by Joseph Connell
Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.
Commentary, positive and (preferably) negative, can be directed to Joseph Connell.
August 24. Tuesday. Morning.
"The more things change..." Xena Amphipoulis muttered to herself as the line at Customs slowed to its usual crawl. Heathrow Airport, despite reported downturns in recent years, remained an international locus for travelers. The volume of traffic, both human and aircraft, had actually seen an increase as the presence of the European Union became more pronounced in British politics and policies, without a corresponding increase in personnel for Customs inspection.
The discomfort this caused weary travelers was of course not taken into consideration. Particularly with respect to the multitude of red-eye flights coming into the complex.
"Name? Passport? Length of stay?" The overweight official reeled off the questions with all the interest of discussing weather that had remained unchanged for a month. The tall, dark-haired woman handed her passport over with a equal amount of interest, and answered in a passably polite tone. His boredom was briefly alleviated, as were sections of his anatomy, by the smooth tones of her answer coupled with the surprisingly well-done photo in the passport. Looking up, he was caught by a face whose power and pose was nothing short of magnetic, for which the photo was a poor medium.
"Xena Amphipoulis of the United States. I will be here one week."
The officer realized he had been staring for some seconds and quickly shook himself awake, looking back at the small booklet and searching for an unstamped page. "Purpose of visit?" he demanded in as gruff a voice as possible.
"Business trip." Again the sonorous tones did embarrassing things to his blood-flow.
"Anything to declare?" he finished, daring to look up once more, only to be stopped around her well-concealed but generous bosom as she placed two wooden cases atop the long counter. One was exceptionally long and rectangular in shape, the other far smaller and a perfect square.
"Just these," was all the tall woman said, with all the weariness of one who has repeated the same answer for years on end.
The official, as if remembering his purpose for sitting there, stood up and gestured for her open them. Xena did so, her expression one of quiet suffering and consummate boredom, and was not a little gratified as his eyes went wide. The sword was polished to a shine, its edges so fine as to be invisible. She repeated the procedure with the smaller case, its contents causing the man's brows to furrow in confusion. He looked up once more.
"You have licenses for these...objects?" It was only the fatigue that kept Xena from laughing at his weak effort at sounding official and intimidating. Instead, she reached into her leather jacket and presented her registration and licenses as an antique dealer. The man made a face-saving show of examining the papers, much to the consternation of the rest of the line (and the secret amusement of one in particular).
Eventually, he nodded in satisfaction and grumbled "Well, everything seems in order, Miss Amphi-poo-luss." He handed the papers back and did his level best to deliver a warning look, only to have his hands start shaking at the electric blue eyes regarding him. He nonetheless managed to squeak out "I trust you won't be using...these...will you?"
"I'll try to avoid it." It was an honest response, if questionable given the thin grin accompanying it.
The official "hurmphed" and handed back her passport, calling out "Next!" as the woman closed both cases and made her way to baggage claims. Forcing himself not to look after her (despite the provocative sight her long-legged stride made, her hip-hugging jeans accentuating her every move), the officer stared down at the countertop as another American passport was handed to him. He nevertheless called out "Passport, please. Name?"
"Rickie Gardner, of the You-Ess-Aye," was the too-bright response, delivered in a classic southern drawl so pronounced it could only be fake. The officer winced, the onset of a headache hitting him.
She made it to the baggage area without breaking stride. Xena kept her steps steady, giving no sign of the internal struggle raging within her. Memories of their past year together, most often the bad bits, snaked their way into her dreams more and more of late, leaving Xena increasingly irritable from being awakened so often and (loath as she was to admit it) not a little frightened. She was thankful Rickie slept completely through these episodes, particularly as she featured rather prominently in them.
One scene in particular had come to haunt her: how it had been her, not Rickie, who had stumbled into Jeanne's chamber of horrors. She could always recall it clearly.
Moving as if wading through mud, she would find a limp, torn body hanging there...
blonde hair matted with dried blood...warm flesh made cold by death...
Jeanne's voice echoed in the darkness. "Your harlot has been punished in your place, Xena...."
"So tell me, beautiful," her lover's voice drifted across her, shattering the spell. There was a heat to its tone that melted all tension. "Is that a killer frisbee in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"
Xena bit down her initial retort, something between a growl and scream of shock. She settled for turning on the smaller woman with a growl of a entirely different tone. "Guess," she mouthed and delivered, much to the surprise of both the girl and the few other passengers in the immediate area, a less-than-chaste kiss, breaking it only when their bags arrived.
The tall woman promptly broke the kiss and collected their bags, looking not the least bit encumbered or unbalanced by the two weapons cases, two overnight bags, and two large suitcases. This left her blonde partner standing there in what appeared to be a sensory swoon, which she soon blinked herself out of. Looking towards the warrior, Rickie shook her head and muttered "Oh, so that's the game, huh?" She set off after her soulmate, the grin she wore equal parts adoration and pure evil intent.
Neither noticed a youngish man in a leather trenchcoat and sporting a trim goatee sitting some distance away near a coffee kiosk. His eyes had been cast surreptitiously their way several times, always covered by turning the pages of his Spanish-language newspaper and taking deep gulps of his coffee. He was alone among those who'd witnessed their kiss in not showing the least surprise or embarrassment at its heat.
He had drained the coffee and folded the paper away into his coat as the two women broke apart. Standing, he gave the two women a last, brief glance before turning on his heel and heading toward the nearest exit. He fished a cellular phone from the interior pocket and hit the speed-dial. No voice greeted him on the opposite end, which was not unexpected.
"They've arrived," was his only message as he continued walking, resisting the urge to glance back.
For someone who had spent the past two days alternately lounging in uncomfortable and badly-shaped airport chairs, enduring uncooperative weather and two flight cancellations, and being crushed into confining-if-well-padded airliner chairs, all while waiting for Virgin Atlantic to live up to its reputation of efficiency and courtesy, Rickie appeared...energized by their arrival. She alternated between staring out their cab's window at the early morning skyline and streets, and chatting away about where they would visit this time.
She seemed utterly unfazed that neither of them had caught more than four hours sleep in the last sixty, or that it was only just past six in the morning (with their bodies telling them it was sometime around 10 p.m.) as their taxi coasted to a halt before their hotel, an elegant brownstone facing the south end of Hyde Park. Xena herself was exhausted, as much from her restless nights as from their journey. No surprise then that found her companion's exuberance a bit hard to take. She knew better, however, than to make a scene over Rickie struggling with their overnighters as well as her laptop case. It wasn't that they were especially heavy, merely bulky and a tad unwieldy. Still, her heart made a go of it, managing to half-stumble, half weave her way to the front door.
Her own steps were no steadier, though in her case it was the sheer weight she carried. She was consequently a bit slower getting to the door and perhaps doubly exhausted. Gods, they'd have to lie down for a few hours before trying to call Cora or Gwen.
By the time Xena made it through the door (the traditional doorman absent) and succeeded in collapsing gracefully into one of the small lobby's overstuffed chairs, Rickie was already in the unfortunate desk manager's face and sounding ready to curse up a blue storm. "Whaddya mean you can't let us into our room?!" she demanded, hands wrapped around the counter's edge in a white knuckle grip. Neither seemed to notice her arrival, which suited her fine.
She listened with only half an ear to their arguing, preferring to instead to admire the elegant furniture and dark paneling of the walls. Clearly some redecorating had been done since she was last here, all of it tasteful and satisfactory. Her musings, however, were soon interrupted by the increased noise her lover was making at the manager.
The unfortunate object of Rickie's ire was a youngish-looking gentleman with a military-style crew-cut who wore the black blazer and starched shirt of a junior manager His gray eyes met her's with a strained calm reflected in his voice. "I've explained, Ms. Gardner, we simply don't have a reservation under your name. And it is hotel policy that previously unoccupied rooms cannot be checked into until after twelve o'clock."
"Yeah. And I've explained to you we set reservations up three fucking months ago." The bard took a deep breath, seeing the iron-clad denial of this small fact set in his eyes and decided to try a different track. "Look, you do have at least one extra room, right?"
"Well, we can pay for the extra day if that's what the delay is about."
"Its not that simple, Ms. Gardner, as I've tried to..."
"Is the room currently occupied?"
"Somebody drop a bomb in it?"
"Some kid with diarrhea run through it without his diaper?"
The young manager looked stricken by the imagery this conjured. "No! No, of course not."
"Then I don't see why you can't let us in!"
Xena couldn't help the tired chuckle, debating momentarily whether to intervene or simply watch. It was certainly eye-opening, watching her lover brow-beat the unfortunate where in the distant past she would simply haggle them to near-poverty and undying servitude. Amusing, to say the least, and a clear sign of how tired she actually was. She was dead on their feet, they both were, and really needed a few hours shut-eye before doing anything more.
She cleared her throat and clearly spoke up. "Perhaps I can help here?" She presented a card from her breast pocket to the young manager, who eyed it somewhat suspiciously while moving to the telephone on the desk behind him. Rickie stared daggers into his back as he made a show of dialing and muttering into the receiver. She turned a raised eyebrow at Xena when he jerked his head away from the earpiece, someone's outraged voice buzzing loudly on the opposite end.
The manager quickly made apologetic sounds first to the receiver, then turned and did likewise to Xena, careful to avoid any eye contact with Rickie. "My...apologies, ma'am," he stammered a bit, quickly pulling a small manila envelope from his jacket pocket. "I didn't realize..."
"Quite alright," Xena said smoothly. "I normally don't announce my visits." She took the envelope from his slightly trembling hand and dumped two key cards out of it, immediately handing one to Rickie, whose eyes narrowed in her direction to dangerous slits. Xena appeared impervious to such attacks, fixing eyes upon the youngster behind the counter for the first time.
The manager gulped again. "Will you need any assistance..." he began, only to be quieted by a upraised hand.
