By Kristian S. Fischer
Disclaimers, warnings, thank-you's, and such:
Copyright: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and are used here with no intent to violate anybody's copyright. The whole Highlander immortality thing belongs to Davis/Panzer Productions. No copyright infringement intended there, either.
Warnings: (Damn, I hate writing these warning things) Ahem, there's some violence in here, that some of you might find disturbing. There's some sexual interaction between two consenting adults of the same sex as well. It's mostly on the "Let's-close-the-door-and-give-our-ladies-some-privacy" level (I guess I lack the skills to write sex scenes that would steam up the windows on a July day in Death Valley with the AC broken), but still, if the thought of two people of the same gender having a non-platonic love for each other is revolting to you, or you live in a jurisdiction where it's illegal, or you're a minor, then the exit's over there. Yes, that's the one with the arrow pointing left and the word 'back' on it. For those of you who live in Portland, Oregon, I've never been there, and am writing more or less blindly on that city. I've tried to keep from mangling it too much, but bear with me. I live umpteen thousand kilometers away.
Thank-you's: (I like writing these things) The Infinity series, which this little attempt at literature is based on, is the brainchild of Redhawk. Redhawk, I would like to thank you very much for letting me take this great mileu out of the box to play with for a couple of weeks. See, I've put it back in the box just as I found it. Chipped paint? What chipped paint? Oh, that chipped paint! I can explain that Seriously though, I'd also like to thank you for answering my more or less inane questions about Portland and your writing, etc., etc. For the rest of you, if you have yet to read Redhawk's stories Only One and Oktoberfest, WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?!?!? Go forth and read them at once! They're the whole foundation of The Infinity series, as well as being bloody (Oops, said a bad word! Sorry) great stories. My little piece of fiction here can wait until you've read those.
Miscellaneous: A friend of mine once asked me if music plays any great part in my writing. I have to say that it does. While my ideas usually come from dreams, I find it all but impossible to set them down in writing without a CD playing in my stereo. If anyone's interested, here's my playlist for the four weeks it took me to write this thing.
Billie Myers: Growing, Pains
Sheryl Crow: The Globe Sessions
U2: The Best of 1980-1990
Denis Leary: Lock 'n Load (No, seriously!)
K's Choice: Cocoon Crash
Various: The X-Files: The Album
Georg Friederich Haendel: The Messiah
It was a rainy night in Portland. The rain fell from the darkened sky onto what looked like an abandoned and somewhat dilapidated warehouse in the northwestern corner of the city. Only a light shining through the darkness from a second story window betrayed the structure as occupied. If one were to look inside the warehouse, one might be interested to find that it was not only occupied, but permanent home to no longer one, but now two people, currently together on the massive couch in the middle of the living room.
Xena cast a glance at the massive windows, looking at the water falling outside them. It was a gentle downpour, if there was such a thing, the rain coming straight down in a steady flow, not being whipped against the glass by gusts of wind, nor increasing or decreasing in volume. Then, the dark woman turned her attention to matters closer to hand, as it were. First, she let her sense of smell drink in the scent of red-golden hair lingering in the air just under her nose. Then, blocking out the sound of the falling rain, and the low strains of music coming from the CD player, she was certain she could hear the steady sound of a heart beating in perfect tune with her own, beating inside the body she held so close to hers. Finally, Xena let her eyes wander over the lithe form that was snuggled up in her embrace, dozing peacefully and, Xena had noticed with just a little amusement, snoring ever so slightly. This body, this form most perfect, was that of the warrior's lover, Rickie. The young woman had dozed off in Xena's arms at the end of a long evening.
The weather had invited them to cuddle up here together, and they'd had their dinner of Thai takeout right there on the couch. And there'd been hand feeding, Xena thought with a happy half-smile, remembering the electrifying tingle she'd felt when Rickie had licked her face and fingers clean after a particularly messy spillage. Every TV station, cable and local alike, had managed to unite in broadcasting absolutely nothing worthwile that evening, and so the lovers had let their own imaginations carry them away through the evening and early night. "A little imagination will take you so very, very far ", Xena mused to herself, and felt a warm wave spreading out through her body at the remembrance of what had happened.
She and Rickie had been together for five months now, and still every day and especially every night managed to be new for them both. "We have so much lost time to make up for ", Xena thought, and felt a short pinprick in her heart, as a vision of long ago drifted across her mind's eye. A vision of a young woman with red and gold hair, emerald eyes that seemed to glow from within, and a smile like the sun coming out after the rain. "Oh, my bard", she thought,"you told me you'd come find me if I made you wait too long. And you did. Thank you so much " Unbidden, a single tear left Xena's eye and rolled unhindered down her cheek. After so many centuries of loneliness, Xena had found her love once again. Rickie, Gabrielle reincarnated, yet so much more.
Unwilling to take her eyes off Rickie for very long, Xena cast a quick side-ways glance at the digital clock on the VCR across the room. It read 11:36PM. As comfortable as the couch was, especially with the other occupant on it with her, the big bed upstairs was calling loudly and insistantly to the warrior. Sliding herself gently downwards, Xena twisted ever so slightly to turn the face of the sleeping woman on top of her towards herself. Then she began raining a shower of slow, lingering kisses down on Rickie's head, face and neck. As she kissed her mouth for the second time, she saw two green eyes open and look lovingly into her own.
"Hey you ", the redhead commented, before returning Xena's kiss with a passion that shouldn't have been possible for someone who'd just woken up.
Just before Xena let herself be taken away by the dance that their tongues were performing, she thought that Rickie, like Gabrielle before her, never lacked for energy in two areas: one was making love to her warrior, the other was eating. That last thought almost made her lose concentration, but only almost, and her attention was pulled back to the moment when Rickie slid her right hand from Xena's shoulder down her body. As the kiss continued to deepen, the hand lingered lovingly on Xena's left breast, index finger tracing lazy circles around the nipple. Xena felt the familiar sensations course their way through her whole being as her body reacted to Rickie's caresses. "Gods, how I love her ", the warrior thought, as the hand left her breast and continued down, across her abdomen The bed could wait, Xena Amphipolous decided, as her own hands began their exploration of her lover's body. Outside, the gentle rain continued to fall.
