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Jacinda Cross
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Jacinda didn't even feel guilty Cameron had turned out to be nothing. She supposed she should have. It was still out there. But the clouds were heavy and dark, the San Francisco peaks loomed in the distance, and drifting flakes of snow already had begun their slow descent from heaven.

And she felt a strange sense of excitement in her stomach- the roiling anticipation as the wolfkin finally showed itself; the chupe sniffing the air cautiously- and you knew that one way or another, something was about to change.

The forerunner's heat wasn't cranked up too high. Like most first snows, the cold on the ground wasn't that bad. If anything, it felt they were in some sort of cocoon, the earth below, the heavy clouds above, and somehow the air between seeming warm and compressed. They drove the rest of the way.

Flagstaff was much bigger than Page. Old Route 66 signs on hotels and businesses showed where that ancient highway that once connected the American midwest all the way to California used to dominate. But the I-17 and I-40 now crisscrossed, the new arteries of the city,  along with frontage roads and major streets.

All of which said, this was a real town.

In the hotel parking lot, getting their bags, the night strangely bright despite the clouds, the snow started to fall in earnest. Snowflakes jeweled Jill's hair, framing her laughing face. And Jacinda couldn't help wanting to touch them. She held back though. The cold ice melting at a touch on Jacinda sent trickles of cold down her neck to her back and collar bone. They laughed as they hurried into the room.

After getting settled, they hit up a restaurant- one of many- near the row of hotel chains off 40 they had chosen. The day had been long and the drive tiring. Conversation was light and the food good. A night for relaxing.

Jacinda's boots crunched through the freshly fallen snow as they walked back to their room. At one point she caught herself slipping and Jill steadied her, catching her. Just a moment, but the feel of her arms, the solidity of her presence as if it were an anchor was something she latched on to. Strangely, she felt safe.

Funny. Suddenly she remembered how Regan had done the same years ago. It was just a momentary memory, but somehow....well, it was nice. She murmored a thanks.

That night, they each got into their beds. It seemed neither was ready to drop off right away. Casual conversation eventually led to the hunt. And Jill didn't seem to shy away from the subject. A good sign.

In her bed, head nestled comfortably in a pillow, another between her knees, the air keeping her legs from being too hot as the heater ran, she couldn't see Jill. But she could picture her, not 6 feet away. And somehow their conversation felt more intimate.

At a lull. "I've faced a lot of stuff out there. A lot! Skinwalkers are the wierdest yet."

A laugh- not amused- came from the other bed. "Wierd isn't the word I'd use."

A bark of a laugh. "Fair enough. Just....they're so different from anything I've hunted. Normally, I don't care. Just tell me how to kill them. does make you wonder."

Jill was quiet for a bit. "Obviously, the Navajo- the Dine- know of them. The Hopi too. And the Apache. The Dine and Apache are related. I've read of Ute legends that might be them too. And hints going all the way to Canada. There's a First People's tribe up there who may be descendants of our ancestors. At least, the language is related. So....who knows."

Jacinda listened, only vaguely familiar with some of the tribe names. Finally, "In legend, where'd they come from?"

Somehow, despite the dark, she had the impression Jill was smiling. Her tone seemed serious, though. "After the people- the Dine- fled the flooding of the third world up the stalk ladder through the layers of heaven into the fourth world, they found themselves within the sacred land, bounded by the four holy mountains."

She paused. "But..." she said ominously, "Some of the women had seperated from the men and had begun to use objects for copulation. Carved stones and shaped sticks and even bone. Eventually, they became pregant." A pause. "And so the monsters were born, of rock and wood and bone. And others. The naaldlooshi, the skinwalkers were one them."

Jacinda couldn't help her chuckle, then felt bad. "Sorry. Didn't mean to offend. Just that...well....if that were the case, any monsters I gave birth to would be pink and their heads would spin."

Jill  exploded with giggles and Jacinda felt relief flood her. And then Jill piped up, after a moment of hesitation, "Heh. My monster kids would need to be plugged in to hurt anyone."

Jacinda laughed and laughed suddenly realizing she could finally sleep. Why on earth that conversation meant anything, she didn't know. But it did.

It really did.

"Night Jill. Sleep well." And she drifted off, feeling happy and at peace.
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The mornings had become comfortable. There was a definite routine. There were dumb questions about the hot water. Questions about who could take up the most bathroom counter space. It had happened quickly. And Jacinda liked it. The idea of having a permanent hunting partner felt more doable. Natural even. As long as it was with Jill.

The night had seen a blanket of fresh snow fall, at least a foot. Fresh enough that it made that perfect compressing sound when you walked on it. Not the crystalized freeze refreeze sludge that happened after the second or third day.

