RETRIBUTION - Part 9 (conclusion)
Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Redemption. You really will want to read that first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. Not as much of either as in Redemption (Im saving that up for "Restitution"), but there is some of each here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not offend anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: There are so many people to thank for this effort. First is Candace, who once again was there to read this novel in its entirety all in little AIM blocks of 50 characters or less. Her nightly feedback was sorely needed and gratefully received. Thanks also to MaryD and Lunacy for providing much needed and invaluable beta assistance. And, finally, a huge debt thanks to the self-proclaimed "Quillies" for reading the beta version of this and giving insightful feedback as well as putting up with and calming a bards emotional roller-coaster of emotions. Thanks, guys!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Thought: Retribution is the second in what will eventually become a trilogy. Redemption, obviously, was first. Then Retribution, and finally Restitution. Thanks to everyone who gives up a little of their time to come along on this journey with me. I can only hope that Ill never let you down.
Final Disclaimer: As with Redemption, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J Promise.
A hand came down on my shoulder, and in my terror, it felt cold and skeletal. I turned my head, half expecting to see Carmines rotting corpse beckoning me to follow. Orand god help me on thisan Ice who decided that as a witness to her depravity, I was just too much of a liability to let live.
Instead, it was Corinnes concerned, battered face which greeted me, an eons worth of questions in her eyes.
"In the flesh, such as it is." She cocked her head, looking at me over the tops of her glasses. "That was quite a nightmare you seemed to be having."
Her eyes narrowed. "Are you alright, Angel?"
Reaching out a trembling hand, I brushed the tips of my fingers against her arm. It was warm and solid and very much real.
That was all it took.
Launching myself forward, I threw myself into her arms, burrowing into the living warmth of her, letting it permeate the cold death which surrounded me like a slaughterhouse stench, too empty even for the relief of tears.
After a moment, she wrapped her arms around me and I felt a gentle hand stroke my hair as whispered words came softly to my ears.
A short while later, she carefully, gently disentangled herself and held me at arms length, looking at me very intently. "Now, would you like to tell me whats going on and why youre down here having nightmares and not where Id expect you to be?"
After several hesitant almost-starts, I finally gathered what remained of my wits and told her about my dream; everything up until the last, horrible, scene. That was something, I thought, I would never be able to tell anyone as long as I lived.
"Sounds rather plausible," Corinne remarked when I was done, her tone conveying no more surprise than if I had just told her Id gone for a walk. "Is there something more?"
Confused, I stared at her. Where was the anger? Where was the outrage that my mind should conjure up such a horrifying image of the woman I professed to love?
After a moment, her expression changed. Her face became hard and her eyes narrowed. "Please tell me theres something more, Angel."
I looked at her, unable to say anything, unable to understand where this was going.
She sighed. "Angel, Ice was forced to watch you held at gunpoint, knocked unconscious, and dragged from her home to be executed. Did you just expect her to allow that to happen?"
"No. No! I just . . . ."
"Just what, Angel?" Her dark eyes lit with a terrible pity and I felt myself becoming very defensive.
"Stop looking at me like that, Corinne."
"Like what?" she asked, her smile mocking.
"Like Im some damn child who just got told Santa Claus doesnt exist."
"Perhaps when you stop acting that way."
"How many times has Ice told you shes a murderer, Angel?"
"What? I dont . . . ."
"How many times?"
I could feel myself heating up as I looked at her, fists clenching and unclenching repeatedly. "I dont know."
"Once? More than once? Surely youd remember something like that, Angel."
My teeth ground against one another. "Corinne . . . ."
"Its a simple question, Angel. How many?"
"I dont know. A few," I allowed.
Smiling, she nodded. "And how did you respond? Did you tell her you understood? Did you run away screaming? What?"
"You know what I said, Corinne." I could hear my heart pumping in my ears.
"I dont know, Angel. But I can imagine. You told her you understood, didnt you."
"I dont . . . ." She looked at me. "Yes! Yes, alright? I told her I understood!"
She nodded, apparently satisfied. "But you didnt, did you," she began, her voice soft with a compassion which burned rather than healed. "You didnt understand her, though you said you did. Didnt understand what it was like to have a heart so cold and dark that taking another persons life meant little more than taking a trip to the market. Didnt understand that when death means nothing, life means even less."
"Enough, Corinne!" I shouted, my words echoing over the flat expanse of the lake and setting a small flock of birds to startled flight. "Enough."
She smiled again. "Is it? I dont think so, Angel. In fact, I think its as far from being enough as its possible to get." Her expression gentled somewhat. "Ice is a killer, Angel. It may not be all she is, but it certainly makes up a great part of who she is. It shapes her thoughts, molds her actions. Its instinctive, like breathing." Her soft voice trailed off for a moment as she closed her eyes. When they reopened, they were full of a horrible knowing that I wanted to turn my face from, yet couldnt.
"Every day of her life, Angel, every day, she has to make the conscious choice to live another day without violence. Another day struggling against her own instincts. Another day of trying desperately to hold on to the thinnest and most frayed of cords tying her to this path shes chosen. And do you know why she does it, Angel?"
I looked at her, suddenly lost, suddenly unsure of the one thing in my life which had seemed bedrock. Ices convictions. "Because she knows its the right thing to do?" I hazarded.
The smile she gave me, sad and filled with gentle disappointment, wrenched at my heart. "No, Angel. Although it may be the right thing to do, thats not why she does these things."
Reaching out, she took my hand and clasped it tightly in her own. "She does these things because one day, several years ago, she met someone who, without even trying, reached inside her and grabbed hold of a heart she couldnt remember having. A person who, against all odds, captured her effortlessly and holds her close to this very day. And a person in whose eyes she can never allow herself to seem any less than perfect." She smiled again. "She does these things for you, Angel. Because she loves you. And because youve managed to do something no one else has ever done."
"Whats that?" I asked, very aware of the hoarseness of my voice.
"Youve made her see that shes worthy of being loved. Its what spurs her on, what dictates her actions now. It weighs heavy on every decision she makes, because no matter what, no matter what, she never wants to ever be seen as unworthy in your eyes."
Tears etched silent streams down the hills and valleys of my cheeks and jaw. Seeing them, Corinne grasped my hand more tightly, squeezing in comfort and, perhaps, understanding. "Thats a heavy burden to place on anyone, Angel. I know that. Ice does as well. But when you told her, not once but many times, that you understood and accepted who and what she was, she felt it was a burden you both could share."
With her free hand, she gently brushed away my tears. "Shes opened her heart and soul to you, Angel. The darkness and the light. Thats a gift very few people in this world ever receive. A gift beyond price. And when she makes decisions that go against her very nature, like allowing Cavallo to live, all the while knowing instinctually that shell pay for that decision later, she does so because she wants to be that person you see when you look at her every day."
A sob came up, unbidden from my throat, and I covered my mouth against its utterance. "She told me that very thing once," I gasped, only now understanding the true import behind the words shed spoken. "That all she wanted to be was the person I saw when I looked at her."
Corinne nodded, her face kind, but grave. "She believes in you, Angel. She believes that you love her for who she is as well as the person she has the potential to be. But remember this. Her darkness will always be there. Just because she doesnt act on it doesnt mean its gone, no matter how much either of you wish that were so. Its not a stain that can be washed away nor a sin that can be miraculously forgiven like some penitents confession to a black-robed Priest. Its a part of her as deep as her love for you. Neither can be erased."
Her gaze sharpened and I felt as if she were looking into the depths of my soul. "The decision is yours, Angel. Either you accept her for all that she is, accept that, given the life you two share, there will be times when shell be forced to act on instinct because shes allowed herself to go against those instincts in the past and she must now pay restitution, or . . . ."
I could feel the breath catch in my throat. "Or what?"
"Walk away, Angel. Quickly and far. Sever your ties with her and never look back. Bull tells me that she may think you dead. If you cant be what she needs you to be, the one person in the world who loves her unconditionally, then please, for her sake, let her mourn your passing and be done with it. Dont hurt her more by allowing her to see the condemnation of her nature in your eyes."
After a long moment, she released my hand and stood up. "Think about what Ive said, Angel. Ill be upstairs with Ice."
I stood as well. "Im coming with you."
