Book 5: Ripples.
Series: Light, Water, Muses. An alternate universe for a variety of television series. See disclaimers below.
Rating: R, for Dace stalking.
Category: The continuing saga of Reflections/ Resurgences/Refractions/Rapids. Begins shortly after Rapids ended
Pairings: Dace/Catherine & Sara, revisited. Anastasia/Tessa.
General Disclaimer: This site contains stories between mature, consenting adult females. All characters are borrowed without permission, but without the intent of infringement. Previously unrecognized characters and places, and this story, are copyrighted to the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Disclaimer: “CSI”, see chapter 1.
Disclaimer: “The Division”, see chapter 1.
Disclaimer: “The X-Files”, see chapter 1.
Disclaimers: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”, see chapter 1.
Disclaimer: "The Sentinel," see chapter 1.
Spoilers: Nothing specific.
Summary: Dace has a pride/pack now, and a home, so she goes to Anastasia for some additional permanence. Now, it’s Sara’s turn to face the Cougar for real.
++ Anastasia ++
Another day, another crisis or twenty.
Sigh. I really was getting to old for this. In the brief days while I was in Chicago, various levels of chaos had broken out all over my empire. Supply problems, an endless battle in my hometown, a bizarre series of accidental poisonings in New Orleans that had the police crawling all over Sphinx’s territory. The woman was extremely unhappy about that, and I could hardly blame her. The best I could do was keep communication lines open and send a double handful of my best enforcers and lawyer-types. There were personnel issues in Dallas, echoed nearly all the way to Denver, and the Health Department was doing their damnest, again, to shut down some of my most prolific partners in Florida.
Those were the biggest icebergs, and they were grinding my skull into a serious headache. My stomach growling bitchily was not helping. Pulling off my reading glasses, I rubbed the bridge of my nose, contemplating my next move.
Then the intercom buzzed.
My fist tightened up so fast that the plastic frames groaned in protest. Oh goddess, now what…
“My Lady?” Tessa spoke my title demurely, a strange quaver in her voice. “There’s someone here to see you.”
I was in no mood for my pet to be coy and debated on how I was going to react to the vaguely-phrased interruption. Then suddenly, there was no time to do anything as the door swung open and my day took on a completely and utterly unexpected turn.
When Karen had described Dace’s wounds, my mind had conjured all manner of horrific lacerations and contusions.
The reality was much, much worse.
++ Dace ++
Honestly, I’d grown so used to the ruin of my face and arm, that Anastasia’s reaction took me by surprise. Blanching an unhealthy shade of cream and ash, she put both fists to her face and actually gasped in horror.
So I fell back to my greatest weapon, smiling faintly. “You should see the other guy.”
There was a long, pregnant moment, when I had the rare pleasure of basking in the knowledge that I had left the woman speechless. Then she utterly shocked me, coming around the desk, raising shaking hands as though she were going to touch me. It wasn’t that reaction that floored me… but the tears in the woman’s darkened eyes.
“Hey,” I whispered softly, gently. “Hey, I’m okay. Really. Give me a few months, and you’ll hardly even know this even happened.” When the stricken look didn’t fade, I painstakingly hunched over, no easy feat in my condition, and rubbed my good cheek against hers, purring softly in comfort. Nuzzling at the corner of the older woman’s mouth, I did my best to coax her from her shock. One elegant hand came between our skins, and I painfully straightened up.
Those unique hazel eyes were dark, intense, and I held them fearlessly, let her see my story in my pale gaze. Roughly clearing her throat, she swallowed down her initial reaction and stroked my unbruised chin with her fingers. “Well, you will certainly get quite the rakish scar, won’t you?”
It was the warmest moment we had ever shared, and I loved it.
“Oh child,” she suddenly fussed. “Sit down before you fall down.” Imperiously, I was directed to a straight-backed, lightly padded seat that I decided I could probably get out of without killing myself when the time came. “How did you get here from Chicago in this condition?”
“My pack is outside with Tessa. They brought me here, and got me reunited with Catherine. I need to speak with you about my future.” Startled, Anastasia sat slowly in the matching chair beside me, taking my left hand in her warm palms. This well-remembered, yet nearly-forgotten maternal side of her was actually enormously reassuring. Nodding slowly, stunned by my coming to her like this, she remained silent for the moment.
++ Anastasia ++
See the other guy, indeed. As always, this mercurial young woman had managed to aggravate and amuse me all at once. It was no mean feat, the way she could play the emotions of others with the skill of a master conductor. Too stunned by her appearance, both the horrific wounds and her presence in my inner sanctum, all I was capable of was silently giving her my full attention.
The blue eyes, colored almost violet by the bloodied surrounding tissue, turned thoughtful for a long moment. These serious moments were once rare with the young Dace, but I could see that they sat much better on this adult she had become. Perhaps there was some hope for the girl after all.
“I’m coming to this city to live.” That little bomb stilled the air, and I was left blinking in surprise, trying to recover. “Catherine is here, and I can’t be separated from her again. And her daughter needs me now, too.” The earnest face, black and blue and blonde, faced me squarely, the expression pleading and completely self-assured. “I would really like to be an asset to you, My Lady, not an aggravation underfoot. It’s all I’d ever wanted to be to you.” The expression went self-recriminating, making me wince as the violently discolored blue eyes fell away. “But I always disappointed you.”
