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Freedom Where You Find It

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Grieze first met Xanna twelve years before Imperium. It took her five seconds to fall hopelessly in love.

She considered the first four seconds a ghastly waste of time.

Twelve Years Prior To Imperium

The man who would be... the man who was Golgoth, he reminded himself angrily... stared out from the balcony at his kingdom. A small Melanesian banana republic just off the coast of Australia.

His palace was, of course, modest and tempered to the equally modest economy of the island. It hardly compared to the invulnerable castles and soaring skyscrapers he had seen on his travels, back when he was fresh out of college. Looking back, the thirtysomething considered those the least fruitful years of his life.

No. They had been profitable. On his journey around the world, Golgoth had met Allorea.

His eyes scanned from left to right, memorizing every building, every face, every speck of dirt in his domain.

No, it definitely wasn't enough.

Tumbril relished the fear in his fellow man's eyes. In this case, the fellow man tied to a chair and pleading for his life in a high-pitched voice.

"Oh, pipe down, you don't need your appendix anyway." Holding a corner of his blood-stained shirt over his longneck, he twisted the cap off. "Beer o'clock," Tumbril quipped, taking a long swig. "Now, you want to talk about where Mr. Getson's money is or do I have to move on to organs that are actually necessary?"

Special Agent Lohkyn watched, calmly, as the prime minister fell backwards in that way unique to men who had been shot in the head with a high-caliber rifle bullet. His head bent backwards with whip-crack speed and the rest of his body contorted to follow it, paralleling the contrail of blood that marked the motion he had undertaken in the last few milliseconds.

The prime minister finished his descent, the spray of blood splattered down to the stage between his legs, and after a stunned moment the world erupted into chaos.

Lohkyn began disassembling the rifle. It would be hours before their search parameter widened to include the hotel he was staying at. By that time, he would be out of the country on a jet plane, choking down airline peanuts and flirting with flight attendants.

Chalk another one up for democracy.

Grieze waited patiently in the darkened warehouse, sitting atop an empty crate that (she was pleased to know) supported her weight. She was early, which was just another word for punctual in her vocabulary. Professionals were always punctual.

Wheelmen were either professionals or convicts. And Grieze didn't have so much as a parking ticket on her record. Which was the way she liked it. Quiet in her life, action at her job. She'd seen other career criminals become addicts, to drugs or violence or thrills, it hardly mattered. They got addicted, they got stupid, she watched and she got smarter. Balance. That was the key. Stay balanced.

She could have retired from her life of crime, gone straight, bought her own island with her take from the various fat she'd bailed out of the fire, sipped piña coladas on the beach, maybe even hired some hunky fisherman who didn't know a word of English to rub suntan lotion over her perfectly cut yet perfectly weighted (balance in all things)... but that would be boring. Except for the hunky fisherman's lotion rubbing, but even that would probably get old after a while.

Not that Grieze knew it yet, but Xanna would never get old. And it wasn't just the Eucharist.

"Boo," Xanna said, making Grieze practically jump out of her skin. Just as well she hadn't sipped those piña coladas, because if she had, they'd be moistening her panties right about now.

Not that those panties would need much help with Xanna around. She was redheaded and had about an inch of height on Grieze, helped by fuck-me heels that were completely impractical to clandestine crime-plannings... although Grieze wouldn't have her take them off for all the tea in China (T-Minus 00:05). In contrast to Grieze's mildly voluptuous curves, Xanna was... not thin, but slender; every inch of her perfectly-proportioned frame was delicious muscle (T-Minus 00:04). Under an unbuttoned bomber jacket, a tank-top clung to her upper body with almost as much tenacity as the second-skin of leather clung to her legs, thighs, and, oh God, ass (T-Minus 00:03).

And, the pièce de résistance, she had managed to avoid all five (six if you counted her unfailingly precise danger sense) of Grieze's attuned senses to crouch behind her on the crate which Grieze had just fallen off of (T-Minus 00:02).

