By Kristian S. Fischer
Disclaimers and such:
Copyright: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. The Highlander Immortality concept is owned by Davis/Panzer Productions. This piece of fan fiction is in no way intended to infringe on anybody's copyright, merely written for my own fun, and hopefully the fun of others.
Warnings: While this story does work on the premise that it is about two women who're in love, and have been for a very, very long time, there are no graphic depictions of sexual activity in here. There is some violence, and depictions of the effects of violence and sadism. If your stomach isn't at least somewhat gore-proof, don't dive into this story.
Thank-you's: Redhawk, for creating this extraordinary world for me to practice my mediocre talent, and pointing out what needed to be tweaked. Llachlan, Joseph Connell and Protek for their work alongside me in the continued building of this world. Sarah McLachlan, Jewel Kilcher and John Williams whose varied musics have inspired and helped me to continue when I was well and truly stuck, and last, but not least, those of you out there who have provided feedback on my three previous stories.
Chronology: Two years or so after Only One.
Upstate New York, at the beginning
Doctor Thomas Miller was in a lot of trouble. His trouble had started at 11 o'clock this morning, and things had gone from being bad to totally catastrophic. Now, at 3.30 in the afternoon, things had progressed from catastrophic to some point in the darkness beyond, and Miller knew nothing was going to improve. The biggest reason for this was standing right in front of him.
The man called Grant was not tall, about 5 foot 7 inches, but he still managed to loom tremendously over Miller's 6 foot 2 inch frame. This was due to Grant's position in the organization that both men worked for. Miller knew that his career in the organization was over because of this morning's events, but he also knew that he would have to be very, very lucky indeed to survive this.
"Tell me precisely what happened", Grant asked, his voice without emotion.
"Well", Miller began, clearing his throat, "two techs came to take her to do her exercises this morning. She got away from them, killing them both, made her way through the facility, getting almost to the garage before the alarm was tripped. A security team attempted to keep her from stealing a car and leaving the premises. That got three of them killed and the fourth seriously injured. He is not expected to live another 24 hours. She stole one of the unmarked vehicles, crashed through the main gates and disappeared".
"What have you done to find her?" Grant queried.
"Sweepers were sent out immediately, of course, and Security contacted the local police and put out a description of her and the car. The vehicle was found two hours later on a back road, but she was long gone."
"Uhm, no. We have some security camera footage of her escape, but..."
"You will submit a written report to the Director's Office by this time tomorrow, including the security footage", Grant said.
"Yes Sir", Miller replied.
Without further ado, Grant turned around and left Miller's office. On his way back to the car, Grant was intercepted by one of his men, who handed him a cellular phone, "It's the Director, Sir".
Not breaking his stride, Grant put the phone to his ear, "Director? We have a serious problem".
Seattle, in the middle
Salvatore Delvecchio was not used to feeling what he was feeling at that moment. He was the Capo of the Seattle Mafia, used to having his least whim obeyed without question, used to being completely in control in every situation. He wasn't completely in control at this particular moment. He was sitting in his high-backed leather chair behind his desk and was feeling something akin to gratitude that the desk was between him and his visitor.
Delvecchio was an old-fashioned man, not used to women in positions of power. The woman in front of him was in a position of power. She wasn't very tall, had white-blonde hair, brown eyes and gleaming white teeth. Her facial features were birdlike, but not the birdlike of the small birds hopping around in the garden outside Delvecchio's window. It was the birdlike of a predatory bird, a hawk, ready to swoop down on the least movement and rend the source of that movement with razor-sharp talons. She had an air about her of someone who barely tolerated the presence of other living beings, someone who might kill another human being simply for daring to breathe the same air that she did.
"This is the mark", he said, pushing a grainy, black-and-white photograph across the desk towards the woman in front of him.
"Kinda cute", the woman said, looking the picture over. "What's she done?"
"Her name is Xena Amphipolous", Delvecchio said. "She's a private investigator down in Portland. Over the past couple of years, she's been stirring up a lot of trouble for the Family in the Pacific Northwest." He paused, uncertain of just how much he should divulge to his visitor. "She has cost us, and a several of our... competitors a lot of resources."
"And so she must die", the woman said in a casual voice, with just a hint of boredom. "What's the payment?"
"$500,000", Delvecchio replied, "10% on acceptance, the remainder when you deliver her head to me."
"You want her head?" the woman asked. "My, aren't we the kinky one?"
Delvecchio winced. "It has nothing to do with being, as you say, 'kinky'. Four other contractors have been sent after her. Two of them swore up and down that they'd left her lying in a pool of her own blood, and she still came back again."
"And the other two?" the woman queried, her tone of voice indicating that she didn't really care.
"Both disappeared. We assumed that she got rid of them somehow."
