Author: Klancy7
Story Title: The Clinic
Characters: Jesstin/Renee
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Uber. At a high security medical facility, two women, one a prisoner, the other an alcoholic nurse, are drawn to one another; despite the less than pleasant circumstances under which they find each other. Based on The Battle by Judy (Wishes).
This rating is for explicit f/f sex, violence, torture, non-consensual sex, male voyeurs and sexual violence.


DISCLAIMER:
Jesstin and Renee are based on the characters of Xena and Gabrielle, who are owned by USA Studios/Renaissance Pictures and were used without permission.

Long Tedious Introduction/Disclaimer:

Most importantly, this uber story is based on a tale called Battle, written by Judy (Wishes). The creative inspiration for the setting, plot, and characters are all hers. Please check out Judy's other XWP fanfiction and poetry on the web (check Mary D's page)-- she writes some beautiful stuff. The dynamics of Battle intrigued me, and I thank Judy for allowing me to warp her tale to my own desires. Warm thanks to Heron for her excellent beta services.

Speaking of warped desires. This started out to be purely a hurt/comfort tale. If that theme doesn't move you you'll be bored to tears.

WARNING:
IF YOU DO NOT LIKE SMUT, DO NOT READ THIS STORY. The Clinic contains scenes of graphic bdsm, non-consensual sex and violence.

Oh yeah, and I apologize for naming Gabrielle's character Renee. I've always liked the name, but it might create for some needless confusion -- rest assured that I'm hoping you'll picture Gabrielle, not Renee O'Connor.

You can find more of Klancy7's stories at her web site Klancy7 Fan Fiction and at XENADOM.

Send feedback to Klancy7@aol.com

____ *** ____


The Clinic
by Klancy7

____ *** ____

Part One: Orientation and Therapy

Jess expected to be executed when they took her from the communal cell. Being merely beaten instead was a mixed blessing, but she'd take what she could get.

She was unconscious when they transferred her to the medical unit. Biting cold woke her. She surfaced through a haze of pain to find herself strapped into a jointed chair, a tacky kind of recliner equipped with cuffs. Her long body lay full-length on its padded surface; Jess figured she'd be comfortable enough, if she hadn't been freezing and aching with bruises.

An intense white light flooded her, courtesy of an arc lamp suspended over the chair, and it took her several tries to squint her eyes open. She noted she was decently dressed again in her civvies, worn jeans and a modest blue halter, and she was barefoot. Her wrists were cuffed to the chair at her sides. Her ankles were similarly bound, at the base of the recliner.

Jess shifted uneasily, wincing at the pain in her side, her ethereal blue gaze ticking methodically around the small antiseptic room. A detention cell, empty except for the reclining restraint and shelves of medical supplies, and cold as a fed's heart in early summer. Jess shivered. She craned her neck -- she couldn't see the cooling unit in the wall behind her, but judging from the chill blasting through the room it was cranked high.

She lay still and concentrated on her breathing. The crease between her arched eyebrows faded as a disciplined relaxation filled her. Jess knew she wasn't very badly hurt, she wasn't going to bleed to death. She was cold and hungry, but she'd been hungry for months. She still had a pulse. She could wait this part out. She was undisturbed for four hours.

____ *** ____

She heard the pneumatic pump over the door whoosh as the young blonde woman elbowed it open. She was carrying a clipboard and she wore a white coat, so Jess figured her for a nurse.

"What the f -- ?"

Jess heard the surprise in her voice. The girl looked at her and seemed to catch herself. The white coat was too big for her, and she wrapped it more tightly around her shoulders as she went to check the cooling unit behind the chair.

The blonde's sea-green eyes widened when she came around and saw the blood on Jess's face. She studied her restrained body silently for a moment. Then she sighed, and blinked at the steam her breath made in the cold air.

"My name is Renee. I'm staff." The girl sounded pissed, Jess thought. "Who left you in here like this?"

"Pleased to meet you, Renee." Jess cleared her throat. "I'm Jesstin."

Renee consulted the form on her clipboard. "Well, this tells me exactly jack. You came in when, last night?"

Without waiting for a reply, she snatched the penlight out of the breast pocket of her white coat, thumbed it on, and moved the beam across Jess's extraordinary eyes.

"Were you examined on arrival, Jesstin?" Renee had regained her professional tone.

"No. There's nothing life-threatening." It would have come out tougher if Jess's teeth hadn't been chattering.

Renee took Jess's pulse at the throat, and noted her glassy eyes. "How long since you've slept?"

"Couple of days."

Renee muttered something derogatory about the idiocy of prison healthcare as she palpated the base of the Jess's jaw, her green eyes unfocused as she concentrated on tactiles.

She'd been told she would find some of her new patients beaten, Renee reminded herself -- it was common practice before transfer from the prison. Still, this woman hadn't just been slapped around. Judging by the bruises, her beating had been systematic -- not designed to incapacitate, maybe, but certainly to evoke pain. Renee wondered uneasily what this prisoner had done to merit such treatment.

Jess was wondering when they'd started handing out thermometers to schoolkids. In spite of the med tech's obvious youth, however, she had to admit that the physical examination was efficient and thorough. Jess knew the government took the best and the brightest nursing students, paid for their training, and then employed them at the Clinic -- but this blonde pixie didn't seem callous enough for government work.

"Were you given anything for pain, at the prison?"

"They don't keep analgesics at the prison. Your hands are cold, Renee."

"Jesstin?" Renee straightened. "You're supposed to answer my questions as simply and briefly as possible. If you're insolent, or too familiar, or uncooperative, there'll be consequences. You know that, right?"

"Right."

"Great. We understand each other." Renee took a thick blanket from the stand beneath the restraining chair. "I may be short, but in your condition I could deck you with one gut-punch. Don't forget it, please."

She flipped the blanket out and settled it over Jess, then tucked it around her sides with surprising gentleness. "Hokay. I'll rustle up someone from Maintenance to turn down the damn cooler. We'll get you cleaned up, and comfortable enough to sleep. Then I'll see to it that you're left alone for a few hours. Sound all right to you?"

"Yes'm."

Renee looked at her, as if to detect sarcasm, but Jess's blue eyes were guileless. Renee smiled briefly and left the room.

_

____ *** ____
_

She didn't get back for an hour. Most of that time was wasted trying to track down the cretins responsible for abusing her new patient. Renee was the newest med tech on the unit and her power was nil, but she could and did file a complaint. Before returning to the cell, she opened her locker and pulled out a small silver flask.

Renee tipped it and swallowed twice, angry at herself for letting her emotions goad her again; that could be dangerous here.

When Renee pushed the heavy door open, she noted some improvement. While still cool, the cell's temperature was bearable. The dark-haired woman had been bathed, and she wore the standard-issue black shirt and trousers of the prison population. The orderly Renee had summoned had no medical expertise, however, so her injuries hadn't been addressed. She lay quietly, watching Renee approach.

"What do you say we start again." Renee folded her hands behind her. "I'm Renee, I'm staff. I'm going to take care of your medical needs while you're here, and be your physical advocate. Remember that I have the authority to discipline or disable you at any time, if necessary. All that clear?"

"Clear," Jess said. She smelled whiskey. Wonderful. A government drone with a fondness for spirits and access to long needles. Jess's luck hadn't changed.

"Also." Renee rummaged in her lab coat pocket and pulled out an index card. "'Your transfer to this medical facility was arranged under conditions of highest security,'" she read aloud. "'Armed officers stationed throughout the Clinic will ensure your compliance with unit rules.' It goes on like that for awhile." She fanned herself with the card, dryly. "Meaning, you can rebel if you wish, but someone will shoot you if you do."

Jess nodded. This girl must not know that the feds had assured her compliance above and beyond firepower.

"I need to patch you up." Renee surveyed Jess critically. "Save us both time, and tell me where you're hurt."

"My head stings." Jess thought about it. "My side aches. Other than that, just cuts and bruises."

"Were you raped?"

"Of course I was raped."

Renee hesitated. She should have disciplined her patient for the rudeness of that reply alone, but she let it slide. It had been a stupid question. Renee wasn't naive, she knew what the lives of women prisoners were like. "All right. Were you injured when it happened?"

"No."

She unbuttoned the tall woman's shirt, feeling the blue gaze on her face as she spread the black cloth apart. Renee smiled, and gestured at the tattered blue halter. "You have a sentimental attachment to this?"

"I was kept naked a lot in prison." Jess didn't elaborate. Renee could probably order her naked here, too, if she felt like it. The note of kindness in the younger woman's voice surprised her.

"There's no rule against clothing here." Standing on her tiptoes and leaning over, Renee spotted a thunderhead bruise low on Jess's right side. "Wow -- somebody really clubbed you, Jesstin. That's got to hurt -- any ribs broken, you think?"

"Don't think so."

"Well, I need to be sure." Renee folded her arms and regarded Jess, soberly. "I'll have to palpate to see if we need x-rays. Sorry, but that's going to hurt. And I need to stitch the cut on your head." She sighed. "You were right about pain killers, Jesstin. I checked your orders, and I can't give you any."

"Renee?" Jess squinted up at her. "With all due respect -- how the hell did you get here?"

"What do you mean?"

"You don't seem to enjoy pain. I'm trying, but I can't see you as the bloodthirsty type."

"I'm a certified medical technician, Jesstin. I may be new to this particular unit, but I've been ankle-deep in blood before, believe me." Renee frowned. "And what are you, four entire years older than me? Don't talk like I'm a -- "

"You're a kid." Jess knew she was being reckless, but she was played out and she didn't care. "You're probably a capable nurse, but how you got assigned to a gruesome outfit
like -- "

Renee laid the flat of her hand over the bruise on the prisoner's ribs and pressed down, praying there was no fracture. Jess gasped at the bolt of pain and stiffened hard in her restraints.

"Okay." Renee straightened, relieved to have that over. "Now you know I'm not just a capable nurse, I'm also capable of hurting you, if I have to." She studied Jess's pale features and shifted uneasily. "Look, we have to apply a pain stimulus like that with a new patient sometime during the first examination. Usually I just pinch an arm, or . . . "

"Understood," Jess panted.

Renee pushed up the sleeves of her coat, as if to reset her professional mode. "My other unit didn't do military research, Jesstin, but I was assigned to lots of single-project patients there. Some of them did well and were released, some of them messed up, and went back to prison. It didn't matter to me, my pay was the same. Just don't push me, okay?"

Neither of them spoke while Renee stitched the cut above Jess's brow. She held still under the fiery needle, and made no sound.

Renee's fingers were cold on the beautiful woman's face. She'd never stitched anyone without at least a numbing spray, and she didn't care for it. To her credit, the stitches were characteristically neat and even. Renee held herself to high standards when it came to patient care.

She moved to the other side of the recliner and used her palms and the flats of her fingers to detect any sign of fracture in the woman's ribs. There weren't any. She applied salve and bandages as needed. Then she wrote clinical notes on the clipboard for some time, while Jess dozed.

Renee brushed one hand through her spiky bangs, and pushed the sleeves of her white coat up again. She noticed she'd gotten a smudge of blood on the corner of the blue intake form. She slapped down her pen in annoyance, and went to the sink. She didn't realize her hands were trembling until she held them beneath the water.

She took a white cloth and folded it. The tall woman was still shivering, but more in exhaustion now than pain, Renee decided. She blotted the high forehead, damp with sweat in spite of the cool room, and summarized her clinical impressions.

Jesstin was slightly malnourished, but she looked as if she'd been healthy and active before her incarceration. Active -- maybe frenetic, Renee thought, she looked as strong as a horse. Her shoulders were broad, and her long arms and legs were obviously powerful, requiring tight restraint. She might have been sentenced to field work at the prison, Renee thought, judging by the healing scratches on her long-fingered hands.

Renee brushed the chestnut hair aside and patted the cloth over Jess's throat before moving it over her stomach and sides. She saw Jess tighten as a twinge of pain went through her.

"I'll tell you a secret of the med tech trade, Jesstin." Renee ran the cloth down each muscled arm. "If you know how and when to administer pain -- and your patient knows you're willing to -- you don't have to do it as often." She smiled as she folded the cloth, and the corners of her green eyes crinkled. "Makes it more pleasant for both of us. Okay, you're patched. Think you can sleep for awhile?"

"Sure."

Jess closed her eyes at another twinge, and Renee shook her head sadly. She snapped off the bright floodlight suspended above the chair, plunging the room into blue-hued darkness. Her searching fingers touched Jess's shoulder, then slid gently beneath her dark hair. She cupped the strong neck, noting the velvet-sheathed tension thrumming in her palm. She began working the tight muscles with strong fingers, closing her own eyes in order to concentrate.

"You're like me," Renee murmured. "We carry all our tension in our shoulders and neck. My little sister can put me to sleep in ten minutes doing this. Try to relax, Jesstin."

She probed the steely muscles silently for awhile.

"Listen," Renee said, conversationally. "If less stress will help you heal, your file says you've got nothing but physical therapy for the next week. We want to build your strength for the clinical trials. That means bedrest, decent meals, light exercise when you're ready for it . . . "

Renee heard a light, buzzing snore in the darkness. She smiled, and edged her hand carefully from beneath Jess's thick hair. She smoothed a stray lock off the sleeping woman's brow, sifting its softness through her fingers. "I'm so good," she murmured.

___ *** ___

The week passed.

Jess healed quickly, testament both to Renee's nursing skill and her own sterling constitution. In that time, the med tech learned a little about her patient from the gossip that was rife at every nurses' station. Jess learned about her keeper, too, through the more revealing osmosis of constant contact.

Jesstin of Tristaine was rumored to have Amazon blood. Like most of her contemporaries, Renee wasn't sure she believed descendents of the ancient race existed. She didn't even know if the Clinic considered the rumor was significant -- but it might be the reason Renee been pulled off her regular unit. Jess was skilled in hand-to-hand fighting, and so was she.

The blonde woman's small stature was deceptive, as anyone meeting her in a ring found out. She was quick, even with alcohol making its first inroads in her fitness. She had a compact, sturdy body, beautifully proportioned. She still trained regularly, even in days clouded by mind-numbing hangover, and she was stronger than she had any right to be.

Jess's physical therapy went beyond stretching or using exercise machines. On the fourth day, Renee took her to a small enclosed arena adjoining the clinic. Armed guards were posted at regular intervals along its walls, and for once they never took their eyes from the fighting field, monitoring the two women closely as they engaged in drills of increasing rigor.

Renee was pleased with Jess's progress, and her chart notes were optimistic. Her patient was healing so fast it was uncanny, and soon she was more than holding her own in drills. Plus, Jess had an arsenal of spinning kicks that Renee found downright daunting. She had to admit she looked forward to their sessions. After them, she could sleep without the liquor.

And Renee appreciated the fact that the tall woman didn't breach the boundaries of their therapy. This was jousting, not combat. The blows they landed were as light as possible, and pulled instantly if headed for a vulnerable body part. Renee learned to trust this steady restraint in Jess's fighting, and began to learn from her, new holds and attacks.

It was late the morning of the sixth day, and it was going well. Jess's bruises were fading, the cut was healing, and she had regained full range of motion on her right side, so the ribs were coming along too.

The sun burned high and hot in a flawlessly blue sky. Renee blinked sweat out of her eyes and hefted the two sleek quarterstaffs she carried. She tossed one to Jess, who caught it neatly.

"Hey, this is beautiful." Jess spun the staff in her hands with real pleasure, eyeing its carvings. "I haven't done staffwork in years. Are these yours?"

"Just this one is." Renee twirled the unadorned quarterstaff that had taken her to college semi-finals nimbly in one hand. "I checked that one out, and it's a matchstick by comparison, so watch it."

They were both somewhat handicapped by attire. By regulation, Jess could wear only the black shirt and trouser uniform of the prison population. Renee could have opted for something a little less restrictive, but in fairness she dressed in scrub greens when they drilled.

"You keep your weight more on your right foot than your left?" Jess parried a confident thrust from the smaller woman's staff.

"Yep, helps me build momentum before I strike." Renee danced a little, studying Jess's body to predict her next move.

"So whenever you shift your weight to your right foot, I know you're about to smack me from the left, correct?"

It was therefore doubly satisfying when Jess mistook her intent, bobbed when she should have weaved, and would have received a nice clout in the stomach if Renee hadn't pulled the blow.

Jess grinned as Renee crooned over her victory. "You do announce that thrust, Renee. Decent feint, though, you're quick."

"Gracious of you to admit it, since I'm now . . . " Renee's eyes moved past Jess, and she lowered her staff.

Jess followed her gaze to the white-coated woman making her way across the arena toward them. She was middle-aged and slender, with a patrician face and carriage. Jess didn't know her.

"That's Caster," Renee said, sotto voce. "She's the doctor heading up your project. Be respectful, Jess."

"So, this is Jesstin." Smiling, the woman came up to Jess and rested a hand on her shoulder. "She's looking well, Renee. You're doing a fine job preparing her for the clinical trials."

"Thank you, Doctor. Yeah, she's coming along. She's not ready for clinical, yet, I don't think. Maybe next week -- "

"My name is Caster, Jesstin. I'm staff." The woman reached into the pocket of her lab coat and pulled out something small and metal. She lay its tip on Jess's left shoulder and pressed a button. There was an ugly buzzing sound.

Jess grunted, spun tightly and fell, clutching her shoulder.

Renee started, then stared at Jess in shock. "What are you doing?"

"I'm demonstrating the new feedback device we're introducing to the unit." Caster's voice was calm and richly feminine.

She stepped away from Jess and showed Renee the stunner, which looked like a streamlined, gleaming revolver. "It gives off quite a charge, but it's adjustable. I gave Jesstin here a fairly large jolt just now. Quite painful, but no lasting tissue damage, and the discomfort and disorientation fade after a few minutes."

Jess made it back to her feet, but her face was chalk-white, and she held herself stiffly. Renee knew she was in pain.

"Why was that necessary?"

Caster nodded thoughtfully, as if considering her question. "I've read Jesstin's file, Renee, and I thought a reminder of the wisdom of compliance was in order. She's quite stubborn, I gather. And you should have some electronic backup, hon, if you're working with her alone."

"I don't think I'll need a stunner, Caster." Renee regarded Jess uneasily. "She's been pretty cooperative -- "

"And I'm sure she'll continue to be, now." Caster smiled. Then she gestured at the staff Renee held. "But I didn't mean to interrupt your therapy session, Renee. Please, continue."

"We were finished, Doctor."

"Nonsense, it's not even noon. Pick up your weapon, Jesstin."

Jess thought sourly that she should have seen this coming -- the woman was a fucking cartoon version of a Nazi dominatrix. She bent painfully and retrieved her staff from the grass.

"Caster." Renee's hands decorated her words, an old habit when she was stressed. "Even drilling with a quarterstaff can be dangerous, and Jesstin still looks pretty groggy. Maybe you'd like to come back after our lunch break, and watch us go hand-to-hand, that's really her specialty -- "

"Renee, let me fill you in on what we're doing." Caster turned the smaller woman aside and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "You should know that Jesstin comes from a faction of mountain women who are notoriously resistant to intervention. And unfortunately, she's as obstinate as her clan."

Caster pressed the girl's shoulders ruefully. "She needs deflating, Renee. Even after months in lockdown, Jesstin is still much too headstrong. If she goes into clinicals now, she won't stand a chance. I need your help with this."

At least six questions Renee knew she couldn't ask almost crowded out of her. She stammered, "You want us to drill, right now?"

"I want you to fight now," Caster corrected. "Take Jesstin down, Renee, and hard. Make her feel it. Quickly, the effects of the stunner won't last much longer."

"But -- "

"Now, Renee."

Jess couldn't hear the murmured conference, but she braced herself when Renee turned back with her staff clenched tightly in both hands. The blonde woman streaked forward and attacked with a fusillade of strikes, and Jess back-stepped several yards before she was able to fend her off. She finally locked their staves together, and heaved Renee back to clear space between them.

"Jesstin, listen to me." Renee's tone was low and urgent. "Just drop your guard. Take one hit, fast and neat, and go down."

Jess wasn't having it. For her, there was no turning back from a fight, even one forced on her. Renee's staff flew out of her stinging hands, propelled by a kick so fast it hardly registered. Ordinarily, a chop to the exposed throat would follow, but Jess stayed her hand -- she might be woozy, but she wasn't crazy.

Renee moved almost as quickly as Jess had. Her sneakered foot swept out in a sharp kick that thudded into Jess's unprotected side, with audible impact. Renee was so astonished at her success that it took her a moment to realize she'd kicked Jess flush in her deeply bruised ribs.

The dark woman dropped her staff and teetered, then went to her knees, folding over the pounding in her side. Renee locked her own knees to block the instinct to go to her. The young nurse's heart was pounding like tympani in her chest, and she felt a sudden roil of nausea. She didn't think, then, to question those reactions.

Caster's voice was warm. "Nicely done, Renee."

The doctor folded her arms and addressed the gasping prisoner. "You see, Jesstin, your brand of justice is a foreign concept here. This little slip of a woman didn't just take you down to correct you. She did it because she could. That's how your world works now, I'm afraid."

"I'm all right, Caster." Still clutching her side, Jess sat carefully back on her heels.
She heard Renee's quick warning breath, but ignored it. "This -- little slip -- packs quite a punch. As her grandfather, you must be proud."

Renee was having trouble keeping any one thought in her mind right then, but she was practically certain Jess couldn't have spoken those words. Not in that husky, sensual, mocking drawl. The woman next to her went still, and Renee's heart skipped another jagged beat.

"Take this."

Renee looked down at the stunner Caster was pressing into her hand. "Y-you want me to use this on her? Now?"

"Unless you have a problem with my judgment, Renee." Caster's voice was still mild, but her eyes were flinty.

"I don't think I can do this."

"You can and you will." Caster leaned closer to Renee and spoke quietly. "You can go far here, Renee, with the right contacts. But I warn you, you must steel yourself to this sort of thing. Do you want to be a med tech all your life? There are a dozen applications for every promotion at the Clinic, and none of the candidates are squeamish."

Renee nodded. Her sea-green eyes took on an opaque sheen as she knelt in the grass in front of Jess. The hand that held the stunner was shaking.

"Full intensity," Caster instructed.

Renee met Jess's gaze. She adjusted the dial on the stunner with cold fingers. A moment passed.

"Come now," Caster sighed. "It's hardly more than the first jolt I gave Jesstin. In fact, Renee, it might be best to administer this one in precisely the same place -- high on the left shoulder. Since the first dose obviously had such little lasting effect."

"Jess," Renee said.

Jess's lips hardly moved. "I can't help you with this, Ren."

Renee looked at the stunner in her hand. There was no real choice to be made. She rested the muzzle on the hard swell of Jess's shoulder.

"Bare skin, please."

Renee closed her eyes. "It'll burn her, Caster."

"Not badly." Caster's brown eyes were mild again. "It'll be more painful, true, but remember, tissue damage is minimal."

Jess was well aware of the rifles trained on her back from the guardposts, and she sat motionless on her heels. Renee opened the top two snaps of her shirt and lifted the black cloth to bare her shoulder. She looked at the smooth, tanned skin, already marked by the previous bolt with faint scratches. That had been through the shirt.

