Rising Into Consciousness

Part 8...


It was early evening and so the club was just starting to pick up. There were a few people dancing, but most were still busy getting drunk and schmoosing before they hit the dance floor.

The two navigated Auset through the sparse crowd and up the stairs to where Ash's apartment was and then, once inside with the closed door blocking a surprisingly large amount of the sound, they lowered the hacker onto a couch. Her face was flushed white and the bandage was soaked through. Ash carefully removed the soiled linen and examined the wound. Everything appeared to be taken care of fine, it just required Auset to have remained in bed longer than she had.

"First aid kit?" Reese asked. Ash pointed to the bathroom and she went to retrieve the small blue box. They rebandaged the wound and cleaned up the area a bit, then gave Auset a few aspirin to somewhat dull the pain she was obviously feeling. Pain or no, she hadn't issued one complaint or one outward sign of discomfort the entire time.

"You OK?" the writer asked as she gently stroked the sweat-soaked hair on Auset's forehead.

"Yeah, fine...I'll be fine, you guys really don't have to go to all this trouble," she replied weakly. Ash made a tisking noise and shook a finger at her.

"You're so stubborn. We're going to fuss over you whether ya like it or not!" he scolded. This warranted a slight grin from Auset as she settled back onto the couch and closed her eyes, secretly enjoying the attention from Reese. Ash took this as his cue to get up and make an exit.

"Well ladies, I have to get downstairs and tend bar, so you have the run of the place for a while. If you need anything, you know where I am," he said and then walked back out into the club. After a moment of silence passed between them, Auset shifted and opened her eyes to gaze directly into Reese's.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. Reese's brow furrowed.

"For what?"

"Everything...all of this. Dade would never have been killed if I hadn't gotten involved in that job and Sera wouldn't be after you if I hadn't gotten you messed up in all this."

"Stop," Reese commanded in a low but firm voice. "Stop now. I don't even pretend to understand how you can blame yourself for all of this--"

"But Reese--" Auset tried to argue but Reese's steady gaze pinned her.

"--but nothing, Auset. Sure, maybe you've done some not-so-great things in the past but that is in the past! It's the here-and-now, hon, and seems to me that everything that's happened in the past few days has been because of Cally or that Sera guy. I will not sit here and let you take the blame!"

"I almost killed her. I wanted to," the hacker said meekly.

"But you didn't," Reese countered. "You could have easily killed any number of the nutjobs involved with all this, but the point is that you did not."

"Because of you."

There was another moment of relative silence as the two just sat and thought. It had been a long week.

"Why does Sera want me out of the way?"

Auset hadn't thought about that, but now the notion intrigued her. "I'm not sure. Maybe he sees you as a threat of some sort, though I wouldn't know why. None of this makes much sense. He wanted me to kill Cally--kept saying it was so the score was even--but really he could have had her taken care of without a problem."

"What score was it that had to be evened?" Reese asked. The dark-haired woman hesitated for a moment, considering how to answer that particular question, and then sat up a little so she could speak.

"It's...well, I'm sure Ash told you that I used to...date...Cally. A little over a year ago there was a...an incident that involved me doing a job on a company that Cally worked for. Only I didn't know that she worked for them, so she ratted me out and everything went wrong. I ended up--" at this point, Auset took a deep breath before continuing. "I ended up killing two of the guys she had helping, and then later I went about ruining her life. Destroyed her credit, financially broke her, and then personally burned her house down."

Reese sat in stunned silence but nodded for Auset to go on.

"I didn't know...I never knew until she told me, the night Dade was shot, that her parents had been staying over that night. They burned with the house." By the time she had finished the story, Auset's deep blue eyes were filled with moisture, a few drops even gliding down her cheeks. Reese used a gentle finger to remove some of the tears and then gripped one of Auset's hands in her own. "I never meant...oh hell, I don't know what I ever meant. All I knew was that she had betrayed me and I...wanted her to feel the same pain that I did. Just like I wanted to get those sons-of-bitches back for killing my brother. I wanted them all to suffer like he had...like I had." Her voice trailed off and she closed her eyes tightly against the welling up of emotion. Reese continued to sit in quiet reassurance until her friend composed herself enough to speak again. "I want to stop. I want to quit all of it, but I know that the bad is so much apart of me--of who I am. It's so hard to get out when it's all you've known for so long. I even tried writing that program...it's totally legit...it would take care of a companies security. I think it's better than anything out there. The guy I'm having beta test it was so impressed that he sent word to a number of businesses and they were all very interested. But if I go through with it...Sera...he's been my mentor for so long, taught me a lot of what I know...this program would effectively screw him over. I don't know if I can go through with it."

