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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 16  

Jude and Liz walked through the door of Barrido del Mar to find an anxious Ria standing at the maitre d’ stand, a frown creasing her already-expressive features.

"What's going on?" she asked without preamble. Her arms were folded tightly across her chest, and her eyes burned intently as she studied Jude's leather-clad figure. Jude had called earlier to warn her that Lucas would be asking for her, but the dark woman hadn't offered any more detail than that. However, Maria was no fool-- she hadn't been a DEA agent's wife without learning that the most important information was usually unspoken-- and it didn't take much for her to realize that this tight-lipped request likely involved Jude's turn towards the light.

"I don't even get a hello?" Jude inquired dryly. "I mean-- weren't you harassing me about my manners just the other day?"

Ria's expression didn't change. "Hi, Jude, it's good to see you again. Now what the hell is going on? Are you all right?"

Jude and Liz exchanged a swift glance, and Jude held her hands out in a gesture of peace. "Hang on, okay? First of all, is he even here?"

"Yeah, out on the porch. I put him at your old table, just like you asked." She motioned with a jerk of her head.

"Great." Jude turned to her lover. "You wanna go talk to him first?" she asked with a wry smile. "It might be best, since he's not exactly expecting me."

"I can do that." Liz swallowed hard, looking into the blue that had paled dangerously over the last few hours. Jude's retreat further and further into herself as they had set their plan in motion scared the smaller woman-- it also didn't help that Jude had resurrected her Archangel garb when they had returned to the house. Leather pants and a dark blue silk shirt now cloaked her lover's skin with menacing intimacy, warding off even the most casual of touches from the smaller woman. When the reporter had looked at the attire questioningly, Jude had merely shrugged and replied, "It's expected of me." She had also removed her shoulder rig and two sinister-looking revolvers from the safe, nestling one snugly in the holster and slipping the other into the waistband of her pants as they went to pick up the Boxster. To Liz's relief, she had left both in the car when they arrived at the restaurant. Now, the reporter absently wondered where else Jude planned on going and why she expected the place to be so inhospitable.

"Elizabeth?" Jude's voice snapped her attention back to the two women in front of her.

"Yeah, I'm here. Go talk to Lucas. I got it." She nodded, sighing heavily, and turned towards the porch.

"Hey you." Jude tugged on Liz's arm, preventing her departure. The blue softened somewhat-- as though there were fissures in the frozen tundra-- when she gazed at her lover. "You okay?" she murmured softly.

Liz took a deep breath, wondering how she could possibly answer that question. In the last twenty-four hours, her lover had come a hairsbreadth away from killing her; she had almost irreparably destroyed Jude's faith in her; and now-- although it was the last thing she wanted to see-- she was watching Jude slip deeper into her darkness as she tried to save both their lives. How on earth can I be okay? "Yeah, I'm fine," she replied. "Just thinking about what to tell Lucas."

Jude's eyes seemed to peer into the deepest part of her lover, and Liz felt her heart thundering within its confines. "It'll be okay soon," the dark woman whispered softly. Those eyes had missed nothing. They had read every pain, every fear, and every hope that the honey-haired woman had for the events to come. Gently she stroked the smooth curve of her lover's cheek, her fingers' soft caress offer the reassurance that her simple words couldn't. She tipped Liz's head to meet hers and tenderly brushed upon the reporter's lips a soothing kiss. "I promise."

Steadied by the familiar warmth of Jude's touch, Liz closed her eyes and allowed herself to be wrapped in her lover's embrace. She didn't care that Ria was watching with astonished eyes or that the restaurant's patrons might be scandalized by the display. She craved the safety of those arms surrounding her and the implicit assurance that they would face whatever happened together.

"Better?" Jude murmured almost inaudibly.

"Oh yeah," Liz breathed. "I don't want to move."

"Neither do I," Jude agreed softly.

She glanced up at Jude's shuttered expression, wondering what her dark lover would choose to let her see. Jude's growing remoteness had been hard on her the last few hours, and though this small exchange gentled away the worst of her fears, Liz couldn't help but ask, "You mean that?"

Jude sighed deeply in quiet sorrow. "Of course I do." She pressed a small kiss against her lover's forehead. "When all this is over, I want us to go away for a long, long while. What do you say?"

Despite her even tone, the look in Jude's eyes told Liz that this was far more than a casual request. It was an unspoken vow that-- should they get through this-- Jude was willing to try, willing to trust. Again... In spite of everything.

Liz's heart responded to the appeal with simple joy. Yes... it replied. Yes to everything-- to the present, to the future, to the pain that both would inevitably bring-- but also to the overwhelming happiness that holding this woman in her arms brought her. "Yes."

"Good. It's settled then." One last squeeze and Jude released her. "You talk to Lucas first, and I'll join you in a few minutes. You want something to drink?" Ever practical, Jude was offering her something to get through the first stages of these surreal happenings that were-- somehow-- part of her life.

"Yeah, whatever you're having."

Jude chuckled darkly. "Why don't I bring you what you had the other night?"

Remembering her lover's fondness for bourbon, she agreed. "Yeah, that would probably be better. Thanks."

"Not a problem. I'm practically on-staff here, you know." Jude grinned ruefully, her lighter tone encouraging Liz to relax.

The reporter only shook her head with a wry smile and went off in search of her boss.

Jude turned to find Ria's gaze still fixed firmly on her. "You gonna tell me what's going on here now, Angel?" Her chocolate brown eyes swept over Jude's length once more, their look telling the agent that her transformation wasn't missed. Nor was it appreciated. "Who is that guy?"

They walked to the bar where Jude quietly placed her order. "He's the City Desk Editor for the Miami Herald."

Ria stared at her friend in shock. "When did you start hanging around reporters?"

Jude laughed mirthlessly. "Since I starting hanging around Elizabeth." She shook her head. "But I guess I should start calling her 'Liz' now."

"Clue me in here." Ria placed a hand on the tense muscles that knotted Jude's forearm. "Elizabeth is a reporter?"

A nod.

"For the Herald?"

A nod.

"Why didn't you tell me this the other night?"

"Didn't know." Jude downed the bourbon in one neat swallow and nodded to the bartender for a refill. The truth of everything was sinking in fast for the ex-agent. The choices she had made in the last twenty-four hours had all been instinctive-- responses to a clamoring in her heart and soul that would no longer be denied. But she knew only time would reveal if her decisions had been wise. Quickly, she sketched out the story of how Liz had come to seek out the Archangel, and the resultant confrontation the previous day.

"Son-of-a-bitch," Ria swore softly under her breath. "I can't believe it was all a lie." Her body tensed as she turned to go give the honey-haired woman a piece of her mind, but Jude's firm grasp kept her in place. "How dare she?" Outrage flared in her eyes.

"No, Maria." Blue eyes gazed steadily into brown and told a story all their own-- of anger, sorrow, and-- miraculously-- forgiveness. "It wasn't all a lie. It can't be."

Ria gasped softly, knowing now that Jude wasn't talking about any simple words or action. The dark woman was talking about a bone-deep truth that rested between her and the fair-haired reporter. She recognized the expression on Jude's face: it was the one her husband had always borne when talking about the dark mirror of his soul. "You love her."

Not a question.

Jude flinched slightly as if from a blow. Her mouth twisted into a grimace. "Of course I do." The admission disappeared on the breath of air that carried it. "I just wish it didn't hurt so goddamned bad right now," she muttered, looking down at the amber liquid in her glass.

Ria was as close to Jude as the dark woman ever let anyone get, but there was a lost bewilderment in the Archangel's voice that she had never heard from this woman whom she and Jason had always regarded as slightly other than human. Her heart ached now for a lost child who had never known love or safety, and at the same time it flared in murderous indignation at the one who had so sorely abused this precious gift. "She doesn't deserve your love, Angel."

Jude finished her drink and regarded Maria with a level expression. Her eyes sparked slightly at her friend's declaration, and she didn't know whether to be angered or touched at the well-meaning words. Especially since they were coming from a woman who only a few short years ago would have cheerfully committed Jude's body to the flames of whatever Hell existed. "I don't think that's for you to say, Ria."

The smaller woman ran a hand through her tousled dark hair and studied her friend in growing exasperation. "You've just stood here and told me that this woman stalked you-- stalked you, Angel-- for almost a year before contriving to meet you under false circumstances. She proceeded to get involved with you under those same false circumstances and only told you the truth after you caught her in the act of rifling through your private files." Her voice raised in disbelief as she finished. "What am I missing here?"

Jude's gaze had returned to her now-refilled drink. "She loves me."

It was so soft that Ria almost didn't hear it. "Loves you?" Ria repeated incredulously, stunned Jude had actually said those words. "Why should you believe her? What's to say that's not just another one of her lies?"

Blue eyes focused on her with frightening intensity. "Because I know it's the truth," Jude growled, her voice as low and menacing as Ria had ever heard it. The dark woman leaned closer to her smaller friend, so that she filled the chocolate brown gaze. "I threw her across a room, Ria. I put a gun to her head and told her that if I ever saw her again, I'd kill her." Jude leaned back slightly. "And you know what?" She paused slightly for effect. "She came back to me. She hunted me down and demanded I listen to her." Her fingers curled themselves around the reassuring weight of the glass on the bar; and Jude shook her head slowly, still not quite believing Liz's brash actions. "Now tell me something... Even for someone you loved, would you do that? If you knew that for them, killing was easier than loving?" Unconsciously, she echoed the words Liz had spoken to her only a few days ago. This was the same monster Jason had faced, and both women knew that no matter how much he had loved Jude-- he had ultimately been too afraid to face down the demons that warred with him over her soul. Their paths had parted until one last fateful encounter brought them together again, and the demons had finally won. Jude nodded slightly. "That's how I know she loves me."

"Then you've forgiven her? Just like that?" The question slipped out without her really thinking about it.

Jude laughed dryly. "Ria, I'm the last one in the world who has the right to grant forgiveness to anyone. After everything I've done-- to people deserving and... not..." Failing her, the words trailed off, and she shrugged helplessly.

Ria studied her friend closely, taking in the unfamiliar light that glinted in the blue eyes when she talked of Liz, even of her betrayal. Reluctantly she shook her head. "This is a lot to take in, Angel." She clasped the dark woman's elegant fingers in her own. "If you say it's settled between you two, then I can’t argue with that. But I'm furious that she hurt you, and I’m not sure if I can forgive her for that." Seeing Jude about to speak, she held up a warning hand. "You're my friend, and I won't give up the right to be angry on your behalf. I've never seen you like this, Jude... Never. I always knew you had an amazing capacity within you to love-- your loyalty to Jason proved that. But I never thought you'd be able to let yourself be loved." She squeezed Jude's hand tightly. "That's harder for you, I think."

A deep flush warmed Jude's features, and she remembered why she had always hated talks like this. The way she felt about Elizabeth, however, wouldn't allow her to turn away either from the act of loving the reporter or-- if the last 12 hours were any indication-- from speaking that love aloud. In the corridors where she traveled that could prove fatal, both to her and the ones she loved. She had kept Ria and Jessie far away from the shadows by keeping herself largely away from them. This raucous, undeniable clamor in her blood for Elizabeth had destroyed any and all boundaries between them, and with that, all hope of keeping the shadows from her lover. The only option Jude had now was to wipe away the shadows, and pray to whatever gods existed that she wouldn't be burned alive by stepping into the light once and for all.

Even in the rambunctious Friday night crowd, Lucas was all-too-easy to spot. Among the mostly youthful and upscale patrons, he stood in stark contrast with his wrinkled shirt, perpetually askew tie, and rumpled gray hair. It didn't help matters any that by his expression he looked like he had a cup of 6-hour old coffee in his hand and not the large mug of beer that currently sat in front of him. She wove her way gracefully through the crowd, trying to order her unruly thoughts, but unable to really concentrate on anything but the golden warmth she had felt in Jude's arms.

