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THE BIG DISCLAIMER: As you all should know by now, Xena, Gabrielle, Mel, Janice, Argo, and some Amazons are copyright MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement intended here; this is just for fun.
VIOLENCE?: So you're asking, "Viv, sweetie darling, is there violence in this part of your quasi-epic that I'm about to peruse while downing many double martinis?" Gentle reader, we must remember that Auntie Viv's origins are American, and, after all, we're writing about our old pal Xena, so of course there's violence! However, there is nothing terribly gross and disgusting, and I don't go to great lengths to describe gore.
THE LOVE ALERT: Mel and Janice....Xena and the mighty mighty Gabtone. Dig? Nothing graphic, but if you can't deal with women in love (and I’m not talking D.H. Lawrence, darling), then it is advised that you go do something else. Like go into therapy.
THE "I'M NOT JAMES MICHENER" DISCLAIMER: I'm not an historian, nor do I play one on TV. I have tried to keep within the facts of World War II, but I may have taken liberties here and there that I'm unaware of (e.g., certain duties that WACs may or may not have been permitted to do). So if you know your WW II history and think I've really fucked up, I will happily accept feedback, but please...be nice! I like to save the lithium for emergencies, like going to work.
Any comments: email to email@example.com
ALL THE COLORS OF THE WORLD
Part III: THE ANGELIC CONTEMPLATION
Her prey was in sight. And upside down at that.
Gabrielle was sprawled on her back in the bed, head lolling over the edge, looking at Xena through a rolled-up scroll; with one eye squeezed shut, the other saw a circled tableau of a sitting warrior. She attempted to lower her voice in a deep, rumbling, lascivious chuckle, not unlike the men on Cecrops' ship who directed similar noises to her during her tenure on the doomed ship. "Bwaaa hah hah..." she began.
The Warrior Princess, stretched out in a chair, wearing leather but sans armor, seemed oblivious to Gabrielle as she pensively studied an unfurled scroll.
"Aye, matey...I spy me a fine warrior wench up ahead...and she's mine, all mine..." Again, another raspy laugh, then, "Aye, 'tis true, and I can see up that little skirt of hers."
A smile curled the warrior's mouth. "Gabrielle..."
"Hmm?" The bard responded in her normal voice.
"Ephiny will be here any minute. Don't you think you should be acting a little more...Queenly?"
"What?" Gabrielle said in mock horror, dropping the scroll. "I'm not being adult enough? She should be thankful I'm dressed...well, that we're both dressed." She grinned at Xena but did not stir from the bed.
"Mmm," Xena murmured in agreement. "True enough." She looked at Gabrielle, who rolled over on her stomach, thus righting both her head and vision. Then she smiled at the bard, who suddenly looked serious. Oh gods...please don't let it be time for some big heavy discussion, she thought. "Is something wrong?" she asked as gently as she could.
"Uh, no, not at all. I guess I just can't believe this has happened to us. At last."
"I know," the warrior replied. She rolled up the scroll she had been reading and placed it on the table next to her.
"Well, I know you hate this...but we need to talk at some point..."
"I mean, I don't want to push anything, I just want to know what you're feeling, and what direction we're going in..."
"Xena!!" Gabrielle spat in exasperation. She slapped the bed with frustration.
"Please say something other than 'I know'!"
"Okay, well, how about 'I love you'?"
"I know you know everything..." the bard began sarcastically. Abruptly she stopped when she realized what had been said. Her hands gripped the blanket underneath her. "Did I hear right?" she whispered.
"Uh, I think so, if you heard me say that I love you." Xena felt her jaw twitch. She bit the inside of her mouth, her only concession to nervousness. When I have I ever said that to anyone? Even my mother?
Gabrielle said nothing, but just stared with slack-jawed awe at her. The silence stretched. The muscle in Xena's jaw threatened to spasm in agony as her teeth clenched.
"Gabrielle," Xena began.
The bard continued to stare at her as if she were lavender-colored minotaur.
"I don't want you to feel obligated to say you feel the same way," the warrior went on, the painful spasm traveling down her neck and anchoring into her shoulder. "But I wanted to be honest with you...and uh, that's where I stand with this." She grabbed her sword, just to have something in her hand, then the whetstone, and began to sharpen the blade. Rather furiously.
Still nothing. Well, now I know what shuts her up, the warrior thought grimly. Gabrielle continued to stare at her. It was very unnerving.
Ephiny stood outside their door, fist poised to knock, when she heard Xena roar, "The gods be damned, will you stop that???" Trouble in paradise, she thought with a sigh. For three days since the party, where warrior was literally swept off her feet by bard (or, more specifically, the bard's guards), Ephiny had been treated to mushy, lovestruck glances (mostly Gabrielle), conspiratorial smiles (mostly Xena), and sudden kisses (the both of them acting in tandem).
Gabrielle jumped out of the bed. "I'm sorry, Xena, I didn't mean to stare, but...wow, you really surprised me. I wondered if I would ever hear that from you." She paused.
Angrily the warrior pointed at her with the sword. "But you did," she affirmed.
"Yes, I know, and—Xena, would you put that thing down?"—the blade was reluctantly lowered—"I want you to know that I feel the same."
The blade was raised. "Don't toy with me, bard."
"What? What makes you think I'm toying with you?" Gabrielle said, outraged. "And I said put that damn sword down! Who d'ya think I am, Ares?"