Renee rested the muzzle against a freckle. She could feel Jess's gaze on her face, but she didn't meet her eyes as she fingered the switch. The ugly buzzing sound barked again. Pain blasted through Jess's arm and chest and up to her throat, locking out breath.

Renee was on her feet even before Jess hit the ground, and she backed away from her as if she were a snake thrashing in the grass.

To Jess's surprise and disgust, she realized she was passing out -- she felt a gray haze cresting over her. She sprawled on her back and lay still.

"Thank you, Renee. Better late, and all that."

Caster clasped her slender hands behind her back and looked down at the unconscious prisoner. "I think we'll give Jesstin some time to ponder her options -- the fresh air out here will do her good. We should make sure she gets enough sunshine, though." The doctor bent down and tore Jess's shirt open. Then she wrenched the blue halter apart, baring her breasts.

Renee couldn't move.

Caster arranged Jess artfully on her back, spreading her muscular arms over her head to enhance the lift of her firm breasts. Then she turned to Renee and smiled.

"Well, Renee. With one brief lapse, you've been most professional this morning. Now, you're about to earn some lucrative overtime. I want you to stay here tonight. Are you listening, hon?"

Renee was staring at Jess's motionless form, but she nodded.

"Find an orderly, and have them tie Jesstin down. Arms out, never mind the feet. She's to remain here, supine, until midnight." Caster ticked the points off on her long fingers. "Make sure her breasts are exposed when she awakens, and don't discourage the guards from calling down to her. Understood?"

"Midnight," Renee repeated stupidly.

Caster nudged Jess's leg with her foot. "You can find some shade and get caught up with your paperwork. Just make sure no one gives her water. Escort Jesstin back after midnight, patch her up a bit, then take off. With six hours of double-time on your clock."

Renee shrugged and nodded, an almost childish gesture that escaped because her head was boiling too loudly. Caster patted her again, and strode off toward the arena gate, checking her watch.

Renee looked up at the blazing sun, her throat dry. Jess was going to lie under this for six hours.

She took a tentative step forward and studied Jess's pale features, her dusky lashes still against the high cheek. Her breathing was normal now, and her color was coming back. Renee wanted to stop looking at Jess, but she couldn't, and not because she was half naked.

She knew Caster intended to humiliate her prisoner by exposing her breasts, but Renee wasn't sure she succeeded. Even senseless, the rugged woman projected a dignity that was undiminished by her nakedness. She looked like a fallen warrior, Renee thought.
She turned away, quickly.

The guards would monitor the prisoner while Renee found an orderly. Then she could stop by her locker.

____ *** ____

Renee paused outside the detention cell and pushed up the sleeves of her coat, staring at the woodgrain panel of the door until she was sure her priorities were back in place. She puffed breath into her palm and sniffed, stalling. Just mouthwash.

It was 12:30 am. Jess had been returned and confined again in the detention chair minutes earlier. The brilliant lamp suspended over the chair flooded her body with merciless light.

The orderly had left Jess's shirt open. Her bare breasts glowed pinkly under the harsh light, the consequence of hours of sun on skin usually protected by clothing. The clinician in Renee noted that her breasts were firm and tight, otherwise unmarked, with dark nipples blending into the flushed-ivory swells.

Renee opened the small freezer on the supply counter and took out an ice bag. "I know you're awake, Jesstin."

The dark woman opened her eyes.

"I'm going to put this on your side." Renee flexed the icepack to activate it. "I checked your ribs, while you were still . . . there's no fracture." She lay the icepack in place gently.

Jess started at the sudden cold, striking after so much heat. Renee saw her breasts lift with the sudden motion, and she averted her eyes.

Jess's throat felt like it was stuffed with socks. "I'd appreciate water," she croaked.

"Not right now." Renee's eyebrows rose in dismay. "No, I'm not withholding it -- you just need to cool off a little, before you drink. If you want any of it to stay down."

Jess nodded. Her extraordinary eyes were dull.

Renee moved closer and touched Jess's face with the backs of her fingers, then lay her palm at the base of her throat. She picked up one of the two vials she'd received from the dispensary and poured a small amount of liquid into her hand. She warmed the oil in her palms.

"Jess, I'm going to touch you," she said. "It's nothing sexual." Her voice was in good control, low and soothing. "You're dehydrated, and probably close to heat exhaustion. We need to push fluids as soon as we can, and get your body temperature back to normal. This oil is good for burns, and it has an alcohol base that feels really cool." She hesitated. "I know you're tender, I'll be careful."

Renee's palms settled on Jess's breasts, and began to massage the silky oil into the blushing mounds with circular strokes. Jess relaxed under the younger woman's cool touch, her gaze unfocused over Renee's white-coated shoulder. Jess felt her nipples harden, and cursed herself. It was happening now whenever the blonde nurse touched her, it didn't matter where.

"You were a bloody idiot today, Jess." Renee knew what she wanted to say, she'd had hours to gather her thoughts. "You deliberately provoked that second stunner hit. Caster was entirely within protocol to prescribe it."

Jess said nothing.

"What happened afterwards." Renee kept her eyes on her hands, her fingers light on Jess's sensitive breasts. "Exposing you, and tying you out there all afternoon . . . I know that was harsh. I'm not disagreeing with Caster," Renee added, "but it was a -- a very strong intervention." She paused. "I'm sorry I had to hurt you."

Jess's eyes drifted closed under the pleasant stroking. "I don't blame you, Ren."

Renee started to speak, stopped herself, then asked anyway. "Jess, why were you sent to prison?"

Jess smiled, mirthlessly. "They didn't include that in my chart, huh?"

"No. Just the life sentence, but not what for. We're supposed to assume everyone is dangerous."

"Well, according to your federal court, I am. I was convicted of killing two children."

Renee's hands stilled for a moment. "And you didn't do it," she said tonelessly.

Jess was silent while Renee smoothed excess oil over her lean belly. "Two kids died because of me," she said finally. "It comes to the same thing."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Your government considers mountain children expendable, Renee." Jess flexed her stiff shoulder. "Two of them can die without serious consequences, especially if the murders can be used to frame an Amazon. The Clinic holds two other girls, friends of mine, to keep me agreeable."

Renee dried her hands in a towel. She shouldn't have asked -- there were reasons medical staff weren't told about a patient's background. I was framed, yer honner, she thought. Please. Did Jess think she was brainless, as well as green? Renee lifted the second vial from the medication tray and frowned.

"Damn, what's Caster thinking of?" Renee turned to see Jess's blue eyes regarding her. "It's an antiseptic, for your arm. Your shoulder."

She showed Jess the small bottle. Jess eyed the label obediently, then arched one brow.

"Sorry." Renee grinned. "It's tecathanase, it's very potent. It'll do the job, I guess -- but there's a dozen other antiseptics I'd rather use." She paused. "It's going to sting, Jess."

A wave of weariness ghosted across the tall woman's features. Jess was tired of being tortured by malicious children, even guilt-ridden ones. "Thanks for telling me. It helps, sometimes, if I can brace myself a bit."

"Does it?" Renee asked softly. "Most people are the exact opposite, I've noticed. You wouldn't think so, but being surprised by pain is actually less traumatic than -- " She made herself stop babbling, and saturated a sterilized cloth with the astringent liquid.

She reached for Jess's collar, and the dark head jerked away from her hand -- just a fraction of an inch. Renee accepted the flinch for what it was, without comment, and felt another stone lodge in her belly. She remembered her early days of training, before her transfer to the federal program, when the credo had been do no harm.

Renee knew better than to give any visible reaction to a patient's injury; that had been drilled into her since her first internship. And this was not an especially ugly wound; a second-degree burn capping the shoulder, a few deep scratches, and some bruising in an area about the size of a quarter. The skin around it looked flushed and tender. Renee had certainly seen worse; in fact, the injury looked cleaner than she'd feared it might. She folded the dripping cloth in half and pressed it to the wound.

Jess's assaulted nerves awoke with a vengeance; true to its reputation, the antiseptic was scathing as acid. Her head came up off the padded surface of the chair, and her fists clenched in the restraints.

"H-hey!" Renee gasped raggedly and backed away, pressing a hand to her waist. Her reaction was out of proportion to the flinch, and they both knew it. "You startled me."

Jess thought she understood some of the conflict this young woman struggled with, but right now she was trying to rise above the flames still incinerating her shoulder. "Bracing myself didn't work," she gasped.

Renee waited, wanting a drink so badly she trembled with it.

When Jess's breathing returned to normal, Renee cleared her throat and took a practical look at her shoulder . "I think I got it well covered. We'll let it air tonight, and I'll bandage it in the morning. So it won't chafe on your shirt."

Renee snapped Jess's shirt closed, then brought a carafe of water and helped her drink. She pulled the white cotton blanket up to her chest, and then clicked off the overhead floodlight. Half-blinded, Renee made her way around the bed and moved toward the door. The rich voice behind her stopped her, but only briefly.

"Do you know tomorrow's protocol, Renee?"

"No." Renee didn't, and she didn't want to. Tomorrow's protocol was where it bloody well belonged, several shots and dreamless hours away. "Get some sleep, Jess."

____ *** ____

The next morning, Renee elbowed open the rusty door of her Jeep and promptly fell out of it, sprawling on the asphalt of the Clinic's parking lot. There was no damage except one skinned ankle bone that was unreasonably painful.

Renee debated swinging by the dispensary for a bandage, but decided against it. She was dreadfully late -- an unprecedented lapse -- and there would only be time to stop by her locker. She needed a quick jolt from the flask to quell the shaking in her hands more than she needed a Band-aid. She had trouble inserting her staff ID into the entrance's electronic lock.

Minutes later, breathless, Renee snapped her lab coat on over her shoulders as she backed into the detention cell. She turned, and stopped dead. The cell was empty, the floodlight over the chair dark. The restrainer stood deserted, eerie in the shadows with the straps dangling at its sides.

Renee backed out and trotted to the nurse's station, and realized there were flashing lights going off behind her eyes. She blinked, a little alarmed. Hangover? It didn't feel like it, but her head was swimming.

"Has Jesstin been signed out?" Renee flattened her hands on the cool counter curving around the station, and repeated her question twice to the orderly in charge of the desk. He took a maddeningly long time checking his computer screen as she tapped the linoleum, but he finally nodded.

"Caster signed her out for the rest of the day. They're in C-6."

"Caster, huh?" Renee's stomach gave a queasy thump. "Any idea why? Jess isn't due to start clinicals until next week."

The orderly pumped his thumb at the monitor. "This says she starts today,"

"C-6." Renee turned in a full circle, tapping her thighs now. "C-6."

"Thattaway."

"Thanks." Renee heard the word echo in her head as she jogged down C Wing, a corridor she hadn't visited since her orientation. She rubbed her temples as she counted down suite numbers. Great, she was having aural distortion now, as well as visual -- if there were any justice in the world, Jess would knock her into next week in today's drills.
She couldn't even remember what Jess's clinicals were about, what Caster had told her yesterday. Something about Amazons. She had to clear her head.

Suite 6 was unlocked, and staff didn't knock. Renee pushed the double doors open and stepped in, rehearsing her apology to Caster. For a moment she thought Jess had been crucified, and she stifled a scream behind her hand.

The large concrete chamber was barren except for a huge X-frame that dominated one wall. Jess had been tied to it, her wrists and ankles pressed against the crossbeams and bound with heavy rope. Her arms and legs were widely spread, and her bare feet were a good two feet off the floor. There was a narrow shelf in the center of the X-frame that pressed into Jess's back, forcing her strong body into a slight arch. She was naked -- her clothing was folded and stacked on top of a table against the far wall.

"You almost scared the life out of me." Caster was standing beside the frame, one hand on her hip, looking at Renee appraisingly. "I expected you a little earlier, Renee. We've been at it for hours."

The sun-reddened globes of Jess's breasts were criss-crossed with lash-marks. She wore a collar of thick chain-link around her neck. Another length of chain was fastened to the collar, and ran down between her punished breasts, bisecting her glistening body. It disappeared between her wide-spread legs, snaking up her back to reattach to the collar. Renee saw that one of the heavy steel links was wedged deeply between Jess's labia, and the entire length of chain was pulled to screaming tightness.

Renee's vision blurred, and she saw three dark women spread-eagled on X-frames -- then two, then one. Her knees gave out and she sat down abruptly on the concrete floor. Astonishment waged with horror and dizziness -- and with a deep, shameful pulse in her blood that the young woman didn't even recognize as carnal.

"I'm giving Jesstin a brief rest." Caster patted the prisoner's lean belly. "She's had a hard morning."

The doctor folded her skirt modestly beneath her and lowered herself to the floor beside Renee. She smiled at the younger woman, as if sitting on the cold cement together was entirely appropriate. They both looked up at the suspended woman.

"Do you understand what you're seeing, Renee?" Caster asked finally.

"We can't do this," Renee whispered. Her heart was pounding, but wetness was gathering between her legs.

"We can and must," Caster corrected. "All right, in brief. Jesstin's clinical trial involves that mountain faction I mentioned yesterday. Her people."

"We can't do this."

"It's important that you listen, please. Jesstin's clan refuses to accept our military's terms of assimilation, Renee. They have for years. We don't understand why, and it's not truly important that we do. What matters is finding a way of forcing their surrender, before we have to wipe out the entire race."

Jess's blue eyes drilled into the Renee's large green ones. Renee felt her nipples rise, and she shivered.

"Our Jesstin has the unenviable task of standing in for all her mountain sisters." Caster crossed her ankles and looked up at Jess fondly. "Renee, if we can discover what weakens her, our funders can use that information to plan the summer assault on the mountain tribes."

"Weakens her?"

"You've seen how stubborn she is." Caster nudged Renee with her elbow. "Jesstin wouldn't quit first in a fight for love nor gold, I assure you. None of her clan would. But -- if I can chart clearly what breaks her down, not just physically, but emotionally . . . " The doctor's brown eyes glowed with challenge, and Renee realized Caster was beautiful.

Jess coughed, and her body spasmed in its unnatural constriction. Renee saw suffering pass over the chiseled features, but only fleetingly -- a second later, scathing indifference filled her gaze again.

"So this is part of that treatment plan." Caster's gestured at the frame. "It's controversial, I admit that. But unfortunately, degradation and forced sex have been tried and true methods of breaking women since time immemorial. Amazons were no exception."

"Neither were Bosnians," Jess rasped. Her dangerous eyes glittered into the rapt green ones watching her. "Pick your path, Renee."

"Renee, what you're feeling is entirely normal." Caster's voice was gentle, and so were her fingers on Renee's chin, turning her face toward her. "You're anxious, you feel responsible, conflicted. This is strong stuff to take in all in one morning, I know that."

"What's happening to me?" Renee asked her.

"I'm sure you'll be fine." Caster patted Renee's knee. "Jesstin's really had enough for one day, anyway." She got up gracefully, held out her hand to Renee, and lifted her effortlessly to her feet. "I do want her to orgasm, however, before we take her down. Jesstin holds out as long as she possibly can -- obstinance, again. Are you all right, hon? Your skin is clammy."

"I'm fine."

Renee followed Caster's white coat until she stood in front of the looming wooden frame. Jess's piercing blue gaze now fell straight down on her uplifted face.

"I do think it would be marvelous if you were the one to push her over." Caster smiled down at the blonde head at her shoulder. "The two of you are so good together, visually. It's an empty ascetic, but I do film these sessions. Would you, Renee? I'm sure you can think of a good method. Would it be too difficult, this first morning?"

Renee's mind was filled with sparkling fog, and nothing was too difficult. She shook her head and stepped forward, her green eyes pinned wonderingly on Jess's sweating face. Caster stepped quietly to the video camera, switched it on, and watched them both, intensely curious.

I'm in trouble, Jess thought. She cursed herself again for not resisting the fantasies that came to her lately, when she couldn't sleep. This young blonde woman, so intelligent and brainwashed and endearing, and probably doomed, touched Jess. She couldn't help that now. What she hoped she could control was the heat rising inside her, generated by the girl's avid stare. The rational part of Jess realized that Renee was in some kind of trouble, too -- her pupils were enormous, almost covering the emerald irises.

"You're drugged," Jess rasped. The heavy links of the chain collar around her neck were digging bruises over her collarbones with every breath.

"What did you mean," Renee said, "about choosing my path?"

"Renee, you're drugged," Jess snapped, and coughed again. Useless, she thought.

The green eyes trailed over Jess's body. The strain of the suspension outlined the dark woman's muscles in sharp relief, and the bronzed planes of her torso gleamed with sweat. Renee looked at the ugly bruise on the ladder rungs of Jess's right side, and the raw redness of the wound capping her powerful shoulder.

The image of the bound woman above her was like a painting by some dark master, one that would hang only in secret, hidden galleries. Renee felt a small muscle in her vulva relax, and she pressed her muscled thighs together carefully.

Jess's sunburned breasts heaved as she struggled again against the ropes, gasping at the pain in her side. She had no more patience with the coyness of stoicism; if she needed to yell or scream, she did it, and saved her strength for survival. She winced as salt from the sweat coating her breasts seeped into a bleeding welt, and stung there like fire.

Renee's mesmerized gaze lowered to the juncture between Jess's achingly spread thighs.

"Forgive me, Jess," Renee said softly. "Caster, move the chain."

"Of course, just a second." Caster slid the small knob on the camera, zooming in for a tight image of the prisoner's exposed cunt. Then she went quickly behind the frame, and wound one arm around it to grasp the length of chain, just above the soft pubic hair. Caster glanced at the monitor. "Oh, that is nice. Enjoy yourself, Jesstin."

The doctor clenched the chain and tugged, jerking the heavy link out from between her pressed pussylips. Jess grunted, and filled again with the scalding rage that kept all other emotion at bay. She had to grunt again, as her freed clitoris began to swell and pulse.

"This is good footage, Renee." Caster admired the twitching clit captured on the monitor. "I especially like my fingers in there, holding the chain just out of Jesstin's cleft. The clitoris is quite enlarged, this shouldn't take long."

Jess had lived among women long enough to know what she was seeing when she looked down at Renee -- the young woman was deeply aroused. A small thrill of fear made it through Jess's rage.

"Ren, don't do this."

An alien joy ran through Renee's blood. She slipped off her lab coat, and the heavy fabric fell to the concrete at her feet. In her haste that morning, she had donned a wrinkled peasant blouse. The sagging top still held enough elastic to stretch down over the globe of her right breast. Renee tugged the top of her bra up to expose the creamy swell, capped with an enlarged pink nipple, watching Jess's eyes closely.

"You want me to, I think." Renee stepped closer and took her own breast in her cold hands. "You have for awhile." She guided the turgid nipple between the lips of the suspended woman's snatch and rubbed it in the heated wetness there.

"Nice touch," Caster approved quietly, watching the monitor as the turgid clitoris twitched against the scraping bud.

Renee straightened and watched Jess's eyes fill with tears. The sight sent a small bomb off in her sex, and her thighs tightened spasmodically. She bent forward and nuzzled her full lips between the lightly-furred flaps of Jess's cunt, slithered the tight clit into her mouth, and began to suck.

"Ah, sweet Gaia," Jess whispered, and her head fell back, the tears spilling down the sides of her face to streak down her throat. She used superhuman force on herself to hold her hips still under the relentless, swirling suction. The girls tongue was deliciously cool in her heated wetness.

All went well for awhile, along the expected course.

Renee had never pleasured a woman with her mouth before, but she found she had a certain gift for it. She simply closed her eyes and imagined Jess's tongue in her own folds, and did what came naturally.

Jess's will weakened as the sucking pleasure soared, and she began to undulate in her bonds. Renee had to clench the firm buttocks to keep her cunt pressed open against her working mouth.

But then, all progress stopped. Renee sucked and licked and finally chewed, but Jess maintained a tenuous grip on her control. Her long body trembled on the frame, but otherwise she was still.

"Just like this morning." Caster hissed in disappointment, watching Renee's bowed lips churn with renewed, but futile fervor between the dark woman's legs. "I got her this high, and kept her here, but then she wouldn't budge."

Renee broke off, gasping, her lips and chin wet. Her dazed eyes flashed Jess a look of cheated anger. Then Renee's hand went to her belt, and her expression changed to one of suppressed excitement as she unclipped the stunner.

"Oh, Renee." Caster let out a small laugh. "I underestimated you, you're as headstrong as Jesstin! And probably as reckless -- be careful with that thing. Be sure it's on the lowest setting, at least."

Renee's vulva was soaked and throbbing as she parted Jess's labia carefully with her fingers. Jess closed her eyes, and Renee pressed the stunner's muzzle into her folds, and flicked the switch.

Jess screamed.

____ *** ____

Part Two: Clinical Trials

____ *** ____


Renee missed work the next day. She called in sick, another near-first in her career.

Sleepless at dawn, the young woman lay curled in her bed. She closed her eyes, remembering Caster hosing Jess down the day before. The doctor insisted on it, before summoning the orderlies to remove her from the X-frame. Renee heard again the hissing impact of the power-hose's cold water slamming into Jess's twisting body. Caster was thorough about jet-scrubbing her patient, but the pounding stream did linger on the tall woman's firm breasts and exposed vulva.

Renee realized that the memory aroused her, and she shuddered and burrowed deeper beneath the sheets.

Her head throbbed like a rotting tooth, but she welcomed the pain. She had to return to the Clinic the next day, she had no choice. Seeing Jess again wasn't something she could put off forever.

____ *** ____

Renee swung open the door to the detention cell and came to a startled halt. Jess was sitting upright on the side of the recliner, unrestrained and fully dressed in fresh prison blacks.

"Caster opted to spring me from this thing." Jess's rich voice was toneless as she shucked up one boot. "She figures I know you'll use the stunner if you have to."

"I will," Renee said. She watched the muscles in Jess's arms work and felt, among a dozen other emotions, cautious relief. "Are you all right?"

The tall woman nodded, sliding her foot into the other black boot. And she did look all right, physically. The thick layers of Jess's dark hair were clean and soft behind her broad shoulders. Her beautiful face was expressionless, but unmarked.

Renee consciously did not flinch as Jess stood up. The dark woman moved slowly and carefully, as if to avoid alarming her.

"Caster was just here." Jess folded her right sleeve cuff an extra inch higher. "We're supposed to meet her at the arena." After a moment of silence, wherein Renee did not move toward the door, Jess lifted an eyebrow inquiringly.

Renee opened her mouth, then closed it. She tried again. "Jess, something happened to me yesterday. I . . .wasn't myself, for awhile."

"I figured as much." Jess's blue eyes were remote on the girl's face as she folded back her other sleeve. "Do you know who drugged you?"

Renee hadn't even been able to consider that. With as much as she'd imbibed the night before the first clinical, she might well have witlessly combined pills from her own medicine cabinet. "That's not anything you need to worry about."

"It wasn't just the drugs, Renee."

"I know that." Renee met her eyes evenly, and Jess recognized some good steel in the younger woman. "This isn't an apology. And I don't owe you an explanation, Jess. I just wanted to tell you, I'm -- glad you're all right."

Jess nodded. Finally, Renee dropped her eyes and turned toward the door.

"Ren." Jess's voice was reluctantly softer. "It wasn't the first time for me. Even the first time on an X-frame."

