The Strongest Bond

Disclaimer: The characters are mine! They may share a passing resemblance with other people but I just blame their stylists. Sequel to 'The Binding Tie' you really need to read that first in order to understand what is going on here.

Violence/Sex: Slavery exists in this fic as does extreme violence. Sexual violence of a m/f variety in here. Also a loving consensual f/f relationship. If you're too young to vote, you should probably go elsewhere. Feedback: Much appreciated mjb1_1@hotmail.com

Chapter 1

Soft whimpers emanated from the restless figure in the centre of the large, rumpled bed. The thrashing and moaning had become increasingly frantic over the last hour. It had been this restlessness, coupled with the soft, but insistent sounds, which had awoken the dazed figure that now lay crumpled on the floor. The dark of the night reigned over the room as the figure on the floor slowly came back to her senses.

Francesca ran a shaky hand over her face, reaching up to tentatively inspect her scalp. Feeling no blood and only a small bump she began to ease herself back to her feet. Straightening the hem of her silk negligee she stared bemusedly at the bed. Waiting for the last of the dizziness to pass, and her eyes to adjust to the gloom, she listened to the pleading, desolate sounds that filled the room. Each gasped noise made her heart clench in her chest. Cautiously, she moved back to the bed.

"I just don't learn, do I?" The wistful sound of her voice filled the room as she sat on the edge of the mattress. Close to the restless sleeper, but not touching. "It's just that I hear you crying… Hell, it's like I can feel the same pain you feel in your dreams. I just forget and reach out for you." The sleeper seemed to relax as she spoke, the thrashing becoming less wild, the whimpers softer. "Then I end up on the floor. Guess it's true what they say about never catching a tiger by the tail… eh?" The sleeping blonde was still and silent now, chest rising and falling in even breaths, soothed by the silken voice of the seated woman, face set in quiet repose.

With Hunter now in a deep, healing sleep, Francesca placed a kiss on the still furrowed brow and quietly left the room. Being careful to pull the door closed behind her, the heiress made her way across the landing towards her son's bedroom. It was still the early hours of the morning, the house quiet around her. Pushing Terry's door open a crack, she saw her son was sound asleep, clutching his favourite football. Satisfied that he had not been affected by the commotion in the master bedroom she continued on to the room shared by her twin daughters.

Nearing the twin's open door Francesca's face split into an affectionate smile as she saw the weak light of their, almost, identical nightlights edging feebly into the hall. Pink and green light mixed on the carpet, making a strange sickly shade. As she entered the room, she came to Rochelle's bed first, tugging the sheets back into place around the lightly snoring child. The small, squeaking grunts coming from the little girl were incongruous when one looked at her. Bathed in the pink hue of her fairy-shaped light- blankets and pyjamas the same shade- she looked like an angel in need of decongestant. In a vice-like grip she held the latest Barbie. The doll's hair was tousled by each noisy exhalation.

Turning to her youngest daughter's bed, the tall brunette was startled to see wide brown eyes gazing back at her. Illuminated by the green glow of her own fairy, Becca's eyes seemed to take on its appearance, flashing between brown and green as she fidgeted nervously. As her mother approached, the small girl scooted up to the head of the bed and sat, cross-legged, still not making a sound.

"Becca, honey, why are you still awake?" Francesca spoke in low tones so as not to wake the other child who slept on, oblivious.

"I heard a crash, Mama," the child's lip jutted out sorrowfully, eyes shining with unshed tears.

"Sweetheart, it's OK." Long arms reached for the girl and drew her into a soft embrace. "Hunter was having a bad dream and I forgot the cardinal rule, again." Even the child could pick up the tone of self-deprecation. "Do you remember the rule, Becca?"

"Never surprise Hunter!" The child's tears were forgotten as she beamed with pride. Hunter was her favourite person; of course she knew the rule.

"Good girl. Hey, how about you come downstairs with me and we'll have some warm milk and you can tell me what's really bothering you. Then maybe you can go back to sleep." A well-manicured finger tapped a button nose as very alert, brown eyes crossed comically to study it.