"Hey there," she smiled softly at her editor, taking him by surprise. She slipped easily into the seat opposite him, wondering if this was where Jude had sat all those nights with Jason or if this had been her partner's chair. Liz was no fool-- she realized in many ways that she had taken Jason's place in Jude's life, filling a need in the dark woman that she could never articulate. She was also vividly aware that those very things which had driven Jason away from Jude were the things that drew her to the dark woman with a moth's unerring accuracy for the flame. To her astonishment, she had discovered the flame didn't burn... it wrapped around her tamely, entering her with an unexpected tenderness and dancing in her blood with undeniable possessiveness. That fire shone in her eyes now as she regarded her boss. "Come here often?"

"Gardener!" Lucas' head jerked up from where he had been stolidly contemplating his beer. "Where the fuck have you been?" He looked at her carefully, noting the tiny cut on the corner of her mouth and the small bruise on her jaw. "And what the fuck happened to you?"

"Lucas, you sound like my father-- scratch that... he'd never say 'fuck'. Well, at any rate you still don't sound like my editor." She had first noticed the wounds herself when they were getting ready to come over here. Jude had been shamefaced until the reporter pointed out the companion gash on Jude's own cheek. "We're even, lover... I just don't want it to happen again, okay?"

"Good thing for you I'm not your father, or else I'd have you over my knee. I can't believe I let you talk me into this hare-brained scheme in the first place." He shook his head in agitation at his own foolishness.

"You agreed because you thought I didn't stand a snow-cone's chance in Miami of it succeeding," she replied with a chuckle. "And ordinarily, you'd have been right." The ocean, visible over Lucas' shoulder, was calming to the reporter's raw nerves with its steadiness. The continual motions of the waves reminded her of the quiet, powerful thudding of her lover's heart. She looked forward to spending long hours wrapped in Jude's arms, just listening to that sound. When this is all over... It was the mantra that she held to now, the one thing that was getting her through this. Knowing that she and Jude would have all the time they needed to explore each other's heart, soul, life. Knowing Jude still wanted that was all that mattered. Whatever it took, she would do her damnedest to make sure they both survived to fulfill the promise of tomorrow.

"So what went wrong? Or should I say right?" He drained most of his beer and signaled to the waiter for a refill. "You want something?"

Liz shook her head in demurral. "I've got something coming." That's an understatement.

"So?" He looked at her impatiently. He could smell it now-- she could tell-- the story that was brewing. The muscles in his neck were bunched as he unconsciously sat forward in his chair, tapping his foot in an unceasing staccato. Liz could feel the table vibrating softly in its rhythm. "What happened to you, Liz?"

She smiled serenely at her boss, knowing that her words were going to send him completely over the edge. "I fell in love, boss." Lucas drew in a lung full of air as if to begin his tirade, but Liz stopped him with an upraised palm. "Call it fate, call it kismet, call it looking across a crowded room and seeing the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life looking back at me. At me," she repeated softly, almost to herself. She would never know for sure what Jude had seen in that instant their eyes connected, but she believed now that it must have been something akin to the heat that had prickled her spine as she submitted to Jude's gaze. Dark fire, she mused to herself, forgetting her boss. She's a flame that burns without light. Somehow, Liz knew it was part of her destiny to give Jude back the light stolen from her years ago.

"Liz?" Lucas waved a hand in front of her. "Liz? Come back..."

She snapped her eyes to the man in front of her, staring into his worn face. The years had paid their due attention to Jack Lucas. Tiny crow's feet around his eyes created the illusion of a laughing man, but anyone who had spent time around Lucas knew those marks were the result of too many years spent squinting at news-copy, rather than indications of a fair disposition. His eyes were the same gunmetal gray as his hair, and they only lost their dull hue when they spied a story on the horizon. Like now. "Just trying to think of a way to explain everything that's happened."

"Give me the headlines," he suggested.

"It's not that simple." Liz shook her head. Even if she had wanted to, there was no way to reduce the last weeks into a single nugget suitable for publication. For the first time in her life, her words failed her, and Liz found to her astonishment that she really didn't give a damn.

Lucas lost what little cool he had left. "Then what the hell is it, Liz? You disappear for weeks with only one phone call to tell me that you don't really know anything, can't really explain anything, but you'll keep me posted." He ran an angry hand through his hair. "I had to learn how to use fucking e-mail, Liz? Do you know what a pain in the ass that was for me? And what do I get? Nothing. Abso-fucking-lutely nothing."

Liz objected, "That's not true. I sent you e-mails--"

"Saying basically 'Having fun. Wish you were here.' Only I didn't know where the fuck 'here' was. I knew you had managed to almost get yourself killed after less than three hours in this woman's company. And you weren't spending your nights at home anymore. Then you call me yesterday and say that Lucien's still working for the D-fucking-E-fucking-A. Now you show up looking like you've gone three rounds with Joe Louis."

"Hardly," the reporter scoffed.

"Liz... you're missing the point. Who the fuck are you messing with that's putting bruises on your face?"

"I am," was the low reply coming from behind the reporter's back.

Lucas' attention flew to the imposing woman standing behind Liz, his eyes widening involuntarily as they took in the imposing vision of Jude Lucien. There was nothing subtle about the waves of intimidation that seemed to emanate from her skin. Liz cocked her head back to give her lover a tiny grin. She could faintly detect the warm traces of her lover's spicy scent mixed with the leather, and it reminded her of the softer, suppler side of the woman behind her. Eyeing the two drinks in Jude's hand, she asked, "One of those for me?"

"Yeah. Here you go." An almost imperceptible smile intended for Liz alone flickered across the dark woman's face as she handed the drink over. Negligently, she hooked her boot in the rungs of a nearby chair and dragged it over. Sprawling beside her lover with the alert grace of a predator, she turned a piercing blue gaze to the man across from her. "You're Lucas." Her voice had dropped an octave in its register, and Liz watched in amazement as Jude's features seemed to reconfigure themselves into the hard planes that she recognized as belonging to the Archangel. While she worried for her lover's sanity, a part of her storyteller's instinct reveled in the opportunity to watch the dark hunter at work.

"And you're the bitch who beats up on women." He nodded at Liz's bruised face.

Liz's eyes flew open as Lucas revealed cojones she never dreamed he had. Then again, she remembered, he had tangled with corrupt unions in his prime. She flicked a glance over at her lover, who was smiling slightly and showed no trace of insult. Thank god she left the guns in the car.

"You going to defend her honor?" Jude inquired mildly. "Very noble of you. However..." Her fingers underscored the dark gash across her own cheek. "Elizabeth is more than capable of defending herself." She grinned at her lover and then returned her gaze to Lucas. "She said we were even, but if you don't think so..." Her words trailed off lightly, the implication clear. Liz watched in amazement as everything about Jude seemed to change-- from her speech patterns to the way her body rippled with quiet menace, every muscle attuned to her surroundings.

Lucas looked from Jude to Liz and back again. "Even, huh?" That the two women were together was unmistakable. Liz's body leaned slightly towards Jude's, while the dark woman had by her choice of seats clearly aligned herself with the smaller woman.

"Although I daresay the whole episode would have never happened had I not found her in the rather compromising position of raiding my computer files." She arched a dubious brow at the newsroom editor. "Tell me, Mr. Lucas, are you in the habit of allowing your reporters to fraternize with murderous drug lords? All for the sake of a story? Even to me, a life seems too high a price to pay for a simple headline."

"You're not a murderous drug lord," Liz protested, instinctively defending Jude, even to herself.

A soft smile broke over the dark woman's face, but she covered it with a skeptically arched brow as she glanced at the editor across from her. "Ah, but that's what Mr. Lucas called me in the editorial he wrote during my trial. Isn't it, Mr. Lucas?"

Lucas opened his mouth, then closed it in astonishment.

"Research works both ways, you see."

"Jude--" Liz warned in a tone of voice that clearly told her to stop playing with her food.

The dark woman smirked at the reporter, but nodded her head slightly in acknowledgment. "Fortunately-- as Elizabeth is fond of saying-- I am both less and more than that description implies."

"Meaning?" Lucas asked.

"Meaning that I have no interest in killing an innocent woman." She paused, taking a deep breath and hesitating over the words she was about to say. "Much less one that I love as much as I love Elizabeth."

The hastily choked-off gasp came not from Lucas but from Liz herself, who had not expected the declaration. She does...? She reached over and carefully interlaced her fingers with Jude's, managing to contain the rest of her reaction in a happy death grip that threatened to break the dark woman's hand.

Jude’s countenance remained unchanged, but she returned the pressure with her fingers, acknowledging the importance of what she had just said. "So you see, Mr. Lucas. I think we can help each other."

Jude and Liz spent the next hours filling in the details of not just what had happened over the last few weeks, but indeed of the last few years of Jude's life. Lucas listened with growing amazement as Liz told the real story behind Jude's fall from grace, her subsequent rise to illicit power, and her more recent attempts at atonement.

"No fucking way," was all he could say when they were finished.

"Beg pardon?" Jude asked blankly.

"He means he can't believe we're sitting on a story this big," Liz translated.

The agent arched a wry brow. "Thanks."

"Spin?" He looked at Liz.

Jude turned to her lover for a translation.

"How am I going to write it," Liz muttered under her breath. To Lucas, she replied. "I was thinking of going hard on the present day. How she's working her ass off to bring the rest of the Cartel in while the real rogue tries to get her killed."

He nodded. The reporter's convenient glossing over of recent history didn't escape anyone at the table. He looked shrewdly at Jude. "I hope you know this is going to make you a walking target." He hadn't spent years busting the asses of corrupt unions in print for nothing. Whistle-blowers-- particularly in dirty games like this one-- were always the first to fall.

"I know that," Jude replied evenly, even though she was cursing Lucas silently for making her say so in front of Elizabeth.

"What are you talking about?" Liz flicked a glance from her lover to her editor. Lucas was looking at Jude with compassion and respect-- mixed with a very healthy dose of fear for the things she had been and still was. "No, Lucas, we're doing this to throw too much light on her. See? So she'll be too high profile to kill." She looked back at Jude who was studiously examining the bottom of her bourbon glass. "Jude?"

No reply.

"Jude..." She grasped Jude's chin and forced their eyes to meet. "Look at me."

Lucas couldn't hide his shock at seeing the Archangel so easily handled by the smaller reporter. He hastily stood up and excused himself from something he knew he shouldn't see. "Why don't I get us some refills?"

Neither woman acknowledged him as he slipped gratefully away from the table.

"What is he talking about?" Liz's eyes were half-frantic, half-furious as they searched the shuttered expression of the woman by her side. "What are you planning?"

Jude gently extricated her jaw from Liz's grasp and clasped the hand in her own, bringing it to her mouth and softly kissing the palm. "C'mere." She led Liz by the hand over to the far end of the patio railing, far away from the prying eyes of the exuberant crowd. Evening's cloak protected them here, allowing Jude a freedom of expression she didn't otherwise have. "I love you," she said quietly, her gaze never wavering from the warm green richness of her lover's eyes. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before... I said that... to him." She gestured at the empty chair where Lucas had been sitting.

"I love you too, Jude." She stroked the graceful line of Jude's cheek, the tip of her finger tracing the wound that she had put there. The dark woman sighed deeply, dropping her head and closing her eyes when she felt the tender caress of her lover's hands running through the thick fullness of her hair. "But I need to know what you're planning. Please."

Jude returned to the worried green of her lover's eyes. "He's right, Liz. When this story gets out, they're going to come after me."

"Then why the hell are we doing it? Why did you say you thought my plan would work?" Anger flared deep within the reporter, born more from the desperate worry over what would happen to her lover than from being misled.

"Your plan will work," Jude contradicted her. "Just not for the reasons you think it will."

Liz gestured impatiently, as if to say "Explain..."

"I can't shoot what I can't see, Liz," Jude said simply.

