Chapter One

THE TRUE PROTECTOR

By Gracie   -   July 27, 2001

[email protected]

Rated PG

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

Note:  Takes place immediately after Periculum.

Chapter 1

Dreams…always these everlasting dreams.

Even within the dream itself Sara was strangely conscious of a new level of awareness, as though she were simultaneously awake and asleep.  Awareness enough to know, even as it was happening, that she was sick to death of having bizarre and inexplicable dreams.  Awareness that she'd had this particular dream too often of late.  Awareness enough to understand, finally, that these dreams were much more than simple imaginings and that she'd better pay attention.

Restlessly she tossed in her rumpled sheets as Dream-Sara stood in a dark quiet place, anticipating….something.  Or someone.  A faint light began to grow, but not yet enough for clear sight.  She was outdoors, and with her dual understanding Sara marveled at the detail of a dream in which she could feel the chill of the evening air and smell the damp of the woods around her.  Dream-Sara forced herself to stillness as anticipation grew within her.  Soon…very soon.  Faint whisperings came to the dream.  Perhaps they were words, perhaps only the murmurings of the breeze or a faraway stream.  A form began to coalesce slowly out of the gloom, nothing more at first than an even darker shadow in the darkness that surrounded her. 

Then she saw him.

Sara gasped aloud as Dream-Sara recognized the figure and fierce longing swept over her.  He was here now and all was as it should be.  As it was meant to be.  She lifted her face to him as he came nearer, but did not close her eyes.  No maidenly modesty for the wielder of the Witchblade.  With a kiss she would acknowledge this man as her partner, her lover and her comrade.  He would be as close as a man could come to having a share in the ancient enchantment of the blade.  She would not close her eyes to this moment.

Desperately she sought clarification of his features and felt a quiver of unease as he came closer, still unseen.  She felt a touch, a hand cupping her face and reaching around to curl behind her neck and draw her in. 

The hostile clang of the alarm clock woke her suddenly and harshly.  In frustration she thumped it with far more force than necessary, and the clock subsided with an indignant clank.  Filmed with perspiration, she lay back on her pillow and tried once more to sort out this latest dream.  With each repetition it became more vivid, but never once had she been able to see the features of the man.  She felt strongly that her bond with him was central to her ongoing relationship with the Witchblade.  Going forward, he would be a keystone in her life.

Opposites. 

Rather than good and evil, or black and white, perhaps the opposites required by the Witchblade were more fundamental.

Man and woman.

* * * *

Chapter 2

Jake walked smiling into their shared office space.  Before removing his coat he deposited a steaming cup of coffee at Sara's elbow.  She looked up from her computer screen and smiled with pleasure.

"You are an angel."

He smiled with exaggerated false modesty.  "All part of the service, partner."  He watched as she stretched tiredly, and looked at the pile-up on her desk.  "You doing a paperwork marathon?"

Sara sipped gratefully at the coffee.  "Trying.  I felt guilty for leaving you to do all this while I was…" she stopped.

"Hey, that's OK," he said, stepping into the awkward pause.  "You'd do the same for me."

"Yeah, Jake," she smiled back at him, her voice soft.  "I would.  And if I didn't say it before – thank you."

A shadow darkened the office door and they both looked up as Dante stuck his head into the room.  "You two need to go check in with Narcotics.  Palacek has a snitch in on parole violation and the guy's willing to turn up some information on your hooker murders.  Could be the break we needed."    He disappeared from the doorway.

Jake grinned mischievously.  "You were tired of paperwork anyway, weren't you?"

Already energized by the prospect of getting away from her desk, Sara was shrugging into her jacket.  Scooping up coffee cups, they left the building before anything else could head them off.

Sara held both cups in the car as Jake buckled up.  Their fingers tangled for a long moment as they awkwardly transferred the cup, then he started the car and got underway.  On her arm, the Witchblade buzzed warmly against her skin.  Sara sat thunderstruck by a sudden thought.

The faceless man from the dream.  Jake?

She studied his even, appealing profile, mentally fitting him into the image of her dreams and thinking over what she knew about him.

Not a lot.

Surfer champ with a social conscience.  What did she really know about his past?  Why was he here?  Was it some kind of pre-destined event that brought him into her life after Danny's death?  Suspiciously she watched him as he drove.  Perhaps he already knew his purpose and was simply biding his time, waiting for her to come to the notion on her own.

Jake stopped at a red light and glanced over at her quizzically.

"I know," he smirked.  "I look so good this morning you can't take your eyes off me."

Despite herself Sara laughed, then shook off her paranoia and punched him in the shoulder.

"In your dreams, Jake."

The light turned.  Sara sat silently, staring out the windshield, chilled by her own choice of words.

* * * *

Chapter 3

Sara hated narcotics snitches, the lowest of the low.  The minute the interview was over she made a stop in the bathroom, washing her hands and generally scraping off the unclean feeling of Palacek's oily little snitch.  She crumpled the paper towel, trying to imagine what it would be like to work with those kind of people on a daily basis.  She could not suppress a mental shudder.