"No need, thank you." The Immortal resisted the urge to grin at the poor boy's flustered efforts. She recognized the signs, all recognizable after so many centuries of experience. In the next few moments he was sure to be falling to his knees and swearing eternal fealty to her, or some other damn idiotic gesture.
"Uh, as you wish...uh, ma'am." He could only stare as the dark woman once again picked up the suitcases and calmly strode to the elevator. Rickie had joined him in this, her adrenaline still pumping from their now abortive argument and her brain still trying to process just what had just happened.
After about a minute of this, she leaned down and picked up her own bags. Seeing the young manager still staring at Xena's back, she growled "Ferggit'. She's taken." She then hurried off, seeing the elevator doors opening and Xena stepping through. The latter was kind enough to keep the doors from closing, a surprise given the wicked gleam Rickie could see in her eye.
Once they were both inside, Xena pushed the fourth floor button and inserted her card into a slot at the panel's top. Only when she did this did the elevator final begin its ascent, which, while brief, proved enough time for the two women to feel the onset of claustrophobia. It didn't help the elevator was rather small and cramped between them, their luggage, and the swordcase.
It would be an exaggeration to say they practically fell out of the elevator in a heap of bodies and bags the instant the doors opened, but only a small one. They'd been pressed into far tighter surroundings than the elevator, but with the addition of the bags and their raw fatigue, they made a less than graceful exit. Xena ended up half-dragging one of the suitcases by its strap, which only served to trip up a barely-balanced Rickie, who in turn managed a quick juggle of two well-stuffed overnighters and her computer case, somehow managing to keep them all from falling.
They made it to their room, which Xena unlocked with her card (Rickie was nowhere near dexterous enough to do so herself), and dragged herself and the luggage in. Rickie closed it behind them, her foot kicking the door shut automatically as she carefully placed the bags upright on the floor and set her computer case atop them. Xena herself was trying to wrestle a suitecase onto its proper side and open it...simultaneously.
Rickie's voice was quiet, ringing in the warrior's ears like a rifle shot, and easily a hundred times more commanding. Xena's sharp ears caught the whisper of cloth sliding from skin, followed by the buzz of a zipper being undone. She moved to turn and watch, only to be stilled by her lover's command. "Don't move."
It was delivered with such heat the exhausted warrior felt dizzy. Her condition only worsened when she felt a warm body pressed against her back, strong, sure hands divesting her of her jacket then circling about her waist, drifting here and there and leaving a trail of fire behind them. Those same hands slowly pulled her shirt out and began the laborious process of unbuttoning. Xena leaned back against the smaller woman, a groan issuing in frustration as those hands stilled and left her.
"I said 'don't move'." Rickie whispered hotly into her ear, her own voice shaking. "Or do you want me to stop?" Deep breaths were the only response the warrior could manage right then. "I'll take that as a 'no'." Deft fingers made short work of the remaining buttons and still shorter work of sports bra underneath, the latter stretched to the breaking point as Rickie wrestled it off her.
Both of them gasped at the first contact of flesh-against-flesh, Rickie grabbing both her breasts and pulling her back, her own mons crushed between them. The light kisses the bard rained on her shoulders and neck was nearly enough to undo her then and there, the movements of her hands no less distracting as they dipped lower and came to rest on her jean's waistband.
Rickie delivered a final, forceful kiss to her neck before sinking to her knees as her undoing the jeans and drawing both them and her panties to her ankles. The tip of her lover's nose trailed down her spine as she descended, her breathing keeping perfect counterpoint to Rickie's warm exhales there, eyes closing involuntarily from the accompanying chills that traveled up and down her length. The light kiss applied to the base of her spine invoked a shudder that was half-ecstasy and half-shock.
"On the bed," the bard ordered with a small push. Xena toppled easily onto the King-sized mattress, her legs ready to fold under her. She giggled and kicked a little as Rickie divested her feet of sneakers, socks, and clothing, Rickie's fingertips invariably finding every ticklish spot on her toes and soles. To add to the torture, she blew a few times on them, delighted at Xena's responsive shivers.
Rickie wasted no time in pulling the still-unopened suitcase from the bed and climbing directly atop Xena, lying fully atop her. Her nipples were quite erect now (seeing Xena shiver like that always had that effect), and thus all the more sensitive. Her entire skin was like that, hot and flushed as it was, and keeping such close contact to Xena's own burning skin was making her begin to sweat and tremble.
Rickie gathered her strength, fighting off her drowsiness and feeling at once lightheaded and completely focused on the woman underneath her. She'd reach that point of gritty stubbornness that comes of too much caffeine and too many catnaps in cramped airline seats. She also hadn't been able to touch her lover (or herself, really) in the last sixty-plus hours, and so was bordering on something between withdrawal and utter desperation. For one so afflicted, her voice was seemed eerily calm and collected.
"Have I thanked you for all this?" she purred-growled-panted into the ear she nibbled on.
"Well," came Xena's slow and equally purred reply. "You 'thanked' me back in Portland." She rolled herself unto her back, making sure to keep as close contact with as much of the blonde as possible. Rickie permitted the action only because it would make it easier to reach certain areas. "But you haven't..."
"Thanked you, yet," Rickie completed, the familiar phrase bringing a smile to them both. "Terrible oversight of mine." She slid down Xena's body, planting a kiss in the valley between her breasts. "Please say you forgive me." She slid further, speaking into a rock-solid abdomen before leaving the bed altogether, kneeling on the floor and parting Xena's long legs.
"You're forgiv...oh, GODS!" The only vocalizations the Immortal could manage once Rickie's lips reached their target was exclamations towards various deities and incoherent sequences of vowels and hard consonants. When the bard's tongue joined in, circling her folds several times before flicking lightly across her clit, Xena forgot even the basest form of speech. Her toes curled and every muscle knotted tight as her lover's practiced lips teased her closer to the plateau.
She shook violently with her first orgasm, its force far more intense than she'd though her bacchae capable of summoning. She was only able to groan as all the colors in the world exploded behind her tightly shut eyes, her essence pouring out between her legs and into her lover's eager mouth. Yet her bacchae gave her no rest, a second, then a third following close behind, agony and ecstasy intermingling as her strength drained away. Tears were the desperate cries she could no longer utter; cries for mercy, begging those lips to stop their delicious ministrations, cries urging them on, and cries of love for the woman driving her beyond herself.
The fourth was utter torture, the most teasing and gradual yet, with her bacchae all but ignoring her dripping center, instead kissing her inner thighs and rubbing her nose into rough pubic hair. Xena was past her endurance, only able to pant with the effort it took to remain conscious. Light once again exploding in her mind as the plateau was once again reached, the bard finding her center and kissing it tenderly. This time, she had no reserves left to resist the fall, and tumbled headlong into oblivion.
As she fell, a solid, warm weight clamored atop her. There was the taste of salty essence on her lips and a honey-sweet voice that breathed into her ear. "G'night, warrior-mine."
The darkness beyond dreams swallowed her whole.
Another taxi came to a halt in from of the hotel, its single passenger disembarking quickly and crossing the street. He took shelter beside one of the larger trees on the park's border, eyes alert and focused upon the brownstone before him.
He gathered his leather trenchcoat closer around him, the late summer morning still chilly, and tried to ignore the complaints of his bladder as he concentrated on his vigil. He managed to do so for the whole of five minutes before having to sprint to the nearest public WC.
"Anan Galleries of London."
"It is I."
Hissing. "What the bloody hell are you doing calling here?"
Wide smile. "Surprise."
"Gods, what are you thinking?" Quiet. Nervous. "You know he's here?"
"Of course. Why do you think I returned?"
Amused. "How pagan of you, little sister."
"You're trying to kill Jono, aren't you? You're trying to give him heart failure!"
"Gods, he's going to kill both of us."
"I should expect so." Expectant. "Everything ready for the opening?"
"Of course. I've held back a few openings. Cancellation, you understand."
Amused. "Oh, of course. Inevitable."
"You'll be there?"
"I'll be there."
Voices in the background.
"Go, little sister. I'll see you soon enough."
Connection cut. Dial tone.
The readout on the digital clock on the bedstand had just turned one when Xena grudgingly opened her eyes. Rickie was still sprawled over her, a knee pressing dangerously close to her center and her fingers still tangled in raven locks. If not for the fact she was buzzing with her usual quiet snores, Xena would have suspected the positioning was deliberate.
She absently stroked her lover's bare back for a few minutes, trying to summon the resolve to wake her. The girl's low moans weren't exactly helping in that respect. Nor did the way she was shifting, which was bringing her dangerously close to certain areas which were still tender as hell. Not that this would be much of an impediment should they decide for another go-around.
She nevertheless tried to wake the sleeping writer gently, wiggling underneath her and whispering into her ear. "Rickie? C'mon, wake up." This had no evident effect, save that the girl adjusted her position so she ended up breathing directly onto an increasingly stiff and sensitive nipple.
"Five more minutes, mommy," she whined quietly.
Feeling a tad wicked right then, Xena let her hand drift down until it came into contact with a firm, young backside. She patted one of the cheeks, then gave it a not-so-light slap. This did wake the snoozing youngster, who's entire form jerked as though hit with a cattle prod. Her head shot up and fixed a glare at her tormentor. Quickly raising herself up on her elbows (strategically positioned so to pin the woman underneath her prone), Rickie looked down and declared "That was completely uncalled for, warrior."
Xena simply shrugged as best she was able, given the weight presently pressing down on her shoulders, and said "Time to get up." It was a sentiment Rickie evidentially did not share, as she pressed down on both shoulders and leaned close.
"You are gonna pay for that one, my love," she growled, obviously irate at being awakened in such a manner.
