Is she flirting with me? Nah. Can't be. But this dress. It's absolutely gorgeous!
"Why don't you try it on and make sure it fits?" Xena continued, making a great show of looking at her watch, though her innate time-sense was as perfect as ever. "We don't have much time if we're gonna make it there by seven."
"Oh. Yeah. Right. Ok. I'll just . . .go and try this on," Sara said, standing slowly and gesturing to the bathroom with her free hand. "Be right back."
"You do that," Xena remarked in a low rumble as she turned back to her computer.
Closing the door securely behind her, Sara placed the garment bag on the hook set in the door panel and finished unzipping it. With a look of wonder, she removed the shimmering dress from its encasement, twirling the hanger on one finger, eyes mesmerized by the interplay of light glinting off the swirling beadwork. The exquisite garment was of a blue green color Sara could only describe as sea-foam. Sedate beadwork of emerald green swirled through the fabric, giving the silky material a sense of texture and depth. Spaghetti straps connected to a mid-depth bodice that would hint at hidden charms rather than display them vulgarly. The rest of the dress hung straight in soft planes, ending just above the knee. Pumps dyed the exact color of the dress completed the ensemble.
Slipping out of her comfortable togs, Sara took a deep breath and slid into the dress, luxuriating in the feel of smooth silk playing against her bare skin. She twirled once, giggling as the skirt flared out and then resettled, brushing gently against her lower thighs. She spared a brief prayer of thanks for tanning beds, since hose did not seem to come with the outfit. Shrugging, Sara slipped on the pumps and stood before the mirror, entranced in the image displayed before her. Well, Sara, you sure do clean up nice, as they say. Now if we can only figure out what to do with your hair.
Thinking for a few moments, and realizing that time was running short, Sara decided upon a simple french braid, and wove the strands of her thick honey hair together without too much of a fuss. A bit of color from Xena's professional-quality (but, apparently, little used, but then again, with a face like that, who needed make-up?) cosmetics assortment, and she felt as presentable as she was going to get.
With one last assessing look, Sara breathed deep and stepped out into the motel's main room.
Hearing the door open, Xena turned quickly from her computer program, then froze, her mouth going dry and her heart double thumping in her chest. Oh Blessed Aphrodite. Don't stare, or by all the gods, you'll scare her right back into the bathroom. Apparently, though, the warrior's eyes were not on speaking terms with the rest of her brain, for they unconcernedly continued on their merry little journey of Sara's lithe form.
Luckily for Xena, Sara's run-ins with the seamier side of life had decreased her self-confidence to a level that had her completely mistaking Xena's rapt attention. "Do I . . .do I look ok?" she asked in a small voice.
"You look wonderful," Xena replied in a voice just a tad deeper and more husky than she had intended. Other body parts were clamoring for attention as a warm, tingling flush spread from the warrior's stomach outwards. Grabbing the table in one white-knuckled fist, Xena pushed herself out of her chair, forcing her eyes to finally break contact with the vision displayed before her. A cold shower was definitely in order. "My turn," she said, smiling slightly and edging sideways, keeping her newly sensitized body out of contact with Sara's, yet feeling the warmth of the young woman even within the distance she so carefully kept between them. A very cold shower.
Grabbing a garment bag of her own, Xena stepped into the bathroom with alacrity, closing the door firmly and leaning against its cool painted surface, eyes shutting as she expelled the breath she'd been holding since Sara stepped into the room. Not one of your more brilliant ideas, warrior. Any thoughts on how you're going to keep your hands off her for the entire evening? Hmmmm??
"Oh shut up," she muttered to that damnable internal voice, her constant companion since the day that Hercules helped her turn to the path of goodness. Pushing herself away from the cool, firm support of the bathroom door, Xena stepped to the shower and turned on the cold water, stripping quickly and stepping in, resisting the urge to gasp at the frigidity which drenched her overheated body.
Lathering up was beginning to counteract the effect of the water's desensitizing cold, so the warrior settled for just the bare necessities before quickly shutting the water off and stepping back out of the tub. She toweled off quickly and roughly, lashing the now wet towel to her hips and grabbing the blow drier. Since she'd managed to get away with just the minimum amount of dampness, her shining black locks were dried in record time and she shut the drier down, placing it next to the cosmetics kit.
Pulling the raven mane off her neck, Xena secured it up with a sapphire encrusted hair-clasp, allowing soft tendrils to rest gently along the arched planes of her face. It was a look she'd used to seduce Iolaus, and as such, not one she normally wore, the shame of that particular event still present within her even after ages had passed. But "The Temptress" was a skill she'd mastered early on, and to her warrior's mind, whatever worked, worked.
The make-up came next, the application and wearing of such being a skill she wished she'd never had to master. Luckily, her skin's natural tones and supple youthfulness spared her hours of searching for just the right image.
Eschewing hose as the U.S.'s second worst invention, Xena slipped into her dress. It was a deep, royal blue that served to darken her normally pale eyes several shades. Silky, semi-wide straps fell gently off her broad shoulders and the bodice was almost the same depth as her ancient warrior's leathers. The rest of the dress fell, like Sara's, in straight lines, enhancing feminine curves not readily seen in her usual, preferred attire. The length was slightly shorter than Sara's, showing an eye-catching length of long, tanned, muscled thigh, tantalizing without being risqué. The length also afforded her ample kicking room, should she have the need. Ripping kicking-slits in dresses which cost a fortune was something Xena preferred to avoid when at all possible.
Slipping on her matching pumps, the height of which, while not being unreasonable, would cause her to tower over most of the men gathered tonight, Xena took a last long look in the mirror and turned from the bathroom.
Sara's thoughts when she looked up from the TV, while not equaling Xena's in erotic intent, more than made up for it in sheer, unadulterated awe. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped as she watched the warrior make her way into the main room. "Wow," she said, totally unaware that she'd even made a sound.
Xena looked at Sara, then over her own shoulder, then back again. "What?"
"You! You're gorgeous! You look like you just stepped out of a fashion magazine!"
Gotta check to see if there's any henbane-laced nutbread lying around. "Thanks," she said aloud, smiling crookedly. "I'm glad you approve."
Sara grinned. "Oh, I approve, alright. Especially since we're not going out looking for dates. One look at you and I'd be pushed to the back of the restaurant somewhere, watching my hair wilt."
"Nonsense. You're a beautiful woman." You always were. And you always will be.
"I suppose," Sara agreed reluctantly. "Still, I'd do better without the competition."
"Then I guess it's lucky for both of us that looking for night-time companionship is the last thing on my mind right now, hmmm?" Liar!
"Yeah . . .lucky," Sara replied with a hint of dryness in her voice.
Handing the young woman a simple woven wrap, the warrior quirked an eyebrow. "These won't be too much for warmth, but the car's just outside, so we should be ok."
As Sara turned to put the wrap around her shoulders, Xena took the opportunity to slip on some accoutrements that definitely did not go with her outfit. When the young blonde turned back, the warrior was hard-pressed to bite back a smirk. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Let's go then."
And so they went, driving down the heavily trafficked Route 76 toward downtown Philadelphia. Sara took the quiet time to contemplate just how much her life had changed within the space of 24 hours. Almost this time last night, you're woken up out of a sound, albeit Valium induced, sleep by two goons who want to kidnap you, you're ratted on by Philly's Finest, you run for your life in nothing but a nightgown, and spend the night in a seedy inner-city diner. And today, you're dressed to the nines, sitting next to a woman just off the cover of Glamour, riding in a Jaguar, a talking Jaguar, no less, right back into the arms of the very people who scared you off in the first place. I gotta hand it to ya, kid, you sure do know how to live life!
As the twinkling towers of the Philadelphia skyline came into view, Sara found herself frequently wiping sweaty palms on the coarse cloth of her simple wrap, trying to keep her mind on anything but her sense of impending doom. Xena was very quiet and didn't respond to Sara's attempts at meaningless conversation with much more than grunts or simple one word answers. I bet she's a barrel of laughs at parties.
Undaunted, and desperately trying to escape the nervous fluttering of her heart, Sara tried again. "Um, so I noticed you have Arizona license plates on your car. Is that where you're from, originally?"
"Oh, ok," the young woman replied, nervously wiping her hands again. "So, where are you from? Originally?"
"Greece?!? As in the country?"
"No," Xena said, finally turning amused eyes to her driving companion, "the musical."
"Ha ha. You don't have an accent. Did you move here as a child?"
"Then how . . . ?"
"It's a long story."
"Too long to tell during this drive?"
"Too long to tell during this life."
Sara sagely nodded and sank back into soft leather, contemplating Xena's statement. She was still ruminating when the Jag pulled to a gentle stop outside a charmingly lit building. Small, twinkling white lights wrapped around the birch trees which lined the wide, mostly empty streets. The storefront was done up in etched stone, typical for Philadelphia homes and establishments. A green awning, emblazoned with the restaurants name, protected a rose-carpeted walkway which led to two brass and glass doors, an ornate "C" deeply etched into their pristine surfaces.
"We're here," Xena said quietly, putting the car into park and letting it idle.
A moment later, a perfectly dressed valet came to her door, tipping his cap with one gloved hand. Reaching for the door handle with the other hand, the young man was slightly chagrined when the door failed to open.
Taking pity on the man, Xena pressed the button allow her window to lower.
"If you'll just allow me to help you out, Ma'am, I'll be happy to park your car for you," the youth squeaked, gulping when the warrior's beautiful face was revealed from behind the tinted window.
"No need," Xena replied, smiling slightly at the man's obvious discomfiture. "I'll park it myself."
"But Ma'am, you don't understand. It's valet parking only," he said, pointing to the sign the warrior had parked in front of.
"Oh, I understand perfectly," she purred, icy eyes narrowing. "I said I would park it myself. What part of that didn't you understand?"
The young valet took a quick step backward, beyond intimidated by the glare. "N...nothing, Ma'am. The lot's right around the corner," he gestured.
"Fine. If you'll escort my companion to the door and wait for me there?"
"A-anything you say, Ma'am!" the youth exclaimed, tipping his cap again and hastening to the passenger side door.
"Do you think that's wise, Xena?" Sara asked as she allowed the valet to open the door for her. "Leaving me in the care of this pre-teen, I mean?"
"It'll be fine," Xena assured her, catching the eye of a tall, imposing man standing just outside the restaurants entrance. She nodded slightly. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded back. "Just go on ahead and wait for me outside the restaurant. I'll only be a moment."
"If you say so," the young woman replied, gently grasping the valet's pristinely gloved hand and easing out of the car. Placing her hand inside his cocked elbow, she allowed herself to be escorted to the front of the establishment, tamping down her nervousness with only the mightiest of efforts.
Xena quickly brought the Jag around the side of the building, parking in a space perpendicular to the west wall and noticing that the lot was almost filled to capacity. She grunted in satisfaction. The more people inside, the less chance of a scene. Bending slightly and reaching down to open a small compartment at the base of her seat, the warrior removed several well-balanced, flat-hilted throwing blades. Opening the small royal blue bag she was forced to carry, she slipped the blades inside the false lining. A small, but lethally sharp switchblade went inside of her bodice, concealed by the swell of her breasts. Satisfied, Xena turned off the car and stepped out into the night's dark chill, breath pluming vapor into the frigid air.
It was with a distinct sense of relief that Sara beheld Xena coming around the building's corner, the twinkling lights on the surrounding trees bathing the warrior's form in dazzling sparkles. The young woman was once again captured by the sheer magnificence of the woman walking towards her, unnerved a bit when a bolt of something she didn't dare categorize shot through her before quickly dissipating.
The young valet released his proprietary grip on Sara's arm as Xena moved to stand before the couple. "Thank you for your courtesy," the warrior said in a low, liquid voice, dazzling the valet with a blinding smile and the $20 she slipped into his gloved palm. "You'll be sure to watch my care carefully, won't you." It wasn't a question.
"Oh, yes Ma'am! I'll treat it like it was the mayor's!"
"Do that." Gazing down at Sara, the warrior nodded. "Ready?"
"Not really," Sara demurred. "Are you sure we have to go through with this?"
