~ Summer of Love ~
by Zoe

Disclaimer: Let's see. I'm not exactly sure how to proceed with this part, so I will simply say that Xena and Co. belong to MCA/Universal. But my girls aren't their girls, so I should be okay, right? Anyway, that's that. Oh, yeah, you can't have them.

Language Warning: There is some potentially objectionable language, but nothing too darned bad (See? I don't even say anything bad here. Wow.). Well, at least I don't think it's all that bad, but I may be world-weary, or used to it… Nah. But don't say I didn't tell you.

Other Stuff: There isn't any, really. WAIT!! How about my addy so you can tell me if you like it or not? Whaddaya say? Here it is just in case-- zoe_c71@yahoo.com . Oh, okay. I can thank my beta-reader for her help… but she won't let me mention her name so I'm hoping she'll know that this is for her.!

Now, without further ado…

Part 2

"How come you're not complaining about this?"

"Because this is fun. That other activity you call biking is not. See?" Noelle hitched her pack higher on her back before cinching the shoulder straps tighter.

"How the hell is that possible?" The dark woman pulled a bandanna from her hip belt and mopped the sweat from her face.

"That had a dumbass bike. This does not," Noelle replied simply.

"No, this has a dumbass backpack," Molly said under her breath.

"Eyup. Heavy, ain't they?"

"Stupidly, if you ask me," was the tall woman's muffled reply. She was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to tie the bandanna around her head, both to soak up the perspiration and to contain her hair.

"Well, nobody asked you, and let me do that." The blonde stepped in front of her taller companion. Quickly, Noelle tucked a couple stray locks up under the bandanna and tied it behind Molly's head. Then she stepped back to inspect the other woman. After only a moment, her pronouncement was, "Acceptable." Turning back around, mindful of her pack's awkwardness, Noelle started up the trail without another word.

Molly grinned and fell into step a few paces behind Noelle, too far back for normal conversation, but close enough to enjoy the view. And what a nice view it is, she thought wickedly.

The two hikers walked in silence until they heard the distant echo of voices and laughter. Molly took several long steps to catch up to Noelle. She glanced over then snorted in laughter. "Nice look, Thumper." Noelle had tied her own on her head, but turned it around so the tails stuck up off her forehead like rabbit ears.

"Mmm," Noelle mumbled absently. "We're almost to lunch, praise be. The rest spot is right up ahead. I'm starving."

"When aren't you?"

Backhanding Molly lightly on the stomach, Noelle just kept walking. They rounded a short curve and came upon a small band of merry packers in an equally small clearing. Several counselors leaned against a downed tree, while others crowded around Winky and Trek, who were sitting on a boulder. All of them were eating and chatting, often grabbing bits of each other's lunch.

"Honeys, we're home!" Noelle called as she strode into the clearing.

"Hey, Fern, nice of you two to show up," Winky greeted. She scooched closer to Trek and indicated that the two women should sit next to them on the rock.

"The others?" the director asked, not one note of concern in her voice.

"They're coming. We left 'em back there; Mouse is having to coax Butter along. You know how she hates these things," Noelle answered, waving vaguely in the direction they just came from.

"I don't blame her," Molly added as they settled into lunch. She took a minute to massage her upper thigh, wanting to head off any cramps or tightness before it even started.

"You okay?" Noelle asked quietly.

Nodding, Molly just smiled at her companion.

Then both women fished out the ordinary brown paper sack that held the lunches Kernel packed for all of them. Noelle looked in her bag and stuck her tongue out in distaste. "Blech. Whatcha have in yours, Snowy-girl?" she asked, seconds before taking the bag from Molly's hand.

"I didn't want that, or anything."

"Oh quit your whining. I'm not going to eat the whole damned thing. I just want to see if you have something I like better than blueberry. And you do," Noelle finished, holding up a strawberry granola bar. "You can have mine. I hate blueberry." Having said enough, Noelle dumped out the rest of her bag onto the rock between them.

Molly followed suit, her eyebrows arching when she saw what her own bag contained. "A pita sandwich, a granola bar, some trail mix stuff, and a... peppermint?" Blue eyes looked in confusion at Noelle. "Uh, Noe, honey? What's with all this stuff?"

"Rail foo," Noelle muttered, her mouth full of food.

"Say again?"

Taking a moment to swallow her food and wash it down with a gulp of water, Noelle repeated, "Trail food. Pita because it's damned near indestructible, turkey and cheese to shore us up, GORP to keep us going, a granola bar to keep us regular, and a starlight mint to top 'er off. Trail food." The blonde paused to take a another bite of her sandiwch. "Check your pita, though; you may have ham instead of turkey."

