(The Battle for the Third Age)
by Bat Morda
1998 Jun 10
Copyright © 1998
All rights reserved

Time cast a spell on you, that you won't forget me

- Stevie Nicks

Chapter 6


Waking with a start, Xero's eyes cast furiously around the room. Something was about to happen. As if on cue, her mobie unit buzzed-a call was incoming. In an instant she was on her feet and across the room. In one fluid motion the device was activated and at her ear.

"Yes?" she demanded of the unknown caller. "You've found her? Good work, Shad. Hold on, lemme grab a pen."

Xero grabbed one of the pens from the desk and a scrap of printer paper. Listening carefully, she printed the information as neatly as possible, hoping that when the time came, she'd be able to read her own writing. "Paula James, VP of Marketing for Archive. Okay, home address? Is she likely to be there?" The hacker glanced at her watch; it was late morning which meant she'd be riding a full day in sunlight. Shoving health risks aside, she considered her options. "I'll leave right away, but even then I won't get back down until evening. Where is she likely to be? Fencing studio, huh. I suppose that makes sense. You got that address too?"

Beginning to pace, Xero noticed absently that her legs were barely sore-the hot spring had done wonders. "Shad, this is gonna sound kinda nuts, but I need you to do call the regulars for me. We'll meet at the 'horn later." She paused a moment listening carefully. "I don't care what Blue says. It's none of her fucking business. I need to have a talk with Paula, find out where Rielle is and go get her. Think you can work up some sort of credentials for me in the meantime? It might have to be all purpose, 'cause I don't know what's happened to her. When I get her, I'll meet you guys at the 'Horn. Great, thanks, Shadow."

"You know, you'll alienate all your hacker friends if you start with phrases like 'thank you'," Henry said with an amused grin from the base of the stairs.

"You're lucky I don't kick your ass for that stunt you pulled last night," she warned over her shoulder.

"No doubt," he allowed, his good humor unaffected. "Still, I'd suspect your legs are feeling a bit better. It's sunny and cold out there. Last night it was dark and colder. You wouldn't have gone very far your legs feeling the way they did. C'mon, I've made some breakfast. The least you can do is eat some before going."

The rumbling of her stomach answered for her and she followed the healer up the stairs. "So I take it you believe this past life/soul crap?" she asked as she sat down behind a plate of steaming food.

Henry shrugged. "I believe just about anything, try to hedge my bets that way. If it pisses off the Fundies, I'm all for it."

Xero nodded, having to agree with him there. Glancing around the dining area, she realized just how little of the place she'd really seen. "You've got a nice thing going up here, Henry. Argo seems to like it."

The healer turned around and looked at the iguana sunning himself lazily near the window on the kitchen counter. He looked back at the hacker nervously. "I'd like to keep him if you don't mind. I never knew Renée had a thing for reptiles."

Xero smirked. There were a lot of things his ex-wife enjoyed that he didn't know about. No sense hurting him with it though. "Yeah, I'm sure Ba-- Renée would have wanted you to keep him. Every time he bites you, you can think of her. If he gets too spazzy just rub his belly and he'll fall right asleep."

Henry grinned. "I'll keep that in mind." Picking up a few items from the counter, he handed them to Xero. "Don't forget her hat," he added, passing over the worn Mickey Mouse baseball cap she'd worn since her associate's death. "And this Renée's, too. You might need it for the drive down; it's going to be cold."

Xero looked at the now familiar black and green checked flannel shirt as if she'd seen a ghost. The warm flannel felt familiar in her hands. With an absent nod, she accepted the gift.

Healer and hacker ate in silence. A truce had settled between them and neither wanted to spoil it by risking words. The food was good, Xero mumbled as much, and Henry muttered something about his mother's recipe. Nothing else was said until each look up from an empty plate. Brushing her hair from her face with her fingers Xero broke the silence. "I'd better get going."

Henry nodded in agreement. "Rielle moved your bike into the garage and I took the liberty of charging the batteries. Your tools and stuff are already on it." He walked her to the bike as she donned the flannel shirt, jacket and heavy boots. Before she could grab the helmet, he stopped her. "Good luck to you, Xero. I hope this all works out."

She nodded. "Ares will be stopped, one way or another."

He shook his head with a smile. "It's not just Ares I'm talking about. Rielle is a good person. Don't get me wrong, I don't really care what happens to you. But she seems to think that you'll make her happy. If that just so happens to work out for you too...I mean if Rielle's happy and you end up being happy too, well, I don't really mind that."

Xero smiled. "Nice thought Henry, but I can't say I follow you. This is about fighting a virus, not about finding a soul mate. You're a hopeless romantic and someday it'll do you in."

"You're fighting more than a virus," he called loudly as she rolled her bike away. "You're fighting for peace and your own peace of mind."

Still smiling, the hacker thought about his words as she headed for the highway. "Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity," she thought, gunning the motorcycle's engine and heading for home.

Xero didn't watch the spectacular vista unwind as she sped down the twisty highway. Her attention was so solely focused on getting Rielle back that she was scarcely aware of how much her eyes burned, even shielded as they were by the tinted visor of the helmet and her own sunglasses. Henry hadn't been kidding about the cold. A T-shirt and flannel shirt weren't much protection from the wind chill, even under the heavy jacket. Finally, she pulled over to withdraw a pair of riding gloves from a saddlebag. Deciding she might as well stretch her legs and take a pee, she headed to the Andy Gump to the side of the vista.

Pausing for a few moments when she emerged to clear her lungs, she idly considered what Henry had said. She knew it was a joke, if not all of it then certainly most of it.

"But what if I am Xena," she considered. "Rielle said that Xena would be critical to solving this whole mess. How? All I've seen so far is a woman who learned how to kill by fifteen and is raving mad running around China at the moment. How is that going to get Ares or whatever it is off the nets?"

Pushing questions for which she had no answers aside, she donned her helmet once again and walked to her bike. With little else to do to occupy her mind as she drove, she returned to the puzzle, looking at it from another angle.

"What about Rielle? Is she a deluded lunatic? If she is, then why am I driving like a bat outta hell to get her out of what ever joint Paula has her locked up in? Come on, Xero-this is a bit more work than you're used to, just to get someone in the sack. Maybe it's Paula," she allowed as she slowed down for a tight turn. "I saw that look she shot me when I ended up at Rielle's house. She thinks she's got it all. The legitimate job, Olympic medals...Rielle. Hell she probably think Rielle's wandering heart is a symptom of mental illness, especially when it's directed at me." Her eyebrows came together in a sharp frown. "Well, is it?" she asked herself.

Like a movie, scenes from the hacker's life shifted before her. The isolation of one orphanage after the next, the fights to establish herself in the pecking order, and the outbursts of downright cruelty. Those were the things that set her apart. When the teachers began to show signs of fear, she knew it was time to move on.

With a grin, she remembered her entrance into the hacking community at large. She was not just good-she was the best. Now everyone was after her, but not to beat her down because she was new, but to lift her up because she was good. They all wanted something-insight into her technique, a shot at making a big arrest, a job done or a free meal. It was painful at first realizing that people who offered anything in exchange for something left as soon as that something was given. A badly bruised heart finally broken had turned Xero into the sexual predator who took but seldom gave.

"Rielle really should be locked up if that's what she wants," she decided. It was no use wondering how things might have been had she grown up differently. Those thoughts ended in tears that had dried by the time she was ten.

Lacking anything better to ponder, Xero started to fantasize about the syscop in bed. She still had several hours back to town and if she played her cards right, drawing every element of the seduction out just so, she'd finish up as she hit the San Fernando Valley. With an easy smile, she tried to remember if Rielle wore a wristwatch and earrings.

Bringing the bike to a smooth halt in front of the fencing studio, Xero had a look around before entering. The place was empty save for a lone receptionist at the desk. Shadow had warned her that the place would be mostly vacant, not up for business as usual after a recent remodeling. With an air of professionalism, she strode through the double doors and confronted the receptionist, cowing her easily.

"I'm here to sign off on construction," Xero announced, reading from the folded piece of printer paper she'd scribbled the directions on. "What the hell are you doing here? The studio is supposed to be vacant."

"The building got signed off two days ago," the woman protested. "We're gearing up our classes starting next week."

"Don't tell me you didn't get the e-mail? A slew of jobs handled by the person who checked you out came up with errors. I've got to redo them myself." Xero looked bored and annoyed, then regarded the small woman behind the desk as if she were an insect. A potentially tasty insect, but an insect none the less.

"We, ah, haven't been logging on because of the scare. People dying from the nets," she answered meekly.

"And that's supposed to be my problem?" Xero laughed. "Just get out of here, kid. Let me do my job." Without further protest, the young woman got up and grabbed her purse. "You still got the inspection sign from last time?" the hacker asked before she moved away from her desk. With a quick nod, the woman fished it out under a small pile of application print outs. "Stick it on the door on your way out," she instructed, then turned her back on the woman, beginning her 'inspection' in earnest.

She waited several more minutes, familiarizing herself with the building before returning to the front door and removing the sign from the window. Returning to the main work out room, she picked up a couple of sabers from their mounts on the wall. Some more exploration uncovered a special file for removing nicks from the metal blade. Picking up the file and a polishing cloth Xero sat down on a bench and began to sharpen her sword. The movement was as smooth and fluid as if she'd been doing it forever.

In actuality, Xero and never held a sword before in her life. She wasn't shocked by her awareness-compared to her dreams, this sort of crinkle in reality was easy to take. Instead she thought about the woman who would be walking through the door at any moment. Rielle's wife. Xero calmly sharpened the sword as she waited for the chance to prove once and for all that she was every bit as capable as the one time world fencing champion.

Paula James came to an abrupt halt in front of the fencing studio in her indigo black Ford Enterprise. Puzzled by the intimidating Russian motorcycle parked out front, she climbed out of the cab of her vehicle with caution. The front door to the studio was unlocked, so she pushed it open. The office lights were on and the computer up and running while the rest of the building was dark. Frowning, Paula called out the receptionist's name several times before heading into the main body of the studio. She grew irritated; it wasn't the first time Patsy had left for no apparent reason. She mumbled something negative about blondes and flipped on the main light switch.

Blinking in surprise, she was coldly regarded by a woman seated on a stretching bench. "I hope you don't talk like that in front of your wife," the hacker drawled.

Paula crossed her arms defensively in front of her chest. "You're the one Rielle's been playing around with. Xero, wasn't it?"

The woman nodded. "Maybe if you didn't keep her locked up, she'd see you as a more suitable playmate?"

"I don't have to stand here and take this crap from you," Paula growled as she turned for the door.

"Well, I'm afraid you do," Xero commented pleasantly as Paula shook the locked door. "I programmed the door to lock five seconds after you opened it. So, unless you brought really good ear plugs with you, you're gonna have to listen to what I've got to say."

"I'll bet you think you're real cute, don't you?" Paula shot back acidly. "Notorious hacker seduces syscop. You're probably so keen on playing into her little deluded fantasies. You must have an open field with the best syscop in the business off your back now."

Xero rolled her eyes. She was really hoping Paula didn't genuinely love Rielle. It would have made her life a lot easier. But the pride in the other woman's voice told another story. Paula was proud of her spouse, and quite broken up over what had happened, though fighting to hide it well.

"Paula, I'm going to spell things out for you. I'll spare you the sob stories because you won't buy it and I don't have that kind of time. If you haven't noticed, the nets aren't safe at the moment, not for hackers or anyone else. People have a good shot at unsubbing every time they log on. Rielle contacted me because she believes that between the two of us we can fix what is wrong and make the Network safe again. If she wants to solve the problem by calling me Xena and herself Gabrielle, what's the big deal?"

Paula marched over to Xero, her eyes burning with hatred. "Because Rielle is in love with Xena, this ideal fantasy woman she made up. Have you ever tried to compete with a fictitious character?" she demanded.

Inwardly Xero grimaced. "Fuck, woman! I am a fictitious character," she inwardly groaned. Such was the price of not remembering one's real name and building an identity from scratch. "Trust me, Paula, Xena is anything but ideal."

"I saw the way Rielle looked at you. Reality aside, you're Xena for her. And for you to play on that, just for...for whatever it is you're getting from her is sick."

"Issues of mental health aside," Xero continued, an odd sense of calm washing over her as she began to get angry. "Rielle is locked up and you're going to help me get her out."

"Like hell I will," Paula snapped back.

With a slow smile Xero turned her back and walked toward the stretching bench. Picking up two sabers, she tossed one to Paula. "I've got a feeling you'll change your mind."

Paula caught the saber easily, looked at it, looked back at Xero, and laughed. "Oh, this is rich. How chivalrous of you. We're supposed to sword fight for the hand of the fair Rielle. You've gotta be kidding."

Without warning the hacker lunged, sword heading straight for Paula's middle. With a shocked expression, she parried the blow without an instant to spare. "Feel like I'm kidding to you?" Xero asked lightly.

"You're insane!" the former world champion shrieked as she backed up.

"Sane or not, you're going to help me," the hacker said tightly, goading the other woman into attacking.

"I will not play into this," Paula affirmed as she blocked each blow. "You're deluded." She missed one parry and Xero's blade easily sliced a shallow cut across her left shoulder. Looking at the blood seeping through the thin fabric, her eyes narrowed. "That does it, bitch. You're gonna die."

The sword fight easily lasted ten minutes. A few minutes into it, both women carefully controlled their breathing even as beads of sweat dotted their brows. Paula fought with trained precision. Her moves were economical, classical, and well studied maneuvers. Xero's style was less graceful. She hit with power and force but often expended more energy than needed per blow. Like a rusty engine started after years of neglect, she fought to remember what she'd seen Xena do and then mimiced those moves. There was a lag in her timing that began to lessen just as Paula began to take advantage of it.