Her cell phone rang, echoing shrilly in the high-ceilinged room.

"Yeah," she answered, gazing at her reflection and pushing her hair around.

"Good morning Sara."

"Aren't you up a little early, Mr. Irons?  I thought all you billionaires slept late and had breakfast served in bed."

"Indeed.  Then I suppose this should serve as a lesson to you that your stereotype needs to be reconsidered."

Sara glanced at her watch.

"Not to be rude, Mr. Irons, but my partner is waiting on me and I have things to do.  I'm sure you didn't call just to chat."

She could sense the sardonic little twist of his lips that passed for a smile.

"You are correct.  I called to invite you to dine with me this evening."

Sara was silent, uncomfortable with the possible ramifications of his offer.

"Why?" she asked bluntly.

"The Periculum," he answered, equally blunt.  "I would like to discuss it.  You had an experience I would like to know more about, and I…I have some information that may interest you in return."

She thought it over for a moment.  Somehow, she was not surprised that Irons knew she'd gone through the Periculum, nor that he wanted to milk her for every detail of the experience.  Sara glanced down at the Witchblade and felt a surge of confidence in herself and her destiny.  Surely she was immune to Irons now.  What could it hurt to pick his brain a little more?

"All right," she answered.  "I'll see you tonight."

But he was already gone, as usual.

* * * *

Chapter 4

In the circular drive that fronted Irons' imposing home, Sara sat for an extra moment in her car, trying to sort out the niggling reservations she felt about this dinner rendezvous.  As was becoming her habit now, she glanced at the blade.  It rested quietly on her wrist, imparting no sensation and showing only a dim light in the stone.  She shrugged.  No big warnings there.  May as well get on with it.

The instant she reached for the door handle it was pulled open from the outside, and a black-gloved hand reached in to assist her.  Sara ignored the gallantry and climbed out on her own.

"Hey, Nottingham."

"Good evening, Sara," he replied formally.  Briefly his penetrating eyes met hers before quickly looking away.  He closed the car door and they turned together to the winding path that ended at the front entrance. 

"How do you do that?" Sara asked curiously.

"Do what, Sara?"

"That thing with the car door.  And a lot of other things."  She struggled to better describe her question.  "You always know where I am and what I'm going to do.  Did Irons teach you to read minds or something?"

To her ears it sounded simultaneously creepy and silly, but Nottingham seemed not to hear it that way.  They reached the door and he stopped to look at her before opening it.

"No, Sara.  I do not read minds."  He paused, and she found herself distracted by small escaped wisps of black hair that stirred in the evening breeze.  "Not even yours."

 

He seemed about to say more, but then the shutters fell again in his eyes and he turned his gaze away from her.  Impulsively Sara reached for the door handle and covered his gloved hand with her own, staring intently at his dark profile.

"Nottingham…"

He stiffened, and immediately Sara removed her hand from his.  She felt strangely contrite, as though she had unknowingly caused him some distress.  Then the moment passed.

"Never mind," she murmured.  "Mr. Irons is waiting."

Nodding wordlessly, he opened the door, and in continued silence led her to the dining room.

Irons stood before a smaller version of his favorite hearth, holding a glass of pale golden wine.  As they entered he turned with a smile.

"Ah, here you are, Sara." 

To Nottingham he spoke only briefly.  "Close the doors as you leave."

Feeling somehow embarrassed for Nottingham by this brusque dismissal, Sara watched as he pulled the double doors closed, disappearing from view as they clicked shut.  At the last moment his gaze flicked up from under his dark  brow and she felt a split second of…something…impact inside of her.  Warning or reassurance – she could not tell.

But Irons was speaking again, and she forced her attention back to his patrician features.

"I hope you will join me in a toast, Sara.  This is a superb wine and I've been saving it for something special."

He offered a glass, which Sara found herself accepting from his hand. 

"What are we toasting?"

"Your successful passing of the Periculum, of course."  He stepped closer, his pale blue eyes alight with curiosity.  Sara watched him warily.

"You seem to know so much, Mr. Irons, why do you need me to tell you about it?"  She lifted an eyebrow.   "Can't you just have your mind-reader fill you in so you could spare yourself an evening of my company?"

His eyes narrowed slightly.  "Mind reader?" he repeated with studied casualness.

With a jolt Sara realized that Irons perhaps did not know the extent of Nottingham's observations and contacts with her.  For some reason she could not identify, she felt the need to safeguard this knowledge.  Lightly she turned the comment away.  "Actually I think it's you who reads minds, Mr. Irons.  You always seem to send help around at the right time."

Irons seemed content to let this go, and a soft knock on the door forestalled further conversation.  A dignified, rotund man stood at the door.

"Shall we serve, Mr. Irons?"

At Irons' nod dinner service began.  He seated Sara graciously and refilled her wine glass.  She looked at him curiously.

"Do you ever go out to dinner?"

