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SEASONS OF THE GODS 1
A DIFFERENT
KIND OF SPRING BREAK

©May 1997
By Katrina

Chapter 1
It All Starts

It was Joni's idea.

Personally, I was just hoping to get some serious housecleaning done during the break. My place is a wreck by the middle of the semester and I try to take every opportunity I can to get it back in order. A long-term student has to have these kinds of strategies, you know. Spring Break has often been my last chance before finals. But Joni was persistent and charming and somehow convinced me that this little piece of paper, this dinky advertisement, held the answer to my winter blahs.

Now Joni is okay. I knew her from high school, though we didn't associate much back then. She was a senior and she was "the dyke." Everybody at school knew it, even me. Her dykeness was apparent in the clothes, the attitude, and the buzz cut hairdo. I'm sure school was difficult for her, because it was for me and I was not gay. Actually, I was almost asexual. I didn't "bloom," into sex until I was older. I was fairly ignorant about love and relationships in general. At the time I don't think I even knew what the words meant. I just recognized the tone of voice commonly connected with them.

In those days, I was the klutz - the NON-gym person - and I knew the other kids talked about me. Or at least I thought they did, because that's how we are at that age. I was fortunate in a way; I developed this mysterious rash around ninth grade and got a note from the dermatologist excusing me from my least favorite high school experience. The results were that I gained weight, the library became my hangout and my grades improved a little.

So, like I said before, I never hung out much with Joni, except to grimace hello every now and again in the hallways. When Joni graduated, I was still in tenth grade so I didn't think about her much. It wasn't until I graduated and went to college and then grad school, that I saw her again.

Of course, it was a women's history class, and I was an expert at notetaking by then. A group of us got together for studying and weekly bitch sessions, because the professor didn't believe in being "soft" on the students. And that's where I really met Joni.

This blonde with the quirky sense of humor became my best friend. She introduced me to ear piercing (she has five, two on the left and three on the right; I agreed to the standard one pierce for each ear and somehow wound up with two. How does she talk me into these things?) and the aerobic workout. I introduced her to classic sci-fi movies and the gentle art of toll painting. I commented on the fact that she had let her hair grow out and that she wore dresses now and then and she told me it had to do with developing her femme self. I had no clue, but whatever works. I told her about the joys and heartaches that I was having with Gary. She told me about her Pauline. When Gary and I broke up, Joni was there. When Pauline and Joni broke up, I was there. Through laughter and heartache we were best friends, buddies, comrades.

And that's why, when she held this little shred of paper in my face with the word "camping" on it, I did not just toss it away and tell her to peddle her business elsewhere. Camping. Did I tell you how much I loathe camping? Bugs, hard ground, smoke in your eyes, Bugs. Not to mention the bear that ate great uncle Jack - A grisly family story.

I know I told her how much I detested camping.

I'm pretty sure I mentioned it early on in our friendship, because she had proposed something along that line with a "wouldn't it be great..." kind of statement somewhen back when we were still in women's history. That made this whole thing kind of a surprise for me and I pointed it out to her. I said, "Did you read this?"

She said, "Of course."

I said, "It has that word in it." And I pointed directly at "camping."

She said, "Yeah, but its not what you think."

This is what led to a great conversation about the difference between camping out in the woods and CAMPING.

A distinction I'm still not sure that I get.

I'd heard just enough about "women's camps" to be totally misinformed and therefore completely biased. She had an answer for almost everything, including the crack I made about odd nicknames like wombwymn. I still found it hard to distinguish, but Joni guaranteed that this one was more of a woman's getting to know herself in the presence of others experience and that it really wasn't a "women's camp" per se, there were some men, and that there would be showers. I said something about not -wanting- to be a radical feminist. She said something about power and self esteem. I said no tents? She said, "Only if you want one, there should be buildings."

I was still not quite convinced, but like I said, Joni is charming when she wants to be. So we signed up for the camp and sent in our cash and the straight girl and the dyke went on an adventure.

Chapter 2
The Hard Life

We went by air to KC and then took a smaller plane to Springfield. Then we were picked up by a woman, who was driving a beat up blue truck which looked like it had seen one too many Missouri dirt roads. Joni and I received verification and instructions several weeks ago and had gotten our gear together during our wait. Joni had also taken the time to warn me that there might be other lesbians in the camp. I told her I wasn't dumb. Besides, I wasn't worried. I had Joni as a friend and I knew I no one would look at me twice because of my weight. She clapped me on my shoulder and said, "You should have more confidence in yourself Bernie."

Well, whatever. Once we were in the truck there would be no turning back.

The driver was a lean, muscular woman with a vivid smile. Her brown hair was tied back in a simple pony tail and she actually wore a cowboy hat. She introduced herself as Gwen. I couldn't help myself, I said, "Howdy!" She didn't seem to take offense and merely smiled as Joni and I introduced ourselves. Though it was pretty obvious from the stuff we were carting around that we had to be going to the camp. Gwen helped us load our stuff into the back of the truck and tied it down. As we worked the heat of the sun felt good on our exposed skin, but it was slightly windy and the wind had a bite to it. It felt good to finally get in and get moving.

We headed south for a good long while. I hadn't realized how green Missouri was. Gwen said that it just got better as spring wore on and turned to summer. She said that was why she loved it here, although there was a standing joke about the weather. I asked her what it was and she said, "If you're tired of the weather, just wait a minute." She grinned, "Its really not that bad, though sometimes it does seem to switch, and she snapped her fingers, "that fast."

I nodded a bit and watched the scenery go by as Joni occupied Gwen's attention with questions of her own. We passed through several small towns along the way, eventually finding ourselves at the end of the road. The paved road that is. Then we started on another thirty five...get this THIRTY Five minutes of dirt and potholes and stones. I looked doubtfully at Joni, who just shrugged and grinned and kept talking with Gwen.

We finally came to this hill that seemed to go down and curve to the right, otherwise it just seemed like a forest of trees and uncivilized land. Gwen slowed the truck down to a stop, grinned and switched gears. She said, "Hold onto your hats." and started to drive. After about a three fourth of a mile of not even close to straight down we finally arrived. My knees seemed to be locked into a bracing position when we stopped, but somehow I was able to open the door and swing myself out of the cab and put my feet onto the ground.

Heaven is a perspective.

I began to orient myself and got out of Joni's way as she jumped to the ground. Joni was right, there were buildings. Several of them, rustic wood and brick, about the hill just above a HUGE meadow. I could hear a sound of water in the distance and could kind of make out a creek bend past the meadow through the trees that were starting to get their season's cover. There was one main house which was located further up the hill and looked like it used to be an old barn until someone made it livable. And there was a central area that looked like it had been used as a gathering place for years. I thought to myself, "I could deal with this," and turned to get my stuff, but Gwen already had it unloaded.

She said, as she carried our belongings from the truck, "Why don't you follow me a bit and we'll get you settled in." So we started walking in the direction of the cabin-like buildings. It was then that I started to notice how many people were around. Everyone one walked easy, unlike in the city, but seemed to be occupied with something or with each other. I think I even saw, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of individuals who looked like women kissing or whatever as we moved along the worn path. It kind of made me nervous, but so far I wasn't feeling too intimidated. There were a lot of friendly faces, with people greeting Gwen and smiling at Joni and I. Joni was right there were a -few- men, but there were way more women.

Our cabin was number eight. There was a small multicolored smooth stone path that led to a door that actually had white trimmed, frill-curtained windows. There were flowers and bushes decoratively spaced around the building. We just walked right in and I realized that this camp was going to be different than any I had ever heard of. First of all, it wasn't a bunk cabin and it wasn't a rustic cabin with a dirt floor. It was more like a large middle sized house, with several rooms. It had a front room, a kitchen ("So we don't have to keep feedin' ya all the time," grinned Gwen), five bedrooms with real beds . . . larger than single, but not king sized, though Gwen mentioned that there was one room with a king sized bed in each cabin . . ., and two roomy and dare I say it, lush, bathrooms. Each area of the house was pleasantly decorated, and felt . . .personal; as if someone had spent time in the rooms to make them feel comfortable. Gwen was grinning at me and so was Joni. I was just flabbergasted.

Gwen turned to Joni, "She'll get used to it." Then she dropped our belongings on the polished wooden entrance of the front room. She said, "Joni you're in room number three and Bernie you're in room four. And now I gotta tell you the rules of the cabins. This is basic stuff, though each house may make up their own rules as you get comfortable with each other. But first," and she ticked them off with her fingers, "Thou shalt respect other's privacy. Thou shalt respect other's property. Thou shalt cooperate within the household to get the chores done; there are no maids here. Thou shalt air out differences according to the laws of our camp; and they're posted at the gathering place. And finally, the word of the camp boss is law; and you better hop to it when she gives an order." Gwen smiled pleasantly, "Not that its usually hard to do what she asks."

Then Gwen left us to our settling in and Joni said, "I told you so."

Chapter 3
Old Fashioned Heroes

I'm not sure what Joni did when she got to her room, but I began to unpack. I've done this as long as I can remember. I get to a new place I unpack and put my stuff in the available spaces, drawers, what have you. I won't go into too much detail, but the furniture was wood and brass, there was a flower quilt on the bed, and there was a shelf filled with books not far from where I was gonna sleep at night. There were also live plants, so I guess there was no complaining about the amount of oxygen in the room. They were green and healthy and friendly looking. I almost expected to see a cat curled up somewhere. There was no fireplace. That was in the front room.

There was a mediumish lamp table by the bed and a rocking chair with a stuffed seat was close by it. The windows had both shades and sheer white curtains. It was shade that was just enough for privacy and for letting the sun in. The temperature was comfortable too. A nice napping temperature, the kind where you didn't have to absolutely have the covers on, but it wasn't so hot that you had to kick the covers off either. There were pictures on the wall in flattering frames. The flower motif of the quilt was carried around the room in various perfect ways, including simple knickknacks. I'm sure, if my feet hadn't been covered with shoes, they would have appreciated the carpeting on the floor.

When I was finished unpacking, I decided to look at the handouts that were laid conspicuously on the lamp table. The first was a colorful folded deal that described the camp as a luxury site and not as a camp, more as a retreat. I suddenly began to wonder if I was in the right place and how I was affording this whole deal. Maybe I ought to talk to Joni, I thought. The second was a simple descriptive highlight of what to expect. This was the one that had the -word- in it. And along with the word were "Survival and Self Defense." Now I was worried. I had a horrible suspicion of what I had signed up for. And I didn't like it.

"Joni!!!"

***

It was not crowded in the gathering place. It looked like only a handful of healthy daring types had signed up. I felt very out of place and just a tad cranky. But I was here, on time, with Joni. I'd have left if she hadn't been there. Joni looked comfortable, but she would look comfortable in a hurricane, so that didn't mean anything.

At the center of the gathering place, which used logs for seating, was a circle of blackened stones. There was wood stacked carefully away from the circle, but close enough that a person could toss a piece on the fire without too much effort. I was sitting on one of the logs, but most of the folks were milling about and conversing. I heard one fellow say, "Yeah, this is the best. This will be my second time. I'm pumped." His boyfriend just smiled and hung his arm around the guy's shoulder.

Joni said, "Hey, don't look so glum, they'll think you don't want to be here." She smiled reassuringly.

I just grumbled and slumped a little more. My hands were pressed against the smooth wood, where I guess dozens of butts had set. At least I was dressed for this. Visions of woodland life were dancing in my head, and they weren't too friendly. I was scared and that was what was making me cranky. But Joni was my friend and she'd been right before and I was semi-willing to cooperate.

I think, that because I wasn't talking, I heard the hoof beats first. I thought it was my heart, but the noise was located too high so I knew it was had to be something else. Besides, I have great hearing. So I turned my head to look in the direction of the sound, just in time to get a good look at the riders.

One was dark. Dark hair, tan skin, dark clothes. One was light. strawberry blonde, lightly tanned skin, lighter clothes. Both were smiling in different ways. The dark one's was a wild grin and the light one's was just a happy smile. They looked like they'd had a good ride.

The dark one was taller by several heads to the light one. She curved herself around to help her companion off the horse and then seemed to leap gracefully to the ground, landing with a thump in the sand. They looked for what was probably a millisecond, but seemed like forever, into each other's eyes and smiled. Then they turned to face us.

It was then that I heard Gwen's voice from the center of the circle. "Folks, I'd like to introduce you to the camp boss and your facilitator in this experience." The strawberry blonde grabbed the hands of the dark haired one and led her into the circle. Gwen pointed at the blonde and said, "This is Gabby. She's the camp boss." Then she pointed to statuesque woman besides Gabby. "This is Xena. She's gonna teach you everything you need to know about surviving in this world."

There were whoops and general cheers from the handful of us gathered, except from me. I told you I was unenthused about the whole thing. Instead of whooping, I solemnly continued to observe the people in front of me. Gabby had on hiking boots, blue jeans, what looked like a flowered lumberjack shirt, and a pleasant smile. She looked sleek and strong. Xena had on black boots, that I thought might be for hiking, but they were covered by black jeans which stacked over them. She seemed to be wearing black leather chaps over the jeans and had on a light t-shirt that was covered by the dark leather and metal jacket. She was stacked in more ways than one. Her expression was assessing and kind of stern. She had piercing blue eyes, which met mine for the briefest of seconds.

I had the eeriest feeling that she had read my life in my eyes and had made some sort of decision regarding me. I decided that I was really glad that I had been aerobicizing. I knew I could last at least a half an hour if it came to moving quickly. I knew I didn't want to get on her bad side. I also knew that I recognized her name from somewhere. But where?

Chapter 4
Confidence

I was so tired that night, but it was body tired, not mind tired. Xena had taken us to the local version of a Dojo, where we learned various moves that might save our lives if someone ever attacked us. I guess she knew a million ways of really making someone stop and taught us maybe ten of them, plus a few things I'd never seen before. I wasn't sore. We'd stopped around three. I was getting ready to leave when I noticed that Xena was standing right in front of me, blocking my way.

She leaned down so that she was looking me in the eye, which was kind of scary. Then in a throaty kind of voice she said, "You Need to Walk. Be here, 6 am, with your boots on. We'll be back by breakfast time."

I squeaked okay or some such thing and she quit towering over me long enough for me to flee away.

Dinner was okay. After Gwen's comment about feeding us, I was concerned because we hadn't brought any extra food and I thought that there was a cafeteria or something. Which there was. There was also a General Store. So we could buy food or go to the cafeteria. I chose the cafeteria because it was closer to the Dojo and I was HUNGRY and thirsty. There was a good selection of food and I selected what seemed appealing, plus a big glass of water.

Joni was off exploring a beaten path with some chick from the self defense class named Gina. So I was prepared to eat by myself, but Gwen spotted me and waved me over. "Hey Bernie, come sit down." She patted an open chair. There was a group of about six people in various stages of chowing down. "Bernie, these are the folks who keep things running around here. Folks, this is Bernie. I gave her a ride into our beloved abode this morning."

I grinned and said, "Yeah, it was quite a trip." I got into some easy conversation after that and dinner went quickly. Somewhere in the middle Gwen looked at my food selection and smiled.

"I see Xena sure worked up your appetite." I was eating when she said that and sputtered a few crumbs out before I could swallow. Gwen leaned in and said, "Don't worry about it, she tends to do that for everyone." And then she patted my back until I quit coughing.

Other than that, dinner was uneventful. I opted out of the proposed poker game and decided to see what was at the General. I figured I would go "home" after and get a shower and an early night.

***

The General was chock full of stuff at exorbitant prices. I was pretty much deciding not to buy there when I witnessed the salesperson and another woman entering into what could only be called a bargaining rhythm. I'd never seen bargaining before, so I watched and learned. And I finally understood why the prices were so high. It was so they could come down, to something a little more reasonable. Assertiveness training in action, I guess. I picked up a snack bar and decided to try my luck and managed to get the price down to what I would normally pay at a Stop and Rob.

I felt pretty good about myself then.

The house was empty when I arrived, so I did what I had planned and showered till the mirror fogged. After that I dried my hair and changed into something more comfortable. A nice plain sleepshirt with pockets.

Then I went to my room, set my alarm clock (Never Leave Home without it), and tried to go to sleep.

Now, I should have realized this. But no one goes to bed early at a resort or a camp. No, there are parties of various sizes. It's more like a sleepover kind of experience. All I know is that by the time I had settled down, there was a ruckus in the front room involving music and what I was sure was banging pans. I was up immediately.

I pulled on my jeans because they were handy and sailed out of my room in full vigor. My ears were right on the money. There was pan banging going on. It took me awhile to get their attention.

The introductions were quick enough. Apparently, like Joni and I, the two couples had planned this whole vacation thing together. There was Jan and Mitchell and Ronette and Red (obvious: red hair, red). The apologized sort of and we discussed meeting sometime in the morning to split chores and whatever. I wasn't sure where Joni was, but there was some indication that they planned on being up for awhile.

Which meant that I was up for awhile.

Which explains why I started reading this book.

Chapter 5
The Passion Scrolls

The book was titled _Scrolls of Passion_ by Gabrielle. I looked for an author's last name, but there wasn't one. This should have warned me. I figured that I needed something to do. I didn't really want to join my roomies in pan banging or whatever they were doing. I really did want to get some sleep. I hoped that things would settle down by midnight and I figured that a good book would keep me up that long.

I just sort of picked one at random. It was bound in leather (which makes incredible sense now) and trimmed with gold. I decided to be adventurous and sort of opened the book and started reading.

***

Their legs intertwined as their hips thrust toward each other. Gabrielle's mouth rained hot little kisses down Xena's muscled torso. They could . . .