Ater determining that she did indeed have ham, Molly bit into the pita, wishing she had some spicy mustard to dress it up. Oh well, I guess it's better than ketchup… or worse yet, mayonnaise.

Molly was finishing up her granola bar a few minutes later when Mouse and Butter came strolling into the clearing, the young woman talking her hiking partner's ear off.

"It's about time," Trek boomed. "What took you so long?"

The big football player helped the diminutive counselor take off her pack and watched her fondly as she collapsed onto the ground. "She's gone soft on us, Trek. Real soft."

"Better whip her into shape."

"You'll whip nothing into anything, thank you very much," Butter retorted. "I'll be fine in another decade or so."

Everyone laughed good-naturedly at the teasing.

"Now that we're all here, finally," Winky began, tossing a pointed look at Butter who just shrugged in reply, "here are the plans for the rest of the day and tomorrow."

It didn't take long to fill the group in on the activities for the rest of the day, and before long most everyone was shouldering their packs again, eager to finish for the day.

"Let's move out, soldiers!" Noelle yelled, heading the crew up the trail.

In less than twenty minutes, Noelle and Molly were passed by all the younger counselors. They were left walking with Trek and Winky, and conversation soon turned to the summer.

"So what's it look like this summer, Pam?" Noelle asked, reverting to real names in the absence of the other counselors.

"Same as every other year. Kids who need a lot of discipline and even more love. We got more funding and more donations this year, so we were able to build another cabin and bring in another group of 12-year-old boys. We're going to try a special program, try to keep these boys from the gangs and prison." The director turned to Molly. "That's where you come in. Or partly, anyway. There will be 2 counselors with the 6 boys full-time, but we'll be relying on you to help out during all-camp activities. Sure, you'll be doing the biking, but we'll need you to be with them as much as possible. They're tough, loud, and sometimes violent, so we'll need as many eyes on them as possible." Pam grinned. "Noelle says you're the best person for that job."

"Does she?" the tall woman asked dryly.

The woman in question coughed rather conspicuously before bringing the subject back to the campers. "Who are you putting in their cabin?"

"Mouse and the new counselor, Laker. Mouse has been here for 3 summers now, so he's got a handle on how things work. And Laker seems to have a good head on his shoulders. It'll be tough, but maybe we can do a lot of good for them."

"We can," Noelle agreed. "I know we can. All they need is a chance. And we'll give it to them."

Ah, Noe, I wish you wouldn't get your hopes up so high. Not everyone makes it everytime. Blue eyes smiled gently at the other woman. But that's one of the things I love most about you, baby.

It was sometime later that the small group of adults reached the site where they would be camping that evening. Noelle immediately claimed a spot on a springy patch of moss under a large, full pine tree. Sparkling green eyes looked into blue as Noelle pointed upward. "Know why this tree grew so big?" Without waiting for an answer she continued. "It was liberated."

Molly threw her head back and laughed from the belly. She stepped closer to Noelle and threw her arm around the smaller woman, pack and all. "You're wonderful, you know that?"

"Nah. Just silly. Now, what do you say we get this tent up and get some grub? I'm starving!" Quickly, Noelle divested herself of her pack, taking out the part of the tent she carried after she set it down. "Well? Come on, dollface. Let's see that canvas!"

After getting out the equipment, Noelle began threading a pole through the tent sleeve. In a flash, the tent was up. "You want to drive those two stakes in while I do the fly?"

Thrilled to finally be asked to do something, Molly jumped right in. "Yeah, sure." Then she looked around. "Uhh, what stakes?"

The blonde shook her head at her tent partner, then pointed with her chin. "In the bag there."

Again the tall woman looked around, this time turning in a complete circle. "Mmhm. But where?"

"There!" Noelle yelled in exasperation, motioning toward a very small blue nylon bag.

Molly picked up the bag Noelle had indicated. "This?"

Letting the rainfly drop, Noelle stomped over to where Molly stood. She yanked the small bag out of the big hand and shoved it under the dark woman's nose. "Yes here! And if you ask me what to do with them, Cartwright, I swear to God, I'll wring your neck." Noelle whirled on her heel and went back to her task.

"I know what to do with these," Molly informed the other woman indignantly. "I just sorta push them into the ground, right?"

"Make sure they go through the little rings at each corner. And don't bend the damned things, for God's sake!"

The tall woman snapped to attention and gave a sharp salute. "Yes, sir, General, sir."

