Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious and created by this author. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Warnings: Explicit romantic and sexual relations between women. Christian themes.

Feedback: Feedback, thoughts, and screaming should be directed at rysler@gmail.com.

Notes: Originally written as part of National Novel Writing Month 2008. This story will be posted in four parts.



Bundling two boys into the car took longer than Natalie anticipated, even when they were eager to get to the beach. Forgetfulness plagued them, and laziness, so that Meredith had to carry everything for four people. They'd intended to pack sandwiches, but Natalie suggested KFC. The boys dissolved into giggles. 

Meredith just shook her head. 

When they finally left, Meredith drove and Natalie sat beside her, leaning against the window, trying to ignore the boys as they wrestled and shouted in the back of the station wagon. 

"Isn't that unsafe?" she asked. 

"There are degrees of unsafe," Meredith said. "They're four. And they're boys. As long as they aren't poking at us we can consider ourselves blessed." 

"Okay. I consider myself blessed." 

Meredith smiled at her, the corner of her mouth twitching upward. She turned back to the road. 

Natalie, too, watched the expanse of highway open up in front of them. On either side of the road were only wetlands and farmland, low and flat and a verdant, invigorating green.  

Scrub brush joined the landscape as they got closer. The car traveled easily on the open road. Here in the daylight, Natalie's accident seemed silly. How, on such a benign highway, had she nearly died? 

Around a bend, and nearly immediately, the traffic pattern changed from heavy highway travel to a full stop. Meredith slowed deftly while Natalie was still recoiling from the vision of hundreds of cars, red brake lights blinding, winding through the lowlands. 

"Did you know to expect that?" Natalie asked. 

Meredith grinned. "Tourists," she said. 

"From where? There aren't this many people in Deborahville, are there?" 

Meredith shrugged. "From Charlotte, mostly. Columbia. Greensboro. Raleigh. People coming down for the weekend. They won't all be at the beach. There's fishing, and golf, and the boardwalk. And I guarantee they'll all be gone by noon when the tide comes in. Ain't much beach left." 

"Erosion," Merritt said, from the back. 

Natalie nodded. They crept along. Meredith turned on the radio to listen to the traffic report, but all she found was country and beach music. She settled on the beach music, and that was the setting for Natalie when the car rounded another curve, and behind a grove of ordinary trees growing out of the grassland, she saw a palm tree. 

"Oh, wow," she said. 

"What?" Meredith glanced at her, and then had to stomp on the brakes as the car in front of her stopped unexpectedly. She narrowed her eyes. 

"The beach. It's close." 

"It's close enough to feel," Meredith agreed. 

Natalie smiled and tried not to sniffle at the stupid tree and started to wonder how well her walker was going to work in the sand. She should have switched to crutches. 

Beau, apparently bored, climbed toward the front seat. He poked Natalie. 

"Ow. Stop." 

He poked her again. 

She hissed. 

"And so it begins," murmured Meredith. Louder, she asked, "Who wants to play the license plate game?" 

"Me!" Merritt shouted. 

Beau scowled. 

Meredith began explaining the rules for Natalie's benefit. 

A month ago, Natalie, upon witnessing these boys in the grocery store or on the sidewalk, cavorting as they were, loud and obnoxious and motivated by absurdist self-involvement, would have had dark thoughts. Though she would not have acted on any desires of violence, she would have gone out of her way to avoid children. She would have crossed the street, turned around and driven home, maybe even stopped shopping at that store.  

Whatever it took. 

Her senses must have attuned--or dulled--because she barely noticed that they had increased their racket, and they were so cute, the way Merritt squeaked at cars and Beau kicked the side of the door whenever he got beaten, that she could only smile. 

* * * 

The first thing Natalie saw upon closing the car door and convincing Meredith she could, in fact, handle a walker, a backpack, and a chair, as long as she moved along at a slow pace, was the giant sand dune. The ocean roared from somewhere nearby, unrelenting and louder than she remembered. The smell of salt had been with her since the highway. 

Meredith had rolled down the windows as soon as they'd gotten close to Wilmington, before she'd veered south and took them down the coastal highway, past tiny hamlets and big billboards proclaiming beach after beach. She'd only seen trees and stoplights and more billboards until they'd turned left, across traffic, and then it was over a bridge and to this tiny strip of brush and sand and houses on stilts. 

And the dunes. Seaweed grew like cattails, and there were picket fences and barbed wire around each dune, and a staircase, wooden and weathered, in the middle of it all, that the boys bounded up, and Natalie inched toward. 

"Is this China Beach?" she asked Meredith. 


"The dunes." 

"It's for erosion. The barbed wire is there to protect the sea turtles." 

"There are sea turtles?" 

Meredith grinned. "Welcome to the wild coast," she said. 

Natalie crept forward. 

"Boys," Meredith shouted, "I want you to stay at the bottom of the stairs. If you go near the ocean, I will drag you back into the car and we'll go home." 

A chorus of giggles came from the other side of the dune. Natalie reached the steps. She wanted to be with them. She wanted to see the delight on their faces. 

She hadn't dealt with stairs since the accident. They looked like a wall in front of her, and the walkway, precarious and holed, started above her head. She felt dizzy. 

Meredith appeared and trotted down the stairs--like a mountain goat, Natalie thought. She squelched the jealousy and the fear when Meredith touched her arm and looked at her with concern. 

"You can do this," Meredith said. 

"There's so many of them." 

"Eight," Meredith said. 

"You counted? There has to be more than eight." 

"I counted. Give me the chair." 

Natalie handed it over. 

"And the walker." 

"Merry, I can't walk." 

"There's a railing." 

"I'll get a splinter." 

"Hush. Now let go." 

Natalie raised her hands and gave Meredith a dirty look. "You'll feel guilty when I fall over." 

"Sure I will," Meredith said. She hefted the walker easily over her shoulder and went back up the stairs, shouting, "Boys, what did I tell you?"  

"We didn't do anything," Beau shouted. 

And then Natalie heard, "Where's Nat?" 

She took a deep breath and put her foot attached to her good leg on the first step. Her bad leg, holding more of her weight, protested, and she leaned forward, squatting, and clung to the railing. She pushed with her foot. She rose up, precariously balanced, more used to pulling than to standing with one foot, but her shoulder hurt too much to take more on. 

Maybe Meredith would give her some Percocet, just to get up the stairs. 

Meredith re-appeared, with Beau and Merritt lingering on the walkway. She came down and put her arm around Natalie's waist. 

Beau said, "Come on, hurry!" 

"Cute kid," Natalie said. 

"Darling, isn't he. Put your arm around me." Natalie put her free arm around Meredith's back, unable to quite reach her shoulders, and clung to the railing with her other hand. 

"Okay, you're not going to like this, but lean on me when you take your next step." 

"Merry, I can't--" 

"I told you. Now try." 

Natalie put her foot on the next step, and leaned into Meredith, who balanced her and held her up. 

Merritt giggled. 

Meredith had a death grip on her own railing, and said, "On the count of three. One, two, three." They heaved, and Natalie toppled onto the next step. 

She was embarrassed. Her face was hot, and she was starting to sweat from the exertion and the heat. 

"Again," Meredith said. 

The most hated word in the English language. 

By the eighth step, they were getting the hang of it. On the walkway, Natalie leaned over the railing and panted with relief. Meredith kept her hand on Natalie's back. 

Merritt and Beau ran past them and back down to the beach. 

"No throwing sand in anyone's eyes!" Meredith shouted. "Especially people you don't know!" 

"This might have been more trouble than it was worth," Natalie said. 

"That's what the ocean's all about, isn't it? Come on. We get to go down now." 

"Oh, no." 

"Come on." Meredith took her elbow. 

Natalie felt like a recalcitrant patient. She let herself be dragged along. The ocean lay before her, greenish and calm, with a hazy horizon and a paler, golden sky above She smiled, moving forward with greater ease until the tide itself came into view, rolling onto the sand, leaving its wet imprint, trying again. Higher and higher. 

People bobbed in the surf, specks even at this proximity, and the beach was sparsely populated with families and umbrellas and kids. There was a volleyball net down the beach, and beyond that, the curve of the land, jutting out to sea, creating a destination. 

Down the beach the other way was the pier, which went a long way out into the water, farther than anyone could swim. In the haze, it seemed to shimmer. 

"Smells like fish at the end," Meredith said. 

"It looks so romantic from here," Natalie said. 

"So does the water, until it gets up your nose and stings your eyes and your bathing suit is soaked with sand and you get stung by a jellyfish." 

"Were you always like this?" Natalie asked. 

"I'm a nurse. It's all about applying pragmatism to foolish notions." 

Natalie said, "I don't care what you say, it's beautiful. I wonder--" Her throat got choked up, and she had to swallow hard to regain her voice. "I wonder if it would have been this beautiful, six weeks ago." 

"Of course it would have," Meredith said gently. She put her hand on Natalie's back. "You would have seen it at night, with the moon and the stars reflecting on the water, and the lights of the pier, and the comforting darkness and the deafening sound of the waves that could almost swallow you up, but the hotel lights in the distance remind you that at the long, invisible cord that connects you to the world, there are still other people." 

"Now who's romantic," Natalie said. A tear escaped her eye and rolled down her nose. She turned to Meredith. 

Meredith met her eyes, and they looked at each other rather than the ocean until Beau yelled. 

"One step at a time," Meredith said. 

Natalie turned back to the descending staircase. She gripped the railing with her hand, and leaned forward bravely. Then she paused. "Which foot do I start on?" 

"Reach out your good leg." Meredith went down two steps, and then said, "Put your hand on my shoulder." 

Natalie did so, and took the first step. She nearly toppled over, but Meredith caught her by the waist and held her until she regained her balance. 

"Good," Meredith said, looking flushed and a little frightened. "Maybe we could--" 

"Excuse me ladies." 

At the bottom of a staircase was a tall man wearing only swim trunks. He said, "I mean no offense, but I would be happy to help--if I can." 

Natalie opened her mouth, but Meredith shushed her. 

"Would you mind carrying her down the stairs? She's a bit heavy for me," Meredith said, and grinned. 

Natalie opened her mouth again. 

"I'd be happy to." He trotted up the stairs and before Natalie could protest, he'd stopped at roughly chest level, and wrapped one arm around her legs, propelling him against her shoulder. She hung down his back. 

"Really, this isn't necessary," she said. 

He was already backing down the stairs, very carefully, and holding on only to her good leg, letting the other dangle as it would. Her shoulder strained, but the trip was short, and he planted her on the sand easily. 

"Um. Thank you," she said. 

Meredith offered him a cold drink. He declined and jogged off down the beach. 

"Nice guy," Meredith said. 

Natalie looked agape at her. 

"Take off your shoes," Meredith said. 

Too in shock to argue, Natalie numbly kicked off her flip-flops. The sand under bare feet sent warmth from her toes to her ankles. She wriggled her toes and sank down into the sand. 

Meredith bent easily and picked up her flip-flops. 

Natalie took them. 

"Want your walker?" Meredith asked. 

The boys had parked it about fifty feet down the beach, along with a blanket and cooler and chairs they had abandoned in favor of chasing a seagull. 

