(The Battle for the Third Age)
by Bat Morda
1998 Jun 10
Copyright © 1998
All rights reserved

I would bleed to love her

- Lindsey Buckingham

Chapter 8


The noise made by returning hackers woke Xero from her sleep. Twisting her head from side to side didn't do much to relieve cramped muscles, so she stopped and opted to check her watch instead. As she suspected, she'd been out for more than eight hours. Easing out of the booth, she headed for the center of the pub where she met Blue, just entering.

"There's a bag of clothes here," the hacker said, looking as happy to see Xero as she would to get an audit notice from the IRS.

"They're mine. Rielle dropped them by last night."

Blue looked around the pub. "And didn't stay? I'm glad to see she's catching on."

"Just drop it, Blue," the raven-haired hacker warned, towering over the shorter woman. "What happened after you guys left yesterday?"

Blue shrugged and headed for the kitchen where she began making coffee. More hackers entered the building, gravitating towards the kitchen and the prospect of hot java like moths to fire. "Rielle worked out a game plan for contacting the most Disney workers utilizing remote access systems. She's good, figured out a way to use cop encryption codes. We dropped by on some locals that haven't been at the 'horn for awhile and told 'em what was going on. A few more are going to meet us at the hotel, but the majority will contact us in the park tomorrow. We managed to drag Demeter out of retirement, but had to ditch Rielle first. Turns out she's the cop who put her away."

"Good to know. MaryD will be glad she's back." Xero commented, accepting the mug of hot coffee that Blue handed to her. "Where'd Rielle end up?"

"We dropped her off at the hospital so she could see her wife. I guess she went by your place to get your clothes when she was done." Blue took a sip from her own cup and smiled approvingly at the flavor. Looking around at the assembled hackers her smile began to fade. "Where's Ska? I thought she was making breakfast."

"Chill, Blue," Tess soothed, moving behind the counter and gently shoving the muscular woman out of the kitchen. "Ska, Puck, and Kanvil went to pick up the car. I'll get breakfast started."

"While we're waiting," Wordee suggested, pulling out a input pad, "why don't we get these room assignments taken care of for tonight? We've got enough rooms if we double up." Every one nodded their assent and she went down the list of names. "Should we just do this alphabetically and be done with it?"

"Can't," Jenbob said shaking her head. "That would put Grace and Gwen in the same room and they broke up."

There were more nods and Wordee duly noted the information on her pad. "Me and Jenbob can share a room," Julie, the statuesque Amazon, offered with a sly wink. A few knowing glances were exchanged around the table and the information was duly noted.

"Good idea, Julie," Wordee agreed. "Let's get volunteers first. Who'll room with me?" Several people spoke up at once and she eyed them suspiciously. "Thanks, I think I'll wait and ask MaryD when she gets here."

Two hours later, a pub full of women continued to bicker and argue over rooming assignments. "You simply can't put Della and Chris in the same room-- they'll kill each other," Sharon explained for perhaps the tenth time.

"Anyone with a problem is asking to get their ass kicked," LN commented with Deb nodding her agreement. "This isn't like that vacation we took to Las Vegas, it's one stinkin' night for chrissakes."

"Try explaining that to my wife when she finds out I'm staying with my ex's ex," a voice called from the far end of the pub.

"Well, if you'd married a hacker then you'd have someone to room with, wouldn't you?" someone else taunted from the doorway.

In moments, the pub was filled with the din of thirty women all talking at once, loudly. A shrill whistle erupted and the room fell silent once more. From the center of the throng, Xero looked at her now silent colleagues, a fierce scowl on her face. Taller than most, she was easily visible above the crowd. When she spoke, her voice was calm, quiet, and had a faint edge that suggested she was waiting for any excuse to go postal and kill someone. "Those of you that have someone in mind you can room with safely, tell Wordee. Then we'll match up the names that are still left. Anyone complaining about her room assignment at that point will be automatically switched to my room. Is that clear?" People were quiet for a moment then began to pair off quickly.

"You handled that like a general," Rielle commented, making her way to the center of the room.

"How long have you been here?" Xero asked.

"Long enough to be amused."

The hacker frowned. "I know things look a little chaotic right now, but when we get to the hotel and start planning the thing I think they'll settle down. Bat handled the arrangements when we went to Vegas and it seemed a lot more organized..."

"Relax," the syscop assured her. "If you've got faith in them, that's all that matters. They're in this for you, ya know."

Xero looked around nervously, hoping no one had overheard the syscop's comment. "They don't know that, and if you want them at the park tomorrow, we'll keep that little detail to ourselves." Catching sight of someone, she nodded down to her companion. "Ska and the others are back, it's time to get this show on the road.

The women moved outside, to sort out rides to the park. Rielle stared up at Xero when she noticed the car parked out front. "You stole my wife's car?" she asked incredulously.

"You didn't say it belonged to her wife," Ska said, the color draining from her face. Puck and Kanvil glared accusingly at Xero.

"Relax, Rielle," Xero said with a shrug. "It isn't like she can use it until day after tomorrow anyway."

"And what if something happens to it?" the syscop demanded.

"Nothing's gonna happen to it."

"Shit, you two sound married," Ska grumbled, then ducked behind Puck and Kanvil when both women turned an unamused glare in her direction.

"Shouldn't she be in school or something?" Rielle deadpanned, causing a burst of laughter from all in hearing distance save the waitress. "Fine, I'll drive Paula's car, Xero you take mine."

Check in at the hotel went smoothly since all the room arrangements had been made in advance. With only a few people switching at the last minute, the throng of hackers disappeared into the hotel shortly after arrival. Xero found her room without any trouble, a large suite on the thirty-second floor with windows that looked out over the mouse shaped pool. Since everyone was planning to meet there, she made quick use of the shower. A habit since childhood days in the orphanage, she was showered and had her hair washed within five minutes.

Opening the small duffle bag Rielle had packed, she poked through the clothes. The syscop had packed several pairs of underwear--skimpy black, metallic green, and the God awful red ones Bat had given her as a joke. There were three pairs of white socks as well and two different pairs of jeans, one blue and faded, the other grey and not as worn. She had two t-shirts to choose from, a well worn soft grey one and a black one that said "Hard Rock Cafe: Bajor" on it. Deciding on the black underwear, grey shirt, and faded jeans, Xero dressed. She had just donned Bat's old flannel shirt when a light knock rapped at the door. With an unconscious gesture, she flipped her still wet hair behind her shoulders and answered the door.

"You're early," she commented when she saw Rielle standing just outside.

"I'm across the hall--it was a quick trek," the syscop replied, glancing back at the door to her room all of ten feet away. She entered the room, easing a heavy bag from her shoulder. Depositing the drive reader on the table, she moved to the window to check out the hacker's view.

"Who are you sharing with?" Xero asked, watching the other woman intently.

Rielle turned from the window and smiled. "Jealous?"

"Curious," the hacker clarified.

"What if I told you it was Blue?" Rielle pressed, watching the hacker closely.

"I'd say you should get some earplugs. I've heard Blue snores something awful."

"What, you don't know first hand?"

Xero smirked, all to willing to play the syscop's game. "Last time Blue and I were in the same bed, neither of us was sleeping." The color drained a little from the syscop's face and she knew she'd made her point. "But that was a long time ago and she's been rather pissy with me ever since."

"To answer your question," Rielle said stiffly, directing the conversation away from the hacker's conquests. "I'm not sharing a room with anyone. Wordee said there was an extra, and they didn't have the heart to put me in here with you."

"How thoughtful."

"I thought it was," Rielle insisted, determined not to let the obnoxious hacker get the best of her. "And you rate this big room all to yourself because...?" she asked dryly.

"Because we're meeting in here and I don't mind sleeping with twenty-five empty pizza boxes."

A loud knock on the door announced more arrivals and Rielle let her retort die on her lips. Eight hackers entered quickly, bearing boxes of pizza, bottles of soda, and a variety of other foodstuffs. The earliest arrivals staked out the prime sitting positions on the couches and bed present in the suite. Food and serving dishes littered every available surface within minutes. At the earliest opportunity, Rielle drifted into the crowd to chat with hackers who had now become friends. Telling herself she didn't care, Xero ate her pizza silently, mind still working on plans for the upcoming battle.

The crowd was large and loud and within minutes of the last arrivals Security knocked on the door with a complaint.

"Who's the skinny geek-bob?" someone asked when the lone security officer made his way into the room.

"I need to speak with whomever is in charge?" he announced, looking around a bit dubiously.

"Why?" someone else asked reaching for another slice of pizza.

"The gentleman next door is complaining."

Wordee made her way to the guard, annoyance etched on her face. "I asked to get this whole floor. He declined our offer to switch rooms."

