Indian Summer by Anne Azel

Indian Summer Part 4

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Seasons Series are the creation of the author.

As always a good deal of credit has to go to Lisa and Inga my beta readers and friends, who work hard on these stories with me. Special thanks to Fran who fought and beat breast cancer.

Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.

You can contact Anne Azel at <> Anne's books are also available through Dare 2 Dream Publications at <>

He was standing there his back to her, his hands rhythmically washing his near naked body with the smoke from a bundle of sweet grass. Robbie could hear his low chant. The deep rumble of his voice, although soft, seemed to fill the chamber. She forced air through a narrow opening getting only enough to keep her going. Perhaps it was the smoke that made it so hard to breathe.

The sweet grass was pushed into the hole that was part of the carved female figure on the rock floor. Not a rape but a coupling of the man and nature. At first, she had thought him a monster. He wore a carved wood mask over his face, the nose twisted and the eyes large circles of luminescence like the inside of a clam shell. The mask was red and from it hung long black hair that mixed with the man's own.

She tried to let the poisonous gases in her lungs leak out the way she had managed to pull the air in. It was so hard. Every cell in her body was screaming for her to suck more air in. She could hear the gurgle of her own choked breathing - a death rattle. The man had a rattle now too. He had picked it up after he had placed the burning sweet grass in place. The rattle was made from a turtle shell and was tied with leather to a wood handle worn smooth and shiny from use.

The sound it made was a sharp, pulsating beat, like the labourious beat of her heart. Would her own heart stop when the beat of the rattle ceased? Her eyes were blurry. Perhaps this was because of lack of oxygen or maybe it was the blue, sweet smoke that hung in a cloud around the figure. The smoke swirled around the man as he now danced, the slow hopping step in soft moccasins making a shhh, shhh sound. Shhh, don't talk. Shhh, don't breathe. Shhh, sleep.

Robbie's eyes closed but the ache in her throat wouldn't let her sleep. She gasped again, drawing in a painful, thin stream of life. Not yet. She wasn't ready yet. She needed to see what the man would do. He danced on and on, the rattle and his chant a cold wind through dried branches. Shhh, shhh. His tawny skin shone with sweat and Robbie could see now that he had painted patterns on his body in red, black, yellow and white. He disappeared into the smoke, reappeared in parts and broke up again as if drifting out in all directions on the wind. He wasn't really there Robbie knew. He was dead. She could only see him because she was half dead too. Most of her was now cold but a small, warm hand still clung to her arm. Just one spot of colour and warmth holding her back. She forced the carbon dioxide out and then gasped and gurgled down more oxygen, giving herself another minute of life.

The man stopped suddenly and threw his hands into the air with a cry of anger. Then he turned suddenly and for the first time Robbie stared directly into the face of Broken Nose, one of the many False Face spirits of the woods. She choked on fear.

The rattle was now the blunt end of a stone club. The man walked towards her. She had disturbed a sacred place. Ruined the magic. She could no longer get her breath. Far away she could her someone sobbing. "Breathe Robbie! P..Please. Breathe."

George Drouillard and the volunteers of the Bartlett Fire Department arrived in a convoy of bouncing trucks and cars down the rutted trail. They pulled up in a fan shaped pattern in the long grass. Car doors slammed as the fire fighters got out and unloaded equipment. George walked over to where Reb and Ian stood. "Haven't been here since I was courting my wife forty odd years ago."

David opened the back door of the truck and Dufus bounded out, a large, orange mass of excitement. Some of the men started getting backpacks of equipment on while others unlashed a ladder to place in the pit. David brought a rope and harness over and left Reb to get the massive Dufus into the contraption. A few of the men had already headed down into the sink hole with rescue equipment by the time Reb and Ian walked the dog over to the pit.

Reb took hold of her pet's massive head. "Dufus, you are not going to like this part but we have to find Obbie so don't be a big suck about it. Come." That said, she stepped on the ladder and she and Ian lifted the whimpering but docile dog over the side. Careful hands lowered the beast down beside Reb as the girl talked reassuringly to the animal as it was lowered.

