"God, Xena, whatever possessed you to . . . ." Sara’s words were cut off as her eyes opened and settled upon the vision that was the warrior.

Xena was dressed in a deep purple "cowboy" type shirt with a matching black and purple leather vest. Her lower half was encased in well-worn bluejeans and the most sumptuous set of black leather chaps Sara had ever seen. Her long black hair was braided entirely behind the neck and a black cowboy hat with purple hatband adorned her head. Her angled jaw was darkened by a faint growth of penciled in beard. Her duster was hanging over one broad shoulder, casually hooked into place with one long finger. She looked, to Sara’s wide eyes, simply stunning.

"You make one helluva man, Xena," the young woman remarked fervently.

Xena’s lips curled up into a grin. "Thanks. Don’t get too attached to the look though. I lack the equipment you’d be expecting."

 

I wouldn’t be too sure of that. Now where in the hell did that come from?? "So tell me, why do you get to look so gorgeous and I have to go about looking like a Judds reject?"

The smile became more full-blown as Xena’s eyes twinkled with mischief. "You shouldn’t complain. At least you didn’t have to bind your breasts to get into your outfit."

Her eyes drawn down by Xena’s words, Sara noticed that the tall woman did indeed seem . . .smaller . . .than before. "That’s gotta be uncomfortable."

"I’ll live."

"I’m sure you will." Sara laughed and twirled once, her boot sole making faint scratching marks against the porcelain tiles of the lavatory. "Now, handsome stranger, can you tell me why we’re dressed up like two Bonanza cast extras?"

Hooking her thumb through her beltloop, the warrior shrugged slightly. "Not much sense in laying down false leads if the ‘real’ Xena and Sara are just gonna waltz into the nearest hotel room they can find. These getups will get us past the hotel manager, I hope."

"What about the car? It’s pretty distinctive, even if there are three of them hanging around."

"Got that covered."

At that moment, a plump elderly woman strolled into the lavatory, took one long look at the lanky "cowboy", widened her eyes, dropped her jaw, and with a hastily muttered "Oh my", spun in her sensible black shoes and bolted from the room.

The long sink was the only thing that kept Sara on her feet as she collapsed against it with laughter. Xena wore a slightly bemused expression on her face as she waited for the hysterics to stop.

Eventually, with much drying of the eyes, they did. "Ready?" the warrior asked.

"Damned if I know," Sara chortled. "If we get anymore reactions like that, I’ll pee myself, I swear."

"In that outfit, I doubt anyone would notice," Xena remarked, gently ushering Sara out of the bathroom.

The matter of the Jag was hastily resolved as Xena pulled into the gigantic truck repair bay that was part of the Turnpike rest-area. "Jarrod did me a little favor," the warrior remarked, stepping out of her car and walking over to a tarp-covered object. Pulling the covering off, she revealed a beautiful little Mercedes two door convertible, cherry red and shining as brightly as it did in the showroom.

"Wow, spare no expense, huh?"

"It’ll serve our purposes. C’mon."

"This Jarrod guy sounds like a peach. Will I ever get to meet our unseen benefactor?"

Xena relaxed into the plush leather seat of the Mercedes and smiled. "If things go according to plan, you’ll be spending some time with him tomorrow night."

"Alone?" Sara asked, looking at Xena through slightly narrowed eyes.

"Yup."

"While you’ll be . . . ."

"Taking care of some business. I’ll let you know more tomorrow, ok?"

Sara sighed. "I suppose."

"Good. Now let’s get outta here. Gotta see if these costumes pass muster."

"Where are we going?"

A cryptic smile was her only answer.

A half-hour later, Xena pulled the little coupe into a parking space in front of a nightclub named "The Branded Bull". The front of the establishment was entirely mirrored and showed a garish neon picture of a happy cowboy riding a bucking bull. Great, I get to spend the evening in the outfit from hell inside of an urban cowboy bar with a woman dressed like a man. And I’m actually looking forward to it! Will wonders ever cease?

Xena escorted the young woman to the door of the bar, opening one of the mirrored doors and ushering her inside. The loud booming bass of the stereo washed over them in a teeth rattling wave. The inside of the establishment smelled faintly of stale beer, sweat and sawdust.

As she looked around at the milling patrons, Sara bit back a gasp as she realized her outfit was actually, dare she think it, demure compared to some of the outlandish costumes some of the people were wearing.

Many eyes in the room turned to her rangy partner and remained there as Xena escorted Sara to an empty table not far from the dance floor. Seating the young woman in the wooden chair with a flourish, Xena tipped her hat gallantly. "May I buy you a drink, Ma’am?" she asked, her low voice heard easily through the rumbling bass of the speakers.

"What the heck. Yeah. I’ll have a beer."

"Bottle or tap?"

Sara had a sudden vision of those long fingers wrapped around a long-neck and swallowed against the feelings it invoked. "Um . . .bottle, I think. And before you ask, domestic."

Smiling, the warrior tipped her hat again and strode over to the bar, well aware of the many sets of eyes that followed her movements. Here goes nothin’, Xena thought as she stood before the bar patiently awaiting the attention of the busy bartender.

The pretty blonde woman noticed her standing there and walked over with a broad grin. "What can I get for ya, handsome?" Her eyes frankly took in the tall dark stranger and were pleased with what they saw.

 

Perfect. "Two Buds, please," she requested, deepening her already rich voice just slightly.

The bartender never broke Xena’s gaze as she brought forth the requested beverages. "Two Buds. Haven’t seen you in here before," she commented casually, reaching across the bar and taking the money from the warrior’s hand, allowing her fingers to brush against the warm skin and linger briefly.

"Haven’t been in here before," the warrior replied, inwardly pleased that her plan was coming off without a hitch.

"Pity. You should come back more often." Her grin widened flirtatiously. "Give me something gooood to look at once in awhile."

"Just might do that," Xena commented, taking her change and the beers and tipping the brim of her hat to the bartender. "Thanks."

"My pleasure," she replied in a throaty voice. "Definitely my pleasure."

This was said in a bare whisper, but Xena’s preternatural hearing picked it up easily and she smiled slightly, turning from the bar. And into a pair of jade eyes staring at her with more than a hint of barely veiled jealousy. What the - -?

 

Sara watched the entire exchange from her seat at the table, becoming more irrationally jealous the longer it went on. What’s going on with you, Sara? So she’s flirting with the bartender. What would it matter to you if she just up and took the woman right there on the bar? That scene played briefly through her mind and she shook her head to dispel it. You like guys and she just happens to look like one right now, she rationalized. And she looks damn good too. No reason to be jealous though. She’s not yours.

The young woman snapped out of her mental perambulations when the cool blue eyes met hers, questions in their depths. Snap out of it, Sara. You must look like a jealous fishwife or something to her. Just snap out of it.

"Your beer," Xena remarked, settling a longneck in front of her and turning the table’s other chair around and straddling it, her own beer cupped gently in her large hands. "You alright?"

"Wha? Oh, yeah. I’m fine. Just thinking." She plastered a smile on her face and lifted the beer in a toast. "Thanks for the drink."

"My pleasure," the warrior replied, smiling slightly and clinking her bottle against Sara’s before tipping it back and taking a long swallow.

"So," Sara started casually, "did you pass muster?"

Xena quirked a half grin at her. "Yup. We’re good to go."

The young woman nodded, sipping her beer. "Do you mind if we hang out here for a bit? I’m not ready to be cooped up in another hotel room just yet." Especially not with the thoughts going through my mind when you look at me like that.

 

"No problem." Shifting her seat slightly, Xena tore her gaze from Sara and looked over the crowded dance floor. Currently, some type of complicated line dance was being performed and the warrior set her analytical mind to deciphering the steps and patterns to the dance, her mind playing back three thousand years to Amazon bonfires, dancing warriors and her bard.

Sitting back slightly in her chair, Sara watched her companion watch the dancers. Her eyes traveled to the warrior’s strong hands as they absently caressed the bottle, thumb absently moving back and forth against the already peeling label, smearing the wetness over the paper. Her gaze drifted up to the chiseled profile framed against the black hat, taking in Xena’s slightly parted lips, wet with moisture from the beer she’d just sipped. Biting her lower lip slightly, Sara lowered her gaze, travelling over the long frame to rest on leather encased legs. Damn, she looks good. Continuing her slow perusal back up Xena’s body, she almost flinched in startlement as she observed those dangerous eyes peering intently into hers.

"What’s wrong?" Xena asked, taking another long sip of beer and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, continuing to hold Sara’s eyes with her own.

Sara was saved from having to answer when one of her favorite songs came over the booming speakers. Smiling, she stood and held a hand out to the seated warrior. "C’mon, I know this dance!"

Xena refused to be baited, smiling and taking another sip of her beer. "Nah, you go on ahead. I think I’ll sit this one out."

"Aww, c’mon. Please?"

"Not just yet," the warrior replied firmly, fighting against the tug that that one small word caused within her.

Sara shrugged. "Suit yourself. See ya." Flipping the curly brown hair of the wig over her shoulder, the young woman spun away from Xena and strode to the dance floor, her hips swaying gently beneath the hideously patterned dress.

Xena’s forearms relaxed against the table as she cradled the beer bottle in her hands, contentedly watching Sara as she easily picked up the rhythms of the dance. It was easier, in some ways, to watch her like this, bewigged and hideously dressed. She became less Gabrielle’s double and more an attractive woman enjoying a rare night on the town. The warrior smiled slightly as one song ended on the downbeat of the next and a swarthy young man asked her companion for the pleasure of her company on the dance floor.

Several young women attempted Sara’s trick of trying to entice Xena to the dance floor, each meeting the same lack of success as the young woman. Smiling slightly, she declined each invitation with a modest tip of her hat brim, thanking them graciously and intuiting that the answer might well be different at a later date. Each woman walked away disappointed but charmed.

Yet another song ended and Sara, by now covered with a fine sheen of sweat, dragged her winded body back to the table and plopped down in the chair, flinging out one tired arm and grabbing for the bottle of beer, rolling it back and forth against her forehead. "This wig itches like crazy," she remarked in a breathless undertone to the amused warrior.

"Didn’t think you’d be dancing in it," Xena replied, eyebrow raised.

"Yeah, well for your information, this here," indicated by a wide sweep of an arm, " is called a dance bar, Xena. That means you’ve gotta dance in it. If you wanted a ‘let’s just sit here and look gorgeous while tons of women flaunt over me’ bar, you shoulda told me. I would have ditched the wig."

"But it becomes you so," teased Xena, dodging as a pretzel flew over her right shoulder, narrowly missing a behemoth of a man sitting behind them.

Sara scowled at the smug look on the warrior’s face and tossed another pretzel, harder this time.

Xena dodged quickly again and this time, the projectile didn’t miss, hitting the giant squarely in the middle of his red, sweaty neck.

"Watch it!" the large man snarled, jerking his lumbering body around by yanking hard on the arms of his protesting wooden chair. "Oh, it’s you, pretty boy. You been eyein’ my woman all night, ain’t you. You man enough to take me on?" He struggled mightily to get out of a chair that was two sizes too small for his corpulent frame.

"It was an accident," Xena assured him, not wanting to get into a tavern brawl and risk ruining her disguise. She smiled charmingly, glancing at the platinum blonde monstrosity that was his wife. "And as for your wife," she said, tipping her hat, "her beauty is quite fetching. She’s lucky to have you to protect her virtue."

The man settled some, at a loss for words suddenly. "Yeah, well. Don’t let it happen again." He set his bleary blue eyes on Sara, a leer crossing his rubbery lips. "Just keep your eyes on rose bud over there. She looks like she could use a good stiff . . . ."

"Hey!" Sara said, shooting to her feet, fists clenched.

"Sara," Xena warned in a low tone, seeing where this was going and not liking the ending one bit.