“Actually,” my voice cracked alarmingly around all the strong emotions in the room. “I would have to say that you’ve done quite the opposite.” That startled her. In some respects, it startled us both. “Looking back has made me realize several very key things about you. First, I believe that I took much of my disappointment in the Tiger out on you. Somehow, I couldn’t blame her for not accepting the role as my successor, and you were the easiest target. You two were always so close, that it was, indeed, all too easy. You were also a very difficult challenge to train and mold, and frankly, I don’t feel to this day as though I did you justice. Letting my own feelings of failure transpose onto you was my own response to a failure that I felt I could not admit to.” Feeling better for the confession, I smiled warmly at Dace, enjoying her pleased surprise. “And, yes, your irreverence does aggravate the shit out of me, but I can see now that it is a great part of your appeal. Karen spoke at length about what you accomplished while we were flying home from Chicago.” Squeezing the fingers held in mine, I smiled luminously at this sudden new chapter in my life. “I’ve been looking forward to telling you how proud I am of you.”
++ Dace ++
Well, chase me up a tree with barking dogs, that was totally unexpected. Grinning idiotically, as much as my battered face allowed, I beamed at the older woman. “Thank you. That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s said to me in a while.”
“Oh, I’ll gamble that your packmates have good things to say about you,” Anastasia said wryly, patting my hand before she released me and stood to cross the spacious office. It hardly looked any different from when I’d seen it as a nervous and brash fifteen year old newly in Sylvia’s care. Including that heavy, darkly stained pecan desk that I had been bent over quite a few times. Fiddling at the sidebar, Anastasia caught my wistful, slightly embarrassed expression and chuckled. “I see you remember my favorite family heirloom.”
“Not bloody likely to forget.”
My flippant comment earned a faintly exasperated look as she finished up whatever she was doing, returning to me with two glasses. “It’s sparkling apple juice. I know better than to give you alcohol with those kinds of wounds. Besides, this is a guilty pleasure of mine.”
It was cool, crisp and decadent in its simplicity, much better than the stuff off the shelf, and some of that was pretty damn good. “Mmmm,” hummed up from my chest in pleasure, earning a throaty chuckle from my companion.
“Years ago, Sylvia hooked me up with an apple grower in eastern Washington that presses quite a lot of this specifically for me. As you can taste, the cost it worth it.”
For long moments, we sat in a quiet that warmed and surprised me in its easy comfort. This feeling had never been between us before, this calm that bespoke of respect and something that might be almost like home. Of all the people that had passed through my life, both this side overshadowed with the kinky, as well as the more mundane, this woman was one of the ones I had always wanted to earn more from. Maybe I could do that now.
++ Anastasia ++
There was no deciphering the level, thoughtful gaze that Dace leveled at me. Not quite a stare, but longer and heavier than a mere look, it was more akin to thought made caress. “What?” I finally had to ask, inciting another of the woman’s brilliant grins. Even lopsided from the pain of her ravaged face, it was a potent emotion.
“Remembering, hoping, wondering,” was the enigmatic reply. “Did I ever tell you how much you remind me of my boss?” A shadow passed over her sunshine. “Well, my former boss now.”
Utterly puzzled now, I arched a brow and questioned in disbelief, “Sylvia?”
“No, no,” she hastened to chuckle, obviously highly amused at the thought. “My police captain, Kate McCafferty. When I went out on to the streets as a beat cop, she was the first officer they paired me off with. She set me up with the partner that was my rock for many years.” The shadow was a gloomy rainstorm across her countenance suddenly, but cleared a bit when she continued. “In time, she made captain and has been my boss for years now. Pretty much since I became an inspector.”
“Do you miss it?”
Startled at my question, Dace’s gaze refocused, sharp and alert through all the broken blood vessels. “This isn’t permanent,” came out more than a little defensively, echoed by a hiss of pain and her left hand clasping over the hard cast.
The wince was more than just a physical pain.
Concerned, I reached out, touched the tense shoulder. “What will be will be, Dace. If there is some worst case scenario involving your future as a police officer, you will always have a home here.” Again, she looked startled, only this time she was distinctly relieved and I was happy to do it. “And I can offer you Tessa.”
That earned a reluctant grin, that I echoed fully. “Dunno if I’m up to that.”
“While I certainly won’t count that out of the picture in time, child, that’s not what I meant. Tessa has the most exquisite healing touch. Give her a try, you won’t regret it.”
++ Anastasia ++
The idea of having Leonacouer’s potent magic in my hand of cards was actually extremely appealing once I had a moment to consider it. Even in this brief conversation, I could see that she had indeed changed for the better. Perhaps it was the seriousness of the recent case in Chicago, or her wounds, or the doppelganger of young KC that had obviously claimed and tamed her wildest side, or perhaps all of that and more, but she had changed on a fundamental level.
I very much approved of what I saw.