A touch on my arm was all it took to stop me in my tracks. "Have you even heard a word Ive said, Angel?"
"Yes, Corinne. But I need to see her. To be with her. I need . . . ."
She shook her head slowly, sadly. "No, Angel. This is something youre going to have to do without her. Ice cant help you with this."
"But . . . ."
"No, Angel," she said firmly. Her eyes softened slightly. "Angel, I love you with all my heart. You know that. But I love Ice just as deeply. And I wont see her hurt, by you or anyone else. So please. Stay here and think on what we talked about. Listen to your heart, Angel. It will tell you what you have to do."
I could feel my shoulders slump in defeat. Almost against my will, I nodded my acceptance of her request. A request that I well knew, knowing Corinne as I did, was more of a command than the simple asking of a favor.
She smiled slightly, and with a nod of her head, turned and stepped off the dock. I watched as she made her careful way back up to the cabin, my thoughts in utter turmoil.
When she disappeared around the corner of the house, I turned back and faced the dark water, not really seeing it for the tears blurring my vision.
The tears soon passed and I was left feeling weary, empty, and very confused. I wanted so desperately to go to Ice. To see her, to hold her, to stroke her hair, feeling that somehow all the answers to my questions would rest with that simple, profound connection between us. A connection I could feel even with so much distance between us. Distance that I, in my fear, had caused.
I only thanked God, in all his mercy, that Ice wasnt awake to see it.
I also knew that Corinne was right. Ice couldnt help me with this. No one could, save for myself.
I wrapped my arms around myself as a chill wind blew off the lake, a harbinger of a winter not far away, even now, in the midst of a glorious summer.
As I looked over the lake as the wind swayed the trees, I forced myself to examine the hardest of Corinnes questions to me. Did I love Ice for herself? For the woman she truly was? Or did I, instead, love the woman I wanted her to be, an image I constructed in my mind; a white knight on a charging steed, with a pure heart and an untainted soul.
I snorted softly. Perhaps Id gone a bit too far with the "Knight Errant" analogy. Ice had never been, even in the first moments of my knowing her, what anyone would consider pure of heart and soul.
But then again, who among us was?
Certainly not me.
So the question remained. Who did I love?
A real, flesh and blood human being? Or an image superimposed over that person to make her more palatable to my sensibilities, such as they were.
It would be so damned easy just to chuck it all and go with what my heart was telling me, which was that I loved Ice with everything in me, that she held my heart in the palm of her hand, that I trusted her in a way Id never trusted anyone else in my life and that just the thought of not having her in my life made my guts twist inside.
But I also knew that to do that would be to do a great disservice to us both.
The dream terrified me more than I was willing to admit to anyone but myself. And until I figured out why, until I came up with an explanation that satisfied my need to know, Id be no good to either of us.
And Ice only deserved the best from me.
How I went about giving that to her was another question entirely.
I heard myself groan as I once again lowered my stiffened body on the chilled and worn wood of the dock. So many thoughts, feelings, emotions and images ran through my mind that it was difficult to know where to start. Or, even, how to start.
"The best place to begin is often at the beginning," my mother was fond of telling me.
I shrugged to myself. Seemed as good a place as any.
A name came to my mind, and I went with it.
The bastard whod started it all. The bastard whod almost ended it all.
From what I could remember of his history, told to me in bits and pieces by Corinne, Cavallo was what was called a mole. Hed risen up through the ranks of the Family Ice was attached to, the Briacci crime family, all the while snuggled deep within the back pocket of Briaccis largest rival. Hoping to plant the seeds of mistrust, hed framed Ice, sending her out to kill an innocent man.
But, and this Id almost forgotten in my terror over the nightmare Id had, shed refused to kill him.
"She refused," I whispered aloud, making it real, making it there.
Even knowing that such a refusal could mean her own death, shed gone against orders anyway.
"Many of us have lines we draw in the sand and this was one of my lines. I never killed innocents and I never killed witnesses, no matter who they were testifying against."
I remembered those words as if shed told them to me only this afternoon instead of five full years ago. They suddenly took on new meaning as the first part of my puzzle slipped silently into place.
When the man was killed anyway, Ice took the rap for it, to use prison slang for a moment, even going so far as to refuse the outstanding legal services of Donita, who very much cared for her and very much wanted to help.
And all because the Ice I met in the Bog that first time was a woman whod acknowledged the light in her soul and though she wasnt guilty of the crime for which shed been convicted, she was determined to pay restitution for the ones she hadnt been convicted of, even if it meant, as it seemed at the time, giving up her freedom as payment for the rest of her life.
Could I have done the same?
Well, in a way, I had. I was no more guilty of murdering my husband than Ice was of murdering that innocent man, but I, too, was willing to pay restitution because, whether it was murder or not, I had killed him.
So, in that way at least, Ice and I were very much the same.
Another piece added itself to the board.
My mind returned to Cavallo. Not satisfied with simply framing Ice, he wanted to twist the knife in any way he could, while still rising within the Family, intending, one day, to start a coup and take it over entirely. Hed set up Briaccis wife, a woman whod been almost a second mother to Ice, had her thrown in jail, then had her murder staged for an audience of one.
And though she was devastated over the death of a person shed loved, and though Im sure she had any one of a hundred chances to exact her own form of permanent justice on the man, she remained in jail, determined to pay for her crimes.
Another piece of the puzzle snapped into place for me as I began to view the events of five years of my life in an entirely new light, wondering, with a bit of shame, why I hadnt bothered doing so before.
Twisting the knife still further in her heart, Cavallo made a deal with the warden, condemning Ice to servitude by doing his bidding, stripping down cars which he then resold at a healthy profit. And when shed finally had enough and refused to roll over any more, Cavallo, through his mouthpiece Morrison, threatened harm to the one thing that was most dear to her in all the world.
Believe me when I tell you that I dont take that lightly, nor is it an enormous massage to my healthy ego to state such a thing so baldly. It is simply the truth as I knew it then and as I know it now.
Would a conscienceless killer have taken that threat lying down? Or would she have instead ripped the Warden to shreds and caught the first hostage out of town on a mission to personally deliver Cavallo his very own death warrant?
Ice answered my question by her own actions.
She took it. She accepted the knife to her gut, not quietly no, but accepted just the same, in order to keep me safe, healthy, and whole.
And still it wasnt enough for Cavallo.
In a scene that still haunts my dreams and will continue to do so, I suspect, until I finally shuffle off this mortal coil, he came face to face with herwith a prison fence and a dozen fully armed guards between them, courageous man that he wastaunted her, and when she didnt rise to the bait to his liking, shot her in the back.
Quite against my will, the scene replayed itself in all its Technicolor glory.
With one last squeeze, and a scream from Cavallo, Ice released her grip and held up her empty hands, grinning. Taking two careful, deliberate steps back from the fence, she winked at the mobster, then turned.
Our gazes locked as she completed her turn and the world began to spin in slow motion. From the corner of my eye, I could see Cavallo reach beneath his coat with his good, right hand.
"Ice!" I launched myself at her, aiming for her legs. "Nooooo!"
Her eyes widened in question.
The sound of a gun firing, oddly flat in the turbulent air.
The question turned to shock as a bloom of red stained the small, burned hole that suddenly appeared in the upper left chest of her jumpsuit. She looked down, then back at me.
Then her eyes went as empty as they were in my dream and she crumpled to the ground silently.
I landed on top of her, screaming.
I pulled myself away quickly, slapping at my tears as I turned her over onto her back. "Oh God, no. Ice, no. Please. Oh God."
Blood pumped out of the exit wound in slow, sluggish bursts. But that meant that she was still alive. Pressing one hand over the hole in her chest, I used my free one to stroke the hair back from her face. "Oh God, please wake up, Ice. Please dont die on me. Please. Dont do this to me. Please. Oh God. Oh God."
I was panicking, and I knew it. But I couldnt seem to stop. Blood welled up in the spaces between my fingers, painting me with its heated vibrancy. "Dont you die on me, Morgan Steele. Dont you dare die on me!"
The sound of running footsteps caused me to look up. The pale, scared faces of Sonny, Pony and Critter stared down at me.
"Oh fuck!" Pony grunted, squatting beside me and pushing her own hand down on top of mine in an attempt to stem the bleeding.