"Come on, Xena," she taunted. "No backflips? No running up the walls? Where's the aerodynamic impossibilities you're so famous for?"

Xero parried and lunged as she considered the other woman's words. "Did Xena do backflips?" she thought to herself as she remembered all she'd seen Xena do. She didn't recall any. Xena fought brilliantly from horseback and on foot, but aerodynamic stunts didn't come to mind. The search through her recollections brought something else to mind though. At Paula's next strike, Xero caught the blade between her thumb and forefinger and pulled it from Paula's grasp. Dropping her own sword, she quickly hit two pressure points on the other woman's neck, dropping her to her knees.

As Paula knelt there, gasping for air, Xero realized she'd not been quite quick enough with her catch. She'd been cut rather deeply between her thumb and forefinger and on the palm of her hand. Looking around for something to stop the bleeding, she glanced at Paula who now had a few drops of blood coming from her nose. "Give up yet?" she asked as an afterthought.

Paula nodded, but Xero didn't notice, busy retrieving a towel to bind her hand. She returned to the suffocating woman s she ripped the white material into strips. Paula tugged at Xero's jeans to get her attention and nodded vigorously.

Like a jolt, Xero remembered that Paula was dying and quickly jabbed a couple of pressure points on the woman's neck. Nothing happened.

Paula's struggle became more frantic and Xero got annoyed. "I'm rusty at this," she explained. "Stop squirming or I'll just leave you." Paula instantly froze. Xero feared she might be too late but took careful aim anyway. With two precisely placed jabs, Paula fell over gasping, her fingers still clenched around Xero's jeans. Xero didn't bother shaking her off, but focused on tying the strip of cloth around her own hand to stop the bleeding.

"You're a fucking psychotic," Paula finally gasped when she'd gotten enough air in her lungs.

"Whatever," the hacker agreed with a shrug as she pulled the woman to her feet. "You help me get Rielle back and you'll live. The deal is as simple as that."

There wasn't much fight left in Paula as Xero dragged the Marketing V.P. outside. She snorted to herself at the sight of the outlandishly huge Ford. "Figures," she muttered as she shoved the other woman over to the bike.

"Why don't we take my car?" Paula asked as Xero pulled two pairs of handcuffs from the back inside pocket of her leather jacket.

"Because I don't trust you," she answered simply. "I'm going to wager that being handcuffed to a motorcycle without a helmet and me driving will encourage you to cooperate, tell me how to get to Rielle, and not try and tip the thing over."

"But look at the bright side," she added as she maneuvered Paula to the back of the seat and locked the first of cuffs. "You're the first woman I've let wear these that I wasn't fucking at the time." She winked at Paula who paled visibly, then jumped on, starting the engine in one fluid motion.

The hacker's guess was correct and without further struggle, Paula told her where Rielle had been committed. It was all the way across town on the West Side, but her passenger stayed quiet and very still the entire way.

Xero mentally kicked herself for not noting the name of the facility when she walked inside. Preoccupied with grabbing an unattended medical jacket from a gurney, she'd been distracted. Having handcuffed Paula's arms behind her back, she walked like she had every reason to be there. Reaching the information desk, she masked her amazement when the receptionist smiled in greeting. "Dr. Bailey, we've been expecting you." The receptionist looked over a chart and handed it to Xero. She saw a scanned photo of herself printed on the chart. "We got word you'd be arriving to pick up a patient..."

Xero smiled back, reminding herself that she owed Shadow big time. "Yes, that's right. And I'm dropping one off. This is Paula James. Attacked me with..." She glanced at her bandaged hand. "Something sharp. I think a seventy-two hour hold should do it."

"Now wait just a minute, Xero," Paula protested. Xero turned and fixed her in a steely cold gaze. "You'll never be me," she quietly protested as two orderlies took her away. "You'll never take my place."

"What was that about?" the receptionist inquired politely.

"Completely delusional." Xero replied, stamping her thumb print on the file and handing it back. The receptionist scanned the print and waited a few moments for clearance. "I take it you're not having trouble with your systems?" the hacker asked politely as she watched the receptionist work.

"Oh no," the pretty brunette replied. "We haven't had any problems so far. We're keeping our fingers crossed." With a smile, she signed approval on the form and called for a nurse. "Robert will take you to Ms. MacGab's room. She's all yours now."

Xero quietly followed the nurse along a long corridor of rooms. Pausing outside of one, he fished into his pocket for the correct electronic key. Xero took the opportunity to glance inside the one way glass panel in the center of the door. She couldn't help but grin.

Rielle was lying on her back on the floor, her legs propped up on her cot, doing sit ups. She signaled the nurse to wait as she watched Rielle finish her set. Counting in sets of ten, the syscop stopped at three hundred. With a nod, Xero signaled the nurse and the door was open. By the time the opening door cleared her field of view, Rielle was on her feet and ready to attack someone. Her anger quickly faded when she saw Xero's face.

"Good evening Ms. MacGab," the hacker said simply. "I'm Dr. Bailey and you've been released into my custody. Is that alright with you?"

Trying to sound casual, the syscop nodded. "Quite acceptable, Dr. Bailey," she replied. She managed to keep her composure until they rounded the corner of the building and made it to the motorcycle. "Thank you," Rielle said, surprising Xero with a fierce hug, "I didn't think you'd make it down here this fast."

"Think nothing of it," Xero replied with a grin. "Gave me an opportunity to get acquainted with your wife."

Rielle's mood instantly cooled and she shivered slightly. Xero, mistaking the shiver for a chill, handed the syscop her leather jacket and the helmet she wouldn't let Paula wear. "I don't want to hear about Paula right now if that's okay with you," Rielle said quietly.

"Sure," Xero agreed, settling onto the bike in front of the syscop. "I'm just explaining how I found you."

The two rode in silence until they reached the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill. The place was hopping with activity, and the number of men milling about shocked both syscop and hacker. "What's going on?" Xero asked Ska at the door.

The waitress ushered them inside, talking quietly. "Leave the bike, we'll have someone else move it. You need to stay out of sight until we close. Shadow has contacted the regulars and we can meet after closing."

"Why not just close the place now?" Xero asked, baffled.

"Because things aren't business as usual at the moment. We can't risk logging on to fuck up the files of all the riff-raff. Therefore, the riff-raff doesn't know when to leave. Delirium's screaming it's like running a legitimate club for the night."

Xero shuddered at the thought. "God forbid."

"You think serving drinks to bobs is easy, I'll will you my tray," she shot back. "We're getting a few syscops who are trying to match faces to rap sheets, so you'd better stay out of sight, Xero, but your friend can mill around. No offense, Rielle," Ska added quickly. "I'm sure you're a capable hacker, but I've never heard of you and--"

Rielle smiled. "None taken," she assured the waitress. "I don't expect the perks and drawbacks of 'big time' until I get there."

Xero coughed. "That's fine. I'm kinda tired and it's been a long day. I'll crash in the back room, just wake me when the club closes."

Ska nodded and pressed a cold beer into the hacker's hand as she keyed open the lock to the private back room door.

Xero didn't hand the beer back, but stood quietly, asking Rielle a silent question. She could hang with the rest of the crowd until closing or join her in the private room. Rielle paused for a moment then turned her attention back to the waitress. She didn't want to risk being spotted by the other syscops, true, but there were other factors as well. "I'm kinda tired myself. I'll stay here with, Xero."

Ska nodded. "Fine. Beer's on the house, Xero. I for one am glad you're back. I seem so much nicer in comparison. Careful, that the room is a little chilly. Don't want you getting frostbite."

"We'll be fine," Xero said after a sip of beer. "Just let us know when everyone is here." With that, Xero stepped aside for Rielle to enter, the followed her into the back room, the door closing with a hiss behind them.

Rielle looked around the dimly lit room and shivered slightly. "Your friend was right. It's kinda cold in here." She turned around to see the hacker looking at her with an annoyed expression on her face. "Oops, sorry", she amended. "The waitress was right. Is that better?" Xero nodded and began her own exploration of the room. "What is it with you, Xero?" Rielle asked, shoving her hands deeper into the pockets of the hacker's jacket. "Is it a friend phobia or something?"

Xero shrugged, feeling too tired to verbally spar with the syscop. "Or something," she agreed. "Why don't you take the couch," she suggested, "I'll take the floor."

Rielle's attention snapped over to the long couch to the side of the room. Obviously the most comfortable place to sleep, there wasn't really any other suitable place in the room. Several hard chairs surrounded a small table and a work desk, but that was it for furnishings. "You can have the couch," Rielle offered. Xero shot her a look of barely controlled rage. It was clear the hacker was tired and cranky. "Or we could share it," she added softly. Noting the hacker's bandaged hand as she crossed her arms in front of her chest, Rielle rushed over, worried.

"What happened to you?" the syscop demanded, examining the bandaged hand.

"It's nothing. I didn't catch a sword quite right, that's all," Xero said, barely tolerating Rielle's gentle probing.

"You caught a sword?" she asked, dumbfounded.

Xero looked at her. Blue eyes vibrant, they also betrayed just how tired the hacker really was. "I got in a sword fight with Paula when she wouldn't tell me where you were. I caught the blade of her saber, sort of, and did that neck thingie. Then she told me." As an afterthought she quickly added, "There isn't anything wrong with my blood, it's clean."

Rielle shook off the hacker's warning, "I'm not worried about that, Xero, I'm just surprised you managed to beat Paula in a sword fight. You never told me you knew how to fence," she added carefully.

"I don't," Xero admitted. "I've been watching Xena in the dreams and stuff. Hackers have quick memories so I just mimicked her."

It was a struggle for Rielle to keep the look of elation off her face. Fighting to keep her voice non-committal, she acknowledged the statement and returned her attention to the couch once more. "You look kinda tired. Why don't we get some sleep," she offered, forgetting to let go of the hacker's hand.

"Top or bottom?" Xero asked her eyes still locked with the syscops's.

"That's a bit personal," Rielle replied with a cold glare, pointedly removing her hand from the hacker's.

Xero rolled her eyes, wondering if she'd ever get to sleep. "No, I mean do you want me to sleep on top of you or do you want to sleep on top of me? The couch isn't wide enough to sleep side by side."

"Oh. I thought we'd each take one end," Rielle answered, blushing slightly. "Legs crossing in the middle."

"Fine," Xero agreed. "But my feet have been in biker boots all day, I was trying to spare you that...experience."

"I see," Rielle replied quietly. "In that case, since we're only talking about sleeping arrangements mind you, you can sleep on top. I suspect I'm colder than you are anyway."

"Of course," Xero agreed with a wry grin. "I'd never imply you'd be anything but a top in any other context."

Rielle was annoyed that the hacker's tone told her the larger woman didn't believe a word of what she'd just said. She got a brief moment of revenge however when Xero took off her boots. "Fine," she said with a groan. "But could you leave those boots on the other side of the room."

Xero complied with a frown, then stood waiting for Rielle to get comfortable. Still wearing the heavy leather jacket over her silk blouse, the syscop stretched out on her back, her head propped up on the pillowed arm of the couch. Xero took off her flannel shirt and joined her. Lying down on her right side, she only had to bend her long legs slightly to fit. Using Rielle's abdomen as a pillow, she twisted her shoulders slightly getting comfortable. One arm reached under Rielle's thigh, the other reached over resting on the smaller woman's hip. To Rielle's immediate distraction, Xero's shoulder was resting firmly between her legs. Xero settled the flannel shirt over her exposed shoulder and shifted once or twice to get comfortable.

When the hacker seemed settled, Rielle let one hand rest on the hacker's hand at her hip, her other hand making its way to the top of Xero's head, gently touching her hair. "So your dreams," she said quietly. "You're still having them?"

"Oh yeah," Xero replied sleepily. "Believe it or don't, Janice Covington is even more annoying than you are."

"That's good to hear," Rielle remarked.

"Rielle," Xero said softly, capturing the syscop's attention as her warm breath spilled out over sensitive skin. "Allowing for even a second that I am Xena, have you considered that whatever insight I've been given from these dreams won't be enough to battle Ares? I'm guessing what you need is the reformed Xena who traveled the countryside with Gabrielle. That isn't the Xena I see, and it's not a Xena I could relate to."

Rielle considered Xero's words seriously. "Wherever you are, Xero," she whispered back. "It'll be enough. It has to be." Neither woman spoke again although it was long moments before either drifted off to sleep.

"Annoying?! Janice Covington barked loudly, splashing Xero in the face with hot water, "I'll show you annoying."

The hacker sputtered to consciousness gulping down mouthfuls of water in the process. She was seated in a rectangular hot tub, naked, the archeologist leaning over splashing her playfully.

"What the fuck is going on?" Xero sputtered. After a moment of taking in her surroundings, she realized that she wasn't alone in the tub. "What's Xena doing under the water?" she asked.

"Just watch," Janice instructed. Lao Ma sat on the edge of the tub across from her, brushing her long ebony hair. Ming T'zu burst into the bathing room, making a number of accusations the Chinese woman calmly refuted. Xero watched the barbed exchanges between the two, keeping a wary eye on the warrior beneath the surface of the water, struggling to hold her breath. When Lao Ma ducked her head beneath the water and passed desperately needed air to her fugitive, the hacker smiled approvingly.

"Well, that explains a lot," Xero remarked to Janice after Ming T'zu left.

"What explains what?" Janice asked, her appreciative gaze dancing between Xero and Xena.

"Lao Ma's history as a consort. This whole 'eliminate desire' philosophy. The woman's obviously been burned by in the past and she figures on reaching nirvana by banishing those impulses. At the same time, she's drawn to Xena in a desirey kind of way, but figures this hair washing routine is the way to get a sensual fix and not fall off the anti-desire wagon."