"He's still complaining," the guard insisted.

"We'll see about that," Julie offered with a toothy grin, and slipped from the room.

"Are you ladies here for some sort of convention?" the guard asked, trying to make small talk, stalling for time.

A silence as ominous as death settled over the room as every mouth stilled. The guard looked ready to wet himself.

"What did you call us?" Ska asked dangerously, glaring up at the guard.

"Not a smart move, bob," LN whispered to the guard, eyeing Ska warily. "If you start running now, you just might make it to the elevator."

Before anyone else could comment, Julie strode back into the room, a confident swagger in her step. "Funny, I talked to the guy. And he swears he has no complaints." She looked around at the silent faces, all staring at the guard. "Don't everyone thank me at once," she grumbled.

"Right. Good," the guard agreed, backing away from the hostile throng. "You la... folks enjoy your stay."

The room erupted with laughter as he closed the door behind him.

After several moments of high fives and congratulations, the room began to settle down. Xero waited until every one had something to eat before making her way to the table at the end of the room where Rielle had deposited her drive reader. After flipping a couple of switches the machine, she removed Rielle's drive and inserted the drive she'd been working on. The projecting the readouts onto the far wall.

She put her mobie unit on the table and adjusted the volume. "Shadow, Missy you guys there?" she asked.

"Clear signal, no worries," came the disembodied voices. "We've got a clean channel, what about your location?"

Xero waited until the chorus of greetings subsided before answering. "The room checks out. We're clean. Now that we're all here, have you guys had any luck with President Taborn?"

"We can tell that she's gotten the messages, or someone pretty high up has at any rate. Missy has been working over the data we've lifted from the tracer nodes."

"That's right," the other voice continued. "The White House is treating this like internal terrorism. They think we're terrorists, and that the virus is a terrorist as well. I don't think they're getting much sympathy from other countries. We've been stingy with our technology and now our allies say we deserve what we get."

"So it's definitely the Pipeline Project, then?" MaryD asked curiously.

Xero pressed enter on the drive reader and a medical analysis of Bat's last online session appeared on the wall. "Shadow says it's 'like' Pipeline but worse."

"Xero's right," the voice emanated from the mobie unit. "Bat looked at a screen and was trapped by a very fast stream of information. Unfortunately with her eye, I'm sure she was able to read it as opposed to just seeing static. The thing locks you in that it runs a direct line to your brain, making it self-destruct the body. This is what Pipeline's designed to do, but even the most conservative estimates put that technology about twenty five years away."

"Shit," someone murmured from the back.

"Okay," Demeter reasoned, catching Rielle's eye and looking at her suspiciously. "How do you propose we stop it? One syscop, three hundred hackers and a virtual reality tank--mind connecting the dots, Xero?"

There were some disgruntled murmurs, making it quite apparent that not everyone in the room knew or appreciated that there was a syscop in their midst.

"Before you guys form a lynch mob," Missy's disembodied voice said through the tiny speaker, "her days at Archive are over. There's a buzz on the cop nodes, seems a lackey of Helms met an unfortunate fate in the rosebushes underneath Xero's bedroom window. Broken neck. The syscop's prints were found in the apartment and the Senator is out for blood."

"Why didn't you say something?" Xero demanded incredulously.

"Say what? I killed a thug this morning, can I have a gold star?" Rielle shot back from her seat on the couch. "I told you we only get one shot at this, that the timetable was stepping up. Did you think I was joking?"

Jenbob looked thoughtfully at the combatants while she refilled her cup. "I don't know about you, but if the syscop is willing to throw away her career and her marriage to stop this thing, I'm inclined to think she's on the level. We know why we're here; let's focus on what we need to do."

"Unless this is an elaborate trick to get three hundred hackers in one place," someone challenged from near the bathroom. "That would be quite a score, one syscop bringing in three hundred of us at once."

"What about you, Xero?" Wordee asked. "You've got the most to loose if we get caught. Do you trust her?"

"Trust, hell," Ska muttered under her breath. "She was screwing her for godsakes."

"Like that means anything," Blue muttered back.

Xero glanced over at Rielle. The syscop looked as curious as the hackers to see how she would answer. "I believe Rielle is here to deal with Ares. I think it would be reasonable to expect her not to go after any and all hackers helping out."

"It isn't me you have to worry about," Rielle continued, trying to reassure the assembled outlaws. "As Missy told you, I'm as hunted as you are, more so because Archive obviously believes I've switched sides. The bigger problem is going to be securing the park long enough to get Xero to the tank, then deal with Ares. It's not unreasonable to expect the National Guard or local cops to surround the place. Executive order is going to be the only thing saving our collective asses when this is all done. Syscops would have to get in line behind city, state then federal agencies when it comes to going after all of you."

The room grew quiet as everyone considered the implications. "Relax, guys," Demeter said, breaking the silence. "Prison food's not that bad." Tension broken, eyes drifted back to the tall woman in the center of the room.

"Did someone get a map?" Xero asked looking from Blue to Delirium.

"Right here," Ska announced, handing Xero a thickly folded stack of paper. As the hacker unfolded it, she turned a narrow gaze on the waitress. Ska tried to suppress a grin and failed. "I can't help it," she explained. "Cartoon maps were the only ones they had left at the gift shop. It'll work and it beats the risk of logging on."

With a resigned sigh, Xero opened the next file on her drive and pointed to various locations on the brightly colored map. "I've drawn up operational teams. The team leaders and their contacts are highlighted. Some of you will go into the park tonight and take in the shows. We want to make sure this VR tank is up and running and that everything looks normal. The control room for the tank should be located here, under the Matterhorn," she explained pointing to a central area on the map. "Three teams of twenty will need to hide in the park after it closes. Team One will take cover in the river, here. Team Two will go to this area of the back lot and Team Three will go to the information hub. We need that hub down before we can make any other move. I'll be in position to get to the control room. When Ska gives the signal, Robin and LN will get my team in the control room, then they'll move back to get word to the teams at the water park, sports park and Epcot center. These areas will have to be closed down as well since whoever comes after us will have to go through those positions first."

Kanvil stood and pointed to an area on the map behind It's A Small World. "We've found a breech in their security net. We should be able to sneak some weapons into the park here, then they can be stowed out of sight until dark."

"Put 'em under the drawbridge to the castle. There's enough metal in the bridge to fool the security scans," Rielle suggested. "It's also fairly close to the VR control room."

"Why the hell is it under the Matterhorn, anyway?" Ska asked, lifting another piece of pizza from a passing tray.

"The holo projection systems run under the park and up through the river," Missy answered from the mobie unit. "It's the same configuration as Disney World. The light system, pyrotechnics, and holographic projectors run through a series of node computers all linked to the main hub."

Jenbob looked at the phone dubiously. "And there's a small thermal exhaust port right below the main port, but it's ray shielded so you'll have to use proton torpedoes," she muttered.

"Star Wars, 1977," Wordee said triumphantly. "But I see Jenbob's point. This is high end stuff. We're not going to be able to keep cops out of the park for long. How long will you need to get rid of the virus?" she asked looking at Xero.

The tall hacker looked at Rielle. "If I get my ass kicked it won't take long, if I make some headway it could take up to half an hour, I guess."

The assembled hackers began to grumble a little in disappointment until Rielle spoke up. "It isn't as bad as it sounds," she insisted. "You've said yourself that the car wreck on the 5 freeway will buy some time. If you can just keep things chaotic for about forty five minutes to an hour, there's a good chance most of you will get out of the park unnoticed. It's either that or take your chances with the entity on the nets. It's knocking off more hackers than syscops after all."

Seeing Rielle's point all too clearly, the groups began breaking down into command teams. Minor modifications and alterations were made to various plans, but the main organizational structure was left intact. There wasn't much for Xero to do at that point. No one had questioned her appointments of team commanders, and the only one who would be in the control room with her was Rielle. Since the syscop didn't seem very interested in talking to her at the moment, Xero contented herself with watching the swimmers in the pool outside the window, thirty-two floors below.

When all the food was gone, the hackers began to leave in small groups. Most decided to head to the park to take in some shows and meet back at the room for breakfast.

"You guys coming to the park?" Ska asked the remaining group as she fished her ticket out of her pocket.

Jenbob, Blue, and Wordee looked at Xero inquiringly. "I'll skip it," Xero answered, running a hand through hair still slightly damp. "I'm sure I'll see enough of the place tomorrow."

"Cool," Ska replied. "Then, how about loaning me some cash for dinner?"

"You just ate," Xero reminded her.

"Here." Rielle offered handing the waitress her ticket. "I don't feel much like going either. I'm sure you could sell my evening pass."

"Thanks, copper," the waitress replied with a grin. "In spite of what everyone says, you're alright."

