by: Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Retribution, which, in turn is a sequel to my novel Redemption. (Thats right! Its a trilogy!) You really will want to read those first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. And quite a lot of each, to be truthful. Were dealing with a bunch of ex-cons and assorted other nasty type people here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love, between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not avoid anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: Well, its that time again, to thank everyone who made the writing of this work a pleasure. Its a bit sad, as well, since this will likely be the last we hear of Ice and Angel, but heck, its been a fun ride, huh? So, deep debts of gratitude go out from me to the following people: Carol "youd just better have a happy ending!" Stephens; Elizabeth "Four" Baldwin, Linda "Lola" Lynch, Lisa "Sulli" Sullivan, and the rest of the Angry Beavers; Judi "you just better have a happy ending part deux" Mair, Mary "is the Pope Catholic" D, Candace "Theodyke" Chellew, the members of my SwordnQuil list for their wonderful support and feedback, my dogs Kricket and Pudderbear, and a host of other people Im going to kick myself in the morning for not mentioning. Thanks guys!!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Disclaimer: As with my previous two novels, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J
"Wow! This place reminds me of the flea markets my mother used to drag me to when I was a kid!"
I found myself agreeing with Nias assessment as Ice circled around the perimeter of the market and headed for the area designated for parking.
Multi-hued banners flapped cheerily in the brisk November wind, providing an almost musical counterpoint to the sounds of booths being set up, childrens laughter, and the frenzied barking of the dogs who ran pell mell around the grounds chasing whatever caught their fancy.
The tantalizing scents of grilling meat and vegetables immediately brought to mind the days of my less than wanton youth, when Sundays (after church, of course) were reserved for the almost holy rite of flea market and garage sale hopping. One of the all-time great bargain hunters, my grandmother. She never met a hand-lettered sign nailed to a telephone pole that she didnt like, much to my chagrin. Weekly trips to the plethora of open-air flea markets which dotted the flat Indiana landscape like boils were treated with much the same reverence the Crusaders must have felt when they quested after the Holy Grail. And manys the day I would spend trying on someone elses cast off dresses--always three sizes too big so I could grow into themand wishing, with a sense of desperation common to children and trapped animals, that I was anywhere else. Like a dentists office getting all of my teeth drilled without benefit of novocaine, for example.
Ice startled me out of my musings when she touched my leg briefly before opening her door and slipping silently out of the car. Reaching for the doorhandle, I joined my partner, shivering slightly in the surprisingly chilled air and pulling my corduroy overshirt tighter across my body, thankful for its warmth.
Ice looked down at me, her eyes once again hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. "Ready?"
"As soon as you tell me what it is Im supposed to be ready for, then yeah," I replied, grinning.
Smirking at me, she pulled out a large wad of Mexican currency and handed it over to me. "Dont spend it all in one place."
I looked down at the cash in my hand, then up at my lover. "Say again?"
"Shop," she replied, folding my fingers over the money before it had a chance to scatter over the marketplace. "You know . . .look at things, haggle, spend money."
"And this is helping you . . .how, again?"
She smiled. "Angel, I trust your instincts. You might not know this place or these people, but you do know when something doesnt feel right to you. And for this thing to have at least a minute chance of working, I need to be able to rely on those instincts to help me out. So . . ." her grin broadened, " . . .have fun. Go shopping. Have some lunch. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and if you spot anything even the least bit off to you, lemme know. And take Nia with you, if you would. She can help translate anything you might have a hard time understanding, and youre the only one I trust to make sure she stays out of trouble."
Though my intent expression didnt change, the smile inside me grew. Her words of trust werent often voiced, but when they were, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning, filled with joy and happiness at the receiving of them.
"I think I can do that," I replied, casually as I could.
She gave my shoulder a squeeze. "Good. Lets go then."
Stealing a quick kiss from her cheek for luck, I grabbed Nias hand and walked into the fray.
The scents, sights and sounds of the open-air market drew me in like a moth to the flame. Everywhere my gaze landed, there was something else to snare my attention. I could tell right away that rather than the flea markets of my long ago youthVenus Old Lady Traps, my father used to call them in one of his rare moments of good humorthis market seemed to run along the lines of craft fairs my mother was sometimes known to drive miles out of her way to attend.
Wood crafters and painters vied for space with rug weavers and furniture makers. Booths with every inch of available space crowded with fresh produce were bookended by leatherworkers and garment weavers displaying their wares on tables and crates.
As several hours had passed since I had eaten breakfast, my nose, as it often did, took charge of the situation. It led me to a booth, behind which stood a man who made Methuselah look like a toddler fresh out of diapers. His smile was wide and bereft of teeth, but his dark eyes sparkled with intelligence and kindliness. In each hand, he held a thin wooden skewer pushed through thick chunks of sizzling pork, hot peppers, onions and cherry tomatoes. The food looked wonderful and smelled even better. With a grin and a flourish, he presented us each with a skewer.
"Gracias," I replied in my rudimentary Spanish as I took hold of the treat, my mouth watering.
His grin broadened as he waved his hands at us in the universal sign to sample his wares.
Switching the skewer to my other hand, I fumbled for the pocket where Id stored the money Ice had given me while at the same time wracking my brain for the phrase "how much?" in Spanish.
Seeing the money appear in my hand, the man put his hand up and shook his head in the negative, saying something too rapidly for me to understand and frowning slightly. I looked to Nia for help.
Walking over to me, she brought her lips close to my ear. "Youll offend him if you give him money. He gave us this food as a gift."
"Are you sure?" I whispered back.
After a moment, I nodded reluctantly, and Nia stepped away, thanking the man for both of us. His sunny grin returned and he waved at us before two more customers drew his attention away.
Stuffing the money back in my pocket, I savored my prize, and bit into the succulent meat, feeling my eyes rolling back in my head as I did so. The combination of flavors was heaven to my tongue and I groaned in delight. "God, this is wonderful!"
"Yeah, it is pretty good, isnt it," Nia replied, taking her own healthy bite. "Maybe Ill ask if hell share his recipe later."
Turning, we both strolled down the wide path between booths, adroitly sidestepping various passersby as we walked along, filling our bellies. I kept my eyes and ears open, as Ice had taught me to do, hoping that if there was any trouble, I would find it before it found me.
And find it I did, not more than fifteen minutes later, as Nia stopped to examine an incredibly beautiful woven rug. Looking around, I spied three very large men heading in my direction, though two aisles to the left of where I was currently standing. The expressions on the mens faces left no doubt that Christmas cheer had passed them by. In fact, it had probably run off screaming into the night once it had set proverbial eyes on them.
I watched through narrowed eyes as they pushed a succession of people out of their way, including a young boy who fell and hit his head hard on one of the tables. His mother quickly scooped him up and darted into the dubious safety of the crowd, the tears streaming down her face matching her sons.
Laughing cruelly, the trio continued on its way, wreaking havoc on the stalls and patrons they passed, grabbing up merchandise and either tucking it away or smashing it beyond repair on the rocky ground beneath their boots.
Taking my eyes off them for a moment, confident that I could pick up their trail by following the evidence of their destruction alone, I grabbed Nias arm and spun her around to face me. "Get Ice."
"What?" she asked, trying ineffectually to pluck my hand from her arm. "Why?"
"I dont have time to explain. Just do it. Please."
"But . . . ."
