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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, sweetiedarling, is there violence in this part of your quasi-epic that I'm about to peruse while downing many double martinis?" Gentle reader, violence and Xena go together like peanut butter and jelly, I'm afraid. However, there is nothing terribly gross and disgusting.
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), 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 have taken liberties here and there. 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.
FINALLY, many thanks to those who have come along for the ride.
Any comments? Email to: email@example.com
PART IV (CONCLUSION): LES AMOURS PERDUES
For the rest of her life, Gabrielle would replay the image in her mind: she, atop a horse, holding aloft a sword. Was that really me, the "we must stop the cycle of violence and hatred" pacifist bard? Leading a battle? A warrior Queen? Then, the answer: It was. For some wild moment I was there, I felt the blood singing in my body...that rush. For that second I knew what Xena felt in battle. Dare I admit it? It was...glorious.
But the glory ended. Quickly.
A nerve-shattering clang brought the sword out of her hand, and almost threw her off the horse. Petrus's mount danced around Argo; Xena's mare, however, was leading, and she kept Gabrielle out of the warlord's reach. A rising roar filled the bard's ears: the armies were converging on them and the ground thundered. She was in the eye of the storm. But then she was falling, caught in the fatal throes of gravity, with time shifting wildly. The decent was slow, then fast. She heard—and felt—a sickening crunch in her wrist as she hit the dirt. Before she could stand up, she felt a sharp, agonizing pain in her thigh. The bastard. He had thrown a dagger into her; the hilt protruded from her leg.
He dismounted and walked to her, sword in hand. She looked once again into the dead eyes. How can anyone have eyes with no color? She did not want this to be the last thing she ever saw, but so be it; to counter it, she shut her own vivid eyes and thought of the vivid blue ones so dear to her..
As it turned out, it wasn't the last thing she saw. She heard the familiar whoosh of the chakram riding on the wind, and a gurgle. Opening her eyes, she saw the chakram embedded in Petrus's chest. The warlord dropped to his knees in front of her. His features began to ease into relief as he welcomed death, but then contorted in pain as he coughed up a bit of blood. "As I said, little Queen, you have good taste," he whispered. He fell back on the field, dead.
A wave of exhaustion and relief hit Gabrielle, as the tension and buildup of the past few days snapped within her. She felt herself being scooped into strong, familiar arms, and her eyes caressed Xena's concerned face.
"I'm taking you back to the village," the warrior said.
The bard nodded. So much for the battle rush. Who needs to fight this fucking war anyway? Not me. "Xena?" she began.
"You have the most wonderful timing."
Colonel Anton Frobisher had not seen Mel since the young woman had spent a year studying at Cambridge ten years ago. He had witnessed her in every stage of her life: as a sweet-natured infant, a curious toddler, a precocious child, a lanky teenager, a soft-spoken young woman. While he was eager to see this latest "version" of his oldest friend's progeny, she remained fixed in his elderly mind as a little girl, an intelligent eight year-old, who—when she didn't have her nose in a book—was chasing around Patches, a very old cat that lived on his estate in Cornwall. Wielding a long stick that she called a sword, the girl swore that the ancient calico was her arch enemy seeking revenge against her. She was...an odd child at times. One day the old cat triumphed and caught Melinda with a rather nasty scratch on the arm.
Nicholas Pappas carefully dabbed peroxide on the cut. The girl's eyes brimmed with tears, and her lower lip trembled, but she stared stoically past her father into space.
"You're being very brave, Melinda," he said soothingly. "Almost done." Quickly he wrapped some gauze around her arm and tied it neatly. Out of sheer relief a tear escaped her eye, and he soaked it into his dry, callused thumb. "There we go," he said, with a kiss to her forehead. "Come, let's join Uncle Anton for tea."
They headed for porch, where Anton waited in a wicker chair. At the table before him, high tea awaited them all. He ruffled Melinda's hair as she walked by. "I daresay, Melinda, Patches—"
"Catlisto," corrected the girl solemnly.
"Er, yes—Catlisto—may have won the battle, but you won the war. She flew out of the house like a storm."
"No, Uncle Anton, I shall never be rid of Catlisto," Melinda intoned dramatically. "She is an immortal."
Anton shot a glance at Nick, who convulsed in silent laughter over his tea. Good God, Nick, what do you let this child read? "An...immortal, you say?"
"Yes, a cat is the form she now takes. Centuries ago she angered the gods, and Zeus turned her into a common house pet." With that, Melinda shoved a scone into her face, in only the way a hungry child can.
"Well," Anton mused, looking out into the yard, "now that I think about it, that old beast has been around here ever since I can remember..."
He was impressed as she stood in his doorway; Melinda continued to grow more stunning with age. She incorporated her father's looks—the height, the broad shoulders, the black hair and blue eyes—into an irresistible package. He felt a strange attraction toward her—strange, because it was based solely upon her resemblance to the dead man who was her father. Ah, Nick, even though I never told you, you knew how I felt. And you remained my friend anyway. Bless you. "Melinda, I'm so delighted to see you again. You look lovely," he said to the woman, at last. He rose from behind his desk and walked to her. She bent a little to receive the kiss that the shorter man placed on her cheek.
Her smile was shy, yet warm. "Hello, Uncle Anton." She paused. "Or should I call you Colonel?"
"Call me that only when we work, my dear. Do sit down." Mel sat in a leather armchair across from his desk.
"Well, I've got you all set up in a flat, dear, not far from here. Fact is, we've taken over a whole block of flats, it seems. Nothing spectacular, you know, probably nothing you're used to, living in that grand house by yourself."
"I'm sure it will be fine, Uncle Anton." Is he implying I'm...spoiled? The house I live in would barely be big enough to be a shed on his estate, she thought.
"Good. I'll have McKay take your bags over in a bit. Now, I do recall you know quite a number of languages, aside from that ancient nonsense you know."
She chuckled. "Yes, I do."
"Well?" His demand was a bit imperious, as his career soldierdom seeped through.
"Oh! Let's see, I know Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, Romanian..."
He clasped his hands in delight. "Excellent! We have quite a large number of Polish military in London right now, you know. About 30,000 men. So we need all the help we can get in translating services. I've quite a number of documents that need work. But that can wait until tomorrow. Tonight, I think you should have dinner at my home. We'll catch up a bit."
He stood up and she followed. "Let me walk you out." He stepped outside the office and instructed Sergeant McKay, his assistant, to bring around a car to take Mel and her luggage to her new flat on Mecklenburgh Street.
As they descended the steps to the ground floor, his curiosity overtook him. "Melinda, why is it you are here, in London?" he asked gently. The urgent letter she sent gave no reason for her sudden interest in being so much closer to the war.
"Ah, well, I did want to contribute to the war effort..." she stammered, sliding her glasses up along her nose with a shaky finger. He smiled, charmed at her nervousness.
