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 V (Conclusion): The Slingshot Effect
A love story is not about those who lose their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon, means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing—not the wisdom of sleep or the habit of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.
—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
…I suspect that true love runs
Looking for us
like a lion in our dreams
—Sam Phillips, "Strawberry Road"
At first she thought it was starting to snow again, but then she realized that the wind was merely shaking the trees. Shimmering waves of flakes descended from the assaulted branches. She pulled her collar closer to her neck and continued to trudge along the narrow path, each step corrupting pristine whiteness. About two inches had fallen since they had left the castle; it would make it all the more difficult for anyone at to track them. They had been walking for hours. Her feet ached, but were still dry—the army don't do much right, she thought, but they do make good boots.
She could barely hear Stoller behind her as they marched in their blonde mini-procession. She wondered when the double agent would kill her.
Death? I did not fear death. Only separation from you, Xena.
Janice rubbed her temple. Now's not the time for fuzzy ancient voices to start clamoring for my attention.
Obviously, Stoller would not dispense with her until they got out of the country. That little bit of the plot was clear to her. But it had not yet been revealed to Janice how they were to achieve that. There was something about marching through this huge, silent forest that unnerved her. She knew the stories now—they all did—about the mass slaughter of Jews in Russia, in Poland, and elsewhere: Hundreds of people led into forests, much like this one, forced to dig their own graves, then executed. And the camps: Neuschwanstein itself wasn't far from one. She had seen what went on there, but hers, fortunately, was not a first-hand account. Several months ago, not long after Germany's surrender, Frobisher's office had obtained a film made by some British soldiers, revealing what they had found at one of the camps. It was only twenty minutes long. But barely five had passed when Janice had run out of the screening room and threw up in a waste basket, the image of skeletal corpses indelible upon her mind.
To her surprise, Mel—the gentle woman who cried at operas and sad movies, who would wince if Janice threw a pillow across a room in anger—had sat through the whole thing. Later, as they walked home, she'd made some offhand comment about how she couldn't believe human beings could do such things to one another. I can, Mel had replied quietly.
The statement had so surprised Janice that she had no pithy, elegant retort handy. How can you—a sheltered, civilized Southern belle—even envision such carnage, such sheer hatred? Not thinking of the obvious response.
Until now. Without realizing it, she had stopped walking through the snow.
A rage in your veins. Like her. Like Xena. You know it, don't you? You haven't let the beast loose—and hopefully you never will. If I die, Mel, will the beast be loosened? Her foggy, labored tufts of breath dispersed through the bitter, cold air. No, you wouldn't be a murderer or anything…would you? No. But that desire to destroy...where would you turn it, if you lost control? Yourself?
A well-placed kick from Stoller—sharp, neat, right at the back of her left knee—caused her leg to crumple like paper and she fell forward. "Jesus," she hissed in pain, "where's the fucking parade? Can't I stop for one minute?"
A sigh unfurled from the blonde agent's mouth. "You know something, Covington? I think even when I kill you, I will still hear your sarcastic little voice in my head for the rest of my life."
"Good, you frigging bitch."
A short laugh from the blonde behind her. "If you're trying to get me to kill you now, you'll have to try harder…."
Janice stood up on slightly shaky legs, jumbling like a young colt, then turned around to see Catherine surveying the forest.
"….We're not out of the woods yet, if you'll pardon the joke." She smirked at Janice, who proceeded to walk again. As the American lieutenant worked off the painful ache from the backs of her knees, she half turned to Stoller and said, "Tell me something…"
"I'd love to."
"That bomb in Berlin."
"Bah! I work with idiots, Covington. The bomb was not intended for you. But nonetheless the Werwolf thought some ridiculous 'statement' was needed." A pause. "But I thought, at the time, well, if it does go off, why not take you along with it? Although I would have been quite sad to see Lowry depart this earth, he is such a nice boy…."
"So all that crap about competing with a dead lover was just that: Crap."
"No, not at all. But at the same time I was not about to pass up an opportunity to kill you."
"Practical. Was this your intention from the start? To kill me?"
"No," the former OSS agent replied with uncharacteristic softness. "I just wanted her back."
Wistfulness was not something Janice ever thought she would hear in this woman's voice. "But now…" she tread gently. "Now you really want to kill me."
There was no response. Just the crunching of snow.
Just do it! She wanted to scream. Get it over with! Was it now pure revenge, for the betrayal Mel had enacted against her? Surely she no longer entertained any ideas of being reunited with her former lover. And of course, there was another element, buried and burdensome: Who they were, and what they felt, thousands of years ago. Another strata of their history, she thought. You can never dig too deep, as Harry said.
As if reading her mind, Stoller brought up the subject. "Does she know?"
"Does she know who I am?"
Janice contemplated a lie, then decided against it; she was a lousy liar, and she had a feeling Stoller would be hurt more by the truth anyway. "No," she responded quietly. "She doesn't."
"I suppose…I'm not surprised. It was hard to believe…that she is a descendent of Xena, ja? She doesn't want to believe it herself." They puffed along in almost amiable silence. "When we were school together…and she won that swimming contest…it was then I knew, for certain, it was her. I could see it in her eyes, when she pulled herself out of the water." I brushed the silver coin I won against your lips and you took it in your mouth, your lapis lazuli eyes entrancing me. "She had the look of a conqueror. She always fought that. It's what makes her interesting."
"She's more than that," Janice retorted softly, then hoped Stoller hadn't heard the comment.
But the double agent had. "Is she? It's some essential part of her. Doesn't it attract you?"
It did—that went without saying. Months ago, at the hotel in London...a playful shoving match emerged out of a heated debate (something about the artistic merit of surrealism) and turned the corner into erotic entanglement on the bed. She had pinned Mel down, her left hand barely able to keep both large wrists against the soft sheets. Her right one slid under the skirt, its rough wool draping around her arm as her hand maneuvered toward its quarry and contrasted with the silk—both stockings and skin—underneath.
Under her nimble fingers the thigh tensed as she brushed against the warmed metal of the garter belt, and the gaze from the blue eyes turned violet. And Janice felt strangely shocked, and scared, and aroused at the dark, commanding look.
You still want to fight me, don't you? You want to resist.
Mel had said nothing. Her free leg snaked around Janice's waist, pressing her closer. Tightly.
Maybe. Maybe not.
She shook herself from the reverie, daring to cast an angry look at the blonde agent, because I don't want to get kicked again, thank you very much, bitch.
Something bordering on a giggle issued from Stoller. "You're thinking about her that way, aren't you?"
Jesus Christ, what is this? Girl talk with this nutcase? "I'm not talking about this with you," retorted the archaeologist firmly.
"I never thought you would be prudish, Covington. Thought you might want to take a moment to compare notes, if you will."
Janice gnawed her lip—watch the mouth, kid—and flexed her gloved hands to prevent the automatic reflex to pound Stoller into the ground.
Rosenberg did not much like Major Brinton, the CO of the castle keep. The Major was the very essence of a bureaucrat, one of those officers who understood piles of papers better than men. Which did not exactly inspire trust in those he led. But Rosenberg had to give the bastard credit: When he and Mel had reported Janice missing, he did not waste any time. All work halted and a full search of Neuschwanstein and its grounds were undertaken. When the missing lieutenant was not found, he sent out a patrol.
Paul had volunteered, of course, to go on patrol, but Brinton ordered him to stay with Mel. So he had to give the Major even more credit, which annoyed him further: The old man recognized the fact that the translator was more than a little distressed at her friend's abrupt disappearance. "Keep an eye on her. She's the sensitive type," he mumbled.
The sensitive type had barely said a word since she found a bloody tooth lying on the floor of the room they shared with the French officials. For over an hour now, Rosenberg watched her as she sat, motionless, hand cradling the tooth. She was even paler than before—quite impossible, but true, he thought—and her striking blue eyes had a glassy, sick look.
He knew he had to do...something. After all, it was his duty, right? Brinton had put him in charge of her. Nervously rubbing his thighs, he stood up and ambled over to her. Her eyes had detected no movement. He sat down. "Look here, Melinda, why don't you eat something? Or have something to drink? Or take a nap—"
Before he could rattle off further useless bromides, the haunted eyes flicked to him. "Leave me alone," she rasped in a low voice.
He was momentarily stunned at the rudeness.
"I can't," he said firmly. And he realized, he really couldn't. Not just because of his orders. But...well, dammit, he was worried about her. This kernel of truth disturbed him. Why should I care?
"You don't understand," she continued, in that same quiet voice, the tone of which almost eradicated her accent.
"Understand what? She's your friend. You want her back, unharmed." All right, she wants to talk about it. Fine. "Tell me what you told Brinton," he said. "You think Janice was kidnapped?"
"By a double agent. Who knows me and has a...I guess you could say a score to settle," she replied, softly, absently rubbing her cheek.
His dark brows shot up in surprise. "You know a double agent?"
She nodded wearily, ignoring the implied insult. "We met at Cambridge. Many years ago. She was working for the OSS during the war—then switched sides."
"She?" echoed Rosenberg.
"Yes." She saw the unasked question in his eyes. "She was my former lover. Is that what you want to know?" she snapped, with uncharacteristic bluntness.
"Uh, sorry," he blurted. "I guess it's none of my business." He found himself blushing—could feel it burning his face—and he looked down. Luckily she was too absorbed in her own misery to notice. So this...thing with Janice. Not exactly the first time. And here I thought in five years from now she'd be married with kids, and Janice Covington would be wooing some cigarette girl in a bar.
"I can't just sit here," she whispered. She sat straighter, ready to stand up, but he blocked her with an arm.
"There's nothing you can do, Melinda. Brinton's got practically everybody out there lookin' for her."
"You don't understand," she repeated again. "I...I..." Her breathing grew labored, and eventually gave way to sobbing. He watched in embarrassed horror as she removed her glasses and covered her face with a hand to shield, to cradle, the raw grief that poured out.
It had been years since he'd seen a woman cry like this. Not since his cousin Sasha had been beaten for the crime of wandering into the wrong neighborhood back in Brooklyn. He had been the smartest, brightest student at the yeshiva. After the attack, that fine mind was gone. And Sasha's mother knew it, even before he had recovered from his injuries. Her tears were hot and endless, and her wailing uncontained. The intensity of the emotion scared him. Yet it also made him...envious.
As if she were suddenly devoid of strength, Mel had collapsed against him, her damp face against his shirt, her cries beating against his chest. Who in the world would cry over me like this? he wondered, as he enfolded her in both a careful embrace and a tentative affection he wouldn't dare admit to anyone.
The trees surrendered a view: a open clearing leading down into a valley.
"We're almost there," Catherine said cheerfully.
