Disclaimer #2: The following story contains adult language.
Comments to the author can be e-mailed to email@example.com
By Ernie Whiting
She awoke in the darkness of their San Francisco apartment to find Gabriella Duncan's side of the bed cold and empty. Dressed in green plaid boxer shorts and a black tank-top, and with her long, brown/black hair tousled and loose from sleep, Gina Ryan rolled from her stomach onto her side, and rose up on one elbow to look around the darkened bedroom. "Brie?" she asked sleepily, her voice dry. Noting the time on their digital alarm clock--it showed 1:57 AM in soft, green numerals--she tossed back her covers, swung her bare legs out of bed, and went into the living room, where she found her sitting on the sofa, dressed in white, flower-print cotton panties and a dark blue t-shirt with the logo US NAVY emblazoned across the front in gold. With her shoulders slumped and her hands folded in her lap, and with one foot pulled up close, its sole against her inner thigh, she was gazing despondently through the wide picture window that framed a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, while an open but untouched bottle of Bass Ale rested on the coffee table before her. A multitude of harbor lights of different colors twinkled in the distance, and a beam of moonlight rippled across the oily black surface of the San Francisco Bay.
"Brie?" she asked softly, approaching her from the darkness behind her. "Hey... What are you doing up at this hour, babe? Can't sleep?" She sat down next to her and laid an arm around her shoulders, and looked into her eyes. She could tell she had been crying, and worry suddenly clutched at her heart. "Are you okay?"
The young doctor sniffled and nodded. "Yeah," she said, softly and quickly, and apparently under control as she took Gina's hand in her own. "Yeah, I'm okay." She looked up at her. "What are you doing up?"
She watched her with concern in her eyes. "I woke up and found your side of the bed empty. I was worried about you." She continued to watch her. "It was that dream again, wasn't it?" she asked at last. "Jappa?"
She took a deep, steadying breath, but the tears began to form in her eyes anyway. She quickly wiped them away with both palms. "Silly, isn't it?" she asked, letting her breath out in a deep sigh as she gazed back out the window. "It's been two thousand years, yet... God, it felt like it was just yesterday. Sometimes the memories come back with such a shocking clarity that it still freaks me out."
Ryan winced sympathetically and painfully, both in her eyes and in her heart. She slid both arms around her and held her close. "Gabrielle..." With a stinging mist rising in her own eyes, she gently cupped her hand against her face and kissed one glistening, tear-streaked cheek. If there was anything that tore her up inside, it was seeing her partner in misery. And she couldn't help feeling responsible for it, even after two millennia. "Sweetheart," she said, her voice tightening. She held her closely, trying to comfort her as she buried her face in her golden tresses. "God, sweetheart, I'm so sorry..." She kissed one salty, tear-stained cheek, and then the other. "I am so sorry, babe, I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you... But we both know I couldn't let you bring me back. If you had, those forty thousand souls would have been condemned--"
Gabrielle rose from her embrace and looked into her soul mate's tortured eyes with her own. "How? " she wanted to know, her strained whisper somewhere between pleading and demanding. "Akemi said that you had redeemed yourself; why couldn't you have come back? It wasn't fair, damn it! It wasn't right, and it wasn't f-fair..." She sniffled again, and lay quietly against the warrior's breast once more and held her fiercely in her arms, wanting to never let her go. She sighed a deep, shuddering sigh, and waited a moment or two before trying to speak again. "I missed you so much..." She rubbed at her eyes as those nightmare images remained behind them: the clouds, the lightning, the rain; Xena's nude and arrow-riddled body, hanging on display with her head resting on a nearby table as a grisly trophy.... Her chest tightened, and she squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to stop the tears from flowing again. "What those bastards...those god damned butchers, what they did to you..." Fighting for control, she sighed a deep and shuddering sigh as she tried to force the images out of her mind, but the tears came again anyway. "That's what keeps getting to me and waking me up every night," she said, her voice choked. "Finding you...like that."
Desperate for something--anything--to lighten the mood, Xena reached over and picked up the remote control for the entertainment center, and switched on the stereo and the cd player. There was already a disc in it, so she hit "shuffle" and set the volume on low. A moment later, the soft and mellow strains of "Save Yourself For Me," by the jazz band Hiroshima, came from the Bose bookshelf speakers and filled the apartment with a silken blend of smooth jazz and traditional Japanese instruments.
Oh, Christ, she thought as she mentally smacked herself in the forehead. The last thing they needed right now was another reminder of Japan. With an apologetic smile, she said, "Sorry--bad choice." She raised the remote and pointed it at the stereo again.
