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Episode 14 – Into the Eyes of a Killer

December 29, 2015

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** PLEASE NOTE **

IF THE IMAGE ABOVE FREAKS YOU OUT, YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO READ THIS ONE.

DISCLAIMERS:

This thriller/drama is an original story and all characters are created by me.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.

This story focuses on an FBI investigation and contains a serial killer case, including scenes of violence towards women. It also includes a very brief attempted rape scene. Any readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

This story depicts a loving, sexual relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

* * * * * *

So many thanks go to my beta-reader, Norsebard. Your help is very much appreciated and continues to be most welcome. And a big thank-you to all my readers. Your patience is appreciated.

This is the next installment in my series, After Montana, which can be found at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com

As usual, to understand and enjoy the characters and situations fully, you should probably read them in sequence. Comments and/or opinions can be sent to stagefreakmusic@hotmail.com or left at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com

* * * * * *

Chapter 1

He loved his upper-class apartment building. It had so many positive attributes, so much in its favor. For one thing, the rear-access parking lot was easily reachable from his ground-level apartment door, and for another, the soundproofing throughout the building was top notch.

The apartment itself had two double bedrooms that shared a perfectly kitted-out bathroom in the form of a wet-room, meaning the entire floor in there was easily cleaned with minimal bleach and very little effort. The master bedroom had its own adjoining bathroom, a luxury he very much appreciated since he liked to keep the filth from his ‘work’ out of his private space. A state-of-the-art sound system was installed in every room of his home, and at this very moment it was regaling him with the most wonderful classical music. Dramatic violins and an accentuating flute were the perfect accompaniment to his current work in progress. The tiled wet-room floor was a rustic, earthy-orange color that camouflaged the blood a little too much for his liking. He preferred to see the aesthetic drama of his work, but he had no time for a remodel right now, so he would have to be content with the floor color.

His latest victim lay there peering out of lifeless, bloodshot eyes. An overweight fat-cat of a businessman, his rounded belly would be a challenge to carve, but that wouldn’t stop this killer from delivering his message as neatly as possible. And anyway, he had overcome this particular problem before, only three murders ago.

“So much excess in this world,” he said, drawing his eyes away from the bulging corpse in disgust. He, of course, ignored the irony in that statement, since his bank account was probably almost as healthy as that of the businessman.

He casually walked over to the ornately-carved cabinet that stood out against the stark décor of the wet-room. On top of the cabinet lay some of his tools of the trade: disinfectant wipes in case of any overly-disgusting bodies, a pair of latex, size-large gloves, a precision scalpel, and his crystal wine glass filled with Merlot. It was a personal preference of his – a relaxing drink while he conjured up his next cryptic clue.

“Slightly pointless, perhaps,” he said to the recently deceased body at his feet. “After all, it’s time for me to pay Agent Regan a visit. She’s simply not a worthy adversary for me, so she must go. I had thought she would have tracked me down already, and I’d have to move out of my lovely apartment. Oh, well. I’m sure her colleagues will enjoy your riddle. Maybe they’ll even solve it.” He laughed at that and changed the tone of his voice to mimic an imaginary conversation with the second law officer to be assigned to his case.

“A date, you say, Agent Regan? Why, I would be very pleased to take you to dinner, perhaps a stroll in the park afterwards? Oh, and I feel that after that, a little rape and murder would suit me just fine. In the end, your fate will be the same as Detective Sanchez of the San Francisco Police Department.” The memory of Milo Sanchez brought a new glint to his eye. “Yes, Agent Regan. You were a little better than Sanchez, but still…”

With a quick check to his watch, he grinned to himself. “Not good enough. Oh, they should be finding my last clue about now, assuming they are capable of doing their jobs, of course.”

A sadistic smile remained on his face as he took the scalpel in his hand, holding it up at eye level to admire its shiny surface and immaculate blade before he straddled his hefty victim to carve into his torso.

* * * * * *

Two hours later, the FBI’s Special Agent Kelly Regan left the San Francisco field office after a thirty hour shift. A sinewy yet somehow robust woman, she worked out regularly wherever she could and utilized normal everyday things as weights when she was on the road. Last month, she had maintained her regime while out of town by lifting a couple of heavy rocks she had found outside her hotel – anything to keep her in fine shape.

Kelly had been with the Bureau for eleven years, specializing in serial killers for the last two. She enjoyed the job and she was pretty good at it, but right now her tired, blue eyes were nipping and her mind was completely fried. She knew she couldn’t rest yet, even though she had been working non-stop for those thirty long hours, doing her best to find the Tick-Tock killer who had been on a murdering spree for the past two months. She had built up a satisfactory profile on him, but his victims only seemed to have one vague thing in common, which was irritating Kelly since she couldn’t pin him down to any one type. The victims all had an obvious flaw as far as the killer was concerned. He had started in the city and seemed to be working his way south, leaving moralistic riddles on each kill. Each riddle pertained to something in the victim’s life, leading Kelly to believe he was very thorough in his selection. He must have been very organized, making sure to pre-plan everything, and he liked to know something about his targets before he pounced. He also seemed to judge them severely on their choices in life, and it appeared he perceived his life to be perfect. He thought himself as vastly superior to everyone – a classic narcissist.

The case had originally come to the attention of the San Francisco police department, where homicide detective Milo Sanchez had been assigned to find the killer who at that time had racked up a body count of four. Milo was now dead, murdered by this Tick-Tock killer who seemed far too experienced to be new at this evil game he had created. His latest victim had been discovered in a well-staged crime scene in Fresno just four hours ago, and Kelly knew she had to travel there to speak with the pathologist and visit the crime scene before she could even think about laying her head on a nice, soft pillow for the night.

“A three-hour drive is just what I need right now,” Kelly sarcastically muttered to herself as she glanced at her watch.

It was fast-approaching eleven PM, and when she collapsed into the driver’s seat of her Prius, she shook her head a few times before rubbing her eyes briskly.

“Something to perk me up. That’s what I need.” After selecting an upbeat radio station to keep her mind active, she drove off toward the nearest bistro. She knew it would still be open since it was one of her regular haunts. “A refreshing herbal tea, here I come.”

* * * * * *

Just over three hours later, Kelly pulled into the parking lot of her motel. She looked around her at the accommodations. The doors to each room were peeling and could seriously do with a fresh coat of paint. The motel’s office had one of those flashing neon signs that always seemed to have a fault. This one stated, No…cancies.

Kelly sighed. “Ugh. Well, I booked ahead, so there better be a ‘cancy for me. The Bureau could’ve sent me somewhere without ‘roaches.” She rummaged around in the door pocket and found the brochure she had printed off before she left. “It sure doesn’t look like it does in the pictures. All right. Get checked in and get to work, Kelly.” She got out of the car and grabbed her overnight bag before heading toward the office.

Kelly was a good agent, but perhaps she didn’t have the experience to take on someone of the Tick-Tock killer’s caliber. Four people had been murdered before Milo Sanchez was taken out. Two people had also been murdered since then, including the body she was here to retrieve. Kelly hadn’t thought the killing of law enforcement would be a part of his plan. She hadn’t really entertained the idea that the killer could have other victims out there somewhere already, and he was now ready to come after her…but she should have. She failed to notice that someone was watching her. In fact, perhaps in her overtired state, she had failed to notice that someone had been tailing her car since San Francisco.

He observed with interest as Kelly shuffled across the parking lot toward room seventeen. He knew she would never get there. She would never have to stay in that hellhole of a motel. Little did she know that it would have been preferable to what was coming next.

* * * * * *

Kelly Regan woke up already groaning at the pounding pain in her head. Someone had thumped her with a blunt, heavy object. The last thing she remembered was putting the key in the door at that motel, but after that, nothing. No warning. She was out like a light.

She became aware of the constrictive, rough bindings around her wrists and ankles, and as the dizziness subsided, she cracked one eye open. As her other senses began to engage, she heard a male voice that seemed to be involved in a one-sided conversation. It was only when he said her name that Kelly realized he was talking to her.

By the time she had seen him he had her gun in his hand, and he was looking at her with a dangerous smirk on his face. His smooth, pleasure-filled voice became terrifying to her as he casually tickled her face with the nose of her Glock.

“It’s pathetic, really. None of you can hope to match up to my standards. I’m too smart, you see. I’m not easy to spot. I mean, who would pick me out of a line-up? Some idiots would say I’m ordinary, which I suppose can be an excellent trait in my line of work. Everyone else would say I’m handsome, debonair, charming even. No one would ever suspect me of anything other than womanizing at the office parties.” He laughed as he prodded Kelly’s cheek repeatedly with the gun to make sure she was alert and listening. “You know all those words you people hear at work every day? Raped, murdered, disemboweled? Well, you’ll get to know what they really mean, Special Agent…and I don’t even have to charm you or trick my way into your bed. You’ll simply have no choice. You’ll do whatever I desire because I’m the boss, a king at this moment in time.” He brought the gun up to check if he could see his reflection in it. When it was too dull to see any sign of his wonderful features, he puffed out a breath in disgust. “I’m afraid this is the end for you, and I won’t make it quick and painless. No, no. Quite the opposite.” He moved the gun under her chin to make her look directly into his eyes as he began to unzip his expensive pants. He wanted to see the only sign of Kelly’s extreme distress – her pupils dilated in shock and panic.

There was no way she could get out of this. She had underestimated the Tick-Tock killer.

* * * * * *

“I do love to leave a nice, little note for your colleagues to find,” he said, talking to Kelly’s body that lay in the backseat of his car as he drove back to the motel. He glanced into the rearview mirror at himself before looking at the motel room key that lay on his passenger seat. “This will be so perfect. I’ll just leave you right under their noses. Ah, the provocation. They won’t believe I had the audacity, the gall to leave you in your room. They’ll be enraged, to say the least.”

It had only been five hours since he had taken her, but those five hours had been filled with gut-wrenching torture. He enjoyed it most when they were still alive. Of course, sometimes they would go and have a heart attack like that last moron he had chosen. He hated it when that happened. But this time, with Agent Regan, his work had been completed while she was alive. Yes, it was messier since there was more blood, but he wasn’t at home and didn’t feel the need to clean up so much. He would burn the waterproof sheet later, of course.

The message would not be the same as his normal victims. This one was a law enforcement officer, just like Detective Sanchez. The only note on his body was, ‘Really?’ The killer was pretty sure that it would have given the other detectives something to think about. He truly hoped it had pissed them off. After that, his case had been handed over to the FBI. Hurrah. Could it be that he would meet his match?

When he stopped the car in the parking lot in front of the motel, he turned to look at the human lump on the backseat. “No. Not this time.”

He got out of the car and scanned the lot that was dimly lit by three streetlamps. There was nobody around, and he used the key to open the door to room seventeen. The bed looked clean however the sheets were not ironed. “Hmm. I suppose that’ll do just fine. It’s not like I have to lie in them.”

With a final check around him, he lifted the body from the vehicle. Once he had placed her in the room the way he wanted her to be found, he stood up and brushed his hands together like he had just completed a job well done. He had planned to leave her here with her gun in her hand and a fake bullet hole in her head that he had created with his trusty scalpel, but his confident demeanor changed when he heard two people talking and laughing as they walked across the parking lot. He could not risk being seen in this room by anyone, so he made a quick exit while appearing calm so as not to arouse any suspicion.

As he smiled at the two inebriated revelers, he casually but swiftly got into his car, threw Kelly’s gun out the door, and drove away from the scene. Once on the highway, he regained his superior, confident manner. “Goodness. It’s almost seven o’clock in the morning. Time flies when you’re having fun. I’m sure her colleagues will be missing her soon. I’d better get on with my work. Perhaps the next special agent will indeed be special enough to challenge me.”

* * * * * *

It was just before noon at the Los Angeles field office when CJ Carson walked into the Specialist Serial Homicide Unit with a major swagger. She tipped her imaginary hat at her buddy, Jamie, before she continued to swagger all the way over to her chair. When she sat down, she curled her signature eyebrow to wait for someone to ask her the question.

Since it was slap-bang in the middle of Mikey’s vacation time, it left Jamie, Ethan, and newest team member, Tim Dalton, to watch CJ twitch and tilt her head in expectation.

The eyebrow rose even higher when nobody engaged her, and after a few more seconds of silence, Tim couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Well? Did you pass?”

CJ smiled smugly. “Damn right, I did. With flying colors too…”

A polite round of applause met her ears, and she chuckled happily to herself – more at her accomplishment than at her friends’ behavior.

“I knew you would, DM. That tiny broken wrist couldn’t keep you down,” Jamie said, adding a wink since she knew how serious her friend’s injuries had been.

CJ had been on the road to recovery for months after the plane crash that almost took her life, but today was the final step to freedom. She had passed her firearms reassessment which meant she could now be back to work in her full capacity as lead agent in the SSHU. It had been a long time coming – and during her desk duty she had been a short-tempered bitch on occasion – but as soon as she received the word from Assistant Director Mark Mulroney later this morning, she would be leaving the office to assist with the case Jamie and Ethan had been working on – three murder victims so far, shot in the head.

“I wanted to thank you guys for putting up with me,” CJ said a little more seriously. “I know I can be a pain in the ass when I can’t do stuff.”

Tim gave her a sympathetic look. “Hey. I can understand it a little, CJ. I was only away for a long weekend of training, and all I wanted to do was come back here and work the case with these guys.”

“Aww. That’s not even the same thing, but look at you trying to make me feel better.”

Tim grinned and shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

“And I’m grateful for your attempt,” CJ said with a majestic bow of her head.

“Anything for you, Ma’am.”

Jamie just snickered quietly behind her desk.  The gentle banter that CJ and Tim shared was commonplace now. At first, it had made Jamie uncomfortable and jealous, but after CJ had talked with her about it she realized she had been a tad childish. The fact of the matter was she actually really liked Tim. He seemed to genuinely care about CJ, and that was just fine with Jamie.

A few moments later, both CJ and Jamie jumped when two phones started ringing in unison. They looked at one another before answering the calls. Jamie’s was an agent from forensics getting back to her about the case she was working, and CJ’s was from her boss.

Once CJ had hung up the call, she stood from her seat. “This is it. I gotta go see Mark.”

Tim gave her the thumbs up. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.”

CJ frowned. “Nope. Not Tiger.”

“No?” Tim asked with a hint of teasing.

“No.”

CJ strutted along the corridor and into Mark’s office with a small smile on her face, happily anticipating her official return to full duty, but when she saw him, he wasn’t quite as chirpy as she was. “Sir? Everything all right?”

“Hmm? Oh, CJ, please sit,” Mark offered as he removed his reading glasses.

CJ analyzed him for a few seconds before she spoke. “I had thought this was about my return to full duty, but now I’m guessing it’s not.”

“It is about your return to duty, but…”

“But that looks suspiciously like a very fat case file, Sir,” CJ finished for him while nodding toward the bundle on his desk.

“You are correct.” Mark reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a letter to hand it over to his agent. “Welcome back, officially, CJ…and well done on your one hundred percent score this morning.”

“Thank you.”

“And now to this file. Ever heard of the Tick-Tock killer?”

CJ got that gloomy feeling of foreboding. “Yes. Agent Regan up in the San Francisco office has the case, doesn’t she?”

“Not anymore.” Mark seemed to pause before he passed the file over to her. “She was discovered at eight thirty this morning after she was unreachable and didn’t make it to an appointment with the coroner in Fresno.”

CJ read the notes on the top piece of paper then flicked through the crime scene photos underneath. “He didn’t kill her.”

“No, not quite, but I’m wondering if he thought he had. She has gone through the most horrendous ordeal, and we’re not sure she’ll ever wake up.”

“Raped and tortured,” CJ said, her eyebrows set in a new, permanent frown. “He’s a sadistic bastard, if you don’t mind me saying so, Sir.”

“No, CJ. I don’t mind at all. I can think of many words to describe him. You’ll find the files on all his other victims in that folder too.”

CJ looked up at him. “You’re giving me the case?”

Mark sighed. He was worried about giving this case to her. He knew CJ was the best, but for some reason, this killer above all the others, made him very uncomfortable. “Yes. There’s no one I’d trust more.”

“Is he here in LA?”

“He seems to be heading this way. I’m waiting for the latest report to land on my desk. Another body was found near Delano, forty miles north of Bakersfield just minutes ago. Looks like he was killed somewhere else and placed at the dump site.”

CJ dropped her eyes to the pages once more. She quickly found the profile written by Kelly Regan and scanned the killer’s MO. “He meant to kill her. So why did he not make sure she was dead before he left her?”

“I know you’re just thinking aloud, CJ, but it seems to me like he was disturbed in the act,” Mark said as he clasped his hands on top of the desk.

“I’ll get on this right away, Sir.”

“Good. Jamie and Ethan will have to continue with their case. If this one gets to be too much for you and Tim, let me know and I’ll call Mikey in from leave. Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I have a budget and expenses guy coming in to scrutinize our records.”

CJ rolled her eyes. “Fun times for you too then.” As she was walking out the door, a tall, handsome, suited man was standing outside it, his hand raised as if he was about to knock.

Mark spotted him, and shouted him inside. “Come in, Mr. Fleet. I was expecting you.”

“Mr. Mulroney. I’m Theodore Fleet, the assessor from Bailey, Jacobs and Fleet Financial.”

“Take a seat, Mr. Fleet.”

CJ snorted at Mark’s unintentional rhyme as she pulled the door closed behind her. “Good luck, Mark,” she said to herself as she walked away.

* * * * * *

Later that day at the Carson family home, Kate pulled on her bottom lip while she tried to remember where she had set her cell phone down. She had found that she had been a little flaky this week since things had gotten hectic on the run up to her new show, Infinity One, starting in earnest. Monday morning was the first day of shooting, and even though it would be strange going back to work again, she was really looking forward to it. A Monday to Friday acting job was not the norm. She did suspect there would be the occasional weekend shoot when things didn’t go according to plan, but on the whole her contract was for a standard five-day-week.

As Kate started to move through the house, she retraced her steps verbally. “I was in the kitchen then I went to pee…but before I did that I got sidetracked by Shannon, and I headed out to the backyard.” Once she had scanned the yard for any sign of a small, shiny object, she came back inside. “So, here in the toilet,” she said while searching the smallest room in the house. “I didn’t stay long, and I went back…ah!” When she turned around, she was suddenly faced with a grinning CJ. “Jeez, CJ. You scared the crap outta me!”

“Sorry. I was enjoying your monologue so much, I thought I’d wait until you had found whatever you were looking for before I said hello.”

Kate took a few breaths before she gently pushed CJ back a little. “Well, next time, just announce yourself.”

“My apologies,” CJ offered with a little bow while she pulled her hair out of its ponytail. “May I have a kiss?”

“Of course you can. I’m guessing by the look on your face that you’ve got a new and not very pleasant case, so I’ll give you two kisses.”

“Are they ever pleasant?” CJ asked as Kate walked into her arms.

“Good point. Kiss me.”

After two gentle, lingering kisses, CJ felt truly welcomed home. She finished by depositing a slow line of tinier kisses across Kate’s forehead. “There. Now you can continue your search.”

“What was I looking for?” Kate said with a frown.

“I have no idea.”

“Oh. My cell.” Kate swirled around on the spot. “Right. I’ll find it while you get changed, and then you can tell me about your case.”

“It’s the Tick-Tock killer,” CJ said calmly.

Kate instantly swirled around again to face her. “We were just talking about that the other day. How come you have to deal with it?”

CJ approached her, and after putting down her jacket and the bag containing her files, she placed her hands on Kate’s shoulders. “He put Agent Regan into a coma.”

The impending worry and strain slowly seeped into Kate’s expression. “He killed that first detective, and now he’s almost killed a federal agent? CJ, what if he-”

“Don’t say it,” CJ interrupted. “It’s my job, Katie, and I told you about it because we agreed to talk about everything. I won’t let him come after me.”

“But how can you know that he won’t do to you what he did to-”

“Hey. Let’s not do this now, OK? I can hear the girls coming. I promise you, I won’t let it get that far. Trust in me.”

Kate looked for reassurance in CJ’s eyes, and it was there in abundance. “I do. Just be super careful. I can’t lose you.”

“I know. I’ll keep you posted every step of the way.”

“Hello, gorgeous family!” Eddie Senior exclaimed as he followed Shannon and Lucy in through the kitchen.

“Hey, Dad,” Kate responded after she had squeezed CJ’s arm.

“I just popped over to bring you this delicious lasagna! Oh, hi, CJ. Glad you’re home!”

CJ smiled. She couldn’t help it when Eddie was around. “Looks great. Just hold that thought until I go get changed.” She took a sniff at the oven dish full of wonderful aromas. “You made this masterpiece on your new stove, huh?”

“Oh, yes! I can’t believe we’re moved in already. That beautiful house went up faster than I could say Liza Minnelli! And the kitchen is a dream! Jeffrey just adores it.”

Their new log home was up and functioning within two months of construction starting, and both men had settled in immediately. It was less than a one minute walk from the ranch house but had the privacy of the new security fencing between the buildings – a perfect setup. Eddie obviously thought so as his eyebrows were dancing all over the place in his exuberance.

“I’m glad,” CJ said as she tried to hold back her laughter. “Where is Jeffrey?”

“Oh, he’s waiting for me to return. We’re having a romantic meal tonight. Candlelight and soothing music, dinner and who knows where the night will lead. Oh!”

“O-kay. Too much info,” Kate butted in as she grabbed a hand towel to take the oven dish from him. “Dad, go enjoy your romantic night in. Girls, go wash your hands. CJ, go get changed.”

Eddie threw his oven-mitt-covered hands in the air. “So bossy!” he exclaimed before he waved at his granddaughters and strolled out the back door whistling a jaunty tune.

CJ gave Kate her raised-eyebrow look. “Katie, go find your cell before you forget.”

“Oh, right.”

Lucy looked completely confused. “Mama’s cell is in the playroom.”

Kate spun on her heels to face her younger daughter. “It is?”

“Uh-huh. Remember we were playing a game on it.”

“Oh, my goodness. I totally forgot about that. Thanks, Luce,” Kate said a little sheepishly.

CJ smiled at her before she made her quick dash upstairs to put on her comfy clothes, but in the back of her mind she was still running through the Tick-Tock killer’s profile and trying to deny that Kate’s fears were actually valid.

* * * * * *

Lying in bed that night, CJ was pretty sure she could hear Kate’s mind going around and around in circles, so she turned on her side to face her. “Katie, are you asleep?”

“Yes,” Kate murmured.

“I know that trick.”

“You’re too smart for me. I’m nowhere near asleep.”

CJ knew why, so she pulled Kate closer until she was tucked into her body. “Mmm, that’s better. I love spooning you.”

“And I love being spooned.” Kate snorted out a laugh. “Jeez, I made myself sound like an ice-cream dessert.”

“I’d say you were much more delicious than an ice-cream dessert.”

“Correct answer,” Kate said as she patted CJ’s hand that was cupping her belly. When the hand started caressing her, she tried to let her body relax into the sensation. “Do you want something, my love?” she whispered.

CJ nuzzled into the back of her neck, letting Kate’s short hair tickle her face as she moved from side to side trailing her lips across the soft skin there. “Depends…”

“On what?”

“On what you want…”

Kate inhaled deeply before she turned in the embrace. “I want you to be safe.”

CJ looked deeply into her eyes. “I will be. You’re stuck with me, remember?”

Kate nodded, but CJ could see the fear that would haunt them both until the case was over. This particular killer was taking out cops, but she was convinced she would figure out who he was and capture him, just like she always did.

“Stop thinking about things and let me make love to you,” CJ whispered before she kissed Kate’s forehead.

“I’ll try.”

CJ’s lips began to mark a slow trail down Kate’s cheek and onto her neck. When Kate lifted her chin, CJ gently tickled her tongue along her collarbone, continuing back across and down between her breasts. When she met the material of Kate’s tank top, CJ reached up to stretch the cotton barrier out of the way before she sucked and kissed the soft skin of her right breast, eliciting a lazy inhale from Kate.

When CJ reached Kate’s nipple, she bared her teeth and rasped them over the tip until the nipple was hard and standing erect. While Kate gasped above her, CJ engulfed the nipple with her warm mouth and sucked on it until Kate grabbed her head.

“Come up here and kiss me, Ciara.”

Momentarily wondering why Kate would stop her, CJ gave the nipple one last, playful nudge with her nose before moving smoothly up to Kate’s mouth. “You OK?” she whispered before kissing her gently.

Kate shook her head. “I’m distracted.”

“Damn,” CJ said quietly. “Maybe I shouldn’t have told you about the case.”

“No. I want to know about it.” Kate sighed as she moved to hold CJ beside her. “Maybe I’m just not in the mood.”

“Wow.”

Kate had to grin at that. “I know, right? When does that ever happen?”

“Almost never, but I guess I understand since my mind is like a whirlwind right now. How about I just hold you all night instead?”

“How about we hold each other?”

CJ grinned at her. “Deal.”

“I love you.”

“Love you more.”

“Not possible.”

“I beg to differ.”

“Agree to disagree?”

“Uh-huh.”

.

Chapter 2

CJ arrived at the field office’s lobby the next morning with her mind focused on a full day of thorough investigation. When she saw the elevator doors closing, she was about to shout for whoever was inside to wait, but a hand shot out between the doors before she had the chance.

“Just in time,” Tim said as she slotted in beside him.

“Mornin’, partner,” CJ replied with a nod.

“Morning.”

“Did you sleep well?”

Tim shook his head as the elevator began its ascent. “Nah. Too much on my mind.”

“Me too,” CJ said before a sigh escaped her mouth. “And we haven’t really gone through the case file yet, so it’ll probably get worse. We’ll need to make sure to keep each other awake in the days to come.”

“Don’t worry, CJ. I got your back.”

She turned to smile at him. “And I have yours.”

Once in their office, the pair got themselves situated around CJ’s desk. All the required files were collated into one bundle, CJ’s pin board was cleared and ready to receive a new set of morbid pictures, and Tim had made his special concoction of coffee in preparation for the long day ahead.

It was an hour later before CJ realized that Jamie and Ethan hadn’t arrived at the office. After a few minutes of scratching her face with her pencil, she remembered that they had to go visit a witness from their case.

“Where did that witness live again?”

Tim looked up from the page he was reading. “Witness?”

“Yeah. Jamie’s witness from the Tompkins murder.”

“Oh. That was out in Orange County. Irvine, I think.”

CJ nodded before she looked at Tim and saw his grin. “What?”

“You totally confused me. I was reading about victim number seven. No witnesses there. I know we have a connection, CJ, but I can’t read your mind.”

CJ puffed out a laugh. “Just as well, ‘cause it works in weird and mysterious ways. You wouldn’t wanna know what goes on in there.”

Tim just pretended to think about it for a moment before he waved his hand. “Pfft.”

“Intelligent response, Agent Dalton.”

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s get on with this.”

“I’ve already finished reading through it three times. The photos are on the board too. You ready?” CJ said as she got up to pour another coffee from the colorful carafe Tim had produced from his bag that morning.

Tim looked up at the pin board. “When the hell did you do that?”

“While you were engrossed in your analysis of the Tick-Tock killer’s misdeeds…”

“Huh.” Tim shook his head and turned the file back to the first murder. “I have a few questions for you since I’m still learning.”

“Fire away. It’ll be good to discuss it.”

Tim pulled his chair in a little more until he could lean back and still glance at the file. “As far as I can see, Agent Regan was dead on with her profile, but I don’t think she went far enough with it.”

CJ’s eyes narrowed. She could already feel that he was going to be a good match for her. “Go on…”

“Well, she said here that she believed he was stalking his victims beforehand. He knew something of their lives and must have been watching for at least a month, but he was killing them more frequently than that, so I think he was watching more than one at a time. I think he is even more organized that Regan predicted. It’s like it was a full time job for him, not just an impulse to kill. I imagine him to be compulsively organized and compulsively neat. If anything’s out of place in his life, he can’t deal with it.”

CJ looked straight into his eyes. “I think you’re right. And I think he went even further than that. I think he not only watched them, but used other methods to find out about their pasts, about their families and their way of life, like he had to know everything.”

“What other methods are you thinking of?”

“Maybe the Internet or hacking police records, or maybe even visiting their family members under the guise of a cop? I’m not sure yet.”

“It’s totally possible,” Tim said as he gave his temple a gentle massage. “We may need to revisit the victim’s families then, and ask them if anyone came prying about their loved ones.

“Yeah, because it doesn’t look like Regan had covered that angle.” CJ stood up with a whiteboard marker in her hand. She walked over to stand next to the pin board and turned around to face Tim. “Can you do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Read out a quick victim description, and then read out the message that was left on them? I’ll put them up on this whiteboard for us to glance at, as and when we need them.”

Tim leaned forward, ready to flip through the pages of various reports. “OK, ready?” At CJ’s nod, he started to read. “Technically, the first victim was Sherry Stevenson, but she was not linked to the Tick-Tock killer until two victims later. No message on her body, only straight score marks. She has now been added to his tally since she was incapacitated with chloroform and he left a pocket watch in her jacket pocket.”

“Does that tell you anything?” CJ asked while she finished putting asterisks around this victim’s details.

Tim tapped his pen on his lips before answering. “From what I’ve read of the other victims, this one was a test victim, a trial. He either wasn’t sure of how he was going to proceed, or the differences in her murder have another purpose that we aren’t seeing yet.”

“Good. OK, next one. The first of his true pattern.”

“Second victim that we know of is Steve Birrell, aged eighteen, lived in Berkeley. He had very rich parents and drove a top of the range Porsche, always bragging about his wealth according to his so-called friends.”

CJ jotted down abbreviations for each piece of information. “And the message?”

Spoiled and needy children harbor evil.” Tim looked up from the page. “Our killer didn’t like that fact that this kid was flashing the cash, huh?”

“Seems like it,” CJ confirmed. “Next one?”

“Viz Iello, forty two years old, lived in San Francisco. He was a drug-dealing pimp who abused his hookers on a regular basis. A lot of them were vulnerable young girls.”

“What kind of name is Viz?” CJ asked as she wrote.

“He’s on file as Victor, always known as Viz.”

“The message on his body was…?”

Tim let out a humorless laugh. “Zero tolerance of lecherous dealers.”

“Nice,” CJ said sarcastically.

“John Peters is next…old guy and a pedophile to boot. He lived in Daly City when he got out of prison. He was on parole and tagged.” Tim shook his head. “Message reads, old flaccid man, young victims.”

“So, our killer didn’t immediately start traveling south. Something must have spooked him. Maybe the cops got too close.” CJ turned to Tim who had somehow known she was not expecting an answer and was already looking at the next victim’s details. She smiled without even realizing it. “The last guy before Sanchez was killed was a drunk driver, right?”

“Yeah. David Dean Wilbur, thirty six. He was found in Stockton, so I guess this is when the perp decided to spread out a little. Wilbur served two years for a DUI that killed three people. He got out and mowed down an innocent nine-year-old boy while under the influence. Our killer wrote intoxicated citizen takes out roadkill youth.”

CJ finished writing and pinched the bridge of her nose. “And then he kills Detective Milo Sanchez,” she said, raising her hand to write again. “The message on his body was just one word.”

“Yes…really, with a question mark,” Tim confirmed.

“What’s your take on the message?”

“The killer is emphasizing how easy it was to kill a detective?”

“Could be,” CJ said as she moved to stand in front of the board. “I think he meant it to be sarcasm, like he couldn’t believe they would assign such a stupid…in his opinion…cop to the case.”

Tim came to stand beside her. “That’s more likely.”

CJ turned her head. “Don’t just agree with me if you think it’s not right.”

“I’m not. But I am learning from you, CJ. That’s what I’m here for.”

“OK, but I want to hear your ideas too. I need to hear your ideas. They might be right one of these days.”

Tim grinned briefly. “Gotcha. So we have a narcissistic psychopath on our hands.”

“Yes, but not only that. He is extreme in a lot of ways. An extreme perfectionist…”

“Tell me why you say that.”

CJ nodded. “He puts punctuation into the messages on his victims’ flesh,” she said, tapping her pen on the photo of Milo Sanchez’s torso. “I haven’t encountered that before. If they wanna write something, it’s usually basic or not even spelled right, but this guy, he’s very precise.”

Tim looked more closely at the pictures. “True. I noticed the question mark, but on this one I had thought that was just a freckle or something,” he said, pointing at the comma-shaped slice on John Peters’ body. “It’s like he’s showing us that he never makes a mistake. He thinks he’s better than everyone else. Does he have a God complex? Like, he judges his victims and believes their weaknesses are sins that he has to cleanse?”

“Not sins, but he does think their weaknesses are disgusting. He perceives himself to be perfection. Look how clean these bodies are,” CJ said, tapping the board again. “He did this pre-mortem, so there would have been a considerable amount of blood. He has cleaned them to make sure we see his message loud and clear, and I’m betting he took a fair amount of time preparing the dump sites too. Did you notice exactly where he left these victims?”

Tim went back to his seat to scrutinize the file a little more. Once he had checked the reports, he didn’t see anything obvious in the addresses and frowned as he looked up at CJ. “What do you know about the locations?”

CJ crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side in a conciliatory but authoritative stance. “This is where local knowledge comes in real handy, but I’m not that familiar with the San Francisco area, so I researched the places last night to get a better insight. Birrell was left outside a bank in one of the most affluent suburbs of the city to emphasize the shock factor of a rich kid being killed. Iello was left right in front of a known crack den. Do you see where I’m going here?”

“Absolutely. This killer is as bold as they come. I mean to even approach a known crack den…” Tim glanced down at the page. “And at one AM too. He’s not scared of anyone, huh?”

“No, he’s not. It just adds to the severity of his narcissism and the fact that he feels no emotion, no fear. He thinks he’s untouchable,” CJ said as she unfolded her arms.

“The dump site of that very first victim didn’t have any major significance, did it?”

“Not that I can see, so you may be right about him just testing the water, watching to see what the cops would do.”

“Can you tell me where the other two civilian victims were left?” Tim asked, genuinely wanting to learn since CJ’s knowledge was already blowing his mind. The speed at which she picked up information that Tim couldn’t even see was astounding to him. Yes, she had done this many times before but still, he was impressed.

“Peters the pedophile was left in a playpark which tells me this perp doesn’t give a damn about anyone, even kids, because they could’ve stumbled onto the dead body. Wilbur was dumped very carefully behind the wheel of a stolen car and doused in alcohol.”

Tim noted it all down on his copy of the file for reference later. “It’s like he wants to make his point…even after he’s made his point in the messages. He’s a little obsessive.”

“A lot obsessive,” CJ added. “Read out the next one.”

Tim grabbed the file and flipped the page. “OK, after Sanchez there was Lily Lichfield, fifty nine years old from Antioch. She was friends with everyone she knew, no enemies at all. Going by the message he left on her, he didn’t like the fact that she was obese. Realize excessive greed and neutralize it.”

“So he’s still using a location in the San Francisco area, possibly his own home, wherever that is,” CJ muttered to herself as she wrote it all on the board. “It seems like she was a sweet lady with no criminal history. He’ll just take anyone down to make his point.”

“Looks that way,” Tim said while turning another page. “Lichfield was left outside a donut and candy shop, and the killer poured a pile of sugar into each of her hands. Jeez. No hidden mystery there. Next, we have adrenaline junkie, Laura Cane, twenty four, from San Francisco. She loved any sport that gave her a rush, including bungee jumping, base jumping, and high speed car racing. Seems it leaked out into her everyday life since she had priors for reckless driving and excessive speeding. She put a guy into a wheelchair after her car hit his at a red light. Her license had been revoked last year, but she was caught again doing over a hundred on the Interstate.”

CJ nodded thoughtfully. “If Cane was caught breaking the law after driving without her license and seriously injuring someone, how come our killer could even get to her?”

“She was out on bail, awaiting sentencing.”

“Tough break.”

“Yeah. Cane’s body was hung from a streetlight…with the ropes from a parachute? What the hell?” Tim said, perplexed.

“I told you, this killer is much more than Agent Regan had considered. He goes to extremes, and it seems that also includes staging his body dumps. He likes to create a dramatic display of his work, and he is so confident he won’t get caught that he takes the time to do things like this. What was the message on Cane’s body?”

Speed ahead, die early,” Tim said before he stretched to straighten out the creaks in his neck. “Has it been released to the press about Regan?”

CJ shook her head. “No. As far as the world knows, a federal agent was killed in the line of duty. She’s under guard at the hospital. There’s one more victim…?” she added, waiting poised with her Sharpie at the whiteboard.

“Simon Reeves, fifty seven years old. He was the CEO of a chemical company. Their toxic waste was found to be polluting lakes and waterways in two locations in California. His body was dumped on a landfill site near Merced. Message reads wealth obliterates man and nature.”

“So, I’d say this is the first murder after he left his home. It’s too far from his comfort zone. Whatever spooked him-”

“Hold up, CJ,” Tim interrupted. “If he had left home by this point, how did he find out where Regan was going? If we follow the profile, he would have been watching her. She lived in San Francisco, so…”

CJ stopped writing and leaned her shoulder against the board. “You think he stalked Agent Regan as well?” At Tim’s nod, she chewed on her lip while she thought about it. “You might be right. He could’ve followed her to Fresno, which means he would have gone back to San Francisco after the Merced body dump. That’s a hell of a long way. He was probably trying to throw Regan off his scent.”

Tim agreed. “And maybe that’s why he decided to kill her. She fell for it.”

“She wasn’t worthy of him,” CJ said pensively.

Tim’s stomach performed an unpleasant flip. “But you are, CJ. You’re better than him, and we’ll get him.”

Once again, CJ was caught a little off guard by Tim’s words. He wasn’t being facetious in any way. He was such a genuine guy, and he made her feel ridiculously mushy, which in turn made her feel a tad uncomfortable.

“I don’t know how to respond to that, Tim. Quit the compliments, will ya?”

Tim could see that hidden appreciation once more. “So what’s next?”

“We investigate the watches real quick. The press weren’t told about those. They’re our big hold-back.”

At the mention of the watches, Tim got up from his chair and snagged the evidence box from his desk before returning to stand beside CJ. He put the box on a nearby table and lifted one of the clear evidence bags from inside. “So that brings us to these,” he said thoughtfully.

An antique pocket watch, complete with chain, had been left with each victim. Apart from the very first victim, the watches had been left in full view as part of a message to the police, and thereafter to the FBI. CJ hadn’t found any notes on their value in the reports, so she would have to find out soon if they were of any more significance than a reference to the killer’s media name. He could just have been taunting law enforcement by shoving the fact that they were running out of time down their throats, or there could be a reason he used old pocket watches rather than just a modern wristwatch.

“They all just look the same to me,” Tim said, pulling CJ from her thoughts.

“Well, they’re all silver, silver plate, or gold I think, but they have different face colors, different makers…”

Tim pursed his lips. “I guess I’m not an antiques expert, huh?”

“Me neither. We need to get these checked out.” CJ looked up at the board, now littered with victim details. “We also need the autopsy report on Reeves from the ME.”

“I can pop down there now,” Tim offered. “I remember you saying something about not liking her that much.”

CJ smirked at him. She would happily let him deal with Chris Wilder, slutty medical examiner extraordinaire, but only because she knew he could handle it. “I would totally appreciate that, Tim.”

“I know.”

He smiled at her before he left the office, and when CJ grabbed the evidence box and sat down in her chair, she realized she was mentally coping quite well with this case so far. Hmm. I feel so motivated. I always feel motivated to catch a murderer, but not like this. It’s not a dark motivation this time. I feel encouraged. Ah. It’s Tim, she mused before she pulled the remaining watches out of the box to examine them. Better not tell Jamie that. She’ll throw another tantrum. Memories of Jamie’s jealous hissy-fit made her grin for a moment, and she wondered how her buddy’s case was progressing. CJ missed her a little, but there would be time to catch up after the bad guys were caught.

A couple of minutes later, she looked up when the door opened again to reveal Tim, who had a weird look on his face and was closely followed by Chris.

“Look who I found in the corridor,” Tim said as neutrally as he could.

CJ plastered a smile on her face. “Dr. Wilder. How are you?” She felt safe enough to be polite to the ME without fear of an attack as long as she had her wing man for backup.

“Hello, CJ. I’m fine. I just wanted to bring this report up to you.”

“Thanks,” CJ responded. When Chris remained on the same spot and didn’t leave, she raised her eyebrows in question. “Is there anything else?”

Chris’s usually-lurid reply to a question like that didn’t transpire, and she shoved her hands in her lab coat pockets before answering. “This victim was different from all the others in your case. He died of a heart attack before the killer wrote the message on his body.”

The sullen, exhausted look on Chris’s face gave CJ a clue as to her demeanor. Their ME was run off her feet.

“I’m sure that would have irritated this killer a little. Thanks for letting me know,” she said as she flipped the front page open.

Chris gave a single nod. “You’re welcome.”

CJ frowned. “The victim had chemical burns all over his back?”

“Yes. Mr. Reeves was found in a pool of various kitchen cleaners mixed with acid. It was a volatile concoction. The skin on his back is pretty much gone,” Chris said mechanically. “The killer subdued him with chloroform, just like the others. When he awoke, he was tortured, causing the heart attack. The body was beaten post-mortem then the stomach area was cut. I’d say a scalpel was used, or a similar precision tool. He took his time to pour the chemicals. There was no trace of them anywhere at the landfill site except a concentrated pool under your victim.”

CJ looked up at her and nodded. “OK, thanks.”

“No problem,” Chris replied, giving CJ the first sign of a small smile.

When she began to leave the room, Tim shrugged at CJ before he said, “Are you all right, Dr. Wilder?”

Chris paused. “Yes, just tired. I thought the walk up here would give me a temporary change of scene and a break from the dead people.”

“Ah. Keep up the good work.”

“Thank you, Agent Dalton.”

“Please, call me Tim.”

Chris nodded in acknowledgement before she closed the door behind her, leaving CJ slightly puzzled, but ultimately relieved.

“I’m so glad you didn’t offer her a coffee or something. That would have perked her right back up to her usual, unbearable self.”

Tim tilted his head and analyzed CJ. “What’s going on with you and her really? It’s more than just not liking her.”

“You’re annoyingly observant, Tim. She’s an old flame, and as much as I tell her that I have zero interest in her, she doesn’t seem to hear it. Her behavior was bordering on sexual assault just a few weeks ago.”

“Oh.” Tim didn’t like that. “Like I said, I got your back.”

CJ’s grin changed her entire expression. She searched Tim’s face and couldn’t fully understand that connection he had mentioned earlier. She was just glad that he seemed to feel it. “I know.”

* * * * * *

A few hours later – after Jamie and Ethan had fleetingly appeared in the office before a shooting hauled them back out again – CJ had tried to trace a couple of the pocket watches through their serial numbers. Her efforts had met with a dead end, but she had spoken to an antiques dealer who was willing to give her some insight and to value the pieces for her. She didn’t think it would lead them right to the killer, but she wouldn’t rule out getting any piece of information that might help them along the way.

Just before she and Tim left the office to meet the dealer, the telephone rang. CJ picked it up immediately since she recognized the number, but she answered professionally anyway.

“Agent Carson…”

“Hello, Agent Carson. It’s Kate Carson.”

CJ grinned despite her horrible workload. “Hey. What’s happenin’?”

“Not much. I just finished a call with Lorena. Everything’s set for work on Monday, and now I’m just enjoying my last, unemployed days at home.”

“Good. Take it easy.”

“I will. What about you, honey? Are you getting anywhere with the case?”

CJ sighed. “Not yet. We’re just in the initial stages, you know? We’re about to go see a guy, so I need to cut this short, but I will call you later. OK?”

“Sure. I love you. I just wanted to check in.”

“I’m glad you did. Very glad,” CJ said while glancing over at Tim who was grinning like an idiot.

Kate answered with a mildly mischievous voice. “Yeah, yeah, you love me too, but there’s someone in the room. I get it.”

“Actually, it’s only me and Tim here, so…I love you too.” CJ rolled her eyes when Tim pretended to swoon. “Bye, Katie. I need to go kick Agent Dalton’s ass.”

Kate giggled on the line. “Bye, CJ.”

Once the call was disconnected, CJ got up and began a slow and menacing stalk toward her partner, but Tim stood his ground. He knew damned well her dangerous look worked with other people, but he just couldn’t stop grinning.

“You can’t kick my ass,” he said, trying his best to look serious.

“Wanna bet?” CJ snarled.

Tim laughed out loud. “Let’s not find out right now,” he said hurriedly before he shot out the door and headed along the corridor.

CJ smiled to herself and found her swagger again as she followed him to the elevator.

* * * * * *

In the car on their way to the antiques store, CJ made a decision, and while she kept her eyes on the road she shared it with Tim. “So, during Detective Sanchez’s investigation, the SFPD did a press conference about the Tick-Tock killer in an attempt to advance the case and appease the bosses who were pushing down in the department. And for some reason, the same happened with the FBI when Regan was investigating…”

“Yeah, I watched those. They actually mentioned the lead investigator each time. I would guess we will not be doing that,” Tim said quite adamantly. “It meant the killer definitely knew who was on his trail both times. It seems crazy to me that they put it out there, so I hope they won’t force us to do it. I mean, I know you’re awesome, but I’d like you to stick around for the next few decades at least.”

CJ was impressed with him as an agent, but she also found there was a tiny lump in her throat at the protective sentiment from her friend too. The look that passed between them as she glanced round at him said it all, which meant she didn’t have to. “There you go with the compliments again.”

Tim could see her smile lingering beneath the surface, and he was glad she was secretly appreciating his sense of humor. “I won’t take this one back since I’m completely serious, but we are going to hold off for as long as possible with the press conference thing, right?”

“Yes. I’ll talk to Mark, and I know he’ll listen and run interference with Mitchell and the director.”

“Good,” Tim said as he removed a small evidence bag containing a pocket watch from the box on his lap. “These are all at different times. That’s deliberate, right?”

CJ glanced at Tim again and nodded before her eyes focused back on the road. “Yes.”

“Which killings are they set to? The one they were found on or the next one in line?”

“You know you’re really good at this…”

Tim looked up at her. “Thanks. Maybe I was in the wrong department before, huh?”

“I’d say so. And to answer your question, the watches were set to the time of death of the next victim in line, which doesn’t really help us at all since the cops had no idea what day the next murder would take place.”

“He was taunting them.”

CJ snarled a little. “Yeah. I want to find him before he starts taunting us.”

Tim didn’t respond since they had arrived at the antique dealer’s store. As he got out of the car, his mind was still running through the images of the dump sites of each of the previous murders. The killer set every one of them up precisely for dramatic effect when they were discovered. Was he killing because he hated cops and wanted to show them how insignificant they were, or was he simply the psychopath they thought he was, enjoying the kill and the game? Did he have even more victims yet to be found? Tim would have to ask CJ if she had considered that. As they walked into the store, he almost rolled his eyes at himself. Of course she has.

* * * * * *

Jim Paulson fell into the category of ‘stereotypical antiques dealer’. He was a sixty-year-old man with gray hair, and a snappy suit with a chain hanging from the waistcoat pocket where he kept his own rare pocket watch. He had glasses hanging around his neck on a chain, but he currently wore a monocle while he examined something in his hand, which made CJ think of Sherlock Holmes when she saw him. She had to restrain her smirk as she approached.

When he saw the two agents in front of his counter, Jim scrunched up his face in an attempt to get a better look. “I’m bettin’ you’re Agent Carson?” he said with a smile.

“I am indeed, Mr. Paulson.”

When CJ showed him her badge, he nodded and waved her off. “I don’t need to see that. I recognize your voice from the telephone, and even if I didn’t, you two look exactly like FBI. No question.”

CJ realized the stereotypical thing went both ways. “I suppose we do. This is my partner, Agent Dalton.”

“Good to meet ya, Sonny.”

“Mr. Paulson. Thanks for helping us with these watches,” Tim replied politely.

“Oh, no problem. Let’s see them then.”

While Tim handed each evidence bag over to the expert, CJ watched as Jim examined them, sometimes with his magnifier, sometimes not. He would let out a little grunt on occasion, or raise an eyebrow, and when he was done he nodded and looked back up at the agents.

“Well, they’re antiques all right. Not one of ‘em worth less than a thousand dollars,” Jim said, obviously quite impressed with the collection.

CJ was only somewhat surprised. The killer was meticulous about everything else, so why not this? He clearly liked quality in his life.

“Are any of them worth substantially more than that?” Tim asked.

“Yes,” Jim responded before he started pointing to each watch as he valued it. “These five are around a thousand. These two here are around the thirty five hundred mark, but this…this one here is a solid gold watch from a renowned maker, made around nineteen-ten or nineteen-twenty, so it’s old and highly valuable. The inner workings will no doubt be made of platinum and these stones in the face? Those are diamonds.”

CJ leaned over to get a better look at the watch he was talking about, and when she saw it was the one left on the body of Steve Birrell – the rich kid – it made sense to her that it would be singled out as the most expensive. “How much is it worth, Mr. Paulson?”

“This one would be hot property in any decade, Ma’am. I’d say you get fifteen thousand dollars for it, easy…as long as it’s working. Maybe ten if it’s not.”

Tim let out a tiny whistle. “Can we check it?”

“Sure.”

Jim placed his fingers on either side of the winder at the top of the watch – through the clear evidence bag, of course – and wound it for five revolutions. After examining the face closely for a few seconds, he nodded. “Yep. Fifteen thousand.”

“Thank you so much for the information,” CJ said.

“Well, if you’ll just let me check my computer, I could give you the most important piece of information,” Jim offered. “Might help your case? I know enough to see these are part of an investigation.”

“Please, go ahead.” When Jim gave CJ a small salute and went into his back office, she turned to Tim. “That’s a hell of a lot of cash to be throwing onto dead bodies,” she whispered.

“I know. Do you think the killer has no idea of their value?”

“I think he knows exactly what he’s doing. I don’t think he cares how much they’re worth, which makes me think he’s pretty rich himself. It would be beneath him to use cheap watches for this.”

“Agreed,” Tim said, waving his finger to signal that Jim was returning.

“Here you go, Agents. I knew I recognized some of these,” Jim confirmed, spreading his hand across the counter. “They’re part of a collection that was sold as one lot in auction. Most dealers have heard about them. Last time they were sold was twenty or some years ago. The auction house was Miller and Sanders Fine Antiques and Rarities Auctions over in Santa Barbara. They’re still in business, you know. Family company.”

“Wow, Jim. You really know your stuff,” CJ said.

“You have to know your stuff if you want to make it in the antiques game, Ma’am.”

CJ snagged one of her cards out of her suit jacket pocket while Tim collected up the watches. “If anything else comes to mind, please give me a call?”

“Sure thing.” Jim narrowed his eyes to see the writing on the card. “Special Agent.”

Once they were back in the car, CJ and Tim looked at one another until Tim realized she was waiting for him to speak first.

“That last piece of information…” Tim finally said thoughtfully.

CJ just knew he was going to say something awesome. “Yes…?”

“Our killer didn’t know that.”

“Tell me why you think that?”

Tim shrugged. “Because he’s so careful. No DNA or prints, nothing that could help us. He wouldn’t leave us anything that could lead us to him…and that could.”

Somewhere inside, CJ wanted to do a little dance, but instead she gave Tim that confirmation nod. “It could help us, but I don’t think it’ll lead us right to him. That auction house should know exactly who bought those watches twenty years ago, especially if the collection is kinda famous in certain circles, but I doubt our killer was buying antiques twenty years ago. According to Regan’s profile, which I agree with, he is in his mid-thirties to early forties.”

“He could’ve inherited them,” Tim suggested.

CJ’s eyes popped open. “I was about to say that. Quit reading my mind.”

“I told you, I can’t read your mind,” Tim replied with a smirk.

“Sure as hell seems like it.” CJ started the car, and after a quick nudge to her partner’s shoulder, they took off for the office. Once there, she ‘ordered’ Tim to make her a nice coffee while she called the auction house, hoping to get something, anything to progress their investigation.

.

Chapter 3

Down in the medical examiner’s office, Chris sat slumped in her chair for a few minutes rest between corpses. Between CJ’s case, Jamie’s case, and three others that were active right now, she was run off her feet. For CJ, she had ordered three exhumations, and then had all the previous victims’ bodies shipped to her. She had only just finished re-examining all of the evidence. She had also re-autopsied each one in case anything was missed – anything to give CJ the best chance of finding the killer.

Chris had seen the news. She had seen the footage of the press conferences for this case. The Tick-Tock killer was one of the smartest in recent years, and when she had found only one discrepancy in a previous victim’s report, it didn’t seem like anything important, but she wanted to let the agents know about it if it would help to stop the killer coming after CJ.

* * * * * *

“Well, that didn’t seem to help much,” CJ said before she took a swig of her coffee. “The guy from Miller and Sanders did have information about the sale of the watches, but I’ve just checked the system, and this Ethel Geirson who bought them doesn’t have any children.”

“Nieces? Nephews?” Tim asked.

CJ tapped her pen on the desk while her brain ran around in circles trying to figure out how to predict this killer’s movements. “One nephew, but we don’t know who that is yet. No relatives with the name Geirson.”

“And where does Ethel li-” Tim started to ask but was interrupted by a knock on the door before Chris walked in.

“Hey, guys.”

“Doctor,” CJ addressed her professionally while noting Chris’s dark hair that wasn’t as perfect as normal. Man, she really is busy. “What’s that?” she added, pointing to the files in Chris’s hand.

“Autopsy reports and forensic files for you,” Chris replied, offering the bundle to CJ.

“Uh, I already have those.”

“Not these ones. These are my findings on all the victims in your case so far.”

CJ frowned, and after a brief pause said, “You re-autopsied all of them?”

“Yes. I wanted to make sure nothing was missed. Turns out I only had to add one addendum to the second victim’s report. The others are all accurate. I don’t know if it will be significant to you, but it’s there anyway.”

CJ nodded, and when she looked up from the paperwork, she saw a tiny hint of that dangerous desire in Chris’s eyes, but it was gone in seconds. It seemed that this was just a temporary reprieve from her lurid advances after all.

Tim was watching all of this carefully, scrutinizing the medical examiner and checking CJ’s reactions to the conversation. He was doing it mainly to be a witness to everything between these two, but also to hone his agent skills in reading people. He studied Chris Wilder. She was a stunning individual with dark hair and eyes, a statuesque figure and a confident manner. He caught the change in her eyes that appeared just long enough to show the alluring underbelly of her character. She was intelligent, but was she manipulative? Was this demure side to her all an act to lull CJ into a false sense of security?

Get a grip of your imagination, Tim, he told himself sternly, and when he broke out of his thoughts, Chris was already saying goodbye. “Thanks again, Doctor,” he said as she left.

CJ’s head was already buried in the addendum file. “Steve Birrell’s body was moved twice before it was dumped, not once. I wonder if that’s significant.”

“Maybe the killer put it into an unsatisfactory position the first time?”

“Could be, but according to the blood-stain analysis, it wasn’t quickly moved into the second position, so maybe he stored it somewhere until he had perfected his first staged body dump. I dunno.”

“Anything else?” Tim asked.

“Uh…” CJ skimmed the rest of the page. “Traces of vomit in his mouth.”

Tim drummed his fingers quietly on his desk. “They’ve never found the murder sites, have they?”

“No. Only the dump sites. We probably won’t have any idea where he killed these people until we know who he is.”

Tim sighed and went back to thinking about Chris. “CJ, do you think the medical examiner is worried about you?”

CJ looked up abruptly. “In what sense?”

“I was watching her when she was talking to you. I just wonder if she has re-examined every victim because it’s you who’s leading this. She might be worried about the fact that this killer seems to keep track of who’s keeping track of him…and he kills law enforcement.”

“She re-examined them because it’s her job, Tim.”

“I don’t believe she had to do that, though,” Tim said. “Anyway, I was about to ask you earlier where Ethel Geirson lived.”

CJ’s glare was fleeting before she answered. “In a rural area near San Jose. I’ll get the San Francisco office to send a couple of agents out to talk to her.”

“Is it bad that I want to go visit her myself?” Tim asked.

“Nah. If you’re anything like me, you need the whole experience to get a feel for the place and the person. You know…sights, sounds, even the smell of the house and the demeanor of the subject? I’m pretty visual when it comes to investigating, which is why I like the pin board covered in pictures, but for this, I’m sure our San Francisco colleagues can relay all the information to us.”

“I understand. I did notice you don’t use the fancy TV system. Too restrictive, huh?”

CJ snorted. “Yeah, it is fancy, but I can’t fit all those images on that screen. I usually have more of my own pictures too, but we haven’t been to a crime scene yet, so…”

“Oh, I hear ya. I like your style.”

When Tim’s phone rang and he was distracted by it, CJ leaned back in her chair and tried to decide how he might be feeling about her. It was a momentary distraction from the case, but a welcome one. Was Tim attracted to her? Sometimes she wondered when he looked at her the way he did. She cared about him – she might even say she loved him, but more as a brother than anything else. When the time was appropriate, she would ask him since she felt he would answer honestly. She couldn’t imagine anything coming between them, which was totally weird.

* * * * * *

An hour later, Mark arrived at their office door. With no greeting except a brief nod, he handed a file to CJ. “After about twenty phone calls, I finally managed to get a copy of Agent Regan’s medical report. It’s not pretty.”

CJ blew out a breath. “I wasn’t expecting it to be.”

And with another nod to both agents, Mark was gone again. He looked as stressed as CJ felt.

Tim got up and walked over to stand behind CJ’s chair. He read the report while she did, and it revealed Kelly’s horrific injuries, specifically to her head and her genital area.

“I can’t believe she survived all this,” CJ said in a low voice.

Tim knew she was thinking about why Kelly had undergone even more torture than Milo Sanchez. “Why did he do this to her? Is it because she’s a woman? It wasn’t in his MO to rape.”

“His MO can always change. It’s unusual with a serial killer, but it can happen. It could be that he thinks women are things. His victims are things, not intelligent minds who should be trying to catch him. It most likely pissed him off that a woman was closing in on him and could put him behind bars. She was in a position of authority. He didn’t like that at all.”

“So he deemed Sanchez not worthy of him, but putting Regan on the case was an insult to him?” Tim queried while his mind reeled at the fact that CJ was a woman chasing after this killer too.

“Something like that,” CJ said as she closed the file and slumped over her desk. “He didn’t carve any message on her and she’s still alive. He was definitely disturbed during this one.”

“Well, he chose to leave her back at the motel. Like I said, he’s as bold as they come, but there are gonna be people around a motel at any time of day.”

“True. This is frustrating me so much. How the hell are we supposed to figure out his next move? He doesn’t even have a victim type or a pattern to the places he leaves the bodies. We only see any sort of pattern after we know who the victim is. And the only thing we really know about him is that he has left his comfort zone and that he loves to put on a show. He stages them without leaving a single shred of evidence and makes sure to drum his moralistic message into us. He’s gloating.”

Tim could see her anxiety showing, but only through her expressive eyes. “We’ll get him, CJ. We have this house upstate to check out. Let’s see what that brings.”

“Right.” Just as CJ had stood up to stretch, the phone on her desk sent out a shrill ring. “Agent Carson.”

“Agent Carson, it’s Captain Chan, LAPD.”

“What can I do for you, Captain?”

“There’s been a murder that matches the Tick-Tock killer’s MO. We were told to contact you immediately. I’ve emailed the details to you. Just wanted to make sure you received it.”

CJ’s stomach dropped, and as she checked her email she hated herself for thinking that this might have been the break they needed to find this damn killer. “Got it. We’re heading out now. Thanks, Captain.” Once she hung up the call, she jumped from her seat. “Grab your gear. Looks like this could be one of ours.”

Tim was by no means a sloppy agent. He was ready to go before she had gotten off the phone, and about ten seconds later – after CJ had printed off the email – they were heading down to the parking garage.

As CJ navigated the black Bureau SUV into the moderate traffic on the street, Tim read through the details of this latest murder. It sounded like the Tick-Tock killer all right.

“Tilly Morrison, just fifteen years old. Shit. She hadn’t even been reported missing as her mother thought she was at a friend’s house.”

CJ grimaced. “Read the initial description of this location.”

“It just says she’s been found behind an equipment store on school grounds,” Tim replied before he punched the car door next to him.

CJ jumped a little at the sound. “Hey. We’ll get him. Those were your words, Tim. As much as I hate it, this murder might help us to track him down.”

“Right. That really sucks.”

“I know it does.”

* * * * * *

As CJ drove under the cordon tape that was held up by a patrol officer, she saw the large cover that had been carefully placed over the victim. Once she had found a suitable spot to park, she jumped out of the vehicle and was immediately addressed by a sergeant from the LAPD. He explained that the school’s extra-curricular activities had been ceased after the gruesome discovery. Everyone’s details had been taken, and now only the child who found the body was held indoors for questioning.

“I need to speak with him, so don’t let him leave when his parents arrive,” CJ said, before pulling a pair of latex gloves from her pocket. After the officer nodded and left them, she turned to Tim. “You ready?”

“Yes,” Tim answered as he handed her the camera then put on his own pair of gloves.

When they approached the covered body, CJ noticed the victim’s school bag lying on the ground. It was obvious that someone – presumably the child – had tried to scrub it clean. The word ‘freak’ was only just readable on the beige-colored canvas material. The area behind the equipment store was tidy, but it was also where the school’s industrial-sized trash bins were stored, so it smelled disgusting and had the occasional patch of old, layered waste smashed into the ground, no doubt from years of rolling the bins in and out over it. It was all symbolic to this killer.

CJ had already guessed that the victim had been badly bullied, and when she lifted the cover to reveal Tilly Morrison, her face contorted a little at the waif-like teenager who lay there in the darkest kind of silence. Tilly looked even younger than her fifteen years, and her slim build had probably made her an easy target for bully and killer alike.

After a quick question and answer session with the cop guarding the crime scene, CJ knew Tilly was found less than an hour ago – only three hours after school was over – and that no one had touched the body except for the first teacher on the scene, and then the first paramedic. They had both checked for a pulse, and the teacher was also waiting to speak with the agents to give her statement. All of this meant that CJ knew nobody had lifted the victim’s sweater, and it was now down to her to check for the message that would tie it to their case. In her gut, she already knew it was him, but she leaned in to move the blue cotton material aside anyway.

Tim had crouched down beside her and shook his head when the words were revealed. “Can a reject shine?” he said quietly.

CJ looked up to see if there were any lights around. Even though the sun was still in the sky, she figured he would want more than just words in his staging of the body. Perhaps he wanted her to be found after dark, to add to the drama of his kill, and when CJ saw that he had placed Tilly under a huge floodlight which was attached to the side of the school building, she grunted in disgust before she turned back to Tim. “We need to speak with the teacher to find out who was bullying this girl. The perp hasn’t been here that long and yet he had a chance to watch her movements during school hours? He moves pretty fast, but I want to know how he chooses them.”

“Could just be that he finds them by chance. He’ll find weakness in everybody if your theory about him is correct,” Tim said in the same hushed tones CJ was using.

“You’re good,” CJ said again. “I want the entire area checked meticulously for prints, including that floodlight.”

“The floodlight?” Tim confirmed.

“Yes. See the way the paint on the bracket has flaked off? I think he moved it to shine on the body after dark.”

Tim nodded. “He didn’t leave us anything before, but you never know, right?”

“Exactly. Let’s get the pictures we need before Chris arrives and moves her. And bag the watch, but be careful because it’s clutched in her right hand and rigor may be setting in.”

As CJ did her best to maintain her professional poker face, Tim simply nodded as he had already been writing everything down in his notebook, including the weather, the concealed area the girl had been left in, the amount of trash bins around her, and the fact that the killer must have snatched her from school – or on her way home – taken her away to murder her, and brought her back in a matter of hours. A quick glance at his watch revealed it was now eight PM. Where the hell did the day go?

A short while later inside the school, CJ and Tim had spoken with the teacher, Mrs. Allen. She had given them her statement and a good amount of information on Tilly herself. Described as a quiet and gentle girl from a low income home, it seemed that there was no shortage of love from Tilly’s parents, but at school the girl was an outcast, apparently brought on by her ‘different’ looks and her bright-red hair. One thing CJ took away from the conversation was that school kids could be extremely cruel for the most trivial of reasons. Mrs. Allen had also informed the agents that the main student to bully Tilly was the boy who had found her body.

“I swear I didn’t do that to her. I swear!” Callum Smith yelped through his cries as CJ and Tim approached him.

“Whoa,” CJ said, her hand held up. “We only want to talk to you, Callum.”

“But I swear! I would never…I couldn’t. I just saw her there…”

Even though he was a bully, he choked a little during his outpouring of grief. CJ couldn’t imagine what it was like for him to find a dead body at his age, so she waited until he had blown his nose on a handkerchief given to him by one of the officers.

Once Callum had sniffed a few hundred more times, CJ spoke more gently. “I’m CJ, and this is Tim. We just need to ask you some questions. Your teacher told us you found Tilly.”

“Y-Yes.”

“Why were you still here at the school?”

Callum wiped his eyes and stuffed the tissue in his pocket. “I had football practice in the Phys-Ed hall, just over there,” he said, pointing to a large building over at the other side of the school.

CJ was slightly amazed that the killer had left a body out in daylight when there was a group of teachers and children not that far away. It made her think that he was a little desperate to start this new group of killings in LA, but she put those thoughts on the back burner to continue her current line of questioning. “Why did you come over here behind the equipment store?”

“I…I had left something here from earlier.”

CJ frowned. “What?”

Callum looked terrified, and he paused long and hard before he answered. “I had stolen Tilly’s backpack from her and hidden it there.”

“So you went back to get it, but you found Tilly instead?”

“Yes,” Callum managed to say before he started crying again. It seemed this bully had seen enough to scare the crap out of him.

“Did you see anyone else nearby? Anyone suspicious?”

Callum shook his head. He was looking anywhere but at CJ and Tim.

CJ decided to go with her gut and asked, “I take it you bullied Tilly behind the equipment store on a regular basis, Callum?”

“Sometimes. She walks past there on her way home.”

“And you wrote freak on her bag?”

Callum nodded solemnly.

“OK. Believe it or not, you have been helpful, but I will contact your family again if I need to speak with you further. Do you understand?”

Callum repeated the nod, and when his father arrived, Tim approached him to let him know he could take the boy home. CJ was listening in, and when Mr. Smith told them they shouldn’t be questioning his son without him present, Tim explained that he was not a suspect and that Callum had helped them with their inquiries. Mr. Smith was suitably placated and went to be with his son.

Once Chris had arrived and chatted briefly with the agents, they left to head back to the Bureau. Chris would deal with the removal of the victim, and once she had completed her autopsy report and forensic analysis, CJ was sure she would appear up in their office to share her findings. She just hoped the killer would slip up and give them a break. She didn’t want to be waiting for another victim before their investigation could move forward again.

* * * * * *

“Yeah, the girls are asleep,” Kate said into the phone, her voice having its usual effect on CJ’s tension.

“Good. What are you going to do now then?”

“Well, that depends on whether or not you’ll get home for a while.”

CJ sighed. “I’m definitely coming home to see you, and to get a quick shower and something to eat.” She looked at her watch. “Probably around eleven…”

“Good. Let me know if you get sidetracked, though,” Kate said softly.

“I won’t. We’ve been at this case all day without a break. Tim’s gonna head to his apartment now, and I’ll leave here as soon as Chris brings her report to me. I’m kinda desperate to see you.”

Tim made puppy-dog eyes across the room, and CJ looked for something to throw at him. Coming up with nothing, she gave him the finger, much to his surprise. He grinned as he pulled his bag from under his desk.

“Can’t wait to see you too…and uh, you know, if you need a fresh pair of eyes…?”

CJ allowed herself a little smile. “I hear ya. See you soon.”

“Bye, CJ.”

“Bye, Katie.” CJ replaced the receiver and gave Tim a narrow stare. “Get your butt out of here for a couple hours. I’m aiming to be back around one. Kate knows I won’t sleep anyway, so I may as well be here working.”

“I’ll be back by midnight. See you later then,” Tim said as he headed out the door.

CJ had found a projectile, and as he left she fired it at his back. Tim turned around dramatically to see a small ball of elastic bands go bouncing across the floor. He brought two fingers up to his eyes in an ‘I’m-watching-you’ kind of way, making CJ snort as she grabbed her jacket.

Barely a second later, the phone rang, and it was Chris letting them know her initial report was complete. Tim had paused outside the office door, and he insisted on accompanying CJ to the morgue to collect it. Ten minutes later, they were at the basement garage where CJ waved at Tim as he left in his car before jumping into her truck and hauling ass toward her haven. It was the only way she was going to keep her positive momentum going on this case – to have Kate give her strength and keep her out of her dark thoughts at home, and to have Tim keep her from falling at work.

* * * * * *

Only a little over one hour later, CJ pulled the key from the ignition and hopped out of her Dodge Ram. Just a couple of lights were on in the house, which meant Kate was probably in the living room waiting for her. On closing the front door behind her, CJ slumped against it and placed her files on the nearby table. When Kate approached her in pajamas and fluffy slippers, CJ smiled and watched as Kate’s hand went in to touch her Glock. Had this been any other person, she would have already taken them down and pinned them to the floor in a painful grip, but she knew exactly what was happening.

Kate hated having guns in the house, but since they had to be, she preferred that they were locked away immediately for safety reasons and because she didn’t ever want Shannon and Lucy to get anywhere near them. She flipped the little stud open on CJ’s holster and pulled the weapon out before opening the gun cabinet mounted high on the wall above the table. She placed the Glock inside, and only when the cabinet had beeped to signify that the lock had re-engaged did CJ speak.

“Thanks.”

Kate was now slowly reaching up for a kiss. “You’re welcome.” The kiss was long, gentle, and an affirmation of their bond. “Now, come in and relax while I make you a snack.”

“Sounds good. I haven’t eaten all day.”

Kate started to chastise her. “CJ, you know that’s not a good idea-”

“I know. I know, Katie, but we’ve been at this case constantly. Too much to do, no time to stop…”

Kate relented when she saw the look in CJ’s eyes. “How are you doing with this one?”

“Actually, I’ve been fine,” CJ replied as she walked into the kitchen behind her and sat on one of the bar stools. “And you know what I think it is?”

“What?”

“Tim.”

Kate turned around with a little jar of herbs in her hand. “What about him?”

“He’s kinda like the work equivalent of you in that he keeps me feeling, I dunno, upbeat? No, that’s not the right word.”

Kate smiled at her. “Strong? Motivated?”

“Yeah, that too, but also on the level, you know? I haven’t felt really depressed about this case yet, and believe me, there’s a lot to be depressed about when it comes to this killer,” CJ said while nodding along to her words. “Remember how fast I went down the hole during the Davenport case?”

Kate sprinkled the herbs into an oven dish full of something wonderful. “Yes, I do. Wow, there’s a flashback.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I for one am very glad that Tim has these magical powers. I always hate that I can’t be there with you. I guess I don’t have to worry about that aspect anymore, huh?”

CJ watched as Kate stooped to open the door on the stove. “No, you don’t, honey. Um, what are you cooking?”

“It’s the same as what we had for dinner. It was already cooked so just needs warming up with a little seasoning. Dad made it,” Kate said as she turned around and approached CJ.

“They really need to stop cooking for us. That’s not why we invited them to build a house here.”

“Might be part of the reason?” Kate offered with a grin.

“Heh. Maybe.”

“So, may I be of assistance with the case?”

CJ gazed at her, and with the grounded feeling of Kate wrapped neatly in her arms, she felt at ease enough to acquiesce. “If you want to. It’s a tough one, though.”

“They’re all tough ones, CJ. I’d like to help.”

“I know, and I love you for it. Let’s set up on the counter, huh?”

Kate nodded, and after nuzzling into CJ’s neck and kissing the soft skin there, she retreated to grab a couple of glasses of grape juice to sip on while they worked.

It only took an hour for Kate to finish scanning through all the files – avoiding some of the nastier crime scene photos – while CJ finished off her dinner and pointed out various important profile factors along the way.

When she was done, Kate sat in a few moments of silent contemplation before she nudged CJ’s shoulder to get her attention. “You believe this guy is incredibly intelligent, so meticulous in his planning that he’s at least one step ahead of you at every turn, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you wouldn’t suspect for a moment that he would do anything…simple?”

CJ frowned a little. “I think it would be beneath him if it were simple.”

“Exactly,” Kate said. “But maybe that’s his trick. On this page right here,” she added, pointing to the papers on the countertop. “I can see something I think you might have missed, but only because it’s too simple. We did it once on an episode of Deadline, but it’s too tacky and cheap for your killer’s profile.”

Now CJ was worried because she knew Kate had seen something she hadn’t. “What do you see, Katie?”

“Hey. Don’t look so panicked. You’ve been so focused on the complexity of this case…both you and Tim…that it would have been easy to miss that the killer has done something that’s been done so many times before, just never by a killer so…so intellectual.” When CJ just stared at her waiting for the answer, Kate took hold of her hand. “The first letter of each word in the messages…” She didn’t have to say anything more since CJ had gasped and looked down at the page.

“Shit!” CJ quickly scanned the messages she could see, and it all became so obvious to her. “Oh, no…Regan,” she said as her eyes pinpointed the letters. “He was leaving a double message each fucking time.”

“Don’t you dare get angry with yourself-”

“But I am angry with myself. I should’ve seen this right at the start. Look at this,” CJ growled as she maneuvered the pages around and picked out the first letter of each word in the hideously displayed messages. “Sanchez…told of my…victory. Damn it.” CJ continued to scribble down the hidden messages. “Regan is a de…woman. That’s not right.”

Kate looked on with concern. “There’s something missing on that one, but the others all make sense.”

“I have to find out what went wrong there.” CJ looked at her. “You…how did you see this so fast?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, we did it on Deadline, and maybe a fresh pair of eyes always helps?” Kate offered.

“It’s not just that, Katie. Your fresh pair of eyes always helps. It’s you. Your mind, your intelligence…”

“Hmm. Not sure about that. Will this help you catch him, though?” Kate asked quietly.

“Yeah. I need to go into the office right now.”

“No. You need to freshen up. It will make you feel better. And CJ, there’s one more thing.”

“Something else about the case…?”

“Yes. I have a question.” When CJ continued to watch her intently, Kate went on. “You said that the killer must have found out about the lead investigators from the press conferences, right?”

“We think so, yes.”

“Well, he couldn’t have. Not the second time, anyway.”

“Why?”

“The timing is off. He knew about Agent Regan before the FBI press conference took place.”

CJ blew out a frustrated breath. “I can’t be making mistakes like this!”

“Quit that. You and I are a team, and you guys have been on the go continually since you started this morning. Give yourself a break.”

“No. I can’t,” CJ said with agitation. “I only just got back to full duty. I need to get this guy otherwise they’ll think I’ve lost it.”

“Oh, that’s ridiculous. Think about what you’ve been through and yet here you are trying to crack the biggest case of the year,” Kate admonished while taking CJ’s hand to stop her from frantically flipping through the pages. “Listen to me for a second.”

CJ took a deep breath and slowly exhaled it. “OK, I’m listening.”

“That press conference given by the FBI while Regan was investigating was after the discovery of…” Kate looked at the relevant page. “Lily Lichfield, but the killer had already written his message on her, so he knew about Regan before the release of that information. What you need to figure out is how. Also, that very first body with no message…did he do that to wait for a cop to be assigned to his case?”

CJ grabbed her own head in a vice grip. “Shit. It’s been a game for him all along, and you just discovered these hidden messages. Agent Regan never found them. Sanchez never found them, so we didn’t even realize he found out about the investigations some other way. What the hell is wrong with us?”

“Like I said, your profile is for a sophisticated, psychopathic killer, which I think he definitely is, but he has included this part of the game as a childish, subliminal taunt. He’s trying to make you feel this way, to make you feel exactly like you do now, to undermine you. Don’t let him win.” Kate stopped talking when CJ’s stare got a little hazy. “What?”

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a thousand times more. You’re amazing, and you need to think about changing jobs, Katie.”

Kate wanted to kiss her, so once she had done so she held CJ’s hand in her own. “No. I’m your secret weapon.”

“Secret agent?” CJ said, pointing at Kate and wiggling her finger in her face. “Have you been undercover all this time and I didn’t even know?”

“Hah. Like I could keep anything from you, my love.”

CJ suddenly grew serious again. “I really do have to get back to work, like, now.”

“You said you wanted a quick shower and some fresh clothes, so just take a few more minutes. Please?” Kate begged. “I’ll help you get ready.”

CJ couldn’t resist and nodded her ascent. “All right.”

Kate had to surrender to the fact that she was not going to have CJ for any length of time until the case was concluded, and in the back of her mind she had to keep telling herself that concluded meant home safe, because the alternative was just too much to cope with. She hadn’t failed to notice the very latest message on Tilly Morrison’s body. The initials on each word spelled CARS, and Kate knew that meant the killer was somehow aware of CJ already.

“Be careful,” she whispered.

“Always,” CJ said before kissing her again and heading upstairs.

.

Chapter 4

CJ strolled through the darkened corridors of the FBI building. The lights were usually on dimmed or standby mode at night, so they only illuminated as she passed every second doorway. There was certainly a light on in her office, though. Tim was already back and had some coffee and muffins ready for CJ when she entered.

“Where did you get those at this time of night?” she asked when Tim offered her a smile in greeting.

“Well, I tend to, uh, bake when I have things on my mind, so I had time to prepare the mini muffins before I took a shower.”

At Tim’s sheepish look, CJ did her best to restrain her grin. “You’d better watch out, man. I might need to install you in my kitchen at home.” As she stood over the plastic container full of treats, she zoomed in on the biggest one – the biggest one being about an inch and a half in diameter. After a bite, she closed her eyes as she savored the confusing but satisfying mixture of flavors. “Mint?”

Tim stood up behind his desk. “Yes. These are my mint and maple muffins, with crushed walnuts and flax seeds for added goodness.”

“They’re awesome. You have a talent there. You should talk to our friend Tony. His dad was a baker, and he’s inherited some cool recipes.”

“Is he an agent?”

CJ shook her head while she finished chewing another bite of the muffin. “No, he’s Kate’s personal assistant and a close family friend.”

“He might be too much competition for me,” Tim jested.

“Oh, you could have a bake-off.”

“I’d lose for sure.”

“Nah. These are just delicious.”

“Don’t start another one yet. They’re even better accompanied by my special coffee.”

CJ laughed. “Right. I’m gonna put on about fifty pounds with you around.”

Tim just rolled his eyes while waving off her silly comment. He made her a mug of coffee and went to place it on her desk. “OK, that was our little relief chat for today. Now back to business.”

CJ sat down and positioned another muffin next to her FBI – Female Body Inspector mug before she said, “Relief chat?”

“Yeah. I think we should take a couple of minutes at the beginning of each day while we are on a case, to make one another smile, or maybe even just talk about something completely non-work related. It’ll help to keep us sane.”

Ah, I do love this guy, CJ decided as she nodded in agreement. “I like that idea, but now I have to get you up to speed on some new information that we didn’t see. Information that no other cop or agent saw either.”

“You figured it out while you were home?” Tim asked with his eyebrows raised high.

“Uh…well, I had help.” CJ went on to give Tim all the details of her talk with Kate, which led to a brief conversation about Kate’s history with Bureau cases and how CJ had met her in the first place.

Twenty minutes later, Tim was processing most of what he had just heard – he had already known about Kate’s abduction – while CJ added the details to the whiteboard. She knew she could trust Tim and so telling him about Kate seeing the files was not a problem. She had also let him know that it was something Mark was very much aware of.

“So the killer already knows you’re on the case,” Tim said quietly.

“Looks like it.”

“I still think we should hold off on a press conference.”

CJ nodded as she perched herself of the edge of her desk. “Yeah, me too.”

Tim leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk. “The letters in the message that are missing…do you think there’s a body we haven’t found?”

“Definitely, but I don’t know why this killer would hide it. He’s such a showman, and leaving a message with a mistake in it isn’t his style.”

“That missing victim could give away his location,” Tim suggested.

“I was thinking that too. It’s just that he’s so determined to get his message across that I would imagine he’d kill again just to fix the mistake.”

“Well, after Laura Cane’s murder is when we suspected he might have been spooked. Something must have happened to throw him off. Maybe Regan got too close, too soon.”

CJ had nodded along as he spoke. “That’s a definite possibility. We really need to figure out how he gets information on who’s in charge each time.”

“That could be tough, CJ. I mean, even if he worked inside the Bureau, it would be hard to pin him down.”

CJ frowned at that. It was possible that the killer had inside knowledge because he already had access to case files, but for some reason it didn’t sit right with her. “I don’t think he’s an agent…just a gut feeling, but he could have some sort of access to our computer systems.”

Before Tim could respond, the phone on CJ’s desk rang, and since he was sitting in her chair, he answered it. “Agent Carson’s desk. Agent Dalton speaking…”

“Dalton, it’s Agent Clark, San Francisco. We just got back from Geirson’s house.”

“Hold on. I’ll put you on speaker.” Once Tim had engaged the mic on the display, he asked, “Did you manage to talk to her?”

“No. There was no answer when we knocked, so we snooped around a little. The house is pretty old, and from what we could see inside, the furniture is old too, covered in dust. There was some mail behind the front door…pretty big pile, actually…but nothing else unusual. She might be in a care home now. We’re checking into that.”

CJ scrunched up her nose. “Clark, it’s Agent Carson here. Did you happen to take a sniff through the letterbox?”

“That, we did. I don’t think there was a body in there.”

“Do you have anything more on the nephew?” CJ asked.

“Only that there is one. We’ll keep workin’ on a name.”

“Thanks. I appreciate that. Let us know if you track Geirson down, yeah?”

“Sure thing.”

With the call complete, Tim slouched back in the chair. “Hmm. So we still need to find the nephew…or Geirson herself.”

“Yep. You never know what information they might have on those watches. We’ll keep digging once we get the forensic and autopsy reports from Chris,” CJ said with a sigh. “You know what’s bugging me?”

“What?”

“Since our killer is so judgmental, why did he not target the bully instead of Tilly Morrison?”

Tim pursed his lips before he answered. “Tilly’s weakness. She didn’t stand up for herself. Maybe he saw the bully as strong.”

“Maybe,” CJ muttered as she got up to walk around the room, flexing and rubbing her wrist as she did so. “For now, let’s go over the names of the people who found the victim each time. It probably won’t help, but I wouldn’t rule out this killer being around for the big reveal to the cops.”

“Good thinking,” Tim said. “Hey, is that still annoying you?” he added, signaling toward her wrist.

“Oh…no,” CJ replied adamantly while flapping her hand to show it was not painful in the slightest. “I just keep massaging it. Probably just the memory of what it felt like before, you know?”

“CJ, I wasn’t prying. Just concerned, that’s all.”

CJ stopped pacing, her shoulders drooping as she fell into her chair. “I know. I guess I’m feeling a little weird about missing those clues.”

“So the wrist massage is a new nervous twitch of yours. Got it,” Tim said, waiting for the inevitable response.

“What? No. I don’t have nervous twitches!”

With a snort, Tim began to laugh. “You’re so easy.”

“Oh, you bastard,” CJ snarled. “I’ll get you back for that.”

“I look forward to it.”

While CJ continued to send him a badly executed evil smirk, Tim just grinned smugly as he started to pull up the details of the people who had found the bodies in their case. He decided that even though their job was one of the worst in the world, it didn’t mean he couldn’t keep his partner smiling in between the horror. To him, it was a vital part of his job.

* * * * * *

The sun was rising on a new day when Jamie and Ethan entered the office to find CJ and Tim still working away. Jamie noted CJ’s tired eyes and slightly unkempt hair, and Tim’s open mouth as he dozed in a highly uncomfortable position in his chair.

“Hey, DM,” Jamie said quietly. “Is he OK?”

CJ smiled at them both. “Hey, guys. Yeah, he’s fine. We’ve been here since one this morning, so he’s grabbing forty winks. I took a nap earlier after my eyes started crossing.”

“Why didn’t he use the cot in the back room?” Ethan asked as he threw his jacket onto a hook on the wall.

“I don’t think he had the chance. I was talking to him one minute, and the next, he was asleep.”

“How’s the case going?” Jamie asked.

“Slowly. We got another body yesterday, but this guy isn’t leaving anything for us at all.”

“Any other leads?”

CJ yawned. “Maybe, yeah. How’s your case?” she asked, knowing they wouldn’t discuss details with one another because it only led to confusion. Keeping track of your own prolific serial killer was enough for any agent.

“It’s still ongoing. We thought we had him a couple of days ago, but it turned out to be a false tip. We’ve been working with the San Diego office a lot since he seems to be focusing on that area now. We need to go there again this afternoon, but I just wanted to check in here and pick up some things first,” Jamie said with a look that CJ could read like a book.

“Missin’ me, huh?”

Jamie puffed out a laugh. “You? Nah.”

But CJ could tell she was. “Miss you too, Penfold.”

“Oy.” Ethan butted in after a few gulps of coffee. “You guys are gonna give me a cavity.”

“Me too,” Tim added since he had been wakened by the chatter. “How long was I out, CJ?”

“Just five minutes, bud. Don’t worry about it. Gotta grab forty when we can, right?”

“Right.”

Jamie got up to get herself a mugful of the good stuff, but when she saw the carafe only held a dribble, she pouted. “Tim, you know how I think you’re an amazing agent?”

Tim frowned and turned to look at her in confusion, but after realizing that she was desperately in need of coffee, he snickered. “Amazing coffee agent, yeah.”

“That too.”

He got up and trundled over to the machine. “Oh, I always feel so useful in the kitchen, slaving over a hot stove for you guys, day in, day out…”

After a small, unexpected round of laughter, some fresh coffee, and all of them perked up for the day in more ways than one, Jamie and Ethan seated themselves around one desk to gather the info they needed, and Tim and CJ continued with their investigation via CJ’s computer.

They were currently running through any photos of witnesses who were in the vicinity when the victims were discovered. CJ wanted to make sure the CSU guys didn’t inadvertently capture something useful while they photographed the scene.

* * * * * *

By two PM, Jamie and Ethan were gone again, leaving CJ and Tim checking into the background of some witnesses. After analyzing all the people who had discovered the bodies, CJ wanted to focus on the second one, which was the first victim found with a message displayed for the police. The man who had discovered Steve Birrell had given his name as Gerard Murray, and she was currently running him through the system to get a better insight into his life.

“Hmm. This isn’t quite adding up,” she muttered, mainly to herself, but Tim overheard it.

“Care to share?”

CJ popped her head up to look over the computer monitor. “This Gerard Murray has already moved from the address he gave police. It was a rental, and now he’s gone. Maybe I should try to call him.”

“How about a forwarding address?”

“None that I can see…”

“What’s the number?” Tim asked as he lifted the handset to his office phone.

“Cell phone must have been registered down here because the number he gave is eight-one-eight, five-five-five, fifteen-twenty,” CJ said before she looked up from the screen. “Pretend you’re an insurance salesman.”

Tim smirked at that, but he was prepared with a different cover story – Mr. Murray had won a competition. But only a few seconds later, he hung up the phone. “Disconnected.”

“Damn. There’s something here, Tim,” CJ said, shaking her head.

“It could be that he was right there rubbing it in their faces and enjoying the thrill of watching them with one of his victims.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised one bit with this guy.” CJ began to type on her keyboard. “We don’t have any pictures of him, so I want to know what Murray does for a living.”

“I’ll take a cyber-walk down his street. It probably won’t help any, but…” Tim shrugged to finish his sentence.

“Shit, it’s like you’re my twin. I did that for all the dump sites of the previous victims.”

“Your twin?”

CJ grinned as she watched the little egg timer on her screen flipping around. “Yeah. I mean, the dark hair, the blue eyes, the intimidating stature, and that incredible mind of yours…twins.”

Tim snorted. “You’re weird.”

“The weirdness and the snorting just backup my theory even more.” With a quick glance at him, CJ noted the expression on his face which proved he thought it was funny, and that he was ultimately contented with her assessment. “OK. Murray works in a bank. That doesn’t really tell me anything.”

Without looking up from his cyber-walk, Tim blew out a breath. “That sucks. The only link, which isn’t really a link, is that Murray works in a bank and we think the killer has plenty of money.”

CJ looked up then. “You think he knew Murray and used his details to give to police?”

“Uh, no. I was just letting my thoughts fall out of my mouth.”

“Just keep doin’ that whenever you want to, Tim. It’s unlikely that you’re right about this, but it is possible.”

Tim met her gaze and raised his eyebrows. “You think?”

“We can’t rule anything out.” Just as CJ said it, her phone rang. “Agent Carson.” After jotting a few notes down on a pad, she completed the call with a darkened expression on her face. “We got another one.”

“Shit. He’s stepping up his game. Is he gonna give us one each day now?” Tim stood up, and within mere moments they were organized with email printout in hand and heading out the door together.

CJ hadn’t answered him, but she had the same feeling he did, and they both knew there were going to be more bodies before they caught the killer.

With Tim driving the Bureau’s Chevrolet Suburban this time, CJ looked over the email from Captain Chan who she now realized was head of the LAPD’s Homicide division. “Our guy went over the top with this one. Candy Finnegan, a drug user from LA with twenty five needles stuck all over her arms and legs. She was found forty minutes ago in an alleyway on the outskirts of Montebello. She was known to police…a confidential informant.”

“Do you think the killer knew that?”

CJ didn’t need time to think about it. “No. Even if the killer somehow has access to investigator details, he wouldn’t know about CIs…even if they were carded.” She looked up from the page and watched as Tim navigated the traffic with ease. “Man, I hope he’s not a cop.”

Tim shook his head. “It doesn’t quite fit.”

That was all he had to say for CJ to understand what he meant. It just didn’t feel right for this killer. She had to keep trusting her hunches…and Tim’s.

* * * * * *

Upon arrival at the scene, even CJ was a little caught off guard at the state of the victim. The killer had not simply pricked the skin with the syringes. He had made sure the entire length of the needle was inserted, making the syringes stand out at a ninety degree angle to the surface of Candy Finnegan’s arms and legs.

Once their latex gloves were on, both agents crouched down on opposite sides of the body. CJ looked at the face of the woman who had been ravaged by years of drug abuse. Had it not been for the gaunt cheeks and grayish skin, she would have looked like a young and healthy woman. Her clothing was grubby but stylish, and her hair a bright, bleached-blond color. When CJ saw her left hand, she grimaced.

“What the…?” she whispered as she lifted the hand carefully off the ground so that Tim could see it.

“He cut off her fingers,” Tim said, a little puzzled since the hand on his side of the body was complete.

CJ thought about it for a minute before she offered a potential reason for the anomaly. “She got a piece of him. She scratched him.”

Tim nodded. “She has scuffs on her knuckles so that would make sense. She fought back. Do you think she woke up early from the sedation?”

“Maybe.” CJ lifted Candy’s ribbed, pink sweater. “Opiate needles won’t inject life.”

Tim jotted down the message – and the initials of each word – in his notebook. “Clearly, the drug abuse is the weakness for this one.”

CJ stood up, and once they had gotten everything they needed – including photos and the pocket watch which was hanging on Candy’s shoulder like a purse – they handed the body over to the ME who had just arrived.

“Well, he’s completed your name,” Tim said pensively once they were back in the car.

“Yeah, I noticed that. It’s what we expected, but I wonder what the ‘wil’ part is going to be.”

“Going by the previous messages, nothing good, CJ,” Tim replied before he started the car and drove slowly out of the crime scene. “Back to the office?”

“Yeah. Let’s grab some dinner on the way.”

It was already five fifty PM. The days were passing too fast for CJ’s liking. If the killer kept up this pace, they only had hours until the next one would be taken, that is, if he hadn’t done that already.

* * * * * *

This house wasn’t as clean and modern as he was used to, but it had proved to be somewhat sufficient so far. The neighbors were far enough away, and he could drive his car right up to the back door. The décor was a tad traditional for his tastes, but on the whole it was pleasing to the eye. It disturbed him a little that he didn’t really have time to remodel this bathroom. He was anticipating his meeting with Agent Carson so much that he wanted to get the four murders out of the way as fast as possible. His pattern was four murders before each law enforcement officer – apart from that little faux pas in the middle, but they would make sense of that one day – and he did prefer to stick to that, but he was getting restless. He wanted her.

He was so confident she wouldn’t be able to catch him because she was a woman, and it was going to be so much fun when he took her as his… Oh, what would it be by then? He counted in his mind. She would be his eighteenth victim by that point in his planned timeline.

He couldn’t wait to see the fear in her eyes close up. He couldn’t wait to feel her under his hands…under him. He couldn’t wait to hear her scream as he slowly killed her. He couldn’t wait.

“I’m so glad you had a basement,” he said to the body under the floorboards as he placed the second to last plank in position. “You’ll both be here for a while, I’d imagine. And it’s nice you’ll be so close for all the action. I’ll bring her down here. Yes. This will be the best place. It means I can take my time with her because nobody will hear. Once she wakes up, I don’t want to have to do it all right away. I need to savor this one.”

After hammering the board into place, he got up to grab the last plank of wood. “Maybe I should leave this one off. She’d know your fate and wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

He shook his head at that idea and proceeded to cover the hole in the floor, deciding it could be a trip hazard. “Thanks for letting me use the house.”

As he headed out to his car, he noticed an annoying splinter in his palm. He removed it before using his expensive hand cream and pulling on his leather gloves. It was time to collect his next victim. She was going to be a challenge, but he felt this one would be good practice for what was to come.

* * * * * *

As ten o’clock approached, CJ came to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to get home that night. If the killer was going to murder someone every day, she knew they had to go over everything they had so far with a fine-tooth comb. Tim was currently at the morgue to see if Chris had completed the autopsy, but as soon as he returned, they would dive into the case even deeper to try to come up with a lead. It was beyond frustrating CJ now. The only potential evidence was probably under the nails of Candy Finnegan’s left hand. If only they had found the fingertips at the scene.

“That would’ve been too easy. No way would this guy leave a clue,” she huffed as she got out of her chair.

“You talking to me, CJ?” Mark asked from the door.

“Oh. No, Sir.”

“Didn’t think so,” he said as he walked in. “I just came to check in with you. I haven’t heard from you since this morning. How’s it going?”

CJ scratched her head. “It’s difficult. He’s not leaving us a thing to go on. We have a couple of inquiries ongoing with the San Francisco office, but so far they haven’t gotten back to me.”

Mark perched himself on the corner of Ethan’s desk. “Where’s Tim?”

“He went to see Dr. Wilder. She’s been bringing her reports to us, but she usually waits until she has the autopsy and the initial forensics done. He went to hopefully grab the autopsy report now.” CJ noticed Mark’s tense face. “Are you all right, Sir?”

Mark forced a smile. “Sure. I just can’t wait to get through this audit stuff, you know? I feel like it’s a distraction I don’t need right now. I also feel like I’m walking a tightrope, worrying if they’re going to say we’re using too much money.”

“They won’t shut us down, will they?”

“Not if I have anything to do with it. I’ve been careful with our budget.” He shrugged. “I just don’t like feeling like I’m the perp.”

CJ nodded. “You feel like it’s you they’re auditing. I get that. We’ll be fine, Sir.”

“Yes, we will. And I have an accountant, a Mr. Bull, coming in tomorrow. Not sure how I’m going to get through that conversation without laughing.”

“I don’t envy you there,” CJ said with a sympathetic frown.

When Tim walked in the door, Mark stood up. “Tim. Good to see you. I’ll let you guys get on with things. You know where I am if you need me.”

“Thanks, Sir,” Tim replied as Mark left the office. “Is he OK?”

“Yeah, he’s just a little stressed with assistant-director-type stuff.” CJ patted the arm of the chair next to her. “Let’s see what we’ve got then.”

Tim sat down and placed the report on the desk. With a sigh, he flipped open the front cover. “Nothing unexpected. She was sedated with chloroform then bound by her wrists and ankles. When she woke up the torture began. He put those syringes in while she was alive.”

“We pretty much knew that. He’s as sadistic as they come,” CJ said as she continued to read. “The message was pre-mortem too. Did you notice anything about the lettering this time?”

Tim leaned forward to look at the photo. “Just that it’s a little messy.”

“I thought so too. He’s stepped up the frequency of the murders, and now a few letters on the message are not exact. That’s not like him.”

“Why is he rushing it now?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s not as comfortable here in LA. He must have somewhere to carry out the murders. A second home or…”

“Or a rental?” Tim suggested.

“Possibly. Thing is, I can’t imagine this guy doing his work anywhere that he isn’t satisfied with, so his location can’t be the reason he’s rushing. He’s precise, so he would’ve made sure to set up his torture chamber the way he wanted it. He might just have more of a taste for it now, and if that’s the case, we really do need to find him because he won’t ever stop.”

“And we’re running out of time.”

CJ turned to him then. “You mean if he follows the previous pattern.”

“Yes,” Tim said, his concern showing clearly on his face. “One or two more…and he’s coming after you.”

CJ inhaled deeply and stood abruptly. “We need coffee.”

Tim could see she was trying to avoid thinking about that eventuality. He supposed she had to in order to focus on the task at hand, otherwise it would consume her.

CJ had poured two mugs of bitter coffee from the carafe. “Let’s go through it all again, including Finnegan’s autopsy. Maybe once we’re done, Chris will be here with some forensics for us to work with.”

“Roger that,” Tim replied as he grabbed the creamer and sugar before wheeling his chair over to CJ’s desk.

* * * * * *

Day seemed to suddenly turn into night, and before they knew it, the sun was rising once more. CJ had barely spoken to Kate yesterday. Only half an hour ago, they had sent a text to one another, but it did not feel like enough for either of them.

The Tick-Tock killer’s case had only been given to them days ago, but it felt like they had been working on it for months. By eight AM, CJ and Tim had not managed to find any new leads, and Chris did arrive with the initial forensic report from the body and the crime scene, but immediately after she had left, the phone had interrupted them bringing news of another victim. It hadn’t even been twenty four hours this time.

Tim walked along the corridor behind CJ carrying the few items they always took with them. CJ had the camera bag over her shoulder as usual, but he hadn’t failed to notice her change in demeanor and the fact that she hadn’t said anything since the phone call.

It was only after the elevator doors had closed that CJ whispered, “What are we gonna do?”

“I don’t know. All we can do is to keep on it and hope he slips up,” Tim answered with the same hushed tone.

CJ turned to look at him, her face showing only a slither of her torment. “He won’t slip up.”

“Technically, he already has, CJ. There’s a part of a message missing, and no way did he know about those watches being traceable and from a well-known collection.”

“Still, that hasn’t helped us much yet, has it?”

“No, not yet, but I have confidence that we’ll get him. I read your file, remember. I know who you are,” Tim said while the elevator finished its descent to the basement garage.

A deep inhale was CJ’s only response, and as they walked to their vehicle, she started to really feel the pressure. People were dying, and while she had the case, their deaths were in her hands. She couldn’t stand the thought of being responsible for someone else being tortured and killed. She had to do whatever it took to hunt him down.

It wasn’t long before they arrived at the location to find the usual personnel all running around doing their jobs. Police officers were diverting passers-by around the cordon tape to maintain the perimeter, crime scene techs were photographing the victim or placing markers on the ground at relevant, potential pieces of evidence, and Chris Wilder was just getting out of her car when CJ and Tim walked past the large sign that told them this was Peterson’s Gym.

This victim was a female bodybuilder, and when CJ saw her, she realized the killer was beyond emboldened. How he had captured, sedated, and held this woman in restraints, she would never know.

“Carla Bryant,” Tim said as he stood shoulder to shoulder with CJ. “A twenty-eight-year old personal trainer from Rolling Hills, she was an amateur boxer and regional champion bodybuilder.”

CJ shook her head as she crouched to examine the victim more closely, all the while noticing that the medical examiner was standing quietly waiting for CJ to finish. The fact that she was being so polite unnerved CJ a little. “What do you make of these, Doctor?” she asked while pointing to the marks on Carla’s wrists.

