Nicole is in California for etiquette classes. She finds she's getting more education than she expected.
Amazon - Part 5: CHARM SCHOOL
Edited by Amelia R
Biographer's Note: This is Nicole's story. It covers those events and people she finds notable in her life and chooses to share. If you have problems with it, take it up with her. I'm just a glorified stenographer.
Friday, January 5, 2001
WGSS Main Office
Nicole spent the remainder of the afternoon with the returned team after being introduced by her boss, David Stirling. She had learned something of their life in the field as the five recounted incidents, some humorous, of their latest expedition. She quickly observed that this group, at least, was tight-knit, various members responding automatically as questions in their sphere of expertise arose.
"How did you handle being there?" Nicole had asked. "How did you deal with having to just stand by and watch what was happening to those people?"
Ted answered for them all. "For the most part, we didn't see anything while it was happening. The militias left us alone and ran when we came into an area. We helped when we could with the medical supplies we had on hand." He sighed as he finished. "There's only so much you can do when the government is such a big part of the problem."
She'd finally wrapped up her day, or so she'd thought, when she returned to her desk to collect her coat and purse to return to her apartment. ~I guess I can call it home. It's all I have at the moment.~ A note was on her desk:
Please stop by my office before you leave.
Nicole, carrying her coat, purse, and briefcase, made her way to Amelia's office and found her there with a black computer case on the desk. The redhead knocked at the doorframe. "Amelia? You wanted me to stop by?"
"Yes, I did! I didn't have time to do this earlier, and I know you're due in California on Monday, so I wanted to make sure you had your company laptop so you can keep up with your e-mail and the like while you're on the road."
Nicole grinned as she replied, "You just saved me a stop during my shopping trip tomorrow. I noticed a CompUSA down the road and was going to do some shopping."
Amelia opened the case to display an IBM Thinkpad within, along with the combination modem and Ethernet card, cables, power adapter, manuals, a flash drive, and external mouse. "This is our standard field system. It's running Windows 2000 and the Professional Office package. We add anti-virus and firewall software as well. Are you familiar with the OS and Office?"
Nicole nodded. "I've used both Win2K and Office before. Since you use flash drives, I assume I have admin privileges so I can mount it?"
Amelia smiled. "That's right. It also has a CD writer so you can back up your work. You have full ability to completely trash the system. The restore disk is in the inside pocket of the carrying case if that happens. Now, if you want to set it up, we'll get you logging in and learning your passwords."
Within half an hour, Nicole was repacking the system in the case. She had the VPN software set up, her logins were working, access to the network drives was verified, web access through the company proxy worked, and her e-mail client was set up. "Thanks, Amelia. I appreciate your providing this system and helping me get it all set up."
Amelia looked amused. "I don't know why you're thanking me. I don't recall the last time I just stood around and watched like this. When you get back from your outside classes, I'm going to draft you for my department!"
"You'll have to take that up with David." Nicole chuckled. "Just keep in mind I'll only be here for about a month before I'm gone again."
The blonde grinned. "That won't save you. I'll take whatever time I can get. Besides, I'm not above using my cooking for bribery."
Nicole chuckled. "The cooking is tempting, but you'll still need to convince my boss. And," the tall redhead said as she closed the last zipper on the case, "I guess that's it. Is there anything else before I head out?"
"Nope! We're all done here. Have a safe trip, Nicole, and I'll see you when you get back!" She extended her hand to the other woman.
Nicole shook the offered hand. "Thanks, Amelia. Bye!"
The door to the apartment closed with a solid 'thump' as Nicole lugged her load inside. She left everything on the dinner table while hanging up her coat. ~I really need to consolidate here. Carrying all this through the airport is going to be a *pain*.~ She quickly unpacked the briefcase and examined the contents. ~Most of this paperwork can just stay here, but I'll need to add a fireproof lockbox to my shopping for tomorrow." She pulled a piece of paper from her purse and made a note. ~It looks like there's room in the computer case for the few items I really need from the briefcase. Hmmmm.~ She reorganized the computer peripherals to make room, then packed the remaining business items in the case. A small number of business cards made their way into her wallet.
Satisfied with the re-packing, she took the now-empty briefcase into her bedroom and stored it in a corner of the closet.
She looked again around the room -- her room. The furniture looked to be all wood, but a clean-lined style that reminded her of a motel room. ~It isn't my first choice for style, but at least it isn't that cold metal stuff.~ The queen-size bed, dresser, night-stand, and armoire were all solid, if not fancy. She returned to the living area. ~Time for some dinner and relaxation. I at least need to do a little shopping tomorrow.~ A thought rose abruptly. ~Oops! Almost forgot!~ "Michael? Do you have a minute, please?"
"Yes, Nicole?" Her guardian angel and mentor appeared near the door and walked toward her.
"Hi Michael. I had a talk with David Stirling today, and he was unhappy, as he called it, with how I was brought into the company. I didn't tell him much, but did say his training was crucial to my long-term survival. I said he should call you, tell you what I said, and ask for more information."
Michael winced. "I'm sorry you were in the line-of-fire, child."
She chuckled. "Daddy, that's not the first time *or* the worst time. I want him to train me, but I need him to trust me enough to do everything I'll need. I didn't know how much it was safe to tell him; I didn't think he'd believe the real story."
The man nodded. "I'll think about it and talk to him next week. You did well, daughter. Are you ready for your trip?"
"Pretty much. I need to pick up some luggage and a fireproof lockbox for the important papers, but I think I'm set for everything else."
"Can I do anything else for you?"
"Nope, just a hug and I'm good-to-go. Or you are. Or something like that." She grinned.
Michael reached out and hugged the young woman. "You have a good trip, and you be careful."
"I will." She returned the hug and watched as he walked toward the door and disappeared.
Sunday, January 7, 2001
Doubletree Guest Suites, Doheny Beach
Dana Point, CA
Nicole pushed the door open with her shoulder, awkwardly wheeling the larger of her two suitcases into place to hold it open. The second suitcase squeaked as she pulled it into the room and was left by the bed that soon held the hanging bag, computer case, and her purse. Another moment and the door thumped shut as the last suitcase was pulled into the room.
~I *hate* LAX!~ She groaned as she left the last bag sitting on the floor where it was. She sat down and slipped out of her shoes, reveling in the feeling of bare feet as she rubbed them to soothe the slight ache from the long day of walking around airports; it seemed to take more of a toll on her than she was accustomed to. Looking around, she grimaced. ~This stuff won't hang itself up.~ She stood again and began to unpack for the long stay.
~After this, I'd best make my run by the seminar site, so I know where it is from here, and also check out where I can eat. Who knows? Maybe I'll be able to walk tomorrow, weather permitting.~ She had to admit, though, that the Grand Prix was a fun car to drive. Maybe walking wasn't such a good idea -- it might rain, after all. She smiled to herself as she unpacked. ~I might as well indulge a bit while I can.~
Monday, January 8, 2001
A bleary eye gazed venomously at the source of the noise.
It had been hard to sleep with the noise at the apartment after the quiet of the cabin. The motel was even worse. Her keen hearing had picked up new arrivals all night, as she was startled into alertness by doors closing in the corridor or the voices of new arrivals walking near her door.
Tempting as it was to hammer the clock into pieces and go back to sleep, she groped for the off switch and sat up.
She still rose early, as the habits of even a few weeks were ingrained. She might not have horses to care for, but she needed to keep up her conditioning, and perhaps it would help her wake up. Nicole stood, stretched, and made her reluctant way to the bathroom. She dressed in a sports-bra and sweats before making her way to the fitness room. Scanning around, she saw a couple of decent Nautilus machines and several treadmills. A five-minute warm-up and she began working her way up the weight settings on the Nautilus.
An hour and a half later, having topped out on the weight settings and then using a short 45 minute run at 10 miles-per-hour to get her heart rate up a little, she returned to her suite for a shower. It was time to dress for the outside world and to eat before classes started. She wanted to make good use of the business outfits purchased that first day after she changed. A bolt of pain accompanied the memory of that shopping trip with, and her recent betrayal by, Artemis. She shook off the memory; one day there might be reconciliation, but not until Artemis decided to change her outlook. Nicole flipped through each of her outfits and evaluated the impression they would make. The weather here was warm enough to use anything in her closet, but rain might be a pain even with the umbrella that sat by the door.
She stopped just outside the door and checked her watch. ~Great! I'm here fifteen minutes early. That's plenty of time for me to get in and settled before class.~ She walked up and entered the building.
A receptionist pointed her to the room where the weeklong Business and Social Etiquette seminar was to be held. Perhaps a dozen people were already in the rectangular room. A projection screen was to the right of the doorway, and a ceiling mounted projector to the left; a computer to run the presentation sat in the far left corner of the room. A lectern stood alone in the far right corner, next to the screen. Light gray walls surrounded the wood-looking table, which looked about half full and held small placards with names printed on them.
Looking at the people in the room, Nicole's first thought was relief. She had chosen a comfortable, medium-blue pants suit and light blue blouse; it being the closest thing to typical office wear she had. Her hair was restrained by a barrette and trailed down between her shoulders. The black, low-heeled shoes completed the echo of the blue-suited executive. She had deliberately avoided much makeup; she'd get a feel for dress conventions and then decide where to go on that. The dress of the others in the room varied a bit -- this was California after all -- but so far most were also in office wear.
She located an empty seat with her name on a folded card and a stack of handouts on the table. She sat down and started flipping quickly through the stack. Her thoughts were derailed by a cheerful voice as someone sat in the next chair.
"Hi! My name's Kate, Kate Tanner."
Nicole turned her head to look at the newcomer and extended her hand in greeting. Kate was not terribly tall, perhaps a head shorter than herself, with shoulder-length, dark brown hair and medium green eyes. She had an open and friendly feel about her.
"Hi, I'm Nicole Harrison." There was an odd... tickle? ... in the back of Nicole's head as the brunette sat next to her. That feeling was followed by another, much lower in her body, as the attractive brunette stirred physical responses of a more easily recognized sort. Nicole fought the latter reaction as she looked at the girl. ~Woman, you dummy! She's the same age you look!~ she thought to herself as she picked up the conversation again. "Glad to meet you. Are you from this area?"
Kate nodded as she replied, "Yeah, I grew up in West Hollywood and went to school at UCLA. The company that hired me sends all their new people to this seminar and the one on dining decorum. You?" She absently rubbed the back of her head.
"No, I'm from out of state; I graduated from Syracuse. I work for Wing Ground Sensor Systems near DC; they seem to think I have management potential, and I'll also be doing some field work, so I'm here for this seminar, the one on dining decorum, plus the next week that covers international etiquette."
"Cool! Ever been here before? I'm staying at the Holiday Inn, since it's too far to commute home."
Nicole's brain flashed through trips Tom had made over the years, but decided to avoid the possible problems of mentioning them. Besides, this *was* her first trip as Nicole. "Nope, this is my first trip. I'm in the Doubletree for the three seminars this place hosts, away for a week in London for another seminar, and then, if you can believe it, back to LA for dance lessons!"
"We do a lot of business in the US and Europe, so they say I need to be ready to handle upper-crust social situations."
"Ewwwww!" A look of distaste at the thought appeared on Kate's face.
Nicole shrugged. "It's just part of the job. I hope it'll wind up being more fun than squished toes. Maybe I should invest in steel-toed shoes?" She snickered.
Her companion giggled. Her response was cut off as the instructor showed up and the seminar began.
The seminar took a break at 10:30 to allow attendees to stretch their legs and take a coffee break. Nicole noticed that the 'tickle' faded when Kate left the room, then returned when she did. ~How odd. I wonder what's up?~
Kate looked puzzled when she returned, but waited until Nicole returned from her bathroom break.
"Nicole, would you like to grab lunch with me?"
"Sure, my treat today?"
The morning flashed by, as information poured out of the instructor on "how to make an entrance and work a room" and "networking and first-meeting strategies." Nicole's handouts were extensively marked up with highlights and elaborations.
Nicole and Kate found a small restaurant near the seminar site, sitting indoors as the breeze off the ocean was cool. Both took advantage of a seafood salad, and they munched quietly for a time.
"So, Kate, who is it you work for?"
"I work for an electronics firm called Interstate Electronics in our Anaheim office." She dug into her purse. "I think I have a business card here somewhere...."