"But you could have done that just as well in your own country," he retorted.
"Yes, you're right," she conceded. A pause. "I came to find a friend...who's stationed here."
I knew it, he thought smugly. The old girl is in love. "An American, I assume?" She nodded. "What branch is he in?"
A faint blush colored her cheeks. "Er, my friend is in the Women's Army Corps, Uncle Anton."
"A woman?" Frobisher mused.
Mel raised an eyebrow, gently amused. "Yes, unless they changed the admission policy or something."
Oh my. He couldn't keep a grin off his face, which made her blush deepen. So Nick, that's why I caught you poring over Kraft-Ebing one day, when your daughter was a teenager. And I thought it was in reference to me. He noted with empathy the anguish and worry now on her face;. obviously, she was very taken with whomever this person was. He smiled inwardly: And I may be in a position to help. But for the moment he resolved to try and cheer her up: "So she's one of those...what do you call them, wackeys, eh what?" He waggled his thick, gray eyebrows.
He was rewarded with a giggle. "A WAC, you mean."
"And you don't know where her assignment is?"
"No," Mel answered, her expression turning morose once again. "An Army friend said she had been stationed here, in London. But I don't know where, exactly."
He opened the door and they were outside, against the darkened sky. Mel's ebony hair blended into the night, yet her eyes glimmered like beacons, even in the foggy, blacked-out haze of London.
Frobisher patted her arm. "Melinda, if she's here I'll find her. Let me see what I can do. What's your friend's name?"
She ducked her head, preventing him from seeing those bright eyes cloud over in pain. And she told him Janice's name.
Frobisher hung up the phone with a sigh. Almost two weeks had passed since Mel's arrival in London. As he could've predicted, she threw herself into the work at hand, and was very good at it. He regretted that her duties called upon her to act as an escort to military functions for some of the Polish officers, many of whom, inevitably, grew infatuated with her. He noticed the weariness with which she threw off the advances; it was obvious to him that she was discouraged in her search, and losing faith.
Now, finally, after untying knots of bureaucracy, he had news for her. He wouldn't have imagined that finding one American WAC would be so time-consuming; but Janice Covington was, after all, only one of many involved in the war. And the news wasn't good. True, it could be worse, but it still wasn't good. He walked down the corridor to where she shared an office with two other translators. Only one of the translators, Cutts, was in the office. "Hello, sir," the young man greeted Frobisher; he was exempt from military service due to a heart problem.
"Hello, Cutts. Where's Melinda?"
"Think she went to the loo, sir."
Frobisher chuckled at his bluntness. He lingered at Mel's immaculate desk, and noticed the curling, black and white photo taped on the wall above her desk: It was Melinda, looking rather disheveled, with a small, fair-haired woman, wearing a fedora, who gazed at her rather intently. Rather adoringly. And Melinda? How often had he seen the girl grin like that, with such unfettered joy, with such abandon of her very serious, almost mask-like, demeanor?
Cutts noticed Frobisher’s interest in the photo. "It's an odd picture, isn't it, sir?" he said. "Doesn't do Miss Pappas justice, probably not her friend either." The older man smiled mysteriously. On the contrary, it does them more justice than you can imagine.
"I happen to like that photo." He heard Mel's soft voice from the doorway. He turned to her, and immediately his face gave everything away. "You found her?" Mel asked; her tone shifted, and crackled with nerves, almost like a static-filled broadcast.
Frobisher nodded with resignation. "She's in France, Melinda."
After he told her, she immediately went back to the WC, leaving the men staring after her in stunned silence. Crammed into the small room, she pulled off her glasses with a trembling hand and cried above the toilet. This is so...frustrating. Every time I think I'm getting closer...I find out she's somewhere else. Her glasses, cradled loosely in her curled hand, slipped out of her grasp and clattered to the floor. At least they didn't end up in the toilet. That would be just my luck about now. She could not stop the visceral, angry curse that welled up in her mind. God damn you, Janice.
It was Paris, but it sure as hell wasn't springtime. A third-rate hotel served as their base of operations. It did not endear the French to Janice Covington, nor she to them—especially when she growled for whiskey in their dour cafes, and only got red table wine that made Thunderbird taste like Veuve Cliquot.
She walked out of the hotel, and saw him leaning against the ambulance they were taking. Blaylock threw the ambulance keys at her. They sang through the air with a whiz, hit Janice in the right breast, and fell to the ground with a ping. She scowled. He blushed. "Sorry. We've got to get going," he said.
"If they think I'm such an idiot, why are they letting me drive him there?" Janice grunted, scooping the keys from the ground. "They" referred to General Bradley's underlings, the American liaisons to the Force Francaise d'Interior (or FFI; that is, the Resistance), who called upon Captain Blaylock for a driver to escort Max Duval, an FFI leader, to Reims. What Duval would be up to in Reims, Blaylock was not told; but when the Captain offered Janice—the best driver of ambulance, jeep, and truck in Paris—for the mission, he was rebuffed. It took a good deal of conniving on Blaylock's part, but the authorities finally agreed to let Janice drive Duval—if she were escorted by Blaylock.
"They don't think you're an idiot, Janice. They're just touchy about this one. Duval is a pretty important guy, and he was almost killed in the street fighting that went on last month, before the Liberation. Besides, they promoted you, didn't they?" The thought of a WAC—who was also a private—undertaking this crucial task was more than their Division Leader could bear, so they promoted Janice. But not by much.
"Yes, I do so love the alliterative joy of Corporal Covington rolling off my tongue," she said sarcastically.
Blaylock grinned. "Well, if you wanted to be an officer, you should've gone into officers' training."
"I didn't want to be an officer," she snapped.
"Then why the hell are you complaining?" he retorted, confused.
They stopped walking toward the ambulance truck they were taking for the journey. After three months of blood, mud, and death, not to mention the growing realization that her feelings for Melinda Pappas had neither decreased nor deceased, Janice allowed herself a surly outburst, aimed at one of her closest friends: "Because I can."
Luckily, Blaylock was accustomed to such outbursts, having known Janice for many years, and merely shrugged it off. "Well, you need someone to come along anyway, since you barely know French," he chastised her in his gentle way.
Duval, still nursing a broken arm from his fight of several weeks ago, sat morosely in the ambulance truck's open hatch, waiting for them. Aside from her rudimentary Greek, Turkish, and Arabic, Janice knew very few modern languages; French, especially, was perplexing to her for some odd reason and she watched impatiently yet enviously as Blaylock conversed effortlessly with their charge. However, Duval's meaning was unmistakable to her when his moist dark eyes settled on her and he crooned, "Ah, un blonde ange." Both men grinned at her with sheer infatuation.
"Oh, Christ." Janice walked away with a growl and a roll of the eyes, and climbed into the driver's seat. "I hate the French."