Xena, however, refused to look the least bit contrite. "C'mon, Dreamer. We've go things to do..." She was interrupted by a pair of rosy lips descending on hers. She let them rest there for a moment, a well-practiced tongue snaking its way between them and brushing her teeth in a familiar ritual. Normally it would be Xena herself doing this, silencing all argument before her diminutive lover drove her to distraction with her babbling. It proved less than effective this time around.
"...Places to go..." Xena panted when they broke apart, trying to catch her breath and continue her original thought. "...People to see..."
"Uhg!" the blonde exclaimed, looking hard into those perfect sapphire eyes. "And what if I don't want to get up?"
Xena raised a single eyebrow to this and deadpanned "One word: shopping."
Rickie eyed her suspiciously. "Is that some kind of threat?"
"Hmm." She seemed to consider the offer for moment, then refocused on the smirking face beneath her, a thoughtful frown curving her lips. She shook her head. "Sorry, not frightening enough. What else have ya got to offer, hmm?"
Dead serious, Xena said "A bruised butt if you don't let me up."
"Ooooo, kinky." Rickie taunted, her frown now a grin. She didn't realize until the last instant how badly she'd misjudged the situation, as Xena herself was now frowning, quite severely in fact. Two very strong hands grasped her by the hips and promptly swung her off the bed, depositing her on the plush carpeted floor with a hard THUD. "OWW!" she cried as she landed, glaring once more at her lover. "Dammit, Xena...I...you...!" she sputtered as the Immortal rolled off the bed and walked, calm as you please, to the rooms well equipped WC.
"Warned you," she reminded her, equally casually. Rickie sat there for some moments, torn between continuing to sit there and stew, or follow and give the light of her life whatfor and a few bruises of her own. The sound of the shower running led her thoughts in a completely different direction.
"You going to join me or what?" Xena's voice drifted out, settling the argument for her. Rickie dashed into the WC and slammed the door behind her.
The man had moved from the tree to a nearby bench some time ago, one which afforded him a concealed view of his target. The morning had turned warm enough he'd removed his leather trenchcoat and draped it over the bench's back. To keep himself aware, he'd taken to reading his paper again, his eyes flickering between the paper and the hotel's doorway.
He was on his fourth re-reading about the banking crisis in Argentina when a dusky-skinned young woman in jeans and designer silk jacket came sauntering over. She wore expensive Rayban imports and her hair cut short and brushed close to the scalp, her confident stride belying her evident youth. She sat down beside the man and offered one of the foam cups to him.
"Just set down there," the man said, not unkindly, but not so much as glancing her way either.
The girl did as bade and reclined back against the bench, a study in nonchalance. "They been in there all morning?" she asked. A grunt was the only answer from behind the newspaper. "What d'you think they've been doing?"
The man shook the paper and noisily turned the page as one does when badgered with annoying questions from younger siblings. "Use your bloody imagination." His companion appeared deaf to the sarcasm, crossing her legs and taking a comfortable position as she took up the watch.
Anan Galleries of London was located in the Charing Cross area, along St. Martins Place, and sported a fashionable if subdued exterior. Its interior appeared at first glance too small and cramped to comfortably navigate. The walls and few dais were scarcely utilized to the full. One could be forgiven thinking the Gallery was on its last financial legs, there being nothing really to call attention to it and no effort made to distinguish it.
Which made the sheer number of people milling about it that night, both within and without, all the more surprising.
Xena felt a clear stab of anxiety at the numbers. That Cora had secured invitations in the first place put her automatically on guard. Both Cora and her agent at Lloyds of London had said this opening, while routine, had been closed for months. Every invitation had been sent out and RSVPed long ago; over a year, in fact. And two cancellations, with no explanation, were simply too convenient for her tastes, even with Cora's constant assurances as to their validity. Anan Galleries was a social hotspot, and more than a few artists had had their work 'discovered' there.
Xena cast a careful eye at her outfit. The invitation hadn't specified formal dress, so Xena had decided to go in her usual outfit of jeans, collarless white shirt, and leather vest. Something for the peacocks to cluck about, was Xena's thought. It allowed her freedom of movement, not to mention being a good bit more comfortable than the various outfits she spied milling about, but provided no way of concealing a weapon anywhere. She nonetheless missed her sword, which she had, reluctantly, left back at the hotel.
Rickie had decided to try out the midnight blue Savile Row pants suit Xena had insisted on getting her during their post-shower excursion. It fit her lean form perfectly, accenting her curves while hiding them from easy view, and set off the natural highlights of her skin and hair. She'd done up the jacket's buttons, which gathered its fabric against her hips and sides, giving inviting form to the small swell of her breasts. Her pearl silk blouse was open at the neck, and her hair done in such a way to allow it to flow over her shoulders, at once practical and beautiful. She looked every inch the socialite for whom these soirees were commonplace.
There were a few paparazzi watching for someone famous to flash their bulbs at. Obviously memories of the late Diana had faded, as they proved as pushy as ever. The one who approached Rickie was quickly sent into retreat only by Xena's towering presence directly behind her. That, and the low growl the dark warrior sent his way. The London evening was cool but not unpleasantly so, so both went without coats. Just as well, or she'd be in a trenchcoat with forty-odd inches of razor-sharp steel at her back. Be embarrassing as hell when the doorman requested their coats and invitations.
Small and crowded as it may have seen from the outside, the gallery's interior proved remarkably easy to navigate. Despite the numbers of attendees, the babble of conversation was as muted as the clink of the champagne glasses, clustering themselves in small knots near the artwork. There was a balcony overhead where still more attendees clustered and spoke between themselves, none deeming to look down upon their fellows.
Xena gave a quick nod to Rickie and set off into the crowds. They'd agreed it would be better to split up in trying to find the chakrum's buyer, who according to Cora was one of the galleries' owners. Though the woman had expressed her wish to remain anonymous, paying off her purchase in cash and not identifying herself at the auction, their Lloyds agent had managed to chase down registration of the artifact to the gallery along with a description of its manager, the latter of which matched the description of the buyer to a "t". Better, Xena had argued, that they divide their efforts and cover more ground. Rickie had agreed, but only with the vow that Xena would keep her in sight at all times. Initially the warrior had thought it simply fear on her lover's part, until she saw the cast steel in those eyes.
It was fear, but not for herself. Evidentially she wasn't the only one with...memories...of Munich and Jeanne. Xena felt herself burn a bit in shame. Thinking only about yourself, warrior? her subconscious chided her. Shame on you.
Her efforts at mixing were distracted by these thoughts, and so less than successful in searching out de Anan. She somehow found herself in the gallery's rear, looking first at a bizarre metallic construct, then at an unsheathed Japanese katana displayed in glass. The incongruity of the two object managed to penetrated the haze clouding the warrior's thoughts, the former looking like something from an industrial rock musician's nightmares, while the latter was inarguably the finest piece of weaponscraft she'd encountered. From its sparkling blade to the ornately carved hilt of polished ivory, depicting a dragon of such intimate detail she almost swore one of its eyes...blinked at her, the sword was nothing short of perfection of its art.
Her musings again left her distracted to her surroundings, as evidenced by her slight jump at the words spoken near her ear a moment later.
"Quite a piece of work." The voice was soft, audible only because it was almost blown directly into her ear. Xena spun, ready to send her would-be suitor (she'd heard enough pick-up lines over the centuries to fill a telephone directory, but that was something new) into the nearest wall. She tensed, then relaxed at seeing the figure standing beside her was looking not at her, but at the katana. She took a half-step to the side a made a quick visual appraisal of the newcomer.
He was a tall man, with close-cut dark hair and blue-green eyes. He wore a dark gray Italian suit and black dress shirt with the buttons done up to his neck. Wire-rimed glasses were perched on his nose, giving him a vaguely academic look, though Xena for some reason dismissed the idea. It was nothing she could put her finger on exactly, save the vague feeling of déjà vu he invoked.
He hadn't so much as glanced her way, yet he smirked and clarified his earlier statement. "The sword, that is. Not you."
She noticed he had a drink in his hand, untouched from the look of it. "Hmm," was about all she could say, agreeing with the sentiment.
The man turned to fully and extended his free hand. "Jonothan O'Donhugh."
"Xena Amphipoulis," she rejoined, taking his hand, surprised by the strength of his grip. She tried to take a closer look at him, only to be distracted by his next words.
"You're looking perhaps the second greatest mystery of weaponsmithery," O'Donhugh said, only the vaguest interest in his voice as he gestured towards the display case. "A sword that by all historical accounts should not exist."
"How so?" Now he had her curious, though more to see how far his facts were off than actual interest in the blade itself. Yes, it was a beautiful piece, but hardly anything mysterious to it.
As if hearing her thoughts, O'Donhugh grinned and said "Oh, nothing you could see with the naked eye. The metal of the blade, you see, is precisely striated, allowing one to count exactly how many times the raw steel had been turned with the hammer. In the case of this particular blade, along with its two reputed siblings, the metal was turned two hundred and twenty times."
"Hmph," Xena almost snorted. "That's hardly unheard of, Mr. O'Donhugh." The name felt strange in its familiarity on her tongue. She shook her head at such thoughts and concentrated on the matter at hand. "The Japanese masters routinely counted two hundred hammer blows to a blade before they considered it done."
"Ah," O'Donhugh smirked again. "That's where this gets interesting. You see, the steel in this blade was carbon dated...back to 700 bc."
Xena couldn't help but look mildly shocked. "That's...absurd," she laughed. "Its been well established the Japanese hadn't discovered such techniques until at least the 1400s ad." I should know, given I was there when old Heidai forged his first in 1422! she wanted to add, but managed to hold her tongue.
She nearly laughed again as O'Donhugh gave her a single raised eyebrow, which if she didn't know better she'd think was exact imitation of her own technique, and a look which asked And just how do you know that, eh? Aloud, he simply said, "Well, that's the conventional wisdom, isn't it? But then again, conventional wisdom also once held the planet Earth was flat as a pancake and still claims reincarnation and the like are so much rot."
