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 II: The Gift of Chance
3. London Calling
Colonel Anton Frobisher had not seen Mel since his young friend had spent a year studying at Cambridge six years ago. He had witnessed her in every stage of her life: as a sweet-natured infant, a curious toddler, a precocious child, a lanky teenager, and a shy, soft-spoken young woman. While he was eager to see this latest "version" of his oldest friend's progeny, she remained fixed in his elderly mind as a little girl, an intelligent eight year-old, who—when she didn't have her nose in a book—was chasing around Patches, a very old cat that lived on his estate in Cornwall. Wielding a long stick that she called a sword, the girl swore that the ancient calico was her arch enemy seeking revenge against her. She was…an odd child at times. One day the old cat triumphed and caught Melinda with a rather nasty scratch on the arm.
Melvin Pappas carefully dabbed peroxide on the cut. The girl's eyes brimmed with tears, and her lower lip trembled, but she stared stoically past her father into space.
"You're being very brave, Melinda," he said soothingly. "Almost done." Quickly he wrapped some gauze around her arm and tied it neatly. Out of sheer relief a tear escaped her eye, and he soaked it into his dry, callused thumb. "There we go," he said, with a kiss to her forehead. "Come, let's join Uncle Anton for tea."
They headed for porch, where Anton waited in a wicker chair. At the table before him, high tea awaited them all. He ruffled Melinda's hair as she walked by. "I daresay, Melinda, Patches—"
"Catlisto," corrected the girl solemnly.
"Er, yes—Catlisto—may have won the battle, but you won the war. She flew out of the house like a storm."
"No, Uncle Anton, I shall never be rid of Catlisto," Melinda intoned dramatically. "She is an immortal."
Anton shot a glance at his friend, who convulsed in silent laughter over his tea. Good God, Mel, what do you let this child read? "An…immortal, you say?"
"Yes, a cat is the form she now takes. Centuries ago she angered the gods, and Zeus turned her into a common house pet." With that, Melinda shoved a scone into her face, in the way only a hungry child can.
"Well," Anton mused, looking out into the yard, "now that I think about it, that old beast has been around here ever since I can remember…"
He was impressed as she stood in his doorway; Melinda continued to grow more stunning with age. She incorporated her father's looks—the height, the broad shoulders, the black hair and blue eyes—into an irresistible package. He felt a strange attraction toward her—strange, because it was based solely upon her resemblance to the dead man who was her father. Ah, dear Mel, even though I never told you, you knew how I felt. And you remained my friend anyway. Bless you. "Melinda, I'm so delighted to see you again. You look lovely," he said to the woman, at last. He rose from behind his desk and walked to her. She bent a little to receive the kiss that the shorter man placed on her cheek.
Her smile was shy, yet warm. "Hello, Uncle Anton." She paused. "Or should I call you Colonel?"
"Call me that only when we work, my dear. Do sit down." Mel sat in the armchair that faced his desk.
"Well, I've got you all set up in a flat, dear, not far from here. Fact is, we've taken over a whole block of flats, it seems. Nothing spectacular, you know, probably nothing you're used to, living in that grand house by yourself."
"I'm sure it will be fine, Uncle Anton." Is he implying I'm spoiled? The house I live in would barely be big enough to be a shed on his estate, she thought.
"Good. I'll have McKay take your bags over in a bit. Now, I do recall you know quite a number of languages, aside from that ancient nonsense you know."
She chuckled. "Yes, I do."
"Well?" His demand was a bit imperious, as his career soldierdom seeped through.
"Oh! Let's see: Spanish, Italian, French, German, Russian, Polish, and Romanian."
He clasped his hands in delight. "Excellent! We have quite a large number of Polish military in London right now, you know. About 30,000 men. So we need all the help we can get in translating services. I've quite a number of documents that need work. But that can wait until tomorrow. Tonight, I think you should have dinner at my home. We'll catch up a bit."
He stood up and she followed. "Let me walk you out." He stepped outside the office and instructed Sergeant McKay, his assistant, to bring around a car to take Mel and her luggage to her new flat on Mecklenburgh Street.
As they descended the steps to the ground floor, his curiosity overtook him. "Melinda, why is it you are here, in London?" he asked gently. The urgent letter she sent gave no reason for her sudden interest in being so much closer to the war.
"Ah, well, I did want to contribute to the war effort," she stammered, sliding her glasses up along her nose with a shaky finger. He smiled, charmed at her nervousness.
"But you could have done that just as well in your own country," he retorted.
"Yes, you're right," she conceded. A pause. "I came to find a friend—who's stationed here."
I knew it, he thought smugly. The old girl is in love. "An American, I assume?" She nodded. "What branch is he in?"
A faint blush colored her cheeks. "Er, my friend is in the Women's Army Corps, Uncle Anton."
"A woman?" Frobisher mused.
Mel raised an eyebrow, gently amused. "Yes, unless they changed the admission policy or something."
Oh my. He couldn't keep a grin off his face, which made her blush deepen. So, Mel, that's why I caught you poring over Kraft-Ebing one day, when your daughter was a teenager. And I thought it was in reference to me. He noted with empathy the anguish and worry now on her face; he smiled inwardly: And I may be in a position to help. But for the moment he resolved to try and cheer her up: "So she's one of those…what do you call them, wackeys, eh what?" He waggled his thick, gray eyebrows.
He was rewarded with a giggle. "A WAC, you mean."
"And you don't know where her assignment is?"
"No," Mel answered, her expression turning morose once again. "An Army friend said she had been stationed here, in London. But I don't know where, exactly."
He opened the door and they were outside, against the darkened sky. Mel's ebony hair blended into the night, yet her eyes glimmered like beacons, even in the foggy, blacked-out haze of London.
Frobisher patted her arm. "Melinda, if she's here I'll find her. Let me see what I can do. What's your friend's name?"
She ducked her head, preventing him from seeing those bright eyes cloud over in pain. And she told him Janice's name.
Frobisher hung up the phone with a sigh. Almost two weeks had passed since Mel's arrival in London. As he could've predicted, she threw herself into the work at hand, and was very good at it. He regretted that her duties called upon her to act as an escort to military functions for some of the Polish officers, many of whom, inevitably, grew infatuated with her. He noticed the weariness with which she threw off the advances; it was obvious to him that she was discouraged in her search, and losing faith.
Now, finally, after untying knots of bureaucracy, he had news for her. He wouldn't have imagined that finding one American WAC would be so time-consuming; but Janice Covington was, after all, only one of many involved in the war. And the news wasn't good. True, it could be worse, but it still wasn't good. He walked down the corridor to where she shared an office with two other translators. Only one of the translators, Cutts, was in the office. "Hello, sir," the young man greeted Frobisher; he was exempt from military service due to a heart problem.
"Hello, Cutts. Where's Melinda?"
"Think she went to the loo, sir."