"No, no, it's okay," Gabrielle said as she gently placed a hand on her arm and lowered it. "I like it."
She dropped the remote on the sofa cushion next to her and slipped her arms around her again, and held her closely once more as she leaned back into the corner of the sofa. Gabrielle possessed such a great yet quiet strength; it took a tremendous amount of force to hurt her. She had been strong enough to let Xena go that day, and all the warrior could think of now, as she gently leaned her head against the bard's, was how deeply she loved this woman, and how profoundly she had wounded her--and she hated herself for it. Back in Jappa, she had been torn between two desires; to do the good and the right thing by remaining dead for the sake of those souls, and to stay on with the one person in the entire world whom she loved more than life itself. She had told the bard--and herself, for that matter--that it had been the right thing to do, but it had still hurt--oh God, how it had hurt. Now, if Xena had the chance to go back and re-live that day, she would do things far, far differently.
"When you disappeared at sunset...it's just so hard to let go of someone you've known and loved for so long..." The young blonde had seemed to finally accept Xena's reasoning that day, but in reality she had carried that pain of separation with her for the rest of her life. With this sudden realization, the tears began to flow once more from Ryan's eyes, and she found it difficult to speak.
"I'm with you now, babe," she finally whispered as she softly kissed the side of her face, and then gently buried her face in her hair. She was glad that she was letting it grow out again; the short look was nice, but she had missed her "golden fleece." "We're together, and that's all that matters."
She captured one of Xena's hands in her own, and they laced their fingers together. "In a way, we always were," she said, her voice soft. "At first, when I was standing at that ship's rail and sailing away from Japan, I had accepted the fact that I would have to go on alone, and carry your spirit with me as just a memory." And then she began to smile through her tears. "But when you suddenly came up from behind me, I wasn't sure if it was really you or if I was quietly going mad. And then you merged with me. It was like... Remember that scroll I called 'The Quest?' Remember when you merged with me to take on Velasca above that fire pit in the Hall of Ambrosia?"
"Sure," she said, softly and immediately. "Yeah, I remember... And I remember telling you later, when we took on the Persian army after you'd been wounded, that I'd never leave you; not even in death."
"I remember," Gabrielle whispered. "I should have known you'd find a way to come back...even if it wasn't exactly the way that either of us had in mind." Her smile began to transform itself into a wry grin. "You know what it's like to look at your reflection one morning, after having been through such a nightmare, and find the spirit of your best friend grinning at you over your shoulder?"
She smiled, and thought for a moment. "Spooky?"
"Spooky, hell," she drawled. "You scared the livin' shit out of me, darlin'."
Xena suddenly bubbled over in a soft laughter that matched Gabrielle's. "I'm sorry about that," she finally said. "But you got used to it soon enough."
"But that first time we merged together, when we were leaving Japan..." She sighed softly with a fond smile as she tilted her head back and closed her eyes, and let Xena's warmth embrace her, just like that first time when the warrior's spirit had entered her. "It was like a soft, warm, comforting embrace from within."
"And for me, it felt like I was being enveloped by pure love and warmth."
They both smiled at the memory. There had been other times, though--such as that time when Gabrielle had found herself under attack by half a dozen bandits--when such a merging had produced a state of incredibly keen alertness and clarity. With Xena's voice inside of her mind and warning her of attack from behind, and with the skill, the speed, the strength and the unswerving determination that were purely Gabrielle's, together they were two souls in one body--an unstoppable force. Word was slowly getting around that it would be best not to antagonize the short blonde bard who carried a staff, a pair of sais, a Samurai's sword and Xena's chakram; she may have been short of stature and looking like an easy target, but dear dead gods of Olympus--she seemed to have eyes in the back of her head, and could kick ass as effectively as the late Warrior Princess herself.
"While I had your company of spirit, I still missed your touch," Gabrielle finally said. "I missed your warmth and your smile...and even your bad jokes..."
That last remark had been meant to elicit a soft laugh from Ryan, but the battle-hardened reconnaissance-force Marine found herself sobbing silently. She kissed one temple, and then with the gritty and unwavering conviction for which she had been so famous, she told her partner, "We're together now, and I swear upon my very soul, Gabrielle, I will never leave you again. " She held her quietly for some time, fighting to control her emotions. "Y'know what?" she asked at last, looking into her eyes. "You need a vacation. A little down time. You've been working too hard at the hospital; you're exhausted. Maybe that's what's brought on these dreams again."