Blaylock gestured for Duvall to enter the truck. Closing the hatch, he sauntered over to the passenger side as the engine kicked over.
As they drove out of the city, all was quiet. Judging from the heavy breathing in the back, Duval had fallen asleep. Blaylock studied Janice's sullen profile and racked his brain for conversation, for something to divert his cranky friend. He had noticed as of late she seemed moodier and moodier, more inclined to pick fights with everyone from their Division Leader (concerning the general lack of respect given to the WACs) to a whore on a street corner (who said she would charge Janice more than a regular customer, not only because she was a woman but an American as well). Well, that was my fault, I never should have dared Janice to ask her how much she would charge. Ah. He remembered something he wanted to tell Janice: "Guess who I ran into on Boulevard Saint Germain yesterday."
Janice blinked in recognition at the name; Papageno was a Greek friend, an important contact in the world of archaeological digs. He could provide men, supplies, and the most crucial gossip with a snap of the fingers. "What's he doing in Paris? I thought he was sitting out the war in England."
"He was. But once he heard Paris was liberated, he came here. I think he wants to be closer to home. Anyway, he sends his regards, and said he would try to meet with you soon. He also asked if you received the scroll he sent you from England."
She remembered with a jolt. The scroll. God, I haven't even thought about it...it all seems like another lifetime ago. And I suppose it is. It also served as a reminder of Mel. But then, I don't need much to remind me of her. "Yeah, I did. I'll have to tell him."
"Are you working on a translation?" Blaylock asked, his professional curiosity piqued.
"Yeah," Janice replied absently.
"Are you using Nick Pappas's daughter again?"
The truck swerved violently, almost ending up in a ditch, and provoking a cry of "Mon Dieu!" from their startled passenger. Blaylock looked at her in alarm.
"Using?" Janice bristled.
"For the translation." Blaylock supplied impatiently. His eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Uh, yeah...I am...I...she has the scroll now. I left it in her hands." As well as my heart, my sanity, and everything else.
Blaylock's lips quirked as he suppressed a grin. A sudden instinct had overtaken him. "You know," he drawled sadistically, "I've never met Miss Pappas. But I know Clement Young, her former advisor at Vanderbilt."
"Really." Janice said flatly. The last thing she wanted was to talk about was Mel. It's bad enough she consumes my mind...if I dare talk about her, I think I will go crazy.
"Yeah. Clem says she quite brilliant. Practically a genius."
"It's true," Janice quietly affirmed.
"And she's quite a knockout, he says."
Corporal Covington was silent.
"I believe his expression was, 'She's got legs for miles.' " What he omitted was Young's further commentary on the subject: "It's a shame, though: I think she's queerer than a two dollar bill."
Corporal Covington clenched her jaw.
"No opinion on that, Covington?" he teased gently.
And since when did Corporal Covington not have an opinion on a woman? A bittersweet realization hit Blaylock: The woman he was in love with was finally in love with someone. And it still wasn't him.
In an effort to find out more information about her missing friend, Sergeant McKay, Frobisher's assistant, directed Mel to the St. George, a pub that WACs were known to frequent. She selected a Friday evening to go there. It wasn't terribly crowded, and while she was thankful of that, it decreased her chances of finding Janice. She scanned the room and spotted a group of khaki-clad American women at a table. None of them resembled the fiery-haired archaeologist. With a sigh she walked up to the bar. The barkeep smiled and nodded at her; however, before she could order a drink a decidedly unfamiliar hand cupped her ass. What is it with men and my behind? she thought, spinning around in anger. A British soldier, a sergeant, was grinning at her.
"Meg, love! Didn't know you was back in town!" he cried happily in a Cockney accent. His eyes roamed her figure. "Nice outfit! Thought you was doin' your bit overseas, drivin' an' all that. But I'm real glad you're back."
"Sir," she replied icily, "I'm afraid you're mistaken. My name is not Meg."
He doubled up in laughter upon hearing her accent. "Bloody hell! That's great...I reckon if Vivian Leigh can play Scarlett O'Hara, so can you!"
"Sir...sergeant," she said, gritting her teeth, "I am not who you think I am." She rifled through her purse, pulling out her work papers and passport, thrusting the documents in his face. As his laughter subsided, he studied the papers. His face paled. "Jesus H. Christ, miss, I'm sorry!" he apologized. "I really thought you was Meg...you're her spittin' image."
"That's quite all right," she replied, relieved that he believed her.
"I should've known a classy-lookin' woman like you was no Meg." Oh wonderful, he's a talker...and a drunk one at that. He'll never shut up. " 'Specially since I heard she's..." He held out a hand, palm down, wiggling it. "gone a little queer...they say she had a bit of funny business on a ship with some American lass. An' I can tell you certainly aren't one of those types of women."
Because he managed to snag Mel's interest, she let his last comment pass. "On a ship?" she asked. Could it be...?
"Yeah, transport to France. 'Bout three months ago." It fit in with the date of Janice's departure for Normandy, she realized; Frobisher had supplied her with the time line. "My mate was a watch on board. Said he recognized Meg from the old days, when she and I went out together. Well, he gets on duty one mornin', see, and hears these noises in a supply room. And there was no mistakin' what them noises were about. He figures it's one of the officers having it off with one of the ladies, and they deserve to have one last time together before hitting the ground, eh? So he doesn't bother 'em. Well, 'bout an hour later he sees Meg come out with some little American WAC!" the sergeant finished the story on a note of incredulous laughter.
Mel slumped onto a barstool. Was that Janice? Who else would be brave—or stupid enough—to do something like that? Was she sleeping with another woman already? And why someone who looks like me? It makes no sense...running away from me to become involved with someone who looks like me? I am never going to figure this out. She scowled, and recalled the woman named Velasko, and her parting words to Mel: "If you ever find Janice Covington, tell her I'm gonna kill her." Take a number, Miss Velasko, Mel thought darkly.
There was a church in Reims, they were told, where they were to deliver Duval. As they reached the town's outskirts, Janice's eyes scanned the rubble and husks of buildings that began to surround them with increasing alarm. "How can we tell what goddamn building is the church?" Janice complained.
"Janice, if anyone could put goddamn and church in the same sentence, it would be you," Blaylock retorted. But he also looked discouraged. Finally he yelled back to Duval, who scurried up to the front. "Ou est la eglise?" he asked the Frenchman, who franatically scanned the streets.
"Ici! Ici!" Duval cried, pointing at a large building which, indeed, still resembled a church, despite its crumbling facade; a stone lineup of angels adorned the top of its entrance, all part of an elaborate-heaven and-hell scene, with its details chipped away. Jesus was missing the arm which pointed upward; demons had faces blown off, rendering them even scarier. The ambulance pulled up too the door. Before Blaylock could stop him, Duval had opened the hatch and was out of the vehicle. A thin man, dressed in black, peered from the open doorway of the church. He then came out and hugged Duval.
