Chapter I: A Meeting of Fate

It's funny how things happen. How fate intervenes in our normal, everyday lives and flips the ordinary on its head. One single incident changes our lives forever and we are powerless to stop it. We don't always notice it at the time, we miss the strings of fate flowing through our reality twisting and changing our lives until it’s too late. Of course, this isn't always a bad thing... and sometimes fate's changes aren't for the worse, such as with the case of Kayla Austin. Kayla was nineteen, a brunette, and very attractive and she was in a lot of trouble. She was on the run… and she was also running, right now, away from a police officer down a dank street on the outskirts of Detroit.

She was running from the police officer for an altogether different reason than that which had forced her to flee her Southern California home, but that didn’t make her current situation any less serious. Poor Kayla was, well… just that. Poor. Being on the lam didn’t offer the opportunities for lawful employment that regular people enjoyed. So, Kayla had taken to… less lawful prospects; most recently the selling of illegal substances. Most people wouldn't really feel sorry for her. They would assume that she was just a drugged up criminal and write her off as a lost cause, deserving whatever she got. And it was partially true. Kayla was, technically a criminal. She was on the run for a reason, after all. She had certainly committed a crime… but she didn’t do drugs. She knew all too well what that shit could do to people and she didn’t want anything to do with it.

Of course, she couldn’t stop other people from buying it and she really needed the money so she could get out of this suckhole of a town. Naturally, as things typically worked out for Kayla, the poop had hit the hypothetical fan and the deal had gone bad in a hurry. And so now she was running. Luckily, she was good at that. She found she had to run quite often and she was very quick. Blessedly, it was a cop that had spent a little too much time in the donut shop that had decided to pursue her, because despite her speed Kayla didn’t know Detroit very well at all.

Fleeing at full speed, she dodged into an alley and sprinted down it. She took a left at the end and ran down another street, hoping to lose any pursuing officers in the maze of abandoned factories and warehouses she found herself in. As her luck would go, the officer had called for reinforcements and seconds later a cruiser rocketed off of a side street and skidded to a stop right in front of her. Kayla turned around and bolted across the street as the officers leapt from their vehicle and gave chase. She dodged quickly through a narrow gap between two buildings and tore down another alley. Her new pursuers, however, were almost as fast as she was and she wasn’t having a lot of luck evading them.

But here’s where fate plays its games, and luckily for Kayla, fate was on her side that day. As she turned a corner at the end of an abandoned red brick warehouse, a young girl about her own age appeared quite suddenly in front of her. Kayla only caught a glimpse of the girl’s bright, fire engine red hair before she was forced into a gap in the side of the warehouse. There was barely room for both of them to squeeze into. Both girls were pressed so closely together that Kayla wouldn’t have been able to put an ink pen between their noses but at that moment she didn’t care about her personal space. Seconds later the cops ran past, oblivious of the two girls hiding in the shadows. The girl waited a few moments before poking her head out of the gap and glancing in both directions. She then motioned for Kayla to follow her.

Kayla slipped out of the gap after her and found herself being led toward a handle dangling from a rope that connected to something high atop the red warehouse’s fire escape. Kayla had seriously considered climbing that same fire escape seconds before the redhead had grabbed her. The girl gripped the handle firmly and looked at Kayla with exasperated eyes.

“Well, come on,” she said wearily. “They’ll be circling back any moment!” Kayla grabbed the handle too, wondering as she did so why in the world she was trusting this girl. The redhead gave an almighty tug and they were off, soaring up into the air. They scrambled over the railing at the top of the fire escape an instant before the two cops reappeared around the corner of the warehouse.

“Shh,” the redhead hissed as though Kayla had been making tremendous amounts of noise. The cops didn’t see them however, and seemingly believing that Kayla had doubled back to the main street, they ran off in the direction of their cruiser.

“Thanks,” Kayla said breathlessly as the redhead examined the powered rope ascender that had hauled them up to safety. “That’s a cool trick.”

“I’m not a magician,” said the girl airily, twirling a strand of her bright red hair around her finger. 

“I didn’t… what?” Kayla couldn’t come up with a proper response to that statement.

“We should go inside,” said the redhead. “There’s a storm coming.” The sky was indeed growing darker by the second and Kayla was chilled to the bone. Damn Detroit winters.

The redhead tugged open the door and stepped inside. Kayla followed her and found herself in what looked to have once been a conference room, although it didn’t look remotely like a conference room any longer. In the far left hand corner was what could only be a small kitchen; complete with a stove, refrigerator, microwave, sink, and a tiny round table with two chairs.

A few feet to the right sat a rather ragged sofa and coffee table. Some of the girl’s clothes were strewn across its cushions and a number of books and tattered magazines littered the table. Immediately to Kayla’s left was an old TV sitting on a small, slightly crooked table. On the other side of that was a very large bookcase, filled to bursting with books of all shapes and sizes.

The far and left hand side walls had wide windows set into them so people could look down on the warehouse floor far below. To Kayla’s right was a solid wall with two closed doors. The nearest one had a sign on it that said ‘Manager’s Office’ and the farther one ‘Bathrooms’.

The redhead walked across the room and for the first time, Kayla had calmed down enough to actually get a good look at her. Like she had thought, the girl was roughly her age, maybe a little younger. Her waist length hair, so brightly red it was shocking, flowed around her as she walked.

She was very well endowed in all the areas that mattered. Her assets were accentuated by the skin tight, low rise pink pants she wore complimented by a black, midriff-exposing, top with a low neckline held up only by then straps over her shoulders. The cleavage it showed was impressive to say the least. The girl wandered over to the fridge and dug around for a moment before turning around and holding out a juice box toward Kayla.

“Apple juice?” she asking kindly, wiggling the box playfully. This girl was strange, that was certain, but her wide, bright blue eyes gave Kayla the impression that she would be hurt if she refused the juice. Kayla nodded and accepted the box. The girl’s full lips turned up in a bright smile. If Kayla had to guess, she’d say she just made the girl’s day.

“I’m Ariana, by the way,” the girl said, plopping herself onto the counter next to the sink and sipping her juice happily. “Ariana Laine, but you can call me Ari if you want.”

“Kayla, Kayla Austin. Well, Mikayla Austin I guess, but people call me Kayla.”

“That’s a pretty name,” said Ariana blissfully. She had a soft melodic voice, filled with a childlike joy and wonderment. In fact, she had an air of childlike sweetness and innocence to her that Kayla had to admit was somewhat endearing. “What’cha runnin’ from?” Ariana asked interestedly.

“Cops,” said Kayla stiffly.

“Policemen are nice,” said Ariana firmly. “They help people. They chase criminals.” She gasped suddenly as though an amazing revelation had occurred to her. “Are you a criminal?!” Well, how in the hell could she answer that? Of course, Kayla was a criminal, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to tell Ariana that. But then how to explain it? Mistaken identity? Claim innocence? Screw it; she decided to go with the truth.

“Yes, I’m a criminal,” said Kayla slowly, not entirely sure how Ariana would respond to that.

“What’d you do?” Ariana inquired, spinning her straw around in her box absently.

“I sold drugs,” said Kayla. “Cocaine, to be precise.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” said Ariana very seriously. “That was bad.”

“I… I know,” said Kayla, finding herself surprised that being told she had done wrong by this little redhead actually made her feel rather bad about herself. “I’m sorry, but I needed the money.”

“It’s okay,” said Ariana sweetly. “I forgive you,” Kayla gave the room another look and turned back to Ariana.

“Do… do you live here?” she asked. Ariana nodded.

“For over a year,” she said, sounding quite pleased with herself.

“Why do you live here?” Kayla asked. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen,” Ariana replied. “And because I want to.”

“Where are your parents?” Kayla asked.

“Dead. Where are yours?” Ariana asked in reply.

“San Diego,” said Kayla. She hesitated for a moment before adding; “And I’m sorry about your parents.” Ariana’s blue eyes looked incredibly sad for a moment and Kayla thought she was about to cry. Instead, she said;

“Do you like cupcakes?” Kayla stared, bewildered.

“Um… okay, random. But, sure… yeah, cupcakes are great, I guess.”

“You’re funny,” said Ariana. She retrieved a pair of cupcakes from beneath a plastic lid and handed one to Kayla.

“Thanks,” Kayla said. Ariana peered nervously at her, waiting it appeared to see what Kayla thought. Kayla took a bite, prepared to pretend to enjoy it regardless of how it tasted to spare Ariana’s feelings. Kayla was sure she had prepared the cupcakes herself. However, there was no need to pretend. Kayla had just bitten into cupcake heaven. The taste, texture… hell, there was even a creamy filling in the middle.

“Dear God, girl, this is delicious!” Kayla exclaimed. “You made these?” Ariana nodded excitedly.

“Uh huh,” she said softly. “You… you like it? I… I’ve never had anyone to share them with before.”

“Like, love… would sell my soul for, whatever,” said Kayla, taking another bite. She ignored the part about not being able to share them before. The sadness in her voice actually made Kayla’s heart hurt. And here she was thinking she’d stopped feeling for other people a long time ago. There’s a reality check.

“Why didn’t you sell your soul instead of drugs?” Ariana asked, sounding genuinely curious. “I don’t think the police would have chased you then,” Kayla actually laughed.

“No, kiddo, I don’t suppose they would,” Kayla glanced around the room again. “Well, I should probably get moving. I’ve got to get back to my motorcycle and get out of town while I can.”

“You can’t leave now!” Ariana exclaimed, leaping off of the counter and rushing over to her. “Look, it’s raining! You should stay here until the storm passes. Besides, it’s almost night out. You can stay here tonight and find your motorcycle in the morning. I like motorcycles,” she added as a point of interest.

It was hard to find a flaw in her logic. It was raining awfully hard and it would be dark out very soon. However, for all Kayla knew this girl would murder her in her sleep. It was clear something wasn’t quite right with her, but something about Ariana made her feel welcome. Maybe it was something in the cupcakes... Still, her bike was safe where it was and she could go and get it the following day.

“Well…” Kayla said slowly. Ariana looked highly crestfallen at Kayla’s hesitance. “Alright, fine. I’ll stay.”

“Yay!” Ariana exclaimed. She engulfed Kayla in a tight hug, positively squealing with excitement. “Ooooh, I’ve never had a house guest before. I’ll make up the sofa bed for you. C’mon, there’s some extra blankets in the library. Let’s go and get them!” Ariana turned and led the way through a door on the left hand side wall and out onto a staircase that gave Kayla her first look at the warehouse.

It was one of the larger warehouses in the area, Kayla would guess somewhere in the area of 400,000 square feet. Apart from beams extending from the floor here and there throughout the building, the warehouse seemed to be empty.

“Oh, right!” said Ariana when she glanced back and noticed Kayla was looking out at the vast facility. “I forgot to say… Welcome to Warehouse 15.”

“Any idea what was being made in here?" Kayla asked.

"It's a warehouse, not a factory," said Ariana. "They just stored stuff here. No idea what it was though. There's dozens of tires in Warehouse 16 across the street. It smells funny in there. Oh, and in Warehouse 8 a few blocks over there's all these crates of moldy cheese."

"Old cheese and tires, huh?" said Kayla idly.

"Well, I think it's pretty obvious what the factories made, though," said Ariana brightly.

"Oh, yeah?" said Kayla. "What's that?"

"Cheese wheels!" Ariana exclaimed. Kayla giggled at that. She should have seen it coming. It was certainly an Ariana answer. In her mind, it clearly made sense.

Ariana stepped off at the first landing and held open the door into the library. It had once been a break room, judging by the tables and broken down vending machines, but Ariana had filled it with tumbledown bookcases that were stacked with books. There must have been thousands of books in that room. Near the vending machines sat four large trunks overflowing with clothes. Ariana tugged open one of them and rummaged inside for a moment before standing up holding a bundle of thick blankets.

"Here!" she said brightly, passing the bundle of furiously pink blankets to Kayla, who took them, making a great effort not to look disgusted. "C'mon, let's head back up."

The girls made their way back up to Ariana's apartment and Kayla immediately went to the sofa and started removing the pillows. Without warning, one of the pillows she grabbed hissed loudly at her, squirmed from her grasp and bolted across the room to Ariana. The pillow, of course, turned out to be a very fat gray cat with a bejeweled pink collar around its neck.

"You grabbed Fluffers!" Ariana shouted, clearly outraged. She scooped up the cat into her arms. "Are you okay, sweetie?" She glared at Kayla. "Tell him you're sorry!"

"I'm sorry!" Kayla exclaimed. 'Holy fuck, it's just a cat!' she thought. "I'm sorry; I thought he was a pillow."

"He is really fat," Ariana admitted. "Aren't you Fluffers? Aren't you fat Fluffers McMuffins?" Kayla would have given anything to comment on that cat's name, which has to be the worst name for a cat ever. However, since Ariana seemed to be incredibly protective of the little hairball, she decided against it and pulled out the sofa bed and spread the pink blanket out over it.

Kayla sat down on the edge and lay back across the bed, testing for comfort. It wasn't the best bed she'd ever slept in, but considering some of the places she'd slept over the past few months, she was in paradise. Fluffers leapt from Ariana's arms and up onto the bed. He curled up beside Kayla and almost immediately fell asleep.

"Aww, he loves you," Ariana said happily, smiling brightly at the pair of them. "And... sorry about the bed. I know it's not the softest thing, but..."

"No, please, it's great," said Kayla honestly. "I was sleeping in an alley on a bag of garbage last night so this is heaven."

"You shouldn't sleep on garbage," said Ariana seriously. "That's not healthy."

"Had to sleep somewhere," said Kayla heavily. "So... as good as the cupcake was, is there any chance we could scrounge up some dinner? I'm starving."

"Sure!" said Ariana, her eyes flashing excitedly. "I love to cook! And cats… I love cats, too. But not cooking cats. No, that would be horrible.”

“I think they eat cats in some countries,” Kayla said conversationally. Ariana gasped, holding a hand to her chest.

“Why would they do that?!” she exclaimed.

“Because… cat tastes good?” said Kayla with a shrug.

“What’s that supposed to mean?!” Ariana shouted.

“Hell, I don’t know,” said Kayla. “It was just a suggestion. I certainly wouldn’t eat cat, but to each their own.” Ariana didn’t reply. She was now quite interested in the contents of a cabinet over the sink.

“Macaroni and cheese?” she asked, turning around and holding up the box hopefully.

“Whatever you’d like,” said Kayla. “I’m good with anything… except cat.”

“Great!” said Ariana happily. She retrieved a pan from a pot rack hanging from the ceiling and placed it on the stove. Kayla made to get up and help, but Ariana shook her head. “No, you’re a guest!” the redhead insisted. “I love to cook.”

So Kayla let Ariana go about preparing the meal. She lay back in bed and soon enough the smell of macaroni and cheese filled the air. She glanced over just as Ariana placed two heaping plates of the stuff on the small table.

“That smells delicious, Ari,” said Kayla, sliding off of the bed and falling into one of the chairs. Ariana sat down across from her, looking apprehensive again. Her face brightened, however, when Kayla took her first bite and her eyelids fluttered blissfully.

“Damn, girl,” she exclaimed. “If I had the money to pay you, I’d hire you as my own personal chef.” Ariana was blushing furiously.

“It’s… not that good,” she said shyly.

“The hell it’s not,” Kayla exclaimed. “Seriously, you could market this stuff.” Ariana just started eating and gave no reply.

The rain began to slack off after dinner. Ariana stood looking out the window beside the television while Kayla washed the dishes. Guest or not, Kayla had insisted. She had just finished scrubbing the pan when Ariana gasped.

“What’s wrong?” Kayla asked, expecting her to say something about sad puppies or unicorns going extinct.

“The police are back,” said Ariana, pointing down at the street below. “Don’t worry,” she added when Kayla looked as though she was working out which way to run. “I’ll go and talk to them.”

“And say what?” Kayla asked quickly. For all she knew, Ariana would suggest the police come up to the apartment and sit down and talk it out. She didn’t think Ariana would intentionally rat her out, she would think she was helping.

“Don’t worry,” Ariana repeated and disappeared down the stairs. Kayla snuck out after her and hid on the stairs to listen. Ariana went down to the warehouse floor and slid open one of the massive doors with the push of a button. The two police officers, different than the ones that had chased her earlier, were waiting outside.

“Hi,” said Ariana brightly, glancing between the two of them. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said one of the officers. “We’re looking for a woman. Brunette, 5’6”… she was wearing jeans and a yellow shirt with a thin black jacket. Have you seen anyone matching that description around here?” Kayla couldn’t see Ariana from her position on the stairs, but she heard her next words quite clearly.

“Actually, yes, I saw someone who looked just like that an hour ago,” Ariana said thoughtfully.

“Can you tell us where you saw her? What was she doing when you saw her?” asked the second officer.

“She was just walking right over there,” said Ariana. “Then a silver car pulled up beside her and she got in and drove off that way.”

“Do you remember the make of the car, miss?” asked the first officer. “Or the license plate?”

“No, I didn’t pay much attention to the car,” said Ariana. “The only reason I noticed the girl was because she was kinda cute. What did she do, if I can ask?”

“Selling illegal narcotics and evading arrest,” said the first officer.

“Oh, well at least she isn’t a murderer or something,” said Ariana. “Still, if I can help you in any other way, I’ll be here at the warehouse.”

“Excellent,” said the second officer. “We’ll contact you if we have further questions,”

“Of course,” Ariana replied. “Have a good evening.” When the warehouse door banged closed, Kayla hurried down the stairs to find Ariana walking back toward her.

“You are brilliant,” she exclaimed. She opened her arms and pulled the redhead into a tight hug. “Thank you!” Kayla suddenly felt a rather curious sensation course through her body as the redhead fell against her. It was shocking and strange and she wasn’t sure what had caused it.

“How… how did you come up with that story so fast?” asked Kayla, releasing Ariana rather more quickly than she wanted to. “I would’ve just said I hadn’t seen anything.”

“If I had said that, they would probably have asked to search the warehouse,” said Ariana plainly. “I could’ve refused, of course, but then they could’ve come back with a search warrant… plus, it makes me look like I’ve got something to hide. This way, they’re going to be looking at every silver car in the city that could’ve picked you up instead of nosing around the warehouse. It’ll be a while before they come back, if they even come back at all.”

It struck Kayla at that moment that Ariana wasn’t stupid or slow or anything else like it. She was actually pretty smart, if somewhat strange.

“Like I said, brilliant,” said Kayla. “That’s twice you’ve saved my life in the space of a few hours. You keep this up and I’ll start feeling like I owe you something.”

“Just a life debt,” said Ariana playfully. “But I promise your life of servitude will be simple.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Kayla, following Ariana back up the stairs. “What am I going to have to do?”

“You’ll be Fluffers’ handmaiden,” said Ariana proudly. “You’ll have to feed him, bathe him… oh, and you’ll have to fan him with one of those giant leaf fans.”

“I’ve had worse jobs,” Kayla deadpanned. Ariana stopped at a control panel by the apartment door and dimmed the warehouse lights for the night. She still left them on fairly bright. Kayla went to the sofa bed and settled onto it. Ariana disappeared through the door marked ‘Manager’s Office’ and came back a few minutes later wearing a long white t-shirt and a rather lacy pair of black panties. Kayla couldn’t help but stare, her eyes drawn up the girl’s long legs as Ariana tied her hair up in a messy knot behind her head.

“Need anything before bed?” Ariana asked. Kayla jerked out of her stupor rather violently. Ariana gazed knowingly at her.

“In another world?” she asked interestedly. “I do that sometimes. It helps… losing yourself in another world. When life gets hard, or you’re really sad… just… go somewhere else.”

“Yeah, it… It wasn’t exactly like that,” said Kayla quietly. Ariana just shrugged and then turned out the lights.

“Well, goodnight,” she said gently.

“Yeah, goodnight,” Kayla replied. She hesitated for a moment with a question that had been bugging her all evening. “Hey, Ariana?”

“Yeah?” Ariana asked, pausing in the doorway to the office.

“Why did you help me today?” Kayla asked. “I mean, I was running from the police…” Ariana stared at her for a moment and then shrugged.

“I don’t know,” she said at last. “I didn’t want you to go to jail. You looked like a good person.”

“I was running from two cops,” said Kayla dryly.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Ariana matter-of-factly. “It was my first thought when I saw you. I thought you were a good person. You didn’t deserve to go to jail. I wanted to help.”

“Well… thanks, Ariana.” said Kayla, no less confused about Ariana’s aid than she was before she asked. “Seriously, thanks for helping… and for the bed.”

“You’re welcome,” the redhead replied. She turned around and disappeared into her bedroom. She turned off the overhead light, but left what must have been a lamp turned on. A soft orange glow illuminated the doorway.

Kayla lay awake for several hours. She just couldn’t fall asleep, her mind was still too wired but she really needed to sleep. She had to get back on the road tomorrow, after all. She couldn’t risk trying to earn more money in Detroit now, legally or otherwise. She wasn’t sure where she would head next, although she was leaning toward New York City. It would be easy to disappear into the crowds there.

As strange as it was, having only known her for a few hours, she knew she was really going to miss Ariana. The bubbly, kooky redhead had brought laughter back into her life for the first time in months. For the first time since she’d lost Claire. And just as the tears started to come, the power went out and the entire warehouse was plunged into darkness. She was sure that Ariana had been asleep, but if she was she woke up immediately. She started screaming at the top of her lungs. She ran out of her bedroom, clutching a flashlight and tore under Kayla’s blanket. She latched on to the brunette, crying hysterically and trembling violently.

“Hey, hey, Ariana, calm down,” said Kayla, trying to reassure the girl. “Shh, it’s okay sweetie.” She wrapped her arms around the redhead and held her close.

“The… the lights… it’s dark,” Ariana whimpered.

“I know, but it’ll be okay,” Kayla replied, gently stroking the other girl’s hair. “It’ll be okay. You’re fine. Don’t worry; it was probably just a fuse. Hey, maybe we can fix it. I'm pretty handy. Do you know where the fuse box is?” She did not and Kayla suspected as much. Someone so innocent and clearly not technologically inclined as Ariana likely wouldn’t know what a fuse box was, much less where it could be found.

“Alright, well it’s got to be down on the warehouse floor somewhere because it’s not up here or in the library.” said Kayla. “If I can borrow your flashlight, I’ll go and see what I can do.”

Ariana refused to be left alone in the darkness without her light, so together the girls descended the stairs to the warehouse floor. The cone of light from the flashlight, which happened to be a pretty heavy-duty one, only illuminated a short distance in front of them in the complete blackness of the warehouse. Even Kayla had to admit that the black void stretching out in front of them was very creepy.

Keeping a firm grip on Ariana's hand, Kayla moved along the wall of the warehouse for a few minutes until they finally came across a long row of fuse boxes. It took a while for Kayla to find which one was responsible for the outage, but she did. Unfortunately, there were no spares.

"Well, I've found the problem," said Kayla. "But there aren't any spare fuses." Ariana, who had been whimpering frightfully the entire time, began to cry in earnest again. From the light from the flashlight, Kayla could see the fear in the redhead's eyes. It wasn't a normal fear, a rational fear. This poor girl was terrified beyond reason, beyond understanding. Ariana was trapped in her own version of Hell.

"There's got to be a storage room around here somewhere," said Kayla softly. "Maybe we can find something there."

"There... there's a room with boxes over there," said Ariana, pointing to an area of inky blackness further down the warehouse. Kayla shined the flashlight in that direction and set off, still gripping Ariana's small hand. They found the store room without difficulty and within a few minutes of searching the rows of shelves and boxes, Kayla had what she was looking for.

They returned to the fuse panel and Kayla worked her magic. A few minutes later she was finished and the warehouse lights flickered to life. Ariana let out a gasp and pulled Kayla into a hug.

"Thank you," she exclaimed, planting a kiss on the brunette's cheek. "Oh, thank you, Kayla!"

"Hey, don't worry about it, kiddo," she replied, blushing slightly. Ariana’s lips had certainly been warm. "After today, I still owe you one. C'mon, let's get back upstairs." The girls returned to the apartment arm-in-arm and Kayla followed Ariana into her room.

"I'm staying with you tonight," Kayla said firmly. "You look like you could use some company." Ariana nodded and slipped into bed. Kayla fell into bed as well and Ariana immediately cuddled up beside her.

"Oh no!" she exclaimed suddenly. "This... this could happen again, couldn't it? I couldn't have fixed it... I couldn't have gone down there alone! If it happens again, you won't be here and I'll... I'll... I'll be all alone in the dark."

"Ari, why are you so afraid of the dark?" Kayla asked, wrapping her arm around the redhead and gently stroking her back. Ariana’s reply came in a voice so emotionless that it sent a chill up Kayla's spine. She would remember those six simple words for the rest of her life.

“Bad things happen in the dark.”

It was a simple answer, but to Kayla it spoke volumes. No one was that terrified of the dark. Something had happened to Ariana, or she had seen something so terrible in the darkness and it had made her fear the dark this way. Whatever had taken place that had instilled this level of terror in the redhead, Kayla sincerely hoped she never had to experience it.

“I could stay here,” Kayla said quietly after a couple of minutes. Say what?! Wait just a minute. No, no, no! Stay here? In a musty old warehouse in Detroit?! Where did that thought even come from? And more to the point, why would she suggest it out loud? But in the infinitely long second before Ariana responded, the idea of it took hold in Kayla and she seriously considered it.

“Would you?” Ariana asked, her eyes shining with happiness. “Really? You’d stay here with me?” Well, there was nothing else for it now. She had made the offer and she couldn’t take it back and break the little redhead’s heart. And to tell the truth, she wasn’t sure she even wanted to take it back.

“Sure, kiddo,” she said firmly. “In fact, I’d love to stay.”

“Yay!” Ariana exclaimed happily. She hugged Kayla and snuggled closer. Very soon, she was fast asleep. Kayla sighed and closed her eyes. She wasn’t sure what came next. She wasn’t sure how to live and not be on the run any more. She wasn't sure what came next and not knowing what the future held scared her. Regardless, she figured she could give it a try. No one would look for her here, after all. Whatever happened, it was sure to be a long ride… with this little redheaded girl and her warehouse.

2: Chapter II: A Fateful Ride
Chapter II: A Fateful Ride

Kayla awoke the following morning feeling so warm and comfortable that she didn't ever want to move. She relished the wonderful feeling for a long as she could before finally opening her eyes. The room was filled with the golden light of the midmorning sun streaming in through the wide window over the bed.

She hadn't gotten a good look at Ariana's bedroom the night before, but now she could see that all traces of the manager's office had been removed. The full size bed the girls were lying on sat on the far side of the room from the door. The walls were painted a soft pink and were adorned with pictures of kittens in assorted white and pink picture frames.

Dear God, the girl was obsessed with cats... and pink. Pink everywhere. Geez, there are other colors out there. Start thinking in the full spectrum, Ari. Still, Kayla reasoned, she certainly was cuddly. That was part of the reason she was so comfortable. Ariana's slender body was pressed against her own, her head tucked under Kayla's chin.

It was a few moments before Kayla realized that she was softly inhaling the scent of the redhead's hair, which smelt wonderfully of strawberries. What the holy hell?! Since when did that start happening?! Kayla was disconnected. She had closed herself off, sealed away her heart and her feelings a long time ago. How was this little redhead getting to her?

It had to be simple human contact. Oh, of course that was it. She’d been on her own for months, constantly moving from city to city, town to town, never stopping. She had left her family, her friends, everyone she loved behind and ran. She hadn’t had a choice. She was lonely and scared and Ariana… Ariana was soft, and sweet, and innocent... and she was just there. No one else was, but she was.

But she’s just so damned beautiful. That irritating voice in Kayla’s head kept saying. But she wasn’t Claire. She never could be. So, it didn’t matter. Ariana could never be Claire, not ever. So, it just didn’t matter. Kayla hated herself for even being slightly drawn to the redhead. Claire hadn’t even been gone a year and here she was, finding herself attracted to a girl who was clearly out of her mind.

'Whoa, hold the phone a minute!' She thought, her mind positively reeling. Did she really consider herself attracted to Ariana? No, no… she couldn’t be. They’d only just met, after all. And Ariana was so far from being her type it wasn’t even funny. They had nothing in common. Kayla had tomboyish tendencies. She liked motorcycles and off-roading. She loved shooting and hunting. She even got in fights from time to time too. She might look like a soft girly-girl, but she was a scrapper.

Ariana, Kayla suspected, was the complete opposite. She was confident that if Ariana ever ended up in a fight, the poor kid was dead. She couldn’t imagine a gun in the redhead’s hand and… well, she had said she liked motorcycles. Hmm… well, it was a start. She guessed she could work with it.

Kayla hadn’t noticed, but when she glanced down again Ariana was looking up at her through sleepy eyes. She smiled happily.

“What’cha thinkin’ about?” she asked, having clearly noticed that Kayla was deep in thought.

“That your hair smells like strawberries,” Kayla replied absently. Fuck… Ariana giggled, took a strand of Kayla’s elbow length hair and held it to her nose.

“Your hair smells like motor oil,” she said, not seeming remotely grossed out by this.

“Told you I slept on garbage,” Kayla replied.

“You can take a shower if you want,” Ariana offered. “There’s a whole room filled with showers downstairs for the workers. I prefer baths, but I haven’t got a tub yet.”

“I’ll have to do that today,” said Kayla. She had to admit she preferred baths too, but the idea of a shower right now sounded heavenly.

“You’re still here,” Ariana said suddenly a few minutes later, sounding quite relieved.

“Well, I didn’t say I was gonna take a shower right now,” said Kayla. “I figured we could have breakfast first, maybe watch some TV…”

“No, I… I meant, you didn’t leave,” said Ariana. “Overnight. I figured… I figured you might sneak out while I was asleep.”

“Why would I do that?” Kayla asked. Ariana shrugged.

“Everyone always leaves me,” she said plainly. Damn her. Ariana just had that way about her. She could say things sometimes made Kayla actually ache.

“Well, I’m not leaving you,” said Kayla. “I said I’d stay and I meant it. I’ll stay until you tell me to leave.”

“You don’t have to stay all the time,” said Ariana. “I mean, you can go to the store… and for walks and things, if you like. You don’t have to ask.”

“Oh, great,” said Kayla kindly. “I appreciate that.”  At that exact moment, Fluffers the Cat bounded up onto the bed. He crawled up between the girls and nuzzled Ariana’s hand, purring loudly.

“He’s hungry,” said Ariana, stroking the cat’s thick fur. Kayla noticed that her finger nails were painted almost the same color as her hair.

"That's cute," Kayla said, taking Ariana's hand and bringing it closer for a better look.

"Thanks," Ariana giggled. "It took a while to find a polish to match this," she added, gesturing toward her hair with her other hand. "I've thought about dying it before... It attracts a lot of attention, but I like it!"

"Oh, don't dye it," said Kayla firmly. "Your hair's awesome!" She looked down at Ariana's hand again and noticed a round scar on the back of it roughly the diameter of a Sharpie.

"How'd you get this?" she asked curiously. Ariana glanced down at her hand and slowly opened her mouth.

"Do you like bacon?" she asked. "There's some in the fridge. Thick cut, smoked... whatever you like."

"Bacon's great, Ari," said Kayla, shaking her head. "But why did you dodge the question?"

"What question?" Ariana asked. Kayla held up the redhead's hand.

"What happened to your hand? You've got..." she turned her hand over and found a matching scar on her palm. "Jesus, what happened?"

"I want breakfast," Ariana said uncomfortably, jerking her hand out of Kayla's grasp and sliding out of bed. She disappeared through the door, heading for the kitchen. Kayla hurried after her, worried she had made the redhead angry.

"Hey, Ari!" she called, rushing out after her. "I'm sorry I pried. I should've let it go. It's none of my business."

"Do you want eggs?" Ariana asked brightly, turning around from where she stood at the refrigerator. "I like eggs," she added.

"Sure, kiddo," said Kayla warily. "Eggs would be great." She watched Ariana carefully as she retrieved a carton of eggs and a package of bacon from the fridge. "Um... Ari? Are... Are we okay?" Ariana looked up, surprised.

"Of course!" she said happily. "Why wouldn't we be, Kay-Kay?"

“Well, I just thought… I mean, you really… Hold on. Kay-Kay?”

“Yeah, it’s a nickname,” said Ariana. “I thought about La-La, but that was silly.”

“You do realize that Kayla is, technically, my nickname right?” Kayla asked. “My full name is Mikayla.”

“I like Kay-Kay better,” said Ariana with a shrug. Truth be told, Ariana could have nicknamed her Butt Stallion and she still couldn’t have managed to be mad at her. There was something in those wide, innocent eyes that just wouldn’t let her. Ariana wasn’t being mean, no matter what she said. Her brain just worked that way. Although, if Ariana ever did start calling her Butt Stallion, they were going to have to have a talk.

The girls shared a delightful breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs at the small table. Kayla couldn't believe that such a simple meal could be so delectable. She turned on the TV and found a local news station as Ariana collected the dishes and carried them to the sink. Kayla was quite happy to not see a report on herself throughout the half hour program.

"Hey, you wanna come with me and pick up my bike?" Kayla asked the redhead, glancing over at her from the sofa where she was playing with Fluffers with a piece of Christmas tinsel.

"Sure!" Ariana said excitedly. "I've never ridden a motorcycle before! I like motorcycles."

"Well, you'll get to ride one today," said Kayla, standing up and stretching. "C'mon, let's get going. We've got a bit of a walk ahead of us."

The girls left the warehouse, climbing down the fire escape and setting off across the wide open parking lot between their warehouse and the one next door. Kayla noticed that Ariana seemed even more bubbly and excited than she had inside. She skipped occasionally and twirled in circles. Kayla half expected a flock of birds and woodland creatures to surround her and then they would all burst into song.

They wound their way across the factory district and into the downtown area. The hustle and bustle was nothing compared to what Kayla was used to, but Ariana was enthralled. The redhead looked at her exasperatedly when she didn't seem interested in what was going on around them.

"Come on, Kayla!" Ariana exclaimed when she saw what appeared to be a festival near the lakefront. There were rows upon rows of small tents with vendors out front showing off their homemade baubles. It was mostly useless trinkets that people would look at but almost never buy. Kayla wouldn't have given the festival a second glance, but Ariana scurried from one tent to the next in a whirl of excitement. Kayla couldn't bring herself to pull the girl away.

They spent much of the morning moving through the festival. Ariana collected a large tote bag full of things she'd bought. Kayla did her best to seem interested, but Ariana didn't seem to notice her lack of enthusiasm.

The girls ate lunch at a small picnic table set up beside a food truck parked near the festival. Kayla bought Ariana a bag of cotton candy, which they shared as they left the festival and took a walk on the boardwalk along Lake St. Clair near Lakewood Park. They stopped and sat down on a bench halfway along the boardwalk and looked out at the lake where a large white sailboat bobbed in the waves.

"I want a boat," said Ariana airily after a few moments. "I like to sail. It's... freedom.... well, I guess it is. I've never actually gone sailing, but I read about it in the Big Book of Sailboats."

"We could rent a paddle boat," Kayla suggested.

"No, a real boat," said Ariana, shaking her head. "One like that," she pointed at the sailboat. "I think I'll buy one."

"Sure," said Kayla, not bothering to tell Ariana that sailboats were rather expensive. Far more than a seventeen-year-old with no job, squatting in a rundown warehouse could ever hope to afford. But then, knowing Ariana, she'd be able to talk someone into selling her one for five dollars and a juice box.

"Oh, we should go get your motorcycle!" Ariana exclaimed suddenly, as though Kayla had forgotten the reason they had left the warehouse in the first place.

"Yeah, it's not too far from here," said Kayla. She stood and Ariana followed her as they made their way across town. Kayla led her to an outcropping under the interstate where, hidden beneath a heavy blue tarp, was the motorcycle. It was Kayla’s pride and joy, a 2012 Harley-Davidson V-rod Muscle. Jet black and menacingly powerful; the sixteen thousand dollar bike had been a gift from her parents for her eighteenth birthday.

Kayla tugged the tarp clear and did a quick inventory of the saddlebags and a backpack that rested on the seat. Nothing was missing and the bike was still in the condition she had left it in, a fact which pleased Kayla to no end. She tugged her helmet off the handlebars and passed it to Ariana.

“What about you?” the redhead asked.

“I’ll be fine,” said Kayla with a shrug. “Besides, we’re not going far. Oh, put this on too,” she added, handing her the backpack.

“Why?” Ariana asked.

“Because you’re going to have to hold on to me and I don’t want to have this lumpy backpack between us.” Kayla explained. Ariana did as she was told and hefted the pack onto her shoulders. Kayla mounted the bike and then helped Ariana on behind her and checked that the girl had the helmet securely fastened.

“Alright, now wrap your arms around me and hold on tight,” Kayla instructed. Ariana did so, gripping the brunette tightly around her waist and resting her chin on her shoulder. “And don’t let go, no matter what, okay?” said Kayla. “Not for anything. Not if you see a puppy or if a bakery is giving away free muffins. Don’t let go.”

“I won’t,” said Ariana, although Kayla highly suspected that if they did indeed pass a bakery giving away free muffins, they were going to have a problem. Regardless, they had to get home… home? It was an odd feeling, as Kayla kicked the engine to life. She was suddenly struck by the notion that she actually considered the warehouse home. Sure, Ariana had invited her to stay there as long as she liked. Hell, she’d probably die of happiness if Kayla told her she’d move in permanently right then and never move away.

Still, the idea that the word home came to her mind before ‘the warehouse’ or ‘Ariana’s place’ was quite shocking. Kayla had once had a list of places she’d like to live other than San Diego. A ramshackle warehouse in Detroit had never made the top one billion.

It wasn’t a bad feeling, though, Kayla reasoned. It felt good to have a home again, even if it was just for the moment. Meeting Ariana had been the best thing that had happened to her in a long time and the redhead really was the only bright spot in her life. She was determined to enjoy it before it was all ripped away… before the day came when she had to start running again.

It was roughly mid afternoon by the time the girls arrived back at Warehouse 15. Ariana climbed up the fire escape while Kayla waited outside for her to scurry down and open one of the large doors. Kayla drove the bike inside and parked it under the stairs that led up to the apartment.

“That was so much fun!” Ariana exclaimed when Kayla killed the engine and swung herself off of the bike. “I like motorcycles!”

“I’ll take you for another ride sometime,” said Kayla, helping the redhead unfasten the helmet strap, which she was clearly having trouble with. Kayla lifted the helmet off of her head and smoothed her hair. Ariana was still grinning.

“I think I’m gonna take you up on that shower offer,” Kayla said, hanging the helmet back on the bike’s handlebars.

“I’ll show you where they are,” said Ariana. Kayla took her meager belongings from the saddlebags and relieved Ariana of the backpack and followed her to the showers. The showers ended up looking like something in a gym with long rows of stalls with tiled floors and a second room with over a hundred lockers and benches to sit on.

Kayla sighed happily when Ariana retrieved a fresh bar of soap and a pink loofah. Kayla set them aside and tugged her shirt over her head. She had shed her jeans and was on the verge of unclasping her bra when she realized that Ariana was still there.

“Um… Ari?” Kayla said slowly, arching her eyebrows at the redhead. Ariana looked confused for a moment.

“What?” she asked.

“You’re welcome to stay and watch, sweetie, but I’d feel a little awkward,” said Kayla.

“Oh!” Ariana exclaimed, clearly catching on. Her gaze slid quickly down Kayla’s body and settled onto her own toes. “Sorry. I’ll just… go upstairs... leave you to it.” She turned and hurried away, her face almost the same shade of red as her hair.

Kayla shook her head and removed the rest of her clothing. She picked out a stall and stepped inside. Apparently this was the one Ariana used because there were dozens of cat themed shower decals stuck to the walls.

Kayla tried to keep her mind off of the redhead as she showered the last week off of her. That really was the last time she’d had a shower. It had been in a crappy motel room in Cincinnati and she hadn’t felt very clean afterwards. She stayed under the warm spray of water for almost thirty minutes before shutting off the stream and stepping out of the stall.

Ariana had apparently come back at some point, because a thick, fluffy towel and a pink bathrobe with pictures of bunnies on it were folded on a bench for her. She dried off quickly and, although she sincerely hated herself for it, she wrapped herself in the robe because she briefly imagined the look on the redhead’s face when she saw her wearing it and Kayla just knew she would smile.

She picked up her pack and padded across the warehouse and up the stairs to the apartment. Ariana looked up when she slipped through the door. Yep, there it is. Ariana smiled brightly when she saw the robe. Kayla should have bet money. She could’ve been a rich woman.

Ariana made tacos for dinner, which were again some of the best tacos Kayla had ever eaten. They sat on the sofa for a long while after that, watching whatever was on the few channels they could actually get on the old TV. Ariana fell asleep in Kayla’s arms at some point, giving Kayla the opportunity to do what she had wanted to do all day.

She picked up Ariana’s left hand and took a much closer look at the scars on her palm and the back of her hand. There was only one thing for it; something had been driven straight through her hand. Kayla couldn’t begin to guess what, or why, but it must have been extremely painful.

She wasn’t sure what led her to look, and in truth she would forever wish she hadn’t, but as she released Ariana’s left hand, she gently took her right and looked. There were virtually identical scars on her right hand. Kayla’s heart plummeted into her stomach and she looked down at Ariana’s peaceful face with terrified eyes, her pulse racing.

“Oh, shit…”

-.-

3: Chapter III: One Step Closer
Chapter III: One Step Closer

Kayla didn't sleep a wink that night. Her mind reeled all night long, spinning horrible tales of torture and violence that the innocent little redhead must have suffered. Of course, Kayla's brain always leapt to the worst of conclusions. She didn't actually have any proof that anything of the sort had happened to Ariana. In fact, she could have easily suffered some sort of terrible nail gun incident and just didn't like to talk about it.

Okay, so a nail gun incident was admittedly unlikely, but the idea of anyone intentionally hurting Ariana was too horrible to think about, much less doing something as vile as drilling something through both of her hands. The thought that there were people in the world who would harm something so innocent and sweet... well, Kayla knew those people existed. She'd come face-to-face with them... and she'd gotten her revenge.

She so wanted to ask Ariana what had happened, but she was scared she might upset her again. It was clear that Ariana didn't want to talk about it. She had purposely avoided her questions the previous day and had even pretended that she hadn't asked at all. No, she couldn't ask again... but maybe she could convince Ariana to share. She'd work on it.

Ariana awoke around ten o'clock. Kayla smiled at her as she stirred, the redhead's sleepy eyes fluttering. She yawned widely and Kayla grinned.

"Wake up, sleepy," said Kayla gently. Ariana raised her head slightly, a confused expression on her face.

“Why are we on the couch?” she asked interestedly. “We have a bed,”

“You fell asleep and I didn’t want to wake you,” Kayla explained. “You looked so… peaceful.”

“I’m always non-violent,” said Ariana.

“I didn’t mean… I know you’re…” Kayla sighed. “Oh, Ariana, it’s too early in the morning…”

“Sorry,” said Ariana. “Breakfast?”

“Sure,” Kayla replied. Ariana rolled off of the sofa and circled around behind it, pausing to scratch Fluffers behind his ears as she passed him where he lay on the back of the couch and padded into the kitchen.

“I was thinking sausages and pancakes,” said Ariana brightly.

“Sounds great,” Kayla said, wincing slightly as the fat cat leapt across her stomach to accompany his mistress into the kitchen.

It was the first meal Ariana had prepared that Kayla didn’t fully enjoy. It wasn’t because it wasn’t delicious, Ariana even drew a smiley face in whipped cream on her pancakes, but because she couldn’t stop thinking about the other girl’s hands. It gnawed at her, refusing to give her a moment’s peace… but she couldn’t ask. She wouldn’t.

“Is something wrong?” Ariana’s voice drew Kayla out of her stupor and she looked up from her plate.

“What?” she asked stupidly.

“You’ve hardly eaten and you’re not talking,” said Ariana, looking highly concerned. “Are you okay? Are you sick?” She held her hand to Kayla’s forehead and both of her cheeks, checking for fever.

“I’m fine, Ari, really,” said Kayla. Of course, she wasn’t really fine but she couldn’t tell Ariana that. The redhead was highly intuitive. She could read people quite well it seemed. Kayla was going to have to cover her emotions better. “I’m just a little frazzled this morning. I’ll be fine.”

“You should go back to bed,” Ariana said firmly. “Really, you should. I was gonna straighten up the library today anyway. Finish eating and go get some sleep.” She stood up and went into the bathroom and returned a moment later with a bottle of powerful sleeping pills. “Here, take one of these. It’ll help you sleep.” Kayla glanced down at the almost empty bottle.

“Do you take these?” she asked. Ariana shrugged.

“Once,” she replied. “After my grandpa died,” Kayla hadn’t expected to be hit with the death of someone important to Ariana right then and she didn’t have a reply in mind. Luckily, Ariana didn’t seem to have been expecting one because she speared the last of her sausage with her fork, swallowed it, and carried her plate to the sink.

Kayla took Ariana up on her offer of a nap. She downed one of the redhead’s pills and climbed into her bed, which smelt lightly of strawberries. She drifted off quickly with thoughts of Ariana in her mind, but good ones, not the nightmares that had plagued her earlier.

It was after 2:00 p.m. before she woke again. Ariana had clearly come in and tucked the blankets around her as she slept, because she most certainly hadn’t done it herself. She’d just dropped in and fell asleep. There was also a plate of warm, chocolate chip cookies resting on the bedside table. Geez, that girl loved to cook. She glanced down and found Fluffers the Cat curled up in a ball on her left side, fast asleep and snoring softly. She grinned and stroked the cat’s fur a couple of times. Regardless of their first meeting, the fur ball was starting to grow on her.

Kayla grabbed a couple of cookies and ambled out of bed. The apartment was empty, but still smelled of freshly baked cookies. Kayla briefly wondered where Ariana was, but then remembered that she had said she was going to be in the library so she wandered down the steps and into the old break room.

Ariana had been a busy little beaver while Kayla had been asleep. Books, boxes, clothes, and random junk was strewn everywhere with little semblance of order. She found the redhead, bent double, with her head buried in a large cardboard box.

“Hey,” Kayla said, causing Ariana to look up at her. “Thanks for the cookies,”

“Sure,” said Ariana. “Feeling better?”

“Much,” Kayla replied. “I think I just needed some sleep.”

“Are you sure?” Ariana asked, feeling Kayla’s face again worriedly. “Do you want some soup? I could make you some soup if you’d like. Soup always helps me feel better. I like soup.”

“No, thanks sweetie,” said Kayla. “Honestly, I feel much better now.”

“Okay,” said Ariana. “But let me know if you change your mind.” The girl could come up with any reason possible to cook something. Kayla was going to have to join a gym if she kept eating like she was here.

“So… what are you doing?” Kayla asked curiously. She specifically recalled Ariana saying she was going to ‘straighten up’ the library. She had completely disorganized everything. This was the exact opposite of straightening up.

“Well, I was going to clear out some of these tables and vending machines to make room for more bookcases and a wardrobe for clothes so I don’t have to use these trunks,” Ariana explained. “But I can’t move the vending machines. They’re heavy… and one of the bookcases collapsed… things just kind of spiraled out of control from there.” She glanced hopelessly around the room. “I need more books,” she added quietly.

More books were the absolute last thing Ariana needed, but Kayla didn’t argue the point. They spent much of the afternoon getting the library back into some form of order, although they had dozens of books that they simply had to stack on a table until they could get another bookcase. As they started to climb back up to the apartment, Ariana shouted out in surprise.

"Oh! Kayla, I forgot!" She reached into her pocket and held up a small, handmade bracelet. Kayla took it and glanced down at the small blocks with letters on them that made up a small portion of the bracelet. They spelled out 'Claire'.

"I figured it must be yours," said Ariana. "I found it downstairs earlier. It must have fallen out of your backpack or something. Who's Claire?" Kayla looked up at her, not entirely sure what to say.

"She..."

"Is she your girlfriend?" Ariana asked. Kayla's eyes widened.

"What makes you think I'm interested in girls?" Kayla asked. Ariana shrugged.

"I don't know... I just thought it was obvious. Was I wrong?"

"No, no... You’re, you're right," Kayla replied quietly. "I just... but no, Claire... she wasn't... I mean, maybe we could've been, someday, if... if she... She's dead, Ari." Ariana clasped as hand to her mouth, looking horrified.

"Oh, Kay-Kay, I'm so sorry," she exclaimed. "I didn't know..."

"Of course you didn't," said Kayla. "It doesn't matter anyway. She's gone and she's never coming back. I just... I didn't get to grieve. I didn't even get to go to her funeral."

"Why not?" Ariana asked.

"Because... because I did something really stupid after Claire died," said Kayla. She didn't explain further and Ariana simply nodded, understanding. "You're not going to ask what I did?" said Kayla when Ariana just hugged her without speaking.

"No," said Ariana. "If you were ready to talk about it, you wouldn't have waited for me to ask. Whatever it was must have made you leave San Diego and come here, so it must be really hard for you. If you ever want to talk, I'll be here. I'm a really good listener."

"Thanks, Ari," said Kayla. "I'll... remember that."

-.-

Later that evening, Ariana announced that she wanted to visit a nearby bookstore called Detroit Books. Kayla agreed to drive her on her bike so a few minutes later the girls were climbing on the bike and roaring down the street. The bookstore was only a few blocks over from the warehouse. It was fairly rundown, but actually had a fairly small-town homey feel to it. A bell chimed somewhere deep inside the store as Ariana pulled open the door. The girls entered the dark, quiet store and Ariana immediately bounded over to the section containing books on, what else, cats.

Kayla wandered over to the counter as a guy around her age emerged from the back of the store carrying a stack of magazines. He smiled when he saw her, dropped the magazines on the front counter and sauntered over to her.

"Hey there," he said in a very smooth voice that reminded Kayla of a used car salesman. He leaned casually against the counter and smiled. He shook back his shaggy black hair and looked her over with piercing green eyes. "I'm Cooper, Cooper Jackson... but my friends call me Coop."

"Well, Cooper," Kayla said sagely. "I'm Mikayla... and I'm not interested."

"Who said I was hitting on you?" Cooper asked. Kayla gave him a moody glare.

"I'd have to be blind not to notice." she rolled her eyes. "Do you do this with all your customers?"

"Only the hot ones," said Cooper. He suddenly dropped the sickly smooth voice. "So, what can I help you with?"

"Me? Nothing. My friend's just looking at some books about cats..."

"Cats?" said Cooper suddenly. "Hold on, are you talking about...?" At that moment, Ariana came around the corner toting over a dozen books with pictures of cats on them in her arms.

"Oh, hey Coop!" Ariana exclaimed, dropping her books on a table and rushing over to hug him.

“Hey, Little Red,” said Cooper, squeezing her tightly. “How’ve you been?”

“Great!” Ariana replied brightly. “Coop, this is Kayla Austin. She’s been staying at the warehouse with me. Kay-Kay, this is Coop. He’s the manager of the store.” Kayla looked him over and smirked.

"Aren't you a little young to be a manager?" she asked.

"My parents own this place," he replied, shaking his head. "The title is one of the perks, sweetheart," Ariana grinned.

“Don’t bother flirting with her, Coop,” she said firmly. “She’s not into guys.”

“I never said that!” Kayla retorted. “I just said I was interested in girls. That doesn’t mean I bat only for the home team… and why are we talking about this?”

“I just didn’t want Coop t waste his time,” Ariana said innocently.

“Well, I appreciate it, Ari,” said Cooper gently. “But I already gave it my best shot and she shot me down.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing to do with you,” said Ariana kindly.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Cooper. “Oh, I forgot! Banjo’s here today. He’s in the back if you want to see him.”

“Yay!” Ariana shouted and she rushed off toward the back of the store.

“Banjo?” Kayla asked.

“My dog,” said Cooper. “He’s a golden retriever.” He paused, fixing Kayla with a very serious glare. “So, you’re staying at the warehouse, are you?”

“Uh… yeah,” said Kayla, wondering why he sounding so accusatory.

“What’s going on there?” he asked. “How’d you end up living with her? Where did you meet her?”

“What are you, her dad?” Kayla shot back. What the hell was up with this douche?

“No, I’m her friend and I’m worried about her,” said Cooper, crossing his arms over his chest. “Some chick just shows up with Ariana and I’m not supposed to worry? I don’t know you, but whatever you’re here for, you’d better…”

“Alright, hold it!” Kayla snapped. Her blood was boiling. “You’re right. You don’t know me, so I don’t appreciate the accusation. Secondly, I’m not here for anything. Ariana helped me out a couple of days ago and she invited me to stay at the warehouse with her. That’s it. We’re friends. What? Do you think I’m going to hurt her or something? Steal her books or her cat picture collection? She doesn’t have anything of value and if I wanted to kill her, I’ve had forty-eight hours to do her in. So, the next time you want to attack someone, you’d better make damned sure they’re up to something.”

“Okay, Jesus Christ, sister, calm down!” Cooper exclaimed, holding out his hands. “Look, Ariana… she’s like my baby sister. I worry about her. She’s… she wears her heart on her sleeve and she’s easily taken advantage of. We live in a dangerous world with dangerous people, but she lives in a different world and that puts her at risk.”

“That’s part of the reason I’m staying with her,” Kayla admitted. “She… my first night in the warehouse a fuse blew. The lights went out and… I swear, I’ve never seen anyone so scared before. It was like a primal terror that’s been ingrained in her. I was able to fix it and get the lights back on, but then she realized it could happen again and… well, the idea of the poor kid so afraid in the dark all alone, I… I just couldn’t leave her… and I’d never hurt her.”

“Yeah, okay, I get it,” said Cooper dryly. “Hell, Ariana reads people way better than I do. I guess if she thinks you’re okay, it works for me. But just in case, I drop by the warehouse a couple of times a week. You know, to check up on Ariana… bring her books and see if she needs anything. You know, just in case.”

“I’ll look forward to seeing you again,” said Kayla sweetly. She sighed. “Look, I know I just met her, but I honestly do care about her. She’s so sweet and her demeanor is just…”

“Endearing?” Cooper asked knowingly. Kayla nodded slowly.

“That’s a good word,” she said. “You said you worry about her, well so do I. I want to make sure she’s safe… to protect her. So, I’ll be the bigger person here. How about you and I worry about Ariana together? Share the load, so to speak?” Cooper considered her for a long moment with narrowed eyes. He looked sort of like he was trying to decide whether or not he wanted to shake her hand or cut it off with an axe.

“Alright,” he said at last. He held out his hand. Kayla accepted it and they shook. Ariana still hadn’t returned and now that World War Three had ended in a cease-fire, Kayla wasn’t sure what to do next. Cooper went and collected the books Ariana had picked out and bagged them up for her. Kayla watched him, deciding as she did so that she might as well try and be as friendly with Cooper as she could. He was, after all, Ariana’s friend.

“Listen,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry I acted like such a bitch. I just… It’s been a long year.”

“It’s okay,” said Cooper. “I didn’t exactly give you a great first impression either. Don’t worry, we’re cool. Besides, I can’t not get along with Ariana’s roommate, now can I?”

“So, how did you meet Ariana, anyway?” Kayla asked. Ariana, having never mentioned having any other friends, was actually quite surprised to find she had one.

“She just wandered in here about a year ago,” said Cooper. “She asked me if I had any cat books and offered me a bundle of flowers she’d picked at the park. She told me she was living in one of the old warehouses down the street and wanted some books to read.

“I ended up helping her get some bookcases and some furniture,” Cooper continued. “She’s got a pretty nice setup, but obviously you’ve seen it. I don’t know why she chooses to live in that place, not with the options she’s got, but she loves the warehouse and I can’t convince her to leave.” Kayla was going to ask what he meant by ‘the options she’s got’, but Ariana came back at that moment with a large dog that could only be Banjo bounding at her heels.

“Aww, you’re getting along,” she said happily. “That’s sweet! Are you ready?” she asked Kayla.

“Sure,” she replied. “Whenever you are,” Ariana approached the counter to pay, but Cooper waved her off.

“It’s on me, Beautiful,” he said, bringing a smile to the redhead’s face. Not that it was hard. She’d probably smile at pond scum. Cooper pressed the bag of books into Ariana’s hands and bade them goodbye.

The girls left the bookstore and returned to Kayla’s bike. The brunette stowed Ariana’s books in her saddlebags and then they mounted up and headed back to the warehouse. It was nearly dark by the time the girls made it safely back inside the warehouse and locked it down for the night. After a dinner of homemade pizza, the girls went back to the library to rearrange Ariana's books. Kayla suggested that they put them in alphabetical order. Ariana agreed, but only the ones without her favorite cat pictures on the covers.

Kayla dug up an old radio from one of Ariana's trunks and tuned it to a local station playing a mix of modern hits and old favorites. The girls stacked books, arranging and rearranging (the latter was mostly Ariana, who often didn't like the way certain books looked beside other ones) until A Thousand Years by Christina Perri started playing through the radio's mildly static-filled speakers.

"Ooooh, I love this song," Ariana moaned. Kayla grinned.

"Yeah, me too," she replied. She sat down in one of the collapsible chairs to listen while Ariana continued to arrange the books, her body swaying with the music.

The day we met,
Frozen I held my breath
Right from the start
I knew that I'd found a home for my heart...

Beats fast, colors and promises,
How to be brave?
How can I love when I'm afraid to fall?,
But watching you stand alone,
All of my doubt suddenly goes away somehow

One... Step... Closer...

Kayla couldn't help but smile a little. The song certainly described her current feelings. Ariana had taken her breath away the moment they'd met, and she, Kayla, had quickly found a new home... whether she would find one here for her heart or not, well she still hadn't decided on that one yet.

I have died everyday waiting for you,
Darling don't be afraid, I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

It was almost poetical in the way that Kayla looked at Ariana as the song continued. She spun in a slow circle with the gentle music and for Kayla, time most certainly stood still.

Time stands still
Beauty in all she is
I will be brave
I will not let anything take away
What's standing in front of me
Every breath
Every hour has come to this

One... Step... Closer...

Kayla made the decision to stand and go to Ariana before she'd even realized she'd made it. She had thought the day before that soon, all too soon, she would be forced to run again. That Ariana, the only good thing left in her life, would be ripped away from her. She would have to leave her to protect her.

But in that moment a resolve like no other settled in the depths of Kayla's soul. No. She would not lose Ariana. No one would take her away. She would fight them with everything she had, with everything she was. She had no idea where these sudden feelings had come from, and quite frankly she didn't give one single damn.

She walked over to Ariana and gently took hold of her. Ariana looked confused for a moment, but quickly caught on and together they began a slow dance around the library.

I have died everyday waiting for you
Darling don't be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed I would find you
Time has brought your heart to me
I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more...

One... Step... Closer...

I have died everyday waiting for you
Darling don't be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed I would find you
Time has brought your heart to me
I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more...

As the song ended, Kayla dipped Ariana back and brought her back up quickly. Ariana was giggling as they slowed to a stop, holding each other, face to face, chests heaving from the dance. Kayla would have given anything in the whole damn world to close the few inches between them and kiss her. It was a quick and sudden rush of feeling and emotion that she didn't know how to react to it... so she didn't. She simply gave Ariana a brief kiss on the cheek and walked away, back to her chair.

Ariana either didn't notice anything strange had happened, or she just didn't care because she went straight back to her books without a word. Kayla sat down, her heart racing. She wasn't sure what would happen now. A drastic change had taken place within her and she didn't know what to do about it. It scared her... it scared her because it made her weak. She couldn't afford to be weak. Not here, not now. Ariana had taken a place in her heart. Not Claire's place, but instead a new, strange, and beautiful place she hadn't known existed.

'Damn...' she thought wearily. 'What the hell do I do now?'

-.-

4: Chapter IV: Nine Point Seven
Chapter IV: Nine Point Seven

Love sucks. It really does. And it’s not just love either, it’s… caring about people. Emotions other than hate just really suck so much, especially for Kayla. Love just put a giant sign over her head so her enemies knew exactly where to hit her the hardest. Love, some say, is strength. To Kayla, it’s a chink in her armor.

That’s not to say that Kayla was in love with Ariana, she wasn’t really. Not yet. No, her feelings for Ariana were something altogether different. Something enticing, something beautiful, and something Kayla truly wished would just go die in a fire.

She’d been running on rage, hatred, and pure adrenaline for so long that suddenly discovering that she could still feel… whatever it was she was feeling now was not unlike waking up one morning and finding out that you can fly. Regardless of whether or not what she felt for Ariana was love or not, it still made her weak.

Kayla didn’t like weakness. Claire had been a weakness, the one place she could be hurt… and she’d been hurt badly. Ariana was now that same weakness, and more terrifying, the redhead was far more vulnerable than Claire had ever been. Ariana was completely defenseless.

So, what was Kayla to do? Walling off her heart had worked up until now, but Ariana hadn’t so much knocked the walls down as she had dropped a thermonuclear bomb on them. She couldn’t keep Ariana out. Ariana was… how had Cooper put it? Endearing? But no, she was much more than that. She was intoxicating.

She weighed her options very carefully. She could leave, of course. Pack up in the night, put Detroit, the warehouse, and Ariana in her rear-view mirror and never look back. She would hate herself for it, but she could live with it. She could put distance between herself and what made her weak.

It would devastate Ariana, naturally, but she would survive. They both would. As selfish as it was, Kayla could deal with destroying the girl, but having her die like Claire had, holding her as she took her last breath, choking to death on her own blood… Kayla knew she couldn’t handle that again. Even the mental picture made her feel sick.

But then that same resolve she’d felt as she’d danced with Ariana returned to her and she knew that she would never leave the redhead behind. So, what to do? It was the first time she’d seriously given thought to turning herself in. She could drive to the next town and turn herself in there. No one would ever think to look for her at Ariana’s, so the girl would be safe. Maybe she could tell Ariana what she had done and make her understand that it was time to stop running. But would she understand?

Kayla didn’t know exactly how much of anything Ariana truly understood. She lived in a world that was entirely her own and that made it difficult to really know what she knew and could understand. She certainly wasn’t dumb, but something in her mind was missing, or damaged, or… something.

But both of those options still didn’t solve her core problem; living without Ariana. Either way, the girl was out of her life for good and she wasn’t sure she could handle that. She was so confused that she knew if she didn’t stop thinking about it, her brain would explode. She already had a headache that wouldn’t stop and another night had passed with her only getting a couple of hours of sleep.

Luckily for her, the distraction she needed was coming that very day… if not in the way she expected. Kayla’s third full day at the warehouse started much like the previous two had done. Ariana prepared ham and cheese omelets, which they ate at their small table. Kayla then watched the news on the sofa while Ariana played with Fluffers.

After the news went off, Kayla decided she could use a walk. She told Ariana she was going to do a lap or two around the warehouse. She’d been there for three days and she had only ever been in the general area around the apartment and the showers. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to see. While the warehouse was massive, over 450,000 square feet, it was almost all just empty floor space with support beams here and there to support the ceiling.

Kayla wandered through the warehouse, following the right side wall to the far end. Behind her, the apartment looked miniscule. It struck her just how huge the warehouse was and what a marvel of modern engineering it took to create something of this size.

She opened all of the side doors she came across as she walked, but almost all of them were storage rooms, maintenance rooms, or toilets. She didn’t bother exploring many of them, but when she opened one and found herself in storage room filled to capacity with stacks of folders, many of them spilling out of a row of filing cabinets, she paused.

Papers littered the floor as though someone had tossed them about and never bothered to pick them up. Taking a closer look, she found that most of the paperwork was not warehouse related as she would have believed, but instead appeared to be medical documents from both the Detroit Medical Center and other from the Cancer Treatment Center of Michigan.

Kayla stooped and picked up a few of the papers and found that they were the medical reports for a man named James Henry Laine. Given his date of birth, Kayla concluded that these must be the medical reports for Ariana’s grandfather. From what she could gather, he had died of kidney cancer a year earlier.

She kept flipping through the paperwork, eventually assembling a timeline of the poor man’s disease. It must have been horrible for Ariana. She had lost her parents and her grandfather as well. Kayla thought losing Claire was bad… if her parents had died too… She couldn’t even imagine it. As she searched, she came across some papers with a different logo in the upper right corner and she took a closer look.

The papers were release forms from the Harbor Bay Mental Health Institute… and they were for Ariana. The papers revealed that Ariana had been released into James Laine’s custody sixteen months earlier… and according to the old man’s medical reports, he had died barely four months later.

There was nothing else in the release forms that indicated why Ariana had been in a mental institution or why her grandfather had seen fit to take her away. She had so hoped to find something, some shred of information that would give her an idea of what had happened to the redhead. She kept searching, tearing through files and folders but in all of the paperwork she only found one other ragged piece of paper from Harbor Bay with Ariana’s name on it.

The paper was torn and shredded and she could only make out a portion of a single sentence, but it was enough to confirm her very worst fear. It read; …of the abuse, causing severe physical and psychological trauma in the patient. A full regimen of rehabilitation and… The remainder of the sentence had been ripped away.

Kayla still didn’t know the truth, the full story, but she had an idea. Someone, somewhere, had hurt Ariana… had hurt her enough that she had ended up in a mental hospital. It made Kayla’s blood boil. She wanted to hunt down the person who had harmed the sweet girl and tear them to pieces. She wanted them dead.

Kayla made no mention of what she’d found on her walk when she returned to the apartment. In fact, she did her very best to act completely normal. Ariana had made more cupcakes while she’d been gone and was sitting on the sofa idly flipping through a catalog of paint samples while watching some horrible cartoon with brightly colored horses that seemed to strongly believe in the power of friendship.   

Kayla took a cupcake and sat down beside her. She glanced sideways at the catalog.

“Planning on redecorating?” she asked, nibbling on the cupcake. Ariana nodded excitedly.

“Yep,” she said. “I thought about repainting the apartment this color,” she pointed to a sample that was roughly the same color pink as Pepto Bismol.

“Don’t you think that might be a little… distracting?” Kayla said delicately. Ariana considered the sample for a moment before nodding slowly.

“Yeah, okay, I guess it would be,” she said. She scooted closer to Kayla so they could both easily see the catalog. “Which ones do you like?” she asked. They spent the next half hour discussing the samples. They finally settled on, of course, a shade of pink, but it was much lighter. A soft, could-almost-be-white shade that they both could agree on. However, when Ariana stood up from the couch and suggested they go to the store and buy paint, Kayla posed a question that had been at the back of her mind for some time.

“Should we really be repainting this place?” she asked. “I mean, whoever owns this place might not appreciate it… of course, I doubt they’ll appreciate anything else you’ve done in here either.”

“What are you talking about?” Ariana asked, looking genuinely confused. “I own this place.”

“Deciding you want to live here and moving your stuff into it doesn’t mean you own it,” said Kayla. “Somebody out there owns this warehouse. A company or something, and they could…”

I own it, Kayla,” said Ariana firmly. “My grandpa left it to me in his will.” Kayla hadn’t expected that. She’d thought they’d been squatting in an abandoned building all this time. Thinking back, it did make sense. They had running water, lights, power… if it was abandoned, they wouldn’t have those services… but then yet another thought occurred to her.

“Then who’s paying to keep the power on and the water running?” she asked.

“Me,” said Ariana brightly. She seemed quite proud of herself.

“But you don’t have a job,” said Kayla. “Where do you get the money for utility bills?”

“I sold the other warehouse,” Ariana replied. It was truly quite difficult getting the full story about anything out of Ariana. Luckily, Kayla was patient.

What other warehouse?” Ariana’s eyes widened.

“Oh! My grandpa left me two. The other one is much bigger than this one. But it’s all gray and dark and smells funny. I didn’t like it... it reminded me of... of someplace terrible... so I sold it.”

“To who?” asked Kayla. “How much did you sell it for?” Ariana shrugged.

“I don’t remember. This funny looking man who always wore a fancy suit bought it. I don’t remember his name. They gave me some papers, though… I’ve got them here somewhere.” She went into the bedroom and returned a minute later with a cream colored folder. She held it out to Kayla, who took it and pulled out the paperwork detailing the sale. She looked at the first page and saw that Ariana had sold the other warehouse, which was located on the other side of town according to the address, to the Dharma Avionics and Aerospace Initiative for…

“Nine point seven million dollars!” Kayla exclaimed. Ariana nodded swiftly.

“Yeah, that sounds right,” she said thoughtfully.

“Ari…” Kayla couldn’t breathe. “Ari, you have nine point seven million dollars?” Ariana shook her head.

“No,” she said. “There’s a nice lady at the bank who keeps it for me. I go there when I need some and she gives it to me.” Kayla’s mind was reeling, as it so often did around Ariana. So, this must have been what Cooper meant when he mentioned the options that were open to Ariana for places to live. She most certainly had a long list of places to choose from.

If anything was going to take Kayla’s mind off of her feelings for the redhead and her worry about what to do about said feelings, finding out that her only friend was sitting on nearly ten million dollars was about as good as she was going to get. Kayla suddenly felt weak at the knees and slowly sank back onto the sofa.

“Ari, if you’ve got that kind of money, why are you living here?” Kayla asked exasperatedly.

“I like it here,” said Ariana, sounding slightly hurt. Kayla immediately felt horrible.

“No, no, Ari… I… I didn’t mean the warehouse was bad or anything,” she said quickly. “I like it here too. I just meant… you could live in a mansion somewhere.”

“Why would I want to do that?” Ariana asked. “Lots of people live in mansions. How many people do you know that live in a warehouse?” The redhead had her there. She couldn’t think of anyone else who lived in a warehouse by their own choice. She had to admit that the warehouse and Ariana just… fit together. The warehouse was almost an extension of Ariana. She had created a home here, all by herself.

“Well,” said Kayla thoughtfully. “You could always use a little of that money to spruce up the place,”

“Where would I put a tree?” Ariana asked. Kayla sighed heavily.

“I didn’t mean… I know a spruce is a… never mind. I meant that we could get all new furniture.” When Ariana still looked doubtful, Kayla continued. “We could get you a brand new stove! In fact, a whole set of new kitchen appliances! Ooooh, we could get Fluffers a kitty condo!”

“But… I don’t want Fluffers to move into a condo!” Ariana exclaimed. “There aren’t any nearby!” Kayla gripped Ariana’s shoulders gently.

“Work with me, kiddo,” she said softly. “Work with me. A kitty condo is… well, it’s like a big playground only for cats.” Ariana’s eyes widened and a broad smile appeared on her face.

“And where would we get all of this stuff?” she asked. Kayla grinned.

“Sweetie, have you ever been to the mall?”

-.-

Shopping. Kayla couldn’t remember the last time she had been able to actually go shopping. She and Claire had spent many a weekend in San Diego’s numerous shopping centers, so being able to go now, with Ariana, was something Kayla really needed.

Ariana was, of course, bubbly and overly excited in the mass of humanity that descended on the local mall the following day. It was the last Saturday in November, which meant Christmas was right around the corner. Kayla guessed that half of Detroit was in the mall with them, trying to wrap up their Christmas shopping.

The girls spent the day moving from store to store, buying anything and everything they wanted. Ariana spent over an hour in a toy store and spent well over three thousand dollars. Kayla couldn't believe it, but it was Ariana's money. She asked the store manager to hold her purchases for her and she would be back before closing that evening.

They stopped by Sears and purchased a new washing machine, dryer, dish washer, refrigerator, and a TV with all of the latest video game consoles. They were told a crew would come by the warehouse the following day to deliver and install their purchases.

They visited a pet store where Ariana bought the largest kitty condo tower she could find. Kayla had to step in when she told the assistant that she wanted every single condo they had. Ariana also requested a diamond tiara and a purple robe for Fluffers, but was told they didn't sell such things, much to the redhead's disappointment.

They bought all new bookcases for the library, a new table and chairs for the kitchen, and a new stand for the TV. Ariana picked out a new set of cookware and pink, patterned dishes. They stopped by an electronics store and bought a laptop and smart phone for each of them.

By the end of the day, Kayla was beginning to feel rather bad. Ariana had spent a very great deal of money, much of it on gifts for her. She felt as though she was taking advantage of the redhead. It had been she, Kayla, who had brought Ariana here and encouraged her to buy new things. Maybe she'd gone too far...

But Ariana certainly seemed pleased. She'd insisted that Kayla pick out anything she liked and appeared happier each time she selected something. Kayla would get the greatest surprise of all when it came to Ariana's generosity when they were ready to leave. She returned to the toy store and had the employees help her cart all of the toys down to the donation booth near the entrance. The volunteers at the booth were shocked but grateful. Kayla could hardly believe what Ariana had done. She was incredibly moved by the redhead's kindness and generosity.

The afternoon had been perfect. It would've been the best day in recent memory for Kayla had it not been for something that terrified her to her very soul. As the girls were making their way toward the exit, Kayla saw someone who couldn't have been there. No... he couldn't have found her. It was impossible... She'd covered her tracks, he couldn't be here.

Kayla pulled Ariana into a staff only hallway and peeked out through a small window in the door. Ariana gave her a quizzical look. Kayla ignored her and a moment later the man passed their hiding place. Kayla let out a sigh of relief. It wasn't him... it wasn't him. It had looked so much like him, but it wasn't. They were safe.

Kayla turned to Ariana, who was staring at her with one eyebrow arched and her hands on her hips.

"Do you want to tell me what that was all about?" Ariana said sharply. Kayla sighed. She didn't, she really didn't. But she knew it was time. She should have told her the truth days before. She had to do it now.

"Okay," said Kayla. "C'mon." She led Ariana to a small cafe and bought them both milkshakes. That was what her mom had always done whenever she had to tell her bad news. That Kayla’s dog ran away or when her grandmother had passed… she always said bad news wasn’t half as bad if you had a milkshake. Kayla wasn’t sure she believed it, but right now she’d take whatever she could get.

“Alright,” said Kayla as she passed the redhead the strawberry treat. “Let’s sit down.” They picked a secluded table in the corner and sank into seats. Ariana sipped her shake, looking at Kayla expectantly.

“Okay…” she took a deep breath. “What I’m about to tell you… I really should have told you the day we met. I’ve put you in danger without you even knowing it and I can’t keep putting you at risk. You deserve to know and I can’t keep it from you any more. This story… it doesn’t make me look like a very good person… Hell, maybe I’m not... but all the same, I’ve got to tell you. So, please, listen closely Ariana. I’m going to tell you everything.”

-.-

5: Chapter V: What Kayla Did
Chapter V: What Kayla Did

San Diego, California. Ten Months Earlier.

Kayla's life was perfect. She lived in a beautiful city. She had an amazing family and great friends. Her family was quite well off and there was nothing that she wanted that her parents wouldn't give her. But most importantly to Kayla, she had Claire.

Claire was stunning. She was blonde, beautiful, and she just happened to be Kayla's very best friend. The girls had practically grown up together. They spent almost every night at one another's houses. They shared clothes, secrets... everything. They had plans to go to college together later that year. Everything was perfect... and Kayla had no idea that by the end of the week, her entire world would be torn apart.

It began early on a Wednesday morning. Kayla had come home early from sleeping over at Claire's. She parked her V-Rod Muscle in the garage and began the short trek from the garage to the main house. As she approached, the back door banged open and a tall man dressed in a fine black suit strode purposefully outside and across the lawn. He climbed into the passenger seat of a black SUV across the street. The vehicle drove away.

Kayla was confused. Her father worked with a lot of powerful people and he often had visitors, but never so early in the morning. She continued into the house. She placed her keys on the hook near the door and made her way upstairs. She heard water running in the upstairs bathroom and paused, knowing that the only other person home that day would be her father.

She stuck her head through the door and found her father nursing a large gash in his left cheek. Kayla gasped and her dad practically jumped out of his skin.

"Daddy, what happened?!" Kayla exclaimed, rushing over to him. He waved her away.

"It's nothing, sweetheart, don't worry," he said dismissively.

"The hell it's nothing!" Kayla shouted. "Did... did that man do this to you?"

"It's nothing for you to get involved in," her father said. "Weren't you spending the night with Claire?"

"Yeah, I came home early." said Kayla. "And my dad's been beaten up. That makes it something for me to get involved in. Dad, what's going on? You can tell me."

He was caught and he knew he had to be truthful. He told Kayla everything. He explained that he and Kayla's mother had been having marital problems, a fact which Kayla was well aware of. He had, over the last several months, gambled away nearly all of the family's money. He owed money to dangerous people and had no way to pay it. He'd taken a second mortgage out on the house and it still wasn't enough. The man who had barged out of the back door had been working for his bookie. He had come to get the money, but of course, there had been no money to collect.

Kayla didn't know what to think. Her family was in trouble. The people her father had gotten involved with were clearly incredibly dangerous. If they weren’t paid… Kayla didn’t want to think about what might happen. She wanted to help, but she wasn’t working… she had never had to. There was only one way… and she sincerely hoped she wouldn’t have to do it.

Kayla had once been involved with a… seedier group of people. A former street gang that had moved up in the world over the course of several years. The gang’s leader, a towering, tree trunk of a man called Dwayne, had once been Kayla’s boyfriend. Once she had started to really see what kind of man he was, what he was capable of doing, she had called it quits. But she knew he had money, resources… he could help if she could convince him… and he was so often easily convinced.

Kayla told her father that she might be able to get the money from Dwayne, so long as he swore he could repay it quickly. It was a fatal mistake, but when her dad told her he was good for it, she believed him. Kayla got back on her bike and drove across town to where Dwayne tended to hang out. It was easy enough to get the money from him. The $250,000.00 was nothing to him and sex was a damn good motivator. Kayla hated herself for doing it, but it was this or risk her entire family falling apart. It was a small price to pay, she thought.

Kayla gave her father the money and he paid his debts. He promised that a big business deal would close within the next few days and he would be able to repay Dwayne. He told her not to worry and that he would handle it from there. To Kayla, everything was taken care of. Her world went back to normal.

It wasn’t until Friday that she discovered that things were not, in fact, back to normal. Kayla was preparing to go and spend the weekend at Claire’s. She had packed her things and was just getting ready to leave when her father appeared in her doorway. One look at his face told Kayla that he was about to deliver terrible news. The business deal had fallen through. There was no money coming. He would not be able to pay Dwayne.

Kayla got very angry. He had sworn he would have the money. She had told Dwayne it was a sure thing, that he wouldn’t have any problems being repaid. Kayla told her dad that it was his problem now. He owed the money and needed to go and talk to him. Dwayne, however, saw it differently. Kayla had come to him, had been the one borrowing the money so it was she who needed to find a way to pay him. Kayla, however, was unaware of any of this until late Saturday night while she was at Claire’s.

The girls had decided to rent a movie and sat on the couch in the sitting room to watch it, hands brushing occasionally as they reached for the popcorn. About halfway through the movie, a furious knocking came at the door. Frightened, both girls went to peek out of the window.

“Isn’t that Dwayne?” Claire whispered when she saw the large, burly man on her doorstep. “Your ex-boyfriend?” Kayla swore quietly.

“Don’t worry, Claire,” said Kayla gently. “I’ll handle this.” She went to the door, intending to go outside and talk Dwayne down, she always had been able to calm him before. But Dwayne was not to be soothed. The second Kayla opened the door, he barged inside.

“Your dad says he doesn’t have my money!” he shouted. “You said this was a guarantee!”

“I believe you got something for your money,” Kayla hissed. “You'll be paid, Dwayne. C'mon, you know I'm good for it. I just need a little more time..."

"The fuck you do," said Dwayne. "Bitch, you got twenty-four hours to get me my money."

"I can't come up with $250,000 in one day!" Kayla exclaimed, throwing up her hands.

"You better," Dwayne growled. "Cause it's all you got. My brother Marcus is gonna be waiting."

Kayla didn't know what to do. Dwayne was angry and he was serious. She had to come up with the money, but she knew she couldn't. She left Claire's house and returned home to confront her father. He had already gone when she got there and he'd taken most of his belongings with him. He'd abandoned her and her mother, leaving Kayla to figure everything out.

She was confused, devastated, and most of all she was scared. Dwayne was a dangerous man. He'd killed people who owed him money. While she didn't think he would actually kill her, she was worried about her mother. Technically, she wasn't even involved. She'd been staying with her parents for over a month and didn't have anything to do with it, but it bothered her.

There was nothing else for her to do. Dwayne would come for her and she would be ready for whatever he threw at her. She retrieved her father's pump shotgun and .45 caliber pistol from the safe upstairs and waited. She was ready for Dwayne if he tried anything, but he didn't come. Kayla had been right. He wouldn't kill her... he'd go straight for her only weakness.

The frantic call came just after midnight. Claire's panicked voice screaming that Dwayne's brother Marcus was trying to beat down her door. Kayla bolted to her friend's house, her heart racing, her mind a complete blur. She had never suspected, had never even imagined that Dwayne would go after Claire. He didn't even know Claire. It didn't make any sense.

The house was quiet by the time Kayla arrived. She approached the front door, which had been broken off its hinges and tossed into the darkened living room. Claire lay gasping on the floor, a pool of blood quickly spreading across the hardwood floor from a bullet wound in her stomach. Kayla rushed to her side, her eyes stinging, fogging over with her tears.

Kayla held the dying girl, whispering softly to her. Claire tried so hard to speak, to say something that to Kayla seemed so important. She never got to say it. Blood pooled in her mouth and she was gone. Kayla sat there for what seemed like hours. She was numb, unable to move, unable to think. But then a rage filled her. Not hatred, rage. An insatiable, uncontrollable rage took her over and she slowly and carefully lowered Claire’s body to the floor.

She tugged the .45 from the waistband of her jeans and checked the chamber. She didn’t care what happened to her. She didn’t care if she went to prison or even if she died. All she knew was that by the time the sun rose again, Marcus, Dwayne, and every motherfucker that got between her and them would be dead.

She drove to the house where Dwayne and Marcus stayed. It was still dark out but Kayla wasn’t remotely concerned about stealth. She wasn’t worried about who might see her or hear her. She walked straight up to the front door, placed the barrel of her father’s shotgun against the lock and pulled the trigger. The buckshot blew a ragged hole clean through the door and took the lock with it.

Kayla kicked the door open as she worked the shotgun’s action, pumping a fresh shell home. You have never felt true fear until you’ve heard the sound of someone hell bent on killing you, racking a 12 gauge shotgun. It is a sound from nightmares.

Someone came out of the kitchen to her right. She didn’t even wait to see who it was. Man, woman, child… she didn’t care. She swung the shotgun around and put a blast of buckshot through their chest. The person was dead before they hit the ground. She chambered another shell and moved further into the house. A black mass came bounding down the stairs directly in front of her. The shotgun blast lit up the woman’s face and Kayla recognized her as Dwayne’s girlfriend for an instant before the shell meant to kill large animals dissolved her midsection.

She chambered another round. That was when she saw Marcus. He stumbled out of the living room, looking confused. He was clearly drunk. Kayla wanted to say something, some powerful statement about Claire and how she was here for her revenge. She just shot him. He fell to the ground, holding his stomach, pleading pathetically for her not to kill him.

“I’m not going to kill you, Marcus,” Kayla had found her voice. It was harsh and sounded nothing like her. She drew the .45 and knelt down beside him. “No, sweetie… I’m just gonna leave you here to bleed out, just like you left Claire.”

She pressed the handgun’s barrel into his groin and squeezed the trigger. He screamed in agony as the gun recoiled back into Kayla’s hand. She fired a few more times for good measure. She hoped he lived a damn long time. She wanted him to hurt. She stood up and readied the shotgun, knowing Dwayne must certainly be in the house somewhere.

Her suspicions were immediately confirmed when the door to the basement under the stairs burst open and Dwayne appeared, brandishing a handgun. His eyes fell on Kayla and the shock of seeing her standing over his dying brother gave her the instant she needed. She put a spread of buckshot into Dwayne’s legs. He shouted and fell to the floor. Kayla walked over and kicked the gun out of his hand.

“Why her?” Kayla demanded, pumping the shotgun again. “Why didn’t you come after me? Claire was innocent, she didn’t have anything to do with this!”

“Motivation, bitch…” Dwayne groaned. “Fucking motivation,”

“How’s this for motivation?” She kicked Dwayne onto his back and gestured toward the foot of the stairs where his girlfriend’s body lay.

“You fucking whore!” He shouted, trying desperately to crawl toward his girlfriend.

“All you had to do was wait,” said Kayla. “I would have found a way to repay you, somehow… and if you couldn’t wait, then fucking come after me. You fucked up. But it’s okay Dwayne. I’m not going to kill you. See, I want you to feel what I feel. Claire’s gone, but so is your girlfriend… and your brother’s gonna follow them both really soon. I want you to live with that. You’re gonna suffer, Dwayne… just like me.” She put the .45 to his left knee and fired, shattering the joint.

“Call the police,” she whispered. “You’ll have a hell of a time explaining this to them. You’ll have to explain Claire’s death too, after all. You can come after me yourself if you’re pissed enough. Shit… I look forward to it.” She stood and walked toward the door. Dwayne shouted curses after her, promising that he wouldn’t rest until he tortured her to death. She didn’t care. She returned to her bike and kicked the engine to life. Without a backwards glance at the house, she turned the bike around and rode off into the darkness, leaving San Diego far behind.

“So, that’s my story. The reason I freaked earlier was because I thought that man… well, he looked a lot like Dwayne.” Kayla finished somewhat lamely. It was a crappy line to end such a horrific tale with, but it was all that came to mind. Ariana was sitting on the far side of the table, her hand over her mouth, her eyes shining with tears. For a moment, Kayla was quite possibly more afraid than she ever had been before. Now she had to wait for Ariana to reply and she was sure she new what her response would be.

Kayla was a murderer. She had done positively evil things and to Ariana, sweet, innocent Ariana, it would be unforgivable.

Ariana stood up from the table and Kayla’s worst fears were confirmed. Ariana was furious with her, would never be able to forgive her. She would throw her out of the warehouse, tell her what an awful excuse for a human being she was, and never speak to her again. She found in that moment that the very thought of this, that by telling her the truth, she would lose the redhead forever hurt just as badly as Claire’s death had. It was a shocking realization and it scared her, even more so than the fear that she was falling for Ariana.

But Ariana, as always, surprised her. The redhead stood and walked around the table. She slid into the chair next to Kayla and took the brunette’s hands in her own. She looked so heartbroken Kayla felt certain it should be a crime for anyone so sweet to be so sad. When she spoke, the normal happiness and general bubbliness was gone. Her voice was a reflection of the expression of deep sadness on her face.

“God, Kayla… I’m so sorry,” she said gently. “I’m so sorry that happened to you. It’s awful.” Ariana hugged her tightly. “Its okay, Kayla,” she whispered. “It’ll be okay, we’ll figure it out…” No, this was wrong. Ariana couldn’t do this, she couldn’t forgive her. She just couldn’t! Kayla pushed her away and stood up quickly.

“No, you… you don’t get to do that,” she said sharply “You don’t get to forgive me. You can’t tell me that it’s okay, you… you…”

“Why can’t I?” Ariana asked, staring up at her looking genuinely confused.

“Because… because you’re you!” Kayla exclaimed. “You’re soft, sweet, innocent little Ariana! I’m a monster! I’m a murderer!”

“You’re not a monster,” said Ariana. She spoke in an altogether different voice now. It was soft and filled with so much pain and sadness that Kayla actually felt her heart break. “You… you’re a good person, Kayla.” Tears were streaming down the redhead’s face now. “Before I met you, I… I was alone and scared and I didn’t… I was so alone and you… you’re the first person in my whole life that I know actually cares about me.

“Everyone else I've ever loved has either hurt me... or left me. You haven't. Maybe that's not enough to redeem you for murder, but... it's all I can judge you with. Kayla, you look in the mirror and see a monster because you did something bad once... but you've never been anything but a friend to me. You've helped me so much. I know I'm not... right. I know something's broken in me, but... but you never say anything mean or make fun of me. You're always nice to me.

"And right now I'm so afraid that I'm about to lose you. You're looking at me like you're about to do the noble thing and leave me. If Dwayne's after you, and I can only imagine that he must be because nothing else would scare you like this, I know you think you can protect me by running again. But Kayla, you... you're all I've got. You're the only real friend I've ever had and... And I can't lose you."

"You don't understand," said Kayla. She couldn't begin to respond to Ariana's outpouring of feelings and emotions. Not now. "You don't... you don't know what he'll do to you. He'll torture you, baby. He'll do things to you that you could never imagine... and he'll make me watch. I can't watch him hurt you. I can't watch you die. Claire's death broke me, Ariana... but you? It would destroy me." Ariana leaned closer, her hand reached out and she cupped Kayla's cheek.

"We’ll be okay,” she whispered, gently brushing her fingers through Kayla’s hair.

“We won’t,” said Kayla. “If I stay and you get hurt… then it’ll be my fault. Just like Claire’s death was my fault…”

“It wasn’t your fault,” said Ariana firmly. “You didn’t do it.”

“No, but I’m the reason it happened!” Kayla snapped. “I knew what kind of person Dwayne was! Hell, that’s why I left him! I knew what he was capable of, but I got the money from him anyway! If I hadn’t, Claire would still be alive. That’s on me, Ariana. That fault lies with me.”

“You couldn’t have known that Dwayne would go after Claire,” said Ariana. “It wasn’t your fault, and the people you killed… it sounds to me like they deserved what they got.”

“Dwayne’s girlfriend didn’t,” Kayla said quietly. “She was just… me… in another life.” Silence fell between them. Ariana had made her points and Kayla had made hers, but Kayla knew she had lost. Ariana had a look a fierce determination in her eyes. If she tried to run again, the damn girl would probably come after her and the thought of Ariana alone, searching the country for her was too painful to dwell on.

She would stay. Not only because Ariana so desperately wanted to, but because she herself wanted to. She knew Dwayne had been searching for her, had followed her for some time. But she had lost them months ago down in Dallas, she was sure of it.

If Dwayne knew where she was now, he wasn’t going to stalk her through a crowded mall. No, he’d come for her at the warehouse… and if he did that, well… she still had both of her father’s guns. She had killed before. Revenge had turned her into a monster. She wondered, as she looked across the table at Ariana, what she would turn into now that she had something worth fighting for.

“Do you regret it?” Ariana asked suddenly. Kayla was knocked out of her reverie and looked up.

“Regret what?” Kayla asked.

“Killing those people,” said Ariana. “Do you regret that you killed them?” Kayla didn’t even need to think about it. She looked straight into Ariana’s blue eyes and said;

“No,” Ariana nodded slowly, seeming to come to grips with something incredibly painful within herself. Kayla couldn’t begin to guess what it was, and she wasn’t going to ask. Instead, she just took Ariana’s hand and stood up from the table.

“C’mon, kiddo,” she said wearily. “Let’s go home.”

They called Cooper to help them transport all the things they’d bought back to the warehouse. They waited outside the front doors, bundled up against the bracing cold for Cooper to arrive. He pulled up not too long later in his Ford F-350 pickup and climbed out of the cab. He approached them with a look a extreme disbelief on his face.

“How much crap did you two buy?” he asked by way of greeting. “Is there anything left in that place?” Ariana, as usual, ran over to hug him. He glanced over her shoulder at Kayla and grinned.

“Hey, Kayla,” he called.

“Hi, Coop,” said Kayla. He chuckled.

“Coop, huh? So, we’re friends now?” Kayla rolled her eyes. “I’ll take that as a yes, then.” He looked down at Ariana. “How you doing, Cupcake? You look like you’ve been crying?”

“I’m fine,” she gestured toward Kayla. “It’s… girl stuff.” Cooper’s eyes widened.

“Oh, well… cool. I learned a long time ago to stop asking questions at 'girl stuff'. Let’s get this stuff loaded, shall we?" He glanced at the cart loaded with their purchases. "Geez, it's worse than I thought!"

"I wanted to get a tiara for Fluffers, but the pet store didn't have any," Ariana told him.

