Surfacing - Part Fifteen
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
At the first sound of shots fired, Maribel Falcon jumped up from her chair, and she waved her pistol to indicate that Marco should do the same. "Get up! Come on, now!"
"No way." Marco shook his head and leaned back in his chair. "Didn't you say this wasn't any of my business? I don't want no part of that funky shit between them two nutcases. Let 'em kill each other."
"It's not them I'm worried about. Charlotte loves that woman, and she was headed right into the middle of this," Maribel expounded, catching a twitch in her son's jaw at the mention of the young lawyer's name. "If something happens to her, it's your fault for bringing that man here tonight."
"HEY! Everything would have worked out different if that bitch hadn't started churning out the corpses! Don't lay this all on me, mami," he protested, then added in a softer voice, "You know I didn't mean for nothing to happen to Charlotte."
"I know that you... care about her in your way. If, God forbid, something should happen to Diana, who's gonna stop that Riggins man from hurting Charlie?" his mother asked, trying to appeal to whatever sense of decency Marco had left. He downed the last swallow of his drink and snorted, staring at the table as he tried to think of a way out of this.
Another shot was fired, and Maribel got a sick feeling in her stomach. Something told her things were going very, very wrong upstairs.
"We have to do something. Are you coming with me, or do I have to lock you in the bathroom?"
"Stupid. Stupido cabron," he muttered, cursing himself as he pushed his chair back. "Let's go."
Dizzying, swirling, painful nausea hit Charlotte Browning right in the gut the second she regained consciousness. Fighting the urge to vomit, she tried to reconnect the nerves in her fingertips and feel around to find out where she was.
*floor i'm on the floor on the floor. owww.*
Her face was wet, and she slowly lifted one hand to touch her cheek.
*sticky. eeewww warm sticky. eeewww.*
Next on the agenda was the difficult task of opening her eyes. The lids seemed to have put on weight, and she could not lift them with puny ocular muscles, so her other hand had to assist. Prying one lid open, she saw darkness only for several seconds, then registered a large rectangular spill of pink light in the center of the room.
*Breeze coming from somewhere. Oh. The window's open.... where's Diana?*
Stifling another wave of nausea, Charlotte opened her other eye and tried to slowly unfold from the fetal position she had curled into at the base of the door.
*God. What happened? I heard her talking to that man. She was going to shoot him - but he had a gun, too, didn't he? Yeah, he did - she said to drop it or she'd shoot him. So I peeked around the corner to see what happened next and... oh.*
Her mouth dropped open from profound embarrassment, and a trickle of iron-bitter liquid seeped past her lips. She gasped as she realized what happened, and her hand strayed to her face, searching for the source of the blood.
*He saw me. Shot at me instead of her. Dammit! I just peeped around the corner for one second...*
Fingers lit on a raw, open streak just above her right ear where the bullet brushed along her scalp. Charlotte breathed a long, stuttering sigh of relief as she realized just how close she had come - a half-inch away from certain death.
*Guess one second was too long. Man, he's a good shot. Where is Diana? Where is he? I wasn't alone up here before.*
Again her eyes moved to the only source of light in the room, and she the followed the beams up to the barren frame studded with glass shards and splintered wood, shreds of the missing drapes. A gaping hole in the wall poured tinted light from the backyard lamps.
*That window isn't open - it's gone. Busted out totally. What the hell happened up here?*
Struggling into a kneeling position, Charlotte braced one arm against the doorjamb as she tried to stand on legs about as sturdy as pinestraw. They bent and folded, sending her tumbling onto hands and knees, but a sudden sense of urgency was pulling her to that window, and she began to crawl.
"DIan..." she croaked, trying to swallow the bile rising in her gullet. Struggling ahead a few more feet, making slow progress as blood ran down her face and dripped from her chin.
When her voice would come again, it was a faint, low gurgle. "Diana?"
Closer to the window, she heard sounds from outside. Cracking wood. Grunts of pain and effort. Sobbing. Cursing.
"Dia- oh god." Charlotte's head swam and she could not hold back the nausea any longer. Doubling over, she clutched her stomach and vomited a pool of toxins onto the floor. The noises outside the window continued, and she wanted more than anything to know that was Diana's hissing voice she heard drifting on the night air.
"Let go, you son of a bitch! Let go. Let go. Let go..."
Riggins heard her say it over and over, and he would not - could not - listen. She may have been ready to die, but he wasn't. He had things to do, and he needed to live. That need led him to release her hair as they first crashed through the glass, that need forced him to ignore the pain of his shattered wrist and reach out to grab onto something - anything - that would keep him from falling with her.
Inches from the window's edge, his fingers closed over thin strips of wood, and he clenched them tight in a death grip as she propelled their bodies forward. The force of her momentum carried them out a few feet before they jerked to a sudden stop, anchored to the trellis by his weakened hands and mighty will, and they swung back to collide with the vine-smothered latticework and the hard stucco wall beneath. She did not let go.
As their combined weight suddenly became solely his responsibility, he gasped hard and nearly passed out from the pain. His broken wrist popped completely free of the joint and a sharp shard of bone poked up through the skin. Riggins screamed out a strangled cry, but held on through the agony. He simply could not give up.
Diana held Riggins tightly by his waist, her face pressed against his stomach as she dangled freely over the stone path. She knew the lattice would not hold them for long, and she bounced her body against the wall and jerked him lower to speed up the process. The sooner they fell, the sooner he was dead. When she was certain of his demise, she could let herself give up the ghost and end the gnawing pain which became her world once he took away her reason for living.
When she saw Charlotte drop to the floor with dark blood oozing over her face, she knew she was dead - and some part of her had almost expected it. This couldn't have ended any other way, could it? This was the fate she deserved, the fate she had earned with years of mindless bloodshed. Dying alone with a heart empty of everything but guilt, anger, and tarnished memories.
She knew that it was her own fault. That knowledge ate away at Diana's heart like an injection of acid, decimating her insides until she felt as hollow and frail as a discarded snakeskin, waiting for the wind to blow her away. She tugged again at Riggins' body, certain it wouldn't be long now.
"Let go, old man. I'm ready to go now, and you're coming with me," she whispered through clenched teeth, swaying out over the jagged stones below, ready to meet them head-on.
Riggins said nothing, just held tight and tried to snuff out the keening sobs welling up in his throat as the skin of his wrist ripped open further. He had a vision of his entire hand tearing free as their bodies fell away, his fingers still wrapped around the wood trellis. Tears rolled down his face. He had so much to do...
Seconds later, the wood started to crack and he panicked. Whipping his head to and fro, he searched for something to grab onto as his supports splintered in his palms. His eyes lit on the copper gutter, and he swung one foot over and wedged his shoe behind the pipe just as the wood gave way. One hand left the trellis and wrapped around the greenish metal tube, tucking behind it in time to keep them from falling... for at least another few seconds.
"That isn't gonna hooollld us," Diana told him in a sibilant, sing-song tone. "Just let go, Josh! Stop blubbering, you fucking baby! Die like a man!"
"Noooo," he whined, jamming his broken hand behind the gutter as well, hugging his chest against the cold, smelly metal.
"Well, I'm tired of waiting," she said. Diana grabbed onto his belt and twisted her body around so that she faced the house, then braced both legs against the stucco and pushed out with all her might as she used Riggins' grip to pry the gutter away from the house. The rings around the pipe squealed and twisted with the added strain, and two popped free, causing the gutter to sway suddenly to the right.
"Noooo, don't -"
"SHUT UP!!," Diana shouted, pushing out with another powerful thrust of her legs. "She's dead, I'm dead, and you are most definitely dead! Face it.. and say your prayers." She pushed again and felt the gutter supports give way, and she closed her eyes and smiled with a strange sense of anticipation.
*Charlie... I'm sorry.*
The last four rings on the top section of pipe wrenched free, and the metal wilted away from the house with tortured groans and snaps which were all but drowned out by Joshua Riggins' screams as they tilted back into empty air.
Once her stomach had purged all the toxins, Charlotte regained enough of her equilibrium to stand up, although she was incredibly unsteady. Voices from outside still held her attention, and her singular surety was that one of those voices belonged to Diana.
*But, what's she doing out in the back yard? Well, look - but don't go and stick your head out this time, idiot. He probably wouldn't miss twice.*
Her eyes burned and blurred as blood trickled over her brows and she tried to wipe it away, but only succeeded in smearing it over the rest of her face. A brief memory came to her, some hospital show where they talked about scalp wounds bleeding a lot, even minor ones. Those medical programs always made her mother sick, and she wouldn't allow the girls to watch them. She almost laughed as an image of her mother's horrified face flashed in her mind.
*Boy, if she could see me now... 'No really, mom. It's just a little gunshot wound.'*
The voices continued, and she could hear Diana yelling. Staggering steps took Charlotte to the window, and she leaned against the sill and peered out into the backyard, seeing no one around the nearby swimming pool or the surrounding benches. The groan of metal and a sudden scream prompted her to carefully peek over the edge and look slightly down and to the side - just in time to see the gutter rip away from the house with two bodies attached.
For a fraction of a second, Charlotte considered jumping after her, as if she could swoop down out of the sky, plucking the falling woman from the air to fly away with her. Then she just froze and watched, helpless and still as the pipe bent and twisted in midair, seemingly in slow motion as it moved them farther away from the house, plunging now toward the unyielding cement patio.
Then the strangest miracle occurred - another support caught along the lower half of the copper tube, and jerked the loose portion several feet to the side, changing the trajectory just enough to send the two bodies away from the cement and into the slimy, black waters of the pool with a gigantic splash.
