DISCLAIMER: All XWP characters are copyright so-and-so by what’s-his -face. No copyright infringement intended and no profit gained. The story is mine, so think twice about plagiarizing.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
All the Colors of the World
By Vivian Darkbloom
Part I: THE BARD BRAT
…It sometimes seemed to me then that I was unhappy, but now I know that I was always happy, that that unhappiness was one of the colors of happiness.
—Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift
Prelude With Fedora
Melinda Pappas wasn't sure if she was in love with Janice Covington, or Janice Covington's hat.
It was a tough decision. At dawn over the Ionian Sea, she watched Janice pace the length of the dock. They awaited a ship that would take them to Gibraltar, where they would get on either a sub or another boat to England (that wasn't decided yet; it was all in the hands of Janice's nefarious contacts, and whatever money the two of them could put in said hands), and then, hopefully, an airplane home to America.
But the transport was late. It made the archaeologist nervous. As she stalked, in full view of the dockhands and fishermen, she beat her fedora against her thigh, keeping time with every step she took. Her jaw was clenched in a painful-looking fashion and her lips formed a tight, thin line.
Loving the hat, the fedora, would be uncomplicated. A simple, pure love for a simple, stained article of clothing that had a dashing little bullet hole in it. Fetishism, it would be called. It's safer, of course, Mel thought. Although it's debatable what people would find more distasteful: loving a person you're not supposed to love, or a thing. Of course, being American, we do have love affairs with objects, it seems. Like cars. Although that particular love she never understood. And Janice Covington loved things—old things buried in the ground, that is. Which does not bode well for me. Unless she falls in love with me when I'm dead.
Once again she considered Janice, who stomped along the worn dock. It was true that Mel's entire life was different somehow, because of this woman. This complicated pile of nerves, brains, bluster, and seething anger. Too complex, too much trouble. She would be too much trouble. I don't even know if she possesses those inclinations. It's ridiculous to even entertain the notion.
With an unexpected outburst of playfulness, Janice stopped and flipped the hat high into the air. Arms out, eyes tilted heavenward, she hovered gracefully, an earthbound acrobat on an imaginary high wire, and managed to have the fedora land squarely on her head. She pulled it low, over her eyes, stuffed her hands in the pockets of her khakis, and proceeded to imitate Charlie Chaplin's Tramp with impressive accuracy. The fishermen applauded. The archaeologist rewarded them with a florid bow.
All right, Mel conceded. It wasn't just the hat that was driving her crazy. She sighed, and stared out at the sea, which rippled with color. At certain angles—where the sun struck with blunt force—it was bone white, but its currents and eddies rippled with blues, greens, golds, and a surprising thread of lavender; it hinted at black depths wherever the sunlight failed to reach. She lost herself in it.
Until Janice Covington blocked the view with her impatient, khaki-clad body. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded, as if staring into the sea were some sort of crime.
"You aren't sick or somethin', are ya?"
The Southern translator pulled feebly at the sleeves of her too-short sweater, shrunk in the sudden rainstorm that had drenched them yesterday. Under Janice's scrutiny she suddenly felt big, clumsy, awkward, the wallflower at the cotillion, her neverending role in life, it appeared. "Huh? Um, no, Dr. Covington—"
An impatient sigh. "I told you to call me Janice. It's weird, it's like you do it sometimes, then you forget."
Forget? I want to forget you. "—n-no, Janice, I'm fine. Really."
"You look absolutely bug-eyed. What the hell's wrong with you?" Janice repeated. She squinted at Mel. "I wish we hadn't been in that rain yesterday. You're gonna get sick, I just know it."
The outburst was almost maternal; Mel parted her lips in surprise, but said nothing. You worry about me! If only a little bit.
Janice seemed to realize she had been caught displaying something other than belligerent anger or stoic indifference. The look of concern metamorphosed into a scowl—although it was, without a doubt, the loveliest scowl that Mel had ever seen. "Just don't get sick, or I swear to Christ I'll sell you to white slavers."
Mel squeaked in alarm, then managed to recover nicely: "If I'm ill, I doubt I'll be very appealing to the slave trade."
Her retort took Janice by surprise, and earned a slight grin from Dr. Covington. "Yeah. I guess I'll have to keep you around." Now on guard against any more emotion seeping out, she glanced at her boots, then walked away.
So how do you tell a woman you've known for less than two weeks that you're madly in love with her?
1. Nothing a Little Whiskey Couldn't Fix
Charlotte, North Carolina
Mel sat on the expansive porch of her home, eagerly awaiting the arrival of her guest, due any minute now, from the train station. As she fanned herself in her wicker chair, the Reverend Dupree, his wife, and two of their young daughters emerged onto their porch, to Melinda's left. "Good afternoon, Melinda," called the young Reverend. "Care to join us for lemonade?"
"Why, that's very kind of you, Reverend," drawled Mel, "but I am expecting someone shortly." And your two little brats look like they'd sooner drink poison than let me have any of their lemonade, she thought. The wife looked a little relieved as well; Melinda, beautiful, rich, aristocratic, was nonetheless viewed as terribly eccentric by the upper crust of Charlotte, due to her single status, living alone in her late father's home, her seeming lack of interest in men, and her scholarly inclinations.
The Reverend, however, believed that there was no harm in trying. Especially with such an attractive woman...he blushed as Melinda smiled at him. "I understand completely. Well, if your guest does arrive soon, perhaps you can bring her over for a nice cool drink."
Maybe if you offer scotch on the rocks, she'd like that, Mel thought. She was about to respond when she saw a yellow cab swerve violently onto their street and careen down the block, halting dramatically in front of her home. From their respective porches the Duprees and Mel watched the drama unfold. They saw the driver turn in his seat, red-faced, to yell something at his passenger. His door swung open and he stomped out. The rider in the back seat was, the Reverend and his family thought, a young man dressed in a rather rugged fashion: a rumpled fedora and a brown leather jacket. As the cabbie opened his trunk, a back door swung open and a loud female voice could be heard: "It's not my damn fault you got lost!" The figure emerged. The Duprees emitted a collective gasp as the man pulled off the fedora, revealing a mass of red-gold hair and a decidedly feminine face. Mel smiled at the sight, her heart even skipping a beat, as Janice Covington slapped the old fedora against her khaki pants.
It was one of those charming habits the young archaeologist had. Like the way she rubbed her jaw while pensive, the way her hands rode on her hips, as she would survey a dig, a landscape, or a bottle of gin. Not to mention those eyes, those lips....
The cabbie ungraciously threw a large leather bag on the street. "Son of a BITCH!" roared Janice.
...and then there was the swearing. Charming? Mel cast a sideways glance at her neighbors. She could feel them go pale with shock. "What the fuck do you think you're doing? Be careful with that!" the fair-haired woman shouted.
"Too late now," sniped the cabbie. He stood defiantly, arms crossed. Angrily, she put her hat back on.
"Too late for a decent tip as well," retorted the archaeologist. She tossed a dime at him.
It ricocheted off his barrel chest and fell to the street. He shook his head. "Thanks," he sneered.
"GO TO HELL!" she yelled as he climbed in the cab and drove off. She grabbed the bag off the street and sauntered up the walk, shaking off her bad mood. Catching sight of Mel, and oblivious to the shocked Duprees, she grinned.
Climbing up on the porch, Janice dropped the bag, tilted up her fedora, and bellowed in her crassest Yankee fashion, "Well sweetheart, glad to see me?"
She was. But then she glanced over at her neighbors, flummoxed. Mrs. Dupree had tried to shelter the children behind her abundant hips. The Reverend's face was the reddest she'd ever seen, even redder than when he first saw her in a bathing suit so many years ago.
Mel remembered very little of her mother, who died when she was very young. However, one thin memory clung to her like gossamer: her mother, smelling of perfume, lowering her lovely face to Mel and saying, "Honey, the best advice I can give you, as a Southern lady, is this: When in doubt, faint."
And, on that hot June day, under the scrutiny of her neighbors and a woman she was, she had to finally admit it to herself, having the most illicit thoughts about, she finally took her mother's advice. The last thing she saw was Janice's face. Thanks, mama, she thought, as the world went dim.
Without opening her eyes Mel could tell that she was lying on the divan in her drawing room; the soft velvet fabric that crunched gently underneath her was a dead giveaway. Tentatively, she opened her eyes, and saw Janice peering anxiously down at her. A panoply of emotions crossed the archaeologist's face: the anxiety melted into concern, then relief, then a wide, relaxed grin. Oh Lord, I'm going to faint again, Mel thought. That beautiful face, lit even brighter by a smile, was more than she could bear.
