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Legal Disclaimers: If these characters were named Xena and Gabrielle, and if this story were set in ancient Greece... then some lawyers might be unhappy with me. As it is, I think I'm safe... but just to be sure-- I'm not making any money off this. Please don't sue. All I have is a small brown dog and a computer. You can have the dog. Cheap.

Love/Sex Disclaimer: This is a story involving the sometimes intensely-depicted sexual relationship between two members of the same sex. It is not recommend for anyone under the emotional or chronological age of 21. If this is an issue for you, please don't go here.

Violence Disclaimer: This Uber tale is set in the modern day world of drug dealers and law enforcement. There is violence, blood and a little gore. Not exactly Tarantino country, however. More like Scorsese.

Language Disclaimer: Lunacy mentioned this in her initial review, so I'll tack a little note up as well. In keeping with its setting, the language is sometimes harsh. You don't really expect a drug dealer to say "Oh phooey" do you?

Last Words, I Promise Disclaimer: "Lucifer Rising" first appeared on the web in a serialized fashion. However, when it was all said and done, there were a few things that didn't exactly thrill me about it. So, I took it down and tinkered with it. Some scenes have been expanded, others streamlined, still others moved. All-in-all, however, the reading experience shouldn't be that much different. Just smoother, I hope. (No I didn't change the ending, but I thought about it. *g*) Thank everyone for being patient with me. I know there were quite a few of you who were in the middle of reading it when I took it down. Ooops... Well, here it is... finally. I'd recommend starting over, just so we're all on the same page. Thanks again.

As always, questions, comments and other things are welcome at:

Chapter 3

Bleeding its rays into the rolling surf, the sun made an ostentatious debut over the horizon's edge, but its antics were totally ignored by one of its most devoted viewers. So many times Jude had witnessed the magnificent sight that now filled the floor-to-ceiling windows of her bedroom, but today she was focused on the still, silent form of Elizabeth Peterson. Although she had very much intended to see the dawn with the honey-haired woman in her bed... this wasn't quite what I had in mind, she thought wryly. Her half-smile twisted into a grimace as she regarded the woman in her bed.

"She'll be as good as new. Not even a scar," the sweatsuit-clad figure assured her, stripping off latex gloves and tossing them into his bag. "The bullet grazed her side, that's all. All that blood was from the flesh wound. No serious damage, but she'll be sore as hell for about a week. Try not to let her move around too much, so she doesn't tear out the stitches. I'll come back and take them out in about a week or so."

"Thanks, Stephen." Jude pulled a plain envelope from her back pocket and handed it over to the doctor. She didn't comment on the envelope's contents-- ten thousand dollars in crisp new hundred dollar bills-- just as the doctor hadn't commented on the bleeding woman that Jude's call had roused him from a narcotic-induced haze to treat.

Stephen Ryan had had a nodding Country Club acquaintance with Jude Lucien during her undercover days with the DEA. Of course, he hadn't known she was an undercover agent-- that nasty little surprise had been revealed to him during a bust that had cost him his license to practice medicine. He had cursed the dark woman's soul up one side and down the other. In one fell swoop, she had stripped him of his reputation, his livelihood, and-- most importantly-- of all the trappings that livelihood had allowed him. Since then, however, he had learned to forgive and forget.  

When Jude Lucien re-entered his life, Stephen had been reduced to selling medical supplies to pay for his miserable existence and the drugs that allowed him to forget all the wretchedness that had befallen him. Four in the morning and pouring down rain, he opened his crummy tenement door to a blood-soaked apparition that nevertheless possessed the most haunting eyes he had ever seen. Eyes that he had never been able to forget in the four years since they had exiled him to this personal Ninth Circle of Hell. "You..." he stammered.

"I need your skills..." The voice was as silken as it had been on the tennis courts-- as it had been the day she busted him. And now... only six steps ahead of the police herself and shot to boot... the bitch had the temerity to smile at him just like they were at some goddamned cocktail party. "One bullet passed right through... The other one is in my leg you're going to have to get out."

Bolstered by his injected courage, he told her, "I'm not going to do shit," and attempted to slam the door in her face.

His dramatic gesture was stopped abruptly as she thrust her wounded arm against the flimsy plywood and tossed it back open. "Yes, you are," she continued calmly, limping into his living room/bedroom/ kitchen. "Because I'm going to pay you $50,000 dollars in cash." Smiling coldly as his eyes went wide. "And if you do a good enough job and keep your fucking mouth shut... I'll make sure you never end up in another place like this again."

It was a siren song to his heroin-addled brain-- and he didn't know if she were an angel come to save him or a devil here to complete his damnation. But quite frankly, he didn't care. He had learned that they called her the Archangel on the streets because of her terrible vengeance, and her tumble from the mount had filled them all with a sort of giddy relief. Now she was one of them, but not... Even in his torpor, Stephen realized that the woman in his room was something more terrible, more dangerous than the worst horror from his nightmares-- mostly because she seemed like an answered prayer.

"You're bleeding on my couch," he said stupidly.

"And I'm going to keep bleeding until you take this fucking bullet out and stitch me up," she snarled at him, the growl of her voice the only sign of the pain he knew she had to be feeling.

"Or I could just call the police and let them sort this out." Greed made him wonder if he could get more money out of her. He should have noticed the warning glint in her eyes, the unmistakable signs that her temper was burning short, but the drugs had rendered the details of her facial expression blurred, the azure glitter dulled.

She shook her head wearily at him. "No you're not." She pulled an evil-looking gun from a previously unnoticed holster. "I was hoping we could do this in a business-like fashion, but if I have to..."

"No, no," the unlicensed doctor assured her, quite convinced that she could hold the gun to his head while a bullet was being pulled from her body. "We can. I'm sorry. Let me go get my kit..."

Moments later he had sliced a gaping hole in her leather pants and was staring at the supple muscle where the bullet was embedded. "You want a hit for this?" He offered her his rig.

She arched a sardonic brow at him. "I don't fuck with that shit," she snapped.

"This is gonna hurt then. I don't have any other painkillers." The scalpel sliced cleanly in the rent flesh, opening up a gash wide enough for the forceps to slip in. He saw her face go white with the strain of fighting the pain. "Go ahead and scream," he counseled her. "People do it around here all the time." He laughed mirthlessly. "Maybe they'll think I'm getting lucky."

A blood-curdling howl was wrenched from the dealer's lungs as the forceps found their target and dislodged the bullet from its resting place with a sickening squelch.

"Almost..." he crooned as a lover would to his paramour. Grasping a firmer hold on the tiny projectile, he maneuvered it out of the dark woman's flesh. "There... little sucker, isn't it? Good old Smith & Wesson .38. Just be glad they weren't using hollow points."

Jude shuddered at the thought. "Let's hear it for local law enforcement. They couldn't hit the broad side of a skyscraper. I'm glad I didn't have to put any of them down."

Stephen blanched at her mocking words. "You were shooting at cops?" Not wanting any of the heat a dead policeman would bring to his door. He was afraid of Jude Lucien, but-- after the short stint he had already done-- he was afraid of prison more. However, now, looking into the intense gaze of the wounded woman, Stephen thought he might just have to revise his opinion.

She looked at him blankly. "Who do you think I was shooting at? Besides," she added with a grimace as he swabbed the wound with antiseptic and began to stitch it closed. "If they had been one of the Cartels I'd be dead right now."

"Why is that?" he muttered absently, intent on making his stitches even and neat.

"They have better aim," Jude chuckled with gallows humor. She watched him work a moment in silence, and he became aware of the faint coriander scent of her skin mixed in with the metallic tang of blood. "Nice stitching," she commented, as he finished up.

"Where's the one that went right through?" he asked. The mellow high was beginning to wear off as the adrenaline of actually being able to practice his craft kicked in.

"Here," she said, indicating her left bicep. "Just needs cleaning and stitching."

"I'm surprised you didn't insist on doing this one yourself," he commented dryly.

Jude grinned toothily at him. "I'm a lefty. Or I would have."

Stephen just shook his head and looked at the shreds of her linen shirt. "You know it will hurt a lot less if I just unbutton the shirt and take it off your shoulders."

"Whatever," she shrugged, deftly sliding the buttons loose and slipping the shirt off her torso.

The smack had long ago rung any impulse of desire from his system, but his long years of studying the human physique made him cast an appreciative glance over Jude's bronze skin. The joints, the muscles, the bones... elegant was the only word that came to mind to describe her... as he worked to close the wound. She was flesh and blood-- the wounds attested to that-- but still the dealer's body seemed... crafted... into some sort of torturing perfection that made his marrow ache to look at her.

"You done?" she prompted him.

"Yeah, you'll live," he replied.

"You have any antibiotics?"

"No, but I can get you some in the morning."   "You think I'm staying here tonight?" The cold tone of voice clearly told him that particular idea was ludicrous.

"I don't think you should be walking on that leg."

"I'll be the judge of that." She stood shakily, bracing her weight on her one good leg and closing her eyes as a wave of pain washed across her strained face. Slowly she opened them, mastering the agony in front of Stephen's disbelieving eyes. A hissing breath expelled from her mouth, and she smirked at his shaking head. "Get the antibiotics and I'll have the 50K here in the morning? Got it?"

"Uh... How am I supposed to pay for these antibiotics?"

"How do you pay for this?" She tossed his rig at him. "Same way, Sparky."

He nodded, at a loss. And suddenly he didn't want her to leave. Her presence, while sinister, was also sickly reassuring, as if he knew that nothing more wicked could befall him while in her company. "Don't you want a shirt or something? I mean, yours is soaked."

Jude cocked an eyebrow at him, glancing dubiously around the room. "I don't know," she demurred. "Kind of goes with the ripped leather pants, don't you think?"

"Here." He scrambled over to the rickety dresser in the corner and pulled out a black linen shirt, a relic from his better days. "Take this," thrusting it into her hands before she could refuse. "You could probably wear my jeans, but it would probably hurt more to take the leather off right now. Do you have anything for the pain at home?"

She nodded tightly, slipping the shirt gingerly over her wounded arm. "How do I look?" she grimaced.

Stephen found himself smiling back. She really was a beautiful woman, despite the blood and grime covering her face, despite the chaos she had visited on his life. "Like a million bucks," he replied sincerely.

"Well," she snorted derisively. "At least like 50K, right?"

That had been the beginning. A day later, a leather satchel arrived in the company of a slender woman with skin the color of rich toffee. "You have something for me, I believe?"

He handed over the antibiotics, and she had relinquished the satchel without further comment. Two days later a note with instructions directing him to a deserted warehouse arrived, where he found another "patient" waiting for him.

Stephen had never looked back. True to her word, Jude sent him a steady stream of people who needed  medical services but could do without the officious eyes of a hospital staff. The joy of being a doctor again-- if only in this rather doubtful sense-- seemed to lessen his need for the narcotic, and he climbed out of the worst of the sloth of his dependency. The smack was now mostly an old friend; lulling other, newer aches that his acquaintance with Jude also inspired.

She had never again come to him injured, even during the worst of the Massala trouble. And this phone call was the first he'd had from her in over a year. These days he usually dealt with that cold bitch Sasha, who looked at him like he was a piece of...

"A week, huh?" Jude's question knocked him out of the odd nostalgia that had overtaken the doctor. Her eyes were worried as she once more surveyed the woman on the bed.

"She'll be fine, I promise. Here, give her two every four hours if the pain is bad. And this should keep away any infection." He tossed two bottles at her that she deftly caught.

"You're a little more prepared these days, eh?" she teased, holding them up.

"A little. Now show me to the door of this monster of a house and get some sleep," he replied.

