Poetry in Motion
by J. "Harley" Elmore
"It was all about power and control, because no one was ever going to have the power to control me or my life again. Nothing else mattered to me anymore. Not the martial arts. Not competing. Not training. Not people. All of those things had become nothing more then ways for me to grow my power base. See, I quickly came to understand that if I had power, I had control. If I had control, it gave me power. And I wanted both. I needed both."
Rising effortlessly to her feet, Deven broke the physical connection with Rhian. "It didn't take me long to figure out that there were two ways that I could easily seize that power. Sex and fighting. In a lot of ways they're the same, and I seemed to have a natural aptitude for both. Egotistical? No. Just simple fact. I fought and seduced with a focus and determination that should have made my father proud."
She stepped back away from Rhian and in a sense, the present as well, as her thoughts took a step back in time. "When I was a senior in high school, my parents had pretty much washed their hands of me, which was fine because I wanted nothing to do with them either. And so when I got accepted to a college in California, I jumped at the opportunity to get away. I couldn't get out of here fast enough."
Deven's eyes drifted to the window and her vision seemed to turn inward. "It's difficult to describe the difference. I felt freer than I could ever remember feeling in my life. I didn't have to deal with my father or mother. I didn't have to deal with the martial arts world. I could do what I wanted when I wanted. There wasn't anyone around to tell me what a disappointment I'd turned out to be."
She inhaled slowly. "I went home a couple of times but my relationship with my family seemed to fluctuate from hostile to indifferent so I stopped and spent my breaks out there. I didn't even bother to call home anymore unless I needed something. Of course, they never tried to call me either."
Suddenly a smile appeared, completely changing Deven's countenance. "I bought my first motorcycle. It was nothing like the one I have now, but it was mine. I spent my freshman year exploring the southwest on it. As long as I maintained my grades, I could come and go as I pleased and I did. It was amazing to be so free. But even that didn't stop me from getting anxious. I was growing edgy so during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I joined a local gym there. I signed up for their kickboxing class and became a regular sparring partner. It wasn't much of a challenge for me, but it gave me a place to get rid of the excess energy and to get back into shape."
Rhian observed Deven's mannerisms and expressions closely. She watched as Deven began to pace again. The awkwardness the woman had displayed earlier was gone, and her normally lissome manner was once again visible. She realized that she'd started to notice little things about the martial artist. Like how she tended to use her hands more when talking under stress. Usually, Deven used an economy of motion but talking about the past caused her to gesticulate more.
"Midsummer, this guy approaches me with an offer to fight. He tells me that I have a lot of potential and he'd be happy to represent me. I blew him off, but he kept pestering me. I figured anyone who would repeatedly return despite the abuse he took from me was either incredibly stupid or had something worth listening to. So, I listened. He told me that there was a lot of money to be made and that I would appreciate the test of my abilities. I didn't really care about the money except that it gave me more distance from my father if I didn't need to turn to him for every dime. What I really wanted to do was fight. I didn't care who or where. I needed to fight."
Rolling her head from side to side, Deven tried to loosen the growing tension in her neck. It was starting to give her a headache. "Initially the bouts were legit. I easily beat all the women they put in the ring with me and was ready to quit. So my promoter arranged for me to take on some guys. It was such a rush. Those guys looked at me like I was joke until I put some serious hurt on them. Then they feared me. Some even showed me respect after I hurt them. I beat them all and I did it decisively, and my reputation grew quickly. So, I fired my promoter. The next day, he showed up with his boss who presented me with another deal. That was the day my life really changed, and I embraced it with all that I had."
Deven reached up and traced a small scar above her left eyebrow. "From that point on, some of the fights were still legitimate but most were illegal. There was a lot more money and a lot tougher competition. The bouts were more challenging and more dangerous because there were no rules really. You fought until only one of you was left standing, and the only weapon you could use was your own body."
"How many fights are we talking about here?" Rhian asked.
The martial artist thought about it for several seconds. "I'm guessing between 300 and 400. I fought two or three times a week so over a period of three years, I kicked a lot of ass. I would have fought every day if I could have. It was an obsession in its truest form. It felt so fucking good."
A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth, and she looked right at Rhian. Her eyes appeared to darken as the pupils dilated and a look of near exhilaration covered her face in response to the adrenaline seeping into her bloodstream from the memories of battles long ago. "And you know what?
Rhian shook her head, and Deven's smile became feral. "I liked beating the crap out of people. I liked the feel of my punches and kicks when they connected. The feel of flesh and bone giving way under my power. I liked the sound my opponents made when they felt the impact. I liked watching their smug faces change from confidence to doubt and finally to fear. When that expression of terror appeared, it made me drunk with power. It was exhilarating and I fed on it. I felt invincible! And I liked it. Hell, I loved it! "
She took a step closer to the younger woman. The wolfish demeanor Deven had displayed the first time they'd met was in full force now, and Rhian fought the urge to recoil.
"I lived in a world based on violence, and I prospered in it." Her tone softened and took on a seductive quality as she continued to address the landscaper. "They treated me like a goddess. Everything I desired was mine. A snap of my fingers and my wishes were fulfilled, and that is how I was able to get Bill Cole." She made no attempt to suppress the smile. Stepping closer still, she ran her finger gently along Rhian's cheek and then gripped her chin firmly with her thumb and forefinger. Bending at the waist she brought her head down until their faces were separated by mere inches, and she spoke softly. "Anything I wanted was mine - food...drink...money...women...and ultimately revenge."
The urge to lean forward and kiss Rhian senseless took Deven by surprise, and she quickly stepped back. "Manny, my boss, took me into his home. He treated me like a part of the family. A distant part certainly, but I felt more a member of his family than I ever felt in mine. Manny's son, Tito, and I got to be close. The only thing I missed about here was Jay, and I think in some ways Tito was kind of a substitute. He was a good man. Very much like a brother to me, and I trusted him. We even started a business venture together." A slight look of sadness flitted across her face, and then was gone as she continued.
"I was set me up in a luxurious condo complete with all the amenities including a gym. I had my own personal physician and a trainer. I was living the good life, and all I had to do was fight. Which, I was more then happy to do. On fight nights, Tito would pick me up in a limo and drive me to wherever the contest was to be held. If I had big plans for after the bout, I would speed up the inevitable outcome. Put them out of their misery sooner. If not, I made it a point to draw out the torture. Their pain made me stronger. Their fear made me invincible."
Deven exhaled what almost sounded like a sigh. "As soon as it was all over, I was escorted back to the limo where food, drink and women waited. People wanted to be with me. They wanted my favor, and I dictated what they did. It was amazing really."
"Why did you stop?" Rhian asked. "I mean, you seemed to have enjoyed it so much, why give it up?"
