Persistence of Memory - Pt.4
By Paul "Wham Bam" Seely and Jennifer "Slow Hand" Garza
Special edition, limited time only, experimental disclaimer
provided for the reader's edification:
Chapter 7 contains a rather graphic, prolonged same-sex love scene. Charlotte is not involved. If that bothers you, skip it and substitute this sentence for that passage: "Diana does the deed with that Japanese chick." You might miss some character development, but that's the price you pay for being squeamish. ;-)
Julia waited at her desk as the communications satellite link was established and her vid screen clarified, displaying a six-inch picture of a deeply tanned, bearded man wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian print shirt. Gold chains tangled in the dark carpet of hair covering his chest, and his nose bore a pink stripe of zinc-oxide sunblock. Julia put on a happy face for the camera before addressing him.
"Ilya? Am I coming through clearly?" she asked, tilting her mouth at the lavalier mike on her collar.
"Perfectly," he answered, a slavic roll and clip to his syllables.
"Nice shirt. Enjoying the warmer climes, I see."
"These days, I never leave here willingly," he laughed. "You look well, Julia, as always."
"I'd rather be in the Caribbean with you, but..."
"Work, work work. I know. What do you have for me today?"
She tapped a finger against her chin, drawing out his suspense with a cheeky smile. "You still want to corner the cartel business? Those nasty boys from Cartagena?"
"Of course, but that is impossible," Ilya said, dejected. "Yoshima has that market covered."
"Not necessarily. He's suffered some bad luck - three of his shipments destined for South America were seized this morning on their way out of port at Nagoya, leaving a rather... large opening," she explained suggestively. "I think you're just the man to fill it - if you're up to the challenge."
His hirsute face split into a wide grin, and she knew she had him. "I am always up to filling any opening for you, my dear."
"Excellent. How would you like to be the broker for a dozen fully-armored BellJet Rangers?"
The line went quiet and Julia saw the big man tense and wait for the punchline - he was no sucker. In a former life, he was a KGB operative, but now Ilya Kurzin was an illegal arms dealer working with the Russian mafia. She approached him four months ago with a shipment of surface-to air missiles, and had built on that relationship with several deals since. Each time, she brought him quality product, and each time, he made a small fortune. This offer, however, set off all of his alarms with the sheer improbability of escaping detection and arrest.
"That is a very, very large opening," he breathed, trying to maintain his composure.
"Ilya, if you're worried about getting caught -"
"Of course I worry! Only idiots do not worry! Twelve armored helicopters? TWELVE!?! How can they be moved without the Colombians boarding the transport ship, or shooting them down?"
"Safe mainland passage by air has already been arranged, and I will provide charts to an unpatrolled shipping lane for your freighter. If your buyers come up with the cash, the choppers are all yours."
"Even if they could be delivered safely, Yoshima would retaliate for my usurping his trade."
"Yoshima has his hands full these days. Now is the time to move in and take his territory. By the time he recovers, if he recovers, you will be too strong, too entrenched for him to take it back."
Hesitating again, Ilya scratched his beard and gazed at the impassive beauty on his vid screen. She had delivered on every promise thus far, although he had yet to understand how she managed such machinations. This deal would ensure him an exclusive share of a very lucrative market. Yoshima was once a very powerful and feared man, but his international fortunes were now vulnerable. Shaking off a mental picture of himself as a vulture picking at a competitor's bones, Ilya decided to strike while the iron was hot. After all, if you don't play, you can't win.
"When can you get them to me?"
Julia could almost hear the tumblers clicking into place as she made good on her recent threat. Yoshima was being violated in a similar way by several other strategically empowered factions, each of whom now owed a debt to the cold, opportunistic blonde. Yoshima's drug routes, weapons trade, his interests in gambling and prostitution were all under siege thanks to her manipulation and encouragement. Handling this end of the agency's business was proving much less difficult than she had anticipated; she felt like a chess prodigy discovering how many people fall for fool's mate. With each deal, each victory, her own position was solidifying, the end potentials becoming greater than she had dared dream.
"Tonight. Twenty-three hundred hours, promptly. Be ready."
As she leaned forward to cut the connection, Ilya shouted out one last question.
"JULIA! Who the hell are you?"
She paused then, remembering how Joshua Riggins once answered that question.
"As far as you're concerned, I'm Santa Claus."
Terminating the call as the wheezing sound of Kurzin's laughter seeped from the speaker, she detached the microphone from her lapel and walked to the kitchen to check on Dan. Finding him squatting in front of the refrigerator, she leaned against the counter and waited for him to finish rummaging. He came up with a head of lettuce, a tomato, and a pack of turkey bacon.
At Julia's curious expression, he explained, "She's finally consented to eat something."
"Good. I didn't think her hunger strike would last long. She isn't used to going without."
"I'm not her personal chef, though. This has gotta stop," Dan declared. "She knows where those files are. How long are you gonna let her play us like this?"
Having answered that question too many times already, the pale woman hung her head and sighed. Maybe Dan was right. Perhaps it was time to risk more invasive procedures, although if she could put it off just a little bit longer, it might not be necessary to do anything at all.
"If, and I do mean if she is faking memory loss, she is doing a better job of it than any hardened, conditioned operative I have ever questioned. Do you honestly think that spoiled little rich girl is capable of such clever obfuscation?"
"Yes," Dan answered hotly, plunging a serrated kitchen knife into the lettuce head.
"Why? Why would she put herself through this? What does she get out of it?"
"She gets to fuck us all! It's the only card she has, and she's playing it against Yoshima and the agency!"
"You think she wants revenge?"