Ow ow ow ow ow ow... Liz found herself unfortunately returned to consciousness by the prodding pain in her side. She remembered with vivid clarity the spicy scent of Jude's skin filling her nostrils and anticipating the faint brush of the tall woman's lips as they began their descent upon her mouth, and then ...nothing... except this hot pain.

Somebody shot me... the honey-haired woman shuddered, trying to wrap her mind around the undeniable realization. Which means somebody was shooting at Jude... Did they..? Her tumultuous thoughts were stilled by the sight of the dark woman gliding into the room, obviously whole and unharmed. She had changed into a loose button-down shirt and a worn, faded pair of Levi's that-- Liz couldn't help but notice, despite her pained state-- did almost as much justice to her lithe form as the leather skirt did. Her feet were bare, padding softly on the thick burgundy carpet. Burgundy carpets...? Either this is the swankiest hospital I've never seen... or we ain't in one.

"Hi there," Jude said softly. "Glad to see you're still among the living."

"Not as glad as I am," Liz rasped hoarsely.

"Have some water," Jude carefully handed her a plastic mug. "Not too much," she cautioned as Liz eagerly drank down the liquid, assuaging the dry itch in her throat. The cold water hit her stomach hard, almost coming back up and causing her to gag. "Easy..." Jude's hands were warm against her clammy skin, soothing her with a tenderness that Liz had never imagined the dark woman possessing. "Take these for the pain. They'll help," she said, guiding her to swallow two pills and then nestling the small woman back into the pillows.

"Thanks," Liz nodded as the dizziness did indeed subside. "Um... Jude?" she asked, her eyes darting around the room, taking in the majestic ocean panorama in front of her and the quietly elegant furnishings of the room. "This isn't a hospital, is it?"

"No," the dark woman chuckled, sitting the mug and the pill bottle back on the bedside table. "This is my bedroom."

Confused, Liz asked, "Why didn't you take me to a hospital?"

Jude pursed her lips, as if contemplating how to answer the injured woman. Finally she drew a deep breath and sighed. "Because they have to report gunshot wounds."

"Right. That's how they catch the bad guys."

A rueful smile crept over Jude's full lips as she nodded. "I know. But that's the problem, you see." She blinked, looking away from Liz and studying the now fully risen sun flooding the room with its warmth. "They consider me one of the bad guys, Elizabeth. And honestly, I can't afford the attention right now."

Liz's green eyes grew wide, registering the dark woman's brutal honesty with a shock. She had expected evasions, excuses about how there wasn't time to get her to a hospital. Anything but the truth. Hmm... what do I say? Hell, what can I say?

Quiet blue was focused on her once more. "Your wound isn't too serious. I mean, as far as gunshot wounds go. It just grazed your side. You'll be sore for a few days, but other than that, you're okay."

"I knew that, you know," Liz said quietly.

Puzzled by the non sequitur, Jude merely raised a questioning brow.

"That you’re one of the bad guys. Or at least that you were one of the bad guys."

Now azure eyes paled in surprise. "What do you mean?" she asked suspiciously.

It was the reporter's turn to smile ruefully. She decided that a fair amount of honesty would be her best tactic. It also eased her growing sense of guilt about lying to this woman. The feeling had started in the Club, when she realized how real the attraction between them was, and it had only increased as she learned more about Jude. "Come on... For a while there you weren't exactly keeping a low profile. Weren't you on the cover of Time with some sort of 'Mafia Goddess' headline?"

"Newsweek," Jude answered faintly, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Is that why you approached me?" she asked, a new hardness in her expression. "Looking for a thrill?"

"No," Liz hastily assured her. "No," she repeated, this time more softly and shaking her head. "Your name sounded familiar, but it wasn't until we'd come out here that I made the connection. You weren't exactly forthcoming about what you did for a living, and this house isn't cheap." And neither are your clothes, your car, your purebred dogs. Liz wasn't sure, but she swore that Jude looked ...relieved? Nah... can't be... at her words.

Still the dark woman nodded in apparent acceptance of her explanation. She turned as if to go, then paced back to Liz's bedside. "You knew? And you still wanted me to..." Her words trailed off uncertainly.

"Kiss me?" A smile that the honey-haired woman couldn't control ran loose across her face and was reflected in Jude's answering grin. "Boy, did I. I hope I haven't lost my chance forever."

Jude didn't respond to the gentle banter. Instead she turned again as if to go, then returned to Liz's bedside once more. With sudden insight, the reporter realized that this controlled gesture was Jude's way of expressing nervousness. "The doctor said you should take it easy for the next few days... and... I'd feel much better if you'd recuperate here. Think of it as a free vacation. You could write, watch the ocean, and relax." She paused for a moment to study Liz's startled face. "Of course you'd be free to come and go as you like..." she assured the smaller woman.

"Why?" Liz asked simply.

The honey-haired woman could see lightning flashes of thought jagging behind Jude's eyes. After a silent internal debate, she finally answered. "Because I need a few days to make sure that none of this follows you."

That stark truth was evident in the stabbing pain in Liz's side, and it seared home the reality of the deadly game she was playing with Jude Lucien. Bloodshed was an inevitable consequence of the life this woman led, and Liz had just invited herself to the party. The people who had come after Jude wouldn't care about an incidental casualty like Liz. So why does she? "You can do that? Make sure they don't come back after me?"

"They probably wouldn't at any rate. As far as they're concerned you're just some woman I picked up at the bar. But I'd like to be sure," Jude answered tonelessly. A heavy silence rested between them as Liz fidgeted with the thick coverlet and Jude studied the ocean vista. Cool indigo returned their solemn gaze to her. "I... I like you, Elizabeth. I'd hate for... anything bad... to happen to you. Especially because of me." Then a tiny grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. "And I'd like another shot at that kiss thing," she added softly, teasingly.

A quiet chuckle rose up in Liz's throat, growing in strength as she watched the smile break fully over the dark woman's face. "Ah... your true intentions revealed at last."

"You're right. All of this was one big set-up to get you into my bed," Jude replied dryly.

I could have told you that you didn't have to go to all the trouble, Liz's thoughts retorted. Aloud, she said, "Well, I hate to criticize, but don't you think that this is just a little overdone?" She indicated her prone position. "I mean your objectives have been achieved: I'm flat on my back and--" She lifted up the covers and glanced underneath, "Yup, I'm naked." I'm naked?

Jude smiled at the furious blush on Liz's fair features. "I didn't peek. Well, much..." She held up her hands to ward off the menacing glare tossed her way. "Hey, I couldn't help it. I had to get your dress off to see the wound." She paused then added mischievously, "It wasn't my fault you weren't wearing any underwear."

"HEY!" Liz exclaimed. "It's not like I had much of a choice. Did you see the dip in the back of that thing?" The warm gleam in Jude's eye told the reporter that yes, indeed, the tall woman had noticed and appreciated all the special effects of the Vera Wang creation. A light tension settled pleasantly over her body, contrasting nicely with the throb in her side. "Gee--" she said at last, "I guess time like these are why your mom tells you not to leave the house without wearing clean underwear."

"Well, yours should have told you to make sure you left the house wearing underwear period." Jude laughed.

"Sure, yuk it up. I'm the wounded one here."

Immediately Jude's face sobered. "I'm so sorry, Elizabeth."

"I know that. And even though I've never been shot before-- and I certainly hope it never happens again-- it really doesn't hurt so bad."

"That's because the drugs are kicking in."

"Maybe so. You're beginning to look a little fuzzy around the edges."

"Before you go completely out, tell me where you live so I can send someone to fetch you some clothes. I'm sorry to say, but I'm afraid last night's true casualty was your beautiful dress."

Any effects of the sedative were immediately counteracted by the panic flooding Liz's veins at the thought of Jude in her apartment. Talk about going down in flames... She'd probably finish off the job those guys started. "Uh... that's probably not a good idea." The words were out before she had a chance to think. Oh shit...

The dark woman's brows furrowed. "Why not?" she asked, a wary edge creeping into her tone.

Think, Liz think... even though it was getting increasingly difficult as the percodan took firm root in her system. "I-- I-- live with someone. But we're splitting up. In fact, he's supposed to be gone by next weekend.  And it's probably best if I go myself. Or he'll assume that I'm sleeping with whoever picks up my stuff." It was an explanation directly lifted from the second novel she had written in college. Love's Eternal Longing had chronicled the tempestuous romance of Jake and Sonora and the ultimate destruction because of Jake’s unnatural jealously. But she didn't think she could get in trouble for plagiarizing herself. Particularly give the life-and-death circumstances.

Jude, however, had obviously only targeted one piece of her statement. "He?" she asked with a sardonic lift of her brow.

"I was kidding myself, okay?" Liz ad-libbed. That much was true. The one serious relationship she'd had with a man had been a last ditch effort to ignore the truth and had only lasted a miserable nine months. "He thought-- I thought--" The drugs were kicking in full force now, and she slipped away from Jude easily and into the memory of the awkwardly painful time she had tried to live a life that would never belong to her.

Liz woke to a gummy taste in her mouth and a dull ache in her side. A few wildly disorienting moments ensued as she tried to figure out exactly where she was. Jude... the beach house... gun... Oh yeah... I got it. Slowly she swiveled her head-- which currently had the consistency of a bowling ball-- from side to side. No Jude. Hmm... her senses prickled as her eyes caught the note taped to a glass pitcher filled with water and half-melted ice cubes. The writing was bold and solid, and Liz absently wondered what a handwriting expert would make of it.

"Drink plenty of water, but don't eat anything yet. There are some sweats on the chair for you. They're probably a little big, but it's the best I could do on short notice. You can take more pills if you need them at 2:00. I've got some errands to run, but should be back soon. --J.”

"Don't eat anything-- Easy for her to say. I'm starving," Liz muttered, realizing that the burger she grabbed on the way home from the paper yesterday evening was long gone. She crumpled the note into a ball and tossed it on the beside table. She chewed her lip, staring at the crumpled wad then picked it back up and smoothed it out, laying it down more gently. "Waterford, huh? Nice." She commented, running an idle finger down the pitcher. She poured herself a glass of water and drank it slowly, pleased when it didn't threaten to come back up.

"I think I may actually live." Stretching her stiff muscles gingerly, she slid off the edge of the bed and hesitantly stood. Relieved as her legs held her up fairly easily, she made her way to the chair and pulled on the promised sweats. "A little big?" They were laughably big, and she was sure she looked like some ragamuffin orphan in them, but at least she was clothed. Looking at the bed, she knew she should probably climb back in and go back to sleep, but quite frankly, her curiosity was paining her more than her side at the moment. Of course, she didn't know when Jude was due back, but the note seemed to indicate it wouldn't be until well after noon, so she had some time.

"Ooh... bad, Liz. You're being very bad..." The small woman grinned to herself as she padded across the floor towards the door.

The second floor literally curved around the first, creating sort of an open corridor that looked down upon the main living room. Saving the second floor for last, she descended the long, curving staircase to the main rooms. "Like living in the sky? Boy you weren't kidding," Liz marveled. Jude Lucien seemed to hate walls. In fact her home was a testament to light and air. There were windows everywhere that-- Liz determined after quick investigation-- were made of layered, leaded glass. "Seems like someone's worried about people throwing more than stones,” she murmured softly. She prowled along the ground floor, discovering in addition to the living room and various bathrooms, a kitchen, a formal dining room, and a workout room. Most of the rooms had access to a large deck that ran the length of the house and offered the same beautiful view that the bedroom did. A glance outside told her that the deck circled a pool that looked cool and inviting in the warm sunlight. "I just don't get why people who live on the beach have swimming pools. Oh well.." All the rooms were beautifully decorated in cool blues and grays with tasteful art on the walls, but somehow, it struck the reporter as remote and empty.