Renee nodded.

____ *** ____

As they were beginning to learn, Caster was highly organized, and she wanted things done according to schedule. Six rather large men, dressed in fighting gear -- helmets, body pads -- stood clustered at one end of the grass grounds. As soon as Caster saw Renee and Jess enter the arena, she called out and gestured them closer.

"Here they are, finally! Is the camera ready, Stuart?"

"Ready." One of the orderlies from Caster's unit waved behind the videocamera mounted on a tripod.

"Jesstin, I think you know the drill, here. You're to meet these fighters in hand-to-hand combat, yes?"

"Wait a minute," Renee looked from Jess to the waiting men. "She's fighting them?"

"She's going to take them all on," Caster confirmed with a flourish. "One at a time, at least to begin with. Mr. Benton, are you ready?"

One of the assembled men lifted a hand and trotted forward. He carried a mace.

"Hold it, I don't like this." Renee put out an arm and stopped Jess. "That guy's armed. Doesn't she get a mace?"

"No, Renee. Jesstin's specialty is open-handed fighting." Caster gave Renee a chiding look. "If you'd been at yesterday's briefing, you'd be on the same page with all this. Just a minute, Jesstin."

Jess had been walking across the grass toward her first opponent. Now she stopped and looked back.

"Shirt off, please," Caster called.

A wry expression crossed Jess's face, but she didn't look rattled, or even surprised. The dark woman unbuttoned her shirt and slipped it off her wide shoulders, baring her breasts. The bright sun overhead made their paleness contrast vividly with her tanned belly and throat. One of the guards up on the arena's wall hooted, but Jess ignored him and tossed her shirt to the ground. She faced the man named Benton again, rolling her stiff shoulder to loosen it -- for all appearances, completely relaxed with being shirtless.

Things were happening too fast.

"Camera, Stuart," Caster called. "Attack, Mr. Benton!"

Sometime during the next hour, Renee realized she was lucky to be alive. The drills she'd run with Jess had been child's play. At full combat speed, the dark woman was a blur of whirling kicks and forceful strikes -- she could have taken Renee out, fatally, at any time in the past week.

Benton lost the mace after the first ineffectual swing. He was a powerfully built man, his face powerfully ugly with acne scars, but he wasn't a fighter. Jess's knee in his belly slowed him down; the side of her wrist to the back of his neck dropped him. Jess stood brushing the grass from her hands as Benton got to his feet. She wasn't even breathing hard.

The next man, Klausen, was just as big and more experienced. He wielded a dagger. Jess disarmed and pinned him, but he scored a shallow cut across the top of her chest before she did. The third man, Art something, swung a mean club. He connected a few times before Jess took him out, including two powerful blows to her lower back.

Renee saw Jess was tiring. She was an excellent fighter, even an amazing one, but she was not super-human. It took her longer to finish the third bout, with a man swinging a vigorous hand-scythe.

"All three of the rest of you, please," Caster called, jotting notes on her clipboard.

Renee held one, too -- the medic was in charge of keeping a written record of the physical blows and probable damage her patient incurred with each encounter. "Three at once?" Her tone was sharper than she intended. "Why?"

"Because Jesstin hasn't asked to stop yet." Caster sighed, scribbling away. "Honestly Renee, that briefing was important."

Renee tried for a reasonable tone while she watched the three men surround the tall Amazon. "But Doctor, we don't want to kill her."

"We absolutely will not," Caster said firmly, turning to a fresh sheet. "These men may not seem like gladiator material, but they're professionals. They won't kill Jesstin, or even disable her, she has too far to go yet. Stop worrying, Renee, just observe."

The three remaining opponents formed a rough triangle around Jess, who waited, braced, her head turned slightly to detect any warning whisper of boots on grass. Her bare torso gleamed under the hot sun. Red patches here and there stood out against her golden skin, marking successful blows from earlier bouts. Blood glistened at the base of her throat from the dagger's cut.

One of the men she faced now held a net ready, another a quarterstaff, and the third a doubled length of thick chain. At Caster's signal, they attacked as one.

This round lasted a long time. The three men couldn't quite pin Jess, and they couldn't keep her cornered for long, but they could and did overwhelm her whenever possible. Blood made a second appearance after the chain slapped across her upper back, digging shallow cuts.

Renee found herself clenching her pen so tightly her fingers were numb.

Jess didn't feel the chain. She was deep in the Amazonian battle-haze her friend Dyan had explained once, eloquently. Jess didn't much like it there, she never had. Neither had Dyan, which was one reason she had been an excellent combat trainer. The detached fury did feel like home, though, and Jess was grateful for it now. It banished thoughts of both pain and mercy, when she couldn't afford either.

Then the man carrying the staff took a roundhouse swing, and batted Jess in the stomach. She grunted, and dropped to her knees in the grass.

"Hold it!" Renee's yell burst out of her. The three men lowered their weapons, panting, and watched the young blonde woman stride toward them. "All right, back off!" They stepped back, obediently.

"Yes, Renee, entirely proper, go ahead, check her out." Caster was still penning notes on her board.

Renee dropped to her knees in front of Jess, who had eased back into a sitting position, dragging air into her lungs. "Jesstin?" Renee gripped her damp face in her hands and peered into her blue eyes sharply. "Talk to me."

"Good call," Jess panted. "I needed the break."

"Lean back, let me see."

Jess rested back on her extended arms, and Renee passed her hands carefully over the flat planes of her belly. "Does that hurt? Any tenderness? It looked like you were hit right in the liver."

"No, he just winded me." Jess's breathing was returning to normal.

"Jesstin." Renee looked at the bleeding cut beneath Jess's throat. "All you have to do to end this is call it off. Or just go down, but do one or the other!"

"I'll go down eventually," Jess admitted. She felt Renee grip her arms tightly, and she looked at her, startled.

"I know that," Renee hissed. "So does Caster! If you know it too, why put it off?"

"All right, Renee, please." Caster was tapping her pen ominously against her board. "You -- Mr. Benton? Are you functional again? And -- I'm sorry -- Art? You are too? But Mr. Klausen is nursing a broken hand. Well, the two of you, please join in again."

"Don't pull that macha Amazon crap now, Jesstin." Renee's voice was strained. "Go down."

Jess got to her feet, and so did Renee. Renee left the fighting circle, and the five men surrounded the prisoner. Jess steadied herself, nodded that she was ready, and they attacked.

The break had helped Jess -- in fact, it did wonders. The tall Amazon fought with a cool economy again, rationing her strength, keeping a steady eye on her closest opponent, and the bite had returned to her speed. She returned their blows in a controlled and violent dance that held its own alien beauty, and two of her opponents dropped quickly.

But her revival couldn't last and Renee knew it, even before Jess took a roundhouse right to the jaw and fell again.

Renee turned to Caster. "Okay, stop the trial."

"What?" Caster looked surprised. "Renee, look, she's getting up."

"Doesn't matter. Stop the trial." Renee's green eyes were shooting sparks. "Jesstin is not going to cooperate today, Caster. They'll just keep beating her until she sustains a serious injury. That becomes more likely as she tires."

"Renee -- "

"I'm her physical advocate." Renee's bow-shaped lips trembled, but she spoke calmly. "I say she's had enough for today. That's my prerogative, and it's my call. Now stop the trial."

Caster let out a long breath, watching Jess sway on her feet. The man named Art clubbed her hard across the back, and she fell again.

"Caster!" The green eyes snapped with angry light.

"All right. Stand down, please!" Caster folded the clipboard in one arm and clapped her hands, and the men stepped back.

One of them, Jess's first opponent, Benton, extended his large hand to Jess. After a moment she accepted it, and let him pull her to her feet.

"I'm not angry, Renee." Caster spared her young assistant a quick smile. "You're absolutely right -- it's the med tech's responsibility to ensure the patient's physical welfare. I do trust your judgment. And, this was actually a successful trial!"

"Successful." Renee watched Jess rest her hands on her knees, her lean sides moving in and out as she pulled for air.

"Well, we had to establish a baseline," Caster explained. "We didn't allow Jesstin to fight to exhaustion, but that's all right -- we've documented her resistance. Successive trials, hopefully, will bring her to surrender. We just need to whittle her down, over time."

Renee felt a cold dread. "She'll be doing this again?"

"Well, not this exact protocol." Caster rummaged in the pocket of her lab coat and checked her pager. "Damn, it's my husband. Don't you wish men could look after young children, just for one morning, without constant guidance? The second trial is set for the day after tomorrow, Renee -- we'll give Jesstin a day to recoup."

"But recuperate for what, what's the -- "

"Listen, I'll fill you in later, hon." Caster smiled at Renee. "Take our fearless warrior over there back to her cell, okay? And let her know she got off easy this time. It's all right to treat her injuries, but remember, nothing for pain."

Renee watched Caster trot off toward the arena's exit gate. The six men straggled after her, not saying much -- more than one glanced back over his shoulder at Jess.

Jess was bending, painfully, to retrieve her shirt from the grass. Renee got there in time to pick it up for her. Jess started to work her arms back through the sleeves and grimaced. Renee stepped behind her and raised the top of the shirt carefully over her shoulders. Then she waited while Jess snapped it closed.

"Can you walk?" Renee asked.

A rare breeze lifted a lock of dark hair off Jess's brow, and her blue eyes were remote again. "Yeah, Renee, as far as I have to."

Renee followed her out of the arena.

____ *** ____

Renee flipped on the arc lamp over the restrainer and began setting out medical supplies. Jess went to the sink and scrubbed her face and arms with cold water.

It was almost comfortable for a few minutes.

"Do you know if you're allergic to aneascin?" Renee peered at an amber vial through the light. "I put in an order for some, it's less caustic than the tecathenase." She decided her tone was an appropriate blend of cordiality and formality.

"I've found soap and water to be as good." Jess dried her face in a white towel. "You can go home, Renee, if you want. There's nothing I can't take care of myself."

Renee studied Jess, and her green eyes narrowed. "What are you doing?"

Jess patted the towel over her throat, her brows rising at Renee's sudden scrutiny.

"I don't come and go at your behest, Jesstin, you know that."

Renee took the towel out of Jess's hands. She tossed it on the sink, then took the tall woman's arm and drew her beneath the wash of light from the arc lamp. She felt the bunched muscle beneath her fingers, and with her other hand, Renee touched the stunner at her belt; but the impulse shamed her.

Jess stood obediently in front of the restrainer while Renee tilted her face in her hands to see the swelling capping one high cheek. She made a clicking noise and winced. "You're going to be ugly in the morning."

Renee unsnapped Jess's shirt. She spread it open, and her green eyes darkened. Jess's chest and stomach were covered with livid marks -- most of them emerging bruises, but also some scrapes and cuts that still seeped blood.

The sunburn flush had faded from Jess's pale breasts, and for the first time Renee noticed the effects of Caster's flail. The firm globes were striped with lashmarks that looked freshly inflicted, after the falls and punishing blows Jess had taken in the trial. The welts were neither deep or serious, but they were plentiful.

Renee looked at the shallow but angry cut just above the tall woman's collarbone, and she remembered the sun's flash on the second fighter's dagger as he swung. She touched the enflamed skin around the cut, and looked up into Jess's eyes.

Whoopy, Jess thought. We're in trouble again. Those be-damned green eyes were losing their clinical sheen; the girl looked weary and sad and afraid. Jess swallowed. Luckily, a bad twinge of pain from her kidney broke the moment.

"What was that?" Renee's voice was sharp as she helped Jess straighten.

"I think it was the second club strike," Jess stammered, gripping the small of her back.

Renee began to peel the shirt off the wide shoulders, but then changed her mind and slipped her hands around Jess's bare waist instead. "I can tell more about this kind of injury by feel than by sight." She moved her hands carefully beneath the black shirt and settled them on the warm planes of Jess's lower back. She pressed, very gently. "Does this hurt?"

"Not much."

Renee's hands moved higher. "How about here, does this?"

"No, pain's fading."

Her hands moved again, and she had to step in closer to Jess to reach higher. She made the mistake of looking up into the blue eyes just as her palms cupped the dark woman's shoulderblades. "Does this hurt?" she whispered.

"No." Jess lifted her scratched hand slowly, and placed it over Renee's heart. She pressed, gently. "Does this hurt?"

Renee stared at her, and she was lost.

Jess remembered that they were going to kill her in the end anyway. She bent her head, and Renee's vision filled with cerulean blue, coming closer. The battered hand left the girl's chest, and rose to her chin. Jess tipped Renee's face higher, and kissed her.

The full lips blending warmly against hers sent a painfully pleasant tingling through her. For a moment, the smaller woman was lost in a sensual fog. She leaned lightly against the muscular body, her hands moving again beneath Jess's shirt, caressing the strong, warm planes of her back. Jess felt Renee's firm breasts pillow beneath her own naked ones. Renee's tongue darted between their lips, and Jess sucked her, gently.

Staff at the clinic didn't knock.

Jess had time to lift her head when they heard the door opening, and Renee had time to step back. That might have been enough cover -- anyone else might have thought they were interrupting a medical exam. But Caster's eyes were too sharp to miss the high flush filling Renee's cheeks, or her prisoner's prominent nipples.

"Excuse me, Renee." Caster smiled, briefly, and slipped her clipboard onto the side table. "At this juncture, I just wanted to come by to ask our patient if she'd like to avoid any further unpleasantness."

The doctor crossed the cell and stood in front of Jess, looking at her body appraisingly. "Let's see, I need some small, insignificant wound . . . "

Renee moved silently away from them. She stood near the sink and folded her arms.

Caster took the stunner from the pocket of her lab coat, and rested the muzzle against the bleeding cut at the base of Jess's throat. "Actually, this is too close to the heart to be entirely safe, Jesstin, even at half-intensity. Is there something you'd like to say to me?"

"Don't do it."

Caster's penciled eyebrows rose, but then she looked back over her shoulder at Renee and chuckled. "You'll note that that was a command, Renee, not a request. Jesstin is forbidding me. Typical. Try again, Jesstin." She tapped the steel of the stunner gently against the cut.

Jess was silent.

Renee's voice reached her from the shadows. "Say it, Jess."

"Come on now," Caster coaxed. Tap, tap, tap. "Just add that one, all-important word, Jesstin, and your command becomes a request. You know the word I mean, every child learns it in kindergarten. Don't do it -- what?"

"Don't do it, bitch."

Renee jerked her head away as the ugly snapping sound filled the cell.

____ *** ____

Renee seriously considered drinking the coming day out of the calendar. Only her resolve to end her involvement in the project entirely kept her sober. Her hands were steady as she slipped her ID into the Clinic's front lock. She didn't plan to see Jess again.

Renee was told her clinical supervisor wasn't available, and she was directed to Caster. Repeatedly. Renee chuffed her bangs off her damp forehead and stalked toward C wing. She glanced at a wall clock -- 8:00 am. It was all right. Jess would be there, but it wouldn't have started yet. She wasn't going to stay long.

C-2 was a gymnasium, brightly lit. Renee registered the presence of four male guards, all armed, around the perimeter of the polished wooden floor. She saw Stuart with his camera, and Caster with her prisoner.

Jess stood fully dressed, arms folded, her face a thoughtful mask as she watched Renee approach. The open collar of her black shirt showed an ugly burn at the base of her throat.

Caster had just taken Jess's blood pressure, and she was recording figures on her omnipresent clipboard. She smiled at Renee. "Good girl, nice and prompt. Will you strip Jesstin, please, Renee, and we'll get started?"

"Caster, I'm not staying. I'm resigning from the Clinic. This project isn't a good match for me."

"Because you allowed your patient to seduce you?"

Renee blinked. It wasn't the response she anticipated.

Caster's tone was sympathetic. "Well, it does complicate things, hon, but perhaps it's all for the best. You'll feel especially conflicted about causing pain, and Jesstin will react to that. It might make an interesting sidebar to our journal article."

"You don't understand," Renee said tonelessly. "I'm out of here. I didn't become a nurse to . . . I'm just not coming back." She hadn't looked at Jess yet.

"I'm sorry, but I can't allow that." Caster peered at Renee seriously. "It's very important to me that this project succeed, Renee. It could form the cornerstone of my career. Losing a medical technician at this stage would be disastrous, at least on paper. Something like that might be enough to hurt our funding. I can't let you resign."

Renee felt sweat beading on her forehead, and she dashed it away angrily. "You don't listen very well, lady. I've had it with this." She turned, but Caster's voice stopped her.

"The Fenodol I put in the flask in your locker came from the Clinic dispensary, Renee." Caster glanced about to make sure that none of the guards could hear, and that Jess could. "Are you getting this, Stu?"

Jess had suspected that Caster was behind the drugs, but the blasť nature of the doctor's revelation jarred her. Caster obviously felt everything was well in hand. Jess's concern for Renee cranked up another notch. She didn't think the young nurse had ever encountered Caster's perfect blend of amorality and ambition. Jess could only hope she had the sense to fear it.

Renee was staring at Caster, her green eyes dull.

"Fenodol enhances sexual response, as you know." Caster studied Renee with interest. "I stole quite a large amount, because I saw where this was going, as early as that little incident during the staff fight. I put the bulk of the Fenodol in your locker this morning, Renee, and changed the combination of your lock. Sweet little flask, is it silver or tin? Would you strip Jesstin, please?"

Renee stayed where she was. Sweating seconds ago, her hands had gone stone cold.

Caster kept talking as she paged through her notes, and her tone was mild. "Allowing a prisoner to kiss you will get you suspended, hon. You could say that Jesstin attacked you sexually, but I'd refute it. Drinking on the job will get you fired. Stealing narcotics from the Clinic dispensary may well get you a prison sentence." Caster clasped the clipboard in her arms and looked at Renee openly. "In any case, I can see to it that you never work as a nurse again, not in this state. Strip Jesstin, please."

Jess unfolded her arms as Renee reached her, and Renee unsnapped her black shirt. She pushed it off her shoulders and slid it down her arms. Then she lowered the dark trousers. Jess stepped out of them, silently. A sharp whistle from one of the guards echoed around the high walls of the gym.

"Same fuckhead who whistled in the arena," Jess said quietly as Renee folded her clothing. She stood with the same easy grace naked as she'd had fully clothed. "Asshole's following my career now."

Renee still hadn't looked her in the eye. "I don't have a choice, Jess."

"There are always choices."

"Put these on her breasts, Renee." Caster handed the young nurse two curved metal disks that looked like enlarged spoonheads, connected by wire. "They're remote plates. Affix them with the solvent, it conducts well."

Renee turned the shiny discs over in her hands. She pulled the elastic belt over Jess's head and shoulders. She wet the disks from the small bottle of mild solvent, and pressed them gently over Jess's dark nipples.

"Looks like some kind of space-age bikini, doesn't it." Caster regarded Jess with interest. "The tiny breastplates are connected to this remote." She waved a small hand-held switchbox. "When I press it, a small electrical charge will hit Jesstin's nipples. This is connected to the same device."

Caster held up a fairly large vibrator to the camera's eye, and its image appeared on the monitor before she handed it to Renee. "Insert this in her, please. When I press the switch, Jesstin's vagina will receive a rather large dose of vibration and heat. Only lasts a moment, no damage done. Go on, Renee, it's 8:15."

Renee knelt in front of Jess, then bent her head as a swell of nausea hit her. She lifted the vibrator to the tall woman's labia, and it's tip quivered.

Jess silently raised one foot and rested it on the low stool near her, opening herself for the vibrator's insertion. Renee met her eyes, and tried to emulate the remoteness in them. She nudged the tip of the vibrator between her lips, and eased it upward as gently as she could.

"You do as well with this project as I know you can, Renee, and we need never work together again." Caster's tone was conciliatory as she supervised the insertion. "I can arrange your transfer out of the military research unit. I'll give you a good reference. See, it's not all gloom and doom. Wedge it up there tightly, please, she's going to be moving."

Renee did, and Stuart caught Jess's wince in close-up.

"Hey doc, show us the monitor, at least." It was the guard who had whistled.

"You'll have to wait until I sell the film rights, Mr. Dugan, sorry. Just kidding, Jesstin." She tossed Renee a small belt. "Here, put this around her waist and string it through -- the strap will hold the vibrator in place, even through Jesstin's brand of aerobic kicking."

When Renee had fastened the belt around Jess's waist and tightened the strap between her legs, Caster clapped her hands. "Fine, are we ready now? Renee, I want the two of you to fight again. Just hand to hand, wrestling, that kind of thing."

Renee stood up. "I can't go to prison, Jess."

Jess nodded. "Then live with your choice."

"I realize this does expose you to some danger, Renee," Caster continued. "That's why the guards are here. And I can help out with your part of it, if absolutely necessary." The doctor lifted a coil of leather off of a gear on the tripod -- a bullwhip.

"The fighting might last for some time, so call out, Renee, if you get tired." Caster paused, and smiled at Jess. "You call out too, Jesstin, when you've had enough. All right, square off, you two. Oh -- wait -- Renee, you'd best remove your blouse as well."

Renee looked at Caster sharply.

"No need to make this personal, Caster." Jess's low voice startled everyone but the doctor she addressed. "Renee's no threat to you. Leave her alone."

All the good humor drained from Caster's face, leaving the fine skin etched tightly over bone. She looked briefly skeletal. "Jesstin. There are two adolescent girls not far from here, who are kept naked all the time. They are no blood relation of yours, but both persist on calling you 'adonnin' -- that's your mountain term for sister, I believe. So far, they are entirely unharmed. If I asked you to beg for them, would you do it?"

"On my knees," Jess said.

"Then shut up. Your shirt, Renee."

Renee shed her labcoat. She unbuttoned her blouse and discarded it, then removed her bra with the same emotionless efficiency. The cool air of the gymnasium swept across the sensitive tips of her large breasts, and her nipples stiffened instantly. Renee felt a blush move up her chest and into her face.

No guards hooted this time, but Renee could feel their gleaming eyes. She took a moment, and when she turned, she had mastered the imperious indifference that had filled the Amazon's eyes on the X-frame. Jess smiled at her.

"Absolute battle speed," Caster said crisply. "Renee, I refuse to stop filming before every blow to tell you you're not hitting hard enough. Suffice to say that if I think you're holding back, even once, I go to Dr. Bell. Jesstin, if you hurt my assistant's sweet little body, I'll wear out this whip on you. Both of you, consider yourselves warned." She raised her voice. "Still filming, Stu?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Go," Caster said.

Renee whirled and dived into Jess, tackling her around the waist and carrying her down hard. Jess hit the polished floor on her back, and slid a good six yards carrying the thrashing blonde on top of her.

Jess waited until leverage came into her favor, then flipped Renee off. She pushed the strong body further over with effort, and ended up straddling her, her hands firm on Renee's shoulders.

Caster held up the remote and pressed the button.

Jess gasped and flung herself backwards -- the detonation in her nipples and the abrupt hornet-buzzing deep in her cunt stunned her. Renee lifted herself on her elbows and watched, helplessly.

The pain was gone almost as soon as it hit, but Jess lay still for one crucial second too long. Renee couldn't bring herself to strike her with her knee, but their bodies impacted audibly when she threw herself on her again. Jess grunted, more in surprise than pain. She kept Renee's momentum going, and rolled with her.