It was now a year since they had first met. Letters, mysterious courier packages, and late night phone calls had bridged the gap, but they had not seen one another since that initial meeting in Macedonia. Nonetheless, to Mel's consternation, Janice Covington remained a dominating presence in her mind. She found herself thinking of Janice whenever her mind was not engaged in other matters; and even as she continued her work on the Xena Scrolls, she could barely wait to tell Janice of her new discoveries. Often, sending off a letter to Janice was the first thing she did as her work progressed and she found out more about Xena, Gabrielle, and their adventures.
And it was just a month ago that Janice suggested a visit. She had discovered another scroll, she said, and wanted Mel to work on it. So the archaeologist packed a bag and came down South.
And now, Janice smiled down upon her. "Well, that was a hell of a how-do-you-do," she growled pleasantly. Then Mel heard the Reverend's voice behind Janice: "Melinda, honey, are you all right? Your—friend and I managed to carry you in, my goodness, you are a big girl, I always forget..."
"How could you forget? She's almost six goddamn feet tall!" Janice threw the comment over her shoulder, then quickly leaned down and whispered to Mel: "It was mostly me who carried you, believe it or not." Mel grew dizzy again at the closeness of the beautiful young woman, and the thought that she had been cradled in Janice's arms...oh, I always miss the good parts! Who fell asleep at the end of Casablanca? Me.
The Reverend clucked audibly. "Really, Miss Covington! The language!"
"It's Dr. Covington, Mr. Dupree."
"Get the point?" she shot back.
Obviously, two had introduced themselves at some juncture during Mel's unconsciousness. And Janice, resplendent with fedora and wisecracks, was out-Bogarting Bogart.
The Reverend frowned. Ignoring her, he reached down and patted Mel's hand. "Melinda, if you need anything, please do call. My wife has sent over some lemonade, that should cool you off a bit, and maybe you should take a cold bath."
Mel's eyes had wandered down Janice's khaki shirtfront, and lingered on the unbuttoned expanse that revealed soft skin and tempting cleavage. She cleared her sandpapered throat. "Why...yes, Reverend, I think a cold bath would be in order right about now," she said hoarsely.
"Wonderful! I could draw a bath for you, if you like!" the Reverend offered too enthusiastically.
Janice glowered at him. My, she really doesn't like him, Mel thought. He means well, but he's just a bit silly. But then Janice doesn't suffer fools very well.
"Er, that's quite all right, Reverend, I'm sure Janice can handle it," Mel replied.
Crestfallen, the reverend offered a goodbye, and headed home.
"Jesus, I thought he'd never leave! He's got it bad for you, Mel." Janice reached for a cigar. Popping it in her mouth, she was about to light up when she looked at Mel and noticed that her friend was sweaty, disheveled, and still a bit green around the gills. Reluctantly she tucked away the stogie for a later time. "C'mon, let's get you something to drink, then I'll prepare a bath for you. How's that sound?" Mel nodded, sitting up. "Hey, don't get up," Janice said, rising from her kneeling position on the floor and heading to the kitchen. "I'll bring it to you."
Mel slumped back and sighed. So far concealing her feelings for her friend wasn't progressing very well. She had fainted the moment she laid eyes on Janice again, and her stomach fluttered at the thought of the woman merely preparing a bath for her. Yet Janice's friendship meant too much to her; Janice was strong, independent, and smart. And they had the same interests. Mel had always longed to have a friend like that, let alone a lover, a companion...no. She could not reveal this attraction. The risk was too great. Just because her father had understood didn't mean that Janice would. Her father was an exceptional man, well traveled and urbane, who truly understood differences among people and cultures. Who never judged.
She remembered that day he brought her into his study. She was 20 and home for Christmas, from Vanderbilt. Joshua Davis, her steady beau from high school, scion of one of Charlotte's oldest and most respected families, had proposed to her the day before. He looked dapper and handsome in his army uniform; he was already a captain. As a rare snow fell, they galloped around the town square in an old-fashioned, horse-drawn carriage and he asked her to marry him. She said no, keeping her eyes fixed on the delicate flakes that swirled around them, and the puffs of icy breath emanating from their mouths. "No, Joshua...I'm not ready yet."
"When, Melinda?" he urged her gently.
"I don't know." They rode home in silence. He helped her out of the carriage after it drew in front of her home, kissed her hand, and drove off.
It was a small town—worse yet, a college town. Gossip was its lifeblood, and news of her rejection of Joshua spread quickly. And a day later, when her father called her into his study, she was certain he was going to reprimand her, in his usual gentle yet stern fashion. But it was strange, she recalled. He was awkward, almost shy.
"I take it you turned down the young man?" he asked softly.
He, too, nodded, as if he had expected it. He stood behind his desk. Then he paced a little as he spoke once again. "Melinda, love is a strange thing." he stated flatly. Idly he plucked a large black volume from one of the shelves that lined one wall from ceiling to floor. His large hands cradled it gently.
She frowned and fidgeted, wondering where he would go with this.
He cleared his throat. "We never know whom we shall love, or what or why someone attracts us. This can be a frightening thing for many people. And when people are frightened, they react blindly with emotion, which prevents them from truly understanding the differences among people..." he sighed.
"Daddy?" she asked tentatively, unease gripping her.
He smiled, and, as usual, it seemed tinged with a melancholy. "I know I'm rambling, my dear. I'm sorry." He placed the large book in front of her and tapped the cover. "Perhaps this might explain things...of course, you may have already read it; you are always reading so much." He chuckled.
She did not have her glasses on, and she just barely made out the name on the spine: Havelock Ellis.
Her father placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it, a quick kiss from his lips bussed the top of her head. "Know this, Melinda," his voice deep above her, "no matter what, I shall always love you very much." Another squeeze, then, "Goodnight." He left her alone.
She spent the night reading through the book; it sprawled in her lap as she sat by the fire in his study. As dawn stripped away the night, this book stripped away her own blindness, and she burned with recognition.
When the morning came, her father, in his robe, handed her a cup of fresh coffee as she awakened from a light sleep. Wordlessly she took it from him, and as she drank it greedily, as if she spent a night wandering in a desert, her eyes never left his.
His eyes were as blue as hers. They waited, expectantly.
She put the cup down with a clack. "How did you know?" she blurted.
Again, his sad, wise smile. "You are my daughter. I know you. And I've seen you in the world. You know many men, in fact you have many male friends, but their beauty did not move you. I could see it in your eyes. At a party, when you would walk into a room with Joshua Davis, all the women would be looking at him, the most handsome young man in Charlotte. Except you."
"I was looking at Muffy Crassdale," she whispered.
He rolled his eyes. "My dear, you can do better than that. I'm sure that girl hates you, you took Joshua away from her." He sipped his own coffee. "Besides, I am certain that blonde hair of hers is quite artificial."
"Daddy!" she squeaked, scandalized. It was inconceivable. She was sitting here with her father, talking about women—in that way.
For his part, he laughed. "This is funny, isn't it?" He gave his daughter a wry, loving look. "Think of it as something else we have in common, Melinda: An appreciation of women."
She stood up, wobbly on long legs like a newborn colt, and headed to the kitchen. She wondered what her father would have thought about Janice Covington. Very attractive, my dear, she has potential, but don't you think she should be cleaned up a bit? She mimicked his suave voice in her head.
What to do about Janice...she sighed as she entered the kitchen, and saw Janice peering suspiciously into the pitcher of lemonade that the Reverend had left. "The Bible Brats brought this over. D'ya think it's safe to drink?"
In spite of herself Mel giggled. "You are such a heathen." Janice grinned, and placed ice from the freezer into two glass tumblers, then poured the lemonade. "How are you feeling?" she asked, shoving a glass toward Mel.
Mel sat down and drank the cool beverage with a sigh of approval. "Mmmmm...much better. Try some, it's good."
Janice grunted, then took a sip. "Not bad. Of course, we may be dead in minutes..."
Again, Mel laughed, and Janice beamed with delight at making her friend laugh. Then Mel felt the intense scrutiny of the green eyes on her, though, and in a panic she gulped her drink.
"Sure you're all right?" the archaeologist asked again.
"Yes, yes. I'm fine. Why don't you tell me a little about this scroll."