Nicole smiled as she pulled her wallet out, extracting a business card from one of the credit card positions. "Here's my card, Kate. Someone suggested I store a small number of business cards like this," Nicole showed her wallet to her companion, "so I'd be able to find one quickly." She didn't mention that it was Tom's mentor when he started his career in the 60's.
Kate finally unearthed a card from her purse, a bit the worse for wear, and handed it across the table. More cards followed and found their way into a niche in her wallet before it was returned to her purse and the conversation continued. "Nicole, have you noticed any odd headaches this morning? Every time I've walked close to you, I've had this odd feeling in the back of my head," Kate said.
"Not a headache, but a tickle. Is that more like it?" Nicole responded.
"Exactly! Have you ever felt anything like that before?"
"No, I haven't. I can ask someone who might know about things like that." She thought to herself that Michael might be waiting for her when she got to the motel for that matter.
"That feeling really is weirding me out! Do you think something's wrong?" Kate was looking a bit worried.
"Not a chance. I recently had a complete, detailed physical. I think they even checked my hair for split-ends. Absolutely everything is clean, so it can't be a physical problem. We may be nuts, but we're healthy nuts."
"Great, that makes me feel *ever* so much better. Not."
"Kate, I don't really know what's happening either. I do have people I trust to tell me about things that I should worry about. I promise to check tonight and let you know tomorrow if they have anything. I have no idea what it might be. I will warn you my life has been severely weird of late."
"OK, I guess. If you hear anything, I want to find out then; got it? This is totally freaking me out!"
"I get that; I don't like weird things happening in my head either." She checked her watch. "It's time to get back."
Nicole paid the bill and joined Kate for the short walk back to the seminar.
Nicole finally got back to her room after the seminar, but only after promising Kate she'd meet up for dinner at 6. ~Maybe I can get an answer to our questions before dinner.~ "*MICHAEL?!*" She raised her voice a bit, trying to make sure he knew it was for him.
"What's up, Nicole?" A familiar voice came from right behind her, causing her to start and spin around.
"Cut that out!" she said, glaring and slapping gently at the grinning angel. The glare faltered and changed to an answering smile, then a half-frown. "I had a weird thing happen today. I hollered to see if you could help figure out what's going on."
"OK, I will if I can. Tell me about it."
She quickly outlined the events of the day leading to her call for help. "So I promised to find out what I could."
Michael nodded. "It's simple. That 'tickle' is a recognition signal telling you that a potential Amazon is near. She gets the same signal that the Queen is near. It will keep happening until the potential recruit either accepts or refuses the call. Each Amazon is also sensitive to potential recruits, but you will have the final say in extending the call."
"And it didn't occur to anyone to TELL *ME* about this?" The glare returned.
He shrugged. "It wasn't supposed to happen like this. You were supposed to have Artemis to help you adjust to being a woman. Since you and she aren't able to work together on that, you are being provided with someone else instead."
"Great. 'Hi, Kate! I found out that you're a potential Amazon and that tickle in your head is telling you I'm your Queen. Just ignore all that Greek mythology. Oh, and by the way you're selected to help me learn how to be a woman since I was a man two months ago.' Yeah! Uh-huh! That'll really work, I'm sure!"
"You were going to have to face this at some point."
"I know that! I thought I'd have time to learn a little about what I'm doing first! What do I *do*?"
"If I may make a suggestion, just telling her the truth might work out better than you expect."
She gaped at him. "Just tell her the truth?" He nodded. "All of it?"
He shrugged. "Perhaps not all at once. You do need to fill her in as quickly as you can. You need the help she can give rather badly."
"Just when I thought my life wouldn't get much weirder for a while." She sighed heavily.
"If you need to talk later, I'll be listening. It's time for you to get ready for dinner."
She smiled uncertainly. "And it's probably best to settle this sooner rather than later, right?"
Michael just smiled in return.
"Right. Put in a word for me with your boss and make sure He has a line open for me. I'll need help to get this across without sending Kate screaming from the room. Oh, and can you drop off a couple of feet of 3/4" rebar? I want something to get Kate's attention and a demonstration might help."
"Of course, and I'll be here anytime you need me, daughter."
"Thanks, Daddy. Now scoot so I can change."
Holiday Inn Express
"So, Kate, where do we go?" The brunette and redhead stood outside the motel looking at the signs up and down the road.
Kate shrugged her shoulders. "Dunno. Mexican?"
"Sounds good, there's that place that way we can walk to," she said, pointing south. Kate nodded as the two walked along the highway toward the restaurant.
"By the way, Nicole, have you found anything out yet?" There was no immediate reply from her companion. The hesitation unnerved Kate. They walked in silence for a moment before Kate tried again. "Nicole? You're scaring me here. Is it that bad?"
"I'm sorry Kate, I was just thinking. It's not bad; you're not sick, or anything like it. The whole thing will break your weird-meter though. It might be best to hold off the explanation until after we eat -- and no alcoholic drinks; you might want one later, but you need to be sure of what you hear."
"OK. I'll stay right here at a nice, comfortable scared. Water with dinner, check."
Dinner had little, if any, small talk. Both women sat quietly, preoccupied with their thoughts. One woman was stressing over the unknowns of that sensation in her head, the other trying desperately to imagine a believable way to explain the unbelievable.
Outside, the two stood trying to decide how to proceed. Nicole spoke up, "Why don't we go back to my suite, Kate? It's quiet, and I'll explain what I know."
"That's the best deal I'll get, right?"
"Probably; it's the best I can do right now." Nicole had an apologetic look on her face.
Kate took a deep breath. "OK, let's go."
The brunette was subdued as she sat on the couch. She waited as Nicole found a seat after coming out of the bedroom and propping an arm-length piece of 3/4" rebar next to the chair. She also held a white rod in her hand.
"So -- I can't really put this off anymore," began the redhead. "I talked to that person I mentioned who would know what that sensation is all about. He explained it and left how to explain it to you in my hands." She paused for a moment. "As I said, it isn't at all dangerous. You aren't sick or anything. It *is* kind of a problem for me, though, since I hadn't expected find someone like you yet."
"Like me?" Kate tilted her head and raised an eyebrow in question.
Nicole nodded. "Buckle your seatbelt, because here it starts getting really tough to believe. All I ask is that you hear me out to the end.
"Let me start with some basics. What do you know about Greek mythology -- specifically the Amazons?"
Kate looked puzzled. "I took a Greek history course as an elective, but I don't know much. They were a tribe of warrior women in what's now Turkey. They died out about three-hundred B.C.E. as far as I know, at least based on the stories surrounding Alexander the Great."
Nicole nodded, unsurprised. "Ignore most of the Greek mythology you know regarding the Amazons; it's almost all wrong. They existed about 4000 years ago, centered north of the Black Sea. They were betrayed and overrun by the Hittites; every last clan was hunted down, isolated, and destroyed. About seven weeks ago, I was going home from a business trip when I literally tripped over this, the Amazon Royal Scepter." She held up the white rod in her hand and then handed it to Kate. "A week later I had visitors who said I had been chosen to restart something that hasn't existed for 3500 years -- the Amazon Nation."
Kate's expression was, to be nice, skeptical; she examined the rod, and, after handing it back, snorted in derision.
Nicole ignored the response, other than curving her lips into a slight smile, and continued. "That 'tickle' you felt was how a potential Amazon can identify me as the leader, the Queen if you like. I get the same sensation to tell me a potential Amazon is around. I didn't select you; that decision was made by others." She shrugged. "It is still your choice; you can say no, or you can say yes. Either way, once you decide, the sensation will stop." She paused for a moment. "Kate, you're a person I know I can grow to like. Even if you say you don't want to become an Amazon, I hope you'll consider becoming a friend."
"You're nuts, you realize." Kate, wide-eyed, started looking for exits from the room. She wished she'd taken the chair closer to the door.
Nicole sighed; she had expected this reaction. "OK. Don't go running away screaming just yet. How about a demonstration?" She stood and moved toward the door. "Pick up the rebar and try to bend it."
"Huh?" Kate looked blankly at the other woman. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Please. I need you to convince yourself that rebar is real."
Kate kept her eyes on the lunatic redhead as she picked up the heavy steel bar. She tried, but couldn't even make the thing flex. "OK. So what?"
"Are you satisfied it's real? Do you think anyone could bend that with their bare hands?"
Kate barked out a laugh. "Even Ahhhnold couldn't bend that puppy."
"OK. Just put it down and move off to what you feel is a safe distance." Kate did so, returning to her seat on the couch. It was frustrating that Nicole carefully kept between her and the door.
Nicole walked over and picked up the rod. "Real steel and almost an inch thick, right?" Kate nodded. "Watch."
Kate's eyes started and her jaw dropped as the other woman, seemingly without effort, promptly turned it into a hoop.
"Here." Nicole handed the bent bar to her shocked companion. "Try to unbend it. Still the same bar, right?"
Kate gave the ends of the rod a strong tug. She was unable to budge the bent steel. "It seems to be the same, unless it's all a magic trick."
Nicole retrieved the steel circle. Again, seemingly without trying, the bar bent easily and was returned to a slightly warped version of the original.
Kate just stared for a moment at the rebar, then looked in fear at the redhead. "This can't be real. You can't be human. What ARE you?"
Nicole moved back, placed the rebar next to her chair again, and folded her arms under her breasts. "As I told you, I'm the first Queen of the new Amazons. I'm a stronger, faster version of all the rest that will come later. It's my job to learn what I must, and find the women and men I need to rebuild the Nation from scratch. You are the first person I've found who has been selected, if you choose to say yes, to help me in my task. I'm not here to hurt you in any way; I need you and your help."
"I must be hallucinating, or dreaming." Kate sat, shaking her head in disbelief.
"Why do you think I suggested you stick to water?" Nicole put the rod down before walking to Kate. She knelt down before the young woman. "Kate, I know this is unbelievable. The person I spoke with, who told me what that 'tickle' was, said you deserve the whole truth up-front; I agree with that. I can't build the kind of relationships I need if I don't tell the truth." She waited a moment for some reaction. "Can I get you some ice water?"
"Sure," came the absent reply. Nicole was grateful she was responding at all.
Kate struggled to process the revelation. ~This normal looking woman says she's an Amazon, and she's stronger than an Olympic weightlifter.~. Kate shook her head to clear it as Nicole returned and gave her the ice water. The oddest part of this was that, weird as it all sounded, something deep inside told her it was all true and real and right. Her heart told her this was to be part of her life. It made no sense at all. "So let me get this straight -- you got drafted into restarting the Amazons, and you picked me to help."
Nicole returned to her seat with another glass of ice water. "Not quite. I was picked, but had a choice to say no; I said yes. Remember that I didn't pick you, either. That came from a much higher authority." Nicole pointed up. "God chose you because you are the best person to help me. It's still a choice, not a draft. You can say no, and no one will force you, or think less of you, either way." She paused for a sip of water.
"There is one thing that you must promise me, no matter what you decide. You *must* keep this secret until I say otherwise. There are people who are looking for me and will kill me if I'm found."
The brunette paled. "Who? Why?"
"I don't know who, yet. The same groups are still around that destroyed the Amazons last time. They'd be happy to stop me now, before I can get started."
Kate's mind whirled as she strove to cope with the magnitude of what she'd heard. "I... I need some time to think about this."
"I understand, Kate. Take all the time you need; there's no hurry or time limit. Just think it through carefully and ask any questions you want. I'll answer anything as best I can. You have my cell number on the card I gave you earlier. I'll leave my phone on. Call me any time with any questions." She paused before continuing. "Kate, do you have any religious affiliation?"
The brunette nodded absently.
"This is a good time to pray for guidance. This is a lot to think about and you need all the help you can get. If it helps, I'll be praying for you, too."
"I need to leave now. I'll see you tomorrow." The thoroughly rattled brunette departed hurriedly, leaving Nicole to ponder whether she had a future anymore.
"Michael, I hope I didn't blow it," she said to herself as she closed and locked the door.
An arm draped itself over her shoulders. "You did fine. She needs time, just as you did."
"What happens if she says 'Yes'?"
"Then we need to have Artemis come and welcome her into the Nation. I know it won't be comfortable for you, but it must be that way."