Deven looked at her. "Not because I wanted to. I had no choice." She shook her head and began moving again. "See, there was this one woman. She was quite beautiful and very sexy. She was a fighter, too, but not a very good one. She started following me around like a groupie, and I figured I'd seduce her and be rid of her. So, I took her to bed and found her to be ... interesting. Never before had I met a woman so eager to debase herself. She would do anything no matter how degrading or painful I chose to make it. What a high it was."
She frowned. "Things started out simple enough, but as the games grew more intense she started to get really weird. Just like I was an addict for the power, she was an addict for torture. She would refuse to do things to push me into punishing her. She really wanted me to hurt her and so I did. At first it was kind of fun, but after awhile it just got to be tedious."
Rhian was fighting not to show her revulsion. Deven spoke of these things as if they were a part of everyday life, and for her they had been. But for Rhian, they were foreign and that Deven thrived on them was upsetting.
"I knew she'd started using drugs but didn't care as long as she didn't use them inside the condo. She'd never been more to me than a way in which I could release pent up energy between fights. Sort of like a depraved pet. I could hurt her all I wanted, and she always came back for more. She begged for more, and I gave it to her. But she was beginning to really wear on my nerves. "
Deven alternated clinching her hands into tight fists and rubbing the palms on the front of her jeans. "She was getting tiresome with her constant talk of love and us. There was never any us, and there sure as hell wasn't any love. I figured that if I just pulled away, she'd get the hint and drop it. I even loaned her out to friends a few times, but she just didn't get it. The more I withdrew from her the more bizarre she got."
Her nostrils flared and the pulse in her neck seemed to stand out. "I'd finally had enough. Tito came to pick me up for a fight, and as I left the condo, I demanded she be gone before I got home. I told her if she was still there when I returned, I would sell her to the highest bidder. And believe me, I would have. I would have gotten a pretty penny for her, too."
To Rhian's amazement, Deven laughed. She looked at the woman's erect carriage and overly bright eyes. She's truly enjoying this. All of it. She isn't sorry at all. Standing suddenly, Rhian started for the kitchen.
Deven whirled to face the retreating woman. "Where are you going?"
Blinking several times, Deven sought to clear the clouds of the past. "Why? Too much for you?" she asked sardonically.
Rhian heard the challenge and met it head on. "No. I told you that if I thought for one moment that you were lying, I was going to leave."
"I'm not lying."
The young woman had no doubt Deven had done those things and enjoyed them immensely. "No? I'm certain that what you're saying is true. However, you have repeatedly told me that you regretted the things you'd done. That you felt remorse for them, and yet you stand here now relating all of this and there isn't an ounce of regret anywhere. You describe all of this as if it were some great thing you accomplished. Like a badge of glory of some sort. So, apparently you've lied to me about the remorse and regret part because there doesn't appear to be any."
"I may be naïve about a lot of things, Deven, but I'm not stupid! And I'm insulted that you seem to think I am. I told you that if I believed you were lying, I was leaving. So, good bye."
"Wait! That is who I was. That is how I was. That person is still inside here!" Deven pointed to her own chest. "She never left and never will. Do you understand that?"
Rhian stepped up to the other woman. "Yes, I understand that. I understand a hell of a lot more than you give me credit for!" She could see a glimmer of the person Deven spoke of in the glint of the woman's eyes but refused to back down. She knew it would be so much easier to leave, to just turn and walk away from this nightmare and never have to deal with it again. But she couldn't. Despite everything Deven had said, Rhian's heart wouldn't allow her to run away. "You want me to stay? Then tell me what you feel. Not what you felt, but what you feel now."
The excitement Deven had experienced as she related the past shattered. Rhian watched as pure rage contorted the woman's features. Her first impulse was to flee, but a small voice in her told her to stand her ground. That the anger wasn't directed at her, but that Deven was actually raging against herself.
"How do I feel? I hurt a lot of people, Rhian! I may have killed or maimed many of them, but I'll never know. I never knew how badly anyone got hurt because once the fight was over, I never saw them again. Once the fight was over, I was whisked away to celebrate and never gave another thought to what happened to my opponents. I can't even remember one face of one person I beat. Those people were nothing to me. I didn't care about them. I only cared about myself!"
With each statement, the volume of her voice increased until the room seemed to echo every word. "But now, I carry their blood on my hands! And for what? So that I could feed my over inflated ego? So that I could feel invincible once more? So that I wouldn't have to be a victim? I didn't do it because I had to. I didn't do it for the money. I did it because I liked it. I liked the power! I liked winning! I liked knowing that I was better than all of them!"
Her eyes had taken on a wild look, and instinctively Rhian remained still as if to move might make her a target. "I was no better than my father or Bill Cole. I used every one of those people to feed my own sick perversion. I left behind me, victim after victim. Like you said about Bill, I made myself bigger by making them smaller."
Impossibly, her voice got even louder. "I was a fucking beast! I used people all the time. Whether in the ring or in my bed, I used and abused whomever I wanted whenever I wanted. What kind of person does that, Rhian? What kind of human being does that day in and day out without thinking twice? You want to know how I feel. I'm not human! My mother is right! I'm some sort of perversion of nature!"
Tears flowed unnoticed down the contours of her face. She was struggling against the desire to hit something, anything, but the closest target was the woman before her. She watched as Rhian reached up to touch her face and jerked away to avoid the contact. Not because she didn't want to feel it, but because she knew she didn't deserve it.
Still, the look of hurt in Rhian's eyes made her cringe. Visions from her recurring nightmare filled her head, and she purposefully stepped away from the woman, hoping the distance would quell her desire to strike out.
"For years I believed I had control because I controlled others. I manipulated people. All the power I'd obtained was an illusion because in striving to get and maintain control over everyone else, I lost control of myself!"
Years of self-loathing rose up and overtook her. "I'm worse than all of them put together!" Her fist connected with the wall and sunk in, splitting the wallboard. She stared at the hole in the wall for several seconds aware that Rhian was watching her. Suddenly, without warning her stomach convulsed, forcing her to double over. "No. Please, no," she whispered.
Rhian was rooted in place. She'd never seen anything like the fury and animus this woman directed at herself. "Deven?"
The martial artist begged her stomach to settle, but it mocked her by cramping harder. Releasing a groan of pain, she slowly stood erect while struggling to suppress the impulse to gag. "I...I have..." Turning away, she bolted from the room and up the stairs making it to her bathroom before her stomach heaved. The force with which her body purged itself was agonizing, and she barely had time to take a breath before throwing up again.
"Oh God." Burying her face in her hands, Rhian released a sob. She stood immobile, completely overwhelmed by her thoughts and emotions. So much of Deven's pain still hovered in the room unseen but present just the same. She could feel it gathering around her, weighing in upon her, and she succumbed to it, releasing a torrent of tears.
She cried for the girl who had been so devastated in body and spirit. She cried for the girl who saw her world disintegrate in the blink of an eye and who had been abandoned at her most vulnerable times by the one person she'd trusted most. She cried for the woman who had gotten so lost in her journey to heal herself. And she cried for the unending torment and insurmountable guilt that swallowed Deven whole.