Xena awoke to the unexpected
feeling of being alone. She also awoke in her bed, not on the couch, which further
enhanced the mystery, since she couldn't remember going to bed the night before.
"She's turning my mind upside down", the warrior thought, as
a quick glance at the alarm clock proclaimed the time to be nearly 10 AM. As
Xena stretched her long limbs, her ears picked up the sound of what had to be
the radio downstairs. The next sensory input was the smell of coffee and warm
Sliding out of the bed, Xena speedily dressed herself in T-shirt, baggy shorts and socks, and went to the top of the stairs. As she was about to go down them, an unexpected sight met her eyes. Standing at the foot of the stairs was Rickie, holding a breakfast tray in her hands. As their eyes met, the redhead screwed her most determined expression on her face, and commanded,
"Oh no, you don't! Back to bed right now!"
Holding up her hands in mock surrender, the dark woman quickly retreated back into the bedroom, followed by Rickie. As the redhead watched, Xena undressed herself just as speedily as she'd dressed and hopped back into the bed. Apparently satisfied, Rickie approached the bed, and set the tray down in front of Xena.
"So", Xena said, after taking her fist bite of warm roll, and sipping from the scaldingly hot contents of her coffee mug, "aren't you gonna join me?"
Rickie shook her head, "Been up for an hour already. I've had breakfast."
This got a low chuckle from Xena. "Nononono lover, you don't understand. I'm in bed having breakfast, and I'm not having it all by myself". With that, she ran her hand up Rickie's arm, pleased to find goosebumps erupting in its wake. The reaction wasn't long in coming, either.
With a sensual smile at her lover, Rickie set herself down at the foot of the bed, and then crawled slowly across the sheets on her hands and knees, passing from left to right in Xena's field of vision, her eyes firmly locked on Xena's. As she got to the unoccupied side of the bed, she paused just long enough to slip out of her top and jogging pants before sliding under the sheets and snuggling up to Xena.
"That's better", the older woman remarked, and took another sip of her coffee. "So what'd I do to deserve breakfast in bed?" The redhead gave her arm a squeeze.
"How long a list do you want? It's been five months now."
The dark woman nodded slowly to herself, "Ah, so it's one of those things In that case, why haven't I gotten this before now?" That earned her a poke in the ribs from the young woman next to her.
"Don't you be getting spoiled on me now, warrior mine!", Rickie said, with mock severity in her voice.
Xena glanced at her lover, her crooked smile gleaming, and replied in a low purr, "Well, I'll try But you're making it awfully hard "
In response, Rickie leaned across Xena, and lifted the tray off the warrior's lap and onto the nightstand. Then, turning back to her lover, she eased her body fully on top of Xena's, straddling her hips. Glowing emeralds looking into pale sapphires, the redhead whispered softly, "If you really think that breakfast in bed is being spoiled, then you ain't seen nothing yet "
It was nearly noon before Xena reluctantly decided that she had to get up. Sliding as gently as possibly out of the bed still occupied by the sleeping Rickie, the warrior padded down the thickly carpeted floor of the stairs and stepped into the bathroom. As the cool air stung her naked body, Xena looked the figure in the mirror in front of her over. "Not bad for a girl on the high side of 2000", she found herself musing, that thought immediately followed by the realization that she'd never had a thought like that about herself in any of those 2000+ years. Her reflection casting a happy grin back at her, Xena thought to herself, "Rickie again". The redhead had said the same words to her just the other day, as Xena had been giving her yet another martial arts lesson. "The young one is getting a mite sassy", she drawled inwardly, as she used the facilities. Finished, she slipped into her bathrobe, and returned to the bedroom.
As she entered, Rickie was awake and watching her intently. "Hey, gorgeous", she said, as Xena padded across the room to the wardrobe.
"Hey yourself, Dreamer", the warrior replied, sliding open the doors and setting out to find some clothes to wear for what was left of the day.
"It's funny you should say that", the young woman began, "I had another one just now".
Half turning her head towards her lover, Xena replied, "Yeah? Good one or bad one?"
Frowning a bit in concentration, Rickie finally answered, "Weird one. I'm pretty sure it was more of Gabrielle's memories, but it was really strange."
Her interest piqued, Xena turned away from her wardrobe and came over to sit on the bed next to Rickie. "Wanna tell me about it?", she asked quietly.
"Actually there's a question I want to ask first", the redhead began, "who was Joxer?"
Xena couldn't answer her lover at first. Images came rushing into her mind, images of a young man in ridiculously mismatched armor. Joxer the Mighty, he'd named himself, where no one else would dream of doing so. Joxer, with the tenacity of a limpet and the fighting skills of a turnip. Joxer, who'd lost his heart the moment he'd laid eyes on Gabrielle. "Just like me", Xena thought. Joxer, who'd been an incom-petent and an irritant and a buffoon and a clown, and had kept turning up like a bad dinar. Joxer, who'd had a heart of gold, who'd been their friend in spite of everything.
Coming back to reality, Xena realized that Rickie was watching her, waiting for an answer. "Well", she began, "that's kind of a long story " Even as she said those words, Xena knew that they wouldn't get her out of telling it. As she pondered how to begin, her ears picked up the faint sound of the phone ringing in her downstairs office. "Saved by the bell ", she thought, and rose from the bed. "I'll tell you later", she promised, as she bounded down the stairs.
"Xena Amphipolous, please". The voice was clipped and precise, and spoke English with a slight accent.
"This is she. Who's this?"
"Can't you hear that, Xena? Has it really been that long?"
"Look, I don't have time for guessing games "
"Where were you on January nineteenth, 1946?"
Wanders through streets choked with rubble. Sees hollow-eyed children, gaunt-faced women, resigned-looking elders. They have nothing. And then, the Quickening. She lets it guide her down the street, past crumbling walls that are all that remain of what had been homes just one short year earlier. Before the War had come. A man sits on a mound of rubble, ragged military overcoat flutters in the icy wind. He feels her presense too, as she draws closer.
"Ach, gut, you haven't forgotten. Why should you? It's only been fifty years."
"What do you want", Xena asked, her voice wary.
"Not what you think, my friend. I haven't gone on the Hunt for fifty years. No, I need to see you. We need to talk. It's important."