"Almost where?" Janice ventured to ask.
Wordlessly the double agent pulled a pair of binoculars from her rucksack and handed them to her. "Take a look, over there," she gestured with a free hand.
Janice's gaze followed the straight arm as she put the binoculars to her eyes. As she focused them, she saw nothing but a plain field, but as she gently nudged the sights a inch to her right, a gray aluminum hangar came into view, sitting near a long expanse of empty field. "That's a runway," she muttered.
"Very good, fraulein doktor. I don't believe the Allieds know about this one."
"You've got to be kidding me."
"No. Only a few top Nazi officials, stationed at Neuschwanstein and Munich, knew about this. Once we started losing, they were planning to escape by flying out of here."
"And that's what you're going to do now. Fly out of here."
"To be precise, Lieutenant, you are going to fly me out of here."
Shit. That goddamn fucking OSS file. "Me? Fly? What makes you think I can operate a plane without getting us killed?"
It was a worthy bluff, but a failed one. This time when Stoller hit her, it was, mercifully, without the butt of the gun, or a fist: It was an open-palmed slap that caused the empty space in her mouth to ache in memory. "Don't lie to me, you're not very good at it," she said coldly. "You know I've seen your military file. You know that I know you took flying lessons in 1940. And you were good enough that your former commanding officer recommended you for a program of women flyers."
But the idea had been shot down. Who would trust a "broad" to fly a plane?
"You're just lucky I like to fly," Janice said quietly, rubbing her cheek.
"Shut up before I shoot out your teeth." It was an absurd threat, but one that Janice was certain that she would follow through on. She already knocked one out, why not the rest? A gust of wind cut through the trees, and drove them on to their destination.
Her hand was splayed over the words of the scroll. Just barely touching it. Janice was always apprehensive when she did this—it's too goddamn old, she would say. Touch it as little as possible. The paper was about the color of Janice's khakis.
Sometimes the rich black ink faded to sepia. Yet the words still burned. She could feel the heat of them, she would swear it.
You embrace me now. Why? Once upon a time, Xena, you said you kept your friends close, but your enemies even closer. Is that why you touch me now? Is that why you want me here, with you?
The parchment was rough, curled, and dry. A husk of a life.
Clearly something had happened to them. To Xena and Gabrielle. What?
She hadn't gotten far enough to find out what.
She didn't want to go any further. Not now. Not without Janice. I need you here, to tell me what I'm reading doesn't matter. Not to us. That we are not reliving their lives. That we're somehow different. You were always afraid of that, Janice. Yet…you put those doubts aside and embraced it anyway. Because you knew it was a part of you.
So who's afraid of history now?
Rosenberg's lanky form was sprawled over a hard, uncomfortable bench, asleep. His snoring—sounding like a clogged drain—masked the stealth of her quiet footsteps as she left the room.
The stable yard at Neuschwanstein had not seen a living animal in years. Except for one lone stallion, found by a German soldier stationed at the castle a year before the Allieds took over. And the horse had remained, through the exchanges of blood and power, miraculously unharmed and existing, perhaps, purely for the purpose of one day staring down Melinda Pappas with huge glassy eyes, liquid and suspended in his long face.
Mel was game. She returned the animal's frank stare, brows scrunched intently over her blue eyes. Xena had a horse, right? It had been a palomino, near as she could figure out, based on Gabrielle's description of the animal. At one point the bard had written: "The love of the Warrior Princess for her horse knows no bounds." Which had rather alarmed Mel at first; later she had been vaguely comforted by Janice's assertion that "she may have been a barbarian, but screwing a horse just sounds like too much trouble for someone as practical as Xena."
Or maybe it was a challenge? She won the staredown with the horse; he snorted disdainfully—a sore loser—and turned his gaze elsewhere.
It had been years since she was on a horse. And could I even saddle the beast properly? The stablehands always did that. I'm sure I could figure it out. It was all the encouragement she needed as she entered the darkened barn.
The horse was compliant in her clumsy attempts to saddle him. She had found a saddle, its old, dark, cracked leather contrasting with his coat, which was a thick, creamy gray, like night fog.
Gently she put the bit in his mouth, then traced the bulging muscle along his jaw. We're friends now, aren't we? Help me, then. Help me find her, okay?
With an inherent grace she'd completely forgotten, Mel swung into the saddle, and urged the stallion into an easy trot through the open doors.
Chilling sweat tingled along Janice's back. Opening the hangar door had been almost impossible to do by herself, especially with a gun pointed at her, but she managed, and now she was staring in awe at a rather large plane.
For a moment she forgot that she was the hostage of a Nazi spy. "Are you out of your goddamn mind? This is a fighter. I can't fly this. I don't know the first thing—I mean, fuck, it's not American, it's not even British—"
Stoller leaned against the cool hull of the hangar; her dark eyes wandered appreciatively, almost dreamily, over the plane, much in the way Janice had seen her look at Mel. "It's Italian. A Cantz 501, to be precise."
Squinting skeptically through shadows and dust, Janice said, "How the hell did you get an Italian plane?"
"It was not my doing, Covington. I have no idea how the plane was procured, but it is here, now, for our purposes. At least it is not a German plane, ja? Then we would look terribly…what is the word?"
"Conspicuous?" Janice spat, irritated. She settled hands on hips, and continued to glare at the former OSS agent. "I could kill us both."
"Somehow I think you would not do that. Even deliberately."
"My dear, as long as blood beats through your body, you will want to go back to her. As long as you think you have the slightest chance of living, you will cling to it ferociously."
Talk about being conspicuous: Heart on the sleeve. I hate being so transparent.
"But if I have a chance of killing you, Stoller, I'll take it…" A fury began to build within her, as she remembered the bruise along Mel's face when the translator first showed up at Neuschwanstein. I ran into a door, Mel had said. And stupidly Janice had accepted that, given how clumsy her friend could be at times. "…because," she murmured, low and deadly, "I really want to beat the shit out of you."
Catherine chuckled. "I'm not surprised Melinda's particular form of slap and tickle has rubbed off on you."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Janice gave her a look of uncomprehending irritation.
"She likes to hit people, Covington. I've seen her do it."
More bullshit. More lies. Or truth? Always that kernel of doubt. "You're insane. I've never seen her hit anyone."
Catherine arched an eyebrow. "Really? Not even you?" She enunciated the blunt question carefully, vigilantly observing Covington's face for any signs of untruth.
Janice blinked, surprised. "No."
A strange expression—comprised of both admiration and outrage—lingered on the double agent's face. "That clever girl," she said softly.
Rosenberg opened his eyes. The gray gossamer of the fading day hung around the room, and he blinked at the shadowed figure crouching down in front of him where he slept. The rounded head was vaguely familiar, but he knew it was not Melinda.
He kept blinking and refocusing his eyes at the nebulous form until it grew solid and identifiable. It was Sergeant Lowry. The young man's deep brown eyes were wide in reproach.
"Shit," Rosenberg muttered aloud.
"Sir," responded Lowry perfunctorily.
"She's gone, isn't she?"
The sergeant nodded.
Without knowing why, Mel guided the horse due south. It made the most sense—if Catherine were looking to escape Germany, Switzerland would be the closest place for immediate sanctuary. And from there…well, the tiny little neutral country was her launching pad to the world.
What am I doing? She slowed the horse to stop. She was panting almost as hard as he was. Ropes of spit had crawled around his mouth, resembling transparent veins. I don't know where I'm going, I don't know where they are. How many hours ahead of me are they? This is useless.
Frustration caught in her throat. Even in the wilderness, she wouldn't permit herself to lose control.
Xena would have it all figured out by now. Of course, she thought bitterly. The bad guys would be dead, and the bard would be at her side. But I'm just…a fool on a horse. Chasing after a madwoman. Her thoughts paused. And a crazed Nazi spy.
A low whir tickled her ear. She looked up, and saw nothing: Just whorls of clouds in the drab sky. Her eyes roamed the expanse of grayness.
Then a plane shot overhead, low enough for her to see its colors. She gasped. Odd, isn't it? There isn't much air activity around here; that much I know from Brinton. And that plane…it wasn't American, and it's not British. She frowned. What…was it?
Is it them? She tensed. Dare I hope for that? She urged the horse into a light canter. But the sudden roar of a jeep approaching her on the road froze the animal abruptly, she lurched forward, but remained in the saddle. A shrill horn tore through the air, the horse reared, and then she fell—fortunately, into a snow bank: The world spun and she felt the glasses fly off her face, heard a grunt (that's you making that un-ladylike noise, Melinda), and experienced pain coursing along her back and shooting into her legs.
She lay in the snow for what seemed like an eternity. The jeep's headlights sliced through the twilight and illuminated her inner eyelids. Now what? She refused to open her eyes. Dear world, I surrender. Yours sincerely, Melinda Pappas. The soft crunching of snow grew closer. And stopped, so very close to her ear—so close, in fact, that she felt flecks of snow tumble onto her cheekbones…
…from the sudden cessation of Paul's boots.
She opened her eyes. Paul Rosenberg grinned down at her. "What's new, Roy Rogers?"
The first time Janice flew a plane, she threw up. Much to the dismay of her instructor, since his lap had been her unintended target. The strange motion of the takeoff had been akin to being on a boat, which always made her ill; however, once the plane lifted off, the feeling of weightlessness eased her queasy stomach, and she would be fine.
Now, as she frowned at the gadgets surrounding her in the cockpit, and with Stoller and .45 crouched beside her, she actually hoped she would vomit again, right on the natty, expensive-looking charcoal wool pants of her captor. What the well-dressed Nazi is wearing this season…
The plane was lumbering slowly down the runway. So far, so good. She shot Stoller a side glance. The blonde double agent was biting her lower lip. It was the first sign of distress she'd ever seen from the inscrutable woman. Hey, somebody doesn't like to fly!
Janice's hands gripped at the controls, and she could feel the plane lift. Her nausea disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. Despite everything, she felt excited. Not just to be flying again, but because, when the moment arrived, she would put her plan in action. How about that, Mel. I kinda sorta have a plan. You'd be proud.
Mel limped to the jeep, supported by Rosenberg. Lowry, who was actually the driver, had fretted over her for all of ten seconds, until he saw that his superior officer was doing more than his share of that. So the sergeant opted for petting the horse and giving the animal some much-needed water from his canteen.
"Did you see that plane?" Mel asked eagerly, tightly clutching Rosenberg's shoulder as he steered her to the passenger side of the jeep.
"Are you okay? Siddown," Rosenberg muttered, looking her over. She opened her mouth again, to protest, then, wincing in obvious pain, thought better of it. As she sat he noticed a pant leg split along its seam, revealing a bare thigh.