"Get an ambulance!" I screamed, not even feeling the pressure of Ponys hand against my own. "Now!!"
Nodding abruptly, Sonny turned and sped away, running back toward the prison in a furious burst. The shocked crowd parted easily to allow her passage.
"Are they gone?" I asked Pony, my rearward view blocked by her muscled body.
"Who?" Pony asked distractedly, her face grim as she increased the pressure on my hand.
"The warden and . . .the shooter."
My friend looked over her shoulder, still blocking my view of the fence and the area beyond it. "A cars peelin rubber outta the parking lot," she grunted, returning her full attention to her task of slowing the bleeding pumping out of my lover with every beat of her heart.
"What are you thankin God for? That might be Ices killer getting away!"
"She wont die. I know it. She cant."
"I wish I had your faith, Angel."
"You dont need it. I have faith enough for all of us."
Blinking, I wiped the tears from my face as my mind finally released its hold and allowed me to come back to the present.
"I kept the faith, Ice," I whispered. "And you didnt let me down."
And still, even after being shot in the back like a rabid animal, still she didnt go after him.
No, it wasnt until the final straw had been placed. A straw which had Morrison pay her a visit in the hospital and warn her that if anyone ever found out the identity of the person whod shot her, my life would have been made a living hell, and any chance Id ever see freedom again would have been flushed, like so much raw sewage, right down the proverbial toilet and, likely, my soul right along with it.
"I knew right then that I could never go back. I needed to . . .take care of things so that his threat would never become a reality."
It was only after that last straw had finally been laid upon a back overburdened did she finally lash out, not to protect herself, but to protect me.
Because she loved me.
And when she finally had the chance to take out all the pain, hurt, anguish and rage upon the very man whod caused her this grief, what did she do?
I closed my eyes, remembering.
"I wanted to kill him so badly I could taste it. My finger was on the triggerjust a hairs worth of pressure and it would have gone off, ending everything."
She tilted her head up toward the ceiling, her jaw working as she dragged her hands through her hair. "I couldnt do it," she whispered, harshly. "I wanted to, God, so badly. I wanted to end his miserable, stinking little life." She sighed, shaking her head. "But I couldnt."
Why? I could remember asking her.
"As I was standing there, watching him sleep, I thought about you." And here, her eyes came to rest, for the first time, on my face. She smiled slightly. "About that time when I had Cassandras life in my hands. I remembered you telling me not to give up on my dreams, how she wasnt worth it. And I realized that if I went back to that person I used to be, the one who killed to get rid of my problems, thats exactly what I would have done." Tears sparkled in her eyes. "My dreams might not be much, but they were all I had. And I couldnt give them up. Not for him. Not for anyone."
"Oh, Ice," I whispered, much as I did then.
So many things made so much more sense to me now, when looked at through the distance of time. Ices unswerving dedication to the changes shed begun to make in her own life long before we ever fell in love. Her refusal to be baited into doing something that was becoming wrong for her until she was placed in a position where choices were non-existent.
I was finally beginning to see two very different sides to the part of Ice who was a killer. One killed in the heat of passion, to protect herself or those she loved. The other, diametrically opposed to the first, killed with the cool, remote disinterest of an assassin, which she had been for a very long time.
The first was an inherent part of her nature, a nature that had been shaped by the life shed been forced to live when an innocent young ten-year-old woke up one morning to find everything she loved gone.
The second, I was beginning to see, was quite unnatural to her, though since shed developed somewhat of a skill for it, and she used it as a tool much as the tools she used to fix cars.
Ice is, if nothing else, a woman of incredible passions. She has an immense, almost bottomless capacity for love. And an equally immense capacity for rage. Where love had always been reined in like a skittish and vulnerable colt, rage had been allowed to flourish.
And then, for some reason known only to her, Ice had decided to take a chance on revealing her heart and allowing love to sublimate the rage in her soul.
That decision came with a very large price, however. It was a price she was now paying. And it was a price that I, in my selfishness, never thought existed.
Like Paul on his Damascus road, the scales finally fell from my eyes and I truly saw Ices action of leaving Cavallo alive for what it really was.
A blind leap off a towering cliff with trust the only net she possessed.
Trust in herself, in her heart, that she was making the right decision. Trust in a justice system that had failed miserably to finally do the right thing. Trust in a merciful god or a kind fate to see her act of restitution and be pleased.
While a wise man once said, I think, that two out of three isnt bad, Im sure hed agree that one out of three is nothing short of abysmal.
Like a row of dominoes or a house of cards tipped over by a childs careless hand, that one merciful act set in motion a series of unstoppable events which led us to this place, where everything that could have gone wrong did and the proud, sure woman whod made that leap now lay broken and bleeding in restitution for one act of kindness which turned against her with a vengeance.
I thought back to the night shed received the phone call telling her that Cavallo had been set free and was after his pound of flesh. Shed wanted to keep the information to herself, but Id poked and prodded, cajoled and whined until she opened up and laid her worries bare before me.
And what had I given her as payment?
Ridicule. Sarcasm. Moral high-handedness. Id even had the gall to call her a coward. Accused her of using Cavallo as an excuse to run away from people who loved her. Threatened to attach myself like an unwanted parasite to her every thought, her every move.
When had I stopped trusting her instincts?
When had I started thinking that mine were somehow better?
I could feel my face flush hot with shame. The tender flesh of my palms protested as my nails dug themselves a new home beneath the skin.
All shed ever wanted to do was to help in creating a safe space for me. A place where I would be happy, where I would be safe, where I would be loved, and where I would never want for a single thing. A natural leader, shed sublimated that and instead walked by my side, lending her aid, her warmth, her strength, and her love to make sure that my dream was fulfilled to the best of her considerable abilities and far beyond my wildest hopes.
And what had I done with that freedom shed given me? Taken it and run with it, effectively trapping her, placing her with my words into a cage whose bars were formed and shaped by the bond of love we shared.
A gilded cage, perhaps, but more of a prison, in some ways, than the Bog ever was.
"Shes an adult," I told myself. "More than capable of making her own decisions. Dont take this away from her too, believing that you somehow trapped her against her will. That didnt happen, and you know it."
"Maybe," I answered. "But did you ask? Did you even take a second to ask her if this was what she wanted instead of projecting your dreams and your needs onto her and calling it good?"
I thought back to the conversation wed had in that tiny hotel room Ice had taken me to right after our reunion. I remembered the musty smell of the heater as the air it feebly expelled ruffled the heavy curtains shielding the window from prying eyes. I remembered the stiff, shiny texture of the bed-spread. Most of all, I remembered the expression on my lovers face, the look in her eyes, the tone of her voice.
"Damn it, Angel! If you stay with me, youll only be putting yourself into yet another prison! Cant you see that?"
Yes, she was angry. But this time . . .this time, I wasnt afraid.
"Ice, the only prison Id be going back to is the one youd put me in by refusing to let me make my own decisions over what I want my life to be. There wouldnt be any bars except for the ones around my heart. Thats a place I dont ever want to go to. It would be a thousand times worse than the Bog could ever be." I grasped her hand and held it tightly, bringing our joined hands upward so she could plainly see them. "My life is with you, Morgan Steele. It has been since the first day I saw you. That wont ever change, whether you let me stay with you or not."
For the first time since Id known her, Ice looked frightened. It wasnt a panic fright, to be sure, but she was scared. "I . . .cant . . ."
I put my fingers over her lips. "Maybe not," I whispered. "But I can."
And so I did.
And in so doing, I effectively, efficiently turned the tables on her. Cleaving myself to her despite her very valid and heartfelt objections, I took the decision out of her hands and brought it into my own.
She tried to warn megod, how many times?that it would one day come to this.
And when it did, I gave her everything but what she needed the most.
She had done what she had done. Her actions, rather than stemming from within the murky depths of a blackened heart, were, quite simply, the only things she could do. No exceptions, no excuses.
Shed been pushed into a corner and had come out fighting.
If it had been me, I would have died in that clearing. So would anyone else Ive ever known.
And in the end, after the votes were cast and the results tallied, that was all that really mattered.
And, just like that, all my doubts, my worries, my insecurities crumbled to dust and blew away. My shame still lingered and it would be something I would deal with for a very long time to come.