***

I'm not quite sure how long I held the book in my hand, as I read and reread those sentences. It was like I couldn't grasp the obvious. The idea of who this book was about was too staggering. I felt like a voyeur. I felt like I had just jumped through time. I felt wet.

I was so turned on - by just two sentences.

But see I had the added bonus of having seen Xena and Gabrielle. Or, at least, people who share the names. I just could not get the image of those two women making love out of my head.

I knew I shouldn't keep reading. Yet I couldn't resist.

Just a few more words wouldn't hurt. I kept the page place with my thumb but thought I would try another, just to make sure I wasn't misinterpreting what I was reading.

***

Hercules' hands wrapped themselves around Xena's waist as he placed his lips over hers. His arousal was apparent. Xena protested, "You're drunk and lonely. You don't need me. Our time is ov. . ." Pushing away was proving futile and the wetness she felt wasn't helping. If only

***

Hercules? As in Greek mythology Hercules? Wait a minute. I used my other thumb to mark another page.

***

Callisto was growing impatient, but there was nothing she could do about it. The ache in her loins would have to wait. It was more important to at this moment to keep sucking the tender nectar of Gabrielle's open

***

Callisto? Who's Callisto? I thought Gabby and Xena were an item. I was confused. This time I used an index finger.

***

The centaur's arms wrapped themselves gently under Ephiny's hips, supporting her lower back so that his mouth could wind his way down to her

***

Centaur? Centaur. Were we talking Half man half horse?

This book IS kinky. I saved the place with another finger.

Who is Ephiny?

***

Gabrielle forced her leg between Xena's. "You want this?" She asked as she boldly kissed her lover. She rocked her hips so that her leg rubbed hard against Xena's mound. "Now?" They were just barely hidden by the marble post. Any moment someone could come by. Xena wanted it.

Badly.

***

It was about this time that I realized that the music had stopped, but that there were other kinds of sounds going on. Mainly, oohs, ahs and a really sultry "ooh baby."

That was Joni's voice! It was barely discernible, but it was definitely Joni. I thought I was wet before.

The clock said that it was a little after midnight. I knew that I had a 6 am appointment that I must not fail to keep. I knew that I had to do something about this urge that I had going. So set the book down by my bed, and regretfully let go of the places I'd reserved. I had to have both hands, you know.

I lay back in my bed and settled my head into one of the pillows and tucked the other under my hips, just to make my vulva easier to reach. I let my hands flutter their way around, as I listened to Joni's voice seduce her lover. I pulled my breast when I heard her suckle. I kneaded my belly when I heard her lover beg Joni to go lower, lower. And when I knew Joni's mouth was driving Gina crazy, I let my fingers dip into my own ready wetness and circled and rubbed until I let out the most silent of orgasms. The relief was intense and I slept like a baby.

My one worry was that I didn't know how I was going to face Xena in the morning.

Chapter 6
By Dawn's Early Light

5:00 am can seem mighty early when one has been up past midnight and one is used to sleeping until around eight. It was hard for me to open my eyes, let alone move my body up to a sitting position, but somehow I managed it. I was groggy, but I counted my state as awake.

I shuffled my way to the closest bathroom and was appalled to realize that it was already occupied with two, no three soapy people in a tub, including Joni. I think I gaped for a few seconds and then backed out and slowly closed the door. My first thought was: "They sure looked perky for being up so early in the morning." My second thought was, " . . . " And I shuffled my way to the farthest bathroom in hopes that it wasn't occupied too.

***

My fears about dealing with Xena at 6 in the too damn early of the morning were only slightly doused when I realized that I was not the only one invited on this morning constitutional. I managed to make it to the Dojo around 5:50ish and saw that there were three others aside from myself. One was a quiet little woman with a height of about oh; four foot something and no width to speak of. Another woman was doing a little jogging jumping in place and said, "HI!" in an overly energetic way. Finally, there was a male in the requisite shorts, shirt, and shoes and no muscles to speak of.

The nonmorning people grumbled hello to each other with the morning person blissfully doing some sort of stretches to the side.

We stood around for a bit, waiting on our fearsome leader. I was questioning whether I had heard Xena right, when she stepped through the door. She looked ready for war. Okay, actually, she looked like she was morning person too; only not the happy joy joy kind, more the I'm wide awake and I can move faster than you kind. "You ready to Walk?" she said.

Miss Chipper shouted, "Yeah!" The rest of us kind of mumbled an affirmative. I tried to focus on the present and not on the images of last night. And not very effectively either. Xena was really striking to look at. Kind of mesmerizing.

"BERNIE! Ya with us?" I shook myself and became more aware of my surroundings. I nodded my head. "Lets get started then."

The first thing she did was have us walk around the room a few times. So we clomped around like we would normally and she was shakin, shakin her head in rejection of what she was seeing. "Stop!" She mumbled something about, "worse every year." (told you I have good hearing). And proceeded to discuss the mechanics of walking and how to walk efficiently.

Then she demonstrated.

Now, I know, I should have been watching her feet and her legs. There was no sound as she walked. She could have snuck up on a rabbit. And I'm sure it was very efficient. But I lost track. I started to watch the way I was supposed to, but my eyes kept moving until all I could see was the sway of her hips and the promise of. . . the promise of. . .

Something patted me on the shoulders. "She's fun to look at isn't she?" I gulped. I blushed. It was Gabrielle. I mean Gabby. "Its the whole technique. I can't tell you how often she's sneaked up on me with it. It's worth learning, you know." Suddenly I was very focused on what I was supposed to be focused on.

Then Gabrielle grinned and said loudly, "Hey, Xena! I thought we were going for a WALK, not watching you!"

Xena gave Gabrielle an unreadable look and said, "Now Gabrielle, you Know you like to watch." I was hardly breathing, but Gabby laughed and so did everyone else.

So, we went for a walk. A fetching long walk.

You remember that three quarter of a mile hill. We went up that. Using Xena's technique. And boy was she adamant about it. We went through some foresty area and down again and crossed the creek at several places and after awhile, I forgot I was walking differently than before, but I was kind of feeling it in my calves and thighs. And we walked some more, but by that time I was listening and smelling and seeing.

There were sounds I couldn't identify, birds and chitterings and rustlings. The air was crisp and smelled like a mix of leaves and dirt and creek and flowers. There were critters in the woods, but the didn't come out to bother us. I caught glimpses of bunnies and squirrels and someone saw a bluejay. Flowers were blooming just about everywhere and the leaves were several kinds of green. I forgot that I was afraid of bugs and bears. I really enjoyed myself. I'm not quite sure when I started smiling again.

Gabby talked a bit with everyone while we were on this trek. Encouraging words, a funny story or two. The pace Xena set was one where I felt I was doing good to keep breathing and still be monosyllabic, so I was impressed. Every now and then, she or Xena would come by and reposition my hips or even my legs and have me rewalk a bit. Xena said, "Let it happen naturally. Get comfortable. Breathe from your abdomen. Let your hips get into it." And I really tried to do that.

Sometimes Xena and Gabby would walk together with their arms around each other. I was surprised that I felt envious. Not of them, but more that they had someone to love. It was so obvious, as if they had been with each other forever and it was paradise to them. It seemed like the kind of paradise I would enjoy.

By the time we had rounded the last curve and the main buildings were in sight I was tired and convinced that maybe I wasn't as straight as I thought I was. Maybe I was just confused.

Chapter 7
Tried and True

I felt euphoric after the walk. Refreshed - like I'd had a serious nap and a really good joke told to me. My body felt good. Kind of bouncy. I knew I was treading differently, but couldn't quite place how. It seemed like I had been moving this way forever. Even the soreness had melted away to a pleasant warmth. Good. Comfortable.

I debated with myself; home - cafeteria. I decided that I could always cook something and I hadn't experienced breakfast at camp yet, so - cafeteria. And this is what gave me a chance to see Joni, before she saw me. I spotted her once my tray was full. She was at a table with the housemates and Gina. Then I had another debate going on in my head; to judge or not to judge.

Okay, I'm a hypocritical prude, but Joni was my tried and true. I could be a jerk or I could get over myself. *don't you just love internal conversations* True, I wanked to the sound of her voice, so I had a lot to be embarrassed about. True, I had walked in on her and her friends in the midst of a personal orgy. True, I'm not Used to that kind of thing. But true, I felt just too good to be stewing over this when I could be eating this *glancing at my tray* interesting food and partaking in what looked to be . . . uh, stimulating conversation. I got over myself and started grinning for all I was worth.

"Hey Hey Joni!" I said, as I sat down next to Mitchell. "How's the day?"

Joni looked at me blankly for a couple of seconds. "Bernie?" I grinned and nodded and prepared to eat. She continued to gaze at me for a few seconds more, as if she didn't recognize me.

I said, "What?" and took a huge bite out of an apple.

Then, she shook her head quizzically and spoke in a rush, "You look different."

I puzzled for a moment. And then clued. "OH, you mean the smile." And grinned even wider. "Yeah had a great walk this morning. Gorgeous day." I Poured syrup over my waffles and took a swig of juice. I seemed to have developed an appetite that wasn't going to stop for conversation.

"Uhm, Yeah, that must be it." And she kept glancing my way. "You okay?"

Another chunk of apple. "Never better."

I waved a fork at her. "Though, I have to say, I'm surprised to see you awake after all that aerobic activity you had going earlier. What was that? The soap olympics?" I took a chance with that one, but I didn't want it lingering subtly in the air. I kept the smile in my eyes and waited for a response. "So, who won?"

The table was quiet and I thought, I have just sunk the best friendship I have ever had, and then everyone started laughing and talking at once. I felt total relief and Joni didn't really answer but said, "Oh You!" and tossed a roll at me.

***

Apparently I was the only one signed up for animal care. This seems like it would be something I would never be interested in, but we had a choice of "survival seminars" and at the time I didn't think I'd be interested in hiking or picking herbs or whatever (although, for some reason, now I was really interested in that). So I figured out my directions from the map and a few guiding words from a passerby and headed for the area where the animals were housed.

Now, I know very little about animals (bugs and bears, you remember), but I had cat once and I currently owned a nonfuzzy pygmy hedgehog with an attitude. In some blitz of hope I had named him Snuggles, but really his name should have been DLMTH0, or Damnit, Leave me the the Hell Alone. I thought maybe this animal care thing would give me some clue about how to make him a little more tractable. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It took longer than I thought to reach the place, but I found it. I knew I was in the right area because of the animal smell. Fresh Hay, some manure, animal sweat. It was tucked away from common foot traffic and it is possible, that I would never have known it was there if not for the fact that I had seen a horse on my first day.

I stood around feeling a little useless and foolish, before I saw a familiar face come my way. Gwen. She looked pretty much like she looked yesterday, except for the apron and the huge gloves that engulfed her hand. She waved me over and said, "Hi, I'm Gwen."

I got into the spirit of the conversation and said, "Hi, I'm Bernie." I shook her gloved hand vigorously and then pulled back, realizing that the glove was wet. Eew! Then I was like, "Say have you got a hose or something around here?."

Gwen looked me up and down, shook her head and pointed to a trough. "That should be clean enough."

I took myself on over there and looked dubiously at the trough. Then I fearlessly dunked my hands in and rinsed for what I was worth. I made a mental note to never shake hands with a person wearing work gloves again.

When I turned back around, Gwen was looking at me speculatively, almost appreciatively. I looked curiously back at her. "So." I said. "I'm signed up for that seminar that's supposed to be here. I think I may be the only one."

Gwen nodded, "You're right. You are the only one, now at least. There was another, but she bowed out. And its called Animal Handling. You are gonna learn to take care of a horse."

It was my turn to look blank. A horse? One of those huge creatures. I don't know anything about horses. I felt a mild panic. "Oh. Uhm, maybe I'd better. . ." I was backing away.

"Oh no you don't, and she walked towards me, "I am not going to have Xena and Gabby thinking I scared away the class. You can do this. I can do this."

So I learned about horses and about husbandry and handling. Just concepts, with some activity. I also learned how to quiet my mind when approaching an animal who's not familiar with me. I found the horses to be really responsive, friendly like. I thought, Man, this could really work with Snuggles. I even got to ride a little bit. Not too much, just enough to get used to the idea that this was something I could do.

By the time noon hit, I was starving again. But my body continued to feel great. Everything was just a little brighter. All my senses seemed more alert and I didn't feel like I had to block what I was hearing anymore, because things seemed so in balance. I bid farewell to Gwen and the horses headed back to the human habitations.

Chapter 8
Lost and Found

It wasn't until I was walking back that I realized that my friends might have been completely serious about not knowing who I was. The reason I came to that conclusion is that my pants fell off. Completely. On the ground. As I walked. Which led to Me falling face forward on the ground.

Not hard though. Fortunately I was on a grassy patch and so there was some cushion. Most of my discomfort lay in the thought that someone might have seen me. I felt (for some odd reason) that it would be unseemly for someone to have been passing by, just as my pants fell off. So I looked hastily around and felt some comfort at having not been spotted.

Then I tried to get up and got my feet caught up in the material again. This time I landed on my butt. So I had green stains front to back. Yay.

At this point I decided to be clever and sneak up on my pants. I grasped the waistband and pulled up. That's when I realized that my pants had a reason to fall off. The support wasn't there.

A belly that I had never seen before was there. Hips that I had never seen before were there. Legs that I had never seen before were there. For that matter, breasts that I had never never seen before were there. On My body.

What used to be my waist had disappeared. Gone. No dieting.

Now, a woman who has been overweight for a good portion of her life prays for this kind of thing, but never never expects that she will really get out of having to actually work for it. And so, for I don't know how long, my mind refused to work. People could have passed by and I wouldn't have noticed. I was in that much of a state of shock.

Eventually, however, I managed to stand up, wobbly knees and all. I pulled my pants close to my body and grasped the extra cloth in both my fists. I probably looked funny, kind of tilted over, but at least I was moving. I had no clue what I was going to do about this. Except on the mundane level I thought to myself, I'm gonna have to buy me a new pair of pants. Maybe I can haggle down to a sale price.

I had gone a little farther down the path when I noticed this woman sitting on a rock. Her hair was gray and short. Her face was thin and she looked, well, despondent. So I stopped for a moment and went over to see what the problem was.

I couldn't wave to get her attention, so I just said, "hello?"

She looked up at me for a moment, as if she couldn't believe she was seeing me (and I could relate to that) and then burst into tears. This was another of those moments when I had to look hastily around. And me, without a hanky.

The only thing I could think to do was to quit hovering over her and sit down. So I did, but I had to let go of my pants first, so the whole sitting thing wasn't as graceful as I had hoped. I tried to recover my aplomb by pretending I hadn't lost it. "so, ah, what's the problem here?"

She cried a bit more, but looked like she was trying to stop. "I'm just so glad to see you."

"Oh." I had never seen this woman before in my life. "I see." I patted her shoulders. "Well, I'm glad to see you too. (I guess.)" She shook her head and looked like she could use a good nose blow. I looked at my already ruined shirt and thought. Oh heck.

I took it off. Joni says I wear too much clothes and certainly it seemed a bit much now. I handed it to the lady and sat with my jeans around my shins and a t-shirt covering the rest of me. I don't know what someone would have made of that sight.

Hey at least my boots still fit. It took me forever (okay, three weeks) to get them worn enough not to leave blisters.

She looked at my shirt a bit and then blew her nose in it. I made one of those *oh well* expressions. And waited for her to tell me what was up. "I got lost." She said. "I was hiking with the group and got separated and then I got lost. And we were supposed to bring a lunch, but I forgot and I dropped my canteen when I had to run and I thought no one was ever gonna find me." More sobs.

"Oh." I did some more awkward patting. " So, uh, the problem is that you don't know where you are and you are hungry and thirsty?"

A little girl voice, "Yes." I was good. I did not roll my eyes and I took what she had to say at face value.

I said, "Well, you are in luck. I can solve two of your problems. One, I can lead you back to camp and two," I fished around in the pockets of my jeans, but first I had to pull them up a bit. I pulled out that snack bar. "You can have this."

She snatched the bar from my hand and ripped open the package. She ate it like she'd not had anything to eat for ages. I didn't even have a chance to say, slow down, before it was gone. I blinked instead.

I said, "So, uhm, you ready to go?" and she nodded at me and smiled trustingly. I suddenly thought to myself, "I hope I'm not lost."

Chapter 9
Crossroads

We didn't talk much on the way back. I held onto my pants for dear life. She held onto my shirt. I did ask her what frightened her so much that she ran, and she said it was a general scary kind of noise. Given the state she was in, I probably would have done the same. So I nodded sympathetically.

Her eyes were the color of the moon and I noticed, that she had some odd little tattoos going on. Her right arm was covered with weblike lines that weaved their way from her shoulder past her elbow and onto her forearm. Her other arm had a tattoo wrapping around the wrist and it looked even more tribal. I couldn't see myself getting a tattoo, but I thought they looked pretty cool. So I smiled at her a lot and she smiled back. It was kind of soothing to have her walking with me when I was so wigged.

We came across a hand pump and I offered to pump her some water if she was still thirsty. She agreed to it, so I grasped the handle of the pump and started to jerk it up and down. There was a funky creaky noise, as if had been awhile since someone had moved water through the pipes, but the water started flowing through. She caught it in her hands and drank and drank and drank. My arms got sore, because it was like lifting weights, but eventually she finished. She looked about a hundred percent better and I told her so. She just smiled.