Heaving a sigh, the young woman nodded. "Then let's get going before I start thinking about what color I want my casket lining to be."
Sparing her companion's back a smirk, Xena followed her into the restaurant, past the rather rotund body of a very helpful, and very appreciative, doorman. A patented Xena look quickly had the man considering employment opportunities elsewhere, perhaps Aruba.
The interior of the establishment was low-lit and charming. It was decorated to resemble the exterior of a Roman Villa with bricked walls, portico'd archways and leafy vines trailing freely through the masonry. Frescos, erotic and non, tastefully decorated the walls. Each small table was covered by crisp, white linen, a small Tiffany lamp casting a subdued glow over the diners.
Sara fought back a gasp of awe as her eyes struck glancing blows upon celebrities she recognized, dining in elegant splendor. The conversation was muted, dulled by the decor to an almost hive-like drone which instantly soothed and comforted some of Sara's nervousness.
"May I help you?" came the accented English of an elegantly appointed, mustachioed man standing behind a white-draped podium.
"We're to join the Calladosi party if they've arrived," Xena answered, her voice low and soft.
"Follow me, please," the Maitre D' instructed, grasping two parchment-like menus and leading the way through three arched entryways to a private table in the back. The room was mostly filled with brawny men in dark suits, some sitting, some standing. No women were in evidence and Sara, well used to the Family's "intimate" gatherings, took this as a bad sign. A very big part of her wanted to run, but the long body behind her comforted. It'll be ok. Trust her. It'll be fine.
A smallish man, trim with broad shoulders and thick black hair rose, smiling and displaying even white teeth. He extended his right hand toward Sara. "Mrs. Di'Maglione," he greeted in a musical voice, "a pleasure to see you once again." His dark eyes sparkled with camaraderie, and Sara's own widened slightly, unsure what was going on.
"Mr. Portadoni," she replied, slipping her hand from his as soon as it seemed polite to do so.
The Italian turned his smile up a notch, examining Xena's tall form. "I am Vincenzio Portadoni. May I have the exquisite pleasure of your name, Madame?"
"Xena," the warrior remarked dryly, allowing her hand to be brought up to the small man's lips for an almost delicate kiss.
"A pleasure, Mrs. Zeena," Portadoni replied.
"No 'Missus'. Just Xena."
"Ah, like the rock star, eh?"
"Something like that."
"Please, allow me." With impeccable manners, Portadoni pulled out the seats for both women, escorting them to their chairs with a firm hand and settling them comfortably at the table. "Roberto, a bottle of wine for our enchanting guests."
The tuxedoed waiter bowed slightly and bustled from the room.
"Allow me to apologize for Mr. Calladosi's unfortunate absence tonight. A pressing business matter came to his attention suddenly. He extends his deepest apologies and hopes he will be able to meet with you in the future."
"Do you speak for Mr. Calladosi in matters of . . .business?" Xena asked, quirking a sable eyebrow.
Portadoni inclined his head once. "In all things, Zeena. I have, how do you say it, his ear." Raising his head, the dark man smiled, spotting Roberto reentering the room with a chilled bottle of wine. "Ah Roberto," he said, drawing the waiter over and making a great show of inspecting the bottle's label. "An excellent vintage. Please, allow our guests to sample one of Italy's greatest charms."
As soon as the wine was poured, waiters arrived bearing the first course of the lavish meal. Portadoni smiled delightedly and directed the placement of each dish as if executing the perfect battle plan. Xena took the momentary lapse in conversation to study the men who filled the smallish room. The six seated at the table were perfectly groomed and perfectly mannered, their faces betraying nothing other than feigned interest in the proceedings. Two large men stood behind Portadoni, and one each behind the other seated mobsters, obviously bodyguards.
Unlike their superiors, the emotion on the bodyguards' faces was easily read. Lust, for Xena and Sara both. Hatred and anger directed at Sara alone. Hands occasionally twitched toward poorly hidden sidearms.
The first course was finally laid out and Portadoni gestured expansively. "Come, eat! Let us dine and speak of pleasant things. Surely business can wait until we've filled our bellies with God's repast, no?"
I sat in a real Italian villa on the outskirts of Rome, you puffed up little toadie, dining on fresh delicacies that would put this to shame. Talking to the distant ancestor of all you hold dear. I seduced him. He crucified me. I laughed when the March wind came and consumed his fly-blown corpse. Be as overconfident, as polished as he, my friend. It will be your undoing.
The sumptuous courses passed as freely as the conversation around the linen-clad table. Sara managed only to pick at her food, her nervousness growing with every moment spent in the company of these men. She could feel the cold, angry stares that bored holes into the flesh of her back. Many times she resisted the almost overwhelming urge to jump up from her chair and bolt from the room. Only her companion's relaxed aura kept her seated. Conversation flowed over and around her, her benumbed brain registering none of it. She kept silent, nodding in what she hoped were the appropriate places, consuming glass after glass of the freely flowing wine, letting it's sweet smoothness settle against the incessant dryness of her throat. The liquor was beginning to have an effect on the young woman. Her eyes grew heavy lidded.
Xena noticed Sara's discomfiture and so when dessert was finally served, consisting of a mellow sorbet and flaky pastries, she broke into Portadoni's exasperating monologue on the history of Roman Aqueducts with a steely smile. Laying a gentle hand on Sara's knee and giving a brief squeeze, the warrior leaned forward slightly. "As much as I'm enjoying this learning experience, Mr. Portadoni, I really think we should get down to business."
"But we've only started dessert, Zeena. You should really try the cannoli. Perfection itself!"
"Now, Mr. Portadoni."
Silence engulfed the room.
To his credit, Portadoni remained as smoothly polished as ever. His face broke out in a wide, overly charming smile. "Business before pleasure, eh Zeena? I like that, though not necessarily in a woman. Especially one so charming as yourself."
Xena's return smile could have frozen the blood of a long-buried corpse. "I have no interest in discovering what you do, or don't, find attractive in a woman, Mr. Portadoni," she purred. "I came here to discuss business. Shall we begin? Or will I be forced to reveal other characteristics unflattering to a charming woman such as myself?"
The dark man threw back his head and laughed, slapping the silent diner next to him on the arm. "The flower has thorns! I like this!" He spread his hands condescendingly. "Very well then. What shall we discuss, hmmm?"
Go on, you pompous little jackass. Underestimate me. "As you're no doubt aware, Mrs. Di'Maglione's home was invaded yesterday evening," Xena began smoothly. "The intruders were two of your men, a Carmine Gravariccio and a Vincent Caramillo. As you can see, Mrs. Di'Maglione escaped unharmed. The same won't be said of your two compatriots should they attempt a similar move in the future."
Portadoni's eyes widened in mock-surprise. "My compatriots? I assure you, Zeena, Mrs. Di'Maglione, the two of whom you speak are no compatriots of mine."
"Don't play coy with me, Vincenzo. Bull and Twitch are two unmade lackeys who go around cleaning up after your untidy messes. We both know this. So let's just cut to the chase, shall we?"
At last. A true reaction on the oily countenance. Portadoni's eyes narrowed, his jaw set. His hands came flat down onto the table. "How dare you question my honor in front of my business associates! Do you have any idea who you're talking to?"
Xena's smile became more seductive, more dangerous. "Oh, I know exactly who I'm talking to." Her voice was a dark, sensual purr, and it shot another jolt through Sara, whose own eyes widened as she gulped nervously. "A pompous little weasel who isn't man enough to be on top. Calladosi's little errand boy." She leaned closer conspiratorially. "What's the matter, Vincenzo, don't have the cojones to take on the Boss?"
Portadoni's face reddened and he let out an inarticulate growl, which sounded more like a pathetic squeak to the warrior's sensitive ears.
Sara rose a quick hand to her mouth, stifling her startled giggles with an enforced cough. Vincenzo Portadoni, First Lieutenant in one of the most feared Families in the land, had been stripped of his manhood, and she was still alive to hear his reaction!
Portadoni's compatriots were not so easily amused. One of his hulking bodyguards moved to draw his weapon, only to scream in pain as a dagger threaded its way through the bones of his wrist, pinning his arm to the thick leather of his Gucci belt.
The young woman's eyes widened. Her alcohol-numbed mind had difficulty wrapping itself around the startling image. Where did that knife come from? Her slow, searching head turn was halted as Xena's tall form unfolded itself from the chair.
"C'mon," Xena taunted, beckoning with her hands. "Anyone else wanna play?"
Throughout the room, hands disappeared behind dark jackets, searching out holstered weaponry.
" Nessuno fucile!" Portadoni hissed. No guns!
" Svegli mosse, errand-boy," Xena returned, speaking the language flawlessly. Smart move, errand boy.
While the older men remained seated, the bodyguards began to move forward en mass, hands outstretched, growling threats.
Xena laughed delightedly. Three thousand years had not dimmed her joy of battle. More daggers were thrown, appearing magically from hidden places on her body. Men screamed and fell as non-lethal injuries robbed the strength from their legs.
Portadoni's other bodyguard, a giant bull of a man, lumbered toward the fiercely grinning warrior, his hands within a hairsbreadth of wrapping themselves around her neck. Reaching into her bodice at the last second, Xena pulled out her switchblade, thumbing the button and grunting in satisfaction as six inches of razor sharp steel sprung free. With a move as quick as lightening, Xena rent the huge mobster's face, carving a bloody path from left ear to jawbone. "You really should have a doctor look at that, handsome," she smirked, wiping the blade on his dark jacket as he screamed and fell away from her.
"Xena, watch out!" Sara cried, spying another bodyguard stalking the dark haired beauty from behind.
The warrior merely stood relaxed, drawing her leg up at the last second and pistoning one high heeled shoe into the unfortunate man's groin. He went down with a squeak, face drained of all color save the sparkling beads of sweat which suddenly popped out above his lip.
The last man standing made his cautious way to her, his face set in grim, determined lines. "You ain't gonna get away with this, bitch."
"Says who?" the warrior sneered, grabbing one outstretched fist and yanking sharply upwards, hearing the satisfying sound of bones splintering. "You?" Forcing him down to his knees, Xena lowered her face until they were breathing the same air. "I think not." Standing without releasing her iron grip, the warrior delivered a sweeping leg kick, releasing the bodyguard just as her leg met his head. The unfortunate man's body flew the length of the room, impacting with the wall and sliding bonelessly down to the floor.
Dusting her hands off, the warrior spun, lunged across the table, and grabbed Portadoni by the lapels of his designer suit jacket. "You give your Boss a message for me. Tell him that if I hear so much as a peep that he's going after Mrs. Di'Maglione again, I'll run through his men quicker than bad calamari through his colon. Ya got that . . . Vince?"
Trembling, Portadoni simply nodded, vigorously.
"Good," Xena sneered, making a show of brushing off the man's crumpled lapels. Turning, she set her blue-fired gaze upon the gape-mouthed Sara. "Ready?"
Like Portadoni, Sara could only nod.
"Let's get outta here." Placing a proprietary hand on the inside of Sara's arm, Xena gently aided the stunned young woman from her seat, escorting her from the room. Just before she passed through the arched doorway, the warrior turned her head. "Oh, and Vince? Thanks for dinner."
Turning back, Xena kept her soft grip on Sara's arm as she strode through the restaurant, past the gaping stares of startled diners and employees. Not slowing down, she thrust out an arm and bulled through the glass doorway, startling the rotund doorman into severe chest pains.
Looking neither left nor right, the warrior strode down the dimly lit sidewalk towards the parking lot.
Sara finally managed to find her voice, sort of "But how . . . . But when . . . . But where?"
Xena turned her fierce grin on her spluttering companion. "I have many skills."
"I'll say," Sara replied, her voice hushed with awe. "Wow."
The pair arrived at the parked car within seconds and Xena reached into her handbag, removing a flat black item that was no larger than a credit card. Pressing one of several buttons adorning the item, the warrior watched intently the interplay of lights as they created random patterns on the card's flat surface. Suddenly, all the lights turned from green to red as they coalesced into one corner of the device, blinking with an obvious urgency. Nodding slightly, Xena squatted down, reaching under the wheel well. Twisting her wrist sharply, the warrior gave a grunt of satisfaction, withdrawing her hand and the small silver disc she had retrieved.