"You disagree? About reincarnation, I mean."
He turned and looked her directly in the eye. "Most certainly. I've...encountered entirely too much to believe otherwise." His eyebrows scooted together just a fraction, his eyes becoming intense and studious. "As, I suspect, have you."
Xena was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the direct stare he gave her, though she kept her expression utterly neutral. "Oh," she purred dangerously. "And what leads you to that conclusion?"
Again, O'Donhugh gave her a damnable smirk and nodded towards the wrought metal piece beside them. "I take you aren't here to admire the late Tessa Noel's pointed attacks on the superficiality of modern tastes, are you?"
Xena kept her eyes straight on him, ignoring both the piece and his attempt at changing subjects. "Just what do you know about me, Mr. O'Donhugh?" she purred again, soft and inviting and promising all sorts of mayhem. Normally, The Tone was sufficient to leave even the toughest heavy ready to spill his proverbial guts onto the floor, lest their literal ones follow suit.
O'Donhugh was seemingly unaffected, his own voice placid and sounding not a little bored. "I know you are an American, though you have a strong Greek heritage, and that you certainly aren't here for the art. That much is evident by your name, accent, and behavior." He tilted his head, considering her as he might the Noel sculpture or an early Monet. "You're looking for something...or someone, though you're uncertain who. The way you move and watch everything bespeaks of one who is a trained investigator, one who has been in the game for some time now and works strictly as an independent, as you're deliberately unconventional clothing shows. Undercover police would not miss the chance to dress and behave like the rest of these berks."
"Very insightful," Xena nodded, now covertly scanning the crowd for Rickie, doubting now the wisdom of their separating.
"I know most everyone here," O'Donhugh offered after a moment. "Perhaps if I knew who it was you were looking for...?"
Xena couldn't help letting the name tumble out, too distracted as her eyes now tore through the mix of faces and colors. "Marie de Anan. The manager here."
O'Donhugh smiled widely at this. "Ah, then you're in luck. I see her over...there." He pointed to a distant corner across the room, where Xena caught a flash of dark blue and reddish-gold beside a large black man and far smaller figure clothed in emerald green and crowned with a bob of fiery russet hair.
"Excuse me," Xena muttered, setting off into the crowd, eyes not wavering from her destination.
She consequently didn't see O'Donhugh's smile fade at the sight, his blue-gray eyes suddenly cold as flints, nor hear his automatic reply of "Not at all."
Nor did she hear the crystal in his hand succumb to the force with which he gripped it, shattering into a thousand glittering fragments.
Rickie was talking quite animatedly with the two when Xena arrived. The warrior paused her approach momentarily to size up her nominal targets. The man was easily six and a half feet tall, with dark skin and clad in a white linen suit, the combination making him look every inch the proverbial Caribbean sugar-cane merchant. His equally dark eyes were focused attentively on the blonde before him, the low lighting giving a shine to his perfectly bald dome.
The woman beside him was a less commanding presence, at least physically. She stood no taller than Rickie, and looked no more than five years older, which made them both seem childlike compared to the giant beside them. Her dress set off her russet hair perfectly, forest green against tanned skin, a flash of gold dangling from her slim neck. The woman shook as if chuckling at a joke, while the dark giant simply rumbled and looked at the floor as one might if embarrassed. Rickie simply seemed confused, judging by the expression Xena caught as she glanced over her shoulder and saw her there.
"Ah," her bacchae nodded. "There you are."
"Here I am," Xena affirmed, voice low and warning. Rickie smiled, as though relieved of some secret anxiety. The woman in green turned to face her, her elvish features slightly scrunched with amusement.
She tucked an imagined strand of hair behind her ear and extended her hand, a semi-smile gracing her features. "Marie de Anan. And you must be the one looking for me these past months." Xena took the offered hand in a strong grip, though the woman refused to so much as wince at the pressure, and raised in inquiring eyebrow. "Your agent at Lloyds was rather less than...subtle...about your interest, Ms. Amphipoulis. I've been expecting to meet you for several weeks now."
"Really?" Xena murmured, releasing her hand and moving closer to Rickie.
The de Anan woman nodded, an action that drew Xena's eyes to the small medallion at her throat. It looked from a distance like a simple cross. Upon closer examination, she could see it was two interlocking, interweaving chords of gold, their path so simple yet intricate it was soon impossible to know where one chord began and the other ended. It was, she realized, indeed a cross.
A Celtic cross.
And with that, the millennia fell away, her bones remembering the cold wind and the nails in her hands...
Two thousand years ago.
Xena offered no resistance as the Romans laid her onto the wood. She was numb throughout, and so no longer felt the wind or snow, as was secretly glad for this. It meant she wouldn't last long when they finally got around to doing their business.
She caught a glimpse of gold and crimson in the background, astride a dark warhorse. She refused to grace her lifelong scourge even the smallest glance, focusing instead upon the centurion's shield before her. The Roman moved away, and Xena let her eyes travel to the small form beside her, the too-familiar scene greeting her. Gabrielle's skin had taken a chilled pallor, meaning neither of them would be long for life now, whatever their enemies might do.
She stared deep into those green eyes, seeing no anger or recrimination there. Xena had enough for them both. Still, she said the words as she had been shown, knowing they came from her heart and not simply foreknowledge of this moment. "Gabrielle," her heart croaked through dry lips and ravaged voice.
"You are the best thing in my life."
The bard smiled gently, her own words reaching across the distance.
"I love you Xena."
Neither broke the spell of each other's eyes, even as the Romans placed the first nails at their hands and raised their hammers.
It was Xena, not Gabrielle, who cried out as the first nail was driven in. She'd shut her eyes and howled to the wind, body arching as fiery pain lanced through her arms and down her spine. But her cries and bitter tears were not from the pain or shock, but rather were against the Fates and god.
The second nail was hammered home, bringing with it more pain and the taste of blood in her mouth. She'd bitten her lip in an effort to stifle herself, managing only to break the dry skin and make herself bleed. This actually had a calming effect upon her, waking her to her foolishness. They'd hit upon a plan to ensure they would be together in the afterlife, Gabrielle having passed the Rite of Caste to her a short while back, making Xena her heir and a de facto Amazon. This hopefully placed her beyond Hade's reach and giving her admittance into Eternity.
The key to the plan, however, was that Xena would have to outlast Gabrielle so her position as heir would be confirmed. Her doing so, however, was questionable given the way she was acting. She had to be the last to go, not the first. She opened teary eyes and sought Gabrielle once more. It nearly undid her to see the serenity with which the bard gazed upon her, even as the soldiers drove home the final nail into her feet.
Xena drank deeply from the well of peace Gabrielle's eyes offered, barely feeling the nail driven into her own ankles, their gaze not breaking even as their crosses were hoisted upright. She couldn't help the grunt from the pain wracking her guts as her body settled into its new position. She used the pain as a goad, to stay awake, relaxing herself and conserving her strength against the cold seeping into her bones.
Soon, it was all Xena could do but wearily hung there, her strength dying with the daylight. Dusk had already begun to fall over the sky, lending a dreamlike quality to the scurrying of the soldiers and falling snow. For a mad half-moment Xena wondered if she were still dreaming her torment at Alti's hands, almost praying that she would wake so she could somehow ensure this all never came to pass. She could kill both Caesar and Pompey in that cave...or make sure she and Gabrielle parted company in India...or she could just fall on her own damn sword and save everyone the trouble...
The slow crushing of her lungs against her ribs, making every breath a new agony, dashed such hopes. Xena clung to them all the same, wondering if the sights and sounds meeting her were anything more than figments of her tired and weakened mind. She focused on these things, some part of her detaching from the pain and watching events unfold beneath her with incredible calm and clarity.
The dozen-odd Romans left to watch their death (clearly Caesar was no longer taking chances with her, wanting plenty of witnesses and guards around her) had ended their loitering and were now running excitedly about, some shouting "Who goes there?" and the like. Or so it seemed at first glance. Some seemed to trip over unseen obstacles, others simply dropping hard into the snow.
It wasn't until one actually flew several bodylengths across the plateau that she could make the cloaked figures who made sport of the soldiers.
There were but four, none visibly armed with either sword or staff or axe, yet they tore through the assembled soldiers as though ten times that number. The skirmish lasted only a few heartbeats, the Romans all laid out, unmoving, in the snow. The four figures, their hoods and heavy capes covering all features, stood there for a moment, surveying the few crosses. After a moment, one towards the center pointed clearly towards her's. The tallest, heaviest looking one of the bunch quickly made his way over, kneeling at the frame's base, the rest spreading out to the other crosses.
Xena, to that moment only half-convinced she was not dreaming, was jerked to full awareness as the giant began pulling and tugging at the cross's base, apparently testing how deeply it was embedded in the frozen earth. He stood and turned at the approach of the others, throwing off his hood to reveal a wild black hair and beard covering a strong face. She could hear the words exchanged between them as through from a distance despite the vehemence behind each word.
"'Tis buried too deep," the giant declared in fluid Gaelic, Xena only barely catching the words. "Ow'll need t'hack the base bring 'er down."
Another, one slightly shorter than the rest, removed his own hood. He turned cold blue eyes upon her, his long and tangled hair flapping wildly at his shoulders. "Ah say leave 'er. Let the gods judge."
"We dinna abandon our own, Conrac." one of the others said. She identified it as the one who had pointed her out earlier, the one she assumed was the leader.
"She's no' our own, Marc Bron, and ye know it!" This protest was ignored, the leader gesturing to the fourth, who promptly began moving between the unconscious Romans, picking up and examining their various weapons, only to discard each one in turn. Xena judged this one the shortest of the pack, probably the youngest to boot, though their speed obviously compensated for this.