Janice downed the remainder of the lemonade, wishing that she had some vodka to liven it up a bit. "This one was sent to me by a friend in the Greek consulate. He smuggled it out. Didn't want it to fall into the Nazis' hands." Her thumb stroked the cool side of the glass, and once again she allowed her eyes to skitter over Mel's long, languorous form; the Southern beauty, with her tousled hair, flushed face, and rumpled white shirt, looked as if she had been ravished. She must be as beautiful as Xena once was, Janice thought. A sigh escaped her; she might as well deliver the disappointing news—well, the news was disappointing to her; she knew Mel would appreciate any find, any scroll relating to Xena—her scholar's mind was that fine and inquisitive. "Well, this scroll doesn't detail any adventures of Xena, as far as I can tell. In fact, she seems kinda secondary. It involves Gabrielle and the Amazons in some sort of way."
"Ah!" Mel murmured with approval. "Wonderful! I wanted to know more about Gabrielle's link with the Amazons; the scrolls we have only mention them in passing. It's odd. If Gabrielle was an Amazon, why was she born in Poteidaia and raised by a non-Amazon family?" Mel rubbed her hands together with relish and anticipation. "We know so little of Gabrielle's background—"
"Well, why should we?" Janice interjected. "She was just a bard. Just a tagalong." This earned a dark glare from Mel. "Come on, I'll admit she was a talented storyteller and writer, but that's about the extent of it. She was basically Xena's Boswell. Nothing more."
"You neglect the fact that Boswell was an intriguing man himself, Janice," retorted Mel.
The archaeologist rolled her eyes.
"You remember what Xena said to you. In the tomb," Mel prompted.
"Of course. But she was just saying that to make me feel better—"
Mel slammed her glass on the table. The gesture startled both of them. "Stop that right now," Mel commanded, her voice dropping an octave. She leaned forward in her chair. Tiny hairs rose on the back of Janice's neck at her this thrilling, low voice, this voice that her friend had never used before. "Gabrielle meant a hell of a lot to Xena. More than you know." Then, the brooding expression lifting from Mel's face, she settled back in chair, blinking.
"Jesus Christ, Mel..."
"I'm sorry about that outburst. I don't know what got into me." Or do I? Mel thought.
"It's okay. But you...swore. You actually used a curse word."
Mel blinked. "Did I?"
"Lemonade's loosening your tongue, eh?" Janice teased. "Son of a bitch!" she swore gently, with admiration.
After dinner that evening, Mel settled down in the study that was once her father's and now hers. She sat at the huge mahogany desk, the lamp bathing both the scroll and sprawling books with a golden light. Janice glanced at the bookshelves, while rolling around the ice in a glass of scotch. She picked a well-thumbed volume of Ovid's verse and sat in the leather chair near the dormant fireplace. But soon her mind drifted; it had been a long day, and she had been in transit for most of it. As a result she fell into a light, dreamless sleep, that ended abruptly when she heard a soft yet distinct "oh my!"
Janice's lolling head snapped to attention. "What? What is it?" She looked at the clock on the wall. It was a quarter past eleven, and she had been asleep for three hours, much to her chagrin. "Jesus, Mel, why did you let me sleep so long?" She looked at Mel, who was staring intently, open-mouthed, at the document before her. Instinct kicked in, and excitedly Janice joined her friend at the desk.
Mel looked nervously at the expectant young woman. For a frantic, delusional moment she thought she could lie to her friend about what she found; she did not know how Janice would react to it.
"Janice, I don't know how accurate my translation is."
"Don't give me that bullshit. You're damned good, and you know it."
"You're very kind, but really, give me a few more days—"
"You've had over four hours now, you should at least have the gist of it!" Janice growled impatiently. Part of her was queasy with worry; Mel didn't want to tell her something. "Out with it!" she commanded.
Mel took a deep breath to calm the butterflies in her stomach. "This scroll begins with a love poem. It's rather...explicit."
Janice cocked an eyebrow. "Gabrielle wrote poetry too, eh? And dirty stuff at that—"
"Erotica," corrected Mel haughtily.
"Oh great," she muttered sarcastically. "So I'm half-impressed. Probably to some stupid teenager, right? What's it called, 'Ode to a Pimply-Faced Stableboy'?"
"Er, actually no, Janice. It's addressed to a woman." Mel paused as Janice's face registered surprise. "And I think the woman is Xena."
"Huh? What makes you think that?"
A blush flooded Mel's normally pale countenance. "Can't you just take my word for it?" she pleaded.
"I would love to do that, but what kind of professional would I be if I did so?" Janice planted her hands on her hips. "Just give me a line or two, for starters."
"Oh!" the Southerner exclaimed, frustrated. She bent over her notebook and attempted to rewrite the first lines in a neater hand, then presented it to Janice. "J-just read it yourself. All right?"
Uh-oh, the stammer, thought Janice. She squinted at the hasty translation that begged to be teased out of the Medusa-like tangle of Mel's handwriting. "'Xena...shoelaces'?" she read aloud, puzzled. Help. My translator needs a translator.
Mel gave a martyr-like sigh. "Not quite, my good Dr. Covington. Try again."
"Okay. 'Xena...' " she trailed off again. Holding the notebook, Janice paced in front of the fireplace. She shook her head, and glanced at Mel. "Penmanship?"
"D minus," glumly replied the Southerner. They stared at each other for a moment— both of them pleased, fascinated, and more than slightly scared at how easily, how naturally they fell into this verbal shorthand.
"Uh…" Janice ignored the chill gallivanting up her spine. She focused once again on the notebook.
Mel could only ignore this, given the state of mute panic—bordering on apoplexy—that she found herself in. Surreptitiously, she jabbed herself in the thigh with her fountain pen, hoping it would produce an effect similar to a bracing, brain-jarring slap across the face.
"...sit..." Janice was saying. Then comprehension illuminated her face. "Oh! 'Xena, sit on my face.'"
"Jee-zus, that's poetry?"
Somehow, Mel marveled, the philistine known as Covington chose to focus on aesthetics.
"That's lousy. It's like that Modernist stuff, you know? Damn, give me a good old-fashioned 'Charge of the Light Brigade' any day of the week."
Good God! the Southerner wailed to herself. Doesn't she know what it means? Mel caught a breath, and her dark brows drooped in confusion. Do I know what it means?
However, a semantic coup de grace occurred, and the translator took happy note of Janice's dropping jaw. Under different circumstances, Mel might have relished the look of shock on the otherwise jaded countenance. "Oh."
She shuddered with delight, which Janice took for revulsion.
"Uh, you’re sure—"
"It could be some sort of expression—"
"Janice, literally or figuratively—I mean, the meaning cannot possibly be taken another way."
"Maybe Gabrielle was cold."
This earned an incredulous stare from the translator.
"Or suicidal?" Janice offered lamely.
"N-no, I don’t think there’s any other way around it," Mel stammered softly.
Why, why, did I have to be related to Gabrielle? Bard my ass—this was really her idea of oral tradition. Frigging horny brat. Awkwardly, Janice rubbed her chin. While searching for something to say, she watched as Mel squirmed in her seat and nervously bunched together the hem of her skirt with her long fingers. She barely managed to stomp down the obvious salacious offer that sprung to mind. Whaddya say, sweetheart? It was good enough for our ancestors—she coughed, the study echoing with her noisy dramatics, then cleared her throat. "Um. What about the rest? How far did you get?" Janice managed to ask.
"Not very. From there Gabrielle writes of a trip to the Amazons. For a royal ceremony." Mel saw that her words fell on deaf ears; Janice was eerily quiet. "Janice? Are you all right?"
Janice ended whatever reverie she was in. "Uh, yeah. Guess I'm more tired than I realized. It was a long trip, and now this..."
"Janice!" Mel cried.
The small blonde jumped at the urgent tone, almost knocking herself unconscious as her head jerked up and narrowly missed a collision with the mantelpiece.
Mel desperately wanted to right things again, to make Janice as ease. It was as if her own secret desire for her friend had seeped into the poem, into the words she had nervously translated for the archaeologist. And Janice must be shocked to know that her ancestor was a deviant...like me, Mel thought miserably.
"Huh?" Janice replied.
"You know," she stammered, "homosexuality was er, much more common and tolerated in ancient societies" —I can't believe I'm saying this—"and after all, Gabrielle was a young woman, living a lonely life on the road, she was very impressionable, or so I've gathered from my readings of her scrolls thus far."
And Xena, obviously, was incredibly dense. Today I languished around camp nude. Then massaged her after breakfast—still nude. She grunted like a pig contented in swill. But nothing. Nothing!
Janice smiled weakly. "Come on, Mel, I don't need to rehash History 101, or Psych 101 for that matter." She stood up, stretching. "I think I'll go to bed, if you don't mind."