"The first stimulus successfully interrupted the subject's aggression," Caster said for the videotape. "But it's unclear as yet whether the additional temptation of my -- er, rather buxom young assistant's partial nudity might distract Jesstin enough to compensate for the power differential." She tittered. "Heavens, you gentlemen must be enjoying this. I mean you gentlemen watching this tape, of course, as well as our own security officers."

Renee's near nudity was as meaningless to the younger woman as Jess's was. She focused all her energies on one goal -- to take her patient out before she got hurt again.

But Jess successfully pinned her, so Caster shocked her again. This time Jess was able to release Renee before convulsing. Then, incredibly, she turned the spasm to her advantage and snapped to her feet.

"Oops," Caster said behind them.

Jess turned and ran lightly toward Renee, and her eyes had gone silver.

Renee crabbed backwards on her hands and knees, terrified. She recognized the glow in Jess's eyes as the last light a deer sees before a truck hits it. She scrambled to her feet and ran, Jess a heartbeat behind her.

"Well, sooner than I thought, but as good a time as any." Caster beckoned the guards even as she snatched the bullwhip off the tripod.

Jess tackled Renee bodily around the waist and took her down. Their bodies screeched across the polished floor when they hit.

"Listen to me!" Jess hissed. She was on top of Renee, and her blazing eyes were an inch from her fearful green ones. "If you want help, go to Benton. Did you hear me?"

Renee stammered something incomprehensible, still trying to reconcile herself to the fact that Jess wasn't about to eat her.

They were out of time. Caster's whip cracked across Jess's bare back like gunshot, and she gasped and caught herself on her hands.

"Caster, no -- " Renee was frozen, half-pinned under Jess's long body as the lash descended again. The oiled tip of the bullwhip struck Jess's upper shoulder, inches from Renee's eyes.

"Get out of there, Renee," Caster panted. "Mr. Dugan!"

Renee twisted out from under Jess -- she didn't think, she just moved. She splayed herself over Jess's prone form, her arms spread wide. Caster couldn't stop in time, and the bullwhip snapped across Renee's bare breasts.

Renee almost fainted.

"Idiot," Jess hissed. It was all she had the breath for.

Renee was grabbed roughly and hauled to her feet, and Caster began to beat Jess mindlessly, grunting with effort.

Jess stayed down, braced by her forearms on the gymnasium floor. She shuddered under the repeated cracks of the whip across her back, but she didn't cry out. Renee's act made butch Amazon macha important to her again, suddenly. Blood trickled from one of the deeper welts, wending down Jess's waist.

Renee forced herself to stand still in the big guard's grasp, and watched the beating numbly as the color drained from her face. There was nothing arousing in this, Renee thought, nothing erotic. This was brute torture. She was aware of Dugan's muddy eyes looking over her shoulder at her bobbing breasts, but it hardly registered.

Finally Caster coiled the whip, her young-old face glistening. "Whew! That's quite a workout. I haven't swung one of these in months, I've gotten flabby." She patted her wrist to her forehead. "Let's have Jesstin stretched out on her back, please."

Renee found her voice. "Caster, she's had enough."

"You no longer have the authority to determine that, Renee. Arms over her head, gentlemen, and spread her legs. Mr. Dugan? You can let go of Renee and help out. We're going to need her in a moment."

Jess's face was ashen. The fire in her back spiked higher as she was pressed down against the wooden floor. She knew she would pass out if she didn't control her breathing soon, so she concentrated on that.

"Renee, remove the vibrator, please."

Renee made a low noise in her throat, but she reached between Jess's pinioned legs. Jess closed her eyes as she felt the cold fingers release the belt, then move gently up into her. Renee grasped the base of the vibrator with effort, and drew it out.

"I'll take that," Dugan said loudly, and the others chuckled. Their eyes were bright as they held the sweating Amazon spread-eagled on the floor. The camera whirred.

Caster shook out her right hand, and picked up her clipboard. "Fist her, Renee."

"I can't." Weak tears filled Renee's eyes. Jess opened her blue ones and watched the ceiling.

"Then we go from here to Dr. Bell's office." Caster waited.

"Stuart, could you zoom in on Renee kneeling down, here?" Caster continued. "Insert your fingers, please. All of them, Renee, she's a big girl. Right, Jesstin? You can take it."

A sob escaped Renee as she began to fuck Jess. She looked down and saw her pink nipples swelling, and she cried harder as she stoked in and out between the captive prisoner's splayed legs.

Jess locked her jaw and stared up at the round disks of light from the hanging lamps high overhead. Sweat trickled down the sides of her face and pooled on the shiny floor. She managed to hold still until Caster turned on the current to the breast plates again, at its mildest setting. The insidious, buzzing vibration crackled through Jess's nipples mercilessly, and the tall Amazon began to writhe in spite of herself.

"Look at that," one of the guards murmured.

"Gentlemen, please remember, we are not making a porno film." Caster's tone was indulgent as she watched Renee's strong forearm arm pump on the monitor. "You don't have much in the way of fingernails, Renee, correct? I'm not a gynecologist."

"Jess," Renee sobbed.

Jess climaxed with a shudder, silently. Her blue eyes lost all their light as she quieted again. Renee slipped her hand out of her, and she lay still in the men's grip.

"Another productive session." Caster slapped the coiled whip against her white-coated thigh. "Renee, I'll want your clinical notes on my desk this afternoon. Please emphasize that Jesstin did not resist orgasm nearly as long this time. I really think this -- thing between you two is proving to our advantage."

Renee's tone was wooden as Jess was pulled to her feet. "You have to let me treat her back."

"Certainly," Caster nodded. "Use the tecathenase."

"Caster." Renee was willing to beg at this point.

"Tecathenase or water," Caster said firmly. "And we won't be able to give Jesstin as much recovery time from now on, Renee. That's what the whittling process is all about." She smiled at Jess, who stood still between two guards. "I'll see you again tomorrow, Jesstin, flogging notwithstanding. Your next trial's not so physically strenuous, luckily. Heal as fast as you can."

Jess wasn't unconscious, but she was close. The guards held her erect while Renee dressed her. She didn't bother putting on her own blouse until the guards began walking Jess to the detention cell.

____ *** ____

Part Three: Choices

____ *** ____

Jess heard Renee's voice first, which was good -- the rest of her awakening was distinctly less pleasant. She lay face-down on the restrainer, which had been adjusted to lie flat. Her shirt was still off, Jess noticed, but she wore her pants. Nothing below her waist mattered much at the moment -- her flogged back felt wrapped in sheets of flame.

Renee had been telling a story. Jess didn't remember most of it, but it had been interesting.

"Can you tell me how bad it is, Jess?" Renee's voice was soft.

Jess frowned, eyes still closed. "How do you do that?"

"What?"

"Know when I'm awake." Jess opened her eyes in stages. "I just found out myself."

"Your body tenses up. Whoa, yeah, like that." Renee threw her arm across Jess's hips as the pain hit in full. "Yell if you need to, Jess, it's okay."

"Amazons don't yell." The nausea receded, and she craned her neck to see the younger woman. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." Then Renee smiled, unwillingly, because she knew how fine she looked. "I'm going to finish washing your back, Jess. It's just water, it's all I can do, but it's better than nothing. I'm not putting that tecathenase acid on this."

Jess rested her chin on her crossed hands. She could feel the warmth from the arc lamp on her flayed shoulders. "How much time do we have?"

Renee checked her watch. "About twenty-four hours." The strain was back in her voice. "You're not going to be able to fight tomorrow, Jess. I doubt if you'll be able to walk by then."

"I'll walk." Jess's eyes closed. Renee continued sponging her back, and for awhile there was only the sound of water being rinsed from the cloth. Jess felt tears rising, and made no effort to stop them. She was bone-weary and tired of being alone, and there was no end to it in sight.

"Jesstin?"

"Nothing," Jess said. She scrubbed her face on her forearm. "Just homesick."

Renee rinsed the cloth in the basin, and watched the water swirl with red. "You were out of it, for awhile. You said a few things. Names, like Kyla, and Shann -- a few others I didn't catch."

It doesn't matter, Jess thought. The military had Shann's name years ago. But if she was spouting off like that, she was losing control, and that scared her.

"Was anyone else around?" Jess asked casually. The new tension in her shoulders started an unfortunate chain-reaction, and soon her muscles were locked again.

"We were alone, now will you settle down, please?" Renee waited until Jess was able to relax again on the chair's padded surface, and then she rested her hand on the thick hair at the base of her neck. "Jess, just lie there for a second. Don't go on until you feel better."

Jess complied. "I feel better," she mumbled.

Renee nodded, and lay the wet cloth against a welt high on her shoulder. "Cam and Kyla -- they're the girls being kept in another part of the Clinic. Right? And they're both like you, they're Amazons?"

"We're from Tristaine." Jess's rich voice was subdued. "Long story. Amazons will do. Yeah, Cam and Ky were in prison with me. They were transferred here the same night I was." She paused as Renee patted the cloth across her raw shoulderblade. "I told you two other women were murdered, right?"

"Yes. And you told me you didn't do it."

"One of them was Hannah -- she was Cam's younger sister. The other was Dyan, she was Kyla's older one."

"Christ, Jess." Renee let out her breath. "Did you know their sisters, too?"

"Dyan was a friend." The dark woman's tone was still expressionless. "Cam and Kyla heard I was arrested, and they knew it was bogus. They started poking in the wrong places, until they got caught. This hurts like a bitch, Renee."

"I know it does. Keep breathing, you're doing great."

Jess's back and shoulders were cross-hatched with lashmarks, of varying severity and without any discernible pattern. The bullwhip had cut deeply enough to draw blood several times, and there wasn't a hand's-span of tanned skin unmarked. Renee felt again the brutal sting of the single whipmark across the base of her own breasts. She tried to multiply that by forty.

The fingers holding the cloth kept moving, inexorable but gentle. Renee's other hand still rested in Jess's dark hair, scratching her scalp lightly. "I don't know why you're not screaming, anyone else would be."

"Too tired," Jess mumbled.

Renee started probing the tight muscles at the base of the Amazon's neck. "Jess, who's Bri?"

"Who?"

"Bri. You called me that, twice."

"I don't know any Bri's." Jess shifted. "What are you going to do about Caster, Renee?"

Renee's fingers stilled. "Don't worry about that now. I can take care of myself."

"You haven't done very well so far," Jess pointed out.

"Uh, Jess, you need to back off a little." Renee's tone had gone formal. "I got by for twenty-three years before you showed up, and my life hasn't been the fun little potluck you seem to think it has." Not a speck of the girl's annoyance showed in her hands; her touch on Jess's scourged back remained light and careful.

"I don't doubt that. I'm sitting up."

"No, you're not. Jesstin, damn it!"

While Renee argued, Jess pushed herself up on her arms, then shifted, very carefully, until her legs dangled over the side of the recliner. The dark woman rested her hands on the leather surface and took a deep breath, waiting for dizziness to settle again. Then Jess looked up into stormy green eyes, and she was stunned.

"Have you been crying?"

Renee's professionalism had been restored by the white labcoat, but she was almost as pale as Jess, and her face was ravaged by tears.

"I do this all the time, it's just nerves." Renee scrubbed her eyes with one hand, an endearingly childlike gesture. "Am I going to have to tie you down to get you to hold still?"

"I won't obey you anymore, Renee."

The young medic blinked.

Jess let that newsflash sink in. "Do you believe me, about the murders?"

A dozen replies occurred to Renee, but when her mouth opened only the truth emerged. "I don't know what to believe anymore."

Jess studied the younger woman, and she felt a weak tendril of compassion for her. Twenty-three years under this regime would be a heavy load to shake off in one week. "I hope you're as strong as I think you are, Ren." She lifted her chin toward the door. "You need to get home."

"What?"

"You should have left an hour ago. You need to keep up appearances for now, until you know what you're going to do. Right?"

"Right." Renee swallowed. She walked around the restrainer, and rinsed the cloth out in the sink. Then she rested her hand on the cool porcelain and turned to Jess.

"Look, I still have two rules, here." Renee cleared her throat. "First, don't get me into any more trouble than you already have, Jess. I've decided I want to help you if I can, but I have to protect myself, too."

"Agreed," Jess nodded. "Second?"

"Second, don't touch me again without my permission."

The steady blue light in Jess's eyes dimmed a little. "Okay."

Renee looked at the tall woman. Jess's chest and belly gleamed with sweat, and she was trembling visibly. Then she smiled, and for a moment Jess looked heartbreakingly young.

Renee felt tears fill her eyes again. "There's nothing more I can do for you tonight, anyway." She hesitated. "I'm afraid to leave you, I think."

"I'm kind of afraid to see you go, but you have to. Watch your back. And stay sober, Renee."

Renee nodded. She was stalling. "Will you be able to sleep?"

"Sure." Jess made a deliberate effort to relax her shoulders.

"Watch your back, too, Jess." Renee clicked off the arc lamp, and left.

____ *** ____


Stuart came for Jess in the morning, which was the first oddity that keyed off her internal alarm. She was cautiously satisfied with her mobility as she followed the orderly to C-wing, but it came at a high cost -- her head was swimming. Basically, though, Jess was surprisingly functional when she entered C-6. In a moment her blue eyes focused, and she wished she weren't.

Renee had been stripped and tied onto the X-frame. Jess stared at the bound woman in shock.

Renee's expression reflected Jess's horror. She hadn't yet summoned a protective mask of detachment, and her lush body moved in unintentionally erotic efforts to free herself from the restraints.

Jess's blazing eyes darted to Caster.

The doctor smiled at Jess, her beautiful hands folded in front of her. "Your nurse here told me you're too badly hurt after that flogging to take on any additional trauma, Jesstin. I had to agree. Frankly, I'm afraid we might kill you soon, if we aren't more careful. So, I changed today's protocol."

"She comes down." Jess took a step toward Caster, who calmly drew her stunner in warning. "Caster, what can you possibly prove with this?"

Caster's bright eyes studied Jess. "Renee, you were exaggerating again. Just look at your studly and protective patient, all hulking butch in sinister black. I'm almost afraid of her. You're getting this, Stuart?"

"Always," Stuart mumbled behind the videocamera.

"Maybe Jesstin's strong enough to participate today, after all."

"She's not," Renee said clearly. Both women turned to look up at her. The young medic's breasts and face were still flushed, but she held herself still now against the weathered wood. "Jess, it's all right. I know what's going to happen, just -- shut up."

"My God, Jesstin, look at her." Caster folded her arms and regarded Renee's spread-eagled body with wonder. "I'm straight as a stick, mind you, but if I weren't, I'd be in seventh heaven. You're a delectable little piece, Miss Renee! Get some close-ups, Stuart."

"Caster," Jess breathed.

"The breasts and crotch, especially," Caster continued, watching the monitor. "But pull back often and get all of her too, please, her expressions are lovely. Heavens, Jesstin, how are you standing this?"

"Don't know," Stuart volunteered, watching the monitor avidly as Renee turned her head and closed her eyes against the harsh wash of morning light from the skylight in the ceiling.

Caster held up a hand when Jess took a step forward, and spoke to her as she would a peer. "The point of this project is to develop a model to overcome an Amazon's resistance, Jesstin, correct? You haven't willingly surrendered in sustained combat, or under sexual humiliation. I've had many frustrated, sleepless nights because of you, may I add."

Caster inclined her head toward Renee. "This young tart just walked into my dreams, to tell you the truth. I really was beginning to think I would have to kill you before you could do me any practical good."

"I'm not dense, Caster." Jess's tone was dangerously low. "You want me to surrender? You got me. I give up, I'm all yours. I'll sign anything you want."

"You offered to surrender that superficially in prison, too," Caster chided, "whenever we threatened your -- Amazonlettes. That wasn't genuine capitulation, Jesstin, because you were being -- " she tweaked the air with two pairs of raised fingers, "adannish, as you would call it. The military needs to be able to hit you Amazons in your gut, where you live, don't you see? I have to break you legitimately."

"Cut her down, Caster, I'm not raping her."

Caster smiled, and Renee closed her eyes.

"I think you will, Jesstin. Or we'll call one of the guards to stand in for you, while you watch."

Jess saw Renee shudder with horror.

Caster held out a string of small metal balls. "Put these in her first, Jesstin. Carefully. Then pull them out. That will help Renee stretch a little, to accommodate your wrist."

Jess looked up at the blonde woman watching her. "Renee, I can't."

Renee swallowed. "It's all right, Jess. I'll be -- it's okay."

Caster's face was becoming skeletal again. "Jesstin, two young women I know might want to persuade you otherwise."

Jess shook her head. "Camryn and Kyla wouldn't want me to do this."

Caster's lips pursed as she studied her prisoner. "You might be right. Damn this adannin shit anyway, Jesstin. Why in hell you have to apply it to this little . . . . " She spun and went to the frame. "Sorry, Renee, but she just pissed me off."

Abruptly, Caster began to poke the polished silver balls into Renee's vagina. Renee gasped raggedly and bucked, but the shelf pressing into her lower back kept her tightly arched and spread.

Jess watched Renee's sweating face as another silver ball was thrust up inside her. A myriad of emotions washed through her. Renee looked at Jess's eyes, and her groin tightened in a carnal rush as she watched her own heart play out across the angular planes of Jess's features. The hatred and anguish that filled her eyes mirrored Renee's own emotions, every time Jess had been hurt.

Caster punched another steel ball into Renee's straining cunt and she groaned, helplessly. Renee knew Jess was aroused -- to her despair, the humiliating assault was heating her own blood -- but that took nothing away from their fear.

"Take a good deep breath, hon." Caster straightened, holding the end of the string of polished balls. "Stuart? I think we're ready for her close-up."

The doctor pulled the string, yanking three balls out of the girl's vagina with a series of obscene, sodden plops. Renee thrust her hips out repeatedly, with a guttural groan. Caster plucked the remaining balls free more slowly, apparently enjoying the task.

After the lush hips gave one final, convulsive twitch, and the last of the shiny spheres emerged between Renee's red-furred labia, Caster dropped the chain. There was a concussive jangle as the metal balls hit the cement floor.

"That'll get you started, Renee." Caster slipped the slender fingers of one hand between the suspended girl's nether-lips and rubbed her clitoris in absent circles -- at the same time, she pulled a cell phone out of her labcoat pocket and clicked it on. Caster shook the small handset, frowning. "Damn, there's no reception in this crypt."

Caster removed her fingers from her assistant's snatch, and walked away from the frame, fiddling with the phone. "Mr. Dugan? Mr. Dugan, can you hear me? It looks like we are going to need you in here after all -- hello? Say again?"

Tears brimmed in Jess's blue eyes as she walked toward the X-frame. "Renee, this has to end now."

"Jess, stop there."

"She's not going to stop. This is happening to you because of me." The Amazon's voice was tight with grief. "You're not even Tristaine . . . I promised you I'd look out for you."

"Whatever you're thinking, Jesstin, just stop it."

Stuart was still filming avidly, hearing every word. Jess knew it, but ignored him. Caster continued enunciating into her cellphone.

"Look, you're going to owe me for this." Jess stepped closer to the rack. "Talk to Benton, he and his wife are helping Camryn and Kyla. Promise me, Renee."

"Fuck you, Jess!" Renee's whisper all but hissed. "You're going to get yourself killed, now back up and shut up, I'm warning you!"

Caster was turning and drawing her stunner in the same movement. She saw Jess in front of the frame, her uplifted gaze on Renee's face. "Stuart," the doctor said. Then she yelled into her phone, "Dugan, get in here, now!"

"Fuck you back, young bitch." Jess's usually gentle eyes had gone arctic, but the hand she laid on Renee's cold stomach was gentle. "You owe me. You help my friends." Jess bent and rested her full lips against Renee's soft mound, saying goodbye.

"Jesstin, don't make me do this." Caster skidded to a halt beside Jess and jammed the stunner against her upper arm. "You're not in any shape for it!"

Jess turned toward Caster in her own time, and, not without relish, snapped a stinging slap across the doctor's elegant cheek. Caster gasped and would have fallen, but Jess hauled her erect by one arm.

Stuart stood where he was, frozen and useless, the camera whirring on.

The stunner Caster had intended to activate against Jess's arm ended up in Jess's grasp instead. She pushed its muzzle into the open collar of her black shirt, and pressed it hard between her breasts, smiling at Caster's bulging eyes.

"Jesstin," Renee called.

Jess pressed the stunner's switch. She wouldn't let go of it, and Caster wasn't strong enough to break her grip, so the current shot through her heart muscle in successive bursts.

Caster screamed for Dugan again, who finally entered Suite C-6 on the run. Dugan was basically a thug, but to give him credit, he assessed the situation accurately and he acted fast. His billyclub hit the back of Jess's dark head with a sickening crack.

Renee went witless with shock as the tall Amazon crumpled -- Jess seemed to fall to the floor in a slow-motion glide. A sudden image of a Roman courtyard flashed into the young woman's mind, then vanished.

Caster had regained her composure, and she snapped off orders like uzi-fire. "Stuart, camera OFF! This tape goes nowhere but in my safe! Dugan, cut Renee down, I need her! Stuart, get a crash-cart, stat, stat!"

Caster knelt beside the fallen Amazon and pulled her roughly onto her back. Jess's body turned easily. Caster tore her black shirt open. The third-degree burn covering Jess's upper chest was ugly, but the tall woman's utter stillness frightened Renee far more.

"Get me down!" She hissed.

Dugan took an ungodly time getting her off the frame, but finally Renee was free. She didn't even feel Dugan's hands groping her breasts before she squirmed out of them. She took a running step toward Jess and collapsed -- the ropes had slowed the circulation in her wrists and ankles, and they were useless. Jess couldn't wait, so Renee crabbed herself across the floor to reach her.

"No respiration, no pulse." Caster spoke rapidly. She opened Jess's mouth and bent over her to begin rescue breathing.

Renee's eyes were tearless and fierce as she shook out her hands, trying to restore feeling to her fingers. After a series of breaths Caster straightened, and Renee slung one leg across Jess's waist, straddling her. She positioned her hands on her patient's chest and began cardiac compressions, numbering them aloud automatically.

Most of Renee's focus had narrowed to carrying out this single, life-saving function, and she worked with flawless efficiency. The small part of her mind not thus occupied was filling with static. Renee was terrified.

Stuart secretly zoomed in with his camera because he liked the way the young woman's naked breasts bounced when she thrust against the prisoner's chest. Stuart was a little sweet on the blonde nurse, but he hadn't told her yet.

"She can't do this to us," Caster muttered, then bent for another series of rescue breaths. The doctor was haggard with fear, and strands of dark blond hair wisped around her head as she blew into Jess's mouth and straightened again..

Renee sat on Jess's waist, panting, staring hard at her unresponsive face. "Jess, come back here," she said. Her voice was almost conversational, but then it rose. "Don't you leave me here. Jess? Don't you leave me!" Her fist pounded the valley between the Amazon's pale breasts.

Jess's dark-lashed eyelids fluttered on her ashen cheek, and then her long body convulsed. She came to with a heaving gasp, and Renee grabbed her shoulders.

Caster hovered, as if not willing to believe her good luck. Then she pulled herself to her feet, her expression transforming from relief to disgust.

