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.
The Secret Histories
By Vivian Darkbloom
PART II: AN ARCHAEOLOGIST, HIGH AND LOW
Sergeant Sally Phillips stared anxiously at the pair of khaki legs that emanated from under the car she usually drove. Grunting sounds came from the partially hidden body. "Janice, can you fix it?" she said.
"I don't know yet, Sal. Cars other than Fords…I don't know much about," Janice replied from under the vehicle. They were in a driveway outside the U.S. Embassy; Sally, with whom she became friends during basic training at Fort Oglethorpe, was a driver for the U.S. Ambassador's Office. She had called Janice in a panic, remembering that her friend knew something about cars…and she, hardly Rosie the Riveter, knew nothing about them, except how to drive one.
Sally despaired. "I know. But I can't take it back to the garage. They'll kick my ass. This is about the third time this thing has died on me, and Murtlock'll kill me…"
"It's not your fault. They should know that," Janice said, her voice muffled.
"You know how that bastard is. If anything goes wrong, he blames one of us."
Janice chuckled. "Yeah, you're right. Murtlock is a real prick."
Unfortunately, Sally felt his presence before she could warn Janice. She snapped to attention. Major Murtlock, their commanding officer, was standing right behind her. There was no telling how much of the conversation he heard, but the last statement alone was more than enough to...she sighed inwardly. She knew that Janice would get the worst of whatever shit Murtlock would ladle out; her friend was too outspoken and too indiscreet about her affair with the beautiful black-haired woman that Sally had met only once…whatever her name was…she was a looker, though, almost enough to make me switch teams…
"Stupid foreign cars…ACKPHLT!" Suddenly Janice slid from under the car, covered in oil. "God, I think I swallowed some…" Janice tried to wipe the oil off her face with an equally black hand, which made it worse.
Then she noticed Murtlock.
From her position on the ground he looked even bigger than usual. And he was a big man, probably six and a half feet. This was one of those moments when she envied Mel her height; if she were as tall as her beloved companion, she might feel a little less intimidated, even sitting down. The Major scowled at her, his heavy black brows crashing in consternation. "Don't get up, Covington," he rumbled. "I have something for you." He pulled a packet of papers out of his jacket, and tossed them down to her. They landed in her lap. "I'm very pleased to say you have new orders. You're shipping out in two days. The information"—he nodded at the papers—"is all there. I hope you have a pleasant trip," he grunted sarcastically.
"Yes, sir," Janice replied perfunctorily. Her lips shifted nervously in a frantic attempt to dissuade a smart-ass smirk off her face.
"Oh, and by the way, you've been promoted. To Lieutenant." He glared at her in disgust while she raised both eyebrows in surprise; the idea that such a woman could be an officer was simply too much for him to bear. "Congratulations, you little dyke."
He turned on his heel and left.
Sally exhaled with relief. "He sure knows how to sweet-talk a girl," she cracked, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket. She handed it to Janice, who took it gratefully and proceeded to wipe oil off her face. Sally peered at the papers in her friend's lap. "Hey, where do you think you're going?"
Janice handed them to her gingerly, clasping them between greasy thumb and forefinger. "You tell me," she replied. "I'm too sullied to touch them. At least Murtlock thinks so."
She was also too nervous to read them, and didn't give a rat's ass about Army protocol—at this point in my so-called military career, I'd announce my orders with a bullhorn to anyone who would listen, she thought.
Sally unfolded the papers and scanned them quickly. "You're going to…Bavaria? Some place called New—what—stein? Fucking Krauts and their mile-long names."
Sally watched as Janice scratched her cheek thoughtfully; her friend did not seem too surprised at the news—in fact, her green eyes narrowed knowingly. "Huh, I'll be damned." So I'm the bait. Good. At least I'll be there to keep an eye on that blonde bitch.
"Long story. Wanna get some lunch?"
"Sure, Lieutenant Covington."
"Now that was a surprise." Janice hoisted herself up from the ground.
"Yeah." Sally grinned, and poked her friend in the ribs. "Congratulations, you little dyke."
"You're amazing," Catherine said. She laid on the floor of her room, gazing up at Mel, sprawled in her divan. The Southerner's feet dangled pleasantly over the edge and she hummed "Oh Susannah" in her rich, pleasant voice. Her dark hair cascaded over one arm. She was quite drunk, having consumed five gin and tonics. Catherine had thought it would only take two; but she is a big girl…a very big, beautiful girl. "I can't believe you've never been drunk before."
"No...once I got just a little tipsy on some sherry, at a Daughters of the American Revolution benefit..." Mel suddenly found the ceiling very fascinating, as her head lolled back of its own accord.
"What the bloody hell is that?"
Mel burst into laughter. "I don't want to tell you...it's so stupid."
"Then don't." Catherine wiggled the empty bottle. "Wish we had more."
"I bet we could get some from Daphne."
"Oh dear. Daphne doesn't like me. You better ask her yourself."
"She's merely jealous of you, my darling." Catherine stood up. "Come on, let's go."
"Of course. Don't play Miss Modesty with me, Melinda. You're both incredibly beautiful and smart."
Mel giggled. "Oh, thank God someone said it. I really wanted a compliment."
"Really? I couldn't tell at all." The blonde held out a hand to Mel, who hadn't moved from the couch. "Come along."
Catherine smirked sadistically. "You must."
Reluctantly Mel took the proffered hand and hauled herself up. Trailing behind Catherine, she was amazed at her own ability to walk in such a state, and quietly marveled at herself as they navigated the stairs to a lower floor, where Daphne's room was located.
They were giggling quite loudly when they crashed against Daphne's door simultaneously. Catherine pounded upon it. "Come on, Daph, open it," she roared.
Another minute of pounding, plus the threat that Mel would sing "Swanee River," finally persuaded the reluctant Daphne open the door. Like in a Keystone cops film, the two lovers spilled through the doorway. Catherine was on the floor, with Mel atop her, laughing like children.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," said a voice above them. Daphne, of course.
"Hallo, darling," Catherine trilled. "Melinda and I seem to be having a crisis."
"Yes, you're both in my room, uninvited."
"What, I thought we had an invitation!" Mel burbled. She and Catherine began a new round of giggling as they stood up.