Charlotte Browning's heart stopped cold. Her breath was caught somewhere between weak knees and curling toes, and she was sure her eyes were going to pop out of her head and roll around on the floor. For an interminable moment, she stared down hard at the rippling water, overcome with relief.
Hardly the most eloquent response to this development, but it was all the attorney could say without actually thawing her brain. She was well beyond rational thought, relying solely on instinct to tell her what to do next.
Instinct sent her one very clear message: *Go!*
Charlotte turned from the window and scrambled for the door with urgent speed, bumping headlong into the unseen Maribel Falcon and nearly toppling the large woman as she drove into her with a shoulder. Both women were just a tad surprised.
Maribel recovered first drawing back into the hall - then she saw the blood covering Charlie's face.
"Madre de Dios! What happened to you, mija?"
The young woman was shaking, and she barely looked at Maribel, instead glancing back to the window and then past her toward the stairs. She had no time to try and explain.
"Pppool! She's in the pooooool!" Charlotte said, her voice trailing away as she squeezed through the doorway and past a startled Marco. She grasped the banister and tripped/ran down the stairs at breakneck speed, headed for the back yard.
The Falcons took a moment to stare at each other, then Marco shrugged and motioned for his mother to lead the way.
"I guess we're going to the frickin' pool, then."
As the gutter swayed and twisted away from the house, Diana thought she heard her name called out by a familiar voice, but that was impossible.
*She's dead - he shot her in the head! I saw it. I saw it.*
Then with a violent pitch to the side, they were flying off of the pipe and hitting the ground - but then they kept falling, slower and slower into cold black liquid. The air rushed from her lungs on impact, and her wounds throbbed hot and steady, but she knew the pain would not last long. Certain that she was dead, her mind puzzled over this new environment.
*Maybe hell starts off cold and wet, then gets hotter and drier gradually. That must be it.*
Seconds passed, and only the bracing feel of water soaking through her clothes and hair, seeping past parted lips into her mouth and running up her nose convinced Diana that this was not, in fact, the gateway to hell, but something much more banal and unexpected.
*We're in the goddamned swimming pool?!?!? HOW THE HELL DID THIS HAPPEN?!?!*
Her arms flailed madly in the water, and she mistakenly kicked her way to the bottom first, then reversed thrusters and broke through the crust of dead leaves on top of the water. Frail light cast shadows over everything, and she blinked her eyes into focus and looked around. The first thing she saw clearly was Joshua Riggins wading through the shallow end headed for the stone stairs.
"OH NO, YOU DON'T!!"
She shouted out her first breath in a gust of rage and dove under again, aiming her body and cutting through the water, heading for him like a torpedo.
Riggins cradled his mangled hand and slogged forward, coughing up brackish water as fear pushed his beaten body ahead. He was amazed to be alive, but she was still alive as well... and closing on him fast. He looked up to the sky and whispered something to the moon, a grimace of anticipation twisting his mouth.
She didn't keep him waiting long.
A hand closed around his ankle and his right leg was suddenly yanked from under him, causing a face-first collision with the water. Then she was on him. He felt one arm wrap around his neck from behind, a hard-shelled hand scraping his skin. A body straddling his back, holding him rigidly still between two thighs which nearly crushed his ribs with their pressure. A hand twining in his hair and pulling his head back suddenly, just enough to clear the water... so that he could hear her voice.
"This is the end of the line, Joshua. You're gonna die tonight," Diana Starrett promised.
A swift yank to weaken his neck, then he was shoved under again and held fast for long seconds, air bubbling up through the black liquid as his lungs expelled their content. She waited until he stopped struggling, was nearly unconscious, then pulled him up again. He gasped, a sudden, ragged inhale, and she waited for him to regain the strength to fight.
"I want you to know how it feels, Joshua. To be under, to be blind and deaf and weak and scared, to DROWN in this shit! I want you to know before you die."
Again, she pushed his head below the surface and held him still, choking with one arm, pinning with the other until he went slightly limp. Then she dragged him back up and allowed him to get his breath.
She leaned in close and whispered in his ear, hot breath burning his skin. "Not much fun, is it?"
"Diana, please - "
"Shhhh," she crooned, dipping his mouth back under. "That won't do you any good. The only thing left for you is to ask God to forgive you, because I won't." She paused, then pulled his face out of the muck and asked him quietly, "Are you afraid to die, Mr. Director, sir?"
"Oh, Jesus," Riggins sputtered, his chin dripping as the foul liquid spilled from his mouth.
"ARE YOU AFRAID?!?!"
Choking down his pride, hopeful that there might still be a way out for him, he whispered, "Yes. I don't want to die -"
"Why? What have you got that's worth living for? Nobody needs you, nobody loves you. Hell, nobody even likes you! Why would a worthless son of a bitch like you want to live?"
"My work... is the only thing that matters. There is so much left undone..."
"Oops! Should have managed your time more wisely, sir. All your wicked little schemes are gonna wilt on the vine now. What a shame."
She pushed his face down again, hard and fast, holding him still, watching him squirm and struggle as the water seeped into his ears, nose and throat. Diana waited until he was choking, then pulled him up again. She wanted his torment and fear to last as long as possible - this shallow, bitter moment of vengeance was all she had left. He came up spewing water and vomit as his weakened body rebelled against this treatment. She waited as he cleared his throat, wanting to hear his desperate final plea.
"I... sa-saved you! Others too, others... like you..."
"Then I guess you'll go out a martyr, huh?" Diana laughed, "Joshua, Patron Saint of the Charitable Mind-Fuck!"
"NO! My work... you, your blood..." Riggins began, coughing violently as his captor tightened her hold on his chest. "You were sick... like Eth-"
"Shut up about him. He had nothing to do with you, and you don't get to talk about him," she warned, slamming his face against the water and jerking it back rapidly in a punishing gesture. "I was willing to move past what you did to me, you know. Could have just given you over to Harry and let it slide. All I really, truly wanted was to get out of this mess and be with her."
Diana moved her teeth closer and bit down hard on his ear to make sure he was listening. He yelped a bleating cry, and she continued, speaking in a teasing, reproachful tone.
"What - you thought that if Charlie was dead, I'd come running back to you, asking you to fix things again? Boy, did you miscalculate that one. You ruined everything, everything."
"I can fix -"
"Too late now! Too late for me, too late for you... just too fucking late for everybody."
She sighed and looked up at the sky, catching a glimpse of a shooting star as it streaked through the night. Tears welled up at the sight, and she suddenly felt so small and frail and alone that she wasn't sure she could do this. What would it accomplish? Who would be satisfied by this act?
*I have to finish it, to stop him. What if he does this to somebody else? What if he already has? No, it ends here. We will be his last victims, Charlie. It ends here.*
"Diana, please don't do this. I'm sorry about the girl! That was wrong of me, so wrong -"
"It's over and done now," she interrupted in a low, weary rumble. "I'm tired, Josh, I'm just so tired and empty. I'm ready to stop now. Let's just stop now, me and you. Let's just end it here..."
This time as he went under, Diana went with him into the chilly darkness, willing herself to stay down, to stay where she belonged after all. Eyes shut so tight she could almost see Charlotte's face, she drew in the first rancid, choking spray and started to drown for the last time.
Even with her head spinning and the blood stinging her eyes, Charlotte only fell twice on her way down the stairs, and she broke for the back door like she was running the anchor leg of an Olympic track event. Heavy wood, thick glass and two deadbolts stood between her and the outside, but she was not about to wait for Marco to bring the keys. She looked around the foyer and spotted a large wilting something in a brass planter.
Shaking off a tremor as she hefted the heavy metal bucket, she swung it with all her might and let it fly through the plate glass window in the upper portion of the door. A stunning shatter and a spray of shards followed immediately, but Charlotte had already turned away to fetch a chair. The whooping of the alarm rang throughout the house, but she hardly even heard it. She slid the chair up to the door and stood on the seat, then knocked away some of the remaining fragments and boosted herself through the hole she had made, landing softly on the glass-strewn back steps. Unfortunately, she was still barefoot.
Tilting forward as one particularly large sliver jabbed into her heel, she righted herself and hopped on one foot until the plucked the glass free, then set off at a gallop for the still waters of the pool.
"Diana? DIANA? WHERE ARE YOU?"
Scanning the perimeter of the yard, she saw no movement, heard no sound. The Porsche was still parked in the gravel lot.
*As if she would have driven off with him... but where did they go?*
Another sweep of eyes over the murky waters of the pool revealed a slight ripple in the shallow end, then another and another. After a long moment, Joshua Riggins's body floated to the surface... followed by Diana Starrett's own.
Charlotte Browning probably screamed, but she couldn't hear anything above the blood rushing in her ears and the frantic pounding of her heart. She dashed across the patio, leaving little red footprints on the concrete as she headed for the water and dove in head-first.
Maribel headed for the door and tugged fruitlessly on the knob. Marco was only a few steps behind, and he went to the alarm panel and punched in the code to quell the cacophony of whoops and buzzes.
"Give me the keys," Maribel said firmly.
"Aww, man! She busted my door!"
"GIVE ME THE KEYS!!"
"Okay, okay. Calm down, mami."
Marco handed over the deadbolt keys and the locks were thrown in a flash, then his mother bustled out the door in a colorful hurricane of motion. There was a commotion in the pool, and she made a bee-line for it. He had never seen her move so fast, and hung back a few steps just to watch her go.
"Wow. Didn't know you could run like this."
"There's a lot you don't know, Marco," his mother said as they reached the patio.
They saw that Charlotte was in the water, struggling to bring the larger woman's limp body to the stairs. Riggins floated face-down nearby, but no one seemed anxious to give him aid. Maribel moved over to the water's edge and waited to offer help when Charlotte was close enough .
"Go to the poolhouse and get some towels," she ordered in Marco's direction, wanting to keep him distracted enough not to run off while her back was turned.