"Dugan, take this Amazon bitch, and her naked little puta, and toss them in a dark closet somewhere! I don't want to look at them again today." Caster put her hands on her hips and glared at the two women on the floor. "Your file says you live alone, Renee, so I doubt if anyone will miss you for one evening. I want you to talk Jesstin out of her little death-wish by tomorrow morning. And, Renee, remember how easily I can arrange your incarceration on a more permanent basis." She spun on her sensible heel and stalked out of the suite.

____ *** ____

Jess remained conscious, but disturbingly passive. Dugan carried her out of C-6, and her stillness in the big guard's arms told Renee more than she wanted to know about Jess's physical condition.

Dugan took Caster's orders quite literally. He didn't allow Renee to dress, and he didn't return them to the detention cell. He found a large, empty storeroom in B-wing instead, and set Jess down, none too gently, on the concrete floor.

"Hey hey, Renee." Dugan grinned, jostling the keys in his pocket as he paused at the door. "Can I come back in the morning, and give both you girls a wake-up call?"

Renee looked up at him dully, not even tempted to respond. Dugan chuckled, and locked the storeroom door securely behind him, plunging the large room into murky darkness.

Renee could see nothing until her eyes adjusted -- the only light came from a shuttered window high on the opposite wall. Her hand slid across the floor and found Jess. She lifted the Amazon's head and slid her thigh beneath it, then leaned back against the swirled-plaster wall, cringing a little at it's cold roughness on her bare shoulders.

Renee lay her hand lightly on Jess's chest, to monitor the even rise and fall of her breathing. Jess flinched, and Renee realized she was touching the burned area above her breasts. She lifted her hand quickly and murmured an apology.

"You should have let me die," Jess said.

"That's a bloody stupid thing to say. I didn't know Amazons were cowards, Jess. Here, turn on your side." Renee helped the tall woman roll off of her scourged back, to a less painful position. "Is your pride really so important you have to throw away your life for it?"

"It's a little more complicated than that." Jess's voice was lifeless. She closed her eyes as Renee's fingers drifted through her hair. "Did she hurt you?"

"No. I was hardly a virgin." Renee's bravado touched her. "How do you feel?"

"Like I died and someone jumped up and down on my chest."

They rested in the cool, shadowed room. Renee felt oddly peaceful. Jess's dark hair warmed her bare belly, and the darkness made her nudity more bearable. As for Jess, her head seemed to hurt her less, pillowed on the girl's muscular thigh. She was not unaware of Renee's nakedness.

"Jess, tell me about Dyan."

"Dyan of Tristaine." Jess smiled drowsily against Renee's leg. "She was a wonder, Ren. Big as a house, but she moved like a dancer. Dyan was the best weapons' master Shann ever had. She taught me how to fight. Her little sister, Kyla, is her polar opposite -- slender -- girlie. Dyan protected her like a mama bear."

"There really aren't any men in Tristaine?"

"They come and go." Jess was finding it hard to focus -- the clout Dugan dealt her had left her disoriented. "What are you going to do about Caster, Renee?"

"I don't know."

Hours passed.

Jess lifted her head, listening intently.

"What?"

"Get me up."

Renee helped Jess sit erect just as a key turned in the lock. Light spilled in from the corridor, and for a moment Renee was blinded.

"Jesus," a dismayed male voice muttered. The door closed and darkness fell again. "What in blue hell happened to you two?"

"And you are?" Renee asked. She thought she sounded absurdly like the Clinic's snotty receptionist, and she had to snort back half-hysterical laughter.

"Today, I'm an Amazon's son." The man turned his flashlight on his own face. Probably a mistake; Benton's features were pitted and scarred, and it was a ghoulish image. The beam momentarily illuminated Renee's nakedness, and he averted the light quickly.

Jess sounded alarmed. "Ben, are they -- "

"The girls are fine." The big man moved further into the room, shining the beam briefly on Jess's face again before clicking it off. "Lord, Jesstin, I didn't think you could look any worse than you did in the arena!"

"The arena where I tromped you," Jess pointed out. "What are you doing here, boy, it's risky enough planning a -- "

"It's getting riskier," Benton cut in. He was younger than Renee thought at first, closer to her own age. "Listen, I met that dickless Dugan on the way in. He's bragging about how he gets to -- hurt -- this young nurse, you've been worried about." Benton nodded at Renee. "Dugan told me about this trial tomorrow. It sounded intense, Jess -- I'd rather not go into details, but she's going to get bloody. If you want to take her with us, it's got to be tonight."

Renee's brow furrowed. "Take me where?"

"Emily's getting Camryn and Kyla in six hours." Benton put his large hand on Jess's knee. The dark woman sat very still, measuring his words. Renee could see the intelligent blue glint in her eyes even through the gloom.

"This place is all but deserted after midnight," Benton continued, his voice shaking a bit. "Mac, the night guard, he's okay with the money. He'll help Emily get the girls out. I'm coming back for you, just as soon as I see them head for the hills. You can meet the girls at the river."

"You're going to the mountains?" Renee whispered.

"Benton," Jess said. "We're a good three weeks early. Are we ready?"

"At least as ready as we would be three weeks from now," Benton shrugged. "It's got to be tonight, Jesstin. By the looks of you, neither of you can wait."

Jess knew that was true.

"Jess, I'll help." Renee touched Jess's wrist. "Tell me what to do."

"Come with me," Jess said.

Renee's mouth fell open.

"I don't know what kind of life you have on the outside, Renee, but it's probably gone." Jess's voice was kind. "Without me, the project's finished. Caster will be more dangerous without it, she'll be bitter. Do you believe she'll let you transfer quietly out of military research?"

"No," Renee said. "Do you believe you can escape up a mountain in six hours? Your heart stopped, Jesstin."

"I can do it." Jess smiled crookedly. "And I can do it without you, but it wouldn't hurt any of us to have a good medic along."

Jess waited, and so did Benton, through the interminable silence that followed.

Renee didn't know her decision until she heard herself speak. "I'm going with you."

Benton let out a sigh of relief, and then he grinned at Jess. "I can't believe this. You be sure my mother knows her son, the man, was the one who rescued you, Jess. No fair saying Emily did it all."

"You'll get all due credit, Ben." Jess was looking at Renee with smiling eyes.

Benton looked from one woman to the other, suddenly curious. "If Renee had said no, Jess, would you have bonked her over the head, and carried her out of here over your shoulder?"

"No," said Jess. "Renee's not a child. But if she had chosen to stay, I wouldn't have gone, either." She glanced at Benton. "Get out of here, Benton, you're late for your shift. We'll see you tonight."

____ *** ____

Part 4: Escape

____ *** ____


Renee helped Jess stretch out on the padded back bench of the van, while she squeezed into the cramped floorspace behind the driver's seat. They were both covered by a green canvass tarp. Benton had strewn enough painting supplies around to make the back of the van comfortably messy, and therefore nondescript.

To Renee's combined relief and consternation, their escape from the Clinic had hardly merited that term -- essentially, they walked out. Mac, the night guard, all but tipped his hat and held the door for them. She still couldn't believe it.

But then, Renee thought, I can't give much credence to most of this week.

"Can you hear me, Ben?"

The tent of the tarp over them made the Amazon's voice resonate beside her. She could barely see Jess in the green shadows, but she could feel her warmth.

"Yo," Benton answered.

The big man had been sweating profusely as he covered them, but now his driving was smooth and unhurried as the van left the Clinic grounds. Renee fingered the edge of the tarp aside, and saw the high spiked fence of the entrance tick by the window. She shivered with a relief she knew was not fully warranted yet.

Renee thought of the bag of personal belongings Benton had retrieved from the staff locker room. She wondered if he'd seen the small bottle of vodka. She wanted a drink so badly, she could feel the cool glass of the bottle in her hands.

"Benton, what about you and Emily?" Jess shifted, stiffly. "You know they'll send officers to your apartment the moment -- "

"We won't be going back," Benton said from the driver's seat. "Emily's driving on to Clearwater. I'm going to arc north and meet her there next week."

"Ben." Renee heard grieving in Jess's voice. "You were almost through school."

"There are lots of schools."

"Not with scholarships. You used two years of tuition to bribe us out of -- ."

"There's only one Marian, though," Benton continued as if Jess hadn't spoken, and his tone had gone rough with affection. "Mother would scalp me if I didn't help her three -- four, sorry -- little village chicks escape."

"On behalf of Tristaine," Jess said, "The chick reference was inappropriate."

"Noted," Benton replied.

Renee slid her arm up over Jess automatically to brace her as the lumbering van pulled a long left. Her status with Jess may have changed from captor to collaborator, but she would always be a medic first. She saw Jess smile at her through the rocking shadows.

"How are you holding up?" Jess asked.

"Fine." Renee shrugged. "I wish I was real drunk."

Jess grinned understanding, but then her expression grew watchful.

"This was too easy," Jess murmured, and Renee shivered again.

"Not necessarily," Benton called back. The van thumped over a bulge in the asphalt, and Renee clenched her teeth as Jess grimaced. "These guys down here think a whole different way than you do in Tristaine, Jesstin. They don't expect resistance. They're too used to having every neck securely lodged beneath their very large boot."

"That's true," Renee whispered, wanting to believe they were safe.

"You two lay low, we're coming into the city."

The steady thrum of the worn tires on the roadway lulled Renee. She couldn't possibly sleep, but at least the heart-popping anxiety was receding. She turned her head and tried to see Jess. "Hey?"

"Hey."

"Your turn, status report."

"I'm okay," Jess said. She shifted again, trying to find anything resembling comfort on the padded bench. "I mean, I hurt, but I'm still functional."

"Where are we going?" Renee hadn't wanted to know until they were off the Clinic grounds, at least. If they were captured, she doubted she could remain silent under Caster's interrogation. "Tristaine?"

"Eventually, I hope. But not tonight," Jess sighed. She flexed her shoulders absently. "Tristaine is days from here, deep in the mountains. We're going to have to hike there, I'm afraid. Luckily we know the hills pretty well."

"Lucky's the word for it." Renee's tone was hollow.

"Ben will drop us close to a river that the kids know as a meeting place." Jess's eyes drifted shut, as soothed by the thrumming pavement as Renee was. "We'll need to cover some ground before we rest -- at least make some inroads up through the foothills."

"You're planning on scaling cliffs?" Renee's hand found and cupped the back of Jess's neck. She was running a low-grade fever -- Renee had first felt it back at the Clinic, an hour before Benton returned for them. "You're not getting any cooler, Jess."

"We're under a tarp."

"Jesstin." Renee's grip on the back of Jess's neck tightened. "Do you really think you can do this?"

"I don't know." Jess swallowed, and her blue eyes were suddenly vulnerable. "I come from good stock, Renee, but I'm about played out. What if I can't?"

Renee didn't answer for a moment. When she did, she spoke to Jess as a nurse and as a friend. "Then I'll help you. We'll get everybody home safe, okay?"

Jess smiled, puzzled. Either she was having an unusually vivid deja-vu, or the bump on her head was giving her delusions, but she was sure she'd heard Renee say those words before -- and in that same caressing voice, that made her seem the older of the two.

Renee kept her hand on the back of Jess's neck, and began the familiar massage that she knew would relax her. "Close your eyes, try to rest while we can."

Benton took the on-ramp for the interstate, and headed for the hills.

____ *** ____

The van was parked on a rather precarious turnout at the base of the mountains, its front tires inches away from a sandy ridge. Below the wash of the van's headlights, the hill sloped steeply until it hit a line of trees. Thick ones, impossible to see through at high noon, much less at 3:00 am.

Renee was carrying more than a woman her size should have been able to lift. The rudimentary aluminum camping frame strapped to her back held blankets, two lanterns, her bag, and enough dried fruit and meat to feed a small family for a week.

Which was about how long it would take the four women to hike through the mountains to Tristaine, Renee figured. If Jess held out. If they weren't caught. If Jess could convince her friends that Renee was not a spy, and they didn't slit her throat.

The young medic shivered in the pine-scented chill and adjusted the aluminum frame on her back. She could slip it off quickly if she had to run, she had checked.

"I may not see you again." Jess was saying goodbye to Benton. She clasped his forearm warmly. "My thanks, Ben, for everything."

"De nada." The ugly man grinned. "I made a lousy orderly, but I scored all the fenodal in Renee's locker -- my wife's gonna love me -- it balances out. Here." He picked up Jess's hand and folded two capsules into it. "It's demerol, for pain. Two were all I could get, so use them when you need them most."

Jess nodded thanks, and slipped them into the breast pocket of her black shirt. "Give our love to Emily."

"Take care, Jesstin." Benton kissed Jess soundly on her unbruised cheek. He turned, and almost ran into Renee. He chuckled, and lay his big hands gently on her shoulders. "Renee, get these chicks home safe."

"Thank you, Benton." Renee lifted herself on her toes and kissed Benton's cheek, surprising him into speechlessness. She smiled up at him crookedly through her spiked bangs, and Benton fell a little in love. "I will, I'll do my best."

The van's headlights illuminated the treacherous sandy slope before them. Jess glanced down the hill, shifting the coils of rope over her shoulder, all Renee and Benton would let her carry.

"Have you hiked much, Ren?"

"What other recreation is there, on a medic's pay," Renee grumbled, adjusting the straps of her heavy backframe. She thought she sounded perfectly calm.

"Good." Jess grinned at her, her teeth flashing a ghostly white in the glare of the headlamps. "Then you know to compensate for the weight of your pack when you descend, so you're not thrown off-balance, right?"

Jess took the younger woman's hand without waiting for a reply, and Renee let her keep it. The Amazon tossed a nod of farewell back to the invisible Benton, and side-stepped off the ridge. Renee followed.

Jess was able to let go of Renee half-way down. She'd guessed that the blonde woman would be steady on her feet, but the adrenaline coursing through Jess made her especially cautious. Above them, they heard the sandy grinding of the van turning back toward the road, and the illumination from its headlights winked out. After their eyes adjusted, the blue moonlight overhead proved an adequate guide.

Renee figured Jess knew where they were going, so she just concentrated on keeping her balance in the deep sand. The slope leveled off into a grassy area leading into the trees, and Renee followed Jess into them silently. They were both moving well, walking side by side now that they were weaving through clumps of aspen. Both women were quiet, their senses pitched to the straining point to detect any danger.

They covered a mile or more. The air around them was caught in the tense hush that signals the coming of dawn in the wild.

Renee stopped, her head coming up like a young deer scenting the air. "Is that water?"

"Do you hear it, or smell it?" Jess asked her.

Renee closed her eyes. "Both," she said. She wouldn't have thought she knew what a clean river smelled like, but that faint, tinny scent was unmistakable.

"Good, Ren, your radar's already on." Jess touched the younger woman's shoulder, and continued on through the trees. "Watch your footing."

Renee focused on the root-strewn soil beneath her sneakered feet, and on not bonking her head on tree limbs. Already the city, and its Clinic, seemed miles behind them, but they'd been walking less than an hour.

Renee heard the river long before she saw it. Finally flecks of white registered in her eyes, water moving swiftly over stone. The broad stream emerged as a dark snake cutting through the forest floor in front of them.

"It's all right," Jess called suddenly behind her. Renee turned, startled, but Jess was studying the surrounding trees, and buttoning the collar of her black shirt to the throat. "This is Renee. What Emily told you is true, she's with me."

"Who're you -- " Renee faltered. "You mean they're -- "

But Jess was looking over Renee's shoulder and grinning, so Renee turned -- just in time to be spun back around when her shoulder was smacked by a body hurtling past her.

"Hello, Jesstin!"

A small woman took a running leap into the arms Jess held open, and the tall Amazon gave a half-grunt, half-laugh as she caught her.

"Good morning, little sister." Jess's blue eyes glowed as she looked down at the young redhead in her arms. "I missed you."

Renee took a step back and walked up against a slender tree. The tree coughed and excused itself, and Renee whirled.

"Camryn," the tree said, by way of introduction.

"Renee," Renee stammered, her hand on her chest. "People come and go so quickly here," she murmured to herself, and then quelled a manic bray of laughter.

Cam and Kyla were dressed in the same kind of green scrubs Renee wore. On Camryn, they made her look like a sturdy young surgeon -- she stood almost as tall as Jess.

Cam nodded, and her cool grey eyes went to the dark woman. "Jesstin? You all right?"

"Hello, Cam." Jess smiled at the brown-haired Amazon with unmistakable fondness. "It looks like the two of you took good -- "

"Uh, no, she's not all right." Kyla was answering Cam, and she sounded ominous. She stood on her toes and cupped Jess's chin, turning her face to try to see her more clearly in the moonlight. "She's not all right at all, Cam, look at her! What the hell is this, Jesstin?"

Jess caught Kyla's hand, but not before the younger woman pulled down her collar and uncovered the ugly burn between her breasts.

"Jesus, adannin," Kyla breathed.

Cam's gray eyes narrowed when she saw the redness covering Jess's upper chest, and then she spun on Renee and slapped her, hard, in one fluid movement.

Renee's vision exploded in sparks -- the girl's powerful blow across her cheek carried as much destructive force as a roundhouse right. The blonde woman dropped where she stood, fully conscious, but caught completely off-guard.

Jess moved so quickly Cam didn't have time to turn back around to face her. Her wrist was seized by steely fingers, and Jess's voice was cold.

"Is that how Dyan taught you to use superior strength against a woman, Camryn? Strike her down without warning?"

Renee stared up at Jess, almost afraid of her fierceness. Cam looked at her evenly, but she stood very still in Jess's grasp.

"And what did Shann tell us both about not letting passion rule us?" Jess's grip on Cam's wrist remained tight. Renee heard the faint brogue of Tristaine inflect the tall Amazon's voice, as she now knew it did under stress. "You don't know this girl, Cam, or what happened to us."

"We both know you've been tortured." Kyla's voice shook, but the look she gave Renee almost flash-fried her. "She worked in the Clinic, Jess. Are you saying she defended you?"

"She has a name, Kyla." Jess held out her hand to Renee, who took it and let her pull her to her feet. "Renee did work at the Clinic, yeah. But she also saved my life."

Jess released Cam. She waited until Kyla joined them, and they stood in a loose circle.

"Look," Jess said quietly. "I don't care if the three of you become life-long friends, but we're working together from now on. Kyla, Cam, you treat Renee like adannin, because that's what she is to me. Are we clear on that?"

"Yeah, Jess." Cam still held Jess's eyes. Kyla nodded. Renee did too, and folded her arms and stared at the ground. The entire side of Renee's face throbbed, hotly.

"I have something for you." Jess pulled a small square of paper out of her breast pocket and handed it to Cam.

Cam blinked, and took it. She was grinning even before she tilted the small photograph to see its image in the moonlight. She lifted it toward Jess, nodded, and then slipped the picture into the pocket of her scrubs.

"Uh, listen." Renee cleared her throat, and the others looked at her. "It's all going to come out in fits and starts, Jess, eventually, so can I go ahead and get it over with?" Her green eyes were shadowed.

"What?" Jess asked.

"That I did work at the Clinic," Renee sighed. She ticked off the points on her hands. "That I was assigned to you, and I let -- things happen to you. And yes, I hurt you myself."

Both of the younger women looked at Jess, who merely watched Renee.

"Jess probably saved my life by bringing me out here," Renee said. She wondered if that adult, rational voice was really coming from her, but she was too tired and scared to be faking it. "I owe her -- something, a lot. But for the record, I don't want anything from you guys, except a chance to get out of the state. I promise, I'll carry my own weight."

Kyla started to speak, but Jess put out a hand and hushed her, her eyes trained on the sky. Dawn was still an hour away, but a dark blue light had begun to fill the heavens.

"Plane?" Cam asked doubtfully, looking at the rugged terrain around them.

"Helicopter, I think," Jess corrected. That brought all their eyes up, but they could see nothing yet. Renee could hear it now, a far-off intermittent buzzing, and like the two younger Amazons, she looked automatically at Jess. "We've got to get higher, folks."

____ *** ____

All traces of weariness vanished.

Renee felt adrenaline pump through her legs as they churned up the tree-studded hillside, in a widening parallel to the river. The four women ran in close formation, alert to each other and listening hard for the rotary blade of the chopper.

The burring chatter grew louder, but the strong searchlight beaming down from the mechanical wasp never came near them. They were under the cover of the trees.

Jesstin signaled a halt a mile in. Not just a mile in, Renee thought, her chest burning, a mile up. She stood with the others with her hands on her knees, pulling for breath. Jess straightened and listened, her hands on Cam's back, and Renee's. Alone among them, her face was streaked with sweat in the cool pre-dawn air. There was no sound except their gasping and the expected cracklings of an awakening forest.

"We need to get under cover before the sun rises," Jess panted, scanning the sky. "Cam, you can find a cave in a desert, take off."

Cam nodded, and turned to head up the rocky hillside. Kyla followed her, her smaller form almost visible now in the gray light.

"Hey," Jess said, surprised, and Kyla turned to look back at her inquiringly.

"Oh -- we're bonded, Jess," the girl called. She smiled, and displayed the dimples her sister Dyan used to tease her about unmercifully. "But don't tell Shann."

Renee looked at Jess's open-mouthed stare. "What? You didn't want her to go with Camryn? Wait -- bonded? Does that mean they're -- "

"They got hitched," Jess said heavily, her brows still arched as she watched the two figures retreat around the bend ahead. "And I'm not supposed to tell Shann."

"Shann," Renee repeated. "Your leader, right?"

"She Who Must Be Obeyed," Jess agreed. She groaned. "Artemis, take me now."

Renee grinned, and then noticed Jess's sweating face. "How are you?"

"We can make some kind of camp in an hour." Jess scrubbed her hand over her face.

"That's not what I asked," Renee pointed out. She reached for Jess's forehead, but the tall Amazon slapped her fingers away lightly.

"I can make it for an hour," Jess said. "Stop hovering, Ren."

"Jesstin, I think I liked you better when I could tie you down." Renee waited to see if the quip held any sting, for either of them. Jess grinned, and she relaxed.

____ *** ____

Renee studied the three women of Tristaine as she helped them lay camp, not in a cave, but on a broad shelf of rock, well-protected by trees and shrubbery. She recognized their unspoken affection for each other in the touch of a hand on a shoulder, and the warmth of the smiles they exchanged -- the same kind of physical grace-notes she had always shared with her younger sister. Sammy, Renee thought. She closed her eyes.

"She's going to send us off again, in a minute."

Renee lifted her head, startled, as Kyla settled down cross-legged beside her. They both leaned against the sandstone rock behind them, the surface still cold in the weak morning sunlight. "What was that?"

"Jess is going to banish us again." Kyla's brown eyes were friendly. She had the gamine face of a beautiful young woman passing through the last stage of girlishness. "I think it's because she wants to be alone with you. Cam says its because Jess doesn't want to watch us make out. Personally, I think Cam's uncomfortable kissing me in front of Jess. What do you think?"

"Well, let's see." Renee smiled as she watched Cam and Jess construct a pile of unseasoned wood for a smokeless fire. "Off-hand, I think, Jess is still trying to cope with the fact that you two are, together. Blended?"

"Bonded," Kyla corrected, and snickered. Renee grinned.