Grieze was flat on her back, looking up at the still crouching Xanna. As Grieze's terrified, aroused scan of Xanna reached the redhead's face, their eyes met. Grieze knew that Xanna had been checking her out. Xanna knew that Grieze had been checking her out. And from the looks in their eyes, both women liked what they saw (T-Minus 00:01).

Then Xanna opened her mouth. She spoke with an accent Grieze couldn't place, although it bore faint signs of both a British upbringing and an Arabic accent. "Fancy meeting you here, stranger. Here early or am I just really late?"

Grieze was in love (T-Minus 00:00).

They made brief, unmemorable small talk for a few minutes before the rest of the gang arrived. Belatedly, Grieze realized she should get to her feet. She dusted herself off as the footsteps of their new cohorts came closer.

Their employer, a genuine supervillain by the name of Jetpack, was more focused on avenging himself on Endymion for some unspecified wrong than in getting away with the loot. Grieze knew then that the job was a wash; a sideways glance to Xanna confirmed that the assassin knew it too. Even after that information had passed between them, Xanna continued to tease her, taunt her, torture her with appraising glances and clandestine looks. Grieze almost subconsciously thrust her hips out and her chest up. She felt sexy, wanted, on the verge of frenzy. When the gang breaked for cigarettes, they walked out of the warehouse together. When they emerged into the crisp, cool air and fitful sunlight of Autumn, Grieze had expected Xanna to transform into a goddess. She stayed Xanna, only with better lighting.

Grieze felt fearless; a bit heady, slaphappy, maybe even. She sauntered up to Xanna as the other woman rested her ass on the railing that separated the warehouse district from a beachless waterfront. Gray, murky looking waves slapped at the concretes beneath them, seaspray occasionally shooting up to tickle their feet and legs. Grieze sat down cross-legged in front of Xanna. The fearlessness that had possessed her for a moment had abandoned her and a pathetic (to her) vulnerability took its place. Who was she to talk to Xanna? What could they possibly have in common?

"So," Xanna said as a wave crashed, kicking up a geyser behind her. "What's your crime?"

Miraculously, Grieze swallowed the panic in her voice and replied in perfect crime movie fashion "I'm a wheelman."

"You may be a getaway driver, but you're no wheelman."

Grieze almost took offense at the words before she noticed that Xanna was looking pointedly at her tits. Grieze felt a swell of irrational pride. She'd always been proud of her breasts. They'd come in early and never betrayed her yet, staying firm and buoyant despite the slow ravaging of time that was already starting to turn some of her friends into bitter old maids. Thankfully, oh so thankfully, she was wearing a low-cut top that made her breasts look like, if not a million dollars, definitely something in the six digits.

Xanna's smile showered Grieze with approval, so the getaway driver (not wheelman, not anymore) pressed on with the flirting (were they up to flirting now?). "You noticed."

It wasn't the most clever of replies, but the fact that they were smiling at each other over the same joke made Grieze want to do backflips.

"These guys are losers," Xanna said, hoping down from the railing as the undertow sucked away from them. "I have better things to do with my time. They're hiring for a bank job at this abandoned amusement park I know."

After the new boss made his pitch, Xanna and Grieze traded cell-phone numbers. Grieze went home and drank herself to sleep. When she came to, the acid hangover offered clarity. She couldn't believe how foolish she had been, acting like a schoolgirl with a crush. In the privacy of her apartment, she blushed fiercely in embarrassment and resolved to immediately stop going over scenarios with Xanna in her mind.

The phone rang and her heart fluttered; it might be Grieze. The brunette gave two seconds' thought to simply not picking up. The phone went silent and rang against and she made up her mind.

She picked up the handset.

It was the library, calling to ask her about an overdue book.

Grieze decided she would drive a dumptruck into the library, literacy be damned.

Xanna ended up calling and Grieze ended up, of course, picking up. They became like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Whenever Grieze had a job that required someone die, Xanna got involved. Whenever Xanna had a job that required someone driving or piloting some sort of vehicle, Grieze was there. Then one day, Xanna called her and it wasn't about a job.