"Look, why can't this be done over the phone? I'm not really in the mood to fly off to Germany just because "
"No need to worry about that. I'm right here in your fair city of Portland."
"Please, Xena. It is important. And I'd like to see you again "
"How did you find me?"
"I asked around. Simple, really. Just say you need Portland's finest Private Investigator, and you might be surprised how many fingers point to you. You've made quite a reputation for yourself. That can be dangerous, ja?".
"Ja", Xena thought before answering. "Alright then. I'll meet you. Have anyplace special in mind?"
She could hear the smile on his face as he responded,"Yes I do. I've made dinner reservations for tonight at seven o'clock. A little Italian place called Enso's. Do you know of it?"
"Yeah, I know it. I'll be there."
"Splendid. I look forward to seeing you again, Xena. It's been a long time." And with that, the line went dead.
Xena replaced the handset in the receiver, and turned around to see Rickie leaning against the doorframe, watching her. "Who was that?", she began, as she softly padded across the room to stand right in front of her lover.
"An old, old friend", Xena replied, and watched as the redhead arched an eyebrow.
"An old, old that kind of friend?", she responded.
"Yup. He's asked me out to dinner tonight. Wanna come?".
"Depends", Rickie quipped back, "is this old, old friend a raving psychotic like the last one?"
Images of Jeanne Pucelle flickered across Xena's mind, as she answered, "Oh no. This one is the very picture of mental health." She slid her arms around Rickie's shoulders and pulled the smaller woman close.
With a hint of mirth, the redhead responded, "Okay, then. I'll come along. But at the first sign of religious fanaticism, we leave, right?"
Just before she drew Rickie's mouth into a kiss, Xena said, "Promise".
"So who's this mystery man who's buying us dinner tonight?", Rickie asked as Xena guided her Ford Mustang through the early evening traffic of downtown Portland.
"His name is Ludwig Hoffman, and he was born in Hamburg, Germany in the year 1492", Xena replied.
"So he's just a kid, really, compared to you?", Rickie quipped, getting a raised eyebrow and a half chuckle in response. "Nope. Ludwig has seen a lot in his five hundred years. Always out there, fighting for something."
"Sometimes I think even more than me. Ludwig is the quintessential soldier. He's fought for his country in every war it's been in since he was old enough to hold a weapon. Every one."
"I've been meaning to ask you ", Rickie began, and paused. Xena glanced over at her lover, "What?"
"I know that you became Immortal because of the Ambrosia that Gabrielle used to bring you back to life, right?".
"So where do the others come from? I mean, you said yourself that Immortals can't bear children, so where do they come from themselves?"
"Nobody really knows, Rickie. Some of the Immortals I've talked to over the years, those who've actually taken the time to think these things over, believe that everything will be revealed to whoever wins the Game. The whole Prize thing, you know."
"Yeah. So it's one of those big Cosmic Mysteries, huh?", Rickie replied, actually managing to pronounce the capital letters.
"Something like that", Xena laughed back.
"So how'd you two meet up?"
"I was working my way west through what was left of Germany in the winter of 1945-46. I was wandering through the ruins of the city of Dresden one day in January, when I felt the Quickening. I followed it, and found him sitting in what was left of a house."
"Didn't he feel you coming?"
"Of course. He looked up at my approach, our eyes met, and we came to an unspoken agreement not to fight each other. I could see how very, very tired he was, just like me. You gotta remember, this was the aftermath of the most horrible time in human history. Everything, and I mean everything, had been destroyed. They even had a name for this time in Germany. They called it "Das Jahr Null", The Year Zero. Everybody had to start over from the beginning. People were walking about in a daze, trying to eek out a living as best they could, fighting over what scraps their occupiers would throw them. Not that the Germans had been any better in the countries they'd taken. Anyways, I came over and sat down across from him, gave him some of my food, and we talked. You should have seen him wolf down that food. Made your table manners look conservative and restrained. Ouch!". This last was at the light punch thrown at Xena's shoulder from the occupant of the passager seat.
"It turned out that the ruined house he was sitting in had belonged to his wife's family. She and their adopted daughter had come to Dresden from further east, fleeing the advancing Russian army. Unfortunately for them, they'd arrived there on February 12th, 1945. The day after that, the British bombed Dresden off the map. Something like a quarter of a million people died on that one night", Xena heard her voice go hard as she related the monstrous figure, and quickly looked over at Rickie, who'd been listening attentively to her story, and was now going a little green around the gills. "Sorry. Shouldn't have told you that. Didn't want to spoil your appetite."
"No it's okay. Xena, that's just awful "
"Yeah, it is. Killing on an industrial scale."
"So what happened next?"
"We spent the night in that ruin. The next morning, I persuaded him to come west with me, into the part of Germany occupied by the Western Allies. He said he had some family in Hamburg he'd like to try to find anyway. It took us about a month to make it as far as Hamburg, where Ludwig found out that his wife's grandparents had survived the war. Gave him something to live for a little while longer. We said our goodbyes, and I haven't heard from him since."
"Until today. What do you think he wants?"
"Don't know. But we'll find out very shortly. That's Enso's right there", Xena said and nodded her head towards a friendly-looking restaurant facade as they passed by. "Now if we can just find a parking space "
Xena had visited Enso's a couple of times in the years she'd lived in Portland, but hadn't taken Rickie there before tonight. The little restaurant was a cozy, almost quaint place, with dark wood panelling, bare red brickwork, wine bottles in little wicker holders, and candles lighting every table. As they entered, Xena pointedly ignored the sign requesting customers to wait to be seated, and instead led Rickie towards the rear of the room, guided by the Quickening. Their host was already rising from the table when her eyes fell on him. "Hasn't changed a bit", she thought.
Ludwig Hoffman was a handsome man, apparently in his mid-thirties. He stood about six feet tall, was of medium build, with close-cropped hair so blonde it appeared almost white, and eyes an even lighter shade of blue than Xena's own. He wore an utterly conservative blue suit, the jacket draped over the back of the seat he'd just risen from, shirt sleeves rolled up.
"Xena!", he called out happily and clasped her hand in a warm and strong handshake. "It's good to see you again!", he continued, the two Immortals locking eyes for a moment as they had locked hands.