Frobisher chuckled at his bluntness. He lingered at Mel's immaculate desk, and noticed the curling, black and white photo taped on the wall above her desk: It was Melinda, looking rather disheveled, with a small, fair-haired woman, wearing a fedora, who gazed at her rather intently. Rather adoringly. And Melinda? How often had he seen the girl grin like that, with such unfettered joy, with such abandon of her very serious, almost mask-like, demeanor?
Cutts noticed Frobisher's interest in the photo. "It's an odd picture, isn't it, sir?" he said. "Doesn't do Miss Pappas justice, probably not her friend either." The older man smiled mysteriously. On the contrary, it does them more justice than you can imagine.
"I happen to like that photo." He heard Mel's soft voice from the doorway. He turned to her, and immediately his face gave everything away. "You found her?" Mel asked; her tone shifted, and crackled with nerves, almost like a static-filled broadcast.
Frobisher nodded with resignation. "She's in France, Melinda."
After he told her, she immediately went back to the WC, leaving the men staring after her in stunned silence. Crammed into the small room, she pulled off her glasses with a trembling hand and cried above the toilet. This is maddening. Every time I think I'm getting closer…I find out she's somewhere else. Her glasses, cradled loosely in her curled hand, slipped out of her grasp and clattered to the floor. At least they didn't end up in the toilet. That would be just my luck about now. She could not stop the visceral, angry curse that welled up in her mind. God damn you, Janice.
4. Why She Hates France
It was Paris, but it sure as hell wasn't springtime. A third-rate hotel served as their base of operations. It did not endear the French to Janice Covington, nor she to them—especially when she growled for whiskey in their dour cafes, and only got red table wine that made Thunderbird taste like Veuve Cliquot.
She walked out of the hotel, and saw him leaning against the ambulance they were taking. Blaylock threw the ambulance keys at her. They sang through the air with a whiz, hit Janice in the right breast, and fell to the ground with a ping. She scowled. He blushed. "Sorry. We've got to get going," he said.
"If they think I'm such an idiot, why are they letting me drive him there?" Janice grunted, scooping the keys from the ground. "They" referred to General Bradley's underlings, the American liaisons to the Force Francaise d'Interior (also commonly known as the FFI, or the Resistance), who called upon Captain Blaylock for a driver to escort Max Duval, an FFI leader, to Reims. What Duval would be up to in Reims, Blaylock was not told; but when the Captain offered Janice—the best driver of ambulance, jeep, and truck in Paris—for the mission, he was rebuffed. It took a good deal of conniving on Blaylock's part, but the authorities finally agreed to let Janice drive Duval—if she were escorted by Blaylock.
"They don't think you're an idiot, Janice. They're just touchy about this one. Duval is a pretty important guy, and he was almost killed in the street fighting that went on last month, before the Liberation. Besides, they promoted you, didn't they?" The thought of a WAC—who was also a private—undertaking this crucial task was more than their Division Leader could bear, so they promoted Janice. But not by much.
"Yes, I do so love the alliterative joy of Corporal Covington rolling off my tongue."
Blaylock grinned. "Well, if you wanted to be an officer, you should've gone into officers' training."
"I didn't want to be an officer," she snapped.
"Then why the hell are you complaining?" he retorted, confused.
They stopped walking toward the ambulance truck they were taking for the journey. After three months of blood, mud, and death, not to mention the growing realization that her feelings for Melinda Pappas had neither decreased nor deceased, Janice allowed herself a surly outburst, aimed at one of her closest friends: "Because I can."
Luckily, Blaylock was accustomed to such displays, having known Janice for many years, and merely shrugged it off. "Well, you need someone to come along anyway, since you barely know French," he chastised her in his gentle way.
Duval, still nursing a broken arm from his fight of several weeks ago, sat morosely in the ambulance truck's open hatch, waiting for them. Aside from her rudimentary Greek, Turkish, and Arabic, Janice knew very few modern languages; French, especially, was perplexing to her for some odd reason and she watched impatiently yet enviously as Blaylock conversed effortlessly with their charge. However, Duval's meaning was unmistakable to her when his moist dark eyes settled on her and he crooned, "Ah, un blonde ange." Both men grinned at her with sheer infatuation.
"Oh, Christ." Janice walked away with a growl and a roll of the eyes, and climbed into the driver's seat. "I hate the French."
Blaylock gestured for Duval to enter the truck. Closing the hatch, he sauntered over to the passenger side as the engine kicked over.
As they drove out of the city, all was quiet. Judging from the heavy breathing in the back, Duval had fallen asleep. Blaylock studied Janice's sullen profile and racked his brain for conversation, for something to divert his cranky friend. He had noticed as of late she seemed moodier and moodier, more inclined to pick fights with everyone from their Division Leader (concerning the general lack of respect given to the WACs) to a whore on a street corner (who said she would charge Janice more than a regular customer, not only because she was a woman but an American as well). Well, that was my fault, I never should have dared Janice to ask her how much she would charge. Ah. He remembered something he wanted to tell Janice: "Guess who I ran into on Boulevard Saint Germain yesterday."
Janice blinked in recognition at the name; Papageno was a Greek friend, an important contact in the world of archaeological digs. He could provide men, supplies, and the most crucial gossip with a snap of the fingers. "You're kiddin' me. What's he doing in Paris? I thought he was sitting out the war in England."
"He was. But once he heard Paris was liberated, he came here. I think he wants to be closer to home. Anyway, he sends his regards, and said he would try to contact you soon, etc. etc."
"Still yapping his fool head off, huh?"
"Yeah. It’s a wonder he’s survived this war for so long. Never has a nickname been so appropriate."
"Nickname?" Janice’s brows furrowed as she drove.
Dan stared at her. "You mean you didn’t know that was a nickname?"
"No. Hell, no."
"Guess you never saw The Magic Flute."
"I ain’t big on musicals."
"It’s an opera, Janice."
"Same goddamn difference. An opera is just a musical that gives you a bigger headache."
"You’re amazing," Dan muttered, shaking his head. "He also asked if you received the scroll he sent you from England."
She remembered with a jolt. The scroll. God, I haven't even thought about it…it all seems like another lifetime ago. And I suppose it is. It also served as a reminder of Mel. But then, I don't need much to remind me of her. "Yeah, I did. I'll have to tell him."
"Are you working on a translation?" Blaylock asked, his professional curiosity piqued.
"Yeah," Janice replied absently.
"Are you using Melvin Pappas's daughter again?"
The truck swerved violently, almost ending up in a ditch, and provoking a cry of "Mon Dieu!" from their startled passenger. Blaylock looked at her in alarm.
"Using?" Janice bristled.
"For the translation." Blaylock supplied impatiently. His eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Uh, yeah…I am…I…she has the scroll now. I left it in her hands." As well as my heart, my sanity, and everything else.
Blaylock's lips quirked as he suppressed a grin. A sudden instinct had overtaken him. "You know," he drawled sadistically, "I've never met Miss Pappas. But I know Clement Young, her former advisor at Vanderbilt."