"Aw, that's sweet," Janice said, only semi-sarcastically. Blaylock, however, could never get used to the intense fraternal affection of Frenchmen, and he glanced about awkwardly. After a few minutes of speaking with his comrade and some others who emerged from the church, Duval bounded over to them and smothered the Captain with an embrace. Janice laughed at Blaylock's consternation. "Merci beaucoup, mon ami," Duval whispered into the Captain's ear. Then he released Blaylock and turned to Janice. "Ah, Madamoiselle Covington!" he breathed ecstatically. It was Blaylock's turn to laugh.
"Dr. Covington," Janice corrected automatically. Duval blinked in confusion.
"Corporal Covington," Blaylock threw in. Duval looked even more confused. Then he shrugged with a Frenchman's insouciance. "Au revoir, mon blonde ange," he whispered melodramatically and planted a kiss on Janice's lips. She pulled back, sputtering.
Duval's dark-clad comrade came out of the church with a small rucksack. He handed it wordlessly, with a smile, to Blaylock. The Captain opened it and returned the smile grateful at the sight of apples, cheese, bread, and a wineskin. With a final wave the two men departed into the church.
She waited until they had disappeared behind the door, and she wiped her lips with the back of her hand. "Did I mention I hate the French?" she grumbled as they climbed back into the ambulance truck.
The sound of the wheels blowing out was so like an explosion that Janice thought they hit a mine. The truck swerved violently, spinning around almost 360 degrees, until the end of the vehicle slammed into a tree. Her jaw hit the steering wheel and she bit part of her lip at the impact. But the vehicle was still, and they had not blown up, although the radiator was smoking from under the hood.
She looked at Blaylock, who was rubbing his knee. "You all right?" she asked.
"Yeah, just banged my knee against the dash. You?"
"Fine. The steering wheel packs a hell of a punch, though." She rubbed her jaw. "What happened?"
"Don't know. Either you ran over something sharp in the road, or we set off a mine that, luckily, had a delayed explosion."
She jumped out of the truck. They were on a slight incline, with the passenger side tilted upward. Before Janice could suggest that Blaylock come out on her side, he kicked open his door and jumped out. "Shit!" he cried as she heard him fall with a thud. She ran over to him. He sat on the ground, now rubbing his ankle instead of his knee. "What?" she asked.
"Great. Now I think I sprained my ankle," he moaned.
She held a hand down to him. He grabbed it and hauled himself up; as always, he was impressed with her strength. He leaned on her lightly, relishing the physical contact between them, despite the throbbing pain in his ankle and the grim circumstances. How in the hell do we get out of this?
Janice scanned the road. Her breath caught at the sight: huge shards of broken glass were trailed along the road. "Son of a bitch! I ran over glass and I didn't see it!" She disengaged herself from Blaylock, who leaned against the truck for support.
Blaylock peered into the road. "It's clear glass, Janice. It's hard to see it," he said gently. He knew immediately she would beat herself up about it.
"Fuck!" she screamed, and furiously started to kick at the truck and its flat tires. Obviously she would beat up the faultless vehicle as well. I just have to keep her from kicking me around too, he thought. "Janice," he began patiently, "It was an accident. By the time you would have seen it, it would've been too late anyway. Besides, if you're gonna blame anyone, blame me. I was distracting you by trashing the Giants anyway." He watched as her stopped kicking, and her ragged breathing relaxed into a stable rhythm. "Sorry," she panted.
"Forget about it. Let's just concentrate on getting out of here." They were both silent for a moment. Janice paced, hands crammed into her back pockets, glaring at the road. Then it hit Blaylock. "Hey! There was a farm about two miles back—"
"A farm?" she echoed.
"Yeah, you didn't see it. It was on my side of the road. It looked pretty abandoned, but there was a truck there! I remember seeing it. If we could get that truck...I mean, if there are people there maybe they would drive us to Paris, or we could exchange the food for the vehicle..."
"Or if there isn't anyone there, I could hotwire it," Janice grinned.
He stared at her. She was a doctor—an intelligent and admired professional in her field (in spite of her father's reputation), a Harvard graduate, and a beautiful woman. But she was also as much of a roughneck and hooligan as her father, the infamous Harry Covington. It was the duality of Janice that intrigued him, and compelled him to love her. "Where in hell did you learn to hotwire a car?" She opened her mouth to reply, and he cut her off: "Never mind, I don't want to know. Okay, let's walk back to that farm." Tentatively he put all his weight on both legs, and winced when the swollen ankle screamed its protest.
"Wait a minute, hotshot. You're not going anywhere. You can hardly walk." With a gentle shove she pushed him against the truck again.
"The truck's not going to come to us, Janice."
"Look, why don't you let me go get it and I'll bring it back. You stay here."
His face darkened. "No deal, Covington. I'm not letting you go alone."
"For Christ's sake, Dan, you're injured. You have to admit you'd slow me down if you came along. Hell, I could run there if I went by myself."
"You don't know—"
"—any French, yes, I know, but I know how to pantomime real well, and I think between that and my pidgin French I'll convey the urgency of our need."
He sighed. He knew he would regret this, but he nodded his consent. "All right," he growled. He handed her his .45."Take this, and the food for the swap. I've a got a rifle in the back, so I'll be okay." She tucked the gun into her waistband, under the cover of her jacket, as if she had been doing such a thing for years. And she probably has, he thought. Another thing I don't want to know about.
She grinned. "I'll be back," she said, and took off, jogging lightly down the road. Wistfully, he watched her form grow smaller until it disappeared from his sight.
Indeed, the small farmhouse had been abandoned; there was not even livestock, although there was blood to indicate most of it had been slaughtered, rather sloppily, for food. At least I hope it's animal blood, and not human, Janice thought as she carefully prowled around the buildings, handgun drawn. Her search yielded no one, living or dead.
The truck was, to her astonished pleasure, a very old Ford. She checked under the hood for any suspicious wires, which might indicate a bomb, and found none. The body was terribly rusty, and, given its age, it was harder for her to start it than she had hoped. But eventually the engine turned over, and she hopped into the driver's seat triumphantly.
The old truck lurched down the road. She was reluctant to drive it fast, in case it would die. As she approached the wrecked ambulance she saw no sign of Blaylock. She beeped the horn, which resounded shrilly in her ears. This is not good. Where is he?
She put the brake on, and, with the truck running, came out of the vehicle. "Dan!" she shouted. She noticed that the hatch of the ambulance was open in the back. Which it hadn't been before. Briskly she walked toward the truck, thoughts racing. He's okay...maybe he just fell asleep...no need to panic, no need...
She turned the corner, looking into the ambulance and the eyes of a German soldier. He was crouched down and shoving medical supplies from a metal chest into a large rucksack. Blaylock, she noticed, was face down behind him. In a dark pool.
