Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.

Comments to Redhawk. No bad mouthin', lippy, attitude stuff. Honest criticism would be appreciated.

Part VII: Sunday

Xena looked up at the cloudy sky. The lights from the city below her reflected off the haze, giving the false appearance of dawn. She sat on a bench in the Rose Gardens, eyes distant and mind far away. The scent of flowers surrounded her in the cool air, soothing her, reminding her of her bard.

Since Gabrielle's demise, she had worked very hard at keeping her promise. For the most part, she had succeeded over the millenia. She went out of her way to help when she could, preferring to take hostages rather than kill outright when a choice was offered. But, the darkness in her soul never went away, never lessened. It was always there, lurking behind a corner of her mind. Xena made no mistake that it was some evil that had attached itself to her. It was her, a part that was always there and always would be. Darkness did not mean evil. Evil had nothing to do with it.

Sometimes, however, the darkness had to be allowed release before it destroyed her. The pressure in Xena's soul would build until allowing the beast free reign was the only option. It had taken a few centuries for her to control it to this extent and to understand its nature. Apparently, with age does come wisdom. When she had gone after the Wolf Company, the darkness had been given its head.

Xena knew then that the beast she had become had slaughtered every soldier she found. And she had found all of them. Of that she was sure. No immortals had been involved. So, who in Hades was there? Who did I miss?

She thought back to the fax and its message. "Remember me?" Did it refer to the chakram itself? Or the current owner.... James Something-or-other? Xena shook her dark head in puzzlement.

Again, she looked out over the city. It was time for her to get back home. Rickie's probably worried sick. Or pissed off..... And this thought brought a whole mess of other worries to her mind. What am I gonna do with her? This has nothing to do with the problem she's already in the middle of. Covering two fronts was not going to be easy. The warrior sighed deeply. Not that she hadn't done it before.

Xena rose from the bench and glanced around the gardens. She began trotting down the hill to where she had parked her car outside of the park, easily avoiding the patrol car that swung through Washington Park.

What the fuck am I doing here, anyway? Telesco asked himself for the hundredth time.

He was seated on the roof of a building at three fucking o'clock in the morning, a goon by his side who was munching on a chocolate bar and staring through nightscopes. Nearby was an ugly blue warehouse that they were observing. The address from the license plate, he grumbled. The dark man heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes. There's gotta be better things to do than this!

Telesco had been quite delighted to spot the redhead through the windows of the place. But, when he called Dartmouth on the cellphone, he had been told to keep up the observation. What for, he had no clue. I mean, shit! The girl's there! Nobody else around...let's get her while we can! Voicing his opinion to his employer, however, proved unintelligent. After hanging up, Telesco was surprised that the 'phone hadn't melted.

"Somebody's coming," the goon grunted.

Telesco yanked the nightscopes out of the other man's hands and settled his arms on the ledge to steady them. He watched a black Mustang approach. A garage door opened, an interior light shining through its maw. The car entered, the door closed. The man brought the 'scopes up to the second floor windows.

Xena entered her office and tossed her keys on the desk. Their momentum caused them to scuttle across the desk top, upsetting a crumpled fax sheet that had been carefully smoothed out. The dark woman glanced again at the fax but stolidly turned away. Nope. Not tonight. She'd deal with it in the morning.

She entered her apartment. The lights had been dimmed but weren't out. There were soft strains of music coming from the stereo - some alternative rock station. As Xena moved further into the living area, she found a form curled up on the couch, red gold hair peeking out from above a blanket. A slight smile softened the warrior's face.

Kneeling down next to the young woman, Xena shook her shoulder gently. "Rickie?"

No response. Just the deep, easy breathing of someone lost to Morpheus' grasp.

The dark woman tried again with the same results. She shook her head with a grin. Gods! They've got to be related - this girl and my bard! Chewing her lower lip, she considered her options. Coming to a conclusion, she rose to her feet. Being careful not to jostle too much, she picked Rickie up, cradling her in strong arms. Xena made her way upstairs to the bedroom.

Minutes later, with hardly more than a mumble from her charge, the woman had Rickie's shoes off and comfortably tucked into the large bed. She scooped the couch blanket up and prepared to head back downstairs.


"Shhh... Go back to sleep," she responded with a whisper.

Blurry green eyes peered at her. "Are you okay now?"

Xena smiled and patted the redhead's hand. "I'm fine. Don't worry about it. We'll talk in the morning." She tried to pull away, but Rickie had taken her hand in a firm grip.

"Stay here." The voice was a shy question, an authoritative command, a tender statement all rolled into one. At the raised eyebrow, Rickie continued, "It's a big bed, there's plenty of room. And I won't bite." With a sleepy grin, her mind added, Unless you want me to. She tugged on Xena's hand.

The dark woman's mind came up with a dozen instant excuses why she shouldn't. Unfortunately, it also came up with a hundred reasons why she should. She stood over the bed for an interminable time, unable to do one or the other. Rickie made the choice for her.

The redhead sat up and took the blanket out of Xena's hand. She squeezed the hand she held in hers and pulled. The dark woman had no choice but to try and disengage or get onto the bed without falling. Rickie was relieved when she chose the latter.

The younger woman eased Xena down on the bed next to her, pushing her down onto a pillow. With businesslike crispness, she removed the older woman's boots and dropped them to the floor. Covering her with the sheets, she whispered, "Pleasant journeys," lightly brushing a dark temple with her lips.

