The Introduction

Cath, Bard


The characters here might resemble some folks we know. No copyright infringement is intended. I wrote this story at the urging of my muse; it should never be used for profit. Please do not copy or cite elsewhere without permission from the author.

None. There is a bit of naughty language, though.

This story involves a loving relationship between two consenting adults, in this case, woman and man. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something else.

WARNING: This story takes place during Season 5 of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” It may contain spoilers for parts of the season. It is also an “uber” tale, so the references may be slightly obtuse.

Many thanks to Netgyrl and my pals at the Tavern Wall BB, where this tale was originally posted. Your feedback and encouragement mean more than you know.

This is part of the “Professional Standards” series (“The Introduction,” “Season of the Battered Bard,” and “Endings and Beginnings”). Whew…

Part 1

The small, muscular blonde unlocked the door, turned the knob, and entered her suburban Auckland home. It was late and her companion had left a lamp on in the living room. A sleek, grey furball wrapped itself around her legs for a moment, then dashed out into the night.

“See ya later, Oragator,” she called after the vanishing form of her “other” companion – an independent feline she named “Kia Ora,” which meant something like “hello and welcome” in the native language of her adopted home.

Erin O'Hanlon closed the door on another busy day.

Wearily, she dropped her gear bag in the hallway, slipped off her shoes, and crossed the living room toward the kitchen. On the way, she paused to activate her answering machine, but immediately stopped the recording when she noticed the friend who snored soundly on her couch. She paused again to throw a comforter over the sleeping figure.

The woman sighed and headed into the kitchen. She found a plate of fresh cookies and immediately reached for one, but caught herself.

“You know you're going to have to run an extra mile tomorrow if you eat those, Erin,” her conscience scolded. “A nice tossed salad is much better for you.”

“Aw, the hell with it!” she growled softly. Jake's hazelnut chocolate chip cookies were worth three extra miles. She savored two of them with a large glass of skim milk.

The man on her couch stirred and sat up. Tired green eyes greeted him, but the smile was broad and genuine.

“I fell asleep,” he apologized.

“We had to reshoot one scene six times,” she replied. Her tone indicated that she, too, was sorry.

“The story of our life?” the large man inquired as he grinned, stood gracefully, and moved behind her. He felt the knots in her shoulders and at the base of her neck. Strong, gentle hands began kneading, working out the kinks.

“Oh, yeah,” she moaned as she leaned back into his chest. He towered almost a foot above her. She rested against him while he leaned down and caught the scent of herbs and citrus, mingled with sweat and smoke.

“You need a wash, mate,” Jake chided.

“I know,” the blonde replied. “Wish they wouldn't allow smoking during breaks or anywhere near the set. I probably reek, but I'm so tired.”

“Tell you what,” he offered, “you take a quick shower and I'll heat something wonderful. Bet you didn't get any dinner.”

“Actually, the caterers brought some in about seven o'clock, but I can't remember what it was. Guess I wasn't very hungry.”

She let out a small yelp as her companion slung her over his shoulder with ease and carried her to the bedroom. He helped remove her outer garments, then pointed sternly at the bathroom.

“Gotcha. Shower. Eat.” She mumbled to him through half-closed eyelids and began to shed the rest of her clothes. He smiled and returned to the kitchen.

Ten minutes later, Erin joined him. She wore a sparkling, white, terry robe over her light cotton nightshirt. Her short blonde hair was still wet and she had slicked it back. She looked – and smelled – squeaky clean. It was one of the things Jake liked best about this woman – she just felt… fresh, even when buried under layers of special effects makeup, or covered with dirt and soaked with rain during rugged outdoor filming sessions.

She sat at the counter, and he ladled homemade chicken soup into the bowl before her. She inhaled the steam and her stomach rumbled.

“Guess I'm hungry after all.”

She slurped a spoonful of the hot soup and looked gratefully at the man awaiting her verdict.

“Delicious as always, mate,” she said with a laugh. She had managed to suppress her Texas accent within a year of coming to Auckland and had worked hard to perfect her ”Kiwi-isms” during the next three years.

She finished off the bowl in silence while he sat beside her. Then, she downed a second bowl, followed by two more cookies, and another glass of milk.

“Thanks. That was wonderful.”

She glanced at the clock, which registered almost 11:30 p.m. “Hey, don't you have to work tomorrow?” she asked.

“Not until ten in the morning, and the pub was closed today. It's Monday, remember?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“What time is your call?” he countered.

“Six o'clock – a.m.” she replied emphatically. He frowned.

“God, Erin, how much longer are you going to keep this up?”


