Disclaimers: The characters in this story sprung from my (sordid) imagination and are copyrighted (if that is a word) to me. Only me. No one else but me. Got it? GoodÖ

Oh, and all of the characters in this story are completely fictional and any resemblance to certain TV-stars is done purposefully.

Foul language: Very much so. One of my gals tends to get carried away and when all else fails, she uses the "F-word". A lotÖ

Violence: No. No junior delinquents, no mafia bosses, no righteous cops, just two ordinary women dealing with reality biting them in the arse.

Sex: Oh, yes. Itís mind-shattering, itís gratuitous, even explicit at times and it is between two women. Now, we all know this is the main reason you read most of these stories, but hey, I gotta say it: If you are underage or this is illegal where you come from, well, um, I donít know Ė youíve been warned. How about that?

Location: The story takes place in Boston and its suburbs and I have attempted to be as geographically accurate as possible. "Rites of Passage" is an actual piercing studio and the only one I would recommend if you are considering getting anything pierced in the greater Boston area. However, any and all piercings described in this story are totally fictional and do not reflect beliefs or practice of the actual place. Any semblance of the fictional employees of "Rites of Passage" to the actual ones is incidental and unintentional.


Thank youís: Most of all, I want to thank my dear friend and fellow bard Reneegade, who has helped me through writerís block, beerless nights and general day-to-day blues. Hereís to you, Fisty.

Also, thanks to my friend LadyHawk for reading my stories, for finding my writing inspiring, and not kicking my ass too much in Aikido.  Check out her stories at  LadyHawk's Realm.

I would also like to thank my beta-reader kimly for her patience and help with the horridity that is my spelling and grammar, and Shalon who has given me so many great suggestions and kept me enthused with many kind words. Thank you both very much.

I would also like to tip my hat to all the wonderful writers who have kept me alert at work (for all the wrong reasons, but still), away from exams and have made me believe in soulmates, if only on paper. Thank you, Missy Good, the "Exposure" ladies, Sword Ďní Quill, Frost, the Nano Goddess, and all the others that have captured my attention over the months.

And lastlyÖ If you want to share your knowledge of good microbreweries, tattoo parlors, poetry books or good liviní tips in general, I can be reached at xenalicious@xenafan.com

Hope you enjoy the rideÖ


By Xenalicious

The curved length of the needle pierced the skin with practiced ease, the hollow tip emerging through the other end of the clamps, pushing forth a small amount of fatty discharge. She could see the girlís fingers gripping the hand of the boy standing next to her in the anticipation of the pain of piercing. She unclasped the tender skin of the belly button and placed the thongs on the tray with the rest of her tools. Softly humming to herself, she removed the needle and slipped on the stainless steel ring through the fresh piercing wound, tightening the ends and closing the circle. Another happy customer.

"You can open your eyes now." The teenage girl on the dentist chair in front of her seemed to be in the grips of severe rigor mortis. A whimper escaped her lips. "No, really, itís all done. You can open your eyes now."

She just noticed that the boy, presumably brought there for support, also had his eyes closed and was looking decidedly green around the gills. Great. Now theyíll have to install plush carpeting in the room for the convenience of all the fainting customers.

The teenager finally decided to unglue her eyelids and was busy staring at her navel with wide-eyed wonder. "Wow, I like, didnít even feel that!" she gushed, letting go of the startled boy to tenderly touch the small ring. "Thatís sooo cool! Look Tommy, now you can get one too!" Tommy silently shook his head and took a step back. "Oh! WellÖ maybe next time? This is so cool! Thank you again, it really didnít hurt at all!"

The silent figure busy disposing the contained needle and separating the tools for disinfecting nodded absentmindedly. "You will have an interesting time trying to tie your shoes for the next couple of days though. Make sure you keep it clean like it says in the leaflet I gave you and it wonít get infected. Okay?" The girl nodded enthusiastically and grabbed the relieved Tommy on her way out. Her excited chattering was cut off by the closing door.

Kids! She didnít look a day older than 16, but a fake ID was a fake ID and if it said 18 years old on it, who was she to disagree? It was past nine and that was her last customer for the day. Waste disposed off and tools disinfecting, she took one more look around before shutting off the light. Stopping in the sparsely decorated foyer she punched in the alarm code and locked the door. Down a flight of stairs, and she was outside, closing the entrance door behind her and hunching her shoulders in under the rigid attack of October wind. Another day, another dollar and now the night was coming and there would be another bar to spend it all at. Itís all about the simple pleasures, right? Lifting the collar of her wool peacoat she sliced into the wind, long strands of strawberry-blonde hair trailing behind her.

* * * * *

The yawn came unanticipated and stretched her jaw to the point of pain. With a satisfied sigh she closed her mouth and removed her glasses, rubbing her eyes. Wow! That hasnít happened in a while! When was the last time a book has actually put you to sleep? One hand scratching the back of her head she chuckled at the thought. Oh, definitely college. The books she was reading now were - for the most part - fascinating reads, the kind of gripping fiction you would call in sick to work just so you could finish the book. Unless, of course, you happened to work for one of the biggest publishing houses in the United States and your job consisted of making those griping pieces of fiction even better. Oh, but this one, this was justÖ boring, bland, plainly and painfully inexpressive.

Another yawn reared its head and she gave into it fully, throwing her head back and disregarding to put a hand in front of her mouth. Right at itís pinnacle a blond head popped in through the office door and clucked disapprovingly. "Geez Marissa, what would your mother say if she saw you like that?"

Her head snapped back, mouth closing shut, lips forming a smile. "Caroline! What in heavens are you doing here?"

With a push the heavy leather chair rolled back and she straightened up to her full six feet. Her hair was held back by a simple silver clip, early afternoon sun sparkling down its length which was past her shoulders. It was black, in stark contrast with the milky tone of her skin and healthy color of her cheeks and full red lips, a proverbial Snow-white. Her eyes were the color of a hazy summer sky, a shade of blue so pale it invoked conflicting thoughts of soft flannel and clear ice. Small silver-framed glasses rested on her nose and she gave her visitor a raised eyebrow look over them.