Ian followed Reb down the ladder. Everyone seemed so calm and matter of fact about rescuing the two missing women that Ian was starting to suspect that, as startling as it might seem, days like this must occur quite regularly in Reb's life.

Reb was just getting the shaking Dufus out of his harness as Ian stepped off the ladder. "Dufus, track Obbie,"she commanded and the dog gave a bark and wagged his crooked tail with delight as he sniffed the ground with mighty snorts and slobbering jowls. Dufus picked up the trail quickly and happily bounded down the tunnel with Reb and Ian in hot pursuit.

They emerged at the other end a few minutes larger to see Dufus running around the grassy meadow following Robbie's trail, ears flapping with each bound. They ran over to where Aliki, Dawn, Ryan and Mac stood looking worried and talking to the firefighters who had arrived ahead of them.

"Where are they?" Reb asked.

Dawn looked uncomfortable. "We have checked all the caves and can't find them. We were just discussing widening the search in case they got lost in the woods."

Reb's face hardened into determined lines. For a second, she looked very much like a Williams. "Dufus, track Obbie."

The dog looked up from sniffing the knapsacks that contained the remainder of lunch and took off towards the cliffs. The others followed behind. Narrow, crumbling footpaths ran in zigzags across the cliff face. In some spots, Ryan and Mac, following right behind Dufus, had to help the whimpering dog from one level to the other while Reb spoke soft encouragement to her pet.

Twice the dog back tracked and then, picking up the scent in a new direction, the animal headed cautiously down an embankment and onto a thin trail that led away from the caves to the other side of the cliff. In a minute, Dufus had disappeared behind some bushes. The others followed as best they could. Ryan and Mac moved ahead, both having had practice in traversing rough terrain, while the others moved more cautiously in crab-like movements through the loose, sliding gravel.

Pushing the bushes aside, Ryan and Mac could now see the low entrance to the cave. Side by side, the two of them slid in. Dufus was barking excitedly at the far end of the cave but for a second the two, blinded by the sudden dark, stood still, fumbling for their flashlights.

"Help! Hurry. Please hurry!" Janet's voice came to them from somewhere far off, muffled by the rock but still edged with the strength of fear. They hurried over and slid up the rock slope to look inside.

Janet blinked like an owl in the beams of their searching lights. Blinded, she scrunched her eyes closed and yelled out her concern. "Robbie can't breathe right. I can't get whatever is blocking her throat out. We're trapped under debris. Hurry!"

"I'm coming," Ryan stated and started to move forward and then she forced herself to stop. "Hang on. Mac has climbing and EMT training, she'll be down in a second." Ryan turned and moved aside. "Save my mom,"she stated.

Mac nodded and headed in. An arm grabbed her. "Be careful."

"I will. I have a lot to live for."

Mac slipped over the side and Ryan lowered her down the rock face until her boots sunk into the loose debris. Slowly and carefully, so as not to trigger another slide, Mac edged her way down the slope to where Janet and Robbie were buried.

"She wasn't breathing when I pulled her free of the mud. I did mouth to mouth as best I could and she is breathing now but not well. Her lips are blue," Janet explained, trying not to show her panic in her voice. Her heart was pounding with worry and she wanted to yell at Mac to go faster but instead she stuck to the basic information. "She can't speak and she is only semi-conscious."

Mac did one quick sweep of her flashlight around to make sure the bank was holding and then turned her light on her Aunt Robbie. The woman was grey and her lips blue. When she took a weak breath it was more of a gurgle. Mac forced Robbie's mouth open wide and shone a light in. She could see the grey sides of a rock down her throat. There was no time to be polite or even careful. She pulled off her leather climbing gloves and stuck her fingers down Robbie's throat. Robbie gagged and struggled. Mac got her one finger to the side of the stone and flipped up. The stone dislodged but did not come out. Mac pulled her hand back to use the flashlight to have another look. Robbie was hacking with the dry heaves and Mac did her best to keep her head to the side. Suddenly, Robbie gagged loudly and stone, mud, and vomit sprewed out of her aunt's mouth in all directions.

