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DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Mel, Janice, Argo, and various Amazons are copyright MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement is intended. This is written just for fun.

LOVE ALERT: Kinda sounds like a Barry White song, donít it? This story features a romantic relationship between two women. There is no graphic sex or violence. Thereís a lot of swearing though (blame that on Janice). If you canít deal, please read another story, or take your meds before proceeding.

HOMAGE: The authorís pseudonym is courtesy Vladimir Nabokov; heís probably not gonna be using it any time soon.

Any comments to: lat18@columbia.edu will be passed on to the author.

ALL THE COLORS OF THE WORLD

BY Vivian Darkbloom

Part I THE BARD BRAT

 

It was a hot, late afternoon day in June of 1943. Melinda Pappas sat on the expansive porch of her home in Charlotte, eagerly awaiting the arrival of her guest, due any minute now, from the train station. As she fanned herself in her wicker chair, the Reverend Dupree, his wife, and two of their young daughters emerged onto their porch, to Melinda's left. "Good afternoon, Melinda," called the young Reverend. "Care to join us for lemonade?"

"Why, that's very kind of you, Reverend," drawled Mel, "but I am expecting someone very shortly..." and your two little brats look like they'd sooner drink poison than let me have any of their lemonade, she thought. The wife looked a little relieved as well; Melinda, beautiful, rich, aristocratic, was nonetheless viewed as terribly eccentric by the upper crust of Charlotte, due to her single status, living alone in her late father's home, her seeming lack of interest in men, and her scholarly inclinations.

The Reverend, however, believed that there was no harm in trying. Especially with such an attractive woman...he blushed as Melinda smiled at him. "I understand completely. Well, if your guest does arrive soon...perhaps you can bring her over for a nice cool drink."

Maybe if you offer scotch on the rocks, she'd like that, Mel thought. She was about to respond when she saw a yellow cab swerve violently onto their street and careen down the block, halting dramatically in front of her home. From their respective porches the Duprees and Mel watched the drama unfold. They saw the driver turn in his seat, red-faced, to yell something at his passenger. His door swung open and he stomped out. The rider in the back seat was, the Reverend and his family thought, a young man dressed in a rather rugged fashion: a rumpled fedora and a brown leather jacket. As the cabbie opened his trunk, a back door swung open and a loud female voice could be heard: "It's not my damn fault you got lost!" The figure emerged. The Duprees emitted a collective gasp as the man pulled off the fedora, revealing a mass of red-gold hair and a decidedly feminine face. Mel smiled at the sight, her heart even skipping a beat, as Janice Covington slapped the old fedora against her khaki pants.

The cabbie ungraciously threw her bag on the street. "Son of a BITCH!" roared Janice. Mel cast a sideways glance at her neighbors. She could feel them go pale with shock. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Be careful with that!" the red-haired archaeologist shouted.

"Too late now," sniped the cabbie. He stood defiantly, arms crossed. Angrily, she put her hat back on.

"Too late for a decent tip as well," retorted the archaeologist. She tossed a dime at him.

It hit his barrel chest and fell to the street. He shook his head. "Thanks," he sneered.

"GO TO HELL!" she yelled as he climbed in the cab and drove off. She grabbed the bag off the street and sauntered up the walk, shaking off her bad mood. Catching sight of Mel, and oblivious to the shocked Duprees, she grinned.

Climbing up on the porch, Janice dropped the bag, tilted up her fedora, and bellowed in her crassest Yankee fashion, "Well sweetheart, glad to see me?"

She was. But then she glanced over at her neighbors, flummoxed. Mrs. Dupree had tried to shelter the children behind her abundant hips. The Reverend's face was the reddest she'd ever seen, even redder than when he first saw her in a bathing suit so many years ago.

Mel remembered very little of her mother, who died when she was very young. However, one thin memory clung to her like gossamer: her mother, smelling of perfume, lowering her lovely face to Mel and saying, "Honey, the best advice I can give you, as a Southern lady, is this: When in doubt, faint."

