THE STRANGER IN YOUR EYES
Copyright: July, 1998
Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo belong to RenPic/MCA Universal and whichever other PTB wants to claim them. Im not doing this to make any money.
Subtext: Subtext is scattered liberally through this work of fiction. It also contains graphic scenes of sexual gratification. If you are under the age of consent, live in an area where reading such material is illegal, or have a problem with how I view the Xena/Gabrielle relationship, please dont waste your time reading this.
Violence: There are scenes of graphic violence within the body of this work, including attempted sexual violence to one or more of the main characters. Theres also a bunch of bad language used. If this bothers you, please read no further.
Angst Warning: Yup. A whole bunch of it, too. Xena is an Immortal and Gabrielle is dead (but for how long?) Need I say more?
Genre: This is a work of Uber fiction set in the present day. In it, Xena is an Immortal. There are no ties to any other televised, serialized or fictionalized characterizations.
Feedback: Is encouraged and welcomed. I can be reached at SwordnQuil@aol.com.
Dedication: This is for Mike, my wonderful beta-reader, who gave me reason to push on. Peace, love and dark parodies, my friend. Special thanks go out to Mary D without whom my Greek would never have been realized. Thanks!!
The Stranger In Your Eyes
Twisting and turning, searching for purchase. Blackness engulfing, obliterating light. Crimson blood staining, darkening slowly. The hisses of steel on steel, death's agonies crying for vengeance. Innocence lost, never regained. A piercing cry ringing over the din of a battlefield. "Xena! Xena, where are you? Help me, please! I can't find you! It's so cold here! So dark! Xena, please! XENA!"
Straining upwards, level by level. Throwing off numbness, needing to move. To fight constriction. To fight immobility. Vengeance! "Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" Cobalt blue eyes opening, pupils constricting. "Gabrielle?" Gaze focusing. A neon sign, it's red the color of dried blood, blinking through the curtained windows to splash color on a waterstained ceiling. Across the face of a scarred television, static issuing from a tinny speaker, snow falling across the screen.
Wincing eyes searching the shadowed corners of an impersonal hotel room. A long fingered hand roughly wiping tears from a chiseled face, then coming to rest in tangled dark hair. "Oh, Gabrielle." Whispered.
White teeth flashing in a grimace as cobalt blue becomes shuttered against the memories time brings.
Sara Di'Maglione squatted down on the cold tiles of her pastel bathroom, eyes wide against the darkness, ears straining to hear snippets of conversation coming from downstairs. The men who had broken down her door were coming for her and were taking no pains to conceal that fact.
"Watch out, you fucking moron!" came one deep voice out from the darkness.
"Sorry, Bull. I can't see nothin' without them fucking lights on."
"Well, pretend you're a bat then, 'cause the Boss said no lights. Simple breakin' and enterin'."
"Don't forget kidnappin, Bull."
"With brains like yours, Twitch, I wonder how ya got into da Family."
"Hey! My fadda was-"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. We *all* know how your pops took down 50 narcos up in Chi-town. OUCH!" The sounds of shattering china filled the cavernous room. "Bloody fucking Jesus!"
"Shhhh! Fuck, Bull. Ya gonna wake her up!"
"Shut your hole, Twitch. Ain't no way the bitch is gonna be awake. She takes the Valium train to beddie bye land every night. Boss said so."
In the bathroom, Sara shivered, listening as the men came closer to the stairway. An eerie green light illuminated her face as she quietly flipped open her cellular phone. Pressing the lighted 9-1-1 buttons, she held the phone up to her ear.
"Philadelphia Police Department," came the sterile voice on the other end of the line. "What's your emergency?"
"Um, my name is Sara Di'Maglione and I live at 21342 South Evergreen. I think there are two men downstairs who broke into my house," the frightened woman whispered. "Can you send someone out here right away?"
"No problem, Ma'am. We'll have a squad car sent out on the double. Can you tell me where in the house you're hiding? It'll be easier for the police to find you that way," the calm voice assured her.
"I'm in the bathroom on the second floor. Right next to the master bedroom."
"Front of the house or back, Ma'am?"
"I've just informed the officers, Ma'am. They're on their way." An ominous click ended the conversation.
As Sara was beginning to redial, she heard the sound of another cellular ringing downstairs.
"Yeah, what is it?" came the voice Sara recognized as Bull. "She's *awake*? Fuck me dead. . . .Yeah, I got it. Upstairs bathroom. Back of the house. . . .Yeah. Thanks."
Icy tendrils of dread shot through the young woman as she stared down at the traitorous phone in her hand. Dropping it to the floor, she stood hastily, cringing at the pain in her knees. 'Damn. What am I going to do now?' she thought. Panic made her limbs tremble as she searched the small bathroom for any avenue of escape. Her eyes alighted on the small bathroom window set over the commode. 'Huh uh,' her mind rebelled. 'You're *not* jumping from a second story window, Sara.' The sounds of heavy footfalls on the carpeted stairway hushed that voice and Sara jumped onto the commode, hands reaching out and deftly unlocking the latch that held the window closed. Stepping onto the back of the toilet tank, the young woman eased herself through the small window, looking down at the ground impossibly far below her. Clamping her eyes and jaw shut, she forced the rest of her body outside and let go, twisting in midair so that her legs were pointing towards the ground which was coming toward her at a fast rate.
Sharp slivers of pain lanced through her body as Sara landed in a sitting position among her prized hedges. Sharp branches pierced her skin in various places as the sturdy bushes broke her fall enough to avoid more serious injuries. 'Guess I should be thankful that I didn't land in the rose bushes,' she thought wryly, jumping to her feet and gathering the tattered remnants of her sleeping gown around her now bleeding legs. Taking one last, wide eyed glance at her home, the young woman ran across the broad expanse of lawn and onto the sidewalk, wincing as small pebbles assaulted the tender skin of her bare feet. Her panicked mind whirled in frightened torrents of thought, assessing and discarding potential hiding places. No area in the city was safe to her now. Her husband's "business associates", as well as the police, seemed to think her too valuable and dangerous a person to let go of. 'Where will I go?' her mind screamed. The answer seemed to hit with stunning force. 'Home.' Iowa? No, that hadn't been her home for almost six years, not since she escaped the confines of small-town life. 'Besides, I can't hide from them. They're too powerful. They'd track me there, and I can't put my parents through that. I just can't.' 'Home,' that powerful inner voice stated again, leaving her more confused than before. Ignoring that summons for now, Sara gathered what remained of her rationality and simply ran, carefully sticking to the shadows as comfortable suburban dwellings gave way to inner-city tenements.
Xena gave up any pretense of sleeping, finally sitting up and leaning against the battered headboard, throwing the musty smelling covers from her sweat-dampened body. Her eyes roamed the sterile room, idly watching the play of red neon as it blinked over the anonymous furnishings of her temporary abode. The tears had long since dried on her face, leaving her skin sticky and tight.
The dreams were starting up again, startling in their vivid intensity. The anniversary of Gabrielle's death was approaching, and the dreams were a harbinger of that horrible day, a day she had been forced to relive almost every minute of her unending life. Two days after Winter Solstice, the warrior's reason for breathing had ended. Yet here she still was, condemned to exist, forever apart from the other half of her soul. "Oh, Gabrielle," she sighed again, keeping fresh tears back by sheer strength of will. "I miss you so much. So very much."
Xena didn't know what caused her to end up here, in an impersonal hotel room on the outskirts of Philadelphia. She had been pulled here for some reason. And until that reason was known, here she would stay. Resting her head against a stucco'd wall, the warrior gazed out the window, waiting for the first light of dawn, still many hours away.
Sara pulled up, limping, bloody and exhausted, outside of a squat brick building. Windows lined the side nearest the deserted street and a blue sign beckoned from one of the windows. "The Blue-Bell Diner. Best Home Cooking in Philly. Open 24 hours. C'mon In and Eat!" At this time of night, the diner was barely a quarter full, the vinyl booths mostly occupied by elderly men and weary truckers, their sweat-stained ballcaps emblazoned with motor oil ads, pulled down low over weary, bloodshot eyes.
Sara looked enviously at those lonely diners, realizing her hunger and thirst for the first time in hours. Realizing, also, that she had no money with which to sooth the rumbling in her belly and the scratchiness of her throat. A middle-aged woman, dressed in the standard beige polyester waitress costume, complete with a badge giving her name as "Nixie", spotted the forlorn woman through the window and beamed a welcoming smile. "C'mon in!" she shouted through the partially opened door.
Sara smiled sheepishly at being caught staring and demurred, shaking her head shyly.
Nixie frowned and stepped from behind the counter, hustling her not inconsiderable bulk toward the diner's entrance and swinging the door open. "Honey, it's freezing out there and you're not dressed for the winter. C'mon in and have a cup of coffee or something."
"I-I'm sorry," Sara said. "I'm just waiting for someone."
"Well, come on in and get warmed up while you wait. You'll catch your death out there."
"No, it's ok. Really."
"Nonsense," Nixie said, closing the distance between them and latching onto Sara's elbow. "No excuse for a young child like yourself to be freezing outside my door."
"I-I don't have any money," Sara protested, unable to break away from the waitress' strong grasp.
"Wasn't askin' for any," Nixie responded with a crooked grin. "You just come inside and let ol' Nixie warm you up. Okay?"
After one last half-hearted protest, Sara gave in and allowed herself to be escorted inside the Diner. The savory smells of home cooked food assaulted her senses and she fought the urge to reel dizzily. "Smells good," she choked out, feeling saliva puddle in her mouth.
"Tastes good, too," Nixie beamed at her, escorting her over to a bolted stool and easing the young woman down on it. "Here's the menu. Just give it a look-over and tell me what you want. How 'bout some coffee? Just made some fresh."
"Coffee would be wonderful," Sara agreed. "But I don't need anything to eat."
"This is a Diner, hon," Nixie said emphatically. "Ya come in here, ya eat. It's a law. Now, what'll it be? The meatloaf's good tonight. Mashed potatoes, gravy." The waitress smiled slyly. "C'mon. Who can resist home made meatloaf?"
"Sold," Sara said, smiling for the first time in weeks.
Nixie chuckled, her breasts heaving. "Never can say 'no' to Nixie. Now drink your coffee and I'll be right back with your dinner."
As the woman turned to leave, Sara spoke up. "Thanks."
"My pleasure, child. Besides, it'll be nice to have someone to talk to that doesn't just grunt at you." With another booming laugh, Nixie disappeared behind stainless steel doors.
Sipping her coffee, which was good, hot and strong, Sara's gaze fell on the newspaper which had been left on the formica counter-top. Flipping idly through the ink-smudged pages, her eyes were drown down to a spot in the Classified section. "No where else to turn? The Equalizer. 1-800-555-2827." Though her eyes wanted to scan the paper further, her mind refused to be budged from that tiny printed ad. So engrossed was she that Sara didn't hear Nixie returning until a large, heaping plate was set down in front of her with a thump.
"Eat up, honey. You look like you ain't had any decent food in your belly for weeks."