"But she just ate," Xero repeated.

"That isn't the point," Rielle shot back, her temper flaring a little. "Maybe she wants a t-shirt or something. Christ, Xero, quit being such a hard ass."

Wordee, Blue, and Jenbob chuckled which only annoyed Xero even more. "Fuck you, Rielle," she muttered.

"In your dreams, hacker," the syscop shot back, turning and heading for the door.

"Do all your one night stands give you this trouble?" Jenbob asked, smiling broadly.

"Evita, 1997," Wordee added without skipping a beat.

Xero stood gazing out the window until she'd heard the last of the hackers leave. Annoyed and frustrated, she paced back and forth like a caged animal. "Fucking syscop," she muttered to herself more than once. There was something about the woman Xero couldn't grasp. She was too confident at the strangest times then surprisingly shy and vulnerable when the hacker least expected it. "She's doing it on purpose," she grumbled. "I know, she's trying to drive me insane."

Xero stopped in her tracks, knowing she's heard the phrase somewhere before but not knowing when. She was almost certain she'd not been the one to say it. Flopping onto the bed she stared at the ceiling. Feeling restless and moody, sleep was the last thing on her mind. She hit the remote control panel on the stand by the side of the bed and looked down past her feet at the monitor in the console at the far wall.

Ignoring the images on the screen, her eyes landed on Rielle's bag still sitting under the table where she'd left it. Shutting off the monitor, she sat up on the edge of the bed and debated. She could return the bag, giving her a legitimate excuse to go across the hall to the syscop's room. Or ignore it and see if Rielle would come looking for it. Pushing herself off the bed, Xero retrieved the bag from under the table and rummaged through its contents. A wallet, mobie unit, taser, papers, a pack of gum, a brush, all the usual contents of a syscop's purse and none of it important enough to warrant a frantic search. That being the case, she closed the bag and headed across the hall to return it.

Xero knocked on the door, glancing over her shoulder at the room she'd just left. She was about to go back when Rielle's door opened. The hacker swallowed reflexively. "You forgot your bag," she mumbled.

Rielle looked up into blue eyes that did their best not to stare. Tooth brush in one hand, she was dressed in an oversized t-shirt, nothing else. "Bring it on in," she replied returning to the bathroom.

"At least you were still up," Xero continued as she put the bag down near the bed. She rubbed the back of her neck and debated whether or not she should simply leave. She'd made up her mind to go when Rielle stepped out of the bathroom, blocking off her only avenue of escape.

"Leaving so soon?" the syscop inquired calmly.

Xero gazed down; her slight smile gave nothing away of the battle being waged within. "I didn't really think you'd want me to stay," she said simply.

Rielle walked past the hacker and stood in front of the large window. The Magic Kingdom sparkled in the distance. "To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure myself whether or not I want you to stay," she said quietly as she watched the sparkling lights. She turned back to see Xero studying her closely. "Just how brave are you feeling tonight, Xero?"

"Brave enough," the hacker answered quietly.

Coming to a decision, Rielle stepped away from the window and joined the hacker near the bed. "Then tell you what. You let me undress you, and by the time I'm done I'll have made up my mind if I want you to stay."

"Sounds a little risky for me, doesn't it?" Xero replied, her voice deep and warm. "You change your mind and I'm walking back to my room naked."

Rielle laughed as she circled the hacker. "Your room is across the hall, dear. I think you'd manage. Not that I've found you very shy about your body up to this point. So, what'll it be?"

Xero turned and looked at Rielle. Gazing deep into the syscop's vibrant green eyes she searched for some clue as to what the syscop had planned. Finding none, she had no place to turn but her own heart and mind, which were screaming go and stay alternately. Always shrewd, she decided to play it both ways as long as she could. "I'll stay, see what you have in mind," she announced.

Shaking her head slowly, Rielle's expression turned very serious. "No, Xero," she said in a voice barely above a whisper. "Either yes or no. If you stay, you agree to stay until tomorrow morning, not just until you decide you're uncomfortable. It also means I'm running this show. You keep your hands to yourself unless I say otherwise. If you can't give me at least that much, then I'm not interested."

"I thought you were undecided," Xero teased gently.

"I am. And I admit you're getting the short end of the deal here. You're going to have to take the risk. Decide for yourself if it's worth it to you or not."

Rielle looked up into troubled eyes. Xero closed them briefly. When long eyelashes fluttered open once more the syscop found her gaze trapped by piercing blue. Xero's expression surprisingly unguarded.

"Yes," the hacker whispered, giving the only answer she could.

Rielle swallowed once, Xero's submission hitting her like rolling thunder. She walked a slow circle around the taller woman who stood patiently still. Xero was waiting now, waiting to see what the other woman had in mind. Knowing this was her last, best chance to get through to the warrior bubbling just below the surface, the syscop took her time.

Gazing up the length of the hacker's body, Rielle noticed that even in bare feet, the other woman was easily over a half foot taller than she. The green and black flannel shirt was open, hanging loose over a gray t-shirt which was tucked into faded blue jeans. The shirt cuffs unbuttoned, they were draped around elegant wrists almost obscuring a heavy black wristwatch from view. Xero watched intently as she circled like a shark.

"Why don't you have pierced ears?" Rielle asked quietly when she stopped in front of the hacker, studying the taller woman's features with interest.

For an instant Xero considered cutting retort, then changed her mind. "It never really occurred to me to pierce them," she admitted. "It wouldn't really serve any purpose."

"And pierced nipples serve a purpose?"

The hacker smiled seductively. "Yes, they do." Then, glancing down, she added, "but I only did it after loosing a bet."

Rielle stepped behind the hacker, smoothing her hands over the broad shoulders covered by flannel. Taking a step forward, she pressed her cheek against the hacker's strong back, in between the shoulder blades. Letting her hands wander down the length of muscular arms, she tried to memorize the contours beneath soft fabric. Bringing her hands to the front, feather light touches traced over the buttons of the shirt and flat abdomen beneath. "You have nice muscles." she murmured. "What do you do to work out?" Moving in front of the hacker, she continued to trail her fingers up and down the open edges of the shirt. Fingers lightly grazing the t-shirt beneath as she traced the flannel.

"I...ah... just the usual stuff at the gym. Weights and the...uh, climbing wall mostly." Try as she might, Xero was finding concentration difficult.

"Oh," the syscop replied thoughtfully. Moving back behind the hacker, she brought her hands back to the flannel shirt's collar and eased her fingers underneath. Slowly she began to pull back. Stepping around to face the hacker once more, she eased the shirt over strong shoulders. With deliberate care she guided the shirt off the taller woman's body, letting it fall to the floor.

"Cold?" she asked as she guided her fingers over the fine hair of the hacker's forearms. She smiled at the gooseflesh appearing in the wake of her touch.

"No," Xero breathed, her voice throaty and ragged.

Rielle's eyes drifted up and down the statuesque woman standing in front of her. She noticed that the hacker wasn't wearing a bra. That much was obvious from the jewelry plainly visible beneath the snug t-shirt. Lightly, she brushed her hands over the surface of the gray cotton. Erect nipples strained against the material as skilled hands traveled over the hacker's breasts. She could feel Xero's eyes on her as she let her gaze brazenly trail over the hacker's body. She smiled, enjoying the effect she was having on the taller woman.

"Put your arms around me," Rielle instructed.

Xero swallowed nervously. Stepping forward, she felt the softness of Rielle's hair brushing against the bottom of her chin. Strong arms moved, encircling the smaller woman in a close embrace. Red gold tresses brushed against her arms as she held the syscop. The feel of Rielle's arms wrapping around her waist, and slow hands brushing against her back was electrifying. Xero desperately wanted to brush her cheek against the soft crown of strawberry blonde hair resting against her chest, but didn't. Standing still, she did as she was asked but nothing more.

Rielle smiled into the soft warmth of Xero's chest. She could feel the roughness of blue jeans against her thigh and was grateful for the t-shirt protecting her stomach from the chill of nickel buttons. One of Xero's arms was wrapped around her shoulders, the other draping across her back and resting near her hip. It felt sublime. Her hands continued to brush across the gray t-shirt, slowly tracing the muscles beneath. Gradually she brought her hands down to Xero's lower back and began to untuck the shirt. As soon as she had the room, she slipped her hands underneath, trailing her fingers over warm skin. Her smile broadened when she felt the steady hammering of the heart beat beneath her cheek.

"Where do you get your clothes?" Rielle whispered against the hacker's chest.

The hacker's eyes closed, momentarily stunned by how intimate the question seemed at the moment. "Usual shops at the mall," she replied, her voice reaching Rielle's ears as a soft rumble through her chest. "Whatever's on sale, I'm not that picky."