"Okay, I admit she doesn't come across as Ms. Warm-and-Fuzzy, but the way she talked about this place..." Narrowing her eyes, she climbed the stairs again and returned to the bedroom. "This is more like it," she murmured, taking in the vibrant colors of the room. The rich burgundy carpet was accented by the jewel tones on the comforter and sheets, and the walls were a warmer cream instead of the stark white that was everywhere downstairs. Hmm... I wonder...

The rooms on the second floor confirmed her suspicions. This was where Jude Lucien truly lived. A library adjacent to the bedroom was filled floor-to-ceiling with leather-bound tomes and a cozy arrangement of couches and chairs overlooking the ocean. A book, turned faced down on the arm of a worn leather easy chair and an empty plate and mug on the ottoman in front of it testified to Jude's recent occupation. "Anna Karenina," she noted, reading the book's spine. "That's a surprise."

A quiet snuffling at her hands startled her into dropping the book, which landed with a muffled thud on the chair. Once she determined that her heart was indeed still beating, she regarded the four-legged sentry. The Akita stood with his head cocked and an inquiring glance in his eyes. "Aggie," she muttered. "Why do I think Clytemnestra would have snuck up and bitten me in the ass?" Aggie wagged his tail in agreement, woofing softly. He then jumped onto the couch and made himself comfortable, pulling a well-loved chew toy from somewhere in the furniture's depths. Liz chuckled at the contented picture, heartened for some reason that the dark woman had these animals. "At least she cares for something."

She left Aggie happily chewing and wandered into the next room. It was a guest bedroom in much the same style as the downstairs and held little interest for her. The next two rooms-- another bedroom and the bath room that linked them-- were equally uninteresting. Reversing her steps, she entered the room on the other side of Jude's bedroom. And gasped at the sight.

"Jackpot..." A sleek computer rested on a mammoth desk, in whose clean lines Liz detected the same hand that was responsible for the beautiful house she was now in. The desk faced the ocean, and Liz was more than a little surprised that Jude would allow her back to be to any door. "But this is her haven. Nobody comes here," she realized with a start, studying the curved outer wall that provided the unobstructed panorama. In addition to the desk and file cabinets, there were several comfortable-looking easy chairs, a battered guitar that looked like it had seen better days resting in one of them. A low rumble from the other one told her she had found Clytemnestra. "Uh... hi there." Liz grimaced, watching the dog's hackles rise. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea." She began easing herself towards the door, but now the growling animal stood between her and that particular goal. "Easy... I'm not going to hurt you." She showed her open palms to the dog. "And hopefully you're not going to hurt me. Does that sound like a plan?" But the Akita continued to growl menacingly as Liz edged closer and closer. "I survive a bullet only to be eaten by Cujo here.” She rolled her eyes at the ridiculous dilemma she found herself in. “I must have done something horrible in a past life to deserve this. If it was so bad, why couldn't I have just been sent back as an accountant or something, huh?" Liz noticed that the dog had stopped growling and was now studying her with an expression that-- had it been on a human-- could have only been described as arch. Deciding to take advantage, Liz continued to address the animal conversationally. It seemed to be working so far. "I mean, really, what have I done here that's so bad? So I want to get to know your mistress a little more. Is that such a bad thing?"

The dog rumbled deep in her throat, but it didn't seem hostile to Liz, more like an earnest reply to her question. "I admit, my motives are mixed, but you know, I like her." Remembering the near-kiss that they had shared and the intense arousal that had preceded it, she grinned. "I really like her," she repeated.

Clytemnestra paced nearer, nostrils quivering.

"What is it?"

Now the Akita was pressed up against her legs, sniffing and wagging her tail wildly.

The small woman was perplexed as to why the dog suddenly approved of her so wholeheartedly, until it dawned on her just whose clothes she was wearing. "Oh, you like me now that I smell okay, huh?" Burying her own nose in the T-shirt she was wearing, she could detect Jude's increasingly familiar scent. The faint spiciness brought a smile to Liz's face. "I guess this means I'm not going to be lunch."

Apparently satisfied now that the reporter had passed the sniff test, Clytemnestra obligingly retreated back to her armchair. For a moment Liz contemplated fleeing from the room, but the lure of the computer was too strong. If Jude's house had told her anything, it was that the dark woman was an enthusiastic citizen of the electronic age. She suspected that the computer could tell her a great deal that casual conversation wouldn't.

Spinning the leather desk chair around, an angry bark sent her reeling back a step. It wasn't from the big dog in the corner, but rather from the soft-eyed spaniel that indignantly stood in the chair's seat.

"Oh God, another one," Liz grumbled darkly. She couldn't help the laugh that simmered in her throat at the animal in front of her. "You must be Pete."

The medium sized dog was obviously a mutt, but had unmistakable traces of spaniel and beagle in his face. His coat was a velvety black that rendered him almost invisible in the dark chair. Chocolate eyes stared out at her, assessing whether or not she intended him harm. Pete yipped quietly as Liz offered him her hand. Sniffing once, he licked it tentatively and wagged his feathery tail as she scratched his ears.

"You're an easier crowd than your buddy over there," Liz commented wryly. "Okay now, if I can just get you to move for a second, so I can sit down and plunder this drug dealer's computer, all will be right with my world."

Obediently the dog leapt down, and Liz settled into the chair in his place. "Ooh... this is nice." The chair was comfortably worn in all the right places, and she imagined the dark woman spent long hours here. "Now... where's the power switch?" The machine was a Compaq computer, similar to her own. She quickly powered up the main screen and was confronted with three possible work stations labeled "JLE," "Restaurant/Club," and "Play." Then in the bottom right hand corner, she noticed a fourth, simply labeled "Jude." Each workstation was password protected.

"Think, Liz, think," she recited her favorite mantra aloud, falling back into her long habit of thinking out loud. It allowed her to work through situations and scenarios, usually much pacing accompanied this activity, but her side was beginning to ache, and she didn't know how much longer she could go without some much-needed narcotic relief. "Where's the best place to hide something?" She thought for a moment. "In plain sight. So... if this is plain sight... how do I get into them? Passwords... Three stations... What do people use for passwords? Something they don't forget. Their birthday?" She typed in Jude's birthday and was immediately denied access. "What else? Family names?" Unfortunately none of the information she had uncovered about the drug dealer mentioned any family. A quiet thawump at her feet drew her attention to the black bundle of fur curled up next to the chair. "Nah..." shaking her head, "Okay, let's try it," and typed in the dogs' names in rapid succession. Clytemnestra was the key to "JLE," Agamemnon opened "Restaurant/Club," and Pete-- of course-- opened up "Play."

She glanced through the directories, finding only that Jude owned lots of real estate and both Monde and the Club made Jude lots and lots of legitimate money. Jude seemed to have so many above-the-line businesses that the reporter wondered why the dark woman was still engaged in her... other... pursuits. Romair Massala's presence last night had convinced her of that fact. "Play" only told Liz that Jude had a weakness for simulated shoot 'em ups. "You'd think she'd get enough of that in real life," Liz mumbled, looking at games with titles like Postal, Duke Nukem, and Quake. One title, Gender Wars, however, gave her a soft chuckle.

"Nothing, Pete, nothing," she said to the heap who had quietly edged still closer and was now resting on her feet. Her eye again caught the fourth workstation in the corner. "Jude, huh? Well, you don't have any more animals. I hope." she added. "I've done all the canine bonding I can take for the time being." She studied the one remaining closed workstation. "If my theory's right, this is where it's all hiding." She thought for a moment more, trying to think of what she knew about Jude. Then the dark woman's dry sense of humor surfaced in her mind. "No way," she grinned, typing C-R-I-M-E into the password slot. The computer paused a moment... then flashed the magical message: Home base is changing workstations. Please wait..

"Bingo!" Liz sang.

In addition to the various on-line services that were also on the other stations, there seemed to be three major directories. One looked like some sort of electronic diary, the second was marked "Communication," while the third was labeled "Documentation." Crossing her mental fingers, Liz opened up "Communication."

And felt the breath leave her body when she realized what the files contained and what their subjects meant.

Jude Lucien was still working for the DEA.  

Chapter 4

The roar of Jude's tumultuous thoughts easily drowned out the combined noise of the ocean and the Boxster's purring engine. She shifted absently through the Saturday morning traffic in a meandering path that would indicate if anyone was tailing her. So far, she was clear. Of course, it would have helped if I had been this careful last night. The more she thought about it, however; the more she became convinced that whoever fired the shot had only been serving up a warning. A kill shot would have gone to her head, and no matter how swift her reflexes, she couldn't have gotten out of the way. Her instincts had taken over when she heard the sharp report of the rifle, but she still hadn't been able to get Elizabeth completely clear. She got lucky... I got lucky.

She didn't entertain for a moment the notion that the honey-haired woman had been the intended target. Unless literary critics are putting out contracts on romance novelists these days, she grinned to herself. Despite the unexpected depths she had sensed in Elizabeth's jade eyes, the woman was obviously an innocent when it came to umbral figures like the one who had visited them last night. Jude, however, had spent a decade living in those shadows, shrouding herself in their familiar depths and treading the dim corridors with practiced ease.

Working deep cover, Jude reflected, was like a waking schizophrenia where both personalities are agonizingly aware of the other's existence and activities. She didn't even have the luxury of forgetting for even a moment the dual plane of her reality. Eventually the shred of sanity that remained allowed her to heed only one call, and she was no longer able to serve two masters.

They said she'd just snapped, that she'd turned rogue... seduced by the glamour, the drugs, and the aphrodisiac of illicit power. In their eyes she was the ultimate infidel. Few in the Agency knew the truth-- that the madness behind her leap from grace had been motivated by a betrayal so great she could barely comprehend it. The brilliant agent that had been Jude Lucien became a relentless Fury, pursuing those who had brought about this horror. No one mentioned his name. No one mentioned the past. But Jude remembered... and vowed vengeance.

Jason Childs was as fair as Jude was dark, with curling blond hair brushing his shoulders and cornflower blue eyes that reflected warmth where Jude's glittered darkly. He was the quintessential California boy, born and raised on the beaches and in the surf. But the sunny looks and sweet, sweet smile belied a shrewd mind that was able to juggle the myriad layers that deep cover required.

Jude was skeptical when they were first paired on a relatively tame assignment-- a simple buy and bust, sort of a training mission to see how well they worked as a team. The dark woman that they called the Archangel was given a wide berth at the agency... the ease with which she garbed herself in the enemy's colors made them wary, and her presence emphasized how fine the line between "us" and "them" really was. Jude's gun and her badge marked her as a member of the team, but the restless sweep of her eyes and the ill-concealed pleasure she took in being a predator told them that she was something else altogether.

She knew that Jason had heard all the rumors that ran rampant about her. How she had taken down this dealer or that smuggler-- spectacular stunts that seemed outlandish until someone actually met Jude in the flesh. There were other, more disturbing stories about the lengths Jude had gone to in order to protect her cover-- including a nasty one about beating the holy hell out of three uniformed policemen who had unknowingly stumbled into the middle of an operation. "Be grateful I didn't kill them," was the only comment Jude had ever made on the matter. Jude didn’t give the rumors much thought and only hoped that her new partner would reserve judgment until he finally met Jude one chilly February night.

Wearing nothing but his smile, he stood in the center of the small hotel room watching Jude as she carefully prepared the wire. A controlled energy-- almost like the energy of sexual arousal-- emanated from her pores as she worked. But there was nothing sensual at all in the practiced and clinical touch that taped the wire to his skin and nestled the tiny recording pack in the silk boxers that had been specially made for this purpose. "Whatever you do," she muttered wryly, sliding the cloth up his legs. "Don't get a hard-on. You might dislodge the recorder from its spot and ruin the tape."