Right then, though, it didnt matter.
What mattered was that the woman I loved with all my soul needed me, perhaps more than shed ever needed anyone before.
And come hell, high water, or a certain elderly librarian with an affinity for poisons, pokers and teakettles, I would try my damndest to be for Ice what she was for me.
A woman on a mission, I rose to my feet, barely conscious of the stiffness of my muscles and the throbbing of my leg. With determined steps, I walked off the dock, up the hill and into the house, ignoring the questioning glances thrown my way by the men and women whod come to lend their support to a friend hurt and in need.
My face set in a stony mask borrowed temporarily from Ice, I ascended the stairs and entered the battlefield, giving Corinne a look that said, in no uncertain terms, that if she wanted war, shed get it. I wouldnt back off until Id won.
She read it well in those first silent seconds, her own eyes widening slightly before she relaxed back against the chair shed pulled up beside the bed. She gave me a little smile of acknowledgement, tilting her head slightly in the direction of Ice, who was still in a deep sleep.
"Did she wake up at all?" I asked, fighting to keep the flush from coloring my face yet again.
"No. Shes been resting quietly."
I nodded. Then I consciously softened my gaze. "I love her, Corinne. All of her. You can believe me or not, thats up to you. But I do love her, and I wont ever give her up." I swallowed, hard. "Unless she asks me to."
"And if she does?"
I took in a deep breath, let it out, and spoke the words written on my heart. "If she does, Ill let her go. Without question."
After a moment, Corinne nodded. Then she grinned crookedly. "Was there ever any doubt?"
"No. Questions, yes. Fears, yes. Doubt? No."
Her eyes twinkled. "Didnt think so."
I could feel my own eyes widen. "You didnt think . . . . Then why . . . ?"
"Because you needed to sit down and examine things for yourself, Angel. Part of you was living in a dreamland for a very long time. And unless you gave yourself time to discover the reality of your true feelings, things would have continued to snowball until we were all buried in it. Ice doesnt deserve that. And neither do you." She laughed softly. "Ya done good, Angel."
I couldnt help but laugh in relief. "Remind me to hurt you later."
Resisting the urge to smack her silly, I instead crawled up on the bed and curled up tight against the one person in the world who held my heart in the palm of her hand, and fell immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep, not noticing when her arm wrapped itself around my shoulders in an unconscious gesture of acceptance and love.
When consciousness once again claimed me for its own, Bulls concerned face was the first thing I saw.
As his expression filtered its way through my slowly awakening mind, I sat bolt upright, grabbing his arm. "Is something wrong? What happened? Is Ice alright?" I demanded, too afraid to turn and view the object of my frantic questioning myself until I had a better idea about what I might find.
"Shes fine," Bull replied quickly, making calming gestures with his hands, much as someone might who was trying to calm a frightened animal or child. "Just a little restless." Then he smiled, and I relaxed. "She woke up briefly, saw you, smiled, and fell right back to sleep. Didnt even have to give her a shot." Chuckling, he affectionately cuffed my arm. "Wonder if shed mind if I stole you away for hunting trips. You seem to work miracles and itd save me a mint in narcotics."
I couldnt help but grin at him. "Me? Alone with a bunch of sweaty men in an unheated cabin watching you pick ammunition out of someones behind by candlelight? No thanks. Think Ill pass on that one, charming as the offer is."
Turning my back on his mock pout, I finally gathered the courage to look at my lover. Her face looked peaceful, smooth in a way it never did, even when she was sleeping. Her skin showed neither the high color of fever nor the waxen pallor Id seen just prior to falling asleep. Reaching over, I laid a hand on her brow and found it cool and dry. "Her fever broke!"
"Yes," Bull replied, "a couple hours ago."
"Thats good, right?" I asked, not taking my eyes off her.
"Well, were not out of the woods yet, but yes, its a good sign."
"Its a great sign," I replied, bending over and placing a kiss on her cheek. "Shes tough."
"I wont argue with you there, Angel. Shes about the toughest person Ive ever known, and Ive been around some real winners, lemme tell you."
I yawned and stretched, resisting the urge just to snuggled back down next to the woman Id been away from for far too long. Looking at the clock, I realized that twelve hours had passed since Id fallen asleep.
Bull must have read the question on my face, because he grinned in response. "You needed it," he said simply. Then he chuckled. "Besides, even if you were awake, theres not much you could have done anyway. Ice didnt seem very inclined to let you go for awhile there."
I turned to him. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I said. She was holding on to you like you were her Teddy Bear." He blushed. "Not that I was implying that Ice ever owned a teddy bear, mind you . . . . She . . .uh . . . . Aww crap."
I laughed. "I wont tell anyone if you dont."
He nodded, relieved. "Deal."
I heard the downstairs door open, followed by the sound of male voices speaking quietly as the men they were attached to entered the cabin. Bull glanced over the railing, then back at me, both eyebrows raised in silent question. "Sure. Have em come up."
He gestured, and I heard the men ascend the stairs, coming into the room and revealing themselves as Tom and John. Both were muddy and looked tired, but they also seemed very much pleased with themselves, sporting as they did identical smug grins.
"What have you two been up to?"
"Oh, a little of this, a little of that," Tom replied, bouncing on his toes like a young boy with a big secretor a small bladder.
"Care to be a bit more specific?"
"We were busy getting rid of the evidence," John replied, elbowing his brother in the belly.
Evidence. My mind replayed the scene of my dream; the crumpled car, the savaged bodies, the guns . . . .
"The gun! Its got Ices fingerprints all over it!"
"Not to worry, Tyler," Tom replied. "We took care of that too."
The two men looked at one another.
"Just tell me, guys. Please?"
Three sets of eyes widened and I turned to see my lover, very much awake and looking back at me.
She smiled slightly, though her lips were dry and cracked and I could tell the effort pained her. "Hey." She reached up with her free arm and gently brushed the bangs from my head. "You dont look so good," she observed, her voice hoarse from disuse and the most beautiful sound that I believe Ive ever heard, bar none.
Taking her hand gently, I kissed her knuckles, then cupped it against my cheek. "Maybe not, but I feel wonderful. Now. How about you, sweetheart?"
Her eyes closed for a moment as she appeared to take inventory. Then they reopened, warming me with the love in her gaze. "Not bad."
"Said the road pizza to the eighteen-wheeler," Bull joked, glass of water in hand.
No one in the room was more surprised than I when Ice allowed me to help her up to a half seated position against some pillows Tom shoved against the backboard. Of course, helping her to drink was out of the question. Accepting the water, she gingerly sipped through bruised and swollen lips until the glass was empty. "Thanks."
Handing back the glass, she then reclaimed my hand and urged me to sit beside her, resting up against the headboard. I complied with alacrity, grinning so broadly I was sure my face would fracture.
After I was settled comfortably, she turned her stare back to Tom and John, one eyebrow raised.
Both looked decidedly uncomfortable, but finally Tom stepped figuratively forward. "We . . .um . . .were wondering how to go about getting rid of the evidence. At first we figured wed just stuff the bodies back in the car and set fire to the whole thing, but Pop said that we might just wind up setting the whole damn forest on fire and drawing more attention than we wanted to the whole thing."
Beside me, I could feel Ice nod her approval.
"So," John picked up the tale, "we just went with what we had and decided to make it look like a car accident/murder/suicide."
"Wanna explain that one?" I asked, perplexed.
"Well, all the pieces were there. The car accident was obvious. As was the scene of the fight. So, all we had to do is take the gun Ice had, wipe her fingerprints, put it in the guys hand who had that shot to the temple and presto! Car slams into a tree, guy gets out of the car, beats the crap outta the other guys, shoots em in the head, then ends his own life with a bullet to the temple."
"We even wiped Morgans trail away," Tom added, grinning proudly. I swore to myself that if the man had been born with a tail, it would have been briskly wagging. "Even Pop was impressed, and you know how hard that is to do."
"That makes two of us," Ice said, her voice warm, though still a bit hoarse. "Good job. Thank you both very much," she added.
Twin blushes brightened the faces of our friends as both shuffled their feet on the hardwood flooring, neither apparently sure of what to say to such a compliment.