Rielle stepped back, a slight smile on her face. "I think you are," she countered. "You know you're beautiful and you wear things that make you look magnificent." Still gripping the bottom edge of the t-shirt, she untucked it as she brought her hands to the front.

"So, you think I look magnificent?" Xero asked, doing her best to smirk.

"Do you want me to?" Rielle challenged, green eyes blazing. Xero looked away not trusting herself to answer. "How do you see me?" she asked, reaching up to Xero's cheek, drawing her eyes back.

"I think you're gorgeous," the hacker admitted honestly. "Infuriating, but breathtaking."

Rielle laughed. "The same can be said for you, Xero, and more so."

"Maybe," she admitted. "So, does it always take you this long to undress someone?" she finally asked.

Stepping back, Rielle let her fingers trail over the hacker's abdomen beneath the grey t-shirt. "You've got something better to do?" she asked, a wry smile on her lips. "A date perhaps? Honestly, Xero, this is one of the few civil conversations we've had. I'm in no mood to end it."

"I can think of something better than talking," the hacker murmured.

Drawing her hands slowly up the sides of Xero's torso, she pulled the t-shirt off the taller woman's body. Xero assisted by bending over when the shirt got up around her shoulders so the shorter woman could pull it over her head. Standing back up, long black hair fell around her shoulders in disarray.

"I've got news for you," Rielle murmured quietly, trailing her fingers over the newly exposed skin. "This isn't about fucking."

Xero didn't reply, but watched in mute silence as Rielle traced the contours of her breasts with feather light touches.

"Did it hurt?" she asked, tracing the hoop pierced through the hackers left nipple with her finger. Experimentally she lifted the ring with her finger tip, noting the shudder that rippled through the hacker's frame in response.

"Yeah, it hurt," Xero answered, fighting to keep her voice casual and failing.

"I'm a little surprised you don't have your belly button pierced," Rielle commented, fingers still playing with the small gold hoops.

"Who says I don't?" she asked, her voice tight as another shudder shot through her body. Rielle's eyes flashed up in question, and Xero couldn't help but grin. "It's in my right front pocket. I don't wear it if I'm going to be on the bike a lot, sometimes it catches. I forgot to put it back since our trip up north."

Taking the cue, Rielle reached into the pocket of the hacker's tight fitting jeans, noting with satisfaction the breath that caught in Xero's throat as soon as her hand made its way into the pocket. Fishing around for a moment, she withdrew a gold ring, identical in shape and size to the rings already adorning taut nipples. "Another bet?" the syscop asked wryly as she stooped to find the hole where it belonged.

"Yeah," Xero admitted, trying not to flinch as Rielle's light touch tickled her abdomen. "I've lost three bets that ended up in piercing."

"So which breast did you pierce first, the right or left?"

"The left," Xero answered with a gasp as Rielle threaded the ring through the tiny hole at her belly button. There was something so intimate about that act. It certainly never felt that way when she removed or replaced the jewelry herself.

Task finished, Rielle took note of the three matching rings, smiling with approval. "I like them." Moving her hands to the hacker's breasts once more, she added, "especially these."

Xero gasped audibly when Rielle smoothed her palms over each breast, gently tugging on the gold hoop with her thumb and index finger when she finished. "Don't start... something you're not willing to finish," she groaned, warning threading her voice.

"I could say the same thing to you, Xero."

"How d'ya figure that?" the hacker asked as Rielle stepped behind her once more, trailing her hands along the taller woman's warm skin. Her jaw clenched shut when Rielle stepped close, very aware of firm breasts pressing into her back, separated by only a soft t-shirt. The muscles of her back twitched as aroused nipples made their presence known. At the same time, Rielle's hands had snaked around her waist, moving down the outside of her thighs.

"You can't irresponsibly make love to me and be done with it. Is that what you were expecting?" The hacker winced at the stinging words, even though the syscop's voice held no rebuke. "I'm not just some body for you to get off then move on," she continued, drawing her hands up the tops of muscular thighs. "My heart is on the table here, and you think you can play without meeting the stakes."

"I never asked for your heart," Xero replied, her voice tight as Rielle's fingers grasped the top button of her jeans.

"No," Rielle allowed, undoing the button and trailing her hands down to the next. "But you got it anyway. Tough break."

"Don't make a big mistake even bigger," the tall woman murmured quietly, covering the syscop's hands with her own and holding them still.

"Relax, Xero," Rielle whispered back placing a soft kiss between the taller woman's shoulder blades. "I'm not going to hurt you, and this time, you aren't going to hurt me."

With a gentle nudge she freed her hands from beneath the hacker's and undid another button. Strong fingers proceeded to the next as Rielle inhaled deeply, nuzzling her face into the soft black hair that hung down well past Xero's shoulders. The faint scent of leather from the outlaw's jacket mixed with traces of the shampoo she'd used to wash her hair. To Rielle's senses, it was home, a home she'd not seen in two millennia. With the final button released, she slowly brought her hands back up to the waistband of the jeans. As she eased her hands inside, Xero's head tipped back, more hair tickling her face a little as it brushed past. In a smooth movement, Rielle pushed her hands down, bringing the blue jeans down with them. Gracefully, she crouched down, trailing her cheek along the length of Xero's body. With the jeans piled on the floor, she stood, slowly trailing her hands up the outside of the hacker's legs as she moved.

Without removing her hands from the hacker's torso, Rielle moved to stand in front of the statuesque woman, dressed in nothing, save for her underwear and wristwatch. Xero leaned forward her eyes focused squarely on Rielle's lips but was stopped by a warm hand against her chest. "Not yet," Rielle whispered. "I still haven't made up my mind."

Closing her eyes in frustration at the rejection, Xero righted herself and waited. Then thought about escape. Calling the whole damn thing off and leaving. But she'd given her word, and unknown to most, it was one of the few things that she thought had any value. If the syscop was playing games, she admitted, then she was screwed. For the first time in many years, she was positively scared. Like using a muscle long atrophied, opening her heart to the syscop would likely tear it. "Why are you doing this?" she asked quietly, her voice thick with ragged emotion.

Rielle smiled kindly as she drew her hands down each side of Xero's left arm. She let her fingers drift over the bulky wristwatch for a moment as she considered her answer. "In all honesty, Xero, I'm doing this because I want to. Not only that, I feel like I have to. You hurt me, and you know you did. If I don't exact some sort of payment from you I don't think you'll be able to respect me." Carefully, she brought the hacker's wrist up to her face and placed a series of soft kisses from the inside of the elbow to wrist. "I know that respect is as close to love as you're able to manage right now."

"What makes you think I'll ever be able to love?" Xero asked, mesmerized as Rielle kissed her palm them moved her lips back to the watch to undo the wristband with her teeth.

There was no answer as the syscop continued to work. Watch finally freed, Rielle let it fall from her teeth into her hand. Turning her back on Xero, she walked to the bed and gently set the watch on the bedside table. "I have my reasons," she said sitting on the edge of the bed. "You don't need to worry about it. Now, come here."

The words may have been a command but the soft voice that relayed them caressed Xero like a gentle request. Stepping out of her jeans she moved to the bed and stood before Rielle, her face a map of uncertainty.

Rielle reached out to trace the waistband of the hacker's underwear. Outlining the black garment with her fingers she traced low over the Xero's hips and the french cut high up the thigh, the silky material left little covered and less to the imagination. "I'm going to ask you to do something," she said, a slight blush coloring her cheeks, "and I don't want you to laugh at me."

"Do I have to do it?" Xero asked, some of her customary sarcasm creeping into her voice.

Grinning openly, the syscop eased her hand into the waistband of the garment. "Yes, you do. You already agreed to."

"All right then," the hacker answered reasonably, surprised her voice was so calm. "Ask away."

"I want you to hold me while I sleep," she said finally as she drew the underwear down long muscled legs.

"Sleep?" Xero asked, without the slightest trace of humor to her voice. "You're going to sleep?"

"I'd like to," Rielle answered quietly, sounding a little insecure. "I didn't sleep much last night, I was trying to sort things out." She got into bed, pulled back the covers and moved over leaving room for Xero to join her. "Besides, you owe me. I held you every night at Henry's."

Blue eyes widening in surprise, Xero opened and closed her mouth several times. "You held me?" she blurted at last. Feeling a little nauseous, she sat down on the edge of the bed.

"You were thrashing around a lot," Rielle explained. "Henry was worried about you hurting yourself. When I held you, you quieted right down. Relax, Xero, it isn't like I took pictures or anything."

The syscop's sarcasm cut through her racing thoughts, bringing her back to the here and now. "It isn't that," she stammered. "What I mean is...I...I..." Giving up she shrugged. "It's nothing."