"Of course not. The guestroom is the third bedroom on the left, at the end of the hall. Alice"—the housekeeper, who had laid out the simple cold dinner for them—"took your things up earlier. There should be fresh towels on the bed."
"Great." She paused. "Thanks for everything, Mel. Good night."
"Good night," Mel replied. She watched the young woman saunter gracefully out of the study and up the stairs, the fiery red-gold head bowed, almost as if in prayer. "Sweet dreams," she added in a whisper.
Upstairs, Janice closed the door and virtually collapsed against it in exhaustion, "Jesus Christ," she moaned to herself, "these damned feelings are genetic." Again in her mind she pictured Mel, lovely in the lamp light, silently working, lips moving, saying nothing. She shook off a tingle of desire. "That goddamned bard brat."
Before she opened her eyes, Janice smelled coffee. Real coffee, the good stuff she could find abroad, or at least in a good coffee shop in New York before the war. Maybe I'm dreaming, she thought. Only one way to find out. She rose, washed up, dressed, and descended the staircase.
The rich smell grew stronger as she approached the kitchen. Mel, to her astonishment, was frying eggs. The coffee awaited her on the table. She sighed with pleasure.
This caught her hostess's attention, and Mel turned to her, startled. "Goodness Janice, I thought you'd never get up," she said by way of greeting.
"Good morning to you too," Janice replied sarcastically. Then she softened. "Mel, that smells like real coffee."
"Where the hell did you get it?"
The raven-haired beauty shot her a mischievous grin. "I have my sources."
"I can accept that." She looked around the clean, orderly kitchen. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No, just sit down. I'm about ready here."
They settled down to a meal of eggs, buttermilk biscuits, coffee, and juice. Mel smiled at the small woman's appetite. "Would you like a tour of Charlotte today?" Mel asked.
"No," Janice replied through a mouthful of egg. "I want you to work on that damn scroll."
"Ah, I don't know why I even bothered to ask." Mel grinned again. There was a companionable silence as Janice made short work of the biscuits on her plate. Mel decided to risk the mood as she tentatively asked, "So I trust this means you're feeling...better about the content of the scroll thus far?"
Janice's busily chewing jaw stopped abruptly as she tried to formulate an answer. She decided to take the diplomatic approach and avoid either outright condemnation of the bard's lustful thoughts for her best friend, or praise of her admirable writing skills (That pornographic, puerile crap was poetry?)—not to mention Gabrielle's good taste, for Xena of Amphipolis was frequently described by her contemporaries as a great beauty. "I'm not a prude, Mel. I can handle it. I'd like to see where the kid goes with it."
"Goes with what?"
"You know, see how she deals with these feelings. Does she tell the Warrior Princess? Does Xena find out somehow? Is it even remotely possible that Xena may have felt the same way?"
Mel could have sworn she detected a tinge of hope in the archaeologist's voice. "I think it's...possible," she ventured nervously. "Even though Xena had a child, and many of her affairs with men were legendary, that does not preclude bisexuality on her part."
Janice snorted. "No, probably not. She was on the road a long time, it must have been difficult for her to find someone for...pleasure at times. So having the bard as a bedwarmer may have been a last resort."
Mel scowled. " ‘Last resort'?" she asked. "Why do you always think so little of Gabrielle?"
Having finished her breakfast, Janice pushed herself back from the table. "Force of habit," she replied, plucking a cigar from her breast pocket and clenching it between her teeth. "Since I think of myself in the same way." As she searched her pockets for a light, Mel snatched the stogie from under her nose.
"Janice Covington, you are a big pain in the ass." Janice stared at her, Mel instinctively clamped her hand over her mouth, then removed it. "See, you made me swear again! Janice, I'm going to prove you wrong about Gabrielle. And about yourself too." She stood up, determined, and started to clear the breakfast dishes. With a glance that was admiring, fearful, and sweet, Janice stood up and helped her.
"Your father was certainly a well-read man," Janice commented as she completed yet another scan of the books in the study.
"Mmmm," Mel murmured. Her dark head was bent intently over the ancient parchment.
Janice shook her head. The woman was so thoroughly engrossed in the scroll, she could not even muster the barest of her Southern civilities. "Yep...let's see here...everything from Kant and Kirkegaard to Gone with the Wind and the Kama Sutra," Janice stole a quick look at her friend to see if Mel noticed the spurious volumes—the latter two—that her imagination had inserted into the collection. No response. She let her fingers trail over the leather volumes, riding the rough ridges and indentations, until her fingers stopped suddenly: Havelock Ellis. Kraft-Ebing. Oh my. Dr. Pappas knew his stuff. Wonder if he would've been able to diagnose me on the spot?
Janice cast yet another glance at Mel. Jesus Christ, has Mel read this stuff? She wondered. And if so, has she figured me all out? I am sort of a walking bulldagger at times—the clothes, the cigar—God, I have to get out of here for a while. Unwilling to break Mel's concentration, Janice opted to exit quietly and go for a walk.
She got no further than the door's threshold when she heard Mel call her name softly.
"Where are you going?" The scholar removed her glasses, her blue eyes touching Janice like a flame.
"Just out for a walk. Get some air. Do you mind?"
"No, of course not." She put on the glasses once again. Janice turned to leave.
"Janice?" The voice sounded darker, silkier.
"Yes?" The young archaeologist froze, her hand lingering on the doorknob.
"My daddy hated Gone With the Wind and he kept his copy of the Kama Sutra so well hidden I didn't find it until last year."
Without a word, Janice and her blush walked out.
Gradations of gold stippled the old books of the study. Mel removed her glasses and let her eyes rest on the burnished orange-yellow sunset at the window, which reminded of Janice's hair. Suddenly she realized how late it was. And where on earth was Janice anyway? She was anxious to update the archaeologist on the turn that the scroll was taking. She stood up and stretched.
She wandered into the kitchen, where Alice, her part-time housekeeper, was folding laundry.
"Alice, I seem to have misplaced my house guest," she said, hoping the joke would cover the concern in her voice.
The slender black woman smiled, but raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid I haven't seen her, Miss Melinda. I got in at my usual time, and no one was here."
"I'm sure she'll be fine, Miss Melinda. It's about dinner time, and she doesn't seem like the type who would miss a meal."
Mel chuckled. "How could you tell?"
"Why, all of those eggs are gone! You barely go through half a dozen a month. That was the last of the your ration coupons too."
"I guess Miss Janice will just have to eat powdered sugar and bread, then," Mel said.
Alice giggled. "Well, you will have fried chicken for dinner. Left over from last night. Shall I set it out for the two of you?"
"No Alice, I'll take care of it later. Thank you." She walked through the darkening house to the porch; it was actually brighter outside, as the gold, scarlet, and violet flooded the sky. Mel wrapped her arms about her. How many of these sunsets did Xena witness? she wondered. Were the skies of the ancient world just as beautiful? Or even more so?
A reply came from inside her, a voice she had known all her life, yet she never knew its origin until last year in Macedonia. Yes. It was breathtaking, More than this.
Then a sudden memory: I am watching the sunset. I hear her come up behind me, I know it is her…I would know the tread of her walk anywhere. She has walked beside me for years. And would continue to do so for the rest of her life. Without a word she wraps her arms around me, I feel her face, her hair, nuzzled in between my shoulders. For a brilliant moment Mel saw it and felt it all: heavy armor on her body, a breeze tingling her upper arms, the multi-hued sunset, the muscular arms around her waist, the soft skin and golden down on those arms, the finely tapered wrists and elegant hands. I turn away from the sunset, for she is more to me than all the colors of the world.
As the moment dissipated, Mel felt a stunned emptiness. That beautiful intensity was gone. She had never felt anything like it. My God. They loved each other.
Shakily, she sat down. I can't faint again, now, can I? She took deep breaths, and managed to control her racing heart, until she caught a glimpse of Janice sauntering up the street. She had a sweet, boyish gait, confident and quick. It seemed jauntier than usual. Her fedora was tilted back on her head, and she still wore that leather jacket, even though it was about 65 humid degrees outside. As she passed Mrs. Pellier, Mel's neighbor from down the street, she doffed her hat. The woman stopped dead in her tracks and looked at Janice as if she were from another planet. Which, in a way, she was. Mel laughed.
As Janice continued on her way, she looked toward the house and saw Mel. It was her turn to stop walking. For a moment she looked apprehensive, as if she didn't want to approach Mel. But then she grinned sheepishly, and the smile remained plastered on her face as she mounted the stairs of the house. "Hi, you waitin' for me?" the young woman asked breathlessly, swaying slightly.
Mel smiled. Something about Janice seemed different. Looser. And not as gruff and tough. "Sort of," she responded wistfully. Like all my life.
