A Whateley Academy Adventure Buffalo Gal Won't You Come Out Tonight by ElrodW Chapter 4 Friday, March 9, 2007 Sioux Falls League Headquarters I woke up very early, relaxed and rested from my pleasant dream-walk. I'd spent part of my dream-walk with my spirits, but the other part I'd spent with Debra again, at her invitation. Even though I was still feeling lousy about my situation, at least I wasn't in as dark a mood as I had been two days before. I knew someone had to be up in the duty center, manning the 'bat radio' as Farm Boy called it. I decided to not bother anyone, so I quietly took a shower, dried and brushed my hair, and brushed my teeth. One thing I realized from my shower was that, sooner or later, I was going to have to shave my legs and armpits, and even trim up 'down there'. The stubble on my body was getting more and more noticeable when I washed myself. After the second attack, Mom had trimmed what she could while I was sleeping, and my limbs under my casts had been shaven as well, but now it was growing back and becoming problematic. I hadn't really paid much attention to it at the time, so I was either going to have to educate myself in the process of shaving, or get some help. I initially thought of asking Mom, but that idea perished in a gruesome, deliberate, flaming wreck of epic proportions, because the idea of learning 'girly things' from Mom freaked me out only slightly less than the appearance of an octopoid, cyclopean, drooling, fanged space alien would have. I knew that Debra would teach me, but I didn't exactly trust myself around her. While I was certain that she wouldn't initiate things, I'd initiated kissing in her the first dream-walk with her, and every time I'd dreamed-walked with her since, we kissed and cuddled some more, which although I found extremely pleasant, it worried me that if I didn't get out of this gilded cage soon, temptation would get the better of the two of us, and we'd do far more with her in my dream-walking experiments. It was also very confusing to know what I'd done; did my initiating things in my dream mean that I was still attracted to girls, even though I was one? That would make me not just a changeling, to use Debra's term, but also a lesbian. On the other hand, I might have been acting out of habit, because I had yet to encounter a situation that allowed attraction to a man to surface. Of course there was Farm Boy, with his glamour, but that didn't count, because it was induced by magic or something, and besides, there was also that strange, irrational fear of him, and seemingly of men in general. As I thought of the hunky hero, I felt strange warmth inside myself, but an even stronger fear. When I thought about kissing someone, I realized, to my utter shock, that I was thinking about my make-out sessions with Julie, and my dream-walking kissing with Debra. My nipples became erect, and I felt very warm inside my entire body. I didn't know what to think about the idea of still liking girls and being a lesbian, and I fell into my bed, trembling nervously. When I recovered my composure, I slipped on my pink panties and bra, which Mom had washed for me, and then pulled on my jeans and a T-shirt. I wandered to the kitchen and put a slice of bread in the toaster. While that was toasting, I poured myself a glass of OJ, got out the butter, and found something that vaguely resembled Mom's perfect strawberry preserves I had eaten just a few days earlier. I wasn't a coffee drinker, so I didn't miss the smell of the freshly-brewed beverage, but then I thought of how many people here _were_, so I went ahead and brewed up a pot for everyone else before I retreated to my room. I set my breakfast on a nightstand, picked up a book, and sat down on my bed, my back against the headboard and my knees drawn up so I could use them as an impromptu desk for my book. I was so engrossed in my math that I didn't notice the passage of time. The author of this math textbook had a much different style of presenting the material than the author of the one I'd left at home. For a bit, I'd been confused by the differences in style, but I quickly got over that and began to delve into the meat of the topic I was learning, finding the change in presentation to be a benefit rather than a hindrance. A knock on the door interrupted my studies. "Come in," I said, glancing at the clock as I spoke. Holy cow, it was after one in the afternoon! Mom stuck her head in, and noticed that I was reading a book. She also noticed the half-eaten slice of toast and the partial glass of orange juice. "You missed lunch," she said reprovingly. "I didn't see you up at breakfast time, either, so I figured you were sleeping in. I put a marker in the book and set it and the notebook I'd been using for working problems on the bed beside me. "I wasn't hungry." Mom frowned. "Did you at least get anything to eat?" "Toast and OJ," I answered. Mom glanced at the nightstand. "I wouldn't call a part of a slice of toast and a third of a glass of juice breakfast," she scolded me. "I'm okay." Mom took my hand and pulled me off the bed. From the powers testing, I knew that I was stronger than Mom and could have easily resisted her, and she couldn't have won the tug-of-war, but she was my Mom, and even the thought of not following direction from her was so alien as to be unthinkable, even to a teenager. "Mom, I was busy with math," I complained. I might not fight Mom, but that didn't stop me from arguing - not that I figured I'd ever win. Still, I was a teen, and there were certain standards I had to uphold, such as occasionally being disagreeable. Mom didn't even answer. Instead, she led me to the common kitchen. "Wish List saved you some food, because she knew you'd be hungry. We were all surprised that you skipped lunch." I shrugged. "It's no big deal." Mom spun me around to face her. "It _is_ a big deal. You're depressed. Everyone can see it. You're spending most of your day hiding in your room sulking." "Why shouldn't I?" I spat back angrily. "I've lost everything!" I didn't know where my anger and frustration had come from. "And you gained a tremendous gift that can help people," Mom countered quickly. She paused, and then took my hand, leading me out of the kitchen. I wondered where she was going - for all of two seconds. Then I knew - we were going to Debra's apartment. Suffice to say that Debra read me the riot act about my mopey, oh-poor-me act. She wouldn't let me get away with thinking that I had nothing to do with her healing. Avatars and their spirits were a team; one couldn't work without the other. I had been critical to helping her heal from what should have been a fatal injury, one that the doctors on staff and even Mr. Lodgeman couldn't have healed her from. I was astounded at that; Mr. Lodgeman was a shaman, and a powerful healer. But he'd told Debra that she was lucky I was there, or she'd have at the very least lost her leg, and probably her life. The surprise came when she asked Mom to leave a moment, and then she asked me if I'd enjoyed dream-walking with her. I was dumbfounded; she obviously had some feelings for me, which both elated and terrified me. On the one hand, Debra was an absolute babe, one that the old me would have given his left nut to date. She was intelligent, which meant a _lot_ to me, witty, and extremely pretty. On the other hand, I didn't know my sexuality, and - the kicker - I was a minor, so it would be a while before we could get intimate, if that was indeed what I wanted. Damn, this had me baffled. I was very flattered to have someone as attractive as Debra interested in me, but she was interested in me as a _girl_, and I wasn't sure that I was comfortable as a girl yet, or if I ever would be. After the scolding, we talked about our dream-walk together, almost as if we were talking about a date which we'd been on. It seemed so real to both of us, and it was clear that we both enjoyed the other's company. As we chatted happily, a knock sounded at her door. Mom and Farm Boy peeked in; I had a sudden bad feeling about the interruption. "We, um, have some news about your MID," Farm Boy said, uneasy at what he had to say. I could tell from his expression that it wasn't going to be good news. I glanced uneasily at Mom and Debra; Mom moved to my side and put her arm around my shoulders. "Is there any good news?" Farm Boy sighed. "Maybe. First, let's get through the MCO business. By their regulations, they must issue an MID or a temporary MID within thirty days of an application." "Thirty days? I'd miss almost a third of the spring term!" I cried, suddenly feeling like I'd been punched in the gut. I had no options besides Whateley, and now even that seemed out of reach. Mom and Dad probably couldn't even safely home-school me because of the anti-mutant sentiment in town. -There were no alternate mutant schools in the area. "I'd just as well not go if miss that much school, especially the way you guys describe the classes." It was so hard to have an escape plan, my only opportunity, torn from my grasp. I put my face on Mom's shoulder and cried. Damned hormones! "Why? They're usually very quick with MIDs," Debra asked, frowning. Farm Boy sighed again. "They claim that their resources are busy trying to locate a 'dangerous mutant', and they can't spare the manpower on an MID until that mutant is apprehended." "Let me guess," Mom said, "the mutant in question is Kayda?" "Yeah," Farm Boy said with a grim expression. "For what?" I turned and screamed at him. "Why am I so 'dangerous'?" "Some high-school students in your home town reported that _you_ attacked _them_. A doctor provided corroborating evidence to support their claims." "That's a fucking lie!" I screamed angrily. I'm sure that my face, contorted as it was with rage, was not a pleasant thing to behold. "They tried to kill _me_, and now they have the MCO believing it was the other way around? And that mutant-hating asshole Doc Robinson is helping them." "It's not fair, I know," Farm Boy said sympathetically. "But it's their rules, and they can play the game the way they want to." "If I were to go in and ask for my MID, I assume that I'd be apprehended, and possibly 'disappear,' right? And if I don't do anything, I miss most of the spring term, and meanwhile go crazy here in this ... prison, until I get there, and then I'll be a social outcast!" My rant sounded irrational, but I was highly distraught and didn't care. "There may be an alternative," Tractor said from the door. No-one had heard him come in. "What?" everyone asked at the same time. "I was on the phone this morning with Charlie Lodgeman and Dr. Schmidt from the Homestake Paranormal Activities Research Complex. HPARC would very much like to research your ... unique ... situation, since your spirits are Native American spirits, and that's HPARC's specialty," he said to me. "A Class three and a class two spirit residing in an avatar is extremely rare, especially given how ... important ... Mr.. Lodgeman believes your spirits are. Powerful avatars have been known to host multiple spirits before, rarely, but they are almost always low level, and most often they fuse together into one thing, like the Champion Force did. Your spirits are independent, and you manifest one of them. Naturally, HPARC wants to learn more. They're willing to fly you on a private jet to the Black Hills for the research, and then to Whateley, so you wouldn't have to deal with the MCO and their MID." "Why do I think there's a huge 'but' coming?" Debra asked warily. Tractor smiled wryly. "You don't know how paranormal research facilities work. They want you at the complex for a few days for dedicated research. So you'd miss a few more days of classes, but not nearly as much as if you had to wait the full thirty days for the MCO to get your MID." He shook his head sadly. "And even having an MID is no guarantee that they wouldn't simply just haul you in related to the ... false reports that have implicated you." "Let me see if I have this clear. I can wait for the MID so Mom and I can fly to Whateley, and then I'd possibly be apprehended anyway as a criminal mutant threat, right? Or I can take up this HPARC deal, and miss more school, but not as much as the MID route, and in exchange, I'm a lab rat for a few days, right? How long would I be at this HPARC place?" Tractor winced. "From what Dr. Schmidt said, it sounds like he wants to study you for six or seven days." "Shit!' I cursed loudly. Everyone knew how upset I was and why, and nobody said a thing about my profanity. They knew I needed to vent. "I'm screwed either way, aren't I? I can't win." Mom frowned. "Why can't I just rent a car and drive her there?" Debra smiled sadly. "As soon as you rent a car, they'll get the records and backtrack to find you, and then find Kayda. Under the Domestic Security Act, all travel records are automatically sent to the National Security Agency, and there are likely friendly eyes that would let MCO access the data. And if they suspect that you want to go to Whateley, they'll be watching the obvious routes from here to Dunwich." She shook her head. "That's the most dangerous way you could travel. If they stopped the car in the middle of nowhere, it would be easy to have an 'accident' with no witnesses." "Damn," I cursed. "They have all the cards, and they know it." Debra walked to me and wrapped her arms around me, temporarily displacing Mom. "I know this is hard for you," she said softly so that I was the only one to hear, "but sometimes, we don't get a choice of optimum solutions, only a list of bad choices. In those situations, the only thing you can do is to select the 'least bad' alternative." I leaned back a little so I could see into her eyes. "So you're saying that I should go the route of the HPARC flight?" Debra grinned. "I'm not going to let you put words into my mouth. I've dealt with the press too often to fall for that trick. What I'm saying is that _you_ have to consider your options, with your Mom, of course, and select the one that seems least objectionable to you." I turned to Mom, and the two of exchanged a glance that spoke volumes. The HPARC flight was the least dangerous to me, even if it started by going the _wrong_ direction. We both knew it. I turned to Tractor. "I think Mom and I need to talk about this," I said somberly. "And Whateley administration is expecting you, even if you're a bit late," Farm Boy said with a grin. "What?" Mom and I both said. "The application only went in a couple of days ago! How ...?" Farm Boy chuckled. "First, Whateley processes applications very quickly, especially if there are extenuating circumstances. Second, due to the nature of the school, students come in all year long, not just at the start of terms. Third, Charlie Lodgeman is on the board of supervisors, so I suspect he may have had a conversation or two with some ... administrators to further expedite your paperwork," he admitted with a sheepish grin. "And Mrs. Carson, the headmistress, knows of your situation, so they'll make allowances in the class scheduling." Wish List had been standing just inside the doorway, listening, and decided it was time to interject her thoughts. "What if _we_ rent the car in one of our names instead of Mrs. Franks? Or through one of our ... contract agents? The MCO probably wouldn't notice that, and if they did, it'd take a lot longer to put the pieces together, by which time they'd be far from the Sioux Falls MCO office." Mom and I both perked up. "And of course I'll repay you for the expenses so we don't burden you," Mom insisted. "If you want, I can go to a branch of our bank and transfer you the funds now if you want." I expected Tractor to push for the HPARC flight, but he surprised me. "You've got two options now, so you need to think about it for a bit before you decide. If you drive, it'll be four days on the road after we get the car and some supplies for you, so you wouldn't be at Whateley until Monday or Tuesday at the earliest. If you fly to HPARC, you'll be there tomorrow by noon, but you'll miss several days of classes while you get tested. I do have to caution you that once HPARC gets you in the labs for testing, they may not be ... attentive ... to getting you to school in a timely manner." "You mean they'll get pre-occupied with testing me and forget about what _I_ need?" I asked. Tractor simply nodded. Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota "I'm coming," the old, white-haired Lakota man grumbled to no-one, levering himself out of his recliner and shuffling wearily to the ringing phone. "Hello," he said gruffly into the handpiece. "Dan Bear Claws here." "Good morning, Chief Bear Claws," the caller greeted the old man. Dan snorted. "I don't use titles. I'm just Dan." "But you _are_ Chief," the caller objected, "and you are entitled to respect." "I _was_ a chief. A chief of a poor Nation in a desolate land? With the People scattered? Some title." Dan Bear Claws had seen a lot in his eighty years, and he was understandably jaded by the world. "What if you could become Chief again, but this time of an important Nation?" Dan snorted gruffly. "Fat chance of that! We're a poor people on a poor land. Even booms like the oil formations have passed us by. We'll always be poor." "How important would it be if you had the Sacred Bundle, and other artifacts?" the caller asked. Dan's eyes widened fractionally. "Don't toy with me. We aren't the keepers of the artifacts. And look how much that's done for the Nation that does keep it." "Who was going to return for the bundle?" the caller asked enigmatically. "The bundle came from ...." His eyes widened significantly. "_She_ has returned." "What?" Dan's astonishment was complete. "How do you know?" "I know." "Where is she? And who are you?" "She's a girl, a mutant who has her spirit. As for me, I'm one of the People, a kid who grew up in Mission in a poor family. I want to change that for our People." Dan's mind was racing furiously. If this caller was correct, then it was incumbent on him to find the girl and get her before the Tribal Council to verify that she was indeed who the caller claimed. And if _that_ was true, then the tribe had a legitimate claim to the sacred bundle, and to everything that would come from having the recognized White Buffalo Calf Woman in their tribe. She had promised prosperity, after all. Now he was thinking of ways to make that prophecy come true. "Where is she now?" "She's in Sioux Falls, in a superhero's headquarters, but she'll be leaving for a private school in the east soon. A school called Whateley Academy." "Why would she leave the state and the Nation?" "She's a mutant, and the MCO has accused her of crimes. It's not safe to stay," the caller reported. Dan Bear Claws' heart raced. "I've heard of Whateley Academy. If she gets there, I have a way to ensure that she doesn't stay. If she can't stay there, she'll have no choice but to come home, because we can keep her safe from the MCO." His scheming was already getting several layers of plot deep. "In the meantime, I'd be grateful if you'd try to keep her from leaving the state until I can meet with her." "I'll do what I can." Sioux Falls League Headquarters I tried hard to distract myself after lunch because I was torn about how I would get to Whateley. I kept weighing the alternatives, and I couldn't come up with a good answer. I could go on the HPARC flight, but it wasn 't certain that I'd be in school at Whateley next week if the researchers got carried away. They were paying for the flight, which meant that I'd owe them something in return, and that something was being a guinea pig for an indeterminate time. I was going to be so far behind everyone else, and the social groupings would be even more difficult for me to get into by then. On the other hand, if they rented a car and Mom and I drove, it'd be at least three very long days on the road, probably four since Mom would have to do the driving, and I wouldn't be in school until next Monday or Tuesday, depending on how long it took to get the car. Mom came into my room, interrupting my attempt to read the ancient Greek history. "What do you think?" she asked tenderly as she sat down on my bed. I sighed and shook my head. "I don't know." "What would you rather do?" "Get to Whateley and get in classes as soon as possible." "Even if the League thinks it might be a little riskier?" Mom asked. I looked at her. "Mom," I started, but stopped to think. I didn't want to tell her my major fear - that the kids had probably already formed their friendships and social groups. "I'm starting late, so I'll be way behind on classes already, and every extra day it takes is going to make it even harder to catch up." I couldn't tell her that I feared being a complete outsider, even though that fear was, sometimes, overwhelming - like now. Despite my best efforts, I _did_ start crying as the memories of the very bad year in third grade when I was shunned and isolated socially overwhelmed me, and Mom pulled me to a hug, letting me cry in her shoulder, even if she didn't know the reason why I was so emotionally distraught. "It'll be okay," Mom said reassuringly. I knew she wasn't certain, but she had to comfort her child when she was in distress. It had to be one of those unwritten rules of being a mother. After about half an hour, I was cried out, and I let Mom ease me back to sitting against the headboard. "Are you okay?" she asked softly. I shook my head, my cheeks still wet. "I'm ... I'm afraid of being a girl," I finally admitted. "There are so many things I don't know about this body. It scares me that I'm not freaked out, or having a fit! I mean, I shouldn't be accepting this so easily, should I?" "This has been pretty traumatic," Mom explained, "and you've been pretty busy. You probably haven't had time to really think about what all your changes mean to you. I'd guess that _not_ having time to dwell on things will make it easier in the long-run." "I'm afraid of how guys are going to look at me, and how to react to them," I sobbed again, unable to continue. I don 't know if I was emotionally overcome, or just unable to talk about 'that' with my mother. "And I would guess that the thought of talking with me about those things is kind of weird?" Mom understood far more than I would have thought. "Would you like to talk to Cornflower about ... some of your concerns?" she asked. "No!" I answered quickly and sharply. I saw the look on Mom's face. "I mean, she's, well, I ... we ...." I shook my head. I didn't want to take any chances with her. Mom smiled. "I think I understand. After all, she's a very attractive young lady who happens to like girls, and you probably still think a little like a guy and might find her desirable." She chuckled. "And she _did_ put up that cheesecake poster of you in your lingerie." My cheeks burned. "Yeah," I said, looking down instead of at her. "How about if both Cornflower and Wish List help you out?" I expected her to be disappointed that I wouldn 't want to talk to her about being a girl, but she surprised me and seemed way too understanding. Was it a rule that girls felt awkward talking about things with their moms, but were okay with others near their own age? "Could you ask them, please?" "I can do that." She stood and started toward the door, but then looked back. "And just so you don't worry, I talked to your father this morning, and he and Daniel are managing. He told me to take however long it took, and spend whatever it cost, to see to your safety. Ida is helping out, too." Mom's sister Ida was a huge help whenever Mom asked. At times, she was like a second mother to Danny and me. I had been worried about that. "Thanks, Mom." As she left the room, I looked at my books, but felt no urge to read or study, which was quite unlike me. A few minutes later, Debra poked her head into my room. "Are you busy?" she asked. When I just shrugged, she came in with Wish List and sat down on the bed near me. "Your mom said that you had some questions, and that you were kind of embarrassed to talk to her about them." I blushed again, nodding slightly. Wish List laughed. "Welcome to the club, girlfriend," she said with a grin. "Most girls aren't comfortable talking about 'woman things' with her mom." "Especially those who weren't girls a few days ago?" I asked, trying to sound lighthearted, but afraid that I sounded sarcastic instead. "That, too," Debra said, winking at me. "So, what's on your mind?" That was the question that opened a very long discussion and lessons on being a girl. They started with basic hygiene, including periods, and went to my appearance. After the theory portion of the course, we adjourned to the women's locker room for the laboratory portion of the lessons. I got practice in shaving myself, bathing and cleaning my new parts, and washing and drying my hair. I learned why girls dry their hair the way they do, and how to use a blow dryer with long hair. And while we were doing all of that, we talked about sex. Actually, I think the girls waited until they had a captive audience to begin that discussion. Both of them reassured me that it was _my_ decision if and when I did anything, and that my partner could as easily be another girl as a boy. They talked about both the physical and emotional aspects of being intimate, and how it could put me in the most vulnerable position emotionally that I'd ever be in, with the strong hint that I had to be sure my partner wouldn't hurt me emotionally. We discussed STDs and pregnancy, and how my being an exemplar and regenerator would limit my choices for birth control, since my body would burn off the hormones in a pill almost immediately. After getting dressed, we retired to Wish List's room, where the lessons continued, this time in posture and poise, walking, talking, facial expressions, and attire. Finally, I thought I'd had enough. "Stop!" I cried, holding my head like I had a headache. "My brain is full!" Debra pouted; damned but she looked cute when she did that. "We didn't get to makeup and perfume yet," she whimpered. So I'm still a sucker for a pretty girl pouting. It was my bane as a boy, and it was turning out to be my bane as a girl. I couldn't help but wonder if Debra was right when she suggested that I was more likely to prefer girls because of my previous sexual attraction to girls. At that moment, it seemed almost a certainty. "Okay, I suppose," I relented. I shouldn't have. If hair care was tedious, makeup was torture. Once again, I got a lecture in the basics, followed by lab work. Time after time, I put on various components of makeup, and my efforts were critiqued and wiped off so I could try again. Eventually, though, I did a passable job, and when I looked in the mirror, I had to admit that it made me look hotter. Debra recommended that I set up some personal tutoring with a teacher named Mrs. Braithwaite, the home-economics teacher, for more lessons, or I could get one of the older girls with a similar background to help me out. The crowning moment was when Debra ducked out of the room for a moment, returning with my buckskin dress and all the Lakota accoutrements, including the beaded moccasins. I put them on, with a push-up bra that they'd sneaked in on me, and then they made me do my hair and my makeup all by myself. My buckskin dress had a couple of modifications that I hadn't ordered, but which Debra had obviously gone back to 'correct'. I had a plunging neckline that, with a push-up bra, showed an inviting valley of cleavage. It fit me perfectly, which meant that it hugged my every curve, accentuating them in a most feminine way. The belt was beaded, with a feminine Lakota design that matched my moccasins. I wore the dream-catcher earrings, and had more beadwork holding together the end of my elegant French braid. Okay, I had help on that one, but it was my first day, so the girls let me cheat a little. I wore a simple buffalo charm on a leather thong as a necklace; it complemented my dress perfectly as it dangled just above my cleavage. I finished, and turned from the vanity, only to see both girls staring at me, wide-eyed. "Uh, is it okay?" I asked. "What did I mess up?" Debra shook her head slowly. "Girl, you're smokin' hot!" she exclaimed in a sultry voice. Wish List nodded her agreement. "If you dress up like that at Whateley, you'll have every boy offering to carry your books everywhere!" Debra winked at me. "And most of the girls from Poe," she whispered in my ear. I turned and looked in the mirror once again. I was surprised when I really looked at myself; I almost didn't recognize the face staring back at me, I was so pretty. No, I realized, pretty was completely inadequate