Silver Apples

Silver Apples

by Armond

Charlie has lots of things working against him - a shape shifting girl friend who’s PO'd at him, a jealous rival who wants his body —literally- and a job from the Goddess that didn’t work out so well the first time around. On the plus side, he's drinking good coffee.
 
 

 

*Author's note 1: I posted this story on another site five years ago, and am posting here by reader request. In doing so, however, I've done major editing; I really shouldn't have posted the first version in it's semi-edited state. Though the plot and characters are the same, the writing is leaner, more compact. That's the hope, anyway.

*Author's note 2: The title 'Silver Apples' comes from the the Yeats poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus. The last verses of the poem are:

The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun...

Which to me represent the Lady and Lord (see chapter 16). Listen to Donovan sing the poem by clicking here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQUT6mS0eY8&feature=related

 

~o~O~o~

I. Inizi

1.

"Hi ya, frozen stranger. Some storm outside, huh? You look like you need warming up. I'm Suzannah, the owner of this dump. Officially, I'm Princess Suzannah Yomaris Tinne, which is a mouthful. I'm still struggling with the 'Princess' thing, so for now, please call me Suz, okay?"

The snowman in the wheel chair wore a baffled look on his cold nipped face.

"Arrrrrree... y--y--ou... opennn," the fatigue clad man asked through chattering teeth.

"Yeah, but only for a while; I'm waiting for some dinner date friends to show up, if the weather will gimme a break. You're welcome to stay till then. Hey! I bet you're wondering what a Princess is doing, serving coffee in a place called Jumping Jack's Java Joint. Cute name, huh? I bought the place from Jack and never changed the name. Anyway, why don't you relax and guzzle a big mug of my special hot chocolate, and I'll tell tale -a fairy tale- to pass the time. You're gonna love it, 'cause it's all about the power of love. And -bonus- it's got all kinds of roller coaster twists, turns and subplots."

"Don't like that stuff. Ever since this..." the man swept a hand to his legs, "those 'feel good' stories seem like lies. Look, I know it's real popular to 'support the troops,' and thanks for letting me come in out of the snow and all, but you don't have to patronize me. Just let me warm up in here for a while in peace. I'll pay for the hot chocolate, too, in case you're worried."

"Not like fairy tales? You might as well say you don't like Christmas! Say, I know what! Are you a betting man, uh..."

"Benny. Name's Benny."

"Tell you what, Benny. I'll tell the story, and if you don't like it, the hot chocolate is on the house."

"You're gonna lose for sure, 'princess,' but go ahead. It's not like I have somewhere else to go. Knock yourself out."

"Aww Benny, have a better attitude ...Moi is even in the story, though I'm not one of the main characters - they're Charlie and Kerri. You'll like 'em. Now, as luck would have it, their tale started at this very spot, three weeks ago. It was snowing then too, but not so much as today...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The white mug seemed to glow red in her hand.

"One green tea chai, cousin, piping hot."

Suz set the now steaming mug in front of a woman clad in an ocean-blue crew neck sweater and slid into the opposite booth seat.

"My, my! Personal service from the owner herself." Kerri took a sip. "Mmm, great as usual, Suz, thanks! So how are you doing, cuz? Long day?"

Suz sank into the booth cushions and blew out a weary sigh. Lockets of her fiery hair fluttered off her forehead.

"Today seems like a month of Mondays, and it's only noon."

"What do you expect, when you got 'the hottest coffee in Denver.' ...Ooops! Switch that. Your rep is you are the hottest barista in Denver."

"Damn straight!" Suz flashed a grin. "To make my day more peachy, Queen Mama called again to 'light a fire under me' about my priorities."

"Someday you WILL have to take over for her, Suz..."

"Someday maybe, but not today," a wistful look flickered across Suz's face.

"Hey! Enough of my worries. You gotta try our new holiday low fat muffins." Suz hurried to the pastry counter and returned carrying a plate with a large muffin.

"Bite in - they're cranberry-apple! Doesn't that sound good? I call'um Crapplemuffs," Suz announced, beaming.

"Did you just say 'Crapplemuffs'?" Kerri tried to sound shocked. "Isn't there a law against putting words together like that, Suz? Crapplemuffs?"

"Just take a bite, okay?" Suz said through gritted teeth.

Kerri bit into the muffin. "Mmm! These Mapplecruffs are good! Bravo!"

"Crapplemuffs!" Suz growled. "You're spending way too much time with your wise-ass boyfriend; you sound just like him. Say! Where is lover boy?"

"He'll be here in a few; He wanted to see me before his meeting today with a new client."

"He's gotta work on Saturday? What's up with that?" Suz said.

"Don't know; some mystery woman has offered to pay an obscene retainer. He was up most of last night whipping his portfolio into shape."

"Wow! Charlie's bringing in the big guns, huh?"

"I hope he's bringing his 'big gun' home tonight, since this is our first together since my change. And we are going to be up all night long, depending on how he answers one tiny question.”

When Kerri turned away for a moment, Suz read the worried look. Kerri drew her brown hair behind her back, tied it in a knot, and turned back to Suz.

"You'd better whip up his precious 'Ristretto,'" Kerri rolled her eyes. "How pretentious to insist on a drink most people have never heard of ...gods, he's such a coffee nerd!"

"Watch your mouth! We adore coffee nerds 'round here!" Suz grinned. "So great sex aside, how are things between you two?"

"Not sure; things could be fantastic, or … over. We'll soon see," Kerri responded, her voice tight.

"How 'water' of you to be the drama queen - all emotion and no common. Are you serious?"

Kerri nodded. "Look at this sketch he did."

She pulled a folded drawing from her purse and slid it across the booth tabletop. Suz studied it.

"Man, he's good! I love the energy of his strokes..."

"Energy... you would love that," Kerri said.

"...and I love how he highlights your high cheek bones," Suz continued, "...the curve of your smile."

Suz looked at it again. "And your eyes... for a sketch, he so captured their liquid beauty..."

Kerri looked away, her cheeks reddening. "He's going to do an oil of this..."

"I wish he'd quit screwing around with commercial graphic crap and devote all his time to art,” Suz said. “If you ignore the muse too long, she flames your ass."

Suz pushed the drawing back to Kerri. "Do you think he'd paint me?"

"Gods are you vain! I'm sure he would be happy to for coffee credits ...but don't you get it? This is how he sees me! And it's so ...incomplete."

"Well of course its incomplete, he has no idea ...wait! You …you don't mean you want him to know everything, do you?"

"What I want..." Kerri's voice grew soft, her aqua blue eyes gazing at some unseen horizon,

"...is a love I can trust. Not a half love that always hides half of me. This time, I must. know."

Kerri let out a ragged sigh. "It's impossible to have something real when you're a shifter. I envy you, cuz, at least you can live a normal life."

"My life normal?” Suz barked out a laugh. “Please. Need I remind you my 'mother' is head of our little clan? She's on my ass every day about how I must assume the 'mantel of my ruling' responsibilities'. Look around; my place is filled with of full breeds and half-breeds, and your basic lovable clueless Ordinaries like your Charlie. It's a cross between Rick's Café and the alien bar scene from Star Wars. Normal life indeed."

"Fair point, but you know what I mean, normal for one of us. It IS different for me. I want to be with my love all the time; my feelings don't change when my body changes. Every three weeks I have to hide from him, lie to him, tell him I'm away on business or some other excuse."

"You have feelings for him when you're female and when you are male?" Suz asked . "It's always been a point of curiosity in 'the tribe' about whether a shape shifter's orientation changed with a body change. I always just assumed it did."

"Mmm-hmm, most think so. But that's not how it is, at least not for me. I'm like ...the reverse of a schizophrenic. Instead of two personalities in one body, I'm one personality in two. And the problem I've got is I want Charlie in both."

"In one body form you're straight and in the other you're gay? Oy! This IS a problem! I'm not sure Charlie's the kind of guy who could go both ways. This is serious if you are willing to risk telling him everything!"

"It could be. Charlie is different, I think ...I've never seen a person, either Ordinary or Elf, with so much potential! As you are so fond of saying, we Waters have a habit of deep thinking..."

"Hey, I didn't mean it as a compliment!” Suz said. “Paralysis by analysis? A sucky plan for tackling problems."

"Point is, I've given a lot of thought to Charlie's personality and whether we are compatible. What I've found, is he can be the most amazing balance of elements: sometimes he's water, like me, empathetic and emotional, or fire, like you, creative, intense. He's air, carefree and cerebral, and yet he can be earth, too, grounded and practical."

"But?"

Kerri blew out another long sigh. "He's so inconsistent and …and superficial sometimes! He … running from his own depth, if that makes any sense."

"It does." Suz nodded her head in agreement, smiling at the thought of Charlie. "Gotta admit, he's a most unordinary Ordinary."

Kerri bobbed her head up and down. "Always in the middle of some ridiculous practical joke, but just when you think he's incapable of serious thought, he quotes some Dante's Inferno passage and lapses into a melancholy funk.”

“I know!” Suz said, lowering her voice. “And there's something I've found fascinating; he's scared shitless by fire. Have ya noticed? He runs at the sight of it. Kinda like the monster in the Frankenstein movies, ya know? 'argghh - fire bad- arrghh'. Probably explains why he never shacked up with me. Man, if ever happens, though..." Suz stopped speaking when she saw Kerri staring at her, and not in a fond way.

"B-but it never could, cousin, what with our relationship and your relationship and his fear of fire..." she said, clipping her words.” Anyway, he IS an amazing paradox."

*AHEM* "I agree; he has this incredible hidden well of depth. And I hope..." Her face tensed, as if she was trying to convince not only Suz but herself too.

"...I pray ... I can unblock it, to make Charlie the rare person, who could love me, and not the female body figure I wear."

"But sweetie, even if you could, think what you're asking of our boy. First, to accept the existence of our race, and if this doesn't send him running to the nearest exit sign, you want him to accept his lover turns into a guy every three weeks, and wants to love him when she's a he! Is it realistic. No! Is it fair, to expect him to be a ...a ...what, a bisexual monogamist? And if he can't? What then?"

"If he can't then ...I don't know ...it's over, maybe ...I haven't decided yet," Kerri said, tears welling in her eyes. "I'll tell you this, Suz, I barely escaped one nightmare relationship, I won't waste one moment in another."

"You're making a huge mistake, Kerri, he's NOT like Rachael! Rachael didn't love you!" Suz's light brown eyes sparked red. "She was in love with novelty of someone who could change into anyone she wished. She's a sick twisted bitch who tried to psychologically enslave you. I was never so glad to see the back of someone."

"All the more reason I must know about Charlie." Kerri said. "...and ... oops! sshhh! Here he comes!"
 

~o~O~o~

 
2.

"Let me introduce meself," an airy voice announced; the man's eyes twinkled as he extended his hand in greeting.

"Me name is Aethelfrith Uath. Ah'm an historian an researcher an Ah'm trying to track doon the theft of one of our antiquities."

"Glad to meet you, Mister...um Aethafr-a ...um"

"Ah've heard me name pronounced most creatively ower the years...it's best if yee just call me 'Mr. U'."

"Of course! Welcome to the Rocky Mountain Keep, Mr. U!" answered an elfin woman, as she rose from her seat behind a large oaken desk to take his hand. She was in her late fifties, with graying red hair, round cherry cheeks and bright sparkling eyes. "You're from the Northumbrian Keep?"

"Aye! Hoo did yee knaa? Was it me accent or me name?" Mr. U asked, as he removed his winter jacket and hung it from the back of the chair.

"Accent? What accent?" Jessica asked in mock innocence. She smiled and continued, "To be honest, I am familiar with your writings."

"Well, Ah hope you aren't one of me critics who thinks Ah'm a kook!"

"On the contrary, I think your premise is undeniable; we are disappearing from the world. With each age we become fewer. This I accept. It's your conclusions I disagree with, that the salvation of our race is somehow tied to the return of the Akasha. Sorry; not a realistic solution. It's been six hundred years since the last one; no more are coming. After what happened to her, why would the Goddess ever send another? No, I appreciate your view, but we need solutions for here and now. We must learn to live in the present if we are to have any hope of existing in the future. The dream of the Akasha is from our rosy past. Our reality is we live in a world driven by technology, information and power. I'm Jessica Tinne, by the way, Queen of this Keep."

"Ah, Queen Tinne! The git person Ah was looking to see! But before we get to the reason Ah'm here, Ah need to say more aboot the Akasha. You're from the 'Realist' school Ah see, you've been reading articles by Terrance Beith of the Moscow Keep?"

"Beith, yes but also Liz Dair."

"Ah! Ms. Dair, o the Provence Keep, the chief of me many critics. Am Ah the only one who sees the irony of such a hard core Realist living in dreamy provincial countryside? Beith and Dair have it wrong! We do not need to get better at adapting to modern life! Look around yee and yee will see a world spinning out o balance, a world filled with pollution, massive extinction o species, global climate change. An all this has happened since the last Akasha was here. It has happened because there has been no Akasha.

Mr. U paced Jessica's office with hands behind back and eyes fixed hard at the floor.

“Where is the balance? Humans will soon learn to merge with machines! Do we Elves dumbly nod our heads an accept such change simply because the technology is possible? Do we become part machine too? Are Ordinaries no longer te be human, then? Are we te no longer be Elves? In the past, the Akasha offered choices te Elves and Ordinaries alike, choices that balanced the changes. She centered. She healed. She showed different paths. We need her now, Elves and Ordinaries alike!"

"Then where is she, Mr. U, where is your beloved Akasha?" Jessica's voice grew loud and fire sparked in her eyes. "The Ordinaries brutally murdered the last, and hunted the rest of us for centuries! Hear me! I lead the Elves of this Keep and the problems they face cannot be answered by telling them to wait for a savior. I hope your visit does not involve a request for support for your theories. If so, security will drive you back to DIA to catch the next flight out."

"As much as Ah'd love to discuss this further with yee, as Ah said, it's not why Ah'm here. We've seen a theft from our archives an Ah'm trying te catch up with the thief. She's been spotted here.”

"Really?" the anger in Jessica's voice evaporated, replaced by concern. "Who is she? What did she take?"

"Her name is Rachael Fern, an she's pinched the Pumed Egwyddor Llyfr chan Hud. Ah've been sent te fetch it, an her, back te our Keep."

"The Pumed Eg...um...er..."

"An ancient book o' magic. Its use ...even its reading, was forbidden by the Combined Keeps centuries ago."

"She ...stole ...an ancient ...magic ...book?" Jessica struggled to sort through the implications. "Rachael is from our Keep, and has a dicey history here. Why did she steal it?"

"The very question we have te know" he replied, his eyes meeting hers. "The lass is up te mischief for sure."

"I'll alert security to detain her ...and we'll need to warn Kerri Saille. Rachael and Kerri were lovers and when Kerri broke it off a year ago, Rachael went postal. We had to lock her down for several months. When we released her, she just vanished."