Janet lay back into a more comfortable position and closed her eyes against the harsh light. She prayed for her partner. While her ears followed every step that Mac was taking to help her Obbie. Janet's fingers tightened on Robbie's arm, refusing to let go of the woman she loved.

"What's happening?" Ryan asked, her voice tight but controlled. Mac could hear that there were others there now too.

"Obbie was sick," she minimized, as she cleared the vomit from her aunt's mouth with her fingers. Was she breathing? Yes, a gasp, more vomit, another breath, deeper this time. "She had a stone caught in the back of her throat. She is breathing now but with some discomfort and difficulty. Oxygen would be good."

"I'm on it." Ryan turned to look at the others. "We need oxygen. Mac can handle this. It's pretty unstable in there and we don't want to take any chances of burying them." The oxygen was passed up to Ryan as she talked by a worried crew of fire fighters who were very fond and proud of their actor- chief and her partner. Ryan tied the tank to the line and lowered it down to Mac, who had carefully climbed up the bank a bit to get it. The soldier gritted her teeth and fought her natural instinct and training to take action and let her lover handle the situation. There was no doubt Mac knew what she was doing. She watched from above keeping a light on the three of them so that Mac would have her hands free to provide assistance.

Reb knelt, her face buried in Dufus's furry neck at her sister's side. "You are the man, Dufus," she kept repeating softly, tears of relief in her voice.

Ryan reached over and gave her little sister's shoulder a squeeze. "Thanks to your training. I'm really proud to be your sister, Reb. Don't you worry. Mac will handle things."

False Face moved towards her. Not like in a movie but in freeze- frame, disappearing in the smoke and reappearing closer. The axe was raised. Robbie would have cried out but a cold hand had covered her mouth. She couldn't breathe. She was choking and fought with all the strength she had left. The ice fingers dug down deep in her soul and death spread roots through her being. The axe dropped. Through the blackness there was a soft female chant. A different language, Robbie thought, but couldn't be sure. Cold rills of terror retreated from her being and warmth bubbled up like a spring. She threw up, vomiting out the evil- the death. She gasped and air heavy with the taste of damp earth entered her burning lungs. She was alive. "Janet?" she croaked.

"I'm here. Hang on, Obbie. We are going to be okay." Tears of relief stained Janet's face. That had been as scary as hell.

In the end, it was Ryan and Mac who slowly and carefully dug Robbie and then Janet out. Each was strapped to a back board and lifted carefully up to the chamber above. Then Ryan and Mac had climbed out, more relieved than they would like to admit to escape the unstable lower chamber.

Janet insisted that she was alright other than some bruising but George and the boys said they needed the practice anyhow and insisted on taking her out on the backboard to the medical clinic. Robbie had not yet regained consciousness but she was moving and reacting and seemed to be breathing with the help of the oxygen.

Back at the sinkhole, David and the other firefighters careful raised each of the two women up in metal cradles while Aliki and Dawn on the ladder kept the cradles steady and stopped them from hitting against the side of the sinkhole. Reb and Ian saw to Dufus who was not as willing the second time to be hauled through the air on a rope.

Once everyone was up and Janet and Robbie had been carefully packed in the back of the truck, Ryan and Reb, by mutual consent, had piled into the emergency vehicle with the other fire fighters and with lights flashing had set off to the clinic. The others stayed behind to pack up the equipment and head back to the lodge to wait for news.

A few hours later, having phoned the lodge to let them know that Janet and Robbie were going to be all right, Ryan sat with her arm around her kid sister on a black couch in the waiting room of the clinic. "You okay, kid?"

Rebecca shrugged. "I'm used to it. I was raised on adrenalin rushes evoked from family moments of terror and near panic. I hear other families associate their moms with common place things like cookies and milk. Hard to believe if you ask me."

