Co-Winner (Most Candy Names Used):

The Most Special Christmas

by Annie (Bard of New Mexico)

Disclaimer: The characters of Dr. Janice Covington, Melinda Pappas, Xena, and Gabrielle belong exclusively to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended through the writing of this fan fiction. This work is strictly for entertainment purposes and not for profit.

Subtext Warning: Of course! It *is* Janice Covington we're talking about. This story implies a loving relationship between two consenting adult women. If this offends you, you are under 18, or it is illegal in the state/country in which you live, please read no further. Now, if you're upset about the sex scenes (or lack of graphic ones), don't mind me. I'm competing with Barbara Kingsolver to write "the shortest sex scene in the English language". Hehehehe!

Language Warning: Of course! C'est Janice Covington.

Mel Pappas strolled down 5th Avenue one frosty day early in December 1948. It was so noisy that she couldn't hear the crunch and krackel of autumn leaves under her feet. Traffic, with its smelly exhaust and horns, started her head aching. Men and women accidentally jostled her—one had given her a real jolt—and only the most polite offered her the barest "excuse me"before moving on with their own holiday errands. Mel, herself, had just gone on a spree and felt as if she'd plunked down 100 Grand on presents for her friends and family. They were really nice things, too, top-of-the-line treasures that included charm bracelets for her aunts and her cousin and a glistening silver christening cup for her cousin's new baby, Ruth, but spending all the money in Fort Knox couldn't put her in the holiday mood.

That was the Riesen for her trip to New York. Besides doing her shopping, she purposely went to the Symphony last night to hear Christmas music, but she ended up having a really bad time because her date, a real loser from a whole family of rich crazy dips, couldn't keep his hands off her during the performance. Her spine tingled at the remembrance of his spooky eyes and her flesh still shuddered where the psycho had touched her. Add to it the fact that he insisted on taking off his cramped shoes during the performance. He had really stinky feet. And when they went out to dinner after the concert, he insisted on having barbecue and Boston baked beans, and he ended up dripping sauce all over his tuxedo. Her dinner wasn't any better because he had insisted on ordering some really terrible Swedish fish for her. Historians might write it down in books someday as the worst date ever recorded if she'd been willing to tell anybody about it. And you accepted his invitation just 'cause you couldn't go by yourself and ignore the chance of hearing people's snickers behind your back, Mel chided herself. She knew a lot of nerds she would've been better off with instead.

It had been a rocky road back home in South Carolina, too. With her parents gone and her younger brother now in divinity school, the mansion had been empty except for staff, infrequent visitors, and visiting relations. The mansion's quiet and then the visiting relations' hassling her usually drove her to her office at the M&M Foundation—a charitable organization that she and her father, Melvin, founded—whether she had work to do there or not. She remembered a particularly distasteful exchange with her mother's eldest sister.

"Melinda, there is nothing on earth the matter with you! Look at you! You're beautiful and you are certainly no air head! Maybe you're a bit too tall for some gentlemen or you're sometimes a butterfinger, but any man worth his farm salt would be delighted to go out with you,"Aunt Eunice patiently explained to her as if she were still a child.

"I am fine by myself, thank you."Mel's patience almost ended. She sat straighter in the wing chair adjacent to the sofa where Aunt Eunice was sipping afternoon tea.

"Now, Melinda,"Aunt Eunice started in again.

"Oh Ratz!"Mel felt herself slide into her wild zone. Her blue glare could give Aunt Eunice a severe case of frost bite.

"Melinda!"Aunt Eunice started to protest, shocked because Melinda had never used such language before she took that trip to Macedonia during the war.

"Do I look like I was just born yesterday? Maybe your brain drips? I am FINE BY MYSELF! I don't need any dum dumbig hunk you may send over here and,"Mel swept her arms expansively to indicate the whole mansion, "I certainly don't need a sugar daddy!"

"There's no need to be vulgar, Melinda,"Aunt Eunice replied weakly. She suddenly looked older as if she wasn't too far from becoming intimately acquainted with wurmz n dirt.

Mel cut her off quickly. "The only Riesen I've put up with it is because I didn't want the hassle! No more!"Not minding her genteel Southern manners, Mel got up, stalked out of the room, and slammed the door behind her. She was so red hot angry that when she closed her eyes, she saw a starburst behind them and then a bad headache ensued.

