Disclaimer: this little bit of entertainment is not meant to infringe on copyrights held by Terry Moore or any of his publishers. This work is intended for mature audiences, so if you aren't of age, leave now.

Warning: Spoilers for Issue 19 of Strangers in Paradise.

Author's notes: This is what happens when your friendly neighborhood artist-type rabbit gets a fever. I've been reading the comic Strangers in Paradise (Damn I wish I could draw like that) for quite some time and I just couldn't resist the urge to come up with a little scene set just after issue 19 (the most recent). After a ten year absence, Katina Choovanski (Katchoo) has shown up on the doorstep of her ever so unhappy former best friend, Francine Peters (at the request of Francine's Mom). Francine is in a miserable marriage, though she obviously adores her young daughter. However, all of that is just so much window dressing. Truth of the matter is that this is just an excuse to finally show an onscreen kiss, cos, darnit, I've been wanting to see one for the longest time (honesty rears its ugly head).

Well Met in Paradise

Prologue

The front door to the pleasantly homey house swung open in response to Katina Choovanski's soft knock. Finding nothing at her own height that could be responsible, Katchoo's eyes dropped until they collided with the sweetest doe-brown gaze she'd ever seen. She'd never thought it was possible that she could fall so instantly fall in love a second time in her life, but she did. It was a entirely different kind of animal from any other love she'd ever felt; protective, parental, more innocent than anything she could ever have imagined she was capable of feeling. So, this was Francine's child. Katchoo offered a lopsided smile as she accepted that ferocious sense of belonging that she'd only felt once before. "Hi," she spoke very softly. "I'm a friend of your mom's. Is she around?"

The small round face shook back and forth. "Thee's thtill athleep," the little girl answered seriously, her childish lisp managing to endear her even more to the woman in the doorway. She looked down at the worn stuffed bear clutched tightly in her arms. "You're right, Mithter Beanth." Her gaze swung up as she translated for this newfound stranger. "Grandma'th up."

As if on cue, a hand curved to the edge of the door, tugging it wider. "Ashley who's�oh�Katina�" Marie Peters voice caught as she stared at the woman standing in the doorway. Even knowing that Katchoo had made certain there was always a way she could make contact, she'd been half afraid the other woman wouldn't respond--God knew, she had no reason to expect any kindness from her daughter's friend--certainly, she hadn't expected her to appear within no more than a few hours. "You came," she whispered at last, her voice thick with gratitude�.

Later That Day

Ten years. Had it really been ten years? In those first seconds the day before, when she laid eyes on the slender figure sitting contemplatively on the park bench, it had been as though that time hadn't happened, as though it was still ten years before, and they were still friends, still�more than friends. Now, one day later, standing in her own backyard, Francine Peters shook her head very slowly as she silently watched Katchoo light a cigarette she'd produced from a jacket pocket. The sense of lost time rushed away in an instant, leaving her incredibly aware of just what lay between them, the time, the anger, the harsh words, and the marriage she'd known was a mistake even as she'd agreed to it. Then the present came rushing back as well. Katina Choovanski� Katchoo was still beautiful, still in control, still intimidatingly intelligent. Francine wondered if she should stop herself right there as she studied her features hungrily, searching for the differences, large and small, that time had wrought on her features. A few crow's feet graced the corners of her eyes, and her figure had rounded out, but there was no question it was still Katchoo.

The blond leaned her shoulder against Ashley's swingset, her posture gracefully indolent, seeming more comfortable in her skin than she had been ten years before. She took a long drag on the cigarette, then suddenly stubbed it out, muttering under her breath. "Nasty habit." She turned a wry smile on Francine. "I really had quit�until today�." She took a deep breath and let it out again, getting her own nervousness back under control and once again presenting a calm front.

Francine watched her silently, intensely aware of the old bond between them. They had talked, remembered, revisited the past, but it suddenly came home how many things had so far gone unsaid. They had spoken of events and people. Now it was time to talk about feelings. Her heart hammered in her chest at the mere idea. She heard the sound of car in the front yard; her mother taking Ashley to a local park�giving she and Katchoo some time alone. The thoughtful gesture had the incredible power to both please and terrify her. Where her mother had once been a constant reminder about where to draw the line in this relationship, a mental barrier she could not cross, she had somehow become Katchoo's biggest supporter. And that was scary as hell.

