"A little ride" ended two days later just as the sun touched the horizon. They were somewhere in southern Spain, probably just outside of Seville if Myka had her bearings correctly. They were trotting through vineyards and the smell of the ripe grapes hung heavy and sweet on the evening air. Helena rode ahead of Myka, seat easy on the dark bay she'd purchased in Olhão. The sound of hooves on the hard packed earth was the only thing that disturbed the sleepy quiet of a beautiful evening. Myka was just beginning to wonder where they were going to stop for a night when they came around a bend in the road, and there atop a gentle, terraced hill, sat a Roman-style villa with stucco walls and a red tile roof.
Sitting deeper in the saddle, Wells brought the bay to a halt and Myka pulled up next to her.
"A villa in southern Spain," Myka said wonderingly. "Why am I not surprised?"
Wells' answering chuckle was rich before she grinned. "Dinner should be set for us if we hurry!" and with that, she tightened her legs and her mare shot forward. Myka rolled her eyes, but her grey was dancing in place, tossing its head at being held back and she let go of the reins. The horse jumped into a gallop and Myka jumped with her, grabbing mane and laughing as they tore up the sloping drive and clattered into a large courtyard just behind Helena.
A boy of about ten came running outside and at recognizing Helena, let out an earsplitting cry of welcome. "Señora! You are home! Nana! Papa! Señora is home!"
Dismounting, Myka could only watch, rather dazed by the sudden commotion, as a stout older man trotted out into the yard followed soon after by a woman who must have been his wife. The gentleman sported a neatly trimmed beard and dark hair just graying at the temples and was dressed in well-made farmer's clothing. Beside him, the plump woman of about the same age with a kindly, round face and her thick black hair tied in a neat bun was wiping her hands on her apron. Both of them gave cries of delight and moved to embrace Helena, while the boy – who must have been their grandson – nearly danced with delight. It was a touching sight and one Myka could only wonder at as the woman put her hands on her Helena's shoulders, kissed her cheeks and then started scolding her for how it was so very rude that Helena hadn't informed them she was bringing company.
Then it was Myka's turn to be introduced to Señor and Señora Lorenzo, who acted as – for lack of better word – seneschals for Wells' property. Alejandra ("call me Ana") and Francisco Lorenzo welcomed the Myka with the same easy grace they'd shown Helena and beckoned the two women inside.
"Felix, see to the horses!" Francisco called and the young man jumped to obey, grinning fit to split his face when Helena took a wrapped package from her saddlebags and held it out to the boy.
She snatched it back at the last moment. "Listen closely Felix, this is no toy. If I find you've been misusing it…" in her dark traveling coat with her dark hair and eyes, haloed by the setting sun, Helena looked every inch the dangerous pirate in that moment.
Unfortunately she was talking to a ten year old boy who knew she had a present for him and her attempt to be stern failed. Utterly. Myka had to bite her lip to keep from laughing as Wells sighed and handed over the parcel. The sound of paper ripping filled the air and then Felix was lifting a beautiful dagger with a silver-chased pommel and a sturdy leather sheath. It was a small knife – a young man's knife – but it was beautifully wrought and of very high quality. The boy's eyes shone.
"Thank you Señora," he whispered. Felix then proceeded to slip the sheath on his belt and gravely take the reins of Helena's and Myka's horses. "I will take very good care of it."
As he walked away, Helena turned back to his grandparents, only for her face to take on a distinctly guilty expression. Myka just watched in awe as the tiny, plump grandmother with her hands on her hips made infamous privateer H.G. Wells bite her lip in uncertainty. "I'm sorry Ana. I just saw it and I knew he would love it…" She trailed off as the Ana's eyes narrowed.
Apparently deciding she had teased Helena long enough, however, Ana finally shook her head. "You spoil the boy. It's sweet." Then her look became calculating. "You should have a few of your own. Then you can stop ruining my grandchild."
The look of horror that came over H.G.'s face was enough to set Alejandra, Francisco and Myka to laughing until their sides hurt.
"Come in, come in," Francisco gestured once he managed to catch his breath. "Dinner is nearly over but the hypocaust is fired. I know how you love to bathe when you come home."