Involuntarily, the honey-haired woman's thoughts flickered to the hardware Jude had left in her car. "I thought we were going to try and settle this some way that didn't involve you and a gun."

Jude ran a weary hand through her hair and stepped back a pace. "If I knew any other way, I would. But the fact of the matter is... no matter what kind of 'spin' you put on this... there will always be more people who will be just as happy to see me dead as alive. It's not like I'm an innocent in all this. When you get right down to it, I don't think the Agency really wants me dead. I know it's not saying much, but they'd rather have me than the Medellin or the Calli. And I did essentially get rid of  Massala for them.

"So you think it's just the one guy or group?"

"Yeah. But if that story comes out... splashing the Agency's dirty linen all over the front pages, they will want me dead."

The reporter shook her head. "I'm confused. Then why do the story at all?"

"I'm betting that the rogue finds out about the story before it goes to press and that provokes him into making a move. If he thinks we know who he is, he’ll try and stop me." She paused and then added. "Kent's on his way."

Liz's eyes grew wide with alarm. "You think he's involved?" She gripped her lover's forearm tightly.

Jude gently stroked Liz's hand, prying the fingers from their painful grip on her muscles. "I think he's a conduit for information. That's all." I hope. In talking over the past with Elizabeth, she had realized that Kent had been involved in some way through every step of her nightmare journey. While she didn't think he was smart enough to have masterminded the whole thing, the speed with which Jason's death had been covered up had-- as Elizabeth had pointed out-- reeked of panic and fear. That has Kent written all over it, she thought grimly, remembering the ease with which he had given her up before.

The press of Elizabeth's skin against hers refocused her attention. "So this whole thing with Lucas was just a cover?"

Jude shook her head. "No. I want you to write the story. But hold it. If I'm right, this whole thing is gonna go down tonight or tomorrow. And if things go bad..."

"Don't say that," Liz pleaded.

"I have to say it," Jude insisted, staring intently at her lover. "Listen to me... If things go bad, I want you to run the story. It will protect you. While the Agency doesn't mind taking out the odd civilian or ten, they'd hate to do it in the middle of a spotlight. Breaking the real story behind the Archangel will give you a plenty big spotlight. Trust me." She reached out and gently traced the outlines of her lover's face. "Even if I can't come back to you, I can still protect you. Let me do that." Jude leaned in for a sweet kiss, letting their lips tangle gently for a few moments before breaking away. "Please."

 "You better come back to me, Jude Lucien," Liz murmured, burying her head in the crook of Jude's shoulder and surrendering to the gentle embrace of her lover's arms.

"Believe me, love, I have every intention of coming back to you." Jude could feel the shape of Elizabeth's smile against her neck. "You and me, we've got a vacation to plan." That got her a gentle kiss pressed into the warm skin there. "Deal?"

The discreet clearing of a throat behind them interrupted Liz's answer. Jude glanced over her lover's honey hair to see Kent's broad form outlined by the restaurant's brilliant lights.

She had never considered him a friend... when they met she hadn't had any concept of what friendship was... and his cowardice had sealed a wedge between them that would always remain. She didn't hold his actions against him personally: some people, most people, were simply not made for deep cover work. What she did hold against him was his not admitting it and getting out before the catastrophe had happened. Had he been partnered with anyone other than the Archangel, there would have been two dead agents and months of work destroyed by his carelessness.

Fortunately, Kent had survived to see the error of his ways.

He had proven to be a very talented member of her Investigative Support Unit, keeping track of multiple agents and providing background information. Jude had gladly let him supervise her support teams, relying on his administrative expertise to get her what she needed and when. The stench of cowardice, however, had always clung to him. She could see it in his eyes when he looked at her. She hadn't been kidding when she told Liz that Kent was a company man. He had been Agency-- first, last, and always-- and his failure in the field had dealt him a hard blow. Others called him a fanatic-- of course, those same people called her an Archangel-- so she paid their assessments no heed, preferring her own judgment.

Now as she stared at his silhouetted form, she was wondering if she shouldn't have paid more attention to the whispers that had always trailed after him.

"Sorry to... uh.. interrupt." He flashed them an easy smile. "But your call sounded kind of important."

"Not a problem," Jude replied just as easily, an arm resting casually around Liz's shoulders. "We were just... taking a moment."

"Can't blame you there." His gaze encompassed Liz's lithe figure appreciatively, and Jude's eyes involuntarily narrowed at the scrutiny. "You're a very lucky woman, Jude."

The dark woman's muscles relaxed just a little at the respectful note in Kent's voice. "Yes I am," she agreed simply. "Come on, let's sit down. We have a lot to talk about."

Liz excused herself from the pair as discreetly as possible, half-afraid that if she remained any longer she would betray their suspicions to Kent. She found Lucas still at the bar inside. "A lot to take in, huh?" she asked ruefully, standing easily at the corner of the bar where he sat.

He shook his head. "I still can't believe half of the things she's done."

"She's not an evil person, Lucas," Liz retorted heatedly, still ready to defend her lover.

"I didn't say she was." He held up his hand in surrender. "I think she's done some evil things... but then again, I can't imagine what it would be like to be forced to kill the only person in my life that meant anything to me."

Liz blew out a deep breath. "I know... I don't know how she's survived."

"Most people wouldn't." Lucas replied bluntly. "And in a way you can't blame her for losing her way. But Liz, that doesn't absolve her of the horrible things she's done since. Do you know--"

"Yes, Lucas, I know," the reporter interrupted. "I know exactly what she's done. Remember, I was the one obsessed with her for months. Who pulled all the files, who talked to all the people too afraid to talk, who looked at all the crime scene photos of the Massacre." She rubbed the bridge of her nose tiredly and then ran a hand through her hair. It was a gesture that mirrored Jude's own habit exactly, and if the reporter could have seen herself she would have laughed. But her mind was filled with the memory of her lover, covered in blood that wasn't her own. "I know," she repeated softly.

"And you love her?" Lucas asked softly.

She met the concerned gaze of her boss, wondering how in the world she could explain why loving Jude Lucien wasn't something she had to think about... it was simply a part of who she was now. How could she explain the days and nights of conversation as Jude tentatively opened herself, revealing the decades of pain buried there. As Jude had surrendered the fragments of her shattered soul to the fair-haired reporter's care, together they had begun to repair the damage, replacing Jason's lost bond with a warm, golden love the likes of which neither woman had ever dreamed of feeling. Liz had seen firsthand the scars upon her lover's psyche, and she knew there was no way to express to Lucas what Jude's darkness had cost her. She loved Jude for all these reasons.

She also loved Jude because of the infinitely precious gift she had given Liz. For the first time in her life, she felt like she lived and breathed, not just functioned to tell other people's stories. The gauzy distance between her and the rest of the world that had allowed her to understand without empathizing was gone... and she was thrust headlong into the dizzying world of emotion-- passion, anger, violence mixed their dark colors with the lighter ones of love, tenderness, and joy on the canvas of her life. She knew now what drove people to love... and to kill... and a part of her wondered what would happen to her should Jude not return from this last journey below.

"How?" he repeated softly, drawing her from her introspection. "How can you love her?"

No, there was no way to explain, she realized. "I just do."

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Kent walking hurriedly through the tables, pausing at the maitre d’ stand to speak to Ria and kiss her on the cheek. His normally ruddy features seemed pale to the reporter, but it could have been just a trick of the light. A warm presence at her back announced itself as her lover. "Hi," she said without turning around.

"Hey," Jude murmured softly, nodding at Lucas. Her arms wound themselves around Liz's waist of their own accord, wanting the comfort of her lover's lithe body pressed against her for just a few moments longer before she had to go.

Liz tilted her head slightly to study Jude's closed expression. "What did he say?"

"About what you'd expect," Jude answered cryptically.

"Where's he going?"

"He said that he was supposed to meet Tony at the office for a debriefing on a case they'd been working. My guess is he's calling his boss."

Lucas' alert ears had missed none of the exchange. "Are you expecting trouble?"

Jude chuckled darkly. "I'm always expecting trouble, Mr. Lucas."

The older man studied the pair closely as their bodies seemed to intertwine naturally-- two halves of a long-sundered whole. "Jude..." He seemed to stumble over her name. "Call me Lucas. Everyone else does."

Liz's fair brows flew up dramatically at her boss' tacit acknowledgment of Jude's place in her life. A ripple of surprise running through her body, but she accepted the overture gracefully nonetheless. "Thanks,"

"Okay..." Lucas downed the last of his beer and reached for his wallet. Throwing a couple of bills on the bar, he nodded to them both. "I think I've got enough to get started on the sidebar pieces to the main story. I was thinking maybe a timeline, other ops that she pulled out. Stuff like that."

"Sounds good," Liz agreed, her muscles tensing as they returned to the reasons that brought them together. Tightening her arms, Jude silently offered her comfort. The reporter relaxed gratefully into the embrace, drawing renewed strength from the powerful body behind her. "I'll start working on the lead. There are some files in my car that should provide us with all the deep background we need."

"Good. We'll need that documentation." Lucas nodded. "You want to come with me to the paper? Get started there?"

Liz felt a sudden wariness in the set of the arms around her. Trust. The word flickered across the reporter's thoughts. "I think I'll stay here instead," she demurred, tacitly agreeing to stay under Ria's watchful eye. The dark looks that her lover's friend had been tossing her from across the restaurant hadn't been missed by the reporter. She knew Jude must have told Maria at least some-- probably all-- of what had happened between them. "There are some last minute things that may develop. I've got a Powerbook in my car, so I can work just as easily from the restaurant."

Lucas narrowed his eyes at his employee, but wisely didn't say anything. "Suit yourself." He shrugged. "Jude, it's been an experience." He held out a hand that Jude immediately accepted from her position behind Liz. Her fingers were warm and supple, her grip firm and confident as she shook hands with the newsman. Slate gray eyes regarded the woman in front of him with new respect. "I hope I'll get a chance to see you again when this is all over."

"I'd like that, Lucas." She offered him a genuine smile, and the editor saw a totally different woman. The austere lines of her features softened, and the menacing exquisiteness of the predator was replaced by a warm, pulsing beauty that shimmered in her eyes and threatened to take his breath away.

Liz Gardener was a very lucky woman indeed.

He grinned back at her, shaking his head. "Fuck me... if anybody'd said two days ago that I'd be socializing with the Archangel, I'd have told them they were outta their fucking minds."

"She isn't the Archangel," Liz irritably reminded him.

Jude interrupted before Lucas could offer his apologies. "Yes I am," she said softly, turning her lover around to face her. "I have to be." Her tone-- though gentle-- brooked no argument. "At least until this whole thing is over."

The vice that gripped Liz's heart slowly eased, allowing the reporter to breathe normally once more. "I understand," she murmured, looking into the blue that had almost completely thawed. She knew, however, that one word would bring the twilight's angel back from wherever she had temporarily retreated. "I don't have to like it though."

Realizing that he was once more intruding where he had no business being, Lucas discreetly excused himself to the two women who had forgotten his presence.

Nodding her good-byes to the departing editor, Jude returned a solemn gaze to her lover. "I hope you don't like it. God knows, I don't."

"I'm just afraid of losing you." She buried her face in the warm silk of Jude's shirt.

"Look at me." She tilted green eyes to meet her blue eyes. "I promise you, if you lose me it won't be to that." Her eyes gleamed eerily in the restaurant's gentle lighting. "I'm never going back to what I was before, Elizabeth. Never. They'll have to kill me first."

In that brief instant she could see Jude's broken and battered body sprawled across the floor of an empty room, the flimsy silk and leather she wore no barrier to the life's blood pouring from her body. Liz shivered, icy tentacles reaching through the warm room and clutching at her soul.     Chapter 17  

The night cradled its favorite subject in its arms once more as the humid darkness wrapped around Jude, snapping sharply at her face and hair. She could smell the faint hint of moisture on the wind's breath and knew Miami was probably in for a nasty thunderstorm later. Great... that's all I need, she thought grimly. God putting in His two cents' worth... What's next? Hellfire and brimstone?