The truth was when Mel did her shopping, she bought an extra item or two, a few li'l jewels—actually, some Ricola pearls—for a certain someone who'd been on her mind for a few years, but who she was pretty sure she would never see again. That thought was a real heart breaker, though, so she acted on what she thought was a hopeless dream. That dream revolved around a certain petite, blonde archaeologist she met in Macedonia, Dr. Janice Covington, whose excitement came from a temper like a real atomic fireball at times and... well... trouble. Mel smiled at the memory. Their first introduction was a whopper. Those machine guns, real eye poppers and gobstoppers kind of surprises to anyone who was suddenly on the wrong side of them, were pointed right at Mel, but the archaeologist faced the bad guys down with the help of guns and a red vine whip. Mel, for her part, ended up saving the archaeologist too. When did you fall in love? Musta been when she looked right at you with those green eyes and said,"Thanks, Sweetart! You're a real life saver!"But you couldn't tell her you'd not only trust her when the chips are down; you'd follow her to hell and back. You had to run away like a real squirrel nut zipper.

Disgusted with herself for the second time while waiting to cross the street, she sighed and daydreamed some more about Janice. She could almost see Janice's trademark fedora bobbing up and down, peeking over the crowd's shoulders half a block away. As Mel crossed the street, she imagined she could smell that leather/tobacco/soap combination that was Janice's essence and see the flash of sunlight on hair that Mel swore was poured from a cup of gold. When she got to the other side, pedestrians parted like the Red Sea and a figure in a fedora and leather bomber jacket emerged from the group. There was a knapsack on the figure's shoulder instead of a bazooka.

"Janice,"Mel breathed to herself and dropped her shopping bags. She called, "Janice? Is that you?"

Upon hearing her name, the figure that'd been puffing away on a cigar and storming down the street, raised her head. She couldn't keep herself from being lifted into the two very strong arms of a joyous Southern belle who suddenly had Christmas in her heart. Janice got all the hugs Mel had in her.

When Mel didn't feel herself hugged in return, she let go and saw Janice's dismayed face. "Oh, my! You look like someone dumped sour powder all over you this mornin'."It sounded lame to her even as she said it, but it was the only ice breaker she could think of.

"Well, I got two problems. First, I just finished a little business transaction. We were knocking off for winter, ya know, and some real goobers, Mike and Ike, got here first. Those cry babies complained to the boss that I worked 'em too hard and wasn't doing things right. I went to collect my well-earned money 'cause today's supposed to be my payday, ya know, and I almost walked out of there with zero!"Janice patted her pocket and Mel understood. "But my magical little pixy stick ironed out the wrinkles and settled the skor. Good thing I have something else lined up later 'cause I don't think that jelly belly lecher wants me working for him anymore."Janice flashed a real nasty smile as she talked about her newly former employer. "Don't know what you could catch from him, either. Jaundiced, he was. Ya know, a real lemon head."Janice's facial expression smoothed out and she tried to act casually. "So, what are you here for?"

Mel swallowed. Her glee fled as quickly as it had come. She couldn't glean anything from Janice's neutral expression, but she sensed something was amiss. Still, she replied casually enough, "Ya know. This is the only place in the USA that has my favorite kind of heels. Walnettos. Usually, I just end up wearing 'practical' Mary Janes."

Janice glanced at Mel's feet and then met her blue eyes again. Not sure she wanted to hear an answer, Mel asked, "You said you had another problem. What's that?"

Janice replied with husky challenge in her voice, "You said you'd write."

Mel stared at Janice as if she had fluffy stuff in her head. "I did write!"She added more softly, "And you were supposed to write, too."

Now Janice looked at Mel as if she had gold rocks in her head. "I wrote,"Janice replied with the same even challenge in her voice.

After a minute, realization painted Janice's face. "Oh Baby!"

Mel had an idea what Janice was thinking. She had a hard time holding back tears of resentment from being kept apart by something so stupid and chuckles at the absurdity. "You don't think...? I mean, two mistakes?"Mel sensed another of Janice's atomic fireball attacks coming on. Mel didn't understand betting terms, but she was desperately casting about for something to say to diffuse the situation especially since they were still in the middle of the sidewalk. "What are the odds? Two to one?"

Too late. "[Insert censors' bleeps here and wait for a full minute and a half] war time post offices!"

The harried passersby only spared Janice a disapproving look. Mel tried levity again. "I thought you once told me you were going to try to be less of a junkmouth."

Janice actually smiled. "Well, 'try' is the operative word, but Covingtons can't change their dots."

"You mean 'spots', dontcha?"

"No. Dots. I had the chicken pox once when I was a kid. I got cabin fever one day and wanted to go to school so bad that I tried to 'erase' my dots, the pox. But I just made things worse. From then on, Harry always told me, 'Covingtons can't change their dots.'"

"Smarties,"Mel mumbled and then giggled. Realizing where they still were after two big bruisers nearly trod on her foot, she said, "Uhh, Janice? I don't think this is the best place to talk. Did you have somethin' else to do, or would you like to come back to my apartment?"

Janice examined the paint shop they were in front of and paused a moment. She mumbled from embarrassment, "I was just going to look at the trains. Ya know, the miniatures?"