The remainder of the tent-raising task went off without a hitch, the two woman working in companionable silence. Noelle turned to survey the site where they camped. A baker's dozen blue and yellow tents sprang up amid the pines and oaks. They were scattered here and there, some right next to each other, and others, like Molly and Noelle's, off by themselves. At a small dirt patch, Winky and Trek were cleaning out the stone fire-ring in preparation of building the fire.

Noelle looked up at the towering pine under which they pitched their tent. "We picked a good spot," she confirmed again. She turned to look at Molly. "We're good to go, camper." Then she grinned.

"So what now?" Molly asked, feeling a grin grow in response.

"We look far and near for wood, that's what." There was a tiny pause. "And then we eat."

"Figures. Okay, lead away, General."

Noelle led the tall woman back down the path they had traveled earlier. It was quiet, the only sounds the occasional bird and the crunch of twigs and leaves under their boots. "Everyone else will probably get the kindling, so we'll get bigger stuff. It'll burn longer and hotter. Look for dead branches about as thick as your wrist, got it?"

Just after turning to leave the path, Noelle stopped and looked at Molly. "Don't wander out of range of my voice, and get a great big armload."

More than 10 minutes later, the tall woman stepped back onto the trail. Shifting the load of wood she carried to ease the strain on her thigh, Molly peered through the trees, trying to catch a glimpse of Noelle. All she was able to see, though, was … trees. And a bunch of ferns, for God's sake. But she didn't see her Fern.

After waiting what seemed like hours, Molly finally dropped her load and called to the other woman. "Noe! Where are you?"

"Over here," was the reply. "C'mere."

Following the sound of her voice, Molly reached Noelle in a minute's time. The blonde was sitting under a small pine tree, watching something on the ground near her feet.

Molly hunkered down next to her, looking where Noelle pointed. There, right near the toe of Noelle's boot, sat the tiniest frog the dark woman had ever seen. It was no bigger than her thumb nail, and it was a dark greeny-brown color. She whistled softly. "Wow, that thing is small." For some reason, Molly found herself whispering in an almost reverant tone. "What kind-"

"It's a spring peeper," Noelle supplied. "When they come out of the mud, you know spring's right around the corner. And the males make some racket, too." Shining green eyes turned to Molly. "Want to hold it?"

"Umm, well… I, uh… no, not really." Molly shivered. "Blech. I'd really rather not, thanks."

Noelle scooped the tiny amphibian into her hand. "They're really something else. I mean, look at his feet. Look how they're webbed so perfectly and so tiny. Isn't it amazing?"

Not quite able to muster the enthusiasm that Noelle exhibited, Molly shook her head. "I'm sure it is. As long as it stays away from me, it can be anything you want it to be."

Chuckling, Noelle let the tiny creature hop back on the ground. Then she stood up and offered her hand to Molly. "Come on, tough guy, let's go eat." Heaving the bigger woman to her feet, Noelle noticed that she seemed to favor her thigh a bit. "Everything okay, Mol?" she asked, worry lacing her words.

The dark head nodded. "It's just a bit tight, that's all." Just as she was about to reach for Noelle's hand, Molly stopped and looked at it closely. "You're not going to get warts or anything, are you?"

"Why yes, yes I am. Here, have some!" Suddenly, Noelle mashed the palm of her hand into Molly's face, not hard enough to hurt her, but just enough to tickle her. Then the action turned into a caress as Noelle cupped Molly's cheek for a moment. "Hey, mind doing me a favor?" she asked softly.

"What's that?" Molly responded as she put her hand over Noelle's smaller one.

"Kiss me, please. Before we go back and have to act like friends, pals, buddies, ki-" The words were interrupted by soft lips gently stroking her own. Noelle leaned into the kiss, loving the feel of Molly against her.

When the two women separated, the blonde sighed. "Come on, we better go; they'll be sending out the Coast Guard or something."

"Uh, Noe? Don't you mean the forest rangers?" Molly asked as she re-gathered her load of wood.

"Coast Guard, forest rangers, whatever. Let's go."

After getting her own load, Noelle and Molly hoofed It back to the campsite. Once there, they deposited their loads near the firering, Noelle retrieved both her and Molly's dinner sacks. "These babies seem mighty light," she mumbled to herself. She held off investigating the contents, though, until she sat next to the tall woman. Handing over a bag, Noelle finally peered into hers.

"What the hell?" she asked, looking at Winky. "Where's my food? I only have a stinking napkin and plastic dinnerware. What's up with that? Snowy, whaddaya have in yours? Mouse? What is going on?!"

"Relax," Trek answered for his wife, his deep voice laced with good humor. "Kernel's bringing us some hot dinner and dessert. He'll be here shortly, so finish up what you're doing, gang."