“Start work before sunrise, work until after sunset, then stop by the gym for a workout on the way home, after putting in a fourteen-hour day. You're exhausted, honey, I can see it in your eyes.”

“It's only until April or May, Jake, then I'll have some time off.”

“If you last that long,” he huffed. “I'm surprised you haven't pulled or broken something by now, the way they've got you handling most of your own stunts.”

“Don't jinx me, pal.” Her reply was quiet, but sharp. “I insisted on doing more of the physical stuff this year. If anything happens, it's my choice.”

He shook his head and rubbed her back. She rested her forehead in her hands and sighed again.

“I just wish…” she began, then stopped.

“Wish what,” Jake urged.

“Nothing.” She started to rise. He gripped her forearm and pulled her back down to her seat.

“You wish what, Rin? C'mon, talk to me. Something's been bothering you for the last month.”

Erin gazed into his warm, blue eyes. She started to cry.

Part 2

Jake pulled the small woman close and hugged her.

Erin O'Hanlon seldom discussed her work, although she always carried the latest scripts and studied them during much of her free time. To watch her break down in tears like this over the series was a new experience for him.

She fought for control and won, wiping the tears with the back of her hand and gently withdrawing from his arms. She smiled up at him.

“I'm exhausted. If I promise to talk, can we wait until tomorrow?”

“OK, but we will discuss it. I know work has been hard on you lately. We have to do something before...”

“Thanks for caring,” she interrupted tenderly, then grinned. “Maybe I just need more sack time.”

Erin stifled a yawn, took Jake by the hand, and led him to the bedroom. She fell asleep two minutes after her head hit the pillow.

The alarm rang at precisely 5:00 a.m., but Erin failed to hear it.

At 5:25 a.m., Jake shook her awake, poured coffee into her, helped her dress, and scooted her out the door.

“Drive carefully,” he advised as he kissed the top of her head. “Better to get there late, than not at all.” He still worried about how his American companion navigated the “wrong sided” roadways of New Zealand.

“Always, Mom,” she promised.

That evening, Jake turned the duties over to his pub's co-owner and hurried home to prepare a special dinner. He had just removed a rosemary-scented, lamb shoulder roast from the oven when he heard Erin's key in the lock. He glanced at the clock – 9:00 p.m. – early by recent standards.

The delicious essence reached Erin's nose before she even closed the door. Resident feline was already out for his evening stroll. Soft music played on the stereo -- Natalie Cole's Unforgettable, one of her favorite CDs. Jake had lowered the lights. Glowing candles and fresh flowers adorned the dining room table.

She kicked off her shoes, dropped her bundles, and strolled across the living room. He smiled when she entered the kitchen.

“Give it a minute to settle,” advised the man in the apron, proudly holding the roast, “then I'll carve.”

“Do you need a shower?” he added.

“Took one at the gym,” came her muffled reply, as she tasted a spoonful of rich gravy simmering on the stove. “Mmmmmm, lovely, but needs more pepper.” She added the seasoning.

Jake nodded towards a bottle of Hawkes Bay Cabernet Sauvignon on the counter. “Handle that will you?”

Erin found a corkscrew and expertly opened the bottle.

“Guess my time waiting tables wasn't entirely wasted,” she joked. Then she noted the hour.

“Hey, how come you're home early on a regular night?” the blonde inquired.

“I gave Mickey the helm,” he responded matter-of-factly. “Thought I'd fix you dinner, then we can have a chat, and then…” He arched an eyebrow suggestively.

“Oh, the chat…” Erin's response was less than enthusiastic. “Maybe we can just skip that part, and go straight to bed after dinner.” She tried her best seductive grin.

“Nope. First dinner, then chat, then bed.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Captain Jake.” She moved beside him, stood on her tiptoes, and nuzzled his shoulder while he carved the roast.

“Thank you. Now pour the Cabernet before it deviates from perfect room temperature.”

Dinner proved a culinary triumph. The wine was particularly delightful. Erin even agreed to a second glass, although she usually set her limit at one on a work night.

As she finished repeat helpings of roast lamb and steamed red potatoes, the actress knew she was lucky to have this caring, talented man as friend and lover. She just didn't know how to tell him what had happened at work that day.

Part 3

A long silence followed the last piece of roast. Erin sipped her third glass of wine while clearing the dishes. Jake brewed decaf and politely headed for the living room when she shooed him from the kitchen.

"My turn," the blonde admonished, trying to avoid their upcoming "chat" about what was bothering her - and perhaps affecting their entire future.