"If you really want it, you can go through with it," said Reese upon fully soaking up the whole tale. "We can go through with it. But first, you need to get some rest and regain your strength."

Auset chuckled painfully and shifted her weight so that the couch was not pressing against her wound.

"I want to do it," Auset sighed. "It's just going to be difficult as all hell, and quite painful from the looks of it." Reese grinned and rolled her eyes. "And I don't pretend to know why you've stuck around for all of this...but thanks."

"Hey, where you go, I go," the writer said and shrugged like the statement was something that had always been understood. Auset rewarded her with a full, uninhibited smile.

The air smelled of booze, sweat, and sex. Two of the three she did not mind, but booze made her all-together nauseous. Her deep brown eyes narrowed as the pupils dilated in attempt at better vision in the badly-lit club. The male friend, the one who had tackled those idiotic policemen, was tending bar, but no sight of the woman she was tracking.

Cally paused and surveyed the layout of the club more thoroughly. Auset was always relatively easy to pick out of a crowd, she mused, being that she was a good six feet tall with jet black hair and those oh-so-lovely blue eyes. Even the abundance of leather, vinyl, and chains could not distract one from spotting such a person, but the hacker was no where to be found. Best to just take the straight-forward approach, she decided.

Cally sauntered over to the bar and leaned against it so that she faced away from Ash. He had spotted her not a minute before and was waiting to hear what she might have to say. If things got too rowdy, he could always sick Rob on the crazy bitch.

"Can I get you something to drink?" Ash offered in the most nonchalant tone he could muster.

"I don't drink intoxicants," she replied tersely and continued to face away from the bartender. "Perhaps you would be so good as to inform Auset of my presence, however. I should like to speak with her."

Ash narrowed his eyes and placed the glass he had been polishing on the countertop.

"I don't want you making a scene in here. You should leave."

At this, Cally made a slow and sensual turn to face Ash, her eyes glowing with preternatural fire. She bared her teeth in an insane smile and threw her head back as she laughed.

"You are so melodramatic," Ash drawled as he leaned forward, elbows on the bar.

"Yes, well, it often makes for a good impression. Now, as for me leaving; not until I've had my little chat with tall dark and deadly."

The bartender chuckled but kept his eyes on the woman. He was about to continue his orders for her to leave when his eye caught sight of a very significant presence leaning against a banister up in the balcony. Auset was standing there, leaning most of her weight on the guardrail with one hand and glaring directly at Cally. Reese was standing behind the taller woman and looking very concerned. She put her hand on Auset's shoulder and continued to fix her gaze on the same figure her companion was studying.

"Auset, can't this wait? You're in no condition--"

"No. It has to end sometime. This is as good a time as any."

The hacker gathered up all of her remaining strength and resolve and began a slow swagger toward the stairs down. She did not limp or show any outward sign of pain, but inwardly Auset was screaming with discomfort. The wound was more bearable now that Reese had applied a fresh bandage and given her some painkillers, but the shooting pain continued to persist to some degree. Reese followed close behind with a comforting hand placed against the small of the taller woman's back.

Cally noticed Ash's eyes focusing on something beyond her own face and she responded accordingly by turning her attention on whatever he was watching.

Ah. There she is.

She unconsciously straightened her posture and licked her lips. Cally watched as the tall, dark-haired woman descended the stairs slowly and gracefully, the irritating little blonde following close behind. At least, she mused, Auset's still into blondes.

The hacker skirted the edges of the dance floor and eventually stood a few feet away from Cally, who stood with one hand on a hip and the other running through platinum locks.

"Hello, Cally," Auset began coolly.

"Good evening, my sweet. I see you are well! I'm so glad that that imbecilic rookie of a cop was not able to bring you down. I wanted this chance to talk with you."

"Somehow every time you want to talk, we end up getting physical," the hacker commented, her hand unconsciously going to rest on one of her numerous scars. One of Cally's eyebrows shot up to her hairline and she grinned dangerously.

"Oh yes, it does, doesn't it?" she drawled. "But I'm afraid there will be no pleasures of the flesh this evening." It was Auset's turn to arch an amused eyebrow. Reese just snorted. "Perhaps we should find someplace a tad bit more private than this?"