"Oh, come on, canít I see my ex-girlfriend for lunch every now and then?" Suggestive waggling of the other womanís eyebrows brought a blush to Marissaíss face and made her visitor smile even wider. Caroline was the night to Marissaís day, short blonde hair, soft brown eyes, and when she stood next to the tall editor, her eyes were right at the other womanís breast level. She didnít complain.

"Aww, hon, still so easy to fluster? You should know I bark a lot but only bite when asked." She stepped into the tall womanís embrace and returned a friendly squeeze before holding her at armís length and peering upwards. "Can I tear you away from this place to go grab something to eat with me?" Her hands shot up in the air before Marissa had a chance to say anything. "Food, eat food? With me?" A puppy-dog look later she knew she had her.

"Eh, you always get what you want Lin, right?" Marissa sighed an exaggerated sigh and picked up the phone. "Jane, Iím going out for lunch. I should be back within an hour, but if Mark calls could you please tell him Iíll stop by his office when I get back? Thanks." She needed a distraction from the dry material she was reading now and if anyone could distract her, it was Caroline.

The petite woman was now standing behind her desk, gazing out the glass wall of her office. "You know Marissa, if I didnít know you better Iíd have to ask who you had to do to get a view like this."

She joined the blonde woman by the window and gazed out. Sommersby Publishing was housed on the 53rd floor of the John Hancock building in the center of Back Bay and the view that stretched before them was truly breath-taking. The blustery wind of late October cleared the skies and they could see the noble brown-stones of Back Bay, the murky meanderings of the Charles river, and beyond it, Cambridge, Brookline, Allston; the brown and dark green tones of suburban Boston landscape extending before them. Marissa nodded her head. She had worked for the company for almost six years now and, at this point, the view had become an integral part of her day, much like a necessary cup of latte. She did not think about it any more, and failed to admire it unless someoneís undiluted wonder opened her eyes as well.

At times like this she was reminded why she fell in love with Boston in the first place, remembered the first months of her employment when she had to draw the curtains in order to be able to concentrate on her work. At times like this, when an innocent remark jostled her out of her complacency and made her look around and acknowledge all that she had, all that she achieved, she would take a moment to send out a silent thanks for whomever was listening up there. She was lucky, after all. How many people could boast of being the hottest editor in the country, making a six figure salary and having a beautiful woman in bed whenever they wanted, all by the tender age of 30? Lucky, that she was. HappyÖ

"Yes, it is beautiful." No need to get pensive now. She elbowed her companion. "Listening to you, Miss. Caroline Peters, someone would think you work in the dark maze of the financial district, never seeing the light of day, not mere 15 floors lower. "

An indignant huff. "Well, I face the opposite side, you know. You get to gaze upon the great minds of Harvard and MIT, oh Miss. Weller, while all I see are the run-down northern suburbs. There is a difference, you know!"

Marissa smiled gazing down at the blonde. To say that Caroline was her best friend would be an understatement. High school buddy, cheerleading partner, college roommate, a one-time lover, they had been through it all. Lin was there when she moved to the new neighborhood, when she fell off her skateboard and broke her jaw, and after the pain and disappointment of losing her virginity to a football player. Caroline made her steal her parentís stash of pot and smoke it with her. She was the one who seduced Rickyís girlfriend so Marissa could have a shot at him, and through it all she kept saying "Marissa, there is a dyke inside you just screaming to get out. Listen up, girl!"

Caroline was with her through the pregnancy scare her freshman year at college and she was there the night they went out to celebrate the negative test result. Caroline was there when they stumbled back to their room, hollering lewd rugby songs to anyone who couldnít avoid hearing them and it was Caroline she pressed up against the door, her lips she sought out with ferocity. Caroline was the one who made love to her for the first time in her life and held her as she cried tears of relief, shame and happiness. She was the one to show her the love, tenderness and respect she deserved. To call her a "friend" would be plainly inadequate, but it didnít really matter. They recognized and cherished the bond between them and that was the important thing.

The morning after they made love she woke up in a flux between elation and pure dread. The physical experience of their love making was nothing short of an almost religious experience. The texture, smell, taste of the female body wasÖ enchanting. The softness of curves and the pliancy of skin, texture of hair, all added to an act of love of such sensuality she couldnít breathe with wonder afterwards. She cursed herself for having denied herself the joy of it for years, for not being willing to consider the possibilities of the female sex. She knew she did it out of stubbornness as much as out of pure idiocy on her part - she didnít want to give Caroline the reason to say "I told you so." And now she went ahead and had sex, no - made love, to a woman, and none other than the above mentioned friend. But as much as she loved Lin and as much as Lin loved her, they were not in love with each other. They acted on impulse, on a barred curiosity in both of their minds, but then what? Was it possible to go back to where they were before? Or had they made a terrible mistake? Lying on her side, her back to Caroline, Marissa did not have an answer for that question.

Whether her friend could really read her thoughts or whether she was reacting to the similar thought process in her own mind, Caroline spoke up "Hey, donít you dare start planning our future now, ya hear?" Marissa turned, startled, to look at the impishly smiling Caroline, prostrate on her back with her head resting on her folded hands. "Just another notch on my bedpost, Em, just another notch."

Her relief was so strong she could feel tears forming in her eyes. Instead, she sat up with a mock scowl on her face, her brow rising to disappear in her mussed bangs. "Your bed?! If I remember correctly, Caroline Peters, it was I who kissed you. Therefore, the notch goes on my bed!"

Caroline guffawed before turning to face her. "Well, I wouldnít go around bragging about that if I were you. I was drunk, after all. What would people say?" She received a poke in the chest for her efforts.

"They would say, ĎGood for you, Marissa!í Besides, how drunk could you have been if you insisted on having your way with me three times?"

"Aha, so I did have my way with you?"

"Only cause I let you toÖ"

She blinked, casting the haze of memories aside. "How is Anne doing anyway?" Apparently unfazed by the long silence or the question that followed it, Caroline replied still gazing out the window. "Achy, bitchy and beautiful as ever. Now sheís saying that I rigged the coin toss because I knew what being pregnant would be like."

