The Irresistible Flame
Eyes closed, Xena ran her tongue slowly along her lips enjoying the faint trace of the taste of Gabrielle that lingered there still. She breathed deeply and smiled; the woman’s scent tickled her nostrils like the sweetest perfume. Her hands tingled with warmth from the touch of smooth skin. The warrior’s posture deflated and she sank back against her heels, sitting in the dirt in the middle of her tent where only moments before Gabrielle had stood, wrapped up in her arms.
It wasn’t too long ago she would have taken care of this frustration by grabbing her sword and killing something. Now, her only option was a long soak in a cold stream.
Or, she could grab her sword and go kill something.
Xena pushed off the ground and rose to her full height, exhaling in resignation. Time for a stiff drink and a long soak, she decided as she paced over to the table to pour herself some wine. She lifted the heavy pitcher with a shaky hand and concentrated on pouring the dark, red liquid without spilling.
A guard appeared in the doorway and Xena jerked in surprise, almost spilling the wine all over the table.
“What is it?” she called out, annoyed.
“I’m sorry, Supreme Commander, but you have a visitor.”
“Who is it?” Xena put the pitcher down and turned to face the guard, her displeasure clearly visible on her face. She was in no mood for anyone’s company – other than Gabrielle’s.
“Xena, it’s me,” a dark haired, blue eyed older woman pushed past the guard and entered the tent; Xena’s similarly clear eyes went wide with surprise.
It was her mother.
Cyrene walked a few steps into the tent and waited quietly for her daughter to react.
Xena’s first instinct was to throw the old woman out, but she swallowed that command as Gabrielle’s words echoed in her mind.
“Don’t give up on your mother … she’s your family. She still loves you, I’m sure of it.”
Gabrielle’s soft words of advice spoke to her so clearly it was as though she was there whispering them in her ear.
“Leave us,” she ordered the guard.
The guard turned and exited the tent. The crunch of his boots, heavy steps in the rocky dirt, faded into the night as Cyrene and Xena stared at each other in apprehensive silence. Finally, they were alone with nothing but the Spartan furnishings of a poorly lit military tent and their shared history standing between them. Her mother’s expression mirrored Xena’s own feelings.
“Xena, I’m so sorry …”
“Mother, please forgive me …”
They both blurted out their emotions, taking tentative steps forward, one toward the other.
Cyrene’s face was filled with regret. “I don’t know why I turned my back on you earlier. I knew the army was going to march by Amphipolis. We all knew. I spent the last few days arguing with myself over whether or not I would come out to watch you pass. I never expected that you would ride into town, come to the Inn - not after what we did to you the last time.”
In two steps, Xena wrapped her mother up in her long arms, a hug filled with renewed hope.
“It’s all right, Mother,” Xena said, smiling with relief. “I spent the last few days doing much the same thing. I surprised myself by riding into town as much as I surprised you. I had no reason to believe you would greet me in any other way.”
Cyrene stiffened in her arms and pulled away. “It’s my fault you think that.”
“No, it’s not your fault. I deserve nothing less.”
“No, Xena. I’m your mother. A mother should never turn away from her daughter.”
“She should if the daughter is the Destroyer of Nations.” Xena stepped back, releasing her mother and stared at the floor.
“Apparently, the Destroyer of Nations is no more – or at least, that’s what I’ve heard.” Cyrene reached up and lifted her daughter’s chin. “You have changed. You said you were going to … told me you wanted to, but I didn’t believe you. You’re still a warrior and you still fight … and kill. I understand that. Much as this wasn’t what I wanted for you, I understand it. But, your purpose is different. And Xena … that makes all the difference in the world.”
Cyrene smiled softly at the bright hope that came shining from her daughter’s beautiful eyes. “If you can forgive me for all the years that I denied to strangers that you were my daughter, for turning my back on you, for allowing Amphipolis to nearly kill you … for everything that came before this moment, Xena. Then maybe … maybe, it’s true – we can change … both of us.”
Xena swallowed, almost overcome with the stream of unfamiliar emotions that were coursing through her. She took a moment before she was able to answer and Cyrene understood, waiting patiently.
“How can you forgive me? How can you forgive me for all of those years of killing, for all the death and dishonor I brought to you and Amphipolis?”
“Everyone deserves forgiveness, Xena. Even you.” She reached up and wrapped Xena in a heartfelt hug.
“I forgive you, my little one. I forgive you.”
Xena closed her eyes and for the first time began to realize that Draco was only half right. There was no rest for the wicked, but only as long as the wicked lived with an empty heart.
With all of her will, Gabrielle fought her return to reality. She struggled against the energy that compelled her to pull away from the delicious hands that touched her, from the warm lips that thrilled her skin, but there was no denying the force that seized her and tossed her back into her own grim reality.
She opened her eyes to find Peter on top of her, groping her bare breasts with rough, urgent hands and forcing his lips down upon hers in a series of cold, slimy kisses.
“Urgh! Peter! What are you doing?” Gabrielle, exclaimed pushing against him.
His answer was a grunt and another wet kiss.
“Get off of me!” she yelled, shoving again. “I said … GET OFF!”
In trained reflex, she jerked her knee up between his legs and connected solidly. Peter froze in surprise, his face a mask of pain. She pulled her hand back and then hit him squarely in the nose. The blow sent him stumbling away, off of the couch and thankfully, off of her.
Gabrielle jumped up, still a bit disoriented, but with reflexes intact enough to deliver a stunning drop-kick that took out Peter’s legs from under him and sent him crashing to the carpet.
A glance down at herself and Gabrielle realized that she was completely naked from the waist up. Quickly, she searched for and found her shirt and bra lying on the floor not far from the sofa.
“What do you think you were doing?” she yelled as she fumbled to put her bra back on.
Peter was sitting on his ass on the floor, holding a hand to his face with an expression of hurt surprise.
“You kicked me in the balls!” he exclaimed, his protest muffled by his hand. “You broke my nose!”
“Your nose isn’t broken.” Gabrielle pulled her blouse on and buttoned it. “You’re lucky I didn’t break your neck. Here, let me see.” Feeling a tad guilty about hurting her friend, she knelt and tugged his hand away to take a look. His nose was bleeding. She searched for something to staunch the flow and found a dirty dishtowel, then knelt again to press it against his face.