Xena lay stiff in the bed, apprehensive. She felt Rickie move to the other side of the bed and pull sheets over herself. "Um.... good night...." she mumbled. After several minutes, she forced her body to relax. She inhaled deeply and stretched her long form out. After a few moments, the steady, deep breathing of the redhead continued on, signifying sleep.

It was a long time before sleep claimed the warrior.

Warm hand on hers, strong, calloused. Sky blue pain filled eyes. Whisper of breath, raspy pain, gentle water, coolness in her throat. Contralto voice, words of love, caring. Weak response, strengthless, fading. Eternal thoughts, cool places, love and life, Elysium calling. Promise spoken, implied threat, heart's desire fading. Warm lips to cool, contralto voice, fading in blackness.

"I love you, Gabrielle. Never forget that."

Rickie climbed up from slumber at a slow, methodical pace. She snuggled closer against the body behind her, feeling a warm arm tighten across her belly in sleep. Wow. What a dream. Beats that last one, though, hands down, her mind muttered. As she floated further into consciousness, she felt the soft, regular breath stirring the hair near her ear.

Opening her eyes, she saw the dim light of morning. The sun had yet to rise. She lay on her right side, looking out the window. Rickie could feel the warmth of another along her back, spooning against her. A limber, tanned arm surrounded her waist, holding her close. The redhead's arm was draped over it, fingers wrapped in Xena's hand. She squeezed it slightly and hugged the arm to her with a smile. Mmmm.... I could get used to waking up like this.

Rickie lie still, drowsing and basking in the delicious closeness. She had only a vague recollection of being put to bed the night before. She had been pretty surprised when Xena had actually acquiesced and joined her. For some reason, I thought it'd be a lot more difficult. And wasn't there a kiss somewhere in there? She couldn't remember. Dammit!

As is the case upon occasion, despite the early morning hour, Rickie's mind would not let her drift back into the warmth of sleep. It picked up steam and chugged along at a fine pace.

The redhead was pretty sure of what was going on within herself. I'm falling, big time. She was unable to fathom what was going on with the dark and dangerous woman holding her. And Rickie had no doubt that she was dangerous. The dreams alone attested to it, on top of the sword practice the other morning and the Colt .45 casually tucked under Xena's arm. Dangerous in other ways, too, the younger woman mused sardonically, thinking of smokey blue eyes, low whispers, soft lips. She abruptly banished the thought, inhaling deeply to gain control.

Xena stirred slightly behind her, draping her leg over Rickie's calves. The redhead's eyes closed in faint consternation. Half her mind stated that this current situation was not going to be easy. The other half mourned the fact that the two women were still fully clothed.

Rickie reluctantly turned her mind to more serious matters. Her own predicament, for one. Somebody out there was after her. I've just been lucky, so far. Damn good thing I didn't get spotted yesterday. The young woman had no idea who it was and couldn't formulate a plan of action until she knew. Maybe I should just split town. Head to... I dunno.... I've been meaning to see Disneyland..... Her hair tickled her ear where Xena's breath moved it. Well, maybe I should stay here for a little while longer, she conceded.

Another thing. That fax last night. The dark woman had scared the hell out of her. That was the second time, too. She remembered Friday morning when she had mentioned the name of Ginsberg. Pretty much the same kinda response. Rickie remembered the sudden feeling of walls slammed into place within the other woman. And those eyes! Narrowed, cold, calculating. Seething, her mind added. Despite the warmth of the arm around her, the redhead shivered. What happens if she gets pissed off at you, huh, Rickster? The younger woman swallowed drily. Not a pleasant thought.

And what happens when this is all over? The redhead had no illusions that this situation would last forever. Thank God for that. Sooner or later, things would resolve themselves and she'd be back sleeping at the squat and hanging at the City. Xena would get tired of supporting her sooner or later. Hell, I'm surprised she still has me here. It's not like I can pay her fees for taking my case. Which begged the questions, why did she take my case? Why did she take me in off the streets? And just what the hell happened in the park yesterday??

Rickie frowned to herself. There was a whole lot here she wasn't privy to. She realized that the woman who helped her was an extremely private one. There's a good chance you'll never know much about her, girlfriend. Not in a million years. Of course, turnabout was fair play. There was a lot that Xena didn't know about the younger woman. If the two of them ever wanted to get past the initial phase of this relationship, they'd need a lot of work on trust issues. Jesus! Where the hell did that thought come from?!

The redhead was rather abruptly brought back to the present. The hand she was holding onto squeezed hers, the thumb idly moving back and forth across her belly. The arm about her waist hugged her and a low voice murmured in her ear, "Mighty early for you to be up, isn't it?"

Rickie shivered as goose bumps raised from her ear down her back and along her arm. Will her voice always do this to me? "Um... Maybe a little," she gulped.

"Another nightmare?" Xena moved away from the redhead, pulling on the hand she held to turn the younger woman over.

"No. Not quite. Just a weird dream." Rickie looked into the azure eyes that could see into her soul. They faced each other, their hands still clasped between them. The familiarity of the hand holding suddenly filled the redhead. Warm hand on hers, strong, calloused. Her green eyes narrowed, trying to catch the dream. This is soooo weird....