Janice listened to the hacker's assessment as Lao Ma tended to Xena's bath. After adding a variety of pleasant smelling oils and salts to the water, the former consort carefully washed the warrior's long tangled unkempt mane. Xena, still skittish, obviously enjoyed the attention, but kept a tight lid on how much she showed it.

"Interesting theory," Janice allowed, surprised by the hacker's insight.

"I'll bet she can hear me." Xero whispered.

"Lao Ma?" Janice asked, "You've wondered about that before. I don't see how that can be," she added. "What we're seeing here has happened before. You can't change anything."

"Maybe not," the hacker admitted. "But you said yourself that Lao Ma had unusual abilities. What if I was here the first time? What if Lao Ma hears me as her own conscience or as Xena's inner thoughts?" Not waiting for the archeologist's response the hacker easily slipped from the water and moved to stand just behind and to the side of the Chinese woman. Her tone was sensual, seductive, and Janice felt the room heat up with tension.

"Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and understand the great mystery of things," Xero said, leaning in by the Chinese woman's ear. Lao Ma's hand trembled slightly as she slowly poured water over Xena's hair. "How can you banish desire unless you've known desire, known passion, truly been at the mercy of the raging flood? This woman is desire," Xero purred. "She's the embodiment of unrestrained passion. You have to learn the din of desire from her if she's going to learn the quiet of emptiness from you."

"What the hell are you doing?" Mel demanded, rushing into the room straight to the hacker's side.

"Take it easy, Mel," Janice soothed from across the tub.

"Janice," Mel urged. "We don't know what she's going to do. We know how things are supposed to happen, but Xero isn't supposed to be a participant. Lao Ma should not be acting from her prompting."

"I think we should let her be," Janice maintained. "So far her instincts have been good. Her heart's in the right place, no matter how much she denies she has one. If this is what it takes to get this train wreck under way, then so be it. Like Xero said, maybe she was here the first time."

"Whaddya mean, 'train wreck'?" Xero asked, looking over at Janice quizzically.

Inwardly kicking herself Janice smiled, as disarmingly as she could. "Nothing, forget I said it. Come on, let Xena get dressed and lets go."

The trio of women stepped onto a courtyard to watch Lao Ma and Xena engaged in a conversation over an ornate vase. Xena shattered it with a heavy foot causing Lao Ma to inquire, "Would you kill a mosquito with an axe?"

Stepping behind the warrior, the former consort drew a carved wooden hair pin from her tightly wound bun. After commenting on its beauty, she threw it at the table where it struck with a solid thud. Xena's eyes widened in appreciation. "That's good," she said.

Lao Ma remained calm. "It could be a very usable weapon-- if thrown at the right body part."

Xena agreed. "You could kill someone, using a hair brooch."

Lao Ma regarded her charge calmly. "If necessary. I don't like to kill, however."

Xena smirked. "Everyone has their preferences. I happen to like a good kill."

Xero rolled her eyes. "Obviously she hasn't learned the ins and outs of impressing women at this point," she commented dryly.

Mel, leaning against the wall with a remaining vase, crossed her arms. "And you're saying this is all a seduction?"

The hacker nodded. "From Xena's point of view, it is. I think we're all agreed she's basically an animal at this point. An animal who has completely captivated the illustrious Lao Ma. If Xena can't kill it, eat it, or sell it, then fucking it is bound to come to mind." Xero looked at Lao Ma appreciatively. "Can't say my thoughts wouldn't run the same way if I were in Xena's place."

"Xero, you were in Xena's place," Janice reminded her dryly.

Lao Ma paused as if deciding something and looked at Xena sadly. "You're so full of anger and hate."

The warrior shrugged. "Everyone's gotta be full of something."

After putting another bottle on the table, Lao Ma startled Xena and Xero by shattering it without physical contact. Xena tried to shatter the last bottle the same way but to no avail. After a few silent moments, Lao Ma began to laugh, drawing enraged glares from hacker and warrior. "I'm sorry, Xena, but you're trying to attack the bottle with your will."

"What else is there?" the two asked together.

Lao Ma grinned, seemingly at both. "Exactly. The entire world is driven by a will-- blind and ruthless. In order to transcend the limitations of that world, you need to stop willing-stop desiring- stop hating." Xena asked how such a thing could happen and the Chinese woman's expression softened. "Heaven endures-and the Earth lasts a long time, because they do not live for themselves. Therefore, she who would live a long time-should live for others, serve others."

"Careful what you ask for, Lao Ma," Xero warned, her lips near the other woman's ear. "You might just get it. Do you really know from which you speak? Are you ready to teach Xena this lesson. How can you show her a soul emptied of desire, if she has not seen your soul consumed with it? Look at her," the hacker gently commanded. "Is that not a look of love?"

"I could serve you, if that's what you mean," Xena softly replied as Mel shot Janice a worried glance.

Xero smiled in satisfaction when the comment caught the Chinese woman slightly off guard. The smile faded to a frown when Lao Ma outlined exactly what she intended Xena to do-to serve Ming T'zu the next day when he arrived.

"You ask a high price, Lao Ma," Xero murmured. "But Xena will pay it. Will the same be said of you when it is time for you to learn your lessons?" Xero's voice was cold and Janice noted a protective edge to it.

Mel watched the exchange with growing apprehension. "I don't like this, Janice," she whispered to her companion. "I don't like this one bit."

Janice nodded, made uncomfortable by the exchange as well. "But we know these events happened, nothing is changing."

The Southerner shuddered. "Nothing is changing here, but what about her?" she asked looking pointedly at the woman standing between Lao Ma and Xena. "Janice, I think she's getting worse."

The archeologist snorted. "Xero, worse? Impossible."

Xero endured the meal in silence. She appreciated Xena's struggle not to kill Ming T'zu but said nothing when she overcame that desire. When the meal was finished she followed as Xena was led upstairs to see Lao T'zu, the comatose ruler of the kingdom of Lao. Xena listened to Lao Ma's words with interest, standing close to the former consort. The hacker smiled when it seemed clear that the enigmatic woman was aware and unsettled by the warrior's proximity.

"Feel the heat," she whispered into Lao Ma's ear. "Blue eyes are burning a path across your skin. Unusual in your land, aren't they? Blue eyes? You could fall in them forever, losing yourself, emptying your soul."

"This wisdom comes from Heaven," Lao Ma said quietly, answering Xena's question, a slight flush coloring her cheeks. "What difference does it make who gets credit for it-Lao Ma or Lao T'zu?"

Xena nodded in understanding. "Yeah, nothing seems to phase you-- except that boy I kidnapped. Every time he ignores you, that cuts deep."

Lao Ma sighed sadly, "I know, it's foolish of me. Just because we give birth to them doesn't mean we own them."

"He's your son?" Xena and Xero asked, both women equally stunned.

Lao Ma gazed into Xena's eyes for a moment, coming to a decision. With a small private smile, she took Xena's hand and guided her to another chamber in the palace. Before entering, she took down her hair, brushing it out with long smooth strokes. She did the same for Xena and gave her a lighter kimono to wear. Once her own clothes were changed, she led Xena into the chamber.

Without saying a word, the former consort nodded toward a mat in the center of the room. Xena lay down as Lao Ma took a kneeling position next to her. Closing her eyes and focusing her energy, Lao Ma slowly moved her hands back and forth over Xena's legs, sending the healing energy to the damaged limbs.

Xero could almost feel the electricity course through her body. For long minutes, she simply experienced the comforting warmth with Xena. Xero looked around the room once but didn't see any sign of her two guides. Focusing on Xena and Lao Ma once again, she added her own will to the mix of energy. Xena smiled, a soft sound escaping her throat as Lao Ma's hands nearly faltered.

"How can you show Xena The Way when you don't know where she's supposed to go?" Xero asked softly, her voice barely a whisper. "Can you damp a fire burning out of control without getting singed? Do you really know what it is to be a raging flood?" Xero's voice wasn't taunting-it was soft, gentle, lilting, like the song of a deadly siren. Lao Ma's hands slowed in their movements as Xena's head rolled from side to side in rapture.

"You started this fire," the hacker continued. "Will you put it out with the water of your mouth?"

Flushed and unsettled, Lao Ma backed away from Xena's body standing in one fluid motion. She walked to the other side of the room, looking at her unconscious charge with a mixture of affection and fear. What she didn't realize was that she walked right over to Xero who gazed at her with the eyes of a snake contemplating a mouse.

"She's damaged," the hacker urged, her voice husky and deep. "You can heal her soul just like you've healed her legs. Her language is desire and passion. To teach her yours, you have to understand hers. You've been looking for a way to reach her, to touch her deeply. This is it."

Lao Ma smiled, a giving, radiant smile as if a troublesome puzzle had just been solved. "Come to me, Xena," she said clearly, waking the woman lying on the mat.

Xena opened her eyes, confusion quickly shifting to elation as she touched her healed legs. With a joyous shout she dashed towards the wall, ran up it a good distance, than back flipped to her feet once again.

"I'll be damned," Xero muttered. "She does do back flips."

With a smile that could light up the pitch-dark night, Xena ran into Lao Ma's arms. Arms that were open and welcoming. Desperate for some way to say thank you, she turned the one language she could speak proficiently-her body. After the shortest instant of being held, Xena lowered first her eyes then her lips to Lao Ma's waiting mouth. With a gentleness that shocked the Chinese woman, Xena kissed her, conveying a thousand words of gratitude in that one simple act.

If Xena intended it to end with that one kiss was impossible to tell. For this time, more than air was exchanged between the two as raging flood and tranquil pond melded into the common element of water. Both women were smiling when the kiss broke and Lao Ma affectionately brushed a loose strand of hair from the warrior's face. "You are so beautiful, Xena," she whispered. "Beautiful and terrifying. What is this power you hold over me?"

Xena smiled but her eyes burned with seriousness and passion. "I hold no power over you that you haven't freely given me, Lao Ma. Perhaps it's the shadows of your darker self that you see when you look at me."

"What I see when I look at you, Xena, is desire," Lao Ma replied with a smile, her hand trailing from the warrior's cheek down her neck to her shoulder.

"Desire is good too," the warrior grinned, moving in to claim waiting lips once more.

"I hope you know what you're doin,g hacker," Janice muttered, concerned, as she watched Xena and Lao Ma make their way to the mat in the center of the room.

Xero didn't answer right away, distracted by the two soon to be lovers. At first, Xena took the lead then Lao Ma quickly turned the tables and positioned the larger woman under her. Sitting astride the warrior's hips she slowly removed the kimono from her body, letting the silk slowly fall from her shoulders. Xena's attention was riveted. Every movement Lao Ma made was poetry in motion, every touch perfection. Xena allowed herself to be slowly, teasingly undressed, gentled by the touch and command of the courtesan's skill.

When the warrior cried out in rapture, the hacker allowed herself a satisfied smirk. "Who better to teach Xena about loving women than Lao Ma?" she asked. "Look at them." Janice tried, but averted her eyes respectfully. "All Xena knows is taking. Hell, even when she's giving, she's taking. But here, this," she pointed with her thumb at the passion being exchanged a few feet away. "This is about giving. She won't catch on right away, but I think she deserves the experience. She hasn't had an easy time of it, ya know."

Janice glanced up at the entwined lovers without saying a word. She didn't see it the same way Xero did. While she suspected the hacker was speaking more from personal experience than really understanding Xena, she wasn't about to press the issue. Without realizing she was staring, she watched Lao Ma kiss her way up the warrior's abdomen as Xena lay panting after her release. Passion's fire hardly banked, she went after the Chinese woman with a savageness that made the archeologist uncomfortable. Lao Ma didn't seem to mind however and seemed to be able to harness the energy of Xena's single-minded ruthlessness and turn it to even higher levels of passion.

Under the brim of her hat she also observed the hacker watching the lovers. If she wasn't sure of it before, she was now positive that this woman was Xena, a Xena so scarred by her own life that she blocked the memories of her soul, even the good ones. Especially the good ones.

"Which wounds cut the deepest?" Janice wondered silently. "The death of your son? Betrayal of your lover? Never getting a childhood? The blood on your hands?" Watching Xero she felt deeply and infinitely sad. "You can't even see that this is you, can you? And whatever happens here isn't going to be nearly as bad as what Ares throws at you. I wish I could reach you, Xena, I really do."

"Now there's something I'll have to remember."

Xero's words intruded into Janice's thoughts and she shook off her reverie she glanced over at the entwined bodies once more. Lao Ma was on her knees, comfortably resting on Xena's face, head thrown back in heady abandon. Xena's hands were resting, sort of, at Lao Ma's hips, but she refused to look any closer. Janice waited, and watched with Xero, noting the hacker's growing unease as the touches became more gentle.

"Why don't you remember that instead?" Janice commented as Lao Ma trailed feather light fingertips over the warrior's trembling body. Giving into the tender touches, Xena returned them in kind, locking souls with her teacher once more.

Finally after what felt like hours, Xena slept. All traces of hatred and rage gone from her features. Lao Ma was curled up on top of her, in the crook of one arm, head resting on the warrior's shoulder. Janice fished in her pocket for a cigar, instinctively handing one to he hacker as well. Xero took an appreciative puff as Janice lit the cigar for her.

"Didn't know Xena was partial to fisting," she commented.

Janice blushed. "It was bad enough I had to watch it, hacker. If we talk about it I'm going to throw up."

"Oh, come on," Xero said with a playful nudge. "It's human interaction, no big deal."

"Yeah, but..." the archeologist protested. Changing her tactic she asked, "Have you ever had sex in public?"

The hacker shrugged. "Sure, a few times."

"Well, imagine caring about someone so deeply that you don't want any fragment of the experience wasted on anyone else. You want to keep it all to yourself. Just between the two of you."