“Hold this here and lean your head back ‘til the bleeding stops,” Gabrielle shook her head. “What did you think you were doing?”
“I dunno know. You were moaning and you took your top off and then your bra. What was I suppose to do?”
“You knew I was high.”
“I was high, too. I thought …”
“You thought what?”
Peter brought his head forward, towel still to his nose and looked at Gabrielle with a touch of sad expectation in his eyes. “I thought maybe you were, you know, coming on to me.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose. “You thought I was coming on to you?”
“Well, you undressed. What was I suppose to think?”
Gabrielle considered what it must have looked like to her friend and sat back on her heels. “I’m sorry. I was … hallucinating … or something. It was the drug, not me.”
Peter became silent and looked away.
“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle pressed on. “I’m sorry if it was confusing to you. You know you mean the world to me Peter. You’re a good friend and I love you, but …”
“But? But, what? You love me, but not enough to, you know, to take your shirt off for me?”
Gabrielle grinned, “It would be like taking my shirt off for my brother. I’m sorry, Peter, I just don’t love you in that way.”
“Who’s Xena?” Peter asked abruptly, dropping the cloth to look at his friend.
“What do you mean, who’s Xena?”
“You were calling her name … and taking off your shirt … and moaning and all. Is that who you love? Are you a lesbo?”
Gabrielle scooted up next to Peter and gave him a hug. “I’m sorry I hit you, Peter. You just surprised me, that’s all. I didn’t expect to wake up and find you on top of me manhandling my boobs.”
Peter snorted in laughter at the comment, which sent a small spray of blood shooting onto his pants. He cursed and lifted the cloth back to his nose.
Gabrielle smiled sympathetically and patted his arm.
“I’m sorry I gave you a bloody nose. And yes, Xena is who I love, and Xena is a woman. If that makes me a lesbo, then I guess that’s exactly what I am.”
Peter looked at the floor. “I don’t understand. What does Xena have that I don’t have?”
‘What does Xena have?’ she repeated, smirking, “I wouldn’t know where to begin.” Gabrielle reached out and pulled him closer. She always knew he had more feelings for her than she for him. They were as close as if they were brother and sister, but anything more was out of the question, as far as Gabrielle was concerned.
“Who knows why we love who we love, Peter,” Gabrielle answered holding him tightly. “I love Xena will all of my heart and soul. But there’s still room for you in my heart as the best friend a girl could ever have.”
“Yeah, I guess I kinda thought it was too good to be true when you started to take your blouse off.”
Gabrielle pulled back and slapped him on the shoulder. “You shouldn’t have taken advantage.”
“Hey, I’m a guy. What did you expect me to do?”
Gabrielle stood up from the carpet and wiped off her pants, “Let’s just forget about the whole thing, Peter. I’d rather not think about it anymore. I’ve got to get going.”
“Sure, kick me in the nuts and run,” Peter mumbled, using his long limbs to push himself up from the floor. He got to his feet and grimaced as he adjusted his crotch.
“That’ll teach ya to grab a girl when she’s defenseless.”
Peter touched his tender nose and made a face, “You are hardly defenseless. Where did you learn to hit so hard?”
“I’ve been working out,” Gabrielle answered, scratching her chin as she looked for her jacket.
“I’ll say you have. That’s quite a punch you pack there,” He grimaced at the droplets of red that painted his fingertips. “I still think you broke it.”
“I didn’t break it,” Gabrielle replied, distracted. She was in a hurry. “If I wanted to break it, it would be flat against your face.”
“Right,” Peter quickly inspected the angle of his nose with his fingertips, relieved to find his nostrils still intact. “You sure have changed Gabrielle,” he commented, appraising his friend as she searched the room, looking for her things. “Hey, when do I get to meet this Xena?”
The question stopped Gabrielle dead in her tracks. “Xena?”
“Yeah, you know … Xena … the woman you love?”
“To be honest, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to meet Xena, Peter.”
“Why? She in the closet?”
Gabrielle snorted, almost laughing out loud. An image of the leather-clad, armed, fiercely beautiful warrior jumped into her mind.
“One thing Xena is not is in the closet. In fact, I don’t know of anyone more ‘out’ than Xena.” Gabrielle smiled wistfully, visualizing the dark, stunning woman as quite possibly the most alpha-butch female in the history of the human species.
“Oh,” Peter responded, confused. “Then why can’t I meet her?”
Gabrielle found her jacket under the couch. She got on her knees and pulled it out, brushing it off. “One day, Peter, I’ll tell you the story of how I met Xena. And believe me, when I do, you won’t believe I word of it.”
Peter stood in the center of his dingy single room apartment, standing with a dirty rag up to his nose looking forlorn. “Whatever you tell me is the truth, Gabrielle, I’ll believe. I trust you.”
The honest and heartfelt statement made Gabrielle’s heart constrict with guilt. When she could think of no other way, she had called Peter at the last minute, claiming she wanted to visit, but had gone over with only one purpose in mind. He shared his stash willingly with her, and now she was rushing out with barely a thank you for his time. She owed him an explanation. He was her friend and he deserved one.
“Peter, I’m sorry. You’re a good friend, one of my best friends. I haven’t been around much to help you after high school and I know it. I’m going to make up for that now. First, I’m going to help you get clean.”
Peter rushed to protest, by Gabrielle stopped him.
“You’re hooked and you know it. Look at you! Look at this place. This has gone on for too long.”
“I’ve tried to stop, Gabby. It never works,” Peter admitted sadly.
“I know, but that’s because you had no one to help you. Well, I’m here to help you now. Will you let me?”
“How can you help me? You’re a drug abuser yourself!”
“Who better to help you, then?”
“I’m such a mess, Gabby,” Peter admitted looking down at the floor, “Where would you start?”
Gabrielle grinned and put her hand on his shoulder. “Well, we could start by sending you to the rehab I went to. It was pretty good.”
“It’s also pretty expensive,” Peter replied.
“My mother won’t mind paying at all.”
“Your mother?” Peter huffed, “That’s a good one.”