Xena propped herself up on her right arm, hand cradling her head. She released the young woman's hand and reached out, brushing errant red gold hair away from Rickie's face. "Wanna talk about it?" she asked, already expecting the refusal.

Wanting to keep contact and emboldened by the other woman's actions, Rickie placed her now free hand on Xena's waist just above the swell of her hip. "Well," she frowned, as she searched the wispy memory of dream, "you were in it. I remember your eyes." She smiled into those pale blue seas. "You were holding my hand."

The warrior listened, absently caressing the fine hair and shoulder of the woman next to her. As the dream telling progressed, her eyes narrowed. "What?"

"Um.... I dunno," Rickie shrugged a bit, deep in the dream search. "I was dying and you were there. You gave me water." Oddly, the more she rooted out the threads of the dream, the stronger the memory of it became. "You had been crying. You were in pain. For me, I think," the redhead said in wonder.

"Was there anyone else in the dream with us?" Xena choked out.

The younger woman frowned in concentration, casting. "No... um.... Yes. There were, but... I wasn't paying attention to them. They were just shadowy figures around the room we were in." She focused on Xena. "You wanted me to rest but I knew there wasn't time for what I had to say." Her hand left the dark woman's waist and reached up to cup her face. Her thumb lazily caressed Xena's cheek.

Blue eyes stared intently into green. "What did you say?" was the whispered question.

"Something about having many skills. I made you laugh a little. I had to see your smile before I left." Her thumb brushed soft lips. "You have a beautiful smile, you know," Rickie said quietly.

Not wanting to be distracted quite yet, Xena took the woman's hand in hers, placed a gentle kiss on the palm and moved it back to her waist. "Finish the dream," she said, eyes a turmoil.

Rickie took a steadying breath, ignoring the butterflies in her stomach and the tingle burn of arousal moving through her blood stream. "Uh.... Okay." A corner of her mind wondered what Xena found so intensely interesting, but she booted it aside and concentrated on the images and sounds flooding her. "You had said that I'd be waiting a long time for something. And I said that if I had to wait too long, I'd come and find you."

Xena froze, not even able to breathe.

Oblivious, the younger woman continued, caressing the other woman's side, eyes lost in distant memories. "Then it got darker. Kinda faded out like on a tv show before the commercial. I remember fields coming into focus, blue sky, people around me. But I missed you." She looked into wide blue eyes. "I heard you, though. You said you loved me and called me by another name. Um.... Gabrielle, I think."

Early morning. The crackle of phone lines.

"Just thought you should know. He's onto her." Quiet, matter of fact.

"When'd he find out?"

"Yesterday evening. Some deal got wiped out here in town. Apparently she's holding a murder witness that'd put his assistant in the slammer. Not to mention opening up a whole 'nother can of worms."

Pause. "What kind of worms?"

"Some information on assassins, police involvement, the usual dirty bag of tricks."

"What exactly does he know?"

"I'm not completely sure. He has an address, though. Been staking the place out since late last night."


"Yep." Pause. "Oh, and thanks for the info on Ginsberg. Conway wasn't able to track him to the site."

"Sure. Tell Conway I'm sorry. Gotta go. Kids are waking up."

"Adios." Click.

The man set the handset down on the receiver. He scrubbed his face with his hands. Shit, shit, shit! Now, what?

Regardless of the danger he was in, the man continued on. "But, we've found the girl, dammit! She's what we need! She's the witness who can finger both me and Doblie!" He paced the office, too excited to settle into one of the chairs.

Dartmouth was suddenly very weary of this man. Telesco is becoming extremely tedious. A show of force was needed now. A not so gentle reminder of who wielded the power in this game.

"And what course of action would you suggest?" he asked, rising from his chair.

Telesco stopped pacing, swinging around to freeze, impaled by stormy gray eyes and a voice heavy with sarcasm.

The tall blond man stalked his prey, moving from behind the desk and circling his associate. "Bust down the door? Guns ablazing?" he continued. With a sneer on his handsome face and in his voice, he said, "How... American."

As his employer moved behind him, Telesco swallowed convulsively. It occurred to him that he had just made a major mistake with his insistence. Tendrils of fear tickled his mind. He could feel Dartmouth behind him, stepping in close enough to feel the heat from the man's body.

"There is something else going on here that you are not privy to," came the low voice near Telesco's ear. "Nor will you become privy to it. It is none of your concern." The voice moved to the other ear. "You will drop this attempt at attaining a new playmate. And you will obey my wishes in this matter. Do you understand me?"

Telesco swallowed again and nodded, green eyes wide.

Dartmouth moved around to stand in front of his employee, a stilletto in his hand. Casually, he brought the blade up to Telesco's right ear. He tilted his head and looked into the man's eyes, his own eyes distant and unseeing. The blade sliced a thin line as it was traced from one ear to the other. Blood welled slightly in the cut, a drop snaking down from near the jugular vein. "Good."

The immortal stepped back, the stilletto disappearing. Eyes now focused on Telesco, he ordered, "Continue surveilance. Make no moves." He waved dismissal as he turned to the office window to stare at the morning light. He heard the hasty departure of his employee and then silence.

His mind toyed with thoughts of an angel at his mercy.

Ringing phone, insistent in the early morning hours.

"Yeah?" Irritated, distracted.

"It's me."

"Look, I don't have time to talk right now..."

