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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way.
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Continues from here.
Mel had taken up a position at the front door, her nose inches from the screen; on the other side black flies buzzed and knitted their legs against the tightly-woven metal, and beyond the flies, under the searing outback sun, Alice said her farewells to Dinah. She couldnt make out the words, but the gestures -- hands swiping at tears, a last lingering embrace -- spoke volumes. Neville Bonner, his dark face a passive mask, endured in silence the girlish expressions of sadness and regret, but as his daughter dropped her arms to her sides at last, he stepped forward and took Alice by the shoulders. Mel watched as he spoke earnestly to her, gesturing once towards the house before placing his rough, dry lips against her forehead. Mel regretted that her position did not afford her a better view of Alices face as Dinah moved away, walking backwards in her fathers shadow, returning Alices wave before turning into the sun. The solitary figure left standing by the plane placed her hands on her hips, her body rising and falling in a long sigh of resignation. She turned and walked towards the house. Mel watched them, the retreating figures of Dinah and her father, and Alice as she approached the door; she was impressed that neither girl turned to look back at the other. She pushed the door open as Alice stepped onto the verandah, aware that she was probably the last person in the world the girl wanted to see at this moment.
"Thanks," Alice murmured as she brushed past Mel on her way to the kitchen.
Thanks? Okay, scan for sarcasm. Nothing. Mel closed the heavy door with care and even before she pushed through the swinging kitchen door, she could hear the clatter of silverware being drawn from drawers.
Alice had spread a good quality lace cloth on the table beneath windows that opened onto a view of the paddock and windmill. As she carefully laid out the silver, the great knife on the outside, fork on the inside debate raged in her head. She had heard Mel enter the room and without looking up she said, "You might want to check your bread."
Mel reacted as if startled. "My bread..." A quick glance inside the oven. "Oh, my..." Using a couple of paper thin pot holders, she carefully moved the baking pan from oven to butchers block. "I think its alright," she said, poking the golden crust with a finger. "You just narrowly averted a disaster." Alice conjured up a smile and collected three mismatched plates from the cupboard to Mels right. As she passed Mel to set the table, she was humming. "Just two place settings, Alice."
Alice turned, the plates flat against her middle. "Am I sent to bed without supper?"
"I dont know what theyre servin at the corroboree," replied Mel quietly, moving the length of the kitchen. "Probably somethin still wigglin." She took the plates from Alices hands and addressed her seriously so there was no misunderstanding. "Well miss your company at supper."
"You mean it? I can go?" Her face lit up with a jaw-breaking grin. "Rippa!"
Mel held up her hands in an attempt to stem the tide. "Hold your horses now...go splash some water on your face and run a brush through your hair..." She chased Alice from the kitchen into her bedroom, all the while issuing advice and directives. "I declare...you look like a ragamuffin.
And you have Mr. Bonner walk you back afterwards. I dont care how late it is. I wont sleep a wink till youre back safe and sound."
"Cant I stay the night?" Alice dragged a brush through her hair, from roots to end. "Since its
Dinahs last night here...I could be home first thing in the morning."
Mel exhaled wearily. "I must have sucker written all over my face. All right," she conceded, jabbing an index finger at Alices chest. "But you be home bright and early."
Alice tossed the brush onto her cluttered bureau and presented herself for inspection; dusty chambray work shirt, khaki slacks rife with horse hair and sweat. "Look all right?"
Mel knew her opinions didnt matter one way or the other, but she thought it sweet of the girl to ask. "Youll do...better run if you wanna catch up to them."
"Strewth, yes!" Alice barreled out her bedroom door with the enthusiasm of a freshman running back, leaving Mel alone in the room, rooted to the spot by sheer disbelief.
"Not so much as a thank you. Well..." She turned to leave and saw Alices dirty battered hat, with its sweat-stained kangaroo-hide band lying brim down on the bed. "Honestly," she said, picking it up. "Forget her head if it wasnt attached." She shrugged and caught her reflection in the mirror, breathing genuine surprise into the word, "Sucker."
"Hey, Mel?" Alices reflection joined her in the mirror. "I --"
"Forgot your hat," Mel finished for her as she settled the hat atop Alices head, tilting it first to one side, then to the other, then back until it sat jauntily on the crown of her head. "Oh, well, you wear it however you like."