“Trust me, she’ll pay for every penny and won’t even know she’s doing it. Okay?”
Peter shrugged, “Okay, if you say so.”
She paced over to the couch and Peter followed her with adoring eyes. She sat, draped her coat across her knees and folded her hands neatly on top to wait patiently for Peter to join her. He did so, sitting down next to her on the couch, still holding the rag to his nose.
“Also, Peter, I owe you the truth about what’s going on. Why I came here.”
Peter waited patiently for his friend to continue.
“I came here because I needed to do heroin today,” Gabrielle admitted.
“I kinda figured that.” He leaned back in the couch and snorted, “This from someone who says I should get clean.”
She nodded in acquiescence. Peter was not really as stupid as he looked, at least not when it came to understanding the people he loved.
“I’m not hooked, if that’s what you think,” Gabrielle explained, shifting in her seat to turn to face him. “In fact, I haven’t really done anything since we did in it high school. Well, other than one time in rehab … and some pot and this designer drug Evelyn got us, and that stupid hypnosis … other than that, I haven’t touched the stuff.”
“You did drugs in rehab? Didn’t you get caught? What designer drugs? Smoke or snort? Who’s Evelyn? Hypnosis! Hypnosis isn’t a drug!” Peter exclaimed, sitting up.
“Yes. No. Oxy. Both ways. My friend. And I know that, stupid. But none of that matters. What matters is the reason why.”
“You’re saying there’s a reason other than to get high?”
Gabrielle sighed, gauging his ability to suspend his disbelief. “If I tell you, you have to promise a few things.”
“I promise!” he answered quickly, “What things?”
“First, you can’t tell anyone.”
“That’s easy, I don’t know anyone.”
“Second, you especially can’t tell my mother.”
“Your mother? Why would I want to do that?”
“What if she tortured you?”
Peter paused, thinking thoughtfully. “I see your point.” He raised his hands in a boy scout’s salute. “I promise. Even under pain of torture by your mother, I will never breathe a word.”
Gabrielle nodded, satisfied. “Okay. And third, you have to promise not to laugh.”
“Promise me,” Gabrielle insisted, “or I leave right now.”
Peter put down the rag, swollen nose forgotten. “Okay, I promised. No laughing. Gee, Gabby, this has to be one heck of a story.”
“And never call me Gabby again!”
Peter pouted, “That’s going too far! I always call you Gabby!”
“Okay,” Gabrielle capitulated, pointing a finger. “You can call me Gabby, but never in front of anyone.”
Peter agreed with a serious nod. “Okay. Deal.”
“Okay, then.” Gabrielle stood, laid her coat on the couch and adjusted her stance into story-telling position.
“It all began on that beautiful spring day in high school, the very first time we ever got high, remember? …”
“My Queen?” Alti called out through the flap in the tent before entering. Over the past months she lived with this tribe of Amazons, she had become acutely aware that her new Queen far preferred the darkness of her human skin covered hut than to roam through the village in the full light of day.
She also knew better than to enter the foreboding shelter unless specifically invited.
“My Queen?” she ventured again, when no reply with forthcoming.
“What is it?” The hard voice seemed particularly irritated on this day.
“A messenger has arrived with a missive for you.”
There was silence for a few moments. Alti waited impatiently while sweaty blood dripped down her forehead from under her shamaness headdress.
“A messenger, my Queen,” she started again, but was cut off.
“So, go get the parchment and bring it to me!”
“The messenger is unwilling to deliver it into anyone’s hand other than your own.”
“Then kill the messenger, take the parchment and bring it to me.”
Alti smirked, thoroughly enjoying the notion. She would have thought of it herself, had the messenger been sent by anyone else.
“I don’t think you want to do that my, Queen.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because, my Queen,” Alti replied, lowering her voice, “the wax has Xena’s personal seal on it.”
The flap was flung open and the Queen’s sharp eyes regarded Alti with skepticism. “Are you certain?”
“Oh, I’m quite certain. I know that signet all too well. Xena once punched me in the head with it. It left her mark on my forehead for a month.”
The Queen smirked at that and strutted out into the sunlight. Her smooth lines and hard expression took Alti by surprise. It wasn’t often that she saw the full visage of the woman in the clear light of day; they met mostly in the shadows of her tent or under the cover of darkness, the only time the Amazon leader ever strolled through the grounds. Her stark features in the bright light of the sun never failed to take Alti by surprise. She was a beautiful woman, in a hard, unforgiving way.
“So, what do you think Xena has to say to us, Shamaness?”
“Let the army pass or die a cold, hard death, my Queen. And she’ll probably say it in less words than that.”
“I’m surprised the barbarian knows how to write at all.”
Alti rasped out a surprised laugh and shuffled after the Queen. Together, they walked through the village ignoring the humble bows of respect from each and every warrior they passed. One by one, the Amazons stopped what they were doing to greet their queen, either with a bow or hand to fist according to their status in the community.
When they reached the perimeter, Alti could clearly see the circle of guards that had barred the stranger from passing any further into the heart of the Amazon village. As the Queen approached, the guards parted, allowing their leader to enter. Alti followed close behind, taking the time to carefully study the messenger through guarded, shadowed eyes.
Xena had chosen well. The woman was tall and dark skinned, fierce looking with all the athletic lines of a supremely conditioned warrior. She could have been an Amazon herself and probably was – no doubt a sister from one of the remote tribes in the distant lands across the sea.
At the approach of the Queen, the beautiful and impressive warrior bowed respectively.
“I bring a message for the Amazon Queen of these lands from Xena, Supreme Commander of the combined armies of All Greece, Captain-General of the Macedon Royal Companion Brigade and President of Hellenic League of City-States of Corinth.”
“Is that what she’s calling herself nowadays?” the Queen asked, cynicism coloring her voice. She held out her hand with an air of impatience. “I’ll take it.”
“Are you the Queen?” the woman asked, leveling dark, fearless eyes directly at her.
“What do you think?”
“My orders are to deliver this parchment into the Queen’s hands and no one else’s. I ask you again, with all due respect and only because I am a stranger to your tribe – are you the Queen?”