"Out?"

"You know…to restaurants," she clarified dryly.

"Never," was his succinct reply.  "Why would I wish to put myself in the hands of a less competent chef than I have at home, and be forced besides to endure the company of the general public?"

Sara swallowed.  "Yes.  I see.  When you put it that way…"

He considered her briefly, then adopted a less strident tone.  "I prefer to dine at home, Sara.  My chef has no equal in the city.  And tonight I have the exclusive pleasure of your company.   Given the choice of hovering waiters and other peoples' conversations, I greatly favor these circumstances."

"And before you were so rich?" she prompted, encouraged by his warmer attitude to indulge her curiosity.

He looked at her.  "I have always been this rich, Sara."

They worked their way through the dinner courses.  As Irons' had promised, it was superb.  When at last their table service was being cleared, Sara felt moved to send her highest compliments to the chef.  The servant slid an imperceptible glance at Irons, then acknowledged with a murmur that he would convey her respects.

Irons' frowned slightly.

"Do you disapprove?" Sara asked, made bolder by the excess of magnificent wine she had consumed with dinner.

"It is generally unwise to let servants know that they have met your standards, Sara.  Better to keep them striving, feeling that your complete satisfaction is within their reach of only they try a bit harder."  He smiled coldly.  "It is a fine line."

He stood.  "Come with me."

Only a little unsteadily, Sara rose and followed Irons from the dining room, through a passageway hung with portraiture that was probably priceless, and into Irons' study.  As was his usual custom, a substantial fire leaped and crackled in the hearth, illuminating a close circle in the large room.

Sara sank into a comfortable high-backed chair and Irons went to the fire, as if drawn to its warm presence.

"Now," he said quietly.  "Tell me."

Sara wasn't sure where to begin, and wasn't completely sure how much she wanted to tell him.  "What do you want to know?" she asked, buying time.

He stared into the flames, his whispered reply barely audible.

"Everything."

"Well, it wasn't what I would have expected it to be," Sara began hesitantly.  "If I'd known the Witchblade would…test…the wearer, I guess I'd have expected something different."

"Different in what way?"

"Pain, I suppose.  Fear."

"And there was none of this?"

"Well," she admitted, "fear – yes.  I was afraid of being physically subdued.  Afraid of the unknown.  But the test itself…"   She trailed off again, thinking for a moment before resuming.

"I suppose I expected it to be a test of strength, loyalty, bravery…I don't know…endurance.  Those kinds of things."

He turned to face her.  "And it was not?"

"No," she replied, seeing once again the faces of the women she had encountered.  Her own face.  "It was a test of…wisdom…" She looked at him, "…and honesty, I think."

His eyes glowed strangely in the firelight as they looked at each other.  Silent moments stretched out between them.

"Did you know, Sara," he began quietly, "that each wearer of the Witchblade has had a powerful protector."

Fragments of dreams tumbled in her memory.  The room was growing very warm. 

"I…suppose so…yes."

"It is the destiny of the blade wielder to have a powerful connection to this protector.  This…lover."

His eyes burned into her and Sara began to feel lightheaded.  Irons approached her chair and slowly placed a hand on either side of her.  He leaned down, very close

"Do you believe in destiny, Sara?" he whispered.

Her awareness narrowed to the encircling glow of the fire.  Irons was inches from her face, his gaze moving between her eyes and her mouth in a way that fascinated and repelled her.  His lips, smooth and cool, were a hairsbreadth away from her own.  She could almost feel them.

"I believe more than I used to," she said slowly.  Silhouetted against the flames his figure was dark and indefinite, only his eyes, piercing blue, were distinct.  Images of the dream tugged at the edges of her consciousness.   Time seemed to stand still as they remained locked in close proximity, staring into each other's eyes, not breathing.

Then Irons lifted one hand and time began to flow forward once again.  Gently he caressed the side of her face, and with an obvious effort pulled away from her.  He knelt before her, his hands remaining on the arms of her chair, effectively confining her there.  As she watched, fascinated, he let out a deep breath and raised his head to look at her.

"Consider this, Sara.  Throughout time the wielder of the Witchblade has chosen a strong protector to guard her from the dangers of the mortal world.  Someone who shares her awareness of and appreciation for the power of the blade."

Inside, she knew where this was going.  Irons' voice was steady and hypnotic, his aristocratic tones like cool balm to the tortured confusion in her mind.

"I am that protector for you, Sara.  I have the wealth and power to protect you and those you care about from every human danger and concern.  I feel what you feel, we share the mystery of the blade."

Sara reached deep for a moment of lucidity.  "But you…aren't there.  Some people I see…I dream…over and over, in each…life.  Not you."

"Perhaps every wearer has not been able to unite with her protector, Sara.  Perhaps timing is as much a factor in the rise of the blade as anything else.  If all the conditions are not met…the wielder fails."

"Joan," Sara whispered, looking over Irons' shoulder at the flames and seeing herself tied to the stake, abandoned by the Witchblade in her hour of most extreme need.