"But he . . . ."

"Calm down."

"Like hell I will!" the young woman snarled, stalking toward the man who was once again struggling to get out of his chair.

Standing quickly, Xena grabbed one fisted hand and tugged, almost pulling the fuming young woman off her feet in the process. "Let’s dance."

"But I . . . ." Sara persisted, lifting her head to shoot a glare over Xena’s shoulder.

"Now."

"Ow!" Sara complained as her arm strained against it’s socket, pulled as it was by the warrior’s iron grip and long strides. She practically flew down to the dance floor, her skirt billowing out behind her, complaining with every step.

Pulling Sara to a stop, Xena turned her and clasped her face between two strong hands, gazing into her eyes with solid intensity. "You need to calm down. We can’t risk a fight in here."

"But he . . . ."

"I know what he said, Sara. And if I wasn’t afraid of busting out of these bandages I’d pop him for you, but we can’t risk it. Understand?"

Sara huffed a disgusted breath out of her nose, then inhaled and threw her head back. The move was so totally Gabrielle that Xena’s heart threatened to drop to her knees at the sight of it.

"You ok now?" the warrior asked, releasing the young woman’s face and gently grasping her shoulders.

"I’ll live," she threw back at Xena, grasping a long fingered hand and pulling the unprepared warrior out onto the crowded dance floor. "Let’s dance."

Xena shouldered her way through the throng of tightly pressed bodies, tethered to Sara by a sweaty grip. Breaking into the clearing of a mirrored wall, she eyed with appreciation the picture they made together. The slow throbbing beat ended as a raucous new song took it’s place. Dancers cheered and began lining up in neat, orderly rows.

Sara grinned at her tall companion, releasing her grip on Xena’s hand. "You’re gonna love this dance. Just watch me and do what I do. You’ll have it down in no time."

The smugness of Sara’s comment brought Xena’s natural competitiveness, never deeply buried in the best of times, to the fore. With a raised eyebrow and a smirk of her own, the warrior hooked her thumbs through the loops of her jeans and eyed the hard wooden floor, piercing gaze calculating the steps of the dancers.

By the second stanza, only Xena was smirking as a firm, knitted brow scowl sat plastered on Sara’s fair face. "I didn’t know you could dance," the young woman muttered in a loud aside.

"Didn’t think I needed to tell you," Xena replied in a like voice.

By the time the song ended, Sara was caught up in the rhythm and smiling. Regardless of anything else, Xena did make a good dance partner and the envious looks cast Sara's way did nothing but improve her mood.

As the last notes of the song faded out, Sara brushed back annoying tendrils from the wig and started to head back to the table. She stopped in the middle of the floor as a familiar tune echoed through the bar. She whirled around and grabbed Xena's hand, "Oh my god. This was my favorite song as a kid. You have to dance with me!" A challenging grin answered Xena's raised eyebrows, "Unless you want me to ask Pretzel boy over there."

Xena looked into the excited green eyes. Sara's face was glowing from dance just finished and her expression was far too hopeful to crush. "Okay, one dance. But then we get out of here. The costumes work. We don't need to overdo it."

The warrior had a thought of a formal dance, perhaps a slow version of a waltz but Sara dispelled any and all chances of maintaining some distance by stepping in and wrapping her arms around her companion’s neck and laying her head into the hollow of a broad shoulder. Xena resisted sinking into the softness before her, instead concentrating on getting them both around the floor without stumbling against the other melded bodies. Her feet and arms moved automatically, pausing to twirl the blissful woman once at every corner, then hugging her in tight again, the flat of her palm resting against Sara’s lower back.

Sara smiled inwardly at the envious looks they were receiving. If you only knew. Her senses were infused with a heady rush of leather and clean sweat, herbal soap and eastern spice, all emanating from the heated skin of her dance partner. Her ear vibrated slightly against the warrior’s strong chest as Xena hummed the melody of the song with perfect pitch, her contralto voice enticing and soothing at the same time.

All too soon, the dance came to an end and Sara looked up to see Xena gazing down at her, stepping back and gently breaking the hold the young woman had around her neck without seeming to. With a gentle smile, the warrior clasped Sara’s hand and led her from the dance floor, stopping to leave a tip on the shining bar before exiting the establishment, grinning companion in tow.

Coming back to the present, Sara smiled again in remembrance, eyeing the pebbled ceiling above her. "Xena?"

"Mmmm?"

"Thanks."

"For what?"

"Tonight."

"You’re welcome."

"Xena?"

"Yeah?"

"Goodnight."

The answering voice was warm. "Goodnight, Sara." Goodnight, Gabrielle. Sleep well, my bard.

 

"Bull?" Twitch turned to his partner who was in a crouch behind him beside the wall of the motel. The moon overhead was a silver smile in a blackened sky.

"What?" was the answering hiss.

"I don't like this, Bull."

"Oh fer. . ." Bull shouldered his way past Twitch who was still frowning. A quick look up and down showed no one in sight. He eyed the door for a moment and then slammed a shoulder into the panel. And went tumbling into the room as the door opened without effort.

"Bull? Bull?" Twitch cautiously stuck his florid face around the corner and peeked into the room. Bull had just gotten up and was rubbing a shin.

"Git in here, ya idjit." Bull beckoned, "the damn thing's empty, anyway."

"Ya sure?" Twitch sidled around the door and stepped into the room, "I heard what that bitch did to them other guys."

Bull limped over to the dresser and yanked the drawers out onto the floor. They were all empty. "Great. Fucking Great. If we don't catch up with that bitch soon, the Boss is gonna have us for supper."

Twitch was still standing by the door, looking around apprehensively. He looked ready to jump for the ceiling at the slightest noise. Bull shot him a disgusted look, "Will you calm the fuck down? You look like you're ready to piss your pants."

"I don't like this. I don't like this." Twitch kept muttering over and over to himself, not moving from his spot a foot away from the door.

Bull wandered around the room. It was obvious the two bitches had taken off, even if the Jag was in the lot, but he checked through the place just in case. Maybe they had left some clue of where they had gone. The bathroom was empty and sterile. The motel as sanitary as such a dump could ever be. Cursing under his breath, Bull amused himself by adding to the scratches and gouges in the furniture by kicking select pieces.

"Oh man, oh shit, oh man."

Twitch's muttering finally penetrated and Bull turned to him, irritated, "What?? What the fuck is it now?"

Twitch merely pointed to the inside of the doorframe in reply. There was a piece of stationary pinned to the wall. Although Twitch was closer, he made no move towards it, regarding it much like a person would look at a rattlesnake.

"What does it say?" Bull demanded.

"I ain't touchin' it Bull."

"Jeeeezus Christ, Twitch!"

"Well, I ain't!" Twitch protested, maintaining his position by the door.

Bull gave a snort of disgust and walked over to the frame. Even with Twitch watching, he couldn't stop a moment of hesitation before reaching up and ripping the paper from the wall.

Thank you for calling. Please try again.

"What does it say, Bull?"

"It says you're an idiot." Bull snarled, crumpling the note.

"Aw, Bull, it does not!"

"Fuckin' idjit." Bull stormed past Twitch and headed for the car. Twitch followed after with a miserable look on his face.

"Jimmy! Hey Jimmy!"

"Ow! Frank, don't elbow me when I'm driving! Putz." Jimmy took his eyes off the road long enough to glare at his passenger.

"But Jimmy, Look! It's the car!"

Jimmy slapped the pointing arm away from his face but he took a moment to look. "Oh fuckin' A, Thank you Jesus." A slow grin spread on his face, revealing badly cleaned teeth as he flicked on his turn signal and pulled into the motel's lot. A battered neon sign above the roof proclaimed it to be the S arLi ht Mo el. "We got the bitch," he murmured in satisfaction. His companion was almost dancing in the passenger seat in anticipation. "Frank. Frankie!" Jimmy snapped at him.

"What?" Frankie was busy reaching into his jacket, fondling the handle of a revolver.

Jimmy sneered. It looked like Frank had a dick inside his jacket and was busy jerking off, "Cool yer jets. She ain't gonna go nowhere."

"Except to hell." Frankie almost giggled.

Jimmy shot him a look. He didn't like Frank. The guy set his teeth on edge.

"What?" came the answering whine as the car pulled into a parking space.

"Nuthin." Jimmy opened the door, "Let's get her."

The two made their way to the manager's office. The office was an altar to middle-class bad taste. Formica furniture abounded and shared space with hideously stuffed animals. The few plants in the room was a color never intended by nature. Neither was the matron's hair. She was a large woman who would manage to intimidate the Titanic. She waddled over to the counter, her mouth busily, loudly, working a wad of gum. "Help yas?"

"Yeah." Jimmy stepped forward, elbowing Frankie to keep him back. "We're looking for two people." He tried smiling at the suspicious look the woman gave him. "See, my wife done run off with a friend of hers. My wife, she's blonde, about yeah-high," he indicated a spot about at his shoulder, "and I'm really worried about her Ma'am."

The woman looked at him and then look over at Frankie, "We get lots of blondes in here."

"Maybe this will help." Jimmy reached into his pocket and laid a picture of Sara on the counter.

The woman picked up the photo with greasy fingers, studying it carefully, "Oh. Her. Yeah, she was here alright. Still is."

"Yeah??" Frankie stepped forward eagerly and then looked away as Jimmy glared at him.

"Yeah. Her and her. . .friend." she sneered, "If ya know what I mean."

Jimmy and Frank shared uncomprehending looks and then Jimmy shrugged. It didn't matter. Wasting two bimbos was as easy as wasting one. "Can ya tell us which room they in?"

"Why?" the woman looked at the two of them.

Jimmy slid his palm over the top of the counter, leaving a 50 dollar bill folded in half on top of it. "Let's just say I miss her real bad."

The woman's eyes played tennis between Jimmy and the bill. Then she reached out and snatched it off the counter, "They're in number 46." And she turned and disappeared into the back room, turning her back on the whole issue.

Jimmy and Frankie shared a grin and headed out, striding down the walk and checking doors. "Here it is, Jimmy!" Frankie was pointing again, excited.

"Yeah, yeah. I can count." Again, he slapped Frankie's hand away from his face, "Now shut up before they hear us."

"Okay," Frankie lowered his voice to a whisper, "you want I should kick the door in?"

"What don't you try the doorknob first Einstein." Jimmy snarled. He couldn't wait till this bitch was collared and hung out to dry. He was going to disappear for a week and get real comfy with some Tequila.

Frankie reached out, convinced inside of himself that it was a wasted effort and was shocked to find the doorknob turned easily in his hand. He turned back to Jimmy, his mouth hanging open, "It's open, Jimmy."

"Really? What was your first clue, numbnuts?" Jimmy walked nonchalantly past his partner and into the room although his shoulder blades felt like they were going to scream. A quick glance around the room showed nothing except carpet stains, roaches, and an old stain on the mattress that was either from rusty water or a bleeding virgin. "She ain't here." Jimmy sighed.

"They was here." Frankie declared.

Jimmy turned around, ready to read the fuckhead the riot act for assuming anything other than the fact that his mother hated the day she gave birth to him but stopped dead at the sight of a piece of paper in Frankie's hand. He could see a shred of paper still hanging from the thumbtack that was used to pin it on the wall beside the door. He snatched the paper and scanned it.

Thank you for calling. Please try again.

Jimmy was growling in the back of his throat. Frank found himself taking a step back in protection. "What is it, Jimmy?"

"Come on, asshole." Jimmy pushed back him and started half jogging towards their car, "We got to tell Portadoni the bitch knows she's being trailed."

Frankie watched the retreating back and then shrugged. Jimmy was the one in charge of this two-man team. If there was a fuckup, it was his fuckup. And Frankie didn't care enough for the man to worry about the consequences. He finally took his hand off the revolver inside his jacket and took off after his partner, "Hey, Hey! Wait for me!"