They could only stare at each other, stunned, the American woman and the German soldier. He looked young, perhaps a little younger than me, Janice thought. This moment of empathy gave him just enough time. Just enough time for his expression to change from shock to recognition to rage. Just enough time to draw his pistol and shoot her.
At first she couldn't believe she was shot, but the pinprick of pain in her thigh unfurled like a fire and within moments a sticky warmth started to drip down her leg. Another shot, and she fell back, this second bullet also lodged in her leg. She gasped as she hit the ground, and waited for him to shoot again. But he went back to stuffing his rucksack. Obviously stealing the bandages, ointments, and instruments were far more important, and he had no time to be merciful and kill her quickly. He would just let her linger, let her die slowly, like her friend.
Her friend. There was a bloody smear on the edge of the door. A fresh one. Is Dan dead?. She groped for the .45. So it comes down to this. "Hey!!" she screamed. The soldier's head snapped around. She pumped three bullets into his chest. His gun, which he had drawn after the first shot, clattered onto the metal floor and slid toward her, like an offering. She stared at the Luger, panting. I've never had to shoot anyone before...
She stood up—ignoring the runaway blood that coursed down her leg and the faint feeling that accompanied it—and crawled into the back of the truck, to where Blaylock lay. She turned him over. His torso was slick with blood. He had been shot twice in stomach. But he was still alive. Barely. "Janice?" he whispered. His eyes were wide, unfocused, and staring past her, into the unknown, into a future that was far away from her.
She struggled not to cry. "Jesus, Dan," she said huskily, "I leave you alone, and look at all the trouble you get in. I'm the one who's supposed to get into trouble here."
"Yeah, sorry." He gave her a weak smile. "The son of a bitch. He caught me off guard..."
"Shhh, Dan, be quiet.. I've got to fix that wound." She started to move away but his bloody hand gripped hers.
"Too late," he gasped. "Let it go."
She knew it too. But fought it nonetheless. "No!" she screamed. She scrambled toward the rucksack, pulling out bandages. The floor was slippery with his blood, and she practically slid across the truck. Jesus...I'm going to faint. I can't Not now. "I have to get you into the other truck," she breathed heavily.
"Shit, Janice, you're wounded too," he said, spotting the growing crimson stain on her trousers, as she crawled back, cradling bandages.
She pressed a bundle of gauze to his stomach. "Hold on to that. I'm going to try and move you..."
"Wait," he said feebly.
"No, I can't, Dan, I've got to..." I've got to...I've screwed up again, haven't I? She dropped her head, and the tears came.
"Please...don't, Janice. It'll be okay." He touched her arm with a shaky hand. "Just stay with me for a moment."
She cradled his head and placed it on her lap, wrapping an arm around him.
"I'm sorry, Dan. So sorry."
He coughed. Blood speckled his lips. "Not your fault the damn Kraut shot me."
"No, it's not that." I'm sorry about hurting you. I laughed when you found me in bed with a woman, remember? I'll never forget the agony of your face. Why did you—and why do you continue to—love me? "I'm sorry about us."
He understood. "I know." He smiled weakly. "Fat lot of good that does both of us, huh?" She tried to smile back at him, but his words hit home. She dropped her gaze. Then he said, "Janice?"
"Is it her—Dr. Pappas's daughter?"
"Yes," she admitted softly.
"Did...something go wrong?"
Goddammit, Dan, you're here dying and you're quizzing me on my love life? Nonetheless, the words tumbled out of her. "It was me, Dan. I acted like a fool."
"You go back...get back to her and fix it," he said hoarsely. "Make sure you get home."
She felt his breathing slip away to nothing, disappearing with the light as twilight drifted over them. She lost track of how long she sat there with his body, drifting in and out of consciousness, until a pair of headlights blinded her and she heard the screeching of a vehicle and voices, speaking English, that grew louder and louder as they approached her.
Gabrielle awoke with her lover's name on her lips. "Xena?"
She was back in her hut; it was night, and in the dim candlelight she made out Ephiny's slender form, sitting beside her on the bed. "Sorry to disappoint you, But I'm not Xena," the regent replied with a smile.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Did we—" Ephiny reached for a mug of water on the table next to them, and held it to the Queen's lips. She drank it greedily and gratefully.
"Yes. We were triumphant. After Petrus was killed, a lot of his men lost heart. It was a quick battle, and we had very few losses. A lot of injuries, though."
The Queen tried to sit up; Ephiny assisted, and gently propped the bard in a sitting position with some pillows. Her wrist was bandaged in a splint, and another around her thigh. "Where is Xena?" she asked nervously.
"She's fine, Gabrielle. She's at the common baths."
"Oh." The bard frowned, wondering why Xena did not use their private bath. "Why didn't she—"
"She didn't want to disturb you. Look, how are you feeling?"
"Okay, I guess. My wrist hurts more than the leg. And I'm hungry."
"Big surprise. Let me bring you some food." Ephiny stood up.
Gabrielle swung her legs onto the floor. "Wait, I'm coming with you."
"Oh no you're not. Xena will chop me into tiny pieces and feed me to the dogs if I let you out of this hut."
"Actually, I think she likes you too much...to feed you to the dogs. But if I'm not mistaken, I'm the boss around here, right? " She felt the old anger rise, the anger she usually directed at the warrior when she was being "protected." I'm not a kid. "I want to see people, visit the wounded, make sure everything is okay." She glared at Ephiny, who held up her hands in surrender.
Leaning on the regent, Gabrielle limped through the village. Tired warriors greeted her, the children were back, and the wounded in the healer's hut were a minimum. Ephiny reported four Amazon deaths in all, an astonishingly low figure.
They ended their walking tour with a stop in the food hall. By this time Gabrielle's leg was screaming with agony, and she plopped down on a bench while Ephiny raided the kitchen. I wonder if I could get Ephiny to carry me back...her half-serious thought was interrupted by loud voices outside, the door swinging open, and Eponin and Solari entering the food hall.
Solari was exhorting her friend, "Are you kiddin', Pony, it was awesome to watch her...she slices, she dices, she..."
Eponin caught sight of the Queen, and clapped her hand over Solari's mouth. The indignant Amazon made a muffled noise of outrage. Then she followed Eponin's gaze to where Gabrielle sat, frowning at them.
"Hi, Gabrielle," Eponin said innocently.
"Mrehlow, Abrial," Solari said through the hand.
"Hi, girls," Gabrielle replied sarcastically. "Who are you gossiping about?"
"No one," Eponin said meekly. With a warning look to her friend, she withdrew her hand from Solari's mouth.
"No, just the uh...new cook. She has very impressive chopping abilities...I've never seen anyone de-seed a pomegranate the way she does..." Solari babbled. Eponin rolled her eyes.
"Nice try, Sol, but no one knows better than I how well Xena slices and dices," Gabrielle said.