"That's only right. She's waited so long for this, there's no way we can keep her out of it. It's the only way she'll ever really heal, I think. I can't let my problem with her poison the relationships she can have with the new Amazons." She looked up at Michael. "How's she doing? Has anything changed at all?"
The angel hesitated. "Things haven't changed much since you left. She's worried that she has ruined any chance for the Amazons to succeed by estranging you, rather than thinking about how she wronged you."
Nicole shook her head. "Michael, you know my heart. I don't hate her; I'm just terribly hurt and angry. But no matter how hurt I am, I can't let that ruin the chances for the Amazons to be reborn." She paused. "Let her know that I'm hurt because I want to love her and have her love in return. Any time, any place -- if she thinks we can reconcile, I want to fix this, but she has to get to the point where she accepts me for who I *AM* not who I was. And could you ask her to come by for a minute? If Kate says yes, I want to have something straight with Artemis."
"I'll make sure she knows," he replied and left.
Only moments passed, and then a black-haired, dusky woman appeared. "What do you want, Harrison?" She waited for a response, wondering why Nicole had voluntarily asked for her presence.
Nicole began, "We need to get something settled before you have to welcome our first new Amazon." Artemis' face flashed from uncertainty, to hope, to worry. "First, I want to apologize for my words when I came back from my camping trip. What you said hurt, more than anything in my life, but my reaction still wasn't justified. Please forgive me, and I'd be pleased if you felt comfortable calling me 'Nicole' again."
Artemis looked startled. She had considered many possibilities, but this was nowhere on her list. "Of course you have my forgiveness, as if it is needed. And right now I appreciate your permission to call you by your given name." A small smile appeared on her lips.
Nicole nodded. "I'm sure you know I met a potential Amazon today. If she says yes, I don't want problems between the two of us to taint her attitude toward you. I want the Amazons to respect you as they should."
The goddess had the grace to appear embarrassed. "Thank you. I understand, though, you and I still have a long way to go."
The Queen nodded. "We have time. This situation with Kate can't wait. May I call on you as I do Michael if I need to?"
"Of course. Do you think she'll say yes?"
"I really hope so. It would be nice not being all alone."
Artemis barely winced, still seeing echoes of the damage so thoughtlessly inflicted. "I'll be back if you need me. Anything else?"
"No. Just say 'Hi!' to Elizabeth for me? I miss her, too."
"I'll do that, and throw in a carrot from you. She keeps looking for you."
"Thank you." The tension was thick as Nicole struggled to reign in her instinct to lash out. "That's all I had to say."
The goddess nodded, but paused before she left. "Nicole? I know you don't have any reason to trust me right now, but please be careful. You're learning your new role in life, and it's very different from the life you used to live. This is your first foray out into the world; give yourself time to ease into who and what you are now." She disappeared. The bridge wasn't ready to rebuild, but perhaps the riverbed was ready to be reshaped after the nuking.
Tuesday, January 9, 2001
Doubletree Fitness Room
Nicole was just completing the last rep on the weight machine when he came in. He looked to be medium height, perhaps even as tall as she was, with blond hair and ice-blue eyes. She nodded in greeting as she got off the weight machine, reset the weight to its lowest setting, and set up the treadmill for her morning run.
Keith watched with interest as the redhead finished with the weight machine and started her run. He watched her lithe form with appreciation as she moved. ~I may just have to start a little earlier tomorrow.~ That thought left a smile on his face as he set the weight machine up.
Nicole glanced at the young man as he set up for his workout, noting the smile appearing as he looked at her. Her mind noted the attention with distaste. ~What kind of person does he think I am?~ At the same time her body decided it wanted more of the attention, and the slight friction between her legs as she ran only aggravated the mental distress she felt. ~What's wrong with me?~
Nicole wrenched her mind from her internal war and focused on the TV.
Nicole walked into the room a bit tired after the run and still feeling the 'runner's high,' but there was still that unfamiliar sensation as well. She stripped off her clothing and headed for the shower; the exercise left her feeling good, but the sweat and odor she could do without.
She stepped into the warm spray, enjoying the feel as it began cleansing the sweat. She turned and almost started as the water hit her breasts -- the impact of the spray on her nipples reinforced the sensations she'd felt earlier. She moved her left hand up to stroke one breast and groaned as the touch set off a pleasant tension throughout her body and warmth grew between her legs. The other hand stroked her front as it joined in the delightful stimulation of her hardening nipples. She felt the stiffening and crinkling as her arousal grew. All new, and all so different from anything she'd known as a man. Images of the man in the fitness room, then Kate, flashed through her mind as she continued her self-stimulation -- the incongruity utterly lost in the feelings coursing through her body. New levels of excitement opened as her right hand trailed slowly back down her stomach to gently cup herself and begin the invasion of the moist, textured velvet of her new sex. She brushed a spot at the top of her cleft and the world blinked out abruptly....
The water continued to sting her sensitive skin as she recovered enough to realize she was collapsed against the side of the shower stall. The abrupt explosion of orgasm had come, and she only vaguely recalled her knees buckling and her loud moan as she was swept from consciousness momentarily. Rarely had Tom experienced anything comparable, though there had been times in his youth when he and Beth had one of those perfect moments -- an utter joining of body and soul that even this didn't touch. They were rare even in those younger days. She just stayed there for a time, relishing the afterglow.
Slowly she recovered and stood carefully, and unsteadily, to continue her shower. It was terribly tempting to indulge again in that new marvel she'd found. Now, however, it was time to get back to business and get ready for the day; perhaps she'd indulge tonight, or in the morning... or both.
Kate walked in looking like the morning after the night before.
"Morning, Kate." Nicole looked sympathetically at the young woman as she sat, clutching a Starbucks cup. It was large and the contents were strong enough to give anyone within 3 feet a caffeine boost.
"Morning." The brunette drank from her cup, trying desperately to substitute caffeine for sleep. Her eyes had bags under them, poorly concealed by makeup. She hadn't tried to use anything else other than a touch of lipstick. Even her hair looked a bit bedraggled and weary.
"Do you want to join me for lunch today?" Nicole could feel the fatigue of the youngster. She'd try to keep questions to a simple, easy-to-answer level. A real conversation was not going to happen.
"Fine." She took another gulp of the potent drink.
Nicole gently shook her head. It could be a lot worse.
Kate was functional enough to follow, but little else. The caffeine had allowed her to take notes as she sat quietly through the morning presentation. Nicole took her to a nearby restaurant, the "Brio Tuscany Grille," and they sat in a fairly secluded booth. "Kate? Are you OK?"
"No. I'm not. I hardly slept last night, and no matter how hard I try, I can't convince myself you're lying... or insane." Head held in her hands, a brief shake of the head was her only movement.
"I'm not lying or insane, and you aren't insane either." She reached out a hand to her companion's shoulder in comfort. "It's hard, I know, to find out that something so weird is real. That's why I told you there's no need to hurry. There's all this week and next before you're done, and I'll be here the following week, too."
"I... can't make a decision yet, but I don't want to drag it out either. Can we grab something quick to eat tonight? I want to just sit and talk for a while."
"Of course, Kate. I told you before, I'll answer any questions I have the answers for, and do my best to find any answers I don't have."
"Great." She looked dazed as she scanned the menu. "Is there a salad dressing with caffeine?"
Nicole gave Kate a ride to a nearby sub shop, then drove them back to her motel. Kate nibbled at her food, too tired to be really hungry.
"So, Kate, you had a question?" Nicole tried to kick-start the conversation.
"I was awake almost all night with questions racing though my head. Now I can hardly think of any; my head feels as if it's full of cotton. I guess I want to start simple: What ARE the Amazons? What do they do?"
"It seems we have an enemy left from the time of the first Amazons, and we'll have to be ready to fight them. The Amazons will be warriors; we will fight to protect ourselves, our sister Amazons, or others too weak to help themselves. We will also be a matriarchy, with all command positions filled by women. That part the Greeks got right. As far as I understand it all, there is an ancient group that the Amazons are uniquely suited to combat. My task is to rebuild in such a way that we win the war this time. While we're doing that, I hope we'll be able to use the unique strengths of our women and men to build a society that will be more just and balanced than any other -- a model for the rest of the world."
"Why me? What am I supposed to do? I don't have any military skills. I'm just out of college. And I don't know anything about sociology, either."
Nicole chuckled. "Answering your questions in order: I don't know, I haven't figured out that for myself either; I'd say you'll do something you like to do, something that uses your strengths and skills -- that you have an aptitude for; and the implied third question, that's OK since I don't either -- at least not yet."
"Which question 'Huh?'"
"You're supposed to be the head of a nation and military organization and know nothing about either?"
"Ignorance is curable. God willing, one day we'll not have to focus so much on fighting, but for now we seem to be called to stand up against something no one else can deal with." Nicole shrugged. "In March, I'll be heading off to Marine boot-camp at Parris Island. By the time I'm done in the Marines, I should be less ignorant."
"Marines? Why the Marines?" Kate was waking up enough to process a bit more of what was being said.
"We aren't -- won't be -- a nation state like the U.S. or Canada; we're going to be more like the Native American tribes that exist within the boundaries of another country. The Amazons will be a ground force, strictly light infantry; that eliminates the Air Force and Navy. The Army is geared toward big formations with lots of logistics support. The Marines are accustomed to operating in smaller, self-contained formations. That's closer to the Amazon model I'm shooting for. At some point I hope to get into their Force Recon training program, which is the Marine version of Special Forces. It's the best I can do in the States."
"So what do I do? Am I supposed to sign up?"
"No. At least I don't think so, not yet. If you say yes, I want you to keep going as you are. I'll need someone to run the financial side of the nation; if you like doing that, it's better to keep you at work you are good at and enjoy. At some point you'll need training, but not immediately."
Kate nodded. So far things sounded odd, but OK. "What happens if I say yes?"
"If you accept, I'll call Artemis, the patron goddess of the Amazons, and she will empower you and make you an Amazon."
"Does that mean I have to worship her, or something? And how does this all work with being an American? I'm not happy about everything the U.S. does, but I don't want to go against it either."
"First, things have changed a lot since the time of the Greeks. Artemis now works for the Archangel Michael in Heaven's Armies, so you don't have to worship her, but she does deserve your respect as the head of the Nation. Also, remember I grew up in the States, too. I don't think we'll be working at cross purposes much."
Kate's eyes widened a bit as she asked, "And you're saying that all that stuff in the Bible...."
"There are misunderstandings and misinterpretations, but insofar as it's translated correctly it's true. There was a pastor I heard once who said, 'The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.' That is completely and unambiguously true. From what I've found recently, people have gotten into trouble when they try to make things plain that aren't intended to be plain."
"Wow!" Kate sat quietly for a few minutes as she considered the information. Nicole chewed on her meal, waiting for the next question. "So," Kate asked, "why did *you* say yes?"
Nicole paused for a minute to swallow and take a sip of her drink. "I was, and am, a Christian. You recall I showed you the rod?" Kate nodded. "That is the Queen's Scepter of the Amazons, and it appeared, literally, under my foot. I had Artemis and Michael show up to tell me what it was and the choice I had to make." Nicole shrugged. "I had a call from God and had to decide to accept or not. What choice did I really have and still be true to my faith?"
Kate's eyes were wide. "You had an Archangel bring that call!?"
Nicole nodded. "And they both trained me between my accepting the call and yesterday. Just as advice, *DON'T* try to be evasive with an angel. They get really angry, and there aren't many scarier things in this world." She shuddered a bit at that memory.
Silence filled the room as the redhead finished her meal, and the brunette actually made progress eating as she contemplated her choice. Kate was tired, but was suddenly settled in her mind; a sense of peace filled her as she realized the choice was made.
"I think I know what I want to do, but I'd like to sleep on it if that's OK?" Kate broke the quiet.
"Kate, I told you there's no need to make a quick decision. If you need more than a day, or a week, that's OK too."
"Thank you; I really appreciate the lack of pressure. Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"There are other things I'd say to a sister Amazon, but unless you need more information for your decision, not really."
"OK. Oh! One more question. Ummmm. The Amazons were supposed to be all-women, all the time, and that's kind of squicky to me. Will I? we...." The blush started from the shoulders and worked up to her hairline.