Fortunately for them, they didnt need to come up with a response, because Ice fell back to sleep, slumping against me as she did so. I had a brief moment of panic, but the calmness in Bulls eyes relaxed me and together, we helped get her back into a more comfortable position on the bed.
That task completed, I looked back at Tom and John. "Is there something else?"
"Um, yeah," Tom said finally. "Rumor has it that those guys were in town for a couple days before they came calling. Seems that our good friend Millicent put em up for the weekend. Pop thinks that she even gave em directions to the cabin."
I vaulted off the bed so fast, my head spun from the abrupt change in position. "What did you say?" I demanded, grabbing Toms huge arm. "You mean that bitch is behind this whole thing? Is that what youre telling me??"
"Calm down, Angel," Tom said, gently prying my fingers off his arm. "Right now its nothing more than a rumor. No one knows for sure yet one way or the other."
"And how did this rumor start?" I asked, fists clenched.
"Mary was fixing something over at the Silver Pine and she heard Millicent talking to some on the phone about the six charming men she put up for the weekend."
"Son of a bitch!"
"Angel . . . ."
"What!?" I demanded, whirling around before I realized just who I was yelling at. "Ice? Oh god, Im so sorry. I didnt mean to wake you up."
"s alright," she said softly. "Cmere."
"But . . . ."
"Cmon," she beckoned, holding her arm out.
Unable to resist, I went to her, climbing back onto the bed and sliding into her tender embrace, taking care not to jostle her healing wounds. Giving me a little smile, she kissed my cheek, then settled me close before turning her head to look at Tom. "What does Pop say about all this?"
"He thinks she did it, but he doesnt think she knew exactly what she was doing. Or who the men were."
"Thats no excuse!" I said. "She had no right to give complete strangers directions to our home! None at all!"
"It was stupid, Ill agree," Tom replied. "But being stupid isnt the same thing as deliberately setting someone up to be kidnapped and murdered, Tyler."
"This is Millicent were talking about!" I countered. "The one who got someone to beat the crap out of Pop? The one who paid someone to firebomb his station? Am I the only one who sees this woman for who she really is?"
"Alright, Angel, thats enough," Ice said softly from beside me.
"Ice, its not . . . ."
"Enough, Angel. This isnt getting us anywhere."
I sighed, not willing to give up the fight, but realizing that there really wasnt any point in continuing. "When will somebody finally stand up to her?" I asked after a long moment. "Every time shes done something wrong, weve just turned the other cheek. And every time, shes just gone ahead and done something worse. What about next time, Ice? What if next time, its . . . ."
I stopped there, but I knew she could read my thoughts on the matter. My biggest fear was that one night, our sleep would be shattered by the arrival of the police. That scenario was never far from my thoughts, and continued to haunt my dreams.
As if sensing our conversations deeper meanings, Tom cleared his throat, nudged his brother and together they grabbed an oblivious Bull and left the room. "Well um be outside for awhile," Tom said as they descended the stairs and moved quickly away.
When we were alone, I turned back to Ice and laid a hand on her bruised cheek. "Im sorry," I whispered. "I hate feeling helpless."
The soft skin of her face crinkled beneath my palm as one corner of her mouth lifted in a smile. "s alright. I know this has been hard on you."
I gazed back at her, my expression serious. "Not on me, Ice. On us. You and me." Pulling away slightly, I surveyed her from head to toe, tears filling my eyes. "Look at you, love. Youve been beaten up, shot, almost sliced apart. You could have been killed."
"But I wasnt, Angel," she said simply. "Im here and Im alive."
"But for how long?"
A sob caught in my throat and I felt myself crumpling. Strong arms enfolded me, holding me close as a soft voice and tender hands soothed me. "Shhh. Dont cry, Angel. Please dont cry. Everythings gonna be alright. I promise. Everythings gonna be alright. Shhh."
I accepted her comfort, her love, for a long, much needed moment before attempting to pull away. When she wouldnt let me, I lifted my head. "Im supposed to be comforting you. Youre the one who went through hell and back. Not me."
She laughed softly. "Something tells me you went through a little bit of hell yourself, Angel." Reaching up, she tenderly cupped my chin, running her thumb over my lips. Though she was looking right at me, her eyes appeared far away. After several moments, she spoke. "After it was over, after Id killed Carmine and his friends, the only thing that kept me from collapsing in that field was you, my Angel. Your smile. Your laugh. The sound of your voice when we make love. I needed to get back to you, needed to get back to the one good thing in this world that I know. Your light. Your warmth. Your love." Her hand trailed down over my face and neck to nestle against my breast, beneath which my heart beat strongly. "You."
Her eyes regained their focus and drilled into mine. "You say youre supposed to be comforting me. Dont you know you do that every day?"
I looked at her blankly for a moment, unable to fully process her words and their meaning.
Her face softened into a smile. "You do, Angel. Every day, without even thinking about it, just by being the person you are." Her voice became husky. "The woman I love."
Slipping her hand around the curve of the base of my skull, she used her implacable strength to easily draw us together, claiming my lips in a kiss filled with fire and passion and promise. I responded instantly, urgently, needing desperately to show her what she meant to me, this woman of fire and fury and boundless love.
Lost in the sensations of dizzying passion, my hands moved of their own accord, not even feeling the bandages which covered her many wounds. A soft grunt brought me back to reality quickly and I jerked my hand away from her belly as if scalded. "Oh my god, Im so sorry! I didnt . . . ."
"Shhh," she replied, pulling me close once again. "Its alright. Im alright."
She captured me effortlessly in the power of her burning gaze. "I need you."
For those words, I would willingly sell my soul and damn the devil himself.
Grasping my hand, she brought it to her breast, laying it over her warm, firm flesh. "Touch me," she whispered.
I could hear myself moan as I closed my eyes against the exquisite sweetness of the feel of her beneath my trembling palm. When her body responded unmistakably to my hesitant touch, surging against my hand, I felt drawn up in a tide of overwhelming emotion that I was hard-pressed to contain.
"Let it go, sweet Angel," she whispered, using her free hand to draw our lips together again, tangling her long fingers in the short locks of my hair. "Just let it go."
Like a sirens sweet song, I allowed the sound of her voice, the movement of her body, to wash away the shame and the grief, the anger and the fear. Our lips met again, incendiary almost, and I just . . .let go.
I ran my fingers over her breasts, lightly at first, then with more urgency as the passion and the need for her flamed within me; a furnace with love and desire as its all-consuming, never-ending fuel.
I could feel her breathing deepen as I tasted her moan on my tongue. My hands moved with more surety, imprinting the silken feel of her flesh in my whirling mind with indelible imagery. Even the bandages which swaddled her ceased to be an impediment. Rather than hiding her wounds from sight, they became instead badges of her immense courage, her unbreakable will, each fiercely guarding the reminders of a battle hard fought and a war well won.
I laid gentle kisses to them all, imbuing myself with the strength of this wonderful, wondrous woman beneath me. The scent of her filled my senses; her taste, my sacramental wine. The sound of her voice more beautiful to me than the music of a thousand choirs on a thousand worlds.
When I lifted my head from my benediction and my eyes were seared by passion-dark indigo, I felt the immovable, unbreakable strength of our elemental bond, its roots sinking ever deeper into my very soul.
And when my hand slipped down between legs which opened to me and beckoned me to come nearer, to come inside, tears of joy ran anew down my cheeks as my fingers were welcomed sweetly home by the silken wet heat of her body.
"I love you, Morgan," I whispered, thrusting my fingers to match the tempo her own body had set. A curious combination of pain and ecstasy displayed itself on her beautiful features, but her eyes . . . .
If love is a tangible thing, capable of being seen as well as felt, it is the look in her eyes when we make love A look that says that I am the most precious and beloved thing the universe has ever created. That says that I am more wanted and more loved than I ever have even the hope of comprehending. That says that within me, the dream of the woman I love with all my heart, mind, body and soul, resides.
My fear tried to come back then; tried to remind me that I was far from being worthy of the gift she was giving me.
She saw it though, as she always did, with senses too foreign for me to comprehend. Surging upward even against the agony of her wounds, she pulled me to her, devouring my lips with her own, once again conquering my shame with the power of her love.