"Marvellous", the woman said, stretching out in her chair. "I'll take your contract. Do you know where to find her?"
"Her exact adress is not known. As I said, she lives in Portland, but that's as specific as we know it. However, we do have one lead. An egg-head who used to work for one of my operations, but who went missing some time ago. We have his adress, and we're certain he knows her. We were going to deal with him ourselves, but now you could go ask him."
"And if he won't tell me?" she asked.
"Do what you like", Delvecchio replied. After a short pause, he continued. "His wife is six months pregnant."
The gleeful grin on the face in front of him was totally in line with this woman's reputation. Part of him couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for the poor bastard he'd just sentenced to what would most likely be an extremely cruel death, but there was no helping that.
Portland, at the end
A forest-green 1967 Ford Mustang turned up a quiet suburban road in Southwest Portland. The low sun hanging in the summer afternoon sky reflected off the car, almost making it glow, as it was guided slowly past the houses. The word 'DREAMER' graced the Oregon license plate, and the convertible top was down, revealing the two occupants. Both were women, both wore sunglasses, and both were dressed in t-shirts and jeans. Here the similarities ended completely.
The woman behind the wheel was the younger of the two. She had long hair which, in the sun, seemed to become almost liquid gold, cascading down over her shoulders. Behind the dark lenses of her sunglasses, bright emerald eyes sparkled with a glow all their own. Her hands were sure upon the wheel, her manner much more relaxed than in many previous drives.
And many previous rides...., the dark-haired woman in the passenger seat thought, as she looked at the driver out of the corner of her eye. To the uninitiated observer, this woman might be eight or ten years older than her companion. In fact, Xena Amphipolous was more than two millenia older than Rickie Gardner. In a way, however, she really wasn't much more than those eight or ten years Rickie's senior. In her mind's eye, Xena saw a scene of ancient times...
"Come on, Gabrielle.... Argo'll behave, I promise!", Xena said, casting an almost pleading look at the bard.
"Yeah, yeah, Xena, you promise", Gabrielle retorted. "Does Argo promise too?"
"Of course she does. Don't ya, girl?" Xena asked her war horse, the mare nickering in what Xena would have called an affirmative and Gabrielle a sarcastic way. "Come on, Gabrielle", Xena repeated, "It'll really be much better for us both if you learned to ride for yourself. Then we could get you a horse of your own...".
"Whoa! One thing at a time, Warrior Princess!", Gabrielle exclaimed, "Your horse doesn't like me very much, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Stop being so silly, and get over here. I'll give you a boost into the saddle."
The bard hesitated for a few more moments, and then relented. "All right, Xena", she said, "you just make sure that horse of yours doesn't start moving before I tell her to!".
"I promise", Xena responded.
Argo had kept admirably still as the bard had gotten into the saddle. It had taken many, many rides and a long, long time before Gabrielle had finally agreed to accept her own horse, but then she had become very proficient in the saddle. The situation now, with Rickie, was very similar. The former runaway and homeless girl turned companion and lover to the dark-haired Immortal sitting in the passenger seat hadn't taken very easily to the delicate art of weaving in and out through the Portland traffic, which could be nightmarish at times. But once she'd gotten her own driver's license a year or so back, and Xena had gotten this beautiful car for her... If Xena had needed anymore proof that this was indeed her bard returned to her over the gulf of more than twenty centuries, and she didn't, then Rickie's speedy mastering of driving was just one more item on the pile.
"What?" the young woman inquired.
"What what?" Xena responded, her tone playful.
"You were staring. Not that I mind, but did something land on me or what?"
"The old, old days?" Rickie queried.
"Yeah.." Xena said.
"Something good or something bad?" Rickie asked, as she turned up the side road at the end of which was their destination.
"Very, very good...", Xena replied, drawing out each word, letting them come from the depths of her heart and soul, knowing exactly what that did to her companion. Next, she laid her hand on Rickie's tanned arm, not at all surprised to find goosebumps there. "You cold?" the dark woman asked, knowing full well that that wasn't the reason.
"Xena!", Rickie exclaimed, and lightly slapped the hand away. "You'll run us off the road!"
"Not much chance of that, love", Xena responded. "You're doing just fine."
The Mustang pulled up to the curb in front of a nice little white house, with a well-tended front garden.
"I hope Julia's getting those salmon steaks ready", Rickie said, as they got out of the car.
"Me too", Xena drawled in reply, "Your stomach rumbling can be heard in the next county!"
"Is that so?" the young woman demanded, as she came up to stand in front of Xena.
"Naah, I'm just teasing", Xena responded, as she once again thanked whatever god had brought them back together. Rickie standing right in front of her with her hands on her hips was her bard all over again. "Actually, I'm kinda looking forward to them myself", she continued.