***

When we came to the crossroad just before camp, I pointed in the direction we would be going. I said, "it won't be long now." and turned to face her. She looked at me in a smiling somber way and laid her hands on my face. She was just taller than I was, so I had to look up. She didn't say anything, she just kissed me. Long and slow and deep, until my knees felt watery and my body wanted to wrap itself around her. Then she pulled back and disappeared.

***

I don't recall how I got to the house. I just remember walking into my room and sitting on my unmade bed. I shucked my shoes and the oversize pants off, laid back and pulled the blanket over my head to block the light from the window. I could here the noise of laughter and birds and the passing of a lawn mower. Somewhere along there I went to sleep.

And thus, I almost missed Xena's "Survival Camping Basics."

Chapter 10
The Wild Life

The banging on the door woke me and I leapt out of bed and landed with a soft thump on the floor. Joni walked right in and said, "OH GODS!" (She's pagan. She said that she worshiped the old Gods and I was kind of afraid to ask how old). Then she turned right back around and shouted at Gina to get the priestess quick. I could smell her from the doorway, lilac and soap, and another kind of salty scent. I found myself grinning (she later called it feral). My hands were flexing and I could feel how limber my body was.

"Hello Joni," I said as I looked around me. Everything was overly vivid. The sound of the airconditioner seemed like wind in a cavern to me. "Such an incredible dream. I must be dreaming." I decided now was a good time to test that theory. I decided to do something I would never do, if I wasn't dreaming. I practically pounced on Joni, grabbing her by the arms and pulling her to me. "Pretty girl, pretty Joni. Want to kiss you grrrrrl." There was a growl in my throat. I felt hot. I felt hungry, but not for food. I just wanted a taste of her sweet mouth.

Then I smelled another scent. Acrid, metallic. Joni's face was scrunched up. Her arms were balled in front of my chest and she was trying to push me away, though I knew she couldn't get away. There were whimpering sounds coming from deep in her throat. She was afraid. Afraid of me. My best friend.

I thrust her away from me. I wasn't breathing hard, but she was and she was crying. I felt terrible. I hung my head because I couldn't look at her and I couldn't comfort her, because I was the one doing the mean thing to begin with. I gulped and then the tears started to roll for me too.

They didn't last long, because the front room door slammed and there was the sound of hurrying feet over carpet.

If Joni hadn't been right in front of the door, I probably would have plowed on out and done some thumping (even though I had no clue how to thump anyone, I was pretty sure I could do it.) But Joni wasn't budging. Nor was she crying anymore. She just looked very very very determined. "You are not leaving this room yet." I growled and backed away from her.

"GOOD GODS!" Those were the words from the woman who stepped into the room with Joni and I. She smelled of sandalwood and cigarettes. Her hair was dark and long, down to her knees. It swayed with her movements. Her skirt was a short black leather thing, her blouse was all kinds of different blue swirls. Her eyes were the color of the moon. And she had tattoos along her arms. But she looked nothing like the woman who kissed me and I wanted nothing to do with her.

I started to pace the room, trying to look for a way out, while she fumbled with a small brown bag. The window was looking appealing, even though it was locked shut. Then I willed the lock and window open. The window frame abruptly slammed itself wide for me. I laughed.

"Oh Shit!" the woman said as she grabbed hold of some substance. I willed the bag away from her and it jumped to the far right wall, knocking over some knickknacks. She tossed a handful of salt at me. I just shook it off and looked at her funny. Then I was out of the window and running free, giddy and sleek with power.

***

I wasn't watching where I was running. I was wild crazy, but I headed towards down the meadow and towards the creek and ended up passing through a small grove of trees and right into Xena's arms. She looked startled and then narrowed her eyes as I pushed her violently away. She was up in the air and flew a good twenty feet. Somehow she landed upright and in a crouching position. But she was also in my way.

She grinned an evil grin and said, "Going somewhere?" I tried to move around her. But she kept pace with me. I decided if she wasn't gonna let me past, then I was going to go through (Nope, I wasn't thinking rationally at all.) I howled as I tried to run into her, but she just flipped me up and over onto my back. Then she flipped me around again and pulled my wrists together. I felt something wrap around them. I howled again and started bucking, trying to get her weight off of me. She just pulled my hair and punched my neck. I had some sudden sense of pain and stopped moving just about instantly. "Settle Down." I couldn't help myself. I started crying again.

She unpunched my neck and turned me over so that my head was in her lap. I was bawling like a baby. Her whole body said that she was concerned, but I knew she wasn't going to untie me right away. I was very aware of other concerned people, but they weren't coming very close. I shut my eyes so that I wouldn't see them, but I could still hear and smell them. There was that acrid metal stench again. Fear. Some of it came from me.

She waited until my tears were done, then said, "Tell me what happened." So I told her about my day so far, how I was cranky when I got up and how I felt great when we were done with the walk, and she said, "That was supposed to happen," and I could feel her nodding her head. I told her about breakfast and the horses and then how my pants fell off, and she said, "That was -not- supposed to happen," in an oops kind of voice. Then I told her about the lost woman and Xena's body went very still and she seemed to sneeze violently, so I said bless you.

I decided to open one eyelid and then opened them both when I saw how good the view was from her lap. Of course the view would've looked better if she hadn't looked so pissed, but you take what you can get, you know. So then, I told her about the kiss , the nap, the rotten thing I did to Joni, the long haired lady and the salt. And at that Xena looked a little relieved. "You didn't feel anything?" She asked. I shook my head no. "That's a good sign," and she grimaced and sighed and helped me up.

Xena asked if I was gonna behave and I told her, "I don't know, but I'll try. "So she loosed my arms and my hands went prickly for a bit. I did feel calmer. Xena looked me up and down.

"Looks like you've had some adjustments to make."

It was my turn to grimace. I said, "Yeah, but I haven't been doing to well at it. A body would have thought I'd be overjoyed. But I just feel weird."

"You'll be all right." She patted me on my shoulder. Then she grinned. "The good news is that you were on time." And she let her hand direct my gaze around the area. There was a group of people gathered. Their eyes were kind of glazed over. And me, still in my underwear, attacking Xena and bawling. It must have been quite the sight. I was thought about slinking away, but Xena grasped my left upper arm and steered me to a hunk of log. "You sit there." Then she had everyone gather around and started talking basics.

Chapter 11
Changes

I was uncomfortable on the log, but the fact that Xena could throw me to the ground so easily convinced me that I really didn't want to be anywhere else right at that moment. So I sat and sat and sat, with the log biting into the skin of my legs. I didn't even try to wiggle lest I get a splinter in the tush or wherever.

I did learn a lot though. Xena was quite thorough. She talked about the best places to camp, how -not- to start a fire and how to keep from unnecessarily starving, how to tie a variety of kinds of knots (and we got to practice that one), and signs of water. She also showed us what plants to avoid (poison ivy is not your friend) and what plants to be passionately grateful for (dandelions can do more than you would think).

I found it interesting, though I got less hands-on than other folks. Everyone was pretty much avoiding me and certainly I was avoiding looking at them. I just focused on Xena and what she was saying and I was thinking, you know, she sure knows a lot.

Then I had one of those flashbacks. The kind you always read about. I was listening to my professor (the hardnosed one) talk about Women and Mythology. She began talking about some professorial adventurer types who found scrolls back before World War II. Two women, which was unique because it was so rare that women were acknowledged as adventurer types back then, I guess. I wrote J & M in my notes, but that reference was too obscure when it came time for finals. I had to look it up. Janis Covington and Mel Pappas.

So, prof was talking about the scrolls and how they mentioned the names of Xena and Gabrielle. As I recall, Joni let out a little gasp and I thought she was yawning because she covered her mouth. Then I paid attention to what the professor was saying about the mythic heroism of X & G (that's how I wrote it in my notes) and jotted down story synopsis that demonstrated the difference between patriarchal assumptions about women in mythology and matriarchal assumptions about women in mythology. The stories sounded interesting, but the assumption part got kind of boring.

I came back to the present when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Everyone was gone, except for Xena, who was standing over me. "Come on." She helped me up, which was a good thing because my knees began to sing the joy of blood flow to me. Ouch. So I pinned and needled for a bit as we walked to the camp.

I would have asked something, if I'd known what I wanted to ask. There were about a jillion questions going through my mind. Questions like, were these the same Xena and Gabrielle? Am I always going to be like this? Where is she taking me? Am I in deep ? If This is That Xena, then how old is she and why is she still alive? Or were her parents just ardent admirers of the new mythology? But isn't it spooky that she hooked up with a Gabrielle then? Is Gabrielle a redhead all the way down? Now where did that come from? How am I gonna explain this to my Mom? and more.

When we got to camp, Xena guided me to the building with the big sign that said "Healers" on it. She said, "I don't think you are sick, but I want to get a closer look at what is going on with you. Plus, a second opinion wouldn't hurt."

I said, "As long as it doesn't involve the priestess type, I'm okay with that." I was surprised at how much animosity I felt toward that woman. Though I hadn't tried to hurt her then, if I'd had the same sensation I was feeling now, I might have.

I must have sounded like I meant it, because Xena gave me one long look.

We ended up in one of those doctor office rooms with the high roller bed and Xena had me get up on it. I had the shortest wait I'd ever had in a doctor's office because Dr. Merrill was there almost immediately. I was surprised because Dr. Merrill was a guy, but he was the most feminine person I had ever seen. He was soft spoken and he was gentle about prodding me. He got descriptions from both Xena and I and they talked for a bit like I wasn't there, but I sure was an interesting case. First one like it.

Eventually, the doctor asked me if I had even had a chance to look at myself in the mirror. I said, "No, can't say that I have," in a cautiously optimistic way.

He said, "Well, I think you ought to." So he stood away from the bed and motioned me out the door. They walked me down a hallway, until we were about in the middle.

I am proud to say that I did not faint or choke when I saw myself. There is a certain place when there is no point in being shocked and this was one of them. I gazed evenly at myself.

My hair looked the same, unless you count frazzlement. Brown, untidy, short. My nose looked the same, kind of upturned and freckled. My face looked very different, because it looked so. . .healthy and I could see that I did in fact have a jawbone connected to the headbone. My teeth were straight, but they were also white like a movie star's. That was different. My body was attractive (not that I had despised my body before, but this was unique). I had a waist and hips and my hands looked . . .stronger. I looked like I had been lifting weights all my life, but not too much. Just enough. Everything and nothing about me was different. I just looked more. . .myself, than I ever had before. But there were two things that just stood out (and not what the dirty minded among us might think *grin*, though they looked unfamiliar too).

I had markings that looked like strands of webbing that started on my right shoulder blade and rounded up and over until it covered my shoulder just above my breast and my eyes were a pale pale blue; the color of the moon.

Chapter 12
A Little confusion

"Well," I said, "that explains a lot, doesn't it?" I was talking mostly to myself, but Xena answered.

"Hmph, it explains a little." She looked at me, "The changes you experienced were too extreme and quick. I have some idea of why, but I need to think about it for a bit." Then, she did something strange. She leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "Veronica!"

My reaction was instantaneous. I had a sudden image of the priestess in my mind and it transposed itself over my image in the mirror. I yelled and and clenched my body as if getting ready to strike. The mirror broke before I could even deliver a blow. I had her name now.

Xena said, "Uh oh." and punched me in the neck again. I started breathing funny. "Calm down, calm down, calm down." Xena unpunched me and I started breathing right. She held me, my back to her chest, her arms around my body. "Listen to me." I was listening. "You are to stay away from the temple. You are to stay away from the priestess, until I get this worked out. You understand?"

I said, "I don't even know where the temple is and I have no intention of seeing the priestess." I practically spat the words out. "I don't even know her. I don't know what's wrong."

Xena sighed and let me go. "Neither do I." Then she looked determined, "But I'm going to find out." And she turned on her heels and left.

***

The Doc gave me a sedative, but said I didn't have to use it if I didn't want to. He also told me to come see him in the morning, just in case I changed even more. I told him that I would plan on it. He also handed me a fuzzy pink robe. "I keep this about for those cold and lonely nights," he grinned. "You look like you could use it today."

I smiled and thanked him and went on my way. I didn't know how I was going to approach Joni, but I knew it would involve humble pie. And I wasn't quite sure how to make it. Joni.

I also thought about Veronica. There was a little growl in my throat. But I wanted to think about her. She had eyes like mine, except that they weren't. She had markings like mine, except they were made of ink. That was the problem, I think. She was a fake and my whole body reacted to it. Rejected it. Then there was the part of me that wanted to hunt her down. Rejection and need, what a combo. I knew I couldn't hunt her, because if I did, Xena would get mad at me. But I was so tempted.

I wrung my hands into the cloth of the robe and thought about my next move. It was fairly obvious. I needed new clothes. I needed some space, which meant no cafeteria food. I needed to build my confidence that I wouldn't become a raving maniac around people.

I headed to the General and hoped that Veronica wasn't there, while at the same time wishing she would be.

Chapter 13
Neither here nor there

Now, you know and I know that I had every intention of following Xena's orders exactly. So you can imagine my surprise when I found *snarl* Veronica in the homeplace.

I was now in jeans and a regular shirt (at a slight profit to the store) and hanging onto a mesh bag full of clothes and some groceries. The mesh bag was a concession on my part. I'd paid full price so the shopkeeper's words of ecological trauma wouldn't haunt me at night and to make up for the intensive bargaining I put her through. I was envisioning a bit of cooking, some cleaning (I had to do my part like Gwen said) and a semiquiet night until everyone got back. I contemplated picking up the book again, but decided I needed to work out a strategy for applying for forgiveness from Joni. I planned on returning the robe tomorrow. Things seemed hunky dory, right up till I walked in the door.

And there was Veronica. She was standing, full of confidence in the center of the room. Her hands were making this kind of weaving motion and she was turning and convoluting her body. She hadn't seen me yet.

I must have dropped the bag because I wasn't carrying it anymore when I hit the invisible wall. I was snarling and pawing, trying to get at Veronica. I threw myself against the barrier maybe five times, till I got the idea that it wasn't going to work. Veronica stopped moving at first, her eyes wide with fear and then she smirked at me, which just ticked me off even more. I placed my hands against the clear surface and found myself pacing around Veronica.

"You can't touch me." She said. "I'm in the circle and you can't reach me." She stretched lazily. "Its about time you came back. I thought I was going to have to wait forever. Now we can get on with it." She began to weave with her body and hands again, only differently. Light seemed to spark in her fingers.

My mind was turning over and over. Circles. I remember Joni explaining that circles were holy spaces, places of power and protection, depending on how one created them. I didn't know much about magic, but I did remember a story I'd heard about two people. A child and an adult. The child had drawn a circle and said that the adult couldn't come in. So the adult drew a bigger circle which included the child. At least I think that was what happened. The point was that love was inclusive, and could contain anything. Not that I loved Veronica in any way at this point. But the memory got me thinking.

I was out the door and running around the house so fast that the flowers bent. I hoped I was going in the correct direction, but since I was acting on impulse I figured correct would take care of itself. When I finished I walked back in.

There was power crackling in her circle. Her hair was standing up and her feet weren't touching the ground. She looked like she was in pain. It occurred to me that she had this tremendous buildup and no place to go with it. The power she'd conjured couldn't move out of the circle, which she had built.

I probably would have let her hang there a little longer if Joni and Gina hadn't walked in at that moment. Mercy was just beginning to tug at the corner of my heart, but I didn't know how to fix what was started.

Yet another, "Gods!" expletive and Gina and Joni were in action.

Joni went to one side of the circle and Gina went to another and they clasped hands. They started chanting and it seemed as if their bodies were melding into the power vortex. I was very afraid for them, but helpless because I KNEW nothing. Everything I had done so far had been intuitive and reactive.

At first they floated and their hair stood up too. Then, gradually, I watched the energy started flowing down instead of up, like electricity grounding itself. The skin on my neck prickled as their hair fell down and their feet touched the ground. Gina and Joni held Veronica in the distant embrace until all of the power was gone. Then they backed out and Veronica tried to follow, but she couldn't. She was stuck in that little space she had created.

She looked at me fiercely, "YOU BITCH!"

Then Joni gave me a look, the same kind that Veronica was giving me, "What in Hades' Name have you done?!"

"Me?!" I pointed at myself. "I didn't DO anything! She was . . ."

Joni waved me off, "I don't want hear it." She moved aggressively toward me. "What's wrong with you?!" She looked me up and down. "I don't even recognize you. You've got Bernie's voice, but," and she pointed at where Veronica was standing, "Bernie would Never do this. She wouldn't know how."

"But, I. . ." I gestured helplessly.

"I don't know who you are, but you had better leave."

What else could I do. I picked up the bag, turned back and Joni pointed to the door. "GO!" So I left.

But I snuck around the house and crawled back into my room through the still open window. I fetched a few things, including the quilt, the book and a pillow. Considering I was in the doghouse, it was probably a good thing I had been at that survival camp thing this afternoon.

Chapter 14
Gabrielle

About halfway back out the window, I stopped. *What the heck was !I! feeling guilty about?* I walked in this house with every intention of peace. I was not the one trying to Zap anyone. I just acted to save my own skin.

I contemplated this for a moment.

Then I stepped back in my room and strolled to my door and locked it.

I stood with the bag, the blanket, the pillow and the book in my hands. I took a deep breath and let it out slow and then I took another deep breath and let that out. I dropped the bag by the door and put the quilt and pillow back on the bed. I laid the book on the lamp table. Then I sat in the rocking chair and did what comes naturally.

I thought and relaxed into the rhythm of back and forth, back and forth.

Up to now, I felt like I had been running on fast forward, with some incredible highs and some incredible lows. This had to change. I had to get a grip. Or maybe that was the problem. Maybe I'd had such an intensive grip, that I didn't know how to adjust when my hands were forced loose. I looked at my hands as I thought of that. My palms facing up and open.