Try as she might, and only her paranoia made her do so, Xena couldn't detect a hint of hostility in the pale blue orbs. "Like with Jeanne", the warrior reminded herself, before answering, "likewise, Ludwig. It's been a long time."
"Too long, my friend, too long", the German Immortal responded, as he released her hand. Then his eyes fell upon Rickie, who'd been standing quietly behind Xena during the exchange of greetings.
"And who have we here, Xena? You didn't tell me we'd have company", Ludwig asked, his voice betraying nothing but genuine interest.
"Ludwig Hoffman, meet Rickie Gardner", Xena said, laying her hand on the redhead's shoulder as Rickie stepped forward, her hand outstretched. Swiftly taking her hand into his own, Ludwig bowed slightly at the waist, brought it to his lips, and planted a feather-light kiss on the knuckles. "Gnädiges Fräulein", he commented, as he released the hand of the temporarily speechless Rickie.
"He just called you 'Gracious Lady', Rickie. You can giggle, if you want to", Xena laughed, her tone becoming serious again as she caught Ludwig's eyes. "Rickie knows about us", she said.
The German Immortal simply nodded his head, and gestured towards the table, "Come, sit down!" As Xena and Rickie arranged them-selves across the table from him, Ludwig caught the attention of the waiter, and the threesome had soon ordered dinner, and been left to themselves again.
An uncomfortable silence settled temporarily over the table.
"So ", Ludwig and Xena began at the same time. After another moment of silence, Ludwig silently gestured for Xena to go first.
"I was going to ask you what you've been doing with yourself these past fifty years", she said.
"Well", Ludwig began, leaning forward with his bare forearms on the tabletop, "after I'd said goodbye to you in Hamburg, I spent some months trying to provide for my wife's grandparents and myself. Didn't last very long, though. Grandmother died that June. I guess the war had simply caught up with her. Grandfather couldn't last much longer without her, that was clear enough on the day when we buried her. He died in September. After that, there was nothing to hold me in Hamburg. I thought about what to do with my life, and found it easiest to just go back to doing what I'd always done: being a soldier. So I worked my way south, to the only place I could think of which'd let me do so."
"Let me guess", Xena interrupted," the Legion?"
"Ja", Ludwig confirmed, "the French Foreign Legion. Hundreds, even thousands of German soldiers found a home there after the war. No questions asked about your past, if you could fight, they took you in. France had ambitions to rebuild her shattered colonial empire, and it was more convenient to send Legionaires to fight in far-flung places like Algeria and Indochina than French conscripts. Not so many people filling the streets in protest when Legionaires came home in boxes", he remarked, the slightest trace of bitterness in his voice.
"Anyway, I was sent to Indochina, and fought through the whole war between the French and the Viet Minh there. I was present at the great siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which ended in disastrous defeat for the French, and 'death' for me." Ludwig's eyes became distant for a moment, as if recalling an unpleasant memory. "The Vietnamese buried us in a mass grave. I couldn't take the chance of getting up and trying to escape; I'd seen what they'd done to prisoners. It would have been unwise to risk having my secret exposed in Vietnamese captivity."
Xena felt sympathy for the man sitting across the table from them as he paused again. She imagined the horrid task of digging herself out of the ground, groping blindly in the darkness underground, dying over and over again as her strength ran out, or her lungs filled with earth. A glance out of the corner of her eye confirmed that Rickie felt the same way, the younger woman having gone pale as her active imagination undoubtedly painted a picture similar to the one Xena saw in her mind. Laying a hand on Rickie's thigh under the table, Xena gave the denim-clad flesh a gentle squeeze, bringing her lover back to the present.
Then Ludwig seemed to shake himself out of whatever place his memories had sent him to. "To make a long story short, this experience gave me something to think about. I decided there, on that scarred hilltop in Indochina, that maybe it was time to stop what I'd been doing for four hundred and fifty years, and find something else to occupy my life. I knew I didn't want to return to my now divided fatherland just yet, so I decided instead to see a bit of the world. I made my way to Thailand, signed on as a seaman on a merchant ship, and began quite a little trip around the Pacific: Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, there weren't many places I didn't go to. It took me fifteen years on many different hires like that one before the call of my home became too strong, and I returned to Germany in 1969."
At this point, Ludwig was interrupted in his story, as the waiter returned with their food. Xena was glad, and not unsurprised, to see that the grisly images hadn't impaired Rickie's appetite, as the redhead attacked her meal with gusto. "Looks like you haven't done too badly for yourself since then", she remarked.
"Well, one tries", Ludwig responded with a grin, "I have a small, but rather succesful import-export company in Hamburg. It almost takes care of itself these days, giving me the freedom to travel about a bit, see places I haven't seen yet. See places I've been to before, but see them as something other than battlefields."
"Well, you obviously didn't come here to Portland as a tourist", Xena said, studying him.
"Nein, my friend. I didn't.", Ludwig admitted, "I came here to warn you. Tell me, does the name Shinji Yamashiro mean anything to you?"
Xena hastily searched her memory for that name, but came up blank. "No, can't say that it does. Should it?"
"He is a Japanese citizen, born in 1919 in Kobe, and an Immortal. Since he discovered his immortality in 1945, he has taken more than thirty heads in the Game", Ludwig reported, his tone serious.
"Thirty?!?", Rickie blurted out, having been silent until now. "Jesus ", she continued, as the facts sank in.
"Indeed", Ludwig replied, "that's more than most of us see in lifetimes ten times that length. And now he's here, in Portland, looking for you, Xena".
Xena arched an eyebrow at this. "How do you know this?", she inquired.
"I'll explain. As I said, Shinji discovered his special nature in 1945. Like me, he was an officer in his country's army, stationed on the island of Okinawa as the commander of an infantry company. After the Americans invaded, Shinji led his men in one of those horribly wasteful suicide charges into their lines. Every single man in his company was killed, except for Shinji himself. Convinced that he'd failed his Emperor, he decided to commit ritual suicide."
"Sepukku", Xena interjected, as Ludwig paused.
"Correct. Unfortunately for him, he had no assistant to take his head when the pain became too great, and so he survived. He fled the island, now rapidly being overrun by US forces, and returned to the Home Islands to find them all but destroyed."