Dragging her eyes away from the paper, Sara smiled her thanks at the gregarious waitress and dug into the delicious meal with gusto.
A half hour later, Sara sat back, patting her engorged stomach and smiling. "Thanks, Nixie. That was the best."
Sitting across the counter from the young woman, the waitress set her empty coffee cup back down and winked. "That's all I serve, Sara," she said. "Nothing but the best in the Blue Bell Diner." Narrowing her eyes slightly, Nixie noted the dark circles around the young woman's eyes. "Lands, child, you look like you haven't slept a wink in days!"
Guiltily, Sara looked up to meet the appraising glance, smothering her third yawn in as many minutes. "I'm ok," she demurred. "I'll just sit here and wait for my . . . ." Her voice trailed off as she caught the faintest spark of disbelief in the waitress' brown eyes.
"Hon, if you say you've got a friend comin' to pick you up, I'll believe you, ok? But you need rest too. Why don't you come 'round to the back with me. It ain't much, but I've got a nice little cot set up for when my relief can't make it in. You're welcome to use it."
"No, that's ok-"
"I won't take 'go to hell' for an answer, Sara," Nixie declared, coming around the counter and grasping the young woman's arm. "You go back there and take a nap. I promise that I'll tell your friend where you are when he comes, ok?"
Unable to suppress another yawn, Sara reluctantly acquiesced, allowing herself to be guided back behind the counter to a small, windowless room. The narrow cot was covered with a brightly patterned quilt and the sheets smelled fresh and clean. Sara sunk into the softness with abandon, a blissful smile overspreading her young face.
Nixie smiled at the young woman's antics. "Night, Sara. Sleep well."
"Goodnight, Nixie. And thanks."
The waitress turned to leave, but was stopped as a small voice called out into the dark room.
"Nixie? If . . .if someone should come here looking for me, um, I'm not here, ok?"
With a knowing smile, Nixie simply nodded and exited the room, closing the door gently and leaving the young woman in darkness.
In an elegantly appointed mansion deep within the Philadelphia Suburbs' much vaunted "Main Line", two men were begging for their lives. "But, Boss," Carmine 'The Bull' Gravariccio said against the cold steel of a .45 currently keeping company with his tongue, "we did just whacha said! The cops even told us where she was hidin', but when we got there, she was gone! We couldn'ta known! Honest!"
"Yeah, Boss," Vincent "Twitchy" Caramillo added. "We did just what ya told us to do! Honest! How was we supposed ta know she'd jump?"
The object of this groveling slowly turned in his black leather chair, facing the two condemned men across a highly polished, ornately carved desk, his rheumy eyes narrowing into a squint. "You guys are idiots," he said softly. "Total and complete fucking idiots. Paulie, waste 'em both."
"But BOSS!" Bull screamed as he watched Paulie's finger caress the trigger. "We'll get her, we promise!" The front of his pants became suspiciously warm as a thin stream of urine trickled listlessly down his thigh. "Please! I'm beggin' ya!!"
"You two disgust me. Paulie, stand down." Leaning over the massive desk, the man fixed each trembling would-be kidnapper with an icy stare. "I'll give you one more chance, and only because I respected your father, Twitch. You two scour the city if you have to, check in every fucking rat hole in that place, but you bring that cunt back to me, or you'll be wearing your balls as a necktie! You got me?"
"Y-yeah, Boss, sure thing!" Bull said, happy to finally have the gun removed from his mouth. "We'll bring her back so fast you'll think we had wings! Right, Twitch?"
"Right, Bull," Twitch answered in his usual intelligent fashion.
"Don't promise what you can't deliver, boys. Now get outta my sight. Scram!"
The two pale men hustled out of the mansion as fast as their trembling legs could carry them.
As soon as the sound of the door closing announced their departure, the man turned his stare to his hired assassin. "You follow them, Paulie. When they find the bitch, scrag 'em both and bring her to me."
Morning came much too quickly for Sara as she awakened to the sound of knocking on her door. Wincing at the stiffness in her legs and the soreness of abraded skin, she lifted her head from the pillow. "Who is it?"
"Nixie, Sara. Can I come in? Breakfast's ready, child."
"Um, yeah. I'll be out in a minute."
"Can I come in, Sara? I've got a robe and some slippers in there somewhere that you can put on over your nightgown."
Sara smiled, swinging her legs out of bed. "Sure, come on in."
The waitress bustled in, giving the young woman a sunny grin. "Hope ya slept well. That cot ain't much, but it's better than the streets, I always say."
"It was actually the best sleep I've had in along time, Nixie. Thanks."
"No problem at all, child," came the reply as Nixie blew through the room, grabbing a grey, tattered robe and some threadbare slippers. "You just put these things on and come on out when you're ready. Diner's almost empty and there won't be anyone around to bother ya."
Slipping the robe over her shoulders, Sara belted the sash and slid the slippers over her aching bare feet, then followed Nixie out into the brightly lit diner. Sitting at a stool in front of the counter, the young woman's eyes widened in appreciation at the heaping portions of food Nixie had prepared for her. "This could feed an army!"
"An army of one, child," came the laughing reply. "Dig in. Don't let it go to waste."
So Sara dug in. Little by little, she laid waste to the massive pile of food, literally humming with pleasure as she consumed the repast. A short time later, the breakfast was reduced to a few isolated crumbs, and Sara sat back, utterly sated and content. "God, Nixie. If I keep eating like that, I'll be as big as a house!"
The waitress smiled as she bustled by, her arms full of steaming platters to be delivered to the diner's other patrons. The establishment had filled quickly while Sara was eating and the entire staff was busily attending to the needs of their customers.
Relaxing a bit to allow her meal to settle, Sara's eyes were drawn back to the paper which lay on the formica countertop. Now folded, it displayed the same page that had so drawn her eyes the night before. Again, the young woman stared at the tiny printed ad, unable to tear her gaze away from the boldly printed letters. "Nowhere else to turn?" Yeah, that's me alright. Nowhere else to turn. My husband's in jail. Big men in dark suits want to kill me. The police are after me. I can't go to my family, can't go to my friends. Yup, that pretty much describes me, alright. Nowhere else to turn. God, Sara. What happened to you? "Home," came that insistent voice yet again. "Home."
Running slightly trembling fingers through sleep-disheveled hair, Sara finally tore her eyes away from the paper. "Nixie?" she asked the waitress who had finally settled behind the counter, sipping a cup of steaming coffee.
"Do you have a phone I could use? It's not long-distance," she hastened to reassure the harried woman.
A sour look crossed Nixie's pleasant features. "We used to, but the skinflint owner made us get rid of it. Phone bills were drivin' him to the poorhouse, he said." She gestured to the wall behind Sara. "Got a payphone, though. Reception's pretty bad cause some kids messed it up a couple weeks ago, but it still works. Need a quarter?"
"No, that's ok. It's a toll-free number," Sara replied, taking a deep breath and picking up the paper, sliding off the stool and walking over to the battered payphone. I've got to be totally crazy to be doing this. Maybe it's a dream. Maybe I'll just wake up and find out that none of this has ever happened. Yeah, that's it. Just a dream. A valium induced nightmare. So if I do this, it won't hurt me either way, right? Right. Taking another deep breath, the young woman gingerly lifted the handset from the receiver.
Dawn was spreading its subtle majesty over the horizon when Xena finally arose from the bed, walking across the threadbare carpeting and slipping into the impersonal bathroom with its chipped and cracked tiles. Turning on the light, she blinked for a moment at the startling whiteness of the room.
No longer light-dazzled, the warrior turned to the tub and flipped the shower on, adjusting the dials until the water was as hot as she could comfortably stand it. Hot showers had become something of a passion for the forlorn woman over the years, one of the few physical luxuries she allowed herself. Her car, with its fantastic state-of-the art electronic gadgetry, and her home, which she was too often and too long away from, were two others.
Allowing herself a pang of sadness, the tall warrior stepped into the steaming shower and pulled the mildewed curtain closed behind her. Standing under the stinging spray, she allowed the heat to work its magic on her tense muscles, loosening them and subduing the pain she lived with every day of her unending life.
Rinsing the herbal shampoo from her thick raven hair, Xena heard the distinctive chime of her cellular as it rang from its perch on the counter next to the sink. Quickly turning off the water, the warrior stepped out, lashing a towel around her slim waist and grabbing the phone. "Yeah," she said into the receiver. A burst of static assailed her sensitive ears and she pulled the phone back away from her head slightly.
"Um . . .<static> . . .the Equalizer?"
"Yes. Who am I talking to?"
"<static> Sara. I'm in <static> and I read your ad. I think I need help. I've <static> else to turn."
"Where are you calling from, Sara?" Xena asked, using a soothing tone to placate the obviously distressed woman.
"The <static> Bell Diner. Um . . .<static> sure what street it's on."
The warrior rolled her eyes and bit back a smile. "I need to know the state, Sara."
"Oh, sorry. <static>adelphia."
"Philadelphia? Pennsylvania?" Xena asked, not quite sure if she had heard correctly. An emotion she couldn't name shot through her. Was this the reason she felt compelled to come to this city? It could be just a coincidence, but finely honed instincts which had saved her life through the centuries were betting against it.
"Yes," came the response. "Blue Bell Diner."
"Alright. Sit tight, Sara. I'm on my way."
Static filled the line and Xena ended the connection, hoping that the woman on the other end had heard her words.
After quickly toweling off her long, lean body and running a quick comb through her dark hair, Xena quickly brushed her teeth (toothbrushes being another welcome addition) and stepped back into the main room. Going over to an open suitcase, the warrior pulled out a pair of well worn jeans and a white cotton button-down shirt, slipping into her clothes with alacrity. Pulling on her well-sprung black leather boots, she stood and adjusted the pant legs over them, shifting a little and allowing the clothing to settle comfortably over her body. Standing, she picked up the tan leather swivel holster and slid it over her right shoulder, tightening down the buckles of the custom made accouterment. Smiling darkly, the warrior gently removed the Remington 870 Pump-Action Super Magnum from it's hardwood case and slipped it into the swivel holster, experimentally aiming without triggering a round. The barrels of the shotgun were sawed off just slightly more than the legal limit allowed. Nodding with satisfaction, Xena grabbed her black leather duster and slipped it over her broad shoulders. Grabbing her keys, she left the hotel room and unlocked her 1987 green Jaguar XJS. The car was in mint condition and sported sophisticated electronic circuitry that belied its age.
Slipping into the butter-soft leather seats, Xena turned the key in the ignition and the car came to purring life, dual mufflers burbling happily on high-octane gasoline. Red and green lights chased themselves around the sophisticated computer system installed under the passenger side dashboard. "Good morning, Xena," the computer's sultry female interactive voice welcomed her.
"Morning, Argo," Xena replied, wincing internally. Try as she might, the warrior could never talk Nigel, her expert in all things technological, to simply supply her with a small keypad. The diminutive Briton had, in a burst of perverse pleasure, named the computer after Xena's beloved war-horse and she'd been stuck with a talking car ever since.
"What is your pleasure this morning, Xena?" the computer purred.