Alti sneered, knowing all too well how their touchy leader was going to react to the questioning of her status and wasn’t surprised when she sauntered up to challenge the tall, dark warrior.
“I could kill you and take the message,” the Amazon Queen stated dangerously.
“You could try,” the messenger countered, only the barest hint of sarcasm tickled at the corner of her full lips.
Alti and the guards all held their collective breaths, watching as their Queen measured the response quietly.
Finally, a thin eyebrow arched and the Queen stepped back. “I am the Queen of this tribe, warrior. You may deliver you message to me.”
Her expression carefully controlled, the warrior reached into her pouch and handed over the parchment. The Queen examined the seal and glanced over at Alti, hiding a smirk.
Alti had to resist the urge to rub her forehead.
The Queen flipped the folded note over a few times and then turned, striding out of the circle.
“Kill her,” she ordered as she passed the line of guards.
“What!” Alti shouted in surprise.
“I said, kill her.”
Immediately, the messenger took a defensive stance. When the guards failed to react, the Queen’s anger turned violent. She struck the Amazon guard closest to her.
“I said, kill her and kill her now!”
The guard who had taken the blow drew her sword and rushed forward. With a satisfied expression, the Queen watched as the rest pulled out their weapons and shifted to strategic positions surrounding the messenger, ready to join in the fray.
“My Queen, this is not a very good idea,” Alti counseled, rasping a warning into the Queen’s ear.
The Amazon leader ignored the advice and turned, walking quickly away. Alti watched the struggle for a few moments. The tribal warrior was holding her own as she fended off a series of controlled attacks from the circle of Amazon guards surrounding her, but it was only a matter of time. Ignoring the clash of steel and the sounds of fighting, Alti rushed after her Queen, glancing back in time to see the dark tribeswoman take a sword in the gut and fall to her knees, a spray of blood bursting forth from her mouth to paint the air.
“That was a big mistake,” she stated as she caught up to her leader.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” the Queen replied. She ripped the seal and opened the message, reading it as she walked.
“Xena is not going to like that.” Alti turned her head to witness the final swipe of a sword that relieved the messenger of her head.
The Queen had stopped walking and Alti almost ran into her, surprised as she was by the abrupt halt.
“Xena is not the warrior you think she is.” The Queen’s hard eyes read over the words, her expression barely changing. When she was done, she handed the note over to Alti, leaving her to read it as she strutted away.
Alti stood where she was and read the missive, her eyebrows lifting in surprise at the words. It was an offer to the Queen of the Amazons from Xena herself. In exchange for safe passage through Amazon lands, Xena was inviting the Amazon Nation to join Greece as its own city-state with all the rights, privileges and protection thereof. The offer included an exemption from any city-state tax for the period of 5 seasons and an increase to the Nation’s borders tenfold – ample time and resources for the Nation to become established as a viable province. Plus, sovereignty over any Amazon people and lands that came under Xena’s rule as a result of future campaigns. And, as if that offer wasn’t extreme enough, the next concession was a real kicker: she offered to provide both artisans and funds toward the building of a temple to honor their patron Goddess, Artemis, at the center of whatever city the Amazons named as the capital in the newly recognized state. Her conditions were that her troops be allowed to pass through Amazon lands both on their way to Persia and back without interference, and that the Amazons ongoing conflict with the Centaurs be put aside in favor of an alliance with Greece against the Persians. She ended the note by inviting the Queen and her entourage to a dinner in their honor in her encampment in the Edomes valley at the base of the Rhodope Mountains in one week’s time, as a gesture of goodwill and to open a channel for further negotiation.
Alti looked up from the note dumbfounded. Xena wasn’t going to kill them all. What was this? Some kind of kinder and gentler Destroyer of Nations?
She read the note again just to be sure she hadn’t misinterpreted the words. She hadn’t. Despite the fact that Xena’s troops outnumbered the Amazons almost 10 to 1 and were far superior in weapons, cavalry, and tactical leadership, Xena didn’t want to fight.
She wanted to talk.
Alti raced through the village after the Queen, catching up with her just before she left the daylight in favor of the dark, cold confines of her hut.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked, shaking the opened papyrus excitedly at the Amazon.
The Queen paused at the entrance and smiled in a way that sent a shiver down even Alti’s cold and wicked spine.
“Go get Ephiny. Tell her I want a council meeting immediately.”
“A council meeting? What are you going to discuss at it? You’ve already responded - you just killed the messenger. If you send a delegation now, she’ll eat them for dinner!”
To Alti’s amazement, the Queen laughed outright. The sound of it sent a flock of birds fluttering out of a tree and away.
“Oh, I’m going to send a delegation to Xena for dinner all right. And you can believe me, it’s going to be a meal she’ll have a tough time swallowing.
Alti felt an unfamiliar uneasiness flutter in the pit of her stomach, a disconcerting combination of thrill and fear. Even in the bright sunlight, Alti could see the Queen’s eyes flash with an evil green.
“Find Ephiny. Tell her to call a war council. We attack the Centaurs at dawn.”
Peter leaned back against the couch and ran thin fingers through long, scraggily hair. He looked briefly at Gabrielle trying his very best not to laugh, but it was quite a tall tale that she had just relayed to him. He always knew that his friend had a predilection for storytelling. This one, however, was a doozy.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, placing a thin finger against his lip thoughtfully. “You can see her, but you can’t touch her. She can see you, but she can’t touch you. And she’s a tall, dark, beautiful leather-clad female warrior from Amphibious?”
“Amphipolis,” Gabrielle corrected, frowning. “I said she’s a warrior, idiot, not a frog.”
“Well,” Peter waved his hand, “sounds like if she was a frog and you kissed her, she’d turn into a prince … make that princess.”
“Hardy, har, har,” Gabrielle reached down to pick up her stuff, “You promised not to laugh.” She rose, shoving her arm through her jacket, feeling a bit betrayed by Peter’s attitude.
“Wait a minute, Gabby, I’m not laughing.”
“You’re making fun of me.”
“I love ya, Gabs, but ya gotta admit, it’s a hard story to swallow - your soul traveling back to ancient Greece in order to be with this Xena Princess Frog person. If you’re going to have a hallucination, then I guess a tall, dark leather-clad one is a good one to have.”