"Really." Janice said flatly. The last thing she wanted was to talk about was Mel. It's bad enough she consumes my mind…if I dare talk about her, I think I will go crazy.
"Yeah. Clem says she’s quite brilliant. Practically a genius."
"It's true," Janice quietly affirmed.
"And she's quite a knockout, he says."
Corporal Covington was silent.
"I believe his expression was, 'She's got legs for miles.' " What he omitted was Young's further commentary on the subject: "It's a shame, though: I think she's queerer than a two- dollar bill."
Corporal Covington clenched her jaw.
"No opinion on that, Covington?" he teased gently.
And since when did Corporal Covington not have an opinion on a woman? A bittersweet realization hit Blaylock: The woman he was in love with was finally in love with someone. And it still wasn't him.
In an effort to find out more information about her missing friend, Sergeant McKay, Frobisher's assistant, directed Mel to the St. George, a pub that WACs were known to frequent. She selected a Friday evening to go there. It wasn't terribly crowded, and while she was thankful of that, it decreased her chances of finding Janice. She scanned the room and spotted a group of khaki-clad American women at a table. None of them resembled the fiery-haired archaeologist. With a sigh she walked up to the bar. The barkeep smiled and nodded at her, as if she came in all the time; however, before she could order a drink a decidedly unfamiliar hand cupped her ass. What is it with men and my behind? she thought, spinning around in anger. A British soldier, a sergeant, was grinning at her.
"Meg, love! Didn't know you was back in town!" he cried happily in a Cockney accent. His eyes roamed her figure. "Nice outfit! Thought you was doin' your bit overseas, drivin' an' all that. But I'm real glad you're back."
"Sir," she replied icily, "I'm afraid you're mistaken. My name is not Meg."
He doubled up in laughter upon hearing her accent. "Bloody hell! That's great…I reckon if Vivian Leigh can play Scarlett O'Hara, so can you!"
"Sir—sergeant," she said, gritting her teeth, "I am not who you think I am." She rifled through her purse, pulling out her work papers and passport, thrusting the documents in his face. As his laughter subsided, he studied the papers. His face paled. "Jesus H. Christ, miss, I'm sorry!" he apologized. "I really thought you was Meg—you're her spittin' image."
"That's quite all right," she replied in haughty relief.
"I should've known a class act like you was no Meg." Oh wonderful, he's a talker. "'Specially since I heard she's—" He held out a hand, palm down, wiggling it. "—gone a little queer. Heard she had a bit of funny business on a ship with some American lass. An' I can tell you certainly aren't one of those types of women."
Because he managed to snag Mel's interest, she let his last comment pass. She blinked. "On a ship?" she asked. Could it be—?
"Yeah, transport to France. 'Bout three months ago." It fit in with the date of Janice's departure for Normandy, she realized; Frobisher had supplied her with the time line. "My mate was a watch on board. Said he recognized Meg from the old days, when she and I went out together. Well, he gets on duty one mornin', see, and hears these noises in a supply room. And there was no mistakin' what them noises were about. He figures it's one of the officers having it off with one of the ladies, and they deserve to have one last time together before hitting the ground, eh? So he doesn't bother 'em. Well, 'bout an hour later he sees Meg come out with some little American WAC!" the sergeant finished the story on a note of incredulous laughter.
Mel slumped onto a barstool. Was that Janice? Who else would be brave—or stupid—enough to do something like that? Was she sleeping with another woman already? And why someone who looks like me? It makes no sense…running away from me to become involved with someone who looks like me? I am never going to figure this out. She scowled, and recalled the woman named Velasko, and her parting words to Mel: "If you ever find Janice Covington, tell her I'm gonna kill her." Take a number, Miss Velasko, Mel thought darkly.
A church in Reims, they were told, was the drop-off point for Duval. As they reached the town's outskirts, Janice's eyes scanned the rubble and husks of buildings that began to surround them with increasing alarm. "How can we tell what goddamn building is the church?" Janice complained.
"Janice, if anyone could put goddamn and church in the same sentence, it would be you," Blaylock retorted. But he also looked discouraged. Finally he yelled back to Duval, who scurried up to the front. "Ou est la eglise?" he asked the Frenchman, who franatically scanned the streets.
"Ici! Ici!" Duval cried, pointing at a large building which, indeed, still resembled a church, despite its crumbling facade; a stone lineup of angels adorned the top of its entrance, all part of an elaborate-heaven and-hell scene, with its details chipped away. Jesus was missing the arm which pointed upward; demons had faces blown off, rendering them even scarier. The ambulance pulled up too the door. Before Blaylock could stop him, Duval had opened the hatch and was out of the vehicle. A thin man, dressed in black, peered from the open doorway of the church. He then came out and hugged Duval.
"Aw, that's sweet," Janice said, only semi-sarcastically. Blaylock, however, could never get used to the intense fraternal affection of Frenchmen, and he glanced about awkwardly. After a few minutes of speaking with his comrade and some others who emerged from the church, Duval bounded over to them and smothered the Captain with an embrace. Janice laughed at Blaylock's consternation. "Merci beaucoup, mon ami," Duval whispered into the Captain's ear. Then he released Blaylock and turned to Janice. "Ah, Madamoiselle Covington!" he breathed ecstatically. It was Blaylock's turn to laugh.
"Dr. Covington," Janice corrected automatically. Duval blinked in confusion.
"Corporal Covington," Blaylock threw in. Duval looked even more confused. Then he shrugged with a Frenchman's insouciance. "Au revoir, mon blonde ange," he whispered melodramatically and planted a kiss on Janice's lips. She pulled back, sputtering with disgust, like a nine-year-old.
Duval's dark-clad comrade came out of the church with a small rucksack. He handed it wordlessly, with a smile, to Blaylock. The Captain opened it and returned the smile grateful at the sight of apples, cheese, bread, and a wineskin. With a final wave the two men departed into the church.
She waited until they had disappeared behind the door, and she wiped her lips with the back of her hand. "Did I mention I hate the French?" she grumbled as they climbed back into the ambulance truck.
The sound of the wheels blowing out was so like an explosion that Janice thought they’d hit a mine. The truck swerved violently, spinning around almost 360 degrees, until the end of the vehicle slammed into a tree. Her jaw hit the steering wheel and she bit part of her lip at the impact. But the vehicle was still, and they had not blown up, although the radiator was smoking from under the hood.
She looked at Blaylock, who was rubbing his knee. "You all right?" she asked.
"Yeah, just banged my knee against the dash. You?"
"Fine. The steering wheel packs a hell of a punch, though." She rubbed her jaw. "What happened?"
"Don't know. Either you ran over something sharp in the road, or we set off a mine that, luckily, had a delayed explosion."
She jumped out of the truck.
"Careful!" he cried, in warning.