Nicole giggled and shook her head, as another corner of her mind voiced disappointment. "No. I can't let men take direct part in running the Amazons, but it won't be an extended episode of 'Lesbian Warrior Women.' We'll have men as part of the nation. Keep in mind, though, I won't make an issue of behavior in private as long as it doesn't affect the safety or mission of the Amazons."
Kate sighed in relief, and then quietly finished her meal. A sense of peace and resolve came from somewhere and grew with time. Her decision was made; she knew it, but was determined to wait one more day. This was a BIG choice. ~One more day, just to be sure.~ She knew she'd sleep better tonight.
She said her goodnight to Nicole and left.
Nicole started to turn on the radio then stopped. "Michael?"
Her guardian angel and guide appeared in the room, in front of her this time. "Hello, daughter. You did very well today with Kate. What can I do for you?"
The redhead looked at him with a confused, almost fearful, look. "Michael, the last couple of days I've found myself responding to men *and* women. Physically, I mean. Sexually." As she spoke her face assumed a distinct red cast. "Just now there was a part of me that was sad that Kate was turned off by same-sex relationships."
Michael nodded. "Are you really surprised?"
Nicole hesitated. "I can't honestly say I really thought about it. Until I went through my change, I was a happily heterosexual man; now I'm female outside and attracted to both sexes -- I think. That just isn't right, is it? I mean everything I was brought up with said it wasn't."
"Have a seat, child. I'll try to help you work through it." Michael nodded at the couch, sitting next to the terribly confused woman as she took her seat. "Now, why do you think something is wrong?"
She looked at him as if he'd grown a second head. "I was raised thinking homosexuality is a problem and a sin. I know there are lots of people who think otherwise; I, well Tom, even worked with some people who were gay or lesbian, and they were marvelous to work with. They were, and still are I suppose, great folk I'm proud to have known. I just never expected to wonder which side of that street I lived on. God called me to do this work; I don't want to offend Him if I can help it."
The expression on the angel's face turned faintly sad. "I wish more people would at least think to ask your question. Let me see if I can help you work through this. First you need to answer the question, 'What is God?' What one word describes Him best?"
Nicole didn't answer for a few moments as she dug through her memory. "Love. In first John, chapter four, verse sixteen: 'God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.' It ties in with what Jesus said were the two greatest commands -- that we're to love God and love our neighbor."
"Your new memory helps, doesn't it?" He chuckled. "Now, do you agree that you and Beth lived in love, and that your relationship was *defined* by that love for each other?"
She bit her lip before answering; the hurt of the loss still fresh in her heart. "Michael, you don't even need me to answer that. You know the pain I still feel from that loss."
"I know, and I'm sorry. I wouldn't bring it up if it weren't important. Anyway, do you think God had a problem with that relationship of yours?"
She sighed. "There were times.... We wanted so much to have children. When we found we'd never be able to, we were heartbroken." Her breath hitched at a long buried memory. "We even tried adoption. All those doors seemed to slam in our faces...." Tears began as she recalled the shared pain from years ago. "Yes, Michael. At times we did feel God was angry with us and we didn't know *WHY*!" Raw pain flowed with the tears that fell freely down her cheeks.
Michael quickly pulled her close. "Nicole -- *Daughter* -- He was *never* angry with you. I know it still hurts, but he had a path for you and Beth that needed you to understand that hurt; how many couples did you two help over the years who dealt with the same thing? Remember, He *LOVES* you, and always has." He stood long enough to grab a tissue.
She sniffed back the tears, using the tissue to wipe her eyes. "So what does all this have to do with my confusion?"
"God has one standard for a relationship: Love. A 'straight' or gay relationship based on anything but both love and respect is a sin to Him. Anything else, anything *less* is a mockery of his creation.
"Adam and Eve were created to have that loving relationship as well as to procreate. The need to have children is not as crucial now, but the standard is still love and respect. There are couples of both sorts that are based on greed, or lust, or any number of things that make Him grieve. Whomever you choose to spend time with, even if it involves sex, if it is *love* and *respect* that motivates you, He will not be angry. Love can be misdirected, but it cannot be sin. Keep in mind I'm not talking about the current 'Hi! I love you!' attitude. The casual jump-in-the-sack cheapens what is meant to be a gift -- an outgrowth of an intimate sharing between two hearts."
"So you're saying I don't need to worry about it, as long as our hearts are in the right place?"
"Precisely; you *will* want to give yourself time to adjust to your new body and its reactions, so you can avoid problems. Your brain is literally wired differently now, and it will take time for you to learn just what that implies, not to mention that you can now get pregnant."
"But what about all those verses talking about how bad homosexual behavior is?"
"That's one of those cultural sidelines for the time. The Greeks had oriented themselves and their society to the point they abused women and viewed them as nothing more than brood mares."
Nicole finally returned Michael's embrace. "Thank you. I really needed this." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek as she said, "Love you, Daddy. Do you mind hanging around for a bit? It's comforting to have you around just now." She snuggled into his embrace as she pondered the information and what it implied for her life.
"Not at all," he replied.
Wednesday, January 10, 2001
Doubletree Fitness Room
He was already in the workout room when Nicole arrived. He was already on one of the Nautilus, doing reps at a steady pace. Nicole found herself enjoying the view of the muscles working under the strain. She nodded and, with a friendly "Good Morning," began setting a second machine up for her own workout. He paused momentarily to look over at the sound. He smiled broadly and returned the "Good Morning" before continuing. For the next twenty minutes there was only the sound of weight machines.
She'd come in prepared for her own physical reaction and just rode it without feeling the stress level of the previous day. Not to say she didn't appreciate the attention or the view. As she worked, she contemplated the change in her sexual outlook. After her talk last night with Michael, she decided she'd just relax and enjoy; there was no need to choose either side of the street for now.
He sat on the Nautilus, watching her as she completed her routine. She'd just finished the last rep when his eyes widened. "That's an amazing weight you use!"
She nodded. "I've worked at this for a while. It helps me stay in shape on the road."
"I wouldn't think that should be much of a problem." He shook his head ruefully at the slender woman who topped his workout weight by 100 pounds.
"Thank you, kind sir. I'm flattered." She smiled at him as she reset the machine and started setting up the treadmill.
"My name's Keith. Keith Anderson."
"Nicole Harrison. Pleasure to meet you, Keith." After shaking hands, she stepped on the treadmill and began her customary routine. She considered whether or not to continue the conversation, finally deciding to see where Keith went from here.
Keith took a minute to choose a pre-programmed setting on a second treadmill before continuing. "So, what brings you to this part of California?"
She explained her seminars, and they continued their conversation as they ran. Keith was in town until the end of next week for client meetings.
"So, since I'm here over the weekend, would you like to take in some of the sights with me? Do the tourist thing?"
Nicole actually regretted having to turn him down, suppressing her surprise at her own reaction. "I'm sorry, Keith. I'd like to, but I also have a new employee I'm supposed to orient while I'm here. Even my supervisor will be in over the next several days. I'm going to be busy pretty much every day I'm here."
He looked a bit disappointed as he replied, "I understand, and that will have to do. You'll still be down here in the morning, right?"
"As far as I know -- If it changes, I can let you know."
She finished her run and left, trying to come to grips with balancing caution, work, and wanting to explore this new aspect of her existence.
It was all Nicole could do not to bounce in her seat. She found herself alternating between nervously tapping her fingernails on the table and twiddling her thumbs. When she forced herself to quit chewing a thumbnail for the third time, she got up to grab a cup of coffee. She thought to herself, ~I can't *wait* for Kate to show. This waiting is driving me up the wall!~
Finally Kate walked through the door. She had a carefully neutral expression on her face as she took her place.
"Morning, Kate." Nicole was puzzled by the impassive face of her companion and the lack of response other than a quiet nod. Well, if she decided no.... With a shrug the redhead returned her attention to the handouts for today's session.
The rest of the morning continued in the same vein. Kate was distant, to the point of not even agreeing to lunch when asked during the mid-morning break. By noon Nicole was becoming annoyed. She had other things she could do if Kate was uninterested, but why wouldn't she *say so*? She wondered what had changed since the previous evening. Pulling her chain, perhaps? Maybe it was time to show her that a chain has two ends and messing with the master, or mistress now, of hassling is a BAD move. She kept the evil smile off her face as she planned her own moves.
When the class broke for lunch, Nicole quickly made her way out of the room and the building. There was a small copse of trees across the street that provided a good observation point. She watched as Kate came out and looked both directions along the road. Her shoulders visibly drooped as she walked toward the nearest restaurant. Nicole followed from a distance and then made sure she took a seat at another nearby eatery allowing surveillance of the brunette.
Kate seemed to be keeping an eye out for someone, her demeanor growing more depressed as time passed. Nicole was grateful for her enhanced eyesight; she was able to pick up useful information from a safe distance this way. Kate seemed to be picking at her food for a while before she gave up and, paying her bill, made her way slowly back to the seminar site.
Nicole followed, again at a distance. If she was evaluating the reaction of the youngster correctly, Kate might be a little more careful in trying to hassle people who have *years* more experience at it. Her stalking continued to, and into, the building. The brunette took a look around before entering and then continued in with a truly depressed air -- followed shortly by a redhead with a very nasty grin.
Nicole waited until the instructor was approaching the room, ducking in just before she got there. She delayed taking her seat until the instructor approached the lectern, leaving no time for conversation. Kate looked relieved to see her. Nicole returned a cool look and focused on the class.
Kate was squirming. ~Good.~
Nicole felt a soft touch on her arm as the instructor called for the afternoon break. "Nicole, may I talk to you a minute? Please?"
Nicole looked over and any intent to extend the retribution died. The brunette was visibly distressed and was getting teary-eyed. With a nod and a hand on the youngster's arm, she guided the young woman out of the room and to another, empty, room.
"What can I do for you, Kate?" She might not actively tease, but that didn't mean she wouldn't make her companion squirm a bit more and commit herself without opportunity to counter-tease.
"I'm sorry I was mean to you this morning. I was just trying to tease, and it kind of got out of hand. I wanted to apologize at lunch, but you vanished and I couldn't find you." Her voice quivered as she continued, "I'm really sorry, and if you don't want me around anymore I understand. I really do want to join the Amazons though. If I still can? Please?" A tear began to trail down her cheek.
Nicole's heart melted. The contrition washed away any inclination to draw out the wait. With a warm smile Nicole reached out to Kate. She wiped the tear away and then drew Kate into a hug. "It's OK, Kate. I figured out you were teasing and decided to indulge in a little payback."
Kate looked shocked, then ticked, as she wiped more tears from her eyes. "You mean you... Why... Arrgh!" She took a playful swipe at Nicole, who dodged it easily.
"Seriously, Kate, you're sure you want to say yes?"
Kate nodded vigorously, a hopeful smile appearing that almost matched Nicole's.
"Then I'd be proud to have you join me. Yes, the offer is still open, and I accept you as an Amazon." She hesitated for a moment. "Let's go to my suite after class, and then we'll have Lady Artemis come meet her new daughter." Nicole's warm smile turned into one of brilliant joy. "Come now, get yourself pulled together. It's time to get back to class."
For once the session seemed to drag as both struggled to concentrate on the material. Finally they arrived at the suite and Nicole led Kate in. After the door was closed, Nicole turned to her companion. "You still have a chance to change your mind. Are you sure you want to do this?"
Kate's face was calm and determined. "Yes, I am. This feels more right than anything I've ever done in my life, so far." She wiped her hands on her slacks as she continued, "Just ignore the pounding heart and sweaty palms."
Nicole smiled and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "It's OK to be nervous. This is a huge step, and if you weren't nervous, *I'd* be nervous. It shows you're really thinking about this. Now, are you ready? Shall I call Artemis?"
The brunette took a deep breath and nodded her head, "I think so. Go ahead."
The tall redhead nodded. "Lady Artemis?"
Kate started as the tall, black-haired goddess appeared in the room. She had an air about her that shook the young woman. She felt it in her bones. ~This is what true royalty is all about.~ Artemis radiated wisdom, and *power*; there was also an odd sense of age and agelessness! Kate looked toward Nicole for her reaction and a cue on how to act now. The redhead stood quietly, bowing slightly toward the goddess and seemingly unaffected by the sheer presence of the new arrival. Kate followed suit and replicated the slight bow.
Artemis returned a nod to Nicole and then looked carefully at Kate. "Good evening, Nicole. And this is our candidate?"