"Who knows? Maybe he's pretending to be you today!"
From outside the Queen's hut the shouts continued. Solari sidled up to Ephiny. "What's happening?" she whispered to the regent in a gossipy tone. At this juncture they heard Gabrielle shout, "You big stupid idiot, I love you too!!"
"What's happening is that I think our meeting with the Queen should be a little later," Ephiny replied. "C'mon, let's go get a drink."
They were back about a candlemark later, both with the rolling gaits of drinkers who have had just enough to experience a loosening of limbs and a dulling of senses. Approaching the door, neither woman heard a sound from the hut. Solari reared back, fist raised as if she were going to hurdle something into space. Ephiny grabbed her arm, and the dark-haired Amazon lost her balance and crashed into her friend. "Shhh..." Ephiny chastised. "We can't go in now either..."
"Why not?" Solari slurred.
"It's too quiet."
Mel sat, exhausted, in the desolate lounge of her New York hotel. She was waiting to meet Jack Kleinman, the man whom she first met, along with Janice, on that fateful day almost two years ago. That day changed everything for me...just as a night last summer did, Mel thought.
She had not heard from Janice since the night they spent together, over six months ago, when they had consummated their relationship. She had awakened alone in her bed. Her search of the house yielded no Janice, no note, merely her somber housekeeper. "I got here just as she was leaving," Alice had told Mel. "She was waiting outside for the cab to come. She had called for one, she said, to take her to the train station."
"How did she seem?" Mel had asked.
"I'd say she looked a little down, like she didn't want to leave, but she had to."
In her bathrobe, Mel sat there at the kitchen table numbly. "Why?" she whispered to herself.
Alice placed a thin hand on her shoulder. "She did say one more thing, Melinda."
"Eh? What?" she asked softly. The joy she had felt during the night, the sense of completeness, of rightness, broke under the weight of loss.
"She said, 'Tell her I'll be back, when I'm ready to take her on.' "
And what did she mean by that? Am I supposed to wait around to find out? I'm not willing to wait. Her letters to Janice had remained unanswered. She had no phone number for the archaeologist, although, she discovered upon her arrival, the New York phone book had a listing for a J. Covington. So finally, after the holidays ended, she decided it was time to come to New York and track down her friend. Did I scare her off? Was I too intense? I did say "I love you"...she recalled the surprised look on Janice's face when she said it: They laid together in bed, legs entangled. She had been propped on her elbow, looking down at Janice, whose hair was burnished orange in the candlelight. She might not be ready for that. But it's true. God help me, I don't know why.
Mel scanned the drab lobby. The only people in New York seemed to be soldiers. And sailors. In the half-hour that she had waited for Jack, she had been accosted by two soldiers, both of whom wanted to ply her with drinks. She stood up, then bent at the waist to adjust the back of her stockings. Who invented these things? she wondered irritably when she heard a male voice behind her, "Pretty good caboose there, sweetheart."
Indignantly she drew up to her full height and looked down on Jack, who was startled to see that the woman responsible for the nice caboose was Mel. He turned visibly pale. "Uh...hi Melinda," he said sheepishly. "Sorry, I didn't think it was you, I mean, I don't remember you being so...it's been a long time, and...gosh, you look swell!" he concluded lamely. He wore a private's uniform; as he told Mel when she contacted him, he had managed to be placed in the Army Reserves even though initially he had been 4-F.
She raised an eyebrow and noticed his discomfort at that gesture. "Hello, Jack. How are you?"
"Pretty good. The army life, it's a tough one. Uh, even stateside, that is." He nodded toward the bar. "Shall we have a drink?"
Over rum and cokes, he asked her, with all the delicacy he could muster, "Have you heard anything?"
"No," she replied. "You?" She couldn't keep the hope out of her voice, even though she knew his answer.
He snorted. "You kiddin'? If she hasn't contacted you, she sure as heck wouldn't have contacted me."
"There was always a chance, Jack." Mel opened her purse and dug around for the address. "I found a 'J. Covington' in the phone book. Luckily, the only one." She pulled out a scrap of paper. In the times when she had corresponded with Janice, the only address she had was a New York P.O. Box. "It's Cornelia Street...do you know where that is?" she asked tentatively, not sure if she wanted to trust Jack's knowledge of New York.
"Sure, it's in Greenwich Village. Figures Janice would live down there."
Mel frowned. "Why?" she asked.
Jack scrunched his lips together to stop his initial response (Because that's where all the weirdos live) from leaving his mouth, and also to buy time while he thought of something more appropriate. "Well...that's where all the, uh, career girls live."
She seemed less than satisfied with the answer, but nonetheless a determined look crossed her face. "Let's go."
"Now?" he asked with alarm.
"Jack, it's Sunday afternoon, not the middle of the night. You don't have to come with me if you don't want to." Clasping her purse, she stood up and headed for the door.
"Wait!" He scrambled behind her, as she gracefully exited the hotel.
Cornelia Street was narrow and sedate in the late afternoon light. A tiny café was the only sign of life, the windows heavy with steam. Checking the fragment of paper one more time (God, what if I wrote it down wrong? she agonized) Mel and Jack stood in front of a drab, dilapidated brownstone. As they entered the stairwell she noticed that Covington was scrawled on the mailbox of the third-story apartment, along with some other name she couldn’t quite make out. They mounted the bleak staircase. At the door of apartment 3, they heard lazy, swaying big-band music from a radio within. Mel gave a brisk knock, and stared into the peephole, not knowing she wouldn't see a thing.