"We got towels in there? Nobody ever swims in this thing -"
"In the white cabinet along the back wall! GO!!"
The funny thing was, he actually did as she said, turning without further protest and heading off to the low brick poolhouse to find towels. Maybe it was the inordinate amount of stress he was under this evening, maybe it was just a default setting in his psyche, but obeying his mother seemed to be a course of action that made perfect sense.
Turning back to the pool, Mrs. Falcon saw the attorney dragging Diana's body close to the edge, and her heart nearly broke at the sight of her young friend's face.
"Help me get her out," Charlie pleaded, eyes swollen with a sudden torrent of tears, blood trickling down her neck from the head wound. Dead leaves clung to her golden hair, filthy water stained her dress and skin.
"Please help me," she repeated, more urgently, and Maribel realized that she had been staring. She took off her shoes and gripped the railing, descending carefully down the slimy steps into the pool. Looping both arms under the tall woman's shoulders, she lifted her upper body onto the tile lip of the pool while Charlotte supported her legs. Once she was settled, Charlie shakily boosted herself out of the water and knelt at Diana's side, brushing tendrils of black hair away from her pale face.
"Don't you leave me, Diana. Don't you dare."
Charlie leaned over the unconscious woman's face and opened her mouth. She pinched her nose shut and breathed long and hard into those dormant, flooded lungs, praying she wasn't too late. She repeated the procedure, then took one wrist between her fingers and searched in vain for a pulse.
"No. NO! You can't do this!"
Maribel watched silently as Charlie pressed the heels of her hands against the still chest and pumped hard, over and over, in a rhythmic, methodical fashion. With each press, blood oozed from a ragged, black hole torn in Diana's shoulder - a bullet wound from point-blank range.
Charlotte was counting under her breath as she pushed down, trying to remember anything from those long-ago CPR classes she took in high school. After four pumps, she pinched off the nasal airway and breathed into her mouth again. She renewed her efforts, again and again, talking almost the whole time.
"You can't do this... I won't let you, won't let you go... it's not time, it's too soon... don't leave me, please... we're so close, Diana, so close... don't quit on me now... I love you... I love you."
Dragging herself from the surf, Diana barely recognized the beach at first sight. Once she realized where she was, she buried her face in the sand and grabbed up fistfuls of wet silt, the tide lapping around her head as she started to cry.
Momentarily, two booted feet appeared by her side, and she followed them up the long, leathered and armored body to that eerily familiar face. The warrior woman from her dream had returned, and she did not look happy. Pushing her forehead back down to the beach, Diana decided to ignore her.
"So you just decided to give up, huh?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You quit, Diana. After you came so far, you took the easy way out."
"I had no reason to go on. Leave me alone."
"Fraid I can't do that. After all the trouble we've gone through, it wouldn't be right to let you off that easy."
That got Diana's attention, and she finally managed to lift her head and look at her bizarre mirror-image. "I don't think I heard you right. All the trouble you've gone through?"
"You're not as alone as you think. There are others who have a stake in your life now. We've kept an eye on you since this thing started... and I think I owe you an apology."
Getting to her knees, Diana gave the warrior a puzzled look. "Apology for what?"
"It's hard for me, even after all this time, to accept that... people can be manipulated like you were. I didn't want to believe what Gabrielle told me about you, about what they did to you."
"Oh, save it, Barbarella," Diana said, waving her off. She did not want to hear any more about how she was not responsible. She knew for a fact that she was, and she wanted to hang on to that knowledge, that pain. It was hers to carry. "I did all that stuff 'cause I was good at it, and because it was all I had to offer in exchange. I traded my soul for that emotional Novocain Riggins offered me, and everything I did as a result is my own fault for being so damned weak."
"That is not true," Xena insisted, taking Diana by the shoulders and jerking her to her feet. She looked into her descendant's eyes and spoke with passionate intensity. "You took back all that pain, took it and bore it with great strength and courage! Facing your dark side is not an easy thing to do, but you absorbed all the evil, confronted all your sins, and still came out of it believing in the power of love, of life."
"It was arrogant and selfish of me, thinking that would be enough to save me," Diana protested at first, then paused in thought as her tears rolled unabated. "As soon as it was gone - as soon as she was gone - it just slipped away. I couldn't hold onto it without her, I didn't even want to try. It hurt too much, and I just wasn't strong enough to try."
Staring out at the sea, she tried to look inside, to examine the truth of those words. It all seemed so clear, she wondered why she hadn't seen it before.
"That was wrong of me, to let go of that love, that hope she had given me. Just because it hurt to lose her, just because I was angry at him for taking her away. I should have at least tried, shouldn't I? Charlie wouldn't have wanted this, she would have wanted me to try and hang on to what we found. She wouldn't want me to quit, to forget. That was wrong of me..."
At this, the tall warrior smiled and closed her arms around her soul's reflection, and soon she felt the embrace returned in kind. They stood silent as the waves broke around their feet, holding tight as the water grew colder and the sun dipped suddenly into the sea.
"Do you have any idea how long it takes for some people to learn that lesson? Sometimes eternity isn't even long enough for it to sink in," the warrior whispered in her charge's ear. "It isn't too late, you know. You can still go back."
"I could?" Diana pulled back, surprised at first, then sullen. "But, why should I? I can't go back to the agency, and the only other purpose I had in life is gone. What would I do without her?"
"You've done many things over the past ten years, Diana, and not all of them were bad. Some were actually noble deeds which changed the lives of those you helped. If you are given an opportunity to right a wrong, then it's a crime not to do so. Following that path would be a good place to start over, to make amends."
"You're saying there might be a chance that I could redeem myself by becoming some kind of do-gooder?" she said, totally incredulous. "I - I wouldn't know where to start, or what to do."
"Just keep your eyes open. There are people in need everywhere, and if you look for them, you will be found."
"I don't know how I would find the strength to help anyone. I feel bad about what I've done, but guilt won't motivate me for long. I'm not sure I'd know how to do those things by myself."
"Who says you'll be alone?" Xena stooped to the sand and picked up a large conch, shaking the water from the shell. She held it out to Diana, offering it with a smile. "I think you should listen to this."
"I can hear the ocean just fine from here, thanks."
"When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Listen."
Rolling her eyes, Diana took the shell and pressed it to her ear. She listened for no more than a few seconds before her mouth fell open and she nearly dropped the shell.
"Oh my God... you said I could go back, right? Show me how."
"One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three, one-thousand four..."
"Come one, Diana! Don't do this to me!"
Charlotte pumped her hands frantically against the dead woman's chest, willing her heart to beat again. She shared her breath, willing her lungs to draw air again. Seconds stretched into a minute, then two.
Maribel and Marco Falcon looked on as the young woman struggled with death herself, refusing to admit defeat even though she had clearly already lost. Even Marco found himself experiencing mixed emotions, and his good hand twisted the towels nervously as he watched the hopeless scene.
"Don't leave me. Don't leave me, damn you!"
"If I had known you were gonna ditch me so soon, I wouldn't have fallen in love with you in the first place, you bitch! You can't do this to me! I need you, please, don't do this to me. Come back!"
"BREATHE, DAMMIT!! DON'T YOU LEAVE ME!!"
"Charlotte, she ain't in there no more. Stop beatin' on her and let her go."
"SHUT UP, MARCO!! She wouldn't do that to me... would you, Diana?" She stroked her face, her lips, her forehead, blanching at the chilled skin. "You love me, you said so. I know you meant it. Why won't you wake up?"
"She's dead, that's why. It happens to us all sooner or later," Marco said quietly.
Charlotte turned on him with fire in her eyes. "Yeah, well unless you want it to happen to you real fucking soon, you'll shut up talking like that!"
"One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three, one-thousand four... wake up, Diana. Breathe for me, baby. Come on, just breathe for me. Please. PLEASE!!"
This time, her lips stayed still, pressed tight against Diana's mouth in a desperate, heated kiss. Tears dripped from her nose, stained red by a forgotten wound. Begging with tortured whispers, she spoke into the tiny cavern of her lover's mouth, her needs echoing back unmet, unheard... or so she thought.
"I love you... please don't leave me alone. I don't want to be here without you anymore. Please, just come back to me."
Hands sweeping aside clinging hair from her cheek, Charlotte tried one more time. She pinched the airway closed and drew a long, deep breath and gave it away, gave it all away. She tried to transfer every hope for happiness she ever dared entertain, every sweet, fragile dream of the life they could have made possible together. It was a gift and an offer, a promise and a prayer. All this she sent to Diana in a single gust of wind littered with the crushed remnants of her heart.
If she received it, Charlotte knew she would send the gift back, amplified ten-million fold.
If her offer was shunned, it was just as well that she had given away those hopes and dreams, for they couldn't possibly come true without Diana, anyway.
Seconds ticked by and Charlotte held herself rigidly still, staring at that pale, cool mouth. She couldn't believe it hadn't worked. She was so sure that it would, she hadn't really confronted any other possibilities. It simply wasn't supposed to end like this.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Diana's bottom lip trembled. That tremble became a twitch, and that twitch became a curl.
Charlie could only watch and wait and hover, hoping she wasn't hallucinating, hoping this was real.
When at long last, she finally expelled that laden breath in a cough, sending a surge of water burbling out of her body like a geyser, her entire body convulsed and she threw Charlotte off of her - for all of two seconds. She grabbed Diana's face and held it to the side as liquid spilled from her lips, dark, vile pools of it rejected by her body and soul, clearing out as she at last drew breath on her own.
"AAAAHAHAHAHA!!! THANK YOU!!" Charlotte screamed out, laughing and
crying hysterically, heedless of anything except the overwhelming joy she felt
at that moment. "THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!! HAHAHA!! WHOOO!!"