"Is that a frequent problem your partners have?" A cheerful smile danced across his eyes in silent invitation for her to come out and play.

Jude arched a contemplative eyebrow and shrugged. "It's been known to happen." A tiny smirk curled at the corner of her mouth as she worked, but it disappeared so quickly he almost wondered if he had imagined it. "Now look. Remember the story. You're a pothead who's trying to catch a break into the business. I'm gonna have Fortisma hook you so you can sell to your buddies on the beach. You already owe me a couple of favors and you're working them off, giving me most of what you make. In exchange for which I don't kick your ass up one side of the sand and down the other. Got it?" Watching him closely as he got dressed, she snorted and shook her head. "I can't believe that they're making me work with Polly-fuckin-ana."

"Yeah, but who's going to believe Polly-fuckin-ana's a cop?" he reasoned with a grin.

"Let's hope so," she murmured darkly.

The meet had gone down like a dream with Jason performing flawlessly the part of a slightly stoned, slightly stupid surfer. Jude sat back in silent appreciation as the weeks spun out and Jason reeled in their catch with a careful grace, never once jeopardizing her long-standing deep cover. And so, the tolerance began metamorphosing into a grudging respect, and then into genuine trust. Somewhere along the line, Jason's relentless cheerfulness began to infect Jude, and she found herself talking to the youth as they whiled away long hours in surveillance vans and filled with conversation the tedious days of waiting that often seemed the bulk of their work.

As one of the few female deep cover agents, Jude was something of an anomaly among agents. Most of the women in the DEA were support surveillance or tech crews, manning the high tech gadgets that were essential to her efforts. Pursuing friendships, or even casual acquaintances, with her fellow agents seemed ludicrous to Jude. Relationships had never come easy to the dark woman, and her life of deep ops certainly didn't foster long-term attachments. Her lovers were mostly chosen at random from the dark life where she prowled-- women whose eyes weren't afraid to roam her body, whose voices weren't afraid to call to her, whose bodies would open to her skillful mouth and fingers with screaming cries of pleasure. No... she couldn't get that from the tight-suited agents with their precisely compartmentalized lives. She had broken her rules about co-workers only once when she had fallen into a casual liaison with one of her surveillance crew members-- a compact little red-head with a spectacular body and an unfortunate habit of saying "no" when she meant "yes." Wading through the heated denials of passion had been kind of exciting the first couple of times-- when Sandi had finally gotten through her "No, we can't" litany, she had come at Jude like a wildcat, leaving trailing claw marks that the agent had a hell of a time explaining to others. Jude quickly tired of the whole process, however; preferring to wash her hands of the drama and take her pleasure from more... forthright... sources.

Jason did seem too disturbed by her brooding, her laconic replies, and her general dislike of all things social. His motto seemed to be "keep asking," until finally Jude found herself drifting into conversations that seemed more and more natural as they spent time together.

"Why in God's name did you join the DEA?" she asked him in exasperation one long night.

"Why not?" he replied with an easy smile.

"Because this life is fucked. That's why," she retorted bluntly.

"Then why is it okay for you to be in this life if it's so fucked?"

"Because..." she hesitated, then continued, "I understand it." A long pause. "And it understands me." Jason looked unsure what to say to the statement. It was by far the most personal thing she'd ever said to him, and she could almost see him mentally hefting her words to use as a tiny chisel to wedge his way further inside the labyrinthine passages of Jude's mind and heart. But she didn’t give him the chance as she continued speaking. "Somebody like you... should be living some nice, quiet life with a house and a yard and a dog. Not this..." She gestured at the cramped surroundings of the black van.

He smiled at the image. Over the months they had been partnered, Jude had developed a slightly overprotective air that marked their encounters. They both knew that it was more than just an experienced agent looking out for a rookie. She dealt with him as she would a cherished sibling and was fiercely protective of his inexperience. "You have high hopes for me. I'm touched." They exchanged grins. "And I'm going to have all those things, Jude. A big house with a wife and kids, lots of dogs, and a barbecue so you can come over and be sullen in a social environment," he teased her gently.

She smiled back at him-- a real smile that touched the remoteness of her eyes and warmed them to a pale flame. "Wife and kids, huh? Okay hot stuff, just where do you think you're going to meet a nice girl when you're hanging out with the likes of me?"

"Well to be honest, until I meet Ms. Right, I can't think of anyone I'd rather spend the time with," he replied seriously.

Slowly, each became an indispensable thread in the tapestry of the other's life. They began spending time together outside their ops, and Jude walked tentatively in the daylight world for the first time in longer than she could remember. He called her Angel-- mocking the intimidating image that dogged her throughout the agency and laughed uproariously at her intensity. "Ease down, Angel," he'd gibe. "It's only rock and roll." Sunday afternoon football became a ritual for the pair, as well as rambling walks on the beach that invariably ended at their favorite oceanfront restaurant. Jude spent more nights than she could count at what was "their" table, feet propped on the weather wood, bourbon comfortably in her hand, telling the young man things she hadn't told anyone. She told him of the terror of her first assignment, the shock of her first kill, and the horror at how easily it all came to her. And later, witnessed only by the sand and the rushing tide, he held her-- like no one ever had-- cradling the dark head in his hands, softly stroking her hair and telling her everything was going to be all right. That she was still human, that she was still whole.

Eventually Jason had found his Ms. Right-- ironically courtesy of Jude-- and the agent had stood by his side at the wedding, bidding a silent good-bye to their friendship. But that hadn't happened. Maria, Jason's new bride, was no fool. As much as Jason encouraged Jude's time in the sun, the older woman plainly kept the darkness from devouring her new husband. It wasn't just a matter of protecting his life; Jude zealously guarded the young man's soul, keeping it safe for Maria's love. So Maria welcomed the dark agent-- with all her rage, all her violence, and all her pain-- into their home and called the predator "family." When Maria bore a daughter, it was a stunned Jude who stood on the altar once again with her friend, this time holding a cooing infant in her arms and promising to be there if the child ever needed her help...

Jude shook her head angrily to clear the memories that threatened to swallow her whole. Refusing to dwell on things lost, she had long ago forced the memories and the friendship that had formed them into the far recesses of her mind. She had forsaken the illusion of being suited to anything other than the tenebrous life that she now clung to-- the only thing still familiar to the tattered remnants of her soul. But something about the honey-haired woman she had met last night awakened a tentative yearning for connection. And it was shaded with a fierce physical desire that being with Jason had never evoked.

Elizabeth Peterson... She rolled the name across her thoughts, enjoying the accompanying image of the shimmering emerald dress caressing the body underneath. Less pleasant was the dress' current condition-- blood-soaked and shredded by Jude's frantic hands as she searched for the wound. What was I thinking? she chastised herself. But her mind defiantly wandered once more to the promise of what would have happened had the shadows not interfered. An aching tendril of loneliness snaked itself loose from the iron bands of Jude's will and stroked her consciousness, eliciting a weary sigh from the dark woman. "NO! I am not doing this. I am not dragging someone else down with me again. I'm going to make sure she's clear and then she's gone. Got it?" she warned herself savagely, allowing the words to be ripped from her throat as she downshifted and sped up.

But an insurgent corner of her mind replied mockingly, Yeah... right...

Kent Laird paced the length of his nondescript office in short, measured steps. Four across, turn once, four down, glance at watch, turn once, four across. Repeat. At precisely 11:00am his phone rang.

"Laird." Already knowing who it was.

"I've got issues."


Oh shit... Kent groaned silently. He had heard the roar of the ocean in the call's background, which meant she was calling from her cell phone-- never a good idea-- and that she was on her way-- an even worse one. Not good, not good at all. He clattered down the stairs to resume his pacing outside, as if his steps would bring her faster. After an interminable 10-minute wait, an unfamiliar sports car, piloted by an all-too familiar figure roared up.

"New wheels?" he inquired sardonically.

"Get in," was her curt response as she threw the car in gear and hurled them back into the sun.

Kent studied the Archangel's profile as they motored along. The steel blue of her eyes was covered by those ever-present Raybans, and her long hair fell in a neat braid down her back. His eyes patrolled her seated length-- linen trousers and a matching shirt, black of course. She was inscrutable as always. God, doesn't the woman ever sweat? he thought, mopping his brow against the fierce Miami day. She looked for all the world like a prosperous business woman, out for a Saturday spin. If she had issues, she was damn good at concealing them. But then, he had never seen her panic, not even when her cover was blown and she was half dead...

They had been under about three months on loan to the ATF, posing as a brother and sister team of gun runners selling arms to a group of Anti-Communist revolutionaries led by a guy named Maltos. To make matters worse, they were in some godforsaken Third World country whose name he'd never bothered to learn. Kent had been positioned as the brains, Jude the muscle. Although the reality was much different, they liked to work this way because it threw people off-- no one expected the darkly beautiful woman to be such a graceful menace. It should have been simple; they were wrapping the loose ends up. Their buyers just needed to take delivery, and then the bust would go down.

Easy, right?

At the time he didn't know what hit him-- hindsight later revealed his carelessness in making an inappropriate phone call from a tapped line-- but none of that mattered at the moment. Kent was bound, blindfolded, and-- he was convinced-- about to die. It was all going to end for him in a dirty garage, the stench of grease, oil, and rubber filling his nostrils and reminding him incongruously of Saturday mornings spent with his brother in the family garage as they tinkered on their motorcycles. It was an ironic way to die, he thought, but not a bad one.

Until the pain started.

Two men began working him over, demanding information that he never should have given them. But the sickening crunch of his ribs cracking under the smashing assault of iron pipes convinced him otherwise. An agonized scream rose from this throat, and the second thing out of his mouth was Jude's name and current location. Then, mercifully, he passed out.

When he awakened the blindfold had been removed, and he immediately wished to God it hadn't been.

Jude-- or what was left of her-- was strung up from a pair of heavy chains, the kind used to move engines. There wasn't an inch of skin that wasn't marred by some cut or bruise, and the bile rose in Kent's throat at the sight of the magnificent woman's smashed face. Maltos was directing a stream of invectives in Spanish at his partner, and Kent caught enough of the rapid fire cursing to realize that Jude had taken out four of his men before they had subdued her. "At least you took some of them down with you," he muttered softly, convinced his partner was dead. An almost hidden glint of blue caught his eye, and he realized with consuming sorrow that Jude was alive and that her torture was far from over.

Not content with simply beating the life out of her, Maltos would be satisfied only with the complete violation of this woman who to him-- in wielding her body with such a combination of power, strength and beautiful violence-- was a walking abomination. Kent let out a strangled cry as he watched Jude's unresisting form released from its shackles and thrown face down over a metal workbench cluttered with tools. The thugs merely snickered at Kent's weak efforts to free himself and kicked him in his broken ribs for the effort. "NO!" he screamed and struggled all the more.

"Hey asshole, whatsamatter? Don't like sharing the raja?" one of them leered.

Kent snarled in reply, the rage filling his body and blocking out the pain of the renewed blows.

"Hey puta!" Maltos taunted Jude's slumped form. "Te la voy a meter de mira quien viene. Huh? You like that?"

The two men working on Kent cackled with glee. "We get her next, eh?" Kent groaned and shut his eyes against the sight of Maltos tugging Jude's Levi's down over her hips. "Oh no, you gonna watch this..." They held his head and forced his eyes open. The jeans were off now in a pile at her feet. Maltos had kicked her legs apart and was fumbling with his own belt.

"Jude..." Kent whispered inaudibly, praying for whatever it was that the dark woman called a soul.