Jacinda had her leather jacket and jeans on, along with a scarf. She grew up in southern Colorado. She knew cold- and this was comfortable.

Jill had a relaxed look as she drove them to the Lumberjack's Mill. The building had a large wooden carving that reminded her of the bear back home. Though this was of a bearded man with a massive axe on his shoulder. The restaurant also had rough hewn logs as part of its outer walls, also similar.

It was very familiar and comforting in one sense. But disturbing in another. She and Regan had been there a few days before they left. A week or two before he had died and she was suddenly on her own.

The day that her heart had died and had been freed. Free to live as she pleased. Dead, since she would never let a man get close to her like that again.

She shook off the deja vu. The place was every bit as good as Jill said. She ate heartily, enjoying the atmosphere. It did remind her of home. And she realized how much she missed it. Missed Regan. Missed companionship.

Jill seemed far more alive. Jacinda almost asked if she had makeup on. She didn't, clearly. But she was definitely on. Vibrant. It was this place.

Sitting at the table, stomachs full and full of energy, Jacinda said "Well? What do you want to do?"

Jill looked at her, then stopped to think. "There's a lot of things. What do you feel like?"

Jacinda answered, "Well I'm not as young as you. I'll need to work off that breakfast. Hiking? Skiing?"

Jill looked thoughtful. "Yeah. Definitely. There's also one I never got the nerve to try....the Treetop Extreme Adventures. All stuff high up. Even...including a zipline." Jill looked a bit nervous.

And Jacinda took the obvious bait. "Well clearly that's what we do, then." A smile to show she wanted it to be fun.

And Jill seemed game, even if hesitation colored her face. Like she wanted Jacinda to push her. The place wasn't on Mt Humphrey or on any other of the San Francisco Peaks. She had listened enough to Jill to know that for a native, any native- Navajo, Hopi, Yavapai, or any other- recreation on the sacred peaks was a desecration of holy ground.

Not that she believed in that. She didn't believe in anything. But Jill did. And she spoke with so much respect. For the land. The people. The traditions. The stories. Even tribes that were traditional enemies were spoken of with honor. For belief. There was a sense of humility that Jacinda felt...was a beautiful thing. Maybe because it was so alien to her. So yeah, it mattered to Jill. And that's what mattered to her.

The Extreme Adventures were in the foothills, though still high up. Trees had been connecred by cables and ropes, single timber walk ways, hanging ladders, and zip lines. Yeah, there were cables and harnesses. But going against that was thousands of years of evolution. 400 feet up, stepping off into the air, held by the strength of your grip and arms....well, safety harnesses or not, fear was a real response you felt down to your sphinctor.

But Jacinda had learned to jump into the fear years ago, to seize it like she would strangle it. Sometimes, it was just believing. The realization that she wasn't gonna die. But other times, it was her stubbornness. Refusing to let fear stop her. The way she hadn't long ago, handcuffed in that cabin waiting for a pack of rougs to come and rape her for however many years. She still had the scar on her wrist, one of pride. The way she drove off into that night, alone and terrified, a child trying to find her way in the vast worls. But she fucking did it.

She would never run from fear.

So they jumped from tree to tree, climbed the ladders, swung from cable to cable. Until finally they were at the highest point. From here Jacinda could see the zipline. It ran for at least a couple miles. She felt her heart flutter at the sight. It was the X-treme Zip, as they called it. Highest level. And she felt that churning in her gut, the hunger to defeat the challenge before her.

"I'm not sure," Jill said hesitantly. Her face said 'hell no!' The crisp cold air was pure, laden with pine. Jacinda felt her nostrils flair as she breathed in deeply, as if it were an alcohol she were inhaling. It fired her blood.

Her breath misted, voice strong, "You can do this, Jill. It's safe. Trust me." Jill looked at her, warring plain on her face. Jacinda took her hand and her arm and pulled her close. "You are so much stronger than you think, Jill. You are!! You can do this." On a whim she pulled her closer and hugged her, their bodies tight. An idea occurred to her.

A question to the attendent later and Jacinda strapped in, then moved Jill in front of her. The attendant strapped her in, looping their handholds together, as well as made sure they were hooked in tight to each other.

Jill's helmet was in front of her face and she had to yell. "You ready?" Jill was still, then gave a thumbs up. God, she was awesome!

And then they were free, flying through the tops of the trees, hair blowing with the wind. The bright blue sky above, the white painted ground below, green tree fingers of the earth reaching out to catch them. Jill's whoops filled her ears, the feel of her in front of her, the warmth and solidity of this woman. The cold air filled her nose and played against her face.