"Tough. I've got some information that you need. Meet me for breakfast at IHOP. Half an hour. Bring your friend. It concerns her, too"

"Later. How about lunch or something?"

"No!" Pause. "You're being followed. Someone's watching your place." Another pause. "It's not safe anymore."

Long silence. Steady breathing. "We'll be there." Dangerous growl. Click.

God, what the hell am I doing? The man set the phone down and moved away from the bed to get dressed.

Xena hung up the phone with a growl. Someone's watching, she reminded herself. She had sat up in the bed during the short conversation, disconnecting herself from the redhead still relaxed on the bed. Now the dark woman rose and stretched languidly. She moved towards a window and made a quick scan of the street. Here kitty, kitty, kitty.

Behind her, Rickie sat up and gathered the sheet around her. "We going somewhere?" she asked, a little disconcerted with the other woman's sudden change of mood. She could have sworn that Xena had been about to say or do something - who knew what - in response to the dream.

Xena glanced back at her with a slight predatory smile. Her eyes sparkled darkly. "Yeah. Breakfast. Let's get going. I wanna be outta here in fifteen minutes."

The trip to the International House of Pancakes began in silence. Rickie knew that her friend's anger and frustration were just below the surface. She didn't know how she knew, just that she did. The redhead had no clue who they were meeting, either. Maybe it has something to do with that fax.

Xena kept an eye glued on her mirrors. She took a long, circuitous route to the restaurant, watching traffic carefully. There! The dark blue sedan! The woman took another couple of irrational turns, watching the car behind keep pace. He was right! What the Hades...? She glanced over to make sure that Rickie had her seatbelt on. "Hang on, we've got company behind us," she grated, picking up speed.

They had been heading for the Broadway Bridge to cross the Williamette River near the Rose Quarter. Xena doubled back the way they had come, keeping up her speed and making sudden turns. The driver of the sedan gave up all pretense of innocence and followed, burning rubber on some of the corners.

Eventually, the game of cat and mouse through the downtown area resulted in the mouse, being far more malignant and lethal than the cat would ever know, gaining a lead by several blocks. Racing down SW Naito Parkway, the Mustang took a sharp turn to the right and screeched into the covered front apron of the Portland Marriott Downtown Hotel. Xena hit the brakes, and pulled the car to the right, hugging the building extension. Seconds later, the sedan zipped past to turn onto Clay and head south.

The dark woman put the car in park, leaving the engine idling. "You okay?" she asked, looking at her passenger with concern.

"Yeah. I'm fine," was the reassuring answer. "Who the hell was that?"

"Dunno. Gonna be finding out, though." Thank the gods for evasive driving classes. Xena glanced to the left and saw the hotel valet approach. She rolled down her window. "Hey, when does the restaurant open up here?"

The boy checked his watch. "In about fifteen minutes. Would you like me to park your car for you? Or do you want to leave it here?"

The warrior pretended to consider it, then shook her head. "Naw. Don't wanna wait that long. Thanks anyway." She rolled the window back up and pulled forward on the apron, aiming for the exit. The boy looked at her with a bit of confusion before shaking his head and wandering back to the podium in front of the hotel.

After getting back onto Naito Parkway, Xena pulled a U turn at the corner of Clay and backtracked for the Morrison Bridge. Time to find out what the hell was going on.

As they entered, Xena scanned the restaurant, narrowed eyes finding her contact. The man stood and waved the two women to a back booth he had allocated.

"Emil!" Rickie exclaimed. She strode forward with a smile and gave the police officer a hug. "Just couldn't stay away from us, eh?"

Holt grinned. "You know it, Rickie. C'mon, sit down. I haven't ordered, yet."

The trio settled into the booth. Holt engaged in small talk while studying his menu, a blatant attempt at lightening the atmosphere surrounding them. The redhead felt the tension rolling off her friend and followed the police officer's lead, chatting about his boys and the fun they had had the day before. Xena barely glanced at her menu, feigning indifference to the domestic chatter, one arm draped on the back of the booth behind Rickie.

After the waitress had taken their order and served them coffee, the ebony haired woman pinned Holt under her narrowed gaze. "What do you know?"

The police officer nervously cleared his throat. Shall we dance? "Some information has come across my desk recently regarding an individual trying to open up an organized crime circuit here in the Pacific Northwest." He pulled a thin file from his briefcase and handed it to Xena. As she flipped through it, he continued, "His name's Dartmouth. He's succeeded quite well in the Seattle area with the gun and drug market. Has his fingers in the Native American gambling pots in the state of Washington. He's here in Portland now. We think he was trying to get gambling legalized here as well as hook up with the streetgangs."

Rickie looked surprised at the name, remembering the fax sheet on Xena's desk. She gazed curiously over her friend's shoulder, a hand resting on the other woman's thigh.

The warrior recognized the name, as well, but not the face of the photos that looked up at her. "What's this got to do with us?" she demanded with a frown.

"There was a murder recently. I think we all know who was there."

The redhead gasped, green eyes wide. Her hand tightened its hold on Xena. Oh, no! Oh, shit! Oh, crap! her mind babbled.

Sky blue eyes narrowed dangerously and Holt found himself looking at a woman he didn't know. A woman who would break him in half if he so much as breathed wrong. He swallowed hard and held her gaze.

"What exactly are you implying here, Holt?" the low voice asked. It was seductive with the ominous promise of torment should he answer incorrectly.