"Don't be a bad hostess, Daph. There's a quite simple way to get rid of us."
"I know. All I have to do is let you continue to make a ruckus here, and they'll expel you."
"No, dammit. I want a bottle. Of scotch."
"Or gin. That's my favorite," Mel interjected.
"I don't have any fucking alcohol, Cat. It's all gone." Daphne drummed her fingers on her desk.
A dead giveaway, Catherine thought, watching the spidery fingers drum their distress signal. She always does that when she's nervous…or lying. "You don't expect me to believe that, do you?"
"I had guests over yesterday. We drank everything here."
Catherine's dark eyes narrowed, and the mood of the room seemed to alter with it; it was one of those sudden shifts that occur deep in the night, deep into drunkenness. "You bloody little mooch. All the time I've paid for your drinks, bought you things...you won't even give me a damn bottle of booze?"
Daphne returned the angry glare, a fire blazing across her cheeks. But she said nothing.
Mel rolled her eyes. She didn't know why Catherine had insisted on coming down here in the first place. "Let's forget it, Catherine," she said. "I'm tired anyway. Let's just go back upstairs and go to bed."
Daphne's cold eyes did not leave Catherine's. "Go on, then. Listen to your little tart. Get out."
Mel wanted to laugh out loud. She had never been called a tart before, or anything even hinting at sexual promiscuity. Usually she was called "cold," "aloof," "frigid" (by a Freudian acolyte at Vanderbilt who had stuck his hand up her skirt within 20 minutes of their first date), or a "tease." It was an amusing change of pace.
"You should mind your manners, darling," Catherine threatened in a low voice.
Mel gripped Catherine's arm. "Leave it," she said quietly. "Let's go."
"Look, you cow, will you just shut up?" Daphne spat at Mel. "Everything was fine until you came along, you miserable twat. Do you think she really loves you?"
"Shut up," Catherine growled between gritted teeth.
Daphne was on a roll. She inserted herself between Catherine and Mel. She was not as tall as either one of them, but stood her ground menacingly, her angry, contorted face near the Southerner's, the curls of her marcelled hair shaking and threatening to unfurl into Medusan tresses…or so it appeared to Mel's gin-soaked mind. "Come on. You don't really think Catherine feels anything for you, do you, you little fool? She only wanted to bed you because you're supposedly so damned beautiful." She paused, grinning triumphantly, before delivering the coup de grace. "And because she wanted to deflower you."
Catherine opened her mouth to file the obligatory protest (true enough, but…), but she saw something that intrigued her. It was like a translucent film were covering Mel's face, darkening her features and her cerulean blue eyes. It was an anger that transformed her entire being. She had never seen her lover so angry. And it excited her. She watched, fascinated.
Daphne had noticed the transformation too, but bravery—or, more accurately, stupidity—caused her to fling one final insult in Mel's face. "You're just another notch on her belt," she drawled.
When Mel swung her arm, it was in a wide, lazy arc, as if hitting Daphne were barely worth expending energy. But this belied the force of the backhanded blow that sent the woman through the air and across the room.
Mel blinked. Good God, did I just do that? She looked down at her hand, which trembled. It had been like a splash, a blot of black ink, which had spread within her, into a terrible rage. She clenched the shaking hand.
The few seconds that they stood there seemed like hours. Catherine’s look was one of amused amazement as she turned her eyes from the body slumped in the corner to Mel’s confused face. Then she slowly made her way over to the body. She felt around for broken bones, checked Daphne's breathing and pulse, and returned to Mel. "I think she'll be fine," she remarked airily. "Let's go."
Mel blinked. "What? We can't leave her here. We should take her to the infirmary. We need to tell someone...the dean..."
The blonde laughed. "Don't be ridiculous. We'll both be sent down if that happens. And she's fine, trust me. She's a stupid girl with a thick skull. She'll live. And she'll know better next time." She placed her hands on Mel's warm cheeks and kissed her soundly. "You're magnificent. I love your strength. Your power. You think you don't have it, but you do. You really do."
Blue eyes narrowed at her in disbelief. "You're crazy," Mel retorted bluntly. Or maybe I am the one who’s crazy. What did I just do? What's wrong with me?
Catherine's lips twitched a little, biting back a dozen different retorts. "I'm crazy, but I'm all yours." And you don't know how true that is, my dear Melinda.
She was on a black horse, chasing a group of men who ran away from her on foot. There was a dull pain traveling through her legs, which were twisted and crippled; when she looked at them, she wanted to scream. A rage in her was so thick and bitter she could bite into it. With each stroke of the sword it seethed, then cooled, until the need struck again: the black urge to lash out, to kill, to obliterate. Man after man fell under her. The last one begged for his life, and a man on horseback, his dark hair pulled into a ponytail, shouted at her not to kill him. But she did it anyway. It felt…so good. Better than anything in her miserable life up to that point. Better than the money. Better than the fucking. Better than the power.
It felt so good. It feels so good. Doesn’t it?
The question burned in her mind as she woke up. And she woke Catherine as her body jerked forward, out of the blonde's loose yet possessive grasp.
"What is this?" Catherine murmured a sleepy protest.
"Nothing," Mel replied perfunctorily, Southern manners always at the ready. I could be bleeding, I could dying…yet I'd still say "Oh please, don't mind me, I'm fine." Her voice felt so hoarse that she hardly recognized it.
"Bad dream?" The tone was casual.
"Yes." She sat up, on the edge of the bed, and groped for the glass of water that she knew would be on the nightstand.
"Tell me." An edgy hint of command in the voice.
"I don't want to."
"Come on," Catherine cooed gently. She let her fingers trail along Mel's bare back. A shudder—desire, disgust, perhaps both—shimmied along her skin.
The tepid water felt good as it soothed her ragged throat. "All right," she murmured. Cautiously she settled back on the bed, as if sleep itself would reach up and claim her again, and the nightmare replay itself. But it didn’t. And so she told Catherine about the dream.
The blonde's legs had wrapped around Mel's as she told the dream, and contracted, almost painfully, then relaxed. "Very interesting," Catherine commented. "Why do you think you're having these dreams?" Well, at least those sessions with Freud were somewhat helpful—I get to steal his inane questions.