The blond lifted a hand and ran graceful fingers through her hair, the aura of confidence back in place, once again reminding Francine of her own clumsiness and matronly body. Painfully self-conscious of the differences between them--Katchoo had always been smarter, prettier, quicker witted--Francine had no doubt that time had only increased the inequities. She started to turn away, needing to take a brief second and put her emotional walls back in place. A soft, sad voice caught her midway.

"Still running away, Francine?"

She froze in place as though paralyzed, too shaken to even dare a look in the direction of the slender blond. There it was; the accusation--no, the reality--that lay between them. The soft sounds of movement reached her ears, and she realized Katchoo had straightened away from the playset. Francine could feel those sharp, too-intelligent eyes watching her closely. She had a sudden mental image of Katchoo teasing her about Freddy Femurs and they way he should have proclaimed his love, then watching her just like that � just before her lips descended, ready and wanting to kiss her, desperate to taste her mouth. For a moment, she'd wanted it too, been ready to take that path�then�.

"You haven't answered the question," Katchoo's low voice broke into her former friend's silent reverie, forcing Francine to accept the fact that she was still there and not going anywhere. She'd been doing that so long it was second nature; forcing Francine to take note of their relationship. For a long time, she'd wondered what it would be like to see the other woman again, wondered what she'd feel. The surprising part was the tenderness and love that still burned in her breast. Anger, she had expected, but she hadn't realized that it would be secondary to this burning desire to simply take Francine in her arms and forget the time that had passed between them. No, scratch that thought. She had realized; she simply hadn't allowed herself to contemplate the reality too closely. Her love for this woman had been one of a multitude of grand failures in her past, but it was the only one she still clung to like a sailor holding onto a last bit of waterlogged jetsam in high seas.

Francine remained turned away and poised on the balls of her feet, as though she might flee at any moment. "I�I�" she stuttered weakly.

Katchoo tamped down the urge to shake her until she saw the truth. That won't solve anything, she reminded herself. Trust yourself�trust her�give it time�because it finally is time� "You�you�" she prompted in a gentle voice.

Francine thrust a splayed hand behind her as though pushing someone away. "Don't," she whispered, her voice far more ragged than Katchoo could ever remember hearing it. "Don't mock me�I can't�I'm not�" she trailed off, the hurt in her voice reminding the woman behind her of another time, of just how sensitive she was about what she saw as her shortcomings. "Why are you here?" Francine questioned at last, barely getting the words past the tightness in her throat. "You've been gone�for so long."

Katchoo forced down the urge to light another cigarette, reminding herself that nicotine certainly wouldn't solve their problems. She wasn't sure anything would, but she was damn sure that wouldn't. For once, she didn't have a ready answer, no easy words slipped past her lips. Finally, she simply told the truth. The first half. "Your mom called me." And then the second. "I love you." Katchoo scraped a nail against the metal support for the swings, flaking away a thin layer of paint. Somehow, concentrating on that tiny action made it easier to let go and say the words that were always with her. "I have since I was fifteen years old." She rubbed the toe of her boot in the grass, noting the way the green blades bent and sprung back into position, but knowing that if she did it long enough, they would eventually be destroyed. She waited silently for Francine to say something.

Silence followed, until all Katchoo could hear was the hammering of her own heart, and her inner voice begging, Please, say something.

More silence followed.

"Why?" Francine managed to whisper.

Katchoo ignored the urge to sigh heavily. "Because you're my home�the only one I've ever wanted."

More silence followed.

Finally, Francine forced out a single word. "Katchoo�" Her name was part invocation, part plea, part explanation; it was a thousand emotions and thoughts bound into a single word. She turned then, but she couldn't see Katchoo through the haze of tears. It was okay though, because she could feel those strong arms as they wrapped around her, smell the scent of her skin as she buried her face in her shoulder, hear the roughened timbre of her breathing. In that moment, she was surrounded by Katchoo, and home for the first time in ten years.

"I'm here, baby," Katchoo rasped, petting the back of Francine's hair as she hugged her close. "I'm here."

The taller woman's body trembled violently, while she clung with ferocious strength. "Please, don't hate me," she begged between rough sobs.

"I couldn't," Katchoo insisted, her own voice thick with tears. "It just isn't possible." The anger wasn't gone, but it wasn't important anymore. The only thing that was important was helping Francine. And in helping Francine, helping herself. She worked a hand into long dark hair, remembering the silky softness. It hadn't changed at all, and she sifted her fingers through the fine strands, taking pleasure from their cool, smooth texture. "I love you," she whispered again. "I always have�I always will."