"Call it revenge, call it whatever you want. I think she enjoys the attention, the power that knowledge gives her," he said as he popped two slices of wheat bread in the toaster. "I mean, look at me. I should be in there beating the living shit out of her, but instead, I'm making her a goddamned BLT!! This is what gets her off, Julia!"
Reaching out a hand and placing it firmly on his shoulder, she silently urged the tall, thin man to calm himself down to a reasonable level. "This won't go on much longer. Either Diana or Yoshima will contact us soon, and we'll find out for certain whether she's on the level."
"How you figure that?"
"Regardless of what she remembers about him, Angelia knows she is safer with us than with Yoshima. She did not want to be taken by his men. According to eyewitnesses, she fought hard to get away from them in Bonn, and they had her bound quite tightly in that cabin in Nagano. If threatened with recapture by him, she may crack."
"That's a bit trickier," Julia said, patting him on the back and stepping away. "Diana once told me that the key to her surfacing unscathed was love."
"But the girl hated Diana. She tried to -"
"I know what she did, Dan. But you also remember the setup, what she believed she saw Diana do."
"Yeah," he admitted grudgingly.
"She felt betrayed, hurt by someone she cared about and trusted. There is a very thin line between love and hate. Her feelings for Diana were intense enough that she felt compelled to kill. Those feelings might be enough to carry her through the re-emergence, to bring her out safely."
"If she's even under in the first place."
Shaking his head, Dan wished again that he were anywhere else in the world but here. If his hair were not so thin, he would have considered pulling it out in clumps just to vent his frustration. "So we just... wait for Starrett?"
"I really hate this shit. I mean, the whole thing just doesn't sit right with me, waiting around to lure her into God knows what. We oughta leave Diana alone. She's better off believing the girl dead."
"We are leaving Diana alone. If she gets involved, it won't be at our request," she assured, aware that her promise rang hollow. Dan had drawn a bead on her intentions, and although he couldn't pull the trigger and do anything about it, at least she knew where he stood. "Meanwhile, why don't you go outside and get some air. Cool your jets, so to speak."
"Right," he agreed, abandoning preparation of the captive's sandwich. "Let the bitch starve."
Cracking a smile, Julia shoved at his back as he walked away. "I'll finish this. Oh, by the way - did she ask for this food specifically?"
"Yeah. BLT on wheat toast. Why?"
"Nothing," she answered quickly, keeping her suspicions to herself for the moment. "Go on outside."
Her gray eyes flickered with suspicion as Julia pondered the puzzle of the girl's lies. During more extensive questioning, several subtle inconsistencies had been noted, but she had no way of knowing how significant these slips were. Angelia covered well; nearly nine years in hiding will teach one how to lie, if nothing else. She was entertaining doubts about the assumption that the girl had been washed by Mangano. Perhaps the captive was biding her time, waiting for someone to rescue her again. The question plaguing her was an intriguing one: who was Angelia expecting? Joshua Riggins, maybe?
Riggins had made damned sure that the girl's location remained secret, leaving nothing on paper about her relocation to Germany. The man was very good at keeping secrets, though Julia had her own ideas about why he kept this one alive in the first place. Angelia was, in her opinion, a failsafe insurance policy for dealing with both his own rebellious, blue-eyed prodigy and Hideo Yoshima. Riggins just didn't live long enough to cash her in.
Still, Julia was certain that her patience with the prisoner would be rewarded. As it happened, she didn't truly care whether the girl was another tragic victim of Mangano's process or merely a skilled fibber. The files they sought were important to the agency, to Harry Mars and his humanitarian agenda, but not to Julia. The girl was a tool - her knowledge, an excuse to hold her and use her. Though Angelia might have fancied herself in a position to direct events, for every other player currently cast in this drama, she was merely a means to an end.
"And that end is my beginning," Julia whispered, slicing open the tomato with a surgeon's touch.
Diana shook her head - just a small jerk to the side, really - and bit her bottom lip. "Same reason he killed anybody, I guess. She was in the way of his plans, so he removed her."
Charlie leaned heavily against the sofa arm and shifted her legs on Diana's lap. She slipped back to a moment etched in her mind from that fateful evening at Marco Falcon's mansion, and she heard Joshua Riggins speaking to her with venom lacing his tongue.
"She's done this before, you know - rebelled, fought against her true nature. It didn't work that time, either, and she nearly lost her life because some ignorant little strumpet convinced her that she was in love."
* Christ... this was the woman he was talking about. He said in love, * Charlotte's mind whispered.
Her left eye twitched and she felt her stomach tighten at the sudden comprehension that this girl had genuinely meant something to Diana, enough to motivate her to try and turn away from the agency. Although it was now the last thing she wanted to put herself or Diana through, she needed to hear more about this dead woman. Her part in this story had suddenly become very important.
"I'm sorry," Charlotte began, "I shouldn't have rushed that out of you."
Diana shrugged away the concern, resting her hands on Charlie's knees in an almost conscious attempt to anchor herself. "The book still turns out the same way, whether you read the last chapter first or not. It's already been written."
"Well, if I promise not to stop you again, will you tell me the middle?"
"I don't know," Diana said, straightening her back. "I... I have to go soon, but I don't want to leave you alone. Teddy's probably at the office. He can come over and stay with you until I get back."
Glancing to the VCR clock, Charlie was surprised to see that less than twenty minutes had passed. "No, don't go yet. It's not even noon. You have time to finish this first. Please?"
"Charlie, it just gets worse from where I left off."
"Hey," Charlotte whispered, taking her hand and holding on loosely, "I won't make you tell me if you don't want to, but I still think it's important to get this out in the open."