A rousing cheer erupted from the counselors at Trek's proclamation and a new vigor spiced up everyone's movements. It wasn't long before they were all settled around the cheery fire, anticipating Kernel's arrival. There was general laughter and teasing until Laker yelled, "Hey, listen! I hear an engine." All the younger counselors scrambled to their feet, disappearing out of sight down a trail that Molly hadn't noticed before.

Then something dawned on the tall woman. "Wait a minute. Just how in the blazes did Kernel get here?" Accusing blue eyes glared at the three other people. "So? How'd he get here?"

"Now, Molly," Winky began, "the hike is a big part of the summer…"

"We take all of the older kids up here at least once a season," Noelle added, picking up where the director had left off.

"Uh-huh," Molly answered, totally unconvinced.

"But we need a way to get the kids out fast if there's an emergency," Trek finished, a grin partially hidden by his whiskers.

"And they're okay with this when they find out they could have just DRIVEN here?" Molly asked, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"Well, we, uh, don't tell them, exactly," her partner informed her.

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Molly shook her head, but there was no further conversation because the other counselors appeared, carrying various and sundry bags and Tupperware containers.

"Hot damn. It's about damned time," Noelle muttered to no one in particular. She jumped to her feet, the booted dogs barking pitifully. Gotta change to my water mocs. And without so much as a "by your leave", she left Molly to follow after her.

The tall woman arrived at the makeshift serving table just in time to hear Noelle tease the older man.

"It better be good, you old curmudgeon. I'm starving."

"Keep it up, little girl, and you won't get nothin" but the crumbs," Kernel replied as he ladled something into a paper bowl.

"Ha. Even the crumbs are good, so it's no threat." The blonde leaned around the counselor in front of her. "Oh my God", she breathed. Then she turned searching eyes to the line behind her. "Molly?" she called. "Get up here and get a bowl of this. It's the Kernel's beef stew." Another exuberant cheer burst from the counselors behind Noelle.

"Oh, Kernel," Noelle gushed, her tone terribly fake and saccharine. "You're just wonderful!"

"Save it, brat," he answered, the harsh words softened by the twinkle in his blue eyes and the small smile playing at his mouth.

"Fine, you old crank," Noelle groused. But her words, too, were softened by her grin. "Seriously, Kernel, thanks for fixing this and bringing it out here to us."

"It's always my pleasure, sweetheart."

After the dinner of beef stew, cornbread, and bug juice, the hikers cleaned up and helped the cook carry the leftovers and garbage to his truck. He took the trash and left them with the goods to fix s'mores.

Darkness was starting to fall when the counselors returned to the fire. It was quiet then for a bit, each of them listening to the night sounds that surrounded them.

To Noelle, it always seemed as if she was in a place completely separate from the rest of the world when she was in a place like this at night. Crickets chirped their mating calls, spring peepers cheeped their bird-like calls, and even the occasional owl made a cameo appearance. Shivering a bit at the sudden drop in temperature, she finally broke the silence that enveloped the campsite. "I'm going to grab my sweatshirt," she whispered in Molly's ear.

Away from the light and warmth of the fire, the lowering temperature was even more noticeable. The blonde walked to where their packs leaned against the pine tree by their tent and quickly fished out her own and Molly's heavy sweatshirt. Then Noelle took a quick moment to change from her boots into her water shoes. As she walked past the tall woman, Noelle dropped the garment into her lap.

Molly smiled gratefully at the thoughtful gesture as she pulled the fleecy shirt over her head. She watched as Noelle settled next to Mouse and Laker, not saying a word but simply sitting with the young men. She always manages to make everyone feel special, Molly thought. She's even less reserved out here. I bet she's wonderful with the little kids.

The thought brought a desire to her heart, an urge so deep and so profound, that it almost overwhelmed her. Molly wanted to see Noelle with a child… their child. She wanted that more than anything else right then.

But as quickly as the thought came into her mind, the tall woman pushed it aside. I won't go through that again. I couldn't survive it.

There was some softly murmured conversation scattered around the fire, others getting their own warm outerwear. Molly's eyes continued to stray to the woman seated across the fire from her. The firelight made orange highlights dance through Noelle's blonde hair, and her face was cast in shadow when she turned to speak with someone else. More than once blue and green met and held, no words necessary to communicate their thoughts to each other.

Then Ringo, a counselor from Erie, sat to the left of Molly, several people away from her.

"Where'd he get the guitar?" she asked Butter, who sat on her right.

"Probably his pack," the girl answered.

Surprised blue eyes looked at the round girl. "You mean he carried it with him?"