"Leave these and let's talk," urged her chef and companion.

"It'll only take a few minutes."

Ten minutes and a fourth glass of wine later, a slightly looped Erin joined her friend on the couch. On the stereo, Ella Fitzgerald sang from the best of her songbooks.

Fortified by more wine than usual, Erin felt like she didn't have anything to lose. She moved closer and pulled him down. Jake rested his head in her lap and she absentmindedly stroked his soft, curly hair.

"Hey, you should be the one on the couch talking to me!" he objected.

"Don't remind me," Erin warned. "You know what I think of the job they did on that script…"

A recent episode of her series featured a send-up of a psychiatric counseling session, complete with analyst and couch. Erin played it for all she was worth, but she couldn't rescue a hodgepodge story that had been shredded even further by their new production team.

"Team," she thought harshly, "more like crew of Titanic."

It was another disappointment in an up and down season.

Erin knocked back the remainder of her fourth glass, then launched into her description of today's Donnybrook.

"I almost gave my notice this morning and I'm still considering it," she stated as calmly as she could, but Jake sensed a lot of tension, maybe even anger.

His eyes widened, but he caught himself and gave her his best "sensitive male" expression. A wry smile crossed Erin's face, then faded.

"Go on, that's what I'm here for."

Erin barely paused to breathe as she told him about her argument with the director. In turn, that director called one of the new producers and complained about the co-star's "attitude."

"My attitude," she snorted. "Can you believe that?"

Jake couldn't. He'd never known anyone with less "attitude." He had to push Erin just to get her to stand up for herself when someone cut in front of her at the market.

"Jake, they call themselves 'story consultants,' but they're really misguided ass…, er, idiots… who couldn't produce their way out of a paper bag."

Jake shook his head and tried to think of something to say, but he didn't have to. Erin was on a wine-induced, full-blown rampage.

Weeks of frustration and anger poured out as she described glaring script and character inconsistencies, last minute plot changes and dialogue replacements, substitution of mindless action and violence where scenes really called for exposition, meddling from at least three producers when one was more than enough…

"Worst of all, they've given me a total of ten minutes with Chris during the last three episodes. Jesus Christ!"

Jake knew Erin was really upset when she invoked the name of that particular god, considering she dealt mostly with mythical deities on the show.

Chris Keller was the star of the series, and Erin's close "mate" at work. Jake had witnessed their chemistry in front of, and behind, the camera. Acting with Chris was one of Erin's greatest pleasures. Keller's tall, dark, enigmatic character proved the perfect foil for the small, talkative blonde that Erin played on the show. Never mind that the two actresses switched personalities away from the studio. Chris was an outgoing, exuberant Kiwi. Jake had liked her immediately. On the other hand, his companion projected an aura of reserved politeness, until you really got to know her.

Both women possessed the talent to cross over completely during their scenes - and they worked magic. Their "chemistry" made the series a major success through four grueling seasons. Jake knew that reducing their time together could doom it.

He found himself growing almost as angry as the young woman whose hair stroking had changed to hair pulling.

"Ouch! Erin, hey, I'm not the enemy here!" the big man protested.

"Jeez, I'm sorry, love."

"So tell me what exactly makes you want to chuck it, because I know you're not a quitter."

Erin paused long enough to take a sip of her companion's cold decaf, then forged on.

Part 4

“It's not that they can't write,” Erin explained, “it's that they don't know how to write for us. They're trying to fit our show into a mold, or make it something else.”

She paused for another sip of coffee.

“Oh hell, Jake, I don't know what they're trying to do. Maybe they don't either. I just know it doesn't feel right this year.”

Erin rubbed her eyes with one hand while Jake held the other. The big man gazed up at her sympathetically from his resting place in her lap.

“Why didn't you say something sooner? At least to me?”

“It sounds cliché, but I really am a company player, love. I prepare thoroughly, do my job, and trust the production team. That's what being a professional means in this business. The director directs; the actress acts. Guess I thought things would get better if I just worked hard enough, you know?”

In typical fashion, Erin started to retreat, and blamed herself. Then she paused.

“No, not this time,” she thought. “I've worked my butt off and come too far to back down now.”

She remembered fearing the “ax” during the first season when fans complained about her character – too annoying, too cute, too many mannerisms. Instead of taking it personally or becoming defensive, she joined the writers, directors, and producers in an effort to salvage the character. And salvage they did. Now, she received as many kudos and almost as much fan mail as Chris. Even the show's critics noted her progress. That made her proud.

Then, inspiration struck. For the first time in her history with the show, Erin O'Hanlon decided to make some real waves.