When we stepped into the outer office, very much Tessa’s domain, I was amused and startled to see that the aforementioned packmates were entertaining my dearest pet. There was a lovely girl child, perhaps eight or nine in age, that was playing some kind of hand game like complicated patty-cakes with Tessa, who was grinning and intense with concentration. Nearby was Catherine Willows, smiling indulgently, and Dace’s dark sidekick, sprawled back lazily in one of the comfy chairs. Immediately, the later two both straightened up and gave me their undivided attention. The respect warmed me and I smiled warmly. “Catherine, Dobie, it’s good to see you again.”
The blonde child stopped, eyeing me curiously, her head canted to one side like an alert animal, the blue gaze intense and sharp. Catherine stood to rest possessive hands on the girl’s shoulders, and I could see the resemblance between them. “Anastasia, this is my daughter, Lindsey. Lindsey, Anastasia is the woman that Dace was talking about.”
“Are you going to help Dace stay here?”
Forthright, and with an edge of demand to her girlish tone. I liked her already. KC was going to squeal like a girlie-girl when she found out the mystery niece had a daughter! After touching Dace softly on the arm, I went to Lindsey, offering a hand. “Yes, I intend on doing everything in my power to ensure that Dace has every reason to stay.” Dropping my voice to a conspiratorial stage whisper, I added, “and I am a very powerful woman.”
Beaming winningly, so like Dace, this child of sunshine took my hand and shook it smartly. “Pleased to meet you, Anastasia.”
++ Dace ++
While Linds flattered the daylights out of Anastasia, I limped over to Tessa, regarding the dark-haired beauty thoughtfully. She seemed thrilled and alarmed at the chaotic energy swirling around her, courtesy of the eight year old. “I need your help.”
Blue eyes, darker and deeper than my own, regarded me with thinly veiled curiosity. “Anything, Leonacouer.”
While I certainly didn’t mind the respectful use of my title, I figured that this really wasn’t the time. “No need for formalities, Tessa, not like this.” It was the right thing to say, as she lit up with a big smile and nodded.
“Then, what can I help you with, Dace?”
Startled by my bluntness, her gaze took on that calm, almost calculating cast that I’d seen on many a doctor’s face. “A massage?” She guessed and I nodded in relief. “It would be my pleasure. Olivia was saying you have a doctor friend traveling with you?”
“If you have her there, I can do it as soon as you’d like. You’re standing like you’re dying.”
Since the pain in my shoulders was starting to make my head buzz and my nerves whine, I could only nod in agreement. Cath was suddenly tucking herself under my left arm, smiling lovingly at me. How the hell did I ever get so lucky? “I’ll call Doctor Dana as soon as we leave here. You can come by my place if you can handle our little slice of suburbia.”
“And I can finish teaching you the game,” Lindsey chimed in.
“Well then, I can certainly hardly refuse such nice offers! Just give me an address and a time, and I’ll be there.”
++ Tessa ++
It was very strange to be out like this without Anastasia. Dressed in jeans and a light sweater, I climbed out of the car and reached in to grab the pair of stuffed duffel bags before heading towards the charming house. They must be feeling a little crowded with so many of them crammed into the space. I would have to bring this up to Anastasia.
A polite knock sent up a flurry of muffled sound inside, culminating in Lindsey’s yanking open the door with a grin. “Hello Tessa! Hope you’re hungry.”
That was how I came to be eating a huge plate of very tasty spaghetti with Lindsey and her grown-ups. Throughout the meal, I learned that the two FBI agents were still living in the bus conversion in the driveway, while Olivia was sleeping on the couch. During the day, they were setting up shop in town, whatever that entailed exactly. Lindsey was unfazed by Dace’s obvious relationship with Catherine, and that warmed me immensely.
Like hanging out with the original Aces and the various friends that accumulated around them, I enjoyed my meal with these new folks enormously. Then Doctor Dana, the striking red-head, dragged Dace off while the rest of us cleaned up. It seemed only a few minutes passed while I played with Lindsey, before the doctor returned. “She’s all yours, Tessa. She seems fine wherever there’s no bruising, so have fun.”
“Thank you. Goodnight to whoever won’t be up when I’m done.”
With their warm farewells ringing in my ears, I went to face the Lioness Hearted. Though, sprawled out the way she was, in nothing but a towel tossed over her hips, the woman was hardly intimidating. There was a lankiness to her that spoke of more than metabolism and diet and working out. Weight had been shed by her trauma, and her thinness was nearly unhealthy. The heavy cast was carefully set on a pillow, out of the sling that normally held it, and I could see the horrible bruising that escaped the encapsulating material, climbing over her elbow. The left shoulder looked red and angry where the sling had been cutting into her flesh for some time. But it was the right side of her face that drew the eye, like an angry storm approaching over the horizon.
++ Dace ++
I’d known who it was before she even opened the door, and didn’t even bother to open my eyes. These powers were amazing in the scope of what they could do. “Relaxed?” Tessa asked softly, her voice the same as it had always been to me.
“As I can be.”
“Fair enough.” There were small sounds of her digging around in the bags I’d noticed upon her arrival. “I really like your family.” The soft praise made me smile. Gentle plant scents wafted to my nose, and I made sure to keep my power dialed down.
