Two million dollars cash

AN EXCELLENT BARGAIN

Author:  Gracie 7/22/01

Rated PG, mild profanity.

Disclaimer:  Fan fiction only, usual disclosures, etc. etc.

Note:  Takes place immediately after Maelstrom.  *spoiler alert*

Chapter 1

Two million dollars cash.

Kenneth Irons stood before his cavernous fireplace, watching expressionlessly as crackling flames devoured both the money and the expensive leather satchel that contained it.  His body was still, his face calm, but beneath the surface his mind moved swiftly, tying together the threads of today's events.  Overriding all was bitter anger and frustration.  So close.  He had come so close to seizing the blade, only to have it slip away once more.

Briefly he closed his eyes, forcing the emotion away.  He had not achieved all that he had by looking backward and harboring regrets.  Learn and move on; that was the only thing to do.

It had been a lamentable oversight, he now realized, to allow the death of Conchabar.  With her father and her cherished partner both out of reach, Conchabar's death meant that Irons had lost an important means of controlling Sara Pezzini.  Until he learned how to control the Witchblade for himself, it was imperative that he control its wearer.

And Sara was not the only thread in the weave which appeared to be loosening.  He frowned, seeing again the look on Nottingham's face when he'd struck him fiercely.  Even now he was not sure whether he'd been more angered by the likelihood that Nottingham had lied to him, or by the reverence with which Nottingham spoke of Sara Pezzini.  Lady Sara.  It was possible that Nottingham was developing some misplaced loyalty, and its emergence must be carefully controlled and guided.  And used, he reminded himself.

He viewed the problem as a series of doors, each with its own unique key.  The key to the Witchblade:  Sara Pezzini.  The key to Ian Nottingham:  again – perhaps - Sara Pezzini.  And the key to Sara Pezzini could have been Conchabar.  A fresh shard of frustration stabbed sharply.  Yes, the key to Sara was an emotional attachment.  Tie her to…someone…and he would have her.  No doubt she was emotionally fragile just now.  Perhaps this, coupled with Nottingham's growing esteem for her, would provide the check and balance he needed on each of them.  No third party would be required.

He smiled slightly.  How he admired the elegance of simple solutions.

Chapter 2

It was hot in precinct headquarters.  The air conditioning was out again and everyone was overheated and grouchy as hell.  With the sun beating in the windows, Dante's office was a sauna.  Sara stood facing her superior, both of them beaded with perspiration.  She knew this was not going to be good.

"Your badge and gun, detective," Dante whispered in a low, smug voice.

Sara stood stiffly, not trusting herself to look him in the eyes.  "Why?" she ground out.

"We can't have our officers raiding the evidence room, Pezzini."

Sara looked into his face finally, and sudden comprehension flooded through her.

"You're in on the take," she said through clenched teeth, staring at him.  It was the only way he could have known about her hijacking of the evidence locker key.  "How high does it go, Dante?"

Dante did not react to the sneer in her tone.  Instead he stood and walked slowly toward her, stopping only after he had deliberately invaded her space.  His eyes were cold and Sara snapped her gaze back to the far wall.

He smiled thinly.  "You know as well as I that there were no pictures on that roll of film. 

You took the money from the evidence room and it had something to do with your dead mick boyfriend.  You should be very grateful I am not pressing criminal charges.  You are dismissed - Ms. Pezzini," he hissed.

 

Then he stepped back.

"Get out."

Still flooded with shocked rage, Sara fumbled for her badge and gun, threw them forcefully down on the desk and spun on her heel.  She did not look at Dante again as she departed the office, leaving the door gaping open behind her.

When she reached the sanctuary of her office Sara leaned over a chair back, braced on trembling arms.  It was too much.  She had taken the counterfeit money in a desperate bid to buy Conchabar's life from the mad Irish group who'd kidnapped him from her own home.  Even when Ian Nottingham had made his surprising appearance with – presumably – genuine cash, it was quickly apparent that the kidnappers had no intention of keeping a bargain.  As yet she had been unable to piece together enough of the ensuing events to understand how the Witchblade had been returned to her wrist.  With Jake's timely assistance she had avoided involvement in the subsequent investigation of the warehouse shootout, but it appeared now that her law enforcement career was over anyway.  In her gut she knew the corruption she had stumbled across had spread to the highest levels of the department.  She could not fight it.  Dante was right; she was lucky to have only been dismissed.  They could have crucified her.