"Yes, My Lady, she is. She has accepted the offer to become the first of your new Amazons." Nicole took a step away as Artemis approached the now-trembling brunette.
"Be calm, little one; you need not fear me." Artemis gently reached out and caressed Kate's cheek. "Do you want to continue? Once you take the oath, there is no turning back."
Kate paused before responding, "Yes, I want to continue."
Artemis dropped her hand to her side. "Very well. Kathryn Marie Tanner, do you swear your allegiance to your Queen, obeying her in all things and forsaking and renouncing all other allegiances? Do you swear to support your sister Amazons, giving them all the aid and comfort in your power? Do you swear to aid the weak and helpless as you are able?"
"I do." Her eyes glistened.
"Nicole Joy Harrison, do you, as Queen, accept Kathryn as your sister and a true Amazon? Do you swear to protect, teach, guide, comfort, and aid her?"
"I do." Nicole returned the goddess' gaze calmly.
"Then welcome to the Amazon Nation, Kathryn, my daughter." She placed a hand on the young woman's head, and a soft silver glow spread over her body.
Nicole felt a pang at the tone of the words. Artemis' unreserved joy rang through the welcome -- she had her first *true* daughter for her new Amazons. Nicole ruthlessly suppressed her jealousy at the unqualified acceptance and focused on the joy of the new addition to the family, the first of her new sisters.
Only a moment passed and the glow faded. Kate wobbled a bit and then steadied as she recovered from the process.
"Woah! That was... indescribable! Is it over now?"
Artemis responded, "Yes. You now have the empowerments of the Amazons. You are physically more capable than any normal human."
"But not up to Nicole's level, right?"
"True. She is, and shall always be, a special case." For an instant, a look of sadness passed through the goddess' eyes. "You will need to be very careful until you are accustomed to your new strength."
"So, now what?" asked Kate.
"Would the Lady would like to join us in a small celebration dinner this evening? You might like to have a little time to spend with your daughter," suggested Nicole.
Artemis nodded; such times were likely to be few and far between in the future.
The three departed for a local restaurant for an evening of casual socializing. The time for work was coming, but for now they would enjoy the relative quiet.
Thursday, January 11, 2001
Doubletree Fitness Room
"Good Morning, Keith."
"Mmmph! Morning, Nicole."
He had been working hard this morning. The sweat on his face and chest already had begun to soak his shirt. She looked at the setting for the weight machine and cocked an eyebrow; it was set 50 pounds higher than the previous day.
"I see you've pushed the weight up this morning."
Keith finished the set and just let the weights drop. The higher setting had taken every bit of energy he had. "Yeah," he gasped, "I wanted to see if I could push a bit harder. Man, that was work."
She nodded in agreement. "You look like you almost overdid it today." He actually looked severely overstressed, but a slender woman who was using a 100 pound heavier weight setting would *not* win friends by mentioning things like that.
She set her machine as before, quickly running through her routine as Keith recovered.
"Are you OK?" she asked as she completed the first part of her workout. His face was quite flushed, almost looking like a case of heat stroke.
"I think so. That was harder than I expected."
After resetting the machine to a lower weight, she stood and looked closely at Keith. He was not as flushed as before, but still looked more red than he should after the long recovery time. She gently, but firmly, made him lie back on the bench. "Lie down here for a minute."
Keith's face showed surprise at the strength in the slender arms. "I still can't get over how strong you are."
Nicole shook her head a little as she kept her eye on the man. "As I said, I've been training long enough to be much stronger than I look." She used the inside of her wrist to check his forehead temperature. "You seem to be cooling off and recovering, finally. Just lie still for a bit longer and you should be fine." A smile graced her face.
Keith asked, "Aren't you going to do your running?"
"Skipping one day won't hurt; I want to make sure you're back on your feet. Let me get you some water."
He smiled uncertainly; the attention of a lovely woman was nice, but there was something about this one that confused him.
Kate was bouncing -- there was no other word to describe it. She bounced into the room to take her seat. The excitement of the previous evening was still charging her nerves. "Morning!"
Nicole smiled and shook her head, noticing some looks and smirks from others in the room. She turned toward Kate and, in a voice just audible to her companion, said, "Keep bouncing like that and you'll have them thinking you, or we, had a really good night."
"Nicole!" The youngster just barely kept the volume down as she yelped in shock at the comment.
The redhead snickered, leaned over, and whispered, "You were drawing a lot of attention to the two of us. Now, shhhh! Class is starting." Nicole smirked as the frustrated brunette was forced to squelch her response until the break.
The remainder of the day was an extended session of one-upmanship as Kate tried to get revenge for Nicole's remark and Nicole countered to retain her points lead. By the end of the class, the two agreed to call it a draw.
That evening at dinner, Kate asked about Nicole's plans for the weekend.
"I don't have any, really. You have first call on my time, but if you have plans...." She shrugged. "I'll find a way to keep occupied."
"Do you want to spend the weekend with me at my parent's place? There's plenty of room, and I'd like to have time to just hang with you and get some questions asked and answered."
"If it's OK with your folks, I'm game."
"Let me give them a call and I'll make sure." Kate pulled her cell phone out and dialed. "Hi, Mom! ... Yeah, it's been an interesting week." She glared at her companion as she chuckled at the comment. "Anyway, I was calling to ask if it's OK to bring a friend home for the weekend... Not *that* kind of friend! ... Mom! ... No, she's in the seminars with me and came in from out of town. I thought she might like someone to hang with over the weekend... So, it's OK? ... Great, we'll see you tomorrow night then... Love you, too! Bye!" She ended the call and put the phone back in her purse. "No problem! She'll have the guest bedroom all set up for you when we get there. Is that OK?"
Nicole nodded. "That's perfect. I really appreciate you and your family putting yourselves out like this."
The brunette shrugged. "It's no big deal. Besides," she dropped her voice to ensure she wasn't overheard, "I want them to meet you, even if they can't know about the Amazons."
"So you want to leave right after the seminar is done tomorrow?"
"I think so. It will probably take two or three hours to get there. We're done around 3:00 PM, so that should get us in at a reasonable time. Do you want me to drive?"
"Sure, as long as we swing by my motel before we hit the road."
"Great. Oh, don't forget to pack for clubbing. There's a place my friends and I hang out, and I'd like you to meet them, too."
"Errrr. That might be a problem. You're talking to Queen Geek here. My idea of a good night out was a LAN Party. I have some casual clothes, but I don't know how they'll fit in."
Kate gave the redhead a look. "You're kidding, right?"
Nicole shook her head.
"O... OK. I guess we take you on a shopping trip Saturday."
A cold chill raced up Nicole's spine. ~This won't end well,~ she thought to herself. Those traces of Tom that were left rebelled at the idea of shopping for women's clothing.
Friday, January 12, 2001
Doubletree Fitness Room
She had awakened before the alarm this morning, the nervousness from the planned weekend ensuring a restless night. On the plus side, it meant she'd had time to pack for the weekend already. On the minus side, she was feeling the lack of rest. ~Ah, well. Perhaps the exercises will help.~
The room was empty as she began the now-familiar ritual; a quick warm-up, then the weight machine. She thought about increasing the weight, but after yesterday it seemed a poor choice. Keith might not survive.
The sound of the door opening drew Nicole's attention. Keith walked in, looking much better than the previous day.
"'Morning, Keith. You look like you feel better."
"Good morning, Nicole. I do feel much better." He moved to a Nautilus and began setting it up, but with weight settings only slightly above his normal workout level. "You still busy for the weekend?"
She paused for a moment and returned a sad smile as she replied, "Sorry. I'm spending the weekend on orientation of a new employee in L.A."
"Ah, well. I have to fly out early next Saturday; can we make a date for Thursday?"
The red-haired woman grinned at the persistence of the young man. "You've been good company in the mornings, but I have to pass up the opportunity. I still have my responsibilities for my company; I only have another week with her and need to spend my time making sure she's up to speed."
Keith's face fell; his whole demeanor deflated like a punctured balloon.
Nicole felt sorry for him, having been in precisely the same situation. She also knew that he'd recover from the mild bruising of his ego.
Nicole sat at the table as she sipped on her coffee. She hadn't dated much as Tom; this morning's encounter had pointed out that in time she would need to face dating as a woman. She stared off into space as she contemplated yet another challenge in her life.
Kate came in ebullient, but not bouncing. "Morning!" She sat and looked at Nicole. "OK. What's up?"
"Nicole, I don't speak that language."
The redhead sat back in her chair. "I had a guy ask me out for a date next Thursday."
Kate blinked. "Yesterday you were telling me about Queen Geek, and today you're telling me you have a date. Right. So how did this all happen anyway?" The incredulity in her voice turned to glee as she pondered the chance for payback, or even pay-ahead.
"I didn't say I had a date. I said he asked. I told him no since I had work related responsibilities."
"What responsibilities are those?" Kate gave her a puzzled look.
"You are, Kate."
"Humph! I'd let you off the hook for one night. Was he cute?" A wicked gleam in Kate's eye warned Nicole of the inquisition to come.
Nicole leaned forward and thumped her forehead on the table as the instructor entered and the last day of the seminar began.
"OK, Kate," Nicole said as she closed the trunk of Kate's sturdy, white Saturn. "I'm loaded, and we're ready to go. I brought the best options I have for 'club' wear."
"I'll take a look when we get home. You travel light, only one medium suitcase and a hanging bag. I have two larger suitcases plus a bag. How do you do it?"
The reply came with a grin. "Practice, dear, practice."
"Humph!" Kate started her car, and the two women began the weekend's excursion.
The trip was starting well; traffic on I-5 was relatively light heading in-town, and Nicole found herself sightseeing as Kate navigated the highway. Memories of earlier trips, many taken before her companion was born, overlaid her thoughts with a nagging sadness -- in particular that last, never-to-be-forgotten trip just last November. She bit her lower lip, trying to keep from completely losing control of her emotions. ~Hormones? Wiring? I miss Tom's emotional control, damn it!~
Nicole glanced over at the driver, seeing the concern in her new friend's face. "Sorry, Kate. I'm just... struggling with some memories. I was here this past November, and a lot that happened after that is emotionally painful."
"I knew something was bugging you. Would it help to talk about it?"
Nicole took a few moments to consider her reply. "It might help *me*, but I'm afraid it'll freak you out again. It makes the weirdness of the Amazons look normal, but I found out it was one of the reasons you were chosen."
Kate didn't reply for a mile or so. "After what's happened already? You have something even *more* off the wall?"
"I'm afraid so. I already told you I was chosen for this job in late November, right?"
Kate nodded, keeping her eyes on traffic.
"Well, what I didn't tell you is who I was before I accepted this position."
From Mission Viejo to Anaheim, Nicole told Kate the whole story: her life as Tom; growing up; being married; being found by the scepter; the visit from Michael and Artemis; her time at the cabin. At that point Kate gave a watery laugh. Nicole looked over to see tear tracks on her face; she handed a tissue to Kate and waited for her to regain control.
Kate finally spoke. "So, you're a 50-something guy who was turned into a woman? And you gave up your whole life and marriage for this?" She waved a hand in Nicole's direction.
Nicole's eyes stung with tears. "Not exactly," she said softly. "I'm a woman now, right down to my DNA and the wiring between the ears. All that's left of the 50-something man is the memories. And yes, I gave up everything I had and loved for this." She paused before continuing, "Artemis tried to teach me what she could, but there is so much I still need to learn to cope, and I'm still struggling to keep my head above water. If you need time to think and want to change your mind about this weekend, I'll understand, but Michael told me to be up-front with you."
Kate pulled over to the side of the highway, stopped the car, and turned to face the redhead. Her irritation was clear on her face. "Do you *really* think I'm that shallow? Nicole, all week there have been times you've said or done things that confused me. All you've done is help me understand *why* those things happened. I'm still your friend and sister Amazon; if I can, I'll help you keep learning what you need to know. I made a commitment and took a vow to become an Amazon, to make myself a part of *your family*." Kate poked at Nicole's shoulder in emphasis. "I won't bail out now just because a weird situation got a little weirder. I pledged myself to your service, and I keep my promises!"