"Well, now, that's when she must have showed up at our Keep, by the curse o the gods."

"It's an easy bet she'll seek out Kerri. I'll call my daughter, and have her spread the word among our people; they gather at her place. Pray the gods will grant us luck."
 

~o~O~o~

 
3.

*Ahem*

"Questions, Benny? I was just thinking you had a WTF look on your face."

"Elves and fairies? In Denver? What kind of bullshit is this? You don't expect me to believe this, do you?"

"I do indeed. Here. Have another chocolate chunk cookie, and let me try to explain some of this to you.” Suz pushed another warm gooey cookie his way.

“I'll give you the short version: Kerri and I are members of a magical race which has lived along side humanity, well, forever. Officially, we are Elves; informally, fairies, a name we detest. So you know, this is a REAL fairytale. We elves, each of us, are gifted with an elemental power of fire, water, air and earth. Mine is fire. Kerri's element is water.

"In the story, didn't you just call Kerri a shiter?" Benny snickered.

"No, my hearing impaired friend, I called her a 'shifter.' Kerri is a Water, but not your common rain or water worker. She's a Shape Shifter; because water is the element of change, ya know, from solid to liquid to gas. Shifters are the rarest of our race, their bodies regularly change gender, male to female and back, few weeks. Tracks the moon or something. They can also change their shapes to be anyone they imagine, but can only hold the form for a few hours - when they revert to their default bodies."

"Ha! I've seen these movies. So how do the shiters' clothes change when they change?" Benny leaned back in his wheel chair with a cocky smile on his face. His cheeks burned rosy, all signs of coldness had left him.

"Is it like the Hulk, buttons popping off an stuff? I mean, if you're gonna make shit up, at least have it be consistent shit."

"A most excellent question, Benny! The answer is uber cool; the clothes shifters wear are illusions. They buy black skin tight outfits from a clothing company run by some Airs. The Airs embed air illusion magic into the fabric, allowing the shifter to form a cloth illusion with a thought; any outfit they can imagine. Like I said; uber cool. All elves would wear the duds if the Airs didn't charge an absolute fortune. No warranty, either. Look, all becomes clearer as we get more into the story. Why don't we get back to it, cause Charlie is about to enter the story and what happens next is funky..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kerri waved at the man entering the coffee shop, who waved back and headed to the women.

Suz watched Kerri try -and fail- to suppress an affectionate smile at the sight of the man:

Well over six feet and cut, he filled out a multicolored plaid board shirt and faded jeans in all the right ways. Beads of water from melted snowfall glistened in wavy midnight hair, and his deep blue eyes sparkled as he neared Kerri.

Other customers called out "Charlie!" as he walked through the room. This was a Java Junction tradition, as Charlie was hailed as the biggest caffeine consumer along the Front Range.

He nodded coolly in return, and, on reaching Kerri, planted a long kiss on her lips. Kerri blushed and pulled away, though not too quickly.

"Man I've missed you! There's got to be a job here that won't take you away so much," he whispered, and leaned in for another kiss.

Dog howls greeted their continued PDA, followed by Suz yelling, "Stop! You'll scare away my customers!"

"Thank you..." Charlie said, turning up his collar, "Thank you very much..." and scooted into the booth next to her.

"So, Elvis, where've you been all morning?" Kerri asked.

"Working. Last minute prep. I was going to call, but my cell phone's dead."

"You know, to charge it, you actually have to plug it in."

"Whoa? Is that what the cord is for? Do you have a piece of paper? I should jot that down."

"Funny. Hey, Suz and I were just debating whether you could drink a normal cup of coffee, or if you always had to have a fancy one" Kerri winked at Suz.

"Normal? Fancy? I have no frame of reference for such obtuse coffee descriptions."

"Oh please, I was kidding,” Kerri said, after giving head shake. “But why in the name of the gods do you put so much importance on it? All we're talking about here are smashed brown beans mucking up good water. It's just coffee."

"Just coffee? Just coffee? Blasphemy! BLASPHEMY I say!" Charlie modulated his voice to affect a southern preacher drawl.

"...and you shall be con-demned, con-DEE- umned to the 10th circle of hell where all must drink instant coffee for e-tern-it-y!"

"Uh Suz? Did Dante's Hell have a 10th circle for..." Kerri whispered to Suz.

Suz shook her head but whispered "sshh! He's on a roll!"

Charlie sprang to his feet and paced in front of the booth, hands flailing.

"Why, the forces of Gawd hisself must align to create the perfect cup. Did Juan Valdez plant in the right place? For the best beans must grow high - in - the - sky!"

"Say it, brother!" was shouted from a nearby table.

"Did Juan choose the right earth, sacred earth? For only a magical combination of nutrients, drainage and shade trees gives birth to the holiest of holies - coffee cherries."

"Hallelujah!" came another call.

"And water, the life givin' mountain monsoon rains, - must - come!"

"And what of fire, for roasting, Brother," Suz was into it now, eyes glowing.

"Patience with the fire, sister Suz! I'm coming to it. Yes, the beans must be roasted to perfection; for too hot or long surely brings coffee damnation!"

Charlie lifted his eyes skyward.

"So ...for the cup of joe that knocks you to your knees and shout 'PRAISE THE LORD,' there must be the perfect blending, a magical blending, of the four elements; air, earth, water and fire."

Suz and Kerri exchanged raised eyebrow glances.

"It seems," Kerri asked, trying to bring Charlie back to the planet, "rather by chance the elements come together in just the way needed for 'good coffee'. Is it all just luck then, dear?"

"Luck, yes my child. Fortune, chance, destiny even. But there's more to it than that. Much more. There is a ...mystical dynamic involved. The coffee grower, the roaster, and..."

Charlie grinned at Suz, "the sainted barista."

"These are the alchemists who watch over the four elements, from the growing, to the roasting to the brewing. These are wonder workers who know when more or less of this and that is needed, to produce ...a miracle."

"Amen! And pass the refills, Suz!" came a chorus from nearby tables.

Suz put her arm around Charlie "I just love this one; he's sooo good for business."

"Back off coffee wench, he's mine! " Kerri answered with a grin. "It sounds like Buddha didn't need to sit under that bodhi tree at all, all he needed was a good cup of coffee."

"I'd better get his Ristretto going. The pressure's on now, since his eternal salvation rides on every cup." Suz said, starting back to the coffee counter.

Kerri leveled a cryptic look at him. "Do you believe all your talk of magic, balance and the four elements?"

"Sounded good, didn't it? Of course, it's true - as in all things, a balance is needed." Charlie said, "but honestly, love, magic?"
 

~o~O~o~

 
4.

"Magic, love, deepest darkest magic will bring you back to me," the woman hummed, as she placed four incense sticks in a diamond shape on the floor.

When Rachael learned Kerri had fallen in love with an Ordinary, she spiraled into depression. Panicked, desperate, Rachael knew she must find a way to force Kerri back to her. Night after night she burned with jealousy, and found herself wishing she could switch places with the man. But no elfin magic could do such a thing.

Or ...was there? For, one night in a dream, she journeyed to a strange island filled with apple trees, and at the base of the tree in the middle of the orchard lay an ancient book of spells. In the dream, she had turned to the far back and found a chapter of interesting spells. Though she could not read them, she knew, as you do in dreams, these were transformational spells.

She also knew they were forbidden.

When Rachael awoke, she was filled with hope and booked a flight on the next plane to Greece. There, she traveled to the Aeolian Keep, which housed the largest elfin library on the planet. Rachael dove into researching her people's magical lore - for she must find those spells!

After several hectic months, she found her first real clue - a reference to an old Combined Keeps edict:

'Henceforth, it is forbidden to engage, employ or invoke,
the spells contained in the Pumed Egwyddor Llyfr chan Hud.

Henceforth the Pumed Egwyddor Llyfr chan Hud shall be stored
and preserved by the Staraá­ of the Keep of Northumbria, where
none save he may view it.

This counsel decrees that any violation of this order shall be a
capital offense.

So ordered - Edict 402, Council of the Combined Keeps'

'Death? Death?! Elves NEVER executed their criminals! What magic could be so horrible ...or powerful?' Rachael wondered, sensing the path to realizing her vision.

From Greece, she traveled to the Northumbrian Keep. But there she ran an into a brick wall in the form of an insufferable Elf Staraá­, or historian, with an unpronounceable name, and an indecipherable accent. The fellow kept the manuscript under rigid lock and key. Worse, he was an Air too, and so was immune to her illusion magic.

She might never have gotten the manuscript, but for Lady Fortune's favors once more. The Staraá­ had been challenged to debate his absurd theories about the return of the Akasha at the Australian Keep, and so had to travel to Perth - Australia, not Scotland.

Once he was gone, Rachael used her Air illusions to take the ancient book. A quick peek confirmed the spell book was the one from her dream!

The Goddess must be guiding my venture, Rachael mused. I will succeed!

"Not long now, my Kerri, and we shall be together, forever. Hmm, I like the ring of that..."

Rachael squinted at the ancient tome open before her. "So, step one, invoke the elements."

Candles she placed at four diamond points, and at each candle a bowl. In one she poured water, another, soil. In the third she poured a clear liquid, which she then held a match over. A small blue-white flame flicked bright. The final bowl contained nothing save air.

Lifting the book, again Rachael prepared to recite the incantations. So many variables to hold in her mind - the transfer itself, how much concentration would that take? Then the problem of memories, one to preserve and one to erase. What were those risks?

She shook her head and decided she was over thinking. Concentrate! What was the essence of the magic? Transferring male to female, female to male, memory lost and memory to remain. She cleared her throat:

trosglwyddo gwryw i benyw, benyw i gwryw, cof colli, cof aros

After she spoke the spell words save the final one of activation, Rachael stood to regard her work: the soft flickering of the fire bowl was the single sound to be heard; blue glow, gentle white incense smoke, serenity.

Yet she sensed -could feel- the kinetic energy building, waiting, to unleash.

She smiled, and sat cross-legged in the circle's center, humming again:

“The web now spun,

My will be done!”
 

~o~O~o~

 
5.

“Very poetic, dear. Now shut up about coffee ...we need to have a serious talk, Charlie.

Uh-oh!

“...Did I leave the toilet seat up again?”

"No. Er, yes, but that's not what we need to talk about."

"Okay, shoot."

Kerri took a deep breath.

"When you say 'I love you' to me, what do you mean?"

"Crap! So if I answer wrong, no sex tonight?"

"I'm serious."

"Sorry,” Charlie said. “What do I mean when I say those words? I don't know, it's hard enough for me just to say 'em, Kerri. I'm not sure I know what you're asking."

"It's simple, dear. You surely had a reason to 'say those words.' Is it a deep deep feeling you have? My smashing looks?" she batted her eyelashes. "The wonderful way we are together? Or something else?"

"Well, first, you are beautiful, Kerri..."

Kerri's eyes stormed. "My looks? Your love for me is based on looks alone?"

"No ...wait ...let me finish! God your mood changes faster than weather at sea! But hey! I don't see what's wrong with loving the way someone looks-"

"-I see! Random chance is the basis of your love for me ... a random genetics lottery that produced the person you're madly in love with. Looks. Are. Nothing! It's not the surface of the ocean that matters - the surface is the tiniest part. It's all that lies beneath."

"Agreed, there's more to love than looks," he countered, "but …hang on! ...Are you saying looks don't matter at all? Rather noble, aren't you?

"Charlie, I would love you ...however you looked: fat, thin, old or young or male or female, even."

"Wait just a freakin' minute,” Charlie shouted. “So we are clear, you're saying, you would love me, if I were a fat bald slobbery toothless old man? Or better, a fat bald toothless old woman who smelled of ...old socks?"

"Yes!" Kerri shouted back, "yes I would! Can't you say the same about me? Could you love me if I were an old woman... or man?"

"This is just silly, asking me if I would love you if you were an old man-"

"-or just a man," Kerri interrupted. "I'll admit this sounds weird, but it's important to me...is your love true ? ...could you?"

"You'll fit well with my family, Kerri,” Charlie offered, hoping to change the subject. “We've got a checkered history of odd ducks, on my fathers' and mother's side."

"Answer me," Kerri pressed.

"Love you as man? That's an ...uncomfortable hypothetical. You're serious?"

"How you answer is key to our future."

"What's got into you?” Charlie pleaded “Stop talking this way, love, it's not funny."

" Answer!"

"Why are you doing this? I love you, Kerri Saille, I love everything about you. Isn't this enough?"

"You're avoiding the question!"

"Fine," Charlie yelled. "Fine! No. I could not love you if you were a man. Happy now? May we please stop this nonsense?"

When Kerri's eyes teared, Charlie sensed he'd committed a horrible error; he reached out to caress her face. She pushed his hand away.

"I'll stop by later to pick up my things from your place."

"What!? I don't understand..." Charlie was floored. "You're ...breaking up with me over this? Let's talk about this ...DON'T DO THIS! Tell me what you want me to say and I'll say it!"

"I'd appreciate it if you'd leave now. Don't you have your presentation to make?"

"I don't give a flip about my presentation! Let's talk this through, okay? I ...I ...of course I would love you if you were a man or woman or anything."

Kerri refused to look at him. "Stop making a scene, Charlie. Retain some dignity and leave."

He stood, slowly, and turned to walk away. Despair and nausea washed over him as he grasped this could be the end of their love. The wonder and joy he found with her…gone!

From the ashen pale of his face, Kerri was scared he might collapse on the floor.

"Charlie?"

"Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate…"

Her eyes went icy cold, “So! Even now you can't resist an idiot quote from ...Dante, I presume? Gods are you self-absorbed! How could I have been so wrong about you? Not that it matters, but what, pray tell, is this quote supposed to mean?"

"Abandon all hope, ye who...'" he stopped as his throat closed, choked by emotion. Finally, he whispered:

"It means, I am lost!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Suz approached the booth worried on her face, setting the demitasse cup down on the table.

"Where's..."

Kerri turned from the window where she had been staring at the snow fall. Tears
Streaked her cheeks.

Suz's eyes widened. "Oh no! He couldn't accept what you are?"

"We never got that far,” Kerri said “I asked him why he loved me, and when he told me I was beautiful, I went off into a rage."

"Yeah, always pisses me off too,” Suz said.

"This is serious. So you know, I told him I'd be by to pick up my stuff from his place."

"Dammit, Kerri! Why'd you do a stupid thing like that? Big ...fuckin..."

"...mistake." Kerri finished the thought. "I know ...I know! With all my talk about how he should love me, I forgot the other side of the coin - how much I love him. Why did I do it!? Why didn't you talk me out of this?"

"Hey! I tried! But you wouldn't lis-"

"-I ...I've got to go after him..." Kerri interrupted. "Tell him I wasn't serious, grovel, whatever. I have this terrible feeling I've screwed up and things will never be the same again."