A sweat that had nothing to do with the 100-plus degree heat wave currently gripping the city slid down the angular planes of her face. Fear... she realized with surprise. For the first time in her life, she was absolutely terrified. Her fear wasn't cold and stark... no, it was warm and insidious... working its way easily through her body, down deep into the very synapses that carried her will from her brain to her muscles. It encircled her heart and squeezed gently to remind her grimly of her very mortality. It danced on the wind and whispered in her ear, coaxing her to abandon her mission and to forget the path she sought to forge through the darkness.

It told her that her life would be forfeit if she failed. That much had always been true. This time, however, her failure would carry with it too high a price-- it would mean leaving Elizabeth forever.

That was simply not acceptable.

Of course, on the other hand, success meant trying to make a life with Elizabeth. Trying to blend the darkness that had been her habitat for so long with the natural brilliance in which her lover dwelt was not something Jude looked forward to doing. A great part of her doubted that it could ever be done. But she could no more stop trying than she could stop living.

Which brought her right back to where she had started-- face to face with a fear that gripped her no matter how she tried to twist out of its grasp.

I gotta stop thinking so much.

Fortunately her musings were brought to an abrupt halt as she found herself reaching the locked gate that guarded Romair Massala's home. The wrought iron extravagance of the fence was de rigeur for the discreet area in which he lived, its bolted gate and sinister-looking gatehouse the only outward indications of its owner's illicit vocation. A dark-clad sentry shifted within the gatehouse, his eyes sweeping suspiciously along the length of the Porsche and coming to a halt on the woman piloting it. "You lost?" he asked, the musical lilt of his accent unintentionally removing any menace from the question.

Jude didn't blink. "I'm here to see your boss," she replied curtly.

"Mr. Massala's not receiving visitors this evening," the sentry informed her.

"I think he'll see me." When the sentry made no move for the sleek cell phone she could see sitting on the desk, she growled low in her throat. Negotiating with a little pissant employee was the last thing she had time for. A single agile leap had her standing in the Boxster's seat, her Sig pressed up against the guard's nose before he could move for his own piece. "Get on the fucking phone and tell your fucking boss that the Archangel is here to see him. Comprehende?" She deliberately used her agency moniker to get his attention.

It must have worked, for the sentry's eyes widened as the dark woman revealed her identity. The Archangel's assassination of Rico Massala was the stuff of legend, even now, within the Cartel. The story was whispered through the Cartel's ranks like a child's ghost story, terrifying everyone who heard it. There had been two survivors of the Massacre, and their descriptions hadn't done justice to the beautiful, terrible visage that was now staring him down. The gun in her hand meant nothing-- it was Jude's eyes that sent his trembling hand to the phone.

As soon as he punched Romair's code, Jude snatched the phone out of his hand, too irritated to wait a minute longer. "Romair? It's Jude. We need to talk."

Romair's voice-- though clearly startled to hear her voice on his intercom line-- was calm. "Certainly. When would you like to meet?"

"Now. I'm sitting outside your gate."

There was a long pause on the other end of the connection, and Jude could almost hear the thoughts tumbling through Romair's brain as he examined all his options. Romair wasn't an idiot... he would have to know something big was going down to bring her to his door. Finally, he spoke. "All right. Have Miguel buzz you in." He cleared his throat delicately. "That is... if you haven't..."

"Your guard is fine, Romair," Jude assured him, grinning at the youth who was still eyeing her-- and her Sig-- warily. She had never seen an Argentinean turn quite that shade of pale before. "I just got a little impatient."

A deep, rolling laugh echoed through their connection. "I can imagine. Well, if he's not too petrified, he can send you in. I'll let my people on the door know, so they don't get a... similar greeting."

"Thanks, Romair. I'll be through in a minute." She broke their connection and handed the sentry back his phone. "See? That wasn't so bad, now was it?" she asked him conversationally. "Your boss says to let me through." The sentry nodded shakily and reached for the automatic latch. Jude slid back down into the leather seat, tucking her gun snugly back in her shoulder rig. Its weight was a reassuring pressure against her side, a familiar companion as she traveled the shadows once more.

Once granted admission, the Porsche purred smoothly along the winding path. She threw the car into park at the head of the circular drive in front of the brick mansion's impressive front door. Two men wearing identical dark suits stood between her and the entrance.

Should I call them the Men in Black? Jude snickered to herself as she approached them.

"No weapons," the larger of the pair informed her, looking pointedly at the shoulder rig.

I hate Suits. "If I were going to kill your boss, you dumb sonofabitch, I wouldn't have called and announced myself."

"No weapons," he repeated.

Good Lord... Romair has wind-up Suits.... I wonder what else this guy says if you pull his string.

She opened her mouth to fire off a sardonic reply but was interrupted by Romair's smooth voice. "A bit belligerent today, aren’t we?" He stood framed in the doorway, an easy smile stretched over his features that reached into his brown eyes. He was dressed casually, in cream-colored linen trousers and a pale peach shirt that complemented his dark good looks. His shirtsleeves were rolled up over his muscular forearms, and-- Jude noted with surprise-- he was barefoot.

"Too much coffee I guess," she replied with a smirk, confirming her internal suspicion that she liked this man, despite her ostensible mission to bring him down. It had been easy to dislike Rico-- he had been a loathsome little toady with a penchant for treating his employees as if they were circus animals available solely for his entertainment. Jude had been his prized panther, sleek and glistening with brutality, and he had enjoyed watching her jump on his command. But as wild animals are wont to do, Jude had proven that she would not be tamed to his call.

Bringing in Romair was supposed to be the price of her redemption, but as the Argentinean waved the guards away with a casual hand and invited the panther into his home, Jude finally understood that redemption-- the kind she wanted and craved-- could not be bought by betraying another. She would have to live with her sins for the rest of her days. No one else-- no agency, no church, no one -- would be able to grant her peace. Whatever grace she managed to achieve would only be what she granted herself... and that left her precious little hope indeed. Elizabeth's face drifted through her thoughts, and unconsciously the dark woman remembered the tender embrace they had shared before she left. The quietly whispered, "I love you..." still shimmered through her hearing and bolstered her courage with its strength.

Maybe there's hope for me yet.

"I must say, Jude, that your unexpected arrival is a little... disconcerting," Romair was saying as he led her through the house to his study. She caught fleeting glimpses of tasteful furniture, plush rugs, and subdued lighting as she trailed behind him. A small boy peeked around the corner from the far end of the corridor, regarding the intruder with undisguised curiosity. She grinned at him, and he squeaked softly in surprise, his small head ducking back out of sight. "I don't usually do business in my home." This last was said with an almost imperceptible tightening in his voice as he eyed Jude's leather-clad form carefully. "It's bad enough that I have to have armed guards protecting my family... but I insure they are as... discreet... as possible."

"In other words, you don't like the boogey man showing up at your house because it scares the kids," Jude interpreted dryly. "Look... I'm not happy about this either. I assure you, I have no interest in terrorizing your family and I don't have time to spar with you. We have a problem."

She watched him sit down behind a massive mahogany desk littered with the tasks that had occupied him before her untimely interruption. Behind him was a matching cabinet that ran the length of the broad window under which it rested. That surface was crowded with pictures of Romair, a woman she assumed to be his wife, and a number of small children who closely resembled the man in front of her. They look happy, she noted almost wistfully, suddenly hating her own menacing intrusion into what was obviously Romair's haven. "I'm sorry," she said quietly.

Romair pursed his lips and motioned her to the chair opposite him. "Sorry for what?" he asked softly, although it seemed he already knew. His eyes were warming with regard as he gazed at her.

"Barging in here." She glanced down at her own attire and the gun that often seemed as if it were an extension of her very body. "Like this." She smiled wryly. "I'm not exactly the kind of person you'd normally invite home for dinner."

"Nonsense, Jude." Now he, too, was smiling. "You're always welcome in my home for dinner. Just leave the gun behind." He studied the pants that clung to her sleek length appreciatively. "And the leather too," he added with a regretful sigh that Jude didn't miss.

"Paola the jealous type?" she asked lightly.

He laughed delightedly. "Not at all. However, you might prove too tempting for my eldest." He gestured to a silver framed photograph of an exquisite young girl who stared challengingly into the camera. "Ariana seems to have inherited not only her father's eye for beautiful women but also his headstrong will." He laughed self-deprecatingly. "Someone like you... would prove an irresistible challenge to her."

To Jude's discerning eyes, Ariana seemed to be about 18 years old, and she studied the picture with surprise. She could have sworn that he had told her that he had only been married for ten years. Glancing at the array of other photographs scattered along the cabinet, she noticed that none of Romair's other children had yet reached adolescence. He followed her eyes as she studied the pictures. "She seems... older than your other children," Jude said carefully.

He chuckled at her inference. "Ariana was the result of a... youthful indiscretion... on my part. I wasn't any older than she is now when Ariana's mother found herself expecting." He looked solemnly into Jude's eyes. "I am a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. I proposed marriage to Julia and was rejected." His mouth twisted in a grimace, the wound still tender after all these years. "My family wasn't... appropriate... enough for hers. Despite Julia's condition, I was turned away from her door and Julia was sent away to have the child in secret."

"Then how did...?" In spite of the urgency of her mission, Jude was pulled into his tale. Romair was unmistakably a man of strength, resolution, and honor-- despite his illegal empire. Her own resolve not to buy her freedom at the cost of his grew.

"I found the place where they sent her, and my family arranged for the 'adoption' of my own child. Ariana has been in my family's care from the day she was born. And when I married Paola, Ariana was acknowledged as my daughter and has lived with us ever since." He smiled fondly at the picture of his eldest child, who was indeed a distaff version of her father. "She is intelligent, wild, and completely tempestuous. And you-- my dear Jude-- are exactly the kind of trouble she craves finding.” He looked carefully at the woman opposite him. "Although I don't think a dance or two with you would do her any harm at all. She is entirely too used to getting her own way with everyone." He nodded, a small smile playing across his features.

Jude had the grace to blush at Romair's frank assessment of her appeal, never mind the fact that he was talking about his own daughter. "Uh... well..." She was completely at a loss, and it delighted the man opposite her.

"Oh this is wonderful..." he laughed. Romair had a rich, deep voice and his laugh was no exception. It was warm and kind, expressing a happiness that Jude had never associated with people in their line of work. "The notorious Archangel caught flat-footed. Too bad no one would believe me."

"You got that right," Jude agreed dryly. "As... intriguing... as this line of conversation is, it's not the reason I'm here."

His face immediately sobered, and the warm brown of his eyes took on a calculating glint. "There's something you want from me."

"Yes," Jude replied unhesitatingly. "But there's something I can give you for it in return."

"And what might that be?"

"Your life."

The Argentinean frowned, studying the sleek length before him again. "You've already done that, Jude. I haven't forgotten that you're the one who got me out of that boathouse when the DEA decided to pay us an unexpected call."

Jude's eyes sparked. "You knew they were Agency?"

"Not at the time, no. I dispatched several of my men to the site afterwards. They found..."

"H-K shells." Jude nodded grimly. "I figured it out once I got home and looked at the weapon I took from one of them."

"Are you here to tell me I have a mole in my organization?"

"It's a little more complicated than that. How in the loop were you when Rico ran the Cartel?"

Romair sat back in the comfortable leather chair and linked his hands together in front of him. His brow furrowed in thought as Jude sat silently, mentally urging him to hurry up. After a long pause, he spoke, "You want to know the name of the man who betrayed your partner to my cousin, don't you?"

For the second time in as many minutes, Jude was caught thoroughly flat-footed. "You've known all this time?" Her blue eyes paled violently, the muscles in her body instinctively coiling. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"Let's just say it was my ace-in-the-hole." Romair held out a cautioning hand. "Before we met, I thought perhaps I could use it as a bargaining chip. To make you come to the table with me." He shifted in his chair and eyed the Archangel shrewdly. "But you agreed without question. That's always confused me, Jude. You had no reason to sit down with me." He laughed mirthlessly. "My charming daughter aside, I have nothing to offer you. The Cartel will never be what it was... It won't even be a fraction of that. And you know it."

