TG Universes & Series:
Part 1 – Lovers' Tangle
ElrodW and Ib12us
Anya meets a girl from the 'Old Country', and the two become friends. But Anya is starting to make mistakes that affect customers, including a college girl and the young man who's been interested in her for a long time. When she really messes up their lives, desperate measures are called for to straighten things out.
Part 1 – Lovers' Tangle
In a condominium next to her water park, Bikini Beach, a vision intruded on Grandmother's peaceful dream, a disturbing scene of someone struggling but being inexorably pulled into a cold, black vortex, as if drowning. Grandmother wasn't completely awake, but the distressing imagery quickly yanked her from the land of slumber. For a minute or so, she lay in her bed, awake but not stirring, while she let her magic senses probe about her, searching to see if there was some magic which had roused her. She felt ... something, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was.
She quickly felt the auras and life-forces of those around her and dear to her – Selena, the mage-in-training who worked at the park for her; Melinda, Jenny, and Natty, her close friends; Ronnie Harris, the owner of the condo they lived in; and Anya, her grand-daughter and right-hand person running Bikini Beach. Everything seemed calm.
Shaking her head, she started to close her eyes again, but then she sensed the strange something again. It seemed – familiar, something she'd experienced or encountered before, but it was only a fleeting sensation. "I'm losing sleep and getting jumpy because of those damned taxes again," she told herself as she settled her head back on her pillow. In moments, she'd drifted back to sleep.
Anya sat up suddenly in her bed, breathing rapidly, as she looked frantically around the room. Something had awakened her – some unpleasant, icy sensation that penetrated to her core. Her skin felt the warm temperature of the room, the air-conditioning holding the apartment at a near-constant seventy-eight degrees in the hot summer months, so the cold feeling was even more perplexing.
The attractive, dark-haired, twenty-three-year-old girl forced herself to take a few deep breaths to calm herself. There had to be an explanation, of that she was certain. Once she was calmed, and the chill inside her had abated, she extended her magic senses, to try to find out what had awakened her.
Instantly, terror filled her eyes as the cold feeling returned with an icy grasp that took her breath away, making her visibly shiver. For what seemed an eternity to Anya, the icy grip held her, but as she pulled in her magic senses, trying to mask her abilities and her aura as Grandmother had been trying to teach her, the feeling of cold terror receded slowly, but as it did so, Anya felt it pulsing, like it was alive and breathing, or it had a beating heart. Suddenly, she had a horrifying thought that maybe it was laughing at her, as it faded completely away.
As soon as the sensations had faded completely, Anya laid back down on her bed, but her eyes were open, her gaze darting about the room, and she felt her pulse racing. From a fear of how the icy cold had gripped her when she had tried to use her magic, she dared not use her tricks to calm herself and put herself back to sleep. She laid awake, tossing and turning fitfully, something she hadn't done as far back as she could remember. The only time she could remember not being able to sleep was ... that awful night. Her eyes snapped open again; her lip trembled as she huddled under her blanket, peeking over its edge, frightened like a small girl.
It was already a boring morning, even this early – the sun shone brightly into the ticket booth, but its heat no longer made the booth feel like an oven. Anya tried to smile through her fatigue, knowing that she'd have to personally thank her boyfriend Greg once more for installing the upgraded air conditioner..
"Good morning, Anya," Vicky, a regular park employee and close friend of Anya's, said cheerfully. She winced when Anya looked up at her. "Wow! What happened? Didn't you sleep well last night?"
Anya shook her head. "What was your first clue?" She was trying to sound chipper and cheery in preparation for greeting the park's guests, but she wasn't succeeding very well.
"It could be that your hair is a mess, or that you aren't wearing any makeup, but I think the clincher is your eyes are a bit bloodshot and you're struggling to keep them open."
"I didn't sleep worth a damn," Anya sighed. "I don't know why. Bad dream, I guess, and I couldn't get back to sleep."
"I hate it when that happens," Vicky said sympathetically. After a moment, she frowned. "Aren't you going to tell me what Rob and I are planning?" After much turmoil in her life, including being changed from Vic into Vicky, her boyfriend Rob had proposed, and Vicky accepted.
"Sorry, but I'm too tired," Anya replied through a yawn.
"Rob and I were going to wait until we both graduated, but we decided to move up our plans to next summer. We'll be getting married in less than a year!" Vicky was ecstatic, and Anya felt happy for her. Vicky's life had been tough, and she deserved some happiness, the kind that Rob would always give her, since he was so totally devoted to her.
"That's wonderful," Anya said with heartfelt emotion. Vicky was a very dear friend. "Have you decided where?"
"Not yet, but we have time. One thing I do know is that Marta and Holly are already planning a bachelorette party for me – here!" Vicky giggled.
"Sure. The way they see it, we can have one blowout for both Rob and me here, and it won't get ... raunchy."
"That'll be interesting," Anya said with a smile. "Don't you have the day off? I thought you and Rob were going to have a picnic."
Vicky frowned slightly. "That's the downside of his job – he's tied up today and tomorrow, so I swapped shifts with Marta."
"Well, I'm sure Rob will make it up to you."
Vicky smiled. "He always does – and then some." Vicky gazed once more at Anya, shaking her head slowly. "You really should go home and take a nap," she said. "You look like hell."
Anya shook her head. "Can't. Got a long-term guest coming this morning, and since Grandmother is busy with the accountants for quarterly taxes, I've got to handle it."
"Oh," Vicky said knowingly. "Can't Selena give you a break?" While any of the girls could sell a short-term pass, only Grandmother, Anya, or Selena were allowed to sell long-term and lifetime passes because the longer passes radically altered the recipient's life.
Anya shook her head, her long dark tresses dancing about her face in an uncontrolled jumble. "She's studying for her summer school finals this morning."
"Well, at least take a break and comb your hair and put on some makeup," Vicky advised gently. "You'll feel a lot better when you look better, won't you?"
Anya laughed. "That and a quart of espresso _might_ pick me up! And look who's giving me fashion advice now!"
"At least Greg got the bigger air conditioner in there for you, so you don't bake, too!" Vicky joked.
"Yeah," Anya smiled for the first time. "The girls love it. If Greg and I weren't dating, a number of the staff would have showed him their gratitude personally. As it was, one new girl didn't know we were dating yet, and she was practically throwing herself at him!"
"It must be that new girl Elissa. I heard her talking in the gift shop the other day about how dreamy Greg was. She even asked me if he was spoken for."
"And you told her ...?"
Vicky chuckled. "I warned her that it wouldn't be a good career move to try to steal the owner's granddaughter's boyfriend."
Anya laughed aloud. "I would have loved to see the expression on her face when you told her."
"You could have always turned her into a frog," Vicky joked. She knew what few others did; namely, that Anya could use her own magic, as well as manipulate that of the park. "One thing I need you to consider, though."
"I'd very much like it if you would be my maid of honor."
Anya's eyes misted at her friend's invitation. "I'd be honored," she said, wiping at her teary eyes. "You know I think of you like a sister, and I'd be honored to be in your wedding party."
"Good." Vicky and Anya gave each other a warm, friendly hug. Unlike most interactions, as an employee, Vicky could enter the ticket booth, which allowed more personal conversations – and hugs. "I've got to run. I'm probably going to be late to start my shift, and I don't want Grandmother to get too mad at me."
"She won't," Anya said with a smile, before she yawned again. "How about if we get together for lunch? I've got a ton of things to start planning if I'm going to be your maid of honor." She grinned at Vicky, knowing that her friend would understand that Anya was pulling her leg; Anya would do what Vicky wanted for the wedding, and no more.
As she sat in the booth, lulled by the warm sun on her skin and the gentle, cool breeze of the air conditioner, Anya couldn't help but smile; the work on the park's expansion was progressing steadily, and the design had been done by Greg while he was still in architecture school. He was almost finished with his degree, focusing on recreational architecture, and Grandmother had hired him to do the design work. She closed her eyes for a moment, relishing in her thoughts of Greg and of the previous week, when they'd rented a sailboat and spent three days, just the two of them, sailing along the coast.
"Excuse me," a woman's voice interrupted Anya's daydreaming. Inwardly, Anya chided herself; with her magic senses, she should have known not only that someone was coming to the window, but also what the customer wanted or needed. "How much is a ticket?"
Anya opened her senses for a moment, and she flinched at the momentary flash of a magical aura, before it went dark again. She frowned; something didn't seem quite right. "Uh," Anya stammered, having momentarily lost her composure, "we don't sell tickets."
"Oh, that's right," the woman replied, as if she should have known. "You sell guest passes, because park admittance is mostly for members, right?" She looked to be about the same age as Anya, with wavy brown hair and a quite attractive figure. Her attire was stylish, but well-suited to the heat of the summer day. She also had a curious smile – not quite smug, but definitely pleased with herself.
Anya instinctively threw up her mental blocks; she was sure the woman had been using magic to read her mind, just like Anya and Grandmother did with their customers. Having seen a flash of an aura, Anya knew that the woman either possessed magic ability, or had a powerful magic talisman with her. Since the aura had been masked, Anya was certain it was the former. She quoted the woman the price of a one-day pass.
The woman smiled and opened her purse, extracting a credit card. When Anya picked up the card, she felt a tingle course through her body. She frowned; the card was obviously enchanted in some way. As Anya ran the card through her machine, she did a quick magic probe, which revealed that the card was conjured to go with a bank account that had also been magically created.
The woman took the guest pass and turned toward the gate, but then she turned back to Anya, as if she'd had an afterthought. "Since I'm new in town, I was wondering if maybe you would be willing to show me a little of the night life, if it wouldn't be too much trouble." She smiled demurely. "You're the first person I've really talked to here, and, well, I'm sometimes a bit shy around people."
Anya started to say no, but something about this woman was tugging at her, making her want to get to know more. She was an enigma, with some type of magical aura. Anya reasoned that she should keep an eye on the young lady, to find out more about her, and more specifically, why she'd chosen to come to Bikini Beach. "I can't believe that you'd be shy. I'd have thought that you'd have guys tripping over themselves to make you feel welcome." Anya was trying to discern more about the stranger without using her magical sense.
"Knock off the coy, non-magical trying to sound me out," the girl said with a knowing smile. "I know you know how to use magic, and you know that I use magic, too. I can sense a huge amount of magic with the park. So, what gives?" She paused, and then smiled. "By the way, my name is Oksana. And I assume you're Anya?"
Anya gave her a curt nod. She was uncomfortable with strangers knowing her name. Then she noticed Oksana looking at her shirt, where a name tag announced to the world Anya's name. She felt a little stupid.
"Cute little gimmick you have here," Oksana said with a twinkle in her eye. "Changing men into girls and women so your patrons can enjoy a day free of being ogled, leered at, and treated as sex objects."
Anya frowned; she hadn't told the strange girl about the park's magic. Did the girl have that powerful a command of the arts that she could read all of that just by examining the park's magic? How much else did the girl know? "It's pretty popular, so we have a pretty good clientele. It's so popular, in fact, that we're adding on, and have already pre-sold a lot of new memberships."
"I particularly like the little trick with their memories. So cute that they don't remember being girls, but remember having a fun day at a water park," Oksana added, indirectly emphasizing her magic power.
"It helps avoid confusion," Anya admitted, feeling mixed emotions. She was proud of how she and Grandmother could control whether or not the male customers remembered their female experience, but she was a little miffed that this strange magic-using girl could discern what the park did. She decided to pre-empt the girl's next observation, despite the fact that Grandmother had repeatedly told her that she must never reveal the extent of the park's magic except under special circumstances. Anya's pride got the better of her. "We sell passes to the men; the change lasts as long as the pass, up to and including permanent change. And we can make the change local, which affects only the customer, or global, which rewrites reality so the world thinks they were always female."
"Impressive," Oksana said. "That's some serious magic."
Anya smiled. She'd gotten a compliment from the powerful girl. "We try to think of everything. We even have a dimension-shifting trick with the men's shower so the customers can't ever be embarrassed."
"Cute. You seem to think of everything. Hey, I have an idea. How about if we go out for a drink, one mage to another, and maybe share some stories and a little magic knowledge?" Oksana said bluntly. "I know a wonderful little club in New York City, and I'm sure you'll love it."
"New York? Isn't that kind of far for a few drinks? I thought you wanted to check out the local watering holes."
Oksana smiled. "It's not far if you use the 'traveling' spell." She frowned. "Surely someone with a powerful aura like yours uses the traveling spell."
Anya was taken aback – a bit. "Well, yeah, I use it – sometimes. But Grandmother and I usually use normal means of transportation, because we don't want to draw attention to ourselves." She wondered why she was telling these personal details to a stranger, but there was something strangely compelling about this magic-using girl. "To be honest, whenever we go somewhere with it, she makes me invoke the magic. I don't know if it's because she can't remember the spell, or if she's just pushing me to expand my knowledge." She shook her head, puzzled; she wanted to stop telling Oksana these details, but she had a very strong sense of being able to connect with someone who understood the difficulties of using magic in a mostly-mortal world. And her name – Oksana – was Eastern European, which mean another possible connection to the old country. "She doesn't use much magic at all anymore. Just the spells for the park, mostly."
Oksana's eyebrow rose a bit, and a brief, wicked grin flitted across her features before she regained her calm demeanor. "That's interesting. And yet her aura is so strong." She looked thoughtful for a moment, as if she was filing away facts for later. "So, do you want to go to the Gold Club with me tonight?"
Anya was so taken aback by the forward, no-nonsense talk that she missed Oksana's comment about Grandmother's aura. She _should_ have wondered when and why Oksana would have probed Grandmother's magic potential, but she was pre-occupied thinking about Oksana's invitation . She, Grandmother, and Selena were very careful not to talk about magic in public venues where they might be overheard. "Uh, I guess that might be fun," she said nervously. Grandmother had always taught her to be discrete, and here Oksana was almost flaunting her magic, and in a public area. Her self-confidence was something that Anya found interesting, and perhaps something that she wanted. "Okay. How about if we go after the park closes?"
"I know you're going to love it," Oksana said confidently before she turned back to the gate and entered the park.
Behind her, in the ticket booth, Anya sat, wondering what had come over her. She was usually very private about magic, and her and Grandmother's abilities. She was even more careful with the secret of the park's magic. Why had she blurted out what she had to a stranger? Perhaps, she reasoned to herself, it was because she wanted, even needed, more magic-using people around her, so she could stretch her abilities and learn more. Selena, while a good friend, was even less knowledgeable than she. Grandmother? Grandmother's magic limits had been explained to Anya, and as such, she couldn't teach her granddaughter much. Danni was only in town when the Wizard magically moved his shop into a mall in the city; he was apt to be gone before Anya even realized Danni had been in town. Suddenly, Anya found herself looking forward to spending time with Oksana in New York City, so much so that she forgot that she had a date with Greg that evening.
"Hi, Anya," Oksana sang out as she approached the ticket window. It was nearly mid-day, and Anya had just returned from her lunch break.
"Hi, Oksana. What do you think of our humble little establishment?" Anya replied.
"It's pretty good, as water parks go. To be honest, though, I think I'd prefer a place where there are a few men around." She struck a pose in her bikini. "After all, if you've got it, flaunt it."
Anya looked over Oksana, and had to admit that she was a tiny bit jealous. She had the same Eastern European features, but her hair was lighter than Anya's, and she wore it layered and curled, at least when it wasn't wet from playing in the park. Her bikini really showed off every curve of her body, especially her slightly more than ample bosom. Her skin was flawless as well. Her hazel eyes seemed like a bottomless pit, alluring enough to swallow a man's soul, while her cheeks were perfectly proportioned, and her nose was dainty and cute.
As she looked over the girl, Anya chided herself. She shouldn't be jealous; Anya was a very attractive young lady in her own right. She wondered, for a moment, where that jealous thought had come from. "If you flaunt a body like that without magic to defend yourself, you'll end up in trouble."
Oksana grinned. "Yes, but I _do_ have magic to protect myself," she said conspiratorially, leaning closer to the grill in the window. "Just like you do." Her grin grew mischievous. "And I bet you've used your magic to tease men with at times, too, haven't you?" She saw Anya's cheeks redden a bit. "I knew it! Every magic-using girl does at some point, because it's fun!"
"I haven't done anything like that since Greg and I started an exclusive relationship, though," Anya added quickly. It sounded like she was making an excuse for past behavior, and explaining that it really was in the past. Anya suddenly closed her eyes a moment. "Oops, I've got a customer coming."
"I'll be quiet, then," Oksana said with a smile. "To be honest, I want to see how this works."
"Good afternoon. How may I help you?" she said to the young man who stepped up to the window.
The boy was about eighteen, Anya guessed, and a little smaller than average. With his glasses, mussed hair, and clothing that was quite outdated, he looked like a boy that girls wouldn't notice. "My sister said I should come here to get a pass for three weeks," the boy said, his voice carrying his confusion at his sister's strange request.
"We can help you with that," Anya answered with a smile. Behind the smile, though, she was frowning. She was having some difficulty reading the boy's motives and the possibilities for his future. "Why do you need a pass, if you don't mind my asking?"
"I've got to stay with my sister and her roommates for a few weeks while Mom and Dad deal with some family business out of town," he explained quickly. "She said that they hang out here a lot, and I'd fit in better if I had a pass and could come with them."
Anya smiled as she realized his sister's intentions. Since he had to stay with a house full of young women, it would be easier – and potentially far less embarrassing to all – if he was a young lady, too. At that moment, though, the boy's lifelines blurred, and Anya felt something else in him, something ... sinister.
Oksana thought a moment, and communicated silently to Anya. "The boy was planning to get candid photos of the girls while he was staying there, and then sell them on the Internet.'
Anya nodded. 'Are you sure? I don't sense that.' She focused a bit more, and practically recoiled at the mental pattern that Oksana had described. Anya shook her head; the lack of sleep was really getting to her if she was slipping this much in reading customers.
She looked at the boy and smiled. "I need a little information, and I'll get you a guest pass." In very short order, she had a laminated card printed up with his name – Timothy Rawlins. She couldn't help but smile; in a few moments, after he showered, it would read Tabitha Rawlins. The boy gave Anya a credit card, and after running the transaction through her computer, she handed the credit card and his pass back to Timothy.
After the boy went in the shower, Anya was about to go meet the changed person, but she saw Grandmother stepping smartly in the direction of the men's locker room. Anya was puzzled; Grandmother looked positively unhappy. In a few moments, the transformed Timothy, now Tabitha, emerged from the locker room. She looked like a sex kitten, amply endowed, and with a semi-vacant look in her eyes.
Grandmother turned toward the ticket booth, and with a scowl, gestured for Anya to go to the office. Puzzled by Grandmother's anger, Anya hung a 'back in 5 minutes' sign, and then strode to the low, gray office building that went through the privacy fence, so the office had entrances both inside and outside the park.
Before Anya could even sit down, Grandmother started. "What's with the pass you sold Mr. Rawlins?" she demanded. Her features were clouded, her visage showing clearly her disapproval of what Anya had done.
Anya gulped. Grandmother hadn't talked to her like this for years. "He was going to get candid photos of the sister's housemates and post them on the internet. It seemed fitting."
"What?" Grandmother demanded. "Where did you get _that_ idea?"
"I read his mind and his lifelines. When I found that, I decided the best thing was to make him into the type of sex-kitten that he wanted to photograph," Anya said. Her tone betrayed how upset she was; she sounded both defensive and a bit angry at having her judgment questioned.
"He was going to do no such thing!" Grandmother retorted quickly.
"But ... I read his mind, and his lifelines!"
Grandmother shook her head. "Do you know why the sister sent him here?"
Anya frowned. "So he wouldn't prey on her roommates."
"No. So her roommates wouldn't prey on her younger brother," Grandmother countered. "He stands to gain a sizeable trust fund from a favorite aunt – provided he doesn't drink and maintains his innocence until he's at least twenty-one." She glowered at Anya. "You should have seen that! And with the spell you gave him, you've pretty much assured that he won't be virginal, and won't get the fund."
Anya's eyes widened in surprise. "But .. I read his mind, and his aura," she stammered.
"Anya, you haven't been sleeping well for some time. I can tell it. I think it's affecting your magic, and your judgment."
Anya felt like she was being scolded like a little kid. Her frown gave away her unhappiness. She stood, wordlessly, accepting the mild berating from Grandmother.
"You have to go fix this right now," Grandmother ordered.
"How? I can't undo the magic."
"But you can alter it, just like you did with Allison. Go find Tabitha, and get the bimbo and libido components off of her. Now!" Grandmother barked. She turned back to her desk and sat down, effectively dismissing any counter-argument from her granddaughter.
Anya walked from the office, muttering under her breath. Grandmother had no right to talk to her like that. She was a mage-in-training, and could already use far more magic than Grandmother. The nerve of Grandmother - scolding her like an errant child? And Grandmother had done far more significant changes to boys on far flimsier evidence of their ill intentions. How dare she treat Anya like she had!
Vince stabbed at the controller in his hand, unaware that his head weaved and bobbed in sync with the action on the computer screen in front of him. "Maddog, zombies on your left! Lots of 'em!" He wasn't exaggerating; at least two dozen of the undead creatures were trying to flank the team. "Shit! They're augmented!" These zombies had the telltale electronics box affixed to their necks, indicating that they were being remotely controlled and their movements were synchronized by something, probably the boss creature the gaming team was after. And they were armed - heavily.