Chris crouched down opposite her. She snapped on her latex glove before gently cradling one of Carla’s wrists in her hand. “These are much more pronounced than the others. I’d guess by the look of this victim that he had to use something stronger to hold her, and going by the pattern on the skin, I’d say handcuffs.”

“That would be my guess too,” CJ agreed. “And on the ankles? Those marks look like chain links.”

“Yes. I’ll be able to tell you for sure once I examine her. May I…?” Chris requested as she touched the bottom of the victims sweater.

CJ nodded, knowing that she was going to look at the message.

When it was revealed, Tim said it out loud as he wrote it into his notebook. “Lifting daily is excessive.” As his pen moved over the paper, he felt like he was going to vomit. The initials on each word seemed to score like a laser across his brain.

CJ sighed. “Well, it seems excess in anyone…except him…is repulsive to him, and he’s sending me a pretty clear message too.”

Chris wasn’t privy to the hidden messages yet, and it wasn’t in her nature to shy away from a question. “What’s the message to you?” she asked quietly.

“He’s basically telling me that I’m going to die. I guess he’ll be sticking to his pattern after all.”

The blank look on CJ’s face worried Tim a little. He hadn’t seen that expression since she was in the midst of her hellish ordeal in Minnesota.

Chris, on the other hand, was not so difficult to read. She looked horrified. “I…I’d better get her wrapped up.”

“Right,” CJ replied as she stood up. “Tim, could you bag the pocket watch-”

“I’ll have to do that this time,” Chris interrupted. “It’s very tight around her neck, so there may be evidence lost if you remove it out here.”

CJ looked dazed for a split second before she nodded. “Of course. See you back at the office.” As CJ walked off to take the rest of the pictures she needed, Chris looked up at Tim who just bit his lip before following his partner. None of them were under any illusions. If the killer was indeed sticking to his pattern, there would probably be one more victim before he would be coming after CJ. If his one-a-day pace was going to continue, that didn’t give them very much time. They needed a break in the case, and they needed it today.

.

Chapter 5

Mark had intercepted them on their way along the corridor to demand an update. Apparently, their deputy director, Julius Mitchell was pressuring Mark about the Tick-Tock killer. When CJ and Tim finally did make it back into their office – after reassuring Mark that they would get the job done – CJ was beyond tense. As she stood staring out the window trying to search her mind for the answer, Tim uploaded and printed out the photos from the crime scene. He noted this killer’s usual, sickening flamboyance in the way Carla Bryant had been displayed. Her sweater had been cut to show her bulging arm muscles, the bloodied, iron weights from two sets of dumbbells had been positioned around and on top of the body, and the message had been carefully written on the victim’s six-pack.

“Meticulous, disgusting, and disturbing,” Tim said to himself as he pinned the last three pictures to the board.

“Hmm?” CJ mumbled before she turned around. “Sorry, Tim. I was just trying to figure out a way to catch him. I’m gonna call the San Francisco office again. They’d better have something on Geirson by now.”

Just as Tim was about to answer, the phone on his desk rang. While CJ sat down to call their colleagues upstate, he answered it accordingly. “Special Agent Tim Dalton.”

“Hello, Agent Dalton. This is Dale Smith, Callum’s father.”

“How can I help you, Mr. Smith?”

“My son has remembered something that might help you….something about a van near the school the day Tilly was found.”

Tim’s eyebrows lifted slowly. “That might be helpful. I’ll come out to take Callum’s statement again. Will you be home today?”

“Yes. After five PM is best for us. I’m leaving work now.”

Tim looked at his watch. It was already four. “OK. I’ll see you then.” Once he had finished the call, he saw CJ was still on the phone to San Francisco, so he flipped through his notebook to refresh his mind on the Tilly Morrison crime scene details. He noted from the plan they had drawn out of the area, that there was an access road behind the equipment store to allow for garbage disposal. He wondered if that was where Callum had seen the van. I’d better not jump to conclusions, he reminded himself. Take his statement again, and figure it out from there. When the office printer began to reel off pages of info, CJ stood up from her desk which effectively brought Tim from his musings.

“I have an address for Geirson’s nephew. His name is Dan Fields. We need to go out to talk to him,” CJ said as she made the sheets of paper into a pile and knocked them on her desk to tidy the edges.

“I was going to go speak with Callum Smith. He has remembered he saw a van parked near the school that day.”

“Oh,” CJ looked over at him. “That could be important.” She pulled at her bottom lip while she thought about it. “OK. I’ll go talk to this Dan Fields. You take another statement from Callum, and I’ll meet you back here in a few hours.”

Tim was a little wary about them splitting up. “Shouldn’t we go do both things together?”

“Tim, this killer is going to throw another victim at us real soon. We need to move fast.” CJ picked up her jacket and the file she had on Dan. “I’m outta here.”

“OK. Text me if you need me,” Tim shouted at her back as she disappeared out the door. He leapt up from his seat and grabbed a set of keys for a Bureau sedan before following her along the corridor.

* * * * * *

Callum Smith had indeed helped. He had described the van to the best of his ability, but the main thing was that he had remembered a partial plate number. “It definitely said CAK. My ferret was called Pancake. It reminded me of him.”

“That’s great, Callum. So it was a white van, kinda rusty with a big dent in the right side, and part of the license plate said CAK?”

“Yes. I didn’t even think it was that important, but then I found Tilly and…”

When Callum looked down at his hands, Tim nodded at Mr. Smith who was sitting next to his son. “It’s good you told us now. It will help, I’m sure.”

Tim left the Smith household under a dark cloud. As soon as he was back in the car, he accessed the computer database and input the plate number and description of the van. He wished they had a make and model to work with, and when ninety three possible matches came back, he tightened his frown and slammed his fist against the empty passenger seat. “How the hell are we supposed to-” he began before he was interrupted by a beep from the computer. One of the vans had been reported stolen two days ago. “That might be it, which means I’m at a fucking dead end again.” After a sigh, he decided to head back to the office to check it out anyway. Maybe the van’s owner would have some pertinent information.

Barely five minutes later, Tim’s cell phone started to ring as he drove along the highway. He pressed the button for the speaker and answered, “Agent Dalton.”

“Dalton, it’s Clark. I tried to call Agent Carson, but she’s not picking up.”

“What’s going on, Clark?” Tim asked, suddenly very anxious.

“Something wasn’t right at the Geirson house, and I couldn’t find anything about her at all, which made me more suspicious. No hospital stay, no care home, no phone calls, no activity on her credit card, no nothing. A couple of  her neighbors said someone had been coming and going from her house recently under the cover of darkness, so I got a warrant and we checked it out. Ethel Geirson’s dead, Dalton.”

“Murdered?”

“Yes. We found her in a freezer in the back room. And that’s not all. The entire house is old and run down except for the bathroom. It was the weirdest thing. It’s been completely remodeled.”

“You think the killer did that?” Tim said, trying to get a feel for the house that he could only see in his head.

“That’d be my guess. The place had been cleaned with bleach, but we found blood staining on the grout between the floor tiles. We’re running it now.”

“Shit, I gotta go. Text me the nephew’s address, will ya? I don’t have it here.”

“No worries. I’ll email everything else to you as I get it.”

Tim hung up the call abruptly and hit the speed dial for CJ. When he got no reply, his heart started to race. She was at Geirson’s nephew’s house. What if the killer had murdered Dan Fields too? Or what if Dan was the killer?

“Fuck!” Tim glanced at the text message and knew he was at least a forty minute drive from CJ, so he pulled out into the fast lane, sirens blaring and lights flashing. He tried her speed dial again. No answer. He had never been so afraid in his life.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, CJ had only just arrived at Dan Fields’ property. It was on a pretty suburban street where the houses sat on large lots with plenty of space for families with kids and pets. The house itself was well kept, a two-level property with a back yard that seemed to go on forever. As CJ got out of the SUV – leaving her cell phone charging on the passenger seat – she noted the detached garage off to the side and a little farther back from the street. Both its remote-controlled doors were closed, so she wondered if Dan was even home.

She rang the bell and took a quick look through the small glass window beside the door while she waited for a response. When none came, she tried once more before wandering off the porch’s side steps to check around the back.

Moving along the pathway between the house and the garage, CJ thought she heard someone hammering, and when she saw a large workshop through the trees way at the back of the lot, she figured it had come from there. She admired the colorful arrangement of blooms in the flower bed and decided that Dan Fields must have green fingers. The rest of the yard looked like a well-manicured garden of plants and vegetables, giving CJ some ideas for her own back yard at home. As she approached the workshop, the hammering stopped, so she shouted to announce herself.

“Hello! Mr. Fields?”

As she entered the double doorway, a vast array of tools and clutter met her eye, but she wasn’t expecting to be attacked only a second later. The blow came down directly on top of her head, and the only reason she was still conscious was because she had somehow sensed it and ducked in the nick of time. He had managed to knock her sideways, though, and in the next moment a fight ensued.

CJ swiped her fists at him, all the while trying to get the upper hand in order to grab her gun from its holster, but he was coming at her fast and furious. A blow to her right cheek sent her head lolling to the side. Her only way of staying upright was to grasp a fistful of the killer’s short hair, but there wasn’t enough there to stop her losing her balance. A sharp punch to her stomach put her temporarily out of commission, and he proceeded to drag her across the floor, haul her up by her jacket and pin her back to the tabletop. Before CJ knew it, he had a scalpel against her throat.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he said breathlessly, his mouth spitting little droplets of blood on her face from one of her left hooks…one that had made her wrist ache a little. “I wasn’t expecting this pleasure just yet.”

As he pressed the scalpel’s blade harder against her jugular, she fought to catch her breath and remain calm through the stinging sensation of the cut. “I know you,” she gasped, trying desperately to remember where she had seen him before.

“Ah, yes. I was very excited to find out who you were that day at your boss’s office. Imagine my anticipation.”

The killer was leaning so far over her that his face was mere inches from hers. She could smell his breath, see the perspiration on his skin, and hear his breathing as it settled into a slower rhythm. The fight over, he was going to enjoy the next part, and CJ couldn’t move because if she did, she knew the trickle of blood that was clotting at her neck would turn into a torrent.

“Fleet,” she whispered. “You’re Mr. Fleet.”

“Well remembered, Agent Carson. I’m flattered. You can call me Theo,” he said, moving his face closer to hers. “For the next…mmm…ten minutes.”

Now there was nowhere for CJ to look but into his eyes. What she saw there scared her, but she wasn’t about to show him that. He was confident, blasé, aroused, and yet maniacal too. His narcissism, his penchant for cutting into his victims, and his undeniable brute strength made for a killer so deadly she thought maybe it was game over for her.

Don’t freak out, she kept chanting in her head over and over. “Where is Dan Fields?” she asked, hoping to stall him for a while.

Theodore narrowed his eyes for a moment while he examined her face. He found her beautiful, alluring, and almost a worthy adversary. “I’ve been looking forward to you. It’s a real shame I didn’t get to plan this better.”

“Where is Dan Fields?” CJ repeated.

“Oh, he’s here somewhere with his fiancée. In the basement, probably.” Theodore traced her lips with his eyes before he slowly met her gaze once more. “I do love that song, Under the Boardwalk, don’t you?”

CJ could see from the sadistic look on his face that he had killed them both, and she had a pretty good idea what that last comment was about too. She filed it away for later…if there was going to be a later. “You can’t believe I found you, can you?”

Theodore pressed harder against her neck. “I’m a little surprised, but nevertheless, I am pleased that I get to kill you now.”

When he reached for her gun, CJ panicked a little, but he slid the scalpel over her skin to make a larger cut, ensuring she stopped moving. With her Glock now in his hand and pointed at her temple, he put down the scalpel and started to unzip her pants roughly. CJ could feel her heart rate increasing dramatically. She knew what was next in his game. He had not raped the female civilian victims, but law enforcement was different. She knew he hated the idea of her, and she wasn’t about to give in without a fight. When he kicked both her legs farther apart and tugged harshly on her clothing, she felt the cool air on her mound and knew she was exposed. She had run out of time.

As he reached for his own zipper, she brought her knee up with every bit of power she had in her. It connected directly between his legs, and after he had yelped out a scream in response, she tried to get up from the tabletop. They struggled, and CJ managed to scratch him a couple of times, but even with that and the pain he must have been feeling, Theodore still punched her directly in the face, knocking her backward into her previous position. In seconds, he had the nose of the Glock pressed against her forehead.

Deciding she was too volatile to rape, Theodore pinned her legs under the table in a painful position and used his body to hold her torso in place. “That wasn’t a good idea, Agent Carson. Looks like I’ll have to skip the good part and kill you now instead. You’re starting to piss me off.”

CJ was terrified. She could feel his arousal through his pants – even after she had kneed him in the balls – and it disgusted her beyond all measure. She knew he was getting off on the violence, on hurting her. “If you kill me now, your plan will be flawed.”

“Oh, you mean a fourth victim?” he said with a fake frown. “Don’t you worry about that. She’s already dead, so I could simply dump her after I’ve killed you and everything will still be in order.”

With the pressure of the gun against her forehead and all the other pain she was in, she had to use her words to suggest an alternative to him that didn’t involve her getting killed just yet. “You need to use the scalpel. You didn’t shoot any of your other victims, so you won’t get the proper credit for this one if you shoot me.”

“Hmm. That might be true…”

* * * * * *

Outside at the front of the house, Tim had arrived using a silent approach – no sirens, no lights. He ran over to CJ’s SUV and noticed her cell on the passenger seat. “Shit.”

Drawing his gun, Tim ran past the chain-link perimeter fence and went up to the front door to try the handle. It was open, and he went in to search the house as quickly as he could, feeling in his gut that CJ had been incapacitated somewhere. He had called for backup, but he had no time to wait for them, so when the house was clear, he slipped outside and glanced quickly through the side window on the double garage which revealed an old, white van inside that matched the description given by Callum Smith. He saw no sign of CJ in there, and with his suspicions confirmed about the killer using the van to murder Tilly Morrison, he moved alongside the garage until he heard someone talking in a low, masculine voice. It was coming from the large shed at the rear of the property.

Inside, Theodore had decided it would indeed be better to use his beloved scalpel, and he now had it tucked neatly under CJ’s chin. The Glock had been tossed aside on the floor and there was no way CJ could get to it. She was beginning to sweat under Theodore’s body weight and his sickening observations of her.

“I bet you think you’re the best of the best. A truly special agent. Are you a special fuck too? I bet you are. I wish I could’ve found out. I bet you have some handsome boyfriend who just hangs on your every word. It’s such a shame that the last time he’ll see you is in the morgue. You’ll be a little less attractive than you are now too.”

Somewhere inside, CJ felt a mild pang of relief at the fact that he only seemed to know about her work-related information, which meant Kate and her children would be safe. The thought of Kate was something that would shift her focus, so she had to push her family out of her mind immediately. Just as CJ tried to do so, she saw movement out the side of her eye, but she daren’t look to see who it was. It would tip Theodore off to the fact they were not alone. The person near the doorway froze, which made her think – and hope – that Tim had found her. If it was an accomplice of Theodore’s, they would have kept moving in order to help him with his difficult captive, or at least spoken to him. And anyway, she really didn’t think he was the type of killer to have an accomplice. He was too greedy. He wanted to be the sole owner of his kills.

CJ knew she had to somehow get him to take the scalpel away from her neck, to keep his attention so that he wouldn’t turn around and discover her savior. She had to stay alive a little longer. She altered the position of her left hand behind Theodore’s back, giving the ‘wait’ signal. When the person didn’t move, she was sure it was Tim, but she couldn’t let him shoot right now otherwise her throat would be slit. Theodore would do it in reaction to being shot, or the shot wouldn’t incapacitate him enough and he’d kill her while he bled out.

“You should really stick to your plan, Theo,” CJ croaked under the increasing pressure. “Just a little chloroform could have me compliant in a matter of seconds. You could do this thing right. I know how you like everything to be perfect. Imagine having me bound. Your work would be masterful.”

Theodore looked at her like he was trying to work out if she was actually saying these words or not. Had she accepted the fact that she was going to die? He did like the idea of having her tied up and at his disposal. He also loved the idea of taking his time with her.

“And you should really clean off that blade. I bet it’s covered in blood already. Might not cut so neatly, so precisely,” CJ said, desperately trying to keep the anxiety out of her voice. She saw his eyes travel down to look at the scalpel and hoped he would listen to her.

Theodore lifted the blade away from CJ’s skin for a quick, visual check of the underside, and it was the moment CJ had hoped for. Her hand instantly closed to form a fist and the shot echoed loudly through the large workshop. The second shot seemed like a duller, hollow sound, but CJ suspected it was because she was going into shock and everything was getting a little hazy. Theodore’s body was suddenly rigid, and his eyes held some surprise as he stared at CJ right before he slumped down on top of her.

“Get him off me!” she yelled.

Tim rushed over to CJ and knocked the killer’s body to the floor. Due to her state of undress, he avoided touching her until he could snap her out of her daze. “CJ? CJ!”

The thunder in CJ’s ears gradually faded away, and as she drifted back to reality, she became aware of Tim standing right next to her. “He…did you get him?”

“Yes. Here,” Tim said, wrapping something around her neck to stem the bleeding.

CJ held the material tightly against her skin, but it was only when Tim threw something else onto her torso that she realized he was trying to cover her up. “Shit.” She grappled with his jacket until her hand could venture underneath it to pull up her underwear and pants. She knew Tim had seen everything now, and she felt about ready to have a breakdown. She had been in potentially the most terrifying and vulnerable position a woman can be in, and Tim had witnessed it. She should have been screaming and crying right now, but instead she focused on the man who lay at her feet.

Theodore Fleet – the Tick-Tock killer – was dead. CJ was glad, but at the same time, she felt she had missed an opportunity. A million things ran through her head at that moment, things she had wanted to ask him, things she needed to know, but she couldn’t seem to make sense of any of it as her mind spun like a whirlwind.

While Tim relayed information to the backup agents via his radio, CJ held the cloth on her neck with one hand, and with the other she retrieved her gun from the floor. The scalpel had been the murder weapon. There was no way they were taking her gun into evidence. She knew she was moving in slow motion, but she couldn’t seem to function at a greater speed, and when her partner stood directly in front of her, she couldn’t look him in the eye.

A moment later, Tim did something that CJ remembered doing for Jamie after Allison Timmons had captured her. He gently urged CJ to move out of the workshop, and as the other agents filed in along with a couple of medics, he led her to a spot in the yard just behind the garage. Tim ducked his head down to force CJ to meet his gaze. He desperately wanted to hold her, but he wouldn’t unless she gave him permission.

CJ finally looked at him and saw he was searching her face for any trace of emotion. When she couldn’t stand the scrutiny anymore, she grabbed him with her free hand. She didn’t cry, but when his arms went around her shoulders she stood there feeling the safety of his embrace grounding her and bringing her back to herself. It only took a few minutes, and when she stepped back she could see his fear, plain as day.

“How did you know?” she asked as she began to resume her confident, professional stance.

“Clark called to tell me that Ethel Geirson was found murdered. I put two and two together…”

“Right.”

“I also called you. When you didn’t answer, I got…” Tim ground his jaws together and seemed to be trying to curb his feelings. “I got scared, actually.”

“Why?”

“Uh, because I thought you were dead.”

CJ blanched at the straightforward statement. “Well…thanks to you, I’m not.”

Tim covered his face with both hands and scrubbed to erase what was going on in his head. “You can leave all of this to us if you want,” he said, signaling toward the workshop. “I’ll get everything we need.”

“Not a chance. I’m fine, Tim. Trust me.” When he looked doubtful, she frowned. “What? You don’t believe me?”

“No. It’s not that. It’s just, you need…” Instead of telling her, he reached up to smooth out her hair. Clearly her scuffle with Theodore had messed her up a little, and after he had brushed some dust and cobwebs off her shoulder, his hand fleetingly held her bruised cheek until he realized what he was doing. “You also need to get your injuries examined. The medics are ready for you.”

CJ glossed over the fact that she accepted the intimate contact from him and spun around on her heel to see the two paramedics leaving the workshop. She was about to protest about her injuries when Tim put his finger up to stop her.

“That needs stitches. No arguments.”

Since CJ could feel the blood seeping onto her hand through the material, she had to agree. “OK, but we need to talk about that later.”

“What?”

“That moment, or whatever it was we just had.”

Tim smiled. “We can talk about it anytime. I think I’ve figured it out now.”

CJ threw him a puzzled look before she followed the medics out front. She really needed to clarify what he had figured out, but there would be time when they were done with the hectic crime scene. After he had watched her walk away, Tim leaned against the fence for a moment to gather his thoughts before he went back into the workshop to organize the other agents, but he didn’t want to be there doing this right now. What he wanted – and needed – was a stiff drink and a lie down. The SSHU was a tough department to work in, but he did love his team, especially the team leader.

tim-dalton-am15

* * * * * *

Fifteen minutes later, CJ was stitched up and sitting in the back of the ambulance waiting for a dressing to be applied when Mark appeared at the rear doors. His face held his deep concern, and his nostrils flared a little when he saw the state of CJ’s neck. He seemed to shake off the feelings that coursed through him and regain his assistant director face quickly, but CJ saw it. She saw it all: the relief that she was alive, the pride that she had caught the killer…and the anger at the fact that she had put herself in a dangerous situation. But Mark said nothing about any of that. He simply gave her a small nod and continued toward the house.

CJ felt deflated. Even though she had solved the case, it wasn’t through some sophisticated profile indicator or a planned trail of evidence. She had stumbled onto the killer this time, and she felt like an idiot for not being more careful. As her shoulders sank, she had to console herself with the fact that he was dead. His game was over, and he had lost.

Once her dressing was applied, she mentally brushed herself down and walked back up to the workshop where she found Tim bringing Mark up to speed on the events leading up to the shooting. Mark was telling him he needed to relinquish his weapon once they were back at the office, which reminded CJ once again that Tim had saved her life.

Since Chris was already there and quietly going about her business – without a single glance at CJ – the two agents were dismissed while the crime scene guys documented everything. On their way to the SUV, they passed the other agents who were crawling all over the house and the garage. CJ nudged one of them on the shoulder as he passed her.

“Hey, Michaels…in the basement, under the floor.”

Agent David Michaels looked at her with a frown on his face until he caught on. “Understood.”

When they got into the car, Tim sat leaning forward with his forehead on the steering wheel. “Let’s not ever do that again,” he muttered.

“Which part?” CJ asked quietly.

“The part where we split up and you almost get killed…”

“Oh. That part.”

Tim looked at her. “I’m serious.”

With the threat of tears not far away, CJ nodded. “I don’t want to leave this to them,” she said, flicking her hand toward the house. “This is our case.”

“Yeah, and we solved it.”

“I feel fine. I want to go back in. I want to finish it.” When CJ saw Mark walking out to his car, she leapt out to intercept him. “Sir!”

Mark stopped and turned to her. “Agent Carson?”

“Sir, I really don’t think I should have to leave the scene. I feel fine, and we’ve worked hard on this case. I think we should be able to see it through to-”

“CJ,” Mark said for her ears only. “I never said you couldn’t deal with this, but Tim can’t. He killed the perp. I was dismissing him from the scene, and if you were actually as fine as you say you are, you would’ve known that.”

CJ looked at her hands that were still slightly stained with her own blood. “Right. I just need to finish this.”

“I agree. So go finish it. I’ll take Agent Dalton back to the office and leave you my car.” Mark handed her the keys to his sedan, and when she took them, he glanced at the dressing on her neck and shook his head as he walked away.

With an agitated shudder, CJ stood and watched them as they drove off. “I guess I screwed up, and he’ll no doubt tell me all about that later.” She sighed and walked back up to the house. There, she found David Michaels coming up the stairs from the basement.

“Carson. We found Dan Fields and his fiancée, Debra White.”

CJ’s eyebrows lowered into a disturbed frown. “Yeah, Fleet basically told me he’d killed them. They were under the floor, right?”

David nodded. “Throats were slit, no doubt with that scalpel we recovered from the workshop.”

At the mention of the scalpel, CJ subconsciously put her hand to her neck. “Anything else?”

“Looks like he was setting up the basement for another kill. We found duct tape, ropes, bottle of chloroform…”

“Right. Thanks, Michaels.”

She continued down the stairs to find the two victims being bagged by the medical examiner and her assistant. When Chris realized who had entered the room, she averted her eyes, but CJ wanted to talk to her, so she stopped right in front of her which meant they had to look at one another.

“What did you find?”

Chris continued to avoid her gaze and looked down at the body bags as she spoke. “The male victim was bound while the killer dealt with the female. He most likely made him watch since I found traces of what appears to be duct tape adhesive on the male’s eyelids. I’ll confirm that back at the lab.”

“So our guy had two sadistic games going on in tandem. What a bastard,” CJ said as she scratched through her hair. “Judging by the neighborhood, these two were probably planning on getting married and having a couple of kids. A nice life…”

When CJ stopped talking, Chris finally looked up at her. “Are you OK?”

CJ blinked a few times at the change in direction. “Yes. As usual, I just wish I had caught him sooner.”

“What did he do to you in there?”

“Why? Is it relevant to these victims?” CJ asked rather sharply.

“No. I was asking as a…never mind. I have to get the victims removed and head back to my office.”

Chris walked away leaving CJ a little confused and a lot suspicious. Was Chris really being nice? She inferred she was asking as a friend, but even saying that seemed to almost make her gag. Maybe the case had freaked her out, and she would get over it soon and be back to her horrid self in a matter of days.

Yeah, that’s it, CJ mused as she left the basement, ignoring Chris as she passed her by. She had only just stepped outside when she heard a shout coming from the workshop.

“Get the medics back here! We got a live one!”

CJ yelled back at the disembodied voice. “Fleet’s still alive?”

“No. There’s a vic in the storeroom!”

“Fuck.” CJ jogged across the lot and into the building where she had been so close to death barely an hour before. “Where?”

“In here,” answered an agent she didn’t know. “We had to cut through the padlock on the door.”

An unconscious female was lying on the floor, bound at the ankles and wrists. CJ suspected this was the victim Theodore had spoken about, but he had lied to CJ about killing her already. She had to take solace in the fact that they may have saved one life after all. And it now made sense as to why Theodore had attacked CJ immediately when she had initially came into the workshop. She had disturbed his work.

As the medics ran in to help the victim, CJ stood back and felt her head pounding louder than before. She knew she needed to rest, but she had to finish up here before she could even sit down, so she pulled out her notebook and began to take down everything she needed in order to close the case.

Once they were done with the scene and Chris had finished the autopsies, CJ and Tim could start to finalize their report on the Tick-Tock killer’s atrocities. She couldn’t get this one over with fast enough. Theodore Fleet was someone she would never forget.

Another hour later, the ambulance had left with its lights flashing, the entire property had been thoroughly searched, the forensics team had completed their sweep, and most of the backup agents had gone back to their other duties. CJ could feel her body beginning to quiver, mainly because she wanted to collapse onto a warm, comfortable mattress, but also because of what had happened with Theodore. In those moments of terror, a federal agent could cope with the strain, the fear, and the agony of helplessness, but now, as a human being, she needed something, anything to give her the strength to keep going. She knew she would get that from Kate and her children when she got home, but it seemed she would also have Tim. He had just shared one of the most extreme moments in her life with her. No one else would know what it had been like in there.

.

Chapter 6

It was eight thirty PM that night when CJ got back to the field office. When she discovered that Tim was not there, she stood and stared blankly at the pin board for a while until she felt the tears welling up in her eyes. After marching quickly to the ladies locker room, she threw some cold water on her face and looked in the mirror, determined not to cry about the evil psychopath who had attempted to rape her and held a scalpel to her throat.

With waves of shivers running through her body, she went into one of the toilet stalls and closed the door, and as soon as her rear-end hit the closed toilet seat, her cell phone rang in her pocket. It was Kate.

“Hey,” CJ said timidly.

“Hi. Where are you?”

“Um, in a stall in the locker room.” CJ heard Kate talking to someone. “Who are you talking to?”

“I just met Jamie in the corridor. She told me where the locker room is, and I’m coming in the door right…now.”

CJ heard the outer door opening and her mouth twitched into a tiny smile before her face closed down under its mask of doom again.

A small knock on the stall door was accompanied by some simple words. “Open it, honey.”

“How do you know what stall I’m in?”

“It’s the only one with the door closed.” Kate tapped her foot on the floor, knowing that CJ would see it. “Are you going to make me stand here like an idiot?”

“You’re not an idiot.”

When the door lock clicked, Kate saw CJ sitting on the closed seat with her cell pressed against her ear. “You can hang up now.”

They both cut the connection, and as Kate approached her, CJ leaned forward until her head met Kate’s torso. It was enough to force a few of those restrained tears from her eyes, and her arms slipped around Kate’s waist to grasp at the back of her shirt. Kate curled herself around CJ and remained quiet until she was ready to talk.

“How did you know?”

Kate took in a gentle breath of relief, knowing that CJ hadn’t shut down completely. It allowed her to relax a little, and she rubbed through CJ’s hair as she spoke. “I could feel what you were going through. It was only for about five minutes, but there was no doubt in my mind it was you.”

“What was the feeling like?”

“Terror…and I was sitting reading a magazine, so I knew it wasn’t mine. You’re the only one I can sense like that, so I came to find you. Dad and Jeffrey were out, so I had to wait for them to come back and watch the girls before I left. Then the drive down here seemed to take forever.” Kate continued to stroke her hair even when CJ looked up into her eyes. “Why did you go alone, CJ?”

“I see someone’s been filling you in.”

“It was Jamie.”

“Did she tell you what happened?”

“Not really. She said the hard parts would be up to you, and anyway, she was a little sketchy about the details of your day. Why did you go there by yourself?”

CJ sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know. I just wanted to talk to Dan Fields as soon as possible. I had no reason to suspect it was him or anyone at his house, and we had to get the killer before he struck again, so Tim went to deal with one inquiry, and I went there.”

“It was a stupid decision.” Kate gave CJ a look when she was about to come back with a quick retort. “You are not stupid, CJ, but you made a stupid decision this time, especially with this killer the way he is….was.”

CJ’s shoulders slouched. “I know.”

“Don’t ever do it again.”

“I think I learned my lesson, Katie.”

“Tell me what happened, please.”

“Here?” CJ asked. “In the toilet stall?”

“Yes. Here is as good a place as any. I won’t let you sweep this under the rug and try to distract me from getting information out of you.”

CJ shook her head again. “Boy, you’re good. You should definitely do some interrogations.”

“I’m not interrogating you, honey. I love you, and I want you to purge what happened to you. Right now, please.” Kate took CJ’s chin in her hand and pulled her face up until their gazes met. “Now…”

CJ gulped repeatedly before giving Kate a slight nod. “It was in this workshop in the backyard. He blindsided me. We fought. The struggle seemed to last forever. I ended up with my back pinned to a table, and he was leaning over me with his knife…scalpel to my throat. He was really strong…” CJ faltered, and she tore her eyes away from Kate’s for a second until a gentle tap on her head brought her back.

Kate wasn’t letting her miss out any part of it, and she made sure CJ could see that she could handle whatever she was about to tell her. “And…?”

“He took my gun and told me he was going to kill me, but before that he wanted to have some fun. He said he’d had a Fed before, but that she wasn’t as good as I was going to be. She had fought him too, but he said she didn’t win. He had no idea Agent Regan had survived. He opened the front of my pants, and when I tensed he pushed the scalpel harder against my neck. I could feel the sting, so I knew if I struggled he would’ve cut me even more, but when he had fully exposed me…” CJ had to gulp again to keep the bile from rising to her throat. “I fought him hard. I think my knee connected with his balls, and that’s what saved me from being…being…”

“Raped,” Kate finished for her.

CJ stared helplessly into Kate’s eyes. She could see the strength there, but she could also see the horror. Kate was living through it with her, and when she realized how she would feel if it had been Kate in that workshop, she was reminded once again how incredible her wife really was. “He decided just to kill me instead, so I had to keep him talking. I asked him questions, but he got more and more agitated. He moved the blade to cut closer to my windpipe.” CJ winced before biting her lips. She knew she had to continue since Kate was standing firm in front of her, so she pretended she was writing her report and described the rest of the scene. “This time the blood started running down my neck. I could feel the heat of it on my skin. That’s when I saw someone come into the room. I’m not sure how, but I just knew it was Tim, so I held up my hand to stop his advance. If he had said anything or pulled the trigger at that point, the scalpel would’ve cut me open either way.”

Kate stood completely still and her body was rigid. She had to keep reminding herself that it was all over. She knew it was a necessary part of their relationship for CJ to tell her everything – and it was she who had insisted upon it – but still, it was tough to hear the details.

“I spoke to him again. He was staring into my eyes, and I couldn’t look anywhere but into his because he was so damn close to me. I could smell his bad breath, and I could feel his…his erection. It was so disgusting. He got off on hurting me, on violating me…such a sick bastard. I told him he really should clean his blade before he killed me…neater incisions that way. He took it off my neck for a second, and I closed my hand into a fist. That’s when I heard the shots. His body went totally rigid before he collapsed on top of me.” CJ grimaced until her entire face was taut.

Kate had been silent and still for the whole story, but she lifted her hand now to trail her fingers through CJ’s hair. It had the desired effect, and CJ’s face relaxed somewhat.

“And was it Tim who had come in?” Kate asked quietly.

“Yeah. He’d gotten a phone call that probably saved my life. He saved my life. He had rushed in to help me when he saw my car in front of the house. Tim saw everything. After he had shot him, I screamed at him to get the guy off me, and he did. He tried to reach out to me, I think, but I felt like I wasn’t in the room, you know? I was in shock, and when I realized I was still exposed I was a little embarrassed too, so I turned away from him to cover myself up. He seemed to understand and crouched down to make sure Fleet was dead. That was the killer’s name. Theodore Fleet.” CJ paused for a moment with her eyes glazing over before she continued. “I fastened my pants before I picked up my gun. I think some other agents came in then. Tim briefed them before he nudged me outside and into a corner at the back of the garage. I remember doing the same thing to Jamie once. He didn’t let me avoid him this time. He held me…and I let him.”

“I want to meet him,” Kate said. “I need to meet this man.”

“You will. I think he’s giving his statement and being interviewed right now. He shot the killer, so they have to question everything about what happened, but you’ll meet him, Katie.”

“Invite him for a quiet dinner tomorrow night, please.”

CJ met her eyes. “He might be back in the office by now. You could invite him.”

“I’d be happy to,” Kate said before she held CJ for a few precious, long moments.

When CJ pushed back a little, she sighed heavily as she finally let it sink in that it was all over. “Thanks, Katie.”

Kate didn’t say anything. She just kissed her tenderly on the lips and pulled her into a standing position. She led CJ along the corridor until they arrived at the office. Inside, Jamie was packing her bag to leave for the day, and Tim was tapping away on his keyboard, no doubt typing up some of their completed report on Theodore Fleet. Of course, he didn’t fail to notice who had just walked in, and he watched covertly until they were ready to talk to him.

Jamie approached CJ and wrapped her in a hug. Still holding her, she whispered into her ear, “I gotta go, DM, but I want to talk tomorrow. Love you.”

“Love you too,” CJ said, her words slightly muffled against Jamie’s shoulder.

“Take care of her, Kate. I’ll see you guys later.” And with that, Jamie waved at Tim and left for the night.

As he waved back, he continued his observations of Kate, only now he made them perfectly obvious by smiling widely at her.

CJ put her arm around Kate’s shoulder and led her toward Tim. “Tim Dalton, my savior…meet Kate Carson, my superhero.”

As Kate gave her a self-deprecating look, Tim got to his feet and held out his hand. “I’ll go for the handshake since this is the first time we’ve met. The pleasure and the honor are mine, Kate.”

Kate smiled at his manner and his choice of words. “No way, Tim. The honor is very much mine. It’s great to finally meet you,” she said, pulling him into a tight hug. “And thank you.”

Tim only felt a little awkward for all of two seconds before he held her in return. When she had stepped back, he smiled sheepishly. “Just doing my job, and I, uh, have to say I very much admire your work.”

CJ rolled her eyes and almost laughed. “Here we go.”

“What?” Tim said, forcing himself not to pout. “I really do.”

Kate smiled proudly. “Well, I’m happy to have such a distinguished man say that to me.”

“Jeez, it’s the mutual admiration club,” CJ muttered, even though they all knew she was joking around. “Not sure I could cope with the sweetness-”

“Anyway,” Kate interrupted. “I wanted to invite you over to our place for dinner, Tim. Would tomorrow night suit you? I mean, I’m hoping tomorrow will be a not-so-loud day for you guys.”

Tim nodded. “Tomorrow is good. Thanks for the invitation.”

CJ squeezed Kate’s shoulder gently. “Excellent.”

“I’d better go. The girls are probably driving Dad around the bend.”

“I won’t be too far behind you, Katie,” CJ said as she took her hand.

“Good,” Kate said to CJ before turning back to Tim. “It was great to meet you. See you tomorrow.”

“For sure, yes. And it was great to meet you too.”

Once Tim had given Kate a shy wave, CJ walked her out into the corridor. At the elevator, Kate hugged CJ once more and gently touched her slightly swollen cheek as she spoke.

“You sure you’re all right?”

CJ smiled wanly. “Yeah. We just need to finish up the paperwork. It won’t take too long. I promise.”

“OK.”

“I love you, Katie.”

“Love you more…” Kate said as she backed into the elevator.

“Not possible, but we’ll finish that when I get home.”

The elevator closed, and the last thing CJ saw was Kate smiling through the gap. That vision was definitely what gave her step a little bounce on her way back along the corridor.

* * * * * *

An hour or so later, they had collated all of the information they had from the crime scenes at Dan Fields’ house, the San Francisco office, and their own vast bundle of notes and evidence from the case. Tim was now silently working on his computer while CJ collected the photographs off the board to file them away in the store room. When she had finished that, she began logging some items of evidence and sealing them in the usual clear, plastic bags.

They had received confirmation that Theodore Fleet was indeed deceased, and that the woman found in the store room was Courtney Moore, a twenty-one-year old former beauty queen. A diary of Theodore’s kills was discovered in the basement of the house, which included what he had planned to write on Courtney’s body. The words ‘such obsession offers nothing’ were apparently the completion of his message to CJ and her colleagues. She was supposed to ‘die soon’.

Courtney was in hospital but doing well, considering what she had been through. She would make a full recovery. Not so, Dan Fields and his fiancée. They had died at least two days before CJ had gotten there, killed so that Theodore could use the house for his continuing tirade of murders. It turned out he had been gifted the collection of watches from Ethel Geirson. She had been a friend of his now-deceased mother who had left the watches to him years ago. When the police had gotten too close for comfort, Theodore must have felt he had to leave his luxury apartment, and when Ethel called him on a whim, he had decided to use her place…after he had killed her. Later, he had left the San Francisco area completely and headed to LA, knowing that Dan’s house could be his next hideaway.

Possibly the oddest discovery was when the agents had found Theodore’s trophies. CJ had wondered if he had kept any, and when the stolen van was searched they found a smart, leather briefcase inside containing a custom-fitted holder for medical test tubes. Each one was filled with blood and numbered. It was pretty clear to CJ that there would be one sample per victim.

“I wonder what he was going to do with the blood,” CJ suddenly said, breaking the quiet in the office.

“I dread to think,” Tim answered. “Serial killers tend to want the trophies to relive the thrill of the kill, so I guess he was going to have them made into a nice piece of modern art or something?”

CJ blinked. When she saw Tim’s cheeky expression, she couldn’t help but bark out a laugh. “You might just have a darker sense of humor than me.”

“You laughed. I’d say we’re pretty even on the darkness.”

“Oh, you think?” CJ asked with her eyebrow raised.

With his grin partially restrained, he flopped back in the chair. “Yeah I do.”

The way he was looking at CJ made her think that now was a good time for the talk. Since the look made her feel strangely comfortable, she decided it was absolutely necessary to have the talk.

“We need to-”

Tim interrupted. “I know. Are you done here?”

CJ looked around her at the items on the desk. “Once I log these into evidence, yes.”

“Then let’s go do that on our way to the garage. We can talk in your car…or my car. But I like your car.”

“Well, mine is better,” CJ remarked without missing a beat. “Did you finalize your statement already?”

“Just sent it to Mark, and since you’ve already filed the preliminary report, I’d say we’re done for today at least,” Tim said as he stood to grab his jacket.

“Sounds like it.”

“Oh, and did you see that email from Agent Clark?”

“Not yet.”

Tim flipped a few of the printed pages lying in his in-tray. “Here. Remember that message for Agent Regan that wasn’t quite perfect?”

CJ nodded as she read. “A distraction. He wrote it on Geirson. He couldn’t reveal her to us because she would give away his location. So the completed message reads Regan is a dead woman. Well, it was pretty obvious he intended that to be true anyway.”

“Yeah. I hope she pulls through.”

“Me too. Come on. Let’s get outta here.”

Once they had visited the evidence room, they stood in the elevator in silence until it deposited them at the basement. They strolled along past the row of neatly parked cars until they got to CJ’s Dodge Ram, and when Tim opened the passenger door, he let out a whistle.

“Nice leather,” he said as his hand brushed across the tactile surface before he climbed in.

“Yeah. Katie chose it. This thing was a gift from her.”

“Aw, you’re so lucky. I wanna find someone who buys me gifts like this.”

CJ snorted. “This is the least of the gifts she gives me. And she’s the best gift.”

“Oh, stop it. You can’t be this perfect.”

“I’m far from perfect, Tim. And I guess that leads nicely into our talk.” She scooted round in the driver’s seat to face him. “So how do you feel about me?”

Tim was not shy of the sensitive chats – and he had nothing to hide from CJ – so he shifted his shoulders to face her too. “It was confusing for a while. Back in Minnesota, I had thought it was sexual attraction…and maybe then, it was. I probably had a crush on you, but I never really thought it through because of why you were there. There was too much serious stuff going on. I think you’re stunning, CJ. I mean, I know you hate hearing that, but it’s a simple fact.” He paused to smirk at her darkened cheeks. “But now, it’s like I know you’re this incredibly intelligent, witty, loving, generous, beautiful woman, and I care about you so much. Actually, I think I love you, but…it’s not sexual. That’s the confusing part. It is powerful, though.”

CJ was a little stunned for a moment by the way he articulated himself and boldly told her everything, but she didn’t take long to respond. “Wow. Um…I love you too. Is that really weird?”

“No. I’m a firm believer in going with your gut. When you feel it, you feel it.” Tim watched her mulling it over. “It shouldn’t be uncomfortable. If it is, we-”

“Oh, it’s not. Not at all,” CJ interrupted. “It’s just surprising. I never felt this for Ethan or Mikey.”

“What about Jamie?”

“She’s my soul sister. I definitely love her.”

“I suppose she is kinda cool,” Tim said, waiting for a reaction that didn’t transpire since CJ was so deep in thought. “So we’re OK, right? I mean, you’re sexy as hell, but I don’t want to cross that line with you. And anyway, Kate’s awesome…hot too.”

CJ burst out laughing since he had successfully knocked her right off her train of thought. “You keep your eyes off my wife,” she jested.

Tim shook his head even with his smile firmly in place. “Not interested. You have your happy family, and I think that’s great. I’ll find mine when the time is right. I’m just glad I have you in my life.”

“OK, you need to quit being so mushy. I’m already on the verge of crying after the day I’ve had.”

“Sorry. I know it was a tough one. Well, that’s an understatement when just being alive is a good result.”

“I’m alive thanks to you.”

“I think you would’ve found a way to get him. You keep forgetting I’ve read your file. I know how good you are at this job. Don’t doubt yourself.”

“You sound like Kate…but I did screw up this time.”

“I disagree. The killer is dead. We got him because we followed up on those watches. That was you, CJ.”

CJ sighed. “I guess.”

When her eyes seemed to lose focus again, Tim leaned on the central armrest. “May I hug you before you go home?”

CJ’s pensive expression morphed into one of gratitude. She nodded as she reached over to meet him. His arms fitted snuggly around her back, and it felt great to both of them. CJ held onto him and thought about the connection. He did not feel like her lover. She had thought he felt like a brother but it wasn’t really that either. It was somewhere in the middle, a unique bond that fell on a different plane or dimension, and CJ was thankful for it as he leaned his chin on her shoulder. After a minute, he pushed away and sent her a sheepish grin.

“I figured we should stop before I got carried away,” he said before he stuck out his tongue and opened the truck door to leave.

“Get the hell outta here,” CJ chastised, but she couldn’t stop smiling. “See you tomorrow, partner.”

“Yep. Lookin’ forward to it.” Once he had closed the door, he walked in front of the truck on his way to his own car.

When he turned around to wave at her, CJ waved back before starting the engine. As she left the parking garage, she realized she was finishing an ultimately terrifying day at work with a smile on her face. “Now that really is weird.”

* * * * * *

It was pretty late when CJ got home, and before she went into her own house, she quickly jogged over to Eddie and Jeffrey’s. When Eddie answered the door, he was still wearing his clothes from a day of decorating – the tell-tale sign being paint splashes on his pant leg – but Jeffrey was already in his PJs and a fluffy dressing gown, with puffball slippers on his feet to complete the picture.

“CJ!” Jeffrey gasped when she walked in. “Oh, how was your day, my lovely?”

“Hey, Jeffrey,” she said through her laughter at his outfit. “It was fine, thanks.”

“Oh, nonsense!” Eddie barked. “We know you caught that wretched man today. Are you truly OK?” he added while he examined the dressing on her neck.

“I’ll be fine, really. It’s just a scratch.”

Jeffrey looked skeptical. “Hmm. Miss Understatement is here!” he exclaimed before he waved her into their cozy living room.

“No, I can’t stay. I just wanted to give you guys a hug before I went home for the night.”

“Well, all right then,” Eddie submitted while giving Jeffrey a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “You can see my handiwork another time. Best get home to Katie.”

“Where were you painting?” CJ asked as she headed back toward the door.

“Our office. I’m so glad we decided to put drywall up in places. The logs are now a feature and the whole house looks colorful and fabulous.”

“I bet it does. Kisses,” she said leaning in to hug Eddie and kiss him on the cheek. Once she had done the same to Jeffrey, she stepped outside onto the porch. “If you’re free tomorrow night, you could come over to meet one of my colleagues. He’s coming for dinner.”

“Oh! Do you want us to make something?” Jeffrey queried with his hands clasped together hopefully.

“Aw, come on, you guys. You don’t need to cook for us all the time.”

Eddie wafted his hand at her comment. “Nonsense. We love doing it! How about we come over a little earlier and Katie can help us whip up a treat?”

“OK, I surrender. See you tomorrow. Night, dads.” CJ headed for home, hearing a “Bye, sweetheart!” being shouted at her back. She waved over her shoulder before picking up the pace to jog through the dividing gate. When she saw her home in the not-so-far distance, she broke into a run. She couldn’t wait to grab a hold of Kate.

When CJ got in, she wasn’t surprised to find that the house was quiet and the children were in bed. She missed them and hoped that tomorrow she would get back from work at a decent hour to spend some time with them. At least Kamali appeared and greeted her with his usual doggy enthusiasm, but he did take some time to sniff her over very carefully, no doubt due to her clothes smelling of Theodore Fleet. With that in mind, she decided a shower was in order as soon as possible.

“Just paperwork for me tomorrow, buddy. I’m leaving the office at five on the button,” she told the dog who gave her one of those canine head tilts in response.

“Are you indeed?”

When CJ saw that Kate was about to walk into her arms, she gently grabbed her shoulders to stop her. “I’m desperate to hold you, but I’m filthy. I need to get out of these clothes.”

Kate hesitated to respond with a suggestive remark after the day CJ had just had. “Do you want any help at all?”

“You bet. No matter what has happened to me, I’ll always want you near me. You know that, right?” CJ responded, having seen right through the question behind the question.

Kate nodded and took her hand to lead her upstairs. “The water is really hot. You could take a bath if you want.”

“Will you sit with me?” CJ asked as they entered their bedroom. “Or maybe come in with me?”

Kate answered with a smile, and as the comfortable silence continued, they prepared the bathroom for a relaxing soak in the tub. CJ took a moment to shuffle along the upper hallway to look in on Shannon and Lucy before returning to the bedroom where Kate stood waiting for her.

“Are you sure you’re all right? I know you had a…I was going to say bad day, but that’s not enough to describe it.”

CJ used her index finger to trace Kate’s face. She kissed her softly on the lips, and when it felt good, she did it again. “I’m fine. This one was really tough, but I’m surprisingly unaffected. I dunno. Maybe it’ll hit me later, but I really do feel normal.” When Kate kissed her again and attempted to move away, CJ stopped her. “How are you doing with it?”

“You mean the fact that you were almost…?” Kate sighed. “I’ll be fine. You’re here, and that’s enough to get me through.”

“Want me to quit?” CJ offered, the mild humor apparent in her expression.

Kate smiled. “No, because if you did, people like him might never get caught. Now, get your clothes off and get in the bath.”

Five minutes later, CJ had thrown her dirty clothing in the hamper, tied back her hair, and slipped under the soothing water. Kate climbed in to sit in front of her, and the loving, healing therapy began.

The citrusy scent of oranges emanated from the bubbles floating on the surface of the water and quiet piano music wafted through from the stereo in the bedroom. It was the only sound in the room until Kate spoke while she massaged CJ’s fingers.

“What’re you thinking about?”

“Hmm…” CJ murmured lazily. “Oh, I was just thinking about Tim.”

“What about him?”

CJ appreciated Kate’s soft-spoken words. This would be a conversation in hushed, peaceful tones – just what she needed tonight. “Well, apart from everything that happened today…just stuff that’s been going on between us over the past week or so, especially while we were on this case. We’ve had a few moments.”

“Describe them?” Kate requested, not in the least bit worried about where this conversation was going.

“We talked about it before we left work tonight. We love each other, weird as it sounds,” CJ said plainly, all the while noticing that Kate’s massage never wavered, not even for a second. “We had to discuss it because he was being so mushy in our moments alone. I guess after the stress of my run-in with Fleet, it just got kind of intense. Tim held me so tight after that…and then the way he touched the bruise on my face. I knew I had to find out what was going on in his head.”

Kate lifted CJ’s hand to kiss it before she asked, “Did he tell you?”

“Yeah. He’s pretty direct and straightforward. He said it was confusing for a while and that he was probably attracted to me at first sight in Minnesota, but now that he knows me…and you…it’s not like that anymore at all. He does feel a deep love for me, though…”

“And you feel it too?”

“I do. He told me he just goes with his gut feeling, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind. We’re very alike.”

Kate turned her head to look at CJ. “He’s not a long lost sibling or something, is he?”

The question made CJ laugh a little under her breath. “No. I’m definitely an only child, honey.”

“Just checking,” Kate said as she returned to her massaging. When she was satisfied with her work on both hands, she placed them on her stomach and leaned back onto CJ’s chest, inhaling deeply as she absorbed the warmth and love only CJ could give her. “I’m looking forward to getting to know him.”

“I knew you would be cool about this.”

“Why wouldn’t I be? I’m secure in what we have and in our trust in one another. I know who you are, but I also know you have plenty of love to give. I’m just glad you decided to marry me,” Kate said, tilting her head to wink at CJ.

“I love you, Katie.”

“Oh but I love you more.”

“Not possible,” CJ said, depositing a kiss at Kate’s ear.

“I beg to differ.”

“We’ll agree to disagree then.”

“Good idea.”

.

Chapter 7

The next morning, CJ awoke at six thirty AM as usual when the alarm sent out its annoyingly prompt bleep. With her eyes not ready to open just yet, she moved her hand toward the sound, felt along the edge of the nightstand with her fingertips, walked her fingers across to the clock, and found the button on top. When the noise stopped, she sighed and smacked her lips together before her other hand went on a journey to find Kate.

After roaming around the sheet for a few seconds and finding nothing, CJ’s hand flopped down on the mattress and a grumpy frown appeared on her face. She was about to let out another sigh when a sweet voice met her ears.

“Looking for me?” Kate asked as she stood in the middle of the floor carrying a small tray.

With her eyes still closed but a smile now gracing her lips, CJ replied in a lazy voice. “I was. And I don’t want to get up.”

Kate placed the tray on the couch cushion after shoving a couple of items of clothing aside. She knew that putting a couch in the bedroom would only mean it ended up as a dumping ground, but she loved the deep colors of the fabric, so it was a keeper. She then climbed onto the bed and snuggled in close to CJ to embrace her. With her hand cupping CJ’s cheek, she kissed her good morning. “Here I am,” she whispered.

CJ opened her eyes to gaze at the perfection next to her. “Now I really, really don’t want to get up.”

“I’m afraid you may not have a choice.”

CJ had heard the faraway singing voice, so she had assumed that both their daughters were downstairs which gave her time to make out with Kate before being disturbed, but she had assumed wrong. Lucy was still running around in her room, and it was now obvious that she was heading their way.

“Shine a light, shine a light, shine a light!” Lucy yelled – or perhaps sang – as she approached the master bedroom.

“What’s she singing?” CJ asked before she sneaked another quick kiss from Kate.

Kate shrugged. “I actually don’t know. I think she learned it at school, but I still haven’t managed to figure out the whole song.”

“Mommy!” Lucy bounded onto the bed, and soon CJ and Kate had a round, inquisitive face invading their intimate moment.

“Hey, Little Dudette,” CJ said with a smile. “What’s been happenin’ with you, huh?”

“Things,” Lucy replied as if it was obvious. “It’s Friday!”

“It sure is.”

Lucy played with Kate’s still-cropped and somewhat unkempt hair as they continued the huddled discussion. She didn’t see anything unusual about the close proximity of her parents. As far as she was concerned, they were cuddling…which was actually accurate on this occasion. “Are you staying home today?” she asked CJ.

“Nope. I have to go to work today, but I’ll be home all day tomorrow and maybe even Sunday too.”

“Oh. That’s good. We could play soccer then.” Lucy finished fixing Kate’s unruly strands before she bounced on her knees to the edge of the bed and slipped off. “Hey, Kamali,” she sang to the dog who was waiting for her at the bedroom door. As she began her original song again, she skipped out of the room and descended the stairs.

“She’s in a good mood,” CJ said once she had stolen yet another kiss to get Kate’s attention.

“She sure is. Must have had a good sleep…” Kate laid her head down on CJ’s shoulder and yawned. “Do you remember having a nightmare last night?”

“Uh, no.”

“I didn’t think you had woken up. You weren’t making much sense.”

“Was I thrashing about?” CJ asked, concerned that she may have hurt Kate.

“No, just muttering. You got pretty stressed, though, so I rubbed your back and it seemed to calm you.”

CJ knew Kate would be concerned. “I truly don’t remember it.”

“I believe you. Just…please wake me if you do remember them, OK?”

“I promise I will.” After a yawn, CJ pulled Kate tighter against her. “I wanna go back to sleep.”

“Mmm, that would be nice. Can we just stay here all day then?”

CJ groaned. “I would love to, but…”

“Bah. I know,” Kate grumbled as she lifted herself up again. “Want me to take your breakfast tray back downstairs?”

“I’ll bring it. I want to spend some time with you guys this morning.”

* * * * * *

In the kitchen soon after, the family were seated around the island counter finishing off breakfast. Even though they only had a half hour to eat together, it was better than nothing. CJ knew she could be with them all day tomorrow, so it wasn’t too hard to watch when Kate took them back upstairs to get ready for school.

CJ finished off her last few gulps of coffee before she hopped off her bar stool. On her way through the living room, her cell phone rang, so she grabbed it off the coffee table and perched on the arm of the couch. “Hey.”

“Hi, CJ,” Tim said over a slightly crackly connection.

“Where are you, man?”

“Hold on. I’m just getting out of the elevator going back up to my apartment.” Tim was quiet for a few seconds. “Is that better?”

“Yeah, I can hear you now. What’s up?”

“Well, I’m glad you are. I know it’s early, but my car won’t start, so I was hoping you could swing by on your way in to the office and pick me up?”

“I told you my car was better than yours. You need to get yourself a new set of wheels.”

Tim laughed. “I know, I know.”

“I’m about to hop in the shower, so I should be able to come get you at say…eight thirty?” CJ suggested since Tim’s rental apartment was about twenty minutes from the office.

“Awesome. Thank you. I’ll see you then.”

“Cool. Hey, why were you going out so early?”

“None of your business,” Tim said, waiting to see what she would do.

“Uh…”

“Hah. You’ll have to learn when I’m being serious and when I’m not.”

“I’m gonna kick your ass.”

“Whatever. Anyway, I was gonna go in and do some paperwork. I figured it would mean we could take it easy for most of the day.”

“I see. Well, it’s good your car broke down then because you and I are a team. You shouldn’t be doing extra just to give me an easier life. I wouldn’t want it that way anyway.”

“I woke up really early, CJ…couldn’t sleep. I’d rather just get up than lie there thinking about what I could be doing, you know?”

“Uh-huh. So get off the phone and let me get ready.”

“So bossy. OK, see ya later.”

“Bye, Tim.” CJ hung up the call and tossed the phone next to her jacket on the couch. As she walked up the stairs, she realized she was grinning like an idiot again. Tim seemed to have that effect on her, and if it continued she decided her working life would be a much lighter place. Yes, she had Jamie to keep her going too, but Jamie tended to emulate more of what CJ was going through at any given time. She was more empathetic, whereas Tim kept digging CJ out of the dark spots that would emerge in her head. It was a different and welcome dynamic, and CJ knew she appreciated them both in different but ultimately important ways.

At the top of the stairs, she heard Kate organizing Shannon and Lucy in the main bathroom so she popped her head in the door. “Is everything proceeding in an orderly fashion in here?”

“Yes, Ma’am!” Shannon replied promptly with a salute even though Kate was brushing through her hair.

“Mommy, can you…?” Lucy requested, holding up her toothbrush to CJ.

CJ knew she was going to end up short of time, but a few minutes to brush Lucy’s teeth would not make any difference. “Let’s see,” she said as she lifted Lucy to sit on the vanity in between the double sinks. She took the toothbrush, which already had toothpaste on it, and laughed when Lucy exposed all her teeth in a wide and slightly freaky smile. “Wow. Look at these guys in here. They’re pretty shiny and white already, but I’ve just spotted an intruder.” She pinned her lips together when Lucy tried to respond, but the toothbrush stopped her from chattering, so CJ went on. “Get out, cornflake!”

Lucy wriggled as the brush went from tooth to tooth. “Ick kickles.”

“I know it does,” CJ said with a fake-evil grin on her face. “You should do it by yourself then. It would tickle less if you did it.”

At Lucy’s adamant shake of the head, CJ continued to scrub her bottom teeth gently until they were all food-free. “Spit.” CJ held up a cup of water and watched as her younger daughter took a gulp and swirled it around in her mouth before spitting it out again in dramatic fashion, blowing a raspberry to get rid of every droplet.

“Are they clean now?” Lucy asked before displaying the teeth for inspection.

“Yep. You’re good to go.”

When CJ had lifted her down to the floor, she scooted out of the bathroom while pulling her pajama top over her head. “Careful! Make sure you can see where you’re going!”

Thump!

“I’ll get her, CJ. You need to get ready for work,” Kate said as she went to Lucy’s aid.

“Mommy, can we go riding tomorrow?” Shannon queried.

“Sure thing. Will you help me to work Calli in the corral too? I think she’s ready for a small rider.”

“Oh! Me-me-me!” Shannon squealed as she jumped on the spot.

“Uh-huh. I meant you, since you’re getting so good at it.”

“Yes!”

CJ shook her head at Shannon’s enthusiastic fist-bump, and a few seconds later she realized she had been left alone. “OK. What just happened?” As she exited the bathroom, she saw that Lucy was fine, as was evident by her hopping around the hallway accompanied by ‘boing, boing, boing’ sounds. “I wish I had some of her energy. Oh, to be that age again.” CJ quickly deleted that thought since she had no desire to go back to being a kid…apart from the fact that she would see her mom. Feeling a tad melancholy, she shuffled into the master suite and stripped off her clothing, noting the time on the clock and realizing she was probably going to be late after all.

* * * * * *

After rushing out of the house and only giving Kate a peck on the cheek, CJ promised her that she would make it up to her later, before she jumped into her rather dirty, blue Dodge Ram and shot off down the driveway toward the gates. When they opened, she saw Tony in his car waiting on the other side, so she threw him an exuberant wave and headed out onto the open road. The drive to Tim’s apartment was relatively drama-free, and her GPS had brought her neatly to the front of his building. She hadn’t been there before so she sent him a quick text, and two minutes later he was climbing into the cab of her truck.

“Thanks for swinging by to get me, CJ.”

“No worries. Sorry I’m late.”

Tim glanced at his watch. “Only five minutes.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll make up the time on the way to the office,” CJ said as she signaled to move out into the traffic. “How come you couldn’t sleep?”

“Oh, I’d imagine it had something to do with yesterday. I kept running it over and over in my head.”

“All of it, or a specific part?”

“Truth?” Tim asked.

“Of course, truth.”

“What was keeping me awake was finding you in that position…seeing what he was going to do to you, what he had done to you. It terrified me, CJ. I gotta get over that feeling if I want to stay in this unit.”

CJ paused to think for a moment before she answered him. “I don’t think you have to get over it. Maybe just control it until after the fact. Nobody’s asking you to be inhuman, Tim, and to be honest, you did everything exactly right in there. If it didn’t affect you, I’d be more worried.”

Tim absorbed that and nodded his acceptance of it. “I guess you’re right.”

“I know I’m right,” CJ announced, glancing over at him with a grin, but it gradually waned at the seriousness of what he had said. “About what you saw…”

“Hey,” Tim said to briefly catch her eye while they were at a stop light. “I weirdly love you, remember? Don’t worry about it.”

CJ was taken aback again, but it was becoming less of a shock each time he said something like that. “Right.” She focused on the red light until it changed, and as she drove off from the intersection, she had a question for him. “Is that gonna be our thing now?”

“What?”

“I weirdly love you?”

Tim laughed. “Yeah. I think it’s pretty accurate, don’t you?”

“Weirdly-yeah.” When he laughed again, CJ couldn’t help but join him, and the rest of the drive to work passed pretty quickly as the bantering continued until they had walked out of the elevator and along the corridor to their office.

CJ was sure it was Jamie she had spotted going into the locker room, so she told Tim she was going to stop off there first. On entering, she could not find her friend anywhere, but after a flush was heard, Jamie appeared from the last stall in the row.  “Hey, Penfold.”

Jamie glanced at her, but it was fleeting as she washed and dried her hands. “DM. How are you this morning?”

“I’m all right. Glad it’s all over.”

“I don’t know the fine details of what happened yesterday, but I want to hear them at some point.”

CJ watched as Jamie struggled to hold back her feelings as she turned to face her. “Just say what you mean. I can take it.”

“I just did.”

“No. You want to slap me for going alone. You want to tell me how stupid it was…which is fine because Kate has already told me I-”

“Good!” Jamie blasted.

“Ah, there it is. Come on. Let it out.”

“Fine! Why didn’t you both go to that house? You could have been killed, CJ! If it was me, I would’ve made sure you didn’t-”

“Whoa,” CJ interrupted angrily. “By all means, let me know what you think of my mistakes, but do not bring Tim into this. He did everything right. I was the one who said we should split up and cover the work faster. We were running out of time, and it was the right thing to do. There was no reason at that point to suspect Dan Fields’ house had any direct link to the killer. My choice, Jamie. Not Tim’s. He saved my life, so leave him out of your rant!”

Jamie was a little taken aback by the veracity in CJ’s voice, and even though she could understand it, her emotional state made her bite back. “I wasn’t ranting! And I didn’t disparage Tim in any way. I was only pointing out that…oh, forget it!”

CJ took a moment to calm down. She didn’t want to argue with Jamie, and since the two of them had strong personalities – and were stubborn to boot – she knew it could escalate if she did not take a breath to think it through. “I know I almost got myself killed, OK? But we choose to do this job and it can happen at any time, on any day, and with any case. This guy was coming after me. That much was obvious, and he absolutely would not have stopped unless we somehow got a break. Every angle had to be covered, and fast. So if you’re angry at me, just say so…then maybe give me a hug since you’re only angry because you love me.”

Jamie’s glare lessened a little, and as she put her hand up to put a little pressure on her frowning temples, she realized that CJ was right, as usual. “I do love you, so I have a right to be a little angry. He…he almost…I can’t even say it.” Her shoulders drooped in defeat as she struggled to push back her anxiety.

CJ blew out a relieved breath and took Jamie into her arms. “I’m fine, Penfold.”

“I know you are,” Jamie said at her shoulder. She turned her head to kiss CJ’s cheek before she held her tighter.

Still in the embrace, CJ wondered just how much Jamie knew about the horrid events that led up to Theodore Fleet’s demise. “So you read my report then?”

“No,” Jamie mumbled. “You left your handwritten statement on your desk. I just happened to see it as I passed by.”

CJ let her go and smirked at her disbelievingly. “Right. Just passin’ by, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Tell the truth, Jamie Green.”

“What? You don’t believe little old me?” Jamie said with her hand to her chest in mock outrage. “I may faint at the insinuation.”

With a snort, CJ turned to leave the locker room, and she outright laughed when Jamie followed her along the corridor still acting like the wilting flower. Or was it the outraged dame from an old Western movie? CJ wasn’t sure. It was probably a mixture of both.

When they arrived at the office, CJ rolled her eyes at Tim and Ethan. “Just ignore Calamity Jamie here. She’s gone into overdrive.”

“Why, I do believe you exaggerate there, Miss Carson,” Jamie gasped out. “I’m just full of concern for a wondrous, charming, sweet lady in distress…”

“Who you callin’ a lady?” CJ tried to ask seriously.

“Well, you might act all tough and rugged, but underneath it all, you’re still a lady,” Jamie replied as she wiggled her eyebrows at CJ then batted her eyelids at everyone in the room.

By this point, Ethan and Tim were grinning like a couple of school boys, and when Jamie pretended to lift her large, old-fashioned skirts up before she sat down, CJ couldn’t help but grin as well.

* * * * * *

Two hours later, CJ looked from side to side over the surface of her desk. “I think we’ve done everything.”

“I think you’re right,” Tim said from over at the coffee machine. “Want one in celebration?” he added while holding the carafe high.

“It’s only been an hour since I finished my last one, so it must be about time.” When the mug landed beside her, she lifted it and took a small gulp. “Ooh. Syrup?”

Tim nodded. “Hazelnut. You like it?”

“Hell, yeah. Got any muffins today?”

“Sorry, no. I’ll make some later.”

CJ leaned back in her chair to savor the second taste. “Mmm. You guys should try this,” she said to Jamie and Ethan who were unfortunately still working on their case.

Since Ethan’s phone had just started ringing, Jamie answered for them both. “Yes, please.”

But before Tim had even started to pour two new drinks, Jamie’s phone was calling for attention too, and when CJ’s did the same, he put down the carafe and waited to see what was going to happen.

“Agent Carson.”

“CJ, could you come up to my office please?” Mark said on the line.

“Yes, Sir.” She disconnected the internal call and stood up. “At ease, Tim. Mark just wants to see me. I was wondering when I was going to get my ass chewed for yesterday.”

Tim walked over to her. “Just remember, we got him. That’s all that matters.”

“I know. I won’t be long.” CJ nudged him shoulder to shoulder as she walked by. “Get back to your coffee duties.”

It didn’t take her long to get up to Mark’s office. Even though the elevator was full of personnel, it had been on its way upward meaning she didn’t have to wait long. Mark was currently in a temporary room on the floor above them due to renovation work being done next door to the SSHU. It would be Mark’s new office once it was completed, and the storage room adjoining CJ’s office was to be opened up to give the five agents more room to work. After Tim’s arrival, he had used one end of CJ’s desk for a few weeks until they had acquired another, but they were still all a little squashed in the relatively small space. Thankfully, DD Julius Mitchell had authorized some improvements, so CJ and her team could spread out a little.

Once she had knocked Mark’s door and pushed it open, she saw him sitting at his desk on the phone. We waved her inside, and when she had taken a seat opposite him she realized he was talking to Julius. It seemed their conversation was coming to an end, and CJ hoped it had been an amicable one.

“Right,” Mark said after he had hung up. “I think that went well.”

“Have I created problems for you, Sir?”

Mark looked up at her. “Problems? You are kidding, right?”

“Uh, no.”

“CJ, you caught the most prolific serial killer we’ve had in years. It was a difficult case, and you were the third investigator. I have no problem with that.”

CJ clasped her hands in her lap. She still felt she had made mistakes.

When she failed to offer anything in response, Mark sighed. “But I do have a problem with almost losing you to that rat bastard.”

“That was my fault, Sir.”

“I don’t see anyone else in this room, CJ. I’m Mark right now. The problem I have is personal.”

CJ met his eyes. “Oh.”

“I’ve read everything from you and Tim on this. As far as I can see, you did your job. The thing is, I know you. You’ll be beating yourself up over the fact that you went in alone, and while I’d rather you hadn’t, I can see why you wanted to get things done as fast as possible. I also don’t see anything in these reports that indicated Fields was anything other than a potential witness at that time. Are the reports accurate in that respect?” Mark asked, knowing that they absolutely were accurate. He was just trying to push his point home.

“They’re accurate.”

“Which means you didn’t do anything that wasn’t by the book, so quit the self-punishment.”

“Is that an order?” CJ said, a small frown still stubbornly covering her features.

Mark smiled. “If you don’t quit it, it might have to be. Seriously though, are you coping with what happened?”

CJ let her head fall back onto the top of the chair, and while she closed her eyes for a few seconds, she took in a deep breath. “I’m actually doing fine,” she said as she looked back at her boss. “As you know, I have Kate to keep me sane…and the guys. They’ve been really great.”

“Good. Your statement was difficult to read, CJ. Just remember you have me too.”

“I know that.”

“You and Tim make a great team,” Mark stated plainly.

“Yes, we do. He’s a fantastic agent, Mark.”

“I agree. Well, I’ll keep the pairings the same for the foreseeable future. It will allow Jamie to lead her own investigations. She has great potential, but you are still the team leader when it comes down to it.”

CJ nodded in response. “Did you hear anything further on Agent Regan?”

“Not yet. She’s still unconscious.”

“I wish I could’ve told Fleet that he’d failed.”

Mark folded his arms and leaned on his desk. “Don’t you dare regret that he’s dead.”

“I do, a little, Mark. I needed to know if he had any other victims. I needed to know if he had been planning this game for years and working himself up to killing people. What did he do before this? Did he rape and torture women that we haven’t even linked to him yet? Did he kill animals? Did he stash previous bodies away somewhere we’ll never find them? He was too smart and too much of a butcher to be new at this.”

“You’re right. We might never know if he had previous victims, but at least he won’t have any future ones. Console yourself with the fact that you found him and you stopped him. You saved a life. Courtney Moore survived because you followed up on a bunch of pocket watches. You were the only one to even think of that.”

CJ pursed her lips as she tried to accept his words. “OK. I’ll let it go. I just needed to understand him better. You know what I mean, right?”

“Of course I do. All of it helps you become a better profiler. I get that. But CJ, you are already the best I’ve ever seen.”

“Oy,” CJ said, shaking her head.

“I’m angry about him too, you know.”

“Why?”

“He was right here,” Mark said as his eyes lost focus while staring at his phone. “Right here in my office. He spoke to me about travel expenses and any budget concerns I had with the unit. He even mentioned your name when talking about our current caseload. It makes me sick.”

“I saw him too, Mark. There was no way we could ever have known. To be honest, he was even crazier that I had thought.”

Mark fixed his eyes on her. “In what way?”

“Well, I had thought that maybe he’d been a witness calling in one of the early victims just to feel the rush of seeing cops trying to decipher his work. That would’ve been a ballsy move on its own, but he went further than that. He was actually inside each law enforcement agency, so close to it all and right under our noses while his case was ongoing. Beyond crazy,” CJ said as she shook her head at how Theodore’s audacity made her feel.

“You stopped him, CJ. You did a great job…you and Tim both.”

“May I go before you make me even more uncomfortable?” CJ requested.

Mark shook his head at her usual humble attitude. “Oh, I suppose so. And tell Tim he’ll have his gun back by the end of the day. It was a straightforward shoot as far as the department is concerned, and I agree.”

“I’ll tell him. And…thanks, boss.”

“Uh-huh. Now, get out of here and do some work or something.”

CJ left his office in a much better mood. A lot of her worry about how yesterday had transpired was to do with letting Mark down. She realized on her way back to her office that perhaps she hadn’t let anyone down but herself. Her self-depreciative nature always set such high standards for her – in her work and personal life – which was slightly annoying since she was the only one who could break them down. It was something that would continue to irritate her because it was who she was. She would just have to keep reminding herself that Theodore Fleet had killed at least seventeen people, and he had now been stopped due to the investigation conducted by her and Tim. By FBI standards, it was indeed a success.

* * * * * *

CJ had managed to get home by three PM. As she entered the house, she was in a much better mood than earlier because she had just received a call to inform her that Agent Kelly Regan had awakened from her coma. There would be a long road to recovery for her, both physically and mentally, but CJ was just glad that the news was good for a change. She really wanted to call Kelly just to connect with the woman who had survived the Tick-Tock killer, but it was way too soon for that. She did hope to meet her at some point in the future, though.

With the house devoid of children until Tony returned from the school run in about an hour, CJ went in search of Kate. There was music playing somewhere in the house, so she was definitely home. The sounds took CJ toward the kitchen, and then through the rear hallway to the gym. The door was ajar, so she slithered up to the gap and peered inside. Kate was working out, and the sight was just what CJ needed to divert her mind neatly away from work.

Kate was currently using the punch bag. After a few central jabs, she swung a left then a right before ducking and smoothly launching into a swipe with her leg. She regained her balance and performed a high kick, the sole of her foot hitting the bag and making it swing abruptly on its sturdy support chain. She finished with a few more jabs followed by a couple of left hooks. Once she was done, she turned around to face the door.

CJ realized Kate had known she was there all along, so she sheepishly entered the room. “I wasn’t spying. Honest.”

“Oh yes you were,” Kate replied while taking off her boxing gloves. “Not that I mind. You’re home early.”

“I sure am. Jamie and Ethan are off to San Diego again. Tim and I finalized the case work, so I came home. I’m still on call, but I doubt there’ll be-”

“Don’t finish that,” Kate said with her hand covering CJ’s mouth. “Don’t want to jinx it.”

CJ half smiled. “True.”

“I’m pretty much done here, so I’ll go get freshened up before the dads arrive to prepare dinner.”

“I dunno. I kinda like you like this.” CJ had taken Kate into her arms, and her eyes had zoomed in on a droplet of sweat that cascaded down underneath Kate’s tank top.

“You want something?” Kate asked, wondering if it was an appropriate time for intimacy. She was still worried about what CJ had gone through the day before. “I mean, it was only yesterday that…oh, I don’t know where I’m going with this.”

“Neither do I, Katie. I’m fine, and anyway…this is me and you here. There’s nothing scary about that.”

“I know. I just felt I had to check. Not sure why.”

CJ held her tighter. “I know why. It’s because you are a compassionate and sensitive woman who loves me…lucky, lucky me.”

Kate’s breaths had finally returned to normal after her workout, but she could feel her heartrate picking up again, brought on by the hooded look in CJ’s eyes. Without a word, she took CJ’s hand and led her through the house, up the staircase, and into the master suite. When Kate began to undress, CJ watched her until there was nothing left to cover the woman she would love and adore forever. Her eyes trailed slowly from Kate’s short, blond hair that had started to grow and curl around her delicate ears, to her firm torso that shimmered slightly from a layer of fine sweat, to her defined legs that still held a couple of Kate’s scars. CJ was in awe of her, as always, and she moved toward her until her suit jacket pressed against Kate’s nude breasts. She slipped the jacket off and down her arms, and when it had fallen to the floor, she gazed into Kate’s eyes.

“You do the rest.”

Kate undid the buttons on CJ’s shirt, one by one, before pushing it open to reveal her white bra. When the shirt had followed the jacket to the floor, she reached around CJ to release the underwear. When CJ’s breasts were freed, Kate placed a delicate kiss on each mound before sitting on the edge of their bed to continue the disrobing.

CJ stood tall while the button on her pants was unfastened and her zipper was pulled down. Her head jolted to the side as a flashback forced its way into her consciousness. With her nostrils flared, she blinked a few times as her pants were slowly removed. But Kate had noticed it. She was deliberately watching CJ for any signs of a problem.

“Hey,” she whispered. “I’ll stop if-”

CJ shook her head adamantly. “No.”

While CJ stepped out of the pants, Kate stood up. “CJ, I saw that. I don’t want any part of making you uncomfortable. It might be too soon to do this.”

“It’s fine. It’s over now. It was just the…the zipper.”

Kate was hesitant to continue, but she knew CJ wanted to do this as soon as she could. “OK, but hear me on this. You go on top.”

CJ focused fully on Kate’s face and knew why she had said it. There was no way she was going to let what happened to her – what almost happened to her – affect her relationship with this amazing woman. Just this once, though, she agreed. She removed her own panties and nudged Kate onto the bed before carefully positioning her body on top of her. The connection alone was enough to overcome the temporary flashback, and she lowered her head to kiss Kate softly. The kiss was everything to CJ, because Kate knew exactly what she needed in that moment, ensuring that what was to come would be nothing but enjoyable for them both. It was safe, loving, and cathartic, which allowed CJ to fully enjoy a passionate lovemaking session with her wife.

* * * * * *

“Get your butt in this shower,” Kate ordered an hour later. “Come on. We need to hurry before the girls get home.”

CJ was still lounging on the bed and was loathed to get up at all for the rest of the day, but the thought of their daughters coming home – and Tim coming to dinner – made her finally drag herself off the comfy mattress. As she walked into the bathroom, she realized that there was another fantastic reason to get in the shower. Kate was already washing her delicious body under the warm spray. CJ stepped in behind her and ran her hands down Kate’s back.

“Oh no you don’t. No time.”

“Five minutes won’t matter,” CJ said with a pout.

“Yes it will. They’ll be here any minute. I’m surprised they’re not home already.” After a quick scrub in all the right places, Kate jumped out of the cubicle before CJ could capture her. She wrapped a large towel around her body and scrubbed a smaller one over her hair while listening out the door for any sign of activity. “Nothing yet. You take your time in there. I’ll be the welcoming party.”

CJ pressed her nose against the glass, making Kate giggle a little as she exited the bathroom and pulled on some clothes. While CJ stood under the cascade of water, she thought about their lovemaking. Kate had been her usual intuitive self, and every second of it had been bliss for CJ. Going by the sounds and reactions, Kate had enjoyed it immensely too.

CJ thought about her brief flash of memory earlier, and she supposed if that was all she would suffer, she would get past what Theodore had done to her pretty quickly. She was not underestimating the seriousness of those terrifying moments, but with the people she had in her life and the fact that they would not let her bury any issues regarding it, she was sure it would not haunt her too much.

When she heard a noise above the running water, she figured the children had arrived with Tony, so she rinsed herself off and jumped out of the shower. Within five minutes, she was dressed in her sweatpants and hoodie and heading down the stairs.

In the living room, it wasn’t just Tony who had collected Shannon and Lucy from school. Cyn had accompanied them and was having a discussion with Kate when CJ entered and greeted the children. Lucy, of course, was her overly exuberant self.

“You’re home already!”

CJ crouched down to meet her at eye level – although Lucy’s eye level was getting higher by the day since she was growing so fast. “I’m home for the whole weekend!”

“So is Mama!”

With a chuckle, CJ hugged her before Lucy shot off to do some other important task…like emptying her school bag all over the coffee table.

“Hey, CJ. Good to see you,” Cyn said when she was done talking to Kate.

“You too, Cyn. Looking forward to Monday?”

“Oh, totally. I can’t wait to start working with Kate again. I missed her, and the new show sounds really cool.”

“It does. I can’t wait to watch it,” CJ said as she shared a knowing look with Kate.

Cyn laughed. “Yeah. Kate in those nice, commanding pilot uniforms…”

“Uh-huh.”

When CJ’s eyes glazed over, Cyn giggled to herself. “I’ll leave you with that vision then.”

Tony and Cyn stayed for half an hour, but it seemed to fly by, and CJ barely remembered saying goodbye to them. In a blur, she found herself standing in the kitchen rinsing some mugs at the sink. It wasn’t until Eddie and Jeffrey arrived through the back door in their usual, everyday fashion that she snapped out of her apparent haze.

“Where are all those beautiful, smart girls?” Jeffrey shouted in greeting. “I need to hug them all! Oh!”

Eddie responded with a tut-tut sound and a shake of his head. “Goodness sakes, Jeffreydoodle! Can’t you just say hello like a normal person?”

“Oh, and Jeffreydoodle is normal?”

The banter between them made CJ laugh, which alerted the two men to her presence.

“There you are, Special Agent Fabulous!” Eddie exclaimed as he shuffled over to her. “Oh, I love this bed-head look. It’s absolutely adorable.”

CJ then realized she had forgotten to pull a brush through her long hair after the shower, making it no doubt look like a wild nettle bush. “It’s not a bed-head. It’s a shower-head.”

Eddie put his finger up to his mouth in thought. “Your humor is a little off the mark today, sweetheart.”

“Yeah. That wasn’t funny, was it? Maybe I’ve lost my touch.”

“No, no. You’ve had a rough week. We’ll give you a pass to let you recover.”

CJ snorted. “Thanks ever so much. So generous.”

“Oh!” Eddie made a chortling sound and wandered off to greet Kate who was walking through the living room. “Katie! And where are my two little cherub angels?”

“Hey, Dad. They’re upstairs getting changed out of their school clothes. Jeffrey is already on the case,” Kate said as she hugged him in passing.

“Well, I’ll just head up there too. I need to complete the hug cycle.”

Kate entered the kitchen shaking her head. “Those two are nuts.”

“You’re telling me?” CJ replied while wiping her hands on a hand towel. “But we would be worried if they weren’t nuts.”

“True that.”

“What’s the plan then?”

Kate raised her eyebrows. “With them? I think they’re going to prepare the meal, possibly cook it and then take the girls over to their house for a while to let us have a grown-up dinner with Tim. We’ll be their servants and do the dirty work while they chef it up a little.”

“Sounds great. It saves me having to think at all. I’m pretty wiped out.” CJ placed the back of her hand on her forehead to exaggerate the fact. Her pitiful acting worked as Kate pulled her into her arms.

“We’ll just have to make sure you get a good sleep tonight with no nightmares.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine. And if I’m not, we’ll get through that too, right?”

Kate nodded. “Right.”

.

Epilogue

It was eight PM. Eddie and Jeffrey had just left with Shannon and Lucy who would no doubt be super-excited to be staying up late and spoiled rotten by their grandpas tonight. CJ and Kate had changed into smarter but comfortable clothes, the table was set for a nice meal for three, and everything was ready except for the salmon that would be put in the oven when Tim arrived…which was now.

The buzzer sounded for the new entry system on the gates, and CJ went to answer it. “Hey, Tim.”

“Cameras too, huh?” Tim said over the intercom.

“Oh, yeah, we have all that here.” She opened the gates for him, and a couple of minutes later she waved from the front door as Tim’s car came to a halt just behind her truck

When he stepped out, he looked all around him. “This place is gorgeous.”

“Thanks. We love it here. I see you got your car fixed.”

“Yeah. I need to get rid of it, though. I mean look at it sitting next to your cars. It will develop a complex.”

“Cars are just a means to an end. The house is our home.”

“No kidding. And it’s so out of the way that it’s like another world,” he said as she came up the porch steps. “It’s like, big but not flashy. Nice balance.”

CJ smiled. “Listen to you, Mr. Realtor.”

“Funny. No, I just appreciate the nicer things in life,” Tim confirmed as he automatically took her into a hug.

CJ returned it and led him into the house. “Kate’s in the kitchen, and dinner’s almost ready. Roast salmon, spring vegetables, and jasmine rice.”

“It sounds delicious, but I hope you didn’t go to any trouble. I’d be just as happy with a slice of pizza.”

CJ stopped just before the kitchen’s double doors. “Are you my twin brother?”

It made Tim laugh out loud and shake his head rapidly. “No…not brother.”

“Why not brother?” CJ asked, making him open his eyes wider and pin his lips shut. She glared at him when she realized what he meant. “Quit that. You said you don’t want me that way, so gimme a break.”

Tim relented. “Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate your beauty and the fact that you’re intelligent, alluring, and downright irresistible, does it?”

CJ was silenced by his forthright words yet again, but Kate – who had approached stealthily from behind CJ – was not.

“Hmm,” she said. “Maybe I do need to be worried after all.”

With the smile on Tim’s face never faltering, CJ realized he knew Kate was there, but she still think he totally meant every word. “Katie…you may have to kick his ass.”

“Nah,” Kate replied as she hugged Tim warmly. “He saw me sneaking up on you. Well played, Tim.”

“Thank you, Kate.”

But as Tim and Kate chatted while they walked into the kitchen, CJ followed with a pensive look on her face. She suspected that she would be on the receiving end of a few more practical jokes while she worked with him, which she would happily deal with for a long time to come.

Their dinner progressed with the casual communication between all three continuing easily. After many compliments to the chef from Tim, Kate had to admit that she didn’t prepare the meal, which led onto the subject of relatives. Tim was happy to hear more about Eddie and Jeffrey. He loved the diversity in this family – and in his office at work – and he truly felt right at home in their company. He shared a little about his parents who lived in Canada and were not only geographically distanced from him, but emotionally as well. They still spoke on occasion, but they didn’t really see eye to eye when it came to his lifestyle choices, so it was only his grandmother whom he had felt close to. This was the first time he had felt connected to anyone since she had died.

“So, no siblings, huh?” CJ asked.

“No. I’m an only child, and I didn’t have a bad childhood, but I started to drift away from my parents when I was in my late teens. That’s when I realized I wasn’t straight,” Tim answered before taking a swig of lemon water.

CJ’s curiosity got the better of her, and she was enjoying getting to know him better. “I hate to put a label on it, but how would you describe your sexuality then?”

Tim had never been asked that before, so he took a moment to confirm where he was on the scale between heterosexual and gay. “I’d say I’m slap bang in the middle. Bisexual. I like men and women equally, although I tend to develop a more emotional bond with women…well, some women, present company included.”

“Aww, can we keep him?” Kate asked, making CJ and Tim laugh.

“Am I allowed to ask you guys the same question?” Tim ventured.

“You want to keep us?” CJ jested even though she knew what he meant.

Kate’s apologetic look and a slap to CJ’s hand on the table preceded her answer. “Yes, you are allowed. For me, I’d say I am now a lesbian, but I don’t tend to put labels on myself. It wasn’t something I really thought about before. I mean, I had only ever dated men up until CJ and I met, but as soon as she was in my life, that was it for me. There was no question I would always be with her.”

“That’s really awesome,” Tim said seriously. “And I can understand why…” he added with a glance at CJ. It made Kate laugh again, but CJ’s face took on a mock suspicious expression that just made Kate laugh even more.

“Well, I’ve always been a big ol’ lesbian,” CJ said, still staring Tim down. “And I always will be.”

“Pity,” Tim responded with a dramatic sigh.

CJ couldn’t hold the pretense any longer. She burst into fits of laughter, and even though everything was out in the open, she still felt a lingering concern that he was serious about his attraction to her. Once she had her giggles under control, she figured she may as well ask him. “OK, serious for a moment. Is this all covering up some unrequited lust for me?”

Tim threw his head into his hands. “We already covered this in the truck, remember?”

“I’m just checking.”

“I told you I weirdly love you. That’s our thing,” Tim said, looking to Kate and seeing nothing but affection for his words. “I thought you were totally hot, and I still do…but no, I’m not interested in you that way. I adore you and Kate. And if it wasn’t so inappropriate, I’d tell Kate she was hot too.”

CJ blurted a laugh and turned to Kate. “What did I tell you? He just comes straight out with these things. It’s so weird.”

“Weird, but good,” Kate confirmed. “I like that better than people just keeping it to themselves or gossiping behind your back. And I’d like to point out that CJ and I can still appreciate a devastatingly handsome man when we see one. Right, honey?”

“Oh, absolutely,” CJ said, rather pleased that they had made him blush for a change.

Kate silently giggled. “And thank you, Tim. I accept the hot comment with gratitude.”

“See? Why can’t you just take a compliment like Kate did?” Tim asked CJ while fanning his warm face.

“Anyone for dessert…?”

“Ah. Now we see her excellent diversion tactics,” Kate said as she got up and followed CJ to the fridge.

Tim watched as they fetched the sweet course and put it into three bowls on the counter. When CJ stuck her finger into the remains, Kate slapped her hand away, admonishing her for ruining a potential second helping.

“Tim doesn’t mind. He’s into me anyway. Right, Tim?” CJ said while winking at him repeatedly.

“I plead the fifth right now…and to infinity and beyond.”

“Ooh. Sneaky.”

Right after CJ and Kate had sat down at the table again, their evening was slightly interrupted by a high-pitched holler from the back door of the house. When Eddie and Jeffrey – followed by Shannon and Lucy – came skipping into the kitchen, CJ knew they just wanted a peek at Tim. And peek they did. Or was it more like gawking. Tim was indeed a handsome man, and it seemed both Eddie and Jeffrey were appreciating that a lot.

“Well, hello!” Eddie said, holding out his hand to shake Tim’s. “We’re so glad to meet one of CJ’s esteemed colleagues.”

“So glad,” Jeffrey cooed beside him.

“It’s great to meet you guys too,” Tim answered looking slightly overwhelmed by them both.

CJ held back her revenge smirk. “Uh, Tim. The one that is still lovingly holding your hand is Eddie, and that’s Jeffrey who’s dreamily ogling you.”

“Thanks, CJ.” When Eddie withdrew his hand while giving CJ a bitch stare, Tim focused his attention on the two girls beside Jeffrey.

“Hi. I’m Tim.”

Shannon was first to step up. “Hello. You work with my mommy, don’t you?”

“I sure do. And you must be…” Tim pretended to visually measure both girls to see who was taller. “Shannon, right?”

“Yes.”

“And I’m Lucy!”

“Wow. No kidding,” Tim said with equal enthusiasm. “What you got there, Lucy?”

“Cupcakes. We made them!”

“Oh, nice. Is there one for me?”

Lucy nodded profusely. “We wrote your name on it with icing. Here.” She proceeded to not-very-delicately pick one out of the plastic tub and hand it over to Tim who saw in their expectant faces that he was supposed to taste it right away.

He took a bite and closed his eyes. “Mmm. It’s so yummy. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Shannon said politely.

CJ’s heart melted, but she was still wondering if there was one for her. “Are there more cakes in there?”

Lucy trotted around the table and stood between her parents. “This one has a picture of a horse and this one has a picture of a dog. You can eat the pictures! And here’s one that came out in a funny shape. I like that one.”

“It is pretty awesome. Can I have the one with the horse on it?”

“Yes! That means Mama gets the dog one, and I can keep the funny one,” Lucy decided a little selfishly.

“What about Shan?” CJ asked as she handed the dog cupcake to Kate.

“Oh.” Lucy scrunched up her face in thought. “Well Shan and me could share ‘cause we ate two already.”

“I see,” CJ said while throwing a wink to Shannon. “Well, I suppose you two are having a special night with your grandpas, so some cakes are allowed.”

Lucy smiled in agreement and shuffled back round the table. “Did you really like it?” she asked Tim.

“It’s delicious, but I’ll eat the second half with my coffee. It’s gonna be great.”

“OK.” Satisfied with that, Lucy headed out the back door, and after Shannon had said her goodbyes, she followed her sister.

“I think that’s our cue, dear,” Eddie said to his husband.

“Right-o! So very lovely to meet you, Tim.”

“Same to you both. And thank for the delicious meal.”

Jeffrey almost blushed. “Oh, that was nothing. We cook for a living!”

Eddie waved as he ushered Jeffrey out of the house, and once they were gone, CJ grinned widely.

“And that…was Dad and Dad two.”

Tim nodded. “It sure was. They’re great, actually.”

“Yeah, they are,” Kate agreed. “And they were on their best behavior.”

After they all exchanged looks at the humor in that statement, they continued with their evening until two hours later when Tim felt it was time to leave them in peace. He said his goodbyes to Kate with a heartfelt hug, and once CJ had walked him out onto the porch, he turned to face her. “I had a great night.”

“Me too.”

“If I was an envious type of person, I’d be jealous of your family. They’re all wonderful.”

CJ was a little confused. “Why would you be jealous when you’re a part of it, Tim?” When his eyes filled with tears, she shook her head frantically. “No, don’t cry.”

“Why not?”

“Because then I’ll cry, and your super-tough image of me will be cracked. It’ll lead to ruin, I tell you. Ruin!”

Tim laughed through the few tears that had managed to emerge. “Nothing could ruin my opinion of you, CJ.” He wiped at his face with his hand before rubbing the moisture off on his sweater. “And now I’m gonna go and let you enjoy your weekend. See you Monday, partner.”

“Monday.” CJ pulled him into her arms and held him tight. When he reciprocated, she smiled. “It’s good we’re the same height. Easy to hug.”

Tim laughed again before he walked off the porch toward his car. “Weirdly love you,” he shouted over his shoulder.

“Weirdly love you too.”

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The End.

©2017 StageFreak Productions

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September 10, 2015

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FULL CIRCLE header1

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Disclaimers: Read ‘em and weep.

The following tale is a post-FIN Xena and Gabrielle story. It is my take on what might have happened approximately ten years after the sixth season of the TV show (we all know how it ended). If you don’t agree with my depictions of the characters, stop reading, you fool. If you enjoy them, give me a metaphorical pat on the back. I like those.

The characters of Xena (not the new one), Gabrielle, Eve, Aphrodite, Autolycus, Ares (R.I.P), the manifestation of Callisto, Ephiny’s ghost, Amarice’s ghost, Joxer’s ghost, Eli’s ghost, and Cyrene’s ghost (that’s a whole lot of ghosts) are from the TV show ‘Xena : Warrior Princess’ and belong to Studios USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal/NBC Universal, or whoever the Tartarus owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. Not even a teeny infringement. I’m only borrowing the characters this one time for your reading pleasure and to fix those little elements of FIN 1&2 that we didn’t like so much. All the other characters in this story are mine (including young Xena/Gena), so don’t steal ‘em. I may hand over Daemonicus for the right price, though. He’s too mean, and he isn’t housetrained.

Do not post/share/relist this story or any part of it anywhere on the internet without permission from the author (that’s me). It’s not nice to do that, and I will kick up a fuss. And remember, I created Daemonicus. Who knows what dark and crazed, kick-your-ass brain cell he came from.

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This story contains quite a bit of violence and death due to the vast amount of swords, warriors, soldiers, chakrams, big-booted feet and mean-punching fists, sais, black slime, and a raging Gabrielle. Readers who are disturbed by, or sensitive to this type of depiction, may want to read something other than this story. Why would you read a Xena story if you fainted at the mention of a battle anyway?

OK, so…I’m not sure exactly when our wonderful Xena and Gabrielle lived – died, lived, died, time-traveled, resurrected, died, lived again? – but I believe they had heard of a calendar of some sort…could have been the Roman calendar, BCE (that’s ‘Before Common Era’ – am I thinking about this too much?). Never mind. While watching the show during the creation of this story, I noted the repeated use of days, months, years, minutes, etc (someone even mentioned science at one point. What??) So, I don’t have a problem with a candlemark here and a moon there, but I probably won’t be using phrases such as, “many winters ago,” or “it was only a turning of the hourglass later,” unless I feel like it. Xena and Gabrielle, and many other characters, used our modern-day measurements for time, and that’s good enough for me. 😉

Oh, and another thing…there is NO sex in this story. No, don’t shout at me. I refuse to write these particular characters in full-blown (pardon any pun), erotic scenes. I have enough trouble writing X and G as it is without the burden of who would be on top, or who would be boss over whom (it would totally be Gabrielle). So yeah, lots of love and ‘moments’, even a few kisses, but no terribly naughty stuff. You have been warned!

Any constructive comments, wonderfully gushing reviews, or escapee globules of black slime can be sent to the author at her email address. You know the one…or you should.

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Full Circle

By W Arthur

Prologue

I am weary. For more than ten years now, I have been traveling distant lands, fighting the good fight, helping people in jeopardy, healing the sick and wounded, and bringing hope to the ones who had given up. There always seems to be someone who needs the Warrior Princess. I hate it when they call me that.

Word began to spread of the new warrior with the golden hair, and soon the villagers seemed to know the “savior with the chakram” was headed their way. Some called me the Chosen One, and some, other names like the Battling Bard. That one seemed to catch on, and I can deal with it, but I know in my heart that I am not the Warrior Princess. She was unique. She is gone.

I may have been strong all these years, and outwardly I still seem so, but I have a vast hole in my heart. I hid it well and denied its existence for it was the only way I could continue to move on. It feels like someone took one of my sais and drove it through my chest, twisted it around a few times and left it there, letting it rot my muscle from the inside out. And it can’t be removed. No one can stop the pain I feel, the pain I push aside to help others, the pain I bury time and time again to try to keep moving and breathing every day. The only person who could heal me, who could take away the agony, is gone. She left me. She chose to believe the word of a betrayer over my love for her. I still struggle with that, but I try not to think about it often because I still love her with everything I am.

I am writing this now because I need to purge the feelings I have nurtured and allowed to manifest all this time. I thought I would continue to feel close to Xena after she was gone, and I have. I always will, for my soul is one with hers. But there is a different distance, even when she stands there in front of me. It’s a distance I cannot traverse…until now. I will go to be with her soon.

This is the first time I have picked up my quill for almost three months. That’s when I arrived back in Greece. I didn’t want to come home because it would mean giving up possession of Xena’s ashes. I promised her I would lay her to rest beside her brother. I have broken that promise for as long as I could. But she broke her promise to me. She said she would never leave me.

When I sailed away from Jappa, I felt a sense of purpose, like there was something I must learn from her death, or that a special destiny would be revealed to me. I trusted that she would stay close to me while I righted all the wrongs in the world. And I did right a lot of wrongs…and she did stay with me to a certain extent. She appeared from time to time, but as the seasons passed it became harder to cope with. She would be there with me in spirit, and sometimes she would speak to me. We would have conversations, and she’d talk like nothing had changed. But things had changed, and one thing she would never explain to me was where she had ended up. Was she in Tartarus? Did she make it to the Elysian Fields? My gut told me she was somewhere in between, and it hurt me to think of her in limbo, belonging to nowhere.

On occasion, her spirit would reach out to touch me. The touch was like a ghosting of energy, a breeze, a figment of my imagination, and it was nothing close to the way she felt before. I craved contact with her, but when she tried to quell that craving it was a concoction of pure frustration, agonizing love, and desperate sadness. What did I expect? I don’t know. There’s no flesh and blood anymore, no warm skin, no solid body for me to feel connected to. No Xena.

I remember when she was still here, the day she told me about what happened to those villagers in Jappa so long ago. I argued with her that day. I understood her need to seek redemption, but what I will never understand is how she could take Akemi’s word and let herself be killed for it. As far as I can tell, the villagers died in a savage fire caused by a few angry men who began to abuse a drunk, grieving woman. Yes, she was a warrior and had turned to defend herself with rage, but there was no deliberate killing on Xena’s part. So why was she taken from me? Why did she feel guilty…guilty enough to be killed and to refuse me my soul’s mate for the rest of my days? I wish I had the answers, but they can only be found within her mind, and she has never talked about the why.

I ache without her, especially since I told her during one desperate argument to leave me alone. I remember it like it was last night.

“Just go, Xena! And this time…just…go.”

“G-Gabrielle, are you saying goodbye? I can’t…I don’t want to go.”