She looked at me doubtfully for a long moment, but something in my eyes must have convinced her, because she then relaxed. "Ok. Ill find her." She hesitated, smirking. "I assume youre talking about tall, dark and gorgeous, and not the cold stuff that comes in cubes, right?"
I tightened my grip. "Nia . . . ."
"Alright! Alright! I will! Just leggo my arm, will ya?"
Releasing her, I gave her a gentle shove back the way wed come before turning away.
The thugs trail was, as Id predicted, rather easy to find and follow again. Like a modern day Sherlock Holmes, I followed the simple clues of the mens passing and caught up to them at a booth that seemed to specialize in produce and dried meats, fish and the like.
Ducking quickly across the way so as not to be caught looking, I found myself amidst a large display of wind-chimes of every size, shape and description. The very air of my passing set them to jingling, but the men Id followed didnt spare a glance my way, for which I was thankful.
As I pretended to carefully examine the merchandise before me, I watched as the biggest of the men grabbed the poor merchant by the front of his shirt, shaking him much as a dog would a dirty sock, while his cohorts grabbed wooden packing crates and began stuffing them with all the food they could get their meaty hands on.
A very large part of me wanted to rush out from my hiding place and put a stop to the blatant theft. Deep down inside, though, I knew that if I did that, and these were the men we were looking for, my chivalryfor wont of a better termwould only cause more problems than it was likely to solve and wed likely lose the only shot we had of tracking Cavallo to his hideout.
So I stayed where I was, albeit with some reluctance, and watched with gritted teeth and fisted hands, as the thugs cleared the poor man out of nearly everything he had.
Throwing the merchant back into his now denuded stall, the trio laughed and picked up their crates, shouting insults easily understood in any language in which they were uttered.
Damnit, Nia. Where the hell are you?
The men were quickly gone from my sight, though the sounds of their malicious laughter was easily heard over the subdued noise of the crowd.
After a final look around convinced me the cavalry wasnt coming over the hill anytime soon, I took in a deep breath and ducked out from my cover, intent on following those men to the highway, if necessary. I caught up to them quickly, though staying a good distance back. Not that it mattered. They werent looking anywhere but straight ahead anyway, their mission, apparently, accomplished.
I followed them until they got to the gate, then paused a moment, considering. In the end, though, there really wasnt any other choice in the matter. Though I didnt have keys to the car, and couldnt very well follow the men to wherever it was they were going next, I could at least get a description of the car they were driving, and give Ice the general direction in which they were headed.
Nodding once at my decision, I stepped past the last row of booths, only to have my wrist grasped firmly by a warm hand, stopping me dead in my tracks. Whirling, I saw Ice, a smile in her eyes, if not on her lips. She pulled me close, then turned and gave a short nod. Rio and Nia appeared out of the shadows of the booth behind us, and set off at a determined pace after the men Id been following.
"Good job," Ice said softly when theyd cleared the gate and were gone from my view.
"Thanks," I replied, smiling at her praise and leaning into her strong, muscled body for just a moment. "So . . .are we going after them?"
Pulling away, I looked up at her. "No?"
"Rio and Nia will handle it."
"But . . . . I dont understand. Arent they the right guys?"
"Then why arent we going after them?"
Sometimes Ices peculiar brand of circular logic made my head spin.
Now was definitely one of those times.
She looked down at me, a subtle smile playing over her lips. "Bait. Cavallo might have an ego larger than this entire country, but hes not entirely stupid. He knows hes being followed. He just doesnt know by whom."
A light dawned somewhere within the recesses of my whirling brain. "I get it. He thinks hes being followed, so he sends out a couple of overbearing goons who make a deliberate racket to snare in anyone who might be interested in his whereabouts. The trackers follow the bait, and he sends the real guys in later, when the coast is clear."
Her smile bloomed fully, reaching the pale glitter of her eyes. "Exactly right."
I could feel my brow furrow. "But that means that Rio and Nia could be heading into a trap. Why did you let them go after those guys?"
"Just in case Cavallo has gotten stupid in his old age."
"And if he hasnt?"
She gave my hand a squeeze before releasing it. "Rio knows this desert better than any of us. If theyre leading her into a trap, shell know."
"I hope youre right." Though Rio and I werent the best of friends by any yardstick one wished to use, Id come to respect the large, quiet woman a great deal. I didnt want to see her hurt. Nia either, despite my oft-voiced thoughts to the contrary.
And because it was Ice saying these things, I gave up my reservations and simply believed.
"So . . .I guess its back to more shopping, huh?" I tried out my best nonchalant voice, but Im afraid my grin gave me away.
Rolling her eyes, my lover quirked a grin right back at me. "Guess so."
I affected a sigh. "Well, alright. Itll be a hardship, but Ill manage to muddle through. Somehow."
Smirking, she gave me a gentle shove back in the direction Id come. "Stay around this general area. If you see anything that doesnt sit right with you, come find me. I wont be too far away."
As I walked away, something bright and shiny caught the periphery of my vision. Like some sort of overgrown crow drawn to a bit of aluminum foil with which to feather its nest, I headed unerringly in the direction that had caught my interest.
The booth was small, and set a bit back from the rest. As I moved closer, it became quickly obvious that a master silversmith had chosen this place to display his exquisite handiwork. I looked around in utter awe as I came to a stop in front of the long display table. Most of the pieces were jewelry of some kind; bracelets, pendants, arm cuffs and rings being the most predominant. They were similar, though much better in quality, to pieces Id seen in some of the more expensive jewelry stores at one time or another in my life, especially in the southwest. The price tags for such works of art started in the mid hundreds and only went up from there. I hesitated to see how much these were going for.
Rather then look for price-tags, I decided to examine the artist himself, who was sitting on what looked to be a wooden beer keg while working on his latest creation. He was young, that much I could tell at first glance. With a trimmed shock of thick black hair that shone blue in the intense light of the sun, he was short of stature, but wiry and well muscled in his tight white t-shirt, faded jeans, and dusty boots.
As if sensing my gaze, he looked up, and favored me with a boyish grin that touched the inky black depths of his deep set eyes. Charmed, I couldnt help but smile back, noticing as I did the strong resemblance he bore to Rio. It was obvious that they shared the same ancestry, though I doubted they were in any way related.
Saying nothing, he looked back down and began his sculpting work anew, apparently content with my intrusion. I watched his hands as he worked, his fingers thick and square and blunt. Sure, strong and swift, yet so unlike Ices long fingers which moved with almost liquid grace while undertaking much the same task, though her medium of choice was wood and not silver.
As I watched, I made sure that I was also aware of my surroundings at all times. My eyes were in constant motion, scanning the market and the people therein, looking for something, anything, which would set my internal "danger" meter off.
So far, everything seemed quiet.
The market seemed to have recovered quickly from the upset the thugs had caused, as public gatherings sometimes will once the shouting is all over and theres nothing more to see.
By the time I looked back at the object of my attention, he had finished the piece he was working on and was rubbing it briskly with a buffing cloth. Silver peeked from behind the soft cloth, winking cheerily in the sun. I could tell it was a bracelet by the vague outline which shone through as he worked. More like a wrist cuff, actually, almost two inches wide with a carved design along the face.