"Rock!" Vince heard in his headset. "Two on you." Vince recognized the voice; it was his long-time friend Gabrielle, also known as Gabby, who was an avid and very skilled gamer. He turned his character on the screen, and saw two augmented zombies that were right on top of him – and one was carrying a plasma torch.
Vince stabbed at the controller, frantically trying to turn to attack the zombies. He knew it was too late, but he had to try. If they weren't augmented, he'd have had a chance. Even as his gun rose, his avatar still turning to the threat, the head of one exploded at the same time as he heard a shotgun blast, and then the second met a similar fate a fraction of a second later. Vince's racing heart stilled a moment. "Thanks, Stalker." They _had_ been augmented. Gabby had just saved his ass – again. He was sure she'd remind him of that later – and often. He moved his controller, and his character picked up the plasma torch from the defeated zombie.
"Getting intense, Rock," one of the team called to Vince, using his game-name. "We must be close."
"Yeah." Vince surveyed the battlefield. "You guys remember this part – there's a reception party in that bunker, and then we fight through the tunnels to get the cyborg. So this is how we're going to do this." He outlined a plan that he hoped would work. They'd been so close many times before, but the cyborg was just too powerful. Maybe tonight was the night to get lucky.
"Not down in the tunnels again!" Maddog complained. "I hate the tunnels! We always get creamed in the tunnels."
"Tonight's our lucky night," Stalker said confidently. "Let's move it."
Thirty-five agonizing minutes later, it was all over. Vince, sweating profusely, set down his controller, satisfied. "Damned good job, Digger, Maddog."
"How'd you know to get that console, Rock?" Digger asked, his voice sounding a little awe-struck.
Vince smiled. He knew that, compared to him and Gabby, Digger was relatively inexperienced. "You've got to watch for patterns. I saw the same light pattern on the cyborg. I figured he was linked to the computer console, so if I hit that ..."
"You'd cripple him," Stalker concluded for him. "Good job."
"Well, I'm glad we got through that level. It's my last game for a bit. I'm heading back to college in two weeks, and with packing and such, I probably won't be online until the semester settles down," Vince informed the group.
"Great game," Maddog congratulated the team. "When can we play again?"
"Not sure," Vince answered. "The first few weeks are going to be hectic while I get moved in and attend all that orientation stuff. How about we just see what comes up?"
"Don't forget we're going swimming tomorrow, Rock!" Gabby interjected, drawing guffaws from Maddog and Digger. At the same time, there seemed to be a bit of envy in their voices; avid gamers weren't known, in general, as being good socially, and the fact that Vince was going on what sounded like a swim date with a girl was impressive to Maddog and Digger.
"I didn't forget. See you in the morning. Sergeant Rock, signing off." He pulled the headset from his head, and touched some controls to end the game. It had been a grueling – and thoroughly rewarding – game, but now he needed to get some sleep if he was to have energy to go to Bikini Beach with Gabby.
He stood and stretched; the long session in front of the console had left him stiff and sore. He interlaced his hands and stretched his fingers, lifting his intertwined digits above his head so he could stretch his arms, too. A quick, hot shower with the massaging showerhead added to the relief in Vince's aching muscles. He glanced at the clock as he toweled off; it was after midnight. Gabby would want to get to the water park early, as she always did when they went there, so he was going to be a little short on sleep. He pulled on his glasses; sometimes he wore contacts, but glasses were so much easier, especially around bedtime. On top of that, occasionally his contacts made his eyes dry, and having that happen during a game was more than just inconvenient and distracting. Since it was still summer, there was no need for more sleepwear than the clean pair of boxer shorts he pulled on. A quick brush of his teeth, and Vince was ready to tuck his five-foot nine inch, slender body into bed. With a tussled mop of brown hair and hazel eyes, Vince wasn't one to stand out in a crowd. He wasn't a jock, as he was reminded every time he looked in the mirror, but he wasn't a ninety-eight pound weakling, either – thanks in large part to all the time he and Gabby spent swimming at the water park.
As sleep claimed him for the night, he smiled, thinking of Gabrielle, and their time swimming. Vince knew that she was the most gorgeous woman on the planet, even with no makeup and wet hair after coming out of the water after a water slide or swimming in the pool. She modestly wore a one-piece bathing suit, but that didn't hide her long, slender legs, and it only moderately diminished the curves of her upper body. Her smile was dazzling, and her blue eyes sparkled with joy at life. Vince's dream had Gabby resting her head on his shoulder, hands clasped, in a darkened movie theater, sweet perfume relaxing and exciting him at the same time. He went to sleep with a smile on his face, dreaming once more that he and Gabby were more than just friends, and he was dating her.
"Good morning, Anya," Vince said cheerfully, forcing a pleasant smile through his shy demeanor that was painfully obvious. His smile faded. "Are you okay? You don't look very good."
Anya shook her head. "I was out late last night with ... a friend. I might have had one or two too many," she groaned. Her dark sunglasses weren't really necessary because of the sunlight, which wasn't yet too bright, but more to cut down the overload in her hung-over brain.
"Why didn't you take the morning off?" Gabby asked. It seemed like an obvious solution to her.
Anya sighed. "We've got a few girls who've already resigned to get ready for the fall semester, and Grandmother is busy with the accountant for our quarterly taxes, so I have to fill in where I can. And that doesn't give me time to lounge around because I overdid it at a club." The two friends made an odd couple; Vince was only an inch taller than Gabby, and rather average, while Gabby, two years older than him, was drop-dead gorgeous, enough so that most guys were too intimidated to even talk to her.
"You look almost like a zombie!" Vince retorted.
"At least I don't look like those computer animated zombies in that game you two are always playing," Anya answered, with the faint hint of a grin. It was no secret that Gabby was unconventional, enjoying the on-line games.
"No. You look worse," Gabby chuckled. "Seriously, girl, you need to get some rest. Can't you, you know, do a little spell or something?"
Vince frowned. "Yeah. I thought you said you had a spell that could cure a hangover. You used it on me a while ago at that party at ...."
Anya did remember. "Don't remind me." She sighed. "It's not working on me right now. Maybe I'm getting an immunity to it, or maybe I need a refresher course."
"Well, make sure you take care of yourself." Vince said sympathetically. After a moment, he frowned. "Aren't you going to tell me what I want?" He and Gabby had been at Bikini Beach so often that they were used to Anya and Grandmother reading their minds and having passes ready even before they asked.
"Sorry, but I'm too tired," Anya replied through a yawn. "I suppose it's the usual? One day or two?"
"Just one day," Vince replied, already pulling his wallet from his pocket. "A local change, like usual. I'm going to be busy tomorrow and the rest of the week packing for college." In a local change, Vince would become female, but the rest of the world would remember male Vince.
"I'm glad your parents got used to you spending time as Vanessa and quit freaking out about the change," Gabby laughed.
"The first time wasn't very funny," Vince replied, frowning. "They were going to call the cops on me! I'm glad Anya helped them understand."
"I can get it this time," Gabby offered, reaching into her purse as she stood beside Vince. "You paid last time, remember?"
"Yeah," Vince grinned at her, "but this is my last chance to treat you before I head to college." He playfully stuck his tongue at her. "Besides, you paid for three weekends in a row in July!"
Gabby smacked his arm lightly. "Oh, so you're keeping track now?"
"No. Just teasing!" Vince rebutted with a smile.
"You know the drill," Anya said, yawning yet again. "Shower and you'll change. Have fun." .
Vince pulled on his swimming trunks. He knew that the magic meant that he was the only one in the locker room. Anya had tried to explain it once; his head felt like it was about to explode partway through her simplified discussion of how they prevented people from being embarrassed by the changes which Vince knew were about to occur. All he needed to know was that he'd be guaranteed to be alone when he changed. He stuffed his clothes haphazardly into a locker, smiling to himself with the knowledge that they would be very neatly arranged – and changed – when he returned after the day inside the park. After pinning the key inside his waistband, he stepped to one of the shower stalls and turned on the water.
After dozens of visits, Vince knew what to expect. In fact, he'd come to eagerly anticipate the feelings as the warm, magic water sprayed him through the pulsing shower-head. He saw the mist turning faintly pink, and he smiled to himself.
It didn't take long for the changes to start. He knew the first thing he'd feel would be his lengthening hair slapping his shoulders and neck. A tingling would course through his body, and when he looked at his hand, he could see it changing slightly, becoming finer and more feminine. He could feel his hips widening, even as his body lost some height. It was thoroughly arousing to Vince to know and feel that he was turning into Vanessa, his female alter-ego. The swimsuit flowing over his softer skin was almost erotic, and the pressure and swelling on his chest definitely was. In mere moments, Vanessa stood where Vince had been, a bit shorter, a lot curvier, covered in a one-piece, attractive swimsuit, and still a touch farsighted, just like Vince. Her eyesight wasn't bad enough that she had to wear glasses in the park; it was only when reading or doing close-up work that Vince or Vanessa required corrective eyewear. Without the glasses, Vanessa's brown eyes showed their best, soft, warm pools of innocence that practically begged for attention. Vince, too, had brown eyes, but since he considered them unattractive in a guy, he used his glasses to hide them.
Vanessa, his female alter ego created by the water's magic, was a lot more fun and outgoing than Vince. Vanessa was quite cute – not in the same league as Gabby, but then again, few girls were. Vanessa attracted her share of attention, and she found it fun to be involved in social activities where people sought her out and actively included her. It was so unlike Vince's experience that he sometimes found it better to be Vanessa and feel accepted. And Gabby seemed to really enjoy doing things with Vanessa, despite their differences.
With mixed feelings, Vanessa trudged out of the locker room, looking for Gabby. She dreaded having Gabby's current boyfriend rubbed in her face, but she desperately cherished any and all time she got to spend with Gabby. She paused at the door and pasted a fake smile on her face – as she had done so frequently when she was out with Gabby.
"What do you want to do first?" Gabby called out cheerfully as she crossed from the main women's locker room to Vanessa. "The wave pool, like usual?"
Vanessa suggested floating down the winding Old Man River, interrupting that lazy restful trip to tube down the Canyon Rapids before rejoining the river float. Gabby liked the idea, and as the two strode through the park toward their destination, she tried to draw Vanessa in to conversation about their latest gaming session. For some reason, though, Vanessa seemed a bit withdrawn, like she was in a shell and didn't want to come out. Gabby's enthusiasm quickly waned as she realized that, for some reason, Vanessa was in a funk and not very talkative. Gabby couldn't help but wonder if the day was going to be tedious and dull, unlike most of their trips to the water park.
Greg's face lit up when he spotted Anya walking into the deli. She looked around, and when she saw him, she smiled and walked over to the table at which he sat.
"Sorry I'm late," Anya said. In fact, she was nearly thirty-minutes late, enough so that Greg had been on the verge of giving up.
"I know you're busy at the park," Greg said, excusing Anya, but not sounding genuine in his comment. It was no secret that he wasn't happy with the time Anya was spending with the new girl, Oksana. His voice betrayed his displeasure at Anya's new friend.
Anya noticed. "What's wrong?" she asked simply.
"Nothing," Greg said half-heartedly. In truth, there was something bothering him, but he didn't know how to broach the subject.
"That doesn't sound like a 'nothing' nothing," Anya said, a slight scowl on her face. "What's going on? Or do I have to find out the hard way?"
Greg's expression changed to a blatant frown. It had long ago been agreed that Anya wouldn't read Greg's mind, but now she was threatening to do just that. It was a sign that she didn't trust him, and that bothered Greg greatly. He couldn't help but wonder if this new girl was going to be a wedge between them. He sighed heavily. "You said you wouldn't do that to me," he complained. "You've been kind of busy since that new girl came around," he said, sounding more than a trifle angry, "but that's okay, I guess. I can hang with the guys and get caught up on my projects."
Anya's eyes widened. "Are you jealous of me spending time with her?"
Greg shook his head quickly and firmly. "No. We have our own live and friends. We both know that. And we agreed not to try to take that away from each other. I don't mind at all that you've blown off three dates with me, twice with no notice, so you could spend time with her." There was more than a hint of anger in his voice.
Anya's laugh was a further dagger in Greg's heart. It sounded mocking, not amused. "You're worried I'm becoming a lesbian, and I'm going to dump you?" She chuckled. "That's a good one!"
Greg looked up at her, attempting to wear a neutral expression, but he hid the hurt he was feeling behind an angry façade. "You didn't deny it," he said sharply.
Anya realized, belatedly, what she'd done to her boyfriend, and her conscience stabbed her with uncomfortable feelings. "I'm sorry, Greg," she said, her face softening as she apologized. "I didn't mean to make you feel like I was dumping you, or that you're not important to me." She placed her hands atop his. "I love you, and I like being with you."
"Then why are you blowing me off?"
Anya knew that Greg had a point. "I ... I didn't mean to," she said. "I guess I got excited at meeting someone from the old country, someone who might have a tie to my distant relatives." She let her gaze drop. "The only relative I have is Grandmother. I wish I knew more about my heritage, and my magic. Grandmother can't, or won't, teach me some of those things."
"I'm just ... concerned. Since she came, it's like your personality has changed. And there's something .. odd ... about her, something that doesn't feel right."
"Are you using my magic now?" Anya teased, though her narrowed eyes, pursed lips, and clenched jaw indicated that she took offense at what Greg had said. "You know what it's like to have holes in your life, missing pieces of your family tree?" She stopped, her eyes widening in horror, as she realized, from Greg's very wounded expression, that her words had cut him to the core. Greg understood only too well; he'd lost both parents in an auto accident. "I'm sorry," she apologized again.
"You're getting rather ... impulsive," Greg observed, unable to disguise his pain at the reminder of having lost his parents. "In your actions and in your words. I feel like you're changing into someone that I don't know." He shook his head, his lips pursed tightly together in anger. "Maybe we should think about our relationship."
"I'm so sorry, Greg," Anya reiterated. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I'll make it up to you. Tonight, I'll treat you to dinner at the Firehouse, and then we can have a quiet, private evening watching a movie at my place. Okay?"
Gabby and Vanessa swung lazily in hammocks by the Old Swimming Hole, taking a break from the more exciting and faster rides. "You're pretty quiet today," Gabby observed.
"Am I?" Vanessa sounded surprised that Gabby had noticed.
"Yeah. What's on your mind?"
Vanessa just shrugged. She wasn't sure she should let Gabby know what she actually was thinking about. It wouldn’t do any good, and she had to wait until she was Vince again anyway. Besides, there was Paul in the middle to mess things up. "Just stuff, I guess."
"Nervous about going to college?" Gabby tried to draw Vanessa into some kind of conversation.
"Not really. I've just got a ton of stuff to do before I go," Vanessa said non-committally. "After the game, I was up late working on packing." It was a blatant lie; Vince had barely begun to pack, but Gabby seemed determined to talk with Vanessa, and she didn't feel like talking.
"How about if we double to a movie tomorrow night?" Gabby suggested.
"I don't know," Vanessa said hesitantly. In truth, she hated double-dating with Gabby, because it was awkward at best, and depressing at worst.
"I promise I won't leave you alone again if Paul and I decide we want some privacy. Not like last time."
"Like the last three times, you mean," Vanessa rebutted. "You know, it's kind of uncomfortable when you do that." Not only did it leave Vanessa in an awkward position with her date, but it also stirred her jealousy that Vince should be the one dating Gabby.
"We could go to Shell Game. Or the Coconut Club."
"For more dancing? I'm not in the mood for too much dancing."
"You seemed to enjoy it when we danced together last time," Gabby said coyly. "Are you getting some kind of thing for me?"
Vanessa almost choked on Gabby's words. "No," she said hastily. "We're both girls, remember." She wanted desperately to say that if anyone had a thing for Gabby, it was Vince, but the words just wouldn't come out of her mouth. Vince had even gone so far as to have purchased a surprise for her, something that would demonstrate to her his abiding affection – if only he could work up the nerve to tell her and give her the gift. Alas, he was too frightened that she'd turn it down, or worse, laugh at him, and so he couldn't bring himself to talk to her and give it to her. That left Vince, and Vanessa, to watch helplessly as Gabby dated other guys, never knowing how Vince felt.
"I'm not sure where things are going with Paul," Gabby said wistfully after a pause which was caused by the awkward comments moments before.
"Here we go again," Vanessa sighed.
"What? Are you going to tell me that this isn't going to work out?" Gabby seemed to be challenging Vanessa to say something.
Vanessa shook her head sadly. She wanted to say something, but she didn't dare, for fear of ruining her friendship with Gabby. "It's not my place to say. Only to be here as a friend if things fall apart."
Gabby stared at her for a moment, surprised, and then she smiled. "Like they usually do, you mean."
"Most guys are intimidated by your combination of brains and beauty, and, let's face it, a lot of guys don't really approve of your on-line gaming."
"It might help if you quit trying to humiliate guys who treat you like you're not intelligent." Maybe other guys couldn't accept Gabby as a beautiful, intelligent, gamer, but Vince could, and did, even though he considered himself well below her station. She had everything going for her. Why would a smart, fun, beautiful woman like Gabby want to be seen with an average, wiry, normal dweeb like Vince, when she had guys falling all over her?
"At least I'm not blonde. I've got that going for me."
Vanessa laughed at her comment. "Yeah, I could see how it would be a problem."
Gabby changed her line of conversation because it seemed to be too focused on her. "How was your date with Phil a couple of weeks ago?
Vanessa groaned audibly.
"That bad, huh?" Gabby chuckled. "It looked like you two were getting along fine before you left the club."
"He was okay, I guess." Vanessa, with her totally unenthusiastic answer, was trying to duck this line of conversation as well.
"So, did you guys do it?" Gabby asked with a grin.
Vanessa sighed. "I don't ask you for details of your dates," she answered.
"True," Gabby acknowledged. "But that doesn't mean I can't ask."
"I follow the same rules you told me," Vanessa continued. "I don't put out until the third date at the earliest. Making out is okay for the first date. Some petting for the second. But he doesn't get past second base until the third date – if there is a third date."
"And you went out with Phil, what, five or six times? Does that mean you did it?"
"Okay," Vanessa snapped, sitting up and turning toward Gabby, "we did it, okay? Three times in one evening. He was really well hung, and he made sure I had multiple orgasms." She flopped back in her hammock, her arms crossed angrily across her chest. "Satisfied?" She glared skyward so she wouldn't have to look at Gabby.
Gabrielle sat in her hammock, staring toward Vanessa's hammock, her jaw hanging open in disbelief and shock at Vanessa's reaction. "I'm ... I'm sorry," she said apologetically. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"Yeah? Well you sure did a good job of it." She still wouldn't look at Gabby.
"I said I was sorry," Gabby apologized again. "I ... I was trying to find something that you'd talk about. You're being very quiet today. It's not like you. Maybe Vince, but not you."
"I _am_Vince," Vanessa pouted. "We're one and the same."
Gabby shook her head sadly. "No, you're not. It's ... it's like you're two different people. When you're Vince, you're kind of shy, and you've never been successful dating. But when you're Vanessa, you have a lot more self-confidence, and you're a lot more outgoing."
"Hmphh," Vanessa scoffed at Gabby's explanation.
"Are you going to go out with Phil again?"
Vanessa turned and stared at Gabby. "You won't give up, will you?"
"I just like talking with my friend," Gabby countered. "And I want to know how you're doing."
"I don't think so. It was just ... one of those things."
"I thought ...." Gabby started, but she stopped.
"What? You thought what?" Vanessa asked impatiently.
"It's just ... I thought you two were getting along pretty well. It seemed like you kind of fell for him." Something in Gabby's voice was joyful, as if she was glad that Vanessa wasn’t getting more serious with Phil. Was she jealous, she asked herself? And if so, wasn't that a bit preposterous?
"Well, I didn't," Vanessa answered sharply. "We dated a few times. We had fun. We had sex. So what?" Vanessa hated these types of conversations, because she was still Vince inside, and in her heart, she dearly loved Gabby. Sometimes, though, like now, it seemed as if Gabby had forgotten about Vince being the primary character, and looked at Vanessa as a good friend and confidant.
"Are we still going to the club tonight?"
Vanessa tried to stay angry, but she liked Gabby too much, and Gabby had apologized – twice. "I'm not sure," she answered, her voice less harsh. "I have a lot to do before I head to college next weekend."
"It'll be fun – just like usual."
"I'll think about it."
"I wonder why Paul was so insistent that I come tonight?" Gabby posed the question. "What do you think he wants?"
"I wouldn't have any idea," Vanessa replied, her tone icy. Inwardly, she wanted to scream at Gabby that Paul was a no-good, manipulative son-of-a-bitch. But she knew that if she did, Gabby wouldn't listen, or even worse, would get mad at Vanessa for interfering, and it would cost them their friendship.
"You don't like him much, do you?" Gabby seemed to be pushing Vanessa for her opinion of her current boyfriend. There was something about Paul that made Gabby feel that he wasn't 'the one', and she seemed to be desperately trying to pry Vanessa's opinion from her.