"What's that?" Sara asked, staring over Xena's shoulder.
"Homing device," came the blunt reply.
"Why would you put a homing device on your own car?"
Rolling her eyes, the warrior turned her head sharply to see if she was being teased. Sara's eyes were completely serious, if slightly hazy. "I didn't put it there, Sara."
"Then who-?" Jade eyes widened as a faint blush covered lightly tanned cheeks. "Duh, right? I think I had a little too much wine with dinner. So, what're you gonna do with it?"
Xena smirked. "You'll see." Striding over to the passenger's side, Xena opened the door and ushered the young woman inside. "Hold this," she said, tossing Sara the homing device before shutting the door. Getting in on the driver's side, the warrior quirked an amused grin at Sara, who sat gingerly holding the device with the tips of her fingers. "Relax. It won't bite ya."
"What if it explodes or something?"
"If it were set to explode, it would have done so when I tossed it to you," Xena deadpanned.
Centaurs dont eat hay.
"Centaurs dont eat . . . .Auggh. Thank you!
" . . .thank you very much!"
"Not a problem. Now lets get outta here before our charming hosts decide to finish our little game, shall we?"
So saying, Xena popped the Jag into gear and eased out of the lot, resisting the urge to squeal her tires around the sharp corner. "Argo, full parameter sweep, 5 blocks maximum. I wanna know if anyones following us."
"Understood, Xena," the computer replied obligingly.
The viewscreen became something that reminded Sara of the World War II submarine movies shed watched as a child. Smirking inwardly, the young woman resisted the urge to yell out "Dive! Dive! Dive!" knowing it probably wouldnt be appreciated by her absorbed companion. "So, where to now?"
"Youll see," Xena replied shortly, her attention split between eyeing the traffic in front of them and constantly checking the rearview mirror for any tails they might have picked up. While she trusted the computer driven excellence of Argos detection capabilities, to her warriors mind, nothing was more effective than ones own senses.
"Arent much for small talk, are you," Sara observed, her voice slightly sarcastic.
The warrior spared her companion a quick glance. "Not usually, no."
Pouting prettily, Sara crossed her arms and sank back into the form-fitting leather seat, heaving a breathy, contrived sigh. Seeing that her acting talents, or lack thereof, were having no effect on the cars stoic driver, Sara sighed again, more quietly this time. Then her face brightened. "Hey, how about some music? I bet, in a car like this, youve got to have a fantastic stereo system!" Her reach toward the stereos buttons was halted by a strong hand on her wrist.
"It does," Xena affirmed, "but nows not the time to prove it."
Sara cocked her head to one side, seafoam eyes settling on the chiseled profile of her benefactor. "Why not?"
The warrior rolled her eyes and gripped the steering wheel more tightly in one strong, callused hand. By all the gods, this woman made Gabrielle at her most innocent look like Athena. Xena took a deep, calming breath before answering. "Sara, I just spent the last ten minutes beating the Tartarus outta eight of Calladosis Wiseguys. Believe me when I say that now is not the time to be discovering just what passes for music in this city, alright?"
"Oh alright," Sara grumped, sinking back into the seat again, watching the radar screen as it swept over the monitors face in never-ending circles. Turning her head, the young woman idly watched as the towering buildings of Center City gave way to the run-down cement jungles of the citys outskirts. She drummed her fingers on the door arm. The wine was beginning to settle sickly in her belly and her temples tingled with an impending headache. "Are we almost there?"
"Soon," Xena replied, noticing the pale tint to her companions face. "You alright?"
"Yeah. Its the wine, I think. I shouldnt have had so much of it." She closed her eyes against the pain in her belly and head, mind replaying the scene in the restaurant with stunning clarity. "Howd you learn to fight like that, anyway?"
"Lots of places."
"Jeez, Xena, cant you give me a straight answer just once?" The frustration of trying to pry information out of the enigmatic woman made her stomach churn.
"I am," Xena replied, her eyes finally spying what she was looking for. "Here we are."
Slightly startled, Sara turned her gaze outward, spying a cracked and splintered neon sign flickering against the darkness of the night. "Tastee-DoNuts" it announced to the world. "Donuts?" the young blonde exclaimed incredulously. "We came all this way for donuts?"
Biting back a smirk, the warrior pointed one long finger towards the windshield. "No. That."
Sara followed the direction of Xenas pointing finger. A Philadelphia city police car sat in the lot, nose up to the glass doors, its engine humming idly, plumes of vapor spreading upwards into the chill night air, dissipating quickly. "Great," she sighed, slumping further into the seat. "Should I just get out and turn myself in now?"
"Remind me never to take you out drinking," the warrior remarked, reaching over and grabbing the homing device out of Saras damp hands. "Be right back."
Sara watched wide-eyed as the tall beauty made her way over to the parked patrol car, gently knocking on the window to get the drivers attention. She could see the mans delighted expression in the cars sideview mirror as Xena bent forward slightly, coming face to face with the officer. By the sweeping motions of her arms, Sara guessed the Equalizer was asking for directions, though to where the young woman couldnt begin to guess.
Squatting fully on the pretext of straightening non-existent hose, Xena took the opportunity to expertly attach the Mafia homing device to the patrol car. Satisfied that it was locked into position, the warrior stood again, thanking the beaming officer in her most sultry, seductive tones, giving the man a healthy view of flesh as a reward for his unknowing good deed.
With a charming smile, she pirouetted and walked back to the Jag, opening the large door and slipping easily inside. Nodding once to the stunned officer, Xena put the car in reverse and backed out of the lot, resuming her meandering course through the city.
"What was that all about?" Sara asked, trying to rein in the sarcasm that came with her hangover.
A smirk bloomed fully on the full lips of the Warrior Princess. "Lets just say that Calladosis henchmen are gonna be in for a real surprise when they finally track down their homing device."
"I most certainly did."
Sara looked over at the cars driver, her mouth hanging open in shock. "I cant believe you just put a Mafia homing device on a police car! You are so bad!"
"On the contrary, my friend. I am very good."
Uncharacteristically, Sara DiMaglione found herself at a total loss for words. The drive back to the hotel was made in utter silence.
By the time the pair returned to the hotel, Saras drunken queasiness had resolved into a feeling of fuzzy lethargy. Eyes half lidded and bloodshot, she stumbled as she followed the big warrior into the warmth and brightness of the room.
"You go on and get changed," Xena said softly, taking the cloth wrap from the younger woman. "I have some things to work on for a bit."
"Alright," Sara replied, voice soft and gravelly, as she made her way into the cool confines of the bathroom mostly on instinct. Stumbling over to the sink, she turned the tap on full cold and began to clean her face of makeup. When the cold water did little to clear her head, the young woman shrugged and set about stripping the fine garments from her tired body, carefully hanging the dress and placing it back in the garment bag. Looking around for a moment, her eyes settled on Xenas old shirt, still hanging where she placed it on the back of the door. Smiling slightly, Sara slipped it once again onto her body, snuggling into the roomy softness of the garment. I dont think shes ever gonna get this back. Nope. Sure dont.
Xena looked up from her computer, suppressing a smile as Sara reentered the room rubbing her eyes and safely ensconced in the warriors old cotton shirt.
Taking careful steps to the narrow bed, Sara plopped down on it, leaning back in blissful comfort until a spring jabbed her in the kidney and her eyes shot back open. Pulling herself painfully back to a seated position, she asked, "What are we gonna do about the sleeping arrangements?"
The warrior turned a half smile on the young, tired woman. "Its ok. You can keep the bed. Ill be fine with the chair."
"But its your bed. Youre paying for it."
Xena shrugged. "So? Right now, you need it a lot more than I do. Just relax and try to get some sleep. Ill be fine."
Nodding, Sara allowed her eyes to slip closed once again as she lowered her body back onto the lumpy mattress. She listened as Xenas fingers flew deftly over the keyboard, obviously adding some last notes to their little adventure before finally shutting down the computer for the night.
She listened as Xena arose from the chair, padding softly across the length of the room and entering the bathroom. She heard the door squeak closed and the water turn on. There was a beat of silence, then the quiet rustling of fabric as the warrior disrobed and then dressed in sleeping attire. From her contented half-doze, Sara heard the door open once again as Xenas soft footfalls went past her to the chair sitting near the door. The ancient springs protested faintly as the warrior lowered her full weight atop them, and Saras eyes opened once again.
Xena was dressed in a pair of black sweatpants and an unadorned burgundy tank top which clung to her curves and washboard stomach like a second skin. Her hair, unbound, flowed freely over broad, well-muscled shoulders. Her strong, well-veined hands clasped loosely and rested on her lower belly as she stretched out her long legs, propping bare feet on the ottoman. Her dangerously blue eyes were half-lidded and she appeared to be deep in thought.
God, Sara thought, her mind alcoholicly free of its normal inhibitions, this woman would look good in a potato sack! The feeling that first came to her standing outside the restaurant shot through the young woman again, and this time, she had little trouble defining it. Desire.
Wha-? Saras more rational mind interjected, threatening to take control of her nervous system and bolt her up in the bed. Now wait just a second here, Sara. Did I just hear you right? Desire? Is that what you said? Desire?!? Oh no, no, no. You like men, remember? You know, the big hairy ones with the deep voices and the outdoor plumbing? Close your eyes and fall asleep. Tomorrow youll have forgotten about this temporary indiscretion. Tomorrow.
The more libidinous part of the young womans mind, however, took issue with the entire silent discourse and it, for the moment, had control of the muscles behind her eyelids.
Her hands are magnificent, so long and fine-boned but strong and well defined. I wonder what they feel like? Would they be gentle and caressing , or harsh and demanding? Would they give? Or would they take?
God, Sara! Get a grip on yourself already! Dont even go there! As the more conscientious cerebrum stepped to the fore, Sara finally realized just what tracks her errant thoughts had been following and a beautiful flush rose up from her neck to warm lightly tanned cheeks. She resisted the urge to moan and bury her flaming face into the pillow as her gaze caught sparkling blue, directed toward her with a mixture of gentle amusement and quiet concern.
"You alright?" Xenas low, liquid voice intoned.
"Um, yeah. Just . . .thinking. About stuff. You know."
"Good thoughts, I hope."
Unaccountably, Saras blush deepened. Then, like any other self-respecting female raised within the domicile of a demanding father, she retreated. "Im kinda tired," she remarked, flipping onto her side, facing away from the intense blue gaze. "Goodnight, Xena."
"Goodnight, Sara," the warrior replied, laying her dark head back against the top of the chair, eyes gazing at the cracked and peeling ceiling. Goodnight, Gabrielle.
Its headlights off, a cream 78 Buick Century coasted to a silent stop on the graveled roadside of a deserted street in North Philadelphia. The interior dome light came on briefly before it was quickly switched off.
"Shit, Tony. You want her ta see us?"
"Fuck you, Delano. Aint no way nobody saw nothin. Now get out your piece and lets scrag this cunt and her guard bitch and get the fuck back home, alright?"
Dark brown eyes studied the car in front of them , then returned back to the cars driver. "I dont think this is such a hot idea, Tony."
"Dont go chickenshit on me again, Delano. Ill scrag you myself if you wimp out on this one, I swear."
"No, Tony. Look!" One brown suited arm pointed out.
"No shit, Delano. Its the Amazon bulldykes fuckin car. So what?"
"Its a fuckin cop car, Tony! Frankie didnt mention nothin bout buggin no cop car!"
"He didnt mention nothin bout not buggin one neither, shit for brains."
"Tony, I think Frankie woulda mentioned somethin about it bein a cop car, ya know. I think we got screwed."
"Youre the ones gonna get screwed if ya dont stop talkin like a chickenshit asshole, Delano."
"I aint bein chickenshit, Tony. I think the bitch found out about the tail and put the damn bug on the cops car. For real!"
Tony shrugged, holstering his 9mm. "Only one way ta find out. Get your ass outta my fuckin car and lets scrag us some meat! Bitch or cop, they all bleed the same." Howling with laughter at his own lame attempt at humor, Tony dragged his bulky body out of the car.