It was glorious.

They hit the ground amid spraying snow, laughing, and, when unhooked, rolling and wresrling with the pent up adrenaline from the fall. And then there came a point where Jacinda was partly above Jill, looking down at her, feeling the press of their bodies together, laughing with delight at the crazed smile on her face, when a familiar sensation crept up on her.

And she recognized it. God damn!

She was shocked and pulled away immediately- perhaps too quickly. Jill was still riding high, thankfully, to notice.

On the ride back down, Jacinda was quiet, all the pieces clicking into place. Well...huh...well... her mind churned, as if caught in a loop. This was not something she expected. But it all made sense.

I didn't see that coming. The idea she was attracted Jill didn't bother her. I mean, it was new. To her anyway. It was just...She simply had never looked at women like that before. For her attraction was men. And men meant Regan. The standard. Natural. Habit, maybe.

But realizing she was sexually attracted to a woman was surprising. And she was curious. She found herself sneaking peeks at Jill. Found herself wondering if she had felt the same thing. A burning sensation seemed to kindle in her stomach, anxious and hungry ansscared. All new. And she was curious, now that she understood. Curious and excited.

But she didn't want to play games with Jill. The woman had been hurt enough. And yet the idea of blowing her off, of holding her at arm's length, of getting superficial with Jill, bothered her too. She wasn't some horny guy she could shine on, use, and then drop.

That was something she couldn't do.

But opening up to someone....taking that chance. Already, she had let her guard down. She couldn't- shouldn't- take it further.
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Sitting in the passenger seat, music playing, Jill was relaxed, a small contented smile on her lips as she watched the snow covered hills and trees pass them by.

And the worry Jacinda felt began to leach away. Nothing really had changed. She had just discovered something new about herself, that was all. Over the years, there had been many men she had felt attracted to. But she wasn't some insatiable beast, unable to control herself, simply because a guy was hot. Many of them- she would say even most of them- drifted off past her on into the great wide world, not so more than a single word between them the only interaction they'd had.

The flickering of sky through the tunnel of trees they drove through felt hypnotic, almost the same as watching flames of a campfire dance and play above the logs. She too felt peace. And maybe a bit of interest, curious to see what this new discovery might mean for her.

Jill looked over at her and spoke, warmth in her voice. "Thank you, Jacinda."

She felt a blush come on and waved it away. "Nah. That was all you. I knew you could do it." And she patted her friend on the hand.

It was late afternoon when they got back into town and to the hotel. A change of clothes would be nice. The snow had soaked them in a few places and she definitely could do with something warm.

Now that she was aware, though, she found herself more careful with Jill in one respect. Showers and changing and the like. More specifically, that she wasn't looking. True, if Jill had been a beefy dude all Thor-like, sure she would have oogled him. But she doubted she and Thor would be together long. Or that they'd have much in common beyond the physical.

But Jill was her friend. And somehow she just don't stare at your friend's lips like that. Especially if you have a thing for them.

That night, they drove down Butler to the NAU complex. Beaver Street Brewery was on the cross street. Despite its proximity to the school, it was not simply a student hangout. A brewery, of course, so everyone interested in a chocolate orange or a pilsner negro modelo style blend could be satisfied. She preferred the simpler stuff, same as coffee. Beer was beer. She didn't need notes of caramel and hibiscus or lilac or whatever.

But the food was upscale. At Jill's suggestion, she tried the meatloaf sandwhich. She wasn't exactly excited, but hey, Jill had jumped out of a tree basedsolely out of trust. The least she could do was try a sandwich.

And yeah, she wasn't wrong. Seriously. If this was meatloaf, then she had only ever eaten dog food out of a can, it was that good. She wasn't a foodie enough to know how to describe it except to say "wow" over and over again.

The sky was clear this high in the mountains, the moon bathing the cobalt night with an angelic blue, like fairy wings or something. They walked past the vehicle, Jill eager to show her the campus. Jacinda had never been to school, as a kid or an adult.

The snow covered ground crunched beneath their feet, large red stone buildings rearing up from the earth like rocks, mammoth trees providing shade and protection. Vines, now dormant, climbed the red walls, ran along windows and over doorways.

Pathways snaked off from various buildings in every direction, the land sloping down toward the quad there in the distance.

It was magical and Jacinda felt a stab of whistfulness. She had done much in the last 10 years. But in many ways, she was still a child. What would it have been like to be here? To go to school, where your only worry was your friends or someone you liked: a protest or a march; oh, and of course, your classes and grades. Jacinda wasn't book smart, but she wasn't dumb. School would have been nice.