"If I had been there, my Sara, St. Joan would not have been burned."

He reached into her lap then and cradled her two hands between his.  "Promise me this, Sara," he said.  "Promise me that you will consider carefully everything that I have said."

She looked into his cool blue eyes.

"It is our destiny."

On her wrist, the Witchblade lay quiescent, making its presence known only to its wearer. 

It was icy cold.

* * *

Chapter 5

Very late that night her telephone rang in the darkness.  Sara reached over immediately to pick it up.  She had not been sleeping.

"What?"

"Sara, open your door.  We need to talk."  The line went dead.

Pausing only long enough to pull a department t-shirt over her head, Sara padded to the door and released the locks.  He was waiting.

"I don't think I can stand much more weirdness tonight, Nottingham."

"May I come in?"

Sara shrugged.  "Why not."  She swung  the door wider and he brushed past.  The smell of night rain rode in on the broad shoulders of his overcoat.

She reached then for the light switch but he whirled immediately and seized her hand.

"No.  Don't turn on the lights."

"What do you want, Nottingham?"  The hairs on the back of her neck were beginning to stand up.

He kept her wrist in his grip and stepped forward, pinning her lightly between his body and the back of the door.

"What did he say to you tonight?"

"I don't think that's any of your business," Sara bristled.

"It is."  His eyes were fierce and predatory.  "It is my business.  Tell me."

Sara looked at the Witchblade.  The red oval glowed an intense red, but it gave no indication of morphing into anything she could use to defend herself.

"He said that every blade wielder has a protector," she finally said.  "A…lover."

"And?" he prompted immediately.

She looked down.  "He said that he is that man for me."

Abruptly Nottingham released her, but did not back away.

"And do you think he is, Sara?" he asked, looking at her intently.

"How should I know?" she cried in frustration.  "He knows things.  He has resources.  He could be…" her voice trailed off unhappily and she hung her head.  "…I suppose.   I don't know how to tell."

Nottingham raised her chin with one gloved finger.  His expression was filled with a gentleness she had never seen and his voice was soft.

"Did he kiss you?"  A strange question, she thought.

"No."

Nottingham let out a small sigh and his voice softened further to a near whisper.

"Do you want him to be that man, Sara?"

The bracelet glowed with sudden painful heat against her wrist but Sara could not tear her gaze away from his face.  Long moments passed until, with an effort, she gathered her wits and spun away, panting, putting put her back to him.  She heard the door open and glanced once over her shoulder to see him silhouetted again the dim hallway light.

 "Do you believe in fairy tales, Sara?"

Sara closed her eyes and shook her head.  "Fairy tales, Nottingham?  Fairy tales?"

She spun around in frustration.

He was gone.

* * *

Chapter 6

A gusty wind rattled the window panes and drove before it a heavy, drenching rain.  Sara and Jake sat in the living room of his apartment.  Around them lay the detritus of their take-out supper, as well as piles of paper and a tape recorder.  On the other side of the room, cartoons played mutely on the television.

Sara read through their summary and plan of action one more time, then threw it down, satisfied.  She leaned back against the couch and ran her fingers through her thick mane.  She was tired.

Last night she had been nearly sleepless following her unnerving encounters with both Irons and Nottingham.  What little sleep she had managed to steal had, at least, been mercifully free of dreams.

"So what's Dante giving us for backup on this?" she asked Jake.

He too lounged on the floor a couple of feet away, his back against the sofa.  He glanced at her guiltily and scrubbed a hand over his face.

"Well…"

Sara turned her head to shoot him a piercing look.  "Well what?"

"He didn't exactly assign us any."

"Oh really.  Why not?"

"He doesn't think the snitch is giving us good information, he thinks the guy is just trying to weasel out of his probation rap and is telling us what we want to hear."

"So we're on our own?"  She couldn't even find the energy to get indignant.

"Yeah, pretty much." 

As Sara watched, he tipped his head back on the sofa and closed his eyes.  She did the same and they were quiet for a time, lulled by the cozy feeling of being warm and dry while a tempest raged outside.

"Jake?"

"Hmm."

"Did you read fairy tales when you were a kid?"

"Fairy tales?  You mean like Snow White and Prince Charming?  Dragons and true love's kiss?"

Sara's eyes snapped open as her breath caught and she made a sudden puzzling connection. 

Did he kiss you?

Do you believe in fairy tales, Sara?

With a flash of insight, she realized that she had been relying on the Witchblade for its guidance.  Perhaps, though, this recognition was something she had to come to on her own.  If – and this was a big if, she allowed – if this protector/lover/comrade she was destined to have was already in her life, then it was going to be fairly easy to narrow it down.  She simply didn't know very many men who could meet the specifications.

Irons had certainly laid out a convincing argument.  Despite her nagging doubts that any true companion should do the amount of self-promotion Irons had done, she had to admit that he did have the ability to be a protector – and had indeed already created a weapon which he directed to her defense.  That weapon had his own set of  puzzling behaviors, but she chose to ignore this for the moment.