Butter just nodded.

As it turned out, Ringo was quite a good guitarist. And to fit the mood around the campfire, he played older songs, songs by Bread and John Denver and Cat Stevens. Some of the young people were familiar with several of the songs so they sang the words softly. Even Molly found herself humming along occasionally. When Ringo finished his current song, Molly heard herself asking, "Mind of I pluck a cord or two?"

Noelle's eyes flew open in complete surprise. She's telling these strangers this? Now that's something.

"You play?" Butter asked. "That's wonderful. Play us something," she urged.

The tall woman smiled ruefully. "I used to play an awfully long time ago. There were a couple of bars in Pitt that I played at every once in a while for a couple bucks. Nothing major."

Ringo handed over the guitar. "G'head. Let's hear something."

I'm so proud of you, Molly, Noelle thought happily. Is it because of the darkness or where we are?

Taking the instrument, Molly settled it on her lap. "My repertoire isn't all that extensive anymore, I'm afraid. But I'll see what I can do."

She slowly played a couple of warm-up cords. "Mmm, it's been a while." Then, without further ado, Molly launched into an old Neil Diamond song. Her clear, strong voice sang the words softly.

It was slow, and the feeling she put into every word as she started singing moved each of the people seated around the fire in a different way. For Noelle, the emotions behind the words made her heart swell with a love for Molly so strong and bright, she felt almost blinded by it. Yet she felt supported at the very same time.

"The story of my life

is very plain to read.

It starts the day you came

And ends the day you leave.

The story of my life

begins and ends with you.

The names are still the same

and the story's still the truth.

I was alone.

You found me waiting

and made me your own.

I was afraid

that somehow I never could be

the woman you wanted of me."

You are Molly. You are so much more than I have any right to love. You always were.

You're the story of my life

and every word is true.

Each chapter sings your name,

each page begins with you.

It's the story of our lives

And never letting go.

If I die today, I wanted you to know.

I know, Noelle thought, tears filling her eyes. But you won't leave me. You can't. I need you. I need you too much.

Stay with me here.

Share with me, care with me.

Stay and be near

And when it began I'd lie awake every night

just knowing somewhere deep inside

that our affair just might write

The story of my life

is very plain to read.

It starts the day you came.

It ends the day you leave.

The last cord died in the still night air. Molly smiled and looked at the woman sitting across from her. Her smile deepened when she saw Noelle quickly reach up and wipe her eyes.

Then there were murmurs of approval from the others. The tall woman just shrugged and handed the instrument back to its owner. There were promptings for more songs, but Molly declined.

Finally, later that night, after more singing and s'mores, the crowd started to retire to their tents. After saying good night to Winky and Trek, who were staying to make sure the fire was dead out, Noelle led the way through the darkness to their tent.

The two women shimmied out of their sweatshirts and boots, brushed their teeth, and, before going into the tent, grabbed the plastic bag in which they kept their clean clothes. Then Noelle crawled into the three-man tent and sat on her sleeping bag, changing her clothing. She lay down and waited for Molly to finish her nighttime ritual.

When the tall woman did lay next to her, Noelle turned to her, wrapping herself around the other woman. The darkness and night sounds covered them like an old, favorite blanket, isolating them from the rest of the world.

Molly's big hand stroked the warm skin of Noelle's back. She kissed the top of the tousled hair. "You are the story of my life, Noelle Potter, and I love you."

***** ***** *****

Sleepy green eyes blinked open slowly. Bright sunlight shining through the canopy of leaves and needles caused shadows to dance across the nylon ceiling of their current home away from home. Noelle knew, without having to roll over and see, that her tent partner was already gone. Probably out doing aerobics or running a mini-marathon, Noelle thought drowsily. Whoopie for her.

Just as she was about to drift off again, the harsh sound of the door zipper drilled into her head.

"Rise and shine, Smiley," a cheerful voice said. Molly's dark head poked through the door and a hand reached in to wiggle Noelle's foot. "Come on, let's go sit by the pond for a few minutes before everyone else gets up."




"Pretty please?" Molly asked in her best begging voice. When there was no response to her pleading, she knew she was getting somewhere. "I'll play with your hair?" she added to sweeten the deal.

"You will?"


One eye opened to peer suspiciously at Molly. "Promise?"

"Of course."

Heaving a dramatic sigh, Noelle finally unzipped her sleeping bag and sat up. She reached up with both hands to scratch her head, arching her back to try to stretch the tight muscles she felt there. A small smile touched her lips when she felt them loosening up.