Giving me a boyish, almost shy, grin, he held out the object for my inspection, a quick motion of his head inviting me to take it into my own hands for an closer examination. Smiling back, I reached out, then stopped, my fingers scant inches from their goal. I could feel my jaw hang open as my gaze zeroed in on the design on the bracelet.
The rim of the rising sun was carved in bas relief along the face. And below that, an intricately carved and absolutely beautiful tree, spreading its limbs to the sun.
A bonsai tree.
Close enough to the one Ice had carved on our headboard to have been its twin.
I looked up from the bracelet to the artist who created it. His black eyes, just seconds before youthful and innocent, seemed almost ancient in their wisdom. It wasnt as if he was looking at me. It was as if he was looking through me, beyond the flesh and blood and bone and into that space where my soul resided.
I felt a prickle of fear skitter up my spine.
"How did . . . ?" I trailed off, realizing in my shock that I was speaking English.
He smiled, pressing the bracelet into my hands and backing a half step away, diluting somewhat the tension between us. "Sometimes, things just are," he said, likewise in English, his voice soft and warm. "It belongs to you, now."
"Oh no," I demurred, holding the bracelet out to him. "I couldnt possibly . . . ."
He held his hands up, refusing to take it back. "I saw this vision in my mind, and when you came, I knew it was meant for you to have." He cocked his head slightly. "There is someone close to you for whom that design has deep meaning, yes?"
Stunned, I could only nod.
"Good. Then I have chosen wisely. Please. Accept my gift to you both. It is a tradition of my people."
"But . . . I . . . ."
"I give this to you, knowing it will be cherished. What more can I ask?"
I laughed a little, as much to break the tension as anything else. "Well, moneys nice too . . . ."
He laughed then, looking much more like the young man he wasto my great reliefthan the wizened ancient hed appeared just seconds before. "Yes, money has its uses. And rest assured that the compensation I receive from well-to-do jewelers to the north guarantees that Im rarely without it. But, if art is not sometimes done for arts sake, it quickly loses much of its meaning." He grinned. "To me, at least. So take this, with my good wishes, and enjoy it. Or throw it away. Its yours."
I knew the look in his eyes very well indeed. It was the same expression Ice used when a subject was closed beyond all possibility of ever being reopened again. In this century or any other, for that matter. It was an expression to which there was, really, only one answer.
Another charming, boyish smile, and then he dismissed me, though not unkindly, by returning his full attention to his work.
At somewhat of a loss, I looked back down at the bracelet in my hand, viewing it from every possible angle under the brilliant light of the midday sun. I imagined, as I did so, how it would look on Ices wrist, the silver gleaming brightly against the deep, burnished tan of her skin.
Ice didnt wear jewelry as a rule. In fact, in all the time Id known her, Id never seen her so much as eye a piece, much less don one.
Still, I had a feeling that this particular object just might change all that.
And if it didnt, it wasnt as if Id lost any money in the deal.
"And speaking of money," I muttered to myself after giving my benefactor one last look. "I think I know someone wholl appreciate some right about now."
After a quick glance around and noting that the coast was still clear, I set off in the direction of the booth the thugs had torn apart earlier. The proprietor was still there, sitting on an overturned crate, his shoulders slumped in disconsolation. Several people were gathered around him, speaking in low and sympathetic tones. My heart went out to him, this poor man who had likely lost enough potential income to keep his family through the winter.
Stepping through the small crowd, I pulled all the money Ice had given me out of my pocket and thrust it into his trembling hands. "For you," I said in my faltering, grade-school Spanish. "Merry Christmas."
He looked up at me with moist eyes the size and shape of saucers. His mouth hung open in a perfect oval as he stared.
Blushing to beat the band, tuba section and all, I bowed my head a little, smiled, and quickly turned on my heel before I started blubbering like some sort of idiot under the influence of a little too much Christmas cheer.
Half running down the wide, dirt-packed aisle, I looked quickly around me, then stopped dead in my tracks as I spied two figures entering through the main gate. Tall men, both, with regimental haircuts, broad shoulders, and clothes which, though they tried their best to look casual, were obviously quite expensive.
Thinking quickly, I ducked into a corner booth, breathing fast and trying desperately to fight against the memories their presence brought with them. Images of staring down the barrel of a gun as I tried to protect Corinne with my own body. Images of my unconscious lover being dragged away as I begged and pleaded with them to please leave her alone.
"Alright, Angel," I whispered, the sound of my own voice calming me somewhat. "Nows not the time to be having flashbacks, here. Those are the guys weve been waiting for. You know it. So lets just get on the ball and find Ice, alright?"
Thus fortified, I was about to turn when a warm pair of hands descended on my shoulders and almost sent the life screaming right out of me. "Good eyes," came a husky voice in my ear, as fragrant hair brushed softly against my cheek.
"Jesus, Ice," I breathed, relaxing back against her. "You almost gave me a heart attack."
With a gentle squeeze, Ice stepped back away from me and Critter and Pony gathered round. "That them?" Critter asked, looking somewhere beyond my field of vision.
"Yup," Ice replied softly.
"So, what do we do now?" Pony chimed in.
"Ill show you," she replied, reaching down to clasp my hand in hers, then starting out with that long-limbed, take-no-prisoners stride of hers, which left me half running every other step just to stay on my feet.
Before I knew it, we were out the gate and heading rapidly toward our car, parked toward the back.
"Um, Ice?" I queried when I was able to get my wind back.
"Mm?" she replied, unlocking the doors and opening them quickly.
"Arent . . .arent the guys were after thataway?"
"Yes." She drew the word out.
"Then . . .why are we going in the opposite direction? Arent we supposed to be keeping tabs on them?"
"Thats exactly what were doing."
I looked over my shoulder at Critter, who grinned and shrugged helplessly before ducking her head and getting into the back seat. Pony just smirked.
I looked back at my lover. "Wouldnt it be better to keep tabs on them where we could actually see them?"
Her smile put the Mona Lisas to shame. "We will. Eventually."
Grumbling, I slipped into the car and slammed the door shut. Ice smirked when she slid inside, and when she lowered her glasses, her eyes were twinkling mischievously. I stuck my tongue out at her, and she chuckled, laying a warm hand on my thigh. "Well wait here until they come out. That way, they wont see anyone following them out of the market. Then, when they pull out, well follow them at a safe distance."
"That makes sense," I allowed, not totally willing to let her off the hook just yet.
She, of course, wasnt buying my act. "Of course it does," she replied, giving me her own version of a cheeky grin before sliding her glasses back to their customary position and turning forward once again.
Still, her warm hand lay comfortable on my thigh, and when I reached down and covered it with my own (as if I could help myself) she squeezed our fingers gently together, and all was pretty much alright with my world.
We didnt have all that long to wait before the two men cleared the gate and started heading for their car, followed by several merchants each toting boxes full of goods. The car in question was a long sedan which was likely black, but currently sported a reddish-yellow covering of desert dust. Parked among a bevy of bastardized trucks and cars whose showroom dates were no later than the nineteen seventies, it stuck out like a hammer-smashed grasping appendage.
Within minutes, the merchants had finished placing their boxes in the back seat and trunk of the car and were summarily waved off by the two men without so much as a "by your leave", as far as I could tell.
The men got into their car and were off in a spray of gravel and dust.