Turning her head, she looked at Jake where he still slouched against the sofa in total relaxation, his head tilted back.  Though they were still fairly new to each other, in her heart she felt that Jake was a man she could rely on.  Perhaps their friendship was meant to become something more?  Though not possessing Irons' wealth, Jake was a good cop who could watch her back and certainly act as a protector.

Or perhaps, further out in concept, fate meant for Danny to be her protector, and that their relationship would be more spiritual than physical.  Further examination seemed to yield only further confusion.

How the hell to know?

…dragons and true love's kiss?

"Did he kiss you?"

Knowing she was probably going to regret it, she turned impetuously to Jake and drew herself up onto her knees over him.  His eyes opened disbelievingly.

"Jake, whatever you do, don't take this the wrong way."

Before he could reply, she leaned forward and let her lips touch his.  However weary he was, or confused by her actions, Jake responded immediately, grasping her shoulders gently and pulling her into him.  His lips were soft and molded warmly to hers, and for several moments the kiss lengthened and deepened until Sara finally remembered the reason she was doing this.

Softly she ended the kiss and pulled back, her hands resting on his shoulders.  For a moment neither of them spoke.  Jake pressed his lips together lightly, as if to savor the moment, then spoke awkwardly.

"Why don't you tell me how I'm supposed to take that, just so I don't take it the wrong way."

Nothing.

She'd felt nothing in particular except the simple pleasure of kissing a handsome, healthy man who she liked a great deal.  No cosmic revelations.  No reaction from the Witchblade.

She cleared her throat nervously and backed away until she was resting on her heels.

"Uh…Jake, I…"

Damn.  She should have thought this through more in advance.

He gave her a slow friendly smile.  "Don't sweat it, Pez.  I know you've been dying of curiosity and just had to get that out of your system before it got in the way of something."

He winked.  "Right?"  However he himself felt, he was giving her a way out.

More grateful than he would ever know, Sara laughed shamefacedly and nodded.  He held out one arm and she curled up companionably beside him on the floor.

"So…?" he prodded her after a minute of silence.

"So what?"

"So if I promise not to take it the wrong way…how was it?"

"Jake," she replied honestly, laughter in her voice.  "You are a world-class kisser, and if we weren't partners you would have to run for your life from me."

He smiled in satisfaction, reached around her for the remote control and punched up the volume on the cartoons.  Resting her head on his shoulder, Sara felt a pang of fear and disappointment lance through her.

If it wasn't Jake…did that mean that Irons was the one?

* * *

Chapter 7

The narrow hallway was littered with trash and stank mercilessly.  Evening was just beginning its descent; vermin of all sizes were starting to stir.  At Jake's side, Sara stepped carefully and thanked fate once again that she did not have to work narcotics.  While murder was never pretty, certainly, at least the dead couldn't be held responsible for whatever dreadful condition they were in.  Unlike the human waste that populated this bottom rung of the drug ladder.

They found their destination and took up a position on either side of the battered door.  Above their heads the number 12 identified the apartment.  The two, lacking a nail, hung upside down.

"Ready?" Jake whispered.

Sara gave him a thumbs up and they both raised their guns.

"Open up!"  Jake bellowed.  Police!"

Immediately a mad scrabbling could be heard inside the apartment and a second later they heard the snick of the guard chain being connected.

Facing the door, Jake backed up a step or two then launched a powerful, focused kick in the region of the door latch.  It flew open, then hung crazily on damaged hinges.  The hanging two fell to the floor with a metallic clank.

They inched through the doorway into the suddenly silent apartment.  It was a sty beyond description.  Maintaining regular eye contact, they inched their way through the refuse to flush out whatever human trash lurked within.

The kitchen was clear.  Slowly they passed into the living room area, braced for anything and moving in smooth synchronicity.

Suddenly a ragged figure burst from the direction of the bedrooms and leaped in a panic through the ruined doorway of the apartment. 

"I'm on him!" Sara shouted.  "Check the rest!"

She followed the tattered figure through the door and down the hall, just spotting him as he entered the stairway.  She was close behind, yanking the door open only a moment later, then pausing to listen.

The man was breathing like a bellows, clearly revealing his progress as he fled upward, toward the roof.  Sara took the stairs two at a time, thankful that there were only three floors until all escape would have to stop at the roof.  Finally the access door loomed before her, just swinging shut from the passage of her quarry.  Intent, she burst through the doorway and immediately rolled to the right, looking everywhere for the man she pursued.  He would now be a cornered rat; the most dangerous kind.

A high pitched giggle came from somewhere on the far side of the roof.  Sara picked herself up and began inch her way carefully from cover to cover, her ears and eyes tuned in to any motion or sound.

Silence.  Only a rising evening breeze and the distant sounds of the city below were audible.