There was a sound at the window. I saw Gabrielle lean into the room and pull herself up and over. She landed softly on the carpet. Then strolled over to the bed and sat down. "Hi."

I nodded at her. I didn't feel like saying much. I looked at her without expectation.

She smiled and leaned back, her hands spread to the side and her arms long. "I wondered if you would be here."

I reached for the book and held it in my hands, tracing the leather. "Did you write this?" I asked. She looked at me curiously, leaned forward and gently slid the book from my fingers. She examined it a bit and then laughed.

"So this is where its been." She shook her head ruefully, glanced at me and let her fingers ply the pages open. She read to herself for a minute. Then she grinned. "Have you *read* this?"

I blushed and licked my lips. "Uhm, not really. Just a few sentences here and there. Its, uh, powerful stuff."

Her mouth quirked. "Oh?" She let her fingers slide down the page. "I don't know about powerful. But it was fun to write it. Cathartic." She closed the book and laid it on the bed.

"How long. . ." I started, "How?" I closed my eyes, took another breath and wondered if I even knew what I was trying to ask. I decided to try again. "I've had an odd day." I gave her space to respond, but she just listened. "I'd spill my guts but I guess you already know some of what is going on." I checked again, but she was just going to let me say it. "An odd day." I sighed heavily and started rocking again. Then I began talking.

I wound my way through the course of my life, here and there a fine detail or comic moment, up to the now I occupied. Somehow I along that woolly track I laid in the questions I wanted to ask and found some of my own answers and left her some deep spaces to fill at her leisure. My hands turned over until they cupped my thighs, a comfortable weight. My voice was soft and sometimes lingered in the air when I fell into silence. I was tracing my own outline with words, revisioning my experiences into something I could cope with. I was terribly aware of my newfound ignorance.

"I don't know what to do now." I said, as I looked at Gabrielle's face. Her head was tilted to one side. The evening light was starting to gray the room. Her eyes were far away, though I knew that she had heard every word and every movement that I had made. Her belly moved as she breathed. I could see the pulse of her neck. Her fingers had sculpted the sheets into small mountains.

Then she was back.

She slapped her hands on her knees decisively and looked directly at me. "Joni's right. You shouldn't be here anymore. You are not the Bernie she knows." I felt the wind go right out of me. "Get your belongings." She picked up her book. "I'll take this." I blinked at her. She held my gaze. She stood up from the bed, walked to me and took my hand. "Well, come on. I want to get you settled in."

So I gathered my stuff and got ready to slide out the window again. Gabrielle shook her head. "Oh No. No sneaking out." She pointed to the door. "We are going that way." I gulped.

"You sure?"

More decisiveness. "Yep." She unlocked the door, opened it and stepped out. I did the same. I squared my shoulders and walked into and past the front room towards the door. I could hear Joni in the kitchen and I saw Veronica, sitting crosslegged, in the same place she was before. She looked grumpy. Gabrielle stopped and so I did.

Gabrielle approached Veronica and did a pitcher's squat. "Veronica?" I felt neutral. Veronica looked up. "Veronica, I would like you to think about what it is that you did that pissed off Hecate, please." There was that sneeze again, though now I recognized it as a name. Veronica looked uncooperative. "Think about it and maybe we can find a way to get you out of here." Gab sighed, "I'll have someone send you a sleeping bag, and it sounds like food is going to be on its way." I just grinned. Joni is the world's worst cook. I mentally wished Veronica good luck.

***

I'm not sure what I expected. The barn maybe. Actually, it was a barn. The reclaimed one. The big house. Xena and Gabrielle's home. Not what I expected at all. I thought maybe she was going to settle me in a spare tent or something like that, but nope.

I didn't get much of a look see, though I can safely say that the interior matches nothing on the exterior. Modern, plush, no sense of camping, but there was weaponry on one of the walls and there were lots of classical looking antiques. She led me upstairs and down a hallway and into a room. I could see the whole camp from the windows. Fortunately the windows had shades and curtains, so I would have some privacy. Again, plush furnishing, though I missed the rocker.

"This will do I think." She nodded in a satisfied way. "Just plunk your stuff down and lets go."

*We were going again?* I did as she said and figured that she knew what she was doing. I mumbled something about intruding, just to be on the safe side.

"Nonsense." Then she grabbed my arm and we were on the move again. She must have seen the question in my face because she said, "We are going to find Xena."

"Oh."

And we were on our way.

Chapter 15
Lots o' Questions

"You are avoiding the question." I said, as I followed Gabrielle through the woods.

She just grinned at me. "I'm not avoiding the question, I'm just choosing when to answer." I barely missed be snapped in the face by some foliage.

"Why me, why your house, where are we going, what are we doing and how old are you really? These are simple really. Aren't they?" More grinning. I stepped in something gooey. *ugh* "Okay, if you are not going to answer that, how about this one. Have you invited anyone else to stay at your house before?"

"Not lately." Twig snapping. "And they say, I'm talkative."

"But why?"

Gabrielle stopped rather suddenly. Then she started ticking her fingers and answering my questions in the briefest and most maddening way possible. "You needed it, I wanted to, the temple, standing in the middle of the forest, and I'm immortal so age doesn't even equate into things anymore. Happy?" Then she stalked off.

*immortal?*

*Immortal?!*

"Hey, hey, Wait!" *Immortal.* I whispered a very humble, "Gods above."

***

"Uh, Gabrielle."

"Yesss?"

Sheepishly, "Sorry."

She wrinkled her face, "s'okay."

More questions whirled in my mind, but I studiously avoided voicing them. We walked in silence for awhile. "Gabrielle?"

"Yes?"

"Would you tell me about it someday?"

She nodded, "Probably, if its important."

I sighed and accepted the answer.

After a few minutes we were at the steps of one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. Ancient Greek motifs, lots of flora and fauna, a feeling of space and reverence and the sound of a war going on.

"Yi yi yi yi yi yi!"

*Whirrrwhooosh* *kchang* *kchang* *kchang*

Gabrielle shouted, "XENA!" and ran into the temple. So, I followed her.

Chapter 16
But do you really want to know the answers?

Xena was in full form. She grinned from ear to ear and seemed to be really enjoying the mayhem. She held a long pointy thing, which I guess was a sword, and she was using like it was an extension of her. Her t-shirt and jeans were a bloody mess. *squick* Another man was foolishly rushing at her and totally fumbled over the bodies piled at her feet. Dead meat.

There were more macho types flowing through the portal on the west wall, almost nonstop. They were dressed in studded leather and some were wearing metal armor. They had all kinds of different weaponry, but mostly those swords. I guess Xena had been holding them back for awhile, but they were starting to get past her. Well, some of them.

Gabrielle waded into the fray. She had a big stick in her hand, which wasn't there before. She was moving that stick like lightning. *crunch* It was like watching a very deadly dance, however the one's who had the unfortunate opportunity to connect with Gabrielle, were still breathing. The same couldn't be said about Xena's foes. So I guess maybe they were fortunate after all. But I wouldn't have wanted to be them.

Two guys rushed me, but I just willed them up and over and slammed them into a wall. They were unconscious when they hit the floor. I decided to be proactive so I mentally grabbed a vase.

"NO!" Gabrielle shouted. "That's Aphrodite's and I promised" She pointed at another vase. "Use that one!"

I mentally set the vase down and then thought, just in case, to put a protective barrier around it. There seemed to be an awful lot of pottery shards on the floor anyway, not to mention shredded tapestries. Then I grabbed the one Gabby indicated and tossed it into someone's face. More shards.

Then Xena and I had a conversation and it went kind of like this:

"BERNIE" *clang*

"Yea?!" *smash* *shatter*

"I thought" *whomp* *scroosh* *Yuck!*

"I told you" *clang* *clang* *clang* *ARGGH*

"to" *sounds of bodies hitting walls* *sounds of stick connecting with flesh*

"stay AWAY" *rip* *shred* *clang clang clang clang* *stab*

"from the temple" *whirl* *stab* *whirl* *stab* *whirl* *stab*

*Shove* "WELL, You did." *smash* *tipple* *clink clink clink* *groan*

I pointed at Gabrielle, "But !she!" *lift and toss* *conk*

"brought me here." *clang* *round killing thing connecting with flesh*

*EEP!*

"Oh." *smash* *shatter* *glass tinkling to the ground*

I guess the mirror breaking was what did it. It had been a beautiful thing,nearly filling south wall. At least is wasn't me who did it. Rather it was some guy who was whirling a spiked ball attached to a chain. But she said, "THAT'S IT!"

*CRACKATHOOM!*

You can trust me when I say that Everyone stopped what they were doing. Swords just sort of fell to the ground. Not Xena's, she was still in a crouch ready to do some damage, but most everyone else's. I let they guy I was holding in the air drop with a thud. The guys who were stepping through the portal stopped, blinked and then stepped back through the other way.

There was a very clear space around Gabrielle. She was glowing. Her hair was loose. She was wearing robes. The staff seemed to be made of metal. "Who defiles my temple?!"

My nose itched.

There was a new voice, masculine. "Its about time." A man stepped through the wall. He was muscular. He wore a sword at his hip. He seemed kind of . . .smarmy. There was growl in my throat, wanting to form itself.

Xena uncrouched and rolled her eyes upward. "Ares."

Chapter 17
Divine Discussion

Ares bowed from the waist, with his arms extended. "The very same," he mocked. Then he sneered, "I wondered when you would actually get around to using your powers Gabrielle. It seems so pointless, a Goddess who does nothing." He stepped over a still quivering body.

Gabrielle smiled coldly, "Why have you come to my temple. I do not remember inviting _You_." She looked so regal I was breathless. My heart palpitated. Xena was carefully making her way to Gabrielle's side.

Ares shrugged, "I invited myself." His eyes scanned the damage and then rested on Xena. He smirked as he indicated her bloody sword, "I see you are up to par," His eyes were hot, "Mortal." He leaned toward her a little bit, "Of course, my invitation still stands."

Xena didn't smile. "Of course, my answer is still No."

The god sighed, "Oh well." His hand rested lightly on his chest. He shook his head sorrowfully. "I tried."

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "You have not answered my question and I am losing patience." She seemed to glow a little brighter.

Ares held up his hands, "Alright, alright. I'll give you an answer, but first you have to answer mine. How can you call this "your" temple, when you've dedicated it to almost every other God. What is it you call the place? The temple of the divine?"

Gabrielle laughed, "Your main flaw Ares, is that you lack imagination."

"I have plenty of imagination."

Gabrielle sniffed, "Hmmfph, You say that I do nothing. That is simply unobservant. I like subtlety. Another characteristic you sometimes lack. But all you do is one thing. War and things warlike." She let her hand float into Xena's and smiled into her eyes. Then she looked back at the God. "No wonder you are so boring."

Ares took a menacing step.

I found myself standing in front of Gabrielle and Xena. The hairs on my neck were standing up. I was growling. My hands were unclenched, ready to throttle.

Ares looked surprised, "What's this?!" He took a long hard look at me. "Why Gabrielle, I must have misjudged you. Is this your work?" More scanning, "No, no. I recognize this. Hecate." He smiled. "But perhaps she is your new plaything? I had heard that you were being chummy with some of the old gods."

I'm not sure why I wasn't offended. Perhaps it was because I realized that being a plaything to Gabrielle wouldn't be at all bad.

Someone grabbed the back of my jeans and gently pulled me back. I turned to look. It was Xena. I resisted a little by snarling at the man, but didn't try to pull away from her. She settled me just a little beside and behind herself. I guess she figured one shouldn't step in the middle of a conversation where one could get zapped.

"As I was saying, you are unobservant." Gabrielle moved her staff gracefully, directing the gaze of the war god. As she did so, the bits and pieces of pottery, glass, tapestry and whathaveyou put themselves back together. Theblood, bodies and bodyparts disappeared, except for the live ones. They just stood up and looked dazed. "Go home now." Gabrielle bade them. They staggered back through the portal. The temple seemed to sparkle and shine. She looked at Ares, "Here is the answer to your question. The temple is mine because *I* sanctified the ground and built it. Can you argue that?"

He looked like he wanted to, but he answered, "No. I can't."

I noticed that even Xena's clothes were clean and that she smelled as if she had just been bathed in fragrant waters. I lusted for a moment then got focused again.

Gabrielle looked at Ares expectantly, "so you are here because. . ."

He scrunched his face a little. "I have a few reasons." He started to pace a little. "First, I am so disappointed that I wasn't invited into your little god space. Surely, I deserve some acknowledgement for helping you two get together." Gabrielle hmmphed again. Ares continued,"Second, I know of someone else who will be mighty disappointed. Heartbroken, we might say. Actually," He held his hand up and splayed two fingers apart, "two gods in particular."

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, "And your point is?"

Are looked shocked, "You call *me* unimaginative?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "And your point is?"

"Velaska and Callisto."

Gabrielle's expression became unreadable. She said, "oh." "Now that is interesting. Enemies. An interesting concept...How very warlike."

Ares pursed his lips. I don't think he liked the way she was sounding.

Gabrielle stepped toward him. "And, do you know where they are now?"

Ares eyebrows squinched. "Well, not actually. But I do know they are free again." He grimaced at Xena, "We Gods always get free eventually."

"That is my hope." Said Gabrielle.

Ares looked a little startled. Then he looked suspicious. "I don't understand you."

"I know."

Ares looked uncomfortable.

"If it makes you feel any better, I'm not the one who does the inviting at this temple." Gabrielle stepped back away from Ares. "I provided this space for those who worship. They are free to call on who they choose. I only set the limitation that the worshipers must respect my space, and even that is not carved in stone. As it were." She smiled briefly. "It is Not my fault that no one calls on you here. But I'm sure you have Many worshipers out there." Her staff seemed to indicate outside and beyond the confines of the camp. She smiled benignly, "I wouldn't stop anyone from calling you here, if it was done of their own free will and they needed you. As I recall, war may be your passion, but it is not your only function."

Ares managed a sneer. "What is the deal here. You have a place of worship and no one to worship *you*?"

"Ares, it seems that being locked up for centuries has done you harm. I think maybe Gabrielle is right." A blonde woman in flimsy robes and almost nothing else appeared. She was gorgeous.

Ares turned about. More sneering, "Aphrodite."

Chapter 18
Love has her way

Now this was just incredible, I know, but this Aphrodite person (and I had read some Greek myths so I knew she was the Goddess of Love). . .this Aphrodite person pats Ares on the butt as she passes him (You should have seen the look on his face), strolls up to Gabrielle, pulls her into her arms and lays on a kiss that would have rocked my world if it had been me. I cast my eyes at Xena but she looked like she was in good humor about the whole thing. Then Aphrodite put her hand on Gabrielle's derriere, gave it a squeeze and then the whole show wound down, with "Hey sweetie, haven't seen you in awhile." Then the show started again when she did the same thing to Xena.

My own derriere connected with the floor pretty quick. Which spooked me. Which led to me seeing that Ares was getting hot under the collar. But just before I could do anything, I found my face being pointed up and I was looking up past two lovely mounds of flesh and into the eyes of yet another Goddess. "What have we here."

Her grip was strong, but kind. Her eyes were investigative. Her free hand trailed the outline of my jaw, to my shoulder and pushed aside the collar of my shirt until she could see the spiderweb. Her fingers traced the designthoughtfully. I was instantly wet. She sighed pleasantly.

She looked into my eyes again. "You saved my vase."

I looked at Gabrielle. Swallowed. "She told me to."

Aphrodite waved her finger at me, "No, she simply said not to use it. You saved my vase." She smiled at me and I felt like I had done the greatest thing in the world.

She let go of my face with a caress and turned her attention to Ares.

"Hello Ares."

He grumped; arms folded, chest puffed out.

"So, like, what's your problem."

Gabrielle smirked, "He hasn't been worshiped at this temple yet, and felt left out. He is not comfortable with the idea of a God with no worshipers."

Aphrodite let out a long, "Oh." Nodded her head in understanding. Then she turned to Xena and Gabrielle, "But here's the deal, like, I know you have plenty of worshiping going on between the two of you, yes?" Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other and grinned.

She returned her attention to Ares, "But then again," she looked intensely at him, "You have been gone, for quite a long long time."

Ares grumped more, "What has that got to do with anything?"

Aphrodite threw up her hands. "GET USED TO IT!" She twirled around a bit. "Look around you! The old gods are barely remembered. I mean, there are some worshipers resurfacing, but its been like this for century upon century. And you know what. We didn't disappear." She created a seat out of thin air and sat down. "Oh sure, no one knew we were around, but we didn't have to answer all those bothersome requests. No more demands. Just lovely silence. Time to spend with your spouse and family," She looked at Xena and Gabrielle, "And friends." She fixed her gaze squarely on him. "I liked it." Her fingers trailed the narrow outline of the chair seductively. "Of course, now with people rediscovering us, there are more petitions, but its at a pace I can deal with and I can practice my Godhood like an art form, instead of a job." She sighed contentedly and so did I.

She pointed her finger at Ares. "You have been out of the running a long time, dude. Don't expect people to just wake up and smell the blood." She stood up again and the chair disappeared. "And no cheating. No recycling the bad guys of the past." Again her arms were in the air. "Get to know the place first. You might like it."

"You dare. . ."

"Get off your high horse chump. The past is over." She snapped her fingers. Then she looked at me. "And I have a bit of creating to do."