"How do you know so much about him?", Rickie asked.
"I met him in 1956, two years after I'd left Indochina. The merchantman I had taken hire on docked in Kobe harbor, and I had some shore leave coming up. I was walking through the city streets, and as I passed a Shinto shrine, I felt his presense. I walked in, and there he was, praying at the altar."
"Did he know about the prohibition against fighting on holy ground?", Xena asked.
"Oh yes", Ludwig replied, "I wasn't the first Immortal he'd met. And for some reason, he seemed to care about that particular rule, even if he cared for no other. We spent two hours talking in the shrine, after which he went his way, and I mine. I thank God that for some reason he didn't wish to fight me. I seriously doubt I could have bested him", Ludwig said matter-of-factly.
"What?", Xena asked, incredulously. "You had more than four hundred years on him. He couldn't be your equal in a fight."
"Maybe not, but you have to understand a bit about his mental state. You see, Shinji believed that his suicide attempt had been partly succesful. He believed that his body had died in that cave on Okinawa. What was left, in his mind, was a disembodied spirit, trapped in the world of the living, with no chance to pass through to the next world. No chance, that is, except by defeating as many Immortals as he could. He didn't care about the Game or the Prize, he wanted release from his existence, and no method was too harsh to achieve that objective."
"That's all good and well, but it still doesn't explain how you know he's here in Portland, looking for me", Xena remarked.
"I was coming to that. Three weeks ago, I arrived in Seattle on one of my little out-playing-tourist trips. There, I ran into him again. This time, the situation was reversed from our encounter in Kobe. It was me in the church, and he who found me. He'd changed a lot in the preceeding fourty years. When I'd met him in Kobe, he'd seemed very tired, bent down under the weight of a task that seemed impossible to him: finding his release. Now, he was positively giddy. He told me he'd found a way. A way to end it without fighting his way through every Immortal on the planet. He said he would find the oldest, most powerful, most skilled of us, and kill that particular Immortal. Once he'd done so, his passage into the next world would be secured. That's when I thought of you, Xena. If anyone fit the bill as the strongest of us, then certainly it would be you. Thus spurred on, I began searching for you. It seemed rather an impossible task at the beginning, but then I thought that since Shinji was here in the Pacific Northwest, he had to know something I didn't. So I started looking through telephone books and asking around, first in Seattle and the surrounding cities, and when that turned up nothing, I moved on to Portland. Your name isn't exactly ordinary, so once I got here, it didn't take very long."
"So why do you think this Shinji character might be here as well?", Xena asked.
"Because if someone like me could find you, starting from scratch, in just three weeks, then somebody as driven and as desperate as him certainly could too", Ludwig paused and then continued, his voice intense, "Xena, I just had to warn you of him. Strong and skilled as you are, he'll still be a very, very dangerous opponent. Not just for you personally. He'll use every bit of personal leverage against you that he can find. If he thinks he can get you upset enough to make a mistake by harming those you care about", here Ludwig glanced in Rickie's direction, "he will do so without remorse. Shinji is a desperate man, Xena. You stand in the way of the end to his existence that he's sought for fifty years now."
Xena sat back in her chair, mulling over Ludwig's words for a while. She still couldn't believe that this man Shinji could be that dangerous, even if he had taken as many heads over the years as Ludwig claimed. At the same time, she couldn't afford not to take him seriously. There was such a thing as luck, and whether it was his good or her bad luck, it could still decide the outcome of their duel. And then there was the young woman seated next to her. Over the centuries since Gabrielle's death, Xena had many times hoped that she'd be able to find someone skilled enough to take her head, to end her lonely existence and perhaps even reunite her with her eternal love. Now that love had come back to her instead, in the shape of Rickie, and there was no way she would let herself be separated from her lover or let Rickie get hurt because of some crazed youngling's demented view of himself.
"Okay Ludwig", she began,"You can consider your mission complete. I'll be on the lookout for this guy. Thank you for going to all this trouble", she smiled at him.
"Don't mention it. You hauled me back out of the abyss I'd sunken into back in Dresden. I owe you my life, Xena. It was the very least I could do."
The trio finished their meal, discussing matters of a lighter nature. When the check came, Ludwig waved away Xena's attempt to pay for her and Rickie's half of the meal with a good-natured scowl. "Where I come from, when a man invites a woman out to dinner, he doesn't let her pay." Ignoring Xena's slightly raised eyebrow, he put his AmEx card down on the tray, and watched the waiter hurry off with it.
"Well, I suppose that's it then", he began, "It was good to see you again after all these years, Xena. And it does my heart good to see that you've found some happiness again", he cast another glance at Rickie, who beamed back a glad smile at him, "You two take good care of each other, you hear?".
Xena slid out of her seat, and held out her hand as Ludwig stood as well. "We will, old friend. Thank you again." Their hands met again in a firm, warm handshake as their eyes locked. Two shades of sapphire studied each other intently for a moment, before Ludwig slid his hand out of Xena's to grasp Rickie's and repeat the kiss on the hand given at the beginning of the evening. "It was very nice to meet you, Rickie Gardner".
She smiled back at him, and replied, "Likewise, Ludwig Hoffman. If you're ever in town again, be sure to look us up, okay?"
This got a smile and a nod from the German Immortal, and then Xena and Rickie turned and walked away.
As Ludwig Hoffman turned his rental car down the ramp of the parking garage below the Portland Hilton, he mulled over the events of the evening. Xena had seemed somewhat unwilling to take him seriously as he explained the threat that Shinji posed. Not that he could blame her, really. It was almost too fantastic for an Immortal so young in years to have that degree of skill. But he did. Shinji Yamashiro was a very dangerous opponent, and he could only hope that he'd impressed this sufficiently on Xena. Otherwise she and her young companion would be in even more danger than they were.
As he slid his car into a parking space, it suddenly struck him with the full force of a sledgehammer between the eyes. The Quickening! He'd let his train of thought pull him away from paying attention to the world around him. Now his blood sang with the proximity of another Immortal, and Ludwig knew exactly who it had to be. He got out of the car, and looked around.
Standing by the elevators, less than twenty meters away, was an Asian man, less than thirty years old, with black hair and coal-black eyes. He was dressed in a dark gray overcoat and kept one hand inside it.