The smaller brunette jumped out of bed and charged out of the room. Francesca shook her head at her daughter's antics. Before she could chastise her, she was gone. The heiress followed at a more sedate pace, checking once more on her other daughter before she left. She ducked into her son's room on her way to the stairs. Kissing his cheek, she could hear Becca trotting down the stairs. Glimpsing the alarm clock beside her son's bed, she was shocked to see that it was 3.15! She definitely needed to get Becca back to bed, not to mention herself.

Following her daughter's path she found the pyjama clad seven year old waiting patiently at the kitchen table. The part-time singer, full time mother, began the now familiar task of preparing warm milk with honey. A sure fire way to knock all of her children, and one small gladiator, out like a light.

Sticky! Why was everything so sticky? Eyes strained to open, to no avail, seemingly welded closed. Body quavering, a tentative hand reached for her cheek, finding it tacky to the touch. Disorientation coursed through her body; she could still feel the soft familiarity of the mattress beneath her yet the room was unnaturally still, the smell… off somehow.

Breath rasped loudly in and out of her lungs, fracturing the silence into tiny shards of disquiet. The more panicked she became, the shallower each breath. Soon lungs burned, fit to burst. Her body was becoming starved of oxygen, mind growing cloudy as suffocation set in. Desperately trying to move, to escape the suddenly cloying confines of the mattress, the warrior found herself held in place by invisible forces. Only her arms seemed free of constraint.

Flailing arms lashed out, trying to break the hold that pinned her down, only to encounter nothing but air. A scream of frustration bubbled from her lips as her arms collapsed bonelessly to the yielding surface. Her arms stilled as her mind seemed to kick into overdrive.

Arms, which suddenly didn't seem so useless, slid across the surface of the bed. Cautious in their journey, they followed a well-worn path to the side. Mind whirring with apprehension she sought for the person who should be lying beside her. The person whose breathing was noticeable by its absence. Trembling fingers soon encountered warmth.

The bed felt strangely damp beneath her fingers. The warm liquid coating her fingers was rapidly cooling. Her heart spasmed in her chest, seeming to stop as her fingers journeyed onwards. She knew what her touch would encounter, but could not help the feint glimmer of hope that kept her moving forwards.

Sticky fingers, bound with blood, reached their gory destination. Without eyes to see, hands roamed over a face and torso raw from a beating. The skin, muscle and bone, once smooth, now bore the texture of ground meat. As her finger sunk into the soft tissue that once may have been an eye, her body began to quake uncontrollably.

Mind spinning, she reached a shocking conclusion. The coating of blood on her hands, made obvious to her by its stench, was her lover's. She was responsible for the mutilated corpse beside her! Heedless of pain, the gladiator tore at her face with her hands, nails digging like claws into vulnerable eyelids. With a final tear her eyes flew open...

Hunter bolted up in bed, a scream dying on her lips as she was savagely ripped from the nightmare's cloying embrace. Her body was drenched with sweat, hair plastered to her forehead and neck. Her breathing and heart rate slowly decelerated as she sucked in huge lungfuls of air. Resolutely, she tried to push the hideousness of the dream from her mind.

Green eyes scanned the room, landing on the familiar objects, skipping from one to the other. She was touching base, seeking terra firma after the shifting sands that she had clawed to break free from. Unknowingly she mirrored the gesture performed by Francesca not long before, running her hand down her face and through her hair. She had to be certain that it had all been an illusion. Even though no bludgeoned body lay beside her she still needed reassurance.

Tossing the bed covers roughly aside, she almost flew from the bed. She rushed across the densely carpeted floor, barely feeling her feet touch the soft material. Her goal was clear, only one thought in her mind. The smooth white door seemed to glow in the dim moonlight, suffusing the room.

