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Disclaimers:

Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. and their universe are the intellectual (and monetary!) property of Renaissance/MCA/Universal. No infringement or offense is intended in any way. Ferdinand de Saussure, a very real individual, was a giant in the field of historical linguistics and author of the laryngeal theory.

Acknowledgement: This was written as a present for Bat Morda and as such it uses her setup for the Janice and Mel storyline, including characters that she herself created. All done in good fun and officially cleared and stamped by the Bat.

Subtext: Itís like sorta the prelude to the subtext, so yeah, I reckon itís there.

No Armenian pronouns were harmed in the writing of this fanfic.

For Bat, on her birthday--September 23, 1997

Prelude to a Dig

By L. Graham

lgraham3@hotmail.com

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Pandora Booth paused at the entrance to the dining room, peering around the swinging door that led to the kitchen. For a moment, she watched the graceful dark-haired woman unobserved. Then, shaking her head sadly, she bustled through, determined to make an effort even if it wasnít welcome.

"How is everything, Miz Melinda?"

Melinda Pappas looked up slowly, her eyes taking a moment to focus on her longtime housekeeper and friend. Glancing down at the barely touched meal before her, she cleared her throat and nodded. "Fine. Everything was wonderful."

"Hmmph. And how would you know that seeiní as how you didnít try a bit of it?"

At that, Mel smiled weakly. "Iím sorry, ĎDora, I just havenít had much appetite lately."

No interest in doing nothiní but sitting in that study and staring at the walls, the housekeeper thought disapprovingly. Not good for a child, no, it isnít. Itíd been three months already since the dean passed over, but Miz Melindaís still wearing black and looking like she thinks he might walk through the door any minute.

"I got a fresh pecan pie thatís just about done cooliní," she offered cajolingly. The heiress shook her head slightly, folding the white linen napkin and placing it back on the table.

"Maybe later."

Later means never, ĎDora thought angrily. Later means more sleepless nights, paciní up and down the halls or sortiní through the deanís papers, trying to do anything but give up the grief.

"Give her time," Hyperion had said last night. "Lord knows sheís been hurt with her Mama walkiní out like that. Her Daddy did his best, but he didnít know nothiní about little girls."

"I jusí wish she wasnít so alone. Maybe if she had someone, even a friend..."

"Look out," her husband had grinned, "my womanís got her heart set on somethiní and I know the Lordís not gonna hear the end of it Ďtil you get your way."

ĎDora squared her considerable shoulders and began clearing away the dishes. "Well, if you donít mind, Miz Melinda, Iím gonna head on out now. Itís choir night and I donít wants to be late."

"Oh, of course," Mel said quickly, pushing her chair back. "Iíll just see you in the morning."

"No, Iíll be back by before I turn in, just to check on things."

"ĎDora..." Mel looked at the older woman with a reluctant half smile. "I know what youíre doing. But Iím all right, really. Itís just going to take a while to get used to being here and not, well..." She swallowed and constructed another apologetic smile. "Now I want you to go and have a good time. Sing one for me."

"All right then," ĎDora agreed at last. Mel watched her leave, remaining out on the porch for a long moment before closing the door and turning the latch behind her.


The clock had struck midnight, Mel realized dimly. Twelve chimes, yes, that had been the count. Sighing, she began neatening the paper stacks strewn across the desk. Two more articles had been completed and were now ready to send off to the scholarly journals her father had published in for so many years. One more for the Occidental Society--or the Accidentals, as ĎDora called them--and she would meet her goal for the week. Mel idly considered adding her own name to the authorship credits, but this was a labor of love, her last rites for her father, and it wouldíve felt like grave robbing.

Mel stretched her arms above her head, feeling a series of slight pops run down her spine. How long had she been sitting without a break? It occurred to her that she had simply lost all track of time and that had been the original point, after all.