"Get me the directions to the Blue Bell Diner in Philadelphia," the warrior grunted as the seat warmed beneath her.
Within seconds, a detailed map, complete with up to the second driving conditions on all roads needing to be traversed was displayed on the monitor. Grunting in satisfaction, Xena popped the car into gear and drove from the mostly deserted parking lot, the Jag's fat tires crunching over gravel and a light scattering of frost which coated the blacktop.
A half-hour later, Xena pulled her car into the diner's small parking lot, turning off the ignition and listening to the engine as it slowly ticked, cooling down. The lot was mostly empty, large 18-wheelers pulled up along the back of the low-slung brick building, their drivers stopping in for a quick bite to eat before the long haul to points north, south and west.
Running long, sure fingers through her now fully dried hair, Xena opened the car door and stepped out into the early winter's chill. Her boots crunched over small pebbles as she crossed the lot and ascended the few steps that took her to the doorway of the establishment. The large windows were fogged internally from the heat of the food being prepared, giving the diner's interior an almost mystic quality.
Opening the glass door, the warrior stepped inside, her senses assailed by the scents of home cooked food. The woman seated on a stool directly in front of her turned slowly. Xena froze, her hand gripped so tightly on the metal door handle that it squealed in protest as aged screws fought with the force of her strong hands. Her mind went totally blank as the blood rushed from her head. The room began to spin and the tall woman used the eyes which locked on hers as an anchor to continuing consciousness.
"Gabrielle?" she whispered, her voice barely more than a breath on the wind.
The jade eyes holding hers widened slightly in confusion, fair eyebrows raised. "No, my name is Sara. Can I help you?"
Spying the tall woman standing melded to the door, Nixie bustled out from behind the counter and latched a meaty hand on Xena's elbow. "Lands, child. You look like you've seen a ghost! C'mon and let that door close now. You're lettin' all the heat out." She tugged the warrior ineffectually. "C'mon, child. That's it. Let go of the door. You come with me and have a seat. I'll fix you up some strong coffee. You don't look so good."
Xena swallowed convulsively twice before clearing her throat and releasing the protesting door handle, allowing the gregarious waitress to lead her to a stool next to the woman who called herself Sara, yet was a carbon copy of Gabrielle.
"Are you ok?" Sara asked, noting with some alarm the stark paleness of the stranger's stunning features.
"Yes," Xena replied hoarsely after a long moment. "I'm fine." Fine? Fine?? By the gods, Gabrielle, it's YOU! You're sitting right here in front of me! After three thousand years, you're here! Xena's mind warred with her heart. This isn't Gabrielle, you fool. It may look like her. It may sound like her, but it's not her. Remember Diana? Meg? Leah? Hope? This is no different. And you'd better not start thinking like it is or you're going to lose it.
Willing her fingers not to tremble, Xena picked up the cup of coffee, normally not one of her favorite beverages, and took a long, bracing sip, eyebrow raising as she noted the dash of brandy the waitress must have added. The coffee soothed her throat and started the blood running back to the areas to which it was intended. Her dizziness abated slowly and her focus returned.
Sara appraised the woman by her side quietly, her natural compassion coming to the fore. The woman was, simply put, beautiful. Her long raven hair fanned over broad shoulders, giving her a sense of otherworldly wildness. Her features were strong and chiseled with high, proud cheekbones, a straight noble nose, strong, determined jaw structure and the most mesmerizing blue eyes Sara had ever seen. Never having felt even the faintest spark of attraction towards another woman, Sara found herself drawn into those tortured blue depths by a strength she had never before encountered. The soul showing through those eyes bespoke of a pain which eclipsed Sara's own by light-years, and the young woman's heart grew heavy with empathic sadness. Her soul responded to the resounding pain radiating from the dark haired woman, and Sara wanted nothing more than to reach out a hand in comfort. Something stopped her, however. There was an aura, a power surrounding the beautiful stranger, a body language that pushed back as surely as it compelled, shouting stay back! Keep away! Heeding the message well, Sara kept her hands at her sides and simply waited.
After a long period of silence, Xena finally looked up to meet the compassionate green eyes of the woman who so resembled, yet was not, her beloved. "I apologize if I startled you," she said in a soft, low voice.
Sara smiled. "That's ok. I was more worried about you than anything. You looked like you were going to faint for a minute there. I'm glad you're feeling better now."
You don't know how close you are to being right, my friend. Reaching deep into the area of her soul which was reserved for Gabrielle, Xena directed her next thoughts there. You watching this, Gabrielle? I think you're probably enjoying it. The great Warrior Princess almost falling in a dead faint at the feet of her bard. If I know you as well as I think I do, this tale will be on the lips of everyone in the Fields by lunchtime.
Derailing the train of thought before it could become too maudlin, Xena forced herself out of her reverie and once again met Sara's gaze. "My name is Xena. You called me earlier with a problem."
Sara's eyes widened. "You're the . . .Equalizer?" she asked, shocked. The faint hope that had been flickering in her heart since she had made the phone call fizzled and died with this new information. How could she expect to get any help from a person who looked like she was one bad second away from becoming completely unglued?
Breaking away from the intense blue eyes, Sara shot a quick look to Nixie, who smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "I. . . I'm sorry," she said finally, keeping the crushing disappointment from her voice by sheer force of will. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea." Bracing her hands against the countertop, Sara prepared to stand, only to be halted by a very strong, very warm hand on her forearm.
"Wait," Xena said, ignoring the fluttering warmth spreading throughout her body at the texture of Sara's soft skin. "Please."
Sara slowly relaxed her body, turning her head to meet the woman who held her arm so firmly. Her mouth opened in astonishment. Gone was the tortured young woman who had been there just seconds before. In her place sat a commanding, powerful presence whose sheer air of competence could not be denied. The blue eyes were shuttered now, blazing with an intense focus and bedrock purpose. She can do anything, came a thought, unbidden, into Sara's mind. Anything at all.
Xena smiled slightly as she felt Sara's body relax and respond to the determined air she was projecting. "Yes," she said softly, not removing her hand. "I'm the Equalizer. You sounded like you were in trouble, and I'd like to help if I can. Can you tell me what the problem is?"
Looking around the diner, Sara raised her free hand to the back of her neck, trying to dispel some of the tension gathered there. "I'm not sure," she replied in a like tone. "I don't . . . ."
"Perhaps if we went somewhere more private?"
The warmth of the callused palm left Sara's arm, leaving her to breathe freely once again, her mind awhirl with confused images. What's going on here, Sara? Tingles chased each other around the areas of skin the enigmatic stranger had so casually touched. Wait just a second here. Don't even think that you're seriously considering just going off with a woman you just met. For all you know, she could be working for the same group of people who are trying to get you killed. What's with you, Sara? Do you have a death wish or something? Let's be serious here. That woman's walking a very thin wire, and if you trip it, you're gonna be in a world of hurt. Just forget it. Forget everything. This was a stupid idea. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. "I think I made a mistake," she said finally. "I'm sorry for taking up your valuable time."
Taking a deep breath, Xena sat back, savagely squelching the disappointment before it could be read on her face. "I understand." Bracing her booted feet against the floor, the warrior unfurled her long frame from the tattered stool, rising and adjusting her duster so that it fell straight down her body. She flashed the young woman a half-smile. "No harm done. Listen, I'll be staying on here for a few more days. If you change your mind, you know where to reach me." Reaching into the breast pocket of her coat, Xena pulled out her billfold and removed a $20 from the compartment. Laying it on the countertop, she smiled at the waitress watching her so intently. "Thanks for the coffee." Turning, she covered the distance to the door in long, even strides.
Sara turned sad eyes to Nixie, who smiled and gestured to the retreating woman. Sara's eyebrows raised in question, and the waitress nodded. "Wait!" she called, jumping up from the stool. "Please wait."
Xena, her hand on the doorframe, slowly turned to meet Sara's beseeching gaze, her own eyes filled with patience, understanding, and a faint sparkle of amusement. Raising a questioning eyebrow, she did as requested and waited.
Sara looked chagrined, her face suffused with the faintest of blushes. "I don't know what's wrong with me today. I mean, you come all the way down here to see if you can help me and I just turn you away without so much as an explanation." Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Sara's fingers fiddled with the sash of her robe. "You're right, I do need help. But I'm not comfortable talking about it here." Her eyes darted around the brightly lit establishment. "If your offer's still open . . . ?"
Xena smiled fully and Sara caught her breath against the sheer brilliance of it. "Of course it is. Why don't you get changed and we'll go somewhere else, ok?"
Sara's blush deepened, her fingers twisting and pulling at the protesting fabric of the threadbare robe. "I, um, well you see, I . . .these are the only clothes I have. And the robe and slippers aren't even mine."
Xena caught Nixie's eyes over the head of the young woman and the waitress smiled and nodded. "Not a problem," the warrior replied. "We'll pick you up some stuff when you're settled."
"Well, I don't have any money either," Sara protested, wanting nothing more than to dig a hole and crawl into it. "The bank accounts were frozen and when I ran, I forgot my wallet." Her eyes flitted to the floor, to the tables, to the patrons, anywhere but the woman who was so patiently listening to her tale of embarrassment and woe. "I don't know how much you charge for, um, helping people, but I don't know if I could ever pay it."
The crushing grief threatened to settle down upon the warrior yet again, listening to the barest skeleton of the young woman's story. By the gods, Gabrielle. She sounds so much like you when we first met. Scared. Lonely. Confused. Can I handle this again? Do I even want to try?
Looking into Sara's sad, embarrassed eyes, the answer came easily to the immortal warrior. Yes. This woman needs help and you're going to give it to her. Leave your selfishness for when you can afford to wallow in it. Now is not the time.
"That's not important now," Xena assured Sara gently. "We need to get you somewhere safe and you need to tell me what's going on so I can help you. Payment arrangements can be discussed later, ok?"
Sara smiled and nodded, relief washing through her body. For the first time in several weeks, she felt positive about the future, her future. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," Xena responded, unbuttoning her duster and slipping it off her shoulders. "Here," she said quietly, laying it across Sara's own shoulders, settling the heavy leather around the much smaller woman. "It's a little long on you, so be careful not to trip on the way out to my car."
Sara felt engulfed by the warm, heavy coat as it wrapped around her like a warm, soft blanket. Her senses were assailed by the fragrant aromas of well cared for leather, hyacinth and cinnamon, and she reeled dizzily a moment, leaning slightly against the tall, strong body of the woman standing beside her. "What about you?" she asked, opening her eyes finally once the dizziness had abated, finding her gaze frozen to Xena's right side.
Looking down, the warrior uttered a silent curse at the cause of Sara's fascinated, horrified gaze. Tucking her gun back slightly, she covered it with her long arm, smiling gently down at the woman when she rose questioning eyes. "I'll be fine," Xena replied, deliberately ignoring the question in Sara's gaze. "It's only a short walk to the car. And besides," she smiled, "I have more clothes on than you do."
"I guess I'm ready then." Turning, Sara fixed a bright smile on Nixie. "Thanks for everything. When this is over, I'll return to repay your hospitality, Nixie. I promise."