They were on a slight incline, with the passenger side tilted upward. Before Janice could suggest that Blaylock come out on her side, he kicked open his door and jumped out. "Shit!" he cried as she heard him fall with a thud. She ran over to him. He sat on the ground, now rubbing his ankle instead of his knee. "What?" she asked.
"Great. Now I think I sprained my ankle," he moaned.
She held a hand down to him. He grabbed it and hauled himself up, impressed as always with her strength. He leaned on her lightly, relishing the physical contact between them, despite the throbbing pain in his ankle and the grim circumstances. How in the hell do we get out of this?
Janice scanned the road. Her breath caught at the sight: Huge shards of broken glass were trailed along the road. "Son of a bitch! I ran over glass and I didn't see it!" She disengaged herself from Blaylock, who leaned against the truck for support.
Blaylock peered into the road. "It's clear glass, Janice. It's hard to see it," he said gently. He knew immediately she would beat herself up about it.
"Fuck!" she screamed, and furiously started to kick at the truck and its flat tires. Obviously she would beat up the faultless vehicle as well. I just have to keep her from kicking me around too, he thought. "Janice," he began patiently, "It was an accident. By the time you would have seen it, it would've been too late anyway. Besides, if you're gonna blame anyone, blame me. I was distracting you by trashing the Giants anyway." He watched as she stopped kicking, and her ragged breathing relaxed into a stable rhythm.
"Sorry," she panted.
"It's okay. Let's just, uh, gather our wits here." Blaylock sank against the metal, wishing for nothing more than a nap. Janice was frowning, hands still on hips. The silence spun itself out into minutes.
"Must've run over our wits too," Janice mumbled.
He wondered if she were even thinking at all, as he watched her expression erode into blankness. Anger washed over him. Do I have to do everything? "You seemed a bit put out when I mentioned Pappas' daughter." So just what the hell am I really mad about here?
She glared at him. "Whaddya mean?"
"I mean you looked upset. What's goin' on? Is she lousy to work with or something?"
"No," she retorted firmly, folding her arms over her chest.
"Is she a bad translator?"
"No." She stared at the ground, then him. "Is there a reason we’re discussing Mel Pappas when we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere?"
Blaylock ignored her. "Is she trying to steal the scrolls from you, then? Does she wear a perfume you don't like?" He watched—with malicious glee—as her lips flattened and her jaw tightened, and he hated himself for it. "Whatsamatter, Janice? Has she proven resistant to your charms? Did you say something and she slapped your face, just like Betty Murphy did that one time?" Betty was an uptight coed they knew back at the university, and briefly they’d had a bet riding on who could seduce the pretty brunette first. After his subtle wooing failed, Janice had tried a more direct approach with Betty; he hadn’t quite been within earshot, but he was certain the word fuck was involved. And thus the coed had responded in kind, with a hard slap that staggered Janice. Even then, you just laughed it off. You didn’t care. Always more fish in the sea, you said. But you’re not laughing now, honey.
Blaylock realized his teasing had gone too far when a fist slammed against the truck, a scant two inches from his head.
"Shut up," she growled in her lowest voice.
Desperation for the truth nudged out fear. "Just tell me."
"Fine," she spat. But her eyes were moist. And pained. "I'm in love with her. I have never felt this way about anyone in my life. Is that what you want to hear?"
"No," he replied softly.
Janice spun around and stalked away. He started to wonder if she would walk back to Paris and leave him here; he could only hope that, by the time she reached the city, she would regain her temper and send someone for him. But just as abruptly as she started, she stopped, and faced him again. "How many times do I have to hurt you, huh? I'm sick of it. I'm sick of feeling bad about it."
Blaylock was now grateful they were alone, as her shouts carried on the wind. He said nothing. "Okay, okay, forget it. Now's not the time to—"
"You started it!" she roared, shaking a finger in his direction. "You don’t always get what you want in this life, buddy. You haven’t. And neither have I." She took measured, angry steps, a sullen gavotte along the rough, rutted road, kicking up dust with her scuffed boots. Then she stopped, and looked at him again. Her shoulders slumped guiltily. "Look, I, uh..."
He couldn't bear her fumbled apology. "Oh, Janice," he murmured. But she did not hear him. He drew a deep breath, and, thankfully, the commanding officer in him emerged. "Forget about it. Let's just concentrate on getting out of here." They were both silent for a moment. Janice paced, hands crammed into her back pockets, glaring at the road. Then it hit Blaylock. "Hey! There was a farm about two miles back—"
"A farm?" she echoed.
"Yeah, you didn't see it. It was on my side of the road. It looked pretty abandoned, but there was a truck there! I remember seeing it. If we could get that truck...I mean, if there are people there maybe they would drive us to Paris, or we could exchange the food for the vehicle..."
"Or if there isn't anyone there, I could hotwire it," Janice grinned.
He stared at her. She was a doctor—an intelligent and admired professional in her field (in spite of her father's reputation), a Harvard graduate, and a beautiful woman. But she was also as much of a roughneck and hooligan as her father, the infamous Harry Covington. It was the duality of Janice that intrigued him, and compelled him to love her. "Where in hell did you learn to hotwire a car?" She opened her mouth to reply, and he cut her off: "Never mind, I don't want to know. Okay, let's walk back to that farm." Tentatively he put all his weight on both legs, and winced when the swollen ankle screamed its protest.
"Wait a minute, hotshot. You're not going anywhere. You can hardly walk." With a gentle shove she pushed him against the truck again.
"The truck's not going to come to us, Janice."
"Look, why don't you let me go get it and I'll bring it back. You stay here."
His face darkened. "No deal, Covington. I'm not letting you go alone."
"For Christ's sake, Dan, you're injured. You have to admit you'd slow me down if you came along. Hell, I could run there if I went by myself."
"You don't know—"
"—any French, yes, I know, but I know how to pantomime real well, and I think between that and my pidgin French I'll convey the urgency of our need."
He sighed. He knew he would regret this, but he nodded his consent. "All right," he grunted. He handed her his .45."Take this, and the food for the swap. I've a got a rifle in the back, so I'll be okay." She tucked the gun into her waistband, under the cover of her jacket, as if she had been doing such a thing for years. And she probably has, he thought. Another thing I don't want to know about.
She grinned. "I'll be back," she said, and took off, jogging lightly down the road. Wistfully, he watched her form grow smaller until it disappeared from his sight.
Indeed, the small farmhouse had been abandoned; there was not even livestock, although there was blood to indicate most of it had been slaughtered, rather sloppily, for food. At least I hope it's animal blood, and not human, Janice thought as she carefully prowled around the buildings, handgun drawn. Her search yielded no one, living or dead.
The truck was, to her astonished pleasure, a very old Ford. She checked under the hood for any suspicious wires, which might indicate a bomb, and found none. The body was terribly rusty, and, given its age, it was harder for her to start it than she had hoped. But eventually the engine turned over, and she hopped into the driver's seat triumphantly.