"Perhaps I was tired of having to worry about freelancers trying to bring you my head on a pike as a greeting card."

"I seriously doubt there is anybody-- affiliated or no-- that could bring your head anywhere it didn't want to go."

"Doesn't stop them from trying," Jude commented wryly. She shifted in her chair and stood, her muscles clamoring for activity. The muted roar in her ears was growing as she felt herself inching closer and closer to the answers that had eluded her these long years. She paced the long length of Romair's office, her booted feet leaving soft indentations in the plush gray carpet. Spinning on her heel, she confronted him squarely. "You're right. I had my own reasons for sitting down with you."

"Which are?"

"I had a deal with the DEA-- strike that, I had a deal with a man who was collaborating with Jason's betrayer to bring you in and take down the rest of the Cartel." She paced away again, deliberately turning her back on him.

Romair's face hardened into a mask of fury, and his body trembled with the effort of remaining seated as he gently eased his Glock from its recessed ledge under the desk.

"Put the gun down, Romair. I'm not going through with it," she said without turning around. Her pacing brought her to his eyes once more. "The thing is, there never was a 'real' deal. It was all a scam to get us both killed. It was actually a very nice set-up. Two drug dealers haggling over territory get killed in a DEA raid." She smiled in grim admiration of the plan's beauty. "The rogue's name dies with you, and the one loose end-- namely me-- finally gets tied off."

Romair thought for a moment, considering Jude's words. "So why haven't they done this before?"

"Two reasons. One-- power was only recently re-consolidated in the Cartel. They had no way of knowing who in your organization to hit until now. Two-- they could never get close enough to me. As long as I was still in business, nobody could get near me."

"But if you thought they were your allies, your guard would go down."

Jude shrugged. "At least enough to let them get closer than they ever have."

Romair looked shrewdly at her. "You certainly have to have more than one contact there. You could go to them with your suspicions with my head as a peace offering. So why have you decided not to follow through with your end of the bargain?"

Blue eyes met brown, each taking the measure of the other. Each gaze was equal parts strength, resolve, and suspicion as they studied one another. Finally Jude gestured to the cluster of pictures sitting behind the Argentinean. "Because of them," she said at last. "Because you seem to be the person of honor that I'd like to be-- despite what we both do for a living. After everything I've done, I've no right to trade your freedom for mine." She shrugged softly. "Recently, my... priorities... have changed. Going on the way I have for the last few years... just isn't enough anymore." Jude ran an agitated hand through her hair, uncertain of why exactly she was opening herself to Romair's penetrating gaze, but unable to stop herself.

The expression on Romair's face was inscrutable, but at last his tense muscles visibly relaxed and his eyes warmed again to the woman standing across from him. "Do your remember when we met? I said that I hoped to one day be able to tell you what I saw in you."

"I'm not sure I want to know."

He smiled broadly at her. "Think about what you just said. About why you won't deal with the Agency," he replied gently. "That's what I see. You are a woman of honor, Jude. And strength. And compassion. Whatever darkness you've walked in has only blinded you to those qualities-- not taken them away." He paused then carefully added, "I'm just glad something has helped you begin to see your way clear again." Jude winced as a blush began to softly warm her features, and Romair's smile grew. "Or should I say someone?" The blush deepened, and  he chuckled happily. Rising from his seat, he crossed the room to her, placing his hands on her shoulders and drawing their eyes level. "I like this side of you, Jude. I like it very much."

Jude glanced away from the taller man, unable to take the kindness in his glance. "I'm glad you like it, but it's not gonna do us much good if it gets us both killed." With the wry words, Jude gathered up the emotions of the last few hours and tucked them neatly away in the back of her mind. She needed to concentrate fully, and thinking about Elizabeth would only distract her from the ruthless tasks she had ahead of her.

Romair nodded slightly and stepped away in understanding. "So what's your plan? I give you the name and you go have a showdown at high noon?"

Jude shrugged. "Something like that. I've already got something in motion that will hopefully draw them out, but I want to know who and what to expect when that happens."

"I see. Well, it's not as simple as one man's name."

"It never is, Romair. But we can start with that name. Who is it?"

Without hesitation, Romair supplied it. "Kent Laird."

"Kent." Jude paused, the muscles in her jaw clenching rhythmically. She shook her head. "He's an accomplice. I knew that already. Who's he working for?"

"Back then as far as I know-- no one. He supplied Rico with your partner's name. But he must have been, what do you call it? A double agent. Because he never said a word about you."

Jude's mind was racing frantically as she realized that every one of Liz's theories were playing out. Kent hadn't been on Rico's payroll, he was trying to force her hand by eliminating the "distraction" that was her relationship with Jason. Now he was trying to clean up his mess. Something occurred to her. "What do you mean back then?"

"Jude, how did he know about the meeting you and I had scheduled at the marina? The only person I shared that with was--"

"Sasha." Jude closed her eyes in realization. Oh my god.  

"So are you actually going to talk to me, or are you just going to keep glaring at me from across the room?" Liz braced both hands on the table where Ria sat and looked at the other woman expectantly. Jude had been gone about an hour, explaining that she had to see Romair. During that time. Liz had struggled over the first paragraphs of the article she was writing. Years of training had taught her never to bury her lead; but, for Liz, being in love with Jude was the lead.

That was something the people of Miami really didn't need to know.

However, it shone through in every word she wrote about the dark woman. It was in each paragraph she typed, deleted, and retyped. The laughing blue-eyed lover was the woman she wanted to capture on her screen and, through this, wipe out the Archangel's spectral presence in their lives.

She knew it was probably a foolish hope. Jude's darkness would remain with them always, she suspected, creeping into the wonderful light that they shared together. I can deal with this, she told herself, not wanting to think about the sinister guns that Jude had lovingly handled or the ease with which she had disabled that man on the beach. She had felt that wrath turned upon her and was very grateful for whatever impulse had stilled Jude's finger on the gun's trigger that night.

Liz had been conscious of Ria's scrutiny during her mental gyrations, and she really wished that the other would just yell at her and get it over with. Ria was an important person to her lover, and Liz was going to be damned if Ria's disapproval was going to be one more thing that was standing between them. With an unusual lack of rhetorical grace, she had confronted the restaurateur.

"So?" she prompted again. "If you have something you need to say to me, say it. Because I don't have all night."

Ria's brow darkened even more, if that was possible, as she studied the honey-haired woman across from her. "You don't want to start this, Liz. Trust me."

The reporter pursed her lips, then relaxed into the chair opposite Maria. "She told you everything, right?"

"Yes," came the curt reply.

"She tell you that I'll cut my own tongue out before I ever lie to her like that again?"

Ria absorbed these words with no change in her expression. “That’s a very noble sentiment, but forgive me if I’m a little skeptical. Especially considering recent events.”

A wave of anger washed through the reporter. “Look--”

“NO!” Jason’s wife interrupted. “You look. Jude said she forgave you-- and I honestly believe she has. I’ve never seen an expression in her eyes like I saw tonight. But it’s not that easy for me. Whether she knows it or not, that woman is incredibly dear to me. And you walk in out of nowhere and turn her life upside down.”

Liz wanted to defend herself, wanted to excuse her actions, but she knew deep inside that Ria was right. However, it didn’t make it any easier to hear.

“Two days ago I thought you were the best thing to ever happen to her.” The expression in Maria’s eyes was steady and unwavering. “Today I’m worried that you’re the worst.”

The honey-haired woman mulled those words and the stark trail of fear they blazed through her body. “Maybe I’m both.”

“Maybe,” Ria agreed. “That’s what I’m most afraid of.”

Knowing there was no way she could explain her actions, but wanting to anyway, Liz took a deep breath. "Look, Ria. What I did was terrible. And if I'd had any sense I would have told her that first day. I realized even then that what was happening between us was like nothing I'd ever felt. But I didn't say a word." She ran a hand through her hair and blew out an exasperated breath. "I just thought... I don't know what I thought. That maybe the lie would go away... that something would happen to make it not matter." She shook her head and added softly, "I just didn't want to stop the miracle that was happening to me."

Ria regarded her silently for a moment, then spoke quietly. "Watching you two together is like watching a lion play with a child. Knowing that disaster could happen at any second."

Liz bristled at the analogy. "Look, I know she's dangerous and everything, but I'm not a child."

"Oh no, you're not," Ria agreed. "Jude is." Seeing Liz's stunned expression, she continued. "I'm serious, Liz. She has no frame of reference for what's happening between you two. Even what she had with Jason doesn't begin to compare. For as long as I've known her, she's kept everything locked carefully away, so no one can touch what is essentially her. And now you've just plowed right through all that. I'm not kidding when I say that you hold her life in your hands, Liz. Do you know what kind of power you have over her?" Ria held Liz's green eyes in an almost-hypnotic gaze. "She has no defense against you."

Liz swallowed hard, a thousand rushing sensations crashing haphazardly through her. Visions assaulted her mind of how easily Jude had curled her long body into Liz's smaller one, how tightly the dark woman had held on during the demon night they had shared, how anguished Jude's eyes had been when she had realized her betrayal. "What choice do I have?" Jude had said to her that morning. Feeling as though someone had reached inside her chest and snatched her lungs from her body, Liz gasped softly for breath-- finally understanding the depth of the dark woman's feelings for her. "Oh god..." she choked, bracing her elbows on the table and holding her head in her hands. She drew another shuddering breath and brought her eyes back to Ria's. "It works both ways, you know," she realized softly, knowing that her fearlessness in the face of Jude's rage was propelled by the same out-of-control need to have the dark woman close to her.

"I hope so, Liz. I truly hope so. Because God help you both if it's not."

The women sat in silence, contemplating both the past and the future, until a hearty voice interrupted them. "What are two of the most beautiful women in Miami doing sitting here alone? I can't believe Jude would leave you alone for a moment. I know I wouldn't."

Liz felt a tiny tremor of fear ripple its way through her body as she glanced up at the man beaming down at them. "Kent..." she said, forcing a smile to her face.  

  As Jude careened through the city streets, a quick phone call told her that Sasha hadn't been to the Club that night and wasn't expected. An ominous bank of clouds, obscuring the moon and stars, rolled in and reflected back the neon glow of the city. Miami was painted in an oddly pulsing gold and rose light, and people on the streets seemed to welcome the coming storm. Lightning broke the sheen occasionally with piercing white bolts, while thunder echoed distantly. The wind had picked up noticeably in the time she had been with Romair, and though rain drops had begun to dot her windshield, she hadn't taken the time to pull the Boxster's top up.

Her body piloted the car automatically towards Sasha's loft, her subconscious reminding her of the twists and turns down dark alleys that it took to get there. The Porsche roared to a stop, and she took the steep stairs three at a time, knowing all the while that this wasn't the smartest thing she had ever done. "SASHA!!!!" She pounded the metal door ferociously, the pain running from her fist down her arm. "GOD DAMN YOU... OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR....!" She paused for a minute, listening for any remote sounds from inside, until her memory dredged up where her ex-lover kept a spare key. Swinging by her legs from the landing, Jude twisted her body under the metal structure, long arms reaching for the tiny magnetic box underneath it. When Sasha had first told her the key's location, Jude had complained about how difficult it was to reach. "Anything worth taking is worth working for... don't you think, Jude?"