As my fingers continued to dance within her, hers trailed fire down my body and slipped past the insignificant barrier of my clothing, bathing themselves in essence newly sprung, painting me and arousing me with the evidence of my own desire before sliding deep within and filling me full.
Bodies merged by mouths and hands, we gave and took, advanced and retreated, gathering energy between us only to return it doubled and redoubled, our hearts beating loud, our breathing labored. Our souls twinned and separated, only to come together once again with the sounds of panting grunts and primal moans as each touch, each stroke, drove us higher and higher until, at last, the abyss was reached and we stepped off the peak as wed climbed it.
And then we slumped together, bodies sliding against passions sweat, riding out the last currents of incalculable bliss, shuddering with each small movement, until, at last, we became earthbound once more.
When enough strength returned for me to lift my head, I saw a single tear trail a path down her cheek. Her blinding smile told me all I needed to know, and, kissing the tear away, I laid her tenderly back down upon the bed we shared, returning the smile as I felt her face flushed and hot against the flesh of my neck, knowing the very second she slipped into the healing calm of sleep, her lips a gentle brand on my skin.
And, wrapped securely in a blanket of love and trust so strong and deep, I followed her into the shadows where nightmares didnt dare follow.
Blinking the sleep from my eyes, I tried to focus on the face hanging over me. "Corinne?"
"Im trying for Louella, the tattooed Librarian today," she responded, grinning. "Is it the right look for me?"
Looking at her closely, I saw for the first time the myriad of colorful bruises that lined the right side of her face and jaw. I felt a flush rising, ashamed that I hadnt noticed them before now. "How do you feel?"
"Pretty much as one would expect to several days after being pistol-whipped, I suppose," she said, her eyes twinkling.
I winced. "Im sorry, Corinne."
She laughed. "For what? That was the most fun Ive had since the demons of hell saw fit to release me from their little den of iniquity!"
"Our definitions of fun seem to differ a little."
"But of course, Angel. Youre merely a criminal wannabe, while I," she drew herself up to her full height, nose at a regal tilt toward the ceiling, "am the Black Widow."
Groaning, I rolled my eyes at her display of faux pomposity, then turned quickly to see if Ice was still asleep.
She was, her body and face relaxed, yet retaining that undercurrent of tension which was always present within her, save when she had been knocked out by the drugs Bull had given her. I could feel my face soften as I reached out and smoothed the sweaty tangle of her bangs.
Her face tensed momentarily, processing, no doubt, this intrusion into her personal space, then smoothed out into the soft planes of sleep once again as her breathing evened out and her body sank deeper into the nest of pillows surrounding her.
When I looked up, I saw an evil little smirk on my friends face. "Not one word, Corinne. Not one."
Her eyes widened in mock innocence. "Moi? Surely you must have me confused with some other degenerate, Angel."
"Mmm. Hmm. Maybe we should start charging you for your nightly entertainment."
She pouted briefly, then grinned. "Would it help if I said Id been moved to applaud a time or two? Or that Ive been known to take notes on occasion?"
I could feel a whopper of a blush coming on. "More than I wanted to know, Corinne. Much more than I wanted to know."
She chuckled. "Then I suppose I shouldnt tell you about the times I . . . ."
"Stop!" I commanded, raising my hand and burying my face into the pillows next to Ices head. "Please."
"Oh, al . . . ." The phone rang, mercifully cutting off her comment before it could be birthed from her lips. Before I could move, she was by the nightstand, lifting the receiver and cradling it against her ear, murmuring words I didnt really have the strength to listen to.
After a moment, she laid the phone back down and fixed me with a look I couldnt decipher.
"Who was it?"
"A certain septuagenarian whos a bit miffed that she wasnt invited to the tea party."
Oh shit. "Ruby. Damn, I forgot all about her. With everything going on, it just slipped my mind."
"Well, thats certainly understandable to one who actually knows whats been going on."
"You mean you didnt tell her?"
"Of course not, Angel. She simply was told what the doctors were told."
"That I felt a bit of weakness and fell down, hitting my head on the table. They believed me. She didnt seem to, but she didnt push the issue at the time."
"Shes pushing now?"
"Not in so many words, no. But Im sure shed appreciate some sort of explanation that didnt involve obfuscation." Corinne laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. "Ruby cares a great deal about you, Angel. She knows youre in pain, but she doesnt know why. All she knows is that youve seemed to shut her out for some reason. Perhaps a simple reassurance of your continued good health and good spirits would go a long way with her. Shes worried, as I would be were I in a similar situation."
I nodded, convinced. "Ill call her right now."
"Dont bother. She said she was going away for a couple days to visit a friend. When she gets back, though, perhaps you could invite her over for a chat."
Sighing, I slumped back against the headboard. "Later it is, then." I smiled slightly. "At least one good thing came of this, though."
"And that might be?" she asked, giving me a very good Ice imitation, eyebrow and all.
"You two seem to be getting along better."
"We . . .understand one another," was all she saw fit to comment.
That conversation took place several hours ago, though gauging by how fuzzy my thoughts feel as they continue their unending journey through my mind, it could have been a week past, or a year. A quick glance at the clock tells me that another day has given its life so that a new dawn, now not far in coming, can shuffle forward, like the beast of Bethlehem, to be born.
Replaying the last year or so of my life has made me tired beyond telling, yet I cant seem to dredge up enough energy to lay myself back down on the bed and try for sleep. Or perhaps its not energy I lack, but simple courage.
Where mostly pleasant dreams helped along many a lonely night in the Bog, nightmares rule the roost here, in the very place Id thought to make those dreams come true.
By my side, Ice still rests, her breathing deep and even. Do you dream? I wonder, bringing the warm hand that still lays in my own up to my lips and brushing a gentle kiss across the knuckles.
She doesnt answer, of course. In all the years Ive known her, its one of the only questions Ive never had the courage to ask.
Save for the tension which characterizes her even in this most peaceful of states (except, perhaps, for the afterglow of making love), she seems always to sleep the sleep of an innocent, unsullied by time and death and anger, all of which have been her constant companions for far longer than Ive taken up cherished residence by her side.
Perhaps a peaceful sleep is her reward for wrestling down her inner demons and choosing to walk in the light.
Or perhaps she does dream; nightmares based on a reality that I can never hope to comprehend, only to understand and accept, which I do.
Perhaps theyve kept her company for so long that her body no longer expends its energy reacting to them, choosing instead to conserve its power for when the darkness comes calling once again.
But in the end, I realize that it doesnt really matter. Ices dreams are her own. That she chooses to share her life with me is the important thing, and something I treasure for the profound gift it is with every breath I take, waking or sleeping.
Experience has taught me the bitter lesson of ever taking that gift for granted.
When I told Corinne I would willingly give Ice up if I ever did that again, I meant every syllable. Its a promise that lives in my heart every day.
Shes opened up so much to me in this past year; bared a soul filled with such brilliant light and such murky dark; been everything that I needed her to be, and more.
So much more.
Perhaps spending a few hours going over everything that has gone wrong, and right, in the last year of our lives together has proven that better than anything else ever could. My body literally aches with the realization of just how deeply and profoundly I love her, how much of my soul she owns without trying, and how close I came to losing it all.
Shame still hides in my heart, no doubt biding its time, waiting to attack when I am most vulnerable. But I dont fear it anymore. Let it come. Ill fight it with the most powerful weapon in the world.
Looking out the window, I see that the rain has stopped, but the pregnant clouds paused over the somehow haunting darkness of the lake promise the cease fire to be a temporary détente only.
My eyelids feel heavy, yet my body continues to fight sleeps seductive lure.
Until a hand detaches itself from my own and a long, lean body moves up to gather me into strong arms, cradling me tenderly as she lowers us both back down to the mattress. My hair is smoothed back from my brow, baring space for a pair of lips to linger.
"Sleep now," a resonant voice whispers, followed by the soft humming of a lullaby which bathes me in its sweet serenity, sung by a woman with a heart and a soul more beautiful than the dawn which finally beckons from beneath dark clouds.
And if you wonder, as I do, what Ive done to deserve such beauty and joy in my life, Ill answer you honestly.
I dont know.
But what I do know is that every day, in every way, I will make myself worthy of this gift beyond price.