A ten year veteran of the Philadelphia police force, bearing the nametag of Hathaway, J.P., sat in his marked patrol car, radar gun poked idly outside his window, scanning the almost non-existent traffic on the nearly deserted North Philadelphia street. His right hand pulled and tugged at the lap of his uniform pants as his mind replayed the scene of the gorgeous brunette who had stopped to ask him for directions earlier. He was at the point in his fantasy where the liquid blue eyes were locked on his, the full lips parted to breathe out "Take me now, J.P." and was just about to push her down to a kneeling position when an insolent knock to his door panel caused his erection to wilt as his radar gun dropped to the cracked pavement.
"Surprise, cunt," came the low, quiet voice from behind and above the officer. A .44 Magnum poked its cold steel nose into the cars interior. "Got any last words before I spread your fuckin brains all over this pretty cop car of yours?"
Low level thugs in the Calladosi Family were known more for their brawn than brains, Bull and Twitch being a prime example. Hot on their heels for nomination into the Stupidity Hall of Fame came the dynamic pairing of Tony Constanzio and Carmine Delano. Delano was supposedly the brains of the operation, and, to his credit, he made at least a token effort to dissuade his less intellectually inclined partner from squashing flat the horse droppings into which they were headed. But what Delano didnt know, and indeed couldnt have known even if his few working brain cells had mated with Einsteins in a phantasmagoric orgy to rival a Bacchanalia, was that J.P. Hathaway was more, much more, than he seemed at first glance.
Constanzio found this out the hard way when he felt his gun hand crushed in a grip which would have given even the mighty Hercules pause. The brawny thug could only emit a squeak of pain as his broken wrist was slammed against the door frame with enough force to dislodge the Magnum into Hathaways lap.
"Who you callin a cunt, pencil dick?" The look of evil glee in the Hathaways eyes told the whole tale to whomever was wont to listen. In his glory days, such as they were, JP Hathaway had played middle linebacker for "Big Blue". While never a standout of Heisman quality, the athlete turned cop did rate a sixth round look see from the Philadelphia Eagles who at that time were suffering under the tutelage of one Buddy Ryan. The stars in his eyes as he stepped out onto the practice field that first day changed quickly to the type of cosmic lights one usually sees in cartoon characters when theyve taken a good hit to the cranium. Hathaways hit came a bit further south, delivered as it was by the immovable force known as Reginald "Minister of Defense" White. One play from scrimmage and JP Hathaways erstwhile football career was over, complements of Reggie White and two fractured vertebrae. Hathaway always regretted never having gotten the chance to prove his mettle on the gridiron and so always enjoyed playing a rousing game of "Take that, Reggie" with whichever idiot was stupid enough to look past his 65" height and solid 225 pounds of corded muscle.
Maneuvering Constanzios bulky body so that it always remained between Hathaway and the trembling Delano, the officer gleefully pushed open the door of his patrol car, forcing the now keening Constanzio back several steps.
"You deaf as well as stupid, moron?" Hathaway asked, easing his huge body out of the car, releasing Constanzios wrist only long enough to plant a gaping paw around the thugs windpipe, always sure to leave the man in the line of fire. "What about your friend over there. He stupid too?"
"C-cmon, Officer," Delano implored, waving his .38 in the general direction of the entangled pair. "Let him go, alright? It was just a case of mistaken identity. We thought you was somebody else."
"Smart move, Einstein," Hathaway sneered. "You wanna dig your grave a little deeper? Who were you planning on popping, assuming it wasnt me?" He noted clinically that Costanzios skin was becoming a most interesting shade of purple, and loosened his grip the slightest bit. He waited a long beat of silence. "Well? Gonna answer me? Or do you want your friend here to be able to whistle Tiptoe Through the Tulips through his balls the rest of his life, huh?"
"N-nobody, officer! I swear it on my mothers life! Tony, he kinda gets . . .excited sometimes, you know? Wants to prove hes a big man by scarin cops. We wasnt gonna hurt ya! Honest!"
Hathaway sneered again. "Well, seeing as how youre such an honest citizen, why dont you just put your gun down and kick it over here to me, alright?"
"A-anything you say, officer," Delano replied, squatting down and gingerly placing his gun on the gravel-strewn pavement. With a trembling leg, the thug kicked the gun along the ground until it rested just outside of Hathaways left foot. "I did what ya asked. Now couldya let my friend go, huh? We was just playin a practical joke, right Tony?" The only answer was a long, rattling wheeze. "Cmon, Tony. Just tell the officer youre sorry. Whadda ya say, huh? Cmon, Tony! Please? Tell him youre real sorry and maybe hell let us go, ok?"
Tony Costanzio wasnt in the position to breathe well, much less apologize. In a queer, disconnected way, he believed that his voicebox was crushed beyond repair. His windpipe was sure to be next. In a reflex action, the thug brought his arm up, attempting to dislodge the iron-banded fingers from around his neck. That action earned him a thundering right to the jaw and his knees buckled.
"Doesnt look like your friend wants to apologize to me. Isnt that right, Tony?" Hathaway laughed, and to Delanos frightened ears, the noise didnt sound very sane.
"Maybe if ya let up on him some, Officer? Im only sayin this cause it looks like hes gonna pass out, ya know?"
"Heres an idea," Hathaway countered. "How about if you just stand there nice and calm like a good little geek while I get moron here cuffed and into my car. Then maybe you and I can play a little game. Would you like that?" The mans smile personified evil.
"What kinda game didja have in mind, Officer?" Delanos whole body was trembling now, the streak in him that Constanzio correctly identified as "chickenshit" clamoring for attention right now.
Hathaways grin widened. "Thats for me to know and you to wait till Im damn good and ready to tell you. Capiche, paisan?"
"Anything you say, Officer." Waiting until Hathaways attention, and hands, were diverted by cuffing the stuporous Costanzio, Delano finally gave into his less than courageous urgings and fled back to the safety of the car.
"Motherfuck!" Hathaway shouted, shoving the now cuffed Costanzio onto the hard pavement face first and retrieving Delanos surrendered sidearm, pelting after the smaller man and shooting round after round into the cars steel shell.
It is sometimes said that fortune favors the foolish. Such favor was bestowed upon Delano that cold early winter night. He made it into the car before the shooting started and blew by the outraged Hathaway with nary a scratch to show for his adventure. When he hit Route 76, the now blubbering thug headed west, and as far as this author knows, is still driving, ocean and all.
Pulled rudely from a sound sleep, Saras eyes opened wide, then narrowed in a scowl as she noted the pain behind her eyes that pounded in queasy syncopation with the too-fast beating of her heart. Her gaze scanned the quiet room, eyes setting on red neon as it captured the fairie dance of tiny dust motes drifting through the air on a non-existent breeze. I should be asleep right now. Why arent I?
There. The soft moan came again. No words, just a quiet whimper. Sara looked over at the dark, huddled form of Xena, still splayed out on the chair, covered with a blanket she had somehow appropriated during the night. "Xena?" she asked softly, not wanting to wake the woman if she were still, truly, asleep.
Xenas tall form shifted and a louder moan sprung from her lips. She shifted yet again, hands flying out from beneath the fraying blanket.
Shes dreaming. And not a very good one, by the sounds of it.
"Gabrielle, mi konithis! Erhorme! Gabrielle!!"
Sara watched and listened carefully through the night-haze. Xena was obviously in the grip of a powerful, and if her shouts were any indication, horrible nightmare. The tall womans slashing feet kicked the blanket halfway across the room, to land half on the bed, covering part of Saras naked thigh.
"Gabrielle, se parakalo. Na minis eke pou ese. Mi konithis."
Easing the blankets from her now overheated body, Sara quietly slipped from the bed, making her way to the thrashing woman. "Xena?" she whispered again. "Xena, youre having a nightmare. Wake up, ok?"
"Xena, cmon now. Youre just dreaming. Everythings ok. I promise. Its just a dream. Cmon, wake up. Cmon now." When Xena didnt respond, the young blonde did the only thing she could think of in her frightened state. Reaching outward through long, flying arms, arms that Sara had seen decimate a platoon of Mafia elite, she gripped two heaving shoulders and shook.
And then watched as the world spun crazilly as she was catapulted through the air, landing on the ground with a solid thump, her back smacking painfully against the beds steel frame. "What the-"
Xenas eyes snapped open, some part of her brain still trapped within her dreamscape. Seeing the young blonde woman slumped against the bed, the warrior shot out of the chair, striding quickly to her downed companion. "Gabrielle, ti nomizis kanis? Xeris pe o kala to na me xepnisis etsi! ese sta kala sou?"
Sara pulled back in panic, the wild blue eyes of the tall warrior seeming to sear through her very soul. "Xena, youre still dreaming. Im not Gabrielle. Im Sara, remember? Please, wake up. I cant understand you!"
Squatting down next to the trembling woman, Xena ran quick, caring fingers along Saras trunk and legs, assessing for injuries. When the young woman giggled and tried to twist away, Xena scowled. "Gabrielle, stamata na knonesai. Thelo na matho un ehis htipisis."
When the grazing fingers didnt stop, Sara twisted more sharply, her breath coming out in panting gasps. "Please, no more. Youre tickling me!" Raising her hand up to push Xena away, Sara was surprised when the warrior gently grasped her hand and placed it tenderly against her cheek, smiling down at her.
"Efharisto ton theo then se htipisa. Min do kanis pali!" Xena moved her head slowly down and forward, still clasping the young womans hand softly to her cheek.
Oh my God. I think shes gonna kiss me. What am I gonna do now? "Uh, cmon, Xena. Im not Gabrielle, remember? You . . .you really dont want to be doing this. Snap out of it, please!"
Some of the fright in the young womans eyes reached through to Xena and she pulled away, standing smoothly and bearing her precious burden up with her. "Ese sigori oti then esair htipimani?"
"I still cant understand you, Xena. Please wake up, ok? Im fine. Everythings fine. Just wake up, ok?"
A sharp report cut through the silence, then repeated. Xenas head whipped around toward the windows, then back again to face her partner. "Gabrielle, katse kato!" Gripping the smaller woman's shoulders, Xena pushed forcefully down, throwing herself on top of the now recumbant body.
Sara found herself suddenly trapped beneath six feet of warm flesh, beyond surprised at the reaction her body was having to this new situation. This isn't half bad, one part of her mind observed, while the other objected voiceforously to the current situation, demanding that it be rectified, and by all that was holy, right now! "That was just a car backfiring, Xena. No guns. No shooting. I promise. Just a guy needing a new muffler. Thats all. So can you please get off me? I cant breathe very well."
At the sound of young womans voice, Xena pulled her head back slowly, blinking. "Gabrielle?" she whispered.
The blonde smiled in relief. "Yes, Sara. Youve been dreaming. Im glad youre finally awake. I was getting a crash course in Greek, and Im afraid I was failing."
The warrior became painfully aware of her current position and thanked all the gods listening that the darkness hid the blood suddenly suffusing her face. "Gods, Im sorry," she said, quickly rolling off Saras supine form and jumping to her feet. "I dont . . ."
"Its ok," Sara said warmly, reaching out to pat one muscled calf. "I knew youd snap out of it eventually." Wincing, she came to her feet, stretching fully, gasping quietly at the new pain radiating above her left hip.
"Ive hurt you," Xena said, quickly closing the distance between them, reaching for Saras waist.
"No you didnt," the young woman said, resisting the urge to step back. "I should have known that someone with your reflexes wouldnt take kindly to being shaken awake. It was my fault completely."
"Let me see your back."
"No, its ok."
"Let me see your back." The tone in Xenas voice brooked no opposition.
After a long moment, Sara nodded, half turning and raising the long shirt-tail, baring her left hip to the dark womans gaze.
Xena hissed through her teeth as her long fingers gently probed the injury. "I dont think anythings broken, but its starting to bruise already. If youll lay down on the bed, I have some salve thatll ease the pain and reduce the amount of bruising."
"Alright." Sara turned and gingerly eased herself onto the lumpy mattress, keeping the shirt away from her injured hip.