"Sorry. Didn't think I would be gone so long." She sat down on a porch step, leaning against a column.
"Where have you been?" Mel asked.
"Oh, just touring your fair city. "
"Really Janice, you hardly seem a tourist type."
"Well, all right. I was just walkin’ around. "
Mel stood up from the wicker chair she was seated in, and joined Janice on the step. She was close enough to the archaeologist to catch her rich scent: the leather, the cigar smoke, a faint tinge of sweat…and alcohol.
Mel arched an eyebrow. "Just walking around, hmmm?"
"Yeah." Janice shrugged with an overstudied nonchalance.
"Didn't happen to walk into a bar by any chance, did you?"
Janice knew she was a poor liar. Nonetheless it was her nature to give most things her best shot. "A bar, you say? You mean like a pub? A café? A bistro? A tavern?"
"Let's just say a place where they serve alcohol."
"I mean, I may have been in a place, indeed, I may have been inside, in a sheltered environment, but whether or not it served alcohol, well, it's academic…"
"Janice Covington, you are the world's most inept liar. Why can't you just admit you had a couple drinks?"
Janice flushed. "What makes you think it was a couple?"
With a chuckle Mel stood up and extended her hand downward. "Come on, let's have dinner." When the young archaeologist grasped her hand she felt it again, that warm rush of emotion that she felt minutes ago, reliving the memories of a woman long dead. The last time they had touched each other was after arriving in the U.S. from Macedonia; Mel did not count the fainting spell she'd had at Janice's arrival yesterday, since she was not conscious when the young woman virtually carried her inside. But she remembered the awkward hug at the airport—meant as a friendly parting embrace—where she had thrown her long arms around Janice and half expected the scruffy young woman to squirm and growl like an untamed animal. Instead she had experienced Janice's arms around her in a fierce squeeze. And it had taken every bit of her resources to resist kissing Janice in front of hundreds of strangers.
Once Janice stood up Mel did not relinquish her hand. Janice did not seem to mind; but her green eyes remained focused on her boots as she said, "Okay. I'm starving."
Don’t look at those boots, look at me! Mel bit her tongue. Blushing furiously, and still holding Janice's hand, she led the way inside.
I must be in love.
Mel reached this conclusion after dinner.
So I let this woman eat all the chicken, and God knows the next time I'll get chicken, there is a war going on, and I let her into Daddy's liquor cabinet, where she promptly opened the last bottle of whiskey, the one that Daddy had been saving for a special occasion, and now she's talking about something I have the least amount of interest in, and she refuses to talk about what is foremost on my mind, which is the scroll. If I may quote Miss Covington herself, "Son of a bitch."
"That bastard had an arm. Nailed him right at the plate. I was so upset I cried," Janice was saying, when Mel returned her focus to the conversation.
"You cried over baseball?" Mel was incredulous.
Janice merely grinned. She knocked back another glass of whiskey. Mel eyed the Bushmills bottle sitting next to her guest. It was already half-empty.
"If I may ask, how much did you have to drink at this bar?" Mel inquired, with a note of concern.
Janice shrugged. "Dunno. Just a couple beers."
"Where did you go?" Mel asked, only mildly curious. She noticed the young woman's gaze suddenly clouded over and took up a rather intense, preoccupied study of her footwear. Janice tried to keep the defensiveness out of her tone when she said, "Why? Are you an expert on bars, Mel? Have you ever seen the inside of one?"
"Why, yes I have. Not here, though. A beau from Vanderbilt once took me to one in Nashville. A 'dive,' I believe he called it." Mel concluded defiantly. See if you can shock me, Janice Covington!
The archaeologist's emerald eyes glittered drunkenly. "A beau, eh?"
Mel flicked her wrist dismissively. "Actually, he was hardly that. He liked me, but the feeling wasn't mutual. He tried to have his way with me after we left this bar. Right in the car!" she said indignantly.
Janice smirked. Yes, she could believe that. How many times had she tried to do the same with many a young lady?
"You haven't answered my question, though," the dark-haired woman continued. Her curiosity became aroused as soon as she saw how evasive Janice was about it.
"I just don't see why it matters. They're all the same." It was escalating into a battle of will.
"I suppose this is true enough. And if that is the case, then all the more reason for you to have no problem telling me where you went." Mel bit her lip. She sounded like a jealous lover, but she couldn't help herself.
Silence. Janice gripped the whiskey bottle by the neck and poured herself another. Dammit, she thought grimly. One more for the road, cause she'll surely kick my sorry ass outta here. I could lie, but she deserves more than that. She drained her glass, the familiar burning sensation giving her courage. Let's get it over with. She sighed, and stared into the empty glass. "I'm sure you've heard of a little place called the Gilded Lily," she said in a low voice. Part of her hoped Mel hadn't. The other part hoped she did.
Mel's blue eyes widened. She was horrified and thrilled all at once. A speakeasy in the 1920s, the Gilded Lily took on a more secretive and exclusive persona once the decade ended. It became known in polite circles as a meeting place for homosexuals and the most elite of call girls. And call boys. Nobody in their right mind would be caught dead there, although many from the highest strata of Charlotte and surrounding areas knew of it, and frequented it. It was rumored that a certain senator was a steady customer.
"Oh my," Mel murmured. "Janice, how did…you know about the Gilded Lily?"
"How do you think, Mel?" Janice retorted. "Word gets around when you move in the circles I do. You find out where all the queers meet. There's one in every town. Trust me, I know."
The tall woman was silent as dozens of thoughts raced through her.
Janice slammed the glass down. "Well, I should go."
"Go where? To sleep?" Mel asked innocently.
"No, I'll leave now. It's still early enough, I might be able to catch the night train up north."
"Don't be ridiculous," Mel said. She didn't know what else to say, as her mind processed this interesting new fact. She's like me. Could she feel the same way? The way she looks at me sometimes—am I crazy to think she might?
"Who's being ridiculous? I just assume you don't want a pervert in your house," Janice's tone was defiant, but her voice was also tight and strangled. "I'm sorry, Mel. Now you see why I didn't want to tell you." She stood up and started to walk quickly into the house. Mel stood up too, and snagged Janice's arm with a surprisingly strong grip.
"Wait a minute!" Mel said angrily. "I want you to tell me—" Janice tried to pull away with a sudden jerk of her arm. Mel yanked back even harder, and the slingshot effect caused the archaeologist to be flung against her body. Instinctively her arms wrapped around Janice, who had placed a hand upon her shoulder.
Janice looked at her. She saw fear, of course; she was afraid herself. And desire, she was certain. "Tell you what?" Janice whispered.
"Tell me everything," Mel replied softly. She leaned in and kissed Janice very gently, upon the lips. She wasn't sure what she meant by that, but she knew the knowledge she sought was imparted when Janice returned the kiss in full force.
2. The Angelic Contemplation
Mel sat, feeling strangely exhausted, in the vacant lounge of the Plaza Hotel in New York. She was waiting to meet Jack Kleinman, the man whom she first met, along with Janice, on that fateful day almost two years ago. That day changed everything for me…just as a night last summer did, Mel thought.
She had not heard from Janice since the night that they spent together, over six months ago, when they had consummated their relationship. She had awakened alone in her bed. Her search of the house yielded no Janice, no note, merely her somber housekeeper. "I got here just as she was leaving," Alice had told Mel. "She was waiting outside for the cab to come. She had called for one, she said, to take her to the train station."
"How did she seem?" Mel had asked.
"I'd say she looked a little down, like she didn't want to leave, but she had to."
In her bathrobe, Mel had sat there at the kitchen table numbly, wondering why.
And that's what I'm going to find out. Her letters to Janice had remained unanswered. She had no phone number for the archaeologist, although, she discovered upon her arrival, the New York phone book had a listing for a J. Covington. So finally, after the holidays ended, she decided it was time to come to New York and track down her friend. Did I scare her off? Was I too intense? I did say, "I love you." She recalled the surprised look on Janice's face when she said it: Lying together, legs entangled. She had been propped on her elbow, looking down at Janice, whose hair was burnished, orange in the candlelight.
It had been obvious Janice wasn't ready for that: She had sat up, in shock, strangely modest in that she clung to a sheet wrapped around her torso. Better than saying "shazam," I suppose, Janice had cracked nervously. (Which, unfortunately, had been Mel’s wildly inappropriate and utterly laconic commentary following her first climax with Janice.)
However, it was one instance where she had not appreciated Janice's disarming remarks.