Walking around to stand next to the trunk of his car, Ludwig stopped, watching him. Apparently satisfied that his opponent would approach no further, the Asian stepped from his place and walked slowly towards Ludwig, stopping five or so meters from him.
"Hello Ludwig", Shinji Yamashiro said, his tone amicable enough.
"Shinji", Ludwig replied, "I see I was right in assuming you'd be here already".
"Of course", he nodded. "I trust your meal was a pleasant one?"
Not even surprised that Shinji had been following him, or had had him followed, Ludwig simply nodded and answered, "Very much so. Pleasant company as well."
"Ah yes. Did the warrior woman heed your warning, or did she refuse to accept that I might be dangerous enough to worry about?", Shinji asked.
"I think she accepted it. And accepted the fact that you're a violent, unscrupulous psychopath", Ludwig added, for good measure.
The Asian's eyes grew cold. "That's not a very nice thing for you to say to me, considering the fact that I've let you live through two encounters with me."
"Settle down, Shinji. I don't want to fight you, and I don't want you to fight Xena either. She will kill you."
The other man gave a derisive snort at this. "Oh please, Ludwig. Don't you get it yet? I can't be killed! I've been dead for fifty years already! Only by defeating her can I have peace. And neither you nor anyone else will stand in my way." With that, Shinji began to turn away.
"Don't do it, Shinji", Ludwig warned, "I won't let you "
He'd barely finished the sentence when Shinji whirled around, his hand coming out from under his coat, pointing his sword straight at Ludwig. "And you're going to stop me how? Will you fight me right here and now?", Shinji snarled, his coal-lump eyes suddenly alive with dangerous flame.
"If that's what it takes", Ludwig answered calmly, putting steel into his voice.
"Then see to your sword, 'old friend'", Shinji sneered, "I'll be right here".
Never taking his eyes of his enemy's, Ludwig opened the trunk of the car and felt inside for the object wrapped in a blanket. He didn't usually carry his sword around like this, but this was no longer a usual time. Finding the blade, he unwrapped it in two quick movements, and lifted his broadsword out of the trunk, slamming it shut.
Giving the blade a few practice swirls, he began circling Shinji, now fully gripped by the duel to come. His last thought before rushing forward to the attack was, "Xena, if I pull this off, you're going to owe me".
Rickie awoke to sudden movement in the bed next to her. Coming more or less awake, she felt more than saw the form of her lover sitting up next to her, back turned.
"What's wrong, baby?", she asked, her voice sleepy, laying a hand on Xena's back.
"Somebody's here", the dark woman answered.
This managed to bring Rickie fully back to consciousness. "The Quickening?", she asked.
"Yes. Very close." With those words, Xena slid out of bed and began to get dressed.
"You think it might be Ludwig?", Rickie asked, more hope in her voice than she felt.
"No", Xena answered simply, before pulling on her trousers, and heading down the stairs to her office, leaving Rickie behind to get out of the bed, get dressed, and follow her.
A few years ago, Xena had installed a security camera on the outside wall next to the garage door with a field of view that covered most of the street. The monitor for the camera was in her office, and she now turned it on.
There was no need to pan the camera around. The car, a cream-colored Oldsmobile, was parked right under it. Leaning on the car, making absolutely no attempt to conceal himself, was an Asian man in a dark gray overcoat. As she centered the camera on his face, he looked up at it and smiled a thin smile that didn't look as though it was let out much. "This bastard is baiting me to come outside!", Xena thought, incredulously, as Rickie came up behind her.
"So I guess that's this Shinji character?", she began.
"Sure looks like it", Xena replied, "and I think he wants to tell me something."
"You don't suppose we can just ignore him and he'll go away by himself?", Rickie asked.
With a half smile, Xena turned around and gave Rickie a quick kiss. "No, Dreamer, I don't think so". She then quickly strode out of the office, and up to the wall on which hung her collection of edged weapons. Selecting her own sword from the many others there, she turned to see Rickie watching her.
"Keep your eye on the monitor. I don't think there'll be a fight right here. Not private enough. I'll be right back!" Winking at Rickie, she strode over to the elevator.
Her sword held ready in one hand, Xena opened the small door set into the wall next to the garage door. Stepping outside, the cold November air stung her face with the promise of more rain to come. As the man saw her coming out, he quickly reached inside his coat and brought out a short-barrelled Heckler & Koch sub-machinegun, levelling it at her.
Screwing her best warlord's sneer on her face, Xena indicated the firearm with a glance, and asked, "What are you going to do with that?"
In an almost amicable voice, Shinji Yamashiro answered, "Why, I was thinking of pulling the trigger and holding it down until the magazine was empty. Then I'd exchange the empty one for a full one, and repeat the procedure. Then, while you were inconvenienced, I'd use the third magazine on your young friend in there. Unless, of course, you listen to what I have to say".
Her voice as cold as an arctic winter night, Xena replied, "Say your piece".
"I'm sure Ludwig described me to you as some sort of demented madman, ready for the straightjacket. Well, let me assure you that I'm not. I'm a desperate man, come half way around the earth looking for you. In your defeat lies my release from this dreary existence, and I will have it. Tonight."
"When and where?", Xena asked.
"My, aren't we in a hurry?", Shinji replied, his tone nearly merry. Gesturing down the street, he continued, "outside the city limits, about three kilometers, there's an old gravel pit. I'll await you there in half an hour. Don't make me come back here".
"I'll be there", Xena said, and watched as Shinji got into his car and drove off. She suddenly felt the cold more than before.
Rickie had watched the whole exchange on the camera feed, and was waiting at the elevator when Xena came back up.
"I guess you won't be coming back to bed with me, huh?", the redhead began.
"No, I won't, Rickie. Not for a little while, anyway. There's a madman out there who needs to be taken down", Xena replied, suddenly sounding very weary.
"How much longer is it going to be like this, Xena?", Rickie asked, her voice almost cracking on her lover's name. "Why can't they just leave us in peace?".