Taking a long look into her lover's eyes, Diana got the feeling she had already said too much. She saw the fine lines creasing Charlie's brow and the drawn, tight set of her mouth, both signs of the masked anxiety and insecurity she knew the young woman to be feeling. "You don't have to hear this. None of it makes any difference now, to us."
"It makes a difference if we can't talk about it," Charlie claimed, lowering her head to stare at the floor as she spoke. "I don't want you to feel like you have to spare me anything. I admit that it's difficult to hear, but I haven't been kidding myself. I knew there must have been... others... for you."
Diana's head snapped around and her hand tightened on Charlotte's fingers until her grip was almost painful, her voice almost angry. "There is nobody else in the world for me. You must know that."
Mustering a smile, the attorney squeezed the strong hand trapping her own. "I've bet my life on it. I'm not worried."
"Good, because you have no reason to be. Do you still want to know the rest?"
"No," Charlie said honestly, "but I believe I need to."
Two days slipped away without significant event, and the time passed easily for everyone in the Nagano house since Yoshima was out of the country. The boys were both relaxed for once, and Angelia actually ate her meals in the dining room with everyone else. On the second night, Banana made decadent, enormous hamburgers and fat wedges of seasoned potato that could pass for uptown cousins of french fries. The tiny woman then swore them all to secrecy regarding the dietary indulgence. Everyone agreed that the grilled beef boulders stuffed with herb butter were far preferable to monkey's brains anyday, despite Yoshima's insistence on broadening their palates.
Sitting in a straight-backed maple chair at the dining room table, Diana split her attention between chatting with Gedde about his worship of Salvador Dali and catching the sidelong glances and smirks Angelia tossed her way when the conversation got a little too deep for her to stomach.
"I think he was afraid of nuclear war," Gedde observed, struggling to speak without showing his food, "and that is what the painting was about - the persistence of fear. Once something scares you so badly you think the world will end, it changes how everything in that world looks to you."
"So his memories of fear distort perception of his surroundings?" Diana prompted, marveling quietly at the child's ferocious intellect.
"Right. That's why everything's all warpy and the horizon is so bleak," the boy explained. "After the fear hurts you, everything changes. The memory never goes away."
Gedde's smile became broad and infectious as he noticed his brother and Angelia staring at him with impatient frowns and Diana regarding him with twinkling eyes. The child clearly loved the attention. He never got the chance to talk about art with anyone except his teachers in London, and his father discouraged his single-minded pursuit of knowledge on the subject. Yoshima made it plain that devoting too much time to such frivalous studies was folly, since he would be going into the family business as soon as he was grown - despite the younger boy's distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Yukio was the one who worshiped his father and longed to walk in his shadow. Gedde dreamed of traveling the world and painting everything he saw until he grew old and died peacefully, with a brush in his hand and a sunset warming his wrinkled face. Diana liked the kid, and it was plain from the way she picked on him (only when she thought no one could see) that Angelia did, too.
Since their late-night conversation in the kitchen, Diana had made a point of watching the girl at every opportunity. She found herself growing curious about the young woman's obvious hatred of Yoshima and her ambivalent relationship with her brothers. She searched through Riggins' intel reports and found only scant information about Angelia, but dismissed the dearth of reseach as an oversight or a symptom of time constraints during preparation. In her daily missives to the agency, she asked for more background on the family, specifically Angelia. Her requests were never answered, nor was her part in the mission clarified. She told herself to be patient, but it was getting harder by the day, just waiting, waiting, waiting... Diana was helplessly, indescribably bored.
That night, her tummy full of meat and potatoes, Diana settled on the queen-size bed in her suite for an evening of studying encoded transcripts of Yoshima's takeover proposal for a division of Matsuda Group. For whatever reason, the fates decided to toss those plans in the bin and plotted a new course for Diana; a path that would lead her close to paradise, but even closer to ruin.
A sharp ticking against her window drew her attention away from the dull perusal of paperwork. She put on a robe and parted the drapes, immediately seeing a faint shimmer of glossy black near the bushes under her window. Sliding the glass panel up, she craned her head out and peered into the night - just in time to catch a tossed M&M right on her cheek. She was startled up and back by the impact, and smashed her noggin hard on the window frame.
"Motherfuck..." she muttered under her breath.
"Hey! Get dressed," a voice urged, brimming with stifled laughter. Angelia. "Meet me in the garage."
"The guards will see me!" Diana objected, rubbing the new bump on her skull.
"They're in the kitchen, pigging out on leftovers! Hurry up and let's bolt!"
Diana closed the window and immediately moved to her closet for jeans and a sweater, not even considering the consequences of her actions. She was already caught up, smiling through the rush that always came from breaking the rules. Memories of sneaking out late at night to get in trouble with Ethan came back with a vengeance, and she suddenly realized why she was willing to play along with the young woman's game.
In the agency, she had only associates, teachers and superiors. On missions, she had targets, partners, contacts, and the occasional jerk who tried to get in her pants. This was the extent of her world, and there was no room in it for a personal life or friends. Angelia was presenting an opportunity for something she sorely missed - this was the first time anyone had attempted to befriend her in over two years... and it felt pretty damned good.
Angelia angled her skis to the side and shushed to a sudden stop near the bottom of a steep hill. Diana did the same, halting a few feet behind. The moon was almost full, and pure white light washed across their path, illuminating large, dense clusters of trees just ahead. Diana could make out wisps of smoky distortion dancing through the high limbs.
"What's down there?" she asked, watching as Angelia bent to undo the catch on her ski boots.
"My hideout," the girl answered, white teeth gleaming in a quirky grin. Soon, the expensive fiberglass skis were detached from their feet, and the women trudged downhill through the snow. As they reached the border of trees along the bottom, Angelia turned around and stopped Diana in her tracks.