to describe the girl in the mirror. When I'd been a boy, I'd have given almost anything to date a girl like that. Now, I _was_ that girl. I was confused about how I felt; Wakan Tanka had helped me accept - I think - that I was Ptesanwi, and that I was a beautiful girl. In the dream-world, I felt very comfortable, but then again, the only ones I'd dealt with in the dream-world were Debra, Wakan Tanka, and Tatanka. I wasn't sure I was comfortable being a girl in the real world, except with the girls of the Sioux Falls League. And Wish List's comment about boys scared the hell out of me. Wish List grabbed my arm. "Let's go to dinner," she said cheerfully, "and show you off." "But ... like this? In front of everyone?" I stammered, shocked at the idea of others seeing me like this. "Your mom will be so proud of you," Debra added, taking my other elbow so I couldn't back out. It was easier to quit fighting them, since their minds were firmly made up, and acquiesce to their suggestions, as if they were ever going to drop the idea, and go with them to the cafeteria. When I walked in, conversations stopped mid-sentence as eyes turned toward me. A few utensils clattered as distracted guys dropped them. Mom scrambled from her chair and wrapped me in a huge hug. "You look lovely, honey!" she said proudly. I could see that I was having some effect on the other guys in the room as they squirmed uncomfortably. I wanted to chuckle at their discomfort, because I'd been there myself on many occasions when I was Brandon, but I didn't want to embarrass them - too much. And their attraction to me was inducing more than a little nervousness in me. "You are truly lovely, Wihakayda," I heard Wakan Tanka telling me in my head. "You are prettier than I ever thought you would be." I couldn't help but grin and blush at the same time at her compliment. I pried myself from my mother's embrace. "Just because I did this once, doesn't mean you should expect to see me made up like this all the time." "We _have_ to get some picture of you dressed like that with your buffalo!" Debra said enthusiastically, and not a guy in the room disagreed. "After dinner, maybe," I said non-committally. I had some studies to do, because Tractor was a demanding teacher, and I had an 'assignment' to study - and I needed my daily 'fix' of history! Tractor was also an outstanding mentor on the subject. The problem with finding my fascination with history was that I was falling behind my goal to finish abstract algebra. But for some reason, I felt less depressed than I had the previous three days. Was it because I was embracing the change and no longer feeling sorry for myself about it, or was it the attention from two very lovely young ladies? Was it because I secretly loved getting attention from my friends in the League, or was it because I relished Mom's approval? When we finished dinner, Wish List, Debra, and Vanity Girl went with me to a photo studio they had in their headquarters. Like most super-groups, they did most audiovisual and computer production in-house to minimize the chances of their material being 'corrupted' by politicians and villains, to say nothing of the mischief a horny American teenager would do with the digital images of any of the girls. I suspected something was up when the girls kept Mom away. I was proven right when we did pictures not only some of me in my Indian girl costume, but also with the other girls in their superhero costumes, and we did a lot of playful posing. After Wish List and Vanity Girl were tired of posing for pictures, Debra and I continued, and some of the pictures were in our lingerie, and a bit suggestive. I was certain that Vanity Girl and Wish List stuck around as chaperones. Because I was a minor, the girls had to really promise that those pictures would never, ever, under any circumstances, leave their facilities. I was definitely NOT going to tell Mom about them, let alone Dad! The hottest picture, by far, was the one where Debra and I were lying face down on a bearskin rug, naked except for our panties, our bodies angled toward the camera so our bodies and legs were at an acute angle. Our knees were bent so our ankles were crossed above our bottoms, and we rested on our elbows, propping up our shoulders and heads. Debra's hands were crossed delicately beneath her chin, giving her a thoughtful look that added to her wide-eyed, pouty-lipped, come-hither expression, while I had one hand extended, clutching a piece on the chess board on the rug between us, playfully smiling like I was about to win. With the lighting and the angles of our bodies, some strong suggestions of our curvy bosoms dangling beneath our chests could be seen, but nothing more than some women exposed in low-cut blouses. Debra's long, wavy blonde hair spilled across her back, while my silky black hair did the same. With the pouty look we both had, it seemed that we were practically begging to be kissed, and there was a naughty innocence about the scene that probably would make guys want to hold us tight and protect us. Tatanka was lying behind the chessboard, St Bernard sized, looking on as if he were a wise referee or chess-master judging our play, or even a guardian and chaperone. It was damned sexy! We didn't do anything lewd, but merely suggestive, and Debra strongly repeated her opinion that I should try out for Venus Inc. when I got to Whateley, with enthusiastic agreement from Wish List and Vanity Girl. I reminded them that I didn't want Mom to see the pictures; the girls giggled through a half-hearted promise. I had a bad feeling that Mom _was_ going to see them, and I was going to be in a lot of trouble when she did. After that, we sat in Wish List's bedroom talking and giggling like high-school girls. We talked about everything, or rather, the girls did - dating, makeup, dating, sex, dating, classes at Whateley, dating, how to tell if a guy was 'on the prowl', dating - okay, dating was a dominant subject, and even Debra had some very interesting comments from her slightly-different perspective. We got some snacks from the kitchen and continued the 'party' much later than I'd planned. I got to my bedroom after eleven, after completely missing any tutorial time with Tractor, but I had been assured that Debra had gotten me a reprieve from my ancient Greek history lesson for the night. For some reason that I couldn't put my finger on, I passed up my shorts and sleep-shirt, instead opting for the nightie that Mom had sneaked into the shopping cart when I wasn't looking, back when we'd been shopping for luggage in Mitchell, our first night on the run that seemed an eternity ago. After brushing my teeth, I stood at the sink, staring at the mirror and absently brushing my hair, noting how silky and shiny it was. Parted in the middle and swept behind my ears, it draped to my shoulders, splitting into locks hanging in the front down to almost hide my nipples, which were visible through the sheer fabric, while other locks fell to my back, lightly tickling my shoulder and back. I thought of the pictures the girls and I had been taking, and that made me feel warm and excited, and I thought of all they'd done with me and for me that afternoon and evening, like loving sisters. That was it, I realized; they were treating me like I was a dear sister. I _was_ a sister to them, a girl through and through, even though I might still have some guy thoughts rattling around in my brain. I looked nice. No, I looked better than nice. I was hot, and people were going to notice. With a smile and a far-off look in my eye, I climbed into bed, pulled the covers up, and turned off the light. I sat on a log in the mountain meadow, feeling the breeze waft my loose hair about my shoulders. I felt ... alive, and free. The air smelled cleaner, the pine scent sweeter, and the chirping of the birds more melodious. "Something has changed, Wihakayda," Wakan Tanka said as she sat down beside me. "Oh?" "You are beautiful because you accept that you are a girl," she said matter-of-factly. "I ... I ..." I stammered, not knowing what to say. Finally, I looked at her, smiling. "I guess I have. How did you know?" "It shows in your face. You are radiant as the sun. You are content and happy, and it makes you more beautiful than even I dreamed you would be." "Have I been fighting this?" Wakan Tanka smiled. "You tell me, Wihakayda. You know yourself better than I do." "I ... when the girls and I were spending time together, I was enjoying being a girl with them. I liked feeling like I belonged and that I was pretty." "It is an important first step. But be wary; you have many more challenges ahead of you, and much to learn about being a woman. However, haven taken this step, the challenges will be easier." She held my hand. "I know that you will succeed, Wihakayda. I have always known." "Have you thought about what you want to do?" Farm Boy asked as we sat eating our breakfast. Debra wasn't a big part of the discussion, since she was shoveling in food by the tray-full. "I ... I want to drive, to start school sooner. It's riskier, but it gets me in classes sooner rather than later, and I don't have to be a lab rat. I want to drive ... with Mom." "You realize that I'll have to do all the driving," Mom cautioned. "You don't have a drivers' license that's valid for how you look now." "Yeah." "And that means we won't drive more than four to five hundred miles a day, which will make this a four-day trip - at least." "I know. But if I take the HPARC flight and spend a week in their experiments, I'll start school later rather than sooner. Possibly a lot later if the scientists forget about everything but their experiments, like I've heard they sometimes do." Farm Boy nodded. "Okay. I guess the safest way is for us to rent a car for a one-way trip, and you can reimburse us. Wish List, can you get on it?" Wish List nodded and turned toward Mom. "How about if you come with me to get the rental application filled out, and then we can stop by the bank, since you'll probably want some cash for the trip. We'll get something non-descript, like a Camry or Corolla, too." She glanced at me and winked. "Sorry, sport. No hot-rod this time." "We'll have to plan a route, and let any teams along the way know that you're coming, and why the MCO might be interested in you." I felt that familiar stab of panic. "Can we trust them?" Debra, who'd been standing beside me, hugged me around the waist. "When it's a mutant going to Whateley, even super-villains go out of their way to help them get there, unless they're something like a total psychopath, and even then, they'll sometimes turn a blind eye just to snub the MCO. They'll help." Several hours later, we had a pretty solid plan, at least on paper. To guard against the unexpected, we had contacts at various places along the way. Mom had cash for expenses; we'd pay for everything in cash so we wouldn't leave a trail of records. On the first day, our goal was Chicago, where the Windy City Guardians would help us if needed. The second day, our goal was Cleveland, and the Lake Erie Sentinels. On the third day, we were shooting for Albany shere the Albany Alliance would give us assistance if needed. That left the last day as a long but comfortable drive to Whateley. Hotels were reserved under pseudonyms; we were staying in inexpensive chains as to avoid calling attention. Wish List and Mom returned with a bit of disappointing news; to rent a car for a one-way trip to New England, we'd have to wait until mid-morning on Sunday to pick up the car, and that was the soonest of the rental agencies she'd checked. That would make Chicago a stretch for Mom, but she agreed that she could handle it. I was getting more and more anxious about getting to Whateley, and I was being a pest, running around the group and badgering everyone with a non-stop stream of questions about the school. It was all causing mixed emotions; some of what the League had told me sounded a little intimidating, and some things sounded positively wonderful. After lunch, I was almost physically carried to my room, because everyone wanted a break from my incessant questions. Tractor reminded me that I had a lesson in ancient Greek history, and that the afternoon would be a _very_ good time to read. Sulking and muttering to myself, I took the hint, closing myself in my room and opening the history book. Though I grumbled a lot, in reality, the subject grabbed my attention. It was only the knock and the call of 'dinnertime' that broke my concentration. I glanced at the clock - holy cow! I'd been reading practically non-stop for almost five hours. A glass of long-since warm iced tea sat in a puddle of water on a nightstand by my bed, and I hadn't even been bothered by the call of nature. I was surprised how I'd been getting into the history; it was easy for my imagination to create visual images of ancient Greece, and her kings, warriors, and city-states. Epic battles came alive in my mind with stunning realism, even better than watching a movie. I wondered, as I put down the book, if it was part of being an exemplar. Certainly, I read faster, and my memory was vastly improved. But visualization skills? Granted, I'd always had a vivid imagination, and I loved novels because they let my mind run wild, painting image after images based on the words on the printed page. Maybe my imagination and visualization skills were improved with my memory. I wondered how I'd test that. I put those thoughts were put on hold so I could go eat. I expected to come into the cafeteria dining room and grab a tray, as was usual procedures. Instead, the table was set with candles and place-settings, with water goblets and a couple of nice floral arrangements. I choked up when I realized that they'd done this for me and Mom, as a send-off party. The corners of my eyes were moist as everyone stood and warmly welcomed me. Debra and Wish List ushered me to a central spot at the table, and then sat Mom on my left. Taking that as a clue, the rest of the super team, the doctors and technicians, and the interns all took seats at the two tables, with Debra to my right. I glanced at her and saw a demure smile before she quickly glanced away, and in that moment of eye contact, I saw a warmth and sparkle that was unmistakable. "You didn't have to do this," I protested weakly, overwhelmed by