"How many more days can I get out of yíall, hmmm?" She addressed the still untouched boxes of papers and correspondence that rested beside the desk, hauled here from Columbia. In a near panic she had gutted her fatherís study, taking everything that was portable and retreated here to her childhood home, searching for...

What?

Mel pursed her lips, lightly drumming her fingers on the desktop. At least another month. If she worked with extra care, she might stretch the tasks to six weeks. And then her mind, that razor sharp intellect honed by years of study, would continue to spin, restless and grief-stricken, finally turning inward when she no longer had these matters to feed it. The loneliness was nearly overwhelming even now, but then it would be...

Mel shivered slightly, pulling her light cotton sweater closer around her. Something else to think about, quick now--ah, tomorrowís agenda. She pulled the day calendar close to her and adjusted her glasses, peering down at the blank white pages. She raised her eyebrows in surprise to see that there was actually something noted for the following evening.

Dinner, Vice Chancellorís house, 7:30, drinks at 7:00

Fundraising, Mel sighed. That was all the university would want her for at this point. Never mind the fact that she had been trained by the finest historical linguist since de Saussure, Mel knew she was little more than a curiosity to the other professors. It was harmless enough to let her play at being an academic, but since she lacked the formal advanced degree--and she was, after all, a girl--she would remain in the bleacher seats, watching.

But money on the other hand, well, that was something they liked about her. With a loud snap, Mel closed the calendar. They could continue to like it, but they werenít going to get it, not from her. She might be innocent and even naive, but she wasnít stupid. No, she had been manipulated by the best, beginning with her mother the socialite, and Mel remembered the lessons all too well.

"Miss Pappas," the Chancellor smiled warmly. "Itís so good of you to come, and at such a sad time. I was sorry to hear of your loss. Melvin was a fine administrator and a brilliant scholar."

Mel nodded, quietly accepting the compliment.

"Will you be long here in North Carolina?"

"Yes," she replied, spotting an opening. "Iíve actually moved back to the house that we have here. I was thinking...oh, thank you." She paused as he solicitously refilled her champagne glass. "I was thinking of staying here permanently. I donít know if you have any adjunct positions open in linguistics, but I thought I might..."

The Chancellorís face had not exactly frozen, but taken on a certain strained quality. He was nodding, but his eyes were focused just a few inches past Melinda. "I donít know about teaching," he said genially, "but I do know that the alumni committee is always looking for help. Someone with your connections would be a valuable asset. Itís a wonderful way to volunteer and remain..."

She had stopped listening at some point, feeling the momentary surge of hope that the invitation to dinner had brought drown beneath the cold realization that it all boiled down to money. It always had and it always would. No one had ever looked at Melinda Pappas for anything other than her social standing, had ever asked (for no particular reason) what her favorite baseball team was. As a matter of fact, she didnít have one, but that wasnít the point.

No one had ever asked.

No one ever would.

Mel leaned back in the soft leather chair, forcing her muscles to relax. She could always return to Columbia, but there was nothing there for her now. That house was filled with too many memories of her father as it was. And, she considered wryly, there was always Mother.

Kathryn Von Melosa had sent a telegram at the news of her ex-husbandís death. Sorry for your loss. Stop. Terribly tragic. Stop. Cannot come to funeral. Stop. Already committed to events here. Stop.

Sorry for your--not our--loss. Kathryn had cut herself off years ago, and effectively Mel as well, at least unless it was convenient to trot her daughter out for one thing or another. Besides, going to New York would be as good as admitting defeat. The best she could hope for would be a few days at some of the nicer restaurants before Mother began parading her around like a brood mare at a stock auction. And it was, after all, New York.

The tall Southerner stood, gracefully unfolding herself as she switched off the desk lamp and set out the envelopes to be mailed off the next day. Still not sleepy, she wandered to the bay window overlooking the orchard and pulled back the curtain to watch the trees bathed in moonlight.

Itís all right, Melinda. Iíll catch you.

Fearfully, the girl eyed the distance to the ground, flicking her eyes between it and her father.