"Mel teach you that?" Xero asked.

Janice smiled. "No, we taught each other that."

Xero's attention was drawn back to the two women as Lao Ma woke. With an sad smile, she kissed Xena's forehead, then moved a few feet to retrieve her kimono. Xena was just starting to stir when Borias entered the room.

In a flash, Xena was all rage and savagery once more. She attacked him on sight, beating him to a pulp.

"Xena, stop!" Lao Ma commanded. "Control yourself. He's here because I sent for him." Xena didn't seem to hear, or care for that matter. "Stop, Xena!" Lao Ma continued. "Stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating."

Xero watched as Xena stood at the crossroads. Then shut her eyes painfully when the warrior attacked Borias once more. "Lets get this over with," she murmured to Janice as the two followed the others from the bed chamber.

Janice's concern grew steadily as Xero seemed distracted and disinterested in the things that happened around her. She showed little to no interest as Xena and Borias stopped fighting and got reacquainted once more. Instead her attention seemed focused on Lao Ma, who continued to gaze at Xena with profound sadness.

"She hasn't hit rock bottom yet, has she?" the hacker finally inquired as the contestants settled down to the dice game for Xena's ownership.

"No," Janice confirmed. Then asking a question of her own, "Does Xena love Lao Ma?"

Xero looked thoughtful and nodded once. "For the first time in her life, she's found someone who can see beyond the fury. Someone who sees the madness and chooses to make the journey to her soul anyway. How can you not love that?"

Janice sighed sadly. "It just all seems so twisted."

Xero looked down at the shorter woman standing next to her and glared. "Who are you calling twisted?"

Looking up, the smile instantly vanished from the archeologist's face.

Something had just gone seriously wrong.

"I didn't mean anything by it, Xero. Just an expression."

"I've heard it before," Xero growled dangerously. "Twisted. Bent. Easy for you to judge, bitch, you're dead."

Janice backed u,p trying to explain. "I didn't mean it the way you think. I'm just saying it's all so complicated. Loving through rage, that kind of thing." It only took an instant for Janice to realize that Xero wasn't really seeing her, or anyone else for that matter, just a lifetime of experiences and injustices she'd have been better off without. Ming T'zu lost his bet just as Xero took her first swing at Janice.

"I'll show you bent, you fucking cunt!" she shouted, charging at the smaller woman with unrestrained fury.

"Shit," Janice muttered tightly and rolled out of the way.

Janice was fast, but Xero was faster and traded punches with the smaller woman as the two fought their way across the floor, often intersecting the other combatants in the room. Mel was at Janice's side in an instant, using her equal body mass to knock the hacker to the ground. "I don't care if it is up to you to save the world," Mel seethed. "You're not touching Janice."

"Come on Mad Dog," Xero taunted, scrambling up. "You're not having her fight your battles for you?" Xero stood next to Xena as she caught her breath, oblivious to the other woman holding a sword and preparing to advance threateningly on a small child.

In that moment, she was caught in the same energy blast that threw Xena across the room. The hacker was stunned and confused as she was again picked up and thrown about the room like a rag doll. When the torrent of pain stopped at last, Xero found herself face down on the floor, unable to move. A pair of work boots entered her field of vision. She felt the painful tug on her hair as her head was lifted and she looked into Janice Covington's eyes. The anger and hatred she expected to see there was missing, instead the green eyes looked at her with love and sadness. and she heard Janice's voice drift down to her from above.

"This is rock bottom, Xero" Janice said gently.

Tell it softly to me baby, you never meant no one no harm
Your wonderland's a mirror baby, it's swiftly fading like your charm

- Melissa Etheridge

Chapter 7

Hard Drives & Soft Ware

Xero stirred slightly, her head shifting against the syscop's abdomen. Rielle moved, adjusting her hips and shoulders, her hand coming to rest comfortably against the top of the hacker's head. Gentle fingers stroking dark tresses coaxed the hacker to consciousness. Xero didn't bother to open her eyes. Listening with her skin as well as her ears, she felt Rielle's heartbeat quicken in her chest. Taking a moment to listen to her own body, Xero was aware of blood surging through her veins like fire. Turned on by the passion and violence she'd witnessed, Rielle's touch did nothing to quell her desire. Rather, it fueled what was burning within. Hell bent on seduction, the hacker shifted again, her shoulder rubbing against juncture of Rielle's thighs. As she'd hoped, a slight gasp and shudder were audible. With a the faintest hint of a smile, Xero stilled her body, leaving her shoulder where it was. Let the syscop think she'd drifted back off to sleep--she could be very patient when motivated.

Waiting, listening, the hacker contemplated the heartbeats she heard, enjoying the warmth of the syscop's body beneath her cheek. Breathing easily, she focused on the scent of the smaller woman's skin. Water was the first image that came to mind. Clean spring water. Rielle smelled like spring. She could pick up the faint traces of the herbal soap at Henry's house and the smell of leather coming from her own jacket that Rielle still wore. Leather did something for Xero, a powerful something.

Moving her head slowly, she brushed her cheek against the silk shirt covering Rielle's abdomen. She could feel rock hard muscles twitch and move. The fingers that gently touched her hair didn't still; rather they continued their gentle assault. "Xero, are you awake?" Rielle whispered.

The hacker turned onto her stomach, nudging the syscop's center one more time in the process. Dragging her chin across taut muscles she slowly brought her eyes up. Gazing up the length of Rielle's body to vibrant green eyes, she whispered one word in response. "Yes."

The syscop swallowed visibly, her body tense, heartbeat fast. The hacker ignored the signals of fear and lowered her face, slowly nuzzling the smaller woman's flat stomach. With practiced slowness she brought her body up the length of Rielle's until she was gazing down into those sparkling green eyes once more. As she's hoped, she saw two emotions warring for dominance in those eyes: desire and fear. Xero enjoyed both. "If I try to kiss you, are you going to bite me?" she purred seductively.

Rielle smiled, feigning a bravado she clearly didn't feel. "You're going to have to find out."

Xero smiled. A lazy tongue slipped out and moistened Xero's lips. "Maybe not," she whispered.

"Chicken," Rielle gasped back.

Xero lowered her head slowly, so slowly that Rielle was sure she'd scream in frustration. At the last possible moment she avoided the syscop's lips and brought her mouth to rest on Rielle's neck, just below her ear. With infinite care she nibbled, licked and kissed a fiery path down the syscop's neck. When she lifted her face once more, it was Rielle's mouth that sought out hers, crushing against her in a soulful kiss.

The hacker didn't disappoint. With deliberate care Xero sought out the secrets of the smaller woman's mouth. Almost too gentle, she teased the tongue and lips of her companion, making her whimper with need and shudder with desire.

"Is this what you want?" she murmured softly, her lips making another descent down the column of the syscop's throat.

"Yes," Rielle panted as the hacker's teeth toyed with the top button of her blouse.

"Why?" she asked teasingly. "Because I'm a hacker?" Button conquered, she slowly drew her tongue across the exposed flesh, making Rielle jump.

"No," the syscop managed as she felt a strong hand slide up the outside of her leg. "Just you," she finally stammered.

If Xero had been listening for even a moment, the words would have touched her. Two words she'd never heard in her life, but they were missed in her singled minded pursuit of surrender.

Lifting herself up on her hands, she hovered over the syscop's body for a moment. Rielle's gaze was riveted on the piercing blue of Xero's eyes as she drew her hands up muscular forearms and bulging biceps to tangle in the hacker's dark hair. "You're not playing games with me are you Rielle?" Xero asked gently. While it was just a line, designed to put responsibility for whatever followed on her partner, a part of her was genuinely interested in the response.

There was no faking the desire thrumming through her veins or the delight she was experiencing in each quiver, each noise the other woman made. Xero's enjoyment was completely real, even if her sentiment was bullshit.

"No, no games," Rielle husked, drawing the hacker's face down once more.

"Up yours, Paula," she thought before engulfing Rielle's mouth in a passionate onslaught. Wrapping one arm around the syscop's waist, and the other behind her neck, Xero moved back never breaking the contact of their kiss.

First drawing the smaller woman up as she made it to her knees, she brought Rielle's hips up to straddle her lap as she sat back. Keeping a strong arm wrapped around Rielle for support, she brought the hand from behind her neck to her blouse to continue the assault on the buttons of the black silk garment.

"You smell fantastic," Xero murmured truthfully as lips began to devour exposed skin. Rielle smiled, throwing her head back in pleasure, fingers tangled in soft, black hair, holding Xero close.

"Yes," she breathed when the hacker's questing mouth found a grateful breast. Xero luxuriated in the sensation of soft skin moving beneath her lips and teeth. While it had been some time since she'd enjoyed this type of intimacy with anyone, that alone didn't quite explain the fiery rush that shot through her.

She undid the rest of the buttons with her free hand as her mouth trailed across Rielle's chest to the other breast. Using just her lips at first, then teeth and tongue she smiled as the syscop groaned, forcing more and more of herself into the hacker's welcoming mouth.

"God, Xero," she panted, "this is so...so good."

"Better than your wife?" Xero thought to herself with a wicked grin. She might be bent, but she could be an amazing fuck when she wanted to be. "More," she mumbled against Rielle's skin. "You're so beautiful, gotta have more."

Carefully, gently, she trailed her blunt nails across the skin of the syscop's back under her blouse as squeezed a firm hip with her other hand. The signal was clear. Xero wanted more skin.

If Rielle wanted to take the opportunity to slow down, to think about what was happening, she didn't get it. Xero fell backwards on the couch, bringing Rielle with her as she stretched her legs out. Filled with the sight of the turned on hacker writhing beneath her, Rielle smiled all to happy to claim hungry lips once more. She was hardly aware of her jeans coming off until she felt hot hands running up and down the sides of her legs. Grateful she still wore her blouse, open as it was, and the leather jacket, she didn't feel nearly as exposed and vulnerable as if she'd been completely nude.

Squeezing firm hips through the fabric of her underwear, Xero's hands were strong, but soft and gentle at the same time. Rielle found it distracting. It was nothing however, compared to the heated words whispered with ragged urgency.

"Rielle, please," Xero savagely whispered, "let me fuck you."

The rawness of the language and emotion behind it renewed the syscop's fear as well as heightening her arousal. She couldn't find the voice to answer, only nod slightly. With a huge grin on her face, Xero brought Rielle down for another deep kiss as the two of them worked together to remove the offending piece of clothing. Mission accomplished, Xero slowly drew her fingertips up the length of Rielle's thighs, guiding the smaller woman's body forward.

Rielle settled herself, kneeling on either side of the hacker's face as Xero's eyes shined up at her brightly. Even from this position of power, Rielle couldn't help but feel a bit intimated by the woman nestled beneath her. Strong hands guided the syscop's hips where the hacker wanted them. Taking a few moments to simply enjoy the view up Rielle's body, Xero let her hands wander. She touched soft skin, firm muscle and nipples erect from arousal. Finally she drew her attention lower, to the soft down and aching body just beyond her mouth. She brought her hands down, to touch Rielle gently, almost reverently.

The syscop gasped at the contact, fighting her instinctive desire to crush her body against the mouth that was making her wait. "You're incredible," Xero murmured, locking eyes with Rielle once more. "Thank you for this." With that she claimed Rielle, making her sob audibly.

"Oh god," she murmured over and over.

Using strong hands to guide and support the smaller woman's body, Xero took her time. With a slow assault against the other woman's senses she licked and sucked as if she had all the time in the world. After long minutes the repeated chant of "oh god" had changed to "fuck yes" and inwardly the hacker beamed.

As Rielle neared her climax, riding Xero's mouth in a steady rhythm, the door opened and two figures entered.

"Xero, the bar's closed and... oh my god," Blue gasped in stunned amazement. The sight of Xero, fully dressed, reclined on the couch against the far wall of the room with Rielle, naked from the waist down moving rhythmically over the hacker's face was unexpected to say the least.

"Holy fuck," Ska chimed in at her side. Both women could only see Xero's dark hair as it spilled over the end of the couch and Rielle's back as she moved up and down.

Too taken with the demands of her own body, Rielle either didn't notice or didn't care about the intrusion. Xero did notice however, and waved them away with one hand. It took Blue a moment to notice the signal, too stunned by what she was watching. Finally catching on, she began to back through the doorway, reemerging a moment later to drag Ska bodily from the room.

Refocusing her efforts, Xero provided the attention needed to send Rielle's muscular body into a torrent of spasms and quivers. "Yessssss," she groaned as the wave of her release washed over.

Xero was distracted by Rielle's release. It gratified her in a way that was unsettling. That made her think of Xena, which made her think of power, which brought her thoughts back to Paula. With shaking fury, she lashed out at the woman who thought she was better than Xero, and more deserving of Rielle.

With trembling hands, Xero guided her fingers over the syscop's back. Rielle, just regaining control of her body from the power of her orgasm, found herself responding once more. Disappointed that she wasn't touching the statuesque hacker in turn, she put that thought aside as her body sang out again, demanding release.

Xero teased with her chin, grinning up at her like a kid at Christmas. "Don't make me stop," she whispered, consuming Rielle once more. The second wave hit her, every bit as strong as the first. Her hip began to cramp just Xero shifted, laying Rielle lengthwise on the couch.

"Please," Rielle panted, "lemme rest," as warm fingers began to playfully tease at her core.

"Is that what you really want?" Xero asked, her voice rumbly and soft even as her fingers continued to touch.

"Oh god," Rielle gasped as two fingers made their way in. Coherent thought was washed away bright colors danced before her eyes. Xero's touch wasn't demanding or forceful, but there was an insistence about it that wouldn't be denied. Again and again Rielle came, each time feeling a bit more out of control, and more distant from her partner.

