rhian shared a look of confusion before Nicole turned to Jay. "Whats going on?"
He watched the action on the stage. "Im not completely sure, but I think she isnt happy about the judges."
The center judge walked over to the judge in the far corner, and Rhian recognized him as the judge who had given Deven the low score in the form's competition. The two men exchanged words, and the judge appeared angry as well. He took a step towards Deven, but found his path blocked by the center judge. Deven smiled at him, and he glowered at her before turning and storming off the stage. An older woman walked up and quickly took the vacated seat. Satisfied with the change, Deven put her gear back on and began pacing.
"What was that all about?" Rhian asked.
"Her ego no doubt. What else would it be?" Nicole replied.
Jay shook his head. "For some reason, there has been bad blood between those two for as long as I can remember. Deven doesnt like him judging her at all, but especially not in the sparring matches. So, she exercised her right to have him replaced."
The center judge called the opponents to their starting marks. Deven faced her opponent and smiled. The smile held no warmth. It wasnt intended to. She slipped in her mouth guard and waited. The center judge signaled for them to begin, and Deven took advantage striking quickly and decisively with a double roundhouse kick. The first kick aimed at the midriff faked her opponent into impulsively dropping her guard, and the second kick connected firmly with the side of her head.
With an attitude of indifference, Deven returned to her starting position and waited for the two points to be awarded to her.
Jay leaned towards Rhian. "Shes afraid."
Jay chuckled. "No. Her opponent."
Nicole let out a snort. "Id be scared to death to face her."
"Shes a good fighter. Smart as well as powerful. Ill bet you shell fake a side kick to the body and then spin hitting with a reverse hook kick to the head."
Rhian looked to the tall figure on the stage. "What makes you think that?"
He smiled. "Its one of her favorites."
The fighters readied themselves again, and Deven settled her weight bending her knees slightly. As the judge called for them to begin, she did exactly what Jay had predicted. The reverse hook kick caught her opponent on the side of the head stunning her. Points were tallied, and Deven led four points to zero.
Rhian was so intent on the match shed tuned out the noise of the crowd. She had entered a zone in which the only thing that existed was Deven and the sparring match. She marveled at how the martial artist controlled her body. Every motion was concise. There were no extraneous motions, and all her energy focused on the current action.
Jay leaned forward again. "This match is like target practice for her. The next one will be tough."
Rhian broke her revelry. "Why?"
"Karen Phillips won earlier. She and Deven will square off for champion."
"This Karen is good?" She turned her attention from the stage to Jay and quietly studied his face.
"Oh, yeah. She should be. Deven trained her."
Deven won decisively with a fourteen to zero victory, and after the men finished their match, she was called back to the stage. Karen Phillips also returned to the ring and Rhian studied the woman. Her hair was auburn and naturally wavy, and her features were finely aristocratic. Shes pretty. Rhians found her assessment of the womans looks shocking. What am I thinking? She smirked slightly. Im thinking shes pretty, and thats okay.
Karen was built like Deven though not as tall, and Rhian remembered that Deven had told her once that her long legs could be a detriment in fighting. It took longer to lift them and strike. She found their length a disadvantage when faced with an opponent capable of moving past her striking distance quickly.
Looking at Karen, Rhian imagined the fighter might have that advantage. Still, Deven was a smart fighter, and Karen had to move in past Devens kicks and punches exceptionally fast to score, a disadvantage of her shorter reach.
The two women regarded each other across the stage. They appeared confident, and if either was concerned about the pending outcome of this match, it didnt show in how they stood or in their expressions. If anything, they both appeared bored.
They approached their starting positions with the same lackadaisical manner in which they regarded each other. That changed however, as they took their marks to begin. The energy emitting from the two women was almost palpable, and it settled over the room like a cloud.
Devens features showed no emotion, but her eyes exuded a preternatural intensity. Rhian found it intriguing and frightening at the same time that a human being could have such focus. Settling her weight slightly, Deven sneered at her younger opponent. Karen replied with a hearty laugh before setting herself to begin. The tension inside the auditorium was growing exponentially, and Rhian felt it ball up in her stomach.
The center judge called for them to begin, and the women traded kicks and punches in rapid succession. They were both extremely fast and unlike the previous matches, the impact of the blows was clearly audible. Their expertise was demonstrated as neither scored. Each kick or hand technique was delivered and blocked with proficiency.
Neither fighter slowed or relented in what appeared a tireless exchange of strikes. Suddenly, Karen dropped down in a crouch and swung her leg, hitting the tall martial artist in the calves. Devens legs came out from under her, but before she hit the floor she twisted her body while swinging her top leg forward, and connected with Karens head.