The door swung wide open. A voluptuous young woman, with dark brown hair and preternaturally gray-blue eyes, stared at them. More specifically, at Mel. She wore nothing but a man's white oxford shirt, which hung down to her knees, causing Jack to blush. She gave Mel a once-over. Then a twice-over.
Mel twitched with discomfort, but put on her best manners. "Excuse me ma'am," she drawled pleasantly, exaggerating her accent for maximum "charm the Yankee" effect, "I'm sorry to disturb you on a Sunday, but my name is Melinda Pappas, and I am looking for Janice Covington..." Before she said anything else, the woman in the doorway started to chuckle.
"What," the woman said, taking in Mel's neat blue suit, eyeglasses, and black hair in a bun, "does she have an overdue library book?" She snorted at her own joke. Jack guffawed as well. Mel silenced him with an icy glare.
"I'm a friend of Janice's. We've done some collaborative work on the Xena scrolls she discovered in Macedonia. I've been trying to get in touch with her for months."
"Oh yeah...the Xena scrolls," she growled. "What a bunch of crap." She walked away from the door. "C'mon in." The woman flung herself in a chair, and gestured to the sofa. "Sit down. Wanna drink?"
The hallway was a good indicator of the apartment's look: it was small, dirty, and bare. Nothing in the room indicated that Janice had ever been there. Mel and Jack exchanged a look of horror before they sat themselves down on the soiled couch, neither one sitting back into the foul cushions. "Er, no thank you," Mel said.
"Who's he?" The woman pointed accusingly at Jack.
"This is Jack Kleinman. He's a friend of Janice's as well," Mel replied.
"Hi," Jack said meekly.
"May I ask your name?" Mel inquired.
The woman took a drink from a glass by her chair. "Mary Jane Velasko." Her eyes lingered on Mel. "Well, I gotta hand it to Jan, she's got good taste. The bitch." She took another drink. "She stuck me here to pay the rent. Just took off."
"Where?" Jack and Mel asked in unison.
"She joined the WACs." Velasko stared into her glass. "Or so she told me."
Mel was too stunned to say anything. Jack watched her with concern, then asked Velasko, "When did she leave?"
"Oh, 'bout three months ago. She put all her stuff in storage. Then boom, she's gone."
"And you haven't heard anything from her since?" Jack continued.
"Not a goddamn thing." Velasko noticed Mel's deathly pale countenance. "Sorry, Scarlett." She paused. "You got it bad for her, don't you?" She looked at Mel with not exactly sympathy, but something in her strange eyes was understanding.
Jack looked confused. Then upset. "Just what are you implying..." he began angrily.
"Let it go, Jack," Mel said hoarsely. Jack frowned, but said nothing else.
"Yeah, I could say the same thing to you, Scarlett," Velasko said. "Forget her. She'll screw you over like she did me."
Mel stood up stiffly. "Thank you for your help," she said in a strained voice. If I don't get out of here I'll throw up, she thought.
"Sure. You know the way out," Velasko said sardonically, not moving. "Oh, and Scarlett?"
Mel, with Jack behind her, paused by the door.
"If you ever do find Janice Covington, tell her I'm going to kill her."
As it turned out, she did throw up, in a trash can outside the apartment building. Jack was too surprised to say anything, but he did offer her a handkerchief. "Thanks," she said softly, dabbing at her mouth. She slumped against the building for support.
"Melinda, you look awful," Jack said with alarm.
"Thanks," she repeated in a daze.
He clapped a hand over her forehead. "You feel clammy," he said.
"Are you sure it's not your hand that's clammy?"
He scrutinized his palm, and tentatively poked it with the other hand.
Mel rolled her eyes. "God, I need a drink," she moaned, more to herself than him.
"Ha! You sound just like Janice." A miserable look crossed her face, and he was instantly sorry he said it.
She looked at him curiously. "Did you see her much? While she was living in New York?"
"What? Naw." Jack's examination of his palm continued; with absentminded nervousness he started to rub it with a thumb. "We went out drinking a couple times...I wish I'd seen her more, but..." Mel studied his hangdog expression; obviously, he'd had a crush on the archaeologist.
"I know how you feel." She'd said it before she realized what she was saying.
He looked at her. "Huh?" he said. Thank God, he didn't understand. Another wave of nausea swept over her; the only thing that prevented her from falling to the ground was
the side of the building she was leaning against.
"I've got to get back to the hotel," she said feebly. Wearily she pushed herself away from the building. "I don't feel very well." She started to walk, heading toward Sixth Avenue in hopes of catching a cab, but she didn't get far. The world darkened as she hit the ground, and she heard Jack yelling her name.
"Covington!" the voice shouted.
Janice recognized the voice, but decided to ignore it for as long as possible. But she could not ignore the soft yet steady kicks that Blaylock gave the soles of her shoes. She forced her eyes open and looked up blearily into the face of U.S. Army Captain Daniel Blaylock, her commanding officer and friend.
Dressed from head to toe in regulation army khaki--shirt, pants, even her undergarments were khaki-- Janice was stretched out in the spare cot that Blaylock kept in his office. She had arrived in London six months ago, in January, after completing her training at Fort Oglethorpe. The very first day at HQ, as luck would have it, she ran into Blaylock, an old friend from college; he immediately put in a request that Janice be assigned to him as an assistant. Officially she was his driver, but her seemingly unlimited energy compelled Blaylock to give her as much work as she could handle.