The Amazons were shame-faced. "Sorry, we know you don't like hearing about stuff like that," Eponin said.
"It's okay." Gabrielle smiled at them. I don't like hearing about that...about Xena killing like that. But it's a part of her...and I've accepted the whole package deal, right?
Ephiny stumbled out of the kitchen, with a rucksack of food so large it blocked most of her upper body. "Is this enough?" she asked.
Gabrielle leaned on Eponin for the walk back to her hut, Ephiny and Solari ahead of them, carrying the food. As they arrived at the door, Solari playfully kicked it open and she and Ephiny entered to deposit the food.
They came scattering out like crazed ants. "Beat it, Pony!!! She's in there!" Solari shouted as she ran by Eponin and Gabrielle.
"Oh gods!!!" Eponin took off as well and Gabrielle found herself lurching into empty space. She caught herself before falling and limped into the hut.
Xena, clad only in a shift, stood in the middle of the room, arms crossed. A bounty of foodstuffs was spilled at her feet, like some haphazard offering.
Blue eyes drilled into the bard. "Where," began the warrior in her lowest, most deadliest tones, "in the...Hades...have you...been?"
Quick, say something. It was an idiotic impulse, one which had—and would—plague her for the rest of her life. "Oh great warrior goddess, most powerful one, see you not the tribute my minions and I bring to you?" Gabrielle spread out her arms, indicating the food on the floor.
"You should be in bed," the warrior continued in the same dark tone.
"My love, words like that from your lips I cannot resist." With that, the bard hobbled past the food and playfully flopped on the bed, which jarred the stitches in her thigh; a cry of pain escaped her mouth, which blossomed into a comely pout.
"I have no sympathy for you," grunted the warrior. Nonetheless Xena sat on the bed and carefully undid the bandage around the bard's leg. "Mmmm, Lydia did a good job with the stitches. I see no sign of infection." Her blue eyes scanned Gabrielle's body, not with the appraisal of a lover, but the scrutiny of a healer. "You've a nasty bruise and a big cut on your calf, though. How's your wrist?"
"Good. Try not to jostle it too much. I'm going to put some salve on that leg." She walked over to the table, where her healing pouch was. She returned to the bard, her hands covered liberally with a thick herbal paste that she rubbed gently yet firmly into the injury.
"You must've had a busy day," Gabrielle said. "I should be rubbing you down."
The warrior smiled. How does she make it both gentle and wicked at once? wondered Gabrielle. "That comes later."
"Ahhhh," replied the bard knowingly, with a leer.
"I think you're a little too banged up for that."
Once again the bard resorted to pouting. She sighed, and gave up. "I'm glad we didn't have a lot of deaths. I mean, there were a lot of injuries, but Eph told me the centaurs got hit even worse."
"Yeah, and on top of it all they lost their healer a few days ago. Fell down a ravine. Died from the injuries." All the while Xena continued a steady massaging rhythm into the bard's leg.
Gabrielle gasped. "Gods! You're kidding! What did they do after this battle? Surely Lydia couldn't handle all of them...unless you helped." It dawned on her: Xena had been in the centaur village. For the first time since Solon's death six months ago. She stilled her lover's hands. "Xena?" Her eyes grew teary. "Why didn't you say..."
"Well, I was going to say...in my time." The warrior's crystalline eyes were darkened by the fire and the candlelight, but her tone was deep and gentle. "It felt funny at first...I kept looking for him, but I remembered he wasn't...there anymore. Then, the wounded started coming in." She gave a light shrug. "And I just didn't have time to think about it anymore." She looked up at Gabrielle. A look of anguish, one that she had not seen in quite a while, had contorted the young woman's face. "Gabrielle?" she whispered.
The bard looked into the fire, as if she wished to be devoured and undone by it. As she had been devoured by the god Dahak, and by her own guilt of the events that followed. This cycle never really ends, does it?
"Gabrielle," Xena said again, softly. "Stop." The bard's small hand flew to her cheek and she rubbed it, allowing her fingers to staunch the flow of some tears. A larger hand, sticky with salve, covered her own. "Stop," repeated the warrior. "Don't hold yourself responsible for this any longer. Because I don't. And no one else does."
Gabrielle's look held surprise. Which, in turn, stunned Xena.
"Do you think I hold you responsible, still?" Xena's voice was low, urgent, incredulous. "Do you think I would have allowed myself to be brought to you the other night, that I would've surrendered my heart to you, if I still felt anger toward you, if I still felt that...hatred?" She permitted herself to shudder at the memories of the past year.
The tears fell freely now. "No," Gabrielle conceded. "You're right. I just...what I truly hate is what we put each other through."
"Me too," the warrior agreed, brushing Gabrielle's cheek lightly, with her knuckles. They looked at each other for a long moment, not saying anything, not needing to.
Silence, however, was not a state that the bard indulged in for long. "Hey, how did you get so damn eloquent all of a sudden?" she cracked.
"I think it's your influence, Gabrielle." Using the back of her hand, Xena wiped away the lingering tears on her companion's cheeks. She then returned to the task of rubbing the salve into Gabrielle's leg.
"Well, it's only fair, don't you think? You influence me in a lot of ways."
To her delight, the warrior looked pleased. "How so?"
"Well, let's just say I've never enjoyed having a sword in my hand until today. I felt it, Xena. That rush...it wasn't exactly battlelust. But I felt the spirit. Your spirit." She paused. "Am I making sense?"
"In a poetic, bardly kinda way," snorted the Warrior Princess. "I'm not sure this is something you should be happy about experiencing."
Gabrielle chuckled. "No, it is a good thing. I want to experience it all, don't you? Well, I guess you have...but I haven't. When I tell a story, it's like I'm painting a world. Creating it. And I think for a long time I was only using a few colors. Do you see?"
"Now, I think, I've loved you long enough to see the world through your eyes sometimes. And to use the colors your vision has brought to me."
The practical warrior pondered all this. It's all kinda artsy-fartsy, but it makes sense, I suppose. "But the...colors I've brought to your world, Gabrielle, they have been pretty dark."
The bard leaned forward and captured the warrior's lips in a long kiss. Then the urge to talk outweighed the desire to kiss. "Oh no, no, Xena. You aren't just blackness. There is lightness there, in the blue of your eyes that leads to your soul, and the red vibrancy in your lips, and the gold of your skin..."
"Mmmm," Xena murmured with approval, as a series of kisses were linked in a chain of desire down her throat, "I think that graffiti I saw on Ares' temple in Athens was true: 'Bards Are Better Lovers.' "
"It is true. Although I just wrote it to piss off that old he-goat who calls himself the God of War."