Mel's heart almost fell, but then Janice added, "But it's nothing really important. Can we just stop by the liquor store and get a six pak? It's been a long day and I could really use some thirst quenchers."

Not completely happy with Janice's bad drinking habit, yet still grateful that Janice would keep her company and had already put her in a holiday mood, she soon agreed.

When they got to Mel's apartment, Janice put five beers in the icebox and kept the sixth out. It wasn't very cold, but she was thirsty so she popped the cap off and watched as it rolled and settled on the kitchen counter. Then she tossed it in the trash where she saw a few other bottle caps, though those were from soda pop bottles instead of beer bottles. Janice noted the brand of soda. Classy! I like root beer, especially root beer floats. And it has lots of fizz coming from the bottle, not like the flat stuff they serve you from root beer barrels. Suddenly, she had more of a craving for root beer than real beer, but since she'd paid good money for the six pak, she thought she'd finish her beer then maybe ask for a soda.

"Make yourself at home, Janice. Please excuse me a minute while I freshen up."Mel paused to admire the archaeologist standing in her kitchen, still not believing her good fortune. Her heart flew to the sky, her mind in another orbit.

Janice's eyes met Mel's blue gaze. Wow! She felt her brain drain. Her heart did a quick mamba and popped like big bang snappers. Mel's normal peaches and cream complexion suddenly took on big red spots of color before she went and left Janice dreaming about a certain bottom lip, a hot lip that looked very kissable.

Janice drained the rest of her beer, let out a big burp as quietly as she could, and decided a soda pop could wait, so she grabbed another beer and discarded its cap with the rest of the bottle caps in the trash. She took her bottle and settled it on a coaster on the coffee table before she took out her plug of Chewolas tobacco. As she sat on the couch, it occurred to her there was no really good place to spit out the juicy drops of tobacco. Janice was putting it back in her jacket pocket when she heard silvery chuckles coming toward her out of the semi darkness.

"What's so funny?"Janice asked, throwing one arm around the back of the sofa so she could turn to see Mel.

"You looked just like my father there for a minute."Mel walked over to the fireplace to get a fire going and take the chill off the air. When she turned back, Janice saw that behind Mel's glasses, her eyes had misted over. Her unshed tears looked like beautiful crystalline aqua drops. "He had that same funny look whenever he couldn't find a spittoon. Loved chewin' tobacco, and since he was a South Carolina man, he preferred Charleston chew."Mel couldn't keep back the tears of loneliness—for her father, for Janice, for her solitary place in the world— that she had held in for a long time. She knew Janice hated tears as much as a man did so she was surprised when Janice popped off the couch, laid her glasses on the coffee table, and guided her to a seat. Janice held her.

"I know,"Janice mumbled in Mel's ear. It was a few minutes before she spoke again, when Mel had calmed down a bit. "This time of year can be a real tear jerker, baby. Sometimes I don't know how any of us get through it."

With you nearby was what Mel's heart said. She actually said, "I'm sorry, Janice."Mel mopped at Janice's jacket and then her face. She fell back on her Southern manners to rally herself. "You must be hungry. Do you want me to fix you some supper?"

"How 'bout I make some sandwiches while you freshen up?"Janice smiled at her own use of one of Mel's Southern euphemisms. Instead of smiling, Mel whispered her thanks and headed off to splash some water on her face.

Janice opened the refrigerator door, got her third beer, and found some carrot and celery sticks, oranges and apples, and fixings for ham and cheese sandwiches. What the hell. It won't kill me to eat good for once. She stacked the sandwich halves in a pyramid in the center of a platter, ringed the pyramid with the vegetables, and laid the fruit slices around the platter's outer edge. She even managed to set the small dining table and light some candles.

"Everything looks wonderful, Janice!"Mel exclaimed when she came back to the room.

Janice picked up two small orange slices. "Hey, Mel! You gotta see this! Now presenting... my world-famous... citrus samba!"Janice tucked one in her mouth, rind side out, and slid her lips over it to hide it. Her feet tapped to a Latin beat only she could hear and the rest of her body soon swung irresistibly to the beat. She stepped and stomped and waved her arms in almost a flamenco style, moving closer to Mel with each beat of her imaginary rhythm. Her last move was a stomp during which she simultaneously smiled to show the orange slice and offered the other to Mel.

Mel laughed, graciously accepted the tempting treat, and said, "Ya know, you're crazier than Uncle Stonewall."

"U-no momento, por favor."Janice brought the platter over to the candlelit table. "Now, tell me all about it."Janice helped herself to some carrots and smirked in anticipation of a good story.

"He was one of those whatchamacallit. Inventors, or at least he thought so. The first thing he made was an invention for dry mouth. He called them 'tongue splashers', though it was just that the person with dry mouth opened wide and had a friend throw a glass of water in his face."