Grieze took the subway; she didn't trust herself to drive back. The smell of stale urine and cigarette butts in the subway car couldn't pull her mind off Xanna. She was sure that Xanna considered her a friend... being more than a friend was never outside the realm of possibility. Grieze almost asked for advice from a grizzled old African-American man in a Red Sox cap, but the thought of regaling him with a story of romance between a master assassin and a getaway driver lost its appeal rather quickly.

A strung-out man with long, greasy hair answered the door; he sweated constantly and had bad teeth. But Xanna seemed to like him well enough when she hung off him and pecked him on the cheeks between sentences. Grieze felt sick to her stomach. Xanna explained, in between finding the courage to lay her lips on her boyfriend's skin and its large pores, that it was his birthday and he wanted to have a threesome and you wouldn't mind terribly, would you Grieze?

It seemed like seconds later they were in the bedroom. The room was in starving-artist disarray, half-finished manuscripts overflowing out of a writing desk in the corner. The bed was just a mattress with no sheets and too few pillows. Grieze suppressed the urge to vomit as Xanna made love... no, had sex, it was just sex, she was having sex with her boyfriend. Grieze tried her best to ignore the boyfriend when he entered her and instead concentrated all her attention on licking every square inch of Xanna's perfection. Xanna oohed and aahed and groaned and cooed and scream and made a symphony for Grieze. When the boyfriend spilled his seed on the already-stained mattress, he fell asleep moments afterwards. Grieze stayed awake as long as possible against the inexorable tug into the Land of Nod. She closed her eyes against Xanna's chest and dreamed that Xanna snapped the boyfriend's neck, kicked him out of bed, and declared her undying love.

When Grieze awoke, Xanna was gone and the boyfriend was asking if she wanted second helpings. Grieze wished she had a gun.

Eleven Years Prior To Imperium

Xanna broke up with the boyfriend without Grieze ever remembering his name. They pulled some more jobs together, but the hero of their city had recruited a number of new sidekicks, causing the crime rates to drop despite Xanna and Grieze's best efforts. Slowly, their circle of contacts dwindled until instead of being part of a gang, they were a duo. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, although Grieze didn't consider herself all that butch and Xanna had most definitely been through puberty.

After six months of her fellows being locked up, one by one, in the Gretham Mental Hospital, fate caught up to Xanna. Some little blonde girl in a cape managed to beat her; to this day Grieze wouldn't believe it. Grieze was planning a prison break (well, asylum break, technically) when someone beat her to it. She came home from acquiring some of the necessary ingredients for a home-made bomb to blow through the wall... when she felt a stiletto wire slip around her neck. She tried to get her thumbs under it, but she was too slow. Gasping, Grieze felt Xanna nibble flirtatiously on her ear.

"Honey, you'll never believe the day I had," Xanna whispered before letting her go.

Grieze knew it was just Xanna being Xanna, knew it didn't mean anything, but as she massaged her sore throat and gulped down some water... she started to wonder.

Xanna explained all about the Injustice Society. It was a grouping of some of the more powerful supervillains from around the country... and Grieze qualified. It wouldn't be until much later that she would learn that the Laughing Man, their leader, was really a recruiter for Golgoth. He was dead now, executed as a traitor for attempting to kill Golgoth and take his place. Xanna had slid the knife into his throat personally. Grieze had watched her do it, watch hot, frothing blood shoot up and lace across her sheer face. Grieze felt like fucking her then and there, right on the floor at Golgoth's feet and the spreading pool of Laughing Man's blood, but instead she had just watched as Golgoth gave her a hit of Eucharist and rubbed her cheek like he was petting a dog. It was sickening. He'd never cheat on his wife, not even the memory of her, but Xanna had no taste in men and less in women. After all, she hadn't picked Grieze yet.

But all that was years in the future. Right then, Xanna was asking "Are you in, genius?" and Grieze was saying yes before the assassin finished her pun.