Paulie sat behind the wheel of his car, his fingers beating out a staccato on the rim. Across the parking lot, he could clearly see the Jag sitting in front of the motel. A quick conversation with the motel clerk provided Paulie with the room number and the manager with a black eye, assorted bruises and enough fright to ruin a pair of pants. Right now, he was sitting behind a closed door pouring out his tale to Jim Beam. And that had better be the only person he ever told.

Paulie's grin widened. It had been fun. Chasing was always fun but now the bitch was in his sights and the chase was nothing compared to the kill. He lifted the revolver off the passenger seat and slowly screwed on the silencer, somehow turning the action into an erotic display. He had been sitting here since 2am and the morning was bitter cold but Paulie couldn't care less. The Jag was cold and had been sitting there all night. There was no motion from the room. Everyone was beddy-bye and still sound asleep. It was time to finish this.

He stepped away from his car, the loose gravel crunching under his feet as he slowly approached the hotel room. Fondly patting the Jag as he passed it, he stepped on the walk in front of the door and cast a quick glance in both directions. No sound, no people. Perfect.

Casting a contemptuous look at the lock on the motel door, he slide a jimmy from his inside coat pocket. Cradling his revolver under his arm, he felt the lock pop free after three attempts. Replacing the tool, he wiped his hand and then took a firm hold on the revolver. Pointing the barrel towards the sky, he seized the doorknob and suddenly pushed in.

"Surp. . ." the word died as a flash of silver darted from the darkness of the room. Paulie threw himself to the right as the knife whipped past but not fast enough to escape a burning sensation on his face. Lifting his hand to his cheek, it came away bloody. His eyes narrowed and his breath sped up as he realized that the room was empty.

Snarling like a rabid dog, he turned to grab the knife and his hand froze in mid-air. The knife was embedded in the doorframe, still quivering. Right beside the blade was a red thumbtack holding a piece of paper in place on the wall.

Hello Paulie. I missed you this time. . . .on purpose. What's your excuse?

"Fucking bitch." Paulie breathed in wonderment. He snatched the sheet from the wall, crumpling it and throwing it to the floor. "Fucking Bitch!" he grabbed the knife and flung it across the room. "Fucking BITCH!" the blood itched as it trailed down his face and the dampness on his collar was unpleasant. He strode over to the ball of paper and kicked it. "Bitch!!" it did little to alleviate his rage. He leveled the revolver at the paper and there was a hollowed sound as he fired and the paper danced into the air. "Bitch! Bitch! Fucking Bitch!" each word was punctuated by another gunshot and the note was slowly disintegrating. It still did no good.

He stalked over to the TV set and kicked out. His boot exploded the screen sending sparks and shards of glass flying, "BITCH, you fucking Bitch!" picking up the set, he flung it towards the bed. He turned around, panting and fired three shots at the phony wood finish and the picture tube exploded with a muted bang. A grin started on Paulie's face but it died halfway as the sting from the knife cut increased.

"What the fuck??" came a confused voice from behind him.

Paulie whirled around and saw one of the tenants standing there in pajamas and robe, an ice bucket clutched in one hand, maybe in protection from the chaos he saw.

Sting or no sting, this time Paulie did grin, "Shoulda stayed in bed, buddy." He mutter and fired six shots, sending the ice bucket flying into the cold air. Sprays of blood fanned out and splattered on the cement as the middle-aged man staggered back and then sat down. He looked up at Paulie with a look of disbelief, not realizing he was a dead man.

Paulie giggled and carefully lowered the revolver. "Nighty night fucker." One last shot sent the man toppling over with a hole in his forehead.

Paulie glanced around and then pocketed the revolver. Hurrying to his car yet not running he still muttered, "Fucking bitch." He opened the door, "This ain't over. Not yet. Not by a long shot, baby." Slipping in, he started the car and disappeared into the fire of the rising winter sun.

Sara awoke as the winter weak sun snaked its fiery tendrils across her clenched eyelids, seducing them open. Jade became slowly revealed, then narrowed as long lashes caught the sun’s fire and reflected it back to its owner. The young woman threw up one hand to block the sun’s rays and rolled to her back, stretching and grumbling slightly.

"Rise and shine, rosebud," Xena smirked from her place at the room’s desk, her fingers flying over the keyboard of her laptop.

"The sun’s shining enough for the both of us and I’ll kindly thank you to keep that particular nickname to yourself," came the reply as Sara inserted a hand under the thick fall of her honey hair and started a brisk scalp scratching. "God that feels good."

"Pick up some uninvited guests?"

Sara turned to give the warrior a droll stare. "Ha ha."

"Up for a drive through the Main Line with me today?"

"Sure. Where are we going?"

Xena turned the laptop so that it’s screen came into Sara’s view. "This is Calladosi’s house. I want to drive past it in the daylight, see what’s what."

"Planning an invasion?"

"Of sorts."

Dragging her fingers from her hair, Sara rolled to a sitting position, throwing bare legs over the edge of the bed. "Out with it. Why are you casing Calladosi’s house?"

Xena’s eyes widened in mock innocence. "’Casing’? Maybe I’m interested in purchasing property in the area." A smug grin broke out across her face. "I am a rich woman, you know."

A snort was heard from the bed. "Yeah, and the Pope’s Jewish. C’mon, out with it. What’s going on?"

Sighing, the warrior turned the laptop back to face her, fingers playing on the keys again. "As much fun as yesterday was, I have no desire to spend the next two weeks playing hide and seek with Calladosi and his henchmen. Jarrod left some equipment in the car that’ll let us know what his plans are and where they’re looking for us. It’ll help us try and keep at least one step ahead of them."

Sara crossed her legs, a look of anger playing over her features. "Let me get this straight. We’re going up to Calladosi’s house today so that you can check it out. And then tonight you’re gonna just waltz in there and plant bugs in his mansion???"

"That pretty much covers it."

"You’re crazy."

The statement was met with a raised eyebrow and icy eyes. "Am I?"

"Yes," came the defiant response. "You are." Sara ran her hands through her hair again, shaking it out. "God, Xena. Calladosi’s mansion is stuffed to the rafters with bodyguards! What makes you think you can just pop in there, plant your bugs and leave without getting killed?"

"Would you rather spend the next two weeks running from every shadow that crosses our path?" The voice was cold.

"More than watching CNN as the coroner pulls your bullet ridden corpse out of that building, yes," Sara replied with real heat.

The warrior’s gaze softened and the frost in her tone dissolved. "That won’t happen, Sara."

Seafoam eyes sparked fire. "How can you be so damn sure."

"Because I’m good, very good, at what I do."

The bluntness of that factual statement, said with no hint of pride, stopped Sara’s anger cold. "You are, aren’t you," she said, voice touched with wonder.

"Yes."

Nodding once, Sara pushed her feet to the floor and stood, eyeing her dark companion and finding nothing but a calm sense of self-confidence radiating back at her. "Then I guess I’d better get a move on, huh?"

Within the hour, the pair was packed and ready for the day. Tossing the luggage in the small trunk, Xena stepped over to her side of the car and slid into the comfortable leather bucket seats.

Keying the ignition, the tall woman gunned the engine as it purred into the winter-warm day. Moments later, the two companions were out of the heart of the city and navigating their way through the traffic snarled Schukyll expressway, headed due west. Neither spoke much, each entrenched within their own thoughts.

Xena took a gentle curving exit and they were on Lancaster Pike, headed towards the historic towns of Wayne, named for the "mad" Revolutionary War general, Villanova, and the most prestigious of them all, the vaunted Main Line, home of liquor barons and Grace Kelly. The car traveled almost noiselessly as they passed the blue-painted spires of the Cathedral of St. Thomas which graced the campus of Villanova University. The rolling green campus was mostly empty of students, this being their winter break. A few young men and women were seen dotting the lush landscape, resting under winter barren trees, reading or playing an impromptu game of frisbee or catch in the winter’s unseasonable gift of warmth.

A quick left just past the campus outskirts and they were on a broad, hilly street that shot like an undulating ribbon between towering trees of ancient oak and maple. Mansions on acres of wooded land sat benignly back from the street, sentinels who stood watch over changing landscape for centuries, if the historians of this old neighborhood were to be believed.

Most of the homes were set back behind high walls of rough hewn rock or black wrought iron, zealously protecting the privacy of those ensconced within, showing blank, smug faces to those who traveled along the black ribbon of well maintained road.

Looking past one such fašade, Xena’s heart clenched in bittersweet memory as white Corinthian columns rose gracefully into view. Xena of Corinth had been one of her appellations in those bad old days of wanton disregard. If she had defeated the Centaurs in Corinth instead of withdrawing and leaving Solon to their tender mercies, Athens would have doubtless fallen next with barely a whimper to mark its passing. Empress would have been the title to carry her to her tomb. Ruler of the world and all who dwelt upon it. Caesar would have fallen easily to her blade and she would have usurped his place in the history tomes. The warrior shivered slightly as a fragment of that old bloodlust coursed through her veins.

Sara noticed the tremor as it passed through the long body beside her and her eyebrow rose slightly. "Penny for your thoughts?"

Coming back to the present, the warrior favored her companion with a slight smile. "Not worth that much, I’m afraid. Just . . .remembering."

"Bad or good?" Sara asked, returning the gentle smile. "It’s kinda hard to tell by the look on your face."

"A little of both." Shifting slightly in the soft leather seat, Xena relaxed her grip on the steering wheel, piercing eyes scanning each side of the broad street. "There it is," she said, tilting her head to a large, stately home just ahead and to the right of the slowly moving vehicle.

"Somehow I thought it’d be a bit more garish, considering the blood money that purchased it," the young blonde noted, a sneer of disgust contorting her full lips.

Xena smiled at Sara’s tone, but kept her thoughts to herself as the pair cruised slowly past the large stone mansion, the warrior’s keen eyes taking in and cataloging every detail. The stone wall was high and thick, but the gate barring entry onto the property had sizable gaps. It was into these gaps that Xena peered, memorizing what she could see of the land beyond. A guard shack, it’s gabled roof level with the retaining wall, stood off to the left of a long, curving driveway. Thick shrubs, tall as a standing man, bordered the house, making entry into the windows they protected quite impossible.

With a quick nod, Xena continued her leisurely pace past the mansion and up the street, making yet another left and swinging around the gently curving block.

"Seen enough?"

"Yup. Up for some lunch?"

"Have you ever known me to pass up a free meal?"

"Nope."

"Lead on then, Jeeves. My public awaits."

A quick lunch turned into four hours when Xena had the misfortune to choose a restaurant which abutted a row of charming, trendy shops. A fine meal of sea bass and wild greens threatened an all out rebellion when Sara pleaded to be allowed some time to ‘window shop’.

The young woman pointed out, logically she thought, that money wasn’t the issue in shopping. Eyeing the merchandise and pissing off the shopkeepers was half the fun.

Xena simply narrowed her eyes, tongued the inside of her cheek, and endured.

The sun was making it’s daily journey well westward by the time the two women hit the streets back towards Philadelphia. Concerned over how much time was wasted eyeing outrageously priced trinkets, Xena overrode her instincts and pressed the gas pedal down harder, carrying her well over the imposed speed limit of 45 mph. It wasn’t until she saw the flashing lights behind her that the warrior grimaced and eased up a bit. "We’ve got trouble."

"What?" Sara asked, noticing Xena’s fixed gaze in the rearview mirror and twisting backwards. "Blew a speed trap, I see," she said, grinning. "Can’t wait to see how you’re gonna get out of this one."

Biting back a sharp retort on certain women and their annoying, time wasting shopping habits, Xena merely grunted and pulled off to the side of the road, turning on her flashers. "Reach in the glove box and get me the registration and insurance, will you?" she asked in an insufferably bored tone.