She gathered Diana's shaking, shocked, living body into her arms and held her against her chest, feeling those small intakes and exhales tickling her wet skin. Nothing in her life had ever felt so good.
Since it wasn't everyday she witnessed a miracle, Maribel was beaming from ear to ear as she snatched the towels from her son and moved to Charlotte's side. Just for an instant, she thought she had caught Marco smiling as well before his impassive scowl reappeared.
As the numbness of death receded and her body became aware of itself, she felt arms wrapped tight around her, warm skin against her cheek, and throbbing, wicked pain in her chest. Diana's eyes were shut tight as she coughed up the last of the fluid, and she was almost afraid to open them, unsure of what she would find. A kiss fell on her forehead, and whispered words in her ear evicted all doubts and fears almost as quickly as they had arrived.
"I love you."
Blue eyes eased open, eager to behold the speaker's lovely face... then blinked several times, trying to focus in the dim light. Diana coughed once more, then gasped softly.
"Jesus Christ," she croaked in surprise, her voice thin and harsh.
Charlotte brushed one hand along her cheek. "What? What is it?"
"You... you look like Carrie after the prom."
A wide, white smile broke through the red-stained face as Charlotte Browning laughed. "You don't look so hot yourself, slick."
"That mean you're not glad to see me?"
Leaning in to answer, she pressed her lips against Diana's, finding them warmer and weakly responsive. Maribel folded two towels and placed them on the cement, letting Charlotte lower the woman's dark head onto the makeshift pillow.
"Your shoulder is bleeding pretty badly. We have to get you to a doctor. Marco -"
"Wait," Diana rasped, lifting her heavy left hand to garner attention. "I can call my people, just get... the keys to the Porsche. I'll take care of it."
"Got 'em right here." Charlotte reached down her dress and pulled them from her bra.
Diana grinned at the sight. "Wow. That had to be... uncomfortable."
"Mmm hmm, but these frocks don't come with pockets. Next time, I'm wearing pants. Now what do you need from the car?"
"Help me up. I'll do it." Diana tried to raise up, but a hand against her chest halted her progress.
"Not a chance. You stay put and let me fetch it," Charlotte said firmly.
Sighing heavily, Diana directed her to the phone unit and watched her scramble off to the car. Maribel knelt at her side and gently wiped away the trash from her shoulder wound, pressing the towel against it to stanch the bleeding. She offered the older woman a wan smile of thanks, then her eyes lit on Marco Falcon as he stood quietly to the side, supporting his injured arm.
"How's that wrist doing?" she asked innocently, pausing to clear her aching throat.
He glared at her as the pain flared up again. "Great. Just fuckin' perfect, thanks very fuckin' much."
"Glad to hear it. I take your continued presence as a sign you want to cooperate?"
Snorting, Marco kicked a pebble with the toe of his shoe, sending it skittering into the dark pool where Riggins' body still floated. "I'm thinking about it. He sure as hell ain't makin' any offers."
"Tell me where they are, and I'll do what I can for you," she promised, wincing as Maribel pressed on the wound. "The new guy plays fair, as long as you don't jerk him around."
Charlotte arrived with the phone unit and helped Diana into a somewhat upright position, nestling in behind her so that the tall woman could lean back against her. She watched as Diana's fingers punched in several long sequences of numbers, changing the colors on the keypads as the codes were accepted and the call was put through to the screening service.
"How do you remember all that stuff, all those numbers?" the attorney asked as she loosely draped one arm around Diana's waist, the other holding the towel firmly against her shoulder.
"I wish I knew," the tall woman answered presently as faint strains of elevator-style music seeped from the phone. She glance up at Charlie with a worried expression. "You don't like Yanni, do you?"
"Nope." Charlotte kissed the top of her head.
"Good. We'll get along just fine."
Clicking on the line signaled that the call was being accepted and forwarded, and then Harry Mars came on the line. He sounded none too thrilled.
"The angry red planet," Diana said, stifling a cough.
"Di- Diana? Is that you?"
"Yes, indeed. You sound, well... shocked to say the least."
"I'm just... wow. Good to hear your voice. You okay?"
"So-so. Ran into some trouble. I need a med team, and a clean-up detail here on Parsonage."
"No problem, I sent a crew out to the ranch house a few hours ago - just in case."
"Riggins said his people were out there. Something about a chopper..."
"You spoke with - nevermind. I know about the chopper. Don't worry about his guys, though. I sent Julia out with a full crew. The place should be cleaned out and set up by now."
"You sent her? You were expecting something very bad, weren't you?"
"Diana, that stuff you asked me to look into... I found out some things. About your connection to Riggins. Mangano, too. He talked. You won't like what he had to say."
"Probably not, but right now I am bleeding all over Marco Falcon's patio. There are two others wounded, and we're all gonna need stitches and dope. I'll worry about that other shit later."
"Did you get anything on Bartok and Jamal?"
"Actually, there's someone here who could tell you much more than I. Hold on, Harry."
Diana covered the receiver and crooked a finger at Marco, summoning him closer.
"This is the guy you'll be dealing with. Talk to him."
She held out the phone and Marco reluctantly took it, turning away from six prying eyes as he spoke with the man on the other end. Maribel crossed herself and said a quick prayer.
"I need to get up," Diana told Charlotte. "We have to drive down the road aways, get help."
"Okay. Easy now," the blonde said, gently grasping the larger woman's waist as she struggled to her feet. Maribel lifted Diana's healthy arm and draped it over her shoulder, supporting most of her weight as she took a few shuffling steps forward.
"I gotta know that I'm covered before I give them up!" Marco exclaimed suddenly. "If you can't promise me I'll be looked after, you can go fuck yourself, man."
Everyone watched him as he went silent for long moments, listening carefully to Harry Mars. His head cocked to the side, then nodded. "Alright, alright. She's got the authority to deal?... Okay, then. I'll talk to her - after my goddamned arm gets fixed up... yeah whatever, man."
Marco turned around and held the phone out to Diana. "He wants to talk to you."
"What a moron, this guy. I can't give him what he wants. We'll have to work it another way. Just get your little band of misfits up to the house as soon as you can. The cleaners are on the way."
"We're on the move. Oh, and I left you a present in the pool."
Diana hung up before he could ask.
"Where are the headlights again?" Maribel asked, scanning the controls in the tiny cockpit.
Diana gave instructions from the backseat where she was laid up close against Charlotte, making the most of the cramped space. "See that little switch, no the other one. Right beside it - there. That's it."
"Okay, here we go." The older woman hit the gas suddenly and the car lurched, throwing up a spray of gravel and dust and sending Marco's face into the dashboard.
"AAAHHH!! Dammit! Busted my fuckin' lip!"
"Put on your seatbelt, mijo. I haven't done this in a while." Maribel punched the gas again, causing her son to reel back suddenly and collide with the headrest. She tore down the drive in a cloud of dust, stopping only to buzz open the gate, and then they were off.
"How far did you say it was, Diana?"
"Just head down 805 for about thirty minutes. I'll tell you where to turn," she answered wearily, relaxing back into Charlie's arms, still quietly amazed to be there again. She laced the fingers of her right hand with the younger woman's own, stroking a thumb against her palm with lazy affection.
"How do you feel?" the blonde whispered in her ear, shifting slightly as she pressed a formerly white towel against the graze on her own scalp.
"Great, now. Almost perfect. How 'bout you, counselor?"
"Eh, it's kinda like a really bad hangover. My head hurts and I'm a little dizzy. Throwing up helped a lot," she added with a smile. "Teach me to go sticking my head into war zones."
"I'm so sorry," Diana murmured roughly, suddenly near tears. "I thought you were... gone, that he'd killed you. That's why I just -"
"Shhh. We both made some stupid mistakes tonight, but I'm okay, and you're okay. We have all the time in the world to kick ourselves. Later."
A gentle squeeze shared between joined hands told them both that proposal was acceptable. Charlotte allowed her eyes to flutter shut for a few seconds, lulled by the speeding traffic and Diana's even breathing and steady heartbeat against her chest.
"That road there," Diana said suddenly. "Take it easy, it's sorta rough going."
"Right," Maribel said as she eased the Porsche onto a bumpy, dark road.
"Where are we?" Charlie asked, yawning and wincing as she pried the towel away from her sticky hair. Her face was tight from the dried blood, and her neck ached something awful.
"The ranch house. Go around back, Mrs. Falcon. The med staff should be waiting for us."
Blinking at the dash clock, Charlotte saw that half an hour had elapsed in an instant. "I fell asleep?"
Diana squeezed her hand and struggled into an upright position. "Yeah. How's the scalp?"
"I think the bleeding has stopped, actually. What about you?"
"I'm fine," she answered instantly, watching as Maribel drove on. "Turn up the drive and pull between those trees. The back door is to the left side."
No sooner had they cleared the trees than four men in white uniforms bustled out the back door, two of them carrying a stretcher. They waited by the steps until the Porsche's engine shut down, then moved to the car to assist the passengers. Marco Falcon was escorted inside first, his mother at his heels. Charlotte helped Diana out of the car, and forced the tall woman to get on the stretcher, even though she insisted she could walk in under her own steam.
The med staff waited patiently for Diana to finish her argument before moving her at all, and when they did move her, it was like they were handling a six-foot container of nitro glycerin. Charlotte noticed that all of them were careful not to look her in the eye as they examined her wounded shoulder and hip. They didn't want her to notice them.
Once they moved inside the house, Diana was wheeled into a white room and hustled through blue paper curtains into some sort of makeshift operating room. Charlotte took a seat on a red vinyl chair just outside the flimsy drapes and patiently endured the necessary separation. One of the men in white cleaned her scalp and told her that she would need several stitches, but it looked like superficial damage.