And she wept for herself. For the part of her that wanted to flee this house and never look back again, and for the part of her heart that was breaking for the woman upstairs. It all seemed too much for her to handle. She was unable to process most of what she'd seen and heard, and her mind reeled with echoes of the things Deven had said.
Rational thought told her to flee. To put as much distance as she possibly could between Deven and herself. It told her that she couldn't heal this woman. No one could, except Deven herself, and that wasn't possible if she never believed that she was worth healing. She'd embraced the guilt beginning with the rape and would never move beyond it until she accepted the need to let it go.
I don't know if I can deal with all of this or if I even want to? It's selfish, I know, but do I really need someone like Deven in my life? It seems like I've experienced more emotional turmoil since meeting her then the rest of my entire life put together.
She wiped the tears away only to have fresh ones dampen her face. There really was too much to think about all at once. Some things would have to be placed aside for consideration later. That's if there is a later. Looking at the wall again, Rhian wasn't so sure. She had never in her life met anyone like Deven, and quite frankly she hoped she never would again. One Deven Masterson in my life is quite enough.
She thought about all the interactions she'd had with the woman and could not find the brutal fighter that had once existed. Deven had never in any way hurt her physically. She'd always been gentle and sometimes even solicitous. On those occasions when she had been angry, and Rhian conceded the woman could get angry, she'd never made any aggressive overtures.
There was no doubt that Deven was an extremely passionate woman and that she obviously had a problem directing that passion. Rhian considered the spectrum of emotions she'd witnessed this evening. She'd seen trepidation and fear, exhilaration, contempt, rage, and underneath it all was the constant throb of a pain like an infection that refused to heal.
Deven had been so young and so totally alone. She took a wrong path, and because of it, she's now weighed down under a mountain of shame and self -loathing. Some of the guilt is certainly justified but much of it's a burden that should have never been hers to carry in the first place.
Rhian believed that there was no one that Deven was harder on than herself. She'd come to view herself through the eyes of others and had built her value system on what she saw projected towards her. She was a champion, a fighter, whose value to others was built on a foundation of winning. Losing had never been an option, and yet it seemed obvious that Deven considered herself a loser in life.
You take a sixteen-year-old girl and violate her body and spirit. You shatter her entire belief system and then leave her to put the pieces back together on her own. Given Deven's nature and her background, could she have handled things differently? Possibly, but then does that even matter? I'm sure that if she could go back and relive those years, she would have done things differently. Rhian remembered the excitement that had gripped the woman earlier as she had relayed her story. Then again maybe not.
She knew with a certainty that violence was not the essence of the person that Deven was despite what the woman had done and what she thought of herself. She was most certainly capable of it, but it was not, nor had it ever been, at the core of the woman.
Okay, there is absolutely no doubt that there's a side to this woman that is truly fierce in nature, but... but what, Rhian? She has hurt a lot of people and done it with extreme pleasure. Yes, she has but that was in the past.
Rhian sat down on the sofa. Resting her head back she stared up at the ceiling. Does the past matter? It has to matter, doesn't it? Images of Deven flitted through her head from the night they'd first met up through the past few minutes before the woman had fled this room. A lot had happened between them in a short period of time.
Much of Deven's behavior made sense to her now. She should feel guilty for a lot, but I don't see where everything she feels about the past is really justified. That she feels responsible for what happened to her is wrong. That she considers herself a fuck up is wrong. That she seems to accept full responsibility for what others did is wrong. Until she allows herself to be free of the past, she will remain mired there, and what can I possibly do about it? I can't heal her! So, what do I do? Can I just leave? Just walk away from the one person who has touched me deeper in a few months than anyone ever did in my whole life.
She had been drawn to Deven the moment she'd laid eyes on her. There was something about the woman that called to her, and she knew that they had already come further together than either of them had on their own. Rhian wrapped her arms around herself and allowed the tears to flow again.
At that moment she felt very alone. There was so much to understand and accept about herself without adding Deven's issues to the mix. She was only beginning to face her sexuality and the potential ramifications of that discovery. Her life that had seemed well mapped now lay in shambles around her and at the center of it stood Deven Masterson.
Can I be in a relationship with her? It's hard enough being in my first relationship with a woman but this woman in particular? And can Deven be in a relationship? Does she want to be? She's a player who prefers emotional detachment. I can't live like that.
Rhian realized that if anything, Deven had been far from emotionally detached this evening. The woman could have just let things be and never shared any of the past. But Deven had opened herself up and allowed Rhian to see it all. She hadn't tried to sugar coat anything. She hadn't tried to play anything down. She hadn't made any effort to excuse herself or her actions.
Why? Why tell me all this and risk my leaving? She pondered that question for several seconds. "Because she expects me to leave her just like everyone else has. She wants me to leave her, because it will justify her sense of unworthiness. Well, I'm not like everyone else. I love you, Deven Masterson. Why is beyond me, but I do. Not because of your talent. Not because you're a champion. Not because you're hurting so much. Not because you need and deserve to be loved. I fell in love with you before I knew any of those aspects of you. I love you for you and in spite of you."
Rising from the sofa she wiped the tears from her face and started for the stairs. If you go upstairs, Rhian, you're probably going to have to fight for her. Can you do that knowing it isn't going to be easy and that it's her you'll be fighting most of the way? There's so much you'll have to deal with. Can you do that? Do you really want to?
All her life she had done what was expected. Instead of running around the neighborhood after school, she'd been responsible for Michael while her parents labored to build the business. Instead of spending her weekends hanging with the other teenagers, she'd worked at the garden center. Her studies had centered on a degree that would support the family business when what she'd really wanted to be was an artist.
Her parents loved her, and they'd done the best they could for their children. She understood that, but still there was a part of her that resented that her life had been based on their expectations and not her own.
And then there had been Sean. She'd married him because she knew that it was expected. She hadn't followed her heart, and the result had been a marriage built on lies. A union that had turned bitter and filled with deceit.
She paused at this crossroads in her life. In one direction lay the comfort of the life she'd always known -the love of her family, the responsibility of her career, the child who was the best thing that had happened to her thus far, and all the things that were expected of her. In the other direction was Deven, the chaos she caused, the uncertainty of the love and life Deven brought into her world, and her heart's desire.
She glanced at the front door. Through that portal was the life she knew. She turned to the stairs. Can I do this? She hesitated at the bottom stair. Glancing at the wall again, she saw the self-loathing on Deven's face. One thing at a time. Let's get through this first and see where that leaves us.
The blonde stood at the threshold to the master bedroom and observed the room's supine occupant. Deven lay across the bed on her back with her eyes closed, and even from this distance, Rhian could see that the woman was truly ill. "Deven?" she called out softly.