Ryan chuckled. "We did get cookies and milk."

Reb rolled her eyes. "Yeah, after the crisis was over. Do you remember the time you nearly drowned me in the firestorm?"

Ryan tugged a piece of her sister's hair. "You are not still holding a grudge, are you?"

"Oh course, I am," she joked. " I wonder if Ian will still be taking me to the dance at the hall?"

Ryan lifted her arm from the back on the seat and stood up and stretched. "Not much to him if a little thing like a couple of Williams nearly being buried alive bothers him."

Reb smiled. "Good point."

Reb picked up a magazine to read and Ryan paced around the small room. For a few minutes there was silence except for the soldier's soft tread.

The door opened and Mac stuck her head in. "Hi, any other news?"

"The doctor said they both look in good shape but he won't release them until he is sure mom's breathing is okay. He said you did a great job. The stone lodged in her throat probably saved her because it stopped her from getting dirt on her lungs."

"Good. Ryan, I need to talk to you. Can you step out here for a minute?"

Ryan suddenly became aware of the serious frown and Mac's worried eyes. Her heart contracted. "Sure. Back in a minute, Reb."

Out in the hall, Mac gave Ryan a tender hug. "We put the news on when we got back to the house, Lover. The Columbia broke up on re-entry. There are no survivors."

Mac felt Ryan's body jerk with the shock then still. "No, there wouldn't be." She pulled Mac to her and held on to the small woman, needing her quiet strength and warmth.

"You go on home so you can follow the reports as they come in. I'll stay here and bring Reb and your moms home when they are released."

Ryan nodded into soft, fragrant hair. "Thanks. I love you."

Mac held her close for a second before stepping back. " I love you too. Now go. I'll handle things here."

Reb looked up in surprise as Mac came in the door and her thoughtful, intelligent eyes followed her cousin as she crossed the room and sat down beside her. "What's up?"

"The shuttle broke up on re-entry. Everyone's dead. I sent Ryan home so she could watch the bulletins on TV."

"Oh no. Did Ryan know them?"

"I don't know, Reb. I imagine though she identifies pretty strongly with those who have gone before."

Reb nodded then sighed and rolled her eyes. "Another family member I have to worry about."

Mac smiled. "I'll be around to help. Would you feel more comfortable if Ryan wasn't in the space program?"

"Yes, but I'm proud of her. This is something she has always wanted to do. I want it for her."

"Think you could train Dufus to wear a space suit and track along orbits?"

Reb laughed at the ridiculous thought of a big, shaggy dog face looking out through a space helmet. "Well, they have had dogs in space before but not quite as big as Dufus. He'd need a booster rocket for sure."

Janet, tired and sore, sat beside Robbie's bed holding her hand. Robbie, looking worn out and a bit dirty still around the edges, looked up at her. "I've been thinking."

"That is always dangerous. Please tell me it does not involve having to get out of this chair. Every muscle and bone in my body is on strike."

Robbie's beautiful and expressive eyes clouded with distress. "I'm sorry for dragging you in there."

A reassuring hand squeezed hers. "Hey, we were having fun together. Good adventures, even Saturday afternoon ones, always have an element of risk."

"That's what I need to talk to you about."

Janet looked at her partner and saw the determined, serious set of her jaw. "Okay. I'm listening."

"It's this breast thing."

Janet rolled her eyes.

"No, wait, give me a chance. The other day you made me realize that this was important to you. Important enough that you were willing to go it alone if I wasn't going to support you."

Janet opened her mouth to object but Robbie raised a hand and placed two fingers gently against her lips. "Shhh, I'm only warming up. I went along because you wanted it. But I wasn't overjoyed about the whole idea. I know it is a small risk but I didn't want you back in hospital. I really hate you being in hospital."

"I know, lover," Janet said sympathetically.

Robbie squirmed a little bit. "Anyway, today it was brought home to me that you can't protect the one you love from life. That life happens and there are no guarantees. I wasn't protecting you, I was letting my insecurities limit you. I'm sorry. We both could have died today."