“I don’t care! This is torturing me, Xena. How can you stand it? It’s like parading something in front of me that I need more than life, but I can’t ever reach out and take it. So please don’t tell me what you want because I wanted you. That’s all I ever wanted, and you took that away from me.”

“But you know why…”

“Yes. I do. And was it worth it? Did you free all those souls?”

“I don’t know. I think so…”

“You think so? You don’t even know?” I was shouting at this point. “I can’t live like this anymore. Leave me alone.”

“You’ll never be alone.”

“I am alone!”

Xena hasn’t appeared to me since that night, the night before my final day of traveling to Greece. I miss her desperately. I want to be with her, and I need to go to her now.

Another thing Xena told me during our time together was what had happened the day she met me, the day she saved the people from my village. She had decided that was to be the day she would die. She had intended to quietly end her life, and perhaps, end her pain. She said she couldn’t take it anymore, but then she saw me and something changed within her. Xena somehow knew she had to save us, and unbeknownst to her, her life’s path was to alter forever. But her feelings of quiet surrender, of not being afraid of the end, and feeling exhausted by the struggle of living are something I never understood. I do now.

I have given so much. I have fought for justice. I have saved innocent lives, and I have performed selfless deed after selfless deed. I even commanded armies in Egypt and lands further north, leading them gloriously into battle against their enemies. I have been injured more times than I can count. I am a fearless warrior, but no great destiny has been revealed to me, and I can’t fight anymore.

I have seen so much, and I have come to understand Xena better through my experiences. A day came less than ten months ago when I drove my sword into the chest of a ruthless warlord, but what scared me was not the fight beforehand, not the strength with which he managed to almost knock me unconscious, but the smile on my face when the air left his lungs with his final breath. The fact that I smiled…that scared me. That’s when I decided to come home. It was becoming too satisfying to see them die, and I knew it had to be over.

So I have returned to our homeland. I haven’t seen any of the gods since my arrival, and I am thankful for that. Perhaps in my absence, they have forgotten about me and will leave me alone. I do miss Aphrodite, though. But I feel like love has left me now, so I don’t expect she’ll have anything to say to me. That thought alone makes me desperately sad. Am I not capable of love anymore?

I sought out an Amazon tribe upon my return here. I found a queen by the name of Cyane. She had taken the name and seemed to be a wise ruler. She had a large tribe of strong sisters, and I felt instantly welcomed for they knew of me and listened intently as I told of my adventures. I left every scroll I have written since Jappa with them. I’d made sure to include new methods of healing I discovered on my travels and unique battle strategies I felt would enhance the ones already used by the Amazons. The scrolls tell of places I have been and things I have done, but never what I have felt. I couldn’t face my feelings, and I never mentioned Xena in any of my tales. Ironic, since she was all I ever wrote about before. I had buried it all too deeply, and I’ve never released it until now.

I’ll send this parchment to the Amazons when I am done with it tomorrow. Let it serve as a final record of me, Gabrielle of Potidaea, the young village girl who dreamed of traveling with a mighty warrior princess an age ago, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Now, I need to rest. My camp is in a small, secluded area tonight, and I will try to drift into Morpheus’s realm like I always do. I never seem to truly sleep anymore, and sometimes I wonder how I manage to rise every morning. A long time ago, Xena teased me mercilessly about being able to sleep amidst a horde of stampeding centaurs, and she was right…but not now. Now I barely close my eyes for more than a few moments at a time. Sleep brings dreams, dreams of better days when I could look into those ocean-blue eyes and see the soul of my mate, smell the scent of her, touch her skin, and feel warmth and love like never before. I can’t stand to wake from those dreams. But sleep also brings nightmares of the most gut-wrenching type. I never thought I’d find Xena’s body like that. It was too much for the strongest of hearts to bear. Those dreams, those torturous visions, I will do anything to avoid.

I can’t stand how much I miss her. My soul is incomplete.

Chapter 1

Gabrielle dropped the quill onto her furs and gently rolled up the parchment. With a creak of her neck, she yawned and wiped the tears that had just spilled over her lower lids. She pulled her saddlebag toward her, took out a small, wrapped piece of nutbread to make way for the scroll, and lay back against the fallen log. She fleetingly felt Xena sitting sharpening her sword on the log right next to her, and she shook her head to erase the memory. Another winter was settling in, and a tug on the collar of her cloak allowed a rush of chilled air to venture under the thick material causing a brief shiver down her spine. Her eyes soon became hypnotized by the dancing flames of the dwindling campfire while she chewed on a small piece of the bread.

She knew she was doing the right thing now. A stillness had settled over her spirit, and since Xena wasn’t anywhere around and couldn’t read her thoughts – she didn’t think – she was free to do something she knew her mate would never allow. As the stars twinkled above her, Gabrielle thought back to the people she had met on her lonely journey. A few suitors had propositioned her over the years, but she could never accommodate someone new. She had been alone for far too long, but there was no one in the land of the living that could assuage her emptiness.

Gabrielle sighed heavily, blowing a puff of visible air from between her lips, confirming to her that it would be a bitterly cold night. She pulled herself to her feet and stood for a few moments to listen. Finding no reason for alarm, she threw a few more small branches on the fire and sat back down on her furs. She checked her weapons, and with her chakram and sword by her side, and her sais still in her boots, she rested her head on her hands to settle for another dreamless, sleepless night.

She was not too far away from Amphipolis now. She had needed another night to gather her courage. Giving up the urn was going to be more difficult than she had ever realized, and she glanced at her saddlebag now, knowing that Xena’s ashes were secure inside. She reached out to the bag that was level with her head and pulled it a little closer. Another tear left her bleary, green eyes, and she brushed it away with agitation.

“Soon, my love. Soon…”

At that very moment, a bright shower of pink and gold sparkles filled the air next to the campfire, and Gabrielle sat up with a start. The Goddess of Love appeared in her usual spectacular fashion making Gabrielle smile unwittingly since she hadn’t experienced anything like it in so long.

Aphrodite crossed her arms over her voluptuous chest. “Well, if it isn’t the Battling Warrior Bard Babe.”

Gabrielle couldn’t quite decipher the expression on her old friend’s face. Was it hurt? Maybe anger? Not sure what to say, she went with the standard greeting. “Aphrodite, it’s good to see you.”

“Really? Really?! Well how come Yours Truly didn’t get to hear of your return? Hmm? And how come you stayed away so long?”

“I thought you god types knew everything…and I…I didn’t want to…come back, so…”

Seeing her bosom buddy struggling for words, Aphrodite softened her features and stepped a little closer. She fluffed her dress out before she sat on the log, and gave a half-smile when Gabrielle turned around on her furs to face her. “I can see what you’ve been through, hon. Things haven’t been the same here without you.” She looked deeply into the weary traveler’s eyes then lowered her own gaze to the fire. “Hasn’t been the same without her either,” she admitted.

Gabrielle held back her tears. “I couldn’t stand to give up her ashes. I couldn’t come back.”

“How come you’re back now then? And what I heard when I arrived…you said soon. Soon, what?”

“I want to be with her, Dite,” Gabrielle whispered, but her words gradually became pleadingly loud. “I need to be with her. I’ve done so many things for others…for the gods-be-damned greater good…for more than nine years, and I can’t go on. I need to do something for me now. I love her, and only her. Surely you of all people can see that?”

Aphrodite could see everything in Gabrielle’s eyes: the pain, the passionate plea, the acceptance of things to come, and the memories of things that once were. She saw strength and weakness. She saw love and hate mingled with fear and courage. Gabrielle was everything, a pure heart and a great warrior, a gifted bard and a devoted soulmate.

“I can see it, but your plan is a teeny bit flawed.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll notice I’m not quite as…flamboyant as I used to be. Let me tell you what’s been happening here since you and your tall, dark, and deadly left.” Aphrodite slid off the log and scooted next to her old friend like it was just yesterday she’d seen her last.

Gabrielle didn’t protest when Aphrodite flicked her fingers toward the flames sending a bolt of sparkle toward the fire, making it soar upward for a moment before it died back to a satisfactory blaze. She remembered the move so clearly. It didn’t seem like a decade since she’d witnessed it.

Aphrodite sighed. “So much has happened. I had no idea you were here ’til big bro came to tell me…”

At the mention of Ares, Gabrielle bristled. “Not sure I want to talk about him.”

“Oh, but we must. It’s so not what you think. Like I said, so much has happened. You see, Ares had a new challenge, and it was keeping him very busy. Tell me, when did you get back to our shores?”

“About three months ago.”

Aphrodite nodded and flicked her hair over her shoulder. “Makes sense. Have you seen Xena’s spirit, you know, since it happened? Did she stay with you?”

“She…appears to me sometimes, but I got angry and told her to leave me alone just before I got here. Why?” Gabrielle answered, grinding her jaws to stave off her tears.

“How did she seem to you when she appeared?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did she still have her fire, her darkness?”

“Um…well, no. She was very loving and regretful most of the time…almost timid actually. Why?” Gabrielle was getting the feeling she didn’t want the answer.

“I’m just trying to work out why her darkness was able to escape when she wasn’t even killed here.”

Gabrielle’s breath hitched. “Escape?”

“Sweet Gab, her darkness was taken when she died. I don’t know how. It seems to be a bigger problem than even Ares predicted. There’s a new god…demon…something here that, well, we don’t know where it…he…not sure what it is…came from, but it’s powerful and seems to have taken evil from many souls. It consumes darkness. Its face can change into the faces of the souls it stole from, or so I’ve heard. It’s super weird. Anyway, Ares was having trouble…”

When Aphrodite’s voice drifted to nothing, Gabrielle leaned forward to catch her attention. “Ares was having trouble what?”

“He couldn’t win the fight. It was more than he had ever faced before.”

“Oh, gods…so he’s not the sitting God of War?”

It was silent for long moments before Aphrodite spoke again. “He’s dead.”

Gabrielle was stunned. “But he’s a god. How can he be dead?”

“He gave up his godhood and his mortal life for one last chance to defeat pure evil.” Aphrodite hung her head low.

“I’m sorry, Aphrodite.” Gabrielle placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “But what last chance do you have without Ares?”

Aphrodite turned to look at her. “You have to understand something before I tell you. Ares…he was watching you when you came back to Greece. You’re a warrior, and he…he knew why you had come home.”

“How could he know?”

“I’m not sure, but you are going to end your life, are you not?”

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped slowly as her green eyes widened. “How did he…? But…”

“Sweetie, you can’t end it. You have a destiny.”

“Wait a gods-damned minute…”

“Hey!”

“Sorry, but I don’t want to hear about this destiny. I make my own destiny.”

“Hear me out!” Aphrodite almost shouted, making Gabrielle stare at her.

“Wow, you have changed.”

“I’m just totally uber-stressed, and this new presence is even drowning my love out. It’s a total bitch. This might be the most important conversation we’ll have, so please listen to me.”

“OK.”

“Ares was watching you up until maybe a moon ago. That’s when he made the decision. He made it because he hasn’t been the same since news of Xena’s death got back to us, and he’s been in constant battle with this new…thing. It seems to be calling itself Daemonicus. He…it seems to be a combination of evil, taking the darkness from dead warriors, warlords, murderers…anyone with hatred of any sort in their hearts, to fuel its power. Its reach is far…farther than just Greece, it seems. It’s a god of sorts…a demon of pure evil, I think. It’s becoming too powerful.” Aphrodite twisted the pink material of her dress around her finger as she spoke. “Now that Ares is gone, Daemonicus will take over…oh, let’s just call it a dude. He’ll take over Mount Olympus if he hasn’t already, and that will be the end of it for me, for everyone. And rumor has it he is now morphing into something even more powerful. We’ve tried everything to fight him, and our last hope is that you can kill him.”

“Me?” Gabrielle asked incredulously. “I have no idea why you’d think-”

“You have no idea what you and Xena had…have, and how important it was…is.” Aphrodite continued while Gabrielle just gaped at her. “The love between you and Xena was unique. That much you know, but what you don’t know is the power you both hold. That power is our last chance to defeat the evil.”

“Aphrodite, I’m just…I…”

When nothing else was forthcoming, the goddess smiled. “Ares died to bring Xena back to life.”

Gabrielle was silent. The words hung heavy in the air for an eternity until she decided she really was awake and this was not some idiotic dream. “That’s not funny, and it’s not possible either,” she said angrily. Tears began to roll down her face, and the flames caught each droplet in their flickering light.

Aphrodite reached out to catch one and frowned when Gabrielle flinched a little. “It wasn’t meant to be funny, and it is possible. Go check your urn. You’ll find it’s empty.”

Gabrielle’s stomach heaved violently. She grabbed her saddlebag and roughly opened the straps. She undid the buckles she had fashioned in a harness around the urn, and gulped repeatedly before she opened the lid. She hadn’t looked in it for many seasons. It was empty. “No! What have you done?”

“Gabby, she’s not there anymore. When you got back to Greece, Ares was desperate. He knew what you were preparing for. He knew you would give up the urn before you ended your life. He also saw his opportunity to bring back the power of love. He gave up everything for this last chance to stop Daemonicus, but he couldn’t bring Xena back until she was within his reach. You and Xena are our last hope. You must help me, and you must be together to do that. I’m hoping Xena came back with her dark side intact, but it’s up to you to-”

“No! You’re lying!”

Aphrodite stood up and grabbed an infuriated Gabrielle’s shoulders. “It is all true. Listen to me! You need to go to her!”

“How in Tartarus can I go to her when I don’t even know where she is?”

Aphrodite softened when more angry tears burst out of Gabrielle’s eyes. She pulled her friend into a hug. “Remember when you followed the path of peace?” When she felt a nod against her shoulder, she continued. “You were on the right track…just needs a little adjusting. You can fight for love. A contradiction in terms, I know, but it’s necessary and true.” She pushed Gabrielle back a little to look into her eyes. “You need to find Xena. I don’t know where she is, but I do know where you must start.”

“Where?”

“Amphipolis. There, you will bring the past, the present, and the future together. When that happens, you will figure out the rest.”

“That sounds too much like a riddle, Aphrodite.” Gabrielle stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest.

“I know. I have limited information for you. Ares was rather vague about things. Just go…go to Amphipolis.” And with that instruction hanging in the cold, night air, Aphrodite vanished.

Gabrielle stood and glared at the spot where Aphrodite had been for a few more minutes. It all sounded so ridiculous to her. Ares is dead and Xena is alive? “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stick to my plan and head out in the morning.”

“No, no, no.” Aphrodite appeared again…without her sparkles.

“Wh-I thought you had gone!”

“Quit being so angry all the time,” the goddess said as she approached. “Listen to me, Gabrielle.”

“No. I’m done with listening. I’m done with fighting. I’m done with everything.”

Aphrodite sent a sharp line of light toward Gabrielle. “Sit down.”

Gabrielle fell to the log that lay just behind her. Her legs had given way, and she couldn’t get back up. “What did you do?”

“I’m trying to make you listen for a minute. What happened to the old Gabrielle…the one who was all compassion and patience and love?”

Gabrielle sighed. “She doesn’t exist anymore.”

“I don’t believe that,” Aphrodite said as she crouched in front of her friend. “Look at me, Gabrielle. I have changed too. Do you know what changed me the most?” When Gabrielle shook her head in defeat, Aphrodite smiled sadly at her. “The moment that changed me the most was when Ares told me he had to die.”

Gabrielle blinked a few times and stared into Aphrodite’s eyes. “Why did that change you?”

“Because for all his flaws, he was still my brother. I was so scared…”

“It had gotten that bad?”

“Yes, Gabrielle. I felt weak. What could I do to end the darkness? I wear a pink dress, for Elysia’s sake. Please, do as I said and go to Amphipolis. Remember…the past, the present, and the future. I know you can do this.”

When Aphrodite suddenly vanished once more, Gabrielle was able to stand and spin around on the spot to look for her. “Aphrodite?”

There was no reply this time. Gabrielle was alone again. She tried to replay everything she had been told. It sounded completely absurd to her.

“The past…Xena is the past? Am I the present? But I’m also the past. Who is the future? Damn it.” She stomped across the campsite and began to gather her things. There was only one thing for it. She was going to Amphipolis tonight. There was no way in Tartarus that she could rest now anyway.

***

It was still dark when Gabrielle approached the edge of Amphipolis, and as she walked silently along the narrow path she recalled a different kind of darkness that had befallen the town the last time she was here. The haunting had been a difficult thing to witness, especially for Xena. They had learned of Cyrene’s death, and as much as that had hurt, the reason behind it had created more pain in their hearts. As usual, Xena took on the guilt of not being there to help her mother when she needed her, but how could she have known? How could she have helped when Ares had entombed both her and Gabrielle in a cave of ice?

Gabrielle began to recall the moments after awakening from that death, but when a small light appeared around the next tree trunk, she stopped in her tracks to scan the few buildings that had come into view. After moving from the path to the cover of the trees, she noticed that each window in every house had candlelight or oil lanterns burning throughout the night. Amphipolis looked inhabited.

Gabrielle had thought Aphrodite had told her to come here to perhaps leave the urn – even though it was empty – and find Xena’s body lying in the ruins. Her heart had been lurching every few minutes at the thought of that vision, but now it seemed that there was much more to find here. She eased forward without making a sound. Ever cautious, her feet instinctually found the softest, quietest spot on the forest floor, leaving her approach unheard by even Xena…if she was indeed here.

As she came to the corner of the nearest house, Gabrielle stopped to gather her nerves. For some reason, this was scarier than fighting the toughest of warlords or stopping the bloodiest of battles. Was she going to see Xena again, alive and real? Was Aphrodite telling her the whole truth? Could it really be that easy?

“I doubt it,” Gabrielle muttered to herself as she moved into the dim candlelight of the first window.

Before she could get more than a few steps farther, a swift figure dropped from the upstairs window of the house, performing a cartwheel on the way down to land perfectly balanced in front of her. The athlete completely blocked her path, and in a flash, Gabrielle had her sais in her hands, ready to defend herself in battle. The sight of a chunky, metal candlestick in the hand of a woman made her pause, but her senses were still on alert. The woman was clearly a warrior, as was evident from her stance, her acrobatic entrance, and her powerful build, but Gabrielle couldn’t make out her facial expression until the woman moved forward into the frame of the window’s illumination. Now, Gabrielle could see a perplexed look in the dark-brown eyes that were fixated on her.

“The Battling Bard of Greece,” the woman gasped out as she lowered her candlestick.

“Well, that’s a new one,” Gabrielle replied with a cynical edge to her tone.

The woman once again stared at her, but only for a moment until she found her voice again. “Apologies, Gabrielle. I’m very surprised to see you. It is you, right?”

“That’s my name, yes. But how do you know me?”

“I’ve learned everything I can about you. We are grateful for your return, but we are always on alert because soldiers of Daemonicus can appear at any time, so I’m sorry about the welcome I gave you.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Xena.”

“Hah…” Gabrielle laughed humorlessly. “I don’t think so.”

Xena answered her immediately, almost as if she was expecting such a response. “No, no. I am not your Xena, but my name is Xena. I was named after her. She is forever a hero among the people of Amphipolis…a legend we are proud to speak of.”

Your Xena, Gabrielle echoed sadly in her head. “I see,” she said aloud. “When were you born?”

“It was back when you and Xena were trapped by Ares…in the cave. When I was born, you had both done so much for people all over Greece…all over the world…and I am proud to be named after her.”

Gabrielle swallowed hard as a wave of grief passed through her. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had told her they were in any way proud of Xena. In fact, she couldn’t remember if she had ever heard it before. “Then I am honored to meet you, Xena.” She choked a little when she said the name, but she recovered well and returned her sais to her boots.

Xena bowed slightly, offering the path to Gabrielle with a swipe of her hand. “Your daughter is here. Let me take you to her.”

Gabrielle flinched, and her expression became one of horror and uncertainty. When her face paled, Xena was quick to shake her head frantically.

“Oh, no! Eve. Eve is here.”

Gabrielle coughed out the breath that had lodged in her windpipe. “How do you know so much about me?”

“What do you mean?”

“How do you know about my…about Hope?”

Xena bit her lip while she formulated her answer. She indicated to Gabrielle that they should begin their walk into the town while they talked. “Like I said, Xena is the legend…but you, Gabrielle, you made the legend. I wanted to know so much about the hero I was named after, but I also wanted to know as much about her life as I possibly could. You became her life. I want to fight for love, just like you taught the real Xena.”

Gabrielle stopped and held this Xena back by her arm. Fight for love…

The way Xena had said it was almost like it had come straight from Aphrodite. Love seemed to be the key in their fight with Daemonicus. Did this Xena hold a part of the puzzle? Was she the future Aphrodite spoke of?

“You are also real,” Gabrielle said with a hint of melancholy. “I think I may need your help, so could you come with me to see Eve?”

Xena seemed to analyze Gabrielle for a few seconds before she nodded. “Yes. I’d be honored. Eve lives at her grandmother’s old inn. Of course, it’s not an inn anymore.”

“What is it now?”

“Eve came back here a few years after the haunting. I had also returned home with my mother by then, and we saw how the place had suffered from the passing of time and the neglect. When some of the townspeople arrived to help us rebuild, they needed a place to heal, both physically and spiritually. Eve was instrumental in leading us back then, and she is still a town leader now. She is very important to us, and we appreciate that she stayed after the revival. We couldn’t have done all this without her,” Xena said, spreading her hand out toward the street ahead. “The Amazons also offered their assistance. They taught us how to defend ourselves while Eve taught us about love, life, and what she had learned from Eli’s teachings. In an agreement with the Amazons, Eve offered them goods from our small market, and so they are always around to assist us, should we need it. They were living peacefully in the forest, not far from here. We were all doing fine until Daemonicus-”

“How do you know of Daemonicus?” Gabrielle interrupted, coming to a halt again.

“Everyone knows of Daemonicus. He has consumed so many lives that we can’t fail to know about him. His mighty soldiers’ battles with Ares have been the source of great tales told by traveling bards. From what I have heard, he is becoming more powerful every time he consumes the darkness from each dead warlord or follower. He makes them his undead…and they can only be killed by ending Daemonicus himself. Well, you can slay them for a while with a sword, but he just absorbs them again. I have much to tell you, Gabrielle, but it can wait for a short time. Please come inside. It’s cold out here,” Xena offered as she opened the heavy door in front of her.

Gabrielle hadn’t even noticed they were standing outside Cyrene’s old place. Most of the windows had light emanating from them, just like the rest of the town. “Why do the people here burn candles throughout the night?”

Xena sighed. “They think it will keep Daemonicus from taking them. He is the darkness. They fear any darkness now, and they feel that the night will invite him into their homes if they don’t try to keep it at bay.”

“Right…but I doubt it will stop him,” Gabrielle said as they walked through the door.

“I know it won’t,” Xena responded quietly.

***

As they walked into the lounge area that used to be the main room of the tavern, Gabrielle noticed a painting of Cyrene, the type of painting you see as a memorial when someone has passed away. But it was when she noticed the painting of Xena next to it that she had to hold her stomach for fear of vomiting right there on the coarsely woven rug. She watched with pain barely hidden in her eyes as the young Xena entered a room in the back, lifting the curtain to allow Gabrielle to pass through as well.

Gabrielle quickly crossed the expanse of floor and ducked her head in thanks. This next room was much smaller, and it was held in the light of about twenty candles. There, in front of the fire, was Eve, sitting on a rocking chair and sharpening her sword.

Since Xena had moved to block her view of Gabrielle, Eve stood to greet her in the normal way. “Xena. Why were you out there at such an hour? Is everything all right?”

“We have a visitor, Eve,” Xena said cryptically and a little nervously.

Eve’s body tensed, her old warrior skills always ready just under the surface, but when Xena stepped aside and Gabrielle was revealed to her, her face became one of sheer surprise and delight. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she approached Gabrielle with her arms open. “Gabrielle…”

With a sad smile on her face, Gabrielle accepted the embrace and held onto the woman who was essentially her only child. “It’s so good to see you, Eve.”

Eve pushed back but kept a hold of Gabrielle’s shoulders. “It is so good to see you too. I never thought I would…”

Her tears returned, and young Xena watched from the sidelines as she tried to hold back her own emotion at the touching reunion. She reminded herself that she had to retain her strong, impenetrable façade in front of Gabrielle. That’s what Gabrielle would expect of a true warrior, and Xena wanted to be the ultimate warrior for good, just like her namesake. She also guessed that Gabrielle was restraining her emotions since she herself had become an ultimate warrior after Xena’s death. Everyone had heard about Gabrielle. She was a legend in her own right.

“I had no idea you had come back to Amphipolis, Eve,” Gabrielle said, breaking into Xena’s thoughts.

“I hadn’t, not for a long time. When I heard of Mother’s death…well…I felt I had to return here. I couldn’t leave her hometown in ruins. It felt so wrong to me. I realized I could do some good wherever I was, so after I had traveled for a while, I came back.” Eve grasped Gabrielle’s arm gently to lead her across the room. “Please sit. You must be so tired.”

Gabrielle allowed herself to be guided, just this once. “I’m always tired, but I feel there is no rest coming to me yet. Aphrodite sent me here, and I’m still trying to figure out her little puzzle.”

Xena came to sit across from them at the fire to watch Gabrielle and Eve as they spoke. Since Eve had no problem with that, Gabrielle knew the young warrior was trustworthy. And anyway, she absolutely believed that this Xena was a part of the puzzle.

“What puzzle?” Eve asked as she sat next to Gabrielle, placing a pitcher of water and some fresh-baked bread in front of them.

Gabrielle sighed and rubbed her face briskly with her hands. “Just before I got here, I was planning…well…let’s just say I had made some decisions. She came to me to let me know that my decisions meant nothing, that they were the wrong decisions, and that I did indeed have some sort of destiny.”

“Which is…?” Eve said tentatively.

“To kill Daemonicus. She gave me a clue where to start, but I’m still trying to figure things out as I go along.” Gabrielle looked up into Eve’s eyes. “She also told me that Ares is dead. He was sacrificed to bring Xena back.”

Eve sat stiffly upright. “You mean…Mother is…she’s here somewhere?”

“So it seems,” Gabrielle replied rather flatly.

“You don’t believe Aphrodite?”

“I don’t know what to believe anymore. All I know is that Xena’s ashes have disappeared from the urn I was carrying.”

“Oh, Gabrielle. I…I don’t know what to say.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “It seems we are all somehow a part of the plan to end Daemonicus. Aphrodite told me to find the past, the present, and the future in order to win the fight. I’m beginning to think that I am the past…maybe Xena too…and you are the present, Eve, which makes Xena here…” Gabrielle said, her body flinching at using her beloved’s name on someone else. “The future.”

Xena had noticed that every time Gabrielle addressed her, she had some kind of unpleasant reaction, much as she tried to hide it. Since she still had much to tell Gabrielle, and she knew now that they were destined to bring about an end to the darkness together, she decided to offer a solution to the problem. “Gabrielle, please call me Gena. When my brother was little, he couldn’t pronounce the zee part, so he always called me Gena. I’m pretty used to it, and I don’t mind. Really.”

Gabrielle’s tension seemed to ease up at those words, and she smiled genuinely at the young warrior. “You are very intuitive…Gena. I thank you for your kindness.”

“The last thing I want to do is hurt you, so this way is better…and anyway, it will become a little confusing when we find your Xena and have to work together as a team.”

At that, Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “Right,” she said after a long pause. She still didn’t quite believe they would see her Xena alive again.

“There is so much for me to take in,” Eve said, standing as her hands began to fidget. “Mother is alive. I just…where can she be?”

Gabrielle got up and took Eve’s hands into her own. “I don’t know. Aphrodite just told me to start here. She didn’t say much more. I had hoped that Xena would come home, but…”

At that moment, a young boy blasted through the front door of Eve’s home and ran into the room they now stood in. “He has destroyed Hestia!” he shouted.

Eve quickly approached him and gave him a little shake to calm him. “Slow down, Talmax. Where did you hear this?”

“Jonah said it. He just got back from Athens. Hestia is no more.”

Gabrielle looked at the boy. He was young, maybe thirteen or so, and he seemed terrified. If what he was saying was true, it meant Daemonicus was killing gods? Eve didn’t look very surprised by the news which made Gabrielle frown.

“Eve, you must tell me what has been happening here while I was gone.”

“I will, Gabrielle.” Eve turned back to Talmax. “Run home now, Talmax, and make sure to stay indoors with your family. It will be all right.” When the boy nodded at her and left the house with a worried look still etched on his face, Eve began to slowly pace the room. “I can’t believe he got Hestia,” she began. “Most of the gods have been destroyed by Daemonicus. There were only a few left after Mother…well, you know what happened there, but now…now only Aphrodite remains here on the surface. Apollo was one of the last to go, and we believe Celesta has been entombed with her flame. Nobody knows where she is.”

Gabrielle glanced at Gena – who had remained very quiet throughout – before she walked in front of Eve to stop her incessant pacing. “How has Aphrodite managed to escape his wrath so far?”

“Aphrodite won’t fight.”

“And Hestia would?” Gabrielle asked disbelievingly.

“She must have, and I’m sure Aphrodite could if she tried, but she won’t. The other gods all tried to fight Daemonicus to defeat him, and they failed. But not Aphrodite. She hides, and the people will help conceal her because of who she is. When all is said and done, they want love, not war or hatred, but Daemonicus is growing in his power. He knows that with Ares gone, the anger that most people can usually control is unleashed. People make mistakes when they’re angry. He’s counting on that. Makes them easier to kill, and when they die, the anger they cannot control is consumed by him.”

“By the gods,” Gabrielle said quietly. “Well, maybe not anymore. By Aphrodite, I guess.” She slumped down into the chair by the fire again, deep in thought.

Gena felt the tense silence to her very core. She had something to tell them, but for some reason, she felt it wasn’t time yet. “What are you thinking about, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle looked up and shook her head. “I was just remembering something Xena told me once.”

“Would you share it with us?” Eve asked.

“It was just something Ares had said to Xena a long time ago. It was one of the times he had lost his godhood. His sword had been stolen from him, and everyone, including me, felt their anger rise to the surface with great force. With no sitting god of war, normally-peaceful people lost the self-discipline to control their rage. I just wanted to punch everybody I met. Of course, that time, he was just mortal. Now…he’s dead, so there’s no telling what effect, if any, it will have on us.”

Gabrielle stopped talking and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. As she stared at the floor, she realized she needed more information in order to try to solve the problem they currently had. “How did Ares die? Do you know?”

Gena’s response was to pin her lips tightly shut and shrug, but Eve got up and began to pace again.

“We’re not sure. I asked Aphrodite once, but she conveniently vanished at that point.”

Gabrielle turned to Gena. “Do you know?”

Gena just shook her head, but the look in her eyes didn’t fool Gabrielle.

“Gena, if you know something, you must tell me. Do you realize how important this could be?”

“Why is it important if you can’t do anything to change it now?”

“Because it may be a clue to killing Daemonicus…or it may not, but I need to know,” Gabrielle said while watching every little muscle twitch on Gena’s face.

When she couldn’t stand the scrutiny anymore, Gena got up and went around the room, checking in behind the drapes and opening every door to search behind it before closing it firmly again. Once she was satisfied that they were completely alone, she flicked her wrist to invite Eve into a huddle with Gabrielle. It was only then that she spoke quietly. “She confided in me once, and I found her a hiding place. This whole thing is torturing her. She barely has the confidence to reveal herself anymore.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrow rose slightly. “Aphrodite?”

“Yes.”

“But she revealed herself to me.”

Gena nodded. “I know, and that tells me that you are here to make things right.”

Eve popped her head out of the huddle to make sure they were still alone. “So what does that have to do with the death of Ares?”

Gena bit her lip for a moment. She wasn’t sure if she was allowed to tell. She felt like she was betraying the trust of a goddess, but defeating Daemonicus was so important and these people were the only ones she trusted completely, so she began hesitantly. “When Ares came to the realization that he couldn’t win in a fight against Daemonicus, he was desperate to find a solution. You see, if Daemonicus consumed the world, the gods would surely die…all of them. No followers means no gods. Daemonicus wants to rule all. So Ares had a choice…to die and let pure evil take over the world, or to die and leave behind a chance of slaying the darkness that would follow. He knew that love was the way, but he just didn’t have a clue how to win a fight using love as a weapon. He knew that you and Xena had a love beyond anything he could understand. It was then that he realized how important Xena was to…well, everything. When he found out you were back in Greece, he made the deal. I’m not sure who it was with, but he made it…his one chance to end the demon before it was too late.”

“So he took the chance to bring her back, but he didn’t know for sure that she could win?” Gabrielle asked, firmly pushing her feelings for Xena to the very depths of her heart to try to focus on the task at hand.

“I guess so. It was a risk…and apparently, for the deal to work he had to die at the hand of…” Gena paused to cough the dryness away from her throat.

“Tell us,” Eve pleaded.

“Love,” a familiar voice behind Gabrielle said.

Both Eve and Gabrielle spun around on instinct, but Gena just looked sadly at the arrival of the goddess who wore her black gown and a pained expression.

“Aphrodite, what do you…?” Gabrielle’s question stalled when she began to understand what Aphrodite had said. “You?”

“Yes, Little One. Can I still call you that?” Aphrodite said as she sat on one of the chairs by the fire.

Gabrielle followed her and knelt down on the floor in front of her. “I’m still little, aren’t I?”

“Not in your heart, your courage, your wisdom, and your skills as a warrior. Then again, you always had those things in abundance.”

“Tell me what happened, Dite. Please…” Gabrielle whispered.

As the others settled opposite Aphrodite, she gazed into the fire until her eyes glazed over. “For his death to mean anything, to mean Xena’s return, Ares had to be killed by the Hindsblood dagger…and by love. You have to understand it was our last resort. I’m not sure how, but for us to rid the world of this evil, love must conquer Daemonicus. That meant the Goddess of Love killing the God of War to bring back the ultimate coupling…the ultimate mortal power of love. Ares had even lost his sword in his final battle with Daemonicus. He knew he was never going to win. For me, for everyone to survive in any way, he had to take the only chance he had left to salvage something out of all this. He gave up his godhood, and then…I had to kill my own brother. His mortal body fell to the ground, and his blood was on the dagger in my hand. So you see, if Xena doesn’t join with you again, Gabrielle, we are all doomed.”

“That’s an awful lot to put on my shoulders, Dite,” Gabrielle said before she inhaled a deep, deep breath.

“You’ve carried worse, my friend. You and Xena both have. I believe in you.”

“So what you said about the past, the present, and the future…?”

Aphrodite blinked and turned to Gabrielle then. “You’ve figured that part out already. Xena is the past, Eve is the present, and Xena number two here is the future. You need them all to win the fight.”

Gena frowned and waved her finger in the air. “We’re missing a piece of the puzzle, though. If love is the way to defeat Daemonicus, why are we not using the most powerful, the most intense, and the most pure source of love in the universe?”

“I wondered when you’d figure that one out,” Aphrodite muttered. “I know I’m part of the plan, so I’ll have to come with you, but what I don’t know is how I can help you. I can’t fight. It’s that simple.”

Gabrielle was having a hard time getting used to this sullen goddess who was a mere shadow of her former friend. “Hey,” she said, placing her hand on Aphrodite’s knee. “We’ll figure it out. I know we will, but right now, I need some rest. You should all sleep, conserve your strength.”

“What about you, Gabrielle?” Aphrodite asked. “You told me you don’t sleep anymore.”

“I’ll try to close my eyes for a while. Maybe I can figure some things out while it’s quiet.”

Eve stood and cracked a few bones in her back. “I’d better up my practice sessions. Will you spar with me tomorrow, Xena? I mean, Gena?”

“Sure. Come wake me when you’re ready. It’s almost morning now, but a few candlemarks of sleep is all I need.” Gena got up and turned to leave, but before she did she looked over toward Aphrodite and Gabrielle. “I will make up your room before I retire to my own, Gabrielle. Aphrodite, I assume you’ll be…you know?”

Gabrielle looked between the three women before belatedly thanking Gena. When Aphrodite just nodded at Gena, she was a little curious about what that had meant, but before she could ask, Eve approached her.

“I am so happy to have you back, Gabrielle. It’s been too long,” she said, hugging Gabrielle warmly.

“I know, but I’m here now.”

“And I’m so thankful. Goodnight,” Eve said as she let go. “Your room is at the end of the hall…the one you always used to stay in when Grandmother-”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle interrupted gently. “I love you, Eve.”

“Love you too.”

When Eve left the room, Gabrielle turned to Aphrodite who still sat next to her waiting for the question that would follow. “What did Gena mean?”

Aphrodite leaned forward to whisper near her friend’s ear. “This is where I hide.”

Gabrielle craned her neck a little to look into her eyes. “You stay here?” she whispered back.

Aphrodite nodded. “See you soon then.”

“Wait,” Gabrielle said as the goddess got up to leave. “Tell me where, in case I need you.”

Aphrodite pulled Gabrielle to her feet and held onto her hand. “You won’t need me, but I will tell you. There’s a secret room.” She leaned in so that her cheek touched Gabrielle’s. “It’s right behind yours…the bookcase. You’ll see it when you go upstairs. So, tonight I will feel even safer than I usually do.”

“But I can’t do anything if another god tries-”

“He’s not a god, Little One. I’m not sure what he is, but he can’t just snap his fingers…if he even has any…and appear in my room. That rumor about him morphing into something more…I think it’s true. He’ll still have a physical form, but after Ares died, Daemonicus started sending his minions out to do his dirty work. He’s powerful through them, but I believe if you get to him now, you may have a fighting chance. Some brave warriors have caused him injury in the past, but no one has been able to weaken him enough to end him. He seems impossible to kill. I believe he’s a demon…just think of Bacchus, but feeding off the darkness. Evil instead of blood.”

“Even Bacchus had a weak spot. He could be killed by a Bacchae.”

“True. So if you find Daemonicus’s weak spot, you can hack it into pieces.”

Gabrielle was surprised at the Goddess of Love having such a blood-thirsty expression on her face. “That’s not a very nice image.”

“I know, but I have faith that you’ll stop him somehow.”

Gabrielle sighed at that. “If all you’ve said is true, I need to find Xena first.”

“It’s all true,” Aphrodite said as she walked away. “Rest now, Gabby.”

Chapter 2

Gabrielle had rested to a degree, but the next day, after only a few moments of sleep when she just couldn’t fight it, she felt like she had been kicked in the head and dragged through Tartarus the wrong way. “Is there a right way to be dragged through Tartarus?” she muttered to herself as she slipped her katana into its sheath.

She never went anywhere unarmed these days, and here in Amphipolis would be no different. She had kept her katana from when she was in Jappa as a constant punishment and reminder of what had happened there. Was she torturing herself? Yes, she was, because she should have denied Xena her last wish and dumped those ashes when she had the chance.

Every day since then, the sword she carried was her welcome burden. There was no happiness for her anymore, so she may as well keep her misery close. She had tried to change things and be happy, but it was never within her reach. She could smile with the villagers she saved, and she could laugh at the most gullible of warlords, but in her heart and soul, she was never truly happy. Only one thing could bring about such a change in her, and Aphrodite had told her that it had come true. So why was she not more positive about the future?

She puffed out a breath of air in her irritation as she walked down the staircase. She was adamant that she would dismiss those thoughts and focus on the day ahead. She had no idea what it would bring, and the only thing spinning around in her head was how she was going to kill Daemonicus. She had yet to experience anything to do with him, but she was sure that was going to change very soon.

Gabrielle paused for a moment when she reached the door to the room they had been in last night. It seemed there was no one inside the house this morning, and when she heard the clinking of swords out back, she rushed through the kitchen and barged out of the rear door. There, she found a rough, dusty area of ground surrounded by trees. It was large, flat, and littered with tree stumps that had many chips and dents in them. The sound of the swords once again drew her attention, and over to her right she saw Eve and Gena sparring aggressively.

Gabrielle relaxed her tense posture a little and watched the two powerful women as they parried and dodged, swung their swords and blocked every strike, but when she noticed Gena preempting Eve’s moves, she realized that perhaps she could teach the young warrior a few things. Gena had obviously sparred with Eve many times, and as much as Eve was an incredibly skilled fighter, even she had her regular moves that had worked for her time and time again. Gena had learned them, it seemed. She had also learned Eve’s one weakness: an old injury to her left ankle that she had received in battle many years before. Gabrielle vaguely wondered when it was that Eve had decided the way of peace was not her calling. She would remember to ask her daughter about that later.

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes as Gena went on the offensive, swiping at Eve’s left ankle and almost backing her into a corner. Eve leapt into the air, somersaulting in a backwards triple-flip over Gena in a move so reminiscent of Xena that Gabrielle clamped her jaws together in an attempt to resist the usual swell of heartbreak that would inevitably make her cry. The sparring finished with a loud clash of swords, both opponents brought to a standstill with a smile on their faces.

Gabrielle shook herself off and approached, offering a round of applause. “Very impressive, both of you.”

“Gabrielle, good morning,” Eve said as she ducked her head in thanks. “Did you manage to sleep?”

“I rested a little.” After Gena offered a welcome, Gabrielle turned to her. “Are you ready for me, Gena? I’d like to see you spar with someone you don’t know.”

Gena lifted the blade of her sword back until it rested against her shoulder. It was obvious that she was a little taken aback by the statement, although she did manage to recover her faculties quickly. “I don’t want to spar with you, Gabrielle.”

“Why not? You won’t hurt me.”

“Oh, it’s not that. It’s just that I want to win,” Gena answered with a small smirk.

But Gabrielle wasn’t smiling, and she raised her eyebrow when she realized that Gena needed to learn an important lesson. “If the win is your focus, you’ll lose against a skilled stranger. I saw you spar with Eve, and I know how good she is, but you know her left ankle is her weak spot. When you’re in battle, you won’t have time to figure out your opponent’s weaknesses if he’s as skilled as you are.”

“I’ve been in battle before,” Gena said a little defensively.

“And you’ve survived, so far.” Gabrielle removed her katana from its sheath and gave it to Eve since it would give her an unfair advantage in this fight. When Eve automatically handed Gabrielle her own sword, Gabrielle turned back to face Gena. “If your sole focus is on being the winner, you’re not giving your full attention to the fight. It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey to get there. Every single move your opponent makes should be your only focus. Every moment it will change and shift into something new. You have to be aware of each and every movement…let that very second be your focus. But even as that second must be what you concentrate on, you must also try to predict the opponent’s move by what he is doing in that second. Don’t think they’ll do what you expect. It’s never that simple. I ask you to listen to me, as it’s the only way you’ll stay alive.”

Gena nodded reluctantly. She had managed to stay alive so far, but deep within her she knew that Gabrielle was right. Gabrielle had lived through things Gena could barely conceive of, and she had traveled for many years with Xena, learning from her along the way. She had also traversed distant lands on her own and experienced so much of the known world. Gena wasn’t stupid enough to ignore her advice, so she decided to commit it to memory right then and there. It was when Eve backed away from them both that she realized she had taken her eyes off Gabrielle for a split-second. It was her first mistake. When she looked back up at her in a panic, the Battling Bard of Greece’s sword was coming right at her.

Gena was shocked into action, and she was astonished to find that even though Gabrielle looked like she hadn’t eaten a proper meal in quite some time, she was still a force to be reckoned with. The strikes were swift and sure, the kicks to knock Gena off balance were strong and more distracting than the biggest of warlords. Gabrielle gave her no time to recover as she twirled around on the spot and let the point of her sword come within a hairsbreadth of Gena’s body. How she had missed slicing her up, Gena was unsure, but she did know that Gabrielle moved with the stealth and swiftness of a ghost.

Gena jumped back as the sword came at her again, and when Gabrielle launched into another spin, Gena thought she had her opportunity. She was wrong. In a move Gena had never seen before, Gabrielle backtracked as soon as she had begun her spin, and since Gena had anticipated the sword coming from the right, she was caught out by Gabrielle’s attack from the left.

Gabrielle stopped the sword so abruptly that it looked like she had hit a rock, when in fact the blade was only just touching Gena’s side.

Eve shook her head in awe. “You are an incredible fighter, Gabrielle.”

“I’d have to agree,” Gena said breathlessly.

“Do you see what I meant by trying to anticipate the next move, Gena? You just assumed I would continue with my spin, when in fact I had planned to distract you in order to win.”

Gena’s shoulders drooped. “And it worked.”

Gabrielle gave her a small smile. “Good. And thank you, Eve. You are also an incredible fighter, but I’m curious. What made you stray from the path of peace?”

“That’s very simple. Necessity,” Eve said plainly. “Daemonicus will be the end of the world as we know it if we let him take his darkness into every soul. We’ve had to fight the soldiers to defend the town.”

“Do they attack Amphipolis very often?”

“Not often, but I fear now that they’re coming.”

Gabrielle frowned. “Why do you think that?”

“Because things are changing…”

“You mean our battle with evil, don’t you,” Gabrielle said, not so much a question, but a statement of fact.

Eve gritted her teeth. “Yes…and something else,” she hissed.

“Are you OK, Eve?”

“I’m fine. I think I’ve been feeling the effects of Ares’ death.”

“You feel the rage?”

“I think that’s what it is. Don’t worry, Gabrielle. I can control it.”

“Maybe so, but you were connected to him for a long time, Eve. You’ll feel it more than I do, more than Gena does.”

“Perhaps it has less to do with Ares, and everything to do with Daemonicus. He’s made a lot of people angry. I’m still with you one hundred percent, Gabrielle. I hope you’re not worried about that.”

“No. I’m not worried,” Gabrielle said. “But I might be if Xena comes back feeling it.”

“We have no idea how Mother will return. That, in itself, is worrying me.”

Before Gabrielle could answer, Gena suddenly said, “We need to go see Colarra.”

Gabrielle turned to her. “Who’s Colarra?”

“She’s an oracle in Thrace, well known for her visions of the future. Maybe she’ll know about Xena, and what we must do to defeat Daemonicus.”

“I think where we need to go is Mount Olympus,” Gabrielle replied.

“Why?” Gena asked as they all began to walk back into the house.

“Where else would Daemonicus want to rule the world from?”

“But Mount Olympus is a wreck, Gabrielle. Why do you think Aphrodite doesn’t go there anymore?”

“OK, but even though he wants it all, he probably won’t be hiding on top of the mountain,” Gabrielle said quite adamantly. “If he’s scum, he’ll want to hide under the surface. Demons like their hovels underground.”

Gena closed the door behind them once inside. “Well, there is a vast cave system at the base of Mount Olympus. Nobody dares to enter it because it’s so complex and terrifying, and those who have in the past, never returned.”

“Exactly.” Gabrielle took a tankard from a nearby shelf and filled it with light ale from the barrel that Eve was leaning on. “It’s dark, it’s disgusting, it’s dangerous and black with filth…sounds about right.”

“If that’s the place,” Eve said, passing out a tankard to Gena and filling one for herself. “We should delay in going to Thrace. It’s in the wrong direction anyway. We should just go straight to the cave and kill Daemonicus.”

“But it’s not possible yet,” Gabrielle said, wondering where she was getting all her instinctual knowledge from. “Something’s still missing.”

“Xena,” Gena whispered.

“Yes, Xena…but there’s something else we need, and I haven’t quite figured out what it is. I mean, we can’t just walk up to Daemonicus and say, hey, we’re here to kill you with love. We have no clue how to do it yet. We don’t have a weapon that can kill a demon, or whatever he is.”

Eve got up to start pacing slowly in front of the fireplace. “I bet it’s the power of all our love together that’ll defeat him. The past, the present, and the future unite in love.”

“Not sure I’d take that bet, Eve,” Gabrielle said as she took a gulp of the refreshing beverage. “Unless we have some sort of weapon, I can’t see how love will even make a dent in his existence.”

“But what other option do we have, Gabrielle?”

“There’s always another option. Just give me a little more time to think, OK?”

“All right. Let me know when you’re ready.” Eve pulled down in her warrior tunic. It was nothing like the old one she had back in the days of Livia, but it was smart and commanding, and it suited her well. “I’ll start on dinner. Maybe we can manage to eat a meal before we change the world.”

When she disappeared into the kitchen, Gabrielle stared into the hearth. No flames flickered there, but she could feel a burning in her soul, like some grand event was about to turn the tide or bury the sun. Some kind of storm was coming. Eve was right. Things were about to change.

Gabrielle just wished she knew what that storm would look like, and how they were going to stop it. It would be another restless night for her weary body and her dark thoughts.

“Thank you,” Gena said, breaking the quiet.

“For…?”

“For teaching me a lesson or two. I know I can be resistant sometimes, but I do want to learn from you, Gabrielle.”

“I’ll teach you all I can.”

Gena nodded. “I will learn from Xena too, I’m sure.”

Gabrielle felt a wave of pain sweep through her. “I’m sure,” she answered quietly.

Gena was so confident that Xena would be back soon, so why did Gabrielle have a sense of doom swirling around her soul?

***

It didn’t seem to be anywhere near morning when Gabrielle rose from her bed, her sais in her boots as always, and her chakram clipped onto her belt. She gazed from the window at the stars above, and when she absently wondered if Xena was seeing these same stars, the ache in her heart began to intensify.

“Should I go find her? Where do I even start?” she whispered to the night. She knew that if Xena was able, she would somehow make it to Amphipolis, but how much longer could they wait?

Gabrielle realized that this was the main reason she was stalling in leaving for Mount Olympus. She knew they had time constraints, but she wanted to find Xena before going into the fight. They needed her. All five of them should go together.

Gabrielle had noticed that Eve was doing everything she could to control her anger, and she was also aware that Gena had been pretty twitchy too, but no true anger had revealed itself in the young warrior so maybe she was stronger than Gabrielle had thought. It made her think of her own anger. Where was it? Why was she coping so well? She came to realize she had been angry for so long that she just didn’t feel any different now that Ares was gone.

“That’s pretty sad,” she muttered as she lifted her katana from the bed, sheathed it, and headed outside. If she couldn’t sleep, she would walk, and maybe get more of a feel for the town’s new layout. She didn’t care that a distant thunder was rumbling loudly, meaning it would probably rain soon. It wouldn’t stop her taking a stroll, and just as the thought had passed through her mind she heard the thumping of heavy raindrops on the porch roof out front.

Once outside, Gabrielle walked in the pelting rain and found that a lot of the buildings she remembered in Amphipolis had remained. They had been reinvigorated and painted to brighten up the place, but there were also new buildings, large and small, that flanked the old and even supported them where they were joined. She rounded the corner where the blacksmith’s used to be and wandered along the middle of the street, ever focused in case of any unusual noises or sights. When she came to the next corner, she turned, only to stop abruptly when she saw a body lying in the middle of the street, shadowed by a large statue on a pedestal that she couldn’t make out in the dim light.

GAB FC1

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes to try to get a clearer picture of the person through the haze of the rain. She drew her katana to hold it ready in front of her, and with her soaking wet bangs threatening to blur her vision, she moved closer to the body, knowing in the pit of her soul who it was. Once she stood over the woman wrapped tightly in thick, hessian cloth, she sensed that there was no threat around them, so she crouched down to turn the woman over.

“Xena,” Gabrielle gasped out as the face of her one true love was revealed. As she placed her hand over Xena’s mouth to feel for breath, her taut body shuddered in relief, and her tears merged with the rain on her cheeks. Xena was alive.

Gabrielle gave her a quick check for any serious injuries. She couldn’t really see anything through the heavy rain, but she did notice a strange weapon lying on top of Xena’s limp hand. She didn’t get a chance to think about it much as a bright flash temporarily blinded her before a loud and threatening clap of thunder rumbled overhead. The next wave of lightning was just as fierce, and when it seemed to strike just outside the town walls, she knew she had to do something fast.

Gabrielle was too far from the old inn to shout for help, so she scooped Xena’s shoulders into her hands and tried to lift her on her own. The rain was pounding now, making her hands slip on Xena’s skin. Since Gabrielle didn’t want to risk dropping her, she laid her gently back down and hovered on her hands and knees over her in the hopes that her torso would shelter Xena’s face from the violent weather. She looked around to try to find something to use as a litter of sorts: something to pull Xena along on, rather than dragging her through the mud. There was nothing, but when she looked directly behind her, she saw Gena coming quickly to her aid.

“Is that her? Is it Xena?” Gena asked while scrambling to her knees to assist Gabrielle.

“Yes. Help me get her inside.”

Gena took a firm hold of one of Xena’s arms while Gabrielle took the other one, and together they managed to lift her upright and drag her back to Eve’s home. By the time they got there, only Xena’s feet had become thick with mud. They placed her down on a comfortable cot near the fire where Gena quickly wiped the clumps off her feet.

Gabrielle swiped her hand across her own face to remove the short, sodden hair that had swarmed forward from the weight of the rain. She unhooked her chakram, detached her katana from her body, and went to Xena’s side.

“Gena, get me some warm water and clean rags. I need to wash her to tend to these injuries.” When Gena disappeared to carry out the task, Gabrielle assessed Xena’s body. She was covered in gashes and bruises, the blood long since congealed and the purplish marks in various stages of healing.

“How long have you been here, my love?” Gabrielle said quietly to herself.

Xena’s hair was matted to her head, the cloths around her body, sodden and dirty. She appeared to be free from major injury, so Gabrielle was confused as to why she was so poorly. Something else that confused her was that Xena’s skin was caked in some kind of black tar or lava substance.

When Gabrielle touched it, it was sticky and thick and freezing cold. She had never seen anything like it before, but just as she was wiping the goop off her fingers, Xena’s voice startled her.

“Exhausted…that’s all,” she said, seemingly sensing Gabrielle’s worry.

“Xena?” Gabrielle leaned over her to allow Xena to see her. “Xena, I…I…”

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered even though her eyes remained closed. “I’m so…sorry.”

That was all she could say before she was unconscious again. Gabrielle just stared at her until Gena came back into the room with a bowl of warm water and some clean rags. Gabrielle took the items from her and placed them on the floor beside the cot, and then turned back to Gena to place a hand on her shoulder.

“I need you to go back outside. There was something lying next to Xena out there. I’m not sure what it was, but you need to bring it here.”

“I’m on it, Gabrielle. Be right back.”

“Gabrielle?” Eve had awakened and was now rushing across the floor toward her. “Mother,” she whispered when too much air left her lungs for anything else.

“She’s OK, Eve. I found her outside on the street. She says she’s just tired.”

Eve looked at Xena’s relaxed face. “She spoke to you?” It was pretty evident that Xena was out for the count.

“Only just. She said she was tired…and sorry.” Gabrielle continued to wash the blood and black gunge off Xena’s skin while Eve broke down at her side. “Hey, she’ll be fine. I just need to get her clean and warm.” When Eve’s sobs became too much for her, she paused for a moment to grab her daughter in a tight bear-hug. “Come on now. We need to be strong for a little while longer.”

“I know. It’s just…she’s home.”

Gabrielle inhaled shakily. “It seems that way.”

“You’re expecting her to disappear again,” Eve said as she leaned her head on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

“I…I just know I won’t be able to fully appreciate how amazing this is until we’ve defeated Daemonicus. There’s always something to be done for the greater gods-be-damned good.”

“I heard that,” Aphrodite said as she approached from the other room. When no apology was forthcoming from Gabrielle, she moved to stand beside Eve, and it was then that Xena was revealed to her. Her tiny gasp was followed by a whispered, “It worked.”

Gabrielle nodded silently as she continued to gently clean Xena’s arm and hand. She knew what her friend was talking about. Ares had died for Xena, and he had indeed brought her back…somehow.

Aphrodite sat on the other side of the cot and held Xena’s hand in her own. She grimaced at the amount of black slime on Xena’s skin. “She’s been fighting.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle said. “But with what?”

“This black stuff,” Aphrodite said while picking some of the slime up on her finger. “It’s Daemonicus.”

Gabrielle froze in place until Eve put her hand on her forearm and rubbed gently.

“Not quite,” Eve said quickly. “What she means, Gabrielle, is that this is what happens to the insides of the soldiers Daemonicus takes. His darkness is like a disease. It slowly spreads and eats away at the insides of all who come into contact with him. It starts with their hearts and minds, and it feeds on everything else once they lose the will to fight against it. The soldiers that we’ll come across are completely consumed by it.” She removed her hand to let Gabrielle continue with her work before slipping her arm around her shoulders. “This is the reason Aphrodite has to hide here.”

Gabrielle frowned for a moment while she tried to work that one out. When nothing came to her, she dragged her eyes away from Xena and looked up at the goddess. “Why are you hiding here? I mean, can’t you just appear when you want and disappear when there’s trouble?”

Aphrodite dropped her gaze to Xena’s hand. “I can’t do that as often as I used to, Gabby.”

“Why not?” Gabrielle requested as she moved the warm, wet rag to clean Xena’s leg, carefully avoiding the biggest gash. It would need special attention.

“Daemonicus devoured the souls of those he killed in his first wave of attacks. Now he doesn’t have to kill directly because he has so many soldiers. He has the time now to do that morphing thing I was talking about, to become even stronger. As you can see,” the sullen goddess said, spreading her hand out to the body that lay in front of them. “He fills them with this evil, this darkness, and once that happens they are incapable of love. It’s become such an uber-huge problem, Little One. Daemonicus is ridding the world of love, and when love disappears from the hearts of the people, there are less left to believe in it. If people stop believing in love, I lose followers. Every time I lose a follower, I lose-”

“Your power,” Gabrielle finished for her.

“It really sucks,” Aphrodite said as the tears filled her eyes.

“Hey,” Gabrielle said to catch her attention. “Look at the hand you’re holding right now, and look at me. Feel the love she has inside her…feel my love. We’re here to fight the soldiers. That much is already clear. We’re going to conquer Daemonicus. But Dite, even if we can’t, your vulnerability won’t make us love you any less.”

Aphrodite’s tears overflowed and spilled down her cheeks. “I know that. I think I’m just…just emotional because I want the world to be a love-filled place, and I want you to be happy again, and I know that I can’t ever go home. Too much has changed.”

“You could go home one day.”

“Mount Olympus is covered in this stuff,” Aphrodite said, moving her finger through a spot of gunge on Xena’s hand. “It’s totally black now. Everything.”

“Then we know for sure where to find Daemonicus.” Gabrielle got up from her knees to rinse the washcloth again, and after she did so she moved around the cot, signaling with her hand that Aphrodite should trade places with her.

Once she had started to clean Xena’s left side, Eve sighed loudly and sniffed away the remnants of her tears. “I’m going to check up on Xe-Gena. She’s been gone too long.”

“Good idea,” Gabrielle said before she turned back to Aphrodite. “I was going to ask you to give me some privacy, but I think I can undress her with you here. I may need some help anyway.”

Aphrodite nodded. “At least I can be useful for something. I’ll grab a robe from upstairs. Gimme a sec.”

Gabrielle watched as Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, shuffled quickly across the room. “Never thought I’d see the day when she shuffled anywhere,” she muttered to herself before her eyes landed back on Xena’s face. “You’d better be staying with me this time. I don’t have the strength for any other outcome.”

When Xena just snored a little in her deep slumber, Gabrielle allowed herself a small smile as she began to loosen the filthy, hessian wrap.

***

Outside on the street, the rain had filled every indentation it could find, including the one where Xena had dropped the strange-looking object she had carried with her. Gena had been trying valiantly to extract it, but it was stuck fast in the mud. When Eve approached from behind her, she swirled around on the spot, ready to take down whoever was sneaking up on her.

“Whoa! It’s me,” Eve said, already in a defensive stance.

“Sorry, Eve. I’m a little jumpy right now, and this damn thing won’t budge.”

“Let me help.”

As the rain soaked through Eve’s clothing, she tried to keep her head facing down so that her sight wouldn’t be affected by the streaming water. The strange object was protruding from the mud at a funny angle, and all she could see was something that looked like the hilt of a sword. If it was a sword, the blade had buried itself good and deep in the ground.

Once Eve had placed her hands over Gena’s and pulled on it with all her might, she blew out a mighty breath due to the effort expended. “We’ll have to dig it out. You go that side, and I’ll dig here,” she said as she got to her knees.

“I don’t understand why it’s stuck,” Gena shouted over the storm that seemed to be growing by the second. “When it lay in Xena’s hand it seemed to be right there on the surface, and now it’s so deep we can’t pull it out?”

Eve glanced over at her as she continued to dig. “It might just be because the street is filled with potholes, and the rain is the hardest I’ve ever seen it.”

Gena gave a shrug as her hands went deeper into the hole she had created. When she felt the end of a short, blunt blade, she frowned deeply. “It’s not a sword. It stops right there,” she said as she pushed the object from underneath.

When it popped out of the ground, it seemed to jump directly into Eve’s hand. “What in Tartarus is it?”

Gena simply shrugged again before waving her hand in the direction of the house. “Let’s get inside and take a proper look.”

***

While Eve and Gena had been outside, Gabrielle had managed to clean Xena’s wounds and redress her in a shift that Aphrodite had found in the bedroom. Xena would still need to bathe when she felt more alert, but for now, Gabrielle had done a reasonable job of removing the black slime that thankfully hadn’t managed to invade any of her injuries. Gabrielle didn’t know if it could have affected Xena in any way. She just hoped that when those blue eyes opened, she would see her soulmate looking back at her.

“Aphrodite,” she said quietly. “How does the darkness of Daemonicus enter the host?”

Aphrodite stopped tapping her fingers on the mantle and moved away from the fire that now burned in the hearth to try to warm Xena slowly. “Only through a fatal wound by one of Daemonicus’s soldiers…or Daemonicus himself. She’ll be fine, Gabby. She’s just sleeping.”

“Maybe. I guess I’ll be more convinced when she wakes up and holds a conversation with me.”

“Once we see her eyes, we’ll know for sure.”

Gabrielle turned to look at the goddess who now stood next to her. “What do you mean?”

“Her eyes will be pure black if she has been taken by him. No use in looking now, though. She needs to be conscious.”

“Oh,” was Gabrielle’s only reply.

It was then that two very drenched women came through the door. Gena sniffed away the raindrops that ran to the end of her nose before she laid the item they had found on the table. Eve went to gather a couple of thick rags from the kitchen to dry them both off. The rain had chilled them to the bone, and once Gena got her teeth-chattering under control, she signaled Gabrielle over to the table.

“This is what we found. It’s the strangest looking weapon I’ve ever seen.” When Gabrielle stood beside her, Gena pointed to what should have been the sharp end. “It looked like the hilt of a sword when it was in the ground, but this other part looks like a rounded bottle of some kind. It’s made of glass.”

But Gabrielle wasn’t looking at the glass. Her eyes were focused on the handle…more specifically, what was engraved on the handle. Without a word, she went to retrieve something from beside Xena’s cot. When she returned, she laid two leather armbands on the table. “Xena was wearing these on her upper arms. They were hidden by the wrap she wore, and they have the same mark on them as the weapon.”

“What do the letters mean?” Gena asked.

Gabrielle shook her head. “I’m not sure,” she said while rubbing her fingertip over the symbols spelling out PoE that were stamped on a metal medallion attached to each armband.

As Eve scrubbed over her hair with a drying rag, she took one of the bands in her other hand. “She must have collected these things before she came home, and she fought off Daemonicus’s soldiers to do it. What I can’t figure out is why.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “I don’t know yet either, but something is driving our mission to end the darkness. These have something to do with it. I don’t know what plan Ares had in mind when he sacrificed himself, but it would’ve been nice if he had left us instructions instead of giving us these cryptic clues.” After she heard an almost-silent choke next to her, she turned to Aphrodite. “Sorry, Dite. I know you miss him. I guess I’m just a little frustrated. I am grateful he saw fit to return Xena to me.”

But on the inside, Gabrielle could not stop the unsettling feeling that Ares had placed a condition or two on Xena’s return. After all, what was it that the God of War had always wanted? He’d never stopped trying to get Xena to join with him…and he was now dead.

Gabrielle gulped away the bile she could feel churning around in her stomach and went back to sit on a small stool next to Xena’s cot. There was no change to Xena’s condition, and Gabrielle just hoped that she was simply recuperating from a difficult fight and an arduous journey. When Eve and Gena went into the kitchen to clean the thick mud off the weapon, Aphrodite followed, leaving Gabrielle to sit there thinking about what was to come, and to watch Xena’s face for any signs of consciousness.

***

An hour later, Gabrielle’s eyes were drooping as she fought to stay awake. It was barely noon, but having Xena here in the room with her seemed to make a difference to her insomnia. She really wanted to take a nap, but with what had happened already today, she also wanted to stay awake to figure out the next step in their mission. When her head lolled to the side yet again, she stood up abruptly and went to fetch a salve from her pack. Xena’s deepest cuts had dried and sealed themselves now, so Gabrielle wanted to numb the pain for her.

“What’s that?” Eve asked as she walked through the door.

Gabrielle held up the tiny jar in her hand. “This? This is a salve I created during my travels. It cools the sting and numbs the pain on injuries like these,” she explained as she pointed to Xena’s leg.

“What’s in it?”

“Ah. It’s a secret. My secret recipe,” Gabrielle replied with a grin.

It was the first time Eve had seen her display even a slight hint at humor, and she wanted to encompass Gabrielle in a huge hug in celebration, but she didn’t think it would be welcomed just yet so she settled for a smile instead. “So, I’ve put Mother’s weapon in a safe place. Gena and I examined it before she left to check on the horses. I really can’t see how it can harm Daemonicus. Once we cleaned it up, we saw that it has some strange reflective surfaces inside the glass tube. The hilt is made of a heavy alloy covered in gold, but the tip of the glass container is so blunt, it can’t possibly be used to cause harm, especially to a demon.”

Gabrielle pursed her lips as she gently massaged the salve into Xena’s wounds. “It has some kind of power, Eve. I have faith that we’ll figure it out when the time is right. And who knows…maybe Xena already has a clue how to use it. I just wish she would wake up.”

Before Eve could reply, a sudden ruckus followed by screams outside in the street propelled her into action. “It’s them.”

“Them?” Gabrielle was on her feet and reaching for her katana immediately.

“The soldiers of darkness,” Eve said as she ran out the door.

“Damn.” Gabrielle moved over to a window where she could watch over Xena and also see outside. When she noticed at least seven soldiers dressed in black running past, she knew she had to help defeat them. After closing all the shutters and bolting them, she left the room, thinking she could at least take a few of them down while guarding the front door of the house. Nobody was getting near Xena when she couldn’t defend herself.

Outside in the street, Eve had been joined by Gena, and four Amazons came running into the fight from behind the soldiers, almost like they had chased them into Amphipolis.

“Six against seven,” Gabrielle muttered to herself even as she leapt into action. With her katana at the ready, she focused on the two soldiers who were heading for the smallest Amazon in the group. “Let’s even the odds.”

Swords clashed and battle cries filled the air. As Gabrielle engaged the soldier, she saw his eyes, full of blackness and nothing else. She also realized that the battle cries were coming only from the women. These soldiers didn’t make a sound, which was almost as eerie as the look on their faces when a sword ran through them.

Gabrielle jumped back when her first strike had little effect. The angry-looking soldier just came at her again once he had straightened up. She managed to deflect his fast, continuous strikes, but after a few minutes of the same, she was tiring and he wasn’t. It was only when some instructions were yelled at her did she inflict any significant damage.

“Gabrielle! You need to slice him open! Stabbing won’t work!” Gena cried as she ran across the street to help an Amazon in distress.

Gabrielle waited for her chance which came right after her opponent had tried to take a stab at her head. She whipped her katana out to the side, and in the most powerful swipe she could muster, she sliced his stomach completely open. The katana was so sharp that it immediately did the trick. The black lava oozed quickly from the wound, causing the soldier to drop his sword and use his hands to try to keep his insides…on the inside. As he fell to the ground, Gabrielle grimaced and checked behind her in case anyone had managed to get near the house, but it appeared that all seven soldiers had been beaten. She turned again just in time to see Eve partially decapitating the last one, the blackness spilling from his open neck as he collapsed into a large puddle.

When Eve finally approached her, followed by the others, Gabrielle’s grimace deepened. “This stuff is disgusting,” she said as she tried to rub some of the slime off Eve’s shoulder. “So why doesn’t stabbing them work?”

“It does. It just doesn’t work fast enough. When the darkness leaks out of them slowly, they have time before they drop so they can still kill their victims. They need to be sliced open fully so that their strength dwindles almost immediately.”

“Ah,” Gabrielle said while noticing that the four Amazons had their heads bowed. “Thank you for helping us.”

One Amazon nodded, but she still didn’t look up. “Always, Queen Gabrielle. We had tracked them here from the outskirts of town.”

“Oh, I’m not a queen anymore.”

“You will always be a queen to our nation,” the Amazon replied.

“Please, don’t bow,” Gabrielle requested as she tried to catch the leader of the troop’s gaze. “What’s your name?”

“I am Marae. These are my sisters, Phala, Mirasee, and Torrin. We were on perimeter duty tonight.”

“Perimeter duty? You guard Amphipolis?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes. For many reasons, but we are happy to serve Eve. It is mutually beneficial, and she is a sister Amazon as her rite of caste dictates. We know of everything Livia did, and Eve has told us much of her road to redemption and her journey with Eli. The past is the past. We are all on the same side now.”

“It seems we are. Would you like to come join us inside?”

Marae shook her head. “No, but I thank you for the invitation. We must remove the bodies and resume our duties.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Right.” When the four women left, she turned with a sigh to Gena who had stood protectively behind her while she spoke with the Amazons. “I’ll help them if you stay and watch the house.”

“No, Gabrielle. Please stay with Xena, and I’ll help them before I come in. Eve, you should go inside too…get some warm broth ready to heat me up,” Gena teased.

It seemed that Eve and Gena had been friends for a long time, as was evident from the grin on Eve’s face. Fighting the soldiers of Daemonicus had brought them closer together, as well as their common bond over Xena. Gabrielle was heartened to think of Eve having someone to back her up in times of need, and someone to laugh with in moments of relief. Eve had taken on the role of big sister to Gena, an obvious benefit to them both.

Moments later, Gabrielle was in the house standing over Xena as she continued to sleep. When Eve threw a drying rag at her, she caught it easily and removed the worst of the drips from her hair and face.

“Let me take your katana, Gabrielle,” Eve said, her hand reaching out to receive it. When Gabrielle just looked at her with her eyebrow raised, Eve smiled. “I’m going to wash the swords in the kitchen…unless you want to keep the slime?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and handed over the katana. Once Eve had left the room, she sat down next to the cot and removed her boots. They were soaked through, so she put them in front of the fire before returning to Xena’s side. The tiredness hit her again, the heat of the flames doing nothing to help her stay alert.

“It’s exhausting fighting them, isn’t it?” Eve said quietly as she came back from the kitchen.

“Yes. They seem to be relentless.” Gabrielle looked at Eve when she stood with her back to the fire to dry off her clothing. “I thought you were washing the swords?”

“They’re steeping in a cleaning solution. We usually have some time between attacks.”

“Daemonicus isn’t targeting Amphipolis…”

“We don’t think so, Gabrielle. He attacks every village. It’s like his soldiers have us on a rotation. If they had any sense, they would attack one place until they conquered it, and then move on.”

“Let’s hope they don’t think of that, then.” Gabrielle took Xena’s hand into her own. “I wish she would wake up.”

“She will. What I think you need to do, is sleep,” Eve said, smiling when Gabrielle just puffed out a breath of air in response. “I know what you’re afraid of…and if Mother is here with you, maybe the nightmares won’t come.”

“How did you know I have nightmares?”

“If I had been through what you’ve been through, I’d have them too,” was all Eve said before she began to leave the room. “Try to sleep. Gena and I will be here to watch over you both.”

“Thank you, Eve.” Gabrielle looked around her once Eve had gone. This room was like a snug compared to the large living room out front. Gabrielle surmised that Eve used the front room for when the townspeople came for guidance and healing, but this room was more personal, a place where Eve read a scroll of an evening or meditated in the quiet. The walls were rough and stained a dark-red color, the fireplace dominating the space. The cot Xena lay on was in the corner, and a few chairs and stools were strewn around the room and under the table that stood near the door. It was a very simple place, but warm and friendly.

As Gabrielle’s eyes trailed back around toward Xena, she caught sight of something on the mantel that she hadn’t noticed until now. She stood to get a better look, and when it was revealed to be something very familiar to her, she gasped. “Xena’s original chakram? But how…?”

On closer inspection, it appeared that Eve had commissioned a metalworker to construct a replica chakram, perhaps in honor of her mother’s death. With tears threatening to fall, Gabrielle inspected it, running her fingertips around the surface where the same markings and gems made it hard to distinguish it from the original. “Beautifully made,” she whispered to herself as she put it back in place.

When a yawn forced its way out of her mouth, she shuffled back across the floor and unhooked her own chakram as she went. After placing it on the stool she had been sitting on earlier, she repositioned her sais next to it and made sure she could reach them from the cot. She couldn’t fight it anymore. She had to be with Xena whether she had resolved her inner turmoil or not.

Just for a nap, she told herself.

A slight odor still came from Xena’s skin, an odor that could only be attributed to Daemonicus’s slime, but Gabrielle didn’t care at this point. She was still damp with the rain, and some of that very same slime stained her own clothing. And anyway, she really needed to lie down. She scooted onto her side and insinuated herself against Xena. With her right arm wrapped over Xena’s stomach, she tried to relax her muscles and sink into the pillow. Ignoring the smell that disrupted the first iota of bliss she had felt in years, she closed her eyes and surrendered to her exhaustion.

Five minutes later, when the Amazons lit the first fire under the hollow carcasses of the demon soldiers, Gabrielle was asleep.

***

The first thing Xena became aware of when she awoke was her body. She wiggled her fingers against the side of her thigh and realized that her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her. The skin against her fingertips was warm, and she could feel every movement. She really was alive. Her fight with the hordes of evil defenders around the base of Mount Olympus hadn’t been a horrid dream after all. She vaguely remembered running away and being covered in their black blood – or whatever it was – and heading for home.

She had been compelled by something to retrieve the weapon and armbands, for what purpose, she hadn’t known at the time. Now that she was really awake, the information she had somehow acquired became much clearer, but she refused to travel any further down that road just yet. First, she had to figure out where she was.

Did I get home? Am I in Amphipolis? Her mind was still a little fuzzy about where she had ended up, and she figured it was time to try to open her eyes. Just before she did, she felt the heat of a real, living, human body next to her. The body was wrapped around her, an arm over her torso, a leg curled around her leg…and soft hair against her cheek that could only mean one thing.

Gabrielle had found her and she was now lying in her favorite spot.

Xena had to blink away the gritty dryness as her eyes opened to take in the room. The warm glow of the dwindling fire kept the room alight, but Xena could see daylight trying to get in through the heavy drapes, which meant Gabrielle was sleeping during the day.

I must have been so exhausted I slept right through everything, Xena thought to herself. And Gabrielle…she must be exhausted if its daylight and she’s snoring. Snoring?

Her brief, mental smile never reached her features, but if it really was Gabrielle snoring beside her then she might actually be in Elysia. As she carefully turned her head, she spotted the chakram on the mantel, but her glance at it was fleeting as she had much more important things to look at.

Gabrielle’s face was so close that Xena had to crane her neck just to see her. She was still asleep, and as tears trickled down Xena’s cheeks she analyzed the woman she had longed to be near, to touch, and to kiss for so many years. Yes, she had seen Gabrielle during her visitations, but that wasn’t the same as being here with her and seeing her anew with real eyes once more.

Xena couldn’t lift her arm since Gabrielle was lying on it, and the other one was heavy and painful, so she just stared at Gabrielle instead. Xena noticed she really hadn’t aged much at all in ten years, and she was more beautiful than ever to Xena. She did have some tired, gray circles under her eyes, but Xena knew whose fault that was.

What did I do to you? If I could take it all back, I would. More tears fell silently.

Xena didn’t want to speak in case she disturbed Gabrielle’s slumber. As much as she wanted to begin the healing process with her, she was afraid that it wasn’t even possible. Could Gabrielle heal from what had happened? It scared Xena to think that maybe she couldn’t. Gabrielle had been pretty angry at her the last time she had visited. Maybe that would always be the case now.

Xena had so many questions she wanted to ask, but perhaps more importantly, she had so much to say to Gabrielle, so much to explain and apologize for. She hoped she’d get the chance sometime soon, but for now, looking at Gabrielle’s sleeping face was all she could handle.

She had barely finished her analysis of Gabrielle’s delicate eyelashes when a loud thud was heard outside the room they were in. A man’s voice boomed out – a voice she recognized even though it was a tad huskier than it used to be.

“Eve? Eve, are you here?”

Xena frowned. “Eve is here?” she croaked.

“Eve!” the voice bellowed.

The door suddenly swung open and in burst a very anxious Autolycus. “Xena?”

Xena hadn’t even opened her mouth to respond when Gabrielle’s instincts kicked in. She launched herself off the cot and up onto her feet. Her sais were in her hands before Autolycus could blink.

Gabrielle shook herself awake. She couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw who had spurred her into action. “Autolycus…”

“Gabrielle,” he gasped as they closed the distance to hug one another.

Eve came running through the door. “What’s wrong, Autolycus?”

“Oh!” He jumped when he heard her behind him. “Eve…the soldiers. I think our secret’s out. They’re coming for her.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “Xena?”

“No. Aphrodite. She’s the last of the gods. His elite guards are leading an entire army of demon soldiers just over the northern ridge. I’ve never seen so many at once, and they’re headed this way.”

Gabrielle wanted to know what he meant by elite guards, but at that moment Gena came into the room and gasped out loud, making all heads turn to see what she was looking at.

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped a little when she saw Xena’s cobalt eyes watching her. “Xena,” she breathed out. She rushed over to the cot and grabbed Xena’s hand, but Autolycus’s voice broke into the moment.

“We need to move, people! We have to evacuate the town.”

Eve was still staring at Xena, but after she ran over to the cot to hug and kiss her, she backed up what Autolycus had said. “There’ll be time for much-needed reunions later. I can’t believe we have all this going on when you’ve only just returned to us, Mother, but he’s right. We need to move.”

Xena, still grasping tightly to Gabrielle’s hand, spoke up finally. “I know that, Eve.” She suddenly looked frantically around her. “Where’s the Magnador?”

“The what?” Eve asked.

“The thing I had with me…”

“Oh, it’s safe. We have it here…and those bands you were wearing.”

Xena let out a long breath through puffed-out cheeks. “Good. Now, I need to know how long I was out.”

“Two days,” Gabrielle said quietly. “You’ve been here almost two days.”

“Damn it.” Xena shook her head. “All right. We don’t have much time. I was dumped at Mount Olympus, and I was running almost constantly for two days after that. That’s four days down.” With Gabrielle’s help, she stood from the cot. “Autolycus, it’s great to see you, but I need you to coordinate the evacuation. I assume we’re in Amphipolis, so please get the townspeople to safety. There’s a place in the next valley south of here, plenty of places to hide.”

“Consider it done, Xena,” Autolycus said with a tilt of his head. “I’ll take the Amazons with me.”

Xena gave him a nod, although she didn’t know what Amazons he was talking about. “Eve, please find me something to wear, and you…who are you?”

“My name is Xena, but please call me Gena for now.”

Xena’s eyebrow curled slightly. “All right. Good to meet you, Gena. Can you get the Magnador and the bands, and bring them to me?”

“Of course.”

Everyone vacated the room to focus on the tasks at hand. There was no time to dwell on emotions. It was imperative they win this fight, and they all knew it. Only when it was over would there be time to catch up…if they succeeded. They had a few days of travel ahead of them, and now it seemed they might have an army on their tail.

Xena was somehow aware that Aphrodite had to come with them. She knew she was part of the plan, but not entirely sure how she could be of any help. “Gabrielle,” Xena said, her voice barely a peep.

“I know. You want us to talk, but there’s no time right now.” Gabrielle sighed, still not letting go of Xena’s hand. “I need that too, Xena. I just can’t deal with everything at once.”

“I know. Let’s get this done. I have this feeling we need to cover long distances?”

“From what I’ve pieced together so far, we need to go to Mount Olympus,” Gabrielle said sympathetically.

“I just came from there.” Xena let out a long sigh. “This is going to be tough…but we can rest every second night. I’m so sorry about this.”

Gabrielle didn’t reply since Eve had returned with some undergarments and boots for Xena to wear. When Gabrielle saw that there was no protective clothing that was suitable or that would fit Xena, she left the room to find her larger saddlebag.

Xena watched her go with sadness and longing filling her soul. It was heartbreaking to see Gabrielle’s quiet suffering, and it was torture for Xena to know it was she who had caused it.

“Mother, are you sure you’re up to this?” Eve asked as she placed the clothing on the cot.

“Yes. I have to be. I need to fight this one last time. Maybe then, we can live in peace for a while.”

“Maybe…” Gabrielle said from behind Eve. “I saved these,” she added, holding out her hands.

“My leathers?” Xena said with disbelief. “How did you…?”

“I dug them up…” Gabrielle stumbled and didn’t finish the sentence. “I have many skills, Xena. Your armor is there too.” She stepped back once she had deposited the items next to the clothing.

“I-I guess I’d better get dressed.”

Eve nodded. “We’ll give you some privacy.”

“Gabrielle can stay,” Xena said quickly.

But Gabrielle was retreating with Eve. “I have things to do before we leave. I won’t be long,” she said, sending Xena a strained smile to appease her.

“Guess I deserve to beg a little,” Xena said to herself once they were gone. She was misreading Gabrielle’s distant behavior somewhat, but as she pulled on her old battle dress she remembered Gabrielle’s hand continually holding hers after she woke, the looks she gave her that were hard to disguise, and the gentle, rhythmic massage of Gabrielle’s thumb on her palm. She had thought it was affection, and maybe it was, but it could also have been due to painful memories and torrid apprehension combined. Xena wondered if Gabrielle might be teetering on the brink of a breakdown. Nah, she’s stronger than I always gave her credit for. I need to remember how much I didn’t see before, she thought, recalling all the times she underestimated Gabrielle in the past. With a shake of her head, she brushed it off since she was always the one telling everyone that focus was required before a battle, and she chastised herself for being grumpy and distracted already. “I only just got here and I’m being an idiot,” she muttered as she struggled to attach the simple clasp of her armor.

“I’m not sure what you were talking to yourself about,” Gabrielle said, startling Xena since she had managed to sneak up on her. “But you’re not an idiot. Here, let me help you with that.”

When Gabrielle came to stand in front of her to fasten the clasp, Xena just gulped and gazed silently at her. She wanted to surround Gabrielle with her body and soul, to show her how much she loved her and how sorry she was for everything.

“Stop that,” Gabrielle said without looking up.

“I didn’t do anything,” Xena replied with a mild pout.

“You’re gazing at me. You can’t do that until we’ve talked things through, and we can’t talk things through until we’ve dealt with Daemonicus.”

When Gabrielle finished with the armor, Xena sighed. “Thanks. I guess my fingers aren’t quite up to speed yet. What did you put on my cuts anyway?”

“How do you know it was me who treated you?”

“I doubt you’d let anyone else do it.”

Gabrielle turned away since Xena was right and she had almost smirked at that. “It’s a salve I created. I used it many times in battle. It cools the sting and numbs the pain.”

Xena got the sense that Gabrielle had used it, not just many times, but about a million times in battle. She wanted to know everything Gabrielle had been through, all the things she had experienced and every sight she had ever seen. Xena had tried to follow her to a certain extent over the years, but her visits were rare. Wherever she had ended up had been difficult to leave. It had all been so confusing, and there was so much of Gabrielle’s life she had missed.

“Mother,” Eve said when she popped her head in the door. “A woman called Colarra has arrived. It’s funny. Gena talked about her the other day. I suppose, being an oracle, she would know that. Anyway, she’s asking to see you.”

“Me?” Xena said with a frown.

“Yes. She says she must talk with you.”

“All right. Send her in,” Xena said, offering Gabrielle a seat next to her on the cot.

When Colarra entered, she focused immediately on Xena. “My child,” the old woman said as she sat opposite them. “You have traveled far…as have you, Gabrielle. My name is Colarra, and I see your next journey will be a difficult one.”

“What do you know of my journey?” Xena asked as she watched Colarra carefully.

“I know that you have been sent to defeat the darkness. You have been given the gift of the Magnador.”

“And…?”

“Do not be impatient, my child.”

“I don’t have time to sit here right now,” Xena said, her eyes narrowing as Colarra held up her hand.

“I know that. You must take your daughter with you. You must also take young Xena. She is part of the key.”

Now Gabrielle was getting annoyed. “I already know of all this, Colarra. Do you have anything useful to tell us?”

“Just make sure you protect the Magnador. If it breaks, you will fail.”

“That’s great,” Xena said sarcastically.

“Remember Illusia,” Colarra warned.

“Wh-what do you know of Illusia?” Gabrielle stammered.

“Remember the black eyes of your counterparts. Hatred can only be overcome by love. You realized it then, and you’ll realize it now. Daemonicus is filled with hatred and evil. Love is the way.”

“OK,” Xena conceded. “Can you tell us how we’re supposed to use the Magnador?”

Colarra shook her head. “You will know when the time comes. Not every battle is fought with a blade. Trust in yourself.” She got up to leave, but before she disappeared she turned back to Xena. “I had to see you with my own eyes. You’ve come back complete, Xena. You have taken back your darkness. That is all I needed to know.”

Xena and Gabrielle sat there beside one another with identical puzzled looks on their faces. A few moments later, Gabrielle frowned and sighed.

“She wasn’t a very good oracle, was she?”

“Not really. I just wonder if she thought I had returned as pure evil…or maybe without my fight. Or maybe she’s trying to tell us something about the battle we’re about to face.”

“What do you mean?”

Xena took Gabrielle’s hand, hoping that it wouldn’t be withdrawn. When Gabrielle accepted the gesture, Xena spoke. “Marcus once told me that love is the strongest power in the universe. It’s stronger than evil…it’s even stronger than death. He said those exact words to me, and I think he was right. Maybe we’re coming at this battle from the wrong direction. Yes, we’ll have to fight off the soldiers, but when it comes to Daemonicus it won’t be a battle at all…not the way we usually think of it, anyway. We do need Aphrodite, but I don’t think she has to fight either. What if we need to use her to overpower him?”

“That’s sounds a little sadistic, Xena. How do you mean, use her? We can’t just stand her in front of him and hope for the best.”

“I agree, but remember what Aphrodite said to you…that Ares couldn’t beat Daemonicus. They fought one another to a standstill, again and again. Ares only knew love as selfish, cruel, and conditional, and he would never understand how to stop fighting.” Xena rubbed her temples at the memory of Ares only ever loving her, but she was right. It was cruel and selfish, and he had wanted her to join him as his partner in crime, making it conditional. That wasn’t love.

“How do you know what Aphrodite said to me? How do you know all this?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe that’s the point. I’ve been returned with the knowledge we need to win.”

Gabrielle was a little skeptical once more. “If that’s true, then we may have Ares to thank. Don’t forget, he died to bring you back, Xena.”

“I know that, but ultimately, he still did it for another purpose…to win a fight.”

Gabrielle couldn’t argue that point. “OK. So you’re saying that the reason we can defeat Daemonicus is because the love we have is selfless, pure, and unconditional?”

“Right,” Xena said, hoping that Gabrielle wouldn’t say her love had changed.

“Will that be enough?” Gabrielle asked with a worried frown on her face, and her eyes looking anywhere but at Xena.

At least she didn’t deny it was true, Xena thought. “I don’t know.”

Their conversation was interrupted by Gena who rushed through the door with the Magnador in her hand.

“Here. The bands are there too. We’re ready when you are. We have three horses saddled up. We can ride most of the way, until it gets too rugged.”

Xena took the items from her. “Thanks, Gena. Any sign of those soldiers yet?”

“No, but we should leave now. We’re pretty much the last to go.”

“We’ll be right out,” Xena said with a nod.

Once they were alone again, Gabrielle stood to gather her weapons and pull on her boots, hoping they had dried out a little. When she turned back to Xena, she saw something she never thought she would see again. Her soulmate stood tall with her familiar battle dress covering her body and her armor in place, just the way it used to be. The only things missing were her chakram and sword.

“Here,” Gabrielle said, unclipping the yin-yang chakram from her belt. “You should have it back.”

“I think that’s yours now, Gabrielle.”

“No. I have my sais and my katana. You should have your chakram. Your sword is in my room upstairs. We can get it on the way out.”

Xena took the chakram in her hand, gripping it lightly at first to feel its weight and form. It was as if she had used it only yesterday, but just in case she was a little rusty she threw it toward the window frame where it pinged off the wood then bounced off the mantel, coming back to rest in her hand without making a sound.

“See? You should have it,” Gabrielle said resolutely.

“Perhaps, but you should take that one,” Xena suggested, pointing to the one on the mantel. “I have this really strange feeling we’re going to need it.”

“But I don’t think that one is real. Isn’t it just a prop?”

“It looks exactly like my old one in every sense. Why don’t you try it out?”

Gabrielle looked at her, raising one eyebrow in what Xena thought was a mighty good impression of her. When Xena nodded and flicked her hand toward the mantel, Gabrielle walked over and took Eve’s replica into her grasp.

“Maybe you should hide,” Gabrielle suggested, her voice so close to teasing that for a second it felt like old times again.

“Nah. I trust you,” Xena replied as she sat down to tighten her boots. The words were barely out of her mouth when the chakram came whizzing past her head, ricocheted off a lantern on the wall, kissed the table across the room, and landed back in Gabrielle’s hand with a shloop sound that made Xena grin. “I guess it works.”

“I guess so,” Gabrielle muttered as she clipped it onto her belt. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be…” Xena smiled as she bowed to let Gabrielle leave the room first. All it did was make Gabrielle slightly uncomfortable, and maybe a little shy as she averted her gaze and walked out the door.

Once they had collected Xena’s sword and scabbard from upstairs, they met Eve in the front room. There was no sign of Aphrodite. In fact, Xena had yet to lay eyes on her.

“Where’s our goddess?” she asked Eve.

“She’s under heavy disguise outside on one of the horses. She’ll be riding with me. That leaves two horses for you guys.”

Xena was glad of that. It meant she could hopefully ride with Gabrielle. “May I hitch a ride with you?”

Gabrielle scratched through her short hair, making sure her nails scraped her scalp, more to keep her alert than anything else. “Yes.” She moved closer to Xena. “I’m not letting you out of my sight,” she added in a whisper.

Xena caught her eye for a few seconds and realized how much panic Gabrielle was holding deep inside. “That’s fine with me. Let’s go.”

As they mounted, the rain stopped, and when Gabrielle positioned herself behind Xena, she slipped her arms around her waist. It was such an old and familiar move that Xena felt a wave of pain sweeping through her soul. She felt the tears rising and pretended to have something stuck in her eye until the urge to cry had passed. When she was sure things were under control, she covered Gabrielle’s hand with her own before turning to look at Aphrodite who was hidden under a dark-brown, hooded cape.

“You ready for this?”

Aphrodite glanced up at her. “It’s good to see you awake, Xena, but I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for this.”

“Why?”

“Just a feeling.”

Xena nodded. She had been experiencing the same daunting feelings. “We’ll be fine. We’ll make it work.”

“I hope so,” Aphrodite said as she grabbed around Eve’s waist.

With strained looks on each face at the dangerous task that lay ahead, the group set off for Mount Olympus just as the last of the townspeople left with an Amazon team who would lead them to safety. If Daemonicus’s soldiers did come to Amphipolis looking for the last of the gods, there would be nobody here to kill. Since that’s all they were out to do, Xena hoped that the buildings would still be standing when she returned.

And I will return, she said to herself defiantly. With a nudge to her powerful horse’s ribs, they set off. She knew they would ride non-stop now until the horses needed to rest, and going by the muscle, bulk, and spirit of their steeds, they wouldn’t be stopping until tomorrow night.

Chapter 3

As they rode across the hillside toward the Amazon forest, Gabrielle had her wits about her, ever alert to any potential attackers, but her attention would occasionally shift to Xena’s hair, her back, and her breaths as her ribs expanded and contracted in Gabrielle’s arms.

Gabrielle was feeling disconnected from reality. She had been so alone for so long, and having Xena back in the exact same condition she had left her that day in Jappa, was more than a little surreal. As she sat there behind her, she tried to convince herself that it was all real and that it would all be OK once this fight was over, but her optimistic inner voice wasn’t fooling anyone. Something was weighing heavily on Gabrielle, like there was going to be some huge price to pay for this chance to be with Xena again. That was the reason she could not give in to her desire – the desire to surrender to everything and fall into Xena’s arms professing her undying love and forgiveness.

Xena’s eyes scanned the horizon ahead and the edge of the Amazon forest to their right. The trees were tall and densely packed, but she knew there would be no attack from Daemonicus’s soldiers hiding in the woods. For one thing, the Amazons would guard their territory fiercely, and for another, she felt no sense of danger. Not yet, anyway.

What she did feel was Gabrielle’s fingers tentatively trailing through the hair that hung down her back. She closed her eyes briefly at the memory of that touch many years ago, but she daren’t react to it now for fear of Gabrielle becoming uncomfortable like she did earlier. For now, she would simply enjoy the closeness and let Gabrielle come to terms with things at her own pace.

On her way home after retrieving the Magnador, Xena had thought it might be different when they were reunited. Gabrielle would fall into her arms and tell her how much she had missed her, and they would live happily ever after in a little house of their choosing. Everything would be explained by Xena and forgiven by Gabrielle. She had known it wouldn’t really be that simplistic, but she had wished it.

No, Xena had much more to do to convince Gabrielle that she would never leave her again. She had said it too many times in the past, and yet she had also left her many times, breaking her promise over and over. For some insane reason, Najara popped into Xena’s head. She had left Gabrielle then too, without even asking her if she had wanted to stay with the mad woman of the light.

How ironic, Xena thought. Here we are on our way to destroy the darkness, and that’s exactly what Najara thought she was doing before she was captured. OK, maybe this is just a little bit different, but ironic, nonetheless.

Xena shook her head at her train of thought before she realized that the shaking might disturb Gabrielle’s impromptu grooming session. Thankfully, it didn’t, and Xena indulged in a small grin to herself because for now, Gabrielle seemed somewhat relaxed.

As with everything else in their lives – and deaths – nothing was relaxed for very long. Both Xena and Gabrielle heard it, Gena saw it, and Eve felt it. Aphrodite kept her head down, but her eyes were focused on the trees. Someone or something was moving through the forest at a faster pace than them. Gabrielle had the replica chakram in her hand, ready to throw it as Xena tried to calm the spirited mare they were riding. But Eve, who was leading the troop, held her hand high in a halt signal since the feeling she was having was not of danger. As they all watched the dark spaces between the trees, an Amazon troop appeared and moved to circle them. Only one Amazon rode a horse, and she arrived last guarded by two more warriors. Gabrielle immediately recognized Marae who stepped forward to allay their fears.

“Hello again, Queen Gabrielle.”

“Marae, please don’t call me that anymore, OK?” Gabrielle said, leaning out to the side to see around Xena’s torso.

“Apologies…Gabrielle. Hard habit to break. We have come to wish you well on your journey.”

“That’s very good of you.”

Eve eyed the young Amazon. “That’s not the usual procedure, Marae.”

“It is not, Eve, but our queen wanted to see you all before you left.”

Everyone looked at the woman on the horse. She wore a mask above her beautiful, beaded, leather and fur outfit. When the mask was lifted, Gabrielle’s eyes widened perceptibly, and Xena’s jaw dropped a little.

“Varia,” Gabrielle said as she began to dismount.

Varia held up her hand. “No, Gabrielle. Please don’t get off your horse. I know you have limited time to travel and much ahead of you. I just had to see this with my own eyes.” She shifted her gaze to Xena. “You have returned. I had heard of Ares’ death, but I didn’t think it could work. Welcome back, Xena.”

While Aphrodite kept her face hidden hoping to avoid any conversation, Xena dipped her head in a small nod as Varia moved her horse to flank theirs, nose-to-tail. When she offered her arm in a warrior’s handshake, Xena took it in a firm grip.

“You have ruled long and well, Queen Varia.” Her almost playful emphasis on ‘queen’ was not missed by the Amazon.

“I do try. There was this warrior a long time ago who gave me some good advice.” With a small grin, Varia nudged her horse forward a step to make sure she was right next to Gabrielle. “I can’t believe you’re home. The Amazons have missed you all these years,” she said as she leaned in for a hug that was courteously returned.

Xena couldn’t help but feel a pang of hurt and maybe a slight thread of jealousy at the fact that Gabrielle hadn’t greeted her like that. Of course, Varia hadn’t done to Gabrielle what Xena had done.

“I have missed the Amazons too, Varia.”

When the hug was over, Varia shifted in her saddle and grimaced. “I’m not as young as I used to be, unlike you two. You seem to have traversed time and space to get here. I just fought my way through it.”

Gabrielle smiled at her, but it was full of melancholy. “You look well, and you’re not old, Varia. I really would like to catch up, but we have to go. We’ll see you when we get back.”

Xena was quick to agree since she assumed Gabrielle’s ‘we’ meant them both. “We’ll be back as soon as it’s done.”

“You had better be,” Varia said specifically to Xena like she knew Xena’s secret. She kept Gabrielle’s hand in hers but nodded at Xena in a show of support. “Go now. Go with the strength of the Amazons behind you. I know this is your battle. You have all been chosen. We’ll do our best to protect the people of Amphipolis.”

“I’m grateful to you,” Xena said seriously.

“Bye, Varia,” Gabrielle added.

Gena just waved, having seen Varia and her crew many times over the years, but Eve gave Varia a warm smile that was missed by the others. She would tell her mother about that later.

When they had resumed their journey, Eve left her position guarding the rear to speak to Xena and Gabrielle. “I’m sorry I hadn’t mentioned Varia to you. Even given our past, she has become an important part of my life. She asks me for advice and recognizes my position in the Amazon nation. It seems we all converged here after you were both gone. Autolycus, me, Varia, the Amazons…we all came here.”

Gabrielle leaned her cheek on the back of Xena’s shoulder without even thinking about it. “It’s truly OK, Eve. We haven’t exactly had time to just sit and chat since I came back. I look forward to hearing all your news after this is over.”

“I’ll be glad to share it with you,” Eve said before she pulled her horse back into line. “Hey, Aphrodite,” she added while glancing over her shoulder. “You’re very quiet.”

“I’m just not feeling good right now. I feel like I’m about to fall off a cliff and drown.”

“I promise we’ll take care of you.”

“I hope so. I think I’m getting weaker.”

***

After six hours, the journey was progressing steadily and without incident. They were making good time, and the horses had only required a brief stop for a drink.

As they left the edge of the Amazon forest, the rugged terrain took them higher across the lands that Xena used to know so well. She watched now as the heavy thunder clouds that followed them turned an even murkier shade of gray. They rumbled across the skies, threatening to saturate the team of travelers with rain, but not a drop had fallen yet. Xena remembered the days when she and Gabrielle would stroll side by side under the warm rays of the sun. She wondered if she would ever see the sun again. In fact, she wondered if she would ever take a relaxing stroll with Gabrielle again.

Gabrielle tapped Xena on the shoulder. “Are you wondering the same thing I am?”

I doubt it, Xena thought sadly before her eyebrow rose a little. “Which is…?”

“That its approaching nightfall and we haven’t seen more than a small group of villagers on the run. Where are Daemonicus’s men?”

When a low thudding sound gradually climbed to a steady stampede, Xena almost rolled her eyes. She shook her head as ten soldiers dressed in black came running across the peak of a nearby hill. “There they are,” she deadpanned.

Gabrielle swiftly dismounted. The soldiers were blocking their path, so Xena rode quickly over to Eve’s horse and handed the mare’s reins to Aphrodite. Eve was already on the ground with her sword in hand, and by the time Xena and Gena had joined them to make a barrier between the soldiers and the goddess, there was only a short distance between both sides. The clash of swords was soon all around them as the silent fighters tried to carry out their most important mission: to kill the mortals and capture the last remaining deity. But these soldiers were no match for the four warrior women. Gabrielle’s katana took three of them out in one swipe, slicing their bellies open with ease. As they dropped to their hands and knees, she went on a rampage against two more, and with her katana flying high in a figure of eight, she took off their arms before their blades had a chance to come near her. With five down, the remaining five were killed by the others without delay, and once the ground was covered in the black, oozing puss they were filled with, Xena stood speechless at what Gabrielle had done. When she had been in limbo, she had only come to Gabrielle in her quiet moments of contemplation. She hadn’t seen anything like this before.