Blaylock shared Janice's passion for archaeology, but his field had been the emerging one of Egyptology, which he taught at Dartmouth. Another thing they shared was a romantic past; Blaylock had been the first (and only) man she'd slept with. It wasn't bad, Janice thought in retrospect, but something was missing for me. She didn't know what it was, until one night she and her roommate consumed an inordinate amount of sloe gin and ended up in bed together. And Blaylock found them the following morning. He was terribly hurt, which she regretted immensely; I love you, he had said. And I love you, she had responded, just in a different way. Can you accept that?
He did. Or so it had always seemed.
He stood in front of her with some of the dreadful English coffee from the canteen downstairs. Handing a cup to her, he said, "Thought I'd find you here."
Tentatively she sipped the bubbling hot sludge. "Yeah. I wanted to finish that report."
Luckily Blaylock did not insist on military formality, except in front of other officers.
"You didn't have to," he chastised her. "It would've waited." He smiled, wondering if he should spring the news on her now or later. "But I'm glad you did." He decided he couldn't wait.
Puffing on the coffee, she looked at him suspiciously. "You're being very cheerful, Blaylock. I don't trust it."
"You should. Because I have the news you've been waiting for. In a week we're being sent to Normandy."
She almost dropped the cup, so she sat it down on the table. "We?"
"You got it. If all goes well, a contingent of WACs will be sent to France. Mainly to handle the switchboards and mail, things like that. But they need some drivers too, Janice. Sometimes for ambulances. And you're gonna be one of them. I recommended you myself."
She exhaled slowly, and leaned back against the wall. "Son of a bitch," she mused aloud. "I'll finally be doing something useful." She was too immersed in thought to notice the slightly hurt look on Blaylock's face.
"Influenza," the doctor said to Jack curtly.
"Jesus! How?" Jack replied, mystified. "It's not goin' around, that I know of."
They stood in the hospital corridor at St. Vincent's, where Jack had brought Mel after her collapse.
The MD shrugged. "You're right, there's no epidemic. But there are a lot of folk in the city right now who have been exposed to all sorts of viruses overseas. So it's likely your friend caught some strain that she has no immunity to."
She ached dully, tossed between delirium and the tantalizing edge of clarity. But clarity and consciousness, however appealing in their own way, were not as pleasant as the oblivion of the fever. She knew the conscious world contained no Janice. The fever gripped her and for the time being she surrendered to it. The part of her that knew Xena, however, was aware that this fraudulent bliss was temporary. Despite it all, she would survive.
In the Amazon council chambers, Xena stood rigidly behind Gabrielle's seat at the head of the table. Council members, including Ephiny, started trickling in from breakfast. The regent sauntered up to the Warrior Princess. "Are you gonna stand there like that for the whole meeting?"
"Yes," the warrior replied simply. Ephiny groaned and walked to her seat.
"Maybe you should sit down," Gabrielle piped up to Xena.
"No, I'm fine." The reply was terse.
Gabrielle and Ephiny shared a look. "All right, fine, but try not to look so menacing," griped the bard. "Why don't you smile or something?"
"Yeah," Ephiny agreed. "Give us a smile, one of those big old, shit-eating Warrior Princess grins."
Gabrielle collapsed in laughter. "That's it, Eph! That's exactly what they are! The kind that says, 'I just kicked your ass big time!' " Ephiny too laughed.
Xena let a dour look hang on her face as the remaining council members came in, and the gigglefest of the Regent and the Queen died down. After a moment of silence, Ephiny, garnering all seriousness, spoke. "Our scouts on the north ridge have confirmed a large buildup of troops in Herrara."
A murmur went through the group.
"Wait, that's where those brothers live...the ones who helped Solari with my Test of Courage," Gabrielle said.
"Right," Ephiny replied. "Solari?"
Everyone turned their attention to Solari. "Yesterday I had a meeting with Aramis, the village reeve. He's told me that a warlord named Petrus has set up camp outside the town. Basically, Petrus and his troops have taken over. They've demanded tribute from every merchant. Aramis says that the rumors are flying fast and furious."
"What is being said?" asked Gabrielle.
"That he's planning a war with the centaurs. And with us."
More murmurs. Gabrielle turned in her seat to look back at Xena. "Xena, do you know who this Petrus is?"
The warrior's face frowned in thought. "There was a Petrus who was an officer in the Athenian army. Draco had dealings with him. He was rumored to be very corrupt; he dealt in stolen goods and arms trading. Who knows, he may have been drummed out of the corps and decided to lead an army of his own."
"I must meet with him," Gabrielle said.
Xena fought her rising panic. "Yes, you should, but you should get more information about him first."
"I don't know that we have the time for that. If we let this go unchecked any further, we may have a full-scale war on our hands," the Queen responded firmly.
"I agree," added Solari. "We've already lost our informant. Aramis had arranged for one of his servants to join the army and report back to him with information. Unfortunately Petrus caught on. The man was killed; his head was placed on the city wall."
Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. "Send a messenger to Petrus's camp. I want to arrange a meeting with him. And have a treaty drawn up. A nonagression pact, specifying that he is to avoid any act of war against us, the centaurs, or Herrara."