"Well, you ought to go to a jewelry store," Cooper suggested. Ariana's eyes widened and she looked hopefully at Kayla.

"We'll come back, sweetie," she said gently. Cooper didn’t take long to load the truck; lifting heavy boxes of books in the bookshop had made him rather strong. They returned to the warehouse and Cooper and Kayla stood outside the cargo doors while Ariana scurried up the fire escape to let them in.

“So, I guess you two had fun,” said Cooper, trying to start a conversation.

“Yeah, we did,” said Kayla. It was true. She really had enjoyed herself up until the point she’d had to air all of her dirty laundry. “Ariana really enjoyed it.”

“Good,” said Cooper. “She needs to get out more. She spends all of her time locked up in there. Maybe you could start taking her out places more often… get her out in the real world.”

“I thought you didn’t want her exposed to the real world,” Kayla reminded him smugly. "Or me... for that matter," Cooper opened his mouth, clearly working up a angry rebuttal. Kayla held up her hands. "I'm joking, Coop."

"I knew that," Cooper said hastily. "But seriously, Kayla. I'm glad you're here for her." Kayla shrugged. If he knew what she really was, he'd never say that. Hell, he'd probably put her on the first thing smoking back to California if he ever found out what she'd done.

Ariana opened the cargo door a moment later. Cooper and Kayla drove their vehicles into the warehouse. Cooper helped the girls unload their purchases and then he bade them goodbye. He climbed into his truck and drove away. Kayla watched Ariana as she walked up the staircase to the apartment. So much had changed in their relationship that evening and Kayla hadn't even begun to categorize it all.

Now Ariana knew everything. She knew all the dark secrets, secrets that she had been certain would drive her away. And yet here they were, still together, still friends. It didn't make any sense. She had even warned Ariana the fate that might await her if they stayed together, but she hadn't asked her to leave. She briefly wondered if Ariana had understood the danger she was in. She knew the redhead understood. She understood far more than Kayla gave her credit for... hell, Kayla was beginning to suspect that Ariana might just be the smartest person she knew.

She looked out of the cargo door as darkness settled around the warehouse. It was a terrifying reality she now lived in, one in which nothing was stable... nothing was a known quantity. She feared the future, of what might happen. Still, she reasoned as she pressed the button to close the cargo door, what was life without a little uncertainty? Besides, if Dwayne did find her, if he even dared harm Ariana, she would be damn sure he lived to regret it.

6: Chapter VI: Dreams
Chapter VI: Dreams

Kayla was sure she was dead. No, not because she was in pain. Quite the opposite, actually. She was so unbelievably comfortable that she just knew that no one alive could ever possibly reach such heavenly levels of comfort. She opened her eyes and found herself face-to-face with Ariana, who was still fast asleep. It was early on Sunday morning, the first day of December, and Kayla had just had her first good night's sleep in several days.

She found that she felt remarkably lighter. It was as though telling Ariana her story, laying down her burdens so to speak, had made everything much easier for her. It was odd. She thought she would feel even more miserable now than she had before. Ariana knew the terrible truth about her now, and that had to mean... something.

But did it, though? Ariana had forgiven her, more or less. She hadn't blamed her. She hadn't cursed her for her crimes. She had understood everything. That really did mean something. She'd found a true friend.

Ariana shifted in her sleep and her eyes fluttered open. Her drowsy eyes found Kayla’s and she smiled that damn smile that made the brunette’s heart flutter.

“Morning!” she said brightly, tapping Kayla lightly on her nose with the tip of her finger. Kayla yawned.

“How are you always so damn perky so early in the morning?” Kayla asked. Ariana shrugged, glanced down at her chest, and then proceeded to poke Kayla’s breasts a few times before doing the same thing to herself. Kayla stared at her with wide eyes.

What are you doing?” said Kayla. Ariana shook her head.

“We’re both equally perky,” said Ariana quite seriously. “I’m just bigger.” Kayla was literally speechless.

“I… I don’t… okay, first… I didn’t mean your boobs, sweetie. I meant your attitude. Secondly, thanks for making me feel inferior. I appreciate that, darlin’,” Ariana’s eyes narrowed.

“You know, they’ve got surgeries if you really want to be…” the redhead began. Kayla put a finger to her lips.

“I don’t, kiddo,” she said firmly. “Thanks, though. I’ll stay all natural. Besides, you’re going to be the one with back problems one day.” Ariana giggled.

“They are heavy,” she said plainly. She rolled onto her back and sighed heavily. Kayla was now having particular feelings stir within her and against her better judgment she allowed her gaze to drop to the swell of the redhead’s chest, which rose and fell gently with her every breath.

“Did you want a better look?” Ariana asked. Damn. Kayla had seriously hoped the redhead wouldn’t notice her looking. She realized she’d have had better odds if she hadn’t been ogling her like a moron. Did she seriously think the other girl wouldn’t see her staring like an idiot?

“I… uh…” Hell, there was no getting out of it now. Might as well go to Warp 9 and hope for the best. “I can see just fine from here. Thanks, though,”

“If you’re sure,” said Ariana kindly. “I could shift if you’d like?”

”No, no,” said Kayla, unable to stop thinking how horribly wrong this conversation was. “No, baby, you’re fine there.” It only struck her then just what her feelings for Ariana really meant. If she ever did decide to pursue a relationship, there were a few hurdles to overcome.

Firstly, Ariana was only seventeen while Kayla was nineteen. The last thing she needed was a statutory rape case brought down on her. Secondly, Ariana was a little… off. She wasn’t crazy necessarily, nor was she stupid. She was simply different in her own special way. Yeah, that’s so politically correct it’s positively nauseating, but with Ariana it was true.

But how much did Ariana understand? Was a romantic relationship, and everything that came with one, something Ariana understood? Or was something so deep and meaningful beyond her? If she, Kayla, attempted to spur things along, how would Ariana react? Would she even know what was happening?

But then, she’d told Coop not to flirt with her, didn’t she? She had to know something about courting and romance, but how much? And then, she wasn’t even sure if Ariana would even be interested even if she did understand.

She briefly considered how she might admit her feelings to Ariana. She’d crafted whole soul baring speeches for Claire before she died, but never once had the courage to actually speak the words. Maybe if she’d been braver, if she’d just gone for it, they could have had some time together. Maybe Claire would still be alive if she had just told her the truth.

That was the first time she realized how lucky she was, and how horrible she felt for what she’d just thought. Kayla had truly loved Claire. She really had. But for the first time, she realized that if Claire hadn’t died, if she hadn’t been forced to run away, she would have never met Ariana.

It was so horrible that she couldn’t even begin to rationalize it all. She would have given anything to have Claire back, but losing Ariana… to have never even met her... What could she do with that? She had two completely opposing desires. She cared about Ariana, would never want to be without her, however in any reality where Claire was still alive, she never met the redhead.

What made her feel truly terrible was that she knew, in that moment, that if she were offered the chance to go back and change things, to have never taken the money from Dwayne, spare Claire, and never go on the run, she wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t exchange her life now for the life she might have had back home. Claire was supposed to have been so important to her, had been the reason that she murdered three people, but yet she would never wish to go back to that life… to lose Ariana.

It was a stupid thing to worry about. Claire was dead and nothing could change what had happened, but still it was a hard thing to come to grips with. Kayla, lost in these miserable thoughts, was shocked back to reality by Ariana leaning over her and oh-so-briefly pressing her lips to Kayla's. Kayla was stunned, frozen somewhere between pure blissful pleasure and complete shock. The only complete thought that registered was that the girl tasted like strawberries. Ariana leaned back, looking rather sad.

"Sorry," she said quietly. "You just... looked like you needed that." How could she know? Simple human contact was exactly what she needed right then. She'd been so lonely, so cut off from everyone she loved...

"Thanks," she said slowly. "Yeah, I... I really did." Ariana smiled and slid off the bed.

"If you ever want to talk about... well, anything, I'm here." she said softly.

"Well, actually..." Kayla said quickly. "Actually, I... I kinda do have something I'd like to talk about." She'd felt so much better after telling Ariana about her past. She couldn't hold it in anymore. Ariana came back to the bed and sat down, tucking her long legs under herself and looking at Kayla expectantly.

Kayla sat up too and took Ariana's left hand in hers. She looked up into the redhead's blue eyes. God, she was just so damned beautiful. Those caring eyes, full lips, that thin sprinkle of freckles on the bridge of her nose. The way her hair fell around her face and down past her shoulders... everything about her was just perfect. Even her innocent, kooky sweetness was perfect. She looked up into those wide, curious eyes again, unsure where to begin… what to even say.

“I love you,” Ariana said suddenly, knocking whatever Kayla had been drumming up to say straight out of her brain.

“W… what?” Kayla stammered.

“That’s what you wanted to say, wasn’t it?” Ariana asked. “I mean, you weren’t going to start with that, but it was your point, right?” It was true. Kayla couldn’t deny it to herself. She loved Ariana. Maybe not romantically, not yet, but yeah she loved the bubbly redhead. She’d kill to protect her… she’d die to protect her. Ariana had become Kayla’s whole world in a matter of days. It made no sense, but then... maybe it didn't need to.

“Yeah,” she said slowly. She so wanted to look away, to speak instead to Ariana’s knees, but those blue pools had her transfixed. “Yeah, I was gonna get to that… in a really roundabout way. I wasn’t sure how to say it… still not sure I want to say it.”

“Why not?” Ariana asked.

“Because of Claire,” said Kayla. She shook her head. “Not… not because of Claire, exactly, I… I loved her and her death almost killed me. Like I said last night, I can’t go through that again. I didn’t just run away because I was trying to hide from Dwayne, Ari. I ran away because I didn’t want him to go after my mother and little sister.

“My mom took my sister to San Francisco for a while when she and my dad were fighting, I… I don’t think he knows where they are. He’d probably never find them, but I knew if I left the state and made sure he had people following me, he’d leave them alone. They were the only weakness I had, Ari… until I met you. I didn’t care about anyone else. I didn’t love anyone else. But you… you give him a way to hurt me because I… I do love you, Ari.

“I want so badly to just disappear, but if I do that I still lose you… and I can’t do that. You’re… you’re just so… Hell, Ari, I don’t know. I just know that I can’t be without you. Not today, not ever. And do you know what the worst part is? I recovered from Claire, the girl I killed for in a rage. I recovered from Claire. I still miss her, I still ache everyday from losing her, but I’m still going ahead with what’s left of my life. She was my best friend for my entire life and in five days, I feel more strongly for you than I ever did for her. I guess I’m trying to work out a way that that doesn’t make me the most horrible person ever.”

“It doesn’t make you horrible, Kayla,” Ariana said softly. “It makes you… human. Something terrible happens… and it really hurts, but you grieve and you move on. It’s never easy, but you have to. We’re not all good at it, but it’ll eat you alive if you don’t. And do you really think Claire would want you to waste your whole life for her? If you really were best friends, she wouldn’t want that. She’d want you to live, Kayla.”

“I don’t know what she’d want,” Kayla deadpanned. “How can I?”

“You know,” said Ariana firmly. “You know you do.” She slid off of the bed. “Stop hating yourself for living your life, Kay-Kay.” She leaned over toward her and kissed her once again. It wasn’t romantic, but friendly… comforting. She smiled. “I’ll bring you some waffles.” She bounced out of the room. Kayla fell back against her pillow.

“Oh, and by the way,” said Ariana, poking her head back around the corner. “I love you too,” She disappeared into the living room. Kayla put her hands over her face.

"Well, shit..." she groaned.

-.-

The girls spent the day doing their best to stay out of the way of the crew that came to install all of their purchases from the previous day. Ariana, forever the sweetheart, baked the guys cookies and made them ham and cheese sandwiches. She kept up a constant flow of ice cold lemonade as well. By the end of the day, Kayla just knew all five of them were completely in love with her.

Kayla spent the evening watching their new TV while Ariana kept opening their new refrigerator which had lights inside that slowly brightened as you opened it. Ariana said you could almost hear angels singing when it was opened. Kayla wasn’t sure about that, but she let the redhead have her fun.

Ariana made pork chops for dinner and the girls enjoyed them at their new, no longer rickety table, watched sleepily by Fluffers the Cat, who sat perched atop his new towering kitty condo like a king, looking down over his minions. Kayla had the suspicion that if cats like Fluffers had opposable thumbs, they might just rule the whole world.

After dinner, the girls cuddled on the couch to watch a movie. Kayla flipped channels and finally settled on Hugo. She’d been tempted by Taken, but highly suspected that the film might frighten Ariana, who would likely mention that Liam Neeson would not come and rescue her in the event she was to be kidnapped.

As the film progressed, Kayla became rather sleepy. It was quite warm and comfortable, lying on the sofa with Ariana, who if you didn’t know was remarkably cuddly. Kayla was just getting ready to drift off, her face resting against the warmth of the exposed skin of Ariana’s neck. Just as her mind filled with pleasant thoughts of who the redhead’s skin smelt faintly of cinnamon, the other girl said;

“I’ve always dreamed of going to Paris,” Kayla jumped slightly as the sound of her voice. Ariana shifted, turning away from the TV to look behind her at Kayla, who looked rather ruffled.

“Sorry,” said Kayla, brushing her hair away from her face. “What?”

“I said I’ve always wanted to go to Paris,” said Ariana, gesturing toward the TV. It took Kayla a moment to link Ariana’s comment with the fact that the movie was indeed set in Paris.

“Oh, yeah,” said Kayla slowly. “Paris… Well, why don’t you? You’ve got millions, after all. A plane ticket and a hotel room don’t cost that much, considering.” Ariana suddenly looked very nervous.

“Oh, I… I couldn’t do that.” she said sadly. “I couldn’t go so far away… to somewhere so mysterious and strange, I…” But then her face brightened. “Oh! You could come with me!” she added excitedly.

“That’s sweet, Ari, but I couldn’t,” said Kayla. “You’ve spent so much on me already and… and I don’t know any French…”

“Neither do I,” said Ariana. “We could learn together! C’mon, Kay-Kay! Please?” She sat up and began poking Kayla in the ribs ever more rapidly and saying ‘Please?’ each time. When Kayla still shook her head, Ariana straddled her and began furiously tickling her, causing Kayla, who was stupidly ticklish, to shriek and try in vain to stop the other girl’s ruthless assault.

"Okay! Okay!" Kayla shouted at last, her resistance collapsing under Ariana's tickling attack. "Alright, I'll go with you!"

"Yay!" Ariana exclaimed in that sweet way she often did.

"I'll look into getting us passports tomorrow," said Kayla. "I think it takes a while,"

"Okay, thanks," said Ariana. She smiled down at the brunette with that damned perfect smile of hers. Kayla sat up slowly, causing Ariana to shift her weight backwards ever so slightly. Just do it, the voice in her head was shouting at her. Just do it! Just kiss her, just go! Oh, how she wanted to. Oh, screw it! She leaned forward slightly, her eyes drawn to the other girl’s lips.

Ariana stared at her, her eyes wide, her lips slightly parted. She tilted her head a little to one side as Kayla drew closer. Kayla’s hands found Ariana’s and she laced their fingers together. That’s it, said the voice in Kayla’s head. Just a little closer… come on… come on… But she couldn’t do it. The terrified part of herself took hold at the very last second and she stood up abruptly.

“It’s pretty late,” she said lamely, staring at the floor. “I think I’ll turn in.” She marched purposefully toward the bedroom door. Ariana smirked at her over her shoulder.

“Chicken,” she said playfully. Kayla paused at the door. Her anger flared and she imagined herself turning around, striding straight back to Ariana, jerking her off the couch, pressing her back against the fire escape door and giving her a night she’d never forget. She didn’t, but it didn’t mean she didn’t want to.

But as Kayla fell into bed, one thought stuck with her. Ariana knew how she felt. She knew and she wasn’t repulsed by it. Kayla wasn’t sure what to do with that realization, or what it meant for the future. She supposed it meant that maybe, one day; something could blossom between them; perhaps if Dwayne were in prison, or more to Kayla’s satisfaction, dead.

Ariana came to bed an hour later. Kayla wasn’t sure whether she had waited so long to give her a chance to pretend to be asleep if she wanted to, or if she was just playing with Fluffers. Either way, Kayla took advantage and pretended to be fast asleep. The redhead sank onto the side of the bed and stared down at Kayla for a long moment. She slipped into bed and snuggled up beside Kayla. She placed her lips close to Kayla’s ear and whispered; “Goodnight,”

-.-

“Kayla! Kayla, wake up! C’mon, wake up!” Ariana roused Kayla at some obscenely early hour the following morning. The brunette groaned as Ariana began shaking her.

“Geez, Ari, what… what time is it?” Kayla muttered. She glanced at the digital clock on the bedside table. 4:16 a.m. Damn.

“Early,” said Ariana dryly. “But come on! You’ve got to see this!” Ariana urged Kayla out of bed and into the living room. She opened the fire escape door, her face shining with excitement. When they stepped outside, Kayla had to admit it was worth waking up for.

It had been freezing outside for a while, but during the night a storm had moved through and a thick blanket of snow had fallen, and was in fact still falling, on Detroit. Kayla, hailing from Southern California, had honestly never seen snow in person before. It really was…

“Beautiful,” Kayla whispered, watching the gentle cascade of flakes falling from the cold, black sky. “Ari, this is amazing.”

“I love snow,” Ariana said blissfully. Kayla looked over at her and smiled. The redhead’s hair was flecked with white and her cheeks were pink with cold. Chill bumps ran up her bare legs, but Kayla was sure she had never seen the redhead happier. She sat down, her back against the warehouse wall, with the brightest smile ever on her face.

“Here, I’ll get you a jacket,” said Kayla, turning toward the door.

“I’ll be fine,” said Ariana dismissively. Kayla shrugged and sat down beside her. They sat there for a long while, until the sun began to just peek over the horizon, causing the world around them to glisten and sparkle as the early rays of light bounced off the fresh layers of snow. Kayla grinned.

“I see now why you love snow so much, Ari,” she said. “It’s so beautiful,” Ariana shook her head.

“It’s not that, Kayla,” she said softly. “It’s… the first thing I saw on the first day of my life.” Kayla couldn’t begin to grasp what that meant, but right then, as she sat there surrounded by such miraculous beauty, it didn’t really matter. Kayla put her arm around the other girl. Ariana rested her head on the brunette’s shoulder and they waited there to watch the sun rise on Kayla’s sixth day at Warehouse 15.

7: Chapter VII: The Only Things That Make Me Weak
Chapter VII: The Only Things That Make Me Weak

Kayla awoke to a strangled cry. She still sat on the fire escape outside. The sun had fully risen now and the warehouse door was wide open. Kayla stood up; expecting to find that Fluffers had killed a mouse and Ariana was quite upset about it. What she saw upon entering the warehouse would haunt her for the rest of her life. A spray of blood blossomed on the carpet near the coffee table. The glass top was shattered and couch had been upturned, its many pillows spilling onto the floor.

“Ari!” Kayla called. Her heart was racing. Something was terribly wrong. “Ariana, where are you!” She found more blood by the door to the warehouse floor and she raced down the steps, following a steady blood trail until she reached the bottom and came across a sight that made her blood run cold.

Dwayne stood over Ariana, clutching a bloody knife in one hand and pointing a pistol at the redhead with the other. Ariana knelt before him, holding a hand to her side where a steady flow of blood was staining her white t-shirt.

"You have no idea how hard I had to search to find you," Dwayne said quietly. "And I see you've made friends," he glared down at Ariana and grinned. "Little bitch has got some fight in her, I'll give her that. Much more than your precious Claire. Doesn't matter though." He pressed the barrel of his gun against the side of Ariana's head. She let out a soft cry, tears of pain and terror filling her eyes.

"Let her go!" Kayla pleaded. Her mind was a blur. She couldn't even think. "Please, just... just let her go. She doesn't have anything to do with this, Dwayne. She's innocent, just... please let her go. Take me, kill me, torture me... whatever you want to do, I don't care. Please, just let her live." She fell to her knees. "We've both lost people we love, Dwayne. Nobody else needs to die. Just end this now."

"Yeah, Kayla," said Dwayne. "I am gonna end this now. See, you're right. We have both lost people we love. But see, you only lost your little slut girlfriend. You took my brother and my girl from me. We gonna be even after this." Dwayne pulled the trigger. The spray of blood splattered across the dusty warehouse floor and Kayla felt her own heart stop. Ariana slumped to the floor and Kayla watched the light leave those beautiful eyes... literally felt the life leave her best friend... and then her eyes snapped open, she sat bolt upright and she screamed.

Ariana woke up too. She looked around their bedroom as though searching for an attacker. Upon seeing nothing, she got to her knees and tried her best to calm Kayla.

"Hey, hey, it's okay," the redhead said gently, taking Kayla's hands and squeezing them reassuringly. "It's okay. You're safe."

"No! No! He killed you! You... you were..." Kayla rambled. She was hysterical; all rational thought had been blown clean out of her mind. Ariana shook her head.

"I'm fine," she said. She gently stroked Kayla's hair and cupped her cheek. "I'm okay. It was just a dream." Kayla buried her face in Ariana's chest and broke down completely. It had all been so real... oh, so real.

"Tell me it was just a dream," Kayla whispered. "Tell me you're real, that you didn't... that he didn't..."

"It was a dream," Ariana replied, gently stroking the back of Kayla's head. “It was just a dream, Kay-Kay. I’m here… I’m right here.” Kayla cried until she couldn’t anymore. She wasn’t really even sure why she was crying. The dream? Claire? What she’d done? All of it? She didn’t care. All she knew was that she had never been more scared in her entire life than when she saw Dwayne standing over Ariana. It was her worst fear brought to life.

Ariana just held her, saying nothing until Kayla had cried herself out and slowly lifted her head. She looked up rather embarrassingly at the redhead, whose blue eyes were wide with concern. Kayla wiped her eyes on her shirt and shook her head miserably.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “You must really think I’m a wimp, getting so worked up over a stupid dream.”

“Dreams can be scary,” said Ariana. One look into those blue pools told Kayla that Ariana spoke from very real experience. “I have bad ones sometimes… really bad.”

“What are they about?” Kayla asked. Ariana didn’t reply. She seemed to go to a far away place that only she could see.

“I don’t have them as often any more,” she said at last. “Not since you’ve been here.” She smiled slightly. “I guess you keep them away.”

“That’s me,” said Kayla with a laugh. “Kayla, the Bad Dream Slayer.” Ariana grinned, but her smile faded quickly.

“So, you dreamed I died?” she asked gently. Kayla nodded.

“Yeah, I… I dreamed I’d fallen asleep on the fire escape. I woke up and you were gone. There was blood on the floor by the couch… Dwayne had you down in the warehouse. He… he shot you. I… I was so sure... It was so real, Ari. So real."

"I know," Ariana whispered. "But it wasn't. It wasn't real, Kayla. It never is."

“I know,” she said, trying to smile. “Like I said, just being silly…”

“You need pancakes,” said Ariana brightly, sliding off the bed. “Pancakes make everything better.” Kayla couldn’t argue against that. Ariana walked out of the room, heading for the kitchen. Kayla leaned back against the pillows, holding a hand to the side of her head which was pounding near to bursting. Her eyes were drawn across the room to her backpack where the .45 she’d taken from her father was stored. She hadn’t taken it out since she’d arrived at the warehouse, but she decided then and there that she was going to start carrying it again… just in case.

As her mind and pulse began to slow back down to a more natural pace, she relaxed a little and allowed herself to watch Ariana bounce around the kitchen, making breakfast. The redhead was so cute when she was cooking. Kayla couldn’t explain it. Most people probably wouldn’t even notice it, but Kayla noticed everything about Ariana.

She watched the girl as she retrieved the hand mixer to prepare the batter. She put the beaters into the mixer and almost dropped it as she leapt back in surprise when the mixer came to life in her hands, the beaters spinning wildly. She got the device back under control, however, and went about making breakfast again. Kayla couldn't help but giggle a little.

She ambled out of bed and wandered out of the bedroom by the time Ariana placed the pancakes on the griddle. The redhead looked up at her and grinned as the brunette sat down at their table.

"You look miserable," said Ariana quite bluntly, leaning back against the cabinet beside the stove.

"I feel miserable, babydoll," said Kayla weakly. "Like I've been hit by a bus…"

“I think you’d feel a lot worse if you were hit by a bus,” said Ariana thoughtfully. “You’d be squished.” That coaxed a smile out of Kayla, which made Ariana beam with happiness.

“Okay,” said Kayla. “I guess I don’t feel quite that bad. Maybe trampled by a pack of wild dogs is more fitting.”

“Dogs are nice,” said Ariana disapprovingly.

“Not all dogs,” said Kayla. “Our neighbor used to have this dog… I swear that little monster was a demon in disguise. It used to chase all the neighborhood kids up and down the street, growling and barking… It chased me up a tree once!”

“Maybe he liked you,” Ariana suggested.

“Oh, he liked me all right,” said Kayla sagely. “He liked the idea of me as his dinner.”

“You might taste really good,” said Ariana, flipping the pancakes. “We could find out,” Kayla desperately tried to ignore the sexual images that statement brought to her mind, realizing that Ariana must certainly mean what she said literally.

“Yeah, well… we’re not gonna,” Kayla replied.

After a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, the girls settled onto the couch. Kayla watched the news with her feet resting in Ariana’s lap. The redhead had her nose buried in The Hunger Games and was idly stroking Fluffers’ fur where he lay on the arm of the sofa.

Later that afternoon, the girls opened the cargo doors to the warehouse and stepped outside. Armed with large snow shovels that they had found in a storage room on the far end of the warehouse, they planned to clear a path to the road so they could get Kayla’s motorcycle out if they needed to. Ariana stepped out first and she sank up to her knees in the snow.

"Damn..." Kayla murmured. Ariana nodded in agreement.

"Winter is coming," she said grimly. Kayla grinned.

"I'd say it's already here, sweetheart,"

They made good progress clearing the driveway until Kayla decided to toss a loosely packed snowball at Ariana’s back. The snow splattered across her jacket and caused her to shriek in surprise. She rounded on Kayla with a look of disbelief on her face.

“Yeah, I did it,” said Kayla stoutly. “What’cha gonna do about it, Red?” Ariana shook her head fiercely.

“Oh, you’re gonna regret that, Austin,” she said sharply. The rest of the afternoon was spent in a run-and-gun snowball fight that ended with Kayla running around Warehouse 14, desperately hoping to avoid Ariana, who had disappeared after Kayla had filled a waste basket with snow and dumped it on her head atop scaffolding behind Warehouse 16.

Kayla glanced behind her as she cautiously approached the open cargo door to Warehouse 15, planning to sneak inside and hide in their apartment. Unfortunately, she couldn’t have picked a worse time. A snowball struck her in the side of the head and knocked her to the ground. Ariana approached her and placed a furry booted foot on her chest as she tried to get up.

Kayla looked up at her grumpily. The redhead’s hair was wild and windswept and her cheeks were pink with cold. Her chest heaved from running and breathing in the icy air and her breath rose in a light mist around her face.

“You… are a bad girl, Kay-Kay,” said Ariana fiercely. “Very bad,” Kayla smirked.

“Oh, darlin’, you have no idea how bad I can be,” Ariana grinned.

“Why don’t you show me,” she said lightly. Kayla shrugged.

“Alright,” With an almighty shove, she pushed Ariana’s foot off of her chest. Now, had our dear Kayla been thinking correctly, she would have realized that causing the person standing on top of you to fall probably isn’t the best idea. She didn’t realize this, however and Ariana fell right on top of her, knocking the breath out of the brunette.

“Oh, are you okay?!” Ariana asked, sitting up, straddling the other girl’s hips and looking down at her worriedly. Kayla waved her away.

“I’m fine, you’re light as a feather,” said Kayla. Ariana was light, but that had hurt like ten different kinds of hell. She played the tough girl card despite the pain in her ribs.

“Oh, you are, are you?” Ariana asked. She leaned down, placing her hands on either side of Kayla, staring straight into the brunette’s brown eyes. “You look a little flushed.”

“It’s cold out here,” said Kayla dismissively. Ariana shook her head. Kayla was suddenly struck with how beautiful Ariana was. Her red mane was flecked with snowflakes; her blue eyes alight with wonder. Her full lips, parted slightly due to her heavy breathing. Kayla sat up, forcing Ariana to slide backward slightly, coming to rest on the brunette's knees.

Kayla would never know, never, no matter how long she lived, what made her do it. She was certain that it was the most difficult thing that she would ever do in her entire life, and yet it was also the simplest. Ariana was looking at her with those wide, innocent blue eyes, so filled with curiosity. Kayla drew closer, half expecting the redhead to back away. She didn't. Kayla's arms snaked gently around the other girl's waist as Ariana tilted her head slightly, a few locks of hair falling across her face.

Kayla moved closer still, so close she could count Ariana's long, full eyelashes. The last thing she saw before her eyes slid closed was the spray of freckles across the redhead's nose. Their lips met. Gently at first, cautious, testing, neither girl wanting to push too far too fast. Kayla, of course, was the more daring of the two and soon she became more passionate, deepening their kiss. It slowly became more adventurous, more exploratory.

Ariana wrapped her arms around Kayla, leaning back until she lay on a bed of fresh snow, the brunette hovering over her. Their lips never parted. Slowly hands began to explore. Gentle, delicate touches. Strokes and occasionally powerful grasps. Surprisingly to Kayla, the only rational thought that penetrated her mind was how Ariana still tasted like strawberries.

The brunette pulled away slowly, her lips leaving a trail of gentle but fiery kisses down the redhead's neck, electing a soft cry of pleasure from her. Kayla's fingers trailed along the waistband of Ariana's jeans, sliding her fingertips along the soft skin of her tummy.

Her hands moved up as their lips found each other once again, tugging the redhead's jacket from her shoulders and latching blindly onto the buttons of her red and white checkered blouse. With one swift motion, she jerked one side of Ariana's blouse, leaving all of the buttons unbuttoned. Ariana grinned.

"Nice," she managed to whisper.

"Yeah, I'm pretty talented with my hands, sweetheart," Kayla replied. Ariana grinned even more.

"Oh, God, I hope so..." she said. Kayla giggled, brushing the other girl's hair away from her flushed face.

"We... probably ought to take this inside," she suggested. Ariana nodded.

"Yeah, we... we probably should," Ariana panted. Kayla stood and held out her hand to help Ariana to her feet and together they returned to the warehouse and started up the fire escape. They stopped several times on the escape's many landings, kissing passionately against the warehouse wall. At long last, they made it into the apartment.

Clothing was shed frantically as the pair fumbled, locked together in a fiery, passionate embrace. They felt their way into Ariana's bedroom. Kayla gently pushed Ariana back onto the soft mattress, allowing herself to carefully fall forward with her. Their lips met once again for a brief moment, before Kayla began to dip lower. As Kayla gently kissed her way down Ariana's body, the redhead stopped her just short of reaching her goal. She looked up at the brunette through pain-filled eyes and reached up with a trembling hand to cup Kayla's cheek.

"Be... gentle with me," she whispered.

"Oh, baby," Kayla whispered, kissing her softly. "Nothing else crossed my mind."

They came together with a renewed vigor, fiery heat consumed them both in that glorious moment. Touches, feelings, the heat that rose up and filled their minds with wanton desire.

They moved together with reckless abandon, working as though they were made for each other. They meshed together, melding to form one mind, one singular being in that sweet, yet oh so brief moment. They floated, rising high on that beautiful swell and then came down slowly, gently, sweetly.

Kayla's mind was a blur, lost in the delirium of her post-orgasm haze. Some time later, she couldn't know how long later, she found herself lying rather unflatteringly on Ariana, listening to Ariana's steady heartbeat. She shifted slightly, causing Ariana to look down at her. Kayla was suddenly devastated to find that she had tears streaming down her beautiful face.

"Oh, honey, what's wrong?" Kayla asked hastily, rising to a sitting position and looking down at Ariana in horror. "Did... did I hurt you? Was it... did I not... Oh, I didn't, did I? Oh, God... Ari, I..." A smile crossed Ariana's face and she shook her head.

"No, Kay-Kay, you were great," she grinned. "You were incredible. I... I don't know where the tears are coming from, but I'm not sad."

"Thank God," said Kayla. She grinned nervously. "I... I was a little worried. This was my... first time, with another girl anyway. I was afraid that I... but if you're sure, then... well..." She broke off, snuggling back down beneath the thick blankets and burying her face in Ariana's neck.

"What are you thinking about?" Ariana asked quietly. Kayla laughed.

"I was just about to ask you the same thing," she replied. "We are such girls." Kayla drifted off soon after, lost to the most beautiful dreams she had ever had.

When she woke again, Ariana was gone. The smell of something wonderful frying in the kitchen told her that the redhead had decided to cook something. Her version of smoking a cigarette? Kayla didn't even want to think about it. She slipped out of bed and slipped into one of Ariana's oversized t-shirts that she often wore to bed. She padded out into the living room where she found Ariana standing by the stove. She was wrapped in a fluffy, light pink bathrobe and stirring a pot of boiling water and macaroni.

"Hey," Kayla said, walking over and capturing Ariana's lips in a quick-yet-passionate kiss. "Macaroni and cheese?" Ariana nodded.

"It's late so I thought I'd make something simple," she said.

"Works for me," said Kayla. She sat down in one of the chairs at the table and watched her girlfriend cook for a moment. 'HOLD ON' Kayla's mind screamed at her. 'Wait just a bleeding second here! Girlfriend?!!? Is that what we are now? Girlfriends?' Of course things were going to be different now, were going to change, but Kayla hadn't really given any thought to that before. Everything had just happened so fast, she hadn't had time to think about what the ramifications would be.

But would there be ramifications? Ariana seemed happy and Kayla, herself, was deliriously overjoyed. Maybe they would be okay. Maybe... maybe things were turning around. Maybe Kayla's life was finally starting to settle down and make sense again. If they really made each other so happy, and Kayla truly believed this to be true, then perhaps the fact that she already considered Ariana to be her girlfriend was just the natural progression of their far too rapidly developing relationship.

More than anything, Kayla wished she could talk to her mother. She had always been able to talk to her mom about stuff like this, and she was really good with advice. She'd know exactly what to do. Kayla hadn't spoken to her mother since just after she had gone on the run. She had called home from Phoenix and told her mother everything. She had agreed to cover for her and pretend to Dwayne, assuming he ever managed to find her in San Francisco, that she had know idea what her daughter had done. If she called home now... no good could come from it.

Ariana put an end to Kayla's musings by placing a steaming plate of macaroni in front of her. She swooped in and kissed her on the cheek before returning to the stove to collect her own plate. She sat down across from Kayla and looked up at her, grinning happily.

"You're thinking about something difficult," said Ariana firmly. "I'm getting good at reading you, sweetie. What's up?"

"I was just thinking about us... and about home," said Kayla quietly. "I'm so happy, but... I just really miss my mom and my little sister." Ariana nodded slowly.

"I'm sorry you can't go home, Kay-Kay," she said sadly. Her face suddenly brightened. "Oh! But you could call them!" Kayla shook her head.

"No," she said firmly. "If I call home, if I talk to my mom I know she'll ask me to come home... and I probably would. No, kiddo, I'm not calling her."

"I could call her," Ariana said quietly. "I know how to work a phone."

"You're not calling her either, Ari," said Kayla sharply. "Look, I shouldn't have even said anything. I just... miss her, is all. It's too dangerous to call, Ari. If Dwayne ever figured out... No, I'm serious Ari. Drop it."

But Ariana didn't drop it. In fact, she clung to it as tightly as she could throughout the evening and held on to it as Kayla kissed her goodnight and they fell into bed together.

Nearly an hour after crawling into bed, however, Ariana slipped out again and slipped her dainty feet into her slippers.

She looked down at Kayla, who was fast asleep and her heart seized with bittersweet compassion. Kayla Austin was such a devastated, broken wreck of a girl, so very like Ariana herself. She was surrounded by a cloud of deep anguish that no one other than Ariana seemed to be able to see. Ariana so longed to help her, to free her from her blanket of torment that she was cloaked in. She just didn't know how.

Ariana knew she wasn't normal. Her brain didn't work like other people's did. She wished she was like everyone else, but she never would be. She was simply too damaged to ever be whole again. She wondered what it felt like; to be normal. To be able to focus one's thoughts, to only have one voice inside her head instead of so many competing opinions on every single thing she thought about.

But that would never be. Kayla, though... Kayla could heal. Ariana knew it. She could see it. She just needed help. Ariana thought she knew a way to start, but she was just as scared as Kayla was. Ariana knew nothing of love; she'd never truly experienced it. Not parental love, and she had only just begun to understand friendship and romantic love. The only thing she knew was that Kayla needed a very great deal of love.

Kayla's feelings for Ariana had finally come out, but she was still so afraid of them because of Claire. The dead girl was the source of Kayla's problems. She clung to the brunette like a disease, to which there was no cure. But Ariana was determined to find one.

She wasn't fighting solely for Kayla, though. She was in this for herself as well. Kayla had dropped into her world so suddenly that it had taken her a while to realize exactly what having a friend really meant. Kayla had come, in the space of six days, to be the most important person in Ariana's small, simple life. It was so strange, so wondrous and new. She was enraptured.

But tonight, she had something altogether more important than her and Kayla's future together. She was doing the right thing, she was so sure. She prayed she really was. If she was wrong, if Kayla wouldn't forgive her... she wasn't sure what she would do. She turned away and went back into the living room. She padded to the sofa where Kayla's phone lay on the coffee table along with the TV guide, a stack of magazines, and the bottle of sleeping pills she had given the other girl days before.

Ariana picked up the bottle and shook it lightly. Only a single pill rattled around inside. She sighed heavily. She was glad they were almost gone. She had wanted them gone for months but hadn't had the courage to flush them. They were her way out, her escape when the pain became too great. She'd tried them once, the day her grandfather died. She wanted to escape... for her agony to end. She'd taken nearly the whole bottle. She had wanted to die. It would've been so much easier for her... but death had refused to claim her. She had survived and had chosen to try to find a way to live with her grandfather's passing... with the death of the only person who had ever truly cared for her before Kayla.

She had kept the pills, not because she had enough left to end her life if she took them, but because when she looked at that bottle it reminded her that she never wanted to go back to that dark place again. She hovered near it so often, that terrible black horror so ever present in her life, that she wasn't sure how she stayed away from it. But somehow she did. The following day, the last pill would be gone and she was scared that without the pills, she would slip back again. She prayed that Kayla would protect her... Kayla always protected her.

Ariana picked up Kayla's phone and quickly scrolled through to the Contacts. She found the one she was looking for, but she paused as she reached for the Call button while her mind fought a fierce battle with itself.

'Go on, do it! Do it, it's the right thing,' said one part of her mind.

'Yeah, go ahead! You know Kayla will forgive you. She loves you. Do it! Help her!' said another part.

'But what if you're wrong? What if she hates you for it and never forgives you? What if she leaves and you end up alone again. Don't do it. It's stupid. Mind your own business.' said a third part of her mind.

'No, no, it's a good idea. You should do it! Do it now! Really, you'll make Kayla feel better!'

'No, you'll make her feel worse! She'll feel like a coward for not being able to call herself. Don't poke your nose where it doesn't belong! Stay out of it!'

This is what happened in Ariana's mind every minute of every hour of every day. Never a moment of peace, of clarity. Sometimes she just said things, things that often made no sense to others or even to herself, just to let some of the rambling thoughts out. If she didn't, she was sure her brain would explode. After minutes of roundabout thought, she sank onto the sofa, tucking her long legs beneath herself as the phone began to ring.

"Hello?" said a quiet voice after a few rings.

"Hello," Ariana said nervously. "Mrs. Penny Austin?"

"I used to be," said the voice. "Who is this?"

"Mrs. Austin, my name is Ariana." Ariana replied. "I'm calling because... well, because I know your daughter." A sharp intake of breath came through the phone.

"You... you know Kayla?" Penny exclaimed. "Is she with you? Is she okay? Is she..."

"She's... good," said Ariana gently. "She's sad... she wishes she could come home, but... well, I don't know how much you know..."

"I know everything," said Penny. "I know what she did and I know why she can't come home. But she's with you, then? Where are you?"

"She's staying with me, yes," said Ariana. "We sort of... bumped into each other and she moved in for a while. As for where we are... well, I think it's best for all of us if we don't go spreading that around. Just... I wanted you to know that she's safe and that she loves you."

"You're taking care of her?" Ariana giggled.

"We're... taking care of each other," she replied. "We're kind of a good fit for each other. I'm really glad she showed up here."

"Will you... will you try to get her to call me?" Penny pleaded. "I really need to hear her voice."

"Of course, Mrs. Austin," said Ariana kindly.

"Oh, please call me Penny," said Penny warmly. "You're taking care of my daughter in her darkest hour. That practically makes us family."

"It's nice to have family," said Ariana. "I don't have any." Well, way to go, Ari. Why did you have to go and say that? You're making people feel bad again. Stop!

"Well, you... you certainly do now, dear," said Penny. "Please, take care of my little girl. Keep her safe. Keep her alive."

"I promise," said Ariana. "She'll be safe with me. There's nothing I wouldn't do for her, Penny. Nothing. I’d die for her if I had to." Ariana could almost hear the relief from Kayla's mother.

"I'm so glad she has you, Ariana." said Penny. "Thank you so much for calling, dear."

"You're welcome," said Ariana quietly. "Good night, Mrs. Austin."

"Good night, sweetheart," Penny replied. "And tell my daughter that I love her."

"I will," said Ariana. She lowered the phone when she heard the line disconnect and she sighed heavily. She was satisfied that she had made the right choice... up until the point she stood up from the couch and found Kayla staring at her from the bedroom door.

Ariana was sure that her heart stopped there for a minute. She had never been scared of Kayla, even after she had told her about her murderous rampage. She knew that Kayla would never actually hurt her, but the furious glare on her face terrified her. The brunette lunged forward, marching deliberately across the room straight at Ariana. For an insane second, Ariana thought Kayla was going to punch her but instead she engulfed her in a tight hug and broke down sobbing into her shoulder.

"Thanks, Ari," she whispered. "Really, thanks. I didn't... I didn't realize how much that would... that having her know that I'm okay... Just... thank you."

"So... you're not mad at me?" Ariana asked, her racing heart slowly returning to normal.

"Mad? Ari, I'm elated!" Kayla exclaimed, stepping back from her, but keeping a firm grasp on her shoulders with both hands. "I'm so glad that she knows now, and I really..."

"You should call her," Ariana said quickly. She had to try. She had promised after all to do her best to get Kayla to call her mother, and to keep her safe... and Ariana always kept her promises. "Seriously, Kay-Kay... call her. She really wants to talk to you."

"I told you, I can't," said Kayla firmly. "I... I just can't. I..."

"Call her," Ariana insisted, pressing the phone into the brunette's hands. "If me talking to her helped you this much, you talking to her will be even better. Call her." Kayla looked down at the phone, her hands shaking. She glanced up at Ariana, who nodded encouragingly. She sighed and started dialing. She started pacing the length of the room while it rang.

"Hello?" came her mother's voice.

"Um... Hi, Mom. It's me," said Kayla nervously. "Yeah, I know... Yeah, I'm sorry I didn't call... No, no, I'm fine Mom, really... No, I'm safe for now... With Ariana, yeah... Right, yeah, she's really... she's really sweet." Kayla paused, glancing over at Ariana who smiled warmly back at her. "Yeah, Mom, she's taking good care of me. She's a sweetheart... loves to cook. She's beautiful and so kind... Yeah, I'm glad I found her too... No, I can't say where I am. It's probably not a good idea to go spreading that around..."

Ariana slowly retreated to the bedroom, leaving Kayla alone to talk with her mother. She paused at the door and watched her for a moment before slipping away and leaving the other girl in peace. She leaned against the wall by the door, a victorious smile on her face. She'd gotten her best friend to call her mother. She only had one last task to accomplish. She had to protect Kayla. She had to keep her best friend safe. She had promised… and she always kept her promises.

8: Chapter VIII: One Week In
Chapter VIII: One Week In

The day we met,
Frozen I held my breath,
Right
from the start
I knew that I'd found a home for my heart...

Beats fast, colors and promises,
How to be brave?
How can I love when I'm afraid to fall?
But watching you stand alone,
All of my doubt suddenly goes away somehow

One... Step... Closer…

The first thought that pierced Kayla's sleepy brain the following day was that exactly one week earlier she had been running down a dark alley from two police officers and had collided rather painfully with the beautiful redhead that currently lay in her arms, sleeping peacefully. One week. Damn, it seemed like so much longer than that. Surely more than seven days had passed since she had arrived at the warehouse! But no, it had only been a week and yet so much had happened in that short span of time.

Kayla had found a new home, a new life, and Ariana... God, Ariana. She was unequivocally the very best thing that had ever happened to Kayla and she was quickly learning to not feel bad about that fact. She had fallen in love and it had only taken her a few days. She was shocked to realize the speed at which her entire world of changed. It was... out of character for her. It had taken her years to fall for Claire, but only a week to fall for Ariana. She thought she ought to feel at least a little sad about that, but she really didn't. She was too deliriously happy at the moment to feel sad about anything.

Ariana began to stir. Her big eyes fluttered open and she tilted her head to look up at Kayla and grinned. Kayla grinned back and leaned forward, capturing Ariana's lips in a brief kiss.

I have died everyday waiting for you
Darling don't be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed I would find you
Time has brought your heart to me
I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more...

One... Step... Closer...

“It’s our song,” Ariana said quietly, nodding toward the radio which was set to come on every morning at 9:00am. Kayla arched an eyebrow.

“We have a song?” she asked curiously.

“Of course!” said Ariana. “This is the first song we danced to!” Kayla grinned. “And the first song we kissed to as well, I suppose.”

Time stands still
Beauty in all she is                                                                                                                 

I will be brave
I will not let anything take away

What's standing in front of me
Every breath
Every hour has come to this

"You are so damn beautiful," Kayla whispered, brushing a wild strand of hair out of Ariana's face. The redhead smiled.

"That's always nice to hear," she said brightly. Kayla giggled, but the smile slid off of her face as quickly as it had come and she stared so fiercely at Ariana that she could tell the redhead was getting worried.

“Is something wro…?”

“I love you,” Kayla interrupted suddenly. “I love you, Ariana. I wish to God I didn’t, Ari, but… I do. I love you.”

“Aww,” said Ariana sweetly. “I love you too.” She smiled sadly. “That was the hardest thing you’ve ever had to say, wasn’t it?”

“What makes you say that?” Kayla asked. Ariana shrugged.

“But you’ve been afraid to love since Claire died,” said Ariana. “You loved her and losing her hurt you so badly that you know you never want to feel that pain again. So, admitting you love me is like taking off a big piece of the armor you’ve put up to protect yourself. You’re always so strong, Kayla. I’m the one thing that makes you weak.” Ariana had hit the nail squarely on the head; even though Kayla hated herself for admitting it.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re too damned intuitive for your own good?” Kayla asked in mock frustration.

“You did,” said Ariana firmly. “Just a few days ago,”

“Well, nothing’s changed,” said Kayla. She sighed. “But you’re right. You do make me weak… but you also give me something worth fighting for. I’m tired of running, but before I met you I didn’t have any fight left in me. Now, though? Now, I’ve got all the fight in the world.”

Having been cooped up in the warehouse for far too long, the girls decided that a day out might do them good. A little snow didn’t bother Detroit one bit and practically all businesses were open, so after a nice breakfast they climbed down to the warehouse floor to get Kayla’s bike.

“We need a car,” said Kayla firmly as Ariana opened the cargo door. “I love my bike, but it’s cold out there. I’m a Cali Girl, babe… I’m not used to all this… cold.”

“Had you ever even seen snow before you came here?” Ariana asked as the cargo door slid noising toward the ceiling.

“Yeah…” Kayla said slowly. “On TV,”

That doesn’t count!” said Ariana darkly. “But maybe we should get a car. At least we wouldn’t have to call Coop every time we go shopping.”

“I guess we could swing by a dealership,” said Kayla. “I hate car salesmen with a passion, but I could put up with it if I don’t have to freeze my butt off just to go to the store.”

“Don’t worry,” said Ariana sweetly, straddling the bike behind Kayla. “I’ll keep that nice and warm back here.”

-.-

“So… where should we start?” Ariana asked as Kayla parked the bike in a lot were several car dealerships were located on the road nearby.

“You’re from the Motor City,” said Kayla. “Don’t you know anything about cars?”

“No,” said Ariana sharply. “I’m not even allowed to drive. You’re from San Diego. Don’t you know everything about… about… sand and… and surfing and… beach bums? I’ve never been to San Diego!”

“We have a lot more than sand and surfing, sweetheart,” said Kayla, grinning. “And nice comeback, by the way.”

“You didn’t fall in love with me because of my witty retorts,” said Ariana sagely.

“No, I fell in love with you because of your cute butt,” said Kayla, swatting the redhead playfully but with a hint of force on her rear end.

They wandered through the various lots, examining the different makes and models. Kayla had far more automotive knowledge than Ariana did, but it didn’t really matter. They weren’t looking for any particular model and money wasn’t really an object.

“Well, shit!” Kayla exclaimed as they walked through a high-end lot. Sitting in front of them on a pedestal completely cleared of snow was a blaze orange Mclaren MP4-12c Spyder. The two hundred fifty thousand dollar supercar sat low to the ground and screamed power and speed… and also that its owner clearly had more money than sense. It didn’t matter. Kayla would take that title just to be able to sit in the damn thing.

”I’m guessing you like this,” said Ariana, walking with Kayla toward the car and peering in the window.

“Like?” Kayla exclaimed. “This… Ari, I love this car almost as much as I love you! This guy my mom tried to hook me up with back home had one of these. The guy was a douche, but the car was freaking awesome!”

“Well, let’s find a salesman,” said Ariana, peering over toward the main building to see if she saw anyone coming their way. Kayla actually laughed.

“What?!” she exclaimed. “No, we’re not buying this!”

“But you want it,” said Ariana.

“Come on, Ari! This thing costs over a quarter of a million dollars!” said Kayla. “No, there are plenty of normal people cars around here. Let’s go look at them.”

“Can I help you ladies?” a voice called out, halting Kayla as she tried to lead Ariana to the next dealership over. A tall man emerged between two cars and rapidly approached them. He wore a very expensive suit and had a look on his face that indicated he didn’t like two teenage girls poking around his supercar.

“Yes,” said Ariana politely. “We’re interested in purchasing this car.” She gestured toward the Mclaren.

“Ah, yes, the Mclaren MP4-12c,” said the salesman. “Yes… might I ask how old you are?”

“I’m seventeen and Kayla here is nineteen,” said Ariana. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“I’m sorry,” said the salesman. “It’s just that this vehicle is quite expensive and I don’t think that either of you would be able to…”

“We’ll be paying cash,” said Ariana quickly, causing the salesman to freeze mid-sentence and stare.

“You’ll be…” the salesman stuttered.

“Paying cash,” Ariana repeated. “I may not look it, but I have plenty of money.” The salesman considered her for a long moment before smiling widely.

“Ladies, if you’ll come with me…”

-.-

Three hours and a trip to the bank for a cashier's check later, the girls sat in the lot where they'd parked Kayla's bike, waiting for Cooper to come and help them take the bike back to the warehouse. It was nearly dark and a light snow was falling from the grey sky above.

"I still can't believe you bought this," Kayla said, flipping enthusiastically through the Mclaren's owners manual.

"It's cool," said Ariana, lowering the hardtop convertible's roof for the fifth time. She yelped with excitement each time the machine completed the process. "There's so many buttons..."

"Yes, well... we're not touching those," said Kayla firmly. "Mainly because I haven't figured out what half of them do yet."

"You can find out by pushing them," Ariana pointed out, raising the top again. Kayla nodded.

"True, but for all I know there's an ejector seat in this thing and you'll go flying into the interstate." she said lamely. "That, or there's heat seeking missiles behind the headlights that we could launch."

"I don't want to be ejected," said Ariana faintly. Kayla grinned and took her hand.

"Don't worry, babe, I won't eject you," She leaned across the center console and captured Ariana's lips in a deep kiss. "I love you,"

"You don't have to keep saying it," said Ariana with a grin. "I know you're overcompensating, but its okay."

"It's the truth," said Kayla. "Besides, I've never gotten to say it and really mean it. With Dwayne, I never meant it and with Claire... I never said it. So, I guess I just want to make sure that you know.”

“I know,” said Ariana sweetly. “But still, I suppose a girl does like to hear it.”

“See?” said Kayla smartly. “Told you so,” She glanced in the rear-view mirror just as the headlights of Cooper’s truck blazed across the parking lot. “Oh, Coop’s here. He’s gonna love this.” Cooper parked his truck and got out just as Kayla and Ariana climbed out of the Mclaren. He froze as his eyes took in the car and the sight of the two girls stepping out of it.

“What the hell?” he exclaimed. “That’s… how did… when did… why’d you… I don’t… That’s a… Ariana?”

“Kayla liked it,” said the redhead with a shrug.

“Damn, girl, I like it too,” said Cooper. “You wanna go get me one too?”

“This was the only one they had,” said Ariana gently. Kayla chuckled.

“Ari, you’re probably the only person alive who would go and buy someone a two hundred thousand dollar car just because they said they liked it,” she said, laughing.

“Wouldn’t you?” she said innocently. Kayla shrugged.

“No, but then I haven’t got your heart,” she admitted. Ariana grinned and leaned close to her.

“Yes, you do,” she whispered and kissed her oh so briefly. If the sight of the car had blown Coop’s mind, this kiss dropped a thermonuclear warhead on it.

"The fuck?!" he shouted, drawing intensely surprised stares from both girls. "You two are... you're both..."

"Yeah, we are," said Kayla, smirking. Ariana grinned widely.

"I'm not sure he's comfortable with this," she said thoughtfully. "I think we freaked him out."

"Either that, or he's incredibly turned on." said Kayla pointedly.

"That's a possibility," Ariana agreed. "How do we find out?"

"We could tell him about what we did last night," Kayla suggested.

"Ooooh, that might work," said Ariana. "Go for it,"

"Okay, Coop. Listen, Ariana and I, we..." she paused. "Hey, could you make that noise you made, sweetie? I don't think we'll need the gory details after that." Ariana shrugged.

"Sure," Cooper threw up his hands suddenly.

"No! No, please girls! Stop," he covered his ears with his hands. "I can't hear Ariana make anything close to a sex noise. Those two things just don't work in my brain. Just... let's just get the bike and go back to the warehouse before my brain explodes."

Coop and Kayla loaded up the bike while Ariana returned to the Mclaren to play with the buttons. Kayla left her to it, figuring that since the car clearly didn't have an ejector seat, she couldn't possibly get into too much trouble. As Cooper worked to secure the bike in the bed of his truck, he fixed Kayla with a very serious stare. Kayla arched her eyebrows at him.

"Why do I get the feeling that you're about to cuss me out?" Kayla asked quietly. Coop stopped working and turned to face her.

"Really?" he said sharply. "You and Ariana? Come on! She's... she's not equipped for a romantic relationship! She's just..."

"She's just what, Cooper?" Kayla snapped. She was suddenly outraged. "She's what? A kid? She's not a kid, Cooper. She's seventeen!”

“She has… mental issues, I think that’s pretty clear,” Cooper said sharply. “She’s like a child at times, you must see that!”

“She’s… damaged, I’ll give you that, but you can’t treat her like she is!” Kayla retorted. “She’s intuitive, she’s actually really smart. You can’t treat her like she’s some delicate child for her whole life. Shit, Coop, she’s the best damn thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ll protect her.”

“From yourself?”

“I’d never hurt her!” Kayla said, the fiery temper she so often did her best to restrain bursting out of her. “I would never hurt Ariana! Ever! She's... damn it, Coop, she's all I've got! I'll protect her! I'll fight for her! I'll die for her if I have to! And, yes, I'll leave her before I'll hurt her!" Kayla paused, leaning heavily against the side of Cooper's truck.

"I love her, Coop," she whispered, looking up at him with hot tears forming in her eyes. "I love her. I love her so much. I've never met anyone like her. I was a mess when we met, but in just a week she's changed me even though I didn't want to change. Coop, I've been running for so long that it's all I know... but she won't let me run any more." Cooper finished strapping down the bike and leaned against the opposite side of the truck. He fixed Kayla with the most serious stare the brunette had ever seen.

"You... You're..." he sighed and rubbed his head. "Shit, Kayla, just... just fucking take care of her, alright? She's your responsibility now."

"I know," said Kayla. "I know, I'll take care of her. I promise, Coop."

"And if you hurt her, I'll kick your ass," said Coop sharply. Kayla almost laughed. She certainly cracked a smile.

"You could give it your best shot," she replied.

-.-

Cooper started off back to the warehouse as Kayla opened the Mclaren's door and found Ariana playing gleefully with the windshield wipers. Kayla grinned as she nudged the redhead into the passenger seat.

"There's no ejector seat," said Ariana, sounding highly disappointed.

"If there were, you certainly would have found it by now," said Kayla, checking to see what if any damage the bubbly girl had done. Kayla fired up the powerful turbocharged V8 engine. It roared to life, positively singing it's excitement to the skies. Kayla drove back to the warehouse, unable to truly experience the car's power due to the snow-covered roads.

Cooper was already unloading the bike by the time they arrived. Kayla parked the car inside the warehouse near the spot where she kept her bike. Ariana hugged Cooper and gave him some homemade cookies for the road. Kayla remained on the warehouse floor to see him out. He climbed into his truck and gazed at Kayla out of the window.

"I mean it, Kayla," he said firmly. "You take care of her."

"You've got my promise, Coop," said Kayla, nodding sincerely. "I'll be good to her." Cooper drove away without another word. Kayla sighed heavily and looked out at the night that settled around the warehouse. A light snow continued to fall from the now inky black sky. The brilliant moon shone brightly through the clouds over Warehouse 13 across the street. It was a beautiful night and a fitting end to Kayla's first week at the warehouse.

Truthfully, the end of that first week could have been the end of the story. Kayla was truly happy with her life. She had a home, a girlfriend... what more could she ask for? She and Ariana could have lived the rest of their days there together in the warehouse with nothing further of interest taking place in their lives. They could have lived simple lives together, alone in their small abode above a sprawling warehouse floor. Unfortunately for them both, fate had other plans. Their lives were never meant to be simple.

-.-

Kayla climbed up the stairs to the apartment. Ariana stood by the refrigerator, pouring orange juice into a tea cup. She was humming idly to herself and seemed to be in an overly good mood. Kayla crossed the room and propped herself against the arm of the sofa.

"Alright, spill it," she said quickly. Ariana turned around, looking sadly at her cup of juice.

"But I'll make a mess," she said uncertainly. "And I'll have to pour another cup of orange juice." Kayla laughed.

"Not the juice, kiddo, the car," said Kayla sharply. "Seriously, Ari. Why did you buy that car?" Ariana looked quite confused.

"Because you..."

"And don't say because I liked it, because we both know there's more to it than that," Kayla interrupted.

"But... but that's why," said Ariana, staring at the floor and biting her lower lip. Kayla made a mental note to remember that while Ariana could lie to police officers without batting an eyelash, she couldn't lie to her.

"That's not why, Ari," said Kayla. "You're lying." Ariana looked incredibly nervous now.

"I... I don't want to talk about this," Ariana said quietly. She turned to flee to her bedroom, but Kayla got to the door first and barred the way. Ariana tried to push past her, but the brunette was too strong for her. She gave up and huffed back into the kitchen.

"Ari...?" Kayla said softly. She was suddenly worried that she had really upset the redhead. "Ari, come on. I'm sorry, I..." She broke off as she approached Ariana, who turned around revealing that she had tears streaming down her face.

"I bought the car... I bought it because... I don't want you to leave," said Ariana, her beautiful eyes filled with tears.

"You bought me a car so I wouldn't leave?" asked Kayla, a small smile on her face.

"I bought it because I thought..." She paused; she seemed to be searching for the right words. "I can't be alone again. I… I can’t. After my granddad died, I… I was so alone and scared. I don’t ever want to feel that way again. I don’t want to go back to that place again… the place where I… where I wanted to die. I wanted to, after he died.” Ariana looked as though she were struggling internally with something so unbelievably difficult that she might collapse under the pressure. Without warning, she marched over to the counter and seized the empty sleeping pill bottle that Kayla had taken the last of the night before. She held it out and Kayla took it. It took a moment for the full weight of what Ariana was trying to tell her, but when it did she dropped the bottle and held a hand to her mouth.

“Ari, you… you took…?” Ariana nodded.

“I couldn’t be alone again,” she said in the most defeated voice Kayla had ever heard. “I took them. I figured… I’d be better off. Only… well, it was right after I met Coop. He came by the warehouse and found me. He took me to the hospital… saved me. I was mad at him for a while, but not any more. I got away from that place, from the dark place where I wanted to die. But if you left… if you weren’t here… if I was alone again, Kayla, I… I’d go back there. I know I would. I don’t want to, but I… I would. I’m so scared of being alone again. Please say you’ll stay. I know you want to run, it’s what you do, but… but I need you.”  

Kayla was stunned. She had no idea that Ariana had ever been suicidal. The bright, bubbly girl that had stolen her heart without even trying had tried to kill herself? It didn’t make sense, it never would make sense.

Kayla moved forward, pulling Ariana into a tight hug. Right then she just wanted to hold the girl and never let her go.

“Ari, I’m not leaving, okay?” she said firmly. “Ever. I mean it. I’m done running. I’m staying here with you. I love you, Ariana. You don’t have to buy me expensive gifts to keep me; I’m not that kind of girl. I don’t care what car we have or even if we have one. I have you and that’s all I care about. I’m not leaving you.”

“Granddad didn’t want to leave either,” Ariana whispered, sniffling sadly. Kayla nodded.

“No, kiddo, he didn’t. But he died, baby. He didn’t want to leave you, of course. There’s nothing any of us can do if it’s our time to die. But death is the only thing that would take me away from you. I’m here, Ari, for good. Whatever comes our way, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. This is my home.”

There was nothing more to be said. They sat on the couch for the longest time, Ariana crying softly into Kayla’s chest while the brunette gently stroked her back. The redhead eventually cried herself out and she looked up at Kayla with bloodshot eyes. Kayla leaned in and kissed her. She meant it as reassurance, further proof that she would never leave, but Ariana wanted more. She deepened the kiss and it wasn’t long before they retired to their bedroom, wrapped up in each other once again.

9: Chapter IX: The Beginning of the End
Chapter IX: The Beginning of the End

Two weeks later, Ariana awoke quite suddenly from a sound sleep. She sat bolt upright in bed, her chest heaving. She was drenched in an icy cold sweat. Her pulse was racing and she felt sick. She had been having a nightmare, one of several recurring nightmares that had plagued her for years. In recent days, since Kayla had come to the warehouse, these dreams had become less frequent, but had not gone away entirely.

In fact, Ariana found that everything about her life and her mental state had improved since Kayla’s arrival. There were moments, brief moments to be sure, but long enough to be considered moments, where she actually felt… normal. The voices in her head fell silent, the world slowed down to a regular pace and her mind was suddenly, blissfully at peace.

It never lasted, but it was a comfort to know what such things felt like. She couldn’t ever remember what it felt like to be normal before that. She prayed every day that the next time she experienced one of these moments, it would never leave her.

Kayla, Ariana found, was still fast asleep, her dreams undisturbed and pleasant. Ariana decided not to wake her and climbed carefully out of bed and started toward the door. One of the things that had changed in Ariana’s life since Kayla’s arrival was her worst fear; the darkness. Ariana was utterly terrified of the dark… bad things, after all, happened in the dark.

She had always slept with a bright lamp lighting up her bedroom. Kayla had put up with it once she had begun sleeping in Ariana’s bedroom, but the redhead knew that it bothered the other girl so she slowly began turning it off each night, leaving the apartment lights and the warehouse lights on instead. In the last week, however, she had even started turning the apartment lights off as well as all of the warehouse lights except for a few near the apartment windows which they dimmed to a dull orange glow so that, like this night for instance, the girls could see how to make their way to the bathroom without tripping over Fluffers. He tended to fall asleep stretched out across doorways, making him prime material to step on if one wasn’t careful.

Ariana made it into the bathroom without falling over a cat. She flicked on the light and closed the door, squinting as she did so at the brilliant light blazing off of the stark white bathroom walls. She walked over to the long row of sinks where warehouse workers had once washed their hands and leaned against the cold metal of the counter. She peered into the long mirror hung above the sinks, realizing as she did so that she looked just as bad as she felt. Her eyes were red and the tearstains on her face clearly indicated that she had been crying in her sleep. Her hair was as wet as if she had just climbed out of a swimming pool. It was stuck to her back and plastered to her face. She brushed a few strands away angrily.

‘Damn those dreams!’ she thought furiously. ‘Why do I have to have them?!’ It just wasn’t fair. These dreams still tormented her, even so far removed from the real life event that had started them. He hadn’t touched her, hadn’t been anywhere near her, in two years and yet still the dreams came. So often she felt as though he would come back… would manage to take her again, back to the place where he had kept her for so long.

She hadn’t realized… hadn’t known what he was doing. She hadn’t understood that it was wrong, that she didn’t deserve it. He had said she did and she believed him. She had not known that anything else existed outside her small world of darkness and pain. She simply believed what he told her; that she existed only to suffer for his amusement. She believed that was what she was supposed to do. He told her, she trusted him. She loved him. Above all else, that had been the hardest thing to let go of.

Ariana found a towel and dried herself off. She quietly returned to the bedroom and rummaged in the dark for a change of clothes. She dug up a fresh, oversized t-shirt which she slipped into and slowly sat down on the edge of the bed. Kayla, still sleeping, reached out toward her, lacing the fingers of her right hand through Ariana's left. A smile crept onto Ariana's face. Even asleep Kayla was searching for her. She guessed she knew why she was at least beginning to recover. She had Kayla now. She would keep her safe. She didn't have a single doubt about it.

As Ariana slipped quietly into bed, Kayla woke with a start. She started to panic for a brief moment, spinning in bed to reach for the .45 handgun she had been keeping on the nightstand before she realized that there was nothing to fear. It suddenly struck Ariana that Kayla might be just as disturbed by events in her life as she was, just in a drastically different way.

"Ari?" Kayla said sleepily. "What's going on?"

"Nothing, sweetie," the redhead replied, unable to see anything except an outline of Kayla in the darkness. "I just had a bad dream. Don't worry. Go back to sleep." Kayla reached over and turned on the light. Her sleepy eyes settled on Ariana's face and she gasped.

"You've been crying," she said, sitting up quickly. Ariana shook her head.

"It was just a dream," said Ariana. "I guess it was just... worse than normal."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Kayla asked, still looking quite concerned.

"It's nothing to worry about, Kay-Kay," said Ariana. "I mean it, I'm fine." She leaned forward and kissed her reassuringly. "I'm fine. Let's go back to sleep."

But Ariana couldn't sleep. Despite what she said, the dream had unnerved her. She tossed and turned for a while before finally slipping quietly out of bed at 5:00am and making her way out of the bedroom. She went down to the library where she thought she might try reading, but none of her many books captured her interest. Instead, she decided to go down to the warehouse floor.

The Mclaren sat next to Kayla's motorcycle, looking just a sleek and powerful in the semi-darkness as it did outside in the daylight. Due to the seemingly endless snow that had plagued the Detroit area that winter, they had not yet been able to test the car's true power on the road. Ariana wandered over to it and walked around it, her fingertips brushing along its sleek sides.

She found she felt... dirty. Her dream had brought up many memories, throwing into sharp relief things she tried so desperately to suppress. She decided to take a shower, to wash away... well, everything. She went to the showers and entered her favorite stall. She turned on the water, setting it as hot as she could stand. She pulled her night shirt over her head and placed it, along with her underwear, on a bench and stepped under the hot spray.

As she stood under the nearly scalding flow, she began to cry again. For reasons she couldn't even understand, she sobbed alone in the shower. She dropped to the cold floor, resting her back against the shower wall. She drew her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs as the water continued to beat down upon her.

The next thing Ariana remembered was the sound of the water shutting off and a warm hand coming to rest on her knee. Her eyes fluttered open and Kayla's worried face appeared before her, peering anxiously down at her. She didn't say anything; she just wrapped a towel around her and helped her to her feet. Kayla led Ariana back up to the apartment and forced her into a chair at the table in the kitchen. She pressed a cup of cocoa into her hands and sat down across from her.

"What happened?" the brunette asked, tilting her head to one side. How could Ariana answer that? How could she possibly explain everything that had happened? How could she make Kayla understand when she didn't really understand it all herself? She settled on a version of the truth.

"I couldn't go back to sleep," said Ariana quietly. "So, I decided to take a shower and I... I guess I fell asleep."

"Well, at least you didn't drown," said Kayla, looking relieved. "You're sure that's all it was?" Ariana nodded, but she couldn't meet Kayla's eyes as she did so. She hated lying to Kayla, but she couldn't tell her the truth. She couldn't face it, not now. No, for the first time in her life she was truly happy. She wasn't going to go delving into the past and ruin everything.

The girls spent the rest of the morning lying together on the sofa watching TV. Ariana dozed peacefully in Kayla's arms, never completely drifting off to sleep. The afternoon was spent lounging around the warehouse doing nothing in particular. Ariana made pumpkin muffins and iced cinnamon rolls, which filled the apartment with delicious smells that Kayla said would likely draw passersby to stop to eat.

By late evening a very light snow had begun to fall. Ariana, bundled against the cold, stood out on the fire escape, watching the flakes fall across the wide alley that separated their warehouse from the neighboring one. Kayla tugged open the door and stepped outside, tugging her jacket tighter around her.

"Hey, there you are," she said, walking over and slipping her arm around Ariana's waist. "What are you doing out here?"

"I love snow," Ariana replied warmly. "It's nice."

"It's cold," said Kayla, but she shrugged. "It is kinda nice, though," Silence fell between them and Ariana suddenly noticed how unbelievably quiet the night was. There was no rumble of cars or the chatter of people. There was nothing but the silence of the dead warehouses around them and the gentle pattering of snowflakes on the fire escape.

As they stood there, Ariana suddenly had an idea. She turned to Kayla, smiling brightly. Kayla arched her eyebrows, an expression which Ariana always found funny. She grinned and nodded toward the snow covered alley, illuminated by the wide orange glow from the lights over the cargo doors.

"Let's go for a walk," she said sweetly. Kayla shook her head.

"Babe, no..." Kayla whined. "It's cold... and dark... and we live in Detroit! We should really stay here."

"Please?" Ariana begged, knowing as she did that Kayla couldn't resist her. "Come on, Kay-Kay. I'll love you forever."

"You'll love me forever regardless," said Kayla lightly. She sighed. "Fine, kiddo. Let's go."

Looking back, the girls would never realize that this moment would be the beginning of a butterfly effect that would lead them both to a dark and deadly confrontation that would forever change their lives. If they had never gone for that walk in the snow, the course of their lives would have been vastly different. An entirely different chain of events would have unfolded that might have resulted in a drastically better, or worse, outcome. No one will ever know. They went, and doing so changed everything.

-.-

The girls left the warehouse and set off down the street toward a nearby residential area. Snow was still falling lightly as they walked down the quiet street, past apartment buildings and modest houses. The street looked like something out of a Christmas card. The houses were nearly all nicely decorated and with the thick snow covering their roofs, looked like iced gingerbread houses.

"You were right," said Kayla, breaking the silence of the night for the first time. "This was a good idea,"

"I have some occasionally," said Ariana, smiling brightly. "It's kinda... romantic, isn't it?"

"Yeah," said Kayla. "You getting any more good ideas?" Ariana grinned.

"A couple," she said slyly. The girls paused in the middle of the street, turning to each other with shy smiles on their faces. The moment was viciously shattered however by an echoing siren blaring from a side street. The fire truck shot across the street ahead of them and roared out of sight.

"C'mon," Ariana said briskly. "Let's follow it!"

"It's just a fire truck, Ari," the brunette groaned. "I know you love shiny red things, but we don't even know where it’s going... Ari, wait!" Ariana, determined as she was, had already set off after the truck. When she reached the cross street it was easy to see exactly where the truck was going. An apartment building a block away was smoldering grimly in the darkness. Black smoke issued up from the remains of the gutted building, curling and billowing up into the inky sky.

People were gathered all around the site of destruction, those who had lived there, picking through the ruins of their incinerated homes. All anyone would need to do was take one look at Ariana's face to tell that she was devastated. She actually physically hurt. She stood there for the few moments it took for Kayla to catch up with her and by the time the brunette reached her side and gasped at the sight, Ariana realized that she was crying.

"Shit..." Kayla breathed, glancing sideways at the silently sobbing redhead. She put her arm around Ariana’s shoulders. “It’s okay, kiddo. Let’s…”

“It’s not okay!” Ariana burst out suddenly. Ariana turned toward her, furious. She could tell by the look on the brunette’s face that she had never suspected that Ariana got angry, much less shouted. She was always so happy and soft spoken… but today was different.

“It’s not okay, Kayla!” She gestured toward the burned out building in the hopes that Kayla might suddenly grasp why nothing about this was remotely okay. “It… It’s not okay.” Ariana found as she turned away from a stunned Kayla to look back at the remains of the apartment building that she wasn’t at all sure why she was so upset. Why did dozens of people she didn’t know and had never met losing their homes devastate her to the point of shouting at one of the two people she had in the whole world?

She felt for them so strongly and she couldn’t understand why. No one felt for her. No one had ever cared about her. She’d been through so much darkness, through pure hell, and not one single person had ever actually cared about her. Doctors had tried to fix her, sure, but she was just another nutcase they had to take care of. Her grandfather had left her, not intentionally perhaps, but he was still gone and Kayla… Kayla didn’t know. Would Kayla still love her if she knew the truth? If she knew everything, Ariana knew that Kayla would never look at her the same again. Ariana wasn’t as innocent as she first appeared, but then… neither was Kayla.

“Ari…?” Kayla said tentatively after a few minutes. “Ari, I…”

“Don’t, Kayla,” said Ariana, turning back toward her. “It’s… I’m sorry I yelled at you. I just…”

“I know,” said Kayla quietly. Ariana sighed inwardly. No… no, you don’t.

“Do you… do you want to go down there?” Kayla asked. “Maybe we could help.” She really didn’t want to go anywhere near the building. She wanted to run back to the warehouse and bury herself under her blankets with Fluffers and a juice box and never ever think about this night again. But she steeled herself and slowly she nodded.

“Yeah,” she said softly. “Yeah, let’s go.”

The girls made their way down the street, toward the flashing lights and billowing smoke. As they got closer, they could see that the apartment building had been reduced to little more than a five story burned out shell. A portion of the left side of the structure had collapsed upon itself, taking part of the manager’s office with it.

"Son of a bitch, you've got to be kidding me!" Ariana and Kayla turned toward a large man standing beside a fire truck a few yards away. He wore a gray suit and his mop of black hair was disheveled. He was shouting as someone on his cell phone. "What do you mean my policy won't cover this?! That's the whole fucking reason I got the damn thing!"

Kayla took Ariana's arm and guided her away from the man. Ariana wanted to hear more of his conversation, but Kayla seemed determined to pull her away. Kayla guided her over toward the ruins of the building.

With the flames extinguished, people dug through the outskirts of the debris, hoping perhaps to find some piece of their destroyed homes. Two women with a little boy were trying to unearth what appeared to be a singed trunk from beneath some wood and pieces of broken plaster ceiling. As Kayla rushed over to help them, Ariana knelt to investigate a spot of brown in the otherwise white spread of snow all around her. Her small hand closed around the furry, moist body of a ragged teddy bear.

She tugged the bear out of the snow and held it up, brushing snow from its face. She immediately felt her eyes burn again. She wrapped her arms around the bear and held it to her chest, willing herself not to cry. As she stood there, she noticed a little girl standing alone in the snow nearby. She was small, probably seven or eight years old. She had curly blonde hair and Ariana could easily see the fear, confusion, and sadness on her face.

She knew those emotions well; she had lived with little else for most of her life. She could see a lot of herself in that little girl. She thought back to the days when she had been that young, when her life had been endless hell. It was easy to think that her own pain had been worse than this girl's. At least she had a family, people that loved her... instead of tormenting her.

But that wasn't fair; to diminish the girl's loss... and it wasn't Ariana's way. She slowly approached the girl, whose face brightened instantly when she saw the redhead approaching.

"My bear!" she exclaimed, her tiny voice cracking with emotion. "You found him!" The little girl rushed over and took the bear Ariana held out to her. "Thanks!" she said happily.

"Sure sweetie," said Ariana. She knelt down in the snow so she and the blonde would be face to face. "What's his name?"

"Mr. Bear," said the girl. "And mine's Sophia." Ariana smiled.

"My mother's name was Sophia," she said quietly. "I'm Ariana. It's very nice to meet you, Sophia." Without any warning at all, a man with dark hair and a scraggly beard appeared over the girl's shoulder. He grabbed Sophia and jerked her toward him, while pushing Ariana away. She fell backwards into the snow.

"What the hell are you doing to my daughter?!" the man demanded, stomping over and kneeling down next to her. Before Ariana could answer, Kayla appeared seemingly from nowhere and kicked the man so hard that he tumbled onto his back.

"Get the fuck away from her!" Kayla shouted. In one fluid motion, she hiked up the hem of her shirt and placed her hand on the grip of her pistol. She jerked the weapon free and steadied her aim on the man before glancing quickly at Ariana. "You okay, Ari?"

"I'm fine, Kay-Kay," said Ariana, standing to her feet. Kayla walked over to the man, glaring furiously at him as he scrambled angrily to his feet. "Kayla, it's okay." Ariana called. "Calm down."

"He attacked you," Kayla growled.

"She was touching my daughter," said the man. "I reacted." Ariana stepped forward, putting herself between Kayla and the man.

"Babe, it's okay," she whispered to Kayla. "I'm sorry. Unfortunately, you just reacted at someone with an incredibly overprotective girlfriend. I was just giving your daughter back her bear. I didn't mean any harm, I only..."

"Hey, it's okay," said the man, his eyes lingering on Kayla's gun. "I'm sorry. It's just… we've had a rough night with the fire and everything. Really, I'm sorry I attacked you."

"It's okay," Ariana said, the incident completely forgotten. Kayla slowly relaxed, holstering her weapon and fussing over Ariana.

"You're sure you're okay?" she asked, looking into Ariana's eyes anxiously.

"I'm fine, sweetie," said Ariana. She really was fine. Sophia's father had certainly frightened her, but she hadn't been hurt. Kayla was just being overprotective, but the redhead knew she had her reasons for being so.

"This is really terrible," said Ariana quietly, looking around at the sad scene.

"Yeah," said Kayla absently. "And from what that man was yelling earlier, it doesn't sound like his insurance policy is going to cover any of this."

"Oh, no..." said Ariana sadly. "So, all these people..."

"Might be in a lot of trouble," said Kayla. "This is a low income area, too. This apartment building was for families that can't afford anyplace else. They probably don't have anywhere else to go and... well, if the insurance won't help provide temporary housing..."

"They could stay with us!" Ariana exclaimed brightly.

"They could... wait, what?" asked Kayla. "Hold on, Ari. I don't think..." But Ariana was already marching off toward the man who had pushed her down and the little girl.

"Do you have a place to stay?" Ariana asked as she stepped up to him. He looked at her oddly for a second and then shook his head.

"No, I..." he shrugged. "No, we don't. I'll have to get a motel room, but I can't afford that... None of us can. Brian, the manager, just told me he's going to be in a fight with the insurance company, so we're not getting temporary housing for a while, if at all."

"Well, you could stay with us," Ariana suggested just as Kayla caught up with her. "We've got plenty of room." He looked between Ariana and Kayla and glanced down at Sophia, who was looking hopefully up at him.

"Well, I... I suppose we could..." he paused. "I don't even know your names."

"I'm Ariana," the redhead said brightly. "And this is my girlfriend, Kayla. She's really nice once you get to know her."

"Well... I'm Mike and this is my daughter, Sophie." he said, pointing toward the blonde. "Where, exactly, do you live anyway?"

"In Warehouse 15," said Ariana proudly.

"Well, in what used to be the offices above it," Kayla put in helpfully. "It's not what you think. It's actually pretty nice."

"Everyone's welcome," said Ariana. "We've got plenty of room."

"Well, there are several other families that could use a place to stay," said Mike thoughtfully. "If you have room...?" Ariana smiled brightly.

"More than enough,"

-.-

Forty-two people agreed to come and stay at the warehouse. The families loaded up their cars and, after a trip to a local sporting goods store where Ariana purchased large tents, camping cots, portable stoves, lanterns, and small heaters, returned to the warehouse. Kayla supervised the construction of what many were already calling Tent City a good distance away from the apartment, in the middle of the warehouse floor.

After making sure that everyone was happy with their temporary arrangements, she left them to their own devices and headed back up to the apartment. Ariana stood at the sink, busily washing dishes. She looked up at Kayla as she entered and smiled.

"Hey, sweetie," she said brightly. "Everyone settled in?"

"Just about," said Kayla, plopping herself on the sofa. "Ari... I gotta say... I love that you want to help people. It's a great thing, babe, really... but now we've got forty-two strangers living under our roof."

"So?" said Ariana, drying her hands and coming over to sit beside Kayla.

"Well, we don't know them, Ari. We could've just brought dangerous people to our home,"

"Not everyone in the world is like Dwayne, Kay-Kay," said Ariana. "Besides, almost all of them have kids... not that that necessarily means anything, but... it'll be okay."

"I hope so," said Kayla. Ariana leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.

"Have a little faith, darling," she said warmly. She stood and headed for their bedroom. "You coming?"

"You go on ahead, babe," said Kayla quietly. "I'll be in soon," Ariana nodded and disappeared through the door. But Kayla didn't follow her for a long time. She sat there for over an hour, not getting up until long after Ariana had undoubtedly fallen asleep.

At long last, she stood and started for the bedroom. She stopped, however, and walked back over to the door to the warehouse floor and locked it. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was about to go terribly wrong. She wasn't sure why, but something about the people downstairs scared her.

She was almost to the bedroom when a knock came at the fire escape door. Kayla walked over and pulled the door open, her hand gripping her pistol where it was tucked into the back of her jeans. A tall man stood at the threshold. He wore thin glasses and had shaggy brown hair. Perhaps it was her already heightened feeling of danger close by, but Kayla felt immensely concerned that this man was here for less than friendly reasons.

“Who the hell are you?” she asked, shifting slightly to more fully block the doorway. The man cleared his throat.

“My name is Bradley Pinder,” he said. “I’m here looking for a girl. Her name is Ariana Laine.”

10: Chapter X: Whatever Happened to Ariana Laine
Chapter X: Whatever Happened to Ariana Laine

"Why do you want to see her?" Kayla demanded, glaring at Bradley Pinder. Kayla was immensely suspicious of the man. Ariana had never made mention of him, nor had anyone ever come calling for the redhead either.

"I haven't seen her in a year," he said. "She was a patient of mine." Kayla's eyes narrowed.

"You're a doctor?" she asked.

"A psychiatrist, actually," he replied. "I was the doctor responsible for her rehabilitation after she was rescued. Once she was released from the hospital, she was sent directly to me."

"Rescued?" said Kayla sharply. "Rehabilitation? What are you talking about?" Dr. Pinder shook his head.

"So, she hasn't told you then," he said slowly. He looked suddenly quite uncomfortable. "I'm not sure how much I should tell you. I don't even know who you are."

"My name is Kayla Austin, I'm Ariana's girlfriend," Kayla said quickly. "I live here at the warehouse with her." Dr. Pinder smiled.

"We wondered if Ariana would ever form such a complex relationship," he said. "I'm glad to see she did. Ms. Austin, is she here? I'd really like to speak with her."

"First, you tell me what happened to her," said Kayla sharply. "I don't want you to upset her. She was really distressed today and I don't want to add to it right now. You tell me what happened and afterwards I'll decide if I want you to see her."

"Fine," said Dr. Pinder. "But could I come inside? It's bloody freezing out here!" Kayla stood back from the door and let him in. Dr. Pinder walked over to the couch and sat down. Kayla closed the door and sat down on the far end of the couch from the doctor and looked at him expectantly. He cleared his throat nervously.

"Firstly, you have to understand that by telling you any of this, I will be violating every doctor-patient confidentiality regulation in the book," said Dr. Pinder, looking slightly nervous. "I've only agreed to this because I'm hoping that by doing so, we will be able to help Ariana continue to heal. Her well-being, quite frankly, is worth more to me than my career." He looked down at the floor, seemingly lost for where to begin.

"Okay, Ms. Austin," he said, looking up at Kayla. "I want you to know that some of the things I'm going to tell you are really... unpleasant. Honestly, I still dream about some of the things I saw when I was with her."

"I can handle it," said Kayla. “It can’t be any worse than what I’ve imagined.” Dr. Pinder nodded slowly, his expression grim.

“It is,” His words hung in the air for a long moment. Kayla said nothing at all, she just waited for him to continue.

"Okay... well, I guess I should start by saying that Ariana is a very broken young girl. Her father, Adrian Laine, was the person who single-handedly destroyed her." Kayla leaned forward, her interest rising to insatiable levels now.

"How did he...?"

"He kept her locked in a closet roughly three feet by four feet. He never left anything in the closet except Ariana herself and a single video camera mounted to the wall. He recorded constantly. There were no lights, so she lived in essentially complete darkness."

"She's terrified of the dark," said Kayla emotionlessly. "She had what I can only describe as a panic attack the first day I met her. The warehouse blew a fuse and she just... my God, what happened to her?" Dr. Pinder shook his head sadly.

"Be easier to tell you what didn't happen to her," he said quietly. "I watched the videos, Kayla... all of them. Her father tortured her. In her early years he beat her, burned her, cut her... When she was a little older, he started raping her."

"My God..." Kayla groaned. Dr. Pinder nodded.

"Yes, the videos show he took great pleasure in rape. He taught her to... say things during these... hell, assaults is all you can call them. He made her beg him to have sex with her, to... well, it's really too much to think about. I'll never forget the first time I watched the videos Adrian recorded." He visibly shuddered.

"He had a sick obsession with her hands," he said after a few moments of silence. "He would use a drill on her hands... drill through her palms or nail her hands to the wall above her head."

"Jesus..." Kayla whispered, holding a hand to her mouth. 

"There's more, unfortunately," said Dr. Pinder. "You won't have noticed, but all of Ariana's fingers have been broken repeatedly between the second and third knuckle. The son of a bitch liked to put her hands in the door jam and slam the door. The bastard did it over, and over, and over again. That little girl... I don't think I've ever heard anyone scream so loudly before." The doctor broke off, seemingly unable to say any more.

Kayla stood up and began to pace, a rage unlike she had ever known coursing through her. She tried briefly to come up with a word to describe her boiling rage, but none came to her. She wanted to tear something apart, to destroy everything around her just to release the anger. Some sick motherfucker had tormented Ariana. The man who was supposed to protect her, love her, and treat her like a princess had utterly destroyed her.

"Tell me he's dead," said Kayla, rounding on the doctor. "Please, tell me somebody killed that bastard or I swear to God I'll find him and kill him myself!" Dr. Pinder sighed and shook his head.

"He's serving fifteen consecutive life sentences in Stonewall, the maximum security prison upstate. There's no possibility of parole, Kayla. He'll die in that place."

"Not good enough," said Kayla, beginning to pace again, now even faster than before. "What's his name? I'll visit him... shoot the fucker through the glass when I'm talking to him on those stupid telephones!"

"Well, firstly, that glass is bulletproof," said Dr. Pinder calmly. "And good luck getting a gun into a maximum security prison. Kayla, I know you're angry, but Stonewall is a miserable place. I don't imagine you've ever been in a prison like that, but they aren't any fun I promise. He's not sitting around having a good time up there."

"I don't care," Kayla hissed. She glared at him. "How long? How long did he... did he..."

"He kept all of the video recordings of every single day he kept her in that room," said Dr. Pinder. "From age three to age fourteen. She was rescued five weeks before her fifteenth birthday."

"Eleven years?!" Kayla burst out furiously. Dr. Pinder nodded. "Fuck..." Kayla whispered. She sank slowly back onto the sofa.

"How?" Kayla asked suddenly. "How did no one notice that he was keeping a girl locked in a closet for eleven years?"

"That's a question I can't answer, Kayla," said Dr. Pinder quietly. "Nor can I tell you why Adrian did the things he did to his little girl."

"Poor kid..." Kayla whispered. "I... I knew whatever happened to Ariana was bad, I... I could feel it, but I never, ever imagined something like this." She looked up at Dr. Pinder, finally losing the battle to hold back her tears. "Is there more?" Dr. Pinder sighed.

"Kayla, I could sit here for hours and tell you about the tortures Adrian inflicted upon his daughter. The images from those videos are permanently burned into my brain. But what good would it do? You know the truth, you hardly need the details."

"Do you still have the tapes?" Kayla asked.

"I do, and no you may not see them." said Dr. Pinder. "There are things on those tapes, Kayla... things you simply don't need to see. If you start down that road... if you sit night after night watching a little girl crying in pain, alone in the dark... or watch a man burn that little girl with cigarettes while she's screaming for him to stop... your rage will just keep building. I know mine certainly did." Kayla knew she wasn't getting the tapes and in truth she didn't really want to see what was on them. She just felt that, if she watched them, she might at least begin, in some small way, to grasp exactly what Ariana had gone through.

"What about her mother?" Kayla asked abruptly.

"She's dead," said Dr. Pinder. "That's when Ariana escaped. Her father had a lot of guns. He'd threaten to shoot her all the time. One night he was really drunk. He raped Ariana while his wife watched. She watched most of the time, really. She often held Ariana down if she struggled, but she never actually harmed Ariana herself. Anyway, Adrian laid one of his pistols on the floor and... Ariana picked it up and shot her mother in the head."

"Oh, shit..." Kayla whispered.

"I have no idea if she meant to do it or if she even realized what a gun did," said Dr. Pinder. "In none of our sessions did she ever agree to speak about it."

"So, what happened?" Kayla asked. "How was she rescued? What did her dad do after Ariana shot her mom?" Dr. Pinder bowed his head.

"He ripped the gun out of her hand and shot her in the stomach," he said tonelessly. "Then he laughed. He just sat back and laughed until the police arrived. The neighbors called them when they heard gunshots coming from the house next door. They busted in when no one came to the door, and... well, you know what they found.

"Adrian was arrested and Ariana was rushed to the hospital. She survived, but she was very lucky to have done so. She came very close to dying. After she recovered from her physical injuries, she was brought to me to help heal the rest of her.

"Now, Kayla... you have to understand that Ariana did not develop like a normal girl. When she emerged from that hell, she literally knew nothing about... anything. Her parents had taught her only that she was meant to have sex with Adrian and pretend to enjoy it. Her entire world consisted of the closet, a video camera, her parents, and the long, white hallway outside her closet door. Until she was fourteen, she never knew anything other than that existed in the world.

"We were forced to start from scratch, but we had a problem. Ariana wanted to go home. Here's the really sick part of all this. Ariana loved her father, and I'm talking devoted love. She practically worshipped him."

"She worshipped the man who tortured her?" Kayla asked disbelievingly.

"It isn't that uncommon, even in kidnappings," said Dr. Pinder. "But in Ariana's case, it was different. She had been taught that this was her purpose. Her father was everything that mattered to her. She loved him because he hurt her. In her mind, it made sense. To break that took a long time and a lot of hard work for everyone involved. But we did it and as Ariana began to heal, her thirst for knowledge took hold.

"Ariana isn't stupid, Kayla. Truthfully, she's brilliant. She loves books..." Kayla laughed in spite of everything.

"Yeah, you should see her library downstairs."