“Good, because they’ll be underfoot all the time now. The softer the smell, the better,” I said calmly, catching the very brief hesitation to her movements. “I’ve gotten really sensitive since being hit.” It wasn’t exactly the truth, but I wasn’t up to explaining the whole ‘Sentinel’ thing right now.
Oddly, Tessa started at my feet, firmly but delicately stroking each toe, the arches and heavily calloused heels. Those skillful fingers caressed my ankles, focusing my attention away from the parts of me that hurt so badly. It was a long, slow, seductive dance of touch and smell and sound, my attention focused on her magic. Those hands soothed away the soreness of my awkward gait as I compensated for the pain, warmed the thin flesh over my bones, dug pleasantly into the thick muscles, gently caressed the places where the agony could not quite be banished.
There was no hesitation over the elaborate tattoos on my back, after all, she’d seen them before, and the weight of her was grounding where she straddled my ass. At some point, she murmured that she would return, quickly doing so with Dana and Catherine in tow. They turned me over, limp and compliant, onto my back, careful to not make me overly aware of my broken arm.
There was more pleasure now, with Tessa massaging me and Catherine laying beside me, touching my face and speaking soft, nonsense love-talk to me.
Sleep came easily to me in time.
++ Sara ++
There’s a certain peace in hard work. The symphony of movement and intellect that yields an end result. There was never any shortage of work in the field I had chosen. After all, people died every day by the thousands. At the moment, I was completely engrossed in the familiar crime scene photos of my latest project. Sometimes the shots were so similar that only the ID numbers and attached comments set them apart. I knew the basic layout of the crime scene in my mind, a 3D mental map of all the myriad of clues. Now, I was just adding all the endless minutiae that would detail the picture.
It was a handy skill, this ability to recreate in my head. It was even better that I could store up thousands of these ‘maps’ in my gray matter. At least the intellect came in handy for something…
Something in me froze.
That creepy sensation like being watched… eyes in the dark forest sizing me up for a meal.
Absolute terror squeezed my lungs, turned my blood to ice, cold sweat beading on my skin.
He looked at me like that. Like meat on the hoof. Dace’s blood splashing hot and thick on my face and chest, the taste of it that haunted me. The sickening, nightmare-inducing crack of shattering bone, my own screaming ringing in my ears. Bullets retorting like thunder, the red cloud of a madman’s misted blood…
It had been a long time since I had slept enough to be rested.
Still unmoving, hunched over my workspace, eyes blind now to the pictures on the light table, I couldn’t look, and my breathing was quick and shallow.
Something else burned through the terror… That subtle, animal magnetism that turned the icy liquid on my skin to something thick and wet and needy between my legs. So fast, it left me a little dizzy, I was jerked from fear to arousal, the sensations so similar and yet completely opposite.
Confused, needy, fearful… I wanted it to be her so badly that the need made me feel like I was short circuiting.
Hot… moist… fleeting as the smallest breeze on my burning skin… the sensation of breath on the nape of my neck, coiling through the dark strands of hair protecting that vulnerable spot.
++ Dace ++
She was sweet prey. Every emotion painted her smell more evocatively than mere words, and I breathed her in like sin. Right now, there was no pain, no rules, no care of the glass walls leaving us exposed to the eyes of the other human fish in this massive aquarium. Right now, it was only this fine communication between us, and our mutual need for her fear and arousal.
Close enough to touch, the smell of her intoxicating me, I breathed deep, pulling her musky scent across the wet, sensitive places in my skull. A soundless rumble of pleasure, of heady anticipation, a hot, deliberate breath across the base of her slender neck, where I wanted to sink my teeth into her flesh.
Both of us made a small sound, the notes complimentary in their harmony.
Dropping my head, ignoring the pain in my body, I sought out that blissfully fragrant place where the clinical trappings of the modern world could not eliminate the sweet scent of this female.
Straight dark hairs tickled my mouth, her sweat flavored with her rollercoastering emotions made me purr. Now she moaned softly for real at the tickle of my lips and voice, the push of my breath where it breezed over her skin. My blunt, useless human teeth bared themselves in honor of my feline soul, sinking into the bumps of her spine in a slow motion tribute to a wild bite that would take her life.
We were both intoxicated now.
Then the mood shattered with the unwelcoming addition of another player, a man-dog pretending he was a wolf, and my eyes flashed gold and angry.
The young man, eyes wide in shock, squeaked like a frightened rabbit and bolted just as fast.
“Oh shit,” Sara whimpered. “Greg…”
Reality shifted again, becoming its boring, banal self and I snorted in irritation. “Guess Warrick was right. That boy does have the worst timing in all of maledom.”
++ Olivia ++
Dodging the young man’s rush, I wondered if Dace had put that horny-spooked look on his face. Chuckling, I made a mental note to ask later and continued my search. It was hugely entertaining that I barely received a second glace, despite the baggy shirt/faded jeans combo and the visitor badge around my neck. Cops knew their own.
It took grabbing a rookie that was checking me out to get coherent directions through the maze, and I finally found myself at the door I was looking for. For a moment, I had the chance to study Jim Brass before he became aware of my gaze. He had that classic dedicated but worn body language the old-timers always get. When he looked up, I was gratified by his direct stare and care-worn face and sturdy frame. This was a man that still took the job seriously.