Wearily she slumped into the chair, and stared numbly at the dark-stoned circlet clasped on her arm.  What would my father think now?" she wondered. 

With an effort she pushed herself up from the chair and cleared her few personal belongings from the desk, dumping them into a paper bag she found lurking in the back of a drawer.  Taking a last look around, she turned to the door and walked straight into Jake as he breezed around the corner.

"Hey, Pez," he laughed, grabbing her to steady them both.  He frowned as he took in her face and the paper sack in her arms.

"What's up?"

She looked at him a moment, trying to decide where to start.  Finally she replied simply, "I've been fired."

Still holding her by the upper arms, he looked back at her blankly.  "What?"

"Fired.  You know.  Sent packing.  Discharged.  Sacked.  Shit-canned."

Jake shook his head in denial and amazement.  "No way.  What's their cause?"

"Forget it, Jake," she replied tiredly.  "There isn't any use."

"But…"

"No," she said, sharply, pulling herself free of his grasp.  Then, more gently, "You've been a good partner, Jake.  I'm sorry I seem…strange…sometimes.  I wasn't much of a teacher.  I'm sure you'll do better with your next assignment."

He looked at her, confusion and concern plainly written on his even features.  "Pez, I don't want another partner."  He paused, gauging her expression, then raised his hands in defeat.  "Hey, I can see you don't want to get into things right now.  Why don't you just go home and chill for today?   I'll call you tomorrow and we can talk."  He reached out and squeezed her shoulder.  "OK?"

"Sure, Jake," Sara replied, forcing a smile.  "I'll go…get some rest…think." 

She began edging toward the door and he moved aside to let her pass. 

"I'll talk to you tomorrow," he reminded her.

"Tomorrow," she confirmed. 

Right now, tomorrow seemed a lifetime away.

Chapter 3

By the time she reached her apartment Sara felt a weariness of soul that she had never experienced.  It seemed too much trouble to clear up the mess that remained from Conchobar's struggle with his kidnappers.  Too much trouble to check messages, or to eat.  And especially too much trouble to think.  Lacking even the energy to undress, she collapsed across her bed in a boneless heap and sank gratefully into oblivion.

 

* * *

Fifteen hours later the shrill summons of her cell phone dragged Sara grudgingly into consciousness.  She rolled onto her back, stared at the ceiling and waited for it to stop.  Several rings later, it did. 

Silence spun out in the room.  Willing her mind to stay unengaged, Sara watched dust motes dance across the room in sunbeams.  Background sounds from other apartment-dwellers filtered gradually into her awareness.  After a while, it became difficult to maintain disengagement, and she reluctantly allowed her mind to begin touching upon  the painful subjects waiting for her attention.  First, Conchobar's gruesome death at the hands of the blade and the Irish bitch.  She blamed them both equally, along with the blame she laid on herself.  A wave of sorrow grew within, lifting her higher and higher until she thought it could not be borne.  Where did this profound grief come from?  She had only known him a short while.  No, whispered a secret voice from somewhere deep inside.  You have known him…before.

Time passed.  She did not know how long.  Slowly the agony began to ease and she could think again.  She could take up the next difficulty.

Detective Pezzini.  It was her life, her identity.  Bleakly she realized that there was virtually no chance that she could ever return to the department.  At least, not under conditions she'd be able to live with.  In her heart, she knew nothing else but police work could give her life the value and meaning she sought.  Rolling over again, she buried her face in the pillow and sighed deeply. 

Where are you, Danny, when I need you?

The cell phone began to ring again, persistently.  Sara groped at the foot of the bed for her jacket and eventually plucked out the phone.  She held it for a moment, looking at it as it rang, weighing her chances of avoiding reality a short while longer.  She shook her head then and poked the call button.

"Yeah."

"Hello, Sara.  How are you?"

"Not in the mood for small talk, Mr. Irons.  What do you want?"

"I have an offer to discuss with you Sara.  I'll see you at my home this evening."

With a click the line went dead.  Sara squeezed her eyes shut in annoyance. 

Just once, she wished he'd stay on the line long enough for her tell him to drop dead.