The warrior returned quickly with a small jar of sharp smelling ointment. Scooping out a liberal handful, she carefully smoothed it onto the injured area, her touch gentle.
"Wow!" Sara exclaimed, pleasantly surprised as the salve exploded hotly against her chilled skin, spreading tingling warmth across her entire lower back. "That stuff could put Ben-Gay outta business!"
Xena smiled crookedly. "They neednt fear me. This is my own secret recipe."
"Well remind me to beg a jar off of you when this is all over. I could get used to this stuff."
"Lets just hope you dont have cause to use it too often," Xena remarked, gently patting Saras uninjured side. "All done."
Contentedly flipping over onto her back, Sara smiled up at the tall woman. "I think you missed your calling, Xena. You should have been a doctor. You definitely have a wonderful bedside manner."
The silence that greeted her statement caused a beautiful rose-colored flush to travel up to the young womans cheeks. "That . . .that, uh, isnt what I meant, exactly."
Xena smiled slightly, if a trifle sadly. "I know what you meant. Do you think you could get back to sleep?"
"Mmmmm. Yeah, I think so. I feel all warm n toasty now. Thanks!" Sara smiled sweetly.
Capping the jar, Xena padded over to her suitcase. "Youre welcome. Im just sorry . . ."
"Dont. We both know that you didnt mean to do it. And Ive learned a valuable lesson." Ive also learned that that Gabrielle was one lucky lady. "So lets just forget about the apologies and try to get some sleep, huh?"
Smiling crookedly, the warrior nodded. "Alright."
It was still full dark when Xena next awoke, her sharp gaze settling on the sprawled form of the young blonde woman asleep on the narrow bed. Saras honey hair was a curtain that obscured her peaceful features and the warrior resisted an almost overwhelming impulse to walk over to the bed, bend over, and gently brush it away. Why does she have to look so much like you, Gabrielle? Why cant she just be you? Do you know what Id offer of myself just to be able to touch your cheek once more? Everything. "Everything," she whispered aloud, breaking the pre-dawn stillness with one aching word.
Stretching slightly, the tall warrior threw the threadbare blanket from her body and eased herself up to a standing position, her gaze firmly directed away from the figure on the bed. Walking into the bathroom, she shrugged off her sleeping attire and stepped into the hot, stinging shower, cleansing and awakening her flesh in short, dulcitory strokes.
Xena stepped from the tub, drying herself quickly and efficiently. She slipped on a dark pair of jeans and a dark blue cotton shirt, carefully tucking in and straightening the sharp creases. After running a quick comb through her hair, she stepped from the bathroom, ready to face a new day.
The sounds of quiet sobbing sounded in the warriors ears before the door was opened more than a crack. Her gaze alit on Sara who was sitting on the edge of the bed, crying heavily. "Whats wrong?" Xena asked, coming over to sit on the bed beside the distraught woman.
"Shes dead," Sara sobbed, not even attempting to dry the flood of tears raining down her cheeks.
"Shes dead. They killed her! Shes dead!"
"Who? Whos dead, Sara? Who killed her?" Never one to deal well with strong emotions, Xena was getting frustrated.
"N-Nixie!" Sara half-shouted through her tears, pointing to the snowy picture on the TV. "Shes dead!"
Turning her gaze to the television, Xena was slightly startled when Sara practically dove into her body, laying her blonde head on the warriors chest. Wrapping one hesitant arm around the young womans heaving shoulders, Xena tried to tune out the sounds of sobbing as she listened to what was being said on the news.
A tall, dark-complected woman was speaking into the camera, a microphone held tightly in one gloved fist. "A masked gunman entered the diner slightly after noon yesterday demanding money. Nixie Davis, a Blue Bell waitress for 27 years, apparently refused the robbers demands and was murdered behind the cash register. Witnesses say that the masked robber then fled the premises without the money he was after. The man is described as close to six feet tall, weighing approximately 160-175 pounds and wearing dark clothing, dark gloves and a dark ski-type mask. He was said to have a very thick southern accent . . . ."
The rest of the womans commentary faded away as Xena noticed something displayed inside of the diner. Her eyes widened and she stiffened. "Weve got to get out of here, Sara," she said urgently, gently pushing the still sobbing woman from her and rising to her feet.
"What do you mean?" Sara asked. "Why do we have to leave?"
"Never mind that. We just have to get out of here. Hurry up and get dressed."
"Xena, Im not moving from this spot until you tell me whats going on!"
Xena sighed in frustration, turning to face the young woman, her blue eyes blazing. "We havent got time to talk, Sara. Move. Now!"
"Listen here, Xena," Sara remarked sharply, wiping the tears off her cheeks and folding her arms across her chest, "Im not some low-paid lackey who just stands around waiting to follow your orders." The young woman flinched slightly as the warrior strode back to the bed.
"Thats the reason," Xena said, turning Saras head back toward the television which still displayed the interior of the diner.
"What? I dont see anything."
"Look closer. At the far wall. Where the bullet holes are."
Sara breathed out long and loud. "Oh my god."
"Exactly. Now lets move!"
This time, Sara jumped off the bed, eyes still staring at the snowy vision. Inscribed into the diners bloody wall by malignant pellets of lead were two letters. "S". "D".
Both women packed silently and hurriedly, stuffing clothing and toiletries into any available receptacle. Xena moved with quick efficiency and bare moments later, the hotel room was empty of all personal possessions.
"I dont understand," Sara finally said, dragging all her belongings to the door. "If the Mafia killed Nixie, they must have followed me to the diner. Why didnt they kill me then? Why didnt they kill me at the dinner when they had the chance? I dont understand." Her voice had the keening edge of barely controlled hysteria.
"I dont think Portadoni knew about Nixies murder," Xena explained shortly, heaving the luggage up into her strong arms. "Wait here. I need to make sure its safe. I dont think either group tailed us here, but I have to be sure."
Sara merely nodded, sniffling and holding her meager belongings in trembling hands.
Opening the door a crack, the warrior peered out into the still dark morning, her sharp eyes scanning in every possible direction. The lot was empty of human habitation. Frost covered cars sat like chilled, dead soldiers. Xena opened the door further and stepped out into the cold air, her breath pluming frosty vapor into the misty air, her muscles tensed for a possible confrontation. The only sounds that greeted her were the faint buzzing of the neon sign across the lot and the light traffic on Route 76. Nodding once, the warrior turned her head back to the doorway. "Cmon out. Its safe."
Sara stepped out into the mornings chill, shivering slightly and following her tall companion around to the trunk of the Jag. She laid her luggage in the roomy compartment and stood back, rubbing her numbing arms briskly as Xena quickly stowed the rest of their gear. "Where will we go?" the young woman asked quietly as the warrior led her around to the passengers side and opened the door for her.
"Let me worry about that. You just get inside and get warm." With that, Xena closed the door and walked around to the drivers side, unlocking her door and slipping inside, closing the door and keying the ignition. The car started up with a throaty purr.
"Good morning, Xena," Argo intoned. "What is your pleasure today?"
"Same as last night, Argo. Full perimeter sweep. One mile radius. I wanna know the second something looks hinky. Got that?"
"As you wish, Xena. Scanning."
"Good. Lets go."
All was quiet as Xena drove down the sparsely populated Route 76, constantly scanning for the tail she was half expecting. Neither Argo nor her own senses warned her of danger, but she was alert all the same. It wouldnt do to let her guard down now.
"I killed her, you know," Sara remarked quietly.
Again, Saras words and tone of voice caused Xenas internal axis to shift, melding present and past with brutal, seamless efficiency.
I killed her, Xena.
No, Gabrielle. You couldnt. . .
Oh, I did. I just stabbed her. Look.
Accidentally, you . . . .
No, I stabbed her. I j . . .I murdered her.
Gabrielle, its . . . .
Thank you, Xena.
The memory of Krafstars grating voice pulled Xena forcefully back to the present, her blood seething with long-buried anger. The loss of her beloveds blood innocence. The impregnation of Dahoks evil seed within Gabrielle while Xena was forced to helplessly stand and watch. The Deliverers demise laying ashy groundwork for the creation of a new malignant life. Not again. It will not happen again.
"Dont say that, Sara," she remarked forcefully. "You didnt kill her."
"Yes I did, Xena. I didnt pull the trigger, but I killed her just the same. Nixies dead because of me. Because of me." The sobs started anew, Saras heaving body collapsing against the soft leather of the Jags molded seat.
"Calladosis men killed her, Sara. Its unfortunate that they tracked you to the diner, but dont cheapen Nixies death by blaming yourself for it."
"Cheapen?" Sara began hotly, "How dare you . . . ."
"Listen. Sometimes these things happen. Blaming yourself isnt going to bring her back. And Im sure, wherever she is, shes not liking having to listen to you berate yourself like this. Lets just concentrate on dealing with the people who really did this and stop placing blame where it doesnt belong, alright?" Brilliant advice, Xena. Why couldnt you have followed it 3,000 years ago?
Sara stared angrily at Xena for a long moment before nodding and collapsing once again into the seat. "I guess youre right," she whispered, wiping the tears from her face with the backs of both hands. "Its just hard. Ive never had anyone die because of me before." Turning her head again, Sara affixed Xena with a piercing jade stare. "Get me out of here, Xena. Take me somewhere far away from all this," she stated vehemently. "Keep me from getting anybody else killed. Please."
Taking her eyes off the road for a moment, Xena returned Saras gaze with equal intensity. "Is that what you really want?" she asked, voice soft and even.
After a long, silent stretch of time, the young woman sighed and slumped back once again. "Damn you, Xena. I dont know what I want right now. I just know that I want it to all go away. I want to wake up in my bed and have this all be a dream."
"That wont happen, Sara."
"I know it wont. Look. Maybe itd be better for us both if you just pulled over and dropped me off by the side of the road. Calladosis men hate you now. Because of me. Theyll kill you, just like they killed Nixie. I dont want that on my conscience too."
"Sara, you listen to me," the warrior began in a no-nonsense tone. "First of all, Calladosis men hate me because I pounded the crap out of them. Not because of you. Secondly, they wont kill me."
"Xena, you . . . ."
"No, Sara." Removing one hand from the steering wheel, the warrior reached over and caught the young womans chin, using gentle force to turn Saras head to meet her intense gaze. "They wont kill me." They can't kill me. Even though, by all the gods on Mount Olympus, there are days when I wish that they could.
Again, Sara felt the absolute, unbreechable bedrock strength of this woman, her fiery sense of purpose, of focus, and believed. Taking a long, shuddering breath, she nodded and Xena released her grip, turning her attention back to the road they were travelling.
"Do you want me to take you away?"
"Yes. But I know you cant. I have to stay and fight this, fight them. Because if I dont, theyll have won. And Nixies death really will have been in vain."
Suppressing a smile of pride, Xena simply nodded in agreement and the pair continued on their way to a new hiding place.
Barely an hour later, the women had traversed the city, driven over one of the myriad of bridges connecting Pennsylvania with its eastern neighbor, New Jersey, and traveled the almost empty Interstate 295. Xena made a curving left turn and drove into the parking area of the "Friendship Motel", its gravel lot deeply rutted from the hundreds of long-haul trucks which made this place their evening stopover.
Pulling the Jag around to the back of the motel, she parked in between two behemoth 18-wheelers like a David among Goliaths. Quirking a grin to Sara, who sat eyeing the giant trucks with a bit of trepidation, the warrior opened her door and stepped out into the fresh, cool air. "Cmon," she said gently. "They wont bite."
"Theyre awfully big," Sara remarked. "They dont seem so imposing when youre driving down the freeway."
"Theyre perfect cover for the car. Lets go get checked in and figure out what to do, ok?"
Nodding, Sara opened her own door and stepped out of the car, joining Xena by the trunk and helping to unload their luggage. The quiet sense of camaraderie in undertaking these simple tasks with a person who was a virtual stranger didnt escape the young womans notice and she smiled gently.
"Feeling better?" Xena asked, noticing the expression.
"A little. I know I shouldnt. A woman died, in some way, because of me. It doesnt make sense." She shrugged. "I just wanna get this over with."