The sight of Noelle thrusting her breasts forward in the stretch was incredibly erotic to Molly. She felt a familiar tingling in parts of her body she knew would require extensive attention when they got home.

Oh what the hell, she thought suddenly. Why wait 'til then?

Quickly Molly crawled into the tent. Then slowly, very slowly, she zipped the door shut. As she did, she grinned wickedly and never took her eyes from Noelle.

"Hey now," Noelle began when she saw the look in those blue eyes. She pulled her bag up around body. "There are people nearby," she hissed. "What if they hear?"

The tall woman covered the short space between them, advancing an inch at a time. "I guess you'll have to be quiet then," she said with a leer.

A bit later, while the others were still sleeping or just beginning to rouse, the two women sat on a rock at the edge of the pond and soaked their feet. The water was icy cold, but after the initial shock wore off, they enjoyed it.

The rock was to the left of the narrow trail that led to the grassy edge, so they knew they would hear someone coming before that person saw them. It was a small pond, neither very big around nor very deep. There was only a small grassy patch, the rest of the pond edged by tall weeds and lacy ferns. Trees cast their shadows over much of the water, making little moving shapes on the murky surface when the breeze blew.

Noelle found herself wondering what mythical, magical world existed below the surface of the pond. As she dipped her hands in to splash some of the cold water on her face, she began imagining the world that lay below.

Tiny little people, maybe. Probably ugly. Greeny-blue. With gills. Webbed hands and feet. They communicate by sign language. A subtle, unseen sign language. They're probably ruled by a wise, ancient couple. I bet they live in wee tiny crevices under big rocks. Everyone works together to catch tadpoles and minnows and to harvest the underwater grasses. There's never any fighting, either. Disagreements, yes, but no fighting.

Seeing the distant but intense look on Noelle's face, Molly nudged her gently. "Hey, penny for your thoughts."

"Oh, I was just imagining the merworld that exists in the pond." Without missing a beat, Noelle asked, "I thought you said you'd play with my hair. Well? What're you waiting for?"

"The what?" Molly asked, gently playing with Noelle's blonde hair. "What kind of world?"

Closing her eyes to enjoy the feeling of the fingers in her hair, the smaller woman shrugged. "Nothing. I was just being silly."

"It's not silly. Tell me about it," Molly urged.

"Mmm, maybe another time. Right now I want to savor the quiet."

They fell into companionable silence, quietly wiggling their feet in the cold water. Noelle turned her face up to the sun, feeling the warmth touch her.

"You'll get sunburned." Molly's deep voice was soft, her hand even softer in Noelle's hair.

"We'll go back in a minute. I just want to sit for another bit, okay?"

Finally, Noelle sighed. "Well, I suppose we better get back and start packing up. And eating breakfast." She turned to grin at Molly, but the grin was gone before it had a chance to form. Looking at Molly in the sunlight, her face more relaxed than it had been since… since I've known her, Noelle thought.

Then she realized, maybe for the first time, just what the whole ordeal at school did to Molly, both physically and emotionally. The tall woman was quieter and more serious, if that was possible, and she was thinner. Not ever did Molly complain about fatigue or pain in her leg, but Noelle knew, from only looking at the large, bright pink scar, that it must hurt like blazes some days. And she knew, too, from the look in those blue eyes, that Molly was battling something very deep and very personal.

But Noelle was unsure of herself, unsure of how to help Molly. Talking with a therapist was out of the question; neither one of them was willing to share something so private with a stranger. It wasn't something either of them was prepared to do.

So Noelle decided to just do what she had been doing all along- be Molly's friend and, more importantly, be her partner. No amount of pushing or prodding would get Molly to talk, not until she was good and ready, so it would have to be a waiting game. It wasn't something she wanted to do, but what other choice do I have? I won't lose her. I can't lose her. She's my life.

In the middle of her musings, bright blue eyes turned to Noelle. "So you ready to go back?"

Smiling softly, Noelle nodded. Then she said, "I love you, you know."

Blue eyes turned surprised. "I know that, yeah."

After putting on their shoes, the two women helped each other from the rock and strolled back to the campsite. They greeted three counselors on their way up to the tents. When they arrived, Winky was already heating up water with her camp stove.

"Morning," Noelle said quietly as she sat next to the director on the log. "How did you sleep?" Watching as Winky yawned, the blonde chuckled. "That well, huh? Well, if it's any help, I slept pretty well."

"I envy anyone who can sleep on the ground. Good gravy, I know I can't. I don't know how you can do it."

"Now hang on. I couldn't do it for more than one night, two at the most, so don't go slapping me in the hardcore group." Noelle looked up in time to see Molly plop down across from her, her arms full of a small camp stove, an even smaller pot, and a bottle of water.