The old truck lurched down the road. She was reluctant to drive it fast, in case it would die. As she approached the wrecked ambulance she saw no sign of Blaylock. She beeped the horn, which resounded shrilly in her ears. Not good. Where is he?
She put the brake on, and, with the truck running, came out of the vehicle. "Dan!" she shouted. She noticed that the hatch of the ambulance was open in the back. Which it hadn't been before. Briskly she walked toward the truck, thoughts racing. He's okay...maybe he just fell asleep...no need to panic, no need...
She turned the corner, looking into the ambulance and the eyes of a German soldier. He was crouched down and shoving medical supplies from a metal chest into a large rucksack. Blaylock, she noticed, was face down behind him. In a dark pool.
They could only stare at each other, stunned, the American woman and the German soldier. He looked young, perhaps a little younger than me, Janice thought. In reality, the first thing she had noticed about him were his sky-blue eyes, so like Mel’s. This moment of empathy gave him just enough time. Just enough time for his expression to range from shock to recognition to rage, just enough time to draw his pistol and shoot her.
At first she couldn't believe she was shot, but the pinprick of pain in her thigh unfurled like a fire and within moments a sticky warmth started to drip down her leg. Another shot, and she fell back, this second bullet also lodged in her leg. She gasped as she hit the ground, and waited for him to shoot again. But he went back to stuffing his rucksack. Obviously stealing the bandages, ointments, and instruments were far more important, and he had no time to be merciful and kill her quickly. He would just let her linger, let her die slowly, like her friend.
My friend. There was a bloody smear on the edge of the door, a fresh crimson curve like a bird’s wing, drying slowly like paint on a canvas. She groped for the .45. So it comes down to this. A scream filled her lungs. The soldier's head snapped around. She pumped three bullets into his chest. His Luger, drawn after the first shot, clattered onto the metal floor and slid toward her, like an offering. She stared at the gun, panting. I've never had to shoot anyone before.
She stood up—ignoring the runaway blood that coursed down her leg and the faint feeling that accompanied it—and crawled into the back of the truck, to where Blaylock lay. She turned him over. His torso was slick with blood. He had been shot twice in the chest, but he was still alive. Barely. "Janice?" he whispered. His eyes were wide, unfocused, and staring past her, into the unknown, into a future that was far away from her.
She struggled not to cry. "Jesus, Dan," she said huskily, "I leave you alone, and look at all the trouble you get in. I'm the one who's supposed to get into trouble here."
"Yeah, sorry." He gave her a weak smile. "The son of a bitch. He caught me off guard."
"Shhh, Dan, be quiet. I've got to fix that wound." She started to move away but his bloody hand gripped hers.
"Too late," he gasped. "Let it go."
She knew it too. But fought it nonetheless. "No!" she screamed. She scrambled toward the rucksack, pulling out bandages. The floor was slippery with his blood, and she practically slid across the truck. Jesus...Jesus Christ. I'm going to faint. I can't. I can’t. "I have to get you into the other truck," she breathed heavily.
"Shit, Janice, you're wounded too," he said, spotting the growing crimson stain on her trousers, as she crawled back, cradling bandages.
She pressed a bundle of gauze to his chest. There was something hopeless about that soft ruffled fabric, pressed into the sticky blackness of the wound. She stared at him, trembling. He returned the gaze, knowing that he would die.
"Just—just hold on to that. I'm going to try and move you."
"Wait," he said feebly.
"No, I can't, Dan, I've got to—" She dropped her head, and the tears came. The familiar sensation of drowning, of failure, strangled her. Losing the scrolls—never mind that she had found them again—then losing Mel, now this.
"Please...don't, Janice. It'll be okay." He touched her arm with a shaky hand. "Just stay with me for a moment."
She cradled his head and placed it on her lap, wrapping an arm around him.
"I'm sorry, Dan. So sorry."
He coughed. Blood speckled his lips. "Not your fault the damn Kraut shot me."
"No, it's not that." I'm sorry about hurting you. I laughed when you found me in bed with a woman, remember? I'll never forget the agony of your face. Why did you—and why do you continue to—love me? "I'm sorry about us."
"I know." He smiled weakly. "Fat lot of good that does both of us, huh?" She tried to smile back at him, but his words hit home. She dropped her gaze. Then he said, "Janice?"
"Doesn't she love you?"
"I think—I think she does." I hope so.
"You go back. Get back to her and fix it," he said hoarsely. "Make sure you get home."
She felt his breathing slip away to nothing, disappearing with daylight. She lost track of how long she sat there with his body, drifting in and out of consciousness, until a pair of headlights blinded her and she heard the screeching of a vehicle and voices, speaking English, that grew louder and louder as they approached her.
Epilogue: Sometimes a Blitz is Just a Blitz
He thought he'd seen it and heard it all from the old man. Sergeant McKay had served as Frobisher's assistant for almost a year now, and in that time he had to memorize as many Gilbert & Sullivan operettas as he could manage (sometimes Frobisher liked some impromptu duets from him and Scotti, the unemployed, one-armed, opera singer doing cryptography), as well as the old man's tea rituals ("McKay! I told you, Earl Grey in the morning, and Darjeeling in the afternoon! Darjeeling is an afternoon tea.").
Then, one afternoon, the old man was roaring at him once again: "McKay! Come quickly!" With a roll of the eyes the chubby Irishman lumbered into the Colonel's office. Frobisher stood excitedly at his window, his walking stick pointing at something outside, the tip of the stick eagerly tapping the glass pane. "McKay! See that woman down there?" The Sergeant looked out the window; in front of the courtyard, near the stone fence that surrounded the building, stood a blonde woman dressed in khaki, lighting a cigarette. "Fetch her! Bring her to me at once!"
"Sir!" McKay cried, outraged. This is too much. I won't be procuring women for him as well, he thought.
"Damn you, McKay! I said now! Go get her! That's an order!"
The color drained from McKay's ruddy face. He was not the type to disobey an order, and in that respect he might have made a fine Nazi. Nonetheless he reluctantly jogged to the steps, and the momentum of his bulk carried him down the staircase rather swiftly. He half-hoped the young woman had escaped, for her own good. God knows what the old bastard would do to her. But the woman was still there, smoking. She wore the uniform of a WAC, and was much prettier than he initially thought. She glared at him with suspicion as he approached.
"Excuse me, miss." McKay couldn't get used to it—the idea of women in the military. Hence he usually disregarded calling them by rank. "I've been asked to escort you to Colonel Frobisher's office."
The young woman's brow creased in puzzlement. "Who?"
McKay sighed in exasperation. "Colonel Frobisher! Commanding Officer of the Intelligence Corps!" He pointed in the general direction of Frobisher's office.
"I don't know, miss. Just come with me, please."
Taking one last drag on a cigarette, the woman shrugged her acquiescence and dropped her smoke on the ground, crushing it with a black heel. McKay took off at a quick clip, then realized the woman was not at his side. He stopped and turned around. She was walking slowly, with a pronounced limp. "I'm sorry, miss." McKay said. "Didn't mean to take off like that." The woman merely smiled and nodded at his apology.