Gabrielle noticed her condition now, and came rushing toward her with a worried expression on her face. “Xena, are you hurt? Where did he get you?”

Xena snapped out of her little stupor when Gabrielle started checking her arms and torso for injuries. “I’m fine, Gabrielle. I just…I’ve never seen you fight like that, not even when…”

Gabrielle flicked her head to crack the tense bones in her neck. “I guess you didn’t. You only came to me when it was quiet and I was thinking about…things. Why was that?”

“I think it was part of my punishment, part of my torture. To see you when you were suffering the most was more painful than anything else.”

Gabrielle’s face was expressionless. Anything else? I think I’ve got you beat, Xena, she said to herself. She really wished she could stop feeling so hurtful, but she wasn’t sure how to purge her devastating memories just yet. “We should keep moving. I don’t want to be on these rocky paths when it gets dark.”

Xena nodded somberly. “Agreed.” As they moved away from the defeated soldiers who were now just bubbling piles of dark lava on the ground, she turned to Gena. “What happens to them when they’re killed?”

“It’s said that Daemonicus absorbs them again. He just uses their energy and the darkness inside them to create new soldiers,” Gena answered with a grimace.

“How does he do that?”

“I have no idea.” Gena had always wondered if it was some sort of magic or trickery. How could Daemonicus take back his fallen soldiers from great distances away? Was he some sort of god after all?

***

Night had arrived, and as the group of intrepid warriors came upon a hilltop shelter, Gena dismounted her beautiful tan and white mare. The others stopped to watch her as she examined underneath her horse’s hoof, before releasing the foot with a “Damn it.”

“Is she lame?” Eve asked worriedly.

“Yes. She started limping a few minutes ago. There’s nothing trapped in her shoe, so I’m not sure what’s wrong.”

Xena nudged her horse forward while doing a mental calculation of how much time they had…she had. “We can rest here for a bit. If she’s not sound in a few hours, we’ll deal with it then.”

“Do we have time for that?” Gabrielle asked from behind Xena.

“Yes. Let’s make a fire and replenish ourselves a little.”

While Gena picked the dirt from her horse’s feet and rubbed a cooling balm on its legs, Gabrielle set about collecting firewood. Eve unpacked some food they had brought, and Aphrodite used some of her dwindling power to light the damp wood pile after Gabrielle had arranged it inside a circle made of the stones Xena had collected.

“The shelter’s useless. It’s falling down and the roof’s full of holes. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain until after we eat something,” Xena said as she rearranged a couple of the stones.

Gabrielle nodded but didn’t look at Xena as she heated her hands near the flames. “We’re not stopping for long anyway. Can’t afford to waste any time, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem to be running out of time, Xena. Four days down, you said back at the house. You just expect me not to notice these things, but I do.”

“I didn’t realize I had said that.”

Gabrielle just gave a sarcastic smile, and Xena was getting more and more worried about the cold look on her soulmate’s face and the sharp edge to her voice. Either Gabrielle just wasn’t prepared to ever forgive her, or she was so very close to losing it completely. No matter what was about to happen, Xena was the cause of Gabrielle’s troubled heart, and she realized she might have to instigate an argument to get any sort of emotional reaction out of Gabrielle. If they went into this battle carrying this sort of tension, they would lose. They were supposed to be fighting evil with love. Did Gabrielle still love her?

“Gabrielle, we’re going to fight the ultimate darkness. Daemonicus is pure evil, and we’re supposed to kill that evil with love. If we go in there with you feeling rage or hatred toward me, we will lose. That’s a certainty. I’ll grovel and apologize to you for the rest of my life…” Xena almost choked since she wasn’t sure how long that would be. “If that will help you to forgive me, but there needs to be love here, otherwise what’s the point in trying?”

When Gena, Eve, and Aphrodite heard her words, they sensed an impending confrontation and backed away from the fire a little. Gabrielle’s teeth were grinding together, her cheeks rippling with the movement of her jaw. Her eyebrows were set in a deep frown and her normally calm, green eyes were burning like the flames that reflected in them. Gena wondered if it was the rage that came with Ares being dead, but Gabrielle was the one out of all of them who could control that type of anger the most, so she figured it must be something else.

“Do you expect me to just change how I have felt for the past ten years, in two days, Xena?” Gabrielle said a little too calmly.

“No. I don’t expect it to be quite so easy-”

“Easy?!”

Xena’s mild and deliberate antagonism had worked as the calmness in Gabrielle’s voice disappeared.

“Let me try to explain something to you,” Gabrielle said, letting the hardness in her tone shine through.

Xena knew this wasn’t going to be pleasant, but she had to hear it nevertheless. “All right.”

“Close your eyes, Xena.” When Xena had reluctantly done what she was told, Gabrielle began her chilling story in a quiet and eerie voice. “Imagine, if you can, that I had taken you on a trip to Jappa to right a wrong from my past. And imagine when we get there, that I had left you without telling you what I planned to do. Imagine I had gone off to let myself be killed. You get no say in it, even though you’re my soulmate and I always told you I would never leave you. Imagine that after my death, my spirit had asked you to go find my body and burn it, because bringing the ashes to Mount Fuji’s fountain was the only way to bring me back after I had righted that wrong. And now…imagine finding that body, the body of the woman you love more than life itself, hanging in a village square…naked, bloody, battered, and headless.”

Xena’s tears were filling the space behind her eyelids. “I get it, Gabrielle. That’s enough.”

“No. You don’t get it, and you will listen.” When Gabrielle saw the other three attempting to leave, she stopped them. “You need to hear this too. If you know what I’ve been through, you might understand the change in me better.” She gathered her courage to retell the story of the day Xena died. “Imagine having to risk your life in a fight to be able to retrieve my body, then having to cut it down. Imagine being sick to your stomach as the corpse slides through your arms and falls to the ground because you can’t keep holding it after seeing where my head once was. You wrap it up and demand to be given my head. That in itself is a sight that will make you want to die inside. Once you’ve wrapped it up with my body, take it with you to build a funeral pyre. Then burn me and wait until my ashes cool. Crawl around on your hands and knees to collect up every tiny piece of ash you can find.  Take my ashes in an urn on your trek to the top of Mount Fuji. But when you get there, you have another battle to fight, this time with Yodoshi. Imagine my ghostly spirit is weakened by my fight with him, and you panic as you have little time to get past Yodoshi before I am truly gone. You risk your life again to fight him.”

By this point, everyone but Gabrielle had their eyes closed. Gabrielle couldn’t. She just stared at Xena’s face as she continued.

“You do fight him, and you do replenish my spirit with some of the water from the fountain, but during the fight the urn has fallen off the side of the cliff, so you risk your life again to get it back. And when you finally make it to the fountain after all of that, my spirit stops you from bringing me to life. You will never see me alive again, never touch me again, never laugh with me again. Now carry that story with you every single moment for ten years. See it in your nightmares every time you fail in your mission to stay awake, and feel it run through your soul in your solitary moments of painful contemplation. It will never, ever be easy.”

When Xena opened her eyes, her tears flowed freely and she when she tried to speak, it came out as only a whimper. She swallowed the cries that she wished she could scream out loud until she felt she could say something quietly. “I can’t ever be redeemed for this, can I?”

“This isn’t about you, Xena,” Gabrielle responded just as quietly. “This is about me.”

“It’s about me too, Gabrielle. You and I…it’s my fault. Will you ever be able to forgive me?”

“I’m working on it.”

Eve wiped away her tears and moved to Gabrielle’s side. As her arm went around Gabrielle’s shoulder, she said, “None of us can know how this feels for you, Gabrielle. All I know is that you are someone I love dearly…unconditionally. More than anything right now, we need to feel love.”

Gabrielle stared into the flames of the fire. “I do feel love. I love her so much it hurts…and I love you. I just don’t know how to vent this anger.”

Hearing Gabrielle say she still loved her, gave Xena the confidence to offer a possible explanation. “Gabrielle…” She waited for Gabrielle to look at her before she went on. “I promise you I’ll do anything to help you overcome what I’ve done to you. Maybe…maybe once we’ve killed Daemonicus, the effects of Ares’ death will somehow be released, and you’ll be able to vent that anger because it won’t seem so powerful, so overwhelming. You can vent it on me, if that’s what you need.”

Gabrielle just looked at her for a few achingly-long moments. She looked at her long, dark hair. She looked at those familiar and hypnotic eyes, and she looked at the dampened cheeks that continued to be soaked with Xena’s tears. Somehow, Gabrielle felt a little lighter, like telling these people – especially Xena – about what she had gone through, had lifted her burden somewhat.

“Maybe,” she said quietly with a nod to Xena.

Xena’s lips were trembling as she tried to stop herself from bawling like a baby. She saw a glimmer of hope in Gabrielle’s face in that moment. They might be able to work through the nightmare she had put her beloved through, and that was all Xena wanted to focus on…after they had killed Daemonicus.

Gena had suddenly gotten up to check on her horse again, but Xena knew she was wiping away her tears in private before anyone could see them. She knew this because Gena was a budding warrior, and it was what she used to do when she wanted to seem impervious to everything.

Throughout Gabrielle’s story, Aphrodite had sat quietly with her head low, but she looked up at Gabrielle now to see her staring at a stick as she poked it into the fire. Xena was lost in her thoughts while she stared at Gabrielle, and Eve still had her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder.

“There is so much love here. That’s why it hurts this much,” Aphrodite said looking around at them all. “Gabby, you even feel love for Gena because she’s been so considerate and supportive since you arrived. Eve loves Gena because they’ve known each other for years and they’ve been through a lot together. They’re practically sisters. The love between you three is obvious,” she added, pointing between Xena, Gabrielle, and Eve. “And of course, I’m the goddess of love so what else would I want to feel?”

“What’s your point, Aphrodite?” Eve asked with a subtle hint of humor.

“Well, duh. Love, of course!”

Eve grinned at her before she heard a snort from Gabrielle beside her. “At least someone thought my teasing was funny.”

Gabrielle smiled, and Xena caught a glimpse of it before it faded again. She wanted to see that smile every day for eternity.

“M’lila’s still lame,” Gena said as she rejoined the group. “She can’t continue with us, so I guess I’m walking from now on.”

“M’lila?” Xena said as she stood and walked over to the horse.

“Yes. I named her after your friend.”

Xena patted the horse’s rump gently. “Yes, she was. It’s a good name.” She lifted M’lila’s back foot and pressed hard around the area just inside the shoe. When M’lila flinched, Xena nodded to herself. “It’s her shoe. It must have slipped and given her a bruised sole. We can take the shoe off, but we can’t put a new one on. She’ll need to stay behind.”

“I’ll send her home,” Gena said as she removed the saddle and hid it in a nearby bush.

“Will she be OK on her own?”

“Yes. She’ll make her way back to Argo easily.”

“Wha…? Argo?” Xena said, her face contorting in her confusion.

“Mother,” Eve said as she got up to repack her saddlebag. “Argo the second is still with us. She’s back in Amphipolis. I didn’t bring her on this trip because she’s a lot older now, and anyway, she won’t let anyone ride her.”

Xena looked between the four women before she started pacing around the fire. “She’s at home too. You all ended up in Amphipolis.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle said. “I don’t think there’s any great mystery here. They all returned when they heard of your…your death. It seems I’m the only one who didn’t come back.”

“You’re here now. That’s all that matters.” Without even batting an eyelid, Xena had lifted her chakram, thrown it, and taken out two soldiers who had been sneaking up on them for the past minute or so. “We need to get moving,” she said as the chakram returned swiftly to her hand.

Nobody questioned it, and it wasn’t long before they were setting M’lila free and heading once again for Mount Olympus. Gena traveled on foot for miles until Eve swapped places with her while ordering Xena and Gabrielle to stay together on horseback since they were older and everything. It seemed Eve was trying pretty hard to get a rise out of them, and this time it worked. Xena and Gabrielle snorted in-sync before glancing at one another over Xena’s shoulder. It was tough to see the look in each other’s eyes in the dark, but somehow Xena knew that Gabrielle had turned a corner after she had told them the story of Jappa.

When Gabrielle squeezed her midriff gently, Xena covered her forearm with her own as their horse carried them closer to their dark destination.

***

The next day brought a few more attacks by Daemonicus’s army, but it wasn’t until moments before the last one that something new appeared. Xena and Gabrielle rode behind Eve and Aphrodite while Gena scouted ahead on foot. When both horses simultaneously freaked out, Xena scanned the area for trouble, but nothing was evident until four figures appeared directly in front of them, completely out of nowhere.

Xena tilted her head a little as she frowned. “Gabrielle,” she whispered. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“If you’re asking if I’m seeing Joxer, Ephiny, Amarice, and your mother, then yes, I’m seeing that.”

“Oh,” Xena said as if they were both crazy. “Good.”

“Grandmother?” Eve whispered.

It was only after she was addressed that Cyrene spoke to them “They’re following you. You must take care. I know it will be hard for you…especially you, Gabrielle…but you must behead them. It takes them much longer to reunite with Daemonicus that way.”

Before Gabrielle or anyone else could respond, the apparitions disappeared and eight soldiers stealthily approached from behind. Xena performed a triple, backward somersault off the horse and was mighty impressed when Gabrielle did exactly the same, coming to land just a fraction to her right. They immediately moved into their defensive position, back to back, and with Xena’s battle-cry ringing in everyone’s ears, they both attacked. Gena was quick to return to the fray, and Eve was slicing and dicing in a matter of seconds.

Cyrene’s words were echoing in Gabrielle’s ears, so she twirled out of the circle of her opponent’s sword and whipped her katana high at shoulder level. His head was taken clean off by the ultra-sharp blade, and it bounced across the dirt and into a nearby crevice, leaving his body to melt onto the ground. His sword clattered against Gabrielle’s boot making her jump out of the way as if burned by it, but she didn’t have long to maneuver before her next attacker came forth. Since he came at her from a sharp angle, her katana only managed to get his hand. Still, it came clean off, but not before he had cut a large gash in her arm.

Gabrielle hissed at the pain, and as the blood trickled over her skin she felt her rage explode. She leapt high up into the air and threw her katana straight back down with extreme force. It split the soldier’s entire body in two and buried itself in the soil. When Gabrielle landed, she grabbed her weapon, and with her other hand she pulled her chakram out of its clip. She sent it flying across the battle to slice deeply into the neck of a soldier who was attacking Gena from behind while she was fighting off her main opponent. When the chakram embedded itself in a tree trunk, Gabrielle moved swiftly past Xena – who was happily in the process of killing two soldiers at once – and finished off the injured attacker before retrieving her chakram.

By the time they were done with this fight, the earth was sodden with blackness again, but they were all panting heavily. Both Eve and Gabrielle had been injured, Xena was covered in dirt and black slime, and Gena was busy spitting some of the goop out of her mouth.

“How did you get so dirty?” Gabrielle asked Xena as she sheathed her katana.

“One of ‘em got me on the ground. I rolled through it just to escape him. Thought he had me for a second there…”

“Never. You had him. I saw that, and I knew you were fine.”

Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s arm. “You’re not. Let me take a look at that.”

“It’s OK, Xena. I’ll just bandage it.”

“Please, let me?”

Xena was on the verge of begging, so Gabrielle nodded her assent. Once they had regrouped under the shelter of a nearby tree, Gena assisted Eve with her injuries while Aphrodite held onto the skittish horses that had previously dispersed, but seemed to return after the clatter of swords had died down.

“Well,” Xena said as she cleaned Gabrielle’s bloody wound. “That was different, huh?”

Eve blew out a breath. “It sure was. They’re getting harder to kill.”

“No kidding,” Gabrielle muttered while she winced at the stinging pain. “Is it deep?” she asked Xena.

“Deep enough to need a stitch or two, but not deep enough for you to worry about it…”

“Well, that’s something. Aphrodite, could you tie up the horses and grab my saddle bag?”

“Sure.” When Aphrodite came to kneel next to them, she looked thoughtful. “I was just thinking that maybe I should use some of my not-so-powerful powers to just zap myself to Mount Olympus and hide there until you arrive. Then Gena could ride with Eve, and you’d make better time. And anyway, I’m useless here. I don’t really know how to use a sword.”

“No,” Xena answered quickly. “Your powers are weakening because Daemonicus is getting stronger. He must have run out of warlords and moved on to feed on the goodness in innocent people now, just like Aiden.”

“Who?” Aphrodite queried in a high-pitched voice.

“Never mind. It’s just the same old crazy demon with a different face. Anyway, my point is, we need you to be as powerful as possible when we finally come up against it, so using your powers for a little trip isn’t worth it. And if the soldiers were to find you in your hiding place, we’re all doomed. We’re here to protect you, so you’re staying with us and that’s that.”

“She’s right, Dite,” Gabrielle added. “These soldiers are trying to take you since they seem to have killed every other remaining god but you.”

“Except Celesta,” Gena interrupted.

“Yes, but we believe she’s been entombed for eternity, so really, Aphrodite is the last deity we know of. She must be the last blockade in Daemonicus’s path to ultimate power, to ultimate evil. He wants it all.”

Xena looked up from her task and met Gabrielle’s gaze. “He got Apollo, Morpheus? Everyone?”

“Yes. All of them.”

Xena frowned at that. “He really does want it all.”

“What about what we saw before the attack?” Eve asked. “Do you think they were a trick?”

Gabrielle shook her head vehemently. “No. They warned us about the attack. We might not have seen those soldiers in the dark. Black against black would have been impossible to spot.”

“They were here to help,” Xena confirmed. “I’m just trying to figure out why it was those four people who appeared.”

“Well, that’s easy,” Aphrodite said quietly. “I hate to harp on like a broken parrot, but it’s all about love.”

After reimagining the lineup in her head, Xena curled her eyebrow. “Hmm,” she said as she stitched up Gabrielle’s wound. “You might be right. Mom is obvious…lots of love there. Ephiny was like our sister, so yes, love. Joxer…gotta love him, and he has the heart of a lion. And Amarice…?”

Gabrielle lifted her hand to touch Xena’s face briefly. “Of course we loved Amarice. Think about it, Xena.”

Xena’s eyes focused on Gabrielle. “After what I went through with her between worlds, with Alti and searching for you…yes, I’d say there was love.”

Gabrielle’s gave a tiny nod. “And she was there when we were crucified. She helped Joxer and Eli.”

“That she did.”

Eve gently interrupted. “Come on. We’d better keep moving. We’re all tired, but we can rest tomorrow night. I know a place where it’s safer, protected on three sides by cliffs. We can rotate the watch and get some shuteye.”

“I know the very place you mean, Eve,” Xena said with a small smile to her daughter. She offered her hand to Gabrielle who took it and pulled herself up onto her feet.

With some water consumed by the humans and the horses, they set off with their eyes and ears open to the possibility of an attack from any direction. Xena and Gabrielle led the way for a while, with Gena bringing up the rear on foot. She intermittently spun around to check behind them while Xena and Eve looked ahead, and Gabrielle checked above them. They wouldn’t rule anything out at this point, and they suspected their battles were only going to get tougher.

Chapter 4

It was a day later when they approached the outskirts of a village just south of Lete. Xena hoped to be able to buy another horse here which would mean they could travel much quicker to Mount Olympus, but as the village came into view the scene that greeted them was not a welcome one.

From their viewpoint up on the hill, Xena could see the carnage. The battle was ongoing: villagers against soldiers. The multiple dark stains on the grass to the left of the small houses merged into one another, showing that the fight was already over for those people. A quick count of the soldiers revealed that there were only sixteen of them, but it had been enough to overpower the inexperienced villagers who were losing their lives.

“Xena, we should approach from the north,” Gabrielle said with some urgency.

Xena nodded. “I know that, but Gena is already half way down the hill, so I guess the element of surprise is out of the question.” She pulled her horse around to head off in a canter. “Eve come with us. Aphrodite, whatever happens, stay on that horse.”

No reply was necessary since Xena and Gabrielle were charging into the fight at full pelt. Eve followed with a “yah” to get her steed moving, and before long they were passing Gena who was now leaping over a large rock to attack one of Daemonicus’s minions.

When Eve leapt off the horse, Aphrodite gathered up the reins and moved out of the kill zone. Xena and Gabrielle seemed to be slicing heads from horseback for now, which in itself was a sight to see.

The four of them managed to eliminate eight soldiers before running round the biggest of the houses to take on the other eight who were chasing the last few survivors through the village square.

Gabrielle performed an almost-impossible sideways flip off the horse and landed right behind one of the soldiers. He turned so swiftly and viciously that he managed to thump the hilt of his sword into her temple, sending her reeling for a few seconds before she regained the presence of mind to avoid his second blow.

Xena wasn’t faring much better against these more powerful men in black. She was only just holding off a soldier who was the same height as she was, but he seemed to have the strength to rival Ares himself. He was damned powerful, and she was struggling to get the business end of her sword anywhere near him.

Gena was fighting the good fight about twenty feet away, but as Xena kept track of her from the side of her eye, she realized the young warrior was doing more dodging than striking. These guys were tougher to beat, and when Eve who was sweating with the effort of her own epic battle shouted Gabrielle’s name, Xena was so busy avoiding a stabbing that she couldn’t even look to see if her partner was in trouble. But she needn’t have worried.

Gabrielle had heard the warning. She was dealing with her own opponent quite well, so she knew that someone else was coming at her, probably from behind. Her senses heightened beyond belief, she crouched down quickly and heard the clash of swords as they came together above her head. The two soldiers had sliced through each other, and while they were oozing black goop from their stomach wounds, Gabrielle twirled in her shrunken position, her katana amputating their legs just below the knees. After she rolled across the muddy ground to escape their fighting circle, she watched as they tried to come after her on their stumps like disemboweled zombies. She heaved a sigh of relief when they collapsed onto the dirt and melted a few seconds later.

Getting to her feet, Gabrielle carefully spun around to survey the battle. Gena and Eve were holding their own against single opponents, but Xena now had two soldiers circling her, and she was covered in little nicks and scratches. When she saw Gabrielle coming to assist her, she shook her head vehemently while managing to take a chunk out of one of her attacker’s necks.

“No, Gabrielle! The children!”

At first, Gabrielle wasn’t sure what she meant, but when she heard a scream coming from behind one of the huts nearby, she sprinted around the corner to see the last two soldiers finishing their job. There were bodies everywhere, large and small. As one of the soldiers plunged his sword into a prostrate villager’s torso, the other one hovered on his hands and knees over a child. Gabrielle was horrified, and as she ran toward him to try to prevent the murder, she realized she was too late. She froze and watched as the soldier of darkness placed his hand over the child’s face. The blackness began to spread onto the boy’s cheeks like a cancer, until his entire head was dark as if burned.

This is how they take their souls? Gabrielle thought as she tried to stifle the urge to throw up.

The victim’s face began to melt away under the soldier’s touch. He was dead, and as much as Gabrielle couldn’t do anything to save him now, she could avenge his death the only way she knew how. The other soldier who had killed the boy’s father now stood up, his task complete, and Gabrielle knew that had to be her cue. She charged at both of them with her katana held high, not knowing that Xena had been standing behind her for the past few seconds. Gabrielle jumped high into the air at the last minute, confusing the closer henchman so much that he had no time to see her katana come crashing down on his head. It split straight through before Gabrielle turned to take on the second soldier who was only just finished his sadistic task. The boy’s blackened, lifeless, and now-deformed body lay at his feet, and as he concentrated on Gabrielle, Xena silently slipped in behind him and gave Gabrielle a virtually unnoticeable signal with her eyes before she lopped off his head. His body still attempted to advance on Gabrielle, but it only took a sideways leap to avoid him. He tripped on a rock and fell to the ground where his disgusting insides leaked out to cover the earth in a pool of black, syrupy blood.

Xena and Gabrielle just stared at the aftermath of battle around them for a few moments until the sound of hoof beats jump-started their brains.

Aphrodite had obviously been watching the fight and had brought the horses when she saw it was clear. “You guys need to rest and get fixed up. That was too close this time.”

“Nah. We had ‘em,” Xena said in a drained voice. She put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Hey. You OK?”

Gabrielle blinked to snap her gaze away from the young boy’s body and onto Xena’s face. “I am. I just never saw anything like that before. He…he just…”

“I know,” Xena answered quietly. “I was standing behind you.”

Gabrielle just nodded somberly and took Xena’s hand to walk back to the horses. She fleetingly worried about Eve and Gena, but she figured Aphrodite wouldn’t be sitting there if they weren’t all right.

Xena and Gabrielle led their horse back into the village square where Eve and Gena were sitting on the back of a cart laden with soft hay. They looked thoroughly exhausted, and Xena knew Aphrodite was right: they needed to rest. What good would it do to keep going until they couldn’t stand up anymore? They’d never win a fight like that. But in the back of Xena’s mind, she thought of the amount of time she had already spent here. This was day six. Her secret countdown was progressing too fast for her liking.

***

“How much longer can we keep this up?” Gena asked as she poked at the campfire.

“Until we get to that cave and kill Daemonicus,” Gabrielle answered in a low voice.

It was silent for a few minutes after that stark statement. Their injuries were tended to and tonight’s dinner was turning slowly on a makeshift spit above the fire. A slain pig from the village of Lete was their meal tonight, supplying them with some much-needed sustenance and energy. It appeared they had acquired a horse, too…a living horse. It had followed them out of the disaster area and was one of the only survivors of the attack. Gena had been befriending it ever since, and she believed she could ride it with a simple halter.

“They’re getting stronger, the closer we get to Mount Olympus,” Aphrodite said, her fear-riddled words breaking into everyone’s thoughts.

“They are,” Xena confirmed. “But don’t give up hope yet. We’ve still got some fight left in us.”

“Right,” Gabrielle whispered unconvincingly as she stitched up one of Xena’s cuts. “And what happens when we get inside that cave, Xena? Will we ever get out again?”

Xena looked into her eyes. “I have to trust that we will. We have the Magnador. There’s got to be a reason I was compelled to find it.”

Gabrielle sighed before she snapped the thread with her teeth. “I hope you’re right.”

Aphrodite slouched down in a very un-Aphrodite-like fashion. She pulled her cape tighter around her neck to stave off the chill she seemed to be feeling lately. “I know I’m losing my power. What if I’m useless by the time we get there?”

“You are Aphrodite,” Xena said. “You can’t be useless in this fight. You are love.”

“So are you, and so is Gabrielle…and so is Eve. You get my drift here? It’s why we were chosen, but at least you guys can slice up the bad guys.”

“We don’t need you for that,” Xena replied gently. She didn’t want to go on and tell the goddess what she suspected they did need her for. And anyway, she wasn’t sure she was right about that yet, so she would keep it to herself.

An hour later, Gena and Eve were curled up asleep next to one another, and Aphrodite was huddled in her cape next to the fire. Her eyes were closed, but Xena knew she would simply be resting. Goddesses didn’t need to sleep.

Xena sighed and watched Gabrielle who sat quietly opposite her. “What are you thinking about?” she asked, hoping that Gabrielle would speak her mind.

“Me…my memories,” Gabrielle said, her face etched in worry and deep thought as she gazed at the flames. “I remember something from a long time ago, something about you. I remember Caesar. He told me once that you feel, that you care…not exactly good attributes for a true warrior, he said. I know he was wrong about you, but I…I don’t know. I think I just stopped caring. That’s why I came back.”

Xena continued to watch her through the dancing fire. “Gabrielle, you said to me a long time ago that if anything should happen to you, I should promise not to become a monster. You came home to die because you felt that monster within, didn’t you?”

“How do you know what I felt?”

“I just know how it feels. And I know you.” When Gabrielle didn’t respond, Xena got up and moved around the fire to sit beside her. “You also told me that the cycle of violence and hatred can be overcome with love and forgiveness.”

“Where are you going with this, Xena?” It wasn’t said with any malice, but Gabrielle didn’t look at her until the answer met her ears.

“Forgive me. I don’t think you have truly forgiven me for what I put you through.”

“You have my forgiveness. I just need some time to adjust. I still don’t truly believe you’re here…or that you’re here to stay.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I can’t believe Ares would let you come back without conditions. He’s dead. Wouldn’t he want you to join him in Tartarus, or wherever he has ended up?”

Xena couldn’t fault her logic, and she couldn’t keep the truth from her anymore, either. “There was one condition.”

Gabrielle gulped back her fear. She had known it couldn’t be as easy as Xena just appearing alive again. “I need to know.”

Xena couldn’t bear to give her more bad news. She wasn’t sure Gabrielle could survive it.

“Tell me, Xena.”

“All right. The condition he set was…that after ten years of death, I get ten days. If in ten days we’re not successful in killing Daemonicus, I’ll return to-”

“No!”

“Hey,” Xena said quickly as she held Gabrielle in place beside her. “We are going to succeed. Failure is not an option for me. I’m staying with you this time, no matter what. Trust in me, Gabrielle. I know that’s a lot to ask, but please…?”

Gabrielle’s nostrils flared as she tried to keep her rage and hurt at bay, and also her tears. This would be a true test of her strength in more ways than one. If she were to lose Xena again, it would be the end for her. “We can’t lose. I…I can’t lose you.”

“You won’t. We won’t,” Xena assured. Her eyes were set on Gabrielle’s for long moments, and this time, Gabrielle didn’t break the contact. Xena could see the undeniable love that was still there, but it had been buried carefully in order for Gabrielle to function during the worst of times. Xena just hoped she could begin to convince her beautiful warrior that the worst of times were almost over. “I miss you,” she whispered.

Gabrielle blinked and looked away in a reaction of self-preservation, but it only took a few seconds for her heart to break at what she had done. “I miss you too,” she said as she looked at her knees. “Do you know where you were? I mean, where did you go after…?”

Xena took a deep breath and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. “I’m not sure exactly. Some kind of underworld, maybe? All I can remember is that it was a special kinda limbo. Not a harpie in sight. Every moment, I was forced to relive all my bad decisions, all the painful memories that came from those bad decisions, and I felt the most excruciating guilt I have ever felt.”

When Xena stopped talking, Gabrielle looked at her. She saw agony in Xena’s gaze, and as Xena averted her eyes, Gabrielle moved over to kneel between her feet, lifting her chin with one finger. “What caused that guilt?”

“Leaving you…” Xena continued to avoid looking at Gabrielle, her eyes almost closed in her efforts.

“Can you tell me why you had such guilt about that? Weren’t you supposed to avenge those souls and be redeemed for it?”

“That was all a lie. Not sure why I thought Akemi was telling the truth back then. She lied to get what she wanted the first time I met her, and she lied again in Jappa. Those souls were freed when Yodoshi was killed. She just didn’t expect me to succeed.”

“So your excruciating guilt was because you were fooled by her again?” Gabrielle knew she was being jumpy and reactive, but she was teetering between lingering anger at what had happened and her desperate yearning to give into it and hold Xena.

“My guilt was unbearable because I should have known that you are the single, most important person in my world. You wanted to bring me back, and I didn’t let you. I was so gods-be-damned consumed by my own need for redemption.”

Gabrielle removed her finger from Xena’s chin and turned away from her. “I think ten years in torturous limbo is enough payment of your debts, Xena.”

Xena heard the long-suffering tone in Gabrielle’s voice and the pain in her heart. “I agree. I’ll never make a mistake like that again, Gabrielle. The only relief I got was in coming to you when I could…but even that was hurting you beyond anything I can imagine. I’m sorry.”

“So basically, I told you to stop coming to see me, therefore condemning you to more agony.” Gabrielle flopped down to sit on the furs. “I’m sorry too.”

Xena was quick to try to hold her. “You have nothing to be sorry about, Gabrielle. Nothing.”

“Please just stay back. I can’t…not yet.”

“All right,” Xena said as calmly as she could. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle said, hoping it wasn’t something particularly heart-wrenching.

“Why did you stay away from Greece for so long?”

“I…I felt that some purpose would be revealed to me if I traveled and helped people, just like we used to do. And I think…I couldn’t give you up. I’m sorry I didn’t do as you had asked. I didn’t bring you home, but I just didn’t want to let you go.”

Xena nodded. “I realized too late just how much I didn’t want to let you go either.” When she saw the pained look on Gabrielle’s face, she tried to keep talking to prevent them both from breaking down. “When we were on that boat, right after…you know…I wondered how long you would carry my ashes around with you. I knew you would do great things, but I should have told you to take my ashes home first.”

“Why did you want me to take you back so quickly?”

Xena wasn’t sure she wanted to answer that, but she would never hide anything from Gabrielle again, no matter what it was. “I had asked you to take me to Amphipolis, not just because I wanted to be near Lyceus and my mother, but because I knew that wherever in the world I had died, it would be there in Amphipolis that I’d have the best chance of returning. I always thought Ares might not let me rest…and here I am. It’s just for a different reason to what I had imagined.”

Gabrielle blanched at that. “Are you trying to tell me it was my fault that you were dead for so long?” She couldn’t stomach that thought and gagged on her own saliva.

“No, Gabrielle. I did this. It was all me. If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine. I should have let you know every thought I ever had, every plan I ever made, and I should have let you throw my ashes in the fountain that day. If I had known then what I know now…”

“But Xena, if I had just come back right away…if I hadn’t been so selfish in wanting to keep you with me, you wouldn’t have had to suffer-”

You were suffering, Gabrielle,” Xena interrupted as she tried again to take her love into her arms.

“No. I did this,” Gabrielle said defiantly as she stood up. “I let things get to this point, not you.”

Xena watched her as she paced back and forth across their campsite. Gabrielle was determined to punish herself. It reminded Xena of her own feelings before she had died, but now, everything seemed so clear to her. The love she felt for Gabrielle was whole, and every time she looked at her, it grew exponentially. It was all-encompassing, and Xena wasn’t afraid of it anymore, but there was still a distance she had to traverse. Gabrielle continued to be in excruciating emotional pain, for everything she had been through since Xena’s death, and everything Xena had put her through before that. The guilt should have been burying Xena right now, but she felt a certainty, a pure devotion that could not be denied. She would try for the rest of her life to make Gabrielle understand what she could feel in her heart. Gabrielle was her one and only soulmate, and seeing that soulmate like this was more than Xena could bear.

“Gabrielle, sit down.”

Her voice was deep and commanding, and Gabrielle turned to see a strange look in Xena’s cloudy, blue eyes, so she went to sit where Xena pointed. When she felt Xena’s body move closer to her, the hardened shell around her heart begin to crack. All Gabrielle wanted to do was hold onto Xena and never let her go again. The faint and familiar scent of her partner wafted into Gabrielle’s nostrils, giving her the dilemma of wanting to either hug her or hit her. The agony of memory and the desire of the now battled it out inside her. It was incredibly confusing to feel the way she did. This moment felt like the closest they had been physically since Xena’s return – apart from when she had tended to her injuries and slept next to her unconscious body – and Gabrielle knew it wouldn’t take much more to break her hardened spirit. Still, she held onto it for now, as it was the only thing keeping her strong enough for this one last fight…the most important fight of their lives.

Xena’s quietened voice broke her train of thought. “Gabrielle, you are not to blame for any of this. If anything, you will be the savior of all of us. It was me who let myself be killed. It was me who listened to and believed the word of someone who had betrayed me before, and it was me who stopped you from bringing me back. All through our travels together, I was seeking redemption to try to undo my past misdeeds, but I’ve had a long time to think about it, and I finally understand that the only person I now need to seek redemption from…is you.”

“I don’t want you to feel indebted to me, Xena. I want you to allow yourself to live a happier life, to smell the flowers now and again. Remember I tried to make you do that once?”

“I remember.”

“I just want you to love your life, not suffer your way through it,” Gabrielle pleaded.

“I can do that now, as long as I have you,” Xena explained quietly, hoping for a positive response.

“You have always had me.”

Moments passed where the only sound was the crackling of the burning sticks in their dying campfire. They both sat staring into the weak flames until Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena’s knee, open palm up. It was an offering that Xena would never refuse, and she immediately placed her own hand on top of it, clasping her fingers around Gabrielle’s until they both gave a gentle squeeze at the same time.

Gabrielle rubbed her thumb over a cut on Xena’s hand. “It has started to bleed again. It might need a stitch.”

“It’ll be fine. Please don’t move away right now.”

“I won’t, but I’m worried, Xena. Those soldiers are getting so hard to kill.”

Xena gave a tiny nod. “I truly believe we can do this. I’m back for a reason, and I intend to stay. We should be much closer to Olympus by tomorrow night, arriving the day after. That gives us time to get inside Daemonicus’s lair and do what we need to do.”

“What are you expecting to find there? I mean, I’ve heard he’s changing into something stronger, but I don’t really know what form he takes. Is he like Hope was before she emerged from that thing, or is he more like Dahak…a force unseen?”

Xena pursed her lips in thought. “I actually have no idea, Gabrielle. If he was like Hope, it would be easier, but I know he has many soldiers around him and that they’re not human anymore. If they’re getting harder to kill as we approach Olympus, I’d imagine they’ll be near impossible to kill at those caves. The Magnador must be the answer.”

When Xena’s words drifted into silence, Gabrielle looked down at their joined hands again. “We have to win this fight…but if we don’t, we must make sure we both die.”

Xena was startled out of her thoughts, but before she could say anything Gabrielle had placed her finger over her lips.

“I don’t want to be here without you any longer. We succeed together, or we fail together. There is no other option. Do you understand me, Xena?”

The almost-timid but determined quality of Gabrielle’s voice was haunting, but Xena could see in her eyes that there was no argument to be had.

“I understand. Together…no matter what.”

Gabrielle breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was like a tightening band around her heart and lungs had been cut, giving her the sense that she could commit herself to the fight regardless of its outcome. She picked up the stick near her feet and poked at the fire. When it sparked up a little, she moved to lean her head on Xena’s shoulder.

“You rest now. I’ll take first watch,” Xena whispered before she kissed Gabrielle’s hair.

“Not for long. You need rest too, Xena.” The words were barely out of Gabrielle’s mouth when she felt herself letting go, and by the time Xena’s arm was around her back to support her, she was asleep.

***

Three hours later, Xena sat there completely focused on staying awake and listening for danger, but she still inhaled a sharp gust of breath when someone appeared directly in front of her without any warning. Thankfully, she didn’t jump out of her skin and wake Gabrielle whose cheek was still plastered against her shoulder.

“Hello, Xena.”

“Mom…” Xena gasped.

“It’s good to see you right where you belong, my child.” Cyrene’s voice was wavering and ghostly, much like her semi-transparent body. “You will never know what she has been through, Xena. Have patience.”

“I will…I mean, I’m trying.”

“I know that. I can see into both your souls now. You have learned so much. Do you remember when you prayed for Gabrielle? You prayed that the light inside her would never go out?”

“I remember, Mom.” Xena was close to tears.

“That light did go out, Xena. It went out a few years ago when she decided that living was just too difficult without you. But that light is not permanently extinguished. It can be ignited again. You must give her time and love now. Give her your full commitment and support.”

Xena reached up with irritation to brush away her tears. “Did you just come to make me feel guilty about the past?”

“No. I’m here to tell you that she is the most important thing in this life. You are destined to be together. You must remember that when you enter that cave.”

“I already figured that out.”

“I know, but you’ve been given this final chance, not just to conquer Daemonicus, but to get it right with Gabrielle too. I’ve come to help you.”

Xena heard Gabrielle mutter in her sleep, but she kept her eyes on her mother’s ghost that stood on the other side of the fire. “Where are your…um, friends?”

“They are around. We’ll be staying for a little while. Amarice is quite a powerful spirit.”

“Yes, she is. Did she bring you to us?”

Cyrene nodded. “Yes, but we had some other help. Just do as Mother tells you, and it will be fine.”

“What does that mean?”

“Just do as you’re told. Move quickly tomorrow. You must reach the base of Mount Olympus early the day after. Listen to me. I know best.”

“Really?” Xena asked with her eyebrow raised in mild disbelief.

Cyrene’s tone changed to one of light teasing. “Yes. Mothers are supposed to guide their children. I didn’t have much of a chance to do that with you in life, so I’m here to nag you now.”

Xena grinned. “See you soon then?”

“Yes, soon. Remember, move quickly tomorrow. Rest now.”

Cyrene disappeared leaving Xena with misty eyes and a new pain in her chest. She truly missed the people she loved, the people now lost to her. She realized that the person curled into her side under her left arm was the greatest gift anyone could ever receive, and they were both here. Last chance, her mother had said.

“No more mistakes. Full commitment and support,” Xena echoed. “And everything else I can give. She’s my whole life.”

“Who is?” Gabrielle asked groggily as she rubbed her eyes.

“Who do you think?” Xena retorted, one side of her mouth creeping upward.

Gabrielle blinked and looked at her, finally rising through her sleepy fog. “Oh. Me?”

“Yes, you. My whole life.”

Gabrielle smiled. “The one we’re going to have after this fight?”

“Yes. The fight we are going to win,” Xena said with a confidence she hoped wasn’t misplaced.

“We’d better.”

Xena pulled Gabrielle back to her shoulder gently, glad when she didn’t resist. “Do you remember when the Persians were coming…through Tripolis?” Xena asked as she rested her cheek on Gabrielle’s hair.

“Yes.”

“I said then that I was done with paying for my past deeds, and that my only responsibility was you. Why did I forget that?”

“Because I told you to. I told you to stay and fight that day, even if it meant my death,” Gabrielle said, realizing that they had both been willing to leave the other in the past for the greater good. “Maybe it’s time we were a little more selfish, huh?”

Xena’s eyebrow rose high on her forehead. “Maybe.”

***

Xena awoke from her nap to find Gabrielle standing guard, looking out into the forest with her katana blade resting over her shoulder. “Is there someone out there?” she said, hauling herself to her feet.

“No, it’s OK. I checked. It was just a deer.” Gabrielle turned to Xena and stifled her grin. “Uh, your hair…”

When Xena saw that tiny sparkle in Gabrielle’s eyes again, she feigned ignorance. “What? What about my hair?” she asked, making the most childlike, innocent face she could muster.

Gabrielle approached in silence and stepped up onto the rock that just happened to be in the perfect spot right in front of Xena. She reached up and pulled her fingers through Xena’s hair to flatten the rather large knot of swirls that made it stand out at a funny angle. Once she was done, she tightened her lips in a restrained smile. “Never mind. It’s gone now.”

“Huh. Thanks.”

Xena watched her walk away toward Aphrodite, while over on the other side of the fire, Eve was only just awakening. As her eyes opened, she let out a little yelp of surprise, or maybe it was shock. In front of her, Joxer suddenly sat with his legs crossed and his chin resting in one hand like he had been sitting there the whole time.

“What in the…?” Eve spluttered as she sat up.

“Hi,” Joxer said with a sympathetic look. “This is kinda awkward, huh?”

Eve was puzzled at first until she remembered why Joxer would appear as a ghost. “I…I guess it is. I’m so sorry, Joxer.”

“No, no. Don’t worry about that. You didn’t kill me. I know that now,” Joxer said gently. “That was Livia. I heard all about you from Eli. Me and him, we’re buddies. We hang out sometimes, and of course, Amarice and I are buddies too, ya know?”

“Right.”

“Listen, I just wanted to get the awkwardness and introductions out of the way because things are gonna get a little hairy from here on in. Just know that you can all trust me to help out, ‘cause I’m trustworthy, I’m big-hearty…I’m Joxer the Mighty.” Joxer jumped to his feet, combed his fingers through his gray – but short – hair, and lifted his hand in preparation of his performance. “Ohh, Joxer the Mighty, he’s very lively, even when he’s just a ghost, he’s still the one ya love the most, frolics in Elysian Fields, but comes to help when evil steals the happiness and joy from all, we’ll end the hate with love not war, I’m Joxer…Joxer the Mighty! Ohh, Joxer the Mighty…”

Joxer faded away mid-rendition, and when Eve blinked and looked round, she saw Xena and Gabrielle watching her.

Xena smiled at her as she approached. “You all right, Eve?”

“Yes,” Eve said as she got to her feet. “He really is love and forgiveness, isn’t he…?”

“Always has been, always will be.” Xena patted her shoulder before she crouched down to wake Gena who opened her eyes while grunting at the intrusion. Once she realized who was waking her, she offered an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, Xena. I’ll be ready, like, now.”

“No rush. We just have a demon to kill and a world to save.”

Gena stared at her for a moment until she realized that Xena was teasing…kind of teasing. She nodded and rushed off to empty her bladder.

Xena just shook her head and helped with gathering up their gear while Aphrodite picked up the last two wineskins and hooked them onto the horse’s saddle. They had run out of water and would have to stop somewhere for refills. Gena rushed back from relieving her bladder in the bushes and wound a simple halter around her new horse’s head, forming reins out of a rope she had in her bag. Leading him over to the rock Gabrielle had stood on earlier, she jumped onto him without a problem. Thankfully, he had a long, thick mane that she could grab onto for extra stability should they need to gallop, which was a distinct possibility now that they were nearing Mount Olympus.

“Ready,” she said with a nod toward Xena.

“Let’s move out then.”

It was only an hour later that they came across a strange phenomenon running through the grasses underfoot. Xena dismounted to get a closer look. Dark streaks were winding through the land as far as the eye could see up ahead of them.

“What are they, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“I’m not sure,” Xena said as she crouched to touch the snaking lines. When her hand came away with a black, chalk-like substance coating her fingers, she frowned. “Like ashes, maybe.”

“It’s really black. Do you think it’s somehow linked to Daemonicus? I mean, like a trail or something?”

“Hmm, I don’t know.”

Eve’s eyes scanned right out to the horizon. “The lines look like…they look like veins. Up ahead, they join into each other to form thicker lines. I think we’ve come to the last leg of our journey. This is what Joxer meant.”

“You mean, about things getting hairier?” Xena asked.

“Yes.”

“I think she’s right,” Gena added. “These look like Daemonicus’s lifelines. I think the further out they go, they’ll disappear…maybe underground, so we just don’t see them. This might be how he retrieves his fallen soldiers.”

Xena was following her logic. “So you think the closer we get to Mount Olympus, these things will get darker…or become more like the black slime?”

“Not just that. You said they look like veins, Eve. I think they are veins. We should be careful in case they move.”

“You believe they could take form,” Gabrielle stated plainly.

“Maybe not take form, but they seem to be alive,” Gena confirmed.

Xena nodded before mounting the horse again. “Anything’s possible. Everyone stay more alert than ever. Let’s pick up the pace.”

Chapter 5

They were at full gallop. Gena had experienced a couple of anxious moments where she had lost her balance on her bareback horse, but for the most part she had stayed upright. Covering this much ground, they were ahead of time, and they were moving so fast that they hadn’t encountered any soldiers.

About thirty miles from the start of Mount Olympus, Gabrielle knew they’d have to stop. It was getting dark and the horses were exhausted. When she spotted a little cove surrounded by shrubbery and rocks, she pinched Xena gently on the shoulder before pointing.

“Over there…a good spot to rest, and easy to guard for the night.”

Xena agreed with a nod and led the troop toward their safe haven for the next few hours under the stars. She noticed as she dismounted that the clouds had completely cleared. The sky was beautiful tonight. It reminded her of so many nights when she and Gabrielle had stretched out on their furs and laughed as they pretended to argue about the star formations. We might be able to do that again someday, she thought with new hope for the future. This is night seven. I’ll know in three days if I even have a future. With a sigh, she waited until Gabrielle had removed the last of their meagre belongings from the saddle before untacking the horse to let it relax for a while.

Once all three equines were loosely tethered to a nearby tree, four warriors and one goddess sat on their bedrolls contemplating the dangerous and important mission they were on. Aphrodite leaned back against one of the rocks, shoulder to shoulder with Gabrielle who was checking her wounds while Xena snacked on some of the leftover pork they had from last night’s dinner. Gena was picking dirt and small stones out of the horses’ feet, and Eve was sitting scrutinizing something she held carefully in her hand.

“I wonder what PoE stands for…” she said aloud.

Xena realized she was looking at one of the armbands. “I still haven’t figured it out,” she said around a few pieces of meat. “I thought at first it might be the name of the maker, but…” She shrugged to finish her sentence.

“Where did you find these, Mother?”

“In a cluster of rocks near the base of Mount Olympus. I was returned right next to them, so I doubt they even have a maker. Something created them, otherwise they wouldn’t be here, but I think it might be something more godly than mortal.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Eve said. “Any ideas, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle stared at her for a few seconds as if she hadn’t heard her. “The O is small, right?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think it’s a name, but it does mean something.”

Eve frowned. “Something happened when Gena and I were digging the Magnador out of the ground in Amphipolis.”

Xena looked up as she passed some little pieces of meat to Gabrielle. “What?”

“Well, it was stuck fast, but when Gena managed to push it from underneath, it just…I don’t know. It just jumped straight up into my hand.”

Gabrielle did that staring thing again, her mouth halted mid-chew. “PoE…I know what it is.”

When Gabrielle just sat there chewing again, Xena gave her a good-natured glare. “Well…?”

Gabrielle offered a fleeting smile. “I know you were sent to retrieve these things, Xena, but I believe Eve is the one who is meant to use them. She is the messenger, after all.”

Xena’s eyes widened when she immediately made the connection. “The power of Eli.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle confirmed. “Eli is the way of love. He’s somehow a part of this too.”

Eve moved closer to them. “If he is, then we really do have a fighting chance.”

Aphrodite sat and listened to all this with a worried look on her face. They all knew she was a part of it too, but what she was afraid of was, what part? Her powers were disappearing, she couldn’t help defend against the soldiers, and if Daemonicus was a demon-god, she had no idea how she could help to end his reign. “This isn’t going to end well for me, is it?”

Xena tried not to react to the question for she feared Aphrodite would not like her prediction of events to come. “We don’t know what will happen, Aphrodite.”

“Right, but we’ll know tomorrow, I guess.” Aphrodite pulled some of her goddess curls around to her mouth and began to chew on them like a nervous child. Whatever happened, she had the feeling she would never be able to appear in a cloud of sparkles again.

***

It was the middle of the night, and Gena was on watch. In the moonlight, she could see the black stripes that covered the earth and curled around each other like slithering snakes. She believed that was why Gabrielle had chosen this spot to rest. They were on solid rock here: not exactly comfortable to sleep on, but a little safer than lying on Daemonicus’s filth.

Gena sighed as she got up to do a three-hundred and sixty degree rotation of their campsite. When nothing appeared out of the ordinary, she sat back down on her perch and continued to polish her sword with a rag.

On the other side of the campfire, Xena was awake but lay with her eyes closed, her hand resting on Gabrielle’s arm. While she thought about what was to happen tomorrow, she listened to every sound around her. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Gena. She just knew that Gena wouldn’t know how to really listen. She recalled the time when she had taught Gabrielle to listen, not just to the sounds, but to what’s behind the sounds. It threw her mind violently back to Jappa, and tears sprung to her closed eyes, unbidden.

Suddenly, she heard it. There was nobody rustling in the bushes, nobody running toward them, but there was a sound barely audible to the human ear.

Xena opened her eyes, and when she saw Amarice standing over Gabrielle, she only needed to say one thing. “Where?”

“Above you, on the rock,” Amarice said before she vanished into thin air.

Xena was on her feet in an instant, sword in-hand and looking up to the ledge of rock that surrounded their camp. “Gena!”

As Gena rose in response, a soldier launched himself down on top of her. Since she was already holding her sword, she managed to injure him immediately, but he came at her again and sliced clean into her thigh. She screamed out at the pain and was about to retaliate when the soldier’s head came clean off, hitting her on the shoulder before it fell to the ground.

Gabrielle’s razor-sharp responses – and her razor-sharp katana – had come to the rescue yet again. Xena was in the process of dealing with the other soldier who had tried to land directly on Aphrodite. Since Xena had managed to take off his arm in her first attempt, she didn’t have too much trouble finishing the job this time. When his headless body fell to the ground, she dragged it out of the campsite before the black slime spread everywhere. Eve and Gabrielle did the same with the other attacker while Gena held her gaping wound together to try to stop the bleeding.

“If Amarice hadn’t warned me, they would have gotten us that time,” Xena said after she had disposed of the soldiers head.

“Amarice was here?” Gabrielle asked, wiping off her katana with a grimace on her face.

“Yeah. Only for a second.” Xena handed her sword to her partner. “Could you do mine while I sew up Gena’s wound?”

“Sure. The thread is in my saddlebag, left pocket.”

Aphrodite had already grabbed the thread by the time Xena had turned around. “Hurry. There’s a lot of blood. It’s…it’s…”

Xena smirked. “Grody?”

“Yeah, totally.” Aphrodite showed her displeasure, but even as she did so she collected a piece of padding from her bag to use as a bandage. “You could use this. It’s the finest Egyptian cotton, but you need it more than I do.”

Gena forced a smile through her gritted teeth. “Thanks.”

Xena was trying to pry Gena’s fingers off her leg. “You’re gonna have to let go.”

“It really stings.”

“I know. Let me take a look.” When Xena finally got to see the wound, she hissed her inhale. “Ouch. Don’t look at it. Here…I’ll tell you a story while I do this, OK?”

Gena just nodded while Eve settled down next to her mother to push Gena’s flesh together while Xena sewed. Gabrielle stood guard with her newly cleaned katana in one hand and her chakram in the other, her sharp eyes scanning the entire area.

“Aphrodite, could you find me something to bind this with once I’ve stitched it? There should be something in the bag next to the Magnador,” Xena said.

Since Aphrodite was clutching said bag to her body, she rummaged inside and found a length of thick twine. “This will have to do. Let me know when you’re ready for it.”

“OK, a story…hmm.” Xena decided to tell the first one that came to mind, and it was actually a story about winning a fight without more bloodshed, so she thought it might be a good motivator. “Many years ago, Gabrielle and I were taking a shortcut through a warzone-”

“Of course,” Eve said under her breath.

Xena gave her a look, but she knew Eve was trying to be funny. “Anyway…we came across our friend, Ephiny, who was heavily-pregnant and hiding from the soldiers. She had been on her way to Athens to give birth, but her husband had been killed, leaving her to navigate the danger alone. It was a senseless war, men fighting over territory, as usual, but there was so much hatred in the minds and hearts of the men that they just continued to fight until their last breath. Especially the Mitoans…they were so hell-bent on killing that they were blinded to any other option. Gabrielle joked that I should stop the war…”

“Should’ve known to keep my mouth shut,” Gabrielle added before Xena continued on like she was totally expecting the input.

“And so while we helped Ephiny to a place of safety, I injured and captured a Mitoan general to put my plan into action. We reached a Thessalian healing temple not far from there. Gabrielle and I set about helping as many of the sick and injured as we could.” Xena stopped when Gena growled a little at the pain. Since she was not-so-gently sticking her needle through a particularly raw and ragged piece of skin, she apologized. “Sorry. So anyway, while Gabrielle was tending to the Mitoan general’s injuries she told him one of her stories. Not long after that, Gabrielle ventured outside to help another casualty, but while she was out there she was seriously injured. We had been saving soldiers and villagers alike, but when I saw that Gabrielle was my next patient…I got scared. What if I couldn’t save her? It was terrifying. I did my best, but it wasn’t good enough. When she stopped…breathing, I felt like my life had ended.”

Xena froze momentarily. The memory of what it had felt like to lose Gabrielle for only a few minutes hit her all over again, and she couldn’t possibly imagine losing her for ten years. She turned her head to look at her soulmate. “I’m so sorry.”

Gabrielle was already watching her. “I guess we’ve come full circle in more ways than one, huh?”

It was said with such tenderness and compassion that Xena knew without doubt that she had been forgiven. She suddenly felt to her very core just how much she had to be forgiven for. It took a quiet question from Gena to break her gaze at Gabrielle.

“What happened next, Xena?”

Xena gulped and focused back on her stitching. “I went a little crazy, thumping Gabrielle on the chest and screaming at her, but looking back, I’m so glad I did. She lived and went on to teach the general a lesson even while she recovered in sleep. She had stopped the war without more bloodshed.”

“How did she do that?” Gena asked. She had read the stories, but hearing them for real was a true gift, and it kept her mind off her painful wound.

“Something in that story she told the Mitoan general really stayed with him, and everything he experienced in the temple after Gabrielle’s words of wisdom seemed to confirm what she’d said. It taught him to see things more clearly, to see them from the other side of the battle, and to find peace in himself. She told him that life is what you make of it, and I think that started to truly sink in after Gabrielle was hurt. You see, Gabrielle always used words to make her way in the world. She is a true warrior for peace. Gabrielle is love and compassion.” Xena had almost forgotten that anyone was listening to her, and after she leaned in to cut the thread with her teeth, she looked a little sheepish. “All done. Eve, can you clean that off and wrap it?”

“Yes. Aphrodite? The twine…”

“Thank you, Xena, for fixing me up, and for the story,” Gena said sincerely.

Xena nodded and stood to make her way over to Gabrielle who was doing a visual sweep above her. Once she felt Xena next to her, she sighed.

“That was a beautifully-told story, Xena.”

“It’s all you, Gabrielle.”

“No. Those were your words,” Gabrielle said before she glanced at her and smiled. “Never saw you as a bard before. Full circle, indeed.”

“Maybe,” Xena conceded.

“Definitely. I’m standing here ready to kill anything that moves out there, and you’re almost moving me to tears with your tale of times gone by.”

“You were moved?”

“Yes. Just because you can’t see it on the outside, doesn’t mean I don’t feel it on the inside. You should know that better than anyone.”

When Gabrielle turned to her again, Xena took the opportunity to look deeply into her eyes. “You know me better than anyone.”

Gabrielle just nodded and resumed her guard duties. Xena leaned in to kiss her on the cheek and got a small smile in response, making her feel much better about their relationship. She wanted to make every day better for Gabrielle, and when they had completed their mission she intended to do just that. But right now, she silently moved back across the campsite to check on Gena.

“How you holdin’ up?”

Gena stood to prove she wasn’t going to be stopped by her injury. “I’ll be fine to continue whenever you’re ready.”

“Take a load off, Gena. We need to rest for a while.” Xena picked up her sword and began pacing back and forth slowly. “You guys sleep. Gabrielle and I will keep watch.”

***

Thankfully, the rest of the night had been quiet, and it was now the morning of day eight in Xena’s countdown. They had a fair distance to cover, but Xena was confident they would reach their destination sometime this afternoon. She suspected the chill in the air was not just winter settling in, but also their proximity to evil. She shivered and fleetingly wondered why she was the only one with her arms bared. Because I’m an idiot? Nah, because I’m tough.

Shaking her head at that train of thought, she watched as the others finished packing up their things. As she prepared the horses and gave them some water from a nearby stream, she decided she was impressed with the choices Eve had made. Two of their steeds had been carrying two humans and bulging saddlebags the entire way, and still they were ready for more when they set off on the last leg of their journey to Mount Olympus.

By the time they arrived at their final destination, they had encountered two more troops of Daemonicus’s soldiers which left all four warriors moderately injured, completely exhausted, and covered in blood, dirt, and black slime. Gabrielle had the least amount of injuries. Her older wound was healing already, and she had only received two more: a large bruise on her left temple and a deep cut to her forearm that had gone right through the coat she was wearing. Gena was still suffering from her recent leg wound and had also been slashed across the neck twice – thankfully not too seriously or she wouldn’t have been standing there right now. Eve had been close to serious injury when, in the last fight, one of the soldiers had knocked her to the ground and brought his sword down on her so quickly that she only had seconds to roll out of its path. Her hand had almost been amputated, and if it hadn’t been for Xena she might have been killed. Xena’s injuries were many, but thankfully minor. Still, every little cut she had was stinging so much that her skin felt burnt and slightly numb to the touch. But there was no time to deal with any of it right now. They had to keep moving.

Two of the entrances to the dark system of caves below Mount Olympus could be seen from the viewpoint where Gabrielle stood surveying the expanse of land between them and their next target.

“I can’t see anything moving between here and there, which makes me suspicious,” she said to Xena who was standing right behind her looking over her head.

“It makes me suspicious too. We still haven’t come across any of that elite guard Autolycus spoke of. You’d think this demon would have them right here.”

The land was still covered in the black lines, and it was clear now that they all radiated from Daemonicus’s lair, but here at ground zero there were so many lines that they almost merged into one another, covering the whole place in a dark cloak.

Gena stepped up next to Gabrielle. “They’re glistening over near the cave entrances.”

Gabrielle looked at her. “How can you see that?”

“I can’t, really. Someone told me once that the veins are full of the black lava just outside the caves. Men have tried to go in there and kill Daemonicus before, you know…but they never seem to return.”

“But we have help,” Xena said calmly. “And that help is trying to tell us something right about now.”

When she pointed out over the land, everyone saw the apparition. Ephiny was appearing and disappearing, and she moved like she was showing them the safest path to the correct entrance in the rock.

“She wants us to go now,” Gabrielle said, sensing her sister Amazon’s urgency. “Aphrodite, you stay in the middle of us all. Hold onto the Magnador, and at the first sign of real trouble, try to get yourself out of here.”

“I don’t think I can, Little One. I’ll just pray to…myself that there isn’t any trouble you can’t handle.”

Gabrielle blew out a breath. “I guess that’s as good as it’s going to get. Let’s go.”

They followed Ephiny’s lead and crossed the darkened grasses together. When they approached the beginning of a tunnel entrance they thought was the way in, Ephiny shook her head.

“There’s a better way. Only three people have found it in the past, so the soldiers won’t be guarding it.”

Gabrielle trusted her, even in spirit. She flicked her hand in the air to signal for the others to follow her, and a few minutes later they arrived at a hidden, if slightly compact, tunnel entrance.

Xena looked at it with distaste. “We have to go in there? I can barely stand up in it.”

Gabrielle bit her lip. “It does look…restrictive. We don’t have a choice though, do we?”

Xena shook her head and tried to push her worries aside. “OK. Me and you in front, Aphrodite in the middle, and Gena and Eve at the rear.” She turned to her daughter. “Whatever you do, stay close. We need to stay together.”

“You don’t need to worry about that. We’ll be right behind you,” Eve replied.

Gabrielle grasped hold of Xena’s arm. “Do you remember the last time I told you that everything had changed?”

“After Dahak…” Xena said seriously.

“You have a good memory, Xena.”

“I just remember you speaking to me in the tone of voice you just used, Gabrielle. You feel it again, don’t you?”

“Yes. Everything is about to change.”

“More than Daemonicus?”

“No matter what happens in there, the world will change.” Gabrielle seemed to lapse into a sort of trance. “And so it shall come to pass, the Messenger will bring about the Twilight of the Gods. And at its completion, love will be our guiding light.” She had said it so that only Xena would hear it, and it was another confirmation of Xena’s suspicions about Aphrodite’s purpose here.

“Gabrielle?”

“I’m fine, Xena. Something else is here…something not evil. We need to go inside now.”

As soon as she said it, both Ephiny and Amarice appeared inside the tunnel, waving their arms to invite the warriors to follow them. The tunnel was completely dark, save for the occasional break in the stone that let in a slim ray of light in at various points along the way, but as they ventured deeper into the cave system, they would have been completely blind had it not been for the torch of flames that Amarice held.

Ephiny faded out of sight, but Amarice remained and suddenly stopped them from moving forward.

“Wait,” she whispered. “Xena, throw your sword onto the ground in front of you.”

“What?”

“Just do it, Xena. Trust me.”

Xena gave a little shrug and did as Amarice had asked. When she threw her sword down, an enormous, sharp ax came flying out of a cavity in the tunnel wall and clanged loudly as it embedded itself in the opposite wall. Xena was horrified for a fleeting moment before she turned to give the ghost a nod of thanks. Amarice had just saved their lives. These tunnels were booby-trapped.

Once Xena’s heart-rate had slowed again, she looked at Amarice. “This is how he keeps the mortals out?” she asked in disbelief.

“Only in this tunnel. That’s why we chose to lead you here. The soldiers are in the main entrance. You would never have made it past them. No one really knows about this tunnel…and the people who do happen to stumble across it never make it out alive.” Amarice sent a beam of light into a small in-shot in the tunnel wall, just below where the large blade had stuck fast.

Gabrielle winced when she saw a pile of three dead bodies in various stages of decomposition. “They’re definitely not alive. Thank you, Amarice.”

“No problem. You must make it, and it’s my duty to help you. This way,” the spirit said as she moved onward.

Xena grabbed her sword off the ground and checked on the others behind her before following Gabrielle. “If you were wondering where Ephiny went, she’s right behind us,” she whispered to her partner.

“Good,” Gabrielle said in a strained whisper. “Without them, we’d be in pieces by now. It seems that this fight is important in all worlds. Gods, mortals, spirits…it’s more important than we ever imagined.”

***

An hour must have passed as they walked farther and farther through the maze of tunnels. A few more traps had been pointed out by Amarice, and set off by either Xena or Gabrielle without injury to anyone, but when they came to a crossroads in the claustrophobic tunnel system, Amarice halted the group once more.

“This one’s going to be tricky,” she said while she seemed to be doing some sort of calculation in her head. “Gabrielle, you must be at the front.”

“Why?” Gabrielle asked, genuinely curious.

“Because Ephiny will guide you through the dark here, and you will be the sister Amazon who will know the way. You must all join hands to form a chain.”

Xena was looking a little skeptical. “Is this another trap?”

“Yes,” Amarice said worriedly. “But we cannot set this one off. We can’t stop it, but we can outrun it.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.” When Amarice just shrugged, Xena sighed. “OK, just hurry.”

“You must run toward the trap quickly, then turn left into a smaller tunnel. You won’t be able to see the turn in the dark, but I know Ephiny can guide you, Gabrielle. Please believe in that.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I do…I will. Now which way?”

Amarice pointed down to the right. “Just step on the ground about two paces in to set off the trap, then run straight forward no matter what you see or hear. Turn when Ephiny tells you.”

Gabrielle nodded once again, and when they had all joined hands, she tugged on Xena to get them all to move. When she stepped on the booby-trap, a snapping sound was heard, followed by a deep, growling rumble that continued to get louder and louder.

“What in Tartarus…?” Xena said, but suddenly had to crouch and run when Gabrielle practically yanked her arm out of its socket.

Only Gabrielle and Xena could see the sparks coming off the giant, round ball of rock as it scraped the sides of the tunnel and came hurtling toward them at speed. Gabrielle briefly thought about turning and running away. It was terrifying to think that she could be running toward a certain and grizzly death, but she had to trust in what was meant to be, so she kept going until she felt a gentle breeze in her ear accompanied by the whispered words, “Turn now.”

Gabrielle immediately changed direction even though, as far as she was aware, there was nowhere to go. She ran until there was a signal to stop, and when she almost ran into the ghost of Joxer she slammed on the brakes which caused Xena to run right into her back. Aphrodite, Eve, and Gena pretty much did the same, and they all ended up in a panting bundle of people at Joxer’s feet.

“Get off me,” Xena grumped when Aphrodite’s hand landed on her face.

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” the goddess muttered as she clambered onto her knees. “This is so super unladylike.”

Xena just gave her one of those don’t-even-talk-to-me looks. “You’re the only one who isn’t covered in Daemonicus goop, so I think you’ll survive.”

Aphrodite huffed a little as she flicked some of said Daemonicus goop off her cloak.

Joxer just stood there with his arms folded until they were all on their feet again. “You made it. Be thankful for that. The tunnel behind you was blocked when you set off that trap. Didn’t wanna tell you that earlier in case you chickened out…”

Gabrielle frowned. “Not cool, Joxer. What if I had decided to turn around?”

“But ya didn’t. I knew you wouldn’t. Come on. It’s this way.”

***

As they ventured along the smaller tunnel, Xena spotted a soft light up ahead. It seemed that the ghosts had all left them now, so she and Gabrielle led their group toward the light. When they got closer, the tight tunnel began to grow in diameter until it opened out into the most enormous cavern Xena had ever seen.

“In the name of Eli…” Eve gasped as she came to stand beside her mother.

No one else spoke as they all stared at the cavern. The pure black walls were lined with torches perched high in their cradles, but what was capturing everyone’s attention was what appeared to be carved into those walls. A most devastating sight of human faces, all of them either screaming or frozen in an expression of sheer horror, greeted the warriors’ eyes no matter where they looked. The walls were also lined with the largest black veins any of them had seen yet. The veins seemed to be moving, reminiscent of a snake consuming large prey in one bite. The bulges moved along inside the veins, slowly and all in one direction.

Xena looked up and saw that the ceiling to the vast cavern was the same as the walls. The dark faces of doom seemed to dance in the dwindling light of the flames as it made its way up to touch them with its glow. It was eerie, bone-chilling, and altogether inhuman.

Gabrielle pulled her katana from its sheath. “We should follow the movement in those veins. I’m guessing that’s Daemonicus’s next meal in there, which means if we follow it we’ll find him.”

The others drew their weapons and moved when Gabrielle did, and it wasn’t long before they came into the main part of the lair. Opposite where they stood was another tunnel entrance with many veins running into it, but to their right, a raised platform of rock held the hideous sight of Daemonicus himself.

Xena’s face scrunched in disgust, but at least her prediction that he might be like Hope before she was reborn, was correct…or at least it appeared to be correct.

Daemonicus seemed to be attached to the platform, a vile creature nesting on a bed of black flames. The network of thick veins culminated all around him and fed into his vulgar form from all directions. Daemonicus himself was larger than human. He appeared to have a head, but it was so black that it wasn’t clear if there was a face to this creature of evil. Tendrils of black slime clung to the ceiling above him, oozing out of the mouths of the horrified-face carvings to drop onto Daemonicus and be absorbed by him. His torso resembled a large, dark cloak flowing into the flames below, but every few seconds the mass changed shape.

When the tightly-grouped band of warriors moved closer to him – with Aphrodite stuck in the middle and their weapons drawn – they could see what caused the changes in Daemonicus. Masses of entangled legs and disfigured arms moved and churned as if trying to escape their captor. They were distorted and stretched by the black slime that seemed to bubble out of every orifice. Daemonicus’s head was also large, black, and ghostly in its appearance. At first glance, it looked like he had no face, but as with his body, the remnants of his victims tried to make themselves known, and every now and then a new face would manifest as it rippled by and vanished behind his head.

“Gross,” Aphrodite said quietly.

“It is,” Xena agreed before a reflective glint on Daemonicus’s face caught her attention. She narrowed her eyes, and when she realized what it was, she felt a shiver run through her. “He’s watching us.”

Chapter 6

Gabrielle was about to respond to Xena’s statement when a familiar rumble could be heard in the distance. She spun to face the other tunnel’s entrance. “They’re coming. We don’t have much time. Xena, what are we gonna do? We can’t get near those flames.”

“No, we can’t.” Xena grabbed the bag from Aphrodite and pulled the armbands and the Magnador from it. After stuffing the armbands onto her wrist for safekeeping, she stopped all movement when the Magnador began to glow gently with pure white light.

Behind them, four apparitions manifested in a row, all facing Daemonicus, all glowing with that same white light.

Xena frowned. “I don’t think we need to know what to do. It has already been written.”

“Seems like it,” Gabrielle said.

Eve stared at the bands when they began to shake violently on her mother’s wrist. When the white light sparked out of them, Xena yelped.

“Ow!”

“Take them off, Mother,” Eve said anxiously.

But Xena didn’t have to take them off, and as Eve’s arms rose against her will, the armbands flew from Xena to Eve, sliding up her arms until they sat just under each shoulder. The Magnador glowed brighter, and somehow Eve knew it was time to take hold of the hilt.

Just after Eve had turned to face Daemonicus, the four ghosts of their loved ones floated off the ground. Xena just watched them until Gabrielle suddenly threw down her katana and grabbed at her own hand.

“Gabrielle!”

“Xena…I think I’m…”

Gabrielle’s right palm began to spark and spit shards of white light, and each time it did so, she winced and shied away from the brightness. She was compelled to place her palm on the back of Eve’s shoulder, and as soon as she had done it Xena’s left palm began to spark too.

Once Xena was in position behind Eve’s other shoulder, she realized they were not going to be in control of what happened next, and when the rumble of the approaching soldiers grew louder, she looked to Gena for the answer.

“Gena, you need to head them off at the entrance to that tunnel. Use the katana!”

“By myself?!”

“Yes. This is your part in all this. Hold them off until it’s done.”

Gena looked terrified, but she immediately carried out her mission without question. She grabbed the katana off the ground and ran toward the noise.

The light coming from Xena and Gabrielle’s palms shot through Eve until it came out of the PoE symbol on the front of the armbands. Eve seemed to feel no pain, and when she held the Magnador out in front of her, Xena knew it was time.

“Aphrodite! You need to move in front of Eve. Stand with your back to her!”

“Why?” Aphrodite shouted above the increasing noise, which now included Daemonicus’s moans of protest.

“Because it’s time! You must do it!”

“What’s going to happen to me, Xena?”

Xena didn’t have time to spare her feelings anymore. “We need your goddesshood! Look at the Magnador, Dite!”

Aphrodite did, and she saw it was now bursting with light that was filled with sparkles…her sparkles. “You knew this all along, didn’t you?!”

Xena was getting stressed. “I suspected, but you can yell at me later! If you don’t do this, you’ll be killed. Don’t you want to live?”

Even as Aphrodite moved into her position, she protested. “As a mortal?” she shouted.

“Yes, a mortal, but at least you’ll be alive!”

“Xena, they’re coming!” Gena screamed over the ruckus.

“It has to be now, Aphrodite!”

“Will it hurt?” the goddess asked while staring at the Magnador.

“I don’t know,” Xena said.

She didn’t get a chance to say anything else because Daemonicus created the most horrific screaming sound she had ever heard. All the faces of his victims were moving, both on the walls and on the ceiling. As they continued to scream, an almost-blinding white light appeared behind Xena and Gabrielle. They both turned to look, and higher up behind Joxer, Ephiny, Amarice, and Cyrene, stood Eli. Xena couldn’t believe it when he began to chant the words Gabrielle had said earlier.

“And so it shall come to pass, the Messenger will bring about the Twilight of the Gods, and at its completion, love will be our guiding light. And so it shall come to pass…”

Eve, seemingly in some sort of trance, began to chant over Eli’s words. “In the name of Eli and all the powers of heaven, I command this evil presence to be cast out! In the name of Eli and all the powers of heaven, I command…”

Aphrodite turned to give her back to Eve who was suddenly compelled to run the Magnador through Aphrodite’s body until the light burst from her stomach. Aphrodite threw her head back as her arms fell to her sides and the light engulfed her entire being.

Xena and Gabrielle began to sweat as the light coming from their hands grew in strength, almost burning their skin as it transferred its power to Eve.

Over at the mouth of the tunnel, Gena saw the first of the soldiers running toward her, and she braced herself for battle. She began swiping the katana left and right. She figured if she just repeated the motion with every bit of power she had left in her, that she could slice them open as they emerged in twos. There wasn’t any room in the tunnel for more than two abreast, so she knew she had to stand her ground and not let them enter the cavern or she would be doomed. The black slime sprayed across her as the first soldiers began to collapse, which would soon create a new problem. The bodies lay at her feet, merging into one another as they disintegrated, but as the pile grew higher, she realized it may not be a problem after all. The soldiers now had a smaller area to climb through, giving her the advantage. But two minutes later, she was beginning to tire. There were just so many of them, and she worried that she could not maintain her one-hundred percent kill score for much longer.

Meanwhile, behind her, the light had grown to its full power, so much so that Xena and Gabrielle had to narrow their eyes just to see anything. Eli wasn’t visible to the naked eye anymore, and the light that was surrounding Aphrodite shot out of her stomach like a lightning bolt heading directly for Daemonicus.

Daemonicus’s arm and leg appendages were projecting out of him as if they were trying to escape, not only from his hideous clutches but from the light as well. He tried to move, but in his incomplete form he was stuck to the ground where the flames climbed higher as his anger rose. The screaming got louder, but the light was just bouncing off him until Gabrielle realized they had an opportunity…the opportunity.

“Xena! Your chakram!” she shouted, using her free hand to lift her own weapon. “We need to throw them together.”

By the time she had said it, Xena was already poised to throw on Gabrielle’s command, and when she shouted “Now!” Xena used all her might to fire the chakram at Daemonicus.

Gabrielle’s throw caused the replica chakram to ricochet off a bulbous vein in the wall to the right and fly across to Daemonicus, just as Xena’s yin-yang chakram did the exact opposite, coming at him from the other side. They both whipped past one another at full velocity making two gaping wounds in Daemonicus’s torso.

When the weapon landed back in Gabrielle’s hand, she looked at Xena and said, “Again! His head!”

Xena threw in-sync with her once more, and this time they all but decapitated him. His neck – back and front – was opened up by the blades, leaving too many entry wounds for him to heal from. The light from Aphrodite poured into him, and the cavern began to shake all around them. At the exact moment the cavern had started shaking, Eve vibrated into two beings, and Xena and Gabrielle watched in amazement as Callisto seemed to appear, sharing the space with Eve’s body and shrouding her in the light. With the power of them all magnifying the love, Daemonicus began to melt.

The screams were chilling, the smell was appalling, and the sight was one neither Gabrielle nor Xena ever wanted to see again. Adult’s and children’s faces were stretching out of the cavern’s walls like they were dying all over again. The veins covering the walls began to burst and deposit their tar-like contents all over the floor until the warriors were standing in large puddles of it, and Daemonicus made the sounds of a demon and beast combined as he lost his form and was consumed by the light.

The soldiers began to die right in front of Gena’s eyes, and she lowered the katana since her work seemed to be done. As she backed away, the pile of bodies and slime spread out at her feet, and she wiped her face to clear it of that same slime before she turned to check on her friends.

As the cavern continued to shake violently, the ceiling crumbled, eventually making a deep and penetrating hole that led to the outside world. A bright beam of sunlight entered and shone directly onto Aphrodite as she continued to trap the Magnador within her.

Eve seemed to snap out of her trance, but she didn’t dare move her hand until she realized that she was only holding the hilt of the Magnador. The glass vessel had now disappeared.

With Eli and the other apparitions still glowing with love, Aphrodite opened her eyes to find that she was alive. There was no hole in her body where the Magnador had been, and she turned to see Xena, Gabrielle, and Eve all staring at her.

The tremors throughout the cavern ceased, and the glow from the ghosts faded until they were at normal levels again. Xena and Gabrielle could now remove their hands from Eve’s shoulders, and they quickly grabbed their daughter and Aphrodite in a hug. When Gena approached, they gathered her into the circle too.

“I’m…I’m alive,” Aphrodite said in a muffled, shaky voice.

When Xena released everyone, they remained in a small circle amid the filthy carnage. “You are.”

Aphrodite rubbed her hand over her own arm then wiggled her body a little. “I’m mortal.”

Xena smiled at her slight look of alarm. “I’m afraid so, but you’re here, Aphrodite. We didn’t want to lose you.”

The ex-goddess looked up at her. “I know. I’m glad to be here.”

“And we are glad too, Aphrodite,” Eli said, making them all turn around to face their guardian angels. “You have succeeded like I knew you would, Gabrielle,” he added as he lowered his ghostly form to the ground.

“Eli,” Gabrielle gasped as tears sprung to her eyes.

“And Xena,” he said, smiling warmly at her. “You have returned. There is much you have learned, and I hope you know now that Gabrielle was right to let me die.”

Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder and said, “Gabrielle was always right. I finally understand that.”

Joxer came forward to stand in front of Gabrielle. “I knew you could do it, Gabby. Even after everything you’ve been through and with everything you carry in your heart, you are still full of love. I miss you.”

“I miss you too, Joxer. I miss all of you,” she said, looking around at them. “We couldn’t have done this without you.”

Eli nodded. “We couldn’t have done it at all if every person in this cave wasn’t here. It was meant to be this way.”

Joxer moved over to Xena. “I miss you too, Xena.”

“Believe it or not, Joxer…same here,” she replied with a playful grin.

“Well, I’ll always be right here,” Joxer said as he poked at her heart.

Xena gave him her watch-out glare when he repeatedly touched her breast, but he just chuckled.

“I can poke you if I want to. Ya can’t kill me now,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Eli just shook his head in a tolerant sort of way. “And now we must go…”

“Mom,” Xena said as she reached out to Cyrene.

“I must go too, Xena. Just know I’ll always be with you. I love you girls so much.”

“We love you too.” Xena almost choked on her words as she tried to hold back her cries. She was overwhelmed with emotion, and she didn’t quite know what to do with it.

Gabrielle must have sensed it because she slipped her arm around Xena’s waist just as the ghosts faded into nothing. The looks of love on Ephiny and Amarice’s faces brought tears to Gabrielle’s eyes too.

“They’re gone,” Gena whispered.

Gabrielle nodded and patted her on the shoulder. “You did good, Gena.”

“I feel like I hardly did anything.”

“You’re wrong. We couldn’t have performed that…whatever it was…if all of those soldiers had come in here. You did a lot.”

“It was my pleasure,” the young warrior replied with a smile. “My duty.”

Eve lifted her hand that still held onto the hilt of the Magnador. “So this thing was magical?”

“It appears that way,” Xena said, removing one of the bands from Eve’s arm and studying it. “A gift from Eli…”

“We should keep these as souvenirs then.”

“Good idea.” Xena sighed and spun on her heels to look around the cavern. It seemed lighter now that there was a hole in the ceiling and Daemonicus’s slime was evaporating, but they still had to find a way out. “Do you think we could get out through that tunnel, Gena?”

“Yes. The soldiers have, uh, melted. And I have to assume the angels wouldn’t have left us if there were more traps.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose. “Hmm. If the soldiers came in that way, I think we’ll be safe enough.”

Xena crinkled her nose. “Even so, I’ll go first, and we’ll all keep our eyes open.”

With the entire group in agreement – and Aphrodite still prodding at her mortal body – they headed through the tunnel to hopefully begin their journey home to Amphipolis.

***

The sun was indeed shining bright as it sunk down toward the horizon for another night. They had completed their mission in plenty of time, but Gabrielle wouldn’t fully relax until day ten was over and she could still hold Xena in her arms the next morning. She would not simply take it for granted that Xena was all right now that Daemonicus was defeated. She would never trust Ares that much.

As they walked away from Mount Olympus, Gena was deep in thought. “So we’ve defeated the evil and there are no gods left. What do we do now?”

“Whatever we want, I suppose,” Xena said as she stopped to scratch her horse’s nose affectionately. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be more evil in the future. Just like Dahak and Alti and Indrajid, and many others before him, Daemonicus won’t be the last. Evil will just come around again in a different form. And there will still be ambrosia somewhere, and someone who wants to seek it out and abuse the power it holds, so there will no doubt be new gods, new battles to be fought, and new people to be helped in the future.”

“And I’ll be there to do it,” Gena said with a nod. “I think after we go home for a while, I’ll travel…see if I can be a warrior for the greater good, just like you both were. If I’m really lucky, I’ll find a strong companion to keep me grounded, keep me focused, just like you did for Xena, Gabrielle.”

Xena’s lip trembled as she felt that pesky emotion filling her heart again. “There’s no one like Gabrielle, but maybe…maybe you’ll find someone who fits you just as perfectly as she fits me.”

Gabrielle turned slowly to look at her, but when Xena didn’t make eye contact, she knew it was taking all of her strength just to keep from crying in front of her protégé.

“I hope I do.” Gena said as she began to walk ahead.

Aphrodite pursed her lips and creased her mortal forehead. “So what do I do now?”

“You live your life, Dite,” Gabrielle said kindly. “I bet there’s so much good you could do on Earth. Why don’t you come back to Amphipolis and take some time to figure out what you want?”

“I guess I could…”

Eve had heard the conversation. “You can stay with us,” she suggested. “There’s always your old room. It’s yours for as long as you need it.”

“There ya go,” Xena said. “Take some time out. Relax and settle into your new existence.”

“I’ll try.”

“Hey,” Gena suddenly looked puzzled. “Won’t we all go a little crazy now…I mean, what will people believe in now that there are no gods?”

“Perhaps Eli’s teachings can help lead the way,” Eve suggested.

“Perhaps,” Gabrielle agreed. “Or perhaps we can all start to believe in ourselves…and each other,” she added while looking at Xena.

“I like that idea,” Xena said, her eyes captured by Gabrielle’s. “We could believe in the power of love too.”

Gabrielle nodded. “The power of love.” She paused for a moment and broke her contact with Xena. “Hey, guys. Would you mind if Xena and I took a different route back to Amphipolis? I think we need some time.”

“Not at all,” Eve said, with Gena and Aphrodite nodding along beside her. “Take all the time you need. We’ll see you at home.”

Xena approached her daughter. “I love you, Evie.”

“Aww, you haven’t called me that before.”

“Actually, I have. You were just too young to remember,” Xena said quietly. “Be careful on your journey back. Take care of Aphrodite. I think she’s a little fragile right now.”

“I still have the power to hear, you know, Xena,” Aphrodite said with a pout. “But yes, I do feel a little strange.”

“That’ll pass,” Gabrielle piped in. “We’ll see you guys later.” She gave each of them a hug and waited until Xena had done the same.

As the three women waved, Xena and Gabrielle set off with their horse toward a worn track that ran back toward the winding road to Amphipolis.

“If we walk a few hours that way, we should find somewhere to settle before it gets dark,” Xena suggested.

“Sounds good…and we can take our time, right?”

“Yes. You know what I want most right now?”

Gabrielle knew it would be something basic. “A nice clean river to wash the slime off?”

Xena gawked at her. “Yes! Let’s find one and camp right next to it for the night. I think I’ll steep until I go wrinkly.”

“I think I’ll join you.”

Xena smiled as Gabrielle picked up the pace a little. It seemed they couldn’t wash Daemonicus off their bodies soon enough.

***

By nightfall, they hadn’t found their river, but they were warmed up next to a roaring campfire together. Xena had been so relieved when Gabrielle stretched out beside her on the furs. The stars were out tonight, making the air crisp with a frost that would blanket the recovering ground by tomorrow morning. Gabrielle wasn’t worried about that. She knew she wouldn’t sleep much anyway, and so would be able to stoke the fire to keep the cold at bay.

“Dinar for your thoughts?” Xena said, breaking the silence.

Gabrielle inhaled deeply and snuggled down into her coat. “I’m just thinking about everything that happened in that cave. It was so unreal. The power of love is truly amazing.”

“It sure is,” Xena responded in a whisper.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah. Just happy to be here with you.”

“Me too.”

For a short while, there was only the crackling of the fire until Xena voiced her thoughts aloud.

“I wonder what will actually happen now that the gods are gone. And what happened to Celesta?”

Gabrielle had somehow been given that information. “I’ve come to understand that Celesta entombed herself.”

“How do you know that?” Xena asked as she turned on her side so that she could watch Gabrielle as she spoke.

“Eli. I heard him in my head. He told me she did it after Apollo was killed. She feared that Daemonicus would get her next and put out her flame. She didn’t want the world to suffer without the release of death, so she entombed herself with her candle. Nobody knows where…”

“Wow. I bet Eli does.”

Gabrielle gave a tiny nod. “Well, I’m glad he’s keeping that to himself. At least death will always be a part of life. That’s the way it’s meant to be.”

Xena could hear the anxiety lingering under her words. “Are you still worried, Gabrielle?”

“About what?”

“About death still being a part of life? Do you think I’m going to leave you again?”

Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly as if to stop her tears. “I won’t stop worrying until your ten days are over, Xena. I can’t help it.”

“Is that why you suggested taking our own route back to Amphipolis?” Xena asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes. I don’t expect you to understand-”

“But I do understand,” Xena interrupted. “I do, Gabrielle. I don’t know how to explain to you that I feel different, but I know that I will do whatever I can to lessen your fear. We can stay here for the whole two days if you want.”

Now Gabrielle turned on her side to face Xena. “No. We’ll keep moving toward home, but I can’t let you out of my sight.”

“I told you, that’s fine with me.”

Gabrielle could see those blue eyes struggling to stay open. “Get some sleep now, Xena. We can tend to our injuries in the morning.”

Xena slid her hand up to link her arm with Gabrielle’s. “Don’t let go.”

“I won’t,” Gabrielle responded with a loving smile. “Rest.”

Once Xena had closed her eyes, Gabrielle remained awake, watching her and thinking about what tomorrow might bring. She wondered if this could really be how their lives would continue. She desperately wanted to let go of her anguish now, and it seemed she was almost there. She needed to know that Xena was back for good. Then, and only then, could she truly live.

***

At some point during the night, Gabrielle had succumbed to her exhaustion, but when a bird squawked high up in the trees above, she jerked awake to find Xena looking right back at her.

“Good morning.”

Gabrielle blinked a few times to soften the grittiness of sleep. “Morning.”

“That bird woke you, didn’t it? If I had my chakram at the ready, I would’ve got him for breakfast.”

“That’s OK. I’m not that hungry,” Gabrielle said, rising up to lean on her elbow. “You know, we haven’t heard birds in…in ages.”

“They probably all flew off to distant lands when Daemonicus came to be,” Xena said as she got up to relieve herself. “I’ll, uh, be right behind this bush.”

Gabrielle almost laughed at the funny look on her face. “That’s fine. I don’t need to have you in my sight while you pee, Xena.”

“Well, thank the gods…I mean, thank you, for that.”

“Me?”

“There are no gods, so yeah, I’ll thank you instead.”

“OK,” Gabrielle quipped as she scanned the area for berries. “Not much here in the way of breakfast. We should go find a river, and you can fish for a bit.”

“Sounds…normal,” Xena answered with a smile. “I’ll cook you up something great. I bet you’ll get an appetite then.”

Gabrielle was stuck on the word ‘normal.’ This did feel almost normal, and she was overwhelmed with gratitude just to have this moment with Xena. But then she remembered that day ten was not over yet, and her face darkened again. Xena saw it. She could see that Gabrielle was too freaked out to truly feel her happiness.

Tomorrow couldn’t pass quickly enough for Xena. Then Gabrielle would know the truth.

***

The sun had melted all the frost by the time they had found water. The discovery of a lake had Xena practically salivating at the thought of being clean. They had loosely tethered their horse again, and were now getting ready to bathe. Xena had already stripped off by the time Gabrielle had removed her boots.

“I can’t wait to get rid of the stink,” Xena said, making Gabrielle look up from her task.

With her mouth hanging open, Gabrielle’s answer stuck in her throat. “I…you…look amazing. I mean, I didn’t expect…I mean…you have injuries, but you…”

“There’s a sentence in there somewhere,” Xena said as she lowered herself under the freezing water. She sucked in a sharp breath through her teeth. “Wow, it’s cold. Quick wash for me.”

When Gabrielle continued to stare at her face, Xena grinned. “You’ve seen me naked a million times before, Gabrielle. Snap out of it.”

“B-but it’s different now.”

“It’s only different if we make it different. I’m the same person. I promise.” Xena scrubbed her body as quickly as possible with a rag. “You got any soap?”

Gabrielle finally got up and whipped her clothes off. “No. Just water will have to do this time.” She didn’t fail to notice Xena’s eyes following her every move as she entered the lake. “Quit staring.”

“No way. You stared at me.” Xena watched as Gabrielle fought to hide her smile. She knew she would see the full version of that smile very soon. “Well, I’m now an icicle, so I’ll see ya back at the fire.”

“I’ll b-b-be r-r-right there,” Gabrielle replied through chattering teeth. When she got back to the fire, Xena had it stoked to a roaring blaze and was standing holding Gabrielle’s garments up to dry them. “You washed my clothes?”

“Yeah. Here…” Xena was already wrapped in one of their furs, so she threw the other one over to Gabrielle who enveloped her cold body inside it.

“Thanks.” Gabrielle sat there and shook for a short while, and once her teeth had stopped clattering together, she looked up at her beautiful partner. “Sorry about the way I reacted to your nakedness. I don’t know what I was expecting. I know you’re the same person, Xena. It just seems so different to me. It’s like we have to start all over again.”

Xena laid the clothing out next to the fire and came to sit beside her. “We just have to remember what we had in the past. We know each other too well to start all over again. Want me to tell you some stories to jog your memory?”

“My memory is fine, but maybe later with the stories,” Gabrielle said as she gazed at the flames. “I keep wondering why our journey has taken this turn.”

“It’s been a difficult journey up until now. Maybe it will be easier from here on, and we can become something new, something happier.”

“But maybe the journey isn’t about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t who we are, so we can be who we were meant to be in the first place.”

“Like…the people we were meant to be before all the violence changed our lives?”

“Yes. Or even before that too. We should just stop doing what we think we’re supposed to do, and actually do what we feel like doing. I think we’ve paid our dues, Xena. We should be able to live for us now.”

Xena was stunned into silence since she had been thinking the same thing for days now. She stared stupidly at Gabrielle.

“Xena? You OK?” Gabrielle asked as she reached up to feel Xena’s forehead.

“Would…would you believe it if I said that I had been thinking that exact same thing recently, but I thought it was too selfish of me to want something just for us?”

Gabrielle sighed. “Yes, I would believe you. And I think it’s time for us to be a little selfish. I told you that. We’ve sacrificed enough for the greater good. It’s someone else’s turn.”

“I agree, and I promise that after tomorrow night, we’re going to start living that life…if you’ll have me.”

Gabrielle just grinned at her. “After tomorrow night, well, maybe I’ll get some real sleep.”

“You will. I’m not going anywhere.”

“We’ll see.”

Gabrielle stared back into the flames, and Xena did the same, knowing that it didn’t matter what she said because Gabrielle would have to see it for herself.

***

The next day passed pleasantly enough. Gabrielle was on edge for most of it, but Xena was doing her best to make her laugh, or at least feel like she wanted to laugh. They traveled a little farther and found a great spot to set up camp again, but by the time darkness fell Gabrielle was very quiet and very serious. Xena knew she was afraid, so she pulled their bedrolls even closer together. She wanted to hold Gabrielle tonight, no matter what.

An hour later, when Gabrielle seemed reluctant to lie down, Xena stood up and walked around the fire to take her by the hand. “Come on. We can lie and talk for a while.”

“I’m scared,” Gabrielle whispered once they were on the furs.

“I know. I wish I could take those fears away, Gabrielle. I know you’re not going to believe me, but things are going to be all right.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

Xena pulled her gently into her arms and smiled to herself when Gabrielle moved closer to hold onto her. “I do know that for sure. I know everything.”

“Hah,” Gabrielle took the bait. “You do not know everything.”

Xena, glad that she had managed to lighten the mood for a moment, went with it. “I totally do.”

“You don’t know everything, Xena.”

“Of course I do.”

Gabrielle racked her brains to think of a time when Xena had been wrong. “Ah. OK. You said you always knew the way of the warrior was not for me.”

“When did I say that?”

“When we were in India,” Gabrielle said triumphantly.

“Nothin’ wrong with your memory, huh?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I’ll give ya that one. What else ya got?”

“Um…” Gabrielle pulled at her lip for a moment. This was serious. She had to prove her point. When she thought of something, she pushed her face closer to Xena until her head was under her chin. “You once told me that people in our line of work never get to be old and gray.”

Xena gently slapped the back of Gabrielle’s shoulder. “We’re not there yet, but I’d be happy to be wrong in that one. I want to be old and gray with you.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Gabrielle said around a yawn that she just couldn’t stop.

“Try to get some sleep, Gabrielle. It’ll be morning soon enough.”

“I’m not going to sleep, Xena. Not letting you out of my sight, remember?”

“I remember,” Xena said softly, but she knew Gabrielle’s exhaustion would take over. She was right.

Chapter 7

The feeling of utter panic from Gabrielle’s nightmare bled into her waking state, and when she opened her eyes to find Xena gone, her heart seemed to stop in her chest. She launched herself to her feet and was about to scream out at the top of her lungs when Eli suddenly appeared before her.

Gabrielle was beyond upset. “No. Please tell me you didn’t take her. Please!”

“Calm down, Gabrielle,” Eli said, his face full of compassion and love. “She’s just over there answering the call of nature. I’ve come to tell you that it’s over. You can release your nightmares and stop feeling the pain of not knowing. Xena is staying with you. I hate to see you agonize over this, so this is my gift to you. You have my promise, she is not leaving. She is alive.”

Gabrielle broke down in tears. “Do you really promise?”

“It is the truth. I give my love to you both. Be happy, Gabrielle. Goodbye, my friend.”

“Goodbye, Eli. We love you.”

“I know,” Eli said as he vanished in a hazy cloud.

Gabrielle sniffed hard, but she couldn’t stop crying now that his words were sinking in. When Xena returned a moment later, she found her on her knees.

“Gabrielle. What happened?”

“Oh, Xena!” Gabrielle jumped up and grabbed hold of her as tightly as she could. “You’re really here.”

Xena pushed her back a little to look at her face. “I told you I would be. I didn’t expect you to be awake so early. You were completely exhausted. I was desperate to pee, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten up. I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t apologize anymore. Everything is OK now.”

“It is?”

“Yes. Eli told me so. You really are here to stay,” Gabrielle said as she rubbed the tears off her eyes and nose. “Gods, I must look a mess.”

“You’ve never looked more beautiful.” Xena got a response that was more than she could have hoped for: the biggest smile Gabrielle had allowed herself in years. “And now you are even more beautiful,” she added while brushing Gabrielle’s bangs out of her eyes.

Gabrielle stared at her for long moments. She finally had a sense of certainty about their future. “We can go home now, right?”

“We can do anything you want. I’m here to cater to your every need,” Xena said before she kissed her on the forehead.

“No. You’re here so that we can take care of one another. That’s how it has to be from now on. No more running off alone. No more hiding things from each other. No more-”

“I get the picture, Gabrielle.”

“No, you don’t. I’m talking about both of us, Xena. We’ve both made mistakes in the past. We need to learn from them.”

“I think we have. I had ten years to think of nothing but my mistakes. I won’t make them again. I love you, and I’m staying right here.”

Gabrielle hadn’t said those three little words to Xena in so long that she almost stumbled over them. “I…I love you too.”

“That’s all I need to know. Now we can go home.”

Gabrielle just nodded, her mind still processing the fact that it was all turning out the way she had always wanted. Once she had hugged Xena again for good measure, they began to walk hand-in-hand along the road, leading their horse toward Amphipolis.

***

Two blissful days later, Xena and Gabrielle were approaching the beginning of the Amazon forest. Just like the last time they had passed by here, something was moving swiftly among the trees. Xena narrowed her eyes to watch. She knew Gabrielle had seen it too because she had her chakram in her hand, just in case.

“Amazons,” Gabrielle said as she popped her chakram back on its hook.

“Yeah, but why aren’t they coming to see us?” Xena said as she scrunched her face. “It looks like they’re running away…toward Amphipolis.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “I hope everything was OK after we left.”

“I think its fine. I just heard them laughing. I have a feeling we’re going to be welcomed back in fine style.”

“A party?” Gabrielle posed with a huge smile on her face.

“Something like that,” Xena grumbled. “I hate surprises.”

“Aww, come on, Xena. I’m sure you could survive it this one time.”

Xena pretended to growl a little, and she held the grumpy expression quite well until Gabrielle jumped in front of her, stopping her in her tracks.

Gabrielle rose up on her tiptoes and kissed Xena on the chin. “You might enjoy it?”

Xena remained strong and narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle. She wasn’t fooling anyone, though.

“Just for me?” Gabrielle said, fluttering her eyelashes and smiling sweetly.

Xena wanted to continue her act just to see Gabrielle being so playful. It was a huge difference to when they had first been reunited. Xena wanted it to last forever, but when Gabrielle started making funny faces and wiggling her eyebrows, she caved. “Anything for you.”

“Yes!” Gabrielle punched her fist in the air before she pulled Xena into a walk again. “If we galloped the rest of the way, we could beat them back to Amphipolis…but I’d rather make them wait. I’m enjoying this walk with you.”