"Before I show you, you must swear to me that you won't tell anyone about this place - especially not Hideous. He can't know about it. Ever."
Quieted by the serious timbre of her guide's voice, Diana nodded and said simply, "I promise."
"Even if he hauls out the pliers and bamboo shoots?"
"Huh?" Diana lifted both eyebrows in what she hoped was a fair approximation of shock.
Angelia smirked at the naive governess, remembering that a large portion of the world neither knew nor cared what Yoshima did for a living. "Nevermind. C'mon." She offered her hand to help Diana through the thicket, and they walked in silence for several minutes, dodging branches and roots in the dark. Just as she had boasted, the eastern beauty never tripped once. A clearing was barely visible ahead, and Diana saw more of the ghostly tendrils drifting through the trees. As they finally stepped free of the brush, the agent had to catch her breath at the sight she beheld.
Lush green boughs formed a wide, rough circle around two steaming pools of glistening, clear water. One spanned perhaps twenty feet in diameter, the other looked about half that size. The moon angled across the high rim of trees, and she could see pale stones covered in mossy carpets of green and yellow ringing the edges of the water like soft jewels. Delicate sounds of burbling, moving fluid and wind singing through tree tops crept under the staccato chatter of birds and other animals as they passed the word that humans were present in their secret paradise.
"Nice, huh?" Angelia understated, removing her backpack and flopping onto the ground, legs folded up in a frightful display of flexibility. Soon, she was digging out several thick candles housed in tall glass jars.
"It's amazing," Diana breathed softly, not wanting to devalue the moment with fumbling words as she dropped to her knees on mossy black soil dotted with patches of thin snow. She hadn't ever seen anything like this before, except in wrinkled, torn copies of National Geographic at the dentist's office. The grind and flick of a lighter brought her back to earth, and she watched as her host lit candles, carefully shielding the flame until each glowed inside the safety of its container.
"Natural hot springs pop up in the damndest places all over Japan's mountain ranges," Angelia explained. "This one's home to a rowdy bunch of snow monkeys. We might see a few if they get brave enough to come look at us. Hopefully, they're not in the mood to throw shit tonight."
Diana did a double take to indicate that she wasn't up for fecal dodge ball, but Angelia just grinned until her guest smiled back and changed the subject to less messy matters.
"How did you find this place? Happy accident?"
"Sorta," the girl agreed, her dark eyes warmed by candleglow and the company of someone who didn't seem to have an ulterior motive for being with her. "I wandered around a lot the first time we came here, back when my mother was still with us. I couldn't stay in that house with him there all the time, so I took up skiing and hiking and intermediate guard-ditching. Stumbled onto this place one night. Seren-fuckin-dipity, I guess."
"Yoshima really isn't your natural father?" Diana asked, curious for first-hand information.
"Hell, no. He isn't my natural anything," she said dismissively, waving a hand in passionate denial. That's when Diana saw it - a pale ridge of scar tissue running lengthwise along Angelia's wrist. Without being told or shown, she knew there would be an identical match on the other arm.
* Suicide attempt. Looks to be several years old... * Her thoughts were interrupted as Angelia continued her tale. She knew better than to bring up the scars, but her curiosity was piqued.
"He married my mother for her family connections. She went nuts just after Gedde was born, and her loving husband had her committed. Acute scizophrenia, his shrinks say. Hideous took over as my guardian and has delighted in keeping me under his thumb ever since."
"Sorry about your mother," Diana offered sincerely. "That must have been rough."
"I'm dealing," she responded, staring numbly at the ground. "So, how 'bout you, Missy Starrett?"
"Diana. How about me what?"
"Tell me about your life - your mommy for starters." Angelia perked up instantly, eager to get the focus off herself and onto the virtual stranger sitting before her, the woman she wanted to know better. "Tell me nice things. Tell me she never forgets to send you birthday cards, even when you're fighting, that she takes you to lunch at the Russian Tea Room whenever you're in the city. Tell me that she's just as beautiful as you, only streaked with gray and wider around the hips. Tell me she has those same surpassingly blue eyes trapped behind bifocals and silver Liz Claiborne frames."
"Gee whiz," Diana demured, trying not to dwell on the compliments couched in the diatribe. She realized that this girl had somehow obtained and read her Riggins-concocted background file - very carefully. Any more displays of ingenuity of this caliber and she might consider getting nervous. "You seem to know a lot about me already. What else you got?"
"Well, your pedigree is positively covered in ivy, you bright girl. Sarah Lawrence. Yale. Presented your paper on the psychology of childhood rape victims at some big deal national conference when you were twenty-two. Looked like you were headed toward a promising career working with troubled kids when, all of a sudden, you bailed. Started jaunting around the world, working as a private teacher and counselor for little colored children."
Narrowed azure eyes greeted this characterization. "Did you say 'little colored children?'"
"Well, mostly us yellow ones, because we have money," she teased, pursing her lips in understanding. "Your family doesn't understand why you feel the need to roam all over creation, but they have decided to find your career choice "charming" and let you pursue it without hassling you. Before this assignment, you were in Singpore for a while, then Hong Kong. You didn't even bother to go home between jobs before coming here. Looks to me like you're avoiding static from the homefront, but I could be wrong."
Angelia finally paused for a breath and shifted her legs from the cramped lotus position, vigorously rubbing her kneecaps. "Sooo, that about covers my Jean Dixon psychic routine. How'd I do?"
"Wow." Diana was truly impressed at the inferences Angelia made from Riggins' skeletal cover story. The girl took the ball and ran on many counts, mostly in the right direction. Her improvised history sounded as authentic as any the agency had formally issued. "Are you always this nosy about new people?"