"Xero," Rielle asked gently, resting her chin on the hacker's firm shoulder. "When was the last time you spent the night with a lover?"

Swallowing nervously, Xero looked down at her feet for a moment before turning her head and meeting Rielle's gaze. "I...um... don't do that."

"Don't want to spend that much time with 'em huh?"

"Something like that," the hacker answered with an almost bashful grin.

Rielle considered asking why, but suspected she already knew the answer. Moving from orphanage to orphanage had obviously taken its emotional toll. She couldn't begin to speculate at the abuse the older woman may have suffered. She'd read stories about the so called "kid farms," always hoping things weren't as bad as they seemed. She was dealing with a woman who was brilliant, violent and emotionally infantile. It was a dangerous combination. But she was committed now, bound to the warrior in a hacker's skin before they'd even met. If nothing else, it was her duty to prepare this woman for the upcoming battle. Xero would need to be able to reach inside herself and find more there than she ever imagined. Rielle knew that it was her connection to the volatile hacker that would be the something more.

"It isn't that hard," Rielle suggested, pulling Xero into the bed. "Move that arm here, no, not quite that much. There you go. Now, I go here." Curling up against the hacker's side, Rielle rested her head on a shoulder that fit so well it seemed designed for the purpose. Born of a habit several lifetimes old, she threw one leg over the hacker's and wrapped a secure arm around Xero's middle. "Think you'll survive?" she murmured into a warm chest rising and falling with measured breaths.

"You can honestly sleep like this?" Xero asked, trying to sound cross.

"Oh yeah," Rielle purred, snuggling close. "Just so you know, you can move around a little, you won't wake me up."

"I'll keep that in mind," Xero answered dryly. Taking the cue, she shifted her position, getting as comfortable she could under the circumstances. Every movement seemed to bring the syscop closer, until more of her was resting on Xero than the bed. With her right arm wrapped around Rielle's body, she let her hand slip under the t-shirt where it came to rest against soft skin. Not knowing what to do with her other hand she rested it on the arm stretched across her abdomen.

Rielle snuggled a bit more in approval. "You're perfect, Xena, absolutely perfect," she mumbled, barely coherent. By her next breath, she was sound asleep.

Xero gazed down at the crown of strawberry blonde hair resting on her chest. The syscop had just called her 'Xena' by mistake and the hacker wasn't sure how she felt about it. "Lights, off," she called to the empty room which suddenly became bathed in darkness.

Xero listened to the steady rhythm of her companion's breathing for long minutes before she became accustomed to its soothing pattern. It wasn't so bad she decided. Asleep, the syscop was all softness and curves snuggled tightly against her body. It was a marked contrast to the woman who when conscious ran the gamut from shy to confrontational. For a moment, Xero considered sleeping herself. The peaceful slumber of her companion was having an almost hypnotic effect. She changed her mind, deciding she didn't want to share the tranquil moment with two ghosts from the past. "This is tranquility?" she wondered. The word felt foreign in her mind but she was unable to come up with a better one.

Thoughts that would normally wander were focused squarely on the here and now. Like an anchor, her sleeping companion kept her attention riveted on the peace at hand. With a rare sense of centeredness, Xero thought about the events that had brought them together. Like a page from some deranged story, the death of a friend led to an imminent battle against evil at the happiest place on earth. Risking her life against a known killer because the sleeping woman at her side said she was a reincarnated ancient Greek hero? It was nuts. Almost as crazy as the hotel full of hackers who were equally prepared to risk imprisonment or death for the greater good. Then there were the dreams. The haunting visions of a life she could feel but not remember.

Rielle shifted in her sleep, interrupting the hacker's thoughts. The hand that rested around Xero's middle moved up to cup an ample breast. The syscop sighed contentedly bringing a smile to the hacker's lips. "What do you dream about?" Xero wondered stroking her companion's back tenderly. "Dead archaeologists, ancient battles? Or do you dream about the future? An ideal warrior perhaps, who'll come down from the clouds and win your heart? I'm sorry, Rielle, but I don't think it's me." Turning away from disappointing thoughts, she returned her attention to the present. Content to simply exist in that moment with the woman at her side, Xero listened to her companion's breathing and filled her senses with the scent and feel of soft skin. Minutes stretched into hours bringing with it a sense of completeness as blissful as it was foreign to the hacker.

Xero was so enjoying the intimate quiet that she was almost disappointed when the syscop began to stir. Breathing became more irregular and less deep; moments later Rielle was nuzzling Xero's shoulder as she woke.

"You are sooooo comfortable," she murmured, her voice sleepy and warm, caressing the hacker's skin. "Did you sleep?"

"No," Xero answered quietly, not wanting to break the spell of contentment that enveloped them.

"Kept watch did ja?" she teased placing a light kiss on the hacker's clavicle.

"Something like that." Blue eyes closed in pleasure as a second kiss joined the first, this time at the base of Xero's throat. Rielle shifted her weight once more and stretched out on top of the hacker's body. The lips at Xero's neck became bolder, kissing a warm path along a pulsing vein.

Her mind swimming with heady memories, Rielle considered biting Xero on the throat. Baccahe remembrances darted through her consciousness, making her pulse throb. Regretfully she decided against it. Xena the fighter had already bubbled to the surface as Paula's failed sword fight had amply proven. Coaxing Xena the lover to the surface would be best accomplished by gentle touches to start. There would be time for wild abandon, Rielle promised herself there would, but not right now.

The room was nearly dark--the only source of light were the vibrant colors from the sparkling signs outside. With the blinds closed, bits of hue seeped into the room casting a variety of shapes and shadows in random patterns across the bed and floor. Rielle arched her back, gazing down into the face below. A warm sliver of light from the window made it's way onto the bed and fell across Xero's face making her eyes appear almost violet. Rielle slowly descended on the waiting mouth, her eyes closing as she moved. Without the distraction of sight, she focused on the warm, wet lips moving beneath hers. Basking in the sensuous onslaught, Rielle moved her lips over the hacker's, delighting in the kiss they shared. When a warm tongue caressed her lower lip she invited the other woman inside, tongues caressing each other in a dance of heat and passion.

It was a desperate need for air that drove their mouths apart, leaving both women panting and hungry for more. "I like the way you kiss," Rielle breathed, although it was a gross understatement.

"There's more where that came from," Xero nearly growled, reaching up for more.

"Not so fast," Rielle countered pulling her head back a little and out of the hacker's reach. "Think you can remember who it is you're with this time?" she asked gently.

Xero flinched, as if she'd just had ice water dumped on her. Aroused and growly, thrumming with sexual energy, the last thing she wanted to do at the moment was think. "I don't know," she answered honestly. She lay still, waiting for Rielle to make the next move.

"I'll remind you," Rielle rasped, leaning down for another scorching kiss. Her tongue forced its way into the hacker's mouth seeking out its secrets with abandon. Xero gently sucked on the tongue filling her so deliciously. After a few moments she released the syscop, savoring the sweet taste in her mouth that lingered. Lips sliding from Xero's mouth, Rielle tasted a fiery path across the other woman's face. She nipped teasingly at the hacker's cheek, kissed dark eyebrows tenderly and skillfully traced the outline of an ear with feather light touches of her tongue. Making her way back to hungry lips she luxuriated in the warm wetness that caressed her in return.

Rielle could have kissed Xero all night and would have, if the aching need of her body hadn't become so insistent. The hand caressing at the base of her spine, and the other threaded through her hair resonated with a touch she'd not felt in lifetimes. Her body buzzing with recognition, she was determined to fulfill every desire before the enigmatic hacker changed her mind.

Xero wasn't about to change her mind. She simply laid back and let it happen. Even moreso than the day before, it was clear being on top did something for the syscop and Xero saw no reason to tamper with success. She had to admit, it was doing something for her, too. Smiling down, Rielle cupped the sides of her face with tender hands, and kissed her deeply. With an involuntary sigh, Xero kissed back, loving every moment of it.

In one smooth movement Rielle sat up, straddling the hacker's hips and throwing the covers off of them in the process. The sudden chill made Xero's nipples stand even more firm and erect than they'd been a minute ago, if that were possible. With a sexy smile Rielle drew the t-shirt over her head, leaving her as nude as the hacker. Garment discarded, she lowered her body, her own erect nipples, brushing teasingly against the rings threaded through the flesh of the other woman. Xero gasped, feeling very decadent at the delicious weight that settled itself over her. Looking up into radiant green eyes, she felt tremors pulse through Rielle's body as she drew her warm hands up the syscop's back.

"Say my name," Rielle instructed, as her lips made the acquaintance of Xero's throat once more.