At 'bathe' Myka's ears perked up and Ana gave her a knowing look. "Just like Helena I see. Well good, let us feed you first. I know she can't cook, I don't imagine you're any better," Ana teased gently and Myka easily admitted she was quite hopeless in the kitchen.
The meal that followed was simple - cooked game hen with garlic and white wine sauce, fresh greens and bread just from the oven – but Myka wasn't sure when she had ever tasted anything so wonderful. Ana merely waved away her praise.
Conversation was primarily dominated by the Lorenzos updating Helena about the state of her land, though in truth there was little to report. Helena maintained some small acreage around her villa, but most of the lands traditionally attached to it she had sold to local farmers in exchange for an agreement never to build on them. In return, they also farmed the grapes and olive trees that still belonged to Helena and aside from a bottle or two of the wine that came from her vines, Helena took nothing. "What would I do with produce?" she said humorously. Ana and Francisco oversaw the villa and used its fields as their own when Helena was gone though they lived with the rest of their family in the village just over the next hill. Myka learned that the couple had two daughters and a younger son, that Felix was their oldest grandchild and they were expecting him to have a little brother or sister any day now, and that they had been caretakers of Helena's estate for nearly ten years.
"Honestly, it belongs to them more than me," Helena said, watching the couple move easily around the bright kitchen.
"So you bought this…" Myka trailed off, trying to remember when Wells left the Warehouse.
Helena merely nodded, however. "Yes, I found the property when I was still with the Royal Navy. It was going to waste because it was tied up in a property dispute. The land wasn't being worked. I was actually riding through on my way somewhere else. I stopped to water my horse and looked out over the valley and that was it. I knew I didn't want to leave." Dark eyes were gentle and far away as she spoke and the sight filled Myka's heart with something she still had difficulty describing.
Neither women noticed as their guests exchanged significant glances and rose from the table.
Startled out of her reverie, Helena went to rise but Ana waved her away. "Your bath is all ready, I'll come back tomorrow with lunch. You both look tired. Go, bathe, sleep."
Myka couldn't help but chuckle as Ana ordered a feared Privateer Captain around in her own home and Helena obeyed meekly.
"Ana would you please show Myka where the bathing room is? I need to talk to Francisco."
Ana nodded and beckoned Myka along, making a shushing motion when Myka would have cleared her dishes. "Leave it. I will clean it all tomorrow, you two will have plenty of time for chores later."
Myka followed Ana out of the warm kitchen and through the rest of the house. It was an open, airy space with thick white walls and colorful throw rugs over the tile. What furniture occupied the rooms tended to be sturdy, simply designed and made to be used and enjoyed rather than looked at. There was a dark stone fireplace and a beautiful fresco of a landscape above it. Following in Ana's quick footsteps, Myka passed by what looked like a sunroom that led outside to a veranda and then down a short corridor to what Myka guessed must have been the bedroom. Or at least, it was the room where Helena had installed a massive four poster bed with mounds of pillows. The blankets and pillows were crimson and cream and – Myka brushed a hand along them – silk.
Well now I know where she's spent her fortune, she mused. At this time of evening, the rooms themselves were lit with candles held inside slender glass tubes with mirrors behind them, some of which had been blown from colored class so that the light filling a particular room was warm gold or soft red. The arrangement created a beautiful and safe light that could be doused just by lifting the glass and blowing out the candle.
And then Ana walked through a door in the back of the bedroom and Myka walked into heaven. It was a bathing room, but so much more than that. Someone had apparently decided to echo the bathing chambers of the Romans, because the tub was massive. Indeed, it wasn't so much a tub as a pool sunk into the floor with a lip of tile that didn't reach to Myka's knees around it. There was a window next to the pool so the bather could look out over the valley, but curtains allowed privacy when wanted. There were several candles in their sconces on the walls and the white tile glowed in the dancing light. Water already filled the pool and Ana pointed to a small plug in the bottom and a sluice gate similar to the one in the 'shower' on the Time Machine.
"It's so easy, water enters there" – Ana pointed at the gate – "and leaves there" – she pointed at the plug. "No hauling or heating water. There is a fire underneath the reservoir and the bath." And sure enough, Myka saw gentle curls of steam rising off the water. "I filled it when I saw you two come charging up the drive."