The prone woman didn't move a muscle beyond what was required to emit a faint grunt in response. Deven was so pallid that if were it not for the steady rise and fall of her chest with each shallow breath, Rhian might have considered her dead. That thought sent an icy tendril down her spine, causing her to shudder at the same time it moved her forward into the room. Drawing nearer to the bed, she tentatively placed a hand on the martial artist's forehead. The skin was clammy to the touch, and her concern increased. "Are you all right?"
"I suppose I'll live," Deven croaked.
Lowering her hand, Rhian gently caressed a pale cheek, relieved when the woman didn't pull away or flinch. "Did you get sick?"
"That would be putting it mildly."
Scanning the large room, Rhian located what she was looking for and crossed to the bathroom. At the sink she dampened a washcloth, and returned to Deven's side to place the cool cloth across her forehead.
The martial artist moaned as another wave of nausea rose up. Focusing all her efforts on calming her stomach, she took several deep breaths and was grateful when the sensation passed. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
Rhian lightly rubbed Deven's abdomen, noting slight flinches when she touched certain muscles. "I think you're letting go of a lot of stuff you've held onto all these years. This is just how your body's reacting to it."
"Well, it sucks! If I'd known this was going to happen, I would have just left things the way they were."
Using the cool cloth, the Rhian carefully wiped away the perspiration from the woman's face. "No. This is good. Painful but good."
Frowning, Deven opened her eyes. "Easy for you to say. Your body isn't trying to turn inside out." She lay quietly while studying the landscaper's face. "Have you been crying?"
"Why?" Attempting to sit up, Deven's muscles contracted painfully and she lay back down with a groan. Until that moment, she hadn't realized just how much strain had been placed on her muscles while she was heaving.
"We can talk about that later." Okay, now what, Rhian? She looked around the room again. This place is huge. You could fit half of my whole living space at home in here. Okay, so maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. The room was L shaped and she liked how Deven had placed the head of the bed perpendicular to the corner. It cut across the sharp angle making it less severe to the eye. She also noted that the bed's placement made it possible to see most of the room without much effort.
Like the living room, this space incorporated various earth tones but was devoid of much in the way of personal touches. Rhian's gaze settled on the sitting area to her right, which contained a leather love seat facing the windows and nothing else. Not much for decorating, are you, Deven? Her eyes returned to the woman on the bed, and she sighed. Might was well get comfortable. Moving around the bed, Rhian set the washcloth aside and sat down, resting her back against the headboard and stretching her legs out on the comforter. "Sit up a little."
"Don't want to."
The martial artist sounded so much like a petulant child that Rhian had to laugh. "Don't be difficult. Just do it, okay?"
Eyeing the blonde skeptically, Deven slowly lifted her head and shoulders up, groaning as her muscles flexed painfully. What does she want from me?
Gently but firmly, Rhian guided the reluctant woman nearer until the Deven's dark head came to settle in her lap. "Okay, relax," she said while slowly stroking the furrowed brow. "Now this isn't so bad, is it?"
Not so bad? Deven found her current state of vulnerability very uncomfortable. In her present physical state though, she didn't have the energy to do much about it. I could tell her to get out. Okay, so why don't you? Rhian's soft caresses were calming, and she gradually allowed herself to settle into the touch. Because I don't really want to. As the tension eased out of her body, she studied the face above her, taking in the slightly reddened eyes and the overall look of weariness.
You were supposed to leave, not come looking for me. I was to expose my sins and then watch you flee into the night. Very melodramatic stuff, Masterson. But for some reason that was completely lost on her, she now lay with her head in Rhian's lap being tended to. "Why are you still here?"
The landscaper found the question disturbing. It was that very question that she herself was trying to understand and come to terms with. She felt that the answer would put her on an irrevocable path either towards or away from this woman. So, she considered it carefully before responding because on some level to say the answer out loud to this woman would be to choose a path. She needed time to think but there just wasn't any. "I'll answer that later."
Deven searched Rhian's face seeking something, anything that would help her to understand why the woman remained and why she was being so solicitous. "Did I make you cry?"
Eyes filled with misery stared up at her, and Rhian struggled not to fall into them. "No, you didn't make me cry." She pursed her lips slightly, a sign of her struggle to keep the emotions from getting the better of her. "You're a remarkable woman. You've survived more than I believe I ever could have. You've been so hurt. It's impossible for me not to feel that pain." Despite her efforts, a stray tear escaped and found its way down her cheek. She watched Deven's hand rise and leaned into the touch as the tear was brushed away.
Pulling her hand back, Deven stared curiously at the dampness on her fingertips. Other than Jay, no one had ever cried for her, and she didn't know how to accept this display of compassion. "I'm sorry," she muttered.
Rhian shook her head. "Don't be. It's because I care so deeply for you that I feel it." She continued to gentle stroke the dark head seeking to ease the anxiety so evident on the woman's face. She wasn't sure whether or not Deven was ready to continue to talk about the past, but she believed that if they stopped now the rest would never be brought out into the open. She was certain that this woman would find some way to avoid facing all this again.
For her part, Rhian was still trying to grasp everything she'd heard and make some sense of it. There were things she didn't understand and quite possibly never would. There were some aspects of human behavior that were so foreign to her own nature she would never comprehend them. Brutality was one such behavior.
She harbored no doubts that there was much more to Deven's story and realized that she dreaded to know what else the martial artist had done. When she'd walked into the house a short time ago, she'd had no idea where Deven's confession would go. She never could have imagined what the truth was, and a part of her wished she could go back a couple of hours and remain innocent of the darkness that lurked in the depths of this woman.
But going back isn't an option. She couldn't pretend she didn't know that the woman she was in love with had done some damnable things purely for the pleasure of doing them. At the same time, she couldn't in her own mind merge the woman before her with that brutal monster. She'd already accepted to some extent that Deven was capable of violence but it was the degree and reason for the violence that she couldn't equate with the person in her arms.
Drawing upon all of her resources, Rhian dug deep within herself for the courage to see this through. In as calm a tone as she could muster, she coaxed Deven to continue. "Those people you fought, did they know that they would be fighting you before they showed up?"
With a deep sigh, Deven closed her eyes again. "Yes."
It was obvious to Rhian that Deven was reluctant to continue but she pressed the issue anyway. She reasoned that it was better to get everything in the open now, deal with it, and move on then have it show up in bits and pieces later. Later? Don't make assumptions, Rhian. This could very well be the last conversation you ever have with her. "Did they know the rules?"
"Did they know your reputation?"
Deven's eyes opened and settled on her. "I can only assume that they did. Manny made a point of building me up. The stakes got higher the more I won. People want to take you down. Knock you off the throne. And others will pay a lot of money for the pleasure of seeing you lose."
The blonde thought about that for several seconds and considered her next words before speaking. "So, no one forced them to fight. No one dragged them kicking and screaming into the ring to face you. They stepped in there of their own free will for many of the same reasons you did."
The martial artist's brow creased. "Yes, but."
Rhian stopped her. "Deven, those people knew the consequences of their actions. They knew what they were doing. They made a conscious decision to fight with the intention of defeating you."