Holt took a quick sip of water to ease his dry mouth. Forging onward, he responded, "I'm implying that your new friend here saw something she shouldn't have. And they've located her. And you're both in some serious hot water with these people."

Under the table, Xena took the young woman's hand in her own and held it. "Is this an official visit?"

"No." At the sardonically raised eyebrow, he continued. "Somehow, PPD is involved. I don't want the wrong people getting ahold of this."

The waitress chose this moment to arrive with their meals. Holt sat back, a bit relieved at the interruption. He felt a bit of surprise that the revelation of police involvement with Dartmouth hadn't raised any questions. Murder witness. Police involved. And not a hint of surprise. That officer that got shot downtown last week? Damn, this is getting scarier and scarier.

The three stared at their food, no one hungry. The silence didn't last for long.

"You think the cops are involved? How'd you get this information?" Rickie asked quietly.

Holt shrugged. "I can't say." He grimaced at Xena's glare and growl. "No! I can't! It's that simple!" The man looked out the window at passing traffic. "Look, Xe, you do your job. I'll do mine. You're not the only one protecting people here." His brown eyes returned to the warrior's.

Xena conceded the point with a regal nod. There's something more to this. He's not telling everything. And what's this got to do with my chakram? She broke the tableau by adjusting herself at the table and reaching for her coffee cup. "So. What now?"

Thankful that the immediate storm had apparently passed with no damage done, the police officer outlined his plan.

Xena pushed her way through the screen door and paused, arms laden with brown paper sacks. She glanced around the dim living room and sniffed. The smell of mustiness and a room long closed assailed her nostrils.

"Kitchen's back here," she heard a voice call.

She used a foot to prop open the screen for the golden woman behind her, similarly bogged down with the results of their grocery trip. "You got it?"

"Yeah," Rickie grunted and wedged herself in between the screen and frame.

The darker woman crossed the living room in only four strides. She entered a tiny alcove with three doors. To the right was an open entry to a small kitchen. Holt was unloading a bag of food into the ancient refrigerator. Xena moved into the room and set her bags down on the dinette table. As Rickie entered, she liberated her companion of her burden, shoving them onto the table as well. "I've gotta get some other stuff out of the car," she told the younger woman, one palm lightly caressing Rickie's upper arm. "Why don't you stay here and help Emil?"

"Okay," was the cheerful response. With an impish grin, the redhead hopped up on tiptoe and brushed Xena's lips with a kiss. The grin widened at the startled blue gaze and she turned away to help unload the groceries.

Xena blinked. She turned and left the kitchen. As she stepped out the door of the small house, she smirked. Two can play at that game, she thought, padding to her car.

Holt watched his friend leave out of the corner of his eye. He smiled to himself. It would be nice to see Xena truly happy. He surreptitiously studied the redhead as they worked and chatted together, wondering who she was and how she had, after all these many years, caught the warrior's heart.

The dark woman popped the trunk of her car, glad she had had the presence of mind to grab some gear out of the van before they had left the warehouse. And, despite the danger of being under surveillance, she had packed a quick bag for Rickie at the last minute. She pulled a large military duffle bag from the trunk and slung the weight over her shoulder. The other hand came up with a medium size black bag - her 'riot gear.'

After depositing her gear in the living room, she returned for a second trip. She closed the trunk and fished a backpack and computer bag from the back seat. She closed the door and returned to the house.

"Emil! Where's the keys! I wanna pull the car into that shed out there," she said from the kitchen door. Xena deftly plucked the keys out of the air as they sailed towards her. "Thanks." And she was gone.

The pair in the kitchen finished up their chore and began folding the bags, carrying on their conversation.

"So, anyhow," Holt went on, "after my uncle died, my cousin decided to contest the will. This place was in probate limbo for months! We've only just gotten through it."

"Did your cousin get what he wanted?" Rickie asked curiously.

"Oh, yeah.... And then some...." The police officer grinned. "He got all the back taxes, too!"

The two chuckled together and finished up, placing the folded bags under the sink. Rickie stood with hands on hips and surveyed the kitchen. "It's not a bad little place," she remarked.

"Actually, no, it isn't. We're planning on selling it, though. No reason for two residences in the same city. Besides, the property taxes on two places are just a bit steep for a working joe like me." Holt threw open the window over the sink. "C'mon, lemme give you the nickel tour."

The house was small and seated on a corner in North Portland. The police officer showed Rickie the utility room behind the kitchen which housed a washer and dryer. Outside was a small overgrown lawn. Going back inside, he pointed out the bathroom and two bedrooms.

"Only one bedroom is up and ready," Holt explained. "My uncle used the second room as a workshop slash storage slash pantry area." He threw open the door and showed the young woman the bookshelves, piles of boxes and the neat work area in the corner. "So, the two of you will have to fight over who gets the couch."

"Oh, I don't think that'll be a problem," Rickie said winsomely, her voice low.

The officer glanced over sharply at her, catching a soft, albeit wicked, smile. Xe! his mind called. You better watch out, lady! I think you've met your match!

Xena opened the shed and stepped inside. She surveyed the area closely, finally deciding that her car would definitely fit into the cramped space. She re-situated a decrepit barbecuer and returned to the Mustang. After pulling the vehicle in, she turned off the motor and remained in the car, needing the solitude.