And, on that hot July day, under the scrutiny of her neighbors and a woman she was, she had to finally admit it to herself, having the most illicit thoughts about, she finally took her mother's advice. The last thing she saw was Janice's face. Thanks, mama, she thought, as the world went dim.

*****

Without opening her eyes Mel could tell that she was lying on the divan in her drawing room; the soft velvet fabric that crunched gently underneath her was soothing. Tentatively, she opened her eyes, and saw Janice peering anxiously down at her. Then a panoply of emotions crossed Janice's face: the anxiety melted into concern, then relief, then a wide, relaxed grin. Oh Lord, I'm going to faint again, Mel thought. That beautiful face, lit even brighter by a smile, was more than she could bear.

It had been almost a year since Mel had met the young archeologist. They kept in touch with letters and the occasional phone call, but had not seen each other since their initial meeting in Macedonia. Nonetheless, to Mel's consternation, Janice Covington remained a dominating presence in her mind. She found herself thinking of Janice whenever her mind was not engaged in other matters; and even as she continued her work on the Xena scrolls, she could barely wait to tell Janice of her new discoveries. Often, sending off a letter to Janice was the first thing she did as her work progressed as she found out more about Xena, Gabrielle, and their adventures.

And it was just a month ago that Janice suggested a visit. She had discovered another scroll, she said, and wanted Mel to work on it. So the archaeologist packed a bag and came down South.

And now, Janice smiled down upon her. "Well, Melinda, that was a hell of a how-do-you-do," she growled pleasantly. Then Mel heard the reverend's voice behind Janice: "Melinda, honey, are you all right? Your...friend...and I managed to carry you in, my goodness, you are a big girl, I always forget..."

"How could you forget? She's almost six goddamn feet tall!" Janice threw the comment over her shoulder, then quickly leaned down and whispered to Mel: "It was mostly me who carried you, believe it or not." Mel grew dizzy again at the closeness of the beautiful young woman, and the thought that she had been cradled in Janice's arms...and, kicking herself mentally, she had not even known it.

The Reverend clucked audibly. "Really, Miss Covington! The language!"

"It's Dr. Covington, Mr. Dupree."

"Reverend Dupree."

"Get the point?" she shot back.

The Reverend frowned. Ignoring her, he reached down and patted Mel's hand. "Melinda, if you need anything, please do call. My wife has sent over some lemonade, that should cool you off a bit, and maybe you should take a cold bath."

Mel's eyes had wandered down Janice's khaki shirt front, and lingered on the unbuttoned expanse that revealed soft skin and tempting cleavage. She cleared her sandpapered throat. "Why...yes, Reverend, I think a cold bath would be in order right about now," she said hoarsely.

"Wonderful! I could draw a bath for you, if you like!" the Reverend offered too enthusiastically.

Janice glowered at him. My, she really doesn't like him, Mel thought. He means well, but he's just a bit silly. But then Janice doesn't suffer fools very well.

"Er, that's quite all right, Reverend, I'm sure Janice can handle it," Mel replied.

Crestfallen, the reverend offered a goodbye, and headed home.

"Jesus, I thought he'd never leave! He's got it bad for you, Mel." Janice reached for a cigar. Popping it in her mouth, she was about to light up when she looked at Mel and noticed that her friend was sweaty, disheveled, and still a bit green around the gills. Reluctantly she tucked away the stogie for a later time. "C'mon, let's get you something to drink, then I'll prepare a bath for you. How's that sound?" Mel nodded, sitting up. "Hey, don't get up," Janice said, rising from her kneeling position on the floor and heading to the kitchen. "I'll bring it to you."