"So you're human after all", Rickie said, just a hint of triumph in her voice.
"Absolutely", the dark woman replied. "Shall we, my lady?", she went on, mock-bowing to Rickie.
"By all means, warrior mine", Rickie responded in a similar tone, simulating a small curtsy.
Together, the two women went up the driveway of Terry and Julia Simpson.
Xena had met Terry Simpson several years ago, whilst working on a case concerning organized crime in the Pacific Northwest. He had worked in a subordinate position for the Don of the Seattle Mafia, a man named Salvatore Delvecchio, and had been less than happy in his life. He had almost jumped at the chance to help her when she'd approached him about it, on the condition that she'd help him disappear afterwards. And so she had taken him to Portland with her after cracking the case and dealing the Mob in Seattle what she liked to think was a pretty severe blow.
Portland probably wasn't far enough away, but Xena was pretty sure she'd covered their tracks well, and none of the Don's soldiers had come calling in the years after Terry had taken up residence in Portland under another identity. A year and a half ago, he'd met his wife Julia, and she was expecting their first child in three or so months. She and Rickie were here to enjoy an afternoon's pleasant company with their friends and especially enjoy Julia's cooking. She was an absolute wizard at the barbeque, and wouldn't let anyone else near it.
"Wonder why the curtains are pulled...", Rickie remarked, pulling Xena off her train of thought.
"The sun was probably getting too glaring...", Xena began, but instantly corrected herself. The afternoon sun was shining on the back of the house.
Shrugging, Rickie rang the doorbell. A few seconds went by before both women realized what was wrong. Not only was the door not opened, there was no reaction from Terry and Julia's dog, Fleur. The little mutt had an uncanny ability to hear the doorbell from the farthest reaches of the house's garden and come storming through the house, yapping excitedly. Instead, the house was deathly silent.
"Strange...", Xena began, and grasped the doorhandle. The door was locked. Very strange, she continued to herself. If Terry and Julia were at home, the door wouldn't be locked like this.
"What's going on here, Xena?" Rickie asked, uncertainty in her voice.
"I'm not sure", Xena replied, "but let's find out". With that, the dark woman turned away from the door, and began to walk around the house, Rickie in tow.
As they rounded the building, they found that every window had curtains pulled or blinds closed. Turning a corner and stepping into the garden, Xena saw that the barbeque pit was all ready for use, a sack of coal brickettes and a squeeze bottle of lighter fluid standing beside it. She was looking this over, when she heard a sharp intake of breath behind her. Turning around, she saw Rickie standing over a bush. Her sunglasses had fallen from her hand to the grass. Moving over to stand beside Rickie, she saw what her lover had found. It was Fleur. The playful little dog was lying partly obscured in the shrubbery, flies swarming in the warm summer air over the bloody mess that had been it's face.
Xena had seen thousands upon thousands of corpses, human and animal, in her time, but for some reason the sight of this innocent little animal lying dead on the ground in front of her made her stomach twist and turn itself into knots. She quickly turned around, interposing herself between the grizzly sight and Rickie and gently pushed the young woman away.
"Xena..." Rickie began, her voice cracking as it came out of a throat suddenly parched.
"I know. Whoever did this didn't stop at killing Fleur. Come on". With purpose, the dark woman moved to the big sliding door that led from the garden into the house. Finding it locked as expected, Xena tried to look between the tiny cracks in the curtains where they weren't pulled completely. Seeing nothing, she turned around to Rickie.
"Look away", she said, and stepped back a stride. As Rickie turned away, Xena took a moment to aim, and then a long leg lashed out, booted foot connecting with a sharp crack!. It wasn't as if the plate glass disintegrated spectacularly. It starred very prettily, and when Xena applied a little pressure to the spot a large round piece of glass fell out of the door. Reaching in, she unlocked the door from the inside and opened it. Sweeping the curtain aside, Xena strode into the darkened house.
The Immortal stepped into the kitchen, which was the room that the sliding door had opened into. On the counter, she saw six salmon steaks sitting side by side, surrounded by the other elements of Julia's culinary magic. As she passed through the kitchen, Xena couldn't help thinking that Julia Simpson would never practice her craft again. As she neared the door to the rest of the house, she stepped in something that went 'squelch' under her foot. Looking down, she saw that a small lake of blood had formed in front of the door. Turning around quickly, she saw that Rickie had also seen the blood and was looking at her with a soundless question in her eyes.
"Go get my phone in the car. Call 911 and ask for police and an ambulance. Once you've got them, stay outside and wait for me to come out. Do not come back inside the house."
"But...", Rickie began.
"NO", Xena exploded, "Do what I tell you for once! I don't want you to see what's beyond this door! Go!"