Vanessa frowned. "What I think doesn't matter. He's your boyfriend, not mine." There was an undertone of disgust with Paul in her voice that, try as she might, she couldn't disguise. No matter how Gabby pushed, Vanessa wasn't going to comment. She feared driving a wedge between her and Gabby more than anything else.
Gabby stared at her for a moment, and then sat back in her hammock, gazing at the fluffy little cumulous clouds scooting so silently across the brilliantly-blue sky. Vanessa was definitely jealous of Paul. But why? Was it because Vince, her male alter-ego, was perhaps a little taken with Gabrielle? If so, he sure didn't give any sign. But what about Vanessa? Was the jealousy toward Paul from Vanessa? Did Vanessa perhaps feel something toward Gabby?
Gabrielle thought about her feelings toward Vince and Vanessa. Vince was a friend and fellow gamer, but what more was he? Gabby wondered what _she_ wanted, and what _Vince_ thought of their friendship. She knew she also liked Vanessa as a good friend. Was there more? She couldn't help but become more and more aware that, a few times, she'd found Vanessa attractive, and even enticing. Gabby frowned to herself. Was she attracted – physically – to Vanessa? She didn't think so; Gabby had never looked at Vanessa in a romantic way. At the same time, she couldn't deny that two or three times, in the past, she'd gone all weak-kneed over other girls. At the same time, she was sexually active with men. Was she bisexual?
Was that what she saw, she wondered? Was Vince a good friend, and Vanessa a potential lover? Or was it the other way around? Or, for yet another possibility, did she find Vince and Vanessa both attractive?
"How much magic does she use to run the park?" " Oksana asked Anya inside the ticket booth, sitting on a small stool beside Anya's chair. Oksana had been a regular visitor to the park for a few days now, and had observed more than a few male patrons changing into women. She was sincerely curious about the magic and the park setup.
"Very little. Grandmother is a great businesswoman. She doesn't need magic when she's got this great of an attraction." Anya was justifiably proud of Grandmother and her park, in no small part because of the role Anya was playing in making it better.
"One thing that's puzzling," Oksana noted as a pair of boys went into the men's locker room, "what happens if someone is coming out when another customer is entering the park?"
"Basic dimension shifting. Each incoming customer or party get their own locker room entering the park, but the exit is one common locker room – fitted with the details a woman would need, like blow dryers, makeup counters and mirrors, and so on."
Oksana looked impressed. "Pretty clever. Did you do that? You said your grandmother can't use a lot of magic."
Anya shrugged and shook her head. "Not yet. I'm working on learning the spell, but with my work duties, I don't have a lot of time for study. She set that up before ...." Her voice trailed off, a sad look in her eyes as she fought the bad memories. "Before."
Oksana changed the subject almost immediately, although she'd had a brief expression of someone pleased with having learned something personal about Anya. "With your aura, I can tell you have a lot of magic potential. Too bad you can't go to the Academy."
Anya frowned. "The Academy? What's that?"
"It's a magic training school in the Otherworld. But our people can't go, at least not until they're old enough to travel there, and the Academy kind of frowns on older students."
Anya wondered if Oksana had intended to imply that she was from the Old Country, too, which she had when she'd said 'our people'. Anya's concern eased considerably, knowing that Oksana, while probably not of her clan, was one of the 'touched' people of Eastern Europe, those who knew and used magic. "Grandmother said we can travel there when we turn twenty-three," Anya said. "My birthday is in a few days. Maybe ...." She stopped, lost in thought.
"Maybe, if you’ve been there, you could travel with me, sort of as a tour guide, so I could see what it's like," Anya said hesitantly. She suddenly straightened. "That important customer I've been waiting for is coming."
"Important? What makes a customer like him so important?"
Anya smiled. "Only three of us can sell a pass longer than a week's duration. We have to be very careful, you know, not to mess up too many lives too badly." She felt for the approaching customer, starting to sense the tangled web of the possibilities of his alternative lifelines. As she tried to focus, she frowned. Something wasn't right. The lines were blurry, not coming into focus, and some of them seemed to shift. Anya closed her eyes and shook her head to clear the cobwebs.
"Is something wrong?" Oksana asked, a curious look on her face.
"I'm just too tired," Anya made an excuse. "I'm having a little problem focusing."
"It's pretty obvious what his issue is," Oksana said confidently as the man strolled confidently toward the ticket booth. He was still fifty or sixty yards away across the parking lot. Oksana saw Anya glance up at her. "He's been unfaithful to his girlfriend – many times."
Anya nodded. "And he needs a lesson in how much he hurt her." She shook her head. "I can't figure out what path is the right one, though."
"He's cheated many times. He'll keep on cheating, even after he turns back," Oksana said, her tone a little imperious and judgmental. "He should be given a permanent change, and some tweaks to ensure that he feels the pain of loving someone and discovering that they have cheated on him."
Anya hesitated. "That's ... a little harsh." She focused on the lifeline again. One seemed to be coming more and more into focus, standing out from the others. "Okay, now I see it," she said, somewhat relieved. "He'll be able to be find happiness only after his heart is broken by being cheated on."
Oksana, standing behind Anya in the ticket booth, smiled. Her eyes were narrowed, giving her expression an unpleasant visage, as if she was up to some trickery. "Wow," she said, feigning amazement at what Anya had done, "that's pretty good. It must take a lot of practice to sort out the best change for people."
Anya smiled pleasantly as the man came to the window. "How may I help you today?" she asked in a warm, friendly voice. Behind her, unseen, Oksana had a most wicked grin as Anya completed the transaction and sold the unwitting customer a lifetime pass.
"I don't understand something," Gabby said to Vanessa. The two sat at a small table in the Tiki Hut dining pavilion, eating a late lunch.
"That's a first," Vanessa quipped.
"Very funny. Did it take you all week to come up with that?" Gabby teased. "There's something about Vince that I don't understand."
Vanessa's eyes narrowed. "What's that?"
"Why don't you date much when you're Vince?"
"I'd rather not talk about Vince right now." Vanessa took another bite of her salad.
"But ... I don't get it. After all the time we've spent here, you, of all people, should understand girls well enough to have an easy time getting dates."
"I said I don't want to talk about it," Vanessa snapped. "Drop it, okay?"
Gabrielle knew she was going to push things a bit, but she was worried about how Vince and Vanessa had been acting the past few weeks. She knew something was bothering Vince. "Did I do something wrong?" Gabby asked.
Vanessa took a deep breath, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, but it's ... a sore subject for me, okay?" She looked down at her salad for a few seconds. "It's ... hard. To see you dating, and to date when I'm ... Vanessa, knowing that I couldn't buy a date when I'm Vince."
"Sometimes," Gabby suggested cautiously, "you're a little too ... gentle." She saw Vanessa's eyebrows rise. "You act like you want to be a friend instead of acting like you want to ask a girl on a date. You're not assertive enough."
"I'm not comfortable pushing things. I know how girls feel, and I don't want to do anything that might make a girl uncomfortable." Vanessa sighed heavily. "And it seems like the girls I want to date are already taken by guys I couldn't possibly compete with." Her last words were tinged with bitterness. "Who wants to date a game-playing geek?"
"Occasionally," Gabby suggested, "girls want to get pushed a little. Sometimes, it's okay to be the man in charge. Sometimes, a girl is waiting for a guy to tell her how he feels,"
"I ... can't. Not after all the time I've spent here." Vanessa sighed. "The girls Vince really likes aren't at all interested in him." She shook her head. "Maybe I'd be better off if I just got a lifetime pass and said to hell with Vince," she said very softly, her muttered words barely audible. "At least I wouldn't have girls 'friend zone' me within ten seconds of meeting me."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open in shock at what she thought Vanessa had said. "Have you ever ...? I mean, as Vince."
Vanessa's lips pursed tightly together, and her nostrils flared in anger at the intense emotions the question had provoked in her. "No," she said sternly. "It's not like I'll ever get a chance, either." Vanessa was in a funk, loathing her alter ego's life, and clearly despairing that things would ever improve for poor Vince.
Gabby knew she had to change the subject. "Have you decided if you're going to Shell Game tonight?" Her voice matched her mood – chipper and happy at the prospect of being at a good dance club with her friends.
"I'm still not sure."
"That's bull, and you know it. You should come tonight. A good band always cheers you up."
"What about ... your other friends? And Paul?" Vanessa was worried, as usual, that because she was a couple of years younger than most of Gabby's friends, she wouldn't fit in. It was no secret that her friends wondered, frequently and sometimes aloud, why Gabby would spend time with either Vince or Vanessa. "I'll just go home and work on getting ready for school."
"No, you won't," Gabrielle insisted. "You're going to come to the club with me tonight, like we usually do, and you will have fun."
"Why?" Vanessa asked, suddenly staring at Gabby. "Why do you want me to come along? You know I don't fit in with your other friends." She shook her head sadly. "I feel like an oddball sometimes when I'm out with you and your friends. And Paul really doesn't like me one bit – either as Vince or like I am now."
"Well, I enjoy your company, so what they think isn't important. And since you keep reminding me that you're going off to college in a week, I want to make sure I enjoy all of your company I can before you leave. Either you or Vince."
Oksana had a delighted grin as she strode to where Anya was taking a break from her work. "Hi, Anya," she called cheerily.
Anya glanced up, her fatigue immediately replaced by joy. "Hi, Oksana," she replied. Her eyes narrowed as she contemplated Oksana's grin. "Okay," Anya prompted, "spill it."
"Aren't you going to guess? Or use your magic?" Oksana teased.
Anya frowned, and then focused a bit. "You didn't!"
"Yup. Two front-row tickets to see Pink tonight."
Anya squealed with delight. "I've wanted to see her in concert for years." Her eyes narrowed. "How'd you get the tickets? Did you use some, you know?"
"A little magic?" Oksana shrugged. "Why not? It helps find special deals, and helps persuade people when they won't cooperate." She looked like she was gloating about scoring the tickets. "She's playing in Phoenix tonight, so we'll have to travel."
"That sounds ...." Anya started to say, but then her expression sank. "I promised Greg I'd spend a special night with him," she said, "to make up for the dates I've missed. I can't go."
"Why don't you tell him how much you've wanted to go to one of her concerts? I'm sure he'd understand." She winked. "Or you could just ... you know ... so he won't object."
Anya knew that she should keep her commitment to Greg, but she felt herself powerfully pulled toward going to the concert. "Maybe you could get one more ticket, and he could come with us?"
"He doesn't use magic. How would he 'travel'?"
Anya smiled. "We've traveled together quite a bit. He just holds me, and I cast the spell to cover him, too."
Oksana's eyes widened. "Impressive." She thought a moment. "But I don't think we'll be able to get another ticket. The concert is sold out, except for a few seats in the nose-bleed section, and they're all single seats scattered around."
Anya was torn. She really, really wanted to see Pink in concert, but she also knew she needed to keep her date with Greg. She knew that she could easily cast a spell, and get another ticket, but it was wrong to use her magic like that, or so she'd been taught. On the other hand ....
The decision was easy when she thought of it. Greg liked Pink, too, and he'd really like going to a concert with her. She closed her eyes and focused, then began to make complicated finger motions and softly chant the foreign language of the old country, invoking her magic. After a few seconds, a ticket materialized in her hand. "Problem solved," she said with a smile.
With a very soft 'pop' sound, Greg and Anya materialized in her condo. Once Anya was sure the 'travel' spell was over, she dropped her arm from around Greg's waist, while Greg unwrapped his arms from around Anya. "That was an awesome concert," Greg said with a grin.
"Better than dinner and an old movie?"
Greg smiled. "Much. But you still owe me dinner."
Anya turned and grasped the collars of Greg's shirt. "The night's still young." She leaned forward and kissed him.
After they broke their kiss, Greg wrapped his arms around Anya's waist. "I'm glad you got tickets."
"Now, honestly, which were you enjoying more – watching Pink in her sexy outfits on stage, or being with me?" Anya teased.
"Pink might be sexy and a good performer, but she can't hold a candle to you," Greg said with a smile as his lips sought Anya's again.
After a long, passionate exchange, Anya leaned her forehead against Greg's, their faces an inch apart. "How about a glass of wine?" she said invitingly.
"Are you trying to get me drunk, so you can take advantage of me?" Greg asked with a grin.
"I didn't think I needed to get you drunk," Anya giggled. She disengaged from Greg's arms and strode to the cupboard, where she retrieved a pair of wine glasses. "Port, or a Moscato?" Anya asked.
Greg got a puzzled look on his face. "Since when have you become a wine connoisseur?"
Anya smiled, taking a bottle from a small, refrigerator-like wine cooler in her kitchen. "It never hurts to broaden your horizons," she said. "I think a Port will do nicely." She handed the bottle and a cork puller to Greg.
As Greg started to twist the corkscrew into the bottle, curiosity overcame him. "You hadn't said anything about a concert before. How did this suddenly come up?"
"Oksana scored a couple of tickets, and she knew I wanted to see Pink live, so she invited me. But I didn't want to stand you up again, so I got a third ticket so you could come along."
Greg's brow furrowed at her words. "Got ... as in conjured up?"
"Well, yeah," Anya answered, confused. "This late, getting a ticket would have to involve a little magic."
Greg stopped turning the corkscrew. "I thought ...." he started to say.
"You thought what?" Anya was baffled by Greg's suddenly-cool attitude.
"I didn't think you wanted to use your magic like that," Greg continued in an icy tone. "You always said that it's wrong to use your power like that. You always said it was like stealing."
Anya frowned at his words, and his sudden attitude change. "But we had a great time! It was a fantastic concert!"
"Was it Oksana's idea to conjure up a third ticket for me?"
"Well, no. I didn't want to disappoint you again, so I ...."
"I ... I just remembered – I've got to work on finishing my summer architecture project." He hastily set the unopened wine bottle on the counter, and then turned toward the door. "I ... it was a good concert," he muttered. "I guess. Thanks." Before Anya could say another word, he slipped out the door, closing it behind himself, and leaving her completely baffled by Greg's actions and words.
Heads turned as Vanessa walked into Shell Game. Guys looked at her with desire, girls with envy. Though she wasn't nearly as attractive as Gabrielle, she nonetheless attracted more than her share of attention. Her tight jeans made the most of her sexy legs and almost perfect butt, and the low-necked, tight, ruffled, maroon blouse was a perfect combination of elegance and sex appeal. Her layered brown hair hung to nearly her shoulders; the left side swept behind her ear, while the right hung down partially covering her face, giving her a mysterious, naughty-girl air.
"Here comes your friend," one of a group said derisively to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle glanced, and as soon as she saw Vanessa, her face lit up. "Over here," she called, even though she knew it was unlikely that Vanessa would hear her over the band and all the other patrons. She would, though, see her wave, especially when Gabby stood. When she knew that Vanessa had seen her and was making her way through the crowd to join them, Gabby sat back down. "I don't know why you guys are so down on Vanessa. She's fun to hang out with."
In moments, Vanessa strode to the table. Gabby stood and gave her a warm hug, and then scooted her chair to one side so Vanessa could pull a chair up beside her.
"At least we don't have to deal with your other friend, that little dweeb Vince," one of the girls laughed.
"Yeah. Why do you hang out with him?" another asked. "What's the deal there?"
"I bet he's an old family friend or something. It couldn't be because there's any attraction," the first girl laughed.
Gabby glanced to her side, and noticed that Vanessa was fuming at the blatant insults. "He's a good friend," she explained simply.
"Is he some kind of genius nerd who helps you with math or science classes or something?"
Gabby shook her head. "Why are you being so bitchy about my friend?" she demanded. "Just drop it, okay?"
Paul Cresswell strode confidently to the table, having come from the restroom. Around him, girls looked, some with dreamy expressions. He sat down easily beside Gabby, and took her hand in his. Paul gave Gabby a kiss on the cheek, eyeing the look on Vanessa's face. His eyes furrowed slightly knowing how Vanessa hated their interaction. "Let's go dance," he suggested, but it sounded more like an order. He stood, tugging Gabby up, and without letting go of her hand, led her to the dance floor.
"I don’t know what she sees in him," Vanessa couldn't help muttering.
"What planet are you from? He's tall, he's gorgeous! Isn't that enough reason?"
Vanessa shook her head. "There's more to life than good looks."
"And he's smart, and charming, and his family has money."
"You have to admit, they look good together."
"Yeah. And if anyone can convince her to stop that stupid on-line gaming, it'd be Paul," one of the girls said, speaking as if on-line gaming was a serious malady.
"And I bet he can distract her from that little dweeb Vince."
"Five minutes in the sack with Paul and she'll forget all about nerd-boy!"
Vanessa's frown deepened. Her jaw was clenched tightly at the innuendo about Gabby and the cutting remarks against Vince. "He's a bit possessive, though, isn't he? And manipulative. I mean, he wants her to spend all her time with him."
"Ooohhh," one girl cooed mockingly. "It sounds like someone's jealous that he's with Gabby and not her!"
"She should _want_ to spend all her time with him," a girl scoffed at Vanessa's comment.
Vanessa shook her head. "I get the feeling that he's just looking for a trophy to hang on his arm. He doesn't impress me at all." No matter how much she wanted to tell Gabby, though, Vanessa knew it wouldn't do any good to interfere. Gabby couldn't see what a jerk Paul really was, and she would very likely take Vanessa's words as jealousy. Vanessa / Vince was in a no-win position.
"But what's-his-name from two weeks ago impressed you!" one of the girls laughed. "The way you were hanging all over him made _that_ pretty obvious."
"His name is Phil, and he's a nice guy," Vanessa said in her own defense.
"Is that why you left early with him – so you could go to his place and see how nice a guy he was?"
"At least he wasn't an arrogant, pompous, braggart like Paul is!" Vanessa said angrily. This was going like most of the outings with Gabby – Gabby danced with Paul, while Gabby's friends were catty and demeaning toward Vanessa. She wondered why she'd come in the first place. And even then, she knew – it was because she and Gabby were very good friends, and when Gabby had asked, Vanessa couldn't say no.
Vanessa turned and looked out on the dance floor. It was a slow song, and Paul was grinding suggestively against Gabby. She frowned when she saw his expression. Since Gabby's head was on his shoulder, Gabby couldn't see his face, which bore the look of a hunter who's bagged a trophy, or a man showing off his latest expensive, desirable toy. Vanessa wanted to puke.
Greg trudged into his room at the fraternity house and slumped heavily into a chair. His eyes were closed, and he bore a troubled look on his face.
"You're home early," Greg's roommate Rob noted. "I thought you and Anya had a special dinner planned."
Greg shook his head. "Had. She changed plans."
"She stood you up again?" Rob asked, dumbfounded. Such behavior wasn't at all like Anya.
"No, we went to a concert."
"Who'd you go see? Was it any good?"
"It was a great concert. We saw Pink."
Rob frowned. I didn't think she was playing around here." He saw the look on Greg's face. "Oh. You went magically."
"Yeah. And that's part of the problem."
Rob held up his hand, signaling for Greg to stop. "Rewind here. There's some kind of problem?" He scowled as pieces came together. "If you went to the concert, then the concert is over. And since it's still relatively early, you and Anya would have had some quiet time together. Unless there was a problem."
"Bingo." Greg shook his head. "It's that new friend of hers. I don't trust her. She convinced Anya to conjure up a ticket for me, because Oksana only had two."
"So – the friend expected Anya to blow you off again to go to a concert with her?"
"There's something going on there. I don't trust the new girl. Since she showed up, Anya's ... different. She never would have used her magic to get a concert ticket before. Now, she's acting like it's no big deal."
"So, what are you going to do?" Rob asked.
"I figure I need to have a chat with Grandmother, to see if she knows what the hell is going on." He sighed. "She's changing," he said softly, "and I'm afraid I'm going to lose her."
Greg nodded. "Again. Only this will be worse than just missing junior prom. I thought we were getting serious, but all of a sudden, I don't have any clue where she wants our relationship to go."
"What's up?" Gabby had to yell to be heard over the background noise.
Her friend shrugged. "I don't know. Paul just said to all gather at the table."
Gabby glanced at the table, and saw the group congregating slowly. She glanced at Vanessa, and saw her looking Gabby's way. She just shrugged as well, not knowing any more about the surprise than Gabby.
As the gang sat down, Paul stood next to Gabby, turning to face her. There was something about his posture, his expression, and the setting, that made everyone think that they were about to witness something special.
"Gabrielle," Paul said solemnly, which was a big change from calling her by her nickname, "since we started dating, I've gotten to know that you're a very special woman." He dropped to one knee as he pulled a box from his pocket, flipping it open in one smooth motion as he held it toward her. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?"
The girls around the table shrieked their delight as one. They were immediately congratulating Gabby, practically even before Paul slipped the ring on her finger as she sat in the midst of a crowd of excited friends, dumbfounded and shocked by his unexpected proposal. "I ... I don't know what to say."
"I believe the proper response is 'yes'," Paul said with a smile.