"She read every book she could get her hands on. She learned to read in a matter of weeks and devoured everything from history books to Harry Potter. She loves to learn and she wanted to just know things. Her recovery was going so well, and we were all so impressed and happy with her progress. But then her grandfather on her father’s side who was her only surviving family member... died. He had taken her in after everything happened and Ariana had immediately taken to him. They grew close very quickly and she really loved him in a healthy way... and then he died and she was devastated.

"Ariana left the program. She was there voluntarily, so we couldn't keep her against her will. She left and never came back. That was a year ago... and it's taken me until tonight to track her down. I can still help her heal, I so want to help her if you'll both let me." Kayla nodded slowly.

"It's up to her," said Kayla. "If she wants to go back with you, I wouldn't try to stop her. But I'm not going to tell her about this tonight. I'll talk to her tomorrow and we'll see what she wants to do. I still need time to sort through all this myself... I'm not gonna dump this on her tonight." Dr. Pinder nodded.

"I understand, Kayla," he said. He stood up slowly and reached into his coat pocket. He took out and business card and a folded up piece of paper and held them both out to her.

"This is my card. Call me once you've spoken with her, regardless of what you both decide. And this is Ariana's grandfather's will. He left her..."

"Two old warehouses," said Kayla. "Yeah, I know about that. Ariana sold one and kept this one." Kayla paused, smiling slightly. "She kept this once because it's red. She likes red."

"She always did," said Dr. Pinder fondly. "But, no... he left her far more than two warehouses. Ariana just never claimed anything else. He left her a massive estate in the Hamptons and over a quarter of a billion dollars. He sold all the shares he had in his company and put it in an account for Ariana to receive after his death. She knows, she's just never claimed it. Everything is still waiting for her." Kayla just shrugged. After everything else, this news seemed trivial, unimportant.

"That's her decision too," she said plainly. "I'm sure she has her reasons for it."

"I'm sure she does," said Dr. Pinder. "Well, I suppose I ought to be going. I've relived enough painful memories for one night." Kayla stood and walked him to the door.

"I'll call you after I've spoken with Ariana," said Kayla. Dr. Pinder nodded.

"Thank you, Ms. Austin,"

"Thank you," said Kayla firmly. "For... everything you ever did for her." Dr. Pinder didn't seem to have a response to that. He just nodded and headed down the fire escape steps. Kayla closed the door and slammed her fist against it.

"Fuck..." she whispered. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"

"Kayla?" said a soft voice behind her. Kayla slowly turned around. Ariana stood near the sofa, staring at her with those innocent blue eyes. One look into those gorgeous eyes and Kayla knew that Ariana had heard every word that they had said.

Kayla didn't know what to do. For the first time in a very long time she had absolutely no game plan. She didn't know what to say or think or do. Part of her wanted to rush over and hug the redhead while another part of her wanted to stay as far away as possible. Ariana was the one who broke the awkward silence. She spoke quietly, tears suddenly brimming in her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Kayla," she said, her gaze locked on Kayla's knees.

"You... you're sorry? What on earth do you have to be sorry for?" Ariana looked very sad indeed. She sat down on the sofa but when she spoke, she still didn't meet Kayla's gaze.

"I never wanted you to know... any of that," she said softly. "I never wanted you to... to look at me like that."

"Like what?" Kayla asked.

"Like I'm... broken, something delicate and fragile that you have to tiptoe around. Everyone I meet thinks I'm... it's obvious I'm not normal, but you never make me feel like that. Now... now you're scared to even touch me."

"No..." said Kayla, immediately rushing over and sitting next to the redhead. "Ari, I... I love you. And it doesn't matter what everyone else thinks, not after... look, if anyone has a right to be a little different, it's you. You... God, Ari, I don't know how you survived that. If it had been me I think I'd have rather died."

"I did," said Ariana quietly. "I did want to die, Kayla. I told you so. After my granddad died, I wanted to."

"I know, but I meant before that," said Kayla. "I meant... it doesn't matter. None of it matters as long as you're okay. That's all I care about, Ari."

"I'm okay now, Kayla," said Ariana, reaching out and taking the brunette's hand. "I'm okay because of you. I was so alone before you came along, but now... now you're here and everything is... so much better. It'll never be perfect, and Kayla... you need to know that I'll never be completely right. But every single day I'll get a little bit better because I have you."

Kayla wasn't a crier, she wasn't sure she had ever shed a single tear over Claire's death, but right then and there she was bawling like a baby. She leaned forward and hugged Ariana tightly. Right then she wanted nothing more than to gather Ariana in her arms and protect her from the whole world, even though she knew she couldn't.

They stayed like that for a long time, just the two of them, sitting there on the sofa wrapped up in each other. Each of them focusing on the one thing in their lives that made them happy, that kept them going; each other.

They retreated to their bedroom where they lay in bed chatting about nothing in particular. Kayla was doing her best not to think about everything she had learned that night. She didn't want to think about any of it. She wanted to think of Ariana as the sweet, bubbly girl she had fallen in love with, not the broken, tortured wreck of a little girl who had never been loved that Ariana really was.

But Kayla's thoughts finally settled on one irrefutable fact; Ariana was still there. She had survived. She was happy and they were together. Ariana was safe now and Kayla would fight a million battles, brave the fires of Hell, and defy God himself to protect her. Kayla swore, then and there, early on that cold December morning just before dawn, that Ariana would never suffer another day in her life. Kayla would shield her from it all. No matter the cost.

Kayla looked down at Ariana and found that she had fallen asleep. She couldn't be sure, but judging by the thin smile on those full lips, for once she wasn't having a nightmare. Kayla closed her eyes, fixing the image of that smile in her mind. It was the last thing she remembered before she fell asleep.

11: Chapter XI: The Greatest Gift
Chapter XI: The Greatest Gift

Ariana was so unbelievably warm and cozy when she awoke the following morning that she didn't want to move. She didn't at all until she felt someone gently stroking her palm with their fingertips. Ariana opened her eyes and found Kayla lying beside her, holding her left hand in her right while brushing her fingertips around the small scar on her palm.

"Morning," said Ariana quietly, drawing the brunette's attention.

"Morning," Kayla replied, briefly looking up from the redhead's hand.

"You didn't sleep at all, did you?" Ariana asked softly, looking sadly up at the brunette. Kayla shook her head.

"Not really," she replied. "A couple of hours. Kept having bad dreams... thoughts running through my mind..."

"Kay-Kay... it's over," Ariana said, gently pulling her hand free of Kayla's. "He can't hurt me anymore and staring at my hand isn't going to make my scars go away. It happened, sweetie, you can't change it."

"I'm not trying to change it, I... I want to understand it," said Kayla quietly. Ariana nodded. That was something she could understand. She couldn't understand everything that had happened to her herself, much less help someone else understand.

"I can't help you understand, Kayla," said Ariana gently. "I just... can't. I know you're angry. You protect me, you always do and you're mad that there's nothing you can do. He hurt me, Kayla. He hurt me a lot... but you weren't there and I'm safe now." She smiled warmly and reached up to stroke the brunette's cheek. "I'm safe because you're here. You protect me." Kayla managed a thin smile.

"Damn right I do," she said. She fell back against the pillows and sighed. "I'm just... Your father did things that no decent person would ever think of. Prison is too good for him. He deserves to suffer like you did." Ariana fixed Kayla with a stern stare. She had seen that look in the other girl's eyes before and she knew that it wouldn't end well.

"Whatever you're thinking of doing, don't do it. Kay-Kay, I'm serious..."

"I'm not thinking about doing anything, Ari," said Kayla firmly. Ariana rolled her eyes.

"Right," said the redhead. "Because you're already done thinking about it and have decided to do it."

"I haven't decided to do anything," said Kayla. "I just... I need some time to think. I want to take a drive, clear my head before my brain explodes."

"Then go," Ariana insisted. "Go for a drive then. You've been wanting to take the car out anyway, right? Go do that, calm down while you're at it, and then come back home. I'll bake cookies!" Ariana climbed out of bed, circled around to Kayla's side and kissed her warmly on the forehead. She then turned and bounded out of the bedroom.

-.-

Much of the snow had melted in recent days, and although another storm was due to pass through before Christmas, for the moment the roads were fairly clear. Kayla took Ariana's advice and pulled the Mclaren out of the warehouse. She put the car on a northerly course and drove.

The sun was high and the skies were clear and blue, so once out on the open roads heading upstate, she lowered the car's convertible top and gunned it. The car's massive V8 roared in anger... no, it wasn't angry. It was pissed, just like Kayla was. Speeding along, Kayla clicked on the radio and settled back in her seat as she selected a station and the music began to play.

Someone told me long ago,
There’s a calm before the storm, I know!

It’s been comin’ for some time.

When it’s over, so they say,
It’ll rain a sunny day, I know
Shinin’ down like water.

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain,
Comin’ down, a sunny day?

She hadn’t even meant to do it, not really. She had just been planning to take a drive and clear her head, but then she saw the sign on the roadside and knew what she had to do… where she had to go. She drove faster.

Yesterday, and days before,
Sun is cold and rain is hard, I know!
Been that way for all my time

Till forever on it goes,
Through the circle, fast and slow, I know
It can’t stop, I wonder

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain,
Coming down, a sunny day?

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain,

Coming down, a sunny day?

Kayla drove for over an hour until she reached the exit she was looking for. She pulled off of the highway and quickly arrived at her destination; Stonewall Prison.

-.-

Back at the warehouse, Ariana was happily baking the cookies she had promised Kayla. Cooking, Ariana had found, was soothing. Whenever she was scared, or worried, or nervous, she would cook and whatever was bothering her would fade from her mind… and right then she had a lot that she was worried about.

She knew Kayla very well. Although she knew Kayla wouldn’t want to admit it, she was a lot like Sophia’s father, Mike. When she or someone she cared about was threatened, she just reacted… often without thinking. This was particularly true when it came to Ariana herself. Kayla was immensely protective, to the point that Ariana knew Kayla would happily kill for her. Had she not intervened, Ariana was certain Kayla would have shot Mike the previous night.

Of course, it was because of Claire. Kayla had lost Claire and now she was afraid of losing anything else that she let herself love. Ariana had absolutely no idea how to help her. She knew that Kayla had never properly grieved for Claire. She’d been on the run ever since her death; she hadn’t even been able to attend her funeral.

But what could Ariana do? How could she help her friend grieve? And then she had an idea. She spent several hours on the phone, making calls and setting everything up. It was far more than she would have been able to do on her own several weeks ago. Selling the second warehouse had been almost too much for her to handle by herself, even with a very helpful real estate agent, but the idea of doing all of this on her own would have just been too much.

But it wasn’t anymore. Somehow, she could do it now without worry. She wasn’t… afraid anymore. Before Kayla, she had been terrified of, well, everything… but now, the fear was gone. She smiled to herself as she went about cleaning up the kitchen. Maybe Kayla being so protective wasn’t such a bad thing after all. She knew that none of the scary things out in the world could ever touch her now. She had a guardian angel watching over her.

-.-

Kayla parked the Mclaren in the visitor’s lot and marched toward the prison like she owned the place, ignoring the officers outside some of whom were staring at the quarter million dollar car and the rest who were staring at the pretty but extremely pissed girl walking toward them.

Once inside, she found the officer responsible for visitations and marched up to his desk.

“I’m here to see Adrian Laine,” she said, remembering to check her anger at the door. This wasn’t the place to act like a bitch, no matter how pissed off she was. The officer lazily pressed a few buttons on his computer.

“What’s your name, miss?” he asked her, sounding immensely bored. Kayla paused. Giving him her real name could be a death sentence. To her knowledge, no law enforcement agency other than the Detroit PD was looking for her and even they didn’t know her name and probably only had the roughest of descriptions of her. Still, she often feared that Dwayne had tried to frame her for Claire’s murder or simply told the truth about her rampage through Dwayne’s own home. Her mother had told her that Dwayne had blamed his own brother Marcus for Claire’s murder, which wasn’t a lie, and told police that it was also Marcus who did the killings that Kayla was responsible for and that Dwayne himself had shot and killed his brother to stop him.

He hadn’t done any of this to protect Kayla, of course, but to protect himself… and she suspected he didn’t want the police to catch her. He wanted that pleasure for himself. Regardless, Kayla wasn’t willing to take the risk of her name being at the top of the Most Wanted list.

“Rachel Greene,” she said, reaching into her purse and retrieving one of the IDs she had used when she had been on the run. The officer took the ID and looked back at his computer for a moment before shaking his head.

“I’m sorry, but you’re not on Laine’s approved visitor list,” he said firmly. “I can’t let you see him.”

“Well, can’t you ask him and see if he’ll agree to see me?” Kayla pleaded. “Tell him… tell him I’m a friend of his daughter, Ariana Laine.” The officer looked irritated that this girl would not just take no for an answer and scram, but he stood to his feet and walked away. He returned a few minutes later, nodding.

“He’ll see you,” he said briskly.

-.-

Meanwhile, at the warehouse, Ariana was wondering what she should do with herself that afternoon. She hadn’t been separated from Kayla for three full weeks. She had gotten used to having the other girl around and wasn’t sure what to do now that she was alone.

But then she remembered that she was not, in fact, alone. She had guests! All of the people down in Tent City were there. She could go and see what they were doing. She had just stood up from the sofa and turned toward the door to the warehouse floor when a knock came at the very same door.

Ariana rushed over and pulled the door open. She had expected to meet someone either her height or taller than her, most people tended to be taller than her, so at first she didn’t see anyone. Then she looked down and found Sophia smiling brightly up at her.

“Hi!” she said happily.

“Hi, sweetie,” said Ariana brightly, but then her face fell. “Does your dad know you’re up here?”

“Not exactly,” said Sophia, looking quite guilty. “He went back home with some other people to see if they could find anything else from the fire. He left me with the Swansons, but they said I could come see you!”

“Well… okay,” Ariana held the door open and let Sophia in. She closed the door behind her and followed the little girl over to the sofa, where she had spotted Fluffers and made a beeline for him. By the time Ariana reached her, Sophia was already stroking the cat’s thick fur. Fluffers had rolled onto his side and was purring as though he were in heaven.

“He’s so pretty,” said Sophia, looking up at Ariana. “What’s his name?”

“Fluffers McMuffins,” Ariana replied. Sophia’s eyes lit up.

“That’s the best name for a cat ever!” she exclaimed.

“I know!” Ariana said happily. Most people would disagree with that point, but none of them were there right then to interject, most particularly Kayla. “Oh! Hey, I baked some cookies? Would you like one?”

“Just one?” Sophia asked innocently.

“Or a few,” said Ariana lightly. “We’ve just got to save some for Kayla. I promised her I’d have some for her when she gets home.”

“She hit my dad,” said Sophia as Ariana crossed the room to retrieve the plate of cookies and a couple of juice boxes. Ariana sighed sadly.

“Yes… she did,” Ariana said. “But she’s really sorry. She was just trying to protect me.”

“I know,” said Sophia. “My dad overreacts a lot. He gets mad really easily. He needs therapy.” Ariana giggled.

“You’re a pretty clever girl,” Sophia grinned.

“I know,”

-.-

Kayla stood beside a table in the visitation room. She had been waiting there, alone save for a pair of guards flanking the entrance behind her, for ten minutes before a door at the far end of the room opened and another pair of officers led a man in a tan jumpsuit toward her. Kayla hadn't been sure what to expect when it came to Ariana's father, but the tall, handsome man striding toward her had certainly not been her first thought.

Adrian Laine was brought over to the table. He sat down in the seat and the guards shackled him to the table by both his arms and his legs.

'Don't,' Kayla thought savagely. 'Let him attack me. Let him try... it'll give me a chance to kill the bastard.'

"You have thirty minutes," said one of the guards. He and his partner turned and left the room. Kayla looked down at the chair placed across from Adrian. She moved toward it, fully aware that he was staring at her.

"They said you know my daughter," said Adrian. His voice was deep, but smooth. It cracked through the air like a bullet through glass. His piercing blue eyes, virtually identical to Ariana's, held none of her warmth. It was like staring into a mirror image of her girlfriend, a dark version.

"She's my best friend," said Kayla, sitting down across from him and leaning back in the chair. She just stared at him for a long time, unspeaking. A thousand thoughts raced through her mind as she tried to decide what to do now that she was here. Adrian looked as though he was about to ask what she had come for if she wasn't going to say anything when she at last spoke up.

"I know what you did to her," she said plainly. "I know the hell you put that girl through. I spent the entire trip up here thinking about what I was going to do. I kept swapping between screaming at you or just coming across this table and doing my damnedest to break your skull open against the floor before those guards over there can pull me away. But now that I'm here, I just want to ask you one question. All I want to know is why? Why did you do it?" Adrian leaned forward, his eyebrows knitting together.

"Your name is Rachel, right?" he asked. She nodded. "Rachel, I can never make you understand this. Once, I thought I was truly evil, but I have come to realize that I am not. I have found salvation in Christ Jesus. He has purged the Devil, who caused me to act the way I did, from my body. I'm free of his darkness now."

"So that's you're story? 'The Devil made me do it?' Well, I don't know much about God, but I know He requires you to own your sins before He'll forgive you. You can't pass your shit to somebody else and expect God to let you off the hook."

"I've been forgiven, Rachel. That's all that matters."

"The fuck it is!" Kayla exclaimed. "You tormented a little girl! She... God! Ariana is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. She's amazing. She has the kindest, purest, most loving heart of anyone in the world. I don't deserve her. I never will. She loves everyone, even those who don't deserve it. You... can't be forgiven... not for harming something so pure, so innocent. But it doesn't matter, because not once have you said that you're sorry for what you did." Adrian smiled slightly, tilting his head to one side. Those eyes, so like Ariana's, bore into Kayla's.

"You're a pretty clever girl, Rachel," said Adrian, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table. "I'm not sorry for what I did. That little slut was born to serve at my pleasure. Why do you think my wife and I made her? She was created with no other purpose in mind... and I've got to say, we did a damn good job. She's a fine piece of ass..."

Kayla stood up so abruptly that her chair was knocked backwards and fell over. She longed to lunge forward, to rip this monster's throat out, but the thought of Ariana, surprisingly, stayed her hand. She stood there, positively shaking with rage, doing nothing but focusing on the image of Ariana's face in her mind. It was enough. It calmed her.

"See?" said Adrian. "You agree. Sit down, Rachel. Please, let me tell you about it. Don't you want to hear all my stories? I can tell you exactly what it felt like to fuck her. Oh, Ariana... you were right Rachel, she is beautiful. Sexual perfection. Goodness, the feeling of that pussy... perfectly tight, warm and welcoming... like she was made for me to fuck. Hmm... I guess she was. I can still hear that sweet little voice, screaming... begging me to fuck her. She begged me, Rachel. She wanted her daddy to fuck her."

"Fuck you," Kayla hissed, slamming her fist on the table in outrage. "You're a sick, twisted fuck and one day I promise you that I will have the immense pleasure of watching you die. I just hope it's at my hand."

"Release your hatred, Rachel," said Adrian lightly. "It's going to destroy you, dear." Kayla had nothing else to say and she had certainly heard enough. She turned away and marched out of the door.

Out in the car, she sat breathing heavily, trying to will herself to relax. She had never been this angry, ever. Not even when she had stormed Dwayne's house had she been so furious. Her heart beat fiercely against her chest and her vision was tinged with red. She reached over and wrenched open the glove box. She took her pistol out and had already checked the chamber when she realized how stupid she was being.

Adrian deserved to die, certainly... more so than most men. However, she wouldn't make it past the front doors with a gun and even if she could she wasn't sure if she would ever be able to look Ariana in the eye again if she killed him.

She slammed the gun back into the glove box and fired up the engine. She put the car back on the road toward home without a backwards glance at the prison. She sincerely hoped she would never lay eyes on Adrian Laine again. She hoped in vain.

-.-

At the warehouse, Ariana and Sophia were engaged in a fierce game of tag. Ariana was losing. Sophia, it turned out, was quite quick. The girls had just fallen, giggling madly, onto the sofa when the door to the warehouse floor opened and Kayla came in. She arched her eyebrows at the pair of them, but she smiled as she walked over. Ariana stood up and let Kayla engulf her in a tight hug. The kiss they shared was brief, but filled with a kind of passion Ariana hadn't been expecting. It was fierce, filled with a terrible longing.

"I missed you too," said Ariana, grinning shyly. "Feeling any better?"

"Actually, yeah," said Kayla. "Much,"

"Good," said Ariana "I'm glad."

"Me too," Kayla replied. She looked down at Sophia. "Hey, sweetie. Looks like you've been having fun. Ariana been keeping you company?"

"Yep!" said the blonde. "She's the best babysitter ever!" Ariana blushed while Kayla smiled.

"Yeah, well, just don't let her start feeding you," she said slyly. "You'll never stop eating, I promise."  

"I already had some cookies," said Sophia, indicating the plate on the coffee table that still held several chocolate chip cookies.

"You're doomed," said Kayla. She kissed Ariana on the forehead and went to sit on the couch with Sophia as a knock came at the door. Ariana went over and opened it. Mike stood on the threshold looking disheveled and thoroughly miserable.

"Hey, Ariana," he said, his speech slightly slurred. "Is Sophia here? I was told she was here."

"Here, Daddy!" Sophia called, leaping from the sofa and running over. "Daddy, can Ariana babysit me all the time? She's awesome!"

"Well, I suppose... I mean, if you wouldn't mind...?" said Mike blearily. Ariana was positively delighted.

"I've love to have her anytime you need!" she exclaimed. "Just bring her by whenever."

"Thanks, Ariana," he said, nodding to her. "And you too Kayla," he added, waving to her. He put his hand on Sophia's shoulder and steered her out of the apartment.

"He's pretty hammered," said Kayla, the instant the door closed behind them.

"He smelt like beer," said Ariana, frowning. Kayla laughed.

"That's because he's been drinking quite a lot of it today, I'm afraid," she said lightly.

"Poor guy," said Ariana sadly. She wandered over to the sofa and sat down on the far end from Kayla. Kayla immediately found this odd because Ariana was incredibly clingy, almost always cuddling up to her when they watched TV together.

"What's wrong?" she asked, wondering if Ariana was angry with her for being gone for so long.

"Where did you go?" Ariana asked immediately.

"For a drive," Kayla lied, praying she sounded truthful. Ariana saw right through it.

"I might not be able to lie to you, Kayla Austin, but you can't lie to me either," the redhead snapped. "You've got a tell. You always look into my eyes when you talk to me unless you're lying... then you can't look at me. Where did you go, Kayla?" Kayla knew she was caught and couldn't possibly talk her way out.

"To Stonewall Prison," she said softly. "I went to see your father." She expected Ariana to get angry and shout at her, but she didn't.

"How was he?" she asked, sounding only vaguely interested.

"He's still the sick bastard who hurt you, Ari," said Kayla. "I didn't ask how he was doing. He's lucky I didn't shoot him."

"Kayla..."

"I wanted to, Ari. You just don't know how much I wanted to... but I thought of you, of the way you would look at me when you found out. I couldn't bear to have you look at me that way, so... so the asshole is still breathing."

"Well, thank you for not killing him," said Ariana. She looked rather nervous for a moment. "I don't want him dead, Kay-Kay. I've never wanted him dead. He doesn't deserve to die."

"How can you say that?" Kayla asked disbelievingly. "After what he did..."

"He’s still my dad,” said Ariana stiffly. “Whatever he did… whatever he is, he’s my dad… and I love him.” Kayla didn’t know what to say. Adrian didn’t deserve Ariana’s love, not even a tiny piece of it. But he had it. It was beyond wrong. It just made Kayla hate him even more.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” said Ariana, scooting closer to Kayla and resting her head on the brunette’s shoulder.

“Good, because I don’t,” said Kayla. “I doubt I ever will understand how you could still love him after all he did to you.” Ariana didn’t reply and Kayla didn’t press her to. Ariana still had her secrets and Kayla had to respect that. Ariana might not be the scared, broken girl she had met three weeks ago, but she was hardly whole. She had to let Ariana deal with things her own way. She tilted her head and kissed Ariana on the cheek. The redhead grinned.

“Kiss me like you did when you first came home,” Ariana whispered. Kayla did, and the rest of the night passed in a whirl of color and wonder.

-.-

Christmas was fast approaching, a holiday that Ariana was immensely excited about. By Christmas Eve, Ariana had personally decorated the apartment with a large Christmas tree and streamers of holly around the doors and poinsettias in baskets all around the place. Kayla had helped decorate the tree, which they placed in the far right side corner of the apartment. Fluffers had become overexcited by the pine needles and chased one of the plastic colored balls all around the room.

Ariana had even made sure that their guests down on the floor were in the Christmas spirit as well. She had purchased each family a tree of their own and a handful of gifts. Kayla had gone with Ariana when she had done the shopping for the gifts and she was certain she had never seen Ariana happier. With her loving and giving nature, Ariana was practically made for Christmas.

Kayla had also come to believe over the past week that Ariana was also made to be a mother. Sophia had spent virtually every day with them in the apartment and Ariana had taken to the role of a surrogate mother to the little girl with astounding enthusiasm. Not only did she put her whole heart into caring for Sophia, she was damn good at it too. Sophia always seemed happy, despite losing her home and everything she had ever known in the fire.

They also learned that less than a month before the fire, Sophia had lost her mother. Mike’s wife had died in a tragic car accident and Mike himself had almost immediately turned to the bottle, losing himself in the drink. Sophia said her dad often flew into a rage after he had been drinking for a while. While he had never even come close to hurting the little girl, the knowledge that Mike could get violent put both Kayla and Ariana a little on edge.

But on Christmas Eve night, less than an hour before midnight, Mike’s drinking habit was the farthest thing from Kayla’s mind. Ariana had insisted on giving her her present that night and that they had to drive to the local marina to pick it up. Kayla drove them to the marina and then they set off down a long pier, surrounded on either side by rows and rows of moored boats that ranged from tiny motor boats, to larger sail boats, to a couple of massive yachts that must have cost millions.

“Ari, what are we doing out here?” Kayla asked after a couple of minutes. It was well below freezing outside and she was really cold. “It’s freezing!”

“We’re almost there,” said Ariana, taking the brunette’s hand and urging her along. “C’mon!”

“I’m coming,” said Kayla. “If I stop walking I’m pretty sure I’ll freeze where I stand.”

They continued on for another few minutes until Ariana came to a halt at the last berth. She stopped near the bow of a massive, beautiful sloop-rigged sailing yacht. She had to be more than two hundred feet long and looked to be four decks high. Her hull rose high above them and her single mast; a pure white beam soared higher still. Her white and black two-toned hull shone brightly, even in the darkness.

“Okay, Ari,” said Kayla, turning her attention away from the ship. “Where is this gift?”

“You were just looking at it,” said Ariana warmly, nodding toward the yacht. Kayla shook her head.

“You bought me a boat?” Kayla asked incredulously. “Ari, a yacht like this costs millions of dollars!”

“Thirty-eight million, now that you mention it,” said Ariana lightly. “But don’t worry, I didn’t buy it.”

“Well, if you stole it you’re doing a terrible job,” said Kayla. “It’s not exactly hidden out here, is it?” Ariana sighed.

“I didn’t steal it,” she said briskly. “Remember when Dr. Pinder came to the warehouse? He gave you my grandfather’s will?”

“Yeah, he… he said he left you an estate in the Hamptons and like a quarter of a billion dollars, all of his personal wealth.”

“And apparently, this,” said Ariana, indicating the ship. “I called and found out exactly what he left me a week ago. It was… hard, but I did it. I started thinking how you never got to properly grieve for Claire and then I remembered my granddad’s will and I realized that I never grieved for him either. I just hid myself away in the warehouse and pretended it never happened… but it did. He’s gone but he wouldn’t want me to neglect the gift he gave me. So, I’m not going to. I’m going to do what he did and use the money to help people like he helped me. But first, I want to help you.” She walked over to the bow of the ship and stood there.

“Kayla, I wanted to do something to help you grieve for Claire… to find closure. So, I thought I could… well, that we could make a memorial to her. I found a way that you can remember her.” She gestured toward the ship’s bow above her head. Kayla looked up and finally saw the ship’s name, written in fancy golden lettering.

Claire,” Kayla whispered. Ariana nodded.

“I renamed her,” she said. “I don’t think my granddad would mind.” Hot tears welled in Kayla's eyes as she looked at the name. She caught sight of Ariana's face and noticed that she looked nervous.

"I... I didn't mean to make you cry," she said sadly. "I just wanted to..."

"Ari... this is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done," said Kayla thickly. "She... she'd love this. Claire loved boats. She... she..." Her emotions, which she so fiercely tried to keep in check, overwhelmed her and she broke down sobbing on Ariana's shoulder.

"I love you so much, Ari," Kayla whispered. She pulled away from the redhead and looked up at the ship. "Can we go inside?"

"She's our ship, after all," said Ariana. "Come on, let's take a look."

Ariana led Kayla across the gangway, up onto the ship's deck and into the main area of the ship.

"Holy..." Kayla whispered. The interior looked like the lobby of an incredibly fancy hotel. There was a sitting area to the left, complete with a pair of sofas and a number of large, very comfy looking chairs. On the other side was a dining table with seating for twelve and was complete with a fully stocked bar. In the back of the room was an entire wall of bookshelves filled with hundreds of books. Kayla suspected Ariana could spend years here just reading.

In the center of the room was a beautiful staircase that led to the lower decks where the full beam master suite and nine staterooms were located. Somewhere on the deck beneath that Kayla was certain she would find the engine room.

"We've got to take her to sea soon," said Kayla excitedly. “To the Caribbean or the Bahamas! Ooooh, or maybe Sydney! I've got a cousin down in Sydney, actually.”

“Those places sound so warm…” Ariana said wistfully.

“Then we’ll take a trip soon,” said Kayla. “What about a crew? There’s no way the two of us could sail this thing.”

“My granddad had a full staff on payroll,” said Ariana. “They’ve been automatically paid out of his personal funds ever since… which, considering the interest earned on that much money, they’re easily covered.”

“Well, we’ll have to get them out here soon,” said Kayla. She wandered over to one of the large chairs and sat down.

“Oh… now, this is luxury,” she said with a contented sigh. Ariana smiled and walked over to one of the many panoramic windows that lined both sides of the room and slid one open. Kayla stood up and went to join her.

The water was calm and as black as the skies above them. The air that wafted in was cold, but it was countered by the warmth of the ship. Somewhere in the city, church bells began to ring. Twelve distinct chimes. It signaled midnight. It was officially Christmas morning. Kayla noticed Ariana’s smile widen.

“I love Christmas,” she said softly. “It’s my favorite holiday,” She looked down at the water, suddenly looking rather sad. “It’s my birthday.”

“Oh, my God,” Kayla exclaimed. “Wow, I’m the worst girlfriend ever. I had no idea today was your birthday.” Ariana shrugged.

“I’ve never celebrated my birthday,” said Ariana quietly. “I mean, I was still recovering for the first year after I escaped from my parents… then, last year my grandfather had just died and I… I didn’t even really think about it.”

“Well, we’re celebrating it this year,” Kayla said firmly. “I’m going to throw you your very first birthday party… it’ll be a little impromptu, but we don’t really know that many people to invite.”

“We really should make new friends,” said Ariana thoughtfully. “The only person we know is Coop.”

“We’ll have to work on that. It’s a good New Year’s resolution,” said Kayla. She paused before reaching into her pocket.

“I was going to wait until we got back to the warehouse to give you this, but… well, I suppose now is as good a time as any.” She tugged a small black box out of her pocket.

“I… uh… I’m not really even sure what I’m wanting this to be,” she said, suddenly feeling far more nervous than she had thought she would. “Well, it’s…” She opened the box. Inside, perched atop a tiny silk cushion was a glimmering ring. The diamond was small, not remotely extravagant nor impressive, but Ariana’s face lit up as though Kayla had presented the Hope Diamond to her.

“Oh, Kayla…” Ariana breathed.

“I don’t know if I’m trying to propose… I mean, we can’t even get married in Michigan. I just… I really meant this as a promise to you. You said once that you were afraid that I would leave one day… well; this is my promise to you, Ari. I’m here and I’m never leaving. This is a promise that you and me, us… that we’re forever, okay?” Ariana didn’t seem to be able to speak. She just nodded as Kayla slipped the ring onto her finger.

“I know it’s not the biggest or the shiniest, and no gift is going to compare to what you did for me tonight, but…”

“It doesn’t matter how big it is,” said Ariana, finding her voice again, although it broke with emotion. “It doesn’t matter if you paid ten dollars or ten million dollars. Kayla, you already gave me the greatest gift you ever could give. You showed up on my doorstep a month ago… You gave me you.” Much like Ariana, Kayla didn’t know what to say. She just shared a kiss with the redhead and put her around her waist as they stared out at the beautiful black night.

“By the way,” said Ariana, a sly smile on her face. “If you had asked me… I would’ve said yes.” Kayla just grinned.

12: Chapter XII: Forever
Chapter XII: Forever

They spent the night aboard the Claire. Kayla was the first to wake the following morning. She lay in bed in the master suite, the golden glow of the early morning sun blazing through the wide windows. The ship was blissfully quiet so early in the morning. Kayla dozed lazily, entranced by the golden light shimmering off of Ariana's red hair that lay spread across her bare back.

Kayla reached over and nudged the sleeping girl. She didn't move. Kayla poked her again and this time she groaned and tried to wave Kayla away. Giggling, the brunette rolled onto her stomach and began tickling the redhead furiously. Ariana woke with a shriek and rolled onto her back, doing her very best to ward off the attack.

"Kayla!" Ariana shouted, struggling fruitlessly against the other girl's relentless assault. Kayla was far stronger than the wispy redhead. The poor girl didn't stand much of a chance.

"You... are a very bad girl, Kayla Austin," Ariana said breathlessly when Kayla finally ended her attack, straddling the redhead's hips while pinning her arms on either side of her head.

"And you love me for it," said Kayla sweetly. "And I happen to remember you being particularly bad yourself last night." Ariana blushed, looking very nervous in that cute way she often did.

"I wasn't... I didn't..." Kayla smirked.

"Oh, you did," she whispered. "You most certainly did, little girl. Please don't forget about it either. I'd really like you to do it again sometime."

"I'll try," said Ariana, sounding hopeful. Kayla grinned down at her. She leaned in and kissed her.

"Happy Birthday," she said softly.

"Merry Christmas," Ariana replied. She smiled contentedly and closed her eyes. Kayla rolled off of her and snuggled up next to her.

"You sure seem happy," said Kayla.

"It's my birthday," said Ariana. "I'm supposed to be happy."

"No, I... I know. I just meant that, well... You've been a little... melancholy recently." Ariana arched her eyebrows.

"Melancholy?" she repeated.

"Yeah, it means sad, depressed, downhearted..."

"I know what it means," Ariana interrupted. "I'm just surprised you said it. It's not a Kayla word."

"I have words?" Kayla asked, perplexed.

"Sure," said Ariana pointedly. "Everyone has words. Like, you know, particular words that you use. Kinda like I call you Kay-Kay but no one else does? Oh, and you like to call me ‘kiddo’, but you’re the only one who does. Melancholy isn't one of your words."

"I swear we're spending too much time together," said Kayla with a grin. "Because that actually made perfect sense."

"I make sense sometimes," said Ariana lightly. Kayla couldn't disagree with that. The girl certainly made far more sense than Kayla had ever expected she would.

"What I meant was that you seem different," said Kayla delicately. "When we met you used to say things about unicorns and cheese wheels... you don't do that so much any more. You're more serious and you just seem... sad."

"I'm not sad, Kayla," said Ariana firmly. "And I talk about unicorns all the time. I asked you just last night if we could keep one as a pet but you said we aren't allowed to have one inside the city limits."

"Uh... yeah, right," said Kayla. She hadn't had the heart to tell Ariana that creatures like unicorns did not, in fact, exist. "All I meant was that you seem different."

"I am different, Kay-Kay," said Ariana, smiling slightly. "I told you, I'm getting better."

"And I'm glad," Kayla replied. "I guess you're always so bubbly that if you slip even a little bit then I notice."

"Well, I'm glad you pay attention," said Ariana brightly. She sat up in bed, the blankets falling from her bare body. She stood up went about searching for her clothes.

"You don't need those," said Kayla, yawning widely and stretching. "I like you better this way." Ariana smirked at her over her shoulder.

"I bet you do," she said sweetly. "But the police don't..."

"Eh... we can outrun them," said Kayla carelessly. "We'll blind them with your nakedness and make a break for the car."

"We're going to not do that," said Ariana, tugging on her panties and peering under the bed for her bra. "I don't want to go to jail."

"I'm not sure they take you to prison for public indecency," said Kayla thoughtfully. "I'm pretty sure they just fine you."

"Well, I don't want to be fined," said Ariana, finally locating the missing undergarment dangling from a decorative light fixture on the wall. "How did this get...?"

"Don't... even ask," said Kayla with a shrug.

Once Ariana managed to coax Kayla out of bed, and when they had successfully located all of their scattered clothes, they left the ship and headed back to the warehouse. The roads on the way were fairly clear of both traffic and snow, although another batch of the latter was due later that evening. Ariana was immensely excited about having a white Christmas. Kayla, meanwhile, had had more than enough snow to last her a lifetime and could simply not wait for spring.

When they arrived at the warehouse, they were surprised to find a news van from a local station parked outside and a camera crew setting up just inside the open cargo doors. A young female reporter was interviewing the McAlister family under the stairs near where Kayla kept her bike.

"What is all this?" Kayla asked, driving the car past the news crew and parking it in the usual spot. Ariana shrugged and unclasped her seat belt.

"How should I know?" Ariana inquired. "I've been with you all this time." Kayla shook her head.

"I meant... I didn't... It was rhetorical, Ari," she said, pushing open the door and climbing out. "What is this?" she demanded, marching toward the reporter. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" 

“We’re here to do a story on the families put out on the street by the apartment fire a couple of weeks ago,” said the reporter. She held out her hand for Kayla to shake. “Tina Tanaka, Action 16 News.”

“Juliet Burke,” said Kayla, saying the first name that came to her mind from her stack of fake IDs. The last thing she needed was for her name to be broadcast on live TV for the world to see. She shook Tanaka’s hand. “You could have called first.”

“Don’t be rude,” said Ariana, hurrying over and shaking the reporter’s hand as well. “It’s nice to meet you, Tina. I’m Ariana,”

“Well, you’re who we’re looking for,” said Tanaka excitedly. “We want to do a full interview! We want to show that people here in the great city of Detroit still care about one another. We want to show the lighter side of our city, no matter how bad things may be here. If you and Juliet would like, we can do the interview right now. Or we could schedule a better time. I know it’s Christmas, but…”

“Oh, we’d love to do it right now!” said Ariana happily. Kayla, however, did not want to do it at all.

“Actually, I’d really rather not be involved, I…” she began.

“C’mon, Juliet,” said Ariana sweetly. “It could be fun!”

“Yeah, until my picture shows up on Dwayne’s TV,” Kayla whispered.

“It’s a local news station, Julie!” said Ariana. “He’ll never see the story.”

“I just don’t want to take the risk, Ari,” said Kayla firmly. “This is our lives we’re talking about. This can be your thing, sweetie.” Ariana looked disappointed, but she relented and went upstairs to do the interview with Tina.

Kayla spent the hour that it took to complete the interview doing her very best to avoid the film crew, who moved through the warehouse, taking photos of the people living in Tent City and filming clips of them answering questions. Kayla just tried to stay out of the way. By the time the crew finished filming and Tina Tanaka had finished her report, Kayla felt certain she had avoided being captured on film at all. Ariana swore that she hadn’t mentioned Kayla’s real name during her interview as well.

But Kayla’s gut feeling was wrong. She had been present in the background of one, single photo. It was a shot of the Dixon family, a mother and her twin teenaged sons who had been photographed in front of the warehouse doors while Kayla and Ariana had been talking to Tina. While she would not appear on TV at all, Action 16 posted the story to their website where a local blogger would find it and post it to his blog.

From there, it would spread to all forms of social media and be seen on Facebook news feeds and Twitter posts far and wide. It would eventually be found by Tricia Reyes, the latest girlfriend of Dwayne Washington. She would recognize the brunette instantly and rush to her boyfriend who, at long last, would know exactly where Kayla had gone.

-.-

Despite the interruption by the Action 16 news team, Kayla made good on her promise to throw Ariana her first ever birthday party. It wasn’t the biggest affair in history, but it turned out pretty well. Cooper came over and Sophia brought her dad as well. Ariana baked the cake, which Kayla thought was kind of sad, but she had to admit that with the redhead’s ability to cook, having her bake her own birthday cake would be worth it.

While Ariana had requested that no one bring her any gifts, Cooper had arrived with a stack of books about cats and even a small silver tiara for Fluffers. It was cheap and the diamonds were plastic, but Ariana was overjoyed. She placed it on the cat’s head, grinning happily. Kayla thought Fluffers looked terribly upset, but he purred warmly and nuzzled his mistress’s hand. Even the cat didn’t want to hurt Ariana’s feelings.

Sophia brought a handmade bracelet that had Ariana’s name spelled out in tiny blocks, much like the one Kayla had with Claire’s name on it. The blocks were each separated by a different, brightly colored bead. Ariana slipped it on her right wrist, positively beaming with joy.

Kayla had wanted to give Ariana her gift privately, but when everyone looked at her expectantly, she had no choice. Kayla went and sat beside Ariana on the sofa and told her to close her eyes. She obeyed and Kayla took her hand and placed the gift on her palm.

 It was a simple brass locket, a perfect circle about an inch in diameter. A clock face was engraved in the center, only it had no hands. Ariana studied it for a moment before flipping it over. On the back was only a simple phrase, but it spoke volumes in regards to their love.

Ariana looked up at Kayla, tears brimming in her eyes. Kayla could tell that she didn’t know what to say. Kayla reached out and took the locket. She draped the chain around the redhead’s neck and fastened the clasp.

“Love you,” she whispered. Ariana smiled.

“Forever,” she said and leaned closer. They kissed, the locket clasped in Ariana’s small hand. The engraving on the back caught the light, shining brightly against the shadow cast by the girls embracing over it.

A thousand years isn’t long enough. Forever. K & A.

13: Chapter XIII: The Day She Always Feared
Chapter XIII: The Day She Always Feared

Kayla always knew Dwayne would find her. While she never wanted to admit it to herself, deep down she knew he would… someday. She had buried the feeling down deep within herself, had hidden it away when she realized that she was happy again. She had done it on the day she had first kissed Ariana.

But that didn’t stop the feeling from popping up and nagging her every once in a while, like it did a week after Ariana’s birthday party. It was New Year’s Eve and Ariana was overly excited for the first day of 2014. It would be the beginning of a brand new year, the very first that they would spend together. Ariana had considered taking her grandfather’s private jet to New York City for the night, but Kayla had wanted to stay home and ring in the new year more intimately.

Kayla had been having a strange feeling for several days and she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched everywhere she went. She even thought a car had followed her back from Coop’s bookstore the day before. Ariana, of course, thought nothing of it. She said Kayla was just being paranoid. No one was following her. Everything was fine.

But it wasn’t fine, not to Kayla. Something just felt… off. Of course, she had thought that something felt wrong about the apartment fire people too, and they had been nothing but kind since they had arrived. Unfortunately, Kayla still couldn’t see the strings that linked all these events. She didn’t see the connections. If she could, she would understand why she had felt so concerned about the apartment fire people coming to live at the warehouse.

Their walk in the snow that night had taken them to the apartment, which had brought the families to live at the warehouse. That, in turn, had attracted the attention of Tina Tanaka and Action 16 News… and what they attracted just might doom them all.

Ariana, however, was too happy about the holiday to worry about Kayla's bad feeling. She flitted about the apartment, singing and trying to figure out what the words to Auld Lang Syne meant. Kayla did her best to seem interested, but the nagging feeling that something terrible was about to happen would simply not leave her.

As the sun began to set, Kayla and Ariana sat out on the fire escape watching the last light of 2013 fade into history. Kayla was still worried, but with Ariana lying in her arms, with her warmth calming her, she found that she was beginning to relax. The night was quiet and peaceful and Ariana was incredibly cuddly. Kayla slowly let her guard down.

“Are we feeling better?” Ariana asked as Kayla let out a contented sigh.

“A little,” said Kayla, tightening the grip she had with both arms around Ariana’s waist. “I’m sorry I’m ruining the holiday.”

“You’re not ruining anything,” said Ariana sweetly. “You’re worried. That’s what you do. You protect me. You always protect me.”

“Sometimes I think I look for things to worry about,” said Kayla. “That I see threats where there aren’t any.”

“Better that than not seeing a threat when there is one,” Ariana commented. Kayla completely agreed.

“Still, not tonight,” said Kayla. “No, tonight is about us. It’s about new beginnings. I want next year to be different… I want to stop looking over my shoulder all the time.”

“Then do it, Kay-Kay,” said Ariana. “You’re safe here. Dwayne isn’t going to find you. If he was, he would have by now.”

“You can’t know that, Ari,” said Kayla. “Besides, he’s not the only bad guy out there.”

“I know,” said Ariana quietly. “But he’s the only one that’s looking for you.”

“You’re right, you’re right, I… I’m just so tired of it all, Ari,” Ariana nuzzled her head under Kayla’s chin.

“Then let it go,” she whispered. “There’s nothing you can do anyway. If he finds you, he finds you. Worrying about it all the time isn’t going to stop it from happening.”

“You do realize that you have a tendency to be annoyingly correct, don’t you?” Kayla asked.

“Yeah, I think you’ve mentioned it before,” said Ariana lightly. The sun had fully set by then and the air turned even colder than it had been. The promised snowfall had come as expected, dropping nearly a foot of snow upon Detroit. Ariana had been thrilled. Kayla had not.

The girls went back inside and down to the library where many of the apartment fire people had gathered for a New Year’s Eve party. Kayla got herself a cup of punch and soon found herself roped into a game of poker by Cooper, Mike, and a handful of others. She was hardly an expert card player, but she didn’t do too terribly and by the time midnight came around, she had managed to make a little cash.

“How’d you do?” Ariana asked blearily when she came over to sit at the table next to her.

“Pretty good,” said Kayla. She arched her eyebrows at the redhead, who was swaying blissfully in her seat to music that wasn’t playing.

“Ari… are you drunk?” she asked, a smile drawn to her lips. Ariana held her thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart.

“Just a little bit…” she said thickly. She leaned toward Kayla, looking as though she were about to tell her the most important secret ever. "Actually, a lot..."

"Ari, how much did you drink." Ariana shook her head slowly, appearing to be very deep in thought.

"I don't know... Some of the guys kept pouring me drinks." she slurred. "Kay-Kay... what's tequila?"

"Something you're going to regret in the morning," said Kayla, grinning. "C'mon, you need to be in bed."

"No!" said Ariana, looking quite angry indeed. "No, I... I want to see the... the explodey things. The... uh... the boom things. The sparkly booms in the sky..."

"Fireworks?" Kayla asked. Ariana's eyes went wide and she bopped Kayla on the tip of her nose with her forefinger.

"I love fireworks!" She shouted. She leapt from her chair and began tugging at the brunette, trying to urge her to get up. "Kayla, there's a ton of them over in a warehouse down the street! We should go and get them and go up on the roof and set them off! All. At. Once."

"Okay, first of all. No," said Kayla. "We're not setting off very old fireworks. I really don’t want to start off the new year by blowing myself up. Secondly, if you want to watch the fireworks that the professionals are setting off downtown then we can watch them from the fire escape. But then, you're going to bed. Trust me; you're going to thank me for it. Meanwhile, I’m going to find the person or persons responsible for supplying my not-of-legal-drinking-age girlfriend with alcohol and explain a thing or two to them.”

"You're boring," said Ariana dryly.

"I'm sober," Kayla replied. "Alright, come on sweetie. It's almost midnight." Ariana leapt to her feet and started toward the door only to fall flat on her face. Kayla burst out laughing.

"Yeah, I saw that coming," she said. She stood and helped Ariana to her feet.

"I fell down," Ariana said blearily. "It was awesome!"

"Dear God, you're gonna be so happy in the morning, babe," said Kayla, guiding her up through the apartment and out on the fire escape.

"I'm always happy," said Ariana, poking Kayla curiously on her cheek.

"Yes..." said Kayla, gently taking Ariana's hand and holding it down at her side. Beneath them, the others had gathered outside to watch the fireworks themselves. Someone started a countdown at ten seconds to midnight.

"Ten!" the group shouted. "Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One!" Downtown Detroit lit up instantly with a shower of brilliant explosions in the sky. Blasts of color illuminated the sky high above their heads. Kayla and Ariana shared a brief kiss atop the fire escape while the others whooped and shouted below them.

“Happy New Year, Ari,” said Kayla, brushing her fingers through the other girl’s hair.

“I want a pony,” said Ariana blissfully. Kayla shook her head.

“Yep… that’s my girl.”

-.-

“Uuuugh…” Ariana groaned as she stumbled out of the bedroom and into the apartment where Kayla sat at the table eating a bowl of cereal and reading the front page of the morning paper.

“Morning, sunshine!” Kayla said brightly as Ariana held a hand over her eyes to block out the light and wandered toward the refrigerator. She retrieved a juice box and sank miserably into the chair across from Kayla.

“I think I’m gonna throw up…” she whimpered.

“Welcome to your first ever hangover,” said Kayla proudly. “This is the time you spend regretting all the choices you made the night before.”

“Did… did we strap old fireworks to a pony and set them off somewhere?” Ariana asked, holding her hands to her head.

“Nope,” said Kayla, shaking her head. “We did watch some fireworks, though… and made a few ourselves afterwards,” she added with a grin. “I gotta say, I like drunk Ariana… particularly in bed.”

“Well, you’re never seeing her again,” Ariana groaned. “I think I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying,” said Kayla firmly. She stood up and went to the refrigerator. She retrieved a glass filled with thick brown liquid and placed it on the table in front of the redhead.

What is that?” Ariana asked, swallowing quite visibly.

“It’ll help you feel better, trust me,” Kayla replied. “Believe me, I know from experience.”

“What’s in it?” asked Ariana, reaching tentatively for the glass.

“You don’t want to know,” she said firmly. “In fact… don’t look at it, don’t smell it, just down it in one.” Ariana lifted the glass and drank. Kayla was certain the redhead was going to gag, but she got it down. Even so, she still looked miserable.

“Give it a few minutes,” said Kayla warmly. “You’ll feel better.”

“Why would people want to do this to themselves… ever?” Ariana asked, laying her head on the table.

“For the high,” Kayla replied. “The way you felt last night… just, well… you do have to deal with this side of the coin too.”

“I don’t like this side,” said Ariana dryly. “And the other side wasn’t good enough to make me experience this side again.” Kayla smiled.

“Well, good,” she said happily. “I don’t have to worry about you becoming an alcoholic then,”

“No, you don’t,” said Ariana. “My mouth tastes like feet,” Kayla arched her eyebrows.

“I can’t honestly say I know what feet taste like,” she replied. “I’m guessing there’s a story there?”

“Not talking about it,” Ariana muttered. She stood up from the table. “I’m… I’m gonna go… die… in there.” She gestured toward their bedroom. Kayla smiled and nodded.

“Have fun,” she called after her.

Kayla spent much of the morning cleaning up the mess left over from the party the previous night. She hadn’t realized just how big a mess forty-two people could make in the space of one evening. Luckily, most of the mess was confined to the library which given its tiled floors was easier to clean than the apartment upstairs.

Ariana emerged from hibernation by noon and joined Kayla for lunch at a small café a few blocks away from the warehouse. The high temperature that day was a cozy eighteen degrees, so the girls spent as little time as possible moving between the car and the warmth of the restaurant. They spent the afternoon with Sophia, who had asked to come to the mall with them.

After a long day of shopping, the girls let Sophia play in a toy store while they sat in plastic seats near the front of the store.

“Have you ever thought about having kids?” Ariana asked suddenly. Kayla looked up at her. She was watching Sophia intently, with an almost wistful look in her eyes.

“I…” In truth, Kayla had never really given the matter any thought whatsoever. Before her life as a fugitive, she had just been living. She hadn’t thought too much about the future except for college and even then she hadn’t settled on a major. Kids, though, that was simply too far in the future for her to worry about.

Kids were a big responsibility and Kayla had trouble taking care of herself and Ariana, much less bringing a child into their world. No, Kayla came to realize as she sat there, that she didn’t really want to have children… but one look into Ariana’s blue eyes and Kayla knew that the redhead most certain did want to have children.

“I… I haven’t really thought about it before,” said Kayla quietly. “What about you? Do you… want kids?”

“Yeah…” Ariana said in a distant voice. “I mean, I… I think so. It’s just that I’ve… I read some books once and… well, they said that people that were abused as children sometimes do the same things to their own kids and I… I’m afraid that…”

“Okay, stop right there,” Kayla interrupted. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. “Ari, you… you haven’t got a mean bone in your body. You cried for three hours after you saw the ending of Marley and Me. You couldn’t hurt a fly, baby, much less a child.”

“I… I just…” Ariana looked tearful. “Sometimes I… I’m their daughter, Kayla. Whatever made them do what they did to me is in me too.”

“’It doesn’t matter what someone is born, but what they grow to be,’” said Kayla. She smiled. “It’s from a book I read once… Look, just because your parents abused you doesn’t mean you would ever do the same thing. You wouldn’t… and whatever made them do what they did to you is most certainly not in you. You are everything your parents never were, Ari."

"They're still part of me," Ariana said sadly. Kayla reached out and took her hand.

"Hey," she said, squeezing the redhead's hand reassuringly. "I've seen you with Sophie. You're amazing with her. That little girl lights up when she's around you. She loves you, Ari. You will be a great mother, Ariana Elizabeth Laine. I know it."

"Well, since you used my full name it must be true," said Ariana, smiling slightly. "I think you'll be great too." Kayla choked and shook her head.

"Yeah, right!" she exclaimed. "Me, a mom? Well, as long as you're there we'd do fine. You know, when I was younger my dad bought me a hamster. I named him Mr. Nibbles."

"And you laughed at Fluffers," Ariana quipped.

"Anyway," said Kayla briskly. "My parents would only let me have him if I promised to take care of him. I swore I would, but I only remember feeding him once."

"You didn't feed him?!" Ariana exclaimed. "Did... did Mr. Nibbles die?" Kayla smiled and shook her head.

"No, my mom fed him for me. She knew I'd forget, so she did it. But my point is, I couldn't even take care of a little furry rodent and you want me to be responsible for a little baby?!"

"You wouldn't forget to feed our baby," said Ariana kindly. Kayla shrugged.

"Maybe not, but I could leave the poor thing on top of the car, or in the shopping cart..."

"You wouldn't," said Ariana firmly. "You're always so overprotective. You protect me and you'd protect our baby too."

"Well, I suppose it's something for us to think about, anyway," said Kayla. Ariana nodded her agreement. She looked up at the brunette slowly, appearing to come to some sort of conclusion.

"Kayla, there... there's something I've never told you," the redhead said slowly. The look in her eyes said she was about to drop the equivalent of a hydrogen bomb on the brunette. "I have a da..."

"Ari! Kayla! Come look at this!" Sophia shouted, rushing over to the them and seizing Ariana's hand. She pulled them over to show them some new toy that Ariana agreed to buy for her. Kayla was immensely curious to learn what it was  that Ariana wanted to tell her. The redhead, however, seemed as though she had no interest in resuming that particular conversation, so Kayla didn't bring it back up.

After Ariana paid for Sophia's toy, the girls returned to the warehouse. If Kayla had still been on her guard, she would have felt that something was off... she would have noticed. She would have recognized that same feeling that had plagued her for a week was in the air again as they arrived at the warehouse.

She would have noticed that the cargo doors opened far too quickly and that Ariana wouldn't have had enough time to get down to the floor after climbing up the fire escape to open them. She would have seen that the warehouse was darker than normal, with most of its lights extinguished. She didn't notice anything odd until she parked the Mclaren and started to get out.

Tent City was empty. There were absolutely no signs of life around the field of tents that were spread out across a wide section of the warehouse floor. The warehouse was eerily quiet and Ariana was nowhere to be seen. Kayla reached for her gun, her heart suddenly dropping into her stomach.

"Ariana!" she screamed as loudly as she could. As if on queue, the redhead yelped and stumbled down the stairs, landing hard in a heap on the cold warehouse floor. Without warning, the warehouse lights flicked on. The apartment fire people were corralled fifty feet from the base of the stairs. They were all on their knees, being watched by three men with large, powerful rifles.

"Been lookin' for you a long time," said a deep voice from the staircase. Kayla's heart skipped a beat and her blood ran cold. She turned slowly toward the voice, realizing with a bolt of terror that it was over... that the day she always feared had at long last arrived.

Dwayne Washington descended the stairs with a handgun pointed at Ariana's head. Ariana was cowering on the floor, whimpering. One side of her head was cut and bleeding from where it had struck the hard floor. Dwayne looked down briefly at Ariana and then up at Kayla.

"Now, sweetheart, I believe we got a score to settle,"

14: Chapter XIV: Sacrifice of an Angel
Chapter XIV: Sacrifice of an Angel

"Put the gun on the floor," said Dwayne, stepping down from the stairs. He kicked Ariana in the side, forcing her onto her stomach. He gripped her by her hair and pulled her to her knees. Kayla knew she had no choice. She couldn't fight. She slowly knelt and placed her gun on the ground near her feet. She gingerly stepped away from it.

"Good girl," said Dwayne. "You're learnin'. Now, we're gonna start by you watchin' me blow this little slut's brains all over the floor." Kayla hadn’t expected this day to happen like this. She thought she would have some warning, that she would have sensed something that would have given her a least some time to plan. Now, she was staring down her worst nightmare without a moment’s notice. She was unprepared and utterly defenseless.

"Am I supposed to care?" Kayla asked, her mind working on overdrive. She had to make a plan, she had to come up with a way out if not for herself then for Ariana. This was her job, her responsibility. She had to protect Ariana. She always protected her… and then it clicked.

"I think you're a little mixed up, Dwayne,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “She's just some stupid girl I met. She offered me a place to stay and I stayed." She paused and looked straight into Ariana's eyes, noting as she did so that the redhead looked heartbroken. It was the only way. She had to make Dwayne believe that she felt nothing at all for Ariana. If he thought otherwise, he would surely kill her. She looked away. "She means nothing to me,” she said harshly. “So, if you want to kill her, go ahead. It won't bother me."

"I seen you with her," said Dwayne fiercely. "Been followin' you. Seen you two kissin'."

"C'mon, even you can't say she's not hot," said Kayla with a shrug. "I was alone and she's beautiful. I needed someone and she was there. I used her for a warm bed and a good fuck. She's just some girl."

"Kayla...?" said Ariana weakly. She was crying, staring at Kayla as though she had walked right over to her and ripped her heart out of her chest. Kayla glared down at her, but when she spoke, she did so to Ariana's left knee instead of her face.

"Don't even pretend you didn't see it coming," said Kayla with a smirk. "Come on, you actually thought I cared about you? This bastard took the only person I loved from me. You really think you could ever replace Claire?"

"But... but you said..." Ariana stammered. "You said..."

"I lied," Kayla snapped, her own heart breaking at the expression of complete betrayal on the redhead’s face. "I needed you to trust me, sweetie. I needed you to love me... especially after you told me about your nice, fat bank account."

"What account?" Dwayne demanded. Kayla grinned.

"She's rich, Dwayne," she told him. There it was. The hook she needed. Dwayne loved money, hopefully more than he loved the idea of killing Kayla. "She's worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars... and I've got access. I was gonna bide my time and then take her for everything she's got, but now... what would you say to a deal? I can get you a nice payday. You'll get the money I owe you times a thousand." Dwayne took a step closer to her, taking his gun off of Ariana.

"And you can get it?" he asked her. Kayla smirked.

"Of course I can," said Kayla. "She gave me complete access to her account. I can transfer the funds to any account you want. We can do an even split and then go our separate ways. We never have to see each other again." Dwayne stared at her for a long time, appearing to weigh his options. Kayla glanced down at Ariana, who was still crying, to the front seat of the Mclaren where Sophia crouched, hidden.

Kayla, like Dwayne, weighed her options. If Dwayne took the deal, she knew she could work out an escape plan. If he refused, he'd likely kill her on the spot. But he wouldn't refuse. She knew Dwayne. He wouldn't be able to resist the payday she'd promised.

"No deal," said Dwayne sharply.

'Fuck…’ Kayla thought desperately.

"You gotta remember, you killed my brother and my girl. Ain't no money gonna stop me from killin' you. But I got this cunt," he kicked Ariana again and she yelped in pain. "After I kill you, I can still get her money and I won't have to split it with you." Kayla nodded slowly, furiously working up a new strategy.

"That's true, you could do that," said Kayla lightly. "But how are you gonna force her to do it? Come on, Dwayne! She's dumb, but she's not so stupid that she doesn't know that you'd kill her the second she gave you the money. She won't let you anywhere near that account... but I will."

"And how do you know I won't kill you too?" Dwayne asked. Kayla shook her head.

"Oh, I know you'll try to kill me," she said. "So, we're not walking into the bank together. I go in alone and make the transfers. I'll wear a wire if you want me to so you can be sure I'm not ratting you out. You and your people go to the far side of the city. After I'm done, you can check your accounts online and verify the transfer. We never see each other again. You need me, Dwayne... you don't need her."

"So, what's stopping me from killing her?" Kayla actually laughed. This was the part she was most worried about. Just how deep did Dwayne’s bloodlust run?

"You're missing the part where I don't really care if you kill her or not," said Kayla. "I care about getting the cash and making sure I don't catch a bullet. Honestly, though, she's innocent. There's no point in killing her. She can't do anything to hurt you." She shrugged. "Do you really want any more innocent blood on your hands?"

It had to work. Kayla was desperate. She was out of schemes. She had no other escape route. If this didn't work, if Dwayne didn't agree to the plan and leave the warehouse... she didn't know what else to do.

Ariana, meanwhile, was trying to unravel everything that was happening. Dwayne was probably going to kill all of them and Kayla... Kayla never loved her. Kayla had been lying to her, had been plotting to steal all of her money. It was too horrible to believe.

This was good, because as Ariana thought about it, she came to realize that she didn't believe it at all. Kayla had a tell, something she did when she was lying. She couldn't look Ariana in the eye. At no point when she had been speaking had she looked directly at Ariana. Kayla was lying to Dwayne, she had to be. But Ariana had a feeling of dread come over her. Dwayne was cold, cruel, and evil. He would kill them all just because he could, even if he believed Kayla's lies.

"Get up!" Dwayne snapped at her. Ariana obeyed, shakily standing to her feet. She stumbled when Dwayne pushed her toward the Mclaren. She sat down on the hood, shying away from the barrel of Dwayne's pistol. She found as she sat there, peering nervously at Kayla, that she couldn't stop crying. Without warning, Dwayne raised his gun, aiming it straight at Kayla.

"I'll take the risk with the redhead," he said grimly. "Ain't a chance in hell I'm lettin' you walk away. I owe Marcus."

"Dwayne, please..." said Kayla. Her gaze flicked to Ariana, whose eyes were wide with terror. "Please, just..." Dwayne pulled the trigger. Kayla saw the flash, heard the boom, and closed her eyes. She heard the second boom an instant later. She waited for the bullets to strike their target, to receive the justice some small part of her believed she deserved... but it did not come. She felt no pain. Slowly, she opened her eyes.

Much to her surprise, Ariana stood roughly three feet in front of her with her arms and legs bent at angles that made it appear as though she were running. Kayla couldn't understand why she was there or why nothing seemed to be moving. Not Ariana, not Dwayne, nothing. Quite suddenly, a flow of red began to spread out across Ariana's light pink t-shirt and Kayla realized what had happened with a jolt of pure horror as the world jerked suddenly, brutally into motion again.

"No..." Ariana stumbled forward, falling into Kayla's arms. They both fell to the floor. Kayla's back hit something hard and thick, but she was numb to the pain. Ariana's red hair filled her vision. Through her long locks, she saw Dwayne advancing with a furious expression on his face. It was only then that Kayla realized exactly what she had landed on.

She reached behind her and seized the grip of her .45. Just as Dwayne stepped over her, Kayla jerked the gun up and started shooting. Her first shot caught Dwayne squarely in the stomach. Her second and third shots went wide, but the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh all found their mark as Kayla emptied the magazine.

Sliding Ariana off of her, she stood to her feet just as the other three men turned and started toward her. They didn't get far. The survivors of the apartment fire leapt up and swarmed them the second they turned their backs. They grabbed the men and brought them to the ground, punching and kicking them. A few of them grabbed the men's guns and beat them with them. Kayla let them do it. She silently prayed they beat them to death.

Kayla reached into her pocket and retrieved her spare magazine. She dropped the empty magazine from the gun and inserted the second. She racked the slide, sending a round home. She marched over to Dwayne, who lay on his back, gasping for breath. He smiled up at her as she approached.

"Damn, girl..." he said thickly. "All this... and I still win." he looked over at Ariana, who lay quite still. "I still win." Kayla knelt down beside him and placed the barrel of her gun to Dwayne's head.

"Nobody wins," she said hoarsely. She emptied the seven round magazine.

Kayla dropped the gun as though it had burned her and ran back to Ariana's side. She lay in a steadily spreading pool of blood. She was gasping, choking. She was dying and Kayla didn't know what to do. She held the girl in her arms, pressing her hands over the wounds, trying in vain to stem the flow of blood.

The others gathered around her, telling her that an ambulance had been called, that paramedics were on their way. Kayla heard none of it. She saw only Ariana, looking up at her with wide eyes filled with pain. She opened her mouth, trying to speak.

"Shh..." Kayla insisted, shaking her head. "Don't... don't try to talk, Ari. Just... hang on, baby. Help is coming, just..."

"I love you," Ariana managed to choke out. Kayla closed her eyes. She had done her best not to cry, to stay strong for Ariana, but she lost control and the tears came.

"Don't say goodbye," Kayla whispered. "Please, don't... just stay with me, Ari. Please, stay with me!"

"I... I can't... I... I'm cold..." Ariana whimpered.

"You can," Kayla said in the firmest voice she could manage. "You can, baby. You're the strongest person I know. I need you to fight, honey. Please... I can't lose you, Ari..."

"I'm... I'm sorry," Ariana said, her voice so soft Kayla barely heard her. She reached up with a trembling, bloodstained hand and brushed her fingers against Kayla's cheek. "I... I had... to... do it. You protect me. You... always protect me, Kay-Kay..." She took a great shuddering gasp, her hand falling away. "...My turn." She went limp in Kayla's arms.

-.-

They burst through the hospital doors, running along a corridor so fast that Kayla wouldn’t have been able to recall any details of it even if she had been trying to. They turned a corner. Kayla held on to Ariana’s right hand as the paramedics pushed the redhead on a gurney. They skidded to a halt outside of the trauma room and rushed inside.

"What have we got?!" a middle aged doctor with black hair and grey eyes demanded as he approached.

"Ariana Laine, 18. Two gunshot wounds to the abdomen,” one of the paramedics replied. “She coded twice on the way here." The doctor nodded as the paramedics lifted Ariana's lifeless form up and from the gurney and placed her on the bed. Someone, a nurse Kayla came to realize, pulled her away from Ariana. "B.P. Eighty over sixty. Pulse is weak.”

"Two smaller entry wounds, back. Larger exit wounds, abdomen." The doctor confirmed. Ariana began to shake, gasping for breath.

"Lungs filling!" the doctor shouted. "Start an I.V. of lactated ringers. Two units of 'O', stat."

"Pulse is dropping!" a nurse cried suddenly. Kayla stood near the bed, watching, still being held back by the nurse. She was numb, lost, and terrified. Without warning, Ariana’s heart rate monitor flatlined.

15: Chapter XV: Claire and Present Danger
Chapter XV: Claire and Present Danger

"Full arrest!" shouted the doctor. "Paddles!" A nurse wheeled a defibrillator over to him. He seized the device and prepped the paddles as the monitor continued its droning buzz.

"Clear!" he called, pressing the paddles to Ariana's chest. Kayla looked away, unable to watch Ariana's body jerk as the electricity coursed through her, trying to restart her heart. The doctor shook his head.

"Recharge!" He paused. "Clear!" Nothing. Kayla had dropped to her knees, her bloodstained hands held to her face. They tried one more time, but the droning continued and she knew. She knew Ariana was gone. She leapt to her feet and rushed to the bed, screaming, pleading with the doctors to keep trying, to not give up on her. She knew it was over, that it was too late, but she didn't care. They had to do something.

"I'm so sorry," said the doctor. He truly looked it. Kayla looked up at them with an expression of utter loathing on her face.

"Get out," she hissed. They didn't move. "Get out!" she screamed, seizing some sharp metal instrument from a tray beside Ariana’s bed. She brandished it like a sword, forcing the doctor and the nurses from the room. She locked the door behind them. She turned around and leaned against it, unsure what to do. Ariana lay in her bed, so still she might have been a statue. Kayla was trembling, shaking so badly that she could hardly stand.

She had never before in her life wanted to both do so many things and do absolutely nothing at all. An all too familiar rage was building within her and she wanted to destroy something, she wanted to ravage the person responsible for killing that sweet girl, for taking that beauty from her, from the world. But Dwayne was already dead. She couldn’t go on a rampage for revenge this time. There was no vengeance to be had. There was no one she could hurt, so she hurt the room instead.

She broke things, threw things, ripped cabinet doors off of their hinges and smashed monitors, all the while Ariana’s heart rate monitor continued its endless drone. She stumbled back to Ariana’s bed and fell onto a stool. She looked down at the redhead’s face, positively willing it not to be true. Ariana couldn’t be dead. Not her. It struck her then how utterly unfair the world was. People like Ariana’s father, people like her… absolute monsters seemed to survive. They lived long lives, their crimes often unpunished. It was the innocent, the beautiful… the angels of the world that suffered and died.

A sudden knock came at the door and a male voice called out to her.

"Ma'am?" said the voice. "Ma'am, this is hospital security. I need you to open the door for me." Kayla didn't move. What could they do to her if she refused? Break the door down and arrest her? Fine, she could go to prison. She didn't care. She sat there as the security officer continued to knock and call for her. She knew it wouldn't be long before either the security guard or the police themselves attempted to bust through the door. She would just wait.

She stood up and began to pace, a sudden energy filling her, forcing her to move. Her rage could not be sated by merely breaking a few pieces of furniture. She wanted to find someone and tear them apart. She didn't care who, she just wanted to hurt someone... to make them feel some tiny portion of the anguish that had engulfed her like a blazing inferno. She wanted to do it, she would have done it if she hadn't pictured Ariana's face when she learned the truth. She saw the horror in those beautiful blue eyes that she would never see again and she knew that Ariana would never forgive her. It was this, more than anything, that calmed Kayla.

She walked back over to the stool, suddenly more exhausted than she had ever been in her life. She sat down and looked again at Ariana. The doctors had ripped open her shirt as they had tried to save her and as Kayla sat there, she spotted a glint of some shiny material on Ariana's skin. Looking closer, she realized Ariana was still wearing the locket she had given her for her birthday. She picked it up with hands still caked with Ariana’s blood and flipped it over.

A thousand years isn’t long enough. Forever. K & A.

“Forever…” Kayla whispered. “That was a promise, Ari,” she said, brushing the girl’s hair away from her face. “You and me. Forever.” She looked around and found the instrument she had threatened the doctor with. It was a simple scalpel and was much smaller than Kayla had remembered. She picked it up and looked at it, wondering as she did so why the thought hadn’t occurred to her sooner.

She crawled into bed with Ariana, noticing that she was still warm, that she still smelt like strawberries. She kissed her gently, briefly… just long enough.

“I love you,” she whispered. “I’ll always love you, Ari.” She drew the razor edge of the blade across her wrist, cutting deep. She felt the warmth of blood flow down her arm and snuggled closer to Ariana. Her thoughts turned briefly to her mother. She hoped that one day both she and her sister would understand everything. She doubted they would, but she would die with hope.

She lay there for a moment, the wound on her wrist slowly but steadily dripping blood. Kayla sighed, feeling oddly warm and comfortable. It wasn't so bad, really, dying. She had thought she would be scared, but she wasn't. And besides, maybe she'd see Ariana again. She wasn't sure if she believed in God or even an afterlife, but right then she hoped there was something after death. She hoped that as she took her last breath, she would wake and Ariana would be waiting there for her. She tilted her head, breathing in Ariana's sweet scent. She felt drowsy, warm and content.

Beep.

Kayla’s head snapped up, looking at the heart rate monitor. It was still a constant, uninterrupted drone. She sighed and settled back down. It must have been her imagination running wild.

Beep. Buzz… Beep, buzz, beep... Beep… Beep… Beep… Kayla looked up again, confused and lost for words. The heart rate monitor was reading a pulse, weak but steady. Kayla sprang from the bed faster than anyone ever had. She raced for the door but before she could reach it the lock on the door was smashed from outside. The door swung open revealing two security officers standing on the threshold. What happened next, Kayla would scarcely remember. She screamed as the officers took her away, trying to explain to anyone who could hear her that Ariana was still alive.

The officers took Kayla into a neighboring room where a nurse bandaged her arm. She was given antidepressants and was forced to speak with an on-site therapist who informed her that Ariana was still alive and was receiving medical care. Kayla was hardly prepared to spill her guts to some woman she didn't know, but once she got there she found she talked for over an hour. The therapist, Karen, managed to calm Kayla. Afterwards, she was brought to the hospital administrator. The man gave her a warm smile as she entered his office. He sat down at his desk and indicated Kayla should do the same. She did, noticing that he was watching her intently over the top of his glasses. 

"So, you threatened my staff, smashed tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, attempted suicide, and forced my security team to break down a door in the trauma center." he said seriously. "What possible reason could you give me to not have you arrested?" Kayla shook her head.

"There isn't one," she said in a hollow voice. "I knew what I was doing... I knew it was wrong, I just didn't care... I... I'm sorry. I wouldn't blame you for having me arrested. I'll even confess. I'll pay for everything I broke... my girlfriend, she... she has plenty of money. We can cover it, I... just tell me how much and I'll pay."

"I'm not interested in money, Ms. Austin," said the administrator. "I'm more concerned about your mental state. I know you spoke with one of our counselors, but given your attempt to kill yourself, we're worried you might try to harm yourself again and we can't..."

"I won't do that again," Kayla said quietly. "That... that was stupid, I shouldn't have... I just thought... I thought we'd be together again. I thought... I don't know what I thought."

"You look like you've been through a lot," said the administrator. "More than what happened today, I mean. Listen, here's the deal I'm going to propose. If you'll agree to regular visits with a therapist, I won't press charges against you." 

"I'll do it," said Kayla quickly, hardly caring what she was agreeing to. "I'll do it. I'll pay for the damages, as well. All of it. If you can save my girlfriend, I'll donate a whole wing to this place." The administrator smiled.

"Well, you can be certain we'll do our very best for her, Ms. Austin." he said. "We're taking good care of her, I promise."  

-.-

Two hours later, Kayla was sitting in the waiting room staring at a picture of a vase of flowers on the wall and wondering why anyone would paint a picture of a vase of flowers instead of just getting a vase of flowers and putting them there instead. It was the strangest thing to worry about at a time like this, but it was all her mind could take.

She had called the warehouse to make sure everyone was okay, which they were... if a little shaken up. She had called home, had called her mom and told her what had happened. She had immediately taken the first flight out of San Francisco. She was lost, right then, somewhere in the web of air traffic above mainland America, completely cut off from Kayla who so desperately wished to talk to her.

Cooper had driven upstate for the week and was currently driving back, probably at breakneck speed after Kayla had told him about Ariana's shooting. That was all she had been able to do. After that, she had sat down in that seat and hadn't moved. That was well over an hour ago and she still hadn't managed to summon the energy to move at all.   

It was well after midnight and the waiting room had emptied completely save for Kayla. It was rather dark, but she didn't really notice. Some part of her brain told her at one point that she was hungry, but she ignored the urge to eat and remained sitting resolutely in her chair.

Just when Kayla thought that she couldn't take sitting there, listing to the handful of songs that kept playing softly on loop through the overhead speakers, the door opened and the doctor came in looking exhausted. Kayla stood up and went to him. She couldn't help noticing that he looked grave.

"How is she?" Kayla asked when she reached him. He shook his head.

"She's alive," he said tiredly. Kayla's heart leapt. "But she's still critical. There's nothing else I can do for her until she stabilizes."

"But... but she will, won't she?" Kayla asked, her heart sinking as fast as it had risen.

"I can't promise anything yet," said the doctor, whose name Kayla saw on his nametag was Dr. Jacob Hale. "Her condition is very serious, Ms. Austin. We just have to wait and see what happens overnight. But, I must tell you... her heart stopped for almost ten minutes. The fact that she's even still alive is a miracle. But her brain was starved of oxygen for ten minutes. The brain begins to die after only two minutes without oxygen."

"What does that mean?" Kayla demanded, wishing he would just get to the point.

"It means that even if Ariana survives, and I'm obligated to stress the 'if', she won't ever be the girl you knew."

"Are you saying she's brain dead?" Dr. Hale shook his head slowly.

"No," he said firmly. "That's the thing. She should be brain dead. After that long with no oxygen going to her brain, she should have suffered severe and irreversible brain damage. But she's breathing on her own, which is an encouraging sign. We're going to do more tests and see where we're at. We're going to do everything we can for her, Ms. Austin. I promise."

"Can I see her?" Kayla asked. He considered her for a moment and then nodded.

"Yes," he replied. "For a short time. Just ask someone at the nurse's station when you're ready to go back."He left. Kayla turned to go back to her seat, but paused the second she looked at it. She knew if she sat back down, she might just stay there forever. Instead, she went down to the empty cafeteria and bought a cup of coffee from the vending machine. She paced the corridor outside of the waiting room, sipping her coffee and thinking.

Ariana was alive, but she would likely have catastrophic brain damage. She would never be the same person again, if she ever woke up at all. The sweet, bubbly girl that Kayla had fallen in love with was dead. She was gone and she was never coming back. It was far too much for Kayla and she fell to the floor, dissolving into tears.

She cried harder than she ever had in her life. She positively screamed her grief for the whole hospital to hear, but no one came to her. No one except a young blonde that knelt down beside her.

"You look miserable," she said softly. Even in her pain, Kayla recognized that voice. Her head snapped up and she stared. Claire Winters knelt beside her, smiling slightly.

"Hey," she said quietly. "It's been a while." Kayla stared, eyes wide with fear and confusion.

"You... you... you're dead," Kayla shouted. "How are you...? I'm dreaming. That's it, I'm dreaming. This is all a dream. Dwayne never found us, Ariana's not dying. No, we're both warm in bed. That'll be it..." Claire slapped her lightly across her face.

"Snap out of it," she said sternly. "You're not dreaming, kiddo. You're awake, Dwayne did find you, and Ariana is most definitely fighting for her life."

"Then... then what's...? How are you here?" Kayla asked her. "You're dead." Claire shrugged.

"Just because I'm dead doesn't mean I can't come visit my best friend, does it?" Claire asked quizzically.

"Uh...." said Kayla. Claire rolled her eyes.

"Okay, fine," she said, holding out her hand to help Kayla to her feet. Kayla took it and Claire pulled her up.

"This is.... weird." said Kayla uncertainly.

"You get used to it," said Claire brightly. "It's not so bad, really, being dead."

"Well, I wouldn't know," Kayla replied.

"You wanted to," said Claire, pointing at the bandage on Kayla's wrist. "We need to have a talk, Mikayla. Seriously? You tried to kill yourself because Ariana died? You only went on a murderous rampage when I died."

"I only..." Kayla began, but Claire was smiling.

"I was joking," she said, shaking her head. "Listen, Kayla, I'm here for you. You obviously want to talk to me, so... spill it, sister." Kayla sighed and sank slowly onto a bench. Claire followed her and sat down beside her. Kayla found that now, sitting there with Claire, that she had no idea what she wanted to talk about.

"I'm going crazy," she said at last. "I'm sitting here talking to my dead best friend. Okay, so let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about how I’ve finally snapped and gone complete bat shit crazy!”

“You’re not crazy,” said Claire firmly, but then she smiled. “Well, you’re a little crazy, but no, not about this, about me. I’m really here, sweetie.”

“Can anyone else see you?”

“Unfortunately, no,” said Claire. “So you might want to keep your voice down unless you want people to notice you standing here talking to yourself.”

“They have a mental ward here,” said Kayla. “I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, make jokes,” said Claire. “Look, you need to talk about this. I can be whatever you need me to be. If you want me to be a figment of your delusional imagination, I can be. Whatever helps you, okay? But right now, you need me. So, let’s forget for a moment that I’m dead and just talk to me like you used to. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Ariana’s dying… and her brain is… is… too damaged. The doctor said she’ll never be the same person again even if she survives.” Claire nodded slowly.

“That’s not why you’re so upset,” said Claire quietly. “You don’t fall apart like this, not even over something this serious.”

“The only person I’ve got left in the whole damn world is as good as dead and I’m not supposed to cry?!” Kayla shouted, not caring who heard her. “What the hell do you expect me to do?”

“Keep your grief bottled up inside like you always do,” said Claire. “C’mon, I know you, kiddo. You’re not a crier. So, what is it?”

“I…” Kayla couldn’t say it, even though she knew what Claire was getting at. It was too hard, too painful for her to speak the words aloud.

“If I’m just a figment of your delusional mind, then I already know,” said Claire. “You need to let it out, honey. It’s killing you.”

“There’s nothing to let out!” Kayla snapped. She wasn’t going to talk about it.

“”Yes, there is, Mikki,” said Claire sharply. “There’s something you need to come to grips with, dear. You can sit there and deny it all you like, but the longer you hold it in, the harder it’s going to be to let go.”

“I don’t want to let go of anything!” she shouted. Quite suddenly, the endless loop of tracks that played quietly overhead jumped several decibels, flooding Kayla’s ears.

Well, you only need the light
when it’s burning low
Only
miss the sun
when it starts to snow
Only know you lover her
when you let her go

Only know you’ve been high
When you’re feeling low
Only hate the road when
You’re missing home
Only know you love her
When you let her go

And you let her go.

“I’m not letting Ariana go!” said Kayla, feeling suddenly furious. “If that’s your game, you can stop playing! I’m not letting her go! I’m not leaving her here to die alone!”

“I’m not saying you should,” Claire said gently. Kayla leaned back against the wall, shaking her head. She closed her eyes, half praying Claire would be gone whenever she decided to open them again.

You see her when you close your eyes
Maybe one day you’ll understand why

Everything you touch surely dies

“It’s my fault,” Kayla said quietly, unbidden tears falling once again. “It’s… it’s all my fault. Ariana, she… she’s in this mess because of me. I knew what could happen, but I stayed. If I had just left the warehouse, she… she’d still be…”

“Alone,” said Claire. “She’d still be alone. She would still be the broken girl you found all those weeks ago. But yeah, you’re right. What happened to Ariana is your fault.”

“I thought you were supposed to encourage me or something?” Claire smirked.

“Do you want me to lie? Kayla, it is your fault. Like you said, you knew the danger you were putting her in, but you stayed anyway. So, yeah, it is partly your fault. But you didn’t pull the trigger, Kayla. Dwayne did. He shot her. He put her here.”

“She took a bullet for me, Claire,” said Kayla, looking up at the blonde with tear-filled eyes. “Dwayne shot me and she… she… that stupid, stupid girl saved my life.”

“She loves you,” said Claire. “She did the same thing I would’ve done… and you would have done it for either of us.”

“That’s not the point!” Kayla exclaimed. Claire just didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. “Ari, she… I protect her. I always protect her. It should have been the other way around, Claire. It should be me dying up there, not her. That shot was not meant for her, but she… It was my job to protect her and I failed her… just like I failed you. This is just you all over again only… only this time there’s no one for me to hurt.”

“You really think she’d want you to go kill someone for her?” Claire asked. “You think I did? Mikayla, you did all that for you, not for me. I never would have asked you to do that, to kill in my name. I would have wanted you to just live your life. I wanted you to let me go and just live.”

“Just like you want me to let Ariana go,” Kayla snapped.

“No,” Claire insisted. “No, Mikki, I don’t want you to let Ariana go, okay? That’s the last thing I want. I want you to let go of all this guilt and hatred and anger you’ve been carrying around for a year! You’ve got to stop hating yourself for what happened to me. It wasn’t your fault.

“I don’t blame you and neither does Ariana. She loves you so much she would rather die than see you hurt. She took a bullet to save you, Kayla. She loves you and yes, you most certainly do deserve her. She’s the very best thing that’s ever happened to you…

“And I did this to her,” said Kayla furiously. “You want to know what the worst part of all of this is? The last thing I said to her… I told her that I didn’t love her… that I never loved her. I told her I tricked her to steal her money. I made her think I hated her.” Kayla put her face in her hands, sobbing silently. Claire put a comforting hand on her back.

“Sweetie, she knew you loved her,” said Claire. “She knew you were just trying to trick Dwayne. Look, she needs you right now. She needs to know that you’re here, believing that she’s going to get better… that she’ll be okay.”

“She won’t!”

“Not if you keep thinking like that,” said Claire firmly. “Mikki, she needs you to be strong for her. She needs you to believe that she can come back from this. She needs your courage, your bravery, your strength, and most of all your love right now. I believe, and I could just be full of bullshit, but Mikki, I believe that love conquers all. Yes, even death. And yeah, I know how that sounds, but I’ve always believed it. Right now, you need to believe it too.” Kayla nodded slowly. She leaned back again and closed her eyes, letting the last few notes of the song wash over her.

You only need the light
when it’s burning low

Only miss the sun
when it starts to snow
Only know you lover her
when you let her go

Only know you’ve been high
When you’re feeling low
Only hate the road when
You’re missing home
Only know you love her
When you let her go

And you let her go

"Okay," said Kayla softly. "Okay, I'll do it. I believe. I just need to tell you one thing first." She opened her eyes and turned toward Claire, but she was gone. Kayla looked up and down the corridor, but the blonde was nowhere to be seen.

"Yeah..." she muttered to herself. She managed to summon the energy to stand and staggered back into the waiting room. She fell back into her chair and within moments she was asleep.

-.-

Kayla was awoken by a frantic Cooper bursting into the otherwise empty waiting room, calling her name. Kayla jerked awake, frightened. She reached instinctively for her gun but then remembered she had left it on the warehouse floor.

"Kayla! Kayla, what the hell happened?!" he demanded, rushing over to her. "How is she?! What's going on?!"

"She's... she's out of surgery, but she's still in critical condition," said Kayla in a monotone. "She's... okay, I've got a lot to tell you. Please, sit down..."

Kayla had no idea why she wanted to tell him, but she told him everything. She told him everything that had happened since Claire's murder. When she was finished, she knew he was furious. She knew she was about to be in very serious trouble.

"You knew," he hissed, a level of vehemence Kayla had never heard from him present in his voice. "You knew what could happen to her! You knew all along that this fuck could find you, and yet you stuck around anyway! You did this to her!"

"You don't think I know that," Kayla snapped. "Trust me, I've been blaming myself all night. I'd give anything to trade places with her, to be lying in there dying instead of her. I can't, Coop. All I can do is sit here and wish I was in her place instead."

"I warned you that if you ever hurt her, I'd..."

"You'll what?" Kayla demanded. "You'll what? Kill me?!" She held up her wrist. "When Ariana's heart stopped and they told me she was dead, I couldn't live with it... or without her. But I've lost her anyway... so, if you want to kill me, Coop, go ahead. Please, do it. You'll be doing me a favor." Cooper turned away from her furiously. He paced back and forth a few times, his face impassive.

"I want to see her," he snapped at Kayla, who nodded.

"There's a nurse's station down the hall." Kayla told him. "Ask someone there and they'll take you back." Cooper glared at her and stormed off, out of the waiting room. Kayla waited a few minutes before following him. She found Ariana's room easily enough, but she didn't go in. She just watched Coop sit beside her bed through a wide window outside.

It was the first time Kayla had seen Ariana since she had run to find the doctor after her heart had started beating again. She looked so pale, so fragile. Kayla thought a light breeze might just crush her. Tears welled in the brunette's eyes again as she stood there, watching her best friend, her partner, her savior, the love of her life fighting for her life. The guilt of everything she had done nearly broke her then and she stumbled back to lean against the wall on the far side of the corridor.

"Fuck..." she breathed. "Fuck, fuck, fuck..."

"Baby girl, didn't I ever teach you not to use that kind of language?" Kayla's head snapped around in the direction of the voice so fast that she cricked her neck.

"Mom?!" she exclaimed. Kayla's mother, Penny, stood at the end of the corridor. She looked like an older version of Kayla herself, with similar long, dark hair and identical brown eyes. Kayla leapt to her feet and ran down the hallway. Her mother engulfed her in the kind of hug only a mother can give and Kayla, who truly believed she could not cry any more that day if she tried, broke down completely in her mother's arms.

When Kayla had cried herself out, her mother released her and held her out at arm's length to look her over. She smiled.

"Well, at least you've been eating," she said kindly. "I was worried you weren't taking care of yourself. I expected you to be far too thin."

"That's Ariana, she... she loves to cook and she's really good at it." Kayla explained. "She..."

"It's okay," said Penny. "I know it must be difficult to talk about her. I could tell by the way you talked about her that you really love her."

"I do," said Kayla, shaking her head. "I really do, Mom. I never thought I'd be whole again, not after Claire... but then I met her, and she just... she has this way about her. The way she looks at the world, she's... an angel. She's an angel and she's gonna die."

"Sweetheart, you don't know that," said Penny in a very stern voice. "She's fighting this, you know she is. She's..."

"Not strong enough," said Kayla quietly. "She's not strong enough to win, not this time."

"Maybe not," said Penny. "That's why she needs you to believe that she is strong enough. Help her, Kayla. Show her you believe in her. Give her your strength."

"You know, you're the second person to tell me that tonight?" said Kayla. "Maybe you're on to something."

"Always listen to your mother," said Penny with a slight smile. Kayla nodded absently and wandered slowly back over to the window, watching Cooper who still sat with Ariana.

"She's beautiful," said Penny, joining her at the window. "You've got good taste."

"The best," said Kayla. "Mom... it's really good to see you. I pictured this day a million times; Dwayne dead, me finally free... I just never thought it would end like this. I thought... I thought I'd be happy when he was gone. Now? Now, I'd take a thousand of him back, alive and well and pissed at me if it meant I could save her."

"You can't change the past, Kayla," said Penny lightly. "What's done is done. You can't change it, so don't fret over it. Let the past go and focus on the here and now. Speaking of the here and now, it's nearly five in the morning and you look exhausted. You should go home and get some rest." Kayla's eyes widened and her temper, which had hovered so close to the boiling point all night, exploded.

"I'm not going anywhere!" she shouted angrily. "I'm not leaving this hospital until I know what's happening with Ariana!"

"Kayla, nothing is happening right now," said Penny gently. "We're all just waiting. You should go home and rest. You've been through a trauma yourself tonight. Go home, sleep, and come back in the morning. If anything happens, I'll call you immediately and you can come back."

"If she dies while I'm gone, I'll never forgive myself for not being here," said Kayla fiercely. Penny fixed her daughter with a serious stare.

"If she dies at all, you'll never forgive yourself," she countered. "I know you, Kayla, better than you do. Now, go home and rest."

Kayla relented. Her mother was right... she usually was. If Ariana were to die, she wasn't going to wake up first. She would never know Kayla wasn't with her, and it was true that she wouldn't forgive herself if she died anyway, so what did it really matter? She bade her mother goodbye. She thanked her for making the trip to Detroit and asked her to please tell Cooper where she'd gone.

She went downstairs and called a cab to take her back to the warehouse. The ride back was quiet and uneventful. Kayla sat in the back of the car with her head pressed against the cool window, hoping to relieve her pounding headache.