“Not as much as I’m enjoying it,” Xena said casually.

“So competitive.”

Xena grinned and let Gabrielle swing their joined hands as they strolled along the road. “A quick stop for lunch soon?”

“Yeah. Then we can be home for dinner.”

“Getting your appetite back then?”

“Perhaps. I think it was more a complete lack of interest before, rather than a lost appetite.”

Xena felt a pang of pain in her chest. “I’m sorry for-”

“Nope,” Gabrielle interrupted. “No more apologizing for the past, Xena. We are looking to the future, a future where we’ll laugh, cry, eat, sleep, breathe, and build a home together. Deal?”

Xena couldn’t argue with any of that. She didn’t want to, either. “Deal.”

***

As they neared the edge of town, they heard the low, rumbling drumbeat of an Amazon celebration. Since dusk was fast approaching, the lights could be seen in the distance, glowing from the windows of the houses and from the torches lining the streets. A chorus of laughter was occasionally heard when the crowd’s excitement escalated.

Since their first sighting of the Amazons in the forest, Xena and Gabrielle had spotted three more teams of spies along their path home. It seemed their arrival would be well announced.

Xena didn’t care that a surprise party was potentially on the cards. All she cared about was that the people were happy, that they seemed to have survived the soldiers who had been heading for the town, and that Amphipolis was thriving in the aftermath of Daemonicus. She hoped the rest of their homeland was celebrating too, and cleaning up the mess left by the fallen soldiers of darkness.

When Xena turned to look at Gabrielle, she saw that she had a contented smile on her face. There was nothing else Xena needed in this new life she had been given. If Gabrielle was happy, she would be too.

“You ready for this?” Gabrielle asked, oblivious to Xena’s musings.

“Definitely. Let’s act all surprised, though. I wouldn’t want to disappoint them.”

“Aww, look at you getting into the party spirit,” Gabrielle teased.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

They found some stables in the first street, and when they went inside to relieve their tired horse, the blacksmith’s assistant welcomed them.

“Hi. I’m Phalmus. Welcome to…” His face suddenly went pale. “Oh…you’re Gabrielle! Oh, welcome, welcome. And you?! You’re Xena!”

“Uh, yes,” Xena said, extending her hand.

Phalmus shook it nervously. “Please, let me deal with your horse. You should go and replenish yourselves after such an arduous journey.”

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and looked at Xena. “I guess we should?”

“Uh-huh. Thanks, Phalmus.”

“Anytime, anytime,” he replied, bowing repeatedly until they left.

“That was weird,” Xena said as they headed for Eve’s house.

“Not really, Xena. We just saved the world…well, Greece, at least. Not sure how much farther Daemonicus had reached, but here, the people will be very grateful. Stories travel fast, you know.”

“Oh, I know.”

The drumming was much louder as they turned the last corner, and the sight that greeted them was one full of color and warmth. The Amazon dancers continued to move to the beat, but they were watching Xena and Gabrielle as they walked into the crowd. People all around them welcomed them home, and thanked them for bringing about a new era – an era without the Greek gods, and without the blight of Daemonicus. Both warriors simply nodded since everything was quite overwhelming, but as they entered the town square, Gabrielle stopped walking when she saw the large statue. She had found Xena under that statue in the storm that night, but she hadn’t been able to see who the statue was honoring.

“It’s Eli,” she said with wonder. “It was all Eli.”

Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder. “I think we could take a guess at who Ares made his deal with then.”

“You think he went to Eli?” Gabrielle asked loudly since the noise level was rising as the excited chatter increased.

“I’d say he realized Eli’s power and knew that he was the way of love. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Gabrielle looked back up at the statue. “I suppose it does.”

“Xena! Gabrielle!”

It was Autolycus, but he wasn’t twirling on his moustache or trying to look suave like the old days. He ran his hand nervously through his graying hair and marched toward them before grabbing both of them in a huge bear hug. Both Xena and Gabrielle hugged him in return, and he didn’t let go until Xena began to squirm.

“It’s amazing. It’s just amazing,” he said, looking them up and down. “I guess you two are truly indestructible.”

Xena gave him a half-smile. “We do make quite a team.”

“It’s good to see you, Autolycus,” Gabrielle added. “We have time to catch up now. Did everything go all right here after we left?”

Autolycus signaled for them to follow him to a quieter spot. “We got everyone out of Amphipolis, yeah, but we knew the elite guard was on its way to find Aphrodite, so we set a false trail.”

“Who’s we?” Xena asked.

“Me, and a few other guys…and my wife.”

Gabrielle’s eyes popped open wide. “The King of Thieves settled down?”

“Aw, quit that, will ya? I’m an old man now. And yes, I’ve settled down. Right here, actually.”

“Did everyone come back to Amphipolis?” Xena was amazed that they were all in her home town.

“Not everyone,” Autolycus said, giving Gabrielle a wink. “But you’re both here now. Anyway, we set the false trail using Kara…that’s my wife…as a stand-in for Aphrodite. We knew the soldiers were coming on foot, so we took a few horses and put ourselves right under their noses. I shouted, “Oh, no! We need to get Aphrodite out of here,” and they fell for it. Stupid bags of slime. I don’t know how in Tartartus they managed to kill gods.”

“The elite guard killed the last of the gods?” Xena still couldn’t figure out how Daemonicus could do all this.

“Yeah. Once Aphrodite had killed her brother, his sword and the Hindsblood dagger were lost on Olympus. The elite guard soldiers somehow got possession of both, and they killed the few gods that were left…after Daemonicus had weakened them by eating their followers, of course.”

“Of course,” Gabrielle said as if it was plainly obvious.

“Anyway, that’s why they were after the Goddess of Love. She was the last one.” Autolycus looked seriously at them both. “To be honest, I think your mission to protect Aphrodite was even more important than your mission to kill Daemonicus.”

“You’re probably right, Autolycus,” Xena replied. “Aphrodite was a vital part of our mission, and if it was Eli’s mission all along then everything about it was love.”

“And who is more love than the Goddess of Love herself?”

“Exactly,” Gabrielle said with a nod. “And speaking of…where is she?”

“Ah. She’s at the old inn with Eve, Gena, and my lovely Kara. They’re making a feast…uh, the surprise feast. Oops. Anyway, it’s strange to see Aphrodite all mortal and everything, but she seems to be adjusting OK.”

As they headed toward Eve’s house, Xena watched her old friend as he told them about how things had changed after they both left ten years ago. She was heartened to see that Gabrielle could both listen to, and speak about, the bad times back then without as much pain in her eyes now. Xena knew that it would lessen more over time. She vowed to herself that they would talk it all through: all the mistakes, all the anguish, all the difficult decisions, and she wanted to hear about everything that Gabrielle had done over the past decade. She knew the stories would fill her life for the next few years, and she looked forward to it immensely.

“Xena? What do you think?”

“Uh, sorry. I was thinking about something else.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Oh well, I’ll just have to do it all by myself.”

Damn, Xena thought. What did I miss? She lowered her eyebrows and searched in Gabrielle’s eyes. “Tell me…”

Gabrielle started to laugh, and once Xena got over the emotion of seeing that, she put her hands on her hips.

“Come on, Gabrielle.”

“I was teasing. We were just talking about Amphipolis, but I saw you phasing out and thought…” She gave a shrug and walked in the door behind Autolycus.

Xena followed, shaking her head and rolling her eyes.

***

In the great room, a long table was set with decorations running along the center, and candles all around the room lighting up every corner. A tree had been placed near the fireplace, and it looked like the children of Amphipolis had made decorative baubles to hang on it.

A tall brunette came out of the kitchen, her hands filled with a platter of food, piled high. It was Kara, and Autolycus took great pleasure in introducing her to his two warrior friends. Warm greetings were exchanged with Eve, Aphrodite, and Gena, and just as they were about to sit down to dinner, the door opened and in walked Queen Varia…on her own, with no entourage.

“Hey. Did I miss anything?” she asked, smiling at Xena and Gabrielle before she gave them a genuine hug.

“Not much,” Eve said sarcastically. “Here. Saved you a seat.”

Xena and Gabrielle watched as Varia moved around the large table and deposited her cloak and weapons on a chair against the wall, but they downright gawked when she hugged Eve and gave her a peck on the cheek. Was it just a peck on the cheek? Xena watched closer as the two exchanged a few words in a whisper while gazing into one another’s eyes. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

“So, uh, Varia. You went from trying to kill my daughter to…?”

The way she had said it made everyone laugh. She was glad it was taken that way, but she also really wanted to know what was going on.

Varia answered honestly. “Loving her? Yes, Xena. People change. I know you did.” She watched Xena’s expression darken. “Please don’t challenge me to any sort of dual right now. I’ve had a long week.”

Now Xena laughed a full belly-laugh like never before. “I…I don’t want to fight you, Varia. I just don’t believe it. Gabrielle, do you believe it?”

“Sure. Us warrior types can be quite charming once you get to know us,” Gabrielle said as she served herself some potatoes.

“It won’t be a problem, will it, Mother?” Eve asked a little more seriously.

“Never. I’m so glad you’re happy, Eve.”

Varia seemed to flop back into her seat. “Phew. Now, can we eat this delicious meal before it cools?”

Xena glanced out the side of her eye at Gabrielle. “I think we should eat this delicious meal before Gabrielle finishes it.” She got a nudge in the ribs for that, but it only made her snort out a laugh.

“Ale, Mother?” Eve asked, holding out a large tankard.

“Now you’re talking.”

Everyone began serving up the various types of food, passing the plates around the table until they were all ready to start eating and catch up with Gabrielle. The chatter was intermittent and in a moment of silence, Aphrodite’s gentle voice broke the quiet.

“Thank you.”

“Aphrodite…?” Xena said with her eyebrow curled in the usual fashion.

“I said, thank you. I’m not sure if I told you that I appreciate everything you did. I mean, I’m still here.”

“You’re welcome. And I told you, we didn’t want to live without you.”

“Even if I’m mortal?”

“Even if you’re mortal,” Xena and Gabrielle said in unison.

Aphrodite gave a small nod of gratitude, and after an unseen wave of love swarmed around the room, she asked for the platter of ham and proceeded to serve herself two slices.

It ended up being an evening filled with interesting talk, good food, and even better company, and afterwards they all wandered outside to finish off the crisp and chilly night with the Amazon party-goers before Xena and Gabrielle retired to their room, sleepy and contented.

“I wish I hadn’t eaten so much,” Gabrielle mumbled into the colorful blanket that covered the bed. “I’m not used to it yet.”

Xena lay down on her side next to her and pulled her body close, placing her hand on Gabrielle’s softly rounded belly. “Feels fine to me.”

Gabrielle could barely open her eyes. She felt so full, so sleepy, and more at peace than she had done in years. “You’d better hope I don’t continue this way. You’ll have a chubby Gabrielle on your hands.”

“Wouldn’t bother me one bit…”

“Well it would bother me, so you’d better keep me on a sparring schedule for the rest of our lives.”

Xena chuckled. “I can do that, but right now I’m going to grab those two shifts that Eve left for us. Then we can get some serious shuteye.”

“As long as you’re holding me, Xena…”

“All night long, Gabrielle.”

***

The next four days were spent reconnecting with their family and friends, sharing tales with the Amazons who came into town frequently, and relaxing in long baths and warm beds. Xena and Gabrielle had decided to live somewhere near Amphipolis, and after Gabrielle got over the shock of Xena wanting to truly settle down, she started planning what animals they might have, and what they would do in their new home.

On the fifth day after their return, Xena and Gabrielle did something they never thought they would do. It was early morning, and since the sun was shining on this fine winter’s day, they decided on a fishing trip. It turned into a day of hunting, fishing, and relaxing by the lake with Eve, Varia, Gena, Autolycus, and Kara. Xena usually preferred it to be just her and Gabrielle, but this trip turned out to be a lot of fun. She realized these people were now her extended family, and she found that she was just fine with that, although it did remind her of the family she had lost. She wondered where Toris had ended up. Maybe they would find him one day. At least she could always visit the graves of her younger brother and her mother, and that same night, she and Gabrielle went to the shrine where Cyrene and Lyceus were buried.

“We have a lot to thank her for,” Gabrielle said quietly as they stood over the two tombs.

Xena nodded as she touched the cold stone. “She was a part of it too. So much love…”

Gabrielle took hold of her hand. “We did it, Xena. We saved them all. Who knows how far Daemonicus’s reach would have been. And I know that the dead can hear our thoughts…so your mom knows how much we love her and Lyceus. She has known all along.”

Xena brought their hands up to kiss Gabrielle’s knuckles. “Bye, Mom. We’ll be around. Bye, Lyceus.” She turned to hug Gabrielle before they left. “We should move on soon…find somewhere to call our own.”

“You’re really into this settling down thing?” Gabrielle wanted to check.

“Yes. I think it’s time.”

“Hmm. I agree.”

***

The next day, they had packed up their few belongings and were ready to leave when Eve came to the door of their room.

Once she had knocked and heard a shout from the other side, she opened the door and peeked her head in. “Hi. Could you come downstairs for a minute? There’s someone out front to see you.”

“Who is it?” Xena asked.

Eve pretty much dropped her face into her hands. “Can you just come downstairs without asking questions?” she said, flicking her head to the side like a maniac.

“I think what your daughter is trying to tell you is that she has something for us outside, Xena.”

“Ah. Of course that’s what she meant. Why don’t ya just say that then?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Sorry, Eve. She’s not real good with surprises.”

At the front door of the house, Eve shuffled to the side to let Xena and Gabrielle see Gena who was holding onto the reins of two horses. One of those horses looked very familiar.

“Argo,” Xena whispered, almost to herself.

“Mother, Gabrielle, I’d like to re-introduce you to Argo the second,” Eve said as she splayed her hand out toward the beasts. “And introduce you for the first time to Kael. The people of Amphipolis wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done.”

Xena stepped forward to take Argo’s reins. “Wow. She looks great.”

Gena looked proudly on. “She’s getting older, but she’s in fine shape, and anyway, you guys said at dinner the other night that you won’t be charging into battle anymore if you can help it, so she’ll do just fine for you.”

“Ya got that right,” Xena said as she watched Gabrielle take hold of Kael.

“She’s so beautiful, Eve.” Gabrielle patted the shiny, black mare on the nose. Kael decided this would be a good opportunity to nibble on her new owner’s coat.

“She’s a really nice girl, kind but courageous.”

“She fits Gabrielle perfectly then,” Xena said.

After she gave Xena a shy look, Gabrielle turned back to her horse. “They’re really ours?”

“I told you,” Gena said. “Xena is a legend in these parts, and you made the legend, Gabrielle. The people here just want to repay you, and now that you’re back, they have that chance.”

“Please thank them all for us.”

“We will,” Eve said. “Gena and I will get your things. I know you want to get moving.”

“I’m heading out too, Eve. It’s time for me to start my journey.”

“I know, Gena. I’ll miss having you around here, but I understand. Believe me.”

When Gena went indoors to gather her own belongings, Eve smiled at Xena and Gabrielle before she followed.

Before long, the goodbyes were said. It wasn’t too difficult for Eve to see her parents go. She knew they would be closeby and would send word to her as soon as they had found somewhere to live. She did shed a few tears as Gena walked away with them. The young warrior had been a huge part of her life for years now, and it would be a lot quieter around the old inn without her there. Eve knew she would always have company, though. Varia was with her when her queenly duties allowed, and there was a constant stream of people who needed her advice, counselling, or spiritual guidance. Her life was full in so many ways.

As was Xena’s. She was beginning to relax now that the trauma of her reincarnation and their mission to kill Daemonicus were over. But the greatest relief was to see Gabrielle happily talking to Gena as they started down the road. They weren’t sure exactly where they were going, but Xena had a potential location in mind, if it was still the same – she had to do the strangest calculation in her head, including the time she and Gabrielle were entombed in ice – about forty years later.

When they eventually came to a fork in the road, it was time for Gena to set off on her own. All three women were strangely somber.

“I guess it’s time,” Gena said as she tightened up the belly strap on her horse’s saddle.

“It is. Are you sure you want to do this?” Xena asked.

“I’m sure, Xena. Like you said, there will always be another evil to overcome, another warlord to be dealt with, or another innocent who will need the help of a traveling warrior. And you two have served your time. It’s my turn now.”

“Will you send word of your travels back to us?” Gabrielle said as she hugged her.

“Yes.”

“And remember all the advice Eve gave you, and all the stories you’ve read about Xena. There are always lessons to be learned.”

“I know your scrolls by heart, Gabrielle. Now go find a home, both of you.” Gena shook Xena’s hand. “It was an honor to meet you, Xena.”

Xena pursed her lips before she said, “And it was my honor to meet you too, Xena…and I think you’ve earned the title Warrior Princess now. So, go…spread the word of Daemonicus’s demise and do good wherever you can.”

“I will.”

“And take care of yourself, Xena,” Gabrielle added.

“Hey, you said my name without gagging.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Maybe that’s because I have my own Xena back.”

“That’s right, and she’s stuck with me now,” Xena said with a wink.

Young Xena’s face twitched in some strange ways before she nodded once and gave her heroes a salute. She turned and walked away feeling like she was leaving two of her best friends behind. She glanced back at them and shouted, “I’ll come home soon to visit.”

“Looking forward to it already,” Xena shouted back. “Home,” she echoed quietly to Gabrielle. “Let’s head home, Gabrielle.”

“Lead the way.”

“There’s this old shack I used to know, not too far from here. I would go there to rest sometimes when I was wounded in battle. Of course, that was a very long time ago. It might not be there anymore, but I liked where it was. There were hills on three sides, and the only easy way in was from the front. You could see anyone coming at you. A good place to-”

“Feel safe,” Gabrielle finished for her.

Xena nodded. “It would be a good place for us.”

“Take me there, then,” Gabrielle said as she grazed her hand against Xena’s cheek. “It sounds like somewhere to start anew.”

“I’m just so grateful you want to do this.”

When a single tear rolled down Xena’s face, Gabrielle moved her thumb across to catch it. “It’s all I ever wanted, Xena.”

After Xena nodded and sniffed loudly, they mounted their horses and trotted off to the east.

As they rode under the afternoon sun, Gabrielle began to wonder what it would be like to have a quiet life. “Don’t you think you’ll be bored with no battles to be fought, no travels to keep you occupied, and nothing to beat up on a daily basis?” she asked with a hint of a smile.

Xena guffawed. “Gabrielle, bear in mind that you’re almost ten years younger than me-”

“Ah-ah. Actually, with you in limbo for the same amount of time, we’re technically the same age now.”

“Oh, uh, that’s too complicated. Anyway, I think the question is do you want to settle down with an old, ex-warrior who only just learned the most important lesson in life?”

Gabrielle moved Kael in front of Argo, effectively stopping their progress. “Well, that depends on the lesson she learned.”

“The lesson is,” Xena said as she shifted Argo closer to Gabrielle. “That you are my life, and that I love you more than anything in this entire universe. All I ask for is your forgiveness, your love, and your truth.”

Gabrielle leaned into her and kissed her on the lips for the first time in eons. “You have my forgiveness, Xena. I told you that. And my truth is that I’ll be happy ‘til we’re old and gray as long as I’m with you. I never stopped loving you. Never.”

“I’ve missed that.”

“What?” Gabrielle said as they continued along the path.

“Your touch, your kiss,” Xena replied while trying to quell the desire she had not felt in so long. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“Xena?” When Xena turned to her, Gabrielle smiled. “I’ve missed it too. We’re almost home.”

Xena sensed the full meaning of Gabrielle’s words immediately. “I know. It’s not too far now.”

They rode for a little over an hour, and when they rounded the side of one of the hills Xena had mentioned, Gabrielle saw the shack in all its ruggedness. The windows were completely shot, the roof was caving in, and the front porch looked like it was sinking on one side.

“Well, at least it’s still standing,” she said with a snort.

“What do you think, Gabrielle? Can we make this work?”

“It’s a fixer-upper, for sure,” Gabrielle replied as she leaned down on Kael’s mane to stretch out her stiff back muscles. “But I bet we could make it into a wonderful home.”

“With you beside me, it’ll be home.”

“What if I was in front of you?”

Xena turned to see a spark of the old Gabrielle mischief in those bright, green eyes. She was speechless for a moment, the sheer beauty of Gabrielle’s heart penetrating to her very soul, and her captivating eyes showing all the forgiveness and love she had spoken of before. It was more than Xena had ever hoped for.

“Or maybe behind you?” Gabrielle added to recapture Xena’s attention.

Xena jumped down from Argo and reached out for Gabrielle to dismount too. When she collected her one and only love into her arms, she answered. “You can be anywhere you want as long as you’re here. You are the light in my life, Gabrielle. You always have been. When the time comes, many, many years from now, I want us to pass into the next life peacefully. You know I’ll find you there, and we’ll be together again…for eternity.”

“I know,” Gabrielle said softly. “Then let’s fix this place up and live out the rest of this life in peace, and in love.”

“Sounds perfect.” Xena turned to look around them, but she never let go of Gabrielle. The closeness was just too wonderful to give up. “You know, that breeze is strangely warm. I felt it on the way here, like it was the world breathing past my skin and telling me that this was the way it should always have been. I never knew peace in my heart until now. I just wish it hadn’t taken so much agony to get here. It’s like I’ve been reborn to realize that you are the only reason for me to live.”

Gabrielle was now the one to have a tear in her eye. “Like I said before, we really have come full circle. You truly sound like a bard. That was beautiful, and you should be at peace, Xena. I think it’s about time.” She let her fingers play with the metal on Xena’s breastplate. “When did you first realize you were in love with me?”

Xena frowned at the unexpected question. “I think it was the day you married Perdicus. Why?”

“Wow. That was a long time ago.”

“No kidding.”

“Why didn’t you say anything back then?” Gabrielle asked while still sliding her fingertip around the curving armor of the breastplate.

“You know why. I didn’t think I deserved you, and I didn’t think you really knew what you wanted.”

“I was pretty naïve, wasn’t I? I knew from the first day I saw you that I had to be with you, but I had no idea why. I was confused about who I was. I just knew I didn’t fit in back in Poteidea.”

“Well, you certainly figured things out eventually.”

Gabrielle grinned and looked up into Xena’s eyes. “Remember our first time?”

“I’ll never forget it, or any of the other times either. Every moment with you is etched into my mind forever. The memories are all I had for a long time.”

Gabrielle buried her face into Xena’s chest for a second. “I know,” she mumbled as she lifted her head. “We can make some wonderful new memories here.”

Xena leaned in to kiss Gabrielle, to show her through that simple touch how much she meant to her. Their tongues engaged in a slow dance, their lips felt the unspoken passion, and their hearts thundered like a thousand stampeding centaur hooves in their chests. And as they parted, Gabrielle licked her lips before smiling the widest smile Xena had seen since those early days of their friendship. Her Gabrielle was coming back to her, and Xena knew it was only a matter of time now. They just needed to recuperate, to live a normal life for a while, and to do that together.

“Let’s start making those new memories, huh?” Xena suggested as her heart slowed to a normal beat.

“Definitely,” Gabrielle agreed. “I think we should sleep on our furs under the stars tonight, right here in our front yard. Well, maybe not sleep.”

Xena felt a slightly feral smile gracing her lips before she could stop it. “For old times’ sake?”

“Uh-huh. And for new times’ sake,” Gabrielle said as she took Xena’s hand. “I love you. I’m in love with you, and I want to make love with you for the rest of our days.”

Xena felt her pulse quicken again. She wondered briefly if she would actually survive life with this beautiful woman. “You are my life, Gabrielle.” When she received that familiar and irresistible smile from Gabrielle, she simply had to grin herself.

They were home. It had taken decades to get here, but they were here together, finally.

Epilogue

Two months later, Gabrielle sat on the porch step outside their rustic cabin home. She watched as Xena chopped some wood using an old ax they had found nearby. Her thoughts drifted to far off places, reminiscing about her travels and processing her new life here. Tears welled from her eyes without warning, and Xena noticed them in seconds because she had been glancing over at Gabrielle between swings.

“Hey. You OK?”

Gabrielle inhaled suddenly as she broke out of her daydream, but she didn’t say anything which prompted Xena to approach and crouch down in front of her.

“What were you thinking about that made you cry?”

Once Gabrielle had touched her own face to check if she was indeed crying, she smiled and reached out to hold onto Xena’s hands. “I was remembering my journey home. I was remembering how only months ago, I was ready to leave this world behind and come find you somehow. When I was traveling I saw so much killing, so much destruction, and so many people hating one another all because they didn’t believe the same thing, or because they were greedy and wanted what others had. I was part of that killing for a while, but I tried to do it to help those who were having trouble defending themselves, or those who were fighting for freedom and love.”

“That’s what we do, Gabrielle.”

“I know, but I changed so much. The kill became too satisfying…and I’ve killed many. But one day, I had this dark grin on my face as I pushed a wounded soldier to the ground. I was on top of him, driving my sword into his chest, and when he took his last breath I felt I had accomplished something. I was so wrong. That battle was truly awful. That moment was the moment I decided I had no more to give. I came home to die. I think you know that.”

Xena nodded. “Just like I did the day I met you.”

“It’s that full circle thing again, because what stopped me from killing myself was the thought that you were here somewhere. I had to find you.” Gabrielle repeatedly rubbed her thumbs over Xena’s knuckles as she continued. “On the ship that brought me here, I stood there knowing in my heart that I would never be happy again. I had tried…for years I tried, but I knew then that my life should be over. Of course, once again I was wrong. So I was crying just now because I can’t believe I’m sitting here so peacefully watching you chop wood for our fire tonight. I’m crying because I’m the happiest I have ever been.”

Xena didn’t mind the tears that trickled down her own cheeks because they were tears of complete joy. “You deserve to be happy, Gabrielle-”

We deserve to be happy, Xena. You always leave you out of it.”

“Well, if you had let me finish,” Xena said with a cheeky grin. “I would have told you that I deserve to be happy with you.”

Gabrielle just stuck out her tongue which made Xena shrug and do the same before she stood up and wandered off into the cabin.

“Where are you going?” Gabrielle asked, pouting as she watched her walk away.

“I have a little surprise for you.”

When Xena disappeared inside, Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her knees while she waited not-so-patiently for her surprise.

“Oh, Gabri-elle!”

“I do believe that means I can run in there now.” Gabrielle shot off the porch step and into their cozy living room where Xena stood leaning on a staff.

“I made this for you since we missed the solstice…many solstices actually,” Xena said as she tapped her fingernail on the staff.

“Ooh! It’s so beautiful!” Gabrielle took hold of the staff in one hand, with the other one busy grabbing Xena around the waist. “Thank you, Xena. I love it. The detail is incredible!” She examined the stunning band of intricate carvings around the middle that included the letters X and G entwined throughout the tribal design. “You did this yourself?”

“I have many skills,” Xena responded with a grin.

“Hah! I know you do.”

“Argo wanted to help, so the hair on the hand grip is from her tail.”

“Aww.” Gabrielle quietened for a moment. “With everything we’ve been through recently, I haven’t gotten you anything yet…but I will.”

“No need. You gave me the best gift in the whole world.”

“I did?”

“Yes. I have you.”

Gabrielle pretty much swooned. “I love you, Xena.”

“I love you too, Gabrielle. So much.”

A kiss sealed the declaration before a rustling noise outside caught their attention. With her new staff in one hand and Xena in the other, Gabrielle shuffled onto the porch to investigate. “Oh, a deer,” she whispered.

“Want me to kill it for dinner?” Xena whispered back.

“Nah. I’m not in the mood for venison.”

Xena pulled Gabrielle closer for a hug. “Vegetable stew, it is.”

“Yeah. It was really tasty that last time you made it.” Gabrielle smacked her lips together. “So good.”

“Good for the deer. Want me to go kill a rabbit for tomorrow?”

“Maybe. I’m sensing itchy feet…”

“Nah, I’ll be fine. I’ve got wood to chop.”

Gabrielle laughed and leaned her staff on the post nearby before she moved to place her hands on Xena’s upper chest. “I think we should go on a trip soon. I’d like to go to Athens, just to see how it has changed.”

“Really?” Xena asked excitedly.

“Yes, really. Xena, we can still travel whenever we want. We can still help people if we need to. Just…let’s not go looking for trouble, OK?

“Absolutely.”

“And I’ll enjoy the journey because we have a nice home to come back to when we get tired. We’re no spring chickens, you know?”

Xena licked her lips. “Ooh, chicken.” When Gabrielle’s forehead bumped against her collarbone repeatedly, she rolled her eyes. “What? I’m just hungry.”

“I’m pretty sure I can think of something to satisfy your appetite…without making vegetable stew.”

With a curl of her dark eyebrow, Xena marched directly through the front door. “That’s right. You have many skills too.”

.

The End.

Story ©2016 StageFreak Productions.

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Episode 13 – In The Past

July 13, 2014

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DISCLAIMERS:

This romantic drama is an original story, and all characters are created by me.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.

This story contains some description of violence. Anyone who is sensitive to scenes of this nature, please consider yourselves warned.

This story depicts a loving, sexual relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

* * * * * *

So many thanks go to my beta-reader. Your help is very much appreciated and continues to be most welcome. And thank you to all my readers. Your feedback has been most helpful and encouraging. Keep it coming!

This is the next installment my series, After Montana, which can be found at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com

As usual, to understand and enjoy the characters and situations fully, you should probably read them in sequence. Comments and/or opinions can be sent to stagefreakmusic@hotmail.com or left at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com

***

Chapter 1

“Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” the honorable Judge Pelzer boomed.

“We have, Your Honor.”

“Will the defendant please rise.” The judge looked from the accused to the first juror. “To the charge of criminal solicitation in reference to the destruction of aircraft, what say you?”

The juror looked up from the piece of paper in his hands. “We find the defendant not guilty.”

“To the charge of criminal solicitation of felony arson?”

“Not guilty.”

“To criminal solicitation of attempted murder in the first degree?”

“We find the defendant guilty.”

“Members of the jury, thank you for your service. You are excused.” Judge Pelzer turned to the defendant. “Elizabeth Emerson, you have been found guilty on one count. I can’t even begin to comprehend your actions in this case, and I feel justice has been served here today. You will be remanded in custody until sentencing is imposed on April tenth. This court is adjourned.”

The gavel battered down for the last time, and Elizabeth turned angrily to her lawyer who averted his gaze, instead preferring to look at the exhibits he had tried to win the case with. The plea of insanity had been thrown out almost immediately, as it was proven through various means that Elizabeth had been planning to have CJ murdered for months, if not years. The fact that Vernon Betts had already been found guilty of arson, destruction of aircraft, attempted murder, and capital murder – and would be imprisoned for life – didn’t help Elizabeth’s case at all. Neither did Darrell Gates’s willingness to give up everything he knew about the vile woman who had already paid him a fifty thousand-dollar partial fee for his services, just to get a deal if he pled guilty. His sentence would be reduced because he testified against her, but he still wouldn’t be out until he was old and gray.

Elizabeth had gotten away with the arson and destruction of aircraft charges because she had never actually specified what the men should do. She’d told them to kill CJ and drive Kate insane. How they did it was up to them. The court deemed her not responsible for Doug Jensen’s death, so she was not brought up on charges for that. But the attempted murder of CJ Carson was undeniably on her head. Gates had recorded a voice message Elizabeth had left him – without her consent or knowledge – and he had handed the recording over to his lawyer as part of his plea deal. On the recording, Elizabeth had suggested that CJ’s death should look like an accident, and her instruction to them on that count could not be misconstrued. She was paying for CJ Carson’s life to be ended in some foul and vulgar way.

As an unusually-silent Elizabeth was led out of the courtroom, her lawyer watched her go with a sense of dread. “I’ll file an appeal.”

She threw a few daggers from her enraged, green eyes as she disappeared out the doors. Mr. Williams knew an appeal was useless now, but she was the most difficult client he’d ever had to deal with, so he would follow her orders and do it since she was paying him very well. He slammed his briefcase shut, and on his way out the door he shook the hand of the assistant district attorney. Even after a battle like that, they were still in the same game at the end of the day. He spotted two of the victims in the back row and gave a single nod. Blowing out a breath, he decided a stiff drink was required, and he had to admit, only to himself, that Elizabeth Emerson deserved everything she got.

* * * * * *

Watching defense counsel walk away, CJ stood up on weak legs. She had thought the jury was being swayed by Elizabeth’s lawyer earlier on, but then the prosecution brought out their lethal weapon in the form of Darrell Gates and slaughtered any chance of a not-guilty verdict.

“You OK?” Kate asked from her side.

CJ blinked rapidly. “Oh. Yes, sorry. I should be asking you that.”

“I’m fine.”

“Katie, you have tears-”

“I said I’m fine. It was just…not very nice to hear.”

“I know.” CJ put her arms around Kate and held her until the courtroom was all but cleared. “You got her to confess, which helped immensely, and you did great in your testimony. And the way you handled the cross examination…just wow.”

Kate sniffed and looked up. “I did OK, didn’t I?”

CJ nodded and smiled sadly. “Like the judge said, justice was served. I’m so proud of you. I know it must have been hard.”

“It was…and it wasn’t. I know what she deserves, CJ, no matter who she is.”

With an arm around one another, they headed for the courtroom exit, but before they got there Kate caught a glimpse of a white-haired man still sitting defeated on one of the hard, wooden benches. Kate knew who he was and felt compelled to speak with him. When she made a move toward him, CJ held her firm, but a look from Kate’s pleading eyes made her let go.

Kate gingerly approached, not knowing if he would welcome her or not. “Mr. Emerson?”

Arthur looked up, and a flood of tears immediately burst from his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he choked out. He knew who Kate was, but had no idea until this whole nasty business had come to light, that his wife was her mother. All this new and horrid information had sent him into shock. Their huge house in Connecticut had been searched by police and federal agents just after Elizabeth had gone to Los Angeles, and more evidence of her crimes had been found hidden in her private study. Arthur was bewildered by the entire thing, and all he could do right now was gape at the woman standing a couple of feet away from him.

Kate sat on the bench beside him and bit her lip. She could feel CJ loitering behind her, and it gave her the confidence to go on. “I’m sorry too.”

“I…I never really knew her at all. She was always quite…quite distant, and, oh, I’m just sorry. I had no idea what she was doing, and-”

“It’s OK, Mr. Emerson. No one really knew her. I’m just sorry there are so many victims in this case. I would include you as one of them.”

Arthur shook his head. “I’m not a victim. I’m just a silly, old fool who couldn’t see her for what she really was. I don’t know what to think anymore.”

Kate wanted to disagree, but she didn’t know Arthur well enough to offer an informed opinion. She knew he was not a silly, old fool, though. “I just wanted to offer my apologies for…well, for everything.”

“Don’t you dare say sorry to me, child. Just go home and live your life. I’ve seen you interviewed on television a few times. You’re a breath of fresh air. Go live your life and don’t look back.”

Kate nodded somberly. “I will. And I hope you can do the same.”

“I’m sure I will…eventually.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Emerson.”

“Please, call me Arthur.”

“OK. Goodbye, Arthur.” Kate stood, and as she turned to leave with CJ, she heard a broken “goodbye, Kate” behind her, which caused a few tears to trickle down her cheeks. She knew she probably wouldn’t see Arthur again, but at least she had spoken to the man who was essentially her step-father.

* * * * * *

CJ and Kate had managed to avoid the press outside the courthouse with the help of Special Agent Jamie Green who was parked at a rear exit, and Jamie’s two LAPD friends who coordinated the escape route with a court officer.

Now it was five o’clock, and the Carsons were safely at home with their children. Kate smiled as Shannon danced a jig on the spot. The girl was incredibly excited over getting a gold, smiley-face sticker at school for her drawing of Nevada and Calli. She had done her best to depict the horse perfectly even though Calli wasn’t arriving until tomorrow. The fact that the wait for their new pet was almost over could have contributed to the hyperactive state of Shannon who waited impatiently while her mother examined the brightly-colored drawing. Shannon had explained that since she was now eight years old, her drawing skills were getting much better.

“What do you think, Mama?”

Kate held her chin lightly and tapped her fingertip to her mouth, pretending to think really hard about it. “I think…it needs to go right up on the art wall in the kitchen because it’s fantastic, Shan.”

“Oh!” Shannon exclaimed. It seemed like she genuinely didn’t know what to expect. “I tried really hard to make Calli look pretty with her mane all brushed.”

“And she does look pretty. Both of them look beautiful, sweetie.”

After Shannon hugged Kate tightly around her waist, she took her masterpiece and went to the art wall. She chose a little, round, yellow magnet and stuck her drawing to the big board, making sure the magnet covered the sun on her picture. “Look! The magnet’s the sun,” she shouted to Kate, but didn’t wait for a reply before she went skipping off through the rear hallway to go out into the backyard.

Kate exhaled a chuckle before she heard distant singing coming from another direction. She turned to face the living room and watched as CJ came through the door from the hallway with Lucy on her back. CJ had her left wrist clamped to her belly and her right hand supporting Lucy’s weight as they rehearsed together on their journey.

“Stay close to me,” CJ sang out before patting Lucy on her backside to cue her part of the song.

“Hold on! Hold on!”

“Stay close to me. Watch the world come alive tonight.” CJ continued with the performance until they were both standing in front of Kate. She lowered Lucy who was still singing her lines, to sit on the island counter. CJ finished up the tune and took Lucy’s hand before performing a bow to their audience of one. Lucy followed her mommy’s lead and did the same.

Kate began to applaud. “Bravo. That was great, you guys.”

Lucy’s husky laugh was her initial reply. “Hi, Mama. Where’s Shan?”

“She went out back a minute ago, Luce.”

“Oh. Mommy, can you let me down please?”

CJ’s eyebrow crawled up in surprise. “Since you asked so very nicely, of course I can. Remember how I need to lift you?”

“Yes.” Lucy clamped her small body onto the right side of CJ’s waist and grabbed a tight hold of her sweater. “Ready.”

CJ smiled – as did Kate – and as soon as Lucy’s feet touched down, she was off like a shot out the back door.

Kate checked out the window to make sure the children were safely playing with the dog before turning back to CJ. “You are the cutest wife I could ever imagine.”

When Kate’s arms slid around CJ’s waist, she closed her eyes and breathed deep. “And you are the sweetest-smelling wife I could ever imagine.” Once she had inhaled Kate’s scent a few more times, she pushed back a little and looked into Kate’s eyes as they opened slowly under the scrutiny. CJ’s expression changed as her body was suddenly awash with the love she felt for her partner. Kate noticed the change and remained motionless as CJ’s hand moved up to caress her face. It was one of those moments where time seemed to stand still. Kate would never tire of those moments.

CJ’s gaze followed her fingertip as it traced Kate’s warm skin. After covering every beautiful feature, she gulped and repeatedly pushed back Kate’s short bangs. The hair wouldn’t stay up, and CJ smiled with affection as she pinned the unruly strands back so she could lean forward to kiss Kate’s forehead.

When the gentle contact left her, Kate spoke. “What happened there?”

“I’m just so thankful for you.”

Kate’s eyes opened wide, and she just couldn’t stop the emotion from bubbling to the surface. With a sniff and a tear, she took hold of CJ once more. “And I’m thankful for you. I love you, CJ.”

“I know. Incredible, huh?”

“Mama, Mommy. Come see this!” a voice squealed from outside the back door.

“Guess we better go see this…?” CJ said with a smirk. “Oh, and I love you too, like you didn’t know that already.”

As she shuffled off, Kate swiped her backside before running past her to see the whatever-it-was first. When they reached the yard, they were greeted by the backs of two excited children who had climbed up on the lowest rail of the sturdy fence.

CJ and Kate walked up behind them to see what they were watching. A huge smile came over Kate’s face when she saw Billy taking four handmade, wooden rocking chairs out of his truck, and when he saw the family watching him, he waved.

Billy really was a master craftsman. Their stunning, new barn was almost complete, and it had incredible views out onto the lake. It stood further back than the previous structure to make more room between the house and the barn, and to give better access to the horse fields. A large door in the front could be used for vehicles like before, but the four horse stalls with direct access to outside corrals faced out to the grazing at the back. The large door at the front was flanked on both sides by a long, covered patio area where Billy was now placing the chairs. CJ looked to Kate before leaving the backyard, and the whole family trooped in single file behind her…including the dog.

“Hey, Billy. What’s all this?”

“Evenin’. I wanted to bring y’all a gift.”

“Oh, you really didn’t have to do that.”

Billy scratched his head. “Well, I feel I did. You gave me a job to do when things were gettin’ a little tight in my wallet. I’ve enjoyed workin’ this project, so I wanted to thank you and your family by bringin’ you these chairs I make as a side business. I hope you like ‘em.”

Kate stepped up next to CJ. “Billy, they’re beautiful. Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome, Mrs. Carson.”

CJ grinned. She still thought that sounded funny, but she loved it too. It was even funnier when he called her Mrs. Carson. “You’re quite the craftsman, Billy. The barn is so much better than I ever expected, and much better than the old one we had,” she praised with a nod before sitting briefly in one of the chairs and rocking gently to test it out.

“Glad you think so. Let me give you the guided tour.”

“It’s totally finished?” CJ asked in a high-pitched voice.

“Totally, yes. Stables, corrals, tack room, hay loft, and other storage. There’s a real big, empty room that’s space enough for a whole weddin’ too.”

“Wow. Lemme see then.”

They all followed Billy inside and were soon in awe of his work. Their new barn was perfect and luxurious, and the craftsmanship was second-to-none. They couldn’t wait to start using it.

As Kamali wandered around sniffing at the new stalls, Lucy was hot on his tail. She was fascinated with the sound her thumping feet made on the concrete floor as it echoed throughout the large space.

Shannon suddenly squealed with excitement and ran back to the house. She returned a mere moment later with her arms full of halters and colorful lead ropes. CJ and Kate stifled their laughter when she began to hang the items neatly on a row of chunky wall hooks just inside the barn door.

When a clunk sounded behind them, they turned to see Lucy who was inside one of the stalls with her hands on her hips, examining the space with a serious look on her face. With a nod of approval, she began stomping back out the door, laughing at Kamali as he pranced backwards in front of her. It seemed like everyone was very happy with Billy’s work.

* * * * * *

Later that night, the house fell silent as CJ and Kate soaked together in the tub. It had been a strange day of mixed emotions, but it seemed they couldn’t fail to be happy, as was evident by the lazy smiles now playing on their tired, peaceful faces. Only when they were washed and dried did either of them speak.

“Back to work tomorrow, huh?” Kate said as she adjusted CJ’s wrist support after their bath.

“Yeah, desk duty. What fun.”

“I can tell by the sarcasm that you’re very excited by the prospect.”

CJ grinned. “I hate being tied to my desk, but I guess it could be worse.”

“Oh, it could always be worse. I’m quite happy you’ll be safe in the office for a while.” Kate made some final adjustments before leaning down and kissing CJ’s knuckles. “How does that feel?”

“Good, thanks. But you do know I can do that by myself now, right?”

“Yeah, I know. I just like to do it.”

“And I like to let you.”

“Well, that’s a welcome change,” Kate said quietly. “Is it still painful?”

“No pain. Just discomfort today.”

“Good. Bedtime?” Kate asked, and got two twinkling, blue eyes in response. “I’m guessing I won’t be sleeping anytime soon?”

“Mmm,” CJ murmured as she slipped her bare arms around Kate’s waist. “I think we should take your robe back off, since I’m still naked an’ all.” Pulling away from gently biting Kate’s neck, she backed into the bedroom curling her finger in invitation.

Kate didn’t need to be convinced. The stunning specimen of womanhood facing her was too alluring to resist. She dropped the robe, licked her lips, and approached CJ as she stood by the large bed. “Mine,” she whispered as her mouth delicately kissed along a familiar and delicious collarbone.

CJ’s eyes closed at the soft touch. They had made love a few times over the past two months, but it was nowhere near as often as usual. And this week had been busier for Kate as her Infinity One meetings were becoming more frequent. That, added to the stress of the court case, looking after two growing children, and CJ’s healing injuries, left little time or energy for sex. They were tired tonight too, but right at this moment CJ’s breaths were becoming shorter and faster as Kate caressed her, and it seemed Kate needed it as much as she did.

An audible whimper left CJ’s throat when Kate sucked her nipple into her mouth. “Oh…”

Kate teased CJ’s nipple with her tongue, flicking it back and forth as she guided her to sit on the bed. CJ leaned back on her right elbow as Kate covered her body in her quest to get the entire breast into her mouth.

“Wow,” CJ gasped when she felt teeth grasp around the erect tip.

Kate reluctantly let go for a second. “Lie back.” Once CJ had done as she was told, Kate slid her body down while twisting the other nipple with her fingers. Her mouth paused over CJ’s dark thatch of soft hair causing her hips to surge upward.

“Please…” CJ begged helplessly.

Kate couldn’t help but smile, and she gave CJ a small nod which made her nose nuzzle into the hair and touch the skin beneath. CJ opened her legs in an eager invitation, and Kate gladly accepted. She tasted and stroked her to a state of delirious pleasure before she stopped and hovered over her, licking her lips with satisfaction.

“Close your eyes for me,” Kate purred.

CJ didn’t have the presence of mind to ask why, and did as she was commanded. She felt Kate stand up and leave the bed. She frowned when a few quiet noises met her ears, but still, she obeyed Kate’s order. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Keep your eyes closed and you’ll soon find out.”

Kate’s voice registered a few octaves lower than usual, so CJ was absolutely sure that whatever she was going to do, she was gonna like it. The mattress moved slowly, and she felt Kate settle between her knees once more. Delicate fingers tickled up the insides of her legs until her inner thighs trembled with anticipation. Kate teased her sex with her tongue and hands again, and when CJ was gasping out each and every breath, she entered her with three fingers.

“Mmm, Ciara. You’re so wet, so perfect.”

“Your fault,” CJ hissed from between clenched teeth. “God…Katie, please.”

Kate withdrew and supported her weight as she hovered above CJ. She let her soaked fingers drift past her nostrils, the scent of CJ’s arousal making her heart skip a beat. She then reached down with the same hand to guide the warm, well-lubricated dildo between CJ’s legs. She had wanted to surprise her, and figured doing it this way would reduce the chance of them laughing too much and ruining their first attempt. Neither of them felt like laughing right now. Kate was just as wet as CJ, and she could feel the harness that surrounded her sex becoming drenched in her excitement. She hadn’t thought it would be such a turn-on wearing the device.

This is CJ. Anything we do together is gonna turn me on, she thought to herself as she looked down and saw the rounded tip of the toy mere millimeters from CJ’s clit. “Just relax…and feel me.”

CJ’s breasts were heaving now, and she reached up blindly to find Kate’s hair. “Touch me.”

Kate lowered her hips, and as she pressed into CJ’s burning flesh she kissed her hotly, sliding her tongue deep into her mouth. CJ welcomed it eagerly, but opened her eyes when she felt the head of the dildo rubbing against her sensitive core.

Kate broke the kiss and licked her lips seductively. “Wanna try it?” she husked as she gently wiggled the phallus in her hand.

CJ couldn’t speak. A nod would have to suffice while she tried to continue breathing. Kate had her on the edge, and when Kate’s hand ventured in between her legs, she closed her eyes again at the feel of her strong, knowing fingers building her to the point of no return. She was brought to the brink one more time until those fingers left momentarily as Kate brought the head of the dildo to hover just outside CJ’s body. The dildo was warm and slippery, and the thought of what Kate was about to do was intoxicating.

“Oh, fuck.”

“You OK?”

“Please, Katie. Do it.”

Kate moved her hips down a little more, and CJ moaned long and low. Kate held the shaft in place as she pushed further. CJ was staring into her eyes until a gentle thrust of Kate’s hips sent her blue orbs rolling back.

Kate was loving this very different experience. It was a new sensation for her to move her body this way, and it was causing the most amazing noises to erupt from CJ’s throat. She could feel her clit throbbing under the harness. Every move she made created friction and pressure where she needed it most, and she continued to slowly thrust in and out of her partner.

“Faster, Katie,” CJ whispered breathlessly.

Kate knew CJ had been almost ready to come a few minutes ago, and she wondered if she could bring her to climax now with the toy alone. CJ gripped Kate’s buttock with her right hand and dug her nails in so hard it made Kate gasp and quicken her pace.

“Yes!”

CJ continued to pull her in, and Kate moved faster still, feeling the sweat start to run down her back from the exertion as she braced herself on her arms. She felt like she might have an orgasm right now if CJ screamed, and when CJ’s hips came up to meet her every penetration, she cried out at the intensity of it. She lowered herself down and kissed CJ with a fiery passion before biting her bottom lip and letting go to concentrate on her rhythm. A few seconds later, a scream did rip from CJ’s throat, and they both thrust against each other as the feelings and sensations swallowed them whole.

Kate’s climax wasn’t as intense as CJ’s, and she opened her eyes to watch CJ recover from the high. With a devious smile, she leaned down to lick her lover’s irresistible lips, and the movement made the dildo shift inside CJ.

“Ooh…”

“Want me to pull out?” Kate gave her a sexy wink.

“Yeah. Slowly.”

Kate withdrew carefully – eliciting a few twitches from CJ’s body – and pretended to sulk. “I didn’t even get a chance to switch on the vibrate function.”

CJ gawked at her. “It has a vibrate function?”

The response was Kate’s sultry nod.

“Not sure I’d survive that.” She watched intently as Kate disengaged from the contraption that, when wielded by her love, was highly arousing. It surprised CJ, and she wondered just what it would be like to use it on Kate. Her face flushed at the image the thought created, and Kate saw the burning cheeks and guilty look.

“What were you just thinking?” Kate asked as she slid back onto the bed and kissed CJ’s stomach.

“Just, uh, thinking about reversing the roles.”

“Oh, really? Well, you can’t do it in that position. Your wrist can’t support your weight yet.”

“True. But I was thinking more of…standing behind you?”

Kate hummed. “Mmm, we can definitely try that next time.”

“Why not now?”

“Now?” Kate snuggled up beside CJ and nuzzled under her chin like always. “Honey, I came when you did.”

“Oh.” CJ realized she had been so far gone, she didn’t have the presence of mind to notice what Kate had experienced. “Wow. Not sure if I like the idea that I didn’t know that.”

“Well, remember, it was our first time, so maybe it overloaded our senses?”

“Hmm, I agree. I couldn’t believe I was gonna come like that, but I know it was because you were doing it to me. It was so hot.”

Kate raised her head to look at CJ. “Hot, huh? You got me so hot when you screamed out, I climaxed right after you.” She bit her lip as her nostrils flared. “Perhaps we should try that other position now?”

CJ grinned. “Heatin’ up again, are ya?” she whispered as she trailed her finger up between Kate’s breasts.

“Yes. And don’t wash it yet. I want you inside me,” Kate murmured as she stood up.

“Holy shit. You’re killin’ me.” CJ leapt from the mattress and picked up the strap-on with her good hand. “Help me do this,” she said frantically.

With a mischievous smile, Kate assisted eagerly, adjusting the straps to fit CJ’s larger frame. She didn’t even laugh when she saw the five-inch dildo proudly protruding from her wife’s groin. And she certainly wasn’t laughing when CJ knelt down on the plush carpet and started kissing and nipping her abdomen. Kate wanted to melt into a pile of arousal on the floor, but she knew she had to stay standing for what CJ wanted to do next. The mere thought made her inner muscles spasm.

“Ciara…lick me.”

CJ moaned, and as soon as Kate’s legs were spread, she poked out her tongue and pressed it forcefully between Kate’s outer labia. Another low moan signified her pleasure at the taste of Kate on her lips. Cupping Kate’s soft rear with her hand, she pushed her face deeper, eliciting a few whimpers from above.

CJ was surrounded by Kate. It was her favorite place to be, but she knew she had to give it up to get into position. She was looking forward to trying this. She just wished she had two fully working hands. Her lips blazed a trail of kisses over Kate’s belly before her mouth covered her breast. Once Kate’s nipple had been teased to a hard point, she did the same to the other one. She got to her feet and slipped around her, turning her to face the floor-to-ceiling mirror they had on the bedroom wall.

Kate saw the look in those azure eyes and the sultry smirk on CJ’s face. She could tell CJ was enjoying this experiment immensely. She felt the phallus resting between her buttocks as CJ bit down on her neck. She cried out when the bite crossed into pleasure-pain, but CJ let go at just the right moment to kiss the marked skin, leaving Kate panting for more.

“Ciara, I need…”

“I know,” CJ whispered. “Put your palms on the bed.” As Kate trembled with excitement and bent down, CJ swallowed the saliva that pooled in her mouth and reached quickly to the nightstand to pick up the small remote. She trapped it inside the wrist support on her left hand for easy control later. Licking her lips, she wrapped her right hand around the shaft and moved toward her waiting spouse. Being taller than Kate, she decided to bend her knees, but Kate must have felt the toy touch her skin and rose up on her tip-toes to meet it. Her back arched when CJ carefully slipped the tip inside her.

“Oh, Katie,” CJ croaked as she watched the dildo disappear. She looked at their reflection in the mirror and felt her sex throb.

“More…”

CJ thrust tentatively. She knew neither of them was used to this much penetration, but she remembered how it felt to her, and since they were both highly aroused, she figured Kate’s grunts meant she wanted even more. Still, she would check. “You sure?”

“Yes. Fuck me.”

A wave of heat spread through CJ as she swayed her body forward, slowly withdrawing at first, but her pace soon picked up after Kate’s response. Every time her skin slapped against Kate’s rear, she whimpered and pushed back against her.

Kate was too preoccupied to look in the mirror, but CJ glanced over a few times and closed her eyes to imprint the image in her mind. She realized she was getting closer to orgasm again, and with her right hand she gripped Kate’s hip. With a little effort, a finger on her left hand pressed the button on the remote, and the quiet hum of the vibration reached her ears. The device began to buzz, and both women gasped in unison.

“I’m…so close,” Kate breathed out.

CJ couldn’t resist giving her even more stimulation. She slid her hand around to Kate’s front and flicked the tip of her finger across her clit. After a few repetitions of the caress, Kate gripped the dildo tightly with her muscles and climaxed with a long, drawn out moan. CJ thrust a couple more times, and that was all it took. She recovered quickly from a mild orgasm, and as she massaged Kate’s sex, she pulled her hips back slowly.

Kate fell forward onto the mattress. “Oh, yeah.”

“You liked that, huh?”

“Definitely, but…”

CJ hit the switch, unclipped the harness easily with one hand, and wiggled the remote out of her wrist support. “But what, Katie?” she said as she discarded them on the couch and slumped down on the bed.

Kate turned onto her side and kissed CJ’s shoulder. With her arm draped loosely over CJ’s abdomen, she thought about what it had felt like. “It was good, great actually. The thought of you doing that to me is a huge turn on, but I…hmm, I don’t feel completely satisfied.” Kate reached down between her own legs and felt the tension in her clit. “It feels like I’m not finished,” she said with a little grin.

CJ smiled and tried to draw her eyes away from Kate’s inquisitive hand. “I know what you mean. It was like an overload of sensation, but nothing beats you touching me. The orgasm felt different somehow.”

Kate propped her head on her hand and swirled her fingers over CJ’s breast. “I love how we talk about this. Can you explain what felt different about it?” she posed with her eyebrow raised hopefully.

CJ chuckled. “Don’t get me wrong. It was an awesome orgasm. I just…it feels more gradual and intense when you stimulate me. The anticipation is mind-blowing, the feel of your touch is unique, and I can’t get enough of you…just you. The way you touch me, especially with your mouth, satisfies me much more than this did.”

“We feel the same way then. I like the new toy, but I don’t think I want to use it very often. I much prefer when it’s just you and me.”

CJ nodded. “I like the size you bought, though.”

Kate barked out a laugh. “You do, huh? It looked like a simple one to use, and yeah, the size didn’t look too scary,” she said, sitting up to look over at the strap-on. Flopping back down, she nuzzled in under CJ’s arm. “Seems I chose the right one.”

“I’d say you did. Thank you for surprising me.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t freak out,” Kate said with a giggle.

“Are you kidding? You had me so wound up, I was about to explode.”

“I like it when you explode.”

CJ laughed. “I’m not even gonna respond to that one,” she said, sticking her tongue out. “So, we’ll use it whenever we’re in the mood, huh?”

“As long as we both want it, yes.” Kate shot her a smoldering look. “So, you’re not satisfied yet?”

“Well…no, and I’m getting hungry too. I might need to fill my mouth with something really delicious,” CJ purred as she pulled Kate’s head towards her own. They met in a heated kiss, and it wasn’t long before CJ had Kate just where she wanted her. It would be a while before sleep claimed their tired bodies tonight.

.

Chapter 2

At eight thirty the next morning, CJ strolled along the corridor to her office. The smile on her face was of contentment from her wonderful evening with Kate, and of excitement at being back at work, even if it was only desk duty. Hearing Special Agent Jamie Green’s voice coming from the open door, she grinned, realizing how much she had missed working with her. The grin fell slightly when she heard what was being said.

“Two males. Approximate ages?”

CJ walked in the door and slipped behind her desk to listen to the remainder of the conversation.

“Where? Uh-huh. Yep, no problem, Sir. I’ll get on it right now.” Jamie ended the call and stood from her seat. “Hey, DM. Sorry to love you and leave you on your first day back, but we’ve got two bodies at the UCLA campus.”

“How old are the victims?” CJ asked with a frown.

“Nineteen and twenty one…shot. They’re the second couple to be killed since last weekend.”

“Why do we have it if there have only been two incidents?”

“The MO. It seems the killer is targeting young couples, shooting them in the back. Looks like a job for us, so Mark sent us the previous casefile,” Jamie said, leaning down to kiss her friend on the cheek. “I’ll call you from the location.”

“Roger that, Penfold.”

CJ looked around the office after Jamie had left and tried to keep the frustration from taking over. She really wanted to go with Jamie, but there was no way she could swing it with the bosses. She decided now would be a good time to catch up with past cases – if there were any – and all the daily briefings she had missed. It would keep her busy until Jamie called in. With a few clicks on her computer, she brought up the first shooting and sifted through the initial report pages to get to the MO, victimology, and crime scene info. She had barely started reading when Mikey arrived.

“Welcome back, CJ. We kinda missed you around here.”

“Hah, I bet. Hey, we just got two more bodies. Jamie went out to deal with it, but…”

“Yeah, she called me to see where I was. She’s waiting for me downstairs. See you later.”

And with that, CJ was alone again. She sighed and leaned forward on her desk. Looking down, she saw the reason she had to stay indoors. Her neoprene wrist-guard poked out from below her black jacket sleeve, and she had to admit the injury still ached. What if she damaged it again while trying to deal with some criminal? It might never heal, and she didn’t want to revisit that amount of pain anytime soon.

“Hmm. I guess I can do a lot from here. Let’s see…”

Reading through the report, she noted the first two victims had the last name Craven. Both husband and wife had been shot in the back. When CJ looked closer at the ME’s report – after a quick grimace at Chris Wilder’s name at the bottom of it – she noticed the exact same injury from each gunshot. “Both bullets, .22 caliber, same gun, weapon fired approximately three meters from targets…rupturing the right coronary artery? Shot through the heart? Seems personal. I wonder if today’s victims have any link to these ones. Hmm.”

She perused further and found the crime scene photos along with identifying pictures of both victims when they were still alive. She extracted the images she wanted from the file and printed them before turning to her pin-board. If Jamie called and described two more bodies with the same injuries, they most likely had a serial killer on their hands.

* * * * * *

Kate looked out the car window as Tony pulled into the small Olympian lot. She had a costume fitting today, and she was looking forward to seeing what she’d be wearing in her new role as Top Gun fighter pilot, Le’Ana Bezwick in Infinity One. “It’s much nicer here than at studio twenty six, huh?”

“Yeah,” Tony replied as he pressed the button to kill the engine. “It’s smaller…seems more personal somehow.”

Kate nodded. “I think I’m gonna like it. See you in about an hour?”

“Yeah. I’ll go along and find Cyn, have some coffee if she’s free. Just buzz me if you need me.”

“OK.” Kate headed into the offices at the side of the three hangar-type studio buildings that made up the Chaplin stages. She’d never actually been inside before, and as she walked through the doors her brows rose in surprise. The corridor, which was lined on one side by a row of continuous windows, was painted in warm earthy tones, and had various television and film memorabilia pieces hanging in chunky frames. The items were from all sections of Olympian studios, and Kate paused in front of an old cast photograph from her first day on Rise of the Phoenix.

“Hah. I don’t even have that picture. Wow, I’ll have to let CJ see that. Look at my hair.” She chuckled as she left behind the memory of her voluminous, swirling, wavy locks, and the somewhat startled expression on her younger, inexperienced face.

Finding a room containing a couple of people chatting to each other, she poked her head in the doorway and smiled. “Excuse me. Could you point me in the direction of the wardrobe department?”

“Kate Marshall?”

“Yes.”

The man, who could quite easily pass for Robert DeNiro, bustled toward her. “It’s great to meet you,” he chirped, extending his hand in welcome.

“Good to meet you too.” Kate grinned as the DeNiro thing evaporated with the high-pitched voice of the man in front of her.

“I’m Jacob Goleman, stage manager here at Chaplin. I’ll be part of your crew on Infinity One. We’re so glad you wanted to be on the show!”

“Thank you, Jacob. I’m looking forward to getting started. Can you show me to the wardrobe department?”

Jacob laughed. “The wardrobe department over here consists of two rooms, but yes, it’s this way.” Once he gave a wave to his colleague, he and Kate began the walk along another corridor. Passing a few more photos and posters, Jacob gestured to the frames. “We’re very proud of some of the shows that have come from Olympian in the past. And we’re very proud to have you too, Kate. Did you know the Chaplin stages were the first ones built here?”

Kate almost blushed. She wasn’t used to this sort of compliment from anyone at work. “Yes, I did know that. And thank you, Jacob. I have to say, it feels so different here even though it’s only a short distance from studio twenty six.”

“Good different?”

“Of course,” Kate replied with a nod.

Jacob smiled as he opened a tall, black, wooden door and held it for Kate to pass through before him.

God, he’s a gentleman, and the people I’ve met already who are involved with this show have been wonderful too. She broke from her thoughts and belatedly looked back to her new friend. “Thanks.”

“No worries, Kate. This way.” Jacob led her into a large room with a conference table in the center surrounded by chairs, but the chairs were not your standard, boring, office chairs. They were all different from each other. Some were patterned, some were cushioned, and some didn’t even have backs on them.

Jacob saw Kate’s appraisal and smirked. “Everyone has their preference, Kate. We try to cater to all needs here. You’ve still to choose your chair.”

“People have chosen these ones?”

“Yes. This is the meeting room for Infinity One, and those spaces over there,” he said, pointing to the empty end of the table. “Are for you and a few more cast who’ve yet to come in.”

Kate scrunched up her face. “This feels more like home than work.”

“That’s the idea.”

“I like it.”

“Good. Now let’s get you suited up.” Jacob opened another door, and they went through another short corridor. “Here we are,” he announced, opening yet another door.

Kate’s senses were assaulted by the abundance of color and soft light as soon as she stepped inside. A calming smell of sandalwood and vanilla incense invaded her nostrils too. The room was huge. Various rails of uniforms and costumes were dotted throughout the space, and in between those were changing cubicles and dressing tables with mirrors surrounded by rows of bright but diffused light bulbs.

“Nice.”

“Glad you approve.” Jacob grinned with satisfaction. “Come on. You can meet some of the others on the team.”

* * * * * *

CJ was going cross-eyed. She had been reading through everything that she had missed, and evidently, that was quite a lot. As she looked through a murder case that Jamie and Ethan had been working on while she was away, she was impressed with the trail of evidence gathered and the capture of the killer. She realized it was pretty much how she would have solved it. It seemed like Jamie really was starting to think like CJ where work was concerned.

Guess I’m not bad at teaching by example, she said to herself. She rolled her eyes at her thoughts before she sat up straight to stretch out her back. She continued the stretch as she stood up to head over to the coffee machine. It was then that she noticed she wasn’t alone anymore.

Chris Wilder stood in the half-opened doorway. “So glad you’re back at work, CJ,” she said with a greedy look in her deep-brown eyes.

CJ had frozen mid-stretch, and she realized her breasts were sticking way out so she immediately relaxed her pose, but not before Chris’s gaze had lowered to take in her beautiful body. “How can I help you, Doctor Wilder?” CJ almost kicked herself for saying something that could easily garner a lurid response.

Chris’s snicker slipped out as she strolled over to the desk. “In so many ways, but I came…to give you this.”

After a case file dropped onto her desk, CJ leaned over to pick it up, trying to not look alluring as she did so. She casually flicked through the pages. “I already have the autopsy report.”

“I added a little something to that one, though. Both victims were diabetic,” Chris purred while leaning both hands on the desktop to reveal her cleavage to CJ.

CJ quickly looked back at the report before she spoke again. “You think it’s relevant to the case? I can’t imagine a killer checking to see if his targets have diabetes before he shoots them in the back,” she said a little too sharply.

It didn’t deter Chris. It just made her hotter. “I like to be…thorough. But you already know that.”

“Well, thanks for the info. I’ll let Jamie know. It’s her case, after all.” CJ kept her disdain under control and walked over to the coffee machine. She could swear Chris was staring at her ass, but she figured if she ignored the predatory woman, she’d leave. She figured wrong. She felt Chris’s body heat behind her, and before she could turn around, a soft voice sounded in her ear.

“You can deny me all you want, CJ. I know you’ll submit eventually. Remember how I could always make you submit? Hmm?”

CJ was getting angry, and she was about to turn around – without touching the body that invaded her personal space – when the presence suddenly left her. In a flash, Chris was across the room, and CJ whipped around to see why. Literally two seconds later, a tall figure filled the doorway. Relief and surprise flooded through CJ’s body when she blinked and recognized the person looking back at her.

“Tim? Come on in!” she exclaimed, striding over to the welcome distraction and grabbing him in a bear hug. “So very, very good to see you…”

As Chris grumpily made her exit, she mumbled, “I’ll let you know if I find anything else.”

CJ ignored her and focused on her friend. She gradually started to feel like an idiot since she was still holding onto Special Agent Dalton as if he was her favorite teddy bear. “Sorry, Tim, but you came in at just the right moment. I don’t really like our new medical examiner.”

“Ah. Well, it’s good to see you too, CJ. Very good actually,” Tim responded, letting CJ go as she backed away. “I arrived the second day of the trial to testify, but since then I’ve been pretty busy so I couldn’t make it in to see you.” He stood back and looked her up and down. “Man, you really are tough. You look great! I’m so relieved you’re feeling better.”

CJ frowned at the feelings she was having for this particular agent. He felt like a brother to her, and it was strange for her to feel trust towards, and care for, someone she knew so little about. “I am feeling better. Just gotta get this wrist to work, and I’ll be fine. So, what’re you doing here?”

At that very moment, Mark walked in, and all he wanted to do was surround CJ in a hug to welcome her back, but he knew he shouldn’t. Instead, he glanced at Tim then looked back to CJ. He hadn’t had a chance to speak with her about the transfer. “And Dalton makes six,” he said with a big grin.

When her momentary puzzlement vanished, CJ’s heart melted a little because Mark thought of himself as a member of their team, as well as the boss. “He’s here to stay?” She turned to Tim. “You’re here to stay?”

Tim smiled widely. “If you’ll have me, yes. I hope you’re ready to show me the ropes?”

“Hell, yes!” CJ was ridiculously happy. At least something good had happened in Minnesota. She had met this fine, young man, and she’d truly felt like he was completely behind her while they dealt with Frank Hess…and Bob Crane. There was no question in her mind that Tim would have her back in anything they’d deal with in the future. Weird, she thought fleetingly.

Mark patted Tim on the shoulder. “Well, Dalton, just take your time to get acquainted today. I’m sure CJ will be happy to have the company since she’s stuck in the office right now.”

CJ punched Mark softly on the shoulder and gave him a grin in immediate apology. “I’m glad you understand my frustration, Sir.”

“I do, but you cracked the Hieroglyph case without leaving your living room, so I know you’ll do plenty of good here.”

“Nah, I didn’t crack that case…”

“Actually, you did. Now, show Tim around and catch him up on our current killer. I’ll see you guys later for an update once Jamie and Mikey get back.”

“Yes, Sir.” Once Mark had left, CJ smiled stupidly at her new colleague. “So, you took me up on that offer to come here and work hard, huh?”

Tim gazed at her for a second and then regained his faculties. He felt like he’d found someone special to him. It was the strangest feeling ever. “Yeah, I did. Once my grandmother passed-”

“Shit. I’m sorry, Tim.”

“Thanks, CJ, but she died peacefully at home, so I’m doing OK. Anyway, there was nothing holding me in Minneapolis anymore, and I had to think about where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do. I’d been talking to Mulroney on the phone…hinted at a transfer. So, here I am.”

“So awesome,” CJ whispered. She shook her head and spun around with a deep breath. “So, yeah…things are pretty relaxed here in the office. We really do work as a team. Here, take Ethan’s desk for today. He’s got the week off. We’ll drag that spare desk out of the store room once we figure out where to fit you in.”

Tim dumped his bag in the offered chair and took a look around his new place of work. “It’s not huge, but it feels good to be here.”

CJ shrugged. “We manage fine, but Mark’s been saying for months he wants to do something more with that store room, so maybe he’ll get it knocked through.”

“Might be an idea…”

“Oh, but don’t call him Mark when we’re working. He’s a great boss, but that’s what he is…the boss,” CJ added, tapping her fingertip to the side of her nose.

“Gotcha.”

CJ pointed to a faraway wall. “You can put your gun in one of those little lockers over there, or just keep it on you which is what we tend to do most of the time.”

“Cool, thanks. Hey, how ‘bout catching me up on this killer?”

“Gettin’ right to it, huh?”

“Work hard is what you said, right?” Tim said with a nod.

“Right.”

As they started to go over the crime scene photos and various reports, CJ’s mind tried to eradicate what had happened just before Tim arrived. Chris Wilder was determined, and CJ knew she’d have to be very cautious because when Chris wanted something, she usually got it.

Not this time, she thought to herself. As beautiful as she is on the outside, I know who she is on the inside. Never again. I have everything I could ever want in Katie. Ah, Katie…now there’s a nicer thought.

* * * * * *

Kate stood on a small, raised platform as the costume designer looked on, and the seamstress pinned the made-to-measure flight suit around her body. Kate was pretty excited by the image she saw in the large mirror in front of her. Even though the costume was still in the adjustment phase, Kate could see what it was going to look like. CJ is gonna go nuts for this.

The chiseled shoulders of the military uniform gave it a proud, authoritative feeling. A deep-red trim on the navy-blue material told of her character’s lead pilot position. Captain Le’Ana Bezwick was going to be a challenge, but Kate loved this kind of challenge. She stretched her back and raised her chin. The uniform made her want to stand tall, and she liked how the tapered, smart design made her feel powerful yet still made it clear she was a female pilot.

“Did you design this yourself, Charlotte?” she inquired, looking down to the diminutive designer who had a fiery head of dyed, red hair.

“I did. Do you like it?”

“I love it. It looks so…so…”

“Sexy?” Charlotte suggested with a grin, clutching at her clipboard.

“Well, that wasn’t the word I was thinking of, but that works too. I was going to say gallant?”

Charlotte laughed. “Gallant is good. Gotta have the best for our hot-shot fighter jock.”

Kate smiled just as the large door to the room opened, and they were joined by Jacob and another blond female. Jacob bustled over to the group and smiled at Kate.

“I’d like you to meet one of your co-stars, Kate. This is Erica Cavanaugh.”

Kate remained still on her pedestal and nodded slightly to the stunning woman. “Hi, Erica. Sorry, but I can’t move right now.”

Erica flashed a brilliant smile, her face beaming red. “Oh, it’s really all right, Kate. I know the drill when you’re being sewn into your suit. It’s great to meet you at last. When I found out you were onboard, I just melted. I’ve admired your work for a while now, and I feel honored to be on the same show as you.”

Kate studied Erica whose beauty was obvious and quite astounding. Deep, blue-gray eyes hid just beneath her blond bangs, and her elegant features fit her face perfectly. Her hair was…well, it was almost exactly the same style as Kate’s, and the lipstick and eye make-up were done to airbrush standards. Belatedly, Kate blinked to shake herself out of her reverie.

“Well, thank you, but we’re all in the same game, aren’t we? I’m just glad to be on a show where I feel more at home than at work.”

Jacob gave a cheesy smile. “That’s what we want. A happy cast! OK, I have to dash, but Erica, you’re up next, so why don’t you get yourself settled, and…” He looked around him. “Here, this dressing table is all set up for you.”

“Thanks, Jacob.” When he left, Erica put her bag in her cubicle and came back to stand in front of Kate. “I hope you don’t mind me watching this before I have my turn. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a costume painted on before.”

Kate laughed heartily, her movement causing a pin to prick her skin. “Ow!”

“Sorry, Miss Marshall.”

“My fault, Gina,” Kate said apologetically to the seamstress. “I know what you mean, Erica. They are rather, uh…a tight fit?”

Erica nodded profusely. “That’s an understatement. Although I have to say, it looks very good on you.”

Before Kate could respond, Gina stood up to her full height. “You do know it won’t be this tight once I actually stitch it?”

Both Erica and Kate began to laugh again. Erica gave her co-star a conspiratorial wink and turned to their crew member.

“We were just messing with you, Gina. I believe that’s what families do. Right, Kate?”

“Right.” Kate gave a lop-sided grin as she studied the other actress. Erica was certainly friendly, perhaps overly so, but who was she to judge? She showed no signs of co-star envy or bitchiness, so this seemed like a job that was going to be enjoyable all round.

So far, so good.

.

Chapter 3

When Jamie walked into her office after dealing with a messy, double homicide, her hazel eyes landed on two dark heads behind CJ’s desk leaning close together in deep conversation. She frowned as she let her brain catch up to the fact that it was CJ and…that agent from Minnesota. They seemed to be oblivious to her arrival and were discussing the current SSHU case.

“Uh, hi?”

CJ looked up, and a bright smile covered her beautiful face. “Penfold.” She got up to greet Jamie properly since she didn’t get the chance earlier, and Tim watched the tight bear-hug the two women shared with interest.

“What did you call her, CJ?”

“Oh,” CJ let Jamie go and messed up her hair, causing Jamie to blush and grumble on her way to her seat. “She’s my Penfold. Nobody else’s,” she said with a wink. “It’s just a nickname.”

Jamie dumped her stuff and walked toward Tim, feeling a little relief when she finally remembered his name. “Good to see you again, Dalton,” she said, offering her hand rigidly.

Tim stood and gripped the appendage firmly. “Likewise, Agent Green.”

CJ rolled her eyes, not really understanding their formality with one another. “Oh, come on, you guys. I think Tim and Jamie will suffice, don’t you? We’re working together, after all.”

Jamie turned to her best friend. “We are?”

“Yeah, Tim’s here to stay. Isn’t that great?”

Jamie saw CJ’s brilliant smile, but somehow she could not force herself to mirror it. She willed her cheek muscles to pull the ends of her mouth upward, but she couldn’t shake off an unwanted feeling she didn’t quite understand. “Yeah, that’s great.” She swept her eyes back to Tim and tried to sound enthusiastic. “Welcome to the unit.”

“Thanks, Jamie. Glad to be here.” Tim finally let go of Jamie’s hand and bit his lip. Something was bugging Jamie, but he wasn’t sure what it was. Maybe it’s the case, and maybe I could help. He sat down next to CJ again and laid his hands on the papers on the desktop. He was about to try to make conversation when CJ spoke up.

“You were gonna call me from the scene, Jamie.”

There was no particular tone to the statement, but Jamie’s face showed a fleeting pang of hurt before her professional mask fell back in its place. “Yeah, I know. It was getting pretty windy out there, and the doc wanted the bodies brought back quickly.”

“Huh,” CJ huffed. “I’m surprised she even got out there to look at them.”

Again, there was no malice, but something was making Jamie very uncomfortable. “She was late, actually. I’m not sure what could have been more important than two murder victims. She doesn’t have any others down there right now, does she?”

CJ looked up, hearing some stress and a little sarcasm in Jamie’s voice. “I don’t think so.” She analyzed Jamie for a second, noting her tight lips, her frown lines, and the dullness in those usually-expressive eyes. She knew immediately that she had to speak with Jamie privately. “Tim, please excuse us for a minute?” She stood up and grabbed Jamie’s arm, dragging her to the women’s restroom.

When they got there, Jamie broke out of her stunned stupor and turned around angrily with a stomp of her foot. “What the hell are you doing?”

CJ took a deep breath to counteract the sudden rage in her colleague. “Nipping this in the bud…whatever this is. What’s going on with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You were barely civil to Tim, and…and I can just tell something’s wrong. Are you mad at me?” When Jamie flinched, CJ knew she had got it right. “What did I do? Please tell me?”

Jamie remained quiet. She was still trying to figure out why she was mad at CJ, since she had no clue herself.

“Jamie, I won’t know how to fix it if you don’t tell me. I’m not a mind reader, contrary to popular belief.”

At that, Jamie’s sandy eyebrow went up slightly, but still she remained silent.

CJ narrowed her eyes. “I only just got back, and I’m so happy to see you, but this is not the welcome I was anticipating. Is the case getting to you? Are you pissed that I asked why you didn’t call me?”

Jamie let out a huge breath. “Nah, and it’s not the case either. I…I’m not sure what it is. I walked in and saw you all chummy with Dalton, and you were so excited he was here. It felt like I was punched in the chest. I don’t know why.”

CJ frowned. In the chest? She quirked her mouth to the side in thought. Her heart. A sigh escaped from her deep-red lips. “I can’t explain what I feel about Tim. He kinda feels like a brother, and I’m not used to that at all. You know I’m not very close with the other guys, but…“ She shrugged. “I just seemed to click with him when I first met him. Why does that bother you?”

“Like I said, I don’t know.” Jamie slumped down onto the wooden bench near the lockers.

CJ checked around the rest of the room, when she found nobody else present, she crouched down in front of Jamie. “I’ve never known you like this, but I could swear you’re jealous.”

“I am not!”

CJ almost smirked at the stroppy face. “Special Agent Jamie Green, no one can ever take your place in my heart.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Jamie was indignant.

CJ chuckled. “I’m going to be good friends with Tim. I don’t know how I know that, but it’s true. He’s awesome, and you’ll just have to accept it. But that will never, ever take away the special thing we got goin’ on,” she said, grasping Jamie’s hands in her own. “I love you, honey. Remember that.”

As CJ got up and walked out of the room, Jamie’s eyebrows drew together. Her heart had just melted at the warm voice of her best buddy declaring her love. “Damn it. Was I really worried about that?” she muttered as she got to her feet. She went to the mirrors and looked at her reflection. “I think you just had a special agent tantrum. Shocking.” She slapped herself on the cheek, and on her way out of the restroom, she started to feel better and almost chuckled to herself. Shit. She was right. And she called me honey again. And I’m such a baby. Ugh.

Two dark heads once again looked up when she entered the office, and Jamie actually had the good grace to look sheepishly at CJ before going to her desk. She sat and stared at the computer monitor for a few seconds before glancing up.

“If you guys give me a couple of minutes, I’ll collate the information on the new victims. Mikey had to rush off to an apartment emergency…something about a burst pipe and flooding…but we can go over the details without him. Is that OK?”

CJ smiled. “Sounds good to me, Penfold.”

Tim – oblivious to what had just transpired in the restroom but knowing something was amiss – nodded in agreement. “I’ll be happy with any guidance you can give me. I looked at your dossier, Jamie. You dealt with some pretty violent crimes back East. Maybe we could chat about your experiences sometime over a drink,” he said with a genuine smile.

Jamie sighed and looked back and forth between the two hopeful monkeys perched behind CJ’s desk. “Yeah, yeah. OK, DM, you were right,” she conceded. “He’s pretty awesome.”

Tim was puzzled. “DM?”

Both women burst into a brief bout of laughter, and as Jamie dropped her arms and head onto the desk, CJ patted Tim on the shoulder until she had stopped laughing.

“I’m Dangermouse. Don’t worry, Tim. We’ll get you up to speed on the coolest cartoon ever…and you’ll get used to us eventually.”

* * * * * *

Back at the Carson ranch house, Alice, Shannon, and Lucy sat in the living room watching Alice’s twins running around the coffee table chasing one another. Kamali hid in the hallway, keeping a safe distance but still able to supervise the small humans. Shannon chuckled when Melissa started to get tired and decided crawling would be better. When Sarah came around the table on a super-fast lap, she fell over her sister’s back which prompted Alice to get up and put an end to the madness.

Outside the house, Tony brought the car to a stop and watched as Kate stepped out and pretty much skipped up the porch steps. Inside, Kamali was already on his feet, wagging his tail before Kate burst into her home with a smile on her face.

“Hey, you guys. I’m home!”

Many shouts of “Mama!” and “Yay!” greeted her ears.

Once the ruckus quieted, Alice greeted her in a more sedentary fashion. “Hi, Kate. How did it go?”

“It went great, Alice. I’m going to enjoy this job,” Kate enthused while trying to get Limpet Lucy off her leg. “Come here, you,” she said, hoisting her growing daughter up into her arms. “How was school, huh?”

“Good. I scored two goals today.”

“Wow. More soccer? Awesome.”

Alice smiled at the interaction before looking to the little piece of paper with her notes on it. “Your dad called.”

“Oh,” Kate said, trying to avoid another sloppy kiss from her daughter. “What did he say?”

“He said the cabin is amazing, and he can see why CJ bought it. They were down in Alberton for supplies and popped in to see Charlie who let them use the phone.”

“I’m so glad they love it, and I knew they would get on well with Charlie. That’s great.”

Kate had suggested that when Eddie and Jeffrey arrived in Los Angeles, they dump their things at the house and go for a little vacation. She and CJ had given them the keys to their hideaway in Montana. Since Eddie and Jeffrey had also been affected by the whole Elizabeth Emerson nightmare, some time to breathe was just what they had needed.

Kate recalled the day they had left, giggling like a couple of school kids. “They should stay longer. Are they still intent on coming back tomorrow?”

“Yes. He said they’ll call you from the airport. The flight is due in around three thirty, but they’re going to rent a car until they can buy one. And your dad said that was final,” Alice explained with a grin. She gathered up one energetic child in each hand to stop them running manically around Kate. “We’ll head home if that’s OK, Kate. These two have been a handful today.”

“No worries, Alice. Are you still managing this job? I know it must be exhausting…”

“Yes. I-I can manage. I really love this job and-“

Kate raised her hand to ease Alice’s panicked look. “I didn’t mean to imply that you aren’t doing the job well, because you definitely are. I was just checking in.”

“Phew. OK, I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

Kate nodded. “Sure. How does a half-day sound? I’ll see the girls off to school, and you can come over at say, two o’clock? I have a meeting at three.” She knew she would be happy to do some of the housework in the morning and give Alice a small breather.

“Sounds great. See you then.”

Once everyone had organized themselves and the front door shut behind the Matthews family, Kate took a deep breath and gave herself a moment to let it out in the quiet of the hallway. In the next second, she felt like a dark cloud had suddenly floated over her head. Her eyes became heavy, and she almost cried. “What the hell is this?” She stood there for a few moments, feeling uneasy and listening to her heart beating in her ears. “Am I coming down with something?” She felt her forehead, but she honestly felt fine physically. She shook off the idea of going to hide in a dark room, and listened to the faraway sounds of the children upstairs. “Girls?”

After the two munchkins came trotting along into the upper hallway, Shannon did a spin on the spot to finish the entrance. “Yes, Mama?”

“It’s time to get changed and go out to the barn. We need to get ready for Calli arriving.”

“Yes!” Shannon punched a fist in the air and turned to Lucy. “Calli’s coming today.”

Lucy wanted specifics. “When?”

When Shannon looked to Kate for the answer, she forced a smile. “In one hour, so let’s get moving.”

Lucy began to literally buzz on the spot – possibly being a bee on her way down the stairs – which made Kate laugh out loud. She was very much in love with her family, and she swooped down to grab Lucy, swinging her up into the air and making the five-year-old scream with excitement. With Shannon hopping at her heels, they changed into their muddy gear and made their way out into the afternoon sunshine, but Kate hadn’t failed to notice that her mood had shifted again. With a smile on her face, she put it down to the stress of the past few months and made a firm decision to be very aware of her emotional state over the coming days. But right now, it was time to add to the brood at the Carson ranch so there was no time to dwell on her scattered thoughts.

* * * * * *

By the end of their day, the agents had made a dent in the killer’s profile, but had gotten no further forward with his victim selection. Apart from the victims being two couples, they had nothing else in common: no links to any places in the community, no familial or friendship connections, not even their race, religion, or sexuality matched up. The first couple was a married man and woman, and the students were two gay men. The apparently random selection of targets was puzzling everyone.

The killer’s MO was becoming clear, though. After shooting them in the back, the bodies were moved so that their hands covered each other’s heart. It was quite obvious to the agents that the perp was in some sort of severe emotional pain, but even if he was, killing was never the answer for a sane person, so he had to have some kind of psychotic tendencies too.

CJ had mentioned that the killer may have a serious grudge against happy couples due to his – or her – parents having a terrible relationship in the past. She hadn’t ruled out a female subject because the use of a gun made sure victims were easily incapacitated without the need for a physical fight.

Jamie had to agree but questioned the reasoning behind CJ’s statement. “But CJ, let’s look at you, or Kate, or even me. We’re pretty strong, and we know self-defense. We all know victims can be overpowered by a smaller person if they have the right technique.”

“That’s true,” CJ said, “But what I mean is, they are killed during the hours of darkness, like that extra cover is needed somehow, and it could be a female because she positions them after she kills them. It would be a helluva lot easier to force them to move into the poses first and then kill them. But this way, the murderer doesn’t chance a conflict.”

Tim leaned back in his chair and grunted quietly, indicating that he was about to speak. “OK. So if it’s a woman, she still has to be able to move the bodies, post-mortem. With this last couple, one of them was pretty tall. It says on the ME report that he was over two hundred pounds. I’m thinking this Un-Sub has gotta be pretty strong either way.”

“Good point.” CJ stood up. “Let me know how far you get. We need to pick this up in the morning because I have to go see Mitchell before I leave. I think he just wants to welcome me back or something.”

Jamie began typing a few more notes on her computer while she answered. “I’ll email this to Mark, then we’ll keep working on it. See you later, DM.”

“Later, guys.” While Jamie and Tim continued with their work, CJ went to the ladies restroom since she knew her bladder wouldn’t make it all the way through her meeting. Once she’d flushed and exited the stall, she headed over to the sink to wash her hands and caught sight of the door opening in the mirror. Her stomach plummeted when in walked her worst nightmare. What? I can’t even piss in peace?

Chris Wilder flicked her long, dark hair over her shoulder and strolled past CJ, but instead of going in to use the toilet, she stopped at the mirror about two feet to CJ’s left. “Fancy meeting you here…”

CJ clenched her jaw and tried for a polite smile, but it didn’t quite come off. “I’m sure it’s no coincidence, Doctor.”

“Oh, you give yourself far too much credit.”

“You have a private bathroom in your office…three floors down.”

Chris’s eyes honed in on CJ’s cheek muscles. “Relax, CJ. You seem a little tense. Honestly, I’m not so desperate that I need to stalk you,” she finished with a fake, little laugh.

“Of course not.”

Chris heard the malice, sarcasm, and disbelief dripping off the words, and she turned ninety degrees to face the tall, alluring object of her desire. “OK. So let’s say, hypothetically, I had come here looking for you,” she purred, moving closer to CJ’s rigid body. “And let’s say I was only coming to give you some information on the case-”

CJ quickly put her hand in the air to halt the words. “Then you would’ve gone to my office and dealt with Agent Green. I told you this is her case.”

“Oh, but CJ, I’d much rather make sure you are fully debriefed in person…by me…on everything I find in every victim. I think that’s what a good medical examiner would do, don’t you?”

CJ was losing her patience. “You think this is some kind of game? You think this is a joke, a little funny to brighten up your day? The people on your table have been murdered, and you seem to be using it as a way to sexually harass me!” She tried to get her anger under control by taking a couple of deep breaths. Her body was wound tighter than a drum.

“Aw, lighten up, CJ. Jeez, this job’s made you such a defensive kitten. Maybe I could loosen you off,” Chris offered with a flutter of her full, dark eyelashes.

“You’ve got to be fucking joking!” CJ’s nostrils flared as she tried to stop her body from shaking.

Chris conveniently mistook the anger for arousal, and was now standing so close that CJ could smell the breath mint she was sucking on. She lifted one hand to trail over her own body before it moved toward CJ’s shoulder. Chris’s heart rate doubled with anticipation.

CJ forced her hands into balled-up fists and willed herself not to hit their medical examiner. “Do not touch me. I’ve had enough, Chris.” Her voice was dangerously low, but Chris just found it more appealing, and as CJ was turning to walk away, she pushed forward and pressed her breasts up against CJ’s back. CJ froze when Chris gasped at the contact.

“I’m so sorry. That was a total accident. I must have tripped.”

The problem was that after her trip, she hadn’t moved away and was still body-to-body with CJ. She also had CJ’s upper arms firmly in her hands.

By this point, CJ was livid, and she could feel the rage building inside her. She was going to physically lash out any second now. “Back. Away. Now.”

Chris heard the tone that was even more dangerous than before and thought perhaps she had taken this a little too far. She straightened up and brushed down the front of her clothes, making sure her nipples were standing to attention and showing through her thin, cotton sweater. “Thank you for catching me.”

Much to Chris’s disappointment, CJ stormed out of the restroom door without looking back.

“Damn it, she’s a tough cookie to break…but I did it before, and I’ll do it again.”

Brazen, she was, but something had consumed Chris when she’d first seen CJ in her office that day. An overwhelming memory of the chase, the capture, and the surrender of CJ Carson when she had made her scream out beneath her years ago, had done something strange to Dr. Wilder, and she wasn’t completely sure why she couldn’t let it go.

Maybe the fact that the strong agent was easily resisting her advances this time made it a cause worth pursuing, or perhaps the fact that someone who had been so pliable in those early days could be the complete opposite now was fueling Chris’s desire beyond what she usually experienced. CJ’s stunning good looks, incredible body, and tough-woman attitude could also have been factors. Whatever it was, Chris Wilder was taking risks. How many more could she get away with?

* * * * * *

Once Julius Mitchell had added to her crappy mood by bringing up everything that happened in Minnesota, CJ stomped through the parking garage under the Bureau building. Julius had wanted to tell her what a great job she had done capturing Frank Hess, and how sorry he was that she had been in the plane crash. She managed to nod along and remain polite, but on the inside she wanted to scream at the world…well, mostly at Frank Hess, Elizabeth Emerson, and now, Chris Wilder.

By the time CJ started driving home she was grinding her teeth and drowning in thoughts. Her body was still tingling, but it felt more like an irritating itch caused by her skin crawling under the lecherous eyes of her former lover than a pleasant glow. She was angry, upset, and she felt a little violated too. Reporting Chris to the bosses was something circling the back of her mind, but she thought she ought to be able to handle it by herself. And no witnesses to any of it, she grumbled internally. It’s my word against hers.

If Chris touched her intimately again – the hands groping her arms was definitely not an innocent touch – she would have to confide in Jamie and ask for her advice. That would be the first step. She had to tell someone she could trust.

By the time she turned into her driveway and drove through the sturdy posts for the new electric gates that would be installed next week, she wondered how the hell she had gotten there. Realizing that she had driven home automatically, she shook her head and pounded her fist – her right fist – on the steering wheel. She could see her home in the distance, and it went some way to erasing her bad mood. Kate suddenly filled her mind, and when she realized her children would also be home, a tiny smile quirked the sides of her frowning mouth.

CJ brought the truck to a stop in front of the porch and saw the nose of an unfamiliar vehicle poking out from the space in front of the barn. Her frown returned as she walked toward the other truck which was an older, dirtier version of her own. But when she saw it had a horse trailer attached, she let out a relieved sigh. Calli was here.

CJ entered the barn and found her entire family standing in front of one of the stables. Then she noticed the woman from the sanctuary – Cam – coming out the door with a halter hanging over her shoulder. When all eyes turned to CJ, she smiled.

“Hey, guys. I guess we have a new horse, huh?”

“Yes, Mommy. Look. She’s eating her hay!” Lucy squealed with glee.

“She sure is.”

While CJ was surrounded and hugged by two welcoming children, Kate looked affectionately at her. She could see something lurking under CJ’s smile. Nothing got past Kate, but she knew it would be a while before they would talk about it.

“She’s settling nicely, honey. Walked straight in like she had always lived here…”

CJ could tell Kate was surprised and rather delighted to see her home so early. She could also see Kate analyzing her, and for some reason it irked her this time. Once she was released by the children, she decided she would slip her arm around Kate before she answered. “That’s great.” She turned to smile politely at Cam. “Thanks for bringing her over for us.”

“No problem. I’m just happy she found a good home. Your place is just wonderful.”

“Yeah, we love it.” CJ looked through the window space at the back of Calli’s stable and saw Nevada curiously peering over the fence. “And I think she should meet her new friend soon.”

Cam craned her neck to see their beautiful palomino. “Wow, great horse. It’s a mare right?”

Kate nodded. “Yes. Her name’s Nevada.”

“Very nice. Well, I’ll be on my way and let you guys get settled. Any problems, just give me a call.”

“Thanks, Cam.”

Once CJ shook her hand, Cam dipped her Stetson. “Thank you all for giving Calli a home.”

When Cam and her truck and trailer had disappeared, CJ sighed and wrapped herself tightly around Kate. “Hi.”

Kate leaned into CJ’s shirt. “Hey. I missed you.”

“Same here.”

“How was your day?” Kate asked hesitantly before she leaned back to watch CJ’s eyes.

“Not bad in the grand scheme of things. As usual, we’re trying to figure out a killer, but this one’s Jamie’s case, so I need to try to not stick my nose in unless she asks me to.”

Kate saw the obvious avoidance. She would let it slide for now. For some reason, she didn’t think this was about a killer. “I’m sure you’ll manage.”

“Yeah, and Mitchell pulled me in for a pat on the back.”

“Did he talk to you about Minnesota?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

It was making a little more sense to Kate now. CJ’s underlying mood could be due to rehashing some crappy memories.

“Well it was your first day back at the office, and you did an amazing job of tracking down Hess, so I’d imagine he’d want to say well done,” Kate said as if it was plainly obvious.

CJ smiled a little at Kate’s unfaltering devotion. “Uh-huh, thanks for saying that. Oh. Guess who’s come to work with us.”

“Who?”

“I said guess.”

Kate was thrown a little off balance by the tone, but when CJ gave her another small smile, she thought she should guess. “Um, Barack Obama?”

“Sheesh.” CJ shook her head, but resisted rolling her eyes. “Tim Dalton.”

It took Kate a few seconds to recall the name. She ran her fingers up and down the front of CJ’s shirt, and her eyebrows finally lifted when the light bulb went on in her head. “Oh, the agent you met in Minnesota?”

“Yes. He’s a really cool guy. I’m glad he came to LA.”

“That’s good, honey. So you have five in the team now, huh?”

“Well, Mark counts six. He includes himself.”

Kate smiled. “Right…because he’s a great guy too.”

“True.”

Since CJ was so distracted by something, Kate figured some equine therapy was I order. “How about we get Nevada in and settle both our horses before we go have dinner together?”

“Sounds like a plan,” CJ conceded. She didn’t know what she wanted right now, which was a very strange feeling. Deciding she didn’t want to dig deeper into that hole, she followed Kate as she went outside with halter in-hand.

A couple of hours later, the horses had sniffed one another, snorted a fair bit, and quieted down in their stables. CJ dropped some hay into Nevada’s net and tied it up on the wall close to Calli. The two seemed to be instant friends after a few stomps on the ground, and as they ate, they occasionally nosed each other in a silent discussion of sorts.

It actually made CJ chuckle as she left the barn. “I think they’re happy enough.”

Kate nodded. “They look like they’re in love.”

Noticing that Shannon and Lucy had run on ahead and were already safely in the backyard, CJ pulled Kate to a halt and kissed her. “I think I might be in love too.”

“With me, I hope,” Kate replied teasingly.

For some reason, the chirpy response made CJ tense. “Yes…of course, with you.”

Kate frowned. “Hey. I know that. What’s with you?”

“Nothing. Just kiss me.” CJ pulled her close and kissed her possessively.

Kate’s mild concern vanished, and she melted into the kiss as her knees turned to jelly. When the kiss ended, she shuffled into the house beside CJ feeling slightly dazed. That was a kiss. Wow.

* * * * * *

Hyperactive Shannon and bouncing-off-the-walls Lucy had finally gone to bed after an exhausting evening. CJ had visions earlier of Lucy swinging from the light fittings and Shannon being plugged into an electrical outlet. The children were ridiculously wound up about Nevada’s new friend, and when they had all gone outside after dinner to put the horses in the field, the whole family had watched as Calli galloped across the expanse and checked out the entire perimeter of her new space. Nevada had followed, and they had playfully bucked and squealed their way back to the center of the paddock before promptly putting their heads down to munch on the grass. Shannon and Lucy had thought all of this was hilarious, and once it was over they didn’t calm down for hours.

There had been no time for CJ and Kate to idly chat as their parenting responsibilities took over, but thankfully the house was now quiet since the children had tired themselves out and were sleeping peacefully in their beds.

In the master suite, CJ lay curled around Kate’s torso and thought about how she had been busier after she came home than she had been at work. “You know, I could’ve sworn those two were plugged into the mains tonight.”

Kate snorted a laugh. “Yeah, I’ve never seen them like that. I think maybe they sensed my energy too. I was a little buzzed when I came home from the studios, and it kinda climbed to a crescendo from there on in.”

“Oh, how did that go? I didn’t get a word in earlier so I couldn’t ask you,” CJ said quietly.

“It went great. I got my fighter pilot uniform fitted. You’re gonna love that. And I met some of the crew, and a co-star, Erica Cavanaugh.”

“Is she nice?”

“Seems to be, yeah.” Kate reached to the nightstand and grabbed her cell phone. “She took a picture of me in my outfit. Wanna see?”

CJ popped upright and wiggled her fingers. “Gimme, gimme.” She looked at the screen and practically melted. “Ooh, you look so…so…bossy.”

Kate laughed. “Bossy?”

“Yeah. Domineering, bossy, in charge…sexy.” CJ’s voice was getting huskier with every word, and Kate’s eyes began to glaze over.

“Sounds like you approve.”

CJ dropped the phone somewhere in the covers and slid her body onto Kate’s. “Very much so. I love it when you’re the boss.”

Kate trailed her fingertip over CJ’s luscious lips and licked her own while blue eyes hungrily watched. “How can I be the boss if you’re on top?” she purred.

CJ felt a surge of molten heat between her thighs. “All you have to do is speak, and this big, tough, federal agent will do anything you say.”

“Mmm, OK. Put your finger on your clit,” Kate whispered.

CJ almost growled. She braced her right arm to hold herself up while her left hand slid down over her own abdomen. When it made contact with her sex, her body trembled, and she began to sweat with the exertion of her impressive position.

Kate trailed her eyes up and down CJ’s arm muscles that were bulging and straining under the tension. Little beads of perspiration appeared on the warm skin as CJ began to pant. Kate was slightly concerned about her being in pain, but she knew if CJ was, she wouldn’t have tried this position. With her gaze fixed, Kate’s voice croaked on her next command. “Now slide the finger down and make it nice and wet.”

CJ could barely stand it. Kate’s tongue was glistening as it repeatedly poked out to moisten her full lips. It was arousing her to bursting point, but for some reason she would rather it was Kate who was succumbing to pleasure, not her.