Reaching the bathroom she fell through the door. In one, swift, movement she pulled the door tightly shut and pulled the chord for light. The room was filled by the sudden burst of light. It bounced off white tiles and skittered across the ivory bath. Blinded, yet feeling oddly detached rather than afraid, the small woman simply waited for her eyes to adjust. The light itself comforted the woman, wrapping around her and through her, offering sanctuary.

Moving with the surety of one trained to use their body; she proceeded to the vanity, even as her eyes cleared. She rested her hands on the smooth marble of the counter top and focused her still blurry eyes on the illuminated mirror ahead of her. Almost achingly slowly, her image seemed to solidify in the glass. As her features resolved themselves she studied them, one by one.

Blonde hair, so pale it was almost white, crowned a round, cherubic face. She might have been called angelic, but time and pain had ground that away. Scarring was visible on cheek and brow- some small and feint, others a badge of her training. Even without these, her oft-furrowed brow and hollow eyes revealed her troubled soul.

Hunter fingered the blonde strands with a sense of wonder. She had never thought to see this colour adorning her head again. For so many years her hair and eyes had been a uniform shade of electric blue; unnatural and intimidating. Her new, green eyes were as false as the others had been and yet, even knowing this, the olive green held a spark of life that the others never had. Maybe it was just the presence of pupils that contracted and expanded, giving life where once she had appeared to be an automaton, but it did change her whole countenance.

Blinking owlishly at her reflection, her hands, seemingly of their own accord, turned on the cold water faucet. Not waiting for the basin to fill, she thrust her head into the icy-cold stream. It was like a stiletto slicing through her brain. Cutting through the folly of introspection. Hacking away at the clouds that covered her thoughts. Flinging her head back, she shook like a dog, sending a fine spray of water from out from the short strands. Turning off the water she dashed the water from her face and slicked back her damp hair.

Bags under her eyes attested to countless nights reliving the same dream. She couldn't go on like this. For years she had existed on only an hour's sleep, the wonders of genetic enhancement. Even then, with the constant dull ache of pain that suffused every cell of her body, she felt more rested than this. It was almost as though the more she slept the more exhausted she became.

Restless thoughts suddenly ground to a stop, so fast that sparks almost showered. Everything stopped. Nothing mattered. One thought filled her mind…

Where was Francesca?

Unwilling to let panic overtake her, she turned to the door. Sucking in a hissing breath she went in search of her lover.

The small child lay cosily ensconced in her mother's lap at the kitchen table. Two cups of steaming milk stood on the table; one half drained the other barely touched. Becca nestled her head into the junction where her mother's neck met her shoulder. She could smell the comforting scent of her shampoo. The pair had been sitting in companionable silence; both comforted by the other's presence, until now.

"Mama?" Francesca felt the soft whisper against her neck.

"Yes baby-girl?" A soft kiss was planted on the child's crown.

"When I heard the crash in your room… It was like when daddy got really mad at you." Her voice had grown softer and softer, almost tapering off completely.

"Oh, Becca." Francesca pulled the little girl from her shoulder so that she could look her in the eye. "Becca, your father and I… it was difficult. He'd get upset and throw things. It was never anything to worry about." She tried to sound sincere, she had been so careful to hide the marks Doug often left on her body and mind, just not careful enough if the sceptical look in her daughter's eyes was any clue. She understood more than a child should.

"Does Hunter throw things?" It seemed to almost physically hurt the child to force the words out.

"Becca, Hunter has nothing in common with your father." She paused, contemplating that for a moment, "Well maybe the fact that she loves you three but that's all. She never gets frustrated, or throws things, she's too well trained." Neither mother nor child saw the arrival of the dark silhouette in the doorway. "Hunter was having a bad dream. I tried to wake her up and forgot about…"

"The cardiboard rule!"

""Cardinal, darling."

"Yeah, that! You told me that upstairs Mama!" The small face was scrunched in to a scowl, she was clearly perplexed.

"I didn't think that you believed me," a stray strand of hair was tucked behind her ear. "I tried to shake her awake and she pushed me away. I fell into the dresser, my head hurts a little, but Hunter was still asleep. We all just need to be careful for now." The figure in the doorway flinched at the words.