A moment later, Ice started up the car and pulled in behind several other shoppers who were heading toward home after a long day of bargaining. Shed taken the radios from both of the police cruisers before they shuffled off to auto heaven, and had reinstalled them in the two cars we now used. Unhooking the mike, she depressed the button as we drove at medium speed down a straight-as-an-arrow two lane highway, following a short convoy of cars and light trucks. "You there?"
"Yeah." came Rios voice over the radio.
"Howd it go?"
"They were the bait, alright. Led us on a good chase, but I backed off before it became too obvious. Heading back to you now."
"Were on our way out now, headed west toward the mountains. Were about two miles out."
"Ill continue on and swing in behind you, then."
"Alright. Were following a black sedan, two men inside."
"Will do. Out."
Racking the mike, Ice put both her hands on the wheel and raced the winter sun as it began its slow, meandering trek westward toward the mountain ranges in the near distance.
Conversation, what there was of it, was sparse, and I spent some time silently thanking Ice for sending Nia with Rio. Forty-five minutes into the trip, I saw Rios beaten beige sedan pass us in the opposite direction, then U-turn across the highway and slide in behind the line of cars heading to the west.
We continued on for maybe another half-hour when Ices radio crackled with an incoming call. Rios urgent voice came over the speaker. "Shit. I know where hes going. Follow me."
As Ice slowed down, Rio crossed on a dotted yellow and slipped in front of our car. Up ahead and to the left, there was a turnoff, and when Rio signaled, Ice followed behind a line of two or three other cars and turned as well, leaving the rest of the unintentional caravan to continue on, still led by Cavallos men.
We were in the foothills, and as the cars in front of Rios continued forward, Rio herself pulled off , her front bumper almost touching the rocky hill which sprung up in front of us like a shark fin in an otherwise calm, if rather dirty, ocean.
The car hadnt even stopped rolling before she jumped out and sprinted up the rocky side of the hill (more like a small mountain, really) at a speed far quicker that one would think a body that large could possibly go.
Nia exited more slowly, simply staring up the mountain and the quickly retreating form of Rio with open-mouthed shock.
After pulling up along side the parked car, Ice exited at a more leisurely pace, but once she was free and clear, she went up after Rio, catching up to her rather quickly despite the other womans rather large lead.
"Up?" Pony asked me, eyebrows raised.
"Up," I replied, already taking off.
"Figures," she muttered, climbing next to me with Critter and Nia joining in the chase.
The route to the top was steep, the footing very unsteady, and by the time I made it up, I was breathing heavily and bathed in a fine layer of sweat. I was inwardly pleased, however, to note that both Pony and Critter were both more winded than I, while Nia was still struggling to the top, her face florid and wet with sweat.
Covering the last few feet, I went to stand next to Ice, who was standing in a small stand of tough, gnarled pinion pines, and breathing as if shed just taken a leisurely stroll down the lane. Where I might once have felt envy over her supreme display of physical fitness, I instead just grinned and shook my head.
"What?" she asked, eyebrow raised.
"Nothing," I replied, nudging her a little. "Whats going on?"
Following my lovers pointing finger, I noticed a rather large dwelling surrounded on all sides by a high stone wall. The house itself looked to be made of pink adobe with a blue Spanish-tiled roof. It looked slightly run down, as if it hadnt been properly cared for in quite some time. Some of the roof tiles were missing, the yard was an overgrown proliferation of cacti, olive trees, and pinion pines, and the large in-ground pool was thick and green with algae and god knows what else.
As I watched, the black sedan pulled into the compound and stopped in the circular driveway near the front entrance to the house. Several men emerged from the home, all armed, to help remove the boxes the men had brought back with them.
Try as I might, I couldnt see Cavallo himself anywhere which, as Im sure you might guess, didnt cause me much of a problem at all.
"How did you know?" I whispered to Rio, who stood to the other side of Ice.
When she looked back at me, her expression was one of self-loathing. "I didnt. But I should have." Her large hands were clenched into tight fists, which she beat uselessly against her tree-trunk thighs. "Buncha compounds like this all around here. Drug lords and dictators on the lam hide out here. Been doin it for over fifty years or more. Didnt realize this was where he was holed up until we got close, though. Damnit."
"Rio, enough." Ices voice was soft, but the note of command it held was undeniable, and unalterable.
Rios shoulders sagged.
"Do you know anything about this particular compound?" my lover asked, raking her eyes over the land in question.
The other womans expression brightened slightly as she shoulders squared. "Matter of fact, I do. A friend of mine was caretaker here for about ten years before the drug lord who lived there went back home. As far as I know, its been empty for two years, maybe three."
"Is your friend still around?"
"Yeah. Twenty miles or so back the way we came."
"Alright then. Lets head over there. I want an idea of whats inside before I make my move."
Knowing a conversation ender when I heard one, I spun away from the mountain-top view of the compound, then stilled my motion as I tried to mentally adjust to the picture my eyes were presenting me.
What I thought I was seeing was a large fogbank moving in from the east. If fog was yellow, that is. Which it isnt. Like fog, though, it had a mysterious quality to it, and might have even been beautiful, in its own fashion, if not for the ugly yellow color.
Entranced, and a little spooked, to be honest, I looked up. And saw something that, if possible, was even more strange.
It was as if someone had taken a ruler and drawn a perfectly straight line across the sky. To the west of the line, the sky was a clear, vibrant winter blue. To the east, a deep, black void. Black as night, but without any moon or stars to show the way.
It was something Id never in my life seen before, and it was more than a little frightening.
As if to frighten me further, a freshening breeze blew up, and that breeze was cold. Icy cold.
I shivered inside the flannel Ice had given me, and pulled it tighter against my sweat-drenched skin.
Pony was the next to turn, and like me, she froze when presented with the view. "Dust storm," she muttered disgustedly. "Shit."
"More than that," came Rios voice from behind. "Monsoon. Bad one, by the looks of the sky."
"A monsoon?" Pony countered. "In December?!?"
"Mother Nature doesnt always read the White Mans calendar," Rio replied.
"She should damn well start, then."
Sensing that a storm of a different type was brewing, I stepped forward, drawing Rios attention away from Pony. "So, what do we do?"
"We head east, like we were planning."
"Into the storm?" I asked, doubt coloring my voice.
Her dark, somber eyes met mine. "The only way through these mountains is to take that highway, which leads down into a deep valley and crosses a major river. Its fifty miles or more before the valley floor raises up. Its a flood plain. Well never outrun the storm." She pointed ahead. "Theres higher ground back to the east. Its a lot safer, even if it means going into the mouth of the storm."
I looked over at Ice, who nodded her acceptance of Rios succinct assessment.
"Out of the frying pan and into the fire, huh?"
My lover smiled slightly before stepping up and laying a feather light touch to my back. "Lets go."
Driving through the dust storm was interesting, to say the least. It was like being in a fog bank, and a snowstorm all rolled into one. One choking breath of that swirling dust, however, convinced me that Ice meant what she said when she ordered all windows and vents closed tightly.
Nia rode with us this time, though thankfully she was too busy gawking at this interesting weather phenomenon to break out into song. If I could be grateful to a storm for one thing, it would be that.
The dust soon thinned and then disappeared altogether. My sense of relief lasted, however, for all of about two seconds before the deluge hit.
No simple winter rainstorm, this. Nor even remotely like anything Id ever been through before in my almost thirty years of living on this planet of ours.
