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This Time Around

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Gwen chucked a bowling ball across three lanes, watching it finally bounce in to the gutter.

“Strike!”

Art snorted beside her. “You have no idea how bowling works.”

Vera smiled gently, turning away from Art, and said with a mock whisper, “Art’s just being rude because she’s bored.”

Gwen turned to where Art was lounging, and laughed. “She’s still right.”

Vera raised an eyebrow and cast an imperious glance at Art. “That doesn’t mean she’s not being rude.”

“Well, Guinevere, some of us think taking turns rolling a ball on the floor is a bit boring,” Art teased.

“Well, Artemis, some of us are adults, and respect our friends wishes,” Vera replied.

“I’m with Vera,” Gwen chimed in. “This is kind of fun.”

“It wouldn’t be if you were playing it right,” Art said.

Gwen rolled her eyes. “Just get drunk and enjoy the New Year’s Eve party like everyone else.”

Art shrugged. “I will when something interesting happens.”

A chuckle came from behind them. “Do you people always argue like this?”

Gwen, Art, and Vera spun around to see a tall woman with a green lace mask on, one that covered her entire face.

“Unfortunately,” Vera replied with all the grace she could muster.

The woman smirked, and pulled off her mask. Every bit of her was a varying shade of green, from the deep moss of her hair, to the chartreuse of her eyes, to the pale green of her skin.

“And what of it?” Vera said.

The woman smirked again. “Your friend said she was bored. I thought I’d help out.”

Girlfriend.” Vera frowned. “What are you proposing?”

“Bowling is boring, right? How about we have a game of darts.”

“That is barely more interesting than bowling,” Art interjected.

The woman smiled wolfishly, gaze flashing over Gwen. “That’s why there’s a twist. We use me as the target.”

“No way,” Vera said. “That’s an ER trip waiting to happen.”

“I’ll do it,” Gwen said, to her own surprise.

“What?”

“I’ll do it,” Gwen repeated, hardly willing to back down. “Art said she was bored, right?”

The woman turned her piercing gaze on Gwen. “There is one more condition,” she added. “If you hit me, a year and a day from now, you meet me and I get to do the same.”

Gwen shrugged. “I mean, sure, I guess. Fine by me.”

The woman grinned, showing all her teeth. “Follow me.”

Gwen followed her out the door, Art and Vera trailing behind her, out into the humid air. The girl led them around back of the bowling alley, where she turned, back to a palm tree, and tossed Gwen a case of darts.

Gwen opened the case, eyes going wide when she realized that the darts weren’t blunted. She glanced up at the girl, then back down at the darts, then back up at the girl, who nodded at her.

A streetlight flickered across the street, casting its glare across the Gwen’s hand. The dart lay in it, the point gleaming. Feet away, the girl stood, shadows dappled across her body. The streetlight flickered again, and a flash of green light went through the other woman’s eyes. Art and Vera stood behind Gwen, in the shadows. All the world narrowed down to the point in Gwen’s hand and the green woman’s face, lips curled in a smirk.

Gwen threw the dart.

A second later, she blinked. The dart was embedded in the middle of the other girl’s forehead.

She blinked again. The girl blinked back, and withdrew the dart. She wiped away the drops of green blood that had dripped from its tip, and tossed it to Gwen.

“Find me in one year,” she said, “I’ll be in the south at the Green Chapel.” The streetlight flickered again, and she disappeared into the split-second of shadow.

Gwen let out a breath. A mosquito buzzed by her ear and she slapped it. She turned around. Art and Vera were staring at her.

“What just happened?” She asked.

Neither of them could reply.

 

On November first, Art and Vera started looking at her with pain and worry in their eyes. Gwen ducked under their gaze as often as she could, but more and more Art’s piercing looks and the quiver in Vera’s lip became impossible to avoid. On the first of December, Gwen began steeling herself. As the days led up to Christmas, Gwen became more and more jumpy, spilling drinks and knocking over plates. Christmas came and went with a few cards and presents and loads of Chinese food.

It was on December twenty-eighth that Gwen woke at three in the morning, sweat soaked through her thin t-shirt. Half an hour later, she was speeding down the freeway towards Miami. At seven, as the sun rose, she pulled over next to an entrance to an Everglades tour boat rental and python hunting shop.