If only....her mind sarcastically finished that for her. If only things were different, then things would be different. Heh. Yep. Exactly. Life was what it was. No sense in whining.

Still, she did like imagining, now that she had the chance.

She realized she had been lost in thought as she walked. And Jill wasn't next to her. She turned around just in time to feel a snowball hit her in the chest, showering her and filling her nose with cold. Jill stood there laughing playfully.

Jacinda wiped her face off, a grin forming. "Oh ho! Is that how it is?" She scooped up snow in one hand and was running toward her. Jill dodged one way, then the other, narrowly missing the toss. All in fun. There were no hidden rocks or hard throws.

Back and forth they played, each of them having staked out a position next to a large juniper bush. Finally, Jacinda went all full kamikazi, running at Jill head down, sometimes feeling a hit and the cold trickle down her back. Jill didn't seem to try to get away, though, and Jacinda bent low and scooped her up at her waist onto her shoulder, standing and spinning her about. She seemed to alternate between laughing and screaming and Jacinda found it hard to breath herself, she was laughing so hard.

And she was getting dizzy, finally dropping her to her feet in front of her. She started to move, a bit woozy, and Jill caught her and held her steady.

The moment stretched out and neither let go even as both of them eventually stopped feeling the world shift. Jacinda remembered what she'd decided. Remembered what she'd thought.

And yet somehow, she couldn't make herself release the woman.

Why doesn't she do it? she wondered.

Jill's fingertips touched her hair gently, as if she were brushing out snowflakes. Jacinda felt her heart race at the connection and her legs felt weak. Maybe her grip on Jill tightened slightly. Jill looked up at her, staring, and her heart stopped its racing. It froze.

She was lost, drifting, as she gazed into those eyes. Her hand came up as if by itself, gently caressing her cheek, finger going under her chin, gently lifting her face up- Up. So different and so amazing, to be looking at her like this- saw those lips, full and inviting and slightly parted, tongue lightly whetting them, her eyes darting from them to her eyes and back again, Jill, hands somehow at her neck, offering, Jacinda, arms around her waist.....and finally......finally, Jacinda stopped fighting and gave in, pulled her close and kissed her.

Soft. It was soft.
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She wasn't sure how much time passed. It was a quiet kiss, not explosive or full of pent up sexual tension seeking passionate release. No. It was tender, cautious. Exploratory. Two people carefully, fearfully, opening locked souls just a sliver, cracking open sealed hearts, feeling the first stirrings of fresh air.

And she felt butterflies in her stomach, bouncing about with excitement and fear. A hesitant hunger; the hint of possibility; the terrifying risk. Never in her life had she felt this way. She had never had what others had called 'crushes'. The term hadn't ever meant anything to her. She had never been scared of her desires. Why would she? She risked nothing. She'd had the reality and nothing seemed like it could ever measure up after that. Or when she was more introspective, she realized maybe she didn't want it to. Regan had become a vast empty crater. There were only so many holes she could take.

Yet somehow, here she was, their lips pressed together, bodies close. But even as she luxuriated in the moment, a thread of fear remained, souring the moment.

Eventually the kiss ended, both of them gasping for breath as their lips parted. And with each second, that fear grew. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that." she whispered, wondering if she had ruined things. Jill let go, touched her cheek gently with tender kindness.

The woman seemed to have transformed, somehow. There was a warmth in her eyes, a strength and sense of tranquility she had not seen before. As if she were the solid one inviting Jacinda to lean on her. Her voice was calm and firm. "Shh....It's alright. We both needed it, I think."

And that was that, her words soothing away any remaining sense of fear. And now, somehow, Jacinda could process what had happened. She felt the peace of the night, of their kiss, seep into her heart.

Hand in hand they walked back to the car, letting the quiet of the night sing to them, the black vaulted sky rain down star dust on their heads, the blazing icy blue of the moon bathe them in warmth and tranquility.

The drive was quiet and soon they were in their hotel, trading shy glances with each other. Soon, Jacinda was snuggled deep in her blankets, her heart pounding as images and feelings of the day replayed themselves over and over again. She could lose herself in the memory if she was not careful. She heard Jill stirring as well. She tried to speak and found her voice gone. A stubborn streak pushed her. "Good night, Jill. Thank you."

The movement ceased. Her voice- somehow Jacinda heard a smile in it- came from six feet away. "Anytime, Jacinda. You sleep well."

And Jacinda felt her thoughts slowly quiet themselves, that gentle river rolling by peacefully, carrying her along. And gradually she drifted off into sleep.

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