"I wanted to say thank you, Mel." Alice straightened the hat and in the ensuing silence, she could tell that her expression of gratitude had caught Mel off guard. "Those should have been the first words out of my mouth. I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate this, and I promise," she elaborated, her words taking on the weight of a blood oath. "Not one word of this will ever reach my mothers ears."
"Better not," Mel quipped, smiling crookedly. "Or youll have company in the dog house." She tucked an errant strand of hair beneath Alices ear and ran her finger the length of a strong jaw; although Pappas family etiquette warranted a larger display of affection, she knew that not everyone was comfortable with such things. "Okay, scoot."
Alice stepped back, eager to be on her way and yet careful not to offend Mel with a too rapid exit. "Youre okay, Mel."
Mel laughed. "The most tolerable in a long line of fiancees?"
"The most," Alice agreed, backpedaling from the room before turning and gaining momentum as she plunged through the screen door, heedless of the explosive return as it fell unchecked back to its jamb.
* * * * * * * * * *
Chhh-pok! Janice sat bolt upright, sending a small tidal wave over the side of the tub. She had drifted off in her tepid, wet cocoon only to awaken abruptly to the sound of a gunshot. Oh, Jesus...shes killed her. She put the soap, which had refused to lather in the hard water, back into the soap dish and stood up in the tub, murky water running off her well-toned body in sheets.
She wrapped the large bath towel around her and heard the bedroom door open. "Mel?" As there wasnt a shy bone in her body, Janice stepped around the corner and breathed a sigh of relief. "Mel...are you okay? I thought I heard a --"
"The door. Remember?" Mel cast a lingering glance over Janices exposed body; there was little she hadnt seen -- in half light, in braille in the dark -- but this was different. Full afternoon sunlight was cascading through the bedroom windows, bouncing off the damp blonde hair, soaking into the golden skin of her exposed legs and shoulders. Mel tilted her head; she didnt remember that little starburst-shaped scar on Janices collarbone; it looked new. She had an almost uncontrollable urge to kiss it.
Janice was fascinated and encouraged to be the subject of such thorough scrutiny and so it took supreme effort to pull the towel tightly around her and tuck a corner into her cleavage. She even managed to conjure up a suitably flustered expression. "Hey, how would you feel if I looked at you that way?"
Flattered. Mel blushed and her eyes instantly found other targets on the floor of the room. "Im sorry. I just came into..." She bent and gathered a discarded pair of jodhpurs and the grimy white blouse. "...came into collect these. Im startin a load of wash."
"Mel, you dont have to do that...matter of fact, Id prefer it if you left the blouse especially. I dont have a clean one to wear."
"Well, if you think I am going to let you sit down at my supper table in this --" she held the blouse away from her body, out of respect for her nose. " -- you have another think comin." She dipped and snagged the white brassiere, adding that to the pile in her arms.
"Aw, no, not that, too! Cmon, Mel...what am I supposed to do?" She threw up her hands. "Turn up in a towel?"
Mel backed towards the door, a quirky smile on her face. "Well, dinner will be informal."
Janice put her hands on her hips. "Dont tempt me, sweetheart." Innuendo Ahoy!
Mel moved towards the open bedroom door, turning at the threshold. "Ill find you something to wear. Alice probably has somethin thatll fit you. Be right back."
Janice plopped down onto the bed and crossed her legs, the towel riding up to mid thigh. "...so help me, she brings me anything with cute little animals on it, Ill be sick," she muttered, her fingers tented open on either side of her, testing the spring of the mattress. She hadnt slept in a bed in five weeks and the clean linens and firm mattress were like a sirens call. She fell lazily backwards, eyes closed, with her hands cradling her head.
Thats how Mel found her minutes later. She stood in the doorway, a starched white blouse dangling from the fingers of one hand while those of the other maintained a deathgrip on the doorknob. There was nothing furtive in her observation; Janice need only look up to see her. In the end, it was the idea of those jade green eyes opening and fixing on her own that prompted Mel to slip the clean blouse over the inside doorknob and leave the room.
Padding down the hall, mindful of the sound of her heels on the hardwood floor, she wondered at her attraction to Janice Covington, a woman with a bit of dash and a predilection for hazard. The image of Janice, stretched out on her bed, clad only in a towel crept into her mind and she chased it away as counter-productive to her current retrospection. That was her gift, to be able to switch mindsets in milliseconds and to concentrate her intellect on one thing exclusively. She made an audible sound of amusement as she entered the kitchen. Wonder who I got that from?