Gwen knocked on the screen door. She waited tensely, toying with the switchblade in her pocket, half expecting to be faced with a gun-toting middle-aged man. Instead, a small woman with dark, tightly coiled hair, a kind mouth, and a scar above her left eyebrow opened the door.

“Can I help you?” She said.

“Um,” Gwen replied. “Can I use your bathroom? I’ve been driving for hours and the last gas station I passed was definitely a money-laundering front.”

The woman chuckled, low and deep, and Gwen fought the urge to blush.

“Of course,” she said, opening the door for Gwen, and escorting her through. “The bathroom is down the hall and to the left.”

“Thanks.” Gwen rushed towards the bathroom as quickly as she could without looking ridiculous. When she emerged sometime later, a kettle was whistling and the scent of coffee was drifting through the air.

Gwen peeked her head into the kitchen to see the woman who had greeted her drinking a cup of coffee. Another woman worked at the stove, her back to Gwen.

“Uh, thanks for letting me use your bathroom,” Gwen said, already edging her way out of the room.

“Please,” the dark-haired woman said with a smile, “stay for breakfast.”

“I- uh—thanks, but--”

“Please,” the woman said, “I promise we’re not a money laundering front, which is more than I can say for the next three diners.”

“Oh, sure then.”

“Good,” said the woman working at the stove. “I’ve made way too much batter for the two of us.”

She turned around and Gwen’s jaw nearly dropped open. If the woman who had answered the door was attractive, then this woman was a goddess. She was tall and straight-backed, with raven hair that fell in sheets, a hooked nose, and skin bronzed many times over. Clasped around her throat was a woven choker, dyed spring green. There was a grace about her that seemed at odds with the tiny kitchen, as if she should have been in a painting instead of a cottage in south Florida.

“You may call me Iara. My wife, who I doubt has deigned to introduce herself to you, is called Emyr.”

“Nice to meet you, Iara,” Gwen said, feeling oddly juvenile when faced with the two women.

“It’s a pleasure, Gwendolyn.”

“It’s Gwen,” Gwen corrected without thought.

“My apologies, Gwen.” Iara turned back around to continue making pancakes while Gwen hovered awkwardly in the doorway.

“Please,” Iara said after a moment, “sit down.”

Gwen sat down across from Emyr, noticing for the first time that she had been watching Gwen over the edge of her coffee cup. Gwen resisted the urge to squirm.

“What brings you to these parts?” Emyr said, voice a low rumble.

“I’m looking for someone,” Gwen said, glad of something to talk about.

Emyr quirked an eyebrow. “And who might that be?”

“She told me to meet her at the Green Chapel at New Year's.”

A smirk touched the edges of Emyr’s lips. “You’re in luck. The Green Chapel is a half hour drive from here.”

“Really?” Gwen let out an unconscious sigh of relief. “I assumed it was a gay bar in Miami. I figured it’d be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Iara laughed and Gwen turned to look at her.

“What? Should I be worried?”

Iara laughed again. “No, not at all. The Green Chapel is just very much not a gay bar.”

Gwen frowned at her evasiveness. “What is it?”

Iara shrugged, a smile playing at the edges of her mouth. “That’s a good question.”

Gwen sighed, not without a touch of amusement, and resigned herself to not knowing.

After breakfast, Iara showed her to a spare room in the back of the house. Gwen, after thanking her profusely, went to get her backpack from her truck. As she emerged from the house, she saw Emyr strapping a shotgun to her back. As the door shut behind Gwen, Emyr turned around.

The morning was already humid, causing wispies around the edges of Emyr’s hair to fly up. The sunlight gleamed on her head, lighting the stray strands up until it seemed as though she had a halo.

“Going python hunting?” Gwen asked.

Emyr smirked. “Yes.”

Gwen cocked her head. “Do you really need the shotgun?”

Emyr shrugged. “Probably not, but it is comforting.”

Gwen frowned.

“Care to make a deal?”

“What are the terms?”

“I’ll give you whatever I get from hunting, and you give me whatever you get here.”

“I do not want snake skin.” Gwen pursed her lips in distaste.

Emyr let out a chuckle. “I’ll give you cash.”

“Deal.”