"Hope they don't catch that poor bird," Meredith murmured. 

"I think I can manage," Natalie said. She straightened up. "If you'll--" 

Meredith glanced away from the boys and back at her. 

"Help?" Natalie asked. 

Meredith slipped her arm around Natalie's waist. "Of course," she said. 

"This was a good idea," Natalie said. 

A breeze blew across them, bringing with it salt and a faintly fishy smell. 

"Wait until you see it at night." 

Chapter Twenty-Five 

For lunch, they went into town. Natalie was getting better at climbing up the walkway from the sheer panic that she'd be stranded. The boys had played in the surf and with strangers' dogs and with the Frisbee and then had made it through lunch, and now they were asleep in the back of the station wagon. The dash clock read one o'clock, but sun-stroked and exhausted, Natalie felt like she'd been at the beach all week. 

"What's next?" Natalie asked. "Are we going home?" She hoped, she hoped. 

Meredith said, "We're staying at a condo overnight. It's a surprise. It's near the beach, but not 'on' the beach. Still, it's near the coastal waterway. The boys will love it." 

They'd gone over the bridge and back to the mainland where the restaurants were and weren't going back the way they came. Natalie furrowed her brow. 

"Trust me," Meredith said. 

"Oh, I trust you." 

The station wagon, the kids--sleeping now, but potentially obnoxious--a mother to fight with. A schedule to be kept. She glanced out the window. Another bridge, another neighborhood of stilt-houses and palm trees and scrub grass, and then they were pulling into a concrete driveway and pulling up under the stilts. 

"Is this safe?" Natalie asked. 

"Well, if the flood comes it'll wash away the car. But we'll be fine." 

Natalie got out of the car and looked at the house. It seemed grand and looming. Then the side door opened and Jake came running down to see them. 


"This is Jake's place?" 

"It is," Jake answered for himself. "My partner's a banker, you know. Investment. Though with the ocean washing away, I think he's cra-zy. And the mortgage is killing us. You wouldn't believe. So! Happy homecoming." 

Natalie accepted his hug, and then he went to scoop up a sleeping Beau while Meredith grabbed Merritt. Merritt protested and dug his fingers into Meredith's shoulder. 

"Can I help?" Natalie asked. 

"I think your job is to get up the stairs." 

"Geez. I'm calling the ADA about this whole place." 

"I'll come get you in a sec," Jake said. He bounded upstairs with Beau. 

Meredith grinned and followed him more slowly. 

Natalie glared and inwardly cursed at the stairs, but they remained stalwart. She took the railing. 

Jake came back with a crutch. "How come you don't have a crutch?" 

"Because my shoulder's doing all it can to hold onto my arm," she said. 

Meredith wisely disappeared inside. 

Jake said, "Take the railing with your bad arm." 


"It's just for balance. Come on." 

Natalie switched sides, and then let Jake foist the crutch under her undamaged armpit. He adjusted the height, and then adjusted again. 

"It's on the wrong side, really. But you'll have to adjust. Now lean your weight on the crutch and put your good foot on the step." 

She did so as carefully as she could, but she still swayed to the side. Jake caught her. "Balance, see? Good. Now, up."  

She pushed herself up using her crutch, and forward, putting her weight on her good leg. The technique was, she admitted, sturdier than what she'd been doing. With practice, it could probably be faster. If she didn't topple backwards down the stairs. 

When she reached the top step and opened the door, a blast of cold air greeted her. She closed her eyes and offered her face to the breeze. 

"Daniel's out buying steaks," Jake said. 

The living room was decorated in wicker, and the furnishings and walls were white with grey tile. 

"There's four bedrooms," Jake said. "One has bunk beds, that's where the boys will be. You two get the one on the far end, I hope you don't mind sharing, but it's the nicest room. There's a television. Oh, and we have wireless." 

"I have truly returned to civilization," Natalie said. 

"I have wireless," Meredith called from the kitchen. 

"But you don't have a beach." 

Jake grinned. 

Meredith brought Natalie iced tea and complimented her crutch, and said, "I bet I can read your mind." 


"You," Meredith said, taking her free hand. "Want to take a nap." 

"I do. More than anything, I do. I'll pay you." 

Jake giggled. 

Meredith tugged her hand. "Come on. Sorry, Jake. We'll visit later."  

"Girl, I see you ten hours a day at work." 

"Thanks, Jake." 

He went to the kitchen for a beer. "I'll be on the porch. I'll distract the boys when they wake up." 

"Should be in about a half hour, when all that chicken wears off." Meredith glared at Natalie.  

"Chicken's healthy." 

"Bless your heart," Meredith said. 

Natalie smiled. 

The bedroom had a queen-sized bed that took up nearly the entire room. An alcove at the far end had a large mirror and two doorways on either side. 

"We get our own bathroom, at least. Is this all right?" 

"Seems like my room," Natalie said. 

"Yeah," Meredith said. She went to look at herself in the mirror. "We probably shouldn't be doing that so much, you know. The boys might get confused." 

"Merry--" Natalie hobbled over with her crutch--why hadn't Jake given her one before, the bastard--and stood behind Meredith. "It's fine. It doesn't bother me." 

"Me either," Meredith said. "That's what bothers me." 

Natalie frowned. 

"It's not you. I like your company." Meredith patted her side. 

"A little too much?" 

Meredith's expression softened. She put her hands on the edge of the counter. "A little too much," she agreed. 

Natalie nodded. She hobbled to the bed and sat down, carefully leaning her crutch against it. "No one's ever cared about me like that before." 

"I find that hard to believe, Natalya Ivanovich." 

Natalie shrugged. "You're probably right. I--I haven't really been paying attention." 

Meredith came to the bed and put her hands on Natalie's shoulders. "You've healed. I'm glad. You're going to be okay. And you're going to love being back home." 

Natalie didn't say anything. She thought of the woman in front of her, and the boys and the sleeping girl and her friend outside the door, and how much she wanted to pretend that she was a guest, just someone to show the sights, that she didn't actually belong. Not here. 

Natalie put her arms around Meredith's waist and rested her forehead against Meredith's torso, and prayed, 'Please, God, don't let her pull away.' 

Meredith hugged her, her arms reaching around Natalie's back. She settled her chin onto the top of Natalie's head. 

"I'm not leaving," Natalie said. 

Meredith pulled away and sat next to her on the bed. "I've got a lot of problems," she said. 

"Don't we all?" 

Meredith smiled. 

Natalie held her gaze and reached up to touch her chin. Meredith took Natalie's hand. She pressed it to her cheek. 

Natalie swallowed. She broke the gaze and scooted back on the bed until she could lie flat on her back. She reached for Meredith's hand, and Meredith gave it, moving up to sit against the headboard. 

"Aren't you tired?" Natalie asked. 

Meredith shook her head. "I'll watch you sleep." 


Natalie closed her eyes. 

Meredith smoothed her forehead. She stroked Natalie's hair. Natalie drifted off to sleep. 

* * * 

Natalie woke up alone. And stiff. 

The clock on the VCR read 4:30 but the afternoon sun made it seem like noon. She heard voices. She spent the next five minutes getting herself up and then hobbled out into the living room. The voices came from the deck, so she went out there, and saw a tall man in shorts and a Bermuda shirt standing over a grill. 

The smell of steak made her mouth water. 

"I'm Daniel," he said. "I hope you like steak." 

"I do when it smells like that. I'm Natalie." 

"Heard all about you. How are you feeling?" 

She hobbled closer. "I feel great. Fantastic." 

He grinned. "Glad to hear it." 

She smiled. "Nice place you have here." 

"I like it. Course, I'm from Waxhaw. Jake thinks it's nothing special." 

"Not true," Jake said from a lounge chair. He lifted his head. "You want a drink, Natalie?" 

"I'm good. Where's Merry?" 

"She's down with the kids, fishing. Lean over the railing and you can see her." 

Natalie crept to the railing and peered down at the muddy creek that made up an inlet. The boys each had long reeds in their hands, and they were giggling and pushing each other. Meredith sat on the bank, watching them and a little girl who was digging a hole in the bank. 

She smiled. 

"Have a seat," Jake said. 

Natalie sat in the nearest deck chair and blinked against the angle of the sun. 

"Jake says you're a lawyer," Daniel said. 

"I am." 

"Here to help Merry?" 

"I'd like to. Working on how." 

Daniel nodded. 

Jake said, "He's so happy he has another smart person to talk to." 

"I ain't that bright," Daniel said. "Just ask Jake. But at least I vote Republican." 

"He does, the bastard. He doesn't ever want us to get married," Jake said. 

"'Course not. Republicans need mistresses. So much more fun. Don't I buy you pretty things?" 

Jake smiled and sighed and looked in the direction of the ocean. "You sure do." 

Natalie glanced in Meredith's direction. 

Jake said, "Oh, just try it with her. I dare you." 

"Oh, that woman has a mind of her own." 

"Does she?" Natalie asked. 

"She put you together, didn't she?" Jake asked. "If I recall, you weren't initially all that interested."  

"It was the drugs. I wasn't that interested in anything." 

"Oh, that's a mess," Daniel said. "I have a steel rod in my leg. I wouldn't wish that on anyone." 

Natalie nodded. 

Daniel leaned over the railing. "15 minutes," he called. 

"Rest, relax, Natalie," Jake said. "You're on vacation." 

Natalie tilted her head up and closed her eyes. 

Chapter Twenty-Six 

"Ready to go?" Meredith asked. 

Natalie had been listening to the crashing waves, low and steady. The plate beside her only had juices left, red stains and a little grizzle. The rest of the steak was in her stomach, in pieces. Conquered. She'd been dozing. The breeze off the water was cool--just barely--and the sky had turned grey, and then charcoal, without the benefit of a sunset. That was behind her head, all the way past California where the other ocean was. 

Meredith promised to wake her up for the sunrise.  

"I'm ready," she said, and thinking about it, she was. The tinge of excitement grew, taking over the lethargy and the desire for sleep. She wanted to be out there in the night. 

Jake went to one side, and Meredith to the other, and they lifted her up. She groaned. The chair had been perfect, and her body resented moving. 

"I'll stretch her out," Jake said. 

"You'll what?" 

"Trust me." 

So Jake took her into the bedroom and stretched her out while Meredith kissed the boys goodnight, and it was humiliating and painful and left her in tears, and after it she felt like jelly and like she could fly.  

Jake and Daniel carried her down stairs, and then she walked with Meredith to the beach. 

Jake's beach was different than the public access she'd seen in the morning--rockier and thinner. The tide was just starting to go out again and the sand underfoot was wet. They walked toward the point, where it was only rocks, and some seaweed and some scrub, where the houses ended and they could see more of the ocean. The moon hadn't risen but there were stars, and except for the waves everything was quiet. 

"Are you all right?" Meredith asked. 

Natalie leaned heavily on her, holding her arm. She'd left her crutch at the bottom of the infernal staircase. She felt weak and more broken than she had in days, and she would pay tomorrow. 

She smiled. "I'm good." 

Meredith patted her arm. 