* * *

Chapter 4

Only Irons would have a blazing fire and air conditioning going at the same time in this heat wave.  Sara looked around the now-familiar room; Nottingham at parade rest in the corner, Irons seated in elegant repose near the hearth.  And the fire.  She suspected he probably enjoyed cultivating a conflict between elemental flames and modern cooling technology.

"Welcome, Detective," Irons said, gesturing to a chair opposite him and adding in a sardonic tone, "Or perhaps that address is no longer appropriate."

Sara shrugged off her irritation.  "Bad news travels fast, I see."

Irons smiled.  "I try to stay informed."  He lifted his wineglass.  "You know, Sara, there are greater evils in the world than those the police waste their time on."

She raised an eyebrow.  "Well, as long as those big evils keep to themselves, I'm pretty happy taking care of the little evils."  She crossed her arms.  "I have to wonder, Mr. Irons, how much you had to do with my dismissal."

He ignored this and reached for a second wineglass resting on the small table beside him.  "Wine, Sara?"

"No, Mr. Irons.  I don't want any wine.  What I do want is for you to get to the point of this conversation.  Why am I here?"

Irons sipped the wine, assessing her over the rim of his glass before answering.

"I need your help, Sara."

She laughed derisively.  "Why in the world would I want to help you."  It was not a question.

"Because you would be helping yourself, of course.  You see, unlike most people I neither believe in nor expect altruism.  I am prepared to make you an offer from which we will both benefit."

Sara shrugged.  "I'm listening."

"I would like you to come to work for me."  Immediately Irons held up a forestalling hand as he saw her expression begin to freeze.  "Hear me out."

After a moment, she nodded.

"I have two passions in my life, Sara.  My business and…the Witchblade.  In my world I have made a number of enemies which require me to take certain measures to assure my safety." 

Sara glanced briefly over his shoulder, noting that Ian Nottingham had raised his head slightly and was clearly interested in their conversation.

Irons went on.  "Most recently, for example,  I have come under attack from some of my former Arab customers, who have taken the regrettable measure of declaring me an enemy of their religion.  A death sentence, basically."  He shrugged.  "Religion is a tool for controlling the masses, and theirs is particularly effective.  In a way, I almost admire them."

He paused for another sip of wine.  "My point, however, is that I have enemies.  Ian Nottingham is a miracle of protection, but even he cannot be in all places at all times.  Even he is not invulnerable."  Irons shuddered mentally, recalling the recent Black Dragon incident in which, but for Sara, he would have endured a grisly death.  "I believe that, with some additional training, you and Ian would make a highly effective team."

"Ian and me," Sara repeated.  She looked at him and added pointedly, "And the Witchblade."

He returned her gaze directly.  "Of course.  I will not pretend to you that I wouldn't like to have the blade for myself, but we both know that cannot be.  I have decided,  therefore, to settle for having it nearby…at my service, in a roundabout way.  In return for your presence and your participation in my personal protection, I offer you lucrative compensation, freedom from my pursuit of the Witchblade, the advantage of some notable improvements in your training, and my support if you wish to pursue police-type work on your own time."  He paused significantly.  "I think this is an excellent bargain, Sara."

She looked at him, her eyes narrowed.  "So I watch your back with the Witchblade, you pay me big bucks, and I get to be a vigilante on my own time.  Is that about it?"

Irons inclined his head.  "Basically, yes.  And Ian will teach you everything he feels you are capable of learning from him."

At this Nottingham's head snapped up, something close to shock in his expression.  Sara met his dark gaze and in that instant the room closed in, dissolved, and she found herself seeing once again through her bewildering inner eye.  His face, but somehow…not.  Garbed in the clothes of another era, this Ian was smiling at her.  She felt her hand in a warm, safe grasp.  He began to move closer and she went to him willingly.  You have known him, said the secret voice.  The vision began slowly to fade.  Before? she wondered.  The voice returned, barely audible.  You have known him…always.

Kenneth Irons watched as awareness momentarily left Sara's face.  He had time to recognize the sudden, alarming connection between Sara and Nottingham, and to wonder whether perhaps he was making a serious mistake. 

Then it was over.  The entwined circular scars on his hand itched and throbbed.  Sara visibly shook off the effects of the moment, then drew a cleansing breath.  She risked one more glance at Nottingham, who had dropped his gaze to the floor, still wearing a stunned expression. 