Gabriella took a deep breath and let it out quickly. "Between pediatrics, the OR and the ER, the hours down there have been getting a little crazy lately," she conceded.
"And even if it's not what brought on this dream, if you don't get some rest at night, you're going to be a wreck in surgery. You've got to--"
"I know, I know," she said patiently, having heard it all before. "I've got to learn to delegate." She looked at her partner. "But I can't. When someone comes in through the ER, sucking air through a bleeding chest wound or in full cardiac arrest, I can't just treat them and hand them off to someone else, as though they were mechanical equipment on an assembly line; they're my patient, from admission to discharge."
"And you have no idea of how much I admire your dedication to your patients," Gina told her as she brushed some stray blonde hairs behind her ear. "But you can't do it all, sweetheart; you need a break." She suddenly smiled. "And I think I've got just the thing to pick your spirits up."
Brie regarded her friend with mild expressions of both curiosity and hope in her exhausted jade eyes.
Gods, she is so lovely in this moonlight, Gina thought as a warm hand squeezed gently at her heart. "You and I, my friend, are going on a camping trip."
"Yeah?" Almost as quickly, though, that glimmer of hope began to fade again. "I...I can't. People are coming into the clinic by the baker's dozen, all exhibiting flu symptoms... There must be some new bug going around."
Ignoring her protestations about work, she gently stroked her blonde hair. Which would you prefer--desert or mountains?"
There was no way she was going to get out of this. Once Gina had set her mind on something, there was absolutely no dissuading her. The woman was always so damned focused... She leaned forward and reached for the long-necked bottle, and took a sip as she thought it over. "Mountains, I guess," she said at last, without much spirit.
"Mountains it is." She took the bottle from her and took a swig before handing it back.
"But what'll I tell the clinic? I can't just--"
"Don't you worry about the clinic; I'll call in sick for you." (Shortly after their encounter with Aphrodite, Ares and Graegus--and thanks to Ryan's computer-hacking CIA mole Jack Sawyer--Gabriella Duncan was now legitimately established as a full-time doctor working for Mercy General Hospital in San Francisco, California, and Gina Ryan was legitimately established as a military consultant for the movie industry, and a guest lecturer at a number of military schools and war colleges.)
"C'mon, what do you say? We'll load up the Mustang with food, booze and fishing gear, and then head for the High Sierra. We'll sleep out under the stars, we'll fish, we'll get filthy and smelly, and stinking drunk--"
She rested her head against the former Marine, and chuckled.
She grinned at her partner's response, and gave her an encouraging little squeeze. "It'll be just like old times. What do you say?"
"I hate to tell you this, Xena," she said, her voice soft, "but we never got stinking drunk..." She turned in her arms slightly, and regarded her with puzzled eyes. "Did we?"
She couldn't remember, either, but her grin broadened anyway. "C'mon, you up for it?"
She smiled and then sighed in willing resignation. "Okay, all right," she agreed at last as she leaned her head against her breast once more. "You talked me into it."
"All right, then," she said, flashing that dazzling grin once more before kissing the top of her head. "And I promise I won't dent our one good frying pan on some bandit's head."
Suddenly bubbling over in soft laughter as the memories of that day flooded over her, Brie turned and buried her face against the soft, warm, and reassuring hollow of Gina's neck. Leave it to the Warrior Princess to pull her out of a deep blue funk... "Oh, God, Xena...I love you." She slipped a hand behind her head and pulled her forward to kiss her lips.
"I love you, too, Gabrielle," she said, grinning and leaning her forehead against her partner's, and holding her close in a warm and protective embrace. She reached up and pulled the tiger-print blanket from the back of the sofa and covered the two of them with it. "You rest now, okay? Go back to sleep."
They headed out at first light two days later. After a three-hour drive that had taken them straight up Interstate 80 from San Francisco to cut across the Sacramento Valley, they arrived at a small wilderness outfitting store just east of Nevada City, beyond and above the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, where they secured the red convertible Mustang and rented a pair of horses. Gina chose a golden Palomino mare and Brie chose a coal-black mare, and after transferring their gear to their saddle bags and tying their sleeping bags to the backs of their saddles, it was another three hours on horseback up and down a steep, winding dirt trail that led them through a thick forest of Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines to a large and picturesque lake.
Dressed in jeans, light button-down shirts and hiking boots, they relaxed atop their mounts for a moment as they gazed at the scenery before them.
"Well? What do you think?"
The young blonde relished the scent of the firs, pines and pure, clean air with a deep sigh. "Beautiful," she said with quiet awe. "Just incredible."