Natalie said, "I was a trial lawyer, you know--Am. I mean, it's nothing like on Law & Order. Oh, how I wanted it to be. But it's mostly procedural items and long dockets that have to be read aloud and witnesses who are reluctant and afraid and who lie and who smell. And the jury, looking for blood. Bored. Salivating. If they have to miss work, or miss their children, then they want something. 

"All they get is the tedium. The endless tedium. But I didn't care. I would go there. I'd say, 'Look, look at that killer,' or, 'We're going to tell you what he allegedly did. But you know he did.' I took risks." 

"But you weren't good with people." 

Natalie shook her head. "I never felt like I was a nice enough person. So I worked harder." 

Meredith nodded. 

"You're not going to tell me I'm crazy?" 

Meredith smiled, and said, "I'm not a psychologist. You seem all right to me. A little testy." 

"I was in a car accident!" 


Natalie snorted. 

At the point of the beach--the cape, or the horn, or whatever--where rocks made a natural barrier and waves splashed unevenly, there was a bench. An ordinary, iron and wood park bench, sitting there in the middle of the flatness. 

"Kind of incongruous, don't you think?" Natalie asked. 

"I prefer to think of it as art. The tourists complain, but they sit." 

"Like we're about to do." 

"Why, yes. Smartiepants." 

"I made it weeks in Deborahville without hearing that." 

"Well, to your face," Meredith said. 

Natalie gasped. 

Meredith sat on the bench and Natalie sat next to her. She said, "I take it back. I would have never been able to get up from the ground." 


Natalie sighed. 

"You're getting stronger every day," Meredith said. "Soon you'll forget all this." 

"Not all of this." 

"The bad parts." 

"Not all the bad parts," Natalie said. 

"You should," Meredith said. 

Natalie looked at Meredith and not the ocean, crashing, demanding attention, offering moonlight dancing on water and fish leaping up like black spots and ships in the distance with pretty lights. 

"Tell me about the case," Natalie said. 

"You know--" 

"I mean, the details. The procedures. What they said. What you said. What you've filed. What evidence has been presented--" 

"Whoa, hold on." 

"I want to help you," Natalie said. 

"You can't help me, Nat." 

"I know what I'm doing. I'm good. I win. Look, I know it's none of my business--" 

"It's not." 

Natalie held Meredith's gaze. She licked her lips and noticed how the moonlight reflected in Meredith's eyes. Little flecks of white that moved along a glossy black surface. 

"I want--" Natalie started, and then rethought her words. She said, deliberately, "I want to be the one that saves you." 

"You know, for a long time," Meredith said, with equal slowness and precision, as if the words were warding off crying--Natalie could hear that in her voice, the sob underneath, and the way she blinked more. "I didn't want to be saved." 

"I know," Natalie said. 

"But now--" Meredith stopped and looked away. 

"Let me help," Natalie said. She put her hand over Meredith's on her lap. 

"There's nothing you can do." 

Natalie swallowed. 

"I'm sure you're a good lawyer and all, but you're not a part of it. I don't want you to be." 

"Darnit, listen." 

"Oh, you've convinced me," Meredith said. 

"That's not what I meant," Natalie said. She put her free hand on Meredith's shoulder and leaned in and kissed her. 

Meredith squeaked. Her mouth opened slightly as she gasped, but other than that she didn't move. Natalie pressed against the warmth of her lips long enough to make a memory, and then pulled back. Meredith breathed. Natalie felt the breath against her face. She let go of Meredith's shoulder. 

"Sorry," she said. 

"It doesn't change anything," Meredith said. She looked at Natalie evenly; their heads still close together, their breaths mingling. 

"Why not?" 

"I'll be convicted, Vince's parents will get the boys, and you'll be back in Charlotte seeing it all on the evening news." 

"I could--" 

"You're not my attorney," Meredith said. She swallowed. 

Natalie could see the cracks in the face--the way Meredith's lip quivered. The way she gazed at Natalie instead of looking away. Natalie wanted to save her. She knew that people didn't want that, that Meredith didn't want it.  

"I want to help you," Natalie said. 

"Help me do what?" 

Natalie considered. "Stay out of jail?" 

Meredith's lips were damp. Her eyes were wide. She asked, "It's my fault I'm going. My decision. I made it. It wasn't in a vacuum--It was every decision I've ever made, since childhood. Since high school. And Vince--Do you think you can irrevocably change the course of my life? It's going to keep going, just the way it is." 

Natalie was silent. Her eyes stung with tears. She moved her hand from Meredith's shoulder to her neck, cupping it gently. The skin was smooth and warm under her fingers. She wanted to stroke it, to see where it led. 

"You saved me," Natalie said. 

Meredith turned away. "Not in the strict definition," she said. 

Natalie dropped her hand. She felt something closing in on her--walls. Pain. Darkness. Convincing by argument is all she had ever done. She knew the right words to get someone to convict someone else; to get them to push someone else off a cliff. But she could no more get defendants to confess than she could get Meredith to fight. 

Meredith was right--she didn't change lives, she just got people to where they were going. Commit a crime and get caught, and the rest was inevitable. With enough poverty or enough oppression or enough torment, even committing a crime was inevitable. 

"Fine," she said. "Fine. But can't I do something while I'm here? Tell me. Let me. If I can." 

"I don't--" 

"Come on." 

"Natalya Ivanovich, are you whining?" 

Natalie dropped her head. 

Meredith touched her shoulder. "You're serious." 

"I will grant one wish in return for being able to walk again." Natalie lifted her chin. 

"Okay," Meredith said. The word was so small that the ocean almost deafened it, and Natalie had to turn around to look at her and see her lips moving. 

But Meredith wouldn't meet her eyes. She looked at the horizon instead, and said, "Then hold me." 

Meredith didn't move until Natalie took her in her arms. Stiffly, she leaned into Natalie. Natalie put one arm around her shoulders and the other against her head, stroking her hair. They stayed like that and looked out at the ocean together until the moon rose and Natalie started to get cold. 

Natalie tilted her head, preparing to ask if Meredith was ready to limp back inside, or fetch a sedan chair to carry her. Meredith had been completely still for minutes, but at Natalie's shift, lifted her head. Her cheeks glistened with spilled tears. She cupped the back of Natalie's neck and pulled her down. Natalie's eyes widened.  

Their lips met solidly. 

A thrill went through Natalie as they kissed, as the touch lingered past doubts and hesitations, as Meredith's lips parted and there was heat--amazing heat that went through Natalie and made her feel supple again, and eager, and powerful. She cupped the side of Meredith's face and returned each kiss. 

Meredith moaned. The sound escaped her throat and found Natalie's ears. Natalie, undone, kissed the corner of Meredith's mouth. Meredith panted against her lips, and then kissed her cheek, then the side of her face, then her hair.  

Meredith clutched her so tightly that Natalie felt strong for being able to withstand it. 

"Oh, God," Meredith breathed. 

Natalie chuckled. She cupped Meredith's face and said, "Did you just take the Lord's name in vain?"  

Meredith closed her eyes and said, "No. I really, really meant it. You have no idea." 

"I have some idea." 

Meredith's eyelids fluttered open. "You do?"  

"Yes." Natalie, still cupping her face, leaned in and kissed, trying to share all the things that the hurried, passionate, accidental kisses hadn't. Her love. Her affection. 

Meredith kissed her back, tipping her face up, smiling through the kisses until Natalie broke off, laughing. Then she brought Meredith back against her. They watched the water, and Natalie's heart quieted in her chest, though Meredith's hand was on her leg, and the breeze blew Meredith's hair across her neck. 

"I don't know what's going to happen," Meredith said. "What I deserve, I suppose. But this will help. I promise. I'll think of this--" She brushed at her eyes and pulled away. "Can you stand?" 

"I don't know," Natalie said. 

Meredith stood up and offered her hands. "Come on." 

Natalie took her hands. She tried to pull herself up. Pain shot through her shoulder. She fell back onto the bench, wincing. 

"Breathe," Meredith said, moving back to her side. 

"Hard to breathe," Natalie said. She gritted her teeth. 

Meredith wrapped her arms around Natalie's waist and said, "Try again." 

"Let me just stay here forever," Natalie said. 


"Sure. Reliving the best night of my life." 

Meredith gave an embarrassed chuckle. She heaved, and Natalie put all her weight on her good leg and let Meredith guide her into a balanced standing position. She teetered, but her legs held under her. Neither turned to twigs. She turned carefully and hugged Meredith. 

Meredith held her--not just up, but close--and the embrace was warm and strong and Natalie could have stayed forever. And then Meredith rubbed her back. Natalie nearly fell to the sand. The current that went through her was far more than friendly. She bit her lip and stepped back from the torture of Meredith's hug. She took Meredith's arm instead. 

"Look, I can stand," she said. 

Meredith smiled and stepped back so they could walk back toward the house. 

Pier lights glittered in the distance. Natalie hobbled toward them, toward the sounds of civilization and the nightlife of the beach. The dunes were empty of other people, but full of crabs hidden somewhere in the sand, and seaweed and shells and rocks. 

The houses along the beach were mostly dark and even in the moonlight the darkness was deep enough that Natalie missed the wooden staircase. Meredith had to tug her to get her to stop plodding forward. 

"Here," Meredith said. 

"How could you tell?" 

Meredith pointed to where Natalie's crutch stood against the railing. 

Natalie went toward the stairs, aching, wanting to lie down in the sand and rest her muscles. Sharp pains had started in her leg. She clutched the railing, and panted. Then Meredith's hand was on her back, friendly again. Concerned. 

"Help me with these?" Natalie asked. 

Meredith got her propped up, and then walked behind her as she ascended, touching her hips and making she didn't topple backwards. Going back down the stairs was more terrifying. She mostly let gravity pull her, using Meredith to hold her up while she lowered herself to the next step, rather than the crutches. Then up again at Jake's. 

"I'm so becoming an ADA enforcement attorney," Natalie said. 

Meredith said, "You'd be good at it." 

"I'm a good criminal attorney." 


"Sorry. We won't talk about it again." 


"At least not tonight." 

Meredith snorted. 

Jake was asleep on the couch when they got in. He woke up, rubbing his eyes, and said, "I stayed up to help Nat up the stairs."  

"I can see that," Meredith said. 

"Sorry, Nat. You guys hungry?" 

Natalie shook her head. 

"No, Jake," Meredith said. "Go on to bed." 

He went, leaving them in the living room. Meredith said, "Take a shower. Hot. Trust me, you'll feel better in the morning." 

"I have to keep standing?" 

"Just a little while longer," Meredith said.  

Natalie swallowed hard. She put her hands on Meredith's shoulders. 

Meredith pushed forward, against her hands, and stretched up to kiss her. 

Natalie felt Meredith's warm lips against hers and the kiss held and lingered until Meredith was in her arms again and Meredith's fingers were dancing up and down her back. Natalie tingled. 

Then, from somewhere, a kid coughed. They broke apart. Meredith looked guilty. Natalie wanted to wipe the expression away with kisses, or logic, but Meredith smiled on her own and mouthed the word, "Shower." 

The thought of hot water pouring down Natalie's back, and steam rising to her face, was an enchanting temptation. She limped to the bathroom. Meredith went to check on the boys. 