Scowling, Sara did as she was bid, handing over the requested items. "You’re no fun," she grumped, folding her arms and slamming back against the seatback.

"Fun’s for after I survive the lecture on how dangerous it is to drive over the speed limit."

"I take it you’ve had these lectures before?"

"You could say that."

Sara’s sarcastic retort was cut off by the unmistakable click of a police microphone turned to high gain. "Driver, raise your hands where we can see them."

"What the hell?" Sara asked, turning and spying the policemen seated in the car behind them. "I didn’t know speeding was a capital offense around here."

"It isn’t," Xena replied shortly, her instincts setting off jangling warnings. They were on a fairly deserted stretch of road. No cars passed them, no houses beckoned with burning lights. Carefully, she removed her hands from the wheel and raised them, palms out, fingers well splayed. "My gun," she grunted in a low tone.

"What?"

"My gun. You’re gonna have to take off the holster, Sara."

"Oh shit."

"No. Don’t make any sudden moves. Just shield your arm with my body and unbuckle the strap. Easy. Easy. Good. Now pull it down gently. Great. Slip it onto the floor without bending over. Perfect."

"Now what?"

"We wait."

The pair didn’t wait long before the next set of instructions arrived. "Driver, bring your right arm outside the window nice and easy and grasp the door handle."

"What are they doing?" Sara asked, her voice high and breathy.

"Don’t panic, Sara. They’re making me get out of the car. Just relax and don’t make any sudden movements, ok?"

"Xena, this is starting to scare me."

Reaching her long arm through the open window, the warrior turned slightly to gentle the young woman with her eyes. "It’ll be ok, I promise." Placing her hand on the door handle, Xena waited.

"Very good, driver. Now open the door and step out slowly. Don’t make any sudden movements."

Taking a calming breath, the warrior did as she was bid, opening the door and sliding her long frame out of the low bucket seats, rising to her full height, her arms upraised slightly, palms still open and empty.

"Turn away from the car, driver."

Xena turned.

"Walk backwards until you’re even with your trunk."

The warrior took four long, even strides until she was level with the red trunk of her Mercedes, then stopped.

"Spread your legs to the width of your shoulders, bend over at the waist and place your palms flat on the trunk. Freeze in that position, driver. The officer will be approaching you from behind. Don’t make him regret trusting you."

Widening her stance, Xena bent forward slightly, resting her palms on the trunk of her car, letting the cool metal permeate the warmth of her skin, her nerves shooting urgent warnings through her body. The voice on the microphone sounded vaguely familiar and it was taking all of her concentration to place it.

The memory locked into place as a large figure sidled up behind her, placing a meaty, menacing hand on her shoulder. "Hi, gorgeous. Remember me?"

Turning her head slightly, Xena looked up into the mirthlessly laughing brown eyes of the officer she had asked directions from two nights before. "Officer Hathaway," she said in a calm tone.

"Good memory, blue eyes. Can’t say much about your choice of clothes for today’s soiree, but the ol’ brain box is in perfect working order."

"If I’d have known this was gonna be a date, I’d have dressed more formally," the tall warrior drawled.

Hathaway threw back his head and laughed, his teeth sparkling whitely against his tanned skin. "We’ll just have to make due with what we have, I guess."

"Care to tell me why you felt it necessary to do this?"

"We had entirely too little time together the other night, sweetheart. When I saw you speeding past my trap, I just had to snare you in. You know how it is."

Xena’s face maintained it’s air of stoic disinterest as she grimaced internally. "Yeah."

"Pity I didn’t expect your pretty young companion to be along for the ride," the officer remarked, gazing over at the passenger’s side.

Following his gaze, Xena’s eyes widened as she spotted another officer haul Sara out of the car. The young woman twisted sharply, yelling obscenities as she was pulled free of the vehicle. "Keep your hands to yourself you big . . .ouch!"

The warrior whipped her head back to Hathaway. "Leave her out of this," she said in a tight voice. "If this is between you and me, let it stay that way. She’s done nothing wrong."

Hathaway issued a mock sigh. "I’m afraid she made the mistake of accompanying you on your date with destiny, my dear."

"You won’t get away with this!" Sara shouted as the other officer wrenched her arm while leading her over to the car’s trunk.

"I suggest you keep your ‘friend’ quiet," Hathaway remarked in a loud aside to the warrior. "She doesn’t have to accompany us, and accidents have a way of happening out here in the sticks."

"Now listen, buddy . . . ."

"Sara," Xena intoned in a low voice.

"But Xena . . . ."

"Xena!" Hathaway said, grinning. "Great name, fits you perfectly. Like that lovely dress you had on the other night."

"You don’t know who you’re fooling with!" Sara yelled.

Hathaway jerked his head at his partner, who raised his arm and backhanded the blond woman hard across the jaw.

A black rage tore across Xena’s field of vision and she slowly straightened, grabbing Hathaway’s hand from her shoulder and crushing it in her inhumanly strong fist.

The huge officer squealed as his knees threatened to buckle.

A low voice was heard next to Sara. "Let go of him or your friend here buys a one way ticket to hell."

Looking around, Xena could tell that the officer was telling the truth. His gun was cocked and ready, pointing at Sara’s fair temple. Nodding, she slowly released her grip on Hathaway’s hand.

Shaking the pain from his quickly swelling hand, Hathaway removed his nightstick. "You’re gonna pay for that, gorgeous," he sneered, twirling the metal cylinder in front of his lumbering body.

Xena knew what was going to happen almost before the officer himself did. She also knew that to prevent it, she would risk Sara’s life. So she bowed her head, feeling the harsh impact of the nightstick as it slammed into the back of her skull, rendering her instantly unconscious.

Hathaway stepped back as she collapsed against the trunk of the car, sliding bonelessly to the ground, face down.

"Xena!" Sara screamed, desperately trying to free herself from the watching officer’s iron grip.

"I said shut up!" the partner snarled, backhanding Sara across the jaw once again, bringing stinging tears of pain and frustration to the young woman’s eyes.

Hathaway grunted as he knelt, placing one thick knee squarely between Xena’s shoulderblades, reaching for her limp arms and crossing them behind her back. Reaching into his belt, the officer hissed in pain as he removed his set of handcuffs, spinning them open with one hand while the other continued to secure a firm grasp on Xena’s wrists.

After snapping the cuffs into place, Hathaway rose slowly, jerking his head over toward his partner. "Keep an eye on her." Crossing over to his car, Hathaway reached into the trunk and came out with a set of ankle cuffs. Smirking, he lazily twirled the cuffs around his index finger as he sauntered back to the downed woman.

"Is that really necessary?" Sara asked, braving another clout across the jaw. "She’s unconscious, for God’s sake."

"Ya know," Hathaway observed from his kneeling position beside Xena, "if you don’t shut that mouth of yours, I might decide that one playmate’s enough for tonight. Get my point, blondie?" Grunting at Sara’s silent acquiescence, the big man clicked the cuffs into place, giving Xena’s upturned behind a long caress. "Conway, gimme your cuffs."

"My cuffs? But what about her?" Conway protested, indicating Sara with a wave of his hand.

His partner sneered. "I don’t think we have to worry about her as long as her friend here’s trussed up like Henrietta’s prize hog. Isn’t that right, sweetheart." The look he shot Sara was mockingly compassionate.

"W-what are you going to do with us?"

"Anything we want to, little girl." Hathaway spun his partner’s handcuffs open and attached one end to the chain linking the cuffs on Xena’s wrists. Reaching over, he bent the warrior’s long legs at her knees and attached the second cuff to the chain linking the ankle restraints. Standing, he dusted off his hands and stared down at the trussed figure at his feet. "That’s better. Conway, put blondie in the back seat then come back and help me get this one in the car too."

Sara stumbled on her way to the car and would have fallen completely if not for Conway’s brutal grip to her upper arm. As it was, she was dragged the rest of the way and thrown into the patrol car’s torn back seat. "Hey!" she shouted as the door slammed, nearly catching her outstretched ankle. Wriggling to her back, the young woman kicked at the window, but it held solidly. Ok, Sara, get a grip. We’re in trouble here and now is not the time to start panicking. Calm down and think of a way to get out of this. God, I hope Xena’s alright.

 

The door opposite her opened and Xena was tossed into the back seat, her neck tucking under bonelessly as her head collided with Sara’s strong thigh.

"Shove her in further, damnit!" Hathaway ordered, futilely pushing against Xena’s long frame. "I can’t get the fucking door closed!"

"You’re breaking her neck!" Sara shouted.

"Keep pushing!" Hathaway ordered, causing Xena’s head to almost completely disappear under her shoulders.

"Wait a minute, please!" Sara begged, carefully grasping Xena’s tucked chin and pulling the warrior’s head onto her lap. "There. If you’ll just lift her a little bit, you can fit her in, I think."

"When I want your advice, sweetheart, I’ll ask for it, ok?"

With one last heave, Hathaway pushed Xena fully into the car, slamming the door quickly, forcing the warrior’s broad shoulders to collide painfully with Sara’s legs and leaving her long legs crushed against the steel door, bowing her hips upward at an unnatural angle.

"Oh God, Xena, I’m so sorry," Sara whispered, tears misting her eyes. Reaching a shaking hand towards her lap, she gently stroked the warrior’s raven hair, a small part of her marveling over just how soft it was under her fingertips. "Please wake up, Xena. Please."

Reaching beneath the thick fall of the warrior’s mane, Sara winced as her fingers came into contact with a growing knot at the base of Xena’s skull. The lack of response by the unconscious woman brought a worried furrow to Sara’s brow. "C’mon, Xena, wake up, ok? You promised that everything would be ok. You promised. Well, everything’s not ok and I can’t handle this alone. So just . . .wake up, alright? Please?"

The doors opened as Hathaway and his partner entered the car, laughing. All sounds were cut off as the doors closed again, the bulletproof glass between front and back seats effectively muffling any conversation between the two officers.

Sara felt a rumbling through her small frame as the car’s engine started up and Hathaway pulled back onto the road, travelling fast. Continuing to stroke Xena’s hair, Sara looked out the window as the trees blurred quickly by.

Struggling up through the layers of unconsciousness, Xena became aware of gentle fingers stroking through her hair. The wonderful sensation was almost enough to override the horrid pounding in her head. Almost, but not quite. The thighs resting under her reclining head were very familiar. So familiar, in fact, that the warrior entertained the brief hope that the past three thousand years had been but a side effect of a particularly nasty head injury. That thought caused her eyes to open quickly, half expecting to see the familiar rust brown of the Amazon bard’s skirt. The button fly of the jeans present in her reality, however, served to drag Xena back into the present, headache and all. She shifted slightly, suddenly aware of the unnatural contortions her body was forced into by the cramped space she was currently occupying.

"Thank God," Sara whispered, her hand never stilling its gentle stroking. "I thought you were never going to wake up. How’s your head?"

"Feels like Argo kicked it," Xena mumbled, voice slightly slurred.

"Why would your car kick your head?" Sara queried in a puzzled voice.

"Not Argo the car. Argo the horse. My horse." A bittersweet memory passed through the warrior’s benumbed brain briefly, then was gone.

"You named your car after your horse?"

"I didn’t. Someone else did." How in the name of the gods did we get on this conversation anyway? "How’s your jaw?"

"Feels like your horse kicked it too," came the response.

Rolling her head back against her shoulders and wincing at the resultant pain, Xena peered up at Sara’s jaw. She winced as her gaze took in the sunburst of color radiating from neck to cheek.. Gritting her teeth, Xena laid her head back down on Sara’s lap. "I’m sorry," she whispered.

"You’re sorry? For what?"

"For being so wrapped up in myself that I blew that speed trap. I knew I was speeding. I shouldn’t . . .I . . . ."