Gina pointed ahead. "How's that look for a campsite?"
"Perfect." They gently prodded their horses and wandered down a short slope to a spot some twenty feet from the lake's shore. They tied the horses, unloaded their equipment, and then set about making camp on the sandy shore. Once established, they settled down, changed from jeans and shirts to ragged cut-off shorts, forest camouflage t-shirts, and matching Marine Corps fatigue caps and dark-gold aviator sunglasses, and then waded into the lake with their fishing gear to catch dinner. It wasn't long before Brie had her first bite. "Oh boy," she said, grinning as the sunlight sparkled from her sunglasses, "this sucker feels likes it's gonna be a real whopper!"
"Reel 'im in nice and easy now," Gina suggested, watching her carefully. "Nice and easy..."
"I know, I know," she said in mild excitement. She tugged once, and felt strong resistance. "Got 'im!" She pulled gently, wound up the slack in the line, and pulled again. "I gotcha, by gods! I gotcha! " She continued to reel in her prize, and quickly landed a five-pound rainbow trout. "Yeah!" she shouted in triumph. "Look at that, willya?" Grinning in delight, she showed it off proudly to Gina before taking her catch back to shore and removing the hook.
On her way back to the lake to try her luck again, she passed a grinning Gina, who was proudly showing off her own catch. "Damn," the tall brunette said, "we're gonna eat well tonight!"
With her fork clattering against her aluminum plate full of bones and a pair of fish heads and tails, Brie delicately burped in satisfaction. "Oh, man," she said to herself, "that was good." She began scraping the remains in her plate into the fire.
"There's nothing like fresh, line-caught trout fried in garlic butter and herbs," Gina said as she cleaned off her own plate. She placed it on top of Gabriella's, and put the two of them aside to be cleaned later. "Feels like it's going to be a mild night. You feel up to going for a leisurely swim?"
With that old familiar smile, the young doctor replied, "Just try and stop me."
Shrieking with laughter, they discarded their clothes and ran naked into the lake to splash like two school children on the first day of summer vacation. They swam circles around each other, splashed at one another, swam some more, and then finally wound up in each other's arms. It wasn't until well after dark, lying in their sleeping bags, when they finally took a break.
"Oh, man," Brie panted as they lay snuggled together in sweet exhaustion. They had zipped their sleeping bags together to make one big, roomy bed, and left the cover tossed back. "Oh, man..."
"Yeah," Gina agreed, her eyes slightly glazed over and a wispy smile on her lips.
The young blonde snuggled in even closer, seeking more of her soul mate's warmth. "Thank you, Xena," she said at last, her voice soft. "Thank you for bringing me out here."
Gabrielle sighed and moaned softly, and thought quietly for a short time. At last, she asked, "How does he do it?"
"How does who do what?"
"Your friend, Jack Sawyer. How'd he manage to change our identities and get us out of trouble with the authorities?"
"He's a highly-placed, eyes-only cleared computer geek with the CIA. He knows that stuff, and he owes me a few favors."
She smiled and sighed, and was quiet for a long moment, just listening to the crickets and to the crackling of the campfire that cast its dancing and flickering orange light on them. A distant meteorite etched its way across the starry, black night sky with a streak of emerald fire. "Wow. This really is just like old times..."
Gina smiled lazily. "Yeah..."
They gazed at the night sky for a while in companionable silence.
Brie pointed at the sky with one finger. "I still think that looks like a bear."
"I don't see it," Gina said with a wry smile. "Looks like a dipper to me."
"They don't call it Ursa Major because it looks like a dipper," Brie said with a smug smile.
"They don't call it the Big Dipper because it looks like a bear," Gina replied, with an equally smug smile.
More companionable silence. They lay close together, snug and warm and naked, just enjoying each other's company.
"Oh, shoot," Gina suddenly said as she tossed back the cover and slipped out of the sleeping bag. "I almost forgot; I brought along something to drink." She went over to her pack, opened it, and withdrew something.
"Yeah?" Brie asked. "What did you bring? Merlot? Maybe a nice Cabernet Sauvignon?"
"Wine?" Gina asked in mild disbelief as she returned to their sleeping bag. "No, wine is for dinner. Wine is for kicking back and relaxing at home. Wine is for fine and classy restaurants. No, no, m'dear, this is the woods. Out here, there's no crystal or fancy table cloths, or candles...and best of all, no concern with manners!" With a feral grin, she twisted off the cap from a bottle of Jack Daniels and passed it to her. "Here, have a hit of this."