The regent nodded. The Warrior Princess brooded, wondering if a piece of paper would hold back stupidity and ruthlessness. In the old days, if such a message crossed my path, I would've killed the messenger and sent the body back.
"Shit," Janice said.
"No, Janice, ship," Blaylock retorted playfully.
They stood on the dock surveying the huge ship that would take them, and 40 other WACs under Blaylock's joint command with a senior officer, to France. The group also included several intelligence officers and British women recruited as ambulance drivers.
"I'm dead," she moaned. "This will be hell on earth."
Blaylock smiled grimly as he recalled the time when they were in college and he took her aboard his father's yacht. No sooner had it pulled out of the harbor than Janice spewed her breakfast into Cape Cod. "Look, you'll be fine," he assuaged her. She glared at him. Triumphantly he pulled a small vial from his shirt pocket and handed it to her. She questioned him with a look. "The latest thing. Pills that prevent seasickness. The Army doctors recently perfected the formula. It should do the trick."
She glanced skeptically as the bottle, then pocketed it. "Thanks."
"Well," he sighed, "everyone else is aboard, so we should get up there." They picked up their rucksacks. "Ready to deal with a ship full of horny sailors?" he teased.
She smirked into his too-pretty face. "The question is, are you?"
Janice stood alone on the deck of the transit ship. It was, as they say, "spitting rain." An earlier fog had dissipated. They would be in France by daylight tomorrow morning; normally it would not take so long, but report of enemy activity off the coast forced them to go slow and delay their arrival as much as possible.
It was frustrating to her. I've been a coward most of my life, she thought. I ran away from my father because I didn't like the way he did "business," I hurt Daniel because I was too gutless to tell him how I really felt....And I did basically the same thing to Mel. She may hate me by now. But I just couldn't let her love me the way I am. Maybe it's too late now. Maybe this war will kill me. Still, I need to know what I'm made of. If I'm worthy of her. Even though I've probably lost her.
She saw a figure come up from below deck. Her eyes narrowed in increasing disbelief at the figure: tall, wearing a British uniform and a thick leather bomber jacket, with long black hair whipping around her face. Janice squinted. A hand brushed back the dark hair from the woman's face, a face that, even clutching a cigarette between lips, mirrored that of Melinda Pappas.
She could not take her eyes off the woman. It can't be...she thought. Janice knew she was right: Even though she looked exactly like Mel, this woman carried herself differently, even surveyed her surroundings differently than Mel: these blue eyes were narrow as they suspiciously scanned the horizon, as if daring the skies to rain more. She moved awkwardly, as if she never got used to the tall, broad-shouldered body that she inhabited. Her face had a stoic, veiled cast to it, a chip-on-the-shoulder look. And that look was directed at Janice, who, even as the woman angrily glared at her, could not stop looking at this carbon copy of Mel.
The woman unfurled her body from its hunched up position over the railing. She threw the cigarette down on the deck, and in three easy strides was towering over Janice. "What the bloody hell do you think you're lookin' at?" she snarled. Her thick yet pleasing accent was not a London one; north country, perhaps, Janice guessed.
"What? Nothing," Janice stammered. She tried to step back from the woman, but a large strong hand seized her arm, its crushing grip painful.
" 'Nothing,' eh?" the woman retorted mockingly. "You fucking Yanks are all the same. Think you can come over here and act like you run everything."
Ah, a woman who swears more than I do. How refreshing. "Look, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare at you. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. It's just that you look a lot like someone I knew back home. A really good friend..." Janice trailed off in a whisper. And what if you lost that really good friend by treating her the way you did? Sleeping with her, then abandoning her?
The woman squinted at Janice, reading the archaeologist's face, and decided she was truthful. She relaxed her grip. "I'm a sucker for a sob story, I am," she muttered, more to herself than Janice.
"I truly am sorry," Janice repeated. I hate it when strong, beautiful women are angry at me.
The Englishwoman released Janice's arm. "All right, then. Forget it." Another dark mood crossed her face though, and Janice panicked. "Goddammit!! I threw away my last cigarette!!" she cried. She looked back at the railing where she had stood, but the wind had already swept her cigarette out to sea.
Quickly Janice pulled out a pack of Caporals. In England it was next to impossible to find the cigars she usually smoked. Blaylock, who had some black market connections, kept her supplied with cigarettes instead. She offered one to the woman. "Ta," the woman grunted, unwilling to feel gratitude toward this strange American woman. Janice lit her cigarette with the silver lighter her father had given her years ago. "Nice lighter," the Englishwoman commented.
"Thanks," Janice replied. "I'm Janice Covington," she said, and extended a hand.
The woman enfolded Janice's hand with her larger one. "Meg Edmondson," she said.
It was late in the mess hall, almost midnight. Everyone was in bed except Janice and two of the WACs, Porter and Lang. Porter possessed a large flask of whiskey that her boyfriend, a British intelligence officer back in London, had given her for the trip. They were passing the flask among themselves, and feeling pretty good. Janice felt relaxed for the first time in months as the whiskey coursed through her blood.
They had launched into a giggly, gossipy session about Blaylock when Porter motioned to someone standing in the doorway. "Psst! C'mere!!" she called.
Janice's back was to the door, and Lang, sitting beside her friend, did not recognize who Porter was beckoning to: "Who's that?"
"One of the limey girls. Edmondson, I think."
