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Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, and Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidaia, Amazon Queen, Grandmother of Muppet the Destroyer, and their uber-counterparts, Dr Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas, are the property of Renaissance Pictures/MCA/Universal. This story is a work of fan fiction, with no challenge to copyright intended.

Violence/Language Warning: Nothing particularly explicit, but certainly present. (You're in Covington country now.)

Love/Sex Warning: Women in love with women, women in love with men, men in love with women. (Things sure get complicated, don't they?) Despite the sound of things, nothing graphic.

Thanks to: My beta readers - Vron, Rox, Viv and PD - for their time and patience; Jenny and Fran, for their subject matter expertise *grin*; and my beloved friend and flatmate, Su, for tolerating my constant appropriation of her computer.

Comments to: lela@massive.com.au - feedback much appreciated.

 

 

If We Shadows

by Lela Kaunitz

lela@massive.com.au

 

"Archaeology is inevitably a romantic business."
- Rod Jones,
Prince of the Lilies

 

New York, November 1946

Ghosts had a way of reappearing. The South was full of them, you learned to expect it. But here, in a New York museum at the black tie opening of an exhibition, was a ghost she hadn't expected.

"Doctor Covington." A curtsy, awkward with nervousness, from the tall southerner.

"Miss Pappas." The archaeologist's brow furrowed, belying the smile. "And it's ... uhhh ... it's Doctor Baylor now. I'm married."

The colour drained from Mel's cheeks as she stared in disbelief at the smaller woman. That the stocky archaeologist was in elegant eveningwear - a dress, no less! - was enough of a shock.

But that Janice Covington, the coarse-mouthed, cigar-smoking, swaggering ruffian whose hands and mouth had known every inch of her skin - that Janice Covington was MARRIED ... Mel's mouth opened and closed a few times before anything coherent emerged.

"I ... So that's why you stopped writing me?"

Janice's wondrous green eyes turned sorrowful. "I didn't know how to tell you."

"A simple statement of fact would have been nice." Politeness merely gave the hurt sharp edges.

"Jan, who's your friend?" J. Walton Baylor, sliding an affectionate arm around his wife's waist, revealed himself as a handsome, if rumpled, older man. He stood not much taller than Janice herself, and his weathered face, framed by tousled blonde hair, offered a ready grin. "I don't believe we've met?"

"Mel, this is James Walton Baylor, my husband. Walt, this is Melinda Pappas. We met on a dig in Macedonia."

"The Xena Scrolls?" Walt's handshake was firm, friendly. Nevertheless, Mel was fighting against an unladylike urge to flatten him to a bloody pulp.

Being Southern came to her advantage in rallying a charmed-to-meet-you smile. "Indeed so, Mister Baylor. I was hoping to translate them."

I hadn't expected to fall in love.

"Well, their loss is a tragedy. What they would have meant to the world. A revelation!" His eyes brightened, caught by the allure of that lost knowledge.

"If only Jack hadn't taken the damn scrolls and then vanished." Janice shook her head.

Earrings too?

"A new mystery for the ages." Walt planted a fond kiss on her cheek, and raised an eyebrow at Mel. "Jan's got a new quest. The fate of John Isaac Kleinman."

"The scrolls lasted two thousand years, Walt. We were that close. I held them in my hand ... they're not going to elude me forever."

"Not now you know they exist," Mel interjected.

"Exactly!" Janice returned, obviously missing the inference.

"You want another drink, honey?" Walt disentangled himself from their embrace, bestowed another kiss, and made for the nearest waiter.

"You're married." Mel said, when they were alone.

Janice shrugged. "Yeah, six months now. I wasn't expecting it myself. But he suits me. I can't explain it." A brief smile touched her lips. "He just ... he suits me."

"And I didn't?" Her voice rose a little higher than she'd expected.

"Oh now, Mel..." Janice's hands enfolded hers. The archaeologist's strong fingers melded through hers as easily as they ever had.

"You've got to understand, this is a bit of a shock to me." Mel squeezed Janice's hands, feeling the warmth of them, remembering all too clearly how those hands had felt against her skin.