Nixie made a dismissive gesture with her hands. "Nonsense, child. Just g'wan and get yourself out of whatever jam you're in and be happy. That's enough of a payment for me. Ok?"
Nodding happily, Sara turned again and allowed herself to be escorted out of the diner, carefully lifting the edges of the long coat so that they would not drag against the ground. Her eyes narrowed appreciatively as she took in the long, sleek lines of the car Xena was leading her to. Her husband, true to his machismo nature, preferred the muscle-type cars, Trans Am's, Corvettes and the like. While they could run like the wind, being a passenger in one of those flying death traps was pure torture. Looking through the lightly tinted window at the leathered interior, Sara knew that that wouldn't be the case this time.
Being a bit hedonistic by nature, the young woman sighed blissfully as Xena opened the door for her and helped her down into one of the seats. The car was warm and comfortable, the incredibly soft leather of the seat cradling her body as if it were custom made for her form alone. The Jaguar carried much the same scent as Xena's coat, with just a touch of that much-beloved "new car" smell that seemed to always dissipate the instant one left the dealer's lot.
After closing the door behind her passenger, Xena opened her own door and slid down into the car, stretching her long legs and flipping on the ignition. The car thrummed to life once again and the onboard computer system chittered companionably, booting up.
"Welcome back, Xena," Argo purred, causing the dark woman to wince and shoot a quick glance over at her passenger, who was staring at the emerging computer screen with open-mouthed astonishment.
"Name, please," the computer politely requested, its sensors detecting Sara's presence in the passengers seat.
"Wha-?" Sara bit off, totally dumbfounded.
"Name, please," came the patient reply.
Uttering yet another silent curse, Xena shot a lethal glance at the monitor. "Her name's Sara, Argo."
"Thank you, Xena. Welcome, Sara Argo."
"There's a comma between the two names," the warrior noted from between clenched teeth.
"Ah, yes. Forgive the error. Correct spelling please."
"I . . .I don't . . ." Sara said, shooting a beseeching glance to Xena.
The warrior sighed. "Argo wants to know how you spell your name so it can update its database files."
"Oh, ok. I guess. S. A. R. A. Sara."
"Information updated. Thank you, Sara, and welcome. What is your pleasure, Xena?"
Rolling her eyes, she ordered, "Argo, disable interactive voice file. Now."
"As you wish, Xena. Good day."
Slumping back into her thickly padded seat, Xena spared a quick prayer to any god who wanted to listen that the young woman seated beside her would simply overlook her car's little idiocyncracies.
Sara cleared her throat. "Um, nice car."
"Yeah. It has its uses."
"Do I want to know what's going on here?"
The young blonde nodded. "I suppose that's for the best."
The two women slipped into uncomfortable silence as Xena backed out of the lot and began the short drive back to her temporary abode.
Sara didn't know what she expected their destination to be, but the rundown, slightly seedy motel just outside of Valley Forge was definitely low on her list of picks. Her green eyes idily scanned the cracked neon sign as it passed into and out of her view. Air conditioning units sat below the windows of the rooms, the water leaking from them staining the whitewashed brick a sickly rust. Grass protruded in lifeless, brittle tufts between cracked cement squares of the walkway connecting the two buildings making up the motel. A couple of elderly folk sat outside of their rooms in rickety aluminum lawn chairs, watching the traffic proceeding along Route 76 with rapt fascination.
"Interesting place," Sara remarked after a long moment as Xena parked the Jag and shut it down.
"I prefer the anonymity," Xena remarked shortly, opening the door and stepping out into the brisk air.
Stepping from her own side of the car and closing the door firmly behind her, Sara wondered if she had offended the tall woman with her remark. Shrugging, she crossed the small walkway and stood behind Xena as the other woman unlocked and opened the door to the room.
A warm blast of air gently buffeted against Sara as she stepped into the small room, securing the door shut behind her. Her eyes scanned the impersonal furnishings as Xena gently removed the coat from her shoulders, turning to hang it from a sturdy rod near the entrance.
The warrior gestured Sara to a hideously patterned chair as she unbuckled her holster and laid it, gun still encased, on a scarred and rickety table. "Would you like some tea?"
Looking up, the blonde smiled. "Yes, please. It's getting pretty cold out there. They say we might even have a white Christmas this year." A darkness covered Xena's features at the mention of the holiday and Sara's heart heaved with empathic sadness yet again.
As Xena prepared the tea, Sara looked around, gaze landing on the enigmatic woman's personal possessions. The tan leather carrying cases looked expensive and well cared for. The clothes, from what she could see, were top-of-the line and quite functional. The laptop computer laying open on the battered desk was of a design Sara had never seen, and looked to be state-of-the art, or beyond. Sara began to feel more comfortable in the tall stranger's presence. Xena appeared to be a woman who wore her wealth easily, not ostentatiously.
Sara was never comfortable with people who used money as a weapon to browbeat those less fortunate than themselves. Growing up the poorest child in a wealthy neighborhood, she well remembered large houses with few furnishings, yet with a Steinway proudly displayed in front of the largest picture-window. Her own husband used what money he made as a badge of honor, buying the most expensive toys, though having little use for them.
A closet hedonist she might have been, but Sara Di'Maglione had been brought up on the practical side of the tracks. She regularly argued with her husband until she was blue in the face, but "keeping up with the Joneses" was a life she had, unfortunately, married into. There was little she could do to change it. Until now. And this wasn't a change she had sought to make willingly, though, given time, she might have.
Approaching the table with two steaming mugs, Xena gave the young woman a small smile, setting one mug down before her. "I'm afraid I brew tea the old fashioned way, using dried herbs. Some people think it's a bit strong, or bitter. I have some raw honey for sweetness, if you'd like."
Lifting the mug to her lips, Sara inhaled deeply, then took a tentative sip. A large smile wreathed her face. "Mmmm. This is the best tea I've ever tasted."
Xena returned the smile, inwardly pleased. "Thank you. This was Ga . . .a friend of mine's favorite as well. I'm glad you like it."
"'Like it' is an understatement. It's absolutely delicious."
Sipping from her own mug, allowing the memories to wash over her in a pleasantly melancholy stream, Xena crossed the small room and perched comfortably on the edge of the bed, stretching her long legs out and crossing them at the ankles. "Would you like to tell me what the problem is?" she asked gently.
Setting the steaming mug down, Sara dropped her gaze to her hands, now clasped firmly in her lap. She took a deep breath, and then another, steadying her nerves. Suddenly, it seemed very important that this woman not think badly of her. Get a grip, Sara. She knows you have a problem, and she wants to help. She can't do that unless you tell her what it is. She's not a mind reader, you know. Clearing her throat, she began her tale. "My name is Sara Di'Maglione," she said, hesitantly.
Xena's right eyebrow quirked, recognizing the name. Pieces began to fall into place and she realized that this job was going to be a bit more difficult than she had first anticipated.
"I see you've heard of my husband," Sara remarked dryly, looking up to catch the expression on Xena's face.
"I have," the warrior agreed.
"Well, as you probably already know, Joseph is, or was, I'm not really sure, a member of the Calladosi crime family. Two weeks ago, he was arrested on one charge of racketeering, caught in an FBI sting operation. Personally, I think the Family set him up, but I don't have any concrete evidence. Joseph agreed, in exchange for a dismissal of the charges and a place in the Witness Protection Program, to turn state's evidence against his Boss. I was offered the same deal, but refused. I couldn't bear the thought of being dead to everyone I've ever known, ever loved. I don't want to live life as a fugitive. Last night, two of Calladosi's goons broke into my house and tried to kidnap me. When I called the police for help, they informed the goons and I had to jump out of my bathroom window to escape."
"Why do you think Calladosi's men were after you?"
"I'm not really sure," Sara replied, sipping again from the mug, allowing the tea's mellow flavor to soothe her jangled nerves. "The DA's been pretty tight-lipped about the whole case and I don't think Calladosi's lawyers are getting the information about Joseph's testimony that they need. Maybe they think I know more than I do." She shrugged. "I haven't talked to Joseph since he was arrested."
The young woman sighed. "As for why the police are after me, I have no idea. I suppose it has to do with the right amount of money flowing into the right hands." Finally looking up, Sara met the compassionate blue gaze of the Equalizer. "I have nowhere else to turn. The bad guys want me. The good guys are in league with them. I can't go to my family. I can't go to my friends. Please help me, Xena."
Those words sent the whirling vortex in motion again, sucking Xena's soul down deep into the gaping maw of it. Though spoken in English instead of Ancient Greek, the tone so resembled the voice crying out in her dreams, the warrior was helpless against the viscous onslaught of memories.
Xena, help me, please! Where are you? Where am I? Xena, please. It's so dark here. So cold. Please help me.
Gabrielle, hold on. I'm coming! Just hold on!
Xena, hurry! Xeeeeennnnaaaaaaaa!
Gabrielle? Gabrielle? Gabrielle!!!!
A warm hand on her arm jerked Xena out of the torrent of memories that had buried her. Coming quickly to the present, she scrubbed the tears which were running unchecked down her face. "I'm sorry," she whispered brokenly, though to Sara or Gabrielle, she wasn't sure.
"Are you alright?"
Opening her eyes and meeting the sea-green so close to her own, Xena jumped away as if burned, almost slipping from the edge of the bed before forcing trembling legs to support her body weight. "Yes," she said shakily, cursing herself and the force of her memories. "I'm fine."
"Look," Sara said earnestly from her place on the bed, "I know I'm in trouble and I know you want to help me. But I also know that there's something about me that reminds you of something terrible that happened in your past. I don't want to put you through that. Maybe it'd just be better if I left."
"No!" Xena interjected with more force than she intended. "No," she repeated, more softly. "Look. A very dear friend of mine died a long time ago, and the anniversary of her death is coming near. Sometimes, memories of what happened just come into my mind at the oddest times." She forced a smile to her face, hoping it was convincing, but sure that it wasn't. "I'll be ok. I promise."
Sara's gaze was full of warmth and compassion and the warrior sunk into it willingly. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Pulling the shattered remnants of herself back into place, something that was old habit, Xena breathed deeply. "Listen, I need to sort out what you've told me. You need some new clothes." Quirking a smile, she continued, "Fetching as it is, that nightgown is hardly what I would call practical. There's a mall nearby and I can take a quick run down to it and pick up some things for you. I shouldn't be gone more than an hour."
"I could come with you," Sara volunteered shyly, not really wanting to be left alone in the sterile, impersonal motel room.
"That won't be necessary. Besides," another half grin, "what would people think?"
Blushing slightly, Sara looked down at her tattered gown and the threadbare gray robe that looked ready to fall apart in the first stiff breeze. "I guess you're right."
"I know I am," came the almost smug reply. Sara had the fleeting impression of a banter exchanged between very old, very dear friends. "I won't be gone long," Xena continued. "You could take a shower, or watch TV. Take a nap if you want." Walking over to one of the suitcases, the warrior extracted a slim cellular phone and presented it to Sara. "If you need me, just push this blue button right here."
Taking the offered phone, the young woman smiled. "Thanks for all you're doing. I really appreciate your help."