Mel slumped back and sighed. So far concealing her feelings for her friend wasn't progressing very well. She had fainted the moment she laid eyes on Janice again, and her stomach fluttered at the thought of the woman merely preparing a bath for her. Yet Janice's friendship meant too much to her; Janice was strong, independent, and smart. And they had the same interests. Mel had always longed to have a friend like that, let alone a lover, a companion...no. She could not reveal this attraction. The risk was too great. Just because her father had understood didn't mean that Janice would. Her father was an exceptional man, well-traveled and urbane, who truly understood differences among people and cultures. Who never judged.

*****

She remembered that day he brought her into his study. She was 20 and home for Christmas, from Vanderbilt. Joshua Davis, her steady beau from high school, scion of one of Charlotte's oldest and most respected families, had proposed to her the day before. He looked dapper and handsome in his army uniform; he was already a captain. As a rare snow fell, they galloped around the town square in an old-fashioned, horse-drawn carriage and he asked her to marry him. She said no, keeping her eyes fixed on the delicate flakes that swirled around them, and the puffs of icy breath emanating from their mouths. "No, Joshua...I'm not ready yet."

"When, Melinda, when?" he urged her gently.

"I don't know." They rode home in silence. He helped her out of the carriage after it drew in front of her home, kissed her hand, and drove off.

It was a small town. News of her rejection of Joshua spread quickly. And a day later, when her father called her into his study, she was certain he was going to reprimand her, in his usual gentle yet stern fashion. But...it was strange, she recalled. He was awkward, almost shy.

"I take it...you turned down the young man?" he asked softly.

She nodded.

He, too, nodded, as if he had expected it. He stood behind his desk, and as he continued too speak, he paced a little. "Melinda...love is a strange thing." he stated flatly. Idly he plucked a large black volume from one of the shelves that lined one wall from ceiling to floor. His large hands cradled it gently.

She frowned, wondering where he would go with this.

He cleared his throat. "We never know whom we shall love, or what or why someone attracts us. This can be a frightening thing for many people. And when people are frightened, they react blindly with emotion, which prevents them from truly understanding the differences among people..." he sighed.

"Daddy...?" she asked tentatively, unease gripping her.

He smiled, and, as usual, it seemed tinged with a melancholy. "I know I'm rambling my dear. I'm sorry." He placed the large book in front of her and tapped the cover. "Perhaps this might explain things...of course, you may have already read it, you are always reading so much." He chuckled.

She did not have her glasses on, and she just barely made out the name on the spine: Havelock Ellis.

Her father placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it, a quick kiss from his lips bussed the top of her head. "Know this, Melinda," his voice deep above her, "no matter what, I shall always love you very much." Another squeeze, then, "Goodnight." He left her alone.

She spent the night reading through the book; it sprawled in her lap as she sat by the fire in his study. As dawn stripped away the night, this book stripped away her own blindness, and she burned with recognition.

When the morning came, she was awakened from a light sleep by her father, in his robe, handing her a cup of fresh coffee. Wordlessly she took it from him, and as she drank it greedily, as if she spent a night wandering in a desert, her eyes never left his.

His eyes were as blue as hers. They waited, expectantly.

She put the cup down with a clack. "How did you know?" she blurted.

Again, his sad, wise smile. "You are my daughter. I know you. And I've seen you in the world. You know many men, in fact you have many male friends, but their beauty did not move you. I could see it in your eyes. At a party, when you would walk into a room with Joshua Davis, all the women would be looking at him, the most handsome young man in Charlotte. Except you."

"I was looking at Muffy Crassdale," she whispered.

He rolled his eyes. "My dear, you can do better than that. I'm sure that girl hates you, you took Joshua away from her." He sipped his own coffee. "Besides, I am certain that blonde hair of hers is quite artificial."

"Father!" she squeaked, scandalized. It was inconceivable. She was sitting here with her father, talking about women...in that way.

For his part, he laughed. "This is funny, isn't it?" He gave his daughter a wry, loving look. "Think of it as something else we have in common, Melinda: An appreciation of women."