"That doesn't make what I did right. I didn't have to hurt them like I did."
She could feel the growing tension in Deven's body and intentionally softened her voice. "No, I suppose you didn't."
"There was no mercy, Rhian! The only merciful thing I might have ever done during a fight was put an end to my opponents suffering."
Why can't she see that they made their own choices, and she isn't responsible for that? "They knew that if they failed to defeat you, they were going to get hurt. I have to imagine that they would have done the same to you given half a chance. Wouldn't they?"
"Well, sure but."
"Don't misunderstand me, Deven. What you did was... it was barbaric. There is nothing in my life that can remotely help me to understand the world you speak of. I believe you, but I can't really comprehend it." She could see the impact of her words clearly in the pain in Deven's eyes.
Searching the face she cradled on her lap, she could discern nothing of the person Deven had been. This woman was not that brutal fighter. Rhian knew that in her heart. This woman looked defeated and the pain she carried was so intense it seemed a physical entity in the room.
Rhian watched Deven battle with her emotions. As each rose up within the woman, it altered her expression before she managed to force it to retreat. She sensed that Deven hadn't allowed herself to feel these things for a very long time, and this was a battle that she would eventually lose. Perhaps not today but someday, and Rhian wondered if she would be there to help when that time came.
Taking a deep breath, Rhian asked the question she dreaded most. "Did she leave? The woman, was she gone when you got home?"
"No." Deven closed her eyes, and when she opened them again Rhian was captured by the shame they reflected. "I allowed things to go too far. I should have put an end to it much sooner, but I was too wrapped up in myself. In my own gratification." She stopped and swallowed several times. "That night, I was feeling quite good about myself. My opponent had been a real challenge for a change, and we'd gone out and celebrated my victory and the fact that it was my birthday."
"You're birthday?" Rhian interrupted. "How old were you?"
"I turned twenty two that night." She was confused by the look of amazement on Rhian's face. "What?"
"I don't know. My only picture of you is as you are now. I just forget that you were so young. So much happened in your life in the span of only a few years."
"Yeah, too much," Deven said. "But that was my own fault. I chose to go where I did and do the things that I did." She released a shuddering breath. "That night I truly didn't expect her to be there. When I told people to do something, they did. Anyone who spent any time around me knew not to question me. They just did what I said. Whatever it was. But I...missed it. I never saw it coming, and I should have." She paused again and licked her dry lips. "The condo was dark when we arrived."
"Me and the woman I brought home. We were kind of busy at the time. I...damn, I never saw her or heard her. She was just suddenly there. She came running out of the shadows and stabbed me. I reacted instinctively to deflect the knife, but by the time I realized what was happening, I couldn't stop her. What I should have done was let her kill me. Let her put an end to everyone's suffering."
Deven's voice grew quiet and filled with sorrow. "I dream about it. Even now, I still have nightmares. I don't know how much of my memories are real anymore and how much of them are the dreams. Probably both." Her eyes closed. "It really doesn't matter which it is."
The martial artist's eyes remained closed, and Rhian realized that Deven was reliving in her mind whatever had happened that night. By keeping her eyes closed, she was effectively shutting Rhian out. "Open your eyes, Deven."
Pale eyes blinked open and gradually focused on her. "I don't know how to describe it. I can't really." Her pulse increased and her breathing grew shallow once again. "At that moment, I was just...just so overcome with rage. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before. I wasn't in control of anything. But that doesn't excuse what I did." She struggled for several seconds to find an explanation but there wasn't any, and then the words came out in a rush. "I hit her. No, I pounded on her until I couldn't anymore. I could barely hear her screaming over the sound of my own heart beat. It was pounding in my ears, and in the distance I could hear my own voice telling me to stop. But I couldn't. I couldn't get control of myself. I hit her over and over and over."
The expression on Deven's face spoke of the horror of the awful night. "When I finally did manage to stop, there was nothing visible of her beauty anymore, and there was blood everywhere. Everywhere. Some of it was hers but most of it was mine. Oh God, I can still smell it." Her stomach lurched suddenly and she groaned in pain. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead and upper lip, and she held her breath for several seconds until the ache subsided once again.
Blinking several times, Rhian sought to dispel the image Deven had created. She continued her gentle ministrations, mostly for her own comfort, while inside she was struggling against a wave of disgust. Fighting in a ring is one thing. Beating someone like Deven beat that woman is reprehensible. If she'd merely gone far enough to protect herself, I could accept it as self-defense. But this was beyond brutal. This sounds maniacal.
The near constant rebellion by her body and the emotional pandemonium was wearing Deven down rapidly. "The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital. I was told that the woman I had brought home had run off and called Tito. He'd shown up and gotten us to the hospital as discreetly as possible."
A tear slipped from each blue eye, and on impulse Rhian reached out once again. Deven flinched and tried to sit up, but the smaller woman held her in place. The struggle to escape the landscaper's arms quickly depleted the martial artist's remaining reserves, and she felt her strength seep out of her body. "Damn it! How can you even think of touching me? Aren't you listening to me? I beat that woman! With my bare hands, I tried to beat the life out of her! There is no excuse for that! Not then! Not now! Not ever!"
Deven's sudden attempt to flee caught the younger woman off guard. Without thought she tightened her hold and was amazed at how quickly the martial artist's strength dissipated. Rhian was well aware that under normal circumstances, Deven could easily have thrown her off the bed. Hell, she could have thrown me across the room.
The importance of that truth wasn't lost on her. It was apparent that Deven wasn't holding anything back, and this physical manifestation of all her emotional pain indicated just how close she might be to finally releasing some of it. Is she ready for that? Am I ready for it?
"Relax, will you? Just settle back down and listen to me." Despite the strain, she didn't ease her grip on the woman until Deven gave in. "You've told me so much tonight, and I can't begin to sort through it all. I will over time, and I'm sure I'll have a lot of questions. Just do me a favor and be quiet for a minute."
Resting the back of her head against the headboard, Rhian looked off across the room. She stared at the far wall trying to erase the vision of Deven beating that woman from her mind. Despite her best effort, she couldn't stop the trembling it caused. Could she do that to me? Of course she could! But would she?
Deven felt the quiver pass through the blonde. That she was the cause of the torment that now shadowed the woman's fair face intensified her own anguish. She closed her eyes against the sight only to find that it didn't erase the image from her mind. And so she waited, knowing it was only a matter of time now before this woman was gone from her life.
Rhian finally broke the silence. "What happened?"
So lost in her thoughts and memories, the sound of the woman's voice startled Deven. "Huh?"
"Were you arrested?"
She shook her head. "My father flew out and handled everything. I don't know what he told them. I don't know what exactly he did or how he accomplished it, but somehow he convinced them to make a deal. I would provide names and places associated with the fights. I would be confined to a facility where I would undergo mandatory counseling until such time as the doctor in charge deemed me fit to return to society. If I didn't accept the terms or failed to cooperate with the police or the counselor, I would go to jail."