Its the most fitting retribution I can think of for all shes given to me. Her heart, her soul, her body and her spirit.
Five days have passed since that night. Days filled with a sense of peace and belonging that is unexpected, yet very welcomed, given everything that has come before. I suppose that being forced by danger to reexamine your lifefoxhole theology, my father would have called itreally does put things into perspective. Ill have to remember that truism. As if I could ever forget.
Ice is well on her way to a complete recovery, as youd expect, given everything Ive told you about her so far. By the third day, shed even managed to scatter the group of well-wishers gathered around the beddeathwatch vultures, she called themlike a flock of frightened quail with one well placed look and one menacing snarl added for effect.
I tried hard to stifle my laughter at the looks on their faces, but Im afraid I didnt succeed very well. It felt good to be laughing again, truth be told.
The rains seem to have settled in, putting a somewhat premature cap on this years tourist season. Though many of my friends make their living from the out-of-town visitors, I cant say that Im at all sad to see it come to a close. The faster the summer ends, the faster Ill be able to put all the horrors the warm days brought with them behind me.
The added bonus of a shortened season is, of course, the early closing of the Silver Pine and the attendant loss of its proprietress, one class A bitch by the name of Millicent Harding-Post.
I can assure you that the only tears Im crying over that particular loss are tears of joy.
Ice says she has the beginnings of a plan to repay Ms. Harding-Post for all the kindnesses shes doled out to us over the year. She isnt ready to share it with me yet, but Ill be patient. Shell tell me when shes ready, this I know. And I also know that Ill enjoy every minute of it.
Bull left us a couple days ago. I was sad to see him leave, but, friendship aside, his healing skills really werent needed anymore. Ice is a pretty good medico in her own right, and even if she werent, he left us stocked with enough medical supplies to open up a clinic. And while the rains have chosen to visit us here in the lowlands, up in the mountains, snow is falling and he needed to get up to the hunting cabins while the roads were still passable to ensure they were properly weatherproofed and stocked for the harsh season to come.
Tom and John bid us their own goodbyes and went back to their families who were, no doubt, ready to tie yellow ribbons around old oak trees in the hopes of their eventual return. Even Corinne decided to give us some time to ourselves, choosing to spend several days in the company of Pop, who was feeling a bit under the weather after all the excitement of the past couple of weeks. I worry about him, for hes become someone whom I love dearly, but I know hes in good hands with Corinne.
The Black Widow seems to have lost her bite around Pop.
And, if I know Corinne half as well as I think I do, if he does wind up leaving this life, hell go out with a smile on his face.
The rain let up just a bit this morning and Ice was outside before the last drop had fallen, determined to help along her rapidly regaining strength with a brisk walk through the woods. Tall and proud, with clothes to cover her bandages, anyone would be hard pressed to tell that she had even a scratch on her, much less two bullet holes and several long, deep cuts; even me.
I had watched in aweand, truth to tell, no small amount of jealousyas she washed and dressed and strode through the house without even a hint of pain while I lazed around on the couch, nursing my still sore knee and pouting.
With a smile and a kiss, she left to test her body the way those of us who must content ourselves with being mere mortals might test a cake to see if it is properly baked. Still, I couldnt help but return her smile, and nod, knowing enough not to expect her until dark, at the least.
And that left me, of course, alone with only one thing left to do.
Call Ruby, who had come home last night, and invite her over for, as Corinne put it, a little chat.
Its something Ive been dreading since Corinne saw fit to bring the subject up five days ago. While I very much want to see my long-time friend and mentor and explain things to her, Im very much not wanting to see the look in her eyes once she realizes that pretty much everything Ive told her since weve met was a lie.
I hate lying. It goes against everything I believe in. Im not very good at it, as youve no doubt guessed by now, and every time I think Ive succeeded, I turn around to find bite marks on my ass.
Still, the longer I put this off, the longer I let the truth hide beneath the weight of my guilt and shame, the harder the final truth telling will be for us both. As my mother always told me when I was young, pulling the bandaid off quickly was a whole lot less painful than ripping it off inch by slow inch.
Smart woman, my mother.
Ice finally got home an hour ago, drenched to the skin, but glowing with a vitality sorely missing over the past week or so, her eyes sparkling with good health and good humor. She refused to tell me what shed spent the past half-day doing, figuring no doubt that Id go all mother-hennish on her, but she did agree that perhaps a hot shower and a soft bed werent such bad ideas after all.
It was good to know my powers of persuasion still worked. And even better to realize that after six years, I finally had a handle on them.
After a shower and a sandwich that I hastily threw together, she went right up to bed, where she sleeps even now, bundled up tightly against the faint chill in the air which lingers even after Ive brought the fire up to a respectable roar.
Fall is definitely in the air.
And so here I sit, guts churning, waiting for the knock that will herald Rubys entrance, replaying the words Ill tell her over and over in my mind until theyre reduced to so much static, rendered all but meaningless by sheer repetition.
The knock finally came and I found myself rising to my feet, my knee sending out a warning twinge as I did so. I straightened my clothes and ran a quick hand through my hair, feeling oddly like a schoolgirl being sent to the principal, as I walked toward the door and pulled it open to admit my friend.
Rubys smile looked rather forced as she crossed the threshold and into the house, allowing me to guide her into the cabin proper and to a seat in the living room. "Would you like some coffee? Tea?"
"No thank you," she replied as she situated herself on the couch, not bothering to hide her frank head to toe assessment of me as she did so. Her eyes narrowed. "How are you feeling?"
"Better now," I answered honestly.
She nodded. "Thats good to hear."
The conversation, what little there was of it, ground down to a halt, the crackling of the fire the only sound in the room.
Unable to stand the silence any longer, I took several deep breaths and turned to my friend. "Ruby, Im very sorry I havent . . . ."
She raised a hand, her smile slightly more genuine. "Its quite alright, Tyler. I understand. I know what went on here."
Stunned, I looked at her. "You do?"
"Yes. I do. I had my suspicions at first, and what Ive since learned has confirmed them."
I cocked my head. "Would . . .you mind explaining that, please?"
Her smile turned sad. "Tyler, I might be an old woman, but Im not blind or deaf. Look at yourself, Tyler. Youre bruised and battered. Youve been beaten. And Corinne looks the same way. She says that she fell down and hit her head on the table, but thats not the truth, is it."
I sighed. "No. It isnt."
She nodded sagely. "I know." Turning her body toward mine, she took both of my hands in hers. "I called your mother the other day, Tyler."
For just a moment, I forgot to breathe. "You . . .what?"
"You heard me. She told me what really happened during your time in Pittsburgh. How you told her that your husband had abused you and how you said you killed him in self defense. How you spent time in prison and were released on appeal."
Stunned was much too small a word for what I was feeling, and yet I couldnt help but nod, confirming her words, suddenly feeling very small and very young and very trapped.
"Your mother may not be the most warm and open person in the world, Tyler, but I do believe she really believes what youve told her. I know I do. Youre not the type to kill someone in cold blood. Thats just not within you. I know that."
I smiled a little, relieved that she, at least, believed in my innocence.
She returned the smile, squeezing my hands. "Tyler, I knew your father quite well. He had this cabin long before he married your mother and spent many summers here. I knew what kind of a man he was, and could only hope that your mother would calm him somewhat."
"Im not sure I understand what youre saying," I replied, my mind trying hard to keep up with the twists and turns of her narrative and failing miserably.
"Your father could be a warm and loving man at times, Tyler. But he could also be worse than an enraged bear if something stuck in his craw. Manys the time I ached to step in when he took that anger out on you. To my eternal shame, I stood by and did nothing."
I stared at her, conflicting emotions warring for a place in my body. Shame for a long held family secret let out into the light. Relief that it was finally being spoken of. Confusion, still, not knowing where the conversation was leading.
"Before I married my husband, I was a teacher. And one of the things that I learned was that, quite often, daughters of abusive fathers unconsciously seek out the same in a potential mate. Its not uncommon, nor is it something to be ashamed of. I think you did that with your own husband. And I think youre doing that now with your friend Morgan."
"What?" Tearing my hands from hers, I jumped to my feet so quickly that the room spun around me. Forcing down the dizziness, I stared at her, my eyes blazing. "I have no idea where you came up with this, Ruby, but youre wrong. Dead wrong."