*****

She stood up, wobbly on her long legs like a newborn colt, and head to the kitchen. She wondered what her father would have thought about Janice Covington. Very attractive, my dear, she has potential, but don't you think she should be cleaned up a bit? She mimicked his suave voice in her head.

What to do about Janice...she sighed as she entered the kitchen, and saw Janice peering suspiciously into the pitcher of lemonade that the Reverend had left. "The Bible Brats brought this over...d'ya think it's safe to drink?"

In spite of herself Mel giggled. "Janice, you are such a heathen." Janice grinned, and placed ice from the freezer into two glass tumblers, then poured the lemonade. "How are you feeling?" she asked, peering critically at Mel and shoving a glass toward her.

Mel sat down and drank the cool beverage with a sigh of approval. "Mmmmm...much better. Try some, it's good."

Janice grunted, then took a sip. "Not bad. Of course, we may be dead in minutes..."

Again, Mel laughed, and Janice beamed with delight at making her friend laugh. Then Mel felt the intense scrutiny of the green eyes on her, though, and in a panic she gulped her drink.

"Sure you're all right?" Janice asked again, her face clouding over with concern.

"Yes, yes...I'm fine. Why don't you tell me a little about this scroll."

Janice downed the remainder of the lemonade, wishing that she had some vodka to add to it. "This one was sent to me by a friend in the Greek consulate. He smuggled it out. Didn't want it to fall into the Nazis' hands." Her thumb stroked the cool side of the glass, and once again she allowed her eyes to skitter over Mel's long, languorous form; the Southern beauty, with her tussled hair, flushed face, and rumpled white shirt, looked as if she had been ravished. She must be as beautiful as Xena once was, Janice thought. A sigh escaped her; she might as well deliver the disappointing news...well, the news was disappointing to her; she knew Mel would appreciate any find, any scroll relating to Xena--her scholar's mind was that fine and inquisitive. "Well, this scroll doesn't detail any adventures of Xena, as far as I can tell. In fact, she seems kinda secondary. It involves Gabrielle and the Amazons in some sort of way."

"Ah!" Mel murmured with approval. "Wonderful! I wanted to know more about Gabrielle's link with the Amazons; the scrolls we have only mention them in passing. It's odd. If Gabrielle was an Amazon, why was she born in Potedeia and raised by a non-Amazon family?" Mel rubbed her hands together with relish and anticipation. "We know so little of Gabrielle's background--"

"Well, why should we?" Janice interjected. "She was just a bard. Just a tagalong." This earned a dark glare from Mel. "Come on, I'll admit she was a talented storyteller and writer, but that's about the extent of it. She was basically Xena's Boswell. Nothing more."

"You neglect the fact that Boswell was an intriguing man himself, Janice," retorted Mel.

The archaeologist rolled her eyes.

"You remember what Xena said to you. In the tomb," Mel prompted.

"Of course. But she was just saying that to make me feel better..."

Mel slammed her glass on the table. The gesture startled both of them. "Stop that right now," Mel commanded, her voice dropping an octave. She leaned forward in her chair. Tiny hairs rose on the back of Janice's neck at her this thrilling, low voice, this voice that her friend had never used before. It was almost as if its dark, deep tones drowned Mel's accent. "Gabrielle meant a hell of a lot to Xena. More than you know." Then, the brooding expression lifting from Mel's face, she settled back in chair, blinking.

"Jesus Christ, Mel..."

"I'm sorry about that outburst. I don't know what got into me." Or do I? Mel thought.

"It's okay. But...you swore, Mel. You actually used a curse word."

Mel blinked. "Did I?"

"Lemonade's loosening your tongue, eh?" Janice teased. "Son of a bitch!" she swore gently, with admiration.