Kate took the increased panting as a sign that CJ was now touching herself with earnest. “Put that delicious finger in my mouth…now.” Her vivid, green eyes shot up to demand everything from CJ who hurriedly moved the finger to insert it where Kate wanted it.

Feeling the need to take back at least some control, CJ breathed out, “Taste it.”

And Kate did. While CJ shook, she felt the languid strokes of Kate’s tongue on her finger and moaned at the gentle suction that would occasionally pull the finger to the back of Kate’s throat. It was becoming too much for CJ to cope with.

“Katie, I need more of you.” She gave up her difficult pose and dropped down to rest her quivering body on top of Kate’s once more. She was ravenous, she needed to possess, and she voraciously licked her way across Kate’s collarbone and down between her two glorious breasts. While she was lavishing attention on Kate’s hard nipple, she heard a husky voice commanding her from above.

“Bite it. Gently.” Kate moaned long and low when CJ did what she was told. The feelings were exquisite, and the heavy breathing coming from CJ was helping to push Kate closer and closer to the edge. “Now put your head between my legs and let me feel your tongue.”

CJ almost squeaked as she wriggled her body down the bed. “With pleasure,” she gasped when she saw Kate sprawl her legs across the mattress. “Mine.”

CJ gripped Kate’s thighs tight and plunged her tongue deep within her sex. Kate cried out at the feeling, but CJ barely heard her as the blood thundered through her ears while her passion soared. She flattened her tongue and began bobbing her head up and down to a fast beat only heard by her. Barely five seconds later, Kate grabbed fistfuls of CJ’s raven hair and pushed her face further into the heavenly feast.

“Yes!”

Kate’s orgasm sent a flood of release into CJ’s mouth, and she lapped up every drop with gusto. CJ was beyond turned on, and once Kate had experienced every last shudder of pleasure, she rose up to press her aching sex against Kate’s thigh. CJ began a hard and fast grinding motion that seemed so frantic to her, but she didn’t care right now. Even though she had only wanted to pleasure Kate, she had to finish. It would be painful not to. As she brought herself closer to climax, Kate watched her in amazement. She had no idea how they had gotten so hot so fast, but this lovemaking session was incredible – much like all their other sexual encounters. But during this one, CJ had become hyper-aroused through words alone. Yes, she had made love to Kate, but right now she seemed to be in a world of her own.

Kate watched the most gorgeous woman she had ever seen rocking back and forth over her body. CJ’s mouth was open as she gasped out each breath, and her eyes were closed in what appeared to be rapture. Her breasts swayed with each thrust, and Kate fixated on them for a moment before needing to see CJ’s eyes open at the moment she came all over her leg.

“Open your eyes.”

CJ did so, and they were revealed as two deep-azure pools of intoxicated sensuality.

Kate was floored by the gaze and felt her pulse quicken as CJ continued to pierce directly into her soul. Kate reached up to take CJ’s nipples between her fingers, and as she twisted them in tandem, she growled, “Come…now.”

“Fuck, yes.”

CJ’s orgasm swallowed her whole. Her body convulsed repeatedly over Kate’s smooth skin, painting it heavily with her juices. She gripped with her thighs and squeezed every last spasm out of her sex, not quite believing that she had let Kate totally control her once more. There seemed to be a struggle for dominance inside CJ that she just couldn’t win, but what she hadn’t pondered was where it was coming from.

“Katie…” CJ collapsed around Kate’s body and hissed through her teeth as her wrist support hit the mattress.

“Hey. Be careful, baby.” Kate maneuvered until CJ was comfortably wrapped around her torso. “You OK?”

“Holy shit, yes. What the hell was that?”

“I don’t know, but it had you really wound up.”

“Wow, yeah. You’re so incredible,” CJ said while clinging to Kate’s warm body.

“We’re incredible.” Kate tilted her head on the pillow to watch CJ’s face. “You really do like it when I’m all domineering, don’t you?”

CJ almost paused due to the conflicting desires she had experienced. “Yeah. Maybe it’s because I would never let anyone else do that to me. You’re the only one I give control to.”

Kate frowned as she retrieved whatever she was lying on. She smirked as she put her forgotten cell phone on the nightstand. “Well, I’m glad of that. You’re my bitch, no one else’s.”

CJ blurted out a nervous laugh…again, unsure of where her reactions were coming from. “So true.” She curled herself even further around Kate. “Do you need anything else?”

“I only need you. I love you, CJ.”

“I love you more.”

“Not possible,” Kate murmured against CJ’s head before bestowing a kiss on her sweat-dampened hair.

“I beg to differ,” CJ whispered sleepily.

“Agree to disagree?”

“Mm-hmm.”

.

Chapter 4

At ten o’clock on a bright, sunny Los Angeles morning, Kate walked through the corridor at the Chaplin studios. She could feel the chill flying around her from the air conditioning unit and was thankful for the reprieve from the stifling heat outside. April had only just arrived, and the city was shrouded in unusually high temperatures.

As she walked, her mind drifted back to her morning. Getting the girls ready for school had been a monumental task since all they had wanted to do was go out and tend to Calli, and by the time Tony had left in the car with them, Kate barely had the time to make sure CJ took her painkillers before she left the house. CJ had hurt herself during their lovemaking last night after all, but of course, she had said she was fine and explained it had been totally worth it. Kate had grinned at that before she proceeded to boss her wife right out of the house. With a laugh, CJ went willingly, blowing kisses from her truck as she drove off.

Hmm, I’m exhausted already, and my day hasn’t even begun, Kate mused as she continued on through the next corridor. She was here today for her second costume fitting, and she was hoping this would be a shorter visit than yesterday since they were just getting her sizes for the more casual clothing, like the fatigues and tank tops worn in the officer’s mess and cabins. She smiled at the thought of her new show and all the new things she would be experiencing while working on it.

“Good morning, Kate!”

Kate jumped a little, but recovered neatly and turned to see Erica striding out toward her. “Hi, Erica.”

Once Erica had caught up to her, she flashed her dazzling smile. “You look great today. May I walk in with you?”

Kate wasn’t very sure how to respond to that. This woman kept praising her, and as much as Erica looked great too, Kate didn’t want to enthuse about it all the time. “Thanks, I’d like that.”

“I’m so looking forward to doing this show. It’s a terrific opportunity for me. How about you?”

Kate nodded. “I’m looking forward to it too. You play one of the ground troops, don’t you? Le’Ana’s secret contact?”

“Yes. Tzera Kellen at your service, ma’am,” Erica said with a little salute.

“I must admit, I like the sound of the general storyline. Humans conspiring against humans…”

“I know, but why would they set up a huge space station to reach out the hand of peace to the aliens, and then decide to kill their own kind?”

Kate glanced at her as they pushed through some double doors. “I guess we’ll to wait to find out. I think it’s something to do with us space-dwellers changing our opinion about the aliens. The admirals set up the station to defend our planet under the guise of a peace-keeping mission. Orders came down for us to obliterate them after gaining their trust, and it seems we didn’t want to do that,” Kate related, remembering her reading of the concept of the show.

“Oh, so you guys became rebels of sorts, siding with the aliens, and I’m a mole on the planet surface for you. Nice.”

Kate smirked. “Sounds plausible to me.”

Erica laughed as they walked into the huge wardrobe room. “I’m in full agreement.”

* * * * * *

“Here you go, CJ,” Tim Dalton said, handing her a paper cup.

“Thanks.” CJ took a swig and frowned before she swallowed. “Hey, Tim?”

“Yeah?”

“How the hell did you make the office coffee taste somewhere close to good?”

Tim twisted his mouth at the question. “Uh, you mean it doesn’t usually taste like that?”

“Um, no. It normally tastes like something died in it.”

Jamie laughed from her position behind her computer monitor. “That’s true.”

Tim shrugged. “I just added a little sugar and cream.”

When he held up his own creamer, CJ squinted to read the label. “OK, that’s why it tastes better. We don’t have that kinda stuff here.”

“Well, I tend to bring my own to work. Makes it bearable, at least,” Tim said with a wink.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” CJ mumbled before her head lowered to her work again.

Jamie was getting used to the comfortable chatter between her two colleagues now – at least that’s what she was telling herself. It did seem that Tim had not even been aware of CJ’s instant karma with him, and that made Jamie feel a little more secure in her friendship with CJ since she knew Tim wasn’t trying to butt in. She still felt uneasy on occasion, but she had to keep reminding herself of the conversation she and CJ had in the restroom. In turn, she was now warming to Tim, little by little.

“You haven’t met Mikey yet, have you, Tim?” Jamie asked.

“Nope. Looking forward to meeting him and Ethan.”

Jamie nodded. “Well, Ethan’s on leave, but they were both at court this morning, so Mikey should be here soon.”

“Cool. Could he come out with me this afternoon to talk to the friends of the college victims?”

“Sounds like a plan,” CJ piped up. “And Jamie and I will go over the profile again. Gotta find something to give us a lead on the killer’s next move.”

Jamie knew CJ was a tad frustrated. “DM, we’ll get it done. And remember, we still have lab results to come through. Maybe there’ll be a print or something.”

“Maybe…and if there is, I hope he or she is in the system,” CJ grumped and flicked through the autopsy reports on her desk. “You and Sam still coming over tonight, Penfold?”

“Yeah. She should be done with work by seven.”

“She?” Tim asked with his eyebrows lifted high.

Jamie almost laughed at his expression. “Yeah. We met through CJ and Kate. Why?”

Tim shook his head and smiled. “No reason. I’m just glad to be in such…tolerant and wonderful company, that’s all.”

CJ spun her chair a little to face him. “Something you want to tell us, Timothy Dalton?”

“Agh. Don’t call me that.” He could see by the mischievous glint in her eye that it was totally safe to tell them about his sexuality – and that CJ somehow knew already that he was not straight – but before he could say anything else, Mikey came traipsing in the door looking slightly disheveled.

“Hey, Mikey. How was court?” CJ asked with a dark chuckle.

“It was shit. Defense counsel was a shark with very sharp teeth, and he bit into my ass like-” Mikey stopped abruptly when he realized there was someone new in the room, and his face brightened perceptibly as he introduced himself. “Uh, hi. Mikey Ryan,” he said, immediately extending his hand towards Tim.

“Hi, Mikey. I’m Tim Dalton…transferred in from Minnesota. Good to meet you.”

“Likewise. I knew we were getting another agent for our team, but I never thought it would be that fast.”

“Well I just happened to be looking for a move, and I had worked with CJ when she came to Minneapolis last year. I met Jamie and the AD there too, so it just kinda went on from that.”

“Great. How long you been on the job?”

“Just over six years now.”

“Have you worked in violent crimes before?”

“Not so much, but I know I can learn a lot here.”

“Definitely from these two,” Mikey said while vaguely gesturing to CJ and Jamie. “I was new to it too. There’s so much to learn, but I’ve found it really interesting so far, so it’s not too overwhelming. And it’s fine as long as you have the stomach for it. You’re not squeamish, are you?”

“Not so far, but who knows what I’ll see here…” Tim trailed off when he heard faint laughter beside him. Both he and Mikey turned to the women and saw them biting their lips to stop their smiles. “What?” he said, narrowing his eyes at CJ.

“When you two have quite finished your chit-chat, maybe we can get back to work?”

Mikey knew CJ was totally teasing. “Yeah, yeah. Let me get coffee, and we’ll get on with it.”

CJ grinned at Tim as he went back to his seat. “Hey, Mikey. Let Tim make it. He has his own magical recipe…makes the crap stuff taste almost palatable.”

Mikey looked skeptically at Tim who was fake-glaring at CJ. “Palatable, Agent Dalton?”

For some insane reason, Tim shivered a little at the tone. “Sure. Take a seat. Café Dalton is now open,” he drawled as he went to the machine.

CJ leaned back in her chair and watched the two. Hmm…definite bond there. That’s good, ‘cause Mikey always stayed a little detached from us all. Maybe this’ll help him feel like a true member of the unit.

* * * * * *

The constant changing of outfits and measuring of body parts was almost over, and Erica Cavanaugh was glad of that. The costume changes were a rather boring part of the job, but sitting on the sidelines while Kate got changed out of her final costume was not. Erica became slightly lost in her thoughts as she admired her new co-star. From her previous knowledge of Kate Marshall, Erica knew what type of person she was: intelligent, kind, courageous, strong, loving, beautiful, and talented…the list went on and on. But what she hadn’t really known before was just how sensual Kate was without even meaning to be. Observing her in the flesh was quite a revelation to Erica. She continued to gawk at the fine specimen of womanhood now. Kate wasn’t much shorter than she was, but she seemed incredibly petite due to her slight frame.

However, Erica noted how Kate’s shoulders bulged in a strangely feminine way when she lifted her arms, and how the brief piece of skin that was revealed above her belt, rippled as she moved around. Kate worked out regularly, and Erica couldn’t tear her eyes away from her athletic body.

She hadn’t seen many pictures of Kate with her arms uncovered, but this live performance was so much better than a picture anyway. Watching Kate’s well-defined muscles moving as she pulled another hanger off the rail was kind of hypnotic. Then, in her jeans and bra, Kate wandered off to her cubicle not knowing that piercing, blue eyes were following her every move. Erica suddenly felt like a pervert and quickly averted her gaze, biting her lip and fussing with her hands. When she looked up again, Kate was fully dressed and walking towards her.

“Ready to go?”

“I’ll be ready in one minute,” Erica replied with a flush to her cheeks. “Did you pick out your chair yet?” she asked as she checked her bag to make sure she had everything she needed.

Kate chuckled. “Yeah, I chose a purple one with lots of cushioning in case the meetings here are like the ones on Deadline. Boy, those producers loved the sound of their own voices.”

“One of our producers is your friend, right?”

“She sure is. She should be here today, actually. Sam Morris. I’ll introduce you.”

Erica smiled sweetly. “Great. We’ve got five minutes to spare. A leisurely stroll along the corridor, ma’am?” she said, gesturing to the large door.

“After you, Erica.”

As they walked through the quirky warren that was the Chaplin studios, Erica chatted casually about anything and everything…as long as it somehow involved Kate Marshall. “And my last project ended over a year ago, so I had plenty of time to catch up with Deadline.”

Kate was a little flattered that she had a fan who was also an actress. She thought it was unusual, but Erica seemed to be a refreshing change to the normal, bitchy co-stars. “I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It was a great show to make, but I really felt I wanted a change, so here I am.”

“I’m happy you wanted a change,” Erica said animatedly. “It gave me a chance to work alongside you. That’s quite an honor for me.”

“Well…I. Thank you. But really, we’re all just here to do a job, enjoyable as it is.” Kate was aware that the refreshing change occasionally seemed to turn a corner into something too refreshing, but she still felt that Erica would be a good friend, and she was sure she would get used to the compliments eventually. “And it’s always an honor for me to work with creative people like yourself,” she reciprocated politely.

“Aw, thanks. I hope to learn some new tricks here, and working with green screens will be different. The CGI is something brand new for me.”

Kate nodded along. “Me too.”

Erica pushed the final door open, and they entered the conference room together. People were filing in from other directions – the room had three entrances – and in the middle of it all was an auburn head of hair that Kate recognized immediately, so she snuck up behind her dear friend.

“Hey, you.”

“Oii!” Sam said, slapping her hand against her chest. “You scared the bejeesus outta me, Kate.” Sam flung her arms around Kate and pecked her on the cheek, which did not go unnoticed by Erica. After a few seconds of friendly banter flying between the two, Erica butted in.

“Hi, I’m Erica Cavanaugh. Nice to meet you, Sam.”

Sam belatedly turned to the voice. “Oh, hi. Great to meet you too.”

“Erica’s been keeping me company today,” Kate told Sam. “We had another costume fitting.”

“Ah. How did that go?”

“Pretty good. I like the outfits they’ve chosen for me.” Kate winked at Sam who laughed out loud because she had discussed the costumes at length with Kate and knew that CJ was going to adore them…especially the flight suit.

“Yeah, she looks great in them,” Erica said, jumping into the discussion with vigor. “And mine are awesome too. I can’t wait to start shooting.”

Sam watched this new actress as she spoke and couldn’t quite pin down what was bugging her about the woman. Could it be the fact that she was utterly gorgeous but utterly annoying at the same time? “Well, today we’ll go over some draft scripts, and get everyone to grips with the overall scenario. We’re just waiting for some crew to arrive, and then we’ll be good to go.”

Sam and Erica smiled sweetly at one another before Sam turned to Kate. “Nice choice of chair, by the way,” she said as she walked off with a smile.

“Thanks, Sam. See you in a bit,” Kate said with a grin as she gently punched the back of Sam’s arm.

Erica filed the interaction away for analysis later. Kate and Sam seemed to be really close friends. She truly hoped that she would be a close friend of Kate’s soon too. With a sigh, she shuffled round the table to her own chair. As she took her seat directly across from Kate, she realized – with glee – that she had an astounding view. Huh. Maybe I won’t mind if this is a long meeting after all.

* * * * * *

Tim Dalton propped himself on the edge of CJ’s desk. He felt incredibly comfortable in this new place, as if he’d been here for years. Mikey, CJ, and Jamie were all sitting around him, discussing the latest couple to be murdered. He watched CJ as she delivered her evaluation to the group. He could see she used her hands a lot when she spoke to accentuate her point and to give the others more of a visualization of what she was talking about…which, right now, was the positioning of the bodies.

While CJ mimicked the way one of the victims had been placed, Tim watched Mikey as he responded to something she was saying. Mikey was a young agent. That much was clear, but there was something very mature about him: wisdom, perhaps. CJ had told Tim that Mikey was a technical genius, the geek of the team who was able to do everything and anything when it came to surveillance, bugging phone lines, tracing cell phones, anything with computers…all of it. That sort of intelligence peaked Tim’s interest a great deal.

When Jamie said something a little louder than the others, Tim jumped a little, but it brought his attention directly to her. He sat back as she described the entry point of the bullet on the recent, smaller, male victim, and he soon drifted back into his thoughts.

Jamie was stunning…as was CJ, but for some reason he saw her more like a sister. Jamie was different. He had no such limitation when it came to her, and she looked like a supermodel.

Actually, they could both stroll down a catwalk with ease, he mused. He thought he could definitely be attracted to Jamie, but he had already found out that she was in a loving relationship. He wasn’t interested in breaking anyone up. He simply wanted to find someone to love too. No, these people would hopefully be his closest friends. He was noble to a fault, and that wouldn’t change here in Los Angeles, especially with his new team.

A few seconds later, he blinked and realized he had missed most of the conversation. He chastised himself for being a terrible agent and team member before he sat upright to pay full attention.

“So all four victims were shot in the back…” Mikey was saying.

“Yes, but on the last two victims the injuries weren’t so accurate,” CJ answered.

Mikey pursed his lips. “That could be attributed to the distance of the shooter.”

Tim felt he could slip back into the debate now. “That’s true, Mikey. This time the Un-Sub was at least eighty meters away.”

CJ smirked briefly at his use of Un-Sub, but sighed at the reality of the case before she spoke. “I’m thinking he didn’t have a decent place to hide on campus and made do with whatever scenario he could find. But why is he so desperate to kill couples?”

Jamie leaned forward on her desk, propping her chin up on her hands. “Like you said earlier, DM, this killer could have a serious problem with seemingly happy couples, and is taking them out as some kind of perverted revenge.”

“I don’t know,” CJ muttered with a tinge of frustration. “If that was the case, surely he would have a more targeted victim type. I mean, look at this last couple. One was a Latino man, the other guy, Caucasian. The first couple…they were both young, yes, but they were husband and wife, and also both Caucasian. If he had two specific people in his mind when he kills, wouldn’t the victims look like them?”

Tim nodded. “Maybe, but it could also be that his parents were so happy with one another that they ignored him completely. Constant neglect could drive him to sporadic envy killings. Maybe he’s picking out happy couples who seem very attentive to one another to the point where they exclude others around them.”

CJ was impressed at his efforts, but his theory didn’t quite fit. “That would take some planning and stalking, perhaps weeks of watching them before he shoots, but it’s always a possibility.” She stood up to stretch out her stiff bones. “Are you guys going out to do those interviews?”

“Yep,” Tim responded enthusiastically.

“Have a think about all this while you’re out, and we’ll get back to it later.”

Mikey was on his feet in an instant and throwing his jacket around his shoulders. “No worries, CJ. Ready to go, Tim?”

“More than ready. You drive, and I’ll read over our list of acquaintances on the way.”

“Sounds good to me.”

And with that, Tim and Mikey vanished out the door.

CJ turned to Jamie with a puzzled look on her face. “Am I imagining it or…?”

Jamie snorted. “I’m just glad Mikey finally has this much enthusiasm. Don’t question it, DM.”

“Uh-huh. At least I’m not the only one who sees it.”

As they both got back to work, a comfortable silence descended around them. Jamie was feeling more and more secure in her bond with CJ, and when she glimpsed up at her, CJ grinned without even looking at her. Jamie grinned herself and finally let it sink in that there was no change to their friendship. In fact, it seemed to be even deeper, even better than before.

The next hour flew by, and they only noticed the time when Mark popped his head through the office door.

“Hey. Got time to give me an update?”

“Sure, Sir. Come on in,” CJ said, getting up from her chair.

“Where are the guys?”

“They went to the campus to interview some friends of the victims.”

Mark stood in front of CJ’s desk. “Good. So how’s the profile looking?”

Jamie also stood, and the three of them went over what they had so far. As CJ gave Mark a rundown of their killer’s MO and description, Mark saw her uncertainty. No connection between the victims and no obvious pattern to the locations of the shootings was adding to CJ’s existing frustration at being cooped up indoors, but he couldn’t allow her out in the field unless the Bureau doctor signed off on it.

As his top agent was finishing her update, the office door swung open, and in walked the medical examiner. Chris Wilder faltered slightly when she saw how many people were in the room, and she quickly revised the plan she had hatched in her head. She had some information on the case to give them, but was hoping to take a close-up eyeful of CJ while she handed it over.

“Hello, everyone,” she said politely, throwing a lingering, dangerous glance in CJ’s direction. “I took the liberty of picking up the lab reports for you. Seems you have some useful ballistics information to look at…”

“Ah, Dr. Wilder,” Mark said with a smile. “How are you?”

“Fine, Assistant Director. Just fine.” Chris stood among them and thrived on being the center of attention for a moment. There was only one problem. CJ was trying very hard to ignore her completely. Not at all happy with that, Chris waved the file in the air.

“Apparently, the bullets used in each of your recent killings are a match to a string of murders. They’re cold cases, but I’m sure the LAPD would happily pass them over to you.”

Mark’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Surely the medical examiner didn’t normally go trawling through cold cases and bring them to the agents in person? He shrugged it off, thankful that it might progress the case, and he was about to take the file when Julius Mitchell popped his head around the doorframe.

“Assistant Director, do you have a minute?” Julius said, smiling at the other occupants of the office.

“Sure.” Mark remained in the room near the door, but he was now distracted and had his back to the others.

With Jamie turning to look at her beeping phone on the desk, Chris smirked to herself and looked at CJ. “Here you go, Agent Carson,” she said while lifting her hand once more to hand over the file. Her knuckles brushed quickly and roughly past CJ’s breast, and when CJ glared at her, she acted out her remorse very well. “Oh, so sorry. I guess I misjudged.”

CJ had gasped at the touch, which angered her immensely. Something resembling a growl left her throat, and Jamie who had been watching Mark nodding his head repeatedly at their deputy director, glanced back to see CJ’s nostrils flaring and her jaw clenched. It was obvious CJ was completely enraged, but at what, Jamie didn’t know.

CJ somehow managed to remain professional even though she had now been further angered by her body’s involuntary response to stimulation. Her nipple had hardened tightly against her bra, and she stared at the floor until she felt ready to speak.

“Again, I’m so sorry. My mistake,” Chris said sweetly as she waved the file in front of CJ’s face once more.

CJ lifted her gaze. It had turned to ice.

Jamie wasn’t sure what had happened, but she hurriedly distracted Chris before some sort of war began right in the middle of their office. “Dr. Wilder, could you tell me more about the report right over here?” she said, guiding a grinning Chris away from her seething friend.

Chris walked with her reluctantly, but instead of telling Jamie what the report contained, she simply handed it to her casually. “Here you go. I’ll let you inform Agent Carson. Not sure what’s wrong with her today.”

When CJ snarled behind them, Jamie ushered Chris quickly out the door as politely as she could. “Thanks for bringing the file. I’ll take it from here.”

Right on cue, Mark finished up his conversation with Julius and watched as Chris strolled along the corridor to catch up to the boss. He stuck his head back into the office. “I have to go do a thing. Be back later for a proper update.” And without waiting for a response, he was gone.

“Could you shut the door?” CJ growled under her breath.

Jamie was already in the process of doing so, and five seconds later, she was by CJ’s side. “What the hell was that?”

“I’m going to kill her.”

“No, you’re not. Tell me what she did?”

“She accidentally…” CJ sneered, making big air quotes with her hands, “rubbed her knuckles over my damn breast!”

Shit! Jamie thought that maybe she’d have to have a quiet word with the medical examiner before there was another murder to investigate. “What a bitch. I can’t believe I missed that.”

CJ glared at her. “Oh, sorry. Maybe I should’ve asked her to repeat the performance just for you.”

“Aw, no fair. You know that’s not what I meant. If I had seen it, I’d have backed you up on the spot…or punched her lights out, or-”

“I get it, Penfold. No need to do anything drastic yet, but I’m not sure how to handle this. I’ve never been sexually harassed before.”

“Best way to handle it is to let Kate deal with her.”

“Now that, I’d pay to see.” CJ’s eyes narrowed at the thought. “But no, best not to give the FBI’s sluttiest medical examiner a bloody nose just yet. Or a bloody mouth…a bloody everything.” A bolt of lightning shot through CJ at the thought of Kate kicking ass.

“Well, it seems like she deserves it already.”

“I’ll bide my time, take a leaf out of my wife’s book, and keep my cool for now. I have to think about it more. I’m hoping Chris will back off.” CJ barked out a humorless laugh. “Huh. Not likely. Let’s get back to work. I want to get home as soon as I can tonight.”

Jamie silently praised the many facets of Kate Carson. It seemed she could reach out to CJ from afar and bring her back to center. But CJ wouldn’t be able to resist retaliation for much longer. Jamie just hoped Chris wouldn’t push her that far. She silently cursed Chris for upsetting the calm that CJ really needed to have right now. Would there be no end to her stress?

Jamie tapped on her mouth while she thought of something that would neatly divert CJ’s attention. “Oh, hey, are Eddie and Jeffrey coming back today?”

CJ glanced at her watch before quirking her face into a small smile. “Actually, they should be home real soon.”

“Did you ask them about the building-a-house idea yet?” Jamie inquired as she went back to her desk.

“Not yet. We’ll hopefully do that before you come over later.”

“Are they dining with us? I love those two.”

CJ ran her hand through her raven hair. “I’m not sure. They might be too tired. It would be nice if they would. I mean, look at me? I smile just thinking about them. I tell ya, Dad and Dad-Two are the best damn parents I could have ever hoped for.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet. I love seeing you all goofy and mushy like that,” Jamie teased.

CJ narrowed her eyes to slits and sent a playful warning to her. “I’ll never admit to any of that in court.”

Jamie burst out laughing. “Like I said, goofy.”

With a mock stern expression, CJ started typing on her keyboard. “Get back to work, Agent Green.”

“Yes, ma’am, Agent Carson.”

.

Chapter 5

Erica Cavanaugh stood soaking up the sun’s rays as she leaned against someone’s car in the parking lot. She was lost in her thoughts while her eyes fixated on Kate’s BMW. She had been admiring its shiny surface and rich color when her mind wandered off on another track. She imagined running her fingertips along the grooves and curvy lines, feeling the heat from the sun’s reflection and wondering if the smooth, creamy skin of its owner would feel just as irresistible. In her mind, her fingertips ran along the vertical lines of the front grill, and as she dipped her nails into the spaces between, she imagined inserting her fingers elsewhere.

Suddenly jolted out of her daydream by the erotic images, Erica realized she had pushed away from the car she had been leaning on and was indeed caressing the BMW like some kind of weird fetishist. She shook off her lurid thoughts and chastised herself to the point where she spoke out loud.

“That is so disgusting. What the hell is wrong with me?” She licked her lips, noticing her mouth had gone completely dry. With a cough, she straightened herself up and strolled casually away from the BMW. She hadn’t gotten very far when she noticed a handsome, young man striding toward her. She cleared her head of those ridiculous thoughts and reached out her hand to greet him.

“Hello. Are you Kate’s driver?”

Tony came to a halt and smiled. “Yes, indeed. My name’s Tony. And you are?”

“I’m Erica,” she replied smoothly. She figured Tony could be a new source of information she had never had access to before. She liked new sources of information. “I’ll be working with Kate on Infinity One.”

“Great. She seems to be really excited about the show.”

“I think we all are. I’m very excited to be working with Kate, no matter what the project. She’s an amazing actress, you know.”

Tony furrowed his brow. “Uh, yes, I know. I’ve worked for her for quite some time.”

Erica felt an insane pang of jealousy. She truly hoped to work with Kate for quite some time too. “So you know her well?”

“Yes, but sorry…if you’ll excuse me, I need to get going.”

“Oh, of course. Far be it for me to keep you from your important duties. It was nice to meet you, Tony.”

Tony couldn’t quite tell if she was being sarcastic or not. Deciding that she must be genuine since there was no reason not to be, he replied courteously. “Nice to meet you too, Erica.” With a smile, he got into the car and made the phone call to Eddie Senior that he had come out to make in the first place.

Erica tilted her head to the side and stared at Tony for a moment before blinking and walking off in the direction of the studio’s dressing rooms. She knew Kate would be leaving soon and wanted to offer her a proper goodbye.

When her initial search for a seemingly elusive Kate Marshall came up empty, Erica frantically scurried along the corridors to check the small cafeteria. Kate was nowhere in sight. Seeing another familiar face leaving the room, Erica walked as quickly as she could without seeming like a crazy person.

“Hey, Kelley!”

Infinity One set designer, Kelley Ballantyne, pivoted on the spot. His wide smile revealed a row of pearly-white teeth when he suddenly came face-to-face with a very attractive woman. “Hey, Erica. What’s up?”

“I was looking for Kate Marshall. Have you seen her?”

“Oh, I think she was leaving for the day. Not sure where she is now.”

Erica felt panic rising inside her but swallowed hard and kept her cool. “OK, thanks.” She shot out the door and along the corridor again. After briefly interrogating a few more unsuspecting staff, she found out that Kate was in the restrooms.

As Erica stood outside the restroom door, she considered that her behavior would seem rather odd to others. But what could she do? She simply had to say goodbye to Kate. Before she could make her final decision to enter the restroom or not, the door in front of her opened, and Kate suddenly appeared.

Coming abruptly to a halt when she looked up and saw her co-star just standing there with a slightly dazed look on her face, Kate curled her eyebrow and pursed her lips. “Um…are you OK, Erica?”

It took Erica a few seconds to gather her thoughts. “Oh! Yes, Kate. Funny I had just stopped to have a think, and here you are. Ha. Ha-ha.”

“Well, all right. I’d better get going. Tony is waiting to take me home,” Kate said, trying to hide her frown at Erica’s strange response.

Feeling her heart begin to slow to a somewhat normal rate, Erica gave a controlled nod. “I met Tony. He’s a nice guy. May I walk you out?”

The question made Kate feel a little cornered. She didn’t want to risk offending the over-friendly woman, especially when they had only just met and were going to be working closely together. “Sure, Erica, but didn’t you need to use the restroom?”

“Oh, no. I honestly just stopped here by accident. I’m sorry if I startled you. When I’m deep in thought like that, I tend to wander in life as well as in my head.”

When Erica gave another little forced laugh, Kate narrowed her eyes in confusion. “Shall we walk then? I really need to go.”

“Lets…” Erica began to stroll away, and after a tiny pause, Kate caught up to her.

Not much was said on the way to the parking lot. Kate once again found it a little odd, and she came to the conclusion that Erica must be a very nervous individual, flaky perhaps. She seemed to be nervous about Kate, nervous about the new job, and nervous about…well, lots of other things.

Erica matched Kate stride for stride until the sunlight hit them. When she saw Tony leaning against the BMW, she plastered on a happy face and smiled sweetly at him. Her smile disappeared when Kate walked over to him and gave him a quick hug.

“How was your day, Tony?” Kate asked as she let him go.

“Yeah, good. I spoke to your dad. They got their rental car, and they’re now home and crashed out on the couch. Are you good to go already?”

“Yep.” Kate gestured toward Erica. “I think you met one of my co-stars earlier.”

“I sure did,” Tony said politely. “Good to see you again, Erica.”

Erica’s smile didn’t quite reach her vivid, blue eyes. “Yes, always a pleasure to meet new people. It’s so good to see an employee and an employer who get on so well.”

Kate smiled at Tony as she answered. “I like to have a good relationship with my employees.”

When Tony laughed, Erica assumed that there was some private joke going on between the two, and it irritated her no end. When Kate finally turned toward her, she forced a smile which gradually became less false as Kate held her gaze. “That’s just great,” Erica said dreamily.

Kate felt a shiver run through her and blinked until she was free of the connection. “Um, yes. I really have to go, Erica. I’ll see you later. Enjoy your three free days. It’s going to get busier from here on in.”

Erica thought that was just fine with her. Being at work meant being with Kate – for the most part – and she was looking forward to it. It cheered her up immensely. “I know, right? Well you have a great few days too, Kate. Bye for now.” Completely ignoring Tony, Erica strolled back inside the building with a wide smile covering her face.

Kate turned to Tony who was holding her car door open. “Such a gentleman.” She was grinning as she sat in her seat, but by the time Tony had gotten in and gunned the engine, she had a pensive look on her face.

“She’s a little strange, huh?” Tony said, mirroring Kate’s thoughts.

“Hmm, yeah. I think she’s just really nervous. I remember CJ talking to me about how outsiders see me. You know, as this famous, untouchable actress? Maybe she’ll calm down soon.”

“Maybe she’s a little like Sasha.”

Kate laughed. “Maybe. At least Sasha has stopped being so nervous around me now.”

“Does Erica’s nervousness make you uncomfortable?”

“Only a little. It’s unusual for another actress to be that way, but I think it’ll wear off.” Kate sighed as the car moved out of the parking lot. “She hasn’t been an actress that long, though.”

Tony nodded. “I must admit, I haven’t seen her in anything. How long has she been in showbiz?”

“From what she’s told me so far, she’s only done one indie movie that was eventually released on DVD, and her other projects never made it to the screen. Shame, really. She’s very beautiful.”

“I’d have to agree.” Tony tapped on the steering wheel as they came to a stop behind some traffic. “Do you need to go anywhere before we head home?”

“Nope. Take me back to the ranch, partner.”

“Sure thing, ma’am,” Tony replied in the same western accent as he tipped his imaginary Stetson.

* * * * * *

When Eddie and Jeffrey had arrived back at the Carson house, they had been met by two exuberant children who wanted to know all about the cabin they had yet to visit. There simply hadn’t been time for the whole family to visit Montana, and there were other reasons that Eddie would be only too happy to explain to his captive audience…once he found a gap in the conversation.

“And did you see any animals, Grandpa? What about snow? Maybe there’ll be snow when we go to the cabin, huh, Luce?” Shannon had so many things to ask that she forgot to let anyone answer. “Ooh, and there are trails. We could walk in the forest with Kamali. Did you see any nice flowers, Grandpa? Maybe one the same color as my sweater?” she asked, pulling said sweater. “Or maybe-”

“Oh!” Eddie exclaimed to get her attention. “Can I try to answer all of those questions now?”

Shannon became a little shy and snuggled into Eddie’s chest. “Sorry, Grandpa.”

“Oh, no, don’t be sorry, sweetie-pie. Just listen for a minute.”

“Yeah, Shan. Listen,” Lucy said, sticking out her tongue at her sister, making Shannon do the same.

Eddie snickered before he began his story. “Well, there was no snow while we were up there, but the cabin is still very beautiful, and it was quite cold outside. But not to worry! There’s a big fireplace where you throw in the logs and burn them. The flames are wonderful. Makes it feel all cozy. Grandpa Jeffrey and I sat there and watched the fire all the time.”

“We have a fire like that here,” Lucy said, pointing to the grand fireplace across the coffee table from where they were sitting.

“That’s right.” Eddie squeezed her little shoulders. He had one girl on each side, and when Jeffrey came into the living room with drinks and cake for everyone, he continued his tale after a loving smile to his husband. “We did see some animals, but only two squirrels and a deer. Your mommy had told us there were deer up in the mountains, but seeing that gorgeous creature looking at us before sprinting off through the trees was quite magical!”

“What were the squirrels doing? Did they look at you too?” Shannon asked.

“Not really. They were too busy up on the tree branches to bother with us.”

“Maybe we’ll go soon. I want to see the squirrels.”

Shannon sounded a little downtrodden, so Eddie kissed her dark hair and gave her a hug. “I think Mommy will want to go soon. The thing is, Shan, the cabin isn’t ready for you two young ladies yet.”

“Why not?”

Eddie sighed. “Well, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but there’s a lovely man called Charlie. He’s a friend of your mommies. He has another friend who is building a little bedroom onto the cabin for you and Lucy to sleep in…and he’s making a fence outside because the yard is too dangerous right now.”

Shannon sat up straighter, and Lucy copied her, just because she copied a lot of things her cool, big sister did. With her blue eyes shining bright, Shannon pursed her lips in thought.

“So does that mean we’ll have our own beds there too?”

“Yes. Bunk beds, no less,” Eddie answered conspiratorially in a whisper.

Lucy was quick to show her surprise. Putting down her half-eaten cupcake, she placed her hands dramatically on her cheeks and said, “Bunk beds are high!”

“Yes, but I don’t know who’ll get the top one. Maybe you’ll take turns.”

Shannon nodded. “That’s a good idea. But Grandpa, why is the yard dangerous?”

“Ah! You know how the cabin is in the mountains, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, mountains are very big. The cabin is high up, and on one side of the yard the mountain just drops all the way down as far as you can see, so it needs a good, safe fence just in case you girls were to trip and fall over the side. We wouldn’t want that to happen now, would we?”

“We certainly would not,” Kate said sternly as she walked into the living room with Tony in tow.

Eddie gulped in an exaggerated fashion at being caught gossiping with his granddaughters. “Uh, hi, Katie.”

Jeffrey giggled on the sidelines, although he was a little worried about giving the girls cake before dinner. Grandparent’s prerogative, he reminded himself. He glanced at Eddie’s guilty face. “You’re in trouble now, my love.” He got up to hug Kate, and turned his raised eyebrow on the three occupants of the couch. “He was giving up top secret information.”

“Tattletale,” Eddie grumbled.

Kate held back her smile as her father became all flustered.

“I-I was not. I mean, well, they asked questions, and I just answered it and-“

He was cut off by Kate’s laughter. Hearing the sound, Lucy jumped off the couch and attached herself to Kate’s thigh in her usual, welcome-home hug.

Shannon forewent the hello since her curious mind wanted answers from her parent. “When can we go to the cabin, Mama?”

“Hmm. I would say next school break would be a good time. Things should be ready by then,” Kate said, narrowing her eyes at her dad and the sugary treats lying on the coffee table.

“Oh, goody! That’s not too long.”

“No, not too long, and it’s before I start filming so that will be a perfect time to go, actually.” Kate plopped down into Lucy’s vacated seat and kissed Eddie on the cheek. “I’m kidding, Dad. Breath…”

“Oh! I was worried there for a minute,” Eddie muttered, holding his hand to his chest.

“You were not, silly man.”

“It was Jeffreydoodle who gave them cake,” he said, pointing an accusatory finger at his husband.

Jeffrey put his hands up in surrender. “OK, I admit that, but look how delicious!” He took one and bit into it making yummy, moaning sounds as he chewed.

“Yeah, yeah. OK. I’ll forgive you this once.” Kate snagged the remainder of Lucy’s cupcake and popped it in her mouth, earning a gasp from her father. “What? She’s gone upstairs. She’ll have forgotten by the time she comes back.”

“Oh, you are awful!” Eddie jested.

Kate stuck her tongue out, much like Lucy had done earlier. “How did your break go, anyway? Good?”

“Oh, fabulous!” Eddie enthused. “It’s a beautiful place. I can see why CJ loves it. I feel so rejuvenated.”

“Yes, Babycakes. We could have stayed a lot longer, but we knew we had to come back and face the music at some point. It’s going to be a busy few weeks.” Jeffrey parked himself on the corner of the coffee table with his mug of tea in-hand. “Would you like some tea to wash down your contraband?”

Kate smiled. “I think Tony beat you to it. I can hear the coffee machine already.”

“Oh, that Tony. He is wonderful!” Jeffrey said loudly enough for Tony to hear.

“Thank you!” shouted Tony’s laughing voice from the kitchen.

Eddie patted Kate’s thigh and slowly got up from the couch. “Jeffrey’s right. We have a busy few weeks ahead. We have to find an apartment. Our furniture is taking up space in your brand new barn.”

“Dad?”

When Eddie turned back to his daughter he saw something mischievous in her twinkling eyes. “What?”

“Can you not look for an apartment right now? CJ and I need to talk with you both about something.”

Jeffrey looked between Kate and her father. “What something?”

Eddie shrugged and came to stand in front of them again. His bladder could wait a little longer. “What are you up to, Katie?”

“My wife and I just have a really great idea, but I promised her we would talk to you about it together. Can you wait?”

Eddie tilted his head to the side and admired his offspring for a few seconds. “Wait until tomorrow? Oh! That was one of your movies. Ha-ha!” He chuckled at his own little funny. “You have dinner guests tonight, so we can talk tomorrow. Is that OK?”

“Yes, tomorrow. I think you’ll like the idea.” Kate pinned her lips together in case she had the urge to tell all right now.

Eddie chuckled and spun around. “I do hope so,” he said on his way to the bathroom.

Jeffrey leaned over to whisper in Kate’s ear. “Just tell me now. He’s out of earshot.”

“I heard that, Mr. Watson-Marshall.”

“Oh, blast it. Now he chooses to have super-sharp senses,” Jeffrey said with an exaggerated eye-roll.

* * * * * *

“Come on, Penfold. I wanna go home,” CJ said dejectedly. She was tired and in a little bit of pain. Her wrist was itching like hell, and she wanted to go home and scratch the living daylights out of it.

They had been analyzing the LAPD cold cases for hours, and it was looking more and more like their latest killings were drug-related, or more specifically, drug-dealer-related. The ballistics information from the old casefiles had been useful. The bullets were a match to the ones found in the recent victims. Now the agents had something to go on…young couples being killed for possibly dealing drugs. Had they pissed off their boss, and he was having them executed? Had someone overdosed, and their friend or loved one was out for revenge? Was it even related to the previous killings or had someone just obtained the weapon on the streets? CJ didn’t know yet, but a visit to her friend in the Drugs Enforcement Agency was her next port of call…tomorrow.

“Just two more minutes,” Jamie said from her desk.

“What are you doing anyway?” CJ said, blowing out a breath and flopping back down into her seat.

“Searching the DEA files for anything that might give us half a clue,” Jamie replied, twisting her lip in her fingers as she perused the screen.

“Find anything?”

“Nope. There’s nothing so far, but I don’t suppose they put everything on here.”

“Which is why I’ve arranged to go see Anders at the DEA tomorrow…”

Jamie looked up and grinned at the smug look on CJ’s face. “Yeah, yeah, you’re the best. Blah-blah-blah.”

CJ got to her feet again and gestured to the door. “Now that we’ve confirmed that, can we go have dinner?”

“You’re such a smart-ass sometimes.” Jamie stood and looked around for her bag. Once she’d found it stuffed part-way under her chair, she hooked it over her shoulder and shuffled towards CJ.

“Who am I to argue with you? If you say I’m the best, then I’m the best.” CJ held the door open to allow Jamie to go through first.

“Such a gentleman.”

“Hey! Less of that. I’m a woman, through and through.”

“Yes, you are, aren’t you,” said a sultry voice from the corridor.

Jamie had spotted Chris Wilder a split-second before she’d said anything, and she knew she had to get CJ past Chris as fast as possible and without incident. “We’re just on our way out, Dr. Wilder.”

“Oh, don’t mind me. I was just checking to see if you found the information I brought useful?”

“Yes, yes, very useful. Thanks again. Now we must be going. Urgent things to take care of,” Jamie said, pushing CJ along the corridor and smiling at Chris. “Bye now.”

“But don’t you want to hear my thoughts on-”

“Maybe later. Bye!” Jamie shouted from the doors of the elevator. Once the doors closed, she bit her lip and turned to CJ who had been silent the entire time.

CJ’s face was expressionless, but she felt Jamie’s eyes on her and spun on her heels to face her. “Very diplomatic, Agent Green.”

“Thank you.” Jamie eyed CJ for a moment. “Very restrained, Agent Carson.”

“Thank you.” CJ let a grin grow on her face, but it wasn’t a happy grin…more like feral, and not in a good way. “I’m just hungry. Somebody kept me at the office much longer than necessary, so my stomach has overridden my brain. No point in using up energy throttling her when I need to use all my remaining strength to drive home,” she grumbled, curling her dark eyebrow while she waited for the response.

Jamie rolled her eyes, which was to be expected, and belatedly pushed the button for the basement parking garage. “Fine. Let’s get you fed before you fade away to nothing.”

“I like your thinking there, Penfold.”

* * * * * *

A mere hour later, they arrived at the house to find four busy females in the kitchen preparing their meal. Sam had already arrived, and since it was seven thirty in the evening, the children had already eaten but still wanted to help with the table-setting before bed.

“Mommy! You’re home,” Shannon shouted a little too loudly.

Kate grimaced. “Quietly, Shan. Your tired grandpa’s are sleeping already.”

“Oh, I forgot.” Shannon hugged CJ around her middle. “Hi, Mommy.”

“Hello, Squirt. Something smells real good in here.”

Shannon quickly agreed and then bounced off to say hello to Jamie. While the others were in the various stages of greeting one another, Kate pulled CJ into a hug.

“Hey, you. Are you feeling OK today?”

“Yeah. Can’t wait to get this thing off my wrist, though. It really itches,” CJ grumbled before she deposited a quick kiss on Kate’s neck.

“Mmm. How’s the case coming along? Anything new?”

The continual chatter around them was distracting CJ, so she smiled and took a moment to push a few strands of hair off Kate’s forehead. “Yes, but I’ll tell you about it later when we have some quiet time.” She turned her head when she felt someone tugging on her pants.

Lucy waited until CJ looked at her, then she giggled and said, “Grandpas gave us a cupcake,” before running off into the living room.

CJ had to laugh, and with a defiant, rebellious little face watching her from the doorway, she returned her focus back to Kate. “Is she challenging me to tell off the grandpas?”

“She’s just amazed that she was allowed a cake before her dinner.”

“Ah. Sugar rush over yet?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Let’s try to get them down for the night, and then we can have a nice, civilized dinner with our lovely friends.”

CJ quietly let her go, but Kate didn’t move away. Instead she began to carefully undo the wrist support, and once it was removed completely she trailed her nails gently up and down the surgery scar on CJ’s recovering arm.

Of course, CJ’s eyes began to glaze over before they drifted closed in her bliss. “Oh…Katie…”

It was completely unintentional, but the words were gasped out in an erotic way making Jamie and Sam both look at CJ with wide eyes. Kate stood smiling at the face CJ was making while she continued to scratch, and CJ stood swaying on the spot getting lost in her heavenly relief.

It was clear Sam wasn’t going to do anything about it, as was evident from her hand over her mouth, covering her laugh, but Jamie had started to fidget, and she shifted from foot to foot as CJ continued to breathe raggedly.

“Uh, DM? Please don’t do that.”

CJ’s eyes snapped open. “Huh? What?”

Kate giggled and reached up to cup her cheek. “You were making sounds…nice sounds.”

Jamie waved her finger in the air. “Nice, to you, Kate, but we don’t need to hear her pleasure noises.”

CJ’s face darkened with a blush that she just couldn’t stop. “Sorry. It just feels-”

“So good. We get it,” Jamie said before pinning her lips together to stifle her smile. “I’m going to read my favorite girls a bedtime story. Hopefully, by the time I get back, you’ll be, uh, satisfied.”

“I’ll go with her,” Sam said quickly as she followed Jamie out of the room.

“Was I really making those sounds?”

Kate didn’t answer. Instead, she started scratching CJ’s wrist again, invoking the same response as before.

CJ laughed between her hums. “OK, I was making sex sounds.”

“Uh-huh…and I have to say, my body’s reacting.”

CJ suddenly grabbed Kate’s hand and led her through the back hallway into the gym. She closed the door and pushed Kate up against the wall. “Let me check.” She slid her right hand inside Kate’s black sweats and pressed against the heat at her core. “Reacting in my favor…”

“CJ, we can’t. Not right now.”

“Everyone is otherwise engaged. It’ll only take a minute. You’re so wet.”

“But, oh…” Kate felt CJ’s long fingers pushing through her warmth and circling her clit possessively. “Yes. Only a minute.”

Since she was restricted by Kate’s clothing, CJ used the side of her index finger to flick across the tip of Kate’s sex. When Kate’s hands came up to grip her neck tightly, she made her demand breathlessly. “Kiss me.”

Kate did so, sucking powerfully on her tongue as the rapid finger sent waves of arousal shooting through her body. She gripped CJ’s lip with her teeth, and her moan vibrated against CJ’s mouth. “Gonna come…”

“Do it. I want to feel you.” CJ replaced the stimulating finger with her thumb and slipped inside Kate. Her thumb pressed harder against Kate’s clit, manipulating it until Kate couldn’t hold back any longer.

CJ watched as Kate came, pinned up against the wall in the middle of the day, with the house full of their family and friends. She wasn’t sure what had possessed her to take Kate immediately, but she did know she now felt a little guilty. She had wanted to hear Kate gasping at her command, wanted to watch her as she restrained her cries when she climaxed. What had just happened to her? Why had she done something she wouldn’t usually entertain? She shook off the confusing thoughts and focused on Kate’s face. “You OK?”

Kate breathed heavily while straightening out her clothing. “Yeah. I’ll get you back for that later, though.”

CJ was relieved that Kate wasn’t pissed at her for the impromptu attack. “I don’t know what came over me there. I just had to have you.”

“I think I came over you there,” Kate whispered before she kissed CJ passionately. “And you’ll come over me later.” Seemingly unaware of CJ’s predicament, she wandered off toward the door, very thankful that it had remained closed the entire time. “Come on. Let’s be civilized now.”

“Uh, yeah…” CJ dazedly followed, confused but ultimately satisfied with her performance.

* * * * * *

The next couple of hours had gone pretty smoothly. Lucy had fallen asleep in Jamie’s arms while Sam had told the bedtime story, and Shannon, forever the grown-up, had informed Jamie that she was happy to go to bed on her own, although she still needed a kiss goodnight from both of them before her light was turned out.

Now, dinner was underway for the real grown-ups, and when the discussion turned to the case at work, CJ remembered that there was some information she had yet to relay to Jamie.

“Oh, I meant to tell you.” She prodded Jamie’s arm with the prongs of her fork.

“Hey, don’t do that!”

“Sorry-”

“You don’t know where that shirt has been,” Jamie said plainly.

CJ stared at her for a second before she started laughing. Her laughter was infectious, and it was only after the chuckles died down that she looked disapprovingly around the table. “It wasn’t that funny,” she deadpanned, which sparked another round of snickers.

Kate reached over to nudge CJ’s shoulder. “I’ve told you before, you and Jamie should do stand-up.”

After Kate’s repetitive joke-wink that resembled a facial tick, CJ grinned at her. “Thank you for your sarcasm.”

“You’re welcome,” Kate said as she went back to her meal, but before she consumed her next mouthful, she added, “You meant to tell Jamie something?”

“I did?” CJ had gotten lost while looking at Kate. She did that a lot, especially when Kate was being amazing, beautiful, and funny, which was most of the time, really.

“You did. Something about work…”

“Yeah.” CJ blinked out of her stupor and turned away from her very welcome distraction. “I got an email from Anders. He wanted to send me some info to digest before our meeting tomorrow. I had told him what was found by our medical examiner.” She stopped talking when a sudden bitterness appeared in her mouth that she struggled to gulp away.

Jamie saw it, and she knew what had caused it and the fleeting grimace on CJ’s face, so she prompted her to continue in case the mere mention of Chris Wilder’s name would spoil their meal. “And what did Anders say?”

“He was giving me a heads-up on a new drug on the streets called Ascendia.”

Kate frowned. “I dread to think why it’s called that.”

CJ nodded at her before she went on. “It was supposed to be because the users would ascend to a new and ultimate high, but according to Anders, it turns out that the only place they are ascending to is heaven.”

“It’s killing them?” Kate asked while placing her fork on her empty plate.

“Yeah.”

Jamie’s mind went back to their possible revenge motive for the killer. “What percentage so far, CJ?”

“Well, with the deaths they know about, and the DEA’s information on distribution, they estimate about sixty-two percent of users are dead so far.”

“Shit, that’s high.”

CJ sighed. “No kidding. It seems the only dealer in the city right now is someone only known as Raven. The drug is produced in liquid form, and he or she is recruiting teens or slightly older adults to sell it for them. It seems this dealer wants the young and trendy image to promote the product.”

“What’s in the drug that makes it so dangerous?” Sam asked. She had been quietly listening up until now because sometimes she just couldn’t fathom how Jamie could do her job or how she dealt with horrid situations on a case-by-case basis.

CJ turned to her after sipping some of her lemon water. “From what I read in the email, it contains succinylcholine and traces of cyanide, mixed with various other substances to bulk it out. It’s distributed in capsule form, with a tiny picture of a raven stamped on the casing.”

Kate scrunched up her mouth. “Seems this Raven is quite proud of his drug, and I happen to know what succinylcholine is. He must be using it in dangerous amounts…of course, cyanide is also deadly. Do you think he’s deliberately trying to kill off the youth of today?”

CJ shook her head, not to reply, but as a reaction to Kate’s train of thought. “Don’t misunderstand me,” she said to the room. “This drug dealer is not our serial killer. I’m pretty sure of that, but it is all linked in my mind. I’m thinking the killer is somehow connected to someone who has been a victim of this drug. In fact, I’m beginning to think that the killer is targeting the dealer’s distributors.”

Jamie nodded since CJ was thinking the same thing she was. “That will be something to investigate tomorrow, DM.”

CJ nodded back as she gulped down another mouthful of water, but Kate was still following her own line of investigation. She was remembering her work on Deadline, and how much she had learned from her character’s job in forensics. She realized that she had taken some good memories away from that role, as well as the not-so-pleasant ones.

“So…” she said as she leaned her chin on her hand and tapped her finger on her cheek. “I know succinylcholine is a muscle relaxant. I mean, they use it on trach patients in hospitals everywhere to relax their muscles before they insert the breathing tube, but if it’s at dangerous levels in these capsules, what other muscles is it relaxing?”

CJ almost snorted. She really felt Kate would be of value to the FBI. No joke. “That’s what our ME said.”

CJ faltered again. She really was feeling sick at the thought of Chris Wilder, and she simply wished the woman didn’t exist in her life at all. She decided that in her home, Chris didn’t exist, and she shook off the thought of her immediately. But this time, Kate had noticed her discomfort, although she had no idea where it stemmed from. She didn’t give it much more thought since CJ had started talking again.

“It seems the concentration of the drug in these particular capsules is enough to slow the heart to fatal levels. These young, mainly healthy drug-takers are basically dying of sudden heart attacks.”

“That’s what I wondered,” Kate said in response. “But I guess your medical examiner has already-”

“Listen,” CJ said gently to interrupt. “Enough FBI-talk. I think we should have dessert, and you can tell me about much more pleasant things, like your new outfits on Infinity One. I’d love to hear about those.”

Kate knew she had been cut off, but the way CJ was looking at her now – as if she was wearing one of those outfits, or nothing at all – made her forget about being interrupted. As she stared lazily into CJ’s eyes, she found she could do nothing but agree, and before long, they were tucking into hot, syrup-covered, sponge pudding with ice-cream on the side, and Kate was describing her flight suit in great detail.

As Jamie listened, she was still concerned about CJ’s abrupt end to the previous discussion. If CJ swept this Chris Wilder thing under the rug, as she was prone to do with her personal demons, it might never go away…and potentially, it would just get even worse.

As the evening progressed, Jamie realized some intervention might be required. I’ll chat with Kate. She’ll know what to do, she thought to herself. They should just call me Jamie ‘The Meddler’ Green.

* * * * * *

About fifty minutes after the FBI discussion, CJ had disappeared upstairs but hadn’t come back down. When Kate heard her name being called, she excused herself from the table and went in search of her elusive spouse.

At the top of the stairs, she called CJ’s name in the loudest whisper possible. She didn’t want to wake anyone, so when she didn’t get an answer she took an educated guess and went to the master bedroom. She eventually walked into the bathroom and was accosted by a rather horny CJ.

“What the…?” Kate was swooped into the room and pinned up against the vanity unit.

“I want you, Katie. I want to hear you gasp my name.”

“We’re in the middle of a dinner party,” Kate only just managed to say since CJ’s hands were already massaging her breasts. The dinner party objection was soon forgotten when the massaging turned into nails scratching roughly over her nipples through the thin T-shirt and bra she was wearing. “Oh, my…mmm.” She closed her eyes as the sensations flowed through her body, and she barely noticed when one of CJ’s hands left her body until she smelled a familiar aroma and opened her eyes to find their dildo right in front of her face.

“Suck it,” CJ commanded huskily.

Kate did so while CJ watched her closely, but when she was deprived of the delicious flavor, she licked her lips repeatedly in an attempt to prolong the pleasure. “It tastes of you.”

“I know. I just used it. Now it’s your turn.”

“Holy shit, CJ…what are you trying to do to me?”

“Make you come.”

“Oh…”

CJ suddenly undid Kate’s jeans and nudged them down her legs before she lifted her onto the vanity counter and insinuated herself between Kate’s knees. She kissed her hotly, and when the dildo’s vibrate function was switched on, CJ ran the toy up and down Kate’s inner thigh. With her other hand, she pulled Kate’s panties aside and let the tip of the dildo touch her clit.

Kate jumped at the contact, but in the next second she was pushing her sex against the sensation. It was quickly making her hard, and she nipped CJ’s lip with her teeth to ensure the stimulation would continue.

The nip had the desired effect, and CJ pushed the phallus inside Kate before bringing it back out to trail up her clit to tease its sensitive head. Kate was grabbing handfuls of CJ’s hair now as she tried to insert her tongue deeper into her mouth. CJ rubbed the dildo roughly back and forth over Kate’s clit making her come with an almighty scream that was completely muffled by the fact that Kate had taken a mouthful of CJ’s shoulder at just the right moment.

CJ stood there looking at herself in the mirror while Kate recovered. She noticed she was frowning at herself, and it made her so confused. She loved what she had done to Kate, only because she knew Kate had loved it too, but something wasn’t right in her head, and before she had the chance to analyze it further, Kate broke her train of thought.

“That was incredible. What a rush.”

“Glad you thought so,” CJ said with a grin that wasn’t quite genuine.

“I guess I like being a bad girl now and again. I can’t believe we did that in the middle of dinner.”

“Heh…yeah. Sorry about that.”

Kate looked at CJ like she was crazy. “You’re sorry? Hell, I’m not. That was wonderful, honey. Now, um, let’s get me decent before I pretend to be all innocent in front of our friends.”

CJ helped Kate pull up her jeans before she kissed her and watched her leave the bathroom.

“Get your butt downstairs,” Kate said as she walked out the bedroom door.

CJ heard her but didn’t respond as she washed the dildo and put it away in the drawer. She stopped to look at her reflection in the mirror again and shook her head at what she saw. What the fuck is going on with me?

* * * * * *

It was after eleven that night when CJ and Sam offered to make the coffee. They knew it was late, but Sam had still to drive home, so she needed a boost to keep her awake after all that lovely food and relaxing chat with good friends. While they were in the kitchen, Kate and Jamie were still on the couch feeling jolly and chilled-out, but their upbeat mood soon changed, rather like Kate’s recent emotional ups and downs.

“I think we drank more than they did,” Kate said while she narrowed her eyes to examine the bottle of wine with great interest.

“Kate, they didn’t drink at all. Our women are sober as judges.”

“Don’t say judges,” Kate mumbled as she lay back against the cushions. “I don’t want to think about courts.”

Jamie looked at her sympathetically. “Have you heard anything from…you-know-who?”

“No, and I don’t care to either. I just know her sentencing is coming up soon, and I don’t know whether to go or not.” Kate’s eyes were suddenly filled with melancholy as she rubbed the side of her wine glass with her fingertip.

Since Jamie was slightly inebriated, her usual reservations were almost non-existent, and she leaned over to give Kate a floppy, sideways hug. “I don’t think you should go. You’ve been through so much,” she said while trying to sit upright again. “I can let you know what happens if you’d like? I mean, I’m the one you guys can lean on…anytime, anywhere. Like with CJ and this stupid Chris Wilder thing. What a mess.”

“What do you mean?” Kate asked, trying not to slur.

“Ugh. Chris is a bitch. She’s such a lush. I’m telling you, I don’t know how CJ hasn’t punched her lights out yet. Well, actually I do know. CJ’s a pro. She wouldn’t do something like that, but if it was me, and that bitch had leered at me, propositioned me over and over, and felt up my boob, I’d have sent her packin’,” Jamie finished while throwing her thumb over her shoulder.

Kate was suddenly feeling a little more sober. “Chris felt up CJ’s breast? Who the hell is this Chris?”

Jamie almost puked at the realization that Kate had no clue what she was rambling on about. “Oh, fuck.”

“Jamie Green, tell me right now who she is.”

Since Kate’s voice was quietly threatening and ultimately terrifying, Jamie spoke up immediately. “She’s our new medical examiner…and CJ’s old flame.” At the look on Kate’s face, she quickly added. “She was horrible to CJ back then, and she’s still really, really horrible now. I mean, CJ hates her.”

But Kate hadn’t really heard that last part. Her mind had clammed up at the mention of CJ’s old flame, and her stomach – and the alcohol therein – reacted quite violently. She felt sick, but before she got up to leave the room, she sent a low warning to Jamie. “Don’t mention this conversation to her. I’ll do it myself.”

And with that she was gone, leaving Jamie torn. Did she do what she was told and save herself being killed by Kate, or did she tell her best buddy in order to give her a heads-up? CJ was in trouble either way, and Jamie really wished she hadn’t drunk any wine now. Her head was swimming, and her judgement was impaired. When CJ and Sam came back with coffee mugs in-hand, she smiled at them sweetly.

“Where did Katie go?” CJ asked as soon as she sat down.

Jamie went with the option that didn’t involve any bruising. “She wasn’t feeling so good. Too much wine, maybe?”

“Aw. I’ll go check on her.”

“Listen, DM, we’ll be quick with our coffee, then we’ll go so you don’t have to come back down to see us off. Stay here for now?”

Sam was sitting nodding alongside Jamie, and CJ chuckled as she leaned back on the couch.

“Since you asked so nicely…”

Jamie smiled and sipped on her coffee, all the while knowing that this was going to end horribly. She knew CJ and Kate would eventually be fine – they’d been through much worse – but she also knew it would be anything but smooth-sailing until then.

* * * * * *

Upstairs in the master suite, Kate was hovering somewhere amidst anger, frustration, depression, and overwhelming tiredness. After she had run upstairs, she had paced the bedroom floor wondering why CJ hadn’t told her about this Chris Wilder.

It was bugging her more than it should, and she knew the wine was also affecting her when she started to rub her temples repeatedly. The beginnings of a major headache forced her to drop down on the bed, but she was intent on getting back up in a moment to grab a glass of water. Before she could do that, she curled up into the fetal position on top of the covers and fell fast asleep.

CJ eventually crawled up the stairs well after midnight, having seen their guests off and clearing up some of the mess they had left behind. Once she had checked on Shannon and Lucy, she went to the master suite and closed the door behind her. Only the light from the bathroom illuminated her way, and as she crossed the floor she noticed Kate lying on top of the bed, fully clothed.

CJ knelt down beside the bed and reached over to brush a few strands of Kate’s hair off her face. It was then that she noticed the dried trail of a tear on Kate’s cheek. “Wow, you really aren’t feeling good,” she whispered. “But it’s more than that. I think we need to talk about Elizabeth. I’ve seen you when you thought I didn’t notice. You’re hiding your sadness, Katie. We are so alike sometimes, it scares me. I don’t want you to be sad. I don’t want you to go through it alone.” CJ sighed and leaned her chin on the mattress edge. “And recently, we’ve had a lot to be sad about, but we’re gonna get through it. We always do. I promise we’ll talk soon.”

CJ felt a little lost and useless. Here she was telling Kate she would make her feel better, and she couldn’t even make herself feel better.

Sitting there in the dark, she thought about why she was so anxious and irritable. It’s her. It’s that damned woman. I need to do something about that tomorrow. I want it over and done with for good. She glanced up at Kate again while frowning at her thoughts. I don’t even know what I saw in Chris back then. Kate is my perfect woman, and they are worlds apart. Chris can’t ever hope to measure up to this amazing human being.

Of course, the mere mention of Chris’s name, even in thought alone, was enough to make CJ grumpy again. She had enjoyed their evening with Jamie and Sam, but now Kate was sound asleep so there was nothing to distract her from her bad mood.

She slowly rose to get changed into her tank top and shorts before carefully removing Kate’s clothing and slipping the blankets out from under her. Kate muttered something in her sleep, and when CJ got into bed beside her, she rubbed her hand soothingly over Kate’s hair. With a huge sigh, Kate settled, and CJ lay on her back, trying to shut out every thought in her head in an effort to join her partner in the land of nod. It didn’t work.

.

Chapter 5

Still tired and slightly defeated, CJ shuffled downstairs the next morning. The shower hadn’t done anything to refresh her mood so she trudged toward the kitchen hoping to see her family all happily having breakfast around the island counter, but when she got there, all she found was Eddie Senior washing up plates at the sink.

CJ checked her watch to ensure she was, in fact, on schedule for work. It read seven thirty, and with her face scrunched into something resembling a frown, she looked up at her father-in-law. “Morning, Eddie. Where is everyone?”

Eddie bounced on the spot before turning to respond. “Oh, you and your stealth mode.” He fanned himself, just to make sure his over-dramatic acting skills were kept fresh. “Morning, sweet thing. Everyone has deserted me.”

When Kamali gave a snort to make his presence known, CJ snorted back at him. “Not everyone.”

“Oh, of course. This handsome boy is forever loyal. But anyway, to answer your question seriously…can I do that? Yes. Yes, I can. Katie went to the studios…said she had some things to do there, so she left with Tony and the children, and my better, more fabulous half is out tending to the horses. He absolutely loves it here!” he finished with a fancy twirl of the dishcloth he was holding.

CJ sat facing Eddie on the stool at the counter and drummed her fingernails as she spoke. “I’m just surprised Katie didn’t wake me. I’m also surprised she was up and ready so early. She drank a fair amount last night.”

“Well, she looked fresh as a daisy…and maybe a little pensive, before she left.”

“That might just have been her hangover face, Dad.”

“Ah. That’s better,” Eddie said before blowing her a kiss.

“What?”

“You called me Eddie when you came in. It didn’t sound quite right to me.”

CJ’s face crinkled into a deep frown. “I did?”

“Yes, you did,” Eddie replied gently. “Something’s distracting you. Hopefully, you’ll figure out what it is. And stop that incessant drumming…and stop that frowning. You look much more beautiful when you smile.”

CJ blushed as she slapped her other hand over the drumming fingers. “Um, thanks. So what are your plans for the day?”

“I’m not sure yet. I have more searching the Internet to do, but I was kind of hoping to hear about this plan that you and Katie have thought up. I’ve found a couple of apartments for Jeffreydoodle and I to go see, but you’ve told us to wait. So what gives?”

While Eddie stood there expectantly with his hands on his hips, CJ chewed on her upper lip. She had wanted to have this discussion with all of them present, but Kate had disappeared so early this morning, they never had a chance to talk about anything at all. With a sigh, CJ decided to give Eddie a little something to think about. “Well…I’ll plant a seed, but I’d rather wait until Katie’s here to have the proper discussion.” When Eddie gave a non-committal-type nod, she continued. “You and Jeffrey seem to love it here…at the ranch, I mean. Katie and I had been thinking about the land outside our new fence. There is so much scope to build there, and we don’t use it for anything but walking or riding. We were thinking, log home.” CJ watched Eddie as his mind ticked over.

His eyes gradually opened wider when he realized what she meant. “Oh, my! That sounds utterly charming. Shall I guess that you’re talking about us in a log home?”

“You may guess.” CJ stood up to leave, not even thinking about having her usual wake-up coffee.

“Give your old man a hug before you leave, please,” he said, holding out his arms, dishcloth and all.

CJ walked over to him feeling a little like a chastised child and hugged him warmly before turning around. She was stopped in her tracks when she heard a deliberate cough behind her. She turned again to see Eddie holding out a couple of fat, delicious-looking sandwiches in a small, plastic lunchbox. As he snapped the lid closed, CJ reached out with a smile on her face.

“See? So much better!” Eddie exclaimed while pointing at her.

CJ could barely resist rolling her eyes. “Thanks again, Dad. Love you.” She left the kitchen hearing the sentiment returned with Eddie’s usual flair and gusto.

* * * * * *

Kate walked the corridor at the Chaplin studios. She wasn’t supposed to be here today, but she needed the distraction. She had decided to come and look for her dressing room. There would be no need for her trailer during this job, which was good because the lot at these studios was too small for her large, recreational vehicle. Her mind wandered to her family possibly using the trailer for a vacation now.

Ooh, we could take a road trip. Her face darkened a little as that idea threw up a possible problem. Would I feel safe enough on a road trip? Going to the grocery store was scary last time…so going even further? Kate shook her head as she passed a door with a piece of paper pinned to it. She didn’t notice Erica’s name on it and continued onward.

“I wouldn’t be alone. CJ would be with me so I’d never feel afraid,” she mumbled. The thought of CJ reminded her of what she had learned last night, and she trudged the rest of the way along the corridor without realizing her mood had altered again.

When Kate got to the last door, she knew it was hers because someone had put a brand-new nameplate on it. There was a glitzy star next to her name, and she felt a little shiver of excitement run through her at the thought of her new job. As she turned the handle, a brilliant display of color met her eyes. She blinked a few times at the warm but vibrant tones on the walls, the silvery rails for her costumes, a sumptuous couch for her to relax on during her downtime, and a dressing table with opaque light bulbs all around its mirror. But what caught her eye the most was the huge bunch of luxurious flowers that sat in a stunning vase upon the table in the corner. Lilies, yellow roses, and another red flower that Kate didn’t recognize, nestled comfortably between lush, dark-green foliage.

Kate headed straight over to the table to check for a card among the bunch. Did the studios do this for her? Maybe it was a co-star? She really hoped CJ had sent them, and her mood fluctuated again between anger at CJ not telling her about this Chris woman, and her anticipation at the possibility of the flowers being from her beloved. As she fidgeted with the small envelope, her fingers decided they were not going to do as they were told, and she dropped the card on the floor making her agitated at her apparent clumsiness. She bent down to retrieve the card and finally opened it to reveal a strange, anonymous message.

Congratulations on your new job.

I know you are going to make the show completely amazing.

You are always an incredible inspiration to me.

I admire you more than you’ll ever know.

Your talent knows no bounds, and a fresh and exciting actress like you doesn’t need any good luck wishes.

But I will say it anyway. Good luck, Kate.

You’re the best.

Knock ‘em dead!

x.

Kate read the message a few times. She knew it definitely wasn’t from CJ. She could feel it, and with a heave of her shoulders, she put the card in her bag and leaned over to smell the flowers. They were very beautiful, and she appreciated the sentiment. She decided to find out who had sent them later and thank them. It was definitely a nice gesture.

Since she didn’t have anywhere else to be today, she figured the next couple of hours would be well spent investigating her dressing room and the studios. That might keep her busy, but it would not stop her mind from conjuring up images of what Chris Wilder might look like.

Kate was dragged away from those thoughts by her cell phone ringing. She grappled with her bag and eventually found it to see that it was Lorena Xu calling.

“Hi, Lorena.”

“Hello, Kate.  Is it OK to talk?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“I was just checking in to see how you were settling in with the new job, and I also wanted to confirm the details for Ellen next week.”

Kate had almost forgotten about her appearance on the popular chat show, and slapped her hand to her forehead in disbelief. “Goodness, is it next week?”

“Yes…are you still OK to do it?” Lorena asked worriedly.

“Oh, absolutely. Time just seems to be getting away from me recently.”

“Tell me about it. So how’s Infinity One shaping up so far?”

Kate smiled. She was getting used to Lorena now. It was an interesting concept to have an agent who didn’t constantly sound like she was really pissed. Lorena was always upbeat, kind and considerate, and tended to make sure that Kate wasn’t only getting the job done, but that she was enjoying it to boot.

“It’s going very well. The crew is amazing, so friendly. I’ve only really met one co-star so far, and she’s great too. We had a meeting the other day with a few other actors, but they seemed a little overwhelmed so I didn’t get a chance to chat to them. I’m looking forward to the first proper day of work when I can get a better feel for my new colleagues.”

“Great. Uh, so did Shannon tell you about her inviting Sian over for a sleepover?”

“No, not yet. When did she ask her to come over?” Kate almost chuckled.

“Saturday night. I had a feeling it wasn’t official. I do hope it’s OK with you? Sian doesn’t get invited anywhere very often. She’s quite a quiet child.”

“Aw, it’s definitely OK. We’d love to have her come over. How about you come for a bite to eat, then you can leave her if she feels comfortable with it?”

“That sounds wonderful, Kate.”

“Please feel free to bring your husband too.”

Lorena smiled again. “Dean’s out of town on business, but I’ll tell him you offered.”

“OK. See you around seven on Saturday then?”

“Great. Bye, Kate.”

“Bye.”

* * * * * *

CJ was in a piss-poor mood when she got to work, so much so that a few agents who saw her in the hallway quickly cleared a path as she stormed along to her office. Not seeing Kate in the morning made her feel like she hadn’t started her day properly. Kate hadn’t left her a message either, so CJ racked her brains to figure out if there was something she had done wrong. She couldn’t come up with a damn thing. It was pissing her off, and it totally sucked.

She slammed her bag down on the floor when she arrived at her desk, not even realizing that Tim was in the corner near the coffee machine. Less than a minute after she had arrived, he was silently holding out a cup of coffee for her.

Tim smiled when she looked up at him. “Morning, CJ. I’ll leave out the good part.”

“That obvious, huh?” CJ took the cup from him and sighed. “Thanks, Tim. This might make it a little better. How long you been here?” she asked as she looked at her watch.

“About an hour. When I came in, Mark caught me in the lobby and told me there was another killing, so I’ve been going over the police report while I wait for the ME to finish her autopsies.”

CJ grimaced briefly. “Shit. Who’d the shooter get this time? Lemme guess…young, gorgeous couple just walking along the street?”

“Close,” Tim said as he lifted a sheet of paper from his desk. “Young and gorgeous, but not a couple. They were friends, and they were found with small bags of capsules in their possession.”

“Ascendia?” CJ asked as she watched Tim getting up to hand her the paper.

“That would be my guess, but they’re still being analyzed. I hate to say it, but we might have to investigate the families of our victims after all.”

“I hate to agree, but I agree.”

Tim was happy to hear that. As he perched on the corner of CJ’s desk, he leaned in to point at a particular spot on the report. “This guy here…he’s related to a known drug dealer.”

“It’s looking more and more like revenge, huh?”

“Yep.”

“You got a name?”

Tim knew she meant for the drug dealer. “Danny Vinter.”

CJ curled her lip. “Sounds like a made-up character in a book. Hmm.” She scanned the entire sheet of information before she spoke again. “I’m heading over to the DEA today. Anders will probably know this Vinter guy. I wonder if Raven is his boss or something.”

At that moment, Jamie walked into the office. “Morning, Tim. Morning, DM,” she said, trying to gauge CJ’s mood with a single glance.

She didn’t know yet if Kate had talked to CJ about last night, but CJ’s face gave nothing away. She offered Jamie a tiny smile and a normal response, but she was distracted by the information she had in front of her, and Jamie mistook that as a bad sign. She decided to keep quiet, just in case she put her big foot in her even bigger mouth, as usual.

“Anything new on the case?” Jamie chanced, deeming that a safe avenue to pursue.

Tim got up off CJ’s desk and headed to his seat. “Yes. Another shooting last night. Two young friends just walking along the street with drugs in their pockets.”

“Shit,” Jamie said as she dropped into her own chair. “Where are we on the drugs?”

“Being analyzed in the lab,” Tim replied.

CJ sighed and leaned on her desk. “Time to start trawling through the families of each victim. I want background checks done on all of ‘em.”

Nothing else was said as the three agents began picking out the relevant names from the police reports. When Mikey arrived, the searching continued in earnest, and before long, they had a full list of every victim’s immediate family members.

One hour later, CJ cracked the bones in her back when she stood up to stretch. “Jesus, I feel like an old woman.”

Jamie fleetingly thought about a joke response, but decided against it at the last minute. “You going to see Anders?”

“Yep.”

“Want some company?”

CJ only nodded which served to make Jamie even more uncertain of what had transpired last night after she had left. She decided she may as well face the heat – if there was going to be any – on the way along the corridor.

They had gone up three floors and were most of the way to the other end of the building before CJ spoke. “I’m so sick of feeling edgy…looking over my shoulder for that damn woman every time I leave the office. It’s pissing me off.”

Jamie said nothing. She just nodded because she knew CJ could see her from the side of her eye, but when they were almost at their destination, she sighed. “It’s funny. I don’t want to see her either. I hate the way she leers at you, only because I know how it makes you feel. But CJ, we have to work with her, so how do we stop her from…you know?”

CJ halted abruptly and turned to Jamie. She looked thoughtful for a moment while she stared at her. Just as Jamie was getting a tad uncomfortable, CJ spoke. “I don’t know yet. I’m workin’ on it.”

Jamie nodded again. “OK. Let’s go solve this case, huh?”

“Let’s…”

* * * * * *

Kate had taken herself on a little tour of the conference room, the small cafeteria, the ladies restrooms, and the technical department. There had been a few people working on expensive-looking computers in there, and as was the same with everyone else on this show, they were incredibly friendly and informative. The visual effects supervisor for Infinity One was Karl Channing. He had shown Kate in a matter of seconds how his staff created the outer space backdrop for a lot of the scenes set up for the first episode. Kate had been amazed by the complexity of the work, and couldn’t understand how Karl could produce something so fast until he admitted he kept his little outer space show for anyone who came asking about his job. She had laughed at that, and she chuckled again now as she entered the corridor that led to her dressing room. When she was halfway along the corridor, she heard a door open ahead of her, and Erica appeared wearing full make-up and looking like she was about to go on camera.

“Hey, Erica. What are you doing here today?”

“Oh, hi, Kate. Just came in to get a feel for the place. You?”

Kate nodded. “Me too.”

“I think the cafeteria’s open. Would you like to join me for a quick coffee before I head home?”

“Uh, sure. I was about to leave myself, but I have time for a drink.”

Erica’s face broke out in a huge smile. “Awesome. My treat.”

“Thanks,” Kate replied as they began to walk side by side. “So is that your dressing room you came out of?”

“Yeah. It’s really nice too. Maybe not as big as yours, but still, very comfortable.”

“You’ve seen mine?”

“Oh…no, I just guessed you’d have one of the bigger ones because you’re more famous, and I know it’s at the end of the hallway, so I just assumed…”

“Ah. Right.” Kate wondered why she kept misinterpreting Erica’s comments. It seemed like she was just being completely friendly, and yet Kate was being freaked out by it. I just have too much on my mind. I need to chill. She’s really sweet, and I’m overreacting to things that mean nothing. Maybe I’m just not used to people being so nice to you at work. Yeah, that’s it. With her little pep talk complete, she entered the cafeteria following Erica through the double doors. Once they had found a table, Erica took Kate’s order and happily strolled up to the counter. While Erica waited at the cash register for her change, she turned and smiled sweetly at Kate who returned it while repeating her pep talk over and over in her head.

Five minutes later, they were chatting about the studios, their new job, and what was potentially to come. Kate mentioned that she had talked to the special effects supervisor today, and Erica reacted as Kate had come to expect.

“Oh, you’re so lucky. I’m totally jealous. The CGI is one of the things I can’t wait to experience…I mean, I know we won’t experience it on-set, but when production is finished, I will actually want to watch the episodes. I don’t usually want to see myself on-screen, but this time, I can’t wait to see the overall finished product.”

That actually made Kate smile since she felt exactly the same way. “That’s one thing I am looking forward to as well. My wife loves sci-fi shows, so I hope the finished product lives up to her expectations,” Kate said, chuckling internally at the fact that CJ will love the show no matter what.

“I’m glad we are both excited about the same thing then. Apart from that, though,” Erica continued without acknowledging the rest of what Kate had said. “The storyline just looks fantastic, and I like the way my character is revealed. She’s playing both sides for a while, then wham! She devotes herself to the cause and becomes Le’Ana’s secret liaison.”

Kate couldn’t fault Erica’s enthusiasm. Usually, she had actresses grumbling to her about other actresses, or complaining about their role on the show, or just generally being a diva about everything. Erica was indeed a refreshing change.

“Yes, the writers seem to have thought things through quite well. And to top it all off, the coffee is great,” Kate finished while holding up her cup.

Erica flashed a brilliant smile and clicked their cups together. “To our new journey.”

Kate nodded. “The new journey…”

* * * * * *

CJ’s meeting with Anders furnished her with a lot more information. The problem was it didn’t advance their case at all. While it was great to know the background of Ascendia and what was happening on the streets, it gave them no indication of who their killer might be. As it turned out, it was their own background checks that threw up a clue, and when CJ and Jamie returned to the office, Tim jumped to his feet while Mikey was talking on the phone with what seemed to be a school headmaster.

“Hey, guys. How did it go at the DEA?” Tim asked as he fetched some papers from the fax machine.

While CJ slumped into her chair, Jamie circled her shoulders in an effort to relax a little before she answered. “It was fine, but it didn’t help much.”

“We found something here,” Tim said with a nod.

CJ un-slumped herself and leaned on her desk, giving Tim her full attention. “What did you find?”

“One of the recent victims of Ascendia…Tina Krantz. She was fourteen years old, had good grades up until about two months ago when they started to slip suddenly. Her father’s a single parent. It was just the two of them, and he worked hard to support them, never missing a day at his job in years. He started having problems concentrating after her death, and his boss offered him counseling. He flipped out after that and hasn’t been to work since. None of his co-workers have heard from him, and neither has his boss. Apparently, he was beyond devastated when his daughter died.”

“Did he know she had gotten herself in trouble and was taking drugs?”

Tim nodded. “Mikey’s on the phone to one of her teachers right now. She said that Mr. Krantz had been in the school yelling at the headmaster that he wanted to know what was going on. He knew something was wrong since Tina’s behavior was so out of character.”

“But how could he know what drug she had taken, and who to target?”

“Maybe after the autopsy? I assume he would be told her cause of death, but I’m not sure yet,” Tim said thoughtfully. “If he was distraught, he could have done anything, really. Maybe he questioned her friends and found out who she got the capsules from?”

CJ was skeptical. “Hmm, maybe. It sounds like a lot of investigation for someone who is grieving the loss of his daughter.”

“Yes, but if he has lost the only thing that was keeping him going, he may resort to anything to avenge her death. It’s possible he’s having a complete breakdown, gone off the deep end. He’ll be looking for someone to blame, and if the DEA can’t find Raven, I doubt Mr. Krantz could either, so he’ll go for the next best thing.”

CJ was impressed, but she still wanted to push Tim further. “OK, so how would he find the distributors?”

“Well, putting myself in his shoes, I’d surveil the school grounds…see who was acting suspiciously. I might even try to buy some drugs myself.”

“Hmm,” CJ said again. “It is possible. When I first saw the positioning of the bodies, I thought it was personal, in that someone was heartbroken in some way, but now it seems that he’s doing it because Ascendia kills by heart attack…and that he’s heartbroken.”

“Exactly,” Tim agreed just as Mikey finished up his call. “What did you find, Mikey?”

“Oh, boy. OK,” Mikey began. “We’re gonna have to stakeout Del Krantz’s house. I think it’s him, for sure. I was talking to Tina’s teacher who said that Del was so angry the day he stormed into the school that he was almost arrested. He did calm down soon after and was allowed to go home due to the fact he had just lost his daughter. The officers on scene escorted him home, though, and of course they checked him out. He’s a registered gun owner. Now, the bullets used in these killings were twenty-two caliber. That matches the type of gun he owns…a Smith and Wesson revolver. I know it’s not a certainty until we compare the rounds, but it’s something.”

CJ could see Mikey had more to say, but she wanted him to take a breath so she spoke up. “Sounds like you’ve been on the phone all day, Mikey.”

“No kidding. I also spoke with Del’s neighbor who told me that Del left his house almost a week ago without any bags, and he hasn’t been home since. The neighbor only noticed the bag thing because Del usually takes a carryall, even when he goes to work.”

“So he’s potentially driving around the city, maybe living in his car, going after the people responsible for his daughter’s death?”

“It’s the best we’ve got so far.”

Jamie began to dial a number on her office phone. “I’ll get a warrant for Krantz’s house.”

CJ nodded. “Is there a BOLO out for the car?”

“About an hour ago,” Tim confirmed.

“Good. I’ll update Mark. Who’s up first for stakeout duties?”

“We’ll do it,” Mikey said, volunteering himself and Tim.

When CJ looked at Tim with her eyebrow raised, he grinned. “I’m OK with that,” he said as he sent a fake glare to Mikey.

Twenty minutes later, they had a verbal go-ahead for the warrant, and CJ left the office with Jamie to collect it before they headed to Del Krantz’s house. They would search the property then lock it up to leave it as it was. Other officers were drafted in for the stakeouts which had to cover the house, Del’s place of work, and his daughter’s school. CJ was so busy organizing everything that she didn’t think to text or call Kate…but what was more worrying, was that Kate never thought of it either.

* * * * * *

CJ eventually arrived home a little after midnight. She barely had the energy to wonder if Kate was still up. She hoped she was, because when she came home after a day like today, she really needed to see her, to soak up her calming, loving energy and bring herself back to normal. Unfortunately, Kate wasn’t in a state of mind where calming and loving were prominent. Her tension had grown throughout the day, and her emotional rollercoaster had her very much on edge. She had gone from laughing with Erica in the cafeteria, to coming home and hiding in a dark corner of the study until the girls finished school. After that she had made dinner, pretended to have fun while Shannon and Lucy groomed the horses, thanked Jeffrey for offering to read to the children before bed, and then lied to her father, telling him that she had a few work emails to write before she could sleep. No emails were written, and she had hidden in the study again until a few moments ago when she heard CJ arriving.

Kate was also very aware that Elizabeth’s sentencing was coming up soon, and it was beginning to truly sink in that her own mother had done such an atrocious thing. She had realized earlier today that she needed to confront Elizabeth, but even the thought of that made her want to cry.

When she heard CJ locking up her gun cabinet, she was ready to scream at her for not calling or sending her a message all day, and she got up slowly to head out into the hallway.

CJ saw her as soon as she turned around. “Hi.” As she began to approach her, she saw the darkness in Kate’s eyes. “Katie?”

“Where have you been?”

CJ was thrown by the words. Not even a hello, she thought as she tried to pin down the look Kate was giving her. “At work. Where else would I be?”

“You usually call or text me when you’re going to be late,” Kate said as she scanned CJ’s clothes for signs of Chris Wilder and not quite believing she was doing it.

“I’m sorry. Can I have a hello hug?” CJ asked, her arms outstretched, but Kate turned around and disappeared into the living room. “What the hell is going on?” CJ muttered to herself before she followed. “Katie?”

“What?” Kate answered a little too loudly.

“Why are you angry with me? I said I’m sorry I didn’t call, but you didn’t call either, and you left this morning without so much as a goodbye. What gives?”

“Nothing.” Kate sat down on the couch as her mood changed from the anger to dejected sadness. “I guess you were just too busy with things to think about me. I was worried.”

CJ felt a sting in her heart. “That’s not fair. I always think about you-”

“Then why didn’t you call? What were you doing that was so interesting and time-consuming?”

“What do you think I was doing?” CJ was getting pretty worried herself now. This was so out of character for Kate, and it scared her.

“You tell me, CJ.”

“Katie, I was trying to catch a killer, like always. Why are you acting like this?”

Kate snorted, but there was no humor in it. “I’m not acting.”

“Jeez, don’t twist my words. Tell me what I’ve done?”

“I want you to tell me,” Kate demanded as she got up rigidly to pace around the coffee table. “Tell me why you were late. Tell me who you were with.”

CJ’s frown deepened as she also stood up. “This isn’t like you, Katie. What’s going on?”

“I know about Chris Wilder!”

CJ’s eyes widened, but then she showed her confusion once more. “What about her?”

“Why didn’t you tell me one of your old flames was working right there with you in your office?” Kate stood still but backed away a step when CJ tried to approach.

“Uh, I never even thought it was important. I can honestly say I hate the fact she’s there.”

“Really? And how did it make you feel when she touched you the other day?”

“Katie, how do…” CJ closed her eyes briefly, realizing Jamie must have talked about it at dinner. “What did Jamie say?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes, it matters. Is this why you went straight to bed when I was making coffee that night?”

“Screw the coffee. I want to know how you felt when Chris was feeling you up! You didn’t even stop her, did you?”

“Now hold on a goddamned minute! She didn’t feel me up. She brushed her hand past my breast in what was supposed to look like an accident. Mark and Jamie were standing right there, and I wasn’t going to call her out in front of them. I’m a professional, even if she isn’t! She’s a predator, and she knows damned well I’m not interested!”

Kate could see CJ’s rage bubbling under the surface. She had never been on the receiving end of it before, and she didn’t want to start now. “You don’t need to shout!”

CJ took a quick breath. “Don’t I? You’re shouting! I can’t believe you’re saying these things, even thinking them. I don’t want anyone else, ever! You know that but…fuck! Don’t you trust me?”

Kate’s head dropped. She knew she was being stupid about this, but it had been a bit of a shock to find out CJ’s ex was working in such close proximity to her, and CJ hadn’t made mention of it. She also knew she wasn’t coping with the events of the past month as well as she pretended to be. “I just don’t know why you didn’t tell me.”

CJ tried her approach again, thankful that this time, Kate stood still. “Katie, she arrived the day I left for Minnesota. I’ve had some things to deal with since then. She means absolutely nothing to me, and I’ll continue to deflect her idiotic advances. I’m sorry I didn’t think to tell you, but you have to trust me. I don’t even like the woman.”

Kate was still stuck on the first sentence. “Minnesota?” Tears sprung to her eyes, and she lowered her head in shame. “Oh, CJ, I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Hey. Look at me,” CJ said softly, lifting Kate’s face and meeting her regretful eyes with utter sincerity. “You’ve been dealing with a ton of stuff too. We both have. It can get to us even when we think it’s dealt with. I know you’re strong, Katie, but what Elizabeth did to you…it would be too much for any daughter to comprehend. Maybe you need to lash out at someone, and I don’t mind being that someone.”

“I mind! I shouldn’t have doubted you for a single second. I’m so, so sorry.”

“Apology accepted, but it’s already in the past. Let’s live by your motto and think about the now, OK?”

“But the things that have happened to us recently have been so stressful for both of us, and here I am calling you out for something I know isn’t-”

“Shh. Hear me, Katie. You’re the only one I’ll ever want, now and for always. I know you know that.” CJ pushed Kate’s hair out of her eyes. “We need to sit for at least a day and talk…just you and me. I’ve been feeling really strange lately, and I think it has to do with Chris.” When Kate glared at her through shimmering tears, she put her finger across Kate’s lips. “I mean she has pissed me off so much, and brought up so many things from the past that I didn’t like about myself, and it’s making me edgy. I want us to talk about all of that too.”

“Can you tell me what you mean?” Kate said in a much softer tone as she pulled CJ down to sit on the couch.

“Well, first off, let me apologize for the way I’ve been…um…taking you.”

Kate blinked when she realized what CJ meant. “Why on earth would you apologize for that?”

“Because of what was behind it.”

“I…I don’t think I want to know,” Kate said, considering CJ had mentioned it had to do with Chris Wilder.

CJ picked up on her fears immediately. “It’s not what you think. She doesn’t turn me on, Katie. Never. Ugh, no.” She paused to think of how to voice her feelings. “It’s like I was remembering how vulnerable I felt back then, how used I was…weak. She was an abuser, only I didn’t see it like that at the time. She dominated, and I let her. I felt a complete loss of control, and she magnified that feeling in me when she dumped me cold. I was stupid and naïve back then…a total sucker.”

“OK.” Kate tried not to imagine the dominating or the abusing. “How does that translate to you impulsively taking me, and not letting me reciprocate?”

CJ’s stomach churned unpleasantly, but when she saw the confusion mixed with understanding in Kate’s eyes, she took in a deep breath and let it out in a quick puff of air. “It sounds really stupid, but I think I was trying to assert myself. She made me so frustrated when I was in the office, Katie. I was almost to the point of attacking her violently. My skin was crawling when she got as close to me as she could get without touching. Then when she touched, I couldn’t punch her in the face because my boss was in the same room. She even tried to accost me in the restroom. It was…I felt that horrible, weak feeling inside, that old feeling I had after she walked away when I thought there was something solid between us. I felt like I was nothing…and when I came home, I just wanted to feel real again. Strong. I shouldn’t have-”

“I get it, CJ. You don’t need to go on, but can I suggest something?” When CJ nodded, Kate pursed her lips in thought for a moment before she made her suggestion. “The next time you feel that way, you come talk to me immediately? Don’t let it fester. Come to me before you get to the point of wanting to inflict bodily harm on anyone. And if I know what you need physically, and I understand it completely, then you’ll enjoy it more because you’ve figured it out too.”

“I will come to you. I’m making that a promise right now. Are we ever gonna learn this lesson?”

“What lesson?”

“The one where we stop trying to be tough and cope with everything on our own. We’re a team, you and me. It has to be that way, doesn’t it?” CJ was holding back her tears now. The tension was about to be released, one way or another.

“Yes. It is that way, honey.” Kate took CJ’s hand in her own. “I really am sorry for letting paranoia get a hold of me. I knew in my heart you would never cheat. I just couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t tell me.”

CJ sniffed as a tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. “I honestly didn’t think about it. As soon as I left the office, I wanted Chris to disappear. I thought that was the best way to handle it. I didn’t want her to interfere with my time at home in any way. Turns out, I fucked that one up completely.”

“I fucked up too, CJ. I was trying to pretend that my mother didn’t really try to kill you, didn’t really try to drive me insane and steal our children. It sounds like a damned soap opera. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to believe it. The past couple of months have been a nightmare…something that doesn’t seem real, but we’ve made it through. We’re here, fucked up or not.”

“You called her your mother,” CJ said as she curled her arm around Kate and pulled her against her body.

“Slip of the tongue,” Kate replied. “Won’t happen again.”

Silence ensued for a few minutes until CJ whispered, “Are we OK?” It was then that she realized Kate was crying. “Oh, Katie, it’s gonna be fine. We’re gonna get through it. Are you worried about the sentencing hearing?”

“No. I haven’t even decided if I’m going yet. Jamie offered to go for me…to find out what happens.”

“We can talk about it tomorrow. I should be able to get home at a normal time. In fact, I’ll make sure I am.”

Kate sat up a little to look at her. “CJ, I’ve been an ass about all this. Take however long you need at work.”

“Nah. We’re on the killer’s trail now, and Jamie can handle it. I want to come home.”

Kate shook her head at her own shortcomings. “Here I was making up all kinds of ridiculous scenarios about what you were doing in the office late at night, and here you are, trying to catch a murderer and working your butt off, as always. I feel so incredibly stup-”

CJ cut of her words abruptly. “Nuh-uh. Don’t say it. You are the most intelligent, beautiful, wonderful human being I know. You can also have doubts, just like everyone else, but you are definitely not stupid.”

“Yes, I can have doubts, but not about you, not about the trust we have. The thing that annoys me most is that I don’t have doubts about our commitment to each other, so why did it even enter my head?”

“Katie, we are exhausted. We are trying to work through this stuff with Elizabeth, and we’ve barely taken a moment to confront our fears about it all. There is so much underlying stress, and I know for certain that I haven’t relaxed much since…since I held you on the couch that night I got back. How about you?”

Kate got a little lost in the memory of that moment when CJ came home. She was suddenly overwhelmed with the love, gratitude, and relief she had felt back then. “Oh, god…I don’t ever want to be that scared again. I think you’re right. I haven’t truly relaxed since then either, and I think I was only relaxed then because I had no energy left to be anything else.”

CJ’s tears had returned, and this time Kate joined her. They had made a start on the talking. Now all they had to do was remember to keep doing it. But for now, tiredness overcame them both, and at one thirty in the morning, they crawled into bed to sleep in each other’s arms.

.

Chapter 6

The next morning, Eddie Senior approached the kitchen with caution. He had heard the argument last night, and he had also heard CJ and Kate getting up early this morning. With his robe fastened tight around his midriff, he shuffled through the door to check both women for injuries, but he found them talking quietly across the island counter with mugs of coffee in-hand. Without a word, he propped himself on a stool adjacent to them and clasped his hands in front of him.

CJ looked at Kate and then at Eddie. She glanced back to Kate and gave a little shrug. “Morning, Dad.”

Eddie released his hands and placed one on Kate’s forearm, and one on CJ’s. He gave them a sad, fatherly smile. “I want you wonderful ladies to listen to me for a minute.”

“OK,” Kate said quietly.

“Our little family has been through quite an ordeal of late, and I know that the two of you have been at the center of that ordeal. I love you both so much,” he said before he pinned his lips together momentarily to prevent the possibility of one of his famous emotional outbursts. “And I heard you fighting last night.” He shook his head when CJ was about to apologize. “No. Let me talk. Katie, you are the light of my life, and you are also a very independent woman. I remember when you were little you had to do everything by yourself. If I tried to show you how to do something, you would tell me off and try to learn it from scratch. I also remember when you took off for sunny California when you were a teenager. So young to be on your own, but I understood what drove you. It broke my heart at the time, but look at what you’ve accomplished. You did it all by yourself, independent to a fault. Nobody was going to stop you, and nobody was going to help you if you had anything to say about it. That independence is a wonderful thing, but last night, I know it was a problem. The two of you are so alike.”

Eddie turned to CJ and gave her forearm a pat. “You, CJ, are all I could have hoped for in a daughter-in-law. Nothing but the best for my Katie, and here you are, a perfect match. But we all have flaws, and you, my fabulous federal agent, have them too. Just like Katie, you are too independent, too tough sometimes. I mean, look at when you were but a wee child? You were so hurt by that horrible man who fathered you, you had to fend for yourself when your amazing mother was out working hard, and then at age nine, you lost your shining light.”

CJ was frozen in place and had silent tears running down her cheeks, as did Kate, but Eddie went on because he had to make his point.

“When you were sent to live with grandma, you decided that you were a survivor, but not only that, you were going to be a protector for all. You studied hard and made it to the FBI, and now look at you. You save lives practically every day. You take care of those around you, but you sometimes forget to take care of yourself. The two of you are tough, independent, intelligent women, but when all is said and done you will try to take care of each other before you take care of what’s going on in there,” Eddie said, pointing to CJ’s chest before squeezing both their arms gently. “The problem with that is…to do that, you just give, give, give to each other. Sometimes, just sometimes, you need to take…take comfort in one another, take a moment to let it all out to one another. You both know you want to hear every thought, every feeling…but instead, you just shut down and get on with it, all in the name of strength and indestructibility. I love you both, and I know you can do it. As soon as you realize you’ve derailed, swallow your pride and get back on the tracks…together.”