Her own background consisted of mostly-absentee parents; she had been raised by an affectionate grandmother, with only occasional input from her mother. There had been select boarding schools in the Carolinas and she was an alumni of the college where her father had been dean. Although she was not without intelligence, she had to concede she had traded on the family name and her fathers reputation more often than she cared to admit. The name Melvin Pappas, dropped in the right circles, opened doors and minds alike. And after his death on a dig in December of 39, she had flown to Istanbul at her mothers request to close his affairs. Chief among those duties had been replying to unanswered correspondence. There had been stacks of letters, unopened bills, and a dozen yellowed telegrams, one of which led her to Macedonia where a hail of bullets awaited her. In the end, it had been her fathers good name, dropped in the receptive ear of Dr. Janice Covington that led her back to the half-nude vision recumbent on her bed. She didnt know whether to curse her father or to thank him.
She gave the bread a half an hour to rest and used her time well, slicing the veal thin and layering it upon a garishly-painted platter. She ladled new potatoes and au jus over the meat and placed a few sprigs of parsley along the perimeter, hiding the chain of purple daises that bordered the platter. Along with the bread and the fresh green beans shed prepared, there were black olives and sweetbreads like her mother used to make. It was a great deal of food. She and Alice would be dining on leftovers for a week. She took the platter to the table and lay a small dish of fresh butter beside the bread. After folding the linen napkins in a fan pattern, she swapped the place- ment of knives and forks and stood back to admire the table. "Well, its not Delmonicos, but itll have to do."
"It all looks and smells marvelous, Mel."
Mel jumped, her hand to heart. "Janice...I didnt here you come in. Did you have a nice nap?"
Janice shrugged and dug her hands into the front pockets of her slacks, feeling decidedly at unease in the borrowed blouse, which fit well about the waist and shoulders, but cut her just slightly across the bust. It gave her a modicum of comfort to know that she couldnt slip effortlessly into the clothes of a thirteen year old girl. "You couldnt resist, could you?"
Mels eyes jumped from the firm breasts beneath the straining buttons to Janices face too quickly to disguise what could only be described as honest-to-goodness lust. "Beg pardon?"
Janice fingered the colorful embroidery just above her left breast. Whomever the seamstress was, she had been a true artisan; the words St. Ignatius School for Young Ladies were plainly visible in Shelley-Volante font-style. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
Mel couldnt suppress a laugh. "Janice, honestly, I never even bothered to look. I chose that one because its cut large." Janice merely grunted her displeasure and screwed her face into a scowl. "Would you rather it were emblazoned Our Lady of Perpetual Debauchery?"
Janice folded her arms across her chest. "Honestly? Yes." She smiled wryly and in doing so, changed the whole complexion of the conversation. "I suppose it, like your supper table, will have to do."
"You are magnanimous, Dr. Covington. Would you care to be seated?"
Mel held out a chair, indicating that Janice should take what was traditionally the head of the households seat. The implication was not lost on Janice. "Only two place settings?" she inquired as she pulled the chair up to the table. "Alice not joining us?"
"I sent her on to the party," replied Mel with forced nonchalance as she opened the ice box. "It seemed the thing to do if I wanted to live with myself."
Janice swiveled in the chair and crossed one leg over the other. "Was she being difficult?"
"Just the opposite," came the muffled reply as Mel groped about in the dark ice box. "She was civil and mature." She poked her head above the door and narrowed her eyes at Janice. "You know how that grates on me."
"Shes got you here, Mel," chided Janice, displaying an upturned pinky finger. "Admit it."
"I knew I could count on you to be sympathetic and understandin. Remind me again why I asked you to supper?"
Janices gaze was level and serious. "Because maybe you missed me..." She held her thumb and forefinger apart in a little pinch. "...maybe just this much?"
Rather than confirm or deny Janices suspicions, Mel opted to change the subject. "What would you like to drink?"
Okay. I can play that game. "Whatve you got?"
Mel moved items from front to back, clearing a path for her reach. "Simply everythin."
"Got any virgins blood?" Janice quipped, her face an unreadable mask.
"Fresh out," quipped Mel without sparing Janice a glance. "Theres milk and lemon squeeze...
water, tea...oh, and some perfectly awful local beer," Mel displayed a label-less amber bottle. "I think its bottled in a wool shed someplace. I dont recommend it."