"Calm down! Don't be too hard on yourself; you wanted what we all want - you wanted it all."

Suz raised a scarlet eyebrow and drew closer. "Now, if you want my advice, what you should do, is wait for him at home in something hot, and when he opens his door, don't let him say one word. Just reach up and-"

Suz's cell ring tone of the Doors, 'Come On Baby Light My Fire,' chimed. Suz looked at the caller ID.

"Sorry. It's Mommy," she frowned. "I'll call her later. Anyway, reach up and give him your wettest French kiss - you Water types are so good at that - and then grind..."

Her cell phone rang again; she punched the green button. "Dammit, what? You remember something you left off your hit list of my faults?"

Suz's anger drained away, replaced by shock.

"When? How do you know?" pause “She's right here" Suz's eyes looked at Kerri. "Yes, of course I'll let her know” pause “I'll spread the word for the clan to be on the look out... you too. Bye."

"What was that all about," Kerri asked.

"Brace yourself - she's baaack."

"Who?" Kerri said.

"Rachael. Seems she's stolen a forbidden scroll something and is in hiding nearby."

Suz reached across the booth and held Kerri's hand. "When it rains, it pours. I'm so sorry. First Charlie, now this."

A thought occurred to Suz. "Charlie's mystery client is..."

"A woman, I think," Kerri answered. "Charlie said she was someone new, not a referral from a current client. You don't think ...it would be too much of a coincidence."

"Call him, just in case,” Suz said. “Better safe than sorry."

"I can't, his cell's dead. Wait, Charlie got the meeting address from his phone messages - I'll call and get it." Kerri punched several numbers into Suz's phone and listened.

"Why doesn't he ever erase his old messages," Kerri growled as she plodded her way through them.

"Here it is … shit shit shit SHIT! It's her! It's Rachael! We've got to go!"

"We'll take my 'Stang, she'll get us there faster,” Suz said. “I'll call Mother on the way and have her send help to meet us."

"Gods! What is she doing?” Kerri was wild-eyed with panic.

"If she's done anything to him, she's toast - literally." Suz's eyes blazed red.
 

~o~O~o~

 
6.

Charlie had trouble finding the meeting place. He expected to arrive at an office complex. Instead, he found himself parked in front of an abandoned warehouse in an industrial area off Sante Fe Drive.

Charlie felt a sense of -he didn't know how else to think of it- doom. He knew it was stupid to go ahead with the meeting; he was so numbed he could barely remember his name. The problem was, with his cell phone dead, so he had no way to call the client and cancel. A pay phone would work, except, the woman's number was on his cell, which was still dead. It would simpler to show up, stumble in, and beg another meeting time.

The warehouse was bare - concrete floor and metal walls - but Charlie saw a room at this far end, with light flickering from its doorway.

"Hello?" his voice reverberated.

"In here," came the response

Charlie's echoing footstep sounded death row ominous as he approached the doorway. He expected to find chairs, desk or table, telephones, computers, lamps and other office kit, and find someone resembling an owner of a high-powered media publications group.

Instead, he stumbled into a room lit by four candles, placed to form four compass points.

In its center, a white-robed woman sat cross-legged on a folded cloud- white blanket. Beside her were incense holders, burning sticks that coiled sage smelling smoke into the dim lit air.

The woman was breathtaking; except for her robe, she wore no clothes. She was lithe figured, with alabaster smooth skin. Her silver and albino white hair fell to her small breasts, framing her lean face, soft thin lips, delicate nose, and thin arched eyebrows. Most unsettling were her night-black oval eyes.

"Excuse me, I must have come to the wrong place."

"No, Charlie, you've come to the right place."

"I ... uh ...don't think so." Charlie's instincts screamed 'RUN', and he started backing out the way he had come.

"Ah, but what kind of trouble will Kerri be in if you don't stay?"

Charlie froze. "What did you say?"

"Kerri. It would be a shame if something happened to her."

"You're ...threatening Kerri?" He stepped toward her. "Who are you?"

"You have no clue who she is and what she can do. Irrelevant at this point...for you, because she's mine!"

Anger flared in him; he strode into the circle of candles. As he crossed the boundary, the candles blazed bright, sending ozone flooding into the room.

"Lady, who the hell are you?"

The circle's sudden power surge startled the woman. Curious. She recovered and flashed a toothy smile.

"You are about have 'hands-on' experience in who I am."

She lifted up her arms and shouted:

"ACTIO!"

A rainbow-hued vortex sprang up to swirl around them.

Electricity crackled and formed an outline around their bodies. Charlie spun to the floor, even as something wrenched from deep inside.
 

~o~O~o~

 
II. Centrale

7.

A beeping monitor whined; the singular sound in the room.

Suz broke the trance. "Sit, Kerri; there's nothing to do til he wakes."

Kerri stood by the unconscious body of Charlie. She gripped his hand, willing him awake. But she could not; his body lay still on the sterile white infirmary bed.

"You heard Dr. Ruis," Suz said. "He found no injuries, and his vitals are good. Sit, rest; Charlie's safe here at the Keep and Mother will deploy all our resources to give him the best medical care. With Rachael locked away in a detention cell, she can't do any more mischief. Everything will be fine!"

"Then why won't he wake up? Why?" Kerri's eyes turned watery. "Charlie, please, come back to me. I'm so sorry for what I said."

His eyes fluttered open.

"Charlie?" Kerri asked, breathless.

"I'm ...Charlie ...what…?" he whispered in a thin raspy voice.

"Honey, are you okay?"

"Okay? …think …so." His eyes narrowed as he stared into her face.

"Who are you?"

Kerri shot a look at Suz. "It's me! Kerri. Think, love; what do you remember?"

He turned to Suz. "Should ...I know you?"

"Absolutely. I'm the lass who brews you the best coffee in the world."

"Um, coffee," the man answered, as if accessing a data base. "Do I like coffee?"

"You're mad about the stuff!" Suz answered.

"Oh. Okay."

As other questions produced similar non responses, Kerri's expression turned from deep concern to stormy wrath. She let go of his hand.

"Watch him, Suz. Let nothing happen to him."

"Where are you going?" Suz read Kerri's face and fire alarm bells clanged in her head.

"No! Do not go to Rachael's cell; don't go vigilante on me, Kerri! Mother will take care of this - stay here for Charlie!"

Kerri wasn't listening. "This was her plan, to destroy his memory of me? Somehow this would bring me back to her? She - must - suffer."

"Don't do this!" Suz saw the fury flooding Kerri and grabbed her arm. "As your friend, I'm begging you to wait. He just woke up; we don't know enough yet. Let Mother sort this out!"

Kerri yanked her arm away. "If you are my friend, you will GET OUT OF MY WAY. Time for the bitch to feel some pain."

Before Suz could answer, Kerri stormed from the room and vanished into the Keep's many corridors.

Sighing, Suz flipped opened her phone, and pressed some buttons.

"Mother? Suz …we've got another problem."
 

~o~O~o~

 
8.

"You seem like you're enjoying the story a little, hmm Benny? Want something to eat Benny? One of my Crapplemuffs, maybe?"

"Well, no, miss, uh, Suz, I don't have any mon... I mean, I'm not hungry."

"Please have one, my treat. Think of it as helping me with the product research; you see, there is a debate about the, um, appeal, of the brilliant name I came up with. Please?"

As she handed him one, steam rose from the muffin. Benny almost inhaled the pastry whole.

"These are great," he said, crumbs spewing out. "Cruffinmuffins are fine by me!"

"It's Crapple... never mind," Suz sighed. "Any questions about the story while we're on a commercial break?"

"I admit, 'Princess', the story's kinda good," Benny shifted in his wheelchair, his face mixture of curiosity and disbelief. "But what's all this business about a 'Keep'? You 'keep' losing me there."

"Oh yeah, sorry! A Keep is our -the elves I mean- name for our regional headquarters. We got fifteen or twenty of 'em around the world. Think cross between a fort and commune. We call it a Keep because... will, I don't know, exactly. We've called 'em Keeps for thousands of years. Anyway, this one -the one Mother is queen of- is the Rocky Mountain Keep. It's near Waterton Canyon in the foothills. Pretty amazing complex. I wish I could show you it; I give great tours. When I was a kid, my mother used to make me give tours to visiting Elf dignitaries."

"Now, c'mon! Cut the crap, okay?" challenged Benny.

"I shit you not, my friend. We have meeting rooms and offices, communication, medical facilities and food services, boarding school facilities for the special needs that Elf children present, a security force, and even have correctional facilities We're our own secret government."

"A secret fairy government? No offense, but this is where the story is lame. I stopped believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny when I was five. I mean, if this were true, wouldn't the government know about it? The real one, I mean? Why haven't you been discovered? With the surveillance stuff I saw, when I was over there..." Benny fidgeted in his chair as his memory replayed what he had seen and suffered, "a-anyway, there's no way something like this would be off the grid, you know? So it's a weak spot in the story is all."

"Don't be too sure, my friend. Oh we've been hiding under the radar for far longer than radars have existed, Benny, trust me. Our Air Elementals are skilled at illusion. When people see our Keep, they see an engineering and manufacturing complex producing weapons system components.”

"Now wait a minute!" Benny answered. "Your Keep can't be at Waterton Canyon because that's the old Johns Manville complex, right? Am I right?"

"If you think so, Benny," Suz grinned. "And does your government know? Nope. We had a bad stretch with those witch trials, but that was due to a split among the Elves about whether we should 'go public' to try help humanity, which was rather pathetic at the time; ya know, what with the dark ages and all. Instead of being thankful, humans burned our Akasha …er, religious leader …and chased us with the Inquisition. Those were bad times, the Burning Times..."

Suz's face turned sad for a moment before she continued. "Ancient history, as they say. Back to the story, my blizzard compadre; lots more to tell. I've even got a 'hot' scene coming up if I do say so myself."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The pale woman tried sitting up, but restraints on her arms and legs held her to the bed. Her eyes flashed a wild look as they scanned the cement walls and fluorescent ceiling lights of the cell.

"Is …this …a …hospital?"

Words were hard to form, and she had trouble focusing on the thin white haired man and bright-eyed eyed woman before her.

"Why am I tied down like this?"

"As if we'd allow you to raise your arms to invoke your element! Stop playing the fool, Rachael," Jessica demanded. "Tell us what you did to Kerri's boyfriend and what you were doing with the stolen book."

"Who? I am Charlie, Kerri's boyfriend ...I ...what's …wrong with me? ...Why can't I ...think ...everything is …jumbled."

"Drop the games and start cooperating! Otherwise we might let Kerri in to chat with you. You don't want that, trust me. She's out of her mind with rage and has vowed to kill you if-"

"-Kerri ... kill me? Why?"

"Because of what you did to her boyfriend. You are in danger even here. I've posted guards, but she's a shifter, you know, and stealth is their business."

"I don't understand ...I told you, I'm Charlie..."

The hardness in Jessica's eyes wavered as she scanned the woman's face. Something was out of place.

"Is this a trick, Mr. U," Jessica asked, "or is she suffering trauma from the forbidden magic?"

"Based on what Ah know of what she stole, it is possible, Jessica," he answered.

"You mean …there's a chance she might be someone other than Rachael?" Jessica's mouth hung open.

"I'll need te research the spell …but, aye."

"Lord and Lady!” Jessica said “And I thought I'd seen everything!"

"Who are you people?" The woman said. She gave a feeble tug at her restraints "Feel so weird …what have you done to me?"

Jessica stood up, galvanized. "You, whoever you are, will stay here until we get to the bottom of this. But if this is a trick, Rachael..."

She hoped to get a flicker of recognition from the woman. When Jessica received nothing but an uncomprehending stare, she turned back to Mr. U.

“I know you will be leaving soon now you've recovered your manuscript, but could you delay your departure, and lend us your lore expertise? You see what we're up against; we could use your help to sort out what Rachael has done. You could look over her notes, use our library..."

Mr. U held up his hand. "Ah'll do my best. Ahm glad te help."

As they stepped out of the cell, Jessica saw the guard was not at his post. She heard a flushing sound from down the hall and a lumbering hulk emerged from the men's room, still zipping his pants.

"Everything came out well, I trust Tony?"

"Yes ma'am" The guard turned beet red.

"Excellent. Next time, do not leave your post unattended."

"Yes ma'am ...I mean no ma'am, I won't.

"Tony, this is critical. Get that earth brain of yours working. The shifter Kerri Saille is missing, loose somewhere in the Keep. It is possible, no, likely, she will try to visit this prisoner. She is extremely dangerous. Under no circumstances allow Kerri to see the prisoner. I want a full detail of guards posted here 'round the clock. Is that understood, Tony?"

"Yes ma'am!"

Jessica pulled her cell phone from her pocket and tapped the speaker button.

"Stacey, Tony is guarding -whoever is the cell- alone. Send more guards immediately, and send a team to meet me ASAP in the infirmary room where the Ordinary is staying. He may be Rachael for all I know, and no one is guarding her, er, him. Gods, this is confusing!"

"That's why you get paid the big bucks, my queen." The cell phone voice answered.

"You mean I'm supposed to get paid? And all these years I've been working pro bono! Also, warn Captain Straif to have her officers watch for Kerri in her male or female form..."

"As if that will do any good ...she can take any form she chooses..." A voice from the phone answered.

"Way to cheer me up," Jessica sighed. She turned to the guard again.

"Tony, let no one other than Dr. Ruis or me enter this room.”

Jessica drew close to the huge guard

“And Tony, the rest of the detail won't be here for a few more minutes. I'm counting on you to protect the prisoner. Clear?"

"Yes ma'am! Anyone that's gonna get in there will have to go in through me."

"Good man. Please come with me to the infirmary, Mr. U."

Aye, ma'am ah will. Wouldn't miss this fre the world."

As Jessica strode down the Keep corridors, she spoke again into her cell phone:

"Also, Stace, call Dr. Ruis and tell him to sedate ...umm …Charlie-in-Rachael's body? Rachael-in Charlie? Crap! Who is who?"

"Got no idea what you're talking about, boss. If it's a problem, sedate um both."

"Great idea! Have Ruis sedate Rachael and Charlie."

"How sedated?" the cell phone voice queried.

"Like you'd sedate an elephant. One last thing. Track down Dr. John Ailm. His number is in my Outlooks contacts. We need his particular expertise for this ...what ...potential gender emergency? Anyway, tell him to have his butt on the next plane out of California."

"Should we send the private jet?"

"No. It would take too long to get there and back. Commercial's got to be faster. Handle all the travel arrangements for him. I don't care if he flies first class or has to sit on the airplane toilet, get him here stat!

"Done. Anything else?" the cell phone voice asked.

Jessica sighed, "Yeah, have Ruis give me a double of whatever he mixes up for to Rachael and Charlie."
 