"I thought�didn't think�didn't know�" Francine trailed off as even she saw the untruth in the words. No, she had thought, had known�and hadn't been able to face it. "No," she choked. "That's a lie." She lifted tear-reddened eyes. "I just couldn't�deal�" She looked away, ashamed of her own weakness. "Your painting�when I saw that�and knew." She shook her head slowly. "It was there. I couldn't look away, but I couldn't look at it either."

"I know," her friend whispered. Katchoo took a deep breath and let it out slowly. This next part was going to hurt as much as anything she'd ever done in her life. "I should have understood�accepted when you said no�that was my fault, not yours." Even now, with years of experience in self-control under her belt and entirely too many of life's lessons having been hammered into her head, the feel and smell of Francine so close made her want so many things she knew she had no right to demand. "If I just hadn't--" She was startled when soft fingers landed on her lips, silencing her.

Francine stared down into her friend's eyes. Odd how Katchoo's uncertainty had somehow bolstered her own confidence, made it seem like they were a little less unequal than she usually felt. "It was never that simple," she exhaled. "Even when I wanted it to be�." She trailed off, aware that Katchoo was the one watching and studying now. God, she'd forgotten how those eyes could nail a person in place, see through all the layers and into the soul. That was where she painted from, that unique vision that touched on places far below the surface. Whenever Katchoo stared at her like that, she felt like Icarus, flying too close to the sun. Already, she could feel the wax on her wings starting to melt, feathers fluttering free to fall to earth, the ongoing plunge toward a deep blue ocean.

Francine turned away, heard Katchoo release a nervous sigh as she moved to sit in one of the swings, holding onto the chains on either side of the sling seat. She leaned her cheek against cool steel links. "I kept thinking we could just be friends," she admitted as she looked away. She felt tears line her eyelids and resisted the urge to dash them away. "But how can a person just be friends with their other half? Why couldn't I see that?" she questioned herself. They both fell silent, each lost in memories and thoughts, until Francine became aware of the slender figure who had moved to stand in front of her. Her vision was a blur and she blinked, trying to clear the haze as soft fingers touched her cheek.

"Francie?" Katchoo's voice was so soft and scared, that it didn't sound anything like her. It sounded like the beaten child Francine remembered crawling in her window. God, they'd been so young then�if only she'd known�understood�.

Francine tipped her head up, eyes full of naked emotion for the first time in years. "I love you," she exhaled simply. "I always have." It was a relief to finally let the words go, say them and mean them at every level of her soul. Her eyes slid closed, head tipping forward to hang from her shoulders as though that admission had cost every last ounce of energy in her body.

"Francie," Katchoo exhaled almost inaudibly, lifting her fingers to gently stroke silky hair. She traced her fingers back down, trailing them along the curve of Francine's jaw, drawing her head up. Soft brown eyes were unfocused and red from crying. "Oh God, I love you so much," the artist breathed, her own voice thick with unshed tears. Curving her hand to the nape of Francine's neck, she leaned down.

The first kiss was soft, sweet, tender, all the things a lover could want, and Francine relaxed into it, sighing softly against the lips tasting her mouth so gently. For the first time in too long, perhaps her entire life, she allowed herself the sweet comfort of a homecoming, accepting who and what she was. She belonged here, they both did. When the kiss finally broke, both women were breathing hard, their bodies still attuned at some level that neither one could even begin to explain. Sighing softly, Francine wrapped her arms tightly around Katchoo's midsection, resting her head against soft breasts. Katchoo wrapped her arms tightly around her old friend, resting her chin on the top of her head as she played with silky strands of hair.

"So, what now?" the artist questioned, her voice smoky and thick with emotion. Whatever Francine wanted, she'd do everything in her power to make it happen.

"I just want to go home�with you," Francine admitted raggedly, nuzzling into Katchoo's tender hold, breathing the sweet scent of her, grateful just to be in her arms.

"Then we'll go home," Katchoo promised. "All of us." She smiled as she continued playing with Francine's hair. "You'll love New Mexico�and so will Ashley�." She felt Francine relax in her hold in response to that reassurance. Any choosing had already been done the moment Katchoo had seen the child. She'd chosen both of them. She continued to hold Francine as she spun tales of her home, laying the future out before them. Finally, she cupped Francine's face in her hands, tipping her head up as she smoothed the downy hair at her temple back from her face. "Are you ready?" she questioned.

Francine simply nodded.

It was finally time for both of them to go home.

THE END

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