"Well, we weren't, when they transferred the three of us to the prison from the Clinic." Kyla looked at Camryn with dreaming eyes. "Cam and I were friends, but not bonded. We would have been eventually, no matter what. But once they took Jess, and we were alone together . . . we were kept naked all the time. It got pretty cold."

Renee said nothing. She was surprised by a soft hand, covering her own.

"I wasn't jabbing at you, Renee." Kyla's voice was warm. "You weren't the one calling the shots back there, I know that."

Renee nodded.

"Jess called you adannin," Kyla said. "Do you know what that means?"

"I thought it meant someone from Tristaine," Renee answered, watching the muscles in Jess's arms flex as she broke kindling over her knee.

"It means sister." Kyla nudged the blonde woman with her shoulder. "Like, capital S. It's not a word we apply to every woman, not even every woman in Tristaine. And very few, outside of it."

Renee nodded again, her green eyes still on Jess. "So what am I to you, Kyla?"

Kyla blinked, not prepared for a city girl to match her Amazonian directness. She would learn later that it had thrown Jess off at first, too. "I don't know yet," she said finally. "Cam still doesn't trust you. She's sorry she hit you, but she's not going to apologize for it, anytime soon."

"That's Camryn." Renee turned her head against the rock to look at the younger woman.

"I think that except for Jess, you feel all alone out here, and that must be hard." The brown eyes were measuring, but compassionate, and Renee felt a tightness in her chest. "We won't let anything happen to you, okay, Renee? Please don't worry. Even Cam, she'd fight anybody for you, now that Jess has named you adannin. That makes you our sister in a way, too."

Renee returned Kyla's open gaze for a moment, then glanced down at the green scrubs they both wore. "Does that mean I can borrow your outfits?"

Kyla let out a bark of surprised laughter.

"We gotta find something besides dehydrated bacon fat for breakfast," Camryn sighed, slinging down a last stack of kindling. "Come on, Ky."

"What did I tell you?" Kyla murmured, as she pushed herself to her feet. Her brown eyes twinkled warmly at Renee, and then she took Cam's hand and followed her around the side of the rock shelf. Renee noted that Camryn didn't meet her eyes as she passed.

"Stay within whistle-call," Jess called after them, unnecessarily. She seemed to wait until the soft footfalls faded in the morning air. Then she walked, too casually, over to the neat stack of backpacks and removed an armload of blankets. She started to reach for the canteen in Camryn's frame, but Renee's hand darted in ahead of hers and lifted it out.

"We don't have a lot of time," Renee said. She took Jess's arm. "You don't want them to see your back, that's why you sent them away, right?"

Jess's cheek dimpled, but Renee thought her eyes were haggard. "Yeah, that's right."

"More Amazon macha," Renee suggested, leading Jess over to a protected, shaded corner of the shelf.

"Yeah." Jess waited until Renee snapped one of the blankets out over the cool stone, then she settled stiffly on top of it, crossed her long legs, and unbuttoned her shirt. She started to peel it off her shoulders, and had to bite back a yell.

"Hold it," Renee said quickly. "This is going to be cold." She tipped the open canteen over Jess's shoulder, and felt the dark woman shiver as the stream of water soaked her black shirt. After a moment, Renee was able to lift the cloth clear of her skin, and slip the shirt down her arms.

There didn't seem to be much need for talk; their silence was comfortable. Renee washed Jess's back carefully, unaware that her own eyes darkened every time the Amazon tightened at her touch. She applied an antiseptic to the lashmarks that was far milder than the astringent one provided at the Clinic. Its bite wasn't too terrible.

Jess rested her head on her crossed arms as Renee worked, letting exhaustion fill her now that there was no immediate need for action. Her dark lashes fluttered against her cheek as she flexed her wide shoulders, and tried to relax.

"Okay, you're done." Renee lay her hand on Jess's head, and the Amazon opened her eyes, abruptly.

It was happening again, that unsettling deja-vu. Jess wondered if Renee felt it. From the quick, uncertain way the younger woman's fingers lifted from her hair, she thought it was possible. Jess said nothing as Renee slipped her shirt back up her arms. She left it unsnapped, and Renee helped her stretch out carefully on her side.

"You're still warm," Renee observed, covering Jess with a second blanket.

"Someone needs to keep watch," Jess mumbled, her eyes closing again.

"I will, until the kids get back." Renee smiled at herself, and shook her head as she pulled the blanket up over Jess's shoulder. "Jesus, I sound like a mother."

"That's what adannin does to you," Jess yawned.

"Listen, do you want one of those Demerol?"

Jess shook her head, eyes still closed. "Probably need it more in the morning."

"Jess." Renee hesitated. "Why did you tell Kyla and Camryn that I saved your life? Did you mean the CPR, after you tried to -- "

"I meant you wouldn't let me die, you called me back." Jess tried to hold off sleep for a bit longer, unsuccessfully. A moment later Renee felt a familiar thrum beneath her hand as Jess's breathing deepened.

____ *** ____

They were to sleep as long as they could. There could be no more travel until the moon rose again, and they were better hidden from Caster's remote eyes.

Sometime in the next hours, during Cam's shift watching over the camp, Jess moaned in her sleep.

Concerned, Cam lifted herself from the stone lip of the shelf, but then she saw the young blonde nurse shift closer to the sleeping Amazon. She watched her feel Jess's face, then her throat. She pulled the blanket off of Jess, and spread open her shirt. Then she lifted the hem of the green shirt she wore over her head, to bare her own breasts, and lay down beside Jess. She rested her large breasts against Jess's firm ones, to try to cool her. She slipped an arm carefully around Jess's broad shoulders, cleared her throat quietly, and closed her eyes again.

Camryn watched them silently for a moment, and then returned to her watch.

____ *** ____

Renee cursed herself for an idiot. She should have realized the danger of concealing Jess's condition from anyone in their party. Jess should have realized it too, of course, and her insistence on privacy was evidence enough that she wasn't thinking straight.

She never heard Jess get up to relieve Cam, and take her turn at watch. If she had, she would have stopped her, and made her lie down again to take advantage of the rare hours of healing rest.

Renee jerked awake when the sun rose high enough to bathe her naked breasts in warm light, and she realized she lay alone on the blankets. She lifted herself on one hand uneasily, pulling her shirt down to cover herself decently. She saw Camryn and Kyla huddled beneath another set of blankets, asleep, still in shadow. She didn't see Jess.

She stood up. And then sat down again, with an ungainly thump, or she would have fallen. Every muscle in her body screamed in protest, testament to last night's uphill flight with a full pack. Renee was certain for a moment that she would throw up, but the sharp nausea receded as quickly as it hit. She felt chilled, and her hands shook. The back of her throat thirsted for the sharp bite of whiskey. She held her head in her hands for a moment, until she was able to get back on her feet.

Renee limped down the only path leading from their rock shelf -- Jess wasn't in the camp, and there was no other direction she could have gone. She had left them unguarded, and that more than anything alarmed Renee -- she had learned that much about adannin.

They'd found shelter barely out of the foothills, not far west of the river that had been their rendezvous point. To reach the rock shelf, they'd had to travel a long stretch through open land, and Renee looked back over that vista now. Her fine green eyes scanned the sun-lit reaches of the foothills, searching. She heard a splashing sound and turned quickly. She glimpsed Jess through a barrier-hedge of trees, and she ran toward it.

The dark Amazon was in the stream, on her hands and knees in the frigid water, which swirled and tumbled around her wrists and thighs. She had immersed herself fully, more than once, and her thick hair hung in soaked strands around her face. Renee stared at Jess, appalled, realizing what had driven her here.

Jess's fever must have rocketed while they slept. There was no telling how rational her thinking had been when she sought out the water, but the precept was basically sound -- Jess was trying to cool her body, fast. And she was apparently unconcerned that she was completely in the open, exposed beneath a cloudless blue sky.

"Jess!" Renee gave the empty heavens a fast search, and then she jumped off the shallow bank and into the river. She staggered when her sneakered feet hit the smooth rocks of the riverbed, but her athlete's reflexes steadied her. Her ankles went numb with the immediate, stinging cold of the water, small waves slapping up to her knees.

Renee slogged through the gentle current, alarmed that Jess didn't seem to hear her. "Jesstin! Hey, look at me!"

Jess ignored her, and sank her head completely beneath the frigid swells a third time. Renee reached her while her head was still submerged, and at first the younger woman thought she was merely startled.

The Amazon's reaction was galvanic. At the first touch of Renee's hands on her back, Jess reared up on her knees like a branded stallion, slinging jets of water from her black hair, and the cobalt blue of her eyes was mindless.

"Jess, Jesus!" Renee hissed. She fell to her knees in the water and gripped Jess's shoulders, hard. "You idiot, I don't care how strong you are, your heart stopped not -- "

Jess plucked Renee's hands off her shoulders effortlessly. With both of them kneeling, she towered over the blonde woman, and her grip on her wrists was cruel. Renee saw a greedy light ignite in Jess's eyes that she'd never seen before.

"Every time you touched me." Jess's voice was soft. "Whenever I felt your fingers on my skin, sweet Renee, I felt my mouth on you."

"Wh -- Jess, make sense." Renee pulled one hand free and cupped the back of Jess's neck. "This fever is dangerously high -- "

Jess lunged to her feet, carrying Renee with her. Pure instinct reigned then, on both sides. Renee fought to free herself, and Jess fought to carry her to the bank. Jess was bigger, but Renee was no weakling. It took all the delirious Amazon's strength to haul her out of the river and up the muddy bank.

Jess threw Renee down on her back in the grass and dropped on top of her. "I'm not breaking my word, Renee." Her cobalt eyes seared into the staring green ones below her. "I'm asking permission. All you have to do to stop me, is call it off."

The calm, rational tone seemed to belong to a different woman. The one pressing Renee down on her back began to strip her viciously.

Renee cried out and managed to grip Jess's wrists. Her considerable strength meant nothing. Jess tossed her hands off, and finished pulling her pants down past her knees, baring the red-gold mound between her thighs.

"The first time you touched me, when I was rigged to the frame." Jess's voice grew husky as she forced Renee's knees wide. "Your eyes can hide nothing, Ren. You wanted this so badly, Caster hardly needed the drug."

She looked down at the blonde woman's exposed vulva, the lips pulled slightly apart by her wide-spread knees. Renee moaned and turned her head on the grass, feeling that blue gaze on her labia as palpably as heat. Jess pressed her cold, wet palm snugly against the warm cunt, and the moan ended in a cry of shock. She used her other arm to flatten Renee against the grassy bank. Jess's gaze fastened on her naked, bobbing breasts, and stayed there.

"Do you know the control it took, not touching you when you were strapped there, in my place?" Jess's long fingers slithered up into Renee's vagina.

"Jesstin," Renee gasped. She was copiously wet.

"I wouldn't let myself look at you. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to stop, if I did." Jess's gaze feasted openly on Renee's breasts as she began to fuck her, her four fingers gradually disappearing inside her, twisting slowly, allowing the stubborn tunnel to relax its sucking pull on her knuckles, to let her burrow deeper..

Renee lifted herself on her heels and grunted, a dark, swirling pleasure she hadn't consciously named now rising so high she had to express it. "Damn you, Jess," she whispered.

"I almost took you after the whipping." Jess's voice grew more even as she settled into a rhythm, her muscular forearm stroking easily between the young woman's splayed knees. Renee moaned with each thrust, her eyes squeezed shut against the harsh sunlight overhead.

"When we were locked in together, overnight." Jess's eyes moved to Renee's still face as she pumped into her. Her thumb sought, and found, her clitoris, and began to strum it like a guitar string. "I awoke in your lap, and found you naked and sleeping, these breasts inches from my eyes . . . . "

Jess's words cut off as arousal coursed through her, and she had to lower her head to Renee's stomach. Her fingers deep in the girl's snatch never slowed in their twisting, skewering dance, and her thumb circled the turgid clit with growing urgency.

Renee's belly was flooding with heat, and a fiery pleasure coursed through her nipples and returned to simmer in her loins. She meant to moan out a protest, but all that emerged was Jess's name. Renee knew her movements were changing. She began undulating beneath the tall woman pinning her, her green eyes slitted and greedy now on Jess's blue ones.

"You've only known me powerless, Bri." Jess struggled through the haze fogging her mind to speak her heart. "Never make the mistake of believing me so now."

Jess lifted her hand from Renee's throat and covered her mouth. Then she bent, fastened her lips around her protruding clitoris, and nibbled it gently.

Climax hit Renee so fast and fiercely she convulsed with it. Her hoarse scream was drowned by the Amazon's hand over her mouth, but her lips opened against it, and she screamed again.

Jess chewed her relentlessly, until the spasms in Renee's hips began to subside. Then she uncovered her mouth, and worked her hand gently from between her legs, leaving her emptied. Jess climbed stiffly to her feet.

The tall woman looked down at Renee, silently, her dark clothing still dripping with river water. She didn't move to help her stand, and Renee did not ask her assistance, she simply stood up.

The younger woman adjusted her clothing, without any real haste. The green eyes on Jess's were clear and tearless. That was rape, Renee told Jess silently, trying the word out in her mind. Jess's expressive face held no regret, or shame. Renee felt neither regret nor shame -- against all logic, she was filled with a shimmering peace. She wondered if she was losing her sanity.

Jess's head lifted imperceptibly when Cam's voice reached them from the other side of the trees. The low call held some apprehension in it, and Jess answered at once, with a trilling whistle of assurance. A moment later, an answering whistle acknowledged her.

Jess looked back at Renee, and her expression changed, her eyes growing dark. "I left the camp unguarded?"

"It was the fever," Renee said quietly. She was still trembling with the after-effects of orgasm, and with new tension. "You've been -- out of your head, Jess."

Jess stared at her.

"You didn't hurt me," Renee added.

"I know that." Jess turned and started toward the trees.

"Jess, you were delirious," Renee called.

"No, I wasn't." Jess turned back. "My fever broke in the stream, Renee. I knew exactly what I was doing." She nodded toward the trees. "Come on, we need to get under cover."

____ *** ____

Part Five: Capture

____ *** ____

Jess took one of the Demerol when they returned to camp. The tall Amazon dry-swallowed the capsule, then looked at Camryn and Kyla, who were watching her silently. "I'm more rocky than I let on. I'm going to be fine, but I'm not at my best. Okay?"

"Okay," Kyla said.

"I can walk and fight pretty well, right now. The main thing I need to watch is fever. If it gets high again, I might get loopy." Jess measured her companions with blood-shot eyes. "Between the three of you, you could take me down, if you had to. Step on me fast if you think I need it, Cam, don't fuck around, all right?"

Cam hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, Jesstin."

Renee was listening to Jess quietly, her arms folded. Kyla nudged her, and when she caught her eye, the younger woman winked reassuringly. Renee smiled back.

Jess noted the setting sun, and ordered campstrike.

___ *** ___

The two Tristanians followed Jess's orders efficiently, their expressions troubled but respectful. Renee did what she medically could for Jess, which was less and less; what she really needed was days of stressless bedrest. Renee could use a few long nights in a decent bed, herself. And an almost forgotten feeling of safety. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt --

Yes, she could. Renee stared at Jess, who was helping Kyla tie her pack. She'd felt safe when Jess kissed her, back at the Clinic, three nights ago. And she'd felt safe with her an hour earlier, by the river.

____ *** ____

When night fell in full, the four women broke into pairs along the moonlit trail. Jess and Kyla traveled in front, because, Jess claimed, Kyla had a hawk's eyes for mountain passages. Renee and Camryn brought up the rear. Breaking into two separate, but constantly communicating teams helped assure that if one pair ran into trouble, the other two had room to maneuver.

Renee wondered at the selection of partners, however. She and Camryn hiked side-by-side, in a courteous but strained silence. Cam did crack a smile when Kyla unleashed an especially elaborate all's-well whistle, so they shared that moment.

There would be no real climbing, this second night out, although their next night's travel might prove steeper; they were still in the elaborate system of foothills that fronted the rocky mountain range.

Renee remembered her sister Samantha again. Something about Kyla seemed to bring her to mind. Jesus, she'd probably thought of Sam more often in the past twenty-four hours than in the two years since she'd seen her.

She was startled by the white, neatly folded handkerchief Cam held out as they puffed up a gentle rise. Renee smiled reluctantly, snatched it, and blew her nose.

"You can keep that," Cam said generously.

"I will." Renee wedged the kerchief into the pocket of her scrubs. She sighed, and decided to try again. "I was missing my younger sister," she told the tall young woman beside her.

Cam nodded slowly. She stopped walking, took a small picture out of the breast pocket of her green shirt, and handed it to Renee.

Renee stopped too, and tried to tilt the glossy photo to see the image in the moonlight. Her throat tightened as she made out the young girl's face -- smiling, a little homely, a little plump, beautiful. Not unlike Samantha. Renee turned the picture over. On the back, in careful printing, were the words "Hannah" and "Twelve."

"This is your sister." Renee looked up at Cam sadly. "The girl that died, along with Jess's friend, Dyan?"

"They were murdered, yeah." Cam nodded, her eyes on the picture. "Shann thinks they only meant to get Dyan. But Hannah always followed Dyan around like a puppy, all over Tristaine, everywhere she went. She hero-worshipped her. So the bullets hit her too."

Renee handed the photo back to Cam, who returned it carefully to her pocket.

They walked on, and Renee allowed her shoulder to brush the young Amazon's arm once as they climbed the hill. She looked at the moonlit grass passing beneath their feet, and she was glad she had spoken. Renee was no doubt taller than Hannah had been, but Camryn might have found their shadows hauntingly familiar.

Their shared silence was still silence, but it was easier.

____ *** ____

Jess didn't even see Kyla fall.

Much as the tall Amazon would enjoy cursing herself for it later, it wouldn't have mattered if she had. The redhead's sneakered foot slipped off the edge of the muddy trail so abruptly, an Amazonian rattlesnake couldn't have caught her in time.

Kyla managed to stifle any cry, so neither Camryn or Renee heard anything until the girl's body actually hit the hillside and began to roll. The sound reached the young medic and the Amazon as an alarming, distant thump, followed by a fading rustling.

"Bloody hell," Camryn hissed. "Renee, go north!"

And she was gone. All gangliness fled Camryn's body as she flew among the mesquite at a southern angle, in a flexible, cat-like crouch. Unbeknownst to Renee, who knew nothing of open-arena strategy, Cam was approaching the fall zone as a possible ambush area. Dyan had taught her warriors well.

"Camryn," Renee yelled, and then bent her knees and looked around, furious with herself for the noise. "Camryn," she whispered, fiercely. She hesitated -- and then ducked into the brush, and began her own angle, north.

____ *** ____

Jess snugged the knot around her waist, yanked the rope to test its hold, and stepped back into open space.

The first drop was only ten feet or so, and the ledge was well-padded with soft dirt and grass, but Jess could imagine that, at best, it had knocked the breath out of Kyla. Even braced for it and securely roped, the dark Amazon's abused body screamed protest when her boots hit the ledge.

The rest of the grade was encouragingly gentle, and free of any half-buried boulders that might bash out the brains of a tumbling body. Jess bit back the urge to call out to her younger sister, and descended in long, silent leaps.

Then caught herself, half-way down, her scratched hands clenching around the rope. Jess stood still, panting, her eyes narrowing as she listened. She recognized a voice.

____ *** ____

Kyla came to rest on her back, at the bottom of the muddy hill. She stared stupidly up at the blanket of stars above her, her heart pounding queasily. She was intact, she decided, just bruised and breathless. Jess would come for her, Kyla was sure of that. She tried to lie still and let the rest of her wits catch up with her.

The full moon back-lit the woman's curly hair as she loomed over Kyla, who shrank back instinctively.

"We haven't met, Kyla. I'm staff." The voice was polite. "My name is Caster."

____ *** ____

"Jesstin? Hello? Mr. Dugan, the -- "

The tinny, reverberating voice broke off. Then Caster lifted the megaphone again.

"Whoops. Here we go, all right. Jesstin?" Caster's amplified tones clanged against the dark hills. "You're aware that one of your little Amazonlettes has joined us, correct?"

There was a pause. Jess waited. And her hands clenched again on the rope, because she knew what was probably happening to Kyla.

Whatever form the pain took -- an arm wrenched behind her back, or her wild auburn hair pulled -- Kyla just used its energy to broadcast her message with maximum venom:

"Fuck this bitch, Jess, get out of -- "

Jess closed her eyes as a thump sounded -- Kyla, dropping the megaphone. Jess half-bent herself, feeling the blow as if it had hit her own stomach. She thought carefully and quickly, and then she moved.

____ *** ____

Renee crouched behind a bank of boulders, still shivering with the adrenaline rush, trying to spot Jess somewhere on the hillside in front of her. She couldn't see Kyla, among the dense trees at the bottom of the hill, and she couldn't see Cam, who should be coming around the slope across from --

Renee felt the cool hand slide around her face and clamp down over her mouth, and she threw herself backwards, sirens going off in her skull.

The woman caught Renee's thrashing body easily, and held her still.

"I don't know you." The musical voice was calm. The hand lifted slightly.

"I'm Renee," Renee gasped.

The woman released her. "I'm pleased to meet you, Renee." Renee spun, and found herself pinned by a pair of extraordinary gray eyes. "I'm Shann."

____ *** ____

Caster was a scientist, not a military strategist, but she rightly assumed her other three Clinic refugees were nearby. She didn't have enough staff with her to search the wooded hills at night -- the Clinic "hum-vee" was only big enough to carry Dugan and Louis and two other over-paid orderlies with her on this mission. She had them make a rudimentary camp in the small valley at the base of the wooded slopes.

Down into which had rolled, not ten minutes ago, to Caster's astonishment, another answer to her prayers, young Kyla of Tristaine. Caster commented to Dugan that fate did indeed smile occasionally upon the righteous and well-armed. Dugan grinned stupidly, but Caster knew he didn't get it. She rather missed Jesstin and Renee, at least they had pulses.

Once in possession of Kyla, obtaining Jesstin would be a no-brainer, as Caster's older son would call it. Kyla was bait. Another wonderful side-benefit of this Tristainian adannin-fixation. The Amazons' loyalty to each other would be their downfall, Caster thought tragically, imagining the words printed in bold-type in a prestigious military journal.

Caster didn't count Renee in that category, she was no Amazon. Intelligent or not, the blonde medic was a traitorous little sheep, led around by her mindless young vulva. Renee wouldn't be returning to the Clinic, Caster decided. She'd decide later about Jesstin, once she had her. Now that she held Kyla, her true quarry was Camryn of Tristaine.

___ *** ___

In the Clinic, Camryn and Kyla had trusted Jess enough to allow her time. Time to form a workable plan with Benton, and time to get them out of there safely.

Now, Jess knew two things, as the rope ran out and she side-stepped free-style down the slope. She knew Caster would continue to hurt Kyla, if Jess didn't surrender as ordered. And she knew that together, the two Amazons had to buy Cam and Renee time.

So Jess walked into Caster's camp. She held her arms slightly away from her sides as two orderlies spotted her and yelled, snapping their rifles up to cover her.