Ana smiled fondly at Myka's expression and pointed out the robes and folded cloths for drying off.
"Go on, you will feel better when you are clean. Goodnight señorita!"
Myka murmured her thanks and goodnight, but she was already removing her boots. Her breeches, traveling coat, shirt and underclothes followed and were tossed unceremoniously in a pile in the corner. Closer inspection of the tub revealed several baskets of flowers and herbs around the lip and Myka shook her head.
H.G. Wells. Feared Privateer and secret lover of scented baths. It amused Myka to no end, but she didn't hesitate to crumble some of the lavender onto the water. She paused, then grinned and for good measure, tossed a handful of fresh rose petals onto the surface where they formed crimson accent marks to the glistening water.
Walking over to the lip, Myka saw there were steps down into the pool, and one hand on the tile, carefully lowered herself down.
Oh. Heaven, Myka thought as the hot water enveloped her body. After months at sea, the turmoil of her time in Venice, then traveling again, the bath was quite possibly the most deliciously sensuous experience she could recall. The pool was deep enough so that if she knelt but did not sit on her heels, the water came just to her neck. The Commander made quick work of washing herself, using the gleaming silver brushes and razor to remove weeks of sea-travel from her body. Then she drained and refilled the tub, delighting in the novelty of fresh, hot water and scattering a few more flowers on the water. Indeed, it was hot enough to almostbe uncomfortable, which meant it was perfect. Letting herself lie back, Myka closed her eyes and half-floated in the tub. Quieting her mind, she just let herself feel: the silken caress of the hot water, the tendrils of steam as they drifted over her face, the smell of lavender and rose from baskets on the lip of the tub.
It was bliss.
Even the sound of Helena approaching caused her only to lazily open her eyes. Helena leaned against the doorway, watching her. Lit only by the candles, Helena's hair became a cloak of shadows over her shoulders and her eyes, black in the low, flicking light, burned with something far more powerful than fire.
Neck deep in hot water, Myka felt a frisson of desire slide through her and she trembled. Perhaps she should have felt embarrassed, exposed as she was, but when Helena looked at her, she could never find it in her to feel anything other than wanted. For Myka - a woman who had spent nearly her entire life fighting her way through the ranks in a man's world - it was an unfamiliar but wholly welcome experience to be seen not as an object, but as herself.
And then it was her turn to delight in the beauty before her.
Without a word, Helena slipped off her own clothes, tossing them heedlessly into the pile with the Commander's. Watching, Myka nearly forgot to breathe, for Helena could have been a statue carved by one of the ancient Greek masters. The curves and planes of Helena's body flowed together and Myka was minded of the legends of Aphrodite.
No, she corrected herself as Helena stepped up to the tub and Myka saw muscle and tendon outlined in shadow and candlelight. Not Aphrodite, Athena.
With a deft twist, she pinned her hair atop her head and then, eyes never leaving Myka's, stepped into the pool.
Myka was frozen, held in place only by the force of Helena's gaze though she had no desire to break free. Everything beyond the space between them faded away and when the other woman cupped Myka's face in her hands, she held on to slender wrists and melted into the kiss that followed. Myka's heart raced in her chest and every nerve ending seemed to tingle with the possibility of the desire that flared like a flame between them. Suddenly the air seemed thick, her skin sensitized to the smallest touch. The slightest movement by Helena transmitted through the water so that it felt as though she was being caressed, even when Helena's hands remained against her face.
They didn't remain there for long however. Those elegant fingers slid down her throat and traced the line of her collarbone and Myka couldn't help the soft gasp when a delicate touch traced the valley between her breasts. Her stomach tightened and she tensed. It was an instinctual response beyond her control, but it brought Helena up short.
Myka looked up to find Helena with an expression it took her desire-fogged brain a moment to place. It was fear.
"Myka, forgive me, I…" Helena trailed off and Myka could have laughed at the hesitation in her voice if it didn't fill her with an unexpected tenderness. Instead she grabbed Helena's hand and smiled gently, shifting forward so that their knees touched and it was Myka's turn to trace a thumb along Helena's cheeks.
"I wasn't, I'm notafraid Helena," she said gently, tilting her head to catch that dark gaze. She could feel the tension in the slender body before her and searched for something to say. Helena beat her to it.