Janet smiled. "Yeah, but we didn't."

Robbie smiled. Janet was about as special a partner as anyone could have. Robbie took Janet's hand in her own. "So how about you tell me what else they have to do to you."

Janet looked up in surprise. "Sure you are up to it?"

"Yup, I am. I want to know so I can help out anyway I can."

Janet got comfortable, laying her head down on Robbie's bed, pleased to see Robbie was back to a normal colour and breathing without a rasp. "Once the extender has stretched the muscle to the right size it will be removed and a permanent implant will be put in."

"Is that process painful?"

"Not really. When the solution is first put in it is a bit uncomfortable and the muscle feels tight but it loosens in a few days. " Janet giggled. "The worst part is it sometimes itches in there. I have to move it around a bit to get some comfort."

"Ahhh, too much information!" joked Robbie.

"Once they put the permanent implant in place, then they build a new nipple. They usually use part of the ear lobe to do that although there are other methods. I think I can afford to lose a bit of my ear lobes."

Robbie looked at Janet's ears with clinical interest. "How much will they take?"

"Just a little. You won't even notice much. The last bit of surgery will be to lift and tuck my real breast so that they match and look perky and young again."

Robbie wiggled her eyebrows. "Perky is good."

"I'll have a scar around the base of the breast and also vertically up to the nibble but it will soon fade," Janet finished.

Robbie nodded and grinned wolfishly. " I guess I can handle this."

Janet laughed. " Robbie! You are so bad!"

Ryan sat alone on the couch. She'd been there for several hours watching the video of Columbia over and over - focussed on any update. From time to time the others joined her and then wandered off again to see to other responsibilities.

"You need to talk to her, Elizabeth," David stated quietly as he rinsed a plate and put it in the drainer.

Dr. Elizabeth Williams picked it up and dried it while she considered. "I really have no experience with children. I am not sure what I could say, David."

David wiped his hands on his apron and turned to look at his wife. When he spoke his voice was gentle but firm. "Lizzy, she is not a child. She is a young astrophysicist and by all accounts a good one. She is also your niece and has looked up to you all her life. Her mothers are not here. No one is more qualified to talk to her now than you are."

Elizabeth looked worried but she nodded. "I suppose you are right. I can always count on you, David, to see things clearly. I'll leave you with the rest of the dishes then and go and have a talk with Ryan."

David smiled and his wife gave him an affectionate kiss as she went by. Elizabeth squared her shoulders and walked down the hall slowly trying to work out what to say. She quietly entered the media room and took a seat on the couch beside Ryan. "Has there been anymore news?"

"No not really. Nothing concrete."

"I'm sorry Ryan."

The younger woman nodded and swallowed hard. "It's hard. They were good people. Some of the best. Their loss and that of the craft will set back the program so much. You know it can happen but when you are training surrounded by such brilliant and talented people you start to feel invincible. Then something like this happens and you realize that for all our technological knowledge, we are still flying by the seat of our pants."

"Ryan, I can't say that I have ever had the desire to be an explorer or adventurer but I understand why they risk their lives to push our frontiers a little farther. I like to think in my own way I have expanded the world's understanding and experience if only with pencil and paper. Most people are content being surrounded by the familiar and the known. There are a few of us who are blessed with the ability to see a small part of the beauty that is, for want of a better word, God's hand in the universe. There is no greater honour or responsibility than to be one of those rare few who will take us closer to understanding.

"Don't give up your dream, Ryan. Don't grieve for those who have been lost doing what they loved best. Instead, honour them in a special place in your soul and step up to take their place. Of all the billions of living things on this planet we are the only ones that look up and wish on the stars. Use your talents and your intelligence, Ryan, to make all our dreams come true."

Ryan blinked back tears and looked at the aunt she loved and admired so very much. "What if Mac doesn't understand?"

Elizabeth frowned. "Of course she will. She loves what you are. Loving someone is wanting and supporting your partner to reach for the stars. There are no boundaries with true love, that is why it always has been and always will be the most beautiful and most daring of adventures."