“Jake, I'll call Maria tomorrow, to see what we can do about my contract.”

“Are you serious?” he asked in amazement. This constituted a major step for the “team player” he loved.

Maria Santos was Erin's sharp, Los Angeles-based attorney. Except for standard legal advice, Erin never used her services… until now.

“Well, if Chris can have an out clause in her contract, maybe I can get one too,” said the blonde.

Chris Keller's latest contact allowed her to opt out of the series without penalty at the halfway point for any remaining season. Erin's agreement called for another full season, unless the show was cancelled.

“But you already signed…”

“Maria is the best in the business,” the actress responded. “If there's a way, she'll find it.” She smiled sadly, then added, “I wish it didn't have to come to this.”

“Erin, sometimes maybe you set your standards too high?” Jake posed it as a question.

She just shook her head, leaned down, and kissed him.

“Maybe, but that's the way I am.”

After a short silence, the big man sat up and grinned.

“Resolved for tonight then, mate?” His grin widened. “And now it's time for phase three of Erin and Jake's sensitive evening together.”

“I just hope I can stay awake,” she chided as he stood, then hauled her to her feet. She was tired, but relieved. The actress had a plan.

He lifted Erin in his arms, and couldn't resist the urge to tease when he noted how solid she felt.

“God, you're heavy.”

“Yup, but it is all muscle,” she defended, adopting her native drawl.

“I know. That's the scary part.”

Jake carried her to the bedroom, pausing while she turned off the lights. Erin felt his strength in every movement.

“By the way, thanks,” she whispered.

He reached back and closed the door with his foot. The resident feline would not be allowed to interrupt them tonight.

Part 5

Jake turned his key in the lock and opened the door. Music from the stereo, her car in the garage, and lights on all over the house signaled that Erin had beat him home. Kia Ora was probably out for his evening romp. A delicious, garlicky essence wafting from the kitchen told Jake that dinner was already underway. The sound of running water indicated…

The tall man wandered into the bedroom. He heard his companion humming in the shower and smiled at the off-key, but happy, tune – whatever it was.

Jake faced a major decision: Let Erin know he was home right now, or surprise her when she stepped out dripping wet. The latter strategy definitely appealed to him, until he remembered her brutal assault on the sparring bag during their kickboxing practice. He opted for the safe approach.

“I'm home!” Jake shouted into the bathroom, trying to pierce the din.

Erin replied. “Hi! Dinner should be ready in about ten minutes. Do you want to take a shower now or after?”

“After,” he responded. Jake found it hard to pass on her offer, but realized that dinner might get burnt or cold, or both, if he decided to join her under the spray.

“I'll go check on the food.”

Once in the kitchen, he saw that all was in readiness. She had set the table, fixed a salad, and popped homemade lasagna (an O'Hanlon specialty) into the oven. He settled down in the living room with a glass of iced tea and waited.

Jake looked up from that day's Herald as Erin strolled into the room wearing sweatpants and t-shirt, and still drying her hair with a large towel.

But it was her face that caught his attention. Instantly, he was on his feet and at her side inspecting her upper lip and left eye and cheek.

“What happened?” he asked in a voice filled with concern. Erin held his hand to keep him from probing those painful spots.

“I told you our producers are tough.” Her attempted smile became a painful wince. “Guess what happened when I tried to change my contract?”

There were times that Jake could clearly tell Erin was teasing. This wasn't one of them. He shook his head and brought her hand to his lips, kissing it gently.

“I forgot to duck,” she explained. She looked miserable.

“Have you seen a physician?”

“Yeah. They took me to the clinic when I came to.”

“Erin! Are you kidding me or not?”

Her nonchalance frustrated him, but then he couldn't see that the actress was trying to hide pain and shock behind her cool facade. To date, her only other work-related injury had been a sprained ankle.

“No kidding, mate. Paul really cleaned my clock. My fault, though. I missed a cue and stepped into his punch. He felt awful.”

“But how do you feel?” he asked, leading her toward the couch.

“I got to come home early and fix dinner,” she answered, pulling him toward the dining room table.

“You look like hell, Erin.”

“Thanks, Jake. I love you too. Let's eat.”

They got through dinner on small talk and warm glances. Erin ate little and generally pushed her food around on the plate. Her upper lip was split and swollen, her left eye starting to turn black, and a small-but-angry gash marred the beautiful, smooth left cheek where Paul's studded leather glove had connected. Her quick reflexes enabled her to pull back and avoid further damage, but the punch still made her see stars.