It was dark, musty and warm in the shed. Not overpoweringly so. The smells of motor oil, dust, and wood filled the air. There was just enough light from the dirt encrusted window to see by. But Xena was oblivious, her mind elsewhere.

Rickie's dream. Gabrielle's death.

The warrior had worked her way past the physical resemblance between her love and this young woman she had encountered. While it was very uncanny, over the millenia she had seen others that had come close to her heart's countenance. It's just that Rickie's the closest next to Janice Covington. And some of the redhead's mannerisms were familiar, but Xena wasn't sure if that was reality or her own mind. Memories were fickle and what one remembered changed over the years. It has been two thousand years since I've seen her, the woman conceded, idly running her hands over the steering wheel of the car.

But the dream.

The dream. That put a whole different twist to the situation. Xena could only come down to three possibilities. One, her bard had gotten tired of waiting and had found a way to influence this young woman from Elysium. And patience never was her strong suit. If this is the case, I'm surprised she held back for so long.

Two, her bard had, again, gotten tired of waiting and had convinced Hades to let her go. The dark woman wouldn't put it past her love. Having been on the receiving end of many a persuasive conversation, she knew that Gabrielle could charm the birds from the trees to fly upside down. Hades wouldn't have known what hit him. She grinned at the thought.

The only other likelihood was that she had gone absolutely, totally around the bend. Crackers. A few clowns short of a circus. All foam, no beer. She sighed. This idea was probably the most unlikely. More's the pity.

Of the first two, Xena couldn't help but hope that it was the second - her bard winning through some weird contest of wills with the gods to return to her. Despite herself, however, there was a wrongness here. If Rickie is Gabrielle, she's still Rickie Gardner - a young woman with a lifetime of experiences that make her who she is.

Basically, what it all boiled down to was that Rickie was an individual unto herself, regardless of any influence or essence from Gabrielle that she might have. Over the few days that they had been together, Xena had noticed some differences, separating the two in her mind.

The redhead absolutely detested shopping, for one. At the Pepsi Fun Center the day before, Xena could barely keep her in sight as they went through the display tents. It appeared that Rickie would decide what she wanted, go get it, and get out of whatever store or shop or booth she was at. Probably why I didn't find her at the mall last week, Xena chuckled. And nutbread.... She hates nuts. They were little things, but they were there and it threw the warrior off.

Gabrielle, even at the tender age of sixty, had a way of looking at the world that was at best, wondrous. At worse, naive. Not so, Rickie. The hard life she had chosen for herself had quashed any innocent tendencies. That wasn't to say she didn't see things with joy. Just not to the same extent that the bard had.

Over the centuries, Xena hadn't been chaste. She snorted to herself. She had felt lust regularly, infatuation occasionally, but never love. Not since Gabrielle. And that is the crux of the problem, ain't it, lady? You're falling in love with this girl.

Which, of course, posed the next question. "Now what?" Xena asked the still air.

The women stood at the doorway, watching Holt pull away from the curb. As Xena closed and locked the door, Rickie moved away with a sigh. She stood in the middle of the living room, arms crossed in front of her. A moment later she felt warm hands on her upper arms.

"What's wrong?" the low voice inquired.

Rickie bit her lower lip. She debated whether or not to spill her guts.

"Hey." Xena gently squeezed the younger woman's arms. "It'll all work out. No worries."

The redhead turned in Xena's arms and put her hands on the other woman's waist. "I'm sorry," she blurted. "This is all my fault."

The dark brow furrowed. "Look, you can't help being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's no blame to place for this predicament except on the heads of those men in the park."

Rickie dropped her head with a groan, leaning her forehead against Xena's chest. "No, no. I knew they were looking for me and I didn't tell you."

"What? You knew? How?"

And the redhead explained, citing her conversation with her friend in the park. Of the two large men asking for her, of the streetkids out on a mission to locate her. She hung her head, red gold hair falling forward to cover her face. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

"So that's what you were looking for," Xena breathed. She watched the head nod in agreement.

Long fingers gently lifted Rickie's chin until she was looking into pale blue eyes. Xena's other hand brushed hair away from her eyes and neatly tucked it behind her ear.

"It's okay. We'll make it through. I'm an expert at kicking butt and taking names," Xena grinned.

Despite herself, Rickie broke into a lopsided grin.

"Oh, yeah. Much better," the dark woman remarked. Her thumb grazed Rickie's lower lip, tickling. "You know, you're smile is beautiful too."

The redhead felt the pressure of Xena's hand running along her scalp to the back of her head. It gently and inexorably pulled her closer until she could feel the other woman's breath on her face. Rickie's heart rate sped up and she leaned into the seductive blue gaze. As their lips met, she sighed and closed her eyes, lost to the sensations.

The kiss was warm and electric, soft and exciting. Rickie parted her lips, inviting, drawing the dark woman in. And Xena accepted the invitation. The kiss deepened, their breath mingling. Tongues languidly danced together in slow exploration.

The smaller woman's arms inevitably snaked their way up Xena's arms and behind her neck, fingertips feeling the musculature beneath the thin cloth of the t-shirt, the fullness of raven hair. She molded her body to the warrior's. There was a low moan upon the full body contact. Neither knew who had voiced it, nor did they care.

Xena's hands were buried in silky hair, caressing the softness of spun gold. She felt smaller hands on her shoulders and a body pressed to hers, fitting her, completing her. So long, her mind babbled. So long.