Gabrielle glared at Peter as she shoved her other arm into a sleeve. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me. In fact, the only thing that surprises me is that you know what the word hallucination means.” She turned her back on him and fumbled with the zipper.
“I believe you. I believe you.”
“No, you don’t.” She bent and picked up her backpack, slinging it over a shoulder. “That’s okay. I didn’t expect you would.”
“Aw, Gabby. Don’t be like that. It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s just that I think it’s highly unlikely you would be able to really travel back in time to meet an Ancient Greek warrior, and a female one at that. Was there even such a thing female warriors back then?”
“Of course there were, Peter. Haven’t you ever heard of Amazons?”
“Sure, I order stuff from them all the time.”
Gabrielle huffed in frustration and made for the door.
Peter blocked her path, smiling. “I’m kidding! I’m kidding! Hey, I read Wonder Woman. I know about Amazons and Athena and all that. I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid.”
Peter’s large, genuine smile and honest, open expression deflated Gabrielle’s irritation. She rolled her eyes and slapped him playfully on the side of the head.
“You are a nutball, Peter, but you’re my nutball.” She couldn’t help but smile at him. “One day, I’ll introduce you to my friend, Evelyn Ellison and then you’ll see.”
“See what? Who’s Evelyn? Is she cute?”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes to the heavens again and gently pushed her friend out of the way of the door. “Look, I do have to get back to the dorm before I’m missed. You might not believe me now, but one day, you will, Peter. Mark my words. When that day comes, I’ll expect an apology. In the meantime, you just remember to keep your promise. Don’t tell anyone what I told you here today, anyone. That means no one. You promise?”
Peter crossed his heart and lifted his hand up, crossing his fingers. “And hope to die.”
Gabrielle pulled on the door handle and swung open the door. “Well, just stay clear of my mother or that’s one promise you might have to keep.”
Mother’s measured voice cut through her like a bullet. Gabrielle whirled around to face the woman who was standing cross-armed in the hallway, flanked by a pair of beefy men wearing dark suits and sunglasses, one on either side.
“Hello, Peter,” Mother leaned her head to snarl a greeting over Gabrielle’s shoulder. “How’s the drug problem?”
Peter gulped and mumbled a small reply.
Gabrielle’s eyes widened with a combination of fuming anger and fear. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” She paced forward to loom over her daughter, staring down with a dangerous and threatening expression. “What are you doing here, Gabrielle?”
“I’m visiting a friend,” Gabrielle responded in a deliberately even and composed tone.
Her mother’s eyebrow lifted. “Are you fucking him or just using him for his drugs?”
Gabrielle turned her head, disgusted, unwilling to validate the question with any response.
“I know what you’re doing here, Gabrielle.” She pushed against Gabrielle’s shoulder, forcing her daughter to face her and look into her hard, unrelenting stare. “Every time you pay a visit to your so-called soul mate, I feel it. Every time you two get hot and bothered over each other, I can feel that, too.” She graced Gabrielle with a lecherous grin and glanced over at Peter. “Did you enjoy the show, Pete? I know I did.”
She backed away from Gabrielle. “Your little bait and switch with the cab worked once. Didn’t Xena tell you to never use the same battle tactic twice? Honestly, I’ll never understand what she saw in you.”
Gabrielle’s mother turned and nodded to the agents. “Bring her.”
“What about her friend?” one of the hired men asked as he helped the other to grab Gabrielle’s arms.
“Oh, bring him, too. I’m sure you have a story to tell me, don’t you, boy?” Gabrielle’s mother leaned and stared Peter in the eyes so close, Peter swore he could see someone else glaring back at him. He stared back, wide-eyed, at the oddly different yet equally evil face of Gabrielle’s mother sneering at him from within the swirling green of her own iris.
Moments later, the agents grabbed them both and dragged them away, down the hall.
“This is kidnapping! This is against the law!”
Gabrielle’s shouts went virtually unnoticed as they were pushed forward and forced down stairs that led to what she knew was the wine cellar in the basement of their home, her mother’s mansion. She stumbled down the last few steps and was shoved forward by the strong hired agent who followed her mother’s orders without question. Peter practically fell down the flight of stairs immediately after her.
She caught him in her arms, furious with the way they were both being treated.
“You can’t do this!” She helped Peter to his feet and winced at the blood that had started to flow from his nose again. “Who do you think you are? You won’t get away with this. There are laws against this you know!” Her words were shouted at the agents, but the questions were all meant for her mother, who strutted gracefully down the staircase, step by deliberate step, once the agents had herded them deeper into the darkness.
“Oh, would you please shut up,” her mother stated, dismissing her outrage with a wave of her hand. She walked past them through the shadows, her eyes gleaming with wicked pleasure. “Bring them here.”
Gabrielle was shoved forward. When she turned and tried to shove back, her short hair was grabbed and she was pulled by her blond locks in the direction her mother wanted her to go.
“I said shut up,” her mother warned in a low voice as she dug her nails into Gabrielle’s scalp and pulled. Gabrielle had no choice but to follow where her mother led.
They rounded a support beam and Gabrielle was astounded to discover what her mother had been hiding in the basement all these years.
The small enclosure was banked by thick, sturdy concrete walls. Their stark grayness reminded Gabrielle of her mother’s heart, and the steel manacles adorning two of the walls, one pair on either side, mirrored the cruelty of her barren soul. There was a foul hearth in the middle of the room. Built in a circle and made from brick, its center was as dark as a grave. The pit was sheltered by a crumbling stone flue built to suck any putrid fumes that might waft upward from the pit through the house, up to the roof and out into oblivion. In all of her life, Gabrielle had never known that this rank place had even existed. It smelled of evil and death, and despite the fact that the hearth was empty and clean at the moment, the stains of what might have burned there in the past made the hairs stand up on the back of Gabrielle’s neck.
Her eyes wandered to over to the walls and settled on the manacles, and then she knew all too well what her mother intended to do with them next. She turned her gaze and Mother stared back at her, that strange green glow pulsing at her through the shadows.
“Chain them up,” her mother ordered, a malevolent smile graced her hard features.