Marissa laughed. Anne and Caroline met four years ago at a blind date Marissaís mother had set up for her daughter. She had brought Caroline along for moral support only to have her and Anne sucking each otherís faces by the end of the night as Marissa and Anneís friend awkwardly chatted about the weather. They had been together ever since, having their commitment ceremony two years ago and deciding to have kids a year later. They tossed a coin to see who would carry the first child.

"She made me take Polaroids of her feet the other day." The warmth in Carolineís voice negated the pained look on her face. "Said she couldnít remember what her toes look like."

Marissa pulled her towards the door. "Yeah, I hear the last trimesterís a bitch. Now letís go get something to eat."

* * * * *

The wind was making her sinuses throb dully and was doing nothing to improve her hangover or lighten her rapidly souring mood. The three blocks she had to walk from the T stop to "Rites of Passage" were taking the toll on her precarious balance. It was near two oíclock in the afternoon yet her head was still spinning.

In moments like this when blurry experiences from the night of booze and warmth of foreign skin were fading from her memory she swore through gritted teeth never to drink again. She recognized the fact that she was not a natural social butterfly and a few beers went a long way to improve her disposition. They also went a long way in helping her muster the right amount of brazenness needed to enamor the ladies. It always worked like a charm. However, once she got brazen enough, the thought that she could stop drinking never seemed to quite enter her befuddled mind.

Stupid! Three weeks now. Three weeks. A plastic bag came rushing at her feet billowed by wind and she kicked at it. Her foot got caught in it and she tore it off swearing. She gave herself a month after she sent her poems to "Womenís Weekly", an independent feminist magazine, before giving up and closing her P.O. box. How fucking stupid could she have been to actually think her writing was worth a damn?! The people at the magazine were probably laughing their asses off at her meager attempts. Shit, they probably distributed her poems as a fucking joke, an example of what not to publish! How fucking pathetic!

She actually went to check her box every day since she sent her poems in, palms sweating and her stomach rebelling in anticipation. Every time her box would yawn empty at her, the feelings of disappointment and relief would clash until she finally retreated to what she knew best - self-contempt.

What a pitiful idiot you are - one person tells you they like your poems and you think youíre Sylvia-fucking-Plath! A small voice from the back of her head chimed in. But maybe they didnít receive the poems. What if they didnít receive the poems? Well, you are not sending them in again. How sad would it be if they thought your writing was shit and wanted to spare you the response and you go on and send it in again? You should just stick to what youíre good at - piercing and fucking and leave intellectual efforts to someone else. Fucking pathetic!

She could feel the fury festering inside of her, frustrated swirls of anger, shame and betrayal swelling and focusing into a sharp beam of rage. Beat up gray metal door of her building loomed in front of her and she gave in to her frustration and kicked it in. The lock gave in with a metallic crack and the door popped open and slammed into the wall before returning back with equal gusto.

Stiff armed she plowed through the door and, instead of making her feel better, the busted lock made her anger bubble up in a flush that spread across her face. "Goddamnmotherfucking piece of cheapassbustedgodforsaken SHIT!!!!!!!" Slamming the door behind her she ran up two flights of stairs, passing the door to the studio and storming into the dojo above it.

She stood in the small hallway for a frozen moment, shaking with unbridled emotion. With her eyes she silently pleaded with the stocky man kneeling in the middle of the spacious room. He was dressed in a simple white gi, hands resting on his knees. Though not taller than five and a half feet, even when seated he commanded respect and attention, quiet strength rippling the air around him. The near comical effect of the dark brown skin of his clean-shaven head and long wisps of his beard were balanced by the serenity of his gaze.

Standing in front of him with her petulant emotions driving her, hands clenched into fists at her sides, she suddenly felt deflated. She could just imagine what she looked like, her heavy boots dripping mud on the shiny wood floor, jaw clenched, eyes dimmed against the paleness of her face - a frustrated kid unable to deal with her insecurities.

Still holding his gaze she saw him nod imperceptibly and felt the rush of anger return full force. She needed this. In four large strides she moved to the large punching bag suspended in the corner of the room and attacked it with blind concentration, not bothering with discarding her coat or shoes. Bare knuckles connected solidly with the worn surface of the bag, first left then right, followed by a sweeping round-kick. At first, air left her lungs with every contact in a quiet rush, but soon a sharp yell would announce every hit.

Fifteen minutes later, breathing heavily, hair limp with sweat, she stopped and leaned heavily on the wall, sliding to the floor.

The Asian man was sparing with air now, his wooden sword deflecting the attacks of an imagined swordsman with practiced speed, the heavy cloth of his hakama obscuring the movements of his feet. She saw him execute the routine with deadly precision numerous times before and she knew it was nearing to an end. With the final slash, he followed the ancient procedure of sheathing his sword under the belt of his hakama and bowing to the imaginary opponent before returning the bokken to the rack with a little bow.

"Only took you fifteen minutes today Ariana. Running out of steam?" She cringed only slightly at the use of her given name, having conceded him the right to call her that when they first met. He was the only person who called her that. "Yah, well, itís been a while."

He sat down next to her, assuming her slumped position against the wall in an unconscious effort to put her at ease. "Want to talk about it?" She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Geshe was only four years older than she and yet his soft brown eyes carried so much acquired understanding in them that he seemed much older. Then again, maybe that simply comes from being 28 and looking forward to celebrating ten years of marriage in two months time.

With a wry smile she shook her head. Maybe she was just jealous.

"Ah, just the usual Gesh. You know, me working myself into a frenzy due to low self-esteem and an ingrained inability to deal with my fear of ridicule and rejection in a constructive manner." At least she could still make fun of herself. Even though her knuckles were bloodied and already swelling she felt a lot better. Physical exertion calmed her mind like nothing else could. That was probably why she placed sex on the top of her list of extracurricular activities. Well, that, and the fact it was highly enjoyableÖ

"Well, I can see you have been making good use of your library card. What is that, Jung?"