Frobisher was waiting impatiently until his door opened and McKay appeared breathless. "Here she is, sir," he said warily, and showed the woman in.
As she stood before him, Frobisher took her in: slender yet muscular; he had noticed the limp as she came in. Her green eyes burned in her tanned face, a mass of reddish blonde hair was pinned up haphazardly in a sloppy bun. A cap hung limply from a back pocket. He admired the defiance in her eyes. Oooooh, Melinda, you picked a lively one. Nonetheless, he had to show the impertinent girl, who merely stared at him, who was in command. "Good God, young woman," he growled, "don't they teach you to salute your superiors?"
Instantly she straightened; standing at attention, she knocked off a crisp salute. "Sir!" she said firmly.
"Name and rank?"
"Covington, Janice. Corporal." She paused. "Sir."
"The 13th, sir."
"Ah. You were in Paris recently, no?"
He nodded at her leg. "Wounded, then?"
"I was shot by a German soldier, who was trying to steal medical supplies from an ambulance. He killed my commanding officer."
"And the soldier got away?"
Janice's eyes flickered with something; he was not sure what. "No sir. I killed him."
He gave her a sympathetic smile. "At ease, Corporal." She relaxed gratefully. "You're a very brave woman."
She said nothing. He let it go. Not easy to kill a man. The first time's the hardest.
"I suppose you're wondering why I brought you here."
She nodded. "Yes, sir."
"We have a mutual friend." He paused. "I believe you know a lovely young woman named Melinda Pappas?" Covington's cocky facade dropped like a stone. Not so spunky now, are we? Amazing, I've never seen someone go pale quite so quickly.
"Yes, sir," she whispered.
"Melinda's father was a very good friend of mine. And I've known her since she was a child." Frobisher peered at Janice critically. "Melinda's been looking for you, you know. She's been in London for nigh on six months now."
Janice could barely mask the shock on her face. "I wasn't aware, sir," she replied hoarsely.
He leaned back in his chair, smirking. "Well, you are now, aren't you? And what shall you do about it?"
The fire seethed, throwing reds and golds along the body that hovered above her own. The shadows on the wall existed only to spite the colors. She ignored them, for the blue core of the fire, its orange glow, and those unmistakably green eyes saturated her sight.
Legs tightened around her own, and hands held her face. "Remember… I asked you once. If an Amazon Queen beats a Warrior Princess."
"Apparently you do." The response was whispered.
"Yes, I do, don't I? Well then, hail to the Queen, baby."
Mel blinked herself awake, into the chilled blackness of London and the air raid siren.
As usual, she had fallen asleep in her clothes. She spent so much time between work and hiding out in air raid shelters that she saw little point in undressing most of the time, except to bathe; and, in the face of the cold, wet English weather that she was unused to, she had abandoned her usual skirts and dresses in favor of warmer, more practical clothing. She wore a pair of baggy gray flannel trousers that Frobisher had given her, saying that they used to belong to a male "friend," and a white blouse, one of her own.
Time to get into the shelter again. She groped for her glasses in the near dark, and could not find them. Sighing, she stretched and got up. The colonel had also provided her with a huge black overcoat, and now she donned it and stepped outside. The coat felt heavy and protective, like armor, yet it was also soft and warm.
Outside the apartment building were a few fellows from the building. Several of them worked in HQ as she did; in fact, Cutts, her office mate, lived in the building too. The young man was now smoking a cigarette and watching the light flashes from the east. He saw her approach. "Melinda," he said with a nod.
"Hello, Frank. What's goin' on?"
"Lots of coastal activity. Might not reach us." They continued to watch the lights in silence. Then a noise pierced the twilight: a shrill whistle grew in intensity and an explosion shook the ground. From a mere half-mile away they saw it: bright orange light and smoke. Mel grasped his arm, and he instinctively touched her hand. "But then again," Cutts whispered, "I may be wrong."
Son of a bitch.
It was early morning, almost eight o'clock. Janice walked as quickly as she could down the street. The air raid of the night before prevented her from finding Mel. She was, of course, pressed into service, and had driven an ambulance to one of the outer neighborhoods, which had been quite devastated. Thus her night had passed, driving, digging for bodies, administering first aid, and sleeping in the back of the truck when she could, the sharp bitter tang of medicine and blood curling in her nostrils. And it was hard to sleep, but not due to the smells, or her exhaustion: It was her realization that Mel was here…in this goddamned, godforsaken war zone of a city.
In the morning, when she was off-duty and supposedly sleeping, she headed for the address that Frobisher had given her. It was not far away, but her bad leg ached a little as she walked. She wished the damn leg would heal faster, but the doctor did tell her it would take a while, and that both the pain and the limp should decrease dramatically in due time.
As she grew closer to her destination, she saw that the raid had hit this area as well. Part of this street she traversed had been decimated and lay in charred, darkened ruins. Remnants of smoke curled lazily, enveloping the street. She froze, her heart in her mouth. What if…? Her leg throbbed and she leaned against a lamp-post, breathing heavily. She hung her head, a hand over her eyes, unable to look at the ruins. If it is true, I can't bear it. I can't lose her. If she's dead, it's because of me—she followed me here. The responsibility punched her in the gut. She wanted to turn and run. Wouldn't it be better not to know at all, than to find out that Mel was dead? To imagine her living happily, and not see a body, another dead, broken body? Too much death. I've had too much. I do not want to see hers. I couldn't bear it. Almost imperceptibly, her body shifted, as if to head back the way she came.
Don't walk away.
The voice inside her was new, yet old in its origins. It felt so thoroughly a part of her that she never believed it was her ancestor, but she realized, standing on that street corner, that it was. She'd heard it in Macedonia, after she'd pulled Mel out of the cave, when Jack Kleinman impulsively took a photo of her and Mel. She had looked at Mel and, as the camera clicked, so did everything else. I've found you, the voice had said. Janice had shrugged it off, chalking it up to too much booze the night before and her always-raging hormones, but now, finally, she could not deny the way in which she was drawn to Melinda. No matter how much she drank. No matter how many barroom brawls she indulged in. No matter how far she would run.
A fate, a destiny, a bond. Call it what you will. Your courage has carried you this far. It will get you through.
All you have to do is look up. Now the voice sounded…amused. But before she could comply, she felt a gentle touch on her arm. And when she did look up, it was into the blue eyes that she would love for life. And beyond that.
Mel was thinner, perhaps even a little gaunt, and looked tired. The large, dramatic dark overcoat she wore, and her black hair, which, uncharacteristically, hung loose and tumbled past her shoulders, exacerbated all this. Her long, elegant hand lingered on Janice's arm as they stared at each other.
"I've found you." Janice thought it best to start with Gabrielle's words.
Mel's jaw shifted, as a sea of words and emotion, stymied over the course of a year, threatened to spill out into incomprehension. "You found me? I've been looking for you," she sputtered.