Natalie managed to get the water on, but her clothes presented a problem. Her shoulder was done for the night. Or at least, until the shower was done. 

Meredith knocked on the door and said, "I've got pajamas and towels." 

Natalie opened the door. 

Meredith put the bundle on the closed toilet lid. 

"I can't get undressed," Natalie said. 

"Why not?" 

Natalie frowned at her. 

"Oh. All right." Meredith put her hands on Natalie's waist, under her shirt, and said, "Lift your arms." 

"It'll hurt." 

"As far as you can." 

Natalie lifted one arm haphazardly above her head and the other arm out in front of her. Meredith maneuvered the shirt up, over her head, then over the arm Natalie brought down at her bidding to tuck through the shirt, and then over the bad arm. 

Meredith so perfunctorily set down the shirt and turned Natalie around to get at her bra clasp that Natalie didn't have time to be embarrassed, or turned on, or embarrassed about being turned on.  

"I think you're fine from here," Meredith said, "But holler if you need me." She slipped through the door and closed it behind her. 

Natalie nodded. She kicked off her sandals and pushed down her pants. She put up her hair and then tucked it into a shower cap. Already from the salt it felt gross in her hands, but going to bed with wet hair seemed worse. 

The shower left her skin red and searing and drained her last vestiges of energy. She stepped out thirsty, but warm and limber, and managed to get on the sweatpants and tee shirt that Meredith had left before she padded back into the bedroom. 

She wasn't sure what she expected as she pushed open the door.  

Meredith was asleep. She'd pushed down the blankets and was lying on the sheets, as if she'd conked out mid-plan. Natalie chuckled, and got into bed beside her, and turned out the lamp. 

"Goodnight, Merry," she whispered. 

She was sorry she was at the beach, because the roar of the waves outside, crashing against the sand, drowned out the sound of Meredith's breathing. 

Chapter Twenty-Seven 

Natalie woke easily to sunlight, and though she was stiff, she still felt miraculously warm from the night before. Meredith was gone. The imprint of where she had slept remained. Natalie sat up and ran her hand over the sheets. Two capsules of Tylenol and a glass of water were on the nightstand and Natalie took them without hesitation, and then considered the empty bedroom. 

Sleep beckoned. She was tempted, but there was also the smell of coffee and syrup from somewhere beyond the door. Merritt shouted something. The ocean crashed. She wanted to see the water. 

She wondered if she knew Daniel and Jake well enough to stumble out there with sleep-straggly hair and pajamas. A robe hung behind the door, though, so she took that as a compromise, patted her hair, and went into the living room. 

Meredith sat at the kitchen table with the boys. She looked up when she heard the door and met Natalie's eyes. 

Natalie's cheeks flushed with warmth. So there was no shame about the night before. She was glad. She went to the table, where the boys were eating cereal. 

Beau looked up and said, "Mommy says we're going to the airport later." 

A pang went through Natalie. She nodded. 

"Are you leaving?" Merritt asked. 

"Only for a little while. I have a job in Charlotte, remember?" 

Daniel, at the stove, narrowed his eyes.  

She wondered if he thought she was lying--it was wrong to lie to children. She sat down at the table and Daniel asked what she wanted on her omelet. 

"There are omelets?" 

Meredith nodded. She stabbed some egg off her own plate with her fork and waved it at Natalie. 

"We have ham, cheese, spinach, pickles, relish, Tabasco, cheese, ketchup--" 

"Just cheese and spinach, please." 

"Ewwww," Merritt said. 

"Gross," Beau said. 

"Daddy didn't like spinach, either," Merritt said. 

Natalie glanced at Meredith. 

She shrugged. "Must be genetic." 

Jake came out of his bedroom, wearing swim trunks and carrying a big inner tube. A sling was tied around his chest, carrying a sleeping girl. "Ya'll boys ready for the beach?" 

Merritt got out of his chair so fast he tripped, fell flat on his face on the floor, and started crying. 

Beau, witnessing this, carefully got out of his chair and poked at his brother's back. 

Merritt whimpered. 

Jake went to the door and opened it, and Beau darted past him and down the staircase. 

"Don't get too far from Jake, Beau!" Meredith shouted. She sighed. 

"He won't drown," Natalie said. 

"He doesn't have the sense God gave a rock," Meredith said. 

Daniel slid an omelette onto Natalie's plate. 

"You're a prince, Daniel," she said. 

He grinned. 

"Thank you." 

"My pleasure. And now Merry gets to clean the kitchen." He scooped Merritt, who had quieted, off the floor and threw him over his shoulder. "Later, ladies." 

Meredith laughed. 

Natalie ate while Meredith cleaned, and they talked some, not about the night before or the trial or Charlotte, but about the weather and the boys. Natalie thought about asking Meredith what her favorite color was, or her sign, but she realized she knew all that already--she could make educated guesses--and she didn't need to tease. So she ate until Meredith took her plate away, and then went into the bathroom. 

The Tylenol had done its job to take the pain from her body and she moved easily to wash her face, to comb her hair, to brush her teeth. 

"Are we going to the beach?" she called. 

"Do you want to?" 

Natalie came out of the bathroom. Meredith was leaning against the edge of the couch, waiting for her. 

"Yeah," Natalie said. "If we have time." 

"I sure think so," Meredith said. "Why?" 

"I'll shower after, so I won't smell like salt and sweat on the plane," Natalie said. 

She'd meant to be jovial, but Meredith chewed on her lip and gave her a wry look. 

Natalie self-consciously ran her fingers through her hair. 

Meredith said, "I don't think you'd smell as bad as all that." 

"No?" Natalie's heart felt like it was going to stop beating at any moment, but she took a deep breath and walked toward Meredith anyway. Meredith wasn't crying, wasn't angry--maybe she didn't need Natalie for what she needed her for last night. 

So maybe it was wanting. 

Natalie leaned in and Meredith rose off the couch to meet her. Their lips touched, and then their hands. Natalie linked her fingers with Meredith's and they stood together, kissing. 

Meredith lifted their linked hands and kissed Natalie's knuckles. 

"We don't have to go to the beach, do we?" Natalie asked. "It's my last morning." 

* * * 

Meredith, heart pounding enough to make her feel foolish, took Natalie to the balcony, where they could see the ocean and the sky and the children. Past the front row of houses, past the dunes, the ocean glittered and shifted, the water catching the sunlight. They heard shouts of joy from the shore. 

"Look, there they are," Meredith said, pointing to where two men and three smaller people swarmed around each other on the sand. "I think they're playing hacky sack." 

"That does sound fun," Natalie said. "But--" 

"But," Meredith said. She turned into Natalie's shoulder. 

Natalie smelled so good--so like a woman--Meredith buried her nose against Natalie and breathed. She heard Natalie's heart beating under her cheek. Natalie's trembling told her that for once--only this once, this day before Natalie left her--she wasn't alone in what she felt.  

"Back inside?" Meredith asked. 

Natalie moved faster than Meredith had ever seen her, and they were barely back in the air-conditioned shade of the living room when Natalie kissed her. Her hands found Meredith's cheeks. Meredith simply gave in and hungry kisses consumed her lips. She tugged on Natalie's shoulders, pulling her down. Meredith sat on the couch, bracing herself against passion. Natalie's hands stroked her shoulders with quick, fluttering rubs, as if she didn't know what to do with her hands. 

Meredith opened her mouth to Natalie's kisses, her tongue equally eager, and bunched the fabric of Natalie's shirt at her waist. She slipped her hands under Natalie's shirt. The smooth skin under her fingers was pleasure enough, but the resulting groan from Natalie made the decision irrevocable. 

Just when Meredith wanted to kiss Natalie until her mouth hurt, Natalie pulled back, looking at her with dark, hesitant eyes. 

Meredith took a deep breath. She freed her hands and Natalie took them. 

"We shouldn't--" Natalie started.  

"I need--I need to. Please. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. But if I don't--" She squeezed Natalie's hands. "I'll regret it for the rest of my life. Will you?"  

She took Natalie's hands and brought them to her breasts, pressing them there, open and flat against her. Unmistakable, and if Natalie called her indecent or worse, well, there would only be the morning to get through. 

The pressure of Natalie's hands warmed her. She held her breath. Her body acted of its own accord. Her nipples tightened. She longed for Natalie to press just a little bit harder. Her mouth was dry with anticipation. 

Natalie swallowed. Her jaw worked, her throat moved, as if she wanted to say something, but it was her glance over her shoulder at the bedroom that answered the question. She looked back at Meredith, and Meredith found her mouth for a kiss.  

Natalie squeezed--gently, perfectly. Meredith closed her eyes. 

"I want--" Natalie said against her ear, and then hesitated. 

"What? Tell me."  

With her eyes closed, all that existed was the heat of Natalie's hands and the touch of Natalie's breath. She inhaled. She couldn't hear the ocean as she strained for Natalie's next words. 

"I want you to touch me," Natalie said. "Please, Merry." 

"Then--the bedroom," Meredith said. 

Natalie took a step back. Meredith stood and led her to the bedroom. Once across the threshold, she pulled off her shirt. Before she could lower her arms, Natalie encircled her waist from behind. Meredith leaned back. A sound escaped her lips. She blushed. 

Natalie held her strongly and she felt secure, even with Natalie's lips brushing her shoulder, her neck, her ear. 

Heat pooled in her stomach. Lower. Her legs turned to liquid even as cold air chilled her chest. She arched back, resting the back of her head on Natalie's shoulder, curving into Natalie's hips. 


Natalie held her stomach with one hand. The other she slid down Meredith's thigh. Meredith reached up and pulled down her bra straps and freed her arms, and then reached behind her to bury her fingers in Natalie's hair. Meredith wanted to keep her close.  

Natalie kissed the side of Meredith's face. 

Meredith let go and turned around. Natalie, face to face with her, could only smile and kiss her. Her hands splayed across Meredith's back and unclasped her bra. Meredith kissed her mouth, her chin, her neck. Meredith couldn't get close enough, couldn't taste enough, couldn't touch enough. She pulled Natalie down for a deep kiss, offering her tongue. 

Natalie's mouth fell to her shoulder, and she arched, offering more, and whispered, "Please." 

"Anything you want," Natalie murmured. 

"Make love to me." 

Natalie eased her back onto the bed, and leaning over her, unzipped her jeans. Natalie's hand rested on her abdomen, just above where Meredith needed it. She was only using Meredith for leverage to crawl onto the bed. 

Any feeling that this was too soon after their first kiss, that she was a slut for considering it, that it was wrong, that God hadn't sent Natalie to her to be corrupted and that she was failing--any negative energy left her as soon as Natalie's head lowered toward hers and their lips met. Meredith hugged Natalie's shoulders. Natalie's weight settled against her side and on her chest. Meredith wanted to cry.  

Natalie rested her head on Meredith's shoulder. Her forehead brushed against Meredith's cheek. She stroked Meredith's stomach, and then her breasts, tentatively, avoiding Meredith's nipples, which strained upward, pining for her touch. 