"That could've been them, Paul." Her voice intruded on his admiration.
He blinked, and banished such thoughts from his mind. Businesslike, he grasped her leg, probing for a broken bone. "Do you feel—"
Fingers curled over his. That was when he noticed how beautiful her hands were. He tried not to think of those hands on Janice Covington's body, but the image was indelible. "Listen to me." Her teeth were clenched, and the look in her eye dangerous.
"It mighta been them," he conceded. "But look, I need to get you checked out first."
"No, you're not," he shot back, curtly.
His cheek burned as his head spun. Holy fuck, did she just slap me? She had.
Lowry, for his part, skilled in the ways of feuding adults courtesy of his parents, simply ignored them and continued to stroke the stallion's sweaty coat.
Mel's voice was shaky with anger. "Don't you tell me I'm not fine. I've had enough of people telling me that there's something wrong with me."
"I didn't mean to—"
"You know that if it were someone you loved, you'd move heaven and earth, wouldn't you?"
He stared down the darkening road. If I loved someone…if I loved someone like you, Melinda? He turned back to her. He could see the glint of tears on her cheek. No, not you. You burn only for Covington.
"Help me," she said simply.
Help you? I can't help myself. Because there's something about you…
He broke against her will, like a wave against a rock. "If it was them…they're obviously heading for the Swiss border. I can radio Neuschwanstein and see if they know of any landing areas."
"How far are we from the border?"
He stared down the road again. "About 25 miles. You made good time, although you damn near killed that horse."
She hung her head, taking the words in, calming herself.
Rosenberg looked up into the sky, as the creeping twilight deepened its shade of blue. "Hey, does Janice know how to fly a plane?"
Mel's jaw slackened. "I—I honestly don't about that. But there is one thing I do know."
"What's that, Melinda?"
"She's always full of surprises."
"I can hardly hear myself think," the former OSS agent shouted above the roar of the plane's engine.
"What do you need to think for, Blondie?" Janice yelled back. "Everything's gonna be fine."
"I find you less than comforting."
"The feeling's mutual, honey."
Catherine ignored this. "How soon?" she asked.
"How about right now?" She jerked the throttle. The plane dipped. Stoller was thrown off balance, and Janice took the opportunity to seize her wrist and slam it against the control panel. The gun went off, creating a spidery pattern against the window. Again, she drove the German's wrist against the sharp edge of metal dash. The .45 slipped—right into Janice's lap. She released her grip on Stoller's wrist and scooped up the handgun, pressing the barrel against the blonde agent's forehead.
Fear faded in Catherine's dark eyes, to be replaced by outrage.
"Listen," Janice commanded with a shout. "I'm ditching this plane. There's a parachute under this seat and I'm taking it. You're on your own. You can either land this bird yourself, or die."
"You won't make it."
"Fuck you!" A pocket of air rolled the plane. Janice felt it almost before it happened, and instinctively she pulled the gun back, closer to her own body, to prevent Stoller taking the opportunity to repossess the weapon.
But the agent did not do what she expected. Instead, she pulled a small dagger from her coat and plunged it, gracelessly, into Janice's thigh.
The archaeologist and reluctant army lieutenant decided to forsake stoicism for the time being. Her scream filled the cockpit. Pure instinct propelled her right arm out and she struck Stoller across the face with the butt of the gun. The former OSS agent fell against the other window, seemingly unconscious.
It felt good. Until she looked down at saw the bright dagger protruding from her leg. Her stomach roiled.
Her fury dissipated, and she cast a glance at Stoller. What if she's faking it? For good measure, she leaned over and cracked the gun over Stoller's head, hard. Then she permitted herself to feel the leg's pain again. Shit. She transferred the .45 to her left hand. The right hand she wrapped around the knife, feeling the SS insignia digging into her palm, and yanked it out. This time she muffled the scream slightly, burying her face in her own shoulder.
The plane was descending with increasing speed. She pulled on the throttle a little, hoping to slow it down by straightening it out a bit. Blood seeped over her khakis.
Now's the time.
She reached under the seat, grabbed the parachute, put it on. She nestled the gun in her waistband, and clutched the dagger in her mouth, tasting her own salty, metallic blood. She could just envision Mel wincing with disapproval: Get that filthy thing out of your mouth, Janice Covington, before you hurt yourself! Using her good leg, she kicked a hole through the cracked window, and hurled herself into the sky.
The plane kept flying as a column of air pressed against her. She enjoyed the floating sensation, which lulled her for a few seconds into a kind of carefree serenity…until she stared down at the dark, ominous forest. Rip cord! With a gulp and a prayer, she fumbled for the cord, pulled it, and heard a fwoosh. The parachute blossomed above her.
Within minutes a tangle of tree branches broke her fall, by snaring the delicate chute. Hanging in the parachute like a bleeding marionette, Janice estimated she was about 18—maybe 15 if I'm lucky—feet from the ground. Using the SS dagger, she hacked through the veins of the parachute, weakening them with each stroke as she sagged closer and closer to earth. With a snap, the last strap broke and she fell, landing on her feet. The jolt to her thigh was a bit much, and she doubled over, as painful throbbing tapped out a Morse code of agony.
The blood was thickened and clotting in the cold air. Oh great. She discarded her jacket and sweater, then the olive colored t-shirt. Before tearing the shirt up for a bandage, she returned the heavier clothes to her body. There you go, chipmunks of the Black Forest. A free show. She shuddered and set to bandaging the leg.
Tending to this particular wound wasn't quite as fun as when she'd injured herself in Macedonia, after they'd buried Ares' tomb under rubble: The truck wouldn't start (and, as it turned out, would remain defunct, leaving them no choice but to take the motorcycle); underneath the hood she'd tried banging at the radiator cap with the edge of a screwdriver and instead found its sharp edge slicing deep into her index finger. She had yelped and jumped off the truck, too involved in her own pain to notice Miss Pappas—gangly, disheveled, yet utterly gorgeous—ambling over to her.
Unexpectedly, the tall Southerner—after casting quick, surreptitious glances around them—had hitched up the edge of her skirt. Janice's eyes bulged in disbelief; what the hell was this? Oh, Dr. Covington, you're so brave and wonderful—even though it was Xena who actually saved us—why, I can only think of one way to repay your kindness....
The erotic scenario slammed to a halt as Janice watched Melinda carefully tear away a strip of her blindingly white slip, which mercifully revealed another inch of delectable, creamy thighs. Then it flared up again. Take me now, in the back of your truck! Right on top of the tent poles!
Then it died again as Melinda Pappas carefully and gently wound the impromptu bandage around her injured finger. "Whole outfit's ruined anyway," the scholar had said, with her lovely, shy smile. A smudge of dirt had settled itself along a high cheekbone, as if it were a dark crescent moon, a constellation of a blue eye. Janice wanted to wipe away the smudge, wanted to do nothing but stare into those riveting eyes for a long time. How strange, she had thought. This big, gentle woman is more dangerous for me than Ares and Hitler put together.
The green bandage was now tied firmly—but not too tightly—around her thigh. She sighed. Okay, now what? No time to rest, I've got to move. If Stoller somehow survived that plane going down...she would still head for the border, I'm sure. Maybe I should try to get back to the castle? If they've sent out troops looking for me—I may run into someone.
After walking for almost half an hour, she did.
Janice heard a faint sound on the air, something akin to a creak. She stopped, pulled out the .45, green eyes sweeping the area. Nothing. The wind moved through the trees again, a moist breeze, a crystalline tinkling of noise. She limped a few paces. The leg was killing her.
A branch snapped overhead. And before Janice could look up, a Nazi double agent landed on top of her. The next snapping noise—rather, more of a crunch—was the sound of a rib breaking under Stoller's weight. On impact she fired off two shots from the handgun. Then she felt a hand wrest the gun out of her grip.
Dammit, she found a parachute.
She was face down in the snow, and unexpectedly, childishly, her tongue dipped into the cool white stuff. Then she felt her body spun around, and she was looking up at Stoller, who had straddled her. Blood matted the agent's white blonde hair from a vicious, oozing cut on her pale forehead. She noted that a rifle—a new addition to the wardrobe—was strapped to Stoller's back as well. Grasping the collar of the army jacket, she pulled Janice up and, for the sheer sadistic hell of it, backhanded her hard, prompting a nosebleed. "Do you treat all your girlfriends so badly, Covington? I'm very disappointed."
"Guess I shoulda hit you once more. Third time's the charm, they always say," rasped Janice.
Stoller pressed the .45 against her temple. Janice ducked her head. Another shot went off as she gripped Stoller's wrist, directing the muzzle heavenward. Then she seized the blonde agent's free hand and, as if trying to open a particularly pesky champagne bottle, twisted the fingers in her grasp until she heard a snap and a scream. A couple more rounds went off, then a click signified a loss of firepower. Stoller dropped the gun, and yanked herself free of Janice.
"Why didn't you head for the border?" she growled at the German.
The grin that Catherine gave was chilling, and familiar. Fear shimmied up the nape of Covington's neck. "Not before I kill you."
With a fierce abandon fueled by rage, adrenaline, and a lack of tobacco products, Janice threw herself on her enemy.
Lowry hit the brakes. The jeep stopped abruptly, skidding in the snow. Mel managed to brace herself against the dirty windshield, her cheek and palms almost suctioned against the glass, and Rosenberg, in the back, was pitched between the gap of the two front seats and narrowly avoided having the gear shift knob punch him in the nose. "What the fuck are you doing, you stupid kid?" he shouted at Lowry.
The Sergeant swallowed nervously; his Adam's apple skittered along his throat. "Heard gunfire," he responded tersely.
They sat there stupidly (or so Rosenberg thought), expectantly. Mel could only hear their collective panting, a holy trinity of nervousness.
The noise was a pinprick in the blanket of silence. The lieutenant heard it, although, judging from the straining expression on her face, the Southerner did not. He was right! Rosenberg tightened his grip around the M-16 at his side. He grinned evilly and Mel saw it.
"You heard it?" she asked breathlessly.
He nodded. "Lead on, MacDuff!" he shouted excitedly at the sergeant.
Lowry looked at him, confused.
"Go!" he and Mel roared in unison.
It was almost funny: Stoller was trying to use the rifle as a staff. She swung at Janice's head. The archaeologist ducked, and launched a kick into the double agent's stomach. Then she grabbed the rifle and wrenched it away from Catherine. Her possession of the weapon was short lived, as the German dove at her and knocked her feet from underneath her. She seized the weapon and flung it away from them, as both women staggered to their feet.