"Thatll do." Janice crossed the floor and took the bottle from Mel; having been at the very back of the ice box for some time, it was half frozen, just the way she liked it. "You know me: I like living dangerously." She held the bottle up to the light as she walked back to the table and judged the meager amount of sediment floating within to be acceptable.
"Why dont you put on some music?" Mel, her hands occupied with condiments, gestured with her chin to a standing oak phonograph beneath a curio shelf.
"Any preferences?" Janice asked as she raised the battered lid of the phonograph. "I think I spoke too soon." She picked up a sleeveless 78 with more care than it had previously been shown in its lifetime. "We have a very scratchy copy of...ooh, Noel Coward." She made a face as she looked at Mel. "I think I was 10 when this was recorded."
"The phonograph was a wedding gift...for Jack and Peggy." Mel popped the cap from Janices beer and began serving the veal. "I think some of those albums are probably original to it."
"Billie Holiday," Janice crooned. She removed the slick black LP from its sleeve with care and held it by her fingertips. "With Teddy Wilson, naw Mel, this is relatively new." It wasnt just new, but pristine, and had in fact probably never been played at all, very likely due to the color of the artist. Considering what little she knew of Peggy Greenway and her narrow opinion of the Aborigines, Janice marveled that the album had been allowed in the house at all. "You Go To My Head, More Than You Know..." She might have easily been describing Mel, an idea that was given credence by the next song title: Them There Eyes. She looked to the table, where Mel had taken the chair kitty corner from her own, and seated the LP beneath the needle, setting the volume to 3 on the dial. She opened the double doors on the phonographs face to reveal the speaker as You Go To My Head opened with a bustling alto sax. She was sitting beside Mel, shaking the napkin into her lap as a clarinet riff paved the way for Holiday's one-of-a-kind vocals; the timbre was just a touch cynical, and Janice knew, without actually knowing Holiday personally, that she had been burned at love before. "This is nice, Mel," she murmured, feeling decidedly warm beneath the thin blouse. She looked down at her plate, tri-sected neatly with meat, starch and vegetable, all carefully prepared by a talented cook and yet nothing looked as enticing as the woman seated across the table from her.
"Janice..." Mel turned an anticipatory gaze on her guest. "You arent eating."
"Savoring the moment, Mel," replied Janice. She sliced into her veal with enthusiasm, but it was all for show. Food no longer held any interest for her. Mels proximity had whetted a different kind of appetite. She lay the knife across the edge of the plate, dropped her free hand into her lap and speared the vaguely rare meat with a fork. When she looked up, she found Mels eyes waiting, alight. Before she had taken one bite of veal, she was already anticipating dessert.
"...sandstone ramparts hundreds of feet high, miles wide, pockmarked with so many caves I couldnt count that high..." Janice absently swirled the warm beer at the bottom of the bottle. "But you know something, Mel, and this might be the beer talking, but I think its the sort of dig I could just walk away from...the whole place just has a...a feel about it...more churchyard than graveyard."
"Kakadus a spiritual place," Mel replied. "Small wonder youre uncomfortable. Your workers...
are they local to Kakadu?" Janice nodded. "Theres your problem." The serving fork hovered over the meat platter, targeting a slice of veal. "More veal?"
Janice waved her hand, fending off a third helping, but was careful not to lose her train of thought. "Its standard practice to employ the natives, Mel."
"You havent found anything they didnt permit you to find. The real finds, the real rarities will elude you as long as you use locals to light the way," explained Mel as she tucked an olive between her perfect white teeth before sucking the pimento from its salty black blanket.
Janice was entranced, holding the last sip of beer in her mouth briefly before swallowing. "And what would you have done differently? Hire outsiders?"
Mel lifted an eyebrow. "If I had taken the job, then, yes, I would have imported a crew, but thats a moot point, Janice. The dig is yours." She lay her fork and knife across the plate, signaling an end to the discussion, and to the meal.
But Janice was persistent. "Why didnt you take the job, Mel? You were local, you were Moffats first choice --"
"Because I was local and for no other reason." Mel folded her napkin in quarters before tucking it beneath the edge of her plate. "Jack said it was probably because I worked cheap, and its true. I wouldve paid Moffat for the pleasure of headin the dig."