*****

After dinner that evening, Mel settled down in the study that was once her father's, and now hers. She sat at the huge mahogany desk, the lamp bathing the scroll and sprawling books with a golden light. Janice glanced at the bookshelves, while rolling around the ice in a glass of scotch. She picked a well-thumbed volume of Ovid's verse and sat in the leather chair near the dormant fireplace. But soon her mind drifted, and she fell into a light, dreamless sleep, that ended abruptly when she heard a soft yet distinct "oh my!"

Janice's lolling head snapped to attention. "What? What is it?" She looked at the clock on the wall. It was a quarter past eleven, and she had been asleep for three hours, much to her chagrin. "Jesus, Mel, why did you let me sleep so long?" She looked at Mel, who was staring intently, with open-mouthed awe, at the document before her. Instinct kicked in, and excitedly Janice joined her friend at the desk.

Mel looked nervously at the expectant young woman. For a frantic, delusional moment she thought she could lie to her friend about what she found; she did not know how Janice would react to it.

"Well?"

"Janice, I don't know how accurate my translation is..."

"Don't give me that bullshit. You're damned good and you know it."

"You're very kind, but really, give me a few more days..."

"You've had over FOUR hours now, you should at least have the gist of it!" Janice growled impatiently. Part of her was queasy with worry...Mel didn't want to tell her something. "Out with it!" she commanded.

Mel took a deep breath to calm the butterflies in her stomach. "This scroll begins with a love poem. It's rather...explicit."

Janice cocked an eyebrow. "Gabrielle wrote poetry too, eh? And dirty stuff at that--"

"Erotica," corrected Mel haughtily.

"Oh great," she muttered sarcastically. "So I'm half-impressed. Probably to some stupid teenager she met on the road, right? What's it called, 'Ode to a Pimply-Faced Stableboy'?"

"Er, actually no, Janice. It's addressed to a woman." Mel paused as Janice's face registered surprise. "And I think the woman is Xena."

*****

My desire for you is longer than the night

that stretches before us.

The fire of day has burned and Helios departs

but the flames within me rage

and your visage is burned brightly into my soul.

In the glow of firelight you strip before me

and I permit my eyes to do what my hands cannot:

they caress your body

and your face,

they are ensnared in your hair,

they glide over your muscled shoulders

and your smooth breasts

they ride over your rippling stomach

and cup your buttocks

they enter you

they pleasure you

they are drenched with your richness.

And then I do this again,

this time using eyes for mouth,

in my imaginary possession of you.

In this fashion, warrior, night passes for me.

*****

"I think it's my turn to say 'oh my,' " Janice whispered with astonishment.

"Indeed," Mel agreed, breathy. "It's very...well written, don't you think?"

"What about the rest? How far did you get?" Janice managed to ask, ignoring the warmth crawling up her body.

"Not very. From there Gabrielle writes of a trip to the Amazons. For a royal ceremony." Mel saw that her words fell on deaf ears; Janice was eerily quiet. "Janice? Are you all right?"

With a shudder Janice ended whatever revery she was in. Awkwardly, she rubbed the back of her neck. "Uh, yeah. Guess I'm more tired than I realized. It was a long trip, and now this..."

"Janice!" Mel said urgently She desperately wanted to right things again, to make Janice as ease. It was as if her own secret desire for her friend had seeped into the poem, into the words she had nervously recited to the archaeologist. And Janice must be shocked to know that her ancestor was a deviant...like me, Mel thought miserably.

"Huh?" Janice replied.

"You know," she stammered, "homosexuality was er, much more common and tolerated in ancient societies...they didn't know any better" --I can't believe I'm saying this--"and after all, Gabrielle was a young woman, living a lonely life on the road, she was very impressionable, or so I've gathered from my readings of her scrolls thus far." An inner voice protested all this.

Janice smiled weakly. "Come on, Mel, I don't need to rehash History 101, or Psych 101 for that matter." She stood up, stretching. "I think I'll go to bed, if you don't mind."