"Worth taking, huh, Sash?" Jude muttered as she grabbed the key and twisted her torso back up. "What are you trying to take from me, querida?" A few swift moments later, Jude was in the darkened loft. She drew her gun carefully from its holster and proceeded in cautiously. Like caution's gonna do me a lot of good now after that ruckus I just made... Shit... Angel, you're losing it. She prowled swiftly through the area, noting that it looked like Sasha had indeed been home earlier. She glanced into the kitchen, noting the cordless phone sitting beside the remains of a salad and a pile of spread-out papers. Jude rifled through them, grimacing when she recognized the coded spreadsheets detailing the organizational structure of her Colombian routes and the money they brought in. She grabbed the phone and hit the redial button. When Kent's recorded voice told her that he wasn't able to take her call right now, Jude swore loudly and hurled the instrument across the room. It landed with a crash against a framed print, shattering the glass into thousands of pieces.

"Think, Angel, where would they meet?" She scrolled through the possibilities in her head, before the answer came clear. "The office," she growled. Not only would they have total privacy on a Friday night, but Sasha would have access to everything she needed to set up their plans. "That's gotta be it."

The rain had begun in earnest now, but Jude felt nothing as she ripped along the slick pavement in the Porsche. As she neared the office district, she paid careful attention to the cars she passed, recognizing none of them as belonging to any of her employees. It was possible that Sasha would bring in freelancers to help her take control, but not probable. Why rock an already smoothly running boat? Once I'm out of the picture, she just steps in and everything stays the same. The middlemen respect strength, and if she gives them no reason to doubt her, they'll stay with her. "Motherfuck..." she muttered, easing her car into the underground garage. That was the only entrance any of them could use, the only one keyed to after-hours access. "One way in, one way out. Question is-- are they expecting me?"

Still no sign of Sasha's car. Or Kent's. Jude left the Porsche parked near the elevator and punched in a request for the 14th floor, just in case anybody was monitoring the comings and goings on the elevator. She'd climb the stairwell the rest of the way, just to be safe. Slipping the Sig free once more, she also pulled the other one from its resting place at the small of her back. "I look like something out of a fucking episode of Miami Vice," she complained to her reflection in the elevator's mirrored surfaces. She checked the clips in both guns and then slid the second one back behind her back. Jude wasn't usually the type to go in guns blazing. Her theory was, the more guns you had, the more chances you had of blowing your own head off. When necessary, however, she would shoot whoever and whatever stood in her way.

The adrenaline kicked in, endorphins rushing through her blood now with abandon. This was the part of the hunt her body always responded to, and her muscles quivered in anticipation. She took to the stairs silently, cautiously... her mind cataloging the pain she was going to inflict on the man who had delivered Jason to his enemies. Her eyes were almost white as the rage consumed her, the blue disappearing almost completely. Somewhere in the far recess of her mind, the warmth of Liz's love cowered in the face of so much ice, hiding itself away in fear of being extinguished.

18... 19... 20....

The floors fell away as she continued her steady ascent towards her quarry. She was focused on one thing now. Finding Kent and making him pay. Sasha would be dealt with harshly as well, but she was far from committed to killing her ex-lover. Maybe some renegade carnal impulses from the morning remained, maybe she simply didn't want to kill a body that she had possessed so thoroughly. Whatever it was, Sasha's fate was still undecided.

23... 24... 25...

She reached the 27th floor and soundlessly opened the fire exit door, her gaze sweeping the corridor both ways before she emerged. Every nerve ending awake, every instinct attuned to noises that could indicate trouble, she crept down the hall towards her office. Stopping at the door, she readied herself to go in, but a trickle of light leaking from the boardroom down the hall caught her eye.

What the fuck...?

Stealthily changing directions, she continued down the corridor and drew closer to the half-open door. Catching sight of a honey-blond flash of hair, Jude let out a strangled roar and kicked the door open.

"Hello, Jude. Welcome back to your nightmare."

Kent was sitting easily at the head of the table in one of the leather wingback chairs. Liz was beside him, tied to one of the cubicle desk chairs. Her face was bruised viciously, her hair matted with blood from an unseen wound.  She was slumped over, and Jude couldn't tell for sure, but she thought her lover was still breathing. He better hope she is.

The Sig came up and pointed itself unwaveringly at Kent's head. "You're going to die, motherfucker," she said calmly.

"Jude, we're all going to die. The question is, who's going to die today? Not me, I assure you." His own Glock was pointed at Liz's head. "Now, put the gun down or she dies right now."

"How do I know she's not already dead?" Jude deliberately played dumb. "More to the point, how do I know you're going to let her go if I put my gun down?"

"I never said a thing about letting her go," Kent replied. "But she is still alive, I promise." He kicked the chair roughly. "Rise and shine, baby. Your sweetheart's here to see you."

Liz groaned softly and lifted her head, her green eyes slowly focusing on her lover. "Ju... Jude," she rasped.

It was all Jude could do to stay motionless, her heart screaming at her to run to her lover's bleeding form. But that would mean death for them both. Obediently she dropped the gun to the floor.

This can't be happening again... God no.

As if he could read her mind, Kent cackled with glee. "Deja vu all over again, huh? Tell me, how is the Archangel going to get herself out of this one? I'm sure you'll think of a way. You seem to have nine lives. Of course, your partners usually aren't so lucky, are they?"

"I saved your miserable little hide, didn't I?" Jude growled. "I should have just let you die in that garage."

"Yes, you should have," Kent agreed amiably. "Because afterwards I was branded a worthless coward who gave his partner up."

"That pretty much sums up what you did," she mocked him, wanting to get under his skin. If I can get him to turn the gun on me, she might have a chance.

His face darkened with fury. "They took me off the streets because of you and put me in a fucking office where I couldn't do any good. Or so they thought."

"Good? You call betraying one of your own good?" Jude was incredulous.

"Jason was an unfortunate casualty, but you needed a reminder of your mission. You were getting too good at being bad."

"And I needed a reminder of who the bad guys were?"

"Yes." He beamed at her as if she were a prized pupil. "Jason's death served that purpose."

Jude's composure was rapidly fragmenting, and she felt her muscles trembling with rage. "You made me kill my partner, you crazy sonofabitch. Don't you get that? The only good thing in my life and you made me kill it..." she roared.

Kent paled a little at the barely controlled violence directed at him. "You're not meant for things like that. Like this beautiful young thing here. You used to know that."

"Remind me Kent," Jude purred, her voice dripping with menace. "Remind me of what I'm meant for."

"Don't you see, Jude? You have a gift... you were born like them. You can wallow in their filth-- drink their booze, take their drugs, fuck their women-- in a way that I can't. And then you can bring them to justice... where they belong." His face hardened. "The Agency saved you, Jude... they gave you a purpose, a reason for living, and you repaid them by turning on them and spitting on everything they gave you."

Jude closed her eyes at the ranting litany. It could be her mother or her childhood priest screaming at her just as easily. The words were the same. They were all people who thought they had a claim to her soul to serve their ends.

They were all the same-- people like her mother, like the priests, like Kent-- believing her fundamentally born into sin. For so long she had believed they were right, that she belonged to the shadows where she had fled to avoid their contemptuous eyes. Only the shadows, which had once seemed so accepting, tried to make their own claim on the darkness within her, and now she turned from them as well.

She opened her eyes, a blazing determination burning deep within her. No one owned her soul... she would belong to no one except the woman who had seen her darkness and her light and who had accepted it all. The woman to whom she had entrusted her heart. She glanced over at the slumped form of her lover in the chair. "You're wrong, Kent. You betrayed the Agency." Her words gained momentum as she spoke. "You were the coward. You were the one who let everyone else do the dirty work because you didn't have the balls for it. I saved your worthless hide. Jason, Tony, and I covered for you because you couldn't cut it. You sold Jason out to Rico because you couldn't control the operation. I was so close to bringing them in, Kent. But you were too stupid to realize that." She laughed tauntingly. "Let's face it, Kent, you're just too fucking dumb to do the Agency any good. That's why they benched you. You're not just a coward-- you're a fool."

Kent's face, which had been growing progressively darker as she tormented him, contorted itself with a bellow of outrage and he turned the gun on her. Jude had been anticipating the motion and hurled herself out of the way as he fired at her. She tucked and rolled, launching herself at Kent. They collided in a tangle just in front of Liz's bound form, and the gun went off again with a loud report.

Jude felt the bullet tear through her right shoulder with searing heat, but she continued towards him relentlessly. She caught him squarely in the jaw with her left fist, but he retaliated by punching her wounded shoulder. With a scream of pain, Jude fell back, and Kent landed squarely on top of her, straddling her muscled abdomen in a mockery of a lover's embrace. Holding her by the throat, he began backhanding her rhythmically across the face, enlarging the cut on her face into a gouge that poured blood and opening up several new wounds.

Jude felt the second Sig grinding into the muscles of her back and tried frantically to think of a way to get to the weapon. At least his attention's distracted from Elizabeth. Gathering her scattered wits, Jude grimly struck out at Kent's gray eyes. An injured howl told her she had made contact, and the agent's grip lessened a fraction. Taking advantage, Jude heaved herself upwards, marshaling the remaining strength in her right arm to land a punch to his larynx.

Kent fell backwards, and Jude tumbled over with him, her knee grinding solidly into his groin. "That's gotta hurt," she chortled, gasping for breath. "Let's see how you like this," she snarled, back-handing him across the face. "Hurts, don't it?" With her left hand, she reached behind her and pulled the second Sig out. "Now you get to die, motherfucker..."

"I'm afraid I can't let you do that."

Jude froze on the trigger, recognizing the voice behind her. The Sig's nose still resting between Kent's eyes, she glanced over her shoulder to see Sasha calmly regarding them from the doorway, her own gun trained on Liz.

"As tiresome as he is, Jude, I can't let you kill him just yet." She strolled the length of the boardroom and gently helped Jude to her feet. When Kent made a motion to rise, a minute gesture from Sasha's gun kept him down. She took in Jude's bloody form with a grimace. "I can't believe you let yourself get shot."

"He got lucky," Jude muttered, not quite believing they were having this conversation. However, Sasha made a point of being civil at the most uncivilized times, and Jude was not about to disrupt the equilibrium that was keeping both her and Liz alive at this point.

"He must have. Hurts, though, huh?"

"Like a bitch," Jude agreed.

"I'll call Stephen afterwards. He's the one that takes care of you, no?" She arched a questioning brow.

"Sure," Jude answered uncertainly.

Sasha indicated Liz with a jerk of her head, "Untie the reporter and get her to her feet. We're going for a ride." She looked with disdain at Kent's still-prone form. "Get up now, you fool." She shook her head at the bloodied federal agent. "You've unbearably complicated things, you know. Bringing her into it." She pointed at the softly moaning reporter.

Jude tried to ignore the uneasy gnawing in the pit of her stomach, hoping to all the gods that what she thought was about to happen wasn't. "Hey there..." She swiftly freed Liz from her restraints and caught the slender form in her arms, wincing at the pressure on her injured shoulder. "Can you walk?"

Liz opened swollen eyes to focus hazily on her lover. "You look like shit, Jude."

The dark woman managed an uneven chuckle. "Tell me about it. Can you walk?" she repeated.

"Yeah... as soon as somebody tells the room to stop spinning." She slipped her arm around Jude's waist and let herself be enfolded in a half-embrace. The blood rushing down Jude's arm and over the Sig she still clutched in her hand made the reporter start in alarm. "You're hurt."

"So are you, love. Come on, we've got to get moving."

"Is it over?" Green eyes pleaded softly with blue.

Jude glanced up at the two figures waiting by the door. "Not just yet."

To her surprise, Sasha allowed Jude to keep the Sig and disarmed Kent who stood almost sulkily beside the tawny woman. He obviously had not registered the fact that wherever they were all going now, he would not be one of the ones making the return journey. Jude was a little more uncertain of what her assistant had in store for her and Elizabeth. But she suspected that it bode ill for the small woman currently in her arms. Her mind began racing through various scenarios until it hit upon a likely one. "We're going to go see Romair, aren't we?" she asked Sasha as they stepped into the elevator.

Sasha smiled in acknowledgment. "That's why you get the big bucks, querida. You're always one step ahead of the competition."

"Except this time."