All the colour drained out of Rickie's face, and Xena knew there would be hell to pay later for this. That can't be helped, the dark woman thought, as Rickie turned away and walked out. Better having to explain myself later. She doesn't need any more nightmares. With that thought, she turned around, and reached for the door handle.
Xena had known she would find something awful when she stepped into the dining room, but she was in no way prepared for what she did find. Terry and Julia were sitting across from each other on two dining room chairs. They had both been tied to their chairs and gagged with duct tape. As Xena came in, trying to keep out of the blood that covered the floor like a crimson ocean, she could see Terry sitting slumped forward on his chair, facing her, while Julia had her back to Xena. It was as she stepped forward, and Julia came into view from the front that the true horror of what had happened here impacted on Xena's sensory apparatus and her brain with the force of a falling star.
Julia Simpson had been gutted from breastbone to crotch. Her clothing was a mere memory amongst all the gore, the split flesh of her abdomen hanging open left and right like a pair of grotesque tent flaps. Her vital organs were strewn with apparent abandon in a rough semicircle around her husband's chair, painting his bare feet red and other less savory colors. But by far the worst was what Xena saw lying in Terry's lap, umbilical cord dangling over the side like the burst mooring cable of a ship that had long since drifted off to sea. It was Terry's unborn daughter, ripped from her mother's womb.
Xena turned away. Never, NEVER in her worst days as a warlord had she done something as depraved as this. She had travelled all over the world, had seen the horrors that men had perpetrated upon one another, but never... A groan from behind her made Xena whirl around. Gods, she thought, he's still alive! Striding over the gory floor, the dark woman set to work untying her friend.
The rest of the day passed by in a blur for Rickie Gardner. The police and ambulance had shown up relatively quickly, and she had been about to lead them around the side of the house, when the front door had opened, and Xena had staggered out, burdened by the weight of the comatose Terry Simpson. Rickie only had eyes for the blood that seemed to cover every last bit of Xena's clothing as the EMT's had bustled past her, followed by the two cops. Every speck of anger at being so courteously banished from the house had vanished from the young woman when she locked eyes with her beloved, and saw that expression she knew so well both from the last year and from ancient times; the expression that said that Xena wanted to cry and scream to the heavens, and that only sheer willpower kept her from doing so.
Quickly going to the dark woman's side, she took her arm and bundled her away towards their car, not caring a whit about the blood that now stained her own clothes. Then she had to suffer through the endless, idiotic questions the policemen asked them, when all Rickie wanted was to take her soulmate away from it all. Finally able to disentangle herself from cops, paramedics and curious neighbours, and promising that yes, both of them would be down to the station first thing in the morning, Rickie managed to bundle Xena into the car, and drive off. She didn't care how suspicious it looked, she just wanted to get away.
Xena wouldn't answer in anything but monosyllables the entire trip home, and Rickie knew this meant trouble. She knew her love had seen many, many ugly things over her long lifespan, so whatever she had found in that house must have been very bad.
Oh baby, the young woman thought, as she steered her car towards their home, You took the full force of something I should have been there to share with you.
It was full dark by the time Rickie pulled her green Mustang up alongside Xena's black one on the ground floor of the old warehouse they called home.
Having to guide Xena through the mundane tasks of getting out of her bloody clothing and into the shower hammered the total magnitude of the shock the dark woman had suffered home to Rickie. As she pulled the door to the bathroom shut behind her, hearing the splashing of her lover standing under the warm jets of water, the young woman reflected to herself that this was the first time in a very long while indeed that they hadn't seized the opportunity to share a shower. It just didn't seem appropriate.
Looking down at her own bloodstained clothes and hands, another thought came to Rickie. You were always the strong one, my love. I never really thought I'd have to be. I pray I'm up to it.
At first, Rickie wasn't sure why she'd woken up. As she came fully awake, she realized quickly that the other half of the big bed was empty. Looking over to the open doorway that led to the stairs going down to the living room, she saw a flickering glow reflected in the wall and ceiling. Getting out of bed, Rickie padded over to the edge and looked down to see Xena sitting on the big couch, wrapped in a blanket, staring into two candles set on the coffee table.
Xena was so lost in her thoughts, that she didn't even hear Rickie approach until her love spoke.
"Can't sleep, huh?"
Looking up and into two concerned green eyes, Xena replied, "I'm afraid to go to sleep Can you believe that?" she continued. "Me, Xena the Warrior Princess, Immortal witness to 2000 years of man's inhumanity to man, reacting like this".
"So you're human", Rickie replied, moving a step closer.
Looking back at the candles again, Xena said, "I've seen so much evil, Rickie, yet the image of those two people, thinking they were safe in suburban America... I'm afraid to close my eyes, because I know what I saw today will be waiting for me on the other side of the wall of sleep."