All Eddie wanted to do at this point was hug them both to death, but he had said what he wanted to say, and they both looked at little stunned by it, so he patted their arms once more and got up. As he headed toward the stairs, silence trailed behind him, and nothing broke the quiet in the entire house until five minutes later when CJ took a slurp from her coffee mug.

Kate snapped out of her stare at the countertop and looked up at her wife’s tear-stained face. “We really need to get him somewhere new to live.”

CJ attempted a laugh, but it came out as a pained smile. “No kidding.”

“He’s right, though, isn’t he?”

“Yeah. He is.” CJ put down her mug and reached over to take Kate’s hand. “We know he’s right because we pretty much figured it out last night. We need to speak to one another before it becomes too much and we argue. How many times have we said that before?”

“Many…but CJ, we’re both strong women, just like he said. We keep trying to be there for each other through bad times as well as the good. It’s just that during the bad times, we try to cope on our own, and things go to hell.”

“And we’ve had some extremely bad times recently,” CJ added.

“You can say that again.”

“And we’ve had some extremely bad times recently.”

Kate snickered, and when it ended with a snort, CJ laughed out loud. After that, they sat for long moments, just breathing and thinking about it all until CJ let go of Kate’s hand and got up. She walked around the counter to silently invite Kate into the living room. Once they were on the couch, she pulled her close. “I think what we need is a truce between my independent ego and yours.”

When CJ put out her hand to shake on it, Kate smiled. “Truce. I do love you, CJ. Just don’t hide anything like that again. It hurts me when you do, especially when I find out from drunk Jamie instead of you.”

“I know, and I’m so sorry. I really hope you know now that I didn’t do it on purpose. I-”

“I do know.”

CJ sighed. “I just…I don’t want to bring work home, in any form. And I don’t want to talk about Chris, but she got me really angry, and when I’m here with you and our children, I don’t want to be angry.”

“I understand. It’s over now.”

“Everything’s not over, though, is it? We have to go to court together, Katie. I think it’s necessary for you and for me.”

Kate thought about it for a moment before nodding her answer. “I’m not looking forward to it, but I’ll go as long as you’re with me.”

“Come here,” CJ said, opening her arms and catching Kate when she immediately fell into them.

It felt good to reconnect without the added stresses and guilty desires. CJ had felt completely aroused while making love to Kate, but underneath her desire was an uncomfortable anxiety that she hadn’t identified at the time. Her body had been tense, her mind had been in turmoil, and she hadn’t wanted Kate to touch her.

“I can’t wait for some quiet time with you…to make love to one another, talk, or even just sleep,” CJ whispered.

“Sounds heavenly,” Kate said, although it was slightly muffled against CJ’s hoodie. It was at that moment she remembered something. “Oh, um, I forgot to tell you something.”

CJ craned her neck to see Kate’s face. “What?”

“I know you just said some quiet time would be great, but I invited Lorena to dinner Saturday night, and Sian is staying over. It happened because Shannon decided to invite Sian without telling me, and when Lorena told me on the phone, I asked her over. I hope that’s OK. If not, I’ll cancel.”

CJ watched Kate’s worried face while she wondered if she had been so incredibly irritable and distracted recently that Kate had been scared to talk to her. “Katie, are you actually worried about telling me this?”

“In what way?”

CJ sat upright and looked into Kate’s eyes. “Don’t you ever be afraid to tell me things.”

Kate frowned. “I’m not. I just forgot to tell you, and I know how pissed I got when you, uh, forgot to tell me something.”

“Aw, come on. That was totally different. You had reason to be angry. This is totally fine. I’d like to meet Lorena, actually.”

Kate released the breath she was holding. “I’m glad you want to meet her. Maybe I should meet Chris,” she chanced.

“No. Actually, yes. Maybe you should. I’d like to see her squirm under the quiet wrath of Kate Carson.”

Kate didn’t disagree. She kind of wanted to throttle Chris for daring to touch her woman. The thought of it made her smile, and CJ knew what that smile meant. She started to laugh, which made Kate laugh too.

“Nice to hear that,” Kate said as she snuggled back up against CJ once more.

“It sure is. I think you should definitely meet Chris. I’m pretty sure I’d be laughing at the memory of that for a long time…only because I know you’ll knock her dead, so to speak.”

“I might just do that,” Kate said in her villain voice, which just made CJ laugh even more.

* * * * * *

A few hours later, CJ walked into her office to find she was the last one to arrive. She also found Mark in her chair, and she smiled at him when he jumped out of it. “Feel free to use my chair, Sir.”

“No need, CJ. I was just leaving. Keep up the good work, everyone,” Mark said as he waved and left the room.

“What’s been happening, guys?”

“Hey, CJ,” Tim said. “Del Krantz’s visa card was flagged up this morning. He bought a slap-up breakfast at Keels Gourmet Burgers over on Westwood.”

“When was this exactly?”

“He paid about ninety minutes ago. We’ve already been over to check it out. He was gone.”

“OK, but only a couple of blocks away is a little worrying,” CJ said while scratching just under the edge of her wrist support.

“How so?” Mikey asked.

CJ leaned back in her chair, very aware that she hadn’t acknowledged Jamie yet. She was making her suffer for a few minutes for telling Kate about Chris Wilder. “It’s been on the news that the FBI is investigating this case, so why is he risking being so close to the federal building? I’m just trying to figure out his state of mind.”

“Do you think he’s taunting us?” Tim offered.

“No. I don’t think he knows we’re even on to him.”

“According to the stakeout crews, Krantz hasn’t been back to his house, so there’s a good chance that you’re right and he has no clue we’ve even named him as a suspect,” Jamie said, trying to ease her way into the conversation. She could tell as soon as CJ walked in that something had changed, and the silent treatment just backed up her theory.

“Still, it would help to know where he was headed next.” CJ had barely taken a breath when an office phone rang loudly.

“Special Agent Green,” Jamie answered before her face contorted into something CJ couldn’t quite decipher. “On our way, Sir.” She slammed the phone down and jumped to her feet. “He’s in the lobby.”

“What? Who?”

“Krantz.”

CJ was out the door in a second, on the heels of Jamie who wasn’t hanging around to give them a rundown of her call. Del Krantz seemed to be here to give himself up, but CJ knew better than that. It was never that simple. This man was in an unknown mental state. He had a gun. She just hoped that he didn’t do anything with it before they got there.

As the elevator descended, both Jamie and CJ drew their weapons, ready for just about anything to happen once the doors opened in front of them. As they cautiously entered the lobby area, they saw a few people slithering against the walls and disappearing into adjacent corridors or rooms. Andy, one of the security guards on duty today, was standing facing Del who held his gun loosely in his hand. Andy seemed to be trying to calm him down, but Del’s other hand was flailing around in an agitated manner, and CJ didn’t like the look of it.

As she revealed herself to Del, Jamie backed her up on the spot. “Del Krantz, you need to drop the gun, and we can talk about this.”

Del turned his attention away from Andy, and when he saw the two women with guns aimed at his chest, he knew his time was up. “Talk about what? There’s nothing to talk about anymore. My Tina is gone. All those young lives are gone. Those people had to pay for what they’ve done.”

“You could’ve gone to the police, Del. You could’ve told them what you knew,” CJ said, trying to keep him talking until they could find a way to reason with him, if that was possible.

Del shook his head. “No, I couldn’t. The police just want the drug dealers caught for their statistics and their merit badges. I want them off the streets for the kids they kill.”

“That’s not true-” Jamie was cut off by Del waving the gun around in the air.

“Don’t even…” he said, resigned to his fate. “I have nothing left. I killed them all. My Tina is gone, and now I want to be with her.”

Before anyone could stop him, Del Krantz put his gun to his head and took his own life. After the gunshot stopped echoing in CJ’s ears, she holstered her own gun and ran over to Del to check for a pulse. He had been killed instantly. Jamie removed his weapon from his hand and told Andy to clear the few people who had been cornered in the lobby.

CJ stood up after closing Del’s eyelids. “A man with nothing left to lose.”

Jamie pulled a piece of paper that stuck out of his pocket and read from the few lines of writing. “It’s the names and stomping grounds of eight drug distributors.”

CJ frowned. “Eight?”

“Yeah. We might find another two bodies before nightfall.”

“Shit.”

“At least it’s over, CJ.”

CJ looked down at Del’s body and sighed. There was a small amount of blood now pooling at his right ear, and she shook her head at the tragedy of it all. “I guess. I’ll go call the ME. She can pronounce him here, and we’ll get him moved.”

Jamie watched her walk away. Something had changed. CJ hadn’t gagged when she mentioned Chris this time. Jamie figured it could only mean one thing – CJ and Kate had talked it over.

* * * * * *

Since Kate didn’t have to go back into the studios until Saturday morning, she had spent the day reading over the notes she had so far for Infinity One, scanning the Internet for news on some of her better-known co-stars, and re-watched the original pilot episode of the show. She felt it had refreshed her mind and given her the boost she needed to be truly confident about her new job.

“I kinda just want to get started now,” she said to herself as she strolled through the empty house to get a cup of herbal tea.

Eddie and Jeffrey had gone into West Hollywood to view some commercial premises that might be suitable for their new eatery, so it left Kate free to attempt some relaxation while the house was quiet. She had just picked up her newly-filled mug when her cell phone rang in the study.

“Oh, shoot,” she mumbled as she hurried through the living room and into the hallway. “Coming, coming.” When she got to the desk and picked up the phone, she saw private number displayed on the screen. “Hello?”

“Hi, Kate?”

“Yes. Who’s calling?”

“Oh, it’s Erica. I hope it’s an OK time to call you…”

Kate’s immediate reaction was to wonder how the hell Erica had gotten her cell phone number, but she didn’t want to sound accusatory so she held her tongue.

“Kate, are you there?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m here. What’s up, Erica?”

“Well, I just wanted to let you know about Saturday.”

Kate frowned. “You mean the production meeting?”

Erica stalled a little before she answered. “Um, yes. It’s at ten AM. You know about it already?”

“Of course. My agent called me yesterday about it.”

“Oh, right. Your agent. I’m so sorry to bother you then.”

“No trouble at all,” Kate replied amicably. “Thanks for thinking of me.”

That made Erica’s day. “No worries. Wouldn’t want you to be out of the loop. Thanks for not being mad at me for calling. I got your number from the contact sheet they gave us last week, and I hoped you wouldn’t think me too much of a pain if I just checked to see that you knew about the meeting.”

The contact sheet. I forgot about that, Kate mouthed to herself. “No. Thanks for the call, but I have to go. Busy day here,” she lied.

“OK, Kate. See you Saturday then.”

“Sure thing. Bye, Erica.”

“Bye-bye.”

Kate sat on the leather office chair for a while and thought about the call while she sipped on her tea. She still couldn’t figure Erica out, but she knew it had only been a few days since she’d met her. “Give yourself some time to get to know her, you fool. She’s just super-friendly.” She was just about to get up when a text message beeped for her attention, and when she saw it was CJ, she smiled from ear to ear.

After sending a message back, she waited for the inevitable call. She watched the phone for all of thirty seconds before she picked it up. “Hey, you.”

“Ah, that voice. I just needed to hear that voice,” CJ blurted, the relief evident in her tone.

“Is that all you need from me? My voice?”

“You know it’s not. How’s your day going?”

Kate leaned back in the comfy chair. “Good. I’m not doing anything at all for once. How about you?”

“I’ll tell you later. Our shooter came to quite a tragic end today.”

“Sorry, honey. I’m all yours when you get home. I want to hear all about your day, OK?”

CJ smiled. “I know. I’ll talk about it. Don’t worry.”

“Good. When do you think I’ll be seeing you?”

“About an hour, after I tell Jamie off for blabbing about Chris.”

“Aw, don’t be too hard on her. She was a little bit drunk,” Kate said, trying to recall how many glasses of wine they had actually imbibed that night.

“She’ll survive. I have to go, Katie, but I’ll see you soon. Love you.”

“I love you too.”

CJ had cut the line immediately after Kate’s words because she had called her while she was heading back up to the SSHU, but she had just spotted Chris Wilder leaving her office so she had to duck inside a nearby closet to avoid any contact with the person she knew could ruin her day. She had already dealt with Chris in the lobby, but at least they had all been far too busy for any ridiculous flirting to take place.

You’d think she’d have her damn hands full down there. Poor Del Krantz is on her table right now, she grumbled to herself. She peeked out carefully, and after she saw that the coast was clear, she scurried along the rest of the corridor to relative safety. Shutting the office door firmly behind her, she rushed over to her desk and began updating the report while she waited for Jamie to come back with the death certificate. Since Mikey and Tim were still out finishing up other lines of inquiry, she was left alone to work until Jamie arrived and quietly went to her seat.

CJ waited to see if Jamie would say anything, and after what felt like forever, she looked up to see her poor friend looking very upset. “Hey,” she said to get her attention. When Jamie looked up, she rolled her eyes at her. “I’m not mad at you. Katie and I talked.”

“You seem mad,” Jamie said, almost pouting.

“I’m really not. I was just quietly punishing you for being an idiot.”

Jamie’s shoulders slouched and her eyebrows lowered in her grumpiness. “I’m not an idiot. I’m a meddler, but I honestly didn’t think before I opened my big trap that night. Sorry.”

“Remember we talked about that?”

“I know we did. I’m blaming the wine this time, though.”

“Whatever. All that matters to me is that Katie and I are all right.”

“Good. Is she gonna kick ass?”

CJ laughed. “Maybe.”

“Ooh, I hope I get to witness her in action,” Jamie said while rubbing her hands together.

“Maybe if you’re a good girl up until then, I’ll let you.”

Jamie harrumphed as she sat up to get on with concluding the case. “I’ll be on my best behavior.”

* * * * * *

That evening, CJ arrived home around six o’clock and found the children just about to tuck into their dinner. Kate was serving up her own plate, and Eddie was approaching CJ with a large tray full of food for him and Jeffrey.

“Welcome home, CJ. You just get settled in and have some delicious dinner, and then Jeffreydoodle and I are going to be model grandparents for the duration of the evening! You and Katie have some much needed relaxing to do.”

CJ didn’t even argue with him. “That sounds perfect, Dad. Thank you.” After he winked at her and started climbing the stairs, she looked back through the living room and into the kitchen. Her family awaited, a scene of harmony and bliss after the day she’d had.

“Hello, beautiful ladies,” she said as she strolled into the kitchen.

Kate had been watching her since the hallway, her eyes filled with love. “Hey. You hungry?”

“Mommy, there’s ham!” Lucy tried to exclaim around her mouthful.

“So I see, Luce.” Right after CJ leaned down to kiss both children on the head, she moved around the table to make sure Kate didn’t feel left out. “Hi, Katie,” she murmured with her lips grazing Kate’s ear. She kissed her softly before belatedly answering her question. “Yes, I’m pretty hungry.”

Kate swayed a little from the kiss. “Good. Be seated, and I shall serve you up a delightful meal…cooked by Dad and Jeffrey.”

“Aww, they cooked us dinner and they’re giving us the night to ourselves?”

“I know, right?” Kate said as she sat down. “I think they’re just trying to do their bit. Oh, and Dad told me that you leaked the secret info.” When CJ paled a little, Kate was quick off the mark. “It’s fine. I talked with them about it while we cooked. They’re looking for a cabin design they like, and they’ll get back to us once they find it,” she said, wafting cold air over to CJ who looked a little woozy. “Honey, relax.”

“Yeah, sorry. I told Dad yesterday…I think it was yesterday…but I only planted the seed since he was pumping me for info.”

Kate laughed. “And you caved, just like that?”

“Well, yeah.”

“You’re just a big kitten,” Kate said before Shannon butted in.

“She’s not a kitten, but if she wore my tiger mask she might be closer to a kitten.”

CJ was the one to laugh now. “Very good, Shannon. Maybe this weekend I’ll be a tiger. How about that?”

“Yes!” Shannon punched her fist in the air and continued with her meal.

The light conversation accompanied the entire meal, and when Jeffrey sent CJ and Kate upstairs for the night with some sparkling grape juice and a ton of snacks, the two women closed the door to their haven and flopped down onto the bed.

CJ curled herself around Kate’s back and breathed in the scent of her hair. “Court tomorrow, Katie. You ready for it?”

Kate groaned a little before she answered coherently. “I suppose. Let’s not think about it until the morning, OK?”

“Sure. What shall we think about right now?”

Kate squirmed around on her spot to see CJ’s face. “I’m thinking about making love to my wife.”

“Oh? What are you thinking of doing to her?”

“Not sure yet, but I do know it’s my turn to pleasure her since she’s been feeling a little strange lately and wouldn’t let me touch her properly.”

CJ’s body temperature was increasing rapidly. “I think she’ll let you do whatever you want to her now. She’s really sorry for the way she’s been acting this past week.”

Kate propped herself up on her elbow. “Quit that now.” She watched CJ’s eyes for long moments, noting the slight strain on the surrounding skin and the tired frown that she was trying so hard to hide. “Relax, CJ. No more thinking tonight.” She let her hand drift up and down CJ’s stomach, over the top of her shirt at first, but then lightly trailing her nails up the bare skin underneath.

CJ’s eyes had closed as soon as Kate had touched her skin. She felt the magic of Kate’s hands and voice as she experienced the sensation of shiver and heat within her body. Her skin was covered in goosebumps, but her core was burning up. Yes, she had masturbated recently, but nothing would ever compare to the way Kate could arouse her.

“I love the way you touch me,” she gasped out under her breath.

“With my hands…or my mouth?” Kate inquired in a whisper, but CJ didn’t manage to answer as she felt Kate’s tongue now sliding up from her navel to her bra. The tickling feeling of Kate’s fingers undoing her pants was making her breaths come quicker, and she gasped aloud when her nipple was rasped though the material. She looked down to see Kate biting her breast gently.

“Clothes…off,” CJ croaked. “Need them off now.”

In less than a minute, Kate had her stripped naked and splayed out on the bed at her mercy. CJ slowly opened her legs wider when Kate crawled up between her feet. As her sex was revealed, Kate leaned down and blew out a warm breath over the dark hair that protected it.

“You need this, don’t you?” she said as she lowered her body to lie on the mattress.

CJ nodded, but then realized Kate couldn’t see her face since she was concentrating on something else. “Yes…please, Katie.”

Kate’s tongue glided over CJ until she moaned out her acceptance. Once the path from her clit to her breast was complete, Kate bared her teeth once more and bit down on the nipple gently, holding it in place while she flicked it with her tongue.

“Ooh…” CJ’s hips were starting to undulate beneath Kate, and she didn’t really think this could be a long, drawn-out encounter. She needed to release the tension right now. “Need to come.”

The barely audible demand was met by Kate who moved back down CJ’s body and thrust her tongue inside, much to CJ’s relief. The stimulation was fast and rhythmic, and it was just what CJ wanted.

Kate sucked her clit into her mouth before flicking her tongue up and down in a silent beat only heard by the hearts of the two lovers dancing to it. CJ pushed against Kate as she came, and as tears formed in her blue eyes, she let out a quiet cry of gratitude.

Kate recognized the sound and quickly pulled herself up to hold CJ while she wept. “It’s OK, honey.”

CJ’s arms were holding Kate in a death grip. Only after she had gathered herself, could she speak. “I love you so much. You have no idea what that felt like to me. It was like the first time…it all felt new.”

Kate tried to figure out what she meant. “In what way?”

“I don’t even know, Katie. It was the perfect sensation. I have never wanted you more, and it felt like you…oh, never mind.”

“Stop thinking so much. Just feel me lying on top of you, feel me loving you, and feel me wiping away your tears. I’m here for you, always.”

“I know.”

Kate kissed her so softly on the lips. “I want us to sleep now. We can talk while you hold me…but before you ask, I don’t need anything but your arms around me tonight. Deal?”

CJ pulled Kate back when she tried to get up. “Deal, but you must be naked. Your bare skin is a requirement for my contentment.”

“Big words for this time of night…”

CJ let out a chuckle as Kate threw off her clothes and headed for the bathroom. “Don’t be too long.”

“I won’t.”

“Wow, that was really fast,” CJ said one minute later.

“I can pee quick, you know.”

“I’m impressed.”

Kate laughed. “If peeing impresses you, we’re in big trouble.”

“Heh.” When Kate climbed into bed and snuggled up beside her, CJ put her nose against her blond hair and took a long sniff.

“Do I smell OK?”

“Mmm, yes. Yummy, as always.” CJ lay there basking in the feeling of Kate in her arms until she remembered what tomorrow would bring. “Hey. Are you feeling all right about going to court tomorrow?”

“I’m fine, CJ. I just want this all to be over now. I’ve had enough drama.”

There was an actress joke in there somewhere, but CJ knew this wasn’t the time. “I’ll be right by your side the whole time. Mark gave me the entire day off.”

“That’s good. We could maybe go out on the lake in the afternoon…talk a little?”

“Sounds perfect. It’s a date.”

* * * * * *

CJ and Kate sat in the back row of courtroom number six. Everyone was present except for Elizabeth who walked through the door from lock-up accompanied by a court officer. Kate’s heart lurched a little when she saw her. Elizabeth looked a mere shadow of her former self, but on closer inspection, Kate saw that it was simply the lack of expensive clothing and fancy make-up that made the difference. Elizabeth’s face was hard as ever, her stare, ice cold. Thankfully, she never got the chance to see CJ and Kate before she was ordered to sit down next to her lawyer. Now all Kate could see was the back of her orange jumpsuit.

It took the judge all of ten minutes to impose his sentence. Elizabeth got twelve years without parole for her part in the atrocious crime that almost ended CJ’s life. She didn’t even have the fight left in her to scream at her lawyer this time, and after she was led away, Mr. Williams made a swift exit from the courtroom, probably very glad he didn’t have to see Elizabeth again for a very long time.

“What are you thinking, Katie?” CJ asked while the next case was being called.

“I’m not sure. It was all over so quickly.”

“True. I’m betting the judge has a lot of these to get through today. Come on…let’s go outside for some fresh air.”

Once they were standing outside the courthouse in the late morning sun, Kate turned to CJ and said, “I need to talk to her.”

“What good would that do?”

“I don’t know. I need to at least try to understand why…”

CJ sighed and put her arm around Kate’s shoulder. “I think today, we should just go home and chill out on the lake. Give yourself some time, Katie, and in a few months, if you still want to see her, I promise I’ll find out which prison she’s in, and I’ll come with you to visit her.”

Kate nodded. As much as she wanted answers, she didn’t think Elizabeth would give them to her anyway. Kate was still angry about what had happened, and perhaps some time to heal was indeed a good idea. “All right. Take me home.”

CJ took Kate’s hand as they walked to the parking lot. “What did you think of the sentence?”

“Twelve years is a long time. Justice was served…and I can breathe a little easier knowing she’s not coming after you.”

“Right.” CJ hoped things would start to settle down now that they were over the major hurdles that stood in their way, and rounding the corner of the building, she pressed the remote for her truck and helped Kate into her seat before kissing her on the forehead.

“What was that for?” Kate asked as she shaded her eyes from the sun with her hand.

“For being the most incredible wife I could ever hope for,” CJ replied promptly.

Kate blew her a kiss, and when they got home, they did drag the row boat out of the barn and spend the afternoon on the lake. It was the first day for months where nothing went wrong.

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Epilogue

On Saturday, Kate and Tony headed out to the studios for Kate’s meeting while CJ stayed home with Shannon and Lucy. They’d had a thoroughly enjoyable morning outside with the horses before coming inside to paint, make cookies, and show the grandpas how to braid hair. Well, Shannon had showed them how to braid CJ’s hair because she had learned it from a friend at school.

Eddie and Jeffrey had retired to their room a half hour ago, and CJ was now playing around in the house with the children when the front door opened.

Kate was immediately greeted by Lucy in the usual fashion, and Shannon shouted a hello from the upper landing which prompted Lucy to let go of Kate’s leg and shoot upstairs like a tornado, leaving Kate to stand there staring at CJ with a funny look on her face.

“Really, CJ?”

“Um…” CJ looked like a kid caught stealing from the cookie jar. “I was just showing Luce how to ride it?” she offered, making the cutest damn face Kate had ever seen.

“Uh-huh. And how did your beautiful, womanly butt ever fit in there?” Kate asked while pointing to the tiny space between the small tricycle’s seat and handlebars.

“Well, I…” CJ stood up on her long legs. “It didn’t.” Her pursed lips, the goofy expression, and the fact that the trike had clung to her butt and now hung between her legs, sent Kate into hysterics.

“Yeah, I figured that’s how you’d respond.” While CJ got herself free of the contraption, Lucy returned to the top step and joined in the laughter even though she had no clue what it was about. Kate was laughing, so she simply had to add to the noise.

CJ fought with the tricycle, eventually freed herself from it, and came to stand in front of Kate with her puppy-dog eyes firmly in place. “I was just playing.”

Kate chuckled. “So I see. I’d say you’re allowed to play. You deserve it.”

“Aww, ain’t you sweet. Gimme a kiss.”

Kate puckered up on command and gave CJ the softest, most sensual kiss she could muster. “Let’s get me a coffee, huh?”

“Yes. I’d like one too. All that driving has tired me out.”

“Gawd. You’d think I’d be the tired one after my long meeting,” Kate said dramatically.

“Oh, how did it go?”

“It was good. I’m totally enjoying this job so far. And I have Ellen coming up this week…pretty exciting stuff.”

CJ nodded as she snagged a couple of mugs from the hooks on the wall. “It really is. Can’t wait to watch it.” She leaned over the island counter to bring her face closer to Kate’s. “Are we OK? I mean, after everything?” she asked uncertainly.

“You keep asking me that. We are always OK, CJ. Always. Things just piled up lately, and well…I know I need to let it out, but this time I didn’t see it building. I thought I was coping with it all.”

“I didn’t see it either. We’ll be all right as long as we trust one another to talk about how we feel. We usually do that, but…”

“I know. Lesson learned…again.”

CJ leaned forward to kiss her, but it wasn’t quite enough for Kate so she went back for more. When Kate eventually backed away, she tilted her head to the side and looked at CJ for a moment.

“I think I’ve figured out what to do about Chris.”

“And…?” CJ said with a mock-worried expression.

“Oh, stop that. It doesn’t involve violence…or you getting fired.”

“Great. Please continue.”

“I think we should play her at her own game.”

“Ew. I don’t want to do that,” CJ said, scrunching her nose.

“Let me finish. We should play her at her own game, but you should play it with me…right in front of her.”

CJ’s expression changed to one of deviousness. “Hmm, that’s hot and evil at the same time. I think I like it.”

Kate grinned. “Good. It means I can stake my claim on you. It’ll make a nice change.”

“Aw, come on,” CJ whined. “I told you I was sorry about claiming you.”

“And I told you not to be sorry because I enjoyed every single body-tingling minute of it.” Kate reached up to kiss her again, giving CJ’s delicious lips a little lick before she finished.

CJ gradually opened her eyes as she felt her libido respond to the teasing. “So, um, do you feel like staking your claim anytime soon?”

“Yes. Very, very soon…”

.

The End…

**

©2016 StageFreak Productions

h1

Episode 12.5 – Introspection

April 29, 2014

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AM Introspection thoughts

DISCLAIMERS:

This short is an original story, and all characters are created by me.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.

No scenes of violence in this one. No sex either (insert shocked face here). Just some reflection, emotion…introspection.

This story mentions a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

* * * * * *

So many thanks go to my beta-reader. Your help is very much appreciated and continues to be most welcome.

And thank you to all my readers. Your feedback has been most helpful and encouraging. Keep it coming!

This is a short episode, and is the next installment in my series, After Montana, which can be found at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com .

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This episode is a little addendum to what happened in the previous three episodes.

I’m sure you savvy readers can work out who is speaking in each ‘thought’ 😉

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Oh, and as usual, to understand and enjoy the characters fully, you should probably read the episodes in sequence.

Comments and/or opinions can be sent to stagefreakmusic@hotmail.com or left at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com

* * *

JG – 06:30 hours PST – Monday – Somewhere in Studio City, California.

That yawn felt good. I just slept for twenty five hours straight. Man, I was tired. Yesterday was the first day Sam and I had to ourselves since before CJ went missing, and I had to go and fall asleep. I’m not complaining…far from it. I would still be on the move if it meant saving the life of a friend like CJ, or Kate for that matter. But when I woke up a few minutes ago, I realized how close I had come to all-out exhaustion. I don’t think Mark and I have relaxed until now.

Day before yesterday, we got the news it’ll be a month before Elizabeth Emerson’s trial will begin, sometime mid-February. It doesn’t seem like three weeks since we arrested her. The days have been a blur since then, including Christmas. We were surprised the trial date was set for so soon, but I’m sure it’ll be delayed a few times by her attorney. She definitely has a shot at that insanity plea! But our evidence is solid, and I figure she’ll be in a padded cell at the very least. Well, I hope that’s the case. She certainly shouldn’t get away with what she’s done.

As I sit here in bed and think about everything, Sam’s downstairs making breakfast. I can hear her whistling along to a tune on the radio. I sometimes wonder what I did to deserve the chance to be with her. She’s been a solid, steady presence in my life recently, and I love her more every day. Every time I think about her I get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but I’m not telling anyone about that. Not sure why I hide the good feelings I get. I’ll need to ponder that more. I’ve pretty much moved in here now, but we still haven’t discussed me getting rid of my rental apartment just yet. It’s coming soon, though. I can feel it.

And thinking about feelings…I’ve been on a rollercoaster since this latest nightmare began. I wish I could maintain a more balanced space inside me when stress takes over. I went from total fear of loss when we were searching for CJ, to a feeling of delirious elation when she was home safe. I cried, I raged, I gave up, I got determined. I felt like the worst friend and then the best friend. I hated myself, I forgave myself. I shot into full agent-protect mode, then later on the same day I would be a frightened little bunny. I felt helpless to control any sort of emotion when we were walking toward that plane wreck, then when I saw CJ was still alive I became stronger again…after a slightly pathetic yelp into my hands. I’m so thankful I managed to hold it together in front of the AD. Anyway, I think that’s partly why I’m so exhausted. Going through every emotion, day after day, with no end to the anxiety in sight, I sometimes felt like a robot that wasn’t allowed to break down. Why am I analyzing it? I don’t think I’m making any sense here.

Another thing I keep thinking about is Elizabeth. I know. I don’t want to be thinking about her. I wanted to throttle her every moment I spent in her presence. But I’m trying to feel into how a parent can become such a vengeful and destructive force in their child’s life. My parents were not the best at showing their emotions, but they never did anything to deliberately harm me. Kate never did anything to Elizabeth, and yet that woman looks at her like she’d like to rip her eyes out. And that comment about Jason? We haven’t gotten much more out of Elizabeth yet. She’s not very lucid when she rants and raves on. We sent a shrink in to see her not long after the arraignment. We watched and listened through a suicide prevention camera on the wall of her cell. From her scattered ramblings, we surmised she had contact with Jason Lee Burns not long after he started dating Kate, way back in the early years Kate came to live in LA.

It seems Kate never managed to blot her horrid mother out of her life completely after she left home. Elizabeth had met Jason and Kate once when they were together, and somehow Elizabeth had wormed her way into his head. She seems to make a habit out of doing that to unsuspecting people.

When the shrink asked her what she’d thought of Kate back then, Elizabeth mentioned something about making Kate see how useless she really was, how no one would ever hire her because she was too ugly to work in pictures, and something about Jason impregnating her to ruin her life at a young age. Truthfully, I was red-faced while I listened. I wanted to beat the living daylights out of her. I truly believe Elizabeth has no clue who her daughter really is, how strong and self-conscious Kate really is. I think the old bitch has always been crazy. Yes, I can say that to myself now. Mark can’t hear me…unless he can read my mind. Elizabeth is evil crazy, envy crazy, bitter crazy, jealous crazy, or all four and more. She wanted someone to be more miserable than she was, and she decided that person would be her daughter. When Kate began to get famous and took control of her own life for the better, Elizabeth’s hatred and envy grew exponentially. So fucking sad. I wonder now if everything Kate has been through in the past what…? Forever…? Has been linked to her mother’s interference somehow? Blows my mind.

I hated being the one to tell Kate about what happened at the arraignment, and what Elizabeth had said to the shrink. I felt so bad and wanted to go hide, and yet I wouldn’t have wanted it to be anyone else who told her. I’m such a contradictory person. I contradict myself, that is. Kate took it well, of course. Nothing really shakes her loose. She appears steady as a rock most of the time. The only time I saw her fall apart – if you could call it that – was when CJ went missing, but even then she managed to function. I can’t help but admire her.

That bitch Elizabeth just plain ole makes me angry. If I was a parent…ooh, not ready for that discussion yet…but if I was a parent, I would never be able to comprehend the thought processes that would lead anyone to hurt their child. I see the love Kate and CJ have for their girls, and I know in my heart I would try to be as good a parent as they’ve turned out to be. They do everything with patience, love, understanding…they never seem to shout or show anger. Incredible. I want to be that kind of parent. I’m just glad that in my life, I haven’t met many Elizabeths.

I often wonder why I feel so protective of them both…CJ and Kate, I mean. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so protective of Sam too, but my honey hasn’t been in mortal danger yet. Oh, god, I hope never! But when DM had just come home, I didn’t want to stop for a second until everything was all right again. Sleep hadn’t mattered to Mark and I when we were out there in Minnesota, and it didn’t matter to me when I came back…not if there was some unknown nutcase trying to hurt Kate and destroy her life. I wanted to solve every problem, calm every fear, fix every issue, and catch every bad guy. Turns out there was a bad woman too, but anyway, I did my best and nearly worked myself into a coma. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Maybe I wasn’t thinking…just working on instinct?

Sam was there when I needed her – mostly on the phone since we were like passing ships in the night – and she let me blabber on about anything and everything. I don’t know how she puts up with me. I didn’t have people like this in my life before LA. I seem to have a small group of true friends and loved ones, and the strength that can give a person…give me…is amazing. Finding the right people who are a match in my heart…it’s so important.

Dad and I have talked a few times. I’m still finding that quite difficult, but we’re both making an effort to keep in touch during our busy lives. Every time I hear the excitement in his voice when he speaks with me, it throws me back to when I was little. It made me cry after our call last week. I dunno, maybe I was still exhausted, or maybe I need to stop making up excuses, but when he says Jay with such affection still, I can’t help but remember when I was closer to him. I hope we can get some of that back. He seems to have forgiven my leaving without a trace. I haven’t forgiven myself for that yet. He’s in San Diego, and it’s looking like the threat to his life is over for now. He’s keeping a bodyguard just in case. I think I’d like to see him soon. I haven’t called Mom yet. Maybe I will…sometime. I need to stop rehashing the old feelings and thoughts my parents bring up in me. I was a different person in my teens, and I saw them differently in those days. I need to see them afresh and look at them through Jamie Green eyes, not Lisa Riley eyes. Hmm, that was quite profound for me. Maybe I should stop thinking now. I’m starting to make sense.

Sam just stood on the squeaky step so I know she’s half way up the stairs. Damn, I love her. It’s a unique feeling. Indescribable. I know I’m smiling because I feel so complete. I hope it lasts.

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EM – 13:00 hours EST – Monday – West Village, Lower Manhattan, New York.

Oh, I’m a little excited now! Things are finally getting back to normal. Well, apart from the fact that Jeffrey and I are all packed up and ready to rock’n’roll our way to sunny California. Oh! If someone had told me a few months ago I would be moving to Los Angeles, I would’ve said Pfffooey! and laughed at them for being silly.

Jeffrey and I thought we’d have things and stuff and goodness-knows-whatsits coming out of our drawers and closets that we never imagined we’d accumulated. But no! We’ve been working so hard to build Prescilla’s since we moved in together, we’re actually traveling pretty light now…hmmm, well, light for a spacious and fabulously decorated apartment full of handsome goodies that is.

Oh, poor Prescilla’s! I only went to look at the place once after the fire. I couldn’t stand it! All our dedication, blood, sweat, and tears snuffed out in a matter of hours. It made me feel terribly sad. I don’t know why I get attached to things like that, but as my Jeffrey said, we can build it again. And I know we can. Oh, our apartment…it seems the landlord received a big pile of cash upfront covering six months of expensive rent, but even if he hadn’t, we’d still be leaving. Even though I felt so deceived and screwed over, it’s turned out to be a good thing. What a great idea our lovely daughters had! Oh! And my Katie’s so supportive about it all.

Oh! My darling Katie! And my wonderful CJ! Jeffreydoodle and I can’t wait to be closer to them. Our sweet granddaughters too! I can’t believe anyone would want to hurt my precious bundles, but that woman! Oh, I’m not even gonna think of her. My blood will boil in seconds. The mere sound of her name ringing in my brain gives me chills. I felt so betrayed somehow, and angry doesn’t even cover what was going on inside me when CJ told me everything that happened. Ever since I had the courage to come out and be who I really am, I’ve been pretty lighthearted about everything, but not then. No, no. I think Katie gets all uncomfortable when I don’t flaunt my flamboyance now. She’s knows it’s a sign of unrest in the old man.

But her mother…oh, she doesn’t deserve to be called that! How spiteful! How horrifying! How devious and insane! And to think I lived with her for…oh! She must have been so two-faced. I never suspected she was harboring such…such…I can’t even go there. It’s not in my heart to understand sick things like that. But I can’t regret some of those times back then, can I? I mean, I have the most beautiful daughter from it, and I would never change her for the world. Is it egotistical of me to think that Katie got all her wonderfulness from me? I’m just in awe of the fact that I helped create such a perfect being.

Yes, nice thoughts are better. Think about moving closer to Katie. And Eddie’s just a short flight away in San Francisco too. Fantastic! The small amount of furniture Jeffrey and I actually own will be shipped and stored in Katie’s new barn. They want us to stay in the guest room until we find a place to live. I protested about that. I shouldn’t have bothered as it was to no avail, but I feel they need some time to themselves now. But oh no, she suggested we don’t sign a rental agreement or anything until we’ve had the chance to get a feel for the city. I think they have something mischievous up their sleeves, the pesky little sneaks!

Oh! I love them so. I don’t think there are words in this silly language to describe how proud I am of my daughters, and how those two children are truly embedded in my heart, and how happy I am to have such a stupendous family. Maybe I need to make up some new words to describe it all! Oh! Anyway, I need to get back to…what was I doing?

Oh yes, Jeffrey asked me to look on the Internet and find out more about West Hollywood. It’s a scary thing for some old man like me to up-sticks and move all the way across the country, but jumbled up among the fear is so much excitement at the thought of a new adventure. I’ll have the love of my life with me and we’ll get it done together. Jeffrey took to this like a duck to water. He doesn’t have much family left. A few relatives spread over a few different states, but he tends to keep in touch with them via the World Wide Web. I had felt a little guilty for suggesting we go live near my family, but he put those feelings to rest immediately. He’s just amazing! The only thing I’m worried about is that he burns like a bald man in the desert. Wait. He will be a bald man in the desert. Oh! Hah! Now I’m making myself laugh!? Right, I need to get out of my head and get on with the show.

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KC – 19:30 hours PST – Monday – Undisclosed location, Near Kagel Canyon/Sylmar, California.

What a day. There’s something very satisfying about reflecting on a day spent with my beautiful family. Sometimes I laugh at CJ’s childlike behavior. Her right arm is getting so much better, and she still has pain, though nothing like before. But today her entire body seemed to vibrate with excitement, and my goofy smile made me feel like a love-sick teenager. The new barn construction is underway earlier than anticipated. Mr. White’s friend, Billy, is a master craftsman and carpenter. The solid oak A-frame is already in place. But what got CJ buzzing was the delivery of four giant, round bales of straw for Nevada’s corral and stall. It seems like the past horrors in our lives are being overcome, and things are beginning to grow out of the ashes. I keep thinking of my old show, Rise of the Phoenix. That title kept popping into my head as the hours passed. It seemed apt.

There was a moment earlier this afternoon when I looked at CJ and my breath seemed to leave me. I didn’t need oxygen to survive. I only needed her. She stood in the January sun, her long, dark hair fluttering out at each puff of a cool, winter breeze. She wore the deep-blue sweater I got her for Christmas. I knew it would bring out her eyes. They looked like dancing sapphires today, so intensely happy. Her baggy jeans and sneakers completed the casual look, and it was incredible to see her with no sling and no plaster-cast.

After the doctor removed the cast this morning, he gave her the choice of a blue or black medical wrist support. I’ve never seen anyone engage in such a serious deliberation over a piece of stiff neoprene. She was almost giddy when she could finally give her wrist a proper scratch too. I smile just thinking about it. Her childlike quality doesn’t truly show itself very often, but when it does I fall in love with her all over again. Who am I trying to kid? I fall in love with her every minute of every day. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, she was standing in the sun watching Kamali after the straw bales were delivered. The dog leapt up onto the top of one of the bales and took on a regal pose like he ruled the world from on high. He held it for mere seconds until a familiar car came up the driveway, then he collapsed into a wiggling pile of doggy excitement at the thought of Shannon and Lucy coming home from school.

AM Introspection Kamali atop bale

But that moment where I watched CJ as she admired his performance…it was pure peace. I love her. I can’t explain to anyone how I love her. I just know I do, and that it will feed me until the day I leave this life. It’s an unconditional love that I have no power over, and I’m fine with that. Every day she brings me joy. Even when she was struggling with her injuries, we made it through with love and humor. What a great combination.

I keep thinking about why I’m so happy after what Jamie told me about Elizabeth’s arraignment, but maybe it comes down to the fact that I cannot understand why Elizabeth has always hated me so much. I like that I can’t understand her.

I look at Shannon and try to imagine being so envious of her that I want to constantly interfere in her life to the point where doing anything to make her miserable is my goal. I will never be able to imagine that, and that thought alone makes me happy. That I have no capacity for hate, no feelings of jealousy or envy, no need to interfere with anyone else’s life to try to improve my own sense of self-worth…makes me happy.

Oh, and another thing…Jamie told me what she took from Elizabeth’s scattered pieces of information. Information gotten from some sort of mental health assessment as well as the shouting episode in court. She told me of the hints about Elizabeth getting to Jason way back when I was going out with him. I’m guessing Jason had been talked into trying to get me pregnant to ruin my chance of a career, and he’d gotten me the job in that bar because my mother wanted to publicly humiliate me, assuming I’d never be noticed, and I’d feel dejected every night. She’d said I was too ugly to be in showbiz, and apparently too stupid to finish university. I remember being affected terribly by these constant put-downs. I remember only too well why I left home.

I shouldn’t have let her see me after I ran away, but I won’t regret any of it. I’ve grown so much from the bad experiences in my past, and if I hadn’t gone through them I wouldn’t be the person I am today. If anything, she’s made me stronger and wiser. Maybe I should tell her that, but I fear it would make her choke on the vomit the thought would produce. Even after everything, I still don’t wish harm on another human being, even her. I just hope that someday, she can find peace. I know I have.

Something else that helps me to move on? I had been worried about attracting lunatics into my life, but it turns out that those people were in some way manipulated by Elizabeth all along. Kinda boggles my mind a little, but also shows how persuasive and convincing she can be, and how good she is at demeaning others. She talked Jason into screwing with me – and yes, that was what he was like in bed too. I don’t even want to remember how awful it was. And then she tried to get to Jack. Jack didn’t seem to have many endearing qualities, but at least he stood up to her eventually, so that’s something. Basically, the lunatic theory has been trashed because it was her evil and bigoted views that helped create each situation. That’s how I’ve been thinking about it anyway.

I have come to terms with what she did to us, and as much as I am a forgiving person, I can’t ever forgive her. I can forget…not what she did, but I can forget her. I can’t let her actions alter my life, my happiness, and my joy. I won’t let her hatred win. With my family and true friends around me, it never will. And I know there will be some tough moments in the coming weeks, but I’ll make it through the trial with CJ by my side. My wife is forever a source of great strength for me. It’s funny…she always says it’s the other way around. I guess we strengthen each other.

A conversation CJ and I had not long after Jamie told us what Elizabeth had said, keeps running around in my mind. My amazing partner just wants to protect me from the world, and she finished a rather poignant speech with, “I’m sorry for everything she’s ever done to you…” I shook my head and whispered, “I will never be sorry, CJ. Everything she did when I was a child made me want to run away as soon as I could and be a famous actress to get attention and prove her wrong. She manipulated Jason and quite possibly fueled his desire to hurt me, but I won’t be sorry for what he did either…the threats, the kidnapping, the beatings…” I tried to hold my tears at the memory. “I’ll never be sorry for that, because it was all worth it if it was how I was supposed to meet you.

I could see in CJ’s eyes that she couldn’t quite agree with me completely. It kills her to see me hurt in any way. I know this because I feel the same way when she’s in pain. She can’t comprehend Elizabeth’s hatred, and I love her even more for that. I didn’t think it was possible to love her more. My heart might explode soon. CJ looks at me and makes me feel like there’s no one else in the universe. It’s pure magic, and if I had to, I would endure any torture to hold onto that feeling forever.

In a moment of introspection, I tried to figure out what I had ever done to Elizabeth to deserve her wrath, and not coming up with anything from any point in my life, I cried at the senselessness of it all. I cried for her, because I don’t think she would ever look so deeply as to reflect on any of it. I wonder if she ever felt love for me, even when I was newborn. I just don’t know.

When a parent…or anyone who is supposed to love you…instead tries to kill everything you ever cared about, you either let it consume you and die inside, or you somehow take it as a learning experience, an episode of life that can only make you stronger, and move on. I chose the latter, and as much as I was hurting during those horrible events, it was so easy to traverse the pain because every time I look into the faces of my wife and daughters, I can’t do anything but love, smile, feel gratitude, and know the strength in our deep bond as a family. I adore my life with CJ, Shan, and Luce, and I adore the people who love us with all their hearts. It’s a glorious gift, and I’ll cherish it always.

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SM – 11:30 hours PST – Tuesday – Olympian Studios, Burbank, California.

Coffee. I’m drinking too much coffee today. This shoot is driving me insane. The whole cast is off their game, and we’ve barely been here three hours. Gah! It was sufferable on days like this when I could escape for a few minutes and talk to Kate. I miss her. I’ve been working a whole shitload of hours recently, and she’s been going through something I can only imagine, and then some. But harking back to lighter days, I loved when we would meet at the trash can and go for a much needed snack, or seek each other out when the stress got to be too much. Even when we met up and didn’t speak much, we’d still have the best time. I love that in a friend. I love Kate, and I can’t wait until we start Infinity One. I have a feeling it’s gonna be a fun show to work on.

Cripes…my hand’s shaking. Too much caffeine, and it’s only eleven thirty. Shit. Okay, I’ll go get a bottle of water.

Tony came and towed Kate’s trailer about a week ago. It’s at their house now since the studio bosses were complaining that she left it clogging up the lot. Clogging up the lot? The lot is freaking huge! I was livid, and I wanted to say something but I knew I couldn’t argue with them. Insensitive pricks.

I went to visit CJ and Kate last night, just for a cup of soothing, herbal tea and a quick catch up. They’d had a well-deserved good day, and they were both glowing. The kids were in hyper-mode after school. They came home to find the barn being built and the beginnings of a new inside-outside corral for up to four horses. The new barn looks awesome, and it’s good to see the burnt out remains of the old structure are well and truly gone. It made me so sad to look at that wreck.

Shannon thought the building was really great, but she was more excited about the two new halters for the horses – it seems they’ve found a new friend for Nevada. I love that our Shannon likes the simple things in life. Her favorite pink T-shirt with Piglet on the lapel, a cheap tiger mask that gave her hours of fun, a halter with a shiny buckle on it for a beloved pet…she really is a charming girl. So is Lucy. She has a whole different kind of charm. She’s a rough and tumble tomboy type. She builds castles and houses in her sandpit, plays ball in the yard for hours without ever getting bored, and rides her tricycle along the trail like she’s a competitor in a rally race. No fear! CJ and Kate have made them so happy, and the children have given them so much in return.

It makes me cry with relief to see them smile again…all of them. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever have kids. Now is not the time, and I’ve never broached the subject with Jamie. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, and I don’t want to scare her off. I don’t think I actually want children right now anyway. I’m enjoying my life now that things are settling down again.

I admire my friends so much. I admire Kate. I have no idea how she made it through that nightmare with such dignity and…I dunno. She just seemed to have so much faith in CJ. She knew she was alive somehow. It was spooky. What fills me with relief is that she was right. I was hurting so much for her back then, and when she told us all to leave her alone…oh god, my heart broke. I felt useless. I was unable to help her. I knew nothing could console her…nothing except CJ walking in that door and grabbing her tight.

I don’t think I could’ve stood it if Kate had had to go on alone. It would’ve killed me to see her in that much pain. Sometimes I think I love her too much, but then I think, you can’t love a best friend too much. She’s like the sister I never had. I’m grateful for her, and she is second only to Jamie in my heart. I think she always will be.

Jamie. Oh boy, we’re getting pretty serious. My life with her is something I could never have anticipated a few years ago. I never really looked at women like that. But as Kate said, it just takes one person, the person, to make you realize what you really want. And she was so right. I couldn’t have imagined this much happiness and passion. I’ve never been so satisfied in every aspect of a relationship in my entire life. Long may it continue. Jamie stays at my house so much I’ve started thinking of it as our house. It feels better with her in it, and I think I’ll ask her to move in permanently. Scary because she might say no, but worth discussing and overcoming my fears of rejection. I think back to when I met her. I was scared back then too. But it’s that strange kind of fear where your heart leaps when she looks at you, your pulse races when she brushes her hand past your skin, and you realize you need another human being so much you want to scream. Needing someone can be terrifying, especially when you’ve never experienced such a strong attraction before. I think I need to toughen up. I feel like such an emotional wimp sometimes.

Wait, who shouted my name? Oh crap, where did the time go? Back to work…

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CJC – 16:35 hours PST – Tuesday – Undisclosed location, Near Kagel Canyon/Sylmar, California.

Mmm, that was a good nap. I think I’m awake. I can hear a screaming child. Oh wait, that’s singing? Lucy has to hone her harmonies a little, and she’s giving it everything in her valiant attempts today. I suppose there aren’t many better sounds to wake up to than your child happily blasting her lungs out.

I’ve been home for what? Maybe four weeks? I can’t believe how much I enjoy being here with them constantly. I am in love with our children, and I can see why Katie wanted to take some time off to be a mom. I thought I was too committed in my career to leave it behind. And I was…before. Before the whirlwind that was Kate Marshall entered my life, stole my heart, and turned me into a mushy, lovesick puppy. I might even have gotten broody last week. We were looking through baby photos of Shannon and Lucy, and I wondered if Katie and I had a baby, what he or she would look like. Shock horror! Ack, I don’t care. Having my family has only done me good and made me the happiest, not-so-moody federal agent there ever was. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ll still act all tough and moody at the office because let’s face it, I have to be. It’s like I automatically transfer to the role of ‘indestructible CJ’ at work. My close colleagues all know it. They do it too.

Anyway, I’m not quitting my job. Nope…but I’m enjoying this break now that I can handle the pain better and help around the house. See, I may not have seemed to be in agony before, but I really, really was. I don’t tend to show what I’m going through, so the fact that I had to let it out in front of my devoted wife shows just how bad it was. Those meds the doc had me on sent me flying, especially when Katie had to up the dosage after my many mishaps. I had a few more after the bathroom incident, but as usual Katie handled me with ease. I’m such a stubborn and grumpy pain-in-the-ass sometimes, and for some crazy reason, it seems to endear me to her even more. Hmm. She’s a glutton for punishment.

I can’t imagine my life without her. I almost don’t remember my life without her. I tried to dig out those memories recently and had to think real hard about what I was like back then. I was so aloof some would think I was arrogant. I guess that was a good thing for a woman trying to make it in the FBI. I wanted to be respected for my work as an agent and utilize my mind as much as possible. I knew I was good at certain things and not so great at others. A few of my peers at Quantico seemed to see where my talents lay, and one of my bosses back then too. But the person I was…I just don’t recognize her. She was pretty miserable, if I’m honest. Stayed detached from people and things. The only thing I liked back then was the cabin. It was a place of solace for solitary CJ. Ugh. I am so thankful Katie came along and showed me what it was like to feel true love. That scary, stomach-flipping, terrified-out-of-your-mind, wonderful, life-affirming, amazing, can’t-live-without-her feeling of being so in love you want to scream it from the rooftops. Bliss.

I was also thinking about things I can’t cope with. Being without Katie is the obvious one, and now our daughters are included in that, but the recent nightmare was the ‘not being capable’ thing. I wish I could be better at handling a physical or emotional handicap. I tend to see it as a flaw, but I think my childhood ensured it was a necessity. Being abused by my father and trying to be strong for my mother created a tough shell around my heart. I wanted to show her that once we were on our own, I could be there for her at the same time she was there for me. And I was pretty independent at an early age because Mom had to work to make sure we had food on the table and a roof over our heads. I guess it was a struggle, but I’ll always remember the many special moments she’d share with me, and her never-ending love.

Alyssa Carson was what I’d call a free heart. She knew what love was and was never afraid to make sure I knew how much she cherished me. She wore her love on her sleeve…something my father could never appreciate…and she would pour so much of herself into making sure others were happy. I often think about the day she found out what my father had been doing to me. I didn’t recognize her for a while that day. She was filled with fury. I thought she was going to kill him. The decision she made to leave and never let him near us again was the best one, and I’ll always thank her for it. She was so strong, so protective, and so loved by me. Katie reminds me a lot of her. Wow, I never noticed that before. Two of the most wonderful women I have the pleasure of knowing in my lifetime. I’m so damn lucky.

Oh, I just remembered I was having an amazing dream. So clear. Maybe it was a premonition. It was definitely a classic example of my eagerness to be fully healed and fit again. I could see myself like I was watching a movie. Weird, but at the same time, it was a peaceful vision. The sky was on fire behind me, and I was riding Nevada, but at our side was a slightly smaller horse. I’m gonna take a wild guess and say it was our new horse.

See, we went to a horse sanctuary place last week. They rehome some of their animals, and we found a young, dapple-gray mare about two or three years old. They didn’t know her age exactly because she had been a rescue…found beside her deceased mother on a neglected farm as a yearling. So sad. Anyway, the children fell in love with her gentle nature. She can’t be ridden yet, but I know how to break in a horse for riding when the time is right. I did it once back when I lived with my grandma, and I can remember most of what I learned. I’ll brush up on the specifics when the time comes. With things like that, I sure do have the patience. I love horses. Trail riding is something I’ve missed, but I know I’ll get back to it soon. Mm-hmm. What was I thinking about?

Oh yeah, my dream. So I was riding for home, sunset blazing behind me and a contentment filling me that I’ll never tire of. Then I saw her. My Katie. My stomach flips even in a dream. She was standing on the back porch watching me. I could feel her eyes even though I couldn’t see her face clearly yet. It’s astonishing how a distant look from her can penetrate my soul. I know she loves me as much as I love her, and I know it is endless. Never fails to surprise me. She looks at me, and all the tough, cold, empty parts of me that used to exist in abundance just dissolve and fade away. She is a miracle in my life. She makes me whole, and I’ll never, ever take her for granted. I love her. I can’t explain to anyone how I love her. They can never feel what I feel inside. I’d die to protect her.

As much as I’m my own person, an individual, she completes me in a way no one else ever could. She is my other half…the other half of my soul.

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MM – 13:55 hours PST – Wednesday – Federal building, Los Angeles, California.

Just got back from a briefing with my agents, and I gotta say, they seem different when CJ’s not here. They don’t falter in their work, but there’s an air of melancholy in the room. She and Kate came in to visit about a week ago, and they all perked up immediately. I wonder if Agent Carson knows the effect she has on people. I suspect not. She’s always so hard on herself, and the woman doesn’t know the meaning of modesty.

She left Kate sipping coffee with her colleagues and came to see me in private during her visit. I knew it was going to be a difficult conversation by the look in those vivid eyes. It’s hard for CJ to express her emotions to me because she feels she can’t reveal any kind of weakness in front of her bosses, but on this particular visit she managed just fine. I think the plane crash changed something in her, and going by what she said to me, my actions during the search and events thereafter changed something in her too. She thanked me with tears in her eyes, for everything I did in Minnesota. I almost broke down when I told her how sorry I was about demanding she return to LA so fast. I told her it was my fault it happened. At that point she got up from her seat, and using her much-improved right arm, she held me and said it was nobody’s fault but Elizabeth’s.

It was the most uncomfortable, and at the same time, most wonderful moment I’ve ever had with her. We both agreed to keep our tears a secret. Special agents don’t cry at work. After much sniffling, I insisted on apologizing to her anyway. She accepted it, but repeated that what Jamie and I did meant so much to both her and Kate, and that it wasn’t my fault she got on the ill-fated plane. She said she’ll never forget what we did, and I told her I would do it again…time and time again…to find a lost loved one. Her eyebrow rose at that comment, but thankfully she let my little confession slide. I’m lucky to have formed a bond with my agents, but we still manage to maintain a solid line between personal and professional during normal operational hours. These past months have not been normal, but the line will remain on an everyday basis because it will always be necessary while we work together…and I want to keep my team together for as long as possible.

I haven’t mentioned it to anyone yet, but DD Mitchell has given the go-ahead for another agent to join the team. I’ve requested someone who impressed me recently. By pure coincidence, Tim Dalton contacted me, and we talked about Elizabeth Emerson’s case and what date he would have to come to LA for the trial. He happened to mention that his grandmother passed away, and after I offered my condolences, he added that there was nothing holding him in Minnesota any longer. He wanted to transfer out. I took it as a hint and said I would see what I could do. He didn’t correct my assumption, so I think he wants to come here. He has a clean personnel file and an excellent work record to date. No experience with serial killers though…but neither did my other agents, except CJ. I might talk to her about it. She seemed to get on well with Dalton.

I almost lost my title because of my refusal to return without CJ. Mitchell had taken a verbal beating from the director, who warned that I was “this close” to being demoted to special agent again. When Julius told me this on one of my calls to him from Minnesota, I didn’t even hear it. All I cared about was finding CJ. Was that unprofessional? I don’t know. Maybe. But like I said, I’d do it again. It’s unusual for me to feel something for anyone. I feel something for CJ and Kate. I feel something for my team. I feel protective.

Which reminds me, I think I’m learning to let myself love too. It’s unsettling and new to me, but only because I’ve never had cause to practice it before. CJ invited me over to see how the new barn was coming along, and to have dinner with the family. I hesitated because she mentioned inviting her aunt too. Cecilia and I have not really had the chance to spend a decent amount of time together. I was accused many years ago of being married to the job. Maybe I am. I do like Cecilia. She’s a good woman. She’s passionate, caring, funny, and has some interesting quirks that seem to match my own. I’m not going to think about those quirks because they’re intimate quirks, and I’m at work. I do feel I’ve let her down though…cancelled on her too many times. We’re still talking, but I’d wonder if she would feel I was intruding on her family get-together.

I’m such an idiot. Why don’t I just call her? I know I want to go to the dinner, and I want to see her. I feel like I have a family when I’m over there. My life has always been so lonely, except for the Bureau, but I’ll have to retire someday, and what will I have left? I want to have loved ones so I need to make the effort and put myself through the discomfort of letting them see that I care. For me, that might be harder than dealing with a killer.

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LJC – 20:00 hours PST – Thursday – Undisclosed location, Near Kagel Canyon/Sylmar, California.

Aunt Cece is here for dinner! And so is that man from Mommy’s work. I always forget his name. Em…em…Mark! I felt sad a minute ago because he ate a piece of the cheesecake I wanted. But then Mama gave me some of her piece, and I was happy again. Mark saw my sad face and told me I could switch the lights on in the special car he came in. It’s one from his work, and I’ll be allowed to sit in the driver seat and press the button. It’ll be so cool! But that’s not until it gets dark outside, and I’m bored just now so thinking about school is a good idea.

I played ball today. I love it, but that was after school. And while I was at school I added numbers in my workbook, and we played with mag-mag-magnetic letters on the big board. I spelled dog. Gillian is a girl in my class. She’s my friend. She couldn’t spell some of the words, but I helped her because she can’t see the letters like other children. She gets them all mixed up. I can’t remember why, but she smiled when I showed her the right way, and that made me feel good. We did a Show and Tell today too. We had to bring something from our mommy’s work. I had to choose which mommy ‘cause I have two! I brought a medal Mommy got in the FBI, and I had to tell class about how she got it for being really brave. The other children asked me all kinds of questions, and I didn’t know the answers to some of them so I just told them how awesome my mommies are. They’re so cool!

And guess what? Mommy came to pick me up from school. I didn’t think she could because she had a broken hand, but she says she managed to drive the big truck with her other hand. Mama came with her, but…uh, ‘cause she might have needed help, and we all went to get my big sister together. That was cool too! My mommies laughed a lot on the way home because I was making funny faces when I told them about a story the teacher read. It had a monster in it, and I wanted them to know what the monster looked like so I had to make the faces it had. Heh…they had tears when they laughed. It was fun. Mama said I was a hoot. I’m not sure what that means, but she was smiling when she told me so I guess it’s a good thing.

This cheesecake is good. Shan’s got a new dress on just now. She likes dresses, and she got it for a Christmas present. I got jeans and new sneakers with red lights in the heels. They’re totally cool! We got toys and stuff too, but the best present was our new horse. She’s not here yet, but she’ll be home soon when the barn’s finished. She’s a big horse and she nibbled my hair when we went to see her. But she didn’t hurt me. She made me laugh. When she comes home, she’ll be a new friend for Nevada, and I think they’ll be best friends, just like me an’ Shan. I felt sad when Idaho died, and when I asked Mommy what our new horse was called, she said we could think of a name together. Shan asked what Nevada and Idaho meant, and Mommy said they were the names of places in America, so we looked at all the other places in America, and when Mama said we lived in Cali-California, we wanted to call our new horse California. But that’s a big name for a horse, so we’re going to call her Calli. I can’t wait to see her running in the field. She’s so cool!

AM Calli 3

Uh-oh…‘Mali needs a pee. I showed him a sign for when he needs a pee. He sits down and puts a paw up to his nose. Mommy says I’m really clever when I teach him things, but when ‘Mali and me play together, we can talk to each other. I teach him the way I moved my hands to tell Shan things before I talked properly. Mommy says sometimes that’s better for dogs anyway because they can’t speak. But he talks to me different ways. He’s my best animal friend. I think Shan likes the horses better, but we all love each other so it’s okay. I’m going to go out back with ‘Mali now. I think Aunt Cece is coming with us. She’s so cool!

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TD – 11:10 hours CDT – Friday – Quiet suburban street, Eagen, Minnesota.

What a different feeling to a few weeks ago. Grandma’s house feels so empty. Even though she was very sick towards the end, she still had that crazy ole grandma vibe going on that I loved about her. She always accepted me for who I am, and she would make scathing jokes about people who have no tolerance for a proud FBI agent…and a bisexual one at that. She loved me, and I’ll miss her. And now I have to move out of her guest house because her estranged son is traveling back here to sell her home. It just seems wrong somehow. I’ve grabbed a couple of the keepsakes she said I could take…some special memories of her that he’s not getting to just throw in the trash. Okay, I’m not gonna cry. No way.

It was only a few weeks ago too, that I was almost obsessed with the plane crash investigation. I was so determined to find out everything I could about why Agent Carson had been targeted. I can’t describe to you the frustration I felt with not being officially assigned to the case, and the relief I felt when they found her alive. She made a huge impact on me when I worked with her for that short time. She carries herself with a confidence that in no way can be misconstrued as arrogance…not to me, anyway. She knows her job and does it well. Very well. She holds her professional persona like a well prepared and carefully constructed mask that she only lowers occasionally to reveal who she truly is off-duty. I had the privilege of seeing brief moments of that in the car when she spoke of her wife. I can see pure love there. I felt she wasn’t just a colleague. I saw a friend in her. Those amazing blue eyes show kindness and warmth, when she’s not facing down someone like Hess that is. Man, that killer had really made her mad. I thought she might spit venom. I’m not surprised she turned into the ice queen back then. After what he’d done years ago, I wanted to kick the shit out of him too.

Then she had to leave. I had a weird knot in my stomach. I wish I hadn’t suggested Doug Jensen’s place to her. Maybe if she’d driven back to Minneapolis, she’d have been spared that horrible crash. Or maybe not. Seems she would’ve just been targeted in some other way. When someone’s out to get you like that, it’s gonna happen no matter what you do. I guess you just don’t expect that someone to be two hit-men hired by some crazy broad. I only found out recently when I was talking to AD Mulroney on the phone, that the crazy broad is related to CJ’s wife. Unreal.

I felt it was my duty to keep in touch with Mulroney and update him as promptly as possible after he left Minnesota. I know how information between different federal offices can get ‘lost in transit’ when they’re in the middle of a big case. They don’t exactly make it a priority to share that information with other departments.

Keeping that connection with the AD though…it made it easier to talk with him about the transfer I wanted. He said he’d see what he could do, and I got a little excited. I think I’m going to LA pretty soon. I have a funny feeling that if the transfer is accepted, I’ll be going to his Specialist Serial Homicide Unit. Not sure if I have the background for that, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in pursuing. If he gives me the chance right now, I’ll take it. I know I can learn from the team, especially if it’s headed by CJ Carson. I’ve heard only good things about that unit They have quite a reputation already, and their number of cases solved are always quoted as one of the highest in the Bureau. Good place to transfer to, good career move.

I think…I hope I connected with CJ because she seems so accepting of alternative lifestyles. She has one herself. The problems I’ve had in the past…before and after I joined the FBI…well, let’s just say I’ve had a few homophobic punches thrown at me and one not so pleasant knife in the gut. I’m not even really out. I don’t go around flaunting it when I’m seeing a guy. I just feel attracted to a person, and if I want to pursue it, I do. But sometimes others are not so straight-forward and broad-minded. Maybe I’ll have better luck in Los Angeles. And maybe I’ll have a better bunch of colleagues. Don’t get me wrong, the guys here in Minneapolis have been okay, but I see the looks I get sometimes, and it unnerves me a little. Think positive, that’s the ticket.

I feel a strange anticipation about the future, and if grandma was here now, she’d tell me to go for it, move to the West Coast and live my life to the full. I’m gonna give that a try. I need to go give evidence in the Emerson trial soon. It might be a one-way flight for me. Now there’s a scary thought. Where am I gonna live? I’ve only been to LA a couple of times, and both times were for work. I never really saw any of the cities, and have no idea where to look. Shit, my heart’s racing. I need to calm down. Breathe, Tim, breathe. I had palpitations like that when everyone thought CJ had been killed. I don’t know exactly what I was feeling, but there was definitely some guilt in there, and remorse, anger, pain. I think the fact that it was a fellow agent lost also contributed to that heavy feeling you get when the weight of the world is on your shoulders. It was like I was dragging my solid concrete feet everywhere I went.

Damn it, I’ve been standing here reflecting on my feelings for half an hour. What am I, a little girl? Hah, kinda. Never saying that out loud, though. OK, back to packing.

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TW – 16:35 hours PST – Friday – Little Tujunga Canyon Road, Sylmar, California.

I can’t get over how happy they are. I just dropped the girls off at home, and CJ and Kate seem to smile constantly. They are as full of energy as their daughters, and after everything they’ve been through recently, it just amazes me how they’ve bounced back. I saw them go through all kinds of emotions in the past weeks, and I have to admit I felt it with them. Not sure you’re supposed to feel love and connectedness with your bosses, but it’s impossible not to with CJ and Kate. They’re so welcoming, so open, so honest and kind. I really lucked out with this job.

When I first started driving for Kate, she was nice…a little stand-offish but pleasant enough to be around. I enjoyed the brief chats I had with her back then, but after she met CJ, things changed. I’m happy to say, for the better. I think she was lonely before. For what, she wasn’t sure. Then CJ happened, and things seemed to fall into place for her.

Jump forward to now? Now, I’m part of a family that I never want to leave. I’ve been offered higher paid jobs a few times over the years, but nothing will ever compare to this one for me. I mean, look at me? I’m driving a lavish BMW to go pick up meds and run a couple of other errands for CJ, and I love it. The BMW is only a bonus. It’s the family I love. One of the best parts of my day is collecting those two girls from school. They are awesome and wicked smart. Kate and I had a heart-to-heart one day, and she told me all about what happened to Charles Davenport. That whole case sounded unreal to me. The fact that these two children have come from all that tragedy…well, on one hand it makes me wanna cry, but on the other, look at them now. They’re happy, thriving, and they don’t really seem to look back. Occasionally, Shannon will, but that’s to be expected. She remembers her old life much more than Lucy does.

Damn it! Look where you’re going, idiot!

Honk!

Jeez, I was having a nice peaceful drive. Some people need to re-take their Driver’s Ed. Hmm, I don’t usually lose it like that. Mind you, I usually have the kids in the back. For some reason, they keep me calm. Ooh, I’d better remember to text Cyn back once I get to the drugstore. She’s working today, and she’s missing Kate like crazy on the Deadline set. I wonder if they’ll get to work together again. Not only would it be good for them, but I can see Cyn when I pick Kate up and drop her off at the studios. Always a bonus.

Shit. I still find myself scanning my surroundings like some crazy person is going to jump out onto the road and carjack me. I was so glad CJ taught me some cool FBI moves. Not only because of the recent stuff that was going on, but just because I feel more capable of taking care of Shannon and Lucy when things are tense. But I can relax for a while, right? Those guys are locked up, Tony. Chill. And Kate’s mother…oh boy, I mean, Elizabeth. So glad she’s gone. She gave me the creeps, and she was always such a bitch to Kate. And man, did she hate CJ. I don’t get it. My bosses are awesome. Who says that? Nobody else I know. I’m really kinda lucky that I love my job. So many people hate theirs, and are just doing it to pay the bills. Workplace politics, number-crunching, bitching between colleagues…when I think about it like that, I have a dream job.

Okay, I know the drugstore is here somewhere. Ah, there it is.

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SAC – 20:05 hours PST – Friday – Undisclosed location, Near Kagel Canyon/Sylmar, California.

I just remembered when I was sitting in my bed like this two nights ago. I was crying a bit and feeling sad. When I looked into my nightstand drawer and opened my photo album, I saw Daddy. I miss him sometimes. Craig and Simon, and my first mommy too. But it doesn’t feel like she’s my mommy now. Well…‘cause she isn’t. But I got sad because I didn’t want to call her mommy anymore, and I talked to Mama about it. She hugged me and told me it was okay. I love her. She’s so soft and gentle and funny and clever. When I asked her if it was bad that I sometimes forget to think about people who died, she told me it’s never bad. Sometimes we’re just very busy living in the minute we’re in, and older days get fuzzy. That’s what I was feeling, and when she said that happens to a lot of people, I felt better.

I only remember some of the bad times now. I remember when Daddy would be real busy, and when he would go to work I felt lonely. Me and Luce always felt lonely, so we would stay close so that if we needed a hug, we could hug each other. Mommy was never there, and we were never allowed to make a mess in the house. We had lots of toys, but sometimes I just wanted a hug from Mommy. It sounds funny to me to think about her and call her that now ‘cause CJ is my mommy. Yes, CJ is my mommy, and I love her. She’s cool and goofy and funny and really, really tall. Oh, and she’s tough too ‘cause she’s an FBI agent.

Lucy loves them too. I remember when she wouldn’t talk. She was too scared, but that was uncle Steve’s fault. He hurt us, but he hurt Lucy the most. And our first mommy wouldn’t stop him. I don’t want to think about that anymore. It makes me sad. But I never feel too sad in our house, and Mama’s coming to read me a story once she gets Lucy’s pajamas on. That always makes me feel happy and sleepy. Mommy’s downstairs talking to auntie Jamie on the phone. Mommy got her cast off the other day. She can wiggle her fingers real good now, and she says she’ll be able to take me out for a ride on Nevada soon, just like she promised. She got lost, and that’s why it took her so long to take me. I was scared when she was lost ‘cause I knew something was wrong, but Mama never said anything about it. It still felt weird though…‘cause she was so tired and worried and sad, but I didn’t know why. Mama talked to me about it after Mommy was safe, so that’s good. I understand more now. Mama wanted to protect us from being scared. She always wants to protect me and Lucy from getting hurt. So does Mommy.

I remember meeting Mommy for the first time, when she came into the room in that house. I didn’t like it there. She talked to me and made me feel safe right away. And then when she came to the place with Mama and told us we were coming home to live with her, I felt safe then too. I love living here with Mommy, Mama, Lucy, Kamali, and Nevada. We were so sad when Idaho died ‘cause she was like part of our family too, but I can still go put flowers beside her grave anytime I want and say hi to her. And we have a new horse coming soon so Nevada won’t be lonely.

I’m never lonely anymore. I have my family, and I have really nice friends like Tony and Cyn and Jamie and Sam, and I have Sian and other friends at school. Tony and Cyn look after us sometimes when our parents go out at night time. It doesn’t happen very much, but sometimes Mama has to go to a show or a…a…an awards thing. She’s an actress, and she said maybe I can watch her new show ‘cause it’s about pilots in space, but she said she has to see if there’s too much fighting in it first. Mommy’s excited about the show. She says she likes Star Trek, so she’ll have to watch Mama’s new show too. Heh. Imagine watching your wife on television. That’s funny.

Oh, Mama’s coming! Time for cuddles.

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CJC – 00:40 hours PST – Saturday – Undisclosed location, Near Kagel Canyon/Sylmar, California.

Look at her sitting there. She’s only three feet away from me, and I can feel her energy holding my heart hostage…and I let her willingly. She has a wistful smile on her face, and every time I glance up, she looks more beautiful than the last time. I’m so in love with her. She’s getting tired now. I can see her eyes growing heavy, but she’s responding to some pretty important emails so we’ll be here for a little while yet. She told me I should go to bed already, but I don’t want to…not without her. Wow, sometimes I really am pathetic. About five minutes ago, I just had to touch her and wriggled my toes over to poke her in the thigh. She grinned but didn’t look away from her laptop. Then, a couple minutes after that, I closed my eyes briefly and felt her toe sliding in between my legs. Touché!

So now I’ll sit here aroused, waiting patiently until she’s finished. I can see from the smirk on those luscious lips that she knows only too well what condition I’m in. But it’s a game of wills now. Will I cave, or will she? Pah. I know I’ve lost. She can probably smell me.

Okay…need to think about something else before I burst. Okay, okay. Uh…hmm.

Yeah, I felt overwhelmed the other day. Katie is so strong. Damn it. Seems I can’t stop thinking about her. Oh, well. She…she’s just so organized and together. In between going to work meetings, scheduling the children’s day, taking care of me…although I’m pretty independent now, thankfully…and project managing the building works around the farmland, she also took me with her when she had an appointment with a fighter jet simulator as research for her part on Infinity One. It wasn’t just any old simulator either. They had her pulling two Gs at one point…so they said. I don’t know if that was true, but man, she looked a little green around the gills afterwards. And she has to go back for more later.

She loved doing it though. It was just one of many cool things she gets to do for this new show. But what overwhelmed me was the reception she got from everyone. They love her. There was pure excitement at getting Kate Marshall on the show to begin with, and now everything she does with this crew is full of wonder for most of them. Even at that facility, people were clambering over each other to shake her hand and welcome her. Of course, she handled it all with ease and made them all laugh. As much as it freaks me out that she’s famous, it also makes me feel so very lucky to know her in every way. She is a truly exceptional person, and I get the privilege of loving her and living with her forever. And what’s more, she loves me back. I don’t know what I did to deserve her, but I’m going to do everything I can to continue receiving the gift Katie gives me.

She gave me a look just then. I wonder what it meant. Oh, okay. She licked her lips. I hope that means she’s nearly done with the emails, otherwise I’m gonna melt…or jump those beautiful bones right now. How can she still do this to me after all this time? I think I’ll feel this way when we’re old and gray. I just hope my body can keep up with my libido when I’m sixty. Come to think of it, I was never this amorous before. I guess this is what happens when you’re lucky enough to find your one true love. But ours is not just an animal attraction. It goes far deeper than either of us can understand. I love everything about her.

I know we’ll encounter more problems in the future, but I’m sure they’ll be due to external forces…my job, her job, some crazy person. Katie and I are our own force to be reckoned with, and she makes me feel like I could save the world sometimes. With her by my side, I probably could.

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KC – 00:45 hours PST – Saturday – Undisclosed location, Near Kagel Canyon/Sylmar, California.

Okay, how do I tell her I finished emailing two minutes ago but I just can’t help watching her? She’s gazing off into space right now, her mouth open just a tiny bit. I bet she’s thinking about what I did with my toe. In fact, I know she is, but a few more minutes won’t kill her. Oh god. Flashback to a few weeks ago when she could have been killed. I feel my gut heave and my heart ache just like it did when she was missing. I relive those feelings quite a lot, but have to remind myself that’s she’s right here. I think she wonders sometimes why I keep walking up to her and touching her to see if she’s real. I had never been so unsure in my life, but those few days after she came home from Minnesota, I was sure I was seeing more crazy visions. But look. She’s there, sitting back on the couch like some Greek goddess. Her beauty astounds me every day, and yet she doesn’t seem to see it. It makes her all the more beautiful to me that she’s confident but not egotistical. I can’t find any bad qualities about her. Then again, I’m very biased.

I watched her doing her physio today. She still can’t move the wrist, but that determined look she gets on her face when she’s concentrating on moving her fingers is priceless. She’s cute when she’s thinking, like she is right now. She’s nibbling her bottom lip, and it’s starting to drive me wild. Deep breath, Katie. Hold out for a few more minutes.

I know she’s in pain still, but at least she talks to me about it and doesn’t try to hide it like she did at first. She always thinks she has to be so damn tough. I’m glad she’s realized that in front of me, she only has to be herself, no matter what. I know she knows that, but it doesn’t hurt to remind her every so often. What else am I gonna nag about? Hah!

Mmm, that was a smoldering look I just got. I think it’s time to stop the emailing charade and close up the laptop. I think I just got wet. It’s incredible how easily she can fire me up. If this is what it feels like to be completely in love, I’m forever thankful I was lucky enough to find my soulmate. I know that word is over-used, but I can’t think of another to express what I mean. She is my soul’s mate, in every way.

I’m going to see if she snaps out of her thoughts at the sound of the computer closing down. Right…and shutdown. Ooh, nostrils flared. She’s still all glassy-eyed though. I know she’s tired, but she wouldn’t go to bed when I suggested it. For my will is as strong as yours…and my kingdom is as great. I only added that last part because we watched that movie with the kids a couple days ago. I know CJ is engaging in a battle of wills. She refuses to fall asleep because she wants to make love. I’m going to make it worth her while. She’s making me hot just looking at me from under her eyelashes. Wow. My wife is stunning even when she’s exhausted. Okay, enough torture. I always feel like the blood is flying through my veins faster than the speed of light just before we’re intimate. The anticipation makes it even more exciting, and I’ve made her wait for a half hour or so. Far too long, if you ask me.

I’m on my feet, and she’s following without a word. Oh, yeah. Bedtime.

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EE – 23:40 hours PST – Saturday – Century Regional Detention Facility, Compton, California.

I am so angry. I paid that attorney well, so you’d think he’d be able to do his job better! This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t have to sit here on this disgusting bunk trying to figure out a way for that idiot to get me out of this horrendous place. They leave the cell doors open during the day to allow the inmates to mingle. Why on earth would I want to mingle with these…these degenerate lifeforms?

I was sure with enough money and a little manipulation that I could somehow appeal the judge’s decision and be a free woman again…at least until my trial. Money can buy anything in this day and age. I know it. And I have money! My attorney said I should plead insanity. Pah! I’m not insane, but he told me my grasp on the reality of my situation was slipping away fast. I’m beginning to question my choice of lawyer.

Why doesn’t anyone understand about Katherine? That child is an abhorrent deviant. How can she even consider living with that woman? Oh it’s just awful, and it should be against the law. A person like that wife of hers should be shot. But I couldn’t just go up to her and put a bullet in her head to save the world from the twisted, warped thoughts she has, and has brainwashed my Katherine with. I am the only one who can make Katherine see the error of her ways, and when I get out of here I’ll try again. I must make sure to tell my attorney the next time I see him that we simply must do anything to free me from this horrid place. I am powerful. I am rich. I am far too high-class to stay in this hellhole. Perhaps the insanity plea would get me out of here. I could lie to them just to escape prison. I don’t deserve prison. I just did what any mother would do to protect the reputation of her child. Why doesn’t Katherine see how her unholy ways will one day cause the devil to seep into her veins and destroy her? Why do I bother?

I should never have to endure a place like this. It smells appalling, it’s noisy and unsanitary, and it is filled with the dregs of society. Why just yesterday, I was sitting here minding my own business when two…I don’t even know what they were…women? They walked by and said some strange things. I shouldn’t have reacted, but I couldn’t help it. They were being wretched.

“Well, look at Miss Moneybags there,” that bigger-than-a-house woman said sarcastically.

And then her little, spikey-haired friend with the tattoos snickered. “Haven’t had a rich piece of meat like her in a while, huh?”

“Hah. I hear she tried to off her daughter-in-law-“

When I jumped up from my bed, the broad inmate fell silent, no doubt from fear, and I stormed towards the door. I was ready to give them a piece of my mind.

“Daughter-in-law? DAUGHTER-IN-LAW? Don’t ever call that hideous, evil, deviant of a woman my daughter-in-law. She warped my Katherine’s mind, led her down the path to Hell. Two women should never lie together. It’s an abomination! It’s disgusting, and I won’t have it!!”

“Lady, you have no idea what goes on in prison, do you? You’ll have it. Oh yeah, you’ll have it real good.”

A few whistles followed, and a lot of confusing hooting and cheering. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but something about the way they said it made my skin crawl, and I don’t want to be here when they decide to come back. Yes, I plead insanity.

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The End…

©2016 StageFreak Productions

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Episode 12 – In Your Arms

March 21, 2014

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AM In Your Arms - sweet Idaho

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DISCLAIMERS:

This romantic drama is an original story, and all characters are created by me.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.

This story contains scenes of violence. It also contains the wrongful death of an animal. Any readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

This story depicts a sexual relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

** Warning-Warning-Warning **

Menstruating women ahead…and they’re making love. Please don’t read on if this offends you. No…seriously.

* * * * * *

So many thanks go to my beta-reader. Your help is very much appreciated and continues to be most welcome. And thank you to all my readers. Your feedback has been most helpful and encouraging. Keep it coming!

This is the next installment my series, After Montana, which can be found at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com .

This is episode 2 in Season 2, and is part of a 3-story arc. To understand and enjoy the characters and situations fully, you should probably read them in sequence.

Comments and/or opinions can be sent to stagefreakmusic@hotmail.com or left at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com

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Chapter 1

At nine thirty-five PM, Kate Carson awoke from her unplanned snooze in Shannon’s bed. She had teased CJ before about falling asleep mid-bedtime-story, but she realized now how easy it was to drift off with the children snuggled up against her. Kate slowly put the book on the nightstand and unwound Lucy’s arm from under her sweater. Once on her feet, she scooped Lucy up to put her in her own bed.

Once Lucy was placed on the cool sheets in her room – which had Nemo’s orange and white body printed repeatedly over a blue background – she woke up. “Mama. Is it bedtime?”

“Yes, so you need to go back to sleep. Here’s Barney to cuddle,” Kate said gently as she tucked the soft, brown bear into Lucy’s grasp.

“Mmph.”

“I think that was a thank you,” Kate whispered to herself as she left the room. Kamali gave her a single lazy tail-wag as she passed him outside the door, and she grinned at him before heading downstairs to find out what the two federal agents had gotten up to in her absence. What she found made her smile. Only one agent was present in the form of her slovenly wife. CJ was very much entitled to be slovenly after what she had just gone through. A two-week trek in the wilderness after surviving a plane crash would definitely make anyone a little tired, to say the least.

Kate sighed as a welcome sense of peace washed over her at seeing CJ smile at a cute story on the news channel she was watching. Cute story on the news? That’s unusual.

When Kate entered the living room, she lay down gently on CJ’s thigh since she knew CJ could reach her head if it was resting there. She was now facing the television so she could only feel CJ’s uninjured hand as it scratched lightly through her short, blond hair. She curled her own hand around CJ’s knee and proceeded to yawn widely.

“You fell asleep, didn’t you?” CJ whispered.

“Kinda…”

A husky chuckle came from CJ as she continued the patterns over Kate’s scalp. “What did you read to them?”

“That Barney the bear story where he gets found by his friends after being lost. I figured it would be a good prelude to a restful night,” Kate slurred under the tender touches.

“Good call, honey.”

“Mmm, thanks. Where’s Jamie?”

“She’s taking her walk around outside, checking the perimeter for anything unusual.”

“What were you smiling at a minute ago?”

“There was a story on the local news about a litter of puppies that were stolen. A homeless man reported that he saw something, and the cops caught the thief who had an illegal puppy farm running out of his house. All the stolen dogs were saved. I was smiling when the puppies got returned home, and the owner gave the homeless man a puppy…and a job.”

“Aww. You big softie.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a nice Christmas story.”

“It certainly is, but no more talking. How come you get all chatty when you’re not supposed to be speaking?”

“Just a rebel, I guess,” CJ retorted and stuck out her tongue even though Kate couldn’t see it.

“That’s quite true. Hmm. Well, that was a lot of chatter right there, and I can hear your throat straining so just be quiet and rub my head. Oh, and I know you stuck your tongue out.”

“I did not.”

“Did too. And don’t you deny it. Rub.”

CJ chuckled and wet her finger with saliva before sticking it in Kate’s ear, earning herself a warning growl before the scratching resumed making Kate purr instead.

Meanwhile outside, Jamie Green did her second lap around the large farmhouse. It was the same as the last time. All quiet, no sign of intruders. She looked over at the barn again. It’s blackened, burnt-out remains were all that was left of the old building which had been constructed at the same time as the house, at least sixty years ago.

“What a shame,” she mumbled as she continued on her way. As she came around to the backyard, she glanced over at the horse field and saw the silhouette of one of the horses standing peacefully against the almost-black sky. She assumed the dark shape beside it was the other horse sleeping on the ground.

Why would she think anything different? The standing animal wasn’t freaking out and seemed to be completely at ease.

What Jamie didn’t know was that Idaho stood there bleeding out. Her peaceful demeanor was due to the lightheaded, tired feeling of slipping into unconsciousness. Sometime during the night, the dark mare would fall to the ground, and in the morning, Jamie would learn that the lump beside her was only an overgrown piece of scrub that had always been there. She was unfamiliar with the lay of the land in the horse fields, and what she had observed could be easily misconstrued by anyone who didn’t know any better.

Yes, she was a federal agent and should have perhaps checked, but she was also a human being who made mistakes just like everyone else.

* * * * * *

When Jamie came in the front door, she locked it behind her and strolled into the living room to find CJ and Kate still on the couch. “All quiet out there,” she said, perching on the arm of the chair.

“Great. Wanna watch a movie with us?” Kate offered drowsily.

“No, thanks. I’m gonna take a shower and maybe grab forty winks while you guys are still up. Is that OK?”

“Of course. Kamali is on duty with me while you rest, so go on…”

Jamie smiled at Kate and returned the nod CJ gave her as she got up to leave. Once she was gone, Kate’s head massage resumed, and she quietly moaned out her pleasure.

CJ bit her lip. “Katie?”

“Mmm-yeah?”

“No blissful moaning like that. I, uh, it makes me think of things I can’t do yet.”

Kate turned around so that she could look up at CJ’s face. “Sorry. I didn’t even realize I made a sound.”

“You don’t need to be sorry. It’s just that…when we’ve been apart for a while, you know how we get when we’re reunited, and this time it’s even more intense, so…”

Kate sighed. “I know, CJ, but there’s no way we can…well, because of your injuries, I don’t want to-”

“Don’t want to?”

“I don’t want to hurt you or make them any worse. You need to regain your strength, and that includes not aggravating anything until you heal enough to start physio.”

“I honestly don’t think I can wait that long.”

“We might have to. This time.”

CJ tried to read the expression on Kate’s beautiful face, and as she stared into her eyes she saw her fear. “Hey,” she whispered, placing her hand on Kate’s cheek. “What are you worried about?”

“I just want you to get well.”

“But you’re worried about something else. What is it?”

Kate sighed and twisted a tiny piece of thread on her shirt between her fingers. “CJ…if your arms don’t heal, well, you won’t be able to be…”

When the words faded to a whisper and no more were forthcoming, CJ prompted her. “I won’t be able to be what?”

“A federal agent, and I know how important your job is to you…but if you can’t fire a weapon again, you’ll lose-”

“Whoa. This arm here…” CJ flexed her right hand. “This one is already feeling better. It was only a dislocation, and even though I did the wrong thing by slamming it against that tree…boy, was that painful…it’s going to be fine real soon. The wrist will be almost back to normal. I know it might not be a hundred percent again, but I can wear one of those supports. A lot of agents do that on their knees, elbows, wrists…and Katie, I shoot with my right hand, so I’ll be fine.” During CJ’s little speech, her voice wavered between a croaking whisper and her usual husky tones.

Kate smiled at her determination and strength. “I know you’ll be fine. I guess I was just afraid I’d break you. I mean, we can be pretty passionate when we get going.”

“I’ll say,” CJ said with a grin. “It’s gotta be soon, though, honey. I can’t stop watching you, wanting you. I promise not to use my arms at all.”

Kate looked at her dubiously. “I can only imagine.”

“I have many skills,” CJ said before wiggling her tongue suggestively.

“Uh-huh…”

“And just so you know, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to quit being an agent. Yes, I love the job, but I love you more and you know it. The end of my world would be not having you and our children. So right now, I’m just peachy, thank you very much.”

“I love you.”

“Ditto, baby.”

“No more talking now.”

“There’s only one way to shut me up,” CJ said, puckering her lips and closing her eyes.

Kate smiled as she rose up eagerly to grant the silent request.

* * * * * *

As twelve o’clock drew nearer on CJ’s third night home, she lay with her foot elevated on Kate’s lap. Kate sat cross-legged on their bed and delicately massaged the ankle that had been swollen beyond recognition not so long ago. Thankfully now, it was just tender. CJ was still unable to put her full weight on it, but she couldn’t deny it felt a million times better already.

“That feels incredible, Katie,” she muttered with her eyes closed.

“Good. It’s looking a lot more like a foot again.”

“I know.” CJ peeked at her. “And my shoulder will start to ease off soon too.”

“I know you hate feeling unable, honey. Just give it time.”

CJ nodded and watched Kate’s hands as they moved across her skin. She was mesmerized at the thought of those hands touching other parts of her body, and she felt the welcome heat stirring in her belly. “I, uh…”

Kate looked up to see an all-too-familiar, hooded expression on CJ’s face. “Oh, no. Don’t look at me like that. We can’t do that.”

CJ’s puppy-dog eyes were now bigger than ever. “Pwease?”

“We…we can’t. Not yet. But I promise if the doctor’s happy with your progress on Monday, I’ll think about it, OK?”

“What doctor?”

Kate hated that she had just killed the playful mood, but she was terrified of something going wrong. She wasn’t sure why she was being so hesitant to make love to CJ. It just seemed to be way too soon, even for them. “You have a check-up on Monday. It says so on the letter from the hospital in Minnesota. They organized it before you even left. Didn’t you read it?”

“No, I didn’t. I’d just as soon never hear of Minnesota again.”

“Well, you don’t have a choice about this. I need to know, for my peace of mind, that you’re going to get well. I…I want to be there with you this time.”

CJ was on the verge of tears watching her struggle to get the words out. Kate was being tortured by the fact that she wasn’t there when CJ was found. It made her realize just how much Kate had been through, and was still putting herself through.

“Are you feeling, I dunno, guilty about not being there with me in that hospital?”

Kate dropped her gaze to the covers and nodded. “I should’ve been there.”

“Hey. Look at me.” When Kate did so, CJ leaned forward to cup her cheek in one hand, no matter what pain it caused her. “You were there with me every second…every single second since I left your side. Don’t you get it, Katie? Me and you, we’re one.”

Kate’s tear trickled down her face to land on CJ’s hand. “One?”

“Yes. I’m within you, and you’re within me…always. I’m always here.”

When CJ’s hand fell to her heart, Kate let out a whimper before crawling into her place by her wife’s side. “That’s what the vision of you said…and did.”

“Like I said, we’re one. And I think that’s why we can see each other when we’re forced apart physically. I can’t think of any other way to explain it.”

“Unless we’re just crazy…” Kate said between sniffles.

With moisture gathering in her own eyes, CJ chuckled. “Then I’m very happy to be crazy.”

“Me too.”

“You know, when I first found you on the mountain in Montana?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“The feeling I got that day…I mean, I was just out clearing the snow as usual, and something I couldn’t comprehend encompassed my entire being. I felt panic, like something was terribly wrong with my world all of a sudden. Then, I don’t know. I was just led out into the forest by some mystical force. I felt like a freak, but I knew what I was doing was right.”

“I don’t think you ever told me this before. What happened next?”

“I walked for maybe, a half mile with my gun drawn, and then I saw you lying there. The panic left me, but it was replaced by a totally different feeling, one that I never let myself truly think about until I was out there in that wilderness by myself and I kept seeing you over and over.”

“What was the feeling?”

“Something huge clicked into place, like I was meant to find you again. I was relieved the search was over even though I had no idea at the time I was supposed to be looking…and I had no idea what it meant. I guess now I do. Sort of.”

“Uh, wow. What do you think it means?”

“I told you. Me and you forever. Eternity. It’s like all of this has happened before.”

Kate finally lifted her head, and her gaze met CJ’s. She knew deep within her that she felt it too. Maybe they’d both figured it was too crazy to mention to each other until now. The intense contact between them lasted for a few profound, expansive moments before a grin appeared on CJ’s face, followed by a smile and a knowing nod from Kate.

“Eternity,” Kate whispered before laying her head down again. A few more quiet moments passed while she rolled things around in her head. She knew there was something still nagging at the back of her mind, and she felt a little morose for wanting to experience more of what CJ had gone through. Just as she was about to speak again, CJ’s lips caressed her hair. It made her smile, and she believed that CJ would understand why she would ask her next question.

“CJ…”

“Yeah?”

“Would you find it really weird if I asked you to let me see the photos of the crash site? I mean, I assume they took some.”

CJ paused until she felt the reactive frown on her face dissipate almost as fast as it had arrived. She knew how curious Kate was, but this wasn’t just curiosity. Her partner needed to feel she had been there somehow, and CJ could understand that. “Are you sure you want to see those?”

A nod preceded Kate’s quiet response. “I can handle it, especially because you’ll be right there with me. I know you got out of it alive. But I just…need to see them.”

“I understand, Katie, I really do. I’ll ask Mark to bring them. OK?”

Kate looked up at her wife’s face. “Thank you for humoring me.”

“I’m not humoring you. And I absolutely know you can handle it. Maybe it will bring us both some sort of closure, huh?” CJ kissed Kate’s forehead while she nodded her answer, but CJ wondered how she would feel seeing the wreckage again. Kate was definitely strong enough to handle it, but was she?

We’re together now. Yeah, I can handle it.

* * * * * *

It was very early in the morning when Tony arrived for work with a happy smile on his face. His bosses were reunited, and he was about to see his two best buddies in the form of Shannon and Lucy. When he knocked the front door, he could see the dark shape of Kamali bouncing around excitedly. He would never understand how the dog could identify friend or foe so quickly, but he wouldn’t question it either, knowing the clever canine had been ready to protect the family when the intruder was burning down the barn.

The door opened, and Jamie smiled at him on her way out. “Hey, Tony. You’re just in time.”

“Hi, Jamie. For what?”

“I’m just about to do my rounds, and those two…” she said, flicking her head towards the staircase, “Aren’t up yet. Lucy and Shannon are in the kitchen having cereal.”

“No worries. I’ll stay with them and have some coffee. See you in a minute.”

“Yep. Be right back.”

Jamie scanned the long driveway and the lake before she headed around the side of the house to examine the pile of charred wood that used to be the barn. She continued along the fence that enclosed the back yard and strolled across the dusty ground to the perimeter of the horse field. She stopped frozen in her tracks when she saw Idaho lying flat out on the ground. Her hand came to her mouth in horror as she glanced at the bush she had assumed was the other horse last night. Something was terribly wrong, and she vaulted over the post and rail fence to run toward the prone horse’s side.

“Oh, God, no,” Jamie choked out as she knelt beside Idaho’s weak body. She saw the sticky, dark patch on the equine’s chest that oozed and dripped onto the grass, adding to the pool of blood that was already there. “I’m so sorry, girl.”

Idaho blinked slowly, and Jamie sprang to her feet and broke out in a sprint back to the house.

She saw Kamali in the backyard and knew it meant the door would be open. Kamali watched her as she leapt impressively over the fence and slowed her pace as she approached the porch. Breathing heavily, she signaled for Tony to come over to her.

“What’s up? You look like-“

“It’s Idaho. She’s been hurt,” Jamie whispered to ensure the girls didn’t hear.

“Hurt? How hurt?”

“It looks like she’s been stabbed. Call the vet, Tony. I need to get Kate up.”

“She’s already up, in the living room on the phone to her dad.”

“Right.” Jamie turned to grab a dishcloth. “I’m going to see if I can…I don’t know. Just tell Kate what’s happened. I’ll be outside.”

Less than five minutes later, Kate ran across the field to find Jamie holding the folded dishcloth against the wound to try to slow the bleeding. “Oh, Idaho. You poor girl.”

“I’m so sorry, Kate. I should’ve-“

“You should’ve what? How could you know?”

“But I looked out here last night, and she seemed fine.”

“Nobody came up the driveway last night, Jamie, otherwise the dog would’ve alerted us.” Kate suddenly stood up. “Where’s Nevada?”

“I haven’t seen her.”

“Damn it.” Kate’s sharp eyes zoomed in on a specific part of the faraway fence. “She’s gone.”

“How do you know?” Jamie asked while trying to press the dishcloth harder against the seeping wound and comfort the horse with her other hand.

“The fence is broken. I’d say she jumped out. Shit.” Kate put her hand across her forehead to try to keep her tears in check. Someone was really trying to hurt her, and she wanted to know who it was. “The vet’s on his way. Shouldn’t be too long now.” But just as she said it, Idaho took her last breath.

* * * * * *

Once the veterinarian had left and the horse’s body had been covered with a tarp weighed down at the corners with rocks, Kate sat on the couch with her head in her hands. Shannon and Lucy had gone to school with Tony and were still oblivious to the sad event, but Kate knew she’d have to tell them soon so that they could bury Idaho tomorrow morning. Kate hadn’t been entirely sure of the rules regarding the burial of large animals, but the sympathetic veterinarian had assured her he would send someone over to take care of it professionally. She just had to pick a spot for the grave to be excavated.

Jamie was out across the field somewhere, trying to find clues as to what direction the intruder had come from and how he’d gotten close enough to the animals to do what he had done. Kate knew Jamie was feeling incredibly guilty, and no amount of placating from her would make Jamie feel any better. Kate was just worried that she was going to burn out soon. Jamie was in desperate need of rest, but she was just as stubborn as CJ and wouldn’t listen to reason.

The thought of her wife made Kate sit upright. CJ was still asleep, which was highly unusual, and in Kate’s current state of mind she panicked a little.

She’s fine…just tired, she assured herself. Nevertheless, she got to her feet and went up to the master bedroom. Finding her beautiful CJ relaxed in slumber, Kate shuffled onto the mattress beside her. After she kissed her sore shoulder, she tickled her finger along CJ’s graceful jawline.

“Wake up, honey.”

“Hmm?”

“Wake up. It’s ten AM,” Kate whispered near CJ’s ear.

“Oh. Hi…”

“Morning, CJ.”

CJ knew something was wrong from the barely-disguised sadness in Kate’s tone. “What happened?”