~o~O~o~

 
9.

The cell door opened and the guard stepped in the room. He walked to the cot where the woman lay. Her eyes sprang open when he yanked the restraints loose from her arms and legs.

"Hello, Rachael, been a while, eh? I've just told our queen none would see you save through me. Don't think I lied, not technically. Get up, dearest. Time to bleed."

Without waiting for a response, the bulky man grasped the woman by her right arm and leg and hurled her across the room. She slammed against the concrete wall with a crunch, then slid hard to the ground, blood spluttering from her nose.

The man was on her before she could move, grabbing her throat and jerking her high in the air.

"You will tell me what you did to Charlie, and you' will tell me NOW!”

Blood gushed from the woman's nose, flowing down her face and dripping on the floor.

"Tell me, Rachael!"

"N-not Rach-ael," she coughed,"...Char-lie…"

"WRONG ANSWER," the man roared and started shaking her like a rag doll. When he paused, her head fell limp to one side.

"The real guard will wake soon from his unexpected nap, so I must leave you, 'dear'. But I will return, again and again, until you've told me what you did. And if Charlie's memory fails to return ...well..."

When he squeezed her throat with his massive hand, she clawed at his hands; he smiled as her spasms became first more frantic, then tapered off.

His smile vanished as he looked into the woman's darkening eyes. Were tinges of blue in them?

"Rachael? He released his choke hold and dropped her back on the bed.

Stepping back, he shouted TREIGLO:

Ripple waves warped around his body; his arms and legs compressed, hair changed to brown, joints popped, bones crunched, until…

...Kerri stood in place of the guard. She wore a body length black unitard and heelless black leather boots. With a look of concentration, her blue jeans and aqua sweater appeared.

The bloodied woman opened one eye - the other had already swollen shut. Even the open eye looked glazed, threatening to roll back into her head at any moment.

"Kur - rii?" the woman said.

Kerri studied the woman; she looked identical to Rachael …almost. Yet ...there was a something, an undefined feel to her that was ...different.

"Are you Rachael? Or are you…" she didn't finish the sentence. Nor did the woman finish it for her, answering only with the ragged breathing. Kerri checked her pulse.

“What if … if …O Goddess help me!”

Kerri fled the blood smeared cell, and soon fire alarms clanged throughout the Keep.
 

~o~O~o~

 
10.

Suz paced the Keep's infirmary observation room as Doctor Ruis processed the tests he had run on the injured woman. Several hours had passed since the attack Suz knew was carried out by Kerri.

A tall man in a crisp gray suit entered the waiting room. In his late thirties and fit, his black hair was just starting to silver on the sides. In his hands he carried several manila medical files.

"Excuse me, Miss? I'm here to see patients involved in a metaphysical accident?"

"Who the hell are you?" Suz said holding a flaming hand by her side, cocked and ready. "How did you get past the guards outside? No one is permitted in except my mother, Doctor Ruis and myself."

"Please..." the man eyed her glowing hand, "you're a Fire aren't you? Remain calm, I have no wish to be ... scorched."

The man held out his hand to her; Suz ignored the gesture, and he let his hand drop.

"Fine. My name is Doctor Ailm; John, if you please. I'm a clinical psychologist and the Queen of this Keep, asked me to make, um, an emergency house call, I guess. Is this the patient?" He motioned through a glass observation window to a woman on a hospital bed, her face swollen and bruised, with bandages wrapped around her ribs.

"That's one; the other is the man in the room two doors down. He has lost some of his memory, and she just suffered an attack. Before that, she apparently believed she was the man. It's all rather confusing."

"I met Dr. Ruis in the lab a few minutes ago, and he filled me in. I've also reviewed the MRI and EEG results he ran to determine if there was head or brain trauma to either of them."

John spread the files on a table. "You were a friend to the man?"

"Charlie? Yes. Best friends." Suz concluded the doctor was legit. She held her hand out to shake, which the doctor accepted with a smile.

"My name is Suzannah Tinne.”

"Ah! Princess Tinne! Glad to meet you. "Your mother told me you'd be here. Kerri also mentioned you in our sessions."

"I'm not much on the Princess thing. You counseled Kerri? What kind of psychologist are you?"

"I work with the California Keep. My area of specialty is counseling shape shifters for gender confusion. Kerri, and most Elfin shifters come to me for... shifter counseling, I guess."

"So, do you know how to figure out who's whom?"

“I already have. Look at these MRI and EEG results. FYI, every person's EEG pattern is unique.” John handed Suz a manilla folder. “This is Rachael's EEG from when she was held here her episode with Kerri last year.”

“Now, compare it to the EEG of our 'Rachael' in there." John handed Suz a second folder.

Suz studied the two scans. "I'm not an expert but these are different."

"Completely. Now, compare Rachael's baseline to the EEG results of the male patient." John handed a third folder to Suz.

"Whoa! They're identical! But is that possible? Their ...their brains weren't switched, right?"

I'm a mere Ordinary, Ms. Tinne, and am the last person you should ask about how your magic works. But these results are clear."

"So ...this confirms... Rachael is now in Charlie's body? And ...I'm guessing ...by logic of elimination ...Charlie is in hers?"

John nodded "I don't see how there is any other conclusion, crazy as it seems. But wait, there's more! I've reviewed MRI's from the shifters I counsel, and the MRI for uh ...Charlie - in - Rachael's body-...showed abnormal energy patterns. The patterns I'm see in shifters are blue, -since they are 'waters' of course, but look here..."

He handed the MRI scan, "See these distinct colors? Blue, red, green and white?

"What's that mean, Doc?"

"Doctor Ruis was puzzled by it, and I have no idea."

"Leaving us ...where?" Suz asked.

"You're to the point, Princess, just like your mother."

"I'm not like my mother at all, and don't call me Princess, it's Suz."

"Okay, Suz it is. Other than apparent memory loss, the male, Rachael-in-Charlie, is stable. In fact, he is, in all respects a healthy Ordinary..."

"BUT... I am concerned about Charlie-in-Rachael. Because of the existence of this unknown energy pattern, we must assess her condition now. The quickest way, I think, is for her to tell us what she is experiencing. You were close to Charlie, right? Would you talk with her and see she'll tell you?"

"Charlie and I were best friends. My coffee shop is a second home to him …er, her ...to Charlie."

"Good. It is important she talk with someone she trusts rather than a total stranger," John said.

"What should I say?"

"Your mother and Doctor Ruis told me she's disoriented. So put her at ease, and then probe to see how aware she is aware what is happening. I'll watch everything from here."

"I'm still struggling with the idea 'she' could be Charlie, but sure, happy to help. Put her at ease, huh? If she IS Charlie, I know just the thing to help. I'll just pop down to the kitchen to get it."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"So what's your pleasure?"

"Suz? Are you ...real?" the battered woman slurred ...strange stuff ...crazy dreams."

She struggled to sit up in her infirmary bed, crying out as pain jolted through her. She managed it, but not before jostling the I.V. bag next to her bed. Suz had developed a deep dislike Rachael over the years, and sitting this close to her stirred that bias. She fought to put it aside and do as John had asked; not an easy chore for a temperamental Fire.

"Yup, it's me, or it is I, or whatever is grammatically correct. So how are you feeling, 'Charlie'?"

"I'm having trouble ...concentrating." She was still panting from the exertion of sitting up. "Everything's fuzzy. Why do I ache all over? Hey! Is this Porter or Swedish hospital? Please say Porter because I may have an insurance problem if it's Swedish. And ...uh... why is everything moving in slow motion? Am I drugged?"

"Could be... we'll talk about that in a minute..." Suz eyed the woman. She couldn't help feeling sympathy for this creature, who, besides being thoroughly beaten, had a lost look in her eyes.

"...first, would you like some coffee?"

The woman's attention sparked. "C-coffee? Seriously? Man! I ...I'd kill for an Americano right now, but I'll take a cup of anything you got."

"Oh ye of little faith! An Americano it is!" Suz opened the silver carafe she had brought and poured some of it into a big white ceramic mug.

"Espresso?" The woman's attention was now engaged. "So ...uh ...how are you going steam the water?"

"Watch, um, Charlie ...here's the cool part, I mean, hot part..."

She opened a water bottle water and poured it into to the mug with the espresso. Then - brandishing her index finger.

TANAU!

A bright flame burst from Suz's finger. Fear rippled across the woman's face at the sight of the flame, and battered though she was, she struggled to draw away.

"Sorry, friend, I didn't mean to frighten you, I just need to heat this up a moment." Shed stuck her finger into the coffee, which frothed and spit. Suz counted to five, then pulled her steaming finger from the cup.

With a wary look, the woman's brought the cup to her lips. She smiled as the warm liquid traveled down her throat. "Ohmyggod! This tastes sooo good! How did you...?"

"Do it? I'm a Fire element, that's how. Of course it's good; I'm the best damn barista you'll ever meet."

"A what element? You have some sort of gag finger? Have, uh, the health inspectors seen your little finger trick?"

"No, and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't alert them to this, um, non- standard heating method."

Suz watched the injured woman take another longer drink from her coffee mug …and sigh in delight. The woman's fire fear and love of coffee clicked in Suz's mind.

"So, it IS you, Charlie! Amazing! What's it like to go from yang to yin? You look like shit, by the way."

"Thanks, feel like it, too. A jack hammer is pounding my head, whenever I move, it's like someone is knifing me in my side ...and why does my voice sounds like I've been sucking helium? ...and..." Charlie's voice screeched to a halt.

"...what …do you mean ...yang to yin? ...I ...don't understand."

"You know, xy to xx... um, plus to minus ...I mean, you must feel different! Can't you?" Suz stared at Charlie's chest. "Do you really not know what's happened to you?"

A glazed look passed over Charlie's face, "...happened …to ...me?"

She raised a hand to her swollen face, and her voice lowered to a whisper, "What has happened to me? What... what do I look like?"

Suz watched Charlie's eyes growing more dilated as she processed the sensory data.

"Um ...you don't want to see your face just now, girlfr- ...um ...friend, trust me. You are one massive bruise. Hey, drink some more of my delish coffee before it gets cold!"

Charlie gave a dull nod and took long drink, then held the hot mug to her forehead and sighed in pleasure again.

Suz noted the gesture: the simple act of drinking brightened Charlie's eyes. It was as if Charlie's consciousness was on a roller coaster: sensations caused her to be mentally present, but as she tried to think through what her body was telling her, her conscious thought crumbled. Suz became alarmed again when the zombie expression spread across Charlie's face."

"Charlie? Are you with me?" Without thinking, she leaned over and shook the woman.

Charlie yelped as pain shot through her side. "God! Don't do that!" She said, grasping her side.

"Sorry! I forgot..." Suz saw Charlie's eyes were bright again. "Talk to me, Charlie, what are you feeling?"

"I..." For a moment, Charlie's eyes took on eerie clarity and she looked right through Suz. "Lord!! As I'm ... talking to you, I'm also on an island..."

"What?"

Charlie's voice was dreamy now: "I'm standing on an island, in a shimmering sea and the grass is green and soft and the trees in front of me are in bloom -they're apple trees. Oh wow, they're silver apples- and …I can smell the blossoms! And someone's walking to me! A woman …who …glows..." Charlie's voice faded and her eyes grew dark.

Suz shook Charlie again. "Snap out of it! You're babbling!"

Charlie's eyes sprang open. "Dammit, Suz! Why do you keep hurting me" Her eyes were bright, but without the eeriness of the moment before.

"What were you saying about an island?"

"Huh?"

"An island. You said something about being on an island."

"I... I did?" Charlie was clueless.

Suz resisted the temptation to shake her again. She knew she couldn't, keep torturing Charlie, to force her mind to be present. She shot a 'help me' look to the observation window.

On cue, the door to the infirmary room opened and a dark skinned elderly man in a white coat entered.

"Hello ...Charlie. I'm Doctor Ruis. How are you managing with the pain?" He said, as he readjusted Charlie's IV and injected something into it.

"D-doctor? I hurt a lot, yeah, but something's way wrong with my head...or brain..." Charlie's eyes started to droop as the drug took effect, and she slumped back onto her bed.

"Suuuuuz? Help …me …need …Kurrrrri..." Charlie whispered as her eyes fluttered closed.
 

~o~O~o~

 
11.

"I have never been so angry in all my life," Suz fumed, pacing back and forth in her mother's chambers as she, Jessica, and John awaited Mr. U's arrival from the research library.

"Now I know why Kerri wanted to beat the living crap out of Rachael. The pathetic irony was she ended up doing it to Charlie. Gods, I could just incinerate her, or him, or whatever Rachael is!" Fire flared from her fingertips like a blowtorch.

"Listen. Before we go further, I suggest we accept the pronouns 'she' and 'her' apply to Charlie, and 'he' and 'him' to Rachael," John advised. "I've learned in counseling Shifters it just adds to the confusion when you attempt to apply a pronoun to a person different from their biological gender."

"But isn't Charlie's personality male? Isn't his soul male? Isn't..."

John raised his hand to interrupt. "Wonderful questions, all. Questions about the 'gender' of personality are debated within my profession ad nauseam. . As to the soul's sex , well, there you've jumped into the abyss of metaphysics. Just because a person is a certain sex doesn't mean the soul is that sex too... perhaps Charlie was female in a previous life, if there are previous lives...who knows? We could speculate for days. Except we don't have days, so we must stick to what is certain. Which is this: Charlie is now female.”

"Ye know fre sure, doctor, it is the lad in the lassie's body?" The white haired wiry man had come breezing into the chamber.

"John , this gentleman is Mr. U, from our Northumbrian Keep ," Jessica said, rising from her desk.

"Mr. U? A rather unusual moniker." John observed.

"Me full name is Aethelfrith Uath."

"Ah! ...Mr. U it is, then!" John said with a sheepish grin.

"Mr. U is an Elf historian." Jessica explained. "And Mr. U, John is a psychologist specializing in gender disorientation to shape shifters."

"Glad te meet yee, Doctor." Mr. U said, shaking the doctor's hand.

"Likewise. And to answer your question, this woman is definitely not Rachael," John said. He summarized his findings and showed the MRI and EEG findings to Jessica and Mr. U.

"As you see, the findings are conclusive. What is baffling, though are the strange energies building in the Charlie."

"O gods! These results are incredible!" Mr. U interrupted, running his hands through his wiry hair.

"Yes, Mr. U?” Jessica said. “You have information that will enlighten us?"

"Ah reckon Rachael found a reference te a soul transference spell in the manuscript she nicked. Ah guess it didn't go quite the way she intended. But that's not all! Ya see..."

"Excuse me, what exactly is a 'soul transference spell'?” John said. “I'm not conversant in Elvin magic terms, Does this 'spell' purport to transfer a 'personality' from one body to another?"