"I'm not sure…when I was little my Daddy always told me these stories, about some ancient warrior woman—we're supposed to be her descendants somehow. They were scary sometimes, but she—my ancestor—always wore the white hat. But in this dream, it's like I am her, but she is…not a good person."
"Hmmm. Funny how things get twisted around like that." This time Catherine sounded amused. She let her fingers run along Mel's smooth shoulders.
"I think…I'm just feeling bad about what happened the other day." Mel alluded to the Daphne Incident, a scant three days prior. But this morning, in the courtyard, she had encountered Daphne as she and Catherine left the quad. Instead of entering the building, as she obviously intended to do, the girl bolted like a prized racehorse, in the other direction. Mel had never seen anyone look at her with such abject fear.
And Catherine had laughed. This time, her laughter seemed brutal as it echoed through the air. And so familiar.
"Oh darling, just let it go." The fingers skittered along her skin.
There was something about the way Catherine touched her. It was stimulating, yet there always a threat—implicit in the curl of her hands, in the way she held back, in the way she pulled back when her touches grew too wild or passionate—of anger, as if that tactile contact would erupt into violence…if they were not careful.
And the funny thing is…I sometimes think I feel it too. Am I just projecting it onto her? Mel slid her arm out of Catherine's grasp easily. She stood up and threw on a deep blue robe. "I think…I'll read for a while."
Catherine laughed derisively. "Do you still remember how? I don't think you've picked up a book in at least a month."
Mel rubbed her aching head. She did not know how she could possibly read with such throbbing in her skull—another hangover contributed to her dissonant state of mind, already troubled by the dream—but she wanted to try. "I know," she replied grimly, and left the bedroom.
"I'm a lieutenant."
"Have they gone mad?"
"I think so. But guess what else."
"I have orders to go to Bavaria."
Mel stared at Janice in shock. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" she demanded.
"Sorry, sweetheart, your needs seemed more...pressing." Janice had been sprawled out in the wing chair—her favorite seat—in Mel's hotel room, her legs flung comfortably over an arm of the chair, when Mel arrived. Before she had a chance to say anything, she felt Mel's mouth on her own, and the delicious combination of kisses and caresses made her forget about the promotion, about Germany, about everything.
"Damn it all," Mel muttered. She stood up from her kneeling position in front of the chair, impatiently shoving locks of her loosened black hair behind her ears and straightening her skirt.
"Hmmm, Miss Pappas is swearing. Never a good sign," Janice teased gently. She sat up in the chair and buttoned her shirt, which had become undone in their proceedings.
"If Catherine had anything to do with this, I'll..." Weeks ago, she had officially turned down the offer. She had thought the matter closed. And every day, she hoped for Janice to be discharged, so they could get on with their lives. It all seems like some sinister plot. And if Catherine is involved, it probably is.
"Of course she had something to do with it," Janice retorted. "You were the one who said point-blank that you wouldn't go without me. She obviously wants you to be there, Mel. So she ships me there, you follow. I should be grateful I'm not being sent somewhere else."
"I don't trust her."
"Neither do I. But I can't refuse orders." As much as I’d like to.
"This is ridiculous! They should be discharging you. We should be going home." The tall Southerner paced a little, hands riding on her hips. It was rare that Janice saw her so agitated.
Janice smiled. "You look like you’re gonna bust me out of the Army, like Jimmy Cagney busting out of jail."
Mel scowled and hung on stubbornly to her bad mood.
"Mel, we will go home soon. I promise you," Janice replied soothingly. Wherever that was, she thought sarcastically. But I do know…my home is wherever you are, baby. She watched as Mel scanned the room disconcertingly, as if searching for something. She chuckled a little, then withdrew the scholar's glasses from her breast pocket and held them out to her. "Here."
How did she...? Mel smiled. "Thanks."
"You know," Janice began quietly, "it's not as if we haven't done dangerous things before." She watched as Mel slipped on the glasses. Much as Xena was transformed by the sword in her grasp, the armor on her body, the chakram at her side, so Mel was transformed with glasses. They were both a shield and a weapon: her well-honed intelligence glinted in her magnificent blue eyes, refracted by the glasses. Her scholarly demeanor, self-effacing at times yet always rigorous and keen, was firmly in place. "Battling Ares was a pretty impressive stunt," the archaeologist added.
"That was Xena, not me."
"Well, it was you and not Xena who went to Macedonia in the first place. Pretty risky for a Southern belle in high heels."
Mel conceded this with a "mmm." She rubbed her neck. "I just...want some time with you. We nearly lost each other, do you know that? You've spent over a year getting in and out of dangerous situations. You got shot. Your friend died. You...almost died." Her voice wavered. "It's all too soon to risk losing you again."
"My life has been pretty dangerous in general," Janice smiled bitterly. "That's probably not going to change…much." Will it change? Also, did she want it to change? She loved the danger of what she did, thought little of risking her own life, but now…looking at Mel, she found a very good reason to keep herself in one piece. A very good reason for telling the Army to go to hell. Which I'd very much like to do at this point, she thought.
in exasperation. "Don't patronize me, Janice Covington. I'm not totally
naive. I know what you do is sometimes risky. And I know it's worth it,
for the scrolls. That is a risk I'm happy to take. But this was
a war. It's not really over yet, and it might remain that way for longer
than we think. And that is a totally different ballgame, as you would put
it." She looked at Janice, who had raised an amused eyebrow. "I did use
that word correctly, didn't I?"
When she was a child the sight of Manhattan from the sky was exciting. She could forget her fear of flying as they sailed over the toy city. It felt as if she could reach out and touch the tip of the Empire State Building—if only because she wanted to.
Now, as the plane descended toward Idlewild, she did not look out the window at the glorious city. Indeed, she had not looked out the window in hours. She had fallen into a light sleep; a stupor, almost, where she kept the conscious world at bay. The plane was not crowded, fortunately, and she sat alone.
She opened her eyes at the stewardess's touch upon her sleeve. "Miss, we're landing in five minutes...please fasten your—oh, I see it is fastened! Good girl!" She smiled at Mel (a blonde, a damned blonde just like Catherine, thought the irritated Mel) and moved on to another passenger.