She raised her head, to see if Gabrielle were still conscious. Her bard had slumped back against the frame, her beauty twisted by a pained grimace, a nearly-invisible cloud of her breath forming more and more frequently. Despite the chill already deep in her marrow, Xena felt a new shiver run through her. "Gah...Gabrielle...?" She righted herself, mindless to the sounds and grinding of her bones and joints coming with the effort. Leaning as forward as she could, the fire shooting through both arms and legs making her sweat, she tried again, her dry throat making the words ragged. "Gabrielle...wake up...please...gods...please..." This quickly proved too much, and she could only slump back, the nails in her palms once more pulling hard and making her muscles sing with the pain.
The giant and rest had watched this as if in amazement, though they quickly returned to their respective chores, the small one searching, the giant joining her, and the remaining two resuming their argument.
"Ye cannae believe 'tis her, Marc Bron?" the one named Cormac was bellowing. "Lookit 'er! She's half out of 'er head, an' bleeding like a bloody stuck pig."
Marc Bron seemed unimpressed by this. "Aye, tha' she is," being his only concession. "Remember our wee cousin's last message t'us. She'd had her legs shattered an' still lingered for a full day on."
"Bah!" Cormac snorted. "The slave girl believed anything told 'er."
"And when was she wrong, neh?"
Whatever Cormac's response, it was cut off by the giant's loud call a few bodylengths off. "None o'their blades be enough, Marc Bron." Xena watched as the two returned, the smaller tossing off their hood and to show a young woman, beautiful in her own right, her thick red hair woven into a tight mass of braids. The giant reached into his cloak, drawing out a fierce double-bladed battle axe she remembered seeing used by raiders from the far north.
The giant looked to Marc Bron, as if awaiting approval to use the weapon. "T'will be a danger to 'er, choppin' th' wood," he advised. "I cannae promise t'catch 'er in time."
The still-hooded one was still, his stance shifting slightly to that of deep thought, only the night's wind giving any movement to his cloak. With a single, sharp nod, he directed "Cormac, ye take the axe an' do it. Caber, be ready t'lower her down."
"Wot o'me?" the woman asked, sounding quite annoyed at being left out.
"Ye stand ready," Marc Bron assured her. "We'll be needin' yer healing hands on her soon enou'."
Cormac made a final protest as he moved to take the axe from the giant's large hand. "I still say we leave 'er fer the gods."
Marc Bron's voice was low and dangerous, the authority there carrying clear through the air. "Cut her down, brother-boy."
Cormac sneered for a moment, then positioned himself. Using both hands, he brought the axe down with such force it sliced deep into the wood, nearly cleaving it through. Xena groaned as the resulting vibrations shook her through, leaving her tasting her own blood and hearing her bones grind together in fragments. She was left with the sensation of falling backwards, her mind already tumbling into that inexorable darkness she'd resist until then. She fell...and fell...and fell...until stopped just above the cold abyss by gentle hands which lowered her to a too-real bed of soft snow.
Xena opened her eyes, expecting Charon's whizzened and twisted visage above her, or Ares' sneering face looking down and caustic words ready on his lips.
There was only the wide, concerned eyes of the woman there, their roaming path cataloguing every line and wound visible. Her hand was warm and soft against the icy skin it touched, leaving Xena shuddering once more, so extreme did the contrast feel.
The woman looked into her eyes, reading her weakness there, the compassion in her own bright green ones reminding Xena so much of Gabrielle. The thought gave her strength enough to try speaking once more. "Gah...Gabrielle..."
This went all but unheard by her would-be rescuers. "'Tis nearly too late fer her," the woman declared. "She cold as ice, an' weak as a babe. Worse, she's bleedin' into her lungs. We're lucky she's not drowned from it yet."
"Nothin' t'be done, then?" Marc Bron asked quietly.
"Nothin' mortal hands can manage, nay."
A wracking cough erupted from Xena's throat, her desperation to make them hear her giving her strength enough to make such noise, the resultant agony in her lung and stomach enough of a goad to focus her drifting thoughts. The woman saw this and leaned down, bringing her ear close. Xena coughed again, this time to clear the air passage enough that she could be understood, and managed to hiss "Gabrielle...cut...down..."
The woman drew back a bit, a puzzled look to her. Xena took this to mean she didn't speak a word of Greek, mentally chiding herself for not realizing the obvious. She tried to speak again, this time in the rough Gaelic she'd acquired while in Eire, only to be thwarted by her bone-dry throat and failing strength.
It proved unnecessary, the woman turning back to Marc Bron and saying "She wants us t'cut down the bard as well." Xena caught movement out of the corner of her eye, with more shouted words and the sound of wood being cleft by the axe. She was too distracted by the healer's words, spoken in clear Greek as the woman leaned close once more. "We'll care for her, I swear before the world." A hand appeared on her shoulder, drawing the healer away. In her place came the hooded one, who now undid the clasp of his cloak and left it fall from his narrow shoulders.
She didn't recognize the man, with his gray-blue eyes and wavy black hair. There was an authority in his eyes Xena recognized instinctively, the sort earned and built and in-born. A pendant glittered at his throat, drawing her eyes from his. The ornament she did recognize, a sight unseen for nearly a lifetime, and with this recognition came a name that had gone unspoken for over seventeen winters. "M'llia...?"
Xena soon lost all sense of time and place, faces once loved and hated with all passion blending before her darkening eyes. Names bubbled and burst as she drowned in the sea of past moments. Even the jolting fire of the nails being pried from her palms and ankles lasted only a heartbeat, the slowing of which warned of Celesta's approach.
The effort to simply raise her head, an unsuccessful effort at that, drained her last drams of strength. Still, she struggled against this, even as Marc Bron draped his cloak over her, its heavy fabric chaffing and irritating her chapped skin. She was helpless against even this small irritation, unable to shift in the slightest beneath it. This did not go unnoticed by the Celt, who brushed sweaty strands from her forehead and said, "Rest now, warrior. Your battle's fought and over with."
In the end, all Xena could manage was a small shudder as the darkness overtook her completely. Her last breath formed a single word, in it lay her life, her redemption, her soul's better half:
And then...nothing...oblivion swallowing her whole.
Awareness returned slowly, small drams of sensation prickling at the edges, more dream than reality. In time, these coalesced into clear feelings, bringing with them the capacity to distinguish, to remember, and finally to think. Xena took a few moments to assess her situation.
She was laid out on her back, what felt like a heavy fur carpet beneath her, with a another covering her from head to toe. Her sharp ears caught the sound of a knife being sharpened, off-tune humming matching it in counterpoint, and the crackle of a small fire. Going by the low echo, Xena concluded they were in a cave. She'd been unconscious for at least six maybe seven candlemarks, judging by how stiff her muscles were. She pretty much ached all over, though this was quickly forgotten as memory came pouring back in a flood.
With a start, Xena sat up, throwing aside the furs and looking around. She'd been right about the cave, its low roof affording little enough room for them, and the fire, and the knife. Normally she would have first searched for her weapons and taken stock of their provisions. Right then, the sight that greeted her, took the whole of her attention.
Gabrielle was barely two armlengths away, sitting cross-legged on the stoney ground, a large hunting knife in one bandaged hand, a whetstone in the other. She wore a tattered sleeping tunic, barely more than a rag, and nothing else. The work her hands did only seemed to darken the bandages more. It was the look Xena caught on her face, however, which caught her full attention. A look of despair so complete, there seemed nothing else to her. Even the sharpening was an empty act, her arms doing the work mechanically. She had not looked up, nor even glanced towards her, despite the suddenness of the movement.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called quietly, reaching out towards her.
Her bard simply shook her head, still refusing to look up. "It won't work, Xena. Not this time." Her voice was tired beyond measure, a finality to it Xena found terrifying.
She nevertheless forced herself to remain still and keep her voice calm. "What won't work?" she asked, suspecting she already knew.
"You pretending to come back, to talk me out of doing this," Gabrielle said without accusation. "You see, I know you aren't real, because I didn't have any ambrosia this time. So there's no way you could come back. And that means you've probably gone to Tartarus, knowing Hades." Her hands had not paused in their work once as she spoke. She held the blade up for a moment, seemingly fascinated by it, before resuming. "But we'll be together again, I promise."
Xena felt her throat constrict at the implications of her words and actions. "What...what are you going to do?"
To her credit, Gabrielle took a moment to consider her answer. "I'm not really sure just yet." Xena breathed in silent relief. "It will have to be something bloody and awful to make sure I get sent to Tartarus with you. Maybe I'll gut a bunch of orphans, or rape a few Hestian priestesses..." She stopped sharpening the knife again and ran a thumb along the blade, not even flinching as she careless pressed too hard and sliced herself. "I thought about killing your mother, but...I know you wouldn't like that...besides, Cyrene probably wouldn't put up that much of a fight..." The bard shook her head, unaware of the pallor and shudders her words brought to her audience.
"I could always go back to the Amazons and start a war with someone...you know, some pointless bloodbath that's sure to get me killed and disgraced, right?"
Xena found her voice. "Stop it..." But it was a whisper lost in a hurricane.
Gabrielle looked thoughtful now. "Maybe if I raped the Hestians first, then started a war...that would probably work..."
"Yes, that would definitely work..."
Xena, to that point frozen in shock by the surreal tableau unfolding before her, shook off her paralysis and nearly tackled the small bard, knocking the knife and stone away and seizing her by the shoulders. She roughly shook the grieving woman by the shoulders, punctuating each word. "I! Said! Stop! IT!"
Gabrielle was slow to come out of her misery, and even less willing it seemed to believe who was shaking her so. She turned flat, dead eyes to meet Xena's tear-misted own, only to close them and shake her head. "I told you, Xena. You can't talk me out of this."
"Gabrielle," Xena nearly choked, forcing herself to calm and remain coherent. "Gabrielle, I'm not dead."