"Aye, lad, aye. It transfers a soul! Yee hev te remember, it's a magic no longer used. It came from the time o the War O the Elements. Dark times an dark magic, don't yee know. Dark an forbidden - there be far worse ones than this spell." Mr. U's face darkened.

"But what is exciting here is something mysterious is happening, maybe something miraculous!"

"War o, ...I mean War of the Elements? Soul transference?” John sighed. “As always with you people, astonishing. But can this transference be reversed? Because it is imperative for Charlie that..."

"Reversed? No, Ah don't think so. Because what's occurrin must be by the hand O the Lady. Nothing could reverse that! Look at this..." Mr. U pointed to Charlie's MRI on Jessica's desk. "The presence of all four colors could only mean the lass is the Akasha, or could become her!"

"A-Akasha?" The doctor asked, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

"The Akasha," Jessica interjected, with thinly disguised disgust, "is Mr. U's dubious theory about the salvation of the Elf peoples. The Elfish Messiah...really, Mr. U, isn't this a stretch even for you? Hmm? After all, Charlie was an Ordinary before the switch."

"Ah don't claim te understand it, woman!" the white haired man responded trembling with anger. "But the evidence is there for all te see!"

"Stop! Stop! Both of you!" Suz yelled. "We don't have time for this, do we doctor? Didn't you say Charlie's life was in danger?"

"Yes!" John said. "I won't even pretend to understand your metaphysical mumbo jumbo, but I do know this: if Charlie's present state of dysfunction continues, she could die!"

"But why?" Jessica asked. "Doctor Ruis said her vital signs were all stable."

"How do I... how do I put this? Her 'soul' was transferred by this spell? Well, then, it is as if her 'soul', hasn't accepted that the transfer occurred."

"She's in denial then?" Jessica probed.

"It's more than that. Look ...I'm sorry if I'm describing this ineptly, but there is no precedent for this, either Ordinary or Elf. We are at a crisis point - much like when organs are transplanted. There is always the moment when the body either accepts or rejects the transplant."

"Is that why she seemed half there when we talked with her, Doctor?" Suz asked.

"Exactly - that which makes her Charlie ...her psyche or... fine, her soul, seems tethered loosely to her new body. I ... fear ...unless she experiences a deep "in body" experience to strengthen the soul - body connections, insanity …or death …are probable outcomes."

"Experiences like what? That emphasize her new... body or gender?" Suz groped for his meaning.

"You saw how she responded to physical stimuli - pain, yes, but also taste. Which makes me think that she needs strong 'in body' experiences. What am I trying to say ...tactile... sensual..."

"Sex!" Suz enthused. "Hot ...sweaty..." her voice trailed off as she remembered she was standing next to her mother.

"Sex would be the most direct experience," John answered, "but it would also exacerbate her gender disorientation, which would work against, the process of connecting her body and psyche. We'll have to deal with gender disorientation at some point, but, right now, we're scrambling just to keep her body and soul from flying apart!" John paused to marshal his thoughts.

"Better, for her, I think, to immerse her in experiences that entice her senses of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. Then maybe the bond will strengthen," John said. "Anyway, that's all I can think of for this unprecedented situation"

"Listen, Doc," Mr. U implored, "whatever you think you need te keep the Akasha alive, then you shall have it! Spare no expense!"

"Stop right there! You do not speak for the Rocky Mountain Keep, Mr. U, and I will not waste the resources of my people to validate your pet theory. As I said earlier, I live in the real world and deal with real problems."

"But mother! Didn't you hear? Charlie's life is in danger!"

"Daughter, I have been more than generous so far. I've flown in John and made the full medical facilities of the Keep available. But I will not give carte blanche approval for this, especially if it is to prove this absurd Akasha theory. I'm sorry, child, but we are well equipped to handle this here."

"Child? Child?" Suz' voice grew loud and inflected up. "We will let the doctor do whatever he needs to save Charlie's life! Is that clear enough for you, Mother dear?"

Jessica's spine stiffened. "You dare question my authority, you who can't be bothered with even the smallest of the responsibilities of your rank?"

"I'm doing more than questioning your authority, Mother. If you refuse to give my friend the help she needs, then I will challenge you!"

"This is no game, Princess Tinne,” Jessica said. “The consequences may be fatal. Issue closed."

"I am serious; either provide the doctor with all he needs, or face me now. Challenge made!"

Suz stepped a few paces away from Jessica. Raising her arms over her head, she shouted:

CYLCHIO TANLLWYTH!

A ball of bright red flame burst around Suz forming a bright glowing nimbus. Suz stood its center - unharmed by its heat, her face set with grim determination.

Jessica remained seated, weighing potentials and possibilities. At last she nodded and said "so be it. Challenge accepted!"

Jessica in the opposite direction from Suz , turned to face her, and then shouted:

CYLCHIO TANLLWYTH!

Soon, Jessica was encircled by her own brilliant flames.

"We best be getting out O the way, doctor," Mr. U said, as he grabbed a stunned John by his arm and pulled him to a corner of the room.

On cue, two columns of fire shot from each of the nimbuses, exploding against the other at the halfway point between Suz and Jessica. Waves of heat and light were thrown into the room. For the second time that day, fire alarms sounded throughout the Keep.

What happened next could best be described as a reverse tug-of-war: two energy forces pushing, trying to overcome the other; in this instance, the forces were pillars of flaming hot energy.

The heat was so oppressive, John fear his clothing would burst into flame; when he felt a cool breeze blow over him. He glanced at Mr. U and guessed the air was coming from him. He mouthed 'thank you' and turned back to the duel, to see that Suz's fire advancing toward Jessica.

When it neared Jessica, she shouted YMRODDI! I concede."

As if a switched had been turned off, the fire pillars and nimbuses vanished. Jessica wore an expression of pure exhaustion on her face; she knelt down on one knee to avoid face planting on the floor.

Suz rushed to Jessica. "Mother! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."

"Hush, Daughter, I'm fine," she said in a weak voice. Jessica took her daughter's offered hand and pulled herself back to her feet. Her face was pure pride.

"I had no idea you were this powerful! When did you develop it?"

"There is an old quarry near Leadville I go to, to practice, and, you know, I go to Burning Man every year to really cut loose,”

"Hmm. Perhaps I should go with you next fall?"

"Mother, you have no idea what goes at..."

Suz stopped speaking as she looked into Jessica's face; it pained her to see her mother looking so frail.

"...sure. I'd love to have you come along, or ...or maybe we could go somewhere else together? ...And ...and I've been thinking ...maybe I could get an assistant at the Junction, so I could spend more time here, ya know, helping you, and ..."

"And? And what?"

Suz's voice became soft and she stared at the ground. "Assuming my duties..."

"Oh my! I thought I was uninjured by our dual, but perhaps my ears were damaged. Did you say the words 'assume' and 'duty'?"

"Don't make this harder than it already is!"

Jessica smiled and hugged her daughter. "If I'd known all it took for you to accept you leadership role was provoking you to almost crisp me, I'd of tried it years ago"

She hugged Suz again. "We have much to talk about, my Suzy. But first, let's address the matters at hand. Since I imagine you did not challenge my authority to assume the queenship now..."

"No. Nooooo! All I wanted was to make sure we did everything that we could for Charlie, and-"

"-Fine, dear. You've proven your point. Or rather, you won your point. Since you have finally agreed to assuming more of your duties here, I can delegate authority to you with a clear conscience. You may use whatever resources we have to aid you friend ...within reason of course."

"Thank you, Mother. I hope this little exercise isn't the template for resolving every little disagreement we have." Suz said, grinning.

"Gods no! We should talk...talking is good. I much prefer talking to frying."

"Would someone tell me what just happened!?" John shouted, managing to break his stunned silence.

"Calm yourself, Doctor.” Mr. U said. “Have you never witnessed an Elf dual?"

"No, sorry, ESPN2 isn't carrying those ...yet."

"Well, it was a tame one te be sure. Injury an death are often the outcome,” Mr. U said.

"Tame? TAME?! Perhaps you and I should spar to see how tame I am," Suz's eyes blazed. "But enough of this. Dr Ailm, you heard the nice Queen, we can do whatever is necessary to help Charlie, so get moving! Hopefully, her treatment doesn't involve building a state-of-the-art medical facility on the moon or something.

"Nothing so drastic. I do have a treatment in mind, which may offer a chance to stabilize Charlie, and it doesn't involve expensive or exotic medical equipment. It's just that-"

"-Just what, doctor? The Akasha must be saved!” Mr. U said. “You've heard the Princess tell you te proceed wi whatever treatment you think necessary. What are yee still struggling with?”

"No, just the opposite. I'm struggling because my solution seems ...far ...too ...simple."
 

~o~O~o~

 

III. Conclusioni
 

12.

After the plane flight, they drove on freeways, interstates, two lane highways, and finally onto the twisting curves of a country road. On either side of the road, the arms of ancient oaks seemed to reach out to welcome them. The upward road led through avocado and then citrus groves, past a serene pond, coming at last, to a white stone gate turned rosy by the sunset.

The sign on the gate read 'The Silver Moon - a holistic spa and resort.'

"A ...spa? Suz, I …don't understand ..." Charlie stammered. "Why aren't we going to an ultra high-tech medical lab of some sort..."

"Calm down, Charlie, the good doctor here diagnosed this treatment would be best for your recovery."

"Or ...or shouldn't I be in a psych ward? Having tests done?"

"Why do you think so, Charlie?" John asked.

"I ... don't …know..." Her soft voice trailed off.

"Never mind" John soothed. He believed her questioning to be positive sign; Charlie's conscious awareness of her 'condition' was firming. But he also knew how fragile her psyche was as well.

"Don't try to make rational sense of this. No analyzing, thinking or worrying while you are here. Recovery and relaxation only; doctor's orders. We're here."

A round smiling Polynesian woman dressed in a full-length forest green silk kimono greeted them, as their limo rolled to a stop in the circular drive.

"Welcome to Silver Moon! I'm Sarah Ngetal..."

“Sarah, it's been too long,” John said, as he stepped from the car.

"Dr. John, good to see you again,” Sarah said. “I see you shaved your goatee..."

"Reea-lly! A goatee?" Suz squealed with glee. "Oooh, I would have paid to see that!"

"I liked it,” Sarah said. “it made him look older but more, devilish, hmm? And Princess Tinne, it's been far too long since your last visit as well."

"You're telling me!" Suz gave Sarah a strong hug and kiss on the cheek. "Good to see you, Sarah. Go easy on the 'Princess Tinne' stuff, if you please."

"As you wish, Princess Suz." Sarah smiled when Suz stuck out her royal tongue. Sarah turned next to greet Charlie, the last to leave the car.

"And this must be ...Charlie?" A look of concern replaced her amused expression as John helped the injured woman out. Charlie grimaced in pain as she straightened.

"Gods! Look what's become of you! Your poor face! Are you in pain, love? I'm …soo sorry this happened to you!" Tears welled in the woman's eyes.

"Roll with it, Charlie," Suz whispered, in answer to Charlie's mystified expression, "Sarah is an Earth. They're big time nurturers, though Sarah is a little over the top today."

Sarah took her cue and stood back apace. "Sorry, love, I can be a bit overwhelming. But you have nothing to fear from me or this place... it is a spa, nothing more. No dark elf magic here, but as our professional staff is elfin, we have a unique advantage over our competitors. You haven't experienced a hot stone massage until you've been given one by a Fire masseuse."

"F-fire?" Charlie looked alarmed.

"Relax, Charlie, no flames, just heated rocks," Suz said.

"Oh." Charlie said, relieved.

Sarah turned back John. "Per your instructions, we've arranged to begin Charlie's treatment immediately. Suz, I understand you'll be with Charlie during the week. We'll be able to work in some treatments of your own, I'm sure."

"While that would be divine, I'm here for Charlie, not me." She took Charlie's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

"Suz, why exactly am I here?" Charlie whispered.

"Remember!" Suz whispered back, "no questions."

"Doctor, we've arranged your room in the men's wing of our staff quarters." Sarah said. "Please settle in and relax. As this is a 'women only' spa, you won't be able to accompany Charlie for many of her treatments. The dining area, dance, yoga studio, and gardens are open to you, however. Someone will be along to show you to your room."

"A women only place? But..." Panic crept into Charlie's voice.

"Stop fretting this instance, love!" Sarah said. "Doctor, they will meet you in the dining room in two hours...ish. Now, Charlie, Suz, if you'll follow me..."

Charlie shot Suz an anxious look, but the Fire elf smiled and pulled Charlie forward.

"Trust me, Charlie, this place you're gonna love."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

John swigged another sip from the golden yellow wine and gazed out of the dining room window. Breakers crashed rhythmically on the rocky beach below. Candles lit the elegant table and the relaxed murmur of the other guests surrounded him.

He tried to let the soothing atmosphere of the resort seep into him, but he could not stop worrying about Charlie. It was so hard to know whether he was making progress at all - the case was in uncharted waters.

“And thar be dragons,” he murmured.

He turned from the starry ocean vista, to see Sarah with Charlie and Suz in tow. Charlie wore azure silk drawstring pants, a matching silk tunic shirt with gold embroidering on the sleeve edges and neckline, and simple blue thong sandals. Her white hair was drawn into a pony tail.

John also saw her eyes were clearer, and her bruises had faded away. Given the severity of the bruising, he wondered if they were disappearing too quickly, but before he could think further, Suz appeared.

His eyes were pulled to the sight of her; she wore a full-length red silk kimono robe, with golden fire spewing dragons embroidered on the front. Her blazing scarlet hair had been French braided and hung down her back. She radiated so much 'hotness' John reached for his ice water.

"Doctor, I deliver the refreshed Charlie and Suz as promised,” Sarah said.

Charlie slid into the chair across from the doctor, while Suz sat next to him.

"Are you in luck tonight!" Sarah gushed. "One of the starters is aubergine cannelloni with feta, roast vegetables and pesto. It's a personal favorite of mine. And you're drinking the Chá¢teau Guiraud?"

John nodded, barely listening; he was engaged in the art of in unobtrusively checking Suz out.

"Excellent choice,” Sarah said. “It pairs well with the aubergine and the steamed salmon main. Enjoy."

"Sarah?" Charlie asked, her soft voice just audible.

"Yes, sweetie?"

"Thanks for ...taking care of me. The herbal steam treatment and …and mineral shower …were amazing." Charlie closed her eyes and sighed.

"It's the least we can, considering what you've been through. I have even more relaxing treatments planned for you tomorrow! I'll see you through this, love," she said with a sad smile, before she turned and walked away.

"I see they found clothes for you to wear." John stated, trying to steer his mind from wondering if Suz was wearing any under her robe.

"According to Sarah, Charlie can only wear silky things while she's here, except when she's not wearing anything at all." Suz replied in a sensual drawl.

John shifted in his seat. "Oh. What's the theory behind that interesting house rule?"