She took the large, square bottle by its neck, and eyed it thoughtfully with a raised eyebrow. Shrugging, she raised it to her lips and took a healthy gulp. She coughed and gasped as liquid fire burned its way down. "Hoo-ya!" she said, both in surprise and approval, as she blew air out of her mouth to soothe the fire.
Gina grinned at her reaction, and then helped herself to a healthy belt. "Hoo-ya, indeed," she said. She took another swallow.
"Hey--! Don't hog it all!" Brie said as she reached across her for the bottle. The second swallow went down a little more smoothly than the first, and the third was even mellower. At last, she handed the bottle back, and as they spoke in soft voices they continued to drink and pass it back and forth. "Speaking of bears," she began, "did I ever tell you about what happened to ol' Brad Kerning?"
Gina shook her head. "Never heard of him."
"He's this jerk I worked with just before we met. I had to take his rounds one day 'cause I lost a bet. Anyway, this dumb jerk decided to take up bear hunting. So he went to a sporting goods store and bought himself a shotgun, then went out into the woods to find a bear. He spotted one off in the distance, and took aim and fired. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, he saw that there was no bear. And then he felt this tap-tap-tap on his shoulder. He turned around and found this big ol' ten-foot-tall grizzly standin' behind him." She took a swig from the bottle and handed it back.
"I get the distinct feeling there's a joke in here somewhere," Gina said with a slight grin.
Undaunted, the bard continued with her tale. "So the bear looks at him and says, 'Did you just take a shot at me?' And Brad gulps nervously and nods, and says, 'Yeah...' And the bear looks at him and says, 'Suck me or die.' Well, Brad may be dumb, but he isn't stupid. He doesn't want his chest ripped open, so he goes down on the bear."
"Ick," Gina said. She took a belt from the bottle and handed it back.
"The next day, he goes back to the same sporting goods store and buys a bigger shotgun, and goes back out to the same piece of woods." She sipped at the whiskey. "He sees a bear in the distance, shoots at it, and when the smoke clears and the dust settles, there's no bear. And then he feels this tap-tap-tap on his shoulder again, and he turns around--and there's that same grizzly lookin' at him, and it says, 'You again? Did you just take another shot at me?' And Brad gulps and nods, and the bear says, 'You know the routine if you want to get out of this alive.' So he goes down on the bear again."
"Oh, God..." Gina said with a soft, sick chuckle.
She took another sip to wet her whistle, and handed the bottle back. "The next day, he goes back to the same sporting goods store and buys the biggest damn shotgun they've got! He goes back out to the woods, madder'n hell, and spots a bear and shoots at it. The smoke clears, the dust settles, and there's no bear. Tap-tap-tap. He turns around, and there's that same grizzly. The bear looks at him and says, 'You again? Did you just take another shot at me?' And Brad gulps nervously and says, 'Yeah...' And the bear looks at him suspiciously for a couple of seconds, and then says, 'You...you didn't come here to hunt, did you?'"
Gina rolled onto her back, and her roaring laughter echoed through the woods. "Oh, God!" she said, pounding the ground with one fist. "Oh, shit! I gotta remember that one!" She took another sip from the bottle, then said, "I got one! I got one! It's a poem... Well, a limerick."
"Yeah?" She grinned in the moonlight, her eyes sparkling.
"Yeah." She cleared her throat and sipped at the whiskey before starting. "'There was a young rabbi named Keith/ who circumcised boys with his teeth.'"
"Oh, geeziz..." She chuckled softly and took another hit from the bottle.
"'Not for his leisure/ or sexual pleasure/ but to get at the cheese underneath.'"
Brie's face twisted in disgust. "Oh God!" she said, in screaming laughter. "Oh, God! You sick woman! You sick sick-o! Oh, God...that was great... I gotta remember that for the gang at the hospital."
Gina laughed with her.
"Oh, man," Brie said, finally composing herself. They both had to wipe tears of laughter from their eyes. "I'll top that. It'll take some thought, but I'll top it." It took a few moments for them to settle down, and were finally quiet for some time before Brie decided to change the subject. "Y'know, I know this is going to sound weird," she said at last, "but in some ways I kind of miss the old days."
She turned to look at the young blonde. "Yeah? How so?"
"The simplicity of life."
"'Simplicity of life?'" Gina said, mildly incredulous as she held the bottle in one hand. "Am I hearing you right, doctor?"