They arrived ten minutes later. Kayla paid the driver and made her way toward the open cargo doors. The apartment fire people were all in their warm tents, probably asleep. Kayla didn't bother them. Someone had called the police during the night. She found the remains of some crime scene tape still attached to the warehouse wall.

The bodies of Dwayne and his men were gone. Kayla vaguely recalled someone saying that only one of Dwayne's thugs had survived the beating. She hoped he was hurting. As she started toward the stairs, she saw the blood. The pool of blood that had spread slowly around her as she had held Ariana. She stood there, staring into the field of red for a long time, barely able to believe that it was real.

Finally, she turned away and walked passed the Mclaren, which still sat gleaming in its usual spot, and went upstairs. She recalled seeing a terrified Sophia in the car before Ariana had been shot. She briefly wondered how the little girl was handling it all. Probably better than she was.

She reached the top of the stairs and pulled the door open. The apartment was just as they had left it before they had gone to the mall. It was as though nothing was different, as though nothing had happened. Their world, their lives, frozen in this room. Kayla walked over and sat down on the sofa. She felt like crying again. Everything here reminded her of Ariana, but she didn't even have the energy to summon tears.

Fluffers bounded out of the bedroom and leapt lightly into Kayla's lap. Kayla lifted her uninjured hand and stroked his fur. He purred happily for a few minutes before jumping down onto the floor. He started looked around the apartment as though searching for something.

'Or someone' Kayla thought sadly.

"She's not here," she called out to him. "Ariana's not here. You're stuck with me," She stood and started toward the bedroom. She fell fully clothed into bed and instantly regretted it. The bed smelled just like Ariana. The pillows, the blankets, the sheets, all of it. As she lay there, however, the scent began to comfort her. It was as though Ariana was there with her, in a way. It was the only thing that kept Kayla from screaming and at some point, just before the sun crested the horizon, it lulled her to sleep.

-.-

It was nearly nine in the morning when Kayla woke. She knew she had only gotten a couple of hours of sleep, but she couldn't drift back off again. After fifteen minutes of lying there, tossing and turning, she cursed and climbed out of bed. She ambled into the apartment, instantly noticing just how wrong it felt. By this time of morning, the apartment was warm and filled with the smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen.

That morning, it was cold and had none of the warmth and light that Ariana brought to each morning. She should be there, smiling happily when Kayla emerged from the bedroom, grumpy in the early morning hours. She should be saying something sweet, something nonsensical... something to make her brighten up. Instead, the apartment was quiet.

"You never noticed how quiet it was here before, did you?" Claire asked, stepping out of the bathroom and watching Kayla with her arms folded across her chest.

"She was always the first one up," said Kayla, sitting down weakly on the sofa. "She made this place feel like... home." Claire nodded understandingly. "Where the hell did you disappear to last night, anyway?" Claire shrugged.

"What? Just because I'm dead doesn't mean I can't have a life," she said stiffly. "I don't have time to stand around here all day. My social life is on fire!"

"Right..." said Kayla, leaning back and resting her head on the back of the couch. "So, I... I guess you know my mom showed up last night?" Claire nodded.

"Yeah, it was good seeing her again," she said. "She was always so nice to me. I'm glad she was here for you... and that you listened to her and came home. You needed some rest."

"Yeah..." said Kayla absently. "I didn't get much. I... I need to call my mom, make sure Ariana's okay..." She found her phone and called. There had been no change. Ariana's life was still hanging by a thread. Kayla knew she should feel better. No news, in this case, was good news, but nevertheless, she still felt miserable.

"But she's still alive," said Claire firmly. "She's still here."

"For now..." said Kayla quietly. Claire looked at her for a long moment, looking thoughtful.

"She's going to  be fine," she said after a moment. "Ariana, I mean. She's not going to die, she'll be fine. I know it."

"You can't know that," Kayla snapped. "You're either a ghost or my own traumatized delusion, I haven't decided which yet, but either way, you can't know that."

"Fine, don't believe me," said Claire airily. "But she really will be okay. You say she's not strong enough, but she is. She's a fighter and she's much tougher than you give her credit for. She'll pull through... you mark my words." Kayla rolled her eyes and stood up. She marched to the refrigerator and jerked it open. She spent a full minute looking inside before she realized she didn't want anything. She closed the door and turned to head back to the couch. When she looked up, Claire was gone again.

"Will you stop doing that?!" Kayla shouted, realizing with a jolt of fear that she was most likely talking to herself. She had just sat back down on the sofa when a knock came at the door. She stood up and went to open it. Two police officers stood at the top of the stairs.

"Mikayla Austin?" one of the officers asked. Kayla nodded, half expecting them to arrest her. "Ms. Austin, we need to speak with you. May we come in?" Kayla nodded again and stood back to let them in. The officers walked into the apartment and Kayla, shaking from head to toe, closed the door behind them.

16: Chapter XVI: Darkness
Chapter XVI: Darkness

Darkness. It was the only thing that pierced Ariana's bemused consciousness. That, and a dull ache in her abdomen. She could vaguely her noises, voices, but none of it made any sense. It was all just white noise. She felt like she was moving, but she couldn't tell where she was or how she was moving. She felt lost. She was confused and she wanted it all to stop. She wanted Kayla.

Oh no, Kayla... Dwayne had been there, she remembered him. He had shot Kayla... no, he hadn't. He had shot her. Without any warning a jolt of pain so terrible that Ariana couldn't begin to describe it shot through her chest. She couldn't thing, she couldn't breathe. She was dying... or maybe she was already dead. Suddenly, lightening struck, crackling through her body. She convulsed, her body twitching uncontrollably. It happened again and then once again.

Then it stopped. Her world grew quiet and calm and the pain went away. She suddenly found that she could see. She could see the room around her, the doctor and nurses, and Kayla. She was on her knees, sobbing. Suddenly, she seized a scalpel and ordered the doctors to leave. Ariana didn't understand why she was doing this. What had happened to make her so angry? They were both safe, right? They were there, together. Kayla should be happy.

Ariana tried to call out to her, but her voice faltered in her throat. She couldn't speak. She reached out, trying to touch Kayla's shoulder to get her attention but try as she might; she could not get her hand to make contact. It was as though some energy field surrounded her hand, keeping her from touching anything. It made no sense. She should be able to speak and touch things. She remembered being able to do these things before. So, why couldn't she do them now?

She watched Kayla force the doctors from the room and close the door behind them. She turned around and stared at the bed Ariana knew she had been lying on... lying on? If she had been lying down, why did she not remember standing up? Filled with dread, Ariana turned and followed Kayla's gaze to the bed where her own body lay. The endless drone of a heart rate monitor filled the room and Ariana realized the truth. She was dead.

Somehow, she found that she was more worried for Kayla than she was for herself. It made sense, in a way. There was nothing she could do for herself; she was dead after all. But Kayla was about to implode. Ariana could feel it. The brunette was about to do something horrible. She let out an anguished cry that stabbed through Ariana's soul, cutting her like a knife. Kayla began to rip apart the room, screaming, cursing, and destroying everything in sight.

Ariana was pleading with her to stop, but she didn't. She wrecked the room before finally sitting down on a stool beside the bed. Ariana stood next to her, looking down at her own body.

'There was so much I didn't get to do' Ariana thought sadly. 'I never met Kayla's family... I never even got to see Paris.'

"You will," said a gentle voice. Ariana spun around. A young girl stood before her. She wore a blindingly white dress that hurt Ariana's eyes to look at. Her hair was long and just as white as her dress. Her eyes were a brilliant blue and made Ariana feel as though she were being x-rayed. The girl stood there, just staring at her while Ariana tried to find the proper words.

"Who... who are you?!" Ariana demanded. "What's going on?"

"You're dead," said the girl quietly. "I'm very sorry about that. It's... a problem, but not unexpected... nor can it not be overcome."

"I don't understand," said Ariana. "I... who are you? What do you want? How is my being dead not unexpected?"

"Oh, my dear child," the girl quipped. "There are reasons for everything, even this. Who I am isn't really that important right now. What is important is fixing this problem. You're dead and you're not supposed to be. You can't be. So, we have to fix that." 

"If I'm dead then there's no fixing that," said Ariana sadly. "Dead is dead."

"Oh, you'd be surprised," said the girl. "Dead most certainly is not dead. You have things you are supposed to do. So does Kayla. Neither of you can do them apart. You have to be together to get to the end. It won't work any other way. You have to save each other... you have to save her, Ariana."

"Who? Kayla?" asked Ariana, becoming more confused by the second. The girl just smiled.

"I promise, my sweet. One day, you will understand," she bit her lip uncertainly. "Now, you have to go back. It's possible. You have to find the way. You have to be strong, Ari. You have to be brave. You have to find the way back. You already know the path. Kayla, the bond you share... your love. Use it. It's our only hope. I'll help you. I'll bring you back, but you have to take the first step." The girl simply vanished. Ariana didn't understand what she was supposed to do. Use the bond she had with Kayla? Their love? And the girl would then bring her back to life? It made no sense at all. Across the room, Kayla picked up the necklace she had given her for her birthday. She looked at it, reading the inscription on the back.

"Forever," she whispered. The word sent a chill through Ariana. "That was a promise, Ari. You and me. Forever." Ariana realized what Kayla was going to do a split second before she picked up the scalpel again. She tried again to touch Kayla, to make her hear her screaming... to make her stop. She couldn't. Kayla was going to do it. She was going to kill herself and Ariana couldn't stop her.

'She's doing this because I'm dead,' Ariana thought. 'She's doing this because of me.' And then it clicked. It was ridiculous, but she had to try.

Ariana closed her eyes and drifted down, toward her body. She didn't know if it would work, if she was strong enough. She just had to believe that the only strength she had left was enough. Her love for Kayla was all she had. If it wasn't enough, if it didn't work... Kayla would die.

She lay there, positively willing her heart to start beating again. It was a stupid idea and obviously it wouldn't work. If it were possible for a person to will themselves back to life, no one would ever die. But it was the only thing she could do. She saw Kayla draw the blade across her skin. She watched the blood flowing down her arm. She had done it, she was dying and Ariana couldn't stop it. She couldn't do anything.

Beep.

Ariana looked toward the heart rate monitor at the same time Kayla did. It continued its droning buzz... for only a moment. It beeped again, and then again, and again, and again. Ariana realized with a start what it meant. Her heart was beating again. She was still alive. Just as a wave of happiness rushed over her and Kayla leapt from the bed, Ariana was painfully forced back into her body and her world went dark.

-.-

It was dark. It was always dark. Ariana's eyes had become oddly adjusted to the darkness. She could see in the dark easier than most people could... not that there was anything to see. She was trapped in a small closet, not even large enough for her to lay down flat in. It was a completely dark and featureless room except for a tiny red dot on the video camera mounted near the door.

She curled up, pulling her knees up to her chin. She was cold and lonely, but soon, she knew, her father would come to her. Tonight, she would be sure to be a good girl. Her father would be good to her if she didn't disobey. She always tried her best, but sometimes she made mistakes. It was all her fault, of course, but sometimes she thought her father was unfair. He would punish her for the smallest things, and punish her sternly.

She still loved him, even when he hurt her. She knew that he was only doing it for her own good. She had to learn the price for disobedience... and for failing to know her place. She was there to please her father. She knew that. It was her whole reason for existing, after all. Her mother and father had told her so many times. It simply must be true.

She lay there in silence, wishing her father would come. The dark room was so lonely... so scary. She hated the dark, she always had. Yet, when the door was opened the light hurt her eyes. She didn't understand why. She wanted to be in the light, yet she was afraid of what might happen if she were to be exposed to it for too long. Maybe it would burn her skin? She didn't know.

She so wanted to know things, too. She wanted to know what lay beyond the hallway outside her closet. She knew there must be something, for it was where her parents came from. She just didn't know what was out there. She imagined that it was a beautiful, magical place with lots of light and happiness. Her father never spoke about it, and her mother never spoke at all. All she knew was that, according to her father, she would never see the land beyond the hallway.

She waited a long time before she finally heard footsteps approaching. The were the heavy, steady footfalls of her father. She sat up anxiously, waiting for her father to come in. She was afraid that he wouldn't be pleased... and she so wanted to please him. However, he was often so difficult to please. She would do the things he told her, obeyed his every command, but sometimes he still said she failed. He still punished her.

The door swung open. Her father stood there, his stoic face impassive. He knelt down and seized her ankles, dragging her halfway out into the hall. He stood up and shed his clothing, calm and deliberate. He looked down at her and the smallest of smiles appeared on his face. He knelt down again and touched her. She liked it. He was firm, but gentle. This was when she really loved him. When he treated her like his princess.

He took her. She didn't always understand the feelings, the things he did to her. Some of them felt good, other times she felt as though he was trying to tear her apart. When he was finished, he stood and stared down at her, his expression hard. Ariana knew he wasn't pleased. She had done wrong and she knew it. He would punish her. He knelt again and took her hand. He nuzzled it for a moment under his chin. He gently brushed her fingers with his own before turning and walking away.

He returned shortly with a toolbox and Ariana began to cry. She knew what he was about to do and the very thought terrified her. Her father took her hand again and placed it on the wall above her head. She held it there while he opened the toolbox. He found what he was looking for and moved toward her. He placed the point of a long nail against her palm. Ariana whimpered and looked away. He raised the hammer and struck the head with a powerful blow. Ariana screamed. She had known it was coming, had remembered what it had felt like for it wasn't the first time her father had punished her in this way. Regardless, she screamed an earsplitting, anguished howl that no one other than her father heard.

Her father brought the hammer down again and again, driving the nail deeper and deeper into Ariana's tiny hand. She screamed in agony each time until he had driven the nail in completely. Then he started on her other hand. When he had finished, he put the tool away and knelt in front of her. He smiled down warmly at her and gently stroked her cheek.

"It'll be okay, sweet pea," he whispered. "You have to learn. This is how you learn. This must be done, my darling daughter." He leaned in slowly and kissed her. He left, closing the door behind him and plunging her, once again, into complete darkness.

A full day later, Ariana's mother came and removed the nails. Ariana cried went she dragged the clawed end of the hammer across her palms and wrenched the nails out. Her mother didn't say a single word the whole time. She didn't even meet her daughter's eye. She just ripped out the nails and bandaged the little girl's hands. When she was done, she left Ariana alone in the dark again. But that day, the ten-year-old discovered she was not alone. She wasn't, because a voice spoke to her out of the darkness.

"Hey, sweetie. How are you? Hmm... I guess that's a pretty stupid question, isn't it?"

"Who's there?" Ariana asked, looking around, her eyes wide with fear.

"Huh?" asked the voice. "Oh... right, you can't see me. Listen, this will be hard to understand. I'm... you. Just... an older you. I'm the future you that got out of this place. I’m free now. I’m free from him… from both of them.”

“But… but why would you want to leave?” Ariana asked. She couldn’t understand why her older self would choose to leave her only home. “Mother and Father love me… us. I’m supposed to be here.”

“They don’t love you,” said Older Ariana. “I’m sorry, but they don’t. They never have… they never will. They’re hurting you… abusing you. I know they tell you that you deserve to be punished because you did wrong, but you didn’t do anything wrong and you don’t deserve this. I’m free of this place and I’m living out there… in the real world… and Ariana, it’s beautiful.

“You’ve always wondered what’s on the other side of the door at the end of that hallway. There’s a whole wide world out there. It’s full of light, and love, and so much happiness. You can have it too, sweetie. You’ve just got to be brave.”

“What… what would I have to do?” Young Ariana asked.

“Just one simple thing, it’s really easy. Just open that door.” Ariana looked toward the door and slowly shook her head.

“I… I can’t. It’s locked and my father will get mad at me,” she said. “I can’t do it.”

“He won’t get mad at you, Ariana. He can’t. Listen, I know this seems real to you and it is… or, it was. This is just a memory; our memory. This is just one day of the countless days we spent locked in here. We were… hurt… and part of us was… broken. And that broken part hid itself away somewhere… it hid here, locked away. But, if you open that door you’ll let it out and everything will be okay. You’ll wake up in a beautiful world with… with Kayla.”

“Who’s Kayla?” asked Young Ariana. The little girl could hear the love in her older self’s voice.

“She’s the most amazing person in the world,” Older Ariana answered. “She’s our best friend. She saved us, she protects us, and she loves us so much that I can’t explain it to you. She’s beautiful, smart, funny, and fiercely protective… actually, she’s a little overprotective sometimes. She’s brave, strong, but right now she’s broken. She’s hurting and she needs us. You can help her… if you’ll just open the door.”

“Why can’t you open it?” Young Ariana asked.

“Because… because I’m not the broken part of us, Ariana. You are. You’re the part of us that’s damaged… that’s too scared to come out. But if you don’t open that door… if you hide in here, if you can’t be brave… you’ll never see that world I told you about. You’ll stay here, trapped, being punished forever. But if you open the door, he won’t be able to hurt you anymore. You’ll be safe, happy, and you’ll get to experience the most beautiful love you could ever imagine.”

Young Ariana slowly stood up. It all sounded so good, but she was afraid. She belonged here, she knew it. This was her home and despite what her older self said, she knew her parents loved her. They told her so. She believed them. She loved them and she wasn’t going anywhere.

“No,” she said sharply, sitting back down again. “No. I’m not opening anything. I’m staying right here.”

And so she stayed, locked in that closet, trapped, unwilling to brave the world beyond the closed door.

17: Chapter XVII: Lost
Chapter XVII: Lost

Ariana had stabilized. That was the only thing that pierced Kayla's brain as she rushed into the hospital much later that evening. She had been interviewed for a very long time by the Detroit Police Department and then again by the FBI. Kayla had been terrified the entire time. She just knew they were going to piece together the truth and that she would end up in prison. She fully expected them to know that it had been she, Kayla, who had murdered Marcus and the others back in California.

It turned out that neither agency remotely suspected Kayla of any wrongdoing. Dwayne, having told the San Diego PD that it had been Marcus who had killed Claire, and he who had done the killings Kayla was responsible for and that Dwayne had killed his own brother to stop his murderous rampage. There was no reason for them to suspect Kayla at all. She was even being hailed as a hero for killing the leader of a powerful street gang that the FBI had been trying to take down for years.

She was worried they would ask her why she had left San Diego so abruptly after Claire's death and why Dwayne had come looking for her. However, as they had no evidence of any wrongdoing, and the fact that she had taken out a known violent criminal, it appeared that the FBI had decided to accept the win and let Kayla go.

Kayla, however, did not give one single damn. All she cared about was Ariana, and she was doing much better. She had stabilized and that fact alone had greatly encouraged her doctors. Everyone seemed to believe that the most serious danger had passed. The focus then settled on Ariana's extreme blood loss. Kayla could testify to the fact that Ariana had lost vast amounts of blood the previous night. She had received a transfusion, but the hospital was short on Ariana's blood type; O-Negative.

It was lucky, then, that both Kayla and Penny were O-Negative. Kayla immediately offered to donate whatever was needed. They could hook a vacuum to her for all she cared. They, of course, did not take that much from either woman but by the time Kayla had finished giving blood, she felt quite woozy.

"I think I might pass out," said Kayla, looking across the room at her mother who sat on the bed opposite her, investigating the cloth bandage that the nurse had secured to her arm.

"Me too," said Penny, looking slightly nauseous. "Did I... have I ever mentioned that I don't like to see... blood?"

"I don't think so," said Kayla. "I guess it's a good thing it doesn't bother me."

"That isn't funny, Mikayla," Penny said sharply.

"I wasn't joking," Kayla shot back.

"And that's a good thing, because you always sucked at telling jokes," said Claire, who leaned casually against the end of Penny's bed examining her fingernails as though they were a mildly interesting television program.

"Oh, who asked you?" Kayla snapped.

"What was that, sweetheart?" asked Penny distractedly.

"Uh... nothing," said Kayla uncertainly.

"Yeah, kiddo," said Claire. "Don't forget, you're the only one that can see me. Don't want people thinking you're going bat-shit, now do we? Of course, the first sign of madness is talking to your own head... and the second sign is answering yourself." Claire smirked. "If I'm not a ghost, you're really screwed."

"Thanks..." Kayla muttered. She left her mother and went to sit with Ariana. She hadn't actually visited Ariana in her room yet. In truth, she didn't want to go in. She was afraid, terrified of seeing Ariana so fragile. It was with an immense amount of trepidation that Kayla pushed open the door to Ariana's room and stepped inside.

The room was deathly quiet save for the periodic beeping of Ariana's EKG. She felt oddly as though she were walking into a tomb and she wished she could turn around and run away. But she had to stay there; she had to stay strong for Ariana. Both her mother and Claire had told her so.

She slowly approached Ariana's bed, her gaze falling on the redhead's right hand, which lay loosely at her side. There were still bloodstains on her fingers. Kayla went into the bathroom and returned with a rag moistened with water from the sink. She sat down next to the bed and carefully began wiping Ariana's hand.

"There," she said, gently placing Ariana's hand back onto the blankets. "That's better." She finally forced herself to look up at Ariana's face. She was so pale, like a ghost. Her brilliantly red hair was a mess and despite Kayla's attempts to smooth it, she simply couldn't do anything with it.

"Ari..." she whispered. She knew Ariana couldn't hear her, the doctors had told her so, but she had so many things she needed to say. She had to talk, to let everything out before she imploded. She wanted to cry, but she discovered that her pain seemed to be beyond tears now. It had seeped into her soul and settled there. It started to devour her from the inside.  "I'm so sorry, Ari. This... you... it's all my fault. I should have left the warehouse. I never should have stayed. I never should have fallen in love with you. I tried so hard to leave... I wanted to, but I... You were just so... God, I needed you, Ari. I needed you... bad.

"I was selfish. I knew this day would come... I knew he'd find me and I knew you'd end up in the middle of it. I thought I could protect you. I thought... I thought I was smarter than him. I wasn't. He knew from the start right where to hit me and I should have known... I should have anticipated it. I was stupid and I let this happen. I should've stopped him, I should've... I should've... Fuck, Ari! Why did you take that bullet for me?!" It was the thing that had weighed on her more than anything else had since Ariana had been shot. It was the one thing that made her feel even more miserable.

"He shot me, Ari! He shot me! I should be in that bed, not you! I should be the one dying! You should have let him kill me! I could have handled that. I would have been okay with that. I deserve it, but you… you don’t. I was supposed to protect you, to keep you safe. It wasn’t your responsibility to protect me…”

“I asked her to,” her mother’s quiet voice said from behind her. Kayla turned around, confused. Penny stood by the door, watching with bloodshot eyes.

“What?” Kayla asked. She didn’t understand this at all. How could Penny have asked Ariana to protect her. It made no sense.

“When she called me, I… I asked her to look after you,” Penny explained. “I asked her to keep you safe. She promised me she would. I guess she thought she was doing what I asked...”

“You didn’t ask her to put herself between me and a loaded gun, Mom,” said Kayla, shaking her head. “She did that herself. Hell, she would’ve done it whether you asked her to or not. It’s just who she is.” Kayla turned back to Ariana, considering the matter closed.

“I wish you could have met her, Mom,” said Kayla quietly. “She was incredible. She always said that I was the strong one, but Mom… God, she’s so much stronger than me. She… she’s been through so much… she’s been through things that would destroy most people. I couldn’t have survived what she went through, what she suffered through.

“It would have broken me, but her? I think all it did was make her that much stronger. She’s got the purest heart of anyone in the world. She’ll give and give and never expect anything in return. Her grandfather died a couple of years ago and he left her over a quarter of a billion dollars. Do you know what she wants to do with it? She doesn’t want to buy an island or a jet or a mansion. She wants to use it to make other people happy. Damn girl bought me a two hundred thousand dollar car just because I said I liked it.”

“She almost sounds too good to be true,” said Penny. Kayla closed her eyes and nodded slowly.

“Yeah…” she whispered. “I guess she was.”

-.-

The week that followed was the longest of Kayla’s life and by the end of it, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to live to see the next one. Ariana’s condition remained the same and according to her doctors, there was very little chance that Ariana would ever wake up. While there was still some amount of brain activity, the damage, they said, was just too severe.

That had been exactly six days ago and since then Kayla had begun a downward spiral that she was sure would never end. She spent most of her days in a near catatonic state, unmoving and refusing to speak to anyone. She sat in Ariana’s hospital room, usually at the window, staring blankly out at a world that didn’t seem to care that such a beautiful person was gone from it forever.

Kayla had stopped eating and she only slept when her brain could no longer keep her awake. She was letting herself waste away and she didn’t care. She couldn’t care. That had been the strangest realization of all. She didn’t care about anything anymore. She felt nothing. Not happiness, not sadness, absolutely nothing at all. She only felt empty.

Claire still visited her occasionally, but Kayla had long since stopped responding to her. In recent days, Claire hadn’t been speaking either. She just sat there with her in silence. Perhaps this was a projection of Kayla’s feeling of emptiness. She couldn’t know for sure.

Kayla was in her usual spot at the window, sitting in a chair and staring out at the hospital parking lot, when her mother entered the room. She paused briefly at Ariana’s bed before approaching Kayla.

“Kayla, sweetheart, I’m really worried about you,” she said softly. “Will you come downstairs with me? You need to eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” said Kayla, speaking for the first time in three days. Her throat was tight and it felt strange to form the words. She didn’t like it, the feeling of it. She wished she didn’t have to talk. She wished everyone would just leave her alone.

“You haven’t eaten in two days, honey,” said Penny. “You must be hungry. You should eat something.”

“Do you know how Ariana eats?” Kayla snapped, still gazing out of the window, not really seeing anything at all. “Do you know? They come in here twice a day and shove a plastic tube down her throat.”

“That doesn’t…”

“I’m not hungry,” Kayla interrupted. “Leave me alone,”

“Starving yourself isn’t going to help her,” said Penny reasonably. “Please, honey, just…”

“Get out,” Kayla said in a monotone. She had no energy for anger. Even her rage had abandoned her. She couldn’t even gather the strength to shout. “Please, just… just leave me alone.”

“Okay,” said Penny, putting on her best understanding voice. “Okay, well I’ll come back in a little while then. I’ve got to go to the airport and pick up your sister. She’s flying in today. Her flight gets in at 8:15 tonight. We’ll come by later.”

Kayla wasn’t sure when Penny left. She just stopped talking, but Kayla never heard her leave. Time passed, although Kayla was never sure just how much. She judged the time of day by whether or not the sun was up or not. The hours themselves held no meaning. They were just long, endless spans of time that Kayla wished would end.

Sometime later, after the sun had vanished and Kayla had been left to stare instead at the darkness beyond the window, the door opened once again and Cooper came inside. Kayla didn’t acknowledge him. She half-wished he had the strength to do what he said he would. She wished he would just kill her. She knew he wanted to. She could see it in his eyes every time he looked at her.

“How is she?” Cooper asked after standing beside her bed for a few minutes. Kayla didn’t immediately respond. She gave a good deal of thought to every word she spoke. She only spoke what she absolutely had to.

“The same,” she said, not bothering to look at him.

“Have you gone home recently? You’re wearing the same clothes you had on yesterday,” To Kayla, he didn’t sound remotely concerned. He was just making idle conversation.

“No,” she said.

“Well, you should,” said Cooper. “Staying here isn’t going to make her wake up. You should go home… get some rest.”

“I’m fine,” said Kayla. “I don’t want to go anywhere… especially not back there.”

“What? The warehouse?” said Cooper. “Why not?”

“It doesn’t matter,”

“You brought it up, Kayla. Why don’t you want to go back to the warehouse?”

“Because it’s hers.” She said before she could stop herself. “It’s her home, Coop. It was never mine. I shouldn’t be there.”

“If you’d have thought of that before, this wouldn’t have happened,” Cooper snapped, but then much to Kayla’s surprise, he sighed. “I… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Why not? It’s true.”

“No… no, it’s not,” said Cooper slowly. “It’s… Look, what I said the night Ariana was shot, I… That was wrong. You didn’t mean for this to happen, I know that. I never liked the idea of the two of you living together… of you being together… but I always trusted Ariana’s judgment. You said she knew about Dwayne, about the danger she was in. I know she loved you…”

Loved…” Kayla said quietly. “Hmm… I guess that is the right word, isn’t it?” Cooper walked over and sank into the chair beside her, the chair so often occupied by Claire.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said gently.

“I know how you meant it,” said Kayla. She shook her head. “I wish she was dead. If she was dead, it’d all be so much easier. But this… not knowing… I hate seeing her like this. She’s alive, but… she’s not.”

“There’s always hope,” said Cooper. Kayla didn’t think he sounded as though he believed that at all. “She could come back to us. As long as her heart’s beating, there’s hope.”

“Not much,” said Kayla. Cooper managed a thin smile. Kayla couldn’t understand how.

“Don’t need much,” he said. He stood slowly and put his hands in his pockets. “I gotta get to the bookstore. I’ll swing back by in the morning. In the meantime, start taking better care of yourself. You look terrible.” He left, and Kayla, alone once again, turned back to the window and lost herself in the darkness beyond.

18: Chapter XVIII: Tearing Down Walls
Chapter XVIII: Tearing Down Walls

Kayla was sitting in her chair, staring out of the window, feeling completely lost when Claire pushed open the door, marched across the room, spun Kayla's chair around and slapped her across the face with every ounce of strength she could muster.

"Ow!" Kayla exclaimed, holding a hand to her face and glaring up at the blonde who stood with her hands on her hips, positively fuming. "The fuck was that for?!"

"To knock some sense into you, Austin!" Claire shouted. "What the hell are you thinking?! Sitting around here, moping all the time! Starving yourself to death!"

"I..."

"I wasn't done!" Claire snapped. "You are not doing this for one more minute! Snap out of it! Stop feeling sorry for yourself, ditch the 'poor me' attitude, get up, put your big girl panties on, and let's go!"

"Is this supposed to make me want to do something?" Kayla asked wearily. "Because it's not working." Claire slapped her again.

"Don't argue with me!" she bellowed. "You're doing this! You're going back to the warehouse, you're eating the biggest meal you've ever eaten, and then you're going to bed. After you wake up, we're going out."

"I'm supposed to go out with the mental projection of my dead best friend?"

"Damn right!" Claire hissed. "Alana's already in town! We'll bring her along too!"

"Alana's here?" Kayla asked. She vaguely remembered her mother mentioning something about her sister flying in the previous night, but she hadn't really been paying attention.

"Of course she's here," said Claire. "She flew in last night. If you'd ever talk to your mother, you might know that she just started working at your mom's company."

"Alana's working at West Coast Weddings?" Kayla asked. She was surprised that her younger sister had decided to work at her mother's wedding company. Much like Kayla herself, Alana had never shown any interest in working in the family business.

"Yep," said Claire. "She’s doing pretty much all of the bookkeeping."

"Alana's eighteen," said Kayla. "She only graduated from high school last summer. Mom put her in charge of her company's finances?"

"Your little sister really blossomed in your absence," said Claire. "Apparently, sometimes the older sister has to leave before the younger one can come into her own. Besides, it's not like it's a multi-million dollar corporation."

"Sure..." said Kayla. She didn't care. It was good for Alana if that's what she wanted to do. Her baby sister had always been incredibly smart, after all. She'd always been great with numbers.

"Right," said Claire. "Now, if you don't mind, we've got things to do." The blonde seized Kayla's arm and pulled her to her feet. "Go splash some water on your face and let's go."

Kayla obeyed blindly. She moved like a robot, numb and uncaring. She went into the bathroom and rinsed her face in the sink. She paused as she looked into the mirror. Her face was pale and gaunt. Her eyes had dark circles under them and they were very bloodshot.

"Shit... Coop was right. I do look terrible."

"That's because you've been living in a hospital for the past week," said Claire, sticking her head around the doorframe. "And you haven't showered once in that time. You really need to because you're... developing an odor. It's not flattering."

"Who asked you?" Kayla snapped, wiping her face on a towel. "I'll shower at the warehouse."

"Oh, so you're going then?" asked Claire, sounding surprised. Kayla shrugged heavily.

"Are you going to shut up and leave me alone if I say no?"

"Not a chance, Mikki," said Claire brightly.

"I didn't think so," said Kayla. "So, yeah... I'm going."

Kayla did her best to make herself presentable with what limited supplies she had. She then left the bathroom and went to Ariana's bed. The redhead lay silent and still, looking as though she were peacefully sleeping. Some of her color had returned in recent days, for which Kayla was glad. Ariana's usually tanned skin had been so pale for so long.

Kayla brushed the other girl's hair away from her face. She half expected her to open those big eyes and look up at her with a smile on her lips. She'd say something weird... something about kittens, perhaps. Kayla would laugh, they would kiss, and Ariana would bound away to go cook something. But Ariana didn't move. She didn't do anything at all. Kayla leaned in and kissed her on the forehead.

"I'll be back soon, sweetie," she whispered. "Don't worry, the nurses will take care of you. I love you, baby," She squeezed Ariana's hand tightly and turned to leave. Her eyes met Claire's, who stood near the door watching her intently.

"Damn..." Claire said, soundly highly moved. "You really love her, don't you? The look on your face... it's like you're leaving half of your soul behind."

"I am," said Kayla, glancing back at Ariana. "I am." She pushed past Claire and set off down the hallway. Claire followed her out of the hospital. They found the Mclaren parked in the lot and Kayla moved toward the driver's side door.

"Maybe I should drive," Claire suggested. "You're not exactly in the best shape to be operating a motor vehicle." Kayla looked up at her, arching her eyebrows.

"My hallucination is going to drive back to the warehouse?" Kayla said dryly. Claire shrugged.

"Good point," said the blonde, looking enviously at Kayla as she slipped behind the wheel. She rolled her eyes and got in on the passenger's side.

"Remember that douche your mom set you up with that had one of these?" asked Claire. "You never did take me for a ride."

"He never even let me drive it!" said Kayla, firing up the engine. "He was a jerk."

"He was a something," said Claire fiercely. The drive to the warehouse was utterly uneventful. They rode in silence beneath a cloudy, grey sky. They reached the warehouse in fairly good time and Kayla parked the car in the usual spot. As they got out, Kayla noticed most of the tents in Tent City were gone.

"What happened?" Kayla called out to Mike when she saw him leaving his tent with Sophia. "Where is everyone?"

"Gone," said Mike, shrugging heavily. "Most everybody left after... well, after what happened. Didn't think it was safe to stay here any more."

"You're still here," said Kayla.

"Only 'cause I got no place else to go," Mike slurred. "Otherwise, we'd be gone too. Not that we don't appreciate your hospitality. You and Ariana were awfully sweet to all of us, after all. Just... well, the men with guns and all the killing..."

"No, I... I understand," said Kayla. "You... you've all got to do what's right for your families. You're still welcome to stay as long as you'd like. Ariana would want you to stay."

"Thanks," said Mike. "Sophie really wants to visit her in the hospital, if that's okay?"

"Sure," said Kayla. "She's at St. Julian Memorial, Room 423."

"We'll stop by," said Mike. He turned and went back to Sophia. Kayla and Claire continued up to the apartment.

"He's drunk," said Claire dryly.

"Usually is," said Kayla. "He's... oh, Mike's a long story. I'll tell it to you sometime." Kayla pulled open the door to the apartment and entered, Claire following close behind. Penny sat on the sofa with her feet propped up on the coffee table, reading the front page of the morning paper.

"Hey," she called, glancing up from the paper.

"Hi," said Kayla and Claire at the same time. Kayla gave Claire an odd look. Claire seemed confused for a moment, then shrugged and nodded.

"Oh," she said. "Right, right... she was talking to you." Claire wandered into the kitchen while Kayla went to sit on the couch with her mother.

"I didn't expect to see you here," said Penny, folding up the paper and setting it aside. "I was afraid you'd never leave that hospital."

"I didn't want to, but... well, here I am," said Kayla with a heavy shrug. "Where's Alana? Is she here?"

"Right here, Mikki," said Alana, stepping out of the bathroom and smiling widely at her older sister. Alana Austin was a little less than a year younger than Kayla and was the spitting image of her older sister except for her eyes. Kayla had deep brown eyes, while Alana had grey ones.

"Hey, Alana," said Kayla, forcing a thin smile onto her face. She suddenly realized how wrong this all felt. She had always been so close with Alana. They had been the best of friends growing up. The two of them, along with Claire, had spent so much time together. Kayla had dreamed of the day she could be with her sister again, but recently each time she had envisioned reuniting with Alana, Ariana had always been there.

She had imagined how she would introduce the redhead to her family. She had just known that both her mother and sister would just love her. Now, everything was wrong. Kayla was miserable, Ariana was gone, and she felt nothing. She didn't even feel a single ounce of happiness as her sister crossed the room and pulled her into a tight hug.

"You look good," said Alana, holding her sister out at arm's length to look her over.

"I look like shit," said Kayla pointedly. Alana grinned.

"Yeah, you do, but I was trying to be encouraging," she said gently. "How are you doing, Mikki?"

"I'm fine," said Kayla quietly.

"Bullshit," said Alana. "Mom told me how you've been hold up in the hospital, refusing to eat or talk to anyone. You can't keep doing that, it isn't helping your girlfriend recover and it's killing you. So, you and I are going out tonight. No debate." Alana turned and retreated back into the bathroom.

"I knew I liked her," said Claire, nodding enthusiastically. "Tells it like it is, that girl."

"She's... different," said Kayla as the bathroom door snapped closed.

"She took you going on the run pretty hard," said Penny kindly. "She soldiered through it, much better than I did. She's strong, but since you left she's become... hard. She's damn dedicated, but sometimes I worry that she's trying too hard to close off her heart."

"She needs to," said Kayla. "If you don't have anything you care about, you can't be hurt. Love just makes us vulnerable... weak. I wish I could close off my heart… stop loving."

“You don’t really mean that,” said Penny sharply. “I know you don’t.”

It was true; she didn’t really mean it… not deep down. She so wanted to believe it, to believe that she could lock away her heart again and stop caring about anyone. Kayla would have given anything to do it, but it was far too late. Kayla couldn’t stop loving now, not after what she had found with Ariana. She did, however, believe that love was weakness. Love had caused her the greatest pain she had ever experienced. Love had robbed her of Claire and Ariana.

Love was a chink in her armor. It was a vulnerability in a world where such things made her so easy to hurt. She was tired of being hurt, of being weak. She wanted to be strong again… but then, hadn’t Ariana been strong? Most people would think that Ariana was weak, but she was undoubtedly the strongest person Kayla knew. Ariana had an inner strength that was so far beyond what Kayla could rationalize. She had survived her father’s tortures, where Kayla knew that she would not have.

Ariana was strong, and yet she loved like no one else. So, maybe love wasn’t such a weakness after all. Maybe love was what gave her that strength. Kayla couldn’t know for sure, and maybe it didn’t matter. She leaned back against the back of the sofa and looked up at her mother.

“I don’t, I guess…” she said miserably. “It would just be so much… easier… if I didn’t care.” Penny reached out and took her daughter’s hand.

“Baby, if you didn’t care about anyone, what would be the point?” she asked. “It’s the connections to others that make life worth living. You love Ariana, right?”

“Of course,”

“And you’ve loved the time you spent with her, right?” Penny pressed. “The moments you had with her?”

“Yes,” said Kayla. She had no idea where her mother was going with this. She knew she had a point, and knowing her mother it was probably a good one. That still didn’t mean Kayla was in any mood to hear it.

“Would you trade those moments for anything in the world? Would you ever give up the time you had with her?” Kayla shook her head. Damn her. Penny was right, of course. Kayla would have never given up the time she had spent with Ariana, not even if it meant sparing her the pain she suffered now.

“I know what you’re getting at, Mom,” said Kayla. “I… I get it, okay?”

“Good,” said Penny happily. “Don’t let me hear you talking about walling off your heart again. If you do that, if you close yourself off… you’ll end up regretting it. Tear down the walls around your heart, sweetie. They might keep the bad things out, but they keep all the good thing out too.” Kayla nodded slowly. Her mother was right, she usually was.

Kayla realized then that the love she and Ariana shared did not die just because Ariana was no longer with her. It was still there, living in Kayla. In her grief, she had forgotten that. She swore right then to never let that love die. She vowed to hold onto it, keep it with her, keep it strong. Love, after all, conquers everything.

19: Chapter XIX: Never Say Never
Chapter XIX: Never Say Never

I'm so tired of being here
Suppressed by all my childish fears
And if you have to leave
I wish that you would just leave
'Cause your presence still lingers here
And it won't leave me alone

These wounds won't seem to heal, this pain is just too real
There's just too much that time cannot erase

When you cried, I'd wipe away all of your tears
When you'd scream, I'd fight away all of your fears
And I held your hand through all of these years
But you still have all of me

“You need to stop listening to that song,” said Claire, coming up behind Kayla where she lay on the bed she had shared with Ariana and jerked the earbuds out of the brunette’s ears.

“I like this song,” Kayla snapped, snatching the buds out of Claire’s hand. She lay back down and put the earbuds back in her ears.

You used to captivate me by your resonating light
Now, I'm bound by the life you left behind
Your face it haunts my once pleasant dreams
Your voice it chased away all the sanity in me

These wounds won't seem to heal, this pain is just too real
There's just too much that time cannot erase

When you cried, I'd wipe away all of your tears
When you'd scream, I'd fight away all of your fears
And I held your hand through all of these years
But you still have all of me

“If you’re going to listen to music, listen to something happy at least,” said Claire, making a play to grab Kayla’s iPod. Kayla was faster and held the music player out of Claire’s reach.

“Go away, Claire,” she groaned.

I've tried so hard to tell myself that you're gone
But though you're still with me, I've been alone all along

When you cried, I'd wipe away all of your tears
When you'd scream, I'd fight away all of your fears
And I held your hand through all of these years
You still have all of me

“Now, you’ve listened to it,” said Claire firmly. “C’mon, try something more upbeat!” She managed to get her hands on the device and started scrolling through songs far more energetically than Kayla thought was necessary.

“Claire, stop it,” Kayla snapped, reaching out to jerk the player away. They fought briefly over control of the player and as they did, one of them pressed the Play button.

The day we met,
Frozen I held my breath
Right from the start
I knew that I'd found a home for my heart...

Kayla jerked the buds out of her ears and tossed them and the iPod across the room. She backed away from Claire, shaking her head violently. She sat down, shaking so badly she wasn’t sure her legs would keep her upright. It came flooding back all at once; a slow dance around a messy library, waking up to the smells of cinnamon and strawberries and the supple softness of her skin.

“Shit…” Kayla whimpered. “I’m sorry, Claire. That… that was our song.”

“You and Ariana,” said Claire, looking very sad. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… I just wanted to…”

“I know,” said Kayla. “I just… I can’t hear that song right now.” She hadn’t realized, until right then, just how much hearing that song would affect her. She hadn’t even thought about that song since Ariana had been shot, but the first note of it had sent chills down her spine and a spike through her heart. A thousand years… they hadn’t even had a month!

“I thought… I thought we were going out?” said Kayla, deciding she desperately needed a change of subject.

“Alana seemed to think it best to give you some time to yourself. She’s ready, though, whenever you are.”

 The rest of the evening passed in a blur. Alana dragged Kayla out to a movie and then to dinner. Claire was disappointed that she couldn’t eat anything, but she seemed to enjoy the movie until someone came up and sat down right on top of her. Kayla actually laughed aloud at that. Her sudden, inexplicable laughter drew strange looks her way, and awkward questions from Alana, but she didn’t care.

It was the first time she could remember laughing in recent memory. She had been so miserable for so long that she barely remembered what laughter felt like. With Ariana around, her life had been full of laughter. With her gone, it was as though all the laughter had been sucked out of the whole world. She was glad to find that it hadn’t been.

At dinner, Kayla found that she had started to feel better than she had in a week. She came to realize that she could feel Ariana all around her. In the food they ordered, in the way her sister said certain words, and even in their waitress who had brilliantly red hair. At first, everything that reminded her of Ariana had made her feel terrible, but her mother’s talk had made her reconsider everything.

Instead of being reminded that Ariana was never going to come back into her life, she decided to focus on a good memory of the girl every time she saw or heard something that reminded her of the redhead. When the waitress brought them their food, she thought of the first day she met Ariana. She remembered biting into that delicious cupcake and seeing Ariana’s eyes light up when she said she liked it.

She did that all night long and she managed to get through it. By the time they returned to the warehouse, she felt better. She was still utterly miserable, but still she felt better than she had. It was going to take much more than a talk with her mother and one night out for her to begin to heal, but it was at least a start.

Kayla made good on her promise and returned to the hospital around 8:00pm that evening with her sister. They walked through the darkened hospital and up to Ariana’s room. Kayla went immediately to Ariana’s bed. She still lay there, so still Kayla would have thought she had died had the EKG not indicated her heartbeat.

"Wow, she's really pretty," said Alana, hovering near the foot of Ariana's bed.

"Why is that the first thing everyone says when they see her lying in a hospital bed?" Kayla asked, sitting down in the chair beside the redhead's bed. Alana shrugged and said nothing. Kayla took Ariana's hand, smiling tearfully down at her.

"Hey, sweetie," she whispered. "This is my sister, Alana. She's here with me now and our mom is too. So, you don't have to worry about me. I want you to focus all of your strength on getting better. I'll be right here, baby, waiting for you." Kayla pressed her lips gently to Ariana's forehead, tears sliding relentlessly down her face. "I love you, kiddo."

Kayla drew away and sank slowly into her usual chair beside Ariana's bed. She kept a firm grip on Ariana's hand, hoping beyond hope that the redhead could somehow sense that she was there. Alana walked around to the far side of the bed, watching with a sad smile on her face.

"I hope I have that someday," she said wistfully. Kayla looked up at her.

"What?" she asked, unable to begin to guess what her younger sister could be talking about.

"I want what you and Ariana have," said Alana firmly. "I want the kind of love I see in you. She's your soul mate, Mikki. I want that. I want someone to look at me the way you look at her... because I've never seen anyone look at someone the way you look at her. It's like... I can't even describe it." Kayla shook her head.

"It's... the most amazing thing in the whole world," said Kayla quietly. She looked up at her sister with a stern expression on her face. "It's also the most terrifying thing you'll ever imagine. Love... it makes us weak. I... part of me believes love is weakness, because it damn sure makes us easier to hurt. But then I think about Ariana and I see how much strength she has and I... I'm not so sure anymore."

"I've seen you get hurt twice now, and it... it really scares me, Kayla," Alana confessed. "I don't want to feel the pain I've seen in your eyes... it'd be too much."

"You know, Mom said something really smart earlier today," said Kayla. "The pain I'm feeling, it... it's terrible. But I wouldn't trade the love I have for Ariana, the time I got to spend wit her, for anything. This pain... it's worth having now for what I was able to experience with her." She fixed her sister with her most serious stare. "It's worth it, Alana. It really is." Alana nodded and didn't reply.

"I'll... I'll leave you two alone," she said, turning and heading for the door. Before she could leave, however, Cooper pushed open the door and almost knocked her down.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Kayla!" he exclaimed hurriedly. He glanced at Alana, across the room at Kayla, then back at Alana. His mouth fell open. "Oh, dear God there's two of them..."

"Ha ha, very funny," said Kayla dryly. "Coop, this is my baby sister Alana. Alana, this is Cooper Jackson."

"Hi, Cooper," said Alana, smiling serenely at him. Cooper waved distractedly at her.

"It's nice to meet you, Alana," he said, walking over to Ariana's bed. "How is she?"

"The same," said Alana, hurrying over after him. "There's been no change."

"No news is good news, I suppose," said Cooper quietly.

“That’s right,” said Alana helpfully. Kayla arched her eyebrows at her younger sister, but said nothing. Cooper looked sadly down at Ariana while Alana stood next to him, patting his arm consolingly. Kayla cleared her throat uncomfortably.

“I’m gonna… I’m gonna grab some coffee from the vending machine,” she said slowly. “You guys want anything?”

“No, thanks,” said Alana briskly. Cooper shook his head. Kayla shrugged.

“Okay, then. I’ll… be right back.” She turned and headed down the hallway toward the cafeteria. The hospital tended to be fairly empty around that time of night and this proved to be true as Kayla encountered only a single nurse doing her rounds before she reached the cafeteria, which itself was completely empty.

She bought a cup of coffee from the vending machine and sat down at one of the many somewhat rickety tables that were scattered about the room. She sipped idly at her drink, not really tasting it or even really wanting it. She drank simply because it gave her something to do.

Kayla found herself often wishing for something to do, even though she had no energy to do anything at all. Really, she just wanted something to occupy her mind. That was the reason she had been listening to music back at the warehouse. It wasn’t because she was moping, but instead because she could lose herself in the songs and forget everything else.

If she could wish for anything right then, other than Ariana in full health, it would be to forget everything for just one day. If she could just have one day of pure, blissful peace… but she knew she couldn’t. Ariana was a constant, unending presence that wouldn’t leave her be. No matter what she did, the girl was always with her. She was even there with her in her dreams, torturing her without ever laying a finger on her.

“I just want to forget…” Kayla groaned to the empty room. She rested her forehead on the edge of the cool tabletop.

“Forget me?” Kayla’s head snapped up. Ariana sat at the neighboring table, those gorgeous blue eyes gazing over at her.

“Ari…” Kayla breathed as the redhead stood up and sat down at her table. “You… you can’t be here. You’re…”

“So badly brain damaged that I’ll never wake up again?” said Ariana plainly. “Yeah, I know. You’re right, I’m not really here. But then, you are seeing your dead best friend around here, so…”

“Oh, God… I’ve really lost it, haven’t I?” said Kayla weakly.

“You’re fine,” said Ariana firmly. “Trust me, you’ll be fine. But you and I do need to have a little chat. There are some things that you need to hear, and to hear them from me. First, you need to know that I don’t blame you for any of this. It isn’t your fault. You protect me. You did your best… there was nothing else you could have done for me.

“Secondly, it’s time you started to… let me go. Having you here, hearing your voice, it’s great. It’s good to know you’re there… but, you don’t have to come here everyday. You don’t have to spend every night here either. It’s okay for you to keep living your life, even if I can’t share it with you. The world doesn’t stop turning just because I’m dying. I need you to let me go. I can’t promise what will happen when you do, but… but Kayla, you’ve got to.”

“Claire said to hold on,” said Kayla quietly. “She said I needed to believe that you would get better.”

“And she’s right,” said Ariana. “I need your strength, your love… I need you. I don’t need you here, I need you out there, living. I need to know that you’re okay. You’re all I’ve got in the whole world, Kay-Kay… and I need you to be okay without me.”

“You sound like… are you saying you’re never coming back?” Kayla asked, unable to hold back her tears any longer. Ariana reached out and took Kayla’s hand. The redhead smiled warmly.

“Oh, never say never,” she told her firmly. “Love is the most powerful force in the universe, sweetie, and you and I have a heck of a lot of it. Keep it strong. I’m not saying you should stop loving me, or that you should forget about me. I just need you to be okay without me.”

“But I’m not, Ari,” Kayla whispered, shaking her head. “I… I don’t even know who I am anymore. I can’t think straight, I can’t sleep… I’m seeing dead people! I’m going crazy, Ariana. Shit, I’m already there! I need you back… bad.”

“I know,” Ariana said sadly. “Baby, I know you do. I’m trying, I think deep down you know that. I am fighting like hell to make it back to you. I’m trying… it’ll just take time.” She smiled again and leaned toward Kayla. They kissed and as Kayla closed her eyes, she felt her heart swell. She felt a tiny seed take hold within her and begin to grow. By the time they broke apart, Kayla had been filled with hope like never before.

“How did you…?” Kayla began, but as she opened her eyes she realized Ariana was gone. Across the room, the door opened and Kayla jumped, her head flying up off of the table. She looked around blearily and saw Cooper approaching her.

“Sorry,” he said apologetically. “I didn’t realize you were coming here for a nap,” Kayla looked up at him, confused.

“A nap? I didn’t…” She reached for her coffee only to find that it was ice cold. “It was a dream,” she whispered, unsure whether to feel happy or sad about that.

“What was?” Cooper asked. Kayla shrugged.

“Uh… nothing. It doesn’t matter.” She rubbed her eyes sleepily. “How… how long was I…?”

“About an hour,” said Cooper. “I started getting worried, so I came looking. Alana’s still with Ariana. She… talks a lot, your sister.” Kayla grinned.

“Yeah… that she does,” Kayla admitted. “She’s sweet, though.”

“Yeah…” said Cooper absently. “Yeah, she seems like a sweet girl. I think Ariana would like her.”

“Me too,” said Kayla, nodding.

“Well,” said Cooper. “I’m about to head home. Do you need anything? Clothes or anything from the warehouse?”

“Actually, Coop, I was thinking about… well, I thought I’d go back home. Spend the night at the warehouse tonight and… I just think it’d be good for me… to get out of here for a while.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” said Cooper, sounding immensely relieved. “Ariana would think so too,”

“You don’t think she’ll be upset?” Kayla asked. Cooper smiled and shook his head.

“I think she’d be very happy about it, actually,” He grinned. “C’mon, I’ll walk you back to Ariana’s room. Alana’s probably talking her ear off.”

“That sounds like Alana,” said Kayla. She hauled herself out of the chair and followed Cooper toward the door. She paused before she closed it, looking back at the place where she’d been sitting; at the place where she and Ariana had kissed. She smiled to herself at the memory. She still had that smile plastered to her face when she fell into bed back at the warehouse.

20: Chapter XX: Ninety Days Without an Incident
Chapter XX: Ninety Days Without an Incident

“Kayla, you’ve got a package!” Alana’s voice called out early the following morning. Kayla rolled over in bed, seriously debating whether or not she really wanted to get out of bed right then. She couldn’t recall ordering anything and Ariana had made no mention of any incoming packages either, so she couldn’t imagine what it might be.

Eventually, curiosity won out over her powerful desire to remain exactly where she was so she forced herself to climb out of bed and amble out into the apartment. Alana sat on the couch with a bowl of cereal, deeply engrossed in an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. She pointed vaguely toward the table in the kitchen, where a thick brown envelope was lying. Kayla rolled her eyes as she crossed the room and opened the envelope.

“What is it?” Alana asked when she heard the package being opened.

“It’s…” but the words died in her throat as the pair of small black booklets spilled out onto the table.

“What’s wrong?” Alana asked, managing to pull herself away from the TV and coming over to look. “Passports? You got a passport? Where are you going?”

“Ariana… she wanted to go to Paris,” said Kayla softly, running her fingers over the golden ‘United States of America’ on the front of the booklet. “I actually forgot we applied for these. I guess it doesn’t really matter now.” Alana put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Of course it matters,” she said. “Maybe you’ll still be able to take her there someday.” Kayla shrugged.

“You know, I… I had this plan. I was gonna trick her into thinking we were going someplace else. I was going to charter a private jet and tell her we were going… anywhere, really. We’d land and once she figured it all out, she’d be so excited… God, you should see her when she’s excited. Kid lights up the whole damn room. I would’ve taken her out, shown her the city… been all sappy and romantic the whole time. She would’ve loved it.”

“Are you gonna be okay?” Alana asked worriedly as Kayla put the passports back in the envelope. Kayla managed a slow nod.

“Yeah,” she said quietly. It was a complete lie. She was never going to be anything close to ‘okay’ ever again, but she hadn’t been prepared to be hit with something like this right then. She hadn’t been anticipating a shattered dream of Ariana’s to come crashing through her front door without a second of warning. It hurt. Bad.

“Come on,” said Alana, giving Kayla’s arm a forceful tug. “Let me get you some cereal and we can watch TV together.”

“Fine,” said Kayla, knowing it was pointless to say she wanted nothing more than to go back to bed. “But we’re changing the channel.”

“Aww…” said Alana, looking rather disappointed.

“I’m serious,” said Kayla firmly. “Change it. Now.”

-.-

Life went on, just as Kayla’s dream-Ariana had told her it would. Slowly the long hours turned into longer days, and those days turned into weeks which in turn became months. The harsh winter that had plagued Detroit for what seemed like years had at long last faded away. The deep snows had melted at last and the warmth of spring had arrived, bringing with it long, sunlit days and the lifted spirits of all.

Even Kayla’s mood had been brightened by the change in the weather. The bubble of hope that had grown within her that night in the cafeteria had stayed with her for a long time, but the endless cold along with no signs of Ariana’s condition improving had begun to deflate it. Kayla could feel herself slipping back to that dark place and she didn’t want to go there again so she started, once a day, to force herself to think one happy thought.

These thoughts usually were memories of something Ariana had said or done, or something they had done together. Each time, she managed to pull herself back from the brink. Of course, she had barely five weeks of pleasant memories with Ariana to draw from and she had been terribly afraid of what would happen when she ran out. As luck would have it, she didn’t need to find out.

It started in the middle of April. Kayla had been sitting with Ariana in the late evening hours, telling her about her day. It was part of the steady routine she had fallen into in the previous weeks. She would wake up, eat breakfast with Alana who had elected to stay with her sister and start working on getting West Coast Weddings – Detroit up and running while Penny returned to San Diego.

After breakfast, Kayla would drive to the hospital and sit with Ariana for a while. Then, she would spend her afternoons with Alana, working to establish the business. It was going fairly well, too. They had a small storefront downtown and three clients lined up. Admittedly, Kayla's heart wasn't in the work, but Alana was so excited that she just had to help her. Plus, it gave her something to keep herself occupied while she waited.

Waiting. It seemed that was all Kayla did these days. She waited. Every agonizing second, minute, hour, day... it never ended. At least, not until that very day that she sat in the quiet hospital room, holding Ariana's hand and talking to her. Without any warning, Ariana's small hand contracted around Kayla's. It was this moment that re-inflated Kayla's bubble of hope. While the doctor's said this wasn't a sign of progress, Kayla's heart soared each time she thought about it.

Kayla believed. It was the very first time that she actually, honestly, truly believed that Ariana could get better; that she could wake up and come back to her. She knew it was a long shot. All of Ariana's doctors had told her the same thing; that Ariana's brain was simply too badly damaged and healing was impossible. She would like exactly as she was until she died. Kayla knew it was probably true, but she just couldn't help but believe.

Three weeks passed. Ariana's brain activity, according to her doctors, was off the chart for someone who had been clinically dead for ten minutes. They performed scans that revealed that her brain was healing, very slowly, but it was healing none the less. It was this discovery that shocked and amazed the entire hospital staff. Such a thing was not just improbable, it was completely impossible... and yet it was happening. No one had been able to explain how it was happening. One doctor told Kayla that the only explanation he could come up with was to say that it was a miracle from God. Kayla wasn't sure she even believed in God, but Ariana's recovery certainly seemed to be... supernatural. Truth be told, she didn't really care about the how's or the why's of any of it. She only cared about Ariana's getting better.

And getting better she most certainly was. Soon enough, she was able to respond to requests to squeeze people's hands which meant that Ariana was able to hear. It was the best news Kayla had ever gotten. Kayla started sleeping at the hospital again, determined to stay as close to Ariana as she could manage. She thought that her presence might, perhaps, help Ariana's strength continue to grow. She liked to think Ariana knew when she was there, could sense her presence nearby. Kayla was certain she could.

But none of them, not Kayla, not Cooper, not the best doctors money could buy (and they were exactly who Kayla had ensured were brought in to see to Ariana's recovery) could possibly have any idea of the unseen battle still going on in Ariana's mind. It was a battle over the simplest of things; opening a door. For eleven-year-old Ariana still plainly refused to open the door to her closet.

She had refused, countless times, to open the door. However, her older self continued to fervently press her to open it. But she just couldn't do it. She didn't want to... but she didn't want to hurt either. She loved her father and she knew the things he did to her were for her own good, but... but he hurt her so badly, so often that Ariana had begun to wonder if, perhaps, it could ever end.

"Okay," said her older self, her voice filling the dark closet. "This is it. Tonight is the last night for this. You don't have any more time, sweetie. If you don't open that door tonight, if you let this night pass... it's locked forever."

"Why?" asked Young Ariana.

"Because it is," said Older Ariana. "If you don't open it now... you'll die. You'll never leave this room, Ari. Please, open the door. We don't have to die in here."

"Dad won't let us die," said Young Ariana. "He loves us. He'll protect us."

"He's the one that's going to kill you," said Older Ariana. "He's going to walk through that door, more drunk than you've ever seen him. He'll have one of his guns with him. He's going to rape you, like he does every day... and then he's going to kill you. But it doesn't have to happen this way. Just open that door and you'll be free. He won't be able to hurt you and you'll finally be home, right where you belong."

"I am where I belong," Young Ariana insisted. When Older Ariana spoke again, it was easy to tell that she was terribly angry.

"You are going to open that door," she hissed fiercely. "Get up!" It was as though an unseen force lifted Ariana to her feet. She felt someone she couldn't see gripping her tightly.

"It would have been so easy, Ariana," said Older Ariana. She sounded incredibly sad. "We could have gone back and everything would have been perfect... if you could have simply been brave. But no... you're doing what you always do. You've chosen to be a coward. So now... now, we have to do it the hard way. I'm sorry, but this is going to be very difficult for you. Just remember... it has to be you that opens the door." The force pushed Ariana toward the door. She crashed into it and it swung open. Then she was falling, falling... surrounded by darkness. And then, her eyes fluttered open.

The room she found herself in was dark and cool. She felt immensely heavy, as though she had gained hundreds of pounds. Or perhaps gravity had increased its pull by the power of ten. She tried to sit up, but found that her muscles did not want to respond. She attempted to move her head and her arms, but it took tremendous effort to make even the tiniest movements.

It was then, as she lay there trying desperately to move her frail body, that she realized something so terrible, so unbelievably frightening that she would have screamed out loud if her vocal cords would have let her. Unfortunately, she also discovered that, try as she might; she could not make a sound.

After what felt like years, she managed to tilt her head from side to side. She looked around and saw Kayla, fast asleep in the chair beside her bed. She opened her mouth and tried to call out to her, but only managed to make the smallest of sounds. She was very scared as she found the remote for the bed and rapped it against the metal frame around the bed. Kayla awoke slowly, looking around for the source of the noise.

It took her a moment, but her eyes eventually settled on Ariana's face. She stared for the longest time, perhaps unable to believe what she was seeing. Slowly she stood, still staring blankly at Ariana.

"Ari...?" she said quietly. "Ari, you're... you're..." Her face broke into the biggest smile ever and she dashed over to the bed, swooping down and capturing Ariana's lips in the most passionate kiss the two had ever shared. "Oh, Ari... let... let me get a nurse!" She rushed from the room and returned quickly with a nurse at her heels. Ariana stared up at them, an expression of immense confusion on her face.

"Wh.... wh..." Ariana tried speaking again, managing to choke out a few sounds.

"Shh, Ari," said Kayla softly. "It's okay. You'll have trouble speaking; the doctors said you might when you woke up." Kayla reached for her hand, but Ariana pulled away. She shook her head violently. She choked again, trying desperately to force out words that wouldn't come.

"Who... who... are... you?" she managed to say at last, staring up at Kayla with complete confusion. Her eyes were wide with fear. "Who... are you? More importantly... who am I?"

21: Chapter XXI: Homecoming
Chapter XXI: Homecoming

For one blissful, glorious minute, everything had been perfect... and then Kayla's world had come crashing down all around her once again. Ariana had come back to her, but she had no memories of her life before waking up in the hospital. She didn't remember Cooper, Kayla, her father... not even Fluffers or the warehouse. It was like, as one of her doctors put it; a factory reset. Ariana's hard drive had been erased, reset to default. She still knew how to eat, talk, and do normal everyday things just as a computer would still know how to be a computer were its hard drive erased. She just didn't remember any part of her life.

To Kayla, both her greatest wish and her worst nightmare had come to life in the same instant. Ariana was awake. She would survive and get to go home with her once she finished her physical therapy and started walking on her own again. She was having difficulty after lying immobile for more than four months. But the Ariana she had known, Kayla's Ariana, was gone.

This new Ariana was... different. She was a blank slate, but... not. She was so horribly normal it felt strange. She had none of Ariana's innate sweetness, or her bubbly cuteness. She never said anything weird... even her voice was off. Ariana had always had a soft, melodic voice whereas now she had a dry, low voice that was just... wrong.

Of course, everyone kept telling her that Ariana could very well get her memories back. It wasn't uncommon, but it could take time. Every other part of her recovery had been downright miraculous so why couldn't this be as well? Kayla was more than willing to wait if there was even the slightest chance the real Ariana would return.

Kayla hadn't had many chances to really talk to Ariana since she had woken. Her doctors had been working with her almost constantly. Everyone was trying to come up with a explanation to Ariana's brain having managed to heal itself when it shouldn't have been possible. The best doctors on the planet that Kayla had paid obscene amounts of money to fly in were utterly baffled. Kayla suspected they would never know how it happened and she still didn't really care. It was enough that she was alive. The rest didn't matter all that much.

 It wasn't until the night before Ariana was scheduled to be released that they  finally had time to just sit down and talk.

"Are you excited about going home tomorrow?" Kayla asked as the redhead returned from the bathroom and climbed into bed. Ariana shrugged uncertainly.

"I... don't know," she said nervously. "I don't even know where we live. You said... you said we had a lot of money, right? So, I guess it's someplace... nice?" Kayla looked immensely nervous.

"Well... technically, we live in a warehouse downtown." she said slowly. Ariana looked up at her with an expression that clearly said she believed she had misheard.

"We live in a what now?" she asked.

"We live in a warehouse downtown," Kayla repeated. "It... it's a very nice warehouse," she added, trying to reassure the redhead. "Very nice. There's a little apartment and you've got a library. It's homey."

"So, we've got millions of dollars and we live in an old warehouse," said Ariana disbelievingly. "We could be living in a mansion somewhere!" Kayla couldn't help but smile at the memory of the time she had said those very same words. She never would have imagined being on the receiving end of them.

"Why would we want to do that? Lots of people live in mansions, Ari," said Kayla with a grin. "How many people do you know that live in a warehouse?"

"Well... none," Ariana admitted somewhat reluctantly. "But... well, I only know about five people, so that's not really saying much." Kayla nodded in agreement.

"True. I, however, know lots of people and none of them live in a warehouse. So, there's one thing we've got going for us. We're unique."

"We're weird," said Ariana.

"That's... true too," said Kayla. Across the room, Claire pushed the door open. Kayla stood up and went over to her, out of earshot of Ariana.

"I was beginning to think you weren't coming back," said Kayla. "I haven't seen you for a couple of weeks!"

"Actually," Claire said quietly. "That's what I came to talk to you about. Mikki... I'm leaving."

"Leaving?" Kayla repeated. "What do you mean you're leaving? You're my own mental projection! How are you leaving?"

"Because it's time," Claire said softly. "Mikki, I only came to you because Ariana couldn't be here and you needed help... a lot of help. Now that she's back, you don't need me anymore... so, it's time for me to go."

"I don't want you to leave," said Kayla. She was losing Claire all over again. She hadn't expected it to hurt this badly.

"I have to, sweetie," said Claire gently. "It's time. I can't stay any more. You've got to get back to your life... and help her remember hers. You don't need me any more."

"I'll always need you, Claire," said Kayla tearfully. "Claire, I... I want to say... before you go. I... I love you. I don't care if you're a hallucination, I need to tell you... I need you to know. I love you, Claire." The blonde smiled warmly at her, slowly shaking her head.

"I know," she replied with a small grin. "I always knew... and yeah, if you had told me we could have had some time together. But that would have made my death that much more painful for you to live with. And yeah, Kayla... I love you too." Claire smiled and brushed her fingertips against Kayla's cheek. She waved to Ariana over Kayla's shoulder and turned to leave.

"Kayla, you take care of her," Claire said sharply. "She's the best thing that's ever happened to you. Don't ever forget that, kiddo. Not ever."

"I won't," said Kayla, nodding energetically. "I'll take care of her, I promise."

"Good," said Claire. She shrugged. "Well... I guess I'll see you around." She gave Kayla a wink and headed for the door. Seconds later, she was gone. Kayla wanted to run after her, to see her one more time... but she knew if she did that the blonde wouldn't be there. She was already long gone.

"Who was that?" Ariana asked from behind her as Kayla stood there, staring at the door that had swung shut behind Claire. It took a moment for the words to sink in. When they did, she spun around and stared.

"Who was...? You... you saw...?" Kayla stammered. "You could see her?" Ariana nodded, her eyes narrowed curiously.

"Obviously. She waved to me after all. Is... is she our friend?" Kayla nodded slowly, a small smile on her face.

"Yeah, kiddo," she said lightly. "Yeah, she sure is." Ariana smiled and laid back down. Kayla turned away, smiling brightly. She looked up at the ceiling, hardly able to believe that it was true... that she hadn't been a hallucination after all. She wasn't entirely sure what that meant and right then, she didn't care one little bit.

"Thanks, Claire."

-.-

"I'm still not sure about this," said Ariana uncertainly as Kayla pulled the Mclaren through the open warehouse doors and parked it in its usual spot.

"You'll love it here, sweetie," said Kayla warmly. "Trust me. You turned this place into a home. If anything is going to help you remember your life, it'll be coming back here." Ariana didn't look convinced, but she nodded regardless. They got out of the car, Ariana peering nervously around the massive warehouse. Kayla watched her for a moment until she noticed a pale circle on the floor nearby, a light stain on the otherwise clean grey floor.

It was the place where Ariana's blood had spread steadily around them as the redhead had lay dying in Kayla's arms. Kayla had spent a drunken night on her knees on that spot many months before, doing her best to wipe the blood away. She never managed to completely erase the stain... the memory of the day her world fell apart.

"Is... is this where...?"

"Yeah," said Kayla quietly. "Yeah, that's where."

"I wish I could remember..." Ariana said wistfully. She looked at Kayla, suddenly looking mortified. "No, I... I didn't mean... I know what it must have been like for you... I didn't mean that I wish I could remember getting shot, I..."

"I know what you meant," said Kayla gently. "It's okay, sweetie."

"No, it's not," said Ariana sadly, pacing slowly around the faint circle. "I see the way you look at me. You hate that I don't remember anything. You want me to be the girl you knew... and every time you look at me you know I'm not her... and then you hate me too."

"I could never hate you, Ari," said Kayla earnestly.

"You could never hate Ari," said Ariana firmly. "I'm not her. I'm not... anyone. I... I'm scared, Kayla. What if I never remember anything? What if I'm... this... forever?"

"We'll figure it out," said Kayla softly. "We always do, Ari. Don't worry about it." Kayla couldn't think about the possibility that Ariana's memories of her past were gone forever. It was simply too much. This new Ariana wasn't Ariana, at least she wasn't the girl Kayla had fallen in love with. She was a stranger, one that Kayla was now responsible for.

Kayla had told her much of what had happened in their lives in the brief weeks that they had known each other. She had told her of the relationship that they had built together, of the love they had once shared. The only thing she didn't tell the redhead was the truth about her parents. She wasn't sure why she had kept the terrible truth from her. She just thought that perhaps she could spare the poor girl from having to remember that terror for just a short while.

Ariana had shown little interest in the romantic relationship she had once had with Kayla. Truthfully, Kayla couldn't blame her. She had only known Kayla for a single week and while it had only taken Ariana that long to fall for Kayla before, things were very different now.

"C'mon," Kayla said quietly. "Let's go upstairs." Kayla led the way up the stairs, glancing back to make sure Ariana was following her. She noticed the empty warehouse behind her and felt a sudden jolt of sadness. Tent City was long gone, it had been for weeks. The new apartment building they had all been waiting for had finally been completed and everyone, even Mike and Sophia, had left and moved in there.

Kayla had been very sad when everyone had left. Ariana had brought them there and in the months they had lived there they had become a sort of surrogate family. The warehouse just wasn't the same without them out there on the floor. Of course, Kayla had made sure to keep in contact with as many people as she could. Mike even continued to allow Kayla and Alana to babysit Sophia while he was at work. Even so, the warehouse felt so eerily empty.

The girls reached the top of the stairs and Kayla pulled the door open and held it for Ariana to pass through. The redhead entered the apartment slowly, looking around nervously. Cooper looked up from where he sat on the couch and the biggest smile Kayla had ever seen him smile appeared on his face.

"Ari!" he said happily, rushing over to her. "It's so good to see you back home." He hugged her tightly and Kayla saw the uncomfortable look on her face.

"It's... Cooper, right?" Ariana asked, her expression indicated she was trying hard to remember him.

"Yeah, yeah, that's right." he said encouragingly. "See? You remember." Ariana shrugged and wandered over to the kitchen, quietly exploring.

"Do you remember anything?" Kayla asked. She thought that seeing the apartment, particularly the kitchen she had loved so much might bring back some of her memories. But Ariana shook her head and moved over to the couch and sat down, peering uncertainly around the room. Fluffers bounded out of the bedroom and leapt right up into her lap. She yelped in surprise and tried to shy away from him as he nuzzled her chest with his nose.

"Ari, it's okay," said Kayla gently, joining her on the sofa. "This is your cat, Fluffers. Remember? I told you about him. He's really missed you."

"Oh... right," said Ariana, sounding rather unhappy as she reluctantly stroked the cat's thick fur. "Yeah, I remember... the cat. Did... did you name him?" Kayla smiled and shook her head.

"Oh, hell no," she said firmly. "That was all you, sweetie."

"Oh..." said Ariana quietly. Kayla and Cooper exchanged glances.

"Do you... want to see the bedroom, Ari?" Kayla asked. The redhead nodded. She seemed happy to have any reason to do something other than sit awkwardly with Fluffers. Kayla led her through the door to their bedroom. Ariana sat down at the foot of the bed, seeming to test the mattress.

"Comfortable," she said gently. Kayla nodded.

"Yeah," she replied. "Yeah, it is."

"So, we... we both sleep here, or...?"

"Yeah, we both sleep here," said Kayla. "I'm usually on the left and you take the right... but we can swap if you'd prefer. Whichever..."

"The right is fine," said Ariana uncomfortably. "So... so we're like... like girlfriends... or lovers or something?" Kayla swallowed thickly, positively willing herself not to cry. For someone supposedly so strong, she certainly found herself crying a lot.

"Yeah," she said, nodding slowly. "Yeah, we're girlfriends. We're dating, I guess... I mean, we were. I guess since you don't remember what we had, then we're... not."

"I'm really sorry, Kayla," said Ariana. "I... know you want me to remember. I'm going to try my best. I promise."

"I know you will, sweetie," said Kayla warmly. "And me and Coop are gonna help you. In fact, I know a doctor we can call to help. I think he'd be happy to help." Ariana nodded, looking uncertain. Kayla reached out and took the other girl's hand.

"It'll be okay," she said reassuringly, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. "It'll all be okay." Some small part of her believed that; to believe that everything would work out, but deep in her heart she knew it wasn't. She knew that nothing was going to be okay ever again.

22: Chapter XXII: And the Pursuit of Happiness
Chapter XXII: And the Pursuit of Happiness

As Kayla was showing Ariana their bedroom, Alana came into the apartment and spotted Cooper sitting on the couch. Kayla could hear the awkward tone in her voice all the way in the bedroom.

"Hey, Coop!" Alana said brightly, walking over and plopping herself down on the couch beside him.

"Hi, Alana," said Cooper distractedly, only glancing briefly at her as he tried to hear what Ariana and Kayla were saying.

"Um... how are you?" Alana asked, sounding quite interested in his response. "I haven't seen you in a while."

"I'm... fine," said Cooper dryly. "I'm fine here... how are you?"

"Great," Alana replied happily. "The business is really taking off. We've got a good number of clients... well, three... but that's a lot for just me and Kayla..."

"I wonder how they're getting on in there…" Cooper interrupted, trying to peer into the bedroom from where he sat. Alana shrugged, looking rather put out.

"Probably pretty good," she mumbled. "Kayla hasn't had a good lay in months and Ariana's really hot, so..."

"Oh, God!" Cooper exclaimed, finally turning to stare at her. "That is not what I meant! Ari's like my little sister!"

"Oh, please!" Alana snapped. "She's like your sexy step-sister that you jerk off to at night!" Cooper just stared at her, open mouthed and at a loss for words. Alana smirked.

"Well, I got your attention, didn't I?" she asked, cocking her head to one side and winking at him. Cooper shook his head weakly as Kayla and Ariana emerged from their bedroom.

"Oh, Ari, this is my sister Alana." said Kayla, leading the redhead over to where her sister sat on the sofa. Alana stood up as they approached, smiling broadly.

"Hey," she said pleasantly. "Sorry I didn't come by the hospital. I've got a wedding business that keeps me... well, busy." Ariana shrugged.

"It's okay," she replied. "It's nice to meet you. Were we... friends, before?"

"Uh... no," said Alana slowly. "We're actually just meeting for the first time right now."

"Alana flew in after you were shot," Kayla explained gently. "I told you about her and my mom Penny, remember?"

"Right..." said Ariana uncomfortably. "I... I really think I want to go lay down. I'm really tired." Kayla nodded, smiling slightly.

"Okay, sweetie," she said. "Do you want me to come with you?" Ariana shook her head.

"No, no... I'll be fine, really. I just need to be alone for a little while," Ariana stood and went back into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.

-.-

Kayla had never imagined it would be so hard. Ariana waking up had been the happiest moment in her life, and now everything was wrong. She was trying so hard and she knew that Ariana was trying to remember, but the memories just weren't there.

Their first night alone together was very awkward. After Cooper and Alana left for the evening, Kayla cooked dinner. She tried to see if involving Ariana in what used to be her favorite pastime might spark a few memories within her. It did not. After nearly starting a grease fire for the second time, Kayla gently encouraged Ariana to go and watch TV while she finished dinner.

Kayla was admittedly no chef. In fact, she missed Ariana’s cooking so badly that it made anything else she ate pale miserably in comparison. However, she managed to prepare a halfway decent meal and the girls sat down at their small table to eat. It was a very quiet meal. Other than Kayla asking if the food was okay; to which Ariana simply nodded, no other words were said.

After dinner, Ariana went down to the library. She said she wanted to read, but Kayla suspected that the girl just wanted to be left alone. Kayla couldn’t really blame her. She had been thrust violently into a world she didn’t understand and she had found herself with people she knew nothing about. Had Kayla been in Ariana’s shoes, she’d probably want the same thing. So, Kayla left her to her own devices. She sat on the sofa and watched the evening news with Fluffers the Cat sprawled across her lap.

“Sorry she’s not what you were expecting,” Kayla told the cat, scratching him behind his large ears. Fluffers purred contentedly. “We’ll get our girl back though, Fluffs. I promise, we’ll get her back.” It was a promise not just to the cat, but to herself as well. It was a declaration, made right then and there, that she would not give up. She would fight until the day she died to restore the sweet, bubbly girl that she had fallen in love with.

Maybe it was selfish. Maybe she should have just accepted what happened and let Ariana start anew without the dark tragedy of her past haunting her. Maybe she should have let go of what she wanted and help this new Ariana instead. Maybe she should have, but she damn sure wasn’t going to. She was going to get her girl back.

"I've got an idea, Fluffs," said Kayla thoughtfully, sitting up and placing the cat gently on the cushion beside her. "I'm gonna remind her of us." She set about preparing her plan. She lit candles to set the mood and found the song she needed and set it to loop on the stereo. It was a couple of hours before Ariana returned to the darkened apartment, illuminated by only the light of the couple dozen candles scattered about  the room.

Kayla waited on the sofa. She smiled up at the redhead as she approached with a confused expression on her face. She walked over to the couch and sat down slowly, looking curiously at Kayla for an explanation.

"What is all this?" she asked. Kayla grinned.

"This is us," she said quietly. "This song... A Thousand Years... it's... us. It's our song."

"Oh..." Ariana said slowly. She sounded very sad. "I don't remember it."

"I know," said Kayla. "But maybe... maybe if you listen to it while I tell you about us, well I thought it might help you remember." Ariana didn't seem to sure, but much to Kayla's relief she nodded.

"This is the first song we danced to," Kayla began slowly. "I'd only been here a few days. You were down in the library. You decided to straighten up the place. It... didn't go well. But you had the radio on and this song started playing. I went to you and we... we danced. When the song ended, we just stood there... breathless. It was the first time, the first moment that I knew that I loved you. I was so scared. Loving you actually hurt..."

"Because that girl you told me about died," said Ariana slowly. "Claire."

"Yeah," Kayla replied. "I was afraid that if I let myself love you... if we were ever... I knew that if I lost you, I'd never recover. I battled with deciding what to do for several days. You sort of... figured out how I felt about you and I guess you felt the same. You waited for me to tell you, and one day, outside the warehouse during a particularly fierce snowball fight... I did.

"We kissed... then we kissed a little more, okay a lot more. We ended up right in there, in our bedroom. We made love and it was amazing. When we woke up, this song was playing on the radio. You said it was our song because it was the first song we danced to and the first song we kissed to... it became the song that defined our relationship."

"It... it sounds like it was really important to us," said Ariana, biting her lower lip nervously. It was a habit her old self had never had. Kayla noticed it immediately.

"Yeah, it was important to us," said Kayla quietly. "You don't remember anything, do you?" Ariana looked up at her and Kayla was surprised to find that she had tears in her eyes.

"No," she said firmly. "I don't. Why do you keep doing this to me, Kayla? You know I don't remember anything and playing me a damn song isn't going to make me remember! I know you loved her and I'm really sorry she's gone, but it's not my fault.

"You keep making me feel like... like you wish I wasn't here... and I know that's because you do wish I wasn't here. But I am... and no, I don't feel for you the way she did. I'm not in love with you, Kayla... and you're not in love with me." Kayla nodded slowly, feeling both heartbroken and embarrassed.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I... I never meant to make you feel like I didn't care about you or that I wished you weren't here. I just wanted you to remember us... and I thought hearing the song and hearing about the time we spent together might... might bring something back. I'm sorry, Ariana. Really, I am." Ariana nodded, giving her a small smile.

"It's okay," she replied warmly. "I can't imagine how hard this all must be for you. Every time you look at me you’re reminded of what you lost. That can’t be easy.”

“No,” said Kayla honestly. “No, it’s not. I know that’s not your fault, I just… When you woke up, I just knew you were going to be okay. I could feel it. You had defied the odds, survived when every single doctor that examined you told me you wouldn’t. You woke up when you should have been brain dead. I thought it was fate, destiny… that after everything that happened, everything we've survived, I thought we’d be okay… and then you didn’t remember me… you didn’t remember anything. It crushed me, Ari. I’m still getting over that.”

“Don’t give up on me just yet,” said Ariana with a smile. “I could still get those memories back. I’m going to keep trying until I remember. I promise.” Kayla didn’t know it, and neither did Ariana at that moment, but that statement spoke volumes. After all, Ariana always kept her promises.

-.-

The girls settled into an uncomfortable routine that involved regular visits to the one place Kayla had never thought they would go; the office of Doctor Bradley Pinder. Ariana's former psychiatrist had answered Kayla's call for help with tremendous enthusiasm. Their office visits were long and frequent and despite what Kayla knew were Dr. Pinder’s best efforts, Ariana hadn’t remembered anything at all after nearly three weeks of regular sessions.

Both Kayla and Dr. Pinder had agreed that, at least for the time being, it was best to keep the secret of Ariana’s past relationship with her parents just that, a secret. Ariana was far too busy trying to recover her memories to worry about too many of the details. She had not asked any questions about her family and while Kayla was quite curious as to why she hadn’t done so, she did not broach the topic with the redhead.

By the beginning of June, things began to take a darker turn. Ariana, tired of endless sessions with Dr. Pinder and seeing no progress, began to attend fewer and fewer of them. Kayla could understand the other girl’s frustration, but still continued to urge her to keep going to the sessions. Ariana, however, got angry whenever she mentioned this.

It was on one of those nights after a short-lived fight between the two of them, after Ariana had retreated into the bedroom and slammed the door behind her, leaving Kayla on the couch alone, that the worst thing possible occurred.

Kayla had known that Ariana kept a diary, many girls did after all. She had seen Ariana scribbling in it dozens of times. After Ariana’s shooting, however, she hadn’t given the book a second thought. Ariana, however, clearly found it because roughly an hour after their fight she burst out of the bedroom with an expression of anger on her face so intense that Kayla knew the old Ariana would never have had. She held the diary in her hands as she marched purposefully toward Kayla. The brunette’s eyes found the book and her heart dropped into her stomach. She knew.

“Why didn’t you tell me?!” Ariana demanded, slamming the diary down on the coffee table. Kayla decided to play dumb. Maybe she didn’t know everything… maybe she could pretend she knew nothing. It was a stupid move, but it was all she had.

“Tell you what?” Kayla asked, hoping she sounded genuinely confused. Ariana tossed the book into Kayla’s lap and folded her arms across her chest.

"Why didn’t you tell me that I have a daughter?”

23: Chapter XXIII: Previously on 'The Girl and the Warehouse'
Chapter XXIII: Previously on 'The Girl and the Warehouse'

Kayla sat there, staring blankly at the book in her lap. Her mind was running at a thousand miles a minute and still she couldn't grasp what Ariana was trying to tell her. It made no sense. How? When? Wouldn't she have told her? She was confused and a little bit hurt. She didn't understand.

"I... I didn't... Ari, I didn't know," Kayla stammered, finally managing to form words. "I thought..."

"Well, read that then," Ariana snapped, looking so angry Kayla thought she might explode. "Read the damn thing. Maybe you'll learn something else, too. I'm guessing you knew about my parents? Or maybe you two weren't as close as you thought!" She turned on her heel and marched back into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

Kayla didn't move for a while. She sat there alone for a long time, trying to figure out why Ariana never told her that she had a daughter. She knew Ariana had always kept her past close. Perhaps she simply hadn't been ready to discuss it. Maybe she had needed more time.

She picked up Ariana's diary and thumbed through it, hating herself for invading Ariana's privacy, but her thirst to understand was too strong to resist. The early pages were clearly written while she was still being cared for by Dr. Pinder and his team. They were written in a messy, scribbled hand that was so different from Ariana's usual tiny, neat writing that it was hard to believe it was written by the same person.

Those pages told of Ariana's love for her father and how she so longed to go back to him. She missed him and was afraid that when they were together again, he would be angry at her for being gone so long. The words chilled Kayla to her very soul.

Soon, however, the tone changed. Ariana seemed to be recovering. She stopped mentioning her father and instead began talking about her grandfather, Dr. Pinder, a nurse named Rose whom Ariana seemed to really like... and the baby. From what Kayla could piece together, Ariana had gotten pregnant the night she had killed her mother. She had carried the baby to term and then had been forced to give her up for adoption.

'They took her from me. Ariana had written. I got to hold her before they came and took her away. She was beautiful... and there's not an ounce of my dad in her. She looks just like me. I want to keep her, but I know that I can't. She'll be better off this way. I’m not able to be a mother right now, and she’ll find a good home… a loving home. She’ll be happy, I know she will.'

Kayla couldn’t imagine having the strength to do that. She wasn’t the maternal sort, but the idea of giving up her own child was unthinkable. And yet Ariana had managed to do it. Perhaps it was for the good of the little girl, but somehow Kayla knew that any child would be better off with Ariana than without her. It was wrong, but there was nothing she could do.

A storm blew in as the sun sank beneath the horizon. Thunder rumbled and torrents of rain poured from the ink black sky, pounding down on the roof above Kayla’s head as she continued to read.

'Grandpa Henry died. I’m alone again. I don’t want to be alone, but I am now. He’s gone. I thought he would always be here, but he’s not now. I know what I have to do. I can’t stay here any more, not without him.  Dr. Bradley is worried about me, but this place still scares me. I’m leaving in the morning. There’s a nice place in the city, the perfect place to go. Grandpa Henry showed it to me once. It’s red. I like red. It’ll be the perfect place for me now. It’ll be a quiet place. I’ll find peace there.'

It was subtle, but Kayla could read between the lines. It was here, in these pages, that Ariana had decided to commit suicide. Her perfect place was right here, in the very warehouse where Kayla sat. She almost stopped reading there. She felt she was violating Ariana’s most private thoughts and knew she should put the diary away. She didn’t.

'I met a boy today. He was really sweet to me. His name is Cooper and he works at a bookstore. I gave him some flowers I picked at the park. They were so pretty… I think he liked them. I hope he did. I told him about the warehouse and he gave me some books about cats. I like cats. He said he would come and visit me sometime soon. I should have told him not to. I don’t want him to find me. He was too sweet. Maybe he won’t come.'

Kayla knew about this day. Both Cooper and Ariana had told her that they had met when Ariana had come into the bookstore not long after Henry Laine’s death. That chance meeting would save Ariana’s life. Kayla silently thanks the gods of fate, destiny… and god that would listen to her really, that Ariana had stumbled into Detroit Books that day.

'Cooper saved me. I took pills… a lot of them. I wanted to die, but Cooper wouldn’t let me. I wanted to be free. I want to stop hurting all the time. I want the pain to stop; I want the dreams to stop. I want to stop seeing his face every time I close my eyes. Cooper saved me and I hate him for it. If he had just let me die then I would be free. He shouldn’t have come. He should have left me alone. It doesn’t matter. I’ll find another way.'

Kayla flipped to the next page and was surprised to find a sudden change in Ariana’s tone. She suddenly seemed happier and the entries were dated only two days apart. It didn’t take her long, however, to figure out why.

'I can’t believe it! I really can’t! I’m not alone here anymore! I’ve found a poor cat living in the warehouse! He’s skinny and matted and he won’t let me near him, but he’s here! I’m going to try putting some food out for him. He looks awfully hungry.'

And then, on the next page:

'I just set out a bowl of cat food near where the cat sleeps. At first I thought he wasn’t going to come out, but I hid and then he came out and went straight to the bowl. The poor thing was starving, but he was scared of me. I’ll put more food out for him later. I’ve got to figure out how to get him to trust me.'

It went on like that for several more pages, until Kayla finally came across the entry where it seemed Ariana had at last made progress.

'I’ve been putting food out for the cat for two weeks. He’s starting to trust me. He let me pet him today. I think I’ll try to see if he’ll let me pick him up in a few days. I need to take him to a vet to make sure he’s okay and get some help cleaning him up. He’s really sweet, though. He purred so happily while I was petting him. I think he loves me… and I know I love him.'

It might have been the sweetest story Kayla had ever read. She had never really given much thought to how Ariana and Fluffers had met. She had always assumed that Ariana had adopted him from a shelter, but learning that she had spent weeks gaining his trust just make the connection the redhead shared with the cat that much more special.

'Fluffers officially moved into the apartment today! He’s healthy and so much fatter now! His fur is fluffy and clean too. Oh, that’s it! Fluffy! That’ll be his name! But no, that sounds like a girl’s name. Fluffers! I’ll call him Fluffers! Fluffers McMuffins! I have a friend with me now. I think this could work. I think I’ve really got a chance now. I’m not alone any more.'

Kayla sighed as the rain continued to beat down upon the warehouse. Lightning flashed through the window, briefly illuminating the darkened apartment. Kayla stood up and made to put the diary away when the sight of her own name made her sit back down.

‘I met the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen yesterday. Her name is Kayla Austin. She was running from the police and I helped her. I think that makes me a criminal, but that’s okay. She’s worth it. She’s really kind. She said she liked my cupcakes! I think I made her uncomfortable when I told her I had never had anyone to share them with before. I hope I didn’t upset her too much.

‘She decided to stay here at the warehouse with me. The power went out last night and she fixed it. She saved me. She protected me. I think she likes protecting people. She may have been running from the police, but I knew I was right. I knew she was a good person. I hope she stays forever, but I know she won’t. Everyone leaves me, but… but maybe she’ll stay for a while. Fluffers is a great friend, but it’s nice to have someone who can talk to me. Kayla also has a motorcycle. We’re going to go and get it today. I like motorcycles.’