"I know. I'm sorry. Are you hurt?" Tentatively she pulled on Mel's sleeve, and surveyed the streets; people were talking on street corners, pulling out wreckage, helping their neighbors, their homes destroyed, damaged, ruined. Lives were disrupted, but life went on. And no one seemed to pay attention to two lovestruck American women gazing intently into each other's eyes. Perhaps even the most unsympathetic passerby would admit it was better than having a bomb dropped on one's home.
"No, I'm fine. Just tired. Our block wasn't hit, luckily. Just some smoke damage—I was on my way to the office—" Mel felt a spurt of babbling coming on, as she continued to stare at Janice in utter disbelief. When she first saw a fair-haired, uniformed woman standing dejected, leaning against a lamp post, she thought, too little sleep and no glasses makes for pleasant hallucinations. But as she drew closer, she knew it was Janice. It was really her; she was really here. Don't be a ninny and start crying now, Melinda Pappas. Nonetheless the unbidden tears sprang into her eyes. "God," she whispered, "there's so much I've wanted to say to you."
"I know, Mel. I'm sorry about what happened."
"You mean—you regret it?" The tall woman's voice had dropped to an agonized whisper.
"Jesus, no, I didn't mean…that. I don't regret that. I meant, I shouldn't have left the way I did." Quick, say it before you lose your nerve. "Look, I have only two things to say to you at the moment," she gulped. Come on, I can do this, after everything I've been through this past year…surely this is not hard. Or is it, quite possibly, the hardest thing I've ever done? "I love you. I think I always have, from the minute I saw you." She paused again, for effect. "And I'll never leave you again." Another pause. "Actually, I guess that was three."
Mel seemed stunned, as if the Nazis had dropped a bomb on her head.
"You're not gonna faint again, are you?" Janice asked anxiously, recalling that fateful visit a year and a half ago, when Mel fainted at the sight of her. That should have told me something, then. Would a Southerner faint at just a little heat? No, it would take a lot of heat to lay this woman low.
Mel shook her head vigorously. "No, I, uh…I…" The translator was clearly exasperated and befuddled. "I don't know whether I should slap you or kiss you."
"I think I would prefer the latter, although I don't blame you if you do the former." Janice grinned. "Or you could compromise and do both."
Mel ducked her head and laughed nervously. "You’d like that, wouldn’t you?" She rarely joked in such a suggestive manner, and her cheeks felt hot.
Having Janice take her hand—a rough thumb slid over her knuckles—did little to decrease the burning blush. "You get to do whatever you want with me, Melinda."
Janice was rewarded with a dazzling smile from her lover, who enfolded her in an embrace, into the blackness of her coat. She closed her eyes with relief and inhaled Mel's scent. Surrounded by the dark warmth of the coat, her mind's eye was radiant with color.
"Stop right there!" commanded the doctor.
Janice froze, hands clutching her belt. Her game plan had been to bolt from the examining room, and perhaps put on the belt in the bathroom; she wanted out of there, and away from the hospital, that badly.
"You’re done with me, Corporal, but I want you to see Dr. Elias downstairs. He’s waiting for you."
"What—why?" Irritated, and defeated, she slid the belt through the pant loops and buckled it. "You just said I was in top-notch shape, that you’d never seen a woman as fit as me."
"Aside from the smoking," he amended.
"Aside from the smoking," she echoed sarcastically. "So what’s this about another damn doctor?"
He tried not to chuckle at her blatant phobia. "Corporal, physically, you’re perfection. It’s the mental part that we need to check up on."
She sneered at him. "You guys think I’m a nutcase or something?"
God, he sighed to himself, why me? He marshaled together his last strands of patience. "No," he said carefully, "no one has said that. This is standard procedure, for a psychiatrist or a similarly trained professional to evaluate personnel who have been wounded in combat situations. You were in a combat situation," he reminded her.
Janice rolled her eyes.
"Go see Dr. Elias now. That’s an order." He terminated any further discussion by turning his back and fiddling with a chart. She left.
Janice suspected that Dr. Elias’s glossy black beard covered a baby face of alarming youth. The army doctor sat at his desk, quietly perusing a document in front of him—presumably, her medical file. Janice sat across from him, fidgeting as if it were the first day of grade school. She wondered how young he really was. Younger than me? And if that were the case, she thought, it would be all the more reason not to trust him.
Fucking quacks anyway, digging around in someone’s head—my mind is not an excavation pit!
He looked up at her with a disarming smile and terribly blue, terribly beautiful eyes. It was a fatal flaw, this partiality to baby blues—damn you, Mel Pappas! —and it thawed her resistance to some extent.
"You’ve seen a lot of action, Corporal," he began. His voice was low and gentle.
"I know guys who have seen a hell of a lot more," she retorted. Her fingers performed rapid drum rolls along the arm of the old leather chair. The muted sound resembled distant rain and thunder. "Can I smoke?" she demanded politely.
She fished the cigarettes out of her shirt pocket, contained in the sky-blue Gauloises pack. I can’t escape that color. She blinked and ignited the lighter, spewing smoke like a surly dragon.
"It’s true that many soldiers have seen far more extensive and traumatic combat, but that does not detract from your experience," Elias continued.
"Are you saying that’s a good thing?"
"Not necessarily." He folded his hands. "I suppose what I’m saying is, don’t sell yourself short. Accept what has happened."
He raised an eyebrow. "Have you? Your file reports that while you were recovering from your wounds in Normandy, you were routinely disturbed by dreams."
"Everyone there had bad dreams." She shrugged.
"True. But not everybody woke up the entire ward with their screaming."
She dropped her gaze. Damn it! Why did they have to put that in there? "There are things that I—I can’t get out of my head. I wonder if I ever will."
He leaned forward, cupping his hands in front of her, as if offering something. "Do you want to tell me about what you see? These thoughts, do they occur strictly when you sleep? Are there any waking dreams or visions?"
"Most of the time, I guess it’s, uh, when I’m asleep. It’s not—like I’m hallucinating or anything during the day. But sometimes I do see something that reminds me of—" She stopped. Recently the innocuous sight of a waiter in a restaurant triggered a memory, as she watched him walk quickly across the room with a cup of tea on a tray, the dark liquid spilling over into the saucer. A corpse in the ambulance…its mouth brimming with blood. As she had driven that day, she saw it in the rear-view mirror, the redness sloshing over into tiny rivulets as the vehicle swayed over a pitted, rough road. "My mind drifts—it’s kind of like when you’re not focused, and you trip over something that’s right in front of you, y’know?"
He nodded, but remained quiet, hoping she would continue.
"Like a blown-off limb," she said softly.
Elias let the silence fill the room for a few moments. "When did you see that?"