"Heh. Wouldn't that make a great news story : Tonight, Elceda attorney Charlotte Browning was shot in the head, suffering only superficial damage. Ms. Browning is, of course, blonde," she joked as the young, anonymous med tech gave her a local anesthetic and started stitching her up. If he smiled at all, she completely missed it as she stared at the blue curtains and listened. She lost track of time as the doctor's inane medical chatter blurred her into a sleepy state, but she snapped to attention when their discussion turned to Diana's injuries.
"Chalk up two more for Wonder Woman."
"How many does this make now?"
"I lost count. At least these went clean through."
"Mmm hmm. Lucky her."
"Did the girl do it?"
"Ha ha. Not this time. Don't know who, yet."
"These'll heal up nicely, but she should be down for at least a few days."
"Right. More like a few hours, knowing this one."
"That left hand gonna be okay?"
"Fine. Just numb for a little while. That foam's nasty stuff."
"You gonna fix the scars?"
"Not yet. I'll wait for an order before I do anything else. She's lost a lot of blood, needs rest now."
"End of the hall. Left side. Take the girl with you."
"What about the guy?"
"He stays here for now. I'll do him next. Go on and get her out of here."
The curtains burst open just as the last stitch was closed on her foot. She hadn't even noticed when he finished with her head, and Charlotte wondered if these people drilled to get their timing so precise. The med tech wrapped bandages around her feet, then gave her two pills and a glass of water, saying they would ease her stomach and help the pain. She eyed him for a few seconds, then sucked them down.
One of the white-suited men eased Diana's gurney out and motioned for Charlotte to follow him. He walked backward, pulling his unconscious cargo down the wide, wood-paneled hall, and stopped to unlock a thick metal door painted a warm shade of brown. Easing inside, he whispered instructions to Charlotte as he lifted Diana from the stretcher and deposited her on an enormous, elaborately made-up bed, which had already been turned down as if someone were anticipating her arrival.
Cleaned up and dressed now in a shapeless white cotton gown, Diana looked so small and frail that it nearly made Charlie cry on the spot. She held it back and gazed at her sleeping face as the man continued talking.
"She'll be out for a while, but there's nothing to worry about. Bathroom's over there. Shower has good water pressure. Some clothes in the armoire will probably fit you. There's food and drink in the mini-bar, and if you need anything else, just hit the call button by the bed. Rest for a while, nobody will bother you in here. This place is safer than anywhere you've ever been."
Charlotte stood by mutely, nodding as his footsteps receded behind her and the door closed, leaving her alone with Diana - something she wasn't quite ready for then. Somehow, she didn't feel strong enough to start dealing with all those jumbled, crazy feelings just yet.
Looking around the room, she was surprised at how... coordinated it was. By the light of a dim lamp on the far side of the bed, she saw that the furnishings all complimented the carpets, which matched the drapes, which went with the wallpaper. Even the tiny refrigerator, nestled between a walnut bookcase and a walnut bureau, was covered in a veneer of walnut.
"Yeesh. Stepford spies," Charlotte mused aloud, startled at how muted her voice sounded. Thick draperies blotted out the light from outside bulbs, and the colorless carpet was thick underfoot. She walked over to the nearest wall and, on impulse, poked it. It was soft, and she figured it was some kind of noise-absorbent material. The room was probably damned near soundproof, if a little boring.
Now the bed was a different story. A California king made up with pricey linens, cornflower blue and creme. Piles of pillows and a great striped duvet that she contemplated stealing, for about two seconds. Whoever made up this room meant for the occupant to be comfortable.
*Even turned down the bed for her... don't worry about that now. Take a shower. Rest up for whatever fresh hell comes down the pike next.*
The med tech was right about the water pressure, and the quick, careful shower did Charlotte Browning a world of good, serving to scald away the remaining dried blood and the clinging detritus from the pool. She emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a thick towel, her skin glowing pink as she gently toweled her hair. The sound of the door closing made her nearly jump through the ceiling, and she whipped her head up just in time to see... nothing.
*Somebody was in here.*
She moved to the bed at a slow trot, feeling the cuts in her feet for the first time, and she was relieved to find that Diana was unharmed and still sleeping soundly. There was even a hint of a smile on her face, making all the tiny wounds on her cheeks seem invisible to Charlotte's biased eyes. She leaned down to place a kiss on the snoozing woman's forehead - only to find that someone had beaten her to it. A faint, smudgy trace of pale red in the shape of lips stared back at her from that smooth patch of skin, and she blinked rapidly to make sure she wasn't seeing things.
*Nope. That's what I think it is.*
The attorney looked around the room again, checking the thick carpet to see if it held any footprints. Nothing showed but those made by her own bare feet, the wheel ruts from the gurney, and the larger shoe prints of the med tech who had shown her in.
*And I don't think this is his shade. I don't like this... not one little bit.*
Diana's face was calm and relaxed, perfectly innocent in sleep, perfectly unaware of her situation. All Charlie could do was shake her head and let it go for the moment. Right then, she just wanted some clean clothes. She found a pair of thick socks, some loose, faded jeans and a white sweater among the clothes stowed in the armoire and bureau - even unearthed a racy little pair of red panties still packaged in plastic.
Once dressed, she snagged a bottle of orange juice from the fridge and settled into a plush, oversized chair by the bed and waited for Diana to wake up. A slight pang of guilt tugged at her as she rejected the idea of slipping into bed beside her lover, but it just didn't seem like a good idea. She was content to watch her for the moment, to see her and hear her and know that she was alright.
*There is no way I could sleep in this place, anyhow. Goddamned kissing bandits running around.*
Time passed slowly as Diana lay still and quiet, breathing evenly in sleep. Her battered face, bearing several neatly stitched cuts, relaxed into an expression of utter repose as Charlotte stroked her right forearm with gentle fingertips. It was one of the few areas of exposed flesh on the sleeping woman which did not sport some sort of cut or bruise, and the young attorney was grateful that she had found it. She could not have sat there, patiently waiting for the dark-haired woman to wake, had she not been allowed to touch her, to feel the warmth of life sliding beneath her skin.
"I nearly lost you," she whispered, slowing her strokes and staring at closed eyes ringed with faint, dark circles. "We nearly lost each other, I should say. I can promise you this, Diana - I will never let it get that close again. Never again. You'll be lucky if I even let you out of my sight for ten minutes straight. I'll think of something."
Charlotte stretched in her chair and checked the clock, wondering if Diana should be awake by now. As she looked away, blue eyes fluttered open, slowly coming aware as Charlotte voiced her final idea on the subject of separation prevention.
"Maybe I'll buy a pair of handcuffs. That might work."
"Save your money - I have three sets," Diana said softly.
The blonde's head whooshed around so fast it almost merited some sort of sound effect, and she broke into an easy grin as she beheld a most wonderful sight - the smile of someone who loved her.
"Hey, you. 'Bout time you woke up."
Diana took in her surroundings in a quick glance. The drapes were drawn, muting the steel gray light from outside. A dim lamp burned on the bedside table, casting yellowish light on the familiar layout. Generic carpet, typical wood furnishings. Only the four-poster bed with its bone and blue striped coverlet stood out, and she knew who was responsible for that.
"How long was I out?"
"Three hours. It's almost dawn."
"Damn. I shouldn't have drifted off like that, left you alone."
Straightening her mouth to a firm line, Charlotte corrected her with careful words. "You didn't leave me alone, I've been right with you since we got here. And you didn't just drift off, Diana - you were shot twice, and you nearly drowned after falling three stories into a pool. Don't make it sound like you were taking a nap or something. Your body needs rest."
A little grimace of resignation as the agent nodded, acknowledging the truth of those words. "Still, I'm sorry. I don't want to let you out of my sight, either." With narrowed eyes, she added, "Handcuffs, eh? I won't forget you said that."
"I won't let you... forget, that is." Charlotte slipped her hand into Diana's, a promise in her gaze.
"So, what have you been up to for the past three hours?"
"Not a whole hell of a lot." She smiled as she said it. "Mostly watching you sleep, being grateful, crying a little. Stupid stuff like that."
Diana tightened her grip. "I love you, you know."
"Boy, do I ever. I love you, too."
Leaning over the bed, Charlotte moved in for a small, soft kiss, just for confirmation. It lasted a bit longer than she had planned, and soon she had moved from her chair to sit by Diana on the side of the bed, hands dodging her multiple injuries as they made out quietly, easily, and verrry carefully.
Light knocking on the door drew their attention away, and the tall woman groaned at the prospect of company so soon after waking up, and at such a horribly inconvenient time.
"Come in," she said reluctantly, easing herself into a sitting position as Charlie tucked supporting pillows behind her back.
The door opened slowly and a crown of platinum hair eased into view, followed by a peeking pair of shale-colored eyes.
"Are you up for a quick visit?" a lilting voice inquired.
Diana seemed to brighten instantly, and she responded in a gruff, teasing voice. "Hell, no! Get out of here, Julia."
The visitor stepped into the room and closed the door behind her, presenting a picture of strangely cool beauty. Black jacket and trousers cut in a loose pajama style fluttered around long limbs, the suit contrasting sharply with her startling coloring - even her skin looked blonde.
Charlotte found herself staring openly as the woman swam across the room and lit softly on the unused side of the bed without disturbing even a molecule of air. She had never seen anyone move like that, as if she were not really there and her presence was merely an illusion. It both fascinated her and gave her a slight case of the hinkies, but Diana seemed completely unaffected by the woman's ethereal aura. Maybe she was used to it.
"How are you feeling, Diana?" the woman asked, smoothing the bedcovers absently with one hand while the other drifted hesitantly over her slim leg, as if it were waiting for something to do.