About the only thing I can think to liken it to is going through one of those drive-thru car-washes without using your windshield wipers. The rain came harder than it had any right to, completely swamping the car and making it utterly impossible to see anything but the rippling pool of water battering the windshield.
Lightening flashed in rapidfire bursts, like the finale of a fireworks display in fuzzy monochrome. Thunder boomed and cracked so loudly that I clapped my hands over my ears and feared for the strength of the glass in the windows.
"Ice?" I asked, my voice high and wavery. Though loathe to disturb my partners intense concentration, I was, quite frankly, scared to death. "Do you think we should maybe pull over until this lets up some?"
"Cant," came her succinct reply as she willed her keen eyes to see beyond the curtain of water the storm laid over the windshield.
"Theres . . .um . . .c-canals on both sides." Nias voice floated up from the back seat, even more breathy and timorous than my own.
I could have slapped myself for forgetting that. Long, narrow canals took the place of the shoulders on both sides of the highway, bringing rain and reservoir water into the outlying regions. So, pulling over was most definitely not an option.
Rigid with fear, I tugged on my seatbelt, making sure the connection was secure. I was absolutely sure that, with each passing secondtime measured by the rapid, if useless swish-thump of the wipers, beating in perfect synchrony with my panicked heartwe would either plow into Rios car, or someone else would hit us from behind.
We were flying blind, and we all knew it.
The radio crackled, and Ponys voice filtered into the car. "Were out."
Quickly, I retrieved the mike. "What do you mean? Out of the storm?" Hope flared, high and bright, in my heart.
"Were stopped. A trees down, blocking the highway."
"How do you know?"
"We just hit it."
"Jesus. Are you alright?"
Static crackled as a bolt of lightening landed frightfully close. I almost screamed as the thunder nearly shattered my eardrums with its frightful intensity.
"Yeah. No damage. We were going too slow. Youd better stop, Ice. Youll hit us."
Ice had already started slowing down, from the first moment Pony contacted us, and came to a gradual, safe stop in the middle of the highway.
"Were stopped." The relief coursing through me made me feel limp and drained.
"Good. Anyone behind you?"
"Like I can see anything?!?"
"Alright, alright, Angel. Take it easy."
My attention was quickly diverted as I watched Ices hand go to the door lever and proceed to open it. "Ice, wait! You cant . . . ."
My words were bitten off, literally, as my teeth came together sharply, pinning my tongue between them. The hot, metallic taste of blood flooded my mouth, then was quickly forgotten as my entire body was jerked forward, my head on a direct collision course with the dashboard as we were hit, hard, from behind.
The impact never happened, though, because we were hit again, this time from the side. Unrestrained, Ices body flew across the interior and landed in my lap, pinning me against the door. Stars sparked in my vision as the back of my head collided with the window, but somehow my lover managed to prevent me from sustaining more damage by wrapping her long arms around me and tucking me against her snugly.
My indrawn breath of pain and relief was cut off midway as we were struck again, this time with twice as much force as the previous two collisions combined. The squealing groan of metal rending mixed in frightful cacophony with the splinter of fractured glass and Nias high-pitched, terror-filled scream.
We were hit again, and then again as the storm set off a destructive chain reaction with us as the focus-point. I clutched at Ice the way a drowning man clutches his rescuer, knowing my fingernails were scourging her skin, but terrified beyond caring at that moment.
The final crash came and I felt the world around me tumble as the car began to raise up off its wheels. The next thing I knew, we were floating free.
After that, I knew nothing at all.
Something soft and fragrant tickled against my nose, then tickled again as my eyelashes fluttered against opening. When the nuisance wouldnt go away, I finally opened my eyes and scowled at the feathery stalk of grass that waved at me, courtesy of a warm, summer breeze.
My scowl quickly turned to a grin, though, and I rolled over on my back to look up at a pristine blue sky and a slight scattering of tiny clouds which trailed lazily across a friendly summer sun.
I felt . . .perfect, I realized as the sounds of the breeze travelling through grass and leaves played a lazy, peaceful harmony. The long nap Id apparently taken had left me feeling uncommonly refreshed. The minor aches and pains which collected as I got older seemed to have vanished, as if they never were.
I was clear-headed and light-hearted and filled with an absolute, incredible joy.
Rolling up to a sitting position, I gazed across the flat expanse of a pristine lake with waters so calm and so blue that the sight brought tears of happiness to my eyes. The lake was surrounded on all sides by a forest of stately, deep emerald evergreens whose laden boughs swayed and danced in the ever-present and deliciously scented breeze which blew warm and gentle upon my skin.
Coming to my feet, I turned in a slow circle, the smile on my face growing so broad that I was sure it would freeze there. Not that I would have minded, of course.
Giggling like a schoolgirl, I watched the whimsical path of a beautiful butterfly as it flitted over a meadow filled with a million flowers in every color of the rainbow.
I was grasped with a sudden need to be in that meadow, to run through it and feel the soft, pollen-dusted petals as they brushed against my bare legs, and to smell the sweet fragrances of the flowers as I passed each one by.
With a joyous shout, I flung my arms wide and took off through the field, laughing until tears ran from my eyes, blurring the scene before me as if I were looking through a prism filled with a magical radiance. Temporarily blinded, I stumbled and fell, but the ground was like a soft, warm blanket, cradling me and cushioning me as I rolled, still laughing and covered with pollen, through the field.
Springing back to my feet, I continued my sprint, filled with an energy Id never before felt. It was . . .amazing was the only word I could think to use. I could have been running for hours, or even days, but it was like the energy within me kept growing and growing until my body fairly buzzed with it.
The meadows end lay only a short distance away, bordered by more of those tall, fragrant evergreens. As the warmth of the sun and the exercise had conspired to lay a faint sheen of sweat on my body, the promised coolness of the shaded emerald forest was perfection itself.
With a last, grateful look at the flowering field, I stepped into the cool, fragrant shadows of the giant trees. Soft fronds brushed my arms like welcoming friends. It was cool, quiet and dim, yet tranquil and comforting the way a warm summers night is comforting.
Up ahead, a short distance away, a faint rose glow came through the trees, drawing my attention and my footsteps in that direction.
The glow, which became subtly brighter as I made my zigzag way toward its unknown source, gilded the trees at the edge of the small wood a dusky bronze which was quite beautiful in its own way. I felt in some way drawn to it by an almost magnetic attraction, and before I knew it, my meandering pace had quickened to a ground-eating trot.
The trees fell away suddenly, giving way to a huge clearing.
And in the center of that clearing, glowing rose and gold and bronze, was the largest tree Id ever seen in my life. Not so much tall, no, but broad, and strong, as if sprung up from the very bedrock of the earth itself. Its thick, sturdy limbs grew out from the trunk in wild proliferation.
It seemed wild, and untamed, and, to my awestruck eyes, so very, very beautiful.
I felt a tug from somewhere deep down within me, and I took up my trot once again, feeling the radiant glow gently, tenderly caress my face and form as I moved ever closer.
Drawn on by a need and a longing beyond my understanding, I increased my speed, hands outstretched to their fullest limit and aching for something I couldnt name. A final step and I was there, my outstretched fingers brushing against the warm, smooth, living bark with a sense of profound relief
Laying my palms flat against the trunk, I felt an intense surge of energy flow through me, bringing with it a sense of rightness, of completeness that, until now, I hadnt been aware I was lacking.