"Xero, please. Hold on a minute," she said clearly. A little concerned at the hacker's failure to respond she tried again. "Xero, stop. Lemme rest."

Concern led to panic as she called Xero's name and got no response. The sensual touches continued, only now they felt more like an assault. "Xero, I mean it. Get the fuck off of me!" she demanded, trying to force the hacker away from her breast to no avail. Finally, she shoved with her hips as if she wanted to raise her legs to better feel what her lover was doing.

Xero backed off a little, only to find a foot solidly meeting with her chest, shoving her off the couch. "What?!" she demanded eyes blazing.

"Are you fucking insane?" Rielle shouted, angry as she grabbed for her jeans, not bothering with her underwear.

"What?" Xero asked again, clearly baffled. "Suddenly remember you're married?" she demanded acidly.

Insight sank in as Rielle furiously buttoned her blouse and fought back tears. "Xero, were you fucking me? Or fucking over Paula?"

Without waiting for an answer she stormed from the room. Right into the midst of the assembled hackers.

Rielle hesitated for only a fraction of a second before marching to the door on the far side of the bar. Xero stopped in the doorway, the eyes of eleven curious hackers watching her intently.

With the briefest glance at the women assembled, Xero called out to her lover. "Rielle, wait." The syscop ignored her and had gotten as far as the bar's entrance. "Please," Xero tried again. "Don't go."

Several jaws around the room dropped as hackers stared at Xero as if she were mad. Rielle froze in her tracks, but didn't turn around.

"Why?" she asked quietly, her voice strong.

Distracted, Xero ran an unconscious hand through her hair, blue eyes focused on Rielle's back. "You know I can't solve this Ares thing without you," she said flatly. "It seems to be important to you."

Rielle took a deep breath and turned around. Her eyes were red, but she wasn't crying. With a nod she walked back to the table where everyone but she and Xero was seated. "Fine." The tone of her voice spoke volumes to everyone in the room.

Absently Xero wiped her face with the back of her hand. Blue looked at her disgusted. "For God's sake, Xero, go wash your face."

With a slight nod, she turned and headed for the bathroom. No one said anything until the hacker got back. Rielle could feel the eyes of all assembled stealing glimpses of her. But to her surprise, the looks were not hostile. Rather they were respectful and almost admiring.

Blue nudged Ska and looked pointedly at the back of the bar towards the kitchen. "Wasn't there some surprise you were working on?" she asked quietly.

"What?" the waitress shot back, perplexed. "Oh! The food. Good thinking." Hurriedly she got up and drafted a couple of willing volunteers to help.

Xero returned shortly thereafter and took a seat at the opposite side of the table from the syscop. "Okay," she grumbled without preamble, "where are we?"'

Jenbob cautiously glanced at Rielle before answering. "Ska's fixing some breakfast, MaryD and TrueNorth are helping her. We've been here for a couple of hours you know."

The hacker took a deep breath and nodded. "Anyone have a chance to dissect Bat's hard drive?"

"I took it to Shadow," Trillbaby replied. "She says it's beyond New Tech. Totally state of the art. The Pipeline project wasn't supposed to be nearly that far along."

"How do you mean?" Wordee asked, grateful for a topic of conversation that didn't involve the two women seated at the table who were glaring at each other.

"Shadow says that for this Ares thing to be run from outside the system all commands would have to be programmed ahead of time. The thing runs too fast to be jockeyed from outside." Trillbaby explained.

"But that would mean whoever it was would know exactly what Bat would do. We saw on her drive that she tried to disconnect a number of times," a new voice chimed in across from across the table.

"Lunacy is right," Blue agreed. "Bat might have been sloppy about some things, but not when it came to getting out of trouble."

"But if that's true," Xero countered, making sure all in attendance were listening. "Then this Ares entity is operating from inside the system. It doesn't have an outside source we can simply disconnect."

Rielle smiled slightly. This was something the hackers needed to understand and Xero had found the way to make the point without bringing up things like 'godhood'."

"So it really is a virus?" Ska asked, as she brought several steaming plates of food to the table, and began to place them in front of the hungry hackers.

"Maybe it's a new syscop technology," Robin ventured. "It would give them an edge..."

"But syscops don't work that way," TrueNorth protested, setting down the plates she carried as well. "Their only alliance is to their company, and this thing smells like government."

"That isn't exactly true," Rielle countered. "Before their loyalty to the company they work for there are federal statutes that come first. There are enough federal watch dogs to make sure syscops protect the statutes before company interests." Picking up her fork she absently began to eat the breakfast handed her. A few moments later she realized no one else had spoken. Looking up she realized that twelve pairs of eyes were staring at her. Xero's expression was clear. It smacked of "you've really stepped in it now."

"How, exactly do you know that?" Delirium asked, her voice calm.

Rielle shrugged and scooped up another forkful of food. "I've been a syscop for eight years," she said before popping the fork into her mouth. "These eggs are really delicious."

Xero rolled her eyes and shook her head. Hell was breaking loose.

"You brought a syscop to the 'horn," Delirium demanded hotly.

"Are you nuts?" Jenbob added around a mouthful of food.

"She's a syscop?" Robin uttered, absolutely stunned.

"Rielle contacted me the day Bat got unsubbed, telling me she thought something would happen. We've been working together to try to get to the bottom of this," Xero explained.

"I'll say," Ska muttered then stifled an "ouch!" as Blue kicked her in the shin under the table.

"And how exactly did a syscop find the ever elusive Xero?" Lunacy demanded.

Xero shrugged. "She tapped me online while I was doing a job."

At that point several women laughed shaking their heads in disbelief. "Inconceivable," Wordee muttered. "The Princess Bride, 1987."

Rielle slammed her fork down loudly. All eyes turned back to her. "Xero uses seventeen different encryption programs, but not randomly. Encryption and retrieval set ups are determined by the number of computer outlets at the location where she's hacking. She usually moves in during a back up session and waits until the lag between backup and verification to tag her data. Most of her programs are written in Torvek although she prefers Aldon for overseas jobs. She's difficult to catch because she goes after anything and everything."

Shining green eyes scanned the table. "Blue is a specialist. Most notable in medical research heists, syscops tend to leave her alone since she generally goes after the bad guys anyway. Jenbob is difficult to trace since the hardware she uses is so antiquated. With custom software she's able to get the job done surprisingly quickly, leaving a trail so messy syscops with seniority won't go near it.

"Wordee specializes in Entertainment heists. She's known for making improvements in projects, most notably dialogue, before the stolen work gets to it's buyer..."

"I think they get the point, Rielle," Xero growled as the assembled hackers sat looking dumbfounded. In a few sentences she'd just exposed the elite of the hacking world as simple technicians.

"So this thing is just a ruse to grab some collars?" Ska asked, reaching into her pocket.

"Don't bother with the knife, Ska," Rielle warned. "As I originally told Xero, I have no intentions of arresting anyone. I'm not technically a syscop at this point. I've been on a leave of absence, vacation, and most recently committed to a psych ward. If I were to show up at Archive now, I'd be locked up as fast as any of you.

"Forgive my asking," Robin said calmly from her seat next to Wordee, "but why should we believe you?"

Rielle shrugged. "Because I'm rich, and married." All eyes instantly shot between the syscop and Xero. "Not to Xero, obviously."

The hacker couldn't believe it. The trump card she had to hold against Rielle had just become useless because Rielle had just given it to everyone else. Marriages were easy to come by. Quick, efficient and with expiration dates if you wanted. Along with the convenience of temporary commitment came a stiff penalty for people who would violate such contracts. It was one thing to joke about sleeping with a married woman, but no one usually believed it because married people didn't cheat. Not if they didn't want to lose everything they owned should they be caught.

Everyone in the room had a shot at successful blackmail should Rielle want to hold on to her possessions. Everyone could ruin her financially with a simple phone call to the syscop's wife. The hackers were impressed.

Casually, Ska got up from her chair and walked over to Rielle. "Between you and me, you're too good for Xero. Want some more eggs?"

At that the room breathed a collective sigh of relief. All except for Xero, who at this point was inclined to believe the waitress. The hackers ate in silence, broken occasionally by the rave reviews for Ska and TrueNorth's cooking.

"You know," Ska explained. "Not everything sucks with the net being down. Managed to confuse the delivery truck. Seems we got a crate of real eggs and ground coffee that was destined for the Beverly Hills Hotel."

"These eggs are real?" Trillbaby gasped, not having touched hers yet. "I thought they were soy." In moments, everyone started clamoring for seconds. Fresh brewed coffee followed and before long, even Xero's icy mood warmed somewhat.

"So how are we going to fight this Ares thing?" Vada asked, with both hands wrapped around a steaming mug.

"We have to get in the system and fight it there," Xero explained. "I've given that some thought. I think what we need is a virtual reality tank."

"Full sized?" Jenbob asked, jaw dropping once more. "With oxygenated gel? Where are we gonna steal something that big?"

"Jenbob's right," Blue agreed. "You can't move those systems around, too touchy."

"And there's only a few high end ones in the country," Lunacy added.

"I know," the blue eyed hacker agreed. "If the tank can't come to us, then we go to it. The best virtual tank system in the country is right in our own back yard."

"You can't mean military?" Ska asked. "They're in on this mess?"

Rielle's eyes widened in understanding. "No, she means... Disneyland?"

Xero smiled.

"Hackers take the theme park, this'll be good," Ska quipped with a laugh.

The hackers and Rielle spent the next several hours working out a plan to get into the theme park and capture a virtual reality tank. For the moment it seemed that the syscop had been accepted as one of their own as the women argued back and forth over how best to proceed. Frequently she and Xero stood on opposite sides of disagreements as to how best to proceed which the hacker found frustrating.

"I still say Missy should coordinate the efforts to guard the perimeter of the park," Lunacy suggested for the third time. To everyone's surprise, both Xero and Rielle shook their heads.

"We'll have LN and Amazon Julie do that at the park," Xero countered. "We need Missy here coordinating the stuff with Shadow."

"She's too recognizable," Rielle added. "There will be Disney security there as well as syscops. Trust me, Missy would be recognized."

Xero nodded again. "Rielle is right. Listen, I asked Shadow to try and get a word through to the President--where are we on that?"

"We don't know," Wordee explained. "Message seems to have gotten through, but we can't tell if she read it, trashed it, or is planning to squash us."

"When we start closing off systems in the park, it's my guess the National Guard will be called out. We've got to let her know what's up, not what we're planning, but that we're planning something. Maybe when the time comes she'll ask the Guard not to blow us to kingdom come." Xero ran her hand through her hair once again and looked at her watch.

"I'll keep on that," Jenbob offered.

"Good," Xero agreed, standing. It was clear she was restless, as they all were. Assembled in one group, they were taking risks, big risks and they knew it. Pacing back and forth, the tall woman tried to wrap things up.

"How are we going to keep the employees out of the park?" Ska asked. "We're talking maintenance crews of around thirty thousand."

"It's going to be risky, but we'll have to get onto the nets and send out work cancellation messages. It isn't that unusual for shifts to be rescheduled. As long as individual crew members don't talk about it to much to each other, I doubt they'd suspect," Rielle reasoned.

"It's a good plan except for the risk," Blue added. "If it comes to logging on to the general nets, I nominate Xero as guinea pig."

All eyes turned to the hacker at the end of the table who glared back at Blue with open hostility.

"I'll handle the notices," Rielle said in a tone that would brook no argument. "Xero is getting into the VR tank, she's already doing her part."

"You're not getting on the nets, Rielle." Xero growled. "Don't think Ares hasn't figured out your little part in this by now."

"I'm missing something here," Robin observed.

Rielle turned her gaze to the hackers seated around the table, making eye contact with each one. "When Xero and I left after the wake, we went to Bat's ex-husband's house. Xero logged on using a Ronin workstation and nearly got fried in the process."

"Holy shit," a couple of the hacker's breathed.

"It sounds weird," Rielle continued. "But the thing is looking for her. Specifically."

"With Xero's ego, that isn't surprising," Ska quipped. "I'm sure we can work out the specifics of who logs on for what later. If you split it up evenly, everyone's taking the same risks, agreed?"

The hackers looked around the table at each other before nodding their heads, making the vote unanimous.

"We've got someone making reservations for everyone at the hotel," Xero continued. "We'll head over there tomorrow morning. We'll need the rest of the day to get in touch with everyone." She stopped to write something down on a napkin and handed it to Ska. "Here's the address of a car we can use. Have someone go pick it up. We'll scope out Disney's system tomorrow night, but won't make our move on the park until Friday. That should allow more time to get word through to Taborn if she's listening. In the meantime, keep your mobie units charged and on. That's going to be our only mode of communication. Do we have enough cash to cover all of this?"

Delirium nodded. "We've got some cash here and the money from Bat's vault. There was some left after the wake. If people share rooms we should be able to handle everything."

Xero was about to dismiss everyone when Blue spoke up. "If you don't mind my asking, Rielle, what are you going to do?"

The syscop smiled. The hackers were cautious, she couldn't blame them. "I honestly didn't have anything in mind. I'd be happy to accompany anyone who needs help...if you're worried about me calling Syscop Central."

A few people laughed at that and some others smiled. Rielle was treating them with respect. Hackers ate that up. As the group broke up and people began to leave, MaryD walked up to the tall brooding hacker.

"What are you going to do, Xero?" she asked.

"If we're lucky, she'll crawl under a rock," Blue shot back under her breath.

While Xero never really thought of these people as her friends, she had grown accustomed to a certain amount of professional respect. That seemed to have been replaced by the Rielle MacGab fan club mantra, Xero Sucks.

"I've got stuff to do," she answered calmly, then glanced at Rielle. "Can I have my jacket back?"