The rifle now lay cushioned in the snow. They both looked at it. Janice bolted for it, diving toward like a shortstop snaring a grounder. As her fingers rolled around the cold steel, she looked at Catherine. Who stood still, unmoving. "Go ahead," Catherine prompted quietly. "Pick it up."
She did. The stock fell into position, braced against her shoulder. She stared down the sight at Catherine. Something inside her railed against it, but her finger convulsed around the trigger.
And nothing happened.
It all fell into place just a second too late. "You fucking—"
Catherine pulled a revolver—a .38, just like the one Harry gave me—from her jacket and fired.
She fell forward, on her knees, sinking into the snow. Was it this fast the other time?
Janice thought of that day, over a year ago, when she was shot and Blaylock had died. Oh, the getting shot part happens quick enough. The agony lasts a long time. She had sat in the ambulance, waiting to die, watching him die, their blood commingled in a way more intimate and powerful than they had ever been together in life. He threw the keys at me, they hit my chest, they fell to the ground. I picked them up. Her fingernails had scraped the dark, pockmarked Parisian cobblestones, smelling of dank earth underneath. I picked them up and sealed your fate, my friend.
Her curled fingers dug into snow, craving a support that wasn't there.
Do you believe in destiny? Mel had asked once. Fate?
Is this my fate, Mel? I suppose I will find out. And you will too, I'm afraid.
The bullets burned in her stomach.
Oh, the stomach is bad, Harry Covington had commented once upon a time, upon hearing of an even less scrupulous colleague shot in the gut, after a deal gone sour. She touched her abdomen, returned to sight a thoroughly red hand, resembling an autumn leaf slicked by rain. Blood was flowing, escaping her like time.
And she laughed.
Clearly, it was not the reaction Catherine Stoller expected. The double agent lowered the gun in disbelief, and slowly walked over to Janice. "Are you mad?" she asked, half seriously, half rhetorically, looking down at the WAC bleeding in the snow.
"I just can't believe…I've been shot again. Talk about shitty luck." She continued to chuckle. I have to laugh…if I didn't I'd be crying. I guess it's all the same at this point. She returned the hand to her stomach, felt the liquid throb against her palm.
Catherine knelt down so that they were on eye level. Close enough so that Janice could attempt to fathom the depths of the dark eyes, if she really wanted to.
"Do you realize what's happening here?" Catherine spoke condescendingly, as if to a slow child. "This is it. I'm leaving you here."
The archaeologist's laughter faded, but her voice was calm. "I'll die. I know that." With every breath there was pain. But the instinct was to keep breathing, and she did so, almost gasping in the process. "You could be humane and finish me off."
"I rather like the idea of you suffering."
"Yes," Janice sighed. "I thought you might."
They continued to stare at each other.
"You're braver than I give you credit for," Catherine conceded.
"Maybe. But Catherine, do you know something?"
Janice extended a shaky hand and tried to grab at Stoller's collar. She misjudged the distance, and opted for letting her fingers smear blood along the double agent's smooth, sharp jaw. She was smiling, dreamily, as she straddled the world of the living and the dead.
"It doesn't matter. Because she'll always love me."
Son of a bitch.
Even through the pain and the cold, obscenities floated through her agonized mind. So this is the end. Stretched out in the snow, on my back. Lying in the snow…I've done this before… Blood colored the top of the icy snow, like a sno-cone. The kind she got at Coney Island, when she was a kid. Remember those? Remember everything you can right now, Janice, 'cause you're dying. The wind rustled the trees again and the white particles sifted down, like stardust. Is there such a thing? It brushed her eyelashes and cooled her fiery hair and kissed her dry lips. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember what it was like to kiss Mel—it seemed so long ago. But the memories were enticingly out of reach. For now, Mel was defined, in her dying mind, by her absence.
In Alexandria, 1943, that aching nothingness manifested itself in erotic desperation: She had spent days making love to a woman she did not care about. There was nothing else to do. It passed the time. The money was gone, the workers went home, the bottle of scotch was empty. She was empty. She needed a body to fill out the ghostly visions, a vessel to pour in the immense craving she had for Melinda Pappas. What would it be like to kiss her? Would her creamy skin really be as soft as it looked? How would her body move among the sheets? What would the hollow of her throat taste like? Could I drink from it, the sinner at communion, and receive some sort of salvation, or peace?
I found out, didn't I? I found so much more, more than I ever imagined.
I went to her home, thinking I would be brave enough to seduce her, and couldn't. And then she kissed me and set our history into motion.
She tried to lift herself up. No go. She tried to move her arms and legs and could only come up with feeble motion, like the twitching of an agitated animal, limbs scraping about weakly in the snow, creating the pattern of a tortured snow angel.
Oh, yeah. Snow angels. That's what I was trying to remember.
It was one of the few memories Janice possessed about her mother. She was eight when Harry was coaxed into teaching at the University of Michigan. So Janice and her parents had traveled to Ann Arbor—to stay permanently, so her mother had hoped.
The first big snowfall was just after Thanksgiving (it was a mild winter). Janice had been so excited that she ran out into the snow, without a coat, and flopped down in the pristine blanket of whiteness. It was not as if she had never seen snow before--but living in the city, she had seen very few large, unfettered expanses of it, except in Central Park, and never anything quite so deep.
Her mother had followed her outside, after yelling Janice's name in that warning tone of hers. But at the sight of Janice, happy in the snow, she too smiled, and laughed, and flopped down beside her daughter. And taught Janice how to make snow angels.
Well, Mom, that skill has come in handy now. It's keeping me occupied while I die. She closed her eyes. I'm sorry I didn't know you. I'm sorry my father was so selfish he let you go. I'm sorry I didn't seek you out before you died. I'm sorry I didn't mourn you. I'm sorry you won't get to meet the person I love so much; her kindness reminds me of your own. I'm sorry I'm here. Sorry, so sorry everyone…
She felt the blood pulse out of her body. No Xena to save her from Ares. No GIs on the road to Paris. Nothing.
Stoller walked slowly down the road. The exhaustion meant nothing, as did the twinned throbbing of her head and her broken fingers. It was a relief, actually, to have real physical pain distracting her for once.
I knew about it before you even figured it out. I knew the way you stared at her, the way you listened to her whenever she spoke...you looked as if your heart would break.
A distant rumble down the road registered, faintly.
And I gave her back to you. Without me, she would have been the wife of a farmer and you....you would have remained the dark hero. The one everyone respected, The one everyone turned to for help. But also the one that no one loved. No one understood. And everyone feared. Even when you were "good," Xena, you still scared people.
Catherine blinked. And was confronted with the tableau of three Americans in a jeep: A baby-faced driver, an officer in the back, with a rifle pointed right at her and obviously dying to use it, and Melinda. Her hair loose and wild.
I remember the way your black hair floated in the smoky gray sky over Cirra.
The blue eyes were just as wild. The unformed, anguished question was on her lips.
"Fancy meeting you here," Catherine whispered.
It wasn't cold anymore. And the ground was warm, and soft. She twitched a little. Opening her eyes, she saw that a strip of leather was tickling her face.
"Gabrielle?" A strange voice said, deep and somewhat familiar.
She tried to lift her head, but a sharp pain shot through it. "Ow," she moaned. Why does my head hurt? She lowered her head...into a lap. A human being's lap; the strips of leather her head was lying on revealed hints of muscular, tanned flesh. Smooth skin. Without thinking, she reached out to touch it. Is this real?
The lap shook with a chuckle. "You must be feeling okay, if you want to stick your hand up my skirt," the voice said wryly. Fingers touched her cheek. "Gabrielle, can you sit up?"
This isn't happening. She looked up, and the backdrop of the sun blinded her temporarily, blotting out details, and she saw only the dark outline of hair. Then she blinked, and the face came into view.
No, I'm really crazy now. Or dead. I'm really dead. The hair was black and loose, windblown and tangled, the angular face tanned, but the blue eyes were...the same. A small scar, pale and curved as a crescent moon, arched near a dark eyebrow.
"Shit," she moaned.
"Shit?" echoed Xena, the Warrior Princess. "Gabrielle, do you need to relieve yourself?"
Xena. She struggled to sit up, helped by...Xena. The Warrior Princess. Who had nice, big, warm hands, and who kept looking at her anxiously. "That was quite a blow to your head," remarked the warrior, who stroked her face with those...nice, big, warm hands. The lovely digits then proceeded to delicately probe her skull.
"Do you remember anything?" asked Xena.
She shook her head. No.
The warrior frowned. "We got in a fight, with some bandits. Not far from camp. One of them hit you on the back of the head." Smoothly she was scooped up into the strong arms of Xena (the Warrior Princess, with the aforementioned nice, big, warm hands); automatically her arms wrapped around the strong, sculpted neck as the warrior carried her over to a horse, a huge, butter-colored mare.
"Horse!" she cried in alarm, like a child.
Once again, Xena looked concerned. "It's just Argo, Gabrielle. You've been on Argo lots of times. Remember?" The warrior spoke to her gently, as if she were a child.
Her nod was a lie. "Oh…Xena."
"What is it?" urged the Warrior Princess.
"Nothing. Nothing at all." She tilted her head back and let the sun claim her.
Paul had punched Stoller viciously, breaking her nose, when she refused to disclose the exact whereabouts and state of Lieutenant Covington. Lowry, however, meekly revealed that it would be easy to track where the double agent had come from, because of her footprints in the snow.
So they drove a clip, up the road for approximately two miles. The trail along the rough road veered into the forest; before the jeep was fully stopped, Mel leaped from the vehicle and ran blindly. Instinct propelled her as she shed her coat to run even faster, whatever pain she felt from her fall earlier dissipated, like the clouds of her breath in the cold air.
It felt familiar to be running through the forest, her limbs and heart pumping.
What wasn't familiar, or anywhere near comforting—although her heart screamed out in relief at having found Janice—was the bloodied body. In the fading, blue-gray light, Janice Covington's blood was almost violet in color, a dark pool that rippled and glittered along her torso.
The cheek was cold to the touch. The eyes were blank and open.
Don't you leave me.
She was crying. She could hear Rosenberg shouting her name. Nothing registered until she felt something brushing her thigh: Wet fingers, clutching feebly at her pant leg.
"Hello, hero," Janice whispered.
Dr. Girard sat in his study with his post-dinner brandy, happy to be unoccupied.
During the meal this evening, one of his staff members, a young man of only twenty, had been complaining about the lack of activity at the spa. Since the end of the war, the spa, located in a modest chalet barely a mile north of the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, had yet to return to its glory days in the 20s and 30s, when every rich, neurasthenic, dipsomaniac, tubercular, troubled, crazy, schizoid individual in Europe would be either taking a cure here, or wanting to.