Nine Years Prior To Imperium

Grieze now lived in a penthouse apartment that overshadowed the famous opera house (worker drones were hard at work repairing the scorch marks). Sydney had been the last great stronghold on the Australian continent; taking it meant that Golgoth's empire-to-come now controlled one corner of the world. Grieze wished that the view had less smoke. They really had to get around to putting out the fires.

"Grieze, I am running dry," Xanna said, shaking her martini glass. It was years before Eucharist had been invented and age had begun to catch up with her. Not in wrinkles or gray hairs; in the scar that she had received across the face when she'd been to slow to avoid a knife. Grieze had been overjoyed to learn that Xanna had recovered and the gutted the man who had dared to mar perfection.

"Say when." Grieze poured her a new glass and Xanna touched her wrist to tell her when to stop.

She did that a lot now, touching people. Almost like a verbal tic rendered tactile. She would touch Lucullan and Golgoth too, but Grieze told herself that Xanna didn't mean anything by those. Just fleeting touches, the eyefucking of yesteryear taken to the next level. Sometimes they were so darting and wraith-like that Grieze didn't know if Xanna had touched her at all, but the Cheshire-cat grin on Xanna's face was always confession enough.

"You remember the Montenegro job?" Xanna asked. Of course Grieze did. They had killed one of the Brooder's sidekicks... together.

"I remember Kafra was trying to sell us on some kind of computer crime thing. Never did much care for that. Not even crime, really, just fraud. Always preferred the smell of burning rubber to swiping PIN numbers."

Xanna smiled. "That's what I like about you. You know what you like and will do anything to have it. But once you have it, will you keep it?"

It wasn't until she had left that Grieze realized her heart hadn't climbed into her throat when Xanna smiled. It had just never occurred to her that she could be falling out of love with Xanna.

Five Years Prior To Imperium

Grieze couldn't take it anymore.

It wasn't like she'd never killed anyone before. Always in the line of duty, as it were, and mostly never when she could avoid it (cop-killers got undue attention), but she was a murderess. And Golgoth could get another chief assassin. There was that Asian lady and the guy with the eyepatch and even that annoying mercenary with the mouth.

The command bunker was under constant attack from where the Allies had found a hole in their missile defense net. Fucking forcefields never worked right. But it would provide good cover. All Grieze had to do was kill the bitch, drag her to an at-risk area, and wait for the fireworks. Then she'd be free. No more half-realized dreams of redheads who always woke her up before they reached their climax. No more frantic gropings for self-pleasure in the shower. No more seeing Xanna stumble out of Golgoth's room in the middle of the night, hair mussed and skin sweaty, a smile wide on her face.

That smile...

That smile could still make Grieze's heart climb into her throat, if she was honest with herself. She'd moved on, taken other lovers who were actual lovers, but Xanna still fell over her like a shade, ringing in her ears, her scent overpowering Grieze's senses.

Grieze waited inside Xanna's quarters, a baseball bat tightly wounded between her hands. After half an hour of waiting, the strain of her white-knuckle grip on the wood got to her. She sat down on the foot of Xanna's bed, letting the bat dangle between her knees.

She let her eyes drift around the room. It wasn't really decorated; Xanna spent most of her time in the training room. The bed wasn't up to Grieze's standards, but she supposed that Xanna really only needed a sleeping surface to be flat and reasonably soft. When she checked, there were a knife under the pillow. Good ol' Xanna.

There was a bustle on the other side of the door as Xanna monkeyed around with her keys. Grieze took up a position and brought the baseball bat to position, ready to knock Xanna's head clean off as soon as the assassin entered the room.

Xanna never had let Grieze sneak up on her.

She ducked down and the bat swung over Xanna's head. With a roar of homicidal lust, Grieze swung it at her again. The bat whirled every which way, steadfastly being avoided by the unimaginable limber Xanna. Finally, a blow glanced off her skull. Glanced. Xanna always glanced at her during briefings; quick looks that made Grieze feel naked and hungry, for what she didn't know.