Auset looked at Ash in question. He nodded and pointed to a door that was behind the bar and to their left.

"Take it to the basement ladies. Auset, you know your way around down there...you sure everything's OK though?" he asked with concern. The taller woman nodded her assurance and gave him a very brief quirky smile. She then motioned for Cally to lead the way, which she did, and the three women soon disappeared into the basement. Ash let out a deep sigh and went back to tending bar, his thoughts consumed with worry. He glanced down at a tiny monitor that was hidden beneath the bartop, it's display that of the basement. The light came on and he could see the three figures moving slowly into the room that was surrounded by shipping boxes.

"Excuse me, but could I possibly get a drink? or is this not actually a bar?" a deep voice brought Ash back to his present surroundings. The bartender looked up sheepishly at the tall and relatively imposing man who stood on the other side of the bar impatiently stroking his goatee.

"Sorry, what can I get you?" Ash inquired.

"A beer. Whatever's good," the man replied, his voice dark and rich. Ash pulled a frosted bottle from a freezer, placed it on a napkin and then set it before his customer. The man grabbed the bottle and took a quick swig of it, then set about glancing idly around the club. Ash stared curiously at him for a moment and then, with a shrug, went back to his tasks.

"A perfectly lovely setting," Cally chirped and clapped her hands together, effectively breaking the somewhat oppressive silence that had been hanging in the air around the trio.

The basement was used as a storeroom, its' space being filled mostly by boxes containing the various liquors and mixers required to run a bar. The air was musty but contained a hint of the leather and sweat that predominated the atmosphere of the main floor. Reese wondered briefly how only Ash's apartment seemed to remain immune from the club smells.

Cally had stopped in the middle of the room and was staring directly at Reese, eyes narrowed in thought.

"Would you be so kind as to allow Auset and I some privacy?" she asked. The writer shifted uncomfortably, her stance unconsciously becoming defensive, and looked in question at her taller companion. Auset nodded slightly in the affirmative and offered Reese a brief but reassuring smile. Still unsure of the situation but willing to let Auset handle things, Reese backed off and went back up and out of the basement. She remained standing next to the door, however, ear glued to its' surface. If things went badly, she thought, she could still intervene.

A moth circled up through the air and fluttered around the one exposed bulb that hung from the ceiling in the basement. Cally and Auset stared at one-another, not speaking or moving, but simply sizing the other up. After a moment, Cally began to pace slowly and deliberately. Auset did not move, but followed the blonde with her now pale, ice-blue eyes.

"She's cute, but I don't see how you can stand her at all," Cally said as she continued to pace. Auset did not reward her with any outward signs of emotion, but simply pursed her lips and replied,

"Leave her out of this. What do you want?" At this, Cally stopped and faced the tall and rather menacing figure of her ex-girlfriend.

"Touchy! But of course you're curious as to why I'm here. I've tired of the games. I came back to exact total and delicious revenge on you, my sweet, and that's what I plan to do." Auset shifted her weight to the right leg and remained silent. "However, there is something I feel you should be aware of that I'm quite positive you are oblivious to right now. Our dear friend, Sera, or Marcus, or whatever the hell his name is, has been aware for some time now that you've been working on a computer program that could have serious side effects on his operations. Furthermore, he's concerned because apparently--and this is what really moved me--apparently this little project is your attempt at going legitimate!"

This revelation had taken Auset completely off-guard. She had been more than discreet about that project and to her knowledge, only one other person knew that she was the one behind it. Taking care to remain stone-faced, Auset let her hands rest on her hips and considered her reply carefully.

"Wonderful. Should I care?"

"Oh, I should think so! He had me come here to, how did he put it? oh yes, to 'eliminate you'. Said he couldn't afford the major security risk. It did pain him quite severely, I think, to give that order. The big bad tough guy has a thing for you, though he'd never admit it, but I can see how he really had no choice. You didn't give him much choice."

Auset was reeling inside. Betrayal was something that she did not take well to. She felt like blacking out. She had this strange desire to draw and quarter Cally and Sera. She knew that her hands were balling up into fists and then suddenly she was landing a punch to Cally's throat. The smaller woman keeled over and gasped for breath but kept her eyes trained on Auset's face, her mouth maintaining its' twisted grin. Before she had the chance to catch her breath, Auset executed a lightening-fast move that had her pinning Cally's arms behind her back with one hand while the other gripped her hair so that her head was pulled back. She kept a knee in Cally's back so that she could not move from her kneeling position on the floor.