Sara looked back at Irons.

"I accept your offer."

Chapter 5

The breath left her body in a sharp cough as Nottingham threw her to the mat once again.  Swiftly, gracefully, he went to one knee, his hand hard against her throat.

"If you were my opponent, this is the moment that I would crush your windpipe and you would begin to die."

Sara closed her eyes and nodded, still struggling for breath.  She felt him rise, and opened her eyes to see his hand extended, offering assistance.  Grimly she shook her head and struggled to her feet on her own.

"You must learn to sense my balance point, Sara.  Strength will not matter if you learn to use your opponents' own body weight against them."

Sara nodded tiredly, then held up her hand to request a respite.  She leaned over her knees, waiting for oxygen to begin circulating again to her protesting muscles.  She had begun training with Nottingham a month ago and it had consumed most of her waking hours.  Jake, thankfully, had finally given up his questioning as she steadfastly refused any explanation.   He accepted the information she passed along pertaining to his current cases and they had evolved a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy between them.  Privately, Sara thought he was getting far more tight with Dante than was healthy.  But that was no longer her world.

Training had been a curious experience.  Ian willingly shared many secrets of weaponry and techniques, and over time he seemed to become less uncomfortable in her presence.  But despite their long hours together she still felt no closer to knowing Nottingham the man.  Perhaps, she sometimes thought, there was no man inside at all.  Perhaps he'd been killed off long ago by Irons' conditioning program. 

But that had all ended abruptly when they began work today on hand-to-hand skills.

She had felt that his unease matched her own today when they met at the mat, both wearing loose cotton trousers and tank tops.  It was the first time she had ever seen more than the skin on his face.  Nottingham did not have Irons' tall, lanky build, but was instead strong and compact.  Defined muscles flexed nervously beneath his skin as they faced each other.  Sara swallowed and willed her mind to the business at hand.  She'd always been good at close combat, she thought, but he thrashed her soundly, easily and repeatedly.

"All right," she gasped at last, straightening up.  "Show me the right way so I can get the feel."

Nodding, he repositioned them to the last takedown.  Sara could sense his hesitation as he touched and manipulated her body.  She was aware of every micron of skin where there was contact between them.  His breath came more heavily than was warranted by their exertions. 

"Here.  When I was extended to hold you – so – I was at the breaking point of my own balance.  You should have moved – so – and allowed me to defeat myself."

Shown so clearly, Sara immediately understood his point.  Without warning, she quickly completed the maneuver and landed Nottingham on his back, then followed through with her own hand at his windpipe.  She smiled at him triumphantly.  "You're mine, Nottingham."

Suddenly, the Witchblade fell from her wrist.  It rolled to within inches of his outstretched left hand then stopped.

Immediately her mocking smile faded and Sara rose uncertainly to her feet.  She bent to retrieve the bracelet, but Nottingham simply reached out and closed his hand over it.  Slowly he stood up and they faced each other, both looking at the stone as it pulsed a dull, heated red.  He did not offer it to her immediately and she barely heard his soft murmur.

"This is a test for me, Sara.  And a moment of revelation for you."

Tense moments passed and finally Sara grimaced in disgust.  "So you're in it for the blade.  Like everyone else."  She backed away a step.  "Did you once wear it too?  Is that why I keep dreaming…whatever it is…about you?"  She took another step back, her tone poisonous.  "Well now you've got it.  Do you want it for yourself, or are you so completely Irons' man that you'll just turn the Witchblade over to him?"

He met her gaze then, and for a moment her breath stopped at the intensity of what she saw there.  He stepped forward, reached out smoothly and captured her hand, then, almost reverently, replaced the Witchblade on her wrist.  He lowered his eyes.

"I am yours, Sara."

He still held her hand.  Stunned, Sara could not manage to formulate a question from the many thoughts crowding her mind.  She looked at the dark head, bent subserviently before her.

"Irons would kill you for this."  It was all she could think to say.

"He may," came the soft reply.

Ridiculous.  Irons could never overcome him physically.  "Could he…" she stopped, wondering at the extent of Irons' mental control over Ian Nottingham.  "Could he order you to take your own life?"