"Been better, been worse. How do I look?" she responded, flashing a toothy grin which made her guest chuckle musically.
"You've looked better, I must admit. Yet I doubt that anything could truly ruin this face."
That waiting hand lifted to Diana's face and traced each cut, tripping lightly over stitches and stroking bruises with impossibly soft touches, cradling her jaw in a smooth palm as if she had done so many times before. She suddenly removed her hand and licked her thumb, brushing away the forgotten trace of lipstick from Diana's forehead.
"Sorry. Didn't know I left a mark earlier."
Charlotte then noticed the woman's pale red lips and put two and two together at last. She did not know what to make of these gestures, and was uncomfortable with the liberty this woman seemed to take with her lover's body. She watched for a moment and saw how relaxed Diana was, so she decided not to make an issue of it... yet.
Turning to face Charlie with a warm grin that spoke volumes, the dark-haired beauty took her hand and knit their fingers together. "I want you to meet someone. Julia, this is Charlotte Browning - undoubtedly the most wonderful creature on the planet."
Charlotte blushed deep red, and she innately knew why. It was the revelation that someone like this exquisite woman could sit close to Diana, express obvious affection and touch her in a very intimate way, and yet not touch her at all, not in any way that counted. That particular smile - with all its infinite connotations - was for her, and only her. She lost track of things for a moment as her heart swelled a bit larger with a gush of sweet pride and warm security.
Julia's attention drifted to the attorney like wind through high pine boughs, and she immediately smiled and extended her hand, leaning carefully across Diana's body and giving Charlotte's hand a quick squeeze with deceptively strong fingers. "I am pleased to meet you, Ms. Browning. It's not every day one encounters the most wonderful creature on the planet."
"Don't I know it," the young woman replied, glancing back at Diana.
"Charlie, this is Julia. She does odd jobs," the tall woman explained diplomatically, drawing another tiny laugh from the teutonic bombshell and a puzzled frown from Charlotte.
"You, my dear, are capable of extraordinary understatement," Julia replied, shaking her head and brushing strands of pale hair behind elfin ears. Her gray eyes twinkled suddenly, and she tried to sound serious. "I've been informed of the director's tragic demise."
"How awful," Diana said, matching her faux-mournful tone. "Where shall I send the flowers?"
"I don't think FTD delivers down there, darling."
"True enough. Were there any survivors at all in the house? There was one guy -"
"In a tangerine suit. He was alive when the cleaners arrived, but he didn't make it back here."
Heaving a deep sigh, Diana reconstructed the man and added his face to her collection, another link in her own Jacob Marley-style chain of guilt. "So, I'm guessing everything's okay - Harry's in now."
"Yes, he is. The council called a special meeting not one hour ago, wherein the position of director was officially assigned to our own Mr. Mars."
"Who cut the deal with Marco Falcon?" she asked out of sheer curiosity.
"There was no deal. I talked to him myself, and he told me what I wanted to know," Julia explained matter-of-factly. "General Bartok and President Jamal were taken into custody about forty-five minutes before that meeting I mentioned. They were quite surprised, and most unhappy."
"Oh. How long did it take for Falcon to give them up?"
"Fifteen minutes, ten of that for prep time. He was quite predictable. The old silly putty in a jar trick."
Diana broke out laughing in a fit of black humor and Julia soon joined her, lying across the bed and giggling like a couple of evil little children. The tall woman pressed a hand to her shoulder as the shuddering started to hurt.
Charlotte went pale as the implications of this casual, frivolous discussion became clear. She wasn't sure she even wanted to know what the 'old silly putty in a jar trick' was, but she was still concerned about Marco. "Is he dead? You didn't just kill him, did you?"
Diana straightened up immediately and started to say something, but Julia shushed her and answered for herself. "No, Mr. Falcon is not dead. I merely used a favorite interrogation technique of mine, and he walked out of here physically unharmed. He will live a long, miserable life in a federal prison - a fate he has avoided for too long."
Feeling just a little responsible for helping him dodge that fate, Charlotte asked her next question more quietly. "What about his mother?"
Smiling anew, Julia said, "Senora Falcon is still here. We offered to fly her back to her house in Mazatlan, but she refused to leave until she sees you. She's waiting in the room across the hall."
Clearly relieved, all Charlotte could say was, "Thank you."
The pale woman quirked her face. "For what?"
"For not hurting them, for letting her go. Maribel is a good, decent person."
"I know that, Ms. Browning," Julia responded evenly. "I'm afraid that your experience this evening may have given you the wrong impression about us, about what we do. Joshua Riggins was an abberation, an abomination. A blight. He would not have let her go, but we are more interested in reaching an accord with her than killing her."
"I didn't mean to offend -"
"Pshaw. No offense taken, I merely wanted to set the record straight." The cool blonde uncurled her long limbs and scooted off the bed, standing and stretching out her arms. "How is your back, by the way?"
Diana waited several seconds, as if assessing it at that moment. "Fine, I think. Julia, could you answer me a question about that?"
"I'll do my best."
"Did that - the back trouble - start because of carrying Ethan?"
There was a long row of silent moments as Julia processed what she just heard. She looked into Diana's steady azure eyes for a long time, and evidently she found what she needed to see.
"Yes. Eighteen blocks, and no one stopped you or tried to help you. God, I hate New York."
The tall woman drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Thank you. I don't really remember feeling anything then. Guess it came later."
"About a month, actually. It took a while to get you back on your feet." After a long pause, she put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes questioningly. "Tell me please, how you regained this knowledge. On your own, I mean... if you would."
Diana just shook her head, debating how much of the story she was willing to share. "Wish I could explain it all, but I'll tell you what I remember. Riggins was cutting a deal, and it went bad. He said his little magic words to trigger Mangano's planted suggestions - which I assume Harry told you about, otherwise you wouldn't have come out here yourself."
Julia nodded somberly, confirming Diana's suspicion.
"My guess is that if I'd shown up here with Riggins, you would have taken me down."
"I would have tried, I'm sorry to admit."
"Don't worry about it, Jules. It would have been the right thing to do."
"I realize that, and I won't worry anymore. That's over now. Please, go on."
"I went through the house, removing all obstacles to get to him, to help him. When I finally did, he told me to kill Falcon. He was unarmed, and Charlotte asked me not to hurt him, so I didn't. I just stopped dead in my tracks and came back to my senses."
Charlotte stared at Diana as she grossly simplified that whole episode. Although many things were being discussed about which she had no knowledge, she was there for that particular moment, and she could sense the monumental struggle Diana went through inside herself to regain control. The attorney understood that perhaps her lover was unwilling to tell this woman how close she came to the edge tonight, that maybe the internal struggle was too private to share, too raw to explain.
"Ms. Browning's presence was key to your recovery, then," Julia prompted, wanting to hear more.
"She asked me to stop, and I stopped. She asked me to come back... and I came back," Diana explained, casting a knowing glance at Charlotte. "That's pretty much all I remember about the practical aspects. When I came to, I just knew all these things about my past. The memories were there again, and Riggins had no control over me after that. We fought, he drowned. End of story."
The icy blonde stared at her dark counterpart, reading the unspoken warning in her eyes. "Incredible. So it turns out that the missing component for the failed surfacers was... what? Love?"
"That about sums it up. Worked for me, anyway."
With a slightly sad smile, Julia looked at each of the two women, and knew that Diana had told her what she felt to be true. "Pity there isn't more of it to go around. Then again, if there were, I might be out of a job."
"Hey, you could always go back to Sweden. Can fish, or whatever they do there."
"Screw you, Di."
Laughing softly, Diana smiled at her strange friend and spoke sincerely. "Thanks. For everything. I'm gonna miss you, I think... a little."
"Same here." As she turned to leave, the platinum-haired woman spun lightly in her tracks. "Oh! I almost forgot. In the spirit of reciprocity, the new director has arranged a gift for you as well. It arrived while you were sleeping, and I left it in the basement. Whenever you're ready, I'll take you down."
Diana immediately threw back the covers and slung her legs over the side of the bed. "Can we go now? I want to get out of here and get on with the rest of this ordeal as soon as possible."
"The rest of this - ahh. That's part of your present. There is no 'rest of this ordeal.' You can leave as soon as you're able."
The dark woman's jaw tensed and her voice dropped dangerously low. "Don't jerk me around, Jules."
"I wouldn't dare." Displaying her palms and smiling a secret smile, she backed over to the bureau. I brought some of your casual things - jeans, trainers and the like. Let's get you dressed and get on with the entertainment portion of our program."
Leaving Charlotte in the company of a very relieved Maribel Falcon, the two most dangerous women in southern California headed down to the basement at a slow, steady clip.
"You're not gonna even give me a hint?"
"Harry said not to, that this gift is what you make of it. You may do whatever you want with it."
"If it's a slinky, I'm gonna be pissed."
Julia tightened her arm around Diana's waist, smirking as she helped her along. "It's not a slinky, but you can toss it down the stairs a few times if the urge strikes you."
"I hate you."
"No, you don't. You just want instant gratification, like always."
"Instant gratification takes too long."
Julia chuckled again as they reached the basement door and she produced her keys. "Ready?"
"YES! For God's sake, yes. I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
As the heavy door was unlocked, Diana heard muffled noises and scraping sounds drifting up from the pitch black. A light was flicked on, and they descended the stairs one step at a time, Julia's arm keeping her balanced. At the bottom, the blonde turned the light off, casting the room into total darkness. Diana found herself alone, her back against a cold concrete wall.
"What are you doing? Julia?"
"Hold on. Where is that damned switch... aha! Surprise!"