But he had underestimated the Archangel, and the howl that followed from Maltos was as much surprise as anything. Jude reared off the table, twisting her torso and swinging a heavy hammer squarely against Maltos' temple, sending fragments of skull, brain matter and blood spraying all over her. And then the hammer was launched in the direction of one of his captors and her body was hurtling towards the other. The hammer connected with a solid thud against an arm that was reaching for a holstered weapon. Kent managed to leverage himself up and kick the stumbling man unconscious. He turned around in time to see Jude kneeling squarely on her victim's chest, crushing the back of his head repeatedly against the concrete floor. There was an evil-looking stain spreading out across the slick floor and a vicious curl of satisfaction in Jude's eyes. She heaved herself off the corpse and knelt by the one remaining suspect. Holding him by the hair, she muttered something under her breath and bent to snap his neck.

"Wait!!!!" Kent shouted and blanched at the burning pale blue that was fixed on him. "We can't.. we have to take him in..."

Jude stared at him with the same regard one would have for particularly slow child. "Are you out of your fucking mind?" she asked calmly. "We take him in and he tells his lawyer all about the phone call that blew our cover. You'd be fucked in more ways than one. If they didn't shitcan you right away, nobody in their right mind would partner with you anymore." She looked back down at the unconscious man and then snapped his neck cleanly.

Kent closed his eyes as he realized how Maltos' people had found him. The crunch of bones-- along with the understanding that he'd nearly gotten himself and Jude killed-- made his stomach churn, and he felt himself gagging. Moments later, he was cut down and resting on his hands and knees, spewing up what was left of his lunch and not a little blood.

"We need to get you looked at," Jude remarked, pulling on her jeans and studying his retching form cynically. She had been beaten to a pulp, nearly raped and responsible for seven deaths that day. And, Kent thought, staring at her composed figure, goddamned if she still didn't look better than he did. "We'll let the locals clean up the mess, okay?"  He nodded silently, his tongue thick with self-reproach and guilt as they left the garage and slipped back into the night.

He later learned that Jude had saved his life by almost sacrificing hers, allowing herself to be captured to find out where he was. In the aftermath of the fiasco, they almost become friends, at least as much as his rage and humiliation at needing her rescue would let him. Jude’s darkness had always bewildered and frightened him, but she had used it to protect him. Now he was beholden to her. Her defection to the other side had outraged him, but when Jude had finally called in her marker, he didn’t refuse. Kent finally saw his chance to tie off the last loose threads that had been left hanging all those years ago.

Jude skillfully navigated the car out of city traffic and to an out-of-the-way dive that was an occasional rendezvous point for the pair. The Archangel had a knack for picking out the kind of places where no one asked questions and no one remembered faces-- even ones as distinctive as hers. She settled them at a corner table where she could see the door and walked to the bar.

"You're kidding," he said, staring with disbelief at the beer she sat before him.

A bourbon rested in her own palm, and she arched a sardonic brow in his direction. "When you hear this, you're going to need it."

"So tell me already."

Jude sighed and tossed back half her drink. "There's another contract on me."

"Motherfuck..." he breathed, taking a long draught off the beer. A smirk darted over Jude's eyes but she remained silent. Then his forehead scrunched together in confusion. "Are you sure? I mean... I haven't heard anything from our sources. How do you know?"

"I know because somebody tried to collect on it last night at my house," she replied dryly.

"Sweet Jesus. Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, but..." she polished off the rest of her bourbon and ran a hand over suddenly weary eyes.

"But?" he queried.

"A civilian got hit."

"How?" he asked bluntly.

Jude shrugged. "I got careless. We were out on the beach and the shot came from a sniper in the cove to the left of my property. I think it was more of a wake up call than anything, trying to make me jumpy, I guess."

"What'd you do with the civilian?"

"She's fine, just a flesh wound, recovering at my house."

Kent tried unsuccessfully to hide his surprise. "You've got a woman shacked up at your house?" He kept his voice deceptively casual. "That's a new one. I thought you didn't hang around long enough to exchange last names, let alone tell them where you lived."

"Kent..." she growled a warning.

"How did you leave it with her?"

"I told her the truth. That I was one of the bad guys. She seemed to take it okay." A cheshire grin lit the Archangel's eyes, warming the pale blue to a smoky indigo, and Kent suddenly felt the temperature rising at the table.

"That's risky," he managed, between deep swallows of his beer.

"I thought I owed her the truth-- or at least a version of it-- considering she almost got killed because of me. Besides, the doc said she needed to rest for about a week or so... that should give me enough time to make sure her tail is clear. I need you poke around and see what the rumblings about me are."

"You think the Massalas might be involved?"

Jude shook her head. "I'm not sure. I had dinner with Romair last night. He's a lot brighter than Rico ever was. I really think he doesn't want another war on his hands."

"Especially considering the last one went so badly."

The dark head nodded. "More or less."

"Still think you can bring them in?"

"That's my job, isn't it?"

"Jude... about this woman..." Kent began hesitantly. "I don't think it's such a wise idea to keep her around. I mean--"

"I don't really give a flying fuck what you think, Kent. I'm not one of your minions, remember?" The pale was back in full force, glaring into him with frightening intensity. "The deal is: I bring in the rest of the Massalas and I walk away free and clear. Remember?"

Kent forced a tentative smile to his face and tried to lighten the suddenly deadly atmosphere. "Going to enjoy your illegal millions somewhere in the Greek Isles?"

She chuckled wryly. "Yeah, something like that. Maybe I'll buy a boat and sail around the world."

He studied her closely, suddenly curious. "You could do that right now, Jude. Why don't you?"

A tense silence hovered over them while Jude studied the melting ice in her glass. "Because that wasn't the deal," she said at last. "Because I owe someone."

By the time she finished with Kent, ran her other errands, and checked in with Sasha at the Club; it was well past three o'clock when she finally returned home. Grabbing an armful of parcels from the Boxster's tiny trunk, she entered through the deck's side door into the kitchen.

"Hey there, Carmina," she grinned. "How's our patient?"

"You coulda told me you had someone here." A rotund Mexican woman about twenty years Jude's senior complained as she bustled around the kitchen putting away the groceries that arrived every Saturday like clockwork. Senora Lucien had a standing order at the local fresh market that, much to Carmina's chagrin, rarely changed. Simple was the most charitable way to describe Jude's culinary tastes, and the dark woman was usually most satisfied by hearty meals that the housekeeper disparagingly referred to as "peasant dishes." On the other hand, the years she had been in the Senora's employ had been the easiest and most lucrative of the immigrant's life, so she wasn't inclined to argue.

Discovering the petite honey-haired woman in the Senora's bed, however, had been something of a shock for her. It had been a while since there had been an overnight guest, and Carmina fervently hoped that this didn't signal a return to the days when it seemed as though she spent most of her workday changing the Senora's sheets. "She's fine. I got here a little late, cause of the traffic, but when I got here she was asleep. She woke up when I came into the room." Elizabeth had woken up because, in her surprise at discovering someone in Jude's bed, Carmina had let loose a scream that would have woken the dead-- or in this case, the heavily drugged. Somehow the housekeeper didn't think it was prudent to mention this small detail to the Senora.

"Okay, I'll go check on her. Can you fix us something for lunch? I know it's late, but I'm starved," she grinned.

"You gonna ruin your dinner," Carmina warned, resting her hands on ample hips.

"Nah... I'll just eat dinner late. Fix some soup or something. Hey, what about some caldo tlalpeno?" Jude bounded up the stairs before her housekeeper could begin her usual recitation about Jude's horrible eating habits, not to mention the Senora's drinking one.

Jude laughed as she heard the grumbling Carmina begin her litany and skidded to a stop outside her bedroom door. Damn, I'm in a good mood... Maybe I'll have to go shopping more often... Of course, I didn't really have to do all the work. She pushed the door open softly, another smile coming to her face. "Well, well, well... ain't this a picture?" she muttered to herself. Elizabeth was sprawled across the king-size mattress, sharing the large space comfortably with all three canines. Aggie lifted his head, sleepily acknowledging his mistress' arrival, and then returned his muzzle to its warm perch on the human's leg. Clytemnestra was a bit more enthusiastic about her greeting, even going so far as to leap off the bed and pad over to Jude for a scratch behind the ears. What cracked Jude up, however, was the sight of Pete contentedly curled up in the slight woman's embrace, his head neatly tucked under her chin. "Some dogs have all the luck," she sighed. "Come on guys," she whispered softly, not sure how out-of-it Elizabeth might be. "Down," she ordered, holding the door as the obedient beasts trailed out of the room.

The movement woke Elizabeth from her nap, and she groggily regarded her surroundings. "Huh? Wha-- Oh..." Her eyes registered the dark woman's arrival and sparked slightly. "Hi," she murmured, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.

"Hi yourself," Jude replied, grinning and seating herself on the far corner of the bed. "You seem to have won over the menagerie in my absence."

"Well, for a while Clytemnestra thought I was a doggie treat, but then she got a whiff of your T-shirt and decided I was okay." Elizabeth held a handful of the shirt she was wearing up and gestured with it. "Otherwise it would have been adios muchacha."

Jude frowned. "I could have sworn I shut the door when I left."

The honey-haired woman froze, then laughed briefly. "No, it was my fault. I was out wandering around looking for a book." Seeing Jude's continued frown, she elaborated. "My side hurt too much to sleep and I couldn't take any more happy pills yet." She shrugged. "So I wanted something to take my mind off of it." Jerking her head towards the next room, she added, "I found the library next door and grabbed a book," watching Jude carefully as her eyes drifted to the copy of The Fountainhead resting on the pillow beside her. "I'm sorry."

Jude shook her head. "No. I'm sorry," she assured the other woman. "I'm just not used to having someone... in my house." Especially when I'm not home. I am really losing it. "Decided to try it out, huh?"

"I thought it was appropriate given our conversation last night."

The rich green of Elizabeth's eyes seemed to grow warmer the longer Jude stared at them, and the dark woman had to shake her head slightly to break their mesmerizing pull. "I'm surprised you want to remember anything about last night, considering how it ended."

The light danced once more in the small woman's eyes as a puckish grin framed her face. "Oh, there's lots about last night that I want to remember."

"That so?" Jude quirked a brow. "I remember a couple of things too," she agreed. Like the way your skin glimmered in the moonlight and the way the ocean spray halloed your hair. You smelled like the wind, or maybe the wind smelled like you, bringing your scent close just to torture me. Aloud she said, "Like that tour I promised you. Do you think you're up for it? Might help keep some stiffness from setting in. And then we can have the late lunch Carmina is fixing."

Elizabeth's brows knitted together slightly at the turn the conversation had taken, but she nodded her assent. She allowed Jude to help her off the bed and was pleased when she stood with relatively little pain. "Hey, no vertigo. I'm a happy girl," she beamed, but stopped when she heard Jude's sharp bark of laughter. "What's the matter?" she demanded.

Sobering quickly, Jude fought back the smirk that threatened to seize her mouth. "Uh... nothing..."


"It's just... well.. my sweats... on you..." She gestured at the baggy clothing that enveloped the petite blond.

"Yeah, I know I look ridiculous," Elizabeth emitted a tiny, sad sigh.

"No. Not ridiculous," Jude corrected. "In fact, it's kinda cute. You look about twelve years old though," she snickered.

"Good thing for you I'm not," Elizabeth mumbled under her breath.

But Jude caught the statement and agreed silently. Yeah, because I'd get arrested for some of the things I imagined us doing last night. "Fortunately, however," she announced, triumphantly picking up the parcels she had propped by the bed, "I have something that may remedy the situation. Since you conked out before you told me where you lived, I picked up a couple of things for you." She deliberately didn't pursue the conversation they had started before she left. Jude realized that there was something Elizabeth hadn't wanted to tell her, but she had also decided to let it rest. For now. "I had to guess on the size though."