This elicited a bitter laugh from the bard. "Oh, of course you aren't. You're heart only stopped dead as a rock and you lost enough blood to leave you white and cold as solid marble. Just a minor inconvenience for the immortal warrior princess!" She pulled away, Xena too shocked by the words to stop her, and curled into a ball, hugging her knees tightly to her chin and showing the warrior her back.
"I can't do it, Xena. Don't you understand that?" Gabrielle began rocking herself, loosing herself once more. "I can't...I won't live without you again..." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Not for a single day..."
It was all Xena could do not to start screaming, which she instinctively knew would accomplish nothing. Neither would more denials, however true she knew them to be or how vehemently she shouted them. Rather, she crept closer to her bard, and reached out once more. With one hand she forced Gabrielle to face her, strong, familiar fingers guiding her chin. With the other, she guided a bandaged hand (nearly coming undone when she felt how moist the linen wrap had become again) to her chest, pressing it there so a strong heartbeat could be felt without doubt.
"Do you feel that?" Xena asked quietly, her calm the perfect facade. "My heart hasn't stopped. My skin isn't cold." She released both hand and chin, her palms cupping the smaller woman's trembling jawline and dipping her head so their lips were but hairs apart. Their breath synchronized, their exhales warm to the other's lips. Xena waited a moment, breathing her love's air, filling her love's lungs with her own, then closed the last distance between them with a single word. "Believe." Gabrielle's lips were rough and chapped against her's, yet the feeling alone was bliss to the warrior, who closed her eyes to better ride the wave of heat and joy to its crest.
When she let go of the bard's face and pulled back, a moment shy of a lifetime later, Gabrielle was shaking hard with silent sobs. It was the bard's hands that then circled her face and pulled her back. It was the bard's cries and tears which mingled between them, her hands roaming freely through pitch locks and across warm skin, unwilling to accept anything other than the proof she could touch and hold. Xena encircled them both with strong arms, keeping her grip loose enough so not to impede her bard's exploration.
Xena kept herself still, her own control barely holding against the images Gabrielle's...plans... had invoked. Gods, but she'd never fully appreciated her bard's gift as that moment.
Suppressing a shudder of her own, the warrior began to move them back to the furs. This proved to be something of a trick as Gabrielle's arms were locked solidly around her, tightening against the slightest tugging. Xena was nothing if not determined, and managed to drag herself and her precious weight to the bedding, maneuvering them into a reasonably comfortable position.
Even as she relaxed with Gabrielle cradled close, Xena resisted sleep, determined not to chance the bard waking before her and jumping to...conclusions.
Once they'd settled, Gabrielle's voice broke the silence. "Xena?" Her words were low and heavy with fatigue, its deadly earnestness carried through clearly.
"If you aren't alive when I wake up...I will kill you."
The warrior had the grace, and good sense, not to laugh at the seeming foolishness of the threat. Rather, she basked in the warmth of the small body she cradled, letting herself relax into a light doze. This ended when something poked directly into elbow, catching her unawares. Only superior conditioning managed to keep her from jostling her bard awake.
Thinking it merely a rock, Xena reached about to push the offending object away, only to be surprised by how easily it came to hand, a smooth metallic feel to it. Bringing it up to the light, squinting hard into the low firelight, Xena could only stare at the small object she clutched in mild shock.
Dangling from a delicate chain was a weaving of two silver bands, arranged into a cross-like pattern without beginning or end.
Again, the name of her once-slave-turned-lover-turned-savior came unbidden to her lips. "M'llia?" With it came the faces and manner of her...of their...rescue, a thousand and one questions she knew the cave walls could not answer for.
It proved too much for her already over-taxed mind to process. She let the pendant fall back unto the furs, and clung harder to Gabrielle, her eyes closing of their own accord.
In time, she too slept, though she made sure (days later) her bard did not wake to disappointment.
Rickie had felt an immediate jolt of anxiety the instant they'd separated. Despite being able to keep Xena in sight, she knew there was little she would likely be able to do should trouble rear its head. Still, she refused to let her warrior out of sight, the Chakrum be damned.
The sight of Xena in Jeanne's basement would haunt her for the rest of her days, all of which she was determined would be spent at Xena's side, Immortals or not. It didn't help any that nightmares had begun plaguing the warrior's sleep, ones bad enough to frequently jostle her awake. Exactly how her towering lover managed to keep herself upright, never mind functioning, with so little actual rest was a total mystery. Her little seduction back in the hotel had been intended as much therapy as relieving the tensions built up during their trip. Rickie suspected Xena got the better end of the deal there, as she herself was still feeling worn, particularly after being all but dragged through Herods and being made to play mannequin for an hour.
She nevertheless made a game effort at mixing, snagging a barely-filled champagne glass from a passing tray, listening and nodding politely to the inane chatter, and making sure her eyes weren't off her warrior for more than a heartbeat. Xena stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb here. They both did, though herself rather less so. It was both challenge and defense, their standing out so guaranteeing any move against them would not go unnoticed, just as their very presence disrupted the placid sea of black jackets and bow-ties and high fashion.
Her efforts to chase down their nominal quarry were half-hearted at best, her eyes and focus not straying from Xena. Which explained why she jumped half out of her skin at the sound of a powerful voice that rumbled down atop her. "She is quite beautiful."
Rickie's head snapped towards the source of the voice, hands instinctively ready to come up and either block or strike with a non-existent quarterstaff. Fortunately for her new suit, her glass had been emptied some minutes earlier. She found her eyes level with the buttons of an embroidered waistcoat. Craning her neck up, she found herself being addressed by a cross between Avery Brooks and the Jolly Green Giant. The man stood over six feet tall, easy, and was dressed in a white linen suit, a studied contrast to his dark chocolate skin. How the blazes had she missed him? The subdued lighting glinted off his bald dome, and his dark eyes were expressive in the dimness.
She knew immediately who he was referring to, but chose to play dumb and embarrassed. It wasn't all that far from the truth. "I'm sorry?"
"Your lady." The giant smiled. A genuine one, full of knowing the obvious. "She is quite beautiful," he repeated with deliberate emphasis.
Rickie, not knowing what to say to this while knowing denial was futile, managed "Er, yes, she is."
"Indeed." The giant extended a massive hand, which quickly engulfed her own. It reminded her of Xena's: strong, callused, yet so gentle and tender in the touch. "Manfred Emanuel Armistead."
It took her a moment to realize he'd just introduced himself, and was projecting angelic patience waiting for her to return the favor. She actually felt compelled to answer, though not in any malicious way, as though it were suddenly very important they know each other's names. "Rickie Gardner."
"Your servant, Ms. Gardner." Armistead smiled again, as sincere in his words as his leaning down to kiss her hand. Rickie quickly tried to place the accent. Armistead's tone reminding her of some Jamaican streetkids she'd run with shortly before meeting Xena, though it was less pronounced and sounded more schooled and formal. This man was nothing like those damn 7-Up commercials she remembered as a kid, however much he might look at home on a Caribbean sugar plantation. There was a carefully honed intelligence in those dark eyes, yet they sparkled with barely disguised merriment. Rickie wished she could be let in on the joke.
"Are you a buyer, or seeking to invest?" Those large, dark eyes were inviting in their scrutiny, not the least confrontational nor demanding.
"Uh, neither." Rickie cast a fugitive look back through the gallery, a jolt of panic hitting her as she searched for Xena. "I'm...ah..."
"I only ask because you seem decidedly uninterested in Rohbard's latest efforts at lampooning the elitism of Oxford University." This was accompanied by a dismissive wave towards a nearby painting, one depicting a mass of stick figures marching in neat columns into some post-apocalyptic machinery of indeterminate purpose, all rendered in stark black and white.
"Is that what that is? Looks like something out of a SCHWA book." If Rickie hoped to confuse or redirect attention from herself, the effort was a resounding failure as Armistead nodded a little and took a thoughtful pose, his solid bulk effectively sandwiching Rickie between himself and the painting.
With a rumbling chuckle, Armistead said "That was my first thought as well. Although the detail is more exact here than anything SCHWA ever produced." He turned dark eyes back on Rickie. "That, and the small fact none of the figures has large, black eyes."
"Neh, good point," Rickie nodded, feeling oddly at ease with the man's proximity. "This stuff sell for much? I mean, honestly, I've seen more interesting artwork in back issues of 'Spider-Man.'"
Armistead's face crinkled, whether in amusement or distaste at her seeming lack of tact couldn't be told. His tone, however, suggested the former. "Well, Rohbard isn't the flavor of the month anymore, so he's asking price has gone down a bit. I doubt we could unload this for more than, oh, one hundred."
"Of course." He looked down at her again. "You understand that is one hundred thousand pounds sterling, yes?"
Now it was Rickie's turn to laugh. "One hundred kay, for something looking like it was drawn by a two year old? People are actually willing to pay that much?"
Armistead nodded. "Only last month they were paying five times that for his self-portraits, which I must say looked even sillier."
"Geez," the writer shook her head. "Talk about the idle rich."
"How pagan of you, young lady," Armistead scolded. "In any event, we have neglected the original topic. Namely you." Another smile, this one with undefinable undertones to it, beemed down upon her. "If you aren't here for the art or to invest in the gallery, exactly what brings you here, eh?"
Rickie simply folded her arms and looked as bored as possible, managing to keep her shakes confined to her knees alone. "Would you believe I'm looking for someone?"
Armistead took a moment, studying her close before nodding "Yes, I could see that." He gave a small wave towards the assembled tuxes and dresses and added "I know most everyone present. Perhaps I might be of assistance?"
"Well," Rickie hedged, wondering how much or how little to tell him. While she felt no threat from him, neither was she inclined to fully trust him. She hummed and tapped her chin for a few moments before deciding her course. "I'm actually looking for the manager of this place." She didn't intend to elaborate further, but was caught by the giant man's silent request she continue. Her mouth promptly turned traitor and proceeded to do so independent of all good judgement, though not without a bit of creative improvisation. "Y'see, she bought a rare...antique at an estate sale last year, one that's been in my...uh, family...for generations...and I'm here to see if she'd be willing to sell it."