"Think nothing of it," Xena replied, retrieving her duster from its hanger and slipping into it. "I'll be back soon." Grabbing her car keys, the warrior strode from the room, closing the door firmly behind her.
A short time later, Xena found herself pulling into a spot near the outer boundaries of the very crowded King of Prussia mall. Argo had been very quiet during the trip, perhaps sensing her mood. The artificial intelligence chip Nigel had installed last year was a bit eerie, if the truth be known. Xena didn't mind a war-horse sensing her moods, but a car was a different story altogether. Heaving a somewhat grumpy sigh, Xena exited the car, manning the sophisticated alarm system, and traversed the long expanse of overcrowded blacktop with long strides. All these centuries later and she still hated shopping.
Entering the overheated megalopolis, Xena pushed through the crowds, her mind tuning out whining children, overly stressed adults, and the incessant cheeriness of Christmas music piped in through the overhead speakers. Her focus was complete. Get in, get clothes, get out. This sense of purpose while shopping had frustrated many a lover over the years, men and women alike, but none moreso than the woman who owned her heart. At times like these, Xena was almost sure that if she could but look over her shoulder, she would see the scowling face of her beloved as she watched the warrior plow through the open-air markets, ignoring hawkers and pretty baubles alike, a woman on a mission.
Forcing the image from her mind, Xena strode through The Gap, Foot Locker and Victoria Secret in record time, ignoring the many helpful sales pitches and admiring glances aimed her way. Armed with her purchases, the warrior was just heading for the blessed silence of the parking lot when a mannequin in Sax Fifth Avenue caught her eye. In less time than it took to say her own name, Xena had found herself purchasing the sexy, emerald green dress with the outrageously expensive price tag, dumbfounded at the impulse that possessed her to even look at such a thing, let alone buy it. A set of matching pumps, perfect for a bard-lookalike's dainty feet later, the astonished woman walked out into the crisp air, a totally confused look on her face.
Heaving her purchases on the passenger's seat, Xena started up the car and drove from the lot, going back the way she had come, her internal voice stunned into silence.
Sara watched the broad back of the retreating woman until the door shut, cutting off the vision. Shaking her head slightly and tucking a wisp of errant hair behind her ear, the young blonde arose from the bed and finished the last of her tea. What to do now? Face it, Sara, you're in deep this time. Closed off from everyone you know, stuck in a hotel room on the outskirts of nowhere, waiting on a woman who looks about one step away from the edge of a very deep abyss. Way ta go, kid.
Shaking her head again, Sara decided a shower was in order, and so headed into the white-tiled bathroom, pulling the shower curtain back and turning on the faucet. Stripping off her meager clothing, the young woman stepped into the tub, letting the heated water rinse off the accumulated dirt and grime she had picked up from her run across the city. The soap was fragrant and creamy, the shampoo more so, and Sara simply luxuriated in the hot water and the feeling of cleanliness that came over her body once again.
Turning off the shower when the water threatened to go tepid, Sara stepped back out of the tub and cast a disgusted look at her dirty clothing. Getting back into dirty clothes after a refreshing shower about topped her list of pet peeves. Turning, she spotted one of Xena's shirts which was hung on a hook on the back of the door. Giving the fabric a quick sniff, all she could smell was detergent and fabric softener, and so determined that this garment must be a spare, and as such, unworn as yet.
Toweling off and running a comb through her tangled hair, she slipped into the brushed cotton button-down, smiling as the shoulders fell almost to her elbows and the tails to her knees. Grinning at the warmth and softness of the fabric, Sara made her way back into the main room, perching herself on a chair and turning on the ancient television, deciding to see what Jerry's guests were fighting about today.
Jerry had just given way to Rosie when Sara heard the distinctive sound of Xena's Jaguar as it entered the motel's lot, pulling to a stop in front of the door.
Grabbing the packages, Xena exited her car, crossing the cracked sidewalk and putting the key in the door lock. Crossing the threshold, she took in the figure of Sara wearing one of her old shirts and froze, trying mightily to keep hold of her purchases with suddenly nerveless fingers.
"Ok, so it's a little big. Help me tighten it!"
She almost feel the poison as it coursed through her slowly weakening body. Her legs had lost all feeling. Her arms were numb from shoulders to elbows, fingers getting that telltale tingling, indicating they were going to be the next to go.
"So I just stand there wave this fake chakram around and do that yell thingie of yours?"
"And can you do that yell thingie?"
"This is not gonna fool Talmadeus"
"Now that could work!"
Blinking quickly to dispel the vision, Xena completed her entrance into the room, regrasping the packages and fixing a no-nonsense look on her face.
Sara mistook the momentary hesitation of the warrior and blushed slightly, looking down at her clothing. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I . . .I took a shower and didn't have anything clean to put on."
Forcing a smile onto her face, Xena crossed to the bed and laid the purchases down. "That's ok. I don't mind." Taking the bag from The Gap, the warrior handed it over to the chagrined woman. "These are for you. Go ahead and put 'em on. They're bound to be more comfortable than that old rag you're wearing."
Sara grinned as she took the offered bag, snuggling into the shirt with her other arm. "Mmmm. I don't know about that. This is nice and soft."
"You can keep it if you want," Xena offered. "But maybe you'd better get changed just the same." She didn't mention that seeing the young woman in one of her old shirts was stirring feelings best left buried beneath the immovable weight of time and grief. Gabrielle, can you please find out which god is torturing me like this and make some sort of deal with him? Please? I don't know how much longer I can take this.
The young woman smothered a frown as she nodded at Xena. "I'll go change in the bathroom, then."
"Oh yeah," Xena added, almost as an afterthought, thrusting the bag from Victoria Secret into Sara's hands. "You'll probably be needing this too." Furiously tamping down the blush that she knew was heartbeats away from showing on her tanned face, Xena turned quickly and strode over to the battered desk, throwing herself into her chair and running through the basic program exercises that allowed her modem to become fully functional.
Sara stared after Xena, dumbfounded for a moment, before she too turned and made her way into the bathroom, closing the door behind her and leaning against the cool painted door, letting out a long breath. Walking over to the cracked countertop, Sara laid the bags down and opened the one from The Gap. Eyes widened in astonishment, she pulled out three pairs of Levi's (501 button fly) and two pairs of soft corduroys, one tan, the other a dark rust. Five long sleeved button down shirts, all in brushed cotton or soft flannel came next. Five pairs of thick cotton socks, in various colors, completed the wardrobe.
Blushing slightly, Sara opened the Victoria Secret bag and stuck a tentative hand inside, as if afraid she was going to get bitten. Pulling out something satiny and smooth, Sara's jaw dropped. The panties were the color of buttercream, french cut, made of silky smooth satin with a wide lace band around the waist. They were exquisitely beautiful and exquisitely feminine and made her feel like a fairytale princess just looking at them. Sparing a frown for the industrial white J.C. Penny numbers she had at home, Sara knew that once she tried these on, she'd probably be hooked forever. Retrieving the matching silk and lace underwire bra, the young woman quickly checked the size, her brow knitting for a moment, wondering just how the tall woman in the other room knew her exact measurements. Something tells me that this Gabrielle person was more than just a good friend.
Sara didn't know how she felt about that, exactly. She had a brain in her head though, a good strong working one even, and she knew that she must bear some strong resemblance to the woman the Equalizer had mistaken her for. As far as she could tell, though, there hadn't been any ontward advances. Not even the remotest spark of passion in the blue gaze that met hers with such trepidation.
The young blonde shrugged, carefully laying the undergarments on top of the outfit she had picked. She had never been one to look a gift equine in the molars. And she wasn't about to start now.
Slipping the soft white shirt from her shoulders, Sara slid on the panties with a hum of pure pleasure. That's it. I'm never taking these off. She quickly hooked the bra and pulled on the rest of the clothes, sparing a moment to take a quick peek in the mirror. Lookin good, said her outwardly tomboyish, inwardly ultra-feminine reflection. Yup. Definitely lookin good.
Tossing her blonde hair over her shoulder, Sara opened the bathroom door and strode into the main room, guirded for whatever battles would come her way.
Life was nothing more than real cheap labor when you were at the bottom of the totem pole in a syndicated crime family. You just lived hand to mouth, day to day, hoping against hope that each new sunrise would find you still breathing through the holes God had intended for you, and not the one planted squarely in the middle of your forehead by an assassin's bullet. You lived for the day that the Boss would take notice of your deeds and decide he couldn't live without your expertise. Ah, to be a Made Man, a Wiseguy. The creme de la creme.
Bull and Twitchy were about as close to the bottom of the totem pole as one could possibly get, without physically being part of the ground said pole was planted in. The new day found them driving aimlessly around the pot-holed streets of inner city Philadelphia, no closer to their quarry than when they had first started their search.
After the 76 Ford Granada had hit the third pothole in as many seconds, Twitch shifted uncomfortably in the passenger seat, wincing. "Fuck, Bull, you doin' that on purpose? I gotta tap a kidney, I swear, and I don't wanna piss myself. Da smell of your pants is driving me bugshit as it is!"
Bull grabbed Twitchy by the collar and hauled him in close, making the dried urine stench even stronger. "Shut ya trap, ya fucking looney. I don't give a flying shit if ya drop a load in ya drawers. We ain't stoppin till we get the bitch, and that's final! So quit complainin' unless ya want a broken puss ta add to ya miseries."
"Bull, listen man," Twitch said, rubbing his thin neck. "Why don't we just forget about this shit and head upstate, huh? I got some family there, real family. We can just head up there real smooth and pretend like none of this ever happened. Whadda ya say, huh?"
"Ferget it, Twitch. We're in too deep as it is. We find this bitch and we bring 'er to da Boss. Then we're in like gravy. We'll prob'ly be Made by next month!"
"Ya really think so, Bull?"
"I know so, Twitch."
"I really gotta take a piss, man. There's a diner up ahead. Whadda ya say we stop in there and grab a bite to eat, huh?"
"Oh, fa Christ sake, Twitch! Don't that damn stomach of yours ever take a breather?"
Grinning, Twitchy shrugged. "What can I say, Bull? I'm a growin' boy."
"Growin' in horseshit," Bull muttered, but pulled into the small parking lot of the Blue Bell Diner anyway. By God, he was hungry too, and the bitch could be halfway to California for all he knew. A ten-minute break wouldn't hurt matters any.
An hour later, Bull and Twitch made their way out of the diner, their antics observed with some amusement by Paulie. He shook his dark head as he considered the true ineptitude of the two soon to be dead Wise Guy wannabe's. Edging his 98 Town Car fully into the lot, Paulie stepped out and meticulously straightened his worsted topcoat, checking his straight black hair in the mirrored finish of his car's illegally tinted windows. An assassin he might be, but one should always make only the finest of impressions upon one's intended victims.
Pulling open the door and stepping fully into the diner, Paulie liberated his machine pistol and took two long steps up to the counter, pointing the barrel of the weapon directly between Nixie's bulging eyes. "I'm only gonna say this once, so listen good," he said in a low, smooth tone. "I know the bitch was here last night. You're gonna tell me where she went or you better start tryin to see outta the third eye I'm gonna plug you with. Got me?"