Gently embracing her beloved, Xena whispered into her red and gold locks, "I don't know, my love. But after tonight, there'll be one less to worry about. I can assure you of that". Feeling Rickie's silent tears running down the front of her shirt, Xena intensified her embrace, and softly kissed the young woman's hair. Pulling gently back, she gazed deeply into emerald eyes that had no business being as full of tears as they were.
Guiding Rickie over to the couch, Xena sat them both down. Reaching out a hand, she gently wiped the tears from Rickie's cheeks. "Dreamer, I want you to do something for me", she began.
"Anything", the tear-choked whisper came back.
"I want you to promise me that when I leave here tonight, you won't follow me. And I want you to keep that promise. You didn't back in London, and that was okay, because you stayed outside, and Jeanne wasn't dangerous once I got her out on my turf. This time, it's very different. This man is very, very dangerous, and more than a little insane. If he sees you there, if he even senses your presense, he will find a way to use it against me. I couldn't bear to see you hurt in any way. Please promise me this, Rickie. Gabrielle was no good at staying behind, and you haven't been either, but do it this time. Please?".
There was a long pause, as Xena sought the assurance she needed in Rickie's eyes. Then the redhead slowly said, "Okay, Xena. I'll stay put this one time. I promise. But you have to make a promise to me in return".
"Anything", the dark woman echoed Rickie's earlier answer.
"You have to promise me you'll come back to me. These past five months have been like a whole lifetime for me. You are my life, Xena. Do you understand me? You are my other half. When you're happy, I'm happy. When you hurt, I hurt. Don't make me hurt tonight, Xena. Promise?"
Feeling her own eyes misting over, it was all Xena could do to stammer out, "I promise", before gathering Rickie up in her arms. The kiss that followed was not a kiss of passion, such as when they were making love, but a kiss given in reaffirmation of the eternal connection between the warrior and her bard, a kiss that promised they would never let each other go.
There wasn't much traffic on the road as this time of night. It was a weeknight, and most ordinary people were home in bed. "Ordinary people", Xena mused with a grim smile, as she guided her Mustang towards her destination, "my life's never been ordinary".
As she drove, her mind wandered back over the millenia, back to that fateful day in Amphipolis, when Cortese's raiders had come, the day she'd killed for the first time. Through to the many hundreds, even thousands she'd killed during her time as a warlord. To the day in Potidaea, when she'd fought off Draco's men, and had met the feisty little red-haired peasant girl, who wanted so much to see what was over the next hill, and just wouldn't take no for an answer. "Thank the gods you didn't, my bard ", she thought.
Through the centuries that followed, the mind-numbing loneliness of her existence without Gabrielle by her side, the wars she'd fought in, the horrors she'd seen, how everytime she'd tried to make a home for herself it'd ended badly, the Amazonian exile, her return, the War Her dreary wanderings after it was over, how she'd finally settled in Portland. She offered up a silent prayer of thanks to whatever had made her decide that Portland would be the place for her. If she hadn't been there to meet Rickie that night in the Arboretum Xena shuddered inwardly at the thought. Well, no matter, she had a home now, and, more importantly, someone to share it with, and that wouldn't change after tonight. She'd see to that.
The gravel pit was easy enough to find. The property was obviously long deserted, but still surrounded by a chainlink fence, the gate secured by padlock and heavy chain. Or it had been, anyway. As the headlights of her car fell on the gate, she saw that although closed, the gate was no longer held by the chain hanging limply cut from it. Getting out of the car, she opened the gate, drove the Mustang through and then closed the gate again behind her. No sense in advertising the little break-in to anybody.
Driving across the wide open space, past crumbling sheds used by the men who'd once worked here, past rusting machinery that no one had cared enough about to remove when the pit had been closed. As she drove, the Quickening slowly grew in intensity. Her opponent was very near now. Soon, her headlights illuminated the Oldsmobile standing on the edge of the great pit, a dark form standing next to the car. Stopping her Mustang some thirty meters from where he was standing, she turned off the engine, and gripped the hilt of her sword lying on the passenger seat.
The November night was very dark, even such a relatively short distance from the lights of the city. Xena's eyes slowly got used to the darkness, as she walked towards her enemy, standing calmly under the overcast sky, waiting for her. As she got closer, she could see a dark, slender shape lying on the white roof of the Oldsmobile, that she took to be his sword. This assumption was confirmed when he gripped one end of the object in his hand and held it out in front of himself.
"Punctual", Shinji remarked, "good, good. Just like Ludwig. You know, just before I took his head, he said I shouldn't fight you. That you'd defeat me for sure". The last sentence was delivered in a tone of voice that might normally be reserved for the telling of jokes.
"You should have listened to him", Xena growled back, "and not come here, threatening me and mine with death."
"Oh please, spare me the righteous fury", Shinji replied, his voice almost bored, "young Rickie has nothing to fear from me, you know. Once I've taken your head, and been granted my release, nothing on this tedious world will matter anymore. I'm certain Ludwig told you of my special status".
"He told me you were deluded, if that's what you mean", Xena answered. Before her opponent could reply, she continued, "enough talk. I have a young woman waiting at home for me, worried sick. I'd like to return to her soon".
"Very well", he replied, "a pity you'll never see her again". His words spoken, he advanced on her, the point of his sword tracing lazy patterns in the air.
Their blades met just as the first rain drops began falling.
Xena had about five inches of height on her opponent, with the corresponding advantage in reach, but it was clear from the beginning of the duel that he intended to leave her no advantage due to his shorter stature. Shinji was almost frighteningly fast with his feet and hands, and darted in and out of Xena's range again and again, never pausing long enough to deliver more than one or two blows before moving out of her reach again. It was a tactic designed to frustrate larger opponents, tire them out, make them commit errors, and Xena had no doubt it had worked many times earlier.
As the first moments of the duel passed, she studied his moves, and soon found that he wasn't her equal in swordsmanship. It was his speed and agility that made him dangerous. Well, she could play speed and agility too. Having finished sizing her opponent up, she launched a series of furious attacks on him, pressing him onto the defensive. But even as she pushed him backwards, he parried her every blow, his cold, black eyes registering very little, if any emotion. Pushing him further and further back towards the edge of the big pit, Xena tried to find an opening in his defences, just one little place where she could stick her sword in.