"Forgive me, I should have asked. I just…I forget that my wicked ways are uncommon."
Myka shook her head emphatically. "You are notwicked. And I'm hardly innocent," she said meaningfully. "It is just that it was a long time ago, and a very different experience."
Now those dark eyes flashed with threat and a new kind of tension threaded through the slender shoulders. "You weren't hurt?" Helena's tone promised that if the answer was yes, someone would pay dearly. It made Myka's heart unaccountably full.
"No, no he was very kind, and we cared for each other a great deal…" she trailed off, remembering Sam. His handsome features and gentle sense of humor. He had been kind to her, but now those memories seemed to belong to someone else.
"And yet…" Helena prompted gently.
Myka smiled wryly at how well the other women could read her. "And yet we ultimately wanted different things. He wanted a wife who would give him children and I wanted to be a Warehouse Agent. And he never did quite forgive me for being a better shot than he."
That made both women smile briefly and the tension eased from the moment. Reaching up, Helena took Myka's hands in her own. "What happened to him?"
Myka shrugged. The tale held no real pain for her, not anymore. "He married. I believe they were quite happy for a time, but he was killed by an Artifact and she was left a widow. I think about her sometimes, and how that could have been me." Myka squeezed the fingers entwined with her own. "I never, not for a second, regret that it wasn't."
Helena smiled slowly, searching Myka's face for something. Whatever she found, it appeared to satisfy, because she slowly ran her hands up Myka's arms, touch leaving fire in its wake. Myka felt her heart start to race again and her breathing became shallow and quick.
There was no description for Helena's smile but wicked.
"Well," Helena murmured, "just so long as I am not competing with a ghost."
"Helena Wells, you need never compete with anyone," Myka grinned, pulling Helena to her and claiming her mouth. It was a tender kiss, Myka's tongue flicking over Helena's lips before teasing into her mouth. Gently, deftly though, Helena took the lead and Myka surrendered to her willingly. What followed could have been called a seduction but was in truth merely an education as Helena tenderly began to teach Myka the pleasure of her own body.
It began with lips, gentle kisses that moved along her jaw and down her throat. It continued when teasing teeth grazed the skin of her shoulder and a questing tongue tasted the hollow of her throat. When Myka moved her hands to try and return Helena's caresses, Helena pressed a gentle finger to her lips. "Shh. Please, Myka. Let me do this for you, for myself," and under the teasing smile was a longing that was so clear to Myka she could only nod, her breath scarce in her lungs.
And then Helena slipped behind her, kneeling so their bodies were pressed along the length of each other, front to back. With a gentle touch Helena pulled Myka against her, making her gasp at the feeling of Helena's skin against her own. Helena's thighs cradled hers and slender arms wrapped around her waist, for a moment just holding her.
"Just let go my love, I have you," Helena whispered in her ear, and as gentle hands slid slowly along her arms, Myka did just that. Here there were no Artifacts, no missions, no protocol, no danger, no fear. Here there was only the warmth of the water and the slender strength of Helena's arms. And then those elegant fingers slid across her ribs and skirted the underside of her breasts and there was not even that. All that remained was to feel.
In his own way, Myka knew Sam had loved her, but she had never known the kind of slow building, excruciating pleasure that Helena showed her that night – had in truth never understood that it was possible. Yet Helena revealed to her it was more than possible; it was beautiful. Hands Myka had seen sure and steady on the wheel of her ship or gripping the familiar hilt of her katana now slipped over water-slickened skin with the utmost gentleness, playing Myka's senses like a maestro with a favored instrument until Myka's body sounded to the harmony of her making. Helena teased the breath from Myka's lungs in gasps like notes, until she quivered like a sounded harp string. Her head fell back on Helena's shoulder as she gripped lean, strong thighs, trying to find an anchor in a rising tide of need. It seemed like Helena was everywhere, caressing her breasts, her ribs, her thighs, kissing her neck and then holding her tightly as carefully, slowly, those elegant fingers slipped inside her.
Arching against the arm holding her tight, Myka whimpered softly, desire so intense it was like pain in her blood.