She laughed, letting the last of her tension drain away. "Nah. If I remember correctly, it was a TV infomercial on how to turn your life around in 30 days."

He chuckled at that, a deep, merry sound. "Well then, seems you have it made in that case." Brown eyes turned serious again. "Tell me."

Theirs was an unusual friendship, he realized, but it was a friendship nonetheless. They met shortly after the piercing studio opened in the building below him, slightly more than two years ago. She showed up at his door one day, much in the same state as today, anger barely contained within her slender frame, a fresh bruise covering one side of her face. She had asked him in clipped sentences to teach her how to fight, but her manner was respectful. She said that she wouldnít be able to pay him but if he or his friends ever needed something pierced, she would be able to repay him that way.

Even now he didnít know why he agreed to it, but one look in her eyes told him that she needed it and he nodded his acceptance. She shrugged off his attempts to instruct her in the art of Aikido, opting instead for the more aggressive Tae-Kwan-Do. She never practiced with his other pupils, coming in after hours and working by herself on the moves he showed her. In the beginning, she would come in and pounce on the punching bag often, once or twice a week, rage pouring off her in a constant stream, leaving her limp and breathless in the aftermath. He never mentioned payment of any kind to her, but he did ask for honest answers and explanations. For as long as they knew each other they had never seen each other outside the building which housed the dojo and the studio and this seemed to help her in opening up to him.

She stared at her image reflected from wall-sized mirrors from across the room. Her jaw was working and her hands were busy picking at the unraveling shoelace. At length she seemed to make a decision, tired green eyes blinking rapidly a few times. "I sent in my poems to a magazine more than three weeks ago. I think I finally let myself admit today that nothingís going to happen ... that they didnít like them."

The final part was said with a casualness she didnít feel but Geshe wasnít fooled. It couldnít have been more than six months ago that she told him about her writing, embarrassed and fidgeting at her admittance. "You sent them to a magazine?!?" he sounded incredulous. "Syd, my wife sent her writing to over thirty magazines and institutions for over a year and a half before anything happened! You canít give up like that!" Her eyes flashed as he reverted to using her nickname, something he did only when he disapproved of her actions. "Magazines receive hundreds of letters a week, it takes time to read and reply to each one. If youíre not sure whatís going on, I could have Mary take a lo..."

"No!" Her tone was adamant and angry. She was not going to expose herself like that to anyone else! She was sick of people making fun of her; her mother, Tracy, the fucking magazine people... Now she showed her writing to no one. What made her mail her poems in the first place was still a mystery to her. Like shit it is! the small voice piped in again That fucking professor told you he liked your writing and you were feeling high and mighty, werenít you? She shook her head. She was not going to get worked up again.

"No, Geshe, Iím sorry. I just let my hopes rise too high and now Iím dealing with it." She rose, shaking off invisible particles of dust of her green cargo pants. "Thanks for letting me use the dojo again. Now I have to go downstairs and explain to Eva why I wonít be able to work for a few days." She winced trying to make a fist with her swollen fingers. The pain felt good now.

He rose in a fluid motion and enveloped her in a hug. He waited until her rigid pose gave away and she relaxed, returning the hug with a quick squeeze before stepping away. "Anytime Ariana. Donít give up on it, it takes time for people to realize the true worth of something."

She was already by the door, deciding to ignore his last sentence. She half turned throwing him a quirky smile. "You do realize youíre the only man who gets to do that to me?" With a laugh he waved her off and she turned, exiting.

She ran down the stairs stopping in front of the plain brown door with a peeling sticker saying "Rites of Passage" in cursive writing. She should do something about that soon - maybe carve their name on a nice piece of wood and hang it by the door. Sighing, she grabbed the doorknob and entered. Jarred was sitting behind the display case that doubled as a counter and Eva was nowhere to be seen. Probably with a customer. Jarred was a tall, lanky man her age, absentmindedly twirling one of long dreads of brown hair while perusing a tattoo magazine. "Late as usual Sydney" he said without looking up "whose snatch did you get lost in this time?"

She bared her teeth at him, her snarl lost on his bent head. "Jealous as usual, I see. Itís not my fault ladies prefer someone with balls, Jar." Moving past him and his uplifted middle finger she pointed at two closed doors facing her. "Which one?"

His hand resumed twirling his hair. "One. Sheís doing Mike."

"Shit." She was supposed to perform an "Ampallang" under Evaís observation, a piercing placing a barbell horizontally through the head of a penis. Though she was an apprentice for almost a year now, male genital piercing was just not her thing and she kept delaying her final lessons. A short rap and she opened the door.

Mike was a regular of the establishment, having already invested more than $500 in various piercings at the studio. He was sprawled in the dentist chair they used for piercings, his arms crossed below his head, legs casually splayed and his newest piercing exposed for all to see. She had done one of his genital piercings a few months back, just above the scrotum, and realized that the man had no shame when it came to undressing himself. He was also prone to fainting if he tried to rise soon after piercing so he was relaxing while Eva was busy throwing away used swabs and disinfecting her tools.

"Hey Mike." He looked up, winking at her. "Hey Syd, I thought Iíd get to play with you today."

She snorted. "Oh, that would definitely cost you extra, Mike." It was her turn to wink. "Plus, Iím not sure Iíd know what to do with your Ďtoyí. I only play with Barbies."

He laid back with a laugh. "All the best ones do, girl, all the best ones do..."

Eva was a fragile-looking woman in her mid thirties. Short brown hair came down to her chin but what drew your attention to her was her face. Or what was on her face, to be more exact. Eva was a woman of her vocation, piercings covering parts of her body most people would not even consider possible to be pierced. Her face was no exception. Both of her eyebrows had five hoops of diminishing sizes each, her ears had about ten each and that was just the beginning. A barbell graced the ridge of her nose and a small hoop was inserted through her left nostril. Her lips, unexpectedly so, were jewelry free. She made up with three piercings on her tongue, a barbell in the middle and two smaller studs at the tip of her tongue. Now Ariana could hear those studs clinking impatiently against Evaís teeth and that meant only one thing - trouble.