"We were working cataloguing potsherds from the dig in Afghanistan, some triviality for his thesis ... and we both looked up. And that was it."

"Never mind we had a history that stretches back two thousand years?" Mel bit her lip, feeling tears forming. "My God, Janice. You spent your life looking for the scrolls. When we lost them ... do you remember telling me that perhaps your quest for the scrolls had all along been a quest to find me?"

"Mel," said Janice, relinquishing her grip and pulling her hands away, "Can I remind you that there are several hundred people here, and that my husband is one of them?"

"Why didn't you tell me?" Mel asked quietly. "I would never have let you go to Afghanistan alone if I'd know you'd-"

"Fall in love?"

"I fell in love with you. Are you telling me now that-?"

"Feelings change, Mel."

"Not feelings like these, Janice Covington. Not the soul of a Warrior Princess, in love with an Amazon Queen."

"You're damn crazy, Mel. You know that?" Janice turned, stumbled in her heels, steadied herself from falling by clutching at Walt's arm.

His glass of red wine, of course, saw fit to splatter across the creamy satin drape of Mel's gown.

As if the evening had needed anything to cap it off ... Mel burst into tears and fled, sobbing, through the crowds. She could feel their stares, hear their murmurs of dismay, knew the wine was irreparably staining the fabric of her dress.

Nonetheless, flight remained her best instinct, until at last she burst out of the museum into the chilly night air.

There, collapsing onto the carved base of one of the columns, she lost herself in weeping. She had to snatch her glasses off to cry properly, and was hardly surprised when they snapped. This was a day where everything was falling towards ruin.

"Mel..."

She took a shaky breath, dragged her hands across her face to smudge mascara and tears, and raised her head.

Janice was standing a few feet away, holding out a battered leather jacket. "You're probably freezing your butt off out here."

It was the jacket from Macedonia, Mel realised, breaking into fresh sobs as Janice draped it gently over her shoulders.

Janice wrapped an arm around her, taking a seat beside her on the stonework. "He knows who you are."

"And who am I? Your ex-lover, from the time when you were foolish enough to be loving women?"

"There wasn't anything foolish about it." Janice sounded very tired.

Mel sniffled. Janice dug into the bodice of her dress and pulled out a handkerchief. "Here."

While Mel blew her nose and wiped her eyes, Janice sat quietly, staring at her feet. "I want kids, Mel. You know that? I mean, hell, I know I've always been a bit of a tomboy and all, but..." She shrugged. "That doesn't say everything about who I am."

Reddened eyes searched her face. "You wanted children? You never talked to me about-"

"I don't reckon I was very honest with you."

"I'm beginning to think that."

"I was overwhelmed, you know. Xena, Ares, you. You with those big blue eyes and that Southern accent, and ... well, that voice." Janice peered out from under her lashes, looking awkward. "If two thousand years of ..." Another shrug. "Destiny..."

"You ran away from me, didn't you?"

"I figured if I kept writing you letters, you wouldn't notice I had. And then Walt..."

"Do you love him?"

Janice smiled. "Yeah. With all my heart."

"There's a but in there, I can hear it."

"But there's this damned useless tag-along bard brat in me that has my soul pledged to you, and there's not a goddamned thing I can do about it."

Mel looked over at her, wished she were brave enough to brush back the strand of auburn hair falling across Janice's cheek. Janice tucked it resolutely behind one ear.

"I've got a confession to make." She pulled the errant lock free again, twisted it around a forefinger, decided the mannerism irritated more than it soothed her, and shoved it back behind her ear again. "I knew you were going to be here tonight. I was watching for you to walk in. I was gonna end it, see?"

"End what?"

"Missing you. I was going to give you all the how-comes and all. Why I didn't ... shit, Mel. I'm a married woman, damn it. Happily married, to a downright wonderful guy, who's gonna be a daddy not long from now."

Pregnant?

"I was gonna make a clean breast of it. I told you about Walt. And then you looked at me like ... like every breath you'd taken since last time I'd seen you had been waiting for me." Janice ducked her head, cheeks reddening at the uncharacteristically long speech. "And my heart just about kicked me in the chest."

She looked up, waited till Mel met her eyes.