‘Kayla let me ride on the back of her motorcycle yesterday. It was so much fun! I’d never ridden a motorcycle before! I was a little scared, but she told me to hold on to her and I did. She protected me again. It seems like she always manages to protect me. I’ve never protected anyone, I don’t know how. Maybe Kayla can teach me someday. I really like Kayla. She’s so pretty and sweet and she doesn’t think I’m strange… or at least she doesn’t say anything. She treats me like a friend… but she saw the scars this morning. I didn’t tell her anything. I don’t know how to tell her… or if I even want to. She’ll look at me like the doctors used to look at me. I never want her to do that. I never want her to know what a wreck I really am.’

‘Claire. I don’t know who she is, but Kayla obviously really loved her. I found a bracelet with her name on it today and gave it back to Kayla. She told me Claire was dead. It’s so sad. I wish I could help Kayla feel better, but I don’t know how. She really misses Claire, I can tell. She said she didn’t get to go to Claire’s funeral because she did something stupid after she died.

‘She didn’t tell me what it was, but I think she will one day. She needs to talk about it. That’s what Dr. Bradley always used to say. “Talk about what you’re feeling, Ari. You need to let it out.” That’s what he used to tell me. I think Kayla needs to talk about Claire. When she decides to, I’ll be there. I’m a good listener, after all.

‘Kayla met Coop today. They… didn’t really seem to like each other. Well, Coop thought Kayla was pretty, but Kayla wasn’t interested. She likes girls, after all. She can say what she likes about baseball, but I know she’s only really into girls. When we got back home, we went down to the library to put away the books I got at Coop’s store. My favorite song ever came on the radio and Kayla danced with me.

‘It was amazing. It felt… good. I mean, it felt really good. It felt… right. I think she wanted to kiss me and I think I wanted her to too. She didn’t, but I know she wanted to. But maybe, just maybe, one day she will. I’m still a little scared, but… but I trust Kayla. She won’t ever hurt me.’

‘We went shopping today. We bought all sorts of new things to spruce up the warehouse with. Apparently, ‘spruce up the place’ doesn’t mean you buy a tree. I didn’t know that. We didn’t get any plants, but we got Fluffers a kitty condo. It’s this kind of playground for cats. He really seems to like it! I wanted to buy him a tiara, but it was late. We’ll have to go back. Kayla promised we would.

‘Oh, poor Kayla. That was the only bad thing that happened today. She decided to tell me the truth about her past. It was so horrible! Poor Claire was murdered and Kayla killed the people who killed her except for one, this man named Dwayne. He sounds really scary. Kayla says he’s looking for her, but I don’t think he’ll find her here. I hope not, but if he does, I know Kayla will protect me. She always protects me.

‘I asked her if she regretted killing the people who had hurt her. She said she didn’t. I asked because of my mom. I killed her and I don’t regret it. She didn’t deserve to die, but I still don’t regret that I did it because I was rescued after that.  I thought that made me a bad person, but Kayla isn’t bad so… so maybe I’m not. I hope not. I don’t want to be.’

‘Kayla loves me. That’s what she said… well, meant to say this morning. She’s scared of loving me because she thinks I’ll die like Claire did. It’s so awful. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love, but the thought of not loving anyone again is too horrible.

‘I think she’ll be okay, though. Maybe I can help her stop being afraid. I think I can. She almost kissed me a few minutes ago. She really wanted to, I could tell. I wish she would. I think I want to kiss her too. I feel… better when I’m around her. Everything feels so right. I love that feeling and I love her too. She’s my best friend and I’m so lucky she came here.’

‘It snowed last night. The first snow of the season. I love the snow so much. It’s so beautiful. It’s the first thing I saw when I woke up in the hospital after my dad shot me. I woke up in the hospital and my bed was facing the window. Snow was falling everywhere. The whole world outside that window was filled with it. It was so beautiful.’

‘I don’t even know what to say. Kayla and I… we had sex. We made love, we… we’re together now. It’s… amazing, and scary, and beautiful, and downright terrifying all at the same time. But we’re good together, or at least I think we are. I don’t really have anything to compare us to, but… I’m happy anyway. Kayla is too, I think. I hope. She was gentle with me, even though she still doesn’t know about him. God, I’m actually in love with her. She’s amazing and I’m so happy. Now I’m just waiting for something to take her away from me. Everyone always leaves me.’

‘I called Kayla’s mom tonight. She asked me not to, but I did anyway. She needed to know her daughter was safe and Kayla needed to talk to her mom. I hope I did the right thing. Kayla seemed happy. Penny is such a nice lady. I hope I get to meet her someday. She seemed so happy that I called her. She asked me to keep Kayla safe. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to do that. I’m not strong… I can’t protect anyone. But I have to try, don’t I? I made her a promise… and I keep my promises, no matter what.’

‘So, we bought a car yesterday. It’s pretty and it's fast, but it doesn't have an ejector seat. I was a little disappointed about that. Kayla really likes it though. I had to tell her why I bought it for her. She made me tell her. I told her about taking the pills. I told her about trying to kill myself. I can’t believe I actually did that. I remember that dark place and I’m afraid I’ll go back there someday. I don’t want to. I don’t ever want to go there again, and as long as I have Kayla I know I never will. She promised me she’d stay here. I believe her. She wouldn’t lie to me, I know it. We’re in love, after all. We’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.

‘Oh, yeah! Coop found out about me and Kayla too. I don’t think he took it very well. I hope he’ll be okay with us being together. I don’t think he was jealous, just… worried. He’s like my big brother, so I understand. Those two just need to work out their differences and be friends!’

‘It was terrible. We went for a walk in the snow and we saw an apartment building that had burned down. It was so horrible! There were all these people there and they had lost everything. There was this sweet little girl named Sophia. She was the sweetest thing and I feel so bad for her. Her dad thought I was hurting her and Kayla got a little overprotective when he pushed me down. I think she would have shot him if I hadn’t stopped her. She always protects me… even when she doesn’t need to.

‘We invited these poor people to come and stay with us at the warehouse. Kayla isn’t happy about it, but it’ll be okay. They all seem so nice! We stopped and bought huge tents at a sporting goods store. They’re really big ones. They’re warm and they’ve got plenty of room. We also got them heaters, sleeping cots, and camping stoves to cook on. It’ll be like an adventure! I hope they’ll be happy here for a while. It’ll be nice having guests, especially Sophia! I hope Kayla isn’t too mad at me for inviting them. I don’t want to make her angry, but I had to try and help them.’

‘I never expected Dr. Bradley to find me. I didn’t think he’d look for me here. He talked to Kayla last night. She knows about my parents now, about what they did to me. I never wanted her to know, but I always knew she’d figure it out someday. I’m glad he told her. That way, I didn’t have to. I don’t think I could have done it. She’s looking at me like I knew she would, though. She’s looking at me like I’m a broken little girl that needs a delicate hand. I hate it. I never wanted her to look at me like that. I want her to see me for who I am now, who she’s helped me become.

‘I didn’t want her to know what happened. I knew she’d be angry. Kayla’s just like that. I’m afraid of what she’ll do now. I’m scared she’ll hurt someone and I don’t want that. My dad’s in prison where he belongs. He can’t hurt me now and I’ve got to convince her to just leave it all alone. She can’t do anything stupid. Everything is going too good for us now, far too good. I don’t want her to ruin it because she thinks she’s protecting me. She always protects me, but now… I think I’m going to have to find a way to protect her.’

‘Kayla loved the boat! I knew she would! She was so happy, but she was sad at the same time. I hope it works. I hope it helps her move past Claire. She’s holding on to that poor girl so hard. She needs to let her go. I hope this is a start. She gave me something too. A ring. She said she wasn’t asking me to marry her, but I think she really wanted to. I know she did. Maybe someday, maybe after Dwayne’s gone and she doesn’t have to look over her shoulder all the time… Maybe then...’

Kayla had reached the last page. It was a short and simple entry, but it spoke to Kayla. She wished she had seen it earlier. It was as though Ariana had known...

'I love Kayla. I really, truly, deeply love her. She's the center of my whole world. I hope she knows what she means to me. I hope she knows how much I love her. I tell her everyday, but sometimes I worry that I don't express just how much. She gave me an engraved locket for my birthday. Forever, it said. It's true. We are forever. No matter what happens, we're forever. It doesn't matter if we're separated by ten thousand miles, we're still forever. She knows that, I know she does.'

It was written the night before she had been shot. Kayla read and reread that final paragraph a hundred times that night. It was at some ungodly early hour that the rain finally subsided and Kayla ventured out onto the rain soaked fire escape. The sky was still dark and stormy as she stepped outside. Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance.

She wanted, right then, more than anything in the world, to talk to Ariana. Not the one lying in bed, furious with her, but the one who had written the diary. She had so many questions to ask her, so many things she needed to talk to her about. She had just relived the time they had spent together from Ariana's point of view and suddenly losing her felt so freshly raw again. If felt as though Ariana had been sitting right beside her moments before, telling her everything she had read.

"We'll figure it out," said Kayla to no one in particular. "We always do. We'll figure it out." Just as Kayla turned to walk back inside, a bolt of brilliant lightning struck the rod high atop the Renaissance Center downtown. The sky lit up for an instant, appearing as though the sun itself had risen and then instantly vanished again. The roll of thunder that came seconds later split the otherwise silent night, shattering the peaceful air that had been left as the storm moved away.

As quickly as it came, it was gone. The night was quiet once again and Kayla found that she suddenly felt more alone than she had since Ariana had woken up. She shook her head sadly as she looked down at the railing where she and the redhead had been hauled up to the top of the fire escape by Ariana's old rope ascender many months before. It had been the start of one hell of a ride. Kayla swore right then, on that memory, that it wasn't anywhere close to being over yet. 

24: Chapter XXIV: The Rains of Michigan
Chapter XXIV: The Rains of Michigan

Kayla opened the door to the bedroom, waving a white washcloth in the air as a sign of surrender. Ariana, who was still lying awake, looked up at her angrily. She rolled over so that her back was to the brunette. Kayla sighed and sat down at the foot of the bed.

"Ari, I'm really sorry. I should have told you about your parents. I just... you were already dealing with so much. I didn't want to add anything else to what you were already carrying... especially not that. I'm sorry, Ari. I thought I was doing the right thing." Ariana didn't move, or otherwise acknowledge her at all.

"Come on, Ari, talk to me..." Ariana sat up, glaring daggers at her.

"What the hell I'm I supposed to say?!" she demanded, her normally wide, curious eyes filled with fire. "What?! I just found out that my dad molested me, raped me, tortured me, and apparently I wanted to go back to him. Oh, and hey, by the way I had a baby with him! And the worst part is that you never told me! You know parts of this and you kept the truth from me! Kayla, all I know about myself… about anything, really, is what you tell me! You didn’t tell me the truth, so I'm sorry if I'm a little closed off right now!"

"I... I'm sorry..." Kayla murmured.

"Yeah, you keep saying that," Ariana snapped. "Kayla, I can't keep doing this. I'm just... I'm done. I don't want to do this any more. I'm tired of trying to force myself to remember my past. Those memories are gone, Kayla, and I don't want to remember them. I've got a fresh start now, a real fresh start. I can... be someone else now. I've got money...  I can go anywhere, do anything. I want that, Kayla. I really do. I don't want to be the same girl I used to be. I can't be her again."

Kayla didn't understand. Ariana was giving up? She was really giving up? She wanted to... No, it couldn't be. She had to keep trying she had to remember! It was all Kayla had left. The faint hope that Ariana would remember who she really was... it kept her going. If Ariana stopped trying, if she didn't even want to remember, then... then Kayla didn't know what she was supposed to do.

She sat there, completely lost for words. She searched around for something to say, some reply to the horrible thoughts that Ariana had just shared. Nothing came to her. She let herself fall back against the bed, holding a hand over her eyes.

"I'm going to my grandfather's estate in the Hamptons," Ariana went on when Kayla said nothing. "I'm going to live there for a while. I'm putting the warehouse up for sale. If you want to come with me, I'd be happy to have you, but you have to promise to let me be who I am and not..."

"No," said Kayla suddenly. She sat up slowly, deliberately. She couldn't do that. She couldn't stay... not now. If Ariana, her Ariana, was really gone then she had no place there. She had stayed for her and without her... it felt wrong. "No, I... I can't come with you." She stood, pausing for a moment to compose herself before turning to face the redhead. Kayla gave her a smile that took every ounce of strength she had to keep on her face. "I'm... I'm gonna go. But you're right. You have a great chance here. You can become someone new... start a new life. You should take it. I want you to be happy, Ari. I really do. I just wish..." 'That Dwayne had killed me' "I wish you could be happy here, with me."

"Kayla, I... I don't know what to say," said Ariana slowly. "I just know I have to do this. I don't want to hurt you, you're... you're really nice and I know you just... you want your girlfriend back, but..."

"But she's dead," said Kayla firmly, trying and failing to hide the tears forming in her eyes. "She's dead. She died the day she decided to take a bullet for me. She died saving my life. She's gone, she's never coming back and I know that now. I've got to let her go... I've got to let you go." Kayla looked around the room, feeling as though she should say something more but no words came. She nodded slowly. "I'm gonna go pack. I'll be on the road by dawn... if that's okay?"

“You don’t have to leave right now,” Ariana insisted. “You can stay here tonight and decide what to do tomorrow.” Kayla shook her head.

“No, I… I think it’s best if I just leave now.” Kayla turned and walked away. She walked all the way down to her bike and ripped the saddlebags free. She was at the foot of the stairs when her grief overwhelmed her and she fell to the floor, dissolving into violent sobs.

In her heart, she knew Ariana was right. She, Kayla, was being wholly unfair to her. Ariana deserved to be happy, to lead her own life however she chose. She had been through so much, even if she didn’t remember it. Maybe this was her reward. Maybe getting to forget all the pain and sadness she had suffered was her prize for living through all of that. If anyone deserved that, Ariana most certainly did.

But none of that changed how it made Kayla feel. Her girlfriend was still gone. The sweet, bubbly girl that had rescued a stray and made a home for them here at the warehouse was dead. She had been a wonderful, beautiful person that would have done amazing things for so many people and she was just gone, replaced by someone who… wasn’t the same.

And so Kayla knew she couldn’t stay. Watching Ariana sell the warehouse and move to the Hamptons… seeing her become someone new, someone Kayla didn’t know and wasn’t sure she would like, well… that was just too hard. So she decided it was time to let her go. It was what Ariana wanted and Kayla loved her enough to let her go and let her have what she wanted. It was killing her, but she knew she had no choice.

There was no enemy to fight, no threat to face down that would change things. That was the only way Kayla knew to affect the course of her life. She couldn’t fight Ariana on this, so she backed down. It was the most painful thing she had ever had to do, but when Kayla stood to her feet and wiped her eyes, she knew she was ready. She knew that she could walk out of that door go her own way. And so she did just that.

-.-

Kayla packed what few possessions she needed and secured them in her saddlebags. She didn't plan on taking much more than what little she had arrived with. She didn't need anything else. Early the following morning, having gotten no sleep at all, Kayla made one last walkthrough of the warehouse to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything. She stopped in the bedroom she and Ariana had shared, looking at the framed photograph of the two of them that sat on the bedside table.

It had been taken months before on Christmas at Ariana’s birthday party. The redhead wore a vividly pink party hat and was smiling so happily while Kayla kissed her on the cheek. It had only been six months ago and yet somehow it felt like it had taken place in a completely separate lifetime.

"You should take it," said Ariana quietly, leaning against the door frame. "Really, you should... and this too," She took off the necklace Kayla had given her for her birthday and held it out to her. "It... it should be with you, Kayla. I want you to have it to... remember her by." Kayla reached out and took it without a word. She ran her finger over the engraving and almost started to cry again.

"If you want the car, it's yours," said Ariana. "It was for you anyway. You should keep it."

"No," said Kayla quietly. "No, I'll take my bike. I'll be fine." Ariana nodded nervously.

"Kayla, I..." Kayla held up her hand, cutting her off.

"Don't," she said, shaking her head. "Don't, Ari. I just... I don't need a painful goodbye. I'm just gonna... go. So... yeah. I guess... bye, then. Good luck, Ari." The girls hugged, Ariana actually squeezed Kayla tightly. Kayla grabbed the picture and she walked away, leaving Ariana standing alone in the middle of the bedroom. She stopped beside the sofa to scratch Fluffers behind his ears. She jerked her head toward the bedroom.

"You take care of her, you hear me?" Kayla told the cat. He purred warmly and Kayla began to cry. "Yeah, you're a good boy. See you around, fur ball." She crossed the room, pausing at the doorway to look around the home she had loved so much. She burned that image into her mind, knowing that she would never see this room again.

With a heavy heart, she mounted her bike and kicked the engine to life. She revved the engine and set off down the paved road that led out to the main highway. When she reached the end, she looked back and for the first time in a long time she really appreciated just how massive Warehouse 15 was. Its red brick walls stretched on for what seemed like miles behind her. The cargo doors and the fire escape seemed tiny in comparison from that distance.

Kayla let out a long breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. When Kayla had first arrived at the warehouse seven months ago, she had never imagined that she would ever want to live there. Now, though, she felt as though she was leaving the only place that ever really mattered to her. That rundown warehouse had become her home. Ariana had made it a home.

“Bye,” she said weakly. She revved the bike’s engine again and slowly turned onto the street. Moments later, the grey walls of Warehouse 14 obscured the old brick warehouse from view as Kayla sped away from the only home she had and the only love she couldn’t live without.

-.-

She headed south. She had no destination in mind; she just knew she had to put as much distance between herself and Detroit as she could. Another storm brewed up just as she hit the Interstate and the rains came. She rode on, through the pounding rain. She didn’t care about the storm; she just wanted to keep going.

It was nearly noon before she realized that she needed to stop. She was quite surprised to see the unmistakable shape of the looming Gateway Arch that dominated the skyline of St. Louis, Missouri towering on the horizon. She hadn’t intended to go there, but now that she was close to such a large city, she decided to stop there.

It was a Friday and St. Louis was a busy, bustling city. The rains of Michigan had subsided roughly an hour into the eight hours she had spent on the rode. She hadn’t even stopped to dry off. Kayla checked into a hotel near the Arch. She took a suite with a large balcony that gave her a beautiful view of the massive gray structure which sat on the bank of the Mississippi River.

She showered, wrapped herself in a complimentary bathrobe, poured herself a glass of some amber liquid from the mini bar, and sank into a chair out on the balcony. She planned to sit there all night, drinking herself stupid and staring at that damned Arch and hope that it might give her some idea of what to do now.

By her third glass, she had gained no wisdom from the silvery span of steel and concrete. All she knew was that her head was pounding and she felt miserable. She went back inside and fell back across the bed, staring up at the ceiling and silently praying for answers. She had almost drifted off to sleep when her phone rang. It took extreme force of will to haul herself up and dig her phone out of her backpack. She glanced at the caller ID.

“Hey, Alana,” she said, falling back into bed.

“Don’t you ‘Hey Alana’ me, Mikki!” her younger sister demanded. “Where the hell are you?! I’ve been calling you for hours! Ariana said you left, but didn’t tell her where you were going! I’ve been worried sick! Do you have any idea how…”

“I’m in St. Louis!” Kayla interrupted her sister before she could build up a head of steam and rant at her for hours. “I drove down to St. Louis.”

“St. Louis?” Alana repeated, sounding highly surprise. “As in Missouri? Damn, that’s a hell of a drive for one morning! What the hell are you doing down there?”

“Right now? Sitting in a hotel room talking to you.” Kayla replied.

“And judging from the sound of your voice, drinking your ass off,” Alana snapped.

“Nope, my ass is still firmly attached,” said Kayla. “Thanks for your concern, though.”

“Mikki, I’m being serious,” said Alana disapprovingly.

“Me too,” said Kayla. “My ass is seriously still firmly attached.”

“I don’t care about the firmness of your ass!” Alana snapped. “I care about my sister. Kayla, why did you leave like that? What’s going on?”

“What? Ariana didn’t tell you?” asked Kayla. “Hell, I figured she did. She… Aly, she’s giving up. She’s not going to try and remember who she was any more. She’s moving on… and my Ari’s dead.”

“Oh, Mik…” said Alana softly, all the anger gone from her voice now. “Mik, I’m really sorry. Listen, stay where you are. I’m coming to get you…”

“No, don’t!” Kayla exclaimed. “I… I don’t need anyone to come get me. I’m not coming back to Detroit.”

“Then where are you going?” Alana asked. “Back home to San Diego?”

“No, not there…” said Kayla uncertainly. “I don’t know where I’m going. I need some space… some time to think and sort things out. I’m gonna stay out on the road… see the country for a while, I think…. Just be on my own for now.”

“Kayla, you should come back,” said Alana seriously. “You should come back. We can work together on the wedding business.”

“That’s your thing, Aly,” said Kayla quietly. “That’s your passion, I… it was never mine. You’ll do great, but I can’t… I can’t do it.”

“Then what are you going to do?” Alana asked.

“There’s nothing to do,” said Kayla. “There’s nothing left for me to do. So, I’m gonna keep driving until I find something… until I find where I belong.”

“Kayla…”

“I’ll call you in the morning before I hit the road,” said Kayla quickly. “I think I’m gonna head down to Little Rock. I spent some time there when I was on the run… met some decent folks. It’d be nice to see them again.”

“Okay,” said Alana, recognizing defeat. “Just… be careful… and make sure you call me.”

“I will, I promise,” said Kayla. “’Night,”

“Yeah, goodnight,” Kayla hung up and tossed the phone onto the mattress beside her.

-.-

The following morning, Kayla went downstairs to the on-site restaurant for breakfast. She didn’t eat much, just some bacon and eggs along with a glass of orange juice. It wasn’t very good and she wasn’t really hungry, but if she wanted to make it to Little Rock safely, she needed to eat. She was just finishing up when a smiling elderly woman placed her hand on the back of the chair opposite her.

“Do you mind if I sit down, sweetie?” she asked kindly. “I’m waiting for my husband to finish up in the bathroom and my legs are tired.”

“Of course, please. I was just leaving anyway,” said Kayla, reaching for her backpack on the floor.

“Oh? Where are you heading?” the woman asked, appearing to be politely interested.

“Little Rock for now,” Kayla replied. “I don’t really have a plan, I just… need to go.”

“Well, Little Rock’s a nice city,” said the woman. “Small, quiet… a good place to make a fresh start, if that’s what you’re after. But before you go looking to make a new life, you need to be sure you’re finished with your old one. I’ve seen the likes of you before, girl. You’re running from something you’d rather not face. You’re not afraid, so there’s no abusive boyfriend. You don’t look like a hooligan, so I don’t imagine you’re running from the law… so what is it?”

“I’m… not running from anything,” said Kayla sagely. “I just want to see the country… find where I belong.”

“Oh, finding where you belong is all well and good, sweetheart,” said the woman. “But finding who you belong with is much more important. Doesn’t matter where you live or what life you have if you haven’t got anybody to share it with. You need to find that special someone and hold onto ‘em with everything you’ve got. It’s worth it. It’s what I did with my dear Donald. Used to be a nurse, I did. Met him at the hospital I worked at up north. Knew he was the one the second I saw him Our country… it’s got its beauty and everyone should go out there and see it… but it’s twice as pretty if you share it with someone you love.”

“What if that someone you love forgot you?” Kayla asked, not completely sure why in the world she was talking to this woman at all. “What if that special someone didn’t even remember they ever loved you? What if they became someone else?”

“Remind ‘em of what you had. Show ‘em what you felt for one another and make ‘em remember. Love conquers everything, dear. Well, love and hate, I suppose. There’s a fine line between love and hate and occasionally that line gets a little blurry. If love doesn’t work, sweetheart… I’d give hate a try. You might be surprised.”

“Hate…” said Kayla slowly. “What if… what if they don’t hate anything?” The old woman smiled.

Everybody hates something, dear,” she nodded knowingly. “Believe me, even God himself hates sin. If God hates something, then you can bet every living person on Earth most certainly does.”

“Thanks,” said Kayla, standing to her feet. “You’ve… definitely given me something to think about.”

“Oh, you’re very welcome, dear,” said the woman. “I hope you have a good journey, and that you find what you’re looking for.” Kayla made to walk away before stopping short and returning to the table.

“Um… I didn’t get your name,” said Kayla quickly.

“Oh, silly me!” the woman exclaimed. “Rose. My name is Rose.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Rose. I’m Kayla,”

“And you as well, Kayla dear,” said Rose. “And you as well.”

-.-

Kayla sat in a gas station parking lot, staring at the underpass that led to the highway. She had pulled off on her way out of town to fill up and now she sat there, wondering what course she should follow. She could head south, down to Little Rock and see what awaited her there… or she could follow Rose’s advice and point her bike north towards Detroit. Either way, she knew once she chose her path there was no turning back.

Hate. It was a powerful word and a powerful emotion. Kayla had tried to love the memories back into Ariana. She had shown her pictures, taken her to their special places, even played her their song. None of it had sparked even the slightest hint of remembrance in her. Love wasn’t the key. Their love was a strong as it could be. It wasn’t the answer.

So perhaps hate was. But what was she to do? Go back to Detroit and tell Ariana she hated her? No, that didn’t make sense. It wasn’t about Kayla, but Ariana. Should she make Ariana hate her? The more she thought about it, that didn’t make any sense either. Maybe Rose was wrong. Maybe not everyone hated something because Kayla sure couldn’t think of a single thing that Ariana hated. It was too strong a word for the sweet girl she had known. Ariana didn’t even hate her father.

As she sat there on her bike, deep in thought, a large tractor-trailer pulled into the parking lot. The massive eighteen-wheeled vehicle drove past her, casting a long dark shadow over her and her bike. It clicked. It hit her like a lightning bolt from on high. She knew what she had to do. She had had the answer all along and only then did it come to her. She had tried to use love to help Ariana remember her true self, but love didn’t run deep enough within Ariana to work.

The redhead carried something far deeper than that. She carried a deep, terrible, primal fear of something that even Kayla’s love couldn’t vanquish it completely. It was too horrible to imagine, but she knew she had to do it. She knew it was the only way. She could only pray that Ariana would forgive her.

She kicked her bike to life, the engine roaring to the skies. She put the bike back on the highway, heading not towards a new life in Little Rock, Arkansas, but instead towards the old life she wasn’t remotely finished with yet far to the north in Detroit, Michigan.

-.-

It was nearly dark by the time she reached the city. She could see the lights of Detroit gleaming out at her, beckoning her forward. The rains that had plagued her the day before had long since moved on. The sky was clear and a blood red sun hovered just above the horizon.

At long last, she turned onto the road that led her straight to the cargo doors of Warehouse 15. She parked her bike outside and scrambled up the fire escape steps. She paused briefly to catch her breath before knocking. It took a few moments, but finally she heard the sound of the lock scraping and Ariana pulled open the door.

“Kayla, what are you…?” she began, but it was all she had a chance to say. Kayla lunged forward, pressing the rag she had hidden behind her back over the girl’s nose. She spun a shocked Ariana around, holding her firmly from behind, keeping the rag pressing tightly to her face, giving the chemical time to work.

“It’s okay,” she said as she felt the fight drain out of the redhead. “It’s okay, baby. I’ve got you. It’s okay, just go to sleep, honey. Just go to sleep.”

“I… I…” Ariana tried to speak, but she couldn’t. Kayla held on to her until she lost consciousness.

25: Chapter XXV: Rebirth
Chapter XXV: Rebirth

Kayla gently lifted Ariana’s lifeless form into her arms and carried her downstairs, whispering softly to her all the while. She carried to an old broom closet that no one had used in years. It was dusty inside, which Kayla took care of by quickly sweeping it out. She removed the musty mop she found inside and also unscrewed both of the light bulbs from the fixture dangling from the ceiling. She then carefully deposited Ariana inside and closed the door. She sat down against the wall outside to wait. What was to come, she knew, would require her utmost resolve.

Drowsily, Ariana regained consciousness. She tried slowly to sit up but her head was pounding and she felt dizzy. After a few minutes of lying there with her eyes closed, she sat up and opened her eyes. What she saw, or rather what she didn’t see, sent a jolt of pure, unexplainable terror through her heart. She opened her mouth and screamed.

She had no idea why, but the utterly featureless black room she found herself in terrified her beyond reason. She pounded on the walls until she found what felt like a door. She punched it, kicked it, scratched it, positively willing the door to open. Then she remembered Kayla. She remembered that she had attacked her. She must have put her here!

“Kayla!” Ariana cried. “Kayla! Are you out there?! Please, let me out! Kayla!” No answer came, but Kayla was most certainly still there. She sat against the wall beside the door with tears streaming down her face. She was torturing the girl, she knew it. She hated herself for it, but she had to try. She had to know for sure.

“Kayla, please!” Ariana begged, the panic evident in her stricken voice. “Please, open the door!”

“I can’t,” Kayla whispered, knowing Ariana wouldn’t hear her. “I can’t...” She let it go on and on for what felt like hours although she knew it was only minutes. With each passing second, her resolve waned as she listened to the panicked cries of her best friend. Before long, she knew she could not let this continue. She had to put a stop to it. Whoever Ariana was now, the part she was hurting was what little remained of the girl she loved. She stood up and walked over to the door. She unlocked it and turned the knob but the door wouldn't open. She checked the lock and pulled again. Nothing. The door remained resolutely closed. All the while Ariana continued to cry, beg, scream, and plead with Kayla or anyone listening to open the door.

"Ari, I'm trying to get you out, but the door's stuck!" Kayla called out to her. "Help me push!"

"No!" Ariana screamed. Suddenly a jab of pain stabbed through her already aching head. She whimpered and a voice spoke to her out of nowhere.

“Ari, just open the door,” said the voice that sounded oddly like her own. “Just open the door. It’s unlocked, sweetie. Just open it.”

“I can't!” Ariana screamed, pounding on the door again. “No, I… I can’t,” she cried. She didn’t understand. If the door was unlocked, why couldn’t she open it? She so wanted it to be opened so that she could get out of this room, so why couldn’t she open it?

"The door's stuck, Ari!" Kayla called. "Help me push and I'll get you out of there!"

"I can't! I... I'm not supposed to!" Ariana cried. "I'm not supposed to!" And suddenly she remembered something. She remembered being locked in the dark... and being told to open a door. She had been too afraid to open it, but someone had told her that if she did it then everything would be okay. She just... had to be brave. But Ariana didn't know how to be brave. She didn't even know who she was.

"Yes, you are, baby," said Kayla, managing to stay calm. "You are supposed to open it. Honey, can you see the doorknob?" Ariana looked down and felt for the doorknob. Her hand closed around it at last.

"Yeah, I... I can feel it," she replied. "Kayla, its dark..."

"I know, sweetie," said Kayla. "Okay, baby, listen to me. I'm going to help you open the door, okay? We'll do it together. I'm gonna count to three and we're gonna turn it together and open the door, okay?"

"But I'm not supposed to open it!" Ariana whimpered. "Kayla, he'll hurt me..."

"No one's going to hurt you, Ari," said Kayla quickly. "No one, okay? But I need you to help me. Now, come on, Ari. Be brave." It took every ounce of strength Ariana could muster, but she decided then and there to do it.

"Okay..." she said, her hand trembling on the doorknob.

"So, I'm going to count, okay?" said Kayla. "On three, turn the knob and push. One, two, three," Ariana turned the knob and pushed. On the other side, Kayla tugged with all her might. The door swung open and Kayla stood before her, staring at her with wide, terrified eyes. Another jolt of white-hot pain stabbed through Ariana's head and suddenly felt immensely dizzy. Her world started to go dark and she slumped forward. Kayla was there instantly to catch her. She was only out long enough for Kayla to gently say her name. The redhead’s eyes fluttered open and as soon as Kayla’s face came into focus, she found she was suddenly very angry.

"You are a bad girl, Kay-Kay," she snapped, waggling her finger in the brunette's face for emphasis. She pulled herself free of Kayla’s grasp, glaring furiously at her. "Very bad!"

"I know!" Kayla shouted. "I know, I'm sorry! If you want to call the police I totally..." Then it hit her. “Wait… did… did you just call me ‘Kay-Kay’?”

“I always call you Kay-Kay,” Ariana snapped, crossing her arms fiercely. “Why did you lock me in a closet?!” But Kayla didn’t seem to care about that at all. She stared at Ariana’s fuming face for so long without speaking that Ariana’s anger started to fade and she became a little concerned.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Kayla, did something…?”

“Ari... is that really you?” Kayla asked quietly, reaching out and cupping the redhead’s cheek. “Is… is it really you?”

“Well, who else would I be?” Ariana asked curiously. Suddenly, her eyes widened in fear and she gasped. “Unless the Bodyswitchers have come! They haven’t, have they? I don’t want to have my body switched!”

“There aren’t any Bodyswitchers!” Kayla exclaimed, realizing suddenly that she had never before been so happy to hear Ariana’s silly randomness. "We... you... can I kiss you?"

"Well, you've never asked before..." said Ariana with a sly grin on her face. "But... well, if you must, I suppose. We're still going to have to talk about this closet thing though, because..." She was interrupted by Kayla positively leaping forward and capturing her lips in a kiss so passionate that the redhead felt a little lightheaded when the brunette finally pulled away.

"What's gotten into you?" Ariana asked, staring at Kayla with curious eyes. "You're being weird."

"Ariana, you... you..." she shook her head violently. "I can't believe it worked!"

"What worked?" Ariana demanded. "What's going...? Hey, how did your hair get so much longer?" It was only then that she noticed that Tent City was gone. "Where did everyone go? Kayla, what... what's going on?"

"Ari, you don't remember?" Kayla asked, staring perplexedly at her. "Ari... what's the last thing you remember?" Ariana grinned. It was such an easy question.

"You asking me what the last thing I remembered was," she replied happily. Kayla sighed heavily, but she was smiling so brightly it could have blinded someone.

"Damn, I've missed you," she said fondly. "Ari... sweetie, you were shot." Ariana hadn't expected that reply. Shot? When? How? And then she remembered. She remembered Dwayne, being more afraid than ever before... and then she remembered the pain.

"Oh..." she breathed. "Kayla, what... what happened? I remember Dwayne coming and... and I remember him shooting me, but... but what happened to him? Where is he? Is he..."

"He's dead, sweetie," said Kayla reassuringly. "He can't hurt us any more, babe. He’s gone.”

“Did… did you kill him?” Kayla nodded.

“Right after he shot you, yeah,” she replied. “You saved my life, kid… and you bought me time to stop him. If you hadn’t taken that bullet, he would’ve killed us both.” Ariana smiled. She was sad that Kayla had been forced to kill Dwayne, but she remembered his face… and she knew there would have been no way she could have talked him down. He had come to the warehouse to murder Kayla and he wasn’t going to leave without doing so. She hadn’t had a choice in the matter.

“I’m sorry you had to kill him,” she said quietly. “I didn’t want you to have to.”

“I’m not sorry,” said Kayla firmly. “Ari… he was a bastard and a murderer and he damn well deserved what he got. The world’s better off without him.” She pulled Ariana into a tight hug, squeezing her gently, lovingly.

“I’ve missed you so much, Ari,” Kayla whispered. Ariana pulled away, suddenly feeling rather scared.

“What happened? After, I mean… After I was shot and you killed Dwayne, what happened? How long has it been since…?” Kayla smiled sadly and nodded toward the stairs.

“C'mon, let's go back to the apartment,” she said. “I’ll explain everything."

The girls trekked back up to the apartment. On the way, Kayla told the long and sordid tale of the events that had taken place over the previous six months. Ariana could not remember anything after she had been shot. She had no recollection of waking up in the hospital, or of anything that had happened in the weeks since. As far as she could recall, she had been shot and then immediately burst from the confines of the closet. It was the strangest feeling to know that half a year was just gone from her life.

When they reached the apartment and sat down on the sofa, Fluffers the Cat immediately bounded over to Ariana and proceeded to rub himself against every inch of her he could reach. Ariana looked up at Kayla and found that she was grinning.

“What?” she asked. Kayla shrugged.

“He missed you almost as much as I did,” she replied. “He didn’t like the other you very much… I can’t say I was the biggest fan either. She was… kind of a bitch.” Fluffers finally curled up on the arm of the couch, purring loudly as the redhead’s slender hand stroked his fur.

“This is… surreal,” Ariana said at last, looking around the apartment. “It’s like I was just here a few minutes ago, but… but I know I wasn’t. It’s weird.”

“I’m just glad you’re you again,” said Kayla quietly. She began to cry and Ariana was suddenly rather frightened. She wasn’t used to seeing Kayla cry. “God, Ari… I’ve missed you so much. I didn’t realize just how much until right now… and if you could’ve seen me during a lot of that time, you’d understand just how powerful that statement was. I felt like… like someone cut out half of my soul, Ari.”

“They didn’t,” said Ariana, moving closer and allowing herself to be drawn loosely into Kayla’s arms. “I’m right here.”

“I know…” said Kayla weakly. “But you weren’t. I know I should say thank you for saving my life, Ari, but… but don’t you ever do that to me again.” Ariana grinned and rested her head on Kayla’s shoulder.

“I promise,” she said sweetly. “The next time someone tries to shoot you, I won’t get in the way,”

“I’ll hold you to that,” said Kayla firmly. “Oh, I almost forgot!” She reached into her pocket and pulled out Ariana’s ‘Forever’ locket. “Here. This belongs to you.”

“Kayla,” Ariana began as the brunette clasped the locket’s chain around her neck. “If… if I said anything that hurt you before… When I couldn’t remember… If I hurt you, I hope you know that I…”

“Oh, please, don’t even start to apologize, honey,” said Kayla dismissively. “Baby, I know that wasn’t you, okay? Nothing you did, or said what your fault. Hell, right now I’m so happy that you could punch me right in the face and I wouldn’t care!”

“Really?” Ariana asked with polite interest. “Because I do still owe you for that whole closet thing, remember?”

“Actually…” Kayla said rather uncomfortably. “You… you hit pretty hard for such a small person…”

“How about I just make us dinner instead?” Ariana suggested warmly.

“I’d love that,” Kayla replied. Ariana leaned in a kissed her before leaping to her feet and starting toward the kitchen. Suddenly, a horrible thought occurred to her and she halted.

“Oh my God…” she breathed. “Kay-Kay… you’ve had to cook for yourself all this time!” She was positively tearful. She rushed back over and gave the brunette and very tight hug indeed. “You poor baby!”

“Hey!” Kayla exclaimed, looking highly offended. “I can cook you know? Just because I’m not as good as you doesn’t…” She broke off when Ariana gave her a look. “Okay, fine, I suck. Please feed me.” Ariana giggled.

“Anything you’d like,” she said with a smile. “Although, now I’m starting to think you only missed me for my cooking,” Kayla chuckled.

“And that ass,” she added seductively, swatting Ariana playfully on the rear as she scurried into the kitchen. When Ariana went over to the kitchen, she found a handful of boxes of hair color products lying haphazardly on the counter.

“Oh, you’re dyeing your hair?” she asked interestedly. Kayla swallowed quite visibly.

“Uh… no. Actually, you bought those a couple of days ago,” Ariana’s mouth fell open.

"She was going to bleach my hair!" she gasped. "That bitch!

Ari!” Kayla exclaimed in surprise.

No one messes with my hair!” Ariana snapped. She tossed the boxes into the trash.

As Ariana set about cooking, Kayla knew she had phone calls to make. First, she had to call Alana, whom she had neglected to call when she left St. Louis. She had roughly half a dozen missed calls and innumerable texts from her sister and was fully prepared for the curse-laden earful she received from her.

Then she phoned Cooper, who upon learning that Ariana was back to her old self, dropped his phone without saying goodbye and Kayla suspected he would show up at the warehouse within minutes. After telling her mom the good news about Ariana, Kayla called Dr. Pinder. He was very pleased and asked that she bring Ariana into his office the following day to ensure she was doing okay.

By the time she was done making her calls, Ariana had finished preparing the meal. It was simple macaroni and cheese, but Kayla was overjoyed. She had missed having a decent meal for so long; she didn’t have a preference as to what Ariana made.

“Oh, that’s good…” Kayla whimpered as she took her first bite, her eyelids fluttering in ecstasy.

“I’m glad you like it,” said Ariana, smiling happily.

“You have no idea, sweetheart,” said Kayla blissfully.

“So, who all did you call?” Ariana asked, sitting down across from Kayla. “You were on the phone for ages.”

“My sister, my mom, Coop, and Dr. Pinder,” Kayla replied. “Dr. Pinder wants to see us tomorrow… just to check on how you’re doing now that you’ve got your memories back.”

“Oh,” said Ariana. “Well, then I guess we’ll…” But before she could finish, the door burst open and Cooper charged into the room. He spotted Ariana at the table, rushed over, picked her up and engulfed her in a record breaking hug.

“I guess you missed me too?” asked Ariana when Cooper finally released her. Cooper stood there, grinning like an idiot.

“Oh, you have no idea, sweet pea,” he replied. “We really thought we lost you. You’re sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, Coop, really,” Ariana said reassuringly. “I feel great.”

“She still cooks great too,” said Kayla, pointing energetically at her plate.

“You made her cook?!” Cooper exclaimed, appalled.

“She wanted to!” Kayla shot back. “Look, this is the first decent mean I’ve had in six months! Don’t ruin this!”

“Leave her alone, Coop,” said Ariana gently. “I wanted to cook. Like I said, I feel fine. Seriously, Coop, you don’t have to baby me.”

“I’m sorry, I… we were all so worried about you, and when Kayla told me you remembered everything, well… I’m just glad to have you back, Beautiful.” Ariana smiled sheepishly and Kayla glared at Cooper reproachfully.

“Stop hitting on my girlfriend,” she said protectively.

It was already very late, but Cooper stayed until well past four in the morning. As soon as he left, Kayla and Ariana fell into bed together. Kayla was exhausted, but happier than she could ever remember being in her life. Ariana shifted closer to her, already close to falling asleep. Kayla kissed her on her forehead and her eyes fluttered open.

“I love you, Ari,” she whispered. Ariana smiled and laced the fingers of her right hand through Kayla’s.

“Love you too, Kay-Kay,” Ariana replied sleepily, her eyes sliding closed again.

“You know we’re not getting any sleep tonight, right?” Kayla asked her slyly.

“Yeah,” she said softly. “That’s why I’m not wearing any underwear.”

“You know,” said Kayla as she rolled Ariana onto her back and straddled the redhead’s hips. “I’m beginning to think you’re the bad girl, Ari.” Ariana grinned, propping herself up on her elbows.

“Nothing wrong with being a little bad every now and then is there?” she asked playfully.

“When it comes to you, baby girl?” asked Kayla, her fingers finding the hem of Ariana’s nightshirt. “Hell no,”

26: Chapter XXVI: Some Version of Heaven
Chapter XXVI: Some Version of Heaven

The day we met,
Frozen I held my breath,
Right from the start
I knew that I'd found a home for my heart...

Beats fast, colors and promises,
How to be brave?
How can I love when I'm afraid to fall?
But watching you stand alone,
All of my doubt suddenly goes away somehow

One... Step... Closer…

Kayla awoke to the sound of their song playing softly from the radio on their beside table. She felt so warm and comfortable that she truly thought it should be illegal. Ariana lay cuddled up beside her, the warmth of her bare skin adding to Kayla’s desire to remain right where she was for the rest of time.

I have died everyday waiting for you,
Darling don't be afraid, I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

Finally, she forced her eyes open and found herself staring at the top of Ariana’s head. The other girl appeared to have decided to use her chest as a pillow, a fact that didn’t bother Kayla one bit.

Time stands still
Beauty in all she is
I will be brave
I will not let anything take away
What's standing in front of me
Every breath
Every hour has come to this

One... Step... Closer...

I have died everyday waiting for you
Darling
don't be afraid I have loved you
For
a thousand years
I'll
love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed I would find you
Time
has brought your heart to me
I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more...

One... Step... Closer...

She lay there for a long time, silently breathing in the strawberry scent of Ariana's hair until at last the girl's eyes fluttered open. It took a moment for the girl's sleepy blue gaze to settle on Kayla's face, but when it did she smiled.

"Hey," she said sweetly, reaching up and bopping Kayla on the nose with her fingertip.

"'Morning," Kayla replied, trying and failing to stifle a yawn. She smiled down at the redhead. "It's good to be able to wake up to that smile again."

"Yeah... it's good to wake up," said Ariana sleepily. "I guess it was pretty close there for a while..."

"Yeah, babe, it was," said Kayla softly. "Really, I... It was scary. I really thought..."

"Aww... you really did miss me," said Ariana with a sly grin.

"I really did," Kayla replied, her hand sliding across Ariana's shoulder, down her arm and along her hip.

"Well, I'm pretty sure I missed you too, Kay-Kay," said Ariana. "I'm sure I... oh..." Kayla's hand reached its destination and Ariana's sentence died in her throat. She gasped, her head drooping onto Kayla's shoulder.

"Oh, Kayla..." she whimpered. The brunette smirked.

"Told you I missed you," she whispered. Ariana responded by biting her lip and whimpering something incoherent into Kayla's ear. Kayla giggled as she increased her pace. Ariana groaned, cried, whimpered, and writhed against her.

"You... are a very bad girl, Kay-Kay," Ariana groaned weakly.

"And you love me for it," Kayla shot back. The redhead managed a weak smile.

"Oh, you're damn right, I do," Kayla grinned.

"You know, I like this new, spunky Ariana," she said thoughtfully, forcing the redhead onto her back.

"Oh, really?" Ariana managed to say before letting out a gasp of pleasure that took whatever else she might have intended to add straight from her brain.

"Really," said Kayla. "She swears and comes to bed without her panties. I like her."

"Yeah, she's brilliant," said Ariana irritably. "Focus on what you're doing, please."

"Oh, I'm focused," said Kayla, her deft fingers serving to prove her point. "By the way, I want you to meet Alana today."

"Do you really want me thinking about your sister right now?" the redhead demanded.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Kayla thoughtfully. “She’d probably find it flattering. Alana’s got a pretty big ego, come to think of it.”

Kayla...” Ariana groaned. The brunette smirked down at her.

What?

“There are much better things you could be doing with your mouth right now other than talking,” Ariana quipped, her fingers clenching the bed sheets so hard she almost tore them. Kayla’s smirk grew wider.

“Well… I can think of at least one,”

-.-

The girls stayed in bed most of the day. They skipped their meeting with Dr. Pinder, choosing to reschedule for the following day. They talked about nothing in particular, lounged in sleepy silence, and engaged in frequent romps of sexual pleasure. Around noon, Kayla went into the kitchen and returned with a tray of foods, a good deal of which ended up being eaten off of one another’s skin.

They had dinner plans with Alana and Cooper at six, so at around five Kayla dragged herself out of bed and went to take a shower, leaving Ariana alone. It was the first time since she had regained her memories that she had a moment to herself to just think… and she had a lot to think about.

She felt strange. Not bad, necessarily… just strange. Different. She felt almost free… and that was when it hit her. The million voices in her head that so often spoke all at once, drowning her in words she could barely understand, had at last fallen silent. She was alone inside her mind for the first time she could ever remember. She really was free. For a moment she was afraid that she was dead, that she had died in the hospital and this was just some version of heaven that she had ended up in.

She had been sure that she would never feel like this. Ever. Her father had seen to that, she had been positive. She was to be tormented her entire life. She wasn’t to have a moment of blissful, peaceful clarity… and yet there it was. The voices were gone and her mind was her own. She laid there, her bare body lying atop the twisted mess of blankets, waiting for them to come back. They never did.

For the first time in her life, she was utterly, totally, completely happy. They were both free, she and Kayla. Kayla, from the dark looming shadow of Dwayne, and she, Ariana, from the endless torment her father had forced upon her. It was over. The End. They were free. They had won.

Kayla entered the room a moment later wrapped in one towel and drying her wet hair with another. She paused, staring almost hungrily at Ariana.

“God, you look beautiful like that,” she said warmly. “We may have to introduce a new policy around this place. ‘No redhead may wear clothes of any sort while on premises’.”

“Clothes are such a hassle,” Ariana agreed, smiling slyly. “I will need to wear a bra occasionally, though… these things are frakin’ heavy.”

“Well, this conversation is bringing back memories,” said Kayla, pulling open the wardrobe and searching for what she wanted to wear. “Memories of another conversation which, if I recall correctly, made me feel rather inferior. Something about perkiness...”

“Sorry,” Ariana said sweetly, batting her long eyelashes at the brunette. “Love you!”

“Right back at ya, babydoll,” said Kayla. She grimaced. "Okay, so Alana wanted to go to a super fancy restaurant. 'Someplace nice' she called it. Could've gone to Outback Steakhouse, but no... She's trying to court Coop, so here we are.”

“Alana’s interested in Coop?” Ariana asked curiously.

“She is,” said Kayla. “Very much so. Coop, though? Well, he’ll barely give her the time of day.”

“Coop’s not like that,” said Ariana firmly. “He’s nice! He’d never just ignore her!”

“He would if, say the girl he considers his baby sister was shot, nearly died, and then lost her memories.” Kayla replied. “He’s too worried about you to even think about her!”

“But I’m fine!” Ariana exclaimed, quite surprised to hear all of this. “He doesn’t need to worry about me!”

“Up until last night you weren’t fine at all,” said Kayla pointedly. “It’s been six months of hell for us, Ari. It’s been hard on him, too. He’s scared of losing you just like I am. But, since you’re back I figure we ought to help Alana get her man. So, we're putting on the evening wear and... I'm not good at this part."

"At dressing up?" Ariana asked curiously.

"Exactly," said Kayla dryly.  "I was never the... fancy girl. I always bailed on my dad's formal business parties. It's just not my thing."

"Well, it's my thing," said Ariana brightly. She rolled out of bed and joined Kayla at the wardrobe. "We'll get you all gussied up, don't you worry." She bit her lip thoughtfully.

"Hmm... you'd look good in red, I think." Ariana said, pulling out a long, elegant dress roughly the same brilliant red as her hair.

"That would attract too much attention for my liking," said Kayla pointedly. “Alana will do enough of that for both of us. She'll probably show up wearing solid gold."

“So, something more subdued, then,” said Ariana, returning the red dress to the wardrobe. “Here, this one!” She took a much shorter jet black dress out and held it up for Kayla to inspect. “It’s a little low cut, but I like it.”

“I bet you do,” said Kayla with a grin. “Okay, it’ll do. By the way… why do you have all these dresses? I’ve never seen you wear anything like this before. You’re a t-shirt and yoga pants girl most of the time.”

“I like clothes,” said Ariana with a shrug. “I like to have them even if I don’t wear them. It’s like a collection. I like buying them and looking at them… and you don’t love me anymore, do you?”

“Why? Just because you have a hobby?” Kayla asked. “You’re allowed one weird hobby. Hell, I used to collect door knobs when I was a kid.” Ariana giggled.

“Seriously? Door knobs? You don’t collect plugs and light bulbs too, do you?” she asked, choking back laughter.

“Okay, make fun,” said Kayla dryly. “But yeah, I did. I had dozens of them. I guess I liked the shape of them. You’re not the only one around here who gets to be weird.”

“Aww…” said Ariana in disappointed tones.

“Yeah, yeah, go get dressed,” said Kayla. “Alana’s a stickler for being on time. You don’t want to get on that girl’s bad side by not being ready when she gets here, I promise.”

Ariana scurried out of the room to go take a shower. Kayla finished drying her hair and started getting dressed. She absolutely hated formal occasions. She hated them with a very strong passion. She didn’t mind a sundress or a comfortable skirt for the weekend, but this was a bit too much for her. She wore jeans and tank tops, never stuff like this.

Regardless, she forced herself into the black dress Ariana had presented her and straightened her normally curly hair. It wasn’t much, but considering Kayla would have much rather spent the evening right there in the apartment with her girlfriend, it would be good enough.

Ariana, of course, took to the spirit of the evening with, well, spirit. She returned to the bedroom wearing a knee-length emerald green sequined dress. She wore a vivid red lipstick that matched her hair, which she had tied up in a shiny, elegant knot behind her head. Kayla stared at her as she dropped a pair of strappy heels on the floor at her feet.

"You look amazing," Kayla managed to convince her mouth to say.

"Aww, thanks," said Ariana happily. "So do you. I like seeing you in a dress."

"Well, enjoy the view," said Kayla sagely. "Because this is likely the only time you'll ever see me in one. I'm... uncomfortable."

"Well, you only have to wear it for tonight," said Ariana gently. "After dinner we'll come back here and get you out of it," Kayla grinned.

"Oh... now that sounds like a good plan," she said seductively.

"That's not what I meant," said Ariana, shaking her head. "Get your mind out of the gutter."

"My mind is somewhere else entirely," said Kayla with a grin.

"Clearly," Ariana replied. A knock at the door put an end to their conversation. Kayla went to answer it while Ariana slipped on her shoes and followed her.

"Hey, Mikki!" said Alana when Kayla opened the door.

“Come on in, Alana, we’re almost ready,” said Kayla, standing aside to let Alana, who just so happened to be wearing a short, sparkling gold dress, to enter. Kayla caught Ariana’s eye and she clearly saw the redhead was doing her best not to giggle.

“Well, you must be Ariana,” said Alana, walking over to the redhead. “We’ve met, of course, but I’ve been waiting to meet the angel Kayla’s told me so much about. Apparently, you’re the sweetest person on Earth. Before you got your memories back you could be… unpleasant.” Ariana smiled shyly.

“Well, I don’t know about ‘angel’, but yes I like being friendly! It makes me feel nice.”

“Good,” said Alana. “So, you’re feeling okay, then? No… memory lapses or anything? No voices in your head telling you to murder Kayla?”

“No!” Ariana exclaimed, looking positively horrified.

“Stop it, Alana. You’re scaring her.” Kayla said sharply.

“No,” said Ariana. “No, I’m not scared. It’s just… that’s horrible.”

“I’m sorry,” said Alana.

“Okay,” said Ariana brightly. Alana glanced at Kayla.

“Why can’t you be so easy to get along with?” she said with a grin. “I like her.”

“Everyone does,” said Kayla, winking at Ariana.

“So, is Coop meeting us here or at the restaurant?”  Alana asked.

“At the restaurant,” Kayla replied. “He’s heading there straight from the bookstore.”

“Great!” said Alana, sounding far more excited than Kayla thought was appropriate for what they planned to do that evening. “Let’s go, then!”

The girls left the warehouse and headed across town. They took Alana’s BMW M3 so they could all ride together; the Mclaren had no backseat. Before long they arrived at Highgarden, a high class restaurant in the middle of downtown Detroit. Cooper was waiting near the door for the girls to arrive. He was wearing a very nice gray suit and looked positively princely.

“You clean up nice,” said Kayla, highly impressed. He grinned at her as he hugged Ariana.

“So do you,” he said with a smirk. “I didn’t realize you knew how to wear a dress.”

“Very funny,” said Kayla dryly. Cooper smiled down at Ariana.

“How are you feeling, Beautiful?” he asked her.

“I’m fine, Coop,” said Ariana gently. “I mean, I’m a little hungry... and it could be a little warmer outside, but I can’t complain.” Kayla and Alana both started giggling while Coop shook his head.

“Ari, I didn’t… I wasn’t talking about… I meant about you. You’re still… you, I’m assuming. Your memories and everything?”

“I know what you meant,” said Ariana lightly. “And yeah, I’m fine. Really, you don’t have to ask me every time we see each other.”

“I know, I know,” Cooper said quickly. “I just… I was really… we were all really worried.”

“Well, you can stop worrying,” said Ariana firmly. “I feel fine. Now, say hello to Alana and tell her she looks very pretty in her bright gold dress.”

“You do look very pretty in your gold dress, Alana,” said Cooper, smiling at the younger Austin sister.

“Thanks,” she said, blushing slightly. Kayla arched her eyebrows in surprise. Alana never ever did anything remotely close to blushing. “So do you! Uh… I mean, you look very handsome.”

“Thanks,” said Cooper. “So, shall we get a table?” The girls nodded and Cooper led the way inside.

“You are terrible at flirting, do you know that?” Kayla hissed in her sister’s ear as they walked, staying far enough back to remain out of earshot of Cooper. “I mean, really terrible.”

“Thanks for the pep talk, sis,” Alana snapped. “Really supportive! Look, I’m just nervous, okay? I’ve never had to… attract a guy before. Normally they’re just all over me!”

“Coop’s… Coop hit on me when we first met, but he… he’s not like that, really,” said Kayla softly, choosing to ignore Alana’s highly egotistical remark. “He’s a good guy, Aly. But from what I can tell, you’re going to have to work your way in. He’s… focused on Ariana right now. I don’t think he sees anything else.” Alana frowned.

"Yeah... it's hard to see anything else with her around, isn't it?" she commented, watching the redhead where she stood next to Coop while he spoke with a waiter. Kayla looked their way as well, stunned once again by her girlfriend's beauty. She was positively glowing, drawing the eye of many of the patrons.

"That's not what I meant when I said that, but... yeah, she gets your attention," said Kayla quietly. "She's good at that."

"I'll say," said Alana dryly. At that moment, Cooper waved to them, beckoning them over. Kayla and Alana joined Ariana and Cooper and together they sat down around their table. Their waiter took their drink order and hurried away.

"This is nice," said Ariana brightly, examining the abnormal number of very clean forks and spoons on the table in front of her. "Kay-Kay... why do we have so many utensils?"

"They're for your different courses," said Kayla with a grin. "This one here is your salad fork... and there's your fish knife and your soup spoon is over there. Your dinner fork is right there beside your plate." Ariana shook her head, an immensely confused expression on her face.

"So... what happens if I use the salad fork to eat my steak?" she asked interestedly, holding up the utensil and gazing curiously at it.

"The universe will implode," Kayla said in a very serious voice. Ariana's eyes widened and she set the fork back down with trembling fingers. Across the table, Alana was engaging Cooper in idle chatter and making her best attempt at flirting. While Cooper was most certainly talking to her and being perfectly friendly, he seemed to be missing her advances completely. After the waiter came and took their orders, Alana excused herself and went to the ladies’ room. Once they were sure Alana was well out of earshot, both Kayla and Ariana rounded on Cooper.

“Are you blind?” Ariana demanded of him. Cooper looked up, surprised.

“What?” he asked, perplexed.

“He really doesn’t know,” Kayla said to Ariana while gawking at Cooper. “He really doesn’t know.”

“I’m not sure how to best approach this,” Ariana said worriedly. “Should we tell him? Is that an okay thing to do?”

“I don’t know,” Kayla replied. “I think so. I mean, technically we’d be meddling in their affairs, but in this instance… well, if we don’t we might be dealing with this forever.”

“Right, right,” said Ariana. “I think we have to.”

“Agreed,” said Kayla, turning back to Cooper. “Coop… Alana likes you.”

“She what now?” Cooper replied, almost choking on a sip of his drink. “Alana does what again?”

“She likes you,” said Ariana in a very slow, steady voice as though she though Cooper hadn’t understood. Cooper stared at them both, open mouthed.

“So she… she…”

“She’s been flirting with you all night,” said Kayla pointedly. Cooper’s eyes widened.

That was flirting?” he asked, bemused. Kayla and Ariana both nodded.

“Oh, wow…” he said weakly. “Um… so, what do I do?”

“You don’t know what to do?” Ariana asked curiously.

“I know what to do later!” Cooper hissed. “I mean… should I say something to her? Like… ask her out or something?”

“Well, it depends if you’re interested or not,” said Kayla. “Look, Coop; I don’t care if you go out with her or not. That’s your choice. Just… don’t ignore her and don’t hurt her. If you’re gonna say no, let her down easy.”

“No, I… I’ll… I’ll… Uh, Ariana? Could you go and check on Alana, please? She’s been gone a while…” Ariana smiled and nodded.

“That’s code for ‘please leave, Ari. I want to talk to Kayla alone,’” she said with a grin. “But sure. I’ll go make sure she’s okay.” Ariana slipped out of her chair, heading for the ladies’ room.

“Coop, whatever you’re going to say you could have said in front of Ari,” said Kayla. “Besides, she and I don’t keep secrets, so…”

“I’m begging you to keep this one,” he said sharply. “Please, Kayla. I… I don’t date. At least, I haven’t in over a year.”

“Why not?” asked Kayla, shocked. “You’re a catch!” Cooper snorted.

“Thanks, but I… Look, it’s because of Ariana, okay? I haven’t dated because I… I always thought that maybe one day she and I… I mean, I thought we might…”

“You’re in love with her,” Kayla said quietly. “That’s why you’ve never liked me. I took her from you.”

“No, that’s not it,” said Cooper. “I like you just fine, Kayla… and no, I’m not in love with Ariana. I love her, I'm just not in love with her. She… I just thought we could have had something, you know? I mean, that day when she came into the bookstore with that bundle of flowers… she asked for some books about cats. I helped her find some, of course, and… well, she didn’t have any money. She thought the flowers would be a perfect way to pay. Obviously, I let her have the books. What else could I do?”

“Not much,” said Kayla with a fond smile. “I swear, that girl could buy the Crown Jewels with a homemade muffin. So, what? You just… regret never giving her a shot? She’s the one that got away?”

“Something like that,” said Cooper. He shook his head. “No... not really. I don’t know. I mean, I never seriously thought that she and I… that we’d ever really last anyway. She’s like my baby sister. I mean, I love her to death, but she's still my sister. I just...”

“She has something that you just want,” said Kayla softly. “She’s… how’d you put it? Endearing?”

“I’m pretty sure that was the word I used,” said Cooper. “So, yeah… up until you showed up I was trying to decide what to do. You know, whether to ask her out or not. Then you show up and sweep her off her feet and I… I guess I felt like I’d missed my chance. Of course, now I’m glad I did. I see you two together and I know she and I were never meant for each other. You two are perfect together. I’m glad you found each other, Kayla. Really, I am. But since then, I… I’ve been trying to figure out what I want out of life. I want what you two have. I want that once in a lifetime love. The kind of love that’s epic, that’s unstoppable…”

“That’s what Alana wants, Coop,” said Kayla, smiling at him. “She told me that once. She wants what me and Ariana have too. So, that’s one thing you have in common. I bet if you start talking, you’ll find out you have a few more.”

27: Chapter XXVII: Some Other Version of Heaven
Chapter XXVII: Some Other Version of Heaven

The bathroom was completely empty when Ariana entered, save for Alana who stood at the sink hurriedly wiping her eyes. Ariana immediately felt very sad. Alana had been crying and she still looked very upset. Ariana didn't like to see people crying and always tried to make them feel better.

It was easier when she knew them well. She knew just what to do when Kayla was feeling down, but Alana... they had only met a couple of hours earlier and had no idea what might make her happy. Still, she had to try. Alana looked up as Ariana approached her and sighed.

"Great," she said stuffily. "Just what I needed..."

"Alana, what's wrong?" Ariana asked in a concerned voice. "You've been crying!"

"Go away, Ariana," Alana snapped. "I don't want to talk."

"It's always better to talk things out," Ariana said helpfully. "I'm a really good listener, so you can talk to me if you want."

"Why would I talk to you?" Alana asked harshly. "I don't even know you!" Ariana shrugged.

"Maybe that makes it easier," the redhead suggested. "I don't know you, so I can't judge you. C'mon, Alana. Talk to me." Alana rolled her eyes, but relented.

"Fine," she hissed furiously. Ariana grinned happily.

"Great!" She plopped herself down on the counter and patted the spot next to her. Alana sighed heavily, but joined her nonetheless. "Now, spill it,"

"Well... you know I'm interested in Cooper," Alana began quietly. "But all he can see is you! He hardly even knows I'm here with you around!"

"He knows you're here," said Ariana kindly. "He just... worries about me. He doesn't need to... your sister worries enough for both of them, but he still does.”

“He’s in love with you,” Alana said with a sigh. Ariana shook her head, smiling slightly.

“No, he’s not,” she said pointedly. “He’s not, he never was, and he never will be. He had a crush once, Alana. That’s all it was, if it was even really that.”

“He told you?” Ariana shook her head again.

“He didn’t need to,” she explained. “Coop is… easy to read. He’s kind of like Kayla in that regard. You can tell what both of them are thinking without even asking. But seriously, Alana, Coop’s not in love with me. Even if he was, I’m with Kayla and we… we’re good together. We love each other and nothing is ever going to get in the way of that.”

“So you don’t think Cooper’s pining for you?” Alana asked. Ariana giggled.

“Coop doesn’t pine over a girl,” she said with a grin. “As far as he’s concerned, there’s a lot of fish to see.”

“There’s a lot of fish in the sea,” said Alana, staring quizzically at Ariana. The redhead’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head.

“That’s silly,” she said idly. Then her eyes widened. “Oh! I just got that! It makes more sense that way.” Alana, it seemed, couldn’t help but laugh.

“Damn,” she said lightly. “Now I know why everybody likes you. You make it hard not to.”

“I try to be likeable,” said Ariana sweetly.

“Well, you most definitely succeed,” Alana replied. “Alright, so… what do I do? Should I be forward and just tell him?”

“With Coop, you may have to,” said Ariana. “He can be oblivious sometimes. He’s worth the trouble, though. Coop’s a good guy. He’s loyal, kind, and surprisingly focused. He zeroes in on something and doesn’t stop until he’s sure it’s taken care of.”

“He’s like Kayla in that regard too,” said Alana. “She won’t let anything go until she’s finished.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ariana replied. “It gets her in trouble sometimes. She takes so much looking after. She’s worth it though.”

“Yeah, I… I don’t even know if Cooper’s right for me,” said Alana. “I just… I want what you and Kayla have. I want that kind of love you read about in books. You guys have that and I want to experience that. I want it too.”

“You don’t want what we have, you want what you think we have,” said Ariana. “You want the part of us you get to see… the part Kayla’s undoubtedly told you about. Kayla and me… we’re like any other couple. We’re not special, Alana. We’ve just had some pretty strange and miraculous things happen to us. We fight and argue just like anybody else.

“We’re not perfect. Love isn’t perfect, Alana. That stuff you read about in books and see in movies… it isn’t real. Love is… hard. It can be ugly, it can be painful… nasty… vicious... but underneath all that, at its core… it’s beautiful. It’s so worth… all of that other stuff. We fight, we disagree and we get on each other’s nerves… but it doesn’t matter because we love each other. When we’re in sync and we’re both there together… it is so damn good. Kayla can be a handful, and I know I can be too, but I wouldn’t trade her for anything in the world.

“Coop may or may not be ‘The One’, but you won’t know until you try. So, yeah… you need to sit him down and tell him how you feel. If you want him, honey, be forward. Be outgoing, be courageous, be whatever you want to be. Just get his attention and talk to him.”

“And if he doesn’t like me…” Alana paused, grinning. “Well, there’s a lot of fish to see.” Ariana laughed.

“That’s right,” she said, giggling.

“Still… you two do share an incredibly powerful love,” Alana said seriously. “At the very least, I want that. I want to not be able to imagine living without them. Like Kayla. I mean, I can’t imagine loving someone so much that I’d try to kill myself if they died! But she…”

“Kayla did what?!” Ariana said, her voice suddenly harsh and serious. “Kayla tried to kill herself?!” Alana averted her gaze, looking suddenly quite uncomfortable.

“Shit…” she groaned. “I guess she didn’t tell you about that part…”

“No, she didn’t.” Ariana snapped. “What did she do?”

“She… cut her wrists,” said Alana quietly. “After you… well, after you died she sort of… well, I wasn’t here, but she said that she couldn’t live without you or whatever, and… well, she decided to… not.” Ariana stood to her feet, her face glowing with rage.

She was livid. Her blood was positively boiling. She was certain she had never been angrier in her life. Kayla had tried to kill herself because of her! It was stupid! Surely Kayla knew that! How could she have ever thought of doing such a thing?!

But then Ariana knew exactly how she would have thought about doing such a thing. She, herself, had wanted to. She had tried to. Of course, Cooper had saved her, but she had so desperately wanted to die at the time and she had been furious with him when she woke up in the hospital. So, while part of her could certainly understand where Kayla’s mind must have been, the other part of her was still outraged beyond belief.

“I’ve got to talk to her!” she snapped, turning and heading for the door.

“Wait!” Alana called after her. “Wait, Ariana… please, don’t do this here. Wait until you get her back to the warehouse. Just be civil with her until then so we can at least try to enjoy what’s left of the evening. Please?” Ariana glared at her, but she sighed and nodded.

“Fine,” she said dryly.

-.-

Ariana and Alana returned to the table just as the waiter was bringing their food. As promised, Ariana remained perfectly pleasant to Kayla for the rest of the evening, which turned out to be rather enjoyable. After dinner, Alana asked Cooper for some suggestions on wedding planning books and Cooper offered to take her to his bookstore and show her a few. Kayla and Ariana bid them goodbye and returned to the warehouse.

When they arrived and Kayla had parked the car, Ariana got out without a word and headed up to the apartment. Kayla immediately became concerned. She hurried up after her and found her standing by the sofa, scratching Fluffers behind his ears.

“So, uh… that was nice,” said Kayla delicately. “I guess fancy restaurants aren’t so bad.” Ariana made a noncommittal noise in her throat and said nothing.

“Well… at least I can get out of this dress,” said Kayla. “I… I really hate this thing.”

“You should do that,” said Ariana dryly.

“Ari, what’s going on?” Kayla asked. “You were quiet all evening and ever quieter in the car. Now you’re obviously angry. What happened? Oh, hell! Did Alana say something mean to you about Coop? Ugh… I’m going to kill her!”

“She said something,” said Ariana, turning suddenly toward Kayla. “But it wasn’t about Coop. She told me what you did. She told me you tried to kill yourself after I was shot.”

Kayla’s heart dropped into her stomach. She had intentionally not told Ariana about that particular detail and she hadn’t expected her to ever find out. Now, however, she found herself needing to explain her actions without even a second to prepare herself. She gulped.

“I… I…” Kayla stammered. “Okay, yes, I… I did. Look, you… I had just watched you die and I… it was Claire all over again, only worse. It was you and you’re… you’re an angel, Ari. You’re everything that means anything to me, and I… I didn’t know what to do! I thought I was facing the rest of my life without you, and I couldn’t… I couldn’t do that. I still can’t do that. I thought… I thought maybe we’d be together again if… if I…”

“What? If you died?” Ariana snapped angrily. “You thought you’d wake up in… what? Some version of heaven and there I’d be, just waiting for you?”

“No, I… yeah, maybe. I thought maybe you’d be there… wherever I ended up. I didn’t know. I just knew that I couldn’t live without you. I don’t know who I am without you, Ari.”

“You’re Mikayla Anne Austin!” Ariana said firmly. “You’re the woman who got revenge on the men who murdered her best friend! You left your home and your family and ran for months! You were alone, tired, and I’m sure scared. But you survived. You fought and you won. You’re brave and strong…”

“Not as strong as you,” said Kayla. “Not nearly as strong as you. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met. It’s just one other thing that makes you incredible.”

“Stop putting me on a pedestal, Kayla!” Ariana snapped. “I’m not… special. I’m not an angel, I’m not… any of the things you keep telling people I am! I’m just a normal girl… a girl who was raped by her father and by some trick of fate managed to survive. There’s nothing special about me, Kayla.”

“Yes, there is,” Kayla insisted. “You just can’t see it.”

“Because there’s nothing there to see,” said Ariana. “Kayla, you… you miss Claire. I know that. I know you carry all that pain, all that regret and guilt and grief around with you. I know you want to keep me safe because you think I’m all you have.

“But honey, you’re starting to scare me. This obsession you have with me, it’s not healthy. You... you're different now. My God, Kayla... you locked me in my worst nightmare! You put me in hell just to get me back! I know why you did it, but... but the fact that you could do it... You were willing to torture me, to put me through hell because you couldn't let me go."

"Ari, I'm sorry," said Kayla. She knew no amount of apologies could ever undo the damage she had done by choosing to do what she had. She knew Ariana had every right to hate her. "That's all I can say... I'm sorry. I knew what putting you in there would do, but... but I was so sure it would bring you back and it did! I won't apologize for that."

"I'm glad you brought me back, Kayla," said Ariana sharply. "Truly, I am... but you hurt me, Kayla. That's just a fact... you hurt me. I never imagined you would, but you did. You did and that changes things. It does, because you could hurt me again."

"Ari, I would never do anything like that to you!" Kayla exclaimed. "I only did it to save you..."

"You did it to save yourself, Kayla, not me," said Ariana quietly. "You put me in there because you need me, Kayla. You can't live without me and you were willing to torment me so you could survive.I’m gonna die one day, Kay-Kay. I can’t stop it. You can’t stop it. I know I say it, but… you can’t always protect me. So when the day comes and I do die… I’m terrified of what you’ll do.

“I love you, Kayla. I really, truly, deeply do… but you’ve got to stop this. It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to hurt and mourn and miss the people you’ve lost. But if I were to die, I’d want you to keep living. I’d want you to find someone else and be happy again. The last thing I would want would be for you to die too. So, I need you to realize that I’m not special. That I’m no angel and that I’ll never be able to live up to those kinds of expectations. So… if you can’t come to terms with those two things... and promise me that you will never hurt me like that again...  I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know if we go from here.” She sat down on the sofa and took off her shoes. Kayla sat down at the far end, unsure what to say.

“Are… are you saying…?” Kayla couldn’t form the words.

“I can’t be the only thing that keeps you going, Kayla,” said Ariana quietly. “I love you… but if us being together is going to make you hurt yourself, then I don’t think…”

“I won’t,” said Kayla instantly. “Ari, please… I swear, I’ll never do it again. No matter what! I’ll go see Dr. Pinder if you want… maybe get some help from him. Baby, I just got you back… please don’t say we’re over because I… I need you. Maybe I shouldn’t… maybe you shouldn’t be the only thing that keeps me going, but you are.

“You’re the part of me that died with Claire. You’re the part of me that makes life worth living. You’re the goodness, the light… you keep me in balance... because, yes Ariana... I'm capable of hurting you. Without you... I'm capable of hurting you. I'm a dark and terrible person. I've killed people and I could easily do it again. You're terrified of Adrian, but am I any less evil? But you opened your home and your life to me. You let me in and you pushed the darkness down. When we were together, I could see the goodness in myself again... but when I lost you, that light went with you. So, I need you. I love you. Maybe it’s unhealthy and maybe it’s wrong, but damn it, I do! I have never been happier than when I’m with you, Ari. I love you. I love loving you. Maybe I need help. Maybe I’m sick… screwed up in the head… but Dwayne took everything from me and then you fell out of the sky right in front of me and gave it all back.

“I love you, Ariana, and no; I can’t live without you. I don’t want to live without you. Yeah, I could meet someone else… hell, I might even be happy. But no matter what it would never ever be you. It would never be the same. I love the way I feel when we’re together. We’re good together, Ari! So, you know what? I don’t care about any of this. I don’t care if you’re screwed up, and I don’t care if I’m screwed up. We are so fucking good together, Ari. I belong here. You belong here. We’re supposed to be together, right here.

“I didn’t used to believe that… but then you died. Then you came back. Then the best doctors in the world, the best medical people and equipment money can possibly buy were all flown in and they told me the same thing; you were going to be in that bed for the rest of your life. They said you would never wake up and I started believing it. Then you woke up! You surprised everyone! You should have been brain dead, but you fought your way back. You came back to me… but you weren’t really you. I thought I’d lost you all over again… but just last night you surprised me again. You’re you again and I believe with everything I am that we’re meant to be here, now, together.

“So, hate what I did. Hate that I would rather die than be without you. Honestly, I don’t care. I’m not giving up on us. I’m not letting you go. I’m not because we are good together. We’re built for each other. I’ll fight until my dying breath to make sure you know that. I will never let you go.”

Ariana had listened to Kayla’s speech in silence. Now, she stared at the brunette with narrowed eyes, her face impassive. Slowly, she stood up and Kayla’s heart sank. But Ariana surprised her again. She sat down right beside her and kissed her as fiercely as she could.

“I’m still mad at you,” she said, pulling away briefly. “Like… extremely.”

“I’m cool with that,” said Kayla, chancing a small smile. She received a hint of one in return.

“I suppose we should get you out of that dress you hate so much,” said Ariana softly.

“Just admit it,” said Kayla as Ariana stood and headed for the bedroom. “You just want makeup sex.”

“We haven’t made up,” said Ariana without turning around. “Remember? I’m still mad at you.”

“But you still love me,” Kayla reminded her. Ariana paused at the doorway and turned back to her. She nodded.

“Yeah,” she said quietly. “And nothing’s ever gonna change that.” She disappeared into the dark bedroom. Kayla stood, pausing to stroke Fluffers’ thick fur, before flicking off the apartment lights and following her.

28: Chapter XXVIII: Not Broken, Just Bent
Chapter XXVIII: Not Broken, Just Bent

Ariana was already gone by the time Kayla woke the following morning. She lay there in bed for some time, basking in the sweet smells of breakfast cooking in the kitchen and feeling unbelievably happy that her world was back to normal... and then it all came crashing back. She remembered their fight from the previous night and suddenly she was miserable.

She hated fighting with Ariana. They didn't do it often, not serious disagreements anyway. Of course they quarreled occasionally, but never long and never over anything more serious than putting the toothpaste cap back on. This was something altogether different and Kayla wasn't sure how to resolve it. She didn't know what to say to make things right.

She couldn’t just go out there and tell Ariana exactly what she wanted to hear. Appeasing her like that wouldn’t solve the problem. Knowing Ariana, doing so would simply make her even angrier. Groveling, of course, was always an option, but Kayla wasn’t sure that would help in this case either. She was just preparing to get up and go face the music when Ariana appeared in the doorway.

“Morning Sleepy,” she said in a sweet tone. She was smiling serenely and seemed to be in a shockingly pleasant mood. Kayla was quite surprised.

“Morning,” Kayla replied, doing her very best to keep the confusion and surprise out of her voice.

“Breakfast is almost ready,” said Ariana brightly. “I made French toast. I know it’s your favorite.”

“Thanks,” said Kayla. “I’ll… be right there.” Ariana smiled and disappeared back around the doorway. Kayla scrambled out of bed and hurried after her. Ariana had propped open both the fire escape door and several of the windows that ran along the same wall, letting in the beautiful late June day. She had turned on the news and appeared to be listening to a segment on bird watching as Kayla tentatively entered the kitchen. Ariana looked up at her as she approached and she drew in a shaky breath.

“I’m sorry,” both girls said at the exact same moment.

“I know; me too,” they said together.

“Okay, you first,” they replied at the same time. They paused, staring at each other with grins on their faces before they both dissolved into giggles.

“We’re really stupid,” said Ariana as she placed a plate of French toast on the table, still chortling. “Kayla, you were right. All that you said last night… you were right. We’re good together... but I do know who I am without you. I’m the girl you met five weeks before Christmas. I’m the girl who was scared of everything, who didn’t understand so much of the world around her and just wanted someone to love her.

“I’m broken without you, Kayla… and I wouldn’t want to live without you either, so… so I get it. I really do. I understand why you did what you did. I don’t care if we’re both screwed up. We’re both broken, Kayla, but I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You were right, none of it matters. You and me, we matter. That’s it.”

"We are all that matters, Ari, but we're not broken," said Kayla. "We're... bent. Cracked even, maybe, but not broken. I was before I met you, but now... now I'm not. I think the same thing happened to you. We... healed each other and now we're... patched back together. Now we're just bent. We've both been through too much to be fully healed, but we're better."

"We are," Ariana agreed. "We were both broken... perfectly broken. I guess we were the only ones who could heal each other."

"Isn't that a sweet thought?" said Kayla with a smile.

"The toast is sweet too," said Ariana. "It's getting cold." The girls sat down at the table and began to eat. Ariana was perfectly cheerful and happy, the argument from the previous night completely forgotten. One day, Kayla was going to have to learn how she did that so quickly. Ariana never held grudges. Kayla had enough to fill a book.

The rest of the morning passed pleasantly. After breakfast, the girls sat on the couch together and watched the news. Ariana fell asleep with her head resting in Kayla's lap. It was a perfectly typical morning at the warehouse, like the ones back in what Kayla had come to call 'the good old days'. Those first three weeks when it had been just the two of them living in the massive warehouse. Some days, it had felt like they were the only two people in the world.

Around noon, just when Kayla was getting ready to wake Ariana so they could get on the road to be at Dr. Pinder’s by two that afternoon, a knock came at the fire escape door. Grumbling, Kayla nudged Ariana off of her and heading toward the door. The redhead rolled onto her back, muttering darkly.

"Sorry," Kayla called back to her. "Someone's at the door."

"Ignore them," Ariana groaned.

"We've got to get up anyway," Kayla replied, glancing quickly through the peephole in the door. "We're supposed to be at Dr. Pinder's office by two." Ariana muttered something unintelligible but distinctly disgusted as Kayla pulled open the door. Mike and Sophia stood on the threshold.

"Hey Mike," said Kayla kindly. "Hi there, Sophie,"

"Hi Kayla!" the little girl said excitedly.

"You're still good to babysit, right?" Mike asked hurriedly. "I've got to get to work..."

"Oh... yeah," said Kayla quickly. In truth, she had completely forgotten she was supposed to be babysitting Sophia that day. “Yeah, we sure are.”

“Great,” said Mike, sounding immensely relived. “I’ll be back to pick her up around nine,” He kissed his daughter on the top of her head and hurried away down the fire escape. Kayla stood back and ushered Sophia inside then she closed the door behind her.

“Hi, Ari,” said Sophia quietly, sticking very close to Kayla.

“Hi, sweetie,” said Ariana warmly, smiling kindly at the blonde. Kayla looked curiously between them for a moment before she remembered.

“Sophie, Ariana got her memories back,” she said quickly. “She’s back to her old self again,” Sophia brightened up instantly and she rushed over to the couch and threw her arms around the redhead’s neck.

“Yay!” she exclaimed happily. “I’ve missed you! I didn’t like you before. You weren’t nice like you normally are.”

“Yeah, I’m hearing a lot of that,” said Ariana, flashing Kayla a grin.

“So, what are we doing today?” the little girl asked, bouncing energetically on the balls of her feet.

“Actually, we’ve got to take a bit of a trip,” said Kayla, walking around behind the sofa. “Ari here has to go and see her doctor. Just to make sure everything’s good to go up here,” she rubbed Ariana on the top of her head, earning a disgruntled look from the girl.

“I like road trips,” said Sophia brightly. “Can we stop for ice cream?”

“Ooooh! Can we, Kay-Kay?” Ariana asked, sounding just as excited as Sophia did.

“Sure,” said Kayla, shaking her head.

And so they packed up the car, a massive black Chevy Suburban Alana had purchased to use for the wedding business, and set off. It was a clear, warm day and while it had begun in good spirits, it was clear that Ariana’s mood was darkening the further they drove. After over an hour, once Sophia had fallen asleep in the back seat, Kayla voiced her concerns.

“What’s wrong?” she asked worriedly.

“Nothing,” said Ariana in a quiet voice.

“You’re upset, I can tell,” said Kayla pointedly. “What’s wrong?” Ariana sighed heavily.

“I don’t want to see him,” she said quickly. “Dr. Bradley, I… I don’t want to see him.”

“Why not?” asked Kayla. Dr. Pinder had always been very kind to them. In fact, he was once of the nicest people Kayla knew.

“I haven’t spoken to him since… since my grandfather died,” said Ariana in a very small voice. “I don’t… I don’t want to see him, Kayla. He’s a good man and I know he just wants to help, but he’ll… he’ll bring it all up again. He’ll want to talk about everything that happened and I don’t want to. I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to… to…” She broke off, her voice faltering. She looked up at Kayla with tears running down her cheeks.

“Please don’t make me go, Kayla,” she begged. Kayla couldn’t just stare at her, she was driving after all, but for the brief glance she managed, she saw the primal fear in her girlfriend’s blue eyes and she instantly felt her heart being ripped to pieces. “Please, Kayla. I don’t want to go! Please, take me home! Please, I… I want to go home! Let’s just turn around and go back… please… please, Kayla…”

Kayla pulled off of the road and stopped the car. She turned in her seat to face her sobbing girlfriend, wishing not for the first time that she could take the immensely heavy burden the sweet girl was forced to carry upon herself.

“We don’t have to go,” Kayla told her, gently taking the redhead’s hands. “Babe, we don’t have to go, okay? Its okay, I’ll take you home. We don’t have to go. It’s all gonna be okay, honey. We’ll go straight home, okay?” Ariana sniffled and wiped her eyes.

“You think I’m being stupid,” she deadpanned. Kayla shook her head fiercely.

“Sweetheart, I can’t even begin to fathom what you’ve been through. I thought I had it bad with the baggage I’ve got, but sweetie my load is easy compared to yours. So, on this... when it comes to your dad and what happened to you… it’s your call. You don’t want to go, we don’t go. We’ll stop and get that ice cream, okay?”

“Okay,” said Ariana, wiping her eyes again. She was still crying. Up the road in the distance, they could see the general outline of Harbor Bay Mental Health Institute. The modern, mostly glass structure lay in the shadow of a series of tall hills and was surrounded by thick forests. Ariana stared at the late afternoon sun glistening off the building's high glass walls which caused the structure to glow a brilliant golden-orange.

"We should go," she said softly. "I... I think we should go."

"Okay," said Kayla, putting the car back in gear. "I'll get us turned around and we'll get back on the road." Ariana shook her head.

"No, I meant... I meant we should go there." she pointed toward Harbor Bay. "I don't want to go. I'm scared... but I don't want to be. Kayla, I've been afraid my whole life... but when Dwayne pointed that gun at you and I decided to save you... I wasn't. I don't remember much about that time, but I remember not really even thinking about it. I knew what I had to do and I just did it.

"I wasn't afraid... I knew what could happen. I knew I would probably die, but I wasn't afraid. For the first time in my life, I wasn't afraid. Kayla, I want that again. I want to be brave again. I don't want to be afraid anymore. So... so maybe I need to face it. Maybe I need to face what happened to me… really face it. Maybe if I did, I could stop being afraid… I don’t know…” She looked up again at Harbor Bay and shook her head.

“I can’t tell you what to do, Ari,” Kayla said softly. “It’s your decision, sweetie. Just know that I’ll be right there with you whatever you decide.” Ariana swallowed visibly and nodded.

“We’re going,” she said in a vain attempt at a calm, steady voice.

-.-

The rest of the drive to Harbor Bay took place in complete silence. Ariana sat staring out of the passenger side window. Her reflection in the glass revealed nothing about her mindset to Kayla as she pulled the SUV into the parking lot.

“Well… here we are,” she said quietly. Ariana seemed to come back from somewhere really far away and turned to look at her. Kayla smiled slightly.

“In another world?” she asked, remembering something Ariana had told her the day they met. ‘I do that sometimes. It helps… losing yourself in another world. When life gets hard, or you’re really sad… just… go somewhere else.’ Slowly, Ariana nodded.

“Something like that,” the redhead replied. Kayla patted her reassuringly on her arm.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said firmly. Ariana nodded and Kayla noticed that she was crying again.

“Yeah, I do,” She slowly pushed open her door. Kayla did the same, pausing to rouse the still sleeping Sophia from the backseat and together the three of them made their way across the parking lot.

Harbor Bay was a rather large facility. It was built on private land, far removed from the busy city. The area was very quiet and the land around it was beautiful; fields of wildflowers and forests filled with oak trees.

The girls walked around the path made up of thousands of loose white stones scattered throughout the grassy field, towards the main building. Sophia was intrigued by the many gently bubbling fountains that lined the so-called ‘Path of Healing’, but Kayla could focus only on Ariana. She was walking purposefully several yards ahead, but even still Kayla could tell she was sobbing.

The smooth, clear glass doors of the main building swung open in slow, graceful arcs as the girls reached them. Ariana paused on the threshold, looking back briefly at Kayla who had stopped close behind her. Sophia, who up until this point had been walking hand in hand with Kayla, walked over to Ariana and tugged on her sleeve.

“I’m sorry you’re sad,” she said quietly. Ariana knelt down in front of her, smiling in spite of her tears.

“You’re sweet,” she replied.

“I know,” said the blonde, hugging Ariana tightly. Ariana laughed aloud and wiped her eyes. She looked up at Kayla, who was standing to the side with her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, looking anxious.

“Are you ready?” Ariana asked her.

“Whenever you are, honey,” she replied. She took Ariana’s left hand and, with Sophia still clinging to the redhead’s right, they stepped into the building.

Though she was used to it by that point, the first time she had come to Harbor Bay, Kayla had been surprised by the calm, almost spa-like atmosphere inside. There were fountains here and there throughout the spacious lobby and the floors were made up of the same smooth white rocks outside. The lobby was brightly lit, although it was entirely natural light that was available due to the building’s glass walls. This was also aided by the fact that nearly all of the interior surfaces in the lobby were painted a very bright white. The air inside was warm and there were palm trees and various other coastal plants, adding to the building's tropical atmosphere.

The girls crossed the lobby and made their way to the receptionist’s desk that sat just in front of a long wall made up of bamboo. A friendly dark haired girl named Paige sat at the desk, typing briskly at her computer. She looked up and smiled as they approached.

“Hello, Ariana, Kayla,” she said brightly. “Oh, and who’s this?” she added, peering over her desk at Sophia.

“Hey, Paige,” said Kayla. “This is Sophia.”

“Hi there, Sophia,” said Paige. She dug in one of her desk drawers and retrieved a bowl of lollipops that she held out to the girl. Sophia took one, smiling.

“Thanks,” said the blonde. Paige winked at her and looked at Ariana.

“Dr. Pinder told me you’d gotten your memories back!” She exclaimed happily. “He should be in his office; I’ll page him for you.”

“Thanks,” said Ariana, glancing nervously at Kayla. She looked back at Paige suddenly.

“Um… Paige? Does Ms. Rose still work here?”

“Oh… I’m sorry. Rose retired just last year,” said Paige sadly. “I only got to work with her for a couple of months, but she was a very sweet lady. You knew her, then?”

“Yeah… she was my nurse when I was… a long-term patient here.” said Ariana.

“I see,” said Paige. “Well, Rose decided to spend more time with her family. She’s currently traveling the country with her husband.” Ariana nodded slowly, but a sudden, impossible thought occurred to Kayla and she had to speak up.

“Rose… was she an older lady? White hair, glasses? Is her husband’s name Donald?”

“Donald was a doctor here,” said Paige slowly. “They retired together, actually. How’d you know that?”

“I met her,” said Kayla.

“When?” asked Ariana, looking very surprised indeed.

“A couple of days ago in St. Louis,” Kayla explained. “I stayed at a hotel there and she came and sat down at my table while I was eating breakfast. She was the whole reason I came back. She convinced me to come back… to fight for you, Ari. She told me she used to be a nurse at a hospital up north, but I never even imagined… Wow! If I didn’t believe in fate before, I do now. What are the chances of that?”

“Pretty slim, I’d say,” said Dr. Pinder, appearing from around the side of the bamboo wall. He turned his attention immediately onto Ariana.

“Hello, sweetheart,” he said kindly.

“Hi,” said Ariana in a very small voice.

“It’s okay,” said Dr. Pinder warmly. “You’re safe here, Ariana. No one is going to hurt you or make you do anything you don’t want to. We’re just going to talk about your recovery today, that’s all.” Ariana nodded, but did not speak. Dr. Pinder put his hand on her shoulder and guided her away. Kayla and Sophia made to follow her, but Dr. Pinder stopped them.

“I’d really like to speak with Ariana alone,” he said, glancing at Ariana. “If that’s okay with you.” He added.

“I’ll be fine, Kay-Kay,” said Ariana, giving her girlfriend a weak smile. “Just wait here.”

“Okay…” said Kayla uncertainly. “I love you.”

“Love you, too,” said Ariana before allowing herself to be steered away by Dr. Pinder.