Trust me...Iíll always catch you.

She finally wrenched her hands away from the tree trunk and threw herself, stiff bodied, out into the void, scooped up in the cradle of her fatherís arms.

To be held that way again...

Mel quickly turned away, letting the curtains fall back across the window, shutting out the memory. He hadnít been perfect, preoccupied with his own work at times, but he had loved her, and the thought of what she had lost only made its absence that much keener. Better not to feel anything at all...


Standing barefoot in her slip, facing the bathroom mirror, Mel evaluated herself critically. Mother was always telling her that she had such a pretty face if only she wouldnít hide it so. Speculatively, she took off her glasses and found that, as always, she was as blind as a bat without them. It wasnít really that bad though, Mel thought hopefully. Blue eyes that were pretty enough, and a nice complexion--at least that was what Hunter Richardson had always said.

Mel firmly replaced her glasses at the thought of Hunter and stared back into the mirror with a sour expression. Lord, what a catastrophe that had nearly been. Motherís brilliant idea of an arrangement, never mind that he was a complete cad and cared more for his hunting dogs than her. She was glad now that she had managed to avoid kissing him that New Yearís Eve. She had considered it, certainly, but with an almost scientific curiosity--what would it feel like? In the end, sheer repulsion had won out.

Mel hugged her arms a little tighter across her chest, aware of how gangly and awkward she felt, as if sheíd never really adjusted to that sudden growth spurt that had put her on eye level with her father. Like it was someone elseís body and she had a temporary lease, but hadnít quite figured out all the instructions yet.

What would Daddy say if he knew you were torturing yourself like this? Mel thought sharply. Dead can hear your thoughts, least thatís what he always said.

Sighing, she flipped out the light and determined to get what sleep she could.


Mel curled tightly on one side of the large four poster bed, almost afraid to turn over and be swallowed by the vast expanse. She made a note to see if her smaller twin bed could brought up from Columbia.

Not that youíll sleep any better then, she thought despondently. It was just so...quiet. She was accustomed to the gentle rhythm of the road that had run by their house that adjoined the university campus--cars, students, and strangers passing along the street. Even her fatherís snoring, so ferocious at times that it threatened to loosen the plaster, had been soothing in its own way.

Never knew silence could be so loud.

Mel groaned, feeling the stinging tears begin to rise. Frustrated, she brushed them back and buried her face against the pillow, willing herself into sleep.


Mel blinked at the bright sunlight beating down and felt the warm air press in around her. It was a healthy heat though, clean and strong, burning away the haze that coated her mind. She was walking without knowing where she was going or even where she had been, leading a large palomino by the reins. Mel eyed the horse speculatively and the horse eyed her back, but seemed friendly enough.

The ground was sandy underfoot, speckled with reeds and tall grass. The air smelled of salt and as she came over a small hill, Mel saw sand dunes spreading out before her and the sea just beyond. This was not the calm, quiet tidal plain that she had known as a child along the Carolina coast, but a huge blue expanse, as wild as it was vast. There was something familiar about it though, something that said she should know the place, but...

"There you are!"

A warm voice called out and Mel turned to see a young woman struggling up the incline of the dune toward her, bracing her weight on a walking staff. The horse whinnied a greeting.

"I was wondering when youíd get here." Smiling, the shorter woman came to a halt in front of Mel, shading her eyes as she looked up.

"S...sorry I was late," the Southerner stammered. At least, it seemed that she had been late.

"Oh, I knew youíd come back." The womanís light red hair blew wildly as the shoreline breeze picked up and she had to fight to keep it out of her face. It was then that Mel noticed that the woman had the greenest eyes she had ever seen. There was a look of such trust, devotion, and affection pooled there that the breath caught in her throat. No one had ever looked at Melinda Pappas this way before. "You promised."

"I did? I mean, I did. Yes, I did."

"Uh huh." The young woman smiled again, gently and with a touch of reproach. "But it felt like youíd been gone forever. Donít make me wait that long again, OK?"