As Xanna staggered backwards, Grieze rushed forward, pushing the bat horizontally across Xanna's throat. The redhead was pinched against the wall, the oxygen cut off from her lungs. Grieze watched the excited look in Xanna's eyes; she seemed on the verge of climax or death or both. Feeling like both the world's biggest fool and like she had just learned the great secrets of the universe, Grieze headbutted Xanna, stopping a millimeter short to kiss her as if the world had ended. A tongue dueled with her own, invitingly, enjoyably, and Grieze's skin flushed red. Intoxicated. Someone was pouring liquor down her throat, through her veins, up her ass. Her teeth brushed against Xanna's and made a clicking noise and even that was good. When Grieze pulled back, her arms didn't have the strength to hold the baseball bat against Xanna anymore.

"So you've learned to use sex as a weapon," Xanna said approvingly, Grieze's green lipstick still wet on her mouth. "Very good."

From then on, they started having sparring matches long into the night.

One Year After Imperium

The Eucharist melted on her tongue, pushed its way past her gag reflexes. It was overwhelming. Her every motion was an orgasm in itself. Xanna felt as if she'd just woken from a long sleep. She knew then that she had never been stronger, never been faster, never been better. Concepts that once would have stumped her were an open book. One thousand, one hundred, and twenty-four times nine thousand five hundred and thirty-two was eleven trillion, seven million, four hundred thousand, ninety-nine hundred and sixty-eight.

And Golgoth. Golgoth had shared this with her first. First after Sebirus, but still first. He'd always treated her right.

Someone. She needed someone to share this with. Someone who could understand the difference in her, for her, with her.

At the speed of light, the location of Grieze's apartment sprung into her mind.

The door exploded open. Grieze looked up from her book as a stainless steel blast door started to descend. Xanna, practically glowing with vibrant health, shouldered the blast door, jamming it open until she had stepped through the doorway.

"Xanna..." a thousand conclusions to that statement fluttered through Grieze's mind. None of them encompassed how good it felt to have Xanna staring at Grieze like she was.

"It's a drug. Eucharist." Xanna was almost gasping with the effort of speaking. She wiggled her fingers and toes, then did a back flip that went two stories up, nearly brushing a crystal chandelier. "It's like the Holy Grail of drugs, Grieze. Look what it's done to me! Taken ten years off me! I can see you with crystal clarity." Her eyes stopped wildly darting about and focused on Grieze. "You're beautiful, Grieze. You're so fucking beautiful."

In the blink of an eye, Xanna was standing next to Grieze. Her hand reached out and caressed Grieze's face, running from her scalp to the end of her hair, then along her neck, up her face... Grieze felt her hands shaking and squeezed them into fists to control them. Even Xanna's hair looked better, shiny blood-red, luxurious and straight.

She truly was a goddess.

"Everything's beautiful, Grieze," Xanna was saying, her voice low, hypnotic, awestruck. "But you're the most beautiful thing of all. That's why I had to come see you. God, that makes no sense! It all makes sense in my head because I'm thinking on Eucharist, but trying to put it into words makes it rubbish. Oh God, I'm so sorry... God, you're beautiful."

The hand traced a lone finger along Grieze's cheekbone, down over the line of her jaw, lower, against her clavicle, and finally into the swell of her cleavage. "Your eyes, your face, your mouth..." Xanna inhaled Grieze's scent as she slowly tugged the other woman's tunic open. "I want them. I want you."

"Xan, please..." Grieze didn't know what she was begging for.

"Golgoth says might makes right. What we want, we take..." Xanna paused, her hands bunching up the edges of Grieze's tunic. Then she grinned coquettishly and said, almost in babytalk: "Do you want me to take you, Grieze?"

"Oh God yes."

Xanna ripped Grieze's clothes off like she was tearing through tissue paper.