Again, "He may…unless…"

The silence lengthened.  Finally she reached out and put her hand on his hair.  "Look at me," she said.  "Unless what?"

He raised his eyes and she felt again the impact in her guts when she looked into their dark depths.  "Unless you direct me otherwise."

"My wishes…supercede his?"

"They do."

Still bewildered, she looked at him, his head bowed once more.

"What exactly do you mean when you say you're…ah…mine," she asked carefully.

He looked up of his own accord this time, fervently, and his grip on her hand tightened a little.  "It means, Sara, that I am here to guide and protect you, to do your bidding to the best of my ability and to the end of my life."

Sara stared at him, flashing back suddenly on certain of the inexplicable dreams she had experienced since the blade came to her.  "You've been with the blade all along," she whispered, almost to herself.  "Like me."

"Yes," he said softly.

"This is like some kind of crazy – I don't know – reincarnation or something."

"In a sense," he said, his gaze back on their linked hands.  "You have many things to learn, Sara."

"And you can tell me?"

"Some things, yes, when you are ready." 

Sara's eyes narrowed.  Always a qualifier.  "Well I'm ready now.  Start explaining."

"Sometimes, Sara, the process of gaining understanding is as important as the knowledge itself."

He raised his gaze.  "You must trust me."

His eyes were dark and bottomless, drawing her inexorably back into the same vision she'd had repeatedly since the first night of Irons' offer.  Once more she was in another time and place, her hand still in his, enveloped by the familiar feeling of trust and safety.  But this time when she moved closer to the man in the vision there was no disappointing fade.  This time there was the reality of hands gently cradling her face, warm lips on her own in a way that removed any doubt, her fingers tangled in soft dark hair, and one man's name burned on her soul.

You have known him…always.

* * *

In his office, Kenneth Irons gasped at the sudden, consuming wave of emotion that overtook him.  He gritted his teeth, perspiration popping out on his forehead as he struggled against the intensity.  On the polished desktop, his hands stretched flat in pain/pleasure and through a haze he could see the entwined circles gone the dark red of drying blood, a brand marking him forever.

Chapter 6

Irons had recovered his composure when, some time later, Sara and Nottingham answered his summons, finding him once more before his wide hearth.  The flames had by now burned very low, throwing off their last light before fading to embers.  He watched carefully as they approached, noting that although Nottingham walked slightly behind Sara, there was no servility in his posture.  When they stopped before him the two stood side by side.

Was it real? he wondered.  Of the spirit or of the flesh?  Perhaps they themselves do not know.  His eyes narrowed.  It made no difference.  The end result was the same.

 

"Well, if it isn't Lady Sara and her…consort."  He tapped his fingers idly on the arm of his chair.

Inwardly he smiled in satisfaction at Sara's glancing exchange with Nottingham.  "Yes.  I was there.  Oh, not in the literal sense.  But I…"  he paused and rubbed the back of his hand.   "…I feel things."  Let them think about that each time they are together.

He stopped tapping and fixed them with a baleful glare.  "And now?" he prompted.  "Will you leave me and attempt to take up your pitiful existence as a police detective once more?"  His eyes went to Nottingham and he added scornfully, "You, I presume, would follow the blade."

"Nobody is leaving, Mr. Irons," Sara said calmly.  "I need to know a lot more.  Somehow you are as tied to this…" she gestured at the bracelet "…as we are.  I think it benefits everyone to continue our present arrangement.  At least that way I have some idea what you're up to."

Irons smiled at the irony.  "Very good, Sara.  A cardinal rule in business and government:  Keep your enemies close at hand where you can watch over them."  He shrugged.  "I, however, am not your enemy."

"Maybe not," Sara replied, unconvinced.  "As I see it, the blade didn't kill you when it could have.  I don't know why yet, but maybe somehow you're important.  So we'll keep you from getting murdered by your religious buddies, and you'll keep coughing up answers."  She glanced sidelong at Nottingham and added, "As I'm ready."

She turned and walked regally from the room, her head held high, her slim figure swallowed by darkness before she reached the door.  Almost at her side was the dark shadow which would now share her every step.

In the hearth, the final, small flame flickered out.  In its wake the gloom of evening invaded the room, obscuring Kenneth Irons as he stared unseeing into the dim glow of dying embers.

FIN