"This wouldn't have been the Dartmouth auction, would it?"
"Yeah, that's..." Rickie trailed off, words nearly forgotten for a year coming to the fore.
"Hmmm. The fellow now, he was massive! Well over six feet. He positively towered over everyone else. Skin as black as night. He was dressed in a tuxedo, of course, but had a silver medallion around his neck."
"Oh, Lord," Rickie breathed, remembering Cora Blaylock's words to the syllable. "You were there, weren't you?" Armistead only nodded modestly. "Well, then, you know exactly what...er, antique....I'm after, right?"
"I have a reasonable idea, yes." He looked over her shoulder and broke into a wide smile. "Ah, Marie. Come and meet our new friend."
Rickie turned and found herself scrutinized by the most intense brown eyes she could recall encountering. Behind them a beautifully sculpted face, framed by dark red hair. The wide mouth parted for a smile, showing perfect teeth, and asked "A friend in what sense, Manfred? Someone we will be seeing a great deal of, or only once every other geological age?"
This actually got a fond chuckle out of Armistead. "How cynical you are, dear one."
"Go climb a tree," the redhead shot back, her smile still in place. She turned to Rickie and extended a hand. "I am Marie de Anan, the manager here."
"Rickie Gardner." The writer couldn't help but wince a little at the amazingly strength in the manager's slight hand. "I, ah, am here about..."
"Yes," De Anan interrupted. "I heard. The Dartmouth auction." She took a half-step back and regarded the young woman thoughtfully. "You'll forgive me, but you hardly looked the sort to be interested in exotic edged weaponry originating on the Indian sub-continent and somehow finding its way into pre-Christian Britain." Rickie blinked a few times, her confusion evident. "You are interested in the Chakrum, are you not?"
De Anan heard the suspicion there, and made some effort to belay it. "Only logical you're interested in such an item," she continued smoothly. "It was, after all, the only thing I bought at the auction. And since I hear you're looking for me specifically..."
This apparently was news to both Rickie and Armistead, the latter of whom broke in before Rickie could. "You mean you didn't buy the Madrigal? I thought you had your heart set on it."
"What would I do with that embarrassment?" De Anan looked mildly stricken at the thought, though Rickie hadn't the foggiest idea what a "Madrigal" was. It could have easily been an Aztec mummy and fit perfectly into the gallery's eclectic venue. "I was late getting there, remember?"
"I thought the ratty little blighter who bid on it was your man."
"Manfred, dear," de Anan drawled in a tone of long suffering. "If I were going to hire a subordinate, don't you think I'd have better taste than to retain a former student of Francis Lovejoy?" This led to a few warm chuckles between the two, which Rickie found infectious and soon join in on.
This gave her the opportunity to study de Anan closer. Cora had been bang on saying the woman was slightly shorter than herself, their eyes meeting only because she was wearing medium heels. Her dress was at once simple and elegant, the hem reaching down to her ankles and split up both sides to mid-calf, its subdued emerald shine matching her carefully braided red hair and lightly tanned skin. She had a delicate cast to her features, yet looking into her dark eyes there was nothing the least bit delicate about her.
A familiar presence warmed her back. Turning confidently, and with no small (if hidden) relief, Rickie smiled and breathed "Ah, there you are."
"Here I am," Xena rumbled, de Anan turning and craning her neck to face her fully.
The manager brushed a stray hair behind her ear and politely offered her hand. "Marie de Anan. And you must be the one looking for me these past months." Rickie couldn't conceal her surprise as completely as Xena managed, and could only watch the subtle battle of wills unfolding before her. Xena had taken de Anan's hand, her own nearly engulfing it and squeezing, hard. If the smaller woman felt it, she gave no sign, save to raise both eyebrows in silent question.
"Your agent at Lloyds was rather less than...subtle...about your interest, Ms. Amphipoulis," de Anan continued on politely as her hand was released. "I've been expecting to meet you for several weeks now."
"Really?" Xena murmured, moving closer to Rickie as her eyes fixing on the small golden pendant at the other woman's throat. She looked as though she were reliving some distant memory for a moment before giving a small shake of her head, returning from wherever it was she'd gone. "Well," she growled, "sorry to disappoint."
De Anan smiled, unfazed. "Not at all. I only wish I could have saved you the trip."
"Oh?" Rickie piped up, not liking the sound of this.
"Indeed. I'm afraid the artifact in question was...er...lost shortly after I purchased it."
"Lost?" A single dark eyebrow ascended at the redhead's apparent embarrassment.
"I'm afraid so. Quite silly, really."
"I'm sure it was." Xena agreed, almost purring the words. "You informed the police of this?"
"Of course," De Anan sounded almost offended, pausing a moment before adding "Though I confess it was a few days after the fact. I wasn't aware it had gone missing until...well..." She shrugged. "Embarrassing, as I said."
Xena nodded, not entirely sympathetically. "And what, if I may ask, is your interest in the Chakrum, Mrs. Amphipoulis?"
"I'm a collector-slash-dealer of antique and exotic weaponry back in the States. The Chakrum is, after all, a fairly unique piece."
"Not as unique as you'd think," muttered Armistead, which given the enormous power within him was the equivalent of shouting. Xena and de Anan paid him no heed, though Rickie met his glance, immediately wishing she hadn't. Armistead's huge eyes focused upon her and her alone. "Didn't you say the artifact belonged to your family, Ms. Gardner?"
Now it was to look embarrassed. "I did say that, didn't I?" The writer struggled for a few heartbeats to come up with something plausible, making little delaying noises in the meanwhile. "What I meant was...the Chakrum does belong to my family...kinda...way back when...like when King Richard was around...they were, um...um...sailors, you see..."
"Merchant mariners?" Armistead suggested, a gleam of amused wickedness in his eye.
Rickie nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah. Merchants...who traded in the east..."
Without taking her eyes from the elegant redhead, Xena came to the rescue. "What Ms. Gardner is trying to say is one of her ancestors acquired the weapon while trading in the east during the Crusades under King Richard in . He...lost...it himself upon returning to England. She's retained me to help her...acquire...her lost property." She'd put special emphasis on "lost" and "acquire", all with eyes boring into de Anan's, with seeming no effect.
Xena then turned to Armistead, tilting her neck just a fraction while keeping one eye on de Anan. "May I ask what you're interest in this is, Mister...?"
"Armistead. Manfred Armistead, Mrs. Amphipoulis." He gave her a polite smile, but didn't offer his hand. "And my interest is purely financial. I'm one of the owners of the Anan chain, you see, and when I saw Ms. de Anan here buy such an exotic artifact for so outrageous a price, let us say I decided to have a closer look at the situation."
"Hm," grunted the diminutive redhead. "Sticking your nose up my shaft, more like." The glare the black giant threw her way was no more effective than Xena's had been. Then, a bit louder, she added "I hardly think four hundred thousand pounds is such an outrageous price. Gods know we paid more for Rohbard's latest collection of shi..."
Armistead brought up a hand, a pained look to him. "Please, there are young ladies present."
"Wull, fuck a duck. Where are they?" Rickie chirped, using her best hillbilly drawl, melodramatically looking around. This got a few laughs out of the manager and black giant, even drawing a wry grin out of Xena, who could only shake her head at these antics.
Rickie became aware of several new eyes upon them, not all of them friendly. Glancing around, it seemed their little gathering had attracted the attention of several of the other attendees. There was one towards the back who caught her attention, a tall man wearing a dark gray suit and black shirt who looked vaguely familiar. She looked over to Xena, who had eyes for the two before them alone, and was about to suggest something. Damned if she knew what, though, as the prospect of leaving like this was unlikely to go over well with the warrior.
De Anan saved her the trouble. "My apologies, but I really should get back to the regulars. Please enjoy the rest of the show." With that, the redhead gracefully pushed past them and re-entered the fray of tuxedos and sparkling dresses. Rickie turned back, only to find Armistead had vanished.
"What the fuck?" she muttered aloud, wondering how a guy that...big...could just up and vanish. She looked at Xena, who's sapphire eyes reflected the same question. Normally, she would think up some wisecrack or such to break the tension she sensed boiling within her warrior. For the life of either of them, however, all that came to mind was a simple question. "Xena, what just happened here?"
Her dark lover apparently had no answers, muttering "Armistead?" several times, the same faraway look to her as when she'd seen de Anan's pendent. A moment later she grabbed Rickie's hand and made for the door, carelessly pulling the surprised writer behind her.
"Xena? Wha...?" Rickie's protests went unnoticed, as did the looks they received from the few tuxes and dresses who deemed to spare them a glance. It wasn't until Xena had flagged down one of the hearse-like taxis the city was so famous for and nearly shoved her inside, all while keeping a death grip on her hand, that the warrior spoke.
"There's nothing here for us right now." That was the whole of her explanation. Rickie looked for more in her face, but could see little in the shadows of the cab. She caught a flash of tensed lips and jaw, the skin wrinkled tight about her eyes, and wondered for a moment if she were seeing fear in her warrior. She quickly dismissed the thought, and instead sat back, determined to try and enjoy the feeling of being chauffeured back to the hotel.
Xena's tension, however, was too palpable in the confined atmosphere of the cab, leaving Rickie to ponder what she would have previously sworn off as impossible:
Xena was scared.
Their sudden departure had not gone unobserved those outside the gallery. As their cab pulled past, a small two-door firing up its engine and was soon trailing behind. The two figures inside were well hidden by the darkness, the only light coming from the glowing embers of their cigarettes.
They maintained a discrete distance behind the cab, as instructed. Neither had been overjoyed with the assignment, their mutual grousing soon getting on each other's nerves something fierce.