The lasagna was delicious, as always, but Jake's appetite had disappeared the moment he saw her battered face. He finished his portion to acknowledge her effort, but declined seconds.

Erin insisted on helping clear the dishes. Jake took the opportunity to ask the question that had been on his mind all evening.

“Did you talk with your attorney?”

“Not directly. We left messages for each other. Maria said she'd check out the contract and get back to me as soon as she could.”

He cocked his head, waiting for her to continue.

“I feel better just taking that first step, you know?”

“I'm proud of you, O'Hanlon.”

She punched him lightly on the shoulder.

“You should ice that lip.”

“Will do. And by the way, they gave me tomorrow off. The ER doc said I'd be even sorer and more swollen next morning.”

They finished the dishes and Erin iced her injury while Jake took his shower.

Bed felt great that night. Before she drifted off to sleep, Erin shared a thought with Jake.

“I never miss a duck cue during fights, you know? Sometimes I don't time the punch right and one of the stunt guys catches it. Then I'm the one apologizing. But today, I was thinking about the character and the show, and the stupid way they've done it this season, and my contract. Then, I just didn't move away in time and Paul couldn't stop, and…” The words flowed faster and faster. She felt tears coming too, but she let her anger displace them.

Jake hugged her and stroked her hair. She fell asleep in his arms.

Part 6

Morning came, and with it, the pain.

Erin awoke to a monocular view of her world. Her left eye was swollen shut. Her split lip and bruised cheek ached, and she had a very stiff neck. She tried to sit up, then eased back down in bed with a moan. Work of any kind was out of the question today.

Jake walked through the door with a cup of coffee in one hand, a glass of water in the other, a cold pack tucked under his arm, and aspirin in his pocket. He was dressed and ready to head out for an early appointment with the crew refurbishing the tank room at his pub. He hated to leave Erin in this condition, but had no choice.

"You moaned, mistress?" he asked in his best manservant voice.

Erin fought back a smile. Smiling hurt right now.

"I've had better days," she quipped.

Jake handed her the steaming mug. She tried to sip the coffee, but spilled several drops on her nightshirt when her split lip reacted to the hot liquid.

"Sorry about that, I just thought you'd want…"

"It's OK," she interrupted. "I can really use the lift, but I have to figure how to get past this." She pointed at her injuries. Jake felt an overwhelming urge to kiss her there and take away the pain.

Erin found that relaxing her lower jaw and "pouring" the coffee in seemed to work.

They sat in silence until Jake began to stroke her forearm and she managed a wink with her undamaged eye.

"Speaking of stroking, where's the Oragator?" she asked.

"Asleep on his favorite couch," Jake replied.

"Jake, you know he isn't allowed up there."

"Let it go for today, mate. I'll vacuum the whole thing Saturday morning."

Jake spoiled that cat, but Erin was too tired and sore to argue. She exchanged the mug for the glass of water and three aspirin.

"Could I have a morphine chaser with this please?"

"After you get some breakfast, take another aspirin or two. Here, ice it." He handed her the cold pack and she placed it gingerly against the side of her face.

"The X-rays showed nothing broken, but it still hurts like hell," she mumbled. Erin was feeling sorry for herself.

"If the pain doesn't ease off by this afternoon, call me, and we'll go see the doc again."

Jake stood and gently ruffled the blonde hair. She tried to look up at him, but the motion made her dizzy. She hung her head.

"You stay in bed today, that's an order. Rest, ice, and do whatever they told you at the clinic. And don't fix dinner. I'll bring something home. There's leftover lasagna for lunch and I fixed you some oatmeal for breakfast."

"Always looking out for me," she whispered with deep affection. It was a line from an old script, but she meant it.

"Always," Jake responded. He'd watched that episode three times. The big man wouldn't admit it, but he almost cried the first time. He considered it Erin's best performance. They didn't follow the series faithfully, but Jake had that one on videotape.

He carried the mug out to the kitchen, then returned to say goodbye and kissed her on the other cheek.

"Page me right away if you need anything, OK?"

"You bet," she answered, and gave him a "thumbs up." "I love you."

"Love you too."

After she heard Jake's car leave the driveway, Erin forced herself out of bed, used the bathroom, and padded into the kitchen.

The morning light filtered through her living room window and warmed Kia Ora where he rested on the forbidden couch. He stirred, stretched, and went back to sleep.

Watching him from the kitchen, Erin almost laughed, but caught herself. "Lazy cat," she said aloud. "Lucky, lazy cat."