"You're injured," Meredith said. Her voice came out hoarse. She cleared her throat, and nearly yelped when Natalie brushed her nipple. She captured Natalie's hand and held it to her breast. Her nipple pressed against Natalie's palm. 

Natalie cupped her, applying pressure, and then drew back so that her fingertips grazed Meredith's breast and tugged the nipple.  

Meredith hissed.  

Natalie cupped her breast again, easing the ache by offering her whole hand, massaging, and then tantalized her again with her fingers. 

"So what?" Natalie said. 

"I don't want you to--hurt yourself," Meredith said. She rolled onto her side, facing Natalie, and replaced her shoulder with a pillow, so that Natalie's eyes were even with hers, so that her lips were only inches away. 

Natalie kissed her gently and then said, "I'm fine." 

Meredith shook her head. 

Natalie carefully, slowly, sat up, propping herself up on her good arm. She tickled Meredith's abdomen with her weaker arm. "See? Very mobile." She twisted and leaned down to kiss the hollow of Meredith's shoulder. "Nimble." 

Her mouth moved lower. 

Meredith could not protest. She was too weak and too aroused to stop. She could only clutch Natalie's head and encourage her as Natalie kissed her chest, and then the slope of her breast, and then-- 

"Yes." Meredith said. 

Natalie's mouth settled onto her nipple and sucked. Meredith arched her back, pressing more of herself against Natalie's lips. Natalie's tongue flicked across her nipple. Meredith lost her breath. She squeezed her eyes shut, and wondered if she could die from having her nipples kissed. 

No wonder this was considered so dangerous, she thought.  

No wonder. 

Natalie lifted her head and said, "Doctor Wheeler said I could start having sex two weeks ago." 

Meredith laughed. "Did he say with who?" 

"No." Natalie kissed Meredith's stomach, and then mumbled, "But I'm sure he had some idea." 

"Too smart for his britches, he is." 

"Good old Hank," Natalie said. 

Natalie sat up and traced with her fingers the places her mouth had been, where Meredith's skin had a sheen left by kisses. She strayed, more boldly this time, into Meredith's jeans, over her panties. Meredith squeezed her thighs together and moaned. 

"You are so beautiful like that," Natalie said. 

Meredith blushed. 

Natalie cupped her where she was all liquid and heat, her fingers hard against all the places no one else had been. Meredith's toes curled. She hissed, "Natalie."  

"Take off your clothes," Natalie said. "I can't--I can't quite manage that." 

"Only if you take off yours," Meredith said. Her threat was empty. She was already pushing down her jeans and her panties. 

Natalie worked up her shirt. Meredith pulled down the covers, bunching them around Natalie. She wanted to feel the cool sheets on her naked body.  

Natalie carefully drew her shirt off her shoulders. 

"Better," Meredith said. 

"You picked out the pajamas." 

Meredith wanted to touch Natalie where she'd been touched--to feel the heat through the fabric, to see Natalie arch and twist and breathe hard--but she was not that bold. She sat on the bed, her arms around her bent knees, while Natalie worked the pajama bottoms off her hips and kicked them to the floor. 

Then she was naked. 

Meredith, overwhelmed to have a woman in her bed like this, drank in the sight of Natalie's flushed skin, the freckles on her back and arms, the dark curls arrowing between her legs that matched her dark hair. 

She had been afraid of facing this for so long--in her own heart, and in the world--and here was Natalie, just sitting next to her, accessible. Touchable. Almost ordinary despite her extraordinary beauty. The rightness of it--the obviousness of the rightness--made her laugh, made her heart leap. Her soul and her body and her mind were all aligned, all singing, "Yes."  

From somewhere deeper, someone was whispering, "Finally." 

Natalie moved to the headboard where she could lean back, sitting against the pillows, and beckoned to Meredith. 

Meredith knelt and kissed her. While they kissed they touched, hands on breasts, knees and legs bumping. Meredith took in her fill of curves and angles and slopes that all gave way to softness. She ended up straddled on top of Natalie, her curls brushing against Natalie's stomach, one hand on Natalie's breast and the other against the headboard, to hold her up so she could kiss Natalie's lips. She felt open and swollen and ready, and accepted Natalie's tongue, thrusting and firm, into her mouth. 

"Please," she said between kisses. She knew it would be quick and she didn't care. They didn't have time. She didn't have the strength. She searched for Natalie's hand, which had been steady on her thigh, and tugged. 

Natalie touched her. 

"Natalie," she said, sighing. Her eyes closed. 

Natalie's fingers laid her bare, opened her up, filled her. 


Meredith crumpled into Natalie's shoulder and breathed, "There."  

Her energy was at her core, welcoming Natalie. Natalie was touching her more deeply than she'd ever felt, and stroking gloriously, not just inside her but against her, with smooth motions and knobby fingers. Something rose in Meredith--an excitement that made her tremble. She strained to hold herself up. Her hips moved against Natalie. Her thighs ached. 

She could hear Natalie whispering to her. She tried to listen. 

"Shssh," Natalie said. "Look at me." 

Moving with Natalie's eager, gentle thrusts, Meredith pushed back from Natalie's shoulder far enough to meet her eyes. Natalie held her gaze and smiled. Without breaking the rhythm of her hand, the one that already knew Meredith so well, had learned and exposed every wanton desire, Natalie said, "Kiss me." 

Meredith moved forward to Natalie's mouth. Natalie pushed apart her lips with her tongue and deepened the kiss.  

There--the completion, the sealing, and with it the orgasm that shook Meredith. She was breathless and powerless against the penetrating kiss and Natalie's embrace. She shook all over, seeking Natalie's hand to sooth the lingering tingles, and then retreating, her whole body searingly sensitive and raw, like she had just shed her skin. 

She kissed Natalie one more time and then rolled onto her back, panting. She pulled the sheet to her waist, and then, after considering, over her breasts, and slowly became aware of the sweat on her back, sticking to the pillow, and the scent of herself. 

"Natalie," she said. 

"I'm here." 

Meredith leaned her head on Natalie's shoulder. Natalie put an arm around her and Meredith moved closer. She put her hand on Natalie's bare thigh, and laughed, and said, "Natalie." 

Natalie kissed her hair.  

"I've always heard there was something depraved about the homosexual act," Meredith said. She felt Natalie tense against her, but she went on. "Not in the moral sense--in the physical sense. Like, the Freudian sense. Something half-formed. Like, men settled for other men when they feared women. Stunted. And vice versa. That we should feel sad for homosexuals, because they couldn't experience--." 

"Uh huh?" Natalie asked. 

"Not going to believe that anymore. That was--everything I thought it was supposed to be." She swallowed hard. 

"Maybe it's too potent, and thus, not fit for anyone stained with original sin." 

Meredith snorted. 

"This--" Natalie's fingers traced her jaw and said, "Is the beginning of wisdom." 

"Oh, shut up, you." 

Meredith turned against Natalie's shoulder and smiled. Her hand traveled, in darting finger dances, up Natalie's side and over the slope of her breast, and across her collarbone. Natalie shifted, unsettled.  

Meredith knew the feeling.  

Her hand moved down Natalie's chest, over her heart, between her breasts. Natalie trembled. 

"Your turn," Meredith said. 

"It's all right if you're not--" 

Meredith put her fingers on Natalie's lips. "I am," she said. 

Natalie swallowed. 

Meredith kissed her shoulder and then slid around to kiss her neck, her jaw, her ear. 

"Please kiss me," Natalie said. 

Meredith kissed her. She ran her hands down Natalie's side, enjoying how Natalie squirmed when tickled and shuddered when stroked. Sated, she could take her time. 

She kissed and nipped at Natalie's mouth. Natalie growled.  

Meredith pulled away, moving back on the bed. 

"Merry," Natalie said. 

Meredith stroked the sole of Natalie's foot. "Ticklish?" 

"Not there." 

Natalie's sole was smooth, without calluses. Meredith knelt, feeling naughtily powerful that she could move around, she could bend and dip and twist, and Natalie couldn't. She kissed the pad of Natalie's big toe. 

Natalie shivered. 

Meredith took the toe into her mouth and sucked. 

"Oh, Merry." Natalie closed her eyes. 

Meredith asked, "How are your feet so soft?" 

"I haven't really been on them in six weeks." 

"There's more to it than that." Meredith moved up Natalie's legs, crouching, bracing herself on one arm while she stroked Natalie's leg. 

"Fine. Peppermint foot scrub." 


"Once a month, at Le Nail. But at least twice a week, myself," Natalie said. 

"I had no idea," Meredith said. She kissed the side of Natalie's knee. 

Natalie convulsed. "No kids, no partner, cheap real estate in Charlotte--I spent what luxuries I had on myself." 

"Oh," Meredith said. That confession came with a pang of sadness but Meredith added, "It paid off." 

Natalie smiled. 

Meredith met her eyes and said "I--" Then she hesitated. 

Natalie pursed her lips. 

"I need you to scoot down," she said. 


Meredith kissed her belly, and then her thigh. 

"Lawyers," Natalie said, carefully pushing off to shift down the bed, "Ask dumb questions." 

Meredith settled onto her stomach, sliding her arms under Natalie's legs. Natalie obliged by bending them and looking like she was going to pass out. Her breathing was short and rapid. Her mouth was slightly open. Meredith wanted to kiss her, but she had the strength to be patient.  

She lowered her head. 

"Merry?" Natalie called. 

Meredith looked up. Natalie touched her jaw, cupped her face, and met her eyes. She said, "This is the best morning of my life. I'm serious. It's everything to me." 

"Me too," Meredith said. 

Natalie asked, "Hey, if I pass out, will you give me mouth to mouth?" 

Meredith lowered her head and kissed tight, trimmed, damp curls. Natalie gasped. She held herself still, trembling. Meredith took a deep breath, trying to gather courage. Natalie's musky scent came with each intake of air. 

"God, please," Natalie said. "Merry, please." 

Meredith took another long, deep breath, nosing into Natalie's curls, inhaling. She opened her mouth and pressed. Slick heat passed her lips. Natalie filled her senses. She took a quick, tentative lick. 

Natalie groaned. 

"Does that feel good?" Meredith asked. 

"Do it again." 

Meredith kissed. Her tongue explored, finding places that made Natalie gasp and moan. 

"Yes, it's good, don't stop," Natalie said, and then, "Merry. Merry." 

Then she found the spot that made Natalie whisper her name instead of call it. Natalie trembled against her shoulders. She knew what Natalie was feeling--what she had felt with Natalie against her. She used her lips and prayed that she was good enough to bring Natalie pleasure, to make nothing but this moment matter for her.  

She bowed her head. 


Natalie strained, stilling, and then arched against Meredith's mouth. Meredith held her.  

Natalie shuddered. Meredith felt each tremble and pulse against her lips like kisses.  

A hand touched Meredith's hair. "Stop." 

Meredith worked her way up into a crouching position, her shoulders aching, her lips numb. Natalie's stomach quivered under her. She licked her lips and looked up. 

Natalie cried. 

Meredith took Natalie in her arms. Natalie stayed silent, breathing hard with tears rolling down her cheeks. Meredith kissed her hair. She tightened her arms. 