"Now you stop that right now, you hear?" Sara demanded, reaching down and placing, with difficulty, two fingers against Xena’s lips. "If you wanna place blame, why don’t we start with me? I didn’t have to drag you around shopping for four hours. I knew you had a job to do."

"But . . . ."

"No, let me finish, Xena. I shouldn’t even have been in this position in the first place. I knew who Joseph was. I should have left him. But I didn’t."

"Alright."

"What?"

"I said ‘alright’. Enough. This is getting us nowhere." Xena let Sara feel the smile as she curved her lips against the young blonde’s fingers. "Do you know where we are?"

"No. We’re going too fast for me to recognize anything."

"Do you see any streetlights? Houses? Anything?"

"Nothing but woods. We’re heading west. My guess is that we’re close to Plymouth Meeting, but I could be wrong."

"How long have I been out?"

"About ten minutes or so. What are we going to do? What’s going to happen to us?"

"I’m thinking about the first question. I don’t think you want an answer to the second."

"They’re going to rape us, aren’t they. That’s why they’re taking us all the way out here."

After a long moment of silence, Xena nodded against Sara’s thighs. "Most likely. At least that’s what they’re planning. It’s not gonna happen, though."

"You have a plan."

"The beginnings of one, yes."

"Thank God. What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing."

"What??"

"You heard me, Sara. I don’t want you to do anything. And I mean that. In order for this plan to work, you have to remain very passive. Remember, these men, like it or not, are police officers. They’re trained to kill and they’ve got weapons enough to handle it. Don’t make it easier for them to do just that."

"You want me to just lay back . . .and take it?" Sara asked in disbelief, her fingers tightening in Xena’s hair.

"It won’t come to that. What I’m saying is that no matter what you see or hear, you cannot react to it. I’m gonna need a little time to put things in motion."

The grip on the warrior’s hair tightened painfully. "You’re gonna let that . . .that beast attack you, aren’t you."

"Never mind that now. I need you to do something for me."

"Oh? Just a second ago you told me to do nothing." Sarcasm dripped from Sara’s every word.

"My hands," Xena replied in a low, soft voice. "The cuffs are on too tight and I can’t feel them. I need you to try and massage the blood back into them. Please."

Twisting her body slightly, Sara was just able to touch Xena’s bound hands. "My God, Xena! They’re like ice!"

Xena’s rejoinder was muffled as she found herself with a face full of Sara’s chest. While that, in and of itself stirred up feelings better left buried, the warrior was loathe to have the contact end. Still, her protesting lungs took precedence over her stirring loins and Xena thrust out with her chin.

"What? Oh God, Xena. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to suffocate you."

"That’s ok," Xena replied, pushing the shirt out of her mouth. "Just let me get my head out of your way. You can bend over more easily." Moving her head back, Xena smiled as Sara’s side gently bumped against her nose. She felt the faint pressure of the young woman’s fingers against her hands as they worked to bring warming blood back into the swollen, starved flesh. Tingles rushed in behind the gentle strokes and Xena experimentally flexed her fingers, pleased at her body’s response. "That’s great, Sara. Thanks."

"Just glad I could help," Sara replied, straightening up in her seat and easing Xena’s head back to a more comfortable position on her lap. Her fingers resumed their absent stroking of the warrior’s long hair.

Both women rocked violently as the car made a sharp right turn. Xena’s headlong slide into the doorframe was prevented by Sara’s grip on her hair. The warrior winced. "Good save, Sara," she said in a teasing voice, "but could you let up some? I’m rather fond of my scalp."

Sara’s green eyes widened. "I’m sorry. I didn’t even realize what I was doing." Her fair countenance darkened in a blush. Releasing her grip on Xena’s hair, she let out a held breath.

"’s ok," the warrior reassured her. "It was doing wonders for my headache. The stroking, I mean. I could have done without the hair pulling." Tilting her head back, she shared her amusement with Sara through her smile.

The young woman smiled back, her blush diffusing, her tension with it. She looked through the window again and the tension returned as her face paled. "Xena, we’re heading into the woods."

The warrior shifted, trying to limber up stiffened muscles, knowing she’d need them soon. Her heart rate accelerated, pumping blood and endorphins through her system, instantly slamming her into battle-readiness. A feral smile spread her lips, her teeth gleaming white in the darkness. Blue eyes darkened.

 

 

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Sara felt the transformation against her body and her heart also increased its rhythm, caught up in something so primal that no words came to her normally agile mind. An energy rolled off of Xena in heated waves, buffeting against her unprepared body, sending jolts of electricity that were quite close to being sensual. No, strike that. It is sensual. And erotic. And arousing. Now doesn’t this just take the cake. I’m on my way to getting raped and I’m turned on by a woman who is transforming into a killer before my very eyes. Oh boy am I gonna rack up a bunch of therapy bills when I get outta this one.

The young woman was jolted from her thoughts as the car came to a smooth stop. "We’re stopping," she whispered unnecessarily.

"I know," Xena replied in a like tone, continuing to contract and loosen her muscles rhythmically. "Remember what I asked, Sara. Don’t do anything. I’ll get us out of this."

Sara nodded. "Ok."

 

Bare seconds later, both women heard the sound of doors opening. Xena felt the pressure against her knees ease off as the back door also opened. "Remember what I said," she whispered, pinning Sara with her gaze. Giving the young woman a final, tight smile, Xena felt her hands and legs grabbed as she was hauled out of the car and dumped, face down, on the cold ground. A booted foot to her side rolled her over slightly as she continued to subtly tense and relax her cramped muscles.

"Well don’t you look just too tasty," came Hathaway’s sneering voice from above the warrior. He laughed then, his white teeth sparkling against the moon shadow. "Forgot to tell me you were packin’ a piece, gorgeous. And an illegal one, at that."

"It didn’t come up in conversation," Xena bit off.

"No, I don’t suppose it did. But it makes this little side-trip a bit more plausible, don’t you think? I might have gotten in trouble for hauling you off on just a minor speeding violation, even if you did resist arrest." Still grinning malevolently, he shrugged his huge shoulders. "But since you were kind enough to carry a concealed weapon, and a sawed off shotgun at that, well . . . ." He lifted his hands up and outward. "That’s a whole different kettle of fish."

Bending down to one knee, the officer traced one finger along the angled plains of Xena’s face, absently flicking off stray tendrils of raven hair as he did so. "If you . . .cooperate . . .with my interrogation, I just might be persuaded to leave that little . . .misunderstanding out of my report." Leaning closer to the bound warrior, he smiled again, buffeting Xena with his warm breath. "And if you’re really cooperative, I just might throw out the resisting arrest charge. You get off with a speeding ticket, and I . . .well, I just get off. What do you say?"

"I say get on with it."

Hathaway laughed again, long and loud, almost doubling over in his mirth. Xena was tempted to just head butt the man into oblivion, but the thoughts of Sara being unprotected with Conway while she remained trussed up forced the plan out of her mind unimplemented. She needed both men distracted for her plan to work.

"Conway, throw me your cuff keys," Hathaway ordered. Catching the tossed keys in one huge paw, the officer proceeded to unlock the set of cuffs that bound Xena’s hands to her feet. Pocketing the keys, he reached under the warrior’s arms and hauled her up to a standing position, dragging her over to the front fender of the patrol car and leaning her back against it. "Much better, if I do say so myself. You’re a tall one, aren’t you," he stated conversationally, his lust-narrowed eyes raking over her body with gleeful abandon.

"So I’ve been told," Xena replied through clenched teeth.

Cupping her cheeks almost tenderly, Hathaway leaned forward and captured her lips in a brutal kiss, biting hard at her lips with feral growls of dominance. Slipping one hand under her chin, he used his strong fingers to pry her jaws open as he thrust his conquering tongue inside her mouth.

Xena had to fight the urge to gag as his tongue forced its way to the back of her throat, his taste a nauseating combination of stale cigarettes and old, bitter coffee.

Continuing to rape her mouth with teeth and tongue, Hathaway lowered his hands until he grasped her shirt. With one strong heave, he parted the garment, buttons flying from the cloth as tiny projectiles. Pushing her sports bra up, he engulfed the warrior’s breasts in his brutal hands, short nails digging into tender flesh, iron grip squeezing and releasing, leaving bruising finger marks in their wake. Reaching her nipples, he applied vice grips to them, pinching, rolling and pulling hard as he grunted into her mouth, surprised at the seeming lack of response from the woman beneath him. Why wasn’t she crying out in pain? He knew he was hurting her. He had to be hurting her.

Xena could feel the pain easily, but wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. Her sensitive hearing picked up scuffling noises and she opened her eyes, cutting her gaze off to the side and seeing Conway stepping closer to them with Sara in tow, voyeuristic pleasure written boldly over his features. The warrior squirmed very slightly, her bound hands making dents in the car’s steel frame as Hathaway leaned in closer, his erection pressing into her lower abdomen.

With another animalistic grunt, Hathaway pulled away, trapping Xena’s lower lip between his clenched teeth and pulling as his hands left her breasts and went down to the wide belt of his uniform pants. Pulling off his gunbelt and allowing it to drop unheeded to the ground, the officer undid his pants, pushing them down to puddle around his ankles. His freed erection arched upwards like a war club.

First mistake, Xena thought, keeping a smug smile off her face by sheer force of will. Tiny.

Groaning as he stroked himself still harder, Hathaway leaned back in, taking Xena’s breasts into his mouth and gnawing at the flesh presented him. Soon, however, that wasn’t enough and his hands went to the waistband of her jeans, impatiently working the stubborn buttons.

Conway stepped forward, hesitantly clearing his throat. "Uh, JT?"

Pulling away from Xena’s breasts, Hathaway shot his partner a look of fury. "What?"

"I’m gonna take blondie here over to the woods for a . . .talk, ok?"

"Yeah, whatever," Hathaway responded, his urgent hands still working at opening the fly of Xena’s jeans. "Just don’t come back till I call for you, got it?"

"No problem, partner," Conway sneered, grabbing a wide eyed Sara by the arm and jerking her around.

Second mistake, the warrior thought, realizing that this was the break she had been waiting for. Hearing Sara’s muffled sob of pain brought the red roses of fury again across her vision and Xena reached down deep inside to tap into the vast well of what Ares had termed her "super-mortal strength". Breathing in deeply through her nose, the warrior released slowly, applying strength to the cuffs binding her wrists. The chain linking the cuffs parted like wet Talgamite, freeing her instantly. Faster than could be seen by the human eye, both hands came up, fingers extended, to jab at the officer’s unprotected neck. Hathaway went down as if pole-axed.

Flexing her knees, Xena pushed up strongly, back flipping over the patrol car and turning in mid-air, landing noiselessly behind the unaware Conway.

Conway felt a tap on his shoulder and, thinking it was Hathaway, turned his head, only to find a rock-hard fist shatter his nose and most of his front teeth. Blood flew high in majestic arcs as the officer slumped to the ground, instantly unconscious.

Grunting slightly, Xena easily parted the chain binding her ankles together and grabbed Sara.

Lost in her own panic, the young woman didn’t even realize that her captor had been rendered harmless. When the strong hand clamped down on her shoulder, she responded instinctively, whirling around and arching out a fist.

Which was captured scant inches before it would have contacted Xena’s unprotected abdomen.

"Woah. Don’t punch out the good guys."

Sara’s reddened eyes widened. "Xena?"

"Yup."

"But how . . . ? God, I’m so glad you’re ok." Her eyes widened further as she took in the warrior’s current state of dress, or lack thereof. Her gaze zeroed in on the horrid bruising that was beginning to form on Xena’s beautiful breasts. "Oh God," she gasped in a whisper.

Looking down at herself, Xena saw immediately the reason for the young woman’s horror and hastily pulled her bra back down, closing her shirt front and holding it together with one hand. "C’mon," she said, grasping Sara’s arm gently with her free hand. "We’ve gotta get out of here before they wake up."