"Rielle?" the hacker responded, a little baffled by the request but enjoying Rielle's attentions none the less.

"Do it again," Rielle breathed, her mouth working down the length of Xero's throat. "Only lower your voice a little." She emphasized her point by drawing her tongue down the length of the hacker's jugular vein, making the other woman shudder appreciatively.

"Rielle," Xero tried again, hoping she didn't sound as self conscious as she felt.

"Almost, baby," the syscop panted, holding onto Xero's strong biceps and using the leverage to push her body slightly lower.

Xero could feel Rielle sliding smoothly against her body, the sensation making her dizzy with desire. "Rielle," she purred, her voice a velvety rumble deep within her chest.

The syscop sighed, momentarily paralyzed by her own body's reaction to the sound. "That's perfect," she breathed. "God that gets me wet." With her face resting in the valley between the hacker's breasts, she took a moment to simply enjoy the pangs of pleasure resonating in her body at the sound of her lover's voice and the strong hands gently carassing her back. She would have been content to stay there forever had her attention not been captured by the glint of metal.

Even in the near darkness, the gold hoop pierced through Xero's nipple captivated the syscop's attention. Surprised that she found the sight of such a sensitive body part pierced by metal an utter turn-on, Rielle came to a decision. Closing her eyes, she decided to explore the warm pulsing woman beneath her without the assistance of her most utilized sense. The instant her eyes closed she became acutely aware of the warm hands on her back, moving in slow languid strokes. Bringing her own hands down the sides of Xero's body, her finger's lightly trailed over heated skin until they came to her side. Pushing up with both hands, Rielle lifted her body just a bit from the hackers; enough to let her breasts swing freely and brush against Xero's. For just an instant she felt the cold metal brush against her own nipples, the sensation positively arousing. Settling down once more, she briefly nuzzled the hacker's shoulder, getting her bearings before moving her lips lower. With her chin and cheek lightly trailing over soft skin, she kissed her way to the prize she sought.

Xero's encouraging groan would have told her she was right on target had she not already discovered that fact with her lips. The gold hoop was cold, but warmed quickly in her mouth. She flicked her tongue over the tip, the rigidness of the ring complimenting the rigidness of the nipple it pierced.

"Fuck, yes!" Xero gasped, and Rielle could tell by the movement of the body beneath her that the hacker had just thrown her head back, arching her body to offer more of herself to the syscop's ministrations. Swirling her tongue around the nipple brought out a new series of gasps, but even they did not compete with the near growl that erupted from Xero's throat when Rielle threaded her tongue through the ring and tugged slightly.

Xero's mind struggled to keep up with the myriad of sensations coursing through her. There was warmth, from the body and mouth of the woman moving so erotically above her. There was also cold, from the warm breath being blown across a wet nipple. The metal ring cooled quickly transmitting that chill along it's surface into Xero's body. There was pleasure. As Rielle gently played with the ring, it felt as though she were being caressed from the inside as well as outside. There was also a little pain as the tugging on the ring drew the occasional jolt from Xero's body. It was a pain she'd gladly endure though, so mixed was it with the wonderful things happening to her.

Rielle's strong hands continued to kneed the firm muscles of upper arms as the syscop shifted position, kissing and tongueing her way across the hacker's chest to the other breast. She teased the larger woman mercilessly with a series of gentle nips and kisses all around the sensitive flesh, up and down the soft curves but not quite touching the nipple. "Come on," Xero groaned, trying to position herself directly in front of the syscop's mouth.

Green eyes fluttered open and Rielle looked intently at the hacker's face. A mosaic of lust, desire and passion, Rielle was hard pressed to imagine when she'd seen a more magnificent sight. "Come on what?" she asked, her voice dripping with playful innocence.

Xero moved suggestively underneath her, a sultry smile easing across her face. "Come on, Rielle," she groaned, her voice husky and rough. "You know what I want." Unable to restrain her sigh, the Rielle had to fight to keep from swooning at the incredibly sexy voice that seemed to penetrate to her very core. "I want to feel my body in your mouth Rielle. All of it. I want to feel that warm wet tongue all over my breast and making love to my nipple. Don't tell me you don't want that too."

The syscop was stunned she didn't come right then and there. There was no doubt her nether region was a flood plain at this point and the hacker's sexy voice did nothing to stem that tide. All to happy to comply with the other woman's request, she gave Xero everything she wanted. Circling the graceful slope with wet kisses to start she then sucked as much of the warm flesh inside her mouth as she could, the hacker gasping her encouragement all the while. A bit rougher than before, she toyed with the nipple and ring threaded through it. Grasping the gold hoop in her teeth, she gave it a gentle tug and was rewarded with an incoherent pant from the woman below her. Encouraged by the response, Rielle positioned the nipple in her mouth between her teeth then carefully bit down, using gradual but firm pressure. The moan of rapture that met her ears this time told her that the hacker was getting close to her release. Enough so that if she didn't slow down now, her partner would orgasm before she could touch her anywhere else.

Rielle drew her tongue across the top of Xero's breast one last time in parting then continued to kiss her way downward. "Say my name again," she instructed midway to the hacker's navel.

"Rielle," Xero murmured without hesitation. She stiffened up a little though when the syscop reached the ring at her navel. Looking down the length of her body her eyes were serious even though her cheeks maintained the flush of arousal. "Don't go down on me," she said flatly.

"Okay," Rielle replied, opening her eyes, the disappointment clear in her voice. "Can I ask why?"

Xero swallowed once and tried to shrug nonchalantly. "I don't need it," she said, tousling Rielle's hair with her hand.

Frowning, the syscop moved up the hacker's body until she was able to look the older woman square in the eye. Placing a hand on either side of Xero's shoulders and straddling a muscular thigh, she lowered her weight, making sure Xero could feel the slippery contact of her body. "This isn't about needing," she reasoned seductively. "This is about wanting." To make her point she flexed her hips, moving back and forth slightly across the hacker's thigh. Xero gazed up through eyes heavy lidded with pleasure. "Can you feel that?" Rielle asked. "That's me wanting you--very badly. If you won't let me taste you, will you at least let me touch you?"

Rielle pushed back again and the smooth glide of the syscop's warm center across her skin nearly undid her. Struggling to maintain self control, she whispered, "It isn't necessary."

"You don't lie very well," Rielle countered. Shifting back and forth again, she closed her eyes enjoying the sensation. "Bend your knee," she requested as she continued to slowly slide and grind her body against the hacker's. "Know what I think?" she asked almost conversationally, shifting the position of her arms to get better balance. "I think you're afraid of me. Afraid of what I can do for you."

Xero watched transfixed as the syscop artfully rode her thigh. Flexing the muscles of her leg, she noticed Rielle smile in approval. She watched as the other woman picked up a steady rhythm, lifted one hand from the bed and brought it to her breast, tugging at a ringless nipple. "Are you afraid of feeling?" Rielle asked, her voice breathy and urgent. "I'm feeling you, right now. Is it killing me?" She opened her eyes again and watched Xero as her movements became more frantic. A few more strokes and she was teetering on the edge of her release. "Please," she begged. "Let me in."

Staring in wonder was all Xero could do when Rielle's face transformed into an expression of pure rapture. She was held by the green eyes that captured hers, sharing that most private of moments with her completely. Distantly, she was aware of the warm body pressing down on her thigh, the slight sensation of vibration, the primal groan of release and the warm wetness running down, drenching her skin. But none of that compared with those eyes. Eyes that were open, inviting and held nothing back. She didn't know what to say.

Luckily she didn't have to. When the tremors stopped and Rielle's body stilled, she leaned forward, skin slightly damp from exertion, sliding easily against the hacker's. She kissed Xero, a kiss that was tender, warm and completely lust provoking. "Care to reconsider your position?" she murmured, lightly trailing the tip of her tongue along Xero's lower lip. "Because I really want you."

"Yes," the hacker gasped, smoothing her hands over the firm muscles of Rielle's back and squeezing firm hips.

"Yes, to what?" Rielle insisted, wanting to make sure she and the hacker had come to an understanding.

"Yes to everything," Xero replied, her voice almost pleading. With a wry grin she added, "Rielle," in a low rumble that was pure velvet to the syscop's ears.

There was no hiding the grin that lighted Rielle's features as she began her slow torturous descent of Xero's body once more. The sound of her name kept falling from the hacker's lips, nearly making her forget exactly what it was she was doing. There was something about that sound that completely unglued her and she heard the melodious tones not just from the hacker's voice, but pouring out of every pore in her lover's skin. She closed her eyes again, enjoying the sounds caressing her ears, the gentle touches on her back gliding over her body, and the comforting taste of familiar skin in her mouth. Simply put, there was nothing better in the universe than loving Xena, whether Xena knew who she was or not.