She turned her brooding gaze to the window. Her father was supposed to meet her at the airport; they had a suite at the Plaza. He thought that staying in New York for a few days might cheer her up before they headed home. He informed her that he had bought a new house, in North Carolina, where they would live. But…why? she had wailed on the phone, immediately thinking of their home in South Carolina, where she grew up, where she could still look at a chair, or a curtain, and still recall her mother being there, inhabiting that particular physical space.
She could practically hear his shrug over the transatlantic connection. I think we both need something new in our lives, don't you?
She had not told him what happened, why she suddenly decided to leave Cambridge. She used the increasing conflict between the English and the Germans as an excuse, but she knew he wasn't entirely fooled by that. What could she possibly say, how could she possibly phrase it? (Even though he knew of her nature.) Sorry Daddy, I fell terribly in love with this debauched girl who dumped me after six months...who made my body come alive, who did things to me I couldn't even imagine, yet who made me see the darkness in myself...I never hated myself so much as when I loved her.
If this is what love is about, I'll have no more of it. This is what happened when I stopped being a "good girl." No more love. No more desire.
She glared at the stewardess.
No more blondes.
Her father had a taxi waiting at the airport. She had to admit that it felt good to be really taken care of again; he had hugged her fiercely when she came through the terminal, after her passport and luggage had been checked.
The minute they entered the cab her head fell back against the seat, as if a lead weight had burrowed itself in the bun of her hair. She closed her eyes.
He squeezed her arm affectionately. "You haven't been sleeping." His tone challenged her to contradict the obvious.
"Not…very well." She scrunched her eyes as if in pain, then opened them with an effort. "Daddy, I've been having dreams…they're very odd."
"About Xena," he said flatly.
She seemed surprised. "Yes. You've had them?"
He nodded. "I used to have dreams about her…oh, all the time it seems, when I was young. Rather horrible at times. Violent. She wasn't always a great heroine, you know."
Mel frowned. Yes, he had always said that—that Xena had been "bad" but then she turned "good." But Mel had pictured Xena, her wicked past, and her ultimate redemption in terms of, say, Bette Davis in Jezebel. Not hacking people into bloody little bits. "But you don't anymore?"
He smiled wistfully, and rubbed his chin with his thumb in a thoughtful manner. "No, I don't. It's strange…I stopped having the bad ones, not long after I met your mother."
The following day at the office, Mel informed Frobisher of her decision.
He did not seem surprised. "So you're going?"
"I assume Janice is being transferred there."
She nodded again.
"That's the only reason why you're going, isn't it?"
She paused, looking guilty. A slight smile creased her face. And she nodded again.
He returned the smile wearily. Again, she felt bad—his office was busier than ever, and she hated leaving him in the lurch like this. But as busy as he was, he gave her top priority. "Then let's get cracking on the paperwork, shall we?"
The day seemed to pass quickly, once she made the decision, as if a burden had been lifted. When she arrived back at the room she found Janice already there, sitting comfortably in her favorite chair, a few envelopes scattered on her lap.
"The Army has finally seen fit to deliver my mail," she growled. "All of these are about six months old."
"What did you get?"
"A letter from Dan's mom...which was nice," she added cautiously. She had written to Blaylock's mother after his death, and now she had received a kind letter in return. I thank you for all that you did, his mother had written. But I didn’t do a goddamn thing, she thought. And it called forth that feeling again, the empty burning sensation…of failure. It was easier to get it under control now, but there was no doubt it still existed within her. She continued. "And, um, something from Harvard—they want me to teach a class in the fall. I think they figure that since they can't get any alumni donations out of me, they might as well put me to work. And this." Amused, she held up a pink envelope.
"Janice, darling, I think you better inform your army of ex-girlfriends that you are quite unavailable now."
"Look at the return address."
Mel peered at the upper left corner of the envelope. "Jack Kleinman?"
"I always wondered if he was a nancy boy," Janice said idly, as she tore open the letter.
Mel smirked, recalling Jack's puppy-like attentions to Janice. "I don't think so."
"Let's see what he says here....He apologizes for the stationery, says it belongs to his sister...says our cousins are fine..."
"Cousins?" Mel blurted in alarm. Good God, she can't be related to Jack.
"He means the scrolls. That's his 'code' for it."
"Oh." Mel was impressed. "I didn't know you two had worked out a 'code.' "
"Actually, we haven't...it just says right here in the letter, in parentheses, 'you know I mean the scrolls when I say cousins, right?' "
Mel laughed as Janice continued to scan the letter. A strange look came over the archaeologist's face. "What is it?"
"He asks...about you, how you're feeling...if you've fully recovered from your—" The deep green eyes turned up from the letter and stared at her. "—Influenza."
It hung in the air between them. Oh damn, Mel thought, surrendering to an obscenity. She couldn't think of what to say.
"He misspelled it, of course." Janice tapped the paper with a finger. "I know Jack exaggerates things sometimes, but..." Her hard, inquisitive eyes caught her lover's guilty look. "He's not making this up, is he?" she demanded quietly.
Mel closed her eyes for a moment to regain her composure. "I...no, Janice. He's not. I was...very ill."
Janice stood up, quick and lithe, thereby startling Mel. She paced—something she loved to do when angry or frustrated. "Why didn't you tell me?" Janice spat out. "You...you could've died."
Now you know how I felt, Mel thought.
"Why did you keep that from me?"
"It wasn't important at the time." Mel was surprised at her calmness. "Finding you was."
Janice continued to fume. "Goddammit! Well, you found me, and you still didn't tell me!" she shouted.
"I'm telling you now." It had been a long time, it seemed, since she had encountered Janice's temper. Probably not since they first met in Macedonia. It threw her a bit, but she hoped that by remaining calm, she could get her companion's blood pressure to decrease.
"Only because you had to. You got caught." Is that a sneer on her face?
"I...I didn't think it was important," Mel repeated helplessly. The Southerner felt as if she were in emotional quicksand.
"Bullshit! It's more than important. You withheld the truth from me."