A click and a hum later, the room was flooded with fluorescent light, blinding Diana for a moment. When she opened her eyes again, she saw Julia standing in the center of the floor, her hands on the back of a tall leather swivel chair.
"Naugahyde? Oh, you shouldn't have."
She spun the chair around, revealing an older man in a lab coat, bound and gagged with bright red ribbon.
His name tag read, 'Dr. Salvatore Mangano.'
"I wonder what's taking her so long," Charlotte asked for the third time. She had nearly paced a rut in the carpet, and Maribel was starting to fidget just watching her.
"You should sit down, Charlie."
"I can't sit down! I'm too nervous... besides, my feet don't hurt so bad when I'm moving."
"That makes no sense. You'll tear your stitches if you keep that up. Sit down and talk to me," Maribel urged, patting the bed. "Tell me what's got you so worried."
Grunting, the attorney plopped down beside her friend and gave her the condensed version of the paranoid intrigues rolling through her head.
"Diana works for these people. They all either seem to like her a lot, or they're scared to death of her. I understand that. I like her a lot myself, and what I saw tonight - seeing what she was capable of - scared me senseless." She sighed raggedly and ran a hand along her scalp, touching the stitches.
"She told me that she's quitting, and that there's some sort of process that she has to go through to get out. Then that woman, Julia, comes in and tells her that she can leave whenever she wants! Like it could be that easy, like they'd just let her walk, free and clear. I don't buy it at all."
"Julia. She was the one who talked to Marco," the older woman interjected.
"Yeah. Evidently, she's some sort of master interrogator. Grace Kelly meets Torquemada. Got him to talk in fifteen minutes, she said."
Maribel shook her head as she remembered her son's ashen complexion as he staggered into the hall, followed by a chilly blonde woman with an impassive face and the strangest, most protean aura she had ever seen. "She frightened him badly. He could barely talk to me before they took him away."
"Well, that woman took Diana to the basement to see some present from her boss. That was, what? Half an hour ago? This is not good. This is why I'm wearing a hole in the rug. I don't trust these people, especially her."
Picking up on her friend's unspoken anxiety, Mrs. Falcon pressed her friend to continue. "You don't think she would hurt Diana, do you?"
"I don't know. Diana sure didn't seem to think so, and Julia acted like they were old friends or something. Laughing with her, touching her. She even snuck in and kissed her when she was sleeping."
"That doesn't sound like someone who would wish her harm."
"HA! Didn't you see 'The Godfather?' Do the words "I know it was you, Fredo" mean anything to you? A kiss is often a prelude to a betrayal."
"Well, I can't fault you for not trusting these people," Mrs. Falcon conceded. "The real question is, do you trust Diana?"
That one stopped Charlotte cold, and she stared into the mirrors of Maribel's dark eyes, looking inside herself for a true answer.
"Before we came to this house, I would have said yes, absolutely," she answered soberly. "It just seems like... like every time I think I have a read on who she really is, she shows me another side, another facet. Another person I hadn't met before comes up and introduces herself - but they're all Diana. I know this sounds weird."
"I think I'm starting to understand, mija. Keep going."
"The way I see it, the woman who saved my life Friday morning is the same woman who was just over there laughing with this Julia person about stuff that would probably give me nightmares for the rest of my life! She's the same woman who rampaged through your house and killed those men, then stopped herself from killing Marco."
Mrs. Falcon nodded her acknowledgement, remembering how close she came to losing her son.
"She went after Riggins because she wanted to arrest him, not kill him. She's the same woman who jumped out of a third story window when she thought I was dead." Charlotte went quiet as she thought about that one. "All those women are inside her, and the only thing they seem to have in common... is me. No matter what she's doing or saying, I look at her and know that she loves me."
"Diana is very complicated," the older woman added unnecessarily.
"She scares me, Maribel," Charlie whispered. "I love her more than anything in the world, but what she must have done, what she could still be capable of doing... it scares me deep in my heart."
"Didn't you say that man was making her do some of those things?"
"Some, but not all. He made her hunt down those guards, and he tried to make her kill Marco, but he sure as hell didn't make her grab him and jump out that window."
"No, he didn't," Maribel agreed. "You did that."
Charlotte sat up ramrod straight and glared fiercely. "You had better explain that one. Right now."
"Out of worry for Diana, you stuck your nose where it didn't belong. Riggins shot at you, and she thought you were dead. Diana wanted to kill the one who hurt you, and she wanted to die as well," Mrs. Falcon recounted succinctly. "Most of what she did tonight was done because of you, Charlie. Because of her great love for you."
"But... I think that's what scares me," the young woman choked out, unfamiliar emotions welling up from her eyes. "Now that I have time to stop and think about it, that's an awfully dangerous kind of love. The kind that makes you lose yourself if the other person isn't there to anchor you."
"Then you have your answer. Even though the intensity of it may frighten you, you trust her love for you above all else, and you realize now that she does need you." Maribel took Charlie's hand and held her gaze, making sure she would be heard and understood.
"You keep her anchored, safe from drifting. I know that it's a big responsibility, but if you love her long enough, and well enough, she will learn to guide herself. Unlike Marco, Diana is at least trying to do the right thing on her own, but she needs help. Be her anchor until she can guide herself, then your love will serve as a compass, keeping her course steady as she learns her way."
Letting it all sink in, Charlie sat silent as tears finally broke loose and trickled down her face. Although it seemed overwhelming moments before, the weight of her dilemma felt remarkably more manageable after Maribel showed her how to carry it, how to look at her fears and her hopes and use them to balance each other out.
"Do you think you can do that, mija?"
Leaping forward and crushing the older woman in a hug, Charlotte had no doubts about her response. "I couldn't think of a better way to spend the rest of my life, actually. Thank you! Thank you for being my friend, for helping me - us - so much. I don't know how to repay you."
Squeezing back gingerly, Maribel freed herself from the embrace, and Charlie saw that her dark eyes were a little damp as well. "You owe me nothing. Because of you, my son is alive. As long as he lives, I won't give up hoping that he'll find his way out of the darkness, that he will someday know what you have found."
"I hope so, too. But, I still feel like we owe -"
"Pssshhtt! If you want to make me happy, come visit with me after all this is settled," Maribel proposed with a twinkle in her eye. "My house in Mazatlan big and lonely, and I would love some company. It faces the most beautiful white sand beach you've ever seen, stretches on forever."
Charlotte would not refute Maribel's opinion, but in her heart she knew that she had walked on a more pristine and lovely shore than any on earth, and she smiled at the memory of her time there. She recalled wishing that Diana had been with her, but she amended that wish and decided that Mazatlan would be as close as they got to that particular shore for many, many years.
"I gratefully accept your kind invitation," the little blonde smiled. "But I warn you, we'll be on your doorstep before you know it."
"I'll hold you to that, mija."
As Charlotte sniffled and wiped her eyes, the loud clicking of locks suddenly being thrown startled her, and both women watched nervously as the door was flung wide and Diana Starrett stormed in alone, tossing the keys over her shoulder.
"Come on, both of you. We're leaving.
Several of the men in white almost stepped into the hall as Diana barreled past, but jerked back into doorways to stay out of her path. Her eyes were a little wild, and her labored breath indicated that she was in some distress, but her steps were quick and deliberate.
Charlotte was hard pressed to keep up, only Diana's firm grip on her hand forced her to maintain the hectic pace. She had to risk a question
"Diana, what's going - "
"Later," the tall woman called back brusquely. "Let's just get out of here."
The attorney looked back at Maribel Falcon and shrugged her shoulders, not understanding the sudden urgency but more than ready to put this place behind them.
Nearing the end of the paneled hallway, with the back door finally in sight, Julia stepped into their path and stood firm. She wasn't going to move unless Diana felt up to moving her.
"Back off, Julia," Diana warned as she came closer. Even though her shoulder ached terribly, she was fully prepared to throw a serious block on the smaller woman and she let Charlie's hand go to make herself ready.
The pale woman held out her empty hands, palms up. "Please, let me explain -"
"MOVE, GODDAMMIT!! Or I swear, I will lay you out."
Julia pursed her lips and waited, waited until Diana's body began to tense like a coiling spring and her eyes lit with a familiar, irresistible energy.
She stepped out of the way.
All three women brushed past without looking at her, and that was probably a good thing. No one witnessed the terrifyingly cold smile slide across Julia's face as she watched her favorite pupil defeat yet another teacher. She was so filled with pride that her cheeks actually took on a little color for a few seconds.
"Diana, where are we going?" Charlotte asked when they were back on the road.
Once again, there was no reply, just a twitching muscle in her jaw as the driver ground her teeth.
The attorney sat by her in the front seat looking nervously at the mute, dark woman as she drove like the hounds of hell were on their tail. The speedometer fluctuated between ninety and one-hundred miles per hour until she had put a few more miles between them and the ranch house, then she slowed to a more sensible seventy and her facial muscles finally relaxed into a less menacing expression.
Diana's words were spoken so softly that Charlotte barely heard them, but she had finally broken her silence and the attorney decided to take another shot.
"Please, tell me what happened... or at least tell me where we're going," she urged. "This is driving me crazy!"
A deep breath followed as Diana tried to steady her nerves and answer sensibly. "Airport. We're taking Maribel to the airport. I have her papers, some money and a ticket to Mazatlan."
Maribel piped up from the back seat. "I thought they said they would take me. "
"I didn't want to trust them with you. I'll get you there myself."
The older woman did not argue; in fact, she was more than a little relieved at the change of plans. Another silent stretch settled in the car and Diana reached to turn on the radio, only to have Charlie catch her hand in mid-mission and hold it tight.
"Talk to me. What happened after you left me with Maribel?"
"Harry lied to me, that's what happened. The son of a bitch says he can't let me go."