"Have you thought about what youre going to do once this is over with?" the warrior asked, taking out the last of the cases and closing the Jags trunk.
"Not really. Things have been happening so fast that I really havent had time to think about anything." She sighed as she bent over to retrieve some of the luggage from the ground. "I suppose I could go back to my family, assuming Calladosis found guilty and you convince his boys not to retaliate. I dont really know if thats what I want, though."
"Well, youve got time to think it over. Its not a decision that needs to be made right away."
"Yeah," was Saras only comment as she followed the tall woman back around the squat building to the glass-enclosed office.
Within moments, Xena was suppressing her cursing as she jiggled a key into the lock of an ancient door handle while Sara looked up at the room number which had been cast in what had, undoubtedly, been a metal that was supposed to resemble ornate brass. Years of neglect and exposure to the elements had rendered the metallic substance red and flaky with rust. One of the three numbers was missing altogether, leaving a pale after-image outlined with rust. Empty screw-holes stared blindly at her like vacant tooth-sockets.
Sara looked up at Xena who had finally managed to unlatch the stubborn door. "Gee, Xena," she said dryly, trying desperately to cover the smirk threatening to engulf her countenance, "you really know how to impress a woman."
The warrior turned, holding the door open with one long arm, a grin tugging at one corner of her mouth. "You have no idea."
Saras eyes widened as she felt her ears burn at the barely veiled sexual innuendo. Well, Sara, it wasnt as if you werent asking for it with that remark. Flirting with this woman is like playing with fire, and if you dont watch out, youre gonna wind up ashes. Cutting her eyes away from the amused blue directed her way, Sara brushed past Xena and into the room.
Mold, mildew and the sharp, almost medicinal scent of a pungent cleanser assaulted her senses immediately. Looking around, Sara took in the poorly furnished room. One stained bed lay against the far wall, nestling in intimate contact with ripped, peeling wallpaper. Holes of varying sizes were gouged out of the walls, exposing crumbling plaster which filtered down onto the stained, colorless rug in gentle drifts. A nightstand covered in etched graffiti and cigarette burns held a lamp, the body of which was a naked woman. Pubic hair had been crudely drawn in by some bored artisans magic marker. "Eat Me" had been penned across the statues breasts. A battle-scarred television sat opposite the bed, its wavering lines currently displaying three people engaged in what looked to be an impossibly athletic carnal activity. The young womans skin flushed hot and red. All this place needs is a mirror on the ceiling, she thought, as her eyes involuntarily traveled in the direction her mind was taking her. No mirror. Thank God for small favors, I guess. Eyes running through the room again, Sara tried to gain back some of her lost composure. "How . . .quaint," she finally managed. "Do they charge by the hour?"
Xena dropped the bags on the floor and strode over to the television, snapping it off. "It beats the morgue," she said shortly, casting a glance over the room. Home it wasnt, but it would do.
Sara flushed again. "Im sorry," she said in a small voice. "Im not being very appreciative, am I."
Relenting a bit, realizing the young, sheltered womans discomfiture, Xena allowed a smile to cross her lips. "Its not the MGM Grand, but itll keep us safe and dry for awhile."
The blonde nodded briskly. "Yes, youre right of course." You can do this. Nothin to it, right? If I only didnt feel like I needed to put on rubber gloves just to touch anything here. I think Ill let Xena have the bed tonight, though.
Working in quiet tandem, the pair quickly unpacked, placing their possessions on the few bits of furniture scattered haphazardly throughout the room. Xena was restless, the mornings events setting her battle-honed instincts in motion, the lack of physical activity leaving her tense. Walking over to the small window, she pulled back the thick, rubber lined curtain, and peered outside, noticing a thick stand of pine just beyond the parking lots gravel boundary. Making a quick decision, she turned to Sara who was standing tentatively in the middle of the room. "Would you like to take a walk with me?"
The young woman smiled in relief. "That would be nice, thank you. Unless youd rather be alone. Youve been cooped up with me for awhile now."
Xena returned the smile. "No, thats ok. I think we could both use the fresh air. Wait here a moment while I change."
A short time later, the warrior returned to the main room, clad in black spandex shorts and an oversized beige sweatshirt, cut off at the shoulders and cropped at the abdomen. Her hair was braided back off her face and her feet were encased in a pair of black over white cross trainers. "Ready?"
Sara blinked to break her stare at yet another aspect of the tall woman, Xena the athlete, supple muscles moving under bronzed skin, a loose-limbed gate bespeaking power and grace. "Um, yeah. I guess. Isnt that a bit . . .brief for a walk? I mean, it is winter out there, you know."
"Ill be fine. I dont intend on just walking. You can wear my duster if you want."
"You dont intend on just walking?" Sara asked, eyebrow raised in an almost uncanny imitation of Xena. "Just what do you intend on doing?"
"Youll see," the dark woman smirked.
Sara huffed out a sigh. "You must drive people to distraction with this enigmatic act of yours."
"Ive been known to, yes."
Muttering under her breath, Sara enveloped herself in the soft leather of Xenas heavy duster. "At least one of us will be warm enough to run back for help when you drop dead from frostbite."
Xena grinned at the blond encased in her oversized duster. "Wanna make a bet on that?"
Sara bit down on her lip. Normally this was her type of game but a spirit of mischief seemed to envelope her. Answering Xena's grin with one of her own, she audaciously sized up the other woman, "Sure. What are we betting?"
"Well," Xena drawled, "If I drop dead of frostbite, you can keep the duster."
"And if you don't?"
"If I don't, we'll see how well you can cook."
"Remind me to make bets with you more often, Xena. Either way, I win." Sara giggled.
"Alright," came the answering purr, "Would you rather see how well I cook?"
Sara coughed back another giggle, knowing her face was giving her away. There was a gleam in the blue sea of the other's eyes that gave her the courage to continue the game, "Um...we are talking about food here, right?"
Xena's wicked smile was answer enough but she still added, "Depends on what you call dinner."
The blonde woman clenched her teeth tightly to keep her jaw from dropping. A sudden image of shark-infested waters sprang unbidden to her mind. Reaching deep inside the well of herself, Sara drug up a tattered shred of courage. Her eyes twinkled. "I don't know. I usually start with dessert." It took most of her will, but the young woman managed a smug expression as she blithely strode past her astonished companion, opening the door and stepping outside.
The warriors left eyebrow rose to hide behind her thick bangs. A crooked half-smile creased her lips as she grabbed her keys and followed Sara into the cool early winter air.
Stepping to the back of the Jag, Xena unlocked the trunk and lifted the carpeting back to reveal a cleverly concealed false bottom. Twisting the lock, the warrior opened the covering and pulled out a long flat box made of highly polished cherry wood. Laying the box against the bumper, she closed the trunk.
"Whats in there?" Sara asked. "No, forget I asked. Ill see. Right?"
Gaining once again the upper hand in this contest of wills, Xena allowed a faintly smug expression to show on her face as she hefted the box. Saying nothing, she brushed past Sara and started the short walk to the wooded area she had spotted from the motel rooms window.
A few moments later, the women were enveloped in the heady smell of fresh pine. The gnarled trees towered high overhead, their feathery branches blocking out most of the weak winter sunlight, casting what remained as dappled shadows on the barren ground. A light wind whistled through the glade, and part of Xenas soul came home to rest.
Though her life spanned thousands of years, Xena remained a product of her genes. She was, and always would remain, a warrior of Ancient Greece, the magnificent Warrior Princess, forced by circumstances to live a life never meant for her to see. Times like these, walking into a forest glade, brought that home to her in ways that mere words never could. A sense of quiet peace washed down over the tattered remnants of her ancient soul and she found herself blinking to hold back tears of profound emotion at the homecoming this quiet wood had granted her.
Sara held her place behind the tall woman, not knowing exactly what was going on, but instinctively guessing that something of profound import was taking place in front of her. The area, just a woodland before they had entered, had transformed into something almost holy. Even the animals seemed to sense the metamorphosis and so kept their peace for a brief, yet seemingly timeless span of moments. The young womans eyes traveled slowly up the long muscled form of her protector. Loose tendrils of Xenas black hair flowed rippling from her shoulders, borne up by the whistling currents of wind. The tense lines were erased from her strong body. Despite her modern clothing, the woman appeared to meld with the forest, becoming part of its ancient life-force. Home! Saras mind thundered again, and this time there was no ignoring the summons.
Sara was pulled, quite against her conscious will, toward the figure standing granite-like in the wood. It was as if she had a strong chain tethered to her soul and while the tug was gentle and painless, it was also quite disconcerting.
The spell was driven back slightly, though not shattered, when the young womans reluctant footsteps landed upon an errant twig, snapping it, and setting the normal sounds of the forest back into their natural motion. Squirrels continued their ascending journey, chittering at them from the canopy of greenery that was their home. Late season birds trilled out greetings to their mates. The sounds of broken brush as a deer startled from their path.
Turning, Xena smiled quietly as she closed the distance between them, squatting down and laying the box flat against the chilled ground. Undoing the ornate latches which kept the box closed, the warrior lifted the lid to display one of the two items in her possession that most defined her to herself. Her sword. It lay like a lethal jewel encased in black velvet, its natural, rugged beauty completely unchanged through the span of eons.
"Wow," Sara remarked upon spying the boxs contents, her voice hushed with awe. "Its beautiful."
"Yes, it is. And very old as well," the warrior remarked, pulling the weapon from its confinement, feeling the hilt settle in her still callused palm like the caress of a long-lost lover.
Saras move to touch the sword was halted by a block of Xenas muscled forearm. The young woman looked up at her questioningly.
"This isnt a toy, Sara."
"I didnt think it was," Sara responded, without heat. "What are you doing with a sword anyway? It doesnt seem like youd have use for one these days." To Sara, swords carried romantic images of castles and dragons, of princes slaying evil sorcerers to protect their maiden fair.
Some of her thoughts must have shown on Saras face because Xena looked at her intently. "Swords arent romantic, Sara. Theyre bloody, deadly weapons." Mine is the bloodiest of all. It has freed the souls of tens of thousands, yet could not prevent the death of the most beloved of all. It is my blessing. And my curse.
"Is mind reading another one of your skills?" Sara asked, astonished.
"No, I just know what people think about when they see a sword. Its not like in the movies. Swords kill as surely as guns, and theyre a lot bloodier."
"Ill have to take your word for it, Xena. Ive never seen anyone killed by a sword. It sounds like you have though."
"Too many," Xena affirmed. Her weapon hand gestured to a recently fallen log. "Why dont you have a seat? This will take awhile."
"What are you going to do?" Sara asked, seating herself on the chilled, sappy log.
"With a sword? Dont you have something else you could use? Like a shovel or something?"
Xena suppressed a smile as she shook her head. "Not drill as in dig, Sara. Drill as in practice."
"Ohhhh. Ok. Do you . . .um . . .drill a lot?"
"Every day, if I can."
"Have you, well, killed anyone with it recently?"
"No. Not for a long time."
"Then why practice? I dont understand."
"Its who I am, Sara," came the simple, unadorned response.
For the first time since shed made her decision, Xena considered the wisdom of having Sara watch her drill. In all the years since Gabrielles death, no one had ever watched her practice. Lovers and friends simply learned that this was a part of Xena that no one was allowed to intrude upon. If they couldnt understand that one fact, they became bereft of her company before long. Most put up with this seeming idiosyncrasy. Some found themselves on the wrong end of a very sharp weapon, then found themselves alone.
Why her? Why Sara? Aside from the obvious, why indeed? Perhaps it was the final breech of long standing barriers. Perhaps she just needed the opportunity to allow someone else, someone living, to see inside this part of her soul. Perhaps it was all of those reasons, and none of them. Perhaps it was just another instance of instinctual response. As Xena shrugged mental shoulders, casting the concerns to the four winds, her arm began to move in a dazzling figure eight movement as old as the beginnings of recorded time. The sword blurred in the dappled sunlight as the warrior allowed the easy routine of this basic warm-up exercise to invigorate her muscles and rejuvenate her mind.