"Just a little farther," she heard Helena whisper almost distantly over the pounding of her heart in her ears. Then Helena was pushing deeper into her, stroking her and Myka let herself be claimed, utterly, completely and without reservation. She seemed to hover on the edge of some unknown precipice and then Helena moved deeper. The darkness behind Myka's eyes shattered as she found her release, the crashing wave of pleasure sweeping her away for an instant and an eternity.
She came back to herself with Helena holding her tightly, pressing soft kisses along her shoulder.
"Oh," Myka managed, still trying to catch her breath.
"Myka?" Helena's voice was cautious.
A lazy smile drifted over the Agent's face and she managed – after a moment – to sit up and turn so she could wrap her arms around Helena. "Are you supposed to see stars?" she asked, unable to wipe the grin off her face.
Relief softened Helena's features and then she narrowed her eyes. "Rotten woman."
"Hmm," Myka quirked an eyebrow. "That's Agent, my love. Rotten Agent." And then she leaned forward and effectively silenced any reply Helena might have had.
Wandering hands were stopped by Helena's gentle touch, however. "Much as I do enjoy this, I have a bed," she murmured, gasping as Myka kissed a particularly sensitive spot along her jaw.
"Hm. Bed, how novel. Very well."
It took them a while to traverse the short distance however, because Myka accidentally splashed Helena getting out, which led Helena to retaliate, which created quite a mess and meant it took a while to find something to dry off with.
The candles were burning low when Myka at last eased herself onto the silk sheets next to Helena.
Myka had never spent much time pondering the nature of love – it simply held no place in her life. Now, however, as she propped herself up on one elbow and reached out to trace delicate fingertips along the planes of Helena's body, watching the flush rise along satin skin and the way her breathing quickened, it seemed as if there was room for nothing else in her heart.
It should have been terrifying.
As Myka leaned down and captured Helena's mouth with her own, her hair creating a tangled curtain around them and Helena's hands sliding along her back, urging her own desire, fear was nowhere to be found.
For all the years of strict discipline in the Navy, Myka found it remarkably easy to settle into life at the villa. Such was the seeming isolation and quiet of the surrounding country that it was little effort to believe that she had stepped into an entirely new world – one wholly separate from the Warehouse, Artifacts, and MacPherson. As the weeks wore on, only the occasional messenger bird belied that sense of peace. Usually the information was from Artie or Mrs. Frederic, updating them on any developments that had come from MacPherson's Venice headquarters. Only one bit of news truly struck Myka, however, and that was when Artie speculated that MacPherson had the horn of Jericho in his possession.
"So that's how that frigate destroyed the Artifact Hunter." She murmured, reading the slip of paper over Helena's shoulder. "We never would have heard the sound over the noise of the frigate's guns. Damn."
Helena's hand on her shoulder was comforting.
For the most part, however, the two women simply enjoyed living. Helena had an extensive library and Myka spent hours curled up in front of the fireplace reading. Ana and Lorenzo came and went once or twice a week, mostly just to gossip and share a meal, ad their visits provided pleasant punctuation to the quiet days otherwise spent only with each other.
They sparred, they rode through the countryside, they read, and they discovered each other.
Myka had teased Helena the day she found a book of Sappho's works – in the original Greek and a translation – in the library, but Helena merely smiled unrepentant. Moving to slip her arms around Myka, Helena pressed her lips to a conveniently bared shoulder. "And why should you be at all surprised that I have such a work?" She'd asked archly, her question only half teasing. "Have I not convinced you of the beauty that lies within a woman's body and spirit?"
And then she'd pulled the book from Myka's unresisting hands and set about reiterating that lesson.
If she delighted in the pleasure Helena could evoke from within her own body, however, it was almost nothing compared to the heady rush of discovering the power Myka had over the other woman. It never ceased to be a wonder how she could affect brash, headstrong H.G. Wells with just a look; or how grazing her teeth over the flaring pulse point in Helena's neck could make her gasp, how tracing her nails down the silken skin of the other woman's inner thigh made her moan and how if Myka sucked justright, she could bring Helena arching off the bed, her body trembling and hands gripping the sheets.
Thus winter passed. And yet as spring approached Myka found herself increasingly torn between duty and desire.