"I . . .I . . .don't know what you're talking about, Sir," Nixie stuttered, her heart double thumping crazily in her heaving chest. "I swear to God!"
"Then you and I must not share the same God, cunt, because I know she was here last night and so were you."
"Who? Who?" the terrified waitress choked out.
"Oh, you're an owl now? Well, why dontcha make like one and get wise, ok? There's bloody, dirty footprints all over this floor, and they lead back to that room over there. I'm bettin' ya put her up for the night, am I right? Huh?" He pushed the gun harder into Nixie's forehead.
"I . . .I'm sorry. I . . .I can't help you. I swear!"
Paulie gritted his teeth in frustration. God save him from honorable people. "Say your prayers then, cunt."
"Wait!" came a voice from behind the grill. "Wait! Don't kill her. I saw the woman you're talking about. She was here last night. Blonde, kinda pretty. Wore a frilly pink nightie."
"Now we're gettin' somewhere," Paulie grinned. "Sorry about that," he said to the now sobbing woman, pulling the pistol down and letting false compassion flood his face.
"I-it's ok," Nixie cried, relief evident in her features.
Grinning darkly once again at his own private joke, Paulie raised the pistol and squeezed the trigger, shooting off ten rounds in less than 3 seconds. Nixie's head splattered over most of the back wall as her body landed behind the counter with a sodden thump.
"Now, where were we?" he asked, turning to the blubbering cook. "Oh yeah, you were tellin' me about the cunt. She here now? Huh?" Lifting the barrel of the gun, he amused himself by watching the man's bulging green eyes follow it like a drunk driver's following a cop's pen.
"No. She left! A few hours ago!"
"A . . . a woman!"
"What was her fuckin' name, moron?"
"I don't know. I swear it on my mother's life! I wasn't close enough to hear!"
"Well, what did she look like then, huh? Or were ya too far away to see too?"
"She . . .she was real tall, taller 'n me! Kinda butch, dressed in mens clothes like she was, but a real looker! Long black hair and big blue eyes!"
Paulie grinned maliciously. "Gave ya a stiffie, did she? Didja shoot off into the Salsbury Steak?"
"Wha-? I don't-"
"Shut up, fuckhead. Did ya see her car?"
"Yeah. Green Jag. Not the new kind, but real kept up!"
"Did she mention where they was headed to?"
"I couldn't hear it if they did! I swear to God!"
"Which way did she turn outta the parkin' lot?"
"Thanks," Paulie muttered, smiling and lowering the gun. His grin widened as the man ducked his head between his arms, his entire body stiff. "Relax, asshole. I ain't gonna plug ya. But if word of this gets out and I hear about it," he raised the pistol again, "they'll be hosin' ya off yer grill. Capiche?"
"Yeah! Yeah, I got it!"
"Good, and in case any of the rest of yas didn't get the message . . . ." Pointing the gun at the wall behind the register, Paulie let loose, grinning wildly as the glass protecting the freshly baked desserts shattered in a million tiny, glittering pieces, littering the floor, countertop and half the diner. Bits of meringue and apple filling splattered the walls, keeping company with Nixie's brains.
"Better get ta cleanin' this mess up," the assassin remarked casually, reholstering his weapon and smoothing his topcoat over it, effectively hiding the bulge. "The health department don't take real kindly ta blood on the floors."
Laughing with insane glee, Paulie exited the diner and slipped into the cavernous comfort of his car, flipping it on, throwing it into gear, and turning north out of the parking lot.
Sara stepped out of the bathroom to find Xena perched in the hideously patterned chair, running through visual program files faster than Sara's eyes could make them out. Headshots blurred by as lines of text ran beneath them.
Without moving her eyes from the computer screen, Xena gestured the young blonde over to the bed. "Be with you in a minute," she grunted, still running through the background files of the Calladosi family members. "Everything fit ok?"
"Perfectly," Sara replied, smiling as she walked over to the rumpled bed and perched herself carefully on one edge, frowning slightly as an errant spring sought to become more intimately acquainted with her anatomy.
One click of the toggle and the warrior shut down the program, turning to face the young woman seated beside her, her face a business-like mask. "We need to talk," she stated flatly.
"I've run a thorough background check on every member of Calladosi's organization, including your husband. I've got a lot of information to work with, but I need more."
"I don't know how much more I could tell you. Joseph was always pretty quiet about those things."
Xena smiled. "I'm not talking about Joseph. I'm talking about you. I need to know more about your background so I can figure out exactly why they want you and what lengths they'll go through to pull you in."
Sara shot a glance to the now-placid computer screen. "Can't you just check my files? I'm sure that computer has stuff about me that even I don't know."
"I could," Xena replied, nodding. "Put I prefer this information come from the source. Data files are quite impersonal."
The young woman was still for a long moment, pondering the request. Should I? What if I'm wrong about her? She shrugged mentally. Oh well, it's not like she can't just look in that damned computer of hers and find out everything she needs to know. I guess sharing the basics can't hurt.
"Um, sure," Sara said after her thought processes had trailed off. "Where should I begin?"
"The beginning's always good," Xena replied with a gentle half-smile.
"Yeah, right." Sara let out a chuckle, some of her earlier tension dispelled. "The beginning. Ok. Well, I'm 25 and I was born in a really really small town in northern Iowa. It was actually considered a suburb, but the cornfields were a lot closer than any big city, so I call it a town. My father was, still is, I suppose, an Electrical Utilization Engineer. That's a fancy name for a guy who goes from house to house reading meters, but I didn't find that out till I'd graduated high school. My dad isn't one for discussing work matters at home.
"My mom's the typical suburban housewifey type, you know, stay at home, clean the house, make dinner, pack lunches, learn toll painting kind of thing."
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"Nope. I'm an only child. My mom says she had some 'female troubles' when I was born and that's why they never had any more kids. I think she probably ruptured her uterus during childbirth, but if I told her that, she'd probably drop to the floor in a faint." Sara smiled in fond memory. "My cousin Robbie always says that when God made me, He broke the mold. I suppose that's true, in a purely medical sort of way." Smiling shyly, Sara looked up at the tall woman seated in the chair. "Why do I feel like I'm talking to my shrink?"
Xena quirked another half-grin. "You don't have to tell me anything that makes you uncomfortable."
"That's exactly what he says," she replied, laughing. "You're much prettier than he is, though."
"Thanks. I think."
Sara relaxed back on her elbows, fidgeting while trying to find one square inch of space that wasn't invaded by protruding springs. "God, how do you sleep on this at night?"
"I've slept on far worse, believe me."
Looking up, a speculative gleam in her eye, Sara smirked. "I'll just bet you have." When there was no reaction from her dark-haired listener, the young blonde continued her tale. "Let's see. My childhood was pretty normal. No abuse beyond the typical verbal crap, no babysitters fondling me inappropriately during bathtime. I did pretty well in school. English, history and science were my favorite subjects. I had a little trouble in math, but when I would ask my dad for help, he'd tell me that women didn't need to know any math beyond making sure that their coupons were subtracted correctly from the final grocery tab." She shrugged. "So I figured most of it out on my own. My grades were good enough to get me into the National Honor Society in High School, and I graduated in the top 5% of my class. Um, you want to know about my extra-circular activities too?"
"Well, I was the associate editor of our journalism newsletter. I was in the photography club. It took me my entire freshman year, but I was finally able to convince my folks to let me try out for sports. I absolutely loved gym and wanted to exercise more than an hour a day, you know? When I finally got their permission, I made the softball and field hockey teams. I ran track, too."
Xena quirked an eyebrow. "Let me guess. Cross country."
"How did you know?" Sara asked, eyes wide with astonishment.
"You just seem the type."
"Hmmmm. If you say so, I guess."
"What did you do after high school?" the warrior asked, trying to get to the meat of the matter. Well, you did ask her to begin at the beginning. You should have realized she would have taken you literally.
Sara frowned. "Well, even though I did well in school, my father wasn't much for college. He figured that if he could raise a family and own a nice home with only an eighth grade education, his child didn't need to go to college. Especially since his money would be wasted once she got married and started having kids of her own anyway." She shrugged again. "I had worked in a drug store weekends during my senior year and went to full time after I graduated. I figured if my father wasn't going to help me get to college, I'd get there on my own. That's when I heard from Robbie again."
"Yeah. Even though he lived in California, we were real close growing up. He was my best friend for a long time, though he's four years older than I am. Anyway, I got a letter from him inviting me to spend summer break with him in Philly. He'd gotten into Wharton Business School during the spring semester. I turned him down at first, because I knew my parents would never let me go. I was saving my money for college and couldn't afford a plane ticket." The young woman grinned. "The ticket came in the mail the next week. I knew I still didn't stand a chance in hell of squaring it with my parents, so I just . . .ran away."
Xena's eyebrow quirked again. "Did you tell them where you were going?"
"Not exactly. I just left them a note telling them that I didn't get kidnapped or anything. Basically said I couldn't take it living there anymore."
"They eventually found out, though."
"Yes. But by that time, I was ready to be married and they couldn't do a thing about it."
"Tell me about your marriage, your life with Joseph."
"Oh, it was wonderful. At first. He was so unlike any man I'd ever met, so unlike the boys I'd grown up with. Their idea of a date would be a group grope in the back of a Camaro. That just wasn't me. But Joseph, he was gentle. And kind. Chivalrous, even." Her eyes went soft with the memories. "We'd go on dates. Real ones. Out to a nice restaurant, or a movie. Or even a walk down by the river to watch the rowers. He'd hold my hand and tell me how much he enjoyed being with me. I felt wonderful. Loved and cherished. He was never pushy, either. Never went beyond a gentle kiss on the cheek. So when he asked me to marry him, of course I said yes. Who wouldn't? I figured I had the catch of a lifetime. So what if he didn't tell me what he did for a living." This was said with a self-depreciating smirk. "After all, I was my mother's daughter, wasn't I? I ran halfway across the country to end up just like her."
"I think I first noticed something a bit off during the wedding. I was hoping for just a small, private affair. All of the sudden, the church was filled with all these really big men in really dark suits. I even saw a gun or two underneath their jackets. When I asked Joseph who all these people were, he just smiled and told me not to worry about it, that they were just business associates. That was the term he used back then. Business associates. After the wedding, he started leaving me alone a lot, going out for hours, even days at a time. He always said his absences were due to work, and that I shouldn't worry about it. At first, I didn't. After all, I was a newlywed, right? We had a nice townhome in a good part of the city, with a decent sized yard and even a housekeeper! She might not have spoken very good English, but she was all I had for company sometimes. Joseph, when he was home, still treated me like a fragile princess. He was always very attentive and loving. That changed after about a year."
Xena tensed, sitting forward on her chair. "Did he abuse you?"
"Oh no, nothing like that. Well, not physically anyway. It may have taken me a year, but I'd finally found out the true purpose of a wife in a large, Italian Catholic family. And I wasn't making a very good one."
"You didn't get pregnant."