"Okay Mike, I think you can go now. Just make sure you put your pants on before you leave this time." Her voice had a no-nonsense quality to it and Mike scrambled to his feet, donning his trousers and flashing a "hang in there" look to Ariana before leaving. Though roughly the same height as Arianaís 5í4íí, Eva was a petite woman, her wiry build truly no match to Arianaís athletic physique. She, however, was notorious for her temper and Ariana - having been subjected to it often due to a fact she lived in Evaís house and knew how to push all the wrong buttons - knew when she was on the receiving end.

She decided to do the only thing she knew worked when Eva was in a mood like this. She appealed to her motherly instincts. "Oww?" Ariana could see Evaís back stiffen but she still did not turn to face her. Okay, a different approach. "Look E, Iím sorry I was late, itís justÖ

IÖwell, I kinda freaked out again and had to blow off some steam, you know?"

Eva has seen her like that enough times to know what she was saying. The older womanís shoulders sagged for a moment and then she turned around and looked her over. She was still wearing her coat, arms dangling by her sides, hands swollen and knuckles bloodied. There was just a flicker of weariness in Evaís eyes when she saw her hands, but Ariana noticed it. How many times has she come to Eva like this, drunk or high and bloodied, a frenzied look in her eyes that even physical pain and exhaustion could not subdue? When was Eva going to get tired of it? Of her?

With a shake of head, the piercer crossed the distance between them and gently grasped her wrist, making her sit on a stool near by. "Here, let me clean that." Putting a new pair of latex gloves on, she returned with some swabs and iodine. "I thought I heard you running up the stairs a while ago."

Ariana nodded, her eyes following every movement of Evaís fingers as she cleaned her scrapes. She was afraid of what would be waiting for her in the other womanís eyes. As if sensing her thoughts, Eva stilled her movements, making Ariana look up. Worry and affection. The two emotions she could always see in Evaís eyes when they were directed at her were still there. There was always something else there too, anger, humor, impatience, at early stages of their relationship even desire. Now she could see a slight shadow of pain there as well.

"I just wish you would come and talk to me Sydney, you know?" Her tone was gentle and held a wistful tinge to it, as if she were talking to herself. "I mean, you work yourself up in a frenzy and then go and break stuff and the next thing I know, Iím without a piercer while you recover." She finished on a lighter note, holding up Arianaís bruised hands up for her to see. She knew she couldnít push the blonde woman in front of her into revealing any more than she wanted, but at times like these the frustration of not being able to reach behind the aloof exterior and soothe her jagged emotions was overwhelming.

Ariana looked up suspiciously. She withdrew her hands from Evaís grasp, flexing them lightly. What was this all about? She expected yelling, righteous rage, disappointment, not this. Not this defeated look of affection. She looked back up, words slipping before she could clamp her mouth shut. "You know, at times like these, I have no idea why you put up with me." It came out raw and bare, surprising them both with undisguised emotion behind the words.

Eva looked taken aback, eyes wide with surprise.

"Sydney, what are you taking about?" The surprise and confusion in her eyes looked genuine but Ariana felt insecurity rear its ugly head again.

Anger and disappointment she could understand, god knows she faced it enough times in her life, but this kind of unconditional support, this quiet tenderness was just unaccounted for. Here she was, late for work again and beat up enough not to be able to work for the next few days and all Eva has to say is ĎWhy donít you talk to me?í What is there to talk about, she is a worthless fuck-up and god knows why Eva keeps putting up with her.

The truth is, she didnít want to know. She didnít want Eva to start thinking about it, sheíd come to her senses soon enough. She shrugged, walking away.

"Nothing." Her voice was controlled now but she still didnít trust herself enough to face Eva. "Look, Iím sorry about this. I can do administrative stuff until my hands heal." She needed to get out of there now, before she could come up with something else brilliant to say.

"Oh, Sydney. You should really know better by now." Eva knew that the younger woman could not grasp the concept of unconditional love and friendship, not having received it even from her parents, but after almost four years they had known each other she just did not expect this level of insecurity. Now Ariana stood there like a caged animal, eyes darting, trying to understand what was being conveyed.

"I wonít tell you that you are easy to deal with all the time Syd, but thatís only because you make it so damn hard for me to get to ya, you know?" She had to make her understand. "You are my family Sydney, the only one I want or acknowledge. And I donít Ďput upí with you, I care about you. I always will." What she was saying didnít matter right now, she knew Sydney heard same words said many times from many other people before but they didnít carry any weight behind them. Instead, she let the tone of her voice relate the depth of her feeling for the younger woman.

The blonde head lifted and she could see tears threatening to spill out. That was enough for now. She knew Sydney hated crying and she wanted to spare her that. But she could see relief washing over the brilliant green of her eyes and allowed herself a small sigh of satisfaction. She leaned in and gave her a brief hug before getting up and turning away. "Now get out of here and make sure you put ice on that. And donít think you got off easy - I expect you to take over my shifts this weekend. You will make this up."

She rose, wiping traces of moisture from her eyes. Eva was fiddling with piercing material on the tray, her back turned to her. She still didnít understand her friendís actions, but she could see the strength of devotion in the older womanís eyes. She felt the lump rising in her throat again. On impulse, she stepped in and hugged her from the back, giving her a peck on the cheek. She would try to make it up to Eva. Exiting quickly before her emotions got a hold on her again, she threw a winning grin at Jarred enjoying the look of annoyance that crossed his face. Donít let the little shit see you weak. "Well, Jarred-boy, I guess Iíll see your sorry ass on Friday. Please let the ladies know I can be reached at home." Down a flight of stairs, past the busted door and she was outside again, the wind rushing her on, dark thoughts forgotten again.

* * * * *

Mondays, oddly enough, were her favorite time of the week. The bustle of the publishing house would keep her busy well into the late afternoon, but as quietude settled in the offices surrounding hers, she would dedicate herself to her other great love - poetry. Marissa had no illusions about her own writing skills - she had none. Well, that was not true - her attempt at a writing career made her realize that she had a very precise, concise, direct style of writing which carried no imagination or depth of feeling about it. Ironically enough, the wealth of emotions she was capable of expressing just did not carry over to her writing. She lacked "the gift".