“Um, you don’t mess around, do you?”

“No, I don’t. What’s up, Katie?” CJ didn’t move due to her injuries, but her eyes were alert and focused on the green ones above her.

Kate sighed and sucked her cheek in between her teeth as she tried to stop the imminent tears stinging the back of her eyes. She looked everywhere but at CJ while she thought up some delaying tactics. “Wouldn’t you like some coffee first?”

“OK, now I know something’s really wrong. Tell me,” CJ coaxed.

“Oh, honey. Idaho…she’s dead.”

CJ’s eyes immediately glistened. “How?”

“Whoever he is, he did it last night. She was stabbed.” Kate joined CJ when she was invited into her arms. “There’s more, CJ. Nevada’s gone. I think she fled in fright.”

After a few seconds, CJ sniffed away her sadness. “Don’t worry about Nevada. She’ll come back.”

Kate wasn’t so sure, but remained quiet, rubbing CJ’s belly to try to comfort her somehow. Long, silent moments later, Kate got her stream of silent tears under control. She felt like they had both been crying since CJ had returned, but she decided it was better than not being able to cry at all. “What are we gonna do?”

“I’m not sure yet, Katie, but I have a feeling we’ll have help.”

“I know. Jamie’s unrelenting right now, but she needs to sleep or she’ll end up collapsing.”

“We’ll figure something out today, OK?” CJ kissed the nodding head at her breast. “I’m so sorry about Idaho, honey.” She bestowed another kiss upon Kate’s short hair. “Let’s get me up and dressed, huh? Then I’ll have that coffee before we have to deal with everything.”

“OK. Wait right there, and I’ll get you some clothes.” Kate rose from the bed and went to the closet.

CJ watched her. She could see the obvious upset in her wife’s intelligent eyes, but she could also tell Kate’s brilliant mind was going over and over all the events of the past few weeks.  “What’re you thinking right now?” she asked while shuffling her legs off the side of the bed.

“That this could be some crazy fanatic again. We both know the lengths a mentally unstable person can go to.”

“True. It’s definitely a possibility.”

Kate accompanied CJ into the bathroom and continued their conversation while assisting CJ in her morning ablutions. “I don’t like the fact that he’s found out where we live,” she said while flushing the toilet. Once the room had quieted again, she went on. “But there’s something that’s bugging me…”

“What?” CJ said before Kate rubbed a warm, soft sponge over her face.

“If he’s just some crazy fan, why would he be following you? If it’s all been the same person, that is.”

CJ nodded while she thought about that, but she couldn’t rule out a stalker since she knew a raving lunatic like that would do practically anything to be the only one wanted and loved by the subject of his infatuation. Still, that scenario didn’t quite feel right this time. “I’m not sure, Katie. I’m not sure.”

.

Chapter 2

By lunch time, CJ and Kate had decided on a spot behind the second horse field for the burial. It was far enough away from the house, but could still be seen from the back windows. Kate had cleared up the breakfast dishes with CJ insisting that she had to watch and provide moral support. Kate knew she just wanted to be close to her at every opportunity, and if she was honest, it was what she wanted too. Jamie sat with them now at the island counter as they sipped on warm beverages.

“So,” CJ said distractedly as Kate helped lower her mug from her mouth, “This guy could have come back here after I saw him at the airfield. I know it was dark, but did you notice anything at all about the man who burned down the barn, Katie?”

“I couldn’t really see him clearly. He wore black clothes and dirty, white sneakers…and either a dark hat or dark hair, but that’s all I could see.”

CJ nodded and rested her hand on Kate’s arm. “I can’t really give a good description of the guy I saw either, except his face. I guess I could work with a sketch artist.”

Jamie perked up at that. “I’ll organize it when I get into the office. I’d better head off now, actually.”

“Thanks, Jamie. And take it easy today, huh?” CJ forced a withering smile. Jamie didn’t respond, but kissed them both on the cheek and left the house looking like she was on a mission.

Kate’s hand covered CJ’s larger one, and she pressed her lips against her right shoulder again in a subconscious effort to somehow help it mend. “I feel a little vulnerable for the first time.”

“You mean here at home?” CJ asked. When Kate nodded, she kissed her on the forehead. “Me too, actually. Nobody ever invaded our haven before, so I have something I want to suggest. I know it’s more Hollywood than you’d like, but I think we should get security fencing now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Agent White at my office…his father owns and runs a landscaping business, and I’ve been thinking I’d like him to come out and quote us for solid, six-foot fencing and electric gates. And before you say no, just take some time to think about it, OK?”

Kate curled her fingers around CJ’s. “I don’t want time to think about it. I agree with you on this one. I didn’t think we needed it before, but now…”

“I’ll call him later today then.”

Kate ran her fingers over CJ’s arm. They both seemed to be craving the constant contact right now. “How are we going to tell the girls about Idaho?”

“We’ll do it tonight. They’ll cope better if we just tell them the truth.”

“I know. It’s just hard to give them more bad news. They sensed there was something wrong when you were away.”

CJ slowly stretched her arm up to Kate’s shoulders, surprised when she managed it without yelping. “But I’m here now, Katie.”

“I know. I love you.”

“And I can’t live without it.”

Both women turned into the kiss, their lips simply resting on each other and savoring the connection before they parted and locked eyes. They felt a strength flow through them, reinforcing their hearts and minds. They knew it was going to be another tough week, but together they’d meet the challenges head on.

* * * * * *

“So what happened?”

“I got one of ‘em good. If it doesn’t die, it’ll be enough to scare that chick.”

“That chick needs to be more than scared. We need to make her feel like she’s going insane. Jesus, why did we take this job?” An irritated sigh sounded over the phone line before the dollar signs appeared in his greedy eyes again. “I want the damn money, man. Go back to that house and…I dunno…terrorize her. But don’t hurt them kids.”

“Christ, you think I don’t know that?”

“Just do your job!”

“OK, OK. I’ll go back tomorrow night. Gimme time to think of somethin’ good.”

“Don’t fuck it up. We’ll start to look like a bunch of amateurs if we don’t pick up our game.”

He hung up the call muttering obscenities to his ‘business’ partner. It seemed he was doing all the damn legwork and putting himself in the line of fire…literally.

I want a bigger cut. I think he’s ripping me off. With a snarl, he paced back and forth trying to think of what to do next. A short time later, his dark eyes narrowed when something he deemed nasty enough sprung to mind.

* * * * * *

Kate put one hand on her hip, and the other pulled at her lips while she thought. “Right. I’ve called Sam and Aunt Cece to apologize for yelling at them.”

“What did they say?” CJ asked, wiggling her fingers to invite Kate to hold her hand.

“Just what you’d expect. No need for sorry…we’re just happy you’re OK now.”

“And they mean it, Katie. Don’t worry about it anymore.”

“I’m not, but it made me feel better to say sorry anyway,” Kate said with a semi-smile. She held onto CJ’s warm hand but didn’t sit down. “Hey, you want tea?”

“Sounds good. I’ll call Mark then I’ll be right through.”

“Just stay here. I’ll bring it.”

“I think I need to get up for a bit. My butt’s numb. I’ll be careful. Promise,” CJ assured before managing to pick up her cell phone from the coffee table without so much as a flinch.

Kate watched the stiff movements like a hawk. “Hmm. OK, but shout if you need me. I mean it.”

“I will.” When her over-protective wife headed through the double doors into the kitchen, CJ hit the speed dial for Mark’s office. After a few rings, he answered. “Hey, Mark, it’s-“

“CJ. How are you?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“I’m so glad. And Kate?”

“Yeah she’s good too. Very bossy but, you know…”

“I bet. It’s just as well really, since you’re such a bad patient an’ all.”

CJ rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, listen. I was calling to ask you a favor.”

“Shoot…”

“I’m assuming you have photos of the crash site?”

“Uh, yes. What about them?”

“Kate…she wants to see them. I think it’ll help her to come to terms with things.”

Mark sighed. “She’s an inquisitive woman, CJ. Perhaps it will give her the full picture without you having to-”

“Yeah. I’m having trouble describing things to her. Could you bring them over?”

“Of course. I wanted to come and talk to you both anyway.”

“Maybe tonight, say eight o’clock?”

“Sounds fine, CJ. I’ll see you then.”

A few moments later, she hobbled into the kitchen and made it to the island counter before she let out the aches and pains verbally. “Shit! Oww. Can you hand me some more painkillers, Katie?”

“You hurt yourself stretching for the phone, didn’t you?”

A scowl accompanied CJ’s answer. “Maybe.”

“I wish you’d let me help you more.”

“You’re doing practically everything for me as it is. I can’t even wipe my own ass,” CJ husked with a little frustration.

“Hey,” Kate soothed as she approached with a glass of water and some pills, “I know you’re not used to having a weakness, but remember this is me here.”

CJ’s face held barely-contained anger. “Damn it. Can you scratch my forehead please?” she growled a little harsher than intended.

Kate put down the glass and reached up to help her poor wife out. “Here?”

“Left a bit…”

“My left?”

“No, mine.” CJ’s eyes closed as the itch was scratched. They remained shut when Kate’s hand continued to roam over her scalp and massage her tense skull. Literally thirty seconds later, the anxiety and frustration was reduced to a little pile of remorse. “I’m sorry, Katie.”

Kate inhaled deeply and picked up the glass again. “I know this is gonna be hard for you, but I’m always going to be more than willing to take care of you. You just need to learn to let me.”

“I know. I really am sorry. It’s just getting to me a little already.”

“And it’ll get to you a lot over the coming weeks, but don’t worry. I can handle you.” Kate kissed her cheek after she’d gulped down her meds, but it soon turned into a much deeper embrace when CJ turned her head and sucked on Kate’s bottom lip. Their tongues began a slow dance, and Kate’s arms slid around CJ’s neck while CJ’s right hand gently grabbed Kate’s buttock. Their breaths became short and needy as the warm, wet muscles fought for dominance surrounded by smooth, searching lips, and when Kate felt the pulsing begin between her legs, she broke the arousing contact between them.

A moan of disappointment left CJ’s raspy throat. “I…need more.”

“Nuh-uh. Not yet.”

“How about we open the package that’s been sitting in the study for weeks?”

Kate’s green eyes widened. “I totally forgot about that.” Her mind raced for a few seconds. “No. Definitely not opening that right now.”

“Aww, go on. At least let me see what you bought.”

“No, honey. Please just go with me on this, OK? I don’t want to open it because I want us to be in a…a better place where we can have some fun. I’m not feeling much like having fun right now.”

CJ hadn’t let go of her beautiful partner’s body, and only moving from the elbow down, she ran her hand up Kate’s back. She applied a little pressure to bring their lips together again. A soft, loving kiss was bestowed upon Kate, and when they parted, CJ nodded.

“I agree.”

Kate looked seriously at her. “Thank you for understanding.”

“I really do understand, Katie. I just love you so much, and I want to be able to make you feel…the power in our…I dunno. I just want you to feel incredible.”

“I always feel incredible in your presence.” Kate ran her hand through CJ’s long, dark hair, very aware of what her wife craved. “And I want intimacy too. Maybe I’ll be able to do…something without you having to move. Let me think about it, all right?”

An excruciatingly beautiful smile graced CJ’s face. “All right. And I’ll think about it too. Believe me.” She stole another quick kiss. “Thank you for making me feel better.”

“I’m getting good at distraction techniques.”

“You always were.”

“I guess I have many skills too, huh?” Kate tried to quip lightly, although it didn’t quite come off that way. “OK, what was I doing?”

“Tea.”

* * * * * *

Kate leaned against the fireplace and watched CJ sleeping on the couch. CJ had followed her around like a lost puppy until Kate had forced her to get off her bad ankle and rest. It hadn’t been too difficult – a kiss and a promise of more to come being the only encouragement required. Their kisses had been amazing, though. A combination of the aching love they had for one another and the burning passion yet to be spent.

Kate had knelt beside the couch after that, with her head on CJ’s thigh until a light snore could be heard. She got up once CJ was fully asleep since her mind wouldn’t shut up, and her body seemed to want to pace the house constantly. After tidying up the crèche and loading the dishwasher, she’d gone to the study and written down everything they had talked about that morning.

Someone was trying to hurt them. Assuming for a moment that the events were linked, this someone had attempted to kill CJ and was now trying to torment Kate during what should have been a time of mourning. She wondered if this person even knew CJ had survived. The curious part of Kate’s brain had overridden the emotional part, and she had mustered the courage to look up the reports on the Internet, finding surprisingly little on the crash and subsequent recovery of the wreckage. She wondered if that was Mark’s doing, and she wanted to remember to ask him about it later.

Burning down the barn could have been deemed an accident – had she not witnessed the man on her property – but attacking Idaho was a blatant attempt to scare and upset her. Were they trying to push her over the edge? Were they trying to drive her out of her home? Kate looked at CJ now and knew that wasn’t going to happen. They were strong together and wouldn’t be beaten, and they had the FBI on their side too. She wondered if the criminal even knew who he was dealing with.

She looked over to the hallway to see Kamali lying flat out on the cool, varnished floor, peacefully waiting for his best friends to come home from school. He pricked one ear at Kate and wagged his tail a few times. She smiled and tried to relax a little, remembering how their devoted and gentle family pet had also been a fierce guard dog when he had to be.

Kate strolled over to the space between the couch and the coffee table, lowering herself to sit on the wooden surface and observe the love of her life as she napped. CJ’s right arm lay clamped to her side and her left rested on top of her body in its sling. The broken wrist was very painful, and CJ had found that every time she even flexed the muscles in that arm to move it, the agony shot through her injury sharply to remind her that she shouldn’t. The blue sling wrapped over her left shoulder to disappear underneath a mass of silky, dark hair which had thankfully regained its luster after not being washed for two and a half weeks. CJ’s carved features were relaxed in sleep, and her facial bruise was healing slowly. Every now and then, her mouth would curl slightly into a smile, and Kate hoped it was due to a pleasant dream. She knew there had been nightmares since her love had come home, but it seemed the tough agent didn’t remember them in the morning…or so she’d said.

Kate sighed as a wave of nausea washed over her at the thought that someone had almost taken her CJ away from her. She bit her lips before leaning forward, unable to resist kissing her soulmate. As her mouth gently pressed against the one below her, she felt CJ respond immediately. After a few seconds of the tender contact, a very quiet, whispered conversation began as they shared the same air, their faces mere millimeters apart.

“Again…” CJ gasped, her eyes still closed.

“I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t. I was already awake before you sat down.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah. I love it when you watch me. Kiss me again.”

Kate did so before speaking in the same low whisper. “I love you, CJ Carson.”

CJ’s blue eyes opened and almost crossed as she tried to focus on Kate’s beautiful face. “I love you more.”

Kate grinned while grazing her lips over CJ’s. “Not possible…”

“I beg to differ.”

“Shall we agree to disagree?”

“I think that’s wise,” CJ concluded before grabbing at Kate’s bottom lip with her teeth. When she let go, Kate pulled back a little more to look at her. A stunning smile spread across CJ’s face, and she glanced down at her own body. “I do believe that if you lie between my legs and rest on my belly, you won’t hurt me. In fact, you’d be making me feel so much better.”

“What about your sling?”

CJ pursed her lips in thought. She had the sling on her left side today and wasn’t fond of the discomfort when the wrist was moved. “Grab hold of the material…over there,” she signaled with her eyes. When Kate did so, she nodded. “Now just drag it very slowly to the left.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t.”

Once the arm was sufficiently out of the way, Kate bit her top lip. “Was that OK?”

“Yeah. Now please, come here.”

Kate took in the pleading eyes and the cutest grin she’d seen in quite some time. As she moved slowly on top of CJ, she gave a mild warning. “Don’t get all excited. I’m only doing this because I seem to need constant contact with you.”

“I know. I need it too. Aren’t we pathetic?” CJ jested.

“Maybe, but I don’t care.”

“Me neither.” When Kate finished adjusting her position to make sure she was not causing pain to CJ’s bruised abdomen, CJ inhaled deeply, taking in the heart-warming, natural scent of her partner. “That feels amazing.”

Kate’s head came to rest under CJ’s chin, and they could both feel the lengths of their bodies melting into one another. Kate could also feel her libido jumping to attention, even after she had warned CJ against it.

“Mmm. It really does.”

Many long, quiet, blissful moments passed before CJ started shifting her hips. “Uh, honey? Things are getting uncomfortable in my pants.”

Kate let out a chuckle. “Are you trying to cheer me up?”

“If that works for ya, yeah. But I think you should move because I’m-“

“Uh-huh. I get it. Not very dry?”

It was CJ’s turn to croak out a laugh. “Yes. How did you guess?” She feigned surprise when Kate blushed and didn’t answer. “You’re feeling it too. I knew it!”

Once Kate had pushed herself carefully off CJ and stood up, she placed her hands on her hips. “Of course I feel it too, CJ. I’m just worried about making your injuries worse.”

“Well just so you know, that position did not hurt one bit. I mean, just so you know…”

“Noted.”

Kate smiled at the nonchalant look on CJ’s face, but was distracted by Kamali as he began to prance inside the front door at the sound of a familiar engine approaching the house.

CJ leaned forward and kissed Kate’s hand as it hung by her side. “I think our time is up. School’s out.”

A click in the lock and an excited doggy yelp heralded the arrival of Tony, Shannon, and Lucy, and their quiet Friday afternoon was shattered…in the best possible way.

* * * * * *

Shannon and Lucy sat cross-legged on the bed while CJ read them a story from her chair. Her injured foot rested on the nightstand, and the book was balanced on her raised thigh. That’s how Kate had positioned her before going back downstairs.

“And Thomas the tiger saw the river raging fast. He didn’t know how to get across it, and he was a little scared when the-“

“Mommy?” Shannon interrupted.

“Yes, Squirt?”

“Were you scared when you were lost?”

Ah. I wondered when these questions were going to start, CJ said to herself as she moved her fingers slightly to close the book. “Yes. I was quite scared.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t know where I was. I wanted to get home to my family, and I couldn’t tell you I was OK.”

Lucy was suddenly engrossed in this new story and leaned her little chin on her hands. Shannon shuffled forward to touch the top of her mommy’s knee.

“So how could you not tell us? Didn’t you have a phone?”

“You remember Mama telling you I was in a crash, right?” After two wide-eyed nods, CJ continued. “The crash happened in a huge, huge forest. There were lots of trees and lots of mountains and lots of snow. It was very, very cold.” CJ made sure to put on her best story-telling voice, but to keep it light so as to not scare her daughters. She wasn’t aware that Kate was listening from the hallway with her hand over her heart. “Nobody lived in the forest except the animals, and my phone was broken, so you know what I did?”

A “What?” from Shannon, a shake of Lucy’s head, and an invisible nod from Kate was her collective response.

“I had to walk for miles and miles and miles to try to find my way home. It took a very long time.”

“Did it take the whole time you were lost?”

“Yep. The whole time, sweetie. But I knew I had to get home to you girls and your mama, because you would be worried and maybe a little scared too…”

Shannon nodded. “Yes, but you broke your bone and had a sore foot, so you couldn’t walk properly…so how could you go that far?”

“You know, I wondered that too. But I know how I managed to make it now. I made it because I love you all so much, and all I could think about…” CJ’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. “All I could think about was seeing your faces again and hugging you tight. That made me stronger. You two and Mama made me strong enough to keep walking. Even when I was so tired and fell down, and I thought I would never get back up, all I could think about were my three best girls.”

“Did you see animals?” Lucy chimed in, her big, brown eyes struggling to stay alert.

“I did. I saw a bear.”

“A bear?” both girls asked together.

“Yep, and I think he was hungry, so I had to use my gun to fire a shot in the air and scare him off.”

“You didn’t kill him?”

“No, Shan. I didn’t want to have to kill him. Thank goodness he ran away after the loud bang, though, huh?”

“Yes, ‘cause he might have hurt you.”

“I know. He was very big.”

Lucy’s little mouth formed an ‘O’. “Must have been a grown-up bear!”

“I’d say so, Luce. I’m glad to be home now where there are no bears except Barney,” CJ said with a smile, making Lucy nod profusely in agreement.

Shannon’s expression had changed to pensive, and after a second or two, her bottom lip trembled slightly. “I’m glad you’re home. Mama was really sad without you.”

“Oh, I know, Shan. But it’s over now.”

“Yes, but we’re still sad because Idaho died.”

Lucy was being overwhelmed by her tiredness, but her frown told CJ she was sad too. They had told both girls earlier about the horse, explaining that she had died – but not that she had been killed by an intruder – and would be buried tomorrow. Shannon had asked if they could put some flowers on the grave afterwards, and Kate had told her she could. The children were also told that Nevada had run away, but they were going to try to find her soon.

Within the space of three weeks, CJ’s plane had been the target of a saboteur, their haven had been invaded, their horses were gone, and their barn had been completely destroyed. CJ had no idea what would come next, and her inability to do anything about it was frustrating the hell out of her. She clamped her mouth shut for a moment to stifle her conflicting emotions.

“You beautiful girls listen to me, OK? Everything’s gonna be fine. We’re all here, and we’ve got each other…always. We’ll find Nevada, and we’ll get a new friend for her someday, all right?”

“A new horse?”

“Maybe, yes. Let’s see what Mama thinks too, OK? We all need to decide together when the time is right…”

“Mama thinks it’s a good idea,” Kate said as she walked in the door with signs of her tears evident in her red-rimmed eyes. “We’ll give ourselves some time, and when we’re all feeling a bit better we can get a new horse.”

CJ looked lovingly at her. “How long have you been there?”

“Long enough, honey.”

“Mama, can you tell us a story too?” Lucy chanced drowsily.

“I think you’ve had enough stories tonight, don’t you? Quite a lot of Thomas the tiger, and Mommy’s adventure story too,” Kate said, giving CJ a sly wink as she moved to kiss Lucy’s forehead. “Time for sleep now…”

With a halfhearted grumble, Shannon slid out of her sister’s bed and shuffled to her own room. Both women kissed Lucy goodnight, and Kate helped CJ along the hallway to do the same to Shannon. Soon after, they were headed down the staircase – with CJ refusing help to see if she could manage it on her own, which she did – and met up with Jamie in the kitchen, where she sat at the island counter with her laptop. Since CJ had been upstairs for a while, she had yet to greet her colleague.

“Hey, Penfold.”

“DM. How you feelin’?”

“Meh, you know,” CJ answered cryptically.

“She’s pretending it doesn’t hurt,” Kate interpreted.

“Ah…”

“So what’s new? Anything on our situation?” CJ asked while shuffling her butt cheeks onto the stool that Kate held in place for her.

“Yeah, some stuff. But I promised Mark I’d wait until he arrives.”

CJ begrudgingly nodded. “Kate and I have been running it over in our minds, and can’t seem to figure it out yet.”

“How do you know what goes on in my mind?” Kate asked. When she saw CJ giving her a look, she grinned. “Hmm, yeah. Psychic CJ.”

“Nah, we just have this spooky link, but you already know that. You’ve been busting a gut to try to figure out who would want to hurt you and drive you insane, and why they would want to do all that instead of just coming after you directly. You know it’s probably not a lunatic fan, because they would most likely have you kidnapped by now, and they wouldn’t really have the means to track my movements in order to hurt me. And why bother with that when I was away from home and wouldn’t be here to stop them coming after you? Your cop mind has been working overtime, Katie…same as mine.”

Kate’s mouth hung open for a few seconds. “Spooky link confirmed.”

Jamie donned a dramatically astonished expression before nodding her agreement. “You two are weird.”

CJ smirked. “I know. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though.”

“I can see that.”

“So, if we rule out Kate Marshall psycho-fanatics, who else do we have?”

Jamie sighed. “Can you wait for ten minutes ‘til Mark gets here?”

“Oh, yeah. Forgot you said that,” CJ harrumphed. She would have drummed her fingers on the counter, but lifting her arm would just cause more pain so she sat and sulked instead.

Kate caught sight of the grumpy face and shook her head. “Caffeine. I’ll start the machine.”

The right side of CJ’s mouth twitched into what might have been a smile had it gone any further, and Kate grinned as she turned her back to grab four large mugs.

* * * * * *

In a cold, dark, and busy street in Manhattan, Eddie Marshall Senior stood with his arm around his partner. Jeffrey was beside himself with grief as they watched the building that housed their restaurant, Prescilla’s, burning to the ground. The horde of firefighters were working diligently inside the cordoned area which practically covered the entire street due to flying pieces of debris and signage, and some falling rubble.

Eddie had gotten a call about two hours after they had closed up for the night, and now they stood and watched their livelihood crumble in a matter of minutes. It was a blessed relief for the two men to find out that all the occupants of the apartments above their business had been safely evacuated, but Jeffrey was incredibly upset simply at the sight of the angry flames that still challenged the experienced firefighters of the FDNY.

Eddie was feeling somewhat emotional but wasn’t showing it in his usual flamboyant way. He knew they were well insured and was most thankful that there was no loss of life. There was anger and upset bubbling up inside his heart, but his mind was frantically throwing scenarios back and forth making him far too distracted to cry. So he just held onto his beloved partner and watched while the huge jets of water fired at the shell of the building. Blue and red lights flashed all around from the police cars and fire trucks, and Kate’s father couldn’t shake an unwelcome and uncomfortable feeling in his gut.

His dark-green eyes narrowed as he saw another few windows exploding outwards due to the intense heat of a blaze that didn’t seem to be going out.

A fire. Another fire?

.

Chapter 3

Back in California, Mark had arrived and was in the living room with Jamie, CJ, and Kate. While a few logs crackled in the large fireplace, they sat centered around the coffee table which held four mugs of steaming brew. As Mark organized his paperwork and his thoughts, CJ watched him surreptitiously from her position in the corner of the couch. She knew he had things to say, but she was growing impatient waiting for him to say them. She also knew her irate mood was partly due to the fact that she really wanted to drink the coffee that teasingly tempted her nostrils with its delicious aroma, but she didn’t want to have Kate help her in front of her boss. As Kate started to do just that, a sharp glance from CJ stopped her in her tracks. Kate frowned at her but quickly realized why she had acted in such a fashion. She let out a sigh to let CJ know she had gotten the message and wasn’t too happy with it.

CJ was getting jittery. Nobody was speaking, and she had just offended her wife to boot. She took a breath, preparing to blurt something, anything out, when Mark decided to speak. Finally.

“Right. Sorry that took so long.” Mark missed his top agent rolling her eyes beside him, and continued on. “We’ve made some progress in our investigation. Agent Dalton has found an image of the man you saw on the flight from LA. I have the still right here.”

“Dalton?”

“Yes. He wasn’t assigned to the case, but he’s been working this on his own time and making sure I get any info as soon as it’s discovered. Seems you really made an impression on him…” Mark said with a nod.

Jamie snorted. “She always does.” She immediately winked at CJ to show it was said with affection.

“Well, here’s the picture. He got it from one of only two cameras at the airfield.”

CJ reached out to take it, again forgetting her shoulder was stiff and sore. A sharp hiss through her teeth made Kate rise from her seat. “I’m OK, Katie,” CJ placated once she’d taken hold of the photo. When Kate slowly sat back down, CJ smiled apologetically at her before looking at the fuzzy image of the man wearing overalls and carrying a metal toolbox. “Yeah, that’s him. Can’t see his face too clearly in this picture, though.”

Mark nodded. “We’ll still need you to work with the sketch artist. I should be able to arrange that for tomorrow, and before you say it, no, you’re not coming into the office. He’ll come here, if that’s OK with you both.”

“I can walk, you know,” CJ muttered.

“Maybe so, but I’m on Kate’s side here. You need to recuperate.”

“Me too,” Jamie chimed in.

“Oh, so everyone’s ganging up on me?”

Kate moved to sit beside CJ. “Call it what you will. We just care about you, that’s all.”

Mark shifted to swap seats with Kate to give the two women more room on the couch. “We do, CJ. And I want you to enjoy your coffee, so why don’t you just let Kate help you? I know how badly injured you were, and I don’t care if…well, you know.”

CJ sighed heavily. She knew they didn’t care that she needed help with everything right now, but she hated to appear incapable in front of any of her professional peers. Thinking about it for a minute more, she realized that the colleagues in this room were much more than just people from work, and she reluctantly gave in. “Um, Katie? Could you help me with the mug?”

Kate smiled widely at her. It was loving, compassionate, forgiving, and ultimately Kate. “Yes. Here.”

Once CJ had taken a few satisfying gulps, Mark continued on like nothing had happened. He knew CJ would prefer it that way, and he wasn’t going to mention her current weakness again since she seemed to get the message already. “So, Tim has been feeding information through to me regularly. The cause of the crash has been confirmed, as you both know, but the acid was found to be of a type that is quite hard to come by. Ordering it should require identification and a verified delivery address. The suppliers in Minnesota were few, and I cross-checked the customer names with the passenger list on your flight from LA.” He looked at CJ and Kate. “One name matched. This guy, whoever he is, has added identity theft to his crimes. He used a dead man’s name and address, which was a PO Box in Duluth. Dalton is looking into that now. Our arsonist must have a fake ID…a passport…and he seems to be very well prepared for his job. Jamie and I were thinking he could either be a seriously deranged stalker coming after you, Kate…or he’s someone from your past with the Bureau, CJ. I already checked to make sure Alison Timmons is still locked up, and she is. You know…just in case she acquired an accomplice from somewhere. I wouldn’t put anything past that woman.”

“Neither would I, Sir-“ CJ faltered when Mark held up a wagging finger. “I mean Mark, but we had ruled out the stalker thing. A stalker would just come directly for Kate. Surely he wouldn’t go to all this trouble to eradicate me first, and then screw around trying to scare his target?”

“Depends on the type of nutcase he is.”

Kate spoke up. “That’s true, CJ. We never considered he might get off on playing with people’s minds…on playing with me. Maybe he wants me so terrified that I won’t know which way is up, and then he can snatch me without any problems. I mean, I’ve already shot at him, so he won’t think I’m going to be, uh, easy?”

CJ’s eyes widened a little, but even she couldn’t find a joke in there right now. This was too serious. “OK, so the nutcase theory is back in. But Mark’s right, it could be someone I’ve locked up in the past. Or maybe I locked up their family member, and it’s time for revenge.” She gripped her lips between her teeth and noticed Jamie had some files on her lap. “What did you find, Penfold?”

Jamie swallowed her gulp of coffee before she spoke. “We’ve got a few pieces of evidence from here at the house. He left some pretty good tracks on the ground when he ran away. We took impressions, and if we can find him and find his boots, we’ll match those quite easily. He managed to lure the horses with an apple. I found small pieces of it on the ground in the field. I think he approached from the north, so he must have walked for a while over the plains before he reached your property. This tells me he’s very organized, and everything he does is premeditated…almost like he has a deliberate agenda, a final goal in his mind that he’s supposed to achieve. So again, this doesn’t rule out the crazy stalker. They can be quite cunning when they have to be.”

“I’d have to agree,” CJ said absently, while Kate and Mark nodded.

“Oh, and by the way, I’ve cleared the back yard of any toys. There’s nothing left lying out there, so I can see anything suspicious as soon as it appears. I’ll do that every night after the girls go to bed. I don’t know what this guy’s next move will be, but I’d say he’ll make it under the cover of darkness, and I’ll be ready for him.”

“Not tonight you won’t, Agent Green,” Mark said firmly. “I’ll be remaining here tonight, in the car. I’m going to park up in the trees just beyond the house and keep watch. It gives me a good view of the whole place, including the driveway. You need to rest.”

This was news to all three women, but the way Mark said it booked no room for argument. CJ was actually kind of relieved. She knew Jamie desperately needed sleep, and a few seconds later, Kate voiced her thoughts for her.

“You are exhausted, Jamie. And we’d be happy for you to stay, Mark, but feel free to stay in the house.”

“No, no. I’m all set up in the sedan. Don’t worry about me. And it’s only for one night. I’m sure I won’t be able to keep Jamie away any longer than that.”

“You’re sending me home?” Jamie asked in a high-pitched voice.

“Of course.”

“But…but I can sleep here. Then at least if you need me, I’m close by.”

Mark analyzed Jamie’s face and saw that her chin was jutted forward, and her eyes were almost maniacal. He tapped his finger on his chin while he decided what to do. She’s pretty determined too. He surrendered and gave a single head bob. “OK, but you must sleep.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Mark smiled briefly at her, but wanted to maintain his role as her boss. “Might as well go now, agent.” Jamie didn’t need to be told twice. She was close to being unconscious on her feet, so once she’d bid them goodnight, she headed upstairs.

Since there had been no resistance to his ‘order’, Mark took a deep breath of relief. “Right. I suppose I should head out there then. Before I go, I just wanted to say I’m sorry about what happened to your horses.”

“Thanks, Mark,” Kate replied. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure…”

“I couldn’t find much about the crash on the Internet. Why is that?”

“While the investigation is ongoing, only the basic information will be put out there. All we released was that a small plane went down with two passengers on board, one of them a federal agent. No names were given, and to be honest, I think we’ll keep it that way for now. I’m not even going to comment on whether anyone survived or not.”

CJ nodded in understanding, but when Kate asked why, Mark perched himself on the arm of the couch.

“I want this guy to think he succeeded in what he set out to do. I believe he tried to kill CJ, and now he’s set on harming you in some way. Your wife’s plane goes down, and suddenly someone starts trying to intimidate you? The timing of it all and the jet fuel used in the fire…it wasn’t a coincidence. He seems to be intent on coming back here to hurt your family, and I want to catch him before it escalates even further.”

“And we appreciate that. Believe me. Having the LAPD on the case is fine, but I feel better knowing I can trust the people protecting us,” Kate finished quietly.

CJ felt a pang of nonsensical guilt about her inability to protect her family. She pushed it aside harshly and refocused her mind. “Mark…how did you manage to take over this investigation anyway? Our unit’s supposed to deal with serial killers.”

“I know. Technically, we didn’t take over the investigation, but we are running our own alongside the LAPD one. The plane crash is a federal case and is now linked to what’s going on here. But you’re right about our unit, and Mitchell is pretty pissed at me right now. Ethan and Mikey have been working on our killer, but the case is progressing very slowly. And thank you for reminding me…” Mark pulled a file from his bag. “I wonder if you might take a quick look at these.”

“What are they?”

“Crime scene photos.” Mark looked to Kate and asked, “Are you OK with this?” even though he already knew the answer.

“Yes.”

Once the images were spread on the table surface, CJ narrowed her eyes and looked at them from various angles. “The drawings are very crude,” she husked as she pointed at the stupid-looking little diagrams the killer had taunted them with on each body.

Mark nodded since he’d thought so too. In fact, he thought they were a load of nonsense and the killer was just playing with them, but he remained quiet and waited patiently for his top agent to speak again.

CJ carefully pushed back from her hunched up position over the coffee table. “They look like a really crappy attempt at hieroglyphics,” she announced.

Mark stood perplexed for a few seconds before his eyes closed. “Jesus.” He rubbed his forehead. “I never even…you’re a fricking genius. How did you do that so fast?”

CJ just shrugged – noting a miniscule improvement in her shoulder before she smiled at her boss. “I like ancient Egypt.”

Mark coughed out a laugh. “Kate, can I take her brain to work with me?”

“Um, no. I need the brain too. It’s kind of a package deal,” Kate jibed back, which made CJ smirk at her.

“Well,” Mark said with finality. “I’ll let you two get some rest.”

“Wait,” CJ croaked, moving stiffly and tapping her finger on one particular photo. “They look like hieroglyphics…except this one here. Was there something different about this victim?”

Mark twisted himself around to see what she was looking at. He shook his head at how things were starting to fall into place. “She was the only one found indoors, under the floorboards of an old, vacant theater building.”

Literally five seconds later, CJ nodded. “I’d look at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater downtown. They have hieroglyphic plaques displayed on the walls. Maybe your killer’s been there. Hell, maybe he even works there.”

“That’ll be our next move. I don’t know why you’re not the director of the FBI already,” Mark said, finishing it with a small, nasal laugh.

“Never wanted that, Sir. I love the field. Don’t wanna sit in an office.”

“I know. And I can understand that. OK, I have to go.” He put a large envelope on the table marked Jensen Cessna – Crash site MVNP015 and looked admiringly at CJ. “I’ll just leave these for you.”

“Thanks. Keep me posted on the killer, will you, Mark?” CJ asked in a gruff but vocal tone.

“I will. Good to hear that voice coming back through. See you guys later. You know where I’ll be if you need me.”

As Kate showed him out, CJ leaned back against the couch cushions and sighed. “Well, at least I’m not completely useless.”

“Please tell me you did not just say that,” Kate said incredulously as she walked back into the room.

“I meant at work, honey.”

“Thank goodness, because you are not useless. Every second of your life is of huge value to me.”

“I know that. I meant because I can’t go help catch…” CJ realized that Kate’s tight grin meant she was pulling her leg a little. “If only I could be of more use to you right now,” she said, wiggling her eyebrow.

Kate sighed at that. “There’s no hurry to make love, CJ. I want you to recover properly…and anyway, there’s too much going on. I can’t relax.”

“That’s precisely my point, though. I think it would relax us both.”

“Not tonight, OK? But soon, I promise.”

CJ felt her heart get heavier. “I guess. I know it’s not really an appropriate time for-“

“CJ, it’s not that. I’d love to be with you. It seems to bond us very deeply and makes us feel invincible, but your injuries were pretty bad this time and…”

“I’ve had injuries before, Katie. When I was shot, we still managed to…connect.”

“When you were shot you had the use of your arms. Please try to give yourself some healing time.” Kate had settled beside CJ and was rubbing her hand through her dark hair. “I love you so much.”

“I know,” CJ murmured, closing her eyes as Kate’s miraculous touch lowered her stress levels yet again. “I love you too, and I love your magic hands.”

Kate smiled and remained as close as possible to her injured partner. She just wanted to meld with CJ, to be by her side and take away as much of her pain as she could. The thought of CJ’s pain made her wince inside, and she glanced at the coffee table. The envelope seemed quite thick, and she knew there would be many images of the crash site. Turning her head back to CJ and kissing her softly on her head, Kate decided she’d look at the crash site photos tomorrow. She’d had enough for tonight.

* * * * * *

They had watched some cheesy movie with the TV turned down low. No words were exchanged. They weren’t needed when their bodies were in constant contact. CJ yawned when the titles began to scroll on the screen, and Kate moved slowly from her warm spot on her spouse’s chest.

“Mmm. Bedtime?”

CJ glanced at the clock. “Wow, it’s after midnight already. Yeah, let’s get the invalid up to bed. It could take a while.”

“Wait here, and I’ll get you some painkillers to help you sleep.”

“Thanks, Katie,” CJ croaked out, warbling somewhere between a tight whisper and normal volume.

“It sounds like your throat’s getting better,” Kate said on her way into the kitchen.

“I sound like a teenage boy whose voice is about to break. Ugh.”

Kate came back to see CJ standing up straight, looking very cute, but she had to smile at CJ’s messed-up bed-head. “You sound far more like a gorgeous federal agent who just went through a terrible ordeal, and now she’s back home where she should be, healing under the care of her lovely wife.”

CJ chuckled silently. “That was quite a story.”

“You think I’d make something like that up?” Kate said with a wink.

“Nah. Especially not the lovely wife part. She’s so much more than lovely, though. She’s perfect.”

“Sweet talker.”

“Truth.”

Kate gazed into CJ’s eyes and felt her heart speed up. “You are perfect.”

“Yeah, with my broken parts and messy hair.”

“Your broken parts will heal, and your messy hair is adorable. You’re still perfect to me, so no more backchat.”

“Yes, ma’am.” CJ followed behind Kate who carried the things she needed for a restful night. Well, as restful as CJ’s night could be when she was in pain and couldn’t move much.

* * * * * *

After a hazardous trip up the staircase, CJ and Kate arrived in the master bedroom. CJ didn’t want to admit it, but it hurt, and as she dropped to sit on the edge of the large bed, she surrendered to the fact she wasn’t capable of much right now.

“OK, I give. That was hard work.”

Kate deposited the glass and pills on the nightstand and came to kneel between CJ’s legs. “Glad you finally came to your senses. Maybe we need to keep you on one level for a while.”

“No. I just need to stop denying that it hurts…at least, to you, anyway.”

Kate nodded. “Like I said, I’m glad you came to your senses. I’m the one you can be completely honest with, no matter what.”

“I know. You’re the only one.”

With a sympathetic smile, Kate got up. “Let’s get you something to wear to bed.”

“I’d rather just wear nothing. Less hassle,” CJ said, glancing down at her arms.

Kate’s green eyes narrowed. “Hmm. You, naked? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea right now.”

“I happen to think it’s a great idea.”

“You would.”

“And you really don’t?”

“You know what I mean, CJ. Of course it’s a great idea, but-”

“Uh-huh. So, get me naked.” CJ watched as Kate’s shoulders slouched and a look of resignation washed across her beautiful features. “Come on, Katie…” Those words managed to come out in a husky murmur, and they sure did the trick.

“OK.”

Kate unconsciously licked her lips as she approached, and CJ thought her heart might just burst. But then Kate’s cell phone rang. CJ closed her eyes in disbelief when her spouse changed direction and picked it up off the nightstand.

Kate looked confused for a second when she saw her father’s number on the display. “It’s Dad…”

CJ watched worriedly and spoke just as the confusion on Kate’s face turned to concern. “It’s the middle of the night in New York. Answer it…”

Kate nodded and pressed the appropriate button. “Dad? Are you OK?”

“Katie? Is everything all right there at the house?”

Kate could tell her father was more than freaked out. He sounded calm and manly, which meant there was a crisis ongoing. “Dad, we’re OK. What has happened? Is Jeffrey hurt?”

“Oh, no. No, Jeffrey’s fine. He’s stopped crying now.”

“Dad, please tell me…” Kate begged.

“Honey, I don’t want you to worry too much, but Prescilla’s burned down tonight. The whole building is wrecked…” Eddie heard a gasp on the line and stopped talking.

“Burned down?”

CJ’s pulse quickened at that, and she truly hoped that whatever had burned was not related to the problems they were having. “Katie?”

“Hold on, Dad…” Kate said before addressing CJ. “The restaurant was destroyed by fire tonight.” She saw CJ’s eyes narrow at the information, and Kate swore she could read her mind. “I’m about to ask him, honey.”

CJ blinked repeatedly in confusion, and when she heard Kate ask the exact question she wanted answered, her mouth dropped open.

“Dad…what started the fire? Do you know that yet?”

“Not yet, sweetheart. There’s still smoke everywhere, and I’m about to head home for a while. The police have our details, and they’ll call us when the FDNY find something. The most important thing is that nobody was hurt or killed, and that you precious things are still safe too.”

“You think it’s connected to us?”

“Oh, Katie, I don’t know. I can’t help but think it’s a little too coincidental.”

Kate hated when her father used his serious, gruff voice, so she rolled her shoulders to alleviate how uncomfortable it made her feel. “Let’s see what the professionals say first, OK? No jumping to conclusions.”

“I know. I’ll call you in the morning when we know more. I have to get Jeffrey home. It’s freezing here, you know?”

“I know, Dad. Tell Jeffrey we love him, and we love you too.”

“Right back to you all, my lovelies. Sorry to call with bad news at this hour.”

“Don’t worry about it. Call any time, and for any reason, Dad.”

“Oh, sweetie, you really are wonderful. Try to get some rest. And the same to that gorgeous wife of yours!”

Kate heard a little of Eddie’s flamboyance in that sentence, and it lifted her frowning eyebrows a little. “You too, Dad. Night-night.”

“Goodnight, sweetheart.”

When the call was disconnected, Kate looked at CJ and saw that she was still gawking at her, waiting for information. “Prescilla’s and the apartments above it are completely burnt out and still smoldering.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No, thankfully.”

“He thinks it’s connected to our situation, doesn’t he.”

It wasn’t really a question, and Kate sighed as she answered. “Yeah, he does.”

“Katie, that’s quite a stretch considering we’re on opposite sides of the country.”

“I know. It would mean this guy has an accomplice, wouldn’t it?”

CJ eyebrows shot up her forehead. “Uh, yeah. Shit, that’s possible. I never even considered there could be two of ‘em. Man, I’m really not thinking.”

“Of course you’re thinking, but there’s a helluva lot to think about right now, and you’re in a lot of pain too. I guess Dad’s paranoia’s just rubbing off on me. I hate it when he sounds so serious and…un-dad-like.” Kate dropped onto the mattress next to CJ who kissed her on the temple before resting her forehead on the same spot.

“I hate to add to the pile of problems right now, but I think I just got my period.”

Kate shook her head. “You are never a problem. Come on.”

Once they were in the bathroom, CJ watched Kate bustle around for a moment then come to stand in front of her. Before Kate could start anything, CJ pursed her lips. “I might manage to do this by myself,” she whispered sheepishly.

“I doubt it…and I don’t really want to see you hurt yourself in your quest to get the right angle. And anyway, you’ve been trying to get me inside you for days. Looks like you got your wish,” Kate said with a glimpse of a twinkle in her eye.

CJ pondered that for all of two seconds, but she pretended to take much longer and put on her best thinking face. Finally, she answered. “Not exactly what I had in mind, but you have a point there, Mrs. Carson.”

“Uh-huh. And you wanted to be naked for bed, so let’s do that first. How about a quick shower before I do the deed?”

CJ chuckled quietly. “You’re the boss.”

“Glad you agree.” Once CJ was standing in front of her wearing nothing but her plaster cast and a bashful grin, Kate smiled. “Do you know how beautiful you are?”

CJ’s cheeks burned crimson at the unexpected compliment. “Not as beautiful as you.”

“Hmm, I wish you would just take the compliment and know it as the whole truth. You’re a goddess, honey.”

“To you, maybe. And, um, thank you, Katie. I love you.”

“I love you too, you big goof. Shower,” Kate ordered while pointing at the enclosure.

“You have to come in too, otherwise I won’t be able to rest my cast on anything.” CJ tried to keep her expression neutral.

Kate’s suspicious eyes narrowed for a second. “All right…” She removed her clothing which set CJ’s pulse racing, rapping a fast beat all through her body.

Kate leaned in to start the water and let it warm to the preset temperature, and as CJ hobbled into the shower – with the throbbing area between her legs causing more of a limp – Kate gently grasped her right arm and guided her so that her cast would be in a dry zone. Kate stood facing her and lifted the injured left arm carefully onto her shoulder. CJ flinched, but it was less painful than moving it herself.

“Now I know it might be hard for you, but don’t move your arms. I’ll do the washing for both of us,” Kate said in a no-nonsense manner.

CJ’s nostrils flared, but she remained silent. She watched with great interest as Kate removed the shower gel from the small, in-built shelf and lathered some into her palms. The bulk of CJ’s body was under the soothing spray, and when Kate’s hands met her overheated skin, she moaned at the sizzling contact. Kate sensed the change and looked up into CJ’s eyes. She realized how much denying CJ was actually torturing her.

She doesn’t have to move an inch, and I could… Kate blinked from her thought and continued to delicately cleanse CJ’s injured body.

CJ’s breasts were heaving with her labored breaths, and every area Kate touched seemed to press back against her. Decision made, Kate moved her hand lower, cupping CJ’s dark mound, her middle finger pressing gently into the sodden flesh beneath.

“Oh, Katie…” CJ whimpered.

“Just relax and stay still.”

CJ almost did as she was told, but she had to open her legs a little more. Finding a comfortable enough position for her weakened ankle, she readied herself for the onslaught of some wonderful sensations for a change. “It won’t take…long…” she gasped out as Kate circled her clit with her fingertip.

“I know.” Kate’s left hand came to up to cover CJ’s breast, chaffing the erect nipple with her palm. She knew from the swelling between CJ’s legs that she was so ready, and since CJ was very wet, she slipped two fingers slowly inside.

“Yes.” CJ’s eyes were shut tight and her mouth hung open to gather necessary oxygen. Her legs trembled, and she fleetingly thought this might not have been such a good idea after all. Kate’s thumb pressed against her clit as the soft thrusting continued, and she felt every nerve ending telling her it was too late to change her mind. She didn’t want to, anyway. “My…Katie…” The heartfelt words escaped in a hitching of breath as her orgasm swept through her.

Kate’s hand left the hard nipple to allow her to grab CJ around the waist in case she collapsed. “Hey,” she said loudly enough to be heard over the water. “Focus for me. Don’t fall.”

CJ managed to smile and open her eyes. “I’m OK.”

“Good.” Kate kissed her on the chin. “And yes, I am your Katie.”

Once CJ had recovered, the washing was completed as fast as possible since she’d been on her ankle way longer than Kate would’ve liked. Standing in the middle of the bathroom, Kate pulled the ponytail from CJ’s hair and brushed it through. With that done, she moved in front of her and looked up into a somewhat peaceful and sated face.

“OK. Spread ‘em.”

CJ grinned. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Very sure. Just don’t get aroused again.”

“I’ll try.” When Kate’s finger circled her sex, CJ’s body couldn’t help but react. “What’re you doing?”

“Well, I gotta find the hole first. It’s not like doing it on my own body.”

“Oh…uh…ah! Sure. That feels nice.”

“Quit it,” Kate said, hearing CJ’s husky tones get deeper. “OK, let me know if it’s uncomfortable?”

OK.” A few seconds later, CJ had to admit Kate had done ‘the deed’ incredibly well. “That feels fine, Katie. And, uh, thank you.”

“Anytime, beautiful.” Kate reached up to place a delicate kiss on CJ’s cheek. “Just always remember, I would do anything for you. Actually, the tampon task was quite pleasurable, so you just let me know when you need me again.”

CJ rolled her eyes and dragged herself towards the bed while Kate threw the wet towels into the laundry hamper, cleared up a few things, ran her fingers through her own short locks, and shut off the light in their bathroom before climbing in beside her wife.

CJ desperately wanted to make love to Kate – to reciprocate for her pleasure in the shower among other reasons – but she was pretty sure Kate would refuse such an offer. With a sigh, she asked anyway. “Katie?”

“Mmm, yeah?” Kate murmured as she snuggled down in her pillow.

“I…I want to make love to you too.”

“Oh, CJ, that’s not why I did it.”

“I know that, but I want-“

Kate placed her fingertips over CJ’s lips to silence her. “Just relax. Please? All I need are your arms around me…” The words were out before Kate could stop them, and she watched CJ’s eyes fill with tears.

“And I can’t even do that properly.”

CJ looked pretty desolate as Kate moved into her left side. The cast safely clamped between them, she held her unusually emotional partner and cooed into her ear in apology.

“All I need is you, CJ. That came out all wrong. I’m sorry, honey…so sorry. It’ll get better soon. I promise.” Kate kissed the tear-stained cheek so close to her mouth, and CJ turned to her, engaging her in a deeper kiss that conveyed what she wanted. Their tongues met and danced around one another as if their hunger could never be satisfied. Kate could feel the blood rushing in her ears and her heart pounding double-time. It felt incredible, but she knew they couldn’t touch one another the way they usually did, and that thought made her pull back once more.

She wanted CJ to understand what she felt, but putting it into words could be difficult. “I love you more than you’ll ever be able to imagine. Always believe that. Nothing can change-“

“Katie, do something for me?”

“Anything…” Kate realized what she’d just said and almost laughed at what she knew was coming.

CJ’s wide grin – even through her tears – showed that she’d heard it loud and clear. “I’m glad you said that. Now, I’m going to slide down the bed, and you’re going to…” As she spoke, she felt the heat shoot through her body. “Let me taste you.”

Once Kate had the image in her mind, it was hard to shift it. She really wanted that powerful connection with her one and only love, and she also wanted to grant the pleading wish that CJ’s eyes now conveyed. She nodded and silently got to her knees. CJ slithered down the mattress without too many grimaces and waited in anticipation of what she was about to see. Her mouth already filling with saliva, she watched Kate lean down to kiss her passionately, smoldering eyes closing as they met. She let Kate sink into her while engulfing Kate’s tongue with her mouth, suckling on the muscle as it explored around her teeth. Kate moaned at the pulling motion and felt it in other places. Her nipples tingled, and her clit throbbed.

CJ let go of Kate’s intoxicating mouth and whispered, “More…”

Kate moved very cautiously over CJ’s torso, and when those blue eyes latched onto her breast with a hunger so fierce she could barely breathe, she lowered herself down to CJ’s waiting lips. CJ groaned her pleasure as she pulled Kate’s nipple into her mouth. She really wanted to touch Kate with her hands, but knew she couldn’t so she concentrated on feeling everything she could with her mouth.

Kate’s pebbled areola tickled against her lips, and she felt the nipple inside her mouth harden and elongate. It made her stomach clench, and she was eternally grateful her abdominal bruising didn’t cause her any pain. She squeezed her thighs together to try to alleviate the little spasms of empathy that ran through her sex, and moved her head to grab the other nipple with her teeth. Kate barely cried out, her breaths becoming ragged and her thoughts swimming in a sea of gratitude that her wife was here with her now. When CJ finally let the sensitive point go, Kate climbed higher and heard a whimper from underneath her.

“Oh, yes,” CJ murmured, seeing the glistening flesh peeking out from behind Kate’s dark-blond curls. “Please, Katie.”

In a slightly awkward position but still able to get comfortable without leaning on CJ’s shoulder, Kate was poised over her and holding onto the head of the bed for dear life. She was a little shocked at how wet she was, and she vaguely wondered why she had been denying them this life-affirming connection. She looked down to see an intense pair of eyes pleading still, and she realized she hadn’t lowered herself enough. She slowly did so, and an audible exhale exploded from her lungs at the feel of CJ’s hungry mouth covering her most intimate area. CJ’s thick tongue slid up through her folds and played forcefully with her clit, making her cry out again.

“Ciara…”

CJ was in that heavenly place she would never tire of. Kate surrounded her face, and she could smell, taste, and touch Kate the way she had been craving. Without the use of her hands, she decided her tongue was going to work extra hard, and that suited her just fine. CJ swirled and circled around Kate’s swollen clit quickly to bring her closer to the edge. Judging by the sounds coming from Kate’s throat between every short, panting breath, her technique was working like a charm. She stopped the frantic flicking for a moment and took the tip of her tongue to Kate’s sex, sliding in to tease it mercilessly before retreating to bring her flattened tongue slowly up through Kate’s inner labia, finishing at the top of her sensitive clit.

“Please…” Kate breathed.

CJ thrust her partially-erect tongue inside a few times, the tip feeling around inside to gather the delicious nectar that surrounded it while her nose teased Kate’s clit and drove her to a higher level of arousal. Kate held back her scream, but when CJ withdrew to suck her clit into her scorching mouth, Kate felt herself crashing over a tidal wave of pleasure. CJ continued to suck as she flicked her tongue fast, bringing Kate’s orgasm to an almighty climax.

Kate thrust one final time onto CJ’s face, and CJ was blissfully lapping up everything she offered. It was only after a few seconds, she realized Kate was offering a lot, but she didn’t care at all, and she waited until her wife came back to her senses before she made their predicament known.

Hearing a slight chuckle below her, Kate inhaled deeply a few times to get her breath back before whispering, “What?”

“I think you got your period too.” CJ snickered before she kissed the tender flesh above her.

Kate rolled off to the side, and once on her feet she looked at CJ before quickly heading to the bathroom. “That’s almost gross.”

“It most certainly is not! I love it. I love you, remember?”

“I know, but I meant if the world could hear us now, some would find it gross.” Kate leaned over CJ and wiped her chin. “I realize you don’t, but some would.”

“Hmm, well, it’s just a natural occurrence, and it’s all quite delicious to me, but only because it’s yours, Katie.”

Kate kissed her before moving away again. “Ditto, CJ.” She came back out of the bathroom after attending to herself. “Looks like we’re totally in sync with that now too, huh? How weird.”

“Yep. We always have that awesome time of the month together, but this is the first time we’ve got it on the same day…same hour, actually.” After a sarcastic hmm from Kate at the word ‘awesome’, CJ shifted slightly so they could lie close together once more. “And while we’re on the subject of weird, how did you manage to read my mind earlier?”

“When?”

“You were on the phone to Dad, and you said…and I quote…I’m about to ask him, honey, but I hadn’t spoken my thoughts aloud.”

Kate looked up to check CJ’s eyes for any signs of a joke. “I did?”

“Yes. And then you went on and asked Dad the question with the exact words I had used in my head.”

“Uh, wow. Maybe I just know you too well now.”

“Perhaps,” CJ murmured as she kissed Kate’s cheek. “Sleep now. And thank you so much.”

“For what?”

“For letting me love you.”

Kate almost cried. “I’m the one who should say thank you, CJ. It was wonderful, as always.”

“I’m just glad you let me, and it caused me no pain whatsoever, just in case you were wondering.”

“Good.” Kate kissed the soft skin next to her face. “Night.”

“Goodnight, my love.”

Both women felt impossibly closer somehow, and as Kate drifted into slumber she had to admit that making love had eased a lot of her tension. She would concede – only to herself – that CJ had been right all along.

.

Chapter 4

Kate awoke early and got up to relieve her bladder. When she came back into the bedroom, she looked at her stunning partner. CJ continued to sleep, and Kate stared at her to make sure she was actually there. She got up each morning expecting it all to be a dream. But it wasn’t. CJ was here.

Tears stung the back of Kate’s eyes again at the feeling she’d had of never seeing her wife again. It had been way too close this time, and she wondered if there would ever be an end to the drama that was their life. Oh, she could cope with drama – she was an actress, after all – but she just preferred it when her family were not put in mortal jeopardy…or any kind of jeopardy, for that matter.

The thought of her job made Kate’s eyes pop open. OK. Need to get my head in gear and call Lorena. She stood looking at CJ for a few seconds longer while she worked through her morning routine in her head. CJ seemed to really need her rest, but she would need help in the bathroom when she woke, and Kate knew she didn’t have much time since CJ usually stirred without her in the bed.

Kate grabbed her robe and decided that a text to Lorena would suffice for now. She didn’t want to spend time on the phone, and it was early Saturday morning: her agent-slash-manager wouldn’t be at the office anyway. If there was anything urgent, she was sure Lorena would call her back at a convenient time.

Kate was also waiting for her father to call back with news about the fire at Prescilla’s. Then there was Idaho. It was going to be a sad day, but she was feeling surprisingly strong. She knew it was partly due to what she had shared with CJ last night, and partly due to the miraculous inner-strength she exuded when CJ was with her. She glanced back at her now. CJ had turned her head and now had her face smashed against Kate’s pillow.

She knows what I need better than I do sometimes. With a shake of her head and a smile, she left the room to go check on the children and the other federal agents. Finding the children still deep in the land of nod, she headed downstairs.

Since it was daylight, Mark had come indoors and now sat with Jamie in the kitchen, sipping on coffee and reading through a couple of newspapers he’d brought last night in case he needed something to read. Kate had wondered where Kamali was as she descended the stairs, but she saw him now, sitting patiently but keenly alert by Mark’s side.

“Did someone give you a tasty treat, Kamali?” Kate inquired, pursing her lips to stop a smile.

Jamie looked at Kate, then at her boss. “Busted.”

Mark was too busy trying to peel his eyes away from Kate. He hadn’t really seen her in such casual attire before, but he covered his surprise well. He was heartened by the fact that she felt comfortable enough to be there in her robe. “Sorry, Kate. He’s been a very good boy. Didn’t even bark at me when I was lurking around outside your house all night.”

“He’s such an intelligent dog, and he knows you’re a friend. And I’m just kidding, Mark. He’s allowed the occasional treat.”

“Did you two sleep OK?” Jamie asked her.

Kate turned to see if there was any hidden meaning behind the words, but it looked to be a genuine question with no knowing smirks or winks, indicating to her that Jamie hadn’t heard them in bed last night. “Very well, thank you. What about you?”

“Like a log. I was more exhausted than I thought. And that guest bed is really comfy.”

Mark grunted at her. “My seat wasn’t so great, but I wasn’t here to sleep anyway. Still, maybe a visit to the chiropractor wouldn’t go amiss. I’m getting too old for all-night stakeouts.”

“Aww, Mark, you’re not that old,” Jamie blurted before she could stop herself.

“Watch it, Green.”

Jamie tensed a little, but then she saw the glint in Mark’s eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. She cleared her throat and with a smile, replied. “Sorry, Sir.”

Kate chuckled as she poured some of the coffee from the pot into her So Say We All mug. It seemed the sci-fi geek in CJ was rubbing off on her. “So I assume all was quiet last night, Mark?”

“Yes. I hate to say it, but I hope he comes back soon. I want to catch the sonofabitch.”

“I agree.” Kate sighed. “I need to get today over with before I can think any more about it. We have to bury Idaho this morning. The guys should be here in about two hours to do that,” she said, looking at the wall clock and seeing it display eight fifteen.

“Do they take care of everything?” Jamie asked after finishing her coffee.

“Yes. Apparently they dig the hole, prepare the…animal…and fill it in. The owners can be present, or not.”

“Are you going to be there?”

“I might, but the girls will have to stay indoors. Seeing our horse being hauled around is not for young eyes, so I’ve asked Tony to come in today.”

“Ah, I was going to say. I mean, CJ can’t really…oh, never mind.”

Kate sighed. “I know she can’t, Jamie. And it’s OK, you can say it. CJ can’t cope right now.”

“Don’t let her hear you say that,” Mark harrumphed.

“I think she’s coming round to the idea that she’ll just have to deal with it.”

“Yeah, but not in front of us…and on that note, I’m heading out.” Mark slid off the stool, bid them both goodbye, and was about to leave when Kate called his name.

“Mark?”

“Yes?”

“My father called last night. He’ll be calling me back later with an update. I’m not sure it’s any of your concern, but…his restaurant burned down last night. Completely destroyed.”

“Where…?” Mark asked with a frown.

“In New York City. Like I said, I don’t think it’s any of your concern, but I thought I’d mention it.”

“No, no, I’m glad you did. I’d like to look into it, if that’s OK with you?”

Kate nodded. “Yes, thank you. He seems to be worried about the possibility of it being linked, but I’m not so sure.”

“I don’t know, Kate. I wouldn’t put anything past this un-sub. If I find out anything important, I’ll let you know, all right?”

“Thanks. Why did you say un-sub?”

“Because that’s what we’re supposed to call the killers, perps, suspects…if they’re unknown. The BAU always use unknown subject.”

“CJ doesn’t.”

“I know. She sticks to what she’s used to, doesn’t like too much change.” Mark paused to think. “At work, anyway.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard any of you use it,” Kate said, looking between Jamie and Mark.

“You’re right, but we do write it in reports and case files from time to time. Thing is, by the time we’re done, they’re usually known, so they go from the suspect to the perp. It’s all the same thing really,” Mark explained with a shrug.

Jamie agreed with a nod and added, “They’re always thinking up new words and acronyms. Sometimes I can’t keep track. Why not call it like it is?”

Kate realized she was fiddling with her robe and slapped her hands down to her sides. “I’d have to agree. Anyway, I’d better let you go, Mark.”

“No worries. Bye, guys.” Just as Mark was leaving the house, Tony had his hand raised and halted mid-air, ready to ring the doorbell making Mark grin. “Morning, Tony. Go on in.”

“Thanks, Mark.” Tony curled his eyebrow in a CJ sort of way. “What’re you-? Never mind. See you later,” he added to the man’s back. After he received a wave over Mark’s shoulder, he closed the door and headed towards the voices.

“Ah, Tony. And that’s my cue to leave too,” Jamie said with a single nod. “See you later, Kate. Tell CJ I’ll be back after dinner.”

“I will. Try to have a good day,” Kate responded as she accepted a kiss on the cheek.

Tony entered the kitchen just as Jamie was leaving, and he rubbed his forehead before looking at Kate. “Uh, busy house, huh?”

“Very. There’s coffee in the pot if you want some, Tony. I better go get the family up,” Kate replied, patting his shoulder as she passed him.

Tony perched himself on one of the stools at the island counter. “I don’t know how she does it,” he muttered as he watched Kate bounding up the stairs. “Maybe she’s a cylon.” He chuckled quietly as wandered over to the coffee machine. He needed the caffeine just to keep up with her.

* * * * * *

After taking the stairs two at a time – easily paced by her galloping dog – Kate checked in on the girls. They were still sound asleep, so she decided she’d get CJ ready first. Arriving at the master suite, she popped her head in the door and saw CJ yawning widely.

Perfect timing. With a simple, loving smile, she went toward the bed and gently sat on the edge of the mattress. “Good morning, beautiful.”

“Hey. What day is it?” CJ slurred drowsily.

“Saturday.”

CJ had to think for a minute to figure out what that meant. “Oh. What time…?”

“Around nine. You have three hours before the sketch artist arrives. Want some help?” Kate said as she leaned forward to kiss her.

“Mmm.” CJ felt herself respond to Kate’s soft lips, but she knew her bladder was about to burst so she couldn’t try to persuade Kate to come back to bed. When the kiss was over, CJ pouted. “I need to pee.”

Kate smiled at the look on her face before she stood and waited until CJ moved gingerly into a sitting position. With her feet placed firmly on the carpet, CJ sat there gloriously nude, and Kate tilted her head to appreciate her beautiful, long body. CJ saw where Kate’s eyes were roaming and couldn’t resist mischievously tugging on the tie on Kate’s robe to make the thick, fluffy cotton fall away from her torso. “Hey. None of that,” Kate chastised mildly.

“Just a kiss,” CJ whispered as her lips met Kate’s firm abdomen.

CJ nipped at the skin, and when she heard a gasp above her, she stuck her tongue into Kate’s navel before licking everywhere she could reach to make the little bites all better. She took a long, intoxicating inhale and closed her eyes to savor it. “OK. I’m done.”

“Jesus, honey.” Kate was panting slightly but recovered enough to assist CJ to the bathroom where she dealt with the usual morning ablutions.

Once CJ was done, she cradled her broken wrist as she limped back to the bedroom. Her shoulder was throbbing this morning, but she wasn’t going to confess that little detail to Kate or she wouldn’t get to make love to her again for weeks. She stood completely nude while she watched Kate grabbing some underwear, a pair of navy-blue sweatpants, and Kate’s own oversized UCLA hoodie from the closet.

When Kate was satisfied that her choices were adequately comfortable and warm for the day, she dropped the pile on the bed and turned to CJ. “Ready?”

“I love you,” CJ said with dreamy eyes.

“And I love you, mushy kitten. Ready?” Kate repeated with a tiny grin.

“Yeah. Go for it.” Only six minutes later, CJ was fully clothed.

Kate gently hooked up the sling fastener behind CJ’s back. She adjusted the material as she moved around to the front again and – checking CJ’s expression for signs of discomfort – she stood back with her arms crossed, once again looking quite satisfied with herself.

CJ snickered at her cocky spouse. “You’re getting good at that.”

“I was just thinking the same thing. How was the pain?”

“Hardly any this time, and my ankle’s almost back to normal. I think I’ll start walking around a little more. The shoulder’s annoyingly tight, the wrist is still useless and painful, but everything you did was great, Katie. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, my love. Now…” Kate took a breath and spoke quickly. “Let’s get you downstairs before our daughters get up. I’ll get them organized with breakfast, and Tony’s here. He’ll watch them with you while I go out and bury our dear, sweet horse, and then I-”

“Hey. Look at me.” When Kate did, CJ kissed her lightly. “Breathe, Katie. I want to come with you to bury Idaho. Ah, ah. No arguments. I could use the walk, and I’ll be very careful.”

Kate saw the look in CJ’s deep, dark eyes and could tangibly feel the love and honesty exuding from her. They were going to do this together, just like every other difficult event that had crossed their path. “OK.”

* * * * * *

When the men had left, Kate and CJ stood in the December sun and looked at the large, slightly raised mound of dirt. Idaho had been laid to rest, and both women were glassy-eyed. Kate wrapped one arm around CJ’s waist and leaned her head on her chest.

CJ propped her chin on Kate’s hair and sighed deeply. “I can’t believe she’s gone. Just like that. I hate this guy, whoever he is.”

“She didn’t have a nasty bone in her body. Why did this horrid person have to harm an innocent animal?” Kate sniffed and rubbed her hand across her eyes.

“I don’t know,”CJ replied as she kissed Kate’s short hair. “It seems he’s trying to find ways to hurt you.”

“To hurt us…” Kate corrected.

CJ ducked her head to catch Kate’s eye before she spoke. “Katie, whoever he is, he’s trying to hurt you. I’m supposed to be out of the picture, and now he’s tormenting you. I hate to say it, but it’s looking more and more like another psycho-stalker.”

Kate cupped her hands over her mouth and nose, dragging them downwards as a huge sigh escaped. “Maybe.”

“We better head back in case Dad calls.” CJ could see the stress still lingering within Kate. It had been such an ordeal for her, and it wasn’t over yet.

“I have my cell right here in my pocket. But yeah, let’s go.” Kate took one last look at the grave. “We should get something to mark her name on.”

“We will.” CJ began to hobble across the field with Kate’s hand on the small of her back.

“Take your time, CJ.”

“No worries there. I can’t go any faster than this.”

It took a good fifteen minutes to get to the backyard, and both CJ and Kate were looking forward to a few quiet hours talking with their daughters and mourning their loss. Surely that wouldn’t be too much to ask after such an emotional morning? As the day would come to pass, it seemed it was indeed too much to ask.

CJ tried to walk as normally as she could through the child-proof gate and into the house via the back door. She was very aware of Kate behind her, no doubt assessing her condition and watching in case she faltered going up the two steps into the rear hall that led past the gym and into the kitchen. Once she was on the flat floorboards, she heard a sigh of relief from Kate, and she had to stifle the urge to turn around and tell her beloved that she really could manage. She pushed back her mild irritation, knowing that it was simply the frustration of being partially disabled that wanted to voice itself to whoever was available to listen. CJ knew she was horrible to deal with when she was sick or injured, and she shook her head in recognition of the flaws in her character. Blowing out her own sigh, she continued to move forward until she saw Tony and the children drawing at the low art table in the crèche.

Shannon was up on her feet as soon as she saw her parents. “Mommy. Is…is Idaho gone now?” She leaned her head on CJ’s hip as Kate continued past them into the kitchen.

CJ moved her right arm to touch Shannon’s hair, feeling the pinch of pain and trying to ignore it. “Yes, Squirt. She’s gone.”

“When can we go out to put flowers there?”

“Maybe later today. All right? I’m quite tired now, and I need to sit down for a while. Want to sit with me?”

“Yes, I will…but I want to finish my drawing first.” Shannon walked slowly back to sit beside her sister. It seemed they were working on a drawing together, and CJ smiled sadly before she headed to the couch.

Kate was on the phone when she joined CJ, and as they sat there, CJ listened to the one-sided conversation.

“Yes. I’m sorry I’ve been MIA this past while. No, no. Yes, things are fine, but I am dealing with some difficult family situations. Oh, absolutely, Lorena…”

CJ’s body relaxed a little when she realized Kate wasn’t talking to her father. She almost didn’t want to know if the fire at Prescilla’s was arson, but she suspected it was going to be confirmed sometime today, either by Eddie or Mark. CJ inhaled slowly and focused again on Kate’s hypnotic voice.

“Who at Olympian? Oh, OK. Right…right. The twentieth? Gosh, it’s getting close to Christmas, but yes, that’s fine. Oh? Which shows? Mm-hmm. Right. Oh, Ellen? Oh goodness, yes, but when would that be? Right. OK, that’s possible.” Kate listened intently, her green eyes staring at the pad on the coffee table as she wrote a few notes on it. She nibbled on her lips and scratched her temple with the end of the pen. “The Tonight Show? Yes, I did that one before, a few years back. Different host now, but I could do it again. OK. OK, can you let me know the date as soon as you find out? OK, Lorena, and thanks for understanding. If you can put all the details in an email for me, I’d appreciate it. Great. Yes, bye for now.” She hung up the call and fell backwards onto the plump cushions.

“Interviews…?” CJ said with her signature raised eyebrow.

“And the rest. Meeting-slash-audition of sorts for Infinity One, two major talk show requests, a possible guest appearance on the crime drama, After The Fall, and a few magazines wanting interviews too. I’ve been holding off as much as possible since I left Deadline, but I guess they’re desperate to find out what happened now.”

“How much can you tell them?”

Kate sat upright again and looked at CJ. “Not much about Mischa’s departure since it hasn’t aired yet, but I knew the fact that I’d left would get out eventually. It was probably someone at the studios who leaked the information. I guess I can talk about my possible new show, and no doubt they’ll want to talk all about my new haircut,” she finished with a grin.

“I bet they love it as much as I do,” CJ drawled.

“I don’t think anybody can love it as much as you do, honey.”

“I just wish I could touch it more. But with these stupid arms…”

Kate fell slowly to the side and rested her head on CJ’s lap. “Does that help?”

“Yeah.” CJ managed to move her hand onto Kate’s head and trail her fingers through her cropped hair. “So when do they want you on Ellen?”

“Maybe next month? Lorena never had an actual schedule. She just wanted to know if I would do it.”

“It’s a great show to get invited onto.”

“Totally…but it doesn’t really fit into my wanting to keep a lower profile.” Kate’s voice drifted into nothing, and she closed her eyes as CJ’s fingers worked their magic. But the moment was short-lived. Lucy came bounding into the room with Kamali, and the doorbell rang just as the house phone let out its shrill repetitive tone.

Kate hopped to her feet, threw the phone handset onto the couch for CJ to answer, and followed Lucy out into the hallway. Lucy headed into the downstairs bathroom, and Kate went to the door to look through the small, glass panels that ran down the side. Her eyebrows crept upward when she saw her brother on the porch.

“Eddie?”

“Hey, Sis. It’s great to see you.”

“It’s great to see you too. I didn’t know you were even in LA.”

Eddie hugged her and gave a sullen half-smile. “Dad caught me up with all the recent events. He called me last night, apparently right after he called you. Since I was due to arrive here tomorrow for a job on Monday anyway, I thought I’d change my flight and come see you guys. Is that OK?”

“Of course, Eddie.” Kate returned her brother’s hug and led him into the living room.

When they saw CJ, Kate almost cried. She hadn’t even considered that her injured wife would have trouble with the normally simple task of holding the phone. But CJ had managed to answer the call, and now had the handset perched on her sore shoulder, her head uncomfortably lolled to the side to pin the contraption in place.

“Shit,” Kate whispered as she tried to hold back the emotion she was suddenly experiencing. She mouthed a sorry to CJ and got a smile in response.

Eddie gave a little wave to his sister-in-law, and her answer was a raised eyebrow and another mouthed word – Dad. Message received, Eddie Junior took Kate’s hand and pulled her into the kitchen. When he turned around at the island counter, Kate saw him holding back the tears.

“What’s wrong?”

Eddie choked through a cough and collected his thoughts. “I…sorry. I just wasn’t prepared to see her so…so beat up? I know that’s silly, but…”

“Aw, hey.” Kate took him into her arms. “It’s not silly. I wasn’t even thinking you hadn’t seen her since the crash. Believe it or not, she’s looking much better.”

He stood up straight and met her eyes. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. When she got home, she was gaunt, skinnier, and in agony. Her hair was dirty and a little matted, her bruise was an angry red…” Kate swallowed back her own sadness at the memory. “And…and we were both completely in shock over the entire thing.”

“I can’t even imagine.” Eddie rubbed Kate’s back soothingly. “How’s she coping with not being able to do anything?”

“I’m coping OK,” CJ said, limping slowly into the room. “But I have the best, most patient, most supportive nurse in the world,” she finished, leaning slightly to kiss Kate’s cheek.

Kate turned to her and gave her an apologetic smile. “Honey, I’m so sorry about throwing the phone at you like that. I didn’t even think.”

“It’s OK. Really. Hey, Eddie. You’ll forgive me if I don’t hug you,” CJ said, signaling to her arms with her eyes.

“Can I hug you without causing any damage?” he asked.

“Sure. Just be gentle.”

As Eddie encircled her in the most delicate hug ever, he whispered in her ear. “It’s so great to see you, Sis. Love you.”

CJ gulped back the lump that formed in her throat. “Love you too,” she husked.

Eddie backed up. “I’m just so relieved? Is that the right word? I mean, when Dad first told me about the crash…I…well, you know.”

“We know,” Kate said quietly. “So go say hello to your nieces then we can have coffee and chat.”

“Where are they?”

“Engrossed in an art project with Tony…”

“Cool. I’ll be right back.”

Kate went immediately to CJ and slipped her arms around her slimmer-than-usual waist. “I really am sorry about being so heartless with the phone, CJ.”

“Katie, quit it. You didn’t do it intentionally, and anyway, I managed OK once I got it up to my ear.”

“I know, but-“

CJ’s lips silenced Kate mid-sentence, and once the contact broke, CJ smiled.

“I know I’ve been a grumpy old wife. You’ve been incredible to put up with me, and when you think about the kind of things you’re having to do for me…well, I can never thank you enough.”

“You don’t ever need to thank me. The fact that you’re here is a true gift to me.”

“Still, it might be a little nicer if I wasn’t such an impatient patient.” CJ gave her a shy smirk.

“Very funny. But think about it, CJ. If it were the other way around, would you put up with me?”

“It would be a pleasure. I wouldn’t call it putting up with you.”

“Exactly. I love taking care of you. I just have to work around the self-sufficient, independent, mega-tough special agent part of you and-“

“OK. Yeah, yeah,” CJ interrupted when she saw Eddie come back into the kitchen. “Coffee time?” she suggested.

Kate gave her an all-knowing look and moved over to the machine. “Coffee time.”

* * * * * *

“A camera system?” Kate exclaimed.

Eddie Junior nodded. “And it won’t cost you a dime.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I helped develop the software, and our company is producing the system. It’s selling pretty well already, and we get, you know…fringe benefits. I could install it while I’m here actually.”

“You have it with you?” CJ asked her brother-in-law.

“Yep. I brought four cameras, motion sensors, and the digital recording equipment. It’s easy to install. You can have a camera on each side of the house which will give you a full exterior view of the grounds surrounding the building.”

“Wow. I…well, it sounds great. We have a guy coming on Monday to quote us for fencing and gates.” Kate blew out a breath. “But this will make me feel even more secure.”

“Are you going to fence the entire fourteen acres?” Eddie asked in a high-pitched squeak.

CJ shook her head. “Actually, I was thinking about that. The fourteen acres has a fence of sorts around it already, and we only really use the three fields that are irrigated and maintained for grazing, so we could take the new fence around the back of those, right down to the road, along the front of the lake, and back up behind where the new barn will go. We can put a full-height door on the back fence to let us onto the rest of our land, and the electric gates on the driveway will finish the circuit off quite nicely.”

Kate was wide-eyed. “You’ve certainly thought this through, CJ.” She paused to think for a second. “That sounds perfect, actually.”

CJ released the sudden panicked look on her face before she smiled sheepishly. She hadn’t mentioned her thoughts to Kate yet and that had sounded a little like there was no room for discussion. “I was gonna talk with you about it,” she said with a nose scrunch.

Kate laid her hand over CJ’s. “I figured.” She grinned and turned to Eddie. “We didn’t feel the need for all this fuss before, but now we feel a little exposed.”

“I’m not surprised. Listen, I can get you a video entry system for the gates too, but I’ll need to come back to install that. Maybe next month?”

“Eddie, that’s really too much-“

“Nonsense,” he broke in. “It’s my gift to you all. I feel better knowing your home is safer too, you know.”

“Thank you,” both women said in unison.

A nod from Eddie was followed by a few moments of silence, but when Kate was swallowing a large gulp of her cooling coffee, she remembered that CJ had been on the phone earlier.

“Dad,” Kate suddenly blurted. “What did he say?”

“Oh, I forgot about that,” CJ said with a shake of her head. “He still hasn’t had the final report from the investigators, but there was a witness who said she saw a guy throwing a few bottles through the glass of the restaurant’s front door…then striking a match.”

“Shit,” Kate muttered. “But there’s a security shutter…”

“Yeah, the bottles fitted through the gaps. Seems the guy planned it. I hate to say it, Katie, but-”

“I know. It sounds like it’s linked to us.”

Eddie cupped his mug with his hands and frowned. “Who would go to all this trouble just to hurt you, Kate?”

“I don’t know, Eddie. I just don’t…” Kate stopped talking, and as an unwelcome thought ran though her mind, she shivered involuntarily. But she dismissed the thought as ridiculous and went on to finish her sentence. “Just don’t know.”

CJ saw the shadow swiftly cross Kate’s face and wondered what had disturbed her so much. She would not forget to ask Kate once they were alone. It didn’t seem like that was going to be anytime soon as the doorbell sounded again, breaking CJ out of her thoughts. Ten minutes later, she was sitting on the couch describing – to a very skilled Bureau sketch artist – what the suspicious man at Jensen’s Aviation looked like.

.

Chapter 5

Eddie Junior and Tony had taken Shannon, Lucy, and Kamali out for a long walk, hoping to give CJ and Kate some time to relax. Not long after they all left, a phone call from Mark had ensured the relaxation didn’t happen. Kate was now washing dishes at the kitchen sink to give her something to do. CJ was still talking to her boss – or so Kate thought – and she’d already surmised from the beginning of CJ’s one-sided conversation that the fire in New York was indeed started deliberately. The dreaded words ‘jet’ and ‘fuel’ had been used. Kate sighed heavily as she dried her hands on the dish cloth, but when she heard a sound that was a combination of a scream and a growl, she headed quickly out of the kitchen.

“Goddamn it!”

Kate heard the curse and winced when she saw the couch was empty. She crossed the living room, following the sound of CJ’s voice.

“Katie?” was yelled from somewhere ahead.

Kate entered the hallway and called out, “Where are you?”

“Toilet,” was the barely restrained shout.

Kate glided across the smooth, wooden boards and walked into the downstairs shower room. The sight that greeted her made her pause. CJ stood with her pants and underwear around her ankles, her face reddened with what Kate suspected was anger…and perhaps a little embarrassment. A few tears were evident, as was the frustration in CJ’s blue eyes that averted their gaze away from Kate. A scrunched up piece of toilet paper had drifted to the floor, and Kate sighed silently as she continued toward her all-too-independent spouse.

“Why didn’t you just ask me to come help you?”

“Because you’re helping me with everything!” CJ blurted. “You help me dress, you help me wipe my ass, you help me brush my teeth…you even help me feed myself. I can’t take a damn drink without your help!” CJ stood rigidly and tried to calm her nerves.

“CJ, if I was the one who was injured…” Kate stopped talking when she realized she was about to repeat herself.

“But you’re not the one. I don’t have your patience. I don’t have your strength when it comes to things like this.” CJ breathed deeply in an attempt to slow her heartrate. “I can’t deal with being vulnerable, being weakened and having physical restrictions. It’s pissing me the hell off.”

“Honey, this has to stop. Look at you. You’re trembling with rage.”

“It’s not rage,” CJ croaked, feeling sweat pouring off her scalp and between her shoulder blades. She once again looked anywhere but at Kate. “It’s pain.”

“Jesus, CJ. What happened?” Kate scooped down to pick up the piece of toilet paper and dropped it into the bowl before ripping a few more sheets from the roll.

“I couldn’t…wipe properly, and when I bent over to try again, I lost my balance. I automatically threw my hand out to catch myself and pulled it back when the agony shot through my shoulder. Then I fell against the wall and…” Nothing but a low grunt followed as CJ gave up trying to explain.

“Your right shoulder?”

CJ nodded somberly.

“Can you let me help now before everyone comes back from the walk?” When she got another nod, Kate completed the intimate task, finishing with pulling the sweatpants over CJ’s hips, flushing the toilet, and gently washing the three available hands. “You’re due some painkillers. Come with me.”

CJ was normally a tough woman to break, but she still trembled as they traversed the lower level of their home and ended up in the kitchen. “I’m sorry, Katie.”

“You keep saying that to me, but it’s not necessary. I understand you getting angry…as long as it’s not directed at me.”

CJ looked up sharply. “Never. No, it’s not. You know I’m just-”

“I know.”

As CJ watched her amazing partner filling a glass of cold water and snagging the appropriate amount of painkillers from the cupboard high on the wall, she tried to figure out how Kate was handling everything so well. “How can you stand this?”

Kate came to stand in front of her as she tried to figure out what she meant. “What?”

“This! I can’t touch you. I can’t help you around the house. I can’t protect you. I’m useless,” CJ said, lowering her eyes once more.

“Look at me, CJ.” Kate waited for CJ’s eyes to meet hers, and when they did, she frowned. “That better not be shame I can see in there. This is me you’re talking to here. I know you, and I know this is temporary. But even if it wasn’t, CJ, it would never change how much I love and admire you.”

“I…know that.”

“Then you’d better remember it. Now, listen to me. You protect me every minute of every day.”

CJ winced. “What? How can I?”

“Honey, you taught me how to use a gun. You taught me about the law…far more than I knew before. You taught me how to listen and see things the way you do. You taught me about profiling criminals…how they think and why they act like they do. Hell, you’ve almost taught me how to do your job. You give me a reason to be stronger, more determined, more courageous, and I’ll never let anyone hurt you because I feel just as protective towards my family as you do. Let me protect you right now. That’s what you do for me every day. You’re my savior, my heart, my soulmate, and always my protector. Don’t ever forget that.”

CJ’s mouth was agape until she realized how sill she must look and slammed it shut. She stared at her warrior wife in wonder. “You are simply incredible.”

We are incredible. You just have to remember how you feel and know that I feel it just as intensely for you too. We’ll get through this, CJ.”

“You seem-”

“So sure? I am.”

“How did you know what I was going to say?”

Kate raised her eyebrow. “The spooky link?”

“Ah, yes.”

The eyebrow relaxed when Kate began to chuckle at her own thoughts. “You know, that sounds like the title for some kind of covert dossier on Fox Mulder.”

Now CJ’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as a hearty laugh erupted from her belly. “How do you do that?”

Kate snickered and planted a kiss on CJ’s lips. “I just know how to tickle your geeky funny bone, I guess.”

“I guess,” CJ said, ending the conversation with a snort.

* * * * * *

With everyone back at the house, dinner was a bustling affair, and CJ once again became frustrated at her complete inability to assist with anything. The pain from her little mishap in the bathroom had required heavier medication to ease the sting, and it was a slightly fuzzy special agent who sat at the head of the table with Kate.

Eddie Junior had made a start on installing the camera system, and with Jamie’s help he would complete his work after the meal. He was currently reloading Lucy’s plate with a second helping of risotto while she licked her lips in anticipation of more delicious food. Shannon sat with her hand around a glass of milk, but she didn’t have time to drink any because, as usual, she regaled all present with tales of her week at school.

CJ watched all this for a while before finally looking to Kate whose profile was lit up by her seemingly-permanent glow of love. Kate smiled and nodded along with the various conversations while eating the remainder of her meal, and CJ was entranced for a few moments – no doubt compounded by her drugged, lightheaded feeling – before Kate turned to see her hazy, blue eyes lost in another world.

“You all right?” Kate asked as she glanced down at CJ’s barely-touched meal.

CJ nodded but couldn’t seem to refocus her eyes. “I’m just not very hungry.”

“Once I’m done here, I’ll help you to bed. I think you should sleep it off.”

“OK.”

Now Kate knew CJ was in pain. No argument, no grumbling, and no resistance. CJ was doped and ready to rest. As soon as her last mouthful was consumed, Kate stood up and discreetly hauled CJ to her feet.

“I’ll be back in a few…” she said to the rest of the table.

CJ stopped mid-shuffle, blew a strand of black hair off her face, and turned to Eddie. “You staying tonight, Eddie?”

“I have a hotel booked, CJ, but thanks. I think you have a full house anyway.”

CJ rolled her eyes. I really need to get that fifth bedroom fixed up and put a damn bed in it. Fat chance with these stupid arms, she groaned to herself. With a sigh, she nodded at him. “Yes, you’re right.”

Eddie nodded and smiled. “Thanks for thinking of me, Sis. Have a good sleep.”

Kate gently nudged CJ to get her on the move again. Tightening her arm around CJ’s waist, she helped her up the staircase with some effort. “Honey, please stay with me here. I can’t hold your full weight.”

“What are you trying to say, Katie? That I’m piling on the pounds?”

“Ugh, of course not. If anything, you’ve lost far too much weight. I’m not…you know you’re just taller-“

“I was…joking. I won’t fall.” CJ interrupted. She attempted a wink when Kate glared at her. “Almost there.”

Kate let out a puff of breath when CJ finally sat on their bed. “OK, let me at least get your bra off to make you more comfortable.”

“I don’t think I’m in any condition for you to start that kind of thing.”

“Quit it, smart ass.”

Once the underwear was expertly removed, CJ lay back on the bed in her soft sweats and T-shirt. After a mild complaint at the movement in her left wrist, she sunk into the pillows. “Thanks, love,” she slurred as her eyes dropped heavily.

“Sweet dreams.” Kate placed a delicate kiss on her forehead, and before she even stood upright, CJ was emitting a light snore.

* * * * * *

Jamie was in the study assisting Eddie with the monitor for the new cameras which were now secured in place outside the house. The system was wireless and therefore pretty quick to install, especially for tech-whiz Eddie.

Kate slowly descended the stairs after reading a quick story to Shannon and Lucy. The house had become very quiet, and since CJ was still out cold, Kate decided to relax on the couch and look over her emails, including the rather long and detailed one from Lorena Xu. There was a video file attached to the message so she opened it to find the pilot episode of Infinity One playing in front of her. Since the file lasted for well over an hour, she decided to watch it once Eddie had gone for the night so she could view it without any interruptions.

After absorbing everything in Lorena’s email, Kate sighed. She had wanted to melt away into the background for a while, but it seemed it just wasn’t possible right now. She was still very much in demand, and the public seemed to have a voracious appetite for information on the future of Kate’s career. She decided that her career was important to her family, and that her fame wasn’t going to disappear or lessen in intensity, but she would be pretty strict about her working hours and her requirements before her final acceptance of the role of Le’Ana Bezwick. Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice in the next room.

“Kate?”

She got up and walked the few steps over to the study. “Yeah?”

“Want to come pick your camera angles?” Eddie said with a smile.

“It’s up and running already?”

“Yeah. Come see.”

When Kate went to stand behind Eddie, she could see the quartered, split screen. “Wow. The picture is so clear.”

“Yes, it’s a good system. And look. You can bring up any one camera by simply pressing the number. Then, when you want to go back to all four you just press the home button.”

“That’s great. Thank you so much.” Kate grinned as she ruffled Eddie’s brown hair just like when they were kids.

“Hey. Quit that,” he grumbled while trying not to sound like a whining child in front of Jamie. “So, any angles you want to change?”

Kate leaned down to check the images. Once she had asked Eddie to move two of the cameras, she was satisfied so she turned to Jamie who was sitting on the couch with her laptop. “Jamie?”

“Hmm. I got an email from Mark about the fire in Manhattan. It’s very likely it’s linked to what’s been happening here. They’ve sent the fuel sample to the lab for type comparison.” Jamie looked up at her friend. “It looks like there are two of them.”

“Damn it. Who the hell are they?”

“I wish I knew.”

Jamie would be on high alert tonight and would keep her gun strapped to her chest at all times. She still held a lot of guilt about Idaho, and she was determined this guy was not getting away with anything else. Deciding she would increase her patrols to every thirty minutes throughout the hours of darkness, she closed her laptop and got up off the couch. “We’ll get them, Kate.”

Kate wasn’t so sure, but took comfort in the look of determination on Jamie’s face. “I hope so.”

At that point, neither of them could have realized just how accurate Jamie’s last statement would be.

* * * * * *

It was almost midnight. Kate had checked on Shannon, Lucy, and CJ. She had assisted CJ to the toilet before putting her back in bed where she went out like a light in seconds. Kate had snagged the Colt .45 from the safe before she headed back downstairs. Now the house was silent once more, except for the occasional grunt and heavy breath as Jamie did a little sparring in the gym between her patrols to keep her alert.

Kate sat in the study with her laptop on the desk. With the lights out, only the glow from the screen was visible. The whole house would be in darkness were it not for a wall light in the gym, but Kate preferred it that way for now, and she clicked the Infinity One file to begin watching the pilot episode of the show she was about to join.

Twenty five minutes in, she was quite impressed with the writing, the dramatic direction, the CGI special effects, and the way the story and characters were grabbing her attention. She also noted with interest that the fighter pilots wore smart, formal, authoritarian outfits. She really liked those and hoped they hadn’t made too many changes in the wardrobe department for the continuation of the series.

Kamali appeared outside the study door with his ears pricked and his doggy nostrils sniffing the air. Kate watched him intently, but he simply sat down in view of her and stayed alert. She swung the swivel chair around slowly to free herself from the desk, knowing that something had made him move from his bed. Just as she did it, a loud crash came from the kitchen. Kamali bounded into action, and Kate jumped up to look at the camera monitor. A dark figure ran clockwise around the back of the house.

The dog began to bark loudly, and another smash made Kate jump out of her skin. She turned to see what had clunked to the ground beside her. A large rock lay splintered on the floor, and the study’s small window had a jagged hole in the middle of the glass pane. After another smash, Kate heard Jamie shout “FBI!” just before the backdoor slammed closed behind the agent.

Kate reacted quickly. Kamali was going nuts, but if she let him out he might get hurt. She grabbed the Colt .45 and ran out the front door, making sure it closed to keep the dog in. Remembering what direction she had seen the man going, she went to face him head on. What she didn’t count on was running into him at the corner of the building. She had no space or time to aim her gun, so she decided her fist would have to do.

Before his surprised eyes could even register her presence, she had punched him square in the face, making him unsteady on his feet for a few seconds before he recovered and came at her. Her right foot flew out and kicked him dead-center in the gut, forcing him to double over, but again he recovered and Kate realized she needed to inflict a little more damage on this particular asshole. Aiming for under his chin, she thrust the heel of her hand upward as he tried to grab at her shoulder. The resounding impact sent his lower jaw crashing into the upper one with a clatter of teeth. As he fell backwards, he let out a yelp before landing on his backside.

This had all happened in a matter of seconds, and Jamie came running from the rear of the house just in time to see the man trying to get up to attack Kate. A ferocious-looking Kate was having none of it and commanded him to stay down, but he ignored her and got a solid sneaker-covered foot in the face as his reward. The entire time, Kate had held her gun-wielding hand out behind her so that she wouldn’t be tempted to shoot the bastard, but also to avoid having him grab her weapon. Jamie fleetingly thought how amazing Kate would be as a law enforcer.

While the attacker was reeling on the ground from Kate’s last assault, Jamie swung into action and pushed him onto his front.

“FBI. You are under arrest.” While she cuffed him behind his back, she read him his rights between ragged breaths.

Kamali was still barking inside the house, and Kate knew she was needed elsewhere. Shannon and Lucy would be awake due to the ruckus, and possibly CJ too. Once the cuffs were secured on the man’s wrists, Kate glanced at Jamie.

“I’ll go call it in.”

Jamie actually smirked at her temporary partner. “Thanks. I’ll manage this.”

Kate ran indoors and found a snarling Kamali at the foot of the stairs. He stopped as soon as he realized who had entered the house, but Kate saw the reason for his aggressive stance. Two sleepy children stood on the upper landing looking down at her.

“It’s OK, girls. Everything’s OK.” Kate was about to pick up the phone when she saw CJ hobbling along to meet their daughters.

“Katie, are you all right?” CJ asked in confusion.

“I’m fine. Really.” Kate was still filled with adrenaline, but she took a deep, controlled breath and dialed Mark’s number. “Mark, it’s Kate. We need you here now. Yes, we caught him. OK, thanks.”

CJ’s eyes were wide and slightly more focused by the time Kate looked up at her. “Him? You caught-“

“CJ, can you take the girls back to bed? I’ll be up soon,” Kate pleaded.

With a mild frown, CJ nodded and herded Shannon and Lucy away with her voice. “Come on, you two. Let’s get you tucked in.”

Just as they disappeared from view, Kate heard Shannon say, “Was it a bad man?” She couldn’t believe how alert and attentive her older daughter was, even in the middle of the night.

Kate ran her hands through her hair before she settled the dog somewhat by giving him a scratch behind the ears and a few calming words. A couple of minutes later, she was half way up the stairs when CJ came back into the hallway. Kamali had followed Kate, and she rested her hand on his head before speaking to her wife.

“Honey, can you keep him up here for a bit? I need to go check on Jamie.”

“First, tell me what happened?”

“We caught the perp. He smashed windows this time. I’m not sure what else yet, but he’s outside with his face in the dirt.”

“Why do you have dirt on your face?” CJ asked with concern.

“Uh, I kinda beat him up a little bit.”

CJ’s dark eyebrow rose, and she blinked as her mind went back to a time in her office when Kate had done something similar to a homicidal Agent Powell. “I see. Be careful, please?”

“Of course I will. Take the dog and go into our room. I’ll be back as soon as Mark gets here.” At CJ’s skeptical look, she added, “I will.”

Feeling completely useless once again, CJ went to the master suite and called Kamali who reluctantly trotted over to her side. She closed the bedroom door softly, and Kate sighed heavily before running back downstairs.

* * * * * *

Mark, Jamie, and two other agents had left about fifteen minutes ago, but before they had gone they had searched the grounds and found a suspect piece of raw meat out in the back yard. Jamie knew it hadn’t been there an hour earlier when she’d done her last patrol of the perimeter, and she guessed their arsonist had intended it for Kamali.

Jamie wondered what the lab techs would find in the meat. The thought of the Carsons losing their dog after everything that had happened, only made her furious at the idiot who sat cuffed in the Bureau sedan.

The chunky slab of beef had been carefully bagged and removed, and the piece of dirt under it dug out in case of any lingering poisons seeping into the soil. Mark and Jamie weren’t taking any chances about what kind of harmful chemicals could be in the meat.

Jamie had hurriedly told Kate to remove her outer garments, just in case the attacker had actually touched her, but Kate assured her that he had not gotten close enough. She carefully undressed anyway, discarding the clothes into the evidence bags that Jamie took with her.

Now in her pajamas and a pair of flip-flops, Kate stood and looked at the mess in the kitchen. Glass was strewn all over the sink, the countertops, and the floor. At least the rocks used to break the windows were already gone: more evidence collected by the FBI. Jamie had called out a couple of CSU agents who had already catalogued and photographed the various scenes, and now Kate had to wait for the company who would come to board up the windows until they could get replacements ordered.

“Guess I’d better clear up,” she whispered to herself before vigorously rubbing her face with her hands. With a sigh, she tried to decipher where to start. It was 2am, and she was getting tired. The thought of having to make the house safe again before she could sleep filled her with dread. Her mind ground to a halt while she stood staring at the mess.

CJ had stayed hidden while the Bureau personnel were there, but she now appeared in the doorway with a much calmer Kamali in tow. She watched Kate standing motionless in the kitchen. She saw the glass, and the fingerprint dust, and the dirty footprints trailed in by the agents who had just left. CJ wanted to cry since she felt wholly inadequate and a little dazed by the entire night’s events. Kate had noticed her in the doorway and turned around to face her.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come up like I promised, CJ. I just needed to clear-“

“I know.” CJ looked so lost, her eyes drifting to the floor after she spoke.

Kate went to her and slipped her arms around her waist. “I’ll always need you, CJ.”

“How do you always know what I’m feeling?” CJ’s lips rested on Kate’s shaggy mop of hair, but when she noticed the dog walking away from her, she called him back. “Kamali, here.”

Kate released her grip. “Can you keep him in the living room until I clear up the glass? The kitchen, the study, and the playroom are all off limits.” At the mention of the playroom – Shannon had decided the crèche was due a name-change – both women felt a wave of anger wash over them, and they locked eyes before CJ whispered her reaction.

“They definitely took the guy into custody, right?”

Kate nodded slowly. “Yes. Jamie said she’ll keep us updated.”

“And you’re definitely OK? He didn’t hurt you?”

“No, CJ. He didn’t get the chance to lay a finger on me.”

“OK.” CJ called the dog and went to sit on the couch. She really needed to top