"Yeah. I mean, we didn't have to worry about paying the rent and bills on time every month. There were no cell phones, no computers, no e-mail, no traffic or blaring horns, or car alarms going off at three in the morning...no busy signals, no gridlock or cholesterol--"
Still clutching the bottle by its neck, Gina freed one finger to point at her. "I'll bet people had cholesterol in those days," she said, interrupting her. "We just didn't know anything about it then."
"--no ulcers, no smog, no UV radiation..." she went on, now that she was on a quiet roll. She took another sip from the bottle and handed it back. "You didn't have to wear sun-screen, hats and dark glasses to spend a day out in the sun..."
"No refrigerated food, no movies or theater, no jazz, no ice cream... no dental care..." She paused to take another drink. "Poor Joxer," she said as she handed the bottle back, "that poor son of a bitch had an abscessed tooth one time that had him pleading for death."
"Yeah, that's true." Still holding the bottle, and feeling the first, faint buzz from the whiskey, she laughed softly when she remembered how Xena had cured him. Punching him in the jaw had not only stopped his incessant whining--which had been the real provocation in the first place--but it had the added benefit of knocking his abscessed tooth out, which resulted in all three of them finally getting some much needed rest that night...after a regretful warrior princess had spent more than an hour trying to convince a sullen warrior doofus that the only reason why she had hit him was to dislodge that tooth. Really. Honestly.
"But we did have clean air, pure food, pure water--if you knew where to find it," she added quickly as Gina tried to beat her to the punch. Relatively quickly, anyway; the whiskey was catching up with her.
"We also had lice, fungus, foot-rot..."
The young doctor planted one elbow on the ground, with one hand supporting her head and the other clutching the bottle by its neck as she rested its bottom on the ground, and grinned as she studied Gina's profile. "I'll never forget that day," she chuckled. "Makes me itch just to think about it. Honestly, though," she added a moment later, "which do you prefer--today, or the old days?"
She turned onto her side and rested her own head in her hand, and welcomed Brie's bare leg as it wedged between her own. Accepting the bottle and sipping from it, Xena gazed thoughtfully at her for a few moments before answering. "It's hard to say," she replied at last. "You're right--life was simpler back then. But it was also much tougher. And you've got to admit, I haven't even begun to scratch the surface as far as the disadvantages go." She sighed deeply and cautiously passed the whiskey back. "But you know what?" She paused for a moment as she regarded her friend. "I think life was a lot more colorful then."
"Colorful?" She smiled in puzzlement as she raised the bottle to her lips, and missed the target. Giggling, she corrected her aim before taking another sip.
"Boy, are you drunk," Xena said with sparkling eyes and a lopsided smile.
"I'm mot trunk," Gabrielle replied.
"Yeah, you are."
Squinting conspicuously at her through bleary green eyes, she said with a mild Texas drawl, "I'm not so nearly think so much as you drunk I am... What were we talkin' 'bout?"
Trying to decipher the doctor's response, for a moment she had lost track of her own thoughts. She scowled slightly as she sluggishly tried to remember. "Oh yeah...life not being as colorful as it used to be," she finally said, her words just a little slurred.
"Oh yeah... How do you mean?"
She sighed softly. "When's the last time you saw a centaur, or a giant?" she asked. There was a faint smile on her lips, but her eyes seemed more than a little sad. "When's the last time you saw a cyclops, or a hydra, or a harpy? The only monsters we see these days are politicians, terrorists and child molesters. The magic of the old days is gone; I kind of miss that."
"Why, Xena!" the young doctor drawled. She rose up higher on her elbow, smiling an amused and crooked smile. "Ah do believe you're becomin' a romantic!"
The warrior had never thought of herself that way before. Mildly surprised with herself, she said, "Yeah, maybe I am. I think it's due to my hanging around with a peculiar...I mean particular..." She hiccupped once, and then softly belched against the back of her hand. "'scuse me... bard." The alcohol fumes were unbelievable.
Gabrielle fell back, flinging out one arm and laughing. "Ah was about to say some of my shinin' qualities are finally beginnin' to rub off on ya," she said at last, "but it sounds as though we've still got a long, long way to go!" She took a deep breath and groaned softly. "Oh god, the whole forest is spinning..."
"I trust you'll stick around to keep me on the straight and narrow?"
She closed her eyes, hoping that might stop the spinning, and sighed a deep and moaning sigh. The spinning got worse. "You bet your booties, babe," she said faintly.