Across the table, hidden by the friends who were congratulating and hugging Gabby, Vanessa sat, her mouth hanging open in shock. As she sat, tears started streaming down her cheeks, and a whimper of anguish escaped her mouth. She looked across the table, and saw Gabby, surrounded by joy and happiness. Slowly, she stood, and without looking back, slipped through the crowd, her vision clouded by her tears. She stumbled out the door, ignoring the uncomprehending stares of the people around her, occasionally bumping into someone in her unseeing flight from the club.
Vanessa climbed behind the wheel of her car, her makeup ruined by her ongoing torrent of tears. For over ten minutes, she sat bawling, wails of her emotional agony reverberating through her car as she felt every tiny crack of her shattered heart.
Inside Shell Game, Gabby managed to pull herself away from her gang of excited friends, and began scanning the crowd for Vanessa. Her efforts became more and more frantic as she didn't see her friend anywhere. She tried to extract herself from all the congratulations she was getting, but there were too many people who wanted to give her a hug or shake her hand. By the time she escaped the table, she started walking around the club, slowly at first, but with increasing desperation in her stride and showing on her face. She couldn't find Vanessa anywhere. Not knowing what else to do, she took out her cell phone and texted Vanessa, inquiring where she was and if she was okay.
Vanessa pulled her car into her parents' driveway, her cheeks still wet with tears. Her phone beeped, indicating a message, so she took it from her purse and read it. She shoved the device back into her purse without answering the text message, as if it was the cause of her suffering heart. Sobbing, she walked into the house, not bothering to talk to her dad, who was still sitting up watching the late show on TV.
"How was your day?" Vanessa's dad called to her without looking away from the television.
"Okay," Vanessa said, struggling to control her tears.
"I take it you had a girls' day with Gabrielle again?"
Vanessa nodded. "Yeah. But it's probably the last one for a long time." Her voice was heavy, even though she was trying to mask her emotions.
"Good. College will keep you busy. You'll make a lot of new friends, including more girls, and you won't need that place to change you into a girl on weekends." Her father sounded more than a little disapproving of Bikini Beach, and Vince's changes into Vanessa. Both parents knew, since the changes were local, but neither really approved. It reminded Vanessa's mom that she didn't have a daughter, and it made her dad nervous that he was losing his son.
"I'm tired, so I'm going to bed," Vanessa said, cutting off the conversation before her dad could give her yet another lecture about how wrong it was for Vince to keep changing into Vanessa. Instead, she went straight to her room and, after closing her door behind her, sat heavily on her bed. She opened a drawer in her nightstand and carefully pulled out a small, velvet-covered box. She opened the box, and stared at the ring inside, the gift that Vince had once hoped to give to the girl he truly loved, Gabrielle. Now, it was not to be. Vanessa closed the box and threw it angrily across the room, before collapsing face-first onto her bed, still wearing her clothes from the club. She lay in the darkness, her body wracked by sobs, accompanied by the muffled sound of her crying uncontrollably.
"I thought you were going to help me with end-of-quarter taxes last night," Grandmother said calmly as soon as Anya entered the office building.
"Uh," Anya stammered, immediately shielding her thoughts from the old woman using the spell Oksana had helped her with. "Something came up."
"Yes, I know," Grandmother said evenly, her voice betraying no emotion. "The concert. Did you have a good time?"
Anya nodded hesitantly. "Yeah, it was fun."
"You've been spending a lot of time with Oksana lately."
Anya's eyes narrowed. "What of it? Is it wrong to have a new friend? Someone from the old country, like we are? Someone who knows magic, like we do? Is it wrong to want to have a friend I have a lot in common with?"
"I didn't say that." Grandmother looked at her computer for a few moments. "I noticed that you've been highly distracted for the past week or two. Is there something going on that I need to know about?"
"What do you mean, distracted?" Anya sounded defensive again
"You made another mistake on a pass," Grandmother said, sounding disappointed. "This one is worse than the last one."
"Which one? The serial philanderer?"
Grandmother nodded. "He should have had a month to six weeks – long enough to experience being in love as a woman, and then having her heart broken by a cheating man. Long enough to learn how much he hurt his girlfriend. It would have made him a much better man, and a good husband for her." She shook her head, her lips pursed tightly together angrily. "Now, he'll never learn, and his girlfriend will never have the husband she should have had. That's two lives that got messed up because you were distracted or didn't take the time to read his lifelines properly."
"You never questioned my judgment before," Anya replied sharply.
"Because you were always much more careful before. You were never as unfocused as you are now." Grandmother shook her head. "For the time being, until you get your focus back, maybe you shouldn't sell any passes."
Anya's mouth dropped open in shock at the words from her Grandmother. "Don't you trust me anymore?" she snapped.
Grandmother felt the anger rising in Anya, and softened her tone. "Of course I do, dear," she responded.
"It doesn't sound like it!"
Grandmother shook her head slowly. "Anya, I can tell without even using magic that you're exhausted. All the girls in the park have noticed it. I'm sure it's just fatigue that's clouding your judgment a bit."
Anya's expression softened; her eyes opened from narrow slits, and her flared nostrils relaxed, while she felt tension flow from her clenched jaw muscles. "Maybe I am a little tense," she finally agreed. "And tired."
"Is there something going on? Aren't you sleeping well? I've got a spell ...."
"You taught me the sleep spell a long time ago," Anya reminded her grandmother. "It's ... it's not working."
"Do you want to take a day or two off?" Grandmother suggested. "Maybe you and Greg could ...."
Anya shook her head. "Greg's ... a little pissed at me, I think," she admitted softly. "I don't understand, though. Last night, we all went to a Pink concert in Phoenix. We had great front-row seats, and I know the three of us had a great time."
Grandmother frowned. "The three of you? I take it Oksana went with you, too?"
"Yeah. It was her idea in the first place. She scored a couple of fabulous tickets, and then I had to scramble to get a ticket for Greg when I invited him along."
"Did you think that maybe Greg is feeling neglected, and left out? Maybe even a little jealous?"
"If he was feeling so left out, why did he walk out on me last night after the concert, when he and I were going to have a little wine and ...." Anya stopped before she said too much.
Anya had a defiant expression as she sat in the ticket booth. She was going to prove to Grandmother that she was perfectly capable of selling passes.
It must have been the fates intervening, because Anya sold no passes for most of the morning. As the sun approached its midday zenith, though, Anya recognized the frequent patron who was approaching the ticket booth. "Good morning, Vince," she said pleasantly when he was at the window.
"Morning," Vince replied in a monotone. He looked like hell; his eyes had the sunken look of someone who'd been up all night, or was seriously depressed.
"Are you okay?" Anya asked, concerned about Vince's well-being. His eyes seemed lifeless, devoid of any spark of joy or happiness. In all the times Vince and Gabby had visited the park, she'd never seen him this despondent.
Vince shook his head sadly. "No," he admitted softly. "Gabby got engaged last night." He was still fighting tears about the event.
"Oh. I'm so sorry," Anya said. She knew that Vince carried a torch for Gabby, and the news of her engagement must have been a crushing blow to him. "What can I do for you today?"
"I want a lifetime pass," Vince said, his voice completely drained of emotion. "As long as I'm me, I'll hurt over what happened. But if I'm her, I figure I'll get over it."
Anya quoted him the price, and surprisingly, Vince didn't flinch at all. Instead, he took a wad of money – large denominations – out of his pocket. "Where did you get that much cash?" she asked, curious. Her magic sense told her immediately that it wasn't stolen.
Vince shook his head, still looking down. "I ... I got her a ring with what I saved up from my summer job," he muttered, "because I wanted to be the one to someday propose to her." He paused and wiped at a tear. "I know it sounds stupid, but ... I really love her."
"A lifetime pass is pretty drastic, don't you think?" Anya asked. Something in the back of her mind was urging her to just sell the pass and be done with it.
"It doesn't matter anymore. And I want you to erase my memories of being Vince. I want to forget being Vince. I want to forget how I feel about Gabby, so maybe someday, I can find happiness as Vanessa."
Oksana had slipped up to the window beside Vince. "Sell him the pass. As a girl, he'll have a lot more chance to find happiness than if he stays as he is. His female persona is much more outgoing."
Anya frowned. She shouldn't really sell the pass without doing more checking. Then she remembered Grandmother's words that implied she didn't trust Anya. Anya felt her resolve stiffen. "Are you sure you want the pass?"
Wordlessly, he counted out the money and slid it through the money tray at the bottom of the glass window.
Anya was having second thoughts. Vince was clearly depressed, and in no state to make a rational decision. She should wait. But it would be a way for him to escape the memories. She'd never felt so confused about a pass before, and it was a disconcerting sensation. In the end, she typed his information into the computer and printed out his pass. "You know the drill."
Vince nodded somberly. Taking the card, he slogged his way to the turnstile at the park gate, and after swiping his pass, he walked ponderously into the men's locker room.
Wearing his swimming trunks, Vince turned on a shower, but then remembered that his sandals were still in the locker. He walked back to the locker and, after putting them on, he trudged back to the shower stall.
The noise of the door opening startled him as he pulled back the shower curtain to step into the warm, transforming shower, the magical water which would erase his memories of his love for Gabby, and forever change him into a girl who stood a much better chance of finding happiness.
"Vince, stop!" a familiar voice called, giving him pause. Gabrielle burst around the corner, half out of breath. "Thank God!" she cried out as she saw him still outside the shower. "I was so worried. You never answered my text. When your parents said you were going to the Bikini Beach…."
"It doesn't matter anymore. I'm miserable like I am now. Being Vanessa is the only way I can see to give me a chance at happiness. And a way to forget. It's better this way."
"You're my friend," Gabrielle said firmly. "I care about you. I don't want to lose you. So please tell me what's going on that's making you want to take such a drastic step."
"I've never been successful with girls," Vince complained bitterly. "I'll die a virgin at the rate I'm going. And I don't have a lot of friends." He dropped his gaze. "And you're ... engaged."
"What?" Gabby asked, astounded. "What difference does that make? We're friends, no matter what happens. Why would my being engaged matter?"
Vince shuffled his feet nervously. "Because," he muttered softly, still staring at the floor, "I ... I love you."
Stunned, Gabby's mouth dropped open as her eyes widened. "What? Why ... why didn't you ever say anything?" she stammered through her astonishment.
Vince just shook his head. "Because I'm a nerd, and a dweeb, and I'm not even close to being in your league. Not like Paul."
"Paul is a manipulative asshole!" Gabby spat angrily.
"What?" It was Vince's turn to be astonished.
Gabby shook her head. "I knew we weren't exactly compatible," she admitted. "Do you know that once, I brought him to the park, to see how I'd get along with his feminine side."
Gabby looked down, feeling her cheeks flush. "Because ... I want a friend and a lover. I want someone who's willing to do 'girl' things with me. Paul wasn't like that. As a girl, she was so conceited and self-absorbed that she was impossible to deal with. And if that's part of his female persona, then it's part of his male side as well. I just didn't see it until last night." She sighed. "The way he proposed was a setup to make it extremely difficult for me to say no." She held out her left hand to Vince.
Vince gasped in surprise. Gabby's hand was devoid of an engagement ring. "But ... if you're telling me this, and trying to stop me from changing, what ... what does that mean ... for us?"
Gabby smiled. "Sometimes, you can be so dense," she chuckled. "I've spent the last year urging, suggesting, leading, and practically begging you to move our relationship past gaming and water-park buddies, trying to get you inspired to ask me out on a date."
"I don't understand."
"Who was always there for you when you asked a girl out, and she broke your heart? Who taught you gaming, and included you in that hobby? And in all that, do you remember me _ever_ making fun of you?
"But ... why all the time at the park?" Vince stammered. "Are you ... bi?"
Gabby shook her head. "I don't think so. I just like having a best friend who doesn't mind doing girl things. When you change into Vanessa, you're my best friend. But when you're Vince," she said, pausing, "I want to do this." She took a half step toward Vince, wrapping her arms around him, and gave him a very passionate kiss.
As Gabby kissed Vince, and Vince stood, mostly in shock, their body motion caused Vince to have to adjust his position to avoid falling. Because the shower had been on, and the curtain open, there was water on the floor. Vince's sandal slipped on the water, sending him wildly off balance. Still intertwined with Gabby, he tumbled backwards, into the shower.
As soon as the feeling of warm water made its way past the powerful distraction of being kissed by the girl he loved, Vince's eyes popped wide open and he pulled away from the kiss with frantic suddenness. "No!" he cried in anguish, even as he felt the beginnings of the change starting.
Gabby stared at Vince as the transformation rippled through his body. She'd never seen a change, and she found the spectacle strangely arousing, even as Vince, now curled up on the floor. Tears poured from his eyes, and audible sobbing was interrupted by cries of, "No!"
"It'll be okay," Gabby reassured Vince. "Everything will be okay when the pass wears off."
"No, it won't!" Vince, now almost completely Vanessa, sobbed.
The exit door opened with a loud crash, and footsteps, running, rounded the corner to the shower area, as Grandmother rushed to the scene. She saw Gabby standing, staring at Vanessa, who was curled up in a sobbing ball on the floor of the shower. She stopped, a faraway look in her eyes for a moment, before she dropped to her knees beside the shower, shoving Gabby aside as she did so. She began to incant in a strange language, her fingers dancing intricately through some complex motion, before she touched Vanessa on the forehead. She sat back on her heels. "Shit!" she swore uncharacteristically. "Shit, shit, shit!"
"What's ... what's wrong?" Gabby was now frightened; she'd never seen the old woman who ran the park acting so frantically and swearing.
In answer, Grandmother took a pass from Vanessa's hand and gave it to Gabby.
Gabby looked at the old woman with a strange expression, but then she looked at the pass. It looked normal, except .... Her eyes widened in shock as she read the duration. "Lifetime? No!" she cried as the pass confirmed her worst, unspoken fears. "You've got to fix this!"
Grandmother shook her head sadly and sighed heavily, her eyes drifting shut for a moment. "I ... I can't. All I could do was to stop the second part of the spell, which was to make Vanessa forget ... everything."
Grandmother sat on one side of Vanessa, who was still sobbing in the arms of Gabby, who sat on her other side. Seated in a chair next to the sofa was Anya. Whenever Gabby glanced at Anya, her eyes shot daggers at the girl.
Grandmother glowered at her granddaughter. "Why the hell did you sell him a pass? The lifelines are so plainly evident. Didn't you even check?"
Anya frowned, humiliated at being chewed out in public, and angry at being blamed for Vince's impulsive request. "It can still work out. I mean," she said defensively, "Gabrielle is discovering that she's bisexual, and that she's attracted to Vanessa. A little spell for Vanessa, and everything will be okay."
Grandmother's mouth dropped open in complete shock at what Anya had said. "What?" she demanded, astonished at the callous nature of Anya's response. "That wasn't supposed to be their destiny!" she snapped.
Anya looked like she was torn between anger and regret. Her emotions wavered back and forth for several awkwardly silent seconds, before a tear leaked down her cheek as regret won. She let her head fall into her hands, sobbing. "I'm ... I'm so sorry," she cried. "I ... I really screwed up, and now you have to pay for my mistake." She quickly rose and darted from the building, humiliated at what had happened because of her.
"Can't you do anything?" Vanessa sobbed, looking hopefully at Grandmother.
The grim expression on Grandmother's face, with her slow head shake, confirmed Vanessa's worst fears. She'd been on an emotional roller-coaster in the previous eighteen hours – overwhelming depression at thinking that Vince had lost Gabby, elation at her revelation in the locker room that Gabby cared for Vince, and then an emotional body-slam when Vince and Gabby had slipped in the shower as they embraced and kissed. Only Grandmother's quick intervention had prevented the second part of the pass – forgetting all about Vince – from taking effect.
Grandmother sighed heavily. "It's very ancient magic," she began to explain. "I learned to cast the spell long before I understood exactly what it is, or how it works. There were only a few in my clan who understood the spell – and that was a very, very long time ago." She shook her head. "It was an ... emergency spell – to make sure the clan didn't die out. Captives would be changed to women, and if there weren't enough women, some of the men of the clan would be selected at random to be changed as well. It was also used if a man committed an offense against the clan. He was allowed to choose being ... cast out, or being changed and becoming a contributing part of the clan." She shuddered visibly when she mentioned clan members being banished. "Because the magic is so ancient, it's very difficult to understand how it works, or to reverse it. That's why few knew how to reverse it."
Vanessa shook her head sadly. "Then ... I'm stuck. It's ... it's all over. Everything I wanted ... it's all gone." She buried her face in her hands as more tears flowed.
"It's not like she never made any mistakes!" Anya fumed. Beside her, Oksana occupied another chair in the deli. It was later in the afternoon, so they were the only customers. "I don't get it why she's so upset over one or two little mistakes."
Oksana nodded. "You did offer a way to fix it, too," she said.
Anya's scowl deepened. "She's treating me like I'm a kid. This is nothing compared to what she used to do!"
"Your boyfriend is here," Oksana observed with amusement as Greg walked into the deli.
Greg had no problem finding Anya, given how empty the deli was. "Hi," he said eagerly to Anya, leaning over to give her a kiss, and all the while eyeing Oksana suspiciously. He looked directly at Oksana. "Hi, Oksana," he said, politely acknowledging her presence, even if he really didn't trust her. He pulled out a chair and sat down. "What's up?" he asked Anya, noticing that she looked upset.
"Grandmother and I had a ... disagreement this morning," Anya complained bitterly.
"Oh?" Greg was surprised by the vehemence in her voice. Though she and Grandmother had disagreed many times in the past, Anya had never dwelled on their differences. "What happened?"
"I made a couple of small mistakes with passes," Anya said, frowning. "The next thing I know, she told me I should stop selling passes if I couldn't do it right." She shook her head. "It's not like she hasn't made mistakes, and some malicious ones, in her life!"
Greg thought he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Oksana smiling, as though she found the conversation – and the incident – amusing. "And if I remember correctly, you were pretty outspoken telling Grandmother that what she was doing was wrong, true?"
Anya glared at him, but then her expression softened. She nodded slowly, acknowledging the truth of Greg's words.
"Would you have been upset if Grandmother had done what you did?"
"That's not the point," Oksana interrupted.
Greg shook his head. "That's exactly the point." He turned back to Anya. "Would you?"
Anya nodded slowly. "But ...."
"Like you told Grandmother, it may not seem like much to you, but it's everything to the people whose lives got messed up."
Grandmother looked up from her deep concentration. "There may be a way to fix this, since I interrupted the spell before it was complete," she said softly, "but it's a longshot. It's ... not likely to work."
Gabby looked at Vanessa, seeing the sorrow in her eyes. She looked back at Grandmother. "We have to try." Vanessa nodded her agreement. "But how?"
"I told you that I can't do it. But there are members of my clan that can – if they survived the bad years, that is. There were purges. A lot of the clans were rounded up by the Nazis, and perished with the Jews and other 'undesirables' in the gas chambers. After that, there were the communists, who were almost as bad. I'm afraid there may not be many left." Grandmother shook her head. "That's why it's such a longshot. I ... feel ... some of the, I guess you'd call it life forces, of my clan, but there aren't many, and they aren't strong."
Gabby looked at Grandmother with a critical eye. "Are you suggesting that you take us to see if we can find your clan, in the hope that someone will remember the spell and will be able to undo it?"
Grandmother gulped visibly. "Mostly correct."
"Define mostly," Vanessa said, eyeing Grandmother warily.
"I ... can't go. It's a long story, but," she bit her lip, "I was ... banished ... a long time ago, when I was young. I can't go back."
Gabby and Vanessa exchanged wary glances. "Then – who is supposed to take us?"
Grandmother winced. "Anya will have to take you. She knows the magic, and can find my clan."
"Anya started this whole mess!" Vanessa cried. "If she'd been careful, I wouldn't be stuck like this!"
"I know," Grandmother said sadly. "And I'm truly sorry for what happened. Because it's our fault, I'll pay for all your travel expenses. But it has to be Anya."
"Isn't there any way you can go with us?" Gabby pleaded, unhappy at the thought of Anya traveling with them.
"The penalty for breaking banishment is ... death. I can't go back – ever." She closed her eyes, momentarily and visibly reliving some painful memories.
"But ... I'd rather you went than Anya," Vanessa said softly.
"That's why I'm going to ask a friend to go with you – as a little insurance. Since his family came from the same area a few generations ago, I'm sure I can convince him to accompany you."
The man smiled as he crossed the hot pavement. Around him were many, many girls and women, all heading toward the park entrance. A few looked his way, giving him a strange smile. Jozef smiled back at them, unable to contain his amusement that the few who knew of the magic thought he was going to change. Instead, he turned away from the ticket booth and toward the low, gray office building. Some of the women who thought he was about to be the victim of the ultimate gender joke were disappointed, which caused Jozef to chuckle to himself.
Before he could press the button on the intercom next to the door, he heard a click. He smiled again. It was just like Grandmother to know he was coming and anticipating his arrival. Jozef pulled the door open and stepped into the office. Compared to the bright mid-day sunlight, even the brightly-lit office seemed dark, and it took a couple of seconds for his eyes to adjust.
Even before he could clearly see, Grandmother was shaking his hand warmly. "I'm glad you could take some time from your busy schedule to drop in for a visit."
Jozef laughed, allowing the old woman to take his elbow and lead him to a casual seating area. "When you ask me to come by for a visit, I know something's up."