Leading Sara away from the bloodied mess at their feet, Xena paused as she came around the front of the car, releasing her grasp on the young woman and squatting down to reverse the nerve-block on Hathaway. Receiving no response from the downed man, she quickly felt for a pulse at his neck. There was none. She sighed.

"Is he . . . ?"

"Yes," the warrior replied, standing up again.

"What did you do to him?"

"Cut off the flow of blood to his brain. He should have been able to remain alive till I got back though. I wasn’t gone that long."

Sara looked down at the officer, noting his flaccid penis as it drooped over his body. Her fair brows knit in a scowl. "He deserved it," she said flatly.

"No one deserves to die, Sara," Xena replied, turning her companion away from the sight. "Let’s just get out of here."

"Wait a minute," Sara replied, pulling out of Xena’s grip and stepping back to Hathaway’s slumped form. A grimace of distaste contorted her face as she reached down into the dead man’s pocket, retrieving the keys to the cuffs Xena was still sporting around her wrists and ankles.

Stopping the young woman with a gentle grip on her wrist, Xena removed the keys from Sara’s hand and set to unlocking the offending cuffs. She smiled at Sara’s look of consternation. "Fingerprints," she explained. "Can’t afford to have yours lying around."

"What about yours?"

"No worries there," Xena smirked, showing the young woman the metal handcuff she had just released from her wrist.

To Sara’s astonishment, only a faint blurred smudge appeared where an easily defined print should have been. "But how? Wait, don’t tell me. Another ‘many skills’ thing, right?"

"Something like that," the warrior amiably agreed. "Now let’s go." Walking back to the trunk of the patrol car, Xena opened it with the keys appropriated from the ignition and reached into the medical case placed inside the roomy compartment. Drawing out a pair of latex gloves, she handed them to her companion. "Put those on so I don’t have to wipe the car down when we’re through."

"You mean we’re gonna steal a police cruiser?"

Shrugging her broad shoulders, Xena quirked a half smile at the young woman. "Beats walking. We’ll just drive it back to where we left our car and stow this one somewhere out of the way. That’ll give us some extra time to get away."

"If you say so," Sara replied doubtfully.

"I do. C’mon. Let’s go." Slipping into the seat, Xena keyed the ignition and the car started with a rattling roar. The companions listened as the fat tires crunched over leafy debris of the forest floor. "Any idea how we get back?"

"Not a one, though we were pretty much traveling in a straight line before that last turn."

"My guess is if we continue to head west, we’ll eventually hit the Turnpike. From there we can swing around and get back to the car."

"I hope you’re right. I don’t think I’d like being lost in these woods."

Flashing the young woman a slight smile, Xena turned her attention back to the road. As the street they were driving on widened out into a two lane blacktop, Xena felt a peculiar tickle on the back of her neck. Her hackles raised as her nostrils flared, testing the air for the danger her body already felt.

Sara noticed the change. "What’s wrong?"

"I’m not sure yet. Keep your eyes open."

As the cruiser powered down the road, Xena shot a look outside Sara’s window, seeing several shadowed forms along the side of the road. One after another, the headlights of four cars came on and the vehicles sped onto the road, closing the distance between themselves and the two women quickly. "Trouble," Xena muttered under her breath.

"Not again!" Sara bemoaned, twisting in her seat. "Police?"

"I don’t think so."

"Then who?"

The answer shot through the warrior like one of Zeus’ lightning bolts. "Damn," she whispered, hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel.

"What?" Sara asked, eyes wide and white against the darkness.

"This car, Sara. It’s the one I bugged the other night."

The young woman twisted in her seat again. "Then those guys?"

"Are Calladosi’s henchmen. Hang on!" Pressing the gas petal to the floor, Xena poured on the speed, the cruiser fishtailing slightly on some loose gravel in the roadway. Bulling the car back into line, Xena’s eyes darted around, seeking some method of escape. The road they were on was straight and flat with no turn-offs anywhere in sight.

"Can’t we just pull off the road somewhere and loose them in the woods?"

"You’re forgetting the homing device. They’ll follow us wherever we go. Our best chance is to either outrun them or disable them."

"Do you think we can outrun them?" Sara asked, not liking the idea of ‘disabling’ fast running cars one iota.

"I doubt it. Help me look for a turnoff somewhere, alright?"

Sara took that as her cue to shut up and she did so. Her intense concentration was shattered seconds later by Xena’s barked command.

"Get down!" The warrior grabbed the young woman by the shoulder and forcefully shoved her off the seat and onto the floorboards below. A brief second later, the back window imploded under the impact of semi-automatic weapon fire. A bare instant later, the supposedly bulletproof glass separating the front and back seats also succumbed to ammunition’s onslaught. "They just don’t make things the way they used to," she sighed almost to herself. Shaking the glass out of her hair, Xena concentrated on simply keeping the damaged car on the road. She heard the distinctive rattle of gunfire yet again and ducked slightly, wincing as she listened to the ‘ting’ ‘ting’ ‘ting’ of high-impact bullets piercing the car’s steel shell. C’mon, c’mon, come on, damnit! she shouted internally, trying to make the cruiser pick up speed with the power of her mind.

At last, the break she had been looking for came into view. Snapping the wheel to the right, she felt the patrol car take the sharp corner on two wheels.

Sara yelped as the car slammed back down to earth once again. Lifting her blonde head, the young woman peeped over the dashboard, her eyes widening in horror once again. "Xena, look out! The gate!"

"Get down!" the warrior snarled, palming Sara’s head and shoving her back to the floor. Seconds later, the car tore through the gated entrance to Valley Forge National Park. The thick metal gate spun up onto the cruiser’s hood, then cracked the windshield before flying up and over the car, landing in the road and skidding several feet before stopping, a twisted wreckage of mangled metal.

Flying past the large rotunda that housed priceless Revolutionary War artifacts, Xena sped towards the miles of driving trail that circled the huge park. The roads were narrow, hilly and twisting, but she felt sure she would have the advantage over her pursuers here. Another deciding factor was that, given the late hour and the park’s closure, no innocent bystanders would be hurt by the power play currently ensuing between the Warrior Princess and the Mafioso.

The warrior eased the cruiser into a particularly twisty downward section of the park. Catching a quick glimpse in the cracked rearview mirror, Xena winced again as she saw fire blazing from guns pointed outside a pursuing car. She goosed the cruiser to the right and to the left in a successful attempt to miss the deadly hail of bullets aimed their way.

Sara yelped again and pulled out the offending object that was threatening to pierce her anatomy with every turn. Xena’s gun.

"Bless you, Sara," Xena grinned, releasing the steering wheel and grabbing the gun, unholstering it quickly and chambering the rounds. "Grab the wheel."

"What? I can’t even see!"

"Grab the wheel now!"

A small hand shot out and clamped on the steering wheel as Sara’s head once again popped up so she could peer over the dashboard. "Oh God, Xena. We’re gonna crash," she moaned.

"Hush, now. Just do the best you can." Twisting in her own seat, Xena kept her head below the level of the headrest, forcing the blunted barrel of her shotgun between the headrests of the bench seat. Peering above the protective barrier, the warrior took a second to aim, then caressed the trigger.

The resulting boom caused Sara’s hand to jerk on the wheel, which in turn caused Xena to fly over into the passenger’s seat, her strong body cracking Sara’s head against the dashboard. The wheel jerked again, and the warrior was thrown back in the opposite direction. She peered over the seat again, gauging the effect of her shot.

The trailing car’s windshield was shattered, but the driver appeared to be unharmed. The distance was closing by the second. Chambering another round, Xena sighted and let loose, grunting in satisfaction as the driver’s head exploded like an overripe melon, splattering the car’s interior with great gouts of blood. The car jerked sharply to the left and down a steep embankment. The resulting explosion lit up the night sky briefly.

Throwing the gun into the passenger’s seat, Xena twisted around again and liberated the steering wheel from Sara’s panicked grip. "You ok?" she asked her now silent partner.

"I-I think so. I feel kinda dizzy though."

"Look at me. Damn." The young woman’s forehead was split from her impact with the dashboard. Xena grabbed the sleeve of her own shirt and ripped, wadding the cloth up and pressing it against the freely flowing wound. "Keep the pressure on. Scalp wounds bleed a lot, but you’re gonna be ok. Just stay down, alright?"

"No worries there. I don’t think I could sit up if I wanted to." There was a long moment of silence, then Sara’s tremulous voice spoke up again. "Xena, what’s going to happen to us?"

Xena spared a glance at her young companion. Sara’s face was pale in the fractured moonlight. Blood made garish, tear-like tracks down her rounded cheeks. Her injured jaw was well shadowed with bruises. "We’re gonna get out of this, Sara," Xena said forcefully. "I refuse to let myself be pawed by some ape in a monkey suit only to be taken out by a bunch of idiots who have to be told how to tie their own shoes, got me?"

Sara’s relieved giggle was music to the warrior’s ears. She nodded to herself. "Alright then. Just keep pressure on that wound and let me worry about our guests."

With a last jig to the left, the road smoothed out, becoming a straight plain with a slight decline. Xena gunned the engine, eyes darting left and right in an effort to spy some sort of park maintenance turnoff where she could hide the car briefly. If she could just get rid of the tracer, they should be home free.

Her search was cut short by the sight of high beams splaying across the fractured windshield, causing her to throw up a long arm to shield her eyes. A large car was heading toward her at a high rate of speed, fishtailing severely as the driver tried to keep the vehicle on the narrow road. As she watched, Xena saw the head and shoulders of a man as he popped up through the car’s sunroof. Fire erupted from the muzzle of the gun he was carrying and the warrior ducked again as the cruiser’s windshield shattered, filling the air, and her face, with diamonds of glass. She blocked Sara’s terror-filled scream from her mind as she concentrated on keeping the cruiser on the road.

A spray of bullets flew past her right shoulder as the warrior leaned over to retrieve her gun. Sara screamed again and Xena spared the young woman another glance. Sara’s face was deathly pale, her jade eyes wide and rolling in her panic. The warrior clamped one strong hand on her shoulder briefly and squeezed, grinning ferally at her. "Sit tight."

Using her long, strong legs to clamp onto the steering wheel, Xena slammed another two rounds into the chamber of her weapon, locking the barrel and poking it out of the driver’s side window. Mafia bullets were puncturing through the cruiser at an alarming rate, attesting to the marksmanship skill of their current assassin. Xena held her fire until the car was almost upon them. She could see the evil smiles of the men inside the car and she flashed them one of her own. As the car came alongside, she pumped the trigger, watching in satisfaction as the assassin’s head was torn from his shoulders in a fountain of blood and gore.

The dark car flew past, turning in a slow, banking skid, then looped around twice more, unbalanced by the dead weight of the man still lolling out of the sunroof.

"Gotcha," Xena grunted, tossing down the gun and grabbing the wheel once again.

Banking left along a broad curve, the warrior noted with dismay that the road narrowed quite severely in this section of the park. Ancient huts, used to house Washington’s tattered forces, stood sentinel over the undulating fields. Xena’s appreciation for the crude constructions which had managed to survive the centuries was cut short by the sight of another car bearing down upon her. Her eyes narrowed as adrenaline pumped through her system anew. Her teeth gleamed in the darkness through sneering lips. Her night-black hair flew back from her striking face in wild abandon, blown by the gale caused by speed and the lack of a windshield. Ya wanna play chicken, huh? C’mon, boys. Let’s do it.

Centering the cruiser carefully on the narrow lane, Xena pushed the pedal to the floorboards, grinning wildly, her blood singing with malevolent joy. The two cars headed toward one another, gathering speed as they approached. The warrior’s gaze never wavered, her grin never faltered. She was in her element and no two-bit son of a Caesar was going to ruin her fun.