Mildly startled and completely intrigued, he took me in for a moment before speaking. “Can I help you?”
“Captain Brass, my name is Detective Olivia Benson, NYPD. I’m a friend of Catherine Willows and Sara Sidle.” Understanding started dawning, clearing as I finished my intro. “We met recently in Chicago.”
On his feet now, Jim Brass stepped closer, offering a hand which I shook warmly. “If you’re one of the ones that got them home safe, then I’m real damn glad to meet you, Benson.”
We grinned in perfect understanding, one detective to another. “Yes sir. I’ve been on the force for fourteen years, and I’m relocating to Las Vegas. I was hoping that we could be mutually useful to one another.”
“Hey, I’m never the kind of guy to turn down talent. New York, huh? Hell of a change to come here.”
I obeyed his gesture to take a seat, gratified that he closed the door before sitting back down. Shrugging, I picked up my half of the informal interview. “I’ve got new obligations.”
“Ah yes, the infamous Dace,” the man chuckled. “Don’t look so surprised. No one knows much details, but a story as wild as a serial that nearly took out Willows’ new girlfriend is too juicy to not make the rounds.” Part of me was offended at his flippancy about these women I adored and my expression must have shown it, because he waved it off. “No offense, Benson. No one in this town is stupid enough to cross Catherine Willows, trust me. You’ve fallen in with some of the best people I know.”
And that merely reinforced the bone-deep knowledge that I had made the correct decision about my future.
++ Monica ++
“If there’s already confirmed three of them, then there’s probably more,” I commented idly, earning a chuckle from the speaker phone.
“I can guarantee it,” Blair Sandburg replied, his voice jovial. “And, actually, there’s at least four.”
“Four?” Now, he had finally succeeded in pulling me away from the seemingly endless Pandora’s Box of paperwork involved in my new life’s work. This project was going to make or break me.
“Yep. Years ago, Jim and I had an unfortunate run-in with a rogue Sentinel, who tried to kill me and seduce Jim.” Stunned, I processed this new information, even as the man continued. “She misused some ancestral knowledge and dialed up her powers pretty much to their limits and went off the deep end.” Abruptly, his voice went angry and territorial. “Nearly took Jim with her.”
“Wait… went off the deep end?”
“Yep. As far as I know, she’s in some psyche ward somewhere. The case went international due to the ancient temples being in the Amazon, so I guess the Feds ended up with her.”
“Name,” I demanded imperiously and he chuckled again.
“May of ninety-eight. You gonna track her down?”
“I’m sure gonna try.” Firing off a series of emails, I forced my nerves to calm down and leaned away from the computer. “Why didn’t you tell me about her before?”
There was a pregnant quiet for a moment, broken up only by the poorly transmitted sound of Blair’s breathing. “Honestly? There was a part of me that still didn’t believe you were serious. It was Snake-Eyes that convinced me, and you only gave me full disclosure in the last hour.”
“Okay, that’s fair. So Garcia wasn’t the only one that went rogue,” I mused to myself, knowing that Sandburg was listening to every word. “Dace is convinced that her niece is one too. Four year old in Colorado.”
“Another child? That would be amazing.”
“All girls so far, except Jim and Garcia.” I was making a habit of not calling the deceased ‘Snake- Eyes’ any longer. It seemed strangely disrespectful to all that had happened involving him. “Wonder why that is.”
“Could just be coincidence. Or maybe because females work better together. Not so many territorial issues.”
“Hmmm. Interesting. Any ideas why all the Sentinels are cats and the Guides canines?”
“How much time do you have?”
“Lay it on me, Sandburg.”
++ Sara ++
Shaking with nerves, I paused at Catherine’s door and hesitated. In a voice that brooked no argument, Dace had instructed me to be here at this hour, and walked out, leaving me a steaming mass of incoherent hormones.
Greg and I hadn’t even been able to look at each other the rest of shift. At some point in time that would amused the hell out of me.
The door being yanked open made me jump in shock. Lindsey looked at me oddly, grinning like she knew more than she should. “Hi, Sara! Come on in. Dace is changing clothes.”
“Thanks, Lindsey,” I managed to force myself to say, and warily stepped into the house. Olivia’s things were set neatly by the couch, hardly any indication the woman was living there, and I belatedly noted that the bus was not in the driveway.
“Olivia went with Monica and Dana to check out the new digs,” Lindsey explained, and I wondered when she had learned to read minds. Or was I just that transparent? Better not ask…
“Thanks,” I murmured, standing uncomfortably there, by the front door.
“Boo,” Catherine’s voice made me jump and look over in surprise. “Such intensity, Sidle. You really gotta relax.” The teasing tone actually made me smile, as did the fond pat on the cheek she bestowed me as she sashayed by. “Dace has been looking forward to this. She’s anxious about what you two mean to each other. ‘Bout time too.”
Intrigued now by the one-sided conversation, I followed Catherine into the living room. “I… I don’t understand.”