Hunter felt her palms start to sweat. She hated to hear Francesca talk about her in this way. The words she said were true and caring, but to know that, at least on some level, the other woman feared her almost broke her heart. She had to do something. She couldn't stay hidden in the shadows, cowering from an encounter with the heiress.

On silent feet she moved away from the door, towards the stairs. She went up swiftly, only to come back down with the same heavy footfall as the rest of the house. She struggled to maintain the noise, trained as she was to be a silent and ghostly shadow. As she drew closer to the door she could hear the voices once again spilling out into the hall.

"Can you hear that? I wonder who it is." The former slave could hear the childish giggles and knew that the singer was pulling faces. "Sounds like an elephant or maybe a heard of buffalo!" Becca's laughs echoed through the kitchen. Through the doorway the blonde could see mother and child engaged in a tickle war. Loath to interrupt them, she cleared her throat.

Two dark heads snapped towards the sound and she suddenly felt trapped in their twin gazes. Knowing that both mother and child were feeling anxious about her, she tried to seem carefree.

"Hey, if it isn't my two favourite girls! I wondered who was making all that racket." Her tone was light but her pose was that of a contrite child. Francesca had an inkling that her earlier conversation had been overheard by one sneaky bodyguard.

"Your two favourite girls?" Becca could not be afraid in the presence of her second favourite person. As she spoke the warrior had taken a seat and she now climbed onto her lap.

"Ok, so I have five favourite girls, you two are just at the tippy-top so you better shhhh. Don't tell anyone!" With a finger pressed to pursed lips and eyes crossed, the blonde looked like some sort of demented guppy. The little girl was laughing hysterically.

"I think it's time that somebody went to bed." A dark eyebrow raised as a blue eye fixed on the child.

"But Mama! I'm not tired!" Even as she said the words her eyes began to droop closed. Her voice had taken on a whiney edge that only sleepy children can manage.

Knowing that the excitement of giggling had worn off during the brief lull in conversation, Hunter began to growl low in her throat. It was almost a purr and all of the children found it quite soothing. The incongruity of a sound, first made to intimidate, which now put infants to sleep made the warrior wrap her arms more tightly around Becca and smiled bemusedly over her head. Francesca saw the smile and returned it full force.

Feeling Becca losing the battle with sleep, Hunter rose, carefully balancing the precious cargo in her arms. Meeting the brunette's eye she mouthed, 'I'll take her up'.

"Meet me in the den!" It was whispered seductively into her ear, followed by a kiss on the cheek that made the blonde blush as she walked away.

Candlelight flickered throughout the room, caressing everything it touched with amber fingers. It licked against the statuesque brunette's face, casting high cheekbones into stark relief. She sat, legs pulled beneath her, on the overstuffed sofa, enveloped in its comforting embrace. She would have been a vision of serenity, if her eyes had not continuously flickered towards the open door.

Idle hands began to toy restlessly with the ends of her hair. She was nervous, waiting there like a teenager before a first date. Sometimes she felt like she knew Rhani inside out but Hunter hardly at all. Her lover was a combination of two very different people and Rhani was only just reappearing. It was hard not to feel apprehension; she had known this conversation was coming but not sure how she would deal with it.

In the hallway, Hunter was feeling just as unsettled. She had lingered putting the child to bed. She had tucked her in and checked on the other two as she attempted to steel herself for what was to come. She knew what she had to say, knew that it was a necessity, but could not stop the worry that she would hurt Francesca with her words.

With a deep sigh, she steeled herself. Walking through the door, her mouth went dry as she saw Francesca, gilt in bronze by the firelight. The other woman looked like a goddess being worshiped by the flames. Her resolve was almost shattered, but she managed to pull the pieces back together as she walked around the couch to take a seat beside the vision. She was careful not to touch her.

Francesca had heard the changes in her lover's breathing as she entered the room, had sensed every pause and every twitch. Her mind was whirling as she tried to comprehend why the other woman was acting so strangely. She followed her with her eyes as the compact, muscular body moved around the seat. This was unusual in itself, Hunter always jumped over the back of the sofa, never walked around.