the sentiment they were expressing, as if I were one of their own going off to Whateley, instead of someone who a few days was an unknown, frightened mutant seeking help and refuge. "Yes, we did," Farm Boy said with conviction. "In just a few days, you've become a little sister to all of us." He glanced at Debra with a curious expression on his face before he continued. "And you proved you're one of us by standing with us when you helped take down a supervillain and save Cornflower." I blushed at the compliment. I hadn't been seeking praise, acceptance, or favors when I'd healed Debra; I'd grown up believing you helped those in need without any thought of recompense, but because it was the right thing to do. "I just wanted to help," I said, making a lame excuse. "You helped more than most people would dare dream of." Wish List got a far-away look in her eyes. "You know, Kayda, I'm kind of envious of you." "Of me?" I was nearly floored by her statement. "Why?" She smiled. "Because my four years at Whateley are the best memories of my life." She chuckled. "I'm not going to sugar-coat anything, though; at times, it'll be incredibly frustrating, and difficult, but if you have the right attitude, it can be the best time of your life." Tractor grinned. "It was very ... unique, and a lot of fun. I particularly remember there was this one incredibly beautiful brunette girl that caught my eye, but she didn't even know I was alive. I suppose I got a little foolish trying to attract her attention." From down the table, Vanity Girl snorted derisively. "That's an understatement." I looked her way. "I take it you know of his ... misadventures?" From the way she'd spoken, I expected that there was some story. Vanity Girl smiled a bit. "I should. I was the one that caught his eye." "Oh?" I was surprised, but everyone at the table was laughing at the old tale. "How did he persuade you to join the team here?" Vanity Girl blushed a bit. "The goofball ... proposed." Suddenly, things clicked into place. Tractor's apartment was a little larger, and I'd noticed that it was decorated with a little less masculine decor than I would have thought. In hindsight, it should have been obvious. "Oh." I said slowly, a smile creeping across my face. "So you accepted? Are you from the area?" She roared with laughter. "Yeah, I accepted. By then, I'd grown a little fond of the big lummox. But moving here? That was almost a deal-breaker. I'm from southern Florida, and the thought of all the ice and snow and a five-month winter terrified me even more than having to spar against Stony." I heard Debra gasp aloud. "They were still talking about him when I was there! Everyone said that he was one tough mother. " Tractor laughed. "Tough is an understatement, and I had to spar with him pretty frequently, since he was in my class!" He turned to me to explain. "He's a PK brick, with inherent shielding against psi attacks, most magic attacks are useless against his body, and he's got a shell of stone, like a living rock." Vanity Girl thought a moment. "Wasn't Stony in Twain?" Tractor nodded. "Yeah. He was a Thornie his freshman year. After he got his powers and anger under control, he moved to Twain. I heard he went the supervillain route after he graduated, because he never quite got his temper totally under control and couldn't keep a regular job." He glanced up. "Our dinner is here." He allowed one of the staff to put a plate of food in front of him. As we ate, the conversation focused on Whateley and the group's days there so much that it seemed like a class reunion. Some of the stories were, frankly, almost unbelievable to the point that I wondered if they weren't collectively pulling my leg. After a marvelous steak dinner with an amazing raspberry cheesecake dessert, we adjourned to the common area, where the conversation about Whateley continued. Every so often, the tales were interrupted by a few tips that were usually preceded by, "you'll want to remember to ...." It was late when we finished talking. Dinner and conversation had been wonderful, and I felt content as Mom tucked me into bed. She didn't say anything about the negligee I was wearing, but I could tell she was pleased that I seemed to be more accepting of being a girl. As she left, she stopped in the doorway. "By the way," she said, "those pictures are fantastic, even if they're a little bit ... risque." It felt like my jaw dropped into my lap; the girls had _promised_ not to tell Mom about that. On second thought, it dawned on me that they hadn't really promised, so much as let me believe they had. "I've got copies to remember my little girl," she added with a smile. "But I don't think I'll show most of them to your dad. Not unless you want him watching over your shoulder with a shotgun. Did they give you copies?" I nodded. "They're on a memory stick in my purse." "Good. I could tell you had fun with that. The pictures will be nice reminders of your friends here." Mom turned out the light and closed the door, leaving me wondering just how she'd convinced the girls to give her copies. Leave it to a mom to discover things you wanted to keep secret. A moment later, the door opened slowly, and a figure slipped in; from the outline, I figured it was either Debra or Wish List. "Are you asleep yet?" she whispered, and the voice confirmed that it was Debra. "No," I whispered back. "I just got to bed." Debra softly closed the door behind her and sat on the edge of my bed. "I want to ask ... if ...." I could tell that she was looking down, away from me. I could hear the embarrassment in her voice. "If you'd, you know ...." "Will I dream-walk with you again tonight?" I asked with a smile, already knowing the answer. If I'd have been able to see in the dark, I would have bet that she was blushing. "Yeah." I sat up and put my arms around her neck, pulling her into a kiss that quite startled her. "I'll meet you in our dreams," I said, trying to sound sultry. She kissed me back, somewhat reluctantly; I suspected that she was still a little uneasy because of our age difference. After I let go of her, she padded softly to the door. "I'll meet you in a few minutes in our dreams. After breakfast, Farm Boy and Debra asked Mom and I to join them in a small room. As soon as the door was shut, Farm Boy sat down and got right to the point. "We'd like to ask a favor of you, Mrs. Franks, and Kayda," he began. "Call me June," Mom reminded him. "Okay, June. Let me be blunt. We operate on a shoestring budget, so ...." Mom's eyes widened, and then she smiled. "Seeing how you're helping Kayda, we can give you a small donation, in addition to the direct expenses you've incurred on our behalf. Is ten thousand enough?" My eyes were as wide as those of Farm Boy and Debra. "Ten ... thousand?" they stammered. Mom saw me staring at her. "Kayda, dear, do you know how much our farmland _alone_ is worth?" She didn't give me a chance to answer. "Between thirty and thirty-five million, give or take a few million. That's not counting our trucking business or the dealership, or the livestock. Or our other investments." She smiled. "Ten thousand isn't much for all the help you've given Kayda and me." It took a few minutes for Farm Boy to get his jaw off the floor and working again. "Uh, that's very generous, but that's not what we had in mind." Debra picked up the conversation. "We'd like to use some of Kayda's photos in posters and calendars to help fund our operation. Our publicist thinks that there's at least a few hundred thousand in profit." It was Mom's turn to be amazed. "A few _hundred_ thousand?" She turned to me. "What do you think, honey?" I looked at her for a clue, but she was too busy being shocked at Debra's words to give me even the faintest hint of what she thought. I glanced at Farm Boy, but he, too gave me no hint. Then I made the mistake of looking at Debra. Her soft, lovely eyes were almost hypnotic, and pleading with in a sensuous and seductive way. I swallowed, knowing I couldn't say no to her. "I guess. If they're not too ... revealing or racy." Mom nodded. "Good point. After all, she's a minor. I guess that's why you want to talk to me, as her parent." Farm Boy and Debra simply nodded. Mom glanced once more at me, and then turned to the supers. "If it's okay with Kayda, then I don't have any objections, subject to a few constraints." "And those are?" Debra asked cautiously. "Nothing racy or nude. Her father, Kayda, or I get to veto the use of any individual picture - just in case your view of racy doesn't exactly match ours," she added with a wink aimed at Debra. "That's fair." "I think it would be safest for Kayda if she wasn't publicly associated with the League, or outed as a mutant. And I'd like ten percent of the proceeds to go to a trust fund for her schooling." Debra nodded. "As much as we'd like to use the pictures of the group of us, we know only too well how much risk it would be for her to be associated with us. We have a dummy corporation that we can use to 'sell' the material, so there won't be any ties to us." She grinned. "Maybe when she comes home for Christmas or Spring Break, we can take more pics with proper masks and a costume for her and tie it a little more directly to the League." "Are you sure about ten percent? That's a lot less than most models demand," Farm Boy said, careful not to give Mom the idea of demanding more, but also not wanting us to feel cheated. Mom chuckled. "Like I told you, we're not hurting financially. Since they're Kayda's pictures, though, I want her to get at least a token profit from them for her future. The rest? Consider it a charitable donation to your continued operations." "That's more than generous," Debra said, awestruck at the meager terms Mom laid out. "Would you like to set it up so the profits are recorded on your income, with a charitable contribution to our non-profit corporation?" "No need for that. Frankly, I think it would mess up our taxes, and they're already complicated enough." Mom wrinkled her nose. "I'll let you work those details with her father. Let's get him on the phone to do the introductions and let him know the basic idea, and then you can finish working the particulars with him while we're on the road. No sense delaying getting the ball rolling, since I assume you've already made some inquiries about printing and distribution. And those pictures I would be good demo glamour shots for that modeling group," she added with a smile. "Are you going to try out for it?" "I ... I'm thinking about it." Nothing like being put on the spot by your mother in front of your friends! I noticed that Debra had a knowing smile on her face. I wondered - had she and Mom set me up? "If you do, I know you'll do well modeling." Her tone made it clear that she really hoped I'd try to join. I was stuck wondering just how she'd convinced the girls to give her copies. Leave it to a mom to discover things you wanted to keep secret. Farm Boy and Mom went to her room for a phone call, while I went to the kitchen hoping to find a snack. I didn 't pay attention that Debra was following me until she wrapped her arms around my waist from behind. "Whatcha doin'?" she asked sweetly, her lips tantalizingly close to my ear as she rested her head on my shoulder. "Trying to find some leftover cheesecake from last night, assuming you didn't eat it all." Cornflower released her hold, laughing as she leaned back against a counter. "I'm an energizer; I need a lot of food." "So you _did_ eat all the cheesecake," I said with mock indignation. I could practically feel Debra smiling behind me as I continued to scan the inside of the refrigerator. "All this talk about Whateley is bringing back fond memories - and a few not-so-fond ones." I turned, a little surprised, and saw her glancing around. "I probably shouldn't tell you this," she said very quietly, "and I don't know why I am, but at the end of each term, there will be things called Combat Finals. It's a test to grade how well you've learned to defend yourself against the real world. You'll have to take a class in martial arts or survival, and this is a large part of your grade in those classes. It can get kind of ... rough. I want you to be ready because I don't want you to get hurt. Please don't tell anyone else, though, and don't let on that you know." I snorted. " I've never been that much of a fighter. I could have used that a few days ago when my friends were trying to kill me." "Former friends," Debra corrected me. "Yeah." I took a deep breath. "Debra, I ... I want to tell you how much it means to me to have a friend like you." I expected a look of surprise, or a blush, or something visual for a reaction. Instead, she leaned forward, pulled me closer, and kissed me, slowly and intimately. After a few moments, she eased back from the embrace and smiled at me. "Please don't forget me, because I won't forget you." Alarm bells were ringing; Debra's kiss confirmed that she was interested in me, and in a ''more than just friends' way, as if there was any remaining doubt. I tried to smile. "Since I've dream-walked with you several times and during healings, Wakan Tanka told me that I should be able to dream-walk with you any time because our spirits have touched. Even if I'm at Whateley, I hope I'll be able to visit you in the dream-world." "Will you ... dream-walk with me tonight?" she asked hesitantly, biting her lower lip in a very sexy way. "So I don't miss you so much?" "If you want. I can show you my spirits, and where my dreams dwell. If you like the outdoors, you'll love it." "That would be nice." We heard someone stirring, so we dropped our arms and Debra took a half-step back. "Ahem," Mom cleared her throat to let us know, in her own way, that she'd seen more than the innocent 'two girls talking' scene before her. How long had she been watching? "We were just talking about Whateley. Cornf ... Debra was telling me about the school." Mom had an amused look on her face. "It seems that the sooner we get you out of here, the better chance you'll have of resisting temptation." Both Debra and I blushed. "On the other hand, it's understandable, because Mr. Lodgeman told me that during the healing, you two were together in the dream world - in a psychologically intimate way." "Mom!" I protested sharply, but in a low volume. She was embarrassing the hell out of me. Debra put