A slender, tanned hand, palm upward, entered Xena's vision.
"Then let me protect you", Rickie said, "Let me do for you what you did for me so many times. Let me hold you while you sleep and keep the nightmares away. Let me be strong for you for a while."
Looking up into her lover's beautiful face, seeing herself reflected by the candlelight in emerald eyes, Xena gratefully took the offered hand, and let herself be led upstairs.
Moments later, they were in bed, and Xena finally let herself relax. She'd thought she'd have to force herself to do so, but when they'd finally settled down, Rickie snuggled up to her in an embrace that was strong and comforting, the dark woman felt herself sinking willingly into a world far away from the evils of the real one, guided into sleep by the rythmic, steady breathing of her soulmate beside her.
When the two women arrived at the police station the next day, Xena was only marginally surprised to be met by Emil Holt.
"Hey Xe, hey Rickie", he greeted them.
"Good morning, Emil", the dark woman replied, "Why am I not surprised to find you meeting us here this morning?"
"Because you're suspicious by nature?" their friend answered, and then immediately changed his tone. "Sorry, I know this is a bad time to make jokes. I saw your names on the report, and talked the Captain into letting me have this case. Figured you'd like to have someone you knew to talk to. Was I wrong?"
"No", Rickie replied, before Xena could open her mouth, "You were right all the way", she continued, smiling brightly at him.
"Thought so", the policeman replied, "Come on, let's go find someplace with walls where we can talk about this in private".
"Lead the way", Xena replied, and the trio made their way to one of the interview rooms at the back end of the station.
An hour later, Emil Holt said, "So, we have two possible scenarios. One, this was the Don's belated way of saying that he didn't appreciate Mr. Simpson jumping ship the way he did. That doesn't seem likely. I mean, why stop at killing his family, and not kill him, too? Two, this was the opening move of some sort of revenge against you, Xena. You say he only had your phone number?"
"Yes, Emil, for the n'th time. That doesn't matter, though. If they killed Julia and their daughter to extract that information from him, then they're probably close to finding out the adress. If they haven't already..." Xena was very tired at that particular moment, and even though Holt was her friend, she wasn't above letting him know that he was getting on her nerves.
"Okay okay... Sorry, Xena", Emil began, "Didn't mean to get up your skirt like that. Not that I've ever seen you wear one", he quipped, getting a raised eyebrow from the dark woman across the table from him, and one of Rickie's shining smiles. "I've got a couple of uniforms out taking statements in the neighbourhood, but before they're through, we won't have much to work on. Forensics turned up absolutely nothing. Whoever's behind this were real pros".
"Yeah", Xena replied, getting up from the table. "We're going to go over to the hospital and check on Terry. If anything turns up, you've got my number."
"You bet", Holt replied. "Be careful out there. Both of you." He stood, and went to open the door for his friends.
"We will. Thanks, Emil," Rickie said, as she passed him by, following Xena out of the door.
"I'm sorry I can't be the bearer of better news, Miss Amphipolous", the doctor at the hospital said, "but Mr. Simpson has not been conscious for even a short time while he's been with us."
Xena, Rickie and the doctor were gathered around Terry's bed. The two women silently watched their friend lying on the bed, eyes closed, breathing shallow but regular.
"From what I've been told of the case", the doctor continued, "I have every reason to believe that Mr. Simpson is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. His brain has simply shut down under the strain of what he's gone through. There's no telling when he'll recover. Or if...."
"He'll recover", Xena said, matter-of-factly. "And when he does, make sure you call me before anyone else", she continued, handing one of her business cards to him.
Their eyes locked for the fraction of a second as he took the card, but it was more than sufficient for him to see the steely resolve in this woman's eyes. All he could say was, "yes, ma'am", before leaving Xena and Rickie alone with their friend.
Xena reached down, and touched Terry's hand briefly. While she did so, she said in a low voice, "I'm going to find whoever did this, Rickie." And make them pay, she added mentally. Rickie simply laid her hand on Xena's arm and squeezed it. No words were needed.
Xena's mind was ablaze with thoughts as she and Rickie went about finding some lunch. If this really was "Big" Sal Delvecchio's way of paying her back for the trouble she'd caused him, then she'd need to be incredibly careful. There had been a total of four attempts on her life since she'd begun to make a reputation for herself as a private investigator: two of them she'd handled before they could complete their missions, but the other two had come away thinking they'd been succesful. One had run her off the road in the middle of the night in North Portland, sending her car screeching into a brick wall. The hitman had even been thorough enough to come back, pull her out of the wreckage of her car, and put two bullets into her heart. That was the kind of professionalism Xena could almost respect. The other one had been messy; a driveby shooting which had killed a couple of innocent bystanders, as well as 'killing' her. She'd been lucky to regain consciousness before he paramedics had arrived. Too many awkward questions.