"Wouldn't it be much easier to drink from the glass?"

"Yep. But Uncle Stonewall didn't think like most other folks. His next major flop of an invention was stick free glue."

Janice scratched her head and took a mighty bite out of a sandwich. "That kinda defeats the purpose."

"Yes. And Cousin Junior isn't much better, though before he came along, it was hard to imagine anyone could eclipse Uncle Stonewall's eccentricity. Junior mints chocolate coins. 'Course he wraps a plain concoction of nut and butter with a clove in paper. It's inedible and makes a real mess. I guess you could say they're kinda slopokes."Mel tapped her head to emphasize her insinuation.

Janice smiled knowingly. "I know someone like that. Uncle Shelton."

"I didn't know you had an uncle Shelton."

"I don't. He's just some man Mom was with for a while after she left Harry and me. The first thing he owned was a ski resort. Too bad he opened it in the Texas panhandle. What folks called 'hills' out there were little more than mounds. Uncle Shelton acted as if his mounds were as big as Everest and had real sno-caps, too."

Through her giggle, Mel managed a question. "What's he doing now?"

"He thinks he's a restauranteur. He has some sort of Idaho spud bar in Polynesia. I guess he has more money than brains."

"If it were poker, put our people together and we'd have a pretty good hand."

Janice shot Mel a questioning look.

Mel raised her water glass and said, "Here's to three-of-a-kind! They may be a bit unusual, but at least they're not the kind that has scary skeletons buried in the backyard!"

The ladies talked until after eight. When the clock on the mantel struck nine, Mel said, "Goodness! I'm sorry, Janice. I didn't mean to keep you so long!"It was a false apology because Mel enjoyed Janice's company, but her Southern manners dictated she apologize anyway.

"No problem, Mel. I guess I should be going."Janice paused, looking regretful that their time was over.

Mel, picking up on Janice's sadness and feeling the same, stalled for more time. "Do you have a decent place to stay while you're in town? I mean, if you need a place, there's a guest room here,"she finished lamely.

Janice looked at her. "Well, let's see. The hotel I'm staying at is actually pretty good. It's rated half a star higher than staying in the toxic waste dump. It's Bug City, but you know the bug factor never bothers me. And then there's always the fun dip in the bathtub filled with brown water that smells faintly like cow pies. For a fee, of course, chunky Mrs. W doesn't mind sewing buttons back on for any sucker who's too stupid to do it himself, and she serves soup that has a lot of mystery meat in it, probably cow tales. That's why I usually go out for a hot dog. And the koolerz there keep beers warm."Janice started ticking items off on her fingers, "Then there are her Scottie dogs who always bark up a storm; the 'doormen' who are just little pip squeeks with baseball bats; the trash barrels outside my window that even the crows don't fly near in a neighborhood that hasn't had fresh air since 1765; Mrs. W crying "Oh, Henry!"70 times a day to get the attention of her poor, henpecked husband; and the neighborhood runts are real rascals who are always trying to swipe your stuff. And all that in a building with stairs so dangerous, it'd be safer to get to the ground floor if you hitched a ride with a member of the parachute jumpers. But you know I'm not one to complain."Janice flashed a big smile.

Mel laughed, certain that Janice was exaggerating. "Come on, Little Orphan Annie. Let's go retrieve the rest of your things."

"What ya see is what ya get!"Janice pointed at her knapsack.

"That's all the luggage you have?"

"That's all! I left the rest back at my place in Albuquerque. Say, Mel, do you have any plans for Christmas? You're not going to Chicago to tour Wrigley Field in the dead of winter, are you? Or going to Binaca Island to watch some fragile exotic violet crumble in your hand or see that boring seaside statue of Poseidon holding a trident? Maybe you're going to climb Everest 'cause you're in the mood for some extreme ice Arctic air?"Janice rambled to postpone any rejection she might get. Her brain told her to go lightly and not offer the invitation, but in her heart, she was tired of being alone on Christmas.

Hot chu! Mel suddenly sneezed.

"See? You're catching a cold just thinking about Everest!"

"You didn't have to ramble Janice. Just askin' me straight out would've been a real breathsaver. Truth is, I'm good and plenty tired of this city, the glitterati, and the monkey business that people engage in because they look at me like I'm just a dollar sign, think I'm a gold mine. And everything zips by too fast."Mel's eyes became wistful again. She shook her head and described a real con of the large city, "You're in a middle of a big crowd wherever you go, yet you're in the loneliest place in the world."She was ready to run away with Janice to New Mexico for a while. She could see the Salmiak rocks her father once told her about, and home wouldn't have cured her loneliness. The only thing she would've done there for Christmas was to make a mint julep, a personal tradition, and settle down to read Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The M&M Foundation was already ready for the season so she could take a fast break from overseeing operations.