Closer and closer the cars came, neither driver willing to give way. The road was too narrow to swing around. Either way lead to death.

Xena never faltered. Her very birth had prepared her for moments like these. She was an elemental force in its purest form, unsullied by the encroachment of man’s knowledge and penchant for destruction.

Sara looked up from her crouched position, tears springing unbidden from her eyes at the vision before her. It was like the looking at the majestic beauty of a volcano as it spread it’s tendrils of lava along the ground or a tidal wave reclaiming what belonged to the sea, fearless and terrifyingly beautiful in its destruction. From her position, the young woman didn’t know what was happening, but, like in that quiet forest glade, she knew she was experiencing a moment so primal, so profound, that no words would ever do it justice.

At the very last second before impact, the large black car carrying the Mafia men swerved, occupants screaming their last as the vehicle flew off the road, hit a downed tree, and flipped, hood over trunk, in giant loops as it went down the side of the long, steep embankment.

Xena sped forward, never glancing back, all her concentration centered on the road ahead. A small shack surrounded by wire fencing came into view on her left and she slammed on the breaks, bringing the car into a controlled, looping skid. Hitting the accelerator slightly, she pulled the battered cruiser into the small paved driveway next to the maintenance shack.

"Why are we stopping? What are we doing?"

"Just keep out of sight," Xena ordered, slipping quickly out of the car and squatting near the front fender. Reaching under the wheel-well, she grasped the tracking device and pulled it away from the metal. Standing, she arched back her arm and threw the thin metal square like she would her chakram, watching as it flew high and far into the air. "Track that," she grunted in satisfaction, slipping back into the cruiser.

Seconds later, a car blew past them, the headless body of the Mafia assassin still lolling out of the sunroof. Grinning in malevolent delight, Xena jammed the cruiser into reverse and backed out onto the blacktop, turning the car to go back the way they had come. "Time to say our good-byes."

"But the party was just getting started," Sara mock-complained, her ears suddenly filled with the totally delightful musicality of Xena’s laughter.

The warrior had ‘disabled’ two cars and sent a third on a wild goose chase. Only one remained, and she had a pretty good idea just where it was hiding. Her suspicions were confirmed as the cruiser breasted a mild rise heading toward the park gate.

There, parked at an oblique angle to the gate, sat the fourth of the Mafia cars. A lone man stood against the front of the vehicle, a semi-automatic machine gun perched casually at his hip, pointed in the direction of the oncoming police cruiser. A sneer curled his lips. "You die now, bitch," he whispered as his finger caressed the trigger of his weapon, grinning as tongues of fire spit from the mouth of the gun.

Xena headed straight for the man, doing her best to ignore the hail of bullets as they threaded their way through and around the cruiser. Raising her own gun yet again, she took careful aim and fired. A sudden unseen dip in the pavement caused the shot to miss its mark, instead exploding one of the car’s front tires. The gunman yelped and dove back into the now listing car.

Twisting the wheel to the right at the last second, Xena aimed the nose of the patrol car into the small space between the Mafia vehicle and the standing cemented post of the gate. She winced at the loud squeal of metal over metal as the cruiser shot through the narrow gap, leaving half of it’s paint job behind.

"Is it over?" Sara asked from her place on the floor, her hand still firmly pressing the makeshift bandage over her head wound.

Risking a quick glance behind her, Xena nodded. "All clear."

"Thank God. Can I sit up now? Please?"

Grinning tightly, the warrior grabbed the young woman under her arm and hauled her back up into her seat.

Oriented now to her location, Sara was able to lead the pair home through back roads, correctly deciding that a bullet-ridden police cruiser would attract a great deal of unwanted attention on a more public thoroughfare. Within an hour, they were back at the sight of the abduction. Both exited the cruiser and Xena steered it off the road and down a small embankment, watching in satisfaction as the car rolled under its own downward momentum to come to a stop, fender deep in a sluggish stream.

"Takes care of that," Xena proclaimed, dusting her hands off and walking over to the surprisingly intact Mercedes. "Let’s get outta here."

 

They made it back to the city without incident, Xena keeping carefully to the imposed speed limits. Pulling into to the parking lot of a motel a step up from the squalid hovels they’d occupied before, Xena quirked a half-smile at her quiet companion. "I think we deserve a little luxury tonight, don’t you?"

Sara could only nod, trying mightily to hold back the dam of tears that threatened to spill over as the events of the past few hours flooded into her now unoccupied mind. Vivid images passed behind her eyes, bringing with them shudders of tension.

"Hey," Xena said softly, reaching over to cup the young woman’s chin and guide her face over and up. "What’s wrong?"

"N-nothing. I’ll be ok. I’m just . . .really tired."

Disbelief shone in the sapphire brilliance of Xena’s eyes, but after a moment she nodded and released her grip on Sara’s chin. "Wait here," she said, opening the door and slipping her long frame out of the car. "I’ll get us a room." With a slam of the door, the warrior was gone.

Refusing to give in to the emotions railing against her defenses, Sara wrapped tight arms around herself, rocking slowly in the soft leather seat. "Oh God," she whimpered. "Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Don’t cry, Sara. Don’t you cry. Cause if you do, you won’t stop." The sound of her own voice comforted the young woman slightly and she continued to hug herself tightly and rock.

Moments later, Xena returned, slipping back into the car. "I’ve got us a room around back. We’ll unpack, you can wash up, and I’ll take a look at your head, ok?" Her voice and eyes were gentle on the distraught young woman.

Sara simply nodded.

Xena led the way into the hotel room. Despite her current emotional state, Sara looked around in enjoyment. The walls were tastefully papered, the obligatory "ship sailing into the sunset" painting featured prominently over the large bed which was swaddled in what the young woman always called "Golden Harvest for Hotel Beds" paisley bedspread. At a gentle nudge to her hand, Sara snapped out of her reverie to look up at her companion.

"Let me take care of unpacking. Why don’t you go in and get cleaned up. I’ll take a look at your wounds when you’re done, alright?"

"Alright," Sara breathed, dropping the bags and wandering dazedly into the bathroom, wincing as she snapped on the light. Taking a look at her battered face in the mirror, the young woman gasped. She ran disbelieving fingers over the bruising on her cheek and jaw as she stared at the gory tracks of dried blood descending from the scalp wound. The tears welled up then, the dam bursting under the replayed horror of the day. She collapsed against the sink, sobbing.

Hearing the muffled weeping, Xena dropped what she was doing and strode into the bathroom. "Hey," she cooed, walking over to Sara and enveloping her in a strong embrace. "Hey, it’s alright. Everything’s alright."

Sara allowed the comfort for a brief moment before forcefully pushing herself away. "You’re wrong, Xena. Everything is not alright. It’s not! We were . . .we were almost killed tonight! That police officer tried to rape you! How can you say everything’s alright?" Sobbing, she stumbled against the warrior, pushing her flushed face against the warmth of Xena’s upper chest.

Xena’s long arms wrapped around the grief-stricken woman yet again as one hand raised up to stroke soft blonde hair. "Shhhh. We’re safe now. I wasn’t raped. We weren’t killed. We’re here. We’re safe. Shhhh."

After several long moments, Sara’s death grip on Xena’s torn shirt lessened and her sobs trickled off to a few isolated tears. Still sniffling, she pulled away again, giving the warrior a watery smile. "You must really think I’m a crybaby, huh."

Xena returned the smile, gently stroking the young woman’s cheek with the back of her hand. "No, I don’t. You’ve had a very traumatic experience. You’re just reacting the way any normal person would."

"I don’t see you crying," Sara countered.

The caressing hand stopped as the mask came down over the warrior’s features again. "I don’t think I have any tears left," she said softly before turning and leaving the room.

A troubled Sara washed her battered body and changed into the nightshirt Xena had brought into the bathroom with her. Hesitantly stepping back into the main room, she looked at the tall warrior who was staring out of the window. "Xena? I’m sorry if I upset you. I . . .I didn’t mean to."

A long minute later, Xena turned from the window to face Sara, the mask still in place. "You didn’t upset me," she said softly, walking over to the young woman and urging her gently onto the bed. "Now let’s take a look at that face of yours, shall we?"

The tall warrior stepped into the bathroom, returning with a wet rag. Gathering some jars from her luggage, she came forward to kneel in front of Sara’s seated form. Working gently, she washed the dried and clotted blood from the young woman’s face, examining the cut closely. Nodding in satisfaction, she turned her attention to Sara’s bruised jaw and cheek, probing it gently with tender fingers. "Nothing appears to be broken," she remarked softly, uncapping one of the jars and spreading the minty-smelling salve carefully over the bruising. "We’ll leave your cut to air out overnight. It isn’t deep enough to need stitching."

"Wow, that stuff really does feel good," Sara remarked, smiling slightly against the diminishing pain in her jaw. "But it’s making my eyes water."

Xena gave the young blonde a gentle half smile as she rose fluidly to her feet, recapping the salve jar. "Then I guess it’s lucky you’re going to sleep. You’ll be fine once you close your eyes. C’mon." With a tender clasp of Sara’s arm, Xena urged the young woman to her feet as she turned down the bed linens. "Hop in."

Sara slipped into the fresh clean sheets and Xena pulled the covers over her form, bending down to place a kiss on one golden temple. "Goodnight, Sara," she murmured before straightening again and retreating into the bathroom with fresh clothing.

Pulling off her ruined shirt and bra, the warrior viewed her image in the mirror. The bruising and bite marks on her breasts were almost totally healed and she grunted in satisfaction. Her wrists still bore telltale circlets from the too-tight handcuffs, but she was sure that by morning, those too would be back to normal. Stripping off the rest of her clothing, she washed quickly and pulled on a long T-shirt and cotton shorts, then stepped back into the main room, intending to do a little computer work before she turned in.

"Xena?" came a sleepy voice to her left.

"Yes?"

"I was wondering." Sara’s voice hesitated for a second and Xena tensed. "Could . . .I mean would you be able to . . .um . . . ."

"What is it, Sara." Though inpatient, she kept her voice steady.

"I . . .well, after everything that’s happened today, I really don’t want to sleep alone. Do you think you could sleep here with me tonight?" A faint blush crawled over Sara’s face. "I’m sure by tomorrow I’ll be better but . . . ." Her voice trailed off.

Smiling slightly, Xena changed the direction of her travel and pulled the linens back again. "Scoot over."

Grinning in grateful relief, Sara did as instructed, feeling the warrior’s warm body slide easily next to her own.

"Better?"

Impulsively, Sara leaned over and kissed Xena’s cheek. "Much. Thanks." Burrowing down into the covers once again, the young woman fell asleep with a smile on her face.

Upon hearing Sara’s deep, even breathing, the warrior turned her head to study her young companion. Her hand came up to tenderly stroke golden hair, a gentle, loving smile on her face. "Oh, Gabrielle," she sighed, eyes misting slightly. Turning her face toward the ceiling again, Xena fell into a deep sleep, her hand still entangled in Sara’s thick hair.

 

Sara awoke the next morning feeling oddly refreshed, her mind at peace and mercifully free of the past day’s terrors. Until she uttered a bone cracking yawn and the pain in her jaw flamed anew.

Xena was there within seconds, hands gently probing Sara’s wounded face as long fingers spread soothing salve over the dark bruising. Her steely blue eyes took in the cut on the young woman’s forehead. "Healing nicely," she said in a low, purring tone.

The dark warrior’s voice threaded its way down Sara’s still drowsy nerve endings and she resisted mightily the urge to sink into the lips so close to her own. Instead, she let her eyes drift slowly closed, feeling Xena’s fingers as they tenderly caressed the skin of her face.

Suddenly realizing that her touches had become something more than clinical, Xena pulled back, closing her eyes briefly before raising gracefully to her feet. Setting the jar of salve down on the nightstand, she turned back to the desk, sinking into the chair and gazing into her computer screen.