"Usually, no. Most times, I couldn't care less."
"I'm flattered you find me worthy of attention," Diana said, totally straight-faced.
Angelia broke out a wide, easy grin. "You should be. Researching you is the first time I've gotten off my lazy ass to do anything in weeks. If you hadn't shown up, I'd probably be in a boredom-induced coma by now."
"Glad to be of service," the tall woman said graciously. "So bringing me here is payback or something?"
"Or something," Angelia murmured vaguely, leaning over to rifle through her backpack again.
Kneeling on damp ground only a few feet away, Diana noticed how the girl's long, thick hair soaked in moonlight, absorbing the white and transforming it to an onyx shimmer. It wasn't the first time she noticed how lovely this sloe-eyed young woman was, but it was the only time she looked on her openly, with the danger of being busted. She caught herself only after Angelia glanced up and smiled, but was left wondering why she was staring in the first place. Truthfully, she didn't know... yet.
"I brought potent potables," the young woman announced, producing a bottle of dark wine from her pack. "Swiped it from the cellar this morning. Should be pretty good - it's nearly sixty years old."
"Sixty... Jesus! You're gonna get in trouble if he misses that."
"Certainly won't be the first time," claimed the thief, winking saucily. "Hope this turns out to be worth the risk."
Diana incorrectly assumed that she meant stealing the antique Cabernet. Angelia took a corkscrew from her pack and opened the wine with an expert economy of motion. Her eyes fluttered shut as she brought the bottle to her lips and took a long, deep pull, revealing a hunger for the liquid burn that belied her youthful, wholesome looks. She passed the wine to her guest, who politely took a shallow sip and was amazed to find that such an expensive vintage didn't taste that much different from the gallons of Paul Masson sold at grocery stores in the Bronx.
Once the bottle was returned, Angelia crawled over and settled it among the candles around the lip of the pool. She then did something that stunned Diana into another fit of quiet - she stood up and started taking off her clothes. Boots, coat, sweater, pants, and socks all fell in a pile atop her nylon rucksack until she stood with nothing but her matching black skivvies to guard her against the frigid mountain air.
"Are you crazy?!?" Diana asked, when she was finally able to speak. It was almost pointless trying to keep her eyes from raking harshly over the smooth white flesh revealed to her by candles and moon. "You'll catch your death!"
Turning to face the tall woman still kneeling near the trees, Angelia placed both hands on narrow hips and frowned her disapproval of such maternal advice. "I'm not afraid of a little cold... or a little heat, for that matter."
Keeping her eyes locked on two shining points of blue, her hands shifted and disappeared behind her back, unhooking her bra. She straightened her arms and let the delicate undergarment slip down to her hands, revealing small, firm breasts capped with tight, dark nipples. Noting with barely restrained glee that Diana was still watching, she let the bra drop to the ground and looped both thumbs through the waistband of her panties.
"You shouldn't be afraid, either," she said pointedly, bending at the waist and sliding the briefs down to her ankles, then straightening her back to stand naked before the American governess. "As you once said, you're a pretty big girl. I think you could handle it." Lifting one foot, her underwear dangling from the toes, she kicked up and sent the garment flying into Diana's lap, then turned her back and waded into the steaming water.
Diana was frozen to the ground, unable to swallow, unable to move her eyes from the young woman's retreating back. Her heart was beating just a little too fast, her breath coming a little too shallow, and she finally admitted to herself what was really happening here. She wasn't being befriended, as she had first thought or hoped. She was being seduced.
A flurry of questions, truths and doubts clamored for her attention, and Diana's head was suddenly full of noise.
* Jesus, Mary and Joseph. A nineteen year-old. A nineteen year-old female, let's not forget. Can't overlook that fact, can we? Would I even know what to do for her? To her? Shit. What the hell does she want with me? Lonely? Needy? Maybe just horny... hey, she's a kid. A fucking kid, just like I was... before. Two years ago. Seems like so much longer that that, like a whole other lifetime. A safer one, where I might have tried something like this myself, if I'd had the guts. *
"Are you coming?" a voice called, slipping through the mist hanging over the pool. It was a simple invitation to come and play; no recriminations, no guilt, no strings.
* I'm an adult, damn it! So is she, technically speaking. And she's so... so beautiful. Almost like one of those china dolls, with her lips, face, all so perfect. There's no reason why I shouldn't, is there? Riggins didn't say not to...*
When the voice called again, singing her name low and long like a chorus of sirens, Diana Starrett found she hadn't the slightest inclination to fight it. It felt so good just to give in, to tell herself "yes," to let go and follow a basic instinct. She had nearly forgotten the low wonders of illicit physical sensation revealed when the libido hijacks the body and tells the brain to piss off.
She recalled high school parking lot makeout sessions with a leather jacketed slick named Mickey. Wearing nothing beneath her skirt, straddling his bulging lap as he drove his Harley way too fast, feeling him harden and rise inside her as the powerful engine revved and vibrated and wind tore at her back... but all that was before. Before that day at the warehouse, when those men had touched her and died for it. When Ethan had died.
Two years of therapy and anger channeling in the agency had helped her through the pain, but there had been no one since, no one close enough, safe enough, or enticing enough to touch, not that she had time to miss it much. Maybe enough time had passed, maybe she was ready to try again.
"Befriended. Sheesh," Diana said to herself, wondering why it had taken being hit over the head for her to pick up on Angelia's true intentions. Perhaps it had simply been wishful thinking.
It wasn't even debatable which she missed more - friendship or sex. Friendship would win by a landslide. At that particular moment in time, however, she was willing to settle for the latter. In an ideal relationship, one could find both, but Diana knew she'd never get that lucky. Shucking her clothes as if they were constricting armor, she went into the water, naked and slow, without knowing how incredibly vulnerable she would soon become.