"I'm sorry," Natalie said. 

"Don't be--" 

"That was--I didn't expect--" 

"Me either," Meredith said. She held Natalie close. "Me either." 

"But you're not crying." 

"Too excited," Meredith said. 

Natalie turned her head to smile at Meredith. 

Meredith said, "I'll cry later." 

"Then I'll hold you." 

"You'll be gone." 

"Doesn't matter," Natalie said. 

Meredith kissed her sweetly, over and over until Natalie's breath was even and her tears had gone away. 

Chapter Twenty-Eight 

"Mommy, I’m hungry,” Beau growled, running into the living room in dripping-wet swim trunks, naked and sunburned otherwise. 

Meredith pointed to the kitchen table, where sandwiches and milk were already made. Beau dutifully climbed into a chair. 

Daniel came through the door, carrying Merritt over his shoulder. Merritt was giggling. 

"Ready to get down?” Daniel asked. 


Daniel spun him around. Merritt screamed. Beau rolled his eyes and kept eating. 

"You’re going to strain your back,” Jake said. He followed them in, putting his daughter on the floor so she could run to Daniel and clutch at his leg. 

"Lucky I know a physical therapist,” Daniel said. But he put Merritt down. Merritt whimpered and ran to Natalie. 

"Hi Merry,” Natalie said as he climbed onto a chair and then wedged himself onto her lap between her and the table. 

"I got bit by a crab,” he said. 

Meredith gasped. 

Daniel shook his head at Meredith. 

Merritt held out his arm. He said, "See?” 

"I see.” Natalie rubbed his arm. "Does it hurt?” 

Merritt nodded. 

"Why are you with Natalie, Merritt?” Meredith asked. 

"She’s hurt, like me.” 

Natalie looked smug. 

"Well, you’d both better eat something if you want to get well.” 

Merritt grinned at Natalie. She hugged him and turned him around so he was facing the sandwiches. 

"I see everyone’s dressed--"  

Meredith shot Jake a look. 

"And ready to go,” he finished. "Luggage?” 

"Down in the trunk,” Meredith said. "Except for the carry-on bag. Thought that would be easier.” 

"What about Hollingsworth?” Merritt asked, around a mouthful of sandwich. 

"Chew, swallow, then speak,” Natalie said. 

Merritt chewed and swallowed. Everyone waited. He asked, "Where’s Natalie’s cat?” 

"He’ll stay with you guys until I come back,” Natalie said. "If you promise to take care of him.” 

Merritt cheered. 

Natalie jerked her head back from the sound. 

Beau said, "I’ll brush him.” 

Meredith put her hands on Natalie’s shoulders. She needed to touch Natalie. Talking about the cat was almost too much for her to take. Natalie leaned her head back and smiled at Meredith. Meredith puckered her lips. 

Merritt, in his attempt to get his milk, elbowed Natalie in the chest. 

She oofed. 

Meredith patted her head, and said, "Okay, boys, go get changed. Let the men eat.” 

"Then we have to leave?” Beau asked. 

"Then there’s popsicles. But only when you’re dressed and have your shoes on.” 

Another elbow as Merritt bounded off Natalie’s lap and into the bedroom. 

"You shouldn’t bribe your children,” Daniel said. 

"I’ll remind you that you said that when this girl turns three,” Meredith said. 

* * * 

The ride to the airport was narrated only by the boys, who told them about their morning on the beach in grand, rambling detail. Every time their attention would stray Meredith would prompt them with pointed questions to keep talking. 

"We built sand castles right in the wet sand so the waves would come up and get them,” Beau said. 

"It was awesome,” Merritt said. 

"Boys and violence,” Meredith said and shook her head. 

Neither boy commented on how Meredith and Natalie held hands through most of the drive. Natalie rubbed Meredith’s fingers. 

Meredith pulled up to the curb and made Natalie stay in the car while she got the bags checked, and then made the boys sit in the car while she got Natalie up on her crutches, with her carry-on over her shoulder and chest. 

"I’ll be fine,” Natalie said. 

"We could wait with you,” Meredith said. She finally let the boys out of the cage and they ran toward Natalie. 

"Wait with me? What kind of airport is this?” 

"One on the beach of North Carolina,” Meredith said, grinning. 

Natalie shook her head. "I’ll be all right,” she said. "I’ll go face the music.” 

"All right boys, say goodbye,” Meredith said. 

Natalie handed her one crutch so she could give each of them a one-armed squeeze. 

Merritt burst into tears, startling the three of them and the baggage handler and the family getting out of the car a few feet away. 

"I don’t want you to go,” Merritt said. 

"I don’t want to go either,” Natalie said. 

"Then don’t.” 

"I have to. Remember Patrick? He brought the cat.” 

Merritt shook his head and then asked, "Is he your husband?” 

"No, honey. He’s just going to help me.” 

Merritt sniffled. Natalie held him, and Beau did too, until a security guard at a station down the sidewalk coughed at them. 

Meredith pried Merritt off. "She’ll call you tonight, okay?” 

"Okay,” Natalie said. 

Meredith blushed. 

Merritt got in the car and slammed the door. He glared at them through the window. 

Beau gave Natalie a more solemn hug. "He’ll be all right," Beau said. "He’s just a baby.” 

Natalie ruffled his hair. 

Meredith shooed him into the car. Then she turned to Natalie, but it was Natalie who hobbled toward her and caught her in a tight embrace. 

"Oh, no,” Meredith said. She buried her face in Natalie’s neck and prayed tears would not come. Natalie held her, rubbing her back. 

"It’ll be okay,” Natalie mumbled against her hair. 

Meredith inhaled. A sob was in her throat. She breathed sharply and tried to swallow it, and pulled back from Natalie to see her face. 

Natalie gave her a faint smile. "I’ll call Merritt tonight. Maybe I’ll even talk to you.” 

Meredith brought Natalie’s head down for a brief, tender kiss. Then she let go, turning back to the car. Her lips tingled. The boys sniffled and rolled around and watched Natalie. 

Natalie’s hand touched her back. "I love you,” Natalie said. 

Meredith cried. Crutches thudded against the sidewalk, and receded, and Meredith wiped at her cheeks and went around to get into the car. 

The family passed by on their way to the door, and a woman asked, her tone somewhere between curious and accusatory--right on the point of nosy, asked, "How sweet. Is that your sister?" 

"Yes," Meredith answered, almost without even thinking. The woman gave her a sympathetic look. Meredith got into the car and slammed the door. 

"No," she said, but the woman was already gone. 

Her first test. 

She started the car. The boys buckled themselves in.  

They'd fall asleep. She'd wake them up when they got out of Wilmington. Maybe she'd take them to McDonalds, and then home, where she'd try to pretend six weeks couldn't change her life. 

She'd change the rumpled sheets in the bedroom, and feed the cat, and try and put everything back to normal.  

Chapter Twenty-Nine 

Patrick met Natalie at the airport. He'd pulled rank--not just his, but hers--to meet her at the gate rather than at baggage claim. With his presence came a price. The photographer next to him, who took pictures of a smiling, tired, triumphant city prosecutor on crutches. 

"I'll take those," Patrick said to the flight attendant who'd carried her bags up the ramp and kept her from falling. 

Not "Can I help?" or "Let me take the bags" but "I'll take those." Natalie wondered how long Patrick had been getting his way. 

Still, when he shooed the photographer away and helped her into the handicapped golf cart, she was grateful for his presence. The cart beeped and rolled. Natalie laughed at the people scattering in front of its progress. She should have felt guilty--she'd always been annoyed by those cars and the passengers. Instead she was happy to be in Charlotte.  

"Sleep on the plane?" Patrick asked. 


She'd been thinking of Meredith, and biting her lip, and writing a letter. 

"Where's Hollingsworth?" 

"Staying in Deborahville for now," Natalie said. 

"Oh, Nat." 

She said, "Holly took to the kids. They--there was a whole cat thing. You wouldn't understand." 

"Okay," he said. "You'll miss him." 

The golf cart dumped them at the baggage claim and he called for his driver while they waited for bags.  

"Something happened while you were on the plane," he said. 


"They found Roland guilty." He grinned. 

"On a Sunday?" 

"You're back in the city now." 

Her heart twisted. "That's wonderful." Relief spread through her. She felt lighter. She stretched. 

"It is. Congratulations, Nat--" 

"I'm going back," she said--far sooner than she'd intended to. This was a conversation for drinks or work, not for an airport terminal. 

"What?" he said. 

He'd instantly understood. He didn't try to play dumb.  

She pulled the letter out of the side pocket of the bag he carried. 

"This is my two month notice. I'll need that much time to get things together. Job hunt. Pack. Sell my condo." She'd bought it two years ago after a promotion. Charlotte was so cheap she could have bought four. She'd pretended to love the space. She'd tried. But it had never felt like a home. 

"You're going down there without a job?" 

"I'll find one," she said. "There are a thousand things I can do." 

"Like what?" 

He was getting angry--louder. He swung to face her, to meet her eyes, to give her the death stare that got so many confessions--so many people to stop acting in their own self-interest and act in his. 

"Nat, you'll get another case like Roland. Don't make it about that. Your career--" 

"My career? I'll find another--" 

"This is more than that and you know it. You can have anything you want. A.D.A. Hell, D.A., if you showed one ounce of ambition." 

"Patrick. God." 

"Sorry," he said. He ran his hand along the back of his head. "Natalie, you don't know this woman." 


"Listen to me. Hear me out. She's going to go to jail for a long time. A very long time. And you're going to be, what, stuck with the kids? Do you want that? Them?" 

"Yes," she said. 

"She's going to use you. She's going to hit you up for money and--" 

"Patrick!" she took his arms, shaking him. The crutches clattered to the floor. People looked at them. 

"That's my bag," she said.  

They glanced at the luggage conveyor together. 

He pulled away and got it for her and stood it on its wheels. He stared at her, his nostrils wide. 

She took his arms more gently. "I don't care about any of that stuff." 

"Nat. I don't want you to get hurt. You're too good--" 

"Just help me," she said. She let him go, hanging her hands at her sides. "Okay? Help me screw up my life." 

He smiled. "Okay. Get your apartment on the market as soon as you can. You can live with us. Look, maybe we can get you severance, or disability, or you can telework, just until you're settled in down there. I'll call my contacts and see if anyone's heard of Deborahville--" 

He rambled on, picking up her crutches for her and then taking her bags. She followed him to the car, glad he was on her side. Glad to follow his plans once again, glad he would help her even if he couldn't use her as his pawn.  

Maybe it had never been about that. Maybe she'd just been a good attorney. 

His friend. 

She smiled at him as they settled into the backseat of the town car. 

He smiled back and patted her hand. 

"Thanks for all this, Patrick," she said. 

"Sure, kid," he said. And then, "How far are you from Hilton Head, anyway?" 

* * * 

Her apartment was cold and smelled of dust and neglect. At least the power was still on. There was a note from her neighbor about Patrick picking up her cat. She turned on the lights and sat down on the couch. There was no edible food left in the fridge, but there were six messages on her answering machine. Two from Patrick, one from the neighbor, two from the police, and one from Meredith.  