Abba-Zaba! Janice thought. Slam dunk, Covington! No need to suck up and no need to be alone this year!

"When do we leave?"Mel asked, already planning her packing in her mind.

"Is tomorrow too soon? I think the M-60 train can get us out there pretty fast."

Mel smiled at Janice's eagerness. It was like she was young and planning a child's playtime. She pulled Janice close for a goodnight hug and screwed up her courage to pucker up and place a goodnight kiss on Janice's cheek. "Not too soon at all. It'll be wonderful!"

Janice looked as if she'd eaten a slice of moon pie and shone moonbeams through her fingers, toes, and especially her smile. "Hot dog! Tomorrow, we'll make like a banana split!"

Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA: Mid-December 1948

"Welcome to Albuquerque, Mel! I hope you'll find many things that'll delight chew!"

Mel noticed her first Albuquerque sunset. To the west, the sky wore many colors and to the east, the Sandia Mountains glowed a beautiful red, reflecting the sunset's color. "Wow! It's like someone came in and waved a big ol' rainbow stick!"

"Yes, ma'am!"a voice with an indeterminant foreign accent said from behind them. "Those magic colors, dey really razzles de eye! But I'm afraid de brightest color Dr. Covington ever notices is the neon monkey over de bar on Central. They serve their own Liquid 88 whiskey there that Janice thinks goes down sweet and warm as dragon fire, but to me, ah!, it's more like battery acid!"The young man with the long oval face and brown eyes chuckled with Janice.

"Come on, Pete! She just got here! Don't scare her off!"Janice laughed and slapped Pete on the back. "Mel, this is Pete, my next-door neighbor. Pete, this is Mel."

"A pleasure meetin' ya, Mr...?"Mel hesitated.

"I'm called Cocoa Pete because I love chocolate, but you call me Pete."He gave Mel a funny little bow then took Mel's hand and shook it gently. "I was just at the place where there will be a new bridge over the canels. Saw them making up bridge mix with mountain pebbles."

Janice saw the confused look on Mel's face.

"I think he means he was just watching them mix concrete for the new bridge."

Again, Pete made a funny little bow, this time to Janice to thank her for explaining for him. "And now if you will make excuses, I must take five minutes and see Mrs. Chavez and her sixlets."He bowed again and walked away as Mel looked to Janice for an explanation.

"He means that he's going to visit Mrs. Chavez and her sextuplets."

Mel smiled. "He sure has an interestin' way of puttin' things."

Janice laughed. "You can say that again! But you don't know the half of it! He's really eccentric, Mel, though as you say, at least he doesn't have a bunch of scary skeletons buried in the backyard. Instead, he puts out a bunch of seedlings each year. He has a normal garden, but when he cuts the grass in his backyard, he makes miniature haystacks. He also raises chickens. He uses what he calls his 'chick o stick' as sort of a shepherd's staff to herd his 'chiclets', what he calls his young chickens, and after he eats a chicken for supper, he keeps the chicken bones to make charms or something. He also has sprigs of dried heath and daisies all over the place. Seriously, if he told me he puts alien drool in his charms, I'd believe him! I tried asking him about all that stuff once, but he just said, 'Dem bones are useful and I believe in flower power.' Whenever he makes charms, he has his own little incantation he sings over it. Sounds like 'chupa chup'. It's weird stuff, Mel, but he's okay."

They walked over the graveled parking lot towards Janice's car. "Sorry, Mel,"Janice apologized a few feet from her car. "If I'd known I'd have company, I would've gotten the bug goo off my windshield."

Mel had started laughing when her heel suddenly broke and she twisted her ankle. "Ouch! Ohhhhhhh. I'm just such a klutz!"she yelled at herself.

"Are you okay?"

"I don't know."

Janice offered herself as Mel's support and helped the taller woman to the car. Once there, Janice opened the passenger side door, got Mel settled, and kneeled down to slide Mel's shoe off. "Give me your tootsie. Roll your ankle for me, please."Janice tenderly tested Mel's ankle. "We'd better get home and put some ice on it for a while, though I don't believe anything's broken or sprained. Looks like it's just a minor twist. You probably won't even need a cane to get around,"Janice lightly joked.

Despite the pain, Mel was in a good humor. Janice's gallantry touched her to her soul and with her foot in Janice's hand, Mel felt a little like Cinderella. Unable to completely resist caressing Mel's foot a little, Janice gently swung Mel's long leg into the car and closed the door. She drove them home.

Janice gave Mel her arm as support. As they approached Janice's door, Mel was delighted with the little gray tiger-striped tabby cat sitting on the porch. The cat's cheeks puffed out a little like they were the ends of round brushes. "Whose kit kat is that?"