"You-- went shopping for me?"

Jude shifted uncomfortably at the oddly intimate question. "Uh... no. Actually I have someone who does that for me. You know... one of those... a..."

"A personal shopper?" Elizabeth offered helpfully.

"Yeah. She has my sizes and all, so I don't have to worry about it," Jude shrugged sheepishly. "I'm not really good at that girl stuff..." she trailed off, clearly embarrassed.

"Well, whatever you're doing," Elizabeth murmured appreciatively, taking in the sleek form in the tailored linen suit, "It works."

"Thanks," the dark woman replied quietly, cocking her head. Clearly Elizabeth was not overly traumatized by last night's activities, and that was more than a bit puzzling to her. Most civilians she knew would be running for the hills by now. As Jude contemplated the honey-haired woman smiling back at her, she felt certain there was more to Elizabeth Peterson than met the eye. Temporarily shelving her suspicions, she sat the bags on the rumpled bed-sheets for the slender woman's inspection. "Let's hope she did as good a job for you." She began opening the bags, laying out the clothes gently. "I didn't really know what to get you, so I mainly got khakis and stuff. Some shorts and T-shirts. We can take it back if you don't like something or the size is wrong."

Elizabeth began softly fingering the clothes, nonchalantly flipping over the designer tags. "Khakis? Not jeans?"

"Jeans are the one thing nobody can buy for you. Or else the fit is all wrong. Don't you think?" Her blue eyes flashed in merriment as the smaller woman nodded emphatically.

"Oh yeah," she agreed. "Hey, all the sizes look right. What'd you tell her?"

"Let's see. I told her you were about this high--" Jude held a hand even with her own jaw, "And about this wide--" Holding her hands in front of her and slightly apart.

"Hmm..." Elizabeth grinned mischievously and limped into the space created by Jude's graceful hands. She curled the dark woman's elegant fingers around her waist and tucked her head neatly under Jude's chin. "Looks like you got it right." She glanced up into a pair of softly startled indigo eyes. "Thank you," she whispered, wrapping her own arms around the muscular figure.

Jude's stomach felt like it had been mule-kicked into next week, and her heart was racing to catch up with it. Elizabeth's length was warm and supple in her arms, the embrace bringing with it a curious combination of eroticism and peace to which her body didn't quite know how to respond. Her awkwardness outweighed the comfort of the lithe figure against her, and she stepped back a pace, slightly breathless from the unexpected intensity. "Um... it was the least I could do. Considering I ruined your beautiful dress." She paused, then continued, "Not to mention getting you shot."

If Elizabeth was disappointed by the loss of contact, she didn't show it. "Jude," she said, a serious look crossing her normally sunny features. "You could have just dumped me at a hospital and vanished back into the night. But you took care of me, made sure I was safe. Most people in your position wouldn't have done that." A soft smile lit her face from the inside, brightening the mossy green of her eyes into a glimmering emerald. "I'm beginning to think you're not as bad as you pretend."

"Come on, Angel... get over your big bad self," Jason's voice taunted her relentlessly as she tried to walk away. "You may have this dark and brooding thing down pat with everyone else, but I know you hurt inside. You're not as evil as you pretend..."

Jude's eyes darkened dangerously at the surfacing memory, and Elizabeth backed away instinctively from the sudden menace. "You're wrong," the tall woman growled. "I'm much, much worse," she warned, turning on her heel and fleeing, shutting the door firmly behind her.

What the hell???? Liz had seen the change rush over Jude's face, hardening the bronze features into sharp planes and angles that threatened to slice her in two. What set her off? The hug? Liz shook her head at her mind's silent dialogue. Her embrace of the dark woman had been impulsive, and though the arms that enfolded her hadn't been unwilling, they had been accompanied by the frantic beating of a heart. If I didn't know better I'd say she was... scared? No way. The fleeting memory of a trembling hand from the previous evening flashed behind her eyes, setting off tiny sparks of new awareness in Liz's consciousness.

She mulled over the rapidly multiplying images she had of the dark woman. And she wondered if Jude Lucien had knowingly fractured herself into millions of incomprehensible fragments. "But how on earth do they fit together?" she asked aloud. "Or do they?" Slipping a soft pair of khakis gingerly over her wound, she finished dressing contemplating the ever-spiraling mystery she was uncovering.

She trod downstairs to find Jude comfortably ensconced on a well-padded deck chair in the sun. "Hey there," Elizabeth said softly. "I'm sorry."

Pale blue flickered over her, warming her body wherever they landed. "No," Jude replied. "I'm sorry. Again." She blew out a breath and ran a hand through her hair in a gesture Liz was coming to recognize as characteristic. "I just..." She shook her head. "I don't want you thinking that I'm some nice girl who just has a particularly exotic profession." She arched a serious brow at the reporter and steadily held her gaze. "I'm not."

The violent depths of Jude's eyes seized Liz and would not free her from their grip. It was as if she could see the blood that had permeated the dark woman's life, down deep into her shuttered soul. At length, Liz took a deep breath, exhaling softly. "I understand that," she said finally.

Now the brow turned questioning, but the relentless grasp of the blue did not cease. "So... why?"

Somehow, Liz thought, two words to encompass everything that was beginning to happen between them shouldn't be enough, but there they were, falling from Jude's lips. She smiled confidently. Words were her business, and she knew better than most how to make them count. "Until you give me cause to fear you, Jude, I won't." Enjoying the sharp bite of the woman's name in her mouth. "As for the rest of it--" She gestured slightly with her hands, almost reaching out for Jude, but stopping just shy. "Something in you calls to me." She paused, allowing the dark woman to absorb the full implication of her words. "And I'd like to find out what that is."  

Chapter 5

A quietly astonished silence draped itself between the two women. Finally, half a smile crept over Jude's face, and the dangerous glitter of her eyes softened. "Boy," she blew out a breath, "You really know how to put it out there, don't you?"

Yeah, and I don't even have the dress to blame this time, Liz thought wryly. Somehow though... I don't regret it. Earlier this afternoon, she had accepted that her personal interest in the drug dealer far surpassed her professional interest in a story. She couldn't even begin to comprehend the diverse layers that formed the woman standing in front of her, but she had an almost overwhelming urge to try. Oh well... I've done it now. "I told you I wanted to get real," she said simply.

Jude regarded her soberly for a long while, and at that moment Liz would have given anything to know what was going on behind those shadowed eyes. "I'm not sure what real is anymore, Elizabeth," she stated at last. "If you want some kind of full disclosure..."

"No," Liz hastened to assure her, very much aware that she couldn't begin to do the same. "Not right now." Not yet, she amended mentally. "I just want to get to know you a little bit better. Is that okay?" Can you let me do that?

The wariness disappeared from the dark woman's face-- even though Liz suspected it was only a temporary respite-- and her lips curved into a genuine smile. "That I can do," she replied, unknowingly answering Liz's silent question. "Carmina's still fixing lunch, so why don't I give you that tour I've been promising you forever?"

"I love that idea," Liz grinned. "I'm dying to see what the rest of this place looks like," she added guilelessly, reasoning that of all the untruths she had told in the past twenty four hours, that one was by far the least painful.

As Liz soon discovered, however, there was a lot in the house that she hadn't seen. Because her primary interest had been in discovering a cache of Jude's secrets, she hadn't really paid attention to the downstairs. Now as she trailed behind Jude listening to the dark woman talk about the different pieces of art on the walls and the furniture in the rooms, Liz began to realize that what she had originally seen as some designer's cold air was simply a different facet of the agent's personality. And why shouldn't she know all about contemporary art? she thought as Jude admitted that these rooms were designed more for public consumption than her bedroom and library.

"I have to entertain sometimes," she explained. "But I keep it downstairs. People see a house like this," she shrugged, "They expect chrome and glass, abstract art. But," she grinned, unable to hide the sparkle of delight in her home, "I picked everything out myself. So..." she added mischievously, "If you hate it... It's all my fault." Leading Liz back up the stairs, she commented with a chuckle, "There's not nearly the amount of traffic up here as down there."

"Is there a message for me in that?" Liz teased, thinking about how much time she'd spent in the dark woman's bedroom during the day.

Jude stopped on the stairs and turned to contemplate the reporter fully, allowing Liz the same opportunity. The sunlight streaming through the windows was absorbed by the lean planes of Jude's face and reflected back in her skin's bronze hue. To the storyteller's green eyes, Jude seemed to radiate with some internal source of light, despite her dark predilections. Liz's heart subtly shifted into a higher gear, and she wondered if Jude could hear the low thrumming that suddenly filled her own ears. An unidentifiable expression played on the agent's face while her eyes carefully roamed over the smaller woman. "There hasn't been..." She seemed to stumble over the words, and Liz could almost swear a faint blush rose beneath her bronzed features. Jude cleared her throat and began again. "There hasn't been... anyone... in my bedroom for over a year-- almost two."

The admission rested delicately in the sunlight as the weight of her own lie to Jude hit home hard with Liz. All she could do was glance helplessly at the powerful woman. Everything she had learned about the agent-turned-rogue told her that this could not be happening-- that this woman could not be revealing herself so openly to a virtual stranger. "Why are you doing this?" she asked suddenly.

A rueful smile slunk onto Jude's face. "I thought you wanted to get real," she replied, eyebrow at wry attention.

"I do," Liz affirmed unhesitatingly. "But..." Her words trailed off as her mind relentlessly picked up-- But I don't understand. You have to think that this woman I'm pretending to be is a total flake-- God knows I do. What on earth could you possibly see in a sexually-confused romance novelist with a soon-to-be- ex-boyfriend? "Why?" she finally repeated.

What Liz failed to realize-- couldn't possibly know, in fact-- was that during her rambling drive home, Jude had carefully considered the few details that Liz had provided about her life. And then she had just as carefully discarded them as irrelevant. The wide gulf between what Liz presented herself to be and what Jude sensed the smaller woman actually was disturbed the ex-agent no end, but she had rationalized those doubts away by assuring herself that it really didn't matter because the honey-haired woman would be gone from her life soon enough.

Jude walked up the rest of the stairs and then back down again, stopping in front of Liz and plunging her hands into the pockets of her tailored trousers. "I don't know," she shrugged. "Why did you approach me at the Club? Why did I ask you to come back here?" She glanced out the window, and Liz could see the sharp cut of her jaw clenching and unclenching rhythmically. "I hope it wasn't just to get laid." Her gaze returned to the soft green of Liz's eyes, searching for something.

"No, it wasn't," the smaller woman agreed softly.

Jude nodded almost imperceptibly. "I didn't think so." The quiet lengthened as the two women held each other suspended in the fragile tangle of their eyes. "So..." Jude drew out the word slowly. "Can we just leave it at that for now?" She paused a beat, then added with a grin, "Because I can't take all this serious conversation on an empty stomach." As if on cue, Carmina stuck her head out of the kitchen and bellowed at them to come get their lunch before she changed her mind and decided to give it to Aggie and Pete who at least had the decency to come talk to her in the kitchen. "Why don't you go back upstairs and get comfortable? I'll bring lunch up," Jude offered. "You don't want to over-do it."

Liz couldn't think when she'd heard a better idea. Her side had been aching for a while now, but she had been so caught up in listening to Jude's resonant voice that she had ignored the pain in favor of learning more about the mysterious agent. Now, however, it had become a throb that refused to be overlooked. "Lying down sounds great right about now."

"Do you need some help?" Concern creased Jude's brow as the honey-haired woman paled, a sudden wave of pain clearly washing over her features.