"Exactly. It wasn't as if we didn't try. I even went to the doctor and got checked out. Everything came back fine."
Smirking, the warrior commented, "I'm betting your husband didn't think he needed to get checked out as well."
"You're batting a thousand today, Xena," Sara replied sarcastically. "Apparently, there's no such thing as an infertile Italian man. It's been told to me often enough, so I suppose it must be true, right? Every month that went by without me conceiving made him more upset. He began to harangue me, like I could do something about it. Like I wasn't trying hard enough. God, I don't know. He began to let things slip. Began to tell me how embarrassed I was making him, how I was belittling his manhood. How he was a disgrace to the Family."
"Ah, so he told you."
"Yes. The lightbulb finally came on for the clueless kid from Iowa. I was a Mafia wife." She laughed in self-derision again. "Then one night, he came home from an all night party with his paisans, drunker than a skunk. He grabbed me by my arm and threw me into the car. Wouldn't tell me where we were going. Wouldn't say anything at all. I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life, until last night. He just drove west, out of the city, out into the woods beyond Valley Forge. We stopped on some deserted dirt road and he pulled me out of the car and led me around to the back. Then he opened up the trunk."
Sara closed her eyes and covered her face with both hands, awash in the memories of that horrible night.
"What happened?" Xena asked softly, part of her screaming in rage for the terror this woman had been put through, part of her needing to know, as if this were a large piece of the puzzle she was seeking.
"There was a body in there," the young woman said into her hands. "A very dead body. His throat had been slit. And his hands . . .his hands had been cut off."
Sara barked out a loud sob and it took every ounce of Xena's formidable will to keep her sitting in the chair.
"His penis was shoved in his mouth. Oh God it was horrible!" Any tenuous hold on self control she had was shattered as the young woman broke down, sobbing into her cupped hands.
Xena's battle was lost then. Every instinct in her soul became polarized as she was overwhelmed with the need to protect and comfort the grieving woman. Quickly rising from the chair, the warrior joined Sara on the bed, pulling her into a strong embrace. Long fingers gently stroked soft blonde hair as the warrior felt part of her mind dissociate painlessly. Every muscle, every curve, every inch of the body pressed so tightly against hers filled the gap in Xena's soul seamlessly. The line between past and present blurred, then vanished. "It's ok," she cooed softly, tenderly stroking her love's soft tresses. "It's ok, I gotcha. You're safe now. I'm here. I gotcha."
The soft, gentle words washed over Sara's wounded mind like a soothing balm and she reacted instinctively to them, burrowing further into Xena's embrace. Her arms raised of their own accord and wrapped themselves around the dark woman's trim waist. As her hands pressed against iron bands of muscle in the Equalizer's strong back, Sara realized that this woman was more than she seemed. Trust her, her mind said. She won't harm you. Trust her. You're safe here. Trust her.
And so Sara let go, releasing the horror and grief that she had so long kept bottled up inside her. She sobbed long and hard into the soft cotton of the warrior's shirt, cocooned by long, strong arms, feeling a safety, a surety she had never before known. It all felt right somehow and she didn't question the feelings.
Xena's soul was torn, caught between the almost desperate need to feed upon the feelings Sara's body was causing in her heart and the even more desperate need to distance herself from them. The impersonal hotel room became a forest clearing, then a ruined temple.
I'm here, Gabrielle.
It hurts inside.
Everything's changed. Everything.
Hey. It's gonna be ok. I promise.
Ok, that's enough, her mind sternly warned. You're supposed to be comforting her, not the other way around. Wallow in self pity on your own time, warrior. It's time to get a grip.
Pulling away slightly when she felt the strength of the sobs lessen, Xena cupped a gentle hand beneath Sara's chin, tilting the young woman's head upwards just slightly. Her thumb brushed against the softness of Sara's cheek, capturing an errant teardrop. She blinked to break the lock of the mesmerizing jade as it threatened to sweep her world away once again. "You alright?" she said finally, surprised at having the voice for it at all.
Forcing a watery smile, Sara nodded, not loosening her hold. "Yeah," she said, sniffing. "I'm ok."
"You don't have to tell me anymore, Sara. I've gotten all I need to know." Moving back slightly, her eyebrow raised as the young woman tightened her hold.
"I...I'd like to finish it, if you don't mind. It feels good to get it all out in the open. I didn't even tell my therapist that story." She sniffed again. "He just gave me some valium for the nightmares I said I was having and left it at that. Maybe if I tell you all of it, the nightmares will stop," she whispered.
Xena nodded, relaxing again as Sara ducked her head beneath the tall woman's chin as if it were meant to be there. And for Xena, mind still awash in memories, it was.
I had that . . .that dream again.
Yeah, I know.
The sound of Gabrielle vomiting into the bushes.
It's part of the same thing, Gabrielle. Your body and your dreams are just reacting to your first kill.
I'll never forgive myself.
It was instinct . . .
No! You're wrong! I made the decision to kill her. I went against everything that I stand for.
It's hard. I remember my first kill . . . . But you are going to get through this thing. You're gonna wake up one day and have hope again. You'll see there is so much good to be done.
Maybe. I just feel like I should be punished for what I've done.
You are being punished, by your conscience. For someone like you, there couldn't be a worse torture.
Forcing herself back into the present, Xena continued to gently stroke the young woman's hair, resisting the urge to rock her against her long, lean frame.
Sara's chest hitched once, then twice, then, clearing her throat, she began her tale again. "He handed me a shovel that was lying next to the body, and took one for himself. He walked to a place deep in the woods and told me to dig. So I did. Between bouts of puking my guts up, I dug and dug and dug. Part of me just wanted to keep digging till I came through to China because I knew what was coming next. Part of me just wanted to crawl in that hole and die myself.
"The hole wasn't very deep when he told me to stop. I'd done most of the work. Joseph was so drunk he could hardly stand, let alone handle something as complex as a shovel. He dragged me back to the trunk and threw both shovels inside, then started dragging the dead guy out by the lapels of his jacket. 'You get his hands,' he said to me, and I was so scared I though he meant the man's arms, but when I reached for them, Joseph yelled. 'No! His hands!' God, Xena, I just lost it then. I was seeing spots, everything. I thought I was going to faint.
"He finished dragging the guy out and sort of slapped me across the face, telling me to snap out of it and help him or he was going to kill me too and bury me right on top of the dead man. So I . . .I picked up his hands and, oh God, they were so cold and stiff and . . . ." Sara broke off, her stomach clenching in a powerful spasm. "I . . .uh . . .I . . . ."
Gathering the straining woman still closer, Xena used her powerful legs to push them both up off the bed, cradling Sara in her arms as she quickly strode across the threadbare carpeting and into the cool tiled bathroom. Lifting the lid to the commode, Xena gently placed Sara on her knees, stroking her back in long, soothing motions. "It's ok," she murmured in a low, liquid voice. "Let it out if you have to. It's ok."
Sara's heaving stomach paused on the edge of all-out rebellion as the images of the man's stiff, ghostly white hands played before her tightly clenched eyelids. Then, mercifully, the abdominal cramping calmed and she relaxed, leaning back against the warm body that was supporting her.
"You alright?" Xena asked finally, feeling the woman relax fully against her.
"Um, yeah. I think so." Still kneeling, Sara twisted her body slightly so she could meet the Equalizer's crystal gaze. "How'd you to that, anyway? Carry me all the way in here, I mean."
"It wasn't that far," Xena countered evenly.
Sara snorted. "Yeah. But still . . . ."
"I drink a lot of milk."
"I guess that explains it," the young woman said, a frown knitting itself across her brow. "Thanks. I thought I was gonna lose it there for a minute."
"Not a problem. Think you're ready to go back in the other room?"
"Yeah," Sara replied as Xena reached under her arm and helped her to stand. "Yow!" she commented, laughing at the ease with which the tall woman pulled her to her feet. "I bet you don't even have to pay for all that milk you drink, Xena. You probably just punch out the cow and take it for free!"
"Somethin' like that," Xena agreed, a half smile gracing her face.
Laughing lightly, Sara allowed herself to be escorted from the bathroom and was soon splayed out on the bed.
Xena sprawled in the ugly chair, resting her elbows in back of her upon the table that held her laptop. "If you don't want to finish . . . ."
"No, that's ok. I'm almost done. Though I could do with some more of that tea?"
"Coming right up," the warrior replied, pushing herself up from the chair and crossing the room to the hotplate and tea kettle. "I'll add a little something to settle your stomach."
"Does it taste good?"
"I've never had any complaints."
"Bring it on, then," Sara commanded, grinning and settling herself back on her elbows. She watched the tall woman putter around for a bit before her expression set and she took a deep breath. "So, anyway, we got the guy buried, finally. Again, I wound up doing most of the work. The hole wasn't very wide or deep, and we kinda had to push him down just to get him to fit. It was awful. There wound up being more hole than dirt, so we just covered the whole thing with leaves and some branches we found lying around." She shrugged, and looked at the ground, shamefaced. "We didn't do a very good job concealing the evidence. I don't think Joseph had ever done anything like that before. I know I hadn't. The closest I ever got was burying my dead pet turtle in a shoebox in the back yard."
Sara looked up as a long fingered hand bearing a steaming mug came into her field of vision. "Thanks," she said, accepting the mug and sipping. "Hey, not bad!"
"Thanks," Xena replied, reseating herself and sipping from her own mug. "What happened after the body was buried?"
"Well, this is where it gets kinda gross." Trailing off as she noticed Xena's raised eyebrow, Sara smirked. "Yeah, I know, it's all been kinda gross, hasn't it. But this is worse. Joseph looked at me with this kinda twinkle in his eye and said we were going to make love on the grave. He said his great grandmother, or someone like that, said it was good for fertility." The young woman shuddered. "Those Sicilians have strange customs, don't they?"
At Xena's non-committal grunt, she continued. "Well, I told him he had about as much chance of making love with me on top of that grave as Jerry Springer did getting Barbara Streisand onto his show. He didn't believe me."
"What did he do?"
"He came after me, but he was so drunk, all he managed to do was trip over his own feet and pass out. I was relieved and part of me just wanted to jump back in the car and take off, leaving him to his fate. But another part wanted to believe that he was just acting this way because he was drunk, and when the alcohol wore off and he realized what he'd done he'd go to the police and give himself up."
The warrior snorted gently, shaking her head and taking another sip of the rapidly cooling tea.
"Yeah, so I was a little naive. I finally managed to wake him up enough to get him into the car. I had a bad moment there when I couldn't find the keys. I was just sure they were laying in that grave. But I found them still in the lock of the trunk. I tell you, Xena, I don't think I've ever driven so fast in all my life as I did that night. I just thank God that there weren't any police around. We both smelled like a rotting corpse. It took weeks before I could get that smell out of my sinuses."
The Warrior Princess, victor in many a battle, was well acquainted with death's perfume. She didn't have the heart to tell the innocent young woman that the smell never quite left. That it was burned in the memory forever. "What happened next?" she asked quietly.