Emyr swung herself up into her truck and Gwen took her backpack back inside. The second she entered the room she realized she was suddenly incredibly tired and collapsed on the bed, barely remembering to kick off her boots before she fell asleep.

When she awoke it as late afternoon and Iara was sitting on the bed next to her with a cup of tea.

“I thought you might like something to drink.”

Gwen took the proffered mug gratefully, and took a sip. Iara didn’t move, and suddenly Gwen became aware of how close she was sitting.

“When is Emyr getting back?”

Iara smiled. “It should be another few hours.”

“Well,” Gwen said, shifting away from Iara as subtly as she could, “thank you for the tea, but don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you have work to be getting on with.”

“Not really,” Iara replied. “It gets boring and lonely around here when Emyr is gone.”

“Oh.” Gwen shifted. “So what do you do all day while Emyr is gone?”

“Housework, mostly, and macrame.”

“Macrame?” Gwen seized on the topic change.

“Oh yes,” Iara replied, “I did the hangings out front, as well as the hammock. Shall I show you?”

Gwen smiled. “I’d like that.”

It was dark outside and Gwen was helping Iara with dinner when they heard the revving of an engine outside. Gwen placed the last dish on the table and turned to face Iara.

“Is there anything else I can help with?”

“Nothing at all.” Iara smiled and pressed a kiss to Gwen’s cheek, then glided out of the kitchen to open the door for Emyr.

Emyr and Gwen sat in the living room after dinner, drinking.

“I believe I owe this to you,” Emyr said, tossing a stack of dollar bills to Gwen.

“And for my part,” Gwen said, “I owe this.”

She placed a chaste kiss on Emyr’s cheek, and Emyr smiled.

After breakfast the next morning, Gwen fell asleep on her bed once again, coming to in the late afternoon with Iara sitting next to her on the bed. This time, she was holding a glass of juice.

“Thank you,” Gwen said after she had blinked blearily a few times, “but I can’t repay your generosity.”

“Your company is repayment enough,” Iara said, looking at Gwen through her eyelashes. “To have you next to me is all that is needed.”

Gwen bit her lip, looking around desperately for a change of subject. “I noticed that the faucet in the bathroom is broken. I could fix it, if you’d like.”

“If that is what you wish.” Iara cocked her head, staring at Gwen with unreadable eyes.

“Aye, that is what I wish.”

Iara blinked once, slowly, then pressed a kiss to the corner of Gwen’s mouth. In the space between one moment and the next, she was gone. Gwen touched the corner of her mouth thoughtfully, where she could still feel Iara’s lips, cool and smooth.

That night Gwen and Emyr sat again in the living room. Without a word, Emyr tossed a yet larger stack of bills to Gwen. Emyr tilted her head just a bit, so that Gwen could see where the small curls at the nape of her neck swept across her collarbone. Determined to be uncowed, Gwen stood up and walked toward Emyr slowly, watching the lamplight splay shadows across the other woman’s face. Without faltering, Gwen bent down and pressed her lips to the corner of Emyr’s mouth, and left, not looking behind her.

The morning of December the thirty-first dawned clear and warm. After breakfast, for the third time, Gwen fell asleep. This time, when she awoke in the late afternoon, Iara’s presence wasn’t a surprise. Iara offered her a glass of cider and Gwen took it with a nod of thanks without a second thought.

“You leave tomorrow,” Iara said, a strange note in her voice.

Gwen nodded. “Unfortunately.”

Iara smiled. “I trust that means you have enjoyed your stay.”

“Your company was wonderful,” Gwen replied, with a warmth that surprised even her. “I cannot thank you enough.”

“You do not have to go,” Iara said.

Gwen shook her head. “I do. I made a promise.”

“And yet you seem pained about keeping it.”

Gwen paused, then said in a small voice. “I am going to my death.”

Iara frowned. “Who could have forced you to promise to do such a thing?”

“No one forced me.” Gwen sighed. “The mistake was mine. I did not think it would lead me to my death.”

Iara did not respond, as if lost in thought. She shook her head after a minute to clear it.

“I may be able to help you.” Iara reached up and undid the intricately braided choker from her throat.

“Thank you,” Gwen said, “but I can’t accept this.”

“Please,” Iara said, “It will keep you from any harm.”

“I appreciate the gesture, but I do not think--”

Iara cut her off with a knowing look. “The one you promised your life to did not die, though they should have. You know this world is stranger than it seems. Take my gift; it is no ordinary token.”