29: Chapter XXIX: Journey's End
Chapter XXIX: Journey's End

Dr. Pinder guided Ariana back around the bamboo wall which she was surprised to find hid a very long rectangular pool that had not been there when she had lived there. Ariana watched dozens of fish swimming lazily beneath the surface as they walked along the length of the pool. They went through a door at the end of the pool and down a corridor. While the floors in this area were tile instead of stone, they were still the same pale white.

They at last reached Dr. Pinder’s office, a room Ariana had been in many times before. Dr. Pinder held the door open for her and she stepped inside. The office looked almost no different than it had two years earlier. The same highly polished oak desk sat on the far side of the room with pictures of his family sitting to the side. His plaques and awards were hung by the door and an old fashioned coat rack stood against the wall near them.

Dr. Pinder crossed the room, pausing to carefully water a small fern that sat atop a cabinet beside his desk, before sitting down in the high backed chair behind it. He motioned for Ariana to sit in one of the chintz armchairs in front of his desk. Ariana did so, looking up at him nervously.

"There's no reason to be scared, Ariana," he said kindly. "You know me. Like I said before, we're only here to talk about your recovery from your recent injury. So, how do you feel?" For such a simple question, Ariana found that she struggled to find an answer. How was she, really? She felt both good and bad, happy and yet sad... and part of her was angry. Angry at herself for being such a coward.

"I'm fine," said Ariana firmly, doing what she knew she would always do; avoid talking about anything painful. "Really, my memories are all there... I'm fine. I've just had a headache for the past couple of days, but that's it. I'm really good. You don't need to scan me or psychoanalyze me. I'm fine."

"Maybe you are," said Dr. Pinder. "But I still have a few questions. If I may ask, how did you get your memories back? Kayla wasn't very clear on the phone..."

"She locked me in a closet," said Ariana tonelessly. "She locked me in the dark, alone... and I guess that was enough to terrorize the memories back or something."

"She did that knowing full well what your father did?!" Dr. Pinder exclaimed. "Ariana, I'm so sorry. If I had realized how desperate Kayla had become... if I'd known she would resort to something so drastic..."

"It's not your fault," Ariana interrupted him. "I don't blame you. It was Kayla that did it, not you."

"I'm going to speak with Kayla," said Dr. Pinder. "After this meeting, we'll have words with her about this. I..."

"You don't need to do that," said Ariana quickly. "Kayla... what she did was terrible and she really hurt me. She apologized and we talked about it... but she doesn't understand what she did. She made me see just how cruel she could be... even to me, to get what she wants."

"But you still trust her? You came here with her, so you must. Do you think she would hurt you again?" Ariana shook her head.

"No," she said quietly. "She didn't do it to hurt me, she did it to help me. I've... forgiven her. There's a monster inside of her, Dr. Bradley. I've seen it now. I never used to believe her when she said there was, but there's real darkness in her. She could do terrible things if she lost me. She said so and I believe her. She said I keep her in balance. I'm not afraid of her, Dr. Bradley, if that's what you're thinking. I just... can't see her the same way I used to. But regardless, I still love her. The girl I fell in love with is still a part of her and that's all that matters."

"Ariana, I believe Kayla might do well visiting a psychiatrist, if not me." said Dr. Pinder. "She obviously needs to work through something and I think..."

"She won't do it," said Ariana. "She's not going to bare her soul to anyone... except me. I keep her in balance and she keeps me safe. I'm the light to her darkness. The good to her bad. Yin-yang, good, evil, heaven, hell... whatever you want to say. We keep each other in balance. We need each other. I hate what she did to me, but we're not whole without each other.

"Kayla could do terrible things if given a good reason to do them, and if I left her she would have her reason. There's a part of me that wants to hate her... to never forgive her for making me relive that hell even for one second. I want to be so mad at her. I want to scream and yell and tell her that she ruined us and that I can't be with her anymore. I want to tell her that I don't love her anymore. I want to tell her she's just like my father... but I can't. I can't because I do love her. I can't do that because there's an even bigger part of me that forgave her before she even hurt me. There's a part of me that lights up with inexplicable joy whenever I see her. That part can't hate her, can't be mad at her... it can't scream or yell or tell her that we can't be together because all that part wants is to be with her. 

"If I left her, Kayla would... well, I don't know what she'd do. She'd hurt someone... probably herself. As for me, I... I'd break down. She saved me, Dr. Bradley. She saved me. She protects me... and I love her. There's nothing she could ever say or do to me that would, even for an instant, make me stop loving her. We need each other, she and I. Maybe our relationship isn't healthy... maybe its wrong... but we're so good together. We could take on the whole damn world together and come out on top. Kayla hurt me, and I'll never forget that, but I can forgive it. I can let it go. I have... because what we have together is worth fighting for. It's worth getting hurt. It's worth the pain. I feel safe with her, as odd as that sounds. When I fall asleep in her arms, I know that nothing can touch me. I know I'm safe and protected and loved." She smiled slightly and shook her head. "It doesn't matter anyway. Dr. Bradley, I didn't come here to talk about Kayla or even getting my memories back. I... I just... I needed to see you."

"Did you?" Dr. Pinder asked. "Well then we can certainly talk about that. Why did you need to see me?

"I...  I wanted to say sorry... I'm sorry for just walking away before. I know I needed to be here and that you just wanted to help me. I'm sorry for leaving and not telling you where I was going." It had been something she had wanted to say for a very long time. She had always known that leaving the way she did hurt the people here at Harbor Bay who had cared about her. She had hated herself for doing it, but at the time it was what she had to do.

"You don't need to apologize to me," said Dr. Pinder. "We consider ourselves professionals here. We study the mind and we think we know what's best for our patients... but there are times when our patients know better than we do. In your case, looking at you right now, I fully believe that leaving here was the best thing you could have done.

"You needed space and time alone to heal. You needed friends and people to love. You needed a place to call home and loved ones to share it with. You found that and more at your warehouse. You’re healing; I can see that without even asking you any questions.”

“I’m still… afraid,” said Ariana quietly. “I’m always afraid.” She was, always. She never had a single second that she wasn't afraid. Even with Kayla around, she was still scared. She just didn't know why.

“Of your father?” Ariana nodded slowly, her eyes on her own knees. “That’s perfectly natural. He hurt you and it’s very natural for you to fear him. He ingrained that into you for a very long time. He taught you to fear him.”

“I don’t want to be afraid of him,” said Ariana. She was finding it much easier to talk about things while staring at her own shoes instead of Dr. Pinder. “I want to be brave like Kayla is. I don’t want to be scared of him anymore.”

“I can’t teach you not to fear something, Ariana,” said Dr. Pinder. “I, myself, have a terrible fear of spiders. I’m much larger than I spider and I know that most of them cannot really hurt me and yet regardless of what my rational self tells me, I’m still afraid.”

“So… what do you do?” Ariana asked him.

“Scream and climb up on furniture when I see one,” said Dr. Pinder with a smile. That actually coaxed a thin smile onto Ariana's lips. “I suppose that doesn’t quite work in your case. Ariana, fear… isn’t rational. It’s the irrational part of ourselves that is very difficult to control. I will say that facing your fears, sometimes, helps overcome them.” Ariana knew that. She had read that facing one's fears was really the only way to overcome them. But if she was still afraid of her father, then that meant...

“Are you saying I should go and… and visit my dad?” asked Ariana, looking up at him at last. Dr. Pinder shook his head.

“I’m not suggesting that at all,” he said firmly. “That would be for you to decide, not me. If you feel you’re ready and you think it would help then you could certainly do so. I would be willing to go with you if you would like me to. Personally, I wouldn’t go. Looking Adrian in the eye might help you, but given the kind of… person… Adrian is… well, I think it would do more harm than good.”

“Then what should I do?” Ariana asked, feeling suddenly quite hopeless. Could no one help her? “How can I stop being afraid of him?”

“By realizing that your fear is irrational and that he is in a place where he cannot harm you,” said Dr. Pinder. “You are out of his reach now. You’re free from him. He is locked away so deeply, so securely that he couldn’t get to you if he tried. You are safe, Ariana… and if I may say so, you’re already just as brave as Kayla is.” Ariana knew he was lying. She wasn't brave at all. She had never done a single brave thing in her entire life. She'd been a coward for as long as she could remember.

“No, I’m not…” said Ariana weakly. “She… she’s strong, she’s brave. She protects me and I...”

“Protected her, as I recall,” said Dr. Pinder lightly. “You jumped in front of a speeding bullet for her.” Well, she had done that. But... was that bravery? Ariana didn't think so. She hadn't summoned her courage on that day. She had focused on how much she loved Kayla.

“That was the only time I haven’t been afraid,” said Ariana softly. “When I did that… I wasn’t scared. I knew I might die, but I also knew what I had to do.”

"And that, my dear, is called love," said Dr. Pinder. Hmm... so even Dr. Bradley believed it was love. Ariana sighed inwardly. So, she hadn't been brave after all. "And love, especially a love that strong, takes bravery beyond what most people are capable of. If you love someone enough that you're willing to die for them... opening your heart like that… that’s bravery.” Dr. Pinder took off his glasses and placed them on the desk in front of him.

"Ariana, you and Kayla are two very different people. You don't share... anything in common, really. Kayla is... physical. She's tough, even though she doesn't look like she is. She's a fighter. She faces threats with violence. She meets force with force. You, on the other hand, are... well, I like to say cerebral. You're intuitive, insightful, emotional, and loving.

"You respond to threats with submission and obedience. You attempt diplomacy instead of violence. You're brave in your own way, Ariana. You see goodness where most would only see darkness. You trust people. That, Ariana, is bravery. Maybe not the same type of bravery, but in my opinion it's a much higher form of it."

"So... so... you're saying..."

"I'm saying that you are far braver than you give yourself credit for," said Dr. Pinder. "You are stronger than you know and you are wise beyond your years. Trust me, Ariana, you're going to be just fine."

-.-

Kayla and Sophia waited, the latter quite impatiently, for Ariana emerge from Dr. Pinder's office for over an hour. When they finally returned to the lobby, they were talking like old friends; a complete reversal of the way they had been acting an hour earlier. They walked around the bamboo wall, Ariana giggling at something funny Dr. Pinder was saying.

"No! That is not true!" the redhead said loudly.

"I swear, it is!" Dr. Pinder shot back, laughing heartily.

"Surely one of you must have told him!" Ariana exclaimed. Dr. Pinder shook his head vigorously.

"No! Not one of the residents had the heart to say anything!" he replied. "He was so proud of it!" The pair of them dissolved into fits of laughter as they came to a stop in front of Kayla and Sophia.

"Sorry," Ariana told Kayla, shaking her head. "Dr. Bradley was just telling me a funny story about something that happened during his residency."

"It must have been a good one," said Kayla. "How is she, Doc?"

"Our girl is just fine," Dr. Pinder said firmly. "Better than fine, I'd say." he added, patting Ariana gently on her back. Kayla smiled happily, a wave of relief washing over her.

“Well, that’s good,” she said, letting out a long breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. “That’s great, actually.” She smiled warmly at Ariana, who grinned serenely back. “But you’re sure she’s okay? There’s not…”

“From what I can tell, she’s back to her old self and she’s perfectly healthy,” said Dr. Pinder. “She’s… she’s a miracle, that’s all I can say. She should be dead or in a coma and on life support, but here she is standing right in front of us fit as could be. It’s like nothing ever happened.”

“Except it did,” said Kayla. Dr. Pinder nodded.

“Yes, it did,” he replied. “Her recovery… the only word for it is miraculous. Modern medicine did not save you, Ariana. I only wish I knew what did.” Ariana smiled at him and gave him an answer that Kayla knew only Ariana could give.

“It was love,”

-.-

The drive back out to the highway was much more pleasant than the entire trip up to Harbor Bay had been. Ariana’s mood had done a complete one-eighty and she was perfectly happy again. Her attitude proved infectious and by the time they pulled up at a gas station before getting back on the highway, Kayla was feeling better than she had all day.

Ariana decided to change out of the skirt and blouse she wore and into something more comfortable. She grabbed her bag from the back of the SUV and headed toward the bathroom while Kayla got out and started filling up the gas tank. She chatted idly with Sophia, who sat in the back seat with the window rolled down. After filling up the Suburban’s massive tank, Kayla climbed back into the car and was just preparing to text Alana to let her know they were on their way back, when Ariana emerged from the bathroom and headed back towards the car.

She wore a white and pink checkered button up shirt over a low cut white tank top. She had left all the buttons undone and the shirt was slightly too large for her, so it hung down past her waist. She also wore a pair of denim short shorts and a pair shockingly pink flip-flops. She walked like Ariana always did; lightly, gracefully, almost seeming to float across the hot pavement. She was smiling, her flaming red hair swept back behind her shoulders.

At the set of pumps next door, Kayla noticed the guy filling up a plastic gas can was too busy staring at the redhead to realize that his can was overflowing. His buddy had to kick him in the shin to get his attention. Kayla was sure she would have laughed had she not been so enraptured herself.

Ariana tossed her bag into the back of the SUV and came round to Kayla’s side of the car and rested her elbows on the inside of the window frame.

“I’m going back inside to get some snacks for the road,” she said. “You girls want anything?”

“I want something,” Kayla simpered, completely forgetting that a little girl sat in the back seat. Her eyes flashed hungrily while Ariana’s widened.

“Kayla…” she hissed, her eyes flicking in Sophia’s direction.

“Right…” Kayla said dejectedly. “Get me an ice cream sandwich," Her eyes flickered downward to the very fine display of cleavage Ariana had going on. "With you wearing that, I need something to cool me down.”

“Do I ever not turn you on?” Ariana asked pointedly. Kayla smirked, gently pulling the redhead close by her shirt and kissing her. When they broke apart, Kayla was still grinning mischievously.

“That answer your question, sweetheart?” she asked, bouncing her eyebrows energetically. Ariana leaned in close and whispered in Kayla’s ear.

“You should have talked to Dr. Pinder while we were there,” she said slyly. “You know, about your sex addiction.”

“Very funny,” Kayla shot back. “You might have a point, though, because if Sophia weren’t here I promise you we’d already have pulled off the road and I’d have you undressed in the back seat by now.”

“Mmm,” Ariana whimpered. “Now, I might need some ice cream myself.” Kayla giggled as Ariana went back to Sophia’s window.

“So, you want anything, sweetie?” she asked. It was a very silly question. She had offered the girl sweets, after all. She hurried back into the station, waving to the two guys with the gas can who, having seen the girls kissing, were now both staring at the redhead, mouths agape.

She returned a few minutes later with a package of cream filled cookies for Sophia and an ice cream sandwich for each of them.  She climbed into the SUV as Kayla started the engine. She smiled at the brunette, who grinned back and took the redhead’s hand and laced their fingers together.

“We’re really okay,” Kayla said quietly, hardly daring to believe it. “We’re really okay, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, we are,” said Ariana firmly. “We really are.” Kayla nodded slowly, smiling. She put the car into Drive and moments later they were on the road heading for home. It was the end of a long journey; a long ride. All of their secrets were out and their pasts were put to rest. All the dangers were gone. They were free.

Neither of them would have ever thought it possible, but they found themselves truly happy for the first time in a very long time. They didn’t have any particular plans for the future, but they were both sure it was to be a bright one. Fate, on the other hand, had other intentions.

They couldn’t see it, of course. They never did, but fate continued to play its games in their lives. That day was not the ending of their journey; it was merely the closing of the opening chapter. Their journey was far from over, and they were both far from free.

30: Chapter XXX: Driving Ms. Ari
Chapter XXX: Driving Ms. Ari

An hour into the trip back home to Detroit, Ariana had fallen asleep with her legs propped up on the dashboard. With Sophia busy coloring in the back seat, Kayla was left alone with her thoughts. She didn’t like that as much any more as she used to. Kayla had spent six long, painful months alone with her thoughts and she had discovered that her thoughts tended to not be very pleasant.

That, of course, had been during a very difficult time and her thoughts surely would be of a brighter nature since all that was done with, would they not? It turned out that Kayla’s mind drifted toward Ariana, which considering the sleeping girl sat with practically every inch of her long, smooth legs on display, it would have been pretty hard for her to think about anything else.

But she still managed to think of one other thing; the future. She hadn’t given much thought to the future over the previous six months and when she did it was always dark, cold, and lonely. A sad place in which she was forced to live since Ariana had been taken from her. Now, though, she found the idea of the future was bright and beautiful. As she drove, she seriously considered her future with Ariana and where it was likely to take them.

Kayla knew Ariana wanted to travel. She had completely forgotten to mention that their passports had been ready for months and that they could leave for Paris at any time. Perhaps they would go soon and spend a few weeks exploring Europe. Or maybe they could visit San Diego. Kayla had long wished that she could show Ariana the place she grew up and introduce her to all of her friends. Penny hadn’t gotten to meet her yet, either.

Of course, she also wanted to put the Claire into the open ocean. The luxury yacht had lain idle since Ariana had presented it to her. They had planned to take her out after holidays were over, but that had all fallen apart. Now, though, they had time. They had time and money to live how they wanted and go wherever they pleased.

It was a good feeling and Kayla dwelled on it as she drove, realizing with a jolt of happiness that she had forgotten what it felt like to not have some terrible darkness hanging over her. For the longest time, it had been the constant threat of Dwayne that had loomed in the shadows. Then Ariana’s life had hung by a thread and her memories had been lost. Now that everything was back to normal, Kayla finally found what she had thought she would find should Dwayne ever be removed as a threat; peace.

Roughly half an hour away from home, Kayla was shaken from her thoughts by Sophia, who was suddenly very excited.

“Ooooh, Kayla! Look!” She was pointing energetically at what appeared to be a small carnival just off of the highway. “Can we go?! Can we go?!” Kayla nudged Ariana awake gently. The redhead looked up sleepily at her.

“Are we home?” she asked blearily.

“Not yet,” said Kayla. “Want to stop at a carnival? Sophia’s excited.”

“Sure,” said Ariana, but then she looked hesitant. “There aren’t… clowns there, are there? I… don’t like clowns.”

“What’s wrong with clowns?” Kayla asked as she took the exit off the highway and onto surface streets. Ariana shivered and shook her head, giving no reply. Moments later, Kayla parked the SUV in the makeshift gravel parking lot. There appeared to be a noticeable lack of clowns present, for which Ariana seemed thankful. Together, the girls got out of the car and headed toward the entrance.

Sophia was positively giddy as she looked at the rides and games spread out across the area. They spent much of the afternoon enjoying the various rides. Kayla, who turned out to be an excellent ring toss player, won a gigantic stuffed polar bear that just so happened to have a pink bandana tied around its neck for Ariana. The redhead was overjoyed.

They snacked on funnel cakes and cotton candy at a small table under a covered pavilion. Afterwards, Kayla and Ariana watched Sophia ride the merry-go-round from a bench nearby.

"Hey, Kayla?" said Ariana thoughtfully, watching Sophia go past on a prancing deer. "What's the difference between a merry-go-round and a carousel?"

"What makes you think I would know that?" Kayla asked, arching her eyebrows. Ariana shrugged.

"I don't know," she said idly. "You tend to know useless facts."

"Well, a merry-go-round can have all kinds of different animals to ride," said Kayla stiffly. "A carousel just has horses." Ariana nodded and smirked.

"See? I knew you'd know," Kayla shook her head and pressed her lips against the redhead's cheek.

"I swear, if I weren't completely, overwhelmingly in love with you..."

"You'd what?" Ariana asked, peering interestedly at her.

"Well, I guess we'll never find out, will we?"

As the sun began to set, the girls took their last ride of the day. They climbed aboard a Ferris wheel, which slowly spun them up high into the sky. Sophia had wanted a seat all to herself, so Kayla and Ariana took the ride together.

Perched high atop the wheel on their bench-style seat, they watched the sun slowly dipping beneath the distant horizon, the brilliant glow turning the clouds a fiery blood red. It was slightly unnerving, but Kayla found it beautiful somehow. Ariana, it seemed, agreed.

“It’s really pretty,” she said softly, cuddling up against Kayla in that brief moment of solitude at the top of the world.

“Yeah, it is,” Kayla agreed. “It really is.” They watched the sun sink below the horizon, the last rays of sunlight vanishing along with it. As night settled around them, the wheel began to turn again, slowly lowering them back to the ground. They waited for Sophia to disembark and then, after picking up one last bag of cotton candy for the blonde (and one for the redhead as well) the girls made their way back to the car.

The rest of the trip back home passed quickly enough and before they knew it they were arriving at the warehouse. After parking the SUV inside, they collected their bags and headed up to the apartment. It was already very late, so Kayla had called Mike to ask if Sophia could simply spend the night at the warehouse. He had seemed more than happy to allow it, so Kayla set about making up the sofa bed for her.

Ariana watched from the kitchen, holding Fluffers the Cat in her slender arms and humming a hauntingly beautiful song that Kayla couldn’t name. As she pulled the horribly pink blanket Ariana had given her on her first night at the warehouse, her curiosity took over.

“Ari, what song is that you’re humming?” Ariana shrugged and shook her head.

“I’m not sure,” she said quietly. “I… I thought of it while we were at Dr. Bradley’s. I think my mom used to sing it to me, but I… I don’t know.”

“Well, it’s beautiful,” Kayla replied. “Sad, but… beautiful.” Ariana smiled, but didn’t reply. She went back to humming again and slowly danced on the spot with Fluffers in her arms.

Mmm MmmMmm was never found. Mmm mmm mmm, mmm mmm mmm...” She trailed off thoughtfully, as though she were trying hard to remember something. Kayla left her to it, deciding it was best not to interrupt her during moments like these. Eventually, she seemed to give up and plopped Fluffers down on the back of the couch.

“It’ll be nice having Sophie around again,” said Ariana brightly. “I always liked her being here.”

“Yeah, she’s a sweetie,” said Kayla. “It was really strange after everyone left. Most of them left after Dwayne came, but a handful stuck around. When they finally left, the warehouse felt so… empty.”

“It is empty, Kay-Kay,” said Ariana, gesturing out the wide windows toward the brightly illuminated warehouse beyond.

“True,” Kayla admitted. “Still, it’s weird. Well, at least it was. Since you’ve been back, I haven’t really noticed it.”

“You hardly notice anything other than me these days,” Ariana pointed out. Kayla smirked.

“Well, what the hell else am I supposed to notice?” she asked. “I mean, damn, look at those legs!”

“Kayla!” Ariana hissed. “Sophia’s just downstairs!”

“So?” Kayla shrugged. “She’s… what is she? Twelve? Thirteen? She’ll understand soon enough if she doesn’t already!”

“She’s eight,” said Ariana dryly. Kayla wrinkled her nose.

“You sure?” she asked curiously. “Because I could have sworn…”

“She’s eight,” Ariana repeated. Kayla shrugged.

“I told you I was terrible with kids,” she said dismissively. “Besides, most people have legs! How will she know what I’m talking about?”

“She’s really smart,” said Ariana firmly. “I’m pretty sure she’ll know what you’re saying. So don’t talk about legs or boobs or sex or anything else in front of her. And if you absolutely must mention sex, use another word for it.”

“What?” Kayla demanded. “Like what? Hump? Screw? Fu…”

“Kayla!” Ariana hissed as Sophia padded into the apartment and climbed up on the sofa bed.

“I’m tired,” the little girl said, failing to stifle a yawn.

"It is pretty late," said Ariana, giving Kayla a very stern look. "Let's get you to bed," The girls tucked Sophia into bed and then retired to their bedroom. They fell into bed together, Kayla immediately seizing the redhead, her eyes alight with passion.

"Go take a cold shower," Ariana hissed at the brunette. "Seriously, Kay-Kay, we're not having sex tonight."

"Since when do you ever say no?" Kayla asked with a grin, her hands sliding along the back of Ariana’s short, cream-colored silk nighty.

"Since we're not alone," Ariana replied. "Sophie's right in there. She can hear us!"

"She's not listening! She's probably asleep by now anyway!" Kayla was immediately proven wrong when the foot of the bed sank as Sophia crawled up and lay down between the brunette and the redhead.

"I'm scared," the little girl whimpered. "Can I sleep here with you?" Ariana smirked at Kayla over Sophia's head.

"Sure you can, sweetie," the redhead said kindly. Smiling, the little girl cuddled up against Ariana, a small smile on her face. Ariana wrapped her arm protectively around the child and grinned at Kayla.

“Aww…” she said sounding quite touched. “I want one.” Kayla shrugged.

“Maybe we can convince Mike to let us have this one,” she suggested.

“Kayla!”

“What?” the brunette replied sleepily, rolling onto her back and yawning. “It’d save us time. She’s already here.”

-.-

Ariana was the first to wake the following morning. Bright sunlight was already streaming through the windows, casting a golden glow throughout the room and across the bed. Sophia was still latched on to Ariana tightly, sound asleep. Next to her, Kayla slept as well, somewhat unflatteringly. Her hair was a mess and her face was halfway smushed into her pillow. No matter. Ariana still thought she was beautiful.

Of course, outward beauty had never been all that important to Ariana. Sure, it was always easy for an attractive girl to say that, but with Ariana it really was true. She didn’t focus on the outward appearance of things… she didn’t look so hard at the physical. She cared how people treated her. That was how she judged people; not on how they looked but instead by how they acted.

Kayla had always been kind to her. Ariana couldn’t think of a single time the brunette had ever said an unkind word to her. Sure, they had fights and disagreements and they bickered like everyone else… and heaven help them when they were both having their period, but despite all of that, Kayla had never, ever been mean to her.

Ariana had known, since the day that they had met, that Kayla was a good person. She was rough around the edges, perhaps, but a good person nonetheless. She had just needed some smoothing out… well, she still needed some smoothing out, but overall Kayla’s demeanor had improved quite dramatically. There was still darkness in the brunette, that was certain. Ariana saw it now like never before. It scared her, but not because of what Kayla could do to her. Instead, she feared what Kayla would do to herself or someone else if she, Ariana, were to die. There was nothing Kayla could do to her that would be worse than what her father had done and she did not truly believe that she would do anything bad to her at all. Kayla had not, after all, been trying to hurt her.

Even in the couple of days since her memories had returned, Ariana had noticed a drastic shift in the other girl. It was as though some massive, indescribable weight had been lifted from her shoulders… but then, Ariana realized, in a way it had been. Dwayne was gone. Ariana knew just how much he had scared Kayla and now that he was dead, she didn’t have to look over her shoulder anymore. She didn’t have to worry so much. It astounded Ariana just how much Kayla had changed. When they had met, she had been lonely, angry, bitter, and scared. Now, Kayla was happy, loving, and kind. Time, she supposed, healed all wounds… well, most of them anyway. Some wounds ran far too deep to ever fully heal.

Ariana lay in bed for a long while just watching Kayla sleep and gently playing with a strand of Sophia’s silky blonde hair. Finally, she disentangled herself from the little girl without waking her and headed for the kitchen. She paused to scratch Fluffers behind his ears as she passed him where he sat on the back of the sofa. The cat purred happily and followed her into the kitchen, watching her with interest from the kitchen counter as she studied the contents of the refrigerator.

“What do you think, Fluffs?” she asked curiously. “Bacon?” The cat sniffed the air hopefully as she held up the package. “Yeah, I think so too,” she said, smiling warmly at the feline.

Ariana set about cooking breakfast. Soon enough, the apartment was filled with the scent of sizzling bacon. It appeared that the smell managed to rouse Kayla, because she stumbled sleepily out of the bedroom a few moments later, sniffing the air and doing a rather good, albeit unintentional, imitation of Fluffers.

“Hey there, sleepy,” said Ariana, placing a stack of freshly made waffles on the table.

“Morning,” said Kayla grumpily. She sat down blearily at the table, looking as though she might fall asleep right there.

“Aww, are we still sleepy?” said Ariana, swooping over and planting a kiss on her forehead. She set a cup of coffee down on the table in front of her. “Try that,”

“God, I’m turning into my mother,” Kayla said dejectedly, picking up the cup and taking a sip. “The woman can’t get out of bed without a cup of coffee. I feel old.”

“Coffee’s not just for old people,” said Ariana thoughtfully.

"Damn," said Kayla darkly. "You could've said; 'you're not old, Kayla.'. That would've made me feel better."

"But you're not old!" Ariana exclaimed suddenly. "You're nineteen!"

"Twenty, actually," said Kayla. Ariana stared at her, confused.

"No, you're nineteen," the redhead said firmly. "I remember, you told me that when we met."

"My birthday is February 16th," Kayla replied. "You were... indisposed at the time and, well... I wasn't in the mood to celebrate anyway."

"Aww, Kay-Kay... I'm sorry," said Ariana. She felt horrible for having missed Kayla's birthday, even if it wasn't her fault. She had wanted to have a party like Kayla had done for her on her birthday. "I was gonna throw a party for you and everything!"

"Oh, babe, don't worry about that," said Kayla gently. "It's fine, really. I've never been big on birthday parties. My mom always insisted on throwing a huge party, but I always just wanted a quiet day with family and a few friends... never had that, though."

"Well... next year, then!" said Ariana brightly. "We'll do it just how you always wanted it."

"I'll look forward to it," said Kayla with a smile.

-.-

That evening, long after Mike had come to pick up Sophia, Ariana and Kayla sat in the Mclaren. The whole of the interior of the warehouse stretched out endlessly before them. Ariana, who sat behind the wheel, turned to look nervously at Kayla.

"Are... are you sure about this?" she asked uncertainly.

"Yes," said Kayla firmly. "You need to learn to drive. So, we're gonna start now, okay?"

"Okay..." said Ariana. She had never operated a motor vehicle before of any sort and she was positively terrified to start doing so now. She looked around at all the controls Kayla had told her about and swallowed visibly as she moved her foot toward the brake pedal.

"Wait," she said suddenly. "Why are there only two pedals if there are four directions?"

"The pedals don't... Ari, the pedals don't have anything to do with what direction you go," said Kayla patiently. "That's the steering wheel's job."

"Okay..." Ariana replied. "So... what's the pedal on the left for again?"

“That’s the brake,” said Kayla. “The right one is the gas.”

“Then what’s this thing for?” Ariana asked curiously, pointing to the emergency brake handle.

“We’re not touching that,” said Kayla firmly. “That’s for another day. Now, go ahead and start the car.” Ariana reached down nervously and pressed the Start button. Behind them, the Mclaren’s massive turbocharged V8 engine roared to life. Kayla leaned back in her seat, a pleasured smile on her face.

“Oh, baby,” she said softly. “Listen to that purr. That’s three point eight liters of pure awesome. Five hundred and ninety twin turbocharged horsepower right at your fingertips. You are sitting, my sweet, at the controls of barely contained rocket.”

“Can’t we start with the SUV?” Ariana asked, pointing out the window at the black Suburban. “I don’t think it’s a rocket.”

“We like rockets,” said Kayla firmly. “We like power and speed and that’s exactly what this vehicle embodies. Now, I want you to plant your foot firmly on the brake and press it down.” Ariana obeyed, still looking extremely nervous.

“Now what?” she asked.

“You put it in Drive,” said Kayla, indicating the gear shift. Ariana moved the shifter from Park to Drive with the same level of care and delicacy as a bomb technician.

“Okay…” said Ariana when she was finished.

“Now, take your foot off of the brake and press down on the gas pedal…” Ariana did so and the engine roared. The car leapt forward in a burst of V8 power.

“Not that hard!” Kayla shouted. Ariana jerked her foot off of the pedal and the car began to slow. “Put your foot on the brake – slowly.” Ariana eased the car to a stop, feeling quite terrified.

“I’m gonna kill us both,” she said fearfully.

“You’re doing fine, sweetie,” said Kayla reassuringly. “Now, lightly press down on the gas pedal.” Ariana obeyed and slowly the car accelerated, carrying the girls down the length of the warehouse.

“See? It’s easy. You’re doing great,” said Kayla. “Just keep the wheel steady so we don’t crash into one of the support columns and bring the roof down on us.” Before long, Kayla had Ariana doing laps around the warehouse interior. In fact, Ariana was becoming quite comfortable with driving… at least until Kayla suggested they try something a little more challenging than an occasional left turn and put the car onto surface streets.

“No,” Ariana said quiet sternly. “I’m not going to be part of your insane shenanigans! Driving around the warehouse was one thing, but… but there are people out there! And… and puppies!”

“What do puppies have to do with anything?” Kayla asked, staring at her with immense confusion.

“I could squish them with the car!” Ariana hissed.

“You won’t kill any puppies,” said Kayla. “C’mon, Ari! You’re doing really well. We’ll just go around the block one time and then come back home. You’ll be fine and so will all the puppies.” Despite her utter and complete lack of confidence in this plan, Ariana relented and moments later eased the car out onto the road. For the most part, the area around Warehouse 15 was empty. Practically all the other warehouses and factories in the area were abandoned.

Two blocks away, the street Kayla had once been chased down by police officers was the nearest location where it was possible to encounter other people due to a number of businesses that still operated there. Kayla had Ariana drive down that very road once, during which she did not strike a single puppy, and circle back around to the warehouse. Ariana pulled the car back through the cargo doors and parked it in its usual spot. Despite her fear, she couldn’t help but smile at Kayla as she turned off the engine.

“That was actually awesome!” she said excitedly.

“See? I told you!” said Kayla. “A few more practice trips and you’ll be driving on your own!”

“Oh, I… I don’t know about that,” said Ariana nervously. “At least with you here, you can help me if I make a mistake.”

“Trust me, you’ll be just fine on your own. I promise.” said Kayla. “Now, c’mon. Let’s get on upstairs. As the girls made their way back up to the apartment, Kayla finally remembered to tell Ariana about the passports that had been lying in a drawer in their bedroom, untouched since they had first arrived. Ariana was overjoyed, naturally, and immediately began suggesting where they ought to go. Kayla, however, had an idea of her own.

"I was thinking we could take a trip to San Diego," Kayla suggested, interrupting Ariana's planning of an exciting tour of Antarctica.

"Ooooh!" Ariana exclaimed, suddenly feeling even more excited. "Oh, yes! We should definitely do that first! I want to meet your mom!"

"She wants to meet you too," said Kayla. "I want to show you where I grew up too. I've gotten to know so much about your life, but you don't really know that much about mine. I want to introduce you to my friends, show you around my town..."

"Show me your doorknob collection?" Ariana cut in with a smirk as she flopped down on the sofa.

"I only... I got rid of... okay, they're in the attic," Kayla groaned weakly. Ariana just grinned.

31: Chapter XXXI: The Maiden Voyage of the S.S. Claire
Chapter XXXI: The Maiden Voyage of the S.S. Claire

“I don’t like this,” Ariana called out to Kayla, who was affixing a paper target to a post ten yards away. “I don’t like this at all.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Kayla confidently, walking back over to Ariana through the knee high grass that covered the wide open field they stood in. Ariana glanced down at the table littered with various firearms that Kayla had procured for what she had been calling their ‘training session’.

Ariana had never liked guns; which, considering she had been shot twice by them, was a very fair opinion to have. However, she had been around Kayla enough to begin to take a slightly different view on the subject. The brunette had insisted that Ariana learn how to shoot in order to be able to protect herself. Ariana wasn’t a fan of this idea, but there had been no talking Kayla out of it. So, she had allowed herself to be brought way outside of the city to this field to learn how to safely handle and operate a firearm.

“The first thing you need to know,” said Kayla in her very best instructor voice. “Is that none of these weapons are going to hurt you. They’re just things and shouldn’t be feared. They’re also not toys, I mean you’ve got to respect them, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Now, guns come in all shapes and sizes and they’re used for different purposes.” She indicated a small collection of pistols near the end of the table.

“These are small, light, and can be carried around with you,” said Kayla. She gestured toward the two rifles and her father’s shotgun that she had also brought with them. “If you can figure out how best to carry these around, I commend you. Today, though, we’re just going to start small and focus on the pistols.” She picked up a small 9mm handgun, cleared it to make sure it was safe, and then passed it to Ariana, who took it with trembling fingers.

“Now, you want to hold it in both hands and aim down the sight at the target and then…”

“I know how they work,” said Ariana quietly. She didn’t want to talk about that day, the only time she had ever fired a gun. The day she had taken her mother’s life. She knew she had made the right choice at the time, she didn’t regret it, but it still made her very sad.

“Alright,” said Kayla, holding up her hands. “Then go ahead and aim at the target.” Ariana did so, unable to shake the feeling that the events of these next few moments would change her forever. Kayla put her hand on Ariana’s shoulder to help her handle the recoil and told her to fire. Ariana squeezed the trigger and the gun rocked back in her hands. The bullet, much to Ariana’s very great surprise, struck the target. Just barely, about an inch from the edge of the paper, but it was a clear hit nonetheless.

“See? That wasn’t so bad,” said Kayla. They spent the next couple of hours dialing in Ariana’s aim. By the time they packed up to go home, she was shooting fairly decent groupings and Ariana had to admit that, no, it wasn’t so bad. To say that she somehow felt empowered or that she thought she would be able to protect herself like Kayla could would be a very big lie, but she did feel strangely more confident about herself. She wasn’t sure what that meant, nor what she should do with that realization, but she kept the feeling close to her heart. One day soon, she knew she would need it.

-.-

It was the nearly end of June by the time Kayla and Ariana finalized their plans to travel to San Diego. They were going to take the Claire along the Welland Canal up to Niagara Falls, then follow the Erie Canal to the Hudson River which would then deposit them in the Atlantic Ocean once they passed through New York Harbor.

From there they would sail along the East Coast and around the Florida panhandle. Then they would cross the Gulf and take the Panama Canal to the Pacific. From there it would only be a short sail up the coast to San Diego. The entire journey would take weeks to complete, but the girls didn’t care. They had no responsibilities tying them down in Detroit, so they figured they had plenty of time and both Cooper and Alana had promised to keep an eye on the warehouse while they were gone.

So they loaded the Mclaren in the cargo bay of the luxury yacht and set sail. It was just as wonderful as Ariana had always imagined it would be. The ship glided across the smooth waters of Lake Erie, her pure white sails flapping in the wind. She stood alone on the uppermost deck, with nothing above her but open sky, breathing in the crisp air as they sailed onward.

The Claire’s crew had been very kind, treating both girls like VIP guests at a five-star hotel. The ship’s captain, a man in his late fifties named Nathanial Parker, had welcomed them aboard personally. He had taken them up to the Bridge and shown them the course they would be taking and warned them of the possibility of hurricanes as they crossed the Gulf in a couple of weeks. Afterwards, the girls had been shown to their room and had their bags securely stowed.

They had set sail not long after that and now they cruised along Lake Erie, heading for the Welland Canal. Ariana, feeling more free and at peace than she ever had in her life, leaned against the railing as the wind tugged at her hair. She felt as though the whole world was open to her now. She could ask Captain Parker to take her anywhere she pleased so long as the waterways led there. From San Diego, they could head wherever they fancied and there would be nothing to stop them. Perhaps they could spend the rest of their lives on the water, just sailing from city to city, port to port, never staying anywhere too long.

Ariana had already planned out a trip from San Diego, to LA, then to Honolulu, to Sydney, and from there to Tokyo when Kayla climbed up the spiral steps behind her.

“Hey, there you are,” she said, walking over and joining the redhead at the railing. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Ariana. “I wanted to see the water from up high, so I came up here,”

“Well, if you like this just wait until you see the ocean,” said Kayla. “There’s something… humbling when you see it for the first time. I grew up with the Pacific a couple dozen yards outside my backdoor, but I still remember the first time I grasped just how vast and powerful it is. I felt… small. Insignificant, in a way. It’s still a hell of a sight, though.”

“I can’t wait,” said Ariana happily.

They spent the next several days cruising the canal system that eventually led them to Niagara Falls. The girls were lounging in bed, watching Fluffers pouncing playfully on a toy mouse, when Ariana first caught sights of the magnificent waterfalls pounding down out through the port side window. She leapt out of bed, dragging Kayla along with her. They hurried up the central steps to the main lounge area where Kayla had once given Ariana her Christmas gift many months before. They rushed to one of the many open windows and stood there together for quite some time, watching the water pour endlessly over the edge of the cliff. The setting sun cast a beautiful orange glow over the scene, which made the whole thing even that much more romantic to Ariana.

“I love you,” she whispered to Kayla, who wrapped her arm around her waist and pressed her lips to the side of Ariana’s head.

Although Ariana could have stayed right there in that moment forever, the Claire continued her journey east, eventually winding up on the Hudson River. On one particularly blisteringly hot afternoon, Ariana found Kayla at the stern of the ship, relaxing with her eyes closed in the bubbling hot tub.

“Enjoying yourself?” the redhead asked as she plopped herself down on the deck beside the tub.

“Oh, you have no idea, babygirl,” said Kayla with a contented sigh. “No idea at all. Why don’t you hop in? It’s so relaxing.” Ariana grinned.

“I might just do that,” She stood up and tugged her shirt over her head. She could feel Kayla’s eyes burning into her body like lasers as she slipped out of her shorts and dropped into the far side of the tub. She surfaced quickly, sweeping her dripping hair away from her face. Kayla was still sitting there, staring at her with a thin smile. The smile quickly disappeared as shock set in when Ariana reached behind her back, unclasped her bra, and tossed the undergarment onto the deck. Her panties followed a moment later.

“You are not the same girl I met seven months ago,” said Kayla, her smile now firmly back in place. Ariana shook her head.

“Nope,” she said sweetly. “I’m not. I’m free now.” Kayla giggled.

“In more ways than one, sweetheart,”

The girls lounged in the hot tub for quite a while as their ship sailed farther east. Eventually larger and larger buildings began to appear on either side of them and when the shadow of a long bridge passed over them, they got out of the tub and, once Ariana had hurriedly slipped back into her clothes, went up to the top deck.

Before them, all of New York City lay sprawled in every direction. Ariana had never seen anything like it in her life. The sheer size of the buildings, all of them so densely packed together on a relatively small island amazed her. She found she could actually feel the city even from out on the water. It was as though the city itself was alive and its pounding pulse was reverberating through the water, through the air. She was suddenly seized by the desire to see it all, to walk its streets and see inside the wall of grey steel that lined the waterfront.

“We should stop here,” she said to Kayla, who looked at her with surprise on her face.

“I didn’t know you wanted to see New York,” said Kayla curiously. “You’ve never mentioned that before. It’s always been Paris before today,”

“I know,” said Ariana. “But… we’re here already and there’s so much to do! It could be fun!” Kayla shrugged.

“Hell, I don’t have anywhere to be. I’ll tell the Captain that we’ll be staying here for a few days.” Kayla hurried away to pass the word along. Ariana stayed where she was, watching the city that never sleeps. She felt as though they were supposed to stay here. Somehow, and she couldn't begin to understand how or why, but somehow she just knew that they were here, in New York City, for a very good reason.

32: Chapter XXXII: I Heart New York
Chapter XXXII: I Heart New York

It was early the following morning and Ariana stood on a street corner with Kayla, utterly in awe. The city of New York bustled around her, the sheer scope and scale of all of it amazed her. She had never, in all of her eighteen years of life, seen anything so… massive. Detroit had tall buildings, true enough, but the mass of steel and concrete that surrounded her now dwarfed anything else she could imagine. It was, quite simply, awe-inspiring.

She glanced at Kayla, who she knew had grown up in San Diego. She knew that city, although Ariana had never seen it, had tall buildings as well. It might have more than Detroit did for all she knew, but from the look on the brunette’s face Ariana knew for certain that even her Southern California home was small compared to this place.

“I don’t understand how it all works,” Ariana said to Kayla, watching as a train clacked its way along the elevated tracks above them.

“What? The train?” Kayla asked. Ariana shook her head.

“No… just… all of it,” she explained. “Just the simple logistics it must take to keep all of this running."

"It's pretty amazing, I'll say that," said Kayla in agreement.

"Isn't it, though," said Ariana. "There's so many people!"

"Eight million," Kayla replied. "And that's not even counting tourists like us."

"We should move here," said Ariana. "It's so cool and exciting here! Fluffers would like it."

"Fluffers likes to be anywhere he can sleep," said Kayla pointedly. "And I couldn't live here. The hustle and bustle, all the noise... and I swear there's more taxis here than people! It also smells funny."

"Detroit smells funny too," Ariana pointed out. Kayla shrugged.

"Yeah, but it's a smell I'm used to," she explained. "Now, let's figure out where the hell we're going."

New York proved to be a very difficult city to navigate and the girls had a rough start getting their bearings. Soon enough, though, they managed to find their way around. They spent the day seeing the sights. They went to Coney Island and the New York Aquarium. They visited the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Art. That evening they took in a Broadway show. Kayla let Ariana pick the show and the redhead, naturally, selected ‘Cats’.

Late that evening, after picking up some Chinese takeout on the way, they checked into the Four Seasons Hotel. Their suite at the top of the high rise building had a gorgeous view of Central Park, which had Ariana enraptured as she stood out on the terrace.

“This place was totally worth the price,” said Kayla, emerging through the sliding glass door behind her. “Did you see the mini bar? ‘Mini’ shouldn’t be in the same sentence, really… woah…” Only then did Kayla’s mind register the sight before her. Ariana’s outline emblazoned over Central Park which was glowing in the brilliantly orange light of the slowly setting sun.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Ariana asked, looking over her shoulder at the brunette. She immediately noticed that Kayla’s eyes were on her inside of the view and she shook her head. “I meant the park, not me,”

“I know what you meant,” said Kayla, approaching the railing Ariana leaned against and slipping her arm around the redhead’s waist.

“I could spend the rest of my life just… just staring at that,” said Ariana as the sun dipped lower, causing more and more of the city to slip into darkness.

“Meanwhile, I could spend the rest of my life staring at you staring at that,” Kayla said sweetly. “I love you,” Ariana responded with a brief kiss that quickly evolved into someone lingering, longer and far more passionate. The redhead surrendered herself to Kayla, allowing the brunette to sweep her from the terrace and back into the room where they fell together onto the sofa. The food they had picked up lay on the counter in the kitchen, forgotten by both of them.

-.-

The next morning, Ariana awoke to the sound of the shower turning on. Her blue eyes fluttered open and she was met with a beautiful sunrise streaming into through the wide windows near the bed. She climbed out of bed and pulled a light pink silk robe around herself and padded out onto the terrace once again. The early morning air was crisp and cool although if the previous day was any indication, it would heat up very quickly.

Ariana went back inside and placed an order for room service. She was just seeing the bellhop out when Kayla emerged from the bathroom looking so relaxed and happy that Ariana found herself surprised.

“You’re smiling,” she said in shocked tones. “It’s seven a.m. and you’re smiling. Who are you and what have you done with my girlfriend?”

“I just had the best shower of my entire life,” said Kayla, sinking onto the sofa and sighing contentedly. “There’s a massager on the shower head and oh, my God…”

“Please tell me you were just showering in there, right?” Ariana asked, opening one of the food trays and biting into a bacon strip. “I know what a shower massager is used for.”

“Babe, I’ve got you for that,” said Kayla, making her way over to see what Ariana had ordered. “Ooooh, you got cinnamon rolls!”

“I did,” said Ariana. “There’s icing for them too.”

“I swear, I didn’t eat like this until you came into my life,” said Kayla thoughtfully. “It’s a good thing we have as much sex as we do. It burns calories.”

“Well, now I know what to do the next time Sophie’s coming to stay with us,” said Ariana with a grin. “I’ll starve you for a couple of days beforehand. You won’t have any energy left.”

“For you, I’d find some,” said Kayla, winking.

The girls left the hotel shortly after breakfast. They went on a leisurely stroll through Central Park. They ate lunch on a blanket they spread out on the silky smooth grass and then lay back across it, pointing out shapes in the clouds. They climbed to the top of the Empire State Building and took pictures of the view of all of New York spread out beneath them. Then they took the ferry to Liberty Island where they took selfies in the crown of the Statue of Liberty, wearing matching crown headbands that they bought in the gift shop.

They got lost trying to find Times Square, but once they did all the lights and activity in every direction managed to get Ariana thoroughly over excited. For the redhead, it had been another perfect day. It was odd, but she was starting to get used to them. Everything had just been so right. She hadn’t felt sad or scared in a long time and it felt really good… but it wasn’t meant to last. Kayla had wanted to visit the September 11th Memorial and Ariana had agreed to go with her.

Ariana had heard of the events of that tragic day, of course, but it had never held any real meaning to her. It had happened in the years she had spent locked away from the world by her father. She hadn’t known it had happened until many years later. She had read about it in a book during her recovery with Dr. Pinder and it had always felt like any other past event that she had read about; something she hadn’t experienced herself.

But as Kayla led her across the plaza, toward the fountains build in the footprint where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had once stood, it hit Ariana like an atom bomb. She froze on the spot, tears falling from her eyes. Kayla stopped as well, asking her what was wrong but Ariana was too far gone to respond. She could feel the blood on this hallowed ground and hear the cries of those who had died. She felt her heart being ripped to pieces by a flood of emotion she hadn’t been prepared to experience and had Kayla not been their to hold her, she would have collapsed to the concrete walkway they stood on.

Kayla led her away to a park bench and sat her down. She hurried and bought a bottle of water for the redhead to drink. Ever the worrier, Kayla spent several minutes fussing over Ariana even though she kept insisting she was fine.

“You looked like you were about to pass out,” said Kayla firmly. “You need food. I’ll go and get you something, just…”

“I’m not hungry, Kayla,” said Ariana just as firmly. “Seriously, I just… I just can’t go back in there. You go on ahead. I’ll stay here and drink my water. I’ll be fine.”

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” said Kayla.

“I’ll be fine on my own for a while,” Ariana insisted. “In fact, I could really… use a minute to myself. So, go on in. I’ll call you if I need you,” She held up her cell phone to make her point. Kayla looked extremely hesitant.

“Are you sure…?”

“Yes,” said Ariana quickly. “I’m sure. Scoot.”

“Okay… I’ll only be a few minutes,” said Kayla uncertainly. Ariana smiled.

“Take your time, sweetie,” They shared a brief kiss and Kayla walked away, looking back over her shoulder periodically until she disappeared from view.

Ariana leaned against the back of the bench, feeling completely exhausted. She felt as though someone had sucked every last ounce of energy out of her. Right then, she wanted nothing more than to curl up in her bed back at the warehouse and cry, but she knew she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t be the little girl that ran and cried whenever things that scary or hard. She was eighteen years old, a grown woman. She wasn’t a little girl any more. She wasn’t going to run away. She was going to sit right there on that bench and wait for Kayla to come back.

So that’s exactly what she did. She sat there, doing her best to keep herself calm. The grief she had felt had been unlike anything she had ever experienced before and she couldn’t begin to explain why it had happened. She had no connection to this place or the memories buried here. Why had it affected her so? She was still trying to piece together the mystery when her attention drifted to a young mother walking with her baby. The little girl couldn’t have been more than two years old.

Only a little older than my daughter,’ Ariana thought sadly. She wondered what her daughter must look like after so long. She had not seen her since she was a newborn and Ariana could scarcely imagine what the girl must look like now. She watched the mother and daughter for some time, her heart breaking all over again. She knew giving the child up had been the right choice. She had gone into foster care and Dr. Bradley had promised her that she would find a good home… but the thought that the little girl would grow up never knowing her real mother. Wondering, perhaps, if Ariana had ever loved her or if she had just abandoned her

"Is anyone sitting here?" a voice asked, shaking Ariana from her troubled thoughts. She looked up and found a young blonde woman pointing uncertainly at the empty space on the bench. Ariana shook her head.

"Cool," said the blonde. She settled herself down on the bench. She noticed Ariana watching the mother and daughter and grinned.

"Ah, kids," she said brightly. "There so cute, aren't they?"

"Mmm," Ariana murmured.

"Yeah, I love kids," the blonde continued. "You'll never experience true, unconditional love until you have kids. Well, at least that's what my mom always tells me. I don't have any kids myself." She glanced at Ariana. "What about you? Any kids?"

"No," said Ariana briskly. "Well... one. I have a daughter, I... I'm not... she doesn't live with me. She was adopted."

"Oh, I see," said the blonde nervously. "Look, I'm sorry. I've got a nasty habit of talking too much."

"It's okay," said Ariana. "Really, I don't mind."

"Yes, well... I still need to learn to shut up," said the blonde. "Well, that and introduce myself. My name's Claire,"

"I'm Ariana," said Ariana. "My girlfriend had a friend named Claire,"

"Had?" Claire asked. Ariana nodded sadly.

"She died," she said quietly. "She... she was murdered.

"Whoa..." said Claire. "I'm really sorry. Is your girlfriend... is she doing okay?"

"It still bothers her," said Ariana. "She blames herself, but... but she's recovering. She's doing better."

"That's good," said Claire. "I'm glad. And you shouldn't blame yourself for letting your daughter be adopted. You did what you thought was best, I'm sure."

"I'm just not sure if it was best now," said Ariana softly. Claire nodded understandingly.

"You made your choice, Ariana," she said firmly. "There's no reason to go second guessing yourself now. You had your reasons, I'm sure. You seem like a pretty smart person. I'm sure you made the best decision you could."

"That doesn't mean it was right," Ariana retorted. Claire smiled.

"No, but it doesn't mean it was wrong either," she said. "Trust me, Ariana. You made the right choice then and you'll make the right one in the future. It'll all work out the way it's supposed to."

"You can't know that," said Ariana. "No one can."

"Destiny works in mysterious way, Ariana," said Claire. "It will all work out."

"I wish I had your confidence. I don't even..."

"Who are you talking to?" Ariana turned around to find Kayla walking toward her with her eyes narrowed curiously. Ariana smiled.

"I was talking to..." she turned around to introduce Kayla to Claire, but the blonde woman was gone. Ariana stood up, looking around in all directions but the girl she had been talking to was nowhere to be seen. She was confused. The girl had been there, most certainly. She wasn't crazy, that she knew. So then how...?

"Myself," said Ariana suddenly. She didn't need Kayla to think she was talking to people who weren't there, even if it were true. "I was just... thinking out loud."

"Oh?" said Kayla, still looking quite suspicious. "What about?" Ariana sighed deeply and replied in a very small voice.

"Snow," she said softly. "C'mon, let's get back to the hotel. I'm really tired." Ariana took Kayla's hand and let the brunette guide her away. As they walked, Ariana saw the mother and daughter once again. They were passing them as they walked in the opposite direction. Ariana's eyes met those of the little girl and she felt another pang of sadness and regret. But then the girl smiled brightly. She looked so unbelievably happy that Ariana couldn't help but smile in return.

She supposed her perfect day was meant to last after all. In the end, it hadn't been so bad... even if she was seeing people who weren't there. As they walked, however, a sudden thought occurred to Ariana and she turned to Kayla.

"Kay-Kay... what did Claire look like?" Kayla looked confused, but she smiled slightly and dug around in her purse for a photograph. She held it out to the redhead who took it nervously. She hid her surprise well, for Kayla noticed nothing. But the girl in the picture was the same person who she had spent a scant few minutes chatting with on the bench. Ariana returned the picture with a smile and together they continued walking. Ariana wasn't sure what to make of the events of that day, but she did keep one thing close to her heart every day thereafter; It will all work out the way it's supposed to.

33: Chapter XXXIII: Twilight's Last Gleaming
Chapter XXXIII: Twilight's Last Gleaming

By the time the girls reached the hotel, Ariana was perfectly happy again. She was still unable to explain Claire’s miraculous apparition, if that’s really what it was, but she found she didn’t really care all that much. She figured she had either seen Claire’s spirit somehow, or she was going completely insane. She hoped it was the former.

They rode the elevator up to their floor and strolled down the corridor to their room, Ariana laughing at a story Kayla was telling. The redhead would never recall exactly what it had been about. Kayla swiped the keycard and pushed open the door. Ariana followed her inside and had just closed the door when a loud bang made her jump. She spun around in time to watch Kayla collapse to the floor, blood spilling from a bullet wound in the center of her forehead.

Ariana would have screamed if her brain had not been so shocked that it couldn’t make her mouth work. She looked up at the sound of footsteps and saw her worst nightmare. Adrian, her father, stepped out of the kitchen, cleaning off his gun with his shirt.

“Hello, Ariana,” he said quietly. He nodded toward Kayla’s body. “I’m sorry about that, but she… well, she’s a fighter and I can’t have that. Not now, not after I’ve waited so long to be with you again. I can’t take any chances.”

Ariana’s mind was a blur. Her father had found her and she was going back. She was going to be put back into the same hell she had spent her whole life in, but she didn’t care about any of that. She lowered herself slowly to the floor, scooping Kayla’s lifeless form into her arms.

“I’m sorry…” she whispered. “I’m so sorry…” Adrian came over and pulled Ariana away. He tossed her into the kitchen, her head smacking the solid granite cabinet. Dazed, she struggled only briefly against him as he lifted her up and lay her back across the island in the center of the kitchen.

“I’ve waited so long,” he whispered in her ear. “I’ve waited, I’ve dreamed of being reunited with my sweet little girl,” He stood up, smiling from ear to ear. “Undress.” Ariana obeyed wordlessly. She briefly thought about why she wasn’t fighting him. Why was she doing as he told her instead of seizing a kitchen knife and doing her damnedest to drive the blade through his heart… or at the very least through her own. Death, certainly, would be preferable to what would happen to her now. But Ariana did not reach for a knife. Dutifully, she sat up and began to meticulously remove her clothing. Once she was done, she lay back across the island and waited.

Adrian had watched her the entire time with dark, hungry eyes. Slowly, he approached her and all the while she lay there, her eyes locked on the ceiling. He began to touch her, carefully, gently exploring her. His hands moved across her body, his fingertips sliding along her thigh, across her stomach, between her breasts.

Don’t think, Ari,’ she told herself. ‘Don’t think about anything. You’re not here. You’re home at the warehouse. You’re with Kayla and you’re safe.’ She kept repeating that in her mind as her gave her breast a firm squeeze.

“You’ve developed into a beautiful young woman while we’ve been apart,” said Adrian delightedly.

“Thank you, Daddy,” Ariana whimpered. ‘No, you mustn’t cry. He’ll hurt you… bad… if you cry.’

Adrian climbed off of her and began to take off his clothes. Ariana closed her eyes as tightly as she could to keep herself from crying. ‘You’re not here. This isn’t happening. You’re with Kayla and you’re safe.’

She didn’t open her eyes again until she felt him enter her. Hot tears welled in her eyes despite her attempts to stop them. She knew he noticed them as they trailed down her cheeks and she was sure she would be punished later, after he was finished.

‘You’re not here. This isn’t happening. You’re with Kayla and you’re safe.’ She kept repeating those same words, over and over again. She blocked out all other thought until there was nothing else in her world but those few simple phrases. She wasn’t there. It wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. Not again.

She turned inwards; it was the only way she knew to protect herself. She surrounded herself in the inky blackness, the darkness that had swallowed her after her grandfather had died. She lost herself in anguish so deep that she knew she would never escape it again, and in truth she did not want to. She let that misery swallow her whole and suddenly Adrian wasn’t there. Suddenly she was home at the warehouse, lying in bed in Kayla’s arms.

‘You’re not here. This isn’t happening. You’re with Kayla and you’re safe.’

She suddenly felt herself being lifted up and she opened her eyes again. Adrian seized her arm and dragged her, stumbling, into the bedroom. He tossed her onto the bed and left her there, trembling. He returned a few moments later with Kayla’s bare body in his arms. He deposited her on the bed beside Ariana, who knew she had no choice but to look.

‘You’re not here. This isn’t happening. You’re with Kayla and you’re safe.’

Adrian took her again, holding her head so she had to stare into Kayla’s lifeless eyes. Ariana closed her eyes and screamed as loud as her lungs would allow. She twisted and thrashed and clawed in the darkness, fighting against the hands that tried to restrain her.

“Ariana, calm down! It’s okay! You’re safe!” Kayla’s voice pierced her foggy brain and she opened her eyes. Kayla crouched over her, peering worriedly down at the redhead’s face.

‘It was only a dream,’ the rational part of Ariana’s mind said, but the irrational part was still terrified. She sat up, breathing hard. Her heart beat violently and at a blistering pace. She was drenched in sweat, as was the sheet that had become wrapped around her otherwise naked body like a toga.

“Oh… oh, Kayla,” she choked out. “Oh, God…” It was one of the bad ones, the nightmares. She had always had them, but sometimes they were worse than others. She hadn’t had one this bad in a long time, but that night the nightmares returned with a terrible vengeance.

Kayla instantly went into nurse mode. She tugged the damp sheets from Ariana’s body and quickly fetched a towel to dry her off. Ariana was trembling and found that she was unable to stop no matter how hard she tried. Kayla didn’t ask about the dream. She knew enough to not need the details. Ariana was glad of this. She didn’t want to recount what had happened. It was too terrible to think about.

After Kayla changed the bed linens, they lay together in each other’s arms for a long time. It was only three in the morning, but Ariana was far too wired to go back to sleep. They lay awake until dawn, talking about nothing in particular. Kayla held the redhead, stroking her hair. Ariana relaxed into the warmth of Kayla’s skin. She was still as limp as a dishrag and shaking like a leaf but just being so close to Kayla made her feel better.

It was nearly noon before the girls got out of bed. It was July 4th; Independence Day. Ariana had never celebrated that particular holiday before and was excited about the fireworks display that New York City was famous for. They would watch it that evening from the harbor before the Claire would once again put to sea.

Captain Parker had called the night before to tell them that if they did not leave within the next day they would likely be caught by a powerful hurricane that, if the forecast model held true, would make landfall in the Gulf as the Claire was sailing across it.

So, as it was their last day in the Big Apple, Ariana forced herself to put the dream out of her mind focus instead on Kayla and the day they wanted to spend together. They had no particular plans, so they lounged around the hotel room for a while, walked the busy streets again and picnicked once again in Central Park.

That evening, when they had returned to the Claire, the girls relaxed in lounge chairs on the upper deck of the ship. Dozens of other vessels floated around them, waiting as they were for the spectacle to begin. Ariana found that she hadn’t thought about the dream again all day. Kayla had spent a good deal of time reassuring her that Adrian was locked away in one of the most secure prisons in the country and would never be able to escape from within its walls. Ariana knew that this was true. She was confident that the dreams had returned because of how much she had been thinking about her daughter, who naturally brought up memories of her father. Regardless, it had unnerved her.

The fireworks started soon enough and the girls watched the display cuddled up together on their chairs. The fiery explosions lit up the night sky, dazzling them with brilliant colors and patterns. When it was over, the girls retired to their room as the crew put the ship on a course that would take them out onto the open ocean at last and downward toward Florida. Ariana watched the lights of New York disappear behind them through the window in their room as they sailed southward.

Mmm mmm mmm, mmm mmm mmmwhere the sun never shines…” She sang at the window. She still couldn’t figure out the words to that song. She could remember the tune and a few of the lyrics, but the name of the song still eluded her. Why she kept trying to remember it, she couldn’t begin to explain.

“Missing it already?” Kayla asked, stepping out of the bathroom and joining her at the window. Ariana shook her head.

“Not really,” she said quietly. “It was nice to visit, but… you were right. I wouldn’t want to live there. It did give me some things to think about, though”

“Good things or bad things?” Kayla inquired.

“A little of both, I suppose,” said Ariana. “It’s nothing to worry about. I’ll figure it out once we’re back home.”

“Anything you want to talk about?” Kayla asked. Ariana shook her head.

“Not right now, but… when we get back to the warehouse… yeah, maybe.” Kayla nodded and they shared a kiss. Kayla crossed the room and got into bed. Ariana stayed at the window for a few more minutes, half dreading going to sleep again. Soon enough, however, she joined Kayla in bed and before long she fell asleep in the brunette’s arms. She slept peacefully all night long.

34: Chapter XXXIV: What Kayla Does
Chapter XXXIV: What Kayla Does

The girls were well and truly tired of sailing by the time the Claire docked in San Diego Bay almost a full month later. They had been forced to stop in Miami to avoid the hurricane Captain Parker had been tracking. After that, they stopped periodically at ports on the way south to the Panama Canal. Once on the other side and safely in the warm Pacific, they sailed quickly up the coast before finally reaching San Diego.

Ariana had noticed Kayla growing more and more excited the closer they got. The redhead could hardly blame her. She had not seen her home or her family and friends in over a year. Ariana felt certain she would be excited too if she were going home to see people and places she loved but had been away from for so long.

Once they docked, the crew unloaded the Mclaren and soon enough the girls were cruising down East Harbor Drive with the top down, the warm august sun blazing down on them. To Ariana, San Diego was like stepping onto another world. The air tasted clean and clear and there were palm trees everywhere. People were riding bikes and skating and there were an abnormal amount of surfboards about.

But while it didn't feel like home to the redhead, she loved it and Kayla was clearly overjoyed to finally be home. She gunned the Mclaren's engine as they cruised over the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and onto Coronado Island. Kayla grinned at Ariana as they passed through the gates.

"Welcome to my world, Beautiful," she said happily. "This is me." Coronado Island was positively gorgeous. Quiet, it seemed, compared to the rest of San Diego. They made their way to Ocean Boulevard on the southwestern side of the island and pulled into the driveway of a house a few blocks away from the North Island Naval Air Station, a U.S. Navy airfield that took up the entire western end of the island.       

Kayla's house was very nice; fancy without taking itself too seriously. The yard was well kept, but there were shoes on the porch near the front door and the flower bed on the side of the driveway needed weeding. The house looked decidedly lived in, which fit Ariana’s taste just fine. Kayla parked the car and the girls got out and walked across the yard and up the steps to the front door. Kayla rang the doorbell and a moment later Penny appeared, smiling brightly.

"Kayla!" she shouted, dragging her daughter into a tight hug. "It's so good to see you! I'm glad you made it!”

“Good to see you too, Mom,” said Kayla happily. “The trip took forever, but we had fun.”

"Great! Great!" said Penny. "Oh, and Ariana! It's nice to see you on your feet instead of lying in that bed. You look amazing! The last time I saw you, you were just hanging to life by a thread."

"Yes, I'm much better now," said Ariana, holding out her hand to shake Penny's.

"Oh, my dear we hug in this family!" Penny pulled Ariana into a hug as she had done with Kayla. The brunette caught the redhead's eye over her mother's shoulder and grinned.

"She loves to hug," Kayla mouthed.

"Well, come on in!" Penny exclaimed drawing away from Ariana. "You both must be exhausted."

"We've been on that boat for ages," said Kayla wearily. "We saw a lot of really cool places, but I started getting cabin fever after we left Miami. There's just not enough room on that boat."

"Your daughter needs plenty of space to spread out," said Ariana. "Don't crowd her, she gets grouchy."

"Don't I know it," said Penny with a wink at Kayla. Penny and the girls collected the bags, suitcases and Fluffers the Cat in his carrier and together they entered the house. Kayla's home was on the inside very much like it was on the outside. Fancy, rich, but very lived in. Like Kayla, Penny appeared to be quite messy. Like mother like daughter, Ariana assumed. They left their bags by the door and, after releasing Fluffers from the confines of his cage, joined Penny in the kitchen were she set about making a pot of tea.

“So, what do you think of California, Ariana?” Penny asked as Kayla and Ariana sat down on stools at the bar.

“Oh, it’s so nice here,” said Ariana happily. “It’s so warm!”

“Yes,” said Penny. “I came to visit when you were shot and I remember how terribly cold Detroit was in the winter! You know, you girls should come and stay out here this winter. Get yourselves out of that awful cold weather.”

“Well, the cold never bothered me anyway,” said Ariana with a grin. “But Kayla here… she complained almost constantly,"

"Yeah, but Ari, I grew up here," Kayla countered. "Where it's always sunny and eighty degrees. I'm not accustomed to the cold."

"Fair point," Ariana consented. Penny placed two cups of tea on the bar in front of them.

"There you go," she said pleasantly. "Listen, I've got to run out to the store to pick up a few things for dinner. If you'd like, Ariana, you can help me in the kitchen tonight. From what Kayla's told me I might just learn a thing or two."

"Sure, I'd love to help!" said Ariana enthusiastically.

"Great," said Penny. "I won't be gone too long. Do you girls have any plans today or are you just planning on resting?" Ariana shrugged, uncertainly glancing at Kayla.

"Actually," said the brunette. "There is one thing I'd like to do today."

-.-

Ariana walked across the wide sweeping lawn a few paces behind Kayla, who led the way purposefully. Her hot pink flip-flops made snapping sounds with her every step that somehow made her feel as though she were being disrespectful to the otherwise silent field.

The sun beat down upon them as they walked and sweat quickly beaded up on Ariana's skin, causing her white tank top to stick to her back. They walked on for nearly five minutes before they reached their destination. Ariana stood several yards away as Kayla knelt down in front of the gravestone. Even from this distance it was easy to see the name engraved in the rock: Claire Winters; January 15th, 1994 - February 23rd, 2013.    

'Nineteen years old,' Ariana thought sadly. 'The poor girl never even got to really live.'

Ariana watched as Kayla placed a bundle of flowers on the girl's grace. The redhead still gave her girlfriend space, standing aside with her hands in the back pockets of her denim shorts, feeling extremely uncomfortable. Ariana hated graveyards. They made her very sad and this one held the body of someone very important to her best friend. She knew Kayla was in a lot of pain at the moment, but wasn't sure if she would want her to try to share in that suffering... to help ease it. Claire was a burden Kayla had always carried on her own.

"She tried to tell me something," Kayla said quietly. "The night she died, she tried so hard to tell me something, but she couldn't... she couldn't get the words out before... before she drowned in her own blood." Ariana walked over and knelt down in the grass beside the brunette and took her hand gently.

"I'm really sorry, Kayla," she said sadly. "I wish I could... help. I wish I could make you feel better."

"You do," said Kayla. "As miserable as I am... as bad as this hurts, just having you here helps. I wish you could have met her, Ari. I think you would have liked her… and she would have loved you.”

‘We’ve already met,Ariana thought and longed to say aloud, but thought better of it. She still thought it was best to dial back the crazy as much as possible.

“I guess I’ve never told you much about her, have I?” Kayla asked thoughtfully. “It was always so hard to talk about her… but she… she was a good person. She wasn’t shy, that’s for sure. Sometimes she didn’t know when to stop talking. Her family… they didn’t have much. Her dad’s a bus driver and her mom’s a waitress. I was always welcome at their place, though. Our families lived in different social and financial circles, but Claire and I? I guess it didn’t matter. She wasn’t the jealous type. She’d never mention that I had everything and she never did.

“We spent virtually every waking moment together. We slept over at each other’s houses practically every night… we were the best of friends… and I’ll never stop missing her.” She looked down at Claire’s gravestone again, tears running down her cheeks. “I miss you, Claire. I’m so sorry I got you killed. I’m sorry I wasn’t there… I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you. I thought you were safe, I thought he’d come after my dad or me… never you. I should have been there. I should have been with you. It should be me that he killed, not you. I’m sorry…” Kayla dissolved into tears, heartbreaking sobs of an anguish Ariana could only imagine that managed to tear at her soul. The redhead held the other girl as she cried her heart out in the grass at the base of Claire's gravestone.

Ariana still wasn't used to seeing Kayla cry. Kayla was her rock, her symbol of strength and bravery. Ariana was the emotional one, the one who always broke down and cried. She was the one who Kayla had to hold and soothe in the late hours of the night when she had a nightmare. She was the one Kayla had to comfort like a scared child. When their roles reversed, Ariana became frightened. She was suddenly forced to be the brave one, the one who had to soothe and comfort. She had to be strong for Kayla now and she was never sure exactly how to do that.

Kayla, it seemed, truly was comforted simply by Ariana's presence. She cried into Ariana's chest for the longest time before finally looking up at her with bloodshot eyes. The redhead smiled down at her as the brunette rested her head in her girlfriend's lap.

"How do you do it?" Kayla asked, wiping her eyes. "Everything you've been through, everything that's happened to you... how do you not just collapse under the weight of it? I look at you now and I'd never guess... I'd never think you'd been through anything like that. I always thought I had it bad and I thought I was so strong for handling it, but... but I've said before... if we traded places, Ari, I'd never survive it. So, I figure if you can still be okay after all of that... surely you can teach me how to deal with this."

"There's nothing to teach, Kay-Kay," Ariana said quietly. She looked down at Kayla, her blue eyes filled with sadness. "You think I'm strong just because I'm still a halfway functional girl? I'm just... a barely contained explosion. If I let my walls down, if I stopped forcing myself to get to the end of each day... Kayla, I would collapse under it all. I take it one day at a time. The pain never goes away... and despite what they say, it never hurts less and it never gets any easier. Hell, Kayla... it gets harder.” She paused, swallowing hard. She cleared her throat and continued.

"There are days that I'd rather die than live with the horror I keep inside. The memories of what he did to me… I carry that every single second of every single day. When I'm laughing, when I'm talking with you, when we're making love... it's there... behind my eyes. You learn to live with it. You smile and you push it down deep. Then, eventually, you look like any other girl."

"You never just look like any other girl," said Kayla quietly. “Never,” She reached up, her fingers trailing through Ariana’s wavy hair.

“My point,” Ariana pressed on. “Is that eventually… you learn to live with it. You can’t fix it, you can’t change it… so you let it go and learn to live with it without letting it eat away at you. Some days, I’m not very good at that.”

“I can’t say I’m good at that… ever,” said Kayla softly. Ariana smiled slightly.

“You are,” she said. “You’re happy sometimes, I see that. There are moments when you let yourself forget she’s gone. There are times when she’s not haunting you. Sometimes you’re almost whole again.”

“I’m happy a lot,” said Kayla quickly. “When we’re together, I’m happy. Thinking about Claire tears me apart and not a day goes by that I wish she hadn’t died, but… but I don’t wake up thinking about her anymore. I don’t fall asleep thinking about her either.”

“She’s just always there…” Ariana whispered. “In the back of your mind...”

“Yeah,” Kayla replied. “Yeah, something like that.” The brunette stood up and helped Ariana to her feet. She stared down at Claire’s name for quite some time before reaching out and taking Ariana’s hand.

“C’mon,” she said, wiping her eyes with her free hand. “Let’s go,” They walked back to the car, arm-in-arm.

-.-

The drive back across town didn't take long and they reached Kayla's house before Penny returned. The girls went inside and Ariana was given a quick tour of the two story house that culminated in Kayla's bedroom. Penny hadn't changed anything in the room since Kayla had been forced to go on the run. The room was painted a brilliant yellow that Ariana had not expected at all. Most of the furniture was modern and nearly all of it was black in color, including the bedspread that adorned a very comfortable mattress that seemed to conform to Ariana's body when she lay across it.

"So, this is me," said Kayla. She looked nervously at Ariana as though she wanted to know what Ariana thought. The redhead looked around briefly, looking over the framed photos of Kayla, Claire and a group of other girls on the walls. She had displayed her high school diploma as well as a number of trophies from what appeared to be a swim team the brunette had once competed with.

"Well, I didn't see your room being yellow," said Ariana, grinning. "I always imagined it being a bright color... like black... or grey... brown, perhaps,"

"I can like bright colors too," said Kayla. "Just because I like black doesn't mean I can't have a little contrast."

"Good point," said Ariana. It amazed her as she sat there at the foot of Kayla's bed, just how odd it felt to be in an actual house. She had never really lived in one before, not freely at least. While Ariana certainly loved the warehouse, it was a very different style of living compared to a normal house. There was a certain warmth in Kayla's home that felt... really good to Ariana. Suddenly, she found she really wanted to feel that sensation all the time.

The redhead stood up and circled the room, examining a collection of framed pictures hung on the wall. She paused at one at one that showed Kayla, Alana, and Claire standing with a group of four other girls. Ariana took the photo off of the wall and held up out to Kayla.

"Friends of yours?" she asked curiously, indicating the other girls. Kayla took the picture, smiling broadly. Ariana sat down next to her while the brunette looked fondly at the photo.

"That's Mia Watson on the left," said Kayla, indicating a very thin, pale blonde girl. "Obviously that's Claire, Alana, and me next to her. There's Jennifer Harris," she went on, pointing out a tall black girl with very long hair and deep brown eyes. "And Nikki Ramirez... she's the short brunette with the red hair band. I don't think I ever saw her without one of those bands. The blonde one at the end is Monica Peters. She was the only girl in eleventh grade whose breasts came with a receipt."

"What does that... oh!" Ariana exclaimed suddenly as realization hit her. "That's... nice."

"I guess," said Kayla dryly. "I mean, I'm all for a boob job but she went up to a J cup."

"And I thought I had back trouble," said Ariana with a grin. She held her hands out a couple of inches from her chest as though measuring. "I don't even want to imagine that."

"Can't blame you," said Kayla. She held out the picture. "You know, I was thinking I might give them a call. The girls, not Monica's boobs. I thought you might want to meet some of my friends."

"Oh, I'd love to," said Ariana excitedly. "We ought to..." But she was cut off by the sound of the front door opening. "I guess that's your mom. We should help her with her bags."

"She'll be fine," said Kayla with a mischievous smile. "All this boob talk is turning me on," Ariana gave her a very hurt look indeed.

"Oh, now you're turned on by another girl's boobs, huh?" she asked.

"Only yours, sweetpea," said Kayla sincerely. Ariana narrowed her eyes and surveyed Kayla thoughtfully.

"Fair enough," she said sharply. "But if you even so much as glance below Monica's chin when we meet her, we're going to have a problem." 

-.-

Downstairs, the girls found Penny busily emptying her plastic shopping bags in the kitchen. She had already put away most of the groceries by the time they arrived, but they helped heft a bag of potatoes into the pantry.

“So, where did you girls go?” Penny asked, bundling up the plastic bags and storing them in the pantry as well.

“To visit Claire’s grave,” said Kayla calmly.

“Of course,” said Penny softly. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”

“I’m fine,” said Kayla, brushing off her mother’s concern. “Don’t worry about me.”

“What else is a mother supposed to do?” Penny asked her.

‘Not abandon your child to the foster system,’ a cold voice in Ariana’s mind said. The redhead forced those thoughts away, refusing to let them back in that evening. She would worry about that tomorrow.

Penny and Ariana set about preparing dinner. By the time their homemade lasagna went into the oven, the two were talking as if they were old friends. Kayla, meanwhile, did as she usually did during meal preparation and watched. All the while, Penny shared dozens of funny and occasionally embarrassing (for Kayla) stories from the brunette’s childhood.

Ariana discovered that she finally realized what it felt like to be normal, for surely this was it. She was happy and surrounded by warmth, friendship, and love. There was laughter and light all around her and she felt completely at peace. Just as the lasagna was ready to come out of the oven, Ariana remembered that she had forgotten her phone upstairs. She hurried off to get it and was just about to return to the kitchen when the sound of her own name made her pause outside the kitchen door.

“So… Ariana? What do you think of her, Mom?” Kayla was asking.

“Oh, honey, she’s great!” said Penny. “She’s sweet, beautiful… completely in love with you… and also she’s a damn good cook. If she were twenty years older and I swung that way I’d be interested myself.”

“That’s more than I needed to know about my mother,” said Kayla, laughing.

“I’m just saying, she’s a good girl,” said Penny. “You’re very lucky, Mikayla, very lucky.”

“Believe me, I know,” Kayla replied. “She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I’m not worthy of her.”

“Oh, yes you are,” Penny said firmly. “Don’t even start on that. I’ve got to ask though… when do you plan on making an honest woman out of her?”

“Mom!” Kayla hissed loudly.

“What? I want to know when I can expect to me a mother-in-law,” said Penny. Even from outside the room, Ariana could sense Kayla’s eye roll.

“Well… actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Kayla. “I was wondering if…” She suddenly lowered her voice to a whisper and Ariana couldn’t hear another word. Deciding she had eavesdropped enough for one day, Ariana pushed open the door. Kayla immediately froze, staring at Ariana like a deer caught in very bright headlights.

“There you are, Ariana,” said Penny quickly. “The lasagna’s done and it’s incredible. Kayla wasn’t lying, you know your food.”  

"I told you," said Kayla, appearing to shake herself out of her stupor. Ariana grinned at her and sat down at the table next to her.

"You look suspicious," Ariana said pointedly, taking the plate of lasagna Penny passed her.

"I do not," said Kayla quite nervously. "I don't look suspicious... you look suspicious."

"Clever," said Penny.

"Very," said Ariana, smiling serenely. She shrugged. "Fine, you can have your secrets."

"Thank you," said Kayla quietly. She helped herself to lasagna and said no more.

-.-

Later that evening, Penny, Kayla, and Ariana sat together in the sunroom at the back of the house looking through old photograph albums. Penny was happily telling as many stories from Kayla's childhood as she could, this time accompanied by multiple pictures of the event in question.

As they looked at the pictures, so many of them of Austin family gatherings which included Alana's tenth birthday party and Kayla's graduation, Ariana began to feel rather sad. When Penny held out a picture that showed the entire Austin family on Christmas, Ariana excused herself and practically ran from the room.

She left the house, ran across the street, hot tears streaming down her face. She found herself suddenly on the beach. She walked down to the waterfront in the almost complete darkness and was left with nothing but endless ocean in front of her. She took off her shoes and walked into the surf, allowing the cold water to rush up her bare legs. It soothed her, calmed her. As she stood there, she heard footsteps in the damp sand behind her and knew that Kayla had doubtlessly followed her.

"Ari?" Kayla called over the roar of the waves. Ariana could hear the worry in her voice. She sighed heavily.

"I'm fine, Kayla" said Ariana thickly. "I just... I couldn't..." How could she make Kayla understand? She wasn't sure how to tell her... what to say. She slowly turned toward the other girl, wiping her eyes. Kayla saw that she was crying and hurried over.

"Aww, baby... what's wrong?" Kayla asked concernedly, doing her best to wipe the tear streaks from the redhead's cheeks. "You were happy and laughing and... what happened?"

"Kayla, I... it never really occurred to me before now, but... well, when we were looking at the pictures, I realized that I'll never have that."

"What? A photo album?" Kayla asked, confused. Ariana shook her head.

"Christmases... and birthday parties," said Ariana. "Family vacations to the Grand Canyon and the World's Largest Ball of Yarn. Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July... I'll never have any of that. I don't have a family... I don't have the pictures or the memories... and I never will. I never thought about it before, but I... I see know just how much I missed. I see everything I didn't get to experience growing up, and it just... hurts."

"Sweetie, I can't give you your childhood back," said Kayla softly. "I can't give you all the birthdays and Christmases or high school graduation. But you're wrong about one thing. You do have a family. Mine. The Austins are a big, wild bunch. We don't get together often because we're scattered all over the country, but on the holidays we always come together. You're a part of us now and you'll get the pictures and the memories, I promise. We'll make them together." Ariana nodded slowly, wiping her eyes again.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I know I'm being stupid. I'm lucky to be alive and to be as happy as I am, and here I am crying because my parents never applauded as I got a diploma."

"You're not being stupid," said Kayla firmly. "It's perfectly understandable... but you do have a family. We're all here for you, baby. I..." she broke off, looking extremely nervous. She hesitated for a moment before continuing, swallowing thickly.

"I was going to do this Saturday night," said Kayla quietly. "There's a barbeque here on the beach, I... I was going to have my mom and my friends help me. It would've been romantic as hell, but... but I think you need this now." Slowly, Kayla knelt down on the wet sand in front of her. Ariana's heart was suddenly racing as she watched the brunette reach into her pocket and look up at her with tear-filled eyes.

"Ariana Elizabeth Laine," said Kayla, choking back tears. "Would you do me the incredible honor of becoming my wife?" The ring she held out to the redhead was gorgeous; easily a three karat stone that shone brightly even in the pale light from the street lamps behind them. Ariana, hands held to her mouth, knelt down with Kayla. Her eyes too were shining with tears. Trembling from head to toe, she nodded furiously.

"Yes."  

35: Chapter XXXV: California Girls
Chapter XXXV: California Girls

The house was cool and very quiet when Ariana awoke the following morning. She sat up in bed, sleepily ruffling her long hair. She looked down at Kayla, who was still fast asleep. Ariana thought she looked quite peaceful, which was different for Kayla. She always seemed to have troubled dreams... and Ariana knew all about troubled dreams.

The redhead climbed gingerly out of bed so as to not disturb the brunette. She shivered slightly, the t-shirt and panties she wore doing little to warm her. She tugged her pink robe off of the back of Kayla's desk chair wrapped it around herself as she padded across the room to the window and sank onto the window seat.

Kayla's bedroom was positioned at the front of the house, so from her position on the window seat, Ariana was given a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean stretching out endlessly before her, glowing brightly in the early morning sun. The redhead pushed open the window, letting it swing out wide and allowing the fresh, crisp morning air to fill her lungs. She smiled and breathed deeply, feeling more at peace than she ever had before.

She looked down at her hand, at the beautiful ring that glistened in the sunlight. She was engaged. The words barely made sense. She was going to be married. She had never cared before, not really. She had just been happy to be with Kayla. Marrying her had never really mattered and Kayla herself had once said the same thing. Now that it was happening, however, Ariana came to realize just how much it meant to her.

She sat there for some time, imagining herself signing her name Ariana Austin instead of Laine. She liked it a lot and she really did want to take Kayla's last name and shed her own. It reminded her of her father. If she changed her name, then the Laine family name would die and to Ariana that was a very good thing. She knew Kayla would suggest that they hyphenate it, but Ariana was determined to be rid of it for good.

She shook her head and put an end to those thoughts. She was far too happy to allow thoughts of her father to ruin her mood. He was a thousand miles away, locked beneath layers of security so strong that he could never get to her. He couldn't hurt her now... not if she didn't let him.

Across the room, Kayla groaned weakly and sat up looking highly disgruntled. She looked around bemusedly, her eyes wide. Finally, her gaze settled on Ariana's grinning face and she did her best to get her eyes to focus.

"Morning," Ariana called to her from the window seat. She tucked her legs beneath her and leaned back against the window sill.

"What time is it?" Kayla asked grimly. "Five? Six?"

"Eleven," said Ariana with a smirk. "I think Penny's already gone to work. Her car's gone. I guess she let us sleep in."

"Yeah, she does that," said Kayla sleepily. "I always loved the summer. Mom and Dad would both go off to work in the mornings. Me and Alana had the place to ourselves all day. We’d invite the other girls over and hang out, or go down to the beach or something. All summer long.”

“Are we still meeting them today?” Ariana asked curiously. “Your friends?”

“Yeah,” said Kayla, yawning widely. “There’s a little restaurant just off of Imperial Beach we used to eat at. I figured we could have lunch there.”

“Sounds fun,” said Ariana brightly.

“It’ll also give you a chance to wear that red bikini you bought in Miami,” said Kayla with a grin.

“You like that thing entirely too much,” said Ariana.

“And so did everyone else on that beach,” Kayla shot back. “C’mon, let’s get packed. I told the girls to meet us at one.”

Kayla and Ariana packed what they thought they would need for a day at the beach and loaded it into the car and set off. The Mclaren roared down Ocean Boulevard, its orange paint glistening in the warm afternoon sun. The girls headed across town to Imperial Beach and parked the car.

They made their way onto the beach and out onto the long pier that stretched out into the Pacific. The restaurant, The Tin Fish, sat at the very end of it. Ariana walked hand-in-hand with Kayla, looking down at the ocean beneath them.

“I should warn you,” said Kayla about halfway along the pier. “My friends… they can be a little different.”

“I’m sure they’re really nice,” said Ariana.

“Oh, they’re the best,” said Kayla, nodding quickly. “They just may not be what you’re used to. They’re… energetic.”

“I’m energetic,” Ariana replied. Kayla shook her head.

“Not like this,” said the brunette. “C’mon, you’ll see.” They reached the end of the pier and found Kayla’s friends sitting outside at a table under a bright yellow umbrella.

“Hey guys,” Kayla called to the three girls. They all looked up at her at once and screamed with delight. They leapt from their seats and ran over, engulfing Kayla in a massive four-way hug.

“I guess you missed me,” said Kayla happily as they broke apart.

“Missed you?” said the blonde girl Ariana recognized as Mia Watson from the picture. “Mikki, nothing’s been the same since… well, since Claire died and you left. Gosh, then Alana took off and Monica…”

“Where is Monica?” said Kayla curiously. “I called, but she never picked up.”

“She moved to L.A.,” said Jennifer Harris, shrugging heavily.

“Did she finally decide to pursue an acting career?” Kayla asked dubiously. “Because she can’t act. Is she really in movies now?”

“It depends,” said Mia with a glance at the other girls. “Does porn count as ‘being in movies’? Because if so, then yeah… a lot of them.”

“Well, good… good for Monica, I guess,” said Kayla.

“She’s got the body for it,” said Nikki Ramirez, giggling.

“And the brains,” Mia put in. “I still miss her though. She was part of the group. The Sexy Seven.”

“No one ever called us that,” said Jennifer, rolling her eyes.

“Only because nobody but me tried to get the word out,” said Mia pointed.

“Yeah, that’s the reason…”

“God, I’ve missed you guys,” said Kayla with a grin, just as Mia opened her mouth to retort. Kayla took Ariana’s hand and pulled her closer. “Girls, this is Ariana. My girlfriend.”

“Fiancé as of last night,” said Ariana, holding up her hand. The three girls descended on her like a pack of wild dogs.

“Holy shit!” Mia exclaimed.

“How does that not break your finger!” Nikki shouted, seizing Ariana’s hand and holding it up into the light for a better look.

“Mikki, how did you afford this?” Jennifer asked. “Did you hit the lottery while you were out roaming the country?”

“No,” said Kayla firmly.

“She spent my money,” said Ariana with a grin.

“Yeah,” said Kayla. “Ari’s worth… well, more than any of us could imagine.” Mia clicked her tongue.

“Oh, I don’t know Mikki,” she said. “I can imagine quite a bit. How much?”

“Mia!” Jennifer snapped, rounding on the blonde.

“What? I was just asking.”

“It’s okay,” said Ariana quickly. “I don’t mind you asking.”

“A quarter billion,” said Kayla.

“Pesos?” Nikki asked while the other girls stared with their mouths slightly open.

“Dollars,” said Ariana, glancing uncertainly at Kayla.

"Damn," Jennifer, Mia, and Nikki all said at the same time.

“She’s not buying you anything,” Kayla said sharply.

“I’ll pay for lunch,” the redhead offered.

“We’re ordering lobster,” said Mia swiftly. The afternoon passed rather quickly. At first, Ariana was somewhat uncomfortable about Kayla’s friends. She didn’t know them and often missed the jokes they shared, but all three of them worked to include her in the conversation as much as possible. They asked her every question under the sun and by the time the check came, they had managed to make Ariana feel like a member of their group.

After lunch, the girls left the pier and met at Mia's jeep. The red late model 4x4 sat in a lot nearby, its massive wheels caked with dirt and sand. Kayla smiled when she saw the car.

"So, you got a new one," she said laughingly. "Ari, Mia always had this terribly old jeep that sounded like it would explode if you drove very fast."

"Don't you dare make fun of Bluebell," Mia snapped furiously. "She was a great car and she only died a year ago. I'm still in mourning!"

"You're in mourning over a car?" Kayla asked, giving her friend an amused look.

"You were almost in tears when we had to drop the Mclaren off for an oil change," Ariana reminded her pointedly. The other girls burst into laughter while Kayla staring disbelievingly at Ariana.

"You're supposed to be on my side!" she snapped.

"Sorry," Ariana said sweetly, batting her eyelashes at the brunette. Kayla gave her a thoughtful look before rolling her eyes.

"Apology accepted," she said, leaning in for a quick kiss.

"Aww..." said the other girls in unison. Ariana looked over at them.

"Do you know you do that a lot?" she asked them.

"What?" they said together.

"That," said Ariana. "You all say the same thing at the same time... frequently."

"We do?" the girls asked. They all looked at each other and burst into laughter again. Ariana glanced at Kayla, who shrugged.

"My friends..." she said airily.

The girls spent the afternoon on the beach. They drove Mia's jeep right out onto the sand and spread out their blanket in the shade of a trio of large umbrellas that they shoved into the loose sand. They whiled away the day, watching the other beach-goers and playing several games of volleyball.