She snorted. "God, my father was such a pompous ass and such a prig. He was all formal and business like about the whole thing. He presented me with the terms of the agreement as if there wasn't any question that I'd agree to them. And he was right but not for the reasons he thought. By accepting his terms, I signed a death warrant. I knew that no matter where I went from that day forward, they would find me."
Rhian's gaze left the wall and settled on Deven. "Who would find you?"
"The people I betrayed. I didn't give them any names of real importance, but the people I gave up probably did. I knew that there was no way they were going to let me just walk away. They would never trust me again, and they couldn't allow this kind of thing to go unpunished. It was bad for business, and in the end, that's all that mattered. And that's the only reason I agreed to his fucking deal."
"I'm not sure I understand." Her gut told her that she knew exactly what was implied, but she didn't want to believe it. People didn't really do things like that, did they?
"Kill me, Rhian."
"And you knew this and still did it anyway."
"Yes. Don't you think it's the least I deserved?"
Rhian gaped at her. She can't be serious. That this woman could be so matter of fact about someone seeking to kill her was alarming. She just doesn't believe her life is worth anything.
A slight smile pulled at the corners of Deven's mouth. "I can still see my father's face. He was so smug and pious, because he thought he'd finally gotten me back under his thumb. I remember wondering whether or not I should tell him that his carefully devised plan was going to get me killed. And then it occurred to me that he might already know that."
"He didn't, did he?" Rhian asked.
"No. Anyway, as soon as my wound healed sufficiently for me to travel, I was put on a plane in handcuffs no less. As soon as we landed back here, I was taken directly from the airport to a mental health facility. I did explain it to him in the car on the way to the nuthouse and made it a point to thank him. That was the last thing I remember saying to the man, and you should have seen his face then. He'd lost, and he knew it. He almost looked sad when I was escorted from the car to my new home."
Her smile faded. "For years after that, I made myself easily accessible for them. I made no effort to hide. Always waiting for the day they would come and end this. I traveled all over the country from biker rally to biker rally, always in the open and always reachable. And then Tiernan happened."
"Is that why you gave him up?"
"Partly but it wasn't the main reason." She took a deep breath and slowly released it. "I met Dr. Sarah Martin at the facility. She was the unlucky one who held my life in her hands. For ten months I met with her almost everyday. I hated it there. I was a prisoner in a world of drug-induced psychosis and mental illness. All I wanted was for them to send me to jail so the torture would end. Not just being stuck in that place but the whole thing. I was so tired. I just wanted it over, but every morning I woke up in that purgatory. Day in and day out I was forced to meet with the doc. Every night I was locked up in a cell. They controlled everything I did, and a police officer came by weekly to discuss my progress. They even put me on a suicide watch."
She laughed. "They took everything away from me that might have been construed as a weapon. In reality, I think they were more concerned I would turn it on them then on myself. They didn't realize that no matter how depressed I got, I wasn't the type to take my own life. Not that I'm necessarily afraid to die or that I don't think I should pay for what I did. I just would rather die on my feet or defending myself."
The easy way in which Deven talked about dying sent a jolt through Rhian's system. She didn't want to contemplate that this woman faced the prospect of death with such indifference. That had Deven been successful in getting herself killed, they never would have met. Yes, Rhian, but for whatever reason, she lived. She chose to live with the pain of knowing what she'd done, and that has to count for something. Doesn't it?
"At first, I just ignored the doc, or I was quietly antagonistic. I made no effort to cooperate, and I made it quite clear that I wasn't happy to be there. I even tried to escape once, and unfortunately, I hurt an orderly in the process. Needless to say, my attempt failed and once they got me subdued, they strapped me to the bed." She shivered at the memory of the days that followed. Though most of the ordeal was lost in a drug induced haze, she still felt the terror of having been completely defenseless.
"For some unknown reason, Dr. Martin didn't give up on me. In fact, I heard much later that she'd thrown a fit when she found out they'd strapped me down and left me there." She shuddered again and took a deep breath. "Anyway, I don't know why I started to talk to her. I guess why doesn't matter. Like I said, I was there almost a year, and she eventually signed my release. Even after they let me go, I was required to meet with her for a year afterwards."
"I noticed earlier that you referred to her earlier in the present tense," Rhian said. "Why?"
Deven looked away but not before Rhian caught the look of embarrassment. "Do you remember a few months back when I kind of vanished for a few weeks?"
"You said you weren't going to discuss it."
She looked back and her eyes locked on the younger woman's. "And I won't with anyone else. I called her and went back to that hellhole. She helped me work through some things that were bothering me. I still meet with her once a week. In fact, you and I are having this conversation because she insisted I tell you the truth and let you choose to stay or leave."
Rhian smiled down at her. "I think I would like to meet this Sarah Martin."
She traced the lines on Deven's forehead smoothing out the skin. "Because of her, you're here with me now." She looked into startled eyes. Oh boy. In for an ounce in for a pound, hey Rhian? "Deven, you and I seem to have very different perspectives on your life and your responsibilities. I have to agree that you made some really bad decisions and you may not have had the best intentions at times, but you carry guilt that isn't your own."
She placed a finger gently on Deven's lips stopping her protests. "You aren't guiltless by any means, but you're not to blame for all the things that happened. You can't carry the responsibility for other people's actions, Deven. You just can't. And that's what you've done all these years. On top of that, you've felt guilty for what others did. You've got to put the past in the past because the way you're living, it dominates the present. You're not the person you were then."
"Rhian, you obviously aren't listening to me!"
"Oh, but I am," she continued in a soft tone. "I've heard every word you've said. Deven, you've been in your past a brutal fighter with no concern for human life. I'm honestly having a difficult time understanding that. I don't know why someone would purposefully hurt another person. I know it happens. I have just never had to deal with it. At least, I didn't have to deal with it until Mace came into my life. You've hurt many people, but I also realize that those people played a part in their own destiny. They weren't innocent to the consequences of their conduct with regard to you. They made a choice, and they're responsible for the ramifications of that choice - not you. I've watched you and seen you interact with different people, Deven, and you still have that control thing going on. In fact, that was one of the first things I ever noticed about you."
She studied the martial artist's face. "What you did to that woman, is the first thing I've heard you say that truly scared me." She watched as Deven visibly flinched. "But I also understand that if you hadn't fulfilled the terms of the agreement with Dr. Martin, she wouldn't have set you free. I also understand that by voluntarily returning to her, you've developed a grasp on yourself and your life that was lacking in your youth."
She hoped that her words were sinking in. Deven's expression gave no indication that she accepted that she possessed a skewed sense of responsibility. "Do you think you would hurt me?"
Deven's throat constricted making it near impossible to respond. When she did, her voice came out strained. "I'm afraid I will. I have that damn nightmare. I've had it for years. Over the past week I've had it every night and in it I hurt you."