"And now I donít have a damned clue what it is I'm doing."

No clue, Janice? So why're you leaning forward and kissing me?

It was that kind of kiss. Desperate and wonderful.

Janice's tongue sought her own, urgently, and what with the way the archaeologist's hands tangled in her hair, Mel was almost glad her glasses had broken.

But this was a distant, back-of-the-mind thought, eclipsed by the wonderful sensation of Janice, her Janice, back in her arms again.

 

 

Rhode Island, March 1946

She could still remember the look on Walt's face that night. A stupid grin was probably the only way to describe it, and yet that stupid grin had held such hope she couldn't help but respond.

Walt-

Never mind writing "dear"; her writing was illegible enough at the best of times, and there was no point confusing the poor man further. This letter was bound to floor him anyway, so best to keep things simple.

Having written his name, retraced the letters in a vain attempt to neaten them, recrossed the "t" - several times - and chewed the end of her pen till it splintered, she found herself no closer to actually writing. How to start a letter like this?

I hope you're well.

Starting with a platitude seemed safe enough. It wasn't as though this was a love letter, after all. It was just a suggestion, an idea, a proposal. A proposal. Exactly.

That made her pause, and she clamped the pen between her teeth again.

I've been thinking a lot since I got back from Afghanistan. Not so much about the dig itself - though I was consulting with Jeffreys last night on that stonework we unearthed, and we suspect that last midden might be considerably older than we initially supposed -

Get to the point, Janice.

She put the pen down and reached for one of the tray-cases stacked on the desk. Sorted through the fragments of clay. One piece in particular was familiar, an almost triangular shard with a vein of blue glass running through it.

When she'd first brushed most of the dirt off this shard, the colour had reminded her almost painfully of the blue of Mel's eyes. She'd sat cradling the piece between her palms, watching the light gleam across the surface, daydreaming...

 

"You're not quite with us today, are you, Jan?" Walt reached across the table and took the potsherd from her. "You're going to set the tent on fire if you don't pick your cigar up."

She retrieved her cheroot before it ashed onto Walt's thesis notes, and tucked it back in the corner of her mouth.

"Unless that's your plan, and you're hoping to claim the cost of the dig back on insurance?"

"I appreciate the thought, Walt." Janice drew on her cigar, rolled the smoke around inside her mouth for a long moment.

"Appreciation isn't quite what I was looking for. I was hoping for a big, fat check." He grinned, lines crinkling at the corners of his eyes. "You've got quite an appreciation for someone yourself, I suspect."

"Uh-huh ... someone, huh?" She poured each of them another whisky and, deciding it wasn't worth recapping, gulped the last measure straight from the bottle.

"If that's just a field journal you're keeping, there's something uncanny in how many letters you keep churning out."

"I ramble."

"I've had to use pliers to get words out of you, Covington."

She sucked down the contents of her glass, not even grimacing as 90 proof hit her stomach. "We got any more of this?"

"I travel well-stocked. Fear not, Doctor Covington!" He made his careful way between open cases, tables strewn with artifacts, a skeleton irreverently posed with a tarnished bronze figurine, Janice's laundry airing inside away from the eyes of the workers - their modesty, not hers - and dug about in his travelling chest. "Of course, it's not going to divert me from my question."

"What question?"

Walt held up a virgin bottle of bourbon. "Voila! Trade goods."

She clapped politely. "Always knew you were a genius, Baylor."

"That being so, and all things being equal, why is it you're a doctor and I'm still a dogsbody?" He paused his return journey by the eye-catching tableau of skeleton and statuette, and pointed, bemused. "Did you do this?"

"They seemed lonely."

"Ah." He settled back onto his packing crate - chairs being an unnecessary luxury in the camp - and reclaimed his glass. "My question, Jan, was this: who is it you're writing to?"

"A friend."

"Must be someone downright special to get so many words out of you."

"Special doesn't cover it."

"Hoooo..." That had him intrigued. "Speak again, bright angel."

Despite the flush of crimson crawling up her neck, she tried for studied nonchalance. "Nothing like that. I can see what youíre thinking, Walt, and it's nothing like that."