A cool breeze blew through the trees and stirred the steam. She couldn't see where she was going, so her world became about sensation, about cold and heat and blind, aching need. Angelia's form on the far side of the pool was blurry at best, but she could feel something pulling at her, a hot grip on her lower spine, tugging her body across the distance.
She didn't expect the water to be so toasty, even though this was clearly the cooler of the two pools. The second, smaller pool hissed steam from jets hidden in creased rock, and could probably cook lobster in the shell. Diana waded in gradually, allowing the heat to roast her toes, lick behind her knees and braise her thighs.
Tiny bubbles tickled over her flesh, bringing it to life like a million grazing kisses. When this living heat hit the swelling skin at the juncture of her legs, she nearly turned around and ran back up the mountain. She wasn't familiar with this kind of advanced anticipation, this quickening pulse beating out a primal tattoo inside her skin. It scared her a little, but not enough to stop her.
"Watch out for the slope," came a low whisper through the fog. "The bottom dips down, then rises again."
Diana kept moving until she slipped down into a smooth stone depression, the water lapping up suddenly to cover her breasts with liquid palms, then dropping away to leave them bare. She hadn't even noticed as her own nipples contracted at first exposure to the cold air, but she felt them jump and strain as the frigid air teased them anew, as if they were reaching out for something, some contact.
"Keep coming. Dead ahead," Angelia guided, piloting her forth like a harbormaster, her voice as soft and hot as the rising steam. She was close, so close. "Almost there, almost..."
Something brushed against her calf, and Diana stopped moving. Stopped breathing. And waited to feel it again. A tender touch, the instep of a small foot hooking around her leg, pulling her forward. One step, then two, and another before her sight was restored, and she saw slitted black eyes staring through the mist.
Both her legs were corralled and tugged forward as Angelia's flushed face swam out of the dark. She wore a dim, sultry smile, her arms flung behind her head and grasping a length of stone as her lower body floated and swayed free beneath the pool's surface. She had both legs wrapped around Diana's thighs and dragged the lax loop up to her waist, then clenched tight to close the trap.
"Gotcha now," Angelia observed, feeling no resistance from the tall woman as she surged up and pressed her sex against a hard length of stomach.
"Ohmygod," Diana gasped, freezing still as a statue when the soft folds of flesh collided with her abdomen. She had not anticipated having such a strong reaction - but then, this was a whole different ballgame from the one she'd played with men. Already, she could tell that the rules would be different, so she resolved to pay attention to every detail, starting with the sweet crush of velvet and tickling curls grinding lazily against her torso.
Even submerged in hot water, she could feel thick wetness and formidable heat seeping from the young woman's body, clinging to her and marking her skin. Against her will, she shuddered and closed her eyes as it was committed to memory. Slim fingers curled around Diana's shoulders as her seducer pulled closer, slowly shrinking the space between their bodies until there was none. Angelia nuzzled against her neck, burrowed into her hair and breathed anxious words in a waiting ear.
"You having any second thoughts?"
"Uh... that implies that I had first thoughts," Diana managed to mutter as impossibly light kisses peppered her throat.
Open mouthed, spoken against the skin, "Say the word and I'll stop."
Gentle suction just below an ear. "I'm taking that as consent, okay?"
It was the first time she had called her by name, and Diana took a moment to recover as a shiver crawled down her back. "Hmm?"
"Are your arms broken?"
"Huh?" Blue eyes flashed open, focusing on bits of stone and moss peeking around a shade of wet black hair. Through a pleasantly dizzy haze, she realized her arms hung loose at her sides, fingers flexing underwater. "Uh, no."
"Then lift them up... and put your hands on me."
* Sweet mother... better get this out of the way now. * "I've never... with a woman, I mean."
"Doesn't matter," Angelia whispered, smoothing fine hair away from Diana's forehead.
"But, I'm not sure what -"
"Diana, do you want to touch me?"
"Do you want to kiss me?"
"Is there anywhere you would object to touching or kissing me?"
The pointed phrasing made the tall woman flush all over again. "Absolutely not."
"Well, then." Angelia drew back, looked deeply into sapphire eyes swarming with desire, and she grinned sweetly. "I think this will work out just fine. You can do whatever you want with me... just promise you'll do it soon."
Diana felt a shy grin creep out, and she leaned her face against the smooth palm floating beside her cheek, then turned and kissed the center with her eyes closed. Slowly finding her bravery, she lifted her hands and stroked the tops of slender thighs squeezing on either side of her hips. The softness of pliant skin under her fingers was intoxicating, and she slid over it repeatedly to memorize the texture, folding up the memory of silken flesh and storing it like a coveted swatch of fabric.
"You have nice hands," Angelia noted as the rubbing became deeper, harder. "Very strong. Long, tapered fingers, like a piano player. Do you play piano?"
"No," Diana sighed. Her hands rounded the hairpin curve of hips and found the young woman's round, firm buttocks, stroking and caressing with a heightened intensity as Angelia clenched them tight and again drove her sex against the stone pillar of Diana's stomach.
"That's too... b-b-bad." Her breathing grew heavier as those slim fingers grazed the cleft of her ass. "Hands like that shouldn't go to waste."
"They won't," Diana promised, wrapping one arm around the girl's tiny waist and pulling her up higher as her other hand slid down the cleft with agonizing slowness and cupped her opening. Something inside the agent shifted as she felt delicate skin twitch against her fingers, and she blinked away a hateful image of her own naked, twisted body covered in blood, lying on a filthy mattress.