Startled, though unafraid, I took a brief step back, losing contact with the tree as I did so.
The immediate sense of loss was almost overwhelming, and tears sprung quick to my eyes, blurring my vision once again.
"Whats happening to me?" I whispered, overcome with a grief whose source was unknown.
Angel . . . .
My head jerked up, and I took another step back, looking around me. "Who . . .who said that?"
Angel . . . .
The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. I did a slow circle, eyes darting around the clearing, but as far as I could tell, I was completely alone.
"Please. Whos there? I wont harm you. Just please . . . ."
Angel . . . .
Drawing a bead on the origin of the voice, I turned quickly back to the tree.
Only, it wasnt a tree anymore.
In its place stood a woman of breathtaking beauty. She was tall, broad of shoulder and lean of hip. Her hair was black as night and flew freely from her brow in luxuriant waves. Her face was that of an artists model, and her eyes .her eyes were the pale, intense blue of the hottest part of a flame.
"I know you," I breathed with surety, though the full knowledge of the woman before me danced tauntingly out of reach, like a word stuck on the tip of your tongue and refusing to come forth.
Angel . . . .
The corner of her mouth turned up in a crooked smile, and she reached out one long arm, elegant fingers slightly curled, beckoning.
Without conscious thought, I felt my own arm raise in response as my feet moved me steps closer to the breathtaking woman in front of me.
Our fingers brushed together and memories of a forgotten lifetime crashed over me, literally bringing me, gasping, to my knees.
Angel . . . .
The voice came again, only this time, I knew who it was that was calling to me.
A radiant smile broke over her face like the beauty of the rising sun. She reached out again, beckoning.
Grinning like a fool, I jumped back to my feet, ignored her outstretched hand, and leapt into her arms, only to find myself tumbling into blackness once again.
I came to with a gasp which sent pain wracking through to the deepest levels of my body. My lungs were on fire, and I began choking and gagging so hard that I felt as if my lungs and guts were about to make an unseemly exit through my nose and mouth.
The only thing to come up, thankfully, was brackish water, and that in great amounts.
"Oh god," I gasped as my body convulsed again, trying desperately to expel everything Id evidently ingested. "Help me."
In answer to my prayer, I was enfolded in a tender embrace by arms I knew and cherished. I felt a kiss being pressed into the crown of my head as those arms gathered me close against a muscled body which was shaking as badly as I was.
"Its alright," came the whispered words. "Youre gonna be alright."
Forcing my stinging eyes open, I tilted my head back and looked up into the cherished face of my lover. "Ice?"
She barked a half laugh, half sob which brought more tears from already swollen eyes. "Yeah, its me."
The lines of her face tensed in unimaginable pain. Her eyes closed and she gathered me still closer with an almost desperate strength. Laying her cheek atop my head, she rocked my pain-wracked body as I listened to the panicked beat of her valiant heart.
It all rushed back to me then. The monsoon. The accident. The feeling of flying, of falling, and ultimately, the total darkness which spiraled around me until it finally caught up and captured me in its inevitable grasp.
Something horrible had happened. To me. That much I knew.
I just needed to figure out what it was.
Sensing no answer from that quarter, I opened my eyes again, and gazed outward, past the comforting circle of my lovers arms and body.
I latched on to the first face I saw. "Critter?"
Like Ice, her eyes were red and swollen from crying. Giving me a watery smile, she moved closer, settled on her haunches, and grasped my hand, her thumb trailing tenderly over my knuckles. "Welcome back, Angel."
I could feel my brow creasing, though the action sent a fresh wave of pain through my skull. "What happened?"
She took in a deep breath, then let it out, hesitating. "What . . .whats the last thing you remember?" she asked at last.
"I remember the car flipping over. Thats it, I think."
"It . . .um . . .flipped into the canal," she commented softly, sniffing back fresh tears.
"On its fucking roof," came the voice of Pony as she moved in to kneel beside Critter. Her face was white with shock, and there was a suspicious wetness around her eyes. "Damndest fucking thing I ever saw," she continued, shaking her head as she dragged a slightly trembling hand through soaked hair.
The two women exchanged glances. Critter nodded slightly, and Pony sighed.
"You guys were trapped. There wasnt enough room to get to the doors on either side," Pony explained. "Rio jumped in to see if she could get underneath, but the water was so damn fast she nearly got swept away."
"Rio? Is she . . . ." Though I looked around, I couldnt see the woman in question anywhere.
"Yeah," Critter interjected, squeezing my hand. "Shes fine. Pony and I were able to drag her out before she got too far away."
"Where is she?"
"With Nia," Pony answered.
"Is Nia . . . ?"
"Shes fine too. Banged up pretty good, but not too bad, considering."
They exchanged glances again, and Pony, once again, took up the gauntlet.
"We were going all kinds of crazy, trying to figure out how to get you all out of there. Rio kept wanting to jump back in and me and Critter kept holding her back." Her fists clenched. "We needed help, but none of the other assholes who caused this whole fucking mess wanted to help out. They were too damn busy pissing and moaning about their pitiful pieces of shit cars to pay any attention to us." Her face screwed up into an expression of bitter disgust.
Critter wrapped her free arm around Ponys waist and squeezed. She picked up the tale. "Rio found some rope in one of the other cars. We figured wed try and tie it around one of the axles and maybe pull, somehow try to move the car and get you guys out."
"We were getting ready to do just that, too," Pony said, "when the damndest thing happened." She shook her head, disbelief plain on her features.
"What?" Im afraid I sounded a bit annoyed at that point, but my head was pounding, my lungs were still on fire with every breath I took, my body felt as if Ice had used it in place of her heavy-bag, and I felt as if I was going to throw up sometime in the very near future.
Pony, however, seemed oblivious. Her eyes were dark and far away. "We heard this loud crack, and the next thing we knew, Nia was flying through the air, pretty as you please. Rio caught her just before she would have hit the ground. She was soaked, and bleeding some, but she was alive." My friends voice trailed off as she shook her head in patent disbelief.
"Then Ice came out through the back window shed somehow kicked open," Critter said, softly. "You were in her arms. The water kept trying to sweep her away. I dont know how she managed, but somehow she did." She, too, shook her head. "Pony, Rio and I went down to take you from her, but she wouldnt give you up. She was in shock, I think." She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "We finally managed to get hold of you and bring you up here. You were . . . ."
"Dead," Pony supplied, flatly, wiping at her eyes with savage hands.
"Wha-at?" My entire body went numb at her pronouncement. Ices arms tightened convulsively around me, cutting off my breathing for a long, aching second before they finally loosened, though only infinitesimally, for which I was grateful.
"You werent breathing," Critter supplied gently. "You guys were completely under water for a long time, and you were unconscious. You hit your head a good one on something."
That explained the unmerciful throbbing which threatened to explode my skull into tiny little fragments.
"I tried . . .to get a pulse . . .and I couldnt find one," Critter continued, tears streaming liberally down her cheeks and dripping onto the still-wet pavement. "I . . .we . . .didnt know what to do. I mean . . .we all knew CPR, but . . . Im afraid we panicked." Her face flushed a deep shade of red and self-disgust was very prominent in every tense line of her face and body.
"Critter . . . ." I whispered.
Scrubbing her eyes, she shook her head, refusing my attempt at comfort.