her arm around my shoulder, pulling me close beside her. "You're right. It was very ... personal. Kayda and I shared something very special in the dream world. Because of the dream-walking, we got to be very good friends. Here, though, there are certain ... realities that preclude anything more." "Besides a little making out in the kitchen?" Mom asked with a leering grin. "Mrs. Franks," "June, please," Mom insisted. "June, You know that I'm a lesbian. I really find Kayda attractive. I don't know if anything could work out with us, because she might be just as confused about her sexuality as I was when I was her age. She's very beautiful, and when she's eighteen, if she _is_ interested, I'd be a fool to turn down her companionship." She shook her head sadly. "But that's too far down the road to think of committing to, for both of us." Mom grinned. "Is that why you have that three-by-five foot poster of her in a sexy, cheesecake pose with her white buffalo hanging in your room?" Debra started to sputter words of denial, but then she stopped, realizing it was useless. She lowered her gaze, sighing as she shook her head. "I admit that I find Kayda very sexy," she admitted. "And I find her intelligence and wit very attractive. But it's platonic - nothing more than a few kisses. Like this." She leaned over and kissed my cheek tenderly as she hugged me. I don't know if it was just to tease Mom, but I nibbled playfully on Debra's ear. "You know the other day when you said you wished I was eighteen?" I heard her gasp at the realization that I _had_ heard her soft comment. "Right now, so do I. But I'm not, so the best we can do is meet in the dream-world." I whispered back. Debra broke our embrace and walked out of the kitchen past Mom with as much dignity as she could. Mom walked over beside me. "Be careful, honey," she said as she gave me a hug. "I know you're probably confused because you aren't used to having girl parts and girl hormones, but there are still a lot of boy thoughts in your head. I'm sure that mix is very confusing. And for a girl, a 'first love' can be a very emotionally trying thing." "That's an understatement," I replied. I knew beyond a doubt that if I was still Brandon, I would have _loved_ to have someone like Debra coming on to me. And I would have been excited to be pursuing a girl as beautiful and friendly as Debra. I wasn't sure which role I fit in anymore. Was I the girl, to be pursued? Or was I the 'alpha', doing the pursuing? If it was a lesbian relationship, how did that work? How did I _want_ it to work, now that I was a girl? Add to that the fact that I was still very uncomfortable knowing that I had girl parts and could play the female role in ... coupling ... and my confusion was understandable. And there was that strange, terrifying feeling I sometimes got when I was around boys, or even thinking about them. The serpent creature rested for the day in its temporary lair, hiding from the sun but still awake. Since it had been called from its forced slumber by the father demon, it didn't need to rest, but only protect itself from the sunlight. It sensed its prey, only a few miles away. She was close, and the attack wouldn't fail. That night, the father's enemy would fall, and in a strike so quick and devastating that no-one would be able to help defend the girl carrying the spirits. Severed from the physical world, the spirits would be vulnerable to an attack by the serpent-creature's dream-world ambush. They, too, would fall, just as the creature's father had ordered. As we loaded our luggage into the car, I was nervous about going to Whateley. Everyone had gotten me gifts, which embarrassed me. Tractor gave me the six-volume set of his cherished books of ancient Greek history, and I cried when I saw them. I gave him a big hug and a bigger kiss on his cheek. Vanity Girl, his wife, didn't seem the least bit jealous. Debra was very subdued when it was her turn for good-byes. "I'm going to miss you," she said, her voice choking a little as she took my hands in hers. "And I'm going to miss you," I answered in an equally heartfelt way. "I appreciate everything you taught me about girl stuff." I wasn't about to say, in front of everyone, how Debra and I had cuddled and made out while we were dream-walking the night before. Debra blushed. "It's the least I can do for you, after ...." "Just don't let yourself get hurt again, please," I said, my voice cracking as my eyes misted. "It's a very long house call from Whateley." Gak - was I ... falling in love with her? She lifted her hands to hug me, to which I didn't object. As we embraced, I could feel her teardrops on my shoulder. We hugged for far longer than was appropriate. "Hey, you two! Kayda's got to get on the road! Daylight is burning," Tractor joked. I didn't feel like laughing. Hugging Debra made me feel very warm and safe and loved, and with a load of unfamiliar female hormones running around in me, it felt surprisingly comforting and a touch erotic. Debra eased herself back so we were face-to-face, even though my arms were still around her and hers around me. "I suppose you need to get going." "Yeah," I said softly. "Promise you'll keep in touch?" She kissed me on the cheek. I thought 'what the hell?' I pulled her into a tight embrace and kissed her directly on her luscious lips, a brief but passionate kiss that was a bit overboard for two friends saying goodbye. I didn't care. From the way she responded, neither did she. As we separated from our tender and loving kiss, Debra rested her forehead on mine so she could speak to me, her mouth and lips tantalizingly close to mine. "Be careful," she mouthed silently, "and please don't forget me. "I won't. I'll call when I can." I saw a tear run down her cheek, while at the same time, my words had put a sparkle in her eyes. "Promise me you won't get hurt again." "I promise," she said softly. I was suddenly aware that we were the center of a lot of attention, since the whole gang was there to wish us good luck. I let my hands slowly slide down along her back, to her beautiful waistline, down over her gorgeously-proportioned hips, and then free of her, all the while staring lovingly into her eyes. She broke eye contact first. "I ... I got something for you," she said. She turned, and picked up a long tube and a box, both gift-wrapped. "I hope you'll remember me when you ...." "I'll always remember you, and I'll call so you know I haven't forgotten." I started to open the box, but Debra blushed and stopped me. "Not here," she whispered. I stopped, and looked at her again, noticing a twinkle of mischief in her eyes and a grin that told me that the gift was something unforgettable. I suspected it was something a bit naughty. After a few more goodbyes, Mom and I got in the car, where the gang had already put our bags, snacks for the road, and the gifts. I noticed her glancing my way, concern showing in her expression. We drove to Interstate 90 Eastbound, heading toward Minnesota and eventually Chicago. We were on our way, finally, and I felt exhilarated at the thought of getting to Whateley, but at the same time, I was nervous about what we might face, and I felt heaviness in my heart as Debra grew more distant from me with every passing mile. I was very confused about Debra; I really, really liked her, and found her to be stunningly beautiful. Despite both of our caution, I realized that I'd fallen for her, but how hard? Did I love her, or was it strong physical attraction coupled with gratitude for helping me through a bit of depression and being so helpful at learning to be a girl? Was it my first 'crush' as a girl? Or was our mutual attraction something that came from our dream walking? Should I have told her that I was falling in love with her? How much was she going to cry over me? I sighed softly to myself; I was confused, but I was more worried about how she was going to react than I was about my own feelings. At the same time, I knew, without doubt, that I was going to cry over missing her. "You okay?" Mom asked as we crossed the border into Minnesota. "Mmm, hmm," I muttered, still lost in thought. "Are you falling in love with Debra?" Mom got right to the heart of the matter. "I don't know," I said softly. "Do you want to talk about it?" "Are you going to let me _not_ talk about it?" I asked, half-smiling as I tried to joke a bit. The whole thing was confusing, and I knew that I could easily be overwhelmed emotionally if I let myself. I knew how Mom operated, and we were going to be together in a car for over twenty-seven hours, plus sharing a hotel room for at least three nights. "No," Mom answered with a grin. "Did you two ...?" "No," I answered quickly and firmly. Mom smiled. "How did you two start falling for each other?" I sighed. There was no way Mom was going to let me bullshit my way past this one. "I had to dream-walk with her to help her focus her energies to heal. Wakan Tanka told me that I needed to help her focus her healing energies. I ... had to ... comfort her." "I know you dream-walked with her. What does that mean? And what do you mean, 'comfort her'?" "I don't know." I closed my eyes and thought for a moment, discovering that it was getting easier and easier to enter 'dream space' with Wakan Tanka. She walked beside me through the forest. "Your mother asks good questions." "What happens when I dream-walk with someone?" I cut right to the chase. "Dream-walking is sharing the innermost part of your being with another in a personal way. You are in the dream world, and any thoughts are amplified. A bad thought could become a bear mauling you or the other one. Hatred could be expressed in the dream world through harming the other." "Harming?" Wakan Tanka nodded. "A very skilled dream-walker can kill a person through their dreams." I shuddered at that thought. She continued. "Dream-walkers rarely walk with one person several times. It can cause a type of ... intimacy with the other person. Feelings of ... attraction ... are strengthened." "Which means ...?" I was getting nervous about what she might be implying. "You were... close with her in her dreams, repeatedly and for extended times. At the very least, you will forever be great friends because your souls are linked in a way. You will have to wait and see." "Great," I grumbled unhappily. "Just great. I've done a fucking Vulcan mind-meld and bonded with her." Mom was looking at me oddly when I opened my eyes. "I was discussing it with Wakan Tanka," I explained quickly. "She said that when I dream-walked with Debra, we were kind of ... close." I hesitated, but Mom was going to find the truth sooner or later. "It wasn't just that once, either. She invited me to dream-walk with her several times." "And?" Mom sounded nervous. I looked down, blushing. "We held hands and walked. I showed her around Paha Sapa, er, the Black Hills. We had a couple of picnics, and we sat around the fire talking with Wakan Tanka about Lakota legends and history and stuff. We talked about things - where she grew up, her family, our farm, my family. You know - stuff. We kissed some, and we ... cuddled. A little bit." I looked up her quickly. "But that's all!" I added defensively. "We didn't do anything else!" Mom smiled at me with a knowing, motherly look. "Honey, you may not believe it, but I remember what it's like to be a teenager. You're maturing, and your hormones are a soup of confusion and emotion, especially since you changed gender. And Debra _is_ an extremely attractive, warm, wonderful person. If you ... you know ... in your dreams, that's not saying you're bad, or that she is." I looked down, afraid to speak for fear of what would come out of my mouth. I was really afraid of what Mom would think of me if I _was_ a lesbian. "And I'm not so old-fashioned that I'd condemn you if you were curious ... like that. I know that you _were_ a boy for over fifteen years. Old habits and all that. Nor would I condemn you if you _were_ attracted to girls." She let those words sink in, which she somehow knew was important. "Were you two intimate in your dreams?" I nodded as I blushed. "No, but ...." I didn't know how to answer. We had been close, and we'd hugged and cuddled and touched each other's breasts, and ... I had really wanted to do more. Mom patted my hand. "In that sense, it's no different than the dreams nearly every teenager has at your age. Just ... be careful that your dreams don't become a reality, because you _are_ a teenage girl right now." I wanted to hug Mom for being so understanding. As it was, tears were trickling from the corners of my eyes. "Thanks." Mom turned on the radio, but I didn't like what she had on, so I zoned and thought of the dream-walking I'd done with Debra almost every night, at her invitation. I was learning, on my own through trial and error, how to replay the dreams, like a videotaped scene that I could watch over and over. Some of the dreams were like being on a date with her - walking in the beauty of the land, sitting by a lake, holding hands, making out, and some were just talking about things by the fire, with Wakan Tanka and Tatanka with us. In those dreams, I had to interpret for Debra, because she didn't speak Lakota, and that was the only thing that Wakan Tanka spoke. It was fun to talk about the People, and Debra was more and more intrigued by all the tales Wakan Tanka and Tatanka told us. I had the advantage, though, of being able to experience that dream any time I wanted. "Something is puzzling you, Wihakayda," Wakan Tanka said as she sat on the prairie. "Can I relive the dream-walks as often as I want?" Wakan Tanka seemed a bit surprised. "Some never learn to learn how to relive the dream-walks. You are very powerful and skilled to do so already." "But can I share that with ... the other person?" Wakan Tanka frowned. "Some shamans can experience a dream walk over and over, as you have done, but I have never heard of someone who is not a shaman being able to repeat a dream walk." "It's too bad that Debra can't relive dreams the way I can," I observed sadly. "You can try to help her relieve a dream, if you desire it," Wakan Tanka said, stirring hope. "Dream walk with her, and while you are in the dream world, relive the dream that _you_ want her to experience again." I was going to have to talk to Debra about trying that sometime in the future. I