She consumed a spoonful of cool oatmeal, then reheated the remainder in the microwave and finished the bowl. The pain in her jaw and neck intensified and she started to take two more aspirin. That's when she remembered the painkillers in Jake's medicine cabinet - the capsules they gave him when he broke his foot last year moving crates at the brewpub. Erin thought there might be a few left, and just one couldn't hurt.

The actress finished her second cup of coffee, then hunted through Jake's cabinet until she found the bottle labeled "prescription only."

Erin swallowed two capsules with a large glass of water and went back to bed.

She had never taken anything stronger than ibuprofen. Her body wasn't ready for the painkillers.

Part 7

Erin lay in bed staring at the ceiling.

“Maybe if I stay perfectly still and take deep breaths,” she thought as she fought the nausea that had assaulted her all morning. Her churning stomach won. She dashed to the bathroom and said goodbye to breakfast. Her split lip began to bleed and the side of her face pounded with pain.

She found the bottle of Vicodin that the doctor had prescribed last year for Jake's broken foot. The label listed nausea, vomiting, and dizziness among the side effects.

“Not very bright,” the actress scolded herself. “Next time, stick to aspirin.”

She vomited three more times. Then, the dry heaves took over.

“God, just kill me and end it please,” she groaned as she sat against the bathroom wall waiting for the next round. It came.

When the nausea finally subsided, she sipped a glass of water, scrubbed her teeth, and changed her nightshirt, then hauled herself back to bed. On cue, Kia Ora sauntered in and leapt up beside her. He stretched and demanded her attention. She concentrated on stroking his back and belly, trying to overcome her queasiness.

After a short time, the exhausted young woman fell asleep.

Erin's phone rang at about two o'clock that afternoon. She surfaced long enough to catch a familiar voice on the answering machine.

“Hello? Erin? Please pick up if you're there…”

The authoritative voice of Stan Raymond, the series' executive producer, roused Erin from her stupor. She didn't feel like talking, but this was the boss. She reached for the phone, knocking a half-empty glass of water to the floor and upsetting Kia Ora, who rolled off the bed, yowled in protest, and stalked out of the room.

“Damn!” Erin exclaimed. She lifted the receiver off the cradle.

“I'm here Stan,” she mumbled, realizing that she sounded like she was talking through cotton wool. Her head felt the same way.

“How are you, Erin?” His voice conveyed genuine concern. “I heard about the accident. Was it yesterday your time?”

“Yes, and I'm fine,” Erin lied. All she wanted to do was get this over with and go back to sleep.

“That's not what Dale told me.”

Dale Andrews was one of the new producers, and the recipient of the director's recent complaint about Erin's “attitude” problem. The new production team had yet to earn her respect; Dale Andrews was team captain. He'd addressed Erin's “attitude” via a quick on-set call earlier in the week. Andrews' arrogant lecture had prompted Erin to phone her attorney to investigate the possibility of adding an “out” clause to her contract.

“Dale shouldn't have bothered you with this, Stan. It's not serious. I doubt we'll even lose a day. They're shooting scenes without me this afternoon. And I'll be back at work tomorrow.” She managed to sound direct and upbeat.

“You have to take care of yourself,” Raymond admonished gently. “You're an important part of the series and we can't lose you this late in the season.”

“Thank you for that vote of confidence,” she responded, trying not to sound sarcastic.

“Erin, there's something else,” he said hesitantly.

“I knew it,” she thought, but remained silent.

He continued.

“Dale called me twice this week to discuss the fact that you directly contradicted Joanne in front of the crew during at least one scene and forced a retake. Joanne thinks a lack of concentration may have contributed to your injury and Dale agrees. I know this isn't the best time, but we need to talk about it soon.”

Erin felt like the top of her head would explode.

Perhaps it was the aftereffects of Jake's painkillers, or maybe she'd just had enough. Erin O'Hanlon sat straight up in the bed, ignored the throbbing at the side of her face, and let Stan Raymond have it with both barrels.

“Stan, Joanne Imari is a pompous, upstart ass-ette who doesn't know how to direct this cast or crew. And Best and Andrews are royally fucking up the show.” Her voice was shaking now. She took a deep breath.

There was silence at the other end.

“Oh, oh,” Erin told herself.

“Go on,” Stan Raymond ordered quietly.

Erin sensed the danger in what she was about to say, but chose not to back down.

Part 8

When Jake came through the door to their home that night, Erin and Kia Ora were seated on the couch studying a script. The actress had propped her legs on the coffee table. Both looked up as he entered. Erin flashed him a sheepish half-grin. He noted less swelling in her left cheek and jaw, but her black eye still looked painful.

“How goes the battle?” the big man asked, nodding toward the script.