Next thing I knew I was standing up and naked. And so was Aphrodite. *gulp* I backed up but didn't get very far. She gave me a come hither and crooked her finger, and I stalled. That gave her plenty of time to gather me in her arms. I could see the others out of the corner of my eye, and I knew they were watching, but I didn't care. My body trembled and her body was warm and soft.

Then she began to kiss me and move her hands around me. She actually kissed the top of my head (she was taller than me and I was barely taller than Gabrielle.) Then she took my face in her hands and kissed my forehead and I began to tingle all over. My eyelids were next and I found that I couldn't open them, I could only feel. She trailed all over my face, including my ears and mouth. There was one deep kiss, where I would have sunk to the floor if she hadn't been holding me up by my chin. I shouldn't have to tell you that I might as well have been a river. My stomach clenched with desire. And I started responding to her kiss. She murmured, "How delightful." And then she moved on, but I found myself clinging to her, my own hands not quite roving, but seeking support because of what she was doing to me.

She pushed me back a little, just enough so that she could trail kisses down my neck. My arms found themselves locked in her strong grip. Everywhere her lips landed I was on fire. When her lips touched my marked shoulder everything intensified about a hundredfold. I felt like I was having a million tiny orgasms with each kiss. When she kissed the center of my chest I felt as if my heart opened to such warmth that liquid honey was flowing through my veins. When she kissed my breasts I felt my nipples quiver at attention and there was an answering zing in my abdomen. My breasts felt full and warm. Her whispers filled my brain and her touch was so smooth.

When she kissed my belly and circled my navel with her tongue I felt as if the universe itself had ignited in me and engulfed me. When she bypassed where I thought she was going to I forgot to be upset because my legs were suddenly the most erotic and powerful things I had ever felt. Even my knees became precious. And then my arms and soon I was arching my back and neck as if her kisses were the nectar of life and the weight of the world had ceased to be. And every kiss led to a yearning and a hunger and every stroke of her hands burned my psyche with her impression. I wanted to return everything she was giving and I wanted her to do more. I wanted to participate.

But she would just gently maneuver my advances until I was right back where she wanted me. I was whimpering and I know I cried out several times. And I thought she would never find me, never find me for all the searching she was doing. I was begging, I know I was. Please please. Even though each kiss was a treasure and each touch was a gem, I wanted more. And finally I could open my eyes again and I was staring into hers and falling through. Then I felt her hand slip into that sacred space of mine that space I thought would never be filled. And she rocked me awake with each delicate circle of her fingertips and each movement of her palm. And she smiled into me and lifted me up to her mouth and she kissed me again.

Every part of me went into orgasm. The hair of my arms, my fingernails, my teeth, my bones, my cunt, my eyeballs, my follicles, my ears, my everything, everything. I wept and wept and laughed and laughed and screamed and screamed. I melted. I was redesigned.

Chapter 19
Uhm

I woke up languorously. Breathing in and out, with my eyes still closed. And I realized that I must be missing some important bits of information, because there was a feminine body spooning me from behind, with one of her legs between mine and another feminine body pressing my front, with her leg over the top of mine. The one in back was cupping my breast and licking my ear in deliberately slow, tantalizing strokes. The one in front was tracing an outline of the fingers cupping my breast and kissing my neck. And we reeked of each other, their scents mixing deliciously with mine. My body was slick with sweat and so was theirs.

I think I was the one who got stuck with the wet spot.

Not that I was minding that one a bit. No, I was minding the fact that I couldn't quite remember how I got there.

I recalled Aphrodite. I recalled everything about that (Its not something one would just forget, you know). But I couldn't place just how I got into this position, which I obviously had been enjoying very much.

I took a deep breath and risked opening an eyelid.

"Oh," said Gabrielle in a husky voice, "look who's decided to join us, again."

My eyes opened wide and my nostrils flared as I took in an impromptu breath. I found my voice, "Uh. . .Hi." Oh clever, that was clever. I realized that if Gabrielle was in front of me, then it was probably Xena behind me. I looked down at the hand clasping me. Long fingers, bronze skin. Definitely Xena. There was no point in saying where am I, because it was kind of obvious, sort of. Xena's hand moved to my belly and she pulled me a little closer. Her vocalization of "welcome back," rolled through me like a sweet summer rain. Another deep breath through the nostrils, and my eyes were rolling back. She kissed the back of my ear. oh boy. My body trembled a bit.

Gabrielle leaned back a little and propped her head up with her arm. The other one she used to continue tracing little circles around my nipples. "And how are we?" she smiled.

I blinked and tried not to look too confused. I didn't remember how I got here, but I didn't want to blow this. I did a quick self assessment. I felt. . . fine, really fine. A little tired. Confused. But fine. I looked into hazel eyes and said so. Her fingers traced their way to my jaw. She didn't look too concerned.

But she did ask me, "confused?" Again, more eye contact, "How?"

Honesty, dishonesty, Honesty, dishonesty, . . . .honesty.

I let my hand drift down towards Xena, to stop what was distracting me. "Well. . ." But moving my hand to hers was distracting too, because she just clasped my fingers in hers and kept going. I tried to think. What was it I was upset about? oh oh yeah, that. How I got here.

"I can't quite remember." Did her thigh just move a little deeper and closer to me? "I . .uh. .can't quite remember." Yep, it sure did. Felt good too. Another deep breath, because I had to move, just a little, reposition. "uh. . how, I," Lovely circles, circles are wonderful, "oooh," my own voice was throaty. "uhmmmmmmm," tingles are lovely too, focus, focus. "got here."

I expected Xena to stop. I expected to be tossed off the bed.

That didn't happen, but Xena did laugh into my shoulder and Gabrielle snickered. Gabrielle said, "oh. You think you don't remember huh?" Gabrielle laid her hand flat and shifted it back down to my breast. I nodded my head, hesitantly, but I was getting distracted again, fast. I found myself opening my legs a bit, which shifted Gabrielle's legs and I thought I was going to lose contact. This distressed me. But she didn't let it happen, she just shifted her hips a bit. I sighed.

Gabrielle leaned in and kissed my chin. "Don't worry. You'll remember." She said it reassuringly, confidently. How could I doubt. "We'll help." She kissed the top of my left breast, and I had a flash about what had happened to that breast fairly recently. Very very very nice things. My body shuddered. Her hand pressed my belly, and I had a sudden vision of Xena on top of me, her hips rotating slowly, her hair brushing my chest, fire in her eyes. Okay, that was fun too. Gabrielle nipped my neck, and I suddenly remembered there were scratches on my back from when she dug in when I was. . .well, you don't need to know that, but it was good, it was very good. Okay, so I remembered, sort of. In bits and pieces. My first assessment was correct I had had a wonderful time.

But I was still missing the how I got here in the first place. I decided to ask for a digest form. So I tried to phrase it as I was moving to let Xena guide my hand a little deeper. I realized, in a brief moment of clarity, that we had been having these types of distracted conversations before. That I had learned things, some of which were vividly clear in the back of my mind, but there for later. Things like why Gabrielle was a God and why Xena was not. Things that I had asked and things that I hadn't. I also realized that I was deeply deeply in love with them. (Like Duh.)

So I asked, eventually, how in the heck I had arrived at this point. And there more giggles and laughter and more kisses and distractions. But they finally got around to answering, but I'll spare you all the moans and sighs in between.

Chapter 20
The Long and Short of It

The short of it, is that I scared Ares away. Though that wasn't my fault, it was Aphrodite's. And then Aphrodite told Xena and Gabrielle that they had to uh, take me in hand, as it were, or there would be dire consequences.

The long of it goes something like this.

When Aphrodite was done with me, and it didn't take as long as I thought, but time is a tricky subject when it comes to Gods anyway, I seemed to be quite alert. In fact, I seemed to be in about the same state of mind as when I had jumped out of bed earlier that afternoon. I was feral again, except that I was exuding sex. So much so, that even Aphrodite was having a difficult time concentrating, and she was the one who started it.

Ares, who had been minding everyone else's business, was suddenly the object of my attention. He had what I thought I wanted. I mean, it comes attached right. So, I started stalking toward him, and he looked like he would be willing enough. That is, right until Aphrodite told him that in the state of mind I was in, I would be as likely to bite it off as anything else. (Gabrielle and Xena were guffawing as they told me this, hardly able to contain themselves.)

Apparently he went three shades of white and forgot he was a god, because he began running for the portal he had created. This meant that I went running after him and slammed into a very solid wall. (They said the disappointment on my face would have been heartbreaking if the situation hadn't been so desperately funny). Well, not having Ares to turn to meant that I was going to look for someone else.

Before I could do that though, Aphrodite put me on hold, that is, I couldn't move from facing the wall, just yet. I was most unhappy and set to struggling, very ineffectively. It was during this time, that Aphrodite told them the sitch.

They had a choice. They could let me go back to camp and wreak high holy orgiastic havoc, or they could drain some of the energy themselves (it being convenient that Gabrielle was a goddess and all). They would never get all of it, because, well that was just the way of it. But they could, uhm help me manage it, to a tolerable level. The only problem being that they would be pretty much stuck with me. Not like umbilical stuck, just that I would bond with them, like a duckling bonds with the first thing it sees moving.

This wasn't to say I wouldn't have other partners in my life. Just that they would be the main thing. Of course, if they didn't want the responsibility they could just let me out the door and I'd find the first person walking on the path to the temple which would eventually lead to a run amok orgy at camp, because there would be no way in hades that the person could deal.

Then Gabrielle said, "and what will this do to our plans." I remember this bit, because I was listening though I was struggling, and I thought it odd that there was any sort of planning going on, because I couldn't seem to. Plan that is.

I guess Aphrodite kissed her, because there was no sound for a bit, but there was a long lingering sigh and it wasn't coming from me damnit! She said, "Doll face, it will improve! I guarantee." I felt a lot of thinking going on behind me.

Meanwhile, I was starting to hurt. All of those wonderful feelings that were lingering were starting to turn on me. A whimper of pain escaped from my mouth.

"Better hurry up and decide, because I won't have her hurting." I felt a hand on my back and the pain began to subside. Aphrodite kissed my cheek. "Such a lovely . . . Perhaps I'll just keep her for myself." I felt her look behind me. "Of course that would wreck everything that we've done so far, but it is another option." I felt her caress my cheek. "Actually quite a lovely option." My breath quickened, because I knew it was very possible I was gonna get lucky again. My eyes narrowed and my body throbbed.

Gabrielle's voice was soft, inquiring, not seeking to command. It wrung my heart (and in the state of mind I was in that was hard to do). I'd've thrown myself on a post if it would have made it easier on her. "Xena?"

Silence and more silence, until all I could hear was the sound of my breath against the wall and the blood pounding in my ears. I felt someone move close to me. My face was pulled to the side, and I found myself looking into intensely blue eyes. She was deciding my fate again.

I gulped and tried to turn away. I liked Xena. I liked Gabrielle. I didn't know them, but I liked them. But forever is a long long time, and it looked like that was how it was going to be. We would be jumping in a pool knowing how deep it was, but not knowing what was contained in it.

But then it sounded like it would be that way for me, no matter what they decided. I was in kimshe city. (Kimshe being an alternative word for deep shit.) I felt a part of me surrender, when I realized that I had no choice, except to do what ever it was I was going to do.

That made it easier for me to let her look into my eyes and to not shirk away like I wanted to. "I don't know you." I said. My breathing was slightly uneven so it came out breathless, seductive. "But I trust you." I blinked. "I will deal with whatever you decide. I will respect it. I will try my damnedest not to destroy whoever it is I come in contact with, if you say no. I will. I will." I didn't think it was possible for Xena's face to become even more stern.

I closed my eyes and swallowed hard. I was scared spitless that she would say no. I was scared spitless that she would say yes.

When I opened them again, the hand at my back disappeared or seemed to. Xena's expression had changed, but I couldn't interpret it. But Aphrodite seemed to know. She said, "Fine. Good choice." and was gone.

I was suddenly free to move and kind of fell down. I hadn't realized how much support I was actually receiving. I was in a crouch. I placed the palms of my hands against the wall and was looking down at my feet. I gave out a couple of short sobs.

Then Xena's strong arms came under mine and lifted me up, till I was standing again. More sobs on my part. And then a ridiculous giggle. "Damn," I said, "it seems like every time I see you I start to cry."

"Not every time. Not any more." Xena's voice husked in my ears. I blinked away the tears.

"Xena, I'm sor. . ." I didn't even get a chance to finish apologizing. I was getting kissed for dear life. And that was how it got started.

***

Apparently we had sex for two days before I settled down. Gabrielle and Xena worked some arrangement so they could get some rest. Somehow they fed me and I know there was a bath or three in there. One or the other would go out to check on the camp, which was being mildly affected by me (as opposed to catastrophically). I understand that there were some really unlikely pairings going on. Gabby thought maybe Cupid was just taking advantage of the atmosphere.

I was finally relaxed enough to do some thinking with something other than my body. I wondered what "the plan" was. I wondered why !I! was involved with the plan. I wondered what I was going to do now. But I guess that was going to take care of itself.

I was exhausted. Xena was exhausted. Gabrielle probably wasn't exhausted, but she was nice enough to pretend to be. We slept in each others arms, and in the morning, it was raining, but it was good.

Chapter 21
Who The Heck Are You

I was toweling my hair when I entered the kitchen. Gabrielle was sitting at the table, her legs folded under the chair, elbows on the table, holding what looked like paperwork. She turned when she heard me.

Her eyebrows were raised in disbelief, "Bernice Gracious Poughkeepsie?"

I stifled a laugh. "Yeah, well you get used to it you know."

Gabby's head did a little shaking. "Gods." She indicated a bowl of fruit. I wrapped the towel around my head. Then I grabbed an orange, leaned against a counter and started peeling. "Who did this to you?" She tapped the paper.

"Well you see," I popped a slice into my mouth and talked around it, "my dad had a great aunt who he loved. Apparently he stayed with her a lot. Her name was Bernice." I waved what was left of the orange, "Now my mom's name is Grace and great great aunt Bernice's favorite expression was gracious, I guess, and so it seemed logical to them at the time to give me Gracious as a middle name. Besides it follows a long tradition of naming the quality you wanted the child to have." Gabby nodded. "Anyway, Poughkeepsie is my father's last name and in this culture that's what you get. So, Bernice Gracious Poughkeepsie is what I have lived with."

I strolled to the chair on the left side of the table, dragged it out and sat down. Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Did you ever think of changing it?"

I snickered and nodded, then sobered up. "Yeah, but I didn't want to disappoint my parents. I used to have a nickname: "Nie," (my little sister called me that, but then, Monty Python did that Holy Grail movie and you can guess the results. So I switched to Bernie."

More nodding. Gabrielle looked thoughtful. I finished up the orange. I realized I was still hungry, but wasn't quite sure for what. I began to think about that when Gabrielle interrupted my thoughts.

"Bernie, I think you should think about another name." She laid the paperwork down. "The person you are now, is totally different from the person you were. And I know you will be different than you are now, soon." She was looking at me intensely and I felt a clenching in my stomach.

I gulped and whispered, "You mean there's more?" I felt a little panicky, "You're not done?" I looked at her. "Its not enough that I've been twisted inside out twice?" My fingers trembled. I thought about the whorls on my fingers and how they had changed. My index fingers now looked like webworks and my middle fingers had heart designs that went on for infinity. This didn't even take into account that my eyes were brown again, except now they seemed a little more golden. And the web markings had taken on a new design incorporating a red colored heart.

Gabrielle's eyes were full of compassion. "There's more."

My head found the table and I covered in with my arms. Gabrielle took one of my arms and pulled it down and took my hand in hers, palm up. I lifted my head up and looked at her. Her left hand held mine and she used her right to touch the tip of my index finger. "This is Hecate's gift. She is the one who chose you." She touched the the tip of my middle finger. "This is Aphrodite's gift. She is the one who loved you." The gently touched the rest of my fingers and thumbs. "These are the what are left, and they will be filled before the week is out." She laid her hand in my palm. I hadn't even looked at my palm, though now I thought I probably should have. "This is your foundation. It has been changed, but not like the others. This is what you started out with and what you will become and more. Look."

I looked at my palm. There were patterns there too, but I was no palm reader. Gabrielle traced some lines and I realized that letters had formed on my palm in intricate connection. X & G & something that was trying to form itself, but was not written.

"Why not B?"

"Ask yourself. Are you Bernice anymore?"

I closed my eyes and asked myself. A whole lot of quiet. Bernice was still there, but she wasn't the whole of me. The "I am" of me didn't quite have a name anymore.

I opened my eyes and said, "I am and am not Bernice." I extricated my hand so that I could look closer. "I don't know who I am anymore."

Gabrielle reclaimed me. "Yourself. Always. The core is you. The rest is flexible, you know?" She kissed my palm. "Think about it. You don't have to lose Bernie. There is no reason you can't be more."

"More like you?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "More like you."

"Yeah, but if you gods keep changing me, how am I more myself?" My hands wrung themselves together.

Then she stood up, came closer to me and tilted my face up. She kissed me, warmly, softly. I felt the tingles that I was getting so familiar with. "Gods do not give what is not already there" Then she looked funny for a second, "except on some occasions." She parted my hands and took them in hers again. "Just know that you are becoming more of who and what you are, not less. Remember you have me. You have Xena. We will be here for you. Always." Her fingers clasped mine and gave a little shake. Then she kissed me on the forehead.

She sighed. "If I didn't have to go now, I'd stay. But I do have some responsibilities that I've taken on myself." She smiled.

I found myself smiling back. I did love her after all. "yeah, go ahead. I think I'm gonna go for a walk and see what's up."