"Am I that transparent? Grandmother chuckled.
"Yes." Jozef sat down in a comfortable chair.
"Would you like something to drink?" Grandmother asked, showing her hospitality.
"Just water," Jozef said easily. "And I know you'll get yourself a root beer, right?"
"I'm getting a little too predictable." She retrieved the drinks and handed a bottle of water to Jozef, and then sat in her chair, opening her soda with a loud hiss.
"So, how can I help you today? What sort of trouble have you brewed up this time?"
"I'm afraid it's something that Anya did, by mistake," Grandmother began. She quickly explained the situation.
"And you're hoping that someone in your clan survived, and is powerful enough to undo your magic, right?"
Grandmother nodded. "It's the only chance that I can see." She sighed. "And it's more complicated. I can't go with them."
"I heard the stories from my great grandmother that you fled. I take it you were banished or expelled or something?"
"Yeah. It's serious. Breaking banishment has a punishment of death. Even if I could find someone powerful enough to change Vanessa back, my request would mean nothing." She took a sip of her soda. "So I have to send Anya, since she'll be able to detect the magic, and find anyone from the clan – if they still live."
"She can handle it. She's got a good head on her shoulders." His eyes narrowed when he saw the look on Grandmother's face. "What's going on with Anya?"
"There's something going on with her. I ... can't completely trust her." She explained Anya's mistakes.
"Maybe that explains ...." His voice tapered off.
"There's something around Anya that's not right. It feels wrong. We worked together with Mel, and I got to know how she ... felt ... magically." He shook his head. "It's not like that anymore. It's ... it's hard to describe." He sighed. "So you want me to go." He shook his head. "I don't think I can."
After a good deal of discussion, Jozef finally gave in to the old woman's persistent request. Then his features brightened. "In fact, this trip could be a lot of fun. I can indulge my hobby, perhaps finding some rare or unique glass to work with, and maybe find out some history of my great grandmother, too."
"I'll get you booked on the flight. Since I'm asking you to go, I'll cover your expenses."
Jozef laughed. "That won't be necessary," he said. "It'll be no problem to cover my expenses. Money isn't much of an object."
A frown flitted across Grandmother's features, but then she smiled. "I should have read that about you a long time ago." She thought for a moment. "Josella was fleeing a harsh master, right, at least when she was Joska? Her trade – was stained glass work, right?"
"She did pretty well with that when she got to this country. In fact, she sold some designs to Tiffany Studios. And her independent work made her – and her descendants – pretty well-off. In fact, my cousin still runs the stained glass works, and I dabble in some design work. It's kind of a way of keeping in touch with my roots." He took out his cell phone, and called up some picture of some of his work. "These are a few of my original designs. I like to work on one-off and two-off pieces. Making them on a mass production basis cheapens the design."
"These are gorgeous." Grandmother hesitated. "I recognize that one. It's in Ronnie Harris' office!" She whistled appreciatively. "You must be good if Ronnie wants your work. Is there any way I could buy one?"
"I'll give you one, if you'd like. I didn't know you liked stained glass lamps."
Grandmother shook her head firmly. "You wouldn't let me pay for your ticket, so I won't let you give me a lamp." She finished off her can of soda. "So why are you a policeman, if you are well-off?"
Jozef chuckled. "I can give back to the community this way. I've always wanted to help people."
"That explains why you don't seem to give a damn about promotions and such."
"It drives the police chief nuts. Everyone else worries about following protocol, making sure they dot their i's and cross their t's and being politically correct, so they can get a promotion. I play the game to keep people safe from criminals first, and anything for me second." He smiled. "Sometimes, the chief sends me on cases because he knows there might be political fallout, and others might hesitate because of career worries."
"I'll get the flights booked, and then get you the information so you can pay for your tickets."
"Fair enough." Jozef frowned. "What are you going to tell Anya about my presence?"
"I'll tell her that you wanted to come along, since it was your ancestral home, too, and that you were interested in looking for special glass for your hobby." She smiled. "It's the truth; I'll just leave out the part about watching her."
"I'll miss you," Greg said as he wrapped his arms around Anya from behind. She was standing by her bed, looking down at her suitcase, checking what she'd packed.
Anya leaned back so Greg could kiss her neck. "I'll miss you, too."
"I wish I could come with you. Or better yet, that you didn't have to go."
Anya's contented smile turned instantly to a frown. "Well, Grandmother is making me go, so I don't have a choice." She shook her head. "And she asked Jozef to accompany us, as if she doesn't trust me!"
"I thought he was going because you were friends, and it was where his ancestors came from, with Grandmother."
"That's what she said," Anya reported, scowling. "But I can tell it's because she doesn't trust me."
"Did you read it with your magic?"
Anya shook her head, and doubt softened her icy expression. "No. It ... it feels like it. And Oksana said she could sense the real reason."
Greg decided to not talk about Oksana. He was more than a bit concerned about the new girl; Anya did very few things without Oksana, and she was always talking about the girl, and her magic skills. "How are you going to deal with the language? Do you have some kind of spell?"
Anya nodded. "I'll do a tongues spell when I get there. I won't have any problem with the language."
"Will it work on Gabby, Vanessa, and Jozef?"
Anya shrugged. "I don't know. And since I'm in charge of the trip, I don't see why it would be necessary."
"That's kind of selfish, isn't it?"
Anya's eyes betrayed a conflict, as if she was wavering on her earlier determination to be the language expert to prove that she was in charge. "I suppose you're right," she replied. "If Grandmother could do it for Josella, I should do it for the others on this trip as well."
"That's the girl I love," Greg said, turning Anya so he could give her a proper kiss.
After a long, passionate exchange, Anya smiled. "I may need a few more of those to get me through a week without you around." She lifted her lips toward Greg's once more.
The first group of passengers, those paying a premium for the privilege of flying in the comfort of first class, was greeted by flight attendants with their pasted-on smiles. Anya was among them; she'd paid extra to fly first class. Directed by one of the flight attendants, she located her seat, and reached up to place her handbag and her computer case into the overhead bin. She had a little difficulty with the awkward opening; a tall flight attendant was instantly at her elbow, offering help. She nodded gratefully to accept his assistance, and as the attendant hoisted her bags, Anya slid into her spacious, comfortable seat.
Anya groaned to herself when a man stopped by her row. He set a briefcase on his chair, and started to take off his suit jacket. Behind him, a flight attendant was putting his carry-on bag in an overhead bin. She had hoped to have a row to herself, so she wouldn't have to put up with someone else's inane chatter, or failing that, some nice grandmotherly type who would read her novel and leave Anya alone. Instead, she had a businessman, and from his appearance, a rather cocky, successful businessman. He looked to be about thirty, and he seemed to be free of 'swivel-chair spread', the malady that plagued businessmen since time immemorial when they spent too much time sitting and not enough time exercising. No, this man looked fit. His brown hair was cut stylishly, in keeping with the rest of his appearance. His hands – looked manicured – with no ring on his left hand, and he wore an expensive shirt, with cuff links, no less! Anya knew without looking further that he had to be wearing a designer suit. Successful, and probably quite arrogant.
As he sat down, Anya made a show of putting in her ear buds and turning on some music, to very clearly advertise that she wasn't interested in idle chit-chat or the young man's attempted come-ons. As she sat back in her chair, she turned her head toward the window, adding yet another sign that she wanted to be left alone.
Anya stewed in silence as she thought about the events which had led her to be taking a trip to the old country, to try to find anyone from Grandmother's clan, in the vain hope that someone would remember how to undo the transformation spell. She hadn't done anything _that_ wrong, had she? She didn't think so, and neither did Oksana. Greg and Grandmother were overreacting – especially Grandmother, since she had a long history of callous, capricious actions against men, sometimes with extreme changes. There were the two kids who'd jumped the gate; now, they were busty, blonde, boy-obsessed girls. Allison, who, as Alan, had been trying to take pictures of the women inside Bikini Beach's locker. Grandmother changed him into a very busty stripper with a compulsion for sex. Those had been deliberate; hers had been a mistake, an accident. And she had a way to fix things so Gabby and Vanessa could stay together, but Grandmother had vehemently prohibited her from making the two girls lesbians.
If she had to travel, at least she could travel – and stay – in style. There was no way she would travel in coach, or even business class. A little wave of her hand, a little magic, and she had an upgrade to first class. A quick spell, and the visas from their destination arrived the next day, saving Anya days or weeks of being harangued by Grandmother over the error.
Moments later, a horde of passengers filed into the plane, causing instant traffic jams in the aisles despite the airline's best effort to get the throng aboard in an orderly fashion. Among the next group was Jozef, having paid a bit more for the extra legroom of business class. While not as posh as first class, it was a significantly more comfortable place to travel than economy class, especially for a man who was a bit taller than average. He slid over to the window seat, settling in and leaning back to rest. He wore loose-fitting slacks and a loose-fitting shirt, as was his habit when not working, and with non-descript loafers, he didn't depict the image of someone who had wealth.
When Anya had asked if Jozef was going to accompany her in first class, he politely declined, opting instead to fly in business class. He was still reflecting on what Grandmother had told him about Anya, and he didn't want her nearby, at least for a bit, as he contemplated what he could possibly do if she continued to be unpredictable. He hadn't wanted to go, but Grandmother had been very persuasive, as she always was. He had to laugh to himself at how the old woman had almost gotten to the point of begging him. She was really concerned about Anya, and as Jozef considered Anya a good friend, there really was no way he could say no.
Shortly before takeoff, Jozef paid little attention to the flight attendants as they went through their routine safety instructions. Jozef had flown often enough that the he could have given the briefings. The only thing to which he remotely listened was the water safety information, required by the FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization since it was a flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
In truth, Jozef found himself uncomfortable being with Anya since they'd started planning the trip. He found her demeanor troubling, and the stories of how she had been treating customers and her lack of empathy for Gabrielle and Vanessa had shaken him. Her actions were nothing like what he remembered from dealing with Melody.
The discussion with Grandmother bothered him a lot more than he wanted to admit to her. He had noticed the severity of the old woman's worry about Anya, and how it bothered her to have to talk about family matters with an outsider. His detective instincts guided him as he talked to her, and eventually, she had to admit the reason she was so worried. Her description of the evil which had overcome Anya's mother, Chessa, was chilling; if Anya started down that path, how was he, a non-magic-using person, supposed to stop her or save her? He was ill-at-ease at having to chaperone Anya like she was a wayward teenager instead of a young adult, because Grandmother didn't completely trust her. It was his instinct for trusting Grandmother which proved to be the deciding factor.
As if to highlight Anya's growing sense of superiority, she'd refused to help Gabby and Vanessa get to the airport. Only because of Grandmother's insistence had Anya even ponied up part of their cab fare. Vanessa's and Gabby's parents nixed that idea, taking the opportunity instead to take their daughters so they'd have a chance to say goodbye. It had been necessary for Anya to come up with a spell to convince the parents to let them travel; because of the park's magic, Vince never existed, and the families had no idea why Vanessa and Gabrielle should go to a former communist country just before college started.
In one of the last groups to board, Vanessa and Gabrielle had to walk almost sideways to get down the aisle, looking for their seats and they tried to avoid hitting seated passengers with their carry-on luggage and handbags. Both were very aware that many young men were eyeing them. To Gabby, it was part of being an attractive woman. But to Vanessa, it was very uncomfortable. Vanessa was starting to think that the light cotton dress her mother had recommended had been a mistake; it was airy for the confined plane, but the neckline was a little low, and passengers walking past made her nervous that they were staring down at her cleavage.
Vanessa tried to distract herself from being nervous about the attention she was getting and the critical nature of the trip. "Did you have to pack so much?" she asked Gabrielle. Even as she spoke, she knew that she'd packed a lot, too. As Vince, she would have packed a change of shirts, underwear, and socks, plus a toothbrush and razor. Now, as Vanessa, she had at least two blouses for each day, a variety of slacks and shorts, and a couple of skirts, and that was to say nothing of the various hair and skin products, nor of the makeup and feminine products Gabby had packed for them.
"Hey, it was your idea to pack together," Gabby replied with a grin. "And you didn't protest too much, so I figured you want to look good, just like all the other times."
"Yeah, I guess so," Vanessa said. She jumped at the feel of a hand groping her butt while she was putting her carry-on in the overhead compartment. "That's something I won't miss," she hissed to Gabby. One large, pushy woman practically shoved Vanessa between seats as she struggled to get past. To her horror, Vanessa looked down and saw that she was inches from a man who was gawking slightly up at her bosom. "Sorry," she apologized as she pushed herself back into the aisle. She shook her head. "That was one rude lady," she whispered to Gabby, who nodded her agreement.
Once they got in their seats, Vanessa turned to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry, Gab," she said softly. "It's just ... it's so confusing, and I'm nervous."
"I know, Vanessa," Gabby replied sympathetically. "This whole thing is confusing – how I think of you, I mean."
Vanessa smoothed her skirt as best as she could in the confines of the seat. "If it's confusing for you, imagine how it is for me! My parents don't remember Vince. Oh, speaking of them, I better text them so they don't worry." She pulled out her cell phone and typed a quick text message. "I didn't think they were going to let me go on this trip. I don't know what Grandmother did to convince them otherwise. Even with Jozef as a chaperone, they didn't want me to come. They can be so overprotective at times."
The girls' conversation drifted to an end as the flight attendants went through the safety briefing while the plane taxied. The crew made one last check to ensure that everyone had properly fastened his or her seatbelt, that the seatbacks and tray tables were all in their upright positions, and to remind a few inattentive passengers to turn their cell phones to airplane mode. The crew took their seats, and moments later, the sound of the engines increased to a roar as the plane began to accelerate down the runway. Involuntarily, Vanessa grabbed Gabrielle's hand, clutching it tightly as the plane began moving faster and faster down the runway. The nose lifted a bit, and the wings clawed at the sky, struggling to pull the airplane upward, to soar above the clouds. Suddenly, it broke free of its ties to earth, and the plane began to truly fly. Still, Vanessa didn't let go of Gabby's hand, because it was so comforting for her.
Once airborne, Jozef reached beneath the seat in front of him and pulled out his shoulder bag. He took out a sketch pad and immediately began to indulge himself in his favorite pastime, designing stained-glass lamps and window decorations.
The gentleman beside him kept glancing at Jozef's work, until finally, his curiosity got the better of him. "I take it you're a stained-glass designer?"
"It's my hobby actually," Jozef said as he critically examined how the lines were intersecting on his latest design.
"Larry Hollis," the gentleman said, extending his hand as he introduced himself. While dressed as a businessman, he had his jacket in the overhead bin, and his tie was loosened. Larry reclined his seat slightly to a more comfortable position.
"Business or pleasure?" Jozef asked, strongly suspecting the former.
"Business. My company is working on a venture with another company and management needs my assessment of their factories to verify the quality of the workers and equipment."
"That makes sense, given the consequences to your own company."
"Yes." He looked directly at Jozef's sketchpad. "May I?" When Jozef handed him the pad, he flipped through the pages, stopping at one in particular. "Where have I seen this one before? Isn’t this a variation of the daffodil lamp from Tiffany's collection?"
"Ah so you’re a connoisseur of stained glass?"
"Sort of," Hollis chuckled. He was fascinated by several other designs, impressed with their intricacy and graceful lines. "I can only indulge myself with those that I can afford on-line. Usually, though, they go for a lot more than I can afford to bid."
Jozef was drawn into a serious conversation about the rise and fall of Tiffany’s, and the discovery that Carlos Tiffany hadn't actually designed the famed lamps.
"It was their loss for only allowing unmarried women to work at their factory. But it was a gain for my family. My Great-grandmother worked for her, until she started her own venture." Jozef interrupted the conversation when the flight attendant asked if they wanted anything to drink.
"So once you’re finished ...," Hollis questioned, taking a sip of his Scotch.
"I’ll color code the layout and send it to my cousin. She'll check the colors against what she can get for glass, and make suggestions for changes if necessary. Once we agree on the colors, she sends me the glass, and I start the tedious task of shaping, filing and laying out the glass out into the final product. I'll send the cut glass back to her for final assembly. I could do that myself, especially if we use copper foil. Normally, though, the family works will use lead came, since it gives the piece a little higher prestige and value."
"If I decide, I let her sell the finished product – after she takes a fair cut of the sale price, of course."
Hollis chuckled at the lame joke. "Does Tiffany sell your products?"
"Once in a while, they ask for a design, but I rarely sell them, since their mass production cheapens the products. Sometimes, though, I'll sell them designs that I'm not completely happy with – designs that are good, but not up to our family's standards."
"It sounds like it could be lucrative to sell your designs," Hollis commented.
"It can be, but where’s the joy in it? A laborer's task is to earn a living, while an artist's task is to create something of beauty," Jozef said, putting away his material. "So I create when I feel like it and sell it at a higher price. Sometimes, I've spent up to a year working on just one product. Would you like to have my cousin send you a listing of what we have available?"
When he saw Hollis nod, Jozef continued. "Be sure to mention my name." Jozef scribbled down the necessary contact information on a napkin. "I'll let her know we talked. Otherwise, she'll charge our regular price."
When he looked at the name, Mr. Hollis was astounded at who he'd been talking with. The family name was very highly reputed in the stained-glass lamp trade. He carefully folded up the paper, putting it in his wallet. "So this trip you're taking?"
"It's a chance to rediscover old family’s roots, to see where my beloved strabunica lived," Jozef said as he reclined his seat a little more. "And there are some very good glass-works that I might be able to deal with to supply unique glass." He pulled down the shade, blocking out the sun.
Vanessa felt her nerves jangling. The trip was her first flight, and she was traveling out of the country, virtually unescorted, to an unknown land, on a very crucial journey. She felt calmed by the hand clasping hers. She glanced at Gabby, and saw her smile at her.
Gabby felt reassured by the touch of Vanessa's hand almost as much as Vanessa. It was a strange turnaround for her to be comforted by Vanessa; up to then, Gabby had always been the one to stand up for and defend Vanessa. Now, she was holding Vanessa's soft, feminine, comforting touch. It was so unlike the feeling she'd had so often when she held hands with one of her boyfriends.
"Are you okay?" Vanessa asked
"Yeah, fine," Gabby answered, much more quickly than she'd intended. Her answer wasn't convincing, and sounded forced; in truth, she was confused as she continued to hold Vanessa's hand.
"I wish I hadn't waited so long," Vanessa said softly after the plane had reached its cruising altitude. "I should have been more confident, more sure of myself." She shook her head sadly. "I wish I hadn't held back my feelings for you. I was just ... scared. And intimidated by you."
"By me?" Gabby asked, astonished. "How?"
"You're so beautiful, and so self-assured. You're smart." Vanessa shook her head. "I always felt so ... insignificant around you – certain that someone like me didn't have a chance with you."
"I wish you hadn't waited, either. Do you know how many times I was waiting for you to ask me out? Do you know how many hints I gave you?" Gabby laughed bitterly. "I guess I should have danced out of the locker room in a skimpy bikini with a banner across my chest that said, 'Ask Me Out, Vince'." She wiped at a tear. "Do you know how many times I wanted to hear you tell me how much I meant to you?"
"I'm so sorry, Gabby," Vanessa said, feeling her own eyes getting misty.
Once they were at cruise altitude, many of the passengers put in headphones to either listen to music over the plane's sound system, or to listen to the audio for the in-flight movie. Vanessa glanced around, and realized that they had some privacy. "Do you really think they'll be able to help us? Me, I mean?" She knew it sounded selfish almost as the words came out of her mouth.
"Grandmother thinks so," Gabby said, trying to sound convincing to reassure Vanessa, and surprisingly, to also convince herself. "Otherwise, why would she have sent us? It'd be a waste for us to travel all the way there for nothing."
"But what if Anya can't find anyone? Or if she finds someone, they don't know how?" Vanessa's voice echoed her nervousness as she contemplated that her life as Vince might be permanently gone. She was nervous about what that would mean for her future with Gabby. She shook her head. "You don't know how much it hurt when my family didn't know anything about Vince this time! They thought he was a boy I was going to date, because this time, the spell was global, and it changed reality so that Vince had never existed!" Tears flowed freely; tears of fear and regret and anguish.
"I know," Gabby replied. "None of my friends knew anything about Vince, either."
"Gabby, I'm scared, and not just about Vince, but also about us."
Gabby wrapped her arms around Vanessa. "I'm not leaving you. We're friends, and I'll always be here for you." She was unsure of her own feelings; as Anya had said, Gabby wasn't sure if she was attracted to Vanessa or not.
Vanessa sighed heavily. "Just friends. And after I finally had a chance to tell you how I feel about you, and then this happens." She wiped at more tears.
"We both wish we should have said something earlier. This is the twenty-first century. I could have just as easily started the conversation as you could have. It's my fault, too." Gabby shook her head sadly. "I waited for you to tell me how you felt, but maybe my dating intimidated you." She shook sighed. "Maybe I was dating in front of you with a subconscious hope that you'd get jealous. Do you know, when we played, you were always so confident, assertive, rational, and willing to take risks to save my character? I waited for you to show some of that in real life, but you didn't, not with me, at least."
"Look at you, Gabby. You've got so much going for you. Not like me. And certainly not like I was."