"Well, she says one of Silver Moon's philosophies is a deep engagement of the five senses. The silk clothes are for 'touch'...John? Are you okay? You seem nervous."

"Is it hot in here?" He took another gulp of ice water. "So. What do you think, Charlie?"

"About the clothes?"

Charlie leaned forward and spoke in a lowered tone:

"They're so smooth and fluid. I've never worn anything like 'em. And the fabric is sensitive on these ...floppy ..." She cupped her breasts and looked down at them.

"Your breasts?"

"...breasts ...these ...yes."

John noted Charlie's inability to refer to her breasts in the possessive sense. "Sensitive, as in irritating?"

"Uh, no ...as in, um ...as in ...enjoyable?" her voice trailed off, her face reddened and she looked away. After as moment Charlie turned back to him.

"Could I have a glass of wine right now, please, Doctor, uh, Ailm?"

"Yes, Charlie, very good. I'm not sure if we've even been properly introduced. I'm Doctor John Ailm, and I'm a clinical psychologist," he said as he poured into her glass. She grabbed it and took a deep drink.

"Some wine for you, also, Princess?"

"No thanks, I'm a red wine lover. And don't call me Princess, doctor, I'm not comfortable with a title." Suz answered.

"Then stop calling me 'Doctor.' My name is John."

The dinner continued much this way, with John gently probing Charlie with questions and struggling mightily to not ogle Suz, until Charlie yawned. Sarah appeared at her side.

"Charlie, time for one last treatment before you go to bed. I want you to try our sleep enhancer treatment.”

"I'm already way way relaxed," Charlie answered, in a drunken inflection. "Ya think I need it tonight?"

"It will make a marked difference in the quality of your sleep. It's an electro acupuncture treatment that stimulates the body's acupuncture points to produce the most peaceful sleep you'll ever have."

Charlie looked to Suz, but Suz simply stood and gave her a hug.

"I had this treatment the last time I was here. Beyond description! It gives you the most amazing dreams and eliminates hangovers."

"O-okay I guess ...you'll be here when... when...I" Charlie called back as she followed Sarah.

"Relax Charlie, I'll be there, we're sharing a room. Hope you don't snore."

After Charlie was out of earshot, Suz turned back to John.

"So what do you think? How is she doing? Is she accepting the change?"

"First, let me say that I've never had a case like this, so everything I say falls into the 'speculation' category."

"Weasel qualification noted, John, you shoulda been a lawyer. Now spill! What can we expect tomorrow?"

"I do think she's starting to accept her body change on an unconscious level."

"So good, yes? That's what wasn't happening before, you said. So are we out of the woods?"

"Mmm, yes ...and no. It's good she's starting to accept her new body, but acceptance brings its own set of troubles. Now she will have to deal the gender change on an egotistical and intellectual level."

"And this means... what?"

"First, don't be surprised if Charlie exhibits regressive behavior as she tries to assimilate her changes."

"Regressive behavior? Help me out here, doc."

"Okay, regression has several causes, but in Charlie's instance, it will be a defensive mechanism in reaction to the trauma of her changes. She may not be yet able to exert intellectual responsibly for her new body, and will revert from a genital to pregenital developmental phase."

"A what phase, doc? Mercy! Give me a 'for instance'!"

"For instance, she may take on a childlike persona."

"Okay, I think I understand ...she starts acting like a child. How long will that last?"

"A few hours, a couple of days... years... who knows?"

"I hoped you would, John. Take a guess at it."

John closed his eyes as he puzzled. "Okay, okay, let's review ...I've been impressed by Charlie's resiliency. Her inner strength is astonishing! And have you noticed how fast she is healing? There is something more going on, although as to what-"

A heat wave blew across him and when he opened his eyes - saw Suz's glowing hand near his face.

"W-what?"

"Sorry, doc, I thought maybe your brain froze up." Suz said, grinning. "Now out with it or I'll really turn up the heat!"

"Fine! My guess is the duration of this phase will be short."

"Let's hope so! And so once through this she becomes okay?"

"As long as I am guessing, once through that phase, Charlie could become suicidal."

Suz paused to see if he was joking. When she saw he was not she burst with anger and concern. "Gods, no! This can't be how it ends! Why isn't your treatment designed to prevent this?"

"Suz, calm down. My treatment is designed to lead to this point. Look. Charlie is being asked to adapt to something completely illogical for, say, 99.99% of people on the planet. Think about it -shape shifters aside- someone who could ...easily and instantly... accept an exchange of bodies...with another individual, would be by far the exception and not the norm, psychologically. It's not normal to do that. I expect at some point, the rational, mature conscious mind of Charlie may conclude a logical solution to this illogical situation is to seek a permanent end."

"Suicide? Oh wonderful, she'll figure out she needs to off herself. Great advice, doc. Don't you have trouble getting your bills paid, if all your patients whack themselves?"

"I didn't say we would let her, 'Princess'." He responded with heat of his own. "We need to give her reasons not to do that!"

"And those reasons would be, what 'Doctor'?"

"Don't worry; I've got a plan in place and ready to spring if this scenario arises. Trust me."

"You know, Johnny, I've been getting to like you over the past days. Like, as in thinking we would have a lot of fun together. A LOT of fun. But if Charlie commits suicide, I'm gonna stick a skewer up your ass, hang you over a spit and roast you!"

"Um ...so noted," John said, reaching again for the ice water and gulping down the cool liquid.
 

~o~O~o~

 
13.

"Good morning, Charlie. How was the sunrise yoga class?" John asked. He was waiting outside the yoga studio as Charlie, Suz and Sarah exited.

"Oh, hi... Dr. ...Ailm?"

"Yes, its true. I'm still Doctor Ailm. Please call me John, though. Now, did you enjoy the class?"

"I... I did. I'm not as sore today, and this ...this body ...is waaaay more flexible than my old one," Charlie chirped.

"Ah, excellent, Charlie," John replied, thinking, and so the regressive phase begins.

He was pleased Charlie was at least admitting a change had occurred, but he did not want her to press here on it ...yet.

"You had no trouble with the poses?"

"She did well. She found her balance point in a snap." Sarah said, then noticed Charlie was grinning from ear to ear.. "Yes, Charlie?"

"I can touch my toes! Watch!" Charlie bent at her waist and touched both palms of her hands flat on the floor. "I never could do that before! I can touch my toes."

"You know, back when I was putting in endless years of studying to become a psychologist, my instructors said there would be emotional break throughs and events of healing for my patients that would make it all worth it. You can touch your toes, Charlie, superlative."

"Buzzkill much, John?" Suz chided. "They all don't have to be, you know, deep Sybil moments, do they? I think it's great you can touch your toes, Charlie."

"Wanna see again? Wanna?"

"Not right now, little girl," Sarah said, "we need to get you to your next treatment. The yoga class should have relaxed you for it. You remember the last pose we did?"

"Where I was laying like a dead man on the floor? I imagined I was a chalk outline at the scene of a muuur-der." Charlie answered.

"Well, yes," Sarah answered. "That's one name for it, 'corpse pose'. It's also called 'savasana'. Though it looks easy, it's one of the hardest poses, and the sequences of many yoga classes are meant to lead to it - so that you are able to totally relax into it."

While they talked, Sarah led them through the spa corridors, and when she stopped, they stood in front of a candle lit room with a massage table sitting in the middle. Sage incense wafted toward them through the door.

"Ready for a hot stone massage? Normally, I'm assisted by a Fire from my staff, but if Suz wouldn't mind doing the stone heating honors, I think we can manage to give you another mind and body blowing experience.

"Nope." Charlie said.

"Why, Charlie?" Sarah asked.

"Don't waan-na!"

"But the rocks relax the muscles in a way that allows the masseuse to massage much deeper than a normal massage." Sarah said.

Suz's eyes brightened. "Charlie, they'll be no flames at all, I promise."

"Promise? Cross your heart and hope to die?"

"Cross my heart."

Charlie went silent for a moment. "'Kay, I guess."

"And so I must say goodbye to you now, Charlie, as I'm not permitted in here," John said. "I'll catch up with you later."

"'Bye, Doctor, I mean, Johnny. Er, Doctor Johnny." Charlie giggled, and followed Suz and Sarah into the massage room.

From the doorway, John heard Sarah order, "Off with the clothes dear and onto the table. "

He smiled when he heard her whiny teenage reply: "Is this secretly a nudist colony? I mean, my God, everywhere I go it's off with the clothes ...off with the clothes..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"As you seem the most 'aware' since we began this treatment, do you have any questions about ...what has happened to you?"

It was the two for dinner that night. Though he found himself craving Suz's presence, John suggested he dine with Charlie alone. The treatments and trust had progressed to the point where a genuine counseling session was possible. Charlie sat silent for so long John was afraid she was lapsing into another non-cognitive episode. When, she made eye contact; they were clear. He observed her dark retinas were showing more sparks of blue. He also noticed her bruises had disappeared and her white blond hair showed black streaks

“What is a soul?”

"Pardon?" The questioned came out of nowhere.

"A soul... what is it? Is it something immortal, separate from the body? Can it exist independent of the body? Or in many bodies ...or… “she sighed and waved her hands in the air, “…what am I trying to say?"

"So out of the child's stage and into the fire" John mumbled.

"What, Doctor, er John?"

"Nothing." John replied, as he tried to calm his pulse - which started racing when he realized this was Charlie's first attempt to rationalize the body switch. The 'moment of truth', so to speak.

"Interesting questions, Charlie, why do you ask?"

"I ask because ...because I want to know, that's why," she snarled.

"Let me think. Jung spoke of it in terms of the unconscious. So, if you are a man, your 'ego' or consciousness will be male. Jung believed that in such a situation, your unconsciousness, your soul image, if you will, is female. He called it the anima. And it would be reversed in women so that..."

"John! Suz told me you've counseled Kerri and others of these people-"

"-Elves."

"Fine. You've counseled these elves or hobbit people or whatever they are! Who can change their bodies, change their fucking bodies! And then ...this …happens to me." She motioned to her body.

So close! he thought. He could only imagine the wild inner turmoil raging in her.

"I..." she bit her lower lip and looked away from him, to the waves crashing on rocks outside the restaurant. Shaking her head, she back to him.

"So magic exists, John and what you are one moment changes the next,” she snapped her fingers, “and everything you are is lost! Forever. So don't speak to me in academic terms. I want answers! What is a soul?"

John remained silent, although he didn't understand where her thoughts were headed, the best course he could take was to allow Charlie her space to sort this through.

He guessed she felt the same uncertainty his shifter patients experienced when their first post puberty gender shift occurred. Verbalizing these doubts was a productive tool in every case he'd handled.

There was an edge in her voice that disturbed him. With his shifter patients, at least they were raised with the understanding this radical change would occur. Charlie was tossed into the fire without warning.

She turned silent again. When she looked into his eyes again, he could swear her eyes were bluer now than even moments ago. What was going on with her?

"I've got a woman's body now. That's what you want me to say, isn't it?”

"Yes! I have wanted you to recognize it, Charlie," John said with obvious relief.

"How could I not, John? Every 'treatment' at this place forces my awareness of ... this new body I'm in, and it's damn sure NOT male! And hell, doctor, every time I pee I'm reminded of what I am and am not!"

"How do you feel about that?"

"Ha! What a question! Bet you've been dying to ask me that one. Okay, here goes: ... I'm scared shitless! But not for the reasons you think. Being changed to this body doesn't feel strange. There's something familiar about it, something …just beyond the reach of my memory. I can't pin it down, but I think something that happened to me a long time ago was bad. Something I never want again."

"I don't follow you, Charlie."

"Here's how it is ...I'm alone ...and lost …and out of control. I hate this feeling! HATE it!”

She looked past him again, out of the restaurant window to darkness beyond. Then, in the softest of voices, she said, "Where is Kerri? I wish she were with me."

"Those are normal rational reactions, Charlie..." he stopped, knowing how moronic his words sounded. There was nothing normal about this situation.

"Sorry. That sounded insipid. Out of curiosity, why did you ask about the soul?"

"W-what? Oh, just curious. Since what happened to me proves souls exist, I wondered other things as well. Like, after we die -in a certain way- was ...um ...Dante right about the second ring of the seventh circle."

"You mean Dante as in Inferno? I avoided it like the plague in college. Could you tell me more about this reference?"

Charlie didn't respond. In fact, she said little else the rest of the dinner. When their evening was over, John walked Charlie to her room and watched her climb into bed - Suz was curled up and fast asleep in her bed.

When he returned to his room, he went on line follow up her Dante reference. At an Inferno site, he learned the second ring of the seventh circle of Hell was reserved for suicides. He lunged for his cell and dialed.

"It's me. Listen, her regressive phase has passed. She's accepted what has happened, and is thinking of ways to resolve it, so ...show time! BE READY!"

After he clicked the phone off he ran back to her room, and was relieved to find Charlie and Suz fast asleep. He sat outside their door until dawn, and Sarah, arrived.
 

~o~O~o~

 

14.

"Watch her. NEVER let her be alone, John said. “I've been here all night, and need some zzzs."

Charlie's Tibetan chime alarm clock sounded, drawing a wake-up yawn from the girl. Sarah peeked in, to see Charlie stretching her arms. She nodded 'okay' to John, and walked in.

"Morning, sunshine." Sarah whispered. "6:00AM. Time for your last treatment! Try not to wake Suz. I've learned the hard way if you wake her before 8:00 A.M. she explodes - literally. Slip out of your jams and into this robe."

Charlie eyed the short silk robe. "And the rest of my clothes follow ...when?"

"Goods news there, honey. You'll need the robe for a little while, then you won't be needing anything at all."

"Why does that not surprise me?" Charlie grumbled. Moments later, she followed the cheery woman into the hallway, and John.

"Good morning, Charlie, Sleep well?

John looked gaunt and grayer to Charlie. "Doc, you look like a tree full of owls."

"What?"

"You look tired."

"Ah! I had trouble sleeping last night. Are you okay?"

"Am I okay? Am I okay?" Charlie's voice volume started to rise. "How can I answer that ...I don't even know who 'I' am!"

Anger poured from her. "I thought I was a thirty one year old man... I thought I was over six feet tall... I thought I had curly black hair, blue eyes..."

"Ssshhh, dearie, you'll wake 'her highness'. And …it's too early to be getting worked into a metaphysical lather. Only Airs do that at this time of the day. Let's get a light breakfast in you and then I'm going to take you to our flotation chamber, for an experience unlike anything you've ever had. As Suz said, the dreams people have in them are amazing"

"I've been having ...strange dreams at night already, Sarah. Though nothing could be stranger than what I am living now!"

"Can I interest you in that breakfast, sugar? Strawberries and cream await you - I picked them myself- and Tanya baked a nut bread that will knock your socks off, if you had any on. Oh, I almost forgot, before she went to bed, Suz gave the staff specific instructions for preparing the coffee you are to be served..."