"Uh... I think so." Liz awkwardly tried to slip her arm around Jude's broad shoulders, but all that accomplished was stretching the reporter's already sore side and bringing a grunt of pain to her lips.

"Not working, is it?" Jude chewed her lip momentarily before nodding. "Okay hang on. I'm not sure I can do this, but..." She leaned down and tucked Liz's arm back around her neck and, in one fluid motion, picked the smaller woman up and cradled her gently in her arms. "Whoa..." the dark woman muttered, pausing to steady her balance. "Not exactly the way Clark Gable did it." She laughed ruefully at herself.

Who cares? Liz thought dizzily, the warmth of Jude's body enveloping her and easily wiping awareness of the pain from her mind. They stood still a moment longer, until she was thoroughly settled in the dark woman's arms.

"Here we go," Jude murmured, taking the remaining stairs slowly, mindful of her injured cargo.

When at last Liz was situated once more in the agent's bed, Jude handed her two more pills and ran to fetch their lunch from a grumbling Carmina. "I don't know what to think, Senora," she tisked. "You keep that poor girl locked up in your bedroom all day," she reproached, but the housekeeper's eyes were twinkling. She had seen how solicitous Jude had been of the small Anglo, and-- though it surprised her no end-- delighted her nonetheless.

"She's not locked up, Carmina. She's hurt," Jude replied dryly, fixing a tray laden with the aromatic soup and a plate of fresh fruit and cheese.

"That's another thing. What you doing shooting your girlfriend?"

"I did not shoot her. And she's not my girlfriend!" Jude growled. "I just met her last night."

"She's gonna be. I can tell. I gotta feel for these things," Carmina nodded knowingly.

Exasperated, Jude turned her attention from the tray and, folding her arms, regarded her housekeeper archly. "I am not sixteen. I do not have girlfriends... Elizabeth is not my prom date, understand?" she said severely, in spite of the giddy, lightheaded sensation that had been stealthily creeping over her ever since she had been in the smaller woman's company.

"Okay, Senora. Whatever you say," the housekeeper agreed.

"She's not!" Jude insisted.

"Okay, okay, I got it." Carmina held her hands up in surrender, but the smug smile on her face belied the gesture.

Jude returned to her tray, muttering to herself. "She's not..."

Pete, ever present when food was nearby, followed close at her heels as she returned to the bedroom, wagging his tail in hopeful agreement.

Jude noticed with a frown that the pills were still in Elizabeth's hand where she had left them. "Why haven't you taken those?" she asked, a bit more harshly than she had intended. Seeing the startled expression on the small woman's features, she quickly apologized, "I'm sorry. I--" and then stopped suddenly, not wanting to explain the conversation she had just had with her housekeeper. It didn't even make sense to Jude herself. In fact, nothing about her encounter with the honey-haired woman did. Despite this, Jude had very consciously elected-- as much as she could-- just to go with it and enjoy their few days together. Elizabeth Peterson would be back in her nice, comfortable life soon enough, and Jude would simply be one of her more exotic memories, a time when the novelist had walked on the wild side. She'll probably write me into one of her books... I'll be the evil drug lord who seduces the heroine into a life of crime and gets killed by the strapping blond hero, she mocked herself. She had played the bad guy most of her life, even before she worked with the DEA, so the mental casting was easy. There had only been one person in her life who had seen Jude as something other than a malevolent and foreboding presence. Yeah, and look at what happened, Jude reproached herself.   "Jude?" Her silent castigation was halted by a quiet voice drifting into her consciousness, calling her back to the present. "Jude?" it repeated.

The dark woman blinked twice and focused on the slender woman in front of her. "Sorry, I guess I just wandered out of here for a minute."

"Boy, did you," Elizabeth concurred wholeheartedly. "Want to share?"

A tiny smile flickered over the ex-agent's lips, and she shook her head. "Not really worth sharing. I am sorry for snapping, though. I thought you were in pain."

"Oh, I am," Elizabeth nodded. "But those things knock me out so fast. I wanted to enjoy my soup without passing out in it."

"You do have a point. Carmina's food is definitely worth a little pain." She set the tray carefully over Elizabeth's lap and then settled herself cross-legged in the center of the bed. "Do you mind?" she asked, indicating her position.

"Not at all."

Pete looked beseechingly up at the two women on the bed, his brown eyes flickering between them. Jude glanced down at the expectant beast and narrowed her eyes. "Pete..." she warned. "Go find your play-mates," she told the now-disappointed dog, who did as his mistress bade, tail drooping. "They're all spoiled rotten," she told Elizabeth as they watched the animal depart.

"I could tell," she acknowledged, digging enthusiastically into her soup. "But that's a good thing."

"And why is that?"

"Everyone needs something to love," the honey-haired woman shrugged. She paused a moment then added. "Pete and the others give you that. I mean... I would tend to think that your... profession... really doesn't allow you to get close to that many people."

A brow dramatically ascended of its own volition. People rarely admitted that they knew how Jude made her money, and no one ever asked her about it. Once again Jude was forced to revise her assessment of the woman in her bed. Shaking her head softly, she murmured, "I'd rather not talk about my profession, if it's okay with you." For some odd reason, she found herself not wanting Elizabeth to think badly of her, and if they spent even a moment on her livelihood, the slender woman would run screaming out of her home, injured or no.

A heated blush warmed Elizabeth's pale features. "Open mouth, insert foot, Liz," she grimaced.

"Liz?" Jude queried. There's that panicked look again, Jude noticed, watching Elizabeth's features momentarily freeze.

"Uh... yeah. Actually that's what most people call me." Elizabeth looked sheepishly at the taller woman.

"Do you like it? Being called Liz?"

"I never really thought about it. My mother's named Elizabeth too, so I had my choice of Beth, Liz or Lizzy."

"You don't really look like a Beth," Jude observed.

"I'm not Little Women enough for you, ma'am?"

"I have to admit, you're not exactly the shy, retiring type." They shared an easy laugh that chased away the tiny fingers of suspicion that were prickling Jude's instincts. "And Lizzy is too..."

"Homicidal?" Elizabeth offered.

"Exactly," Jude chuckled. "I guess it's Liz by default, huh?"

"Pretty much."

Jude cocked her head in appraisal. "I don't know, it kind of suits you in a breathless-Rosiland Russell-in His-Girl-Friday sort of way."

"What do you mean?" she looked startled.

"His Girl Friday... you know, that movie where Rosiland Russell plays a reporter hot on the trail of a big story..." Jude was interrupted as Liz's soup decided to make a spontaneous reappearance through her nose, shaking the slight woman with the force of her coughs.

"Are you all right?" Jude hastily shoved her own bowl of soup out of the way and grasped Liz's shoulders, pounding gently on her back.

Hacking and wheezing for a few more minutes, Liz drew a ragged breath before nodding. "Yeah, I think so. Whoa, nellie... that hurts." She wiped the tears that were streaming down her face absently with the back of her hand. "Geeze..."

"What happened?"

Liz emitted a strangled chuckle, "Oh, I think it just went down the wrong pipe."

"You sure?"

"Oh yeah." A few remaining hacks cleared her throat, and then she settled back, breathing as deeply as her wounded side would allow her.

Jude painstakingly removed the tray from Liz's lap. "Let's check your stitches and make sure you didn't pull anything loose, okay? You were coughing pretty hard there." She pulled the covers back and smothered a quick grin as she noticed that Elizabeth had changed back into the ex-agent's baggy sweats. "There should be something that fits you better in the stuff I brought you," she said noncommittally.

"I know," Liz replied, grinning at her. "But I like these." She carefully studied the azure flame that was directed at her. "Is that okay?"

Jude's face relaxed into a fleeting smile before it turned serious once more. "You keep asking me that," she stated softly.

For the first time, the honey-haired woman seemed at a loss for words. She shrugged helplessly. "I-- sometimes--" Releasing a long sigh, she gathered her scattered thoughts and returned to the depths of the gaze trained on her. "Sometimes I tend to bulldoze my way into things without thinking," she said at last, her memory drifting back to the dreadful mistakes she had made when she had promised to marry, how consumed she had been with making sure everything was fine with herself that she never bothered to ask what was going on with him. No matter how vehemently she had tried to deny the charge to him, to herself... now she had to admit that she had been using him. Her time with Todd, had been a desperate attempt to ease the truculent desires that rocked her senses, to make peace with her parents and become something they deemed respectable. Looking back, she could see how foolish her hopes had been; and more, than anything she regretted the pain she had visited on both herself and Todd trying to shoehorn herself into a vision that she didn't share. Todd had never forgiven her. Her parents were somewhat more pragmatic, only requesting that she be discreet and not draw undue attention to herself. That gruff request sent her reeling from her family's home in bewildered and furious disbelief. Fortunately for all of them, she had gotten a call from the City Desk Editor at the Miami Herald shortly thereafter. And she had never looked back.  She shook her head quietly at the memory. "And people can get hurt because of it."

"You're worried about hurting me?" the dark woman asked incredulously.

"Yeah," she answered simply, then added with a mischievous grin. "Is that okay?"

Jude only shook her head, but Liz could see the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She gingerly pulled the elastic of the sweatpants over Liz's hip and uncovered the wound. "Ouch," she whispered, almost to herself-- a supple finger tracing the curve of the stitches.

The agent's hands were warm from the bowl of soup she had been holding, and Liz relaxed comfortably into the touch. She had been covertly studying Jude's hands ever since they had met. Now she relished the opportunity to watch them unhindered. For a woman, Jude's hands were large, but they were graceful and sinuous, the fingers elegantly jointed and tapered. This close, Liz could see a small scar on the top of her left index finger, and-- without even realizing it-- she reached out and stroked the tiny mar on the skin's perfection. Abruptly, the hand stilled, resting softly just below Liz's wound. The reporter glanced at the bowed head whose eyes were hidden from her and took a deep breath. "Where did you get this?" she asked lightly, running the tip of her finger across the warm flesh again.

Jude swallowed hard at the rapid influx of sensation that was totally out of proportion for the touch...

"What am I going to do with you?" Jason fussed, grabbing Jude's wounded hand and reaching for the peroxide.

"OW!!" She tried jerking away, but Jason's vice-like grip held her relentlessly.

"You are worse than a child, Angel," he scolded. "Every time I turn around, you're banging the hell out of  your hands." But his exasperated tone was colored with an involuntary tenderness that gentled his touch as he bandaged the scrape. "What on earth happened?"

"I don't remember," she murmured. If she closed her eyes she could almost smell the discreet fragrance of the shampoo in his hair as he bent over attending to her. But that aroma was gone now, replaced by the tantalizing essence of Liz's skin. Jude closed her eyes, concentrating on the images that the scent evoked. White light danced behind her eyes... the warmth of a summer's day... the sun's ferocity tamed by a gentle breeze sliding over her skin... clean air and unfettered freedom. She smells like the light. "Sunlight..." she whispered, opening her eyes to their twined fingers. "How'd that happen?" she asked, bewildered.

A gentle laugh rushing into her ears. "Um... I'm not really sure," Liz answered.

Jude reluctantly released the other woman's hand and gazed up at the shining green that hazily swam into focus. "Sorry," she said, shaking her head briskly to knock the emotional snarls loose from her thoughts. "Your stitches seem fine, doesn't look like they loosened at all."

"Stop saying that," Liz commanded quietly.

Surprised at the tone from the smaller woman, Jude cocked her head, silently waiting for further elucidation.

"Stop saying you're sorry. I'm not sorry for anything that's happened so far. And that includes getting shot."

Smiling wryly and shaking her head, Jude muttered, "You got an odd idea of fun, lady." But her eyes were  teasing.