had really enjoyed dream-walking with her, and I suspected that she felt the same. In a way, it was good that we were on the road, because it took away the temptation of making the dream-walks into reality. I slipped into the dream-world almost without thinking. It had felt so wonderful to lie with her in the furry buffalo blankets, cuddled together, being close with her in our dream. Those kinds of thoughts were dangerous and frightening, though, because I'd been severely tempted more than once to wake up and join her in her bed, cuddling for real instead of just in the dream-world, and she might have been tempted as well. Since Mom was driving, she had me call home. The supers had gotten us several disposable cell phones that we could switch among so no-one could trace calls to us and there wouldn't be a pattern of calls. We'd also worked out a code, and the supers and we had communicated our travel plans- and as many alternate plans as we could think of - to Dad as securely as we could. Our methods probably wouldn't have stopped the NSA, or the MCO through their agents inside the NSA, but it was the best we could do with the resources at hand. When it rang at home, I switched on the speaker so Mom could hear, too. "Hello?" Danny asked hesitantly. "Danny, it's me, your big ... sister. and Mom. We wanted to let you and Dad know that we're okay, and that we're on the road to the school," I reported. "Cool." "Is Dad there? Mom wants to talk to him." "Uh, yeah, Aunt Ida is getting him some lunch." His voice became muffled. "Dad, it's Mom and Brandon," I heard shouted in the background. "Her name is Kayda," I heard Dad answer. In a second, he was on the phone. "Hi, honey. How are you doing?" "At least I'm not cooped up in the supers' headquarters now. We just left Sioux Falls about half an hour ago." "Isn't that a late start? How far are you intending to drive today?" "We couldn't pick up our car until late this morning. Mom has to do all the driving, because I don't have a license that works for me anymore. We're working on our primary plan. You _did_ get the encrypted e-mails, didn't you?" Dad chuckled. "Yeah, I had to have Danny figure out how to open it. They forgot that I'm just a simple farmer." "You're not fooling me, dear," Mom chided him. "You probably had to help Danny open his e-mail!" "Not quite. That's a pretty long drive today, isn't it?" He was asking us to not be too ambitious, but without directly saying so. "We figured about nine hours of driving time, and a couple of hours of breaks, so yeah, it'd be a long drive. Mom and I are already talking about alternate plan A." Mom butted in. "You'll see a pretty big check showing up in the bank statement, that I wrote to help cover what they did for us. And they're going to be working with you for the pictures." "Yeah, I'm waiting for them to call me to talk some more. Speaking of which, I think we all need to talk about the pictures." Dad had switched to 'stern father' mode. Mom laughed. "There's no nudity. And the group agreed that we have veto over any pictures we think are inappropriate." "Alright, there's no nudity. Kayda, would you care to explain _why_ you thought you could get away with some of the pictures you posed for?" I grimaced at Mom, who just smiled at my discomfort. She wasn't going to help me out here. "Okay, so some are in my lingerie, with another girl. But they're all decent!" Mom picked that moment to jump in to help me out a little. "I thought the best one is Kayda and the other girl, Cornflower, playing chess on a bearskin rug, wearing only their panties." "What?" Dad roared. "I saw that. It's ... indecent!' "It's not any racier than what you see in family magazines," I said defensively. "Our arms were blocking anything naughty, and we had Tatanka sitting beside us, in his smaller form." "Tatanka? Is that what you call that buffalo? Where the heck did you find white buffaloes of all those different sizes to pose with you gals?" "Kayda can manifest him in just about any size. It's one of her powers. He's really adorable!" Mom said to help me - a bit. "I've got copies." "Yeah, Farm Boy and Cornflower e-mailed them right after you left. That's why we need to talk," Dad replied. "I only looked at them briefly - enough to know that I'm not sure our little girl should be posing like that!" Protective Dad was still there, and it hadn't taken him long to get protective of his daughter! "Take some time to look at the pictures of Kayda with Cornflower later, after your 'protective dad' instincts wear off. The pictures are really very good. Just keep them away from Danny," Mom said with a smile. "Why?" Mom couldn't help laughing. "Kayda's really cute, but I'm more worried about Danny getting a crush on Cornflower. She's adorable." "My first impression is that she's pretty good looking," Dad commented. "Kayda thinks so," Mom said, grinning, while I glowered at her teasing. Mom and Dad went into parent and household talk mode, discussing how things were going at the farm and at the business. As Dad had predicted, things in town had settled down after a few days. While there was still some talk about 'that horrible mutant', no-one was holding it against Dad. The entire town seemed glad to have gotten rid of the menace - except Julie. She stopped by the dealership several times to ask how I was doing. Bless her heart. I was going to keep in touch with her when I could, and when it was safe for her. "We're going to stop for a bite to eat for lunch, and we'll let you know if we'll be on the primary plan or if we switch to alternate A for our stop tonight." "Okay. Drive carefully." "We will. You know, as I think more about the pictures, you should show the picture of Cornflower and Kayda playing chess to Danny. Then tell him that Cornflower is Kayda's girlfriend. Gotta run. Bye." She hung up, grinning at me, while I sat, red-faced at her comment. "That wasn't fair," I pouted at Mom's last comments. Mom gave me a quick smile before turning her attention back to the road. "Tell me which part wasn't true." I started to deny what she'd said, but I had to catch myself. Was Mom more observant than I'd always believed parents could be? Was I really to the point that I thought of Debra the same way as I used to think of Julie, as a romantic interest? Or was Mom just teasing me? Mom patted my hand gently. "I wasn't trying to be harsh, but every mother needs something to tease her daughter about." She shot me another quick smile. "Besides, you're only fifteen. I'm very worried that you're going to get hurt." She turned her attention back to the radio and left me alone to think about what she'd said. I decided to talk to my own consultants. I sat in the meadow alone, feeling the breeze through my loose hair and smelling the pine trees. All around, wild flowers bloomed, and a few butterflies flitted about, adding their multicolored touches to the already-colorful scene. The sky overhead was clear blue, and the sun shone down with comforting warmth, not the unbearable heat of late summer. In the distance, I could hear the gentle rustling of water as it raced down a mountain stream, splashing noisily against rocks and gurgling like children at play in a pond. I turned suddenly, having felt and heard something. It wasn't tangible, but there was something there. I smiled when I recognized the smell and sound, then turned back toward the stream, smiling. I waited, and just before he got in range, without looking, I said, "You can't startle me today, Tatanka." I heard a snort of frustration. "You learn too quickly, Wihakayda," he said as he ambled up beside me and lay down. "Maybe he can't, but I still can," Wakan Tanka's voice called over my other shoulder from very near. I jumped, startled, and she laughed as she sat beside me. "Would you rather talk with us about the girl you call Cornflower, or do you want time alone to think about her and your relationship?" Wakan Tanka asked. I looked at her, scowling. "You're rather blunt today, aren't you?" She simply smiled at me. "Sometimes, it is best to get right to the heart of the matter. What is it that you want?" I sighed. "I don't know." Tatanka snorted. "But you _do_ know, Wihakayda. You are confused about your feelings toward her, and you are worried that you might hurt her." I stared at him for a moment, and then turned my gaze back to the flower-dotted meadow. "Yeah," I mumbled. "I don 't know _how_ I feel about her." "I think you _do_ know, Wihakayda," Tatanka said, "but you are afraid of the answer." "Do I love her?" I asked, desperate for an answer. "Do I really love her?" "That answer must come from your heart, not from us," Wakan Tanka said. "I think ... that she loves me," I said softly. "And how you do you feel about her?" Wakan Tanka asked. "Are you really in love with her? Or, in your confusion and pain, did you become attracted to her because she's a safe, caring, very good friend?" That question threw me for a loop. How _did_ I really feel about Debra. "Is she attracted to you because you saved her life? Often, a woman might think she loves a shaman who has saved her, but it is out of gratitude rather than love. Could this be true with Cornflower?" I sat, stunned by the question she'd asked. "Mom?" "What is it sweetie?" "Do you think that maybe Cornflower kind of feels like she owes me something for saving her life, and maybe she doesn't really love me?" "Next time you two talk, you need to discuss it. Before you start making living arrangements and picking out silver and china patterns, you know." "Mom!" She just smiled. I had the feeling that the teasing wasn't going to stop for a _long_ time. The serpent creature shrieked in frustration as it felt its target moving rapidly away. It had been so close; perhaps if it had forgone feeding once or twice, it could have struck the night before, but now the creature had another journey ahead of it to find the girl and her spirits. It vowed to minimize its hunting and resting, and to be more diligent with its shelters so it wasn't wasting time digging a new burrow each night. Surely there were places that would shield it, especially with these strange, rock-hard paths that cut through the land. The creature had briefly noted them, but had paid little attention to either the strange smooth stone paths or to the foul-smelling metal objects which sped on the paths. Perhaps, though, some of the small tunnels it had noticed beneath the stone paths would be useful to hide to minimize the time spent burrowing so it could travel longer and further each night. The serpent-creature would not fail. The father-demon was patient; it must be as well. It knew that it had to plan more and to be less impulsive. After a few days, its hunger, which had built to enormous proportions during its forced hibernation, was manageable, and the hunts would be planned rather than rash acts. The serpent creature was quickly relearning all that it had forgotten during its many, long decades of sleep. And there was something else; it sensed not only its target, but one linked to her in the dream-world. The creature knew exactly what to do. After we finished our lunch, I felt a little sleepy. I leaned my seat back and closed my eyes to rest a few moments. Walking through Paha Sapa with Tatanka was still a little intimidating. The forests of the Black Hills could be quite dense in spots, and I knew there was a lot of wildlife. I couldn't help but be nervous, because I felt vulnerable to animals such as bears, wolves, and mountain lions. "We are here to learn about the animal spirits, Wihikayda," Tatanka reassured me. "I will not let you come to harm." On an impulse, I threw my arms around Tatanka's neck and gave him a big hug. "Thanks." Tatanka seemed unhappy that I'd hugged him. "I thought you liked it when I hug you," I added upon noticing his consternation. "It's not so bad, in other places," he said curtly. I laughed. "You're afraid that the other animal spirits will see that you're just a cuddly teddy-bear!" If he could blush, I knew he'd be doing it at that moment. "Okay, I'll knock off the huggy stuff - for now. But I won't promise not to hug you when I feel like it!" We walked to a mountain stream through a meadow, and we sat by the trees, watching. Tatanka explained that I should feel the spirit of the water in how the water flowed, and the spirit of the air in the winds. The spirit of the ground was all around me if I only felt for it. And if I knew how to feel the spirits, I would learn to use them as well. When I asked how I could use the spirits, Tatanka explained that I could create a wind to confuse a foe, or a fog to hide myself. The ways to use the spirits of the earth were many and varied. In a stream, I felt the water flowing around a fish as it fought the currents, and in the air, I felt the air effortlessly carrying wabli, the eagle, as it used the winds. Even more astounding, it felt like the air and water currents were coming together, suggesting to me that the eagle was about ready to swoop down on the trout. I watched, amazed when that was what actually happened. Tatanka then explained that wabli was a powerful spirit of strength and power, healing and spirituality, and he felt and used the spirit of the sky. I would need to learn to do that as well. When I heard a noise in the forest, Tatanka told me that it was mato, the bear spirit, who was strong and very deliberate about his actions, not at all impulsive. We saw the fox, sugila, who was sly and cunning, and wiciteglega, the raccoon, who was the most curious of the animal spirits. Tatanka told me that each spirit had something to teach me, like patience or stealth or power. I needed to learn the traits of these and many more animals so I would know all of them and how to apply them to my life, and then I would need to practice using each of the traits. Before I could ask more questions, Wakan Tanka joined us. "It is time that Wihakayda learns some of my gifts, my talkative friend," she said to Tatanka with a smile. Tatanka snorted in disagreement, but didn't say anything as I walked with her back to the tepee village and the fire circle; and as we neared the circle, the skies became dark as night descended on us. As we sat, I couldn't help asking, "I'm ... afraid of the magic," I admitted. "I slept for many hours after I healed Debra." Wakan Tanka nodded. "I helped