"Did you say coffee? And Suz left instructions?"

"Explicit."

"What are we waiting for; java awaits! We'll pick this up later doctor," Charlie said, as she pulled Sarah down the hallway.
 

~o~O~o~

 

15.

Sarah led Charlie to a large purple lit room holding four large white egg shaped capsules. Sarah walked to the one and pressed a button on a nearby wall panel. Charlie heard a click and the top of capsule popped open. Charlie peered in at what looked like an oversized bathtub.

"Uh, Sarah? What is this? It looks like something from a sci-fi movie."

"It's a flotation chamber, Charlie. Did you know that ninety percent of your brain's activity is taken up with dealing with gravity, direction and balance?"

" I confess, this is not a fact on the tip of my tongue, Charlie said.

"Well, it should be, at least for the next hour or so,” Sarah said. “That's how long we are going to set you free from the constraints of gravity. The chamber is filled with extra concentrated salt water, which makes a person so buoyant that it comes as close to a zero gravity experience as is possible on Earth."

"You mean weightlessness? That sounds interesting..."

"It's more than that, dear,” Sarah answered. “Once we seal you in, all external stimulation is blocked, and you will experience a state of complete sensory relaxation."

"Wait! Wasn't the whole point of my treatments was to expose me to maximum sensory stimulation."

"So you were listening more than we thought, eh Charlie? You've been at Silver Moon, what, three days now? We've thrown messages, herbal wraps, yoga, steam baths and gastronomic delights at you. Now it's time to get more with less. You just lay back and float -nothing else to do. So...off with the robe and in you go."

"Yes, of course, 'off with the robe'," Charlie sighed as the chamber door shut. "Hey! You folks ever heard of a swimming suit?"
 

~o~O~o~

 

16.

A branch of the apple-tree from Emain
I bring, like those one knows;
Twigs of white silver are on it,
Crystal brows with blossoms.

-Voyage of Bran mac Febal

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is blooming there.
-W. B. Yeats

Charlie's mind drifted the instant the door clanged shut. As she floated, she sensed movement, as if her body was being carried on a gentle wave.

She could have floated for minutes or years, for all she knew (or didn't know), but her consciousness stirred again as her foot brushed something.

'Sand?'

Perplexed, Charlie rose…

And found she stood on an island beach. In front of her gentle hills sloped upward, covering in soft spring green grasses where the sand stopped.

To the west, the sun crept below the horizon, turning sky to glowing orange pink. To the east, the moon rose full, mirroring her setting brother. The evening stars twinkled overhead.

Farther inland, Charlie wandered to a stand of trees, covered in pink-yellow- white blossoms:

A figure emerged, a woman; her olive skinned face lit the golden setting sun, head haloed in silver by the rising moon. A breeze filtered through apple blossoms, caressing her silky black hair with incense. She wore a flowing purple robe, gathered around her waist by a cord. Around her neck hung a silver pendant: moon and star. Her eyes were pools numinous dark, a blackness that shone.

"Brightest blessings on you, my donella."

"H-hello. Where is this place? Is this your land? I'm sorry; I don't mean to trespass. I ...I have no idea how I got here."

The woman flashed a dazzling smile. "My land indeed, from here to there and everything between. But trespass? Never you, my donella. This is your home, and for too long I have awaited your return.”

This place was home, Charlie knew this. As she knew this woman, this Lady too.

"W-why do you call me... donella?"

"Because you are my donella, my little dark-haired elf lass. What would you have me call you?"

Other names, from past times, whispered to her, but she shook her head.

"How about Charlie?"

The Lady laughed, and bells chimed in Charlie's head.

"I know you by another name, but Charlie it is. Walk with me. Donella Charlie, and

"And I...I don't have dark hair, you see. I mean I did ...when I was me ...before ...before I was changed to this body... but now my hair's white, and...

"Are you sure, donella?"

Charlie gathered the ends of her hair in her hand; shiny soft black hair.

"But it was white when...when I..." Charlie sighed, "This is a dream, right?"

"All is dream, beloved, but less here than there."

"I don't understand..."

"Though you think this place as dream, it is more real than the world you live in. Know also more than your hair has changed. …much …more"

Charlie's gaze shot lower. To see her chest was fuller than before.

"Changed? Again? I don't..."

"...understand, donella? How often you speak the word! Are you in a perpetual state of bewilderment?"

Charlie's back stiffened. "I'm as smart as the next guy, er gal...I mean..." her shoulders slumped. “So much has happened.”

Her eyes flashed. "I know you, don't I? Who are you? Are you ...making this happen? WHY?"

"Because you are my vessel, my Akasha. And, though it be vanity, I could not have my daughter looking ...as you did."

"Daughter? I don't..."

"Sshhh, yes, I know, you don't understand," the woman said, putting a finger to Charlie's lips. "Let me show you all I mean."

She took Charlie's hand. "Come with me; there's someone I want you to meet."

She led Charlie into the ring of ancient apple trees. Though the trees forming the grove's ring were dappled in silver white blossoms, in its center stood an older and larger tree more wondrous still: its green leafed limbs reached high above, touching the twilight sky. Its massive brown roots stretched deep into the earth. And from its branches hung acorns, hazel nuts and sparkling silver apples.

"This is the Elder, Charlie. Before the earth was formed and all the trees were born, he was long here."

The Lady plucked an apple. She handed it to Charlie. "Eat it, beloved, and know!"

Charlie looked at the silver apple shimmering in her palm. She brought the apple to her lips and bit into its cool center, and

the universe exploded

sending her/at once

everywhere and nowhere.

she was:

earth of green lush valleys

water of dark blue seas,

fire of bright flaming suns.

wind over snow capped mountains.

Creation NOW brimmed her heart,

and infinity's sorrow drowned her soul.

Then she remembered:

Images flowed before her, of her life as Charlie, and her life before that, and the one before that, and before that, and before that, and before that, and before that…

until …she came to one that made her scream.

"They burn me! Though I led them, loved them, healed them of their sickness, they burned me."

She fell to her knees before the Lady. "Mother! Do not make me do this, I beg you!"

The Lady stroked Charlie's hair.

"The choice is yours, donella, always. But consider. The pain you felt in one instant I have always. The world screams her agony to me; my children, elves and humans, live shadow lives. With each age it worsens. The balance must be restored. I can do this, through you. Consider."

"Don't make me the Akasha again, Lady! Let me be normal, let me be no one! They tortured me before, will they not do so again?"

"Sshh, love. They will do as they will. We offer choice and hope. You have been absent too long from them; they drink nothing but dust. Oh how they thirst!"

Tears fell from the Lady's eyes, and where they touched the ground, silver flowers sprang forth. She lifted Charlie to her feet and held head against her breast.

"Consider, my donella, consider …Now...it is time for you to return to time."

"Will I …remember this?" Charlie asked, as the grove shimmered and blurred.

"You will remember all, though not all at once, for the finite mind only holds so much infinity."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"And so she brings a touch of the divine to the plane of space and time, my Lady?"

"Perhaps, my Lord." She turned eastward to greet the light, to greet the Lord. "Perhaps, if she accepts."

"And why would she not? She has done so before."

"Well do you know, she hasn't accepted since your church burned her, my Lord."

"Well do I know,” He let out a long sigh. "Though I sent her judges visions of her innocence and mercy, still they sent her to the stake. Well do I know."

"Her soul was greatly wounded; in all her lives since, she has chosen to be neither elfin nor female."

"Even her present one. You have, I think, bent our rule not to interfere with free will, Love, arranging events as you have."

"My Akasha can only come to me as a donella, it my way. So I bent our rule, yes, but did not break it, for after all, the choice still is hers. I had to do this; I could no longer bear the world's pain in silence!"

"I do not criticize, for I have, on occasion, entered the world..."

"Even then You allowed choice, even when they did what they did to you." She stroked His palms.

"Even then," He answered softly..

"And so I will at the last, let her decide."

"How she will choose, Lady?"

"I know not, but I think perhaps, love will win out. Or rather, I hope so..."

"Shall we look ahead to see her choice, to offer guidance, perhaps?"

"Lead me not into temptation, my Lord. For I may not be able to resist the urge to force her decision."

"Then let us think of other temptations, my Lady, to distract you."

"What did you have in mind?" She smiled, and drew close to His face. And nibbled His ear.

"What shall we create together this time, hmmm? A world? A star? Or a universe?"
 

~o~O~o~

 

17.

"Sarah! You won't believe the dream I...What? Why are you looking at me that way?"

"C-Charlie?"

"Yup, though I've landed in some insane woman's body, in a world gone crazy. What's wrong now?"

"You've …changed again."

"What do you mean," Charlie asked as Sarah helped her from the capsule and placed a thick robe around her shoulders. Sarah led Charlie across the room to a mirror.

Charlie regarded her image in silence. She was stunned; not by the changes in her features though the changes were great indeed - silky black hair, wet from the capsule water, glistened as it lay far down her back. Her finger tips traveled to her face, to touch full red lips, high cheek bones and arched eyebrows. Then her hands dropped as she became mesmerized her own crystal blues eyes, staring back.

No, what struck her hard was not her radical change from Rachael's features, but in how familiar this new face looked.

"It wasn't a dream," Charlie whispered. Something tugged at her. Some duty. Charlie walked out of the flotation room and into the hallway.

"Charlie? Stop honey" Sarah trailed after her. "Let's find somewhere for you to sit a while and we'll sort this out. I'll call John and..."

Charlie stood now in front of a closed massage room with an 'occupied' sign in front. She placed her hard on the doorknob.

"No, Charlie, not in there; that's Mrs. Paddins session; she shouldn't be disturbed. She's a terminal patient who came here before she moves into the hospice. Her last wish. I'll find an open room and..."

Charlie opened the door and walked in, and to the massage table where a woman lay face down.

The masseuse barely manage a faint "What are you doing?" whisper before Charlie laid hands on Mrs Paddin's sallow body. White sparks flowed from her hands into the sick woman. She stirred.

"Trin dear? Whatever you just did felt wonderful! My body is tingling all over!"

Charlie stumbled backwards now, as she, Sarah and the masseuse stared at her hands.

Sarah grabbed her and yanked her from the room.

"What did you do to her? Did you harm her? Her children scrimped and saved to send her here for one last pleasure in life, for goodness sake! Her body is riddled with cancer!"

"Not anymore it isn't," Charlie whispered, still looking at her hands.

"W-what do you mean, Charlie?"

"Charlie? Yeah, that's my name now, but I've had others, like La pucelle d'Orléans, or … or …Joan."

Fear filled Charlie's eyes, as she relived past terrors.

"I... I can't do this! Not again! Not again!" Charlie screamed as she fled.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Her fear grew; Charlie was nowhere to be found in the Silver Moon complex. Frantic, she scanned the grounds, and spied a small figure walking to the edge of a nearby ocean bluff. The craggy limestone cliff stood dozens of stories high and sheered to jagged dark boulders below. Her heart pounded faster.

She bounded up the gravel path to the cliff, screaming Charlie's name. The gale ocean breeze blew her words back.

"Charlie! Stop!" She was sprinting, yelling, waving her arms.

When Charlie turned to her, and saw the wildness in young woman's eyes.

"Stop …what ...are ...you ...doing ... " She panted when she drew near, and bent over, hands to knees, to catch her breath.

"Keep back, Sarah! Don't come any closer!" Charlie turned back to the cliff's edge.

"WAIT! Wait... please! I'm not Sarah. It's me! Kerri! I'm Kerri."

"What?” Charlie whirled around.

TREIGLO!

Sarah's body rippled; her shaped, compacted and crunched, until 'Sarah' was gone and Kerri stood in her place.

"Is it ...you? Is nothing real anymore?"

"I am, love.” Kerri took a step toward Charlie. “Please, don't move!".

"No. NO! You're confusing me! The way out of this nightmare was so clear before you ...appeared."

"Baby, come here. I can't live without you."

Kerri took a step closer.

"Are ...are you serious?" Charlie asked, uncertain.

"Dead serious. I almost killed someone I thought had hurt you. You remember that I sure. If you jump, I'm jumping after you."

Kerri took a step closer.

"No …you wouldn't ...nooo!" Charlie's voice pleaded.

"Yet you would have me live without you?"

"But I'm not me anymore, can't you see?"

"I told you I would love you whoever you were!"

Kerri stepped closer.

"Stay away, please just STAY ...AWAY!"

Kerri moved in a blur of quickness and grabbed Charlie's shoulders.

"Let go! Let me jump!"

"Stop talking like this, dammit! Yes, your life has changed, but it's not over! This is not like you to give up!"

Kerri drew the smaller woman in with a bear hug. After a moment, Charlie stopped struggling, and laid her head against Kerri's chest. They held each other close and listened oceans roar below. At last, Kerri drew back to look into Charlie's luminous blue eyes, moist and sparkling in the sunlight.

"Baby, you're crying."

Charlie touched her hand to her face, surprised to find it wet.

"Where have you been hiding as all this ... magical shit storm …happened and I needed you sooo much! To touch you, to talk to you, to..."

"Sssh. I'm sorry, love. After I ...went postal on ...you, as it turned out ...I had to hide for a while from the Keep's security. After that, I was working with John, and Sarah -the real one- agreed I could take her place while you were here to be close to you. I don't know how I to say I'm sorry this has happened to you."

"Can this ...can this all... be reversed? Can we …go back to the way things were before?"

"We don't think so,” Kerri said. “According to Mr. U, you've been sent by the Goddess-"

"-No! NO! ...I can't ...be what She wants...I won't..."

Charlie started to struggle again, but Kerri held on tight.

"What? Are you gonna hold me here forever?"

"Only until you start thinking clearly. If that's forever..." she shrugged again.

"Thinking clearly? I have no idea how to begin to! Look at me. LOOK AT ME!"

"It is easy to do; for you are the most beautiful creature I've ever seen. You look like the ancient paintings of the Lady!"

"But that's it! I am the Lady! Or rather, I'm her donella, her envoy on earth, her ...her..."

"Akasha?"

"Yes! That is what She called me!"

"You've spoken to Her? What an honor! How could you think of throwing away Her sacred gift?"

"But Kerri, don't you see? The world kills its messiahs! Do you know what they did to me before? Do you?" Charlie slammed her eyes shut:

"A large crowd of them came to see it. Some of them I'd even healed, and yet they came. It was a carnival; they brought me in a cage, like an animal, laughing at me, spitting on me ...and then ... they tied me to a pillar, stacking wood all around me... until …the... the hooded man ...set a torch to the wood, and ohhhh, the flames, the flames, the flames..."

Charlie felt coolness about her and opened her eyes, to see a gentle mist had enveloped her.

"I am a Water, my love, I will never let anyone harm you with fire again! I'll protect you! I'll work with you to adjust to your calling, but you must promise me you won't kill yourself. Or else..."