"Of course not. The guest room is the third bedroom on the left, at the end of the hall. Alice"--the housekeeper, who had laid out the simple cold dinner for them--"took your things up earlier. There should be fresh towels on the bed."

"Great." She paused. "Thanks for everything, Mel. Good night."

"Good night," Mel replied. She watched the young woman saunter gracefully out of the study and up the stairs, the fiery red-gold head bowed, almost as if in prayer. "Sweet dreams," she added in a whisper.

Upstairs, Janice closed the door and virtually collapsed against it in exhaustion, "Jesus Christ," she moaned to herself, "these damned feelings are genetic." Again in her mind she pictured Mel, lovely in the lamp light, reciting the poem. She shook off a tingle of desire. "That goddamned bard brat."

*****

Normally, Gabrielle thought, they would keep to the main road. Because it was safer, for them anyway, not necessarily safer for those travelers who bore the steely gaze of the Warrior Princess. But this time they took a different route to Amazonia, a rough path that cut through a rather dense and magnificent forest. She wouldn't say to Gabrielle if it were a shorter route, or why she wanted to go this way in the first place, or how she came to know this road. But by this time Gabrielle could guess: Many winters ago Xena led a band of men (surely not an army, the road was too narrow and rutted for that, even Argo was having a time of it) down this road, on some clandestine raid, to pillage/conquer/destroy any number of villages along the way...blah blah blah. She stole a look at her friend atop Argo. It would only be a matter of filling in the details, wouldn't it, Gabrielle thought, almost cynically.

Suddenly the blue eyes were on her. "Are you tired?" the warrior asked, her voice rumbling from above.

"No, I'm fine," the bard replied. "It's good weather for walking. Cool, but sunny. Although we're not getting much sun through these trees."

A dark eyebrow rose.

"Not that I'm complaining or anything," Gabrielle amended hastily. "This is such a beautiful area, so lush and green, and quiet." She surveyed the woods, the peaceful verdant depths mirroring her own eyes. "Xena, what do you know of this rite-of-passage ceremony?"

:"Not much more than you," replied the warrior. "It's supposed to occur approximately one summer after a new Queen's ascension to the throne. They're very secretive about it."

"That they are," the bard complained. "I have no idea what to expect."

Xena smirked. "That's the idea."

With a mock scowl, the bard decided to grill her friend. "Why did we come this way? How do you know this route? It's very untraveled."

"No reason..."

"That is such a lie. Warrior princesses never do anything without a reason."

This brought much mirth to Xena, as she repressed a guffaw. "Relax, bard. All shall be revealed to you in due time," she responded cryptically.

As the sky began to fade, they decided to make camp for the night. "We'll make the Amazon village tomorrow by mid-day," Xena estimated, as she settled down for the evening with her sword and whetstone. As she fell into the rhythmic sharpening of the blade, Gabrielle relaxed on her bedroll, a scroll unfurled in front of her. She tapped the quill against the paper. Xena seemed in a good mood, she thought; the warrior hummed as she worked the stone against the blade. Gabrielle allowed herself some surreptitious gazes at Xena, watching her graceful strokes, the tiny flexing of muscles in her arms, the blue eyes that glittered in the fire.

Suddenly the hissing of the whetstone stopped. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked quietly. Did the warrior hear something? Was someone approaching their campsite?

"By the gods, it's warm tonight," Xena muttered. She stood up and quickly shed her letter battledress and breeches, the armor having been discarded earlier. She used the leather as a seat and eased her nude form upon it.

Much to Gabrielle's simultaneous agony and delight, Xena had always been very comfortable and unselfconscious about her body, and thought nothing of being naked in front of the bard. "Yes...it is very hot," Gabrielle gulped, even though goosebumps ran down her body. She flattened her hands against the parchment for a moment in the hopes they would cease shaking. She took a deep breath as the sword sharpening resumed, and picked up her quill, giving herself over to the words that would take her where she wanted to be.