you do a spell that you weren't prepared for, so it was very hard for you. We will start with simpler healing spells that shouldn't be as tiring. As you learn and gain magical strength, the spells will not be as tiring." "Okay." We went through the components and chants of the four healing spells; compared to the major spell I'd done for Debra, the first two were very simple. They also wouldn't have saved her life. I understood why Wakan Tanka pushed me with the third spell in the store, and the fourth one at the headquarters. I practiced repeatedly until Wakan Tanka was satisfied that I could do the two simple healing spells quickly and without her assistance. "If you're within me," I asked, having had a flash of insight, "why don't you just use the magic?" Wakan Tanka smiled at me. "The spirit of Ptesanwi is in you and a part of you. I am not. I speak to you through Ptesanwi's spirit. I am your teacher, not your spirit. Ptesanwi and you are the source of the magic you use, not I. You must learn what I teach you so that you may use the magic in the real-world and in the dream-world. I have had to use magic for you twice, and at a cost you cannot imagine. You must learn to do for yourself rather than to rely on me." At one rest stop, I was waiting outside of the ladies' restroom for Mom when I realized that three teenage boys were staring at me. I felt nervous and my mouth got that uncomfortable cottony dry feeling, so I got a drink from the water fountain between the men's and ladies' rooms. In hindsight, that was a bad move, because when I bent over to drink, I inadvertently highlighted my curvy bottom in my tight jeans. The leering stares became cat-calls and whistles. When I straightened up, I saw that the boys were edging my way, their gazes intently fixed on me. My nervousness became full-fledged panic, and I backed away, inadvertently backing against the ladies' room door. In my dread, I was about to manifest Tatanka when a hand clasped my shoulder. I spun, my eyes wide with fright; Mom stood beside me, a concerned expression on her face. "Time to go, Kayda," she said as she glared at the boys with 'the look'. I took her hand and she led me past the boys, who were intimidated by Mom's demeanor, but not enough to stop staring at me. I couldn't help turning once to make sure they weren't following us, and I saw more of their lust-filled gazes upon me. I got in the car without saying a word, and it wasn't until Mom was driving back onto the highway that I started shaking badly. "Are you okay?" Mom asked, very concerned with my reaction to the rude boys. Instead of answering, I pulled my knees up against my chest and clutched them with my arms. "I ... didn't know ... what to do!" I said softly. Mom put her hand on my arm. "It'll be okay, honey," she said soothingly. "I ... was afraid," I cried. "I was afraid of what they might do to me!" "Kayda," Mom said calmly, "they wouldn't have tried anything. Those types of idiots try to prove their manhood by pretending they're all macho and stuff in front of girls in the vain hope that some girl will actually be impressed by that nonsense." "I didn't know what to do, though. Any of the girls I know ... knew ... would have been able to deal with those kinds of guys, but I was so scared I couldn't think of anything. I couldn't do anything." "We'll talk about that. We have three and a half days ahead of us for mother-daughter talks, so we can focus on that first." I nodded, hoping that she was right, and that she could teach me about handling situations like that, things that most girls learned practically from birth. As Mom drove, I let my eyes shut so I could visit dream-space. "Why are you so frightened, Wihakayda?" Wakan Tanka asked as she brewed up tea for me. It was becoming a habit, both in dream-space and in the real world, to have the calming brew. "I ... I didn't know what to do," I confessed. "I knew they were looking at me, and I know what they were thinking." Wakan Tanka nodded. "There are ways to handle such threats. Many spells have the same function - to hide or protect the user from harm. I will begin by teaching you the simplest, the ghost-walking spell." "Ghost walking? What does that mean?" "It means that you cannot be seen by normal beings. You are a ghost walking silently and unseen among them." She began to instruct me in that spell until I had it memorized. "There is another spell which is like ghost-walking, but it is like a warrior's shield." She again instructed me on the simplest shield spell, which was a little more complicated than the ghost-walking spell, but I soon mastered that as well, at least in theory. I still had to practice them in the real world. Despite Wakan Tanka's assurance and instruction, I was so shaken by the incident that I insisted on drive-through food for dinner, even though Mom really needed to stop to stretch. Mom accompanied me every second when we made a bathroom stop. I didn't stay in the car alone while Mom checked in at the hotel, but stayed close to her, still trembling when I went to bed. Mom cuddled up with me, wrapping her arm around me protectively, and I finally fell asleep. Something felt _very_ wrong when I entered dream-space. The sky was cloudy and gloomy, not the usual clear, moonlit night with a sparkling starry sky. The fire in the circle burned oddly, dull smoldering embers instead of bright, cheery, dancing flames. Wakan Tanka was not in the fire circle, nor was Debra. Frowning, I went tepee to tepee, searching, but all were empty. As I came out of the last tepee, the breeze kicked up, and it felt chilly, when it should have been pleasant. I paused, closing my eyes, to feel for Debra's spirit, and I could feel it, but something was quite wrong. Debra was very upset, and it seemed that her spirit was in pain and distant. "Wakan Tanka!" I cried as I darted about the village. "Where are you? Tatanka! Please come!" Panic was setting in, because dream-space had _never_ given me this ominous a feeling. Wakan Tanka ran over a nearby hill down to the village. "Wihakayda!" she called urgently. "Cornflower is in danger." "I ... felt that," I replied. "Where were you? Why weren't you here for me? And what kind of danger is she in?" "I had to retrieve something very special for you," Wakan Tanka said. Without another word, she produced a leather bundle which she handed to me. As I unwrapped the bundle, she continued. "Do you remember how I told you that a person could be seriously injured in a dream-walk? Something intends to harm Cornflower." I started at her words; though I'd feared it, and halfway expected it, confirmation struck me hard. After a moment of shock, I finished unwrapping the bundle, which revealed a beaded leather sheath, and some type of knife. The sheath was intricately decorated, its symbols matching those on my own dress and belt. Slowly, glancing warily at Wakan Tanka, I unsheathed it. The ten-inch, mildly-curved blade shone and glinted like obsidian, with symbols carved into the blade and adorned with silver. I lifted the blade higher, studying it more closely. The handle appeared to be buffalo horn, with symbols for Tatanka and Ptesanwi carved into it, and with semi-precious stones inset in for decoration. "What is it for?" "This is the Wakan Mila, the knife of Ptesanwi," Wakan Tanka said solemnly. She took the knife from me. "The blade will consume some of your magic, every day, whether you use it or not. It will take you several moons to have as much unbound magic as you have right now." "What you're saying is that it sets back my learning, right?" She nodded. "And if I don't take it?" I asked, fearing the answer. "Without Wakan Mila, you have no chance against whatever is harming Cornflower. Either you fight, and you will probably both die, or you abandon Cornflower" "And with it?" "With it, you have a chance." The knife wasn't a guarantee, but it did give me some hope. There was no choice in my mind. "I accept Wakan Mila." She handed it back to me. "Tie it on your waist, and never again be without it." "Why is something attacking Debra?" "Your enemies are also her enemies. They seek to find you through her, and to use her to attack you." Wakan Tanka looked grim. "I do not know which demon-spirit has her, because he has shrouded himself in a dark dream world, but he will be powerful. Do you remember the ghost-walking and shield spells?" I nodded, shuddering inwardly at the implication of the question. "Good. There is one more spell that you need." She took the knife from my hand. "But first, the knife must be joined to you," she said enigmatically. She took my hand in hers, and before I could react, she clasped my hand tightly around the blade of the knife, which cut painfully into my flesh. I cried in surprise and pain as the wet stickiness of my blood spread across my fingers and palm. When the blade was wet with my blood, she let my fingers open, and then she closed them again around the handle of the knife. Green light flashed briefly from the handle, like lightning, and a strong tingling like an electrical shock spread through my hand as my blood met the handle. Then I felt energy flowing both from me into the blade, and from the blade into me. Suddenly, holding the blade felt ... right. It belonged in my hand. I don't know how, but I knew Wakan Mila belonged with me. "Put Wakan Mila in its sheath," Wakan Tanka said, "and I will instruct you in putting your power into the blade." I slid the blade easily into its sheath as I pondered her statement. "Do you mean that I can put my magic into the blade?" Wakan Tanka nodded. "You must be careful. The energy you put in the blade cannot be recovered, and when you have used all your energy, whether in the dream-world or the real world ...." She didn't have to say more; being unconscious for fifteen hours after saving Debra was more than enough of a lesson for me. But I knew that I'd spend fifteen - or more - hours unconscious again if it would save Debra. "What do we do now?" I asked hesitantly. Wakan Tanka seemed to be preparing me for battle, and that made me more than a bit nervous. "Now, we go to a realm of nightmares to rescue Cornflower." Joined as Ptesanwi, guided by the voice of Wakan Tanka within us, we walked to a hill a ways from the village. The entrance was unnaturally dark, and a sense of fear and foreboding emanated from the black opening in the side of the hill. We understood without having to learn; the cave was a symbolic entrance into another dream world, although this one was dark and sinister. Gulping nervously, which was mostly Kayda's reaction, we stepped to the darkness to enter. Nothing happened. The cave entrance was like a wall, impenetrable to us. We pushed, we cut with the knife, and we did spells, but the wall held firm. Sighing, we stood straighter, and we could feel the power building within us. A beam of intense light shot from our outstretched arm, piercing the blackness of the wall in a visible tear. At the same time, I was violently ejected from Ptesanwi and thrust through the opening. I turned back toward the portal, nervous, but the Ptesanwi spirit shook her head. "I must hold the gateway open. Go. You have the power and the knowledge to defeat the enemy. But do not assume the enemy will be weak. He is a strong, clever spirit. Through the portal, I can tell that he is one of the children of Unhcegila." A wave of pain and anguish staggered me, powerful, nearby, and very familiar. I could sense Debra's fear and agony, a sensation very familiar to me from when I had first healed her. I turned and staggered through the stygian darkness, toward the source of the pain, toward Debra. For a moment, I struggled to make out shapes among the blend of ultra-dark shadows, before I remembered a simple spell. Feeling stupid for my glaring oversight, I cast it, and a dim light hovered above my head, casting its faint illumination to dispel what it could of the suffocating blackness. It wasn't much, but it was enough. Cautiously, I stepped through the rocky terrain, avoiding outcroppings and fallen, boulders, all barren and devoid of even a hint of life. The land spirit here was befouled, corrupted and poisoned in ways that made me almost ill, and the air reeked of sulfur and death. I sensed spirits around, but none of them were familiar as the animal spirits Tatanka had been teaching me. Instead, these spirits, too, felt twisted and unnatural. As I crept forward down the descending path, I could sense the spirits circling behind me, as if to herd me down the slope. Since that was the direction where I sensed Debra's spirit, I knew I had to follow the rocky path forward and down anyway without them. Rounding a large, crystal-like boulder which jutted from the bedrock, part of a forest of such ebony stones, I found myself at the edge of a clearing about a hundred meters across, in a bowl-shaped depression in the earth. At the center of the clearing was a solitary black crystalline spire, about a meter across and probably four meters in height, and huddled at the base of the spire was a naked form. Even from this distance, I could see bloody injuries on her body. "Debra!" I gasped in shock. With agonizing slowness, she looked up at me, every move seemingly excruciating to her. "Go away, Kayda," she pleaded softly. "It's a trap." My resolve had long since been steeled. Something in this pit was torturing Debra, who I considered my best friend, and I was not going to stop until I'd rescued her. "I'm not leaving you." "You have to! I'm ... I'm ... tainted. I'm ... not safe for you." She was crying even as she tried to warn me away. "If you take me away, I'll eventually succumb and ... kill you!" "No," I answered again. "I'm not leaving you." "Such a noble sentiments," a deep voice boomed in flawless Lakota. "I knew that you would come to rescue her, and in so doing, forfeit your own life." The voice laughed mockingly. "She serves her role as a lure perfectly. And even after your death, she will continue to serve me when she brings forth my spawn, to hunt and destroy your mighty Tatanka and the witch you call Wakan Tanka." I staggered at the implication of what the creature had said, and what Debra had said. Had he ... impregnated her spirit with his evil? I felt rage course through my blood that this vile demon would do such a thing to Debra. I _had_ to stop