Fortunately enough, all the writerís workshops she attended did amount to one thing - she discovered she was good at editing. She had more success at recognizing a seed of a great story or character trait. Her writing instructors and her partners found her indispensable. She loved reading, loved the excitement and fulfillment a well written book can give you and if there was even the faintest of traces of it in a manuscript she was working on, she would be able to zero in on it and coax the rest of it out of even the most unwilling of writers. Okay, so maybe she had a gift after all, just not the kind she imagined as a kid.

Now she was a big shot editor and, although her work was highly enjoyable, she just didnít get to read purely for pleasure anymore. So, there she was now, volunteering some of her time every week to an independent poetry magazine, indulging in her pleasure while feeling productive as well. She would get a new sheaf of poetry every week and would let the verses flow over her, selecting the few that she would write notes of recommendation on and send back to the magazine.

This Monday was no different and she was more than a half way through with the current selection when a bundle of papers caught her eye. She stared at it incredulously for a few seconds wondering if she was imagining things. No, there it was - a few pages of lined notebook paper neatly stapled together. She reached her hand for it, shaking her head with incredulity. Sure enough, the poems were hand written. She couldnít remember the last time she saw anything but phone messages and grocery lists written by hand, and there was someone here who sent in their poetry on notebook paper, handwritten.

She took a moment to notice the handwriting, small letters neatly stacked on the paper, forming lines and stanzas. It was strong and clear, printed text almost seeming computer-generated. She dated an architect once and she had the same kind of handwriting - symmetrical and beautiful. She caught herself wondering what the person did for living - must be something requiring precisionÖ

The rest of rational thought flew out the window as she read the words on the pages before her. There were four poems total, none longer than twenty lines. The language was simple, plain even, but the strength of the emotion conveyed was unmistakable. There were scarcely any rhymes in the poems, but each carried a burnished emotion, biting in its intensity and clarity. It was all there for the reader - bewilderment, pain of betrayal and so much loneliness. She sat back, blinking back the tears. It was beautiful writing, emotions behind it raw and exposed for all to see. It was incredibly moving.

She traced the pen-strokes on notebook paper realizing that those poems couldnít have been written any other way. Whoever wrote them poured themselves, undiluted, onto a piece of paper, every stroke of the pen a personal statement. To place these words onto a computer screen would be to distance themselves from their work and whoever the poet was, they considered these poems a part of themselves. It was a wonderful gift and Marissa was taken aback by its beauty.

She flipped the stapled pages around, finding an envelope attached to them. The same bold handwriting, return address and the name. Ariana McGregor. A beautiful name, the poems somehow seemed appropriate to it. A P.O. Box for a return address. Marissa frowned, thinking. Although she was ruled by emotions and often moved to tears by music and art, she was a professional. These poems did not only move the art-lover in her, they did wonders for the editor as well. Whoever Ariana McGregor was, she had talent and Marissa was not going to let it slip through her fingers. Grabbing a Bic pen from her table she sifted through her drawers, triumphantly dragging out a notepad with "Sommersby Publishing" letter-head proudly printed on top. An hour and four letter attempts later, she finally had finally written a fairly eligible note. Sealing the envelope and writing Arianaís name and address on it, she placed it in her outgoing mail basket.

* * * * *

Exuberance was a wonderful feeling and Ariana could remember experiencing it only once before. That was when she was foolish enough to fall in love with Tracy and god knows the exuberant part of the relationship didnít last long. But this, this feeling of pride and happiness was totally new and overwhelming and she caught herself battling the huge grin that seemed plastered on her face.

She had gone to the post office on her way to work, to close her P.O. box and there it was - a letter from an editor who read her poems and really liked them. At least, she thought that was the gist of it - the woman had horrible handwriting and she could hardly understand half of the stuff said. Didnít those people have computers and such? The woman used words such as "expressive", "emotional" and "moving", and seemed to genuinely like her poems. Her signature, interestingly enough, was smooth and elegant, a jarring discrepancy when compared to the rest of her jumbled writing. Marissa Weller, senior editor, Sommersby Publishing. A wide grin stretched her face again. She liked my writing, she fucking liked it! She asked to see more of her poems and even arrange a meeting. How fucking incredible is that?

She literally skipped up the stairs to the studio and had to stop before the door breathing deeply. She was giddy, for godís sake, giddy! Whatís next, waltzing with Jarred in front of customers? Get a grip girl.

Touching the letter in her coat pocket one more time, she stepped in. She had work to do. It was a little after 6:30 on a Saturday afternoon and she was the usual half-hour late. Just enough to piss Jarred off.

As she entered she realized that Jarred didnít seem to be particularly pissed off. Quite on the contrary, he had his smooth Jamaican smile cranked full power and was positively beaming at two women who were looking at the display case behind which he was standing.

At first glance Ariana couldnít tell much about the customers, they were fully absorbed with the jewelry and their backs were turned to her. They were both wearing that Newbery Street outfit - designer jeans and cashmere sweaters, heavy jackets discarded on the chairs. The smaller of them seemed to be her height and blonde and was nervously tapping her fingers against the counter. The other one seemed a lot taller but Ariana had a hard time judging since the woman was practically sprawled across the counter, ooh-ing and aahh-ing at various jewelry, dark hair fanning out around her.

As the door shut behind her both women straightened and turned looking at her. Ariana had to bite her lip to prevent chortling out loud. They were both very beautiful in very different ways, and, beyond any doubt, very obviously gay. Ah, gaydar was such a wonderous instinct and boy, was it bleeping right about now. Jarred, on the other hand, was in for a nice surprise. Oh, sheíd manage to piss him off yet.

The blonde possessed a kind of common good looks of every blonde, blue-eyed girl from the Mid-West. The only thing that made her more than a pretty face were her eyes, big and chocolate brown. She gave her a cursory look and turned back to the display case, pointing at something and asking Jarred "Is that as small as they come?"