“Like hell you will!” Gabrielle shouted and stomped down with her foot, making certain that the edge of her heel ran painfully down along the man’s shin and hit dead center, right on the top of his arch. She heard as well as felt the man’s bones shatter. He fell back against the wall, screaming and as soon as Gabrielle was free, she landed a solid back kick right in the middle of his stomach. He doubled over before sliding to the floor.
Her mother was on her then, throwing a vicious backhand that would have sent her reeling had she not ducked. The deadly blow whipped over the top of her head so fast and hard, she could feel the wind from it tussle her hair. With a smile, Gabrielle popped up and hit her mother square in the face with one solid punch. The woman stumbled back, the shock of the blow written all over her face.
Gabrielle froze, somewhat surprised at having connected so solidly herself and that was just enough time for the second agent to tackle her from the side. His stronger and larger body rammed into her, shoving her into the concrete wall with a painful, breath stealing thud.
“You bitch!” Mother screamed out. Ignoring the flow of blood that was dripping from her nose, she stomped up to Gabrielle and slapped her, furious that the agent was unable to subdue her daughter, who was still struggling valiantly against their hold.
Mother slapped Gabrielle again so hard, the sting of it made her wince. She sneered at her palm and pulled back, rolling her hand into a fist and connecting with a roundhouse punch that landed full force against her daughter’s temple. The blow dazed Gabrielle and she slumped against the wall, giving the agent time enough to grab an arm and push it up, into the shackle. He flipped the lock closed and reached for the other arm. Gabrielle shook her head clear, took one look at her wrist locked in the manacle and jerked her knee upward, hitting the agent right between the legs. He collapsed to the ground, his face frozen in a soundless scream of pain.
Gabrielle reached up with her free hand to undo the lock, only to find her wrist captured in the vise-like grip of her mother. Their gazes locked for a brief instance, long enough for Gabrielle to watch her mother bare her teeth and then she was struck in the stomach by an iron-like fist. The breath left her lungs in one fell swoop and as she struggled for air, her mother captured her other arm and shoved it in the shackle, flipping the lock closed with a satisfied snap.
Mother stepped back and gloated, waiting for Gabrielle to get her breath before she pulled her fist back again and pounded her daughter with one paralyzing blow after another.
Gabrielle took each punch, trying to lessen the damage by shifting her head in the direction of the blow. Using all of her training, she tensed her muscles, prepared to take every hit her mother had to offer. Her stalwart courage only enraged Mother more. With a growl, she reared back and delivered an uppercut that hit Gabrielle jaw with a flash of white, hot pain.
She slumped forward unconscious, hanging by shackled wrists from the gray wall now decorated with splashes of red. Her face was littered with cuts that oozed opened and dripped blood along the sides of her face, falling to puddle on the cold, concrete floor.
Mother stepped back and smiled at her handy work. She slapped Gabrielle’s head one way and then the other, just to be certain that she wasn’t faking. Her daughter was out cold.
“Sweet dreams, darling daughter,” she snickered and then backed away, looking down with distain at the agents who lay groaning on the cellar floor.
“Get up you worthless bags of shit,” she ordered.
A sudden realization hit her and she glanced across the room anxiously. The other set of manacles hung on the opposite wall – empty.
“You idiots!” Mother yelled, kicking the agent closet to her. “Get up! Get up and go after him.”
The one agent who was able to walk scrambled painfully to his feet, stumbling against the wall as Gabrielle’s mother pushed at him.
“Get after him, you morons, before the idiot gets away!”
“I want him caught and brought back! Do you hear me?” Mother yelled as the agent scrambled up the stairs after Peter. He limped through the gently swaying door at the top of the basement staircase, opened in haste by Peter’s mad dash for freedom.
“Don’t let him get away! I want him,” Mother shouted as she stomped up the staircase, step by angry step, “I want him!”
Peter never ran so hard in his entire life. His legs took him down the impossibly long driveway, feet pounding so hard against the pavement, it rattled his teeth. Without looking back, he pumped his arms harder, driving him faster around the sloping curve, past the manicured lawn and faux-Greek fountain until he could finally see the large, wrought iron front gate looming in front of him.
There was a guard shack on the right at the entrance and Peter knew all too well that someone was in it at all times.
The door to the guardhouse opened and a uniformed man rushed out to meet him.
Peter did the only thing he could think of doing – he ran full force right into the guy. Together, they toppled to the driveway pavement in a jumble of arms and legs. The guard’s head collided with the ground hard and his body stilled, eyes going strangely clear as blood began to pool out, a ominous dark red against the gray pavement
Peter struggled to his feet, wincing at a burning scrape on the palm on his hand before noticing the still body of the guard sprawled out at his feet.
“Oh shit,” he mumbled as he stared dumbfounded at the way the man’s eyes were looking without blinking at the sky. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
Peter backed away from the still form and fumbled his way into the guard shack. He could barely take his eyes away from the guard and the macabre sight of the man lying in a pool of his own blood, but somehow he managed to flip the switch that started the large wrought iron gate swinging open.
A shout from the top of the driveway caught his attention. One of the men from the cellar saw where he was and what he was doing and was yelling out in alarm.
Peter hit the switch again and the gate, which had swung a good part of the way open, shuddered and squealed to a halt, then swayed in the opposite direction, swinging to a close. Peter dashed out of the shack, pointedly scooting around the still form to slip through the opening in the iron gate only seconds before it slammed closed.
Moments later, a limping agent hobbled up, hopping past the guard and ignoring the body. He grabbed at the bars of the gateway and peered through the railings in time to watch his prey run wildly down the street and around a bend, out of sight.
“Son of a bitch!” the guard cursed, rattling the bars in frustration.
He froze as the distinctive sound of an engine caught his attention and turned in time to see the sleek form of a limousine pulling up. The gate he was holding on to shuddered and groaned and he had to jump out of the way as it began to swing open.
The long, black limo waited patiently for the front gate to finish its arc. As the gateway stilled to a halt, the car moved up to the entrance and braked. The driver’s window, tinted a deep dark black, descended to reveal Mother sneering at him from behind the wheel.
“Get in, you moron,” she ordered, barely controlling the rage in her voice.
The agent limped over to get in the back seat.