"And just what shade of red do you call that?"

Her cigar had gone out, and she fished in her pocket for a light. Took a little longer about it than was strictly necessary, of course, but the breathing space it gave her was appreciated.

Oh yeah. Appreciation. That was where it started.

"How do you tell..." She broke off, stared down at the butt of her cigar. "Did you ever meet someone who reminds you of someone you used to know? Nothing you can put your finger on, necessarily, or ..."

No, this was harder than she was expecting. She scratched her jaw, looking for inspiration in the way the lamplight gleamed golden through Walt's glass of bourbon.

"They look like this person. They ... it's not that they sound, or act, or move or anything ... anything alike. But it's like-"

She broke the seal on the new bottle, refilled both glasses, and sat nursing her drink for a while.

Walt sat watching her, one eyebrow half-raised. "Like they remind you of this other person just by existing?"

"Exactly. But they definitely arenít." I'm not drunk enough for this conversation. "So, if you find yourself falling for ... for this person ... how do you know if it's them, and not the person they remind you of?"

"Now there's something I have no answer for."

She mock-scowled at him, and raised her glass. "Isn't that why you became an archaeologist, Walt? To uncover the answers?"

They clinked glasses, and chugged their drinks.

"Lord, no." Walt grinned. "I just have an unholy affection for dirt. Mysteries like the hows and whys of love I leave to wiser minds."

"You'd leave them to a mind like mine?"

"Bourbon at ... three ... o'clock does not leave you at your best, my dear Jan." He saluted her with an empty glass. "Otherwise I'd make it my solemn duty to assist you on your mission of identification."

"You're a gentleman, Walt." She touched the rim of her glass to his, and noticed where their knuckles brushed. An interesting occurrence. She left her hand there to study the phenomenon. New discoveries should not be disturbed till duly catalogued.

Walt took the glass from her fingers and curled his hand around hers. His skin was tanned, smudged with the ever-present dust. She watched as he guided her hand to his mouth and pressed a light kiss to her knuckles.

His grey eyes were very warm and very kind. "Go to sleep, Jan," he said.

"Come with me?"

"You're drunk," he reminded her.

"I know." She took a deep breath. "But, y'know ... I just need to be held."

 

Of course, it had become a little more than holding and being held. That night, and others.

She pushed the blue glass fragment back across the table, and dusted her palms on the legs of her trousers.

I want you to know something, Walt.

You don't have two thousand years of history clinging to you when you touch me. She sat back in her chair, staring at the pen in revulsion. But those words which had bubbled up into her mind had not appeared on the paper, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

You make me feel like I know what I'm doing. I've got to admit that doesn't happen a lot.

Sometimes I feel like Ulysses, like I lost my way trying to get home ... or like the Gods were against me ever getting there. Like I'm always going to be drifting. She took a deep breath and wondered hopefully whether there was any whisky left in that bottle at the back of the bookcase. For that matter, anyone on the faculty was bound to have something stashed away.

You make me feel like a human being, see? And I don't want to lose that.

When you hold me at night and I look up at you, I don't have to think about who's staring back at me. I don't have to wonder if it's you behind those blue eyes, or if it's the Warrior Princess searching for her Gabrielle.

I feel like I know you, James Walton Baylor. Can you blame me for wanting to hold onto that?

"What're you writing?"

She looked up to find Walt grinning at her. He was very sunburnt.

"Walt! What the hell are-?"

"Afghanistan got kind of empty all of a sudden." He shrugged, and sank his hands into the pockets of his plaid trousers.

"You weren't supposed to be back for-"

"I followed you home." He tilted his head, amiable as a puppy-dog. "Won't you keep me?"

Janice's cheeks were burning, and she looked down at the scrawl of her letter. "Walt..."

His eyebrows drew together, imploring.

She shook her head in bemusement, and thrust the piece of paper into a camouflaging pile of notes. "What're you asking?"

"Live with me?"

"Oh, I'm glad you've got that much regard for my reputation."

"I'm kidding, Jan. Marry me."

Christ! The irony. She guffawed, pure disbelief, and Walt crumpled.