“Sara,” Catherine said, exasperated. “She needs you. There’s a bond there that no one is going to argue with, least of all me. She needs me, sure, but she needs you just as much. Things are going to be a little weird until she heals, but it will happen.” Puttering around the room, she grinned at me, but I could sense the melancholy beneath. “Soon, you’ll see beyond the bruises, and you’ll see beyond your memories.”
“And the red eyes,” Dace’s voice purred softly behind me, and I turned to face what really might turn out to be my future after all.
++ Dace ++
Sore, but feeling pretty decent, I gestured for Sara to proceed me out and blew a kiss to the Willows girls. “I’ll be back a decent hour, mom.”
“Smart-aleck,” Catherine called after me good-naturedly, harmonizing with Lindsey’s giggle. In the driveway was a silver SUV I thought was a Dodge, but didn’t really care. What mattered is that it was easy to get into and had a thick, comfortable seat that I could sink into.
“There’s a place that Anastasia recommended to me,” I said quietly to Sara as she climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. “The Black Pearl, over on Boot Hill and Turner.”
“I know the place,” Sara whispered, staring at the wheel.
“I’m nervous too.” My gentle confession brought the rich, dark eyes to me, and I held her gaze where I was sunk as deep as possible into the car seat. “You’re something I’ve been looking for a very, very long time.” An almost shy smile curved my mouth, echoed on her slender features. “At least you might be. We might be.”
Now she smiled for real, sweet and bashful, reaching out to take my left hand where it lay on my thigh. Tracing patterns on my life and love and heart lines, she cleared her throat quietly. “I’d like that.”
“Dinner first,” I smiled, leaving my hand, palm up, on her thigh while she started the car up. Once we were underway, she continued to stroke my hand as though learning the shape of my flesh. Soon, we arrived at a building with a distinctly Asian look to it, and I directed Sara to pull into valet.
The moment I stepped out, I realized that Anastasia had done more than just recommend this place to me. One employee whispered urgently to another and soon an impeccably dressed man bustled out. “Leonacouer,” he greeted me formally and gave a perfect bow. “I am Charles. We have been awaiting you.”
This was a life that I had nearly forgotten. Privilege, power and a respect that bordered on fear. This was the life of the Four Suits and their immediate proxies. Nodding coolly to the man, I gestured to the vast, twin red doors. “Lead the way, Charles.”
++ Sara ++
There was a change in Dace, an almost imperceptible shift of power. Something in her pain-awkward stride, in her rich voice, in the flash of her frighteningly red-rimmed eyes. I nearly startled, feeling out of place, as her hand wrapped around mine, bringing me in close to her side. Our guide, Charles, was silent as he led us to a private elevator that led to a long landing above an opulent, bustling restaurant. It smelled heavenly and Dace smiled at my sniffing the air.
In a separate chamber above the main dining room, Dace and I were led to an elegantly sound-proofed room with a rice paper chamber in the center like an enormous Japanese lantern. Charles slid one translucent panel aside and bowed for us to walk up the three steps into the lantern. Rather than a stark, traditional eating room, there was a scoop-like seat like the one we’d slept in after the reception in Chicago and many opulent pillows piled with careful randomness. The low table held only a single red orchid, in a pot decorated with the Lady Heartsblood’s symbol.
“Tea will be brought to you shortly, Leonacouer,” Charles said quietly and the rice paper panel slid soundlessly into place. While Dace got herself settled into the scoop chair, I poked about the room, noting the craftsmanship of the simple décor, the cut-crystal panels of the hanging light.
“Stop fussing, you scientist you,” Dace chuckled finally from where she was half-reclined comfortably in the unusual piece of furniture. “I think I’m going to get me one of these things. This is the most comfortable I’ve been since breaking my arm.” Patting a heavily padded stool the exact height of the chair, Dace smiled invitingly at me. So, I went to her, sinking down and feeling where our skins warmed at the hip. I faced her now, my thigh aligned along her ribs, that undamaged left arm slung casually over my leg. “This is the kind of life that represented the Red Queen to me,” Dace mused thoughtfully and I met her gaze. “It takes some getting used to, when you’re a simple, screwed up kid like I was. All this is props, no different than the leathers and the chains and the attitudes. A shift away from reality is what the Suits truly do best. Guess I gotta get used to it again.” Before I could figure out a reply, there was a scratch of sound at the panel where we had entered. “Come,” Dace said in a slightly raised voice, her tone authoritative and no-nonsense.
Despite myself, it made me wet.
A pretty young woman in traditional Japanese garb entered, effortlessly shuffling in on her knees with a grace that made me envious. In her hands was a large tray of tea paraphernalia. “Tea?” She asked softly, a demure performance for this powerful client. Dace waved lazily for her to continue.
It was a fascinating ritual of smooth, precise movements. Not a gesture was wasted or unnecessary, not the actual act of preparing the tea, nor the way she would so carefully draw aside the trailing sleeves of the kimono. Three pours of the steaming water, and the cup was reverently brought to Dace, the girl’s head bowed.
“Arigato,” Dace purred in that dangerous, silky tone that seemed to hypnotize all who heard it. Sipping carefully at the cup, she then held it out and I helplessly leaned close, allowing her to tilt the heavy ceramic and feed me a small mouthful of the steaming, fragrant brew.