"Attagirl, Snow-Bunny. Get me some hot chocolate going, baby!" Noelle's enthusiasm and energy levels sky-rocketed at the sight of Molly and her stove.

The dark woman snorted, a rather unladylike sound. "You, my fine Ferned friend, can get your own beverage. This is for me, and me alone."

"Oh, you wound me!" Noelle lamented. Then she huffed and heaved herself to her feet. "Fine! I'll get my own. I hope you burn your tongue on yours, woman!"

Molly's response was barely loud enough for the blonde to hear as she walked past the other woman. "You like my tongue entirely too much to wish that."

Blue eyes caught green, and Molly delighted in the blush that crept up Noelle's neck. And she didn't miss the fact that Noelle chose not to answer her. Shaking her head in amusement, the tall woman went back to her task of watching her water boil.

"A watched pot never boils, or so they say."

Molly turned to look at the short director. She grinned and shrugged. "I suspect this one wouldn't boil even if I didn't watch it."

Winky laughed and settled herself next to Molly. "So you've not ever worked at a camp before?"

Dark hair swirled around Molly's head as she shook her head in response. "The best I can say I did is raise a- work in a high school, as you already know."

Keen eyes caught the swift look of pain that crossed Molly's face. Winky watched as usually frank blue eyes became clouded, and then dropped to watch the small flame under the bright silver pot.

"Raised what?" the director asked quietly.

It was a long time, or so it seemed, before Molly answered. "Umm, a calf. I helped raise one on my grandfather's farm one summer when I was a, um, kid." Without missing a beat, Molly changed the subject. "What will we do when we get back this afternoon?"

Nodding the smallest bit, Winky allowed the subject change. "Well, we still have to have swim tests for the counselors, and then there's the canoe swamp, but after that, we'll be done for today."

"I have to take a swim test?" the dark woman asked incredulously. "No one told me that. Who gives the swim test?" Molly asked suspiciously. But she figured she knew the answer without having to hear it.

"Fern," Winky answered simply. "But let me warn you, she's terribly strict. I almost didn't pass the first year she was waterfront director."

"That's just great," Molly groaned. Well, she taught me to swim, so she better damned well pass me. "What the hell does this test involve?"

"Swimming two laps of the lake, floating for three minutes, then treading water, with a brick, for 10 minutes." Winky leaned over to dump her powdered chocolate packet into her cup, adding boiling water on top of that. When there was no reply to the information, the director looked back at Molly. When she saw the look of abject horror on the tall woman's face, she burst out laughing. "What's wrong?"

"Jerusalem crickets," Molly breathed. "I have to do all that?"

Winky nodded, laughter bubbling over and out of her mouth.

"What's so funny?" Noelle looked at the two women as she walked up to the fire-ring. She took a good long look at her partner. "Wow. What'd you say to her, Winky, to scare her so badly?"

Still laughing, the director responded, "I told her about the swimming test this afternoon."

"Oh yeah," Noelle began, very casually. "It's not too bad. For those who know how to swim, that is," she amended. "Just a couple of laps, some floating, and treadin-"

"Yeah, I heard that part." She leaned over to speak into Noelle's ear. "What the hell is treading water?" she hissed. "You never told me I had to do that."

"It's not so bad, honest," Noelle promised earnestly. "I would've told you if I didn't think you could pass it. But you can." There was a short pause. "You did have the best teacher, you know," the blonde added with a grin.

Still skeptical, Molly finally nodded. "Okay, if you say so."

Patting her knee, Noelle confirmed, "I do. And treading water's easy. It's almost like running in the water. But not quite. And you use your arms, too. Sorta." Then she shrugged. "You'll just have to wait and find out about it, I guess."

***** ***** *****

And find out she did. But, to be truthful, the test wasn't as bad as Winky made it out to be. A feeling of pride shimmied through the big woman as she watched Noelle yelling encouragement to the counselors as they swam and tread water. But the thing that impressed her the most about Noelle's authority was that she did more than she asked the counselors to do.

She swam four laps instead of two. She tread water, alone with the brick, for 15 minutes instead of 10. And she did the canoe swamp drill alone instead of with a partner like everyone else did.

It made Molly proud to call herself Noelle's partner.

As the afternoon wore on, energy started to lag until Winky finally called it a day. As they sat in the late afternoon sun on the dock, she thanked them all for putting in 110 percent on the trip, as well as muddling through the tests that same day. Then she told everyone to head to the showers.

On their way up to the Rover, Noelle spoke softly. "It was a good couple of days. Thank you for that."