Her face similarly flushed, Pony embraced the weeping Critter, and looked at me over the top of her lovers bowed head. "All the sudden, we heard this . . .this . . .roar. Like some kinda wild animal or something. Scared the shit outta me. Next thing I know, Im flying backwards. Almost fell into the damn canal."
"What happened?" Those words seemed the extent of my vocabulary of late.
"Ice did," Pony replied. "Everything that we couldnt do, she did." Her voice was soft, reverent almost. "Somehow, she got some of the water outta you, then she started doing CPR, pounding on your chest and breathing into your mouth. She was like a demon, almost. Totally possessed."
Critter pulled slightly away from Pony and turned her face toward mine, her eyes bright with awe. "We . . .we tried to help, but she wouldnt let any of us near you. Just kept doing CPR and screaming at you not to leave her. It seemed like it went on like that for . . .god! . . .hours. She just kept screaming. Kept telling you you couldnt leave her. That it wasnt your time to go. That you were strong. That you could fight it." At that, she broke down into sobs which matched my own. "She begged you not to go."
Pony wrapped Critter in an embrace again, unmindful of her own tears. "It was taking too long," she whispered. "Too long. I . . .tried to pull her away. It seemed fruitless . . .too late. But she wouldnt listen. She wouldnt . . . ." Her hand went up, unconsciously, to brush against a swollen, bruising area just below her right eye.
"Did she . . . ?"
Pony hung her head. "I deserved it."
Her chin raised and she met my eyes again, her own burning with a strange intensity. "I deserved it, Angel. I gave up. She never did."
"She believed in you," Critter added, her body still wracked with sobs. "Even when the rest of us had given up, she still believed."
Closing my eyes for a very long moment, I gingerly moved my head, ignoring its outraged screaming, and wormed an arm free of my lovers desperate grip. Reaching up, I trailed my fingers across her icy cheek until I could cup her chin and turn her head toward my own. "Ice," I whispered, willing her eyes to open.
Her face was a tragedys mask, set in harsh lines of grief. Her eyes and jaw were tightly clenched. Her nostrils flared as her breath came in quick pants.
"Ice," I whispered again, stroking her jaw. "Look at me. Please."
I continued my gentle stroking, loving her as best I could and willing her to feel that through the bond we shared. "Please, sweetheart. Please open your eyes."
Whether it was the tone of my voice, or the realization that I was never going to give up until she did as I asked, her lashes finally fluttered open to reveal the deep, stormy blue of her eyes.
There was such a tumultuous wash of emotion in those beautiful eyes, but I could read each one as if it stood out as a beacon for my gaze alone.
And, swirling through all the negative, dark emotions, trapped like a ship battered by a winter storm, was the one thing that I needed to see, more than anything else in this world.
"Thank you," I said, meaning it from the bottom of my soul and beyond. Though it hurt to smile, I did, so filled with love was I for this woman whod given everything to save my life, and never gave up.
With a mystics sight, I could see how trapped she felt; torn between holding me tightly and pulling away, thinking herself undeserving of my gratitude and love.
With a strength I didnt know I possessed, I drew my fingers along the base of her skull, and pulled her head down even as I raised my own, trying not to wince as fresh pain flared through my head with the motion.
Our lips tangled, and at first, hers were as cold and unyielding as a marble statue. But, just as she never gave up on me, I wasnt about to let her hide away in whatever dark hell shed built for herself.
As Im sure youve noticed by now, Im nothing if not persistent. I kept to my task with a single-minded devotion until finally, after eons had truly passed, I felt her begin to respond. Slowly, tentatively at first, to be sure, but within moments, it was as if Id released a lion from its cage, all ferocious passion and primal need.
She built an inferno effortlessly within me as my body surged to renewed life with a passion and an intensity that matched her own, need for need, want for want.
There was nothing gentle about this fierce reclaiming of our souls. Nothing tender. Nothing soft or soothing. It was as if we both knew, by some strange metaphysical, karmic fusion, that neither of us could handle that right now.
No, the kiss we shared mingled our anger and our fear, our pain and our loss, our anguish and our love, all melded into a ball of white-hot intensity which flared far brighter and far hotter than any sun in any galaxy youd care to name.
And when it was over, we were both left bruised and panting, hearts pounding and heads spinning, and locked together more tightly than ever before.
We were home.
The sounds of sirens, still far off but getting closer, served to break the spell. Ponys apologetic face slipped into my field of vision. "We . . .um . . .should start thinking about getting outta here."
It was an amazing thing, I mused, being held in Ices arms as she methodically erected her defensive walls one by one. It was almost like watching a rose bloom, but in reverse, the petals closing in protectively to shield the soft heart inside. As I watched, her eyes turned from the stormy, turbulent blue of grief to a flat, steel gray of resolve, a color which perfectly matched the sky above.
As she prepared herself to stand, with me still firmly gathered in her arms, I noticed for the first time the cuts and scratches scattered liberally over the naked areas of her skin, including the deep one right at her hairline which was dripping a slow, thick trail of blood down the side of her face.
I was about to say something, but the look in her eyes warned against it, so instead I concentrated on losing my invalid status. "I . . . can stand." I think.
The briefest twitch of a raven brow, and then I felt her grip around me loosen as she gently placed me back on my feet.
My knees, traitors that they are, promptly buckled under my weight. The asphalt and I would have once again become rather intimate acquaintances had not Ices preternatural strength come to my rescue. Gathering me in her arms once again, she shot me a look which was all business and brooked no arguments on any subject I might care to bring up.
Realizing that there were far worse places in the world to be than in the sure grip of my lovers arms, I wisely decided against tempting Fate, and simply gave in to the inevitable, leaning my head against her chest in complete surrender.
The barest trace of a smirk ghosted across her face at my antics and we turned toward our sole remaining car with all due haste.
Rio finished tossing her boltcutters and the registration tag from the demolished car into the trunk, then moved to open each door in turn as we approached. Critter helped settle Ice and myself in the back seat, then joined us as Pony, Nia and Rio took up the bench seat in the front.
The sirens drew still nearer as Rio started the engine and managed to maneuver the large sedan around the tall tree which blocked all but the very edge of the oncoming lane of the highway. For a long, terrifying moment, I was sure we were going to take another trip into the canal, but Rio handled the car with the ease of a professional, and before I knew it, we were on our way back to Ices safe-house.
"Angel, lie still! I need to get these wet clothes off of you!"
"I cant," I replied peevishly, scowling up at Critter as she tried to wrestle me to the mattress. "My chest hurts and its hard to breathe if I lay down flat."
Sighing, Critter dragged a hand through her soaking golden hair. Then she grabbed the waistband of my jeans and tugged. "At least lift up so I can get these pants off of you, okay? Ice will kill me if she comes back and youre still dressed."
"Oh alright," I grumped, slapping her hands away and unbuttoning the jeans myself. As I struggled to pull the wet, clingy fabric off of legs which felt like lead, the effort suddenly became too much and I slumped back against the beat, exhausted beyond reckoning.
To her credit, and though I more than deserved it, she didnt smirk at me. Instead, her eyes were kind and compassionate as she removed the sodden clothing from my shivering body. As the last piece came free, Ice entered the room, arms laden with towels and a thick comforter which she laid down on the bed. Her face was expressionless as she nodded to Critter, thanking her silently for helping me undress.