"Am I?" she asked, her eyes blazing just as brightly. "Both you and Corinne were beaten to within an inch of your lives, Tyler. I came outside just in time to hear her driving away and you screaming for her to come back." Her face set in stony, savage lines. "Dont think me a fool, Tyler. I know what I saw."
"You are a fool, Ruby," I replied, feeling as deep a rage as Ive ever known consuming me in red fire. "You put two and two together and came up with seven. I think youd better leave before I do something wed both regret."
"Shes taught you well, I see."
"Get out, Ruby. Now."
"I know who she is, Tyler," Ruby continued, refusing to budge a solid inch. "I know who Morgan Steele is. I thought her name sounded familiar when we first met. When Millicent told me that those police officers had asked for directions to the cabin, I knew my hunch was right. So I spent the last several says going through old records until I found out what I was looking for. Shes the Morgan Steele who murdered those children. The one who became a Mafia Assassin. The one who escaped from the very prison in which you were incarcerated. The one who tricked you into falling in love with her so that she could have a free ticket out of the country to escape justice. And the one who finally snapped under all the pressure shes heaped upon the both of you and lashed out with her fists like an animal."
I was paralyzed by her accusations, by a misunderstanding so great that it could not possibly have happened. My mind was screaming out to shut her up, to tear her limb from limb, or barring that, to pick her bodily up and throw her as far away from the house as I possibly could.
But my body was dipped in lead, unable to move.
Taking my silence for something it wasnt, her face softened. "It doesnt have to go on, Tyler. I couldnt do anything before, with your father. But I can now. I can, and I did."
That broke through. Stepping forward, I pulled her off the couch by the front of her dress, hearing the fabric tearing as I brought our faces mere inches apart. "What did you do, Ruby. What did you do?!?"
"Im doing what I should have done a long time ago, Tyler. Im putting an end to this mess. The police are on their way. Youll never have to worry about her again. I promise."
"No." It was a whisper, but it carried the weight of the world behind it.
"Yes, Tyler. Yes. Finally. Im doing this because I love you. Cant you see? I love you and I want whats best for you. So come with me. Please. Youll be safe when the police get here."
Pushing her away from me as if she weighed less than air, I spun around and tore up the stairs, screaming Ices name at the top of my lungs as I ran, tripping and falling and pulling myself up again.
She was already awake and on her feet when I bolted into the room. Turning away from the window, her eyes were shining and sad, her face set in a mask of bleak resignation.
"Ice," I said breathlessly, running up to her and grabbing onto her arm, "youve got to get out of here. Take the truck. Go up into the mountains. Ill find you when its safe. Youve still got time. Please. Run!"
Slowly, she shook her head. "Its over, Angel."
"Its not over! I wont let it be over!" I pulled at her, but it was like I was trying to move a mountain. "Damnit, Ice, move!! Now!!!"
Gently prying my death grip from her arm, she raised my hand to her lips and brushed a kiss against my knuckles. "I love you, Angel," she whispered. "Never forget that. Never."
"No. Oh god, no. Please, Ice. Please dont do this." Seeing the blue lights of what looked to be a thousand police cars filtering through the trees, I shook my head in blind negation. "Please, Ice, dont. Fight, damn you! Fight!!!"
She smiled slightly, reaching up to cup my cheek. "I am fighting, my sweet Angel. For you."
Pulling me close, she kissed me, long and deep, before pulling away and grasping my hand. "Cmon."
Believing that shed finally come to her senses, I followed quickly behind her as she descended the stairs and walked into the living room where Ruby, once again back on her feet and wiping blood from her lips, stared at her with an intense sheen of hatred blazing in her eyes.
And it doesnt shame me one bit that I wanted, with everything in me, to watch Ice wipe that look off her face forever.
Instead, my lover thrust me into Rubys arms, then stared down at her with a look more searing than the sun. "Every word you said is true. I am a monster. I am an abuser. I brainwashed her and tricked her into falling in love with me so I could get a free ride. She was nothing more than my hostage. A ticket. And youd do well to remember that when the police start to question you."
Ruby sneered. "You dont scare me."
Ices lip curled, displaying her teeth. "Then you are a fool."
Then she stiffened, her head turning toward the back of the house. "Get down."
"You cant . . . ."
Effortlessly, she pushed us both down onto the floor, hovering over us both in a stiff, protective stance, her head still cocked, honing in on whatever she hearing.
The heavens opened up then, sending rain down in a deluge as lightening divided the sky and thunder cracked around us, shaking the house.
I heard it then; the sound of sirens as they closed in around the cabin. I struggled to regain my feet, but Ice pushed me back down, pinning me to the floor with her intense glare.
"Attention in the cabin! We have you surrounded. Come out peacefully with your hands above your head and no one will be harmed! Attention in the cabin! We have you surrounded. Come out peacefully with your hands above your head and no one will be harmed!"
"Stay down," Ice said, giving me a last, long look before turning away and starting for the door.
But she didnt listen. God damn her to hell, she didnt listen.
I struggled to my feet, nearly tripping over Ruby as she tried to restrain me and shoving her savagely back down to floor.
I ran after the retreating form of my lover, but by the time I got to the door, it was a lifetime too late.
The police swarmed over her, forcing her unresisting body to the ground and onto her stomach as they pulled her arms behind her back and cuffed them tightly, their guns drawn and pointed at her with malicious intent.
When they pulled her back to her feet, her beautiful face was stained with mud and blood. The front of her shirt, once a brilliant white, was painted maroon from the stitches which had torn open.
Like a man turned to stone by a vengeful god, I was doomed to stand and watch as my entire world was dragged off into the night.
It was cold. So cold.
And dark, like the bottom of a newly dug grave.
My whole body was numb; my heart, encased in a block of ice which promised never to thaw.
I could feel the rain around me, pelting down in almost horizontal sheets of stinging fire, driven on by the frenzy of an unholy wind.
A wooden shutter, torn askew by the power of the storm, slammed repeatedly against the weathered wooden siding, sounding a death-knell which rose even over the howling of the wind and the wailing of sirens. Sirens which, like the fog, crept closer and closer, not on cats feet, but on dragons bloody claws.
Lightening drew its spiky graph onto the sky, imprinting itself on my retinas.
Thunder cracked and rolled, pulling an inane thought to the forefront of my brain. Gods bowling with the angels again, my fathers voice said from somewhere beyond the grave.
And still I waited, blind and frozen like some immortal statue. Waited for the wind to cease its unending fury. Waited for the rain to part its opaque curtain.
Waited for a vision my eyes could not see. A vision my soul could not forget.
As if drawn into the clearing by the force of my unvoiced plea, still more cars came, their churning tires flinging muddy fans into the air. Their powerful headlights broke through the cloak of mist, illuminating the scene I wished so desperately to see from my frozen perch on the porch of the home Id helped to build.
A home, a dream, that I would willingly leave, never stopping once to look back upon it, if only someone would take these scales from my eyes.
She stood there straight and tall, backlit by the artificial lighting; my lover, my heart, my soul. Proud back unbowed, head held high, eyes blazing fire.
Proud, yes. But helpless.
Not against the arms which held her, nor the cuffs which bound her strong arms, nor even the guns that pointed at every vulnerable spot in an otherwise invulnerable body.
No, not that. Never that.
Helpless, instead, against the weight of a past which had, once again, come home to roost.
Helpless against the weight of a love she had sold her very soul to nurture and cherish.
The look in her eyes is something Ill take with me to the grave. A grave that, God willing, will not be long in coming.
Anger at her past for intruding. Rage at the arms which held her, at the guns which nudged her with their hollow silver noses. Sorrow, that the chance we had had ended much too soon.
Her full lips parted, and I strained to hear her words over the storms redoubled fury. But even they were taken from me, just as surely as she would be, drawn away into the mist from which only endings came.
But still, I watched as those lips formed words only my heart could hear.
I love you.
And then a word came which shattered my soul.
Well folks, thats it for now. Id like to thank everyone whos come with, and stuck with, me on this journey. Its been a great deal of fun and I hope youve enjoyed reading half as much as Ive enjoyed writing.
Now, show of hands here. Would anyone like to see how they get out of this??? J
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