Janice's head snapped around so fast that she was almost surprised her neck didn't break. Sure enough, Meg strode over to them. "Hiyer," she greeted everyone as she loomed over the table. She seemed more shy around groups of people.
"Sit down, have a drink with us," Porter said.
"Ta," she said, and sat next to Janice.
The warmth Janice felt increased as Meg sat down. It's been a while, hasn't it? You haven't laid a finger on anyone since...well, since last summer. She studied Meg's handsome profile: the riveting blue eyes, the jet black hair, the chiseled cheeks and full, soft lips. Ah, Meg, your name a mere consonant's difference from my beloved's.
This is not the time to indulge in cheap affairs, a voice protested inside her. There is a war going on, after all!
"We were talkin' about Blaylock," said Porter. "Jan said she knew him in college." Janice hated being called Jan, but she let it pass. She had not told the women any more than more than that about Blaylock, did not want to cheapen her relationship with him. Besides, such conversation would inevitably lead to why it ended.
"Really?" Meg asked. She arched an eyebrow at Janice, whose resolve to behave crumbled even faster.
"He's a cutie, isn't he?" threw in Lang.
Meg shrugged. "I suppose so," she said.
"Not your type, eh?" Porter asked with a grin.
"Not quite," Meg said mysteriously. Her blue eyes flickered in Janice's direction. Is that a sign from God? the archaeologist thought hopefully.
The two women continued to wax poetic on Blaylock's looks. Janice took a swig from the flask and handed it to Meg. Here goes nothing, she thought. If she slugs me, hopefully she won't tell them why. She let her hand stray over to Meg's thigh and with a delicate, slow, sensuous stroke ran her fingers along the muscular leg.
Meg sputtered and coughed as she drank from the flask.
"Want some milk instead, honey?" Porter laughed.
Janice grinned. "Well girls, it's been swell, but I should go..." She stood up and indulged in a full body stretch, her eyes catching Meg’s. "I think I'll get some air on deck first, before bed." She hoped the others didn't take it as an invitation to follow her up. They didn't, thankfully, and they bade Janice goodnight.
Once again she was on deck, near the entrance. The night watch was far away, near the stern of the ship, and luckily he wouldn't be back around for another quarter hour.
Ten minutes later, Meg stood in the portal leading up to the deck. Spotting her, or rather her long, shadowy figure, Janice jumped down to greet her. In the dim light she saw the Englishwoman's face, confused and wary. Carefully she cradled the face in her hands and gently brought it down to her own, where their lips met. As the soft kiss expanded over seconds, Janice's hand brushed Meg's face, then her neck, where she felt the woman's erratic, throbbing pulse. With a gasp for air Meg broke the kiss. "Jesus Christ all mighty," she murmured.
Janice left a hand on Meg's cheek. "You've never done this before, have you?" she asked gently.
"If you don't want to, I'll stop. And I won't bother you again."
The tall woman gulped. "That's what I'm afraid of."
They ended up in a supply room. Groping through the darkness, Janice found a blanket and placed it on the floor; there was just enough room to lie down.
Hours later, the gray light of morning filtered through the room. Janice, awake, was sitting against a wall. She knew they should get back to the barracks area immediately, but Meg still dozed in her arms and was sprawled over the archaeologist's lower body. Her nude form was covered haphazardly with both their coats. It felt good. There was no denying that. She stroked Meg's shoulders, the skin smooth and taut over the muscles. Overall, the Englishwoman was broader, heavier, more muscular than Mel was. Not that Mel had a bad body; no, not at all. You have the lean look of an underfed academic, she had teased the Southern scholar during that night they spent together. Well Janice, if you don't like what you see, you should go. Mel had replied with her aristocratic hauteur. If you do, then I believe you should just shut up and kiss me. Needless to say, Janice had opted for the latter.
This isn't good, to think of Mel while I'm holding another woman, Janice chastised herself. But why else did I sleep with her, other than she looks like the woman I'm in love with? She squeezed her eyes shut upon admitting this truth. Simultaneously she tightened the embrace around the slumbering figure, wishing for all the world that the woman in her desperate grasp was Mel.
In the mess that morning, Blaylock stood in line with Janice for breakfast. "What happened to your finger, Covington?" he asked casually, looking down at the white bandage covering the middle finger of Janice's right hand.
"I caught it in a door, sir, " Janice replied uneasily, since she was, as Mel put it, the world's most inept liar.
"I see you've had it taken of, Covington. Good," Blaylock said perfunctorily. Then, under his breath, he whispered to her, "Why don't I believe that for a minute?"
"Because you know me very well," Janice hissed back. Shaking his head in mock resignation, Blaylock headed for the officers' table, and she toward a table of WACs including the terribly hung-over Porter and Lang. The Brits sat by themselves. As she sat down with her comrades, Janice caught Meg's brilliant blues boring into her, as the Englishwoman sipped tea.
Chaos. They were unloaded off the ship and immediately ushered into trucks; Janice barely had a moment to orient herself. Blaylock and the other officers, however, were stalled, waiting for radio dispatches. The women were restless, and many got out of trucks to stretch their legs, talk, smoke cigarettes, and stare at the jagged cliffs of Normandy.