"Instead, here you sit...one of a handful of warm bodies in a three hundred mile radius." Janices voice held the unmistakable edge of sarcasm as she quipped, "Flies, heat, isolation. I can see what you like about it." Further conversation on the dubious virtues of the outback faded away on the dying strings of a violin passage. For a moment there was only the ghost of a heartbeat, the rhythmic thump thump thump of the needle as it rode the groove of dead air between tracks before sliding into the last song on the LP. Carelessly, Janices personal favorite on an album full of memorable tunes, began with the incomparable piano work of Teddy Wilson. Two beers brave, carelessly might also describe the way she looked Mel fearlessly in the eye and said, "So tell me about Jack."
Mel pursed her lips and sat up straight, lacing her fingers around her water glass. Her eyes held Janice whole as she groped for a response. One of the advantages of outback isolation had been the almost total lack of peer judgment. Unfortunately, that same isolation left her unprepared to field even the most harmless inquiries about her relationship with Jack. "Whats there to say?" Her voice went up at the end, making two syllables of one, a tell-tale sign of unease. She recognized it...as did Janice. "Hes divorced, as you know...a cargo pilot in the RAAF...hes 44..." she let her voice trail off, giving the impression that she had imparted all that she knew about the man.
"Forty four..." Janice loosed a short whistle of disbelief, enjoying Mels discomfort. "What does he look like?"
"Hes tall...my head fits just beneath his jaw when we dance," Mel replied with a little smile as a memory warmed her. In the smoky warmth of a first floor hotel room in Athens...cheap champagne on the bedside table, Cole Porter on the radio and a crown of honey-blonde hair tucked neatly beneath her chin while warm breath traveled the valley between her breasts and four bare feet interlocked, puzzle pieces on a hardwood floor...indelible little details of first-time foreplay. The memory was so vivid, yet made painful by the realization that that life was behind her.
"Hes tall, I got that much." Janices fingers beat a lazy tattoo on the empty beer bottle. "What else? How did the two of you meet?" Mel stood abruptly, taking up her plate and glass. "Mel?" Her eyes followed Mels retreating form across the kitchen. "Whats wrong?"
"Nothins wrong," Mel replied as she stacked the dinner plates by the sink. "I dont understand your interest in Jack, thats all. Another beer?"
Janice waved a hand dismissively. "Hey, you brought him up. Besides, I think I deserve to know a little bit about the man. After all, Im sitting in his chair...eating his food..."
"Sleeping in his bed...Goldilocks." Mel returned to the table for the meat platter.
"Speaking of sleeping in his bed --" Janice began pointedly. "How is he in that area?"
Mels jaw dropped noticeably. "I dont know why Im surprised you asked that. With your ego, youd be forever beggin comparison."
Janice laughed, but there was no heart in it. "I have a healthy ego, as you pointed out."
"With good reason," Mel replied as she turned away. "You spoiled me for any future lovers."
"And thats a bad thing?"
"It is, yes," said Mel. "When youre tryin to start a new life."
Janice shrugged. "What was so wrong with the old one?" A reply was not immediately forthcoming. Mels back was to her, but Janice could see her hands were still, and her head was down. "Mel?"
"Hes a dear, dear, man, Janice..." Mel began quietly. "Hes kind, sympathetic, funny...he came along when I needed it most."
Janice fought to keep her composure. "You mean, it was just a matter of timing."
"In a way...yes." At the butchers block, Mel wrapped the leftover veal in waxed paper, secretly relieved to have something to do with her hands. "We met the very day my steamer docked in Sydney Harbor. I was comin down the ramp, he was seein off his niece. I broke a heel off my shoe and wouldve pitched right over the side if he hadnt been there."
"A real Sir Galahad," mumbled Janice, although it occurred to her, somewhat cynically, she conceded, that the niece Jack had been seeing off at the dock was very likely not his niece at all.
Naturally, she was alone in her suspicions.
"He insisted I share his cab, waited with me while my shoe was repaired and bought me a lovely supper." Mel slid the wax package into the ice box and stood in the open doorway, savoring the chill air on her body. "It was the best possible introduction to the country."
"Better than gunfire and death threats?" quipped Janice.
"I know that tone, Janice," said Mel, moving reluctantly from the ice box to the table. "And it sounds suspiciously like jealousy."
"Not at all," replied Janice, quick to dismiss the notion. "On second thought, I will take another beer." She rose from her chair. "You want a beer, Mel?" She could feel Mels eyes pursue her into the kitchen.
"You dont have to be jealous, Janice." Mels voice was kind and soothing, and she meant well, but she couldnt help saying the wrong thing as a general rule. "Youre not in competition with Jack."