Gabrielle tapped her forehead. "Speaking of what's up. I'll solve a little worry for you." I looked blank. "Veronica, is currently on her way to see some relatives of mine." Oh. Yeah. That. "You won't have to worry about encountering her, at least not for a little bit."

"You have relatives?"

She stroked my chin, "Don't look so surprised. I was mortal once, and god's have been known to have children."

"Oh, oh yeah. Okay." I sniffed. "So Veronica is going to see some of your relatives. Okay. I can deal."

"I know you can." I got a thorough kissing that left me kind of swoony. Then she left. Later, after I found something a little more filling than an orange, I went for a walk. I had a lot to think about.

Chapter 22
Gabrielle Becomes A God

It was sunny by the time I was out walking, though the grass still held water like small crystal jewels. I thought about stopping by and talking to Joni, but decided against it. I hardly recognized myself. I just couldn't do it to her.

As I was walking through camp, I noticed that the people I passed would stop what they were doing, briefly and watch me. It felt different. There was one person who bravely approached me, and invited me (without even knowing who I was) to join her and her partner for a bit of erotic fun. I thought about it, but tried to decline as gracefully as I could. She looked disappointed, but I think she lived through it.

I wondered if this was how it was going to be everywhere I went? Stares and invitations. Not a bad thing, but unfamiliar. I was going to have to come up with ways of disengaging from unwanted conversations. Something I had never had to deal with before, really.

I thought I saw Joni, briefly. She was holding hands with some other chick, not Gina. I felt a very brief stab of jealousy. I turned in a different direction.

This eventually led to a really obscure path.

I was in the green now. Occasionally a leaf would brush my cheek, or I would pass through a spider web (Now -That- is one weird feeling). The ground and air smelled sweet, crisp, clean. I would stop now and then and really look around me. The ground was soft under my feet. The flowers were bright. The wind blew petals from the trees to the ground. Sometimes water would drop on my head or shoulders. It was a good walk.

I thought about my name, or lack thereof. I thought about what might be before me. I came to a fork in the road. Another crossroads. I thought about Hecate and Aphrodite and Gabrielle. I knew I was going to have to do some research now. I thought about Xena. I thought about me.

***

When I was still in the throes of passion I asked about Gabrielle and Xena. Who they were, why they were here and the like. They told me a little bit. About traveling together in the past, that Gabrielle was a bard and Xena was a Warrior Princess (what a concept!), that they had many adventures and how they settled down every now and again.

I guess during one of those adventures, Gabby became a god.

She said it actually started when she died and went to the Elysian fields. This was a place where everything and everyone were blissfully happy and things were always wonderful. She even had a husband waiting for her. He was happy to see her and she him. But as time passed (or seemed to) she grew more and more unhappy. Eventually, she and Perdicus had a long discussion, where he told her that she was as miserable as if she was in Tartarus. He told her, that if she was this unhappy, she had to find a way to go back.

So that is what she did. She made her way into Hades' and Persephone's bedroom and had a heart to heart. Hades' main problem was that she had been dead for so long and Xena was not destined for the Elysian fields. And that was the whole deal. Gabrielle was NOT happy without Xena and wasn't going to be happy without Xena. She said that she would rather be stuck in Tartarus with Xena. Except, Hades pointed out, if he allowed that, then Xena might as well be in the Elysian fields because where Gabrielle was, that was heaven to Xena. This was a conundrum and Hades wasn't budging.

It was Persephone who came up with the solution. Become a god. Then Gabrielle couldn't be stopped from going where she wanted. And she would have a better bargaining position. The only problem was that Xena had a thing about immortality and the like.

Hades pointed out that Gabrielle was already immortal, she just wasn't currently on the earth, so there was no reason to resist. He talked about a guy who stayed real briefly who talked about inner divinity and how actually everyone was a god, depending on how you looked at it. They talked long and hard and persuasively, and probably if she had been Xena she would have said No, but she was Gabrielle and the concept of inner divinity appealed to her. So Hades gave her a body, Persephone made an ambrosia and golden apple salad, and it was a done deal.

After that, it was only (Hah! only) a matter of convincing Xena that this was a good thing and that she was the same Gabrielle (even though I guess, like me, she wasn't exactly the same, she just was Gabrielle.)

How Xena found out and what happened is another story, but I do know that Gabrielle was pretty clever about the whole thing, because Xena didn't find out about it for three more years, that is until Gabrielle goofed. But I'll let you read the scrolls for that. This is My story after all.

Chapter 23
Hunted

Of course, it was a trap. I mean the Gods getting Gabrielle to eat the ambrosia. Its not like they let every unhappy dead person become an immortal deity. Hades' use of the word destiny is the big clue, isn't it. He never said that Xena was destined for Tartarus, now did he. Sneaky.

Just like Hecate.

Just like Gabrielle, actually. I still didn't know the plan, did I? All I knew was that I had two more sets of fingerprints plus thumb prints that would be filled with god marks. I didn't know whether to look forward to this or not. Hecate's changes had been kind of painful. Aphrodite's changes had been wildly erotic.

And there was something that disturbed me about this whole bonding idea. She never said that Xena and Gabrielle were bonded to me. Only that I was bonded to them. I had a sudden sense of Angst. Just because I loved them, did not mean they loved me. Oh, they did what they had to, but that was it. I was an unexpected burden, that they accepted. Sure, the seduction was fun, but you can't live with someone based on sex alone, at least, not for long.

I stopped walking and stood in the middle of the path. I had no idea where I was. I looked behind me and noticed that I wasn't even really on a path. I was just in the middle of the woods. Well. That's okay. It totally accurately reflected how I was feeling.

I decided to sit down. I let my knees fold under me and my arms rest on my knees. I knew I had a few decisions to make.

Nothing had been said yet, about my staying. Not really. And I did have a life outside this place before all this. . .this happened. I was going after a masters in history. I had the end of this semester and a couple more classes to go (I hadn't registered yet, because I didn't know if I was going to go in the summer or fall or both. Yeah yeah, I know, stalling.) That hadn't changed had it.

It would give me a reason to leave, without embarrassment. I'd dealt with unrequited love before. No biggee. (Yeah, right. . .) It was a biggee when it came to this. I would have to act like this degree was so important to me, that I just had to leave. I would have to act happy. And then I would have to simply never come back. I could love without touching or seeing. I could.

It was in the midst of this thinking, that I heard the scream. I was up and around the bend before I could even decide where I was going.

I had no idea that rabbits made sounds. And this one looked to be in dire straights. It was twisting to get away from under a stack of wood. I think a leg was broken.

I silenced my mind, like I had with the horses, and reached out for the small creature, slowly, slowly. If I didn't know rabbits made sounds, how would I know if they bit or fought when hurt. I imagined and felt energy running through my fingers. Soothing energy. "here baby, its okay little one. its okay." I let one hand grasp the rabbit and another grasp the chunk of wood and stuff that it had got caught in. And I tried to separate the two as gently as I could. "Its okay, its okay, its okay." The leg was horribly twisted and a bloody mess. More soothing.

I had a choice to make. Let the rabbit suffer, don't let the rabbit suffer, figure out what to do. Intuition can be a wonderful thing when it kicks in. I found myself laying my currently free hand on the leg, repositioning it as if I had always known rabbit anatomy. Then I felt myself give a surge of energy and I saw in my mind, a whole little rabbit instead of this poor beat up fellow. And it was so.

The brown gray soft fuzzy thing kicked away from me, so I let it go.

Okay, there could be a real benefit to these changes. I felt a little better.

I sensed a presence behind me and whipped around. Another Goddess. She was taller than me, dressed in a leather kilt, with not much on top but some metal armor on her shoulders, sort of. Her skin was dark, but her eyes were light. She had a hunters bow, which she held casually. She was toned. She looked stern. There was a bear behind her, and I knew there were few, if any bears, in this part of Missouri.

Then I really realized there was a BEAR behind her, rational thought left and I was off and running. Which was really stupid, considering.

I could feel her chasing after me and I dared not look back (I've seen those movies, the ones' where the heroine looks back and gets clobbered. Not me, uh uh.) One foot in front of the other, thighs moving, heart pumping. Faster than a rabbit, swifter than a dear, leaping over tall clumps of bushes in a single bound. I heard a zing behind me and felt a thwap on the backside. I was on the ground before I could even figure out what hit me.

Oh yeah, the bow. Funny, the arrow didn't hurt, but I couldn't move.

Something large, furry and black began snuffling at me. My heart was going a mile a minute. Shit.

I knew I had to calm down. I knew I had to breathe. I knew I was gonna die.

I heard a thap, like something furry being swatted at. Her voice was honey. "Ursala, go. Leave her alone." The bear protested, loudly, in my ear. Ouch. But it shuffled away. Then I felt a slap on my butt and a laugh. "Just what were you thinking? hmm." She grasped my arm and rolled me around so that I was looking up. She was shaking her head, "Trying to run away from the Goddess of the Hunt."

I found myself replying, "Thinking? I was thinking? No can't say I was."

She place her finger on my mouth, to shut me up, because I was about to ramble. "You have a real fear of animals don't you." She hadn't moved her finger, so I just nodded. She was doing a pitcher's squat, with one knee on the ground. I could see up her skirt. There was nothing to imagine. I swallowed and tried to focus on the conversation. I knew she noticed, but she was busy talking to me. "Even rabbits." I had a sudden remembrance of some early childhood nightmares.

I shouldn't have watched that movie about the giant rabbits. I shouldn't have watched the tv show about the ever growing spider either. It had resulted in a really ugly combination at night. That and seeing the neighbor's dog get hit by a car, resulted in a no pets policy at my parents house, until I was about fifteen.

I gulped, closed my eyes and heaved a sigh. She placed her hand on my chest, just in between my breast. She was looking at me compassionately when I opened them again. "You feared, yet you helped one of mine."

I tried to come up with a meaningful response, but I couldn't find one. What else could I have done? I mean, something's bleeding, you try and help, right or get someone who can.

She lifted me up and forward into her arms, "Therefore, I will help you." I licked my lips because they were suddenly very dry.

***

I responded passionately to her kisses. I couldn't help myself. Her mouth tasted like wild berries and her breath was sweet. I found that I could move and my hands made their way to her waist. I pulled her down on top of me and she didn't resist. The ground seemed softer than ground normally does, but I wasn't really noticing. I was appreciating the fine line of her neck and how her nipples tickled mine. Those nipples were suddenly appealing and I worked my way down, so that I could suckle.

And I really found myself suckling. With milk and everything. I almost coughed, I was so surprised. But she rolled me up, until I was in that infant position and soon I was nursing as if I were a baby. It was liquid universe and I was the void.

***

I came to in her dark arms, my skin pale against hers. Our legs were entangled, my head was resting on her shoulder. Her free hand was stroking my back. Another good time had by all and I'd missed it again! But oh, I felt good.

There was a quiet in me that I'd never had before; and a wildness. This wildness was centered though, like it had found a resting place and was comfortable. I knew I could call on it and I would be able to control or not control as necessary. I was no longer scared of the wild, in any form.

She traced an outline on the back of my marked shoulder. I "listened" to her finger intently and recognized the outline of a bear.

I kissed her chin, then her cheek and her mouth. I lifted myself and looked into her eyes. "Who are you?"

She smiled and said, "Artemis." Then she kissed me again and disappeared. Now I was alone and naked, in a forest, but I felt safer than I ever had before.

Chapter 24
Truth or Else

There is one major drawback to being naked in the woods.

Bare feet. Citified bare feet. No callous.

If you don't know what I mean, you just pick you a nice forested area, with leaves, sticks, rocks, bugs and no real patch of grass to speak of, and you try walking without your shoes and socks for a bit. It's not the same as walking barefoot on the round stones by the creek, though that can be an adventure too when you find the occassional sharp ones. Its not the same as walking on hot concrete in the summer. It might be close to walking on a gravel driveway, but then you are totally missing the pointy little sticks experience. And when you encounter a thorn its a real bitch.

I hopped around for a bit, trying to find a safe place to sit so that I could extract the damn thing, but there are not too many of those waiting for naked lady in the woods either. I finally found a stump from a cut tree (praise the gods!) and hobbled my way over, walking normally on one foot and on the side of the other. I set my tender rear on the stump and wasn't comfortable at all. Then I lifted my impaled foot, with every intention of pulling out the thorn.

I haven't told you this, but I am not one for pain. Not at all. I hesitated at extracting the thorn, because it might hurt more. But I knew I had to. I formed my fingers into a pincer shape and took a deep breath. I grabbed the bit of nature's needle that was sticking out and yanked and screamed. Ow ow ow ow ow ow OW. I took a couple of hissing breaths and pressed the palm of my hand against the ache. Tears welled up. I began to wonder how the heck I was going to get out of this.

I heard a sweet contralto purr behind me. "Very Good." I shifted my eyes to the side and wound my body around so that I could see who was addressing me.

She was dressed in standard hiker's regalia. You know, jeans, long sleaved shirt with the sleeves rolled up, hiking boots, a backpack, a billed cap and a wicked smile. Her eyes were dark and the lines around her eyelids crinkled up. Her hair was darker than Xena's. She stood casually as she contemplated me. One of her hands held a first aid kit. The other held a bullwhip.

I knew I was in trouble.

I tried a save. "Uh, hi."

Her strides were easy and powerful as she walked to where I was sitting. Her long arms graceful. Her breasts bounced a little under her shirt. I inhaled and it was a bit before I remembered to exhale. My body tracked her back around until I was facing front again and more importantly, I was facing her.

She knelt in front of me, laid the first aid kit and the whip on the ground and gently released my foot from my hands. "Let me see that." When she touched me I felt a thrill go down my back and smack into my uterus. She examined my foot solemnly and opened the first aid kit. She picked an ointment and unscrewed the top with one hand. I admired her dexterity. By now I totally forgot to be in pain. She squeezed the tube, which caused this golden stuff to push out, and she let her pinky scrape over the top. Then she recapped the tube and put it away. She lathered my wound with the ointment and the wound disappeared.

I pursed my lips and looked up into her eyes. I cleared my throat, "Goddess, huh?"

She grinned and raised her eyebrows and laid my foot back down. Then she placed both the palms of her hands on my knees, parted my legs and moved between them. I thought to myself, *maybe this won't be so bad.*

She let her hands drift up to my breasts and cup them for a bit. Then they moved up to my neck, down my shoulders and arms until they held my wrists and hands secure. I was totally enjoying myself and didn't track that my hands were actally trapped in hers. I suddenly felt compelled to look at her face. The safety of her previous expression was gone. My heart skipped a beat. She said, "We will dispense with formalities. I am Nemesis, the judge. You are a woman who does not know herself. I am here to judge, to teach and possibly to recreate a bit of you in my image, as the others you have encountered have done. Perhaps you will even come to know yourself."

She continued. "First we will assess, then we will address." She let go of one of my hands and tweaked my left nipple.

"Ouch"

"At least we don't have to undress, eh." Her smile was cold.

She backed away from me, lifted the whip and stood; all in one fluid motion. She indicated with her hand that I was to stand up. So I did. She let the whip uncurl.

I found a voice, "Uhm, I think I should say. . . Uhm, that I've never been." My knees were shaking, "uhm, into this. . ." My hand were pretty much stuck in the same position they were in before, except I happened to be standing.

She said, "I KNOW that." Her face said it too. "But you have no idea what _This_ is. So you should not say anything." She came forward a bit and moved my hands around so that the tips of my fingers were facing down. She spread the fingers a bit. "Relax," she commanded. The tenseness in my body seemed to disappear and I started to breathe a little easier. "This is the assessment."

I felt myself lose touch with the ground. I looked jerkily from the ground to her face and then above me. I prepared to say something.

"Say nothing. Speak only when I require you to. Understand."

I nodded my head pretty quick.

She backed away from me. She flicked the whip a little, causing it to undulate like a snake. "This is necessary. Know that. Understand that." The undulating became a little more animated. *Was the whip longer?*

There was no chance of ducking when the tip touched my skin.

***

I was never a cruel child. I was too aware of my own pain to inflict it on others, even though I had ample opportunity. But I wasn't perfect.

I remember this one time, these kids were chasing a boy down my street. They were pelting him with small stones, just because he was different from them. I ran to the my front door and called to him to come in. Hurry up. Hurry up. He almost made it, but he got tackled and they started hitting and hitting. I ran to the pile up and someone slugged me hard on the shoulder.

That was enough for me. I extricated myself and ran into the house and shut the door. Okay, slammed it. That got my mother's attention, which became divided between me and the assault outside. I ran upstairs crying. I think she went outside and somehow stopped the fight.

I felt like a terrible coward. Like it was my fault, because I couldn't stop it.

***

"What did you learn from this?" whispered in my ear, though she stood several feet away from me. "What did you do?"

"Nothing. I did nothing." Tears streamed down my cheek.

"Why?"

"Because it hurt. Because I was afraid."

Another flick of her wrist. Another painful touch.

***

Wallace was a mean drunk. That's why I never went to bars. It was enough to see him come home, heady with drink. I didn't want to know what inspired him.

It started out simple enough, a slap here, a slap there. I don't know why I thought I deserved it, but his tongue was sharp and utterly convincing. They tell you to leave when it starts. And you know, you think you will. But it doesn't happen that way, because he's always so so sorry and we are raised to be tender and I thought the pain of breaking up would hurt so much worse.

It didn't.

***

*gasping* "What did you learn? What did you do?"

"I don't know. I don't know. Never let them hit me again. Never."

"Do you like pain?"

I looked up, surprised. "No."

"Are you sure?"