Gabby placed her finger over Vanessa's lips to silence her. "Don't you dare do the 'I'm not nearly as beautiful as you' routine. Girl, I know what a good-looking girl is, and I'm sitting next to one." She chuckled. "You should remember how many times I slammed guys who looked at me superficially, only at my exterior."
"Or how many guys you scared by kicking their asses in the games," Vanessa giggled softly.
"I wish you were as self-confident outside the game as you are in it."
Vanessa looked directly at Gabby. "I promise that, if we get out of this mess, I'll always tell you how I feel."
"I wish you would have told me how you felt about my dates, too," Gabby said wistfully.
"I did," Vanessa protested.
Gabby sighed. "I wish Vince had told me how he felt about my dates, I mean."
"Now it may be too late," Vanessa began to sob. "What if Anya can't find the elders? What if I'm stuck?"
Gabby lifted the arm-rest separating their seats, and wrapped her arms around Vanessa.
"I ... I can barely feel Vince inside my head," Vanessa sobbed. "I'm afraid that, with every passing day, I'm losing Vince, and becoming more and more Vanessa."
Gabby shook her head as she let Vanessa cry on her shoulder. "We can't give up hope, Vanessa," she said reassuringly. "We have to trust Grandmother." She held Vanessa close, but she realized that her own thoughts were conflicted. She wasn't sure about her feelings toward Vanessa. She was fun, as a best friend. But Gabby couldn't deny that she felt a tiny bit of physical attraction to Vanessa as well. She couldn't deny that, years earlier, she'd done like many of her friends and experimented with other girls. She thought it was just a passing phase, teenage curiosity. Now, she wasn't so sure.
Anya felt a light touch on her arm, and she spun angrily to see what had disturbed her. The man beside her had lightly tapped her to get her attention. She saw a flight attendant standing in the aisle, leaning toward Anya. She pulled out her earbuds.
"Would you like Chicken Kiev, or smoked salmon for dinner?" the flight attendant asked politely.
Anya thought a moment. "Chicken Kiev," she answered.
"Would you like something to drink?"
"I'd like a glass of wine. White, please."
The flight attendant walked back to the galley to get Anya's dinner choice.
"Excellent choice. The salmon is okay, but I always get Chicken Kiev when they have it," the man beside Anya said. She frowned; he'd been waiting for a chance to talk to her, and the meal service had gotten the earbuds out of her ears. Even without her magic, she could tell that the man was interested in her, and would at least flirt, if not make an overture toward something more intimate.
"I take it you travel quite a bit," Anya said, her voice cool.
The man smiled confidently. "I'm a junior vice president for integration with our European suppliers, so yes, I'm flying quite frequently. Where are you traveling?" He was trying to impress her with his position and title in a multinational corporation.
"My grandmother's ancestral home. It's ... a small private group tour to look for the ... magical place ... that Grandmother always described from when she grew up." She mentioned the country of destination.
"Oh, that's interesting. We have a major partner there. If you'd like, I could take a little time and show you some of the sights in the capitol while you're there." He seemed to puff himself up a bit. He saw an opportunity to impress her, and possibly get to know her better, since they were going to the same country. "I am fluent in the language."
Unseen to the man, Anya twirled her fingers while she silently chanted the 'tongues' spell that Grandmother and Danni had taught her. "Oh, really?" she asked, using the old tongue, a slightly older variant of the national language of their destination. "My grandmother taught me the old tongue when I was a young girl. I don't think the language will be an issue for us." She grinned inwardly as the young man visibly deflated, his generous and pompous offer having been taken from him with a few words.
"You're quite fluent. That kind of skill could get you a long way in a multinational corporation, such as mine." He pulled a card holder from his pocket and extracted a card. "If you might be interested in a career in interpreting, we're always looking for qualified candidates."
"Thanks, but I'm vice president of operations of a major water park." She saw him deflate even more. "I'm in charge of the logistics, maintenance, and scheduling departments –eighty-three employees in all."
Anya had to give the man credit for being smooth. "It seems I've greatly underestimated you," he said. "I hope you don't take my offer as an insult. We also need highly-qualified senior and junior-level executives. If you might be interested ...?"
For some reason, Anya had greatly enjoyed putting the arrogant executive in his place. And even then, he was still trying to be conversant, and probably to arrange some personal time with her. Fortunately, the attendant brought her dinner and wine at that moment, interrupting any further attempts the man might make at conversation.
As soon as dinner was finished, the man tried to continue some conversation, much to Anya's chagrin. Why couldn't he just watch an in-flight movie, or work with his computer? No, he'd taken an interest in her. She sighed, and then did a little silent chant, followed immediately by a second. In moments, the man was asleep. For a moment, Anya mused about a second spell. The man thought he was a smooth-talking, Don Juan type, God's gift to women, and he probably wanted to sweet-talk and seduce her. Perhaps a month of an anti-Viagra spell would deflate his enormous ego. She shook her head, puzzled and shuddering at the foreign though, and then she realized how wrong that would be. She put her ear buds back in and retreated to her solitude.
Anya waited inside the terminal for the others, who, because of their seats, would be delayed in disembarking. Jozef was the first to join her, followed several minutes later by Gabby and Vanessa. The two girls looked tired, and they desperately needed to touch up their makeup. Anya guessed that Vanessa had spent much of the night crying about her plight. She felt pangs of guilt from her conscience; the whole thing was because of her mistake.
Anya felt something astonishing; for the first time in a long time, her sense seemed a little clearer and easier to read. She smiled to herself; the rest on the flight had obviously done her a world of good. She felt energized again. But then, slowly, without her realizing it, the fog began to creep over her magic aura again.
"Why don't you two use the restroom and touch up your makeup," Anya suggested happily. "Jozef, you probably want to shave, too."
"I shaved on the plane before we landed."
"Okay. We'll just wait for Gabby and Vanessa to finish, and then we'll get our luggage and go to the immigration and customs checkpoint."
"After that, I assume we'll get a rental car, and then we'll drive?"
Anya shook her head. "The problem is that the village doesn't appear on any maps that I've seen. While you clean up, I'll go ask at the information desk over there."
Gabrielle and Vanessa carried their handbags to the restroom, while Jozef and Anya walked to the information counter. The two clerks working at the counter greeted them warmly, asking how they could help them. When Anya explained that they were looking for the village from which her ancestor had come, the clerks were delighted, knowing that American tourists would bring money to the economy, especially if they could spend time near ancestral homes. But when Anya mentioned the name of the village, the clerks exchanged a nervous glance, before telling Anya that the village no longer existed.
"They're lying," Jozef whispered to Anya. "The name of the village made them very nervous."
"I noticed," Anya said. She thought about trying to backtrack from the route Grandmother had described, but she knew it would be difficult and quite time-consuming. But then a thought intruded. It would be so easy to solve the problem another way. Unseen, Anya's fingers made an intricate figure.
"Can you please help us?" Anya asked again, using the old tongue.
The spell did what Anya had intended. Both of the clerks were only too eager to give Anya whatever information they had. Anya smiled pleasantly as she thanked them, turning back toward the ladies' restroom where Gabby and Vanessa were.
"What did you do?" Jozef asked, frowning, Anya as they stood waiting.
"I ... just asked for information, and said please," Anya said, suddenly feeling like Jozef was spying on her.
"I felt you use magic," Jozef said, his frown deepening into an outright scowl. "So what did you really do?" He saw the surprised expression on Anya's face. "And I know the old tongue well enough to understand exactly what you said," he added, using the local language.
"Grandmother sent you to spy on me, didn't she?" Anya complained angrily. Her resentment had returned with a vengeance. "She doesn't trust me, does she?" There was a strong, accusatory tone to her voice.
Jozef's eyes narrowed. "Grandmother is worried about you. She's concerned that you've been a bit too ... impulsive," he said cautiously. "And since we're friends, and we've worked together before, she asked if I could come along, in case my advice was needed since I know a lot more history of the country than you do." He held his arms out in front of him, palms up, shrugging, signifying helplessness. "Besides, what can I do to restrain you?" He frowned; on the plane, he'd felt Anya's aura clearing, going back to the feel it had when they'd worked Mel's case. But now, the haze, the unusual feel was coming back. The detective in him was certain that there was something – or someone – that was interfering with her magic.
Anya was a little taken aback by Jozef's frank answer. She'd expected him to try to lie. "I suppose that makes sense."
"Are you going to use your 'tongues' spell on Gabby and Vanessa?" Jozef asked, drawing a surprised look from Anya. "Put yourself in their shoes. They're scared, more-so Vanessa. They're in a foreign country, where they don't understand the language, and they probably feel completely helpless." He smiled. "Grandmother used the spell to help my great grandmother," he added, "to help her feel less insecure."
After the group collected their luggage and cleared customs and immigration, Anya pulled the group aside to a small alcove, out of sight of the main corridors. "There may be a little problem," Anya suggested, looking directly at Jozef.
"It's probably going to arouse suspicion that a middle-aged man is traveling with three young women," Anya said evenly.
Jozef frowned, but then he nodded. With his police training, he would have focused on such a group as being unusual, and therefore worthy of further observation. After the icy reception about their destination, he wanted to avoid extra attention. There was no telling how the local or national police would operate, so minimizing suspicion seemed quite prudent. "That makes sense. And I suppose you want me to change to my Josslin alter-ego while we're here?"
Anya nodded. "It would cut down on suspicion."
"Okay." Jozef took a deep breath, and then nodded. "Oh, and don't forget my luggage. I'll need to have something fashionable to wear," he added with a wry smile.
Anya closed her eyes for a moment, concentrating, and then began to incant a spell. In moments, Jozef had transformed into Josslin, but this time, she was different. She wasn't in her mid-thirties, as she had been in past changes. This time, Josslin looked about twenty-one or twenty-two, in the same age group as the others in the party.
Josslin looked at her arms and hands, and then strode to a restroom to examine Anya's handiwork. She returned in moments, a scowl on her face. "Why did you do ... this?" she asked, referring specifically to her apparent age.
Anya smiled. "Now you fit in with the group – some college students doing a tour."
"I think I could have pulled it off as an older chaperone," Josslin retorted with a frown.
"Let's go rent a car, and then we can start driving."
Josslin looked thoughtful. "Why don't we take a train? We can get pretty close, and then a car rental won't be so expensive, and we won't have as long a drive. I don't know about you," she added, "but after a long plane trip, I'd prefer to not have to drive."
Anya frowned at the suggestion, chafing that her judgment had been undercut. Even more, though, she realized that Josslin's suggestion was more practical than renting a car here. "I guess that'll work better," she admitted reluctantly.
The train was a local, which meant that it stopped in every small city and town along the route, thus taking a very long time to reach the destination. Anya considered that, driving, it would have taken them probably as long, given the terrain, the number of cities along the way that would slow them down, and their unfamiliarity with the roads. She had to grudgingly admit that Josslin had a better idea. She'd have had to use a spell to keep her awake for a long drive like they would have had. Instead, they had a small, second-class train compartment that they shared for most of the trip with two elderly women who said little, but stared at them a lot.
Anya wasn't happy in the semi-comfortable train compartment, but she kept her grumbling to herself. Josslin took out her sketch pad again, while Gabby and Vanessa sat, hand in hand, looking nervously at the passing terrain, and saying very little, mesmerized by the clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks and the gentle swaying of the train car. Within half an hour, Vanessa was sleeping with her head on Gabby's shoulder, and fifteen minutes later, Gabby was asleep as well. Josslin looked up from her sketching and smiled when she noticed the girls. They looked so peaceful.
It was nearly six in the afternoon when the group carried their luggage off the train in the small city. It was the nearest city to where they thought they were going, and much to Josslin's delight, was the home of three stained-glass works, including, she hoped, the one at which her great grandmother had apprenticed so long ago.
"Not a lot of choices for hotels," Anya noted as she looked at the information board in the small depot.
"One hotel and a youth hostel," Josslin corrected her. "Plus a few private pension rooms."
"I vote for the hotel," Anya said. "A youth hostel will just be too crowded and noisy, and a private pension probably wouldn't have room for all of us."
Josslin nodded. "I agree." She looked at a map of the city. "It looks to be about three blocks. Shall we walk, or try to get a cab?"
"I don't think it'll be too much trouble to pull the luggage," Gabby added to the conversation, "especially since it's all wheeled."
"And there's a shop where we can rent a car," Josslin noticed on the information board. Her nose wrinkled. "It'll probably be something small, like a Fiat or a Seat." She looked up at Anya. "Aren't you glad you're not stuck driving a cracker-box like that for seven or eight hours?" she asked with a grin.
Anya frowned, and then nodded as a smile crept across her face. "As long as you don't do an 'I told you so', I can admit that you were right."
The hotel building was an old relic from before World War II. It looked worn, as it should have after surviving the horrors of that war and then neglect during the communist era. While it would have been dwarfed by the ten-story concrete, communist-era apartments on the outskirts of the city, at five stories tall, it still jutted up above the surrounding two- and three-story buildings. Instead, it was spared the indignity of being overshadowed by featureless concrete, and thus it still had a little semblance of dignity in its architecture. It was hard to tell if any of the soot-stained accent stonework had once been white, or if it had always been dull gray. The main color of the building was brownish-red, somewhat plain, but matching all the other buildings on the streets. Above the entrance was a dull portico, and above that, a simple sign that said 'Hotel'. After considering the building for a moment, Anya glanced at Josslin with a disgusted look on her face.
Inside, the building was marginally better. The stone floor was covered mostly by what had once been elaborate rugs; now, they were faded and worn in spots. Someone, somehow, had managed to buy some paint, so the walls in the lobby didn't look nearly as dreary as the exterior. Anya walked up to the massive wooden reception area and rang a bell which sat on the counter. Josslin joined her, earning yet another look of displeasure from Anya. Presently, a clerk emerged from a back room, and Anya had a lively argument with him about rooms. It turned out that they only had two rooms available that weren't either already rented or under renovation. Anya would have to share a room with Josslin, while Gabby and Vanessa would share the other. Anya was quite unhappy about the arrangements.
After showing their passports, leaving a credit card deposit, and checking in, Anya asked about an elevator, since they were on the fourth floor. As the clerk explained things, Josslin turned to Gabby and Vanessa. "He says that the elevator is out of service. We'll have to walk up the stairs."
Gabby groaned. "At least I only have one suitcase," she tried to joke.
When they reached their floor, Anya and Josslin turned to the right in a hallway, while Gabby and Vanessa turned left. While not dirty, the hall was dimly lit, and the carpet faded and worn, just like in the lobby. Anya sighed her displeasure yet again.
Gabby opened the room with her key, and pulled her suitcase inside, followed closely by Vanessa. As she shut the door behind her, Vanessa complained, "I'm never going to complain about an American hotel again! At least their elevators work!"
Gabby flopped on her back on one of the twin beds. "Amen, sister. At least the bed is sort-of comfortable."
Vanessa sat down on the other bed. "It's harder than my bed at home," she whined, "but after all that travel today, I think I could sleep on a rock." She shook her head, chuckling. "At least when we check out, we'll be carrying our luggage down the stairs, not up them."
"I'm glad the room is a little nicer than the lobby or the halls," Gabby commented. The rug which mostly covered the wooden floor was relatively new and colorful, and the walls were painted a cheery light blue. Dark blue draperies lined the two windows, and the beds had a blue comforter atop them. But the room was small, tiny by American standards. With the two beds and two large armoires, there was little spare space, not that there were any other furnishings. The room had a tiny desk, with two small sitting chairs, and a small television hanging on a bracket in the corner. A door led to what both girls hoped was a private bathroom; they'd heard of older European hotels having shared bathrooms on each floor. Taking turns using the facilities didn't appeal to either.
"I wish the place was more touristy," Vanessa said, having flopped onto her back. "Maybe they'd have a more modern, roomier hotel. But this seems pretty out of the way, so it's no wonder the hotel looks like something out of the 1920's."
"Imagine what a travel brochure for this place would look like!" Gabby laughed. "They'd either make it sound and look like it was a five-star hotel, or they'd have to do a black-and-white flier with fuzzy pictures!"
"At least it's dry in here. I hate overcast, misty or rainy weather," Vanessa complained.
"Did you catch what time they said they serve breakfast? I wish we'd have had more time to learn about the local customs. With the jet lag, I'm betting that their normal breakfast time is definitely going to interfere with my normal sleep time!" Gabby commented, trying to lighten the mood to raise Vanessa's spirits. She saw a smile form on Vanessa's face as Vanessa giggled. The two often gotten together before sunrise for an early breakfast and start of their day, so Gabby's comment was purely in jest.
Gabby heard another weary sigh from Vanessa. She understood the fatigue of travel; she had it too. But Vanessa also had the psychological stress of not knowing what her future held. She sat on the bed beside Vanessa. "Sit up."
With a puzzled expression, Vanessa complied. As soon as she was seated, Gabby scooted behind her and began to massage Vanessa's neck and shoulders. "Damn, you're tense, girl," Gabby commented lightly.
"Umm," Vanessa purred as Gabby expertly rubbed away fatigue and tension. "If you keep that up, I'm going to melt, or fall asleep. That feels so good."
"I noticed you were a little tense," Gabby explained needlessly. "When I was a little girl, I used to massage my dad's neck and shoulders sometimes when he had a rough day at work."
"You're good at it. I could just float away right now."
When Gabby finished rubbing Vanessa's back, Vanessa half-turned. "What are we going to do? Did Anya tell you any plans?"
Gabby shook her head. "No. First, though, I'm going to put my clothes and suitcase away in the armoire, and then I'm going to take a bath or shower – whichever they have."
"I think television is out," Vanessa said. "Unless they get an English-language station here, which, judging by the look of things, I doubt."
"I wish Anya would have used that language spell on us," Gabby said. "I don't understand anything. If it wasn't for Josslin translating for us, I wouldn't have any idea what's going on."
"Do you think she just forgot?"
Gabby shook her head. "I don't know. Sometimes, I get the feeling that she's using things like that to demonstrate how 'in charge' she is. I know she was really pissed at Grandmother for making her bring us here. You remember how she wanted to solve the problem?"
Vanessa nodded grimly. "Yeah. By making us both lesbians." She felt an inward shudder at the memory of Anya's very callous solution. She decided to change the subject. "Did you see the look that Anya gave Josslin when she realized that Josslin understood the language? I think Anya was surprised." Vanessa gathered up her toiletries. "Do you want to go first or second?"
"I'll go first. Age before beauty, you know," Gabby joked. As Vanessa watched, Gabby slipped her clothes off to prepare for her shower.
Vanessa sat, raptly staring at Gabby's nude form. The girl was exquisite, clothed or naked. Vanessa remembered seeing Gabby naked many times in the locker room at Bikini Beach, though she didn't remember those events when she changed back to being Vince. This time, though, there was something different. It wasn't a public locker room. It was just her and Gabby sharing a hotel room in a foreign country. For some reason, that made Gabby seem more special, sexier, and more attractive. A part of Vanessa wondered what it would be like to experience love with Gabby as she was, even as her brain recoiled at the very female thought. She felt confused. Was she Vince, or was she losing that part of her identity, and starting to think of herself more and more as Vanessa?
"Josslin said there was a tavern down the street, and I think we could use a little relaxation, so how about if, after we get cleaned up, we see if Josslin wants to go out for a drink and some food? She'll probably want to get away from Anya, after what Anya did to her."
Vanessa nodded, and then realized that Gabby was staring at her in wonder, noticing that Vanessa's eyes were very obviously locked on Gabby's nude body. Vanessa blushed and turned away.
Anya glanced around the room while Josslin took a shower. She sighed heavily. This was not what she'd envisioned; she'd expected a comfortable hotel room by herself, not a shared room with Josslin, who'd been sent by Grandmother to spy on her. It wasn't bad enough that the room was small, but the television was also tiny, the beds were a bit hard, and the rug wasn't particularly plush.
As she sat, Anya felt something inside her again – as if something cool was touching her bones. She flinched involuntarily. It had to be an artifact of the overcast, cool, damp day, and her fatigue from the long trip. She wanted to just collapse. She sat down on the bed, but before she could flop back to rest, she felt a lump in the bed pressing uncomfortably into her thigh. With a quick wave of her hands and a little chant, she smiled and leaned back on the bed.
The room was visibly different; the rug was a lot more plush, with a soft pad under it, the television was a large flat-screen unit, and the bed had become a comfortable memory-foam unit with a soft, down comforter atop it. Anya smiled; this was a lot more like what she deserved after putting up with the discomfort of travel all day.
A few minutes later, Josslin emerged from the bathroom. Her face was fixed in a scowl. "You ... you changed things with your magic, didn't you?" she asked.
Anya shrugged. "After a day like that, I need to rest, not toss and turn on a lumpy, hard bed."
Josslin's frown didn't budge. "I don't think Grandmother would approve of you using your magic like that."
"I'm in charge of this trip, not Grandmother," Anya snapped.
"Just saying." Josslin had changed, and looked like she was ready to go out of the hotel. "There's a tavern down the street. I'm going to see if Gabby and Vanessa want to go get something to eat. You want to come along?" Despite Anya's arrogant attitude, her indifferent attitude toward the girls, and turning Jozef into a younger Josslin without his consent, Josslin was too polite to not at least make an offer, even if she hoped that Anya would decide to stay put in her magically-created luxury.