Her eyes began to narrow as she watched the smaller woman sit. There was an air of defeat around her as she slumped forward. She sat with her legs apart, back bowed. Her elbows rested on her knees with her hands hanging limply between them, her eyes were fixed on the floor. Her head was bowed so far that her short hair managed to obscure her eyes from the enquiring gaze of her partner. Francesca felt another piece of her heart claimed by the other woman as she reached out a manicured hand and ran it down the broad back.

There was silence in the room for many long minutes. The crackling of the fire even seemed muted by the tension filling the room. Gradually the older woman turned her head, blonde hair still falling into her eyes. She locked gaze with the brunette and finally decided to bite the bullet.

"Chess…"

"Hunter, Rhani, let me. I know that things aren't working out as we had hoped. This is all so new to both of us. We have to expect some teething trouble." Her voice was strong and reassuring, even though she was shaking on the inside.

"Chess I know what I did to you tonight." She carried on swiftly before she could be interrupted. "I know that I was asleep, I heard what you said to Becca. Accidents happen, I know that, but I could really hurt you. Hell, I could even kill you without waking up." Callused hands rubbed at her face. "I know I have these nightmares every night and it can't go on!"

Francesca felt her heart stop dead in her chest. What was Rhani saying? Panic was starting to set in, was she planning to leave? Voice quivering she forced out, "What do you mean?"

"I love you, I love sleeping with you, but I can't do it anymore!" Seeing the taller woman's eyes widen in shock and realising what she must be thinking Hunter grabbed her hands. "Chess, I'm not going to leave you or go to another room. Let me explain."

Francesca let herself relax for the first time since the other woman came into the room. With their hands still entwined she pulled Hunter closer and manoeuvred her own body until they were facing each other, knees and hands touching. Impulsively Francesca darted forwards and planted a quick but tender kiss on startled lips. Hunters look held a question, which the heiress answered with a smile that seemed to say thank you.

"When I came back, after Jordan, we needed to reconnect. We wanted to be with each other as much as we could. It helped me get better- I don't doubt that. Truthfully, I feel great during the day. It's at night that I am having problems, as you know." She rubbed her eyes self-consciously. "I think I know why and you're not going to like the solution."

"Rhani, I only want you to feel better."

"I know. When I came here, and for several years now, I've only required one hour of sleep each night. You knew that when you took me on as your guard, it was why I was picked. I never really thought about the enhancement before. I assumed that as it was intended for the corporate market, I could sleep longer if I wanted to. I thought that the defect that kept it off the market was the pain. Guess I was wrong, huh?" She looked at her partner and saw comprehension dawning. "When I was following orders I never had nightmares and rarely dreamt. When I came back you wanted me to sleep with you, all night. I've felt more tired in the last three weeks than I ever have. I don't think this is working."

Francesca almost jumped for joy at this revelation. She had worried that, perhaps, it was being together that was reminding Rhani of her ordeal. To know that it was a simple matter of biology and genetics gave her renewed hope. They could work through this as they had worked through everything else. Maybe they could reverse the technology as they had with her vocal inhibitor and her eyes.

Hunter could see the wheels turning in her head and moved quickly to bring them to a halt. "Chess, I know what you're thinking and I don't want to change this part of myself. I don't even think it could be changed. I like being able to guard you this well. I don't want to go through anymore scientific and frankly experimental procedures."

The brunette threw her arms around the gladiator and pulled her close. "Whatever you want is what we'll do." It was supposed to be a whisper, which quickly turned into a yawn.

"I may have had my quota of sleep, but you still need some more!" The stronger woman moved on the couch until her back rested against an arm. She pulled the other woman towards her and wrapped her in her arms. Francesca burrowed into the other woman's chest and felt safe and protected. Her eyes forced themselves shut as a strong hand stroked through her hair.

"Go to sleep Chess. I'll watch over you."

To Be Continued...

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