"Or else what?"

"We jump together, right now."

"No! That's not fair! You can't make me responsible for your death too!"

"You wouldn't be; it would be my choice."

"But you wouldn't jump unless I did!"

"Those are my terms."

"But... you can't make me promise you I'd ... never ever... I mean ...what if I just can't do it? I... you can't make me just keep on going and going..."

Kerri paused. "Six months. Your promise would be good for six months."

"But where would I live? How would I exist?” Charlie said. “I've no job, no identity, no... no clothes even! I have nothing! This won't work!"

"Honey, calm down! You'd live with me. I'll arrange for a new identity... we shifters are pretty good at this identity stuff... and think, -THINK!- of the good you'll do! The lives you could save!"

"That's true ... that's true." It was a staggering; she could heal! She could save! She could balance. In a flash, she stood in the apple grove again, looking on face of the Lady.

Well donella? the words echoed in Charlie's mind. I await your answer too.

“Do we have a deal?" Kerri said.

Kerri held her breath. After what seemed an eternity to the Water elf, she heard the word she prayed would come from her lover's lips.

"Deal."
 

~o~O~o~

 

IV. Dopo Tutti.

18.

"And then what happened?

"What?"

"To Charlie? What happened?"

"Benny! Are we interested in the little fairy tale?"

The man turned red and muttered, "It's all a load of crap. Can't believe I wasted the time to listen to this bullshit ...how embarrassing!"

Suz laughed. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. And anyway, I don't know how it will end. Maybe we'll know more tonight, cause the friends I am waiting on are Charlie, Kerri and that dreamy John."

"You cannot expect me to believe any of this manure was true?"

Suz shrugged. "Believe or not, as you wish."

The Java Joint door swung open, and a dazzling black haired woman walked in, dressed in soft brown leather knee high boots, tight blue jeans and a thick white winter coat. She hung the coat on the metal coat tree by the door, revealing a formfitting royal purple silk turtleneck that accentuated her full figure and supple body. From her neck hung a simple silver star pendant. The woman strode to where Suz stood and knelt on one knee before her.

"My Princess! I am cold and in dire need of a hot Americano. Please, your Majesty, I beg you to prepare thy holy elixir for this unworthy servant. Also, a CrumpkinMuffin, if you have one."

"Would you STOP with that Princess gibberish, Charlie? You're embarrassing me."

Benny gazed at the beautiful woman and snorted: "You're supposed to be Charlie? You 're supposed to have been a man once? No freakin' way! I knew this was hogwash."

Charlie rose to her feet and cocked an eyebrow at Suz. "I'm not sure what stories our chatty barista has been filling your head with, sir..."

"Name's Benny. And she was laying it on thick. 'Bout how you were magically switched and changed or something, and how you were a saint and can 'heal' people and all sorts of horse dung..."

Charlie drew next to his wheel chair. "Oh, I know, she is so full of it! Why, the idea that I could heal? What a joke! And I haven't been a saint for many many years now."

As she laid a hand on Benny's thigh, white sparkles flowed into his body. His eyes jolted open.

"W-what was that?"

"What was what, Benny?"

"I felt a shock and now I feel kinda funny."

"Hmm, shall we see if it worked?"

She grabbed his hand, and before he realized what she was doing, she yanked him to his feet.

"What the HELL!? Can't you see I'm..."

He stopped speaking. He was standing. On his own.

“Hey! I can....”He took first one step, then another. "...walk!"

"Walk! I. Can. Walk!"

'Walk' was an understatement. He walked, jumped up and down and pirouetted. When he ran back to Charlie, tears streamed down his face. He clasped her hands.

"Thank you, thank you thank you! Do you know how I've dreamed of of this? Do you?"

Then Benny's mouth slammed shut and he stared, at Charlie, then Suz, then back at Charlie.

"But …that means …the story was true," he whispered.

Charlie put a finger to his lips.

"Shhh! I'd appreciate it if we could keep what just happened as our little secret, hmm?"

"Sure anything! I've gotta show Mother! She's been so depressed since this happened. She'll be over the moon." He gave Charlie a bear hug and then hugged Suz too.

"Merry Christmas! I'll keep it a secret!"

He hopped up and down several more times, and then bolted out the door, leaving his wheel chair behind. They heard one last "M-e-r-r-y C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s" as he ran down the street.

"You are amazing!" Suz said. "Kerri told me you healed the cancer patient at the spa, and I saw her jogging around afterward, but to see you do it... what's it like?

"Can't describe it; it just happens. I sense what's out of balance, and then …balance it. The feeling I got from lifting his pain was so... so..." her eyes glittered with tears.

"Here's a napkin, honey"

"I'm crying again? God this is weird!"

"Gods. We say 'gods' Charlie. We're elves. We're polytheistic."

"Oh, spiffy! So, on top of everything else, I can't celebrate Christmas now too? No Christmas tree, or Santa or presents?"

"Calm down, little girl. We have a huge Solstice feast at the Keep. With winter ale and Yule log and roast Who Beast. Winter Solstice is where Christmas traditions came from anyway, including Father Christmas. I'm sure if you hang a stocking, Kerri will fill it. She is an elf you know. By the way, where is Kerri?"

"'Cary' went to pick up John from DIA. His flight was delayed for hours but I think it's finally arrived."

"Cary? You mean we'll be boy-girl, boy-girl tonight? Wow, how normal! So are you cool with Kerri in her male form?"

"I don't know... I …" Charlie looked at the floor. "Last night was the first full moon since... since my change. I haven't seen 'him' yet."

Suz went behind her counter to begin his Americano. "This is the first time you'll see Cary? Wow! Nervous?"

"I'm terrified! What if I can't... be with a man? What if it freaks me out? After all we've been through, the last thing I want to do is hurt his feelings..."

"Look, stop fretting. You'll have no problems - he's gorgeous. Here's what you do: when he opens the door ...don't let him say one word, just reach up and give him a big fat wet French kiss and then grind..."

"Excuse me? French kiss? Grind? The only thing 'grinding' around here will be your French roast beans! God ...er, gods…I'll be lucky if I can hold his hand."

"Listen, girlfriend, take it from me. If-"

The Java Joint door blew open again, and a shivering John stumbled in, ice clinging to his black and silver goatee.

"Sunny and seventy in California when I left! Honest to God, I ought examine my own head." John stomped his feet to warm them, as he brushed the snow from his gray wool overcoat. "I don't think I'll ever get warm again. E-V-E-R!"

"Come on, doc, its not so bad. Let me get some of my world famous java in you. Love your goatee, by the way. Sarah was right, you look roguish."

"Hmm," he said eying the empty wheel chair. "Your coffee didn't cause the former occupant of this chair to crawl away in disgust, I hope."

"Real funny, John. FYI, he left here singing our praises. Our newest elf healed him, you see."

"Wish I'd seen it," John said, and turned to Charlie. "I know you may not think so, but you are truly blessed."

"I'm keeping an open mind," she said, and looked down at the floor again. "This hasn't been easy."

"Of course not. How could it be? Remember what we talked about on the phone. A day at a time is all I ask."

"I'm so glad you're here, John. So, where is ...he?"

"Parking the car. He'll be a while yet; I told him I wanted to see you first. On the drive here, he told you've been talking about his male change since you returned to Denver. He also told you were ready to meet 'him'. Are you?"

"Yes. No. I don't know." She started pacing back and forth. "Suz and I were talking about this. What if I'm ...repulsed or I just don't like him or ...what if 'he' is not attracted to me?"

The wind blew outside, shaking the Java Joint door; Charlie jumped up from her seat.

"Uh, listen, I'm going to go to the bathroom to freshen up or ...or do whatever girls do when they go there or... ARRGH! I -HATE -THIS!" Charlie bolted off to the restroom.

"There's no back way out I hope?" John asked.

"Nope. Not that way. Should I go get her?"

"No. Give her a moment. How's she been? I talk to her on the phone every day, but that never gives you the full picture. I wanted to be here in person for her, but I couldn't ignore my other patients. The holidays gave me a chance to getaway for a while and come here to help her."

"And here I figured you were looking for a reason to come see me, doc." Suz batted her red eyelashes.

"Well I did, er ...I don't mean to presume that you'd want to see me that way... I mean..."

Suz laughed "It's okay, Johnny, I missed you, too. Now, about Charlie - I won't sugar coat this - it's been rough for her. It seems to come in waves of depression. Kerri has been an ocean of patience helping her to adjust to her new gender, and I think maybe they even had sex. I mean, I would have. And she's starting to produce the most amazing artwork. I saw the other day that she was sketching out a painting of an apple blossom orchard that is going to be out of this world. So, ya know, all good. But Charlie's also dealing with the total loss of her family and friends."

"It's not like she's died though... Rachael -in Charlie's old body- continues to live as 'Charlie', right?"

"Yeah, but that's a whole other problem. Rachael took a job as a graphic artist for a big telecom corporation - Qwest, I think. Charlie said she couldn't believe her old body would allow it. Worse, Rachael struck up a romance with an old girlfriend of Charlie's. They're engaged. Charlie gets depressed just thinking about what's happening to her old body."

"So in a way, Rachael's plan worked... she has restarted a romance with an ex-lover."

"Yeah, I suppose. Never thought about it that way. Great, so that bitch got her wish! Or, bastard now, I guess. Anyway, I hoped spending the Solstice at the Keep would take her mind off these worries, and get her busy meeting her new people. Word is spreading like wildfire among the elves that the Akasha has returned, and all the Keeps are clamoring for her to visit. Mr. U flew back from Northumbria and is peeing in his pants in anticipation of being with his holy 'Akasha.'

"That's something Charlie hasn't talked to me about. There's pressure by your people on her to be a Messiah?"

"My people are electrified; we've waited hundreds of years for her return! I've done my best to deflect the expectation, and Charlie hasn't spoken a word about it, but Kerri confided she's caught Charlie sneaking out of their condo late at night and doing..."

"Doing what?"

"Messiah stuff, I guess. Going to the Children's Hospital to heal terminally ill kids. Kerri even told me that one night when they were driving by a polluted lot leftover from the old Lowrey Airforce base, Charlie made her pull over. Kerri said she was frantic, possessed. Anyway, Charlie walked to the middle of the lot and sat cross legged for a while and..." Suz stopped to brush a scarlet lock from her forehead.

"And what? And what?! Jesus, you leave your audience hanging!"

"Patience doc? Are your pants on fire now or something?” Suz said, grinning. “Anyway, Kerri said a rainbow aura formed around Charlie and then flowed into the ground. Kerri swears the place felt cleansed fresh and 'wholesome'. After that, Charlie walked back to the car and refused to talk about the whole thing."

"A toxic Superfund site? Are you telling me she healed polluted ground?! My God!" John said. "Damned if this isn't a messiah complex in reverse!"

"A what?"

"Look, when people talk of a messiah complex, it refers to an instance when a person's ego is inflated with delusions of grandeur. They delude themselves into thinking they are indispensable world saviors. Charlie is the most humble person I've ever counseled, and it turns out she IS a messiah. Man, I wish I could publish something about this case."

"You can't publish anything, Johnny dear, that's all we need, more publicity! I've started up an 'MIB' response team of Air elves. They'll follow Charlie around and convince Ordinaries they didn't see her do what they just saw her do, or something like that ...still working it."

"I'm gonna have to force some ground rules on Charlie about the 'miracle' thing, cause the publicity could put our people in danger. I'm not looking forward to that conversation; this 'princess' gig is hard - it can put a wedge between you and your friends...”

Suz brooded a moment, then continued.

"Anywho, on top of all that insanity, now Charlie has this gender stress too. What if she and Cary crash and burn as man and woman? Can she bear it?"

"She's resilient; look how far she's come. But if she and Cary can't get along then... I just don't know," he sighed. “So, how are things at the Keep? Have you and Jessica had any more 'hot' disagreements?"

"Mother and I are getting along swimmingly, thanks for asking. I've hired an assistant manager who starts after the holidays. I'll spend more time at the Keep, assume greater responsibilities…"

"A princess at last!"

"It's true," Suz sighed. “You must now refer to me as 'Her Royal Hotness'.”

The door to the Java Joint opened again, and a man walked in; tall, with a swimmer's build, short brown hair and liquid blue eyes.

"Is now good, doc? Where is she?"

"Right here," Charlie called from across the room. She strode to him, stopping inches from his face.

"Hi," he said, in a sheepish baritone timbre. "I'm Cary. Glad to meet-"

Charlie pulled the man down to kiss and, after a brief embrace, pulled away with an odd look.

"Well, that was awkward!"

"Of course it was. You tried to kiss me like you were still Charlie-the-male and I was Kerri-the-female."

"I don't understand. I've been kissing you for the last three weeks and you haven't said anything was wrong."

"It's easier to ignore when I'm only slightly taller than you. Also, I was just glad you were willing to kiss me at all after everything that happened."

"I still don't understand..."

"Charlie, I'm six foot four now. I'm a foot taller than you, and outweigh you by a hundred and thirty pounds!"

"I only know one way to kiss! What are you saying?"

Cary wrapped his arms around her and leaned her back. "I'm saying, 'trust me, trust the one who loves you.'

He brought his lips close to hers.

"I'm saying, relax. Your lips are scrunched like you are going to blow a trumpet. Let me help."

He grabbed a nipple through her silk shirt and twisted.

"Ow! That-"

Cary covered her mouth with his and kissed her, long and slow.

"Mmmm..."

When Cary let her up for air, she was panting. Cary ran his finger over her lips.

"Lucevan li occhi suoi piá¹ che la stella,"

“Hey! That's Dante!” Charlie said, "But ...not the Inferno, right?"

"Not the Inferno, no. It's from the Paradiso; it's time you left the burning fires of hells for heaven."

"You read Dante ...for me? Oh baby! What's it mean?"

"It means, 'her eyes surpassed the splendor of the stars.'"

Charlie blushed, until a thought popped into her head, “But I used to be the one saying these things to you."

"And, the beauty of our relationship is, in three weeks, you can."

Still in his arms, Charlie studied the face gazing down at her.

“It is you in there!” Charlie said, her eyes sparkling. “You're Kerri. You're Cary. I love …you.”

Cary's face shone like sun on water, and he locked his lips back on hers. As they kissed, a rainbow aura filled the room.

"Somebody sure sparked the Akasha's plug,” Suz whispered to John. “Looks like we're double dating tonight after all!"

"Thank God!” he whispered back. “That was so romantic."

"Wasn't it?" she answered. "Don't you get any ideas about trying mushy stuff on me, doc."

"Oh no...I wouldn't presume-"

"-We won't waste the time, cause we're gonna go straight to having sex like drunk monkeys, all - night - long!"

"Did I say I'd never ever warm up?" John said, as he wrapped his arms around Suz.

"I stand corrected."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fini.



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