Anya thought a moment. "After I get cleaned up, sure."
Fifteen minutes later, all four girls assembled in the lobby. Gabby and Vanessa were wearing jeans and T-shirts, while Josslin wore a light blouse with her jeans. Anya wore slacks with her blouse, and thus she looked a bit more upscale than the others. As soon as they stepped outside, Josslin halted Anya. "They need the spell, Anya," she said simply.
Anya sighed, an unhappy expression on her face, before she nodded. A few chanted words, and she touched Gabby's throat and ears. She repeated the process on Vanessa. Vanessa's and Gabby's eyes widened in surprise as they suddenly understood some of the conversations locals near them were having.
"Okay, let's go get something to eat. I'm starving," Josslin said enthusiastically, trying to lighten the mood after having to push Anya into casting the language spell for Gabby and Vanessa.
As they neared the bar, Josslin's brow furrowed. She paused occasionally, tilting her head and looking left and right. "What is it?" Anya finally asked.
"I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I sense some pretty powerful magic," Josslin said softly. "It's nearby, but I can't tell where."
"I ... sense something, too. Do you think it's trouble?"
Josslin shook her head. "I don't know."
The group walked into the tavern, being greeted with a loud, boisterous noise of the locals having a few drinks after their workdays. As they went through the door, Josslin glanced around the streets of the city once more before following the others inside.
Gabby had spied an unoccupied booth against the wall, so she led the group there, where they took their seats. Anya noticed the look on Josslin's face. "What?" she asked simply.
"A few things. First, we're much closer to the source of the magic. I can feel it. Second, do you feel any different?"
Anya frowned. "Different? How?"
"I don't know. Do you feel ... something different in your magic?"
Anya reached insider herself, feeling her magic power, and examining her aura. Her eyes widened. "I ... don't feel cold inside," she stammered. "And ... my sight seems to be a bit ... clearer." She stared at Josslin. "How ... how did you know?"
Josslin shook her head softly. "I don't know. It ... your magic suddenly seemed ... less muddied, if that makes any sense." She frowned. "Did you feel the same thing on the airplane?"
Anya thought a moment, and then nodded. "What do you think it is?"
A second later, one of the barmaids appeared at their table, interrupting their speculation about Anya's magic. She was young – perhaps eighteen or nineteen, with dark hair like Anya, but styled shorter. Her traditional outfit, which looked like a bustier, amplified her bosom, while also cinched in a narrower waist. Her long skirt hid all but her shoes, flowing down around her hips in a way that accentuated her feminine wiles. While not possessing supermodel beauty, she was nonetheless attractive – a plus at earning tips from the tavern's patrons. "I am Crina. May I help you?" she asked. The way she was looking at the group, it was obvious that she knew they weren't locals. In fact, everyone looked at them the same way – like they were suspicious and not to be trusted. It was starting to feel a little spooky.
"What do you recommend? We've been traveling all day," Josslin explained in a friendly voice, "and we're thirsty and hungry. Is there some special dish that we should try?"
"Are you from England?" Crina asked simply. She seemed astonished that Josslin's command of the language was so good.
"We're from America," Gabby said without thinking.
"My ... distant relatives emigrated from this area. I wanted to see where they came from," Josslin added quickly, to enhance their story before the barmaid became suspicious. It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the complete truth.
"We have so few visitors from the outside," Crina said. Her tone seemed wary, as if she didn't _like_ visitors. She was staring at Anya with a penetrating gaze, almost like she was the only one in the group.
Anya felt a little rattled by Crina's stare. She shuddered nervously, and then cloaked her aura. The uneasy feeling diminished, but didn't vanish entirely. The barmaid gave Josslin a curious glance, and then made her recommendations for both food and drink. After taking the order, she gave Anya one more penetrating glance, and then left the group alone.
Josslin leaned closer to Anya. "I sense some very strong magic in her," she whispered.
Anya nodded. "So did I. But she was completely hiding her aura. That takes a lot of skill and power."
When the barmaid returned with their drinks, Anya thanked her. "I was wondering if you know anything about the village my ancestor came from," she asked politely. "I can't find it on any map, and no-one at the tourist bureaus could tell me anything about it, but I know from family stories that it's somewhere in this area. My ... relative described, in her stories, how she passed through this city on her way to America."
"What is this elusive village's name?" Crina asked. "I know quite a bit of the history of this area." She got a wistful look in her eyes. "A long time ago, this was a very popular area for travelers, mostly wealthy, curious from England, and even a few from America."
"It's my understanding, from my family stories, that this area was very noted for the mystical," Josslin suggested.
"Ah, the old days of fortune telling and so-called magical baubles," Crina said with a far-away look in her eyes. "Those were simpler times, where a village was primarily an extended clan, and outsiders brought money to supplement the meager incomes from the farms." She sighed. "But then times got tough. There was the Great War, and the Spanish flu epidemic after the war. Travelers returned during the following years, until the great crash ended so many fortunes, and the travelers stopped coming altogether." She got a sad look in her eyes. "And then the purges started."
"The purges?" Gabby asked, curious about the woman's stories.
"During the great depression, envy was rife, and neighbors turned on neighbors, blaming those who were successful for the misery of others. Communities fractured, splitting along ethnic and clan lines. Then the Germans came, and tracked down those they considered 'inferior'. The envy which had begun earlier fed the evil machine of the Nazis. Many of the area were taken away, frequently on just an accusation; we didn't know what happened until later, when we found out they perished in the gas chambers with many others who were considered ... undesirable. Liberation wasn't a relief, because the Communists came, and they were as suspicious as the Germans. Suspicions were high in those times, and some settled old grudges by betraying those they disliked as mystics or other undesirables, so the authorities would take them away." She shook her head sadly; from the emotion in her voice, it almost sounded like she'd seen the events first-hand. "It was a terrible time."
"Wow!" Vanessa exclaimed softly. "That's ... awful."
"It was," the barmaid said softly and sadly. "To see friends and neighbors turn on each other like rabid dogs. To see family and friends taken away, knowing you'd never see them again. To live in fear of being denounced and turned over to the authorities merely because someone disliked you or was envious of you." She shook her head. "Those were horrible times." She shuddered visibly, and then resumed her cheery, friendly barmaid demeanor. "What is the name of this phantom village you seek?"
Anya glanced at Josslin, and then told Crina. The girl blanched, her eyes wide with shock. The girls all noticed. "I take it you've heard of it?" Josslin asked.
"I've not heard that name in a long time," she said softly. "A very long time." She shivered again, and then regained her composure. "I have other customers to attend to," she said very hastily, avoiding giving Anya and Josslin any answer. "If you wish anything else, just ask." She hurried off.
"She knows more than she was letting on," Josslin said with absolute certainty.
Anya nodded. "Was I imagining, or was she really startled when I told her what we were looking for?"
"You weren't imagining it," Josslin answered. She took a sip of her drink, and coughed. "This is strong!" she sputtered.
"You asked for the local specialty," Vanessa giggled. "You only have yourself to blame."
"How do you want to proceed?" Josslin asked Anya, hoping that deferring to her might calm her strange attitude.
"I think we need to find out more about the barmaid," Anya said. "And we should poke around town a bit to see if anyone else knows anything."
"We can't just ask if anyone knows of the clan, or magic use," Josslin suggested. She noticed that several men in the tavern were eyeing them. "How about if we plan more when we get back to the hotel? We're attracting attention." She leaned closer to Anya. "There have been two men following us since we left the hotel."
Josslin walked into the stained-glass works, her eyes sparkling with the joy of being surrounded by things associated with her hobby. Under the guise of inquiring about local craftsmanship and supplies, she had been visiting the factories, and using the opportunity to talk about her distant relative and her possible connection to the area. She took along her sketchbook, which helped establish a level of camaraderie with the factory managers since she knew what she was talking about. The carrot of possibly supplying glass, lead came, and even being a site to hand-craft finished products for Josslin's family shattered reluctance and barriers.
At that point, Josslin cautiously inquired about Joska, the boy who her great-grandmother had been before meeting Grandmother. That inevitably led to a discussion of where Joska had come from; Josslin twisted the story slightly so that his origin was the village they sought.
In one factory, she learned that the village had been almost totally destroyed, by the Nazis first, and what remained was devastated by the Communists. There were still a few people living in that area, Josslin learned, but they were extremely reclusive.
That evening, in the tavern, the girls discussed what they'd discovered, but quietly, because they knew that there were curious ears nearby. Anya had uncovered information about the barmaid, using a story that she might be very distantly related, based on some family history done back in the States. She'd had to use a little magic to persuade a few reluctant people to provide information, but seemed nonplussed by having done so. Unfortunately, the barmaid they wanted to speak to wasn't in the tavern at that time.
The group enjoyed a little of the local cuisine, and more adult beverages, although they judiciously avoided the 'specialty' drink that the barmaid had brought them the previous evening. The local wine was sufficient.
Gabby sighed heavily. "I think we'll go back to the hotel," she said, her voice a little slurred. She'd had three glasses of wine. "I don't know about Vanessa, but I'm exhausted from trying to follow Josslin all over the city." She gave Josslin a friendly smile.
"It's not my fault that I'm in better shape," Josslin said, sticking her tongue out at Gabby.
"At least Gabby and I weren't hitting on the shop foreman, like you were!" Vanessa interjected with a grin, which caused Anya's eyebrows to rise.
"Oh? Is there a story you're not telling me?" Anya asked with a grin.
"I wasn't hitting on him," Josslin rebutted angrily. "I ... he was ... reluctant to talk. I ... showed some feminine interest to help persuade him."
"Like inviting him to lunch after some pretty blatant flirting," Gabby added. "And you did note to us, when you thought we were judgmental, that he was kind of cute, after all."
Josslin's cheeks were beet red. "I did _not_ say that he was kind of cute!" She lowered her gaze, and her voice. "I said he was _rather_ cute." She scowled at Gabby. "Get your quotes straight if you're going to start gossiping." She looked up at the other girls defiantly. "I did get a pretty good price quote for some of their specialty glass for my family's stained glass shop."
"And you thought that changing wasn't a good idea! How much easier was it to finagle a deal when you could use some feminine charms?" Anya teased, but she had a smug smile that said, 'I told you so.'
"And I found out where my great-grandmother was apprenticed," Josslin beamed.
"Good. Did you find out anything about the village?" Anya asked impatiently.
Josslin frowned. "Patience," she chided, irritated, but trying to sound lightehearted. "I was just about to get to that part. As a matter of fact, I did." She related what she'd learned from the shop foreman of whom they'd earlier been speaking.
"We'll see you guys in the morning," Gabby said through a yawn. She stood, helped Vanessa up, and the two strode unsteadily from the tavern, arm in arm.
"They're both a little drunk," Josslin observed.
"Wanna bet they end up ... you know?" Josslin asked, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
"I thought you would, with your sight."
"Maybe I should just help things along a little," Anya said, a twinkle of mirth in her eyes. "If they accept what they have now, we can end this fool's errand and go back home."
Josslin frowned deeply. "Anya!" she snapped, "that's one of the coldest things I've ever heard you say."
Anya simply shrugged. "Oh, look. Someone's coming toward us. Is it the young man Gabby and Vanessa were talking about?" She had a curious, knowing expression on her face.
Josslin looked, and a smile crept across her face. "Yes. He asked what we were doing tonight, and if he could join us for drinks." She seemed to be almost purring, as if she found the man attractive.
Anya peered intently at Josslin. "I suppose three's a crowd in this situation. I think I'll go back to the hotel and rest some. Tomorrow, I'd like to drive out to look for what remains of the village." She rose, picked up her purse, and walked quickly to the door.
Josslin noted that the two men who'd been following them rose and followed Anya out of the tavern. She started to rise, but the man from the glass works took it as a sign and wrapped her in an embrace, before scooting Josslin back into her seat. Josslin had a brief look of panic; what were those two up to, and why were they following Anya? But the company of the shop foreman distracted her in ways that she knew she shouldn't have been distracted. In mere moments, she forgot about Anya and the men following her, and focused an adoring gaze on the handsome young man who'd joined her in the tavern.
Anya sensed the men almost as soon as she walked out of the tavern. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on her sight, reading their thoughts and intentions. She smiled wickedly as she realized what they were doing, and how she intended to respond.
When she rounded a corner, the two men hurried their pace to not lose her. As she paused, turning toward the two men tailing her, Anya sensed something else, but it was faint. It wasn't worth worrying about. Instead, she stepped boldly into the path of the two hurrying men.
"Why are you following me?" she demanded bluntly. "And don't pretend you weren't. I know you've been following us since last night."
"Following you?" one of the men said calmly. He was, Anya knew, trained as a spy, and lying and deception came easily to him. "We were just hurrying home so our wives wouldn't be angry."
"Bullshit!" Anya swore, using the native tongue and closest equivalent expression. Her fingers danced as she began to incant. Almost instantly, the men were frozen in place, and then they began to change. In mere moments, in the places of the two men stood two dazed, provocatively-dressed, young ladies. "Now, would you like to try again?"
The men's eyes were open wide, full of fear. "She's one of _them_!" one swore under his breath. He turned to Anya. "That's why you were asking about the village!"
"Perhaps. Now, do you want to tell me why you were following us, or should I just let you go like you are?"
The men suddenly froze. In fact, everything around Anya suddenly stopped, as if time had stood still. As Anya glanced around, stunned, another figure came around the corner – an unknown older woman wrapped in a shawl over her peasant blouse and long skirt.. Her countenance bore an unpleasant expression. "Fool!" she chided Anya sharply. "Have you no sense?" She waved her fingers, saying a few words, and the men changed back to their original forms.
"But ... they were following us. I used the change to ... persuade them to talk."
"And risk endangering all of us again?" the woman snapped. "You are reckless!"
"I need to find my grandmother's teacher," Anya said bluntly. "And since you know the arts, you probably know of her."
The woman flinched, and then stared at Anya, studying her for a few moments. "Yes," she said softly. "I can see it. I can sense your bloodline. You _are_ one of us. And I can tell who you are descended from."
"I need some answers," Anya said with a frown. "And some help."
"Not tonight," the old woman said quickly. "Not here." She glanced at the men. "Tomorrow, drive southwest of town on the highway. About five kilometers outside of the city, there is an old cart path on the left. Turn and follow it. After seven kilometers, there will be a gate on your left. Turn in the gate, and follow the cart tracks."
"But ... if I'm being followed ...." Anya began to say.
"Do not worry about that," the woman said with a confidence that stunned Anya. "Now go. I will alter their memories, so all they will remember is that they followed you back to the hotel."
"Okay. Why do these men frighten you?"
"You heard about the purges last night," the old woman said simply. "There are some who still believe that we are evil and must be eliminated. And do not speak of us, or the village again! Not while you're in the city, where unwanted ears can hear!"
Anya frowned. There was more to the old woman than she'd let on. "Who are you?"
"In good time," the old woman said. "Now go!"
Anya felt more than a little intimidated by the simple, old, peasant woman. She knew far more than first appearances would lead to believe, and she was a practitioner of the arts, powerful enough to hide her aura, and to trivially undo Anya's relatively complicated spell. Anya turned and hastened toward the hotel, her gait a little uneasy. Around her, the movement and noise suddenly resumed, as time began to march forward once again.
Gabby felt something close to her, and she reflexively pulled it tight against her. She felt the warmth of a body snuggled against her, and she sighed contentedly, fighting to cling to the comfort of a soft bed and a warm bedmate, and the bliss of sleeping, but despite her desires, sleep slowly and reluctantly released its hold on her.
As soon as enough sense had returned, Gabby wondered why she was cuddled with someone. She glanced and saw the long, brown hair splayed on a shared pillow, while in the background, the trappings of the run-down hotel room were visible.
With a sinking feeling, Gabby realized why she was in bed with someone, her naked body pressed against another body that was equally nude. She knew _who_ she was sharing her bed with. She sighed softly, drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly, and lifted her arm from around her bedmate.
The motion was enough to rouse Vanessa from her own slumber. She pressed her body back against Gabby, purring contentedly. After a moment, she rolled over, finding herself face-to-face with Gabby. "Good morning," Vanessa said softly.
"Morning," Gabby answered hesitantly. "Um, what happened?"
Vanessa grinned and kissed Gabby passionately. "Don't tell me you were too drunk to remember seducing me."
"Uh, I remember something, but I thought it was a dream." Gabby sighed. "Now what?"
"I don't understand," Vanessa said, confused.
"I ... I'll admit that I always found you attractive," Gabby said hesitantly, "but ... never enough to try to seduce you. I ... I didn't want to confuse things."
"I ... I know," Vanessa admitted, looking away from Gabby's eyes. "And I know I only wanted to be physical with you as Vince." She shook her head softly. "Shit, I messed things up, didn't I?"
"Didn't we, you mean," Gabby corrected her
"I don't understand why I was so ... eager last night," Vanessa said softly. "Unless ,,,,:
"Do you remember back in the office, when we first changed? Anya suggested that she could make us both lesbians, so we'd be together. Do you suppose ...?"
"I don't think Anya would do something like that," Gabby said, but her voice was full of doubt. "Would she?"
"I'm starting to wonder." Vanessa sat silently for a moment. "Do you want me to change back ... to Vince?" she asked softly.
Gabby stared into her eyes for a moment, and then nodded slowly. "Yeah. I ... I don't know if this is real or magic, but I _do_ know how I feel about the male you. I ... don't want to take a chance of losing that if we can fix this mess."
"Yeah," Vanessa agreed. "That's what I'm sure I want, too." She sat up, pulling a sheet up to cover her naked body. "Besides, if things don't work out with me as Vince," she said, trying to sound lighthearted, "I can always get a lifetime pass. But I want to try it the regular way first."
"So do I."
Vanessa suddenly turned away from Gabby, and began to softly cry. Gabby, confused, sat up, putting her hands on Vanessa's shoulders. "What's wrong?"
Vanessa shook her head sadly. "I ... I lied to you – when we were at Bikini Beach."
Gabby frowned. "What ... what was ...?"
Vanessa continued to sob. "I ... I never ...." She finally turned and faced Gabby directly. "I was a virgin. I never had sex, either as Vince or Vanessa." She turned back away. "Not until last night."
"Why ... did you tell me you did?" Gabby asked softly.
"Because you ... you kept bugging me, like you expected me to have sex. Like you didn't approve of my being a virgin. I didn't want to seem like a total loser." Vanessa continued to cry.
Gabby hugged her from behind. "I'm sorry if you thought I was pushing you, or that I wouldn't approve if you didn't," she cooed. "I just thought ...." She sighed. "You're just so attractive as Vanessa that I figured it was a given that you'd have, you know." She rested her head on Vanessa's shoulder. "It doesn't change anything about how I feel. I love you."
Vanessa suddenly laughed through her tears. "It's funny," she said. "I always dreamed that I'd have my first experience with you. But as Vince, not a Vanessa."
"Was it good?"
Vanessa nodded. "If ... if I'm stuck," she said in a tiny, frightened voice, "I could get used to loving you like that. You ... made me feel wonderful," she added as a shiver of delight at the memory went through her.
"The car is still following us," Josslin reported as she glanced in the mirror. "They're good. If I wasn't a trained policeman, I wouldn't have noticed. Now what?"
"The barmaid said to not worry," Anya reported. She neglected to mention how she'd used magic on the men tailing them, and had had her spell undone – and had been chided, as if she was a child – by a mysterious old woman.
"I get the distinct impression that there's more to our simple barmaid than meets the eye."
Shortly thereafter, the car following them pulled off to the side of the road, slowing and stopping. "I wonder what that's about?" Anya asked.
Josslin, who wasn't driving, looked behind them, and saw the men exit the car and stare at the steam rising from the hood. "It looks like either a very strange coincidence, or someone is helping us shake our tail."
"I'm going with the latter," Anya said. After rounding another couple of bends, she saw a track off to the left. "This looks like what she described." She turned off the highway onto the rutted dirt road. She glanced in the mirror and saw Vanessa and Gabby sitting quietly, holding hands to steady each other. She drove in silence for a few kilometers, studiously trying to avoid the worst of the ruts and potholes, until she saw an even smaller gated path leading from the dirt road. Beside the gate stood a man, staring impassively at them. As Anya turned, he silently opened the gate, and once she'd driven through it, closed it again.
"It looks like we're expected," Josslin said unnecessarily. She gasped. "What the hell?"
Josslin shook her head. "The car isn't leaving tracks, even though the ground is soft and damp."
"Someone doesn't want anyone to know that we visited, I think."
"And they're a lot more thorough, and skilled, than I would have guessed." Josslin said, her voice full of admiration toward the abilities of the people.
"I've noticed that," Anya said, careful to keep a neutral tone.
After only a few hundred yards, the path entered a wooded area, and their progress was halted by the overgrown path and a couple of downed trees. "Got any suggestions now?" Anya asked sarcastically.
"The path continues, so maybe we should follow it," Gabby piped up from the rear of the car.
"Here comes the man from the gate," Vanessa called out, staring out the back window to where they'd come from.