It only then occurred to me that this was part of the seduction, part of the ritual of bonding us together.
For the first time in my life… I felt cherished. And it made my heart and throat ache with unaccustomed joy.
++ Dace ++
It dawned in the rich, dark eyes like a sunrise after a winter of rain. Sara was beginning to get what this all was, this drawn out seduction of all her senses and synapses. There were no words to describe how relieved I was. There were old pains in this woman that I didn’t understand, that I might never understand, and I wanted to bring her to a loving place beyond that pain. No, neither of us could live in this fantasy realm indefinitely, but I could sure as hell do my best to create a retreat for us. Sometimes with kindness, like now, and other times with a careful, loving pain that was cathartic.
Pressing the cup into Sara’s hands, I shooed the serving girl away and brought my girl’s head down to place a gentle kiss on her forehead. Once again, I felt that hope, that she would be mine and mine alone swell up, nosing around in the fine, dark hair. Sniffling around her tears, Sara allowed me the intimacy, relaxing at last. I was so relieved. Perhaps now we could move past the memories of how I sustained my injuries and see what we could build together.
The meal was a light, sumptuous affair of easily-consumed foods that would not tax my wounded body. Sushi and small qualities of delicious, thin meats and vegetables, little pasta pockets of savory things. Sara giggled coquettishly as she fed me some of the nibbles, and willingly ate from my fingers when I returned the favor. Creamy green tea ice cream turned into kisses, which in turn melted me faster than the cold desert. Hunched over my battered upper body, Sara fed from my willing mouth, gave me a part of herself in return.
Squeaking in surprise when I nipped Topishly at her, Sara moaned evocatively and softened further against me. “I’m really glad we seem to get along so nicely,” I breathed against her lips, earning a soft laugh.
“Would have never dreamed this, back in San Francisco,” she whispered back, eyes blackened by the draping fall of her hair around our faces.
“Me either. This is gonna be weird for awhile, me being your Top while I’m laid up like this. Figured I better go after your brain until I can go after your body, too.”
Oh, she liked that, the dark gaze getting heavy with hunger. “You’re doing a really good job. You’re going to have to keep me, because I think I’m real close to being madly in love with you… Daddy.”
My heart and hormones melted.
++ Warrick ++
Was there any telling the Willows girls ‘no’?
As I skulked into the house on Lindsey’s heels, feeling like a Nickelodeon version of Mission Impossible, I knew the answer to that. All the girl had to do was give me the puppy eyes and a pretty little, “please, Uncle Warrick,” and here I was, playing along with her mad scheme. The house was darkened, despite the morning hour, and I could make out quiet, even breathing from the sofa. That must be Olivia then. Hope she wasn’t armed… Ignoring the sleeping brunette, Lindsey snuck through the house with a skill that left me feeling like I was wearing clown shoes. How did she do that?
Even I heard the faint squeak of the bedroom door, and a sleepy voice came from the darkness. “You’re getting better, Squirt, but that door gives you away every time.”
“Aw man,” Lindsey pouted and crossed her arms in a sulk that made me swallow a laugh.
“You’ve got company. Hey there, Warrick. I’m decent if you want to hit the light and come say hi.”
“Will do,” I agreed cheerfully and did as she asked. Blinking in the soft light from the bedside lamp, Dace yawned and smiled at Lindsey, who immediately forgot her sulk. “Junior Willows here persuaded me to be her accomplice in crime.”
“Oh?” Now the tall blonde sounded as curious as she was amused. “Do tell.”
Jumping onto the foot of the bed, trying not to bounce it too much, Lindsey cackled, “we’re kidnapping you!”
“Good gracious,” Dace said melodramatically, making a mockingly horrified face. “Whatever shall I do?”
“Come along quietly,” Lindsey said in a cartoon villain voice. “And no one gets hurt.” That finally got Dace to laugh, and I let my grin out. “You said that you were sick of your clothes, you’d been wearing them so long, so I called Anastasia and she said that we could kidnap Tessa too, and I bet that Liv will come, ‘cause I bet she’s sick of what’s in that little suitcase too, and…”
“Wait!” Dace laughed and held up a hand. “Take a breath, Linds. You called Anastasia?”
“Sure! She’s really cool, and thought that shopping was a great idea. Hey, she’s the one that told me she was a powerful lady, so I’m guessing that comes with a bank account too.” The girl grinned winningly. “If you’re going to be the sidekick to a couple of grand ladies, you better look the part, huh?”
Giving me a wry look, Dace asked, “I’m in bigger trouble than I thought, here, aren’t I?”
That only made me laugh.
++ Tessa ++
The outer office of the inner sanctum of the House of Hearts was my domain. As much as my beloved Anastasia was the heartbeat of the empire, she couldn’t do it without me. Because I craved no power, I was the perfect vessel to wield so much of it.
It had been a perfectly ordinary day so far, and my stomach was whining for some lunch. Right on cue, the door swung open, and a child’s voice called out, “this is a stick-up! Everybody freeze!” Laughing like a hyena, Lindsey swept into the room, holding her index finger like a gun. “Come along quietly, and no one gets hurt.”