"Is that why you pushed me away?"
"Yes," she replied softly. "That's a big part of it."
"I've seen you angry, Deven...angry at me. Our second meeting you were furious, but I never feared that you would hurt me. Even now I know that you won't. Downstairs you could have just as easily struck me as that wall and you didn't. I'm not afraid of you, Deven. I'm afraid for you."
Rhian stood on the crossroads again. She could still leave. She could still put this behind her and move on with her life, but that meant she would have to move on without this woman. She studied the strong face that looked so fragile at the moment. Her head warred with her heart, and she realized that while her thoughts continued to scream caution, her heart had already been lost.
"Nothing you've told me changes my feelings for you other than to make them stronger. Don't get me wrong. What you did was truly awful, and it's difficult for me to comprehend that someone, that you were once that savage. While I accept that you were capable of such brutality, I'm not certain that you have that capacity today. You're not who you were then."
Rhian looked at the dark circles beneath eyes almost gray in the fading sunlight. "Tell me about the nightmares."
Deven swallowed several times as she sought to maintain control of the emotions that continued to seek to dominate her. "It's like I'm watching the whole thing. I see myself, my dream self, walk into the condo, and then I see the knife go in and pull back out. I watch as I place a hand over the wound and the blood flows around my fingers. And then see myself beat her. I'm shouting to stop, but the me in the dream laughs. I reach out and touch my dream self's arm and it's like I'm sucked into myself in the dream and it's me beating her. I'm inside screaming to stop, but the dream me keeps right on beating her. Then I suddenly stop, and look down at my hands and the body on the floor.
She swallowed hard. "When Tiernan was five months old I would look down at the body in the dream, and it would be him. Sometimes I would wake up screaming because of what I had done to him. This past week it was you on the floor. You see... I can never take it back. I can never make it right. I can't fix it! And if I did it once, why wouldn't I do it again?"
Rhian could feel Deven's heart pounding. "Relax."
"Tiernan was so small and so fragile. I'd rush to his crib, and he'd be lying there. I'd wake him so I could be sure he was alive. Poor kid didn't have a peaceful nights sleep for almost a month. I had to get him away from me. And this past week, I knew I had to get you away, too."
Rhian stroked Deven's forehead and cheeks. Despite everything, she could not deny that she loved this woman. Can I trust her? Why not? The violent things she'd seen Deven do were done in her defense. First with Mace and then with Karen. But after hearing of what this woman had been capable of doing, she understood that it was in no way like the savagery that had ruled her in the past. She's only been gentle when she's touched me. Even the time I slapped her, she didn't retaliate. Instead she opened her arms and held me while I cried.
And Deven seems to now have an understanding of her limitations. She sought out Dr. Martin on her own this last time. No one forced her to do so. I want to trust her. Believe in her. Yeah? Like you trusted and believed in Sean. Rhian closed her eyes against her own past. Practice what you preach, Rhian.
Gazing down into the eyes of the woman who held her heart, she stepped off the crossroads and chose a path. "I now have a much greater understanding of your demons, and we, you and I together can face them head on. You're going to have to work a lot harder Masterson, if you intend to convince me that you aren't worthy to be loved, because you are so very worthy. One of these days, you'll get it through that beautiful thick head of yours that I love you regardless of where you've been and what you've done. I'm much more interested in where we are and where we're going."
Rhian gently wiped away the few tears that slipped from the pained eyes that searched hers. She sat quietly, willing her love for this woman to be easily readable. With each passing second, the volume of tears grew and she watched Deven struggle to keep them at bay.
"You asked me earlier why I'm still here. I'm here because I care more for you than I can remember ever caring for anyone. I'm here because this is where I want to be, and this is where I need to be. Not just for you, but for me. I'm here because whether you like it or not you want me here and you need me, and that, Deven Masterson, is not a bad thing."
Rhian watched the woman fight to maintain control and knew it was slipping from her. She saw the fear that bordered on terror, and realized that Deven was afraid to let it go, to give up that control. She gripped a tense shoulder and pulled gently, guiding Deven to shift towards her. Wrapping the woman in an embrace, she held on.
Deven swallowed several times fighting to keep everything in. She resisted Rhian's efforts to comfort her, but as the emotions continued to rise, she faltered and allowed herself to be held by the smaller woman.
"It's okay, Deven. Let it go. You don't need to hang onto it anymore."
Rhian felt her own tears falling silently. "Yes you can. I'm here, sweetheart. I won't desert you. I'm here with you, for you. You aren't alone. I know it's scary, but you can do it."
"Yes, you can." Rhian soothed. "You can do anything."
Whether it was the feel of being held by this woman or the gentle tone of her voice or both, Deven lost the battle. She cried, really cried, for the first time since the night she'd been raped. Over the years, she'd shed a tear or two but nothing with this kind of depth.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." She felt the carefully constructed barricades shatter releasing everything all at once. All she could do was feel the pain. Like a riptide it pulled at her, taking her down into the depths of it. She wept hard, her body convulsing in great sobs. She didn't cry for long, but like everything else she did, it was with great intensity.
And it terrified her. She feared it would never release its hold on her. That now that the tears had begun, they would never stop. But the pain did ease its hold on her, and she slowly came back to herself, realizing that she was clinging to the other woman as if her life depended on it. She'd been aware of Rhian's voice but hadn't heard anything the woman had said.
Lying in the embrace, she listened to Rhian's soft murmuring, accepting the sense of calm that descending upon her. She couldn't remember anyone ever holding her except her grandparents and that had been such a long time ago. A part of her felt humiliated by her loss of control, but it was quickly outweighed by the solace she found in this woman.
Rhian held tight to the distraught woman and tried to bring her some consolation. Though she needed the comfort just as badly amid the torrent of agony that radiated from Deven, she sought to appear calm, reining in her own tears as much as possible and concentrating on supporting the other woman through this time of uncertainty and turmoil.
Her own dubiety and concerns stood at the periphery of her mind like shadows, and she turned away from them to focus on her heart. Bringing her cheek to rest against the martial artist's head, she kept up a stream of soft murmurs knowing that the words didn't really matter. The physical contact and sound of love's voice did.
Deven clung to her and she resolutely made herself the woman's anchor, waiting out the emotional release that surged forth. As quickly as it had begun, the crying stopped, but even then Rhian continued her soothing caresses.
Easing her grasp, she kissed the side of the woman's head before pulling back slightly to examine what she could see of Deven's face. Outside of the martial arts school, she wasn't often afforded an opportunity to just gaze at Deven. The woman always seemed on the alert making it impossible to just quietly study her.
Her eyes traced the striking features before settling on the closed eyes rimmed by damp lashes. The dark circles below them stood in sharp contrast to the still pale complexion, and she wondered at the terror this woman had faced from the phantoms of her dreams. That Deven functioned as well as she had under the influence of sleep deprivation and the emotional chaos was a marvel.