“The script is all right, but otherwise it's been quite a day,” Erin replied mysteriously.

Jake crossed to the couch and sat beside her. He took her face in his large, gentle hands and turned her head slightly to examine the injury.

“It looks better,” he stated with his best bedside manner. “How does it feel?”

“Not too bad tonight.” Erin squeezed his hand. “And how was your day?”

“The usual, but we did get a lot done in the tank room. By the way, I tried to call you twice this afternoon. The phone was busy the first time and no one answered the second, so I left a message. You got it?”

“Yep, thanks love.”

Jake's message reminded Erin to rest, get plenty of water, not to fix dinner, and that she was the most important person in his life.

“I was on for almost a half hour this afternoon with Stan Raymond. Maybe that's when you called the first time.”

Jake cocked his head and raised his right eyebrow.

“Your executive producer? That Stan Raymond?”

“The Stan Raymond,” she answered. Jake sensed there was more to this tale. He was a patient man. Erin would tell him when she was ready.

“Then I went for a walk. I was probably out when you called again.”

“Sorry I didn't get back to you this evening, we got busy and the time just flew, and…”

She cut off his apology, but not impolitely.


He could tell there was something on her mind.


“I think I tried to fire our executive producer this afternoon.”

She almost laughed at her companion's double take.

“Or maybe he fired me. I'm not sure.”

“Erin, talk sense here, please?”

Erin closed the script. Kia Ora rolled off the couch, decided to avoid the upcoming discussion, and sauntered to the bedroom.

Erin explained.

“Stan's call woke me up. I'm afraid that with the pain and drugs and all, I just unloaded on him about the show.”

“What drugs?”

“I tried a couple of your Vicodin and spent the morning worshipping the porcelain god. They didn't go down very well.”

“Errrrinnnnn…” Jake grumbled, his tone low and scolding. He could draw her two-syllable name out to about six syllables when he was really upset.

“I thought they'd help.” She shrugged. “Anyway, Stan started lecturing me about the attitude business and told me that Dale and Joanne thought I lost focus and maybe caused my own injury. I told him they were way out of line”

“Ouch!” Jake sympathized, then added, “Yeah, but the executive producer called you at home. That's maybe not a good sign.”

“Funny thing though,” Erin continued, “he heard me out, then thanked me and rang off. No yelling or screaming or anything like that.”

“What did you say to him?”

Erin told Jake about her one-sided tirade with Stan Raymond. She described how this season's new producers failed to provide continuity, dropped critical scenes between Chris Keller and herself, alienated most of the old writers, hired at least one director who caused open rebellion among the crew, used farce and irrelevant action instead of a good story line…

“I think I gave him a litany of sins.” Erin's statement hinted at her distant Catholic upbringing. “I probably shocked him into silence with a few other choice words, too.”

“Being around these uninhibited Kiwis has rubbed off on you.” Jake touched her uninjured cheek and smiled. “So, he didn't say anything after you told him all this?”

“No. Just 'thanks' and then he hung up.”

“Well, nothing we can do about it tonight.” Jake lived in the moment, focused on the here and now. It was one of the things Erin liked best about him.

She stared thoughtfully at the ceiling.

“Yeah. Wonder if I can collect unemployment in New Zealand….”

He tried a change of tack, if not a change of subject.

“Did you hear from Maria?”

“No, not yet.”

“And what were you doing out walking?”

“I needed some fresh air and didn't feel like answering questions about domestic brutality at the gym. Besides, I have to keep in shape.”

He poked a finger at her taut abdomen and teased. “Yes. One day off and I can already feel the flab here, and here, and here.” He prodded softly, moving upward from her stomach.

“Ummmm, that feels nice,” she whispered, but drew back slightly when he moved in for a kiss.

“It still hurts,” Erin said hesitantly.

Jake changed course and directed his kiss from her lips to her right cheek.

“I brought grilled chicken and salad. Feel like dinner?”

“Please. I'm starved and I have to stoke up some energy for work tomorrow.”

“You're not ready to go back yet.” It was part statement, part query. Jake trusted Erin to know her limits.

“I have to. Who knows? If I stay away too long, they might kill off Chris Keller's little sidekick and costar.”

Her eyes sparkled and she managed a grin, but Jake recognized the concern behind Erin's bravado.

Part 9

The rest of the week passed uneventfully. Erin returned to work and, with a little makeup magic, they concealed her injury onscreen. Offscreen, at the gym, she gracefully endured the teasing ("Yeah, but you should see the other guy…"). She spent a major portion of each workout honing her ducking and weaving skills.