He thought he'd seen it and heard it all from the old man. Sergeant McKay had served as Frobisher's assistant for almost a year now, and in that time he had to memorize as many Gilbert & Sullivan operettas as he could manage (sometimes Frobisher liked some impromptu duets from him and Scotti, the unemployed, one-armed, opera singer doing cryptography), as well as the old man's tea rituals ("McKay! I told you, Earl Grey in the morning, and Darjeeling in the afternoon! Darjeeling is an afternoon tea.").
Then, one afternoon, the old man was roaring at him once again: "McKay! Come quickly!" With a roll of the eyes the chubby Irishman lumbered into the Colonel's office. Frobisher stood excitedly at his window, his walking stick pointing at something outside, the tip of the stick eagerly tapping the glass pane. "McKay! See that woman down there?" The Sergeant looked out the window; in front of the courtyard, near the stone fence that surrounded the building, stood a blonde woman dressed in khaki, lighting a cigarette. "Fetch her! Bring her to me at once!"
"Sir!" McKay cried, outraged. This is too much. I won't be procuring women for him as well, he thought.
"Damn you, McKay! I said now! Go get her! That's an order!"
The color drained from McKay's ruddy face. He was not the type to disobey an order, and in that respect he might have made a fine Nazi. Nonetheless he reluctantly jogged to the steps, and the momentum of his bulk carried him down the staircase rather swiftly. He half-hoped the young woman had escaped, for her own good. God knows what the old bastard would do to her. But the woman was still there, smoking. She wore the uniform of a WAC, and was much prettier than he initially thought. She glared at him with suspicion as he approached.
"Excuse me, miss." McKay couldn't get used to it—the idea of women in the military. Hence he usually disregarded calling them by rank. "I've been asked to escort you to Colonel Frobisher's office."
The young woman's brow creased in puzzlement. "Who?"
McKay sighed in exasperation. "Colonel Frobisher! Commanding Officer of the Intelligence Corps!" He pointed in the general direction of Frobisher's office.
"Why?" the woman asked yet another question.
"I don't know, miss. Just come with me, please."
Taking one last drag on a cigarette, the woman shrugged her acquiescence and dropped her smoke on the ground, crushing it with a black heel. McKay took off at a quick clip, then realized the woman was not at his side. He stopped and turned around. She was walking slowly, with a pronounced limp. "I'm sorry, miss." McKay said. "Didn't mean to take off like that." The woman merely smiled and nodded at his apology.
Frobisher was waiting impatiently until his door opened and McKay appeared breathless. "Here she is, sir," he said warily, and showed the woman in.
As she stood before him, Frobisher took her in: slender yet muscular; he had noticed the limp as she came in. Her green eyes burned in her tanned face, a mass of reddish blonde hair was pinned up haphazardly in a sloppy bun. A cap hung limply from a back pocket. He admired the defiance in her eyes. Oooooh, Melinda, you picked a lively one. Nonetheless, he had to show the impertinent girl, who merely stared at him, who was in command. "Good God, young woman," he growled, "don't they teach you to salute your superiors?"
Instantly she straightened; standing at attention, she knocked off a crisp salute. "Sir!" she said firmly.
"Name and rank?"
"Covington, Janice. Corporal." She paused. "Sir."
"The 13th, sir."
"Ah. You were in Paris recently, no?"
He nodded at her leg. "Wounded, then?"
"I was shot by a German soldier, who was trying to steal medical supplies from an ambulance. He killed my commanding officer."
"And the soldier got away?"
Janice's eyes flickered with something; he was not sure what. "No sir. I...killed him."
He gave her a sympathetic smile. "At ease, Corporal." She relaxed gratefully. "You're a very brave woman."
She said nothing. He let it go. Not easy to kill a man. The first time's the hardest.
"I suppose you're wondering why I brought you here."
She nodded. "Yes, sir."
"We have a mutual friend." He paused. "I believe you know a lovely young woman named Melinda Pappas?" Covington's cocky facade dropped like a stone. Not so spunky now, are we? Amazing, I've never seen someone go pale quite so quickly.
"Yes...sir," she whispered.
"Melinda's father was a very good friend of mine. And I've known her since she was a child." Frobisher peered at Janice critically. "Melinda's been looking for you, you know. She's been in London for nigh on six months now."
Janice could barely mask the shock on her face. "I wasn't aware, sir," she replied hoarsely.
He leaned back in his chair, smirking. "Well, you are now, aren't you? And what shall you do about it?"
As usual, Mel had fallen asleep in her clothes. She spent so much time between work and hiding out in air raid shelters that she saw little point in undressing most of the time, except to bathe; and, in the face of the cold, wet English weather that she was unused to, she had abandoned her usual skirts and dresses in favor of warmer, more practical clothing. She wore a pair of baggy gray flannel trousers that Frobisher had given her, saying that they used to belong to a male "friend," and a white blouse, one of her own.
A faint boom had awakened her, along with the droning sound of the air raid siren. Time to get out into the shelter again. She groped for her glasses in the near dark, and could not find them. Sighing, she stretched and got up. The colonel had also provided her with a huge black overcoat, and now she donned it and stepped outside. The coat felt heavy and protective, like armor, yet it was also soft and warm.
Outside the apartment building were a few fellows from the building. Several of them worked in HQ as she did; in fact, Cutts, her office mate, lived in the building too. The young man was now smoking a cigarette and watching the light flashes from the east. He saw her approach. "Melinda," he said with a nod.
"Hello, Frank. What's goin' on?"
"Lots of coastal activity. Might not reach us." They continued to watch the lights in silence. Then a noise pierced the twilight: a shrill whistle grew in intensity and an explosion shook the ground. From a mere half-mile away they saw it: bright orange light and smoke. Mel grasped his arm, and he instinctively touched her hand. "But then again..." Cutts whispered, "I may be wrong."
Son of a bitch.
It was early morning, almost eight o'clock. Janice walked as quickly as she could down the street. The air raid of the night before prevented her from finding Mel. She was, of course, pressed into service, and had driven an ambulance to one of the outer neighborhoods, which had been quite devastated. Thus her night had passed, driving, digging for bodies, administering first aid, and sleeping in the back of the truck when she could, the sharp bitter tang of medicine and blood curling in her nostrils. And it was hard to sleep, but not due to the smells, or her exhaustion: It was her realization that Mel was here...in this goddamned, godforsaken war zone of a city.
In the morning, when she was off-duty and supposedly sleeping, she headed for the address that Frobisher had given her. It was not far away, but her bad leg ached a little as she walked. She wished the damn leg would heal faster, but the doctor did tell her it would take a while, and that both the pain and the limp should decrease dramatically in due time.