Rielle looked down at the black leather jacket she still wore. For some reason she couldn't bear the thought of parting with it. While things between her and the hacker were a mess, it was the only tangible bit of evidence that there was in fact something between her and the hacker. "No," she refused. "Consider it payment for services rendered."

"Just who was servicing who?" Xero shot back hotly.

"That's what I'd like to know," Rielle replied, then turned and walked out the front door.

Rielle waited outside for the other hackers to join her, leaving Xero alone in the Pub. Several women broke off into smaller teams to tackle their assigned tasks. Rielle joined Blue, Ska, and Jenbob as they headed for Blue's car. "Got any ideas?" Blue asked as she opened her passenger door for Rielle and Ska.

The waitress crawled into the back seat of the '40 Camero grumbling, as Rielle settled herself in the passenger seat. "If we head to Studio City I've got an idea about contacting the Disney employees safely."

Blue exchanged glances with Ska and Jenbob in her rearview mirror. Hacker and waitress shrugged indifferently; they didn't have any better ideas. Following Rielle's directions, Blue drove them to a small building off Laurel Canyon just past Ventura Boulevard.

"So what's this?" Blue asked as she and the others got out of the small red car.

"It's an Archive automated switching station," Rielle explained. "If we can get inside, I we can use the automated retrieval system to send the messages."

"Say no more," Ska assured her with a grin. Taking her knife from her back pocket, she wedged the blade in between the security panel and the door. Popping it off, she then adjusted several wires, causing the door to open silently.

"I can see why the hackers keep you around," Rielle observed as she took something from her purse. Easing her way inside, she made sure the building was vacant before waving the others in.

"Shit! She's packing a gun," Ska exclaimed noticing the small high-powered taser in the syscop's hand.

"Would you be quiet, Ska?" Rielle demanded with a hiss. "There could be maintenance crews lurking around. Come on, we need to get to the switch nodes."

"Fancy equipment," Jenbob commented, looking at the rows and rows of data banks that lined the walls of the building. "Redundant back-ups, fast processors, and serial channel switching-- not too hard to hack."

Rielle smirked. "I'm glad you think so. Half of these data banks are for recording not processing. Archive has an entire department of set up to simply watch hackers hack and then incorporate capture systems and defense codes into their networks."

"No shit!" Ska breathed, impressed.

"Here are the switch nodes," Rielle announced when they made their way to the center of the small building. Taking a seat at a readout station, Rielle selected a control panel and smoothly popped the plastic covering from the console.

"Is this the main artery?" Blue asked taking a small palm-top unit from her pocket.

"Yes," the syscop answered pulling a couple of cables from the rest. Unplugging one, she handed it to the hacker who inserted it into the back of her unit. A series of symbols appeared simultaneously on the console monitor as well as the palm-top screen. As the hacker worked, keying information into her unit and watching the screen intently, Rielle looked around the room until she found the maintenance log. She read through the entries and checked her watch.

"Okay," Rielle announced. "Crack the Disney database and see how many third shift workers are scheduled tomorrow. You can set up the palm top to pass through the message. Since this is an automated station, it'll send one message after the next until the list is finished. We've got about forty minutes until the maintenance crew is due."

Blue nodded without saying a word, her finger flying over the keys. Her brow furrowed in concentration she worked carefully and quickly searching for the right database and setting up subroutines to notify the employees. After about twenty minutes of careful work, she unhooked the cable from her palmtop and reattached the wires. "That should do it," the hacker announced, running an absent hand through her short salt and peppered hair. "It'll take about fifteen minutes to get through the list, scrambling after each one."

"I guess that should take care of it then," Rielle replied with a smile. "So, what's next on our agenda?"

Jenbob and Blue looked nervously at each other. "Well," Blue began. "There are some people who haven't been on the nets we should be contacting. Hackers that are offline but we could really use their help for this heist. A few are in the area and we can drop by in person."

"But?" Rielle prompted sensing the hacker's unease. Then with another grin she caught on. "You're torn between babysitting me and bringing a known syscop into the homes of semi-retired hackers."

"That would about sum it up," Ska concurred brightly.

"This sounds weird to say," Jenbob allowed. "But for a syscop you seem like a decent person. I mean..."

"How about this," Rielle suggested amused at the situation. "You can drop me off at the psych unit because I need to check in on my wife. When I'm done there, I'll swing by Xero's and have a look around, to see if Helms' camp is still interested in her place. I'll grab some fresh clothes for her and meet you guys back at the 'Horn. Here's my mobie unit code. If you want to reach me just buzz. You can trace the signal to see if I am where I said I'd be."

"For a syscop, she's pretty quick," Ska observed, smiling broadly at the others.

After a quick wave, the red Camero sped out of sight leaving Rielle MacGab outside the Westwood PsychTech Medical Building. It didn't take long to obtain a visitation pass and be escorted to a waiting room. Minutes later, her wife was ushered inside. Rielle noticed that in the standard issue medical sweat suit Paula James looked as rumpled as Xero had the night she'd shown up at her door before Bat's wake. Dark circles under her eyes and unkempt hair made it clear she'd done much venting and no sleeping.

"You've got a lot of nerve coming here," Paula seethed as soon as the orderly departed. Rielle took a deep breath and waited. She had this coming, not that the knowledge would make it any more pleasant. "I take it you're here to have me released?" she asked a bit uncertainly when Rielle sat down and made herself comfortable in a visiting room chair.

"No, I'm not here to get you out. I don't have that authority. I'm here to make sure you're okay--and to apologize for what's happened." Rielle's voice was kind and calm, trying not to push the angered woman.

"I'll soak you for every fucking penny, Rielle," Paula seethed. "It's bad enough you lie about getting over your Gabrielle infatuation, it's bad enough you take up with some hacker you've been stalking, but to do that and then send that thug after me when I'm only trying to help you--"

"By having me committed," Rielle added.

"Yes," Paula agreed. "By having you committed. You need to be committed, Rielle. You're going too far. If you don't get me out of here within the hour, I swear I'll take you for every penny. I'm not joking. We're married. That still means something. You fuck up like this within the confines of a contract and it costs you big time. It's going to cost you and it's going to cost her."

"Is that your big worry, Paula? How much can you make from this failed deal?" Rielle shook her head sadly.

"It's all I'm left with!" the dark haired woman shouted. "How can I compete with the little fantasy you've created for yourself? I tried to love you and succeeded at that for a good two years before this shit happened. It's been clear for a while you don't love me, I'm wondering now if you ever did."

"I tried," Rielle whispered sadly. "I really tried. But I didn't know what was missing until I found it."

Paula fought back against angry tears as Rielle waited, her own gut wrenching in regret for the pain she'd caused. "I hope you remember this a long time, Rielle." Paula warned. "Because it isn't over between us. I'm not out of your life and I'm most certainly not out of your fucking hacker's life."

The syscop's eyes narrowed slightly. "This is between me and you, Paula. Leave Xero out of it."

"Oh no. It became a threesome the second she entered the picture. If you drop her now, and get some help and work with me-- we can rebuild 'us'. If you don't-- if you walk out of here and join her, then I swear I will destroy that bitch until there is nothing left."

"What you're destroying," Rielle replied calmly, "is any hope of a reconciliation. I can understand your hurt, I can understand your anger at me, and I can even understand your anger at Xero. But vengeance is different. You can't bully me into feeling something I don't. I'm sorry, Paula but you can't--but that's what you're trying to do." Standing in one fluid motion, Rielle headed for the door. "The hold says you've got two days left in here. By the time you're out, my task will be finished and we'll be able to sort out 'us'."

Paula stood and tried to block the door. She was met by two orderlies who restrained her. "I swear, Rielle, you haven't heard the last of this. I will get out and when I do that hacker of yours is dead meat!"

Stinging tears came to the syscop's eyes as she hurried down the hall, away from the visitation room. Knowing she was doing the right thing in helping the disagreeable hacker didn't make the hurt she caused her wife any easier. Her thoughts on the bus back to Topanga were a clouded collage of memories. There had been good times with Paula, certainly, but she also remembered the bad times. The times that reminded her that the Marketing VP was not the other half of her soul. Not her destiny.

Her thoughts drifted then to Xero, the woman she was convinced was Xena. The rude, abrasive, manipulative thug who had used her hours before. She laughed bitterly to keep from crying, the irony was too perfect. She was turning her back on a woman who truly loved her she stood by a hacker who clearly did not. "This is as bad as C'hin," she mumbled, marveling at how she had a knack for finding herself in difficult situations.

Rielle stopped several blocks away from Xero's apartment building. Composing her thoughts, she adjusted her sunglasses and easily, seamlessly shifted into 'syscop mode'. The coast was clear and no official vehicles were parked on either side of the narrow rustic street. She checked the charge on her taser and ran a hand through her strawberry blond hair. With confident steps, she approached the front of the building. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, no sign that someone had died here less than a fortnight ago. She rode the elevator to the third floor and stepped out. Turning down the hall, she walked to the end, to the hacker's apartment. The door was closed, a security seal locking the door in place. Not having the expertise at break-ins possessed by a certain fifteen-year-old waitress, Rielle took out her Archive security badge. Hoping for the best, she swiped it through the reader. Holding her breath, she wondered a moment if her clearance status had been revoked. She was about to give up when the light glowed green and with a 'click' the door unlocked.

Shutting the door behind her, Rielle entered the apartment. Things looked very much as they had when she'd been there before. Certainly, the body had been removed, but the couch was still in the same place, now with a stain showing where Bat's remains had been. Turning away from such grisly reminders, she moved into the living room, navigating the obstacle course of computer cases and wires strewn around the floor.

It was clear that the inhabitants of the apartment had spent most of their time in the living room, either working on one of the workstations present, lounging or eating. A large trash can near the main entertainment console had a collection of empty Pepsi cans and pizza boxes. Other than the equipment and the couch, the room was sparsely furnished. A doorway through the main room led to a bathroom. It was small, had all the essentials and was neat yet spartan. The hallway opened up on each side into a private bedroom. Rielle stepped into the closest one, deciding instantly that it did not belong to Xero.

The room was fairly well furnished with a bed, dresser and chest of drawers as well as a modular work table. What was most striking about the room was the fact that so little wallspace remained uncovered. Movie posters, photos and other graphic prints literally covered the walls and ceiling of the small room. The deceased hacker was clearly a fan of movies and other forms of entertainment. Two framed posters dominated the wall space across from the bed. One was the blurry image of a flying saucer with the words "I Want To Believe" printed below. The other was a large advertisement for an X-Files Movie. "Trust No One, We Mean It: X-Files 17" was printed in holographic letters over a series of photo montages from the film. Curiously, Rielle looked around the room, trying to piece together what Xero's business partner had been like. One drawer in the dresser was filled with minidiscs, each one labeled in some kind of code. The other drawers contained clothes, which were more or less folded. Her tastes appeared fun loving and upbeat if not a bit mismatched.

A small medical bag was open on the dresser. Upon closer investigation, Rielle could see that it was a maintenance kit for the deceased woman's mechanical eye. Small tools as well as a variety of medicated solutions were positioned neatly in their respective compartments in the kit. A trading card, in an elaborate frame was positioned behind the medical kit. Rielle blinked in surprise, while she wasn't much of a collector herself, she well knew the value of pre-plague items. This was a promotional trading card from the very first X-Files movie. The two main characters were featured with the words "The X Files: Fight The Future" printed below. Turning the frame over there was a hologram of authenticity for the card and the date: June 1998. There was also a hand written inscription along the edge of the frame that read, "Sorry about the other day, that crap had nothing to do with you. I mean it. -- Xero".

"Quite a gift for an apology, Xero," Rielle muttered as she continued to look around the room.

Deciding that there really wasn't anything to be discovered in the dead hacker's room, Rielle headed across the hall to Xero's. Upon entering, the contrast was striking. The bed consisted of a mattress in the corner, neatly made with clean sheets. The room was well lit with sunlight streaming in from the window across from the bed. Walking over to it, she could see some trees and a walkway three stories down. The furniture consisted largely of used shipping crates, durable plastic boxes that stacked neatly on top of one another. A compact, yet powerful net retrieval system was set up on a small work desk, clearly a unit used for checking the news nets and daily business. The setup in the living room was clearly for hacking; designed to be set up or taken down and concealed quickly. This unit in the bedroom was obviously for legitimate uses. Rielle sat down at Xero's chair and did a quick scan of her databases. Calling up frequently visited net nodes and the most recently accessed data, Rielle fought back guilt at going through the other woman's files. Instead, she focused on the purpose for it--to see if there had been any other intruders besides herself. She checked the time stamps on the various files, noting that if anyone had gone through the system they'd been careful about it.

Pushing away from the desk, Rielle surveyed the room. There weren't many personal effects present on the few shelves in the room. An old battered ID chip, the kind that would be pinned to a young child's clothing, a scented candle in a blown glass candle holder, a ceramic bowl containing some loose credit slips, and a vintage bottle of wine. Deciding not to invade the hacker's privacy further, she decided to pick up some clothes for the other woman and head back to the 'Horn. She found a small duffle bag near one of the crates and emptied it of its contents, some tools and drives, most likely from an onsite job. Opening the first storage crate she sorted through the clothes selecting two different pairs of jeans. One blue and faded, the other grey and fairly new. The same crate contained an assortment of t-shirts. Her eyes landed on a plain grey, one. It was soft to the touch and Rielle smiled, picking it up. It still smelled faintly of fabric softener and the hacker making the syscop's head swim. She also chose a black tshirt, this one with an ornate design from the Hard Rock Cafe. Moving over to another crate she opened it, blushing first at some of the more intimate objects contained therein. Moving the aforementioned toys to the side, she then grabbed three pairs of socks and three pairs of underwear. A black pair instantly caught her eyes, the cut of the garment and silky fabric making her smile. She also selected a green pair and finally a pair that was bright red. "Might as well give her a choice," she muttered.