She realized belatedly that Rickie had been talking to her.
"Sorry? What was that again? I was miles away..."
"Yeah, I noticed that. I'd ask you if you're okay, but neither of us are", Rickie replied, looking at her with worry in her eyes.
"I'm fine, Dreamer", Xena replied, her hand coming up to caress Rickie's cheek, not giving a damn that they were in the middle of downtown Portland in broad daylight, and that people might stare.
The redhead laid her own hand over Xena's, and moved it to her mouth, kissing the palm softly. "No matter where or when, we go there together", Rickie said firmly, as she moved Xena's hand to place it over her heart.
Lost in the moment, neither of the two women could have noticed the figure watching them from across the street, dead brown eyes registering little response to the scene. Under dark sunglasses and a thin, aquiline nose, a mouth creased in a mirthless smile.
As Xena pulled her Mustang into the warehouse, she was almost done planning. Emil had called, saying he'd fax her the statements he'd had gathered from the neighbours of Terry and Julia Simpson, but that it didn't look hopeful. Big surprise, the dark woman thought with a derisive snort to herself. It doesn't matter where you are, people just don't want to get involved.
Since Terry probably wouldn't return from whatever world he'd sought refuge in to escape the real one anytime soon, she'd have to see what she could do about finding some answers of her own. Maybe it was time to go see Albert again. She hadn't seen the semi-legendary information broker in some time. Wonder what the old queen's up to these days, she thought, Probably living life dangerously close to the edge as always. In six-inch heels, she added mentally, and grinned to herself, as she got out of the car.
"What's so funny?" Rickie asked.
"Oh nothing. Just thinking about someone I know." And there's no way in hell she's coming with me. My Dreamer may think she's seen a lot, but Albert and his world... Xena shuddered inwardly. Too many weirdos there.
"Listen", Xena continued, "Why don't you head on upstairs. I want to see if I can't find what's making that clanking noise in the car."
"Maybe you should trade it in", Rickie replied with a grin, "get an older model. You'll notice mine doesn't make any noises like that."
Equalling her lover's grin, Xena replied, "Maybe I should trade you in for a less noisy model."
"Nah", the redhead quipped back. "You like the one you've got right now too much. Just like the car."
I do at that, my love, Xena thought, I do at that.
"Hurry up with the car", Rickie continued. "I'll be in the shower."
As the redhead turned around to the elevator, Xena resolved to find the offending noise in record time.
As Rickie stripped off her clothes, preparing for the bath, she reflected that although the coming days would be difficult and quite possibly dangerous, it was good to see that Xena had overcome the initial shock of what had happened to Julia and Terry. Those Mob goons would never know what hit them.
As she stood there naked on the thickly carpeted floor of their bedroom, Rickie let an appreciative eye fall down across her body. When she had lived on the street, where there was rarely enough money to satisfy her legendary appetite, she'd been somewhat scrawny in her own eyes. Now, after two years of living with her love, eating properly and willingly submitting herself to Xena's rigorous training programs, her body had changed.
She had gained quite a few pounds, but they'd appeared in all the right places. Well-toned musculature rippled under her skin when she flexed it. It was not obvious enough to be unseemly for one of her size and build; on the contrary, it added to her beauty, as Xena had once put it. Even though it was not in Rickie Gardner's nature to be vain, she was proud of what her body had developed into. Especially those abs, she thought, as she grabbed a towel and began heading down the stairs to the bathroom. Hell, she mused, I'd fall for me. This thought brought a grin to her face, as she opened the bathroom door.
And froze in her tracks. At the other end of the spacious bathroom stood a stranger. The stranger was a woman with white, lightly curled hair, expressionless brown eyes, and almost predatory features. She was clad in a dark brown leather jacket and black jeans, and in one hand she held a pistol with a silencer screwed onto the end of the barrel.
The silence was deafening for a long moment, and then the stranger spoke, in a cold, mocking tone. "My, my, what a welcoming committee. Is all that for me?" The words shook Rickie out of her stunned state. The woman across the room from her seemed to sense it, and continued, "Drop the towel, sweetie, and back away. Do it now!"
Rickie complied. She felt sweat turning cold on her back, as the woman herded her into the living room.
"Sit down in that chair facing the elevator", the woman commanded, "and let's keep our voices down, shall we?" she added, her tone conspiratorial. "No sense having Xena come charging right up here, is there? Not right now anyway. Not while we're getting to know each other".