"That's Pete's cat, Basil,"Janice replied. "The little bastard is a tricky kitty. He sneaks over here all the time to poop in the sand pile out back and shred my few flowers, though at least he's smart enough not to beg me for something to eat."

"Aww, Janice! He's kinda cute!"

Basil jumped down from the porch swing, stretched, padded down the front walk, and wound his way around Janice's legs. "Meow!"His tone welcomed her home.

Mel chuckled. "I think he likes you."

"You suck up! Beat it, runt! You're gonna trip me and I'm gonna break my neck 'cause of you!"Janice irrationally yelled at the cat.

"Come on, Janice."Mel squeezed Janice's arm. "There's no need to act like a piece of grouchy garbage."

"I just don't like cats."

"Okay."Mel thought there must've been more to the story, but she wasn't about to press Janice. She just wanted to enjoy her time peacefully with the archaeologist. She wanted more than anything to see another spark of laughter in Janice's beautiful green eyes.

Janice escorted Mel the rest of the way up the short walk to the sprawling one-story ranch-style house. It had Air Force blue trim and little architectural imagination. It looked like the kind of house the government would plunk down in any part of America.

Janice helped Mel climb the single step up to the front porch and into the house. She escorted Mel to the living room couch. While she went to get some ice for Mel's foot, Mel had a look around the simply-furnished room and found a card table in one corner with poker chips and playing cards on it. She wouldn't have been surprised if that table hadn't also seen a few hands of one of Janice's favorite games of chance, black jack. Mel looked out the window just beyond the card table, saw a large stretch of desert between the backyard and the Sandia Mountains, and in this Old West setting, she could almost imagine Janice betting gold nuggets instead of real money.

In the room, there was also a radio in one corner, an adobe fireplace that jutted out of one wall and stood out like a sore thumb, and a large desk. On the desk, there was a box of Janice's favorite cigars, Long Boys, a strand of Native American love beads, a half of a geode rock that had a dark purple crystalline structure inside, a silver whistle, a yardstick that hung over the table's edge, and two glasses filled with various writing instruments. Mel smiled at the memory of Janice's habit of licken erasers instead of the points of the pencils as she'd seen other people do. She also smiled when she realized that three-quarters of the instruments were markers of some sort. Janice had a real marker mania.

Janice came back into the room with a kitchen chair and some ice wrapped in towels. "How're you doing?"

"Not too bad."Mel quickly changed the subject. "What's that unusual shade of paint in here?"

Janice shrugged. "Awful, isn't it? It's called Jordan almond."

Mel smiled and said nothing. Janice set the kitchen chair next to the couch and helped Mel raise her ankle onto an armrest. Janice arranged the ice on Mel's ankle. "Thank you."It was Janice's turn to smile and say nothing. She trotted over to her desk, got a marker and a pad of paper, drew something on the paper, and came back to sit by Mel.

Mel looked at the paper and laughed. "Tic tac toe?"

"Yeah. I thought we could talk and play a little while your ankle ices down."

After an hour, Janice checked Mel's ankle. She helped Mel up so Mel could test it. "How does it feel?"

Mel carefully put some weight on it. "Pretty good."

"Well, we'll still try to keep you off it some for a day or two. Until then, are you hungry?"Janice's stomach rumbled loudly and answered her own question. She smiled. "Do you feel like going out to dinner?"

"That would be lovely. Just let me change out of my travelin' things first."

"Your cases are in the guest room. Last door on your left."Janice pointed down the hall.

"Thank you."

Half an hour later, Mel rejoined Janice in the living room. She sported a raspberry dress outfit that magnificently showed off her form and her long legs, unlike the travel slacks and loose blouse she'd previously worn.

"Hubba bubba! You look terrific, Mel!"Janice couldn't hide the fire of admiration in her eyes. The slight blush that suddenly appeared on Mel's face heightened her outfit's color. Unthinkingly, Janice offered her arm. "Shall we?"

"Let's go!"

On their way to the car, the ladies saw Pete coming home with a jar of honey. He smiled and waved. "Going to dinner?"he called.

"Yeah,"Janice replied.

"A favor please? The Beeman's wife gave me a bit of honey for cleaning out her child's ear wax. A ride?"

"Where you headed?"

"The Jila."

"The Gila?"Janice asked, confused because the Gila Wilderness was almost on the other side of the state.

"Joking. Don't look at me as if I'd lost all my narbles. I go to Corona Café."

"That's where we're headed,"Janice said. "Hop in!"

Mel climbed into the back because she wanted to study Janice in secret. Janice waited for a car to pass before she pulled away from the curb. Suddenly, she slammed on the breaks. Her body stiffened and she shook. "Did I hit him?"she asked Pete.

"Janice? What --,"Mel started.

Janice cut Mel off and asked Pete more forcefully, "Did I hit him?"