this, somehow. "Show yourself, unless you are a coward who hides in the shadows." The voice growled. "You know nothing of bravery and cowardice, little one," it snarled. Even as it spoke, the darkness coalesced into a long, snake-like creature with short forearms ending in nasty-looking talons. I felt my hand drawing the knife from my belt as I faced the black serpent-creature. "You are not Unhcegila, but you are one of his spawn," I said with certainty. Some of Wakan Tanka's lessons in Native American lore were paying off, but at that moment, I wished that she'd included more lessons in combat. "You recognize me? And you know who my father is? It is too bad that he is not here to witness your defeat," the serpent creature sneered. "But I shall relish seeing it. And I shall enjoy telling him the tale of your demise." My head roared with agony as the creature attacked me psychically. I struggled against the pain to recall and recite the words of the shield spell Wakan Tanka had taught me. I faltered twice, the attack disrupting my thought, and I collapsed to my knees, the knife slipping from my grasp. I had to succeed, however, because Debra depended upon me. I tried once more against the raging mental confusion and pain, and as I recited the last words, the mental fog ceased abruptly, like a light turning off. I grasped at the ground to recover my knife. A huge tail slammed into me, knocking me a dozen or more meters from where I'd been. The creature laughed at me. "So helpless, little one. Where is your spirit, your cunning and skill? Where is your fight? Or did the she-witch choose poorly, picking a helpless little girl who isn't capable of the tasks she should do?" The creature's gaping maw, six feet across and full of sharp teeth and a pair of long fangs, came steadily closer to me. Glowing orange-red embers where its eyes should be bespoke of the malevolent force guiding the creature. While I was distracted by the serpent-creature's terrifying face, the tail whipped around and smashed me again, hurling me the other direction. My left arm hung limp at my side, badly bruised if not broken. I felt like I'd broken a rib or two - again. "So weak," the creature snorted disdainfully. "So pathetic." I glanced around; my only weapon was lost to me. Unless .... I did a chant, to energize the blade as Wakan Tanka had taught me, and I felt the power flowing from me. My mind's eye traced the path to where the energy flowed, and my eyes followed the sense of power. The blade lay on the ground between me and the serpent-creature. I lunged, but the serpent was quicker, its jaws snapping toward my body as its clawed arms slashed at me. I rolled at the last moment, evading being crushed and torn asunder by the mouthful of daggers, but the claw slashed across my back and left arm like a row of razors, tearing apart my flesh nearly to the bone. Fighting the pain, I grasped the knife, and as old snakey slashed at me with his clawed forearms again, I stabbed. An unholy shriek of agony erupted from the creature as the blade tore into its ebony, ethereal hide. Foul blackness oozed from the gash I'd inflicted on it. I smiled to myself. So my knife was capable of hurting the creature? I shifted my balance and lunged at old snakey again, causing him to lurch awkwardly and unsteadily away from me and my knife. It was the opening I'd waited for. I quickly cast a ghost-walking spell and darted to the monolith in the center, to where Debra huddled miserably. Knowing I had only a second or two before the deceptively-agile serpent recovered and lunged at me again, if ghost-walking even fooled him, I rolled Debra over, looking for restraints. Her hands and feet were bound with some type of leather cord, which the knife made short work of. And then old snake-face was lunging at me again, fury in its eyes. The light tingling of ghost-walking turned into embers burning into my entire body as the creature did something that rent my ghost-walking spell like a cheap paper towel. I dove beneath its open maw and stabbed upward with the knife even as the claws raked me again, opening new furrows in my flesh and adding to my agony. As the serpent pulled itself back, its tail swung at me again. I dodged behind the monolith just in time; the tail smashed into the giant crystalline rock and splintered it into shards which peppered and sliced into me like buckshot. I stabbed again at the hide, this time on its tail, and the knife sank into the tar-colored surface that was its skin. Another wail of agony came from the creature, and it lurched sharply, giving me the moment I wanted. Quickly, I did a healing spell for Debra and then turned back to the serpent. I'd guessed that he wasn't going to give up, and he was proving me correct. Again he lunged at me, and again I ducked, my knife doing a little more damage before one of the razor-tipped arms slashed my right forearm and smashed the knife from my grasp. I crumpled and rolled just in time to avoid the serpent's body, which after rearing up slightly, had smashed against the rocky ground to crush me. I dodged around the remains of the monolith, to where Debra was sitting, semi-dazed. I knew, somehow, that the serpent-creature would attack Debra if I miraculously started to get the upper hand in the mostly one-sided battle. I ran to her, casting a ghost-walking spell on her, touching her as I did so, and she faded to a translucent shimmering figure as I hobbled away from her, hopefully luring snake-face away. The serpent was furious; it lashed out, lunging at me, followed immediately by a tail smash. I dodged the jaws and claws this time, but the tail caught me across the back, sending me tumbling across the clearing. I was once more sans knife, having dropped it in the thing's earlier attack, and fang-face was turning for yet another attack, enraged and obviously determined to finish the battle. He hadn't expected to be hurt, and now that I _had_ hurt him, his attack would undoubtedly be full-out and as powerful as he was capable of. I backed away, helpless, unarmed, and battered, as the snake advanced on me. "You put up more of a fight than I'd thought you capable," it sneered at me. "But your end was inevitable." It began to coil its massive body, giving it a massive striking range. Between the cavernous mouth and the razor-sharp claws, one more attack would probably prove fatal to me. I knew that I could try to run, but that would mean abandoning Debra to whatever foul fate the creature had in store for her. I couldn't let her be condemned to whatever hell this thing had come from. A ghostly shape stood up beside what had once been an imposing monolith before it had been shattered to rubble. Debra saw me, cornered, battered, and helpless, and she acted. She saw my knife lying on the ground, and picking it up, she leaped at the creature and stabbed into the mid-back of the serpent-abomination. As Debra thrust, I pushed almost all my remaining magical energy, hoping it would flow to the blade. The ebony blade sank to its hilt in the jet-black skin of the creature. Only the wail of a banshee could have outdone the screech of pure agony which the creature bellowed forth as the magically-infused knife tore into the abomination, energy rippling from the wound to cause more pain from within. It flopped heavily to one side before it could strike me, seriously injured, although I could tell from the feeling of a foul spirit that it still lived. Debra hobbled to me, gazing warily at the serpent-creature in case he was to rouse and attack again. Supporting each other, we limped out of the clearing, finding the path back toward the cave entrance, fleeing the wounded blackness that was the snake-creature. Climbing the rocky path was difficult, as injured as we both were, and the feel of the unnatural spirits around me frightened me; I had been badly wounded by the serpent creature, and defeating him had used nearly all my magic. If the dark spirits had attacked then, we would have been easily defeated. Ptesanwi was still holding open the portal out of this nightmare world, and as soon as we slipped through, she let the hole collapse. Overhead, the sky began to clear almost immediately, and the breeze was already fresher-smelling and warmer. Wakan Tanka put her arm around me from the other side, and with the two of them supporting me, we limped into the tepee village. Despite our teamwork, and how we'd saved each other, Debra wouldn't sit near me. She had a haunted look in her eyes, from which tears streamed. While I watched her, puzzled, Wakan Tanka mixed up some tea for me, which I greedily consumed. "Debra needs some," I told Wakan Tanka, surprised that she was eyeing Debra warily. "Not yet," Wakan Tanka directed me enigmatically. "First, you must heal the injuries to your spirit body. Then and only then will you be strong enough to take care of Debra." I nearly fell backward, exhausted, off the log I'd been sitting on when I finished the healing spell on myself. I was still battered and bloody, and my left arm still hurt, but I was feeling far less pain. I also felt utterly spent. Wakan Tanka sat beside me, still warily eyeing Debra, who still wouldn't make eye contact with us. "Mix a tea with the herbs I say," she directed. One by one, she called out the ingredients and amount As I put them into the brew, recognition dawned, and my eyebrows rose. "These are ...." Wakan Tanka nodded knowingly. "She must purge the demon-seed from herself. The spell you will cast, with the special brew you are making, will do that for her." "What if ... what if she doesn't believe in ...?" "If she doesn't do this, she will die. The spawn of the serpent-creature will eat their way out of her, killing her in an agonizingly painful, slow death. She will die in the dream world, and she will die in the real world. Before she dies in the real world, though, she will be driven mad by what is happening to her." She looked at me with a level gaze. "You have no choice. She must take the medicine, and you must incant the spell I tell you if you wish to save her life." I nodded, understanding. I completed the brew, and then, with Wakan Tanka guiding me, I incanted a spell over the concoction. When I was done, I was so fatigued that I could barely remain sitting. Wakan Tanka took the foul-smelling brew to Debra and made her drink it. When Wakan Tanka came back to me, she sat down wearily. "I will protect her from the serpent creature. You did not destroy him, so he will try to attack you or her again. I will watch her and keep her safe until she is well." "How long ... will she sleep?" "She should be rid of the spawn within hours. I will give her the rest of the brew in a few hours to be certain." I sat with Debra, my arm around her shoulder, for some time, comforting her and reassuring her that everything would be okay. Since there was no correlation between time in dream-space and time in real-space, a day and a half passed in my dream world, all of which I spent holding her and trying to break through the haunted look on her face. Suddenly, she rose, stiffly, and walked out of the tepee village. I followed her from a discrete distance, watching as she went behind some bushes. When she returned a half-hour later, she was exceedingly pale. Following Wakan Tanka's suggestion, I took her to the creek, and disrobing, waded with her out into the cool running water. She flopped down on her butt, and let the waters swirl around her waist for quite a while. Finally, I helped her up, helped her dress, and walked her back to the village. It was nightfall again in my dream-world, and Debra looked exhausted, though not as pale as she had before I'd made some healing tea for her. I still held her close, even though we didn't talk much. Finally, as the campfire grew faint, I led her into a tepee and helped her lie down on a buffalo skin bed. "Please stay with me," she asked in a tiny, frightened voice, speaking for the first time since we'd escaped the nightmare world. I lay down beside her, cuddling close and holding her so she would feel safe. When I thought she was sleeping soundly, I sat up, gently so as not to wake her, so I could talk with Wakan Tanka, but she stirred anyway. She was afraid to be left alone, so I stayed with her. Sensing she was distraught, I gave her a quick kiss, but found my head held tightly as she kissed me back with a fervor I'd never experienced. Much later, when I knew Debra was comfortably sleeping, I slipped out to the fire circle. Wakan Tanka sat with Tatanka, as if expecting me. "What now?" I asked simply. "Was she in real danger, in the real world, I mean?" Wakan Tanka nodded. "Yes." I shivered uncontrollably; she could not have planned a more dramatic demonstration of the potential dangers of dream-walking. "How ... How do we protect her? How do we keep this from happening again?" "You care for her very much, and you don't want to see her hurt, do you?" I shook my head. "Yes. I ... I ... She is my friend. I think that I might even love her." "That is something that could be used against you. You are strong enough that most demons and spirits cannot directly attack you in the dream-world, but Debra is vulnerable. I will teach you a ward that will protect her from the evil spirit that tried to harm her and to kill you. With the magic, it will be safe for her to enter the dream world with you. But you will need to rest until you have saved enough magic energy to create the ward." "How long before she's safe? How long before I can dream-walk with her?" I asked. "I will keep her in your dream-world for a time to ensure that she stays safe and has fully healed, until you can rest and I can teach you the protection spell. Because she will be in _your_ dream world, none can attack her. You may visit her whenever you dream-walk." "Will that mean ... she's unconscious in the real world?" I speculated. Wakan Tanka nodded. "It is necessary to ensure that she is healed in both worlds." "I should explain the situation to her friends, I suppose. Wakan Tanka nodded. "When you can, you should spend time here with her. She had a very difficult experience and she needs someone familiar to care for her." I nodded. I was feeling the effects of the battle and healing; I went into the tepee with Debra and cuddled with her again, comforting her more as we both rested from the nightmare we'd endured.