Kyla moaned when she saw Jess's tall form emerge from the trees. The sight of her older sister walking willingly into enemy hands chilled her heart, and she turned her head in the grass. The other two orderlies had stripped the young redhead, and bound her spread-eagled on the ground, tying her wrists and ankles to tent pegs.

Jess's blazing eyes went flat when she saw Kyla's body, helplessly spread and naked beneath the eyes of men. Another Amazonian oddity, Caster thought, watching the shield fall across Jess's immobile face. An Amazon can bear her own rape more easily than she can see a sister ravaged. Jess and Renee had taught her so much.

Jess stopped at the entrance to the enclosure, a few yards from Kyla. Then Caster nodded at Louis, and the capture began.

It didn't go at all as Caster intended, at first. Louis was supposed to start fucking the girl on the ground, for one thing, but the cretin chose that crucial moment to go impotent. He lowered himself between Kyla's spread legs, and ground himself self-consciously against her, his small eyes bulging with both excitement and fear of failure.

Caster had wanted Dugan to do the fucking, but the burly guard had refused, in favor of subduing Jesstin. Some macho resentment of her Amazonian butchness, apparently. He and the two other orderlies waited until Jess broke and dived for Kyla, which was the second thing that went wrong -- they should have moved much sooner.

Jess broke Louis's neck with her heel as she flew over Kyla's spread body, then flipped once in a tight arc. She landed well but then staggered, the ache in her lower back sudden and immense. The injury she'd received days ago in the Clinic's arena awoke with a nasty, snarling burst of pain.

Kyla cried out, pistoning her knees as much as the ropes would allow, trying to shift Louis's slumping bulk off of her as Dugan and the others finally took Jess down.

Caster picked up the megaphone again, and crouched beside Kyla. She stroked the thrashing young woman's breasts gently, as Jess was beaten. After a minute or so, Caster raised the megaphone.

"Camryn? Are you watching?"

____ *** ____

Dawn.

Jess hadn't been sure she'd live to see it, and she wasn't sure she appreciated having done so. The last benefits of the Demerol had faded hours before. The dark woman stood -- after a fashion -- close to Kyla, her wrists tied tightly between two trees. Even when her knees buckled, as they did frequently, the pull on her arms kept her stiffly erect.

The beating had been savage, but Caster had stopped it when Jess passed out. Her kidneys were still intact, she thought, eyes still closed, head bowed, feeling the first warm ray of the sun touch her roped hand. No bones were broken, and she'd been left fully clothed, but she was probably a sight to frighten young children. Kyla had wept when they'd strung her up, just seeing her face by firelight.

"Jesstin?"

Jess heard the worry and weariness in her younger sister's voice, and she forced her eyes open again. She and Kyla had talked in the last hours, briefly and quietly, whenever Jess was conscious.

"How are you doing?" Worry was winning over weariness, judging by Kyla's searching gaze.

"At least I'm upright," Jess croaked. "More than you can say."

"Jess." Kyla was silent for a moment. "They'd kill Renee, wouldn't they?"

"What?"

"I've been thinking." Still naked and spread on the dew-soaked grass, Kyla was shivering, but not entirely from cold. "I know this fancy doctor bitch wants Cam. But she wouldn't have any use for Renee. Right? If Renee's captured too, would they -- "

"Probably." The "p" sound hurt Jess's split lip. She didn't think Caster would have much use for her, either, if she had Camryn -- all she needed was a new matched pair to resume the project -- but Kyla didn't need to know that yet. "Don't worry about it, adannin. Cam won't just walk in here."

"What would we do, you and me?" Kyla asked softly. "If it were Cam and Renee here, and us out there? I've been trying to think of what Dyan would say. Would she tell us to -- "

"Not do this," Jess said suddenly, and her blue eyes ignited again.

Kyla turned her head on the grass to see Renee, in full view, stepping out of the trees and into the camp.

____ *** ____

She would rather not throw up, Renee thought, if she were given a choice between vomiting and her knees giving out. Hopefully neither would happen, and she'd just keep making her way over the uneven grass toward Jess and Kyla in the pre-dawn light.

Looking into Jess's eyes was not a good idea, so Renee looked down at Kyla, and her step faltered. She'd held no illusions about what must have been happening in the camp, but seeing the aftermath was still a gut-punch. Renee made a small side trip to pick up a blanket that had been abandoned in the grass.

She took the opportunity to survey the rest of Caster's camp, behind them. Nothing stirred. She saw an orderly, rifle folded in his arms, supposedly keeping watch, but he wasn't looking toward them.

Renee knelt beside Kyla in the wet grass.

"What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" Kyla hissed, her hands pulling at her ropes. Renee put a calming hand on the girl's bare waist -- she could feel Jess's blue eyes burning a hole in the top of her head.

"N-not surrendering," Renee stammered. She shook the blanket out and spread it carefully over Kyla, then tucked it gently beneath her sides. "But that's what I'm telling Caster, when they finally wake up and realize I'm here. Jesstin, did you hear that? I'm saying that I'm giving up, and I want to go back." The young medic bent lower. "Are you all right, Kyla?"

"Well, you better have a bomb taped to your chest," Kyla whispered, closing her eyes in relief as Renee's hands smoothed the soft warmth around her.

"Answer me, Ky." Renee pushed the auburn curls back off the girl's forehead, and checked her green eyes carefully. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine. God, you're worse about mothering me than Shann," Kyla complained. "You and Cam do have some kind of plan, right?"

"As a matter of fact . . . " Renee smiled down at Kyla, and stroked her hair again. "Shann's here."

"About bloody time," Jess snapped above them. She kept her voice low, and tried to crane her neck, painfully, to see the arena around them.

"Did you know she was coming?" Now that she was half-warm, Kyla apparently still found it impossible to stop trembling. Her green eyes narrowed. "Do you think you might have mentioned that, Jesstin, some time in the last six -- "

"No, I didn't know Shann was coming, but it makes sense," Jess replied. "It's what Dyan would do." Still no movement anywhere in the camp, she thought. The orderly on watch actually seemed to be dozing. Jesus. Caster's goons wouldn't last ten seconds against Amazons, if they could get the upper hand.

Renee stood and looked up into Jess's battered face. She drew in a long breath, and let it out slowly. "Well, I knew you'd look something like this," she said, and then burst into tears that astonished them both.

The outburst did not surprise Kyla, however, who watched sympathetically -- she knew exactly what her newest sister was feeling.

"Get a grip, Renee," Jess said quietly.

"I am." Renee shook her head once. "It's just nerves, I told you that." She studied Jess's body through the last of her tears, her hands moving over the dark woman's sides with care.

"Turn so I block the guard's view," Jess murmured, but Renee shook her head.

"No, he's supposed to see me," Renee said, wincing at the tightness of the rope around Jess's wrists. "Shann wants a general shift of attention toward this side of the camp, around us."

"Got a knife?" Jess asked casually, glancing up at the ropes holding her wrists spread between the two trees.

"No, and I wouldn't use it if I had," Renee answered. Jess's black shirt was hanging in dusty tatters, and she opened it to bare Jess's upper body and inspect new injuries. "This is as close as I'll ever come again to having you tied and at my mercy, I'm going to take advantage of it while I can." The green eyes rose to Jess's face. "There's nothing we can do until Shann moves, Jess. So stop glaring, and let me look at you."

Jess sighed, and allowed Renee's hands to curl around her back, to probe areas that were probably so tender she would make her yell out loud, in front of Kyla.

"She talks to you just like Shann, too," Kyla observed from the grass.

Renee shivered, and closed Jess's shirt again. The fever was coming back -- the glassiness in Jess's eyes had told her that much at first glance, and the unnatural heat rising off her body confirmed it. It wasn't too high yet, however. But the myriad bruises that covered the Amazon's strong body, all in various stages of healing, and the welts still striping her broad back, made Renee wonder why Jess was conscious at all.

She looked up into the tall woman's blue eyes again, and again, that was their mutual undoing. Jess's gaze gentled, and Renee released a slow, tired sigh, and sank against her. She slid her arms around Jess's waist as naturally as she breathed, and rested her forehead carefully against the strong swell of her shoulder.

"Do you realize we've had the worst fucking courtship in history?" Renee said finally.

Jess didn't answer at first, glowering at Kyla's delighted smile over Renee's head. But then the tall woman relaxed in her bonds, and rested her face against the soft blonde hair. "Ren. This is probably not the time for either of us to -- "

"It's going to be our last chance, for awhile." Renee sniffed, and lifted her head. "Shann's going to move pretty soon."

"Now? With the five of us, unarmed," Jess whispered, "against four men and one mad banshee scientist, with rifles?"

"Shann says to remember Dyan's last training." Renee's brows lifted, hoping this made sense, to either Jess or Kyla. "Shann came here from Tristaine, right? She says, remember that Dyan's orders were still in stock."

"Dyan's orders?" Kyla looked puzzled.

"Oh. Ordinance." Jess looked at Renee, who was starting to smile again. "Dyan's ordinance, Kyla . . . dynamite."

That's when the other end of the camp blew up.

____ *** ____

Part Six

____ *** ____


The sudden blast shattered the pre-dawn stillness, and even Renee, who'd been braced for it, started hard and gripped Jess's shoulders with nerveless fingers. Only two sticks, thrown by Shann and Camryn from strategic positions above Caster's camp, but their sharp concussion carried as much shock value as A-bombs in the sleeping silence.

The orderly assigned to sentry duty came awake with a startled yell, firing twice into the air before he was fully on his feet. That's all Renee saw before she focused on freeing Jess and Kyla.

The blond medic had, in fact, sequestered a small utility knife in the most convenient hiding place available -- her cleavage. Jess's eyes bulged a little when Renee retrieved it,
but she appreciated the blade's efficiency in cutting through the ropes holding her erect. Renee helped Kyla stand, and the two of them were able to support Jess -- but they were a swaying, clutching group for the first disorienting moments of the fight.

There was yelling now, male voices as well as Amazon war cries, and the dirt thrown by the TNT thickened the mountain air, transforming the enclosed camp into a hazy battlefield. The dynamite itself had not injured anyone -- Shann had directed Camryn in its placement carefully. Amazons tried not to kill unless necessary -- the guiding premise of all warrior women, according to Shann.

Caster's orderlies actually put up a respectable fight, once roused. The rifles they carried were only single-shot carbines, but they weren't burdened by any code to preserve the lives of mountain women. Tent flaps opened, and dark muzzles emerged to spit barks of thunder and snaps of red fire through the haze.

Jess had one arm around Renee's neck and the other around Kyla's -- the strength was returning to her legs, and walking was possible now. They were headed back toward the trees Renee had walked through only minutes before, but Jess hesitated, craning her head back to assess the fight behind them. She stopped abruptly, and lifted her arms from the shoulders of the smaller women.

"Meet you later," Jess said.

"Hey!" Renee caught Jess's hand. "Shann said to wait for her at the top of -- "

"Good idea," Jess said, still trying to see her other sisters through the dust and confusion of running bodies, shouts, and rifle-fire. She pulled her hand from Renee's grip. "See you there."

"Jesstin, you are not -- "

But Jess was gone, moving stiffly but gaining speed as her tall form disappeared into the hanging cloud of dust enveloping the camp.

"Renee, hon." Kyla touched Renee's shoulder. "You might need to understand Jesstin a little better. Amazons can't just -- "

"No, Kyla," Renee interrupted, and her green eyes snapped. "Maybe you, and Jess, and every other Amazon in punching distance, needs to start understanding me a little better."

And she was gone too, yelling curses at Jess. Kyla grinned, snugged the blanket over her shoulders higher so she could kick, and followed her sisters into battle.

Without the unlamented Louis, Caster's forces were Dugan, two other men, and four rifles. Renee coughed and squinted her burning eyes in time to catch a fleeting impression of the status of the clash.

Shann, a slender woman, was struggling with an orderly easily twice her size. She was using his bulk against him to good effect, but she was no warrior, and the rifle clenched between the combatants could still be won by either. Renee caught a quick glimpse of Jess tackling the burly man who grappled with Shann, and then her attention was riveted by Caster, standing ten yards to her right, swinging up a rifle at some target behind her, and taking careful aim.

Renee started for the scientist even before the rifle discharged, knowing only that the bullet was intended for an Amazon. She heard a cry of pain -- Kyla, Camryn, she wasn't sure who'd been hit -- and then she leaped on Caster, hard enough to knock them both breathless, and carried her to the ground. The rifle flew from Caster's hands as she fell, and she gave an unlady-like grunt as her body smacked the earth.

Renee rolled with her, filling with a bone-deep fury she should have expected, with the Clinic incarnate flailing beneath her. Then she chanced a look toward the far tents, and froze in dismay.

Camryn lay curled on her side in the grass, clutching her lower leg, her expression locked in a grimace. Kyla crouched over her, her own features pale as chalk, scanning the arena for any new threat to her injured lover. The second orderly lay sprawled unconscious on the grass nearby -- Cam must have dropped him before she was felled by Caster's bullet. That still left Dugan --

Caster flung the handful of dirt and grass into Renee's face like a veteran of such cowardly ploys, and Renee instinctively ground her fists into her eyes to clear them. Caster had just enough time to club Renee soundly in the stomach with her fists, and then Dugan was on them, wrenching Renee up off the gasping scientist's body.

"Hey-hey, Renee!" Dugan roared, his grin wild and his eyes bulging with battle-lust. He pinned Renee's arms to her sides and pressed her to his chest, dancing to avoid her vicious kicks.

Vicious, but not random. The blonde medic knew human anatomy well, and she'd been kick-boxing long enough to aim for truly vulnerable areas. Renee didn't connect squarely -- her gouging knee only side-swept Dugan's crotch -- but it was enough to make him stagger and bellow with surprise.

But not enough to release her. Instead Dugan dropped where he stood, pulling Renee down with him, until he straddled her supine body in the grass, one knee on either side of her. His face was distorted with both rage and pain, and he slapped Renee hard, with a spitting curse. Renee's groping fingers felt for the exquisitely painful soft spots between the jaw and the ear, but Dugan trapped her wrists in one hand and flattened himself over her, squirming, beginning to grin again.

"You med-techs got it all over orderlies," Dugan breathed in Renee's ear, as she struggled beneath him. "You paraded these proud tits down the hall by me, a dozen times a day -- "

Dugan kneaded Renee's left breast through her green shirt until Jesstin's kick rocketed into his ribs, knocking him off the blonde woman and onto his side. Renee clawed the grass to put distance between them, staring at Jess, appalled -- the dark woman had finally reached the end of her formidable strength. The powerful kick had drained the last of her energy, and she crumpled when Dugan grabbed her legs.

Dugan pulled Jess down beneath him and fastened his huge hands around her throat. He hissed at her and his spittle hit her cheek, but Jess couldn't even turn her head to avoid it. She had little hope of breaking his pinkie fingers, usually the best option with a choke-hold, and no hope whatever of dislodging his weight. She saw Dugan's broad shoulders above her, and the sunlight outlining them began to darken to red in her vision, as his large hands choked off her breathing.

Vaguely, Jess heard Renee cry out, somewhere close by, and Kyla's voice, calling Shann's name. Then nothing, for a few seconds, except pressure and pain and the desperate need for air. Jess's senses had started to fade when she heard the muted crack from Shann's rifle that sent a bullet deep into Dugan's brain.

The big man stiffened and convulsed over Jess, his hands jerking away from her throat. Gasping, Jess made a huge effort and managed to twist out from under Dugan before he fell. She came to rest on her back, staring up at the brightening morning sky through the smoke and dust, and then both sound and light went wavy and treacherous again for a moment.

When her vision cleared again, Jess was lying with her head pillowed in Renee's soft lap. Her head pounded sickly, only the most pre-eminent of the aches awaiting her return to awareness, but then fear filled her more urgently than the pain.

"Where's Shann." Jess began to sit up, but Renee tightened her hold on her shoulders and kept her flat.

"S-Shann's all right, Jess." Renee's teeth were chattering as if she were freezing. "Kyla is too, so am I -- Camryn . . . Cam's been shot, but it's superficial -- "

A muffled exclamation escaped Jess and she tried to sit up again, but only until the pounding in her head hit a huge bass note --

"Jesstin, lie still!" Renee pressed the dark Amazon back down, too easily, her green eyes filling with tears she was too distracted to notice. "It's over, we're okay. Shann's got them covered -- don't sit up, just look there."

Renee supported Jess's head so her dazed blue eyes could focus on the odd tableau at the other end of the camp. Shann, looking dusty and disheveled, but perfectly composed, was holding one of the rifles on the only orderly still functional enough to walk. He had just finished dumping the last of four men into the Humvee -- two unconscious, two corpses -- and now, under Shann's silent gaze, he was escorting Caster to the waiting vehicle. Caster was limping, her clothing was torn, and she did not spare Renee or Jess so much as a glance.

They watched Caster pass Shann, and the two women regarded each other for a long moment. Caster spoke, briefly. Shann listened, but made no reply. Then Caster lifted herself into the front of the Humvee, a bleeding scratch on her throat, and her hair a snarled cap around her head, but her poise fully restored. She folded her hands serenely in her lap while the orderly keyed the Humvee's engine.

Shann kept the rifle trained on the hulking black jeep as it lumbered out of the camp, and off down a dry riverbed toward the base of the foothills. She waited until the sound of its powerful engine faded, and then her watching sisters saw Shann click open the chamber of the rifle she held. She apparently expected to find it empty, and did, because an Amazon would never drop a loaded firearm on the ground.

Shann lifted her hand to shade her eyes against the rising sun, and regarded them across the camp. "Renee? Do you need me?"

"No," Renee called. Their voices sounded unnaturally loud in the renewed stillness of the mountain air. "She's stable for now -- see Camryn!"

Shann nodded and jogged over to Cam, who sat with her back against a tree as Kyla bound her bleeding leg. Jess shifted in Renee's arms, and lifted herself on one elbow.

"Hey," Jess barked at Camryn, almost accusingly.

"She'll be alright, Jesstin," Kyla called over her shoulder, never taking her eyes from her work. Shann knelt beside her and checked her younger sister for signs of shock, taking her pulse, feeling her hands.

"I got shot," Camryn called to Jess. The young Amazon sounded surprised, and she was ashen, but she didn't seem particularly dismayed.

"You could have moved!" Jess snapped.

"Jess, I got shot with a rifle," Camryn protested.

"You could have moved," Shann and Jess said together, and Kyla snorted laughter, even though she was crying herself, now that they were safe.

Jess rolled back into Renee's lap with a muffled groan. "Dyan's response to every injury in the ranks," she explained to Renee.

"Thank you, I wondered." Renee smiled. Her pulse was slowing to a reasonable cadence again, and she cradled Jess's face in her hands. "Jesstin -- when you stand up, how many parts of you are going to drop off?"

"I hope my head does," Jess grumbled, and shivered once, hard.

"Shann, can you bring us a -- " Renee's voice cut off as she looked up to see Shann kneeling beside them, already spreading an army blanket over Jess's shivering form. "You're so good," she said instead, and helped Shann snug the warm wool in place.

"How good are you, at taking out bullets?" Shann asked quietly, her beautiful grey eyes on Renee.

"I've seen it done it before." Renee swallowed. "But I know we don't have the right instruments, all we have is a first aid kit. I don't suppose there's any way we could get Cam down to the city . . . ?" Renee's voice trailed off. She didn't need either of the Amazons to answer that. "Shann, tell me you packed painkillers from Tristaine, along with the dynamite."

"Not many," Shann sighed. "But I know something about herbs, and there are plants nearby we can use." She smiled down at Jess, who was looking up at her blearily. Hello, Jesstin . . . " She leaned over and rested her lips against Jess's forehead for a long moment, then straightened. "You've been sorely missed, in Tristaine. I'll wait until Renee gets you back on your feet, dearest, and then I intend to knock you senseless myself."

Renee stared at Tristaine's queen, amazed that those words, which could so easily have come from Caster three days earlier, sounded so loving, almost tender, in Shann's compelling voice.

"Hey, I did everything right." Jess sounded puzzled. The warmth of the blanket, and their hands, was reaching her now, and she was able to relax against the grass. "Benton and I had to move earlier than we thought, but everyone got out . . . " Her brow furrowed. "You mean the route? The route we took through the foothills? Shann, that was the fastest -- "

"I mean drop-kicking a two hundred-pound man six hours after a bad beating," Shann interrupted. Her eyes dimmed as she examined Jess's battered face. "The latest in a series of beatings, from the looks of you. How is she, Renee?"

"Not good." Renee brushed Jess's hair back, almost self-consciously -- she was measuring her fever, but she also wanted Jess to feel her touch. "She's got a nasty fever that comes and goes, and it's rising again. I haven't had a chance to examine her thoroughly, but I don't think anything's broken. There's no sign of internal bleeding -- but she's exhausted, just worn out."

Jess thought of refuting this clinical assessment, delivered as it was in the third person, but she was too tired to care. Renee's lap was too soft, and the blanket too warm. She heard Shann's worried voice faintly, far above her.

"Is she unconscious?"

"Asleep." Renee's smile could be heard in her tone. "Listen."

Jess figured she probably was snoring softly, but her sisters were safe, and she didn't care.

____ *** ____

They had the rifles, and they had the dry riverbank. Both advantages allowed them to take over Caster's abandoned camp, rather than drag their injured sisters further into the hills. A view of the riverbed below would give them a little warning if Clinic forces returned, and the rifles would provide a quick defense if needed.

Renee was surprised when Cam asked Jess to hold her while the bullet was removed -- not at the request itself, as much as the young Amazon's selection of Jess to provide the service -- Camryn's lifemate was nearby, and so was her queen. Shann noticed her curiosity as she helped her lay out supplies beside Cam.

"Even if Cam didn't need to be restrained for this, she'd want Jess to hold her," Shann explained, as Jess eased between Camryn and the base of the tree. The dark woman rested her welted back gingerly against the rough bark of the trunk, and then allowed Cam to lay back against her, before folding her long arms around her waist.

"Camryn and Jesstin are the only two warriors among us," Shann continued, carefully lowering Cam's bandaged leg to the blanket. "If an Amazon is injured in battle, she always wants a warrior to see her through the first healing, so she can absorb her strength."

"What strength?" Kyla asked flatly. "Jess is probably worse off than Cam, if you count the sum total of bruises." She crouched beside Jess and held the back of her neck, trying to get her to finish the last of Shann's herbal tea. Cam had already downed two cups, and her eyes were a bit glassy.

"Dang, why do you guys all have such cold hands," Jess complained, swallowing the tea with a grimace.

"I'm nervous," Kyla explained, and showed Jess her trembling fingers. "Excuse me, I've never seen a bullet cut out of my lover's leg before, okay?"

"You can be such a wimp, Ky." Leaning back against Jess, trying to be butch, and more than a little high, Camryn snickered. "My hands aren't cold. I bet Jess's hands aren't, either, and I know Shann's aren't -- "

Cam squeaked as Shann touched her thin wrist with icy fingers.

"I'm nervous too." Shann smiled, which transformed her briefly from a handsome woman into a beautiful one. "And I have seen this done before, far too many times. Macha can only sustain us so long, Camryn. No one here is going to enjoy this." She nodded at the blonde medic kneeling beside her. "Luckily, perhaps alone among us, Renee is steady as a rock. Are we ready, Blades?"