The warrior had only wanted to taste those lips, nothing more. But the ages old banked fires within burst forth and there was no stopping now. All sensible thought fled, to be replaced with a whirlwind of dark passion that hadn't seen the light of day in millenia.

With a low growl, Rickie broke off the kiss to nip and bite at Xena's jawline, leaving a moist trail to the tempting throat. As she reached her prize, the moan from that throat further incited her and she bit down, suckling.

"Gods!" Xena whispered, her mouth dry. Her mind conjured up a flash of the Baccae. Golden eyes, pale skin. The rush of desire through her body weakened her knees. It was time to either sit down or fall down. She kept one hand behind the golden woman's head, to keep from losing contact with those wonderful teeth and lips. She tried to disengage their bodies long enough to pick the smaller woman up, but Rickie was having none of it. She growled again, strong arms tightening across Xena's neck, nails digging in for purchase along broad shoulders. One of her hands found the back of the warrior's neck and pressed it closer, her teeth getting a firmer grip.

Sensing she wasn't long for standing up, the dark woman tried another tact. She released her Baccae's head, fingers tingling at the loss, and ran strong hands past shoulders and sides. Xena bent at the knees slightly, bringing her hands past the gentle swell of hips and around the firmness of buttocks. With a smooth movement, she stood, lifting the younger woman. In response, Rickie murmured against her throat in contentment and wrapped powerful legs around the dark woman's waist. Almost stumbling, the dark woman took two strides to the old couch along the wall and sat down, Rickie straddling her lap.

The redhead let go of Xena's throat, her tongue licking its way up to an ear. Grasping the lobe between white teeth, she bit down tenderly and was rewarded with a moaning sigh. She felt hands run up her thighs to her waist and fumble where her shirt was tucked into her shorts. Seconds later, those calloused hands stroked her back and sensitive sides, lightly brushing the sides of her breasts. Rickie sighed and traced the woman's ear with her tongue, warm breath whispering unevenly.

Not wanting to lose the contact on her ear but helpless to the need pulsing through her, Xena brought her own lips to the lightly tanned throat before her. One hand moved up the golden woman's back to cradle the back of her head. The other caressed Rickie's right breast under the shirt, discovering the pierced nipple and drawing circles around it. Her thumb felt the nipple harden and she rolled the jewelry between her fingers. The redhead moaned and arched her back under the onslaught. Xena leaned forward with her, nibbling the hollow of her throat and feeling the pressure of hips grinding into her pelvis.

"This thing's gotta go," she growled, tugging at the offending shirt between her and her desire. Within seconds the shirt was gone, affording Xena her first glimpse of promise. She leaned forward, wanting to taste the sweet flesh, but was stopped by an insistent hand on her shoulder. She growled again and looked up into hooded green eyes. There was a tugging on her own shirt.

"This has got to go, too," Rickie husked, licking her lips in anticipation.

Watching that pink tongue dart from between those lips and seeing the smouldering arousal within emerald eyes galvanized Xena. In short order, her shirt and bra were on the floor, as well. The delicious feel of skin on skin drove them to a higher plateau of yearning. They forcefully came together, lips crushing each other in a frenzy of tongues, teeth, and breath.

Rickie's hands roamed over the warrior's arms and shoulders, leaving a trail of goosebumps. She ran her hands into the luxurious hair and broke off the kiss, guiding Xena's head downwards. She gasped at the contact of fiery kisses down her throat. As a tongue circled her nipple, she clutched at her lover's shoulder and moaned. "Oh, God, that feels good," she muttered, feeling teeth gently grasp and pull. Her head fell forward and she rained kisses on top of the dark head she held. Her hips unconsciously thrust in slow increments against Xena.

The warrior smiled and abandoned the breast, working her way to the right one. Her hands, warm and calloused, caressed Rickie's back and sides. "Tastes good, too," she murmured and then sucked the right nipple into her mouth. She rolled it around with her tongue, nipped it with her teeth. Pulling on the nipple ring, she reveled in the gasp and shudder that raced through the lithe body.

The redhead was torn between her desire to partake of this woman pleasuring her and relaxing to the ministrations of the hands and mouth on her body. Unable to stay passive for long, she firmly grasped the thick hair her hands were wrapped in and pulled, forcing Xena's head back and away. Rickie gasped at the loss of contact and the coolness of air assailing her wet breast. She mock glared into bewildered blue eyes. "Oh, no," she rasped. "I'm hungry, too." With that, she descended on the previously abandoned throat. The golden woman twisted to her left, forcing Xena to slide down the couch. Soon, the warrior was laid out on her back while Rickie licked a delicate path along her body. With her hands free, the redhead caressed and massaged the taut abdominal muscles, relishing the way they trembled and jumped at the contact. Her lips and tongue found the dark areola and teased it, causing it to harden under her attentions. One hand slid up the stomach muscles to knead Xena's other breast.

Xena writhed under the onslaught, low voice moaning. Her hands roamed the redhead's arms, shoulders and head, grasping. She thrust herself against the other woman's grinding hips. The angle wasn't quite right and it was maddening and delicious, the pulsing ache and wetness between her thighs. She drew Rickie back up and met her with a savage kiss, hands sliding down the younger woman's back and fingers digging into the softness of her hips and bottom. Her hands met cloth and Xena realized in a lust filled fog that they were both still partly dressed.