"Sera had you come here?" Auset questioned aloud. It made sense though, how Cally had found her and Dade at the contact spot--how Cally had found her at all. This meant that it was partially Sera's fault that Dade had been killed. The rage that had been slowly creeping up on her now fully emerged and she snapped Cally's head back further. "I should kill you," she growled, her voice now in its lowest register.

"Go ahead," Cally managed to squeak out. "I won't complain too loudly. I've been living in pain for so long now--that would be thanks to you--it might be a relief to just cease existing. Of course, I can't let that happen unless you go down with me. It is only fair, seeing as you were the one who killed my parents and ruined my life."

Auset lost some of her resolve then and her grip on Cally loosened ever-so-slightly. The smaller woman took advantage of this and twisted out of the hold and jumped to her feet.

"That was always your problem, love," Cally said as she squared off with the dark-haired woman. "You feel too much. I gave up feeling when you burned my family and I've been so much better off! Now your emotion has made you weak and now I can finally do what I came here to do."

It was then that Auset fully realized how completely crazy this woman had become since last she had seen her. It had been a steady progression and now it was clear that Cally was a sociopath. Nothing would stop her except--

The blonde woman leapt forward and landed a solid punch to Auset's left cheek. The blow only stunned her though and the hacker quickly gathered her wits and executed a drop kick that sent Cally falling back into a pile of boxes. As she sauntered over to Cally's prone form, the smaller woman propelled her feet at Auset's stomach. The wind knocked from her, Auset staggered backwards but kept her eyes on the other woman. As Cally stood and brushed herself off, her look became maniacal again.

"You know, right now I've got someone over at your little bitch's apartment making sure it's a nice and...toasty place to be."

"You're lying."

"Am I?" she chirped. "Well, denial seems to have helped you through everything else in your life so why stop now, I suppose."

Auset fumed. She wanted so much right then to just rip Cally's throat open, to slice her in half and feed the pieces to the rats. She slid a small but sharp dagger from her pocket and lunged at Cally, getting her into a death hold with the dagger pressed to her throat. The smaller woman did not struggle, but instead seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the steel against her jugular. Auset stood there shaking with unreleased anger and jaw clenched, ready to push the dagger home, but just then a thought came to her. Reese was waiting just upstairs, completely oblivious to the fact that her home could very well be ashes right then. If I kill this woman, Auset thought, I will go to jail and I will deserve to be there. If I kill this woman, I will not see Reese ever again--she will probably not want to see me ever again. Maybe I'll go to jail just the same, but at least Reese will not hate me--I couldn't live with that.

The decision made, Auset slowly released the blonde woman from her grip and stepped back. Cally stared at her in disbelief for a moment and then just started laughing.

Reese had been pacing frantically, grumbling to herself and occasionally stopping to stare at the basement door in frustration. What the hell was taking so long? The crashing noises she kept hearing weren't helping her patience much either. Finally, when she could take the waiting no longer, she made up her mind to at least just peek in through the door.

Careful so as not to make any noise, she opened the portal a crack and peered down into the basement. What she saw was not good. Auset had Cally in a headlock and had a dagger pressed to the woman's throat. Her friend was shaking all over and her eyes were the stormiest she'd ever seen them. Just as Reese was about to come flying down the stairs, Auset seemed to have some sort of personal revelation and backed off, the dagger held limply at her side. The look of utter desolation that crossed the dark-haired woman's' face then took Reese off-guard. The blue eyes looked so lost and helpless that it made her heart lurch.

Cally's twisted laugh broke Reese out of her trance and she came hurrying down the stairs. Auset looked up at her and gave a very weak smile, eyes strained and hurting. The writer was about to just rush forward and hug the taller woman when Ash came running down the stairs followed by three police officers. He ran to Auset and Reese's side and informed them of what was going on.

"I called the cops. That bitch needs to be locked up and I figured you'd keep her contained down here long enough for the troops to arrive."

"Thanks, Ash," Reese said and patted him on the back. Auset said nothing, but smiled at the bartender and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. He had trusted that she would not kill Cally. Reese had done the same.

The officers cornered the still-laughing Cally and handcuffed her. As they hauled her up the stairs, she shouted, "Hope you like your house warming gift, Reese!" Then she was gone, carried out of the club and into the back of a waiting patrol car.