The girls waited until the man stopped by the car door. He simply gestured for them to get out, and to follow him.
"It looks like an invitation," Josslin replied. "We're not going to get any answers just sitting here."
Agreeing with Josslin's logic, the girls clambered out of the car. Once he was certain that the girls understood, the man continued walking down the path, past the undergrowth and fallen trees which made vehicular travel impossible. In a couple hundred meters, the track emerged from the woods, and wended its way between fenced fields through pasture and farmland. After about a kilometer and a half, the man turned into a cluster of buildings, which had the appearance of a farm. Shrugging, the girls followed him, until he led them to an open space between farm buildings and a small house. Wordlessly, he gestured for the girls to sit on stumps situated like chairs in a group.
As soon as they sat down, the unknown old woman came from the house. Her visage was stern, and concerned. "Why are you here? Why are you asking about ... magic?"
"My ... Grandmother sent us here," Anya said simply, "seeking help."
"What kind of help?"
Vanessa stood up. "There is a spell that changed me into a girl. I didn't want to be a girl, and it's messed up our lives." She looked down at Gabby, reassured by Gabby's steady gaze.
"And how is that my concern?"
Anya frowned. "I know you can use magic. Just like you know that I can."
"Do you know that?"
Josslin rose and began to walk around, looking at various objects. "There are many items around here which radiate magic, and I can sense it in several people, too. For example, I sense an enchantment on this ladle. What is it for?" she asked simply. "Or the door on the barn?" She cataloged several more magic items, and each time, the old woman's astonished expression deepened. "Your necklace is enchanted, too, with a very powerful magic," Josslin continued.
The old woman involuntarily lifted her hand to clasp her necklace. "Who ... who are you?"
Josslin sat back down. "A very long time ago, my great grandmother Josella emigrated from this area. At the time, though, she was named Joska." The barmaid's eyes widened almost imperceptibly at the name. Being a detective, Josslin noticed. "She met a traveling companion, a girl who used magic freely. The girl changed Joska into a girl, supposedly to keep herself safe from being taken advantage of by a young man. After an arduous trip across Europe, the two girls made it to England, to Southampton, where they used money they'd saved working during their travels to buy tickets to America. Only, something happened to my great-grandmother's friend. She claimed that the great ocean liner was doomed, and that the two shouldn't go. Josella, being stubborn, left her companion, never to see her again. The ship hit an iceberg, and many perished, but because her companion had made her a girl, she was able to get aboard one of the lifeboats, and was spared."
"An interesting tale. How is it, then, that you think you can detect magic?"
Josslin smiled. "Josella's companion was powerful, but untrained, and she left much ... messy ... magic on her. Since then, some of her descendants have been able to sense magic, but not to use it."
"Who was the traveling companion?" the barmaid asked, an intent look in her eyes.
Josslin shook her head sadly. "She didn't say. All she said was that she'd been banished from her clan, and no longer deserved a name."
"That companion," Anya interjected boldly, "was my grandmother."
"Your ... grandmother? She would have to be impossibly old!" the barmaid scoffed.
"Judging from your surprised reaction," Josslin observed, "you don't find the tale so fantastically impossible. You may have even known Anya's grandmother."
"What ... what was her name?"
Anya shook her head. "She tells no-one. Not even me." She saw the curious look in the old woman's eyes. "My grandmother said that she was raped, and in defending herself, she touched the darkness. She fled to avoid the penalty among the clan. She traveled with Josella to England, and there, she said she met an elder of the clan, who tested her one final time to see if she was evil, or if she could fight off the temptation of the darkness." Anya saw the stunned reaction on the barmaid's face. "You knew her, didn't you?" she said accusingly. "You ... you were there! You're the one who spared Grandmother's life!"
The barmaid dropped her head, nodding slowly. "I ... broke many rules. But I had to, because her mother had been my pupil, and had saved my life many times. Yes, child," she said to Anya, smiling, " I knew your grandmother and your great grandmother." She looked sad to the point of being pained. "I knew of her banishment. It was her only chance," she added softly. "Until now, I never knew if she'd lived or not."
"You lived through the purges."
The old woman nodded. "Those were horrible times. Many of my family were executed by the Nazis, and then by the communists. Many tried to flee, but they were betrayed and captured, and sent to the concentration camps, and then the gulags." She sighed. "I lived through it all. Many didn't. The clan was almost wiped out. Other clans were. My daughter ... died in the Holocaust, in the gas chambers at Auschwitz."
"But ... couldn't your magic ...?" Vanessa began.
"One of another clan tried to save themselves by helping the Nazis. With his help, they could detect magic use very accurately. After a few of our members were rounded up for using magic, we all feared using the powers. We had to hide, and to mask our auras. Those who hadn't learned to completely mask their power were also taken away and didn't survive the purges."
Around the girls and the old woman, a small group was slowly gathering – older men, and older women, two who looked middle-aged, and a woman who looked Anya's age. And there were four teenagers, two boy and two girls. The old woman looked around the group. "Once, the clan numbered in the hundreds. Now, this is all that's left." She waved her fingers and changed her appearance back to that of a young barmaid. "Even today, some of the old prejudices survive. There are many in the city who distrust and hate us. They look for excuses to persecute us. Some locals ... murdered one of my children a few months ago, all because they feared that she knew how to use magic."
The clan slowly dispersed, as silently as they'd come. "What is it that you need from me?" she asked, looking directly at Vanessa and Gabby.
Vanessa gulped nervously, and glanced at Gabby for a reassuring look. "I, um, I was ... a boy," she stammered, "until I accidentally was touched by the magic water at the park."
"Magic water? Park?" The old woman looked puzzled.
Anya decided to explain. "Grandmother uses an old spell, which she says is from ages past, that transforms men into women. She built a water park, and amusement attraction, where women can relax and have fun without men ogling and leering at them."
The old woman's frown deepened. "This sounds ... strange."
"In America, many men consider women to be objects to stare and to ... use."
"Ah. I see. How would that magic protect women?"
"Men are allowed to visit, but the water is imbued with the magic. When they get in the water, they are transformed to women, for as long as they paid."
"I see." She turned to Vanessa and fixed her gaze in the girl's eyes, holding her gently by the chin. After a few moments, she let her hands drop. "You thought you had lost a love, so you didn't want to continue as a man who'd always remember. You purchased a permanent change, and asked that you forget, but before you could get in the water, your friend," she glanced at Gabby, "came to stop you, and to tell you that she loved you. In your eagerness and joy, you accidentally fell in the water."
Vanessa nodded. "Now, I'm stuck, and I really did lose my love. Unless you can help me."
"Why does your grandmother not undo the spell?" the old woman asked Anya, baffled. "It is incomplete, so it is possible to undo."
"She ... forgot most of her magic, because of an emotional trauma. She ... had to fight her daughter – my mother - who'd become evil. Grandmother had to destroy her own daughter." Anya gulped at the painful memories of losing her mother. "Because of that trauma, she can't remember, or she's afraid of using it. She ... can't."
"I see." The old woman looked at Gabby and Vanessa. "After last night, do you still wish to change back?"
Both Gabby and Vanessa felt their cheeks burning with shame. It was supposed to be a secret. "Yes," Vanessa answered firmly, ignoring the 'I told you so' looks being exchanged between Anya and Josslin.
The old woman nodded. She took Vanessa aside, and stood her still. Softly, she began to chant, while her hands worked in intricate patterns. The invocation was long and complicated. Anya, to the side, was paying rapt attention, trying to memorize the spell as it was being cast. Finally, the old woman finished her incantation, and she touched Vanessa on the forehead.
Slowly at first, the changes began to ripple through Vanessa's body. Her hair began to shorten, and her feminine curves softened, until, when the spell was done, Vince stood where Vanessa had been. Vince looked down at himself, his mouth agape in awe. "I'm ... I'm me again!" he said awestruck. He looked up at Gabby, who was staring at him as well.
Gabby threw herself at Vince, wrapping her arms around him as her lips sought his. "I love you!" she exclaimed, crying happily, kissing him, and clinging tightly to him, as if by her embrace she could protect him from any harm and ensure he'd be with her always.
"I'm sorry I made this mess," Vince sobbed, hugging Gabby tightly.
"Shhh." Gabby kissed him again.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
The old woman watched the two young lovers with a smile. Then she turned to Anya. "You didn't use your sight, or you wouldn't have let this happen in the first place," she said, gently chiding Anya. "Is your grandmother not teaching you the magic properly?"
Anya glowered at the old woman. "She's teaching me what she can, but because she forgot most of her magic, I've had to learn from a friend."
"Your aura isn't clear. It isn't stained yet by the darkness, but it is hazy and cloudy. There is something about it which isn't right." The old woman shook her head. "Anger is your enemy," she scolded Anya. "Right now, you're allowing yourself to get angry." She put her hand on Anya's shoulder. "We all make mistakes. We learn. We mustn't blame ourselves, or anger takes root. Anger leads to hate."
"Hate leads to suffering. Suffering leads to the Dark Side," Anya added with a chuckle. She saw the confused look on the old woman's face. "It's a line from an old movie, one of my favorites. When I was young, before I knew of magic, I had no idea how accurate the statement really was."
"I guess we can go home now," Gabby observed, still clinging tightly to Vince.
The old woman sighed, and shook her head. "Your errand is done, but if you leave now, you'll bring grave danger to us. You've been very open in asking about the clan." She did a small incantation, and to Gabby's shock, Vince turned back into Vanessa.
"What?" Vanessa screamed. "You made me a girl again!"
The old woman nodded. "Anya knows why." The girls looked at Anya for an answer.
Anya thought a moment. "We have to leave the way we came, or we will arouse suspicion," she said hesitantly, earning an approving smile from the old woman. "And we should stay another day or two, but be more normal tourists, right?" She got a nod from the elder. Anya looked at Josslin. "Except you. You should probably continue looking at the stained glass work, like you've been doing, because you have legitimate business interests."
The old woman nodded. "This spell is a simple one. It will be very easy from you to undo when you return home." She thought a moment. "I have one more thing for you. Wait here, and my clan will share lunch with you. It may not be fare such as you are accustomed, but we find it filling."
The clan members, who had silently walked away earlier, came back, but this time carrying eating utensils, plates of cold food, and steaming bowls of hot dishes. Directed by the women of the clan, the girls sat on the ground, and then, with the clan, they partook of the dried meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and the hot dishes which had been laid out for them.
As the girls had lunch, they were amazed at the wonderful tastes of the clan's seemingly simple food. "This is really good," Gabby said softly to the others. "This all tastes ... fabulous."
"Simple ingredients," Josslin said, "but with a deliciously complex array of flavors," Josslin agreed. "I thought she said it was simple food. I haven't eaten food like this since my great-grandmother cooked for us."
The old woman's return was silent, taking the girls by surprise. She looked at Anya. "I have a letter for you to give to your grandmother," she said, holding out what looked like parchment folded into an envelope shape. A clump of wax sealed the fold.
Anya accepted the parchment, and looked warily at the wax seal. It didn't look like a very secure way to keep the contents private.
The old woman smiled as if she knew exactly what Anya was thinking. "The seal is magic. Only your grandmother can open it." She sat between Josslin and Anya. "Now, let us relax, and tell me more of my granddaughter. And of yourself. It is not often that I meet relatives, especially from America."
Vanessa, Gabby, Jozef, and Anya sat in the office building, sipping sodas and relaxing. They were all quite exhausted, having just gotten home after a day and a half of travel, reversing their initial trip First, a long train journey back to the country's capital, and then three flights; first, to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Atlanta, and finally, the flight home.
"Vanessa's parents will be here in a few minutes," Grandmother said as she brought in a tray of finger sandwiches which she'd had one of the girls fetch from the Tiki Hut. "You need to change Vanessa back before they arrive."
Anya nodded. "Stand, please," she directed Vanessa. When the girl rose, nervously glancing at Gabrielle, Anya began a small incantation. As soon as she released the spell, Vanessa felt her body and clothing begin to shift again. In moments, Vince was back, and Gabby leaped to her feet to hug and kiss him.
"Is this ... permanent?" Vince asked cautiously.
"Unless you want to change from time to time," Grandmother said, "but yes, the spells are all undone."
Vince enthusiastically kissed Gabby again. "I'm only going to change when Gabby and I want a 'best girlfriends' day together. Otherwise," he looked longingly at Gabby, and then slowly, backed up, holding her hands. "I ... had something that I wanted to give you," he said softly. "I sold it back after that night in Shell Game, thinking that I'd never need it again. But now, with the refund from the ticket, if you want, I can go buy it back, if you'd do me the honor of marrying me."
Gabby stared at him in disbelief for a moment, and then wrapped herself around him again. "Yes!" she exclaimed. "I want to be with you forever."
As the two lovers kissed passionately, the door chime on the door facing the parking lot sounded. Grandmother pressed a button on her desk. "Yes?"
"Uh, is this the right place? Gabrielle and Vincent said to meet them at a water park office instead of at the airport," a woman's voice said hesitantly.
"This is the right place," Grandmother answered. "Come in." She walked to the door and opened it, allowing two older couples to enter.
The couples halted, barely in the building, standing agog as they watched Vince and Gabby kissing. For several awkward seconds, they stared, not quite sure of what to say. Finally, Vince's dad cleared his throat, causing the kids to quit kissing. They looked toward the adults, but instead of being embarrassed about having been 'caught' kissing, they simply smiled.
"Uh," the mother standing beside the other man, Gabby's dad, began, "did you kids have a good trip?"
"It was great," Vince said enthusiastically, taking Gabby's hand and leading her to one of the sofas in the conversational area of the office building. "It was a lot of fun." He sat beside Gabby, barely taking his eyes off her, and not letting go of her hand.
"Mom, dad," Gabby said, smiling nervously, "Vince and I are, well, we're engaged."
Vince's parents' jaws practically hit the floor, and simultaneously. "You're _what_?"
"We're engaged," Vince said proudly. "We're going to get married." He saw the stunned look on his parents' faces. "Not right away," he added quickly, "but we're not going to wait forever, either."
"But ... you're just starting in college," Vince's mom stammered. "You're only eighteen!"
"Is this ...?" Gabby's mom asked slowly, unbelievingly, "are you kids ... you know?"
Gabby grinned as she squeezed Vince's hand again. "No, mom," she chuckled, "I'm not pregnant, and we don't _have to_ get married. It's just that, over the past couple of weeks, we finally got the guts to tell each other how we feel, and we both know we're right for each other."
Vince's dad scowled, and expression matched by Gabby's dad. "I do _not_ approve," he said sternly. "You're too young to be getting married. You start college in a few days!" He shook his head. "If you get married before you graduate, it'll make college much harder than it would be, both financially and in terms of grades."
Vince frowned. "Are you saying ... that you won't help me with college expenses after we get married?"
"No, dear," Vince's mother said reassuringly, countering the stern words and expression of his father. "He didn't say that. We just think you're too young right now, and you don't realize how much of a commitment being married is. We think you should wait." She glanced at her husband, and got an agreeing nod, and then saw the same gesture from Gabby's parents.
Gabby looked at her parents, and then looked to Vince. "Alright," she said slowly, "we'll wait to get married, but we're still engaged!" She smiled at Vince. "I'm not interested in dating anyone else, and I know things will work out well for us, right?" She glanced at Grandmother, who smiled and nodded. "We have something ... magical between us," she added with an impish grin.
Vince's dad sighed. "Well, at least if you're engaged, you won't be coming here to change into ... her." He shot a wary glance at Gabby's parents; he didn't know if they were aware of the secret of the park.
Vince smiled. "Yes, I will. Sometimes, we'll want to spend time together as best friends." He, too, was being cryptic, because he knew that Gabby's parents didn't know of the magic.
Gabby's mom looked at the kids, and then at her husband. She remembered what it was to be young and in love. "Well, if you kids love each other ...?" She obviously wasn't convinced, but she was trying to keep her skepticism in check. "Why don't we get together for dinner, and you kids can tell us all about your trip. I'm sure you learned a lot."
Still clutching hands, Vince smiled. "We learned a lot about the country's history and lore, and local cuisine, and Officer Jozef taught us a lot about the local stained-glass artisans."
Now talking excitedly about the trip, Vince and Gabby, with their parents, gathered their luggage and walked out of the office, with Anya escorting them back to their vehicles. Grandmother watched them go, a contented smile on her face.
"You know what their future holds, don't you?" Jozef asked as he sipped his soda.
Grandmother smiled. "It helps, sometimes, to know what's going to happen. Yes, they'll be happy together." She frowned a bit. "I'm afraid, though, that all the magic used on poor Vince will have some ... unusual effects."
"Oh?" Jozef sounded intrigued by her statement.
Grandmother smiled. "Like Josella, Vince has some magic stain left on him. Unlike Josella, that will manifest itself in ... interesting ways."
"We know that Gabby is a tiny bit bisexual, and we know what happened in the hotel between them. On those infrequent occasions when Gabby is feeling an attraction toward another woman, Vince will turn into Vanessa."
Jozef laughed as he pictured poor Vince, sitting in class, and suddenly changing because Gabby wanted a female sex partner. "That could get really embarrassing."
"I'll teach him to sense it, and to control it," Grandmother said with a smile. "It really won't be a problem for them at all." She smiled at Jozef. "You had a pretty productive trip as well, I understand."
"My family's business has at least one specialty glass supplier from the trip, and we're working on a deal for their artisans to do some limited production work there. It won't be mass-produced, cheap stuff, but hand-made and unique, so it'll fit our product line." He smiled. "Plus, being hand-made in the old country should bring with it a bit of ... old-world ... nostalgia and value to it." He shook his head at Grandmother. "Let's cut to the chase. Are you going to open the letter?"
Grandmother glanced to her desk, where the letter sat, unopened. "I ... I'm afraid to," she said softly. "It's been so long that I don't know whether I should fear or anticipate what might be in it."
"I think I understand."
"How did Anya do?"
Jozef took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Not good," he said softly. He saw the look of concern on Grandmother's face. "She changed me to a younger version of Josslin without asking or discussing it with me. She wasn't going to share the languages spell, which would have left Gabby and Vanessa completely in the dark and helpless." He shook his head. "She .... might have used magic to get them to ... you know. She even hinted that if they were happy like that, the whole reason for the trip would be gone, and we could come home."
Jozef shook his head sadly. "I should have known that you'd see through any façade I tried to put up." He bit his lower lip for a moment, staring vacantly into space, as he tried to figure out how to tell the old woman the rest of the story. "She ... did something to me."
Grandmother's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"When we were searching, and after we stopped, I was exploring some of the old glassworks, where Joska would have been an apprentice. Apparently," Jozef looked down, away from the old woman, "Anya did something to me mentally that made me ... attracted to men."
"It's part of any change. You know that," Grandmother began.
Jozef shook his head firmly. "Not like that. She ... used some kind of spell," he continued, looking down, away from Grandmother's eyes, "so that I ended up ... intimate ... with one of the local men. Very intimate."
Grandmother's scowl deepened. "Did you confront her about it?"
Jozef shook his head. "No. It didn't seem ... wise. If she could do that, what else would she have done?"
Grandmother sighed heavily. "Are you certain?"
"Yes," Jozef said firmly. "I've spent considerable time as a woman before, remember? I've never felt that ... out of control." Jozef saw the worry lines on Grandmother's face deepen. "While we were gone, was that other girl, Oksana, around?"
"There's something very odd in the way she's interacting with Anya. When we left, I could sense Anya's magic, but it seemed ... foggy, like it was all muddled. But when we were flying, I felt it clearing up, and when we landed, Anya seemed not at all confused or harsh. But then it got muddied again. The only time it wasn't was ... when we were with the clan!" he exclaimed. "And she said there was something disturbing about Anya's aura, too." Jozef exhaled slowly. "It's like ... something is trying to confuse her, to push her into something."
"To push her into acting out of frustration, and then anger," Grandmother said solemnly. "That's how the darkness lures people in."
"Do you think ... Oksana ... has something to do with this?" Jozef asked softly.
"I don't detect darkness in her." The old woman sighed. "But that could be because my skills with the arts are weak." She leaned back in her chair, letting her head loll back so she was looking at the sky. "I know it may be a lot to ask of you, especially with what she did, but I really would be in your debt if you would use your sense to see if there's something dark about Oksana."
"Could she have given Anya something that would cause the effects I sense?"
Grandmother nodded. "I should have thought of that, too." She shook her head sadly. "I'm getting old. I feel old, and helpless." She didn't fight the tear trickling down her cheek. "She's being tempted, isn’t she? I saw this before with her mother, Chessa. Only Chessa started at a much younger age."
"There's something strange about her," Jozef continued. "It's like ... there are two people. Sometimes, I sense Anya like she always was, but at other times, it's like a fog around her, like she's confused or uncertain in everything she does." He shook his head. "When she's like that, she makes mistakes, or gets impulsive, or angry."
Grandmother listened, her face an impassionate mask. "That's the impression I got. It's also how her mother acted." Grandmother shook her head. "I'm afraid for her, Jozef. I'm afraid she'll touch the darkness, and I don't know how to help her."
(Thus ends the tale of Gabrielle and Vince, but the tale of Anya continues.)
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