Sara didnt know what she had expected as she settled in to watch her companion begin her sword drills. Whatever images her mind could have conjured up would have fallen far short of what she was actually experiencing. To Saras mind, watching Xena drill was almost like watching Barishnikov dance, or Renoir paint. There was a beauty there, a sense of profound artistry that struck something almost primal within the young woman. If she listened hard enough from within the sheltering copse of the tall pines, she could swear she heard the clash of steel on steel, the screams of the dying and the grunts of the victors. Those internal sounds underwent a subtle transmutation as battle-sounds gave way to the faint stirrings of a Mozart operetta, Xenas fluid motions and the almost unseen blurring of her sword keeping perfect time to the metronome within Saras mind.
The young woman was almost shocked out of her expensive hiking boots when a piercing, ululating cry rent the quiet air as it issued forth from Xenas fiercely grinning lips. One moment she was spinning to block a blow from an invisible attacker behind her, the next, the warrior was, literally, running up a tall pine tree for several steps before launching herself into a backwards flip, landing on her feet and continuing the drill without missing a beat.
As the warrior added her trademark yells and acrobatics to her drilling, Saras mind gave up its pretext at detached introspection and her jaw dropped open, her eyes widening, in pure, unadulterated awe.
Saras rational mind kept trying to intrude, kept trying to tell her that what she was seeing was impossible, that even Michael Jordon couldnt jump that high, that the laws of Physics she had learned in high school stated flatly that what she was seeing was no more possible than watching a shark sprout legs and walk the land.
Slapping that small, yet loudly insistent, voice of reason down gleefully, Sara turned her full attention back to the miracle that was taking place in front of her.
Xena entered the cool-down phase of her exercise, gradually slowing her movements, allowing her heart rate and breathing to calm to normal levels. Despite the cool air, the warrior was covered with a fine sheen of sweat and her muscles felt alive and engorged. Completing her drill, she swung the flat of the blade upwards to rest against one broad shoulder, turning to the silently watching figure, her eyes still feral and sparkling with an innate joy. "Did you enjoy?" she asked, her liquid voice low and husky.
Shaking her head slightly, Sara blinked twice to release herself from the grip of the warriors spell. Her heart rate was up, her breathing rapid. Her nerves continued to send tingling messages up and down her body. Her throat was dry, and her mouth had forgotten the technique needed to form simple words.
Xenas fierce expression quickly turned to one of concern as she closed the distance between them. "Sara? Are you alright?"
Prying her tongue from the roof of her mouth, the young woman swallowed forcefully, hearing the dry clicking of her throat. "Um . . .fine . . .yeah. Im . . .fine. Yeah. Im . . . . Oh wow! That was . . . ."
Xena cocked her head, dubiously considering the young womans reassurances. The exposed areas of Saras flesh were suffused with blood, her breath was issuing forth in vapor-plumed pants. Her eyes were slightly glassy. Her fists were clenching and unclenching rhythmically. If I didnt know any better, Id think she was ready to . . . .Banish that thought right now, Xena. Whatever's going on here, that most definitely is not it. "Are you sure?"
Sara swallowed hard, forcing a lump down her reluctant, dry throat, "Um yeah, I'm sure. Why?" her eyes continually wandered over Xena's form, trying to convince herself that what she had just witnessed was real.
"No reason." Xena still watched Sara closely. Except for the fact that you look ready to either kill or. . .Stop it! Xena turned on one heel, walking over to the sword case before her thoughts could focus any further. Squatting down, the warrior encased her weapon, snapping down the boxs latches and rising to her feet again. A diversionary tactic is in order. " By the way, Im still alive," she said, quirking a grin and flinging long arms away from her sides to demonstrate her state of well-being.
Clearing her throat, Sara said, "So, I guess that means youve won the bet, huh?" surprised that the words came out in a near normal tone.
The warriors dark head nodded, her blue eyes sparkling mischief. "Did we ever decide . . .what . . .was for dinner?" The accompanying grin surfaced. "Or was that dessert?"
Sara dropped her eyes, finding the ground by her feet to be suddenly fascinating. Damn it! How does she make me feel like this? The young woman was beginning to think that Xena should have a permanent danger zone marked around her. She looked back up as a callused palm came into the focus of her vision.
Xena was standing there, hand held out, her sword case under one arm, "Let's go before I lose the bet after all." Her intent gaze slowly perused the seated form. "And as wonderful as my duster looks on you, it was custom made. For me."
Sara grasped the hand in front of her and felt herself lifted up to her feet effortlessly. The tension and heat subdued to a point she could ignore. . .for now. "Too bad." she grinned, "It is a nice coat."
The heated gaze roamed over Sara once again. "It is indeed."
Swallowing convulsively against the feeling of breath leaving her body once again, Sara forced herself to break their locked gazes. "Um . . .I guess we should be getting back, huh?" At the warriors sedate nod, Sara turned and started from the silent glade.
Xena felt a tug as she left the pines and forced it down. It would be so easy to stay longer, to forget. But that kind of indulgence could get the woman beside her killed. And that, the warrior vowed inside, was not going to happen. If it ever did, those few moments of peace might never be found again. I cant believe I shared that with her. Would Gabrielle understand? Would you, beloved? I think you would. I think you do. I can see your face right now, smiling at me, so sweetly. Gods I love you, my Gabrielle.
Once safely ensconced within the tacky hotel room, Sara found herself possessed with a restless energy. She wandered from spot to spot, picking up items without seeing them and putting them back down.
Xena sat at the desk and was working on her laptop, the light from the screen highlighting the planes and angles of her face. More often that she liked, Sara caught herself studying that face in profile. Wonder filled her. Curiosity about this strange woman that just walked into her life and saved it. Was still saving it. Why? Why me? Somehow I don't think she's all that much of a philanthropist. Picking up a black plastic ashtray that sat on the window sill, she turned it over in her hands. And where did she learn all those things. My God, she's more lethal than nerve gas. Sara's mind went back to the display in the gentle glade, the ashtray still and forgotten in her hands as she saw and heard a replay of the piercing cry, the impossible run, the flip. The ashtray suddenly dropped from nerveless fingers and fell towards the floor.
Without looking away from the computer screen, Xena snaked one arm out and caught the ashtray before it impacted with the overly worn carpet. Still concentrating on the lines of text blurring the screen, the warrior held the item over her shoulder. "Lose something?"
Only my sanity, Sara thought as she took the ashtray from Xenas grasp. "Thanks. I dont know why Im so clumsy today. Maybe the cold made my fingers numb."
"Why dont you just relax and get warmed up. I have some things to take care of and then maybe we can see about doing something for dinner, alright?"
"Sounds good," Sara replied, placing the tray back on the sill and collapsing into the bed with a faint air of disgust, hoping there werent any creatures of the six legged variety sharing her resting place with her.
Full dark had enveloped the land when the two women finally made it back to the sultry confines of their temporary haven. Xena had treated Sara to a dinner of Chinese food in a charming restaurant tucked inconspicuously in a residential neighborhood.
Sara smiled, gently patting her belly, feeling temporarily sated and, truthfully, happy. Xena had changed subtly since the trip to the glade, her iron walls had softened slightly and allowed the woman behind the mask to peer forth. Sara found herself liking that woman very much, drawn to her in a way she couldnt explain. The tension, danger and sadness that had permeated the air between them had been tamped back slightly, leaving an easy camaraderie in its wake. "Thanks for dinner," she said as they stepped inside the room.
"My pleasure," Xena remarked with a small, soft smile.
"Im gonna hit the shower and get ready for bed, I think. Its been a long day."
Nodding, Xena headed to the rickety excuse for a desk and sat down, starting up her laptop, instantly involved in the contents displayed.
She was still at it when Sara exited the small, stained bathroom. The young woman smiled at the broad back, admiring the tall womans sense of devotion to duty. She hasnt seen one red cent from me, yet shes giving this case everything she has. I dont know how I lucked out on this one, but Im not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. Padding over to the narrow bed, Sara hesitantly drew back the covers, her body tense and ready to jump if anything crawly was hidden beneath. Nothing was revealed except clean, albeit slightly stained, sheets. Ugh, she thought, gingerly lowering her body into the bed. I dont even wanna think how they got there. She smiled sheepishly. "I guess I did it again, huh? You want the bed tonight? Last nights chair couldnt have been all that comfortable."
"Thats ok," Xena replied, her hands still flying over the computers small keypad. "The floor will be fine for me."
"Youre far braver than I, Xena. Who knows whats on that floor?" She suppressed a shudder.
The warrior turned her head then, a small smile tugging at her lips. "Ill live."
"Thats right, I forgot. Youve slept on worse." The twinkling jade eyes belied the sarcasm in Saras tone. "Not that Im complaining, mind you, but maybe next place we go will have two beds? I was raised as a good Catholic girl. Guilt is something we do well, yknow."
"Ill keep that under advisement," Xena remarked, shutting her laptop down for the evening and rising gracefully from the battered aluminum chair, stirring a breeze in the heavy air as she passed the bed on her way into the bathroom.
When Xena returned from the bathroom, clad again in the burgundy tank top and dark sweat pants, she was carrying several towels. "Youre probably right about the floor," she remarked in a low voice. "I really dont want to wind up with fleas."
"They wouldnt dare," Sara exclaimed in something sounding suspiciously like a growl.
Shooting an amused eyebrow raise at the young woman, Xena squatted and laid the towels out over the worn carpet, smoothing out the wrinkles as best she could.
Saras voice filtered down over her shoulders. "You can have the quilt and one of the pillows if you want. They dont smell all that great, but its better than freezing and laying your head on that disgusting ground."
"Thanks," Xena replied, taking the offered items and laying them over the towels. Stretching out her rangy form, the warrior rolled to her back, shifting a bit to get comfortable, feeling her spine realign itself with a popping satisfaction. Clasping her hands behind her head, Xena let her eyes drift slowly closed.
Smiling fondly down at the reclining woman, Sara reached over and shut off the garish lamp, casting the room into darkness. Lying back down, the young woman tried to get comfortable, but relief was elusive, at best. A subtle tension invaded her body once again, replacing the languid satiation of earlier in the evening.
"Cant sleep?" Xena asked from her place on the ground, keen ears easily picking up the sounds of Saras distress.
"No. Im really tired, but for some reason, I cant get comfortable." There was a long beat of silence. "Xena?"
"I dont mean to pry or anything but . . .could you maybe tell me a little about yourself? Not anything that would make you uncomfortable to relate or anything," she hastened to reassure.
Sara took in the long silence that answered her and sighed quietly. "Im sorry," she whispered. "Its really none of my business."
"No. Its not that. Its . . .Im not very comfortable talking about my past."
"I understand." Saras voice held within it a quiet tone of hurt. "I wont ask anymore."
Xena issued a sigh of her own. Shes too damned much like you, my love. You were the one person in my life that I couldnt say no to. She seems to rate the same reaction in me. Youre probably having a great laugh at my expense over this, arent you. Youll get yours one day, bard. Ill make sure of it. The warrior began quietly. "I was born in a small village called Amphipolis. It was a shepherding village in Thrace. My father was a soldier who left the family when I was very young. My mother was a innkeeper. I was the middle child of three, with two brothers. My older brothers name was Toris, the younger, Lyceus." Try as she might, Xena could never relate the facts of her heritage with anything more than recitation, as if she were reading the U.S. Constitution or a Poe poem by rote.
"I notice you keep using past tense," Sara said quietly. "Is your family dead?"
"Yes. They have been for a long while."
"Dont be. Ive come to terms with it. Lyceus died when a monster by the name of Cortese raided my village. Toris ran and hid with most of the villagers. Only a handful stayed behind to fight for our homes. We won, but the cost was very high. Losing my brother was the hardest thing I had ever experienced."
"It sounds like you and Lyceus were close."
"We were. He was the most important person in my life at that time. I decided to make it my business never to allow something like that to happen again. I made up an army from some of the village men who had survived the fight and we spread a boundary around Amphipolis. Somewhere along the line, I lost my way. It stopped being about protecting the village. It started being about conquering and power." Her voice trailed off to a muted whisper.