She couldn't bear his expression, and pushed the letter across the desk towards him. Her hand, she noticed, was shaking slightly. "I was just gonna ask you the same..."

His face split in that wonderful, hopeful grin again, and he began to laugh. "I take it that's a yes, then?" he asked, gazing at her with those clear grey eyes.

Grey eyes in which she saw nothing but him. Not Mel Pappas, with eyes of irresistible drowning blue. Not the haunted, feline chill of the Warrior Princess. Just him. Just Walt.

After that, her smile came easily. "Yeah, Walt. That's most definitely a yes."

 

South Carolina, August 1945

The familiar mystery of Mel's body stretched undefended and undiscovered before her. Pale skin gleamed almost silver in the Carolina moonlight, while blue eyes were deepened to sapphire.

"Melinda..." She drew the name out, caressing the syllables as her palms slid the smooth length of Mel's abdomen. She took a slow, deep breath, exhaling as she leaned down to kiss Mel's neck where the line of her jaw ended. The slightest shiver told her the kiss had found a response.

"Jannnnice..." Mel breathed, mouthing the second syllable in no sound, as Janice's hands explored the sleekness of her skin.

"Yeah, honey." Janice's mouth curved in a slight smile. Her fingers glanced over Mel's breast, expecting somehow to encounter a scar - Xena had a scar there - but finding nothing. The feeling of disappointment that welled up in the wake of this discovery made her uncomfortable; Mel was Mel, Mel was her lover, and this was good.

Even if her fingers failed to locate the knot of bone where three broken ribs had mended. Even if the skin of Mel's shoulders was silken soft beneath her kisses, not worn to a faint hollow, a hint of callus, by the friction of leather armour. Even if the slight roundness of her belly lacked the stretch marks left by pregnancy. Even if her hands did not knot to fists in the blankets as her body shook with release, as her lover's name was forced through clenched teeth:

"Gab...ri...elle..."

These moments, when her eyes could not believe what they were seeing, and her hands could not believe who they were touching, left Janice chilled and uneasy.

 

 

While Mel slept, Janice lay awake, with her arms wrapped loose and familiar around the tall woman's shoulders.

The night air was warm, with a cloying, sticky stillness. Janice smoothed back the dark tendrils that clung to Mel's cheeks, wondering how her lover could sleep in a heat that trailed beads of sweat down her skin.

Around here, it's hard to know who to trust.

When they'd first met, back in Macedonia, she'd thrust the muzzle of a tommy gun in Mel's face. Nothing unreasonable in that, given the circumstances. In the middle of her dig site, in the middle of a war, a flustered southern belle was claiming to be a Nobel prize-winning anthropologist? That sort of thing was madness. It smelled of manipulation. It smelled of fate.

And there's no such thing as Fate.

Sweat was trickling down the back of her neck. She unwound sticky arms from Mel's sleeping form, kicked back the sheets, and clambered from the bed.

The window shrilled on its runners as she pushed it open, and Mel stirred at the sound, one arm roaming across the bedclothes in search of the body which usually lay close to hers.

Janice smiled wryly at the sight - how many nights have I watched you sleeping? - and remembered that face glimpsed by firelight. The stern lines of that warlord's mask gentled, softened, by the innocence of sleep.

She shook her head, and blinked to clear her vision. Mel's hand had abandoned its unconscious quest and now lay curled, palm upwards, on the pale cotton of the sheet.

"Where'd you come from, huh?"

Mel sighed in her sleep and rolled onto her side. Her long legs, one knee drawn up to waist height, cut across half the bed. Janice could see the patches of reddened skin on her heels - "I can't wear boots, Janice Covington. I'm a lady" - where her shoes rubbed.

She padded barefoot to the bathroom, and faced her reflection in the mirror. Wisps of red made scarecrow escapes from the lank, tangled weight of her hair.

The heat, damp and oppressive, crawled insect-like across her back as she splashed water on her face and her wrists. She laid a cool hand on the nape of her neck, and felt a droplet trickle down between her shoulder blades.

In Afghanistan, at least, she would escape the heat. The heat, and the humidity. This place, where the air sweltered and sweated all on its own, was not for her. So much for the Deep South.