Whatever thread of patience Mel possessed snapped. So she wants to be honest here, eh? She couldn't fight the dark impulse to lash out. Hello, darkness…hello, Xena. "Since we're discussing the truth here, Janice, there is something I must ask you." The tone was low, the accent almost gone under the burden of the deepening voice. The eyes were icy. "Would you care to tell me if you've made an acquaintance with an Englishwoman named Meg? During the war?"
The look of shock on Janice's face was simultaneously satisfying and sickening to Mel. So it's true. Janice's jaw shifted. "How did you know...about that?"
"I was mistaken for her in a pub. The gentleman who did the mistaking told me a little tale he heard, about Meg's amorous encounter on a ship with, I believe he said, 'A little American WAC.'" She let her eyes run over Janice's figure in a mocking appraisal. Even in her anger and pain she felt a flicker of desire. And love. "I believe you fit the bill."
"Christ," Janice swore softly. "How did—"
"Everyone on the ship knew. You're fooling yourself if you thought otherwise."
And I thought I had been so…discreet. Everyone hid it well, I must say. No one acted different, no one said a damn thing. But they sure as hell didn't keep it to themselves. Janice rubbed her temple. "You? You were in a pub?" she asked distractedly. The dizzying revelation of events left her disoriented. And picturing Mel in a smelly pub seemed the height of this surrealism. Yet it seems anything—everything—is possible these days. The whole fucking world has been possessed by madness, why not us as well?
Mel shook her head in disbelief; she did not know if she would laugh or cry. "I was looking for you," she retorted angrily.
A silence stretched out for a few seconds, as they took it all in. "I never thought I'd see you again," Janice whispered.
The tall Southerner slammed her hands down on the table that separated them, and left them there, spread out before her. "Did you think I'd let you go so easily?" Mel growled fiercely. "Couldn't you tell how much I loved you?"
Frankly, no, Janice thought. "I didn't know...I thought...I meant very little to you." She saw the pained look on Mel's face. And instantly felt sorry. "Why? You know why, Mel. You did since the day we met. Since the day we recognized who we truly are. You were the noble heroine and I was your sidekick, never measuring up to you. I know now...that's not the way it was for them. But I didn't know—I still don't—if that's the way it would be for us."
Mel walked away and sat down for a moment. She felt…very tired, and her voice was edged with resignation. "I suppose...I had no claim on you at the time." Tell me otherwise, Janice. Please.
Janice leaned uneasily against the table, unable to say the words that sprang instantly to her mind. Actually you did. You already had my heart. I just didn't know it, really. Before she could get past the shame, the anger, the hurt, and say the words, she heard the door slam.
Mel entered Hyde Park. The sky was already darkening and a fine rainy mist descended from the sky; it fell, cold and soft and wet, against her face. Good, she thought. This means I can cry and no one will notice. The rain came down harder, and it felt good, even strangely comforting. She sought shelter under a large tree for a few minutes, then realized that wandering around in the rain was doing little good, for the same thoughts circled around in her mind. Confounding woman! She cursed the skies. Why do I love her? It's probably some sort of karmic debt. She walked back to the hotel, her coat wet, heavy, like armor. Probably not as heavy as armor, but if Xena had to wander around the hot sticky ancient world saddled with such weight, then my respect for her has risen even higher.
As she entered the lobby she encountered a strange sight: Sergeant McKay was standing awkwardly in the lobby, nervously twisting his cap. The big ruddy Irishman looked rather incongruous within the ostentatious elegance of the hotel. His stricken look told her all she needed to know.
McKay did not hate Janice, but he did possess an irrational fear of the beautiful young woman. No doubt it stemmed from his belief that she was somewhat unnatural: the attire (even off duty, she never changed out of khakis), the smoking, the swearing...she was, he thought, everything a woman shouldn't be. Melinda, on the other hand, met with his approval. He suspected the nature of their relationship, and didn't really want to know any more but, he thought, a woman should act like a woman, and not—he concluded, watching Janice pace the hospital corridor like an expectant father, cursing under her breath—like that.
He was the first to see Mel emerge from the room down the hall. When he jumped up from his seat Janice glared at him in alarm, then stopped as she saw Mel's approach. Still damp from the rain, she pushed rain-curled hair out of her face with an absent-minded air.
They looked at her expectantly.
"He's had a stroke," she said, as calmly as she could.
Approximately two hours ago McKay had entered his superior's office, to see if the old man needed anything before he left for the day, and he found Frobisher slumped over the desk, unconscious.
"Will he...?" whispered Janice.
"They don't know. It's rather touch and go right now." Wearily she sat down.
"Bloody hell," murmured the Sergeant. "I've got to get back to HQ, then. Have to let everyone know." He sighed, already exhausted. Mel touched his sleeve gently; despite his gruffness, she knew McKay was quite devoted to and fond of his commanding officer. "If you need anything, Sergeant, let me know. I'll probably be here most of the night."
"Miss, you should go home," McKay insisted. "You're all wet—your coat, your hair—you don't want you to get the flu, you know."
At the word flu she felt Janice's hard gaze on her again. And she returned the glare. "I'll be fine, Sergeant." McKay nodded, yet squirmed as he sensed the discord between the two women. I don't want to know, he thought.
Her eyelids fluttered, and the blue eyes emerged like butterflies from a chrysalis. The clock at the end of the corridor read 6:35. Morning, she realized, and stretched her long, aching limbs. The doctor would be around soon, she remembered, and would update her on Anton's condition.
Her sleepy eyes blinked in disbelief
Janice was curled fetally in a chair across from her, sleeping. She clutched her cap as if it were a teddy bear. She stayed here with me. Last night, Janice had left with McKay, and returned a half-hour later with clothes for Mel. Wordlessly she had placed them beside Mel and walked away, down the corridor, without a word. Mel never knew that she had returned; when she drifted off to sleep around 2 (or was it 3?) she was alone.
She felt relief. When she watched Janice walk away from her last night, she wondered when she might see her lover next. Will she run off and join the Foreign Legion this time? Disappear on a dig? Go on a bender? She sat and studied the sleeping woman, as she had done on many an occasion: the brows, darker than the red-gold hair (which was pulled back in a pony tail), were pressed together, as if the archaeologist were deep in thought, even unconsciously; the cheeks were slightly flushed, the full lips parted sensually, the breathing deep and regular. I think you tamed her, Anton had said to her about Janice a few weeks ago. Was this proof of that, the fact that this woman was back at her side? I like her a little wild, Mel conceded, but I'm also glad she's here.