"Im sorry, Xena," Sara replied, reaching a hand out and laying it against Xenas upper arm in a gesture of support. "I didnt mean to make you relive those times."
"Its ok," the warrior replied, shifting a bit. "Do you think you may be able to get some sleep now?" It was as close as she could come to asking to end the conversation.
"Yes. I think maybe I can. Thank you, Xena. For sharing that with me."
"Youre welcome, Sara. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Xena. Sleep well."
Goodnight, Gabrielle. I love you.
Sara knew she was dreaming as soon as the scene started to replay itself in her mind. She welcomed it into her soul as one would a returned lover, a feeling of peace and subdued joy washing over her and stilling her bodys restless moves on the lumpy mattress.
The clearing was much the same as it had been earlier, quiet save for the whistling sounds of the warriors blade as it sliced through the air. Xena finished the last move of her cool-down exercise and swung the blade up to meet her shoulder. Turning, her eyes feral and suffused with joy, she met Saras rapt gaze. "Did you enjoy?" she asked in her dark, liquid voice.
"Oh yes," Sara felt herself responding. "But then again, I always do."
Xenas lips parted and a full, blinding smile issued forth like the sun from behind deep cloud cover. Saras body tingled at the sight. "I know," Xena responded, her slow, deliberate steps closing the gap between their bodies effortlessly. "For someone who decries violence, you do enjoy a good imaginary battle when you see one, my bard."
"Only when youre the one slaying the invisible foes, my love," Sara heard herself say.
Lowering her weapon till the point touched the chilled ground, Xena moved to squat between Saras parted legs. Her eyebrow arched as a mischievous grin sparkled in her eyes. "Ill make it my sworn mission. Xena: Warrior Princess and slayer of invisible dragons for Her Majesty, Queen of the Amazons."
Laughing, Sara eased the heavy sword from the warriors relaxed grip and gently touched Xena on each shoulder with the flat of the blade. "I dub thee Xena: Knight of the Realm."
"Knight?" the warrior teased. "Or night?"
"Both, I think," came Saras reply as she laid the sword on the ground and leaned forward, gaze zeroed in on Xenas sensuously parted lips.
The warrior met her halfway and the two women fell into a fiery kiss, stoking the fires of smoldering passion that always lay between them.
After a long, timeless moment, they separated, gazes locked. "I love you, Xena," Sara whispered, voice thick with conviction, heavy with emotion.
"As I love you, my beautiful Gabrielle."
This time, the name didnt bother Sara and the dream slipped effortlessly from her slumbering mind, leaving a profound sense of peace and home in its path and a sweet, contented smile upon her lips.
When consciousness next laid its gentle touch on the blonde-haired woman, the weak winter sun was streaming through partially opened curtains. Her eyes still closed, Sara stretched luxuriously, arms over her head, legs crossing at the ankles. Warm tendrils of energy snaked through her formerly recumbent limbs, suffusing her with a satisfying sense of well-being.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," came the low, vibrant voice of Xena from across the room.
"Mmmm," Sara replied, smiling. "Isnt it though?" Finally willing reluctant eyelids to open, the young woman settled her gaze on Xena, who was framed against the window, back to Sara as her long arms settled on the narrow sill, supporting her weight. Isolated fragments of last nights dream danced through Saras mind, sending fresh sparks of energy flowing into her system. A slight flush suffused her skin and she shifted suddenly on the mattress.
"You alright?" Xena asked, turning her head just slightly and fixing Sara with a concerned look.
"Um, yeah. Just remembering a dream I had."
A corner of the warriors mouth turned up in an endearing half-grin as she returned her gaze to the window. "Must have been a good one," she remarked, her warm breath fogging the glass before her.
"You could say that," Sara affirmed, throwing the suddenly constricting covers off her lean frame and hopping quickly out of bed. "Time to hit the shower. Be back in a few."
The warriors keen ears easily tracked the young womans progress across the room and into the bathroom. After the door had closed, Xena let out a long, soft sigh, leaning her forehead against the cold glass panes. This isnt getting any easier. Just when I think I have a handle on it all, scenes like this throw themselves in my path. Damn you, Gabrielle. Why did you have to leave me here? Why did you have to listen to me and give me that ambrosia? I would have been content to wait forever for you. Im sorry. I didnt mean that, beloved. This is just . . .so hard. Sighing again, the warrior removed herself from the window and took a seat, starting up her computer and planning for the day to come.
Stripping naked, Sara stepped into the mildewed shower, blasting the water as hot and as hard as she could stand it. The gummy bar of soap fairly flew over her flushed body as she lathered up with savage intensity. Whats gotten into you, Sara? Are you insane? You just met the woman three days ago and already youre having erotic dreams about her? It wasnt erotic, another part of her mind interjected. It was just a kiss, for Gods sake. Yeah, but what a kiss! It was the kind youd sell your soul for without thinking twice! Yup, its official. You are going crazy. Certifiably loony. Watch out! Here come the men in the white coats and butterfly nets. Oh shut the hell up.
The shower was completed in merciful silence, Saras internal voices temporarily short-circuited. Drying off quickly, the young woman pulled on fresh clothes and combed through her hair, checking her appearance in the mirror and trying to erase all signs of outward tension from her expression. Satisfied that she had done the best she could, Sara gripped the loosely hanging doorknob and entered the main room of the motel.
Xena raised a beckoning arm, not diverting her attention from the computer screen, as she heard Sara exit the bathroom. "Cmere a minute. I need you to look at something for me."
"Whats up?" Sara asked as she ambled over to stand behind the seated warrior, peering over her shoulder. Displayed on the screen was a photo of a handsome man, his dark hair precisely cut, his smile wide and charming. His eyes, however, sparkled with the mirth of the criminally insane. Sara shivered slightly.
"You know him?"
"Him? No." She cocked her head slightly, pushing a tendril of hair behind her ear. "Who is it?"
"Paul Magasee. Hes a hired assassin for the Mob. Ever hear his name mentioned?"
"Well, Joseph used to talk about a guy named Paulie. Joseph said he was really nuts. Liked to run over animals with his car, then stop and watch em bleed to death." She shuddered again, remembering the stories Joseph liked to tell when he was drunk. "I dont know if its the same person, though."
"It most likely is."
"What does he have to do with us?"
"I think hes Nixies murderer."
"Her what? He killed Nixie? How do you know?"
"I hooked into the CNN News satellite and froze a picture of the interior of the diner. Those bullet holes tracing our your initials are a trademark of Magasees. Hes done some work in Ireland and Israel. Same MO. I called a well-placed friend of mine and had him match up some of the remaining bullet fragments left over after the police investigation. Its the same ammunition hes partial to." Xena shook her head, running distracted fingers through her dark hair. "Hes a bad one to have on our tail."
"What are we going to do now?"
Xena straightened in her chair, fingers tapping into more data as it flew past at dizzying speeds. "Near as I can tell, you were damned lucky to have Gravariccio and Caramillo be the ones who broke into your house. Those two couldnt catch a cold."
Sara giggled at the unexpected humor and Xena grinned crookedly at her as she resumed her tale. "Im betting that they were so scared to admit their failure that they waited a good long time before fessing up to Calladosi. If Calladosi didnt have them killed outright, he probably sent them to try and pick up your trail. Unless I miss my guess, he sent Magasee after them to make sure they didnt screw up again. Magasees the one who trailed you to the diner, but he got there after youd already left with me."
"That still doesnt explain why they just didnt kill us when they had the chance, at Gardisseros."
"Magasees a hired assassin. Hes not part of the Family. Calladosi probably didnt tell Portadoni that his killer was tracking us." Xenas lip twisted in a sneer. "Bet hes kicking himself black and blue over that mistake right about now."
"So that means Ive got two sets of goons after me now. Paulie and the idiots and Portadonis crew. Right?"
"That we know of, yes."
"So I reiterate. What are we going to do?"
Xena smiled fiercely. "We are going to have a little fun with Mr. Magasee."
"Fun? What kind of fun?" Sara asked, hands on her hips.
Her answer was a finely raised eyebrow. "Youll see."
The room was cleared quickly, possessions packed back into available baggage. In a burst of perverse humor, Sara switched the television on, turning it back to the "blue movie" channel and hoisting the volume to its maximum level. Grunts, squeals and breathy, contrived moans permeated the air, and, most likely, the rooms to either side of theirs.
Xena gave her a scowling look that was belied by the twinkling in her gorgeous blue eyes as she hefted the luggage and made her way to the car.
Sara waited until Xena nodded to her before easing her way outside to the glass-strewn gravel lot that housed the Jaguar. Throwing her few possessions into the roomy trunk, she walked over to the passengers side and let herself in.
The warrior eased in beside her, filling the drivers seat with her long frame, starting up the Jag and deactivating the interactive voice file before Argo could get a word in edgewise. An evil smile glued to her face, Xena popped the car into gear and headed back toward Philadelphia.
Sara gave her companion a sideways look. "Im not too sure I want to know what that smiles about."
Xena shrugged, still smiling. "Nothing much. Im just planning on spreading around something I have a lot of."
The warrior shot the young woman a deadly glare. "Money."
"Oh. That. Im glad it wasnt V.D."
The scowl became lethal. "Just keep it up, bard," she threatened.
"You just watch me, warrior," Sara said smugly, arms folded over her chest.
Dark head whipping to the side, Xena stared wide-eyed at the young blonde. "Wha "
"Xena! Look out!"
The world swung crazily as Xena twisted the steering wheel sharply to the left, then back to the right as the loud bleating of a horn drove her back to the center of the road. Middle fingers popped out of opened windows as the air around the Jag was filled with the pleasant sounds of typical American road rage. Keeping a tight rein on her temper, the warrior ignored them all, forcing her concentration back on the road and away from what she thought shed heard. Flooring the gas, Xena shot ahead of the snarl of traffic she had unintentionally caused and the road before them became clear once more.
When the long day ended and Sara lay on one of the freshly made-up twin beds that comprised their newest temporary shelter, she did so with a satisfied smile on her face. Who knew running for your life could be so much fun? The two companions had taken a whirlwind tour of Philadelphia and its surrounding outskirts, planting false leads, throwing around money, and generally doing their best to see and be seen. The young womans only wish was that Xena had consented to buy video cameras for each of the rooms they had booby trapped. The expressions on the thugs faces when they burst into unattended hotel rooms and were confronted by the surprises Xena had cheerfully left in some of them would, Sara was sure, be more priceless than a Rembrandt. They had checked into, and quickly snuck out of, more than a dozen run-down seedy hotel rooms, making sure many people saw their entrances, and none their exits. Three green Jaguars, replete with undetectably fake Arizona license plates, sat outside of three different motels.
The best part came near the end of the long day when Xena pulled into a rest stop on the Pennsylvania turnpike, beckoning Sara to follow her inside the squat building with a wave of one long arm. Ducking into the cavernous rest-room, the warrior had smirked and handed Sara a large bundle. "Put these on," she had ordered cryptically before disappearing into one of the stalls with a bundle of her own.
Sara resisted the urge to laugh aloud at the contents displayed in the bundle Xena had handed her. She first pulled out a long, curly brown wig that would have had Dolly Parton crying out for mercy had she set eyes upon it. Setting it aside for a moment, she next removed what had to have been the most hideous dress she had ever had the misfortune to see. It was a deep purple cotton number with a high waist and a long skirt. Gigantic red roses were sewn heavily into the garment, one covering most of the high bodice, and one on the left side of the skirting. Purple cowboy boots with the red rose theme completed the outfit. All I need are a pair of rhinestone glasses and some long dragon nails to really do this thing justice, Sara thought as she took off her simple jeans and shirt, slipping into the new garment with a sense of trepidation. God, Xena, whatever possessed you to throw away your money on this monstrosity?? I know you have better taste than this! After pulling on the boots, Sara affixed the wig firmly to her head with the bobby-pins so thoughtfully provided and, taking a deep breath, opened the latch to her stall, wincing her eyes shut before she had the chance to contemplate herself in the rooms wall of mirrors. "Im finished," she said, eyes still closed.
"Ill say," came the amused voice of Xena.
Continued...Part 3 of 6
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