By the time the sun began to sink below the horizon, they packed up and headed home. Mia dropped Ariana and Kayla off at their car and after making plans to meet up the following day, spend away into the gathering darkness with loud music blaring from the open topped vehicle and Jennifer and Nikki standing up in the rear of the jeep, waving back at them.  

Kayla and Ariana drove back home and, feeling thoroughly exhausted, made their way into the house. Kayla went upstairs to take a shower while Ariana went into the kitchen. She went to the refrigerator and was just pouring herself a glass of orange juice when Penny came in through the back door.

"Hello, Ari," she said, waving to the redhead. "I was out back doing some gardening. How was your day with Kayla's friends? I haven't seen them in a while. They used to be here pretty much every day."

"Oh, they're great," said Ariana, sitting down at the bar. "Nikki's really funny and Jennifer's a sweetheart. Mia's a little wild, but I like her. I can imagine all seven of them hanging out here."

"They were quite the houseguests, I'll tell you," said Penny, but she was smiling fondly at the memory. "They were messy, loud... and I miss the hell out of all of them. Those girls were the best of friends and Kayla was always so happy when they were here. Now... it's like the heart and soul of this house is gone."

"It's not gone," said Ariana kindly. "Kayla's just upstairs and Nikki, Jen and Mia are coming over tomorrow. Alana will come back soon, I'm sure, she's just busy with work right now. The only one who can't come back is Claire, and... and I know her spirit is still here."

"That's a sweet thought, Ariana," said Penny, smiling warmly. "I'm sorry for being so depressing. It's just... having Kayla back here is reminding me of how much Claire's murder changed everything... and it was all my husband's fault."

"I'm sure he didn't mean for any of this to happen," said Ariana. "I don't know much about him, but..."

"He was a bastard," said Penny dryly. "I know that's terrible to say about my daughter's father, but it's true. His father gave him the keys to a very successful business, but he chose to gamble away his fortune. He gambled and gambled and eventually he owed a lot of people a lot of money... money he didn't have."

"So Kayla went to Dwayne to get it," said Ariana. "Yeah... Kayla told me."

"She shouldn't have done it, but... she loved her dad," Penny replied. "I would have done the same thing."

"We all do things for our parents that we probably end up regretting," said Ariana. "I know I have."

"Oh yeah?" asked Penny. "What did you do?" Ariana dropped her gaze to her glass of juice, slowly spinning the straw with her fingers.

"Kayla... she never told you? About my dad... about what happened to me?" Penny shook her head.

"No, we... we never talked about that," she replied. "When I came to Detroit, she was distraught. All she could think about was you."

"Okay..." said Ariana, letting out a long breath. "I'll tell you." Ariana told Penny the whole, terrible story. When she was finished, Penny was in tears.

"You poor child," she said weakly. "I never imagined..."

"Yeah..." said Ariana quietly. "It was a long time ago, but... sometimes it feels like it just happened yesterday... and after what Kayla did to bring my memories back, I..."

"What did she do?" Penny asked, her expression suddenly very stern.

"She locked me in a dark closet at the warehouse," Ariana replied. "It worked, I mean she terrified the memories back, but... but she hurt me. I always thought she was the one person in the world who would never hurt me, but... she's not."

"I'm surprised you didn't leave her," said Penny.

"Sometimes I am too," said Ariana. "But I still love her. She's still the same person, I just... I see what she could do to me if she was backed into a corner. I understand why she did what she did, and I'm very grateful that she saved me... but that will always be there; what she did. I've forgiven her, Penny... I just can't forget."

"You shouldn't forget," said Penny firmly. "She hurt you and you should never forget that. Remember it, and don't ever let her do it again. I know she didn't mean to hurt you, but... sometimes my daughter forgets the impact her actions can have. She just goes after what she wants."

"Relentlessly," said Ariana, reaching for her glass. Suddenly, Penny gasped.

"Whoa!" she exclaimed, grasping Ariana's hand. "Kayla... she actually proposed?" Ariana smiled and nodded.

"Oh, crap," she said nervously. "Kayla wanted to be the one to tell you, but... yeah, she proposed." She looked up into Penny's eyes. "You don't look happy."

"I'm positively thrilled, Ariana, I just..." Penny sighed. "I'm just worried that Kayla's jumping the gun again. She... leaps without looking sometimes. Marriage... I'm not sure she's ready for that. It's a big commitment and I... I don't know if she's mature enough to handle it."

"I think she is," said Ariana thoughtfully. "She's grown up a lot... even since I met her. She's ready."

"Maybe," Penny replied. "but I'm going to have a talk with her in the morning. Woman to woman."

"I'm sure she'll love that," said Ariana with a grin. Upstairs, they heard the shower turn off. Ariana sighed happily.

"And that's the sound I've been waiting for," she told Penny. "I've got sand in places I don't even want to think about. I'm gonna go wash up."

"Enjoy it," said Penny. Ariana smiled.

"Oh, I plan to," she said. "'Night."

"Goodnight, Ariana,"

-.-

The redhead went upstairs and took a nice, long shower. When she was done she wrapped herself in a towel and hurried to Kayla's room. The brunette was sitting at her desk, browsing the Internet.

"All cleaned up?" Kayla asked her.

"Blessedly," said Ariana. "I hate sand."

"Ah... you'll get used to it," Kayla replied. "Trust me."

"Did you get used to snow?" Ariana retorted, smirking slightly as she opened Kayla's walk-in closet to find something to wear to bed.

"No..." Kayla said grumpily. Ariana's phone began to ring at that moment and Kayla, who was closer and already dressed, got up and answered it. Ariana meanwhile found her favorite oversized t-shirt and slipped into it. She padded back out into the bedroom and found Kayla standing at the foot of the bed with a look of very strong fear on her face. She swallowed heavily and slowly held out the phone.

"Ari..." she said nervously. "It's about your dad."    

36: Chapter XXXVI: Redeye
Chapter XXXVI: Redeye

"Yes... yes, I understand... Uh huh, yeah... No, I... I can do that. Sure..." Kayla sat on her window seat staring out at the ocean, listening to one side of Ariana's phone conversation. She wished she had never even answered the call. They had been so happy, so free... and now Adrian of all people was going to ruin everything. He was going to pull Ariana back in, she just knew it.

"Yes, thank you. Thank you for calling. Uh huh... bye." Ariana tossed her phone onto the bed and held her face in her hands.

"What is it?" Kayla asked as Ariana walked over and sat down next to her. "They wouldn't tell me..."

"My dad... he's really sick," said Ariana quietly. The redhead sat very still, staring straight ahead at Kayla's bed. Her gaze was distant and she seemed lost. "He has leukemia," Ariana continued, her voice cracking. "They wanted me to come in, I'm not sure why. The doctor said he'd go into details in person..."

"Ari, you don't have to go," said Kayla gently, reaching out and pulling the redhead close. "You don't have to see him."

"He's dying, Kayla," said Ariana, tears welling in her blue eyes. "He's dying, and I... I have to go. I have to see him. I owe him that much."

"He's the man who raped you," Kayla said in a much harsher voice than she meant to. "You don't owe him anything."

"He's still my dad," said Ariana quietly. "He's my father, Kay-Kay... I need to see him."

"Then we'll go," said Kayla softly. "Is he in Detroit? We'll catch the red-eye back home. I'll get online and buy tickets." She stood up and walked over to her computer.

"You don't have to come," said Ariana gently. "You've waited so long to come here and see your friends... I don't want to ruin that."

"I don't care what disease that man has, there's no way I'm letting him in the same zip code as you without me around," the brunette said sharply.

"Always the protector," said Ariana, managing a thin smile. "I'll be okay, Kay-Kay."

"Yeah, well, he won't be if he even breathes in a way I don't like," Kayla snapped. She chewed her lower lip. "Here. There's an Oceanic Airlines flight that leaves at midnight." She paused for a few minutes as she entered their information. "Alright, done. We'll pick the tickets up at the counter."

"Thanks," said Ariana quietly.

"Sure thing, kiddo," Kayla replied. She sighed very heavily and walked back over to the window seat and sat down beside the redhead.

"I'm sure he'll be okay," she said in her best reassuring voice. Ariana almost laughed.

"You don't have to pretend you're not happy he's sick," she said thickly. "I know you'd be thrilled if he died."

"Ari... hell, I'm not going to lie. Yeah, if that son of a bitch dropped dead tonight I'd be delighted. He deserves it. But like you said, he's still your dad, so... for you, I'm praying he makes it." she draped her arm around the redhead's shoulders. "He doesn't deserve you. After everything he did to you and here you are... in tears over him."

"Yeah..." said Ariana absently. "We... we should start packing, I guess. We've only got a couple of hours before the plane leaves."

The girls set about packing up their belongings, which had spread out rather a lot in the short time they'd been there. Still, it didn't take them long to pack everything away. Kayla made plans to have the Mclaren flown back to Detroit that same night and Captain Parker would of course sail the Claire back home as well.

Penny agreed to drive the girls to the airport that evening. It was very late when they arrived and there were only a handful of cars in the lot. They bid each other goodbye, Kayla and Ariana promising to return as soon as they could.

"I hope so," Penny whispered to her daughter while Ariana was checking their bags. "I saw Ariana's ring. We need to have a chat, Mikayla. Mother to daughter."

"Mom, I... I was going to tell you about that," said Kayla hastily. "I just haven't..."

"I know," said Penny. "Congratulations, sweetheart. Really, I'm very happy for you both... but we still need to talk."

"I know," said Kayla. "We'll talk when we get back." The girls both hugged Penny and then they set off toward security. They passed through the security checkpoint with little hassle and soon enough they were boarding the Boeing 777 airliner. They were the only passengers in first class and apart from an elderly couple and a trio of teenaged girls, the only people on the plane at all.

Kayla let Ariana have the window seat while she took the middle. Fluffers in his carrier was placed on the floor under the aisle seat. Before long, the jetliner took to the skies, rocketing them hundreds of miles east. They were in the air for just over four hours before the aircraft finally touched down in Detroit. Ariana had slept for most of the flight, but Kayla had remained awake. She found she was unable to sleep, dreading what the morning would bring. Ariana was about to come face-to-face with her tormentor. Kayla could only pray that the girl would be okay.

As the plane settled back down onto the earth, Kayla nudged the redhead awake. She slowly opened her eyes, blinking against the dull glow of the overhead lights. She looked out of the window and checked her watch.

"Are... are we home?" she asked sleepily. Kayla nodded.

"Yeah, we just landed." She swallowed nervously. "Ari, are you sure about this?"

"I am," said Ariana firmly. "I'm positive."

-.-

St. Julian Memorial Hospital. Kayla hated it with a passion. She hated the building from top to bottom. She despised every brick, nail, ceiling tile, and floor board. It was the place she had spent months of her life, waiting... waiting for Ariana to die or come back to her at last. It was a place she had hoped never to see again. It was just her luck, then, that just so happened to be exactly where Adrian had been taken for treatment

They arrived at St. Julian early that morning. They met with Dr. Darien Cole, the doctor responsible for Adrian's care. He was waiting for them in his office as a nurse led them in.

"Ms. Laine, thank you for coming so quickly," said Dr. Cole. "I appreciate your haste. I'm sorry you had to fly in overnight."

"How is my father?" Ariana asked quickly, all pleasantries forgotten.

"He's stable for the moment," said Dr. Cole. "His condition is, frankly, very serious. The reason we called, despite your father's protests, is that we've exhausted nearly every option available to us to help him. Chemotherapy, radiation... everything except..."

"A bone marrow transplant," said Kayla dryly. "My uncle had to have one."

"Yes," said Dr. Cole. "As Adrian's only living relative, you're naturally our first choice for a suitable match."

"You want me to have surgery?" Ariana asked slowly. "To... to save his life?" Dr. Cole stared at her, looking slightly confused.

"Well... yes," he said. "Listen, even with the transplant there are no guarantees. His disease is very advanced. I'll be blunt. I'm not confident in our chances, but... this is the only option we have left." Ariana nodded slowly, looking terrified.

"When... when would we need to do this?" she asked. Dr. Cole checked Adrian's chart.

"We'd need some time to prepare Adrian for the transplant," he said thoughtfully. "Tomorrow, the day after at the latest."

"Can I have that long to decide if I want to do this?" the redhead asked. Dr. Cole shrugged.

"Ms. Laine, the police made me aware of Adrian's crimes so I understand your hesitation," he sighed. "Take the time if you need to. I'll call you tomorrow."

Outside in the hallway, Ariana paced back and forth nervously. She chewed her lower lip, lost in thought. Kayla leaned against the wall, watching her walk for a full ten minutes before speaking up.

"Sweetie, what are you thinking?" she asked. "Are... are you gonna do it?" Ariana looked up at her as though she had forgotten she was there.

"Kayla, I... I need to do something," she said suddenly. "I need you to take me somewhere."

"Of course," said Kayla. "Where?" Ariana swallowed, looking more scared than Kayla had ever seen her.

"Home."    

37: Chapter XXXVII: Gone Home
Chapter XXXVII: Gone Home

They drove for over three hours. They left Detroit behind, heading far upstate. They left the cities and towns behind them and took back roads to reach their destination. At long last they arrived. The old house was set several acres back from the main road, nearly hidden behind very overgrown grass. The Mclaren roared down the dirt road that led to the house.

The house itself was old, but still nice. It was a large, two story home with a wide front porch and a deck out back. It had clearly not been cared for in recent days. The paint was peeling and several of the windows were broken. There was a half collapsed shed to the right of the house which had an assortment of old tires and a few dozen gas cans littered around it. Kayla parked the car near the house and looked at Ariana, who had sat silently beside her for the entire trip.

"You don't have to do this," she told her firmly. "Ari, you... you don't. This place, it's not... it doesn't matter."

"It does matter," Ariana said sharply. "It matters, Kayla. I've got to do it. I've got to face it. You don't understand, I know that. But you don't know half of what I've been through. You couldn't handle what I've been through. Not many people could. Those things happened in there, in that house, Kayla. So, I need to see it. I need to look evil in the eye and then be done with it." Without another word, she shoved the door open and climbed out of the car. Kayla took a deep breath.

Ariana had been adamant about coming to this place. Kayla had done everything she could to convince her not to, but once Ariana made up her mind there was no changing it. So, here they were. They had gone to the one place Kayla had never expected them to go; Ariana’s childhood home.

Kayla had always thought the redhead’s house had been in some quaint residential area, where people had perfectly manicured lawns and expensive cars in their driveways. She had imagined the terrible things that happened to Ariana had taken place right under the noses of neighbors that just hadn’t been paying any attention. Now, however, Kayla understood. The nearest house could only just be seen through a thick grove of trees off to the left. It was so far away that Kayla wasn’t surprised that no one had noticed the terrible things happening on this property.

Kayla watched Ariana for a few moments, giving the girl time to be alone if she wanted to be before getting out of the car and joining her. The redhead stood at the foot of the steps that led up to the front door. She stood there, staring up at the faded stained oak door with an expression of barely contained terror on her face.

“I know it’ll make you mad at me, Ari,” said Kayla quietly. “But you really don’t have to do this. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone.”

“But I do, though,” said Ariana firmly. “I’ve got to prove to myself that I can do this. Kayla, I don’t want to be afraid any more. I’ve been so afraid for so long and I’m tired. I’ve got to go in there and prove that I’m brave enough.” Kayla nodded and took the redhead’s hand.

“Then we go together,” she said purposefully. “We’ll face it together.” Ariana nodded but did not speak. Together, they walked up the steps and paused at the front door. The property had come into Ariana’s grandfather’s ownership following Adrian’s imprisonment and then to Ariana after Henry Laine’s death. Regardless, the keys to the house were long since lost. Kayla, being the more physical of the two of them, forced the door open.

Ariana entered first and Kayla followed behind her. They walked through a small foyer and into a spacious living room. A worn sofa sat against the far wall and the remains of a coffee table lay trashed in front of it. Dirt, leaves, and other debris was scattered all over the floor, likely blown in through the large windows that had been smashed from the outside.

Ariana walked around the room slowly, touching the walls occasionally. She did two complete circles of the room before pausing and shaking her head.

“I don’t even remember this room,” she said softly. “I… I don’t think I ever saw it.” Kayla wasn’t sure what to say, but Ariana didn’t seem to want a response. Instead, she headed for a door on the left side wall and pushed it open. Kayla followed her into the kitchen that lay beyond. The floors were less dirty there, but there were dirty dishes on the countertops that Kayla was sure had been there since the last night Ariana had spent in the house. One of the legs on the kitchen table had broken, causing it to collapse onto the chairs that surrounded it, knocking two of them over.

Ariana explored this room too until she came across another door on the right hand wall. She reached for the doorknob, but paused before she opened it. She was breathing rapidly and her hands where shaking. Kayla hurried over to her.

“I think this is where… I think it’s…” She couldn’t get the words out.

“It’s okay, baby,” Kayla said gently. “I’m here. You’re safe.” Ariana slowly turned the knob and opened the door. They were met by a hallway roughly six feet long. There was another closed door at the far end. Immediately to the right was a small recessed section of the wall where a washing machine and a dryer sat. Atop a rickety shelf that ran above the machines, Kayla discovered a battered red toolbox. Ariana wandered slowly down the hall while Kayla reached up and took the box down.

She placed it on the washing machine and flipped up the latch holding it closed. With some trepidation she opened the lid. Inside were several boxes of nails and a rust covered hammer. Screws, pliers, several knives of varying sizes, and an old power drill that was splattered with what looked like dull, faded red paint. It only took an instant for Kayla to realize that it wasn’t paint at all and she shoved the drill back into the toolbox feeling slightly sick.

She turned toward Ariana, who was standing at the door at the far end of the hallway, watching her with a passive expression on her face. Kayla closed the toolbox and walked over.

“This is…?” Kayla began. Ariana nodded.

“Yeah,” she said quietly. “This is.” She reached out and pulled the door open. The small closet behind the door was so small that Kayla, who suffered from claustrophobia, almost starting hyperventilating just looking at it. The closet was dark, even with the door open. The carpet and the walls were heavily stained and the back wall had hundreds of small holes drilled into it. On the inside wall, just to the right side of the door there was a small bracket mounted to the wall though the video camera it had once held was long gone.

It came as a great surprise to Kayla when Ariana stepped into the closet and slowly sat down against the back wall. Kayla hesitated for a moment and then followed suit. They sat there in silence for a long time, their fingers laced together in Kayla’s lap.

“I always thought this hallway was so much longer,” said Ariana quietly. “That door down there seemed like it was a million miles away. I thought it was longer than this.”

“You wanted out but knew you couldn’t leave,” said Kayla. “An impossible goal… I guess it could have made the hallway seem longer in your mind.”

“Yeah…” said Ariana softly. She fell silent once again until she slowly pulled her hand out of Kayla’s grasp and held it, palm out, against the wall above her head.

“He… he used to…” she began, but Kayla cut her off. She couldn’t hear Ariana talk about what happened here. She couldn’t bare to her the words come from her.

“I know,” she said quickly. “Dr. Pinder told me.”

“I know he did,” said Ariana gently. “But… I have to tell you. I have to explain it, Kayla. I have to. Can you… can you just listen? Please?” It was a terrible thing to be asked to do, but Kayla had no choice. Slowly, fearfully, she nodded. Ariana smiled sadly.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. She looked at her hand, which she still held up to the wall. She pressed her finger against the scar on her palm, seeming to be lost in very deep thought.

“He hammered nails through my hands,” she said in a voice that to Kayla sounded nothing like Ariana at all. “He used to nail my hands to the wall and leave me here. I don’t know how long it was, but he left me for a long time. Then my mom would come in and she would take the nails out and bandage my hands. She never spoke. Never. She never once said a word to me. She was always gentle, though. She took care of me, she… He’d hurt me and she would fix me as best she could.

“Daddy used to break my fingers, too. He’d make me hold my hands right there on the doorframe and then he’d slam the door… over and over and over again. He’d laugh. He’d say he was teaching me my place, showing me what happens when I do wrong. He never told me what I’d done, though. I never understood what he wanted me to do. I wanted to make him happy, but he’d never say… he’d never tell me… He broke me, Kayla. He broke me. It doesn’t matter what I do or what I say I’ll always be that same broken little girl…”

Kayla reached out and pulled Ariana close as she began to cry. Kayla, too, had tears in her eyes as she held the sobbing girl in her arms. They sat there, Ariana crying so hard that it hurt, for a long time. They sat there, in the very place that Ariana had been tortured, beaten, raped and God only knew what else, just holding each other. Kayla let Ariana cry herself out. When her tears turned into dry sobs, Kayla lifted the other girl’s head and looked into her bloodshot eyes.

“You were right before,” she said, fighting back tears of her own. “I don’t know half of what you’ve been through, and quite frankly I don’t want to. I know I couldn’t have handled it. I couldn’t have survived it. You’re so much stronger than me, Ari. You’re the strongest person I know… that I’ll ever know. I don’t know how you did it. This place, your dad… it would have destroyed me. Not you, Ari. You’re filled with so much light, so much love… when it should have all be torn out of you. You’re still full of happiness and joy and you bring that to everyone around you.

“What happened to you here is unthinkable, unforgivable… it is evil. But it doesn’t define you… and you are not broken. You are not broken, Ariana Elizabeth Laine. You’re… cracked. You’re wounded…. Bent. You’re hurt… but you are not broken. He didn’t break you. Don’t ever let yourself think he did because he didn’t.”

“Kayla, I…”

“He. Did. Not. Break. You.” Kayla said fiercely. “You don’t give him that victory. You don’t let him win. He doesn’t get to win. The man that tortured you, that raped you on the very floor we’re sitting on does not get to win.”

“I have a daughter,” Ariana whispered. She looked up at Kayla, her eyes red and dry. “I was going to tell you… that day at the mall. When Dwayne came to the warehouse, I was going to tell you.” Kayla knew her own face betrayed her in an instant. “You don’t look surprised.”

“Um… I know,” she said delicately. “Before you got your memories back... you gave me your diary to read. You read it and found out you had a daughter. You were mad at me for not telling you and when I said I didn’t know you threw the diary down and told me to read it. I… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have read it. I shouldn't have...”

“It’s okay,” said Ariana. “Really, Kayla, it’s okay.”

“So… what happened to her?” Kayla asked in a soft voice. “I mean, where is she now?”

“I don’t know,” said Ariana, resting her head on Kayla’s shoulder. “I found out I was pregnant after I woke up in the hospital. My dad had shot me, but the baby… she was fine. I swear she was the one that kept me alive through that. Really, I do. She was a fighter.

"After she was born, I wanted to keep her. I was still in Dr. Pinder's care and he and my grandfather both thought that it would be best for her to go into foster care and be adopted. I was in no shape to take care of a baby and... well, I didn't know it but Grandpa Henry was fighting cancer, so he wasn't really able to either, so... we put her in foster care. Grandpa Henry promised me she'd find a good home."

"Did she?" Kayla asked. Ariana shrugged.

"I don't know," she replied quietly. "I... I never asked. I was scared I'd made the wrong choice, or... or that I'd want her back. I'm sure she's happy. She's with a good family, I know it. I got to take care of her for a few days after she was born, though. I even got to name her."

"Really?" Kayla asked with some degree of uncertainty. This was the girl who had named a stray cat Fluffers McMuffins after all. "What... what name did you pick?" Ariana smiled.

"Snow," she said grinning. "I named her Snow." Kayla couldn't help but smile.

"Because snow was the first thing you saw on the first day of your life, right?" she asked. Ariana nodded. "Yeah, that was in your diary too. That's a beautiful name, Ari."

"Yeah..." said Ariana wistfully. She looked around the closet, biting her lower lip. "I don't want to be here." she said firmly. "I want to leave. But Kayla... when we get up from here, this is done. I'm closing the door on this part of my life forever. Once we leave, I'm never going to open that door again. So, if there's anything you want to ask me... anything you want to know... now is the one and only chance you get to ask. Anything you'd like to know… I'll tell you. But after this I never want to talk about any of this again."

Kayla didn't know what to ask or if she should even ask anything at all. She racked her brain for something to say and finally she settled on the one thing that had always bothered her; the one thing she had never understood.

"You, um… you told me once that Adrian… even after everything he did to you, you said he’s still your dad and you love him,” Kayla said, feeling very uncomfortable. “You told me that you didn’t expect me to understand and I told you that I didn’t… that I probably never would. You didn’t try to explain it then and I didn’t pressure you to, but… now I want to know. That’s all I want to know, Ari. I want to understand why you don’t hate him.” Ariana didn’t reply for several minutes. She just sat there in silence, staring at the door frame.

“I don’t know,” she said at last, turning toward Kayla. She shrugged and shook her head. “Really, I don’t know. I should hate him. I should want him hurt, I should want him dead… and here I am contemplating saving his life. I guess I love him because… because I was supposed to. For so long, he was my… everything. My entire existence was centered on pleasing him, on making him happy. After they rescued me, I wanted to come back here. I wanted to be shoved back in this closet because I knew he would want me to be here.

“I guess it’s like how if a parent tells their child enough times that their worthless then eventually they start to believe it. He made me believe that I loved him, and now… now I can’t bring myself to hate him. I hate what he did to me, but not him.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with him,” said Kayla, smiling at the redhead. “God, Ari… it’s got nothing to do with him making you believe you love him. You love him because that’s who you are. You don’t have hate in you, Ariana. Not one single ounce of it. Me, I’ve got plenty… hell, for a while there it was all I had.

"I hate my dad, Ari. He's partly responsible for Claire's death... and I can't forgive him for that. I hate him. I always will. He's still my father, but no matter what happens every time I look at him I'll think of Claire... and what happened... and I'll never be able to forget that. I'll never be able to stop hating him for what he did. You, though? No, you don’t have hate like most people do… its part of what makes you… you.” Ariana nodded slowly but didn’t speak. Kayla patted her gently on her shoulder.

“That’s not it, Kayla,” Ariana said quietly. “He hurt me so many times… but sometimes… plenty of times… I loved it. He raped me and I loved it. I waited for him. I longed for him to come back to me. He used to tell me how submissive I was and he was right. If he was free… if he walked through the front door, I wouldn’t fight him. I’d lay down and let him do whatever he wanted… and the sick part is that part of me would want him to do it. You say I’m not broken… then Kayla… what the hell am I?” Kayla didn’t have to words to reply. She hadn’t known any of that and didn’t have anything remotely close to an appropriate response.

“You… you don’t… You’re not… If you think…” she stammered. “He conditioned you to…”

“He broke me,” Ariana said indifferently. “He broke me. It’s as simple as that… and sometimes when something is broken, it can’t ever be fixed." She sighed heavily. "Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

“What about your mom?" Kayla asked, desperate to change the subject after a few minutes of terrible silence. “You never talk about her. What was she like? You said she took care of you; that she was gentle…”

“She was,” said Ariana. “He hurt her too, I think. She had bruises sometimes… on her hands and her face. She always seemed so sad, so… so heartbroken. I think she was too scared of him to fight him or to call the police. I don’t think she wanted him to hurt me, but she couldn’t stop him… so she did her best to comfort me.”

“Then… then why did you shoot her?” Kayla asked curiously. “Dr. Pinder said… he told me that your dad put his gun down beside you and you picked it up and shot her. Why didn’t you shoot him instead? Why did you kill her if she wasn’t hurting you?”

“Because she asked me to,” said Ariana quietly. When she looked up at Kayla there were tears shining in her eyes again. “That night… the whole time she kept looking back and forth between me and the gun. I knew what it was… what it did… I just didn’t know what she wanted me to do. Finally, she looked at me and mouthed ‘kill me’. I think she knew it was her only way out. I think she wanted to die and free herself.”

“But if you had shot Adrian instead…” Kayla said gently. “I mean, you could have saved her.”

“If I had let a terrible man rape and torture my daughter and was too cowardly to fight back, I’d want to die too.” Ariana said firmly. “If Snow was being hurt and I didn’t fight with everything I had to protect her, if I failed her so completely… I couldn’t live with that. I don’t think she could either.” They sat in silence once again for a long while. Ariana seemed to be waiting for her to ask more questions, but Kayla had nothing else to ask.

“If... if you're ready to go..." Kayla began uncertainly. Ariana nodded again.

"Yeah... yeah, I'm ready." Kayla gave her a warm smile and stood to her feet. She held out her hand to help Ariana stand. The redhead stared at it for a long moment, appearing to come to some sort of incredibly painful resolution, before looking up into Kayla's eyes.

"Close the door," she said quietly. Kayla stared, confused.

"W... what?" she asked. Ariana nodded firmly.

"Close the door, Kayla," she repeated in calm tones. "I... I need to face this too. Close the door and go wait outside. I'll catch up with you."

"Ari, are you sure? The last time you were closed up in a dark closet you practically had a panic attack!"

"I'm sure, Kayla," said Ariana. "Please, close the door." Kayla obeyed, closing the closet door and leaving the redhead alone inside. She stood there for a few moments, waiting, but Ariana made no noise or opened the door. Eventually, Kayla decided to do as Ariana had requested and left the house.

She wandered around outside, waiting for Ariana to emerge. The sun began to set and thick clouds came drifting in from the south as Kayla sat on the hood of the car, waiting. After over half an hour, the front door opened and Ariana stepped out onto the porch. She walked slowly down the steps joined Kayla at the car. She sat down next to her, looking back at the house.

"What are you going to do with it?" Kayla asked, glancing over at Ariana who looked as though she did not want to even start discussing what had happened while she had been in the house alone. "The house, I mean? It's in your name, so..." Ariana shrugged.

"Sell it, I guess," she replied. "I don't want it, so I guess I'll sell it to the first person who wants to buy it." Kayla nodded slowly.

"We should burn it down," she said, thinking about the gas cans scattered around the shed. Ariana arched her eyebrows, but seconds later a small smile appeared on her face and she nodded.

"Let's do it," she said quietly. "Really, let's do it."

They went to the shed and collected the gas cans. They carried them back to the house and collected them all together on the porch. They moved through the house, pouring every ounce of gasoline they could milk out of the gas cans. They made especially sure to soak the closet and hallway that led to it. Kayla took Adrian's toolbox and placed it in the closet. She opened the lid and poured the flammable liquid inside, drenching the drill, the hammer... all the tools he had used to torment Ariana.

Once they were done, Kayla tied a dirty hand towel she'd found in the upstairs bathroom around a rock while Ariana fetched a lighter from the car's glove compartment. When Ariana returned with the lighter, Kayla handed the rock to her.

"This one's all on you, babe," she said lightly. She flicked open the lighter and set the towel ablaze. Ariana stared down at the flames flickering in her hands. For a moment, Kayla thought Ariana had lost her nerve and wouldn't do it. She was wrong. Ariana tossed the rock through the kitchen window with every bit of strength she could muster.

Within moments, the house was engulfed in flames. It was nearly dark by then and the brilliant orange flames lit up the night around them. The girls stood there for a few minutes, watching the inferno. Ariana turned away after that and walked toward the car. She pulled open the passenger door and started to get in. She stopped when she saw Kayla wasn't following her.

"Let's go," she called back to her.

"We should call the fire department," Kayla replied. "Get this put out before we leave." Ariana shook her head.

"Let it burn," she said harshly, sitting down in the car and slamming the door behind her. Kayla hesitated for a moment, continuing to watch the fire burn furiously, engulfing the house that had held great evil within its walls. Slowly, she too walked back to the car and got in. She fired up the engine and looked toward Ariana, who was staring at the blaze with a dark look in her eyes.

She turned, though, just as Kayla put the car into drive, and smiled at the brunette. Kayla returned her smile and suddenly everything seemed so much lighter, happier... just better. Kayla revved the engine and they were off, tearing down the dirt road toward the highway, leaving the flaming house to burn itself out behind them.

 

38: Chapter XXXVIII: Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
Chapter XXXVIII: Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

It was midnight and Ariana lay on the sofa in the warehouse, gently stroking Fluffers' fur and staring at the ceiling not really seeing it at all. She was at such a loss as for what she should do. She knew the right decision, of course. She should have the surgery and do what she could to save her father's life. Yet still... there was a certain logic to Kayla's point of view.

If Ariana did nothing, Adrian was sure to die. If that happened, perhaps Ariana might finally find peace. She would not fear the dead, she was certain of that. With Adrian in the grave, Ariana wouldn't need to be scared anymore... but she also knew that if she didn't at least try to save him she would never be able to forgive herself.

It was nearly four in the morning before Kayla came out of their bedroom, looking sleepy and confused. She spotted Ariana on the couch and made her way over. She gently nudged the redhead and she sat up to make room. Kayla sat down and Ariana curled up in her lap.

"Are you going to hate me if I agree to the transplant?" Ariana asked her. Kayla looked down at the redhead with disbelief in her eyes.

"Are you serious?" she asked. "Ari... no. There's nothing you could ever do to make me hate you. I'm on your side no matter what. We're Team Ariayla after all!"

"Team what now?"

"Team Ariayla," Kayla repeated. "It's our celebrity couple name."

"But we're not celebrities," said Ariana, arching her eyebrows. "Besides, we're obviously Team Kariana."

"Ooooh, that's so much better!" said Kayla excitedly. "Good call." Ariana laughed and Kayla smiled.

"See? I got you to laugh, didn't I?" she said sweetly.

"Yeah, you did," Ariana admitted. "I'm gonna do it," she added quietly. "I'm going to do the transplant."

"I know," said Kayla. "I knew from the beginning... and I'm glad. Really, Ari, I am," she added when Ariana looked dubious.

"Thanks, Kay-Kay," said Ariana, managing a weak smile.

"Of course," Kayla replied. "Go Team Kariana!"

"Please don't start saying that all the time," said Ariana wearily. She slowly sat up and looked around the apartment. It felt strange in a way, being back at the warehouse. They had been away so long and living so differently that the warehouse felt oddly cold to Ariana. 

She stood and went into the kitchen, planning to cook something to take her mind off of everything. It only took her a minute to realize that she didn't want to cook anything at all and returned to the sofa.

"Do you want me to cook you something?" Kayla asked helpfully, looking concernedly at the redhead. Ariana looked across the couch at her with her eyebrows raised. "Fine..." she said with a shrug. Ariana shook her head and suddenly she stared to laugh. She laughed and laughed until she knew Kayla must think she had gone insane.

"What's so funny?" the brunette asked. Ariana shook her head again, still giggling.

"This is the stupidest thing that's ever happened to us!" she exclaimed. "We're sitting here debating whether I should save the life of the man who raped me and tortured me for my whole life. Who does that? Seriously? Why do I care? I should let him die and be happy about it."

"That's always an option," Kayla pointed out. Ariana nodded, still chortling.

"It really is," she said. "He could just die and I'd never have to think about him again. I'm going to save my own worst nightmare's life instead."

"It'll be a story to tell our kids," said Kayla. "At least it'll show you in a good light." Ariana however had stopped laughing and was staring hard at Kayla.

"Our kids?" she repeated. Kayla nodded.

"Yeah," she said with a thin smile. "I... I changed my mind while you were in the hospital. I decided that, if you ever woke up, I wanted us to have children. I really do, Ari. We've got plenty of room, after all. We can have a whole flock of them if you want."

"I don't know about a flock, but... that makes me really happy, Kayla," said Ariana. "I was thinking though... I want to do something. I want to find out what happened to Snow. I want to know where she ended up."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Kayla asked, looking suddenly quite nervous.

"I'm not going to try to meet her or anything," Ariana said hastily. "I mean she'll have a home and a family by now. I'm not going to make things hard on her and try to be a part of her life, I just... I just want to be sure that she's happy."

"I don't know much about the foster system or adoption, but... I'll look into it," said Kayla. "You've got enough on your plate right now. If we can find her, we will. I promise, Ari."

"Thanks, Kay-Kay," said Ariana. "Really, thanks." Ariana lounged on the couch while Kayla got up and retreated to the bedroom to start searching the Internet for what steps they could take to track down Snow and her family. As she lay there, she decided to text Coop and ask him to come over. He had no knowledge of Adrian and the things he had done and she suddenly found herself wanting to tell him. Telling Penny had been oddly therapeutic in its own way. It had been the first time she had ever revealed the details of her abuse to anyone. Talking about it, she had come to realize, had helped her greatly.

Cooper, being the only other truly significant person in her life besides Kayla, deserved to know the truth. As expected, Cooper rushed over immediately and Ariana sat with him on the sofa and told him her story. It got easier, she realized, each time she told it. It hurt less and less to talk about those memories and perhaps with time it wouldn't hurt at all. She couldn't know for sure, but she had to try.

Ariana knew Cooper would be outraged. His reaction was similar to Kayla's. He paced the room, furious. He promised to hunt Adrian down and kill him, to make him pay. He vowed vengeance and Ariana knew that he meant it.

"Coop, he's dying," said Ariana quietly. "He's... he has leukemia. I've been asked to help with a bone marrow transplant and I'm going to do it."

"Ari..." he began, but the redhead shut him down.

"Kayla doesn't like it either," she said quickly. "I don't like it. I haven't seen him in over three years and not a day goes by that he doesn't manage to torment me. But saving his life... it's the right thing to do. Not for him, Coop, but for me. If I don't do this, if I walk away and let him die... what does that make me?

"Coop, I've got to wake up in the morning and be able to look in the mirror without being ashamed. The easy thing, today, is to let him die. I'd be able to stop being afraid of him... but then... I'm worried I might start being afraid of myself." Cooper stood before her, breathing deeply and seething with anger. Slowly, however, he began to calm and eventually sat down beside her.

"Ari, you... you haven't got any reason to be afraid of yourself," he said. "You couldn't hurt a fly, and just because you let Adrian die wouldn't mean that you're somehow like him. I know you, Ariana. I know you better than just about anyone else. I know you'd never intentionally hurt anyone. Letting your father die doesn't turn you into him."

"Maybe not," said Ariana weakly. "But if you think I couldn't hurt someone... Cooper, if I found out someone was hurting Snow... if I knew that someone had ever done to her the things my father did to me... I'd tear them apart." Ariana looked up at him with a fierce look in her blue eyes.

"I've been weak and afraid my whole life, Coop. I'm done being afraid and I'm done being weak. I don't want Kayla to have to protect me anymore. I want to be brave... and I'm gonna be." Cooper stared at her, shaking his head.

"Where's that little girl I met in my bookstore two years ago?" he asked her. Ariana smiled.

"She hasn't gone anywhere," she said lightly. "She's just... changing. She's healing."

"That's good," said Cooper, patting Ariana gently on her knee. "That's great, actually... and I've got to say, no matter where Snow is, she's lucky you're her mom. From the sound of things, she's got a pretty tough defender in her corner. Mommy's got claws!"

"Damn right, she does," said Ariana as Cooper moved close to hug her. They broke apart and Ariana looked up at him nervously.

"Will you... will you come with me? When I have the surgery, will you be there?"

"Of course!" he exclaimed. "Where else would I be?"

"With Alana," Ariana said slyly. Cooper blushed instantly.

"Why... uh... why would you think I'd be with Alana?" he asked.

"Well, considering we found a pair of her panties in our bed and a few used... methods of protection in the trash that neither of you thought to take outside... I suppose we just assumed you two have been having sex in our bed."

"I'm not talking about this with my little sister," Cooper said, standing to his feet hastily. "I'm going to leave now. Tell Kayla I said hello."

"I'll be sure to do that," said Ariana with a smirk. "You tell Alana I said she's a very lucky girl."

"I... I... I'm going," Cooper disappeared out the fire escape door. Ariana laid back across the couch. Fluffers bounded over and curled up beside her. The redhead reached down and stroked his thick fur absently.

"None of this matters to you, does it Fluffs?" she asked the cat. "It must be so easy, being a cat. The only thing you have to worry about it eating and sleeping." Fluffers just yawned widely and flicked his tail sleepily.

Ariana had meant what she said. She was done being afraid. Where had being scared gotten her? She wanted to be brave and she was most certainly going to be. Soon enough she would be meeting her father face-to-face for the first time in three years. She prayed the courage she felt right then was still with her when she did.

-.-

The next morning the girls went to the hospital and met with Dr. Cole. He talked them through the procedure and insisted that they begin as quickly as possible. Ariana agreed to go ahead with the surgery that same day, but first she wanted to see her father. Kayla was against this completely, but Ariana insisted. Dr. Cole allowed the meeting and led the girls to the room where Adrian was resting.

"I... I'd like to see him alone," Ariana told Kayla when the brunette made to follow her into the room.

"Like hell," Kayla snapped. "He doesn't get near you without me around."

"Kay-Kay, I'll be fine," said Ariana gently. "He's sick and he's handcuffed to the bed. I'll be fine. Just wait here. If I need you, I'll yell." Ariana gave her a quick kiss and proceeded through the door to Adrian's room. Kayla sighed and leaned against the wall to wait. It was only then that she noticed Adrian's room number; 422. With a massive amount of trepidation, she looked to her right and saw it. Room 423.

'Ariana's room,' she thought sadly. Very slowly, she walked over to the already open door and peered inside. The room was unoccupied and it was exactly as Kayla remembered it. The memories it brought up... the darkness, the pain... the absolute worst times of her life had taken place in this room. It was here that she truly believed she had lost the redhead forever.

She seized the door handle and slammed the door closed. That part of their lives was long over. Ariana was never going to end up back there again. Not if she, Kayla, had anything to say about it.

Kayla leaned against the wall again and settled back to wait. At the far end of the hallway the doors burst open and a team of paramedics raced her direction, pushing a man on a gurney. They rushed passed her and Kayla caught a brief glimpse of the bloody, battered man lying on the bed. She recognized his face with a jolt of horror. It was Mike, Sophia's father. Kayla rushed after them, reaching the room they stopped at just in time to hear Dr. Cole as he hurried in.

"What happened?" he demanded.

"Single vehicle car crash," said one of the paramedics. "We never..."

"Dr. Cole, we're losing him!" a nurse yelled. "Blood pressure's dropping. Pulse is weak." Mike’s heart monitor flat lined before Dr. Cole could even begin to try to help him. Kayla backed slowly out of the room and leaned against the wall once again. She closed her eyes and covered her ears as Dr. Cole attempted to revive him.

The sounds, the smells… all of it reminded Kayla of the terrible day that she had watched Ariana die, powerless to do anything to stop it. Somewhere deep in her mind she knew that sweet little Sophia had just lost her father and Kayla couldn’t begin to guess what would happen to the little girl now. Slowly, Kayla sank down to the floor and began to cry.

 

 

 

39: Chapter XXXIX: I Shall Fear No Evil
Chapter XXXIX: I Shall Fear No Evil

Ariana eased open the door to her father's room. Inside, it was dark and very quiet. A chill sweep over her as she stepped inside and the door swung closed behind her. She walked slowly forward, deeper into the room. The courage she had back at the warehouse was leaving her by the second. It was as though someone had pulled a stopper and now her bravery was flowing away down some invisible drain.

She stopped and took several deep breaths, calming her racing heart. Kayla was only just outside, ready to charge through the door and rescue her. She was safe and no harm could come to her. Steeling herself, she walked forward and slowly eased back the curtain that shielded her father's bed from view.

What she saw shocked her. Adrian, when she had known him, had been a strong, muscular man. Intimidating in stature and imposing without even trying. The man that lay before her now was thin, frail, and looked extremely weak. It was this, more than anything, that made Ariana feel brave again. The man who had tormented her was not longer the same man. His strength was all but gone.

"Hi, Daddy," she called out to him, walking over and clasping her hands onto the railing of his bed. His right wrist was cuffed to the same rail. Even if he stood, he couldn't move away from the bed. Slowly, Adrian's eyes opened and he looked up at her.

"Ariana," he said in a tired voice. It wasn't the voice she remembered. It wasn't the hard voice that had sworn he loved her, that he was hurting her for her own good. It was the voice of a tired, broken old man. "Oh, Ariana... my sweet, sweet girl. They weren't supposed to call you. I didn't want you to come... to see me like this."

"Why?" Ariana asked him. She didn't care if he was sick. This could be her only chance to talk to him. She wanted answers. "Why didn't you want me to see you?"

"I wanted you to remember me as the man I was when we were together," he said to her. "Not this..."

"As the man who tortured me?" Ariana asked. "You want me to remember you as the man who raped me, who violated me, who practically drove me insane?"

"I never tortured you, Ariana," said Adrian. "I never did any of those things. I only wanted to help you, my dear child. I wanted to make you strong... but I see your time out in the world has weakened you. They've turned you against me, haven't they?"

"I was never with you," Ariana snapped. "Not willingly. I never had a choice. You forced me... you brainwashed me into thinking I loved you... and the sick thing is that I still do love you. Despite everything... despite knowing what a sick, vile, cruel, evil, twisted, sadistic bastard you really are... I still can't stop myself from loving you. I've tried, I promise."

"That's because you still remember what we shared," said Adrian firmly.

"We never shared anything," Ariana growled. "I never wanted anything you ever did to me."

"You begged me for it, child," Adrian reminded her in a voice that to Ariana sounded like a parent telling a young child that one and one made two. "You asked me every time I came to your room."

"My closet," Ariana shot back. "Every time you came to my closet. And yes, I begged you, but only because you taught me to. You told me I had to or you would have to hurt me. You never did a single good, decent thing for me. You're making it sound as though everything you did was somehow my fault... that I wanted it, wanted you."

"You did," said Adrian with a shrug of his shoulders. "You always did."

"I was a fucking child!" Ariana screamed, a rage building within her like she had never felt before. "I was a little girl. I didn't know anything but what you told me. I knew what you said I was supposed to do. If didn't do it, you drove nails through my hands or burned my feet with cigarettes! I was a kid, Daddy... I was a little defenseless girl and you... you're not even sorry, are you?"

"I have nothing to be sorry for," said Adrian quietly. Ariana nodded, pursing her lips.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," she repeated incredulously. "My God, you actually believe that. I guess Kayla was right, you haven't changed at all."

"Who's Kayla?" Adrian asked. "I don't think I know her."

"She visited you in jail," said Ariana. "She called herself Rachel."

"Ah, yes... yes, I remember Rachel," said Adrian. "Sweet girl, strong willed."

"Yes, she is," said Ariana with a smile. “But she’s also a monster. There’s a darkness in her and I’m the only thing stopping it from coming out. If I let her, if I asked her to… she’d kill you, and it would not be quick. She’s like a mad dog and I’m keeping her on her leash… but she’d love to hurt you… the same way you hurt me.”

“So, she’s just like me then?” Adrian asked lightly. “And yet you hate me and love her.”

“She’s nothing like you,” Ariana hissed. “She can hurt people, sure… but only people who deserve it. You, Daddy, you deserve whatever happens to you.”

“So, is that why you came?” he asked. “To tell me you’re happy I’m dying?” Ariana shook her head.

“No,” she replied. “I’m not happy that you’re sick. I came here because your doctor asked me to help save you. You need a bone marrow transplant. It’s the last option they have to help you… and since I’m your daughter, I’m the best shot at a match. Dr. Cole said it still might not work. He said you could still die even with the transplant, but… he wants to try, so here I am.”

“I don’t want you to do it,” Adrian said sharply. “I don’t want the surgery.”

“You’ll die if you don’t get it,” said Ariana dryly.

“I don’t care,” said Adrian. “I don’t want you to save me, Ariana. I just want you, one last time, before I die.” Ariana stared at him in complete shock.

“Are you insane?” she asked, slowly backing away from his bed. “Do you really think I’m going to… that I would ever let you touch me again… I… I…” She turned to walk away. Adrian sat up in bed and called after her.

“Ariana,” he said. She froze on the spot. He spoke in that same terrible voice he had used when she knew she was in trouble. In was strong, powerful, and it terrified her. She turned back to him slowly, fearfully. Adrian stood beside his bed, staring at her with a cold look in his blue eyes.

“Come here,” he said firmly. Ariana obeyed, even though every fiber of her being was screaming at her not to. She walked dutifully over to him and he reached out with his free hand and stroked her cheek. She shied away from his touch and he slapped her.

“You used to like that,” he reminisced. He pushed her back, pressing her up against the wall at the head of the bed. He free slid slowly down her body, touching her gently… almost lovingly. Finally, he reached the snap at the waistband of her shorts. Ariana was so afraid she couldn’t even move. She was weak, frightened, and very alone. She tried to call out for Kayla but even her voice had abandoned her.

Adrian unfastened the snap and looked down at her tear-stained face. He smiled and wiped her eyes. He pressed his finger to her lips as she let out of frightened cry. He took a step forward, leaning close to her ear.

“Take them off,” he whispered. She knew she should obey, she was supposed to obey, but suddenly she realized that she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to and she didn’t have to. He was weak and she was so much stronger than him. She didn’t have to do what he said. At that moment, something inside her snapped and she reacted.

Ariana’s knee came up fast and delivered a hard blow to Adrian’s groin. He cried out in pain as Ariana’s shoved him back. In his weakened state, he lost his balance and collapsed to the hard floor. Ariana walked over and placed her foot on his stomach as he tried to stand, forcing him to remain on the floor with his hand cuffed to the rail above his head. Her pink flip-flop wasn’t nearly as heavy or intimidating as, say, a steel toed boot but somehow she managed to get her point across.

“You don’t get to do that to me again!” she shouted. “You don’t get to control me. I am not afraid of you anymore!" She glared down at him, positively seething with rage. Her courage had returned to her and it had done so ten-fold. "Now, I’m going to go out there and do what I can to save what’s left of your pathetic excuse of a life. After that, Kayla and I are leaving and you will never see me again. Goodbye, Daddy.” Ariana turned and stormed off. She wrenched open the door, but stopped before walking out. She glared back at him.

“By the way,” she said harshly. “We have a daughter, you and me. Her name’s Snow and she’s beautiful. I guess I was wrong… you did do one decent thing for me. You gave me Snow.” Without another word, Ariana turned on her heel and walked out of the room. Behind her, the heavy hospital room door slammed closed.

40: Chapter XL: Into the Deep
Chapter XL: Into the Deep

Ariana burst furiously into the hallway outside Adrian's room. She leaned back against the door, trembling from head to toe. She was as exhausted as she would have been if she had just finished running a marathon. She was so scared and all she wanted was to lay down and cry. She wanted to, but she didn't. She didn't because she heard the sounds of someone else already crying nearby... and she was certain she knew who it was.

She looked around briefly before finding the door to the room next to Adrian's was slightly ajar. She slowly eased it open and found Kayla curled up on the bed, sobbing quietly into the pillow. She walked over and sat down in the chair beside the bed and gently took the brunette's hand. Kayla looked up at her with bloodshot eyes.

"Kay-Kay, what's wrong?" Ariana asked. She still wasn't used to seeing Kayla cry. It scared her more than anything else, even her father. Kayla was the strong one... she was always the strong one. Then again, Ariana could imagine what such a burden must do to someone. Having to be so strong all the time must surely wear a person down. It could certainly make a person crack.

"This was your room," Kayla whispered, tears still streaming down her face. "This is where we sat... waiting for months. This is where I spent the darkest days of my life, Ari."

"Honey, I'm right here," said Ariana, clutching Kayla's hand to her chest. "Sweetie, that... that's over. I'm here, I'm safe. You don't have to worry about me now, I'm fine."

"I'm going to have to see you lay in a hospital bed again," said Kayla weakly. "They... they're going to put you to sleep and... and what if you don't wake up?" Ariana smiled and kissed the brunette on her forehead. It was undoubtedly what Kayla feared the most, Ariana realized. She wasn't afraid of Adrian or some other awful person marching into their lives and hurting them. No, a physical threat such as that... well, Kayla could fight that.

Losing Ariana to anything else... losing her to a sickness or some other medical condition... all she could do was wait. It would be completely out of her hands. She would be powerless... and Kayla hated being powerless.

"The doctors know what they're doing," Ariana said gently. "I'll wake up and be just fine. It's a simple procedure, baby. There's nothing to worry about." Ariana gently stroked Kayla's hair. "Sweetheart, what brought this on? I thought you were okay with me doing this."

"I am," said Kayla thickly, wiping her eyes. "Ari... Mike... he... he's dead."

"What?" Ariana asked, her eyes widening in shock. "Sophie's dad? When? How? Kayla, what happened?!"

"There... there was a car accident," Kayla explained. "Mike, he... he was drunk. He was driving on the highway, he... he hit the retaining wall and flipped the car. He didn't make it."

"My God..." Ariana whispered. "That's horrible, I... wait... Kayla, was Sophia in the car?!" Kayla shook her head quickly.

"No... no, she's with Alana. She's been babysitting while we were away. I called... they're on their way."

"Does Sophie know about Mike?" Ariana asked.

"I told Alana not to say anything," Kayla replied. "I figured... I thought we should be the ones to tell her, but I think... I don't know what to say. She's going to be devastated..."

"I know," said Ariana quietly. "I'll tell her about Mike. Don't worry, Kay-Kay. I'll take care of it." Kayla nodded uncertainly. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees.

"God... What must you think of me?" she said thickly. "I'm supposed to be here for you and instead I'm curled up in the fetal position crying my eyes out. You just faced your worst nightmare... are you okay?"

"I... I am so far from okay I don't even know how to answer that," Ariana said weakly. "You were right. He hasn't changed. He's still a cruel, crazy bastard."

"What did he do?" Kayla demanded, her protective demeanor returning quickly. She slid off the edge of the bed and peering worriedly down at Ariana. "Did he hurt you? Did he try anything?"

"He... proposed that instead of saving his life I should... have sex with him," Ariana confessed. "He wanted to be with me one last time before he died."

"I'll kill him," Kayla hissed, storming off toward the door.

"Kayla..." Ariana called her back, standing and catching her by the hand. "You're not going to kill him. He didn't hurt me and... I sort of hurt him a little bit already."

"Really?" said Kayla, sounding more hopeful than she probably should have.

"Yeah," said Ariana with a small smile. "I kicked him in the nuts and pushed him down. I also might have said something about you being a mad dog with bloodlust and that I'd sic you on him if he ever touched me again. Sorry about that bit, by the way. I was running purely on adrenaline at that point... I'm not entirely sure of everything I said after that."

"Well, I will go hunt him down and kick him in the nuts again if you want me to," Kayla offered, managing to return Ariana's smile. "I am your mad dog, after all."

"And you have a very shiny coat," said Ariana, smoothing Kayla's curly hair. Both girls dissolved into fits of laughter at that.

"I love you," said Kayla when they regained control of themselves. "More and more every day." Kayla hugged her tightly and Ariana let her do it for as long as she liked. She had never felt more safe in her life as she did in that moment. Somehow, she felt as though nothing could touch them right then. They were invincible.

"I guess we'd better go meet Alana and Sophie," said Ariana as they broke apart. She let out a long, deep breath. "We've got to go ruin a little girl's life."

-.-

Ariana led the way out into the hall. Kayla paused as they left Ariana's old hospital room. She looked back through the open door, gazing at the darkened room with a heavy heart. Ariana reached out and took Kayla's hand.

"Let it go," Ariana whispered to her. "I know what it feels like to escape something physically but still be trapped there in my mind. I know we can't burn down my hospital room, but there's nothing worse than having the whole wide world in front of you and refusing to live in it because you're too obsessed with something you can't bring yourself to put to rest." She squeezed Kayla's hand firmly and peered deeply into her eyes.

"Kay-Kay... don't live in the past. I did... and I let that damn closet turn me into a scared, broken little girl that was too afraid to do anything. I was scared of my own shadow, Kayla. Now, I've let it go. I'm free of my father and the place he kept me. I'm not afraid of him anymore. Don't you be afraid of an empty room. Not when you've got so much life to live."

Ariana turned and led her away from the door to Room 423. Kayla knew she was right. She had to let go. She had to stop being afraid of things she couldn't change... couldn't control. She never went back to Room 423 ever again.

Kayla followed Ariana down to the entrance where they waited a few minutes for Alana and Sophia to arrive. They sat together, scared to death of how Sophia would react and even more nervous of how they would tell her. Neither of them had ever had to do anything so horrible before and they weren't sure how to approach it.

It turned out to be absolutely the most painful thing Kayla had ever been part of. Surprisingly, Ariana did most of the talking. Kayla couldn't find the words to say, but it seemed that Ariana knew just what to do. The redhead seemed almost numb and perhaps she was. Maybe that was how she handled it all. Maybe she had found a way to close herself off from her pain, her grief. Perhaps that was how she survived.

Sophia had been virtually inconsolable. She had cried until she had no more tears and screamed until her throat gave out. After that, she curled up with Ariana in the waiting room and sat there, staring blankly straight ahead.

Kayla sat across the room with Cooper and Alana. None of them knew what to say. They just sat in silence, watching Ariana stroke the little girl's blonde hair. She was whispering something to her that Kayla couldn't make out. Whatever she was saying, Kayla wasn't sure it was helping. At some point during the hours they sat there, Ariana began to sing.

"Mmm mmm mmm, mmm mmm mmm, where the sun never shines. Will shiver the whole night through. Mmm mmm mmm, mmm mmm mmm..." Kayla recognized it as the same song Ariana had been trying to remember since she had regained her memories. The words Ariana knew didn't sound particularly soothing, but the sound of Ariana's soft voice seemed to comfort Sophia because before long the little girl was fast asleep.

An hour later Alana too had fallen asleep. Cooper got up to stretch his legs and said he was going to find the cafeteria and get some food. Neither Kayla nor Ariana felt like eating and none of them could summon the will to wake Alana to ask her if she wanted anything. After Cooper strode away, Kayla stood and went to sit beside Ariana.

The poor girl looked miserable. She had been holding Sophia for hours and she seemed unbelievably tired. She looked up at Kayla as she approached and sank into the chair next to her.

"She still asleep?" Kayla asked. Ariana nodded, her slender fingers sliding through the girl's blonde locks.

"I don't know what we're going to do, Kayla," said Ariana sadly. "She's all alone. Mike was the only family she had."

"I guess the state will take her," said Kayla quietly. "Foster care..."

"I can't do that again," Ariana whispered. "God... we can't just let the system have her and shove her into whatever home will take her."

"Ari, that's what happens when kids are left alone," said Kayla gently. "It's just the way things are."

"It doesn't have to be," said Ariana sharply. "Can't she stay with us?"

"I don't think so," said Kayla. "We're not foster parents or Sophie's legal guardians. We've got no rights to her." Ariana nodded slowly, gazing sadly at the little girl in her arms.

"What if we did?" she asked suddenly, her eyes widening. "What if we did have right to Sophie?"

"How... would we do that? We don't have any rights." Ariana shook her head.

"I know, but... but I can't leave her alone," she said quietly. She looked nervously up at the brunette. "Kayla... how would you feel about adopting Sophia?"

41: Chapter XLI: A Cold November Day
Chapter XLI: A Cold November Day

“Yes… yes, tomorrow. Of course, it’s important to her. We’re talking about her dad. She’s still planning to have the surgery, just… uh huh… Look, Dr. Cole. A friend of ours just died and left his little daughter orphaned, okay? We’re trying to deal with that right now. Ariana said she’ll come back in tomorrow, alright? If you can’t wait until then, figure something else out. Goodbye!” If Sophia had not been sitting on the sofa, Kayla felt certain she would have tossed her phone across the bedroom. Perhaps sensing Kayla’s frustration, Ariana suddenly appeared in the doorway.

“Is everything okay?” the redhead asked her. Kayla shrugged.

“Yeah, I was just talking to Dr. Cole,” she explained. “He’s bitching because you’re waiting until tomorrow to have the surgery.”

“I told him we had to take care of a few things and that I’d be in tomorrow,” said Ariana with a frown. “I can’t figure out what’s wrong with that man. It’s like… he doesn’t care about anything but his patients.”

“Maybe he doesn’t,” said Kayla with a heavy sigh. “I’ll just be glad when the whole thing is over and done with. Also, on an equally upsetting note… I found out some information about adopting Sophia.”

“What is it?” Ariana asked, walking over and sitting down on the edge of the bed. Kayla squeezed the redhead’s hand reassuringly.

“Well… we’re not married and legally we can’t get married in Michigan,” said Kayla. “There’s no law that says unmarried couples can’t adopt, but there is one that says lesbian couples can’t joint adopt. So… only one of us could adopt Sophia, not both.”

“So?” said Ariana with a shrug. “A name… words on a piece of paper… that doesn’t matter. We’d both be Sophia’s parents regardless of what a piece of paper says. Adrian Laine is listed as my father, and we both know what happened there."

"True... but there's also both of our pasts to consider," Kayla pointed out. "Neither one of us is particularly... stable. From what I gathered from the people I talked to... we'd be pretty hard-pressed to be allowed to adopt Sophia. There's just so much working against us."

"We can't just give up!" Ariana exclaimed. "We’ll figure something out, Kay-Kay. We always do.”

“We certainly do,” said Kayla with a grin. She paused, feeling quite nervous. “I… I found out one more thing. It’s about Snow.”

“Snow?" Ariana asked, her eyes widening. "Is… is she okay? Is she safe… is she happy?”

“Yes,” said Kayla quietly. “Yes, to all of the above. She’s a healthy, happy two-year-old. She’s living with a great family in Ann Arbor. It’s just…”

“That’s all I need to know, Kayla,” Ariana interrupted. “As long as she’s safe and happy… that’s… that’s all I need.”

“Yeah, but see there’s something you should know. She..."

"Hey, there you two are," said Alana, appearing suddenly in the doorway as though she had teleported there.

"Yeah, here we are," said Kayla. "What are you doing here?"

"I..." she hesitated, her eyes flickering hastily around the room. "I left something here... while you were away. I was just gonna..."

"If you mean your underwear, they're in the top drawer," said Ariana, nodding toward the dresser. "And by the way... Eww."

"Really, Aly?" asked Kayla. "In our bed?"

"What?" Alana snapped suddenly. "Hell, the bed was probably scared since a day passed without people having sex in it! Cooper and I were just helping it out."

"You were helping someone with something," said Ariana with a very sly smile indeed.

"How is he?" Kayla asked curiously. "I mean... is he any good?"

"Kayla!" Ariana and Alana both gasped at the same time. The brunette shrugged.

"I'm just curious," she said lightly. "He drives that big truck... I always suspected he was overcompensating for something."

"He's not," said Alana rather blissfully. "Not by a long shot."

"Well, damn," said Kayla. "You go, girl." Alana retrieved her panties from the drawer and flashed the girls a smile.

"I'm gonna get out of here," she said. "Lots of weddings to plan. Love is in the air, my darlings." Alana turned on her heel and vanished from the doorway. Kayla lay back across the bed, watching Ariana as she stared into the living room.

Alana had stopped by the couch where Sophia was sitting and was chatting briefly with her. Kayla noticed that the little girl was smiling from ear to ear. The girl hadn't cracked a smile since Mike had died... and suddenly an idea blossomed in her mind. She looked up at Ariana who was smiling serenely down at her.

"What?" the redhead asked her. "Mikayla Austin, I know that look. You're up to something."

"No... I just had a thought," said Kayla with a shrug.

"Well, that's different," said Ariana with a smirk.

"Hey, I have thoughts all the time," the brunette shot back. "And this is a good one. What if Cooper and Alana adopted Sophia?" Ariana stared at her for quite some time before answering. She seemed to be considering this idea very hard.

"They're more stable than we are," Ariana said thoughtfully. "Alana's running her own business, which is pretty successful. Cooper's the manager of Detroit Books and he practically runs the place."

"That will look good on any adoption application," said Kayla. "And neither of them are incest victims, runaways or murderers. Sorry."

"It's okay to take about it, Kayla," said Ariana gently. "I am an incest victim and a murderer. Meanwhile, you're a runaway and a murderer... and you also sold drugs." She shrugged. "I know Coop and Alana really care about each other, but they've only been dating a little while. They're not about to get married or be ready to adopt a little girl. They'd make great parents and I know Sophia loves them, but... but there's no way they'd agree to do it."

Kayla knew Ariana was right, but that didn't stop her from dropping by West Coast Weddings that evening when she knew Alana would be there working. She parked the Mclaren out front and made her way through the glass front doors and into the reception area. Alana looked up from her desk when she heard her sister approaching.

"Hey, Kayla!" Alana called out to her. "Did you want your job back? I could really use some help with all of this." 

"Hell no," said Kayla quickly. "Listen, there's.... there's something pretty serious that we need to talk about. Can we go upstairs?"

"Are you pregnant?" Alana demanded, standing suddenly to her feet.

"Yes," said Kayla dryly. "Ariana knocked me up. She's an extremely talented girl."

"Alright, smart ass," said Alana. "C'mon, let's go." Kayla followed Alana up a staircase at the rear of the store and into her loft. Alana had been living here since she had moved to Detroit.

"Coop's boxers?" Kayla asked, holding up a pair of shorts she found on the back of the couch. Alana reached out and snatched them from her and tossed them across the room.

"He's been staying here," said Alana with a shrug. "It's much closer to the bookstore and he's tired of living with his parents, so..."

"So, he's shacking up with his girlfriend," Kayla finished. "I can't blame him. That's... actually a good thing for what I'm going to ask you. Let's sit down."

"Mikki, you're making me uncomfortable," said Alana as they sat down on the sofa.

"Yeah, I... I'm sure I am," said Kayla quietly. She had no real idea how to approach this. In the end, she decided to be blunt. It usually worked for her.

"Alana... how would you and Coop feel about adopting Sophia?" Alana's eyes widened in surprise. She stared, open-mouthed.  

“I... I don't think... I'm not even... I thought you and Ari were going to do that,” Alana managed to choke out. “You two would make better parents than we would. What? Did you change your minds?”

“No, we’ve run into some roadblocks,” said Kayla quickly. “We’re pretty sure we’re going to be denied and Ari can’t stand to see Sophia go into foster care… hell, neither can I. So, unless we kidnap her and move to Canada…”

“Right…” Alana sighed. “Kayla, I… I don’t know the first thing about being a mom! I’m just getting on my feet in a new city and…’

“We’ll help you,” said Kayla hurriedly. “We’ll babysit whenever and she can stay over at the warehouse anytime she wants to for as long as she'd like. I know this is a lot to ask, Aly… I really do. But Sophie’s been through so much. She just lost her dad and we’re the only other people she really knows outside of school. Who knows where she’ll end up if we let her go?”

“I get that, Mikki,” said Alana. “I know how important this is to the both of you, I just think… I think… I think Cooper would say no. I mean, Sophia’s a great kid and we love her to death, but Coop’s not going to want a little girl hanging around here all the time.”

“Coop loves kids!” Kayla exclaimed. Truth be told, she had no idea whatsoever what Cooper’s views on children were but she was desperate.

“Maybe he does, but that’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point, Alana?” Kayla asked. “You’d be giving a sad, scared little girl a warm and loving home. What’s better than that?”

“A million dollars and a ride on a rocket ship,” Alana deadpanned. Kayla shrugged and reached into her purse for her checkbook.

“I’ll have to ask NASA about the rocket ship,” the brunette said thoughtfully. “But if you want the million it’s yours. It would be a worthwhile trade.”

“I don’t want the money, Kayla,” said Alana with a light smile. “But I bet you never thought you’d be able to whip out a checkbook and write a million dollar check without batting an eyelash.”

“You get used to it,” said Kayla dryly. “So… what do you say, Alana?” Her younger sister sighed very heavily and stood up from the couch. She made two complete circles around the apartment, seeming to be very deep in thought, before rounding on Kayla.

"Look,” she said quickly. “All I can say is that I'll talk to Coop about this. If he says yes, then... then we'll talk about it. That's all I can say."

"Yes!" said Kayla happily, punching the air despite Alana's lack of any real promise. "I knew you'd come through. Alana, I'll really owe you so much after this,” She grinned widely. “An Austin always pays her debts."

"You would quote the Lannisters," Alana scoffed. "And speaking of debts, you're going to come back and work at the shop. I need help with these weddings and if I'm going to suddenly find myself with a daughter, you're going to have to help me with work.”

“Deal,” said Kayla, holding up her hands. “Hell, we’ll even pay for everything she needs, college included.”

“You know, if I hold out I could probably get that rocket ship ride out of you,” Alana said with a smirk.

“I’ll make some calls,” said Kayla, grinning broadly. “Thanks, Alana… really, thanks.”

“I haven’t done anything yet,” her sister replied.

“I know, but you’re going to,” said Kayla as she headed for the door. Alana shook her head.

“Since when do you have so much faith in me?” the younger Austin asked. Kayla paused in the doorway and turned back to her sister.

“I’ve always had faith in you, Alana,” she said firmly. “I may be the older sister, but you’re by far the better sister. You’re smarter, stronger, and kinder. You always have been. Meanwhile, I’m the screw up who just so happened to get really lucky and happen across that old warehouse on a cold November day.” Kayla turned and passed through the door, heading back downstairs and out to her car. Although she couldn’t know it at the time, luck had played no role in her chance meeting with Ariana at the warehouse nearly a full year ago. Fate, however, most certainly had… and fate wasn’t quite done with either of them yet either.

Ariana was a little upset when Kayla told her she had approached Alana without telling her first later that evening. Kayla knew she should have consulted Ariana beforehand, but she couldn’t pretend she wasn’t happy with the result. The girls avoided talking about any of this in front of Sophia, who they were desperately trying to keep secluded from it all.

The three of them cuddled up on the couch together that evening to watching Sophia’s (and Ariana’s) favorite movie; Frozen. Kayla, meanwhile, didn’t really care much for it but since the other two loved it so much she consented to watch it. Kayla fell asleep in Ariana’s arms at some point during the movie and by the end Sophia was dozing at the opposite end of the couch near Ariana’s feet.

The redhead nudged the sleeping brunette off of her and while she stumbled away into the bedroom, Ariana got Sophia tucked into bed. She stayed with the little girl until she at last fell asleep. Only then, at some point near midnight, did she fall into bed herself.

“She asleep?” Kayla asked sleepily as Ariana slipped beneath the sheets.

“Yeah,” she replied as Kayla pulled her close. "Finally, poor kid."

"She's a tough little thing," said Kayla quietly. "Like another girl I know," she added, kissing the top of Ariana's head.

"You mean Elsa?" the redhead asked. Kayla grinned and captured the girl's lips in a quick kiss.

"I mean you, Princess Ariana," said Kayla. Ariana smirked.  

"You know, I would look spectacular in a tiara," Kayla nodded her agreement.

"You really would, sweetpea." The girls fell silent and it wasn't long before the redhead was fast asleep. Kayla lay there for a while, just watching her. Everything was about to change, there was no questioning it. After Ariana's surgery, their lives would never be the same. Kayla hadn't said anything else to Ariana about Snow, but she was carrying a bombshell that she would have to drop on her girlfriend one day soon. Once Ariana had finished with her father, Kayla knew she would have no choice but to turn their world upside down.

42: Chapter XLII: Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares
Chapter XLII: Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares

Phoenix, Arizona - Sixteen Months Earlier

The motel room was dark, dank, and smelled strongly of something Kayla would really rather not think about. She sat on the edge of the bed, the musty blankets doing nothing to make her want to sleep despite how tired she was. She hadn't had a decent night's sleep, not since she had fled San Diego a month earlier. She knew she was being followed. Dwayne had men, a virtual army of them and undoubtedly he had sent some of them after her.

So far, she had managed to stay one step ahead of them. She couldn't allow herself to relax, not now. She had to remain vigilant and stay on the move. Still, one night in a room with a real bed would be worth the risk. She'd had it with sleeping on park benches or the hard ground underneath bridges. She wanted a mattress damn it, regardless of what might be living in it.

More than anything, she wanted to die. She realized how stupid that sounded, for she could easily do so and yet she did not. She didn't because she knew if she did then Dwayne won and she would be damned if she was going to let that happen. She was going to find him one day and put a bullet through his head. She didn't care who else got hurt in the process... so long as she got her revenge.

She'd been foolish... she ought to have killed him when she had the chance. She wouldn't even be in this mess if she hadn't been so stupid. She had had the bastard dead to rights. She'd hurt him, but she'd let him live. It was the worst decision of her life. Now she might never get the chance to put him down for good.

Kayla climbed into bed. She lay awake for some time, watching the door. It never opened. At some point during the night, she managed to fall asleep. She had the strangest of dreams. She dreamed of a city she didn’t recognize. She knew she had never been there before. It was very cold and dreary, but somehow she discovered she didn’t want to leave. She found herself suddenly in the middle of an empty building. The walls were so far away they might not have been there at all. There was so much open space around her that she felt as though the building might just go on forever.

Suddenly, standing before her was the most beautiful girl she had ever seen. She had long, flowing red hair and the deepest of blue eyes. She was smiling, positively beaming at her. There was a tremendous boom and the girl fell to the ground, blood pouring from a terrible wound in her chest. Kayla woke screaming and drenched in sweat. She rolled over and checked the clock. It was only three a.m. Trembling, she rolled over and went back to sleep. When she woke the next morning, she didn’t remember the dream at all.

-.-

“Checking out?” the wizened man behind the desk asked when Kayla entered the rundown office the following morning. She nodded briskly and the man took her key. He flipped through his registry slowly, tracking down her name on the page.

“Let’s see… Spencer Hastings? Room 815?”

“That’s me,” said Kayla quietly. She paid for the room with what little money she had left and headed outside to her bike. As she approached it, an elderly lady with white hair got out of the car parked next to her. She went towards her back seat to retrieve a suitcase, but it looked to be too heavy for her. Kayla secured her saddlebags and reluctantly went over to help.

“Can I help you with that?” she asked. The woman looked up at her over the top of her glasses and smiled.

“Oh, thank you dear,” she said gratefully. “My husband was going to get it, but since he’s in the office getting our room… well, I thought I’d try to be useful.” Kayla smiled and eased the suitcase out of the car.

“Here you go,” she said, extending the collapsible handle and holding it out for her to take. “If you’d like, I can wait with you until your husband gets back.” The woman shook her head.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary, child,” she said kindly. “I can take care of myself. Besides, it looks like you’ve got places to go.” She nodded toward Kayla’s bike. “Where are you heading?”

“I don’t really have a destination in mind,” said Kayla with a shrug. “As far away from where I came from as I can get.”

“Well, I don’t know where you came from, but you’ve got the look of a California girl. Assuming you don’t want to head west, you should go up north. I’m from Detroit, and… well, it’s really quite nice despite what people may say.”

“I don’t really think Detroit’s my kind of town, but… I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You really should,” said the woman. “Destiny takes us all to places we’d never thought we’d go.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Kayla. “I don’t believe in destiny.” The woman smiled.

“One day my dear, you will,”

“Sure,” said Kayla wearily. “Thanks again. Enjoy your stay.” Kayla fired up her bike and drove away. She never thought about the woman in Phoenix ever again.

 

El Paso, Texas - Two Weeks Later

“How much can I get for this?” Kayla asked, gently laying her father’s shotgun across the counter of a small gun shop. The man behind the counter leaned closer to examine the gun.

“It’s in excellent condition,” he said thoughtfully. “Does it fire?”

“It does,” said Kayla, hoping against hope he didn't ask how she knew that. “It belonged to my dad, who got it from my grandfather. My dad died recently and I… well, guns aren’t really my thing so I just thought it’d be best to sell it.

“Well, you’ve got a quality piece here,” said the salesman. “You sure you wanna part with it?”

“I’m sure,” said Kayla. He shrugged.

“Alright, then. Let’s see what we can do.”

Kayla departed the store twenty minutes later three hundred dollars richer than she had been before she entered. She hurried across the street to a gas station and bought a ham sandwich. She sat down on the curb beside her bike to eat. It was mid April and El Paso was already too hot for Kayla’s liking. Luckily, she had no plans to stick around. She wasn’t sure where she would head next, but she knew it would always be further east. She wanted to put as much distance between herself and Dwayne as she could. Given her choice she’d put an entire ocean between herself and the bastard, but while her fake IDs might hold up to a motel attendant, there was absolutely no way she was getting out of the country without her real ID.

She wasn’t sure if the police were after her or not. She couldn’t begin to guess how Dwayne would have explained what happened while keeping her name out of it. Likely, he would have blamed Claire’s murder on her as well. Yes, even the FBI would likely be looking for her. She had to keep moving and keep her identity a secret. A week earlier in Santa Fe, she had dyed her naturally brown hair completely jet black and she’d found a guy to make her more than her one and only fake ID. She now had a bundle of them in her bag that she could use and she planned to switch each time she had to use one.

She wasn’t sure how long that would keep her safe. She was hardly a criminal mastermind. She was making it all up as she went along. She hastily finished her sandwich and tossed the wrapper into the trash. She went back inside to buy a new map as she had lost her previous one earlier that week. She flicked quickly through the rack of maps, most of them maps of various Texas cities as she looked for a map of the whole country. Oddly, in the slot where the map she was looking for should have been was a map of Michigan. She pulled it out and took the correct map from behind it.

“This was in with your maps,” she said when she went to the counter to pay. “I don’t think you need one of these down here?” The clerk laughed as he took the map from her.

“Not really,” he said loudly. “That’s a bit out of the way. Thanks for letting me know… I don’t know how that got in there.”

“No problem,” said Kayla. The clerk paused.

“Actually, you should just keep it. I’ve got no use for it and I doubt anyone’s going to buy it.” He held it out to her and she reluctantly took it. She didn’t have any use for it either, but she had no good reason not to take it. She paid for the map she wanted and left the gas station. She climbed on her bike and drove off, back onto the highway, heading east.

 

Dallas, Texas – One Month Later

Kayla managed to settle into a routine once she reached Dallas. She had not seen any trace of anyone looking for her and not once had she spotted her picture on a Wanted poster, so she started to let down her guard.

She got a job at a local fish market. It was disgusting work, but she was making decent money. It was enough for her to rent a crappy apartment, put gas in her bike, and still eat occasionally. She wasn’t remotely happy, but she was alive at least… and she wasn’t running anymore.

It all went straight to hell on a Saturday evening. Kayla got off work late and hurried across town to her apartment. She was already inside the dumpy little place she called home and was entering the tiny kitchen when she felt something was very wrong. She turned in time to meet her attacker's rush. The dark figure aimed a blow at her face, which she dodged. She spun away from him, reaching to her waist for her pistol. She seized the grip as another man grabbed her from behind. They fell to the ground, her gun clattering to the floor.

The first man charged over as Kayla and the second attacker battled on the floor. The first man reached into the melee and seized Kayla by her hair. He started to pull her off his partner, but in the darkness he stumbled and fell.

Suddenly free, Kayla scrambled for her gun and raised the weapon as the second man got to his feet. She shot him, the .45 caliber round slicing through his neck. He fell unceremoniously to the floor. Kayla rounded on the first attacker, the weapon aimed squarely at his chest. He started toward her and she pulled the trigger, dropping him instantly.

She froze, but only for a moment. Running purely on adrenaline, Kayla packed everything she could and ran... again. That same night she put Dallas in her rear view and never looked back. Her stability had been ripped away, but she had killed the men Dwayne had sent after her. Although she couldn't know it, they were the only people who knew where she was. Although Dwayne knew she had been in Dallas, he had no one else close enough to track her. She was free, but she couldn't possibly know it.

-.-

She kept moving after that. She stopped briefly in Little Rock where she met a very kind family that helped her fix her bike after it broke down. They fed her even offered her a place to stay, but Kayla had refused. She left quickly and kept on driving. She never stayed anywhere too long over the next five months. She crisscrossed the country. St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta, Orlando, Charleston, Richmond and a dozen other cities in between. Halfway through November Kayla found herself in a truly terrible motel room in Cincinnati.

She took the risk and checked into the room, despite knowing it could potentially doom her. She took the first shower she could remember taking in weeks. The water was slightly brown and was very cold but Kayla didn't care. It was the best shower she had ever taken.

She slept restlessly that night, as she always did, but that night she simply couldn't fall asleep despite actually lying in a bed for the first time in ages. She dreamed strange and disjointed dreams that she couldn't really remember the next morning. She only remembered that they were very disturbing.

When she finally rolled out of bed, she packed up her things and checked out of the hotel. She headed across the street to the gas station to fill up to head... where, she didn't know. She pulled the last of her money out of her pocket to pay, realizing that she had only a single ten dollar bill left. She had no choice but to spend all of it on gas.

Out in the parking lot, Kayla knelt beside her bike digging frantically through her saddlebags. She prayed silently that she had misplaced some money there, but no luck. Defeated, she slammed the bag down on the ground causing some of its contents to fall out onto the concrete. She hurried to pick everything up and as she did so she came across the map of Michigan the gas station attendant had given her months before. She hadn't thought about it once since then, in fact she had forgotten she even had it.

She picked it up, preparing to throw it away. Something, and she didn't know what, caused her to unfold it and look it over. Someone had circled a single point on the map; the city of Detroit. Kayla sat down on the ground, thinking hard. It wasn't too far away, Detroit. Maybe... maybe it wouldn't be so bad. It was as good a place as any to try and make some money. She got up, stuffed the map back into her bag and fired up her bike. She drove onto the highway and pointed her bike north, towards Michigan.  

43: Chapter XLIII: The Shape of Things to Come
Chapter XLIII: The Shape of Things to Come

It was time. Dr. Cole had entered the waiting room and called for Ariana. The redhead stood shakily from her chair and after a brief embrace from Kayla, allowed herself to be led away. Kayla, meanwhile, was not allowed to go with her and would be forced to wait there. The procedure was a simple one, Kayla knew, but as the door swung closed behind Ariana she couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable.

She occupied herself for a while with the magazines offered by the hospital. She lost interest quickly and eventually started watching a game show on the waiting room's TV. Soon enough she lost interest in that as well and started to think. With Kayla, that wasn't usually a good thing.

She started off remembering how different Ariana had been when they had first met. She had been so strange, so kooky, so... innocent. She had known so little about the world around her and had become easily confused. Kayla remembered so many funny things she had said, most of them making little to no sense but still the memories brought a smile to her face.

It had been a time when life was simple. Ariana was just this odd girl that she was quickly falling in love with. She, Kayla, was a runaway with a murderer on her heels. It all made sense and she could predict the way things would work out. Now, though, that wasn't the case. Now, Ariana wasn't an innocent little girl. She was a young woman with a terrible past and real, heartbreaking pain. Now she was here at this hospital, trying to save her father's life.

She was a mother, as well. That was something that Kayla knew nothing about. She didn't know what it felt like to be a mother... to have that kind of connection to someone. It scared her, but she knew she would have to overcome that fear. She would have no choice.

Sighing heavily, she stood up and stretched. She glanced at her watch and realized she'd been sitting there for nearly two hours. She had just decided to go and see what she could find in the cafeteria when Cooper and Alana came into the waiting room.

"I'm sorry we're late," said Cooper quickly. "Is Ari...?"

"She's already gone back," said Kayla softly.

"I'm sure she's fine, Mikki," said Alana gently. "It's not a difficult surgery or anything, right?"

"No... not really," Kayla replied. "It just scares me. Look, can you two wait here in case the doctor comes out? I... I need to get something to eat."

"Sure," said Cooper kindly. "You go on." Kayla walked away, wringing her hands. She didn't bother asking Alana if she had spoken with Cooper about Sophia. She assumed if she had she would have said something. She made her way to the cafeteria and went inside, glancing nervously at the table where she had once fallen asleep and dreamed that the then comatose Ariana had appeared to her.  

She walked over to the vending machines and stood there for several minutes, not really seeing the items they held. Deciding she didn't want anything after all, Kayla left the cafeteria and wandered out into the hallway. She couldn't bear to go sit back in the waiting room again. It would just allow her brain to work too much and she didn't want that.

She wandered the halls with no particular destination in mind. She just wanted all of this to be over. She wanted Adrian out of their lives. She wanted everything to go back to the way it had been; just the two of them, wandering the world on their boat. But even if Adrian died or just went back to prison… it would never be the same again.

Suddenly, Kayla found herself outside of the doors to the chapel. She wasn’t religious at all. She was one of those people that only turned to God when something went terribly wrong. But as she stood there, staring at the stained glass windows in the opened doors, something compelled her to go inside.

The chapel itself was very dark as she entered. There were a scattering a lit candles burning here and there, giving off only a little light. Kayla walked slowly through the rows of pews, lost in thought. Soon, she noticed a young girl kneeling at the front of the chapel. She wore a very white dress with a veil covering her head. She seemed to be praying adamantly, yet silently.

Kayla, not wanting to disturb the girl, sat down on one of the pews as quietly as she could. The girl didn’t seem to have noticed her at all. Someone, however, did and seconds later that person sat down beside her.

“Long time, no see,” Claire said quietly, patting Kayla on her knee. Kayla looked up at her disbelievingly... and suddenly she was furious.

“What the hell are you?” she snapped, her anger flaring suddenly and shocking even her. “Ariana could see you… when she woke up, she saw you! I wasn’t going crazy, you’re really here, so… so what are you?” Claire smiled and shook her head.

“Does it matter what I am, Kayla?” she asked. “I’m here. You needed me and I’m here. That’s… kind of what I do now, actually. When people need me… I’m there.”

“So you’re a guardian angel?” asked Kayla. “That’s just fantastic. How’d you get that job? I don’t remember you particularly fitting that role when you were alive.”

“Death changes people,” said Claire with a shrug. “Besides, I’m not exactly as guardian angel. I don’t go around protecting people from danger or anything like that.”

“Then what do you do?”

“Without saying more than I should… I’m a guide,” the blonde said delicately. “I’m… well, I shouldn’t say anything else.”

“You sure as hell should!” Kayla hissed. “Damn it, Claire! I want some answers!”

“You’ll get none,” said the praying girl in a soft voice. Kayla and Claire both looked toward her. She was still kneeling and her back was to them, but clearly she was speaking to Kayla.

“I’m sorry?” said Kayla. “What do you…”

“You’ll get no answers,” she repeated calmly. “At least, not today. You would do well to stop asking so many questions.”

“I don’t even know who the hell you are! So I don’t know why the…”

“You don’t  want to finish that sentence, Kayla,” said Claire firmly. “Trust me, kiddo. Don’t make her mad.”

“Who the hell is she?” Claire smirked.

“She’s my boss, in a sense,” the blonde said. “A pretty shitty boss because she refuses to pay me, but she’s my boss nonetheless.”

“The red one will live, survive to the end,” the girl quipped. “The other will die, because one wouldn’t bend.” Kayla turned to Claire, her eyes wide.

“What does that mean?” she asked. She was quickly beginning to worry for her sanity.

“She likes to rhyme,” said Claire indifferently. “She plays games… she likes games. Unfortunately, she plays them with people’s lives and they never even see it. Right now, she’s playing a game with you.”

“Bang bang and now he’s gone,” said the girl. “Only two will survive until the next dawn.”

“If this is a game, I need to know to the rules,” said Kayla. “Claire, what…?”

“There are no rules,” the blonde girl said. “But it wouldn’t matter if there were. This is her game, Kayla. You can’t win.”

“Then I don’t want to play,” said Kayla harshly. She stood to her feet and stalked away toward the door. Before she could leave, however, the doors swung closed all by themselves.

“You can’t leave,” said Claire gently. “She’s not finished yet.” The girl in the white dress had stood up. She was facing Kayla now and although she couldn’t see the girl’s face through her veil, she could sense that she was very angry.

“Sit down,” she said, her voice suddenly cold. Kayla felt a chill run through her body and she quickly returned to her seat. She was instantly certain that she did not ever want the girl to remove her veil. She never wanted to lay eyes on whatever lived beneath it.

“I told you not to make her angry,” said Claire as the girl knelt once again, turning her back to them. “It won’t end well if you do.”

“Claire… what the hell is going on?” Kayla exclaimed. She was beyond terrified. She really was going crazy this time, she was sure of it.

“She’s trying to help you,” said Claire calmly. “She’s helped you before and she’ll help you again. You need to listen to her. She’s trying to prepare you for what’s coming.”

“But what’s coming?” Kayla asked desperately. “When?!”

“Soon,” said Claire. “Some of it, anyway. Other things… not so soon.”

“Did snow kill the girl?” the young girl said. “She’ll think its true, but she can’t know for sure. Someone did, for the body was there. Was it an enemy, or maybe a friend? For everyone there has secrets and something to hide, could it be jealousy that ended her life? Payback, revenge, death and betrayal. In her life, she’ll experience all of those four. But unless she sees the darkness nearby, she will not live to experience more.”

The girl fell silent. Whatever wisdom or knowledge she had decided to share had already been revealed. Kayla, meanwhile, didn’t understand anything that was happening. Who was this girl? What did she mean by… anything she said? None of it had made a bit of sense to her and she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do with the information.

“Claire, I don’t understand,” said Kayla. “If she wanted to help me, why speak in riddles? I don’t get it.”

“Maybe that’s for the best,” said the blonde thoughtfully. “The way I see it… too much information just makes it harder to make a decision. You only need to know so much before it just starts to make things… murkier. In my opinion, you’d be better off just living your life.

“Like I said before… you can’t win the game, anyway. You can’t, because it’s not really a game at all. It’s… like a movie. The story is already written, Kayla. People like you and me… we’re just the actors. We’re playing parts, that’s it. You can’t change the narrative. You can’t rewrite the script, no matter how much you may wish you could. It’s already set in stone. Just play your part, Kayla. It’s easier that way.” She stood up and placed her hand on Kayla’s shoulder.

“Do you remember back home… just before a storm would blow in… you could actually feel the weather changing? You could feel it in the air.” She smiled grimly. “There’s a storm coming, Kayla. Soon.”

"Kayla?" The brunette's head shot up from the soft cushions on the pew and she looked up blearily. Alana stood over her, looking down at her worriedly. "Are you okay?"

"I... Alana, where did...?" She looked around the chapel. Apart from Alana, she was alone. There was no sign of the Claire or the girl. Kayla tried to reason with herself, convince herself that it had all been a dream. By the time she and Alana returned to the waiting room, Kayla was positive it hadn't been. When they arrived, they found Cooper talking to Dr. Cole. The girls hurried over.

"Ms. Austin," said Cole. "I was just telling your friend that Ariana is out of surgery. She's already in recovery. She's still asleep, but you can see her if you'd like."

“Thank you, Dr. Cole,” said Kayla gratefully. “I’d really like to see her.” Cole led Kayla, Cooper, and Alana to a recovery room where Ariana lay in bed looking quite peaceful. Kayla rushed over to her while Cooper and Alana hung back.

“When will she wake up?” Kayla asked Cole.

“If I know Ariana, whenever she’s good and ready,” he replied. “I’m sure she’ll be up and about in no time. Now, I have a patient to attend to. If you’ll excuse me?” He turned and left the room. Kayla sat there beside Ariana’s bed, clinging to the redhead’s hand. She would wake up soon, Kayla reasoned. It was only anesthesia, after all. She’d be awake at any moment. She had to be. 

 

 

44: Chapter XLIV: A Not So Perfect World
Chapter XLIV: A Not So Perfect World

The sun was shining. It might not mean much to many, but to Ariana it meant a great deal. Ariana loved the sunlight and she hated cloudy, dreary, rainy days. But on that gorgeous morning, it wasn’t raining. Not only that, there wasn’t a single cloud in the beautiful blue sky above her where she stood out in the front yard of her home.

Her home. She had always loved the house she shared with her father, Adrian. It was a nice little place, far outside of town. It was quiet, peaceful… a place just for them. It wasn’t an overly large house but neither was it too small. To Ariana, it was perfect and she couldn’t imagine living anyplace else.

She smiled as she breathed in the fresh, clear air. It was a good day. Still smiling, she turned and walked back up onto her porch and slipped through the open front door. Her father sat on the sofa against the far wall of the living room, a room in which Ariana had had a hand in decorating. She had painted it a very light shade of blue, her very favorite color. Adrian looked up from the TV when she entered and smiled happily. He patted the space beside him and she rushed over.

“Morning Daddy!” she said brightly as she cuddled up beside him.

“Good morning, Princess,” he replied, giving her a gentle kiss on her forehead. “You’re happy today.”