Before she could zip up the small duffle, Rielle heard the unmistakable click of the front door opening. In an instant she scanned the interior of the room. Already standing near the bedroom window, her first impulse was to duck outside, but as there was no balcony, it was out of the question. The closet was on the far side of the room and she wouldn't have time to duck inside. Setting the duffle carefully down on the mattress, she silently dropped to the floor, pressing herself against the bed.

"I'm inside," a male voice announced from the living room. "The lock wasn't jammed and the place seems quiet. You sure your contact had the right apartment?" the voice continued after a pause. Most likely talking on a mobie unit, Rielle decided. "I'm checking the main systems now, they're clean. I'll check the ones in the bedroom next."

Rielle took a very slow and careful breath. Almost willing her consciousness out of her body, she remained still. Not so much as darting her eyes to the door when she heard the man enter, she simply observed the movement from her peripheral vision.

"I'm at the other machine," he announced, sitting in Xero's chair. "The drive is warm on this one," he continued, getting up cautiously. "But this thing could be hooked up for remote retrieval. I tell you, Mr. Ares, I haven't seen anyone. Yes sir, I'll check there now sir."

Rielle heard the man cautiously step toward the closet and ease the door open, then the sound of movement as he spun towards the opening, most likely with a weapon drawn.

"Damn," Rielle thought to herself. Forcing herself to breathe slowly, she took a couple of careful lungfuls of air. Gradually coiling her muscles, she readied her body, easing upward. Then there, over the edge of the bed, she could see him. Mobie earpiece attached to his ear, taser drawn, he was watching the far corner of the room, where the open door left a dark shadow. He could see into the shadow if he moved towards the far side of the bed where Rielle was hiding. Before the final step however, he turned to make sure the space was vacant. It wasn't.

Rielle's foot shot out, striking the man in the knee. The blow was startling more than anything else, but it was enough to knock him off balance. Before he could steady himself, Rielle was on her feet, both hands at the man's face. With blinding speed she grabbed the back of his head and chin, and with a firm snap she broke the man's neck.

He slumped onto the bed, the taser gun falling from his hand. Rielle didn't touch it, but could see by the setting that it had been modified to kill. Taking the mobie unit from the dead man's pocket she unplugged the earpiece.

"What was that?" a smooth metallic voice demanded from the mobie unit speaker.

"Your thug had a slight accident, Ares," Rielle answered, standing beside the window, cautiously looking out.

"So, little Gabby finally showed up on the scene," Ares replied, sounding amused. "How's our Xena doing?"

"Just fine, Ares," Rielle shot back. "But you'll find that out for yourself soon enough."

"You're bluffing, little girl," the God of War taunted back. "There's no way she recovered from our previous encounter. Give it a rest, Gabrielle. You're screwed this time, might as well bend over."

"We'll see about that," Rielle shot back.

"What?" Ares sounded offended. "You don't think I know your angle? Nice trip to Disneyland to use their VR tank? Go ahead, you'll get no trouble from us. I'd love to destroy Xena face to face."

Genuinely surprised that the God of War knew their plans, Rielle's mind raced. But how, unless...? A spy. Thinking frantically, Rielle realized that it was now or never to use that to their advantage. "Glad you finally got the message. Your little spy isn't too bright. We've been trying to set this up this showdown for some time."

"You're bluffing, bard," Ares growled.

"Just keep telling yourself that," Rielle replied cheerfully, breaking the mobie unit connection. Tossing the mobie on the bed, Rielle looked over at the dead agent. Carefully, she removed the wallet from his jacket pocket and quickly scanned its contents. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't any ID. Putting it back, she leaned over his still form and opened the bedroom window. With a heave, she lifted him back up, and tossed him from the third story window. A publicly discovered body would keep Helms busy for a while anyway, covering his tracks.

By the time she descended the stairs and emerged from the building a small crowd had gathered gawking at the well-dressed corpse. Rielle was surprised to see a familiar face in the growing crowd.

"Robin," she called, "what are you doing here?"

The hacker was clearly surprised to see the syscop and fidgeted nervously. She had short dark hair and dark eyes. A bit overweight and a touch malnourished, she was a perfect example of what could happen to hackers that didn't take steps to stay healthy. Reflexively, she pulled a cigarette from her pocket and lit it, not caring that the activity was highly illegal. "Blue sent me to check on you. Said you'd be here. You're on your way to the 'horn, right?"

"Yeah," Rielle nodded in agreement. She adjusted the shoulder strap on the duffle. "I'm taking some clothes to Xero. You coming?"

"I'll catch up with you later," Robin said after a long drag from her smoke. "I've got to check in with some other hackers before heading over, I'll see you then."

"Fine," the syscop agreed, turning away from the grisly sight and heading for the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill.

Xero fidgeted in the Pub like a caged tiger. She knew it was stupid for her to be out and about. Still recovering from her near unsubbing, she didn't have the strength or desire to fight her way out of any trouble. Of course, trouble found her anyway, she mused. This time in the form of one very attractive syscop. It wasn't any use, try as she might, her mind continued to wander back to either Rielle or Xena. And both trains of thought were rather distracting.

She didn't understand why she gave the syscop a second thought. But she did. An image flashed in her mind, warm skin beneath her hands. Distracted she pulled at her lower lip with her right hand. The scent of the syscop lingered on her fingers. Closing her eyes at the memory, she firmly put aside the realization that she'd blown it with the younger woman. "I don't see why I should care anyway," she thought. "Except that I do."

Getting up, she wandered around the pub some more, her eyes finally landing on the portable disk reader. Fishing a mini-drive out of her saddle bag, she put it in the reader, quickly scanning over the files entered. When she found what she was looking for, she plugged the feed line of the large monitor into the unit and headed over to a near by booth. As an afterthought, she returned to the kitchen and drew a beer from the tap at the bar. The pub was closed on Tuesdays and she decided to make full use of the solitude. Making herself comfortable in the booth, Xero flipped the drive controls with one hand and watched the stored files on the large monitor. Briefly searching through the information sent to her by Rielle, she stopped on the visual files. Letting the program do its work, she sat back and watched selected episodes of a 90s television show.

Xero was mesmerized by the images flashing before her eyes. Hours had passed and night enveloped South California but the hacker hadn't moved. She was so engrossed that she didn't notice anyone had entered the building until she heard the gentle voice from behind her.

"'The Lost Mariner'. That was one of my favorite episodes," Rielle commented quietly. Xero nearly jumped out of her skin, blue eyes blazing hotly into green. "I'm sorry, I thought you heard me," Rielle soothed.

"How long have you been standing there?" Xero demanded.

"Long enough," Rielle answered cryptically. "Relax will you, it wasn't like you were jacking off or anything."

The hacker's eyes blazed. "I don't like being snuck up on."

Rielle saw the seriousness in the other woman's expression and backed off. "I'm sorry. Really. I just got here. I opened the front door and you were kinda engrossed in the show."

The hacker shrugged. "S'okay." She looked past Rielle for signs of any one else. "Where's Blue and Ska?" she asked.

"They dropped me off at the psych unit. Either they decided I was trustworthy, or they didn't want to hang around. I went by your place, picked up some clothes for you and then caught a bus back here. I still need to pick up my car from last week."

"Oh," Xero said as she turned off the monitor and mini drive. "You went to see Paula?"

Rielle shrugged. "Yeah. She and I needed to talk. In all honesty you did me a favor. Whatever credentials you used to get her locked up are sticking like glue. She won't get out until day after tomorrow at the earliest. Hopefully Ares will be a bad memory by then."

Xero didn't know what to say, so she got up from the booth and headed for the kitchen muttering, "I'm glad you worked things out." Reaching the safety of the cookware she looked around for something to prepare.

"I didn't say we worked things out," Rielle clarified, following Xero into the kitchen and leaning against a stainless steel counter. "In fact, my marriage is a mess."

"And that's my fault?" the hacker asked defensively, selecting an assortment of pirated fresh vegetables.

"I didn't say that." Rielle watched as Xero began to chop the vegetables. "I mean, sure, you're a factor, a very big factor in what's going on, but that's not to say it's your fault."

"Why?" Xero asked, her voice chillingly neutral. "I fucked you over, didn't I? Invalidated your marriage contract in a building with witnesses? I don't have a problem copping to it."

Rielle opened her mouth to speak then quickly closed it. She studied the hacker for long moments before choosing her words carefully. Still worked up over being forced to kill, even in self-defense, a fight with the moody hacker was the last thing the syscop wanted. "I don't know why you're so angry about earlier, when personally I think I got the raw end of the deal.

"My relationship with you was a problem in my marriage long before today," Rielle said with tight control. "Before you met me even. I felt a connection with you from watching your exploits online. I know who you are, even if you don't, Xero. Is it helping me to know you could care less whether you're screwing me or some groupie? No. But I've got to get beyond that and focus on what's at hand. When this is over, provided we survive, then I'll have the time I need to work through what I'm feeling. Maybe then I'll kick your ass."

The hacker nodded absently, seemingly focused on sauteing the vegetables.

"Mind if I ask why you did it?" Rielle asked tiredly.

"Why I made a play for you?" Xero asked, looking up from her cooking. "Are you nuts? Why wouldn't I? You're...desirable, Rielle, get over it."

"So that's it?" Rielle challenged. "You were just hoping to get laid?"

"No," Xero replied honestly. "Look, kid. I don't know why. So why don't we just drop it."

"Don't start that 'kid' bullshit with me, Xero," Rielle shot back, her temper flaring. "You know I'm no kid. You feel connected to me, don't you? And you don't want to admit you can feel that way with anyone."

"You're flattering yourself," Xero replied icily. "In more ways than one."

"Am I really? You seriously think I'm that sweet and innocent. I tell you, at times I wish I were. Tell me something, hacker. You ever kill anyone in your line of work?"

Xero grabbed a few eggs from their chilled container and broke them over a bowl. "Personally? No," she answered, picking up a whisk and mixing the eggs. "But I know full well that a number of my jobs have resulted in people getting unsubbed for one reason or another. Suicide, murder, sometimes even natural causes."

"I've killed seven people in the eight years I've been a syscop. Four women and three men. Five were with a gun and the other two with my bare hands. You still think I'm innocent?" Rielle asked quietly.

Xero shrugged. "Yes. I don't care how many people you had to kill. You still believe in good conquering evil simply because it's good. It doesn't work that way--it's a toss up. You think you can change me. You can't."

"If that's true, then why are you here helping? Fixing me an omelet even?"

Xero briefly met Rielle's eyes and turned her attention to her cooking once more. "Because I've got nothing better to do."

Rielle laughed out loud, rolling her eyes in frustration. "Blue is right, you are an asshole. Fine. You're an unchangeable monster, I accept it. What you don't seem to realize, Xero, is that none of this is new to me. Sure it hurts, yes, it's frustrating, but I've been here before. You watched the show, you saw what happened. Gabrielle betrays Xena. Xena lies to Gabrielle. The two of them face a lifetime of challenges. I remember it all. Just how worked up do you think I can get over you, when I've had to deal with the Destroyer of Nations and an angry horde?

"I'm really pissed at you right now, Xero, and I'm hurting. But I'm not going anywhere, I'm not leaving you, and I'm going to see this thing through no matter what."

Xero handed the syscop her omelet without saying a word. It didn't matter though; her expression said it all. She feared Rielle was insane, and hoped she was not.

The two sat down to an awkward silence at the bar. Each focused on her food, neither woman spoke or looked at each other. Rielle finally cleared her throat turned to the hacker. "This omelet is really good. Where did you learn how to cook?"

Xero shrugged. "I've been taking care of myself for a long time."

"So had Xena, but she never got the hang of cooking."

Distracted, Xero shoved a piece of tomato around on her plate. "Maybe she did," she said quietly. "Maybe she could cook just fine but didn't want Gabrielle to know. Perhaps it was important for Gabrielle to have something up on her."

"Maybe," Rielle allowed, studying the hacker thoughtfully before pulling herself back to business. "You know, we've got to do some planning for tomorrow. It's one reason I came back here instead of just picking up my car. You need to pick some generals."

Xero frowned at her. "For what?"

"It's looking like there may be as many as three hundred hackers in the park on Friday. I need to know who you trust to keep things organized. We're going to have to count on them while you're fighting Ares."

"Why don't you just do it?" the hacker asked indifferently.

Rielle looked away as if she'd been stung. "If that's what you want, fine. So who do you want to run the VR tank? I thought it might be me."

Suddenly, Xero realized the slight she'd just handed the syscop. She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. "You're right, Rielle. I'm sorry. I do want you operating the VR tank. Something screws up there and I'm dead. While you've got your own reasons for wanting that, I think you'll be able to exercise more restraint than the others."

"Don't count on it," the syscop warned, then softened. "I think Blue should be in charge of the general operation. The others listen to her. The fact that she has no love for you and is helping anyway says a lot."

Xero nodded. "She can deploy the others. We'll need three basic teams for security, communications, and operations. Have Jenbob troubleshoot our security, I'm sure she can enlist the Amazon to help. We'll need someone guarding the door that no one is going to get through--Moira and Sue should also be on that detail and they can enlist LN and Deb for general ass-kicking." With a sigh, she closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Suddenly it was clear just what needed to be done and who should be doing it. "Ska, Puck and Kanvil should head for the communications center. They can cause trouble all over the park from there. They'll also have to keep communication with the 'Horn going. Shadow, Missy and Trill will need to keep trying to reach the President. I'd prefer the national guard not to fire on us if that's at all possible. Wordee, MaryD and Cat can coordinate the teams of people in the park. I only want Blue, Ska and Wordee to have contact with you. You've got to know what's going on but I don't want you distracted. A couple of well timed car wrecks should tie up the freeway enough to keep people away from the park if this thing takes too long. And each team should have two shifts; we don't need any gaps or screwups."