Mel scanned the marble lobby. The only people in New York seemed to be soldiers and sailors; both types of men were clustered around the Plaza's elegant bar and loitering in the lobby. In the half-hour that she had been waiting for Jack, two soldiers, who wanted to ply her with drinks for obvious purposes, had accosted her. She stood up, then bent at the waist to adjust the back of her stockings. Who invented these things? she wondered irritably when she heard a male voice behind her, "Pretty good caboose there, sweetheart."
Indignantly she drew up to her full height and looked down on Jack, who was startled to see that the woman responsible for the nice caboose was Mel. He turned visibly pale. "Uh…hi Melinda," he said sheepishly. "Sorry, I didn't think it was you, I mean, I don't remember you being so…it's been a long time, and…gosh, you look swell!" he concluded lamely. He wore a private's uniform; as he told Mel when she contacted him, he had managed to be placed in the Army Reserves even though initially he had been 4-F.
She raised an eyebrow and noticed his discomfort at that gesture. "Hello, Jack. How are you?"
"Pretty good. The army life, it's a tough one. Even stateside, that is." He nodded toward the bar. "Shall we have a drink?"
Over rum and cokes, he asked her, with all the delicacy he could muster, "Have you heard anything?"
"No," she replied. "You?" She couldn't keep the hope out of her voice, even though she knew his answer.
He snorted. "You kiddin'? If she hasn't contacted you, she sure as heck wouldn't have contacted me."
"There was always a chance, Jack." Mel opened her purse and dug around for the address. "I found a 'J. Covington' in the phone book. Luckily, it's the only one. I tried calling the number but no one ever answers." She pulled out a scrap of paper. In the times when she had corresponded with Janice, the only address she had was a New York P.O. Box. "It's Cornelia Street…do you know where that is?" she asked tentatively, not sure if she wanted to trust Jack's knowledge of New York.
"Sure, it's in Greenwich Village. Figures Janice would live down there."
Mel frowned. "Why?"
Jack scrunched his lips together to stop his initial response (Because that's where all the weirdos live) from leaving his mouth, and also to buy time while he thought of something more appropriate. "Well…that's where all the, uh, career girls live."
She seemed less than satisfied with the answer, but nonetheless a determined look crossed her face. "Let's go."
"Now?" he asked with alarm.
"Jack, it's Sunday afternoon, not the middle of the night. You don't have to come with me if you don't want to." Clasping her purse, she stood up and headed for the door.
"Wait!" He scrambled behind her, as she gracefully exited the hotel.
Cornelia Street was narrow and sedate in the late afternoon light. A tiny café was the only sign of life, the windows heavy with steam. Checking the fragment of paper one more time (God, what if I wrote it down wrong? she agonized) Mel and Jack stood in front of a drab, stucco building. As they entered the stairwell she noticed that Covington was scrawled on the mailbox of the third-story apartment, along with some other name she couldn't quite make out. They mounted the bleak staircase. At the door of apartment 3, they heard lazy, swaying big-band music from a radio within. Mel gave a brisk knock, and stared into the peephole, not knowing she wouldn't see a thing.
The door swung wide open. A voluptuous young woman, with dark brown hair and preternaturally gray-blue eyes, stared at them. More specifically, at Mel. She wore nothing but a man's white oxford shirt, which hung down to her knees, causing Jack to blush. She gave Mel a once-over. Then a twice-over.
Mel twitched with discomfort, but put on her best manners. "Excuse me ma'am," she drawled pleasantly, exaggerating her accent for maximum "charm the Yankee" effect, "I'm sorry to disturb you on a Sunday, but my name is Melinda Pappas, and I am looking for Janice Covington—" Before she said anything else, the woman in the doorway started to chuckle.
"What," the woman said, taking in Mel's neat blue suit, eyeglasses, and black hair in a bun, "does she have an overdue library book?" She snorted at her own joke. Jack guffawed as well. Mel silenced him with an icy glare.
"I'm a friend of Janice's. We've done some collaborative work on the Xena Scrolls she discovered in Macedonia. I've been trying to get in touch with her for months."
"Oh yeah…the Xena Scrolls," she groaned sarcastically. "What a bunch of crap." She walked away from the door. "C'mon in." The woman flung herself in a chair, and gestured to the sofa. "Sit down. Wanna drink?"
The hallway was a good indicator of the apartment's look: it was small, dirty, and bare. Nothing in the room indicated that Janice had ever been there. Mel and Jack exchanged a look of horror before they sat themselves down on the soiled couch, neither one sitting back into the foul cushions. "Er, no thank you," Mel said.
"Who's he?" The woman pointed accusingly at Jack.
"This is Jack Kleinman. He's a friend of Janice's as well," Mel replied.
"Hi," Jack said meekly.
"May I ask your name?" Mel inquired.
The woman took a drink from a glass by her chair. "Mary Jane Velasko." Her eyes lingered on Mel. "Well, I gotta hand it to Jan, she's got good taste. The bitch." She took another drink. "She stuck me here to pay the rent. Just took off."
"Where?" Jack and Mel asked in unison.
"She joined the WACs." Velasko stared into her glass. "Or so she told me."
Oh God no. Mel, stunned, could not say anything. The strange tired feeling that she felt at the hotel returned, and her body ached and burned. Jack watched her with concern, then asked Velasko, "When did she leave?"
" 'Bout three months ago. She put all her stuff in storage. Then boom, she's gone."
"And you haven't heard anything from her since?" Jack continued.
"Not a goddamn thing." Velasko noticed Mel's deathly pale countenance. "Sorry, Scarlett." She paused. "You got it bad for her, don't you?" She looked at Mel with not exactly sympathy, but something in her strange eyes understood exactly why Mel was here.
Jack looked confused. Then upset. "Just what are you implying—" he began angrily.
"Let it go, Jack," Mel said hoarsely. Jack frowned, but said nothing else.
"Yeah, I could say the same thing to you, Scarlett," Velasko said. "Forget her. She'll screw you over like she did me."
Mel stood up stiffly. "Thank you for your help," she said in a strained voice. If I don't get out of here I'll throw up, she thought.
"Sure. You know the way out," Velasko said sardonically, not moving. "Oh, and Scarlett?"
Mel, with Jack behind her, paused by the door.
"If you ever do find Janice Covington, tell her I'm going to kill her."
As it turned out, she did throw up, in a trashcan outside the apartment building. Wincing with disgust, Jack offered her a handkerchief. "Thanks," she said softly, dabbing at her mouth. She slumped against the building for support.
"Melinda, you look awful," Jack said, alarm coloring his voice.
"Thanks," she repeated in a daze.
He clapped a hand over her forehead. "You feel clammy," he said.
"Are you sure it's not your hand that's clammy?"
He scrutinized his palm, and tentatively poked it with the other hand.
Mel rolled her eyes. "God, I need a drink," she moaned, more to herself than him.
"Ha! You sound just like Janice." A miserable look crossed her face, and he was instantly sorry he said it.
Then she looked at him curiously. "Did you see her much? While she was living in New York?"
"What? Naw." Jack's examination of his palm continued; with absentminded nervousness he started to rub it with a thumb. "We went out drinking a couple times…I wish I'd seen her more, but…" Mel studied his hangdog expression; does he have a crush on her?
"I know how you feel." She'd said it before she realized what she was saying.
He looked at her. "Huh?" he said. Thank God, he didn't understand. Another wave of nausea swept over her; the only thing that prevented her from falling to the ground was
the side of the building she was leaning against.
"I've got to get back to the hotel," she said feebly. Wearily she pushed herself away from the building. "I don't feel very well." She started to walk, heading toward Sixth Avenue in hopes of catching a cab, but she didn't get far. The world darkened as she hit the ground, and she heard Jack yelling her name.
"Covington!" the voice shouted.
Janice recognized the voice, but decided to ignore it for as long as possible. But she could not ignore the soft yet steady kicks that Blaylock gave the soles of her shoes. She forced her eyes open and looked up blearily into the face of U.S. Army Captain Daniel Blaylock, her commanding officer and friend.
Dressed from head to toe in regulation army khaki—shirt, pants, even her undergarments were khaki—Janice was stretched out in the spare cot that Blaylock kept in his office. She had arrived in London six months ago, in January, after completing her training at Fort Oglethorpe. The very first day at HQ, as luck would have it, she ran into Blaylock, an old friend from college; he immediately put in a request that Janice be assigned to him as an assistant. Officially she was his driver, but her seemingly unlimited energy compelled Blaylock to give her as much work as she could handle.