Ryan smiled and leaned over to drop a kiss on her aunt's cheek. She might have said something but just then the noise of the arrival home of the others from the clinic interrupted the moment. They both got up and hurried out to the family room, glad of a reason to end the sensitive talk.

Aliki and Dawn had volunteered to drive Ian back to the make-shift trailer park of forestry trailers that provided a mess and barracks for the summer workers. Ian sat in the back trying to come to terms with the experiences he'd had in the last twenty-four hours. "Do you think Reb's moms will be okay?"

Dawn smiled. "Yes, they will be fine. They are a lucky pair though. It could have been much worse."

Ian nodded. "I'll say."

Aliki frowned and glanced in the rear-view mirror at Ian. "The family would appreciate it if you didn't talk too much about the incident or grant reporters an interview. Publicity is a necessary evil for my sister but we do like to pick and chose what we throw to the ravenous dogs at the door."

Aliki's words were off hand enough but the tone made it clear it was not a request. Ian took the hint. "Yes, Inspector."

Dawn wiggled her eyebrows at Aliki at the title and was amused to see the red of embarrassment climbing up her lover's neck.

Ian, however, was preoccupied with his own thoughts. "Reb is amazing with animals, isn't she? I mean Dufus doesn't just follow commands, he seems to know what Reb wants."

Aliki nodded. "She's got a way with animals. She'll make a good vet."

"Nothing like this happens in my family. I mean, I was never involved in a food fight even at school. It would never happen at home. And the only time we had a family emergency was when dad broke his wrist skiing down the bunny hill at the conservation area."

Dawn laughed and turned to look at Ian. "Amazing as it seems after the last twenty-four hours, the family can manage to go for months on end without creating a sensation or scandal. You haven't necessarily seen us at our best."

Ian nodded. "Yes, Ma'am." Aliki gave Dawn a poke at this title to get even for the face Dawn had pulled at the use of the word Inspector. Dawn chose to ignore it. Ian, unaware of the silent communication, was still talking. "Do you think it would be alright to tell my parents I met you all? We don't know any rich or famous people and I've met a whole bushel of them this weekend."

Aliki snorted. As a scientist and police officer, she was neither rich or famous. Dawn laughed. "The rich and famous are no different from anyone else. They are just fortunate to have more opportunities. Sure, I think it would be okay to tell your parents you met Reb's family. Just be careful what you say and make sure they understand we value our privacy."

Aliki pulled up in front of the forestry complex but kept the engine running. Although she wouldn't admit it, she was anxious to get back and make sure Robbie and Janet were okay.

Ian opened the door and started to get out. Then he hesitated. "Would you let Reb know that I'll phone tomorrow and see if it is okay for her to go to the dance?"

"We'll do that. Thanks for your help today, Ian," Dawn smiled. "Good Night."

They waited until Ian had unlocked the door of the barracks trailer and then headed back to the lodge.

When Aliki and Dawn returned they found that the others had just got back from the clinic and David was already bustling around getting them comfortable on opposite ends of the couch and promising sandwiches, tea and homemade pie as soon as possible. Dufus, the hero of the day, was give loads of attention and extra dog biscuits and Reb smiled with pride. Everyone did their part and once enough food and tea had been consumed to fortify even the most ravenous of appetites they all settled down to sort through the events.

Dawn sat on the floor by her partner, they're backs against the couch that Robbie and Janet shared. "Reb, Ian wanted us to tell you he'll phone tomorrow to make arrangements about going to the dance."

Reb's expressive eyes sparkled with excitement as she carried refills of tea in for her moms. "Yeah? You mean I still have a boyfriend after a weekend exposed to you lot? Wow! This guy's a keeper. He's got nerves of steel and no common sense at all. He should be running for the hills."

Janet took her mug with thanks and gave her daughter a playful swat. "To hear you talk you'd think we were the worst parents in the world. It is amazing that any of your friends have the nerve to come here at all."