"No."He turned to address Mel as well. "'Sokay. Basil skittlestwix the cars."He pointed at their car and the car ahead of them.

"Janice?"Mel questioned her. Janice's silences usually came before the atomic fireball temper.

Janice exploded. She yelled in the direction Basil must've gone. "Hairball for brains! I'm going to turn you into snake snacks!"

Mel gasped and laid her hand on Janice's shoulder while Janice took two deep breaths. After a few seconds of tension, Pete laughed. "And you say my words are funny!"

The earthy scent of the Corona Café's adobe (mud brick building material) mixed with the equally warm scent of chile and created an inviting atmosphere that gladdened everyone's heart on the cold December night. Janice happily ordered some hot tamales for her and Mel. "Try these, Mel."

Mel tried a bite and found that the red chile was a little too hot for her. "Doesn't surprise me,"a female voice with a Southern twang came from behind her. Surprised, Mel looked back. "It usually takes visitors a while to adjust to the heat."

"You do have some pyro peppers tonight, Amy,"Janice replied and laughed.

Amy smiled and set another plate in front of Mel. "Maybe you might find this more to your likin', sugar."

Still surprised at finding another Southerner in a Mexican food place, Mel graciously accepted the plate and took a bite. "This is heavenly hash! Thank you!"Amy chuckled and left Mel, Janice, and Pete to enjoy their dinner.

After a few minutes of quiet conversation between bites of a good dinner, Mel nodded to three Hispanic men at a corner table. "Those are lovely Mexican hats."

"Those are called sombreros, Mel, and yeah, the embroidery on those things gets pretty complicated sometimes."

"Trouble,"Pete suddenly whispered as three jolly ranchers who'd obviously had too much to drink entered. The biggest man shouted, laughed, and clapped his fellows on the back. He stopped short when he spotted Mel and he leered in her direction. Janice bristled.

Amy sensed potential trouble and stepped forward to try to distract the ranchers. "Hello, gents! What can I do for ya?"The biggest man, covered in straw, filth, and in general just a real muddy bear, kept his eyes on Mel and didn't say a word. Mel looked down at her plate and tried to concentrate on eating. Amy tried again. "Why don't you fellas just have a seat and I'll get you something to eat."It still didn't work. Amy hoped the third time was a charm. "We don't want no trouble here, mister,"Amy said in her best placating tone. The man pushed her aside and started towards Mel. Janice had a hard time keeping her temper in check and really tried for Mel's sake, but when the man pushed Amy, it was the last straw. One of the Hispanic men from the corner saw what was going on. He knew Janice, so he spoke as a favor to the rancher. "Don't get her mad,"he offered in a friendly tone and pointed to Janice. "Just one of her punches can be a real jaw breaker."

"Who asked you?"The rancher glared at the men in the corner.

The Hispanic man who tried to warn him just shrugged as Janice made good on her jaw breaker punch. As the sickening crunch chased his friends out of the café, the rancher harmlessly collapsed in a heap on the brown-tiled floor. The Hispanic men in the corner laughed and went back to enjoying their dinner. Pete was already on his way out to the car since dinner was obviously over, and Janice gave only a half-hearted apology to Amy for the trouble. Amy shrugged, said, "No harm, no foul,"and went back to the kitchen.

Mel took off her glasses. She leaned close to Janice and whispered so that her breath tickled Janice's ear and sent chills down Janice's spine. "My hero."She pulled back a little to see Janice's reaction.

Janice grinned cockily. "Do I get a reward?"

"Yesss,"Mel drawled and locked eyes with Janice. Pure blue on pure green. Janice could see she was very serious.

Suddenly a little nervous, Janice tried a joking tone. "When?"

Mel leaned in close to the side of Janice's head that was away from everyone's view. Their cheeks brushed lightly. Mel whispered, "Now...and later."Janice could feel the slow smile that spread across Mel's face. She gulped as her stomach suddenly flipped. Mel softly chuckled, turned, and started toward the car as if the exchange had never taken place.

Sandia Mountain Foothills: December 22, 1948

"The moon's kind of bright tonight, but see that? Lots of stars make kind of a stripe in the sky. That's the Milky Way. And over there's Mars. And see that group of stars over there? Somewhere near that really bright one, there's a tightly-bunched group of stars that are too faint to see with the naked eye. It's called the Goo Goo Cluster."

Mel looked at Janice and raised an eyebrow. She believed everything Janice had said until that last part. Janice laughed. "Okay, okay. It is a cluster, but I don't really remember what it's called."

They sat wrapped together in a blanket on the Sandia foothills, Janice in Mel's lap, happy for the warm body of the gorgeous woman behind her. The mountains were to their backs and the desert and city stretched ahead of them. For a moment, Mel wondered what the scene would look like if there were no moon in the sky, just starlite, but then she decided she loved seeing for hundreds of miles around them, bathed in light as silvery and bright as the smile set in Janice's tanned face. Melinda Pappas, your heart is irretrievable, she acknowledged to herself.