"I know that, and I am not jealous." Janice opened and closed the ice box without removing anything. "What I am, is hot. Its hot in here."
From her place at the table, Mel gazed out the window, where the windmill cast long shadows upon the hard-baked ground, blood-red in the twilight. "Suns settin...why dont we take this conversation out to the verandah...where its cool?" She switched off the phonograph and closed the cover.
"Peachy." Janice bit back a more acidic retort, dismayed at the possibility of an in-depth conversation on the merits of her rival. Perhaps rival was not the right word, although it had seemed appropriate enough during the long flight to Coolinga. But now...here she was, a guest in Jack Greenways home where his personality permeated everything as surely as a sponge soaks up water. His chair. His food. His woman. She followed Mel from the room, convinced that any hopes of a reconciliation were about to be finally and irrevocably dashed to pieces.
At the foyer, Mel continued out to the verandah while Janice excused herself to visit the bathroom. She splashed water on her face and patted it dry with a hand towel, studying her fractured reflection in the cracked mirror as she did so. She had come to Coolinga convinced she would find Mel miserable, aching for the lover she left behind, but their reunion had been the tepid side of passionate at best, although she was certain Mel had warmed to the idea of her presence. The woman had baked her sourdough bread. Sourdough bread, for Chrissakes! "If that isnt love, what is?" She was surprised to hear genuine confusion in her voice; she was unaccustomed to the feeling.
All her adult life she had been able to have her way, whether by skill, wits or sheer force of will. In a field rampant with male counterparts, she was unique and notable for more than her gender. At 25, she made enough money to live comfortably and to have the luxury to pick and choose the archeological commissions which most interested her. With her gifts, came hard-won notoriety; she had the respect of her peers. What she didnt have, however, was what she wanted most. Aint that always the way?
She pushed away from the counter and knelt on the bedroom floor to root through her satchel.
To her relief, she found the object of her search nestled discreetly in a cocoon of wool socks. Squat at the bottom, rising in a tall, graceful neck, the dark amber, 94 proof Tennessee Sipping Whiskey was the only Jack she was interested in at the moment. It had been originally intended as a peace offering, to soothe the ruffled feathers of a mechanic whom she owed money to, but she would have to find another way around him. She broke the seal on the bottle, intending to down a generous swig, or two, before joining Mel on the verandah. She didnt know if she would brush, or simply pop a mint afterwards. She hadnt thought that far ahead. She hefted the bottle carefully, almost reverentially, tasting the full, sweet flavor of burnt caramel and vanilla at the back of her throat before a single drop of whiskey had touched her lips.
Tapping, and her name uttered as a hiss. "Janisssss."
Janice opened her eyes, a revelation since she hadnt been conscious of closing them. Across the room, on the opposite side of a six-paned window, Mel rapped on the glass with her knuckle. She had seen the bottle, but there was no reproach in her voice as she said, "Bring that...and two glasses... and hurry, or youll miss it!" She waved, conveying a sense of urgency before stepping out of view, leaving confusion in her wake. Miss what? Janice stopped in the parlor to collect two heavy glass tumblers from the sideboard and made her way onto the verandah, successfully navigating the explosive screen door without dropping her kit. Using the toe of her boot, she let the door close and looked for Mel, who was conspicuously absent. "Mel?" She set the whiskey and glasses down on a sturdy wicker table and sighed heavily, her frustration evident. "Whered you go?"
Mel poked her head around the corner of the wrap-around porch. "Over here...come see!"
Janice walked the length of the porch, her curiosity snuffling ahead of her like a keen beagle. Rounding the corner of the house, facing into the south, she saw Mel standing poised, dead center of the front stoop. Her hands were clasped atop her head, which was tilted slightly back, and her mouth was opened in unabashed wonder. "What is it? If its a dingo, Ive seen plenty of those."
"Try not to sound so jaded, Janice Covington, and come here," Mel hissed reproachfully, fanning one hand to her, gathering the smaller woman under her shoulder. "Now," she whispered, as if more volume were an intrusion. "Stand just here..." She stepped back and guided Janice into her place on the worn gray boards. "Do you see it?"