Though the martial artist now appeared somewhat relaxed, Rhian could feel the underlying current of tension in Deven's form. Occasionally, the troubled woman's brow creased slightly at whatever thought traversed through her mind and with each, Rhian gently smoothed away the worry lines with the tip of a finger.
Such a burden you've carried all those years. Rhian understood that this wasn't the end of the pain but only the beginning of its release. This woman wasn't going to change overnight and one good cry wasn't going to bring about some sort of profound metamorphosis. However, she also appreciated the risk Deven had taken in opening herself up.
The subtle changes over time were often the most remarkable and long lasting, Deven. Those are the changes that are so often overlooked or discounted as insignificant. I would love to celebrate them, but you won't even recognize them for what they were.
The sound of the phone ringing seemed unnaturally loud in the room and startled Rhian. Reluctantly, she released her hold as Deven forced herself to sit up. Annoyed, the martial artist grabbed up the receiver. "This had better be good," she rasped into the phone.
"Well, since you're home, I take it you aren't coming in tonight."
Deven glanced at the clock on the nightstand, astounded by how much time had passed since she'd started talking with Rhian. "No, Jay, I won't be. Sorry I didn't call you and let you know."
He detected a slight hoarseness in her voice. "Is everything okay?"
"I'm fine," she said while using her hand to erase the remnants of her tears. "Something came up is all."
"You sound like your catching a cold," he said.
This was not a conversation she wanted to have with him, especially now. Things were still too raw, and she needed to steer away from anything that was emotional in nature. "I'm fine. Is everything okay there?"
To her relief, he accepted the change in conversation. "Yeah. Running like clockwork," he answered.
"Good. Call the other schools and tell them that if they need anything, they should contact you."
"Okay. You want me to come over later?"
"I don't know. Call me on my cell and we'll see. I might go out." She hung up the phone and rested her back against the headboard, her shoulder barely grazing against Rhian's. "I think it's fairly safe to say that this has been one of the most humiliating days of my life. "
Deven's reaction to the events of this day weren't surprising to Rhian and yet, they hurt her feelings. For her, something significant had happened to them and between them. "Don't think of it like that."
"Yeah? How should I think of it?"
"I don't know, but there has to be something better. Like the day you began to move on with your life. Or the day you released a lot of the burden you've carried."
The day I lost you? Resting her head back, Deven closed her eyes. "I'm sorry, Rhian."
"For everything. For being such an asshole. For falling apart on you. For not being the kind of person you deserve."
Rhian intertwined her fingers with the martial artist's. Raising their joined hands, she placed a kiss on the smooth flesh on the back of Deven's, noticing for the first time the faint scars that appeared randomly across the knuckles.
"Don't apologize for any of those things." She laughed softly. "Well, maybe the asshole part." She observed a faint twitch of Deven's lips and took that as a good sign. "I understand how hard it was for you to tell me about your past. To open yourself up to me. Deven, giving of yourself, baring your soul is a gift, and I thank you."
"I'm not finished yet," she said, effectively cutting Deven off. "I don't know what you think I deserve, but I suspect that whatever it is, you're wrong. For my part, I'm beginning to truly understand and accept what I want. I feel more alive now because of you then I have ever felt in my life. I feel more deeply then I can ever remember feeling. You're an extraordinary person, Deven. You've struggled with so much. You did some pretty awful things in the past, but that's the past and you've got to put things into perspective. I'm only concerned with the now and the future. Your focus has been a concern for what has already come and gone, not what is here now. I'm not saying that you should discount the things you did. I don't believe that you could. But it's time to move forward." She paused, hoping that her words weren't falling on deaf ears. "For both of us."
Deven's eyes remained closed. "If you want to go, I'll understand."
Rhian took a deep breath to hold back the frustration she was beginning to feel. You knew this wasn't going to be a cake walk when you made the choice to come up here. "No. Are you listening to me at all?"
Red rimmed eyes opened and stared off across the dim room. "Yes, but I can't figure out why you're still here."
Rhian nodded slightly. She supposed that given the circumstances, she could understand why Deven would have such a difficult time accepting that someone could and did care for her. She studied the strong profile, touched by the look of deep sadness that shrouded the woman's face. "Hey?"
"Deven, look at me."
"Because I want to see your face."
The obstinate child rose up again, and the woman made no move to fulfill Rhian's request.
Reluctantly, Deven turned her head. "What?"
Looking into the other woman's eyes, Rhian saw that the tumult of emotions was still close to the surface. She feared that Deven would eventually put a lid back on everything, shutting herself back off behind her walls. Placing her emotions back in some sort of exile. She won't see this as a good thing. She's going to dwell upon the weakness. Okay, so how do I stop that? "Please don't beat yourself up for being human."
Deven shook her head and looked away.
"Deven, please. You have no reason to feel you're weak, because it takes a great deal of strength to be human. To express your feelings. Those aren't easy things to do, and they're most certainly not character flaws. Give yourself some credit here. What you did, letting me in, took a lot of courage."
The martial artist heard the words but couldn't accept them. A part of her wanted to believe what Rhian said, but for years she'd lived on a system based on the fact that emotions could prove fatal and were therefore a weakness to be conquered. Emotions in a fight could get you killed, and feeling for someone else only paved the road to getting your heart ripped out and trampled. And yet despite everything she'd believed she knew with certainty that she was in love with this woman.
She felt tired. Beyond a physical tired, and it felt strange. Her stomach muscles still hurt when she flexed them, but the rest of her discomfort came from deep within. Deven felt as if she'd fought hard and been beaten up from the inside out. A part of her wished Rhian would leave so she could get herself back under control, but most of her wanted the woman to stay right where she was.
Still, whether Rhian stayed or left, Deven felt a need to put some emotional distance between them and that was near impossible with the woman in such close physical proximity. "You must be hungry. Why don't you go downstairs and get a couple of steaks out of the freezer in the garage? If you thaw them out in the microwave, I'll grill them."
Rhian felt the disappointment at Deven's retreat from her but understood it just the same. "What about your stomach?"
"It seems better. I'm just going to get cleaned up, and then I'll be down."
Rhian decided that bringing a sense of normalcy into their lives wasn't a bad idea. She hoped that it would help Deven accept that they were okay. "Sounds like a plan. I'll see what I can find to go with the steaks."
Both women rose from the bed, and then stood in awkward silence. Not one to discard her feelings, Rhian closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around the solid form. Deven hesitated before giving in and returning the embrace. It felt good. After everything that had happened, it still felt right, and she allowed that sensation to envelop her.
Rising up slightly on her toes, Rhian placed a soft kiss on the taller woman's cheek. "Hurry up. I really am hungry."
Deven smirked. "I'm not surprised. See you in a few minutes." She watched the younger woman leave the room, and then stood quietly for a moment still unsure of what was happening to her and her life. It was frightening and, at the same time, the best feeling she had ever known.