"You're awfully quiet."

Mel couldn't bring herself to tell the wonderful woman in her arms what she was really thinking, so she decided to tell Janice her other line of private thought. "When I was a little girl, Daddy always told me the Christmas story this time of year. After eight, he'd take me outside for a few moments and point to all the dots, the stars, and ask me which one I thought was the Christmas star. I could never make up my mind. None of 'em were as bright as the Star of Bethlehem in my imagination. Well, my imagination was good for one thing. I'd secretly pretend that I was one of the three wise men—the Three Musketeers I called 'em 'cause I didn't know any better back then—and in my mind, I'd pause in the desert a few miles away from Bethlehem and watch the city for a few minutes as it slept in the cold-but-beautiful light from the Star of Bethlehem."Mel paused and scanned the real scene in front of her again. Sage bushes' shadows were sharply defined against the desert floor. A jackrabbit hopped from one bush to another. Mel sighed and whispered, "Ya know, I never thought I'd see anything like this. Albuquerque is the Bethlehem of my dreams...."She left off, half afraid Janice would laugh at her. Instead, Janice shifted her position so she was facing Mel and gave Mel soft kisses, not real tongue teasers like their normal ones, but soft kisses filled with just the right mix of passion and soul connection.

Janice rearranged the blanket to cover them again. She laid her head on Mel's shoulder and talked softly against it. "I was told once that you're kinda sunk in life if you forget where you came from because there's nowhere else in this world to run to. That means I was lost from the beginning 'cause I never knew where I came from. Mom left early and Harry and I were always on the go, it seems like. No place I'd ever been felt right to me. But this place, Mel, this place is called the Land of Enchantment. I feel like parts of my heart were hidden somewhere in the desert, the mountains, or the river, and if I had to live anywhere else for a really long time, I'd shrivel up and blow away in the wind. It's the only physical place that ever felt like home to me. I arrived in Albuquerque for the first time ten years ago, and when I stepped off the train, someone told me that 'Sandia' was Spanish for 'watermelon' and that I should wait until sunset because the mountains would reflect the light and look like a gigantic slice of watermelon. When I saw those magical colors, I knew then that this place was a square hole for a square peg like me. My only real fear was that I'd never find anyone to share it with because nobody I could care about would understand what I feel...."Mel held Janice a little tighter. No mere words could express what their loving hearts were saying to each other.

Albuquerque: December 24, 1948

Just having finished his own special Christmas Eve chore out in the front yard, Pete picked up Basil when Basil happened to be walking past. The Air Force blue door with the wreath on it opened next door and showed Janice carefully leading a blindfolded Mel. Pete stood quietly by, watching as Janice helped Mel to a spot in the middle of the front yard. "Those two are truly Sweetarts, Basil,"he said to the softly purring kit kat in his arms. "Look at dem deep in conversation. Hearts like dat should never be separated. No!"

"Okay, Mel. You can look now."Janice carefully took off Mel's blindfold and placed the glasses on her face.

Mel blinked a few times to get her eyes adjusted to the dim light of dusk. She slowly spun in a circle, looking at all the lights around her, not quite comprehending what was going on. She had been inside the house all day helping Janice start their Christmas Eve dinner, a red chile, hominy (corn kernels soaked in lye until they swell up), pork, and green chile soup dish called posole. She'd promised Janice she wouldn't look out front and spoil Janice's surprise.

"What in the world is this, Janice?"

"They're called luminarias, though some people also call them farolitos. You line walkways, driveways, whatever, with them and they're said to light the way for the Christ child. It's one of my favorite New Mexico Christmas traditions. See, what you do is you take brown paper bags, turn the tops of 'em down a little like cuffs, put some sand in the bottom of the bag, place a candle in the sand, and when it gets to be almost dark outside, you light the candles and they burn all night. Pretty neat, huh?"

"Wow!"Mel strolled over to the sidewalk and peeked inside a bag. She saw a small votive candle partly sunk into the sand. Its flame almost went out because it hadn't quite caught fire properly, but it was valiantly struggling for life and was growing stronger and stronger. Mel glanced up and down the street and realized almost everybody else on the block did some. The luminarias' glow filled her soul with a peace she couldn't remember feeling before.

She returned to Janice, who was still standing in the middle of their front yard, and embraced her. She pulled back slightly and gazed at Janice with an exquisite blue fire in her eyes partly created by tears of joy, partly by a soul-consuming love, and breathed in a whisper almost like a prayer, "Thank you."

Janice looked at her quizzically. "For what?"

"For your love."Mel smiled a smile that rivaled the luminarias' brilliance. "And for the most special Christmas."


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