Janice exhaled wearily, her eyes scanning the horizon, left to right, from soft sage and violet to a vivid spectrum of crimsons and yellows. It was breathtaking, and it wasnt a dingo. Points for Mel. "Yes," she whispered, trying to convey her pleasure. "Its beautiful, Mel." She felt warm fingers at her temples and a gentle upward pressure; unconsciously, she found herself leaning back into the support provided by Mels lanky frame. She could feel two firm breasts, peaked, at attention against the sensitive skin of her shoulder blades. She might have reveled in that feeling indefinitely if her breath hadnt been snatched without warning from her chest. Directly above her, and to her left, divided by a line of native wattles, the sky was clear with a quarter moon and a blanket of dazzling stars, and to the right, off-set just slightly by the sagging tin roof of the house, the sun was setting, wallowing gloriously in the foothills, using its last minutes to bathe the gums and mulga in raw, homespun gold. Day and night sharing the sky at the same moment. It was, Janice conceded, the oddest, most beautiful of dichotomies.
"It happens every sunset." Mels mouth was just inches from Janices ear, so close her breath stirred the tiny wisps of hair at her nape. "...a few minutes later every day. I find myself standing out here, where youre standing now...waiting. I know that must seem foolish to you, but I suppose Im a simple woman."
Janice turned to face Mel, careful to maintain the physical and emotional connection that had been created. "Youre not simple at all...youre a damned pioneer, Mel." She left those fathomless cerulean pools to turn her own eyes skyward again. "I mean, look at it..." The last vestiges of light were leaving the land, being replaced by a creeping carpet of mauve and ebony. It stole Janices breath the way few things could. "Ive been living in this land for six weeks...sleeping under the stars, and do you know, it never once occurred to me that this place had anything new to show me. How thick is that, I ask you?"
"Pretty thick," Mel echoed. She dropped her hands to her sides, unintentionally skimming Janices hips as she did so. "Oh, sorry."
Im not. "No problem." Janice backpedaled a step before turning on her heel. "I got whiskey, remember?" At the little wicker table, she opened the bottle and turned to Mel, who had taken a seat on a wooden glider. "How do you take it? Over the rocks? With water?"
Mel countered brightly, "Oh, however you like it is fine."
"Two fingers. Neat." She passed Mel a tumbler and seated herself in an old bleached rocker that overlooked the wide expanse of horizon. Shaking out her damp hair, she took her first sip of whiskey...center cut, her father had called it...like the heart of a good watermelon...strong and flavorful and just what she needed. She sighed contentedly and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. The sun was a molten sliver on the horizon and the worst of the days heat was over at last. Trees growing by the verandah were full of twittering sparrows and finches, in concert with their counterparts inside the small aviary. Somewhere to her left, just beyond the hangar, a dingo howled. She was primed to notice everything, most especially the woman she loved, sitting across from her, making a face as she swallowed her whiskey in one gulp. Janice raised both eyebrows inquiringly as Mel choked. "Uh, Mel? You might want to slow down..."
Mel screwed her eyes shut, sputtered and nodded rapidly, holding her glass in front of her.
"May I have..." cough "...another, please?"
Janice left her glass on the arm of the rocker and retrieved the whiskey bottle. "This is sipping whiskey, Mel...say it with me...sip-ping-whis-key..." She held the bottle over Mels empty glass.
"If youre not accustomed to it, itll bite you back." Mel lifted her glass until it clinked against the bottle. "Okay, suit yourself." She refilled the glass, unable to shake the impression that Mel seemed to be marshaling her courage, fortifying herself for some earth-shattering admission. "Whats on your mind?" She asked, giving voice to her thoughts; she toyed briefly with the possibilities, none of them favorable if your name happened to be Janice Covington.
"I was...I was marveling on the particular virtues of a really fine whiskey," Mel replied, her fingers grazing Janices as they clasped the neck of the bottle. "I dont have a great deal of experience with drinkin as you know, but I find that I quite have the knack for it." Mel took custody of the bottle. "This has a...a kinda smoky quality to it..." sip "...oak, I think." long sip "Yes, definitely oak."
"Probably aged in oak barrels. You sure you dont want me to take that?"
Mel held the bottle protectively to her. "Did you want another drink?"
Janice shook her head slowly, placing her hand over the wide mouth of the tumbler. She took two steps back, leaning into a support post. As she watched Mel go repeatedly to the well, she deter-
mined that at least one of them should stay sober.
Mel settled back into the glider, the open bottle of whiskey tucked between the armrest and her hip. She kicked off her shoes, heedless of where they fell. Her face was flushed, warmed by the liquor, and her eyes were luminous in the moonlight. Meeting Janices expectant gaze, her courage waned temporarily. It wasnt until shed cautiously tipped back another shot of whiskey, that she found her voice. "If you drink from a bottle marked poison, its almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later."