Surprised blue eyes turned to Noelle. "Why are you thanking me?"

"Because you could've made it pretty miserable."

"Why in the world do you say that?" Molly stopped walking and waited for Noelle's answer.

Noelle looked at the ground as she thought. "Well, if you would have... reacted badly, it might have, you know, ruined it for me." She paused for a minute, then hurried on in a rush of words. "I like this. I like doing this job, and I like these people. I like backpacking and swimming and all of it. But I know it's maybe not your favorite thing to do, so thank you for going along with it. For going along with me."

"Hey, Noe? I'll go along anywhere with you. I just want to be with you. And if that means doing all of this," Molly said with a wave of her hands, "then I'll do it. But you know something?" The tall woman waited until worried green eyes looked into hers. "I kinda liked it," she finished with a crooked grin. "Now let's go home and shower, Bucko."

***** ***** *****

"The kids'll be here any moment. Are you ready?"

"About as ready as anyone," Molly answered the small woman next to her.

The two women were standing with Winky and the other counselors outside of the dining hall. They were waiting for the buses that were bringing the campers.

"Mol? You can relax. This isn't anything like school, I promise. They're just little kids who need loved." Noelle watched the tall woman visibly unwind. The strong jaw unclenched, folded arms uncrossed, and a soft breath sighed from Molly's mouth.

Blue eyes turned to regard Noelle solemnly. "I'll try to remember that," she commented wryly.

Just then, Winky stepped in front of the crowd of adults. "They'll be here any minute now. As they get off the buses, you'll spread out with your camper lists. I'll tell them which general area they should go to by age, then from there you'll give them the specifics. There will be about a half hour to begin the process of getting to know each other, then it's inside for a snack."

"Wink," Noelle said softly, capturing the director's hands in her own, "we've gone over this plenty. Don't be so nervous."

The round woman laughed ruefully. "Even after all these years, Opening Day still makes me nervous."

"And the first day of school," the blonde added, laughing with Winky.

The rest of the conversation was cut off when the three yellow school buses arrived in a cloud of dust. The noise, even to the people outside of the buses, was near deafening. When the vehicles came to a complete stop, a tall African-American man exited the first bus and strode to the waiting group. He smiled then, his white teeth bright against his dark skin.

"Hi, Winky. They're all yours. Want them off same as usual?"

"Hi, Dave. It's good to see you again. And yes, please. Let's do it the same as we've always done it."

At the confirmation, he nodded and walked to the first bus, stepping on to talk to the head chaperone before continuing to the other buses. Suddenly, kids were streaming off the buses to gather in clusters, laughing and talking loudly.

Molly noted, in the blink of an eye, that a racial balance had been met with this group- half were black, half were white. The older kids strutted back and forth between groups, while the younger kids stayed close to the bus chaperones.

"Hi!" Winky called loudly. "Welcome to Camp Heatherbrook." As she contunued to greet them, most of the older campers taunted and shoved each other, often quite loudly. Without missing a beat, Winky strolled casually to the large group of boys. Suddenly she stepped in front of the loudest one.

"Excuse me, sir, but when I'm talking, you're not. When an adult speaks, you will listen." Then she turned to survey everyone. "That goes for every one of you here. Is that clear?" When there was no answer, she asked again, this time louder, "Do you understand me?" Satisfied with the several nods the question received, she asked the boy a question. "What's your name, young man?"

After noting his response, Daryl Williams, she told him hers. "Well, Mr. Williams, I'm Winky. But you will call me Ms. Winky. Understand?" When he nodded, she stuck out her hand with a warm smile. "It's nice to meet you, Daryl. I'm glad you're here."

Once the most basic ground rules were laid, Winky introduced the staff, ending with the cabin counselors. When that was finished, she began calling off names and telling the campers which counselor to meet with.

Noelle stood quietly as Winky went through her welcome speech and cabin assignments. She wondered how Molly was taking all of this and turned to ask her.

What she saw worried her terribly. Pain-filled blue eyes were fixed on one of the campers, and Molly's body was rigid, tense as a spring. She followed Molly's line of sight and landed on a tiny little boy, perhaps five, or six years old at the most. He had hair as dark as Molly's and big, scared, grey eyes. He was clutching one of the bus chaperones' hand as he played with the frayed seam of his faded denim shorts.

"Molly? Honey? What's wrong? Tell me," she urged when she looked at Molly again. "What's wrong?"

Never taking her eyes from the boy, Molly answered Noelle, her voice strangled with emotion. "My son. That boy could be Elijah."

To Be Continued in Part 3.

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