Silence also from the figure in black who observed from atop the roof access structure.  His attention was rapt as he watched Sara pick her way across the roof.  As she left his field of clear vision, he swing down gracefully and ghosted to a position closer to the far side of the roof.  He waited.

There.  Sara's dark head appeared near the edge of a large open space that had been used for a helicopter landing pad in more prosperous times.  Carefully she left her meager cover and advanced further into the open.

Without warning, he heard behind him the addict's hysterical giggle.  Sara heard it too and stood listening, trying to determine a direction.  Instantly, Nottingham realized that the situation had spun badly out of control. 

The druggie was standing and looking at him in confusion, a pistol wavering at the end of his emaciated arm, his other hand coming up even now to stabilize the gun and shoot this apparition in black.

Nottingham, of course, could easily avoid the bullet.  It would then fly straight and true on its path.  Straight into Sara Pezzini's unprotected back.  Even Ian Nottingham was not fast enough to remove her from harm's way.

The addict giggled again and pulled the trigger.  The recoil knocked him flat.  Nottingham remained calmly in front of the bullet, using the time to calculate a best point and angle of entry to minimize damage to vital organs.  Behind him, Sara turned, horror struck.

As if in slow motion, she saw the addict fall back.  She saw the inexorable flight of the bullet he had fired.  And through incredulous eyes she watched as Nottingham, who had appeared from nowhere, stood firm in the path of the bullet and absorbed a hit that drove him backwards and down to the ground.  He lay still.

Sara felt the Witchblade transform instantaneously in response to the red rage that overtook her, and with a feral cry she launched herself at the man with the gun.  He was pulling his wasted frame up from the pebbled roof, trying blearily to get his bearings, when Sara leaped on him like an animal.  Ferociously she seized the man, lifted him over her head and then, oblivious to his terrified screams, she hurled him from the rooftop down onto the street below.

She did not stay at the edge to watch his descent.  By the time his brains splattered on the dirty pavement, Sara was already kneeling next to Nottingham, the Witchblade safely retracted to bracelet form and pulsating brightly.

His eyes were open and expressionless as he concentrated on pushing away the pain.  He began levering himself upright and she could see the quantity of blood spilled from his wound.  The contrast between dark hair and bleached skin was frightening.

"Don't get up," she said tersely, beginning to pull at his coat to reach the bleeding.

He captured her hand in a firm grip, however, and rose painfully to a sitting position.

"No, Sara."

"You need a doctor."

"No," he repeated.

He got to his feet and looked at her for a moment, the expression in his eyes pulling hard at something deep inside her.

"Ian…"

"It's all right, Sara.  I know what to do."

On the far side of the roof, they could hear Jake's shouts as he pounded up the stairway toward the gunfire.

Stricken, she could only stare at him as he began to back away.  When her arm was fully extended he finally released her hand.

"I will come to you tonight.  We need to talk."

He turned away quickly then, as Jake's shouted queries grew closer.  In a second he was lost from view.

Sara slumped on the ground, feeling utterly nerveless.  Jake arrived.

"Are you hit?" he panted, looking everywhere.

"No, I'm fine," she said, then added by way of explanation, "The perp went over the edge."

Wearily she sagged back down, leaning gratefully against Jake's strong arm.

* * *

Chapter 8

The air was cool and bracing, still fresh from the recent rain.  Sara opened the windows wide to the night.  For the fresh air, she told herself, then paced her apartment restlessly, unable to keep her glance from the clock.

The hours lengthened and still he did not come.  At last, overcome with fatigue, Sara curled up on her bed, still clothed.  Desperately she willed the dream to stay away and leave her in peace this night.  It would not oblige her.

As she sank into half-sleep, Sara observed from a distance as Dream-Sara waited in the dark wood for her unidentified lover to arrive.  The same background glow arose and the familiar dark form began to take shape. 

But before the dream could run its full course, Sara slid abruptly back into consciousness.  She opened her eyes, knowing instantly that she was not alone.

The breeze had freshened and curtains billowed gently at the window.  Their vague shadows, cast by streetlights below, stretched and danced over the walls and ceiling. 

He was there, standing next to her bed and looking down at her.  His hair was loose, and except for the gleam of his eyes, it shadowed his face into darkness.

"Wake up Sara," he whispered.  She felt a fleeting touch on her cheek.  "The dream is over now."

She sat up slowly and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, pushing aside her tumbled hair.  He stepped back, and with one smooth motion knelt at her side.  After a few silent moments, she stretched out her hand and touched his dark head, the gesture having a strangely familiar quality.

"You said we needed to talk," she prompted him gently.  "What about?"

"Do you do not know?"

She smoothed the springing waves under her fingers.  "Kenneth Irons, I would guess.  And probably also what happened earlier tonight."

"Yes."

He raised his face, the dim light painting it with planes and angles.  Sara let her hand drift down over the side of his face to rest lightly on his shoulder. 

"Thank you, Ian," she said.  "I know you saved my life tonight."

"That is what I am here for."

"You could have been killed.