The doctor was unconcerned; financially, they were in good shape. The government subsidized their existence, and someday the foreigners would be back. Although the Germans…I could live without, he thought, swirling the brandy.
Girard had been reluctantly pressed into service as a surgeon by the Nazis during the war. There was no way around it; he and the spa were too close to the border. The Germans dropped by routinely, like rude guests. He would patch them up, or watch them die despite his ministrations, and then they would be gone, fallen leaves caught in the whirlwind of war.
He was glad these troublesome visits no longer occurred. He inhaled the scent of the liquor, which, to him, was almost as pleasurable as drinking it.
His enjoyment, however, hit a bumpy patch as he looked out the window and noticed twin dots of light, traveling rapidly up the steep road to the chalet. As they grew bigger and bigger, he sighed in resignation. He could tell by the width between the headlights that it was probably a military vehicle, but this time it would be American or British. Usually they are nicer than the Nazis. "Well, Francois," he murmured aloud, thinking of his young coworker, "you may get your excitement after all."
He abandoned the brandy and went downstairs, to await his unknown guests.
While the Swiss doctor operated on Janice, Rosenberg spent the hours that passed by radioing the castle and arranging for the OSS to come and take custody of Stoller. He fed Lowry and put the young sergeant in charge of guarding the double agent until the authorities arrived. Sleep, he realized, was a tempting option.
But Mel was even more tempting. He knew where she would be: Outside the room where Girard worked to save her lover.
She was there, of course, tired and dirty. She refused to leave, no matter who asked her, and how many times. Her phantom eyes hovered, in dark sockets, over her broad cheekbones. Like a half-shed skin waiting to fall, her torn pant leg drooped. Her sweater was darkened with blood; there was even crimson under her fingernails.
"Anything?" he asked gently.
She shook her head. No.
He sat down. They remained in near-companionable silence for a few minutes. She closed her eyes. Then he turned to watch the clock looming above them. When next he looked at her, the blue eyes were open again and staring blankly into space.
"There is some good news," he began, tentatively.
She turned tired eyes to him.
"Brinton's pushing paperwork through to get Janice discharged. He thinks he'll have it in two weeks."
Mel didn't say anything and he looked back at the clock, the black hands struggling toward a new hour.
"That'll be fine," she said, at last. "If she lives that long."
"Don't talk like that." His glare was harsh, but the words were soft.
"Yes, please! I agree heartily!" The voice was booming, male, and accented. Rosenberg jumped up.
The surgeon, a burly gentleman, stood before them. With a vigorous snap he removed his bloody rubber gloves, and while this was a helpful move on his part, Mel could not help but be fixated by his red-splattered white gown. Is all of this blood...hers?
Girard smiled. "The news is good." He looked at Rosenberg. "You are 'Mel'?"
Rosenberg raised an eyebrow, then nodded in Mel's direction.
The surgeon's eyes widened. "I...see." He cleared his throat and turned his attention to the Southerner. "Well. First, let me say your, ah, friend has survived the operation. We are fortunate that the bullets did not penetrate the stomach lining. I do not think there is any internal bleeding, but the next 48 hours will be crucial. Luckily, Leftenant Covington is in very good health, and my prognosis is optimistic."
"Great! Thanks, doc!" Rosenberg grinned, clapping the doctor on the shoulder. The grizzled older man looked at him, then looked at the hand on his body. "Sorry." Paul pulled the hand away.
Dr. Girard, however, found the presence of Mel's hands on his a welcome occurrence. "Thank you," she said to him.
"You are most welcome."
"How did you know...there was a 'Mel'?" she asked timidly.
He colored under his neat, dark beard. "She was calling for you before we put her under the anesthetic." With a mysterious smile, he walked away.
"Jesus, even when she's practically unconscious she still can't keep her mouth shut," Rosenberg muttered.
The afterlife is a white room. How boring.
Janice Covington winced and raised her head off a pillow, convinced she was quite dead. I was kinda hoping pain wouldn't be part of the being-dead deal. I shouldn't feel anything…Even more perplexing was the sensation of a heavy, dead weight along her legs. She glanced down her body. The weight on her legs was itself a human leg, one that was long and awfully familiar.
Mel sat in a chair near the bed she was in, dozing. Somehow one of the legs she had propped up on the bottom half of the bed had entangled itself with Janice's legs.
It figures. Even when she's not in bed, she still takes up space. So this means...I'm alive? Or in some eternal pit stop? With Mel? Or what if this is Meg? An eternity with Meg. Serves me right, huh? Well, only one way to find out. "Hey," she called in a voice soft yet scratchy from disuse.
Louder, hoarser, in the spirit with which she would yell on Saturdays at the Polo Ground: "HEY!"
With a gasp the dark-haired woman jerked awake, alarm coloring her red-rimmed blue eyes. The shock of it all was such that Melinda Pappas blurted out loud, for the first time in her life, the name of the Son of God. "Jesus Christ!"
"Mel?" Janice asked warily. It wasn't looking good. The apparition sounded like Mel, but the Southern beauty surely wouldn't dare take Christ's name in vain, despite her severely lapsed Methodist background.
"Janice?" Mel croaked.
Or would she? "Am I alive?" she requested huskily.
Mel managed to reply in the affirmative, before bursting into tears.
"Did you try to defeat the Nazis single-handedly?" Dr. Girard asked as he removed the thermometer from the patient's mouth.
"Not exactly. Just one in particular," remarked the patient drolly. Janice blinked—she had been unconscious for almost two days, yet still felt tired beyond belief. She sank back into the white pillows and let her eyelids fly at half-mast.
The bearded Swiss doctor scowled at the thermometer. "It's still a little high."
Mel, who had been hovering in the background, came forward to peer at the small glass tube. "A little?" cried the scholar, outraged. "It's 105!"
"No, madame. Look more closely." He held the thermometer closer to her nearsighted eyes. "100 degrees Fahrenheit."
While recognizing, intellectually, that it would do no good, Mel nevertheless squinted at the small numbers, hoping some of them would humor her and make themselves clearer.
"Honey, where're your glasses?" mumbled Janice. The doctor raised an eyebrow at the endearment.
Mel blushed. He smiled, then regarded his patient with a more thoughtful expression. "But I fear an infection might be present. The stomach looks good—ah!" It dawned on him: The leg—he had not examined the leg wound. One of the nurses had stitched it up while he had removed the bullet; she had done it quickly, too quickly, which had concerned him at the time….He pulled back the blankets. A hump of ugly, crooked black stitches were perched on the smooth thigh, which was bad enough. The fact that the ant-like row—which shifted eerily whenever Janice contracted the leg muscle—was also red around the edges and oozing pus, contributed to its unhealthy appearance.
"Mon Dieu," muttered Girard. That old fool, he cursed the nurse to himself.
Janice cracked open an eye. "No beauty pageant this year."
"I'm glad it amuses you, Leftenant. You will need that sense of humor when I remove the stitches…"
A thud caught their attention.
Janice sat up slowly, surveying the unconscious form of Melinda, sprawled on the floor. "Guess I'm gonna have to wait to hear about that dramatic rescue," she commented.
Girard sighed, and knelt over Mel. He patted his pockets for smelling salts that he knew weren't there.
Later in the night, Mel had woken up alone, in the room they had given her. At first she had forgotten where she was, and what had happened; her heart had banged wildly in panic. Then she remembered fainting, remembered that Janice was indeed alive, and let the darkness soothe her. The quiet of the black room drenched her like a sudden summer storm and she lay like that for a long time, thinking of nothing, until surrendering to sleep once again.
In the morning, light stung her eyes and she opened them, wondering why she did not feel any better. And why she didn't want to move. And why she didn't want to see her lover.
She washed herself at a basin, slowly, ignoring the mirror that lay beside it. Apparently…literally, I cannot face myself either. New clothes were provided for her; whoever picked them had opted for gender inappropriateness and comfort over trying to find something "feminine" to fit her tall, lanky frame: A thick blue shirt, a pair of dark corduroys. She dressed, relishing the feel of soft, clean fabric against her skin. Then, most reluctantly, she stepped out of the room and walked, cautious and catlike, up the hall. She contemplated taking a walk before going to Janice's room. But as she passed the room, she heard a loud clang. She hesitated at the door, and Lowry rushed out, practically running her down. "You don't wanna go in there, Miss," he mumbled at Mel.
"Did she soil herself?" Mel asked, thinking of the one thing that she wouldn't want to deal with.
The boy blushed. "Uh, no, but she's in a bit of a mood."
"Sergeant, she's been in a bit of a mood since the day I met her," the Southerner replied smoothly.
He pouted. "She threw a bedpan at me."
"Then she's definitely feeling better," Mel replied. She rallied a smile for the sergeant, and entered the room.
Like Lowry, Janice too was pouty and sulky. She wore threadbare blue pajamas several sizes too large for her frame and sprawled in a pose of confident boredom, like a pasha surveying his decadent court.
A bored Covington is a dangerous Covington. Her eye detected the abused bedpan, a fresh dent in its side, from across the room.
Janice noted Mel's gentle look of disapproval. "Kid was pissing me off," she muttered. "He's like a puppy, waiting on my every word."
"He adores you," Mel chastised. She began to walk across the room, but was intercepted by the archaeologist's firm grasp on her arm, and the slight tug that threw her off balance. She flopped down next to Janice, who smiled triumphantly.
"I'm only interested in adoration from one person," she growled huskily. "Namely you." Not loosening her hold on Mel's arm, she leaned in—like a predator, Mel thought, no, no, that's not true—and kissed the translator.
Normally—and these were not normal circumstances—the kiss would bloom into such warmth inside her. She would be dizzy at the contact. But now—emotionally she balked, the pleasant surge of desire faded, and she pulled away.
Janice's lips were slightly parted, she was flushed. And looking confused. How many women have ever willingly disengaged themselves from her, other than for the reason of lacking air? "We shouldn't…here," she said uneasily.
"That's never stopped you before," retorted Janice, voice still retaining that whiskey-and-cigarettes roughness that signified a certain need remained unfilled.
"I suppose not…" Mel trailed off. She stood up, and walked across the room, retrieving the battered bedpan. What you have done to me now…is more sinister and more brutal than you could have imagined. Or did you imagine it, Catherine? Because it would have been easier to die than see this pain in her face.
Janice looked like she expected it somehow, the withdrawal, as if she had been waiting for it ever since the beginning. Her jaw twitched a little, hampering the bitter, rueful smile that was forming on her face.
"I'm sorry," Mel said.
"It's okay." It wasn't okay.
"I don't know…maybe I'm tired."
"Maybe, baby." Instead of biting back the affectionate diminutive, Janice bit her tongue by accident, and winced accordingly. Like a third-rate gymnast in slow motion, she swung her legs out of the bed and sat upright.