The last sentence was spoken in a voice suggestive of oceans of pain and nights of screaming nightmares to come, and Rickie shuddered inwardly. As she felt the stranger's eyes wander all over her body, the feeling became an unholy crawling sensation under her skin.
She heard the light footsteps circling around behind her, and then felt the tepid breath of the assassin on her ear, as she said, in a whisper, "Does she make you scream at night, sweetie? Can she take you right to the edge and over it?"
Rickie suddenly felt cold metal on her right temple, and in the corner of her eye, the long silencer on the woman's pistol came into view.
"When all this is over", the whisper continued, "I think I'll take you with me. See if I can't make you scream as well. Make you scream all night and all day, too", the whisper went on, and Rickie thought she heard the faint suggestion of a giggle.
With a loud clang, the elevator began going down to the ground floor, making Rickie jump.
"Oooh", the breath was blown on her neck. "Here comes the main event. Not a word now, sweetie. I want this to be a surprise."
The silencer tapped once, lightly, against Rickie's temple, and then vanished from view. She heard the light footsteps pad away, as the elevator came up from below. Through the not inconsiderable fear she felt, a single thought rang out with the iron strength of a cathedral bell: Oh, it'll be a surprise alright, bitch, but not the kind you wanted.
Xena wiped the worst of the smudges from her fingers as she rode the elevator up. It had taken much too long to find the fault for her tastes, and she hoped that Rickie wasn't already done with her shower. Well, maybe I can persuade her to take another, the dark woman thought with a grin, as the elevator clanged into place.
The sight that met her as she stepped from the lift was not what she'd expected: Rickie was sitting in one of the leather easy chairs facing the elevator, as naked as, but considerably more developed than, the day she'd been born. As Xena moved out of the elevator, a smile starting to form on her lips, she noticed something.
Rickie was naked, and looking as inviting as ever, but her facial expression was all wrong. It was not longing, or lust, or love, it was apprehension and fear that marked her beautiful features. Xena's brain had only just registered this when a voice rang out from beyond the grave.
Turning around seemed to take forever, and all the while ancient images danced before her eyes. A lanky blonde woman with fury and rage on her features, clad in black leather armor, with sword in hand, screeching like a banshee as innocent after innocent died by her hand. Flaming villages, chariots pounding along beaches, quicksand, lava... Callisto!
As her eyes fell upon the speaker, they told her brain that this dark-clad woman pointing the pistol at her was not her ancient tormentor. This woman's features, while similar, were not those of the hopefully long-dead goddess of hatred. As Xena looked at her, trying to gather her thoughts fast enough, the woman spoke again, her lilt again dredging up images of long ago.
"Oooh, your picture does not do you justice, Xena", she cooed, as she stepped forward.
"You killed Julia", Xena finally managed.
"Who?" the woman replied, and seemed to think for a short second. "Oh, you mean that Simpson bitch?" she said. "Why yes, I did kill her. I had to, her husband took too long telling me what I wanted to hear. Dreadful woman, by the way. No stomach for pain. If she hadn't been gagged, she'd have screamed her head off. Him too. Didn't take too well to seeing his wife die slowly before his eyes."
Feeling her rage building to a bubbling pitch inside her, Xena took a step forward.
"Ah ah ah Xena", the woman sneered, and quickly swung her pistol around to point it straight at Rickie. "You don't call the shots around here", she continued. "Now go back into the elevator, take it down, and stand in front of it at least 30 feet away. If I can't see you when I come down, the little sweetie will suffer for it", the woman said, accentuating her point by poking Rickie in the temple with the muzzle of her pistol. "Move!", she commanded, and Xena, her eyes filled with fury and hatred, slowly complied.
Getting out of the elevator on the ground floor, she sent it back up, and then moved to stand in front of her car, in full view of the elevator. All the while, her brain raced along in the highest gear, searching for a solution to the situation. She was still nowhere near one when the elevator door opened a second time.
Holding the still naked Rickie in a choke-hold, the white-haired woman pushed her out onto the cold concrete floor, and moved a few steps towards Xena. "Gooood", she cooed. "Now move over towards the door another 30 feet or so", she continued.
As Xena slowly complied, keeping the woman and her love in sight at all time, she thought she heard movement outside the warehouse.
"Come on, sweetie", the woman whispered in Rickie's ear, her hold on Rickie's throat tightening minutely, "We're going for a little drive."
She'd only just begun to push Rickie forward, when the little door set into the wall next to the big garage gate opened, distracting all three women. In strode a man in a grey trenchcoat. He wasn't very tall, had black hair, cut very short, and wore sunglasses. As he stepped further into the warehouse, he removed his glasses, and fixed a gaze as hard as steel on the woman holding Rickie.
"Hello, Mia", he said.
Rickie heard her captor draw in a breath, and then answer, "Hello, Grant. Took you long enough."