"If I die in your service, Sara, I am assured of being with you again in another time.  But if I shun my duty the blade will have done with me and I will spend eternity without you."

She was stunned into momentary silence, absorbing this revelation.  Gradually she slid her hand from his shoulder and let it join the other in her lap.  She sat motionless as the dream took her vision once more and in her mind's eye she saw it play forward until, at last, she saw the face of the man so eagerly awaited by Dream-Sara.

"Are you the one?" she asked softly.

He looked into her eyes.  A breeze came in through the window and lifted his hair, revealing the utter seriousness of his expression.

"Do you want me to be?" 

His question was an eerie echo of the one he had posed concerning Kenneth Irons.  Now, however, she felt none of the searing doubts and paralyzing fears she had in Irons' presence.  Now, somehow, the way seemed clear.  Still, she could not give up this opportunity to have some answers. 

"Explain to me about fairy tales, and why you asked if Irons had kissed me."

He studied their linked hands.  "The wielder of the blade has only one true protector and companion.  Not unlike a fairy tale, the blade will know the truth in a kiss."

"But then, I would have known that he was not the one."

"Only if you are the true blade wielder."

"Did you think I might not be?  Even after passing the Periculum?"  She pulled her hands free and stood up, feeling a need for motion.  He rose also, drawing back a step.

"I …" he hesitated, "…I feared that you might not be.  That you might not recognize Irons as false.  That I would…"  He seemed to have to force himself to finish.  "That I would lose you to him."

Questions began crowding into Sara's mind with ever-increasing speed.  She paced a small area.  "Have you been with me…before…every time?"

"No.  Sometimes there are timing issues that simply do not resolve themselves."

"Do you remember all these other…lifetimes?  Why can't I?"

"I remember a little, Sara.  I know my purpose.  I have some knowledge of the blade."  His dark eyes softened.  "And whoever I am, I carry with me my love for you." 

She stopped pacing at this and faced him across a distance of several feel, trying to quell the rising tide of emotion long enough to learn more.  "And if I were not the true wielder of the Witchblade?  You would have to leave me and go searching for her in order to carry out your duty."

There was a very long silence and she wondered if he had decided not to respond.  Then he raised his gaze to her face.

"No, Sara.  I would stay with you."

"But..."

He interrupted to rephrase his answer.  "If you were not the true wielder of the blade, I would still choose to spend this life with you.  Even if it was to be our only life."

"And if I turn you away?"

He made no effort to hide the desolation that image produced in his mind.  "I would not trouble you," he replied in a low voice.  "I would return to Irons and wait for this life to be over, hoping that we would have another time to be together."

Looking into his eyes, she thought her heart might actually burst apart, so deeply did she empathize with the pain Ian Nottingham put behind him, every day of his life.  All the other questions faded from her mind as unimportant.  Hypotheticals were meaningless.  A profound silence spun out between them, unbroken.

When at last he voiced his soft question, she knew it was the last time he would ask.

"Do you want it to be me?"

This time she did not hesitate. 

"Yes." 

He reached for her hands then and lifted them reverently to his lips, placing a kiss in each palm.  The Witchblade swirled madly with multi-colored currents in a way that she had never seen.  He gathered her close and she went into his arms as though going home.  They stood for long minutes, savoring a duality unknown to others.  The ease of  trust and familiarity.  And at the same time, the thrill of being not-yet lovers.  Between them the Witchblade pulsed and flared, emitting tiny flashing beams of color.  Certainly there could be no doubt of its approval.

Sara turned her cheek and found the rough curling texture of his beard.  From there it was a small step for him to bring their lips within a breath of touching.  Wonderful, unbearable tension stilled their every movement.  She could not close her eyes, could not look away from the fascination of his dark gaze.  Every nerve ending in her body was concentrated in her lips as she waited.  She felt the brush of his moustache and released a tiny sigh.

As though the spell was broken by that small sound, their lips came together in a sweet, slow meeting.  No hesitant first trial kiss, no bumping of noses.  His mouth was warm, smooth and firm.  As his arms came around her to pull her close against his body Sara feared that, for the first time in her life, she might actually faint from her passionate craving for this man. 

She brought her hands up to his chest, and gradually became aware of what she felt under her fingers.

Bandages.

Drawing back reluctantly, she reached up and began determinedly pushing off layers.  Overcoat.  Sweater.  Shirt.  She fumbled with buttons until finally he reached for her hands, stilling them, then taking over the task.  She helped him push the shirt back.  The smooth, muscular expanse of his chest was interrupted by a large gauze bandage and tape.  Steeling herself, she began peeling it all away.  He stood impassively under her hands.

Lifting the gauze, she saw that the wound was clean, as gunshot wounds go, and had received acceptable medical attention.

"What did Irons say about this?" she wondered aloud, peeling off the remainder of the tape.

"I have not seen him."

"But he won't be pleased."

"No.  He will not be pleased."

Surely that was a powerful understatement.  She glanced up at him, checking for some intent to be humorous.  Predictably, there was none.