Mel looked at her angrily. "Just what on earth do you think you're doing?" demanded the tall woman.
Janice couldn't hold back the mischievous half-smile. "I'm sitting up. Is that okay?"
"Don't you smirk at me like that, Janice Covington."
"Sorry. It's just that...you're beautiful when you're Southern fried, you know that?" Actually, you're always beautiful. But what's bothering you, baby?
Arms folded, the angry posture relaxed a little. "I don't even know what you mean by that."
"It's the accent. It gets thicker when you're mad."
"I never noticed."
" 'Course not." She paused, staring at Mel, silhouetted against the window. Those blue eyes had a haunted look. Somewhere along the line the sheltered Southern belle had been changed. Time, the slickest and most disingenuous of magicians, had waved its weary hand over her. Is it my fault? She chose to follow me.
But you couldn't say no, could you? You needed her too much.
She was prodded out of introspection by the sensation of Mel's eyes on her.
"How are you doing?" the translator inquired gently, politely.
"Um, okay…" Janice replied cautiously, nerves prickling at the distinct impression that, underneath the stilted conversation, something was quite wrong. "How are you feeling?"
"I've been better, that's for sure." Mel blinked furiously, longing for the shelter of her glasses. But they were broken and crushed, somewhere in the Bavarian forest. Rosenberg and Lowry would be going back to the castle, and the former was to return in a few weeks' time with Janice's discharge papers and their personal belongings. Which, in her case, included an extra set of glasses. It felt funny to give it so much credit, but her constantly blurry, nearsighted vision was a considerable factor in the disjointed, overwhelmed way she had felt over the past few days.
Nothing made sense anymore. She wanted nothing more than to go home. And stay there.
It was strange, being with Janice. As if they had passed through some fire that burnt themselves beyond recognition, and the woman she was staring at was only a memory, a broken bit of a mirror, the image of someone who, long ago, was her lover, and made her happier than anyone or anything in the world.
If you continue, this will go on and on…the madness of chasing Covington. Of being rejected or betrayed, of finding her again only to lose her again, of being found lacking…of being the twentieth century equivalent of Xena and Gabrielle. Of hurting her. Of getting hurt yourself.
"Come here." The gentle command from Janice intruded on her thoughts. Her lips were slightly parted, as if she wanted to say…more. This intrigued Mel, who returned to the edge of the bed, where she sat down.
She was startled by the sudden gesture of the archaeologist's hand cupping her chin, then sliding along her face, fingers and palm molded against her cheek. Instead of desire, love, and happiness, she felt nervous fear and an instinct to bolt.
"I know you'd do anything to protect me," Janice said.
She knows about Catherine. She must.
"I know you that well. I know you so goddamn well it scares me sometimes, Mel."
Do you, Janice? Because it scares me. All of it scares me now. This history between us, it's bigger and more dangerous than I imagined. Was I naïve?
"You haven't changed much in over 2000 years," Janice mused.
The blue eyes dropped, as did the Southerner's tone. "Don't compare me to her."
The statement took Janice aback. Usually Mel seemed comfortable—or, at the very least, accepting—with the notion of being Xena's descendent. How did this change?
That scroll. Tread carefully, Covington. Be sensitive. "I'm not…I mean, what's wrong with Xena? She was a hero."
"She was a murderer," Mel responded curtly.
Janice dropped her hand from the scholar's face. "Aw, c'mon, Mel. You know that she changed." What's that you say, Covington? You want a dictionary?
"Perhaps superficially. She refocused her particular talents for a greater good. But inside she remained the same beast."
"Bullshit!" Hey, how do you spell "sensitive" anyway?
Mel arched an eyebrow, for a strange moment resembling an imperious warlord. The resemblance was aided by the fact that she wasn't wearing glasses.
"Mel, what has got you so down on Xena? Was it that scroll?" The first two pages had been slightly ominous in their setting of a tone, yet unrevealing: The warrior and bard were in Britannia, driven there by Xena's quest to destroy Caesar.
The expression shifted, and Mel once again looked like Mel: An emotionally exhausted, smart woman dealing with too much going on in her mind. "I don't…want to talk about it now."
It was. "We have to talk about it at some point. You didn't get through the whole thing, did you?" Her question ended on an incredulous note; Mel was damn good, but could she have translated the whole thing in such a short period of time?
"I read enough of it…" muttered the scholar cryptically. And what I didn't read…well, the dreams filled in the rest of the details.
"Then tell me," Janice demanded tersely.
Mel sighed deeply. "Not now. I can't…"
The archaeologist allowed a fit of pique to be expressed. Without thinking she brought her fist down…on her wounded leg. "Ow! Fuck!"
"Janice, are you okay? Did you break the stitches?"
"I don't think so…" Janice peered at the leg, disappointed that x-ray vision was not one of her superpowers. Then she fixed her angry green eyes on her companion, temper exacerbated by the pain. "What the hell are you keeping from me? Why won't you tell me?"
"Don't you ever get tired of it all?"
The blonde woman blinked at her. "Tired of what?"
No, of course not. She thrives on it. "I just want—things normal for a while." The tone was sullen. Mel looked away.
"Oh." Janice stared down at her hands. Idiot. "Normal? Since when have things ever been normal for us?" And just what did she mean by…"normal"?
"That's the problem, Janice," Mel snapped.
The door swung open, and Dr. Girard appeared. Immediately he sensed the tension. To him, such emotional distress always smelled sharp and bitter, like a poison. "I am sorry…I hope I did not interrupt anything?"
"No," Mel responded quietly. She stood up and left. As she brushed past the doctor, a bitter, sickening sensation caught in her throat, a kind of anguish, and she wanted to cry, long and hard. She strode down the corridor, back toward her room, then stopped abruptly.
A figure was at the end of the hallway, near the door of her room. It was a was familiar one, yet in a bad way: The dark military coat, the close-cropped, dark head. The leering smile.
She swallowed, clenched her jaw, and walked toward him.
A spark of a lit match brightened his dark face, as he sucked methodically at the pipe where the flame was then burrowed. "Hello, my dear," said Major Pendleton of the OSS.
"Hello, Major." Her dry throat rasped out the cool delivery.
"Sorry to disappoint you with my presence once again. But I've come to retrieve my quarry. And I must thank you for your crucial role in capturing Fraulein Stoller." He peered at her critically. "I say, you don't look well."
She said nothing. She knew how she looked: gaunt, sharp-featured, could see it reflected in Janice's face, when those green eyes appraised her. When was the last time I slept well?
"You should be happy. Your friend is alive and in one piece, and you helped capture a war criminal."
"I am thankful...it's all over with."
He smiled. "Not quite."
The color in her eyes flared, as the pupils narrowed, revealing an icier, paler blue.
"That got a reaction out of you, my beauty." His teeth clicked against the pipe's mouthpiece as he shifted it between his lips. "You have one more task to complete."
She said nothing, but waited expectantly.
"I need you to speak with Stoller one final time. She wants to see you."
"I don't want to see her."
"Believe it or not, I quite understand. But I'm willing to play along here. She may reveal something useful to you. Something that she wouldn't to me, or anyone else."
"That's nonsense. She wouldn't—after all that's happened—want to tell me anything.."
"Perhaps," Pendleton conceded. "But…aren't you the least bit curious?" He smiled, knowing she would be trumped by her own interest.
Unlike the other light, airy rooms of the spa, Catherine Stoller was whiling away her time in a dark, windowless room that appropriately enough resembled a cell. Guarded by two British soldiers, she sat at a table in the stark garret, trying to smoke a cigarette. Which is particularly hard to do, when one is tightly handcuffed and breathing is hindered by a broken nose.
Mel was struck by the comic appearance of the bright white bandage in the middle of the blonde's bruised face. She noted that one of Catherine's hands were swathed in gauze as well. She was seized with a sudden urge to laugh hysterically; something in her tired soul ached for a release.
Cigarette cradled in her good hand, Catherine raised it to her lips awkwardly, dragging along the useless hand with its broken fingers. She smiled at Mel. "You did not know I smoked, did you?" Her voice was lower, muffled somehow by her injury.
"What do you want?" Mel asked wearily.
"Actually, I never smoked until today. I need something to keep me occupied. These rat bastards"—she nodded at the guards—"won't even let me read a damned newspaper."
She spewed smoke in Mel's general direction. "And I found—rather they found—cigarettes in my pocket. Covington's cigarettes, to be exact. I took them when I was in her rooms at Neuschwanstein. I knew she would be back for them. And she was." She stopped, and nudged the pack across the table. "So I'm returning them."
Mel stared at the crumpled pack of Gauloises. "Keep them," she murmured. She turned to leave.
"Wait." How amazing…even as a prisoner, she commands attention.
"What?" Mel did not turn around.
"I wanted to say goodbye to you."
Goodbye to you. Goodbye to whatever untainted memories I had of you. Goodbye to the trust broken between Janice and I. Goodbye to the fact that I grow cold when she touches me and I don't know if I'll ever find my way back to wanting her, or anyone else for that matter. "Goodbye, then." She put her hand on the knob.
"Melinda." Again the too-soft voice, surrounding her like water. "Did you like the gift I left for you?"
Mel turned again, to look at her.
"The scroll, my darling. I had hoped you would find it first, but no matter. You're the one who figured it out first, ja? That little idiot would be lost without you."
"That scroll…is yours?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes." Catherine puffed on the cigarette in a matter-of-fact way, as if she had been doing it all of her life, handcuffed. "Did you enjoy reading these particular tales of Xena? The Destroyer of Nations, who kills an entire tribe of Amazons? Who kidnaps children? Who tries to kill the one person who supposedly meant everything in the world to her?"
"Stop." Mel's shaky voice was half-commanding, and half-pleading.
"Why stop? This is a history you need to know, Melinda. It's unlike the scrolls Covington found in Macedonia, those romantic adventures of warrior and bard. Spare me."
Perhaps your instinct to run away was right, Janice. Perhaps you've been right all along.
"I thought you needed to see…what you're really like. Who you really are. And who I am."
"What do you mean?" Her shoulders tensed, and her right hand flexed instinctually.
"Perhaps…perhaps I misjudge Covington. She knows her lineage, at the very least. And she even accepts it on some level. But you…" A short, harsh laugh. She held out her bound hands, in supplication. "You made me, darling. And you don't know it." She laughed again. "It's somewhat amusing, nicht wahr? I'll be laughing to my grave."
The undertow of memory tugged fiercely at Mel. With an equal amount of determination, she resisted it. Not now. Not another memory. I'm done with it all. And yet…there were still things she wanted to know. "Where did you find this scroll? Where did you get it?" she demanded.