"Lots of times. It’s just that, it usually wasn’t someone I knew." She looked at him; he was very still, waiting for her to continue. "There was this hotel ballroom. Not in the place where we were billeted, but another hotel. The Americans had pretty much taken it over as kind of a club, y’know? Mostly ambulance corps, drivers, some GIs. We would always go there for drinks, to shoot the breeze. I knew a lot of them, I worked with them. Hell, some of them I knew from basic training." She stared at her hands, at the barely perceptible tremor that twitched her fingers. "And some Sunday morning…there were a bunch of girls there, they’d been there all night, trying to sleep it off—I had been there too, but I’d managed to stumble back to my room somehow. And…Sunday morning…there were church bells. And then there was an explosion from the club. Some idiot was trying to play the piano." Probably Lang, Janice thought. Lang had been a music teacher back home, knew how to play about half a dozen instruments. And Porter was just dumb enough to encourage her to do it, and not think about booby traps. "There was a bomb inside it." She looked at Elias. "You can guess the rest."
"No, I can’t." He urged her on. "Tell me."
"My CO and I were one of the first ones on the scene. I’d never seen anything like—like that before. It would be better if bombs totally liquidate a body, just reducing you to blood and water. But they don’t. They leave behind chunks of flesh. Bits of brains, eyeballs. Limbs. Fingers." She closed her eyes, but the litany marched on, silently.
Running through the debris of the hotel that day, she’d tripped and fell over a severed arm. She had then recognized Porter’s engagement ring on a finger, and vomited, adding her own filth to the mess.
Janice did not know how long she had been sitting there in Elias’s office, with her eyes closed; time appeared suspended until she opened them, feeling dazed, as if she had lived through that Sunday all over again. She marveled at the stillness of the doctor; like Mel, he seemed possessed of a great patience, an assured, inner grace. You love in others what you want most for yourself, what you fail to see in yourself. She felt a sudden ache and longing at the thought of Mel, then felt ridiculous about it—they’d only been apart for a couple of hours. She had left Mel at Frobisher’s office this morning, then headed for the hospital. They were supposed to meet for lunch when she was done.
"I’ll never get this stuff out of my head, will I?" Janice was surprised at how composed, how clear and strong, her voice was. Maybe the head-shrinking was helping.
"I can’t imagine that you will," Elias replied. "The trick is not to let them dominate you—you control them, always remember that. And you can counter and fight those images with better ones."
He smiled again. "If I suggest them, they’ll sound trite."
"Oh, I see. Flowers in springtime! A sunrise! A sunset! A pint of Guinness!"
Elias laughed. "Something like that. Perhaps the face of a loved one."
"What, so I can picture her getting blown up?" Janice blurted.
He raised an eyebrow as she gave herself away.
That was swift, she berated herself, and sank into the chair. "Shit, now I suppose now you really have a reason to kick me out of the army."
The doctor smirked. "Corporal, if General Eisenhower himself will not dismiss female homosexuals from the ranks, who am I to recommend it? You have someone in your life, whom you care about."
He noted that her expression softened at that. "Yeah," she admitted grudgingly. Her ears were turning red.
"If that doesn’t help you, I’m not sure what will." He closed the file on his desk.
"Love cures everything?" she asked sarcastically.
"No, but it helps a lot." He studied her thoughtfully. "I think you’re fine, and fit for duty. My report will reflect that. But there is one thing you must promise me."
"What?" Janice glared at him suspiciously.
"If the dreams persist, please come back and talk with me. All right?"
She frowned, but nodded.
That someone in Janice’s life whom she cared about was sitting on a park bench in front of the hospital, her shoulders hunched against the cold, her tall figure bundled in a big black coat and her face half-burrowed within its deep collar.
Janice laughed incredulously at the sight of her. "What the hell are you doing out here? I thought you were gonna wait for me at your office."
Reluctantly, Mel wriggled her face from the wool cocoon of the coat. "I don’t know, I just felt like meeting you here."
"You felt like sitting outside freezing your ass off, like a fool?"
"I can’t help that, because of my background, I frequently misjudge the harshness of winter weather," the Southerner replied in a tone almost as frigid as the air.
You were worried about me. The thought struck Janice suddenly. "I guess we better get you out of the cold, then," she replied gently.
Mel jumped up, as if Janice’s voice had triggered an ejector button for the park bench. "Good!"
The archaeologist surreptitiously scanned their surroundings. The park surrounding the hospital was more or less deserted, no doubt because of the cold. A lovely, lonely pathway swept off to the side, leading behind the building; if she recalled correctly, the garden back there had some pleasantly secluded spots. "C’mon, I know how we can warm you up real quick." She slid her bare hand into Mel’s gloved one. They fell into a brisk walk.
"Where are we going?" asked Mel.
"We’re just gonna look at the garden in the back. Way, way in the back."
"That’s not going to get me warm—" Mel broke off abruptly as comprehension dawned on her. "Oh."
Janice chuckled, then squeezed her hand. "You’re cute when you’re dense."
"I must be cute a lot then," Mel responded morosely.
"Nope. You’re beautiful a lot, that’s what you really are. Smart and beautiful."
"Oh." Mel repeated. Her stomach fluttered nervously; she could not imagine "screwing around in broad friggin’ daylight" (as Janice termed it) with anyone else; she never would have entertained the idea before. She felt so giddy that she almost couldn’t think straight. But the dour brick hospital loomed over them, and she recalled the reason they were there, the reason she had sat in the cold for almost an hour. "Janice, you didn’t tell me—"
"Hmm?" Janice was walking faster now, slightly ahead of her.
"W-what did the doctor say? Are you okay?"
"Huh? Oh yeah, the leg. There’s gangrene. It’s got to go."
Like a horse in front of fire, Mel careened to a sudden halt, and Janice, tethered to her hand, stumbled backward, laughing. "That’s not funny," the translator growled at her small companion.
"Yes, it is. Mel, you’ve seen the wound yourself, you know it looks fine. And that’s what the doc said."
"And everything else is okay?"
Janice sighed in exasperation. "Yes."
Mel retained her somber expression. "Really?" she asked quietly.
Language sat congealed and useless in the back of Janice’s throat. "Yeah," she managed. "Really." And it was, at least here, in the reality of this world. The dreams were another matter, another realm entirely. Janice used to pity people who never dreamed in color; now she envied them. But the lurid tones of those dreams and visions were nothing to her right now, nothing compared to the vividness of this monochrome winter—the dull bare trees, their crone-like branches knitted against the gray sky, the muddy brown earth, the translucent tufts of her breath, mingling with Mel’s. And those eyes, those brilliant blues. She gulped away the nervousness. "It would take a lot to stop me. You know I’m made of better stuff than that, right?"
Mel grinned. "You most certainly are."
"I come from very good stock, right? Royalty, no less—unless you found out something in that scroll, and you’re not telling me about it." Janice scowled in mock suspicion.
"No, darling." Mel affected a slight bow. "Without a doubt, you are Queen—Queen of the Brats."
"Well, then!" Janice Covington took a deep breath, looked up at the sky, and roared at the world, "Hail to the Queen, baby!"
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