Gina grinned at her, then planted the bottle safely on the ground behind her before slipping an arm around her and pulling her close. "Speakin' of rubbin' something on me," she began drunkenly as she cupped one of Brie's breasts in her hand...and then she paused to look at her for a moment. Wow, she thought as she gazed lovingly at her. She is so beautiful. And loving, and kind hearted...I musta been outta my fuckin' mind to leave her the way I did. She watched her affectionately for a long moment.
"Xena?" she asked faintly.
"Do you think..." she paused for a moment to sort out her thoughts. "Y'all think the magic of the old days will ever come back?"
"I dunno... I'd like to think so, in some ways, but...I don't know..." She continued to gaze at her for a minute or so. "Brie?" she finally said softly with a smile.
The young doctor said nothing. Her breathing had already become soft, slow and regular.
Xena smiled fondly at her. "Sweet dreams, Gabrielle," she whispered before kissing her good night. Suddenly, hot tears filled her eyes again. "Please, Aphrodite, or whoever is still out there," she begged, "let her have sweet dreams. She needs them..." She pulled the cover up over their shoulders, and snuggled in close in an attempt to protect her from those soul-wrenching memories...
...and together they dreamed of warm summer days, of clear blue skies, and of shared hot tubs and fishing, and parchment kites that got stuck in trees...
They returned to San Francisco by the end of the week. Filthy and smelly, and filled with relaxed laughter, they entered the apartment and tossed their camping gear over by the sofa. Gina dropped the keys into the ceramic plate by the door and started toward the phone.
"I don't know which I'd rather do first," Brie said, "raid the refrigerator or grab a shower."
Gina came up from behind her and slipped her arms around her. "Gabrielle," she said as she began to nuzzle one ear.
Tingling delightfully all over, she rested her arms on top of Gina's and raised a questioning eyebrow. "Yeah?" she said with a smile of delightful anticipation.
"You know how much I love you, don't you?" she said. She gave her a soft kiss just below her ear. "You know I'd never do anything to hurt you...right?"
"Yeah...?" she said again, her smile becoming a puzzled frown. Was she about to deliver some kind of bad news? Her tone seemed so ominous. Suddenly, Brie's heart began racing with dread.
"So I can be totally honest with you, can't I?"
Oh Gods, she thought, her heart threatening to explode from her chest. Something terrible was going to happen, she just knew it. She turned in her arms and looked into her eyes. "Yeah..." she said at last, her eyes and voice apprehensive.
"Please..." she said with utmost seriousness, "...have a shower first."
Her jade-green eyes quickly changed from worried orbs to dangerously narrowed slits. One hand slowly came up and clutched the front of Gina's shirt in one tight, hard fist, and twisted the material so hard that it began to bite gently into the warrior's flesh. "Only if you promise..." she said, growling softly yet no less threateningly as puzzlement and concern began to show in the warrior's eyes, "...to come in and scrub my back." At last, she lost the battle to suppress her own mischievous smile.
She grinned at her, silently acknowledging the fact that the bard had gotten her back--and that she had deserved it. "Promise made." She kissed her forehead. "I just have to make a quick phone call. You've been wanting to meet Jack; I'll see if he's busy." She went over to the cordless phone, picked up the receiver, and hit the speed dialer as she began to settle one haunch on the sofa's armrest.
"Okay," Gabrielle said as she headed for the bedroom and then into the bathroom. With her voice coming from the next room, she added, "But don't you dare sit on that sofa with those filthy jeans."
Xena immediately shot to her feet, as though she had just sat on a hot iron, and cast a quick and guilty glance over her shoulder toward the bedroom.
On the second ring, a voice said, "Yeah. Sawyer."
"Gina!" he said merrily. "Baby! How're ya doin'?"
"You call me baby one more time," the Marine said with a charming yet deadly smile, "and I'll reach right through this phone line, down your throat, and pull out your left lung."
"Yeah, right, okay baby, whatever. So what's up?"
"How soon can you get here?"
"Half an hour or so. Why? What's up?" His voice suddenly took on a sly tone. "Didja miss me?"
"There's someone I want you to meet."
The line was silent for a long moment. "This isn't another one of your blind date setups, is it?" he asked suspiciously. "The last date you got me was three hundred pounds, she had green teeth, and one eye--"
"Quit exaggerating, Jack."
"--that rotated like a friggin' police light--"
"No, I think you're going to find this person...interesting. You know that feeling of deja vu we keep getting? Well...well, it'll be a lot easier to explain once you get here."
"No sweat. See you in thirty."
"Roger that." She rang off, then went to join Brie in the shower.