Reese turned to Auset in question, brows furrowed with confusion.

"What was that about?" she asked. Auset seemed to snap back into reality then and she straightened visibly.

"Shit. We need to get over to your loft right now."

The trio hopped into Ash's car and sped off in the direction of Reese's loft. As Ash maneuvered the relatively quiet streets of nighttime Chicago, Reese turned to her stoically silent companion and placed a hand on her knee.

"What happened down there?"

Auset did not respond for a moment, but then sighed deeply and let her eyes face the smaller woman.

"Sera has been behind most of this crap. He told her to come back and kill me because he found out about that...side project...that I've been working on. It's the computer program that he thinks would seriously endanger his own operations, but mostly I think he's angry because it's totally legitimate," here she paused and glanced down at the hand that was resting on her knee. "I was trying to keep it all secret because I wanted the transition to happen smoothly, but apparently that was never possible. No matter what I do, the shit always seems to hit the fan."

Reese sat quietly for a moment, contemplating everything that had happened since she met Auset--this strange, complex, beautiful woman. Her boyfriend was dead, she had been attacked and hurt, and the woman she was finding herself more and more attached to as each minute passed was having her soul thrashed. All of this had elicited emotions in Reese that she had forgotten or didn't know she had--blinding rage, intense attraction, and everything in between. It was confusing, it was exhausting, and it was the most alive she'd felt in years.

Finally, Reese removed her hand from Auset's knee and gently cupped the dark-haired woman's bruised cheek. Just as she was about to speak, however, the car rounded the corner into her neighborhood only to reveal a barrage of red and blue flashing lights and a building in flames. Everyone in the vehicle was silent as Ash pulled up as close as he could get without crashing through the blockades that had been put up.

Reese's loft was ablaze. The whole floor was a fiery inferno. The efforts of the firemen on the ground who had their hoses trained on the blaze were having little effect. Just as one crew was about to break into the building, an explosion knocked them back and sent flaming debris into the night sky.

The enormity of the situation knocked Reese upside the head and she flew out of the car and towards the building, followed closely by Auset. A few firemen stopped her as she drew near and pushed her back behind the barricades.

"That's my house!" she shouted frantically at them.

"I'm sorry miss, but it won't do you any good to go chargin' in there. We're doing the best we can, but you've got to wait here!" one of them shouted back before rushing off to help with the hoses. Reese staggered backwards and gasped for breath. Seeing this, Auset grabbed the smaller woman and sat them both on the ground. Cradling the now-sobbing Reese in her arms, Auset placed a comforting kiss on the blonde head and just held her. Cally was behind bars, but even now she was wreaking havoc on not only Auset's life, but the lives of those close to her as well. It really never did stop.

Ash came up behind them and just stood watching the fire and the efforts of those fighting it. The orange glow lit up the dark night and cast brilliantly shining sparks up into the sky. Everywhere there were men shouting, the sound of water meeting fire and the deafening roar of the blaze as it consumed everything in its path, but Auset and Reese were quiet. They sat in their own private world of desperate silence, oblivious to everything around them.

Their world admitted one last member, however, as a fireman, face covered in sweat and soot, walked up to them carrying a very ash-covered but very alive and terrified cat.

"Found her hangin' out of one of the windows," he said and lowered the feline so that she could jump out of his arms and run to curl up in Reese's lap. The blonde woman burst into bitter-sweet tears and held the cat to her chest.

"Thank you," she managed to say before the firemen tipped his cap and walked off. Ephiny covered her face with rough cat-kisses and snuggled further into her lap. Auset reached down and scratched her head and smiled warmly.

"At least I've still got you guys," Reese said wearily. She was being sincere though. The shock of the total destruction of her house was not completely gone, but Reese was relieved at least to still have those most dear to her. "This has been the craziest week of my life."

Auset chuckled and held the woman closer to her. "I'll second that."

They sat in companionable silence for another stretch of time, watching sadly as the flames continued to consume the loft and the firemen struggled to contain it. Reese sighed deeply and turned her head so that she was looking directly into Auset's suddenly very deep blue, almost violet eyes. She watched as the reflections from the flames danced across the planes of the shadowed features of the hacker's face. Auset felt the attention and glanced down at Reese and smiled ever-so-slightly.

"Where do we go from here?" Reese asked wonderingly as the two continued to lock gazes. Auset shook her head a little and gave a lop-sided grin.

"I have no idea."


Continued in Part 9

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