The tawny woman shrugged gracefully. "You were a little... distracted." Her eyes narrowed as they took in the honey-haired woman resting under the shelter of Jude's good arm. "Anyway... the boys are waiting in the garage. I've set up a little meeting with Romair where we're going to settle things down. Can you keep the bleeding down long enough for the ride over there?"

"Yeah," Jude muttered, even though her arm was already going numb with pain. "Where exactly are we going?"

Sasha offered her a mysterious little smile. "You'll see when we get there."

And no doubt that's where you'll kill Kent and Elizabeth. A part of her still wondered if that was Sasha's real intention. The tawny woman had to know that the one way to bring all of Jude's fury crashing upon her was to injure Liz. Her optimism rose several notches with this thought. Sasha also had no way of knowing that Jude and Romair had met that evening and that they had pooled their knowledge-- including their suspicions about Sasha. So what are you going to do, Romair? Do you not show? Or do you--

As the elevator doors opened, they were greeted by the roar and scream of a gunfight. Oh... that's what you do. Romair had apparently decided to take the initiative and bring the meeting to Sasha. Jude recognized several of the Argentinean's Suits firing on her own men.

Tightening her hold on Liz, she ducked them down and rolled them towards the cover of the nearby Porsche, managing to fire a few shots to back her attackers off. Already the expensive car was riddled with bullets, so she reasoned a few more wouldn't hurt. She saw Sasha raise her gun and fire on an approaching Argentinean, then tuck and roll out of the way. Kent wasn't so lucky, however, as he leapt for the safety of a nearby pillar, he was caught by a stray bullet that tore through the top of his skull, exposing the vulnerable remains of his cerebrum.

As Jude watched her old partner die, her only regret was that she hadn't been the one to fire the bullet.

"This is not good, Jude. This is not good." Liz groaned as she slumped against the wall.

"And you said you had a way with words." Jude grinned. This was what she knew best. How to get out of impossible situations. Without Liz as a bargaining chip, no one had any hold over her. She could concentrate on getting them both out safely and let Romair's people and her own shoot it out. Of course, the police were probably going to be here any minute.

She saw Sasha's sleek form pop up and take down two more Argentineans. The tawny woman shouted for her men to regroup, and the dark suits began falling back towards her and away from Jude and Liz. "Where did Kent park?" she asked her lover.

The honey-haired woman frowned. "I wasn't exactly paying attention at the time."

"I know, but think. We can't drive the Porsche out of here."

Liz regarded the expensive machine that was acting as their shield. "I never liked this car."

Jude's brow furrowed. "Really? Why not?" A bullet streaked by her head. "Fuck.. that was too close. Think Liz, where'd he park?" Bullets flew thickly over their heads, the booming reports of gun making hearing impossible. "Oh never mind... we're gonna just have to run for it and hope we make it out of the garage." Even as she said the words she knew that in the shape they were in, they wouldn't get far. Her right arm was numb now, and she suspected that the nerves had been damaged. With only one good arm, she was going to have to shoot and hope that Elizabeth could keep up. Judging from the contusions on Liz's face, she figured her lover probably had a concussion and was in no condition to run.

A gentle hand caught her arm and tugged her into a fierce embrace. "I love you, Jude." Jude buried her head in the honey hair, now matted with blood. It still smelled faintly of the clean-scented shampoo she had lovingly rubbed into it, and Jude just let herself drift for a precious moment in the sensation of resting in her lover's arms once more.

She forced herself to look into the deepest green eyes she'd ever seen. They were shining with a love so powerful, if Jude hadn't already been on her knees, she would have fallen to them. "I love you too, Elizabeth." Using time they didn't have, her lips found her lover's and captured them in a painfully sweet kiss that threatened to tear her soul from its moorings. Everything she had been, was, and would be resonated in that kiss. And it promised an eternity to them both.

Time seemed to stop for the dark woman, and she could hear each distinct sound-- the thunder booming out-of-sync with the flashes of lightning that still streaked through the jagged sky, the wail of sirens closer than she had expected, and highlighting it all the rapid fire boom-boom of Sigs and Glocks answering each other in a symphony of bloodshed. Men littered the ground, pouring out their life-force on uncaring concrete, and Jude realized in this frantic instant that she didn't want to die.

Not here...

Not like this...

Not anymore.

With a last embrace, Jude asked unsteadily. "You ready?"

"As I'll ever be." Liz managed a smile for her lover, her thoughts unerringly paralleling the dark woman.

"You decided on where we'll be taking that vacation?"

A strangled sound that was part laugh, part cry at the question slipped from the reporter's throat. "Why don't we just decide when we get to the airport?"

"Well...  I'm warning you, I wanna go someplace really cool..." She tried to tease.

Slender fingers stretched out and caressed Jude's wounded face softly. "Jude..." Acceptance reflected deep in the reporter's eyes. "It's time to go..."

The dark woman took a steadying breath and nodded. "Count of three... ready..." She checked the clip in her Sig one last time and flexed her fingers around the grip. "Three... two... GO.....!"

Ducking as they ran, Jude and Liz cut a zigzagging path towards the door. Jude dropped a man that appeared suddenly in front of them, but it distracted her attention from her lover by her side. She had taken a few more steps ahead when she realized that Liz wasn't with her. With a yowl of rage, she whirled around to see her lover lying on the floor, blood flowing from her leg and neck. She dove towards the reporter, Liz's name ripping from her throat. Just as she reached the honey-haired woman she felt an ugly heat blossoming from her back and leg as she fell over her lover's body.

And then mercifully... everything went black.    


Six weeks later...

"You have a minute?" Lucas was uncharacteristically shy as he peered around the fabricated gray wall of Liz's cubicle.

She had only been back in the office for a few days and everyone was still treading very carefully around her. She had written her article, "Rising to Grace," from a hospital bed. Now Bantam Books was offering her an obscenely large amount of money to tell the whole story from start to finish.

Trouble was, there were some parts of the story she desperately wanted to forget.

She remembered kissing Jude fiercely and running alongside her until a searing pain cut her down... and even though her mind was screaming at her to get up, to run, to join her partner... she fell, another agonizing burn gripped her, this time in her neck.... She couldn't see Jude's face, but she could hear the anguished cry  that was her name tearing from the dark woman's throat. She forced her eyes open... willing her arms to raise... and then she saw Jude falling... so far... so hard... how could the ground be so far away...? Jude fell bonelessly against her, evil red tendrils of her life pouring from the wounds in her body... She tried to scream, tried to cradle her lover's still form... but every breath cost her energy and her eyes fell shut against the welcoming black tide... Her last thought was of Jude... and her last hope was that wherever she ended up, Jude would be waiting for her there...

When she woke up in the hospital, they told her three days had passed. Jude was nowhere to be found. The police had questioned her almost as ruthlessly as she questioned them... but nobody knew where Jude was. The SWAT team found no trace of her or Sasha among the dozen or so bodies they recovered. Kent had been among the corpses, and slowly the story had unfolded.

The doctors told her she had been lucky. A bullet that should have been fatal only grazed her neck. She would have a nasty scar on the right side of her neck, but she was alive. The bullet in her leg was more problematic, but a few weeks of physical therapy had restored it to normal. As soon as she could sit up, she called Lucas and had him bring her PowerBook to the hospital. She had been surprised when Maria had delivered it. They had shared an awkward exchange, both wracked with grief and still uneasy over everything that had happened. Maria had pounded on the doors of all the DEA agents she knew, including Tony’s, to try and find out what had happened to Jude. They knew nothing.

Or so they claimed.

She had tried going to the house, but the DEA had cordoned it off and prevented her from getting inside. She had managed to speak to Carmina for a few moments, and found the rotund housekeeper as distraught as she was. She had promised the older woman that she wouldn't rest until they both knew what had happened to Jude.

That was six weeks ago, and the faint hopes that she had clung to were fading hard. It showed in her eyes, their usually vibrant green now dulled to a lusterless gray. Dark shadows attested to the sleepless nights she spent, her body longing for the comfort of her lover's sleek form. She shifted back in her seat with a weary sigh and waved her boss in. "What's up, Lucas?"

"I guess it would be kind of stupid to ask you how you are. You look like shit." He perched on the edge of her desk, her tidy area visibly unsettling him.

Liz managed a half-hearted chuckle. "You really know how to make a girl feel special, boss-man." She shrugged. "I'm going home in a few anyway."

"Good." Lucas nodded, scratching his head and looking anywhere but at his employee.

She really wasn't in the mood for his tiptoeing around anymore. The entire staff, which was generally being very supportive, was nonetheless regarding her uneasily. Liz didn't know if it was because of her ordeal or because of the blunt honestly with which she had written about her lover and the events leading up to the shooting. She knew she had broken the cardinal rule of reporting, but quite frankly, she really didn't give a damn. To be honest, she didn't feel much like being a reporter anymore either. It required a detachment she no longer possessed. If all of Jude that remained was that legacy-- Liz's resolute refusal to be a bystander in her own life-- then, by God, Liz was going to honor that. "Something you need to say to me?" Liz prodded.

"Yeah... that book deal. You gonna take it?"

She sighed again and ran a hand through her hair. More and more, Liz noticed she had been appropriating habits that had been her lover's. It was one of the small things that made her feel close to Jude still. It was just about all that she had left of the dark woman. "I don't know, Lucas. Probably. They'll give me a nice fat advance and I can go somewhere far away."

"That might do you some good." He latched onto the idea eagerly. "Put all this behind you."

Liz regarded him with a cold stare that made him blanch. "I don't want to forget, Lucas. Ever." She wanted to scream at him, Don't you get it? Everything that meant anything to me disappeared with her... Memory is all I have left. No, she wouldn't go away to forget. She would go away and remember, and with loving detail, record everything that they had been to each other. She closed her eyes and exhaled softly. "I'm sorry, Lucas. I'm just really tired," she apologized lamely.

"Still not sleeping?"

"No." She shook her head. "And I hate that stuff the doctor gave me. It makes me feel all fuzzy, even when I'm awake." I'd rather have the pain... and remember... than sleep and forget.

"Well... go home and try and take it easy." He stood awkwardly as if to leave.

"I thought there was something you wanted to tell me?"

"Oh... yeah... uh... I just wanted to tell you, that the board wants to put ‘Rising to Grace’ in the nomination pool for the Pulitzer. They think it's got a good chance at being short listed."

Three months ago that would have been everything Liz could have wanted, especially coupled with the book deal. Now it just left her feeling empty. She nodded. "Thanks for telling me, Lucas."

"Sure." He edged over to the corridor and turned back to her. "Go home, Liz. See you Monday."

"Thanks, Boss." She waved at him and bent to gather up her things. Several other people nodded as she left the office and absent-mindedly punched the lobby button in the elevator.

After the chilly climate-controlled hallways of the office, the searing late summer heat felt good on her skin. Blinded by the sun's brilliance, she dug in her bag for her sunglasses and slipped them gratefully over her eyes. Zipping the shoulder bag closed she turned towards the parking garage across the street to her right.

"You want a ride, querida?"

Liz froze in mid-step, afraid to turn around. She knew that voice. It had whispered its secrets to her at night, called out her name in passion, and tormented her with its absence these endless weeks.

"Turn around, love." It coaxed her suddenly trembling muscles. "Elizabeth..." Her name-- a breath, a whisper, a plea. "Turn around."

Somehow, with strength she didn't know she possessed, Liz slowly pivoted on one foot, ready to flee lest the voice prove that of a phantom.

She gasped at the sight before her.

It was Jude, thin and drawn-- her bronze skin paler than Liz had ever imagined it could be, white linen trousers and a blue T-shirt hanging loosely on her long frame. She leaned heavily on a mahogany cane, and her right arm was bound carefully in a sling. The injuries to her face had seemed to heal, but there was a light scar across her cheek. Instinctively, she took a step forward, a bitten-off sob in her throat. "Oh god..." she whispered. "Is it... Is it really you?"