"Mmm... uh... wait..." she whispered between incendiary kisses. One hand flailed for the back of the couch and gave her the leverage she needed to sit up. "Gods... mmmm... hold on..."

"No..." was the growled response and teeth nibbled at Xena's lower lip. Rickie surged forward, attempting to push the warrior back down to the couch.

The dark woman almost lost the battle, but was able to maintain enough presence of mind to focus on what the problem was. Baccae is right, she chuckled to herself. "Shorts... mmmm... pants..." she grated breathlessly. "Now..."

As the words sank in, Rickie straightened, head up and simmering green eyes looking askance ceilingward. She held Xena's head to her chest as she swallowed, struggling to gain control of herself. Once successful, she gave a quick nod. "Right," she said crisply. And she clambered off of the warrior, divesting herself of her remaining clothing.

As her lover stood, the redhead batted hands away. "Uh uh." She looked into smoky blue eyes. "Let me," she murmured softly, offering her lips for a kiss as she fumbled with the belt buckle before her. She captured the mouth above hers, moaning at the fingernails running down her back and to her rear. Within minutes she had Xena completely undressed and seated back on the couch. Rickie knelt on the floor between her knees, placing feathery kisses along the insides of the dark woman's legs. She nibbled her way up strong thighs, being sure to not neglect a square inch. Her hands ran along the outside of those same thighs to the hips, before scratching a carnal trail back down.

Helpless now to the sensations rolling through her body, Xena laid her head on the back of the couch. Her eyes were hooded and mouth parted, breathing erratically. She wrapped her left hand in the thick red gold hair, urging her lover closer, begging for the contact. Her right hand rose unbidden to caress her breast, fingers expertly teasing the nipple. She gasped and sighed as Rickie boldly stroked her center with a warm tongue. "Yesss..." she whispered.

The redhead licked the outer lips of her lover, exulting in the musky essence that assailed her nose. She brought her fingers to Xena's opening and moved aside the flesh, allowing her tongue greater access to the velvety folds. Her fingers were drenched and she moaned at the smell and taste of this salty treat. Eagerly she drank it up, applying herself to her task with a vengeance. The slick fingers found what she was looking for and plunged into the dark woman, filling her. As Xena bucked against the younger woman's head, Rickie wrapped her other arm firmly around the waist above her and held on. Her lips and tongue discovered the hard nubbin of flesh and she lavished it with attention.

As the pressure built to a fevered pitch, the warrior's hips rocked of their own accord. She felt Rickie on and in her, teasing her closer and closer to the edge. Her hand forgot her breast, both hands now buried in the redhead's silky hair. Gradually, all of her being focused on one sweet, responsive spot. And then she was falling.

"Oh, gods, Rickie!" she exploded breathlessly, clutching the younger woman tightly, riding the waves crashing over her. Xena moaned and gasped as the convulsions slowed.

Rickie waited until the muscles gripping her fingers loosened. She gently pulled her hand away. Using her tongue, she lapped up the resulting liquid before lifting her head. There was a final jerk of her lover's hips at the loss of contact and the redhead heard a gentle sigh. She looked up into smiling blue eyes with an impish grin. She leaned into the hand caressing her hair, humming with pleasure.

"C'mere," the warrior said in a lazy voice. As the younger woman rose to unsteady feet, Xena lay down on her side and pulled Rickie down to lay on her back. It was a tight fit, which made it all the more worth it. The dark woman draped a leg over hers and swept red gold hair away from the flushed face. As she ran the same hand down the golden woman's side and stomach, she whispered, "We're not done, yet."

Rickie whimpered at the eroticism in the voice and eyes. She found her mouth seized in a savage kiss that took all thought and breath away.

Xena tasted herself on her lover's tongue and felt the fires rekindle in her soul. Gods, will I ever get enough of her? In no time, she had the younger woman back to a high state of arousal. She suckled a breast, brushed a path down a thigh, and listened to the symphony of sighs and moans from the beautiful mouth. Rising on one arm, she slowly settled herself along Rickie's length, her thigh pressing comfortably against the woman's wetness. The redhead immediately began moving against her, humping her leg.

A hand worked it's way down a taut stomach and fingers played through reddish curls. Two fingers dipped into the hot moisture and there was a breathless moan. And then the fingers were gone. Rickie opened her eyes to see the dark woman, eyes slitted in pleasure, licking her fingers clean. "Oh, Jesus," she groaned, closing her eyes at the erotic sight. She clutched the woman to her, felt lips on hers, and savored her own flavor on her lover. Breaking the kiss off, she whispered urgently, "Take me... please..."

Always one to oblige a request, Xena returned her hand to slippery flesh, entering and exploring. Her fingers moved in an age old rhythm matching the thrusts of her thigh against her lover. She could feel the muscles tighten on her hand and the hips beneath hers pick up speed and force.

"Xena... yesss... ooohh..." Rickie panted. She could feel focus of her desire gaining intensity, throbbing with each thrust of hip and fingers. A hot mouth descended upon her pierced nipple and bit down, stabbing a sharp and welcome pain down to her core and pushing her over the threshold. "Xena! Oh... oh... oh..."

The warrior held Rickie, slowing and guiding her back down from the pinnacle. As the redhead's breath evened out and heartrate slowed, Xena removed her hand and held her lover. Wrapped in each other's arms, they drowsed.


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