Blaylock shared Janice's passion for archaeology, but his field had been the emerging one of Egyptology, which he taught at Dartmouth. Another thing they shared was a romantic past; Blaylock had been the first (and only) man she'd slept with. It wasn't bad, Janice thought in retrospect, but something was missing for me. She didn't know what it was, until one night she and her roommate consumed an inordinate amount of sloe gin and ended up in bed together. And Blaylock found them the following morning. He was terribly hurt, which she regretted immensely; I love you, he had said. And I love you, she had responded, just in a different way. Can you accept that?
He did. Or so it had always seemed.
He stood in front of her with some of the dreadful English coffee from the canteen downstairs. Handing a cup to her, he said, "Thought I'd find you here."
Tentatively she sipped the bubbling hot sludge. "Yeah. I wanted to finish that report."
Luckily Blaylock did not insist on military formality, except in front of other officers.
"You didn't have to," he chastised her. "It would've waited." He smiled, wondering if he should spring the news on her now or later. "But I'm glad you did." He decided he couldn't wait, and let his grin grow larger.
Puffing on the coffee, she looked at him suspiciously. "You're being very cheerful, Blaylock. I don't trust it."
"You should. Because I have the news you've been waiting for. In a week we're being sent to Normandy."
She almost dropped the cup, so she sat it down on the table. "We?"
"You got it. If all goes well, a contingent of WACs will be sent to France. Mainly to handle the switchboards and mail, things like that. But they need some drivers too, Janice. And you're gonna be one of them. I recommended you myself."
She exhaled slowly, and leaned back against the wall. "Son of a bitch," she mused aloud. "I'll finally be doing something useful." She was too immersed in anticipation to notice the slightly hurt look on Blaylock's face.
"Influenza," the doctor said to Jack curtly.
"How?" Jack replied, mystified. "It's not goin' around, that I know of."
They stood in the hospital corridor at St. Vincent's, where Jack had brought Mel after her collapse.
The MD shrugged. "You're right, there's no epidemic. But there are a lot of folks in the city right now who have been exposed to all sorts of viruses overseas. So it's likely your friend caught some strain that she has no immunity to."
She ached dully, tossed between delirium and the tantalizing edge of clarity. But clarity and consciousness, however appealing in their own way, were not as pleasant as the oblivion of the fever. She knew the conscious world contained no Janice. The fever gripped her and for the time being she surrendered to it. The part of her that knew Xena, however, was aware that this fraudulent bliss was temporary. Despite it all, she would survive.
"Shit," Janice said.
"Try ship," Blaylock retorted.
They stood on the dock, surveying the huge ship that would take them, and 40 other WACs under Blaylock's joint command with a senior officer, to France. The group also included several intelligence officers and British women recruited as ambulance drivers.
"I'm dead," she moaned. "This will be hell on earth."
Blaylock smiled grimly as he recalled the time when they were in college and he took her aboard his father's yacht. No sooner had it pulled out of the harbor than Janice spewed her breakfast into Cape Cod. "Look, you'll be fine," he assuaged her. She glared at him. Triumphantly he pulled a small vial from his shirt pocket and handed it to her. She questioned him with a look. "The latest thing. Pills that prevent seasickness. The Army doctors recently perfected the formula. It should do the trick."
She glanced skeptically as the bottle, then pocketed it. "Thanks."
"Well," he sighed, "everyone else is aboard, so we should get up there." They picked up their rucksacks. "Ready to deal with a ship full of horny sailors?" he teased.
She smirked into his too-pretty face. "The question is, are you?"
Janice stood alone on the deck of the transit ship. It was, as they say, "spitting rain." An earlier fog had dissipated. They would be in France by daylight tomorrow morning; normally it would not take so long, but report of enemy activity off the coast forced them to go slow and delay their arrival as much as possible.
It was frustrating to her. I've been a coward most of my life, she thought. I ran away from my father because I didn't like the way he did "business," I hurt Dan because I was too gutless to tell him how I really felt. And I did basically the same thing to Mel. She may hate me by now. But I just couldn't let her love me the way I am. Maybe it's too late now. Maybe this war will kill me. Still, I need to know what I'm made of. If I'm worthy of her. Even though I've probably lost her.
She saw a figure come up from below deck. Her eyes narrowed in increasing disbelief at the figure: tall, wearing a British uniform and a thick leather bomber jacket, with long black hair whipping around her face. Janice squinted. A hand brushed back the dark hair from the woman's face, a face that, even clutching a cigarette between lips, mirrored that of Melinda Pappas.
She could not take her eyes off the woman. It can't be...she thought. Janice knew she was right: Even though she looked exactly like Mel, this woman carried herself differently, even surveyed her surroundings differently than Mel: these blue eyes were narrow as they suspiciously scanned the horizon, as if daring the skies to rain more. She moved awkwardly, as if she never got used to the tall, broad-shouldered body that she inhabited. Her face had a stoic, veiled cast, a classic chip-on-the-shoulder look. And that look was directed at Janice, who, even as the woman angrily glared at her, could not stop looking at this carbon copy of Mel.
The woman unfurled her body from its hunched up position over the railing. She threw the cigarette down on the deck, and in three easy strides was towering over Janice. "What the bloody hell do you think you're lookin' at?" she snarled. Her thick yet pleasing accent was not a London one; north country, perhaps, Janice guessed.
"What? Nothing," Janice stammered. She tried to step back from the woman, but a large strong hand seized her arm, its crushing grip painful.
" 'Nothing,' eh?" the woman retorted mockingly. "You fucking Yanks are all the same. Think you can come over here and act like you run everything."
Ah, a woman who swears more than I do. How refreshing. "Look, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare at you. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. It's just that you look a lot like someone I knew back home. A really good friend..." Janice trailed off in a whisper. And what if you lost that really good friend by treating her the way you did? Fucked, then abandoned?
The woman squinted at Janice, reading the archaeologist's face, and decided she was truthful. She relaxed her grip. "I'm a sucker for a sob story, I am," she muttered, more to herself than Janice.
"I truly am sorry," Janice repeated. I hate it when strong, beautiful women are angry with me!
The Englishwoman released Janice's arm. "All right, then. Forget it." Another dark mood crossed her face though, and Janice panicked. "Goddammit! I threw away my last cigarette!" she cried. She looked back at the railing where she had stood, but the wind had already swept her cigarette out to sea.
Quickly Janice pulled out a pack of Chestertons. In England it was next to impossible to find the cigars she usually smoked. Blaylock, who had some black market connections, kept her supplied with cigarettes instead. She offered one to the woman. "Ta," the woman grunted, unwilling to feel gratitude toward this strange American woman. Janice lit her cigarette with the silver lighter her father had given her years ago. "Nice lighter," the Englishwoman commented.
"Thanks," Janice replied. "I'm Janice Covington," she said, and extended a hand.
The woman enfolded Janice's hand with her larger one. "Meg Edmondson," she said.
It was late in the mess hall, almost midnight. Everyone was in bed except Janice and two of the WACs, Porter and Lang. Porter possessed a large flask of whiskey that her boyfriend, a British intelligence officer back in London, had given her for the trip. They were passing the flask among themselves, and feeling pretty good. Janice felt relaxed for the first time in months as the whiskey coursed through her blood.
They had launched into a giggly, gossipy session about Blaylock when Porter motioned to someone standing in the doorway. "Psst! C'mere!!" she called.
Janice's back was to the door, and Lang, sitting beside her friend, did not recognize to whom Porter beckoned: "Who's that?"
"One of the limey girls. Edmondson, I think."
Janice's head snapped around so fast that she was surprised her neck didn't break. Sure enough, Meg strode over to them. "Hiyer," she greeted everyone as she loomed over the table. She seemed shyer around groups of people.
"Sit down, have a drink with us," Porter said.
"Ta," she said, and sat next to Janice.
The warmth Janice felt increased as Meg sat down. It's been a while, hasn't it? You haven't laid a finger on anyone since...well, since last summer. She studied Meg's handsome profile: the riveting blue eyes, the jet-black hair, the chiseled cheeks and full, soft lips. Ah, Meg, your name a mere consonant's difference from my beloved's.
This is not the time to indulge in cheap affairs, a voice protested inside her. There is a war going on, after all!
"We were talkin' about Blaylock," said Porter. "Jan said she knew him in college." Janice hated being called Jan, but she let it pass. She had not told the women any more than that about Blaylock; she did not want to cheapen her relationship with him. Besides, such conversation would inevitably lead to why it ended.
"Really?" Meg asked. She arched an eyebrow at Janice, whose resolve to behave crumbled even faster.
"He's a cutie, isn't he?" threw in Lang.