Reb handed the second cup to her Obbie and smiled. "I make them draw lots to see who has to come and be exposed to you. It's called Williams' Roulette in town. I try to be caring though. I don't make the ones that are still under intense therapy from their last visit draw."

Robbie snorted. "Funny! See if this household throws any more parties for your motley crew of friends." The parties at the lodge for Reb's teen friends had become something of a tradition enjoyed by all.

Reb dropped a kiss on Obbie's head. "I take it all back then, because I'd really like a graduation party before we all head off to university."

"Mercenary!" grumbled Obbie.

"Takes one to know one," laughed Janet before taking a sip of tea.

Obbie frowned. "I gotta tell you guys this weird dream I had while I was out of it in the cave."

Mac smiled and interrupted. "False Face came to you wearing the red mask. The sacred place had been violated. He was caught one foot still among his people and the other on the path that leads to the spirit world. This made him angry."

Robbie's mouth dropped open and everyone turned to look at Mac. Although none of them yet knew Robbie's story, they could tell that Mac knew what Robbie was going to say before she had said it by the startled look on the actor's face.

Robbie swallowed and her eyes locked with Mac's. "He was going to hit me with an club but then he reached his hand down my throat and tried to rip out my insides."

"He wanted your soul. He needed a way to the other side."

Robbie looked truly uncomfortable. "Shit! I don't believe in stuff like that."

Mac smiled from where she sat beside Ryan. "That's okay. There was a stone stuck in your air pipe and I put my fingers down your throat to dislodge it. That made you throw up."

Janet looked at Mac with curious eyes. "I saw you do that. Is that what really happened?"

"Yes, that is one of the things that happened. While the rest of you were up on the ridge, Ryan and I went over the cliff and found a spirit cave. It has some amazing pictographs and pictoglyphs. It is an excellent site but I think it had been entered by people who did not respect the ways of the people."

"Did you make things right?" Dawn asked, as she gently rubbed Aliki's leg. Her partner still had pain from a terrible beating she had taken some years before.

"Yes. I did a purification ceremony. I think everything should be alright now."

Reb gave herself a shake. "Oh boy! Freak me out! I'm sure glad Ian wasn't here to hear this. He'd go screaming into the night."

Everyone laughed and the tension was broken. Yet, somehow, they all felt in their own way that something out of balance had been made right again. The party broke up sometime later. David and Elizabeth headed back to their cabin, Aliki and Dawn took the boat over to theirs and Ryan and Mac discreetly disappeared to walk hand in hand down to the boathouse.

Satisfied that Ian would be taking her to the community centre dance, Reb headed off to bed with her faithful hero at her side. "Don't you worry, Dufus, Ian said he doesn't mind that you sleep at the end of the bed."

Robbie's eyes got big. "She's joking, right?"

Janet rolled her eyes. "I hope so."

Robbie gave the leg that was wedged down beside her thigh a squeeze and looked into the gentle, green eyes of her lover at the other end of the couch. "You saved my life...again."

"You're worth keeping around for a bit yet," teased Janet.

"I would make passionate love to you but every muscle in my body has seized up and I think I am going to need help just getting off this couch to go to bed."

Janet laughed. "You are such a romantic."

"No regrets?"

"None. You?"

Robbie slowly and stiffly got off the couch and offered her hand to her partner and lover. "None. My life began with you and each passing season makes me deeper in love with you."

Janet stood and kissed Robbie's fingers that were wrapped around her own hand. "They have been seasons of love. Seasons of joy. Come to bed, my Olive. It's late."

There was no awkwardness this night. Mac went willingly to Ryan's arms as soon as she had locked the door. The kiss was long, demanding and needy. It was only after several minutes that they parted long enough to get a fire going and pour two glasses of wine. They lay together by the fire snuggled into a pile of pillows.

Mac reached out and stroked Ryan's tense jaw. "Are you okay, Lover?"

Ryan put down her drink and blue eyes the colour of ice fire turned to look at her. "No, I'm not. My moms could have died today, some of the best people in my program have, and all I can think of is how will those two events influence my chances with you."