* Don't... * she told herself, * don't go back there now. Stay here. Stay here. *
She focused hard on Angelia, trying to ground herself in reality, in the now... a beautiful young woman in her arms, mouth open, begging with her eyes. Diana felt the shift coming again and knew she had to do something to stop it. She wasn't going back there again. Ever.
Face to face, eye to eye, with nothing between them but rising steam, she drove three fingers inside the girl and crushed their mouths together in a violent, empty kiss that split her bottom lip in two places. A tongue rushed into her bleeding mouth, and she instantly bit down, trapping it as her fingers twisted inside tight walls, searching the girl's womb for something important, something she had lost and was suddenly desperate to get back. She lost herself in the quest, welcomed the oblivion.
Angelia pushed her face hard against Diana's and stretched her tongue out further, curling the tip to touch the roof of the mouth which imprisoned it. Unable to remain passive, she stroked it along the inner skin and over the sharp ridges of teeth until her jailer loosened her grip and allowed free access to her mouth, which she exploited immediately.
Matching the thrusts of her tongue with those of Diana's pistoning hand, she was suspended in the sexual purgatory between heaven and hell for an undefined slice of eternity, until she felt herself tighten, heat up from the inside, and explode with a scream muffled by bloody lips. She spasmed out a thousand little deaths, rubbed herself raw against the ridged abdomen of her new lover, and moaned loud and long without shame or remorse... because this was how it felt to be alive.
Diana slowed her hand after she felt the girl come, regaining a small measure of sanity and awareness as tremors jolted the small body in her arms. A steady, strong pulse beat against her chest where a small breast nested atop her own, and she could feel an echo of that beat against her fingers, still trapped by clutching muscles sheathed in slick velvet. She was vaguely aware of something inside her mouth, something thick and wet and moving, something that tasted strangely familiar...
Shocked by the realization that blood had been drawn, she jerked her head back and abruptly pulled her fingers free, bringing both hands up to Angelia's confused face.
"What is it? What's wrong?" she asked, loosening her legs and standing them for the first time in what felt like years. She took Diana's hands in her own and held them tight.
"Your face, mouth. There's blood," Diana said softly, shamed to the point of blushing. "I'm so sorry if I hurt you. I just -"
"It's your blood," Angelia interrupted, scooping up a handful of water and rinsing traces of crimson from her face. "See? I'm okay. Better than okay, really."
"Mine?" Diana ran her tongue experimentally over her lower lip and found two small cuts. "Oh. Shit. Didn't even feel that."
"Guess not. You were sort of... out there for a minute."
"You're sure I didn't hurt you... anywhere?"
Angelia brought the hand she still held to her lips and kissed the fingers, still glistening with heavy moisture. "God, no. You were a little intense, a little rough. But I like that."
Diana tried to say something, but no words would come. Her relief at having not caused Angelia harm had barely ebbed when a fresh wave of desire washed over her, pulling her out to sea again.
The eastern beauty closed the gap between them with one step and brushed Diana's soaked fingers across her wounded mouth, painting a trail across the bleeding lip with the remains of her arousal. "I don't think I've ever been this wet before. I can still feel these fingers, moving inside me."
On impulse, Diana opened her mouth and drew her own fingers inside, closing her eyes at her first taste of a woman's passion. It was nothing like what she had expected, combining salt and sweet in a flavor that instantly ignited an undeniable craving for more. Before she knew how it happened, her hands were wrapped around the girl's hips, lifting her up and almost out of the water and pressing her back against the stone rim of the pool.
"Wha-ohchristyes..." was all Angelia managed to get out before she realized what was happening.
Diana wedged one shoulder between her lover's thighs and spread them wide, then eased a leg over each shoulder and moved both hands around to support the girl's back. Once in position to take what she wanted, she found herself hesitant and unsure. This was an entirely different proposition from anything she had attempted before. She knew what felt good to her, but she also knew that every woman's bell rings at a different pitch.
* Let's hope some things are universal, * she prayed silently, edging closer to the cloaked apex of the girl's thighs. She ran her nose along the top of the soft, dark pubis, inhaling the rich scent in a deep, grinding breath. A slow, firm kiss landed on fragile pink skin, and Angelia shuddered and pushed against the back of her lover's head, urging her to exert more force. That was all the encouragement Diana needed. Her tongue shot out and drove between the folds like an invading army, taking everything the new territory had to offer and trampling all resistance into glittering dust.
This time, she kept herself in the moment without even trying, so absorbed in the act that no fear, no distortion or fugue was allowed. She could hear every moan and gasp and profane exclamation, feel every push and tug of small hands in her hair, and taste every precious drop of nectar wrung from the sweetly weeping womb. She fed on the reality of making love for the first time in years, perhaps for the first time in her life. The palpable joy she ingested while feeding on the young woman nourished her, made her feel stronger inside, healed something she didn't know was still hurt.
As a fluid rush of heat built inside her, she knew she was lost, that she would need this again and again until the end of her days and beyond. Angelia tightened around her tongue and shouted her name when the tide rose too high and crested the banks, pouring out waves of perfection into her lover's hungry mouth until Diana felt the same irrepressible release burst from her own body and turn in on itself, a dying star spawning a supernova.
Time folded in on itself as the women slipped out of their bodies and raced around hyperspace, trying to figure out how the universe had flipped over like a pancake on God's griddle in the course of only a few short minutes. Sex wasn't supposed to feel like this, like the world had ended and you were still standing, stronger than before the blast, standing beside the only other survivor and certain you were in good company. When they came back and donned their skins, they both knew something had changed; how and why were totally irrelevant.
Angelia found herself wrapped in Diana's embrace, sobbing silently as her tears soaked the tall woman's throat. She didn't know why her soul had picked this moment to let go of the pain held so close to her heart, only that it felt like the right thing to do, like the only moment when she could survive admitting the truth. When she found her voice, the words came out as easily as the tears.