She was so engrossed in her study of Janice that she did not notice the nurse who had crept up to her on little cat feet and gently touched her shoulder. "The doctor's here," she told Mel.
The doctor, waiting for her at the end of the corridor, was young. Yet like so many young men of his generation, he carried around a sense of permanent fatigue, as if the rest of his life would not be long enough to recover from the war. And it probably wouldn't. "You're Colonel Frobisher's...wife?" he asked, with uncertainty.
She almost laughed. "No, just...his family."
He looked confused for a moment, then continued. "I see. He's had a rather nasty stroke, as you've been told. His chances for survival are good, since he made it through the night. As for a full recovery, I can't say. Only time will tell. I'd like to keep an eye on him for a few days, then we'll send him home. He's a bit groggy, but you can see him in a few minutes."
"Thank you," she replied quietly.
Later she entered his room. He looked smaller, paler, fragile. As did her father, when he was dying. It was more dramatic with Daddy, she thought, since her father had been a big, strapping man. It had been agony to see him waste away. And it was almost as horrible to see this. Not again, she vowed. I don't want to go through this again.
Janice could smell coffee. Coffee...I need to get Mel some coffee, her foggy brain registered the imperative. Her body jerked awake. The first thing she saw was a cup of coffee in front of her face, held by a familiar, beautiful hand.
"Good morning," Mel said softly.
"Oh Mel," groaned the archaeologist, as she stretched out the kinks in her back and legs.
"Goddammit, I was going to wake up before you and get you some...coffee" She took the proffered cup. "I fucked up again."
"You didn't." She said it gently. But she knew it would not convince Janice—or even herself, she was ashamed to admit—of that fact.
"Thanks." Janice stared into the black liquid, as if she had never seen coffee before. "How is he?"
"He's better. They think he'll pull through. How much damage has been inflicted to his body, and to his mind—well, they just don’t know yet. We have to wait and see."
An uneasy silence passed between them.
I should apologize, Janice thought. I should tell her I didn't mean to hurt her, I didn't mean for it to happen—it meant nothing, I love her, I really do.
I should apologize, Mel thought. I did lie to her. And I really don't care about what happened. She could sleep with everyone in England right now, and I wouldn't care…would I? Okay, maybe everyone is pushing it…but it doesn’t matter as long as she loves me. Right?
But what Mel thought—and what she said—were quite different. A deeply imbedded impulse to hurt, something she scarcely acknowledged, something she was afraid of, reared its head and bared its ugly truth.
"I can't go with you," Mel blurted. "You know that."
The words were like a hammer. "Uh...yeah," Janice acknowledged in a husky voice, while blinking like a punch-drunk boxer. "I know that. You should be here. For him."
"Janice, I'm sorry."
The newly promoted lieutenant stood up and stretched quickly. "You know something? I've got to go. I need to be briefed before I leave tomorrow."
Mel felt helpless. "I...will I...?" God, you can't leave like this. She reached out to touch Janice's arm, but she skittered easily out of Mel's grasp.
"I'll...see you later. Okay?" Janice managed to force the words out. Before Mel could respond, she was gone, striding quickly down the bleak corridor.
She had reached her threshold of exhaustion. She finally left the hospital in the afternoon, returned to the hotel, and collapsed. When she awoke several hours later, she was contorted on the bed, in her slip, and the wild colors of the sunset were flooding the room. She chastised herself for not closing the curtains earlier, and was debating getting dressed merely to go over and close them, or to dash over, scantily clad, and risk having someone see her. Propriety strikes again, she thought heavily.
Then she heard the key in the door.
The door swung open, and Janice swayed in. Drunk. Her rolling gait managed to carry her over to the bed, where she plopped down on the edge. Mel slid over to where she sat, and gasped. Blood dribbled from the archaeologist's nose, and had coated her lips. "Oh, God," whispered Mel.
"Fight," Janice supplied.
I thought so, otherwise that was one very rough debriefing you got, Mel thought. She stood up with the intention of going to the bathroom and procuring a washcloth to clean off the blood. Janice grasped her arm. "No," she moaned the protest. "Stay here for a minute."
Mel sat down on the bed and touched the bloodied lips with her fingers, wiping away some of the blood. "What?" she whispered urgently.
She did not. Instead, she pressed a cool hand to Janice's warm forehead. "Why, why do you always insist on hurting yourself?"
"Do you think I punched myself in the face?" Janice was angry, but did not pull away.
"No, that's not what I meant." But I can probably guess what happened to you, darling. You went into a pub, and you picked a fight with the biggest, nastiest piece of work you could find. If beating yourself up isn't sufficient enough, you find someone else to do it for you.
"Don't say anything else. Please."
"I need you." Janice's lips, saturated red, claimed Mel's. The bitter, coppery tang of blood seeped into the scholar's mouth. It did not bother her. I know you so well, your blood has mingled with mine since our beginning. How many times has your touch burned through me and quenched itself within my blood, my heart? Could anything you give to me, could anything you do, be so horrible? Nothing, except leaving me. She felt Janice's hands tangle carelessly within her hair, and she slid a hand inside a khaki shirt, her touch gliding over the smooth neck and rippling shoulders. She felt guilty, thinking that perhaps they should be talking about everything that happened. But the desire was a way of coping with the imminent loss, the easiest way of doing so. It was a way of saying goodbye. As she stripped away the clothes, so she hoped someday that she would be able to strip away all the layers of defenses, the bravado, the insecurities of this complicated woman.
And I’m not complicated? she asked herself.
She gently pulled Janice back on the bed, and covered her with her own long body. Then her mind stilled and she listened as their bodies spoke to one another.
Later in the night Janice had awakened. Another nightmare. Mel held her as her breathing slowed, and until the sweat on her brow cooled. Janice never really talked in detail about the dreams, or what happened in them...all she knew was that they were somehow connected to what happened in France, to her friend's death—Janice somehow felt guilty about it. She gently traced the small scars on Janice's strong thigh, where she had been shot. She felt a muscle twitch under her fingertips. As the scars intersected each other, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together, so did something formulate in her mind.