"All right," Mel agreed unsteadily, noticing that the woman was standing a good bit closer now than she had been a moment ago. She hugged Mel tightly, one arm crooked around the taller womanís waist. Then looking up, her eyes softened again.

"I missed you so much, love." Her warm lips brushed Melís in a soft kiss that seemed to...

 

Mel awoke with a start, her heart pounding wildly. Sitting up, she fumbled for the bedside lamp, nearly knocking over a glass of water in the process. She pulled the light covers up close around her as she sat for long minutes, propped against the headboard. Somehow exhausted and wide awake all at once, Mel let her forehead rest against her knees as she forced herself to breathe calmly.

It didnít mean anything; it was only a dream. Just a dream.

Then why had it felt so real? She was crying now she realized, probably had been the whole time given how far the tears had run. So real...and in that moment, Mel had felt everything she never had before, but had always suspected she could. And now, alone in this dark cavern, she knew she had never been so cold or empty in all her life. She had spent years masking it with devotion to her father, to her work, and in the end it all came down to stacks of paper, all boxed away in musty attics. But that woman had looked at her with such love...

Fighting for control, Mel slid out of bed and shrugged into a loose robe, belting it securely around herself. This was ridiculous--just a dream. She hadnít eaten a very good dinner; that was probably it. Her mind was overactive, still upset from the move and the emptiness of the house.

Mel padded quietly back toward the study, turning on the desk lamp. It cast a soft gold glow over the wooden surface--just enough to work by, just enough to beat back the shadows for a few more hours. She set to work opening the next box of papers and sorting them into stacks. Not for the first time, Mel noticed the name "Xena" scribbled in the margins of her fatherís translations. That warranted a whole separate stack.

She was using up her distractions at a rapid rate, Mel knew, but she needed something to occupy her mind, to bludgeon it into numb submission until she could drop off for a few more hours. This job shouldíve taken a good day, but she was tearing through it with frenetic abandon.

In her haste, Mel nearly missed the scrap of paper, a crumpled rectangle measuring not quite five inches by eight. Smoothing it out on the desktop, she adjusted her glasses and picked out the fading words of the telegram.

Marvelous find. Stop. Need assistance translating. Stop. No hoax. Stop. Come at once. Stop. Harry Covington.

Harry Covington. Mel mouthed the name a few times, frowning. The telegram had been sent from a remote city in Macedonia, no doubt the closest to whatever site this Covington was working at. But her father had been out of the active field for decades--why would a perfect stranger contact him about a simple translation?

Restless, Mel searched the bookcases, looking for the latest annuals of archaeological research, each summarizing the work of the previous year. She flipped through the index of several volumes, but found no Covingtons. Finally, in a sidebar notation, Mel saw a reference to an H.C. in connection with controversial research into the mythical character known as Xena.

An hour later, books spread open over any available surface, Mel was entranced. All the lights in the study were blazing and she sipped at a fresh cup of coffee, though she hardly needed the stimulation to stay awake. She could see now why her father had never mentioned his interest in this particular venture--Harry Covingtonís reputation left something to be desired, as did his choice of subject matter. From what Mel could gather from glancing through correspondence, the dean had in fact known Covington, but she could certainly understand why their connection had never become general knowledge.

Turning another thick, pulpy page, Mel started at the grainy black and white photo nestled in the upper corner. Setting aside her coffee cup, she tilted the lamp angle to get a clearer look at the figures gathered around the open dig site. Several men leaned on shovels, grinning for the camera, while others crouched more solemnly, looking up with sober eyes. The caption indicated Harry Covington as the stocky fair headed man with a pith helmet set back on the crown of his head, standing at the center of the semi circle. He had an open face that seemed to laugh, but there was something hungry in his eyes that made Mel uncomfortable and slightly sad.