The taller woman, and Ariana could now clearly see that the woman was easily six feet tall, was something completely different. She was still facing her, standing still with one hand resting on the counter and the other casually tucked in the front pocket of her black jeans. Following the line of her arm, Arianaís eyes slid down the length of her legs, a dizzying display, and right back up, lingering on the soft curves below a light blue sweater. The womanís hair was hanging loosely, reaching the top of her breasts and under the dim green light of the neon sign behind her, it seemed midnight black and sparkled with deep green highlights. Her face was obscured by the dim lightning and Ariana could see just the sharp contours of her high cheekbones and the dull gleam of silver-rimmed glasses. Something was missing.

Blinking at the odd thought, Ariana let her hand fall of the doorknob she was holding and make an automatic step into the room. Even though she couldnít see the womanís eyes from the dark shadows of her face, she knew she was being watched as intently in return. Oh, just when she thought the day couldnít get any betterÖ

Stepping behind the counter she flashed the customers her best smile as well. From her past experiences it seemed that women loved the little dimples that formed on her cheeks when she did that. The blonde barely even glanced at her, her attention focused on a navel ring in her hands. Ariana could see a ring on her left hand that looked conspicuously like a wedding band, but dismissed the thought. The blondie was not her type anyway. "Hello. Is there anything I can help you with?"

The tall brunette had returned to her place by the counter and was positively beaming at her. Ignoring Jarredís glares she focused her attention on the tall beauty. "What would you be interested in today?"

Flashing her another toothy grin, the tall woman sidled over to her side of the counter and leaned on her forearms. As she did that, two things happened; the unmistakable scent of tequila tickled Arianaís nostrils and she was faced with the softest blue eyes she ever saw. The woman was staring straight at her with a crooked smile and Ariana felt her knees going weak. The gaze was slightly wavery, but the blue lace of the eyes in front of her made her forget to breathe. The other woman didnít seem to notice the ground moving beneath Arianaís feet.

"Well, acshually, my friend here would like to get her navel pierced, but Iím sure I could be

pers-persuaded into something as well." Her words were tumbly and slightly slurred but a hint of a Boston accent could be detected.

Ariana found it very hard to form a sentence, decidedly feeling like a rabbit immobilized by a cobraís stare. "Oh, well...um, what, uh, what did you have in mind?" Okay, that was worse than a teenage boy caught masturbating. I better not blush, goddamn it!

Seeming slightly surprised by her absolutely un-suave response, one impossibly long eyebrow shot up, arching past mussed bangs and making one of the azure eyes shine even brighter at her. She used the other eye to wink suggestively at Ariana. "Well, I was talking about piercing, how about you?"

The lewd wink broke the trance for Ariana and she blinked, guffawing. The woman was horrible! Even at her worst, Ariana was never this ... suggestive. Ah, life was truly glorious sometimes! Settling down on her forearms as well, she brought her face only inches from the other womanís. The scent of tequila was so strong now it was biting her eyes.

"Oh, I was talking about piercing, all right. Why, did you have something else in mind?"

Bright smile lighting up her face, the woman opened her mouth for a retort, only to be stopped by a not so inconspicuous elbow in the ribs from her friend. One of her elbows slipped from the counter and she whipped her head around glaring at the blonde. The other woman simply stared back, tapping her foot. The brunette swung her head back towards Ariana and excused herself with a regal smile, walking two steps away and dragging her friend with her.

True to Arianaís expectation, her voice carried over with the quality of a rambunctious drunk. "What?!!"

The smaller womanís response was muffled and unintelligible. She apparently did not have quite as much to drink.

The tall brunette boomed again. "Iím just having fun Caroline! Thatís what we went out to do, have fun, right?" The indignation in her voice rose by a good notch after Carolineís response. "Drunk?! I am not drunk!" Another muffled retort. "Oh, okay Lin! Goodness, Iím not 15 you know, I can take care of myself."

The blonde looked skeptical but refrained from commenting. She seemed to change the topic and the taller woman listened intently for a second before scooping the unsuspecting woman into her arms. "God, how insensitive! I am such a ditz sometimes arenít I, here, donít worry about a thing."

Turning around she relinquished her hold on Caroline, the woman stumbling out of her embrace. She walked over to Ariana again, pushing her wire-rimmed glasses higher on her nose. Straightening to her full six feet she attempted to look dignified while slightly swaying on her feet. "My friend here" a vague wave of her hand in Carolineís general direction, "would like to get her belly-button pierced but she is worried it will hurt too much."

She leaned conspirationaly towards her and Ariana found herself caught between worry that the tall beauty would lose her balance and fall face first into the display case and temptation of looking down the cleavage presented to her by the v-neck of the sweater. "You will be gentle, wonít you?" The low purr of the womanís voice snapped her eyes firmly to her face, the blueness of her gaze mesmerizing her again.

That voice... smooth and silky, yet there was a raw edge to it that caressed every syllable as it slipped past her ears demanding attention from her brain. She needed to hear that voice rumble near her ear, breath caressing the small hairs on the back of her neck, soft lips grazing her pulse point... She blinked again, dispersing the images of the woman before her straddling her hips. What the hell is going on here?

She could hear a piqued "Marissa!" coming from the blonde woman, but Arianaís attention belonged to the woman in front of her. Oh, so you want to play...

"Only if you want me to..." she leaned in, making sure she had the womanís attention, and let her eyes trace the dimming contours of the tall body in front of her. This time her appraisal meant to convey a promise, as well as take stock. The tip of her tongue slipped out in the corner of her mouth before sliding over her teeth and retreating.

At that moment Jarred decided to try to regain control of the situation. "Actually Syd, we were just about to step inside to perform the piercing when you waked in." He turned towards Caroline. "Miss, why donít we get you prepared?"

Before Ariana could answer, Marissa - as the blonde called her - walked up to her friend and turned a bright smile at Jarred. "Actually my friend would likeÖ", a pointed look in her direction, "Syd to do the piercing, right hon?" The last part was directed to Caroline who rolled her eyes in exasperation.