She felt the first tickle of curly hairs brush against her abdomen as she moved down toward Xero's navel. The sensation of warm wetness against her middle followed close behind. It took all the restraint she could muster to keep from simply diving in and enjoying everything her lover had to offer. Resisting temptation, she took her time. She knew what Xero needed, and that she'd need to be careful to keep from scaring the volatile woman. She was teetering on the brink. What she was about to do would either break down any remaining barriers between them or drive Xero away forever.

Her nostrils flared picking up the scent of skin, passion and the faintest traces of soap. She smiled as the soft hairs brushing against her neck tickled a little. Slowly bringing her hands down the length of Xero's body, she brought them to the larger woman's thighs and with gentle pressure urged them apart. The hacker complied, but the tension evident in the coiled muscles made her uncertainty clear. She massaged the strong thighs with her hands as she nuzzled her chin into the collection of soft fine hairs at the hacker's center. Stretching out her body she brought her arms under Xero's thighs and back up to the hacker's breasts as she paused to breathe in the scent of her lover, still passionate and wonderful after two thousand years. She moistened her lips in anticipation, inching ever closer. With her eyes closed she relied on even the most minute movements of the body below her to guide her. Reaching out tentatively with her tongue, she was gratified to find she was right on target. Xero gasped, and Rielle only prolonged the other woman's torture by lightly teasing the outer lips with her tongue.

Strong hands threaded through the hair on the top of her head urging her forward. The request was clear. Move or be pushed. Rielle didn't have to be asked twice. Moving forward she opened her mouth and embraced as much of Xero as she could with strong confident lips.

"Rielle, yes, Rielle." The hacker's words floated down to her ears like a caress against her soul. She reached out with her tongue covering the distance from bottom to top in one slow decadent stroke. She murmured her appreciation at her lover's taste; an essence she'd been too many years without. Inwardly, she beamed. This was going to be good.

Something out of place caught her attention at the top of the hacker's opening. Eyes still closed she brought her tongue back to investigate further. Xero gasped and shuddered as a result. Tentatively Rielle brushed her tongue back and forth across the nub of nerves at the top. She nearly opened her eyes in surprise at the round circular hardness she felt pierced through a bit of skin just above the tumescent bundle. It was slightly different from the hoops she was currently playing with at the hacker's nipples. This one had a slight bulge, a bead, on the hoop which rested on the clitoris. Rielle was delighted by the discovery, and very turned-on. A physical manifestation of the hacker's vulnerability, the fact that Xero trusted her here and now not only enough to be intimate, but to be intimate with a very real weapon at her disposal, was almost too much to take. The slightest careless tug could cause real pain, but Xero trusted her enough not to hurt. Rielle lovingly traced the ring, caressing it like the gift she felt it was. Each tender touch shot straight to the hacker's core then ignited a fiery path to her heart. Rielle felt warmed beyond belief basking in the bonfire she was building in Xero.

Dexterous fingers continued to play with rigid nipples as an equally dexterous tongue manipulated its treasure. Xero's groans and urging formed an incoherent stream of sound that Rielle found irresistible. While she found it hard to fathom the other woman could possibly be enjoying this as much as she, she was gratified to no end that she was. Shifting her body slightly, Rielle got more comfortable, she intended to be at this for some time.

Xero was honestly surprised she hadn't passed out yet. What Rielle was doing was indescribable. While she understood the mechanics of it quite plainly, there was no accounting for why it felt so fucking amazing. There was good, and there was fantastic, but this was far beyond. Alternating between lightly teasing, forcefully probing and playfully lapping, the syscop's mouth was all over. Each gentle tug at the ring resonated in delicious sensations inside her body while the syscop's masterful tongue caressed her from the outside. With the bead on the ring rubbing her in a delightfully random fashion, maneuvered and guided by Rielle's ministrations, she was sure she'd explode. Her hips began moving of their own accord some time ago, meeting the thrusts of the other woman's tongue enthusiastically. The syscop was accommodating, but only to a point, forcing Xero to climb that peak to sheer bliss slowly.

The hacker's body began to tremble. Afraid of fracturing into a million pieces, she needed to be grounded. As wonderful as she felt, there wasn't much more she could take. "Please...Rielle," she panted fighting to get the words out. "Inside...please...Rielle."

Understanding perfectly, Rielle gave the hacker's left breast a final light pinch and brought her right hand down near her mouth. Teasing at Xero's opening for a couple of moments, delighting in the slippery wetness that greeted her, she slowly thrust three fingers deep inside.

"Gods...yes," Xero groaned meeting each thrust of the syscop's hand and tongue with her powerful hips. "You're...so...so...fuck yes!" she breathed as her body began to quake. "Rielle...Rielle...Rielle..." she panted over and over; the sound resonating in the syscop's ears and driving her on. Lifting her hips she cried out one final time before her world became nothing but exploding colors and sensation. "Gab...rielle!"

Rielle could feel the tears running down her cheeks before the rolling wave finished its course through Xero's body. She held on feeling each of the squeezing pulses with her tongue and fingers. When the last of the pulsing vibrations stilled she slowly removed her mouth, then carefully removed her hand from the hacker's center. Crawling up the length of the statuesque body once more, she gazed down into shining blue eyes, feeling happier than she ever had before.

"Why the hell are you crying?" Xero mumbled, barely able to speak, brushing away a tear with a tender caress.

"I'm happy you're back, Xena," Rielle sobbed, kissing the woman below her passionately.

"Anything for you Gabrielle," Xero whispered holding the crying woman gently and drifting toward sleep. "Anything for you."

A loud grunt then a laugh caught Xero's attention. She blinked, disoriented a moment, then realized she was standing in the middle of a lavishly furnished tent. Her eyes narrowed. At the moment, this was the last place she wanted to be.

"I hate to disturb you," Janice offered gamely from across the tent. "But we've still got work to do."

"Are you aware of everything that happens on the other side?" the hacker asked, still feeling too content to get very angry.

Janice Covington shrugged. "Sort of. I mean we really can hear the thoughts of the living, but in your case I made a few assumptions based on your radiant glow and the love bites on your neck."

Another grunt and Xero's attention was drawn to the copulating figures in the middle of the tent. The hacker watched but her expression was uncharacteristically disinterested.

Janice noticed and couldn't help but tease. "What?" she asked in mock amazement. "No commentary on technique?"

Xena was on top of Borias, straddling his hips and moving with a languid slowness that was clearly driving the other warrior to distraction. She was fully clothed, save for her weapons while Borias wore only a thin shirt. At the sound of a commotion outside, Xena commented, "Dagnon has returned from scouting, Borias."

He shook his head emphatically. "Make him wait."

Laughing, Xena gave him two more strokes then calmly stood. "Ah, but Borias, we can do this any time." Exposed and cold, the large man groaned in frustration. He made a grab for the air where Xena stood adjusting her armor. Easily she moved out of the way and began to don her weapons. "I suggest you take matters into your own hands until I get back."

"Xena," Borias warned. "You're crazy to go into Amazon territory alone."

She turned to glare at him. "No, Borias. Crazy is walking into Amazon lands with armed guards. We don't have enough women in our force to serve as a suitable entourage. Amazons are touchy about custom and I know their customs."

"Just be careful," he warned, his eyes narrowing as she left the tent.

"So what's the deal with the Amazons?" Xero asked Janice as the two followed Xena towards Amazon territory.

Janice adjusted the brim of her felt hat against the morning glare and reined her horse in slightly. Her mount was a deep chestnut and a bit more high strung than Xero's midnight black horse. "It's about territory. Xena wants all of it. For now though, she's content to go up against the Centaurs and leave the Amazons out of it provided they stay out of her way."

"If the Amazons go for it, they're nuts," the hacker observed. "Xena isn't going to keep her word."

"They know that," Janice replied as Xena dismounted her horse and waited for the Amazon sentries to descend from the trees. "They just hope they'll be able to kill her before she destroys them."

With the hissing sound of ropes, the Amazon sentries descended, twenty-five armed women in total surrounding the Warrior Princess.

"Twenty-five armed guards," Xena commented with a smirk. "I'm flattered."

One woman stepped forward, shoving the feathered mask up on top of her head as she moved. "My name is Melosa, what is your purpose here, Xena?"

"Melosa...Melosa," Xena muttered to herself trying to place the lineage of the woman slightly older than herself. "Next in line for the throne if I'm not mistaken. Why don't we take steps to ensure you get your shot at being queen. Take me to Aigh-Meigh."

Melosa considered the woman standing before her a moment before nodding once. "Very well, follow us."

"Are you crazy?" an adolescent girl demanded. The older woman standing next to her quickly silenced her.