Nicole broke down at this point; the relief that surged through her at the assertion of loyalty overwhelmed her shaky emotional controls. She vented the stress and fear as Kate rubbed her back. Finally she recovered and wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She smiled gratefully at her companion. "Thanks, Kate. I don't think you fully understand how much you and your support mean to me right now. All this change in my life came so fast, and there's so much to learn. I'm happy with who and what I am, but I miss my family and friends. The loneliness just gets to me sometimes."
"Are you good to go now?" Kate asked, reaching over and squeezing Nicole's hand.
"Yes. Let's get rolling. I'm looking forward to meeting your family. And thanks, sis."
Tanner Home, West Hollywood, CA
It was a not-so-minor miracle. Kate had followed I-5 through downtown and then taken the Hollywood Freeway to Santa Monica Boulevard, as it was the closest exit to home. Despite the time of day, they'd actually kept moving and arrived not long after sunset.
The remainder of the drive had been quiet as Nicole lost herself in memory, and Kate tried to process another batch of weirdness from life.
They finally stopped at an upscale southern California home. A two-story, Spanish-style house on a small -- for the East Coast -- lot, it still had a nice view of the Santa Monica Mountains. The top of the range had just lost the last rays of the setting sun as the car pulled into the driveway. The fading sun still provided enough light to reveal the large, covered, second-story balcony to the right of the arched doorway. A light hung over the center of the arch and lit the stoop with its golden-tinted light.
As Kate turned the car off, Nicole reached over and squeezed her hand as she said, "Thank you."
The smile was returned and the two got out and carted their luggage to the door. Kate dug in her purse for a key, but was interrupted by the door opening. A small, brown-haired woman stood in the opening to greet them. "Kate! Welcome home! And this is the friend you mentioned?"
"Yeah! Mom, I'd like you to meet my friend, Nicole. Nicole, this is my mom."
Nicole and Kate stepped in and set the luggage on the hardwood floor. Nicole stepped forward, extending her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mrs. Tanner. I'm Nicole Harrison, and I do appreciate your hospitality."
The door opened into a small entryway, and another door into what looked like a living area.
"It's no trouble at all, Nicole. We have lots of room, and we're always glad to have one of Kate's friends over. Now that you're here, I'm afraid we may have a small change in plans. I thought the guest room was free, but I forgot we're using it for storage while we do some remodeling. There are two beds in Kate's room, so if it's OK with you to share a room we'll put you in there."
Nicole looked at Kate and shrugged. "I don't have a problem. Kate?"
"No problem here."
"Good, then let's get you two girls upstairs and settled. Did you stop for something to eat on your way?" Mrs. Tanner asked as the three made their way through the living room to the stairway.
"No, since the traffic was moving, we wanted to take advantage of it and just get here. We usually didn't eat until 6 or so anyway," Kate informed her mother as they made their way up the stairs.
"Your father will be here about 6, and I had dinner planned for about 6:30. There's plenty to eat, so why don't you join us?"
"Sounds great, Mom. What can we do to help?"
"There isn't anything just now, but after you get settled in your room I could use help getting the table set."
"OK, we'll be down in fifteen minutes or so." Kate stopped at the door to her room and opened it. "That'll give us time to at least get Nicole oriented a little."
"Good idea. I'll be in the kitchen. See you both downstairs." Kate's mom nodded at the two as she headed back out of the room.
Nicole looked around the room. It wasn't large, perhaps ten by fourteen feet, with just enough room for two twin beds, a chest with a lamp between them, and a largish dresser. A closet door was on the wall opposite the beds. The decor was generally Mission style, in keeping with the architecture of the house.
"Why don't you put your stuff on the dresser, Nicole," Kate suggested. "I have plenty of room in the closet for anything you need to hang up, too. We can change into something casual while we're settling in."
Kate's unpacking consisted largely of tossing dirty laundry in a pile on the floor and putting everything else away. She changed into a pair of well-worn jeans and an equally worn t-shirt.
Nicole hesitated for a moment. This was the first time she'd changed with another person in the room. She was just another woman now, and Kate was treating her that way, so she'd best follow the lead. She undressed and hung the outfit she'd worn in the closet, along with the extra she'd brought, then changed into a jeans and blouse combo she'd brought. A flash of orange on the shelf caught her eye as she closed the door. She noticed Kate was barefoot and decided to skip shoes herself; she might as well enjoy the casual feeling.
"You don't need to dress up, Nicole. Grubs will do just fine for knocking around the house tonight," Kate admonished her companion as she looked Nicole over.
Nicole gave her a wry smile and replied, "Have you forgotten that everything I own is only two months old? This is as close to grubs as I have."
Kate went wide-eyed for a moment and then left the room shaking her head; Nicole trailed along behind.
The two made their way downstairs to the kitchen, where Kate was drafted into helping finish with cooking. The light stone countertop and white painted brick made the area light and cheery. Mrs. Tanner pointed out where dishes and silverware were, and Nicole worked at setting the table. With three working together, it took only a few minutes to have everything ready. It was shortly after six when Kate's father walked in to find the three women chatting in the kitchen.
"Good evening, ladies!" Mr. Tanner called out as he came in. He was slightly taller than Kate, with the same dark hair. "Hello, dear," he said as he embraced his wife. After a quick hug, he turned to Kate with another hug, "Welcome home, Tigger! The classes are going OK?"
Nicole's eyebrows rose at the nickname. ~Tigger?!~
Kate winced at the nickname and then nodded.
Mr. Tanner smiled and turned to Nicole. "And you are...." He stopped speaking and just stood, looking at her.
"Greg? What's wrong?" Mrs. Tanner asked after a moment.
Nicole was trying to keep a puzzled look on her face. The last name, Tanner, had not triggered a warning. Seeing the man in person, she realized he was Tom's liaison to the UCLA Medical Center on his last trip here.
He shook his head and, still looking intently at the redhead, replied, "I'm sorry, but you bear a striking resemblance to someone I worked with not long ago. Are you related at all to a Tom Edwards -- perhaps a niece or daughter?"
"I'm sorry," she replied, choosing her words carefully, "I don't have any relatives with that name."
Kate listened carefully as her friend skated carefully around a sensitive topic. ~Poor Nicole!~
Mr. Tanner continued, "It's amazing how much you favor him anyway. He was out here helping with a database system just last November. We got word that he'd passed away shortly after his last trip home. I was sorry to hear it; he was one of the best software architects, and best men, I've ever known."
Nicole clamped down on her emotions as she gently probed for more information. "Since you asked if I was his daughter, I assume he was married?"
"Yes," Mr. Tanner replied, "he was married for about 30 years, as I recall. Our department sent a gift to his widow. We hear she's doing fairly well; Tom seems to have provided enough for her to stay in their old house. Word has it that she's doing surprisingly well for such a sudden loss."
Nicole said a silent word of thanks. Beth was OK and provided for as promised.
"Just amazing!" Mr. Tanner took one last look at Nicole. "Where are my manners? I'm sorry, Ms? Miss?"
Nicole smiled broadly. "Either one is fine. Nicole Harrison is my name, Mr. Tanner, and I'm very pleased to meet you." ~Again, even if you don't know it.~
The remainder of the evening was far less eventful. Kate and Nicole talked about the seminar, and Nicole was gently quizzed about her background.
"I have a BSEE and an MSCS. I know it isn't a typical woman thing, but computers and I just seem to get along," she said to her hosts. She chuckled. "It's almost like I was born knowing how to make those things sit up and talk."
Kate snorted and choked on the water she was sipping.
The elder Tanners glanced at their sputtering daughter before Mr. Tanner continued the conversation. "So now that you have your Masters, what are your plans?"
"I'm working for a firm called Wing Ground Sensor Systems. We send teams into the field to survey areas for underground resources like oil and gas. Sometimes we're also called in to check for archaeological sites before construction of new buildings. I'm going to be working on one of the field teams and, before I do that, I need training so I can protect myself and my team. I'll spend a tour of duty in the Marines to get that training. It's an unusual requirement, but it works. They've never lost a team member in the field."
"I see. I understand that you'll be in the seminars next week with Kate?"
"Yes, she'll have to put up with me for another week." Nicole grinned. "She seems to be doing OK at that so far."
Nicole in turn found the Tanners were lifelong Californians, born and raised in the L.A. area. Mr. Tanner, as she knew, was working at the UCLA Medical Center in Records Management. Mrs. Tanner was a specialist in Ancient History, currently working as a telecommuting researcher for writers at Warner Brothers.
Mrs. Tanner remarked, "It's frustrating to see a real-life story gutted to make it 'relevant.' The real story is often far more powerful than what appears on screen."
"What kind of stories are you working on now, Mom?" Kate cocked her head in question.
"Oh, someone is doing work on a script for a movie about Alexander the Great. It's a fascinating story, but they're pushing stories that aren't there in the real world. That's very frustrating to a historian like me."
The conversation veered toward safer topics after that, settling on the relative merits of the UCLA and Syracuse basketball teams, lest Mr. Tanner be left floating helplessly on a sea of 'girl-talk.'
Nicole was shooed out of the kitchen when she tried to help with cleanup. "We don't let guests do that," she was told. She made her way to the family room and sat on a sofa on the opposite side of the fireplace from the one where Mr. Tanner sat. The two chatted about computers and databases while waiting for the others. Nicole found herself fighting to avoid asking questions or making comments indicating more knowledge of the UCLA system than she should have as a new graduate.
Finally, Kate and her mother finished in the kitchen and settled in the living room. Kate joined Nicole on the sofa, while her mother took her place next to Mr. Tanner.
"So, Nicole," began Mrs. Tanner, "where do you and your family live?"
Nicole winced before she replied, "I live and work near Washington, DC. My father passed away about 10 years ago, and my mother died about 5 years ago. They lived in the Syracuse area." She paused for a moment. "I don't have any other family."
"Oh! I'm sorry, dear! You don't even have cousins or anyone?" Mrs. Tanner's voice was full of sympathy.
"No, both my parents were only children. My dad died suddenly, and my mom just couldn't handle living without him. She hung in for my sake, but she once said it was like living without her heart. I still miss them."
Kate scooted over and hugged her friend, who smiled and patted the comforting hand.
Nicole continued, "It's OK, Mrs. Tanner. I knew, without a doubt, that they both loved me. And I have two people who are like parents to me now. Michael and Artemis have taken me under their wing and helped me when I needed it. And now I have Kate too, it seems." She smiled and looked at the brunette sitting beside her. "I always wanted a little sister. Kate and I have 'clicked' since we met, and I'm grateful for her." She frowned a bit. "Unless she's teasing me about my fashion sense." She gently bumped her friend with a shoulder.
"Hey! Someone has to get you educated. A heavy burden," she gave an exaggerated sigh and put a hand on her chest, "I guess I'll have to bear."
Nicole missed the momentary look of concern that crossed Mrs. Tanner's face.
It wasn't terribly late when everyone retired, as the elder Tanners were early risers. The girls retreated to Kate's room to chat as they got ready for bed. Nicole sat cross-legged on one bed brushing her hair out, and Kate was flopped on her bed as they talked.
"Nicole, before I forget to ask, did you really know my dad before... you know?"
Nicole stopped brushing her hair and nodded. "Yes, I did. I met him in March when we started working on a fully computerized records system for the UCLA medical center. I probably spent half my time with your dad working out just how the system needed to operate." She smiled. "He's one of the good guys, Kate, and very sharp. You should be thankful for him. I know I had a good time while I was here."
Kate nodded. "I love both my folks dearly, but it was weird the way he reacted to you. I can't imagine what it was like for you."
With a wry smile, Nicole said, "It really surprised me. When I met you, and you told me your name, it didn't occur to me that you'd be related to anyone I knew from my work out here. It was all I could do to keep looking confused and not panicked."
Kate chuckled. "Back to important things for our weekend. I like some of the outfits you have, Nicole, but I still want to get you something that will fit in better at the club."
"I think I'll want to do some jewelry shopping, too. What I have is a bit much for clubbing."
"Mind if I take a look?"
"Feel free, but remember I warned you. Everything is in my suitcase in the small black bag."
Kate got up and found the bag. "My GOD, this stuff must be worth a FORTUNE!" She pulled out one or two pieces for a good look before gently putting them back for fear of damaging something worth more than her car.
"Meet the crown jewels. Artemis wanted me to have something suitable for formal wear. That's why tomorrow I want to get a necklace, some nice earrings, and maybe a bracelet or two for more normal wear."