She liked the desert. She liked the dust. Dust, and dirt, held secrets she could fathom. She could coax mysteries from the dirt, unearth wonderful things. Like an arc of bright, sharp-edged metal, embossed each side with patterns in gold. Like rolls of parchment with revelations and miracles - the rewriting of history - in the hand of a girl who was her many-times-great-grandmother...

Janice found herself leaning against the mirror, the glass cool against her forehead. The marks of her lips, a perfect kiss, were stained across the surface.

It was like my reflection embraced me... Gabrielle's words seeped into her head, and she gulped down mouthfuls of water to stave off the delirium of a fevered brain.

She filled a glass at the faucet and paced back to the bedroom.

Mel had worked her way across to what they had come to accept was Janice's side of the bed, in the process appropriating the sheet and both pillows. She was now wrapped fondly around Janice's pillow, and her thumb - as it inevitably did - was creeping towards her mouth.

So how come sometimes you go reaching for a sword when I wake you, Mel Pappas?

She put the glass down on the night table, and perched herself on that corner of the bed Mel had not yet enveloped in her sprawl.

It gets into your blood, Janny, her father had told her more than once...

 

"It gets into your blood, like some kind of fever. And once you've got it, you may as well give up and accept it." He reached down and tilted the brim of her hat back, so she could see his eyes. "You're going to be hunting that treasure all your life."

"The Xena Scrolls..." Sheíd only ever heard him speak their name in tones of hushed reverence, so her mimicry was unconscious. But it made Harry Covington smile in spite of himself.

"The Scrolls," he agreed. "When we find them, they're going to be rewriting the history books."

She grinned at that. One of her front teeth was growing in a little crooked, and it added an impishness to her already wicked smile. "It's gotta be an improvement on how they're written now."

"Smart alec." He put the end of the twine into her hands and took six paces back, measuring out the line of the foundations. "Where'd you get that mouth?"

"Family tradition."

 

Family tradition indeed. Gabrielle was a goddamn bard. Janice pushed her hands through her hair.

"Janice, honey? I swear you haven't slept a wink all night." Mel's hand on her shoulder shook her from her reverie. "What's bothering you?"

Janice shrugged, shaking her head. "I heard from the college. They've come through with some grant money for me."

"At last!"

"Yeah, a dig I won't have financed through hocking some priceless antiquity. Tell me how come I'm not more jubilant?"

"Maybe ... maybe it's just misplaced guilt? You were just doing what you had to do until you found the Scrolls. And now they've been unearthed-"

"And lost." Janice grunted.

"And lost," Mel continued, not missing a beat. "The path you were following, your daddy's path, doesn't exist for you to follow any more. And this is like a step on a whole new journey for you."

"You make me feel like Marco Polo."

"Well now, looking at it like that, I can understand why you'd be losing sleep."

Janice's smile was reflected in the curve of her cheeks, but then her face creased to seriousness again. "Afghanistan is a helluva place to be travelling to. No decent bars, no tall southern women..." She was trying to lighten her tone and not quite succeeding.

"You're worrying about me." Mel was struck by the revelation, and sat astounded for a moment before she remembered how to speak. "That's how come you're..."

"It's been a long time since I spent a day without you, Mel. It's going to be pretty strange."

"Will you write me?"

Janice grimaced. "I don't reckon there's much of a post office where I'm going to."

"I'm sure you'll think of something." Mel teased, tracing a line across Janice's shoulder and receiving an inviting shiver in return. "You tend to be resourceful that way."

"Posting letters from Afghanistan?" She twisted to face Mel, and raised an eyebrow.

"Noooo..." Mel rolled her eyes. "Getting your message through."

"Ugh. Please." Janice squinted up at her. "You're using too much brains for me."

"Excuse me, Doctor Covington. There're brains in that head of yours."

They sat smiling at one another.

 

New York, November 1946

Not her Janice.

She could feel the swell of Janiceís pregnant belly where their bodies were pressed together. Concealed beneath the dark green dress, it had been possible to ignore, but made the revelation harder.