*snap*

***

It had been a violent fight. The first time I had ever fought back. Energy crackled between us. I was bruised. He was bruised. He wanted more of the fight. So did I.

Who knew that it would be such a turn on?

***

*a quick sob* It was a terrible secret. Something I had never told anyone. Ever. It was the real reason I stayed for so long. I both hated and loved pain.

You see, I didn't like it when it hurt. I liked it when it felt good. And if you understand that, then you understand more than I. It confused the hell out of me.

It made me feel terribly guilty and definitely nuts. After all, who liked pain?

*snap*

***

It was a terrible fall. Hurt so much. My knees were scraped, my hands were scraped. I started laughing and laughing. Somehow I got up. I kept laughing until I was home, then when I got home and I saw my dad, I started crying.

He lifted me up in his arms and carried me into the house into the bathroom. He left the door open and sat me on the seat of the toilet. He opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out some antiseptic and some bandaids. When he put on the antiseptic he told me it would sting a little but I'd feel much better after that. He put bandaids on each little scrape and kissed them better one by one.

I missed my dad.

Chapter 25
Moments of Truth

She held me in her arms for a long time, letting me cry and letting me sob. When I was done, she cupped my face in her hands. "I have no great words of wisdom for you." Her fingers tracked my tears. "But I do know this." She stepped out of my arms. "You are useless to Us if you can not deal with, control, use and heal pain. You must learn to endure, to fight and to surrender. You must learn to direct the wild parts of you now. You must learn to direct your heart and your love to do your bidding."

Don't know about you, but I was surprised by what she said. "Huh?"

She shook her whip and I cringed. She pointed at me, "See that! That is what I mean. This we can not have." She marched around me. "I have a question for you." She looked fierce. "Why didn't you fight us?! Why did you surrender so easily?"

It was a good question. Why hadn't I? I didn't have a good answer. I looked down at where the whip had touched me and realized there were no marks. No bruises. I was a little disappointed. Then I was shocked at my disappointment.

I answered. "Can you fight the Gods?"

She waved the question off like a fly, "Of course you can. There are many who have fought. Why didn't you?"

"I didn't think I had the right."

Her face was suddenly in mine, "When you don't have a right you must make one. They won't just give it to you. You must claim it."

"I didn't really want to fight."

She laughed. "Truth, at last."

"You don't have to fight to be loved. You don't have to hurt to be loved. Did you learn that?

"yes."

"Pain isn't always the enemy. Did you learn that?"

"yes."

"When is it time to fight?"

"when your heart is involved. when its . . "I tried to find a better word, but couldn't think of it, "right."

She stepped really close. "Are You worth fighting for?"

My heart pounded. I paused. I considered. "yes."

"When is pain good?"

I struggled for an answer to that. When my wounds were covered with kisses they still hurt, but I felt good. When Wallace and I made passionate love after our fights, it still hurt, but I felt good. I realized that while I didn't want to dwell in pain, or be in pain, or cause it, there were times when the pain could be good. Like after running a mile race and completing it even though you have a stitch in the side. The pride made it feel better.

"When it adds to dimension to you. When you feel loved."

She kissed me. The wounds of my past fell away from me. "Today, I will take you to another dimension. You will never be the same." Her lips ground into mine. "But you will be able to do all I have spoken of."

***

When we were done, my fear of pain was washed out of me. I had a healthy respect and appreciation for it, but no fear. I could also acknowledge my kink, without fear of it overtaking me. Just cause I liked a little extra sensation now and then, didn't mean I had to have it all the time or that I had to surrender to just any one. It also didn't mean that I had to accept a limited role. It's my opinion that every relationship should have a little give and take. Hmm.

The funny thing; My experience with her, after the assessment bit I mean, wasn't hurtful at all. And I thought the little whip whorl on my pinky was kind of cute, actually. It was the most normal mark on my fingers, aside from my unchanged thumb.

She left me with one final question. "Who are you?"

I answered, "I am that I am, but you may call me Brigid."

She laughed, in good way. "That's a good name, considering what you will do. I approve." Then she disappeared.

My palms ached unexpectedly as if I had been branded. And indeed I had been.

Chapter 26
Library Time

The sky had turned dark long ago and was turning light again. The air was moist and cool against my skin, so I was covered in goosebumps all over. I was still bare to the world, but I was different, so it didn't matter.

I remembered Nemesis' discussion of being in harmony with what was. She talked about the Navaho way and said that what was interesting about them, was that didn't pray to change the weather or change a circumstance. They prayed to be in harmony with it. Thus, if I was in pain I should attune myself to all that was involved and set my self in the middle. Then it would pass or not, but I would always know where I was.

I took this lesson into myself now and attuned myself to my surroundings and my situation. I was in no hurry. I still had a few days of camp left. Some of which would rush by soon enough.

I realized that I had several choices about how to make my way back. I could float above the ground and simply avoid the things that bothered my feet. I could try and find some method of covering my feet. Or I could just walk with the forest, carefully.

It was slow going. I strove to use my newfound sensitivities as far as they would go. When I "felt" a thorn in the path I made a choice about whether to step on it, around it or near it. I let the floor of the forest speak to me. I asked it where the camp was and followed its lead. Soon, I was walking quickly, in that rhythm that Xena and Gabrielle had taught me. Then I was running with an easy stride.

I don't know what Xena thought when she saw me. I do know that she halted the butter colored horse and watched me until I reached her. I was breathing deeply, but without effort. She didn't say anything.

She leaned down and extended her arm. I clasped it and soon found myself with my arms around her front, my chest pressed against her leather jacket, my legs straddling her horse and my heart pumping loudly in my ears. *This was what I was going to be letting go of?* I ached with my decision, but I centered quickly. Instead of agonizing about what was to be, I would enjoy where I was. She really did smell good.

***

Gwen didn't recognize me at all when I saw her again.

I just smiled and Xena introduced me as Brigid. We did the whole handshaking bit. I had told Xena my new name on the way back. It seemed easier than waiting until later. Besides it gave me a chance to ask a few questions. Like whether Xena knew what Victoria had done to anger Hecate. Somehow I managed to contain myself so that I almost sounded normal when I asked. Xena knew, but she wouldn't tell. She said it was between Victoria and the Goddess and as long as I stayed out of the way it should be okay. I was all for that.

My main reason for going to town was research. They had a camp library that had some really good books, but those books got checked out a lot. For some reason all the books on Women, Mythology, Goddesses, Magic, and Lesbian romance were constantly checked out. There was no way I would be getting a hold of any books that I needed.

So Gwen gave me a ride in the blue truck. We had a really nice conversation. She smiled at me a lot, with an extra twinkle in her eye. She even placed her hand on my thigh, but it wasn't there long. The truck was a stick shift. I realized that I must be exuding some seductive energy and dampened down a bit. I wanted Gwen paying attention to the road, not to me.

The library was podunk because the town was podunk. In other words, small. But they had some books on mythology and that was good enough. I just wanted to know who it was I had been sleeping with. I had gone from nothing at all to party girl and I thought it would be nice to have a bit more of an introduction. So, I looked up the names and read some associated stories and realized how easy I had gotten off with Nemesis (No pun intended.)

I found something to like in all of them, even Hecate (the only Goddess of the bunch that I hadn't slept with. I felt kind of put out, but it probably was better that way. I wasn't ready.) I was just getting ready to read as story about "the wise warrior Goddess named. . ." when I was startled by a thunder of books hitting the ground.

I was up. Soon I was looking down an aisle spaced between two tall bookshelves. The woman was down on the floor, in the middle of a pile of books. Her legs folded under her and her glasses were tilted. I helped her up. She seemed like the epitome of librarian cliches, including the frazzled hair do. It tickled my funny bone and I was really stuggling not to laugh. Her skirt was almost too tight, but just wide enough to make returning to a standing position difficult.

She thanked me and when I offered to help her reshelve she rejected it. So I went back to my reading. Or tried to. "the wise warrior Goddess named . . ."

A cart squeaked and rumbled right by me, distracting me from the rest of the words. It was a horribly annoying sound. I looked at the librarian disbelievingly as she passed. Then I was looking at the roundness of her hips and the firmness of her calves and my thoughts really wandered for a bit.

I tried again. "the wise warrior Goddess named. . ." Of course it was something else. Some high school kids roiled into the library, like a wave of noise. I slapped the book shut in frustration. I huffed back away from the table. My eyebrows hung low for a second. *grrr* I folded my arms across my bosom. Then I shook my head and laughed at myself. Gwen would be here soon. I would have othre opportunities for research at a bigger library anyway. I could wait.

I got up to leave and found myself face to face with a young and surly man.

"Well well, what have we here." He stood with his legs apart and tried to look intimidating. I thought this guy has no clue. none. "Haven't seen you around before. You must be from -that- place." I almost expected to see him spit on the ground, but his teeth were clean so I let go of that idea.

"Young man, I suggest you move your butt to the side or I'm going through you. This is fair warning." My voice was firm. My attitude said, do not mess with me. He missed all of the signals. I could tell.

I briefly looked around me and found it totally ridiculous that this . . .this macho bracing, was happening in a library. For pete's sake. He was young. He was stupid. I had the power to really really hurt him. I also had the power to win him over. Which would it be? The good news was that this was in a fairly hidden part of the library.

I'd already made a threat, but maybe I could make him forget it. He postured for a bit with a, "What you gonna do about it?"

Oooh I was sooo tempted to make him toast. But I smiled sweetly instead and leaned forward seductively. He eyed the bits of my chest that he could see. I said, in the most sultry voice I could manage, "Come closer and I'll tell you."

He leered and leaned toward me. I grabbed him by the shirt and laid a kiss on him that sucked his breath away. When his knees bent and his eyes rolled up I settled him in an empty chair. As I left, I blew him a kiss and he fainted.

As I passed by the circulation counter, I acted as if nothing unusual had happened. I smiled in a friendly way at the librarian who had made so much noise. She sucked in her breath and didn't quite manage to return the smile, though I think she was trying to. I kept going until I was outside in the sunshine.

I looked at my watch and realized that it would at least a half hour before I saw Gwen again.

So what was I gonna do now.

Chapter 27
Knickknack

There square (that is the middle of town) was not far from the library. There were stores on the square. I decided that a half hour was long enough to do a little window shopping.

Some of the stores were interesting. There was a clothes shop, a shoe shop, a small video store, an antique store and a JC Penny outlet. I decided to go into the antique store.

It was darkish. The floor was wood. There were odds and ends all over. There was some old furniture and ancient electric equipment. There was a small female figurine that I found intriguing. I held her up to see her better. She had a golden helmet on her head, was holding a spear, wore blue and white robes and a very tiny owl was standing on her shoulder. I noticed that the color of her hair was the same as the librarian's, but I set the thought aside. The figure was about six inches high; seven if you count the spear. I really really wanted it, but the tag price was over the amount that I had with me.

I had a couple of options. Set the figurine down and leave. Unacceptable. Write a check. I'm from out of town, they won't accept it, but maybe if I smiled nice, we'll see. Haggle. Good option.

I found the shopkeeper. He was an elderly man who had the good sense not to retire. He had a friendly disposition and talked my ear off, but in between the talking, we bargained, until I paid for the figurine with every penny I had left. The change was still circling on the counter when I hustled myself out the door.

I didn't want him to alter his decision. I could feel him grinning behind me. I certainly was grinning myself. I held the figurine protectively in my both my hands, clutched to my chest.

I walked quickly back to the library and found Gwen waiting for me in the truck. I hailed her and got in.

I showed her my prize.

She said, "Cool. Athene!"

I blinked at her. "A what?"

"Athene. Athene. The Warrior Goddess of Wisdom."

I held the figurine out in front of me and looked closely at it. Then I looked at the library. The librarian was peeking out at me and she wiggled her glasses and grinned. I looked at the figure. It winked at me. I very nearly dropped the thing in surprise, but managed to make it look like I was just settling into the truck.

"Uh. Say, Gwen. Do we have to rush off?"

She patted my thigh, turned on the ignition and moved the stick. "Yep."

I found myself looking back over my shoulder at the woman who stepped out of the entrance of the town library. Her hair was loose now and I realized that she was wearing a suit of blue and white.

***

I thanked Gwen when we arrived back at the place and hopped out of the car. The figurine felt warm in my hands. I hadn't said much on the way back and I know Gwen wondered what she had done. I tried to reassure her that it was nothing. I wanted some time alone, that was all.

I thought about where to go. I could head back to the woods. But I kept ending up undressed when I did that. I could head back to Gabrielle and Xena's home. But I wasn't ready to face them, yet. I could go to the temple.

I went to the temple.

Apparently it was a full moon tonight. There were people walking up and down the path. I thought, maybe this wasn't such a good idea. But I really didn't have any other place that I wanted to go.

The temple was brightly and colorfully lit. There was incense in the air and some other kinds of scents too. I was informed that I could join other worshipers if I knew which deity I was wanting or I could use one of the smaller rooms.

I chose a small room. And it was small; a little more than a closet. You could stand, sit or lie down, but that was about it. There were pillows on the floor and a small altar. I looked at the figurine that I still had clutched to my breast. No surprises.

I put the figurine on the altar and sat back on a pillow to wait.

How was I to know you were supposed to light candles at an altar?

The only reason I found out was someone knocked on my door and handed a bunch of candles to me, with a couple of matches. Then she said, "SHE told me to tell you to put the candles around the figurine and light them one at a time. Think four corners and you should be set." I didn't spend time figuring out who said to do that. I just trusted.

"Uhm, okay."

***

So I lighted the candles and sat back again. The figurine expanded, pretty much like I expected. Her face was pleasing to look at. The owl was still tiny. The spear was intimidating.

I thought, *maybe I should have been standing* because she was towering over me. I struggled up. The pillows got in the way. I kicked them gently to the side. "Hi again."

She crooked her finger. I looked up and then strolled forward. I wasn't going to tempt fate. She let the spear attach itself to the wall and shooed the owl to where ever it went. She pulled her helmet off. Her golden hair fell softly about her shoulders. My loins (can I call it that?) did that twitchy tingly thing. The robes were next. Her breasts were cream with cherries. Her belly was the landscape I wanted to explore. She dragged me into her arms and I was most willing.

Her lips were soft against mine. She whispered my name over and over, like a mantra. I could only return the favor. The lovemaking was sweet, slow and thorough. I was more aware of her as a person, than I had been with the other Goddesses. Her scent was appealing, kind of wild, a little tart and fruity. I tasted everything I could of her. I fondled, caressed, stroked and circled with my whole body, not just my hands. Her cunt was a lovely shade of red and pink and I told her so. I complimented everything about her I could think of, including her mind.

We giggled a lot. Coming was glorious. Hopefully for both of us. She seemed to enjoy herself. I found myself grinning engagingly. I traced simple patterns on her cheeks and breasts and whatever else looked they could use tender touches.

Once we were done, though we hadn't quite reached the stage where our bodies parted, I asked her how this could possibly have anything to do with wisdom or warrior skills. She laughed and it was honey to my ears. I had to kiss her and we were almost at it again, but she stalled my advances.

I really liked her voice. "I wanted to get this over with, my sweet." Her touches were electric. "Aphrodite was kind enough to warn me about your. . .how shall I put this. . .loving energy matrix. But it almost wasn't enough. You gave me a real surprise back there." I knew she meant the library.

I winced a little. "Well you see. . ." She touched her finger to my lips.

"Shush. Its fine. The twerp deserved worse than you gave him. I was suprised at your decision though."

"We were in a library." I said it almost in a whisper. "I didn't want to wreck the books."

"Ah. I see." Then she arched her back and looked at me seductively. "I believe another go around is in order. Do you?"

Who was I to say no?

***

How do I describe what happened next?

When our bodies were completely, and I do mean completely, sated, she took me to another place. A place with no walls, no floors, no ceilings. And she taught me stuff. Weapons; including things that boomed or banged or powed. Strategy; that would come in handy in a game of poker if I ever learned how. Strong dollops of wisdom (though that was more an infusion than a "learning." More a "Here, you'll need this." *ZAP* *groan* experience.) Healing; a little more than first aid, eh. She taught me things I had no interest in (like knitting. "Knitting?! What does that have to do with anything?" "If you don't know, then you really do need to learn it.") She called on a friend and I got a crash courses in other cultural warrior/healer techniques and philosophies. ("Trust me. You are going to need every thing you get here.")

There was a further integration of everything I had been through. I was smarter, quicker, faster (there is a difference), more dexterous, sexier, more dangerous, more skilled and capable than ever before. Much much much more so.

***

I woke up feeling peaceful, like I had just had the loveliest of dreams. The pillows covered the floor almost completely. I sat up, yawned and stretched like a cat. I felt marvelous. I looked to the alter. The candles were pretty much gone. I would have to recycle what was left of them. The figurine was gone too, but I felt no disappointment. In fact, I was grinning from ear to ear, remembering how sweet she tasted.

Then I had a moment of "Oh my God." I had no clue how long any of this had taken. I picked up the clothes which Athene had most lovingly strewn about the room. There bottom buttons of my shirt had been ripped out, but it still covered my body. My jeans were piled in a corner and there was pocket that had been completely ripped off (Don't ask me how that happened.) I got dressed as quickly as I could.

When I came out of the room it was daylight. Like well into the day light. Gabrielle was waiting for me. In Goddess form. She raised her eyebrows. "Took you long enough." She was teasing.

I knew I looked a little panicked. "How long, long enough?"

She tapped my chin with her finger and grinned. "Just perfect long enough. You can still get ready for the dance. It's tonight."

Another two days gone. Just like that.

*sigh* Well better two days than years and years, I guess.