He showed up at precisely 7:15 PM, dressed in dark slacks, stylish Italian loafers, a gray shirt open at the throat, and a black sport coat. The first thing he noticed was the camping gear that still rested in a pile by the sofa. Then he noticed that Gina was dressed completely in black--jeans, boots and t-shirt--and that she was fiddling with a combat dagger. Somehow, the look seemed awfully familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. It's deja vu, all over again, Sawyer thought.
"Okay," he said, "so what's going on?"
"Like I said, it all has to do with that feeling of deja--"
Sawyer looked at the tall brunette with a slight scowl. Xena? he thought. What the-- He stopped in mid-thought. And then, when he turned, there she was, standing in the doorway. Her blonde hair was damp, and longer than the last time he had seen her but shorter than when they had first met. She was dressed in white running shoes, rust colored jeans, and an olive-green t-shirt, and was toweling her hair dry.
The color of the clothing, the blonde hair, and those familiar green eyes... He stood there, stunned. "Oh my God," he finally said in a shocked whisper as a thousand memories suddenly washed over him.
The blonde stared at him in immediate and surprised recognition. "By the gods," she whispered to herself.
He looked at Gina, and found the Marine to be looking back at him, a tiny smile on her lips and what might have been a slight mist in her eyes.
"Xena?" he asked uncertainly, his voice a shocked whisper. It was a name that he remembered from his dreams. His dreams. How could the blonde have known... "She called you Xena!" Feeling as though he was standing on the brink of sudden realization, he looked back at the blonde and suddenly remembered the other name that seemed to hold such significance for him. "Gab..."
She approached him and stood in front of him for a long moment, smiling a sweet, misty-eyed and unbelievably familiar smile.
"Gab..." He cleared his throat as he felt the tears welling in his eyes. He reached forward and put his hands on her shoulders, just to see if she was real and not an illusion. She certainly seemed solid enough. "Gabrielle?" he asked again with a failing voice, afraid to be too hopeful yet hopeful nonetheless.
Still smiling at him, and without saying a word, she reached up, gently seized his nose between the knuckles of her first and second fingers, and gave it a gentle and playful tweak.
With a soft cry, he threw his arms around her and held her tightly. "My God, is it you? Is it really you?"
She squeezed his neck in her arms, and wouldn't let him go.
He reached out with one arm, and Xena stepped in to share a three-way hug.
He looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "How is this possible?" he asked. To Gina, he said, "How can--"
"I don't know," Xena replied. Suddenly, she remembered a snippet of that conversation she had with Gabrielle a few nights ago. "Maybe there still is a little magic left in this world; maybe Aphrodite's been working it. I don't know. But whatever has brought us together again, I'm not going to question it."
Stepping back at last, he wiped the tears of happiness from his own eyes. "This is incredible," he said at last. "Just incredible." Turning to Xena, he added, "Well, if we're together again, then there must be a reason for it. A mission, right?" He took a breath to steady himself. "What's the mission?"
"The mission," Xena replied, "is to go out and get dinner. I don't know about you two, but I'm starving!"
"Dinner--right!" he said with utmost seriousness. Then, suddenly puzzled, he asked, "Dinner?"
"You know," Gabrielle said, "an evening meal? I think this reunion calls for a celebration."
Joxer looked thoughtful for a moment. "You guys like sushi?"
The two women looked doubtfully at each other, and mutually and silently decided they still weren't ready for any reminders of Japan. They looked at him and shook their heads slightly.
"How about Italian?"
That brought back reminders of Rome, Caesar, and crucifixions. They shook their heads again.
He snapped his fingers. "I know! I know! There's a great little Greek restaurant just down the street where they serve a baklava that just melts in the mouth..."
The two women glanced at each other again. "Greek sounds good," Gabrielle said at last.
"Works for me," Xena agreed.
As the two women slipped into their jackets--a black suede jacket for Brie and a dark brown, three-quarter length leather coat for Gina--Sawyer, in his zeal to open the door for them, rushed forward and tripped over the camping gear, and fell flat on his face.
"Jesus, Joxer!" Gabrielle said, concerned, as she bent to help him up. "Are you okay?" She tilted his head back and began checking for damage or blood.
"Yeah, sure," he replied, holding his nose as he rose to his knees, and then to his feet. "I'm fine." He went to the door and quickly pulled it open--and smacked himself in the face with it. Gabrielle caught him just before he fell to his knees again, and together they staggered out to the carpeted corridor.
With a wry and breathtaking grin, and a slight shake of her head, the Warrior Princess switched off the lights as she followed them out the door. "Yep," she said under her breath, just before pulling it shut. "Just like old times."