"You got sloppy, Mia", the man called Grant responded. "That woman you killed here in Portland. Too graphic, too you. It was just a matter of getting the police report."
"Yes, yes clever boy", the woman called Mia tittered. "You know that I'd have no trouble putting a bullet through your eye at this range, so why don't you just go away?"
"I can't do that, Mia", Grant responded, "and you didn't really think I came alone, did you?"
As if on cue, eight black-clad figures burst in through the door. Dressed in close assault gear and brandishing Heckler & Koch submachineguns, they quickly arrayed themselves around Grant in a semi-circle, pointing their weapons at the woman called Mia.
And at my Rickie, Xena thought. No, I can't let it end like this!
"Let the girl go, Mia," Grant commanded.
On a rooftop across the street, two men watched the scene in the warehouse. They wore the same black clothes as the men who'd just entered the building. One looked intently through a high-powered pair of binoculars, and the other sighted a 7.62mm rifle through an 8x Unertl sniper scope. His crosshairs were centered on a white-haired form on the ground floor of the warehouse.
"On target," he mouthed in a low voice, and his spotter relayed the information.
"So you can take me back? How stupid are you, Grant? I'm leaving here, and you're not stopping me!" Mia said, her voice rising in pitch at the end of her speech, as she began to move sideways towards the car, holding Rickie as a shield between herself and the black-clad men.
"I didn't come to take you back, Mia," Grant responded quietly.
"You..." she began, but she never finished the sentence.
"Shoot," Grant said.
Across the street, a finger tightened on a trigger. The shooter was an expert marksman, and his aim was true. It wasn't his fault that the projectile went minutely off course when it passed through the window.
In Xena's eyes, everything slowed down. As soon as the man called Grant spoke the last word, her reflexes made her body begin to leap forward, thinking to interpose herself between the black-clad men and her Rickie. As she leapt, her ears picked up the sound of a single gunshot, but there were no muzzle flashes, no hot blossoms of pain exploding across her body.
The projectile had been meant to strike the white-haired woman called Mia in a place that would cause an immediate shutdown of all muscular control, meant to make sure that she didn't pull the trigger on her weapon. Instead the impact of the projectile caused the exact opposite effect. It sparked a violent spasm.
As Xena's head came up, her vision zoomed in on the silenced pistol in Mia's hand. As she watched, a long finger jerkily pulled the trigger.
Rickie opened her eyes. The first sensation she felt was an absolutely skull-splitting headache. This was rapidly followed by the sensation of tightness caused by what turned out to be a bandage around her head. The redhead looked around. "Aw no, not another hospital room", she groaned loudly to herself. Where was Xena?
Her answer came in the next moment when the door opened. In strode her warrior, carrying an assortment of flowers and three bright silver balloons. "Hey, you're awake", Xena exclaimed, quickly setting down her burden, and rushing to the bedside, where she engulfed Rickie in a huge hug. This was followed by a long, passionate kiss. When Xena pulled back, reluctantly, she eyed her love with a serious expression on her face. "I thought we'd agreed. No more hospital reunions", she began, but her light tone made a mockery of her serious demeanor.
"I'll remember to tell that to the next psycho who takes me hostage", Rickie retorted, not sounding nearly as jolly as Xena.
"Okay, sorry", Xena said, pulling up a chair so she could sit down. "How do you feel?"
"Like somebody who got shot in the head", Rickie responded with a groan.
Xena smiled, and reached out to cup Rickie's cheek in her hand, "You were very lucky, my love. An inch more..."
"Yeah...", Rickie responded, her tone serious. The realization of how close it had come. How everything could have ended that day in the warehouse. It all hit her at once. To try and guide her mind away from that topic, the redhead continued, "Xena, who were those men?"
"I wish I knew, Rickie. They had yellow FBI markings on their gear, but if they were FBI, I'm J. Edgar Hoover." "Still, I guess we shouldn't complain", Xena continued. "That man, Grant, did have one of his men perform first aid on you. You were bleeding a lot, but even superficial head wounds do that. And then they just took that woman away and left. I talked to Emil about it, asked if the FBI had been involved, and he said that two Agents had been by the station, and gone through the reports". Xena paused, "I didn't give him the whole story. Didn't think it'd serve much purpose to dig anymore in this. He'd probably draw a blank anyway."
"Yeah, I guess", Rickie replied. There was another pause. Then Rickie continued, "Xena, who was that woman? I had this strange feeling that I knew her from somewhere."
Xena hesitated. "You did, Rickie. It's a long, long story."
"I'm not going anywhere. Tell me." The redhead's tone brooked no argument, and as the summer sun made the dustmotes dance in the air, Xena leaned in, and began speaking.
May 19th, 1999