Kate just nodded. "Oh yeah! You'd get mugged wearing this stuff. The stores open about 10, so we can sleep in a little."
Nicole grinned. "Is there a good place to take a run around here?"
"Because, my dear sister Amazon, we need to start working on your physical conditioning. We'll keep it down to two or three miles tomorrow... Tigger!"
Quiet giggling was abruptly cut off by the soft *THWOP* of pillow impact.
Saturday, January 13, 2001
Tanner Home, West Hollywood, CA
A panting Kate staggered into the kitchen, trailing a visibly smirking Nicole. Mrs. Tanner was sipping on a cup of coffee and greeted them.
"Good morning, girls." She looked at her daughter with puzzlement. "What have you two been up to?"
Nicole jumped in before Kate could make a comment about the Marquise de Sade. "I normally go for a run in the morning, so today I dragged Kate along. She did very well, and I hope she'll stick with it. I want her healthy and around for a long time."
"I think I hate you," came without heat from Kate as she recovered enough to speak.
Nicole stepped over, put her hands on Kate's shoulders, and put her forehead on Kate's. "You are important to me, and I will do whatever I must to make sure you stick around. If that means I have to draft your mom into helping keep you healthy, I will."
"You make it really hard to be mad at you, did you know that?"
"I try." An unrepentant grin perched on Nicole's face.
"Ahem!" Kate's mother interrupted. "What are you two planning for the day?"
Kate straightened up and answered. "Nicole and I are going to the mall to get outfits for going out tonight. Other than that, not much."
"Do you mind some company and a couple of extra stops? I have some shopping I need to do, and we need to stop for groceries before tonight."
"Girls' day out?" Kate asked.
"If it's OK with you two."
The arrangements were agreed to, including lunch at the Hard Rock Café, once the Tanners discovered it was new to their guest.
Kate wandered off to take a shower after her run, leaving Nicole with Mrs. Tanner. As she left, she remarked to her friend, "When you change after your shower, wear a blouse and skirt. That will make it quicker to change while we're shopping."
"Yes, Mom!" Nicole replied as Kate left the room.
"Nicole," the older woman began as the shower started upstairs, "how do I put this? Is there anything I should know about your relationship with my daughter?" Her face and voice reflected a mother watching over a loved child, concerned about a new relationship she didn't understand.
For an instant the gray eyes that turned to her looked far too old for the face.
"What exactly do you mean?"
"Please understand, I'm only concerned for my daughter. It's unusual for her to meet someone and so quickly become close to them. It took her weeks at college to even start making friends with people she met there. It worries me that in less than three days she meets you and invites you home. You just don't ... feel like one of her typical friends."
"So you're concerned that something happened this past week and I'm taking advantage of Kate?"
"It does look that way, I'm afraid."
Nicole nodded. "I agree that it was sudden; I wasn't expecting anything like this to happen either." A smile appeared on her lips. "I even called Michael to ask him for advice. I've never had anyone quite like Kate around before."
Marie chuckled. "I can understand that; she is unique."
Nicole joined in with a gentle laugh. "How very true." Her face returned to a more serious look. "Mrs. Tanner, I don't really understand everything that's going on either, but I truly look at Kate as my little sister; she's become that important to me. I'm looking forward to her finding the right guy and having kids that I can spoil as 'Aunt Nicole.' You don't need to worry about my having odd designs on your daughter." A half smile was left as she finished; she felt, now, the uncertainty of the mother. "To tell you the truth, I'd be surprised and disappointed if you acted any other way. You love Kate and are worried about her."
Nicole thought for a moment before continuing. "I know, more than most people, how important family is. I'm not going to drag her away; she'll be staying right here when I leave. I want her to have a long and happy life with you, but I want her be a part of my life, too. If you are that worried about what she might do, talk to Kate about it. She loves you and will be honest with you."
Marie relaxed slightly; she would watch, but perhaps she didn't need to worry quite so much about this odd young woman.
Beverly Center Mall
The three women explored shop after shop as Kate sought the proper combination of style and color to outfit Nicole for the evening. In most of the stores the brunette examined the selections in a cursory fashion, mostly killing time as her mother did more serious shopping in her own styles. Only a few of the trendier stores merited a truly careful review, and in only one or two did the selections win a trial up against the redhead for color coordination. She knew in general what she was looking for, a style that showed off the long legs and slender figure of her new friend, with colors that did the tan and flame-red hair justice.
Finally at 'bebe' she found what she was looking for.
"That's not a skirt, that's a belt!" Nicole hissed at Kate as she took the white miniskirt from the rack.
Kate looked around. Her mother was in another section of the store, and there was no one in earshot as she spoke, "Look, sis, do you trust me?"
Nicole's face betrayed her uncertainty, so Kate continued in a lower tone, "Please, Nicole, trust me. You need help adjusting to who you are now, both the age you look and your beauty -- I promised to help. Just try this outfit on; if you can truly tell me you *don't* look good in it, I'll find something else."
The redhead blushed pale pink at the miniskirt and nearly backless top. ~There's no way to wear a bra with this outfit!~ she thought as she just nodded as she took them and disappeared into the changing room.
She hung the outfit on a hook and then undressed to her panties. The white skirt slid up her long legs and took only a moment to adjust on her hips. The white top took a bit more work with the split sleeves and tie behind the neck. She slipped her flats back on and exited the room. It was time to face the mirror.
"Nope! I take it all back; you can't have it, sis." Kate shook her head in amusement at her hesitant friend. The top hugged the slim torso while the skirt showed the long, tanned legs to full advantage. "You look *way* too good to have around. Now slow turn so I can get a good look, then you get a look in the mirror." She whirled a finger in a 'turn-around' gesture.
Nicole followed the instruction and slowly twirled, managing to keep the skirt, or what there was of it, down. Kate nodded in approval and pointed to a set of mirrors.
Breathtaking; that was the only word that came to mind as the mirror revealed the effect of the outfit. The white top set off her tan and hair, while the skirt seemed to show legs up to her armpits. The cascade of hair obscured a comforting amount of exposed skin down her back. She *knew* it was a good look for her, even if it was way out of her comfort zone. It was revealing, but less immodest than she'd first thought.
"You win, little sis, it works better than I thought it could." Nicole smiled nervously at the brunette. "That doesn't mean I'm anywhere near comfortable with it."
"Just keep thinking about what you see in the mirror; this look was *made* for you. All we need now is shoes and jewelry for you and an outfit for me."
"And *I* pick up the tab for your stuff, too."
Nicole leaned toward her ear. "Consider it a royal command and don't argue."
Kate glared, then curtsied saying, "Yes, Your Majesty," followed by sticking her tongue out, which started the two giggling.
Kate's mother walked up at that point. "OK, girls, what are you up to now?" She took a good look at the tall redhead. "Nicole, that's a very good look for you!"
"Thank you, Mrs. Tanner; you can give your daughter the credit for it. She's the one that talked me into it. Now it's her turn to get something nice for tonight. Oh! Before I forget, does your family normally attend church?"
Mrs. Tanner was momentarily surprised as she replied, "Why, yes we do. Or at least we attend Mass at St. Ambrose. Are you Catholic?"
Nicole shook her head. "No, I was raised Presbyterian. I make it a habit to attend *somewhere* even if I'm away from home. Would there be a problem if I joined you?"
Mrs. Tanner smiled and replied, "You are more than welcome. We'd normally go to the eight o'clock Mass, but we can wait for the ten o'clock if you're out late."
Kate watched the conversation, wondering momentarily why Nicole was asking. She had never been too enthusiastic about religion and found the rituals boring. As her mother walked away, she asked Nicole about it.
"Nicole? If you're not Catholic, why do you want to attend Mass?"
"First of all, for me," Nicole pointed at herself, "this is a way of showing I'm thankful for the good things in my life; I can give back an hour or so each week. Secondly, I get to hear someone else's thinking on Bible passages I've read many times. They sometimes catch ideas that are new to me, and that keeps me from thinking I have all the right answers all the time."
"But why not go to a Presbyterian church?"
Nicole grinned. "Sometimes it's good to go outside your comfort zone. Besides, this is a part of your family life, and I want to know more about you, even if I don't feel entirely comfortable in the service."
Kate thought back to Nicole's comments about her call, and decided that perhaps a more serious attitude was in order. Amazons, goddesses, and Archangels; what was going to drop into her life next?
Nicole started sorting out her paraphernalia for the evening. Her new outfit was laid carefully on the bed, with the lingerie selected to go with it. She'd taken a quick shower and stood in a T-shirt as she pondered the makeup selections. Kate had looked over the selections in Nicole's case the previous night and snorted.
"It looks like it's for an old lady."
Nicole couldn't suppress a chuckle. It was funny no matter which 'old lady' was referred to. She looked over the new selection and tried to analyze differences between new and old. ~More to learn. I'm just lucky it all goes on the same way.~
Kate came back from her shower, and the two began preparations for the evening.
The Key Club
West Hollywood, CA
~Earplugs! I should have brought earplugs!~ Nicole thought as she and Kate entered the lounge. The pounding beat from the local band was painfully loud to the sensitive hearing of both women -- Nicole winced, and noticed Kate grimacing as well. Despite being an obviously upscale hangout, Kate and her friends met here on a regular basis to stay in touch after high school. As they walked in, Nicole noticed the reactions of males of all ages and sometimes their dates. Kate had talked her into comparatively short 2-inch-heeled mules; between the top, skirt, and shoes she felt herself completely on display. She just knew her face was glowing red as she felt the heels make her butt sway in just the way guys found irresistible and her breasts bounce in a slightly syncopated motion. She wanted to find a hole to crawl into.
Kate leaned toward the taller woman's ear and almost shouted, "I DON'T REMEMBER IT BEING THIS LOUD."
Nicole put her mouth closer to Kate's ear as she responded, "YOUR HEARING IS BETTER NOW -- OR AT LEAST IT WAS BEFORE WE GOT HERE."
Kate nodded as she scanned the room, dragging her companion toward a table surrounded by three young men and two young women. "Hi, guys!" she called as they walked up during a lull in the music's volume.
"Guys, this is my new friend, Nicole. Nicole, the guys are Case and his girlfriend, Megan, Bob and Gail, and this is Alex," she released Nicole and sidled up to Alex, "who's mine!"
"Glad to meet you all," Nicole hollered as the band's noise level rose again.
Kate's friends nodded a greeting to the newcomer, then Case, Megan, Bob, and Gail left the table for the dance floor.
Nicole moved around to the side of the table closest to the wall, ending with Alex sandwiched between her and Kate. The noise level precluded easy conversation, so the three sat and watched and listened to the band.
During the next break between songs, Alex spoke up. "Can I get you two something to drink? Your usual, Kate?"
"Please! Nicole, would you like something?"
"Just a diet cola -- Coke or Pepsi is fine."
"Just a soda? They do serve alcohol here if you want a beer, or something."
Nicole nodded in the direction of a table where a visibly intoxicated group sat. Their behavior was loud and increasingly obnoxious. "I like alcohol on occasion, but that kills my taste for it."
Alex nodded as he went to the bar, returning shortly with Nicole's cola, beer for himself, and a marquerita for Kate.
Nicole took her drink. "Thank you, Alex. How did you and Kate meet?"
He grinned as he replied, "We went to high school together, then both went to UCLA when we graduated. It was ... what ? tenth grade? ? we started dating."
Kate nodded after she put her drink down. "Yup! It's been about six years now. We were working on that environmental science project for biology class. We worked together so well, we started going out and haven't quit since." Her eyebrows rose as she saw a smile on Nicole's face and an evil-looking gleam in her eyes. "And no, we haven't talked about marriage yet! We both want to get our graduate degrees before that, so we don't have the stress of school plus family."
Alex looked quickly between the two, wondering what he'd just missed. "What about you, Nicole? Who's in your life?"
Nicole thought she'd done quite well at controlling her reaction. He couldn't possibly know. "I don't have anyone right now, and, since I'll be busy traveling for the next few years, I don't see that changing anytime soon."
Alex looked puzzled. "What kind of job do you have?"
"My company does underground surveys all over the world. I'll have to spend a lot of time in the field, and a good relationship takes work and time." She smiled. "You and Kate have the right idea. Take the time you need to be sure; being friends first means you'll have the basis for one of those fifty-year marriages." Nicole took a sip of her soda, trying to swallow the nagging hurt she felt at memories of a lost friend.