*****

Before she opened her eyes, Janice smelled coffee. Real coffee, the good stuff she could find in Greece, or at least in a good coffee shop in New York before the war. Maybe I'm dreaming, she thought. Only one way to find out. She rose, washed up, dressed, and descended the staircase.

The rich smell grew stronger as she approached the kitchen. Mel, to her astonishment, was frying eggs. The coffee awaited her on the table. She sighed with pleasure.

This caught her hostess's attention, and Mel turned to her, startled. "Goodness Janice, I thought you'd never get up," she said by way of greeting.

"Good morning to you too," Janice replied sarcastically. Then she softened. "Mel, that smells like real coffee."

"It is."

"Where the hell did you get it?"

The raven-haired beauty shot her a mischievous grin. "I have my sources."

Janice smiled in turn. "I can accept that." She looked around the clean, orderly kitchen. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, y'all just sit down. I'm about ready here."

They settled down to a meal of eggs, buttermilk biscuits, coffee, and juice. Mel smiled at the small woman's appetite. "Would you like a tour of Charlotte today?" Mel asked.

"No," Janice replied through a mouthful of egg. "I want you to work on that damn scroll."

"Ah, I don't know why I even bothered to ask." Mel grinned again. There was a companionable silence as Janice made short work of the biscuits on her plate. Mel decided to risk the mood as she tentatively asked, "So I trust this means you're feeling...better about the content of the scroll thus far?"

Janice's busily chewing jaw stopped abruptly as she tried to formulate an answer. She decided to take the diplomatic approach and avoid either outright condemnation of the bard's lustful thoughts for her best friend, or praise of her admirable writing skills and no doubt good taste, for Xena of Amphipolis was frequently described by her contemporaries as a great beauty. "I'm not a prude, Mel. I can handle it. I'd like to see where the kid goes with it."

"Goes with what?"

"You know, see how she deals with these feelings. Does she tell the Warrior Princess? Does Xena find out somehow? Is it...even remotely possible that Xena may have felt the same way?"

Mel could have sworn she detected a tinge of hope in the archaeologist's voice. "I think it's...possible," she ventured nervously. "Even though Xena had a child, and many of her affairs with men were legendary, that does not preclude bisexuality on her part."

Janice snorted. "No, probably not. She was on the road a long time, it must have been difficult for her to find someone for...pleasure at times. So having the bard as a bedwarmer may have been a last resort."

Mel scowled. " "Last resort'?" she asked. "Why do you always think so little of Gabrielle?"

Having finished her breakfast, Janice pushed herself back from the table. "Force of habit," she replied, plucking a cigar from her breast pocket and clenching it between her teeth. "Since I think of myself in the same way." As she searched her pockets for a light, Mel snatched the stogie from under her nose.

"Janice Covington, you are a big pain in the ass." Janice stared at her, Mel instinctively clamped her hand over her mouth, then removed it. "See, you made me swear again! Janice, I'm going to prove you wrong about Gabrielle. And about yourself too." She stood up, determined, and started to clear the breakfast dishes. With a glance that was admiring, fearful, and sweet, Janice stood up and helped her.

*****

Water was dripping on her face.

Gabrielle moaned, semi-conscious. Another summer storm, her mind supplied. Well, I can sleep through it, can't I?

Not unless you want to get totally drenched, another thought supplied.

I could care less, her stubbornness threw in.

Wait a minute, desire spoke seductively. Xena will get wet too. Her hair will be damp and slicked back from her face...you love that look on her, don't you?

"I'm there," the bard mumbled aloud.

Hey, practicality piped up, if it's really raining, then why is your face the only part of your body that feels wet?

Her eyes snapped open. She was looking directly at a very familiar pair of boots that were not her own. "Good morning, Gabrielle," the warrior's voice said from on high. Slowly Gabrielle's vision trailed up the long legs, past the skirt (don't look up the skirt, propriety screamed inside her) to the armor-clad torso and arms, which held two large trout fresh from the stream directly over the bard's head.