Nodding, Critter pointed to the large gash in Ices hairline which bleeding sluggishly. "You need to get that looked at."
"Later," my lover replied. Picking up two of the towels, she approached my side of the bed and began drying me off, her touch clinical, yet gentle. Her piercing gaze examined every inch of my body, with the exception of my eyes, which were continually avoided, no matter how much I tried to catch her own.
Soon, I was perfectly dry and well on my way to being warm as well, as Ice carefully tucked me beneath the covers of our bed and covered me with the extra quilt shed liberated from somewhere. While the silence between us during these mundane tasks should have been comforting, it was anything but. I itched to draw her out, but my tired mind came up blank.
"You . . .should get out of those wet clothes," I finally managed, my voice soft and hoarse.
With a brief incline of her head, indicating shed at least heard me, she gathered the wet towels and turned away, her every movement under tight control as she left the room.
Sighing, I slumped back onto the three pillows Ice had placed behind my head and shoulders to prevent me from lying flat. Fighting against giving in to the overwhelming exhaustion, I tried to keep my eyes open. The stuccod ceiling above stared down at me complacently, giving me no answers.
Sighing again, I rolled to my side, facing the door and coughing a little as my lungs evidently protested the change in position. Settling down some, I stared into the darkened hallway and willed the woman I loved to appear.
Please, Ice. Dont shut me out.
As if my thoughts had willed it so, Ice reentered the room, one towel wrapped about her lean hips while the other pushed through the inky mass of her thick hair, drying it. I found myself gasping in horror at the patchwork of deep black bruises which covered her chest and belly to disappear beneath the towel wrapped around her lower body.
Hearing my gasp, my lover froze and followed my gaze, looking down at her own body for a long moment before catching my eyes once again. "Theyll heal," she said softly, resuming her hair-drying task with casual indifference.
The silence hung heavy and thick between us, a white elephant we both pretended not to notice.
Tossing the damp towel down on the bed, she crossed the room in easy strides and crouched over the neatly stacked pile of clothing, rummaging for something clean to wear.
Getting dressed was not something I wanted to have happen. Naked, her body easily telling the tale of the tragedy wed both survived made her vulnerable in a way that I needed at that moment. To allow her to cover those marks would be tantamount to accepting that this would always lie between us, undiscussed and unfinished. Given the chance, I feared, it would grow and fester if left alone, and that wasnt something I was about to have happen. Not now. Not ever.
"Ice," I said, in the strongest voice I could manage.
Her broad back stiffened for a moment, reading my plea for exactly what it was.
For a long moment, her next action was a tossup. Would she give in and bare her soul as easily as her body? Or would she ignore me and gird both against revealing the pain in her heart.
I held my breath against the second possibility until spots swum before my eyes.
Relief washed through me in an almost painful wave as her hands finally came away from the pile and she came to her feet with an animal grace which never failed to thrill me. She turned, eyes as shuttered and as guarded as Id ever seen them.
Smiling wanly, I held out a hand to her, willing her with my heart alone to step forward and take it.
And, after a second which spanned eternity, she did, clasping her warm, strong fingers around my smaller ones in a tender embrace.
Quickly, I made room for her on my side of the bed, and tugged her hand gently, my smile grown broader as she gave in and sat next to me on the bed. I looked up into that breathtakingly beautiful face, memorizing each and every feature for the millionth time since Id first set eyes upon her, and holding that image closer to my heart than even the blood which ran through it.
"Thank you," I said finally, though my voice was strained and cracked through with emotion. Tears welled up in my eyes and spilled unhindered down my cheeks.
Two simple words, yet they encompassed so much meaning.
Thank you for not running away.
Thank you for saving my life.
Thank you for not giving up on me.
Thank you for loving me.
My lovers eyes were shiny with their own tears as she looked down at me. Her hand reached out to cup my cheek, one strong thumb wiping away the wetness on my face. "Im so sorry," she whispered.
Looking into those shattered blue eyes was like taking a knife to the heart.
"No," I whispered, watching as those brilliant eyes slid closed, liberating one solitary tear to roll down her cheek. "Dont say that, Ice. Dont ever say that. You fought for me. You brought me back. Dont ever be sorry for that! You saved me!"
Jaw tightening, her proud head bowed, every line in her body negating my words.
Struggling to a sitting position, I took Ices hand from my cheek and clasped it between both of my own, holding it to my chest so she could feel the strong and steady beat of my heart. "Now you listen to me, Ice. What happened today was an accident. Nothing more, nothing less. It wasnt your fault, it wasnt my fault, it wasnt Rios fault, it wasnt anyones fault. Blaming yourself for it wont change that fact, and I think you know that."
"If I had sent you back over the border when I got you out of that jail, none of this would ever have happened," Ice replied after a long moment, her voice a low, determined growl.
"Maybe thats true, Ice," I replied. "But none of this would have happened either if I hadnt come over the border in the first place. Or if Rio hadnt taken us to that bar. Or if Nia hadnt started that fight. Or if she hadnt had the idea to come down here in the first place. Or any of a million other things that all conspired to put all of us at that place at that time." I clasped her hand tighter, not willing to let go. "Dont you see? Responsibility for our actions lies with all of us, Ice. You cant take that on your shoulders, as much as you sometimes seem to want to. You have to let us shoulder some of it too. Thats what being in a partnership is all about, and I dont know about you, but I kinda like to think we are partners. In every sense of the word."
I could tell she was listening. I could sense it in the minute lessening of the tight coil of her body. I could hear it in the ease of her breathing. I could feel it in the slowing of the rapid pulse beneath my thumb.
Bringing our joined hands up to my lips, I touched a tender kiss to her fingers. "What you did today, Ice, was nothing short of miraculous. The only person who doesnt see that, or wont accept it, is you."
Her head raised slowly as her eyes opened, pinning me with glittering sliver. "Im no hero, Angel."
I smiled. "You dont know how wrong you are, Ice. Youre a hero to all those women out there. Youre a hero to Pop and to Corinne, and to so many others. Youre a hero to that little boy whose life you saved out on that frozen pond. And, most of all, youre my hero. Youre the white knight who came riding over the hill when I most needed her. The person who taught me how to stand up for myself and how to fight to be all I can be. The person who believes in my dreams and encourages me to follow them. The person who loves me and allows me to love her in return. The person who would give her last breath to protect me, and who would give up her own life to save mine."
My smile broadened. "That, my love, is a hero. And thats what you are. To me, and to a whole bunch of people out there. I believe it. They believe it. All you need to do is believe it as well."
Her dark head shook slowly in negation. "I . . .dont think I can."
"Sure you can," I replied, grinning and nudging her gently. "Thats why you have me around, remember? To point these things out to you."
That got the smile I was looking for, even if it was just a ghost of the one I really wanted to see. Reaching out, I wrapped my arms around her shoulders, ever mindful of the horrid bruising on her breasts and belly. Not caring in the least, she pulled me to her and buried her face in my hair. "I love you, Angel," she whispered. Her lips brushed against my ear, causing a shiver to run down my spine and back up again.
"I love you too, Ice. More and more each day."
Leaning back, I managed to lay both of us down on the bed with my lovers head pillowed against my breast. It was a wonderful feeling, getting to hold her like that, and I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
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Continued - Part 9
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