"Well, the next morning, when he woke up, he just started crying and apologizing to me. He kept saying that he was through with all of it. With trying to get Made into the Family, with the death, with the crime. He just didn't want to do it anymore. And, of course, I believed him." She scratched at the base of her jaw. "I don't know why."
I do, Xena said silently.
"Things were pretty good for us after that. He stayed home a lot more and we had some good times together. I was having pretty bad nightmares, but during the day, I would just immerse myself in something and push it all to the back of my mind." She sighed sadly. "Then one night he came home all happy. He told me that it'd finally happened, the Family had finally Made him. He was official. I found out then that those few months of us being together, planning out a future, was a lie."
Of course you can.
It's no use, Gabrielle. It's Ming Tien. I killed him. I killed you, ya bastard!
You lied? You gave me your word and you lied.
I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. Even after all these years, that one incident, that one horrible day sits deep within my soul, like an abscess waiting to burst. But it won't. It just keeps growing and growing. The pressure keeps building, but I don't dare release it. Because if I do, there won't be anything to pick up after. Nothing of me. Nothing of anyone else.
"That must have been difficult for you," Xena said finally, just to break the silence.
"It was. But somewhere deep inside myself, I knew that we were living on borrowed time anyway. After that, I started thinking of ways to end it. An annulment seemed the simplest path to take and I was getting ready to approach him with my suggestion when he got arrested."
"Tell me about your meeting with the D.A. Why did he offer you a place in the Witness Protection Program?"
"I guess because I was Joseph's wife. I knew about the deal to turn State's evidence, and I guess the D.A. wanted to keep me safe from the repercussions."
"Did Joseph tell them about the body?"
"I don't know. All I know is that I'm guilty of several crimes in that, and no one's ever mentioned bringing me up on charges. Maybe that was part of Joseph's deal. I just don't know."
Sitting back, Xena steepled her fingers. "Well, as I see it, keeping you safe shouldn't pose much of a problem. We'll simply get you somewhere far away until all this cools down."
"Um, it's not exactly that easy," Sara replied, a pink blush climbing up her neck.
"Well, I kinda promised the D.A. that I'd stick around until the trial."
"You did what?" Xena asked, blue eyes widening.
"It was a pretty stupid thing to do, I'll agree. But Joseph is my husband. I owe him my support, if nothing else. You know as well as I do that Calladosi's high powered lawyers are going to shred him to pieces on the stand. He's a dead man. I don't want him to have to through that alone."
How could you come back after what I did to you?
What you did wasn't you. I know that now. I also know there's a big difference between what justice is and what the law is. I don't think we'd better wait around for justice.
You always were the compassionate one, Gabrielle. Always a soft spot in your heart for the downtrodden, the unloved, the detested. "Ok," she said finally, straightening her back and slipping the warrior mask back down over her features. "That makes my job a little harder, but we can handle this. Unless, of course, there's something else that you've 'forgotten' to tell me."
"No," Sara replied, her face deceptively innocent. "I think that pretty much covers it."
Xena raised one fine eyebrow, leveling a cool stare at the young blonde, her mind racing through possible scenarios.
"Yes?" she drawled.
"There is one other thing." As the stare became colder, Sara swallowed nervously. "Um, I know how strong you are, and I've seen that huge gun you carry, so I can bet you're no stranger to violence. But if there's any way you can go about helping me that doesn't involve blowing away large numbers of people, I'd really appreciate it. I've had about all the violence I can take for one lifetime."
You should have thought about that before you married into the Mob. The uncharitable thought rose up before Xena had a chance to push it away and she spent a brief second castigating herself. Then she smiled slightly. "I'll see what I can do."
Sara responded to the smile, relieved. "Thanks."
"First things first," Xena remarked, reaching out for the cellular that rested beside the computer. "We're gonna call the D.A. and let him know that there's been a slight change in plans. He's not gonna have anything to do with you till the day before the trial."
"Do you think that's wise?" Sara asked, before lowering her eyes shyly. "I mean, I know you know your job and all, at least I hope you do, but what if the D.A. gets mad at that? What if he decides to press charges? What if Joseph told him about my part in the burial? I could wind up in jail!"
Holding up a long fingered hand to forestall Sara's outburst, Xena smirked. "Don't worry about that. Without you, Joseph is just another Mafia criminal. To have a grieving wife stand by in support of her poor, brave husband is something the D.A. isn't going to risk by carting you off to prison."
"How can you be sure, though?"
"Ga . . .Sara, I know it's hard for you right now, but you're just going to have to trust me. I know what I'm doing, and I can keep you safe."
Gabrielle, this is no time for you to have a crisis of faith. You have got to trust me. I am not going to give into that. If this works out, the only one in danger is Crassus.
Crassus? You don't mean he might be killed, do you?
Crassus is not my concern. Freeing Vercinix is.
Yes, but if Caesar kills Crassus and I put him there . . . . Xena, I cannot send a man to his death.
You wound up doing it anyway ,Gabrielle. Sending Crassus to his death. Because of me. Gods, Gabrielle, I am so, so sorry.
A warm hand on her arm brought Xena out of her thoughts of the past. Looking up, her gaze met compassionate eyes.
"I do trust you, Xena." Sara uttered a short laugh. "I have to, right? It's not like I have a bunch of other options."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Xena replied in a dry tone.
"I didn't mean for it to come out that way."
"Forget it," the warrior stated, turning away and punching in a long list of numbers into the cellular. After listening for a moment, she punched another few numbers and was connected to the D.A.'s office. "Yeah, I need to speak to Tom Franklin. . . . .Listen, lady, I don't care if he's hip-deep in bleached blondes, you put me through now." Yanking the phone away from her ear, Xena scowled at it, then put it back up to her head. Then pulled it away again, scowl deepening. "She disconnected me."
Sara collapsed back against the bed in laughter. "'Hip deep in bleached blondes'?"
Xena turned the scowl to the woman on the bed, and Sara's laughter dried up quickly. "Um, maybe if you tried again?" the young woman supplied helpfully. "I'd suggest leaving out the bleach blondes comment though."
Her cold gaze narrowing, the warrior lifted the cellular again, punching in the same numbers as before. In her smoothest, most resonant tones, Xena tried again. "Hello, Ma'am. I need to speak to Tom Franklin, please. . . .Yes, I'll hold. . . .Please, Ma'am, this is very important. Could you just let him know that this concerns the Calladosi trial? Yes, thank you. I'll hold." Shooting a look to the grinning Sara, the warrior rolled her blue eyes, resisting mightily the urge to simply reach through the phone and strangle the officious sounding woman who jealously guarded the D.A.'s privacy. "Yes, Mr. Franklin? Yes, I know you're busy. This won't take but a moment. I'm representing the interests of Mrs. Sara Di'Maglione. It's important for you to know that you won't be able to contact her until the day before the trial is scheduled to begin. . . . ." Xena's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Now listen, I can assure you that my head is sitting just fine on my neck right now and my parentage has no part in this conversation. If you want Mrs. Di'Maglione present in court, you'll leave her alone until the day before the trial."
The warrior's smile turned deadly. "I think we both know that'd be a mistake, Tom," she drawled. "Arresting a poor, innocent victim of Mafia brutality won't sit too well with the voting public. And without Mrs. Di'Maglione, your star witness is just another worthless thug, ya got that? Good. I thought we could come to some sort of understanding," she purred. "Oh, and Tom? You might want to check into the activities of the Police District 'protecting' Mrs. Di'Maglione's neighborhood. It seems they've been a bit naughty." Grinning evilly, Xena cut the connection on the still spluttering D.A.
"Well, that went well," Sara commented, smiling. "But how's he going to know where to get in touch with us?"
"Don't you worry about that. When the time comes, he'll have no trouble contacting us."
"What happens now?"
"One more phone call." Punching in another long string of numbers, Xena brought the cellular back up to her ear. "Yeah, Jarrod? . . . .Listen, I need you to do me a favor. You need to arrange a sit down between myself and the Calladosi Family, tonight, if possible. Preferably some place very public, frequented by media-types. . . .Thanks, Jarrod. Right." Releasing the phone, Xena settled herself on the chair more comfortably, crossing one long leg over the other. "Now, we wait."
"Forgive me for asking, Xena, but I thought the whole purpose of this was to keep me away from those Mobsters." Jade eyes narrowed, a shining glint of suspicion easily read within their depths.
"Oh, it is," Xena replied, deliberately ignoring the suspicious glare thrown her way.
"Then why are you throwing me into the lion's den?"
"I'm not throwing you anywhere. You were the one who asked me to try this non-violently."
"I didn't think that meant putting me in front of the same hired guns I'm trying to get away from!"
Xena's temper snapped and she sat forward in the chair, hands white-knuckled on the arms. "Now listen, Gabrielle . . . ."
"I'm not Gabrielle! My name is Sara, damnit! What the hell going on here?"
That deflated Xena's anger quickly. Sighing, she released the chair arms and slumped back. "Look," she said finally, "I know you didn't mean to, but you've gotten yourself into a big mess. You need someone to help you out of it. I'm willing to be that someone, but if you can't trust me, then maybe we'd better end this now. I can't do what I need to if you're gonna question my every move."
"I wasn't aware that trying to keep myself from being blown into a million pieces constituted questioning your every move." Seeing Xena turn her face away, Sara sighed. "Trusting is something that's very hard for me right now," she said softly. "I trusted my husband, and he made me an accessory to murder. I trusted the police to protect me and I almost got kidnapped, or worse. I want to trust you, Xena. I really do. It's just . . .hard, that's all."
Xena turned back, seeing the defeated slump to the young woman's shoulders. "I know it's hard, Sara. You don't need to come with me. I can handle this myself."
"Will they believe you're protecting me if I'm not there?"
"Then I have no choice. I have to trust someone, and right now, that someone is you. Just please don't let me down," Sara whispered, looking deeply into indigo eyes.
"You have my word, Sara," Xena replied, putting every ounce of her personality into her forthright gaze.
Taking in a long, shuddering breath, Sara nodded.
The cellular chose that very moment to make its presence known, much to the relief of the unsettled women. Lifting the phone, Xena put it to her ear. "Yeah. . . .Sounds great. Thanks, Jarrod. Right." Replacing the cellular, the warrior turned back to Sara. "It's all set. Seven o'clock tonight, Gardisseros."
"Gardisseros?" Sara exclaimed, eyes wide. "Not that I don't appreciate the clothes you bought for me, Xena, because I really do, but they are not going to let me through the door dressed like this. Gardisseros is black tie!"
The corner of Xena's mouth lifted in a smirk. "How lucky for you, then, that I believe in being prepared."
Unfolding her long frame from it's place on the chair, the warrior strode over to the coat rack and removed a garment bag, returning to the bed and handing it to the startled young woman. "For you."
Both eyebrows rose to hide behind blonde bangs as Sara accepted the garment bag, reaching up a tentative hand to pull down the zipper. She gasped upon spying the contents. "My God. Xena, this is beautiful! But how . . . ?"
"I saw it on a store mannequin." She shrugged. "I thought you might like it. It'll bring out the color of your eyes."
Continued...Part 2 of 6
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