She played that one twice, shocked at how foreign Meredith's accent sounded already, after three hours back in Charlotte. The boys were noisy in the background, chaotic and frightening. Her eyes welled up. She missed them. 

She found it was easier to miss them than Meredith. Children were innocent, and therefore, innocently loved. Meredith--that left too many questions about the future. About herself. About what she was doing in a cold and empty apartment a hundred miles away. 

"Hey, Nat, just wanted you to hear a friendly voice when you got home. The boys say hello--" 

"Hi Natty!" they chimed. 

"Anyway, welcome home." Meredith had paused. Natalie counted the seconds. Then, "Take care, Natalie." 

Natalie couldn't listen to it any more, not with the lump rising in her throat and the tears stinging in her eyes. She ordered Chinese, and then realized she didn't have any cash. She used the emergency supply in the shoebox in her closet. While eating, she went over her finances. 

Not good. 

She found herself surrounded by Chinese containers and paperwork, depressed and tired and in pain. Her cat was gone and she was alone with the hum of the refrigerator. She picked up the television remote. 

She set it down. That felt like a line she couldn't cross--not yet. She knew she'd succumb eventually--to the need for money, to the need for the fantasy of other people's lives filling her home, to the path of least resistance. 

She glanced at the phone. She remembered all the nights she'd waited for it to ring. 

She picked up the receiver and dialed. 

Chapter Thirty 

Two Months Later 

Meredith sat in the uncomfortable, too-small chair across from her lawyer. They were in a holding office, waiting for the judge to arrive. In fifteen minutes, they would all herd into the courtroom and her life--the sliver of life she had held onto between Vincent's death and today--would be gone. 

She'd been crying more and more, and the boys had caught her last night. They'd piled into bed with her and said "What's wrong, mommy?" and "We'll be good, don't cry," which made her cry more. 

Merritt had said, "Call Natty, she'll help." 

That had been even worse. 

She put her head in her hand.  

Her lawyer coughed. Samson Okoru had worked his way through law school with the state's help, in return for a defense attorney post in a small town.  

On behalf of North Carolina, and not on behalf of her, he did this. He was completely professional, but she was pretty sure he thought she was guilty.  

A knock came on the glass of the open door. She looked up. 

Natalie smiled. 

"Took you long enough," Meredith said. She stood. 

"I started driving as soon as I hung up the phone. It's a long drive," Natalie said. 

"Do you have to go back?" 

"This weekend, to put the rest of my stuff into storage and sign the final paperwork. I can't believe those turkeys are taking my condo." 

"I'm sure it's a nice condo." 

"I’m sure," Natalie said. 

Samson said, "You have five minutes," and then left, heading for the water fountain. 

"I'm sorry it took so long," Natalie said. 

"Don't be." Meredith felt her eyes filling with tears. She hastily wiped them away. All that time lost--all those weeks--she'd be damned if she was going to lose this time, too, by crying. 

"The preliminary background check is done. I can take the boys if--while--" Natalie stopped talking and swallowed. 


Natalie reached out and pulled Meredith against her. 

Meredith bit her lip until it hurt, and said, "Good." 

Natalie's hand was against her hair. Meredith was amazed at how right the embrace felt--how much she remembered Natalie's body from before, when she'd spent weeks convincing herself she'd imagined it. Here was Natalie--real and holding her.  

Meredith reached up and cupped Natalie's face. She pulled back far enough to see Natalie and laughed. 


"I never saw you in a suit before. I guess I never figured--you look so powerful." 

"That's the idea." 


"I promise, I'm just muscle. The press are out there." 

"I know." 

Samson tapped on the glass. "The judge is here. The bailiff is calling us." 

Meredith swallowed. 

Natalie took Meredith's hand from her cheek and kissed her palm. "I'm right here." 

"Thanks," Meredith said. She held Natalie's gaze, trying to express all she felt, all the thudding in her heart.  

Natalie gave her a faint smile. 

Samson held out his hand. Meredith took it, brushing past Natalie. 

The door to the courtroom opened in front of her. She dropped her lawyer's hand. 

Natalie's hand touched her back. 

"Vince's parents are already inside," Samson said. 

She took a deep breath, and said, "I'm ready." 

* * * 

The trial had been an exhausting recitation of charges and details. They'd broken for lunch before opening statements. Meredith struggled to stay awake as the judge droned on. 

Natalie furiously scribbled notes. 

At lunch, the lawyer tucked them into a dark van. Meredith just buried her face in Natalie's neck while her lawyer practiced his opening statement.  

Natalie gave him tips. 

"Why didn't you do this before?" Meredith asked. "If you were going to do it at all?" 

Natalie looked guilty. 

Samson coughed and took a sip of water. 

"What?" Meredith asked, lifting her head. 

"We did," Natalie said. 

"We talk on the phone a few times a week," the lawyer admitted. "She's good." 

"I could have been a D.A., they told me," Natalie said. 

"Nat--" Meredith looked down. 

"Don't worry. I won't be writing wills for old people. I'm consulting for a firm in Charlotte. We'll see. I might get out of criminal law." 

Samson snorted. 

Natalie touched Meredith's cheek and said, "My heart's not in it." 

"The military wants a plea arranged. They don't want PTSD or war atrocities all over the news. Tomorrow we may have an offer." 

"I can't go to jail," Meredith said. 

"It's the parents driving it, then?" Natalie asked. 

"The whole town. Merry, you really should have considered Charlotte. Death has turned Vincent into a hero." 

"He was always a hero," Meredith said. 

"Your freedom isn't going to change anyone's minds." 

"What are they going to do? Them and their minds? They'll be too damn polite to shun the boys, and too damn greedy to shun my money at the market. And wait until I deliver one of their babies or patch up a bloody knee."  

Samson sipped water. 

Natalie grinned. "And to think she's staying because she likes these people." 

"I'm not raising my boys in some strange city with--strangers." 

Natalie nodded. 

"You've got more friends than you think, Merry" Samson said. 

"I have enough." 

"They've risked shunning too." 

Natalie said, "It's hard to do the right thing." 

"Real easy to do the wrong thing," Meredith said. 

Natalie pulled her back into a hug and kissed her head. 

* * *  

Meredith cried when the prosecution called her a murderer.  

She had promised Natalie and Samson and herself that she wouldn't, but she did, right in the face of the lies about money, about promiscuity, about selfish greed and her cold-heartedness. She made herself look at the crime scene photo. Vincent, lying on her kitchen floor, blood soaking his shirt. She remembered the fear inside her--the picture transported her back to that fear, sharp and painful.  

She'd believed he could stand back up and come after her. Calling 911 had been in some fashion about calling for backup. 

Vincent looked like an angel in the picture.  

At peace.  

When her lawyer spoke, she only looked at her hands, feeling nauseous and ashamed at his gentleness. He made a rational, calm argument for forgiveness. 

She knew in her heart that she didn't deserve forgiveness. 

Chapter Thirty-One 

That night, Natalie came home with her.  

Natalie walked with a slight, almost imperceptible limp. The boys knew who she was when she stepped over the threshold. They hugged her. They squealed.  

Natalie winced at the sound. "I've been away too long," she said. 

Meredith took her hand. 

After pizza, they put the boys to bed together. Meredith handled reading them stories, snuggled against Beau, while Natalie sat with Merritt and closed her eyes and listened.  

The boys seemed mostly asleep when Meredith and Natalie left, but Meredith made Natalie stand outside their door, listening. A minute in, they had to bring Merritt water. Two minutes in, Meredith had to shush them. 

"They must think you're a god," Natalie whispered. 

Meredith grinned. She took Natalie's hand. They stood another minute. Meredith had to shush the boys again. Natalie and Meredith giggled together. 

Then Natalie's hands were running up and down Meredith's arms and Meredith was holding her waist and the boys could have lit their room on fire and they wouldn't have noticed. 

Natalie bent her head and barely brushed her mouth against Meredith's. Meredith held herself still, simply returning the pressure and then increasing it until there was a solid, affirming kiss.  

She pulled away, smiling. "Hungry?" 

Natalie grinned and shook her head. 

"Want to watch television?" 


"I think I hear the boys," Meredith said. 

"No you don't." 

Meredith tugged Natalie closer, slipping an arm around her waist. She said, "I don't know what to do with you." 

"You've got to put up with me. We're a family now," Natalie said. She smoothed Meredith's hair back from her face and kissed the corner of her mouth. 

Meredith kissed Natalie's cheek. She sighed as Natalie kissed her jaw. 

"Are you going to be old-fashioned?" Meredith asked. 

"Kátit," Natalie said. 

Meredith tilted her head. "Bless you." 

"That's the only phrase I know in Russian. I learned it from the gangs at my high school, long before I learned the English equivalent from my defendants."  

Meredith snorted, and said, "Fine, brat. Tell me." 

"In the colloquial it means, 'Word.'" 

Meredith slapped Natalie's stomach. 

Natalie laughed and pulled Meredith into a hug. Meredith tucked her head against Natalie's neck. Natalie stroked her hair. 

"Kátit," Meredith said. 

"There, now you're as bilingual as I am." 

"Good." Meredith kissed her neck. 

Natalie trembling, said, "I'm not sure who's supposed to take care of who." 

"I've been thinking. We have complementary strengths," Meredith said. 

Natalie pressed her cheek to the boys' door. 

"Hear anything?" Meredith whispered. 

Natalie shook her head. 

Meredith pulled back from the hug. She took Natalie's hand and led her upstairs and to the bedroom. Natalie swallowed. Her hand was sweaty in Meredith's. Meredith held Natalie's fingers between both of her hands. 

"Are you ready?" Meredith asked. 

"Your bedroom," Natalie said. 

Meredith nodded. 

"Our bedroom." 


"For the rest of our lives." 

"Probably," Meredith said. 

Natalie said, "I'm ready." 

"You are old-fashioned," Meredith said. 

Natalie said, "Maybe we should have waited. For this." 

Meredith shook her head. "There were no guarantees." 

Natalie lifted her hand to guide Meredith's fingers up to her lips. She kissed each one and said, "There are now." 

"I love you," Meredith said.  

She had never said it in their epic phone conversations over the last two months, afraid that her dream wouldn't come true, afraid to spoil it. 

"Me too," Natalie said. "I love you, too." 

"Come inside," Meredith said. She pushed open the bedroom door. They walked in together. 

Natalie pulled away and went to the bed. She smoothed her hand over the pillow.  

Meredith was proud of the quilt on her bed, of the drapes she'd chosen, of the furniture that matched, but her things weren't very modern. Maybe it wasn't the bedroom that Natalie wanted to spend the rest of her life in. 

"Hey," she called. 

Natalie looked up. 

"Now, don't think I'm going to be sleeping naked every night. I have nightgowns and flannel pajamas and slippers." 


"Bunny slippers from the boys--well, from Vince, through the boys, when they were two--kind of morbid, I suppose. Real fur." 

Natalie raised her eyebrows, walking back to Meredith. 

"And crocodile slippers. Those are fake." 

Natalie settled her hands on Meredith's hips. 

Meredith swallowed and said, "And my dad's old leather slippers. His feet were too big, though." 