"That's your second name now," Kyla warned Renee, anxiety making her talkative. "Once Shann dubs you, you're dubbed for life."

"Well, I'm glad I was cutting when Shann dubbed me, and not doing a rectal." Renee was relieved that the humor was there when she needed it, and gratified by the grins of the others. She'd wanted to ease the tension -- Cam's, certainly, but her own too. Renee felt blue eyes watching her, and she glanced at Jess. Jess winked, and managed to convey a sense of warmth and trust in that one small motion. Renee smiled at her.

She flattened her hands on her lap for a moment. She didn't close her eyes, but the green of them grew hazy as she concentrated. Cam was a patient, now, and Renee's patients always got her best efforts. In spite of the quivering in her stomach, Renee's hands, on her thighs, were steady and warm. She was back in her element. She drew on thin rubber gloves from the medical kit, and smiled at the pale Amazon who reclined in Jess's arms. "I'm ready, if my victim is."

"Wait," Cam said. She scowled. "I'm probably going to -- make some noise. Just so you know, and you're not surprised by it. And poke me, or something." It was not an admission Cam would have easily made without the boundary-blurring benefits of the second Demerol, and Shann's muscle-relaxing herbal brew.

"That's not something you have to apologize for." Jess's voice was low and calm, behind Cam. "Dyan would tell you to use your energy getting to the other end of this, not trying to keep your mouth shut."

"Okay." Cam smiled agreeably at Kyla as she knelt beside her and took her hand.

It was a grueling twenty minutes, for all of them.

Renee had been right, it was a superficial wound, if any such trauma to human tissue can be termed superficial -- the small-caliber bullet had penetrated the large muscle of Camryns' left calf. It's extraction was largely a common-sense procedure for Renee, who understood healing at an instinctive level. But she was using rudimentary instruments, sterilized in boiling water and alcohol, and the work was harrowing and slow. Camryn was quickly coated with sweat, in spite of the late-morning chill, and so was Renee.

Cam cried out twice, and Jess's arms tightened each time to hold her still under the blonde medic's blade. Later, Camryn would claim that her worst suffering came from Kyla, squeezing her fingers too hard, the second time she yelled.

Only Shann and Renee studied the procedure directly, both with rapt fascination. They murmured observations to each other that, frankly, creeped out the other three present. The two women worked together like a team long familiar with the other's skills, Shann handing Renee instruments, and monitoring Camryn's breathing and pulse. But Renee was never unaware of the pain Cam was feeling -- she gave the young Amazon breathers, twice, that Cam denied needing, but Renee thought were prudent.

Kyla was paler than the patient by the time Renee patted a sterile cloth over Cam's leg to dry it before bandaging. Cam let out a long breath of relief, and her eyes drifted shut as she rested her head on Jess's shoulder. Jess looked as spent as she did.

Shann eyed her sisters with sympathetic practicality. "Are you going to faint, Kyla?"

"Oh, no." Kyla's voice shook as she played with Cam's hand. "I always look like this, when bullets get cut out of my lover's leg . . . it's just nerves."

Then she burst into tears, and Renee and Jess exchanged exhausted smiles.

____ *** ____

"Too fucking fast," Renee murmured.

She didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until she felt Shann's hand on her shoulder. She started and sat up, and smiled at the older woman self-consciously. "Sorry. I think I'm starting to hallucinate."

"It's no wonder." Shann's low voice was kind. "You're exhausted, Renee. Why don't you sleep for awhile? I can finish this."

"Why don't you both sleep for awhile?" Jess growled softly. "I'm as clean as I'm going to get, thank you."

Jess was referring to the alcohol bath Renee had bared her to the waist to receive an hour before. She had taken Camryn's place on the pallet beneath the huge tree when her fever rose to the point that she couldn't hold a reliable conversation. The mild summer weather made it possible for them to forego Caster's musty tents, and sleeping under stars was always the preference in Tristaine, so Camryn and Kyla dozed in each other's arms on a blanketed air-mattress nearby. A fire crackled warmly in the center of their circle.

It was late, after midnight. Renee had left her wristwatch somewhere under Dugan, and she missed the sense of order knowing the time might have provided. As happened frequently now, when Renee felt unsettled, she looked at Jess. This time it didn't bring the reassurance she'd hoped for -- the dark woman lying half-propped against the tree still shook with fever, even at the end of a long, cooling bath, and Renee's eyes darkened with worry.

"I'd make you suck on a thermometer again," she told Jess, touching her face, "but knowing the exact reading wouldn't change much. I can tell it's as high as it was an hour ago."

The three women still awake kept their voices low, so as not to disturb the young Amazons sleeping nearby.

Shann finished wringing out a sponge. She closed Jess's shirt over her bare breasts and fastened it shut, then rested her hand on her warrior's warm waist. "Sleep will help you now more than anything, Jesstin. I've never had much success at ordering you around, but I want you to obey a friendly request, all right? Lie still for a few hours."

"Sure," Jess mumbled, her eyes already drifting closed.

"A friendly request." Renee smiled as they shook out a blanket over Jess. "That works, with Amazons?"

"Usually," Shann said. "Even Jess." Her hand moved soothingly back and forth over the blanket, across Jess's chest.

Shann wasn't a traditionally beautiful woman, Renee thought, but she had lovely hands and a soft, musical voice. She watched Tristaine's queen covertly as a light breeze lifted her hair off her face.

"You must be in some kind of culture shock."

Renee blinked. "Me?"

Shann nodded. "You mind if I pry into your personal history?"

Renee took the question seriously and thought about it, and found she didn't. "No."

"Let me see if I understand what's happened to you." Shann gathered her legs under her skirt and leaned back on one hand to study Renee thoughtfully. "You were a reasonably successful government medic, and then you were transferred to a military project. And you were assigned to Jesstin, what, less than a month ago?"

Renee nodded. She and Camryn had filled Shann in on the basics during the endless night Kyla and Jess were held in Caster's camp.

Shann continued. "So, in less than a month, you've had your faith in your leaders dashed, your career ruined, you've been raped, you've lost your apartment and your car, and all security. And now you're running for your life through a mountain wilderness, with three women you hardly know, and one you've fallen in love with, and people are trying to kill you." Shann lifted a distinctive eyebrow. "Is that about right?"

Renee had started smiling, rather bleakly, early on in Shann's recitation -- the summary was spookily apt, and very much like the one that had been running through Renee's tired mind a few minutes earlier. "You about covered it."

Shann chuckled. "You must feel like you've fallen in with some kind of bizarre cult."

Renee winced. "Well, no, I hadn't thought of that one, thanks though."

Shann laughed again, and then covered her mouth when Jess stirred between them. Renee tucked the blanket around Jess's long legs. She felt Shann's gaze on her.

"You care very much for her, don't you?"

Renee watched Jess's dark eyelashes flutter against her high cheek. "I guess I do."

"And you've told her this?"

Renee nodded. "I think she knew, but yes, I've told her, more or less. Shann . . . "

Shann allowed her time to gather her thoughts.

"I don't know how you feel about me being here," Renee said finally. "Not you, personally, but all of you, from Tristaine. I know that Jess -- cares about me, but you guys didn't know you'd be taking on an extra refugee." Renee paused. "One who was with the other side herself, only a month ago . . . I don't know why you should trust me. I'm an outsider, basically."

"Well, you probably always have been, basically. That's how most women seek out Tristaine -- they come to us because they don't belong in the city."

Renee absorbed this statement silently for awhile. She could have refuted the idea that she'd willingly sought out anything, except an honest paycheck, but she wasn't even sure that was true anymore.

"Tristaine isn't unique." Shann brushed a pine needle off Jess's arm. "At least we don't think we are, communication between counties being what it isn't. We believe there might be one or two clans very like Tristaine, for every city in the country. Full of women who don't fit in."

"That's what the tabloids say," Renee said carefully.

Shann grinned at her. "Renee, take your time. If you ever feel you need to leave us, we'll find a way to send you somewhere safe. Just let things happen at their own pace, for now."

"I'm trying." Renee cleared her throat. "I guess this is as good a time as any, to draw a clean slate, wherever I end up. It's not like I'm leaving a lot behind. Except for my sister, I'm not close to my family. I've always been good at my work, though." She needed no reassurance there.

Shann nodded.

"I'm crazy about Kyla," Renee continued, "and for some reason, I feel really easy with you. Camryn -- well, Cam and I didn't get off on the right foot, but now -- she's let me take care of her, and I've seen Hannah's picture, so -- "

Frustrated, Renee realized she was starting to talk with her hands, a sure signal that she was losing elocutionary steam. "I don't know where I'm going with this -- I've never had much practice making friends. I'm not sure how to do it."

"I often wished we hadn't lost Tristaine's language." Shann brushed a lock of hair off Renee's forehead, as naturally as she'd kissed Kyla good night hours ago. "Today, we only have remnants. We struggle with such paltry, inadequate terms for friendship, but Tristaine's founders had many ways of describing the bonds between women. I think I understand what you're saying, Renee."

"Good." Renee's shoulders slumped in relief. "I think you do too, oddly enough."

They both looked down at Jess, who was tightening beneath the blanket, the smoothness of her brow growing tense. Renee shifted closer to her, and slipped her hand beneath Jess's dark hair to cup the back of her neck.

"This helps her relax, sometimes," Renee murmured, kneading the tight muscles at the base of Jess's skull.

"Good. I used that touch to ease Dyan's headaches, the ones my herbs couldn't help."

Renee looked up at the note of sadness in Shann's voice.

"Did you know Dyan was my wife?" Shann asked. "I don't know how much you've heard about Tristaine's high council, so far."

"No." Renee's eyes went a deeper green. "I mean, I know you, and Dyan, and Jess, were all on this council -- I knew Dyan was Tristaine's military leader, and that she was kil -- that she was murdered. With Cam's sister. I didn't know you and Dyan were bonded, Shann. I'm sorry."

"Thank you," Shann said, and she seemed to mean it. "I'm sorry she's gone, too. I wish you could have known Dyan. She'd laugh to hear us called 'bonded,' though -- another of those new Tristanian terms. Dyan was my wife, and I was hers." Shann's grey eyes shimmered in the firelight. "In Tristaine's old language, the word 'wife' is a prayer -- in and of itself. I've always liked that."

Renee felt a tightness in her throat. "I like that too."

Shann looked down at Jess, who had relaxed again in the grass. "Why don't you stretch out for awhile, young Blades, just for a few hours. I'll wake Kyla soon, to take a second watch, and I can take third before your turn comes around. Sound reasonable?"

"Sounds fine to me," Renee sighed, already unwinding on the grass next to Jess's sleeping form. Shann spread the blanket to cover her as well, and Renee grinned when she felt her tuck it securely beneath her side. "Does anyone in Tristaine ever accuse you of mothering them, Shann?"

"Frequently." Shann bent and kissed Renee's cheek. "And I always consider it a great compliment. Now sleep, Renee. That's a royal command."

____ *** ____

She was riding the black horse again, over forested hills this time, the wind lifting her blonde hair. She knew she was in no danger now, but she knew, just as certainly, that her safety was an illusion that would fade, soon. Something followed.

"Renee."

She came awake with a shuddering gasp, darting up on one elbow so fast she almost smacked Shann with her head. She felt the older woman's steadying hand on her arm, and she spoke as soon as she could breathe evenly. "Sorry. What."

"Everyone's safe. It's all right, give yourself a moment to wake up."

Renee craved a drink with something like despair for an unsettling moment, but the urge faded. Nothing like a heightened startle reflex to start off the day. "Jess?"

"She's better."

Renee put her hand out, and felt a moment of panic in spite of Shann's words to find the pallet beside her empty. She looked up at Shann, blinking.

"Jess is better," Shann repeated, keeping her voice low. She was outlined in faint blue light, so sunrise must be close. "Her fever broke early in Kyla's watch. She's had a solid six hours of sleep -- that's enough until we get some breakfast down her, at least."

Shann helped her sit up. Renee raked her fingers through her hair, and craned to see Camryn's face, half-covered by Kyla's curling red tresses, on the air-pallet nearby.

"Cam's fine too," Shann confirmed, "I've checked her. Jess felt strong enough to stretch a little, which I thought would be all right. I'd rather she not be alone long, though -- "

Renee was already getting up, trying not to groan after another night on the damp ground. "Can you point me?"

Shann nodded toward the dry river bed. "She promised not to go far. So I expect the two of you back by lunch."

Renee was awake enough now to hear the joke, and she offered a weak smile as she tied her sneakers. "Is there decent coffee in Tristaine?" she asked, rather wistfully.

"The best," Shann nodded. "And I brought some. Jess lives on it. Go tell her, I'll keep an eye on our casualty of war, over there."

Renee nodded and limped toward the riverbed, still trembling a little from her abrupt awakening.

"Renee?" Shann looked after her, folding the army blanket neatly. "What's this about a black horse?"

Renee groaned. Unlike Jess, talking in her sleep was nothing new for her, Sam used to tease her about it. "Just a dream, Shann. Not even a nightmare, just me riding a black horse, running away from something . . . chasing us."

Renee didn't feel the suddenly intent grey eyes on her as she made her way down the rise of the riverbank.

Shann felt a warm arm slide around her waist, and Kyla rested her head on her shoulder, yawning.

"Everything okay?"

"So far so good. Jess is stronger." Shann put her arm around Kyla's slender shoulders, still looking after Renee with a bemused expression. "I'm about to cook breakfast, want to help?"

"Sure." Kyla eyed her elder sister and queen curiously, then followed her fixed gaze. "What? Is something up with Renee?"

"Possibly," Shann murmured. "We need to move our camp, Kyla, just as soon as Camryn and Jesstin are strong enough. We may not be safe here much longer. And I'm beginning think we might have a seer among us, at last."

____ *** ____

True to her word, Jess hadn't gone far.

She'd found a nice ledge to rest on, topping a bluff just yards west of the riverbed. Renee's first sight of Jess was her square shoulders and erect posture, even seated, and then the dizzying vista of treetops below her.

After months of confinement, Jess was enjoying the view, so she didn't turn around. "Good morning."

"Yeah," Renee said pleasantly. "How about you move, maybe, six feet back from that edge."

Jess turned her head stiffly and regarded Renee, who waited on the patch of grass between the riverbed and the bluff. The Amazon smiled, and lifted herself on her heels and hands to inch painfully back toward the grass.

"Sorry." Renee winced, and folded her arms against the pre-dawn chill. "But you're still weak enough that you might pitch head-first off that thing, and I hate heights enough that I'd probably just let you fall."

Jess eased herself carefully onto the grass as Renee knelt beside her, and brushed the gravel from her palms. "Better?"

Renee sat back on her heels, studying her patient. "Well, your powers of recuperation continue to amaze me, but apparently they don't extend to cosmetics. Sheesh, Jesstin, how many shades of bruise are you capable of?"

Jess chuckled ruefully, and allowed Renee's cursory examination of her visible ills -- touching her neck to gauge fever, taking her pulse, turning her head gently to check her blue eyes.

"How are you going to climb a mountain range with a fear of heights?" Jess asked seriously.

"I'm not going to look down." Renee touched the tender swelling beneath Jess's eye. "You ready to head back? Shann says there's Tristainian coffee brewing."

"Renee, do you realize we can't go home?"

Renee looked at her, startled.

Jess lifted her hand, and held it. "Not to Tristaine. None of Shann's council can, for awhile. Maybe not years."

"I guess I knew that." Renee let out a long breath, surprised by a faint rush of disappointment. "You're right, it wouldn't be smart for Tristaine's high council to come strolling down main street, if that -- mad scientist banshee -- is waiting for you there. Where can we go?"

"Through the mountains." Jess nodded toward a distant pass, barely visible now beneath the brightening sky. "Past the county line. And hopefully to a friendly village, somewhere, that's heard of Tristaine."

"Some village, somewhere?" Renee's green eyes were bleak. "It sounds like a long hike, Jess. Five women, two of them injured. Even Tristaine might be safer, at least for awhile, than a journey like -- "

"It might be," Jess interrupted, "for you."

Renee met Jess's guarded gaze silently for a moment. "You mean, without you? So -- you and the others would head for the county line . . . .but first, you'd drop me off, close enough to Tristaine that even a city drone like me could find it?"

"Your choice, Renee." Jess shrugged her aching shoulders, and kept her voice as toneless as she could manage. "You could probably have a life in Tristaine. You'd be welcome in any home in the village, with a letter from Shann. Caster's not looking for you, you'd be safe there."

"Tristaine isn't safe, Jess," Renee said gently. "Caster's project was funded by the military, and that means they've got your village targeted. That's not going to change. Eventually, there's going to be a war. And now, they've managed to get Tristaine's strongest leaders either killed or banished."

Jess said nothing. They sat quietly for awhile, listening to the birdsong that filled the cool air.

"Do you want me to stay with you?" Renee asked.

"I'm sorry?"

"Do you want me to stay with you?"

A variety of emotions crossed Jess's fine features, from surprise at the question to the dawning of a certain grim resolution. "Yeah, Renee, I want you to stay with me, with us. On one condition."

Renee cleared her throat. "What's that?"

"I've fallen in love with you, and you've fallen in love with me back," Jess said. "You're my adannin already, and you've been my lover since that morning at the river. Someday I hope you'll be my adonai, my wife."

Renee's mouth fell open, but Jess lifted an eyebrow and silenced her.

"That means a lot of things," Jess continued, "Here's just one. You have to tell me you want me, flat out, and that you want me to touch you. Because touching you a lot, Renee, is going to be mandatory on this -- hike -- if you and I are going to wake up together every morning."

High color filled Renee's cheeks. She was not often speechless, and was not now, but she was close. She wanted to crank her hands to try to jump-start her voice again, but she couldn't move -- she was looking into sunlit blue eyes.

Women didn't talk this way to each other, in the city. Even women who were lovers, in Renee's limited experience. Mating was usually a banal, if physically rewarding activity. Love was rarely mentioned. It was considered unsophisticated. (The belief in love was one bond Renee shared with her sister, Samantha.)

She hesitated, watching Jess's patient eyes. Then she figured she'd just follow her heart, and the words were there.

"Okay."

Well, the word.

Jess blinked. "Yeah?"

"Sure." Renee thought about it, then nodded. "I do." She laughed. "I mean, yes, I'm in love with you, and you can touch me, any time."

Jess stared at her, disconcerted. Later, she would learn that all three of her sisters had noticed, and rather appreciated, Renee's Amazonian directness. The dark woman grinned, and started unsnapping her shirt.

Renee smiled. "What are we doing."

"I'm going to ravish you before breakfast."

"No, you're not."

Jess nodded, and pulled her shirttails out of her pants.

"Jesstin." Renee reached out to touch Jess's face, but she caught her hand.

"Don't worry about me, girl. I'm well enough to take on someone your size. If you refuse me now, let it be because you -- "

"Amazons make such bloody long speeches," Renee sighed. "All I wanted to know was whether you felt up to it -- "

She surged hard against Jess, wrapping her fingers in her wild dark hair, and pulling her head down for an ineffably heated kiss.

The two women groped their way toward the rocky ground in full, unabashed liplock. Both of them cursed when their bodies hit the earth -- Jess cursed because it hurt her back, Renee cursed because Jess did -- but both of them did so without ending the kiss. Their tongues entwined and they rolled.

Renee's clothing was half off before she looked up, and realized how close to the ledge they were. Jess knew they were safe, but Renee panicked a bit. She thrashed upright in Jess's arms instinctively -- not fighting her, just following a gut-level need to regain control, and back away from danger.

"Wait," Jess breathed behind her. Her strong arms were wrapped around Renee's waist, and she pulled her upright against her, her bare back pressing into Jess's open shirt. Now they both kneeled in the grass, the dark woman behind the light one, looking out over a carpeted expanse of green, silent space. Jess's arm was clamped beneath Renee's exposed breasts, which bobbed against her tanned skin, the pink tips swollen and hard.

"The fear you're feeling now will be part of your life with us," Jess whispered. Her long fingers wrapped around Renee's cool breast and squeezed. "But it will be a clean fear, not like the kind you grew up with, in the city." She began kneading both full globes, methodically.

Renee groaned with pleasure, in spite of her racing pulse. The edge of the bluff still felt terribly close, but her tension began to drain from her as Jess's palm rasped across her turgid nipples.

"We can't offer you safety, Ren. We'll be refugees at first, perhaps for a long time."
Jess's free hand wormed down beneath the waistband of Renee's slacks. "Spread your knees, Renee."

After the Amazon's questing fingers skated over the younger woman's soft mound, they moved on to discover that her thighs were still clenched together. Jess slapped the girl's sensitive vulva, hard, and Renee gasped and jerked her thighs apart, feeling the burning rasp of the grass against her kneecaps.

"And you're not alone any more." The faint echo of a brogue touched Jess's voice again. "You have sisters, other adannin. You have me, lass." Her fingers swarmed down over her damp cleft, probing.

"Jesstin -- " Renee's hips bucked as two long fingers slithered up into her vagina, filling her snugly, then impaling her with a grinding twist. Jess began fucking her, with smooth, relentless strokes.

"I'm a warrior, adannin," Jess murmured in her ear, "And I pledge my life to keeping you safe."

The young woman grunted as the Amazon flexed her knuckles gently, stretching her, before resuming the tireless digging. The rough side of her narrowed hand scrubbed against Renee's straining clitoris, sending needles of heat sparking along her shoulder blades.

"Tell me if you choose a life with us," Jess panted in Renee's scarlet ear. "Answer me, with your body."

Gasping, Renee looked down and saw her stuffed mound protrude beneath her taut breasts with each surge of Jess's fingers inside her, and she whimpered helplessly, her blonde head falling against Jess's bare shoulder, and then she exploded.

____ *** ____

Jess wrapped the army blanket around them both after they'd calmed down, and they watched the sun finish peaking over the eastern rise. Renee sat in the grass in front of Jess, between her long legs, her back against the Amazon's chest.

Renee was dozing, and Jess was marveling at Renee's capacity to fall asleep, almost instantly, under any circumstances they had thus far encountered together. Actually, Renee suffered from insomnia as often as Jess did, but they wouldn't learn that until the cougar attacked, five mornings hence.

Jess shifted her aching shoulder an inch, trying not to rouse the sleeping woman whose head rested against it. She looked down, and gave in to an uncharacteristic wave of maternal protectiveness. Renee slept like a child in her arms. Shann would understand why Jess found the brief sensation of mothering her lover so sweet.

"Hey." Jess squeezed her gently.

"Sorry. What. Hey."

"Nothing, querida. My butt's falling asleep, though."

Renee opened her eyes in stages, letting the morning sky fill her vision, as blue as her lover's eyes.

After awhile, they helped each other up, then made their way back up the riverbed, toward the faint, spicy aroma of fresh-brewed Tristainian coffee.

____ **** ____

End

This chapter marks the end of The Clinic series. I'll go on writing about the women of Tristaine, but probably privately, unless there's interest. If you'd like to read any future series, please drop me a line. Many thanks again to Judy (Wishes), my beta Heron, and the intrepid webmistresses who sponsored this not-for-all-tale

Klancy7



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