Saturday evening came and Jake won the race home.

Just after 11:30 p.m., Erin dragged in and dropped her gear bag on the living room floor. She kicked it for good measure.

"I won't even ask," Jake said as he watched her from the kitchen where he was preparing a very late dinner.

The actress emitted an unintelligible growl.

Sweat and dampness plastered Erin's short, blonde bangs to her forehead. When she removed her jacket, Jake noticed that she still wore the upper half of her standard, two-piece Amazon costume.

"Let me guess," he said to the young woman who now leaned against the kitchen counter beside him, "they fired you, but let you keep part of your costume?"

The big guy's good mood started to rub off on Erin.

"No. They worked us right into the ground today, so I stole it instead of demanding overtime." She smiled and stood on tiptoe to kiss him.

He responded by cradling the back of her head in a large hand and meeting her halfway. They lingered for awhile, then Jake cautiously pushed her to arm's length and made a face.

"You need a shower."

Erin looked down and sniffed. "You're right."

"Go on. I'm fixing scramble and toast. I'll keep yours warm."

"You always keep mine warm, mate," she quipped and strolled toward the bedroom. "Care to join me?" she called over her shoulder.

Jake hesitated only long enough to place the eggs back in the refrigerator.

After they made love, they lay together trading small talk. It was Sunday morning already. They could sleep in.

Erin decided to share the day's big news with Jake. She tried to maintain nonchalance, but her voice conveyed a mixture of excitement, apprehension, and relief.

"The rumor around the show is that Best and Andrews are on their way out."

"Is that good?" he queried.

"Depends on who replaces them, but Chris says they're bringing back some of the better writers from last season for rewrites. She thinks Terry Klein will produce most of the rest of this season."

Jake knew that Erin respected Klein. The "Iron Maiden" was widely credited for the program's success, starting with its second season. She had moved to another of Stan Raymond's productions at the end of the fourth season.

“That's great." Jake paused. "Do you think your conversation with Stan Raymond had anything to do with it?"

"I really don't know. Maybe. Or maybe he was reading the fan posts on the internet."

Erin giggled. The cast and crew had strict orders to avoid online chat without prior approval. Also frowned upon were visits to the fan websites that sprang up throughout the world as the series' popularity soared.

"I thought you couldn't read that stuff," Jake chided.

"I sneak a peek from Chris's laptop now and then," she stated in a conspiratorial tone.

Erin took a deep breath.

"That's the good news. Do you want the bad news now?"

Jake guessed what was coming. "You heard from Maria?"

A blonde head nodded.

"What did she say?"

The actress sounded resigned as she told Jake that Maria could find no way to modify her contract at this time.

"She says I can do it on the next renewal, but it's not worth the fight right now. Win some, lose some, right?"

"She should still be able to do something…"

"Well, maybe I won't need the out clause if things start to turn around on the show."

"That's my mate," Jake added lightly, "ever the cockeyed optimist."

"South Pacific, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, 1949." Erin prided herself on her knowledge of theatrical trivia.

On cue, her stomach grumbled. The young woman stood and stretched – all rippling, toned muscle. She pulled on a robe and headed for the kitchen.

"Can I fix you something?" she called out to Jake, who lounged among the pillows, a silly grin on his face.

"Toast," he replied.

"Salud!" she hollered back.

"Smartass," he said in a stage whisper.

"I heard that," she responded, feigning indignation.

While she waited for the toast to brown, Erin wandered to the end of the living room with the picture window. She gazed out into the darkness, then up at the sky where the stars glittered. They had built their house as far as practical beyond the city lights just for nights like this.

Time passed. The toast popped up. A delicious, warm smell drifted from the kitchen. Erin inhaled the scent of home and contentment. She didn't move.

She felt a gentle hand on the back of her neck. It traveled to her shoulder and rested there for a moment. Then, large, strong arms enveloped her from behind. She leaned back against her companion, fitting perfectly just under his chin.

Jake kissed the top of her head and reveled in the essence of her - fresh, clean, spice, citrus -- Erin.

"I am so lucky," she murmured.

"Huh?" He hadn't expected her to say anything at a moment like this. Usually she didn't. Comfortable silence was one of their special gifts to each other.

"I have a job I love, no matter how much I grumble. We built a home together that's everything I've ever wanted. I'm working in this glorious country. I'm healthy. And then there's you."

He pulled her closer. They stood that way for a long while, two stargazers. Finally, Jake broke the spell.

"How about a very early breakfast?"

Erin grinned as he led her to the kitchen.

Part II

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