It wasn't until Helena joined her on the veranda one evening, however, that she realized just how deep the conflict had lodged in her heart.
The night was clear, the stars in the deep velvet blue sky twinkling like diamonds. There was a touch of frost still, but Myka could feel spring on the horizon – a threat now, rather than a promise.
The sound of a footstep alerted her to Helena's presence and Myka smiled when her lover draped a thick, soft blanket around her shoulders before moving to stand next to her. They stood in comfortable silence for a while and then Helena spoke, her breath frosting ever so slightly.
"It doesn't mean parting you know."
Myka turned to face Helena, not following the thread of her thoughts.
"Leaving here. Resuming the hunt for MacPherson. It does not mean we will be parted. I won't let them take you away from me. Not now."
Something; some nameless fear that had been lurking deep within her heart became manifest in Myka's breast at those words and Myka suddenly realized what had truly been tugging at her. It wasn't dread at her duty or a desire to stay here in this house forever. It was fear. Never before had Myka Bering been possessed of something she feared losing more than her own life, and even that had always been an abstract possibility.
"What if it's not a choice? This is no game Helena. MacPherson is dangerous. What if I lose you?"
Understanding dawned on Helena's features, but she had no real reply. There was none to be given. All Warehouse Agents understood the danger of the world, perhaps more so than most for they were faced with mortality every day. Instead of replying then, Helena merely stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Myka, hugging her fiercely. Myka returned the embrace and the blanket fell to the flagstones, forgotten.
"I can only promise I won't go without one hell of a fight. You know as well as I that is all any of us can promise."
"I know. But I've never been afraid of losing anyone like this before," Myka finally admitted.
"Nor have I, Myka. Nor have I. We can but make the most of the time we have."
It took a moment, but Myka gave a soft huff of laughter. "You're just trying to have your way with me again aren't you Captain Wells."
"Well, I am an unscrupulous woman," Helena leaned back, pressing a kiss to Myka's forehead. Her expression softened. "Don't rush tomorrow, Myka."
They didn't, but it came anyway.
Spring was approaching and with it came more birds bearing news.
One of them was from Alfonso.
The first blush of green was just beginning to cover the hills when a small hawk fluttered onto the veranda where Myka was curled up, reading. Untangling herself from her blanket, the Agent rose carefully and held out her hand. When the bird hopped quietly onto her fist, she checked and was unsurprised to see a messenger pouch tied around the creature's leg. Untying it Myka tossed the bird back into the air and unrolled the scrap of paper.
Written in a hasty scrawl were three words.
"We found him."
They left at first light the next morning, riding hard for Olhão.
Dinner the night before was bittersweet. Ana and Francisco joined them and the elderly couple were genuinely upset to see Helena and her companion leave. Both, however, were well aware that the two women were involved in matters that were much grander in scope than any one person's life. Whatever forces drove their dark eyed employer and her gentle friend, Ana could only pray that God watch over them. Once the meal was over, Francisco brought out a bottle of rare champagne and the four toasted to safe journeys.
When Helena praised the vintage, the older man nodded. "I have one more bottle. I will keep it," he said holding the Captain's gaze, "until you return home safely."
There was nothing to say after that but 'thank you,' and then Ana and Francisco left the women alone for the night. There was little to pack and time seemed to rush forward, slipping out of Myka's grasp until she found herself in the courtyard of the villa, holding the reins of her grey and watching the sky fade to a soft pink in the east. Behind her, Helena emerged from the stable leading the bay. The two women shared a last look at what had truly become home to Myka, then turned as one and swung up on their horses.
Neither looked back as they cantered down the road and around the bend.
Francisco was as good as his word. Just over a year later, tired, somewhat worse for wear and bearing the weight of many new memories, not all of which were pleasant, Helena and Myka shared a glass of champagne in the kitchen of their home.
"To victories," Helena raised her glass, watching as the afternoon sun streaming through the window caught the pale bubbly liquid and turned it golden.
"To tomorrow," Myka countered, reaching across the worn wood of the kitchen table and entwining her hand with Helena's.
"To tomorrow, and all the days after."
The gentle sound of crystal ringing floated on the air but it was soon forgotten as the Captain and her Commander abandoned their glasses and found other, more pleasurable things to savor.