"Do you realize what you're doing?" Rielle asked softly when Xero stopped to open a fresh bottle of water.

"You said plan, so I'm planning."

"But it's how you're planning. As a hacker working alone, when did you learn to coordinate the efforts of 300 people?" Rielle looked at Xero seriously. "This morning, between us... did it actually jog your memory."

If Xero weren't exhausted she might have been able to summon the energy to lie convincingly to the syscop. As it was, she didn't even try. Empty blue eyes looked at Rielle, defeated. "That was just you and me Rielle," she said quietly. "No Xena."

Rielle nodded and pushed her plate away, standing up quickly. "No biggie," she said even though her body language screamed otherwise. "I've got to get going. I'll start handing out mission assignments and take my car back. Oh, and one more thing-- Ares is expecting you."

"Look, Rielle--" Xero started to say, gently taking the syscop's arm. She didn't give a fuck about Ares at the moment.

"No," Rielle shot back, yanking her arm from the hacker's grasp. "Just don't...say anything. I'll see you tomorrow morning." She hurried from the pub leaving Xero alone in the quiet building.

"Shit," the hacker mumbled as she kicked over a bar stool.

Xero opened her eyes at a gentle rocking and she realized she was on horseback. Confronted by a wild mane of ebony hair directly in front of her, the hacker turned her attention to her side, surprised by the thick forest of trees. Gradually the trees thinned out a bit and she could see the ocean far below as the horse neared edge of the cliff. Pulling the horse to a stop, Xena surveyed her surroundings, then nudged the war horse away from the cliff's edge.

"So, what's up, Xena?" Xero asked, wondering where her companions were. "Still pretty pissed huh?" The warrior didn't respond.

Looking beyond the warrior's muscled form, Xero noticed a slight glint coming from a near by tree. In moments they reached the tree. From horseback, Xena only had to reach slightly above her head and pull the round metal object from the tree trunk.

"So that's where it came from?" Xero commented as the warrior tied the metallic disc to her belt with a strip of leather thong.

The two continued to ride in silence as Xena made her way back down the cliff on a winding, narrow trail. Reaching the beach once more, she headed for a small group of men. Xero recognized Borias instantly.

"Xena, where have you been?" he asked, his eyes noting the metallic disc at the warrior's waist. "Some of the men were beginning to think you'd run off or something."

"Is that so?" she inquired dryly, her voice devoid of humor.

Several men were unloading supplies from the warship while others were reloading those supplies into several wagons as well as onto a collection of war horses in mismatched tack.

"Maybe she had second thoughts about fighting in Greece?" one man said from the deck of the ship. "Lacks the stomach to kill her countrymen."

In one fluid motion, Xena grabbed the chakram and threw it away from the ship. It ricocheted off of the wagon wheel, a barrel of water (which it sliced open), a metal bracing on the ship's mast, and cut a deadly swath across the sailor's throat. He kneeled over, dead just as the disc hit another barrel and headed for Xena. She caught it easily, noting with satisfaction that there wasn't any blood on the deadly weapon. Several sailors eyed their fallen comrade warily before returning to their tasks with renewed fervor. Borias rolled his eyes, appalled but unwilling to confront the blue eyed demon.

"Are we going to stop by your home town for supplies?" he asked as Xena smoothly dismounted.

"No." She raised her voice loud enough for all to hear. "No one, and I mean no one is to go to Amphipolis. Anyone who steps within the city gates is a dead man." Lowering her voice , her gaze fell on Borias. "There are several places we can stop to pick up men and supplies as we head inland. I've a taste for wine, Borias, I think our destination is obvious."

He considered her words, eyes shining with understanding. "We're headed for Cirra."

Xero rode behind Xena as she made her way across Greece. Several times men specifically wanting to join her army intercepted them. The hacker was struck by how quick and decisive the warrior was in determining eligibility. She'd dismount, walk over to the perspective soldier and either kill him on the spot, or tell him to report to one of her lieutenants. At times even Borias seemed a little put off by her cold blooded ruthlessness.

As they crested a small hill, Xena dismounted, leaving Xero alone on the horse just as the hacker caught a glimpse of Janice and Mel also on horseback off in the distance. That gap closed quickly and the thunder of hoof beats grew rapidly. As Janice Covington neared, Xero could make out unmasked rage. It was clear that Janice was after her, and Mel was doing her best to get between hacker and archeologist.

"Xero, run!" Mel screamed although the hacker had already moved forward into the saddle and kicked the warhorse into a gallop. She passed by the edge of some farm land, barely noticing the rows and rows of grape vines thriving in the mild climate. Steadil,y she heard the archeologist gaining, the hoof beats and loud breathing of both horses ringing in her ears. She didn't spare as much as a glance behind her but tried to veer off in another direction. It was a mistake. Janice Covington was clearly much more skilled on horseback than she was and anticipated the move. In moments she heard a snap then felt a searing sting as a bullwhip curled around her neck, cutting off her air.

The next instant she was flying from horse back, airborne for the briefest instant before hitting the ground behind Janice's horse at full gallop. She couldn't figure out why her neck simply didn't snap. She managed to squeeze two fingers under the whip, letting her lungs get some much needed air. It was little consolation as the ground ate away at her skin.

Speeding over the rocky terrain, she managed to grasp the whip in both hands above her head, transferring the dragging force from her neck to her arms and shoulders. Holding firmly to the wound leather, she pulled for all she was worth, snapping the whip from Janice Covington's grasp. Her body stopped moving as the horse sped off, leaving her to fight for. She was dimly aware of Janice's return, her attention focused on getting the whip unwrapped from her neck.

"Give me one goddamn reason not to kill you, you fucking asshole!" Janice yelled as she leapt from her saddle. Fury emanated from her like a furnace.

"Would mentioning Ares help?" Xero croaked rubbing her neck. She was bleeding from numerous gashes and scrapes and felt almost as bad as she did when she last encountered the God of War.

Mel reined her horse to a stop and gracefully dismounted joining the other two. Xero glanced at her before turning her attention to Janice once more. "What the fuck are you so steamed about?"

"What am I--" Janice said incredulously as she lunged for Xero once more. Mel was instantly at her side stopping her. Unable to break free of her lover's arms, she glared at the hacker. "That little stunt you pulled on Rielle, what do you think?"

"I figured as much. Didn't know it was a killing offense where you come from."

"Xero, you're only getting the treatment you think you deserve," Mel said seriously. "I think it's Xena beginning to come to the surface. Obviously you're feeling bad about it or Janice wouldn't have done what she..."

"So now it's my subconscious controlling you two?" The hacker laughed bitterly. "This just gets better and better." She handed the whip back to Janice and let the smaller woman help her stand. Without comment, she mounted the horse behind the archeologist and rode back to the grazing horse she'd been pulled from. "That was a test, wasn't it?" She asked Janice as they neared her horse.

"How do you mean?" the archeologist replied carefully.

"Things are gearing up for Ares. I think you want to see if I can handle it. If I'll fight back."

Janice turned around in the saddle to study the hacker closely. "If that's true then you just failed, didn't you?"

"I can't fight you," Xero replied with a grin, walking over to Xena's horse. Regardless of how much she wanted to wring the archeologist's neck, Janice looked like Rielle. With her feelings about the syscop in turmoil, Xero couldn't imagine attacking the archeologist now.

"But you can treat someone who looks just like me as if she were an insignificant piece of meat," Janice growled, still furious. Stung, the hacker looked down and was quiet. "Well...fuck!" Janice finally exclaimed in frustration. "Let's get out of here. We've got the birth of a monster to witness."

As the three rode back to Xena and her army, Mel nudged her horse to move along side Xero. "Whaddya want?" the hacker grumbled.

Mel shrugged demurely. "Just to know how it all went, before things got ugly, that is."

Xero turned her steady gaze into identical blue eyes that returned her stare unflinchingly. "You don't strike me as the type to kiss and tell, Melinda."

"I'm not, but I suspect we have a number of things in common. A weakness for strawberry blondes being one of them."

"Well, the whole thing was screwed. Except for the beginning. I don't know what happened." The hacker focused her eyes on the expanse of fertile farmland around them. The day way bright and the air uncomfortably warm.

"Yeah, but it's a dry heat," Janice quipped, riding up along side them and cutting into the hacker's thoughts.

"Janice, if you don't mind, I was trying to have a private conversation with Xero," Mel told her lover sweetly.

"You think she's going to be honest with you? Mel, she can't even be honest with herself. It's easy to mix lust with rage and then play out some scenario in your mind instead of paying attention to the person you're actually making love to. God forbid you respond to the intensity of feeling that's thrumming through your partner. Isn't that right, hacker?" Xero didn't answer. The archeologist rolled her eyes and addressed her lover once more. "Ole Xero has got some bizarre ideas about sex. How many women have you fucked? Fifty, sixty? And yet, you've only been touched, what, a half dozen times?"

"Janice!" Mel implored, blushing furiously.

"I don't see why it should matter to you one way or another," Xero commented coldly, glaring at the archeologist.

"It matters because it's symptomatic of one of the larger things wrong with you," Janice continued, undaunted. "You want me to spell it out, fine I will. The big difference between Xena and Callisto was that Xena learned to feel. No, Xena isn't much of a feeling creature now, but she'll get there. Callisto never did and it destroyed her. You, my friend, are rowing that same boat. Jump ship now and you may have a chance, but keep this up and I guarantee you'll scare Rielle off."

"I think we agree she'd be better off then." the hacker commented acidly.

"Sure, I agree." Janice nodded emphatically. "But that isn't my decision to make. She's decided to see this thing through. The question is, would you be better off? I'm asking you," her expression softened, "no, I'm begging you, to make sure she doesn't regret it. I spent too many wasted years knowing in my heart I was related to Gabrielle and hating myself for it. I owe Gabrielle everything."

Xero studied the archeologist for a moment, then turned her attention to the Southerner. "What about you, Mel?" she asked. "You gonna beg me not to mess up my life?"

Mel smiled warmly with a loving gaze that included Janice as well as Xero in its scope. "Not at all, love, you'll do just fine. If Xena could live out her days with Gabrielle at her side, and if Janice here could look past my spoiled, rich upbringing, I don't doubt that you'll find a way through this, especially since Rielle already loves you very, very much."

Xero shook her head baffled at the complete lack of hostility or pity in the Southerner's face.

"Honestly, Mel," Janice added teasingly. "I didn't have a problem with the money."

"I swear you two deserve each other," the hacker finally swore under her breath.

The three women joined up with Xena just as she was discussing the fate of Cirra with Borias and two other men. "There's only forty of us, so don't take stupid chances. They're going to put up a fight so have your men stay sharp. Kill 'em all if you have to. If the women and children are smart they'll stay inside until we take what we want and go. We're here for supplies, nothing else," she stressed, looking pointedly at the man next to Borias. "I see any man wasting valuable time with women and children I'll slit his throat."

Then, blue eyes shining brightly with destructive passion, Xena, of Amphipolis gave the signal and led the attack on Cirra. The Warrior Princess fought with gleeful savagery, slicing her way through one knot of resistant villagers then the next. The vision of death that rode through the village on horseback that day was not the man of bones used to frighten children. No, the death that charged through Cirra was a woman--beautiful, graceful, but nothing like the mothers that the frightened children clung to for comfort.

Xero watched, numb at the vibrant life spilling from bodies onto the Cirran dirt everywhere she looked. A man with a pitchfork was stabbed through the gut, another with a rake was decapitated. Two villagers dumped oil in a horse trough and set it ablaze trying to keep the horse mounted killers at bay. Xena's well-trained steed jumped the obstacle easily and the two Cirrans were gutted for their trouble. A hideous scream brought Xena's attention back to the trough.

One of her men had shoved a villager into the blazing oil. Covered in flames, he screamed and instinctively ran for cover. Several of her men laughed at the pitiful attempts the running inferno made to save his life. He made it to one open door and fell down, dead and still in the door way, the smell of charred flesh filling the warrior's lungs.

In seconds, the house caught fire. Thatched roofs, dried from the summer heat couldn't withstand the tongues of flame lapping up from the burning doorway. Already burning out of control, the flames spread from one house to the next, billowing black smoke adding to the confusion and carnage of the attack.

Xero watched in stunned silence as building after building caught fire, the hiding inhabitants of Cirra too terrified to leave their burning buildings and take their chances with the cold blooded killers outside. The cries of dying women and children added to the din of death that enveloped Cirra that day.

Borias fought his way over to Xena who studied the scene with cool detachment. "Get some men over to that storage building before it catches fire," she instructed. " I came here for Cirran wine, I sure as Tartarus ain't leaving without it."

Knowing better than to question the order, Borias headed off. Xena watched him go until something on the ground diverted her attention. Running from a burning house, a young girl stopped short at the sight of the mounted warrior in her path. Cheeks stained with tears, her soft brown eyes glittered with rage and hatred. Her back straight, head held high, the young girl glared at the warrior. "Why!" she screamed.

Xena smirked at the girl, kneeing her horse into a trot as she headed down the street, leaving the child alone in her fury. But not quite alone. Xero walked over to the child, kneeling in the dirt in front of her. "Callisto," she whispered, her voice choking. "I'm so sorry."

The child, unable to see the hacker before her, stared at the receding warrior. "I don't know who you are," she said calmly, "But you're going to pay for this."

"Truer words have never been spoken," Mel said, putting a gentle hand on Xero's shoulder. "You're still paying for it." With a gentle pull she urged the hacker away from the carnage she couldn't change.

"And so is she," Xero whispered.

Part 5

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