She knew exactly where to strike a man to blind him, cripple him, paralyze him, kill him. She knew where to place her hands to twist someone's head clean off, where to strike if she wanted a clean kill or to send a message.

So it made sense that Xanna found Grieze's clit as easily as if there were a big neon arrow sticking out of her pussy. The G-spot followed shortly afterward. After that, Grieze gave up on keeping up with Xanna, just laid back and enjoyed the ride. How could she ever hope to rival a goddess anyway? She was Persephone, taken down to the underworld by Hades and shown forbidden pleasures. She didn't want to go back to the surface. Damn the world to eternal winter, she wanted the Pomegranate.

Eucharist. It enhanced natural abilities tenfold. Strength, speed, stamina. Eternal youth in pill form. Goddamn. Was this was it felt like to fuck a god, Grieze wondered? Did Endymion fuck this way before the boss peeled the flesh from his bone, cruising down from the heavens to pick up some lucky maiden and leave her catatonic with pleasure/regret? Regret, yes, because if you could be addicted to Eucharist, sure as Christ you could be addicted to being fucked with it. You could mourn that one-night stand like a lost child, because by definition that meant it happened only once. Singular.

More than anything, Grieze wanted Xanna then. Wanted her body and soul. Wanted her in the morning when she first woke up, in the afternoon when she trained, in the evening when she ate, at dusk when she fucked ("Oh fuck yes, right there!"), at night when she slept, and in the midnight hours when she dreamed. Grieze wept for the life she couldn't have. Xanna saw tears of happiness running down her lover's face and smiled.

Eucharist was good shit.

"Symptoms include a slight heady sensation, loss of judgment and inhibition..." Xanna paused as Golgoth watched her, his stare that same steady blend of benevolence and frightening intensity as always. "Everything I did on Eucharist made sense at the time. I was smarter than I am now... now... now I'm too dumb to understand what I was doing."

Golgoth spoke in his chilled monotone; it had lost the honey-dewed charisma of the early days, but was if anything even more frightening and powerful than before. "It will take the body a while to accumulate to the Eucharist. Once a dependency has been built, the drug will always have some effect on you, even if it's only subconscious."

"Thank God."

Golgoth's eyes narrowed behind his omnipresent mask. "Did you do something... ill-advised?"

"I did something..." Xanna smiled, "crazy."

There was no discerning Golgoth's thoughts as she walked out of the room. Grieze stepped out of the shadows, not even trying.

"I know you wanted this to happen." Grieze wiped the tears from her eyes. "I just want to know why."

"There are certain freedoms that cannot be controlled and therefore cannot be allowed. Sadly, this is more true for my ministers than anyone else. Privilege carries with it burdens. And one of them is love... or the lack thereof."

Everyone hated Golgoth a little. Grieze figured she was just the last to catch on.

Two Years After Imperium

Grieze came back to her room to find Xanna waiting for her. The redhead was sitting on the foot of the bed, legs spread, elbows on her knee, head downcast, looking more tired than Grieze had ever seen her.

"Xan. To what do I owe the pleasure?" Grieze asked in her best "fearless tough chick" voice.

Xanna looked up at her. "I bribed the new girl to give us some privacy. You don't want to know what I gave her to get the Ministry of Information out of this room... just for an hour."

So it was going to be a serious talk then. Grieze crossed her arms. "And what's so important that we can't talk about it without Big Brother listening in?"

"I know you killed Kafra."

"No duh."

"You didn't let me finish." Xanna stood up. "I need to know why you killed him. Was it really just because... because of me?"

"For you." Grieze noticed that Xanna had started walking towards her. "I did it for you." Xanna had come close enough. "And because he was an obnoxious voyeur who had cameras in my hot tub." That stopped her short.

Xanna reached out, her fingers curling around Grieze's crossed arms, and dragged those arms down around her sides. "God, Gri... what am I going to do with you? Why for me, of all people? I'm not exactly Mother Theresa."