Both, however, were grateful to be moving again, even if it were only a few minutes drive. As men of action by both nature and training, surveillance was an anathema to them. They'd been quickly running out of cigarettes, which only added to their tension. Now, at least, they were actually doing something.
Said something, however, quickly ended as they passed south of Hyde Park and the taxi stopped across from a line of brownstones. They, of course, slowed dutifully around the taxi and continued on.
When they were only a block's distance, the passenger ordered "Turn here an' let me out."
"That's not whut the chief allowed," the driver growled, but lit the signal and turned all the same, taking them around the block and into a back alleyway. The passenger got out without another word between them, though the driver pursed his lips in disapproval, knowing the man didn't give a tinker's cuss for standing orders. He rather pulled back out of the alley and went looking for a decent spot to park, leaving his former compatriot to his self-appointed mission.
"Home sweet home, huh?" Rickie quipped as they entered their suite, Xena making a bee-line for the window, parting the gossamer curtains just enough to look down at the sidewalk below. The young writer sighed and sat on the bed, toeing off her low heels and letting her stocking feet feel into the plush carpeting underfoot.
She'd taken off her jacket and undid her blouse as she asked "Whatcha lookin' at?"
"Nothing," Xena growled, sounding disappointed.
"Well," the young blonde drawled, letting her blouse and undone trousers puddle at her ankles as she stood. "I can think of more...interesting things...to look at." The suggestion in her tone was nearly enough to pull Xena from the window like a physical force, making her turn and watch the writer's catlike approach. Rickie, while she hated shopping in general and clothes shopping in particular, had become a connoisseur of sorts when it came to undergarments. It was something of a joke between them how she seemed to be single-handedly "subsidizing" the Victoria Secrets outlets in Portland.
Right then, wearing a matched set of sheer bra, panties, and thigh-high stockings of pearl silk, Rickie knew she presented a sight of angelic purity off-set by the hunger she was sure her eyes burned with. Gods knew her stomach was almost growling with it. She grinned, ever so slightly, at seeing Xena lick her lips and lean back against the heavy glass of the window, recognizing the seemingly relaxed pose the sign of weakened knees and weaker will.
"Like what you see?" she teased, running flushed hands up and down the lapels of Xena's vest, eventually grasping them and drawing their lips together for a light kiss. Breaking it, she rested their foreheads together, their breathing becoming deep already.
"I take that's a 'yes'?"
"No," her warrior breathed. "That was not a 'yes'." Drawing her up by the chin, their eyes met, smoldering embers all. She smiled her usual, evil smile of warning.
The next thing Rickie knew, her bra was flying over the bed, followed by her panties. How either of these things were accomplished without her help was an enigma she simply could not get her brain around. Gods, it was effort enough just to remain standing before her dark lover when she was torn between wanting to cover herself and hide from those ravenous eyes before her...or simply melt into a warm puddle at her lover's feet.
She had no chance for either, as powerful hands were suddenly on her hips, lifting her and depositing her on the bed, all without the least visible effort on Xena's part. Rickie squirmed a little as certain ticklish regions of her were rubbed in the process, which brought a frown to the warrior's formerly placid features. If anything, the intensity in her eyes only deepened, leaving Rickie's mouth dry and hands shaking, all moisture pooling within her core and sweating through the insides of both thighs.
Xena's movements were far more controlled as she undressed herself, eyes warning Rickie to remain where she was. Over-controlled, Rickie would later realize, the way they became when she was on the last tethers of her own control, wanting nothing more than claim the nubile young blonde before her body and soul. Rickie shook with the force of that desire, that love, sharing it as she did, knowing it to be the core their shared soul.
She trembled, but obeyed all the same.
Xena soon stood before her, magnificently nude and glorious in her power. Her chest heaved with each breath, sweat already glistening across her forehead and shoulders and breasts. It seemed to Rickie she merely blinked and Xena was suddenly astride her, hovering above her like a spider straddling its prey.
Daring greatly, Rickie pushed herself upright, supporting herself on her elbows behind her, knees and arms shaking for the effort this took. Not to remain upright, but to even approach the raven-haired, blue eyed tempest above her.
Xena grinned fully now, carnal hunger turned feral widening it, nearly making them both blind. "This," she breathed, leaning close, "is a 'yes'." Only a heartbeat later, she knocked Rickie's elbows from their perch, leaving the writer flat on her back and arms stretched out above her, held there by a single massive hand. Too surprised by her sudden change in position to react, Rickie promptly found her breath stolen by a the softest, warmest pair of perfect lips she could imagine. She closed her eyes, willingly loosing herself in them, even as the second hand trailed down her flanks, igniting nerves to their roots.
When those fingers reached her hip, she involuntarily arched forward, pressing hard against the stone-hard body beside her. Rickie willingly opened her legs, the course of those fingers never in doubt. To facilitate the inevitable, she draped one leg over the warrior's broad shoulders and let her head fall back to the pillow as those lips trailed away from her's.
A damp, warm trail was slowly traced across her chin and shaking jaw-line, her jugular soon suffering the attention of a swabbing tongue that pressed down with irresistible strength. It was impossible to remain silent under such ministrations. "Mmmmorrrre..." Rickie heard herself whimper, hips unconsciously gyrating to her now thundering pulse, pressing closer to those damn fingers, all four of whom followed the thumb's example and avoided all save the most casual contact with her glistening netherlips.
Xena's breath brought goosebumps to her neck and breasts as she moved inexorably downwards, all the while keeping her wrists pinned and avoiding her reaching cunt. "Xenaaaa..." she moaned again. "Pleasssseeeee...uh, geeeez-usssss...!"
"Now, now," Xena scolded, cruelly flicking a tongue-tip across a pebble-hard nipple. "No swearing."
"Ohhhh, fuck that!" the young blonde hissed as the thumb scratched her hairs and the fingertips made light play of her folds, frustration and need giving vehemence to her. She raised her head as far as her restraint allowed, pupils dilated to burning points. "Fuck foreplay! Fuck me!!!"
Xena smiled at the coarseness, giving a little shrug as her eyes focused on her bacchae's nipple. "As you wish," she quietly declared, descending on the hapless mammarian and commenced sucking and nipping at its sensitive bud mercilessly. At the same moment her teeth first met skin, all four fingers entered the arousal-flushed body as the thumb felt about and pressed hard upon her clit.
Rickie hadn't stood a chance against the myriad of sensations this engendered. Her eyes rolled upwards until only the whites were all that shown, toes and knees curling tight, her entire length spasaming with release. So intense and sudden was the liquid explosion, she had no time to so much as draw breath to scream. Xena actually had to keep hold of the slender blonde's wrists.
Gently biting down her nipple didn't help much, leading only to her bacchae's second orgasm, no less intense than the first. She actually seemed to be riding the fingers within her, all four of which was soon buried up to the third knuckle, the interior muscles pulling them deeper and with ever increasing strength.
Xena was quickly finding it difficult to maintain pace with her bacchae, never mind maintain an even moderately comfortable position. Rickie's leg was pressing her down, hugging her to her bacchae's thrusting and twisting body with unforeseen strength. Even her grip on those delicate wrists above them was becoming tenuous, maintained only by an iron will.
And that will was weakening under the onslaught of delicious moans and gyrations coming from beneath her. Rickie knew this, and moaned louder, her need carried clearly.
When her next orgasm flooded through, she was left nearly insensate by it all, mindless of how tightly she clung to her warrior, as if trying to merge forever with the solid body she knew and loved so well. She couldn't even hear her own scream of release, deaf as she was to anything save her silent mantra of Yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyessssss! and unspoken words of love for the ancient creature who brought her to this moment.
How quickly thoughts of love can turn to those of bloody murder, Rickie envisioning all manner of bloody scenarios as both fingers and lips left her, withdrawing with audible slurping sounds and leaving her trembling and empty. Moans became animalistic growls, issued from behind clenched and bared teeth. "Ohhhh....yerrrr dead...you sonova...!"
Her snarled (if mis-gendered) exclamation was silenced when a wet finger traced about her lips, the salty-sweetness of herself there. Rickie offered no barrier to the long digit's slow penetration past her lips, save to close her teeth around it with only the lightest pressure. It was the finest wine in her mouth, this mingling of her fluids and her lover's scented flesh, a sweet vintage Rickie swallowed readily. A second finger was offered and cleaned, followed by a third. Feasting as she was, she didn't even noticed when the pressure on her wrists vanished and Xena's fiery presence withdrew slightly.
Only when he fourth finger was not forthcoming, leading the writer to open her eyes once more, did she first become aware of these things. She was Xena was now sitting back, regally ignoring the prone form before her while cleaning her little finger like a cat does its claws, her strong tongue making short work of flicking up the musk. Rickie felt heat pool within her once more, her skin becoming warm with the primal sight, lips trembling once more at the sound of Xena's low tones. "Mmmm, good," she purred with a saucy grin, pearly whites showing as sapphires locked with emeralds. "I want more."
With that, she slid off the bed and settled to her knees, pulling Rickie to the edge by the grip she'd maintained on her bacchae's thigh. Hooking the captured leg over her shoulder, Xena all but dove forward, burying herself deep in her in that divine well.
Not once did their eyes broke contact. Even when Rickie shook once more, lips trembling as her core exploded forth once more, hips arching off the mattress and legs wrapping tight about her warrior's neck and shoulders, they did not loose sight of each other.
Rickie's eyes quickly darkened after the last tremor subsided, her voice utterly gone and arms reaching out drunkenly towards Xena. She groaned aloud as the warrior settled her weight down beside her, arms cradling her gently. "Are you alright?" she asked needlessly, Rickie unable to do more than nod in the languid afterglow.
She was soon snoring, velvet darkness covering her mind as her body was covered by her equally exhausted warrior, neither disturbed by unpleasant dreams or distant memories.