She continued to examine the photo and felt her breath come to a slow, soft halt when her eyes fell on the figure standing just to Covingtonís left. Her hair pulled back, dressed in manís clothing for the dig, the young woman had the same set mouth as Covington, seeming equally driven. The family resemblance could not be denied.

Neither, Mel realized with a racing pulse, could the fact that this was the woman from her dream.

Anxiously, Mel brushed her fingertips over the picture, scrutinizing the image until she felt a sharp twinge in the middle of her forehead. She sat back reluctantly, pinching the bridge of her nose to relieve the stress.

It was just a dream, she repeated incessantly. She must have seen the photo before; maybe Daddy had shown it to her once in their long afternoons working quietly together. Mel replaced her glasses and studied the photo again, peering into the womanís face, searching her eyes--cursing the fact that it wasnít a color reproduction.


The first thing that Pandora noticed that morning as she slowly climbed the steps was that the door stood ajar. Nothing else seemed out of place, but she stepped cautiously into the dim foyer.

"Miz Melinda?" she called. Then hearing the dim echo of a voice, ĎDora moved quickly toward the front sitting room. She stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of two small suitcases sitting in the hallway with Melindaís handbag perched neatly across their handles.

"Thank you," Mel repeated into the telephone. "I understand itís short notice. Again, thank you." Replacing the receiver, she met ĎDoraís eyes and slowly straightened.

"Well, good morniní to you, too," the housekeeper drawled. She took a long moment to look the younger woman up and down, noting that she was dressed in a tan traveling suit with her hair neatly pinned up. Anything but black, ĎDora thought with a relieved sigh.

"I can explain," Mel said weakly. "At least I think I can."

ĎDora raised one hand, halting the fumbling words. "All you needs to tell me is that youíre taking a nice trip for yourself. And that youíre not gonna take any of those big olí books with the funny writiní in Ďem along with you."

"Yes and no." Mel had to consider the questions carefully. "Iím not sure how long Iíll be gone, but I am going away. Iím afraid I have to take a few books though--itís something of a business trip."

ĎDoraís open face took on a suspicious scowl. "Better not be any more of those Arminian proverbs."

"Armenian pronouns," Mel corrected absently. "No, I think Iíve had enough of those for one lifetime." Something about the phrase struck her oddly and she straightened with renewed purpose. "An old colleague of Daddyís wrote asking for help and Iím going to see what I can do. Will you be all right here on your own for a few weeks? I went ahead and left your pay for next month here as well as some contacts in case..."

Quickly Mel began riffling through a folder of papers she had assembled on the sideboard table and only stopped when Pandora laid a gentle hand over her own.

"You just go on now, Miz Melinda. I donít wanna hear another word about it. Me and Hyperioníll keep an eye on the place for you and you wonít miss a thing."

Mel smiled gratefully and ĎDora realized this was the first genuine smile sheíd seen out of the young woman since the dean had died. Well, Lord, I reckon you do move mighty fast when youíve a mind. I wasnít expecting an answer so quick, but Iíll thank you just the same.

An automobile horn sounded outside, startling the women. ĎDora insisted on taking one of the bags and waiting while Mel negotiated with the cab driver.

"If that fella from the university calls," ĎDora began disapprovingly, "what should I tell him youíre off lookiní for?"

Mel opened her mouth, then closed it. The color of a womanís eyes...it would never do. "I donít exactly know," she confessed. "But I think Iíll know it when I find it."

"Thaís good enough for me." Impulsively, ĎDora pulled Mel to her in a close embrace, each forgetting for a moment their roles as employer and servant, heiress and housekeeper. "You know I love you like míown, Miz Melinda. You go on and be safe now."

Mel nodded, her throat thick with some unidentified emotion. As the driver pressed the horn lightly once more, she clasped ĎDoraís hand, then climbed into the cab.

"I guess weíre all missing somethiní inside," the housekeeper whispered. "Just some of us have to go farther than others to find it. And I pray you do, Miz Melinda, I pray you do."

The End

 


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