"You wouldn't be the first person to tell me that," Liz amiably agreed. Shifting and adjusting herself against the fluffy pillows at her back, she looked expectantly at Jude. "Now that we've ascertained that I'll live at least a little while longer, do you have some time to sit and talk with me, or do you have to go running off?"

Jude gazed at the petite figure tucked so snugly in her bed-- at the tumble of golden hair falling haphazardly around her shoulders, the green eyes wide and smiling, the deceptively sensuous body hidden under the comforter-- and something indurate and glacial shook loose from its moorings deep inside and began swirling about in the tumultuous eddies of her suddenly warm blood. "I've got time." That said, she flung herself diagonally across the remainder of the bed, propping her head on one long arm. Pete, who had been watching silently from the door, took this as his cue to bounce up on his mistress' legs and curl himself up in the V formed by the two women's bodies.

Seeing Jude move to evict the mutt, Liz reached out to stay her hand. "Leave him, he's sweet."

"Yeah, but wait till Aggie sees him, then he'll want to get into the act," Jude grumbled, only putting up a token resistance before easing herself back down. "So, what did you want to talk about?"

"You don't do much small talk, do you?" the smaller woman grinned.

Jude shrugged. "Nope. Never saw much need for it."

"Just tell me about you, Jude."

"I'd rather you tell me about you." Blue eyes glimmered puckishly. "Tell me how you became a romance novelist. It's not like that's a real obvious career path."

"Cool Whip," Liz answered succinctly.

"Beg pardon?"

"Cool Whip. That's how I became a romance novelist." During the last few hours they had spent together, the last remaining desire Liz had harbored to expose the drug dealer's life to a hungry public had drained away and been replaced with a fierce longing to understand the complex puzzle of the woman at her side. So telling the truth to Jude was easy now, and she intensely regretted the lies that had to necessarily remain between them. "I must have been about eighteen, getting ready to go off to college.  One afternoon I was in the grocery store, and Cool Whip had this huge Valentine's Day display. I can still remember the heart-shaped cutout on the stand. Some promotion about giving something sweet to your sweetheart or some nonsense or other. And there was this tie-in with Avon Romance Novels. They were co-sponsoring a sweepstakes. I looked at the display and saw my first year's college tuition." She didn't mention that she had refused her father's considerable offer to pay for tuition, an apartment, and a healthy allowance. She had long been aware that in her family, everything was a trade-off. In true political fashion, favors were granted and sought, depending on what anyone needed at a given moment. Liz turned down the offer because she was tired of currying favor. She just wanted her family to love her, and-- at eighteen-- she was beginning to think that relatively simple thing would never happen. "Anyway..." she breathed out, pushing aside the still painful memories. "To enter you had to write a romantic story. And the winner got $25,000."

Jude smiled. "What was your story about?"

"Oh, the usual. Unrequited longing. I had a mad crush on my best friend in high school," she replied, and then went on to elaborate on her relationship with Steph, how close they had been, the things they had shared. Jude laughed at the portrait Liz painted of the antics of the two teenagers and their numerous misadventures. It seemed Liz and Steph had done everything from raiding their parents' liquor cabinets to being chased by the police for trespassing on private property. "It just all seemed so natural. So right. Unfortunately, she just didn't get it," Liz sighed wistfully.

"But you did," Jude guessed.

"I suspected. So in typical Terminator-in-the-shopping-mall fashion, I asked." Liz glanced away from the intense gaze studying her and picked idly at a loose stitch in the comforter. She looked back up and saw a quiet sympathy residing in the blue that washed over her. "Yeah, she freaked."

"It still hurts you, doesn't it?"

Liz paused a moment, considering Jude's question. Steph wasn't really someone she thought about any more. Hadn't for a long time, and she didn't know why being with Jude had brought back so vividly the memories of the girl she considered her first love. "Not really. Now I just hurt for the girl I was back then who didn't understand why her best friend was running away from her. For opportunities missed."

An unaccustomed desire to take away the forlorn longing in Liz's face and ease the sadness enveloping the smaller woman swept through Jude, leaving her nearly breathless. "And this won a Valentine's Day contest?" she bantered, trying to lighten the suddenly oppressive atmosphere.

"Well, I changed me to Beth and Steph to Steven. I had him come back to her after his first year of college and declare that he had been a fool and would Beth please take him back. After she made him beg and plead for way too many pages, they went off and got married."

"Is that what you wanted from Steph?"

Liz ran a hand through her disordered hair. "I think more than anything, I just wanted someone to accept who I was and love me for that. Maybe even in spite of it."

The words set off a quiet explosion of recognition in Jude's soul, and she closed her eyes as the pain came sweeping back...

"Come on, Angel... what is it about you that's so terrible?" Darkness surrounded them, and it was far closer to sunrise than sunset. Long ago Jason had realized that Jude moved easier at night, as if the nocturnal cloak was comforting to her somehow. Now he tried to focus on the long form beside him, but it was about as productive as trying to study a chimera. So he gave up trying and just listened to the resonant growl of her voice.

"Oh gee, I don't know, Jase..." Her voice was thick with sarcasm. "Is it that I can kill in the blink of an eye, or that I enjoy doing it so damn much?"

A mostly empty bourbon bottle rested between them, and even though she had done most of the damage to it, Jason could feel the crackling energy still arcing off the woman beside him. Things had gotten very messy for Jude a few days ago on the tail end of a bust, forcing the agent to take down three suspects. And the younger agent could tell that it was finally getting to her. Throughout her life, Jude had moved in the darkness without qualm; but more and more, the things she was asked to do and the ease with which she did them were beginning to. For the first time, Jason truly feared for his friend and wondered if their relationship was such a good thing for her. He knew that he had been the only one to breach the formidable barriers that protected others-- not to mention herself-- from Jude’s less... civilized... side. Apparently, he was at last seeing the consequences of his actions.

Each trip into the darkness and the corresponding return to the daylight was taking its toll on Jude. She had started disappearing for days between assignments, and Jason knew better than to ask where she went. Were he to be honest with himself, he'd admit that he really didn't want to know. It had gotten harder for them both since he had been married. Jude had begun pulling away from Jason, trying to leave him to his wife, his house, to all the things she knew he should have. But he held tightly to her, knowing somehow that if their tenuous grasp on each other were broken, Jude would quit trying to make that return trip into the daylight world, and he would be too afraid to plumb the adumbral depths in search of her.

"That's not you, Angel," he insisted.

"The bodies in the morgue would disagree with you." She snorted derisively and took another long pull from the bottle, settling it back into its hollowed out niche.

"It's the job, not you."

"Isn't it?" With graceful suppleness, Jude rose from her supine position in the sand and turned to face him, her blue eyes glinting faintly in the starlight. Watching her move in the shadows was like watching the night personified-- her eyes were the pinpoints of some far off supernova... and he sadly mourned for the part of her that was dying tonight. She moved infinitesimally closer to him, and he could smell the faint tang of blood on her skin, mixed with the spicy odor of her sweat and something unidentifiably musky.

He didn't know where she'd been for the last two days; his increasingly frantic messages had gone unanswered until she'd finally returned his page tonight, merely confirming that she'd meet him at their old haunt. He'd found her in their cove, sprawled out in the sand that was still warm from the day's heat, making steady progress on the bourbon. "I brought dinner," was the only thing he said. They sat in silence for the longest time, until their hesitant words began to flow and they had at last reached the point they were now.

"NO, it isn't you," he replied, shaking his head forcefully. Even as he said it, they both knew the denial to be a lie. The job wasn't the catalyst at all. Nor was the darkness that enveloped them when in deep cover. It was instead the atramentous core that Jude carried inside her all the time-- and no matter how much Jason might wish otherwise, it would never change-- as long as Jude lived and breathed, so would it.

A throaty chuckle wrapped itself around Jason's pulse and squeezed, eliciting a ragged breath from him. "Do you really believe that's true?"

"I believe it can be. If you want it. If you fight for it."

Jude edged nearer still, so that the harsh afterbite of bourbon was shared on the breath between them. "That's the real question, isn't it?" she murmured sensually. "Do I really want to stop being who I am? If you really think about it, nobody wants me to stop. Not the Agency, not me..." She traced a line down the slope of his cheek with the barest hint of her fingers, and a wracking shudder worked its way through Jason's body. "And certainly not you."

Before he had time to even think about what was happening, their mouths met forcefully, and the fury that ravaged Jude's soul thrust into him with brutal force. It was a kiss meant to ignite, consume, and ultimately incinerate their friendship.

And a part of him wanted it so badly that it made his marrow ache.

A breathless second later the connection ended, and Jason tumbled back, trying desperately to collect his sanity-- which had been blasted apart-- from the sand. Jude's eyes glittered brightly in the blackness, but she made no move towards him, and for a fleeting, senseless moment, he wondered if he had dreamed the touch.

"You need to get away from me." Her voice rang oddly hollow and fractured as it landed upon his hearing.


"I mean it! Don't you see...?"

And miraculously, he did. The blackness that had enveloped his friend had been the night's last embrace before it finally relinquished its hold upon the land. Jude's bronze skin now shimmered faintly in the rising sun, and the tide washed cleansing pink tendrils over the shore. "I do," he replied, understanding the darkness that was her soul and the light inside his own that would not let her go. In a single mad instant-- like a wolf trying to chew its paw loose from a hunter's trap-- she had tried to destroy their connection and cut herself free from the relentless tug-of-war that now raged inside her.

Jude looked at him for a wordless moment longer and then turned to go. With a long step Jason caught her in a fierce embrace from behind, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in the onyx tangles of her hair. "Oh no you don't, Angel. I'm not letting you get rid of me that easy. Don't you see?"

A strangled laugh tore free from Jude's throat. "Are you crazy?"

"Maybe," he agreed. "But you're my best friend, Jude. I refuse to lose that. You're a part of me..."

Liz studied the dark woman beside her, so clearly lost to her own musings. The pain was etched in the weary slump of Jude's shoulders and the furrow of her brow. "Have you ever had that?" she asked softly, instinctively guessing that whatever held Jude in its grasp right now was very important. "Had someone who loved you in spite of yourself?"

The eyes that lifted to reply to her had paled to an almost colorless crystal. "Yeah," she said at last. "I have."

A flare of something that uncannily resembled jealousy flickered to life in the pit of Liz's stomach. "What happened?" she asked, half-fearing the answer.

Jude's eyes completed their arctic transformation, freezing solidly as Liz watched in bewilderment. Her voice rang tonelessly in the quiet room with her answer. "I killed him."  

  Did I just dream that? Liz woke to dead silence and absolute darkness, Jude's words still ringing in her ears hours later. Groggily, she glanced at the digital display that gleamed to her right. 2:00am... and I know it wasn't a dream. Remembering Jude's normally bronze features turning starkly pale and the flat harshness of her words. That was a real conversation ender, Liz thought ruefully. Jude had abruptly excused herself and disappeared from the house. Sensing that she wouldn't see the dark woman again that day, Liz took two painkillers and slipped gratefully into their oblivion.

Her dreams of the dark woman this night had been unlike any she had ever had before. They were filled with images of Jude wounded and in pain-- the blue eyes pleading with Liz for succor-- alternating with violent and bloody visions of the agent relentlessly executing a series of faceless victims that ended with Liz herself. The impact of the bullet slamming into her chest startled her upright into the night's awareness. "What the hell have I gotten myself into?" she muttered under her breath.

The shadow in her doorway shifted, drawing her attention and metamorphosing into the sleek outline of the woman in question. "I won't hurt you," came the voice from the darkness, a velvety stroke against her hearing. "I promise." The words were fleeting, delivered into the cortex of Liz's consciousness. Before she could speak, the shadow vanished, leaving the reporter alone again to wrestle with the weight of her dreams.