What on earth did a sane person say to that? Before I could come up with something, the child was pushed into the room by a handsome black man. “You must be Tessa,” he smiled charmingly and offered me a hand. “I’m Warrick Brown, accomplice in kidnap lunch and shopping along with Junior Willows here.”
Delighted clapping pulled all of our eyes to Anastasia’s door, where she was grinning in delight. “Brava, Lindsey. You were absolutely correct that the look on her face was, indeed, priceless.”
This seemed like a very good time to keep my mouth shut and wait for an explanation. But then I would be rude to our guest, and that would be unacceptable. Warrick Brown had already retracted his hand while the girls teased me, and I stood now and echoed his earlier gesture. “Tessa Samuels, pleased to meet you.”
His handshake was firm and gentle, matching the smile on his face. “Likewise. You come with high marks from Lindsey here.”
That pleased me and I smiled at the child. “Good. I like her too.” Then I reran the recent events and gave him a puzzled look. “Kidnap lunch and shopping?”
Chuckling, Anastasia stepped over to kiss me warmly on the cheek before gathering up a few files I’d had waiting for her on my desk and retreating. “Ta-ta now, have fun!”
“Goodbye, Anastasia!” Lindsey called and grabbed a hand from both Warrick and I, tugging, barely giving me a chance to grab my purse. “Come on, Dace’ll think that the guards ate us or something.”
++ Warrick ++
“Or something,” I chuckled and allowed Lindsey to pull me from the room, bumping shoulders with the lovely Tessa. Damn shame she was taken, because the woman was fine. “From what I understand, Dace is unhappy with the few outfits she’s been stuck with for so long.”
“And some of them are really hard to get in and out of, and half she can’t wear at all,” Lindsey chimed in. “So I called Anastasia, ‘cause I know that Dace’ll be working for her and they go way back, and maybe she could help with some clothes and stuff.”
Tessa was nodding thoughtfully. “That was a nice gesture, Lindsey, but why drag me along?”
“’Cause you’re a great dresser, and you’re tall and gorgeous, and Dace likes you and you should hang out since you’re gonna be working together all the time. Besides, dressing up will give mom a thrill.”
Both of us grown-ups had to twitter at that.
At the car, Dace peeled open a lazy eye and smiled warmly at Tessa. “I see they got you too.”
Lindsey merely cackled madly as she climbed into the front seat, leaving Tessa to hang out with Dace in the back. “Where to?” I asked of the dark-haired beauty. “You’ve got a better idea of what we can spend and where.”
Thoughtfully, Tessa contemplated that as I started up the Tahoe. “Caesar’s Palace,” was the unexpected answer and she shrugged. “If we’re going to make this a day out, let’s do it right.”
Lindsey made a face. “Isn’t that gonna be kinda expensive?”
Both Dace and I chuckled at the mysterious, playful grin Tessa tossed the child. “Don’t you worry about the money. Both your lovely mother and the Lady Anastasia will appreciate proper finery on the lioness here.”
“Ah-yep,” Dace grinned.
++ Dace ++
It was a lovely afternoon of relaxed clothes shopping, fine food and terrific company. Similar in build to me, and with a proper femme’s perfect eye for clothing, Tessa ensured that I made off with some classy, loose fitting shirts and a few pairs of pants. We found a casual clothing store where I forced my new playmate to try on and even buy a few pairs of jeans, and a great skater boy t-shirt that read ‘sinful’ in graffiti lettering, which cracked the two natives up. Every time that I started to feel tired, Lindsey somehow found something to do where I could sit for a while and rest. Even if she had to charm someone out of their chair. With her wiles and my war wounds, no one put up much of a fight. Warrick was a riot, entertaining and somehow paternal to Lindsey, without smothering the girl. He kept an eye out on me too, without making me feel like I had a nurse along. Tessa wanted to fuss a bit, but was still too afraid of me to push it.
When Catherine and Sara melted from the crowd with the rest of their shift and Greg Sanders in tow, the day got even better. Squealing, Lindsey jumped on her mom and showed off the pretty sweater that Tessa picked out. It was our little secret from both Willows just how much the thing had cost. Then I got a long, loving kiss that made me forget my aches and pains. “Missed you,” I breathed, feeling a million times better just in her presence.
“Missed you too. This color is stunning on you, I can hardly wait to see the rest of the goodies.”
“I’ve always loved this color,” I grinned, smoothing my hand over the whisper-thin silk shirt dyed a shocking electric blue. “But it took Tessa’s experienced eye to find exactly the right shade.”
Smiling demurely, Tessa shrugged, “I’m more accustomed to reds, but I did my best.”
“There’s a red one too. It oughta knock the boss lady’s socks off. We had a lovely and productive day.”
“Ours was productive,” Catherine sighed, rolling her eyes. “But I wouldn’t say it was lovely.”
Crooking a finger at Sara to get her to bend over to me, I stole a quick kiss before pressing her into a seat nearby. Then Lindsey wedged herself into the small space between her mom and I, and all was right with the world. “Oh, I dunno, it seems pretty lovely from here.”