As she grew closer to her destination, she saw that this area too had been hit by the raid. Part of this street she traversed had been decimated and lie in charred, darkened ruins. Remnants of smoke curled lazily, enveloping the street. She froze, her heart in her mouth. What if...? Her leg throbbed, telegraphing its message of distress, and she leaned against a lamp post, breathing heavily. She hung her head, a hand over her eyes, unable to look at the ruins. If it is true...I can't bear it. I can't lose her. Not now. If she's dead, it's because of me...she followed me here. The responsibility hit her like a punch in the gut. She wanted to turn and run, not find out...wouldn't it be better not to know at all, than to find out that Mel was dead? To imagine her living happily, and not see a body, another dead broken body? Too much death. I've had too much. I do not want to see hers. I couldn't bear it. Almost imperceptibly, her body shifted, as if to head back the way she came.
Don't walk away.
The voice inside her was new. Yet old in its origins. It felt so thoroughly a part of her that she never believed it was her ancestor, but she realized, standing on that street corner, that it was. She'd heard it in Macedonia, after she'd pulled Mel out of the cave, when Jack Kleinman impulsively took a photo of her and Mel. She had looked at Mel and, as the camera clicked, so did everything else. I've found you, the voice had said. Janice had shrugged it off, chalking it up to too much booze the night before and her always raging hormones, but now, finally, she could not deny the way in which she was drawn to Melinda. No matter how much she drank. No matter how many bar-room brawls she indulged in. No matter how far she would run.
A fate, a destiny, a bond. Call it what you will. Your courage has carried you this far. It will get you through.
All you have to do is look up. Now the voice sounded...amused. But before she could comply, she felt a gentle touch on her arm. And when she did look up, it was into the blue eyes that she would love for all her life, and beyond that.
Mel was thinner, perhaps even a little gaunt, and looked tired. This was all exacerbated by the large, dramatic dark overcoat she wore, and her black hair, which, uncharacteristically, hung loose and tumbled past her shoulders. Her long, elegant hand lingered on Janice's arm as they stared at each other.
"I've...found you." Janice thought it best to start with Gabrielle's words.
Mel's jaw shifted, as a sea of words and emotion, stymied over the course of a year, threatened to spill out into incomprehension. "You found me? I've been looking for you..." she sputtered.
"I know. I'm...sorry. Are you hurt?" Tentatively she pulled on Mel's sleeve, and surveyed the streets; people were talking on streets corners, pulling out wreckage, helping their neighbors, their homes destroyed, damaged, ruined. Lives were disrupted, but life went on, and no one seemed to pay attention to two lovestruck American women gazing intently into each other's eyes. Perhaps even the most unsympathetic passerby would admit it was better than having a bomb dropped on one's home.
"No, I'm fine. Just tired. Our block wasn't hit, luckily. Just some smoke damage....I was on my way to the office..." Mel continued to stare at Janice in utter disbelief. When she first saw a fair-haired, khaki-clad woman standing dejected, leaning against a lamp post, she thought, too little sleep and no glasses makes for pleasant hallucinations. But as she drew closer, she knew it was Janice. It was really her; she was really here. Don’t be a ninny and start crying now, Melinda Pappas. Nonetheless the unbidden tears sprang into her eyes. "God," she whispered, "there's so much I've wanted to say to you."
"I know, Mel. I’m sorry about what happened..." Janice trailed off.
"You mean...you regret it?" The tall woman’s voice had dropped to an agonized whisper.
"Jesus, no, I didn’t mean...that. I don’t regret that. I meant, I shouldn’t have left the way I did..." Quick, say it before you lose your nerve. "Look, I have only two things to say to you at the moment," she gulped. Come on, I can do this, after everything I've been through this past year...surely this is not hard. Or is it, quite possibly, the hardest thing I've ever done? "I love you. I think I always have, from the minute I saw you." She paused again, for effect. "And I'll never leave you again." Another pause. "Actually, I guess that was three..."
Mel seemed stunned, as if the Nazis had dropped a bomb on her head.
"You're not gonna faint again, are you?" Janice asked anxiously, recalling that fateful visit a year and a half ago, when Mel fainted at the sight of her. That should have told me something, then. Would a native southerner faint at just a little heat? No, it would take a lot of heat to lay this woman low. She allowed herself to smile a little, and was pleased to see Mel return the smile.
Mel shook her head vigorously. "No, I, uh..." The tall woman was clearly exasperated and befuddled. "Janice Covington, I don't know whether I should slap you or kiss you."
"I think I would prefer the latter, although I don't blame you if you do the former." Janice grinned. "Or you could compromise and do both..."
She was rewarded with a dazzling smile and a laugh from her lover, who enfolded her in an embrace, into the blackness of her coat. She closed her eyes with relief and inhaled Mel's scent. Surrounded by the dark warmth of the coat, her mind's eye was radiant with color.
"You haven't asked about the scroll."
A curious hand fluttered against Mel's taut stomach. "Hmmmm?" Janice drawled sleepily.
To Mel, the drab flat where she had spent the past six months had never looked better. For two days she had not left the room, and hardly exited the bed she shared with Janice. The wily old Frobisher had wrangled a two-day leave for Janice, and excused Mel from her duties. He even sent over an embarrassed McKay with some food; the sergeant's overtaxed heart fluttered at the sight of Mel in a bathrobe, and the tiniest glimpse of the American WAC that he had led into his CO's office the other day, scantily clad (wearing a T-shirt and men's boxers) and lounging about on the bed. It's even worse than I imagined. In fact, I don't know what to imagine, McKay thought miserably as he left.
Night had fallen over weary London. Mel poked the slumbering woman who was curled up against her. "Corporal Covington, honey, don't fall asleep."
"Janice, don't you want to know what the scroll said? About Gabrielle?" Mel sank lower into the bed, turning to face her lover, and anchored her hands into the thick fiery hair. Impulsively she kissed Janice passionately, hoping it would awaken and arouse the weary WAC, so that they could talk about the scroll. I know, it's classic bait and switch, but all's fair in love and war...she thought.
For a moment, it seemed to work: The green eyes fluttered open with surprise, then the lids drooped down again and Janice broke the kiss. "You're an exhausting woman," she moaned in protest. Mel raced her hand over the dangerous, delectable curve of Janice's hip. "But don't stop touching me. Ever."
"Mel, I love you."
"And I love you, but...about the scroll..."
" 'Kay, tell me...I'm listening..." mumbled Janice, half-asleep, face buried in a pillow.
Mel narrowed her eyes in exasperation. "All right, here's what I've found out thus far. Ares becomes smitten with Gabrielle and makes her his Chosen. She goes on a violent rampage and conquers all of Greece, murdering ten times more people than Xena ever did. Meanwhile, Xena opens a bordello in Athens and secretly pens the Satiryca for Petronius."
"Ah, good old Gabrielle."
Mel, shaking her head, sighed in defeat. "Good night, Janice," she said, planting a kiss on Janice's forehead.
"Hail to the Queen, baby," Janice muttered, half-asleep.
Melinda Pappas arched an eyebrow in pleasant surprise. She smiled as she curled up to sleep next to her companion.
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