"You've never killed anyone before, have you?" Mel probed gently.
Janice's head, buried in her chest, shook from side to side. No.
The gun she always carried, the Smith & Wesson—she knew that Harry had given it to Janice, and, from seeing her in action with a gatling gun, she knew the woman could shoot. But she hadn't really thought it through—in a way, didn't want to know—if Janice had ever really shot anyone. Or killed anyone. She didn't want to know if the rumors about "Mad Dog" Covington were true, didn't want to know if Xena's bloody legacy tainted them both. But one afternoon in Macedonia—after Ares, just before they returned to the States—she recalled the Smith and Wesson flashing in the sun as Janice twirled it around, like Jesse James. It was a romantic image. And she had felt the first glimmer of desire for Janice at that moment: her quick hands, her wide grin, her tanned, lithe body, the golden hair that rivaled the sun in its luster….Janice had caught her fearful yet fascinated look at the gun, and laughed. Usually I just wave it around, fire off a few shots maybe, and people leave me alone, the archaeologist had assured her.
A wooden ramp lead down into the excavation pit. The crew of a dozen young men watched as a bloodied, unconscious body rolled unceremoniously down the ramp, staining the pale wood on its journey. Dust swirled around the body, as it thudded to a halt in the dirt.
Fayed, the foreman of the group, looked at the body unsympathetically. He clucked and pushed back a lock of his unruly black hair. He had known that the man who lay at his feet would not last long here: He had seen the way Cherif had eyed Harry Covington's daughter. And since Cherif was his wife's cousin, he felt an obligation to warn him that it wasn't worth it—that Covington would beat him within an inch of his life if he tried to seduce her, and would definitely kill him if he succeeded in bedding the girl. And he had been right.
He turned his attention to Covington, who loomed above them at the edge of the pit. He was short yet powerfully muscular, built like a wrestler. Shouting in Arabic, hands on hips, he informed them all that the next man who laid a hand on his daughter would die. Then he ordered them back to work.
Reluctantly, the group of men walked away from the body. Except Fayed, who awaited Harry's instructions.
"Fayed..." Harry began wearily.
"Yes, Harry?" Fayed was the only one in the crew who was bold enough to call the archaeologist by his first name.
"Get that bastard out of here. Drive him home. Get someone to help you if you need to."
"Tell your wife I'm sorry."
The Arab nodded again, a smile tugging at his lips. He couldn't wait to tell his wife I told you so.
Harry walked back to his tent. He hesitated in front of the flap, and took a deep breath. He pushed back the flap and entered.
Janice was curled on the cot, her legs tucked up against her chest, and her arms wrapped around them. Her head was pressed against her knees. She did not look at him as he came over to her. He sat down carefully on the edge of the bed. "Janie?" he whispered.
Almost a minute passed. Then she raised her head. Her lip was bleeding and, he noticed for the first time, there were violent bruises around her neck. His anger flared anew, and he recalled the scene he had found just a half-hour ago, when he came back from the market ahead of schedule: Cherif in the tent, one hand pinning Janice down by the throat, she half-naked and squirming under him, his other hand fumbling with the buttons on his trousers.
The guilt hit him. Dammit, I shouldn't have left her here. In fact, she shouldn't even be here at all. This is no place for a girl. But where would she go—willingly, for that matter? She'd follow me here every time. I know her. Gingerly he reached out and touched her hair. She did not pull away, but he felt the shudder travel down her body. "I'm sorry, Dad," she said hoarsely.
"It's not your fault," he said emphatically. "If that man knew the proper way to behave, it wouldn't have happened." He sighed. "Honey, let me take care of that lip for you. Then I'm gonna show you how to take care of yourself. It's been a long time coming."
Intrigued, the girl looked at him quizzically.
He stood up and walked over to the other cot in the tent. He threw off the thin blanket and reached under the pillow. Grinning, he pulled out a Smith & Wesson revolver. "I'm gonna show you how to use this. Between that and some boxing lessons, kid..." his smile faded, and he concluded darkly, "...no one's ever gonna hurt you again."
A jeep sailed across the runway. Catherine, watching from the hangar, half-expected the thing to rise off the ground, as if it were a plane too. As the vehicle drew nearer she recognized the red-gold hair flying in the air, the eyes hidden by sunglasses. The jeep stopped at the other end of the hangar. Covington climbed out of the vehicle, exchanging a few words and a quick hug with the driver, another WAC. Interesting. Is the little bitch capable of cheating on her lover? I couldn't be so lucky. It would make things too easy.
With her rucksack slung over a shoulder, Covington swaggered over to her. She wasn't in full uniform, Catherine noted with disapproval. A leather jacket covered the white t-shirt she wore, which showed off her taut physique quite nicely—and Catherine did approve of the flat stomach and the full, rounded breasts that were available for her viewing pleasure. They probably fucked like rabbits last night. In fact, I hope they did. For it will be the last time, I swear.
"Lieutenant," she drawled in greeting. "Glad you could make it." Upon a closer view, she saw that Covington’s nose looked a little red, a little bruised. Oh dear…did she make Melinda lose her temper? It takes a lot…but it is possible, and this one is just as annoying as Daphne ever was.
"Sorry about the delay. I woke up late."
"Of course," replied the OSS operative archly. "I won't ask what detained you. That wouldn't be terribly lady-like, would it? Not that either of us are ladies." She let a grin curl her face. Let the torture begin.
To Covington's credit, the young lieutenant did not rise to the bait. She smirked in return. "I agree, neither one of us are ladies. But that shouldn't keep us from our mission, should it? Are we ready to go?"
Catherine nodded toward the bomber that sat on the runway. "Yes. Over there. Shall we?" together they walked toward the plane. Catherine pulled a silver cigarette case out of a pocket and opened it with one smooth gesture. "Cigarette, Lieutenant?"
Janice hesitated for a nanosecond, then accepted. No point in antagonizing the woman. Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, no? And besides, I could use it. When she left in the morning Mel had still been asleep. She had not the heart to wake the slumbering scholar, nor had the time to leave a note. She only hoped that Mel understood somehow. But I ditched her again. Maybe now she'll ditch me…for good. I guess I deserve it.