"Ugh, fish water!" she spat, sitting up.

"If it's good enough for the fish, it's good enough for you," Xena said, heading toward the fire.

The bard stood up with a stretch. "Hang on, I can clean them."

"No, that's okay. I can do it. Go wash up."

Pleasantly surprised, Gabrielle removed a linen towel and soap from her satchel, and went to the stream. The forest opened onto a clearing where the stream gurgled beneficently. As she placed the towel and soap on a rock, she prepared to strip...and heard a rustling behind her. But before she could even think of what to do next, a bag was thrown over her head; it was moist with some chemical which made her sleepy, and as she slipped from consciousness she felt arms gently cradling her body in the air.

*****

Solari sauntered through the woods toward the campsite, where Xena sat on a stone, placing trout in a skillet about to go on the fire. Before she could even announce her approach to the warrior's back, Xena's voice rumbled at her: "Hades' balls, Solari, couldn't you wait until I fed her breakfast at least?"

The Amazon stopped dead in her tracks. "How did you know it was me and not Gabrielle.?" she demanded.

"Look, you know the line..."

"I know, I know, many skills and all that..."

"So why did you even bother to ask?" Disgusted, Xena struck a flint against some wood. The fire didn't take. Growling, she stood up and spun around to face Solari in one fluid motion. "You didn't hurt her, did you?" It was more a threat than a question.

Solari released a breath of exasperation. "No, Xena. I used the plant you gave me. Lydia knew how to prepare the drug. Gabrielle never knew what hit her."

"All right then," Xena said tersely. "I'll be in the Amazon village by midday. By tomorrow morning I will expect to hear from you. Your runner better be fast...and Solari," she paused for menacing effect, "if I don't get a message I'll be coming along to break up this little ceremony, sacred or not. Got me?"

The Amazon rolled her eyes. "Xena, please, this will be over quicker than you imagine. I guarantee you Gabrielle will be in the village tomorrow, if not sooner."

This response seemed to satisfy the warrior. She nodded reluctantly.

"Hey, Xena?"

"What?"

"You gonna eat all that fish?"

*****

"Your father was certainly a well-read man," Janice commented as she completed yet another scan of the books in the study.

"Mmmm," Mel murmured. Her dark head was bent intently over the ancient parchment.

Janice shook her head. The woman was so thoroughly engrossed in the scroll, she could not even muster the barest of her Southern civilities. "Yep...let's see here...everything from Kant and Kirkegaard to Gone with the Wind and the Kama Sutra," Janice stole a quick look at her friend to see if Mel noticed the spurious volumes--the latter two--that her imagination had inserted into the collection. No response. She let her fingers trail over the smooth leather volumes, riding the rough ridges and indentations, until her fingers stopped suddenly: Havelock Ellis. Kraft-Ebing. Oh my. Dr. Pappas knew his stuff. Wonder if would've been able to diagnose me on the spot?

Janice cast yet another glance at Mel. Jesus Christ, has Mel read this stuff? She wondered. And if so, has she figured me all out? I am sort of a walking bulldagger at times...the clothes, the cigar...God, I have to get out of here for a while. Unwilling to break Mel's concentration, Janice opted to exit quietly, without a word, and go for a walk.

She got no further than the door's threshold when she heard Mel call her name softly.

"Yes, Mel?"

"Where are you going?" The scholar removed her glasses, her blue eyes touching Janice like a flame.

"Just out for a walk, to get some air. Do you mind?"

"No, of course not." She put on the glasses once again. Janice turned to leave.

"Janice?" The voice sounded darker, silkier.

"Yes?" The young archaeologist froze, her hand lingering on the doorknob.

"My daddy hated Gone With the Wind and he kept his copy of the Kama Sutra so well hidden I didn't find it until last year."

Without a word, Janice and her blush walked out.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II


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