Sara looked at the still-pulsating Witchblade, feeling a powerful compulsion she could not completely understand.  She held it up before him.  "Have you ever done this?"

He shrugged slightly.  "I do not remember."

She took a deep breath.  "Stand still, I have absolutely no idea whether this will hurt or not."  Or whether it will work, she added to herself.  This was probably a crazy idea.

He stood like a rock as she gingerly laid the Witchblade directly over his wound.  She braced herself for…anything.

He drew a sharp breath, and that was all.

Sara blinked.  And lowered the Witchblade.

The wound was gone, as if it had never existed.

In amazement, Sara ran her hands again and again over the smooth span of his chest.  She laughed up at him.  "Unbelievable!"  She tugged at his shoulder and he turned obligingly.  A matching square of tape and gauze covered the exit wound.  Unable to be patient she reached out and ripped it from his back, eliciting another sharp intake of breath.

The exit wound, too, was completely healed.

"Does it hurt?" she asked curiously, then ordered, "Stretch."

He cooperated, flexing in all directions, proving what their eyes told them.  "There is no pain, Sara.  Thank you."

"It healed you," she stated wonderingly.

He stepped forward then and lifted her effortlessly off the floor and into his arms.

"Or maybe," he said softly, moving toward the bed, "you healed me."

* * *

Chapter 9

Ian Nottingham entered the office quietly, taking up his customary post and waiting patiently as Irons finished listening to the latest televised news briefs.

At the end of the broadcast, Irons muted the large screen and sat for a moment, taking minute stock of his silent servant.  He rose and walked toward Nottingham, eyes narrowed in disapproval as he noted a change of posture.  Head up.  Eye contact.

"Where have you been?"

"With Sara Pezzini," Nottingham answered truthfully.

Irons raised an eyebrow.  "You are spending far too much time on that surveillance.  Now that she has passed the Periculum she no longer requires the same level of vigilance from me."

"I agree.  Sara needs nothing from you any more."

Irons walked around him suspiciously, not liking the feeling that he was missing a critical piece of information. 

"Tell me what else you have been doing." 

He stopped suddenly in front of Nottingham and in one snake-quick motion reached out toward the buttons of his black shirt.  Though Nottingham could easily have stopped it, he allowed Irons to rip the buttons apart and lay open the shirt.  Where the gunshot wound had been was normal, healthy tissue.

Irons glared at him fiercely.  "Were you or were you not shot at point blank range with a large bore pistol less than 24 hours ago."

"I was."

"And this?"  Irons flipped the ruined shirt front contemptuously, the beginning of fear showing in his pale eyes.

"Sara healed the wound."

"Sara healed the wound," Irons repeated, his voice rising.  "For you?  Why?"

Nottingham gave him no reply, simply allowing Irons to reach his own conclusions.

As had happened many times, Irons' temper suddenly snapped and he raised his fist high to strike Nottingham.  A steel hand stopped that blow, and after holding him for a significant moment, Nottingham released him.

"No.  That part of my life is over."

Nottingham stood silently, staring straight ahead as Irons began to circle him, speaking more quickly now.

"I wouldn't get too attached to her, Ian.  You know how these things go.  Perhaps she will turn out not to be the true wielder.  Perhaps the blade will fail her as it has others."

"If the blade fails her, then I will be there."

Irons ceased his pacing and stood looking at Nottingham with breath indrawn. 

"She has chosen you?"

"She has."

Irons retreated to his desk, a look of incomprehension on his blanched face.  This was a serious setback to his plans.  He had come to rely upon the unexplainable knowing that linked him with Sara, yet somehow he had been completely unable to sense that this dynamic had taken place between Sara and Ian.  Privately he damned himself for taking the route of patience.  He should have pushed Sara Pezzini – and pushed her hard – while she was still emotionally vulnerable from the death of Conchobar.  But he had misjudged and taken the kinder, gentler path.  Now, it appeared that all was lost for this cycle.  Unaware that he was doing it, he rubbed at the intertwined circles on his hand until Nottingham's voice brought him out of his musings.

"Did you think you could outmaneuver the Witchblade?"

"Go."

Silently Nottingham nodded, then walked toward the door.  Irons stopped him as he reached out for the handle.

"Ian."

He waited.

"Stay," Irons said quietly. 

Nottingham reached again for the door handle.

"Ian," Irons said more sharply, frustration edging his voice.  "I created you.  You are mine."

"I was yours," Nottingham corrected.  "Now, I am Sara's."

Irons sagged onto the edge of his desk.

"Stay," he whispered.  "Until she actually wants you to live with her, stay with me."  His eyes were touched with a sheer glaze of despair. 

"Will you do that, Ian?"

Nottingham turn his head and pinned Irons with a flat black gaze.

 

"If that is Sara's wish."

With a last dismissive glance he passed through the doorway, leaving Kenneth Irons alone behind him.

* * *  FIN  * * *