Deven impacted with the stage at the same time as her opponent. The sound of their bodies meeting the platform carried throughout the venue and a collective gasp rose up from the audience. Deven rose to her feet, dusted herself off, and quietly walked back to her mark. Karen shook her head and stepped back to her starting position. The score was tallied and Deven led two to zero.
Deven said something to Karen and smiled. Rhian felt a chill from the smile. It was feral. Again the women began, and Karen blitzed on Deven driving the taller woman backwards. They traded techniques that to Rhian were mostly indistinguishable. In the end, Karen was awarded one point for a back fist that penetrated Devens guard.
The crowd expressed their disapproval with a wave of boos and whistles. Rhian reached over and touched Jays arm. "Why are they upset?"
"Most likely they think it was a bad call. Deven hit Karen first, but not all the judges saw it."
"Is there anything that can be done?"
He shrugged. "It happens. Especially when you have two fighters that are at this level. They move so fast, its hard sometimes to see everything thats happening. Unfortunately, much of the scoring is interpretation of the judges, and they dont always have the best view. The fighters move so much, the angle changes quickly, and unless the judge can see clearly, points get missed. It isnt a science and its subject to human error, but thats the reason they have five judges. Any point awarded has to be agreed to by the majority. It helps decrease error."
Rhian sat back. Could Deven lose? Somehow that thought had never occurred to her, but she supposed it was possible. Come on, Deven. Kick her ass!
The women took their marks, and began again. Hands and feet moved in a near lethal ballet while each woman blocked and countered technique after technique. Time was running out, and Rhians stomach was tied in knots. The judge called for them to break and a point was awarded to Karen. The score stood tied, and time had expired.
Now what? Rhian didnt know how much more of this she could stand.
The center judge addressed the audience. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tie, and time has expired. The first fighter to score a point wins."
The two women paced. Deven looked down at Rhian, and saw the womans tense expression. Their eyes met, and she gave the younger woman a wink. Rhian felt the knot in her stomach ease, and she smiled at the martial artist. If Devens confident of the outcome, then I need to have faith. Yeah? Tell that to my stomach.
"Ladies, take your marks," the judge instructed.
Each woman stepped forward and settled their weight, ready to begin. Deven decided to go on the defensive allowing Karen to be the aggressor. It was natural for the younger woman in the ring. She knew Karen would attempt to force her back, and score before Deven had a chance to respond.
As the center judge called for them to begin, Karen hesitated. For a second, Deven thought she might have misjudged her opponent. Reading the pause, Deven shifted her upper body forward enough to fool Karen into believing she was attacking. The ruse worked.
As Karen charged forward, Deven slid to the side while jabbing with her right hand and delivered a roundhouse kick with her back leg that stopped the woman dead in her tracks. The impact lifted Karen off her feet, and she landed hard on her backside.
The crowd rose and cheered filling the auditorium with an almost deafening sound. Deven stood quietly on the stage. She didnt celebrate her victory, but waited patiently to be announced the victor. She looked at Rhian again, and grinned.
Off stage, other martial artists and a few of her students slowed Devens sojourn to the locker rooms. She accepted their praise with quiet grace. She believed, if nothing else, she owed her students an example that they could follow. She expected them to behave with good sportsmanship and the same respect she demanded inside the schools. She would do nothing less in their presence. Outside their vicinity, was a completely different story.
She knew she was a contradiction a hypocrite. Her behavior outside the martial arts was certainly suspect, but her behavior inside was one of quiet dignity - at least, where her students were concerned. But she had little respect for her peers. Shed been in this business so long, she knew it was a game. A game of ego, and she knew hers was just a big as anyone elses.
Lately my ego has taken a beating from a certain impish landscaper. She shook her head and smiled as she thought of Rhian. In fact, shes bested me twice. Her smile grew and she laughed. Twice.
Up to this story's index
All original fiction and poetry are the property of the authors and are subject to copyright laws, as well as other laws, including, but not limited to, other applicable state, federal, territorial and international laws and treaties. You are granted permission to print these pages or save to a file on your computer for personal use only. No other use is permissible, except where otherwise specified in writing or where the author's prior express written consent has been obtained. Any other use of the materials, including, but not limited to, distribution, modification, reproduction, publication, transmission, participation in the transfer of or sale of, performance, creation of derivative works, or in any other way, the use of which results in the exploitation of any of the materials, in whole or in part, for uses other than those expressly permitted herein, is strictly forbidden. The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and who knows who else. The characters of Star Trek: Voyager are the property of Paramount and who knows who else. Any use by an author herein is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.