Meg shrugged. "I suppose so," she said.
"Not your type, eh?" Porter asked with a grin.
"Not quite," Meg said mysteriously. Her blue eyes flickered in Janice's direction. A sign from God? the archaeologist thought hopefully.
The two women continued to wax poetic on Blaylock's looks. Janice took a swig from the flask and handed it to Meg. Here goes nothing, she thought. If she slugs me, hopefully she won't tell them why. She let her hand stray over to Meg's thigh and with a delicate, slow, sensuous stroke ran her fingers along the muscular leg.
Meg sputtered and coughed as she drank from the flask.
"Want some milk instead, honey?" Porter laughed.
Janice grinned. "Well girls, it's been swell, but I should go." She stood up and indulged in a full body stretch, her eyes catching Meg's. "I think I'll get some air on deck first, before bed." She hoped the others didn't take it as an invitation to follow her up. They didn't, thankfully, and they bade Janice goodnight.
Once again she was on deck, near the entrance. The night watch was far away, near the stern of the ship, and luckily he wouldn't be back around for another quarter hour.
Ten minutes later, Meg stood in the portal leading up to the deck. Spotting her, or rather her long, shadowy figure, Janice jumped down to greet her. In the dim light she saw the Englishwoman's face, confused and wary. Carefully she cradled the face in her hands and gently brought it down to her own, where their lips met. As the soft kiss expanded over seconds, Janice's hand brushed Meg's face, then her neck, where she felt the woman's erratic, throbbing pulse. With a gasp for air Meg broke the kiss. "Jesus Christ all mighty," she murmured.
Janice left a hand on Meg's cheek. "You've never done this before, have you?" she asked gently.
"If you don't want to, I'll stop. And I won't bother you again."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
They ended up in a supply room. Groping through the darkness, Janice found a blanket and placed it on the floor; there was just enough room to lie down.
Hours later, the gray light of morning filtered through the room. Janice, awake, was sitting against a wall. She knew they should get back to the barracks area immediately, but Meg still dozed in her arms and was sprawled over the archaeologist's lower body. Her nude form was covered haphazardly with both their coats. It felt good. There was no denying that. She stroked Meg's shoulders, the skin smooth and taut over the muscles. Overall, the Englishwoman was broader, heavier, and more muscular than Mel was. Not that Mel had a bad body; no, not at all. You have the lean look of an underfed academic, she had teased the Southern scholar during that night they spent together. Well Janice, if you don't like what you see, you should go. Mel had replied with her aristocratic hauteur. If you do, then I believe you should just shut up and kiss me. Needless to say, Janice had opted for the latter.
This isn't good, to think of Mel while I'm holding another woman, Janice chastised herself. But why else did I sleep with her, other than she looks like the woman I'm in love with? She squeezed her eyes shut upon admitting this truth. Simultaneously she tightened the embrace around the slumbering figure, wishing for all the world that the woman in her desperate grasp was Mel.
In the mess that morning, Blaylock stood in line with Janice for breakfast. "What happened to your finger, Covington?" he asked casually, looking down at the white bandage covering the middle finger of Janice's right hand.
"I caught it in a door, sir, " Janice replied uneasily, since she was, as Mel put it, the world's most inept liar.
"I see you've had it taken of, Covington. Good," Blaylock said perfunctorily. Then, under his breath, he whispered to her, "Why don't I believe that for a minute?"
"Because you know me very well," Janice hissed back. Shaking his head in mock resignation, Blaylock headed for the officers' table, and she toward a table of WACs including the terribly hung-over Porter and Lang. The Brits sat by themselves. Janice sat down with her comrades and caught Meg's brilliant blues boring into her, as the Englishwoman sipped tea.
Chaos. They were unloaded off the ship and immediately ushered into trucks; Janice barely had a moment to orient herself. Blaylock and the other officers, however, were stalled, waiting for radio dispatches. The women were restless, and many got out of trucks to stretch their legs, talk, smoke cigarettes, and stare at the jagged cliffs of Normandy.
With a cigarette drooping from her lips, Janice scanned the area for a sign of Meg. She headed toward the truck that carried all the British ambulance drivers. No Meg, she noted, as she nodded greetings to some of the familiar faces. With a sigh she walked away, and past an empty truck. She did not notice Meg jumping out of the back of the truck as she walked by. The large, handsome woman snagged Janice's arm from behind, rough yet friendly, and spun the smaller woman into her arms. She plucked the cigarette from Janice's lips.
Janice started to laugh but was silenced by a kiss, the soft yet imperious lips crushing into her own, her mouth yielding to a gentle warmth. "Wanted to say so long," Meg said, when she withdrew her lips from Janice's.
"Hell of way to say goodbye. Not that I'm complaining."
"Yeah, well, take care of yourself." The laconic Meg paused, at a loss. "Uh, I'm sorry. About your finger." She blushed. Last night in the supply room, as Meg continued to grow louder and louder, Janice had clapped her hand over the woman's mouth at the crucial moment, and Meg savagely bit into a finger. Luckily no stitches were required, so she had sneaked into the infirmary that morning and put disinfectant and a bandage on the wound.
Janice returned the blush. "It was worth it, don't you think?" she said.
Jack sat in Mel's hotel room, watching the tall, elegant woman carefully pack her bag.
"Tell me again," Jack said, "who is this guy?"
Mel drew a deep breath. She had grown fond of Jack in the past several months. He had been enormously kind and caring during her illness; he brought her books, flowers, newspapers—indeed, anything she wanted—while she languished in the hospital, and upon her release in the late spring, proudly told her that he found out where Janice was stationed: in London. But sometimes he was like a giant child, and one had to tell him the same information over and over again, as if it were all some fantastic story to him. Well, in a way, it is, she mused when she thought of everything that had brought her to this point: poised to plunge into a war.
"His name is Anton Frobisher, Jack. He's an old friend of my father's. He's an army colonel running a civilian intelligence unit in London." She had sent a telegram to Frobisher weeks ago, asking if she could stay with him in London, and if he could find work for her. His response came by courier from the Embassy: He had arranged a flight for her to London, lodgings of her own, and a job.
"Okay, right. And you're going to translate stuff for him?"
"Yes, for the military," she amended.
"London's a crazy place to be right now, Melinda." D-Day had transpired only a few weeks prior. "The Germans are bombing the hell out of London."
"You could get really hurt. Even killed."
"And Janice might—" he swallowed.
"Jack!" she cried, a little too sharply. Yes, she might be dead for all I know. She took a moment to regain her composure, and shut the lid of the valise. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely.
"It's okay. Look, it's bad enough I have to worry about Janice being there, but now you too," he sighed.
"I understand, Jack. But believe me, I have no intention of being killed. And I'm sure Janice doesn't either." She paused. Although I wonder sometimes…given the way she left. She shook the thought from her mind.
"Yeah, well, it was a stupid thing, her running off like that."
As if he were reading my mind. Well, he loves her too, in his way. She smiled. "I won't argue with you on that." She started to pick up her baggage, but Jack jumped up to help her. "Here, lemme…" he started to grab everything at once, then remembered something. "Hey, wait!" He dropped a suitcase, narrowly missing Mel's toes, and pulled something out of his shirt pocket. "I wanted to give you this before I left. Thought you might like to have it." He smiled shyly and handed it to Mel.
It was a photo of her and Janice in Macedonia, taken, in fact, minutes after they had escaped Ares' tomb. Jack, ever the tourist, had snapped the photo before either one of them could protest. They both looked like hell: Mel's hair was loose and tangled wildly about her head, her clothes were torn, sweaty, and dirty. Although the photo chopped them off at the waist, she remembered that she had been barefoot. Nonetheless she faced the camera, with a feral, genuine grin. Janice too was dirty, disheveled, and exhausted; her dusty fedora perched on her head. But her gaze was directed not at the camera but at Mel; it was a strange, contemplative smile, as if she were seeing Mel for the first time. It was, Mel thought, a look she had never seen on the moody young woman's face. That's a Mona Lisa smile if I ever saw one, Mel thought. Or rather, it's more like an angel's, a sculpture atop a church doorway. Full of mystery, love, and promise. The smaller woman's arm was around her, and Mel swore she could still remember the sensation of Janice's hand pressing into her back. It was at that moment in Macedonia that everything started to fall into place: why she was so compelled to travel halfway around the world to meet a stranger, why she was fascinated by the Xena Scrolls, and why she instantly felt drawn to Janice Covington. It was an ancient bond.
She let herself laugh for the first time in a year. She hugged Jack, who almost seemed to swoon at the contact, and they headed for the airport.
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