Janiceís arms were wrapped fiercely around her, and the archaeologistís head was buried in the hollow of her throat as though trying to draw strength from the pulse there.

She could smell tobacco, leather, old books - that familiar combination of scents which was so undeniably Janice - and let her face sink into the auburn coils of the smaller womanís hair.

Familiar, so familiar, but not hers.

"So what is it you think you're doing, Janice?" She spoke quietly, half-hoping her question would go unheard.

But she felt Janiceís shoulders tense, and her arms loosened their ferocious grip. The archaeologistís breath was heat against her throat.

"I donít know." Inhaling deeply. Seeking the scent of Melís perfume - that she recognised Janiceís actions, that she knew them so well, made Melís heart skip a painful beat. "This isnít..."

Janice disentangled herself from their embrace and shifted back to meet Melís gaze.

Her eyes, almost hazel in the half-light, held a determined frankness. "This isnít turning out like I planned."

Is it so terrible, the idea of spending a second lifetime with me?

Even as the thought entered Melís head, she looked up into the grey hurt of Waltís eyes. Without glasses, her eyesight was usually so bad that anything beyond armís length was a blur, but meeting his unhappy gaze snapped things into vivid clarity.

His empty wineglass still hung in the loose curl of his fingers, and red wine had stained his cuff where it peeped beyond the sleeve of his jacket.

"Iím never sure," he began, in a tone so conversational it could only be false, "if itís club soda that gets red wine out of satin."

His eyes traced the length of the crimson stain on Melís cream dress, the inspection one slow, protracted flinch designed to postpone having to look her in the face.

"Walt," Janice began. The leather jacket creaked as she separated from Melís slackened embrace. Where the archaeologistís hand still rested on her forearm, Mel could feel the trembling of her fingers.

"Please donít." His jaw tightened. "I donít need an explanation."

Janice took a few steps toward him - apparently, Mel noted with a detached sense of absurdity, the archaeologist could walk in heels - but he wouldnít meet her eyes.

"Damn it, Walt!" Janice squared her shoulders and glared at him. "I donít want to spend the evening-"

He lifted his head and stared at her. Whatever it was Janice saw in his eyes, it silenced her. His gaze flickered past, not a dismissal but a setting aside, and Mel came back to herself to find him watching her.

"Hereís where Iím supposed to hit you." He smiled unsteadily, harshening the weatherworn lines of his face. "Right?"

"Well now, I-" Melís throat was dry.

His hands were callused, as much a working manís hands as a scholarís. He looked down at them, discovered he was still cradling the empty glass, and stooped to place it on the step.

"Because when someone kisses my wife ... right there in front of me ... it upsets me." He didnít seem to know quite what to do with his anger. "And if I thought it would do any good-"

A muscle jumped in Janiceís arm. Noticing the movement, and the subtle shift in her stance which followed, Mel found herself wondering if the woman in the deep green gown was even Janice at all.

"Donít misunderstand me," Walt continued, having paused to make his choice of phrases. "Itís not that youíre a woman. I know women can throw punches -" His hand lifted reflexively to his jaw at a memory. "- so thatís no reason."

"So what's stopping you, then?" For once, her towering height was an advantage rather than an embarrassment.

"Because it wouldnít help."

"How so?"

"If it was just that you love her, maybe."

"But?"

"But she loves you."

"SHE doesnít like being talked about like sheís not here." Janiceís hands were on her hips. "What the hell is it with you two?"

"YOU KISSED HER!" Walt exploded.

"Yeah, I did." She moved to dig her hands into her pockets, a defensive mannerism stymied by the unaccustomed dress. For all the elegance of evening gown and styled hair, Janice Covington still stood like a ruffian in boots. "I think I made a mistake."

Something in her voice triggered a wave of memories in Mel: Macedonia, late at night, the smell of dust and gunpowder in the air, the unaccustomed ache of combat in her muscles, and Janice Covington preparing to walk away -

Maybe it's time that we both stepped out into the world and showed them what we can do.

Together?

Well, not if you donít want to.

There had always been that hesitation with Janice. Right from the beginning. Thereíd been a caution, a need for space, a need for breathing room. As though the archaeologist didnít quite trust what she was feeling.