“Not back there, you asshole. Over here,” Mother titled her head indicating the passenger side.
The agent changed direction and painfully hobbled around the front of the vehicle.
Mother watched his stilted progress around the front of her car, her hard green eyes following him with a quiet, seething anger. If her hands had held dangers, the idiot would have looked like a porcupine by now.
As soon as he slipped into the leather seat and slammed the door shut, Mother stepped on the gas, peeling off in the direction Peter had run.
When Peter was sure he was out of sight of the black iron gate he changed direction, scooting across the road to crash through an overgrown hedge that pulled at his clothes and scratched his skin as he bounded through. Peter ran through the forest, dashing around the trunks of white birch and thick oak trees, pushing branches and bushes roughly out of his way. He stumbled on a rock hidden by blanket of fallen leaves, almost loosing his step and tumbled to the ground. Somehow, he managed to roll to his feet and vaulted over a log, ducking under a low-lying branch without missing a step.
Breathing deeply, he concentrated on keeping his balance and tried to ignore the fire that was quickly building in his lungs. Boy, he was sure out of shape. Years of drug abuse reared its ugly head and soon he was no longer able to keep his frantic pace. His shoulder knocked into a tree that refused to move out of the way and it sent him spinning to the forest floor in a heap of arms and legs, his heart pounding and his lungs screaming with the need for rest. He tried to get up, but his weak legs refused and he dropped his head down onto a pillow of leaves and dirt, resigning himself to the fact that he needed to rest. Staring up at the canopy of leaves overhead, he struggled to bring his breathing under control and then had to roll over as the uncontrollable urge to throw up forced his lunch from his stomach. He heaved into the dirt several times, recognizing the cramps in his stomach for what they were - the beginning stages of withdrawal – he hadn’t had a fix for hours.
“Great,” Peter mumbled to himself, wiping his mouth off with the back of his hand. The sound of his own heavy breathing lightened until all he could hear was the quiet of the forest that surrounded him. There was the soft rustle of a breeze through leaves and the canopy overhead shifted into life. He had run deep into the forest, far from the road.
Or was he? Slowly, the rustle of leaves changed, melding into the distinctive sound of cars passing at a high speed on a road.
Peter lifted his head and twisted, looking in the direction of the sound. Through the trees he could make out the dim outline of a road and the flash of cars as they whizzed by. The traffic was much heavier than on the private road that had led to the mansion.
Peter smiled, instantly knowing where he had landed and pushed himself out of the leaves, onto his feet, stumbling around the last few trees to the Thruway.
The sun was going down by the time Peter got back to the city, but he didn’t go home. He might not be the smartest guy on the block, but he knew the one place he couldn’t go right now was his apartment.
At the first opportunity, he hopped on a GUT to Georgetown. Peter sat in his seat on the van, staring at the shops and street signs as they rode past, trying hard to think. Gabrielle had mentioned a friend – a friend who knew all about this strange story of Gabrielle’s which was, as fantastic as it might seem, sounding more like the truth and less like a figment of her imagination with every passing second. Peter rubbed his head and tried to concentrate, tried to forget the frightening visage of Gabrielle’s Mother sneering at him and ignore the shivers in own his body that were sending him the warning that he needed drugs and was going to need them soon.
Peter wiped at his runny nose with the back of his hand happy to see that it had finally stopped bleeding.
What was her name? If only he could remember her name, then maybe he could find her. Maybe she would know what to do. No matter what, he had to get help for Gabrielle.
The shuttle lurched to a stop and Peter jumped up, realizing they had come to his stop. He skipped down the steps and exited on to the street, looking around to get his bearings before deciding on the right direction to go.
A few blocks later, Peter had found the address and ran up the steps to Gabrielle’s dorm trying very hard to look as though he belonged there. He used the stairs, instead of the elevator and slipped onto the floor, pausing in the door to check out the hall both ways. With quick steps, he made his way to Gabrielle’s room, pausing there a moment to listen before turning the knob to open the door. Predictably the door was locked. Peter looked left and right before slipping a card out of his wallet and with a quick swipe through the door jam, released the lock and opened the door, slipping inside.
He took a quick glance around the room until his eyes paused on an Apple notebook resting in the center of a desk. Moving quickly and quietly, he slipped into the chair and opened the laptop, pressing the on switch and waiting anxiously for the computer to boot up.
Peter activated the log on and paused briefly at the field for the password before typing in the one word he knew it had to be: XENA.
Sure enough, the computer accepted the security key, and opened Gabrielle’s desktop to Peter for his use. He clicked on the address book and began to scroll through the names.
That was it. Evelyn Ellison. That was it!
Peter grabbed a pen and tore a page right out of a library book, using the paper to write the name, address and phone number down as quickly as his shaking hand would let him. Peter wiped at his forehead and realized he was beginning to sweat. His body was going to betray him, despite the extreme emergency.
In a flash of cognitive brilliance, Peter pressed a key, deleting the address book entry, and then took a moment to change the password before signing out of Gabrielle’s account. He shut down the computer and closed it carefully, leaving it exactly as he found it, then looked at the scribbled address on the torn paper in his hand.
He rose and stuffed the note into his pocket, and had to breathe deeply to relieve a cramp that was threatening to build in the pit of his stomach.
Peter ignored the warning signal from his body and tugged the door open, slipping back into the hallway and out of the dorm. He passed by numerous students without anyone even lifting an eyebrow.
So much for campus security, Peter thought to himself with a chuckle and hopped on another GUT that would take him to Dupont Circle.
The door to Gabrielle’s dorm room swung open and Mother strode inside, sneering as she took a glance around the small living space. It was so typical of Gabrielle. Simple and neat, shelves filled with books, desk organized and uncluttered, everything in its place – so predictable of the storyteller.
Her roving eyes settled on the desk and Mother’s eyebrow rose at the laptop placed squarely in its center.
“Open it,” she ordered and waited as the agent slipped into the chair and flipped open the computer’s top.
The agent lifted his hands in resignation, unable to go beyond the log on screen that had bloomed into view on the monitor. “It needs a password,” he reported.
“Type in XENA.”