"Velasca, that's enough. You're here to learn, not to participate," the older woman scolded.

Xena's eyes narrowed on the youth. "The Centaur wars must be taking a toll if you're training brats this young."

The youth lunged out at the warrior, but Xena had already stepped around her, not even noticing the attack. Joining Melosa, she walked at the woman's side towards the Amazon village.

"We have no quarrel with you, Xena," Melosa explained as they neared the village. "As Aigh-Meigh will remind you, we simply desire to be left alone."

Xena smiled, a thin predatory smile. "I can't help but wonder, Melosa, if it's me you fear, or the prophecy."

As they neared the Queen's hut, Melosa stepped aside allowing Xena to enter. "Does it matter, Warrior Princess?" she asked. "Both herald doom for the Amazon nation."

Queen Aigh-Meigh stood on a raised dais. Each side of the room was lined with armed guards who stood at attention, their weapons poised. "I think we would all feel better if you would disarm yourself, Xena," she said in a soft melodious voice. "Glaphyra, please attend to our guest."

A young blonde woman standing near the dais approached Xena; fear and interest warred for dominance in her sculpted features. Xena smiled, a slow sultry smile. She could kill the Queen or anyone else in the room weapons or no quite easily. Unstrapping the scabbards, she handed them to the young woman, letting her gloved fingertips graze a pale forearm.

"What's she after?" Xero asked, stepping in front of an Amazon guard to get a better view.

"You can keep Melosa, three guards," Xena announced flatly, "and her," she added with a nod to the blonde woman collecting her chakram, "but I want everyone else out."

The Queen shrugged indifferently. "Very well." Xena tried to hide her surprise but didn't quite succeed. "Xena, I know why you're here, what it is you want. I've consulted with an oracle and do not believe your plan to conquer the Centaurs and Amazons will be successful."

"She's good," Xero allowed with a smile.

Janice shrugged. "Unfortunately she gets killed in a few weeks, trying to save Velasca's mother. Xena was not the only subject she and the oracle talked about. Melosa will become Queen and Velasca will run away to another village where she will hone her fury. Velasca's mother is the Queen's consort."

"Does she come back to cause problems?" the hacker asked, eyeing the young girl with interest.

"Not for you," the archeologist replied. "She was a pain in the ass for Gabrielle and me though."

When the others had filed from the hut, Xena accepted the offered wine cup from Glaphyra and sat down on a near by bench. "I have a painfully simple request," Xena said conversationally after an experimental sip. "I plan to fight the Centaurs and I want the Amazons to stay out of it."

"What makes you think we'd intrude?" the Queen asked curiously. "We are at war with them, after all."

"Because going after the Centaurs while they're preoccupied with my army would be a strategic move on your part. Just remember, my men are just as capable of killing Amazons as Centaurs should any get in their way."

"I don't doubt that, Xena," Aigh-Meigh agreed. "And it's also possible that you suspect we might take umbrage with you stealing the Ixion Stone."

Xena smiled, a dangerous predatory smile. "So one of my scouts is an informant?"

"Not at all. As I said, I consulted an oracle. Xena, we've no intention of interfering. We don't need to . Your battle with the Centaurs will not be won, and you will leave their valley without the stone. As a matter of fact, you will leave something of great value in Kalipas' care."

The warrior rolled her eyes, clearly not believing a word she'd just heard. "As long as we've come to an understanding then."

"Of course," the Queen assured with a genuine smile. "Please stay with us tonight as our guest. I've taken the liberty of arranging lodging for you. Glaphyra will show you where it is."

Xero followed the Amazon, warrior and archeologist from the hut shaking her head in disbelief. "That was too easy. Even if she's telling the truth, Xena isn't going to buy it."

Janice nodded in agreement. "Sure, but if no Amazons show up at the battle, there isn't much she can do now is there?"

Two unarmed guards followed the group to the hut. Obviously assigned to keep an eye on the village's guest, Xena invited them inside. In time, all too familiar sounds emanated from beyond the bamboo walls.

"What is up with her? And I thought I was bad," Xero muttered.

Janice smiled warmly at her companion. "Well, Xena's hormones are kind of out of whack. She can't really help herself."

"What do you mean?" the hacker asked, peeking in an open window. "Shit! She's getting it on with all three of them."

"I mean," Janice explained slowly, "that she's pregnant. Some women get sick, she apparently gets insatiable. She's about three months along."

"She doesn't look it," Xero commented after several long moments of study through the open window. "So why is she starting in on a war when she's going to need maternity leave in six months? I can't really see her waddling around, ready to drop, and still commanding the troops."

Janice frowned. "That's exactly why she wants the Stone. With that kind of power she'll be unstoppable, contractions or no. In the meantime, all she has to do is get the war off to a good start and she'll be able to do most of her commanding from her tent. She's been easing her troops into that pattern. Trust me, they won't know the difference."

Xero and Janice waited outside the hut until morning. From the sounds of it, no one got any sleep that night. As a result, Xero wasn't too surprised to see all three women request the permission to leave with the warrior the next morning.

Janice frowned . "Glaphyra is genuinely infatuated, unfortunately for her. As for the others two-- they're trained assassins. They've underestimated Xena, and as a result they won't see tomorrow."

"Xena kills them?" Xero asked.

"No, they killed each other when it became evident they'd be turned over to Xena's men. There are some fates worse than death."

"What about the girl?"

Janice sighed. "She stays with Xena for a couple of years. If she knew Xena was pregnant, she wisely never said so. Xena never showed very much. Borias wasn't very happy about sharing Xena but there wasn't much he could do. He didn't have anything against Glaphyra, and enjoyed sharing his bed with the both of them well enough, but I think he saw what Xena was doing to her and realized it had already been done to him."

"What's that?" Xero asked, interested.

"Xena has a way of bending people to her will. Even if her will is completely self destructive. She can't see beyond power, what it does and how it makes her feel. That kind of single minded self absorption doesn't wear well on the innocent, or not so innocent bystanders. Borias even tries to talk Glaphyra into leaving, but she's too far gone. She's convinced that there is this big wonderful world out there and that Xena is just the blood-thirsty warlord to show it to her." Xero shot her a questioning look and Janice waved it off. "What I mean is, Glaphyra is convinced she can change Xena."

"I didn't think that even Gabrielle thought that."

"You're right, Xero. And I'm glad you said it. Xena is the one who made the decision to change, while the bard was the one who helped her keep her resolve. Not to hit you over the head with the proverbial sledgehammer, but that's exactly what Rielle is trying to do for you."

"Yeah, I know," the hacker admitted quietly.

In a surreal blu,r the days came and went until Xena was alone in the forest giving birth to her son. Alone except for the two unseen figures that sat with her, enduring her cries of pain and anguish.

"God, this is messy," Xero groaned when Xena's water broke. Squatting over a clean blanket, the warrior braced herself against a couple of large boulders, her hair plastered to her face and neck with sweat.

"I think the birth is a little early," the archeologist commented. "I wouldn't be surprised if the shock from finding Borias' murdered remains didn't speed things up a little. She handled his leaving in her typical fashion, but even as twis...er...tormented as she is, she certainly never wanted to see him dead. I think she loved him as much as she could love anyone in her current state."

"So if Aigh-Meigh could see this coming," the hacker said between contractions, "that Xena wouldn't get the stone, that Borias would die, how did she not see her own death?"

"I'm sure she saw that too. Knowing it's going to happen doesn't mean you can avoid it. Put it off maybe, but not avoid it--"

Her words were cut off by Xena's anguished gasp. Helpless to do more than watch, Janice and Xero endured the pained hours until Xena held her newborn son in her arms. Dressed in a cloak lightly dusted with ashes from Borias' funeral pyre, Xena wrapped up the baby and carried him from through the forest. Her companions watched as she left a message for a Centaur sentry.

The note was not discovered for some time and it was several hours after that before Kalipas made his way through the dense forest. In that time, Xero and Janice watched as Xena rocked her baby, nursing him, and softly singing an old lullaby.

Neither woman spoke as Xena negotiated her arrangement with the Centaur. When she left, she managed to get some distance before collapsing in a heap of exhaustion and anguish. After a few short hours of sleep she bathed in a stream and headed back to camp with new instructions for her army.

Unquestioned, Xena's commands to break camp were followed. Xero and Janice Covington followed close behind until she retreated to the confines of her tent and Glaphyra's arms. While it was very clear to the hacker just who was using who, Xero realized as she and Janice walked away from the encampment that she felt relieved. The fire of blind ambition still burned brightly within Xena, but the sinister fuel of hatred had been tempered somewhat. It made sense in an odd way to the hacker. She'd just brought a new life into the world, and even owning the world still wouldn't top that achievement.

Part 6 -(End)

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