"What about tonight?" Natalie asked, slipping one hand around Meredith's waist to bring her closer. 

"Tonight--" Meredith started, her words cut short by Natalie's kiss. 

She lost her breath when Natalie touched her--first her breast and then her side and then her hip. She guided Natalie's hand back to her breast, where Natalie squeezed. Meredith broke off the kiss, squirming. She wrapped arms around Natalie's neck, and leaned against her, afraid she would swoon. 

Natalie worked her fingers under Meredith's top. Meredith clung to Natalie, unable to keep a gasp from escaping her lips. Natalie's lips touched her neck. Wherever Natalie touched her, she felt answering fire inside of her. She pushed back against Natalie's hands.  

She was startled by her own urgency, and even more startled by Natalie's. Natalie was touching her before she had a chance to breathe, to regroup. She hadn't really caught up to Natalie being there in her arms. Already making love to her. 

They had not been sexual during their separation. Nor loving, nor tender. As practically as possible they made plans, rooted in realism, within their limitations. Flights of fantasy had no place between them.  

Romanticism was the enemy of anyone facing prison. 

Natalie's lips touched her ear. She hissed, pulling herself more tightly against Natalie until she was pressed against Natalie's thigh. Her hands gripped Natalie's shoulders as hard as she could. Her shoulders ached. 

Still the touch of Natalie's lips made her feel as if she were falling-- 

"Natalie, the bed." 

"Right," Natalie said. She pulled back, breathing hard. She disentangled herself enough to pull them both to the bed. She turned down the sheets. She fluffed the pillows. 

Meredith rubbed Natalie's back, feeling the muscles flex and extend. 

"I'm sorry," Natalie said, sitting on the edge of the bed to take off her socks. "I have been thinking about this--a lot." 

"Me too," Meredith said. 

Natalie grinned. 

Meredith kissed the top of her head. 

Natalie dropped her socks on the floor. 

"We'll have to talk about that, too," Meredith said. 

Natalie settled her hands on Meredith's hips. 

"Later," Meredith said. 

Natalie stood. She took Meredith's face in her hands to kiss her--hard and lingering. Deepening. Meredith tangled her fingers in Natalie's hair. She tugged Natalie closer. Natalie bit into Meredith's lip. Meredith seized. Natalie broke the kiss and showered smaller, damp kisses on her cheeks and neck. 

"I've never wanted to do that to anyone," Meredith said. 

"Not even Sharon Stone?" 

Natalie turned them so that Meredith's back was to the bed. She gently urged Meredith down. Meredith sank onto the mattress. Natalie worked up Meredith's shirt and pulled it over her head. 

Meredith folded her arms around her torso, blushing and feeling cold. "Maybe when she was a cowboy," she said. 

"I didn't see her as a cowboy." 

"What were you thinking of?" 

"Basic Instinct?" 

Meredith poked Natalie in the stomach. 

Natalie sat beside her on the bed. Meredith shifted toward her.  

Then they were kissing, and Natalie's hands were on Meredith's bare skin, and that felt so fantastic that when Natalie's lips moved to her collarbone she let Natalie kiss her wherever she wanted to.  

Meredith found herself lying back on the bed with Natalie over her, her mouth following the slope of Meredith's breast to the cup of the bra. 

"Natalie," she begged. 

Natalie worked her hands under Meredith's back, against the mattress, and unclasped her bra. She drew it back and Meredith freed her arms. 

"Not on the floor," Meredith said. 

Natalie snorted and got off the bed. "Where?" 

"The closet--there's a hamper." 

"A hamper?" Natalie looked at the bra. 

"Don't argue," Meredith said. She worked herself up on the bed to lie back on the pillows. 

"I can see how this is going to go," Natalie said. She tossed the bra in the hamper and turned around. 

Meredith was relieved to see her smiling. She asked, "Will you miss the bachelor lifestyle?" 

Natalie knelt on the bed. She met Meredith's eyes with an expression of lust that made Meredith's chest ache. She thought she should be scared, but all she felt was an answering call inside her.  

"Not as much as I would miss this," Natalie said. 

Meredith reached for her, but Natalie ducked away. She opened the top button of Meredith's jeans. 

"Hurry," Meredith said. 

Natalie unzipped the fly and worked the jeans over Meredith's legs. Meredith blushed, feeling each inch of her exposed. Natalie tugged her panties down with the jeans. She did not ask Meredith before dumping them on the floor. 

Meredith, naked, sat up and cupped Natalie's chin and drew her forward. She leaned back and looked into Natalie's eyes, dark and wide, gazing into hers. In the moment before Natalie's lips touched hers, Meredith whimpered. The light brush of Natalie's mouth was a relief.  

Meredith pulled Natalie close, holding Natalie's head so that their kiss became more intense. She arched up, rubbing herself against Natalie's clothed body. She hooked one leg over Natalie's calf. 

They had been so careful at the beach house, so unsure. There was none of that feeling here. No thinking. Just touching. Groping. Natalie's lips burning and Meredith tugging up the back of Natalie's shirt, stroking her back, wanting her closer. Natalie's thigh moved between her legs. She groaned. Natalie shivered against their kiss.  

She groaned again at Natalie's hand on her breast. 

"Don't stop," she said. 

Natalie kissed her shoulder. Natalie's lips were so soft they felt like cotton against her skin. Meredith wanted to lie back and feel each touch of Natalie's lips, but desire was building within her that made the passivity impossible. She found the seam of Natalie's pants and pressed. Natalie shifted, bringing herself to Meredith's fingers. 

"Yes," Natalie said. "Make love to me." 

Natalie was on top of her, pressing down on her, and fully clothed against Meredith's nudity, but Meredith felt powerful when she pressed her fingers and Natalie trembled. 

"You'll have to--" she tried to say. She pulled Natalie's shirt up her back. 

Natalie stopped kissing her neck only when the shirt bunched over her head, interfering, and then she lifted her head long enough for Meredith to get the fabric off. Meredith reached for the bra. 

"Wait," Natalie said. 

Meredith didn't wait. She unclasped the bra and moved her hands underneath the loose cups. She stroked and Natalie shuddered. 

"God," Natalie said. 

Meredith lifted up to kiss Natalie's collarbone. Natalie made a strangled sound. It sent a charge through Meredith, ending between her legs. She clutched Natalie's shoulders, kissing her skin. 

Natalie pushed her back to the bed, gently but firmly, with one hand against her shoulder. She met Meredith's eyes. 

Meredith smiled. 

Natalie smiled back. 

Meredith trembled, impressed with Natalie's strength, decisiveness, her own body's response to it. Natalie lowered herself. Their breasts touched. Natalie's weight on top of her, her nipples against her, was almost enough to make Meredith orgasm.  

If Natalie's hand had been there-- 

"Please," Meredith said, sliding her hand down Natalie's abdomen, under the waistband of her slacks. The fabric accommodated her hand just enough that she could curl her fingers into Natalie's panties and press to show what she meant. 


Natalie kissed her and then rolled off of her, Meredith's hand sliding free. Natalie sprawled onto her back, panting, looking at the ceiling. Her chest rose and fell with great heaves. 

Meredith watched her, propping herself on one elbow. 

Natalie turned her head and said, "If you do that I'm going to--And I want to at least be naked, with you, in our bed. The first time." The speech seemed to take away her breath. She held Meredith's gaze, slightly open-mouthed. 

Meredith reached for Natalie's fly. 

Natalie twitched. "I won't make it," she said. "If you do that." 

Meredith grinned. 

Natalie closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and then unzipped her slacks. 

Meredith pulled the sheets over them. She saw relief in Natalie's exhale. The slacks went somewhere to the bottom of the bed, under the covers. Natalie turned and took Meredith in her arms. 

They kissed. 

In Natalie's arms, with nothing between them, Meredith smiled against Natalie's kisses. Natalie held her loosely. She hugged Natalie back, nipping at her lips, opening herself up to Natalie's tongue, which was darting and playful rather than urgently forceful like before.  

Meredith's breasts tingled, but did not burn, against Natalie's. Only when Natalie rubbed her back, with long, sensual strokes, lightly using her nails, did Meredith lay back. 


Natalie kissed her, only kissed her, until Meredith took Natalie's hand in hers and brought it between her legs. 

"Now," she whispered, and let go of Natalie's hand and instead mirrored the action against Natalie, reveling in Natalie's surprised, urgent cry. 

"Now," Natalie said. 

Natalie breathed heavily against Meredith's ear. Meredith couldn't stop herself from shaking against Natalie's fingers, so eager to please her. Tears stung her eyes. Natalie's hips moved against her, first deliberately, and then erratically.  

When she thought she'd have to stop touching Natalie because the orgasm was coming, shatteringly, Natalie froze and let out a choked sob. Meredith pressed. She forgot about herself and concentrated on Natalie's pleasure.  

Meredith held her, reveling in the sweat of their bodies and the spasms against her hand. Natalie relaxed on top of her, slipping slightly to her side, and planted one sloppy, wet kiss on her cheek. 

"Oh," Meredith said. 

Natalie's body shuddered, like she was laughing but didn't have the breath for sound. Her hand moved, dragging across Meredith's skin, igniting her so completely, her skin flushed, her breath gone, that she came, lifting her hips up to Natalie's hand, shameless. She saw spots. 

"Breathe," Natalie whispered in her ear. 

She took a deep breath and her senses came rushing back to her body. In the aftermath she felt sweaty and cold, and Natalie moved to hug her, half-spooning her until Meredith rolled over, her back to Natalie, breathing in and out, blinking as her bedroom took focus. Trying to recover herself. 

She tried to speak, and had to lick her lips and wet her mouth before getting out, "Closer." 

Natalie's grip tightened, and she felt Natalie's chin against her hair. She rolled back, crowding into Natalie's embrace, lifting her face so that Natalie could kiss her. Then she settled back, smiling at Natalie. 

Natalie smiled. She smoothed Meredith's damp hair off her forehead. 

Meredith swallowed. "I think this will work out," she said. 

"As long as we don't have to get out of bed," Natalie said. 

Meredith pulled her down into a long hug. She allowed herself a moment where the kids didn't knock on the door, and the cat didn't meow, and no one came to rob her or take her away or call her names. She heard nothing but Natalie's breathing. Her eyes drifted shut. 

Natalie squirmed, getting comfortable. She left one arm splayed across Meredith's stomach, below her breasts. Meredith breathed deeply. She never slept on her back. 

She'd learn. 

"Don't fall asleep," Meredith said. 

"I won't." 

"I want to talk to you all night, and know you, and--" 

"You're going to tell me to put my clothes back on, aren't you." 

'For the children's sake," Meredith said. "Not mine." 

Natalie nuzzled her shoulder and asked, "Later?" 


Meredith yawned. She rubbed Natalie's wrist, feeling the bones, tracing the curve, enjoying the weight of Natalie's arm and how it secured her, anchored her to Natalie. 

"So, what's your favorite color?" Natalie asked. 

Meredith laughed. She turned toward Natalie, to remind herself of the color of Natalie's eyes and make her choice from there. 

The phone rang. 


Return to the Academy

Author's Page