"Thanks," she said to Catherine, as the blonde agent lit her cigarette.
"Who knows, Lieutenant…this may be the beginning of a beau-ti-ful friendship," the OSS agent declared in a sing-song voice.
Janice let the angrily spewed smoke speak for itself.
"Thank bloody Christ," Sergeant McKay said, as he opened the door of Frobisher's home, and saw Mel standing on the doorstep.
"Hello to you too, Sergeant." She strode into the townhouse, bringing with her a gust of crisp autumn air. Once again he felt like a troll next to her, and cleared his throat anxiously.
"Er, sorry, Miss Pappas. But the Colonel's been acting funny today. I'm just glad you're here."
"What's happening?" Mel asked, as they mounted the stairs to Frobisher's bedroom.
"He won't stay in bed, and he's been wandering around everywhere. It's like he's lookin' for something, but he won't tell me what."
He probably can't, thought Mel. Since his release from the hospital almost three weeks ago, the Colonel had been unable to speak, and barely able to move. Usually when he did speak, it was nonsense, although the notes he handed to Mel yesterday made more sense than usual. Every day since he left the hospital she would come by and spend the better part of the day with him and the nurse. Usually she read to him. Her unconscious selection of reading material—Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? —irked her, the title wailing its insistent question, immediately bringing to mind her errant lover.
Yesterday, however, he had seized the notepad she had bought for him, and a pen, and rather laboriously scrawled out the following message:
I hate Trollope, it said.
She nodded sympathetically. "How about Austen?"
He made a face.
"Balzac?" I'll go through the alphabet if I have to, she thought.
He shrugged. Then nodded. Then, as if he suddenly remembered something, started to write on the pad again. After a few minutes of watching him grimace and scowl with the effort, the pad was thrust at her.
Go to Germany.
"I can't…not now," she replied firmly, mentally begging him to change the subject.
He shook his head vigorously, like a wet dog trying to get dry. "Oh!" he cried softly, in frustration, which startled her. Again he set to work on the pad. Beads of perspiration popped against his forehead.
"Take it easy," she cautioned him gently, laying a hand on his arm, which trembled under her touch. He handed another message to her:
You don't understand. It's danger.
It hit a nerve. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. "I know it's dangerous. I know. But she's a grown woman. She can take care of herself." And she better…because when I get my hands on her, I'm going to kill her, Mel had thought angrily. And while that had been the day prior, her anger still lingered, of course. She leaves without a word, not even a "goodbye"…what am I supposed to think? It's my own fault too, I should've said something, I should've said so much…she is driving me insane...this whole situation is driving me insane. Mel was agonizing over this in her mind for what seemed like the millionth time when she and McKay entered the Colonel's bedroom.
The old man stood in the center of the room. His bathrobe hung limply around his thinning frame, as did his fleur-de-lis pajamas. His gray hair, uncombed, stood out in wild tufts here and there. He looked utterly confused.
"Uncle Anton, I never thought I'd ever be saying this to you, but…get into bed right now!" Mel chastised.
"Nonsense," the old man muttered. "I need…" he trailed off with a sigh.
McKay looked at her, concerned. She tapped her shoulder bag, hoping to distract him. "I did bring some Balzac," she said. It was an old leather-bound volume that she bought at a bookseller's on Portobello Road earlier in the day: A Harlot High and Low. Another title that prompted her mind to wallow in all sorts of scathing commentary concerning Janice Covington. None of which she said, of course.
He sighed and looked around the room.
"Are you looking for something?" she asked.
"Love in all the wrong places," he replied.
McKay rolled his eyes. "If you could tell me what you're looking for, I can help you," she offered. "Maybe if you try to write it down."
He shook his head. "My…bag," he said emphatically. "Leather!" he cried.
"Your briefcase!" she clarified.
He nodded vigorously.
"What d'ya need that for?" McKay asked impatiently.
"Just look for it, Sergeant. Please?" Mel asked.
It took him half an hour, but finally McKay found the old leather briefcase. It was in a broom closet downstairs, where McKay had shoved it weeks ago after bringing home the Colonel's clothes from the hospital. The Sergeant had apparently mistaken it for a real clothes closet.
He brought it up to Frobisher, who snatched it from him and proceeded to rummage through it with great speed. He sat on the edge of his bed, Mel beside him. Papers fell at his feet as he dug through the briefcase. Finally he was staring at a black leather binder. He thrust it at Mel.
She took it and opened it. The first word she saw, screaming out to her in blood-red letters, was CLASSIFIED.
"Anton," she protested, "I can't read this!" She shoved it at him.
He shoved it back.
She exchanged a look with McKay, who appeared just as confused—and nervous—as she.
Anton's eyes were pleading as he held out the binder to her. Reluctantly, she turned her head to the document, and started reading in her usual brisk manner. But as she progressed her mouth dropped open in quiet shock. "Oh God," she whispered.
The classified report—it was not directed to Anton but the London head of OSS, and she had no idea how he had got a hold of it—detailed Catherine Stoller's activities in Berlin during the war. She and a fellow agent had been posing as an SS official and his wife: Hans and Lotte Steiner. Three months before the end of the war, her fellow operative was dead, an apparent suicide—an encoded radio message sent by Catherine indicated that their mission had been found out. She had escaped capture, but he did not; rather than risk revealing anything to the enemy, he took his own life. Catherine had then disappeared until resurfacing in London just after Germany's surrender.
An additional document, attached to the report, was a deposition from an SS soldier, a prisoner of war. This man claimed that, indeed, the Germans had discovered—indeed, had known for quite some time—that the officer known as Hans Steiner was a British agent. They monitored his movements for some time before arresting him. After a unsuccessful attempt at extracting information from him, he had been executed by one of their agents. A double agent. Catherine Stoller.
She let the sheaf of papers fall to floor. History repeats itself. Even the history you do not know, even the history you are not aware of.
Anton's hand sought hers, and squeezed it with more strength than she imagined he had. "Go," he said simply, his voice ravaged.
mutely. Didn’t I say I had a bad feeling about this?
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