“I’m always happy,” she insisted, poking him playfully in the ribs.

“True, but you’re overly so this morning,” Adrian replied. “You’re up early. You had breakfast ready before I even thought about getting out of bed and now you’re standing outside basking in the sunlight. I wouldn’t have been surprised if some woodland creatures had joined you out there for an inspirational song.

“That might have been fun,” said Ariana. “I like to sing. Ooooh, I forgot! That song I’ve been trying to remember? The one Mom used to sing? I finally remembered it!”

“That’s great, honey,” said Adrian, patting her proudly on her shoulder. “I’m glad and I can’t wait to hear you sing it… but it’ll have to be tonight, I’m afraid. I’ve got to run into work.”

“Do you have to go to work today?” Ariana whined. “Wouldn’t you rather spend the day here with me?” Adrian looked sadly down at her.

“Of course I would, sweetpea,” he assured her. “But I’ve got to work. Somebody’s got to pay for this place… and since you decided to adopt a second stray dog, I’ve got to pay for more food for the beasts.”

“They aren’t beasts, they’re puppies,” Ariana complained. “And I can get a job to help pay for them.”

“I’m not going to send my fifteen-year-old daughter out to get a job,” said Adrian firmly. He smiled and tilted his head down, capturing the redhead’s lips in a quick but passionate kiss. “Especially not with a baby on the way.”

“Dad, I’m pregnant not terminal,” said Ariana. “I can work. Besides, I didn’t say I was going to go unload trucks at a loading dock. Martha down at the vet needs a new receptionist, though. I was thinking maybe I could start working there.”

“You want to bring our baby around dirty, diseased animals?” Adrian asked incredulously.

“Our baby is safe, thank you very much,” said Ariana, placing a protective hand on the gentle swell of her belly. “Neither she nor I will get sick by working for a vet.”

“What makes you think it’s a girl?” Adrian asked her suddenly.

“Maternal instinct,” said Ariana wisely. “I know you want a boy so you can run around in the yard and play whatever sport it is you like so much, but we’re having a girl.”

“I guess you’ve got the name all picked out too, then?” Adrian asked, grinning at her. She nodded firmly.

“I was thinking… Mikayla.” Adrian considered this for a moment, chewing his lower lip.

“Mikayla, huh?” he said thoughtfully. “Where’d you come up with that?” Ariana shrugged.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I just really like it. We could call her Kayla as a nickname.”

“Mikayla Laine,” said Adrian. He was smiling. “I think it’s perfect.”

“Me too,” Ariana said, winking at him. “Now, go on. Get to work before you’re late.”

“Alright, I’m going. Bye sweetheart. I’ll see you tonight,” said Adrian, kissing her again. He also pressed his lips to Ariana’s stomach, causing her to giggle. “And you too, Mikayla.” He stood up and made his way to the front door. Ariana walked him out to his truck and he drove off down the dirt road that led to their house. She stood outside, waving after him until he was no longer in sight.

She hated when he went to work and left her there alone. That was part of the reason why she wanted to get a job. She’d be able to meet people and maybe even find a friend. That way she wouldn’t have to be alone when her father left.

Ariana went back into the house and set about doing the handful of household chores that needed to be done. Adrian said that she would wait, that he would take care of it all when he got home so that she wouldn’t overexert herself. She went ahead and did everything anyway. It was very boring when she was there alone. There was nothing to do except watch TV or play with the dogs, so she chose to take care of the house instead.

She dusted all of the furniture. She vacuumed the floors and swept the front porch. She mopped the kitchen floor and last but not least, she did the laundry. She had just finished putting the clean clothes into the dryer when she noticed Adrian had left his toolbox and his belt lying on the floor just inside the door to the hallway where they kept the washer and dryer.

Shaking her head at her father’s messiness, she picked them up and went to put them away in the closet at the end of the hall. She opened the door and made to put the toolbox down when she froze, staring at the inside of the closet. It was a closet like any other, filled with things they hadn’t had any other place to put. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible had happened there.

She was sure she had only been standing there, transfixed, for a few minutes. Soon enough, however, she was shaken from her stupor by the sound of her father’s truck pulling up outside. Shocked to realize she had stood there for over an hour, she rushed to put the tools away and went to start dinner.

“I’m home, pumpkin!” Adrian shouted from the living room a few moments later. Ariana hurried out to meet him. She over and allowed herself to be engulfed in a tight hug. He kissed her, but he clearly noticed that she was distracted because his eyes narrowed worriedly.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her quickly. “Is… is it the baby?”

“No,” said Ariana, putting on a fake but hopefully reassuring smile. “No, I… I’m fine. The baby’s fine, I just… lost track of time. I didn’t realize it was so late already. I only just started dinner…”

“Well, that’s okay,” said Adrian gently, squeezing her lovingly. “You shouldn’t be cooking anyway. I’ll take care of it. You go and sit down.” Ariana knew there was no point in arguing. Once Adrian had made up his mind, there was no changing it. She went and sat down on the sofa while her father disappeared into the kitchen.

“Something feels wrong, doesn’t it?” a voice asked her. Ariana spun around and discovered a dark haired girl descending the stairs that led to the upper floor of the house. She was smiling rather sadly.

“Who are you?” Ariana demanded, sounding far braver than she felt. “How did you get in here?”

“Oh, I’m not really here,” she said gently. She sat down on the sofa and look over at her with deep brown eyes. “Neither are you, for that matter. None of this is real. You’re dreaming.”

“You’re insane,” Ariana snapped, standing to her feet. “I’m getting my dad.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” the girl asked her. “Think about it, Ariana. You know something is very wrong here. You knew it when you looked in that closet earlier today.”

“How do you know about that?” Ariana asked.

“I know everything you know,” she said plainly. “I know that this… this is what you always wanted. Your father hurt you, Ariana. He hurt you very badly. He told you he was punishing you because you’d done wrong. All you ever wanted was to figure out what bad thing you kept doing. You were so sure that if you could stop doing it… this would be the life you would have.

“This is the life I have,” Ariana insisted. “I’m happy. We’re happy, I… My dad’s never hurt me. He wouldn’t! He loves me!”

“Maybe he does… in his own demented way,” the girl replied. “But this would never have happened, Ariana. It wouldn’t have mattered what you did. Being a good girl, doing what he wanted you to do… Honey, there’s nothing you could have done that would have stopped him from hurting you. He’s a sick man. It wasn’t your fault. I know you believe that if you had just been a better kid… if you hadn’t made mistakes and made him mad that he would have loved you and treated you like a princess. The truth is he never would have. It wouldn’t have made a difference, Ariana.” The girl sighed heavily and shook her head.

“That baby inside you… if you had still been here when she was born… Well, I hope God would have helped her because no one else in heaven or hell would’ve had the power to do so.” The girl stood up and walked toward the door. She paused and looked back at Ariana.

“Don’t linger too long,” she said quietly. “You’ve got a good life to get back to. It’s much better than this one, I promise.”

“Wait!” Ariana called as the girl opened the door. “You never told me who you are.”

“I’m Mikayla,” she said softly. “Mikayla Austin, but you can call me Kayla if you want.”

-.-

Ariana’s mind ran wild all night long. What that girl had said made no sense. She was happy. Adrian had never hurt her. Ever! Sure, what they were doing… the life they were leading… it was illegal, but to say it was wrong… well, Ariana didn’t believe that. They were in love, she and Adrian. The rest of it… what did it matter? She knew how she felt, knew what she wanted. She was happy and no one was going to tell her otherwise.

That night she dreamed strange and terrible dreams. She dreamed of the closet downstairs and of pain… awful, indescribable pain. She woke screaming and drenched in sweat. Adrian woke up immediately and held her while she cried. He didn’t ask her any questions. Instead, he just let her sob silently into his shoulder. When she had cried herself out, he slipped out of bed and went downstairs to get her some water.

Ariana got out of bed, the cool night air causing chill bumps to rise across her bare body. She walked to the window and looked down at her front yard. It was very dark and the sight did nothing to ease the fear her dreams had brought on. Adrian returned a moment later, slipping his arm around her waist from behind and causing her to practically jump out of her skin at the sudden, unexpected contact.

She drank the water he brought her and then allowed herself to be led back to bed. They kissed and made love until the sun peeked over the horizon. Another beautiful day was dawning but as Ariana lay in bed, thoroughly exhausted, she found that it felt… wrong, just as Kayla had told her. Since that moment, nothing had felt the way it should. Her whole world seemed to be… off. Her perfect world had suddenly become not so perfect.

After Adrian went to work, Ariana hovered in the hallway outside the closet for quite some time. She was terrified to open it, even though she knew what she would find inside. She knew there was nothing to find, so why was she so afraid? It didn’t make any sense. Gathering her courage, she wrenched open the door and what she saw would have made her scream if her mind would have managed to tell her lungs to work.

A little girl that she had never seen before, but instantly knew to be her own daughter, was huddled on the stained carpet. She was naked and her hands were scarred and bleeding. She was sobbing weakly and she didn’t seem to realize Ariana was even there. Ariana knelt down beside the girl, who could hardly be older than three or four, and gently took her into her arms.

“Who did this to you?” she asked, looking down into the girl’s blue eyes with tears falling from her own. “Who did this?” The girl blinked and said in a voice that indicated there should have been no need to ask the question; “Daddy.”

-.-

Kayla waited for what felt like hours, just sitting beside Ariana’s bed. Cooper and Alana were talking in whispers across the room, but Kayla paid them no attention. All she wanted was for Ariana to wake up. Within moments, she got her wish. The redhead’s eyes fluttered open. It took a moment for Ariana’s eyes to focus on Kayla’s face, but when they did she looked confused.

“Who are you?” she asked weakly. Kayla’s mouth fell open and tears welled in her brown eyes before Ariana could smile. “I’m kidding,” she added with a laugh.

“You’re mean!” Kayla exclaimed, swatting her playfully on her wrist. “God, really Ari?”

“I’m sorry,” said Ariana sweetly as Kayla wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry Kay-Kay. I couldn’t resist. Remember, I still owe you for locking me in that closet. We’re even.”

“Yeah… alright, fine. I deserved that,” Kayla admitted as Cooper and Alana came over to join them. “You’re still mean.”

“How do you feel?” Alana asked.

“I’m okay,” the redhead replied. “A little sore… and my head hurts.” She sighed and tried to sit up. Kayla was there immediately to help her.

“You should rest,” Cooper said quickly. “Don’t rush things, Ari.”

“I want to go home,” Ariana told him firmly. “I want to get out of this hospital and go home. I’ll rest much better there, Coop.”

Ariana had to spend another couple of hours in recovery before Dr. Cole was willing to discharge her. After a stop by the grocery store for some vanilla ice cream that Ariana was craving, the four of them returned to the warehouse. Alana paid the babysitter, a girl Cooper knew named Hanna that they had hired to take care of Sophia for the day, while Kayla and Cooper helped get Ariana settled onto the couch.

While Cooper was busy fussing over the redhead and Sophia was dishing out ice cream as though she had never had any before, Kayla managed to get a moment alone with Alana downstairs in the library.

“Did you have a chance to talk with Coop about Sophie?” she asked hurriedly. Alana sighed and nodded.

“Yeah, Kayla, I did,” her sister replied. “Coop wants to do it.”

“But you don’t, do you?” Kayla asked. Alana shrugged.

“I’m not ready to be a mom, Kayla,” she said firmly. “Not a co-mom with you and Ari. I’m just not ready… but how can I turn that little girl away.” She grinned at her older sister. “We’re going to talk to Sophia tomorrow and if she wants to live with us, we’ll go and start filling out the paperwork. There’s no guarantee we’d be approved any more than you and Ariana would, but… we’re going to do whatever we can to…” She was cut off by Kayla rushing over and hugging her.

“Thank you, Aly,” said Kayla when she drew away. “Really, sis. Thank you. This means everything to both of us.”

“Well, like I said before, you’re working at the shop,” said Alana. “If we adopt her, I own you.”

“I’m certain my life of servitude will be a small price to pay for a little girl’s happiness,” Alana grinned darkly.

“We’ll see if you still feel that way after your first week.”

 

 

45: Chapter XLV: Brave New World
Chapter XLV: Brave New World

Cooper and Alana left before too long. Ariana was very tired and she and Kayla both wanted to sleep. They stayed in bed until late the next morning, in fact it was nearly noon before either of them managed to gain the will to wake.

Kayla awoke first, groaning miserably as she noticed the bright rays of sunlight shining through the windows and casting a beautiful golden glow across their bed. She sat up, rubbing her eyes and yawning widely. She ran her fingers through her tousled hair and looked down at the still-sleeping redhead lying beside her.

Ariana was still sleeping peacefully. She shifted slightly, her hand reaching out for Kayla. The brunette laced her fingers through the other girl's, laying back down and watching the redhead sleep for a while. Eventually, she slipped gently out of bed without waking the other girl and went downstairs to take a shower.

She went into Ariana's favorite shower stall, where her cat themed shower decals were still firmly in place, and turned on the water. She allowed herself to relax as the warm water rained down over her. She was just so tired. She and Ariana had been through so much and somehow it never seemed to end. Every time they were happy... when they thought they were free something always seemed to come out of left field and hit them. Hard.

They wouldn't know anything more about Adrian's condition for some time yet, but Kayla couldn't wait until then to drop her next  bomb. She scarcely believed it when she'd been told. It had surprised her, but then from what she knew of James Henry Laine, it was exactly something the old man would have done.

Snow, despite what Ariana believed, had never been adopted. In fact, Ariana had never signed away her rights to the girl. Her grandfather had placed the girl in the care of a family that he had known very well. He had asked them to care for Snow until the day came that Ariana was ready to be a mother.

Kayla thought that was a hell of risk to take. At the time, Ariana had been a wreck and there had been no guarantee that she would ever recover to the point that she would be capable of caring for a baby. The question Kayla kept pondering, however, was if the redhead was ready to be a mother now.

That wasn't an easy call to make. Kayla thought Ariana was a natural-born mother. She would have made a great mom for Sophia and she knew that no one would ever love Snow more than Ariana did. It struck her then that she wasn't really wondering about Ariana's ability to raise a child. Instead, she was worried about herself.

If Snow came into their lives, Kayla would be a part of that. She was scared of failing... of being the very worst idea of a parent. She was sure Ariana would help her, that somehow the redhead would know what to do, but the very idea of bringing a small child into their home scared the living daylights out of her.

Of course, that was no excuse not to share what she knew with Ariana. It was time she learned the truth, but Kayla really was worried how she would handle it. But then, she reasoned, Ariana had always handled learning the truth well… much like she had when Kayla had told her about Dwayne. It had been a very hard truth. A painful revelation that must have shaken Ariana yet she never showed it. Dwayne, surprisingly, did not scare her. Kayla had never thought about that before. Dwayne finding her had been her greatest fear for ages and yet when told that a murderer was after her, Ariana didn’t bat an eye. At the time Kayla had only known Ariana for five days. She had still been that innocent, silly girl back then. She had been afraid of practically everything, but not Dwayne.

No, she had welcomed his target into her home and had very nearly lost her life in the process. Ariana, Kayla realized, had an ability that she, Kayla, did not. She could handle things. She could take something so difficult and just deal with it. She had an inner strength that Kayla couldn’t begin to imagine. After everything, she guessed the redhead had to have that strength. It was how she survived.

Much to Kayla’s surprise, the water turned cold. It was only then that she realized she had been standing in the shower for a very long time. She shut the water off and toweled herself dry. She tied a bathrobe around herself and hurried back up the stairs and into the apartment. As soon as she opened the door, she was met with the wondrous smells of breakfast cooking. Ariana turned from the stove when she heard the door open and grinned.

“Morning, Kay-Kay!” she called brightly. “Someone took a long shower this morning.”

“Yeah,” said Kayla, tossing her towel onto the back of the couch. “It was pretty relaxing.”

“We should really buy a hot tub,” Ariana said thoughtfully, moving the plate of bacon she had placed on the table out of reach of Fluffers, who had leapt stealthily onto the table and was seconds from absconding with their breakfast. “I really miss the one on the Claire.”

“We did spend a lot of time in that thing,” Kayla reminisced. “It’s not like we don’t have room for one.”

“True,” said Ariana. She held up a carton of eggs. “Scrambled or fried? I know you hate sunny side up, so I’m not even going to ask.”

“Scrambled,” said Kayla firmly. “Always scrambled.”

“I’m going to have to teach you appreciation for a variety of egg preparation methods,” said Ariana lightly. “We need to broaden your palate.” Kayla grinned as she remembered the very first time she tasted Ariana’s cooking.

“Sweetheart, living with you has broadened my palate already,” said Kayla. “I’m just glad it hasn’t widened anything else with all the food you cook. Hmm... you should make some cupcakes,” Kayla suggested suddenly. Ariana, who was just finishing with the eggs, looked up at her.

“For breakfast?” she asked curiously. “If you’re worried about getting fat, I don’t think cupcakes are the best thing for…”

“Not for breakfast,” said Kayla quickly. “Just… I was thinking of the day we met. You offered me one of your homemade cupcakes, remember?” Ariana smiled slightly.

“Oh, yeah,” she said grinning. “That feels like so long ago.”

“Not even a year yet,” said Kayla. “But you’re right. It almost seems like another lifetime. So much has happened since then. So much has changed.”

“Yeah, but all for the better,” said Ariana. “C’mon, would you really want to go back? I remember you saying once that you thought of that time as the ‘good old days’, but… were they? We’re so much better now than we were then. Dwayne’s gone and I’ve recovered so much more from everything my dad did to me. Neither of us has anything left to be afraid of.”

“Things were just so much simpler back then,” said Kayla quietly. “I knew how to handle that.”

“Things were no more simple back then than they are now,” said Ariana. “I just hadn’t told you about what happened to me yet. You had a murderer chasing you, after all. That’s not exactly simple.”

“For me, that’s very simple,” said Kayla, sitting down at the table. “Dwayne… as much as he scared me, he was simple. I understood him. I knew how he thought, how he reacted… I could anticipate his methods to a point. I knew how to handle him.”

“And you handled him spectacularly,” said Ariana with a smile. “Although, I recall having to take a couple of bullets first before you could handle him.”

“I had a plan,” said Kayla quickly.

“Did the plan involve you getting shot?” Ariana asked. “’Cause… that’s what would’ve happened.”

“I didn’t say it was a good plan,” said Kayla grumpily. “Look, what I meant was… back then things made sense. I knew how to deal with the things we were up against. Now… I don’t know anymore. Our roles have changed. I’m not your protector anymore and you…”

“You will always be my protector,” said Ariana sharply. “You protect me, remember? You always protect me. It’s just… sometimes I have to protect myself.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Kayla. She sighed and took a deep breath. “Okay, I was going to wait until later to tell you this. You just had surgery and yeah its outpatient and you’re getting around okay, but I still don’t want to stress you or anything. I just… you need to hear this. It’s about Snow.”

“Okay…” said Ariana. She slowly sat down in the chair opposite her. “What about Snow?” Kayla swallowed thickly, steeling herself to drop her bomb.

“Alright,” she said quietly. “Here goes.” She paused, taking a deep and steadying breath to calm herself before she dove in. “Snow… was never adopted,” said Kayla, once again choosing to be direct and blunt.

"What?!" Ariana exclaimed. "But grandpa said... he swore she'd find a good home."

“Your grandfather sent her to live with a family he knew... friends of his," Kayla explained. "He asked them to take care of her... until you were ready to be her mom." She paused, letting that sink in. She studied Ariana's stunned face. She had tears in her eyes and she looked devastated.

"I... I... I don't think..." Ariana mumbled. "I thought she was..."

"You never gave away your rights to Snow," said Kayla. "You're still her mother and if you want her back... all we have to do is make a phone call." Ariana stood up from her chair and started pacing the apartment. Kayla watched her for a few minutes before she stopped and leaned against the back of the couch.

“How did you find all this out?” she asked. Kayla shrugged.

“Well, I started out trying to find a record of Snow’s adoption,” she explained. “Only… well, there wasn’t one. At first I thought there had been some kind of mistake, but no… there was no record. So, then I called Dr. Pinder and asked him. He said he thought Snow had been adopted as well. Your grandfather supposedly handled everything… so that got me thinking.

“I went to that storage room where you’ve got tons of your grandfather’s paperwork stored and started digging. Eventually, I found an address book. I called a dozen numbers before I finally found the Marin family. Peter and Ella Marin, they were friends of your grandfather’s. They still work at the company he owned. I called and spoke with Ella and she told me everything.” Ariana nodded absently. Kayla could tell her mind was running a thousand miles a minute.

"He should have let her be adopted," said Ariana quietly. "She... she won't want me. She'll probably hate me."

"Oh, Ari," Kayla said gently, going over to her and guiding her to the sofa. "Honey, any kid would be damn lucky to have you as their mother.”

“I gave her away,” said Ariana weakly. “Kayla, she’ll think I didn’t want her. She’ll think…”

“She’s waiting for you, Ariana,” said Kayla firmly. “Ari… when I was talking to Ella… she told me that they’ve been telling her all along that you love her. They tell her every day that you were sick, but you’re out there getting better and one day you’re going to come back for her. She asks every single day if it’s the day you’re coming to get her. She is dying to meet you, Ari. She wants her mother. She will love you, I have no doubt.”

“I… I wouldn’t even know how to explain to her… anything that’s happened,” said Ariana. “I… She wouldn’t…”

“She’s two,” said Kayla with a small smile.

“She’ll be three,” said Ariana softly. “She’ll be three in two weeks.” Kayla’s smile widened.

“My point was that you don’t have to explain where you’ve been or about Adrian right now,” she said. “Snow’s just a little girl. She doesn’t need to know all of that right now. All she needs is you. So, if you want we can go and get her and in two weeks time we’ll throw her the biggest birthday party any kid could ask for.”

“I can’t just go and rip her out of the only home she’s ever known, Kayla,” Ariana said sadly. “She… you said she was happy there with them… the Marins, right? If she’s happy… if she loves them, why take her away from them? They must be doing a good job, right?”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Kayla. “Ari, you are Snow’s mother and she’s asking for you. I know she’s little and she doesn’t understand, but… but she understands who her mom is. She’s waiting, wondering how many more days until you come for her. We’ll love her and provide for her better than anyone else ever could.

“Snow’s not some bratty teenager that’s lived for her whole life waiting for you. She’s a little kid that just wants her mom. She’ll love you… and Ari? You say I’ve helped you heal all the time. You say you’re better because of me… but you also said once that you’ll never be completely whole again. Ari… something tells me that there’s only one missing piece left and that’s Snow.” Ariana stared at her knees, silently weeping. She seemed so lost and confused. Kayla didn’t know what else to say to convince her. All she knew was that if Ariana left Snow with the Marins, she would never forgive herself.

“Peter and Ella have been great parents to Snow,” said Kayla delicately. “But honey… they aren’t you.”

“I had a dream,” said Ariana tonelessly. “When I had surgery, I… I had a dream.”

“What was it about?” Kayla asked, not entirely sure where she was going with this.

“It was about me and my dad,” said Ariana. “Kayla, when… when he was hurting me I used to think about what it would be like if I could ever figure out what I had done wrong. He would always tell me that I had to be punished because I had been bad, only… he never said what I did. I spent so much time trying to figure it out, but I never could. I always thought that if I did and could stop doing it… we’d be happy. He and I would be together still, but… but we’d be in love and we’d be happy.

“But we both know that’s not true,” said Kayla quickly. “Ari, you weren’t doing anything wrong. Adrian…”

“I know,” said Ariana. “Kayla, I know… but back then I didn’t. Anyway, in the dream… that’s what had happened. We were together and we were happy… and we were having a baby. Then, suddenly, you were there. You told me that my dad had been hurting me and that he’d hurt my baby if she was born with him around. I didn’t understand, as far as I was concerned Adrian would never hurt me… or anyone else for that matter.

“But the next morning… the next morning, I went to the closet and… and Snow was there. He… he had been hurting her all along and I… I didn’t see it. I didn’t know. It happened right there in my house and I never stepped in, I never… I never…”

“Okay, first, that was just a dream,” said Kayla pointedly. “It didn’t happen. It wasn’t real. And even if it was, if you had given birth to a daughter, you would remember it if suddenly she disappeared and was locked in a closet and was being tortured. Secondly, as if the first part wasn’t enough, Ariana I know you. You would never stand by and watch your child be hurt. That’s a fact I would happily stake both our lives on.

“You’re a mother, Ari. You may be meek and timid, but I know you. If you knew Snow was being hurt, I’d be terrified to be standing anywhere near you because I know you’d go nuclear on whoever was doing it. Mothers are fierce and protective of their children. So, you don’t have to worry about any of that.”

“My mother wasn’t protective,” said Ariana quietly. “She let Adrian…”

“Your mother wasn’t you,” Kayla said sharply. “Your mom was a coward and she stood by and let you suffer when she could have done something to stop him. You would never do that. Ariana, you would see the wrath of the Almighty visited upon anyone who dared think of harming Snow. I don’t doubt that for one second. You are not your parents, Ari. You are not either of your parents. You’re you… and I think you will make a damn good mom.” Ariana stared at her for a long while, looking into Kayla’s eyes as though she were trying to see straight down into her soul.

“You really believe that,” she said at last. It wasn’t a question. “You have that much faith in me?”

“I do,” said Kayla plainly. “All the faith in the world.” Ariana nodded slowly and let out a very long breath she had been holding.

“Okay,” she said quietly. “I guess we’ve got a phone call to make.”

46: Chapter XLVI: One Step at a Time
Chapter XLVI: One Step at a Time

It was the scariest day of Ariana's life, and given that it was her life, that really was saying something. She would be, in a few short hours time, be coming face-to-face with her daughter. She had called and spoken with Ella Marin the same day Kayla had told her the truth. They had talked for quite some time and Ariana had done her best to assure the woman that she was ready to care for Snow.

The following day had been spent preparing the warehouse. While both Ariana and Ella had agreed that it would be best for Snow to spend some time getting acquainted with both Kayla and Ariana before they took her home, they still wanted to make as many preparations as they could.

 They didn't have much time so for the moment they arranged the far right side corner of the apartment into a makeshift bedroom for the girl. Eventually, they planned to convert the library into a bedroom for her, but that could come later. For the moment, both Kayla and Ariana were just excited to meet her.

While Ariana truly was excited, she was also terrified. She had spent the night in fear of what the following day would bring. By morning, she had envisioned virtually every awful way the meeting could go and no amount of reassurance from Kayla could calm her.

They set off to Ann Arbor after breakfast. To Ariana, the roughly hour long drive seemed both immeasurably long and entirely too short both at the same time. They arrived just after noon and cruised slowly down the town’s streets, the blaze orange Mclaren glistening in the sun beaming down from the cloudless sky.

At long last they reached the address they had been looking for. It was a nice, moderately sized house with a white picket fence around the perimeter and a well tended garden off to the left. Kayla parked the car in the driveway and looked around the center console at Ariana, who appeared to be on the verge of a panic attack.

“Relax,” the brunette said firmly. “C’mon, this is gonna be great. After everything we’ve been through, this is bound to be the easiest.” She gave Ariana’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “Now, come on. Let’s go meet your daughter.” Kayla pushed open the door and got out of the car as though that settled the matter.

 Ariana, meanwhile, felt very queasy and not at all sure that the matter was settled whatsoever. Regardless, Kayla was already walking up the cobblestone path toward the front of the house. Ariana got out, still feeling rather sick but she didn’t think it would make a very good first impression if she puked in Ella Marin’s rosebushes. Instead, she did her best to calm herself as she hurried after Kayla. She caught up just as the brunette reached the door and rang the doorbell.

It took every ounce of willpower Ariana had not to bolt back to the car in the handful of seconds it took for the door to open. When it did, however, Ariana knew she had to be strong. Peter and Ella Marin both came to greet them at the door. The couple appeared to be in their mid forties. Peter was tall and lanky with thinning black hair and hazel eyes, while Ella was short and rather plump. She had a warmth about her that extended from her smile to her bright green eyes.

“Hello,” Ella said kindly, smiling at the pair of them. “You’re obviously Ariana,” she added, indicating her brilliant red hair. “So that must make you Kayla,” she said, giving the brunette a smile.

“Yes, it’s nice to meet you in person,” said Kayla.

“Uh… yes… yes, it’s very nice to meet you,” Ariana said quickly. She was so nervous she had to clasp her hands together to keep them from shaking. Ella smiled warmly at her.

“There’s no reason to be nervous, dear,” she said reassuringly.

“She might be uncomfortable because we’re making them stand outside on the porch,” Peter Marin said, placing a hand on his wife’s shoulder.

“Oh, of course!” Ella exclaimed. “Please, come in.” The Marins stood back and allowed the girls to enter. They led them into the living room, Ella chatting all the way.

“Snow is so excited to meet you,” she told Ariana as they walked. “She hardly slept at all last night. This is a dream come true for her.”

“So, she… she’s not… upset or anything?” Ariana asked. “I mean… is she mad at me?”

“Goodness, no,” said Peter as they reached the living room. He indicated that the girls should sit down on the couch while Ella sat down on the loveseat. “No, she’s thrilled. I’ve never seen that girl so happy.”

“Why did you think she would be mad?” Ella asked, accepting the cup of tea her husband passed her and watching as he poured cups for the girls.

“Ariana’s worried that Snow would be upset that she… abandoned her,” Kayla explained when Ariana didn’t answer.

“I just…” Ariana hesitated, unsure what to say. “I thought she might be…”

“She’s two,” said Ella kindly. “We’ve told her all along how much you love her and miss her. She knows you want to be with her and she’s thrilled to meet you.”

“She wanted to be down here when you arrived, but we thought it was best if we met you first, so she’s upstairs in her room.” Peter explained. Ariana nodded slowly.

“Okay…” she said, still feeling very nervous. “I… what’s she like? Snow, I mean.”

“Oh, she’s the sweetest thing,” said Ella brightly. “She’s funny, playful…”

“Smart,” Peter put in. “She’s a very smart kid. She started talking earlier than most kids, walking earlier... She’s much more advanced than most two-year-olds.”

“Oh, yes,” Ella agreed. “She’s going to be a little scientist or something when she grows up, I know it.”

“And you… you’re both okay with this?” Ariana wanted to know. “With… with me, I mean? Snow… she’s your daughter. You’ve raised her, you been there and I…”

“But Snow isn’t our daughter,” said Peter. “She knows that and we know that.”

“We knew from the very beginning that this arrangement was temporary,” said Ella. “James, he… he was so sure you were going to recover. He knew it. He contacted us and begged us to take Snow. We agreed, of course. James had always been so kind to us, gave us jobs at Laine Worldwide back when we didn’t have a dime to our name. Naturally, when he asked us to take care of his granddaughter's baby girl, well... what were we supposed to say?"

"We knew all along you'd come back for her, Ariana," said Peter. "Ella and I are just happy we got to know and love her for as long as we have."

"So... so, can I see her?" Ariana asked. Ella smiled and nodded.

"I'll go and get her," said Peter. He hurried out of the room. The three women sat in silence for a few moments, waiting. Ariana was trembling from head to toe and would have given anything to simply vanish from the face of the Earth in that moment. Unsurprisingly, the redhead did not disappear at all and was still sitting nervously on the sofa clutching Kayla's hand when Peter returned.

Standing at his side was a girl that could only be Snow. She stood roughly three feet tall and had brilliant red hair. Just like Ariana’s, it fell in loose curls to her waist. She was smiling brightly, gazing at Ariana with oh so familiar blue eyes. Slowly, she released Peter's hand and started walking over.

Ariana had wanted to make such a good first impression. She had wanted to be the perfect image of a calm, cool, and collected mother. By the time Snow reached Ariana and placed her tiny hands on the girl's knee, the redhead was positively sobbing.

"You're my mommy," the little girl said as plain as you please. She was still smiling, but her face fell slightly when Ariana continued to cry. "What's wrong? You're crying."

"I... I'm just so happy to see you," said Ariana. She slowly slipped off the couch and knelt on the floor in front of Snow. The little redhead looked confused.

"People cry when they're sad," she reasoned. "If you're happy, you should smile!"

"Honey, these are happy tears, I promise," Ariana assured her. "I'm very, very happy."

"That's silly," said Snow with a shrug of her tiny shoulders. "Happy people should smile." Ariana did, in fact, smile. How could she not?  Snow smiled back.

"Do you like horses?" she asked curiously.

"I love horses," said Ariana. "And unicorns."

"I have a unicorn!" Snow exclaimed. Sure enough, the girl scurried across the room and retrieved a plush unicorn from where it sat on an end table. She rushed back over and held it out to Ariana.

"Oh, she's beautiful," Ariana enthused. "What's her name?"

"Mikayla," said Snow brightly. Ariana grinned over her shoulder at Kayla, who smiled back.

"That's her name too," said Ariana, nodding toward Kayla.

"Really?" Snow asked, looking over at Kayla. The brunette grinned.

"Really truly," she told the girl. Snow scrunched up her face and held the unicorn's nose close to her ear. She nodded after a moment and held the unicorn out to Kayla.

"She wants to go and live with you," Snow said. Kayla reached out and accepted the toy.

"Are you sure?" Kayla asked her.

"Yes," said Snow firmly. "She would like that very much."

"Well, I will be sure to take very good care of her then," said Kayla, tucking the toy securely under her arm. Snow smiled happily.

"Yay!" she exclaimed in a voice so like Ariana's that both the redhead and the brunette's eyes widened. Snow didn't seem to notice then, however, and turned back to Ariana. "Can I show you my dollhouse?" Ariana followed the girl across the room to where she had a large dollhouse. Kayla leaned back in her seat, watching them. Within moments, they were laughing and playing as though they had known each other for years.

"You'd never have to ask if Snow is Ari's daughter," Kayla said in a low voice to Ella and Peter, who had been watching from the doorway.

"No, you really wouldn't," said Peter. "They've hit it off, haven't they?"

"They have," Kayla agreed. "Gosh, she looks and sounds just like her. There's not an ounce of Adrian in that kid."

"Good," said Ella sharply, a suddenly harshness to her otherwise kind voice. "That man..."

"Did you know Adrian?" Kayla asked her. "I mean, he was James's son, so..."

"We met him... once, I think," said Ella, while Peter nodded his agreement. "At a dinner party. Adrian was always a rebel. He was violent and angry all his life. We had just started working for Henry and he invited us up to his home for the party. About midway through the dinner, Adrian barges in and begs his dad for money."

"James had already given him his trust fund," Peter added. "Adrian had already blown through it. James refused to help him any more and... well, from what I know they never saw each other again. Adrian was... gosh, probably nineteen or twenty. He disappeared after that and I didn't hear his name again until James told me Adrian was going to prison."

"He never looked for his son?" Kayla asked, quite surprised by this.

“Oh, I’m sure James looked, but…” Peter paused, shrugging. “James was a fair man, but a hard man. He’d give anybody a fair shake at it. He judged people by their actions, nothing more. He’d give second chances too. People screw up, he understood that. With Adrian… he’d given much more than a second chance to him. James gave his son the world and he threw it back in his face. When Adrian left to go his own way, James let him. I think he figured he’d come back when he was ready.”

“Yeah, except he was torturing his daughter instead of learning a good life lesson,” said Kayla.

“James felt particularly bad about that,” said Ella. “He blamed himself, partially. The truth is, it wasn’t his fault. James was a damn good father… the best.”

“I just can’t figure out how Adrian… became what he is,” said Kayla quietly. “How does anybody become so… evil?”

“Some people are just born that way,” said Peter. Kayla nodded but didn’t reply. She wasn’t sure she believed that, but she had no desire to argue the point. How Adrian had become a monster didn’t really matter that much. What became of him in the future, however, Kayla would be very interested in that.

It seemed fate would give Kayla that information sooner rather than later. They had lunch with the Marins and afterwards Kayla and Ariana took Snow up to her bedroom. The girl was excited to show them around and introduce them to the rest of her stuffed toys.

Kayla had to admit that Snow was a really sweet kid and fun to be around. This was amplified by the fact that Ariana’s nervousness had all but evaporated. She was cheerful and just as excited as Snow was. To Kayla, this day would be one of the most important in Ariana’s life. It was, perhaps, the last piece of the puzzle she had been missing. It was the piece that would allow her to fully heal.

The brunette did her best to hover in the background, letting the mother and daughter bond by themselves. However, both Ariana and Snow seemed insistent on keeping her around. At one point in the late afternoon as Kayla was watching the girls play, she was suddenly struck by a horror she hadn’t considered before.

Ariana had been three, had been only a few weeks older than Snow, when Adrian had first locked her in that closet. Her hatred of the man boiled over and she had to go out into the hallway so that neither Snow nor Ariana would notice that she looked like she wanted to tear someone apart. She stood there, in the Marin’s finely decorated hallway, positively seething with rage. It was at that moment that her phone rang.  

The conversation was brief and moments later she was easing back into Snow’s bedroom. She stood by the door, watching the mother daughter duo for a few minutes. She hated to ruin this moment, to shatter this wonderful day, but she knew she had to.

“Hey, Ari?” she said quietly. “Can I see you out here for a second?” Ariana looked up, the smile fading almost instantly from her face when she saw Kayla’s expression. She whispered to Snow to wait there, kissing her gently on top of her head before joining Kayla in the hall.

“What’s wrong?” Ariana asked as soon as she pulled the door closed behind her. “What’s going on?”

“Um… Dr. Cole just called,” Kayla began, wondering as she did so how in the world she was supposed to pass this news along. The redhead stood there, watching her intently. She swallowed thickly and pressed on. “It’s about your dad, he… The transplant didn’t work as well as we’d hoped. It, uh… it didn’t really work very much at all and… and Adrian took a turn for the worse. Dr. Cole said… he said Adrian might have a day… at most, but… but no longer than that.”

Ariana slumped back against the wall. She didn’t speak; she just stared at her shoes. Kayla waited, not sure if she should try to comfort her. Slowly, Ariana looked up at her.

“I should go… go and see him,” Ariana said softly. “I should be there. I have to be there. I need to say goodbye.”

-.-

The Marins and Snow all came downstairs to see Kayla and Ariana out. Snow, it seemed, was on the verge of tears. Ariana knelt down in front of her in the doorway and hugged her.

“I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise,” she told her daughter firmly. Snow looked doubtful.

“I waited so long,” she said sadly. “You’re leaving already…”

“Only for a little while, sweetie,” Ariana assured her. “I’ll only be gone a little while and then we’ll be back. I made you a promise, Snowflake. There’s something you don’t know about me. When I make a promise, I keep it. No matter what, I always keep my promises. So, tomorrow afternoon Kayla and I will be right back here again, okay?” She hugged the girl tightly and kissed her again.

With tears in her eyes, she bid the Marins goodbye and followed Kayla to the car. The brunette fired up the engine and slowly backed the supercharged V8 out of the driveway. Snow stood with the Marins, waving the whole time. Ariana waved back out of the window until Kayla took the car further down the street and Snow disappeared from view.

Kayla took Ariana’s hand as she put the car on the highway. The redhead looked over at her and smiled. It was a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. Neither of them knew what their return to the hospital would bring. Neither of them knew how Ariana would handle saying goodbye to her father, but they did know that they would deal with it as they always did: one step at a time.

47: Chapter XLVII: In the Pines
Chapter XLVII: In the Pines

They drove straight to St. Julian Memorial from the Marin house. It was already getting dark by the time they arrived. Kayla parked the Mclaren in the visitor’s lot and together she and Ariana made their way into the building.

They met Dr. Cole when they stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor. He explained the situation in more detail to Ariana than he had when he had spoken with Kayla. The redhead, in truth, cared very little. All she needed to know what that her dad was dying and she wanted to see him.

Dr. Cole walked away, his apologies for not being able to help Adrian still ringing in her ears as Ariana eased open the door to Adrian’s room. It was dark, much like before, only this time she found she wasn’t afraid. She was just very sad. She glanced back at Kayla, who nodded encouragingly.

“I’m right here, sweetie,” she said softly. Ariana stepped into the room. Kayla followed her and let the door close behind her. The brunette lingered near the door as Ariana made her way across the room to Adrian’s bed. He looked even more frail and weak than he had the last time she had seen him. It was very clear that he was dying and there was nothing she or anyone else could do to save him.

Despite who he was and what he’d done, Ariana was heartbroken. He was her father. That still meant something to her. That link, that connection, it meant something. It was special to her. It was a connection that she could never replace. Her eyes shining with tears, Ariana gently took his hand. Adrian looked up at her slowly, weakly.

“Ariana…” he said, his deep intimidating voice forever weakened to a whisper. “I… I was afraid you wouldn’t come… that I wouldn’t get to see you again before… before…”

“I know,” she said softly. “I know what I said before… that I would never come back, but I had to. I had to.”

“I’m glad you did,” said Adrian. “I really wanted to see you again. I want… I want to die with the thought of the woman my little girl grew up to be. I was wrong before, Ariana. I told you that you were weak… but you’re not. You’re strong. You are so, so strong and I’m… really proud of you.” Ariana smiled a watery smile and gently kissed the back of his hand.

“Daddy, I… what you did to me…”

“Let’s not talk about that,” said Adrian. “Let’s not…”

“Its okay, let me finish,” Ariana countered. “Please, I need to say this. Dad, what you did to me was wrong. You did terrible things to me and you really hurt me… but what you did… it made me the person I am today… and I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.

“I tried to imagine who I would be… you know, in another life. A life where you loved me and treated me the way a father should… and I’m not sure if I would like that person or not. I like who I am now. I love my life and all the people in it. So, I wouldn’t change a thing. I know you’re not sorry for what you did. I know you don’t regret it… and neither do I.” Ariana broke off, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

“I used to think you broke me, but you didn’t,” she told him. “You cracked me… and it took a long time and a lot of really good people to help put the pieces back together. But I built a life that I love and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. So, I want you to know that I forgive you. I forgive you. I love you and I forgive you.”

It seemed that Adrian’s strength was all but sapped. He opened his mouth, trying to speak but he could only gasp. Ariana leaned close so she could hear him. Finally, he managed to choke out the simple sentence.

“I love you.” Ariana wanted nothing more than to dissolve into tears, but she held her composure. She stood there for a while, just holding his hand. Minutes were ticking by, the last moments of Adrian’s life. There were so many things she wanted to say. So many questions she wished she could ask. She chose to hold them all back. She didn’t ask any questions at all.

She silently lowered the railing on the side of his bed and cuddled up to him. He only vaguely responded to her presence by clinging more tightly to her hand. She cradled his head against her chest and, after a few minutes, she began to slowly sing.

"Little girl, little girl, don't lie to me. Tell me, where did you sleep last night? In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines. Will shiver the whole night through.

"My daddy was a railroad man, killed a mile and a half from here. His head was found in the driver's wheel. His body was never found. In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines. Will shiver the whole night through.

"You've caused me to weep, you've caused me to mourn. You've caused me to lose my home. Little girl, little girl, where'd you sleep last night? Not even your mother knows. In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines. Will shiver when the cold winds blow.

To Kayla, it would always be the most hauntingly beautiful song she had ever heard. She listened, hovering in the background, not wanting to interfere. She felt horrible for Ariana and could scarcely imagine what she was going through and yet she was also very angry.

There was no justice in this. No closure, no… anything. Adrian would be dead, certainly. Ariana would no longer have to fear him, but… but he was going to die warm and comfortable. He was going to just slip away painlessly as his daughter sang sweetly to him. The sheer injustice of it made Kayla’s blood boil. She was so angry, in fact, that she had to step out into the hall just to keep from screaming.

Cooper, whom they had called on their drive in to the hospital, stood outside watching Ariana and Adrian silently through the large window. Kayla couldn’t gauge his emotions. His face was impassive. She went and stood beside him, watching the father and daughter share in a final goodbye.

“I hate this,” Kayla said grimly, causing Cooper to look over at her. “It’s not right.”

“Most things aren’t,” said Cooper dryly.

“This, though… I mean, for what that bastard did… he deserves to suffer like she did and instead he gets to pass on, held in the arms of his loving daughter.” Kayla rolled her eyes and sighed. “She doesn’t even get revenge for what he did to her.”

“You think Ari would want revenge?” Cooper asked quietly. “Because if you do, then you don’t know her at all. Kayla, this… it’s not about what you or I want or what we think Adrian deserves. It’s about Ariana and what she needs. She needs to say goodbye. She doesn’t need revenge or payback or even an apology. She needs to say goodbye to her father.”

“Yeah, but…”

“No, buts, Kayla,” Cooper interrupted her. “I hate him too, okay? Really, I do. I’d love for you and me to go in there and tear him apart. We could… but we’d be doing it for us instead of her. This isn’t the time for us to be selfish, Kayla. We need to be there for Ari when she needs us.”

“Damn you, Cooper Jackson,” said Kayla, but she managed a thin smile. “You’re like Ariana. You have an annoying tendency to be right far too often.”

“It’s a gift,” Cooper said airily. The two of them looked at each other and suddenly began to laugh. Both of them were forced into silence a moment later when a quiet droning sound emitted from Adrian’s room. Kayla knew immediately what it meant. She knew that Adrian was gone. She was rather surprised to find that she didn’t feel remotely happy about that fact. She thought she would have.

“I… I’ll make sure she’s okay,” she said, pulling open the door and going back into the room. Ariana was still lying next to Adrian, slowly stroking the back of his hand. Gently, she placed his hand on his stomach and slid out of bed. She leaned in close and kissed him on his forehead before reaching up and flipping the power switch on the EKG, plunging the room into complete silence. She turned around to leave and looked surprised when she saw Kayla standing there.

“Are you okay?” Kayla asked her as Ariana moved forward into the brunette’s embrace.

“Yeah,” Ariana replied when they broke apart. “Actually, I am.” She looked suddenly very sad and she looked back at her father. “I should be sad he’s gone, I… I know I should be, but… I’m not.” She looked back at Kayla, her eyes shining with tears.

“When he died, Kayla… the only thing I felt was relief.”

“That’s… perfectly understandable,” said Kayla gently. “You’re free of him. It’s okay to feel like that.”

“Today, when we were with Snow, I… I was so happy, but terrified at the same time,” said Ariana. “I kept thinking… what if got his hands on her? What would he do to her? If I hadn’t gotten away from him… if I was still in that closet… if I’d had Snow when I was there… I know he would’ve done the very same things he did to me.”

“Probably,” Kayla admitted. “He probably would have.”

“Right…” Ariana mumbled. “So… so I’m glad he’s dead. I love him. I’ll miss him… I’ll always love him, but… but for Snow’s sake I’m glad he’s gone. She’s safe now… we both are.” She looked back again at Adrian. She stood, gazing at him for a long moment before turning away.

“Let’s go,” she whispered. Kayla reached out and took her hand. Ariana squeezed the brunette’s hand and together they walked out of Adrian’s room.

-.-

Despite being mid August, the warehouse was oddly cold when Ariana slipped out of bed the following morning. She put on her slippers and padded out into the apartment. She was planning to start breakfast, but Fluffers caught her attention and she sat down on the couch to stroke thick fur. He purred contentedly as her slender fingers slipped through her long strands of hair.

“Am I a horrible person, Fluffs?” she asked the cat. He purred loudly in response.

“For being glad that my dad is dead, obviously,” she replied. “I mean… doesn’t that make me… bad?” The cat nuzzled her hand lovingly.

“Yeah, I know…” said Ariana quietly. “I guess I just… I thought I would at least feel a little sad, but… I don’t. Like I told Kayla, I’m just relieved.” Fluffers just continued to purr.

“You don’t care, do you?” she asked. “As long as I feed you and pet you, you’ll still love me, won’t you? Yes, you do, Fluffers McMuffins. Yes, you do.”

“It is entirely too early for baby talk,” Kayla groaned, stumbling sleepily out of the bedroom and falling onto the couch next to her.

“’Morning,” Kayla muttered as Ariana pressed her lips to hers.

“’Morning,” Ariana replied. She sighed. “Ugh… I don’t want to deal with Adrian’s funeral arrangements today.” She complained. Kayla shrugged.

“Then don’t,” she replied. “Let the city take care of him.”

“Kayla,” said Ariana, looking scandalized. “I’m not doing that. We’ll… we’ll have him cremated.”

“And keep his ashes on the mantle?” Kayla asked. “I don’t think so.”

“Of course not,” said Ariana firmly. “And we haven’t got a mantle. No, I just… I know a place we could spread his ashes. I… I think that’s best.”

“If that’s what you want, sweetie, you know I’ve got your back,” said Kayla. “Don’t worry; I’ll make all the arrangements. You just get ready to go see Snow again. I know you’re excited about that.

It was true, Ariana was very excited indeed to see Snow again. They had bonded so well in the afternoon they had spent together. And fear and doubt she may have had the day before was gone. She wanted, more than anything, to be Snow’s mother. She wanted to be there, with her, every single day forward. She wanted to bring Snow home.

After breakfast, the girls got in the car and set off once again for Ann Arbor. When they arrived, they saw Snow standing with her nose pressed firmly against the glass storm door. She did a little dance when she saw the high performance car pull into the driveway.

"Mommy!" Snow shouted as Ariana and Kayla got out of the car. The little redhead raced across the lawn and met Ariana before she had even reached the path that led to the front door.

"Hey, Snowflake!" Ariana exclaimed, scooping the little girl into her arms. "You doing okay today, sweetpea?"

"I'm fine," she said brightly. "You came back!" Ariana grinned.

"Of course I did," she said. "I told you. When I make a promise..."

"You keep it," Snow finished for her. "You really do, don't you?"

"She most certainly does," said Kayla, pulling the strap of her purse over her shoulder. She still had Mikayla the Unicorn inside, its head protruding out as though it were one of those tiny dogs people liked to carry around. Snow smiled when she saw it.

"She loves you," the girl said happily. "Peter and Ella are making lunch."

"Well, then we shouldn't keep them waiting, should we?" Ariana asked. Snow shook her head and the three girls made their way into the house. Ariana put her daughter down on her own two feet once they were inside. She darted into the kitchen, leading the way. Ariana watched Kayla follow her and she turned back to close the door, feeling happier than she ever had before.

48: Chapter XLVIII: A Dream of Change
Chapter XLVIII: A Dream of Change

They stood at the edge of a stream in the small town of Mistbrook Falls. Mistbrook Falls had a population of around 5,000 and lay about an hour northwest of Detroit. It was an easygoing, pleasant kind of town. It was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone... and by extension, their business. It was a town where you could still leave your doors open in the evenings and let your kids ride their bikes across town on their own.

It was the place where Ariana had chosen to spread her father's ashes. The stream ran along the edge of town and was flanked on both sides by tall oak trees. The town earned its name by the thick blankets of mist that so often hovered over the stream in the early hours of the morning.

Ariana, Kayla, Snow, Cooper, Alana, and Sophia had all gathered there two days after Adrian's death to lay the man to rest. No words were said, no fond memories of Adrian or his life were shared. Ariana simply carried the small canister to the edge of the stream and poured the ashes within out in a graceful arc above the water. It was all the pomp and circumstance anyone believed Adrian deserved. It was enough for Ariana. She had said her goodbyes. She had closed the book on Adrian and that part of her life for good.

She was starting a new book now, a much happier one. The characters were her friends and her new family. There were no villains, no bad guys, no dark and evil plots. It was filled with joy and friendship and love. It might not be the kind of book that anyone would want to read, but it was exactly the one she wanted to write.

Ariana placed the canister in the stream and allowed the water to carry it away. She stood there and watched it until it drifted out of sight. Then she turned away and walked back over to where the others were gathered. Snow and Sophia, despite their age difference, had struck up a fast friendship in the few hours that they had spent together. Even now, they were running and playing in the tall grass a few yards away.

"Are you okay?" Cooper asked her as she reached them. Ariana nodded.

"Yeah, I'm good," said Ariana, watching the girls play with a smile on her face.

"You know, this is a pretty nice town," said Alana thoughtfully. "It wouldn't be such a bad place to live."

"Not at all," Kayla agreed. "It's so peaceful and quiet. I never thought I'd like the small town life, but I could live here. It'd be a nice change of pace from the big city."

"I thought you liked the big city," said Ariana pointedly. "You told me once that small towns bored you."

"They used to," said Kayla with a shrug. "That was before our lives got a little too exciting. I could use some boredom, to be honest."

"Fair point," Ariana agreed. Although Kayla couldn't know it, the thought of leaving the city was something Ariana had been considering for some time. Now that Snow had come into their lives and would hopefully soon be moving in with them, the idea had returned to her with a vengeance.

Detroit wasn't the safest of cities and the warehouse wasn't the best place to raise a child. Ariana absolutely adored the warehouse and the thought of no longer living there broke her heart, but perhaps... perhaps it was time. In truth, they didn't have much room in the warehouse. Sure, they had plenty of floor space but in the area where they lived, they were pretty squashed in.

The apartment itself was quite small. It was enough room for two people to live comfortably, but any more than that and they just didn't have the space. Their bedroom had once been an office and it too was small. While the break room that Ariana had converted into a library could be made into a second bedroom, they still wouldn't have much space.

What they needed, although Ariana didn’t want to admit it, was a house. A real, true, honest to goodness house. A house like Penny's back in California. Ariana had enjoyed her time there. There had been a feeling of warmth and normalcy that the warehouse just didn't have. She missed that.

She hadn't been sure how to voice these thoughts to Kayla, for she suspected that the other girl was quite happy where she was. She hadn't thought the brunette would have any desire to move out of the warehouse. Now, though, she wasn't so sure Kayla would be opposed to the idea.

It wasn't until a little later that afternoon, when all of them were walking across town to a small restaurant Cooper knew about, that Ariana decided to broach the topic. They were walking along the sideway down a quaint, peaceful street. The houses were large and their lawns perfectly manicured. The girls were walking a bit behind Cooper and Alana, who were holding hands and looking like the perfect image of new love. Sophia and Snow trailed behind them, stopping occasionally to pluck a flower from the ground. Ariana and Kayla brought up the rear, the former keeping a close eye on the two children.

It was then that they came upon a very nice house with a For Sale sign in the front yard. It drew Ariana's eye immediately because it was painted a very light shade of pink. It was a Victorian style home, but had been updated with a modern flair.

It had a white picket fence around the large front yard and on the left side of the house at the end of the driveway that curved across the yard and past the front doors, she could see a three car garage. A large oak tree, complete with a tree house dominated the left side of the property, casting much of the front yard into shadow.

"Ooooh, Kayla," Ariana exclaimed. "Look at it! It's so pretty."

"It is, isn't it?" The brunette mused. "It's kind of nice, actually. What? Do you want to buy it?" Ariana hesitated before turning to look at her. She bit her lower lip nervously.

"Would... would it be so bad?" the redhead asked uncertainly. "I mean... if we didn't live at the warehouse anymore?" Kayla looked back at the house and shrugged.

"No... no, it would be bad," she said slowly. "I mean, I love the warehouse... I just... I thought you'd never want to live anywhere else."

"I didn't think I would," said Ariana quietly recalling, as she was sure Kayla was, the time she had adamantly defended the warehouse to the brunette. "But with Snow... I've been thinking and I... I think it might be time to start considering other options."

"Wow," said Kayla. "The warehouse just... you and the warehouse just fit together. It'd be weird, but we could do it." Kayla took out her phone and saved the contact number for the real estate company that was selling the house. "It wouldn't hurt to take a look, right?"

-.-

A week later, the girls did just that. Everything else in their lives was falling quickly into place. Cooper and Alana were well on their way to finalizing Sophia's adoption and on Saturday, August 23rd, Snow would at long last be coming to live with them.

That, however, was still two days away and the girls had wanted to check out the house in Mistbrook Falls before she arrived. They drove back into town and met with the real estate agent at the house. The agent, a remarkably skinny man with large eyes and a rather pointed nose greeted them as they stepped out of the car.

"Hello, hello ladies! I'm Stephen Hale," he called loudly. "Welcome to Mistbrook Falls. It may sound like the name of a town in a horror movie, but I assure you it isn't."

"Thank you," said Kayla, shaking his outstretched hand. "We spent some time here a week ago. It seems like a pretty nice town."

"Oh, it is, it is," Stephen enthused. "Believe me, it is. You'll love it here and this home is truly outstanding, I assure you." He paused, looking back and forth between the girls. "Well, if you'll come with me, I'll be happy to show you around."

He led them across the yard and up to the stained glass front doors. When he opened the door, Kayla heard Ariana let out a tiny gasp. Much like the outside, the interior of the house was a mix of old and new. Immediately to their left once they passed through the foyer was a spacious sitting room with large windows that looked out on the front yard.

To their right lay the dining room, a long room complete with a table that could seat eight. Further on and back on the left, an L-shaped staircase led up to the second floor. On the right, the walls opened onto the large and sparkling kitchen. Ariana's face broke into a wide smile when she saw it.

"I need this kitchen," she said weakly. "We haven't got this kitchen."

"I don't think we can just buy the kitchen," Kayla pointed out. "We'd have to buy the whole house."

"Do you think we should?" the redhead inquired, examining the electric stove with great interest.

"I could see us living here," Kayla said idly. "But I think we ought to see the upstairs first." She turned to Stephen. "How many bedrooms?"

"Four," he replied. "And three baths. Two upstairs, one downstairs. There’s plenty of room in this house, I assure you."

“He likes to assure people a lot, doesn’t he?” Ariana whispered to Kayla as they followed Stephen upstairs and explored the bedrooms. There were two at the front of the house and another at the back. There was also an office and a nursery.

"Plenty of room to raise a family," Kayla offered once they were back downstairs and wandering through the conservatory at the back of the house. She glanced at Ariana, who was looking out of the wide windows at the sprawling backyard.

"I think this could be it," said Ariana quietly. "I mean, we haven't looked at any others, but... I love it."

"I do too," said the brunette. "It reminds me of my mom's house a little, actually. It'd be different. It'd be... pretty nice."

"It would be," Ariana agreed. "We could put in a pool... and that hot tub we wanted."

"We could," said Kayla thoughtfully. She flipped idly through the documentation Stephen had provided. "They want five hundred and fifty grand. Not bad, considering all the space and the size of the yard. So... what do you think? Should we make an offer?" Ariana turned away from the window and stared at Kayla for a long while. Slowly, with a sad look in her eyes, she nodded.

-.-

"I can't believe you guys are moving!" Cooper exclaimed when the girls told him the following day.

"Us either, really," said Kayla quietly. "It's just... with Snow moving in, we really need the space and the warehouse isn't really the safest place for a kid her age."

"And you're okay with this, Ari?" Cooper asked the redhead as she placed a plate of cookies on the coffee table in front of them. She shrugged.

"It was my idea," she said. "I love this place, the warehouse... I'll miss it, but... but we need this. It'll be good for us. The warehouse... it's great, but it isn't the place for us to start our family."

"Yeah, but... but you built this place, Ari," Cooper exclaimed. "You made this place what it is! You made it a home."

"And we can make 842 Tranquility Circle a home too," said Kayla firmly. "Mistbrook Falls isn't even that far away. We'll still be able to see each other whenever we want and we aren't selling the warehouse. We're going to keep it so we have a place whenever we're in the city. You and Alana can feel free to use it whenever you want."

"We want to raise Snow in a normal house," said Ariana. "With a yard, and neighbors, and things like that."

“What good are neighbors?” Cooper said irritably. “All they do is cause trouble and tell you that you need to trim your rosebushes.”

“I don’t think there were any rosebushes,” said Ariana thoughtfully.

“You’re missing the point,” said Cooper sharply.

“Well, what is the point?” asked Kayla. “Listen, I know you’re upset Coop, but… but we want this. So, be happy for us.”

“I… I am happy for you,” said Cooper quietly. “Really, I am. You guys… you deserve some happiness after everything you’ve been through. I just… I’m gonna miss you. Mistbrook Falls is an hour away. I won’t be able to drop in an check on you as often. You won’t be ‘the girls in the warehouse’ anymore.”

“Hmm… ‘the girls in the warehouse’,” Kayla mused, scribbling it down on a piece of paper. “That’s pretty clever. Can I use that?”

“For what?” Ariana asked, exchanging a very confused glance with Cooper.

“I… I was just… I was thinking about, maybe… writing a book.” She looked nervously between them when they didn’t say anything. Moments later, both of them started laughing.

“I actually thought you were serious for a second,” said Ariana, chortling.

“I am serious,” said Kayla grumpily. “We’ve been through so much… I thought I should write it all down. Sort of… make a record of everything, you know? I wasn’t going to get it published or anything, I just… it’s sort of therapeutic, really. I haven’t been able to come up with a title yet, so…”

“I think that’s a great idea,” said Ariana, smiling rather proudly. “I want a signed copy when you’re finished.”

“You’ll get the first one, sweetie,” said Kayla.

-.-

At long last, the day had arrived. Snow would be coming to live with them. The day before, they had gone downtown and went car shopping once again. With two becoming three, they needed another vehicle. This time, they planned to get one that came with a back seat. They eventually settled on a Audi S8, a luxury sedan with plenty of legroom, cargo space, and according to Kayla, plenty of power as well.

The car was mostly meant for Ariana to drive, since now that Kayla was spending a lot of time with Alana at West Coast Weddings Ariana often found herself without transportation. Given that Ariana would be the one driving it, Kayla asked the salesman for something special as a surprise for the redhead. She had them paint the car a bright pink. Ariana had loved it.

And so on Saturday morning, they set out for Ann Arbor once again. This time, Ariana wasn’t nervous or scared sick. She was unbelievably happy. When they arrived, Snow met them at the door with such exuberance that even Ariana was surprised. They spent the afternoon with the Marins, giving them plenty of time with the girl they had come to love so much.

By mid-afternoon, they all said their goodbyes. Ariana and Kayla both promised to bring Snow back regularly to visit. It broke Ariana’s heart to see Peter and Ella both in tears when they walked away toward the car, but Snow turned back to them and smiled. It seemed she knew just what to say.

“I’ll love you for always,” she told them before letting each of them lift her up in the air and hug her. After that, they let the girl go and Ariana secured her safely in the back seat. Kayla started the engine and with a final wave to Peter and Ella, they set out for home.

Ariana rode in the back with Snow, keeping her entertained for the hour drive back to Detroit. She had her daughter back. She finally, blessedly, unbelievably had her daughter back. She would never have imagined it, and yet it had happened.

 It seemed, she thought as the lights of Detroit grew nearer, that they seemed to have turned a corner. Their lives were finally heading in the right direction. She didn’t think she could be happier or that their future could possibly seem more bright. Little did she know that they were on a collision course with disaster.  

49: Chapter XLIX: California Dreamin'
Chapter XLIX: California Dreamin'

“Ugh…” Kayla groaned as she drug herself through the door late on a Thursday evening almost a month later. The girls had spent the past month acclimating Snow to her new home and also planning their own wedding. Kayla, meanwhile, had also been paying her debt at West Coast Weddings given that Sophia had been adopted by Cooper and Alana a week earlier.

“I hate my job,” the brunette complained, falling miserably onto the couch. Ariana brought her a juice box and kissed her on her forehead.

“Don’t be so sad,” she said consolingly. “It’s for a good cause. And besides… we’re getting married on Sunday!”

"I know and I'm really excited," said Kayla. "And I get to go back to Cali and see my mom and friends again, but I'm really, really tired."

"Aww, my poor baby," Ariana cooed. "What can I do to make you feel better?"

"Did you really just ask me that?" Kayla inquired, grinning widely. "There's always something you can do."

"After Snow's in bed, you naughty girl," said Ariana, swatting her playfully on her shoulder.

"Yeah, yeah, go ahead and say it," said Kayla. "I know the drill."

"You are a bad girl, Kay-Kay," Ariana quipped. "Very bad."

"And as always, you love me for it," said Kayla pointedly.

“I most certainly do,” the redhead replied. She glanced around the room quickly before turning back to Kayla. “I think I’ve got everything packed that we won’t need to use until we get to your mom’s house. Plenty of clothes, all of Snow’s stuff… so, we should be in good shape in the morning.”

“And you did charter your grandfather’s private jet, right?” Kayla inquired. “If I have to fly commercial tomorrow…”

“It’s all set up,” said Ariana gently. “Cooper, Alana, and Sophie will meet us at the airport in the morning. And look at you. Having money has already changed you.”

“I didn’t say I was above flying commercial,” said Kayla sleepily. “I just meant if I had to do it after the week I’ve had, I’d probably end up tossing someone out of the plane.”

“Wow, you are grumpy,” said the redhead. “Go get some sleep, Kay-Kay. This is going to be a long, busy weekend.”

Truer words, Kayla soon realized, had never been spoken. They woke very early the next morning to get ready and finish packing. By the time Cooper and Alana arrived, the brunette was already in a bad mood. Ariana, naturally, was all aflutter. She helped Cooper load their bags into the car, chatting excitedly all the while. Soon enough, they were off to the airport.

It was mid-September and autumn was already in full swing. Temperatures had dropped from their summer highs and already people were thinking of the harsh winter snows that would soon be coming. Kayla had enough to worry about right then to even consider winter. In twenty-four hours, she would be getting married. The very idea of it scared her to death.

Nothing would really change, of course. Ariana would be changing her last name to Austin, dropping Laine completely. Other than that, not much would be different. Kayla would introduce the redhead as her wife instead of her girlfriend, but not much else would change. So, why was she so worried?

Perhaps it was because so much had changed in such a short amount of time. Two months ago, they had been a carefree young couple with no responsibilities and nothing tying them down. Now, they had a daughter, a niece, were moving into a new house in a new city, and would soon be married. It was so much, so fast. She couldn’t be the carefree girl anymore. She had responsibilities and people who depended on her.

It was then that she understood why she was so scared. She wasn’t afraid of being someone’s wife or even someone’s mother. She was afraid of failing at those jobs. She was scared that somehow she would let both Ariana and Snow down. That she couldn’t live up to their expectations. She realized then how Ariana must have felt when she, Kayla, had constantly been putting the poor girl up on a pedestal and shouting her praise to the heavens.

Of course, Ariana would never do something like that to Kayla. The redhead never asked too much, not one bit more than someone was willing to give. Maybe that was the good thing about marriage. If one person failed, the other was there to help them pick themselves back up and make things right. Kayla knew that if she failed, Ariana would help her. That was, she supposed, enough.

They reached the airport in due time and quickly boarded the sleek aircraft that would carry them west. The crew stowed their bags while the six of them plus Fluffers got settled. Then, the plane taxied onto the runway and roared its way into the sky.

“We’ll be married the next time we see Detroit,” Ariana mused from the seat next to her. Kayla looked over as the girl rested her head on her shoulder. Kayla didn’t reply. Instead, she laced her fingers through the redhead’s on the armrest and smiled.

-.-

The plane touched down, hours later, at the San Diego International Airport. Penny, Mia, Jennifer, and Nikki were all waiting for them at the gate when they disembarked. Kayla’s friends were as excitable and enthusiastic as always, overly so perhaps when Ariana introduced them to Snow.

Penny was excited to meet Cooper, who she would later tell Kayla and Ariana that she wholly approved of. She asked Cooper, point blank, if and when he intended to follow in Kayla and Ariana’s footsteps and marry Alana. She was even more forceful on the matter when she discovered that they had adopted Sophia.

After everyone was introduced to everyone, they piled into the Penny’s SUV and Mia’s jeep and drove across town to Penny’s house where they would all be staying for the weekend. The wedding itself was to take place on the beach, near the spot where Kayla had proposed a couple of months earlier.

Once in the house, they all went to their respective rooms. The girls were all bunking in Kayla's old room, while Cooper and Alana would stay in her own room with Sophia down the hall. Ariana and Kayla dropped their bags off by the door and the brunette tossed herself unflatteringly onto her bed.

"I'm so tired..." she groaned, rolling onto her back.

"Well, you'd best wake up Austin," said Nikki. "We, my dear, are going out. All of us girls. We're throwing the two of you your bachelorette party."

"Aren't we supposed to do that separately?" Ariana asked curiously. "I thought those parties were for... one last night of wild debauchery before giving up your freedom and independence."

"Yes... well..." said Mia uncertainly. "There's time for debauchery. I like debauchery as much as the next girl. I mean, we would hire a stripper but I wasn't sure if we should hire a male stripper or..."

"What Mia's trying to say," Jennifer interrupted with a roll of her eyes. "Is that we've never thrown a lesbian bachelorette party before. Nikki tried... she wrote a speech with plenty of boob jokes..."

"There's a club in town," Mia offered. "If you two want to, we could always find some strippers or..."

"I think we'll be fine without… any of that," said Kayla with a laugh. "Unless Ari here really wants to engage in some wild debauchery."

"I think a girl's night out would be best," said Ariana a little nervously. "Dinner... and maybe a movie?"

"See? Keep it simple, ladies," said Kayla. "Although, Nikki, I wouldn't mind hearing a few of those jokes."

"Oh, hell..." Mia groaned, while Nikki smiled.

"Okay, okay..." she said hurriedly. "Why did the mermaid where sea shells? Because her boobs were too big for B shells!"

"Oh, that's clever," said Ariana brightly.

"Yeah, really witty," said Jennifer weakly. "Actually, that's probably her best one."

"No, no, no, I've got better ones!" Nikki exclaimed as the girls collected their bags. "Here; if it weren't for nipples, boobs would be pointless." The girls all shook their heads wearily.

"That's just... no, Nikki," said Kayla dryly. "That's terrible."

“Well, if you don’t like that one, try this; I walked into my sister’s room and tripped on a bra. It was a booby trap.”

“God in heaven, stop,” Mia exclaimed. The collected Alana on the way out, leaving Cooper at home alone with Penny, Snow, and Sophia. The kids were excited to stay with him, while Cooper himself was terrified to be left alone with the girls and Penny. It wasn’t good, Cooper said, to spend too much time with your girlfriend’s mom. Uncomfortable and really awkward questions tended to arise.

“You’ll be fine,” said Kayla supportively as he walked the six girls to the door. “Really, Coop. You’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, Penny’s the greatest,” said Ariana reassuringly.

“Just don’t let her show you her photo albums,” said Alana dubiously. “I’m serious… and whatever she tells you, if she shows you certain pictures… Well, I was trying something, okay? Let’s just leave it at that.”

“Um… sure…” said Cooper nervously. The girls made their way out to Penny’s SUV, which was the only vehicle they had that was large enough to fit all six of them, and headed out. They waved back at Cooper, who watched them drive away with his face pressed up against the window.

Dinner was an enjoyable affair. They went to a nice restaurant that Jennifer recommended and ended up having a very pleasant evening. Ariana felt none of the nervousness she had upon first meeting Kayla’s friends. She felt like one of the girls, she felt as though she belonged.

After dinner, they drove across town to a theater where they spent two hours watching some sappy love story that Nikki wanted to see. Ariana liked it, but she could tell from Kayla’s expression that her soon-to-be-wife did not.

Regardless of Kayla’s displeasure, that night was the first time in her life that Ariana felt completely normal. She was just a girl hanging out with her friends on a Friday night. She was happy and she knew Kayla was as well as they walked back to the car, arm-in-arm.

Much later that evening after the other girls had fallen asleep, Kayla and Ariana snuck downstairs for a few moments to themselves. They went into the kitchen where they found Fluffers sprawled on the counter. Ariana sat down on a barstool and began to stroke his fur while Kayla went to the refrigerator and poured them both glasses of orange juice.

“So, I did something stupid last night,” said Kayla, placing their glasses on the counter. “I’m not exactly sure how to tell you.”

“I know you well enough to know you didn’t cheat on me,” said Ariana with a graceful smile. “So, whatever you did it can’t be all that bad. What happened?” Kayla closed her eyes, looking quite nervous. Ariana wasn’t at all sure what could possibly make the brunette so worried.

“I sent my dad an email,” she said at last. “I told him about you and that we were getting married on Sunday. I… I don’t know if he even still checks that email address or not, but I can’t call him because I don’t have his number. He probably didn’t get it and he wouldn’t show up anyway, I just thought… I wanted… I knew I had to tell you and I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret, I just…”

“You wanted your dad to be at your wedding,” said Ariana quietly. She understood completely. “Kay-Kay, I would be happy to have your dad come to our wedding. So, if he comes he’ll certainly be welcome. I know your family will be there, but it’s our wedding not theirs. He can come if you want him to.”

“I want him to,” said Kayla softly. “I never… I never thought I’d want to see him again, after what he did. For so long I blamed him for Claire’s death… but that’s not fair. I put the gun to her head the second I got the money from Dwayne. It wasn’t my dad.”

“Why the sudden change of heart?” Ariana asked. “I remember you telling me once that you’d never forgive him.”

“I never thought I would,” said Kayla. “But then Mike died… and Adrian… and I realized that I didn’t want that to happen to us. I didn’t want him to die or me to die and we never made up. I don’t want us to start our lives together while I’m still holding on to the past. I’m tired of holding on to all of that anger and pain. If you’ve taught me anything, Ari… it’s that I’ve got to let it go.”

“Sometimes I wonder if you know me at all,” said Ariana with a grin. “Me? With my emotional baggage? Since when am I the poster girl for letting things go?”

“You don’t hold grudges,” Kayla explained. “You forgive. It doesn’t matter what someone did, you still manage to find it in your heart to forgive them. You gave me after what I did to you. If you can do that, then I can forgive my dad.”

“That’s good,” said Ariana. “Really, that’s great Kayla. I’m proud of you. I hope he comes.”

“Yeah,” said Kayla quietly. “Me too.”

 

 

50: Chapter L: You Are Cordially Invited...
Chapter L: You Are Cordially Invited...

Saturday proved to be one of the busiest days of Ariana’s life. When the Austin house awoke on Saturday morning, it was full speed ahead for the rest of the day. There was planning to be done, arranging, rearranging, making sure the reception hall was properly set up. They checked on flower arrangements and seating charts and all that was just before lunchtime.

In the afternoon, Kayla’s family began to arrive. The brunette had always said she had a large family, but Ariana had been unprepared for the sheer volume of people that arrived that day. Two sets of grandparents, six uncles, five aunts, twenty-seven different cousins, and almost two dozen close family friends and their plus ones. The wedding the following day would field an even larger array of guests with Kayla’s friend’s families also coming.

Ariana, however, found that she enjoyed it. She had always imagined what it would be like to be part of a large family and on that night, during the rehearsal dinner that was hosted on the beach in front of Kayla’s house; she discovered how much she loved it.  

Kayla’s family had welcomed her like one of their own. Both of Kayla’s grandmothers had greeted her like a granddaughter, kissing her on her cheek and sharing stories of Kayla as a little girl. Ariana found that no matter who she talked to or what table she was sitting at that evening, she was welcome.

Kayla’s dad, however, did not make an appearance. After their guests left and went to their hotels for the night, Kayla tried to play off the fact that she was hurt. She told Ariana that she didn’t really care and that it didn’t bother her, but Ariana knew the truth. She wished there was something she could do, but this time she knew she couldn’t. There was no way to summon Kayla's father to their wedding. She couldn’t make a late night phone call and make everything better this time.

Later that night, Ariana was sitting alone in the living room drinking a glass of iced tea. She found that no matter how hard she tried, she simply couldn’t fall asleep. She was just too wired. She sat there alone for quite some time before she heard footsteps on the stairs. She looked up and saw Cooper descending the steps. He glanced her way and smiled slightly.

"Can't sleep?" he asked, making his way over to the couch. She shook her head. "I can't blame you. You must be really excited for tomorrow."

"Yeah..." said Ariana absently. Cooper arched an eyebrow.

"Well, if I were getting married in less than twenty-four hours, I'd be a little more enthusiastic. What's wrong?"

"It's... Kayla's dad," said Ariana quietly. "She really wants him to come to the wedding, but the only way she knows of contacting him if through an email address and... well, he hasn't replied and he didn't come to the rehearsal dinner, so... so she doesn't think he's coming."

"He could still show up," said Cooper. "Maybe he couldn't make it in time for the dinner. He could get here in time for the wedding, though."

"Try telling Kayla that," said Ariana dryly. "Of course, she's saying that it's okay... that she doesn't care. But she does. I know she does. I wish there was something I could do, but..."

"You are helping her," said Cooper firmly. "You are giving her the most amazing wife she could ever have and don't you ever forget that. You're helping her, Ariana. Every single day." He paused. "You know, I was going to give you this in the morning, but... well, I guess now's as good a time as any." He reached into his pocket and retrieved a thin silver necklace with a large, deep blue stone dangling from it.

"This was my grandmother's," he explained. "She left it for me after she died a few years ago. She said I was supposed to give it to the girl I was going to marry, but... well, I don't think there's anyone else the world that should have this. I was thinking... it could be your something old, something borrowed, and... well, it's blue so..."

"I love it, Coop," she said, her fingers gently closing around the silver chain. "Thank you."

"You got it, Red," he told her warmly. He squeezed her knee reassuringly. "Now, go get some sleep, girl. You've got a big day tomorrow."

"I will, Coop, I promise," said Ariana. Cooper smiled at her and stood to his feet. He went into the kitchen and moments later went upstairs with a glass of water. Ariana looked down at the necklace in her hand and despite her despair, she smiled.

-.-

The next morning was a flurry of activity all throughout the Austin house. People were darting this way and that, making sure everything was ready and all the final preparations were made. Penny and Alana were quite well versed in managing these events and although it would certainly look like simple chaos to an outsider, it was very much controlled chaos.

At twenty till noon, when the wedding was due to begin, Ariana was to be found standing in front of Kayla's full body mirror, surveying her appearance. The girls had forgone tradition and ditched long white gowns for matching pale pink and white striped sundresses. Ariana had attempted to do her hair up in some elegant knot, but in the end she just let it flow down her back in its natural waves. She had just finished securing Cooper's necklace around her neck when there was a soft knock on the doorframe.

"So, I hear there's this wedding happening soon," said Kayla, leaning against the doorframe. She smiled as Ariana turned to face her.

"I heard that too," she said with a grin. "Hmm... it looks like you were wrong."

"About what?" the brunette asked.

"You said I'd never see you in a dress again," said Ariana, pointing at the matching dresses they wore. "It seems you're wearing one right now."

"Eh, details," Kayla said airily. "Besides, this isn't really a fancy dress anyway."

"Well, you look beautiful," the redhead told her.

"So do you," said Kayla. "I... can't believe this is really happening."

"Are you nervous?" Kayla shrugged.

"I was," she confessed. "I was until I walked into this room and saw you. Then all of my doubt suddenly... went away somehow."

"Oh, that's really clever," said Ariana lightly. Kayla grinned.

"I thought so,"

"Well, maybe you..."

"Oh, you both look stunning!" Penny exclaimed, rushing through the door with the biggest smile on her face. "My girls..." she said, tears shining in her eyes. "My sweet, sweet girls. I can't believe you're getting married today."

"We can't either," said Kayla as she was pulled into a tight hug by her mother. "It's pretty incredible."

"Yes, it is," said Ariana. "I never thought this would happen."

"Well, it's happening today," said Penny firmly. “I’m so proud of you. I’m proud of both of you.” She took each of the girl’s hands and gave them a firm squeeze. She had tears welling in her eyes as she smiled at the pair of them. She cleared her throat loudly. "Well… as much as I'd love to have a sweet, loving family moment here before we begin; we've got to get moving. We've got a wedding to get to."

Ariana and Kayla followed Penny downstairs and across the street to the tent that had been erected to serve as a staging area of the ceremony. Cooper, Mia, Jennifer, Nikki, Alana, Snow, and Sophia all waited inside. Penny immediately snapped into wedding planner mode and began arranging all of them into the proper order as the music began to play. Snow and Sophia, the flower girls, led the procession out of the flap in the tent.

Cooper and Alana went next, followed by Mia, then Jennifer, and lastly Nikki walked out. This left Ariana and Kayla alone. As they waited for their cue, they heard footsteps in the sand behind them. They turned and Kayla let out a gasp.

"Dad?" she breathed, tears welling in her brown eyes. Ariana's heart leapt instantly. It really was him. He had gotten Kayla's message.

"Hi, Princess," he said weakly as Kayla ran over to him and threw her arms around his neck.

"Dad..." she whispered. "I... I didn't think you..."

"What?" he asked. "You didn't think I'd miss my own daughter's wedding, do you?" He held her out at arm's length to look her over, smiling sadly.

"Kayla, I am so, so sorry for everything," he said hurriedly. "I was a fool and a coward and I let you get involved in something so dangerous. When I heard about Claire, I... I'm sorry, Kayla."

"It doesn't matter now," she said firmly. "It's okay, I forgive you. We both made mistakes, I... I'm just glad you're here." She turned to Ariana.

"Dad, this is Ariana," she said proudly. "She’s the very best thing that has ever happened to me. Ari, this is my dad, Byron."

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Austin,” said Ariana, shaking his hand.

“Please, Byron,” he said warmly. He smiled again at Kayla and clasped his hands together. “Well… I suppose you both should get going. I… Mikki, I don’t know if you would want me to, but… well, I’d love to walk you down the aisle… if you want…”

“I’d love that,” said Kayla quietly. “But you have to walk us both. We were going to walk together, so…”

“I’d be honored,” said Byron. Outside the tent the music swelled. Byron held out his arms for the girls to take and together they slowly began their journey.

As soon as they left the tent, the brilliant sun overhead virtually blinded them as it beat down upon the white sand. Ariana had to squint to be able to see anything at all. On both sides of the aisle there were rows and rows of chairs, all filled with family and friends. All of them were smiling brightly at them, but no one present was smiling more happily than Kayla. Ariana was sure she had only once seen the brunette look happier than she did at that moment and that was when she, Ariana, had regained her memories.

Soon they reached the end of the aisle where Penny stood beneath a ivy covered arch that had been placed in the sand. Nikki, Mia, Jennifer, Alana, Cooper, Snow, and Sophia had all gathered around it as well, waiting for them. Ariana noticed Penny watching Byron closely. When he released both of their hands and patted Kayla gently on her shoulder, however, she saw that Penny gave him a gentle smile.

As Byron walked away to find a seat, Penny stepped forward. She smiled at the girls, who grinned back. Kayla reached out and took Ariana’s hand. The redhead found that she could feel the other girl’s pulse racing.

“Friends, family, and all of our guests, thank you for coming,” Penny began. “We are all gathered here on this gorgeous September afternoon to witness the joining together of Kayla and Ariana in the bond of marriage. If anyone here has any reason that these two should not be joined together, I’d suggest you hold your peace. Otherwise, my daughter will have some pretty strong words for you.” The crowd laughed and Ariana gave the brunette a wink and a knowing smile.

“These two young ladies are the purest symbol of love that I have ever had the pleasure to see. It gives me great honor to be the one they’ve chosen to perform their ceremony today.” She paused and smiled at the girls again. "The love you share has started you both on a journey together. It will be with you, it will be that which comforts you in the hard times and brings you great joy in happy times. It will bring hope, happiness, and forever enrich your lives." She smiled again before her face turned more serious.

“Marriage is, however, a contract and not one to be entered into lightly or without a firm understanding of the responsibilities it brings with it. Never forget that after this day you will be bound together in the eyes of God and men. Never forget that love, your love, is the basis upon which you will build your life together. No other connection is more important... or more sweet. Now, Kayla and Ariana had prepared their own vows which they will share now." Penny nodded to Kayla that she should go first. The brunette gave Ariana a smile that the redhead immediately returned. Kayla cleared her throat nervously.

"Ari... I've spent weeks trying and trying to come up with the proper words to say today," Kayla began. "I tried everything and no matter what I couldn't come up with  anything that truly explained just how much I love you. So, I'm gonna wing it." Ariana giggled and squeezed Kayla's hand tighter.

"You're at your best when you just make it up as you go along," she said pointedly.

"See? You do know me best," said Kayla. "Ariana, we met when I was at my lowest. I was at the end of the line, so to speak. I was alone and so tired. I wanted to give up... just lay down and die... and then I ran into you. Literally, I ran into you. You rescued me that day. You invited me into your home and into your life and I can't thank you enough for that. We became friends and then, one day, something so much more. I've never believed in love at first sight, but it didn't take long for me to fall so completely in love with you.

"I tell myself every day that I couldn't possibly love you more, but then the next day dawns and I find that I do. You make me better. You make me compassionate. You show me the goodness in people. You showed me that I could fall in love again when I never thought I could.  

"You are my world. You are my heart and the other half of my soul. I swear to you that I will love you with everything I am until the day I die. I would be nothing without you. I couldn't survive without you. I won't be perfect. I'll fail you. I'll let you down... but I will always love you. That's my vow, my promise to you. Wherever life leads us, we will walk hand in hand, side by side. We'll face both the light and the dark together." She shrugged and reached up to brush a tear from the redhead's cheek. "I guess that's it."

Penny, much like Ariana, had tears in her eyes as she nodded toward the redhead. Ariana smiled a watery smile.

“Well, how do I follow that?" she asked with a laugh. "I never thought I would ever be this happy. I always thought that I would be alone. Everyone I’ve ever loved either hurt me or left me… and when I met you I was sure you’d do the same. But you didn’t… you stayed with me. You stayed and you changed my life. I know staying was hard for you, that you had to fight every day to keep yourself from running… but I am so glad you fought that fight." Ariana found, as she stood there speaking, that she could no longer contain her emotions. She continued, forcing herself to keep talking even as she cried.

"We’ve come so far since then. We've faced a lot... suffered a lot. We've beaten our pasts and we're both free now. You saved me, Kayla. You saved me when I really never believed I could be saved. I thought I was going to be that broken, wreck of a girl for the rest of my life. I never believed I could ever be brave or strong. I never thought I could be... normal.

"You helped put me back together. You really did save me, Kay-Kay. I love you... I love you more than life itself. Waking up to you... it makes everything else worth it. You make me strong... more to the point, you showed me what strength really is. You showed me that even in the darkest of times, all we really need is each other. Together, you and me can take on the whole world and there is absolutely nothing that could hope to stand against us." Without warning, Kayla leapt forward and kissed her. There was a smattering of applause and a lot more laughter. Penny clicked her tongue.

"You're supposed to wait for me to say the line before you do that," she admonished with a grin. "You're messing up everything."

"Sorry," said Kayla as she drew away from the redhead. "Sorry... just... in the moment..."

"I'm not complaining," said Ariana with a smile. She took a deep breath. "I love you, Kayla. I will always love you. You appeared before me, my once-in-a-lifetime miracle. You are all that I could ever need. You are my confidant, my lover, my partner-in-crime. You are my savior, my sword and shield, and above all my very best friend. I love you  so much that I can't explain it, can't rationalize it. I promise you, on this day, that I will laugh with you. I will cry with you. I'll share in your dreams. I'll cheer you on when you win and pick you up when you fall.  

"I am proud to marry you. You brought warmth and light into my life when there was only darkness and pain. I can't thank you enough, not even if I lived to the end of time, for what you've done for me. I don't know what the future will bring our way... but we will face it together. Because I know that no matter what happens, my life will always be better, warmer, and much sweeter with you." By this point Kayla too was in tears. She pulled the redhead close, hugging her and kissing her once again.

Penny stood aside, watching with a smile on her face. She turned to Mia, who had the rings. Mia passed the jewelry to her and returned to her place. Penny gazed at the rings in her hand for a long moment before passing one to Kayla and the other to Ariana. Ariana saw her briefly glance at Byron where he sat on the second row of seats.

"These rings," she said, gesturing to the silver bands they held. "Are symbols. Symbols of the love you have for each other. They mark the beginning of a lifelong journey of... endless wonder. There will be tears, and pain, and times of sadness, but so much more light and love and happiness. Truly, endless wonder. Ariana, if you'll please place your ring on Kayla's finger." Ariana did so, gently sliding the band onto Kayla's finger.

"With this ring, I thee wed," she said, smiling at the brunette.

"And Kayla, if you'll do the same," said Penny. Kayla slipped her ring onto Ariana's slender finger, grinning the whole time.

"With this ring... right back at ya, kiddo," the brunette said. Ariana laughed aloud at that. Penny looked back and forth between them, smiling brighter than the sun that blazed above them.

"Well, then," she said proudly. "I suppose that's all that needs to be said. By the power vested in me by the state of California, I know pronounce you... eh... I'm never sure what to say here? Wife and wife? Wives...? We didn't practice this part." Ariana was laughing to hard by then to reply. Kayla just shrugged her shoulders.

"Make a call, Mom," she said lightly. Penny looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Alright then," she said. "By the power and authority vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you... to be wed. Congratulations, my darling girls." She grinned at Kayla and jerked her head toward Ariana.

"Kiss her again," she whispered. Kayla most certainly kissed her.

When they broke apart, Penny held out her arms toward them. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm thrilled to give you Kayla and Ariana Austin." The assembled crowd broke into applause as Kayla and Ariana kissed again. Cooper, Alana, Snow, Sophia and Kayla's friends all gathered around them, laughing and cheering. For the rest of their lives, neither Kayla nor Ariana ever forgot just how happy they were that day.

51: Chapter LI: The Day She Never Saw Coming
Chapter LI: The Day She Never Saw Coming

The day we met,
Frozen I held my breath
Right from the start
I knew that I'd found a home for my heart...

Beats fast, colors and promises,
How to be brave?
How can I love when I'm afraid to fall?
But watching you stand alone,
All of my doubt suddenly goes away somehow

One... Step... Closer...

Kayla and Ariana revolved slowly on the spot. They stood in the reception hall, surrounded by their friends and family. They had gone there straight from the beach and now they were dancing... dancing to their song.

I have died everyday waiting for you,
Darling don't be afraid, I have loved you

For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

Time stands still
Beauty in all she is
I will be brave
I will not let anything take away
What's standing in front of me
Every breath
Every hour has come to this

One... Step... Closer...

"Do you feel any different?" Ariana asked curiously. "Being married, I mean?" Kayla seriously considered the question. She would have thought she would. She most certainly had planned on feeling differently now. Oddly, though, she really didn't.

"Not really," she replied. "I think... maybe we're so close that getting married... it didn't really bring us any closer. In our hearts, we were already there." Ariana arched her eyebrows, surprised.

"Really?" she asked. "Since when are you so emotionally deep?"

"I'm growing," said Kayla with a grin.

I have died everyday waiting for you
Darling don't be afraid I have loved you

For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed I would find you
Time has brought your heart to me

I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more...

One... Step... Closer...

I have died everyday waiting for you
Darling don't be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed I would find you
Time has brought your heart to me

I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more...

As the song came to an end, the girls found their seats and sat down. Cooper immediately stood up and called for everyone’s attention. He smiled around at all of them before turning his gaze upon Kayla and Ariana.

“These girls,” he said proudly. “They are two of my closest friends. I love them both very much. I met them at different times and under very different circumstances. I’ve known Ariana longer and I’ve always felt very protective of her, so when I learned that Kayla had moved in with her I was worried.” He paused and placed his hand on the brunette’s shoulder.

“My fears couldn’t have been more misplaced,” he continued. “Kayla and Ariana were meant for each other. They needed each other and I couldn’t be happier for either of them. They’ve faced a lot of challenges and hardships, but they’ve always come through those dark times so much stronger.” He lifted his glass and gave the girls a warm smile.

“So, to the both of you I say; congratulations. I wish you a lifetime of joy and happiness together. If any two people deserve it, it’s you. I love you guys.”

“Thanks, Coop,” said Ariana as she and Kayla stood to hug him. “That was really sweet.” Cooper grinned.

“Might I trouble you for a dance?” he asked her.

“Go ahead,” said Kayla, grinning. “But you watch your hands, mister. She’s a married woman now.”

“I’m dating your sister,” said Cooper hastily.

“Ariana’s extremely cuddly,” Kayla explained. “It’s hard to keep your hands off.”

“I don’t need the details, thanks,” he told her as he led Ariana away. The dance floor was already filled with other couples and Kayla watched them find a spot near the center. She sat there for a few minutes before someone sat down in Ariana’s vacated seat.

&ld