Mac lay back on the pillows and stared at the ceiling. She needed to organize her own feelings before she spoke and she couldn't do that with Ryan's intense and intelligent eyes watching the play of emotions cross her own. "I've spent sometime doing some thinking myself over the last twenty-four hours. When that news flash came across the screen, the castle of dreams I was building came tumbling down. I empathized so strongly with the partners and family who were waiting for the shuttle to land and in a split second lost everything. The cold hand of death touching so near made me physically shiver. I thought that could be me in a few years. That could be your flight."

Ryan said nothing. She rolled over in one smooth movement and was on her feet pacing. She needed to move, to do something, anything rather than listen to her heart being rejected. "I told you. If it is too hard, I'll leave the space program."

Mac slipped forward and poked at the fire watching the patterns change and the colours intensify with the heat. "A number of years ago, I went to the hospital with my mom to see Aliki. I hadn't been allowed to go for the first week because she had been in intensive care. She had been beaten so badly I wouldn't have recognized her. I knew mom and Aliki had argued bitterly about Aliki's decision to go undercover. That decision had almost cost her life and it did cause her to have a breakdown. She was a very long time recovering. It almost destroyed our family and my mom. I never heard my mom say a thing about it ever again. She just put her heart and soul into making Aliki better."

Ryan looked with miserable eyes at the small figure curled close to the fire for warmth. "I know it was a bad time."

Mac nodded. "Yes it was. Today, I saw the fear in Aunt Janet's eyes as I worked to help Aunt Robbie. But I saw something else there. The same look I saw in my mom's eyes as she sat by Aliki's bed. It was courage. Not the courage to be brave but the courage to let go and let their partners be the very special people they are."

Mac tossed her stick on the fire and turned to look at Ryan standing tall and proud just on the edge of the ring of light. That's who Ryan was. A person who would always be stepping from the safety of the known into the unknown. "I want you in the space program if that is what you want. And if I lose you it will be to a great cause that you believed in."

Ryan felt dizzy and realized it was because she had been holding her breath. She breathed in raggedly and came to sit beside Mac. "I learned something today as well. I learned that I have in you someone who is my equal in everyway. Who I can trust with the things and people who are the most dear to me. You saved Mom's life. I am not sure I could have. Thank you."

Mac blushed and turned to look at the fire. In profile Ryan could see her Salish heritage and her quiet strength. "I need to finish my degree, Ryan. That is important to me. I think I might want to go on and do my doctorate as well. I want to be a writer like my mom but I don't want to write as she does about the tension between humans and the environment. That is not me. I want to write about the bond that is never far away between us and the spirit of the universe. I want to write about how we have only lost our way."

"Like the spirit in the cave."

"Yes, like the spirit in the cave. That reality is very different from your hard-nosed science."

"Is it? I was talking to Aunt Bethy tonight. You know what she told me? She said that most people are content being surrounded by the familiar and the known. But there are a few who are blessed with the ability to see a little part of the beauty that is God's hand in the universe. She said there is no greater honour or responsibility than to be one of those few who will take us closer to understanding. I think we are after the same thing. We are just searching in very different ways."

Mac looked up into eyes filled with life and passion. "I love you Ryan. Will you marry me?"

Ryan felt herself smiling like an idiot. "Yes"

Mac smiled impishly as she moved closer to kiss the woman she knew was her soul mate. "I'll ask your parents for your hand in marriage first thing in the morning."

Ryan pulled Mac into her arms as she lay back on the cushions. "You are likely to find them still in their pj's."

"That's okay. We are all family."

In the cave, a soft chant mixed with the night wind and whispered to the land. "We are the first people. Our ancestors walk your forests and paddled your lakes. Their souls and hearts free. We are the people of the last age, who have stood as angry witnesses to your taking. We start at last on our journey to the home of our ancestors. We are the first people, the spirit of the land. You are one with us. This season, all seasons - forever."

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