"Can't say I haven't noticed," Grieze said as Xanna's hands traced down her arms and interlocked with her hands. "I know you're not a good person. But to me... you're a perfect person. And thank whatever God usually ignores us for giving me a chance to say..." Unconsciously, Grieze glanced around to check for listening devices. "I love you."

Xanna let go of Grieze's hands. "You love me? How... how long have you felt this way?"

"Since five seconds after I met you."

"What took you so long?"

"I'm a slow learner."

Grieze pulled Xanna towards her. Their bodies pressed together, their lips brushed against each others', but they couldn't yet bring themselves to consummate it. "Teach me," Xanna said softly.

"No one can love Golgoth, so no one can be loyal to him. That's why he controls us with addiction and fear. But people in love... when I'm with you, I'm fearless. And it feels better than ten hits of Eucharist. That's why Golgoth doesn't want anyone in his cabinet to fall in love... not that he tells anyone, because this bunch is the type that'll do something just because you tell 'em not to. And it's not like we're the kind of people who fall in love anyway."

"We'll keep it a secret," Xanna offered. "As long as he thinks we're just fuckbuddies, we'll be off the hook. In public, under the light of day, we'll just be friends, nothing more."

"I'll never be able to tell you how I feel... shit, I wanna shout it from the rooftops."

"There are other ways to say it," Xanna said as she led Grieze to the bed. Then they did just that.

Six Years After Imperium

Tumbril stared at the former prisoner like the Virgin Mary had just appeared in his interrogation room. A pair of unlocked handcuffs hung from one hand. A gun was held in the other, pointed squarely at him.

"How'd you get loose?" he asked.

"Someone must've pulled a prank on you."

The gun flashed.

Lohkyn felt like gagging as the teleportation beam finished its work. He had no idea how Golgoth put up with it. But it did work. Before him, Endymion was a living corpse. Pulling out his pocket knife, Lohkyn went to work on the tubes biting into the hero's body.

"Hope I'm not interruptin' one a your good dreams dere, buddy, but you're needed."

Golgoth didn't know where he was, but he was absolutely certain of who he was with. Enemies. Dozens of them, all around, all equipped with automatic weaponry pointed squarely at him.

Someone had hijacked his teleportation beam before he could gather the Eucharist.

"You won't be able to bring me down," he said accurately to the warehouse full of people.

"True," said someone who was about to die. "But that's the thing about being emperor. You never run out of enemies."

Outside, the second wave waited patiently for their shot.

Twelve Years After Imperium

Zoë Smith, nee Xanna, stared out from the perch at the front lawn... such as it was. The ground was slick with mud from recent rain and a rooster was chasing a chicken back and forth across the road that ran past their ramshackle house

"I refuse to believe that this is someone's idea of a happy ending."

Gabrielle Smith, nee Grieze, came out through the screen door, still stirring a pot roast. "Would it kill you to speak Spanish in public? We're supposed to be lying low."

"Oh, because nothing else about us draws attention... like the fact that we're not Brazilian, maybe?" Xanna bickered.

Grieze set the pot roast down. "Another Imp hunter came by yesterday. I had to bury him in the cellar. You're welcome."

"Fuckers are like mosquitoes. Get bigger every year."

Grieze walked up behind Xanna and began massaging her shoulders. Xanna folded into the affection, smiling quietly to herself. "You know what I really miss, though? That first rush you get when the Eucharist hits your system. You feel like you can do anything. Hell, you can do anything."

"You know what I don't miss?" Grieze replied. "Being able to do this." Grieze leaned forward and kissed the back of Xanna's neck, whispering "I love you" as she did so. Xanna's smile widened before she turned around and wrapped Grieze up in a tight embrace.

"I am such a bitch."

"You are. You are such a bitch."

"I'm your bitch. But I really do miss the Empire."

"It couldn't last forever. Nothing ever does."

"Except us, right?"


Grieze began dragging Xanna back into the house, but not before Xanna managed to shout "My name is Xanna and I love Grieze!" Then she repeated herself in a much quieter, much less verbal fashion late into the night.