"A mistake..." Walt echoed, his voice on the shaky edge of disbelief.

Janiceís eyes were golden-green, sunrise and springtime. Colours Mel didn't know how to read.

"What kind of mistake, Janice?" To Mel's surprise, her own voice sounded low and smooth, something alien erasing the southern cadence from her words.

"You expected me to know what I wanted?" Janice's voice cracked.

What Iíve wanted for centuries.

"You promised me, Jan." Walt said, stepping between them. "Doesnít that count for anything?"

Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you.

Stepping between them.

Youíre my source; donít you know that by now?

Between them.

"Janice." Walt reached out an arm toward his wife. "Talk to me. Please?" His fingers slipped on the sleek fabric of her dress as she turned, and the edge of his palm struck, hard, against her larynx.

A fragment - Gabrielle, knife at her throat - seared across Mel's mind's eye, juxtaposed for one terrible instant with the sight of Janice and Walt.

My responsibility now is you.

Those green eyes, looking back at her, seemed for a moment to hold the answer to some secret -

Gabrielle...

- and Xena reached down into her bones.

Not the dress. Not this dress! But her hands disregarded her, disregarded the expensive dress as they ripped the seams open almost to her hips.

Janiceís eyes flattened from green to grey, recognising the action for what it meant.

I canít help it. Itís not me. The words stayed in her head as muscles shifted, hardened, as her frame found the fighting stance with an ease that still disconcerted her. Janice, please...

She was never certain whether Walt realised the danger he was in. All she knew was that her muscles were bunching to spring when Janiceís yell - "NO! XENA!" - rocked her back on her haunches and the molasses-thick presence of the warrior princess was suddenly gone.

In the aftermath, sweating and shaking, feeling weaker than a newborn, she wanted to be sick.

Janiceís arms enfolded her, strong and comforting. "Sheís in your blood, Mel."

"I donít want to be a killer, Janice..." She heard her voice break on the last word, and couldnít help the tears that followed.

But Janice was there, stroking her hair, murmuring comfort, feathering kisses across her cheeks. Whispering "I know", "I understand."

And she did. She was the only one who ever could.

 

 

"Which would make you Gabrielle, huh?" Somehow, Walt sounded less than surprised.

Janice's arms remained snug about her shoulders, though the storm of Mel's tears had passed. "Pretty much." The archaeologist's voice was cigar-smoke husky, and shaking.

"Well." He stood looking at them, his hands hanging uselessly by his sides. "Who am I to come between you then?"

"You're my husband, Walt."

Which makes me ... what? Mel unwound her arms from their desperate embrace and straightened to the full awkwardness of her height. But Janice's fingers twined through hers and would not let go.

"Maybe so." Walt's gaze shifted to their clasped hands. "But she's your heart, Jan. I can see that."

The line between Janice's brows had deepened to a furrow, and instinct slid Mel's arm around her waist for support. She had forgotten how easily they fitted together; even where her palm rested against the pregnant swell of Janice's belly, the match was effortless.

"My dad used to say everyone had another half, the missing piece of their soul. That story sprang to mind when I first met you, Jan." His thumb ran ceaselessly across the band of gold on his finger. "And when I was holding you, I really did hope you'd be that other half..."

Janice's free hand reached for his - he squeezed her fingers, briefly, with unmistakable fondness.

"But I'm looking at you now. And I'm seeing a soul that found its other half once." He paused, breathed, smiled with the painful wonder of a man granted a vision.

Janice was trembling against the curve of her arm.

"You were right," Walt said, ducking his head in quiet acknowledgment. "Special doesn't cover it." He pressed a kiss to the back of Janice's hand, squared his shoulders, and started down the steps to the street.

The archaeologist's spine was locked rigid. "Walt..."

He glanced back at her.

"Thank you."

A nod, before he turned away.

Janice exhaled a long, slow breath and let her forehead come to rest against Mel's shoulder.

"If this is to be our destiny," she said, and the words echoed down into Mel's very bones. A confirmation, a relief, a feeling of coming home. "Let's see it out together."

They stood, holding one another, for a long time.


completed November 1998


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