"He's been fucking me since I was eleven years old."
Diana heard the admission, felt the girl start to shake. She tightened her arms around the slight body and nuzzled her hair, listening with an empathic ache in her chest.
"I tried to stop him at first, but he hit me so hard... I passed out. When I woke up, he was gone and there was blood all over my bed. I couldn't walk for two days. I told my mother about it, but she didn't believe me at first. She caught him in my room one night, on top of me. Naked. She lost it, tried to kill him with a paring knife. That's when he had her committed."
"I'm sorry," Diana whispered.
"He told me it was my fault. He said he wanted her out of the way so we could be together more, that if I let him do what he wanted, he wouldn't need to hurt the boys."
"Son of a bitch. He hasn't... since I've been here, has he?"
Angelia shook her head. "He's busy with work, thankfully."
"Has he touched the boys?"
"I don't think so, although if they're anything like I was, they've learned to lie and cover for him. I was so scared of him, I would have said anything just to keep him from hurting me. I tried to run away, but he always finds me. I even tried to... " she trailed off and edged away, just enough to bring her hand between their bodies. "See this?" she asked, displaying her scarred wrists. "I was fourteen. Straight razor in a hotel bathroom. Fucking housekeeper found me and called 911."
Lost in a storm of anger and sorrow, Diana could only bring the girl's wrist to her lips and kiss her scar, wishing she could balm the other wounds somehow. "It's not right. He can't get away with it."
Snorting softly, Angelia knew that wasn't true. "You don't know who he is, Diana. He can get away with anything, even murder. He has before. Nobody can stop him."
"I will," Diana stated, certain that she could kill him and make it look like an accident. Riggins would never have to know about any of this.
Angelia grinned and more tears began to flow as she heard someone actually offer to protect her. Only her mother had tried that, and she was destroyed for it. For the foolish attempt at chivalry, the governess deserved a kiss and got one, soft and warm and mindful of her split lip.
"As much as I appreciate the offer, it isn't necessary," she said, sniffling. "I have a plan to get out of here and keep him off my back permanently. It's risky, but if it works, I'll be off the hook and he'll be too jammed up to even think about hurting Gedde or Yukio."
The agent inside Diana perked up upon hearing of a plan. "Can you tell me?"
"Not yet. Still in the planning stages, but if I get it off the ground..."
"You can count on me to help. However I can."
"Thanks, but I'd rather not get you involved. If this goes bad, he's gonna come down hard on me."
Diana Starrett's eyes hardened and gleamed with a dark light, and she knew that she couldn't let that happen. "He won't hurt you anymore, Angelia. No matter what else I'm supposed to be doing here, protecting you just became my first priority. I know how much it hurts, but it's over. No more."
Skeptical brows rose and knit as she heard the wealthy young Manhattanite governess speak as if from personal knowledge. "You know, huh? Diana, studying rape and experiencing it are not the same thing. No senior thesis, no matter how well-respected, can put you where I was. Where I am."
All at once, Riggins' cover story for her made sense, and she understood why he had chosen the background she was given. It also meant that the director knew about Yoshima's abuse of his step daughter. What Diana didn't understand yet was why he had withheld that information from her and sent her in blind. That was something to think about later. Right then, she had something far more important to deal with.
"I said I know because it happened to me." Diana spoke carefully, in measured tones revealing nothing but bare truth. "I was your age. Nineteen. A group of men jumped me and raped me, left me for dead on a warehouse floor. I walked home, covered in blood, completely numb inside. Stayed that way for a long time."
Angelia's mouth hung open as she fumbled through a series of inadequate apologies. "I... I didn't know. I didn't know. I didn't mean to make you... I'm sorry. I'm so fucking stupid sometimes."
"Don't say that. You were right - anyone who hasn't been there doesn't know, and they shouldn't. It's a bad wisdom, one I wish you didn't have."
As if by mutual consent and need, they embraced again, holding on until the silence pressed down like a weight. There was so much to say, so many questions.
"You said you felt dead inside for a long time," Angelia whispered against her confidante's chest, "when did that change? When did you stop feeling numb?"
"About five minutes ago."
The moon was high when they finally left the pool and started the slow trek back up the mountain, hand in pruney hand. Ski gear was replaced in the garage in the exact order Angelia had found it, so as to provoke no suspicion from the meticulous Yoshima.
The house was dark and no one was in the kitchen, so they snuck through that entrance and spent long moments saying goodnight and promising to find time for each other tomorrow. When at last they agreed to retire to their respective rooms, quiet steps led them into the darkened main room where a fire burned low in the hearth.
Diana had just set foot on the bottom stair when the lights blazed up and they saw Hideo Yoshima standing silent in the foyer, a stern expression masking his furious anger.
"Miss Starrett, you may go to your room," he decreed condescendingly, "Angelia. I wish to speak with you in private."
The girl stood frozen at the foot of the staircase, her eyes wide with terror. She knew that she was in dire straits, and wished that she hadn't dragged the understanding governess into this. At least he wouldn't blame Diana. She lowered her head and started forward to face her punishment, but was held fast by a strong hand falling on her shoulder and halting her steps.
"No. It ain't going down that way tonight."
The words were spoken by a stranger with a familiar face, but the face was the only thing Angelia recognized as Diana moved to stand between her and Yoshima. Her voice had dropped into a low, diamond-hard register, her posture resembled nothing quite so much as a coiled cobra ready to strike. One hand rested reassuringly on Angelia's shoulder. The other was curled into a fist.
"Mister Yoshima, we need to talk."
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