The blonde agent's smile was slight. "A mystery for you to figure out, love." Their eyes met briefly.
"I don't want any mysteries."
"Too bad. It'll keep things interesting when you are playing house with Covington. Give you something to ponder when you are darning her socks or cooking her dinner."
"You assume too much."
"Are you saying there are no happy endings?" Catherine mocked bitterly. "Go now. I'm tired," she ordered, with the abrupt tonal shift into the curt, which was purely…hers. "I have said all I wanted to."
Mel lingered a moment, staring at her curiously. In return, Catherine studied her, drank in her form for one last time. There was no need to do so, really; she already had the tall, languorous body, the blue eyes, the smile, the laugh, the voice, all of it, committed to memory.
The door closed behind Mel. Did a shadow of regret move over her face as she left? Or am I just imagining that?
Without betraying any sign of movement within her face, Catherine rolled her tongue, until its tip found the cyanide capsule buried under it. She nudged it between her teeth and bit down softly. Until next time, then.
"I'm off, then." Rosenberg slung his rucksack over a shoulder. "If I don't come back, it'll be someone else with your gear, and with Jan's papers."
"Good," Mel said softly. "Thank you." A pause. "Did you say goodbye to her?"
"Of course!" he replied indignantly. "I even kissed the brat on the cheek." They both laughed at that. He shifted nervously, obviously wanting to say something.
She decided to help him. "What?"
"You look like shit."
"You really know how to talk to women, don't you?"
"Are you all right?"
"Who do you think I'm talking to, the fairies in my head?"
"What makes you think something is—"
"I guess the fact that you're not in her room 24 hours a day," he muttered sarcastically.
The relaxed expression on her face withdrew, leaving a neutral, closed-off facade in its place. He knew he had gone too far.
"I guess it's none of my business," he added wistfully. Jesus, I'm always saying that to her. "But you don't look happy. You should be. And you should be taking care of yourself. If not for your own good, then for her sake."
She said nothing. Behind the facade she tortured herself with the remnants of a dream from the night before: Catherine, in some strange, skimpy leather outfit, a claw-like hand around her throat. You destroy everything you kiss.
She stared at him. Or rather, through him.
Everything you touch.
Rosenberg opened his mouth, thoughts still frantically formulating, when the figure of Major Pendleton swung around the corner, with two soldiers in tow. He was moving so rapidly his coat had flared open as he bore down on them.
It wasn't until the Major was within six feet of the Southerner that she finally snapped out of whatever thoughts had claimed her. She was startled to see him in front of her, and even more startled when he backhanded her viciously across the face.
The soldiers, expecting the worst, had grabbed Rosenberg before he could react. "What the fuck is going on?" he shouted.
Mel felt a dribble of blood from her nose. She stanched it with her fingertips. "I suppose we're even now?" she asked shakily, recalling the slap she'd given him in Munich.
"Even?" Pendleton hissed. "For us to be even, you damned bitch, I should beat you within an inch of your filthy life."
She examined the dark blood on her fingers.
"I told you to speak with her, not kill her."
"Stoller is dead. It appears she had a cyanide capsule for lunch. What the bloody hell did you say to her?"
The stunned silence stretched itself out, as Pendleton waited indignantly for Mel to say something. Instead, she pressed herself against the wall, and slid down until sitting in the bench that was fortunately and conveniently located there.
"And this is Melinda's fault?" Rosenberg growled at the Major. Angrily, he shook off the restraints of the soldiers, glowering at them.
You really meant that goodbye, didn't you?
The memories shook her violently and her head jerked in surprise, as if she had been slapped again. I made you, Catherine? I know now, I know you, oh God I know you so well. Yes, I made you. She made you. Does it really matter who you blame?
"She could've used the poison sooner, when she was caught. But she didn't. I may have had a chance of getting things out of her. But no, I thought I would honor her wishes to see you again. You were the trigger, dear. Something you said…" he trailed off, shaking his head. "I should have known….You're the kiss of death."
Pendleton turned on his heel and stalked away, followed by his minions.
Rosenberg watched him walk away, then produced a clean yet crumpled handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to Mel.
"I'm going to give you an address in London. I want you to send my belongings there."
"Just…your stuff?" he asked tentatively.
She stared at crimson on white. "Just…mine."
Even an hour after the opera, Rosenberg was still rubbing his temple. "I don't know how you can like that stuff," he said to Mel, who sat next to him in the cab.
Mel smiled slightly, saying nothing. Her eyes were closed and her head tilted back against the seat. She liked the feel of the cool leather against her bare neck. "The tenor was a bit off, I would say," she finally responded after a minute of silence.
He shifted uncomfortably; he hated wearing full dress uniforms—the stiff collar of the shirt digging into his neck, the knot of the tie holding him hostage, pressing its bulk just below his Adam's apple. "Everyone died," he muttered, lodging an additional complaint.
She straightened herself a bit, and opened her eyes. "That's what it's all about," she said grimly. They were approaching her hotel; she hadn't given up the room at the Grosvenor, even while in Germany, even though now it served to torture her with memories of Janice. But I won't be here much longer, she thought. Anton was doing well; he was as recovered as he would get from the stroke, and he was the only reason she had stayed in the city. Right, Melinda? Right.
She glanced at Rosenberg, who was staring forlornly out the window. Who does he think I stay here for? For Janice? For himself? She knew that Janice Covington was in London—where, she had no idea. She also knew that Rosenberg—and Anton himself—had spoken with her. The two men were her agents, it seemed. Nonetheless, the attempts at infiltration were met with her determined resistance. Of the two, Anton was more wily and persistent:
Over tea, usually, he would begin his civilized attack. He would lure her in with a story, usually something about someone famous he knew, or an expedition perhaps, or her father. "…And they had left me in study when I heard a thundering crash from the stairs. And much shouting. When I went into the foyer, your father and Sir James were fighting with swords."
"Swords?" Mel echoed in awe, like a child.
"And Sir James was shouting, 'On my honor, and on my regiment's honor!' And your father retorted, 'On your ass!'"
Mel's eyes bulged even bigger. She had never known her father to use obscenities.
"And that is precisely what your father did: disarmed Sir James and knocked him on his bottom." He paused dramatically. "And that is the story."
"Gosh," Mel mumbled.
"Yes, quite fantastic in its own small way." His eyes would pin her and he would go in for the kill. "Oh, by the by, my dear, Covington was here yesterday, inquiring about you."
As usual, her teacup rattled and she spilled hot liquid on her skirt at the mention of the name. Anton, unfazed, would continue blithely: "Yes, and she looked quite fetching. Lovely young woman, as you well know, not to mention intelligent. And I say that, knowing that she smokes, drinks, eats, and swears like a sailor. Well, that's quite impressive on her part, wouldn't you say? That beauty, unmarred by such habits? Did I mention she professed undying love for you? No? She did, quite. After eating Lord knows how many egg salad sandwiches."
But by this time a headache would kick in, and she would depart abruptly.
In the cab, Rosenberg watched her dismally. The vehicle pulled up to the hotel's entrance.
Inside, he decided to fend off the inevitable rejection—for she never invited him to her room—by nodding at the bar. "D'ya want a drink first?"
"No, thank you, Paul." She walked over to the elevator and pressed a button. He shuffled his feet beside her. She looked up at the half-crescent of numbers over the elevator door and watched as the arrow indicating each floor descended.
A ding announced the elevator's arrival. She smiled at him. "Good night. Thank you for keeping me company again."
She entered the elevator's golden hull as a bell boy held the door for her.
"Yeah. Right. Look, I—" He stopped, nonplused.
"What is it?" Both Mel and the bell boy stared at him.
"Are we…dating or what?" he blurted in sheer frustration and confusion.
She assessed him for a moment, as if meeting him for the first time. "No," she said. She nodded at the boy, who released the door.
As it closed over her fine features, the bell boy shrugged at him sympathetically.
Mel turned on the light as she entered the room. Its stillness filled her with a familiar kind of dread.
She sat in a chair and removed her shoes. Leaning back into the overstuffed, stiff fabric, she sighed. Then she looked around, nostrils flaring. Something about the room was different…wasn't it?
She jumped up, inhaling deeply, like a hound catching scent of a fox.
Cigarette smoke. She was here.
Forcing herself to walk—and not run—across the room, she approached the closet and flung open its door. Nothing was visible to the eyes except her clothes. She ruffled through them, feeling no resistance, nothing strange as her touch swam through silk and wool. Then she looked up into the hat rack. And noticed that Janice's rucksack, the one that Sally Phillips had given her before her departure for Germany, was gone, thus confirming her suspicions.
Her senses twitched; suddenly the room didn't seem empty anymore. Is she still here? Hiding? If I were a beautiful rogue, where would I be? Mel frowned; she didn't know. She checked the bathroom: Empty. Scowling, she entered the bedroom again…and noticed a cigarette, half-smoked, now crushed, on the rug near the bed. Cautiously, she approached the bed and kneeled. She touched the cigarette. The ash was still warm.
Dramatically, she yanked up the blanket's edge, and gasped.
"You're really paying too much for this room," Janice Covington said, from under the bed. "There's dust everywhere."
Mel felt dizzy; the sudden desire to start hyperventilating had her fighting for control of her breathing. She was half-afraid that if she lost that battle, her heart would surely follow suit in the rebellion. "What are you doing here?" she demanded angrily. Oh, she still has that damned key!
"I wanted my stuff back." As Mel stood up, Janice scrambled out from under the bed. She sneezed as she rose to her undaunting height of five-foot-three.
"You could have called first. Or sent someone else."
"Why should I make it easy for you?" Janice replied quietly. "You haven't made it easy for me."
"I tried to make it easy."
"You walked out on me just like I did on you. You knew how that felt. That wasn't easy, Mel. That was revenge."
That darker side of herself, the one that she rarely acknowledged, admitted it gleefully. "I'm sorry about that."
"I think you almost mean that." The Southern translator could tell that Janice was fighting her own sarcasm, and struggling to retain a neutral tone.
She felt a tremor in her lip. "It would be best if you'd just go." Mel spun around and stalked over to the window, where she closed the curtains. With a prayer for strength, she turned to face Janice again. The archaeologist was brushing dust off her pants. Apparently she was finally sick of khaki, at least for the time being, and wore a man's white oxford shirt, tucked into dark wool trousers, and black boots. And, of course, her leather jacket.
She looked well, and she returned Mel's frank appraisal with one of her own. "You look great," Janice murmured, forcing herself not to gaze too long.
"Thank you." Mel stared down at her stockings.
"Didn't think you'd still be hanging around London."