Sara’s eyes snapped open as her body noted the quick absence of the warrior’s intoxicating warmth so near her own. The stern remoteness was stamped over the dark woman’s face once again and Sara sighed, pushing herself off the bed. "So, what’s up for today’s grand adventure?"

The blue eyes which met Sara’s were flat, almost lifeless. "I figure we’ll spend the day laying low. I’ll give Jarrod a call to come around this evening. You two can have dinner together while I take care of business. Sound good?" Without waiting for an answer, Xena turned back to her screen, simply staring at the flat surface.

Closing the distance between the two, Sara stepped behind Xena’s chair, laying her palm atop the warrior’s shoulder. "Xena?" A long moment of silence passed. Sara removed her hand. "Did I do something to upset you?" Her voice was soft, hesitant.

The warrior spun quickly, grasping Sara’s hand and holding it gently in her own larger one. "No. You did nothing wrong. I’m just . . . .I have a lot of things on my mind." Her steely gaze softened as the arched plains of her face smoothed into a small smile.

Which Sara returned in full measure, relieved beyond the telling. "Alright then. If you can do without me for a few minutes, I think I’ll take a shower." Grabbing some clean clothes, the young woman happily made her way into the bathroom, closing the door gently behind her.

Turning back to the computer, the smile left Xena’s face. Waking up holding Sara this morning had almost shattered her. Her waking body, still alive with the fire of yesterday’s battle, reacted immediately to Sara’s intimate presence, demanding satiation. The sense of temporal dislocation, her constant companion since she’s met the honey blonde twin of her soul’s mate descended full force and the warrior came very close to making a very big mistake. The bruised swelling on Sara’s innocent face snapped Xena back into her present reality and she disentangled herself from her companion’s firm grip as if burned, disgusted by her body’s betrayal.

But the blood fire refused to be dampened and it was making her edgy. The thought of spending the entire day indoors, in close personal contact with the woman who wore her beloved’s face was something she wasn’t altogether sure she could handle. She sensed Sara’s attraction, sensed the passion dance that was often an undercurrent to their brief, enforced companionship and was at a loss to understand what to do about it.

When Sara came back into the room, her golden hair freshly washed, her cheeks flushed from the warmth of the shower, Xena bolted to her feet, the desk chair crashing to its back behind her. "I have to get out of here. I won’t be gone long." With that, she escaped, leaving a totally puzzled young woman behind.

 

Grabbing her sword from the trunk of the Mercedes, Xena raced off into a small wooded area just behind the motel. This time, the gentle peace of the windblown trees did not fill her with the calm she was seeking. It only served to increase the distance between where she was now and where she most desperately wanted to be. "Damn you, Gabrielle," she shouted, slashing through the underbrush with powerful strokes of her brutally sharp sword. "Damn you to Tartarus! Why did you have to die? I could have saved you! Why did you do it? Why?" Tossing the weapon to the ground, the tall woman sank to her knees, her head thrown back to face the heavens. "Why??" The wail pierced the stillness of the quiet winter morning, sending a flock of late migrating birds into startled flight.

Retrieving her weapon, Xena twirled it in the air above her head before thrusting it, point first, into the winter-hardened ground. Wrapping both hands around the hilt, she bent forward to rest her forehead against the chilled pommel.

"Sometimes, Xena, things happen for reasons we don’t understand until later. You taught me that, remember?"

Gabrielle’s voice settled around her soul like a warm cloak, comforting the grieving warrior. She remembered that conversation as if it had taken place only yesterday.

It was the aftermath of a furious, bloody battle. Pellacles’ army numbered close to one hundred and was well trained and well armed. Most of the village men had been killed in previous raids. Xena and Gabrielle were forced to defend with a handful of elderly men and a large group of determined women. The tide had turned when Xena was able to separate the warlord from his head, but only after sustaining a deep wound to her side in the process. In her battle-inspired lust, the warrior had barely felt the wound, but the bard had seen it and her face had gone pale. "Xena!" she screamed, finishing off three attackers with a brutality she had rarely shown.

The sound of the warrior’s name, coupled with the beheading of their leader caused the remaining invaders to break off their battle and flee to their horses. Xena turned, slightly bewildered as the young bard launched herself at her companion, stark terror suffusing her features.

"Xena, you’re wounded. Let’s get back to the Inn."

"Gabrielle, it’s just a scratch. It doesn’t even hurt." And truthfully, it didn’t. Which, in and of itself, wasn’t all that odd. Xena rarely felt battlefield wounds until after the fire had burned free from her blood. She looked down into the bard’s panicked green eyes. "I’m fine." A crooked smile attempted to convey sincerity.

"Xena, you don’t know it yet, but you are not fine. I saw his sword go into your side. I saw it come out covered with your . . . . By the gods."

The warrior looked down to where Gabrielle’s hand disappeared inside her sliced tunic. "What is it?"

The hand came out again with just a small smear of blood on the fingers. "This . . .can’t be. Xena, I saw him stab you. I saw his sword come out of your body covered with blood. Your blood."

Grasping the trembling hand, Xena met the shocked gaze of her beloved. "Sometimes the light plays tricks on you. It wasn’t as bad as it looked."

The young bard laughed mirthlessly. "You’re wrong, Xena. I know what I saw." Tugging on their joined hands, the stubborn blonde led the perplexed warrior in the direction of the Inn.

 

Behind the safety of closed doors, Gabrielle had strode determinedly to her partner, hands unerringly finding the clasps to her armor. "Off. I want these off. I need to see how bad that wound is."

Xena sighed, gently capturing the bard’s hands in her own. "Gabrielle, I told you. It’s just a scratch."

"Humor me, then," Gabrielle snapped, pulling her hands free of their gentle confinement and returning to her work of separating the Warrior Princess from her accoutrements.

When Xena was stripped naked, Gabrielle urged her down onto the bed as she lit several candles which combined from the light from the fireplace, brightening the small room and banishing the shadowed corners completely.

Joining her partner on the bed, the bard gently moved one long arm out of her way as she bent her head to peer at the warrior’s naked side. "This is impossible," she breathed, her fingers probing the small closed gash to which only a thin crust of dried blood adhered.

Gently pushing Gabrielle’s hands out of the way, Xena probed her own wound, tracing one long finger up and down the length of it. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to remember the strike. Her arms had been out, away from her body, wrapped around the hilt of her sword which was parallel to the ground as she followed through on her decapitating stroke. It had left her abdomen bare for a counter-strike, which the warlord unerringly made. She remembered feeling the bite of the sword as it cleaved through her leather protection and sunk hotly into her side. She remembered the grin on Pellacles’ face as he withdrew the blade. . . .covered in blood.

Eyes wide, Xena looked back down at the injury. "He must have missed somehow." Her voice sounded hollow and insincere even to her own ears. "The blood could have been someone else’s."

"But it wasn’t," Gabrielle countered, the set of her jaw grim and determined. "That was your blood, Xena."

"Then how do you explain this?"

Defeated, Gabrielle sat back. "I can’t. It just doesn’t make any sense. I know what I saw, Xena. Unless . . . ." Knowledge sparked through the jade of her eyes. The sight of Callisto stabbing her own abdomen with her sword sprang up unbidden. "Ambrosia."

"What?"

"Ambrosia. Food of the gods. Callisto and Valasca ate it and they became gods. I gave it to you when you . . .died."

The warrior snorted in derision. "I’m no god." One long arm flung out, fingers pointed toward the blazing fireplace. "See? No lightning bolts. No fire balls." She smirked. "And before you add anything, my dear, my eyes were blue before you gave me the ambrosia."

"I’m serious, Xena. It’s the only thing that possibly explains this."

"No, Gabrielle. The explanation is that I got lucky. Again. What you saw was a trick of the light. Nothing more."

"No! It was no trick! You don’t believe that story any more than I do. I can see it in your eyes, Xena."

"No? Fine. I’ll prove it to you." Reaching down, Xena pulled a dagger out of her greave, placing the point against her now-unprotected inner arm.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked, eyes wide with fear. She reached for the knife, but Xena snatched it away easily.

"I’m going to prove to you once and for all that I am just as mortal as you are."

"Don’t."

"Hush now." Putting a bit more pressure on the blade, Xena began to drag the lethally sharp weapon slowly up her arm. She felt the familiar sting as flesh parted and beads of blood welled up from the wound. She smiled tightly. "See? I bleed."

"Xena, look." The tone of Gabrielle’s voice could only be described as horror-filled.

Looking down at her own arm, the warrior’s eyes widened. The cut was sealing itself slowly as she watched. "No," she whispered. "No." She felt the warmth of Gabrielle’s hand as the bard gently removed the steel blade from her nerveless fingers. "Why now?" Xena turned bewildered eyes to her cherished companion. "You gave me the ambrosia two years ago. I’ve been injured since then. Why now?"

"I don’t know," Gabrielle replied softly, tucking a strand of golden hair behind her ear. "Sometimes things happen for reasons we don’t understand until later. You taught me that, Xena. Remember?"

"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena whispered from her place on a small forest floor. "I remember." She also remembered what had happened later that evening, when the full weight of just what she had unwittingly become was set down heavily on her shoulders. And the knowledge that Gabrielle would die one day and be taken from her life forever became more than she could bear. She had collapsed into the sturdy soothing arms of her lover, curled up fetally, dark head pressed against the bard’s strongly beating heart, wishing with everything in her that she could simply stay there forever, willing that strong muscle to never stop beating.

 

An eternity, or what had passed for one then, had passed in the bard’s strong embrace. Tears refused to fall, refused to be released from the darkness of more gentle emotions where they hid. There was just the sound of Gabrielle’s soft crooning voice and her own silence as a vast well of bleak emptiness began to reassert its claim upon her soul.

She knew what was happening, knew it as each corner of her soul became numb. She was grieving a death that, the Fates willing, would not occur until years hence. Slowly closing up inside to spare herself from a pain that would be her undoing if she let it. It had been like this with Lyceus. The rage had built after Caesar’s betrayal. Before that, nothing. Just a merciful numbness, swaddling all emotions, light and dark, in a cloak of emptiness. She felt the seductive Sirens’ call now and the sight of a wound healing before her eyes left her without the strength to fight it.

Gabrielle felt the change taking place and tightened her grip on the warrior, trying to remind her through touch alone that the one for whom she was grieving was still very much alive. "We’re in this together, Xena."

"For now." With the last of her depleted strength, Xena pulled away from her lover’s embrace and stood, striding across the small room to bring a slashing fist down onto a crudely made table, shattering it.

"Xena . . . ." Gabrielle protested, gathering herself to rise to her partner.

Flinging out an upraised hand, Xena stalled her. "Don’t. I have to work through this somehow."

"Don’t you mean ‘we’?" The trace of hurt was plain.

Xena kept her face turned away, eyes staring at the embers of the slowly dying fire. "No. Tonight, tomorrow, ten years from now, you’ll be gone. And I . . .won’t."

Silence reined in the room for a long while then, punctuated only by the soft sounds of Gabrielle disrobing and readying herself for bed. "It’s been a long day. Why don’t you come to bed." The tone was offhand and casual.

"No. You go on ahead. I’m not very tired."

More silence as Gabrielle settled herself on the bed. "Come to me, Xena."

The warrior froze, staring down at the shattered remnants of the table. ‘Lao Ma?’ an internal voice cried out. Making a slow half turn, Xena looked at Gabrielle who was holding her arms out in a welcoming gesture. Xena could no more stop going to that entrancing figure than she could stop breathing. Her steps were slow and measured but not hesitant. "Yes?" she said finally, finding her voice.

"I’m here, Xena. Right here. Not dead, not buried, not gone. Here. And as long as I have a breath left in my body, I will not have you treating me like a shade. Do you understand?"

"I can’t . . . ."

Continued...Part 4 of 6


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