The agent used two fingers, one from each hand, to type as instructed, but the computer responded with an annoying beep and an error message.
“That’s not it.”
Mother’s razor thin brow arched and she stepped forward to look over the agent’s shoulder.
“Not with a Z, you idiot.”
The agent gazed at her with questioning eyes, unable to think of any other way to spell it.
“Get out of my way, you moron.” She grabbed the man’s shoulders and shoved him out
of the chair, then slipped gracefully into the seat. Using the tips of her long, red fingernails, she clicked an entry onto the screen.
“XENA. X … E … N … A.” She snarled a smile at the man over her shoulder, until the computer beeped at her, once again refusing the entry.
“That’s not it!” the agent repeated, pointing at the screen and the blinking red error message.
“FUCK!” Mother slammed the cover to the laptop shut.
Evelyn loved Crystal Method. The drug itself did nothing for her. In fact, she despised the way speed made her heart pound and her mind race. The drug did nothing but kept her up for days and made her sweat like a racehorse besides. Worse, it made her think much too much. No, she far preferred the numbing effects of alcohol, especially now when her dreams had been full of nothing but the shamaness, Yakut, and her waking hours were no different.
Now, Crystal Method - the band - that was a different story.
She swirled the olive around in the nice, freshly shaken martini she had just made for herself and reached over to turn the music up a notch as she walked by taking a snip. The deep bass beat hit her right in the gut at the same time as the liquor and that, she thought, was her kind of rush.
Evelyn raised the glass and stared into the drink appreciating the way small, slivers of ice crystals had formed on the liquor’s surface, the sign of a truly well made martini.
“Shaken, not stirred,” she quoted, toasting Bond in her mind as she took another nip. It tasted so good that she ended up downing the drink whole.
“Damn!” she stated, staring at the drink as though it had betrayed her. “Guess I’ll just have to make another.”
Evelyn strode around the sofa, empty glass in hand and headed for the kitchen, enjoying the deep throb of synthesized bass that shook the apartment right down to its knickknacks. Humming along with the music, she unscrewed the golden aluminum top from the bottle of Grey Goose and pushed the shaker into the refrigerator door to collect more ice at the same time.
She poured the liquor out of the bottle and into the shaker, lifting the bottle up to extend the pour with a flourish, then wet her fingers with sweet vermouth and flicked them at the shaker to dust the vodka with only a bare, few drops. Using an eyedropper, she added a dash of olive juice – Evelyn liked her martinis dirty.
“Wild, sweet and cool,” she sung along as she popped the top on the shaker on and shook the drink in rhythm to the music. The ice cubes tinkled against the metal making a sound like maracas, so Evelyn danced a samba as she shook her drink, ending with a spin and a long pour of the end product into the glass without spilling so much as a drop.
Lifting the drink to inspect her work, she looked for the telltale ice slivers and grinned when she found them sparkling back at her.
She sniffed the contents of the martini glass and smiled. “I love the smell of vodka in the morning.”
She took a sip and frowned. The stereo had just made what sounded like a bass hiccup. Evelyn put the glass down on the counter and listened more closely.
“Goddamnit!” There it was again. She stomped around the counter and stood in front of the speakers, hands on her hips. The out of syncopation bump repeated itself, but it wasn’t coming out of the speakers. The thumping was coming from behind her. She turned in the direction of the noise.
The thumping was coming from the door.
“Oh,” she said to herself, smiling demurely. Someone’s knocking. “Hang on!”
She lowered the music and dashed around the sofa to get the door.
“You know what they say,” she spoke loudly as she turned the knob and swung the door open, “If the house is a-rocking, don’t bother knocking!”
The door opened to reveal a sweating and shivering junkie at her doorstep.
“What?” Evelyn exclaimed, momentarily stunned by the state of the person at her door. “Oh, no you don’t!” Recovering, she slammed the door shut. There was no way she was going to let herself be robbed.
“No, wait!” the junkie threw his body in the way of the closing door, taking the full brunt of the slam against his chest. “Ugh!”
“Get out!” Evelyn pushed at him, trying to shove him out of the way so she could shut and lock the door.
“No, wait. Wait!” Peter fought against her, but he was weak from withdrawal and she was pretty strong.
Evelyn shoved hard, using his face as leverage to get him back into the hallway. Just as it looked as though she was going to win the struggle between him and door, the junkie shouted a word that stopped her dead in her tracks.
Evelyn froze, the flat of her hand spread out, crushing Peter’s nose. “What did you say?”
“Gabwielle?” Peter repeated the mumble from behind the palm.
Evelyn dropped her hand from Peter’s face and grabbed his collar instead.
“Get in here!” she pulled Peter into the apartment and slammed the door shut.
“The password was just changed today,” the technician stated as his right hand worked the mouse.
“Really?” Mother peered over his shoulder, looking at the screen with interest. “Was anything else changed today?”
“What exactly are you looking for?”
“What was the last program accessed?”
The technician ran his fingers across the keyboard. “The address book.”
“Really? Can you tell what was done?”
A few more clicks of the keys and the technician leaned back in his chair. “An address entry was deleted. Would you like it restored?”
Mother’s lips lifted into a cold smile.
Peter was a mess. Evelyn helped him into the passenger seat of her BMW and patted his shoulder, smiling sympathetically.
“She’ll have something to help you, I’m sure of it.”
“We … we … s..ss..hould be going to help Gabby,” Peter stammered, shivering. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and stared at Evelyn with puffy, red eyes.
“We will, but we can’t do it alone. She’s too powerful. Mind your feet,” Evelyn said and slammed the car door shut, then ran around the front and jumped into the driver’s side. She put the keys in the ignition and the car roared to life.
“Where are we going?” Peter asked, squeezing his own shoulders against the chills that were racking his body.
“I’ve learned a lot, but not enough to face off against her … at least, not yet. But don’t worry,” she smiled at Peter as she turned the wheel and stepped on the gas, “I know someone who’s gonna kick her ass from here to yesterday.”
To be continued …Part 9
[If you’ve been following the story so far – I hope you’ve been enjoying it and thanks for sticking with me! More to come soon and I absolutely promise: The Irresistible Flame will be finished. Cheers, Djwp@hotmail.com ]
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