*I knew it,* Charlotte said to herself, closing her eyes and leaning her head against the window. Early morning sunlight streamed into the car, and she felt it warming her cheek as she tried to think of something to say that didn't sound completely selfish, something that would not betray the fact that her heart was breaking.
"You have to go back." It was a statement, not a question. Diana knew what she was thinking, and answered her anyway.
"He says no. I can go where I want, but he wants to keep me on...
retainer, I guess. Maintain some tie to the agency - here's the pisser - for
my own protection."
For a few ticks, all Charlotte heard was that Diana didn't have to leave, and then her mind started processing the rest of the information. "Protection from what? What does that mean?"
"It's bullshit nonsense, a way to justify keeping hold of me. I don't think he ever intended to cut me loose completely, but he led me to believe it so that I'd help him get the agency," Diana said bitterly. "That present in the basement? He sent me the doctor who helped Riggins mess with my head, like some kind of sacrificial offering to make me happy. I think he and Julia expected me to go mad-dog and kill him on sight."
Charlie stared at the dash and listened as Diana gave a little derisive snort. She was afraid to ask, but forced herself to do so. "Wh-what did you do?"
"Well, first I unwrapped him. She had him tied up with a fucking red ribbon, if you can imagine that. Then I tried to ask him some questions, about how he did it. How I could get this trash out of my head so that it won't cause me any trouble later on, once my normal life gets started. Do you know what he said, Charlie?"
"Nothing! And do you know why?"
This time, Charlotte just waited.
"He didn't answer my questions because Julia had the good doctor's tongue in a specimen jar!"
Nobody said a word. Maribel shifted slightly in the backseat, recalling her
son's face and wondering what that woman had done to him. Charlotte was aghast,
staring at Diana as a single tear spilled from the corner of one dark blue eye.
"They don't want me to know if I'm safe from what he did to me," she reasoned. "It's the only thing that would keep me off-balance enough to need their help, and they want me to think I need them. That way, it has the appearance of being a reciprocal relationship, even though it's just a way to keep a hook in me in case they ever want me to do something for them. But, until they call me up and tell me it's time to work, I'm free as a bird!"
Diana laughed completely without humor, an awful, hollow sound that made Charlotte's chest hurt. She reached out to touch her shoulder, and Diana flinched at the contact, but the young woman persisted until she felt the muscle relax under her hand.
"I'm sorry, Diana. I know that doesn't help much, but we'll find a way to make this work out."
For a moment, the dark woman pried her gaze from the road and looked at Charlotte with confused eyes. "What do you mean by that? How can this possibly work out?"
"I mean that, unless you have... pressing engagements elsewhere, I want you to come home with me. Stay with me."
"Oh, Charlie, I -" Diana faltered as she fumbled through kind ways to let her lover off the hook. "I couldn't ask you to live like that. It's not fair to either one of us."
"No, what's not fair is letting them take anything else from you. From us. I don't intend to let them or anybody else separate us again, especially with some cheap trick like this."
"You don't know what you're asking for. We'd be waiting every single day for that other shoe to drop. Waiting for the day that you come home and find Julia curled up on your sofa watching Oprah, or waiting for Harry's voice to pop up on the phone. Living day after day with that kind of threat hanging over our heads... you deserve better than that."
"Then it's up to you to give me better than that!" Charlie cried, smacking her palm against the dash. "Dammit, Diana! I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and I absolutely refuse to let you run out on me because of something that might never happen!"
"What if they call me tomorrow?"
"What if they never call? What if this is just some sort of trick to make you lay low and stay out of their way? They've already taken so much from you, don't just hand over the rest of your days to spare me some anxiety."
Diana lifted one hand from the wheel to wipe her eyes, which were leaking steadily. "I... still, I just couldn't put you through that. As much as I want to be with you, it's too much to ask of you."
"You're not asking. I'm offering," Charlotte clarified.
The driver was quiet as she made a right turn and headed for the airport terminal. Maribel Falcon, who had tried to make herself invisible during their conversation, was on the edge of her seat, hoping for a resolution before they parted company.
"The ticket and papers should be in the glove box. Get out that brown
envelope, too, please," Diana asked politely as she wheeled the Porsche
into the white zone in front of Aero Mexico.
Charlie opened the dash pocket and handed back Maribel's passport and plane ticket, along with a fat packet the size of a brick. Although there must have been an awful lot of cash in there, the attorney took little notice as she pinned Diana with a hard stare.
"I need an answer."
Maribel made no move to leave, afraid to disrupt the moment. Finally, Diana turned to face Charlotte, and the attorney lifted one small hand to her love's face and gently brushed away a tear with her thumb.
"Come home with me, stretch. I swear to you, you will never regret it."
On a spotless teakwood deck lined with swaying palm trees, Maribel Falcon sat under a purple beach umbrella, nursing a Corona with lime and reading the latest letter Marco sent from Leavenworth. She smiled as she read of his progress with his anger-control group, and laughed over some profane comments about his computer geek cellmate. All in all, her son seemed to be adjusting to prison better than expected, and she looked forward to visiting him again soon.
The sweet sound of laughter drifting up from the beach caught her attention, and she leaned over the rail to check on her guests. She watched them for a while, playing in the surf like puppies, splashing and screaming and tumbling over each other as the sun went down on a perfect May afternoon in Mazatlan.
"Children," she said to no one, settling back in her chair and shutting her eyes for a nap before dinner. A sense of peace filled her at that moment, and Maribel sighed and thought of making them her special paella in honor of their first night in her home.
White sand gleamed pink under the reddish glow of the setting sun, and the blue waters of the Pacific shone like a living jewel in the background as a tall woman with long, dark hair stood in the breaking waves, squaring off against her smaller, fair opponent in a fight to the death. Sort of.
"AAAAACCKK!! Stop doing that!"
"You splashed me first, counselor. Payback is a bitch, no?"
"It didn't even hit you!"
"Close enough. Take that!"
"Do that again and I'm gonna tell on you."
"Oooh, I'm sooo scared. Come here."
"Maybe I want to apologize."
"You can do it from over there, can't you?"
"What'll you give me if I do?"
"Nahh. Too big. Plus, mine are nicer than yours."
"My suntan lotion?"
"Your SPF is too low to interest me. What else you got, Starrett?"
"A Baywatch towel and a bikini. That's all I brought."
"I detest Baywatch, and I was under the impression that the bikini was mine for the asking, anyway. Offer me something else."
"Hmm. My everlasting love and devotion?"
"Oh, you're good, aren't you?"
"Come over here and find out."
Taking hesitant steps, not trusting her opponent totally, the wily blonde kept her hands near the water, ready to respond to any sneak attack. She edged closer, and was taken aback as a sudden, breath-stealing smile swept across the wicked woman's lovely visage.
"What are you grinning at, monkey-face?"
"You, I guess. You're just so damned beautiful, it almost hurts to look at you sometimes."
Charlotte Browning stopped moving and her mouth fell open at the unexpected compliment, and Diana Starrett saw the opening she was waiting for. Lunging forward, paying no attention to the weak screams of protest coming from the tiny blonde, she scooped her up in her arms and flung her into the breakers, laughing maniacally all the while. There'd be hell to pay later, but she was actually looking forward to it.
The first two months had passed in a sort of haze, both of them growing more familiar with habits and preferences, learning the small things as if they were both afraid to go much deeper so soon. Charlotte could now tell anyone that Diana did not drink ginseng tea, and that she used Nexus shampoo and conditioner. Diana could in turn reveal that Charlotte could not program a VCR, and that she never used brush auto washes because "they scratch the paint right off your car."
The next two months were rather intense. Realizing that the call could come at any moment, they passed the time loving like each day would be their last. Charlotte called in late nearly every day, and Diana took many, many nights off from her job as an insurance investigator. She reasoned that she didn't really need it anyway, it was just to kill time and make a little pocket money. Their conversations started to dig a little deeper, and Diana finally entrusted her lover with the care of her memories. Charlotte swore to keep them safe, and vowed not to judge her for her past. Their frail future was all that mattered.
By May, a certain level of comfort had set in. Emily and Luis invited them for barbecues every Sunday. Charlotte won her fourth criminal trial. Diana was named 'Employee of the Month' by Trans-Fidelity insurance for busting a ring of crooked chiropractors - although she let one of them slip by in exchange for free treatments for life. But nobody needed to know about that.
When Maribel's invitation for a vacation arrived, they were both champing at the bit to get the hell out of Elceda for a while, and they were on a plane two days later. The humongous, lily-white house on the Mazatlan shore was a surprise. It bore none of the signs of neglect that stained the pink house on Parsonage, and they reasoned that this was Maribel's home. That house was merely Marco's place of business, and unworthy of such care as this house received. They were both pleased that their friend had found a measure of peace, and she seemed thrilled that they had finally consented to make the trip down for a few days in the sun.
"You are in such trouble, Diana!"
The tall beauty snapped out of her trance as a very ticked lawyer charged out of the ocean, looking like a drowned kitten. She knew that she was signing her death warrant by doing so, but Diana Starrett threw back her head and laughed until her lungs ached, only stopping to catch her breath as Charlie tackled her and they rolled together on the white sand beach with the clear waves tickling their bodies, and the sun reflecting on the rolling surface of an endless blue ocean.
Well, we've hit the end of the road, folks! Everybody out of the car! After three months of this, we probably all need to stretch our legs and go potty. Thanks very much to everyone who allowed us to beta-test our writing on you, and a special thanks to all those who took the time to offer commentary and feedback along the way. You helped us more than you will ever know and made the trip well worth it - even those of you who constantly smacked us in the back of the head and demanded, "Are we there yet???". ;-)
XXXs and OOOs to all of ya!
Paul & Jenna
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