Jude gave her a lopsided grin, the halting movement the only indication of her pain. "C'mere."

Liz erased the distance between them with quick strides, her arms reaching out for Jude. Hesitatingly, with fingers trembling so badly she could barely control them, she caressed her lover's face, drawing soft lines across her cheeks and jaw. "Can I?" Can I touch you? Can I love you? Are you real?

The brilliant smile on Jude's face answered all three unspoken questions with a resounding, YES... and Liz placed tender arms around her lovers waist. They both gasped softly at the touch, both having feared that it was something to be forever denied them. Liz silently cursed the cane Jude had to grasp and the wounded arm that kept her lover from returning the embrace, but she reassured by the way Jude pressed her body against the reporter's as firmly as she could, pouring all her love into that fleeting contact.

"How? What? What happened to you, Jude? Where did you go?" All the questions tumbled out, along with tears that Liz thought she had already cried.

"Shh..." Jude soothed her, pressing gentle kisses to the top of her lover's head. They swayed precariously as Liz tightened her hold, never wanting to let the dark woman out of her sight again.

"Careful there," came another voice, one that Liz didn't readily recognize. Her body tensed as she turned her head. Stephen's dreamy face beamed back at her. "Don't let her tough act fool you. A stiff breeze will knock her down."

"Stephen... what happened? What are you doing here?"

"Why doesn't Jude give you the short version while I drive?" Stephen opened the door of the green Explorer and helped them in. He looked far more coherent than the last time Liz had seen him, calmer and happier than she had believed he could be. Any fear of El Diablo he had seemed to have dissipated in the weeks since they had last crossed paths. Now he gently eased Jude into the backseat, settling her with experienced hands, and gave Liz a hand up into the seat beside her.

"The short version will do for now," Liz agreed, clasping her lover's hand awkwardly, since she had to reach over Jude's injured arm to hold her left hand. Liz ended up holding her in a half-embrace, which was fine with them both. Stephen scurried around the front of the Explorer and hopped into the driver's seat.

"Where to?"

Jude seemed at a loss. She glanced at Liz carefully, looking for some kind of sign. "Drive to the beach house," Liz commanded softly. Then she smiled at her lover. "I haven't been able to see the menagerie. I miss them."

"I'm sure they miss you too," Jude grinned. "I hope they remember who I am."

"You haven't been home? Where have you been? And why haven't you gotten in touch with anyone? Ria and Carmina are about to go out of their minds with worry. Why?"

"WHOA!" Jude squeezed her hand pleadingly. "One thing at a time. 'Kay?"

"Sorry." Liz smiled sheepishly. "You were gonna give me the short version."

"Right." Jude took a deep breath, trying to settle her racing pulse. With a start, Liz realized the dark woman was trembling violently. She tightened her hold slightly, pleased that her touch seemed to settle Jude who relaxed deeply into her embrace. "After you..." she stumbled over the words, "Went down, I tried to get to you."

"You got shot too."

"Yeah. I remember falling, thinking that it was all over for both of us, until I woke up a week later in a private room at some triage center that I don't want to know anything about." She nodded at the doctor driving them carefully through the crowded Miami streets. "I don't know where Romair found him, but Stephen was there. Turns out he had spent the better part of a day picking bullet fragments and other assorted stuff-- including a kidney-- out of my body."

"Jude-- a kidney? Oh my god... Are you?"

"Don't worry, the other one works just fine. I'm just going to hurt like a mother for another month or so. The bullet in my leg just fucked up the muscle, but that'll be okay too."

"Your arm?"

"Nerve damage." Jude shrugged. "They tell me I'll have a hell of a thunderstorm detector, and some of the mobility will be permanently restricted... but all in all it's not too bad of a trade-off. Fortunately it was my right arm and not my left. I'd hate having to learn to write with my other hand."

"So... I don't understand. Romair's people got you out?"

"Yeah, he was there himself. Although I didn't know it at the time. They grabbed me and were going back for you when the cops arrived. Since they knew you'd be free and clear legally speaking, they let the EMTs take care of you and they hustled me off to this triage place that apparently Romair has stashed for shit exactly like this." She smiled in appreciation of the Argentinean's planning. "That guy knows what he's doing, Liz."


Jude shrugged. "Disappeared. Permanently if she has any sense. I have no idea what she was planning. She could have killed you." Her grip on the smaller woman's hand tightened. "If I ever see her again..."

"Shh..." Liz quieted her with a tender gesture. "Don't think about that right now, okay?"

"Anyway... I was pretty much out of it for almost three weeks, not doing much of anything except sleeping. I wasn't conscious for more than a few minutes at a time."

"I still don't understand why Romair didn't get in touch with me."

"He didn't want to get you involved, Liz."

"Involved?" Involuntarily, her voice rose three octaves. "I love you, goddamn it. I am involved."

Jude shifted her body so that she could draw her lover closer to her. "Legally speaking, love. He didn't know exactly where I stood with the DEA, not to mention the state. There was a distinct possibility I was going to have to leave the country permanently. If that were the case, I didn't want you to know anything until I was settled. That way the Feds couldn't harass you."

"I am assuming since you're here and not in Tijuana that you're clear."

Jude chuckled lightly, relishing the way Liz's body fit snugly against hers. Although it stretched the stitches that wrapped almost completely around her stomach, she wasn't about to move her lover one inch  further away from her. "Mostly," she agreed. "The Agency's got their underwear in a collective wad over what Kent did. That and the rose-tinted portrait you painted of me convinced them that pursuing anything further against me would be a waste of time."

"It wasn't rose-tinted," Liz protested, resting her head against Jude's chest so she could listen to the reassuring lub-dub, lub-dub of the dark woman's heart. The strong and steady pulse brought home the message that still hadn't quite sunk in. "You're really here," she choked, the tears beginning to stream once more down her face.

"I'm here," Jude crooned softly, stroking the golden head and sighing softly. "I'm not going anywhere else. I promise."

They rode in a comforting silence the rest of the way home.

The house was a cacophony of barking dogs as Jude allowed her smaller lover to help her into the house. Stephen bustled himself about bringing in various medical supplies and the luggage that she had acquired during the intervening weeks. Finally he rifled through the kitchen and announced that he was going to go find them some dinner.

Clytemnestra, Aggie and Pete danced around their mistress and the smaller human doing a sort of canine shuffle, each one competing for attention. Pete got stepped on one too many times, and let out a mournful yelp that startled the other two larger dogs into silence. Jude and Liz laughed at their antics, lavishing attention on all three until Liz opened the patio gate and left them to run off their excess energy on the beach.

Jude limped after her and quietly shut the sliding glass doors. "Hi there," she said quietly, standing behind the honey-haired woman.

"Hi yourself," Liz breathed, soaking in the warm scent of the woman she loved. The tears had been cathartic, wringing out the last of her sorrow and her joy at seeing Jude again and knowing their connection still existed.

"I'm kinda gimpy," Jude apologized. "I can't hug you properly."

Liz spun around to gaze upon the bluest eyes she had ever seen. "Then kiss me."

The tiny beginnings of a smile curled Jude's lips as she bent down to capture the honey-haired woman's mouth with her own. They were tentative at first, their lips barely touching. The familiar flame soon overcame any reticence, and Liz's mouth opened in joyful welcome. Her arms slid around her lover's broad shoulders, careful of her many injuries as she tried to communicate every once of love she felt for the woman in her arms.

Neither woman was conscious of time passing as they indulged in a lingering reintroduction. Their kisses grew progressively more playful as both women realized that the events that had nearly killed them both had not destroyed their feeling for each other. Desperate for breath, Jude regretfully broke away. "Have I told you how good you are at that?" she smiled.

“It takes two, lover,” Liz replied, her eyes glimmering brightly.

Jude leaned in for another kiss, "Mmm... I think you're right." She grinned but couldn't quite conceal a flinch as she stood straight.

"Let's sit you down, okay?" Liz suggested, not missing the flash of pain in Jude's eyes.

"That's probably a good idea," Jude concurred, allowing herself to be seated on a nearby chaise. "We need to talk anyway."

"Sounds serious," Liz tried to banter.

The warm blue of Jude's eyes remained earnest. "It is," she replied.

Liz settled herself comfortably within arms' reach of the dark woman, not quite willing to sever their physical connection so soon. "Okay, shoot." She winced at the pun. "Sorry. Forget I said that."

A wry smile graced Jude's features. "Not a problem. I read ‘Rising to Grace.' Elizabeth... if that's the way you truly see me..."

"It is," Liz assured her, quite willing to defend the portrait of her lover that she had painted for the world.

"Then I'm the luckiest woman on earth. I don't deserve it... I don't deserve you..." Jude fought for words. "You should be with someone who doesn't nearly get you killed on a regular basis..."

"Hey!" Liz's green eyes darkened dangerously. "I thought we established I decided what was best for me."

Jude held her hand up in supplication. "You do, and believe me, I'm not arguing with your choices." She dropped her eyes, suddenly intent on the fabric covering the chaise cushions. "In fact...." A blush softly warmed her features. "That's kinda what I want to talk to you about."

A happiness Liz thought had been destroyed by the bullet that ripped through Jude's back began to simmer deep within her belly. "You do?"

Jude fidgeted as much as her wounds would allow her. She raised a trembling hand to trace the line of her lover's fair cheek. "Yeah... I... uh... Damn this is hard." She narrowed her eyes at Elizabeth. "I thought you were supposed to be the talker."

"Nu-uh..." Liz shook her head with a grin. "This is your show." Her face softened as she added, "I need to hear this, Jude. I need to hear you."

The dark woman swallowed hard and nodded. "I never expected to be in this place. To be free and clear with no one lurking over my shoulder. I... don't know what kind of partner I'll be." She glanced at the waves rolling against the sand and the dogs playing there. "I've told you that before. I've never tried living a... normal life."

"Is that what you're going to live, Jude?" Liz looked at her lover intently. "A normal life?"

Jude nodded. "Yeah. I've... divested... all the holdings that would tend to make people want to blow me away." She chuckled. "Although I hear those real estate developers can be pretty ruthless." She clasped Liz's hand softly in her own. "I'd like to try to make that life with you..." She dropped her eyes again. "That is... if you... well... if you want to try."

Liz brought their entwined hands to her lips, pressing a soft kiss into each of her lover's elegant fingers. "Are you sure about this, Jude?" She steadied the blue eyes with her own. "After everything that happened?"

A smile broke over Jude's face, suffusing her angular features with warmth and rendering an already exquisite woman painfully beautiful. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life." She moved towards her lover... her partner... her soulmate, ignoring all the aches and pains until they were in one another's arms, their lips and tongues communicating what their words could not. Liz sighed deeply opening herself to the dark woman's embrace, an indescribable joy surrounding her with warmth, laughter and love.

Liz had discovered the secret to Jude Lucien... this extraordinary woman who had been gifted with a formidable intelligence and a heart stalwart enough to endure a brutality that no man or woman should ever have to face. She had left the light and walked in the darkness. She had met evil and made it serve her. But despite all that-- or maybe because of it-- she had retained an essential purity of soul that no blackness-- no matter how ugly or vile-- had been able to destroy.

Jude would say that she was no saint... just as surely as Elizabeth would say that her lover was no devil... but to the honey-haired reporter this woman whom she called her soulmate was a unique angel-- granted a grace that only those who have fallen may know.

She didn't know what would happen to them now that things were changing. Jude's darkness would not be dispersed by the simple dissolution of her illicit empire. What she carried within her, she would carry always-- more than one night would be lost to the demons who would clamor for her all the more violently now that they were denied. But they both faced it with a lightness of spirit that would have to be experienced to be understood. For neither woman stood alone any longer-- they had found in each other the component that their souls had been lacking.

Through Jude, Elizabeth had known the darkness... and now, through her, Jude would know the light. Simple? Perhaps... but she firmly believed it would be enough to carry them through the days and nights to come.

It would have to be.



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