Apparently fully aware of where he was being herded, Shinji suddenly locked swords with her instead of simply blocking her blow. Holding her gaze for a split second, he suddenly pushed her backwards with surprising strength, and in the short moment she needed to bring herself to readiness he rolled under her sword, on the ground being rapidly turned to mud by the rain, and came up to stand behind her.
As she turned around to face him, a searing pain lanced up through her right leg, almost making her collapse. Looking down behind her, she saw the bloody gash in her trouser leg on the back of her ankle. On his way past her, he'd sliced up her achilles tendon, leaving her temporarily incapable of putting weight on her right leg. Her body had already begun repairing the damage, but it would give him an advantage for at least a couple of minutes.
Xena knew she had to keep him at a distance while her leg repaired itself, but almost before she could finish that thought, Shinji began his own series of attacks on her. He knew full well he had to press his advantage.
Fighting him off as best she could, Xena hobbled backwards, trying to keep away from the edge of the pit. She could feel the torn tissue reknitting itself, the wound already hurting less. Just a few more seconds The dark woman never saw the small, flat stone behind her until she backed onto it. The heel of her right boot, wet with mud and blood, slipped on its slick surface, sending her ever so slightly off balance. It was only half a moment's distraction, but it was enough. Xena felt her sword being knocked aside, and at the next instance his blade pierced her body, just beneath and to the right of her left breast.
Strangely, there was no pain. She felt with an odd sense of detachment how his sword slid through her, nicking her heart, severing blood vessels and muscles, grazing her spinal column, before feeling the slight tug at her back as the blade exited her, pulling her shirt and jacket out with it. Looking up into her opponent's face, she saw his features split into a hideous grin of victory.
Keeping his gaze locked in her own, she felt her own sword arm coming up far, far away. Listening to her own pulse pounding in her ears, growing gradually weaker, she saw her own sword enter her field of vision. Feeling her lips part in a grin to match his, she drove her blade through his belly in a upward motion, feeling organs and bones being split by it, seeing the gleam of triumph in his eyes disappearing as the coal-black orbs glazed over.
As she saw his mouth open in a soundless scream of pain, Xena felt her knees begin to give. She felt herself hitting the muddy ground, tilting to one side, feeling her sword slide out of his body as his left hers. The last thing she sensed before her heart stopped beating was her cheek hitting the mud.
Darkness. So tired. Let me sleep. Peace. Standing on a nameless battlefield in the cold dawn, feeling the rain wash the blood off her hands. Gabrielle, I'm coming The remembrance of pain. Let it be over. 'Don't make me hurt tonight, Xena' Rickie Emerald eyes glowing from within. A smile like the sun coming out after the rain. Rising
Xena slowly opened her left eye. She couldn't open her right eye, and it took a while to realize that the whole right side of her face was covered in mud. She could taste blood at the back of her throat. Very, very slowly, her surroundings came back to her. She felt the cold rain falling on her body. She felt the chill of the ground beneath her. She felt the blood splattered all over her chest and back from her fatal wound. She felt the hilt of her sword in her hand, and this brought reality back to her.
Slowly, and in excruciating pain, she levered her body off the ground. Looking to her side, she saw a body lying in the mud. As she slowly got to her knees, she saw that the body was twitching, reviving itself. As her screaming muscles unsteadily carried her to a standing position, she saw his head come up, eyes focusing uncertainly on her through the falling rain.
Turning around to face him only seemed to bring fresh pain, as she saw him sit up unsteadily, his hand gripping his sword hilt. Taking two stumbling steps forward, she stood over him. With an effort bordering the superhuman, she brought her sword up and deflected his feeble attempt to raise his sword, sending the blade spinning away into the darkness. As his eyes met her, she seemed to see the veil of insanity lifted from them, seeing gratitude? As she brought her weapon around again for the killing blow, she saw him lift his chin and close his eyes.
"There can be only one ", she heard a woman's voice whisper. Then the thunk of the severed head landing in the mud. The arterial blood spurting out of the body into the rainy night, as the headless corpse slowly toppled over backwards.
Xena braced her aching body for what had to come. She saw the familiar glow encompass the headless corpse, levitating it into the air. She felt herself be seized by it, felt the first blow of energy strike her, resonating within her body and soul. Then another, and another, and another. Face after face after face raced across her vision, accompanied by the hideous screams of the dead. In a far off physical realm, she felt herself be lifted off the ground, felt her sword tumbling from her hands, as the sledgehammer blows battered her heart and her mind.
Then, as if it had never been, it was over. Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, she landed in the mud. The last thing she saw before the world went black was his sword, sticking out of the ground. For some reason, the blue tassel attached to the pommel drew her eye.
Rickie had promised herself she wouldn't fall asleep, but she had. When she awoke on the couch, her body cramped from lying curled up, she at first didn't realize why she had awakened. Then she heard it. The familiar sound of a car pulling into the warehouse.
Getting up from the couch much too quickly, the young woman fell just as quickly and ungraciously to the floor, her leg having been sound asleep. Picking herself up, and cursing a blue streak all the way, Rickie hobbled over to the elevator.
The fastest elevator in the world wouldn't have been fast enough for the short journey downstairs, and this elevator was anything but fast, so Rickie was driven almost to distraction by the time she could open the door at the bottom. The black Mustang was standing very still. Xena had shut the engine off, but made no attempt to exit the vehicle. Rickie ran across the warehouse floor to the car, yanked the door open, and almost choked at the sight that met her.
Her beloved was a horrible sight. Her white shirt was soaked in red blood, in the center of it a huge gash. Her hair was a tangled mess, covered in dirt and grime. Her face looked like she'd washed it in a mudhole. Her head was leaned back against the headrest, her eyes closed, her breathing uneven. As Rickie laid an uncertain hand on the dark woman's shoulder, the eyes opened.
Pale sapphires looking into glowing emeralds, the warrior whispered, "I know we've just come back from one vacation, but would you mind if we took another?".
Feeling tears of joy beginning to fall, Rickie leaned into the car, took Xena's head in her hands, and kissed her mouth with intensity. When she finally pulled back, she whispered through her tears, "You kept your promise to me".
Smiling slightly, Xena reached up with a grimy hand, and intercepted one of Rickie's tears, as it rolled down her cheek. "Always", she replied.
December 30th, 1998