"Anton needs me. For a while, anyway."
"How is he?"
"Much better. But then, you've seen him." Oh God, we're acting almost normal. "Janice? Please. Go."
"You've lost all your gracious Southern charm. Least you could do is offer me a drink and listen to me."
Mel hesitated. "You know where the liquor is."
Janice didn't move. Just swayed slightly. It occurred to Mel that perhaps she had already been drinking. "I…I'll go, but I need to tell you something first, okay?" Janice hesitated, waiting for the obligatory protests; when none were forthcoming, she decided to continue. "I had dreams after you left. You know, kinda like the ones you used to have, 'bout Xena. It was funny, never had them before. I mean, I dream, but it's usually about Hedy Lamarr or someone like that." The joke didn't go over. She cleared her throat nervously. "Anyway, in these dreams I had recently, I was…her." She could not bring herself to say Gabrielle's name. "And…it was really confusing. Something about my…child. And Xena's."
Mel's throat was paper dry and aching.
"And they died…and then Xena…" She paused and stared downward. Somehow, gazing at footwear gave her the impetus to continue and she looked at Mel with those eyes, so intent, so merciless in looking through me. "You know this all, don't you? You read it in that scroll."
"Yes," Mel responded huskily.
"I understand why it frightened you, then. It is scary, isn't it?"
"It scared me too, Mel. But we don't know the ending yet, do we?"
"I'm not sure I want to know the ending…to this."
Janice sighed in frustration. "We're not them. It doesn't have to be like that. You're the one who helped me believe that in the first place!"
I used to think that, until I saw you bloody and almost dead in a forest. And I knew I was the reason you were there. It felt as if I had pulled the trigger myself. "We carry around their history. We feel them still. Which means we feel all of it: The pain and the agony, as well as the good things."
"True," Janice agreed. "So even if you think we'll want to kill each other, tomorrow, or next month, or next year—"
Mel looked at her expectantly.
"—don't you think it's worth spending those few days, or months, or years, of happiness together? Don't you think we can be happy?"
Yes! "No," Mel said. "Not as the long as the risk remains. I don't want to hurt you. I don't want to be hurt. I'm tired, Janice. I'm very tired of it all."
"I'm tired, too," Janice retorted. "I'm tired of death. I feel like I've spent the last two years looking at it, breathing it in, smelling it on myself. I felt like…" Her words stumbled as she swallowed and shifted her jaw. "…it was more my lover than you were. But there was one reason I clung to life so hard. And that was you." Anger thickened her low voice. "I didn't live through all of this, I didn't survive it just so you could walk away from me. You think you're being noble or something, but…" She trailed off, momentarily at a loss, as emotion overwhelmed her.
"What?" Mel prompted irritably, all the while knowing that it was something she probably didn't want to hear.
"I've always thought you were stronger than me. And braver. But right now, you're a bigger fucking coward than I've ever been."
Ever since she had last slapped Major Pendleton, Mel had swore she would no longer indulge in any minor theatrics of this sort. It was "Scarlett O'Hara behavior," as her father had disdainfully called it, and he had raised his daughter to be a better woman. Hadn't he? Yet the word "coward" often inspires such a reaction in Southerners regardless of region or gender, that there is no ignoring the insult. Especially from a Yankee. Before common sense could commandeer her body, she was in motion, and raising a hand to slap Janice…
…who had intercepted her arm and, using the tall woman's momentum against her, threw her onto the bed. It was almost like a dance they had done many times, always expected, never denied. You remember seeing little boys with slingshots, when you were a kid? Paul Rosenberg had said to her, a few days after meeting up with her again in London. You pull and pull that rubber band as far away as you can. No matter how hard and how far you pull, it comes back to you. Sometimes when you pull away too much, it snaps. It comes right back at you, and it can hurt like hell.
It had been one of Paul's more inspired "You Have to Go Back to Janice" speeches. Usually the poor man was too torn between loyalty for his friend, and the feelings he had for Mel, to render effective any lectures on the contradictions and complications of love.
I get the point, Mel had said to him, not thinking how Covingtonesque the terse comment was. But she realized it now.
As she fell to the bed memory struck like lightning, and she recalled that day at her home, when Janice was about to leave. How she had grabbed that slender wrist, felt resistance as she pulled the smaller woman to her, how perfectly their bodies melded together, how automatically Janice's hand touched her shoulder.
That familiar push and pull. Ad infinitum.
Janice was poised over her now. She had forgotten how much strength resided in that lovely, compact form. Gold hair fell over a shoulder, and touched her cheek. Unconsciously, her face tilted up, craving the contact, lips parted against tendrils. She felt Janice's grip tighten around her wrists as the former WAC dipped down and kissed her.
The kiss burned through Mel, and was indeed worthy of the toe curls that followed. It's still there, she thought, that connection, that feeling, that…love. Her lips parted and welcomed the familiar taste of sweetness and bourbon. The moment Janice released her wrists, her arms flew around the leather-clad back, her hands clutching fistfuls of the soft, supple jacket.
It felt like hours, but in reality the kiss lasted two minutes and forty-seven seconds. Mel disengaged to catch her breath, wished that this elusive moment riding the slipstream of time was something she could catch, and that she could horde it, hold it, savor it. But then, she thought, she would be content to relive the triumph of rediscovery by kissing Janice Covington as often as possible, for a very long time. "You lovely thief. What did you take this time, in lieu of my heart?" she whispered, breathless, and somewhat surprised at the quasi-poetry jumping out of her mouth.
Janice look stunned, a too-clever child caught in a lie. "Uh…that fancy-ass Cartier watch," she admitted sheepishly.
Mel laughed. "I'm quite fond of that watch."
Janice smiled. Then grew serious. "Do you still want me to go?"
After a kiss like that? she wanted to say. But she didn't. Janice always had a need for concrete specifics, to hear things verbalized. She knew that. A yes or a no, tangible like a fact, like something she dug up from the earth with her own hands.
Mel touched her cheek. "No." Never.
Twilight or daybreak?
Janice opened her eyes. The world was poised on a pinpoint, half dark, half light, waiting to fall either one way or another. As seconds slid by, the morning grew bold and decided to filter in sunlight from the slits and crevices of the blinds.
She was tangled possessively in Mel's long limbs. Not that this is a bad thing. The soft skin of the translator's forearm tickled against the still-sensitive scar on Janice's stomach. Mel was dead to the world, which was unusual; normally she was a light sleeper. But hours of uninterrupted screwing tires out even the biggest of Southern girls, I guess.
She shifted, turning on her side, to look at Mel. The movement did nothing to jar the slumbering Southerner. Wisps of black hair were marooned along the high, smooth cheekbone. With the soft, surreptitious blasts of warm air from the mouth, some strands rose and shimmied, a little dance of joy, a "huzza!" then floated down.
Her hand trembled slightly as she proceeded to brush away the dark hairs from her lover's face, as if dispelling dust from a priceless vase entombed in earth. She had been 19 and in college before Harry would let her do that most delicate of tasks. Even then, he had relented only because she had nagged him nonstop for weeks. It had been in Syria. Careful. It takes a light touch, he had said, as she slipped on gloves and took the brush in her hand...
Careful. It had been a new world revealed to her. She had found something so new, in the charged air of golden dust, in something so ancient.
Mel's eyes were now open—those blue eyes, ill-served by the most flowery of poetics. The brave new world. "Is everything okay?" she asked, voice husky with sleep.
"Yeah," Janice said, thickly.
"You're sure? Nothing's wrong?"
"I'm insanely in love with you. That's what's wrong." Oh...did I just say that?
Mel was grinning. It was beautiful. "Is it?"
"Uh, no...it's not..." Mel's uncanny talent for turning her into a hormonal, stammering teenager struck with a vengeance.
Mel caught her hand. "I love you," she said simply.
But she couldn't help asking. Just to be..."Sure?" Archaeologists had to be sure, right? Everything wasn't as it appeared to be, among ruins and artifacts, within dead worlds and words, waiting, waiting....
"Yes. Of course." Mel stretched, then pulled her closer.
...Waiting to be discovered. She was embraced, the familiar long arms wrapping around her. She never knew how much she enjoyed being held by someone until the first time she lay in Mel's arms. She studied the fine, faint down along the forearms, admired the strong, bony wrist, felt the tapered, gentle fingers wrapping around her own arm, like a gift.
"Would you like to live in Cambridge for a while?" Janice hadn't intended on blurting it out quite like that.
"England or Massachusetts?" Mel inquired, quite logically.
"The latter. You might remember that offer I got to teach, at Harvard...."
Is she falling asleep again? Janice wondered. The drawl was drowsier than usual; the vowels dragged across those two monosyllabic words at a Southern snail's languorous pace. "Well, I was thinking—"
"I...was thinking of maybe taking the job..." she trailed off in a quiet voice. "It's only for a semester or two. Hell, I don't even know if it's still available And I was thinking maybe eventually, I could get them to sponsor a dig, y'know?"
"Yes, that's a good idea," Mel said encouragingly.
Janice looked hopeful. "So, you think it's a good idea?"
"I just said that, didn't I?" the Southerner responded musically.
"So you think...you might want to live there, then?"
"No, with the goddamn Boston Symphony. Of course, with me!" Janice growled.
Mel giggled. "I'm just teasin', darling. I did assume..."
"Sorry. I mean...I'm gonna need all the frigging help I can get. Someone to help me get through the socializing and ass-kissing, the schmoozing. You know. Shit like that."
"Janice, are you asking me to be your…faculty wife?"
"I, uh…." Janice smiled weakly, ruefully. "Pretty stupid idea, huh? Like I expect you to drop everything and change your life….Christ, you already have a home of your own. And why you'd want to live where it snows a ton every winter, surrounded by snooty, morally constipated New Englanders..."
"Surely Yankees and snow are not a worse combination than Nazis and snow…"
"That's a matter of opinion."
"…and it doesn't snow as much in Cambridge as it does in Germany...does it?" Mel added, panicky.
"I don't think so," Janice lied, recalling the snowy winters of her undergraduate days. A nice pair of boots, she'll be fine.
"Then I...accept your proposal, such as it is."
"R-really?" This time, Janice was the one stammering. She gulped.
"Yes." Mel wanted to laugh at the look of sheer astonishment on her companion's face.
"Wow." A huge grin covered Janice's face. She giggled, like a child. In that moment Mel could imagine her as a girl, slender, mischievous, tireless, Harry Covington's faithful shadow. The image rendered itself indelible in her mind, and she vowed to herself…that she would make Janice happy like this, as often as she could, for the rest of her life. She didn't know—and didn't need to know, really—that Janice had made the same vow, at the same moment in time.
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