Gabrielle took my hands in hers and examined them. She traced the outline of the letters on my palm and looked into my eyes. "Hello Brigid."

I slowly smiled. "Hello."

I noticed the owl on my thumbs. "I think I'm done."

"Almost. Almost. There are still a few things I have to show you." Her eyes rested in mine, "but it can wait until tomorrow." Her clothing changed back into jeans, shirt and boots. She had tiny earrings in her lobes. She draped her arm around my waist. "Lets go get ready."

Chapter 28
Mannequin

I don't know how many outfits Gabrielle tried out on me. Some were more satisfactory than others, but I was beginning to feel like a store mannequin.

Xena walked in the room and I thought I saw my salvation. I had that "Save me! Please!" desperate look of the fashion challenged. But Xena looked at me, then at Gabrielle, pursed her lips and walked right out again. I was tough out of luck.

I sighed and settled in for another round.

Chapter 29
Party On

The dance was a lively affair. There were rainbow colored streamers and the band was better than I expected. I saw more women clinging to each other than I had ever seen in my whole life (except maybe at Aunt Margarethe's funeral, but that was totally different. She was an ancient and venerable woman and there had been a larger than expected turn out. However, I now had a much different viewpoint of who and what Aunt Marge must have been. *wow*) There were a some straight couples too, and that actually suprised me, because they were definitely the minority (but nobody treated them like they were. . .that I could tell.) There were some obvious triads, and a few gay male couples and just a slew of different kinds of relating going on in the dance area. Pretty cool actually.

My focus was split, between Xena and Gabrielle, and Joni and whoever her new gal was. I watched Joni for a bit. Her hands were doing slow and marvelous things to the person she was with. You know, sliding down the back, playing with the hair, that kind of stuff. I felt a little envious, but less than I expected. I was just observing.

Joni had yet to recognize me. I realized she probably wouldn't, but I wanted her to. I felt a terrible sense of loss because of I missed her friendship, her occasionally acid wit, her life observations. I sighed.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up. It was Gwen. "Hey you." She nodded to the crowded floor. "You ought to be dancing. Not sitting her nursing your. . ." She picked up my drink, looked at it and shook her head, "Water?" I found myself laughing a little and tried to explain without saying anything.

"Well, you see. . ."

She waved her hand at me. "Nope, nope don't want to know. Shouldn't have asked." She took my hands in hers. "Now come on and have some fun."

Gwen was a good dancer. Her lean body glided into mine. I let her take the lead and worked at doing my part in the conversation. When that set was done, I was asked to dance by someone else; this time a guy. And it went that way almost all night. I met a lot of new people. I rarely had a chance to sit down.

But sometimes I caught glimpses of Xena and Gabrielle.

The way they looked at each other made my heart ache. They had been together for centuries, yet their faces still held longing, still held tenderness, still held want. They would whisper in each others ears, and sometimes one or the other would blush. Xena actually grabbed a flower from one of the table arrangements and stuck it in gently in Gabrielle's hair. It was *the* most romantic thing I had ever seen.

And I wished. I wished. I wished that I was more than an unexpected burden. A responsibility.

When I hit that point of feeling sorry for myself I bowed out of the next dance and took an exit outside. My heart was pounding and my eyes were a little teary. I figured I needed a bit of fresh air.

There were several people dancing outside. Lanterns lit the pathways and I could see individuals strolling with their arms about each other. I took the pathway to the house. I was thinking of turning in for the night, even though I really didn't feel tired.

Maybe a shower would be good. A cold one.

***

I tolerated the cold for about a second, then switched it to warm. I stood in the water and let it pour over me. It was good to have a chance to be alone anyway. I let my hands explore my new body. It was something I hadn't really done, except in haste. I got good and soapy and rinsed off, several times. I felt tenseness release from my body. I didn't realize that I had been tense. The water was incredibly soothing.

When I got out, the mirrors were covered with moisture, so I popped open the door. I figured that no one was home, and certainly no one was in my room. The warm and cold air mixing caused me to shiver, but toweling down took care of most of that.

I was bending down to get the last rivulet that had streamed down my leg and when I looked back up, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Xena was leaning on the door frame, her arms crossed. Her legs seemed really long to me. She was wearing almost the same outfit that she wore the first time I saw her, except she wasn't wearing a t-shirt or a jacket. She looked . . .concerned about me. "You all right?" She stood away from the doorway. "Gabrielle wanted me to check."

I nodded. I kept drying my leg over and over again. "Yeah, I'm fine. Definitely." I flashed her a bright smile. "I just wanted to come home early, get some rest for tomorrow so I can enjoy the day." I wrapped the towel around my body, covering the bare essentials. *did she seem disappointed?* *was she suspicious?* I couldn't tell.

"What are your plans?" She stepped out of my way, so I could move into my room.

"Uhm, none really. Gabrielle wants to talk to me. After that, I just thought I would enjoy camp on my last day." There I had said it.

"Your last day?" She sounded a little dangerous.

"My last day." I grabbed my brush from the drawer, flipped my head down so that she couldn't see my face and started brushing. This time I regretted cutting my hair before coming. It would have given me some cover. I said, very carefully, very neutrally, "I have to go back. To school I mean. I've got to finish. I worked hard you know." I flipped back up.

She looked like she was believing what I told her. "Oh. oh, yeah. School." Xena eyed me a little, but seemed to let go of what she was looking for. I was striving not to hold my breath, but to breathe evenly. Unconcerned. She said, "Things are different for you now."

I nodded. "I know."

Her face was intent. "You can't stay away forever."

I felt caught out, but didn't let my face show it. "I know." *but I'll stay away as long as I can*

She finally unfolded her arms. "Do you want to be with us tonight?"

I listened to my heart and whispered, "yes."

Chapter 30
More Than You Wanted To Know

I woke up in a better mood. Hard to avoid that, when you've slept in the arms of your loves. They didn't let me get out of bed for awhile either, which was wonderful! Don't get me wrong. I intended to carry out my plan. I also happened to be working at staying in the moment and enjoying their scrumptious company. I figured I needed to treasure every moment, because the memory would have to carry for a long time.

Gabrielle and I went for a walk later that morning, after a fairly sizable breakfast (that woman has quite an appetite. . .and not just for food. . .). Her golden red hair shimmered in the sun. Her lips looked innocent and kissable I was glad to have a little time with her.

We talked about mundane things at first. Okay, not so mundane as a "getting to know you, getting to know all about you. . ." type conversation. I told her about my plans to go back to school and why (leaving out the ripping my heart out because I never plan to come back if I can help it part) and she told me a bit more about herself. She was the most "human" god type being (aside from Athene). She liked human beings. She understood them. She liked life. Everything was wonderful and mysterious to her. I could understand Ares confusion. She was. . .was Zen, you know. I was no less and no more than who I was. It was enough. No wonder Xena loved her. No wonder I did too.

Finally, well out into the boonies (that's sort of like the hidden recesses of the forest except skimpier and spookier), and no one was around, we got to the good part. The why all this happened to me part.

Gabrielle took my hand in hers and led me into a haze. It was kind of smoky and I started to cough, but it cleared up when we stepped out. We were standing in the middle of what looked to be a burning village. There was a little blonde girl. She looked kind of familiar, but I couldn't quite place how I knew her. She was crying. She was shouting. She looked so vulnerable I wanted to wrap her in my arms and never let go. But Gabrielle restrained me. She said, "That girl is Callisto. Her family has been burned to death by men from a ferocious army. That army was led by Xena."

I looked at her in surprise. I was shocked.

"Xena didn't know." I felt a little better.

Gabrielle led me through another haze, this time there was no smoke. But I heard the most terrible screams. We were in another village. People were running amok and not getting very far because the mercenary types kept running them through with swords. There was this blonde woman. I couldn't see her face, but I could hear her voice. I trembled. When she turned around, her brown eyes flashing with hate and madness, it broke my heart. "Joni." This was and was not the woman I knew as my friend. I remembered the look Joni had given me after rescuing Veronica. It was so similar, but not the same.

"Yes." I looked at Gabrielle. I didn't have the words. She led me elsewhen again.

This time we were at a volcano's edge. I could see Xena on one side of the cliff and Gabrielle dangling from a rope bridge. I moved forward as if to help, but felt Gabrielle's hand on my arm. "Just watch." Then there was Callisto. She was wild, undisciplined, vicious and oh so deadly. My body was embarrassingly responsive. She was also fighting a ravenhaired woman. Veronica. I was on my way and ready to kill, but I didn't get very far. (It really was handy that Gabrielle was a goddess. She needed to be, at that moment.) "Focus Brigid. Pay attention."

I resisted, but I did focus. My friend was in danger. All I could do was watch them fight, then gasp in amazement when CallistoJoni changed into a Goddess. Veronica and CallistoJoni fell into the Lava pit. I let out a cry. And to watch Gabrielle nearly fall after them, was a little much. Gabrielle the goddess pulled me into her arms and rocked me until I calmed down.

"Listen to me." I was listening. "Veronica's real name is Velaska. She made the choice to be a god because she was lustful for power. She happened to be mad at me at the same time. I was an inconvenience to her because she wanted the Amazon throne. But that was my destiny, not hers." I held her close. I found it difficult to imagine Gabrielle as an inconvenience. "I feel no responsibility for trying to help her."

I pulled back because I was a little confused. "But she was at your camp."

"I wanted her where I could watch her." I was more confused.

"I'm missing a bit."

Gabrielle waved her hand and some large rocks, suitable for sitting on, appeared. We sat down. She began to really explain. I'll shorten the talk time, because I asked a lot of questions.

***

The Gods of Olympus were concerned. They were pleased with Xena and Gabrielle's choices and actions, but knew that the two mad Goddesses could not be contained forever. And they weren't.

They wreaked a lot of havoc on the world when they freed themselves. That was the good news. They were also bitter bitter enemies.

Now, Velaska had made some enemies among the gods, besides Callisto. Artemis and Hecate. Artemis, because she destroyed a temple. Hecate, because she she claimed a power that belonged to the Goddess of Magic (she was also known for her wild side: Chaos). Callisto on the other hand was simply a bit murderous and crazy. (oh, is that all. . .) But they wanted her contained anyway, because they never knew what she was going to do next, and a few, namely Aphrodite and Athene had lost some favored mortals because of her. Nemesis got involved because she had rendered a judgment about the whole thing. Callisto might have the opportunity to be reformed and became a useful member of God society. Velaska would be made to give up the claim to the title or Hecate and she would find a way to share it.

Somehow they got Velaska and Callisto trapped again, separately.

When Gabrielle died, they saw an opportunity and took it. They gave her some time and when Xena wasn't looking they struck a bargain. It was the general consensus among the Gods, that while Xena wasn't at fault, per se, it was still a responsibility (oooh I was beginning to hate that word) that she needed to take on, sort of. Fortunately a goddess can be forgiving. Callisto had killed Perdicus. Velaska had tried to kill Gabrielle. General nastiness all around. But when you are a god, you have time to think.

And Gabrielle thought and thought and thought (and sometime during that Xena got killed and got hung up in Tartarus for a bit. . .ended up helping their many times great grand daughters. . .and then let Gabrielle bring her back, stipulating that she could stay mortal if she wanted to. . .) and came up with a plan. She got the Goddesses involved, but didn't go into details about how she did that. They put a huge (and I do mean huge) whammy on the two. A complicated spell of forgetting and renaming. Thus Callisto became a young girl named Joni, the one I knew in high school. Velaska became the wiccan priestess Veronica, (because they wanted her to get to know Hecate a little better. . .they really were thinking long term here. . .) and then I got involved.

I asked Gabrielle, "If everything was so lovey dovey between Hecate, why do I feel such a compelling notion to rip her to shreds."

Gabrielle's response was, "Everything is not lovey dovey." (Well, duh.)

Veronica/Velaska fought them the whole way. Every now and again, she would flash into memory about her power. This was dangerous, because they didn't know when she was going to break loose. Hecate chose me because I was already an ally to Joni, and because I had a good heart (who, me?). It seemed logical at the time.

Apparently, when I and Velaska confronted each other she came *this close* to remembering everything and raising Cain. And then when Joni went to help her (a terrible irony, if I've ever heard one), CallistoJoni had a flash of memory, but she set it far far into the back of her mind (but it did explain the look a little bit, didn't it.)

At this moment, Velaska was with Jan and Mel, because that was the safest place they could put her and still keep an eye on her. Callisto was still being Joni, but they didn't know when she would wake up either, or if she would.

It was odd, but Callisto had barely fought them. In fact, she seemed to embrace the whole thing. They gave her a new life, but decided not to make it easy on her. She had a set of "parents," but she was an unusual girl. They gave her certain preferences, so that she would struggle a bit, but not be overcome. This new life had to be as real as possible.

And here I was. The final piece of the plan.

I was their win win situation. If Callisto didn't wake up and remember who she was, I was her tried and true. If Callisto did wake up, I was her best chance for keeping the sanity she had built. If she didn't keep her sanity, I was to be her scourge. My job would be to push her so far into madness that she would cease to function. In other words: Kill her. And I wouldn't have a choice.

I felt my heart constrict. "What?"

Gabrielle said, "Are you her friend?" I nodded. "How much do you care for her?" I searched the depth of my heart. I cared a lot. "Would you die for her?" More searching. . .yes. But I would die for Gabrielle. I would die for Xena. Seemed I would die for a lot of people. "Would you live for her?" That seemed like a silly question on the surface. But, what if I did have to drive her back into insanity. Could I live with myself. "Would you live for me?"

I said, "I don't know."

Gabrielle held me close. I dripped tears on her shoulder for a little while."What of Velaska? What am I to do?" I asked when the tears stopped.

"Nothing. That's not your problem. And its not really mine either." She sighed. "I'm just helping out."

"This is kind of convoluted isn't it?"

"Brigid, I'm a bard. I thrive on this stuff."

I looked at her face and then I started to giggle a bit helplessly. "Shit."

She nodded her head and started giggling too.

***

Gabrielle and I stepped back into the woods. She said, "I have something to show you."

I said, "what?"

She was holding a mirror. "Look in here." I looked.

"Say 'Bernice"

I looked at her and shrugged and looked in the mirror.

"Bernice."

Suddenly I was. It was a shock. I had kind of gotten used to myself looking the other way. I shook my head to clear my focus. I was the same as when I arrived, with a few differences. I was sunburned. I was a little thinner. I lacked the markings. My eyes were the same mud brown they used to be. My hair was the same color as my eyes. My teeth were a wee bit crooked. I felt very odd.

Gabrielle came and stood behind me. The mirror stayed in position. She stroked my back in a comforting way. "This is you as Bernice. I told you she wasn't gone." I nodded dumbly. "You are still Brigid. You have your gifts even in this shape, they are just muted." Her hand stopped moving. "Now say Brigid."

I hurried my mouth. "Brigid."

I saw the face I was now familiar with and felt extremely comforted.

Gabrielle turned me around to look at her. "Brigid. You and I are going to kiss, and you will forget. You will forget who you are, so that when Joni sees you, she will see and feel only Bernie. When you get home, are alone and see yourself in the mirror, you will automatically say, 'Brigid.' From then on, you can go back and forth as you will. Only when you are around Joni, please remember to stay Bernie, eh." I nodded.

Then she kissed me.

***

The whole camping thing had been a miserable experience for me. I and a group of seven others came clanging down the hill (Our backpacks were making some noise because of the pots that kept banging back and forth.) I did feel kind of proud of myself. I had survived. That Xena person was one tough taskmaster though. I didn't even get to keep the fruit bar I had bought at the store. Instead, we had to fish or forage.

I was so glad to be back at house eight. I straggled into the front room and waved at Joni and company. "Hi. I'm back." I said weakly.

Joni leapt off the couch, ran to me and gave me a fierce hug. "Its about time. I thought you'd died out there."

I said, "Well Joni, I tell you, I nearly did." I struggled the backpack off. "All those bugs and things." I shuddered. Then I grinned. "But I made it!"

Joni grinned back, "I'm so proud." I felt a burst of something in my chest.

It was good to be back.

***

The trip home was uneventful. Joni and I took some last minute photos of the camp, the camp people, the town, and a librarian who insisted on taking a photo with me and her standing in front of an antique shop. I actually participated in the conversation on the way back to the airport. I had more stuff in my backpack than when I started. You know, craft kinds of things and a few postcards from "Elysian Fields: A Camping Paradise." I could say a few choice words about that, but I won't.

One odd thing. I remember saying goodbye to the camp boss Gabrielle and her mate, Xena. Gabrielle gave me -such- a hug. I thought she would never let go. Xena shook my hand and said that I had done good. Then she hugged me too. It was the last thing I expected and I know I looked at them funny. But it felt nice.

Joni drove me home from the airport (we had parked in the "long term" parking zone and split the cost. It made sense to carpool). I gave her a hug goodbye and told her I would see her in class. Then I gathered my stuff, took out my keys and entered my home. It was so good to be back. I checked the answering machine. There were a few phone calls from my mom. So I called her back and let her know I was safe and sound and yes it was a good trip and I would tell her all about it. Yes we had some photos. I would see her next weekend. Loveyoutoo. . .I sat on the couch for a bit, turned on the tv and flipped channels. Anything was better than the nothing I had seen.

I rested a bit. Then I realized that I really needed to go to the bathroom.

I picked up something to read and got ready for some down time. Brrrr. The seat was cold. I read a bit, got done and went to wash my hand at the sink. When I looked at myself in the mirror I said, "Hello Brigid."

***

Disclaimers: No real Veronicas were harmed or maligned in this story.

Seasons of the Gods

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