With a cigarette drooping from her lips, Janice scanned the area for a sign of Meg. She headed toward the truck which carried all the British ambulance drivers. No Meg, she noted, as she nodded greetings to some of the familiar faces. With a sigh she walked away, and past an empty truck. She did not notice Meg jumping out of the back of the truck as she walked by. The large, handsome woman snagged Janice's arm from behind, rough yet friendly, and spun the smaller woman into her arms. She plucked the cigarette from Janice's lips.
Janice started to laugh but was silenced by a kiss, the soft yet imperious lips crushing into her own, her mouth yielding to a gentle warmth. "Wanted to say so long," Meg said, when she withdrew her lips from Janice's.
"Hell of way to say goodbye. Not that I'm complaining."
"Yeah, well, take care of yourself." The laconic Meg paused, at a loss. "Uh, I'm sorry. About your finger." She blushed. Last night in the supply room, as Meg continued to grow louder and louder, Janice had clapped her hand over the woman's mouth at the crucial moment, and Meg savagely bit into a finger. Luckily no stitches were required, so she had sneaked into the infirmary that morning and put disinfectant and a bandage on the wound.
Janice returned the blush. "It was worth it, don't you think?" she said.
Gabrielle was roused out of a light sleep by the shouting and cries outside. She jumped up, grabbed her staff, and went outside. Ephiny was running toward her. "Come quickly," she said tersely. With the regent in the lead, they ran together to the healer's hut. A crowd of Amazons were outside the hut, but made a pathway for Ephiny and their Queen.
Opening the door, Gabrielle saw Xena and Lydia, the healer, standing over the broken and bloodied body of Ilona, one of the scouts, which lay on a table. She had been chosen to deliver the message to Petrus, requesting a meeting.
Gabrielle closed her eyes at the sight. Then opened them. "Is she...?" she asked quietly.
Both Lydia and Xena nodded.
"The others scouts found her a few miles west of here. Right at our border," Ephiny said.
Xena approached Gabrielle. "This was attached to the body," she said, handing the bard a torn scroll fragment, stained with blood.
Gabrielle read it silently. "It's a declaration of war," she said flatly.
Ephiny exchanged a glance with Xena. And both looked at Gabrielle. "Well, what do we do, Gabrielle?" the regent asked calmly. "This is not a test. It's the real thing."
The Queen's moist eyes lingered on the dead woman before them. "What choice do I possibly have?"
"I'm not a soldier."
"This goes against everything I believe in."
"I'm not even sure why I'm doing this."
"Xena!" The bard raised an angry finger. "You're doing it again..." she growled in a warning tone.
"I...know." The warrior could not help herself. The tension broke, and they grinned at each other.
They were in the hut. A frantic day of preparations had passed: meetings with the centaurs, the villagers in Herrara, discussions of military defense and strategies where, for the most part, Gabrielle felt utterly lost. She did suggest immediate evacuation of children into the mountainside, where, she hoped, they would be safe. They would meet Petrus and his men on the field of battle in two days.
The Queen halted her pacing of the hut, and regarded the warrior, who sat, loose-limbed and slightly tired from the day's exertions, in a chair. My lover, she thought. Earlier in the day she watched Xena, on Argo, gallop past a lineup of warriors, inspecting them, talking to them, inspiring them. How ironic, I pick a true warrior as a mate. She should be leading the Amazons, not me. Although it was true Xena was officially in charge of the Amazon army for this battle.
The warrior noted the thoughtful look of her lover. "What is it?" Xena prompted.
"Nothing...I'm just glad you're on my side."
The most famous blue eyes in the known world held a warmth few had seen. "Gabrielle, I will always be on your side."
Jack sat in Mel's hotel room, watching the tall, elegant woman carefully pack her bag.
"Tell me again," Jack said, "who is this guy?"
Mel drew a deep breath. She had grown fond of Jack in the past several months. He had been enormously kind and caring during her illness; he brought her books, flowers, newspapers while she languished in the hospital, and upon her release in the late spring, proudly told her that he found out where Janice was stationed: in London. But sometimes he was like a giant child, and one had to tell him the same information over and over again, as if it were all some fantastic story to him.
"His name is Anton Frobisher, Jack. He's an old friend of my father's. He's an army colonel running a civilian intelligence unit in London." She had sent a telegram to Frobisher weeks ago, asking if she could stay with him in London, and if he could find work for her. His response came by courier from the Embassy: He had arranged a flight for her to London, lodgings of her own, and a job.
"Okay, right. And you're going to translate stuff for him?"
"Yes, for the military," she amended.
"London's a crazy place to be right now, Melinda." D-Day had transpired only a mere two weeks prior. "The Germans are bombing the hell out of London."
"You could get really hurt. Even killed."
"And Janice might—" he swallowed.
"Jack!" she cried, a little too sharply. Yes, she might be dead for all I know. She took a moment to regain her composure, and shut the lid of the valise. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely.
"It's okay. Look, it's bad enough I have to worry about Janice being there, but now you..." he sighed.
"I understand, Jack. But believe me, I have no intention of being killed. And I'm sure Janice doesn't either." She paused. Although I wonder sometimes...given the way she left. She shook the thought from her mind.
"Yeah, well it was a stupid thing, her running off like that."
As if he were reading my mind...well, he loves her too, in his way. She smiled. "I won't argue with you on that." She started to pick up her baggage, but Jack jumped up to help her. "Here, lemme..." he started to grab everything at once, then remembered something. "Hey, wait!" He dropped a suitcase, narrowly missing Mel's toes, and pulled something out of his shirtpocket. "I wanted to give you this before I left. Thought you might like to have it." He smiled shyly and handed it to Mel.