"Oh, for godís sake, whoever! Letís just do it before I lose my nerve!"

Smiling sweetly at Jarredís rapidly darkening face, Ariana stepped from behind the counter and pointed towards one of the doors. "By all means, ladies. Follow me." Seating Caroline on the reclining chair and Marissa on one of the stools she turned to them. "Iíll be right back, Iím just going to get some supplies." Receiving an affirmative nod from the blonde she turned on her heel and went out to the foyer. Jarred was sullenly flipping through a magazine.

"Awww, Jar, you look like someone stole your lollipop." He was just sooo easy. Working the rest of the day with a petulant Jamaican would not be fun, but the look on his face was well worth it. Back in the room she pulled up a stool and sat down next to a twitchy Caroline.

"Okay, now let me give you my spiel and then you can ask me any questions. Sounds good? ĎKay."

She got distracted by Marissa swiveling on the revolving stool, neck craned to take in the apparently fascinating pattern on the white ceiling. Ariana knew that the brunette would soon grow to really regret the spinning motion if she continued her current activity. "Um, Marissa?"

The woman stopped swiveling, her hands tucked between her knees, and gave her a "hand-in-the-cookie-jar" look. Ariana had to bite her lips to contain laughing. "Why donít you listen up too, in case you want to do this at one point as well." She received a dazzling smile in return and Marissaís undivided attention. God, the woman was beautiful! Under the unflattering glare of fluorescent lights in the room Ariana could for the first time see the light flush on her cheeks and the crimson curve of her lips. Focus girl, focus!

"Okay, I am going to use a new, sterile needle for the piercing, you will see me open the package right in front of you." Going back to business she focused completely on the task before her, holding up every object for Caroline to see as she mentioned it. "I am going to put gloves on and clean your belly button. Now Iím going to mark where the needle will go." She marked two dots on the navel. "They are slightly diagonal so the ring wonít stick straight out when we put it in." She reached for the clamps and saw Caroline compulsively swallow. Marissa stared with dazed fascination at her friendís navel.

"What is going to happen now is that Iím going to clamp the flesh so I have a better hold. It will pinch, but it shouldnít hurt too much. Then Iím going to slide the needle through and then the ring after it. The piercing itself wonít take more than two seconds and just a few more for me to close up the ring." She nodded at Caroline. "Are you up for it?"

The blonde nodded her head and grinned. "Yeah, bring it on!"

Ten seconds later Caroline was sporting a brand-new navel piercing.

"Okay, now just sit there for a few minutes." Ariana said straightening up. "Donít try to get up yet."

Caroline was busy batting away Marissaís inquiring fingers from her tender navel. "Okay, I wonít. Why donít you take Miss Inquisitive out with you. Sheís the one who got me to do this, so sheíll be the one paying."

Laughing, Ariana exited the room followed closely by the pouting Marissa. She turned towards the tall woman, trying to assume a business-like manner. Jarred was nowhere in sight. "That will be $55. How would you like to pay for that?" When she looked up she was confronted with a sight of Marissa fishing for her wallet in her jacket, providing her with a nice view of her ass in tight jeans. Ariana swallowed, chasing away the urge to suggest a form of manual repayment to the tall beauty.

Marissa straightened up, swaying slightly. "Uh, credit card?" Placing the card on the counter she leaned in towards the piercer with a slight leer again. "Do you have a two-for-one Tuesday or something like that at this place?"

Ariana chuckled taking the card and swiping it through the machine. Somehow she just knew that the woman in front of her must be a proverbial "Miss Manners" when sober, she had seen the type before - expensive clothes and measured mannerisms disappearing with equal speed when alcohol was introduced. She wasnít the one to complain though, she found drunk beauties very stimulating. But business was business. "Actually, we donít do piercings while people are under the influence. Maybe next time though." She handed her the credit card slip together with a pen. "Plus, todayís Saturday."

Marissa sighed theatrically, focused on signing the slip. She peered up at the row of business cards at the register. "Miss SydneyÖ Shaw, is it? You are such a spoilsport!" With a flourish she returned the signed slip, turning as Caroline entered the room and completely missing the frozen look on Arianaís face.

That signature! She grabbed the receipt and the credit card, scanning the name on it.


Marissa Weller?!! TheÖ

She looked up at the woman sticking her nose in her friendís belly button in close observation of the new piercing, than back down at the credit card. The daring dips and curves of Marissaíss signature were staring back at her. She felt a sudden wave of panic rise from her gut and she had to swallow hard to resist the urge to duck behind the counter. Relax! Oookay, take a deep breath, thatís it.

A quick look assured her that the two women were still not paying any attention to her. Caroline was standing with her back against the wall, her hands pressed protectively against her breasts and she was adamantly shaking her head. Marissa seemed to be in the midst of an explanation, her eyes slightly glazed, both of her arms raised, articulating, her thumb and forefinger set in a pinching motion.

Before she had a chance to clear her thoughts and figure out a way to deal with this twist of fate, the women were walking towards her. The wave of anxiety rose again and she had the distinct feeling she was about to lose her dinner when a rational thought finally reached her mind. Oh, good god, she doesnít know who I am!

The women, seemingly oblivious to her distress, walked over to the counter and she found herself answering their questions about proper hygiene and healing time with automatic ease. Where is Jarred when you need the sorry bastard? Before she knew what was happening, the two were saying their good-byes and walking out the door. She couldnít let this end like this! Maybe this was a different Marissa Weller, a beautiful, non-editor versionÖ

"Hey!" Two pairs of eyes turned to look at her but she only saw the azure ones flashing behind the lenses of silver-rimmed glasses. "Where do you work anyway?" Ooohh, smooth Ariana, real smooth.

Marissa grinned drunkenly, taking in the room with the sweep of her hand. "Oh, nowhere this cool." She focused her eyes on Ariana and froze her blood with the next sentence. "I just get to read peopleís shit for living and try to make it sound good." Unaware of the effect her words had on Ariana, she curtsied flippantly, leaving the blonde woman alone, standing rigidly by the counter.

Continued in Part II