The other two couples returned to the table with their drinks, allowing Nicole to sit back and observe the interactions between the young men and women, learning how this generation acted in the wild.
12:00 Noon PST
Sunday, January 14, 2001
Tanner Home, West Hollywood, CA
Nicole and Kate had gotten back to the house by midnight, and rose in time to make it to the ten o'clock Mass after their morning run. They returned to the main floor, dressed and packed for their return trip that afternoon.
"How can we help with lunch, Mom?" Kate inquired as she looked around the kitchen.
"Can you help me get the food out to the table? Nicole? Would you get the dishes out, please?"
As the three set up the table for the meal, Nicole noticed another concerned look from Kate's mother. ~I need to set her mind at ease, if I can.~ She also noted, with some amusement, that Mr. Tanner stayed out of the way of the lunch preparations. ~It's odd being on this side of the 'cooking is for women-folk' divide.~ A snicker leaked out, getting a look from Kate that would require an explanation later during their ride south.
Tanner Home, West Hollywood, CA
Kate loaded her last bag into the trunk of her car and shut the lid as Nicole and Mrs. Tanner looked on. "I guess that's it. We're both loaded."
Nicole checked the car. "I don't see your purse. Is it in the trunk?"
"Ack! I'll be right back! I'll let Dad know we're leaving, too." Kate scurried into the house to retrieve the missing item.
Nicole turned to Mrs. Tanner as Kate left. "Mrs. Tanner? I know you're still worried; is there anything I can do to set your mind at ease?"
The older woman gave her a sad look in response. "I think only time will tell, Nicole. People can say what they want -- just don't hurt my baby."
Nicole felt the sting of tears. "I swear to do everything in my power to help and protect her for as long as I have breath, Mrs. Tanner. As I said, she's family to me."
Marie nodded in response as Kate bounced back out of the house. Greg trailed steadily behind.
"C'mon, Nicole! Time to go! Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!" She hugged her parents and got in the driver's seat as Nicole closed her door. The elder Tanners were left chuckling and shaking their heads at their sometimes manic daughter.
"So you were chuckling at my dad just sitting while we got lunch ready?" Kate asked.
"Not quite, it was more amusement at being the one in the kitchen for a change," Nicole finished as they arrived at her motel. "Did you hold your room over the weekend?"
Kate shook her head. "I need to check in again."
"Do you think they'd let you stay here instead? I'd like to have you closer at hand."
Kate thought for a moment. "I think they would as long as the cost isn't too different."
The two compared the rates, finding the Doubletree charged the same rate as the Holiday Inn. They made their way to the desk and found the room connecting to Nicole's was free for the week.
"It's early enough for you to cancel the reservation at Holiday Inn without penalty. You can do that when we get to the rooms," Nicole advised her friend.
"Do you know how to do that?" Kate looked a bit uncertain.
"I've done it once or twice in my life." Nicole gave her a reassuring smile. "Let's get everything in and I'll walk you through it."
It took only a few minutes to carry the bags up. The two spent more time getting their bags unpacked and themselves settled into their rooms.
Nicole opened the connecting door between their rooms and knocked; Kate opened her side soon after the knock, and the two took care of the reservation cancellation.
Dana Point beach
A bright full moon just crested the high bluffs that rose to the east, separating the sea from the town, as they walked along the sand just north of the marina. The waves, hardly more than ripples, broke on the shore with those long intervals characteristic of the Pacific. Sparkles of moonlight glittered on the water as the last of the sunlight faded.
"I really enjoy the beach; if I ever have to leave California, I think it's what I'll miss most." Kate walked beside her companion, skipping and kicking little sprays of water as waves reached her.
The gentle noise was a perfect remedy for the case of nerves Nicole had as she contemplated the weeks ahead. She walked along the edge of the water, shoes in hand despite the cool temperatures, reveling in the moment of peace.
"I enjoy this, too, though I think I like taking walks in the woods just as much. You can get lost in the bird songs and the hum of insects." She watched with amusement as Kate sent another small shower of sea water flying.
They passed a trail that wound down a low point in the bluff, and Nicole noted a small group of people in the cleft. Their voices, though not loud, were clear to Nicole. ~Not good,~ she thought. ~They're a bunch of kids looking for trouble, and there's no-one else in the area. Why didn't I spot them earlier?~ She mentally chewed herself out for carelessness and began looking for alternative routes off the beach as she kept to the same pace she'd used before. People were out in the world who wanted to kill her; if she wasn't more observant she'd be dead. She tried to conceal her search. If they were trouble she might be able to avoid a confrontation by appearing confident. A memory from somewhere bubbled to the surface, "When in doubt about your footing, barefoot is best." She hoped it would be unnecessary to use that advice as she wondered where it came from.
She spoke quietly and clearly to Kate. "We may have a problem. Don't look around or change your pace. There are some people in that low point in the bluff, and they don't sound pleasant. If they start trouble, stay behind me and watch my back. With luck, they won't bother us, but you need to be ready if they do."
Kate nodded, but the worried look on her face made her feelings clear.
This time of year the beach was their domain after dark. They gathered here, hidden from the trailer park some called home, to assert their dominion over their turf on anyone who trespassed.
A nudge caught the attention of the leader and an arm pointed to two figures walking their beach. A closer look and the moonlight revealed long hair and two slender, feminine figures. The evening might be much more fun than they thought if entertainment was providing itself. The four youths moved out of the cleft, stringing a cordon across the beach to cut off the women who were seemingly oblivious to their danger.
She heard them moving behind them. It was no more than the rustle of clothing, but it was enough. There was more than one; she could hear at least one on each side as they approached. Nicole took a good look at the cliffs and the beach ahead. If they attacked, she didn't want witnesses. A quick mental inventory confirmed she was unarmed. As long as there were no guns, they should be OK, she hoped; it had dawned on her that even one-on-one they might wind up dead if the gang decided just to kill and rob them.
~Some job I'm doing of protecting Kate.~ She hissed to her friend, "Kate, I'm going to stop and turn. Follow my lead and *stay behind me*!" Suppressing the sudden jolt of fear and anger at herself, she turned quickly, trying to throw them off their balance. A quiet shuffle of sand told her Kate was, for the moment, where she was told to be. Four youngsters, in their late teens, were in a line that was converging on their position. The sudden realization of their vulnerability started a surge of adrenalin.
The chicks stopped and turned to face them. They both had pretty faces and showed no fear as the gang approached. They would teach them to show more respect. They ended in a semicircle as the leader spoke.
"Hey! What are you doing on our beach?"
Nicole shrugged as she replied, "The sign said it was a public beach."
The leader, a tall dark-haired boy, grinned. "It's not; it's ours. If you use it, you gotta pay us."
"Pay you what?" As if there was a question, she thought. She was actually grateful they were looking at her for sex, not money.
The boy's grin got wider and was echoed on the other faces. "I'm sure a couple of pretty chicks like you two can come up with something."
Nicole cocked her head slightly. "I don't think so. You'd best stop now, before you get hurt."
The four boys stopped in shock, then became angry. Who was this skinny broad to warn *them*? They started to reach into their pockets.
The redhead saw the grins change to anger as the four reached their right hands into their pockets, presumably for weapons. From somewhere, more memories rose with knowledge of what to do. Time to see just how fast and strong she really was. She dropped her shoes and *moved*. "Kate! Cover my back!" Her voice sounded loud after the relative quiet before.
Kate had watched the confrontation, growing more nervous as the intent of the gang became clear. Steeled as she was, the sudden shout from Nicole startled her. It took a moment to realize her friend was moving to the attack, drop her own shoes, and begin to move as well.
Nicole shifted first to her right to keep the weapons being drawn on the far side of the teen's bodies. A quick punch to the stomach of the kid folded him over. Nicole stayed in motion as she turned to the next in line, the leader, as the first kid fell to the sand. She heard Kate move into position behind her, and mentally cursed as the boy at the far end began shifting around to attack from Nicole's rear.
Time seemed to slow for the two women as the adrenalin fully kicked in; Nicole was already in striking range as the leader finished pulling an object out of his pocket. Not waiting to see what it was, Nicole reached out for his wrist. A sickening 'SNAP' revealed the true strength she was using as the bones snapped under the twist of her hand. She left him to lie there, screaming in pain.
The third youth had a knife out and ready as she moved in. She tried to control the strength she was using as she kicked out to the groin area. A shriek and huddled collapse rewarded the effort.
Nicole stopped and turned in time to see the end of Kate's confrontation with the last teen.
The fourth teen had ignored his companions as he moved toward Kate. Smaller than her companion, he thought he could use her as a hostage if things went bad, or chase her off and attack the redhead from the back. He took out his knife and moved in.
Kate heard the shriek of the first youth as she shifted to cover the teen moving from the far end of the line. A cold chill hit as she saw the blade he pulled from his pocket. ~I can't back off. I have to protect Nicole from this kid and his knife!~ A portion of her mind noted the second teen's scream of pain.
The knife seemed to move in slow motion as Kate watched. It was almost like being in a scene from 'The Matrix' as she reached out to grab the wrist of the knife hand and make him let go of the blade. The truth of her speed and strength hit her as she could see the wrist distort, the shape ending with an unnatural angle as she felt the bones snap.
He'd gotten in close, but suddenly his hand lost its grip on the blade. For an instant the fourth teen looked at the sharp, sideways bend of his wrist -- then the pain struck and he screamed.
Kate paled as she looked at her handiwork. Self-defense or not, her stomach lurched at the agony inflicted on her attacker. She looked quickly around and noted Nicole looked equally sick as she surveyed the injured bodies littering the sand.
Nicole spoke, shakily, as she made sure Kate was also OK. "I think we'd better let these four leave. Don't forget to pick up your shoes"
The attacker's screams of pain had diminished to moans as they slowly recovered to their feet. They looked fearfully at the two women.
Nicole nodded in the direction of the cleft, collected her shoes, and waited, keeping an eye on the teens as they staged a bedraggled retreat. The four teens kept glancing in her direction, seemingly fearful the two would finish them all off. Kate collected the weapons as they left, hurling them as far as possible into the ocean. As the youths disappeared into the cleft, the two women returned the way they'd come, staying close enough to the water's edge to ensure their tracks were obliterated.
They finally rounded the turn in the coastline and were well out of sight of the stretch of beach where the encounter had taken place.
Kate at first relaxed, and then the memory of the brief skirmish returned. The sound and feel of bone snapping under her blow echoed in her ears as the boy's face contorted in agony. Her stomach lurched at the memory. She ran up the sand to the edge of the bluff, followed by Nicole.
Five minutes later, the two finally had their stomachs more or less back under control. The remnants of lunch were concealed under sand where they had vomited, then dealt with dry heaves as mind and body rebelled against the memory of the fight.
"I don't want to do this anymore." Kate moaned as she fought to cope.
Her pale companion nodded. "I don't either; I'm sorry, Kate. I should have picked up on those kids being there before it got to that point."
By the time they reached the motel, they were finally recovered enough to think about food. A light tuna salad and some ginger ale to settle their still roiled stomachs were all either could manage.
Nicole's mind spun as she reviewed her actions. ~Stupid! Everything might have been lost if I hadn't been lucky, and that teen, and *Kate*.~ Her stomach lurched again at the memory of the shattered wrist and endangering her sister. There was no real need for either; she *HAD* to learn control and forethought. She said a silent prayer for forgiveness and help as she struggled to hold down her meal.
Sunday, January 14, 2001
"Well? Where is she? You've had a *month*. I expected results by now!"
"Sir, she hasn't shown up anywhere yet. No calls to battle; no confrontations in the press. This new queen is being quiet; we can't find her until she does something."
"That's not good enough! You can't let them get established!"
"Sir, we do have one idea. Why not let the western intelligence services do our work?"
The voice grew curious. "What do you mean?"
"We won't have time to set it up until the end of the year, but why not set up a series of operations and make the Amazons look responsible? Even if they don't find her, it will make the queen keep her head down and slow their rebuilding."
A low chuckle rumbled through the room. "That's hilarious. You're making two groups that should be allies into opponents." A sharp laugh escaped. "Excellent! Do what you've suggested as soon as the resources are available."
"As you wish, sir."
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