It was a photo of her and Janice in Macedonia, taken, in fact, minutes after they had escaped Ares' tomb. Jack, ever the tourist, snapped the photo before either one of them could protest. They both looked like hell; Mel's hair was loose and tangled wildly about her head, her clothes were torn, sweaty, and dirty. And, she remembered, although the photo chopped them off at the waist, that she had been barefoot. Nonetheless she faced the camera, with a feral yet genuinely happy grin. Janice too was dirty and disheveled, her dusty fedora perched on her head. But her gaze was directed not at the camera but at Mel; it was a strange, contemplative smile, as if she were seeing Mel for the first time. It was, Mel thought, a look she had never seen on the moody young woman's face. That's a Mona Lisa smile if I ever saw one, Mel thought. Or rather, it's more like an angel's, a sculpture atop a church doorway. Full of mystery, love, and promise. The smaller woman's arm was around her, and Mel swore she could still remember the sensation of Janice's hand pressing into her back. It was at that moment in Macedonia that everything started to fall into place: why she was so compelled to travel halfway around the world to meet a stranger, why she was fascinated by the Xena scrolls, and why she instantly felt drawn to Janice Covington. It was an ancient bond.
She let herself laugh for the first time in a year. She hugged Jack, who almost seemed to swoon at the contact, and they headed for the airport.
A vast field, which formed the border along the Amazon and centaur territories, served as the arena where the battle would be fought. Petrus's troops were coming in from the north. A line of Amazons and centaurs, united, gathered along the southern slope.
Gabrielle was perched atop Argo. "You are the Queen. You must ride a horse," Xena had insisted earlier in the day; Argo, the one horse with whom Gabrielle was most familiar, was the obvious choice. The Warrior Princess herself had found, in the woods, the untamed horse named Beast that once belonged to Solari. When she had rode the black steed bareback into the village, tied a rope around him, and led him to the stables, Solari's curses knew no bounds.
Now Solari stood with the others, as they all waited. A light breeze tantalized their senses. Gabrielle stroked Argo nervously, shifting under the weight of the sword strapped to her waist ("You must carry a sword, too," the laconic Xena said.) "Perhaps he changed his mind," she said to Xena.
"I think not," the warrior replied grimly.
"How can you be so sure, Xena?"
"I smell them." Within minutes the army had crested the horizon and faced them.
Gabrielle contemplated the group facing them. While it was true that the Amazons and centaurs outnumbered the warriors, Xena's scouting reports indicated that these men were not all rag-tag wannabes. She suspected that many of Petrus's men had followed him when he left the Athenian army (for Xena had correctly identified him).
I have one last chance.
She stretched over the space that separated her mount from Xena's and caught the warrior's lips in a kiss. This sensual bribe did not fool the warrior: Xena's hand gripped her arm. "What are you going to do?" she asked Gabrielle in a low voice.
"Talk to him," the Amazon Queen replied, hoping that calm pervaded her voice. "It's worth a chance, don't you think?"
"Yes, I suppose." Xena scanned the opposing army again, just to give her worried eyes something else to look at.
"You're afraid." Gabrielle said simply, softly.
The bard was rather stunned. "I never thought I'd hear you admit that. About anything."
"I don't want to lose you. Not now." She still pretended to examine her opponents.
"You won't ever lose me, Xena." She paused. "I love you."
The warrior nodded, squeezed her eyes shut for a second. Then opened them. "Go," she said. "Go quickly."
Gabrielle spurred Argo into motion. The butter-colored mare galloped across the field. From the other side, a man on a horse was riding out to meet her halfway.
Slowly he came into view. She had expected him to look larger, more imposing, and purely evil. Instead he was merely another man, another warlord. Average height and build, with a neatly trimmed graying beard. His colorless eyes lacked expression as well, and he regarded her coolly as she slowed Argo to a halt. "You're the little Queen," he said dryly.
"And you're the big bad warlord. Greetings." Damn that annoying tendency to be flippant.
"Have you come to surrender?"
"No, I came to see if you would surrender."
He laughed. "You have guts. And I'll probably see them spilled all over the ground before the day is over."
"I don't think so." She paused for a breath. "I don't want to see anyone's blood on this field. Not mine, not yours, none of my people's. And none of your men's. Take your troops and turn around. Go away from here and leave us in peace."
"You are an admirable woman, my Queen. I expected you to be more foolish." He smiled at her; it was sad and bitter. "But your way is not my way. I want this land. I shall take it."
"You'll take nothing. I have a valuable ally." I might as well play the trump card.
He looked at her expectantly, with amused tolerance, as if he were playing with a child. "Yes?"
"The Warrior Princess."
"Ah, you mean that dark beauty you were kissing?" His lightheartedness, under the circumstances, was nauseating to her.
She was impressed. "You have good eyesight."
"And you have good taste. I envy you, having a woman like Xena in your bed. I hope your goodbyes were satisfying." He placed a hand on his sword hilt. "Now, shall we get on with it?" He drew the blade; before he could aim a blow Argo wisely skittered out of his reach. As the mare nimbly backed away, Gabrielle turned to her troops. She drew the sword at her side, and held it aloft. With that signal given, the battle began.
TO BE CONTINUED
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