"If youre referring to the whiskey..."
"Its from Alice in Wonderland, and Im trying to make a point. Please dont interrupt." Janice settled back against the post, suitably reproached while Mel focused on a knothole in the floor boards. "Lewis Carroll as prophet...its not an idea many people can warm to." She kept her eyes down, unable to bear either the confirmation or denial in the others face and she was grateful Janice had the presence of mind to remain silent. "All my life I knew what I wanted, what was expected of me as a woman, and as the daughter of Melvin Pappas. These things were seldom complimentary of one another..." Mels voice trailed off; she groped for the bottle at her side, but her hands were shaking and her aim was slightly off. She felt Janices fingers close over her own. "One more...for luck."
"I think youve had enough, Mel." Janice set the bottle on the table between them. "Just...take a few deep breaths and spit it out...whatever it is." She took a long pull on her whiskey, reflecting miserably on her inability to cope with rejection, and braced for the worst.
"Ive made some mistakes in my life, Janice," she said, the words leaping from her lips, a verbal suicide. "I have done some things that Ive regretted and people I cared about paid the price."
She looked into the bottom of her glass and was afforded an unobstructed, if distorted view of her bare feet. "Oh, my...look at that..." she tilted her head in wonder. "I have big feet," she said, as if the idea were a revelation.
Janice rolled her eyes. Its official: shes drunk. Its a damned record. The number one problem with drunks, in her opinion, was the propensity to be distracted by the smallest things. It was both blessing and curse. "You have nice feet, Mel," she said succinctly as she approached the glider. She took the empty tumbler from Mels hands. "I think you should probably lay down for a while."
When Mel felt Janices hand upon her elbow, she looked up into a pair of sparkling green eyes and felt compelled to apologize. "Im sorry you came all this way, Janice." Strong fingers encircled her arm, drawing her into a standing position. "I know it must seem like a tremendous waste of time to you now, and if Id known you were comin Idve stopped you."
Standing there, with Mels arm wedged securely between her own hip and elbow, Janice felt her knees go to jelly. Here it comes. "Later, Mel...all this can wait till later." She stopped at the front door of a house settled with shadows. With her free hand, she groped for the lights.
"Did you bring the whiskey?"
"Its fine where it is," Janice replied, frustration bleeding through to her voice. "God dammit, whatre you people? Bats?!"
"I havent always liked the choices Ive made, Janice," said Mel, flipping a light switch on the opposite side of the door. "Erratic, my daddy wouldve said." She leaned heavily into the smaller woman. "You steer, Ill walk...following my, my heart one minute, my head the next..."
"Cant go wrong with either of those, whoa, watch your head." Janice guided her through the bedroom threshold, relieved to find the light switch on the first attempt. She backed Mel across the floor until her calves met the bed. "Okay. Sit."
"I made mistakes...sit?"
Janice snorted. "Bend your knees...itll happen by itself."
Mels face softened. "Youre so good to me, Janice," she said sincerely; the ache in her voice broke Janices heart. "You and Jack...both so good to me."
Jack. Theres my wake-up call. "Yeah, well..." As a sparkling retort, it failed miserably. "Get some rest, Mel."
"Didja ever do that? Try something just to try it...to get it out of your system, like the cold or the flu...or to satisfy someone elses expectations..."
Better and better. Worse than a fling. An experiment. Janice set her jaw; there were no words to convey her hurt, her disappointment. When she turned to leave, it was all she could do not to bolt from the room.
"Ive hurt people, Janice..." Mels voice stopped her at the door. "I hurt you."
"Im tough, Mel," Janice replied, her back to the room. "Ill get over it."
"I wont. I cant. Janice...please look at me."
Look at her? Yes? No? Janice suspected that whatever steely resolved she still possessed would vanish at the first sight of tears. "Thats probably not a good idea, Mel."
The bed creaked as Mel stood. "Please...youre gonna walk out that door and Im never gonna see you again...I just know it...so you turn around and lemme say this one teeny tiny little thing. I know you dont owe me anything, but Im beggin you..."
Janice inhaled deeply and squared her shoulders like a boxer bracing for a blow. Mel swam into her field of vision...flushed and bleary-eyed, weaving just slightly as she smoothed her skirt with sweaty palms. Different picture, same effect. "Okay...Im listening."
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