Gwen took the choker.

“You needn’t put it on,” Iara said. “Just make sure it is on your person.”

She considered Gwen for a moment. Iara must have been satisfied with what she saw, for she glided out of the room in a swish of dark hair.

That night, for the third time, Emyr and Gwen sat in the living room, drinking. Gwen’s stomach turned as Emyr tossed her the money. Emyr sat back, clearly expecting something in return.

Gwen's emotions warred within her, guilt clashing with fear.

“I have nothing to give you, Emyr.”

“Is that so?” Emyr raised an eyebrow, and Gwen felt sure for a moment that she had been found out. “In that case, I believe you have won the day.”

Gwen tried to not too obviously breathe a sigh of relief.

Emyr toyed with the edge of her glass of whiskey before draining it and walking off.

Gwen woke the next morning to an empty house. Iara and Emyr were nowhere to be found. Too nervous to eat breakfast, Gwen drank a glass of water slowly, toying with the necklace in her pocket. When she had finished, she took her glass to the sink and washed it thoroughly, leaving it in the drying rack. She could find nothing else to do, no errand to delay her departure. With a heavy feeling in her stomach, she got in her truck and drove down the road.

She didn’t know how she knew when to get out, or how she knew which marshy spots to jump over as she made her way through the increasingly soggy ground. The ground sloped down, and she followed it, doing her best to keep her jeans clear of mud. Gwen descended, and descended, and descended, until every step she took was a war against the clinging mud against her boots. Thankfully, just when she was contemplating turning back and trying to find a better way, the ground began to rise.

Gwen emerged from a tangled stand of trees onto the top of a green hill with the ruins of an old church on it. Stones were distended here and there, so covered with moss they seemed to be made out of a living green organism.

“Hello?” Gwen called. When there was no answer, she approached what must have once been an altar. As she reached out a hand to touch it, she felt a presence behind her and turned.

“Emyr,” she breathed.

“Well, yes... and no.”

Before Gwen’s eyes Emyr’s slight frame grew large, until she stood nearly a foot above Gwen. Green spread throughout her body until the tips of her long hair were the color of the moss on the altar.

Gwen bowed her head in submission.

“I came, as you asked.”

“I see.”

From nowhere Emyr produced three darts. Gwen lifted her head up and looked Emyr in the eye, waiting for the blow.

The first dart sailed far over her head, into the mossy remains of a graveyard. The second flew even farther, into a stand of trees.

Gwen braced herself for a third time, clutching the necklace in her hand so tightly that it indented itself into her skin.

This time, the dart was close. Gwen heard the whiz as it flew by her head. There was a sudden pain in her ear, and when she reached up reflexively to check it, her hand came away red.

“Twice I missed in return for the kisses you gave me,” Emyr said. “I would have missed a third time but for what you hid from me.”

Gwen removed the necklace from her pocket and offered it to Emyr, full of shame. Emyr stepped forward, close enough that Gwen could feel the heat that radiated from her body. Emyr reached out, and before Gwen could do anything, closed Gwen’s hand back around the necklace.

“There,” she said. “Now it is freely given.”

“No,” Gwen said, “this I owe you for your gift.”

Gwen reached up, and standing on her toes, kissed Emyr.

“There,” Gwen said, “Now we are both as free as we can be.”

Emyr chuckled. “Always so honorable.”

Gwen blinked, confused, as if something misplaced in her brain were finally being slotted back in where it belonged.

“We’ve done this before...” Gwen paused, searching for a name that was just out of reach. Finally, it came to her, with the scent of rain, and the sound of steel clashing against steel. “Bertilak.”

Bertilak grinned. “So you do remember.”

“You looked different.”

“As did you.”

Gwen stared up at Bertilak in wonder and confusion. “But how?”

Bertilak frowned, and shifted her gaze up to the sky. “If you wait long enough, everything comes around again.”

Gwen breathed out, then breathed in, savoring the scent of the earth after rain that Bertilak always seemed to have.

“Not everything,” she said, mouth set in a determined line. Gwen captured Bertilak’s mouth in hers again, and smiled into the kiss.

“No,” Bertilak said, smiling, once Gwen had pulled away. “This time is better.”